"Certain Death for a Known Person"
(That Duffy is a skilled practitioner of prose fiction in both the UK and U.S. vernacular is one of the strengths of the genre today.)
The narrator of "Certain Death" recounts a holiday visit to the Headley family at their home, High Thornhays. He experiences an uncanny interaction one night while sleeping-off a drinking binge:
....It was night outside, but the fire in the grate was still in, banked down to a glowing bed of embers. That helped me realize where I was; that and the starlight, reflected off the snow outside and streaming through the still uncurtained windows. The room was dark but not inky black. You could make out shapes, and even a measure of detail; you could probably have found a book, but you wouldn't have been able to read it, not without turning on a light.
I wanted no light. I wanted only about another twelve hours or so of sleep, and the soothing hand of a beautiful woman on my brow, and possibly a cup of tea, if there was one going. I was thinking in an aimless way about getting back off again, when I realized I wasn't alone in the room.
Someone was sitting in one of the armchairs over by the windows. I could see a head, silhouetted against the gleam of the snowfields outside, but no features, none of the detail; the firelight was too low for that. I must have caught my breath in surprise, or grunted or something, because the figure raised a hand in silent acknowledgement.
Who was it? I assumed it was somebody else sleeping over for the night, one of the neighbors who'd maybe had one over the eight. Had I been introduced? Well, that was anyone's guess. I yawned and said, "All right?"
"Fine, thank you. Nice of you to ask." A man. I didn't recognise the voice—no, that's not it, exactly. I thought I did; I just couldn't put a name to it. He spoke a cultured RP English with just the slightest edge; that cool sardonic humor that comes with the assumption of unbounded and perpetual pre-eminence. The sort of voice that built the Empire, and left half the world wishing we'd stayed at home instead.
"What time is it?" I would have told him how I was, but he hadn't asked.
The other—the guest—shifted a little in his seat and glanced over his shoulder through the window. I still couldn't see his face, but I thought I saw a glint of something red as he turned his head. He may have been wearing glasses, and they may have caught the firelight. "It's very late. Or very early still, depending on which way you look at it."
Well, that was helpful. "Have you got a watch on?"
"I don't have any use for watches," admitted the guest, politely amused at the notion. "I'm always on time, you see, wherever I arrive." And modest with it. Clearly, a prince among men.
"No? Well, doesn't matter." I was quite prepared to leave it at that. I was very, very tired, remember, and a bit drunk still, I dare say; not in the mood for late-night conversation. I was settling back on the sofa, when the guest spoke again.
"Nice party." Not inflected one way or the other; an open-ended statement, or a polite enquiry.
"Yeah. Yeah, it was great." Had I said anything? Had I done anything? Spilled my drink over him? Come on to his wife? I couldn't remember.
"All the young people enjoying themselves." Again without discernible inflection. A pause, then: "You were certainly having a ball."
Oh Christ. I had done something. What?
"Talking to Emily, I mean." Friendly on the surface; but no further. Underneath that? You wouldn't want to look.
"They're great . . . all the girls." I so didn't want to be having this conversation. "Really nice family. Nice people."
"Yes, but Emily is your favorite, isn't she?"
Oh, no way. No way had I made it that obvious. "I wouldn't say—"
"That's because you think this is an ordinary conversation."
Could there be anything more calculated to make you throw your brakes on? In the end I just didn't know what else to say. "Isn't it?"
"No,' said the guest, so categorically that it seemed to leave no space for an answer. After a little while, during which time I'd almost decided that the whole thing was actually just an extremely weird dream, he resumed. "No, it isn't. Encounters such as this, they don't happen every day, you see, Mike."
That sounded ominous. Was it a sex thing? You heard about these posh people. Aloud I said, "Encounter?"
"Rendezvous. Rencontre. Whatever." He waved a hand, as if granting me the freedom to fill in the synonym of my choice. "You see, my role here tonight—my purpose—was primarily to observe. Nothing more for now. And then when I saw that we were both observing the same thing . . . Well, it seemed only polite to consult, so to speak. One aficionado to another."
Sometimes when he spoke there was the slightest pause before the noun, as if there were other names for everything—secret names some of them—and he had to be careful which names he used. Careful, because his choice would determine how much he might reveal of his true intent—of his true nature, maybe.
"What do you mean?" It was hypnotic, the dance of the language, but treacherous as well. A snake will dance and weave before it strikes.
The guest sighed, and leaned forwards. Clasping his hands, he rested the point of his chin on the extended tips of his index fingers. Still his face was indistinguishable in the dark. "The matter of Emily," he said, and a shudder passed through the room, passed all the way through me. I swear it did.
"Little Emily." Savoring the words. "So special—but you saw that straight away, didn't you? I noticed you noticing. Such a lovely girl. So . . . vivacious."
I wanted to stop him right there, before he went any further. Our parents' generation had a phrase—it sounds absurdly dated now, but it expressed exactly what I felt—I don't like the tone of your voice. But he was speaking still:
"Vivacious. I wonder, is that exactly the word I was looking for—I mean, in terms of its etymology? Ah, though, I was forgetting: I doubt that sort of thing is covered in college any more. Lively, tenacious of life; long lived." He tutted, like a Sunday painter who'd selected the wrong color. "What do you think?"
"I know what vivacious means," I said sullenly. I wished I knew the word that would get him to piss off, though politely.
"But is it appropriate to the matter at hand? Is it apposite? Is it correct?" With that last word, a hard flinty quality came into his speech: the k sounds practically knapped sparks off the edges of the air.
"Eh? What are you getting at?" For the first time since my arrival at High Thornhays I was on the defensive. Old habits born of inadequacy coming to the fore: truculence, sullenness . . . and just the beginnings of fear. The man with no face there in the armchair: I was already afraid of him. Not nearly as afraid as I ought to have been, not yet. But soon; very soon.
Already I had that sick black-hole sensation of sliding towards something awful, the kind of feeling we associate only with bad dreams, because we're conditioned to believe that such things never happen in real life. Then why do they seem so familiar in our dreams? And why did I feel as though I knew this man, when I'd never to the best of my recollection met him? Why could I already sense what he was going to say, when I asked him "What do you mean?"
"I mean, she looks healthy enough," began the guest; and there it was. It was that odd dreamy foreknowledge of his answer that made me panic, as much as what he said. "She looks healthy enough, I grant you that. But how could you know, just from looking? How could you possibly be sure?" He spread his hands wide. "How could you know what's inside?" The word fell very heavily in the darkened room. Absurd as it sounds, I was already thinking, Yes, exactly, how can you know?
"I mean, what about leukemia?" said the guest, pronouncing that tricky first syllable to a nicety. "Hyperplasic transformation of leucopoietic tissue. Half of all cancers in teenage children. Or meningitis: presents as a headache and irritability. Well." He tittered. "Irritability, in teenagers? How could you even guess, until it was far too late? So many forms; so many causes. Viruses, fungi, bacteria, carcinomas . . . " A languid flourish of his hand, sketching out a process of infinite regression.
"Carcinomas? What do you mean?" There was a tremor in my voice I didn't like. "Nobody's got cancer."
"Ah, well, cancer." He might have been describing an old bad penny of a friend, a mischievous roué impossible to dislike. "I suppose there's always that moment, isn't there, when the first cell divides in a slightly different way? And you don't know it, but inside you something is already changing—the traitor cell, the Judas tissue? And it starts like that—at the snap of a finger." A dry clicking of cold bones.
"Cancer. Limbs of the crab. And there are so many places it can hide. Have you ever stopped to consider this? The body is infinitely tolerant in this respect, Mike, infinitely welcoming. All the major organs, of course—but the big toe? The humble hallux, this-little-piggy-went-to-market? Cancer in your big toe? Look it up in the textbooks. And while you're there, try cancer of the rectum. Cancer of the womb. Cancer of the tongue—even cancer of the eyeball. Imagine that, Mike!"
How could I not? I wonder: did he know that anything to do with eyes terrified me, ever since that playground fight when I'd nearly lost the sight in my right eye? I think he probably did. I don't think there was much he didn't know. He wanted me terrified, you see. He wanted me to panic. And there was no stopping him, he was off again.
"Or the neurodegenerative diseases! It's a list as long as your arm, all the Herr Doktors jostling for immortality in the medical texts. Sandhoff, Spielmeyer, Kreutzfeld-Jakob, Pelizaeus-Merzbacher, Schilder and Pick. Body dementia. Corticobasal degeneration. Spinocerebellar ataxia. All of it lying in wait as you grow old, and you never know. Neurons deteriorating, connections broken all across the cortex, until all of a sudden you're sitting in the day ward in incontinence pants, crying because you've dropped your sippy-cup. It could happen to anyone. To Emily, even—why not?"
The menacing encounter fades. As the years pass, the narrator is able to overcome the emotional trauma.
Until the day, on a bus on the way to meet his wife for her obstetrics appointment, the black portentous wave of that voice rises again to swamp him.
30 November 2019