Here are the first three chapters of the second Mr Phigg story. I’d be very glad of any comments.
Chapter One – Rising, Damp…
“Where on earth has all that water come from?”
Johanna Blake paused in her usual morning sprint to the cereal cupboard and sat halfway down the basement stairs. Her father was sploshing across the sodden kitchen, barefoot – a broom in his hand and a resigned expression on his face, his pyjamas rolled up to his knees.
“You tell me.” He shrugged and then pushed some more water out through the back door with his brush. “I thought it would be the dishwasher, but that’s fine. The water’s got in from outside. The… whats-its… the… er… drains must have backed up somehow. “
“That’s funny,” said Johanna. “I didn’t think it had rained last night.”
“No…” Her dad paused, puzzled. “I don’t think it did, either.”
“Can we help you?” Harry had joined his sister on the stairs. “I could put my flippers and wetsuit on.”
Mr Blake snorted. “You’ll hardly need that – I’ve cleared the worst of it now.”
“But why not get your snorkel anyway?” suggested Johanna. “It does wonders for your conversation.” She puffed up her cheeks and imitated her brother: “I coob poob my flippoob ab webwoob ob…”
Harry took his revenge by sitting on top of her, heavily.
Oww! Well, if that’s how you want it… Johanna’s hands reached towards her brother’s throat.
“All right, all right,” said their father, waving his broom threateningly in their direction. “Steady on. Can someone pass the… the… that thing for mopping up?”
“Do you mean the mop?” Johanna prompted, giving him a curious look. There’s quite a big clue in the name, Dad. She padded down the stairs, slid across the wet floor to the cupboard and took out the mop.
“Thanks, love.” He gave his head a brief shake and then finished the clearing up.
Johanna and Harry went out of the back door into their small, walled garden and inspected the grates and drains.
“There’s nothing there now,” said Johanna. She went indoors and filled the washing-up bowl with water, carried it out and poured half down each drain. The water ran away perfectly normally.
“All clear. Both of them. Oh, well… Time for breakfast, I suppose.”
As she turned to go inside she noticed a large grey and white herring gull sitting on the garden wall, looking straight at them. She nudged Harry. “That’s a big one.”
“Yes. And nosey, too.”
The bird paused to groom a few wing feathers with its yellow beak before turning its sharp gaze back to the watching children. Then it winked at them.
“What…? Did you see that?” Johanna grabbed Harry’s arm and took a step back.
The gull held their gaze and winked again, then spread its wide wings and flew away.
“I didn’t know birds did that,” said Harry.
“They don’t,” his sister replied. “Not normally.”
“Do you think…?”
“Yes, I do think. It’s Mr Phigg. He’s got something to do with this. It’s got that feeling, hasn’t it? Come on.”
They went back indoors. Their father had gone upstairs to get dressed and they had the damp kitchen to themselves. Johanna went to the back of the room and peered into the narrow gap between two cupboards. She stretched one arm into the gap as far as it would go.
“Oh, don’t try that again,” said Harry. “It’s not going to work.”
Johanna stretched and stretched… and then sighed.
“No. It isn’t, is it? We’re stuck in the Greyworld now. But we fitted through here so easily when Mr Phigg took us to the Slumber Downs.” She went to the drawers by the sink and came back with a large torch.
“That was weeks ago now.”
“Don’t you think I know that?” she said sharply. Where is he? she thought. I miss him. And the Shadowflock. I miss Bartram and Lawrence. All those different places we went. And I’m not going to stop trying to get back there.
She shone a light between the cupboards. “The door is still there. You can see the handle catch the light. But…” she put her arm back into the gap and strained “… you… just… can’t… reach.”
“We could try knocking, I suppose,” said Harry.
Johanna turned to see her brother with the mop in his hand. She got out of the way so he could push the handle into the gap and hit it several times against the little door at the back.
Then they heard their dad’s steps coming down the stairs. Harry quickly pulled the mop out of the gap and made a show of dabbing at the floor, while Johanna grabbed some kitchen roll and wiped next to him, whistling nonchalantly.
“I think you missed a bit here, Dad.”
“Did I? Sorry. I’ve got a bit of a thick head this morning. Thanks for helping, kids. You have a good day – I’m off to work now.”
Chapter Two – Mrs Cuthbert’s Sparkle
“How was she, Mum?” Johanna asked.
“Oh, a bit sad, I’m afraid. The bone has mended. But she’s not doing very much and she seems so forgetful. She’s just not the same as she was.”
Mrs Cuthbert was a kind and smiley old lady who used to live across the road. She had looked after Johanna and Harry sometimes when they were little and taken them off on the train for days out. They were very fond of her and the family had kept in touch after she’d moved to the other side of Brashleigh-on-Sea, the town on the south coast of England where they all lived. Then a few weeks ago Mrs Cuthbert had fallen and broken her ankle and had to go into a nursing home.
“It’s all a bit regimented there,” their mother continued. “It must have been such a wrench to leave the house and her cats. She seems to have lost her sparkle.”
“Let’s find it for her!” said Harry, with feeling.
“We should go and cheer her up,” added Johanna.
“We could paint her a picture,” said Harry. “She always put our pictures on her wall.”
“That’s a good idea: you do that,” said their mum, smiling. “I’ll drive you up there later.”
Johanna got the paint-box from the cupboard and Harry spread newspaper on the table. They were soon hard at work.
They set off after lunch, when the paintings had dried and they had assembled a small bouquet of flowers and ferns from the garden.
The nursing home was in a long road of big houses on the way out of town to the Downs. A big sign by the gate read:
Gentle Thoughts Nursing Home
“Restful Care For Carefree Rest”
Matron: Miss Monica Webster
Having parked in a gravelled courtyard, they were heading towards the front door when a large grey-haired woman in a tight black skirt and royal blue twinset burst into view, a weighty string of pearls bouncing on her substantial bosom.
“Ah, Mrs Blake, isn’t it?”
“Good afternoon, Miss Webster.”
“Twice in one day – my goodness! And these must be your children. Lovely. But we do like to have advance warning of young ones, you know, especially when they’re not relatives.” She patted the children’s’ mother on the arm, fluttering the lashes of her piercing blue eyes in a most unsettling manner as she added in a hushed and confidential tone: “Some of our ladies find them a little de trop, I fear.”
Johanna and Harry were fascinated, carefully noting Miss Webster’s mannerisms for future reproduction. But then she turned her attention to them, steely eyes peering over her large, curved nose and a broad smile which went no further than her snow-white teeth and deep-red lips. “I am sure you two will be quiet and well behaved during your short time with us, won’t you?”
They nodded, without enthusiasm.
“Well, do go in, now you’re here” she concluded. “You’ll find Mrs Cuthbert in the day room.”
They made their way to a long, narrow room facing onto the back garden – but there wasn’t much garden to be seen through the thick net curtains which covered all the windows and made the room distinctly gloomy. There was a row of armchairs along the wall, in most of which an elderly lady was sitting quietly, staring into space. The chairs were all covered in the same beige vinyl and spaced just too far apart for their occupants to be able to talk to each other easily. A large television was on but nobody seemed to be paying it much attention. No-one noticed their arrival.
A faint, metallic tang of disinfectant caught the back of Johanna’s throat. Yuck, she thought, I don’t like this place at all.
Then she spotted Mrs Cuthbert at the far end of the room and ran with Harry to greet her. In a moment they had handed over the flowers and were sitting chatting happily, each sitting half on an arm of the chair and half on Mrs Cuthbert. Their mother was anxious for a moment, but relaxed when she saw a smile slowly spread across Mrs Cuthbert’s face. The children talked away about things they’d done with Mrs Cuthbert in the past and things they were doing now.
“… and then after we’d cleared up all the flood water, we painted you some pictures,” said Johanna finally, and undid the string around the rolled-up bundle.
“Here’s mine,” said Harry. “It’s your old house.”
“I know,” said Mrs Cuthbert, studying the picture. “Here are my sunflowers and my red front door… and here –” she pointed to two cats “– are Ginger and Fred, sleeping in the sun, just like they used to. I do miss them, my lovely boys.”
“Your niece has got them now, hasn’t she?” asked Mrs Blake.
“Yes, that’s right. I know they’re fine with Karen; they’re close by and well looked after. But I can’t get out to see them – and of course they’re not allowed in here.”
Her eyes were sad now, above her smiling mouth.
“This is my picture,” said Johanna, unrolling the second one. It showed a couple dancing together: a lady in a long frock and a shiny necklace, held close by a man in a soldier’s uniform. “It’s you,” she said.
“And Michael,” Mrs Cuthbert added softly.
“Yes, your husband” Johanna replied. “I remember that photo you have of him in his sergeant’s uniform.” She pointed to the stripes on the arm of the man in the picture. “And how much you said you liked dancing when you were young.”
“What lovely pictures. Thank you so much,” said Mrs Cuthbert, with watery eyes. “They take me right back. I dreamed of Michael just last night, you know…”
Suddenly the doors of the day room were flung open and Miss Webster bore down on them at speed.
“Now, now, children, please,” she said. “Feet belong on the floor, as I’m sure you know.” Johanna and Harry jumped down from the chair as Miss Webster gave their mother a meaningful look. “We don’t want our ladies excited.” She studied Mrs Cuthbert for a moment. “And we certainly don’t want them upset.” She glared at the children.
“Oh, don’t worry, I don’t mind…” Mrs Cuthbert began, but Miss Webster interrupted her.
“I think you’ll find that I know what’s best for you, my dear. And I mind. You’re not strong enough for this sort of behaviour. Gentle Thoughts – that’s what we want: our name is our aim, as I like to say.”
“I was just remembering–” Mrs Cuthbert tried again to explain.
“They are memories you can do without, my dear,” said Miss Webster firmly. “I will help you to your room, Mrs Cuthbert. We had better draw this visit to a close.” She looked pointedly at the children’ mother until she stood up too.
They said their farewells and turned to go.
“Do come again, please,” said Mrs Cuthbert, in a small voice.
“But do remember to book,” added Miss Webster. “So we can be sure it will be convenient.”
Back at home Johanna and Harry headed for the kitchen while their mum went upstairs to her office.
“Right,” said Johanna. “We need a plan. We’re not going to leave Mrs Cuthbert in that horrible place.”
“It is horrible – but what can we do about it?”
“I don’t know yet, but I know we’ve got to do something. We don’t like that home – and I don’t think Mrs Cuthbert does. It’s so quiet, like the life’s just draining out of them. And that Miss Webster…” She shuddered.
Harry was instantly in character. He marched up and down the kitchen scowling at his sister and saying “Well, whatever it is you’re up to, do remember to book. We don’t want our ladies excited.”
“Remind me,” said a sudden voice behind them, “are reservations necessary in this house too?”
“Mr Phigg!” they both shouted together and turned to see a familiar little man, with bright eyes and a gap-toothed smile. He wore a red woollen hat, pulled over long brown hair, and a diamond stud flashed from one of his furry ear lobes.
“Where have you been?” Johanna demanded. “It’s been ages. What have you been doing?”
“Oh, this and that. And a bit of something else. Especially on Tuesdays. I’ve been busy, you know. Very busy.”
“Too busy to bother with us, obviously,” said Johanna.
“Now, don’t get huffy,” said Mr Phigg. “I’m here now. And I was keeping in touch. Keeping an eye on things.”
“Sigmund? Yes – but he’s just part of a whole network. You’d be amazed. A flock of See-Gulls like him outside, an array of Listening Bugs positioned around the house, all reporting in to Bedquarters…” He paused and bent to pick up a ladybird from the back doorstep and showed it to them on the palm of his hand.
Johanna was sure she heard it say “Oi!” faintly before Mr Phigg let it go again.
“Well, perhaps not every detail. But I did ask Sigmund to keep an eye on things. And then the systems did pick up a strange pounding on a gateway this morning, not a million miles from here.”
Harry’s face reddened. “That was me,” he said.
“Now, in my experience, people who knock on doors usually want to go through them. Do you two fancy a trip?”
The children jumped up enthusiastically.
“I’ve got to go to Dr Solomon’s to pick up some stuff for my Uncle Bron. I thought you two might like to come along.”
Mr Phigg took a silver key out of his waistcoat pocket and led the way to the back of the kitchen. This time, there was plenty of room for them to slip between the cupboards to the little door at the back.
Mr Phigg turned his key in the lock, opened the door and stepped through. The children followed and found themselves in warm sunlight, stepping through the gate of a neat, white-walled garden.
This is more like it, said Johanna to herself. Welcome back, Mr Phigg!
Chapter Three – The Doctor Will See You Now
“I’m looking for something to take horses’ hooves out of stones.”
They were in the hallway at Devizes Devices, the West Country home and workshop of Mr Phigg’s friend, the inventor Dr Solomon. His receptionist Kim had been listening attentively, but now the elegant Afghan Hound’s muzzle creased in puzzlement.
“Don’t you mean, to take stones out of horses’ hoo– ”
“No, no,” Mr Phigg interrupted. “It’s definitely hooves out of stone this time.”
“Hmmm,” said Kim. She frowned and scrolled down a page on her computer screen before pointing with her paw. “Ah, yes: that should do nicely.” She printed out a sheet of paper and handed it to Mr Phigg. “Stone Alone. It separates out the stone from anything else that shouldn’t be there.” She peered at the paper. “Brush on generously and leave to dry. May need a second coat. You can pick it up from Claude.”
“Thanks, Kim,” said Mr Phigg, taking the paper. “When will the Doc be back?”
“Any time now. He went shopping with Lawrence just after breakfast. I’m surprised they’re not back yet. They’d be sorry to miss you.”
“And we’ll be sorry if we miss them,” said Johanna, who was keen to see the friends they’d shared adventures with when they’d first met Mr Phigg.
They all went down the hall, and through a door marked Stores.
Inside, a standard poodle in a blue overall was leaning on a counter, absorbed in a Sudoku puzzle. Behind the counter were rows and rows of metal shelving filled with an amazing assortment of things: tins and boxes, bottles and jars, a horse’s saddle and an old car engine, an aquarium and a sword – all neatly stacked and carefully labelled.
“Seven,” said Mr Phigg.
“Seven?” the dog replied. “What’s seven?”
“The number you’re looking for.”
“You’re just guessing.”
“I beg your pardon, Claude, but I’m not just anything – I prefer to see it as an intuitive leap. That’s my speciality, you know.”
“You can’t guess at Sudoku.”
“Really? Well, I probably shan’t be playing it much. Can we have some of this please?”
He handed over the paper and the poodle disappeared amongst the shelves. Mr Phigg whistled tunelessly until Claude re-emerged with a small silver tin which he put in a paper bag.
Johanna was studying the shelves. “Excuse me,’ she said. “Are these all things that you sell?”
“There’s finished products here and raw materials,” said the dog. “And that means things the Doc knows he’s going to use in his experiments and things that might come in handy. One day. In theory. I suppose.” He lowered his voice. “Not very good at throwing things away, is he, the good Doctor?”
Suddenly the door to the storeroom was thrown open and a large brown buzzard marched in, his grubby, tattered lab coat billowing out behind him.
“And why should I throw things away? Waste not, want not, Claude, as I’ve always told you.”
The big bird was followed by a chimpanzee, who was wearing a rather whiter lab coat.
“Lawrence!” shouted Johanna and Harry together and rushed to give him a hug.
“So,” said Dr Solomon, smiling, “to what do we owe this not inconsiderable pleasure?”
Mr Phigg waved his paper bag. “Just picking up one of your fine products, Doc. I need to sort out a little problem at Uncle Bron’s.”
“How is the old rogue?”
“Appallingly healthy, I’d say, for someone of his age. It’s just his memory that’s gone.”
“It’s often the way, I’m afraid. Tell me: how old is he now?”
“Oh, next Tuesday he’ll be, let’s see… four hundred and twelve.”
The children started to laugh, but stopped when they realised that Mr Phigg wasn’t joking.
Dr Solomon shrugged. “There you go: it’s what you’d expect.”
“Why is it what you’d expect?” asked Johanna. “I don’t expect anyone to be four hundred and twelve.”
“Well, it happens. And if you’re going to be that age, getting a bit forgetful is what you’d expect. Your memory’s like that cupboard under the stairs, Johanna.” He waved his wing towards it. “We keep cramming stuff in, but ultimately there’s a limit. And the older you get, the fuller that cupboard is. So there’s not much room in Bron’s head now.”
“Can’t you forget some of the old stuff that you don’t need anymore, to make room for new things?”
“In theory, yes. But that’s not really how cupboards work. It’s the stuff by the door that tends to be picked up and used or thrown away. The stuff you’ve put in there fairly recently. But most of the room is taken up by things that have been there for ages – things you can’t really see and can’t quite reach, lurking in the shadows at the back, under the cobwebs…”
“So, when you try to put something new in, there’s nowhere for it to go?”
“It’s funny,” said Lawrence. “We’ve just been talking about memory at the shop. We were down in Tintagel picking up some vegetables and a bottle of Pisky Whisky and Joan said… said… um… she said…” He stopped and scratched his head, looking round for inspiration.
What is going on, today? Johanna thought anxiously. Nobody remembers anything. But then the mood was broken by Dr Solomon shouting “Get on with it, you idiot!” and throwing a cabbage at Lawrence, who dived to catch it like a goalkeeper and then lay on the floor laughing.
“Joan had these in the shop,” he said, picking himself up and taking what looked like a glasses case from his pocket. “We said we’d run some tests on them for her.”
Johanna looked at the label on the brown leather case: Cornish Past-Ease. She opened the lid to reveal a small pair of round, wire-rimmed spectacles. There was another label inside which she read aloud:
“ ‘CAUTION – to be worn on the back of the head only.’ But why would you want to do that?”
“I don’t know,” said Lawrence, “and neither did Joan. She found a couple of pairs the other day, clearing out a cupboard in her stockroom. They were tucked away, right at the back.”
“Under some cobwebs,” Dr Solomon added, with a smile. “I told you that’s how cupboards work. She didn’t know where they came from or what they do. So I said I’d bring them back to the lab for a proper look.”
“Never mind experiments in the lab,” said Mr Phigg firmly. “I like to keep things practical, as you know. Let’s try them out on Bron. Yes, yes, all right,” he added quickly, as he saw Dr Solomon was about to object. “We’ll take Lawrence with us to make sure we don’t break them. How about that? What could possibly go wrong?”
“Plenty, when you’re involved, Phigg. Plenty. It took ages to fix our MetaWetter when you borrowed that. And then there was the time that…” Mr Phigg had gone down on one knee and held his hands out beseechingly. “Oh… go on then,” laughed the Doctor. “These glasses don’t look too dangerous, do they?”
Mr Phigg’s face contorted strangely, into what he imagined was an ingratiating smile. Then he led the children and Lawrence outside and through a little door in the garden wall.