by Martin Westlake
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
Back in the garage, he emptied the maggots into the aquarium.
‘Peter!’ Evangeline called.
‘Coming!’ he shouted back.
‘What are you doing?’
He watched the maggots wriggling slowly as they spread themselves out over the floor of the tank. The mouse’s behaviour didn’t change. It scurried around, running over and around them, frequently stopping to sniff the air, but certainly not showing any signs of suffocation or of being gassed, as Peter had half-suspected it might.
‘Give me a moment, love! I’ll be straight up. Start without me, if you want. I’ve just got to finish something.’
‘The children are waiting for you, darling.’
‘Just a moment, please!’
‘All right, but there’s no need to shout.’
Peter’s heart started to beat faster. The maggots had now spread out to form a uniform blanket across the floor of the tank and then, as he watched, slowly, almost imperceptibly at first, the blanket seem momentarily to ripple.
The mouse, meanwhile, had dug itself into a corner, where it sat on its haunches, sniffing the air. He stared at the maggots. There was no further rippling.
‘Okay, okay!’ He put the lid back on the tank and made his way upstairs. ‘I’m coming!’
Usually, he adored the evening meals with the kids and Evangeline. Those sweet moments of companionship were what he lived for, even when the kids picked silly fights with one another. But on this night he was distracted by his own thoughts.
Clearly, Philippe had been faithfully describing a phenomenon which Peter had now seen, briefly, with his own eyes. But what could have happened? As Coygan had said so convincingly, the maggots should have had no physical capacity for any sort of instinct, let alone some sort of coordinated group activity.
Evangeline tried to cheer him up, but somehow that just made things worse. Peter got irritated by her attempts to distract him, and the meal ended grumpily. After they’d got the children to bed and read them their stories, Evangeline, radiating sulkiness, went off to their bedroom.
Peter cleared up the dishes then went down to the garage. The maggots remained as he had last seen them, in a uniform blanket spread over the bottom of the tank, only now there was a familiar mound in the middle of the blanket. He opened the tank and fished out the mouse’s lifeless body. He put the lid back on and gazed at the maggots. Theoretically, they should be in an almost vegetative, pre-pupation phase. What was happening?
* * *
The next evening the Spencer-Lords had a dinner party. Neither Peter nor Evangeline was in the mood, but Peter felt it was important to reassure Menton and had insisted on inviting him and his wife. Evangeline seemed to understand.
They put their differences to one side and prepared for the evening. Peter bought two very good bottles of wine and a vintage bottle of poire Williams for the digestif. Evangeline excelled effortlessly in the kitchen and Peter was happy to leave that department to her, but he came home early to look after the kids and lay the table.
At seven-thirty on the dot, the guests arrived. Yves Menton was a big, burly man with a booming voice and a professionally polished manner, full of bonhomie and always able to defuse a situation or fill any gap with a witty comment. It was an admirable talent, really, and one at which French businessmen so often excelled.
Yves, being Alsatian, could do this in French and German, but he could also do it in English. It was pretty sickening. His wife, Marie, with her sober, understated clothes and apparently modest jewellery, quaintly fluttered her hands and eyelids in equal measure.
The evening went well; with Yves there was no other possibility. His booming voice and witty comments filled all the gaps expertly and kept the atmosphere at just the right level of pleasantness. He flattered Evangeline outrageously for her cooking, identified the wine immediately and almost got the year, put everybody at their ease, avoided giving any sense of superiority, steered the conversations away from politics and any other potentially awkward topics and yet made everybody feel that the conversation was substantive and serious. It was thoroughly admirable.
Afterwards, when they had shifted from the table to the sofas, Peter got out the poire and the big bowl glasses. Yves swirled the liquor expertly, warming the bottom of his glass with the palms of his hands, then sniffing the vapour appreciatively.
‘Ah!’ he exclaimed. ‘That’s truly excellent, Peter! Wonderful, marvellous! Have a sniff, Marie!’
Marie, who clearly knew her place in Yves’ scheme of things and would be driving her husband back home, fluttered her hands and politely turned down the invitation. Since Evangeline never touched spirits, it was left to the two men to do the poire justice. The only slight problem with that was that Peter was not used to spirits and couldn’t hold his drink very well. But Yves would clearly not be deprived of a second glassful.
‘Just a little in the bottom of the glass, Peter. That’s right. Ah! Then, you see, you heat it up a little with your hands and you drink the vapour with your nose. Ah!’
Peter was halfway through his third glass when Yves asked him about the Spencer-Lord process. Peter couldn’t stop himself. As with Philippe, he told Yves and Marie and the long-suffering Evangeline the whole story from the very beginning, brushing away Yves’s good-humoured attempts to cut him short.
He would not be denied. After all, this was not just some fancy industrial process he was describing; it was a moral crusade. The Spencer-Lord process would save the world! And when he had finished, sitting forward on the edge of his armchair, his face slightly flushed, he looked about him with all the misplaced pride and enthusiasm of the unselfconscious bore, somehow unable to see the stony, battered faces in front of him.
‘Well,’ said Yves to Evangeline. ‘I knew something was bugging him!’
It was outrageous! Yves could even make puns better than Peter in English.
‘Oh, yes,’ Yves continued, ‘there was no way we could worm our way out of that little lecture.’ Gradually, he managed to get hold of the atmosphere again and ensure that the awkwardness following Peter’s long speech was forgotten.
And then it was time for the guests to leave. When Evangeline opened the front door, a large bluebottle flew slowly and loudly into the hall, like a low-flying bomber.
‘Watch out!’ Yves cried. ‘One of Peter’s maggots has escaped!’
Marie and Evangeline giggled uncontrollably, accompanying Yves’s guffaws. Then their guests stepped out into the cool night air. As Marie turned the car — a large, dark BMW — in their driveway, Yves’s window wound down and he stuck his head out.
‘Thanks for everything, Peter. By the way, that poire was really weevil.’
The two men laughed uproariously, but inwardly Peter hated him for being so effortlessly better at just about everything but above all for seeming to be so dismissive about the potential of the Spencer-Lord process.
He and Evangeline went through the ritual of clearing the table and washing up, discussing the evening as they went. Peter broke the stem of one of the big bowl glasses, and Evangeline asked him to sit down.
‘You’re tired,’ she said. ‘I can see it.’
Peter was happy to pretend that he hadn’t seen through the euphemism. When she had finished, he told her about the mouse.
‘Why don’t you give it up, Peter?’ she asked, sitting down beside him on the sofa.
‘I can’t. I have invested so much in this process. And I believe in it, Evangeline! It’s going to work — you’ll see!’
* * *
The gas mask arrived a week later. He checked regularly on the maggots on the closed-circuit TV screen, but there was no further sign of their strange behaviour. Nevertheless, Peter decided to wait several months before advertising the job again. In the meantime, he could handle the whole process himself, making sure always to don the mask before going anywhere near the tank.
Normally the Spencer-Lords would have gone away in August, but Evangeline understood that a holiday would be impossible in the absence of an assistant. In any case it was, as she assured him, quite nice to be in Alsace in the summer. The weather was glorious and they made several weekend excursions, though nothing too strenuous for Maxim and Roxanne.
One morning in late August, Peter stepped out onto the terrace at the beginning of what was surely going to be a glorious day and he couldn’t find Dash, which was strange. The dog had a kennel at the front of the house, and they put him out every evening before going to bed. Occasionally, they’d hear him barking at a cat or a fox in the middle of the night, but they knew he’d never quit the garden. And he would always be there waiting at the front door in the morning to accompany Peter on his jog, tail wagging, tongue lolling and that smiling expression on his face.
Only, on this day Dash wasn’t there. Peter called him but he didn’t come. Maybe he had done the unthinkable and left the garden. Maybe there was a bitch in heat somewhere, and he’d been unable to resist the call.
Peter started to look around the garden. It took him just a few minutes to find Dash’s stiff and lifeless body by the gate leading to the factory. It was already covered in flies: big, lazy, furry bluebottles. What on earth could have happened?
And then he thought of Evangeline and the children. How was he going to break the news to them? He went to the garage and fetched an old tarpaulin. He chased off as many of the flies as he could, wrapped Dash up and carried him to the garage. He would have to tell Evangeline straightaway — she’d miss the dog immediately.
And then he’d have to call the vet. There were probably procedures to be gone through when a large animal died. But what on earth were they going to tell Maxim and Roxanne?
As he’d feared, Evangeline took the news very badly. Once her tears had subsided she started to analyse her feelings. As he listened to her, Peter realised with pangs of guilt that she was the classic lonely housewife. When he had gone to work and the children had gone to school, what was there for Evangeline to do stuck in the middle of Alsatian tobacco fields a good twenty minutes’ drive from the nearest shops? Dash had meant some sort of company for her — a presence, a reassurance — and now he was dead.
They didn’t know how to break the news to the children. It was bound to be a major trauma. Evangeline felt they ought to take some advice. She would speak to the doctor, who could perhaps advise them or put her in touch with somebody who could. So they postponed the news-giving for a while. In the meantime, the more innocuous story would be that Dash had simply gone missing.
But it was not the only thing that went missing that day. Before he left for work Peter went to check on the factory. He glanced perfunctorily at the screen showing the main tank and was astonished to see that it was more than half empty.
He put on the gas mask and unlocked the door to the tank. It was inexplicable. The tank walls and door were intact. He’d thought that maybe the chemical mix had gone wrong and that the maggots had pupated earlier than usual, but there was no sign of any chrysalides. No; somehow the maggots had got out of the tank.
And then, with a sudden lurch, Peter thought about Dash and remembered the mouse and Philippe and old Jean. Could it be? He thought of Maxim and Roxanne asleep in their beds, their tousled heads peeping above the bedclothes.
He hurried back to the control room and reprogrammed the software to close down the Spencer-Lord process. The remaining maggots in the system would be processed and a small sample would be kept for the breeding cycle, but the main process would be halted.
Peter strode rapidly back to the house and rushed up the stairs to the children’s bedrooms. To his relief, the kids were all right. He went back downstairs and explained to Evangeline what had happened.
‘I want you all to go away for a few days.’
‘But why, Peter?’
‘I... I just can’t be sure about something to do with the maggots. They could be emitting some sort of gas...’
‘It might be harmful, Evangeline.’
‘Harmful? Just quite what sort of “harmful” do you mean, Peter?’
‘I... I just don’t know. I just want to be on the safe side, Evangeline. There’s probably nothing.’
Evangeline, pale-faced, gazed up at him for a few seconds. ‘All right. I’ll pack a suitcase. I’ll tell them it’s an adventure.’
As she climbed the stairs Peter gave an inward sigh of relief. Fortunately, she seemed not to have made the connection with Dash’s death. He’d put them in a hotel until he was certain that the escaped maggots had pupated and would therefore no longer be mobile.
They woke the children and gave them their breakfast. The children fell enthusiastically for the adventure story and went willingly to the car. Peter and Evangeline strapped the kids in. Then Peter locked up the house while Evangeline turned the car in the drive. He turned the first key, and then the second, and then walked out of the porch just as Evangeline reversed back up to the house.
At that moment a large shadow fell over him, as though a cloud had passed in front of the sun. He looked up. A black mass had indeed blotted out the sunlight, the huge cloud emitting a buzzing noise. As realisation started to dawn in Peter’s mind the swarm darted towards him.
Maxim and Roxanne had seen the same cloud. The boy opened his door. ‘Come on, Daddy!’ he screamed. ‘Come on!’
Evangeline reached across and slammed the door shut. ‘We can’t let them get in!’ she screamed.
‘But Daddy!’ Roxanne wailed. ‘What about Daddy?’
Evangeline looked towards the house. Peter’s form had disappeared inside an angry black buzzing mass. Screaming, she put the car in gear and accelerated down the driveway.
The flies worked their way into Peter’s ears and nostrils. The buzzing sound drove him crazy, but if he tried to protect his ears, they swarmed their way up his nose. The sheer mass forced his eyelids and lips open, and the hard black bodies battered his eyes and forced their way into his mouth and throat. He realised he was going to be asphyxiated.
He panicked and tried to run away, but he couldn’t see. Where was Evangeline? Where was the car? He tripped on the steps and fell heavily, winding himself. Now the flies were working their way up his shirt sleeves and trouser legs and down his collar.
Overcoming a sense of revulsion he chewed up the flies in his mouth and spat them out, but as many flew into his mouth again before he could shut it. Not just protein after all, then, he thought, as his consciousness slowly dulled.
* * *
That evening Yves Menton called the Spencer-Lords to thank them for the dinner and to ask for an update on the situation. There was no reply. He shrugged and rung off. A large bluebottle flew lazily towards the window.
‘What is it with the flies this year, Marie?’ he asked.
Copyright © 2014 by Martin Westlake