When I started my first full-time job it was the tradition that the birthday boy or girl would bring in cakes for the rest of the office. To continue that tradition I am giving you a sneak peek at Ribbons for my birthday this year, as cakes are a difficult thing to send virtually.
This is chapter one of Ribbons (although it may change slightly during editing) and will contain spoilers for Starblood, Psychonaut and Black Sun. It is however low calorie, vegan and gluten free.
The rum bar seems a cosy setting to wait out the apocalypse. Other than the ruby smears down the ersatz leaded windows and the occasional battered body, stumbling against them from the pavement outside before lurching away again, Marian can almost pretend it is an ordinary day. Of course ordinary is a relative term. Marian’s ordinary days can be compared to many people’s worst nightmares. It amazes her that she’s here at all. Only her connection to higher forces keeps her functioning. After everything that’s happened she still has responsibilities she cannot avoid.
Around her are people she knows and trusts. They were called to this safe haven, like she was, by their leader, the oracle, and her granddaughter Jessica. A comfortable room with low lighting and warm drinks where they will face whatever comes, together.
Marian downs the dregs of her fourth rum and Frangelico cocktail in a half-hearted attempt to drown her self-pity. Bill stands up to fetch another, but she lunges gracelessly and grabs his sleeve, pulling him back. Her head spins and her stomach churns. Her heart is a boulder that weighs her down.
It would be too easy to drink herself into oblivion, but she has a responsibility to those who believe in her, who know she is more than a working mother who lost her son and uses sick notes to avoid the office while in mourning. She has shut herself away from these friends for months, but they do not complain. They know her suffering, too many have shared in it, and they understand what it costs her to answer Jessica’s summons. Part of her is relieved, glad she came to face them all. She belongs with these people and the only way she will heal is with the soothing balm of their love.
If she drinks much more she fears she will empty her gut over the table. If it meant Bill would find her less attractive it might be worthwhile. However, holding back her long black hair as she throws up beside him would not dull his desperate yearning to kiss her lips. If she believed for one moment that it might she would stop clinging to the Salvations in her gut and spill them all. Deep down, in the pit of her treacherous stomach, she knows it will take more than a mountain of vomit to push him away.
Marian shakes her head and the room lurches. Against the far wall, under paintings of debauched saints, half hidden by shadows that muted amber lamps cannot dispel, she sees two oracles and two Jessicas. None of their shifting faces carry the slightest accusation, but Marian still feels personally responsible for the carnage unfolding around the city and beyond.
The oracle says this is not the end. Marian finds that hard to believe in spite of years of devout faith. Her only son is dead and her grandson is out there somewhere, holding open the gates of hell.
During the hours between waking and receiving Jessica’s summons, Marian sat listlessly on her couch and grieved. In the three months since she buried Satori, her charred son, she hadn’t worked. She’d barely left the house.
When the phone rang, Marian was tempted to let it go straight to answer machine, but something compelled her to lift the receiver.
‘Marian, I tried your mobile first...’
‘I haven’t charged it. What do you want, Jessica?’
The sharp intake of breath at the other end of the line was a warning.
‘I’m sorry.’ Marian’s apology tumbled from her lips. ‘It’s been a difficult time.’
‘I know, sister.’ Jessica’s soft voice sounded conciliatory. ‘We need you to come to the Lucifernum. Be here in thirty minutes. We’re waiting for you.’
The line went dead. Marian wanted to ignore the demand. Still in her dressing gown, she hadn’t bathed in days. It would be impossible to make the deadline. However, no one ignored Jessica’s commands. If she didn’t go willingly someone would collect her.
Marian groaned and headed for the shower. The warm water soothed her saline-ravaged skin.
Although she knew parking would be difficult, Marian drove to the bar. The sky darkened. Maroon clouds blocked the sun. Her skin tingled, anticipating an electrical storm. She should have stayed at home, wrapped in stinking misery. Yet here she was, double parking as close to the bar as possible, because she was summoned.
Twenty minutes late, she sheltered under the awning, knocking on a locked oak door, as the first blood-red raindrop spattered on the pavement a few feet away. Julio opened the door and pulled her inside as the first drop was joined by its brethren and the ground bubbled with claret. The barman bolted the door behind her as she straightened her coat and tried to regain some dignity.
The intimate room was full but quiet. Mike was there with his wife and a baby, their eyes wide and expectant, their mouths shut tight.
Clementine and Aaron had commandeered a table. When Marian first met the young woman, her hair was the same shade of orange as the name evoked, but it had darkened to auburn over the past seven years. The couple held hands, making a wall around their drinks with their forearms. The strength they found in each other might have made Marian crave a romantic connection, but there was no room in her life for another man. Her dead son dominated every cell in her being, and painful memories of her deceased husband warned her against man’s possessive nature. Bitter experience taught her that she gave herself too willingly to the men in her life as though a secret part of her psyche wanted to be dominated.
Julio left Marian’s side and retreated to the dark oak bar. Bill stood beside it with Nick and Penelope. Marian’s entrance distracted Bill, but the others continued their hushed conversation without him. Julio poured their drink order and they juggled glasses across to a table surrounded by people, many of whom Marian didn’t recognise.
There were other new faces, parents and children of the Morrigu worshippers, perhaps. She searched for familiar faces in the crowd and spotted Jessica and her grandmother in the far corner. Sophie, Grace and Tara stood near the centre of the room with a group of strangers.
Marian concentrated on Jessica. The woman who brought her here. Young, mid twenties, with long black hair and high, prominent cheek bones. A beautiful woman with a sensual face who radiated power. Jessica rose to greet Marian, leaving her blind grandmother, the oracle, at the table. Two Doberman Pinschers lay at the old woman’s feet.
‘What is it? Why are we all here?’ Marian asked.
Jessica pulled her into a tight embrace that squeezed Marian’s grief to the surface until she was incapable of doing anything other than sob on the younger woman’s shoulder. They remained like that, wrapped not only in each other’s arms but in the apprehension that filled the room. Two raven-haired, pale skinned women, one in her prime and the other still in her youth. They could pass as mother and daughter. Only their eyes and mouths were different. Jessica’s eyes were larger and darker, her lips fuller, although Marian had noticed they shared a similar shaped sneer when their features were at rest.
Marian understood she was not called here on a whim. Something terrible was happening outside and it had everything to do with that strange red rain.
Jessica guided Marian across to her grandmother. Marian perched on a stool at the table. One of the dogs nudged her thigh with its damp nose and she petted its bony head, eliciting a low, contented growl.
Bill brought Marian a glass of syrupy amber liquid. It warmed her throat and chest as she waited patiently. When the oracle spoke everyone listened. Her voice was harsh like tobacco. Her ancient lungs had lost their power and, although Marian sat only a few feet away, she leaned across the table, trying to drag the drawling vowels and rolling consonants to her ears.
‘They are three,’ the oracle said. ‘They bring the Lake of Sorrows with them. The red waters will soak through every skin and rip open souls. Regrets shall be laid bare until the pain becomes unbearable. Many will not survive this day and those who do will be changed. The psychopaths shall inherit the Earth. We shelter here together, each other’s strength, each other’s shield, and thank Morrigan for her wisdom and forewarning.’
Marian nodded respectfully at the old woman, took her drink and withdrew, across the room, to where Bill sat on a leather couch. A diamond panelled window dominated the wall behind them. Marian swivelled her neck to watch the rain as it formed a red river in the gutter. Her brow creased as she tried to process the oracle’s words. Shivering, her mind drifted and she remembered her beautiful boy. Her golden child who she refused to tame or bring to heel. Satori had power, more perhaps than the oracle, however blasphemous that sounded. Now he was dead, murdered in an Oedipal nightmare. If today was Marian’s last day on Earth she would die without vengeance, with only memories and alcohol to warm her bosom.
Jessica helps her grandmother rise to her feet. The old woman’s face seems weary. They have been sitting in this room for hours. Beyond the windows the rain still falls. Bill rushes to take the oracle’s other arm.
‘She needs to sleep,’ Jessica says. ‘Will you help me get her upstairs, Brother Bill?’
In Bill’s absence, Marian approaches Mike and his family. The baby is beautiful. It is the first time Marian has met the child and the first time in years she’s seen Lorraine - Mike’s wife, Freya and Ivan’s mother.
‘What’s her name?’ Marian asks.
Lorraine is serene. ‘Avaline.’
Lorraine nods and strokes the sleeping girl’s brow.
Marian doesn’t ask after Ivan or Freya. She already knows the family’s woes. Instead she offers to get them a drink. The buzz has worn off now and Marian is left with a deep throb in her cranium, one only more alcohol can suppress.
Julio sits in front of the bar, reading. He glances up as Marian approaches.
‘Do you have family?’ Marian asks him, uncomfortably aware that this is the first time she has conversed with the man beyond ordering drinks.
‘Jessica and her grandmother are my family,’ he answers simply.
His eloquent English is enhanced by a rich Mediterranean accent that matches the deep tan Julio displays between the open buttons of his canary yellow silk shirt. Marian presumes he’s gay, but doesn’t care. She wants to know his history: where he comes from, how he met the oracle, why he works here. After she delivers drinks to Mike’s table she returns to the bar and sits beside Julio, nursing her rum cocktail.
He smiles at her, inviting her questions, but first asks one of his own.
‘Is it true The Bringer of Chaos is your grandson?’
Marian isn’t surprised by Julio’s insider knowledge. She empties her glass before answering. ‘Yes.’
He exhales with a whistle, as though impressed by her claim to fame.
‘How long have you known Jessica and the oracle?’ she asks.
‘Fifteen years. I came to England for love. When that ended Grandma took me in.’
‘But you aren’t a worshipper?’
He shakes his head. ‘I respect the oracle and love her. They are my family, but family doesn’t have to follow the same path.’
Marian cannot argue with that. Satori didn’t follow hers.
‘What do you believe?’
He grins. ‘Okay, then, but first tell me, why do you follow the Morrigu?’
‘My mother grew up with the oracle. They were at school together in Pontypridd. When the oracle moved, Mum followed. She brought me up in the old ways. Morrigan was always part of my life. I guess it’s like being brought up Catholic, except we actually commune with our deity.’
‘But your son?’
‘Hang on. I asked you a question first. It’s your turn to answer,’ Marian says. ‘And pour me another drink. I can’t shift the pain in my head.’
Julio smirks as he pours the drink. ‘Okay then, I’m agnostic. I’ve seen miracles, but I am not convinced they originate from a source outside ourselves. They are common to all religions as far as I can tell. I was brought up Catholic. We have our share of people who commune with their deity, as you say.’
‘What’s your theory?’ Marian asks.
‘That we’re accessing forces inside ourselves. Morrigan, God, Satan, Buddha and the rest are the same thing with different names. The oracle draws on knowledge from deep inside herself when she communes with her deity. But it’s only a theory. I can’t know for certain.’
‘Then why the décor?’ Marian asks. ‘It looks Satanist.’
‘Ambience. The Lucifernum is a theme pub. No one complains.’
‘My son was a headstrong boy. I gave him a lot of rope, enough to hang himself. I introduced him to our ways a long time ago, but they weren't his way. He felt suffocated. In the end I thought forcing him to accept my beliefs would be tantamount to sacrificing him. He slipped away from Morrigu and me into obsession. Sometimes I thought he might be mad, but he knew and saw more than I did. I'm not sure what I might have done differently, even if I knew then what we know now. Some things are meant to be.’
Julio nods thoughtfully.
Marian attempts an unconvincing smile. She wonders why it is often easier to tell strangers the truth than admit it to oneself. This feels true, at least for the moment.
‘It was good talking to you, Julio.’
‘It was good talking with you as well,’ Julio replies.
Marian stands up with the intention of returning to Mike’s table, but her head is spinning again. Damn alcohol. These drinks have a kick. ‘Can you help me?’ she asks.
Julio takes her arm and escorts her safely to the table. No longer trusting herself on a stool, Marian sinks onto the couch beside Lorraine and grins at the baby.
The oak door vibrates as someone pounds on the other side of the barrier. No one moves to answer it. A shadow crouches beyond the leaded windows. Upstairs the dogs bark. Glass explodes inwards and a fist fills the hole. When it withdraws and the silhouette stumbles away, the rain pushes through and streams down the inside of the glass, soaking the couch she and Bill recently vacated.
‘Mierda!’ Julio yells. His eyes dart around the room as if searching for something to block the hole, something large enough that he won’t have to touch the water while he crams it in place.
‘Table?’ Mike asks.
Julio nods and the two rush upstairs to retrieve one from the kitchen.
Marian stares at the broken window. If it had smashed while she and Bill were sitting there, what would have happened then? Would she and Bill, soaked in misery, kill the rest of the worshippers? More likely they would die trying. What had the oracle said about the rain? That it rips open souls.
How much sorrow does Marian’s soul contain? Far too much. What of Bill? A sunny disposition masks his sadness, but Marian knows he has lost people too. How many of those losses does he harbour guilt about?
Marian’s guilt seems boundless. What-ifs smother her even without the influence of the red rain. It is all she can do to hold her regrets in check and keep living. Living? Is that what she’s been doing? Hiding rather. Hiding and clinging to the memory of her son.
She wonders about that fist and why it withdrew after smashing the glass rather than climbing through the broken window and bringing horror into the room. Did the ersatz lead strips prevent an intrusion? If the window had been a single plate of glass would she be fighting for her life against a drenched madman?
What the hell is happening outside? How fragile is their existence and what will happen if and when the rain stops?
Marian hasn’t felt this afraid, this threatened, for many years. The last time she felt this close to death was when her husband was beating her for the crime of feminising their son.
She holds back a scream of fury, refusing to be afraid. Let them come for her. She will fight them until her final breath rather than feel that powerless again.
Lorraine adjusts her hold on Avaline, shifting the peaceful sleeper from one arm to the other. She stares at Marian who shudders in anticipation. Lorraine’s expression is expectant; she wants something. Marian cannot guess what.
Rain and cold air seep through the broken windowpane, chilling the room. Mike’s absence makes his wife seem jumpy. Marian and Lorraine have never been friends. In fact Marian has often been the sympathetic ear to Mike’s complaints about his wife. If she was sober and more coordinated, Marian would get up and move to another seat, however rude that might appear. But she has no confidence in her balance and doesn’t want to draw attention as she abandons Lorraine. Better to sit still and try to brush off any questions, although her mind is too fuzzy to be trusted.
‘Can I ask you a question?’ Lorraine asks.
Here we go! Marian tries to hold down a burp, part nerves part inebriation, that she’s worried might morph into something more violent. Trapped, she carefully nods her head.
‘If our children had joined this cult of yours, do you think things would have been different?’
Acid bubbles and burns Marian’s oesophagus. Of course it is a question she’s asked many times since Satori’s death and before, when he was arrested for Star’s murder, but how can she answer this woman who has also lost everything? The aggression behind the word ‘yours’ is not lost on Marian in spite of her muddled thoughts.
Lorraine’s mournful eyes refuse to be denied. They beg for peace and solace. She wants to be told the deaths of her children are not her fault and she deserves an honest answer. Would Tanya and Ivan be dead, would Freya still be a killer, if they had been protected by the oracle? Would Satori still be alive?
As Marian opens her mouth to speak the suppressed burp rips through her throat. Lorraine’s face softens. A narrow smile flashes across her face, before disappearing. It happens so quickly that Marian isn’t sure whether she imagines it.
‘I’m so sorry,’ Marian says, covering her mouth. ‘I’m ridiculously drunk.’
‘But the children,’ Lorraine insists, wrinkling her nose at the gut rot stench.
‘Why didn’t Mike bring them to us?’ Marian asks, deflecting.
Lorraine stares at her lap. ‘I was afraid of you. Not you personally, the cult. I begged him not to. But they were all strange anyway. I guess they got that from their father.’
Marian doubts it. Lorraine is stranger than all of them, but she ignores that thought and tries to form another.
‘Satori’s, I mean Steve’s father wouldn’t hear of it either. By the time he was … out of our lives, Satori was already lost to Morrigan. I did try. But he felt suffocated and I feared she might kill him for some reason I couldn’t understand until now, even now. Would it have been different? I don’t know, Lorraine. Maybe for Ivan, maybe for Freya, but what happened to Tanya, well that was terrible, and maybe the oracle might have foreseen, but she doesn’t see everything. Some things, some tragedies, are unavoidable.’
‘I miss them so much.’ Lorraine’s eyes shine with tears. ‘Would you hold Avaline for a moment, while I dry my face?’
Marian nods and holds out her arms. Avaline barely stirs as she is transferred. The infant settles as soon as Marian brings her to her chest. Calmed by her heartbeat or perhaps the gurgling of her digestive system. Avaline reminds Marian of Satori when he was a baby. Her pride and joy. Marian was happy then. Her marriage had been difficult, but her husband gave her the love of her life, a son. She would always be thankful for that and the twenty-seven years of watching Satori grow into a man. At times she thought her son mad, but his brilliance filled her with pride and she aches with his loss; a hole she knows she will never fill. At least Lorraine has Avaline, the chance of a fresh start. Will she allow this child to be brought into the Morrigu? Has she learned her lesson?
‘Ivan was the sweetest boy, but I never really understood Freya. She was a rebel. Ivan was always so easy, so content. He loved water; he said it was his element, and he loved life. You remember that tree in our garden, the one with the ribbons. He tied those scraps of fabric to its branches. He said each one was a prayer that had been answered. He never took anything for granted. Not like Freya, who was always acting out, entitled, strange. She said we trapped her, smothered her, but we were just trying to protect her. After Tanya, we were terrified about losing Freya too. Girls are fragile. You worry about them more.
‘Tanya was beautiful. They say you love your first born best of all. They took her from me. It broke her daddy’s heart, and the police never caught the boys who did it. All that evidence and the killers just disappeared. Sometimes when I ask Mike his eyes have a strange gleam, as if he knows where they went, but he won’t tell me. I need to know, Marian. It might not matter now, but if you can tell me they were punished, those filthy murderers, those rapists, those destroyers of beauty, I will be in your debt. Did he kill them? Did Mike find them and make them pay for what they did to our daughter. Please tell me. I’ve been married to him for over thirty years, but you know him better than I do. You know what happened, right? You have to. I need you to tell me.’
Marian doesn’t glance up. She focuses on the tiny brow and pale fluttering lashes of the sleeping baby. Yes, she knows. More than that, she helped. Mike caught the boys. He brought them to the basement of the Lucifernum. For days they tortured the teens. Together they ensured the boys relived every wound they inflicted and more. They wept blood. Lorraine is right, but it isn’t Marian’s place to tell her that. Thankfully she doesn’t have to work out an answer. Julio and Mike re-emerge, grunting with the effort of carrying a heavy kitchen table.
When the broken pane is blocked there is a sigh of relief. The room is darker than ever, and Marian is glad when Julio lights a fire. She appreciates the light even more than the warmth. Mike joins them, sweating profusely. He seems surprised that Lorraine has released her hold on Avaline; he tries to hide it with a smile. Then notices his wife’s distress and pulls her close to his musky body.
Marian can smell him from where she sits, but Lorraine seems comforted by his stench. Before Marian can make her excuses and hand over the baby, Bill pens her in on the other side.
‘How is the oracle?’ Mike asks.
‘She’s sleeping,’ Bill answers. ‘Jessica plans to sit with her a while. What happened to the window?’
‘Some cunt smashed the glass. The rain was getting in,’ Mike answers. ‘Did she say how long she thinks it will last?’
‘Want another drink, anyone?’ Mike asks.
Only Marian shakes her head. The others eagerly accept.
‘Can I have her back?’ Lorraine asks, grabbing Avaline before receiving an answer.
With the baby in her arms Lorraine recovers her serenity, as if the child insulates her from her pain. Marian understands how such devotion to her children could easily become overpowering, but at the same time she empathises and realises in Lorraine’s position she would probably behave the same way. But Marian’s grandson is not an innocent like Avaline. He is not a baby to be protected and, if she had her way, she would have killed him rather than allow him to destroy her family and poison the skies.
Her skin itches. She feels trapped between Bill and Lorraine. She needs to move. She makes her excuses and rushes to the bathroom.
The air is chilly beyond the warmth of the fire. Marian stares at the mirror. Age is starting to alter her face. There are lines across her forehead she never noticed before and strands of grey pepper her dark hair. Her mouth tastes as though something crawled in and died there. She gargles under the tap. The water is frosty and makes her teeth ache.
Marian enters a stall and locks the door, glad to be alone. Lorraine has sapped her strength. She wants to go home, sleep on Satori’s sheets, hear his soft breath in the air of his bedroom. Incorporeal perhaps, but his presence fills her home, their home. He hasn’t abandoned her.
When Satori was a baby, he was every bit as sweet and beautiful as Avaline. They named him Steve, her ex-husband’s choice. Steve renamed himself Satori later. It had taken Marian a while to adjust, much to her son’s frustration. “Names have power,” he would say. Not enough to save you though, my love.
When Satori was little his father, Carl, doted on him. By the time Satori was seven years old he wasn’t enough of a boy for his father. It enraged Carl to see his son gaze longingly at his mother’s soft fabrics. He refused to understand why Satori would choose to read a book rather than kick a football around in the park with his dad.
Confused and angry, Carl blamed her, the boy’s mother. She was too indulgent. Their home became a battleground. Marian’s friends, her work, her appearance, even the food she prepared for them were all to blame. The first time Carl struck Marian was the evening after Satori’s eighth birthday party. All the guests were girls. The cake, at Satori’s request, had lilac icing that was too feminine for any son of Carl’s.
After shaving the boy’s head and sending him to bed, even the length of their son’s hair had started to offend Carl, he picked up the purple glitter scooter Satori had begged Marian for, and threw it at her.
Satori’s scream, he’d snuck downstairs and watched it all, had been the final straw and Carl stormed out of the house, only to come home drunk the following night. So it continued. Marian planned to leave many times, but feared losing her son if she fled. Their final separation was nothing she could have planned, and thankfully something Satori didn’t seem to remember. One night, when Satori was almost ten years old, the boy witnessed his father slap Marian so hard that she fell back onto the sofa. Satori might have been small, but the way he jumped seemed more like levitation. The force with which he struck his father with a lamp made the back of the man’s head crumple inwards with a sickening crunch. Carl fell face first onto their coffee table, smashing the glass top, and Satori rushed to his mother’s arms to comfort her.
Mike, Bill, and the rest of her friends who Carl had hated so much, helped clean up the mess. Marian bought a suitably Carl-like gift for Satori for his tenth birthday. Christmas cards and gifts were sent by proxy in the man’s absence until at thirteen Satori admitted he was glad his father had left, and didn’t want his stupid gifts. Then it had just been the two of them. Closer than mother and son, more devoted than other families. It was them against the world. Through girlfriends for Satori and the occasional disturbing male admirer for both of them, they had endured, remained inseparable. Star changed that, and Marian had to come to terms with letting go.
At first she didn’t understand her son’s obsession with the delicate, pale girl. Later the oracle warned her of the destructiveness of the relationship, but nothing Marian said or did made any difference. Satori gnawed away at the umbilical cord like an ungrateful pup, but she still loved him. She will always love him.