Mythaxis

Reunion


Les Sklaroff


"Every parting is a form of death, as every reunion is a type of heaven".
Tryon Edwards

149

What is that bizarre contraption thrumming purposefully northwards along Narpins Way, trailing wafts of hot copper, ripe peaches and aging fish?

It could only be Ruckney Plitter in his custom-built pre-SunCell landshrinker, heading back to Snoak for the annual reunion with Ma Wheggs. By pre-arrangement, on the first mutually convenient day in Spring a half dozen of her former lodgers, all contemporaries, returned for this celebratory event. It is unlikely that their respective paths would ever have crossed if they had not chosen to come to Snoak City from their scattered parental homes during those few formative years, drawing strength from the happy accident of each other’s company as they faced unknown vicissitudes at the start of their future careers. Most of them had opted to stay in Snoak, and now had their own apartments. Ruckney was one of the two exceptions.

The much cherished vehicle (referred to as ‘Ruckney’s rattletrap‘ only by the ignorant or envious), slowed to a raucous crawl as it approached Slebb’s Junction, where he always found the signs confusing. He passed the grounds of the old ParaPet works (now a fruit-juice processing plant), ignoring the roadsign at Brandurp Street which pointed west to Smatparrox, and noting the presence of another new construction site. ‘NEUTRILAX LETS YOU CHOOSE!’ declared a portentously cryptic hoarding. To his left he recognized the allotments bordering 20bird Lane, and beyond them the brightly-coloured playground of the pre-school nursery, which meant that the turning after next would be Welfage Road, leading to Park Street West and the familiar blue-painted door of No.149 where Ma Wheggs used to brood over her fledgling clutch of guests with something very close to maternal concern.

On encountering the new severe parking restrictions in the inner city, Ruckney found himself having to circle anticlockwise round the entire perimeter of Garrible Park before finding an unoccupied place in the designated area behind Praspafole Stadium. Watching the other vehicles darting and gliding in and out of their neat spaces like tropical fish, he supposed that in comparison his trusty shrinker was more like a giant turtle: marginally noisier when in motion, he conceded, but so much easier to find in a crowd than one of those ubiquitous shiny toys, despite any vaunted advantages in terms of economy. Extracting his pungent bags, he locked the shrinker and set off on his unplanned walk to the sanctuary of No.149.

As he turned the corner into Park Street West a rush of memories jostled for precedence: his first arrival as a nervous young apprentice, the time he and his new friend Sawly, flouting the house rules, had smuggled back a bottle of wine wrapped in a towel, only for it to slip and smash on the doorstep, or the occasion when one of the women from next door (whom he had scarcely glimpsed until then) had once roused the household well after midnight, seeking help to extricate a smouldering mattress. The appearance of a pretty young woman in her nightclothes (to Ruckney it was a beatific vision) was a definite stimulus to what he smugly recalled was his unhesitatingly heroic assistance. Much later he discovered (though not from Ma Wheggs) the actual nature of the house next door, and the importance of functional and preferably fire-resistant mattresses to the continued satisfaction of its clientèle.

The panel beside the doorbell was still reassuringly headed WHEGGS. Below this was a list of unfamiliar names where his own and those of his contemporaries used to be, making him feel momentarily as if he were trespassing, but the ripe odours escaping from his bags reminded him he should probably ring the bell.

The door opened, and there she was: short, plump, benign, swathed in the brightly festive printed silks she always wore for the annual gathering, the straggling bun of hair perhaps a little greyer since his last visit. As he gently disengaged from Ma Wheggs’ affectionate hug and shrugged off his coat, the sound of lively voices confirmed that the others had already arrived, all being relatively local, apart from Sawly, who would have cruised downriver from his studio in Trevury in his Slipshell Skimmer. Over Ma Wheggs’ head Ruckney saw that they had assembled as usual in the big kitchen at the end of the corridor, past the carpeted staircase leading up to the lodgers’ rooms.

There were cries of “Here he is!”, “Hey, Ruckney!” and “It’s the Shrinkerman!” as he approached the kitchen. Someone took his coat and relieved him of his bags before he had a chance to open them, freeing him for enthusiastic handshakes and claps on the back from Sawly Vext and Strag Wilderfoot, and welcoming kisses on cheeks from Tebbi Nemming, Yethne Farfyle and a third girl he did not at first recognize, until he realized that the fiery sunset of hair must belong to the once shy young woman he knew as Cendrel Pirch.

PIRCH

Platport was a quiet coastal community. Cendrel’s parents were florists, supplying much of their stock from their own garden and greenhouses. Their first child had died very suddenly from a rare bacterial infection, barely a year old, and the loss continued to haunt their lives, even after Cendrel’s advent. As she grew up there were times when Cendrel felt almost stiflingly over-protected, and others when some unexpected reminder of her parents’ lingering grief would briefly cast a sullen cloud over otherwise normal activities.

Cendrel was diffident about venturing into the shop, because it still evoked an uncomfortable early memory of being terrified by a woman shouting over the shrill yelps of her uncontrolled dog. She felt most at ease outdoors among the plants, for which she felt a secret affinity. At school she discovered that she had a flair for design, and later she grew adept at the decorative side of the business; her floral arrangements were instinctively balanced in terms of colour, scent and composition, but she yearned for the freedom to be able to work on a grander scale. Eventually she prevailed on her parents to let her apply for the vocational course in landscape gardening offered by Sparagulan College in association with the botanical gardens in Garrible Park.

The euphoria of being accepted for the course was tempered by anxiety about moving to Snoak City and having to cope with strangers. From the accommodation list approved by the College, she selected the address closest to the park, and in due course made the acquaintance of Ma Wheggs, that least intimidating of landladies. Within a week of her arrival the shy girl from Platport had been befriended by another lodger, Tebbi Nemming, a sophisticated research assistant almost a year her senior, who appointed herself Cendrel’s mentor, and in place of the elder sister Cendrel had never known, set about fortifying the younger girl’s self-confidence.

149

“Trout, I expect. It’s still wrapped. And some furry fruit. They seem to have leaked a bit.”

“Watch out for the cat. She’ll have that fish quicker than you can say ‘Plitter!’ “

“Did someone call me?”

‘It’s all right, Ruckers, we’re just unloading your gifts. How’s the old shrinker, by the way?”

“Perfectly fine, thanks. Had to leave it down by the Stadium, thanks to the new pedestrian zones. By the way, anyone know what ‘Neutrilax’ is? I passed a big sign on the corner of Brandurp Street.”

“I’m sure I’ve seen the name somewhere. Is it one of those skin-care soaps?”

“It sounds like something they use to quieten horses.”

“Tebbi will know. Hey, Tebbi, what’s ‘Neutrilax’?”

“No idea. It’s probably either a breakfast cereal or a contraceptive. Unless it’s for treating acidity in the soil, in which case Cendrel’s your expert, am I right, Cen?”

“If it were something for the soil, yes. But it’s not, at least as far as I know. I think it might be an industrial solvent.”

From the doorway came a sound of chuckling, familiar to everyone present. They turned to the silk-swathed source.

“Do you know something we don’t, Ma Wheggs? asked Ruckney.

“Oh, I certainly do, Mr Plitter. I know you all lead busy lives, but if any of you boys and girls had been paying attention, you might have heard about the competition.”

The general murmur of interest was just sufficient to mask the sound of a cat surreptitiously trying to unwrap a trout.

“It’s a back-to-front advertising campaign,” explained Ma Wheggs. “It started a few weeks ago, in the press and the other media, and there are posters everywhere. The competition’s very simple: to describe in exactly a hundred words the product that best matches the name ‘Neutrilax’. The winner can choose between either a fixed cash prize or a guaranteed 5% stake in the profits from sales of the eventual product.”

Yethne was dismissive. “That’s a crazy idea! The product has to come first. My class of ten-year olds could tell you that.”

“Maybe it’s just crazy enough to work,” said Strag. “Some bored entrepreneur with access to lots of facilities must be willing to take a big risk. Probably old Quanderpyre. You used to work in the big pink tower, Tebs. Did you ever meet him?”

“Not once in the two years I was there, but I was only a humble researcher on the fifteenth floor. I believe he spends most of his time in the penthouse guarding his treasures.”

“I’ve heard people saying Farras Grein might be behind it,” said Ma Wheggs. “But no-one seems to know for sure.”

“It’s certainly a novel way to make sure everyone knows the product name, whatever it turns out to be, but for it to be successful it would still have to be something that they actually need,” said Sawly.

“Ah, but Sawl, surely you’re not saying that people buy only what they need?”

“Well no, of course not, Ruckers, I mean they’d have to be persuaded it was something indispensable, such as...”

“Twitching fish!”

The sudden yell came from Tebbi, who was pointing at a spot on the floor, where a large well-wrapped deceased trout, which only the day before had been lurking quietly in a stream in Drether’s Wheen, was seen to be edging its way under the table with a kind of jerky deliberation that was quite hypnotic to watch.

With surprising agility Ma Wheggs crossed the space from door to table, and with a practiced motion that was almost balletic, scooped up the offending cat and separated it from its inert prey as she headed for the back door. “Husspert, you are a wilful rogue, and one day I’m going to put you out for good and replace you with a phoelix… or even a modifido,” they heard her telling it with her customary reproachful fondness.

NEMMING

The Nemming household in Meheric was not a place for meditation, or even for taking a quick nap in the afternoon. Tebbi’s father was the area representative for a firm making industrial lighting systems, and when not travelling he enjoyed rigging up experimental test kits at home. There were very few dark corners. Her mother was a part-time teacher with a passion for making decorative pots, which she prepared in the basement workroom (brighter than the average), and fired in the kiln she had constructed in the back garden.

Harlio and Twace, Tebbi’s older brothers, were sports-oriented. They owned balls of various textures, dimensions and degrees of elasticity, together with a selection of striking implements. Their target ranges for projectiles outgrew the confines of their pockmarked bedrooms. They would disappear for hours on their racing twindles. They ran, swam, wrestled, leaped, glided and generally exercised their sinewy limbs. Tebbi, whose principal status had been as their favourite toy, tolerated their doting and teasing until she grew old enough to become a participant on her own terms. Although they remained faster and stronger, her co-ordination and stamina were better than theirs, which gratifyingly earned her their respect.

While her brothers continued to pursue their sporting interests Tebbi completed her formal schooling, returned for an evening course on data management, and then tried to decide what she really wanted to do. She had harboured ambitions to be a dancer, a deep-sea diver, a forensic psychologist and a fashion model, but came to realize that these were probably mutually incompatible careers. She told herself to be practical, knowing she needed to broaden her horizons, and started looking for job opportunities outside Meheric. Quanderpyre Investments were seeking ‘smart young research assistants’, and offered in-work training as well as a generous starting salary. If accepted, she would need to find somewhere to stay among the bright lights of Snoak. The prospect of life in the big city was both daunting and enticing. Come to think of it, the lights might not be as bright as those at home, but she was sure she would adapt.

149

The custom on these occasions was for each of the guests to bring dishes of food, both savoury and sweet, requiring a minimal amount of cooking, although, if necessary, reheating or chilling were permissible. Those with little or no culinary skills (such as Ruckney Plitter) were excused from advance preparation. It was agreed that Ma Wheggs should not involve herself in any further cooking process. However, in deference to her territorial rights and experience, she would be allowed to offer supervisory advice.

Ma Wheggs always insisted on providing both a basket of fresh bread and a welcome jugful of chilled emberskelven (the old house rules being in abeyance), which, as it was deftly replenished, seemed to go well with whatever unforeseen combination of dishes chanced to arrive, and undoubtedly enhanced the air of celebration.

The surface of the table was gradually obscured by an appetising array of foods in serving bowls, dishes and jugs: sliced meats, casseroles, pastes, salads and cooked vegetables, pies, gravies and dressings, supplemented by fresh fruit, pastries, trifles, sorbets and other delicacies.

Strag was enthusiastic. “This is really good! What’s in the sauce, Yethne?”

“Black Lattons cheese, with chives, pearl mushroom flakes and a hint of lemon. It’s quite mild.”

”It actually complements rescued trout very well.”

A slightly indignant grunt issued from the trout supplier, whose mouth was full. Yethne looked pleased.

“Oh, Ruckers, that was meant as praise, for both of you. Your fishing skills are legendary, Yethne makes exquisite sauces, and we all know that Husspert is the craftiest cat in Snoak.”

The second grunt had a mollified nuance. Ma Wheggs smiled, and raised her glass, whereupon everyone did the same, and Strag proposed a toast to the temporarily exiled cat.

WILDERFOOT

Strag Wilderfoot had run away from Horm. At least, that’s what he later told himself and others. As he imparted to his diary in his eighteenth year, “I’ve sucked dry your thin suburban juices! I crave richer sustenance, and will go to Snoak to seek fulfilment, friendship and fortune!” He had friends in Horm, but they did not understand his passion for actual printed books or his obsessive need to write. Strag had begun three novels, each one abandoned after a few chapters. Something vital was missing. It was not ability, or serious intent, or imagination. Could it possibly be experience?

He had suffered the agonies of unrequited love, having fallen for Caris Selk, a long-haired blonde girl at school who thought he was weird, an opinion unfortunately shared by his exhausted parents. He had been a late child, and while they had managed his upbringing to the best of their ability, they could no longer keep up with his energy or active mind. They had presented him with the savings accrued in his name, told him that Marla, his maternal grandmother was moving in, and within a week had nudged him out of the house with tearful blessings in the direction of Snoak City, the one place they had gleaned from his frequent impassioned monologues where he really wanted to be.

On arrival in Snoak, Strag refreshed himself at the airport and then headed with nervous determination for what to him was a primary focus of intellectual discernment.

Pentheus Sprent was not in the habit of being rudely disturbed, especially by a teenager, but this one had been unusually persistent, and had talked his way past several of the staff, giving plausible reasons for his presence. While this suggested that security needed tightening, it did show considerable initiative. The boy had got as far as the waiting room outside Sprent’s office, where he perched on the edge of a sofa intended to induce relaxation. The screen set into Sprent’s inner door revealed a flushed-looking, lanky, dark-haired lad. His bulky glidecart still had an attached airpod label showing he had set out from Horm. Sprent, long experienced in interpreting a client’s state of mind from inadvertent signals, examined the boy’s features. His expression flickered between anxious hope and injured innocence. Sprent made his decision and pressed a button. “You can show the boy in,” he told his receptionist. “Tell him it’s safe to leave the glidecart.”

Sprent motioned him into a less voluptuous seat. Well, Mr …?”

“Wilderfoot. Strag Wilderfoot, Mr Sprent. It’s a great pleasure to meet you, sir.”

“Perhaps so, but I am more interested to know why you have come to see me in such a presumptuous manner without prior invitation.”

“Of course. My apologies. You see, sir, my ambition is to become a writer, and I need to be in an environment where such an aspiration is not looked on as something abnormal, or frivolous. That is why I have come to Snoak, and…”

“You have come to Snoak from somewhere beyond the civilized world?”

“From Horm, sir. That’s where I grew up and went to school.” A trace of chagrin was evident in Strag’s voice.

“It’s irrational to be ashamed of one’s birthplace,” said Sprent, “and to judge from your demeanour and vocabulary, you appear to have benefited from your upbringing and education.“

“It’s not that I’m ashamed, Mr Sprent, and I will never regret my schooling. It’s just that I seem to have exhausted whatever Horm has to offer, and I’m desperate to find a place where I can develop my talents. That’s why I came here.”

Sprent frowned. “Are you expecting me to offer you a job? Without a formal application, without evidence of your specific attainments, and in the palpable absence of previous working experience in the publishing field?”

Strag looked crestfallen. “I suppose I really didn’t know what to expect, sir. In my mind the firm of Fissile and Sprent has always been, well, a kind of fount of wisdom where I would find answers to my questions. I’m afraid my only working experience has been as editor of the school magazine, but the contributions were not exactly of a high literary standard. I’m an avid reader, and I believe I can tell when a piece of writing is flawed. But I’m sure I still have much to learn,” he added hastily.

“I appreciate your honesty, Mr Wilderfoot. In return I can tell you that we are not conceited enough to regard ourselves as a fount of wisdom, although as you clearly appreciate, we pride ourselves on the quality of our books. My advice to you would be to take yourself down to Sparagulan College, where you will find that for a small fee you could sign up for a useful six-month introductory course in publishing, run by Dirry Tradfern, an old friend of mine. Assuming you are willing to do that, please make an appointment here when you have completed the course, and depending on Tradfern’s assessment, you may well find there will be an opening at Fissile and Sprent for an editorial assistant.” Sprent regarded him benevolently from beneath his bushy grey eyebrows.

“That’s more than I could have hoped for, Mr Sprent.” Strag rose to shake his hand. “I’m really grateful for your advice… and for bothering to see me.”

“The direct approach is sometimes the best,“ said Pentheus Sprent. “But don’t tell anyone I said that. Where are you staying in Snoak?”

“Oh, I haven’t looked for anywhere yet.”

“Then this may save you a little time,” said Sprent, going to a shelf, opening a file and extracting a leaflet. “We happen to publish material for the College, including their approved accommodation list. I seem to remember one of addresses is not far from here. Ah yes, there we are. Park Street West. Name of Wheggs.”

149

“… or a safety device for a sharp-edged tool?” Having enjoyed a second portion of Cendrel’s excellent trifle, Sawly’s mind had suddenly drifted back to the earlier topic.

“I can’t see that reaching a large enough market,” said Ruckney, leaning back and lacing his fingers over his paunch. “No, in my opinion, it would have to be something to relieve flatulence or indigestion. That would be bound to have popular appeal, wouldn’t it?” He looked round for support.

“Probably not the ideal subject while we’re still eating, Mr Plitter.”

“Eh? Oh, sorry, sorry, Ma Wheggs.” Chastened, he sat back up and hung his head glumly like a contrite child.

“Tact was never your strong suit, Ruckers,” snorted Sawly, his own tongue a little loosened by the strength of the emberskelven.

Cendrel, by now also distinctly merrier, had tuned in fuzzily to the conversation. She raised an index finger and wagged it knowingly. “But he does have one. He told me!”

“Has one what, dear?” enquired Ma Wheggs.

Cendrel leaned towards her former landlady and confided in a dramatic whisper: “A stroot!” She frowned and shook her head. “I mean suit. A really, really strong suit! Made of coly… polycarbine fibles.” Satisfied that she had correctly remembered the technical term, she beamed at Ruckney, and was rewarded with a knowing wink.

PLITTER

He did indeed have a top-of-the-range protective suit, the material spun from synthetic polyamides developed during his third year with the Advanced Fabrics team at Central’s research labs. Although the suit was still officially the property of Central, as its sole wearer he had been the favoured recipient for its long-term loan after large-scale production of the final design had been approved for industrial and scientific use, and advance orders received from, among others, smelters, chemical factories, fire departments, hazardous waste handlers and the odd vulcanologist.

Following his apprenticeship he had helped modify and improve the automated processing machinery, and was one of the eager volunteers selected to have a prototype suit fitted for practical testing. During this experimental phase he had been obliged to respect a confidentiality agreement not to discuss technical details outside the workplace.

The suit was lightweight, flexible, heat- and water-resistant, had high tensile strength and was electrically non-conductive. Equipped with matching gloves and face-shield Ruckney had walked through fire, been exposed to splashes of molten glass and metal, languished in tanks of various liquid compounds, and survived contact with high voltage sparks. Relieved to have emerged unscathed from these trials, he was happy to commend use of such suits by anyone working in extreme conditions, and felt he had earned the opportunity to try his out in the (slightly) less dangerous confines of the garage back home in Drether’s Wheen. It was there that his precious landshrinker grew by increments over a two-year period as he was able to obtain parts from scrapyards and specialist dealers during holidays and occasional week-ends.

This landshrinker was not a thing of beauty, but had a straightforward blunt practicality that reflected the character of its owner. It was strong, capacious and solidly dependable, powered by a quartet of Kjold inertial engines (formerly used to drive a freight transporter), which could be independently engaged to provide either backup redundancy or extra thrust when required. It was a vehicle adapted for the freedom of travel across wind-scoured terrain with an unobstructed view of the horizon, but so far had made only comparatively short journeys into populated areas, and had yet to be properly unleashed. Ruckney harboured plans for a long-distance trip when his spell of work as a consultant engineer at Smode’s Extrusions (on the outskirts of Drether’s Wheen) came to an end early the following year. He’d been thinking of inviting Sawly to join him, if the man was willing to be parted long enough from his skimmer.

VEXT

No-one would deny the fascination of fire, but as a boy Sawly’s curiosity with what could be made to burn resulted (understandably) in anxious parental warnings and frequent checks for any fire-making devices. Being resourceful, he maintained a couple of convenient outdoor hiding-places, known only to trusted friends (behind a broken brick in the stump of a wall, the ivy-screened hollow of a tree). Here were stored flints, convex lenses, tufts of steel wool, candle stubs, thin tubular objects gnarled by heat beyond the recognition of all save fellow experimenters or forensic specialists. An enthusiastic science teacher at school had inadvertently intensified Sawly’s interest in chemistry by heralding a practical laboratory demonstration with phrases such as “extreme caution”, “on no account”, and “never without adult supervision”. Certain powdered substances had been combined, a simple fuse attached, and ignited at arm’s length by a taper. Standing back at a safe distance the class was treated to a fountain of sparks, a spectacularly colourful explosion and a pall of satisfyingly acrid smoke. Sawly had followed the preparations with unusual attention, and found himself wondering whether chemistry might become more than a hobby.

Another significant epiphany occurred on a school visit to Snoak City Museum, long before it acquired its international reputation with the acquisition of the fabled Trox Bequest. He had no particular reverence for very old things, be they stuffed dead animals, shards of pottery, monumental statues or corroded weaponry, even when tastefully displayed with helpful explanatory notes. He might have admitted to a vague fascination with some of the unusual rocks and minerals, with their strange crystalline growths or glittering facets, but what really opened his mind that day was in the section devoted to glass.

He had always taken glass objects for granted, without giving any thought to their manufacture. Bottles, jars, bowls, glasses, ornaments, windows, mirrors, bulbs, lenses: things in everyday use he had never bothered to think much about until his attention was drawn to one particular item in that museum; a slender round-shouldered translucent vase on a plinth base. The surface was etched with fine tendril-like striations which had the effect of refracting the light so that the vase appeared both to glow and sparkle at the same time. Sawly remembered staring at the vase, entranced, before glancing at the label which detailed its probable history, concluding with a reminder that this ancient craftsmanship, like all glass-making, depended on the ability to fuse quartz. Quartz was something with which Sawly was familiar from the annual family holiday in Platport. He had spent many idle hours on Platport beach, exploring, excavating and building short-lived labyrinths and palaces from the same raw material, the same gritty, slithering grains which could be transformed with the addition of a few chemical compounds and a little skill, he realized with dawning amazement, into something as breathtaking as that vase. Without question, this was the skill he wanted to learn.

Snoak Glassworks took on very few new apprentices. Craft glassmaking was a very specialized discipline, requiring good hand-eye co-ordination, a sound understanding of the underlying science and a strong aesthetic sense. However, the Vext lad had arrived with a portfolio of designs, very favourable references from the art and science teachers at his school in Trevury, along with a letter of commendation from the head, saying that he had rarely known a pupil with such determination, whose abilities so closely matched the career he hoped to pursue. Morsyl Tammer, the chief designer, was grudgingly impressed, and had agreed to offer Sawly a month’s trial, with a modest advance to cover living expenses. He was confident that the tourist bureau at Central would have details of suitable lodgings, which indeed proved to be the case.

149

After the meal Ma Wheggs had ushered them out of the kitchen, and they had retired to what they used to call the floproom. It was essentially an informal library, with shelving on three walls. To an initial nucleus of well-loved books, many previous guests, for the most part students and trainees, had contributed a book or two of their own before leaving. Under house rules, it was expected that borrowed books would eventually be returned, but there were no penalties for default. The net result was that the library had become by increments both a useful educational resource and a treasury of surprises. A manual on knot-making might rub shoulders with a textbook on hydrostatics, a Seff Haldergath spy thriller, or a book of verse by Oxwell Gimbloss. The central oval table was the only unobscured item of furniture. Ma Wheggs periodically enhanced the original seating with fresh batches of decorative cushions, so that it was often a matter of guesswork as to what lay beneath, but there was always somewhere comfortable to sprawl, and usually something interesting to read.

On the lower shelves were propped some small framed holos, nostalgic reminders of departed predecessors waving and smiling. Higher up, and therefore less accessible, were a few older Wheggs family holos. Yethne, feeling slightly light-headed and emboldened, had removed her shoes and scrambled up a hill of plump cushions to peer up at the one which featured a tall young man gazing down at the upturned face of his partner, who was smiling back at him. They were at some kind of outdoor evening celebration. She reached up carefully and brought it down for a closer look, thumbing the side panel to activate it. Somewhere just off-screen a band was playing; she caught a partial glimpse of blue and gold uniforms. Behind the couple people were dancing. In the distance, fireworks bloomed and showered, briefly illuminating a segment of what appeared to be the Stadium. Yethne clambered down with as much decorum as possible, and held it out for the rest of them to see.

They clustered round.

“Wow! ’That looks like a young version of…”

“Do you suppose…”

“It’s not a version. That’s definitely Ma Wheggs, but she looks so…”

“…so happy. And so does that rather good-looking fellow. Is that…”

“Of course! It must be Pa Wheggs. Before he…”

“Before the accident.”

“Accident? I didn’t know. What accident?”

“The bloating accident. He was the official Troller. At Praspafole Stadium. For ten years or more.”

“I never knew that. How did I never know that? I often wondered what became of him.”

“Well, she doesn’t care to talk about it, even after all these years, which is understandable.”

“Do you know what happened?”

“The pitch was rock-hard. It was late season, and the ground had frozen overnight, but they wouldn’t think of cancelling a game. You know how resilient bloat players are. The perimeter glider malfunctioned; it accelerated unexpectedly, he was thrown off and landed head first. Suffered severe concussion, despite his head-pad. In a coma for weeks, but sadly never recovered.”

“Oh, that’s awful. Poor chap. And poor Ma Wheggs!”

“I think she would have received compensation, but imagine having to deal with the loss…”

“It must have been ghastly for her. How did you get her to tell you?”

“Actually I didn’t, but Fissile & Sprent have an old-fashioned datafile full of local news reports, and I chanced to spot the name Wheggs in the index.

“We’d better put the holo back.”

“I’ll do it.”

“Thanks, Ruckney. Shoes!”

“What? Oh, yes.”

FARFYLE

Black Lattons had been home to the Farfyles for as long as anyone could remember. It was an agricultural community, and, if you were a Farfyle, the answer to most problems ultimately lay in the nutrient-rich soil, fed by the upper reaches of the Stirrow as it wound through the sheltered valley. The farms were largely self-sufficient, and their high-quality produce and traditional hand-made craftwork were readily traded or sold for any required items not available locally. It was an idyllic spot, where human activity was geared to the daily movement of the sun and the largely predictable pattern of the seasons. The work was hard but rewarding, and Yethne, like her great-uncle Grome before her, could not wait to be somewhere else, where you were not woken at dawn by the ear-piercing yells of a mad-eyed bird, or obliged to muck out unending quantities of smelly animal droppings before most sensible people had eaten their breakfast.

According to family legend, as soon as he was of a suitable age, great-uncle Grome, who was allergic to feathers, pollen, sawdust, animals, straw, and it seems anything else remotely relating to agriculture, who was also prone to insomnia and blessed (or afflicted) with sensitive hearing, had made it quite clear that he had an irresistible urge to experience a completely different environment. True to his word, he embarked on an ocean-going vessel bound for the southern seas, working his passage as a galley-hand, and ended up on a remote island, where, as a surviving handful of his subsequent letters testified, he became proficient at diving for shellfish, inventing cocktails and occasionally helping out at the weather station.

Yethne Farfyle was just as motivated, but less inclined to plunge into the unknown. Other than farming, the only profession she had had the opportunity to observe at all closely was teaching. Apart from the irascible Mrs Nullark with her glass eye and uncanny ability to identify miscreants, all her teachers had been kind, reasonably cheerful, patient people, who had tried to instil in their charges a love of learning, or at the very least a vague curiosity and a useful smattering of basic skills. She rather fancied being a teacher. It would be just like helping the tinies to tell the time, or explaining difficult words to her friend Morette, except that she would be paid, and still have holidays.

After a little research she discovered that even teachers had to spend some time learning how to teach properly, and that would mean her having to go to somewhere like Trevury or Meheric, or the famous Sparagulan College in Snoak. She had been to Snoak two or three times when she was younger. Memories of the first visit were rather hazy. She suspected she might have slept through the entire trip. The other two visits had been birthday treats; one to see a stage show, with live music and dancers in dazzling floaty costumes. The third occasion had been on her twelfth birthday, when she was allowed to spend her own money at Snoak City market. That had been very satisfying. The more she thought about it, the more appealing was the idea of living in Snoak. She would need to persuade her parents, but they knew she was old enough to make up her own mind. She was not quite sure whether it would further her cause to mention great-uncle Grome.

149

The atmosphere in the floproom was comfortably soporific. Tebbi and Cendrel, both currently unattached, were casually discussing the virtues and deficiencies of past boyfriends. Strag and Yethne were engrossed in a well-loved children’s book (‘The very small SHOUTING Box’). Ruckney had drifted into a light doze while waiting for Sawly to make up his mind about joining him on the proposed overland journey in the landshrinker. Sawly, who also had his eyes shut, was thinking aloud.

“…well, I’m building up a decent reserve stock of the best-selling designs, like the perfume-bottles and paperweights, and towards the end of the year I’ll be able to concentrate on special commissions. And the skimmer’s been in good shape, since I fixed the leak. So by next Spring I should have some free time for travel, although being stuck with each other in your monster of a vehicle for any length of time might drive us both loopy. Still, if you’re prepared to risk it, Ruckers…”

Ruckney stirred. “Hmmph?”

“The question is, do you really want to risk it?”

“Nngh. Hrrrm. No thanks, I’m really full.”

“Ruckers?”

“Hm?”

“What did I just ask you?”

“Did I want a biscuit?”

“Go back to sleep.”

Ruckney yawned and checked the time on a fingernail display. “I’d better not. I’ll need to be heading back shortly to avoid the commuter traffic.” He reached into a pocket for his nultox and tongued a tab. “Whatever did people do before we had these?”

“Suffered from sore heads and stayed off the roads, I expect. Listen, Ruckers, about that trip: it sounds like it might be fun. We’ve still got plenty of time to discuss details, but I meant to ask you if you’d done anything yet about noise dampening. I’ve fitted out the skimmer with these really effective acoustic panels…”

“Clage….? Wispy moustache and snorty laugh?”

“Like a flustered goose? No, that would be ‘Foghorn’ Flade. Clage is quieter, taller, better dressed, usually in muted colours. Dark hair, blue eyes, slender hands…”

“Is that Clage? He was at Guyl’s party in Yarp Street. I thought he looked bewildered. Guyl had a deafening waterfall hoto playing, so there was a bit of a sensory overload, and no chance of conversation.”

“Guyl’s rather fun. Were you and he…”

“No, Tebs, not really. Well, we had a mild flirtation, nothing serious. Now what about you and Clage?”

“Ah, that’s complicated…”

Strag turned the last page, their heads almost touching.

"And after that they rinsed it clean and dabbed it dry with a scrap of cloth the colour of the sky, and put it on a stout cork mat. They listened very hard. The little box was as empty as ever, and it was quite, quite silent. So they wrapped it up and took it back to the place by the pool. Under the tree with the drooping boughs where the brown bird sang its solitary song, they lifted the stone that hid the hole where the box had lain for so very long. Into the ground, with scrupulous care, they placed the little box, and hid the hole with the heavy stone. As they made their way home a gust of wind blew a swirl of leaves over the spot with a whispery sound.

"Traveller, should you pass this way, and see that tree with its drooping boughs and lone brown bird beside the pool, and find the stone that hides the hole, take care! For if you hear, however faint, the sound of shouting somewhere near, go very quickly from that place. But if you stay, my friend, beware! Beware the dark enchantment in the air."

Strag closed the book, and Yethne wiped away a tear with the back of her hand.

“Such a strange ending.”

“I know. But didn’t you always secretly want to find the box?”

“Of course I did! Didn’t you?”

“I used to slip down to Horm pond and poke about with a stick in the hope of finding the right stone, but the ground was soggy, the trees were the wrong kind, too far away, and home to squadrons of bad-tempered crows.”

Their wistful moment was interrupted by the re-appearance of Ma Wheggs, bearing a tray of small home-made confections in little bags which she placed on the table for her guests to take back with them. She was closely followed by the devious Husspert, recent misbehaviour evidently forgiven, who leaped onto the nearest vacant cushion, immediately adopting that nonchalantly undignified attitude in which a hind leg points to the zenith, while contorted ablutions are performed.

It was time to go. Before long the current band of lodgers would be returning from their work or studies. “Still a little wet behind the ears compared to you, my loves,” confided Ma Wheggs, “but not entirely without promise.”

“Well, they couldn’t be in better hands, Ma Wheggs, as I’m sure we’d all agree,” said Strag, helping Yethne on with her coat. There was general assent, as they all gathered their belongings and shared a reciprocal hug with their favourite landlady on their way to the front door.

“You two girls behave yourselves, now.” Addressed to Tebbi and Cendrel, this instruction, much like the admonitions to Husspert, carried the implication that she had done her best, but could not be held responsible for the inevitable lapses of judgment that lay ahead.

“Now, Mr Plitter and Mr Vext, my young speedsters. Promise me you’ll take good care of yourselves, and those vehicles of yours.”

“Without a doubt, Ma Wheggs.” “Any time you want to come for a ride…”

She smiled. “That’s very kind, but you know how busy I’m kept here…”

“Dear Mr Wilderfoot, our man of letters, lovely to have you back, if only for half a day. And Yethne, my dear…” She leaned closer to murmur in Yethe’s ear. “You could do a lot worse, you know. He dotes on you, in case you haven’t noticed.” Yethne’s eyes widened, and her sudden flush was hidden from Strag by the upturned collar of her coat.

They gathered at the foot of the path, sheepishly reluctant to disperse into the late Spring afternoon, still suffused with the residual inner glow induced by a return to No.149.

“Strange to think I was barely out of school when I first came here.”

“Well, after all, this was our second home,” said Tebbi. “We all had a lot of growing up to do.“

Sawly half-jokingly suggested that it was a complete mystery how they ever survived each other’s company for so long.

‘I mean, what with Ruckers being so stubborn, and quite out of control,” he added, mischievously.

“And you so preoccupied with your designs you could barely manage more than five or six slices of toast at breakfast...”

The rest of them hastened to join in.

“…and Cen so suspiciously quiet, but wildly impulsive…”

“Oh, dangerously so..”

“…and Tebbi so loftily self-possessed…”

“Virtually unflappable! I tried to make her flap, but failed miserably.”

“That’s because I need the wind under my wings, Strag. Hot air simply isn’t enough. Speaking of hot air, what about Yethne, keeping us all awake with lectures on crop rotation?”

Strag couldn’t resist interjecting. “Ah yes, how to spin a turnip. The very memory leaves me faint.”

Suppressing a giggle, Yethne was quick to respond. “And so it should, Strag, considering that turnip-spinning became so popular it had to be banned by the Society for the Protection of Abused Vegetables.”

As their mingled shadows slowly lengthened, a moment’s respectful silence greeted the mention of this adroitly conjured organization, and by consensus Yethne was awarded an unspecified but generously large number of imaginary points. This accolade served as a cue for departure. Cendrel and Tebbi opted to head for the park, Sawly said he might as well accompany Ruckney back to the landshrinker, since it was not too far from Lemp’s Runnel, where his skimmer was moored. Yethne had a little research to do for a school project, but still had a day in hand, and was happy to comply with Strag’s offhandedly hopeful suggestion that she might like to help him choose a present for his grandmother’s birthday. They set off in the direction of the market, chatting amicably, walking companionably close together. Afterwards neither of them could quite remember who had first put an arm round the other’s waist, or how, by the time they had reached the market, their fingers had somehow become agreeably intertwined.

The micropod had gently disgorged its last cargo in the dropbox outside the Wilderfoot house in Horm, provoking an unusual stir of activity.

Pled Wilderfoot handed the parcel to his mother-in-law, who set about slowly peeling away the layers of packaging, disclosing at last a glimpse of something sleekly furred.

“Why would anyone want to send you a dead rabbit, Marla?” asked Pled, with impish innocence.

With a squeak of fright the old lady hastily pushed the offending gift off her lap, while her wearily unamused daughter came to her rescue.

“‘Take no notice of him, mother. Pled thinks he’s being funny.” She cast him a reproving glance and retrieved the débris from the floor, separating the wrapping paper from what was evidently a pair of slippers.

“Here mother, it’s a pair of thermoderms, with a little note from Strag.”

Marla composed herself, affecting an air of injured dignity, while allowing her daughter to fit the slippers on her stockinged feet. Something akin to a sigh signified that she was not displeased. She read the note from her grandson, nodded, muttered “Good boy,” and dropped off to sleep.

“That’s unusually thoughtful for our Strag. We’re more used to being given those little animal ornaments, or packets of health food, aren’t we, dear?”

“There’s a lot more choice in the city, Flutz.”

There was a flicker of maternal intuition. “Perhaps he’s found himself a girlfriend.”

“Well Flutzy, he’s in Snoak. Odder things have happened there.” He looked across at the gently snoring Marla and chuckled. “Two dead rabbits,” he said.

© Les Sklaroff 2017 All Rights Reserved


Date and time of last update 12:57 Fri 24 Feb 2017
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