THE RAT KING

Deep down, in the dark dank bowels of the vessel, where the drone of engines throbbed like an everlasting headache; where the lap of waves rang sonorous against the metallic hull; where seawater seeped and trickled through red-rusted fissures: there lived the rats. Feeding upon the scraps thrown them by the blind idiot god of commerce, they thrived in rank, briny blackness; unheeding of the world as it washed past their iron walls. They fed, they fought, they fornicated; they lived and they died. Above all they waited, for the opportunity they instinctively knew would come.

And then one day, in a cramped, stinking corner faintly luminescent with waste oil, in a nest of shredded rope and mouldering rags, a special litter was birthed. As they grew they struggled for food and air, trampling each others tails, twisting and biting, fighting for unattainable supremacy. Limbs became irrevocably hooked in fur; broken tails became tangled; open sores and wounds were pressed together and healed, fusing bodies. Eventually, the litter became one linked, writhing, helpless mass: the Rat King was born. It was a sign, the other rats knew - a sign of imminent destiny.

Lord Howe Island, 1918

The MV Mokamba planed diligently through the brittle blue Pacific, its exhaust the faintest pencil mark in an empty sky. Her decks were deserted, save for a solitary female figure in an expensive white dress, leaning against the rail and staring out at all the nothing there was to see. Her name, officially, was Mrs Herbert Carreway, but professionally and in her own mind she remained Jane Benoit. She was on her honeymoon. So far, it had lasted four years.

Jane was a strikingly beautiful woman, which would explain several things. She had a complexion of lightly-rouged porcelain; pronounced cheekbones; a softly rounded chin and dainty little nose. Her lips were slender, but just full enough to be noticed. Marble-blue eyes looked out knowingly from beneath rich brows that rose like an auburn brushfire, and her shoulder-length hair - waved and curled but never riotous - glinted old gold amid umber as it sifted on the breeze. If sophistication could truly

be a look, then that look was Jane; an impression she bulleted by wedging a cigarette in the corner of her mouth and lighting it with a casual ease that bordered on disdain. Presently she was joined by a be-suited man whose dapper outlook and perfectly waxed moustache would seem a perfect complement to her affluent allure - this, of course, was her husband.

“Youre up and about early,” he said. “Anything the matter?”

“I appear to have lost something,” she answered slowly, exhaling an eddy of cream vapour and not looking at him. “Its a rather large continent: goes by the name of Australia, I believe.”

He chuckled. “Youll see it soon enough, Darling - two day, tops. I promise.”

“Two days?” she groaned. “I cant stand it, not knowing whats going on. You do realise, the War could have already been won while weve been out here on this… tub.”

“I thought you liked cruising,” the man shrugged, drumming his fingers on the rail.

“I do, Darling, but only when Im on an actual liner, carrying other actual passengers; not some festering freighter with just you and a couple dozen Neanderthals.”

“Just think of it as another extension to our honeymoon,” said the man, breezily. Jane rolled her eyes, as theatrically and laboriously as the heavens in transit.

“God, Herbert, how long can you spin that tale? For four years weve been idly gallivanting around the most obscure backwaters of the globe: in that same four years Western Europe has come close to immolating itself. Do you not think it looks like were avoiding something?”

“My work is important,” stated Herbert firmly, tetchiness beginning to creep into his voice. “I know you dont believe it, but I do what I can for the war effort. Thats why this boat is headed for

Australia, and why were on board - this cargo is vital and I intend to see it personally to its destination.”

With a snort and a single raised eyebrow Jane dismissed his speech as utter tosh. Herbert shrugged slowly and deeply, sucking in the fresh morning air.

“All right - whats the matter?”

“I want to be home,” Jane said quietly. “I want to be back in Europe. I dont care where we go - London, Paris, wherever. I want to be back with our people.”

Your people, you mean: your precious picture people. You just want to make sure you still have your so-called movie career. God, you accuse me of being selfish…”

“Cinema matters, Darling,” she protested, “And its going to matter more after this. The last paper we saw, I read a piece on Gotha airplanes bombing London - it was just like The Aerial Anarchists. Dont you see, Booth had already shown them how it would be - only cinema could do that, because its more than an art form: cinema is life itself.”

“Except in terms of the sound it makes, my dear, which in your case is a good thing: audiences might find you highly decorative to look at onscreen, but I doubt theyd long tolerate the pompous whine of your voice. Anyway, Im going to breakfast - coming?”

“If its that bloody fish again Ill pass, thanks.”

“Suit yourself.” And with that he was off along the deck, whistling. With sudden Jane stubbed out her cigarette on the rail, flicking the butt out into the ocean.

*

That afternoon, in the cramped but comfortable surroundings of their cabin, they copulated. This was Janes term for it - as far as Herbert was concerned they were making love, but to Jane it was always copulating. It was their joint contribution to the war effort: Herbert felt that, having lost a generation, it behooved all Englishmen and women to set about replacing it as soon as possible. Unfortunately, his own energetic efforts in this regard had yet to bear fruit.

Jane, who had from experience learned precisely how to position her back, shoulders and hips to minimise the discomfort, gazed beyond her husbands profusely sweating brow to watch the absurdly large ceiling-fan conduct its slow revolutions. It reminded her of reels on a projector, and a sense of unbearable loss filled her. She could not stay young and gorgeous much longer, and there would be no place for her in films once she ceased to be so. When Herbert noisily reached his moment of discharge he closed her eyes, he no doubt thinking it was in ecstasy, but in truth it was to stop tears spilling free.

Afterwards, invariably, came their most tender moments, leisurely smoking.

“Herbert, why did you marry me?” Jane asked. The answer seemed inordinately slow in coming.

“When I saw you that first time in The Airship Destroyer - youd have been, what, nineteen? - I thought you were the most beautiful creature on Earth. I actually felt jealous when that inventor chap married you in the film, even though you were both just projected images. I thought I could never woo somebody like you, but then I thought, Im one of the richest men in England - why shouldnt I?”

“So, it was primarily a business decision?”

“Mutually beneficial, Darling, like all the best deals. Dont forget how many funds Ive sunk into your precious Kineto Company. And who brokered your participation in that dreadful One Hundred Years After? Thankfully, theres one cinematic prediction that will never come true.”

“You dont think women will ever rule the World?”

“Ludicrous notion,” Hebert chuckled. “Just think of the chaos. Name one thing that could have been improved, if females were in charge…”

“This war,” said Jane, slowly and precisely, “would never have happened…”

Herbert snorted, and turned over. Jane grinned to herself, lingeringly exhaling a curling pillar of smoke. She had paid him back for this morning: for the moment, they were even.

*

Insomniac, Jane went wandering in the night. Up on deck, a few of the crew huddled concernedly at the bow. She followed their indications and saw that ahead, the stars were being swallowed by an ugly mass of cloud darker than the sky itself. Distant fingers of lightning raked the ocean, revealing water that seemed to be on the point of boiling. Already the breeze had an icy, malicious feel to it. The men advised her gravely to return to her quarters, and stay there - this one would be rough.

Rough was definitely the word. Within the hour, the vessel was pitching wildly in a monstrous sea, artifacts and furniture hurtling crazily about the cabin. Walking, even standing became impossible, and the happy couple was reduced to crawling on the floor: that is, when they were not projectile-vomiting into a large bucket. At one point, ravening for fresh air, Herbert heroically hauled himself upright long enough to open a porthole - all this accomplished was a surging inrush of freezing rain and salt-spray that soaked half the bed. Jayne was lying on the wet mattress in a stomach-churning delirium, imagining that things could not possibly get worse, when a crewman staggered to their door clutching a pair of lifejackets, and roared something incomprehensible about procedures for abandoning ship. Herbert reacted with the scalding fury that always met any threat to his business, and stormed out with the unfortunate emissary for an explosive consultation on the bridge. In the meantime, Jane rested her head on the side of the bucket and thought how romantic it was to be a merchants wife…

Next she knew, she was lying on the floor with one of her own suitcases wedged between her thighs

as though in the act of mounting her. The bucket had upturned, and a thin, viscous stream of vomit was crawling past her cheek - for several moments she was entertained trying to identify food items in the flow, and then she realised that she ship was still. Still, and very silent. The constant, throbbing vibration of the engines had ceased, and it was as if the vessel had died. She got slowly to her feet, blundering across the spontaneous obstacle course that had formed inside the cabin. In her mouth was a taste of flaming acid, and her stomach felt as if someone had been using it as a trampoline for several hours.

She emerged on deck into blazing sunlight, which dazzled and surprised her. She glimpsed her husband and some of the crew gathered disconsolately by the rail. The deck was strangely inclined, and there was no sense of movement at all. Glancing up to get her bearings, Jane finally noticed the island, rolling up before her like some great, forest-garlanded cathedral, its twin towers thrust mightily towards the sky. She crossed awkwardly to the rail, and looked over the side: nothing but rock-strewn sand; no water there. She flowed easily into Herberts arms - his suit had been shredded by the storm, and he was covered head-to-foot in blooms of slat like snowflakes.

“Darling,” she breathed, “Youre alright? What happened?”

“Storm took out the compass, and then part of the rudder broke off, we think. Weve been drifting helplessly for nigh on eight hours, no clue where we are. The lads and I have been working like Trojans just to keep the load dry and secure - its been a devil of a night.”

HULLO!” called a distant voice. As one they shot to the boat‘s stern, peering down. Far below on the sand stood a kindly-looking, greying gent with glasses and a pipe, dressed more like a Blackpoll day tripper than Robinson Crusoe.

“Im Doctor Romer Grundy,” he shouted up to them. “On behalf of Lord Howe Island, Id just like to say, welcome to Neds Beach…”

*

A while later Herbert, Jane and a selection of senior crewmen comprised a landing party: they climbed into a lifeboat, which was laboriously swung out and lowered to the sand, then climbed out again. By the time this operation was complete, the doctor had been joined by a knot of curious onlookers. Jane surreptitiously checked her reflection in a compact - an audience, no matter how small, was still an audience, and she needed to look her best.

Dr Grundy shook hands with them all, volubly.

“Welcome, welcome. I apologise for the paucity of this reception - such an historic occasion deserved something more formal.”

“Historic?” quizzed Herbert. “What do you mean?”

“Your ship - Mokamba, is it? - is the first one ever to be beached here on Lord Howe. Normally we insist on ships berthing offshore, for quarantine purposes. In the hundred-year history of the colony, today is unprecedented.”

He led them off the beach to the main settlement, a grid ironed agglomeration of sturdy lodges, including a church. At some point during the brief tour their party separated: the crewmen were swept up with a group of local worthies; Herbert and Jane remained the good doctors company.

“And this is my humble abode,” he said jovially, indicating what was in fact one of the most impressive structures: a low, verandah-bedecked sprawl with commanding oceanic views. By its entrance hovered a slight, pale figure.

“Mr and Mrs Carreway, allow me to present my ward, my companion, my de facto granddaughter: Miss Melina Merritt.”

Jane perused the shy creature with clinical detachment. Though fully developed, she had a very young, girlish air. With a faint stab of professional envy Jane realised that this was a girl who would look exceedingly fine in movies: she had big brown eyes that radiated sweetness and vulnerability; long, soft brows like wings rendered in brush-stroke; a pert little nose and a small but perfectly arched coral mouth. Her chin was daintily pointed, her cheeks were burnished satin, and the whole was framed by a riot of golden curls splashing down about her shoulders. Some granddaughter, Jane thought.

Over a hastily-compiled repast of exotic fruits and shellfish, the doctor filled in some details. The girl said nothing, and every time Jane caught her eyes - with what she hoped was a not-too patronising smile - she glanced away like a frightened fawn.

“Melinas been in my care for fifteen years now. When she was only four we had a typhoid outbreak, and sadly it carried away her parents as well as my own dear wife - from that point on, for better or worse, we were thrown together. But I dont think Ive made too bad a job of raising you, eh Girl?”

He ruffled her hair affectionately, and she smiled insipidly up at him.

“Doctor,” said Herbert gravely, “Do you think well be able to re-float the ship?”

“Ah well, thats a very good question. It was a freak combination of the storm and an exceptionally high tide thats brought you here in the first place. The next big tide wont be for a least a week, and even them youll need favourable conditions…”

“A week?” Jane blurted. “You mean were going to be stuck here for seven days?”

“Darling, calm down,” hissed Herbert.

“Calm down? It was bad enough being cooped up on that rust bucket while it was moving - are you expecting me to live on it now its sat like the bloody leaning tower of Pisa?”

“Theres no question of you staying on the ship,” the doctor broke in pleasantly. “I have room to spare, and Melina and I would be honoured to have guests. Stay with us, as long as you need.”

*

That evening Jane retired early, as the men folk lapsed into an earnest discussion on the relative merits of shipping lanes. Any hope that the girl might prove diverting company were soon dashed: on the rare occasions she was present, she merely hovered in her guardians shadow like some decorative insect.

Jane dozed fitfully in the unfamiliar but comfortable bed, and was roused to full wakefulness when Herbert at last joined her, though she pretended otherwise. He had lain stiffly beside her for several minutes before she felt his hand reach for her under the covers.

“You must be joking,” she whispered fiercely.

“But Darling,” he pleaded, “We must keep up our average. If were ever going to conceive…”

“Not here. Were in a strange bed, in a strange house, with strange people. Just forget about it, Herbert.”

He desisted, grumpily rolling over, and very soon was asleep. Jane lay in stifling darkness for as long as she could bear, then got up. Slipping a borrowed robe about her shoulders, she crept out onto the verandah. In the distance the ocean sighed sweetly, teasingly; the overhanging panoply of stars reflected glitteringly upon its surface. Jane lit a cigarette, and only then realised she wasnt alone - she started so violently it seemed as though her feet left the ground.

“Im sorry,” said the girl, Melina. “I didnt mean to startle you.” She seemed to shimmer out the starlight itself, pale and unexpectedly fetching in an out-of-style but nonetheless elegant combination.

“Its alright,” Jane replied, taking a long drag and waiting for her heart to slow down. “I didnt expect anyone else to still be up.” Her sense of manners asserted itself, and she opened her cigarette case, meaning to offer one. To her chagrin, it was empty.

“I like to sit out her at night,” said the girl, dreamily. Her voice had a sing-song quality, like a well-played clarinet. “I like to watch the ocean.”

“Its certainly very peaceful. Hard to believe that somewhere out there the Wars still going on.”

“War? What war?”

Jane stared at her for several moments, the faintly glowing cigarette dangling limply from her lips.

The war, my dear. The one thats taken Europes finest; thats seemed to drag on for a blood-soaked eternity. That war.”

Melinas eyes shimmered uncomprehendingly in the night. Jane sighed, exhaling a perfect ring.

“Well, perhaps your so-called grandfather might deign to tell you about it, sometime.”

“Are you really an actress?” asked Melina earnestly.

“Assuming Im still remembered when I finally get back to England, yes: I am the Kineto studios leading lady. I featured in all three of Walter Booths aviation films - if youve seen The Aerial Torpedo, I was the Pirate Queen. And for Pathe I made One Hundred Years After, may God forgive me.”

“Ive never seen a moving picture,” said the girl, matter-of-factly. Jane ejaculated a harsh and bitter laugh, forcefully stubbing out her smoke.

“Well, my dear, this has been a most enlightening conversation - I look forward to spending a lot more time with you in the days ahead.”

Swishing her robe theatrically, she re-entered the lodge. Snuggled back into bed beside her husband, she felt a wave of tenderness for Herbert that surprised her. For all their verbal sparring, he was still the kindest, most handsome man shed ever met. He turned over, and kissed her softly. His hands reached for her, and she felt his nascent erection brush her leg. She rolled on her back, no longer caring what the others might think. As Herbert entered her she winced slightly in discomfort, then let her mind run free in search of distraction. It sifted the strange characters and events of this extraordinary day, until it fixed, quite unexpectedly, on the image of that peculiar girl. There she stood on the verandah, wide-eyed and empty-headed; the combination clinging to her dainty curves; bare arms and knees glinting pale in the night.

Jane felt a warm tingling spreading out from the pit of her stomach. Suddenly she no longer felt her routine discomfort: instead a definite, bubbling excitement built within her. Hebert stopped thrusting immediately.

“Darling, are you all right?” he whispered concernedly.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, youre making an awful lot of noise…”

“Oh, that. Its nothing, my love. Please dont stop.”

He resumed his rhythmic invasion, each push as precise as the ticks of a pocket watch. Jane closed

her eyes, summoning up the girls image once more: she was doing nothing. save for standing there in her underwear, mouthing vacuities, but it was enough. Jane did not question it: instead she drew her legs up to pull her husband deeper, and surrendered to the pressure within. She heard Herberts ragged gasps, and knew he would soon lose control: clawing his back in encouragement, she felt uncontrollable tremors pass through her being, and realised with an almost religious awe what was happening. They climaxed more or less together, in a crescendo of torrid moans, then collapsed into each others arms in sweaty enervation.

Once her breathing had subsided, Jane automatically reached for her cigarette case, remembering only at the last instant.

“Darling,” she whispered, “Can you lend me a gasper? Im fresh out…”

“Sorry, Love, no can do. The last of my stash got totalled in the storm. I wonder if theres any on the island?”

“I doubt it - theyve never heard of bloody cinema, why they have heard of cigarettes?”

They giggled, snuggling deeper into the pillows.

“I love you, Mrs Carreway,” he said gently.

“I love you, Mr Carreway,” she replied, and right then and there she meant it, more than she had for many months.

*

Herbert awoke early, but not early enough to beat the doctor. Breakfast was already in motion as the pink sun broke free of the horizon.

“Morning,” said Grundy, a twinkle in his eye. “I guess its safe to assume you had a pleasant night.”

Herbert felt the colour rise in his cheek.

“Ah, yes - sorry about that. I hope we didnt disturb you.”

“Not at all, my friend. I think its a healthy and life-affirming thing that a young couple should freely express their love.”

“Yes, well - actually, we are trying for a baby, and I suppose weve become used to taking our opportunities as and when. I just feel that, with the War and everything, we ought to be getting on with it.”

“Ah, and how are things in Europe? Im afraid we get so little news, stuck out here. I havent even told Melina whats happening, partly because I dont want to frighten her, but mainly because I dont really know myself whats going on.”

“Its been bad,” said Herbert grimly. “In fact, its been bloody terrible. But were getting there - the Boche is on the run, and victory will be ours, sooner or later. Were going to beat Germany so badly, shell never even think of waging another war.”

There was a silence, in which the doctor regarded him carefully.

“This baby of yours - how long have you been trying, may I ask?”

Herbert swallowed hard, wondering if it would be better to fib about his most embarrassing secret. He felt the doctors clear eyes upon him, and knew lying would be useless.

“Years,” he said softly. “Almost three years now…”

“I suspected as much. Have you considered that there may be a medical problem?”

“Ive never really thought about it. I just assumed, well…” he trailed off, miserably.

“I realise this is an embarrassing subject, and Im not for one moment suggesting theres anything amiss with yourself - certainly, if your performance last night is anything to go by. Its just that, well, your wife gives the impression of maybe having unresolved issues: if you were willing, I could examine her…”

“You are an expert in such matters?” asked Herbert, feeling he really ought to stick up for his spouse.

“Not by training, although I am a qualified physician. Its just that here, with such a small population, we have to be very sensitive to matters of fertility and reproduction; who can mate with whom. I suppose down the years Ive developed a certain sensitivity to these things. I mean no insult.”

“None taken,” Carreway said, nonetheless standing up a little too quickly. “Thank you for the offer, Doctor - Ill think about it. But for now, Id better check on the ship; see how the repairs are going.”

“Ill walk down with you,” Grundy replied jovially. “Its a fine morning for a stroll.”

Jane awoke by degrees, unwilling to leave the Land of Dreams. Her skin felt warm and sticky, and she still throbbed pleasantly down below. She rolled over drowsily, and saw the girl stood by her bed. She gasped, yanking the blanket over herself.

“Im sorry,” said Melina, again. “I wasnt sure if you were awake yet. I brought you some

breakfast.”

She set a tray loaded with fruit down on the bedside table, while Jane peeked warily from beneath the sheets. In truth, she wasnt sure which was more embarrassing: that this girl should have glimpsed her naked, or that this girl was somehow the means by which shed achieved her first orgasm in years.

“Thank you,” she croaked.

“Your husbands gone to check on the ship,” Melina continued. “Uncle Romer went with him. I wondered if youd like to take a walk around the island. With me, I mean.”

Jane lifted her head.

“Is there actually anything to see?” she asked.

“Not really, no,” Melina replied, with an absolutely straight face. Jane laughed in spite of herself.

“Sounds wonderful - give me ten minutes…”

*

Away from shore, the land rose rapidly. Jane found herself wheezing as she climbed, and cursed her lack of cigarettes. The girl walked ahead easily, daintily, as formal paths dissipated into scrubby trails. From strange-looking trees came the massed trilling of songbirds.

“What about the wildlife?” Jane was asking, for the sake of something to say. “Dont these islands all have exotic creatures living on them?”

“Weve only got birds,” Melina answered flatly. Her conversation was staccato and hard to sustain.

“Alright then, what about the birds? Anything exotic there?”

“Not anymore. There were parrots when the Colony was set up, but no ones seen any for fifty years. And there was a big white thing called a Gallinule, but Uncle isnt sure if that was just a myth.”

“So is there anything at all of interest on this rotten island?” Jane demanded in exasperation. In response Melina stopped dead, indicating a small bird perched on a branch ahead of them. Brown-backed, with a pale rufous breast, Jane might have mistaken it for a robin, were it not for its curiously wide, elliptical tail. Like a robin, it seemed to show great interest in them.

“Fantail,” said Melina, as if that explained everything. As they pressed on, she pointed out other elements of Lord Howes less-than-spectacular avifauna: a small flock of starlings, jabbering noisily like starlings everywhere, unremarkable save for their deep grey colouring and bright orange eyes; a blackbird, that was black only on its wings and tail, and was otherwise as uninspired russet as the Fantail; a tiny flycatcher, that they would have missed completely had it not chosen to sing melodiously at their passing. It too was a pale brick colour, darker only at the wings and tail. Jane began to wonder if there was conceivably a duller corner of nature in the World.

They broke above the tree line, so at least there was now a view. The settlement and its adjoining stabs at agriculture loomed below them, looking strangely out-of-place, like bite marks on a virgin apple. On the pale beach the Mokamba sat, a discarded toy, while all around the blue Pacific pulsed, studded here and there with bleak-looking, rocky islets, and the pale shadows of reefs like sunken gardens. Deprived of smoke, Janes chest seemed to be trying to excavate itself - she hacked up a wad of salty phlegm, gobbing it as discreetly as she could into her handkerchief.

“Whats it like, being married?” Melina asked suddenly. Jane was taken aback.

“Well, its - its like this place, I suppose. Very secure, but somewhat uninteresting with it.”

“I cant wait to be married,” murmured the girl, dreamily. Jane was becoming used to her witticisms whistling high over that dewy-eyed head.

“Well, I cant imagine youll have a long wait, my dear: assuming there are any eligible bachelors on this island, I expect theyre queuing up for a pretty thing like you.”

“I wouldnt know about that. Theyd have to apply to Uncle first, so that he could test them.”

Jane gave Melina a protracted, sidelong look, forcing her for once to extemporise.

“Uncle has to examine prospective couples, to make sure theyre compatible. He says the colony is so small, we have to prevent inbreeding. Hell choose the man I marry, so our children turn out alright?”

“And does he have anyone in mind right now?”

“I think he may have, but Im not sure.” She looked down at the ground, fidgeting. “Mrs Carreway, I know you dont like me, and I know you think Im stupid, but… could I ask you a favour?”

“Darling, it goes against all my better judgements, but I do like you, and I think everyone is stupid, so ask away.”

“Could you teach me about marriage - what it entails, what I have to do? I dont want to make a fool of myself when Uncle finds my soul-mate.”

Her look was one of utter, all-consuming earnestness: it made Jane smile, quite without malice.

Gently she slid her arm through Melinas.

“My dear, I have wedded once in real life, and half-a-dozen times onscreen, so I suppose I can be considered an expert, of sorts. I would be pleased to have you as my protégée.”

*

In the afternoon, Jane wandered out to the Mokamba. Herbert was standing on Neds Beach, with a couple of salvaged suitcases at his side and a cardboard box under his arm.

“Hello, Darling,” he said. “Im afraid these are all the clothes weve got left.”

“Theyll do. Hows the ship coming along?”

“The lads have been down below, pumping out the bilge and making a few spot repairs. When the next high tide comes, well be ready. How was your morning?”

“Surprisingly pleasant, actually - I went exploring with the mysterious Melina.”

“Really?” Herbert raised an eyebrow. “You do realise the girl is a little bit touched? Dr Grundy thinks she may be a product of inbreeding…”

“The good doctor seems to have a thing about that - all I can tell you is shes bloody sharp on the native birdlife, practically an expert. Anyway, are you going to tell me whats in that box?”

“Oh, this is something the boys found, down in the bowels - I thought Grundy might be interested. Mind you, its not for the squeamish.”

“Herbert,” said Jane, with a sigh, “Ive seen you naked - dyou think anything can shock me now?”

He chuckled, and lifted the lid. Inside, arranged in a crude circle, were perhaps a dozen drowned

rats. Their tails seemed to have been woven together, and their limbs and bodies were almost fused, so that it was hard to tell at a glance where one individual ended and another began. Jane stifled a wave of nausea.

“My god, whatever is it?”

“They call it a Rat King - sometimes, when a litter of rats is born in a confined area, they get all tangled up as they grow, and then they cant move, cant leave the nest. These poor blighters might have been living in the hold for months, but when we took on all that water in the storm, their luck ran out.”

“Well, its nice to know we shared our ship with such charming fellow passengers. Any more of them down there?”

“Actually, very few. We think they mustve followed the old adage, and abandoned the sinking ship.”

“Theres just one problem with that idea, Herbert.” She met his quizzical gaze with a cool stare. “The ship didnt sink - it fetched up right here…”

*

Jane wanted sex that night. In bed she pawed at Herbert, stroking his back and chest, hooking one leg suggestively across him. He rebuffed her advances with the aplomb of an uptight vicar.

“Id rather we didnt, Darling - not tonight.”

“What do you mean, not tonight? What about our precious bloody average?”

“I think we may have been barking up the wrong tree with that. You see, if theres a deep-seated problem, it wont matter how many times we… Well, Dr Grundy said…”

“Grundy? You spoke to him about our personal life?” Jane was mortified.

“He is a doctor, Dear - a man of science. He suggested it might be a good idea if he examined you, just in case.”

“I hope you told him to keep his grubby hands to himself.”

Herbert lay on his back, studying the ceiling intently. He took some time to reply.

“Well actually, Ive thought about it, and I think you should let him.”

For almost a minute, Jane became one of her films - essentially speechless. Then she flung herself deep into the covers as if trying to burrow an escape tunnel. In the arctic silence that ensued, she could sense Herbert trying to formulate conciliatory words, but his diplomacy was nowhere good enough. He gave up, turning over and feigning deep sleep. Jane seethed for what seemed a long while, then flounced from the bed with gritted teeth and aching throat. She fervently hoped Melina would be sat on the verandah, but she was not. Jane stared out into the cool night, craving for a smoke. Pale lights from the stranded ship winked mockingly at her, and she felt unutterably alone. At length she stood up straight, sniffed, and forced herself not to cry. She waited until gooseflesh bloomed upon her arms and legs, then retreated back to bed, where Herbert was snoring peacefully. Her own sleep was fitful, and plagued by troubling, ephemeral dreams.

*

Dr Grundy lowered the blinds with all due solemnity. His large table had been cleared, and liberally scrubbed with spirit. Jane, her nightdress hitched in voluminous folds up around her stomach,

lay down upon the hard surface with as much elegance as she could muster. Gently but firmly the doctor took her ankles, lifting and parting them until she had assumed the required pose.

“Thats a good girl,” he said, with the unconscious patronising of the professional medic. “Just stay like that, and try to relax. There may be a little discomfort.”

His cold fingers felt huge as they invaded her bone-dry intimacy. There was pain, but this was nothing to the sense of being violated, laid bare to the world. Despite her efforts to be brave, her eyes filled with water that seeped in slow rivulets from their corners, eventually to mingle with her hair. He probed and prodded, stretching her, and she mewled faintly in anguish. It seemed to drag on for a long while, but at last he withdrew - by then her pudenda were so numb it was as if theyd been amputated.

“There: that wasnt so bad, was it?” said Grundy, heading for the washbasin. “I shall have to have a little chat with your husband, and well see where we go from there. Youre free to leave.”

Jane struggled to dress herself, as her hands were trembling violently. She dried her eyes, repaired her complexion, and emerged blinking into the fresh, sunny morning. To her surprise, Melina was waiting for her.

“Hullo,” she said cheerily. “I thought we could go walking again, and you could give me my first lesson.”

Too worn down to protest, too stunned to deploy her sardonic humour, Jane followed the girl mutely as they retraced the previous days route. Up in the trees the birds still twittered merrily, though it seemed to Jane their chorus was not so intense - or perhaps her shame made her partially deaf. At least the Fantail was still there - it fluttered ahead of them for perhaps fifty yards, then darted into the branches. A sudden burst of melody, and it was gone.

“Well?” said Melina, after theyd left the settlement behind.

“Well what?”

“Whats my first lesson? Youre going to teach me about marriage, remember?”

“Oh, that. Look, dear, I dont think this is a very good time. To be honest, Im not sure I can really tell you anything.”

Melinas face fell. “I knew you didnt really like me,” she murmured.

“Oh, Melina, its not that. Its just…” Jane shrugged helplessly. “Oh, never mind: a promise is a promise, I suppose. All right - what in particular did you want to know?”

“How do you kiss?” asked the girl, slowly and with monumental earnestness. In spite of everything, Jane threw back her head and whooped with laughter.

“Oh lord, you are a wonder, my girl,” she exclaimed. Then, collecting herself, she stepped up close to her companion, asking, “Do you really want to know?”

Melina nodded, her big eyes resolute. Jane very gently lifted a hand to the girls chin, tilting her face upwards, and put her lips to that perfect little mouth. It was intended as a joke, a throwaway gesture; but in that moment, something was changed irrevocably. Janes mind flashed back to her childhood, to a memory still vivid even though time had shorn it of any precise context. She was illicitly dipping her finger into a bowl of cake mixture, savouring the raw, untrammelled sweetness. Once started, even though she risked a severe scolding, she had been unable to stop. She felt like that now: filled with the strangely unsettling excitement of pleasure tinged with risk.

Melinas mouth was warm, and softly yielding. It had no definable taste, like spring water on a hot day, yet was just as fulfilling. After the initial brush of lips, Jane could only repeat the gesture with growing intensity, moulding her mouth in elliptical patterns, relishing the dry resistance that yielded

slowly to a lusciously moist fusion. She put her arms around Melinas shoulders and pulled her close: it felt so natural, a perfect fit. She closed her eyes, kissing, kissing; surprised only that Melina offered no resistance. There seemed no reason whatsoever to break the clinch, but eventually she did.

“There,” she said tremulously, with a heavy exhalation, “Its something like that.”

Jane could feel her cheeks flushing; sweat beading upon her forehead. Her blue eyes bored into Melinas brown, and it felt as if time had come to a stop. And then, a burst of the most mellifluous, sibilant birdsong Jane had ever heard broke the spell. Melina glanced to her left, and gestured. Following her lead, Janes eyes alighted on a nearby branch, where perched the most extraordinary bird she had ever seen. In size, shape and colouring it resembled a Goldcrest, but it was something else entirely. Its head, back, wings and tail were a dazzling, iridescent lime green, while its throat was a perfect canary yellow, and further contrasted by a snowy white breast. But even this dramatic colouration was exceeded by the creatures strikingly large eyes, the pupils like black pearls in wide orbits of milky white.

“Its a White Eye,” whispered Melina, and it seemed to Jane a most inadequate designation. “Uncle doesnt like them - they eat our crops.”

“I think its beautiful,” Jane countered, “Just like you.”

The bird bobbed its head, regarding them warily, then fired off another salvo of unearthly musical trilling. For some reason she couldnt identify, Jane found herself laughing at the sweet perfection of the moment. She pulled Melina to her, and their lips met once more - the forbidden cake had lost none of its appeal.

*

Herbert was waiting for her outside the lodge, wearing the serious expression he reserved for heart-

To-hearts and matters of business Reading this, Melina faded inside like an eddy of dust on the wind.

“So: do you want the verdict?” Herbert asked, staring fixedly at the ground. Jane shrugged idly, too happy just now to care about bad news.

“Dr Grundy says you have a constriction of the cervix,” he announced gravely. “It would appear weve been wasting our time all these years - our chances of conceiving are next-to-nothing.”

“Well,” Jane pouted, “Im touched you can dismiss all our lovemaking as a waste of time - you always seemed quite keen on it.”

He looked up at her sharply. His eyes were moist.

“Thats not what I mean, Darling, and you know it. Ill always love you, but… if we cant have children, then Im not sure its worth our carrying on.”

She stared at him, feeling the colour drain from her cheeks, her blood run cold. For the second time that day she found herself utterly bereft of words. At last she swished ostentatiously past him, into the lodge. By the time of her next conscious thought she was in bed, and her pillow was soaked with tears.

*

It was a torrid night, full of seething resentments and censures unvoiced. Had it been her prerogative, Jane would have barred Herbert from the bed: as it was she stretched herself along the far edge of the mattress, trying to avoid any sort of contact with him; keeping her back firmly turned. It was highly uncomfortable, and with her addled state of mind precluded any sort of sleep. Once enough hours of torturous blackness had crawled by, Jane slipped from the sheets, gathered her robe in the now-familiar fashion, and stepped outside. Melina was a ghostly, glowing angel on the verandah.

“I knew youd come,” she whispered simply. They swept easily into each others arms, mouths crushed together in strawberry assignation. Jane put her hands in Melinas gilded curls, and shuddered.

“Oh God,” she sobbed, “Im so in love with you…”

They kissed openly, wetly, Jane unable to resist running the tip of her tongue inside Melinas lips, lightly slipping against her ivory teeth. Their tongues met, flicking together like wings, and Jane felt desire filling her, causing her body to seethe within and without.

“Come to my room,” Melina breathed, her voice seeming laboured and parched. She took Janes hand, and like pale thieves they tiptoed through the lodges moon washed interior, to the tiny boudoir that contained Melinas narrow bed and precious little else. A solitary candle fluttered at the windowsill, sketching their shadows huge upon the wall. They kissed again, deeply, for no other reason than they could.

With a motion as silent and graceful as a gliding gull, Melina slipped the robe from Janes wide, strong shoulders. Jane knew that she was beautiful, but under the girls unyielding gaze she became almost diffident: her bare arms were goose fleshed with sudden exposure; her full, pale breasts felt strangely stretched and heavy. Between her legs there was a warm seeping, and she realised wonderingly that never before had she felt so aroused. She smiled shyly, blue eyes lowering, and her soul was lifted like a feather on the breeze when that smile was returned.

Melina clung like a dancing partner as Jane fumbled with the dainty bows and buttons of her combination. Exposed, Melinas body was lissome, athletic; her breasts high and pert. The dance became in intimate waltz, lips and tongues darting and sipping like hummingbirds; hands sliding freely over smooth back, pausing hesitantly, teasingly above the waist. Their breasts touched, the curves coalescing innately like jigsaw edges; their hearts were a thunder of wing beats in the night.

Jane let her hands slip lower, cupping the taut circles of Melinas slight buttocks - the girl leaned

into her embrace and sighed like a curlew keening. Taking the lead, she swept her partner to the bed and they descended with perfect control, the thin mattress groaning faintly beneath their combined weight.

Jane felt the slender body beneath her, marvelling at its yielding softness, such a contrast to Herberts solidity and stiff protrusions. It dawned on her, fully, that she was making love to a young woman: more, that it was all she had ever wanted to do. Crushing her mouth upon Melinas she thrust herself between the girls lean legs, and wherever their flesh touched was thrilling friction: the aching contact of engorged, heavy nipples; the cool press of taut stomachs; the electric brush of tawny curls and the occasional, volcanic stab of pooling vulvas. Long and elegant as a swans neck Jane flexed her body, pressing down with all her strength as Melina clung to her, feverishly shivering.

“Jane,” she gasped, voice shredded and hoarse, “Oh Jane, I - whats happening to me?”

Jane knew, but could not answer, for one look at that angelically sweet face contorting in ecstasy was enough to finally trigger her own crisis. With the innate cunning of the illicit lover she fused her molten lips once more to her amours, and they smothered each others moans as mutual climax pealed through them, a silent eruption like songbirds lifting into a perfect dawn. It left them spent, trembling, huddled together like infants in triumphant, sweat-slicked embrace.

One long, last kiss of her beloved, and then Jane reluctantly tripped her way back to the chilling marital enclave. Herbert was asleep - leastwise, he made no response to her return. Stretching herself once more along her edge, Jane slipped into the most blissful sleep shed ever known.

*