The world tumbles around me. Ground above, ground below. Trees, I see trees, but where is the sky? All is dark and darkening more. Over. Under. Sideways on. Everything tumbling—till with a dull thud my head hits the ground. Dry leaves press into my cheek. Beside me I see my body, absent a head, neck oozing blood.
I woke to the sound of my mother calling. “Arwen! Breakfast!” My belly queasied at the thought of it. Any other day I might have called off school, but not today. Too many questions already being asked.
The newscaster’s voice greeted me as I thumped down the stairs, the TV, as ever, keeping Mum company in the breakfast room. “Police believe a second body found in the Lyme Bay region may be related. A police statement issued in the early hours suggested a copycat killing inspired by the finds last November of skeletal remains at nearby Bridport. These now have been confirmed as ‘historical’, spanning the twelfth to nineteenth centuries.”
“That’s the second headless body,” my mother said as I sat by the table. “And don’t scrape that chair—how many more times?”
I shrugged a sorry.
“You’re quiet this morning.”
“Worried about this appointment with Doctor Penner?”
“Mister,” I said. “Consultant.”
“Mister, Doctor, whatever . . . you have okayed it, haven’t you, with the school?”
I nodded, and scraped butter across the cold and slightly charred toast.
“I’ll pick you up at lunchtime.”
I nodded again, now with the excuse of a mouthful of toast.
“Chickens!” she nagged as I scraped back the chair, mouth still stuffed. “Your choice, your chore.”
I cast a look at her. Every morning, as if I’d forget. And they’d not been my choice. That had been Dad’s doing. Said I needed to get used to looking after livestock—I was seven years old at the time. He didn’t trust a kid with his own stock—understandable, they were his livelihood—so he said I was to have stock of my own. It was to be my chore, my responsibility. Chickens. He said he’d only then thought of it but that was a lie. He’d been mulling for ages on where to site the chicken-run. Then he cleared it before he ever said. I helped him with that. I could still remember the smell of the earth that clung to the roots of the bigger scrub.
That’s where I found the wand. I didn’t know then that’s what it was but my kiddish brain thought it the right word. The markings on it, I later discovered, were runes (Nyd Is Hægl . Rad . Wynn Rad Eoh Tir Os Nyd). But they’re not the Younger or Elder Futhark like are usually used on modern rune-sets. Google helped me find them. They’re older; from the Anglo-Frisian Futhark, apparently brought to England by the earliest Germanic settlers; they’ve been found in Norfolk from 450 CE on. I’ve tried to read them but Google Translator hasn’t yet an option for Anglo-Saxon. I think it says something of someone writing it. And I know I ought to have taken it to the experts, like the Castle Museum or Norfolk Heritage, but I didn’t want to lose it to them. So now it sits on a shelf in my bedroom, along with other odd finds from around the farm. Mum calls it my altar; I call it my cabinet of curiosities.
As always, my wellies were waiting by the back door. The hen-house and run was across the stockyard and through the gate that gives onto the meadow. Not a place to venture in school shoes, no matter the weather, though this being mid-July, the weather had been hot and dry for a good many days.
“And don’t dawdle,” she shouted after me. “Ten minutes—you’ll miss the bus.”
Away from her, I huffed a sigh. It was coincidence, my dream, that’s all. I mean, it couldn’t be related. Not with me here in Norfolk and the bodies down in Dorset. Besides, it wasn’t a one-off, single, new nightmare. But then again, only two of the killings were new. But, nah, the only connection was in them being headless. Nine headless bodies, seven old, two new. I closed my eyes. Mistake. I again saw the tumbling world, and my bleeding headless body beside me.
At the hospital, there were several other people in the waiting room. I wasn’t expecting that. The letter had said to allow an hour for this initial interview—an assessment, it said—so who were these other people waiting for? Not Penner.
“Probably to see the various support services,” my mother said as she plonked herself down a chair. “I expect they all work out of the same department.”
I looked at her, but she struggled for a name. “Therapists? she suggested.
Like everyone else, we then sat in silence. I watched the second-hand sweep round on the clock on the wall. But at least it was cool in the waiting room. The day outside had grown uncomfortably hot. Airless. On the way into the city I’d opened the car window and held my head to catch the breeze—which of course had mussed up my hair. My hair being fierce copper, it now looked like I was wearing a comic clown’s wig. I would have nipped into the Ladies to tease the haystack back into order but Mum wouldn’t have it, even though we were early. She’s such a panic about arriving on time. And now we had five minutes to wait. I attempted to finger-comb it, but without a mirror . . .
“You did send the forms back?” my mother asked a few minutes later.
I rolled my eyes. She hated when I did that but at least I didn’t give her a ‘duh’.
“You posted them,” I said.
Forms—questionnaires, self-assessments, a mighty big sheaf of them. Why couldn’t it be done online like they do with the careers service?
Tick as apply:
I have excellent ideas.
I am quick to understand things.
I use difficult words.
I am full of ideas.
Those weren’t so bad. It was those others:
I get so wrapped up in watching TV, reading, or playing a video game that I don’t have any idea what’s going on around me. Mark on a scale of 0 to 10, never-always. What number is ‘frequently?
I look at the clock and realise time has gone by and I can’t remember what has happened. Mark on a scale of 0 to 10, never-always. Another ‘frequent’.
I have thoughts that don’t really seem to belong to me. That rated a ‘0’ (never) After all, if I’m having the thoughts how can they then not belong to me? Really, that did deserve a ‘duh’.
I feel like there are different people inside me. No.
Questions like that made me mad. Why would no one listen to me; always applying their preconceived notions. But maybe this doctor would be different. A consultant, the letter said. Though I didn’t rate the typist’s skill: a typo on Penner’s name (the ‘r’ omitted from Mr).
A buzzer alerted the receptionist: one of the doctors—or a support worker—prompting for the next patient. The receptionist looked over at me. She didn’t say anything but, once she knew she had my attention, she smiled and gave a sharp nod towards the door beside her. Penner, it said on the nameplate, but from this angle I couldn’t see the rest of it. I upped to my feet, looking slightly dishevelled in my school uniform. Beside me, my mother upped to hers.
“No, Mum. I’m doing this on my own.”
“But there are things—”
“Doctor Snide will have sent a full report. And, anyway, you screwed up the interview with him, I’m not having you do it again.”
She flustered. How dare I! And in public. Heads were turning, though most looked away.
The receptionist stood. “Miss Elvin . . .?”
“Yea, I’m coming,” I said. I turned back to my mother. “Alone.”
She was still trying to waffle her way in with me. “What about your family history?”
But the receptionist came to my aid. “Miss Elvin is over sixteen; we do prefer that she’s seen on her own. At least for this initial assessment.”
She opened the door for me, placing herself between that door and my mother. Perhaps that’s why I didn’t notice the full name on that name plate.
I was in. Alone. But . . . “Oh,” I blurted. The psychiatrist wasn’t quite as I’d expected.
She rose from her chair—petite, and casually dressed in a slim-fitting calf-length pastel-grey dress. Her scraped-back hair was black as jet, her eyes blue, her complexion Mediterranean-tan. What little makeup she wore was subtly applied, and if she wore perfume I couldn’t smell it. She smiled and extended a hand in welcome. I ignored it—hey, I’m a kid, right, and kids don’t do handshakes. But that didn’t faze her. She offered her name. I noticed a slight accent. I thought her probably Spanish. Maybe she’d married a Brit.
“Madeleine Penner,” she said. “You may call me Madeleine, but I will not allow you to shorten it.”
It took me a moment for the penny to drop. Then I smiled. I liked this Madeleine Penner (not to be called Maddy); she’d a wicked sense of humour. And she was going to need it with what I had to tell her.
Next episode, Debunking Dr Snide