The House of Mechanical Pain
by Chaz Brenchley
Chaz Brenchley first read The House of Mechanical Pain at the third annual Phantoms at the Phil event in December 2006; it is published in Phantoms at the Phil: The Third Proceedings (Side Real Press, 2007). It has been nominated for the Bram Stoker award of the HWA, and is published here to enable HWA members (and others) to read it.
Tasha's one of those people who live life on the razor's edge, who find the world too difficult to deal with, almost too difficult to bear.
She tries to be sweet about it, for our sakes: greets every crisis with a glass of champagne, swallows down the fear and sees how far a smile and an endearing helplessness will get her this time. Seldom far enough, but when they reach their ragged end she has an endless ability to suffer quietly, with an intolerable patience.
It's one of the reasons I adore her. Also one of the reasons why, when she asks for help, I'm just there. If she has to ask, then she really, really means it.
Also, she's not apologetic about it. This particular Friday, I was just settling down for the afternoon - Margaret Lockwood on the TV, paperwork all over the carpet, see which could hold my attention - when there's a hammer-hammer-hammer on the front door, familiar in every sense. Only one person I know deals so desperately with obstructions, kicking and flailing at them to get through to what she needs.
So I all but run to the door, and there she is, tight as a wire and twice as sharp; but bless her, she still takes the time for one of her trademark kisses, long and lingering and ironic. I think they're ironic.
Then, "Jonny. Thanks..."
"I haven't done anything yet."
"For being here, I meant."
"Always, for you. Why didn't you phone, if you wanted me?" I've never told her, but she's the reason I bought a mobile, the reason I always remember to carry it.
She shrugged and said, "I didn't think," which was classic Tash: she wanted me, so she came to get me. If I hadn't been in, that would have been one more complication to the crisis, one more struggle not to break down in the street. That's how she deals with the world. How badly she deals.
"So." I rubbed her long spine, feeling how the many tensions tangled through her body. "How are you doing, Tash?"
"Oh, not so great, really. You know."
"Yeah, I know. What do you need?"
"You. Come to Brookshurst with me?"
That was new. Usually it was an evening in the pub or holding her hand at a concert, being a warm body, reminding her that she was loved. Her family was one of those things she didn't talk about, but I did know that Brookshurst was her parents' place, and I knew how far away it was. This was a weekend trip she was talking about, that long at least; and I'd had my own plans for the weekend, and,
"Yes, of course," I said. "You sit here and watch the movie for me, while I pack."
"Thanks, sweetie. Bring your cameras, yeah?"
In the car going down - which meant in her car, because actually driving's one of the things she does really well, and you don't take that away from Tash; anything she's good at, you celebrate - I said, "Why do I need the cameras?"
"Because my stupid, hateful father wants to sell off the best of my childhood, and I'd like some pictures to remember it by."
"I am being serious. He's decided that we're all one step shy of the workhouse, and he needs to realise his assets. Which of course means our assets, the things that matter most to us, because those are the things that matter least to him. Not land, not shares, not the stuff that we could lose and never notice it was gone; no, it has to be what he calls clutter, what I call the soul of the house."
"I thought your family was rich?"
"We are bloody rich!" - and she proved it, stamping on the accelerator and breaking the speed-limit, breaking the law by quite some distance as she showed me just how fast a TR7 can go, when it's impelled by a girl hiding her anxiety behind her temper.
She'd never really made a secret of her family's wealth; well, she couldn't. She depended on it. It wasn't only the car and the flat; trust-fund status was all she had to support the lifestyle. Champagne and troubles don't come cheap.
When she'd calmed down, when she'd slowed down, she said, "It's just in his head, that's all. He's always been like this. It's a bad mixture, meanness and blindness together. Technically, you're coming down to take pictures for him, for the sale catalogue, because he likes to exploit our friends to get things done for nothing. Really, though, it's for me. Is this okay, Jonny? Really?"
It was a bit late to say no, but really it was okay, so I said so. "Really truly, hon. I'm fascinated." And it meant I got to spend the time with her, which was worth any amount of angst, only she'd never see that. Probably just as well.
Motorway, motorway, country lanes. And then we passed between high stone gateposts and under the overhanging branches of a long lime avenue, and so came to the ancestral mansion -
- which it was, rather, and for a moment I just wanted her to turn the car around and drive me all the way home again.
"Courage, mon brave," she murmured. "It's not so scary on the inside."
Maybe not, but I'd have been better convinced if she weren't so pale and thin-lipped as she said it. Tash has a face she puts on to meet the vicissitudes of the world, a kind of cheerful anticipation of calamity; here she was trying, I thought, for my sake, but she couldn't come near it.
On the outside, the house sported all the worst of Victorian Gothic: high pointed arches, gargoyles and gloom. And ivy, and narrow leaded windows. Turrets. Like that.
She drove us round to the back, to the stableyard; and I didn't need to ask if there were actually any horses in the stable, the muckheap assured me that there were, even before I saw their curious heads poking out to watch us.
I was intimidated already, before we even stepped out of the car, so I went camera-in-hand, which is my standard way of dealing. Tasha lacks the props; it took her another minute to move, which gave me time to shoot off a dozen frames, get my nerves settled, start reaching for a little perspective. It wasn't exactly a stately home, just a country house with ambitions; you could see clearly from the back how little was original, how much was dressing-up. Judging by the lines left visible, it was a plain Georgian cake with elaborate Victorian icing.
Even so, it was a three-storey pile with all the attributes: a Land Rover in the yard and dogs barking joyously behind a door. Their noise rather underlined what we were missing, a figure in the doorway, a calling voice, any kind of family welcome for the prodigal daughter returned.
No great surprise, from what little she'd said. I should have screwed more out of her during the drive, at least a quick run-down of who I was likely to meet, but it's hard to ask Tash questions. She flinches, and puts on a bright helpful voice, and you know that for her this is third-degree.
All unready, then, I followed her through that unlocked door into a room full of old sofas and wellington boots and dogs who raised a fusillade to greet us, despite her best efforts to shush them; and on from there - the dog-room, she called it, unsurprisingly; I adjusted my mental landscape, to incorporate people who have whole rooms given over to their pets - into a chill stony corridor lined with still-rooms and storerooms, sculleries and larders.
This brought us into the kind of kitchen you only ever dream about: a long deal table and a great iron range; a Welsh dresser that must have been built in situ, it occupied an alcove so exactly; an Ulster sink and a wooden drainer that looked as old as the house. Tiles and mats underfoot, beams above.
Still no human bodies. It was starting to look pointed. I said, "Nobody home?" and she shrugged. "Oh, they'll be around, I expect. They'll find us if they want us. Are you hungry?"
Yes, of course I was hungry; but it was pushing six already, and I'd been nicely brought up. I said, "What time's dinner?"
"It's not that kind of house. We don't do sit-down dinners, people eat when they need to. Sorry. None of us can cook, see..." And indeed she looked magnificently vague and helpless, turning a slow circle in the centre of the kitchen, wafting her hands at the baffling intricacies of oven, freezer, fridge. "If you want food, you might as well do something about it now, save us coming back down later..."
A quick search turned up ham, bread, eggs. Omelettes for two, then, and I made her eat; and then made coffee after, and still no one had come through to find us. This was more than pointed, it was the stuff of paranoia. I was convinced by now that she was wrong, that the house was empty.
And was just about to say so when there was a thunder of feet on uncarpeted wooden stairs, just beyond the wall. Tash stiffened visibly, then gave me an unquiet smile, pushed ineffectually at her hanging curtain of hair and just had time to say, "My brother," before he erupted into the room.
Late teenage, and not expecting to find us there; he did a more exaggerated version of Tash's little freeze, all gawky adolescent startlement, and then an even less accomplished version of her recovery.
"Nat. Hullo. I thought you'd gone upstairs..."
Meaning, demonstrably, that he hoped she had, that he'd waited until he thought the coast was clear. She shrugged a negative and said, "Rufus, this is Jonny."
"The photographer, right?" And then he saw my camera on the table and slapped his forehead and said, "Duh. Sorry. I specialise in stating the obvious. Nat told us last week, she'd be bringing you down."
And had only told me this afternoon, but that was classic; she'd have spent all week hanging over the phone, quite incapable of asking. I was more interested to learn that she'd left a family name behind her, when she moved away. And that her brother had that swift public-school charm about him, albeit an abrupt and prickly version, and not available for use with his sister. Talking to her, he was all spikes.
He said, "I only came down for some grub; I'll just knock up a sandwich and get out of your way."
"Don't worry," Tash said, edging round the opposite side of the table, no easy touching here, "we were just going up. Mum and Dad in the library?"
"They are," and that was all too obviously family code for let's not go there, then.
If they had a code in common - and the same impetus, to avoid their parents - they couldn't dislike each other too badly. I wanted to sit them both down and make them talk, see what I could learn; but Tash was out of there already, with my bags. Hastening after, I realised that she'd come here with nothing, no bag of her own. Daughter of the house, of course she'd have a room, presumably with everything she needed, toothbrush and clean undies. Even so, to have nothing that she wanted to bring, that spoke volumes.
She led me up what must have been servants' stairs, narrow and steep. At the top was a short corridor: "Family rooms," Tasha said. "Rufus, my sister Alex. Our cousin Monty, when he's here." Which was what she meant by family, clearly, her own generation, close and difficult. Her parents were elsewhere: another wing of the house, another aspect of her life. I was catching on.
"This one's mine," she said, nudging at a door. "In case, you know, you need me in the night..."
That won me a smile, and, "Well, a girl can dream," but actually I thought she meant it the other way around; in case she needed me in the night, I'd know where to come. If I knew the need.
After that, a grand hall; we stood on the landing that overlooked it, with a divided staircase sweeping down from both ends, meeting halfway like a wishbone.
"The parents' rooms are along there," she said, wafting a hand at another corridor. "I'll show you upstairs later. You're in here."
Right at the heart of things, between one generation and another. No tucking the unprepared guest away in a corner, where he could be private if he needed to, where he could find an escape from other people's family tensions. This was Tasha; this was why I was here, to stand as a bulwark against oppression. To be leaned on, as and when needed. It wasn't really about the photographs.
Big square room, big squeaky bed that would announce to the house if anyone came sneaking in to join me. Just as well that wasn't in the gameplan.
Surprisingly, I wouldn't need to traipse corridors in my déshabillé; this room came with an en-suite. That's en-suite Victorian style, which meant another room equally large, equally square: this one tiled in black and white, and hosting an ancient cast-iron clawfoot bathtub, a decorated toilet-bowl with a most unreliable-looking flushing mechanism above, and another contraption of pipes and chains that it took me a while to understand as a shower.
"Does that, um, work?"
"Scaldingly," she said. "Don't try to use it without help. I could show you, but it'd be better if you asked Ru..."
"I'll take baths," I said. "Now, why don't you introduce me to your parents?"
"Seriously, Tash. I can't stay here all weekend and not meet my hosts. And I don't want to be tiptoeing around, hoping not to bump into them in corridors, like some illicit boyfriend you've smuggled in behind their backs. Come on, let's just get it over with. Can't be that bad, surely?"
"You've no idea," she said. Darkly.
But she took me out, and down that long sweep of a staircase into the hall below; and then across a parquet floor to high double doors, where I almost thought she was going to knock before going in; and then she laid the flat of her hand against the oak, and hesitated, and I almost thought she was going to turn and walk away and leave me to go in alone; and then she pushed the door open and in we went.
For a library, it was a little short on books. But it had window-bays that looked out over the gardens, and ancient leather sofas, and ingrained aromas of tobacco and whisky and dust. Also a waiting generation, Tasha's father and mother: him sprawled on a sofa, glass in hand, her posed by the window gazing into the gloom outside, or else at her own reflection, or else at the reflection of the room behind her.
She didn't look round at her daughter's entrance; perhaps her eyes shifted slightly in the glass.
Tasha's father did at least stir, he did take notice. He gazed up at us and grunted, "Who's this, eh? Who's this?"
"My friend Jonny, Dad, I told you. He's come to take pictures."
"Unh. So you did. Photographer, are you, lad?"
"That's right, sir."
"Weddings and so forth, is it? Village fêtes?"
"Not those so much, perhaps..."
"Well, so long as you can point a camera and not shake it, you'll be doing better than anyone here. While you're up there, you can look through the old stuff too, see if it's worth anything. Boxes and boxes of what-d'you-call-'ems, photographic plates, and all the gear that goes with 'em."
"Um, I don't really know very much about that."
"Do you not?" He frowned at me sharply above his glass. "Don't know the value of your own equipment, don't do weddings - what use are you, then?"
Well, I look after your daughter, when she'll let me - but I didn't say that, of course. I didn't say anything. Which was a mistake, perhaps, because it let Tash come blundering in on my behalf, trying to look after me, "He's an artist, Dad, he works for galleries and, and commissions, and..."
And it all meant nothing, less than nothing to her father, a grunt and a shrug; and her mother still hadn't spoken, still hadn't moved; and when Tasha grabbed my arm and pulled me none too gently towards the door, I was glad enough to go.
Out in the hall again, she said, "I could take you up now, and show you the museum?"
I didn't know what that meant, except that it was presumably what she wanted me to photograph, what her father wanted to sell. I said, "Let's pick up Rufus on the way, get him to explain the shower to me."
She flinched. "You said you'd bath...?"
"I do like a shower in the mornings." And then, more honestly, as she turned reluctantly away from the stairs, "You shouldn't all be lurking in your own hidden corners of the house. Families are supposed to get on, you know?"
"It's not compulsory, Jonny. Sometimes they just don't. The Kilvallans have been dysfunctional, oh, for generations. Our grandparents couldn't stand each other - or, no, it's not that. They just couldn't talk to each other. And from what Grandma said, her own parents were worse. I think it's this house, it twists everything out of true. Unless it's just that all kids learn by example, and we've all had rotten examples to learn from. Ru and I are okay, actually. We just don't have much to, you know, say to each other..."
I thought she and her brother were far from okay, even on the brief evidence I had; I also thought it was a bit much to blame the house. I liked the house, and I have limited sympathy for poor little rich kids. Just boundless, immeasurable sympathy for Tasha.
Rufus was still in the kitchen, chewing his way through half a loaf. He was startled to see us back, startled again to be asked to join us. He came, though, willingly enough, with a sandwich in his hand and his eyes full of a boy's curiosity.
Up to my room, then, and a slightly damp, steamy exploration of valves and levers, that left me thinking perhaps I would bath after all; but once we'd done a little male bonding over the domestic engineering, it seemed only natural for Rufus to tag along as Tash took me further up into the house, into her family's history.
Every house should have a museum, I think, something to speak to its former occupants, its former occupations. Perhaps every house does have a museum, just that they're not all labelled so. Some houses are a museum in themselves, a record set in bricks and mortar. Perhaps Brookshurst is one of those and was trying to hide it, with the crudest possible misdirection: a locked door in an attic corridor, a wooden plaque professionally lettered, 'Joshua Kilvallan: His Museum'.
"Joshua was the younger son," Tash said, "back in the eighteen-sixties, eighteen-seventies. I think he was bored, he had nothing to do, so he got into collecting. Scientific instruments, mostly. I always loved this room..."
Indeed, she had the key on her own key-ring, though it was presumably a copy; her father wouldn't let her keep him out.
She opened the door and turned on the lights inside, and I fell in love at first sight. Photographers like mechanisms. However fancy our cameras have become, they are still devices for capturing light; and I might not know much about their history, but I do know what I like.
I liked this room, and the mind that had created it. I understood Joshua, I thought, just from that swift and early glance. An intelligent and inquiring mind, trapped in the stultifying social conformity of his age and class. Bored rigid no doubt by rural ways of life, field sports and houseparties, but kept at home by convention because he never would have thrived in the army and he must have spurned the church, he'd turned eyes and mind upward and outward: first to the horizons, then to the stars.
There were astrolabes and compasses, sextants and quadrants, devices for knowing where you stood upon the earth. There were cameras, original plate cameras on tripods, and never mind what I'd said to Tasha's father, those did surely have to be valuable; but they mattered more here, as devices for expressing where you stood, for seizing the moment.
There were telescopes for looking further, for reaching beyond mortal grasp; and, blessedly, under a great lead-lighted glass dome in the middle of the room stood an orrery.
The dome was covered with grime - well, everything in that room was covered with grime - but even so I could see enough to know what I was looking at: the little models of the planets, all in their proper orbits around a central stud to represent the sun. I stepped forward in a daze; I think I was making little crooning noises of desire. I know I heard Tasha laughing at me, though it didn't register at the time.
My sleeve made a swift duster, to clean the glass off and let me see properly. There were the inner planets, and out as far as Saturn, with five of its moons around it. I sighed, and stroked the glass, and said, "Eighteenth century, right?"
"That's right," Rufus confirmed, while Tash was still giggling. "How did you know?"
"They hadn't discovered Uranus, so it can't be later than 1780; but it's got all the early moons, which puts it later than, what, 1685..."
"Jonny," Tash said behind me, "you're a geek."
"Am not. I just like this stuff. And I'm good at numbers."
"Geek," she asserted again. And, "You're supposed to be taking photographs, not drooling."
"If you clean the room up, I'll take your pictures. You don't want it coming out all dirty, do you?"
"Yes, I do," she asserted, "it's always been dirty; that's how I remember it."
"Well, your dad doesn't want it dirty."
"He can bloody clean it up, then..." But her voice broke, she couldn't sustain the anger; I cursed myself silently, turned and hugged her. At first she was stiff and unresponsive, but my fingers walked up and down her spine, pressing deep into those tight tendons, and after a minute she was squirming, muttering protests she didn't mean.
"I've got your number, girl," I whispered. "Back-rub tomorrow. If you're good. If we get this room cleaned up tonight."
She scowled, angry with me now for knowing her weak spot, angry with herself for giving way so easily; she pushed hair back out of her eyes and said, "Ru can help."
"Oh, we'll all help. Promise."
She sniffed, and went off in search of cleaning-stuffs; I was pulled magnetically back to the orrery. The base plate was pierced, giving intimate views of the cogs and gears beneath; which led to the inevitable question, "Does it, you know, work...?"
"It does, yeah. We're not supposed to, but, well..."
He went to the wall, where an old iron mechanism reached up the wall to the mean little dormer that gave the room its only natural light.
There was a crank leaning against the wall there, but it looked oddly too long to be anything to do with that mechanism, as well as too refined, too well-made, totally wrong...
"Old Joshua didn't believe in waste. One crank could perfectly well do two jobs at once, if the window's gearing was built to fit, but it belongs to the orrery. Just slots in at the bottom there..."
It did, through a brassbound hole in the mahogany case. He slid it in, stepped back, gestured; I gripped the smooth handle of the crank and turned it slowly clockwise. Slowly, slowly the planets moved in their orbits, the moons turned around their planets, all the workings of God were laid bare...
Well, no, but as a working model of the solar system, it was unbeatable. I wanted it, very badly. It should have been a museum piece, but if it had to be in private hands - if it could belong to Mr Kilvallen, for crying out loud! - then why not to me?
Because he's a very rich man, Jonny, and you're not. My inner voice speaks a lot of sense sometimes, but I was still deeply covetous. I could understand something of Tasha's distress, even without the deep background of childhood possessiveness; how could anyone own this beautiful machine, and want to sell it...?
Because it works, and he doesn't understand it. Nothing works in his life, and so he wants it out. That was my inner voice again, leaping to unjustified conclusions.
The orrery wasn't actually clockwork, you couldn't wind it up. You had to keep turning the crank, to keep the planets turning. So we did that, and so Tash came back to find us still playing; so we generously let her give the orrery a more thorough clean than I had, while we took J-cloths off to the more boring corners of the museum.
Me, I headed straight for the cameras, naturally. I was in the mood to be intrigued; caught first by their awkward intricacies, the makeshift engineering of early bright ideas, my attention was snared soon by a photograph hung on the wall behind. That was just as early, it must have been taken with one of these cameras; and - once I'd rubbed the dust off - it turned out to be a family portrait, a small group of grim Victorians posed on the front steps outside this house.
"I guess no one had invented saying cheese," I said. "Or else it predates the smile. Do we know who these people are?"
They came to peer, and fingers pointed over my shoulder. Actually they didn't know names, but they thought this was Joshua's elder brother, his wife, their children; and that old man in the bathchair must be the paterfamilias...
"Pity there's no Joshua," I said, "but he'll be taking the picture, of course. I wonder who she is?" - a girl standing off to one side of the group, head down, long loose hair falling like wings about her face.
"Poor relation?" Rufus hazarded, all heedless young heir. "Not Joshua's, he never married. She must be family or she wouldn't be let in the photo, but she really doesn't look like she belongs."
"Don't be cocky, Ru. If they ever took a family photo of us, none of us would look like we belonged."
And that, in an unexpected sentence, was why I love Tasha: that ruthless honesty, the unflinching glare into the spotlight of her own intelligence. She knows; oh, she does know. And she's not afraid of the knowledge. It's the world beyond that she can't deal with, anything outside her skin. Which is, first and foremost, her family, before she even gets to all the strangers.
We cleaned, or at least we shifted a lot of dust about; and then we needed ten minutes out in the air, on the roof, wheezing extravagantly and sharing a four-pack of lager. It should have been a classic, three young people intoxicated by height and night, stars and alcohol; but it wasn't, because there was no miracle going on here. Tash and Rufus were perennially edgy and uncomfortable with each other, almost silent under the weight of a lifetime's legacy of discord.
When we went back down, indeed, Rufus disappeared. I was sorry, but I couldn't blame him; it's not so interesting, watching a man take photos of a room. For me it was a constant fascination, as I kept getting closer to objects, seeing more. The orrery was still the focus, but there was more and more at the fringes, around the walls, that I wanted to get deeper and deeper into. Deeper far than a photograph can take you; once I'd got enough shots to satisfy even Tasha, I put the cameras away and did some exploring with my hands, among the crumbling cardboard boxes in the cupboards below the display cases.
It had been warm enough to stand out on the roof in shirtsleeves, a couple of hours earlier. Now suddenly I felt the night's chill coming at me. We'd opened the skylight earlier, to help clear the dust; I used that long crank to wind it closed again, and went back to rummaging. Tasha had gone off too, headed bedwards; she'd left me with her key, though, and a bottle of her father's whisky, and I had no plans to sleep yetawhile.
Just as well, because I'd just found the glass plates her father had told me about, stacks of them, interleaved with prints. Happy man: this family was starting to absorb me, and there's no such thing as too much information. I sat on the floor, whisky close by, and looked at one image after another. And became more and more fascinated, because not all but most of them did have that stray girl, that footnote to the family, holding herself apart but still irredeemably there, inescapable; and that's where you start to wonder, is she there because she wants to be, or because the others want her to be, or because the photographer wants her to be? It's easy to forget that third factor, the eye behind the lens, when you're looking at family dynamics.
In this instance, I thought the question was easy to answer. The way she stood, the way she held herself, her body language was entirely saying no, she really didn't want to be there. And the others in every picture, the kids her age - and she was young, no more than twelve, not even a teenager yet - and the adults who really should have known better, they were doing the same thing, turning away from her, letting their bodies speak for them.
As everyone in this family still did, I thought, remembering Tasha and Rufus together, remembering their parents. All turned away.
So that left Joshua. His hand composing these pictures, his voice commanding them, his eye deciding. Who on earth was she, that he should be insisting on her presence in his pictures?
I found the answer, part of the answer, in scribbled pencil on the back of one print. At last, someone had noted down names for future generations. Here were Victoria, Harold, Lucy and Georgina; here cousin Thomas and cousin Ned.
Which meant, logically and assuredly, that - if the boys were so explicitly picked out as cousins, separate from us - then the three girls must all be sisters together. Which meant that my stray, my castaway Georgina was absolutely one of the tribe, not a poor relation at all; so why on earth was she so held apart, so disdained, so huddled in on herself?
She reminded me of Tasha, to be honest - especially now I'd seen her among her family, and seen how they all treated each other. The family in the photos looked healthier, in fact, because they only excluded one of themselves; as Tash had said, her own brood were all strangers to each other.
It was a mystery I didn't expect to solve, but I went on looking, because that's what I do. Give me pictures and a puzzle, and I am a dog with a bone, I am growling.
And there was a bottle of whisky to be drunk, and the same applies. I'm very bad at putting the stopper in.
So I went on looking, one box of plates and then another; and then suddenly I was into another world. I'd have thought I'd found another photographer, if Joshua hadn't left his stylistic fingerprints all over these too, along with his obsession for Georgina.
I'd seen pix like these before, of course. Famously, Lewis Carroll made them. So did a host of other Victorians, and so have others since. Little girls naked, it's a theme. It's only our own generation that questions it; art has always invested nudity with purity, and youth the same. Take both together, youth and nudity, and nobody's been uncomfortable but us.
Sitting there, looking at these photographs from a hundred years ago and then some, I was very uncomfortable indeed. They were all Georgina, posed naked in various artificial settings; and here she couldn't hide behind the broken wings of her hair, but her face was truly saying how she felt, how she so very much did not want to be there and doing this.
They made me go back and look at the earlier pix again, how she'd always had her hair down to hide behind, how it wasn't actually her sisters or her parents she was flinching away from, so much as the camera itself. Or the man behind it.
But I was bringing my twenty-first century sensibilities to bear on a nineteenth century story, and that's as corrupt as anything else. And it would probably be rude to drink all of Mr Kilvallen's whisky, on my first night under his roof. I put the cork in the bottle, locked the door behind me and went to bed.
Alien pipes make strange music. I slept badly, never more than drowsing and waking often, startling myself awake; much of the night I lay sleeplessly staring into the dark, listening to the noises in my bathroom, slight knocks and whisperings as though someone were shuffling around in there, trying to be quiet, not to disturb.
In the morning, Tash came in search of me: the usual thump on the door and she barged straight through, unworried by whatever state I might be in. As it happened, I'd risked the shower, just to wake myself up a bit; she found me still towelling my hair dry.
"Steamy," she said, wafting imagined clouds of vapour aside.
"Yeah, sorry, I didn't think to open a window..."
"Joke, Jonny. It's fine."
She perched on the bed to watch me dress; I said, "How come there's a private bathroom here, anyway? The rest of you don't have en-suite."
"No, just this. It used to be the schoolroom; I know Joshua taught his brother's children here. The unmarried intellectual younger brother, of course he had to play at schoolmaster. The way I heard it, he had water and gas plumbed in to that room for his experiments, to make it a kind of science lab, I suppose. But the next generation was sent away to school, so they didn't need it here; and someone had the bright idea of converting the lab into a bathroom. Lucky you."
Oh, lucky me indeed. I was thinking more about Georgina. This was her uncle's space, to do with as he chose; one room opening privately off another with water plumbed in, doubtless that was his darkroom through there, and very possibly his studio also. At a guess, I'd just figured out where those photographs were taken.
I hadn't yet figured out what to do, who to tell, Tasha or her father. She'd be upset; he'd want to know if they were valuable. Tough call.
We went downstairs together, but she hadn't really needed my escort; the kitchen was empty when we got there, no awkward family to face. Toast and coffee for breakfast, then, and while we crunched I said, "You don't know what happened to the kids Joshua taught, do you? Only I found names for some of them on the back of a photo, and that just makes them more real somehow. Harold and Victoria, Lucy, Georgina...?"
"I recognise the names," she said dubiously. "I'm sorry, I don't know anything about them. Ru might. Or there might be some kind of family record in the library somewhere, but..."
But she didn't want to go poking about in there, it was her parents' territory. Even at this time of day, nowhere to go trespassing. Indeed, she was swallowing toast in a hurry, glancing at her watch, saying, "I thought I'd go for a ride this morning, see if Lady Grey can remember any of her manners. There's an old hack of my father's, he'd be up to your weight, if you fancied...?"
"Not me," I said. "Horses and me don't mix. You go do your thing, I'll do mine."
"Will you be all right? By yourself?" It was inconceivable to her, being left alone in a strange house, someone else's.
"Tash, I'll be fine. Go. Don't ride under any low branches."
I made another pot of coffee and waited, and ten minutes later there were brisk steps in the corridor. One of the family at least kept strict time, and Tasha knew it.
It turned out to be her mother. We did the polite smiling thing, I poured her a coffee, she refused toast; when it looked like she was heading for the window to do her silent staring-out thing again, I intercepted her by asking what she knew about her family history.
"Not my family," she said sharply. "My husband's."
Which told me quite a lot right there, just not enough; so I asked her if she'd seen the photographs up in the museum.
"Some of them, yes," she said. "My husband wouldn't care about such things, but I - I disliked them, so I put them away. I'd have locked that cupboard, but the key is lost; keys do get lost, in this house. Lord only knows what else is up there, that's been locked away before. Frankly, I prefer not to know."
She was hugging her elbows in the same way her daughter did, confronted by a world too terrible to face. I could pity Tasha, born into this house and this life; it was harder to feel sorry for her mother, who had chosen to marry into it and chosen to stay.
I asked about surviving documents, in the library or elsewhere. She said she didn't know, but there was a family tree hanging in the hall. We went to see that, and she traced Joshua's line for me. There he was, as reported: no wife, no kids. And there was his brother, and the long line of his children: Harold the heir, and the three daughters. Harold had done his family duty, produced heirs of his own, a direct line down to Rufus and Tasha; Victoria and Lucy had married too, had children too; Georgina -
No. Georgina had barely made it out of childhood. Dead at fourteen, just a couple of years after those photos were taken. The chart didn't say why or how. And of course Victorian children did die, in numbers, there were all manner of diseases and accidents to carry them off; and even so it felt sinister to me that it should have been this girl, the outsider in her own home, who didn't survive. Not surprising, mind, I think I was looking for exactly that; she didn't have the look of a survivor.
I was still standing there, I suppose you'd call it thinking, when Mrs Kilvallen said a sharp, "What's that?"
She was staring upward, at the gallery where my room stood. I'd left the door ajar, and white smoke was oozing out of the gap.
I took that long curving stair at a gallop, but she wasn't far behind me. When we reached the gallery, there was a hissing noise to be heard, then a great eruptive gurgle; I slowed and waited for her, relieved and baffled both at once.
"Not smoke," I said, before we'd even reached the door. "Steam. That's the shower running."
She frowned. "Natasha, then, I suppose?"
Of course she would think that, but I had to disabuse her. "No, she's gone riding. Rufus, maybe...?"
But here came Rufus, along the corridor from his own room, come to see the fuss.
"Well," I said defensively, "I didn't leave it running..."
"Well," she said sardonically, "I suggest you get in there to see."
We both went, Rufus and I. The bedroom was full of steam, the bathroom worse, a wall of white; plunging in, I could just make out a figure through the fog. She wasn't in the shower, only standing by the bath: naked, vulnerable, small. Too small for Tash, too small for anyone in this house, that I'd seen...
Behind me, I heard swearing; that was Rufus, burning his hand on the pipes as he reached blindly through gushing scorching water for the lever that would turn it off. Only for a moment, he distracted me; when I turned my eyes back to find her again, she wasn't there.
The steam cleared, slowly. She wasn't anywhere in that room, or next door.
Rufus said, "Don't worry, Jonny, it's happened before. The whole system's haywire; I think water-pressure builds up to the point where it can knock itself on, just from how hard the pipe shakes. No harm done, except a bit of water on the floor. I'll tell Mum."
No need; she was there in the bedroom, listening. Looking at me, seeing how fey I was, staring into corners. I don't think she believed that the shower turned itself on, any more than I did.
She said, "This was the master bedroom when the house came down to us. My husband wanted us to take it, but I couldn't sleep in here, I never could. I never liked the feel of, of that bathroom," a nod towards the dripping walls, the gathered pools of water on the floor. "I used to think I could hear someone moving about in there at night, while he was sleeping..."
I went up to the museum, alone, with Tasha's key. I wasn't really going to talk to Georgina, but I think I did, as I sifted through the plates again: telling her how sorry I was she'd been unhappy, hoping that she was easy now. I didn't believe it for a moment, but sometimes you just have to say these things.
The crank was back in the orrery. I was sure - no, I knew that I hadn't left it like that. Still, I went and turned it for a little, and watched how all the planets moved about each other on their wheels and cogs, all pre-ordained and helpless. Everybody hurts, I thought; and, everybody hurts each other.
It didn't feel like an excuse.
There was another cupboard I hadn't got into last night, because it was locked against me. Keys do get lost, Tasha's mother had said, but old skills don't. I like devices, contraptions, mechanisms, and there's nothing more contraptual than a lock; I'd spent hours and hours in my teenage, learning how to pick them.
This one was easy. In the cupboard, I wasn't at all surprised to find another stack of photographic plates. These didn't come with paper prints, but it didn't take long in that room to rig up a stand with a light-source, so that I could project their images onto a white wall.
Even with black and white reversed, it was clear what I was looking at. These were the pictures that no Victorian, no man would ever want seen by other eyes: no artful posing of a naked child, these were pornography by any definition, abusive and exploitative, destructive. And all, all of Georgina.
I was appalled, sickened, but again not at all surprised. I think I'd been looking for them.
I wondered who else had seen them - Tasha's father? Very possibly. Her mother? Perhaps - and lost the key deliberately, perhaps. It would be impossible to ask.
Hard enough to tell them, though I had to find a way. Georgina had been locked up far too long in this limbo of secrecy and shame.
Even so, I left her so, me too: locking Joshua's museum behind me before I went downstairs.
Down and out, into the stable yard, for a breath of air perhaps. I found Tasha there, unsaddling her horse.
"Hi," I said. "You busy?"
"For a while. I just need to curry her..."
"That's an idea," I said. "Fancy curry for lunch, after? Somewhere that isn't here?"
"God, yes," she said, explosively. "Gets to you, doesn't it?"
Oh, it does, I thought. It does get to you. Yes, indeed...
If I'd been more generous to him, less kind to her, I'd have suggested taking Rufus too; but mostly I just wanted out of there, the two of us together. I could only look after one of the Kilvallens: one at a time, at least.
I kept her out all afternoon, so that we were driving into our own long shadow as we finally came back to the house, that last slow mile up the drive. It felt significant, somehow.
In, then, and straight up to the top floor, with me just shaking my head at all her questions. I unlocked the museum and we walked in to a waft of heat, the way an attic room can be after a day under the sun's hammer.
Tasha grunted, and went straight to open the skylight - but the crank wasn't there, although I'd left it there quite deliberately. It was back in the orrery again. Tasha reached for it, and,
"Jonny, it's stuck. I can't get it free..."
No more could I, though I tugged and jerked with a will. Nor could I turn it, back or forth.
Tash was staring, taking a step back from the orrery. I looked where her hand was pointing, and saw that one of the dome's panes was broken. Inside there was a scatter of glass between the planets, and more fallen down into the gearing; but more than that, worse than that, something was tangled between all the planets and their moons, long threads like fine black wires...
I reached in gingerly and tried to pick one off, but it was all wound up too tightly. Tash scrabbled in her bag and found some nail-scissors; I snipped out a section and lifted it out, laid it on my palm and showed her.
"What is it?" I think she knew, but didn't want to say. No more did I; but,
"Hair," I said. "It's human hair, I think."
Long and dark, like a girl's hair: a girl who had hair like broken wings, that she could hide behind but never fly away.
"Who has, who could do...?" She didn't finish her questions, she didn't need to; she knew the answers already, which were just as incomplete. Nobody here had hair like that, and nobody could come in where her key had locked them out. I'd been wrong before, there weren't any duplicates; keys could be misappropriated, as well as lost.
"It's getting dark," I said. "Let's grab a bottle of wine, and go out on the roof. I've got a story to tell you."
That kind of story, told in the gloaming to a girl you find it hard to look at, they're mostly grim. I had her house beneath my feet, her history in a box, her family in my head; she was in my heart, and I didn't dare take her hand.
I said, "Listen, then. There was a girl, lived here: not like you, she was probably happy once. When she was little. The house didn't breed pain then, it hadn't sharpened up its gears. But she had an uncle, who had nothing to do but play; and to her horror, to her shame, he was allowed to play with her.
"Why her and not her sisters, I can't say. She was youngest, she was spare, she was affordable. Or else there was something about her, maybe she was vulnerable already, maybe that drew him. Maybe he was that kind of predator, he could smell out the weakest. Whatever drove him, he made her his special target: cut her out of the herd, feasted on her.
"No," I said, "forget the metaphors. That's just another way to hide from what he did, and she's been hidden long enough. First he stripped her, then he took pictures of her naked, then he raped her. Over and over again. And took more pictures after, but that's not the worst of it. Her family's the worst of it. Her parents, her brother, her sisters. They let it happen, and go on happening. She couldn't bear that, I think it's what broke her in the end.
"I don't know if she killed herself, or just lost any reason to live. How it happened, I don't know that. She let death take her, but it wouldn't, it couldn't take her away. She's still here, still hurting." A figure in the roiling steam, where he'd hurt her most; a hand, a power, a motive force in that damned museum, where she was trapped, where her pain just went on happening. Wheels turned, cogs gripped, teeth locked together. Mechanical, eternal, inbuilt. Until someone smashed the machine.
"And all she can do," I said, "is pass it on. It's her gift to you, to all the generations of you." The flaw in the machine, the twisted gear that forced everything out of true: that ground one cog against another, broke teeth, buckled the framework. Did more and more damage, so long as someone kept on turning the crank.
"Here," I said, "you're good at breaking things. Break this."
I passed her one of those photographic plates, out of the box.
She held it for a moment, didn't try to look at it in the darkness. She looked at me. "Dad wants to sell these."
"Fuck him," I said, deliberately crude, violent almost. I could be violent tonight, if I needed to. If she needed me to. "If he knows what they are, if he's seen them, he has no right. I think your mother knows. These don't belong to your family, to any of you. They're Georgina's." That was the first time I'd said her name tonight, and I felt a breath of something stir my skin, chill and sorrowful. I wondered if she used to come up here, looking for escape. If she did, I didn't think she'd found it in far horizons and a solitary view. Nor in a swift plunge to earth, though I could feel the draw of that. I thought Tasha felt that too, maybe all her life.
She held the sheet of glass lightly between her fingers, then smashed it on the parapet.
I passed her another, and said, "You have to let him sell Joshua's things. Not these, but the rest of it. Sell them, scatter them, break up the collection. Dissipate him. Burn his notebooks, splinter that nameplate on the door. Expunge him, make him forgotten." Not just for Georgina: for herself, for all the generations. It might be too late for her, I wasn't sure; but for her children, for her brother's, for the future. They needed Joshua gone from here. He haunted the house as much as his victim did; they were all his victims now.
I'd made a start already, deleting all the photos that I'd taken. I wasn't going to let Tash carry him with her, wherever she went from here. She had baggage enough already.
She went on breaking Joshua's plates as I passed them to her, one by one. In the end, I thought, rain and wind together would finish the work; they'd wash Georgina free if we couldn't do it ourselves, leave nothing but clear glass and no memories, nothing to work with.
We did what we could, and then I took Tasha's hand and led her down through the house and out of the door and away from there. If there was a shadow in her driving-mirror as we left, she didn't glance at it, not once. I know; I was watching.
In addition to The House of Mechanical Pain, Phantoms at the Phil: The Third Proceedings contains a further story by Chaz Brenchley (Summer's Lease) and two stories each by Gail-Nina Anderson and Sean O'Brien. Copies can be purchased via this web site.
© Chaz Brenchley, 2007.
Reproduced here by permission of Chaz Brenchley, who asserts his moral right to be identified as the author of this work.