Bandit Country

komodo-dragon-sAugusta King stepped smartly out of the spacetime tunnel and into the bubble universe.

“Wheeeee!”

Two flying kittens careered into her from behind and all three collapsed in a heap. Kiki landed on top. Consuella Starcluster added to the pile. Then Mother Superior, who rolled away with an agility that belied her age and sprang into the rampant mongoose posture.

“Here perfectly safe you are madam.” Dorje seemed to float out of the tunnel and landed lightly next to the cautious nun.

“Oh wow, again, what is it?” Scarlet DuBois was staring in wonder at the Analytical Engine. It clacked intermittently and with a loud hiss its steam engine, way down the far end, emitted a dense cloud of vapour.

“It’s a sort of computer,” explained Augusta, as the group straightened itself out. “I shall feed in details of our predicament and it will calculate a solution, eventually.”

“Putting the kettle on in that case I shall be,” said Master Dorje.

*

Phoebles was on his fourth banger. But he was slowing up and coming a poor second to Zelda, tucking into her fifth.

“These things taste fantastic,” she said. “What sort of vegetables are they made of?”

Beryl looked up; of course, the Lesbian Brides were supposed to be vegan. She spoke quickly, before Phoebles, who was spluttering a little, could put his oar in.

“Processed vegetable matter, mostly potato peelings.”

“Converted to a hi-protein plant substitute by Mr Porker,” added Flo helpfully. “It’s mixed with breadcrumbs and a few spices I think. Good, aren’t they?”

“You lot will get it in the neck if she raves about sausages back at the convent,” Le Brocq whispered conspiratorially to Boz.

“Yeh, well we’ll worry about that later. We’ve got this rescue first,” he replied. “Come on everyone, we’ve got to find Rotskagg. Shouldn’t be hard to spot a big black airship.”

“No one leave the bus when we get up north,” commanded Le Brocq. “Latest word is the renegades have taken over Durrell’s old zoo. Turfed out any animals they couldn’t eat. There could be anything in those woods.”

The Routemaster left the main A8 and took to the country lanes. They were in bandit country from now on and did not want to be any more conspicuous than necessary. As they wove their way slowly northwards, taking it in turns to be ‘airship spotter’ on the top deck, storm clouds rolled in from the southwest. It began to rain, a persistent, penetrating downpour. All but the lookout had retreated to the lower deck at the first spit and with the light fading a drenched Flo descended the stairs.

“Can’t see a thing out there anymore.”

Le Brocq strained to see their way as windscreen wipers clacked from side to side. Foliage dripped, broken twigs and cones rattled off the bus, the darkening undergrowth bordering the road came alive, twitching and rustling. The huddled passengers each, please let it be only in their imagination, saw golden eyes, pinpoints of fire peering from behind every tightly packed tree. Boz, remembering the all too accessible open rear platform, nervously inched his way to the back of the bus. Quick as he could manage he stretched a chain across the doorway. A dangling sign read ‘Out of Service’. Now he was gasping for air, must have held his breath during the entire, horrid operation.

At that very moment of uncertain relief a long, mournful, hollow howl rent the evening gloom, feasted on their terror. Answered from near and far the ghastly calls echoed off the looming hillsides.

 

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The Way We Lied

Caroline watched the distant entrance, wondering how long she would be waiting alone. She rarely visited art galleries and she had certainly never been to one famous for its exhibitions of controversial artists before. The National Gallery and the Tate Britain, with their block-buster shows of the Old Masters and Impressionists, were understandable. After all, everyone loves a Renoir or a Rembrandt, don’t they?
She glanced around at the groups of laughing teenagers holding sketch books and clip boards, their coloured hair and earrings at odds with their still conventional, though crumpled, school uniforms. Cliques of Japanese students drifted by, gossiping animatedly, looking like escapees from cartoon strips. There was no one else like her in this echoing space; no one else was dressed in a tailored suit, clicking backwards and forwards on dainty heels and clutching a shiny handbag. A woman with cropped silver hair walked past; she was dressed completely in loose, enveloping black and her thick crepe soles were silent on the flagged floor.
Caroline felt so out of place. She was wrong and this was wrong. And then she saw her. That dark haired, lithe figure, sauntering down the slope towards her. Mary looked right. She looked at home in her jeans and boots. This was where she belonged. She greeted Caroline with a quizzical smile. “Sure you’re ready for this?”
They moved to the upper floors of the vast industrial building and at first Caroline was absorbed by the expertise of the huge paintings and the sheer volume of output in the Tate Modern’s first retrospective show for Frederick Lloyd. Years of intense work by the artist spoke to her of dedication and introspection, yet also organisation. But halfway through, as the work began to focus more and more on the world in which he lived, a world so alien to hers, with huge depictions of male and female genitals, coupling and exposing, Caroline turned away and whispered, “It’s too much. I can’t look at any more.”
So Mary took her arm and they walked back the way they had come. “Let’s stop for a while then. We can come back later.”
They made their way to the ground floor restaurant and when they were seated Caroline put her head in her hands. “I’m so sorry. You must think I’m being absolutely pathetic.” She reached into her smart patent handbag for a tissue and wiped her eyes, then blew her nose delicately. “It was all so crude, so ugly.”
Mary just looked at her calmly. “So? Life can be crude and ugly. It’s like that for many people. It’s a reflection of what he saw and knew.”
Caroline shook her head. “I can understand that. But I feel really uncomfortable looking at those images. I don’t know why. I mean, it’s not as if I don’t know what the naked human body looks like. But I keep feeling these are like obscene grafitti on the walls of public toilets, deliberately trying to make me feel disgusted. I don’t think I can bear to look at these gross, horrid things any more.”
Mary considered Caroline’s troubled face, then said, “I don’t think it’s the images that really disturb you. I think it’s because you are conscious of the act of looking, knowing that you can be seen by other visitors to the exhibition to be viewing something you have always been told is shocking and disgusting. I think it’s because you are afraid of appearing to accept and approve of that which you have always been told is totally out of bounds.”

The Way We Lied

“Any more for a thirsty man?” he was soon saying, turning to the blushing tea lady with a beaming smile. She was at his side in seconds, pouring more of the dark treacle and giggling like a woman sixty years younger as he heaped praise upon her bitter stewed brew.
Surely he could not really be enjoying this ghastly tea, Caroline thought, as he was offered hard flapjacks and dry rock cakes, all of which he sampled with equal enthusiasm. “Delicious!” he declared. “Haven’t tasted any as good as that since I was a boy! What marvellous cooks all of you, aren’t they Caro?” She nodded and smiled in agreement, thinking that as a boy his mother had abandoned him to the care of schools and au pairs and that he had rarely tasted wholesome home cooking until he had met her.
Good food had been her entree into the social whirl of Fulham. Every young couple, every group of flatmates was giving supper parties when they weren’t out at bistros and wine bars in the late seventies. Caroline’s speciality of Beef Wellington when she could afford it and a creamy fish pie when times were hard, endeared her to her friends, especially the flatmates who lacked culinary skills. A succession of hungry and appreciative eligible young men had been lured to their flat by the promise of a well cooked meal and David had been one of them. His commitment to the Party was evident even then and she had been impressed by his ambition and idealism. Her friends thought she was smitten by his inheritance, but that came later when she saw his parents’ house in the country. When David’s mother died and his father remarried then proceeded to spend his wealth, eventually selling the family home as well, Caroline had to admit to herself that she had, rather like Elizabeth Bennett, fallen in love with the house before the man.
“Caro, darling, where’s Sam got to?” David’s sudden question roused her and she looked round the hall, expecting to see her son’s shiny blonde hair in some corner or other.
“He was here a minute or two ago, I’m sure. I expect he’s wandered off again to spend his pocket money. He liked the look of the cake stall, but I don’t think I can see him there.”
“You should have brought Lisa and Ben along. They’d have been useful keeping an eye on him,” David said. “Good for them to join in sometimes too.”
“I know,” Caroline sighed. “But Ben wanted to do his football and Lisa was invited to go to the cinema with the Pearces.”
She stood up, collecting her purchases before leaving the table. “I’ll have a wander round. He can’t have gone very far.”
And then the magnificent Deirdre Beckforth, who had been listening to their conversation, suddenly said, “Isn’t that your little boy, Mrs Harper? Over there, in the doorway?”
They both looked across the hall to the entrance, where a tall dark haired woman in a light blue coat was standing, holding the hand of a little blonde haired boy, who appeared to have been crying. He pointed out his parents and she patted his shoulder then shooed him in their direction. As he ran towards them, Caroline continued to watch Mary. She glanced around the hall, serene and aloof, then turned and walked away.
“Hey Sammy Sam,” teased David, bending down and swooping his son up into his arms. “We thought we’d lost you, old man. Where have you been?”
Sam nuzzled his face into his father’s shoulder, silent for a moment. Then he peered round at his mother with tear-filled eyes and quietly said, “I wanted to do skateboarding. I can do it really. But I fell.”
“What did I tell you?” Caroline snapped. “You were meant to stay here, not go wandering off on your own. Come here and let me look at you.”
Sam left the safety of his father’s arms, then Caroline crouched down and brushed away the mud on his jacket. His trousers were torn at the knee and his hands were gritty and grazed. She kissed him, then said, “Did that lady find you? The lady who came into the hall with you?”
“Yes,” he snuffled. “She told the boys to stop laughing at me and then she helped me up. Then she asked where you were and said she would make sure I found you alright.” He buried his face in his mother’s arms and she held him tight.
“She did find us, didn’t she,” Caroline murmured, holding his damp head close to her cheek and kissing his hair.

Get Him Red!

chat-warders-s“Get him, Red!”

Two Kittens of Chaos flew at the startled guard before he could react. Kitty went for the face and thrust a velvet paw into his gaping mouth, smothering a cry; Scarlet took out his legs. Kiki joined in, pummelling him mercilessly until Consuella and the Mother Superior dragged her off. Mrs King gathered their discarded bonds and soon had the Chat stripped to his vest, trussed and gagged, Master Dorje checked the corridor outside; it was deserted.

“Kitty, put on le Chat’s trench coat and pickelhaube,’ urged Dorje. Kitty was not an albino Sphynx, she was downy light grey with a white muzzle, but with her collar turned up and the oversized tin hat resting on her nose she might just pass casual inspection.

“I can’t see anything through these goggles,” she said, pushing them up above the peak of her helmet.

“Taking the prisoners for interrogation you are. The rest of you, putting your hands behind your backs, hanging your heads and shuffling you will. Round the bend a guardroom there is, maybe remembering I am. Once safely beyond, retracing our steps to the portal we shall.” Master Dorje nodded politely to their ex-warder, closed the cell door and locked him in. “Proceed.”

The guardroom door was ajar and they could see deux chats inside playing cards.

“Snap,” cried one and the other pushed his chair back in exasperation. They did not look towards the door. Our pals held their breath and once clear broke into a trot.

“Left here,” whispered Augusta, “and then up the stairs,”

*

Boz downed his cocoa. “I, for one, am knackered. It’s been one hell of a day. Let’s get some kip and then up and at ‘em at sparrows’ fart tomorrow.”

“What have you got in for breakfast?” Phoebles asked Zelda before they turned in.

Porridge and burnt toast. It transpiered that Zelda was not adept in the catering department. But Flo brewed up a decent cuppa and they all felt remarkably chipper after a good night’s sleep.

“Everyone back on the bus,” said Boz, “You’d better drive, le Brocq.”

“We’ll look in on my unit’s forward camp on the way. I can tell the boys what we’re up to and see if theyre able to rustle up some bacon and eggs.”

There was general approval.

*

“So where’s the door gone?”

The escapees were standing at the top of a blind staircase facing a blank wall.

“You’ve brought us the wrong way.” Accused Kiki.

“Not at all,” said Mother Superior, “This is the way we came in.”

“Yeh, like the door’s vanished or summat. You couldn’t just have got us all lost.”

“Save it,” snapped Augusta King, “I have a plan B. Head back down the stairs and look for a green door further along the passage.”

By the time she caught up the Kittens were milling around outside her workshop.

“It’s locked, miss.”

“No it’s not.” Augusta applied a boot to the door and it flew back. The second door, the floaty one, looked less likely to oblige. Mrs King opened the top drawer of a dusty roll-top desk and took out what looked like a TV remote. She pointed it and keyed in a long series of digits. There was a buzz, a click and the door cracked open.

“Everyone in. Master Dorje, can you close the door behind us? Make sure it’s latched”

“Twiddlewiddle, Da Dum Dum Dum Dum Dum Dum Diddly, Dum Dum Dum Dum Dum Dum Diddly, Deedoo… PomPom Piddley.” The ionised rings crackled as they whooshed down the spacetime tunnel.

“Wow. What the…?”

“Don’t ask. Just follow me,” urged Augusta as she launched herself into the pulsating, luminescing turquoise tube.

“Holy shiiii…”

 

The Way We Lied

It wasn’t just David’s unpunctuality which annoyed Caroline, it was more the assumption that she could be drafted in at any time as a stand-in for him. Last week it had been the Chamber of Commerce reception at the Town Hall. Yes, he had been delayed by traffic, but she was expected to mingle and chat with pompous nobodies who were only there because their family had owned the same hardware store in the town for fifty years. And here she was again, pretending to be interested in the cakes and cast-offs at the Bazumble, whilst keeping a firm grip on eight year old Sam, who would really rather be outside learning to skateboard with the older village boys.
“So good of you to join us today, Mrs Harper,” simpered Deirdre Beckforth, the Conservative Women’s Chairperson. “And I believe Mr Harper is still going to be joining us later?”
“I’m sure he will do his best,” Caroline said with a tight smile. “I expect his weekly surgery has delayed him,” adding under her breath, “and that wretched Peter.”
“Well let me take you round to meet everyone, just to make sure you don’t miss any of the goodies,” gushed the exquisitely dressed Deirdre, wearing a check tweed that emphasised the breadth of her hips. “Dorothy,” she called to a small elderly lady clad entirely in navy, “Dorothy dear, do you have a jar of your wonderful homemade lemon curd for Mrs Harper?”
A jar decorated with a colourful label, its top covered with red crepe paper tied with metallic green trim, was presented by its maker, whose companion presented Sam with a platter of small meringue shells, which Caroline could tell by their pristine whiteness were dry imitations of her own gooey confections. “Would it be alright for your little boy to try one of these, Mrs Harper?” asked the proud stall holder.
Sam declined for himself, so Caroline was spared some embarrassment there. However she felt obliged to buy the lemon curd and also a jar of blackberry jam, which she suspected would contain a high proportion of pips if it had been made with that year’s crop of small wizened hedgerow brambles.
“Now I’m sure you’ll be interested in the flower arrangements, Mrs Harper,” Deirdre said, ushering Caroline and Sam towards a stall decked with stiff and twee arrangements of chrysanthemums and autumn foliage. “I expect you know Ursula Timms, she does all the church flowers and she also runs a simply marvellous class for the WI in the village hall. Just don’t know how you find the time, Ursula dear, I really don’t.”
Caroline knew the white haired florist all too well. Helen had once offered to help with the church flower rota and had only lasted for one session, castigated for her inclusion of contemporary striped grasses with the dahlias. Like every other aspect of village and Party life, each discipline had its own moral leader and in floral artistry Ursula was queen. The rigid little collections of flowers on the table bore little resemblance to the luscious blooms that Caroline picked in her own garden, where she found colours and shapes of interest nearly all year round. But Sam was not so critical. He pointed to a boat shaped arrangement of burnt orange and green chrysanthemums, with prows of variegated ivy, saying, “I want to buy that one Mum. I want to give it to Granny tomorrow.”
“Oh what a dear little boy,” gushed Deirdre, “isn’t he just sweet?”
Caroline had to agree with smiles and an encouraging hand on Sam’s head, even when he could not find enough money in his Batman wallet and she had to pay for him. And just as she was fumbling in her purse, she heard Deirdre say, “Oh good, your husband’s just arrived. Do excuse me Mrs Harper. I simply must just dash across and welcome him properly.”
Taking her time, Caroline mused over the bric-a-brac and craft stalls, buying a pair of padded and scented coat hangers, before she finally joined David at the tombola. “Thanks again,” she muttered as she stood by his side, while he felt aimlessly for cash in his pockets. “You took your time,” she added, not even expecting an excuse because she had already detected stale tobacco and beer on his clothes, and knew without being told that he had come straight from the pub.
“Hope you’re wishing me luck,” David laughed, as he fumbled in the bucket of tickets once Caroline had paid for him. She pretended to enjoy the joke, and the tightly folded papers revealed only one winning number – for a jar of pickled onions. The loyal watchers dutifully laughed when the prize was presented and David held it victoriously aloft as if it was the Ashes cup. He was good at this. Very,very good. People loved him because he made them feel that he was one of them and that their contribution mattered and made a difference. Exactly what difference a jar of pickled onions made, Caroline was not sure, but that was the effect he had on a receptive audience.
After completing a thorough inspection of all the stalls, wishing all the workers well and buying a couple of tea towels, a fruit cake and a spotted pulmonaria which Caroline suspected was exactly the same variety as the ones already growing in her borders, they were ushered to the refreshment area for tea.
“Mrs Brown, you’re a star. That’s exactly what I need at this moment,” David loudly proclaimed as an extremely tiny, elderly aproned lady shakily poured stewed tea from a large committee sized aluminium teapot. “The stronger the better, I always say!”
Caroline sipped the deep brown tea slowly. David was much better than she was at ignoring unpalatable food and drink. She assumed boarding school had helped, but she also knew that he considered it to be an essential part of his role as the universal friend and patron.

The Way We Lied

Caroline gasped aloud, trying to take in all the wonderful scenes painted on the walls, the floor, the ceiling and the fireplace. “It’s amazing! What an incredible room!”
“I know,” said Mary, standing with her hands in the pockets of her loose trousers. “How will I ever be able to leave it? Sometimes I feel I may have to stay here forever as a custodian of this legacy.”
Caroline bent close to the walls to examine the urgent brush strokes more closely. “Do you know which of your aunt’s friends did these paintings?”
“Yes, it’s all documented. And my aunt took photos while it was being done.” Mary then gestured to the cupboard beside the fireplace. “Those panels were painted by my father, Alexander Grozny. You probably haven’t heard of him, but he became quite sought after in later years. He left Germany in the 1930’s. He felt he had to get out, but as you can see from the agony he expresses here in these weeping men, he always felt guilty for leaving his parents and other relatives. I don’t think he ever saw them again.”
Caroline straightened up and said, “Then his work must have great sentimental value for you, but, my goodness, this room must also be worth a fortune! Doesn’t that worry you?”
Mary shrugged. “No, it simply can’t. Some of these paintings could never leave here and besides they were painted because their creators loved being here, in these surroundings with my aunt and their friends, so this is where they belong. But if I do ever leave, I will take the works that are movable, like this bust.” She turned to gently stroke the bronze head of a woman that sat on a small table in front of the window. Its sightless eyes stared ahead and the full mouth seemed about to speak. “This is Aunt Mo. It’s great, isn’t it? Now come with me and I’ll show you where I do my work.”
Caroline followed her and as they passed from the room of colour, she too stroked the head, thinking as she did so that she could still feel the warmth of Mary’s strong fingers on the ridges of bronze hair.
Mary led the way outside to another larger outhouse, beside the one Caroline had noticed earlier. It was like a small barn but inside, instead of cows and straw, there was a concrete floor and bright strip lighting. “It’s not the most flattering light,” Mary gestured, “but it’s functional and I really need to see clearly when I’m working.”
Large drawings were pinned on the walls and in the middle of the floor was a pedestal covered in sacking. Mary drew it back carefully with both hands. “This is the piece I’ve been working on recently. I’m not totally happy with it yet, but it’s nearly there.”
A shrunken baby was suckling a wizened breast, its limbs gaunt and fragile, but its eyes were looking away from its mother as if it hoped that more nourishing sustenance would find him shortly.
It was shocking and Caroline was silent for a moment. “Gosh, it’s very, very powerful. A friend told me you did breasts, but I hadn’t realised that you created pieces like this.”
Mary drew the dampened shroud around the clay once more. “That was years ago. It was a phase. I’m interested in real people now and real issues.” She looked serious, but calm. “I can’t stand by while so much of the world’s wealth is controlled by so few. I’ve been out there. They need so little to make a great difference to their lives. It makes me feel so angry.”
She was staring so intently that Caroline knew she demanded an answer. “You’re really passionate about this, aren’t you? But do you think that your work can help to draw attention to the problems?”
“It will when this piece is auctioned in London. Should do more than just make a column inch or two. I’m expecting it to make a decent sum. You should come along.”
She moved away from the skeletal figures to a wall of drawings and photographs. “But I also sculpt conventional subjects as well. Personal and corporate commissions, that sort of thing.” With a wave of her hand she indicated a range of busts of the great and the good. Then she turned to gaze at Caroline. “And I also like to model heads of people I find attractive or interesting.” She put her hand out towards Caroline and brushed her hair away from her collar. “You’ve got a beautiful neck. I’d quite like to do you one day.”
Caroline felt the strangest shudder as Mary said these words and she knew then that she would not be able to summon the power to prevent Mary from doing anything she wanted.

That’s Us All Over

“A couple of dozen went in; some more willing than others.” Dark Flo pointed to two displaced pebbles, “There was a scuffle just here. How many people are missing?”

“Mother Superior and Mrs King, Master Dorje,” Zelda the Geek thought for a moment, “Generalissimo Starcluster of the Battailon Durruti, Kiki of course, and a couple more Kittens of Chaos. Kitty and…?”

“Consuella and the Kittens? Les Chats have bagged quite a catch. Well, we obviously can’t follow them in there,” said Boz. Le Brocq looked relieved. “There must be other entrances. I don’t know how common portals into the Atlantean Tunnel System are.” Boz turned to le Brocq. “Are there any other passage graves on the island?”

“Lots, but they were mostly destroyed or looted in the nineteenth century. There’s Dolmen du Monts Grantez near the west coast, that’s where the fighting is most fierce at the moment. Or there’s La Hougue Boëte. It’s a round mound that has a chamber at its heart. Archaeologists found the skeletons of a man and his horse inside and it’s supposed to be haunted. In the old days it was the site of a Seigneurial court.”

“Seigneurial court:” Boz had no idea what a Seigneurial court was, but it must be just the sort of place to hide a space/time portal. “Sounds promising. Where’s that one?”

“North of here. Not far from where Captain Midlands is operating.”

“Perfect,” said Boz, “I have a plan, but we’ll need Rotskagg Blenkinsopp and the Queen Anne’s Bounty.”

“Perfect? Haven’t you heard the rumours about Captain Midlands and his brigands, the cannibalism, diabolical nocturnal rituals, naturism?”

“Well, that’s us all over,” said Phoebles, “Stick our heads in the crocodile’s mouth and then improvise. Should we perhaps get the weird one into some dry clothes and have a mug of cocoa before we dash off to our inevitable doom?”

“And locate my spare pair of specs,” added Zelda.

 

Master Dorje cleared his mind and began to ‘Om’. He transcended into a trancelike meditative state. As his chakras aligned he seemed to compress and, with a little squirming, he managed to slip out of his oversized and firmly gaffer bound yak hide coat. Groping round their prison he located the others and freed them.

“Shshsh.” He gently loosened the tape from Kiki’s mouth; she was quivering with rage.

“$*† µ* å† †£øß* ∫$ØØÎ¥ ƒËç*Âß!!”

Master Dorje replaced the gag. “No dear. Behave, or leaving you tied up I will.”

“MM M’mm mm mmmm.” Kiki simulated a wide-eyed kittenish innocence which, in the total darkness, was lost on her companions.

“Good girl. Now, exploring our environment let us be.” The aging monk, clad only in a loincloth and his pointy hat, began to shiver. “Formulating a plan I would like. Before succumbing to hypothermia I am.”

“Here, borrow my combat jacket,” said Consuella.

Cautiously they felt their way round the walls, only bumping into each other occasionally. Their prison was small with a single, sturdy, locked door. They heard movement outside.

“Kiki, behind thee doorrr,” hissed Consuella, “Everrryone else back to thee meeddle of thee rroom. Trry to look as eef hyou arre steel tied up.”

A key turned in the lock. There was a clanking of chains and the rasping of bolts being drawn. The door opened. It opened outwards, not into the cell. And a shaft of light exposed Kiki, poised to attack.

“Bugger,” she said, as a Chat Suterrains warder glared at her.

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