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McNair House is a charitable institution, set up to care for 'cathypnic' children. With their incredibly low metabolism, cathypnic kids are irresistibly plump little dumplings, inspiring a near-obsessive devotion in their caretakers. Jimmy Pibble, newly laid off from Scotland Yard, has dropped by the McNair purely in a private capacity, but if he's surprised to find his own passions being stirred by the children, he's even more surprised at the signals he's getting from his old detective instincts. He knows that ...
McNair House is a charitable institution, set up to care for 'cathypnic' children. With their incredibly low metabolism, cathypnic kids are irresistibly plump little dumplings, inspiring a near-obsessive devotion in their caretakers. Jimmy Pibble, newly laid off from Scotland Yard, has dropped by the McNair purely in a private capacity, but if he's surprised to find his own passions being stirred by the children, he's even more surprised at the signals he's getting from his old detective instincts. He knows that the disorder has a dark side; he's slowly coming to understand that devotion does as well.
The sack, however prettily beribboned, tends to destroy a man's confidence; and there had never been much of that in the first place.
Pibble halted on the wide and weedy gravel to mime amusement while he studied the hideous façade and nerved himself to face the children. Childless himself, he liked the young in theory but found that he became gawky and gruff in their company—a manner which was sure to be worse with the kids at the Foundation. From one of Mary's rambling parentheses he had learned that it was part of their treatment to open the door and greet strangers; besides, with the Foundation so poor, it saved the wages of a doorman.
The Foundation had the decorators in. Painters nuzzled at windows like bees at a lavender bush; on one of the corner spires workmen spanked copper sheeting into place; the other spire was finished and now its rich metal waited for the subduing verdigris; meanwhile an elderly man was poised at its pinnacle tinkering with a fresh-gilt weathercock; a fuzz of scaffolding blurred the right-hand corner of the building, but even the sections with which the workmen had finished were not exactly clean-lined, so lavish had the architect been with terra-cotta swags and ornaments. It was curious to think of ultramodern, no-nonsense Reuben Kelly toiling away behind those curlicues. Better not tell the lady that one knows him—it'll only cause further complications in an already tedious and embarrassing mission. With a tiny groan Pibble drove himself across the flattened remains of bindweed and trefoil to the porch.
Drab November made it so dark under the arch that he had to peer for a bell or knocker; but before he had located either the hinges moaned and the door swung slowly open as if this had been the opening sequence of Aunt of Dracula. Inside, instead of the predictable Gothic gloom and chill, the air was almost sultry and the colours jazzy but impersonal. Below a huge sweep of carved wooden stairs a solitary figure slept on a modern settee. Wooden pillars sprang from the op art carpet to the wedding cake plasterwork of the ceiling. The total effect was as if some minor hall at the Victoria and Albert had been commandeered and redecorated to be an airlines terminal. Even the sleeper had the look of someone who has fallen asleep not because he needs the rest but because the world has become too boring to stay awake in; so he sleeps here, now, regardless.
Pibble hesitated across the threshold.
"Hello," said a voice from behind the door, a child's voice, very slow but steady. The door began to moan shut and Pibble moved out of its way.
"Copper come. Lost 'is 'at."
That was a different voice, but it had the same strange lightweight drawl.
"Lovely," said the first voice. Now Pibble could see that it belonged to the nearer of the two children who were pushing the door shut. They made it seem an effort—not an effort to move the door but to move their own limbs. Mary had said they'd be fat and sleepy, and they were; mentally and physically handicapped, and that was obvious, too; so all the way up from the bus stop Pibble had been preparing himself to greet some slow, revolting dumplings with piggy eyes above lardy cheeks, and to react with adult friendliness and feigned ease.
"Hello, you two," he said, muffing the rehearsed tone and producing instead the note of surprise and pleasure with which one greets a real friend at a boring cocktail party.
Two circular faces smiled and blinked in the bright lighting: a boy and a girl, he dark, she carroty, both about twelve years old. Their skin was heavy and pale, but not tallowy; both seemed to be wearing several sweaters. Pibble felt an instinct to pat them, as, thirty years before, when the porch would have held a litter of garden twine and mole traps and broken croquet mallets, the visitor to this hall would have patted the large and lazy hound that came to sniff his trouser cuffs. Pibble held out his hand.
The boy's hand rose slowly, like some barely buoyant object wavering up through water. Pibble felt his face stiffen at finding how cold that touch was. The girl, though she seemed to have her eyes shut, must have noticed the change, for she smiled sleepily at him.
"Cold 'and, warm 'eart," she said.
"George," said the boy, drawling the syllable out to enormous length. His eyes were large and soft, and had a ring of darker green round the edge of the light green iris—the cathypnic ring, the first symptom. With his usual twinge of ashamed surprise Pibble realized what a lot of stuff Mary had told him during her undramatic monologues about the Foundation. You had to sort it out, of course, and doubt such items as the poverty of an organization which could afford new copper for its spires; her mind was like the collection of some eighteenth-century dilettante who bought anything that caught his fancy and put it, sorted by whim and labelled by wish, into his private museum.
"Hello, George," he said. "I'm Jimmy Pibble."
The three of them stood there, smiling at each other in a trance of friendliness. Mothers spotted the cathypnic ring when their children were a few months old—such good babies, slept all night and put on pounds each month; oh, yes, a bit tiresome finishing their food but you can't have everything, and such pretty eyes. Usually by the time they were three the mother had asked a doctor about the fatness, or the tiny appetite, or the habit of going to sleep in odd corners; or she'd go to a clinic about something else and the nurse would spot the curiously low temperature. Doctors would prescribe this or that for a while, without result, and finally leaf through a compendium of human ills and come to cathypny. Often they were pleased, for it is a rare disease and not strongly marked in small children. Only when a cathypnic is eight or so can a layman really see how different he is from his contemporaries—hopeless at school, of course, fat as a hamster, and sleeping twenty hours a day. Then he goes to the Foundation. The family hate to let him go, always, no matter how many normal children are squalling round the dank basement flat; but without special treatment he now has only a year to live, and cathypnics like to be together. Hence the McNair Foundation, with its endless gluttony for funds; hence Mary's recent concern, for funds are raised by coffee mornings and bazaars and flag days; hence Pibble's useless and intrusive visit.
Something by the wall clicked, and the faint whir which Pibble had been unconsciously aware of faltered and steadied. Over the children's shoulders he saw that a large tape recorder had been churning away on a table by the wall, and had now switched itself off.
"Can you take me to Mrs. Dixon-Jones?" he said. "She's expecting me."
"The exercise will do you good," said the boy to the girl.
"The exercise will do you good," said the girl to the boy. Neither moved from his happy placidity.
"Why don't you both come?" said Pibble. "Or must you stay by the door?"
There was no real motive in his words, any more than there was point in his visit, but he felt a mild desire to prolong his time with this pleasing pair. Their company was relaxing, so much so that he acted with tranced slowness when the boy shut his eyes (or rather failed to open them after a blink) and tumbled quietly toward the ghastly carpet. It looked cheap, but felt so expensively thick that the child could hardly have hurt himself even if Pibble hadn't managed to catch him round the shoulders and lower him the last foot. He was startlingly heavy; through sweaters, shirt, and vest seeped the strange chill of his body. Pibble had sometimes in his old job kept company with corpses, waiting for the pathology boys to turn up and meanwhile guessing by touch how long it was since this one had started the slide down from 98.6°. The child here should have been dead two hours ago.
"Is he all right?" said Pibble.
"Tain't fair. Tain't time," said the girl.
She, too, began to collapse toward the floor, but with open eyes. When she was kneeling she put her mouth beside the boy's ear and blew into it. His eyes blinked open.
"You can't see no one coming," she drawled.
"Where?" "Man wants Posey."
He looked it—like a hibernating creature on whom the diggers have broken in, bringing with them the hideous winter daylight.
"The exercise will do you good," said the girl.
"The exercise will do you good."
Pibble reached out a hand. Dreamily the boy took it. The corpse touch was still uncanny and the boy hardly helped himself at all as Pibble hauled him to his feet. The girl stayed kneeling, waiting for similar help; she weighed just as much. When all three were standing, the children slipped their hands together and started off at a vague dawdle across the hall. It really was a huge room. Pibble felt that his own house would have gone into it twice over; the grove of pillars rose two storeys to its ceiling, and a balustraded gallery ran round it fifteen feet above the floor. To this the pompous stairs curved up, winding round a semicircular bulge in the far wall. Everything that had not been recently redecorated was heavy and ugly, but the wood from which it had been carved was beautiful, close-grained and knotless. Pibble fingered a pillar while the children drifted to a halt before the sleeper on the sofa. This was an older boy, gross and pale, with black curly hair. The smaller children watched him in silence, as though his sleep were an absorbing spectacle. Beside him another tape recorder devoured the silence.
"Fishin'," said the girl at last.
"Yellow uns," said the boy.
"Lovely," said the girl.
"What's the water like?" said Pibble. He was used to being woken by Mary's nightly mutterings and trying to make sensible answers to her dream speeches, so the question was natural to him.
"Dirty," said both children together, neither speaking before the other.
"Where's Posey?" he said.
They moved off again, almost at random, it seemed; but some vague current of intention sucked them into an arch in the left-hand wall and here they paused again. Pibble gazed over the children's shoulders down the startling corridor. If the hall had been bright, this place would have been dazzling; a series of arches divided it into bays, and every bay, every arch, was painted to clash as fiercely as possible with its neighbour and then lit like a film set. You could see that the series of colours was deliberate but not intended to please; the worst taste in the world couldn't have chosen that effect for aesthetic purposes. The children shuffled a few steps forward, then halted again as a man in a white dustcoat wheeled a cart out of a side corridor, stopped by a tape recorder, switched it off, replaced the tape with a new one, switched on, and spoke briefly at the machine.
"Which is Mrs. Dixon-Jones's room?" said Pibble.
"Posey?" said the girl vaguely.
"Yes. She's the secretary."
The children swayed, but stayed where they were, like seaweed in a rock pool. The man looked up at the sound of voices, left his cart and came down the corridor toward them.
"You lost, you three?" he said, smiling happily. He had a wispy little beard which would have suited a Chinese sage if it had been gray and not ginger. He looked about twenty. The smile was not for Pibble but for the children.
"I've got an appointment with Mrs. Dixon-Jones," said Pibble. "I was on time when I got to the door but I'm late now."
"I'll show you," said the man with the beard. He took each child in turn gently by the shoulders, turned them round, and gave them a little shove.
"Back to the hall, dormice," he said.
The children wavered off and the men watched them until they were out of sight, Pibble experiencing a strange wash of regret at the idea that he might not see them again. He shook himself out of this cosy, facile emotion by saying, as they turned toward the cart, "It's a remarkable choice of colours."
"Bit too much," said the man with the beard. "We've always gone in for bright colours—wake the dormice up a bit was the theory—but Doctor Kelly had this idea about maximum visual stimulus: see what happened if we got the colours as bright as possible. It seems to hypnotize some of 'em. Change from the old days, eh?"
They halted by the cart and Pibble gazed down an enormously long corridor at right angles to the one he was in; there was a window behind him and another at the farthest end; it must have been a dismal tunnel in Victorian days.
"Ivan," called a woman's voice.
"Here," said the man with the beard.
"If you find a Mr. Pibble wandering round, send him to me. He should have been here by now."
The voice was as genteel as a set of electric door chimes, but a shade less melodious.
"I am here," said Pibble, letting a lot more resentment into his voice than he'd intended.
Instinct and experience told him that Mary's impromptu enemies were usually in the right, and he didn't enjoy the sighing loyalty demanded of him. He nodded farewell to the man with the beard and walked on to the door from which Mrs. Dixon-Jones's voice had emanated. Both long corridors here ran to an end window after crossing, cutting off a single room in the very corner of the building. The door said secretary. Above the word a brass souvenir, vaguely Minoan in character, was Scotch-taped.
Mary, though she admired as well as hated her, had never told him that Mrs. Dixon-Jones was worth looking at; thirty years ago she must have been the gay despair of the young men at the tennis clubs, but even then she would have had good bones for her mother to boast of, and these had allowed her an easy metamorphosis from being distinctly pretty to being decidedly handsome. She contrived to hold her head as though she were taking a hard fence, riding side-saddle, and her smile combined maximum graciousness with minimum friendliness.
"Please sit down, Mr. Pibble," she said, "and tell me what I can do for you."
Dismally Pibble sat. It was a mistake to have come at all. The hell with her.
"You can tell me what I can do for you," he said. "I believe you made this appointment with my wife."
"Ah, yes," she sighed. "Dear Mary."
"That's the one," said Pibble. "You met at some do. She didn't tell me the details, but you must have talked about some problem which was worrying you which had a bearing on the law, and she suggested I might help. I've just retired from the police, you know."
Mrs. Dixon-Jones nodded, a priest in the social confessional. Policemen are low. They court housemaids, if not scullery maids, round basement areas. The maids have vanished, but in a certain cast of mind the myth persists.
"I was an in-betweenish kind of copper," explained Pibble. "If it had been the army, I'd have been some sort of staff officer—a major or perhaps a colonel."
Damn the woman. There was no earthly need for such defensive maunderings.
"How clever of you to talk my language," said Mrs. Dixon-Jones. "We were all riflemen, but I took it into my head to marry into the Welsh Guards."
The words were chatty, but the tone pushed Pibble's supposed commission out into the limbo of the Ordnance Corps.
"Well?" he said, scrabbling for the upper ground.
She picked up a ball-point pen and began to tap it slowly against a cigarette lighter made from a two-inch silver terrestrial globe. He let her tap, and hoped that she was thinking how to let them both off the hook. Before the wars this room had probably been the master's study. The bookshelves were still here, frilled with carvings of quills in inkpots and crowned with medallions of muses; since then someone had institutionalized the walls, garage green to shoulder level and cheese yellow above; sepia photographs of soldiers hung crooked from random nails; the new wave of decorators with their Day-Glo fantasies had been kept at bay; khaki filing cabinets and an antique switchboard hulked out from the walls, and on them dusty pyramids of paper counted the years in deepening shades of yellow; presumably the curving wall in the corner between the windows hid the spiral staircase up to the master's bedroom and ultimately to the newly weather-cocked spire; some Cretan knickknacks on the mantelpiece, below a board of neatly labelled keys ...
Excerpted from Sleep and His Brother by Peter Dickinson. Copyright © 1971 Peter Dickinson. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted November 13, 2009
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Posted June 11, 2009
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