The Blue Boy

“What just happened?” Aunty Stella tried to straighten her turban where it had tipped forward over one eye and dislodged her spectacles. “What’s this place?”

Lady Augusta took a deep breath and began to blurt out an inadequate explanation. “It’s not really a tunnel as such. It bends space-time back on itself so that where you are and where you want to be are next to each other. That results in a bit of a multidimensional vacuum that kind of sucks you in and spits you out again. Not entirely unpleasant.”

“Mostly though…”

“Yarrooo!”

Boz was ejected onto the Carrara floor, with Phoebles clinging to his knees. They were closely followed by Phoebles’ waders and a strong smell of catnip. Ginsbergbear emerged holding his deer-stalker on with both hands, his Peterson glowing flame red and pouring out more black smoke than a Greek tramp steamer.

“I’m flying!” Ferdy shot out of the tunnel and into the far wall. “Oh.”

Unruffled, Master Dorje and Zelda, old hands at spacetime travel, stepped into the room. Slasher McGoogs was on his hands and knees heaving noisily. He coughed up a huge fur ball. “Oh dear.”

“Is Flo here?” asked Boz.

“I am.” She was squatting, panther-like, where she had landed by the Analytical Engine.

“Welcome to my bubble universe,” said Augusta. The little party gathered their wits whilst the great engine loomed over them, clattering, whirring and clanking as it continued to analyse the data Zelda had fed into it on her previous visit. “Let us see what the miraculous beast has to tell us. Come round to the output terminal.” The countess patted the bronze framework affectionately as she led them to the far side. Five minutes walk down the length of the machine a small boy in a blue velvet suit sat at a vintage school desk. With expressionless face and vacant stare he held a cheap Biro poised above a scroll of printer paper.

“Would you do the honours, please, Master Dorje?”

The monk threw a lever labelled ‘Readout’. With a jerk the child put pen to paper and painstakingly inscribed a copperplate ‘a’. Its hand moved along and wrote another letter, and another, and another. Unseen within the torso of the automaton a programmable wheel, with the alphabet inscribed about its rim, began to rotate. A column of irregular discs stepped up and down to align with steel arms, sprung to follow the contours of each disc as it turned. Each time the scribe reached the end of a line the paper inched up and the process continued.

“Is this as fast as it goes?” Phoebles was looking concerned. “Les Chats will be ruling the world long before we get an answer at this rate.”

“It’s very elegant though, isn’t it,” said Ferdy.

“Aesthetically pleasing,” added Ginsbergbear. “Does it do poetry?”

“Bloody useless,” said Boz.

“Oh…” Lady Augusta was downcast.

“I might have an idea.” Said Zelda cheerily. “Have you got a box of bits?”

“In my workshop.” Master Dorje replied.

“Come along then, Master D. You lot stick with this antediluvian contraption while me and the magus work on an upgrade.”

Quantum Physics

The wall of rock was gone and there was a sudden rush of musty air that seemed to give out a relieved sigh. Dorje stepped back to retrieve his staff.

“Quick you must be. Open for long this portal will not remain.”

“Come on then,” said Boz, rushing through and panning his headlamp around. They found themselves within a passageway whose curving walls, of gleaming obsidian, were at least twenty feet apart and stretched in both directions way beyond the reach of their torch beams. This side branch on the edge of the World Tunnel System looked little utilised and, spacious as it appeared to our heroes, was mean by Atlantean standards.

“What now?” Ginsbergbear’s voice reverberated off the hard stone. “How will we ever find your bubble universe Mrs King? We’re a long way from Jersey.”

“With a little ingenuity the time/space tunnel induced to come to us will be,” replied Master Dorje. “Much there is about the Ancient Ones that even Les Chats Souterrains are unaware of. Now, a suitable venue we must find.”

He led the way and the company followed. Some meek, some inquisitive, all bemused, they trudged behind the diminutive Tibetan along the vaulted highway. The polished basalt road surface was slippery and strangely interactive. With each footfall it squeaked musically.

“Is that a light at the end of the tunnel?” said Ferdy.

“Philosophically or incandescently?” asked Boz. But they were all becoming aware of a lifting of the gloom. Soon they could see clearly. The tunnel opened out beneath a great shaft. Light streamed down from high above and so did water, like gentle drizzle, pooling on the floor.

“Gather round,” said Dorje, “Not too close.”

He removed his orange felt hat and from inside it he took out a tin of mackerel in chip shop curry sauce. He opened it, rolling back the lid, and placed it carefully at his feet. Sitting cross-legged he produced a battered, leather bound copy of the I Ching and three worn bronze Chinese coins.

“What on earth is he doing?” Aunty Stella asked Augusta King.

“No idea. He’s never done anything like this before. Not with me.”

Dorje tossed the coins into the air where they hung longer than seemed right before tinkling to the ground. He read the Book of Changes, quietly to himself.

“What’s going to happen now,” Phoebles asked of no one in particular.

“Shush. Patient you must be. Quantum physics this is.”

Nothing happened.

Then the mackerel tin quivered. Without warning it jumped, or as Master Dorje explained later, all its atoms simultaneously jumped, sideways some six inches. There was a plop and it vanished. At the same moment a plank door with a heart shaped hole and a Suffolk latch appeared behind the old monk. It was painted sage green and bobbed slowly in mid air.

“Wow!”

“A dunny door?” Dark Flo was unimpressed.

“It’s the space/time tunnel,” said Lady Augusta, rushing forward. “Prepare to be amazed.” She flung the door open with a dramatic flourish and revealed a ceramic lavatory pan with a varnished mahogany seat. A black printed legend on the cistern tank proclaimed:

Thos Crapper & Co

Invictas

with Symphonic Flush

“Bugger!” she exclaimed, glaring at Master Dorje.

“I’d give it a minute or two,” he replied. “Yank the chain.”

They all heard the deluge of water, the gurgle as it swirled down the pan, and then the porcelain pinnacle of pissoirs folded through space. The familiar, to some, John Williams intro jingle burst forth, and they were staring into the mouth of the spiralling time tunnel.

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Underground

“Which way did the caretaker say?”

“Right fork… I think,” replied Ginsbergbear absently.

“Probably doesn’t matter so long as we’re headed upstream,” from Boz, “He’d no idea what we were looking for anyway.”

This branch of the sewer soon began to narrow, the brickwork was old and weathered and the stuff they waded through becoming deeper. The air was thick and treacly with a hint of ammonia, the heat oppressive and the darkness, alleviated only by the skittering beams of their headlamps, was unsettling the reluctant heroes. An eerie mist, faintly glowing a bilious green, hung above the ‘liquor’ that rippled about their knees. There was a splash from up ahead, the mist swirled and a low bow-wave swept towards them. Something large and slithery brushed between Phoebles’ legs. Lady Augusta jumped, shrieked and then looked embarrassed.

“Keep moving,” said Slasher.

‘I’m really not enjoying this a lot,” said Phoebles after a while.

“You should try it from down here,” said Ferdy, whose lack of length in the leg department was, yet again, proving a disappointment.

A pair of turquoise eyes, on stalks, popped up to stare at the interlopers, and Zelda blasted them with her shotgun. Everyone ducked as slime splattered in all directions and the booming discharge echoed up and down the tunnel.

“For…” Slasher howled, “We could have brought the Dagenham Girl Pipers if we’d wanted to make sure everyone knew we were here. Don’t do that again.”

“What’s this?” said Aunty Stella. She was pointing to a semi-circular arch just above head height in the tunnel wall. There was a broad arrow chiselled into the capstone, a grill hanging awkwardly where it had rusted through and a little stream dribbling from the orifice. Dark Flo went over to inspect.

“It’s not sewage, it’s fresh water,” she observed.

“You been tasting things again?” asked Phoebles.

“Glamour it is,” said Master Dorje,

“Eh?”

“A disguise. Making the tunnel a working outlet to look like, it must be.”

“Eh?”

“And it’s not on the map,” noted Ginsbergbear.

“Good enough,” said Slasher, “we’ll check it out.”

Dark Flo yanked the corroded grating off the wall and they were lifting Dorje and Ferdinand into the side tunnel when Ginsbergbear noticed a pair of beady crimson eyes piercing the darkness up the main sewer. There was a squeak.

The two eyes became six and the squeaking increased, attracting Bozzy’s attention. He nudged Slasher. By the time everyone was aware of the situation there were dozens of tiny, perfectly round red eyes with pinpoint black irises peering at them. Flo reached for her katana. Zelda loaded a flechette cartridge into the breach of her SPAS and fired up the tunnel. Blood curdling shrieks filled the air, died away and the eyes were gone. Indescribable shreds of matter flowed past. Phoebles shuddered.

Slasher’s ears were ringing, his hearing muffled.

“I thought I said… Just stop that, Zelda! Now, everyone up into the hole. Quick.”

The side tunnel’s stonework was ancient. Its barrel roof, barely five foot high, forced all but Ferdy to bend over and waddle inelegantly.

“I hope this doesn’t go on long, it’s murder on the knees,” said Phoebles.

They tottered on, with the occasional ‘Ouch’ as someone banged their head. After ten or so painful minutes they came to a small pool where a spring bubbled playfully.

Dorje pointed with his staff. “The source of your stream this is.”

“Hmm,” said Boz, “I think we’d worked that out.”

A low, stone sill just beyond the pool ensured the crystal water flowed in the desired direction and after a few paces the passage took a sharp turn to the left. It began to open out until they could all stand upright at last. Then the tunnel ended, in a solid wall of bedrock. A Minoan Labrys had, long ago, been incised into the rock and picked out in gold leaf.

Master Dorje began to search.

“Let us see. Ah yes.” He was scraping away, with one sandalled foot, at the dried mud that obscured the floor of the passage, revealing a pentagram of Tyrian purple glazed tessera set into a plain mosaic. He thrust his staff into a two-inch diameter hole at the centre of the pentangle and began to rummage in the folds of his yak-hide overcoat. To the amazement of all he produced a soprillo saxophone and handed it to Phoebles.

“Dressed most appropriately for this task you are. When I call for it, a ‘B flat’ you will give me.”

Phoebles fingered the instrument without much confidence.

Dorje placed one hand on each blade of the carved pelekys and began to press.

“Now, Mr P.”

Phoebles blew hard on the sax and the rock wall, like a stretched rubber sheet, began to give.

“Again,” cried Master Dorje.

Note:

The Minoan Labrys, also known as “pelekys” or “sagaris”, was a double headed ritual axe, found in ancient Minoan depictions of the Mother Goddess. Its symbolism is related to the labyrinth and it is believed that the meaning of the word labyrinth is the ‘house of the double axe’. The Labrys was used by female priestesses only, for bull sacrifices. The shape of the double axe (referring to the moon) and the belief that it was used in battle by the Amazons make it a symbol associated with female empowerment to this day.

Representations of the double axe are found in Africa, in Old Europe and in Minoan Crete among other places.

Abbey Mills

Inside they were confronted by a short, portly pensioner in a flat cap, grey flannels and bracers over a grubby singlet. At his heal was an alert French bulldog on a length of thick string.

“You could have just knocked.”

“Ah, sorry.”

“We weren’t expecting anyone to be here.”

“Well, I’m here and I’m the caretaker. The black gang’s down in the boiler room too, and they’re big buggers. You lot look like Chat hunters – except that one.” Both he and the dog glared disparagingly at Phoebles.

“I didn’t want to look aggressive, or edible,” replied Phoebs defensively.

“That door’s going to be a sod to fix. And there’s no Chats in this neck of the woods. So you’re wasting your time.

“Not exactly,” said Slasher, “we’re just after getting into the sewer. Have you got a plan of the system?”

Charley the caretaker, ‘Right Charley’ to his few friends, was still wary and not a little annoyed about his door.

“Bloody adventurers,” he muttered under his breath. “Come on then.”

He led them through the imposing Engine Hall; all cast iron galleries and pillars in dark red, sky blue and gold, the mighty beam engines clunking and chuffing to a slow beat. At the far end of the hall was a small door out into the back yard. Under a lean-to he pointed into an inspection pit next to a foul smelling skip. They could make out a heavy iron grill. The dog found something interesting and wandered off with it.

“This is the Big Strainer. Sifts out dead dogs, discarded limbs, shopping trolleys and the like. You wouldn’t believe what people flush down their loos. Down stream is the Little Strainer.” Charley pointed to a second skip across the yard. “That collects all the condoms, wedding rings and teaspoons. This way.”

They passed several eight-foot diameter corroded cast iron pipes and mounted a flight of rickety wooden stairs to a dilapidated shack with cracked windows.

“The office.” The caretaker opened an old cupboard, sending up a cloud of dust and unrolled a set of blueprints. He rifled through them until he found the one he wanted.

“This should do you.” He jabbed at the diagram. “Best go in just here. I’ll show you.” They meekly followed along a walkway that ran above the pipes and into a brick tunnel. The old man stopped at a steel door.

“There’s a short ladder just the other side. Be careful. Take the left fork and pray it doesn’t rain.”

Slasher distributed headlamps from his knapsack. As the last of the group, Dorje, stepped onto the rusting ladder Charley slammed the door shut without wishing them luck. They heard a bolt slide across.

“Let’s crack on,” said Slasher, splashing into eighteen inches of fast flowing shite, “Look out for any tunnel that’s not on the map.”

“And anything long and scaly,” added Phoebles.

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A Writer Writes

But sometimes a writer takes inspiration from what others have written, like this letter sent by my great uncle to his young wife on May 19th 1940, shortly before the Battle of Dunkirk. I have transcribed a cache of letters written by this young couple in the early years of the war and have never been able to read this particular letter aloud without feeling a lump in my throat.’Tiny’ died in a training exercise two years later, so I never knew him, but I am grateful to him and many others for their courage at that time.So now, with a film coming to our screens, I’d like to share this one short but very poignant testimony to those brave men.

My own darling Nora,
I find it difficult to write this but I know you will understand if it sounds sentimental.
Nora dearest, this may be the last letter you will receive from me. The whole B.E.F. is withdrawing and the H.L.I. have been detailed to cover the withdrawal, in the words of the order “To the last bullet and the last man”.
I find that I am not so courageous after all, in fact at this moment I am trying hard to keep a lump from my throat and a smile on my face.
We have been bombed and machine gunned for the past two days but at the moment it is quiet.
My darling I love you so terribly and that’s what makes it so hard.
Please don’t think I’ve given up darling, I’m not dead yet and something may turn up.
Sweetheart, if the worst happens, think of me sometimes and know that I loved you more than anything in the world and that I am thinking of you to the last.
So I am going to sit down quietly for a while and think of all the little things we used to do, the room at Euston and our flat at Highbury – and that marvellous 10 days leave.
I have 9 men with me, and they are working hard to strengthen the post, so now, my sweetheart and most wonderful wife, good night and good luck,

Your adoring
Tiny
P.S. I love you.

P.P.S. If, by the time you get this, you have received no official news – don’t worry.

Slasher’s Plan (with Crocodiles)

Flo turned towards the piano:

“Sam!” The pianist had been joined by Mouse Jackson on tenor sax and they were murdering Star Man. “Shhhh!”

“But Les Chats… And Mrs King’s engine,” said Ferdy, now that he could be heard, “How on earth can we get to it?”

Slasher leaned forward, “I might have an idea. Remember Bazalgette’s cathedral and my escape on the Bovril Boat? Well no-one’s ever seen Les Chats down that end of the sewer.”

“Why?” asked Boz.

“Well there’s rats the size of Tamworth boars.”

“You’re telling us the Chats Souterrains are afraid of rats? Wooses.”

“…or the crocodiles.”

“Crocs!” squeaked Phoebles, “The idea of going back to Abbey Mills is bad enough. Them marshes are dead spooky.”

“We’re all agreed then,” quickly chipped in Slasher, “The Duesy’s garaged in an old warehouse up the road, but you won’t all fit in. We’ll take the Cord too.” There was joint mumbling and a shrugging of shoulders.

“OK, no time like the present. Off you all go and get kitted up.” Slasher checked the magazine in his Red9. Everyone else, except Aunty Stella, departed without much enthusiasm. She slung her carbine across her back and clipped the sabre to her Sam Brown.

Sam paused his piano playing momentarily. “Don’t worry Mrs S, I’ll get the pot-boy to stable your horse.”

Soon the others began to return, Ferdy first, having added a pair of gumboots to his usual flying gear, then Ginsbergbear in a moss tweed Norfolk jacket, matching trousers, deerstalker and green Hunters. Boz had a goatskin jerkin over his sailor suit and sea boot stockings turned over the top of his black wellies; Augusta King chose close fitting black suede waistcoat and trousers over a Prussian blue silk blouse with Doc Martens and matching eye patch. Her ke-tri was strapped between her shoulder blades and hair pulled back into a tight bun. Zelda had on a black PVC ankle length Dover coat, oilskin sou’wester and shocking pink wellingtons with white polka dots. Phoebles appeared in a white rayon pierrot costume with black pompoms, scull cap and waders. Finally Master Dorje came down in his yak coat and a tall orange hat crested in golden horsehair, leaning on a twisted rowanwood staff. Somehow getting dressed up had raised everyone’s spirits.

“Where’s Flo?”

“Here,” as the street door opened, apparently on its own.”

The soaring blank walls of the warehouse were dark, soot stained London brick, ironwork rusting and windows barred. The huge double-doors had once been painted red, now faded and pealing to reveal an equally weathered grey undercoat. Slasher took a key to a large, new padlock and slid one of the doors back on its runners. Inside he felt along the wall for the light switches and, one at a time, florescent strips pinged on. The cavernous space was filled from floor to ceiling with crates, boxes of flat-screen TVs, laptops and assorted white goods. A pyramid of suspiciously corroding drums were stacked in one corner and nearby several vehicles hid beneath tarpaulins. Slasher pulled off two of the tarps to reveal his Graber Duesenberg in its weird opalescent paint job that was gold or red depending on the viewing angle, and a maroon Cord 812 Phaeton with white-wall tyres.

“There’s bags of hardware and ammo in the boots. Flo and Augusta squeeze in with me. The rest of you into the Cord. Best you drive Ferdy, Phoebles would just bend something and the last respray cost an arm and a leg.”

They tore up the Mile End Road, zig-zagged between the tidal mills at Bow and eventually pulled up outside the wrought iron gates of Abbey Mills pumping station. Beyond the neo-gothic pile stretched a daunting expanse of eerie, featureless salt marsh. They tooled up from the assorted small arms that filled both car boots, mostly choosing AK-47s, bandoleers of 7.62x39mm ammunition and tucking Model 24 stick grenades into their belts. Zelda picked out a Franchi SPAS-15, loaded two spare mags with Remington Express 12 Gauge 2-3/4″ 9 #00 Buckshot cartridges and emptied the rest of the box into her coat pockets. She also pocketed a box of experimental flechette loads.

The gates were locked.

“Over the top,” cried Slasher. With little more than a pause from Ferdy and Master Dorje our heroes swarmed up and over the railings and rushed the pumping station’s front entrance.

“These door’s are locked too,” observed Dark Flo, “Can you pop through the cat flap, Phoebles, and open them from inside?”

“I’m not a cat burglar,” complained Phoebles.

“I know petal. But just this once, it’s in a good cause and we won’t tell anyone.”

“Sod this,” said Zelda, blowing the lock apart with her 12 bore ‘Chiave dell’Incursore’.

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Sailortown

Barrymore dropped Boz and his companions off in Whitechapel. The entrances to Aldgate East station were heavily barricaded and guarded by an armed contingent of Brick Lane Zapatistas who were clustered around a brazier. The gang exchanged pleasantries with the troopers and then walked briskly down Leman Street. Just off Cable Street they could hear Wilton’s Music Hall in full swing. Underneath the Arches was being sung above the accompanying Wurlitzer organ and periodically drowned out by heckling from an enthusiastic, mostly inebriated audience. When they reached Ratcliff Highway it was alive. Sailors and their doxies lurched in huddled groups about the pavements, cursing costermongers wheeled their barrows through the crowds, a dozen different accents and languages sang out. Barrel organs vied with each other in the middle of the thoroughfare, pop music blared from the jukeboxes of every pub and bar, squeals from every brothel. Fast food vendors shouted enticements to passers by and the scent of fish and chips made Phoebles’ mouth water. Pulsating, pastel coloured neon signs directed the unwary to strip joints and tattoo parlours.

“Hullo deary, fancy a quick one? Oh, sorry Mr Boz. I didn’t recognise you straight away. You been in the wars?”

“Hello Mavis. Just singed. Things nearly got on top of me a bit back, but I’m fine now. Thanks for asking.”

There was a good deal of squawking and not a few growls as they passed Jamrach’s Pet Emporium.

“That place always depresses me,” said Ferdy.

“Oh it’s not so bad nowadays,” Ginsbergbear replied, “Jamrach Jnr has abandoned the sale of exotics and runs an endangered species breeding program. He even has a Bornean Orang-utan working the counter.”

“There is a rumour he also runs illicit interspecies porn shows on the side,” added Phoebles.

Narrow Street was quiet, all but deserted, smelling of Stockholm tar and cinnamon, and appearing reassuringly normal at first. Yet, unusually, there was a Palomino pony tethered to the hitching rail outside Bozzy’s Den. Inside, Dark Flo perched on top of the saloon’s upright piano, her bare right foot pressed gently against Sam’s chest. The left dangled, beating time with her big toe. She was wearing a bowler hat and singing The Ballad of Sexual Obsession. Several local girls were standing in, without much enthusiasm, for the absent Kittens and an aging wizard wielded a cocktail shaker behind the bar.

“Aunty Stella!” cried Ferdy.

Aunty Stella sat in the bay window, in the full-dress uniform of a captain of the Hampshire Light Horse, midnight blue knee length top coat trimmed in gold, crimson paisley cummerbund, an ultramarine and mellow yellow striped turban, white jodhpurs and black patent leather cavalry boots complete with spurs. A Persian style sabre and SMLE .762 bush carbine rested on the table and she was smoking a hookah. She beamed at the bird.

Most of the clientele wore grubby raincoats, trilbies and reflector shades. As Boz led the way towards Aunty Stella one of the punters rose. His gabardine trench coat was not grubby and his homburg neatly brushed. He came over.

“Hello Slasher,” said Aunty Stella.

“So,” he asked Boz, “what’s Larry got to say for himself?”

Phoebles and Augusta pulled up a second table so they could all sit in a group. They parked. With her set concluded Dark Flo came over, wrapping a silk Liberty print kimono about her slender body. She retained the bowler. Sam vamped an extended improv on Blue Rondo à la Turk.

“Nothing new,” said Boz in answer to Slasher McGoogs. “The city’s hanging on by the skin of its teeth and I’m beginning to think Mrs King might be right. We need to gain access to her computer thingy.” He looked over at Aunty Stella. “What’s the situation here?”

“We have deliberately allowed Les Chats Souterrains to infiltrate Sailortown. Specialist units of the Autonomous Revolutionary Insurrectionary Limehousesailortown Irregulars, in mufty, have them under close surveillance. At least that way we can keep an eye on what they’re up to. We have thwarted several attempts to gain access to the docks, but so far they seem unaware that they are being exploited.” Aunty Stella turned to Dark Flo, addressing her in a discrete, concerned tone. “I couldn’t help noticing during that last number, you have some nasty bruises, Flo.”

“They’re fading now,” replied the chanteuse barmaid. “Anyway the punters enjoy a subtle suggestion of off stage S&M. We’ve had a few narrow squeaks since I saw you last. I don’t think anyone’s come out of Jersey totally unscathed.”

“Does one ever?” mused Ginsbergbear.

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