The Kind Folk

Luke Arnold is a successful stage comedian who, with his partner Sophie Drew, is about to have their first child. Their life seems ideal and Luke feels that true happiness is finally within his grasp.

This wasn’t always the case. Growing up in a loving but dysfunctional family, Luke was a lonely little boy who never felt that he belonged. While his parents adored him, the whole family knew that due to a mix-up at the hospital, Luke wasn’t their biological child. His parents did the best they could to make the lad feel special. But it was his beloved uncle Terence who Luke felt most close to, a man who enchanted (and frightened) the lad with tales of the “Other”—eldritch beings, hedge folks, and other fables of Celtic myth.

When Terence dies in a freak accident, Luke suddenly begins to learn how little he really knew his uncle. How serious was Terence about the magic in his tales? Why did he travel so widely by himself after Luke was born, and what was he looking for? Soon Luke will have to confront forces that may be older than the world in order to save his unborn child.

In Ramsey Campbell’s The Kind Folk, fairies are real… and they’re coming for you. Available August 23rd from Tor Books!

 

 

—1—
THE SECOND ANSWER

“You give me honesty,” Jack Brittan says, “and I’ll give you hope. When did you start to have doubts that Luke was your son?”

“I’ve never had any,” says Luke’s mother.

“He wasn’t asking you, Freddy,” Luke’s father objects. “Maybe I should of had my suspicions before he was born. My brother was a sight too eager to come up with a name. Lucius, he wanted us to call the baby if it was a boy.”

“We called him Lucas,” Freda says as if this may placate her husband.

“I’d like to know why Terry was so concerned with him. Took him out every chance he got when Luke was little. Always telling him he was special like we didn’t think enough of him.”

“We could have told Luke how much we thought of him a bit more often, Maurice.”

“You weren’t so pleased with Terry when the boy started having night.mares,” Maurice says and turns to the presenter of the television show. “The doctor sent Luke to a psychiatrist, that’s how bad he got. God help Terry if I ever find out he was feeding him drugs.”

“I never did,” Terence murmurs to Luke.

“I know,” Luke says without knowing much at all. He and his uncle are in the green room, an elongated white backstage space containing sofas and a television monitor that sprouts high up on the wall. He’s about to put one of several questions to Terence when Brittan says “Let’s have him out to answer that.”

Perhaps Terence doesn’t realise this means him. He stays on the sofa opposite Luke until a hulking man whose black T.shirt is emblazoned BRITTAN’S RESOLUTIONS gestures him to follow. Seconds later he’s on the monitor, where he’s greeted by more booing than applause. There’s silence by the time he takes a seat on the far side of Freda from his brother.

She risks a glance at him and a quick smile before she reverts to gazing at Brittan. Luke is sure she views the occasion as a public testimony besides her opportunity to appear on a favourite television show. Though her face has grown plumper since he left home, the features minimised by her cheeks seem clarified by her belief in herself. Her faded eyes have regained their acorn tint, her small nose looks eager for a scent, her wide lips have rediscovered pinkness. She leans forward, betraying the silver roots of the black waves that frame her face, as Brittan says “You ought to be a family if I ever saw one.”

Presumably he means the brothers, both of whom have all the Arnold characteristics: large.boned brawny frames, auburn eyes, broad noses, square chins. Luke shares all these, although he has conquered the tendency of the lower lip to droop, and his hair isn’t clipped as severely as theirs, which is so short it barely admits to greying. “So, Terence,” Brittan says, “what sort of an influence do you think you’ve had on your nephew?”

“He’s a fine young specimen of humanity.” Terence’s eyes flicker from side to side as though he’s searching for Luke. “I’d be proud if that was anything to do with me.”

“You were just trying to be an uncle, weren’t you?” Freda says and tells the presenter “He never had any children of his own.”

“And what kind of uncle was he?” Before Freda can answer, Brittan turns on Terence. “What’s this about you using drugs?”

“A lot of us used to have a smoke now and then on the job.”

“A lot of us didn’t,” Luke’s father retorts. “Anyone that worked for me that did, they’d be out on their arse.”

As Luke wonders if the broadcast will bleep the word out, Brittan says “So why did you trust a druggie with your son?”

Maurice scowls at an explosion of applause, and Luke feels as though he’s watching a performance while he waits to go onstage. “He knew not to bring that stuff anywhere near Luke,” says his father.

“I never did,” Terence assures him.

“You brought whatever it did to you, didn’t you?” Far more triumphantly than Luke cares for, Brittan says “Is that why your nephew needed psychiatric help?”

“He told Luke fairy tales, that’s all,” Freda intervenes. “Maybe Luke was too young for some of them.”

“How young was that?”

“Six,” Maurice says. “That’s when we had to take him to the doctor.”

“It doesn’t sound too young for fairy tales. Maybe you can tell us what disturbed him, Terence.”

“Some of the old tales weren’t meant for children.”

A memory lights up like a tableau in Luke’s head. He’s sitting in a sunlit field while his uncle tells him about a little mermaid, a story that seemed to reach deep into Luke. The memory goes out as Maurice demands “Then why’d you tell him at that age?”

“I thought they were his kind of thing. You know what an imagination he had.”

“Should have been more careful what you put in it, then. Six is no bloody age to have someone messing about inside your head.”

As Luke wonders if this refers to the psychiatrist or Terence, Brittan says “We haven’t heard why you’ve started suspecting your brother.”

“Luke’s having a child with his partner and the way Terry’s been carrying on he might be the grandad. He’s like he was when Luke was born.”

Having waited for the audience to murmur, Brittan says “After the break we’ll meet the man the argument’s about and his girlfriend.”

Though Sophie has agreed to speak, they’ve put her in the audience. She can’t feel any more distanced from the proceedings than Luke does. The programme is pretending to be live, showing adverts for the sponsor corporation on the monitor—Frugoplan Pensions (“Your super superannuation”), Frugocard (“Pack our plastic in your pocket”), the Frugotel chain (“Check us out and check in”) . . . Perhaps they’re meant to sell the products to the studio audience, unless someone felt that without them the spectators would feel cheated of part of the experience. Once the commercials come to an end Brittan welcomes viewers back and sums up the story so far, and then he says “Let’s meet the man they’re quarrelling over.”

If there’s a quarrel Brittan is happy to exacerbate it; perhaps it mightn’t even have happened without his sort of show. Luke marches down the flimsy passage in the wings and onto the stage, where his parents and his uncle join in the applause that meets him. He tries not to let his family’s behaviour make the situation even yet more unreal. Sophie is in an aisle seat halfway up the auditorium, and stops clapping long enough to wave as Luke sits beside his father. “So,” Brittan says, “what’s your take on all this, Luke?”

“I think it’s a misunderstanding that’s got out of hand. It’s as my mother said, my uncle wanted to be involved because he had nobody of his own.”

“And what kind of childhood are you telling us you had?”

Luke inspects him before answering. Nobody would know from watching him on television that he’s a head shorter than most of his guests, since he never ventures near them when they’re on their feet. His close.set features might be called neat, but they strike Luke as pinched together. Below his precisely trimmed black hair his pale forehead bears a faint constant frown. His dark quick eyes want to appear penetrating, and his thin lips are parted by default, either to urge a response or poised to interrupt. “I couldn’t have wished for a better one,” Luke tells him, “and I’m thanking my uncle as well as my parents. He was why I talked so much, that’s what I’m told, before I could even walk.”

“You always knew more words,” Freda says, “when you came home.”

“Maybe he stuffed too much in your little head,” Maurice complains. “One more reason we had to haul you to the quack.”

“Not too constructive,” Brittan tells Terence, “for someone who works in construction.”

“He doesn’t,” Maurice retorts. “He’s in demolition.”

It occurs to Luke that Brittan takes him to be in his parents’ business. If Luke enlightens him, will that stop the show? Surely there’s no need; once Brittan has finished melodramatising the situation, the Arnolds can return to normal. His father’s doubts can’t help making Luke feel as though he has taken his life and his family too much for granted, and he’ll be glad when Maurice’s suspicions are disproved. The presenter’s face closes around a concerned look as he says “Why do you think you needed the psychiatrist, Luke?”

“I don’t know if I did need her. It was mostly that my parents didn’t want the doctor giving me drugs to help me sleep.”

“You should of heard the row you were making in the night,” Maurice protests. “Those were never dreams a child should have.”

“What do you recall about seeing the psychiatrist?” Brittan wants to hear.

“She kept trying to make me say things about my uncle that weren’t true.”

“We just want the truth here. What kind of things?”

“That he’d been abusing me, I expect. He never touched me, not like that.”

“So you’re saying he’s completely innocent.”

Luke sees that Brittan is frustrated by the lack of conflict and determined to provoke it. “I’m saying,” Luke is happy to declare, “we all are.”

Brittan doesn’t simply look dissatisfied but prolongs it for the camera. “Do we call that honest?”

“Noooo.”

To Luke the audience’s customary response sounds like the lowing of a herd. He has dealt with many kinds of audience, and he’s about to try his skills on this crowd when Freda says “You only wanted Luke to make as much of himself as he could, didn’t you, Terry? You were trying to open his mind.”

“That’s it,” Terence says. “That’s all.”

“I expect you’re glad he’s creative like you tried to be.”

Terence lets out a stammering murmur that goes some way towards agreement. Perhaps he’s wary of suggesting that his brother didn’t do enough for the boy. Luke thinks Brittan may enquire into the remark, but the presenter turns to the audience. “This can’t be much fun for you, Sophie, in your state.”

She gives this and him a long look. Though Luke is sure she isn’t posing for the camera, he can imagine her features gracing the screen: wide blue eyes, long elegant nose, pink lips poised to smile if they aren’t already smiling, all softly framed by cropped red hair. Her face stays amiable, but her eyes have acquired a steely glint. “It shouldn’t be much fun for anyone.”

“I’m saying you can do without all this.”

“I’m certain everybody can.” She gives Brittan time to take this as criticism and says “This isn’t about me. I’m having an easy time, not like Freda did.”

“What are you telling us was hard for her?”

“We thought I’d got too old till I had Luke,” Freda says. “We thought he was a gift from God.”

Maurice lets his lower lip sag while Terence covers his mouth. Once the audience has finished sighing at Freda’s words Brittan says “Shall we do what you asked me to do?”

“About time,” says Maurice.

“Let me have the DNA results for Terence Arnold,” Brittan says and extends a hand until a technician crowned with a headset brings him an envelope. It puts Luke in mind of a prize on a game show, but he’s also recalling a joke of his uncle’s—that the initials ought to stand for Do Not Ask. “How certain are you that Terence isn’t Luke’s father?” Brittan asks Sophie.

“As sure as anyone can be.”

“One hundred per cent,” Freda vows with a laugh, “and more if you like.”

“Another hundred,” Terence says, having uncovered his mouth.

“And one from me,” Luke contributes.

“Just get the bloody thing done with,” says Maurice.

The presenter thrusts his dinky little finger beneath the flap and tears open the envelope. He extracts a card and shields it with the envelope while he takes far too much time for Luke’s taste over scrutinising the information. At last he lifts his head and gazes at the family. “Our DNA test shows that . . . ”

Luke knows that they’re all being filmed. Brittan must be waiting until they’ve reacted enough to be broadcast, and Luke is on the point of blurting a version of his father’s demand when the presenter says “Terence is not Luke’s father.”

Sophie claps her hands. Though Luke doesn’t think she means to cue applause, the audience follows her lead. His father stumbles to his feet and hugs his wife while reaching to grip his brother’s hand. “Sorry,” he says indistinctly. “Bloody stupid. I’m the one that needs his head examined.”

Freda murmurs a demurral as Terence bows his head and shakes it. Luke feels excluded from the proceedings, though he’s relieved that the drama is over. Brittan waits for Maurice to resume his seat and enquires “Don’t you have anything to say to them?”

“I’ve said I’m sorry,” Luke’s father protests but says it again, prompting Freda to stretch out her hands to him while Terence gazes down at his own. Luke is waiting for the presenter to lecture them or wish them luck when Brittan says “We aren’t done yet.”

Only Maurice seems to understand. “I don’t know why I did it,” he mumbles. “There’s no need.”

“It’s paid for,” Brittan says and gestures for the technician to bring him a second envelope. When he digs his finger beneath the flap Freda cries “You didn’t, Maurice.”

“They asked if I wanted it. It isn’t going to matter now, is it?”

Freda gives him a smile so minute and restrained it barely hints at forgiveness. As Luke understands his father’s plea Brittan says “Our DNA test on Maurice shows that . . . ”

What does he want the camera to pick up this time? Luke’s parents gaze at him with impatient confidence, an expression Luke borrows from them. Only Terence isn’t looking at the presenter; he’s intent on his own clasped hands. Brittan turns to Luke, and his face is so neutral it’s unread.able. Luke can do that too, and he’s about to mirror Brittan when the presenter lets sympathy into his eyes. “I’m sorry, Luke,” he says. “You aren’t Maurice Arnold’s son.”

 

—2—
ONE WAY HOME

It isn’t about him, Luke does his best to think. Sophie is stroking the palm of his hand as trees race past both sides of the train. Perhaps she’s trying to anchor his sense of himself, but he feels as if Brittan’s revelation has yet to take hold of him. He feels shrunk into his own mind, afraid to let the truth in. He’s searching for reasons to disbelieve it when Sophie says “Has anybody ever looked into how reliable those tests are?”

Nobody has spoken since they caught the train. Terence is seated opposite her and staring out of the window as if he doesn’t feel entitled to face his companions. Across the aisle Freda has kept glancing at Maurice to prompt or provoke him to voice his thoughts, but he seems to think his drooping lip is eloquent enough. Sophie’s question rouses him, although he doesn’t look at her. “The government uses them,” he retorts.

“Maybe the ones Brittan uses aren’t as reliable.”

“Someone would have sorted them by now if they were getting it wrong.”

“Even the official ones are sometimes. There’ve been cases where they’ve identified the wrong person. Couldn’t it work the other way as well?”

Maurice twitches one shoulder as Freda gives him a hopeful glance. When Brittan read his test result out she looked betrayed, not just by the outcome but, Luke suspects, by the show itself. As she grows aware of his concern for her she turns to him. “You’re still our Luke whatever anybody says. That’s so, isn’t it, Maurice?”

Her husband lifts his head, and his lower lip sags as if to compensate. “Nobody’s saying anything against him that I know of.”

“I should hope not.” Defending Luke has revived more of her spirit. “I ought to have had a test as well,” she says. “You should have said.”

“Whoever’s to blame,” Maurice says like a threat, “it’s not me.”

“It’s nobody here, Maurice.”

“I thought Luke was supposed to be the comedian of the family.” Maurice pauses as though his mind has caught on the last phrase and says “Get on then, tell us who.”

“I don’t think it was whoever did your test, but thanks for being thoughtful, Sophie.” Freda gazes down the carriage at a few scattered passengers. “I’m sorry if I embarrass anyone,” she murmurs just loud enough to be audible above the soughing of the train. “Maurice is the only man I’ve ever had, the absolutely only one. I know most people don’t care about saving themselves any more, but I did.”

Sophie squeezes Luke’s hand. As Maurice twists most of himself around to check that nobody is close enough to have overheard, she says “Then you think . . . ”

“If Mr Brittan’s people didn’t make a mistake,” Freda says, “someone must have mixed up the babies at the hospital,” and leans across the aisle to grip Luke’s arm. “Just don’t forget what I said about you, Luke. We ended up with the baby we wanted.”

“Nobody’s arguing,” Maurice says and stares at his brother. “And you’re saying bugger all. It’s not like you to have nothing to say for yourself.”

Terence meets his eyes but withholds his expression. “What do you want me to say?”

“Whatever you’re thinking.” When Terence doesn’t respond his brother mutters “You were always the clever one, that’s what ma and dad thought. They never knew half of the stuff you were into or they wouldn’t have been so pleased with you.”

Luke is dismayed by their hostilities and can’t help feeling somehow responsible, but it’s Freda who intervenes. “That’s not fair, Maurice, and it’s got nothing to do—”

“I may not be the brightest but I’ve got enough upstairs not to waste my time on that crap. You’d better not have put any of it in Luke’s head.”

Before Luke can establish that he doesn’t know what his father—no, Maurice—is talking about, Terence raises his lower lip and his head. “I helped him grow up how he has,” he says. “I did my best, I’ll tell you.”

“Are you making out we didn’t?”

“I’m sure you all did,” Sophie says. “I think you should be proud.”

An awkward silence seems to drag at the train, which is slowing as it reaches Runcorn. Terence shoves himself to his feet and avoids touching anyone as he lurches into the aisle. “Be in touch,” he mumbles as a promise or a plea if not something else entirely, and hurries to the nearest door.

He doesn’t look back from the platform. A few terraced streets on the bank of the Mersey drift past the windows, and then a silent whirring like the flight of a swarm of geometrical creatures closes around the train. The metal lattices that form both sides of the bridge across the river are retreating at speed. “I’ll be getting the test,” Freda announces, “and then I’ll be finding out what the hospital has to say for itself.”

The hectic activity comes to an end, revealing that the river has exposed a bank of mud like the ridged glistening back of a colossus about to heave itself out of the murky water. It’s the kind of notion Terence might have shared with Luke when he was little, and it leaves Luke feeling painfully nostalgic for his childhood. There are other fancies he will have to live without now—the ideas that Terence was his uncle or Maurice was his father.

 

—3—
NOBODY’S SON

“You did know already, Luke. You were as good as theirs, though, weren’t you?” Gently and yet with a hint of fierceness Sophie reminds him “That’s what you said.”

“I wonder how they’d have treated me if they’d known I was an imposter.”

“You’re nothing of the kind. I expect they’d have wanted to make it up to you, and Terence would.”

Hasn’t she just contradicted herself ? Luke stands up to switch off the television, which is showing him and the Arnolds like a tableau in a waxworks, every face besides his trying to suppress their expressions while he couldn’t quite find one. “After the break,” Brittan says, “we’ve a mother who’s here to tell her son she’ll disown him if he turns into a woman because his wife is now a man… ” Luke extinguishes him but can’t put the words that streamed along the bottom of the screen out of his mind. After the show was recorded DNA testing proved Freda Arnold wasn’t Luke’s mother.

As Sophie said, he already knew. Maurice phoned yesterday, sounding as if he were being required to apologise on his wife’s behalf. Luke leaves Sophie on the pudgy leather couch in front of the television and crosses the polished boards to the window. They’re in the apartment Freda and Maurice helped him buy when Arnold Building Contractors were converting this Victorian office block. That was early in the renovation of downtown Liverpool, when prices were much lower and the building trade considerably more prosperous, but now he hardly feels entitled to the apartment—the two generous bedrooms, the extensive main room, the fitted kitchen and bathroom that would be at home in a store display. Beyond the window the late April sunlight glints on the edge of the sea across the bay, where the horizon sprouts a windmill that might be fingering the sky for substance. When he moved in Luke had a wide view of the sea, but tall buildings have risen in the way—monolith monsters, Terence calls them. Everything about the apartment brings to mind the family Luke presumed was his own in more ways than it is. He’s Sophie’s lover and the father of her child, he reminds himself as she joins him at the window and takes his hand to rest it on her ovoid midriff. “Anyway,” she murmurs, “we know our baby’s ours.”

“We know and it will.”

“Don’t say it, Luke. Parents who call their children that, you’d think they didn’t want them to be people.”

“He or she,” Luke amends, going down on one knee to lift Sophie’s voluminous blouse and kiss her just above the navel. “That’s you in there if you can hear me.”

He presses an ear against her belly and hears the tide of his own blood. When he can’t distinguish any movement he gets to his feet, hoping Sophie feels appreciated. Since their encounter with Brittan she has done her best to comfort him with her words and her touch, with favourite meals and singing songs from her repertoire and playing Bach transcriptions on her guitar, but he senses that she thinks she hasn’t done enough—that he has lost more than just a blood relationship. Perhaps holding her will reassure more than any protests of Luke’s, and he’s resting his cheek against hers when his phone breaks the silence.

It’s singing “June is busting out all over,” which Maurice used to sing on Luke’s birthday even though it isn’t in that month. Now the ringtone feels like an attempt to cling to his childhood, and so does having listed Freda as mum. Before he can decide what to call her she says “It’s only me.”

“Hello.” This sounds worse than incomplete, and Luke makes haste to say “How are you getting on?”

“I’ve been to the hospital where you were born.” Less defiantly than she offered the last phrase she says “They’ve looked into their records, but they can’t see how there could have been a mistake. Maurice wants to leave it now. I don’t know what you think.”

“Whatever’s best for the family.”

“We hoped you’d say that. We can go on as we always have, can’t we? And your, and Maurice says to tell you he’s sorry if he was a bit abrupt when he spoke to you. He was getting used to it, that’s all.”

“So long as he has.”

“We must get together soon, all of us. Have you heard from, has Terry been in touch?”

“I haven’t heard from him since your show,” Luke says and feels ashamed of his choice of words.

“We’ve been trying to contact him but he hasn’t answered our calls. Maurice would have gone over but our firm’s working on a big job for the council. If you speak to Terry you’ll let him know the news, won’t you?” Presumably taking Luke’s pause for assent, she says “Oh, and Mr Brittan’s show rang up.”

“What do they want now?”

“She wasn’t very pleasant. They’ve found out what you are.”

The words sound even odder when Luke paraphrases them. “What I am.”

“Someone who saw the show today knows you’re on the stage. The girl thought we should have told them before they had us on.”

“If they give you any more trouble, Freda—” The name feels unwieldy in his mouth, and he blunders past it. “You put them straight on to me.”

“I did give them your number. Don’t be too hard on them. They’re only trying to do their best for Mr Brittan.”

Luke and Sophie say goodbye to her, and then he opens the address book on the phone screen. He ought to have grown out of some of the things he’s written—he ought to prove he can. Freda Arnold replaces mum, and in another few seconds her husband is listed as Maurice Arnold. Terence has always been registered as Terence, and so Luke leaves him where he is. He still has all his memories; nothing has changed them or what he is, let alone the people who are still his parents in surely every way that counts. As Sophie reaches for his hand, having watched his actions in wistful silence, the phone rediscovers its voice.

Someone apparently doesn’t want to show their number. Luke cuts off the ringtone before it can predict what June will do and enquires “Hello?”

“Mr Arnold?”

The woman’s question is sharp enough for a challenge. “That’s my name,” Luke says and tells himself it’s true.

“Luke Arnold the comedian?”

“That’s still me.”

“This is Brittan’s Resolutions, Mr Arnold.”

“I thought you might be. Have you been talking to my mother? I hear you weren’t too pleasant to her.”

“We just wanted to know why she didn’t tell us what you are when she rang us, Mr Arnold.”

Each repetition of his borrowed name makes him feel like an impersonator, but not the kind he is onstage. “She’s a fan of yours,” he says. “If you want to have a go at anyone, try me.”

“Why didn’t you mention you were a performer?”

“Nobody asked me.”

“That isn’t very funny, Mr Arnold. I hope your act’s better than that. Jack thinks you came looking for material.”

“I didn’t, but you can tell him I found plenty.”

“Have you nothing better to do than imitate people, Mr Arnold? I was brought up to know it’s rude.”

This silences Luke but not Sophie, who says “That isn’t all Luke does by any means.”

As Luke switches the phone to loudspeaker mode Brittan’s researcher says “Are you the lady we put in the audience?”

“That’s her, Sophie Drew. She’s a performer as well. Maybe you know her album Bach to Folk. She could have sung you a song.”

“I don’t think there’s any need for that, Mr Arnold.” Quite as reprovingly the researcher says “We might have offered you some help in tracking down your parents.”

“Don’t bother. And a lot more to the point, don’t go bothering—” At last he realises what he called Freda, which makes him feel he has been enacting a pretence. “Just leave the Arnolds alone,” he says and ends the call.

Sophie watches him pocket the mobile and says “Do you think the net might help you find them?”

“If I wanted to it might.” He has very little idea if he does, but her suggestion sends him to the slender metal desk opposite the window in case anybody has been trying to contact his web site.

“Luke Arnold casts a spell with his use of language, physical as well as verbal. You may end up wondering if you’re his next character, because you could imagine he has stored up everyone he’s ever met… ” That’s a quote from his Edinburgh Fringe review, and he still can’t believe how far he has come since university—from putting on a show there and the first time he saw Sophie onstage too. There are emails to demonstrate he must be doing something right, and he beckons her to look. Three of today’s emails are from theatres and clubs wanting to book him—more than he generally sees in a week. Sophie rests her hands on his shoulders like a promise of a massage. “They’re after you,” she murmurs, and too briefly for him to understand why, the words unnerve him.

Excerpted from The Kind Folk © Ramsey Campbell, 2016

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