When Jackie travels to the South Downs in search of her childhood home,
she uncovers a sinister secret lurking in the family closet. Her estranged brother,
Chris, is her last remaining relative, but he has been transformed into something
unrecognisable by the ghosts of the past.
In her journey to discover the truth, Jackie enters a strange world of free-loving
heathens, environmental warriors and sadistic priests, where dragons dwell
beneath the streets of northern towns and demons prowl on the edge of Avebury’s stone circle.
A gothic tale of love, revenge and atonement, Of Bodies Changed is an odyssey
through the ancient myths that echo the human experience.
Of Bodies Changed by Cliff James
Sometimes nowadays, when the house is quiet and Lionheart is asleep, I sit beside the fire with a glass of whisky and remember the sensations of that night. Sometimes I thrill at the memory of that bedroom in King’s Cross, the woodchip wallpaper, the dripping sink in the corner, the underground trains rumbling beneath the foundations. The window that would not close banging softly against the frame; the thin white curtains shuffling in the breeze. Sirens wailed longingly over the streets, far from the coast, far from the deadly rocks of the North Sea. The streetlight flickered pulsingly, teasing my imagination with precious glimpses of our bodies writhing over the blankets like six snakes coiling into one skin, like the blink of a pagan heaven.
Sometimes I close my eyes and feel the melting heat of strange flesh against familiar flesh, reach my hands into space and explore the oceans of skin. We became water in streams, weaving down the slopes of each other’s parting waves, to dissolve in fountains and condense in tissue and bone. In my mind, I stretch my fingers across warm hair and fluid muscle, to sweep the tides of body over body, and touch again the fire of the Coven’s last night together.
Sometimes I close my eyes.
* * *
When it was over, Jake was the first to speak.
‘If we’d thought about it, we could have all shared the one bed this whole week,’ he said.
He stood beside the window in unashamed beauty, the first glow of dawn lacing his pink outline. He walked to the sink in the corner of the room and washed his face in cold water.
Anna sat on the end of the bed and stared at the carpet.
‘I need the bathroom,’ she said at length, and walked out of the bedroom without looking back. ‘Conrad, you joining me?’
We heard the water heater click as she stepped into the shower. Conrad kissed Chris’s forehead twice and followed her out.
‘Won’t be any sleep now,’ said Day, pulling a sweater over his head. ‘Going to get breakfast from the all-night chippy. Anyone want anything?’
‘I’ll come,’ said Jake, buttoning his jeans. He would not look at anyone. ‘I need some fresh air.’
They closed the door quietly behind them. Chris took my hand and rubbed it between his fingers. He pulled the duvet over my naked body.
‘Covering the shame of post-modern Eve?’ I asked.
‘Oh dear, Cat,’ he grinned. ‘What have we done?’
* * *
We did not speak on the train back to Sunderland. The night in King’s Cross remained an unspoken deed, a thing of dreams and too much wine. Instead, we rested our heads on our sleeping partners’ shoulders and reclaimed the bodies that had become common property for one night.
February was an anxious month for me. I waited for the period that never arrived. My fears were confirmed in March. I leaned over the kitchen sink with the pregnancy test and stared at the faint purple line that had delicately materialised in the plastic tube. It refused to go away.
‘It could be a false positive. It could, though,’ said Chris.
I winced at the sound of his voice. In the garden, the dream-tree hung silent and tense. The seagulls circled the clear blue sky: vultures anticipating my reply. The details of everything took on greater significance, distracting me from the faint purple line that would not go away. I stared at the lupins in the window-box. They had returned from the dark soil for a second spring. I wondered if they would flower this year too or whether the soil was too shallow. There was no hope for the night-scented stock which had been left to wither and die in the first frost.
‘It could, but we both know it’s not,’ I said, forcing my attention back to the kitchen. I gave the plastic tube to Chris and cursed my earlier optimism. If I am honest, at that time I felt diseased with the thing inside me, infected by an unwelcome alien feeding off my body. I rinsed a cup under the tap and noticed that my hands were strangely steady. Even now, I thought, in every second, in every breath, the cells are dividing and multiplying.
‘We can take another test,’ said Chris. I registered his use of “we”.
I filled the kettle and kept my back towards him. I could do a better job of it than my parents, I thought. I could raise him without any guilt or ignorance. I could raise a hero. I could do things differently.
Or I could get rid of it.
‘I need to get away,’ I said, stroking the handle of the kettle. ‘I need to be somewhere else. To think. I can’t go to my parents.’
Chris drummed his fingers on the table. I could feel him watching me, analysing my reaction.
‘Have you ever been to Whitby?’ he asked. ‘It’s lovely in the spring and I know of a quiet house beside the sea. You can walk along the shore; it’s quite deserted. There’s hardly anyone about this time of year. There’s plenty of space to think.’
I carried my cup to the table and sat beside him. The seagulls settled on the garden wall and cried at our faces through the window.
‘Would your mother mind?’
‘She’s not bad at this sort of thing,’ he said, resting his hand on mine. I flinched at his words. This sort of thing – as though that faint purple line happened to Chris all the time. ‘And I’d know you were safe there. She can be a clever woman, sometimes. She knows exactly what to do: how much space to give, when to speak, when to be silent. If nothing else, she taught me to have faith in my own decisions.’
The crystals on the dream-tree chimed a soft lullaby, soothing the seagulls into silence. The birds gave up their squawking and abandoned the garden altogether.
‘Would you speak to my tutor for me? Tell her I’ll be away for two weeks, at least. I guess she’ll have to know the reason why.’
Chris nodded and smiled reassuringly. ‘I’ll let Calliope know you’ll be with her this evening.’
‘How quickly it’s all happened,’ I said. Circe walked into the kitchen and mewed at her empty bowl. She glanced up at me, aghast that I had not reached for her biscuits.
‘I’m not sure I can go through with this,’ I added, disturbed by the meow’s resemblance to an infant’s demanding cry. For a moment, the cat turned into a hairy baby walking on all fours and flicking its impatient tail.
‘You know, you don’t have to have it, Cat. But if you do, we’ll all be here to help. More than that, we’ll all be parents with you. What’s that they say about it taking a whole village to raise a child?’
I stood up and looked down at my belly. I felt no sign of the stranger inside, no shift in the contours of my body.
‘Isn’t it odd, nobody’s mentioned the night in Kings Cross since we came home. Conrad and Anna avoid us. The only contact we’ve had are brief, embarrassed nods in college. Jake doesn’t know what to say to me anymore. He glares at you every time you mention Conrad’s name. Day takes it all in his stride, of course. When I told him we’ve all become estranged, he just shrugged. I don’t know how they’re all going to react to “this sort of thing” – as you so delicately put it. What if they don’t want anything to do with it? What if someone insists on being the father?’
I went to the sink and washed my hands in cold water. Still steady as anything, I thought. The cat mewed and brushed her fur against my bare legs. I dried my hands and walked towards the door.
‘It doesn’t matter who the father is,’ said Chris, reaching a hand to hold my arm. ‘What matters is we’ll be with you when the time comes. If that’s what you decide.’
‘I have to pack,’ I said and left the room.