A Night of a Thousand Stars
For the Sraffies
Original characters and situations are copyright © Ceres Wunderkind 2006
'Have a look up there. It's not very good, is it?'
'No, you're right. It isn't.'
It was mid-morning on a beautiful day; and I was standing at the back of Lockkeeper's Cottage, looking up at the gable end wall. Now that it was May and spring had well and truly sprung, it was time to think about doing a little maintenance. Winter had been hard this year and the paintwork was beginning to look distinctly weatherworn. I wondered what else might need attention.
'You can't do much. You've only got four weeks,' said my daemon Jemima.
'I know.' That was true enough. I'd got home from Mancunia just the night before and I'd have to be back there by the middle of June. It seemed the University vacations were always too short.
'And you've got your Finals coming up. You need to revise.'
'Yes, I do know that.' Irritating creature! But we both knew where our priorities lay. Besides, we'd got through our Intermediates without any problems and it was my belief that time spent with my head out of a book was as valuable as time spent in close study. It was as if my mind was set free to organise its contents while my hands were busy doing something that was nothing whatsoever to do with Advanced Relative Mechanics.
So... 'The pointing's a bit shaky,' said Jemima.
'Hmmm…' I jabbed a pencil into the mortar next to the kitchen window. A small piece fell out. 'It's not that bad.'
'It needs doing.'
'More than the painting?'
'I think so.'
'You've changed your tune, daemon. Just now you were dead keen on us revising for the whole vac.'
'And now I think you're right about needing a break from studying. This wall needs re-pointing. We've got to keep the cottage in good order. We're honour-bound.'
What could I possibly say in answer to that?
- 0 -
Jemima and I walked across the grounds of the Estate, up Stratford Way and along the busy Hempstead Road until we reached the West End of Cassiobury. There, next to the pond, stood Bannion's Hardware and Building Requisites, with its display of ladders, bags of peat, doormats, paint pots, deckchairs, dustbins and boot-scrapers overflowing onto the pavement. I navigated around the piles of goods, pushed the door open and entered the shop with the doorbell jangling loudly above my head. A middle-aged man in brown overalls with a finch-daemon on his shoulder and a faint aura hovering around the bald crown of his head was standing behind the counter. Good shopkeeper that he was, he recognised one of his regular customers immediately.
'Good morning, Mister Johns!'
'Good morning, Master Bannion.'
'And what can I do for you this fine morning?'
I told Master Bannion about the re-pointing work the cottage needed. He nodded understandingly and retreated into the dusky depths of the shop for a minute or two, returning with a brown bag full of fine grey powder.
'Three to one mix, and don't make up more than a couple of pounds of mortar at a time else it'll set before you've used it all.'
'Yes, Master Bannion.'
'And use tap water to mix it, not that murky stuff you get out of the canal. All that mud, algae and frog-spawn will stop it setting properly.'
'Right you are, Master Bannion.'
'Good. Shall I charge it to the usual?'
'Yes please, Master Bannion.'
Of course I had been foolish to go to Bannion's first. I still needed to visit Caters' store and buy myself some food. The bread and milk I had brought down on the train from Mancunia wouldn't last much longer. So, like an idiot, I had to hump that ten-pound bag of mortar up and down Caters' aisles and by the time I'd got enough stock in to last a couple of days I was seriously weighed down. I lurched out of the shop and sat down on a bench by the side of the Pond.
'Come on,' said Jemima. 'Let's get back.'
'Are you offering to help me carry this lot?'
'Don't be daft!'
So, staggering slightly and with my hamster-daemon riding smugly in my coat pocket, I stood up and returned to the cottage; and if I found myself reminiscing about the very first time I had carried a load of shopping back there, well that was only natural.
- 0 -
My feet knew the way from Cassiobury town to Lockkeeper's Cottage perfectly well without any help from my eyes so I didn't pay very much attention to my surroundings as I walked through the Estate. Cassio Estate is privately owned, of course, but the owners have always been happy to grant public access to it; to the extent that the locals call it "the park" and treat it as if it were public property. So it was not unusual to see mothers with their children mingling with the Estate staff and, in the middle of the day, office workers or nurses from the Memorial Hospital taking their lunch on the grass, and I hardly noticed them. I looked down at the path mostly, afraid that I might stumble under my burden.
There was a small wood between the open spaces of the park and the Grand Junction canal. My home nestled between this wood, the weir, and the lock which gave the cottage its name. Normally the owner of the house would be liable for the upkeep of the lock and the stretch of water - known as the pound - above it. In my case this responsibility was waived and Albert Jones at the Rickmonsworth lock looked after the Cassiobury part as well, collecting a yearly consideration for his trouble.
So I wasn't all that surprised to find a Morris van parked by the side of the cottage even though, with my head down as it was, I nearly bumped into it. It was probably once of the Estate vehicles, or maybe it belonged to a friend of Albert's. What did startle me so much that I almost dropped my packages was the car that was parked in front of it. It was a Merlyn 3000SE two-seater drop-head coupé, in gleaming silver and black, with a pair of wide chromium-plated exhaust pipes at the rear and the flared bonnet line that told me it was powered by the supercharged variant of the standard 180 cubic inch six-cylinder gazole engine. I stared at it with undisguised lust. The door wasn't locked, was it? Perhaps if I just sat in it… Tried the starter... Did it have the power-steering option? I'd have to give it a go. I wondered whose it was. Probably a guest at the big house. They wouldn't miss it for just five minutes, would they? Suppose I kept off public roads?
'Chris!' said my daemon sharply and dug a claw into me. 'Stop it!'
'Doesn't hurt to look.'
'Then leave it at that.' Jemima's voice was stern. She knew, more than anyone else, where my weakness lay. So I gave the car one last longing gaze and went round to the front of the house. I put my bags down and dug into my trouser pocket for the front door key. Jemima stopped me.
'Look!' she said. I immediately saw what she meant. The door was already open. Damn! Had my house been burgled while I was out shopping? The vehicles outside didn't look like getaway cars - but wait... Perhaps the thieves hadn't heard me coming and were inside the cottage right now, ransacking its contents. You could get quite a lot of furniture into that van.
I'm not exactly what you might call brave. The most sensible thing for me to do would have been to run up to Cassio Hall and get help. They knew me, of course, and there would have been sure to be some servants who would have helped. I'm not brave; but neither did I want to leave the cottage to be robbed while I, as it were, ran away.
'Shout,' said Jemima. 'Scare them off.'
I took her in my hands and smiled at her. 'Good idea.'
So, at the top of my not terribly impressive voice I called out, 'Tim! Alec! You cover the back door. Ian and I'll go in at the front.'
'Right, Chris,' I replied to myself, hoping I sounded convincing. Then I hid behind the abutment of the bridge which crossed the canal below the bottom lock gate and gave the housebreakers a minute or two to make their escape.
Nothing happened. I waited another minute. Still no movement. I could hear nothing but the swish of water running over the weir, the trees of the wood brushing against one another in the wood behind me and the lazy chug of a northbound boat in the downhill pound. It would reach the lock in another five minutes or so.
That would suit me very well. There would be witnesses, and maybe help, if I had need of it. So I waited until the boat had nudged its way between the bottom gates of the lock and waved to the man at the tiller, who waved back. He knew me, as did all the commercial boatmen who plied the Grand Junction Canal from London to Brummagem and beyond.
Surely his arrival, with its dull thump of wooden hull against lock wall and clatter of windlass in iron ratchet, would scare off my unexpected and unwelcome visitors. I waited, crouched down with my legs cramped, for another five minutes,
Still nothing. I relaxed a little and smiled to myself. I was being foolish and cowardly. There was nobody in the cottage. I had carelessly left the door ajar when I went into town. The presence of the car and the van was no more than a coincidence. They probably belonged to some people from the Hall who had driven down to the waterside to try and catch some trout.
Still smiling at myself, I pushed the door right open and walked into the cottage. I dumped my shopping onto the kitchen table and was about to start storing it away in the larder when I heard a creak from the floorboards over my head.
Damn! I had been right all along. There were intruders in my house. And if they hadn't run off when the boat passed through the lock they must be pretty sure of themselves. I had two choices - fight, or run. So, as I had run and hidden myself before, I decided to stand and fight this time. I took my biggest carving knife from the cutlery drawer and walked upstairs, Jemima concealed in my coat pocket. I stopped on the landing and listened carefully. Yes… there was somebody moving about in the spare bedroom. I drew a deep breath, held the knife out in front of me, crossed the landing and kicked the door wide open.
'What the hell are you doing here?' I said as loudly and confidently as I could manage.
There were two people in the room; a man and a woman. The man had a notebook in his left hand and a pencil in his right. The woman was leaning against the windowsill. She turned slowly and looked at me, her head silhouetted against the light and her face both invisible and unreadable.
'I could,' she said, 'ask you the same question. What on earth are you doing in Arthur Shire's house?'
I was taken aback for a moment. What did she mean?
'Tell her,' said Jemima from the safety of my pocket. 'And put that knife down.'
I did, once again feeling rather foolish.
'Well?' said the man. 'Answer the lady.'
'It's not Arthur's house, it's mine. I live here. He gave it to me.'
'Did he?' asked the woman. 'I suppose you can prove that.'
'Yes, I can,' said the man.
'Go on, then.'
'Not now, I can't. There's an official document. It's at the solicitor's; Quinn's in Station Road. It's not far.' There was a brief silence.
'I think,' said the woman, 'that we should all go downstairs and have a nice cup of tea.' She led the way down my stairs through my hallway and into my kitchen. The man with the notebook followed her and I followed him.
They sat down at the kitchen table while I bustled about with kettle and teapot. Nobody said anything until I put the mugs down and asked, 'Milk? Sugar?'
The man took milk and two sugars. The woman took neither milk nor sugar, though I suspected she would have liked a slice of lemon. I sat down opposite them and had a good look at them for the first time. The man resembled a bank manager or a solicitor in a business suit and tie, his owl-daemon perched neatly beside him. He had no aura about him that I could see. The woman was also dressed formally, in a dark pencil skirt, white blouse and pearl necklace. Her daemon was a small creature with soft brown fur. I didn't recognise what kind of animal he was formed after.
The first thing that most people would have noticed about the woman was that she was very beautiful, with long dark hair tied in a chignon at the nape of her neck, an oval face with clear hazel eyes, and a mobile, expressive mouth. Most people, I say, but what I saw first was her aura; which glowed more brightly and was more imbued with life than anybody's I had seen before, except for one. One special person. Arthur.
She was obviously used to the effect her appearance had on people, but I doubt she knew exactly why I was so tongue-tied in her presence. However, she did know how to deal with it.
'Thank you for the tea,' she said with a gentle smile. 'Allow me to introduce myself. I am Sonya Moon, and this is Mister Randall.' She held her hand out and I shook it, not sure whether I shouldn't have kissed it instead. I shook Mister Randall's hand as well.
'Chris Johns,' I said.
'I expect you're wondering what we're doing here,' said Mister Randall.
'Yes, I am rather.'
'It's come to our attention that this house has been falling into a state of some disrepair.' He opened his notebook and consulted it. 'Let's see - flaking external paintwork, rotting sills, front fence damaged, poor decorative order throughout. Oh, and there's some evidence of damp penetration at the back. The north-east facing wall.' He closed the book again.
I shook my head. 'I don't understand. Are you from the Brytish Gyptian Council? Are you checking up on me?' I was beginning to feel indignant and rose from my seat. 'I look after the place as well as I can. Look! I've just been to get some mortar to fix up the back wall. What's it got to do with you, anyway?'
'Please sit down, Mister Johns,' the woman said softly. I sat down, feeling more foolish than ever. 'Tell us about yourself. We didn't expect to find you here. Arthur didn't say anything about you.'
That startled me. 'Arthur? You've been speaking to Arthur?'
'In a way.'
'Oh... I've not seen him or heard from him for nearly six years. Is he all right? How is he? Is he well?'
Miss Moon leaned forwards over the table. 'He's old, Mister Johns. Very old.' And her aura, the flying cloud of amber Dust that orbited around her shoulders, dimmed for a moment. Her daemon nestled into the crook of her arm.
'Perhaps it would help,' said Mister Randall after a respectful pause, 'if you told us how you come to be living here.'
'Did Arthur never tell you about this house?'
'No,' replied Miss Moon.
'Well, it was like this...' And I told Mister Randall and Miss Moon how it was that when I was fifteen I had helped Mister Shire with redecorating his house. I didn't tell her I'd been in trouble with the law for stealing cars or that I had been sent to work for Mister Shire as a punishment.
'The Merlyn; is it yours?' I asked.
'Yes, it is.'
I went on, 'He knew he'd made a mistake, selling his boats and buying this house. I think he was slightly ashamed of himself. That's probably why he never told you about it before.'
'Hmmm. So, he let you stay here?'
'Yes, he went back to the water and gave me the cottage.'
'That's most unusual, wouldn't you say?' said Mister Randall. 'To give a valuable piece of property to a fifteen-year-old boy?'
'Arthur is a most unusual man,' I said. Sonya Moon smiled.
'But you have rather let the place go, have you not?' said Mister Randall. He looked at me accusingly.
I paused. 'Look, I don't understand. Why are you here, looking round the cottage? I didn't ask you to come. I asked you before and you didn't answer me. Are you from the Brytish Gyptian Council?' For the terms under which I lived in the cottage included a clause that upon my death it would revert to the Gyptians' governing body. The house was only borrowed.
'No, we're not,' said Mister Randall.
'So who are you?'
'I am Miss Moon's estate manager. I am responsible, among other things, for the upkeep of her property.'
'But this isn't her property!' I turned to Miss Moon. 'Sorry, but you can see why I'm puzzled. This gentleman looks after your estates, fine, but that doesn't explain why you're here.' A thought suddenly struck me. 'Oh, wait a mo. I get it. You said you'd been in touch with Arthur.'
'Or rather,' she said, 'he's been in touch with me.'