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Authors: John Halkin

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BOOK: Squelch
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Lesley’s silence accused her of every sin in the book. It all crowded back into Ginny’s mind as she drove off, scraping against the cottage wall in her haste: the occasions when they had quarrelled, the hard words, the small selfish acts when she could have been more helpful. Oh God, what if she died?

Oh please don’t let her die!

Not that Ginny had ever believed in God, not since she was small when she’d imagined Him as a Father Christmas figure with a long beard. In fact, she’d never given it much thought. Until now, which probably meant it was too late.

She took the corner too quickly. Lesley slumped towards her, held back only by the seat belt.

‘Oh Les…’ Ginny slowed down and tried to push her upright again. ‘Les, hold on. We’re almost home.’

‘Home’ was at the far end of the village, a double-fronted
Edwardian house with creeper spreading cosily over the stonework around the windows. Bernie had taken it over from his father together with the practice. His surgery and waiting area occupied a self-contained suite on the ground floor with its own separate side entrance, but that still left – as Lesley so often explained – plenty of space for the family. Three large rooms downstairs, five bedrooms – six at a pinch – two of them equipped with their own washbasins. Only one bathroom, though.

The moment she turned into the drive which curved gracefully up to the front of the house she realised Bernie’s car was missing. He must be out on call.

Or playing golf, she thought bitterly as she pulled up.

Or was this one of his days in Lingford where he was also a part-time consultant?

Oh hell…

The front door was locked and she could hear no sound of voices from inside the house. She rang the bell violently, prolonged. No response. But there must be somebody in – what about the children or Phuong, their nanny? She ran back to the car to sound the horn, holding her finger on it steadily, desperate for someone to hear. In her mind she went feverishly over the alternatives. Phone from the police house? But he was usually out at this time of day. The two or three village shops had early closing. The garage? At least there might be someone there to let her use the phone.

Then Phuong appeared, running towards her around the side of the house. ‘I’m sorry. We are at the bottom of the garden. By the summer house.’

‘Oh Phuong! I thought no one was in!’ The relief was almost too much for Ginny to bear. It was all she could do to hold back her tears. ‘There’s been an accident. Where’s Bernie? I must phone for an ambulance.’

Phuong stooped to take a quick look at Lesley’s
huddled figure in the front seat of the Mini, an expression of concern on her pale Vietnamese face. Then she nodded briskly, grasped Ginny’s arm and led her into the house.

‘You sit down,’ she said calmly. ‘You want I phone?’

‘I’ll do it.’

‘Okay. You phone. I look after Lesley.’ Her attractive, lilting English sounded clipped and prim.

She was so cool-headed and practical, Ginny thought enviously as she fumbled through the dialling. Of course, they must have taught her some nursing when she did her child care course, but that could not be the only reason. It was in her character too. She had been one of the first batch of Vietnamese boat people to settle in Britain. Most of her family had died during the long weeks of drifting in that open boat. When at last a passing freighter picked them up, only she and her brother were still alive. But she seldom talked about those days now she was happily settled with Lesley’s family. She seemed to live only for the children; in return, they loved her like a sister.

‘Hello?’ the operator was repeating patiently. ‘Which service do you want, please?’

‘Ambulance,’ Ginny said.

When she went outside again, she found Phuong holding a basin of warm water and bathing Lesley’s face. It was puzzling that she was still not properly conscious. The wound in her foot was deep and she must have lost an awful lot of blood, but would that in itself have caused this delirium? And so quickly?

‘She has high fever,’ Phuong informed her. ‘What cause this? She hurt her foot?’

‘An insect bite,’ Ginny explained wearily. It was only a half-lie, but would anyone believe the truth? ‘An ambulance is on its way. That’s something, I suppose.’

‘I think we take her inside house,’ Phuong announced. She put the basin down on the wall beside the steps. ‘Is better she lie down. Can you help?’

‘Of course.’

Ginny held Lesley by the shoulders, ready to take her weight the moment Phuong released the seat belt. Before she could do so, they heard the crunching of tyres on the drive.

‘Bernie! Oh thank God!’ Ginny was running towards him even before the car had stopped. ‘Bernie – oh, something crazy has happened! It’s Les, she’s hurt!’

Bernie examined his wife briefly before agreeing that they should move her into the house. He kept very calm, every inch the professional doctor, but Ginny could see that his eyes were troubled. Phuong unfastened the seat-belt, leaning across the driving seat to reach it; then he lifted Lesley up in his arms and carried her in through the front door.

‘Ginny, can you fetch my bag? It’s on the seat of my car. D’you mind?’

By the time she got back with it, Lesley lay face-down on the surgery couch. Bernie, now alone, was timing her pulse. He opened the bag and took out his stethoscope.

‘Phuong has gone back to keep an eye on the children, so you’ll have to help if I need it. Suppose you tell me what happened exactly. Did you put the dressing on her foot?’

Somehow, now Bernie was back Ginny felt stronger again. Better able to cope, at any rate. She gave him the bare facts, though it seemed such a bald, unconvincing account after the tension of actually experiencing it all.

‘A caterpillar – it’s so ridiculous!’ she ended.

‘I’m afraid it isn’t,’ Bernie told her grimly as he removed the dressing and began to examine the wound on Lesley’s foot. ‘One of the apprentices on Bottom Reach Farm was attacked in the same way. A long green caterpillar, was it? About six or eight inches, with a yellow stripe underneath?’

‘That’s right. And hairy.’

‘In the case of this poor lad it wasn’t his foot. He was fooling around with the caterpillar, making it walk up his arm. Not a nice business.’

Painstakingly he cleaned the wound as he talked, from time to time glancing up at Lesley’s face. Her eyes were closed now and she was breathing regularly.

‘What I don’t understand is this fever,’ he commented, worried. ‘And her bloodshot eyes.’

‘How bad is the apprentice?’

Instead of answering, Bernie looked pointedly at Ginny’s bare legs and at the scanty mules on her feet. ‘I’d feel a lot happier if you’d cover yourself up while these things are around.’

‘I’ve got my jeans in the car. I’ll put them on. Is the boy all right?’

‘He died. Already dead by the time I got there. By all accounts he had the caterpillar on his forearm only inches from his face. His friends were looking on. One took a photograph. Then somehow it moved and landed on his throat. Bit into the jugular. Or chewed into it would be more accurate.’

‘He bled to death?’ She felt sick in the stomach even thinking about it.

‘That’s about the size of it. As I said, not a nice business.’ He applied a fresh dressing to Lesley’s foot, bandaging it clumsily. ‘Let’s hope that ambulance isn’t too long coming. I’m tempted to take Les in the car, but –’

He changed the subject abruptly.

‘Ginny, do me another favour. You’ll find Phuong by the summer house at the end of the garden. If you could warn her about the caterpillars, I’d be grateful. I don’t suppose there are a lot of them about, but she could keep her eyes open. But try not to alarm the children, if possible.’

‘I’ll go now.’

‘And if you could –’ He stopped and regarded her intently. ‘I’m afraid I’m being rather selfish, aren’t I? How are
you
feeling? Did it do anything to you? No bites?’

‘I was lucky. It did nothing, apart from being a bit prickly on my tummy.’

‘Let me see.’

She pulled up her T-shirt. There were a few slight marks on her skin where she thought the caterpillar had rested, but they could just as easily have been heat rash.

‘Are they itchy?’

‘No.’

‘Well, let me know if there’s any change. Now I think I’ll phone the ambulance service to find out what’s happening.’

Ginny fetched her jeans from the Mini and also put on some fashion boots of Lesley’s before venturing down the garden to find Phuong. The grass was cut very short and the summer house where the children were playing was well clear of the trees. Even so, Ginny could not help feeling uneasy.

When the ambulance came, Ginny’s first thought was to accompany her sister to the hospital, but Bernie begged her to stay with Phuong and the children. At the sight of his worried expression she agreed without argument, saying she would do whatever he thought best. She helped him post a notice on the side door cancelling surgery for that evening.

She waited until the ambulance had left before venturing down the garden again to suggest that they might like to play in the house for a change, and in any case wasn’t it time for tea? She found them this time inside the summer house. Phuong was entertaining them with a story-cum-game from Vietnam and they protested vigorously at Ginny’s interruption.

The truth was, while Ginny was fond of her three nieces she had never felt completely at ease with children. Wendy, the youngest, she found the most difficult to manage; she was a lively, highly intelligent, stubborn two-and-a-half who demanded long explanations before she would consent to do anything. Caroline, aged four, was the dreamy one and easier to control, while six-year-old Frankie listened bright-eyed to Ginny’s news that their Mummy had gone away for the night and immediately wanted to know if she was going to get a divorce.

‘No, of course not!’ Ginny laughed. ‘What a ridiculous idea!’

‘Susie’s Mummy left like that without saying goodbye and she’s getting a divorce. Susie told me. Everybody gets a divorce sometimes.’

‘What’s a divorce?’ asked Wendy. ‘Can I have one?’

But at last they were all in bed and asleep. Phuong went to her room, while Ginny stayed in the lounge with the television on, though hardly watching it, waiting for a phone call from Bernie.

It was then she found herself thinking about the giant moths once more, wondering uneasily what connection there might be between them and these new killer caterpillars. Those moths –
her
moths – had seemed so elegant and gentle, yet…

4

‘Killed by what? A caterpillar? You must be joking!’ He was standing up against the bar, wide-legged, as though he owned the place. His face was redder than it used to be and he had a bald patch. He turned and saw her. ‘D’you hear that, Liz? Eh, Lizzie Kinley! Why are you sitting
there in the corner? Come up here an’ be sociable.’

She took another sup of Guinness and ignored him. That Harry Smith always did have a loud voice
and
a laugh to match, the noisy bugger. Remembered him from way back when they both went to the same school, only he hadn’t got that beer gut then. Had the voice though. When he’d whispered to her that time on the back row, the whole village heard it. But he was a Red Lion man usually, so what was he doing here in the Bull?

‘Beer gone off in the Red Lion, then?’ She emptied her glass and banged it down on the little round table. ‘Can’t say you’re welcome in here. Keeps a decent house, does Charlie.’

‘Did you hear what he just told me?’ Another deep laugh rumbled out of him. ‘No, Charlie, you’re having me on! Go on, pull the other one!’

‘Kid o’ nineteen,’ the landlord confirmed. He was polishing the glasses he’d just washed: a burly, slow-moving man who prided himself on his glasses, which was one reason she always came in here, the other being that the Red Lion refused to serve her these days. ‘They’ve got these agricultural apprentices down that place, an’ it was one o’ those lads. A caterpillar bite!’

‘Sure it wasn’t a wasp?’

‘No, the other lads saw it. A long green caterpillar, they said. Long as your hand.’

‘Must’ve been an adder then. Who ever heard of a caterpillar biting anybody? Come on, Charlie – have you?’

‘They’ve ruined my lettuce this year. Made a right mess o’ the whole bloody garden.’

‘Ay, but that’s not the same as biting people. What d’you say, Liz? You’ve had plenty o’ little nibbles in your day. Ever had it with a caterpillar?’

‘You watch your mouth,’ she told him. ‘You always did shoot off your mouth, didn’t you, Harry Smith?
Always the big mouth.’

Another laugh exploded out of him, loud enough to rattle the glasses on the shelves.

‘Ah, no offence, Liz! Come on. Come up to the bar an’ I’ll buy you another Guinness. I’ve only got a minute. Meeting someone.’

‘I’ll have it here,’ she said, not budging.

‘It’s her leg,’ Charlie explained, reaching to the shelf behind him for a bottle of Guinness. ‘Months now since she came out of hospital, but it’s still not right.’

‘Knocked off me bike by a bloody moth, you wouldn’t credit it. Now here I am on sticks for the rest o’ me bloody life. And I wasn’t even drunk.’

‘You’d had a few.’ Charlie brought her the bottle, taking the empty back to the bar with him. ‘You’ve had more’n you should today as well. That’s your last one, Liz.’

‘Fuck off!’ She concentrated on the Guinness, pouring it in against the side of the glass with a skill born of long practice, her hand as steady as a rock despite everything. That was more than she could say of some. Raising the glass to her lips, she said: ‘Here’s to you, Harry! Always had a soft spot for your Liz, didn’t you?’

‘That’s right! We had many a good grope, eh Liz?’

‘Dirty bugger!’ she spat at him.

He sipped his large whisky. ‘Ay, but we’re no longer as young as we were then, more’s the pity. That’s life.’

‘Young girl came in to see me in hospital,’ she told them, remembering. Thinking it over. ‘Some relation o’ Dr Rendell’s, she said. Kept going on about them moths, saying as how they didn’t attack me at all, and how nice they were and all that Sunday School stuff. Daft kid.’

They weren’t listening. The man Harry Smith was expecting had arrived and they went off into a corner to talk privately. He was a younger man than Harry, in cavalry twill and a flat cap, the kind who’d talk a farmer
into mortgaging his last field to pay for a new tractor he didn’t need. Ay, she’d seen them all, she had. Slipped upstairs with a few back in her barmaid days. Saved quite a little nest egg. Men? If they want it they’ll pay for it, so why give it to ’em free?

‘Charlie!’ Jesus, those bloody doctors should’ve patched her up better than this. Getting up was murder, even with her two sticks. That gelding was to blame; she’d told him so, too. ‘Charlie, take me drink into the garden, would you, love? It’s too stuffy in here. I’ve got me hot flushes coming on.’

The seats out in the pub garden at the back were a bit on the rough side, not as comfortable as in the bar, but she found one in the long shadow cast by a couple of apple trees and sank gratefully on to it. Charlie put her glass down on the shaky table beside her, and didn’t forget the bottle either. Through the open window came Harry’s loud voice arguing about delivery dates. She still couldn’t fathom why he’d chosen to come in here rather than the Red Lion.

She leaned back on the rough wooden seat humming some tune or other, she couldn’t put a name to it. Ten years old she must have been, she and Harry both. Back row of the class, sharing one of those double desks. She’d never forget that look of concentration on his face as he pretended to be interested in the blackboard while all the time his left hand was exploring her leg under that short frock she always wore. Pushed him away that morning, she had – she could no longer remember why – so he’d fumbled with his fly buttons till suddenly he had his thing out. She’d giggled. That was a hot day too, now she thought of it. ‘He’s come up for air,’ he’d whispered so loud, the whole class had heard him. ‘Can’t breathe in there.’ God yes, and she could remember Teacher’s words now, clear as yesterday. ‘Harry Smith – is that you
talking again? Stand up, boy! Stand
up
!’ And Harry stood up, stung into quick obedience by her tone of command, not thinking. They all saw him, turning around to stare at his bit o’ white meat. Of course they laughed, all but Teacher. ‘Kindly adjust your clothing and stand outside the door till I call you.’ Her very words.

It had brought everything back, seeing Harry again. After all, what was the harm? It was only a little boy’s prick he’d had then, nothing for the lady teacher to get excited about. A giggle, that’s all – and here she was, supping her Guinness, still remembering it.

Oh hell, that bloody leg was bothering her again. If it wasn’t aching, it was pins-and-needles, this time on the soft flesh above her stocking-top. She tried to scratch it through her skirt, but that only made it worse. A quick, sharp pain cut into her, causing her to swear. Involuntarily her foot jerked forward, kicking the table. Her glass fell, spilling the Guinness over her.

Another sharp bite, and this time she screamed in agony. It just went on and never seemed to end, chewing into her leg like a slow-turning drill. Then a second drill started up – on her left leg now not far from her crotch – and she realised dimly through that excruciating pain that it was not her usual trouble, not this time, but something quite different, as if sharp-toothed ferrets had got under her skirt. Twisting with pain, she fell off the bench, yelling and cursing with all her might as she thrashed about on the grass and tried desperately to end the torment.

It did ease momentarily, long enough for her to get a grip on herself. She pulled up her skirt, now bloodstained, and let out a shriek of terror. Two long, hairy green caterpillars were on her legs: one busily burrowing into her inner thigh which was now almost numb, its tail end shifting backwards and forwards as it fed; the other
gradually rippling upwards towards her groin, leaving a wet smear of blood behind it.

Her
blood.

But she saw everything in a paralysing slow motion. Get rid of them, her mind insisted urgently; you’ve only to reach out, take hold of them, fling them away: but she couldn’t. Her own dark blood was trickling over her skin, but she could do nothing. She stared as though hypnotised at that second caterpillar which had now almost reached its destination.

‘Help me!’ Her voice quavered weakly. ‘Help!’

The men were running towards her, she could hear them. They had been mentioning caterpillars earlier. Killed a boy, wasn’t that it? Killed someone? But they were too late. All too late. She almost welcomed that stab of pain in her groin when it came, knowing the sooner these green caterpillars had their way, the sooner it would all be over. On that tree above her, on those fresh young leaves, that’s where they were. She was screaming uncontrollably, she could hear herself, when one dropped down on her face, inserting itself into her wide open mouth.

‘Bloody hell!

Men bending over her: that had been so much part of her life, feeding the insatiable hunger between her legs. Her own private curse, even now when men no longer wanted her. Oh God she couldn’t breathe. She was choking. Dying. Was this it? Was this how it happened?

Let me breathe… please… oh let up for a moment, love, just so as I can breathe…

A hot knife burned in her throat, the most savage pain she’d known yet. No screams now though, however much she wanted to. Just that red-hot, jagged knife, and the drumming in her ears ever louder.

‘Get that bloody thing out of her mouth!’ Harry Smith
was roaring. He elbowed his way past, sending Charlie reeling against the overturned table. ‘Here, let me, for Chrissake!’

Charlie didn’t argue. Already dead, wasn’t she? Her body lay twisted unnaturally on the grass with fat green caterpillars – six at least – gorging themselves on her. Jesus, he thought he’d seen a few things in the army, but nothing like this. Turning away, he spewed his guts out over the bench where she’d been happily sitting only a couple of minutes ago.

‘All right, Lizzie,’ he could hear Harry Smith’s voice behind him. ‘It’s all right, love. I’ll get it. Easy does it now. You’re going to be all right.’

Was she hell, Charlie thought.

He looked back to find Harry Smith on his knees beside her, slowly drawing the caterpillar out of her mouth. There must have been a couple of inches down her throat at least, judging from the length of it. The cavalry twill slicker stood just behind him, watching with interest, obviously unmoved, though Harry Smith himself sounded unusually tender when he spoke. Not that Liz Kinley would ever hear him again.

‘Harry, she’s dead,’ Charlie tried to tell him as gently as he could.

‘Who says so?’ Harry Smith’s face, flushing even redder than normal, peered up at him angrily. ‘You go an’ ring the fuckin’ ambulance instead o’ standin’ there like a prick. I’ll give her mouth-to-mouth. Let’s hope to God it works.’

‘Be careful they don’t get you while you’re at it!’

In her agonising death throes, Liz had ended up directly beneath the old apple tree. As Harry Smith bent forward to try to revive her, something fell from one of the overhanging branches. It might have been a leaf, but then Charlie knew that leaves never plummet straight
down; nor, landing on the back of that red bull-neck, would a leaf have immediately uncurled and started crawling.

Charlie dashed forward to help him. ‘Come on, get it away from his neck!’ he yelled at the slicker who stood there looking on, uselessly.

The caterpillar began to chew into the soft patch beneath Harry Smith’s ear. He fell forward, bellowing in anguish. At the same time, more dropped out of the tree. Two of them joined the first, concentratedly penetrating his neck at the base of the skull.

For protection, Charlie wrapped his handkerchief round his fingers. Then he grabbed one of them, tugging it away from its feeding ground, intending to throw it aside; but it wound itself rapidly around his fingers and its head reared up like a snake’s.

He didn’t pause to discover what it might do next, but squeezed hard, digging his short fingernails into it through the handkerchief until its fat body burst under the pressure. A tacky green slime spread over his hand.

‘Urgh… A ca-ca-ca-…’

The cavalry twill slicker – a fertiliser salesman, wasn’t he? – reeled across the garden towards him, holding out his arm, terrified. At first Charlie thought the caterpillar on his wrist must be only a small one; then he realised the greater part of it had already moved into the sleeve of the man’s hacking jacket.

‘Ca-ca-caterpillar!’ he was burbling hysterically.

‘Oh, for Chrissake!’ Charlie snapped at him.

But it was no use; he had to help him. Charlie hesitated for only a second, uncertain what to do, before grasping the man’s forearm with both hands and squeezing hard. Despite the thick tweed of the jacket he could feel the caterpillar squirming as he tightened his grip. He’d always had strong hands – in the army he’d been heavyweight champion for a year – but it took all his strength to squash the thing to death. He sensed the squelch as its
resistance finally gave way.

‘Take your jacket off and wash your arm,’ he ordered wearily, giving the man a shove to get him moving. ‘Not inside, you fool. Use that tap over there by the shed.’

Harry Smith was dead, that was obvious. He lay sprawled across Liz Kinley’s body, his leg over hers, as though they had died together while making love on the grass. Which, in a strange, distorted way, they probably had. God alone knew how many caterpillars were still feeding on them. Charlie looked away, too sick to count them.

From beyond the trees came the steady, wasp-like drone of a light aircraft. Crop-spraying. That told him what he had to do, distasteful though it was.

But his wife Mary had the idea before him. She came hurrying out through the back door with those short steps of hers. In her hand she held the old-fashioned pesticide spray she always used.

‘I’ve phoned the constable, and there’s an ambulance on the way,’ she informed him briskly. She pushed the spray gun at him. ‘Here, you deal with that while I look after the customer. Must say you were a bit rough on him. He’s bleeding.’

‘Didn’t know you were back, love,’ he said automatically.

He felt so drained out by the shock of what had happened, he was more inclined to walk away from it all than do anything more. Over by the garden tap he could see the fertiliser salesman had collapsed; a patch of blood spread from his arm over the new cavalry twill. Jesus, the place looked worse than a battlefield.

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