Phoebles and Boz moved over to their favoured table in the bay that looked out onto Narrow Street and sat on the window bench. Ferdy and Ginsbergbear pulled up bentwood cane-bottomed chairs and McGoogs perched on a leatherette-padded stool. They huddled conspiratorially.
‘My plan is that we explore the caves south of Mam Tor and discover what is going on.’ began Slasher McGoogs, producing a dog-eared copy of The Potholer’s Handbook for Derbyshire, IIIrd Pocket Edition, 1956; printed on storm resistant paper. Within the chapter headed Castleton Caverns it included a handy sketch map of the Speedwell and Peak cave system. It did not show Titan, which at the time of printing was still to be discovered, but Slasher had roughly pencilled in the location of the gigantic chamber.
‘Have you cleared any of this with Larry?’ asked Boz.
‘I have told Larry nothing. I despise despots and Larry is Gato Número Uno.’
‘That’s hardly fair,’ chipped in Phoebles, ‘We and the Revolutionary Committee did all agree he should be PM.’
‘And it’s not as if he’s done any harm since taking office. In fact he’s done sweet FA. I’m amazed he doesn’t get bored,’ added Ginsbergbear.
‘If I may interject at this point,’ interjected Ferdy, ‘Mr Larry can in no way have ‘done sweet Fanny Adams’ despite the accusations in Mr Fluffy’s Chicken News on US telly. Firstly she was not all that sweet – she was a grubby little tyke. Secondly, she was ‘done’ many decades ago and her story has passed into myth. And thirdl…’
The tail end of a steel wire ladder dropped past their window into the street outside. It was followed by the descent of a pair of improbably long legs and finally by the top half, only, of a bottle-green chauffer’s uniform. As the door to the catnip den opened and Barrymore, Larry’s indispensable feline factotum, entered, the inmates could hear the Vwwshsh of the twin VW vectored screw engines of the incumbent Acting Prime Minister’s personal dirigible. She lifted her goggles and perched them above the peak of her cap as the wire ladder began to drift slowly down Narrow Street.
‘Stay!’ commanded Barrymore into the discreet mouthpiece that curved elegantly out from under her headgear. The drifting ceased instantly.
‘Blimey!’ exclaimed Boz, ‘Is the Den bugged?’
‘Certainly not, Mr Boris. I just happened to be passing and am graced with unusually acute hearing. Larry wanted you to know that he intends to despatch the Coleyfishspytrawler Lord Ancaster towards Antarctica to investigate the rumours.’
‘What rumours?’ asked a slightly ruffled Slasher.
‘Ah, Mr McGoogs, a pie without your sticky paw in it? Makes a refreshing change. There’s reports of unusual activity at the US airbase – UFO under the ice – that sort of thing. Leave it with us. You have Larry’s full approval for your own little enterprise.’
‘Man… Larry knows of our enterprise?” Ginsbergbear spoke, “I’m not sure even we know about our enterprise yet.’
Sashaying over to the door Barrymore looked back over a coquettishly inclined shoulder and said, ‘Carry on.’
Wrapping one leg around the wire ladder with the sensuality of a trapeze artist, she ascended into the heavens.
‘There’s stuff going on we don’t know about.’ observed Boz. ‘Now, what about those poor coleyfish?’
‘Forget the fish,’ snapped McGoogs, ‘You heard; our Derbyshire venture is officially sanctioned. We’re doing the caves.’
Ferdy called up the Silvertown Airways control tower, situated in the Royal Docks, on his smart-phone and asked to speak to his chief pilot, Beryl Clutterbuck. She was mid-channel, returning a Handley Page H.P. 42 from their aerodrome on Guernsey, but was able to be put through via the radio.
‘Beryl, we need the flying boat for a trip up north.’
Once Ferdinand was off the phone they finalised some of the minor details and Phoebles voiced the reservation of the majority.
‘Well, I suppose that’s settled then, but…’
To toast the venture they downed their tots of single malt and took long draughts from their pints. Slasher licked his left paw, sprinkled a little salt on it and then in a series of swift, smooth movements, sucked the salty paw, slugged back the shot of tequila and bit hard on the lemon. For a brief moment his eyes screwed and his nose wrinkled. Then his composure reasserted itself, ‘I’ll be going up to Derbyshire in the Duesenberg. See you up there.’
The 1934 Graber-Duesenberg SJ Cabriolet, shimmering ‘Outrageous Illusion’ red/gold paint job, upholstered in light tan mohair, white walled tyres, was parked, half on the pavement, opposite the Den. It glistened colourfully against the backdrop of monochrome bonded warehouses and depositories along the narrow highway. Slasher sauntered unnoticed, as if his Lycra one-piece rendered him invisible, through the growing crowd that had been attracted to the antics of Larry’s dirigible and its stunning tortoise-shell chauffeur. Phoebles’ yellow, Multi spotted pantaloons, conversely, were drawing less than favourable remarks from pointing urchins with their noses pressed to the Catnip Den bay window. A burbling roar of supercharged Duesenberg echoed off the surrounding walls; the straight 8 cylinder flat-head bored out, souped-up and the tank full of jet fuel.
‘That thing’s a bomb on wheels!’
There was a grinding of gears, a high-pitched whine from under the bonnet and the Duesenberg sprang forward. McGoogs was away through the narrow, cobbled lanes of Limehousesailortown.
The remaining foursome returned to the bedsit to pack their kitbags whilst Dark Flo prepared sandwiches of Herrings In, nautically known as HITS, on white bread, piled on a blue and white Staffordshire Ironstone plate decorated with a Flying P windjammer under full sail. She wrapped the lot – plate and all – in cling film and placed them in a small hamper along with a bottle of Pusser’s Rum and a packet of Russian Caravan tea.
As the boys came down she was adding a sealed tin of Soma Catnip to the supplies.
‘How did you get that?’ gasped Ginsbergbear, ‘That stuff’s rarer than rocking horse dung. Never leaves the Sub-Continent.’
‘The bell-hop in the Eden Hotel in Kathmandu bunged me a bit from under the counter in gratitude for a particular favour. Cut it with your Black Alamout Catnip Shag or Phoebles’ stash of White Goddess. There’s not much of it and it’s expensive.’
t this they became aware of the rhythmic thrub of a dozen unsynchronised piston engines. The Dornier Do X was doing a circuit over Bozzy’s Catnip Den and the gang rushed out onto the balcony to watch it landing on the London River in a shower of spray like an obese drake on an oily duck pond.
The gigantic silver flugschiff had had the clapped out air-cooled Jupiter engines replaced with six pairs of only slightly second hand 610 hp Curtiss Conqueror water-cooled 12-cylinder inline engines and now sported an art deco Silvertown Airways logo below the portholes along the length of the hull.
Beryl’s voice crackled over the Marconi Marine Nautilus transceiver that sat behind the bar.
‘Come aboard, when you are ready.’
Waving goodbye to Dark Flo they dropped the kitbags into a dumpy clinker build skiff that was tied to a ladder out back of the den. The hamper and crew followed and an invigorating five minutes was spent tugging on a cord wound round the head of a recalcitrant Seagull outboard. In a sudden cloud of blue smoke and with a tuc… tuc… hick, tuc… tuc-tuc-tuc-tuc-tuc the motor sprang into life and they were weaving their way out into the river, trailing a rainbow scar of two-stroke across the surface of the water.
Beryl met them at the starboard stub and deftly caught the thrown painter. She was tall, slender and clad, somewhat incongruously, in a sheepskin-flying jacket over her flowered cotton frock; neither matched her sky blue fur-lined ankle-boots. Inside the hull a small crew of Kronstadt sailors was lined up for inspection. They saluted Boz as he came aboard and their Starshina (Chief Petty Officer) piped a high-pitched whistle that hurt Phoebles’ ears.
‘Commodore Desai, would you like to pilot the old girl for the first part of the trip? I will operate the throttles in the machine centre,’ suggested Beryl, addressing Ferdy, ‘And we can swap round once we’re over Rugby.’