Chapter One – Rising, Damp
Chapter Two – Mrs Cuthbert’s Sparkle
Chapter Three – The Doctor Will See You Now
Chapter Four – It’s All Coming Back to Me
Chapter Five – Ask the Family
Chapter Six – Back to Bedquarters
Chapter Seven – A Phigg’s Best Friend
Chapter Eight – Going Underground
Chapter Nine – An Evening Outing
Chapter Ten – I’ve Got My Mojo Working
Chapter Eleven – Shall We Dance?
Chapter Twelve – Down to the Sea
Chapter Thirteen – Mission Accomplished
Chapter Fourteen – The Ghost Town
Chapter Fifteen – Getting Warmer
Chapter Sixteen – Industrial Strife
Chapter Seventeen – An Unexpected Caller
Chapter Eighteen – A Thunder of Hooves
Chapter Nineteen – The Morning After
Chapter Twenty – Present Day Life
“Where did all that water come from?”
Johanna Blake paused in her 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.
He shrugged and pushed some more water out through the back door with his brush. “You tell me. I thought it might be the dishwasher, but that seems to be 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, then carried it out and poured half down each drain. The water ran away perfectly normally.
“All clear. Both of them. That’s strange. 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 it’s a nosey one, 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 wings wide 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 must have something to do with this. It’s got that feeling, hasn’t it? Come on.”
They went 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. But we used to fit 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, now – I’m off to work.”
“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 from the Blake family. 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.
“Things seem a bit regimented in 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.
“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 sign by the gate read:
After parking 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, her steely eyes peering over a 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 shorttime 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. They handed over the flowers and were soon 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 know her, and they’re 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.
“I am sure 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 glared at the children’s 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 was wearing 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…” He paused and bent to pick up a ladybird from the back doorstep and showed it to them on the palm of his hand. “All reporting in to Bedquarters.”
Johanna was sure she heard the ladybird 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 Bedquarters 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. So, 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!
“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’ hooves– ”
“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 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 here now. 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 an adventure with when they 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?”
“He’s amazingly 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 to remember 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. They’re supposed to help people remember.”
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…” Then he noticed that Mr Phigg had gone down on one knee and was holding 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.
This time they emerged into a clearing that Johanna and Harry had not seen before. About a hundred yards ahead, an ivy-covered cottage sat in a garden full of flowers. Smoke rose gently from a chimney set in its thatched roof.
Johanna laughed, delighted, and bent to sniff a nodding, pink honeysuckle. “How do you do it, Mr Phigg?” she asked.
“Going through a door in one place and coming out somewhere completely different?”
“That’s what gateways are for: taking you somewhere else. You don’t always need to take every step between where you are and where you want to be, you know. It’s like playing snakes and ladders: I know how to get onto the right ladder at the right time.”
They walked in silence for a few paces. Then Harry spoke.
“Um, Mr Phigg?”
“We don’t really play snakes and ladders, these days.”
“No. But I was thinking that going through your gateways is a bit like when you click on a hyperlink and go off somewhere else entirely. Is that right?”
“Yes, Harry. I suppose you could say that.”
As they reached the garden gate, a small, bent figure came around the corner of the cottage, clutching a bunch of sweet peas. It was an old man, walking stiffly, completely bald, whose wrinkled neck reminded Johanna of a giant tortoise. He was wearing a claret-coloured velvet smoking jacket. His round spectacles had very thick lenses and his smiley eyes loomed disconcertingly large behind them.
“You’ve got me feeling old now, Harry,” said Mr Phigg. “But not quite as old as him.” He raised his hand in greeting and then, talking much more slowly and loudly than usual, said: “Hello there, Uncle Bron. Do you remember who I am?”
“Of course I do, you cheeky whippersnapper,” said Bron, smiling but a little annoyed at the same time. “It’s not funny you know. We all have to get old. Unless we don’t, that is… and that’s not funny either. Just you wait.”
“It’s nice to see you too.” Mr Phigg grinned. “And I’ve got some new names for you to fail to remember.” He introduced Johanna and Harry and Lawrence and, in turn, Uncle Bron clamped his bony hand round theirs and shook them warmly.
“I’m very glad you’ve come,” he said. “I’ve been having to find jobs to do out here in the garden. He’s been driving me up the wall in there.”
“Who has?” asked Johanna.
“Come and see,” said Bron, opening the back door. They went through the kitchen and into the living room, where a white Shetland pony in a navy-blue fisherman’s sweater was stretched out on a chaise longue. Its feet were resting on cushions and each of its hooves was encased in a lump of concrete.
“What on earth happened to you, Finlay?” Mr Phigg asked.
“Och, I’m sick and tired of telling people,” the pony replied crossly. “I was coming over here yesterday evening from my brother’s after a dram or two –”
“Or three or four or –” Bron interrupted.
“All right!” shouted Finlay. “I’d had a drink. It was late. It was dark. And somebody…” He paused to glare at Bron. “… somebody had failed to tell me they were having their side path resurfaced.”
“You knew it needed doing, after the creek flooded again,” said Uncle Bron. “We discussed it.”
“But… you… forgot… to… tell… me… when,” Finlay replied, his jaw and all four legs rigid with barely controlled fury.
“Anyway, I found him this morning,” Bron continued. “Leaning against the wall, fast asleep, with the concrete set around him. It took me half an hour with a pickaxe to get this far.”
Johanna had taken a carrot from a bowl on the sideboard and held it out for Finlay. “Thank you,” said the pony, demolishing it in two bites. “At least somebody is looking after me.”
Uncle Bron gazed at his guests in turn and rolled his eyes in exasperation.
“Anyway,” said Mr Phigg, in an effort to calm things down, “we’ll soon have this sorted out.” He produced the tin of Stone Alone with a flourish. “I have here one of Dr Solomon’s finest products.” He took off the lid and began to paint the tin’s contents on to Finlay’s cement-encrusted feet.
“Oh,” said Finlay, squirming on his back like a dog with an itch, “oh… oh… jings! … what a very peculiar feeling.”
As they watched, all the stone began to fall away from the pony’s hooves, onto the couch and carpet. Mr Phigg dabbed a little bit more of Dr Solomon’s mixture onto a couple of awkward, sticky bits at the back – and then … and then … it was all clear.
Finlay jumped to his feet and charged up and down the living room. “It worked!” he shouted. “It worked! Thank you, Mr Phigg.” And, with that, he galloped off to the garden to let off some more steam.
“Not the easiest of patients,” laughed Mr Phigg. “But he’s not used to being stuck in one place, I suppose.”
“He’s not the easiest of anythings,” muttered Uncle Bron, fetching a dustpan and brush from the kitchen. “Don’t you worry, Finlay, old chap. I’ll clean up the rubble while you have a nice run round…”
Johanna was studying some of the many paintings and photographs which lined the living room’s walls.
“Is this you?” she asked. A small and clearly very old oil painting showed a cavalier with a white lace collar, a pointed moustache, smooth cheeks and masses of dark, flowing hair. But, below that different surface, it was unmistakably Bron’s face smiling back at the artist and posterity.
Bron peered at the picture and frowned. “Yes, it looks like me, doesn’t it, dear? But I really don’t remember very much about it.”
“Ha!” said Mr Phigg. “Right on cue. Get the specs out, Lawrence.”
Lawrence produced the Cornish Past-Ease from his pocket and handed them to Bron. He inspected the case curiously and took out the wire-rimmed spectacles. Following the instructions, he placed them on the back of his head and hooked them over his ears. “My goodness,” he said faintly, “that really is an awful lot clearer.”
He walked around the room, pausing to look at different pictures and objects, and smiling. “Remarkable,” he said. “It’s just like putting these on –” he tapped his normal, front-facing, glasses “– when everything comes into focus and you can pick things out against the background. With these –” touching the second pair “– I seem to remember so much more. The past seems clearer, sharper and … oh, I think I might have left my electric blanket on, now I think about it…”
Then he returned to the painting of the cavalier. “Ah, yes,” he said firmly. “Naseby, that was. Forty-five. I’d been speaking to Rupert the week before and I warned him about Fairfax. But the King, meanwhile–”
“And what about this one?” Johanna interrupted. “She’s very pretty, isn’t she?” She was standing in front of a small painting of a beautiful young woman – long black hair tumbling onto her shoulders, a slight wistful smile on her lips and her limpid blue eyes caught by something over the artist’s shoulder.
“Och,” said Finlay with a shake of his head, as he came back into the room, “don’t get him started on Monica.”
“Monica Morphet,” said Uncle Bron dreamily. He stood in front of her picture and stared. “Monica… Morphet….” His voice trailed away.
Finlay gestured to the others and led them to the other end of the room, then said quietly: “His one true love. He never got over it. A perfect match, or so everybody thought. If only she’d been what she seemed.”
“How do you mean?” asked Johanna.
“She was a Tale-Spinner.”
“You mean she lied to him?”
“In a way, I suppose she did. But no, that’s what she was: a Tale-Spinner.”
“Come on, Finlay,” said Mr Phigg. “You don’t really believe in Tale-Spinners, do you? Those old stories…”
Finlay rounded crossly on Mr Phigg but before he could reply they were interrupted by Bron.
“Monica! I remember now!”
“What is it? What do you remember?” Johanna asked.
Uncle Bron was agitated and anxious. “A dream – last night, I think. She’s trapped somewhere. She needs help. It was a message, I’m sure of it.”
“What happened?” said Mr Phigg quietly, taking him by the arm.
He’s not so sceptical now. He knows what can happen in dreams. Johanna thought back to their adventure together with the Shadowflock, the sheep that people count when they want to get to sleep at night. Together they had met the Soft Centaurs and the Night Mares, who can give sleepers dreams that are good or bad. Mr Phigg knew that dreams are not always what they seem…
“It started with this picture,” said Bron, frowning and rubbing the back of his wrinkly neck, reliving his dream as he spoke. “She looked exactly as she does here. But then somehow the picture was in three dimensions. And then her shoulders were rising and falling, and I could hear her breathing, quickly. ‘Bron,’ she said, ‘Bron, I’m trapped. I can’t get out. Help me, Bron, help me.’ And I reached out my hand to her. And she reached out her hand to me. But there was something between us that we couldn’t see and we couldn’t touch. And then, somehow, she was moving further away from me and the picture was less distinct and she slipped away. But I heard ‘Help me, help me’ as the image faded.” He shook his head. “How could I have forgotten that?”
“Well, you’ve remembered now,” said Johanna and led him to sit down on a couch.
“What can we do?” said Bron, turning to look into all the worried faces around him.
“Nothing, for the moment,” said Mr Phigg. “Something strange is happening, I can see. But we don’t know what it means, and we haven’t any leads. Leave it with me and we’ll look into it. I’ll get the team together at Bedquarters and we’ll take stock properly.”
– o O o –
“Are you going to tell us what Tale-Spinners are?” asked Johanna, when they were heading back to Brashleigh. “Finlay seemed really upset before.”
Mr Phigg paused by the little door in the clearing, his silver key in his hand.
“He should know better,” said Mr Phigg. “They’re just stories – about stories. Something to tell children at bedtime.”
“Ah, at bedtime – while they’re waiting for the Shadowflock to arrive? Is that what you mean?”
“Look, Johanna,” said Mr Phigg firmly. “Just because there are unusual and unexpected explanations for somethings, it doesn’t mean that every weird and wonderful idea is true.”
“You’ve been standing too close to the Dreary Dust, Mr Phigg” said Harry. He’d learned that Dreary Dust was what the Shadowflock used when they needed to persuade people to accept a boring explanation for something magical. “Tell us anyway. We’re children and –” He paused to mime a deep yawn and stretch his arms wide. “– I’m suddenly feeling rather sleepy.”
“Oh, all right,” said Mr Phigg and sat down on a grassy bank by the side of the door. “It is a nice idea, I suppose…
“According to the stories, the Tale-Spinners were wonderful creatures – seven sisters who were shape-shifters. They could take any number of different forms. But behind all the disguises they were actually spiders, of a very special sort. Special because of what they fed on and because of the webs they wove. They were scavengers – they lived on memories that have slipped out of people’s heads. And they spun those lost and forgotten experiences and thoughts into legends and myths – the sorts of stories that somehow everybody knows and that seem like they ought to be true, even if they’re not, because they’re woven from things that really happened.”
“Wow,” said Johanna, pondering. “Perhaps the Tale-Spinners wove the story of themselves.”
Harry scratched his head as he thought about that, while Mr Phigg laughed and said: “I wouldn’t put it past them!”
“And Finlay thinks that your Uncle Bron’s friend Monica was a Tale-Spinner?” asked Johanna.
“That’s what Bron’s told him and he believes it.”
“So why don’t you?”
“Oh, come on! It all happened before I was born and before Finlay knew Bron, but it’s obviously just another of those stories that someone wants to be true. Monica was the love of Bron’s life, but then she went away without saying goodbye. His heart was broken, and he never saw her again or found anyone to take her place. I’m sure that’s very sad, but I’m afraid romances fade every day without any magical intervention.”
“Well, I think it’s a lovely story,” said Johanna.
“So do I,” Harry agreed.
“OF COURSE IT IS!” roared Mr Phigg. “That’s the whole point! Why does no-one listen to me?”
“Because you’re a crabby old man!” said Harry, ducking out of range before Mr Phigg could grab him.
“I never used to be crabby, until I met you two!” He chased Harry around the clearing for some time, but he couldn’t quite make contact.
Eventually a truce was called and they headed for the doorway. Mr Phigg peered through and said “All clear”, and Johanna and Harry stepped back into their kitchen.
“What now?” said Harry. “We won’t be going to Bedquarters till tomorrow and I don’t want just to sit here waiting.”
“We’re not just going to sit here,” said Johanna. “There are plenty of things in our world we need to think about too. Have you forgotten about Mrs Cuthbert?”
“Of course I haven’t forgotten – but what are we supposed to do, break in to the nursing home and kidnap her?”
“Don’t be so silly! No. What we’ll do is… we’ll… we’ll think of something. Come on!”
“Where are we going?”
“Mum was talking about Mrs Cuthbert’s niece. If we go and ask her about her auntie, we might get some ideas.”
About half an hour later, having looked up the address in the phone book and walked across the town, they turned into the street where Mrs Cuthbert’s niece, Karen, lived. It was a quiet road, lined with trees, the tall Victorian houses all converted now to flats. They made their way down the basement steps to a red front door. They rang the bell and waited. Eventually a pretty young woman opened the door. She was carrying a small boy on her hip. “Hello,” she said. “What do you two want? Do we know you?”
“We know your auntie, Mrs Cuthbert,” Johanna explained. “We went to see her at the nursing home and… and we thought it would be a good idea to come and see you… and…”
“And tell you about it,” added Harry, sensing that his sister was drying up. “We took her some pictures we painted…and…”
“And,” concluded Johanna, suddenly inspired, “we thought it would be a good idea to come and see you, so that we can put you and your son in our next paintings.”
“Let me see, are you two… Johanna and Harry?” asked Karen. They nodded. “Auntie Maggie has talked a lot about you. Come in.”
She sat them in the kitchen and they drank orange juice and ate biscuits and played with her son Charlie while they talked about Mrs Cuthbert and some of the kind and funny things she had done.
“One time she was taking us to London for the day,” recalled Johanna, “and she asked the man at Brashleigh Station for three return tickets. He asked where to and Mrs Cuthbert said, ‘Back here, of course.’”
Karen laughed and told them some stories of her own. She said that Mrs Cuthbert’s ankle was healing well, but she seemed to have lost her confidence.
“And she’s getting so forgetful, since she’s been there. It seems worse every time I see her. She couldn’t cope on her own now. I’d love to have her come and live with us, but there just isn’t room – not in this flat…”
At that point, two sleek cats, one tabby and one ginger, strutted into the kitchen and twined themselves around the children’s legs.
“There’s room for Fred and Ginger, though,” said Johanna, stroking Fred’s arched back.
“They don’t take up much space,” Karen laughed, “and it’s nice to have them around.” She bent to scratch behind Ginger’s pricked ears. “It’s a shame they can’t go in to visit Auntie Maggie… they do have schemes at some hospitals, you know, where people take pets in to meet the patients. It’s supposed to do them good.”
“I do not think that would be suitable for my ladies,” said Harry, in a perfect imitation of Miss Webster’s haughty tone.
Karen laughed but then sighed. “Quite. I really don’t think that home is the right place for her.”
Just then, the doorbell rang loudly. Karen jumped up and went out into the hall to answer it, taking Charlie with her.
“See?” said Johanna to her brother. “She agrees. We’ve got to get Mrs Cuthbert out of there.”
“I know,” said Harry. “I’m not arguing. It’s a shame she can’t come here, with her family and the cats.”
“It certainly is,” said Fred in a melodious voice.
“We’d look out for her,” added Ginger, purring. “We always did.”
“What?” gasped Johanna and Harry together, as their mouths dropped open.
“Now, come on,” said Fred, turning his head on one side and gazing up at them. “We’re not the first animals you’ve spoken to, are we? We can always tell, you know.”
“We’ve not got long,” said Ginger, nodding towards the hall, “but we wanted to make contact. You must let us know if we can help with Mrs C.”
“Th… thank you,” Johanna managed to splutter, just as Karen came back into the kitchen with some post and a package she’d had to sign for. “Thank you, er, Harry, but… no, I won’t have another biscuit just now.”
“Are you all right?” asked Karen. “Has something gone down the wrong way?”
“Oh, no – I’m fine, really. But we’d better be going now.”
“Well, thank you for coming and thank you for trying to cheer up Auntie Maggie. Do go and see her again, no matter what that Miss Webster says.”
“We’re not scared of her,” said Harry, as they got up to go.
“Aren’t you?” said Karen, with a grin. “I am. But I’ll keep visiting too, until we can get her back on her feet and out of there.” She looked down at the cats, rubbing up against Johanna’s and Harry’s legs. “You’ve made a hit with them.”
“Miaowww,” confirmed Fred and Ginger, loudly.
“Listen to that,” said Karen. “It’s almost as if they could talk.”
“It wasn’t like this in my day,” said Mr Blake, picking up his briefcase. “Aren’t kids supposed to loll around in the school holidays saying they’re bored? You two always seem to be doing something.”
Johanna looked up from her notebook. “We like to keep busy, Father,” she said, deadpan. Harry remained focused on the giant spider he was sketching.
“Well, I’ll see you later. Don’t stay indoors all day: get some fresh air.”
“Bye, Dad,” said Johanna, “We’ll try,” as Mr Blake headed off to catch his train.
“So,” said Harry, putting down his pencil. “What are we going to do about Mrs Cuthbert?”
“I’ve got an idea. But I need to talk to Mr Phigg when we have the meeting at Bedquarters.”
“When’s that going to happen, anyway?”
“In about five minutes,” said Mr Phigg, who had slipped in unnoticed, as always. He slid his watch back into his waistcoat pocket. “Are you two ready?”
Were they ready? They had been wanting to get back to Bedquarters for so long… They leapt up and ran across the kitchen to the little door, following Mr Phigg through it and out onto the lush green fields of the Slumber Downs.
The sun shone down on a familiar scene: a ramshackle wooden building, topped by a wobbly radar dish; black-faced sheep grazing contentedly in the surrounding fields; blue sea sparkling in the distance, with Brashleigh slumbering beside it.
“Wayyy-hayyyy,” bellowed Harry, sticking his arms straight out and charging around the field like an aeroplane. His sister quickly followed suit, weaving after him, in and out of the munching sheep, who studiously ignored them.
Then the door of the building opened. An old sheep stuck his head out and took in the scene. He was wearing a leather flying helmet, with a pair of goggles pushed back on the top of his head. “Uh-oh,” he said, catching Mr Phigg’s eye, “bandits at ten o’clock, coming in fast, out of the sun…”
“SIMON!” shouted Johanna and Harry in unison.
Before they could run to greet him, he added: “We’d better scramble one of our own…” and a white and woolly blur ran past him and chased after the children.
“BARTRAM!” they shouted, even louder.
After a couple of circuits of the field, Johanna, Harry and their young friend, all chattering happily, followed Simon and Mr Phigg into the shed – passing a brass plate on the door reading Shadowflock Bedquarters and a notice below warning Authorised Personnel Only. The children had learned that this building was both a control tower and a listening post: the place where the Shadowflock organised their operations and monitored what was going on in the world. There were rows of desks and computers, screens on the walls and a large map of the United Kingdom laid out on the floor.
“Hello, you two,” said a motherly sheep in tortoiseshell spectacles, who was tapping at a keyboard.
“Hello Mabel!” Johanna replied. “Are you keeping them in order? This is just like old times.”
Eventually Mr Phigg shouted over the conversation and called the meeting to order, everyone taking their place around a long oak table at the end of the room.
“Right,” said Mr Phigg, tapping a pen on the notepad in front of him, happy, as always, to be in charge. “Let’s get started. Now, does everyone know everyone else?”
He looked around the assembly. Simon was on his left, and the elderly sheep nodded gravely. Lawrence was next, and he nodded too.
Then the door swung open and a large seagull strode up to the table and took a seat between Lawrence and the children.
“Yes, Phigg,” he said. “I know all your team.”
“I’m not sure that a wink counts as a proper introduction,” said Johanna, holding out her hand. “Hello, Sigmund: I’m pleased to meet you.”
The gull inclined his head with a faint smile and then turned to acknowledge Harry in turn.
“How long have you been watching us?” asked Harry.
“Oh, long enough, I’d say,” drawled Sigmund in reply. “But never mind.” He paused and touched a wingtip to the side of his beak. “Your secret’s safe with me.”
“What s–” Harry began to ask, but then thought better of it and sat in silence, getting rapidly pinker.
“Don’t tease, Sigmund,” laughed Mr Phigg. “These two can give as good as they get, you know. Let’s get down to business: what do we know about Tale-Spinners?”
“I checked in with your old teacher at St Jude’s, Brother Periwinkle,” said Lawrence, “and he looked them up in his library. Definitely in the mythological category, he says. No verified sightings on the record. No proof.”
“But?” probed Johanna.
“What do you mean ‘but?’” said Mr Phigg sharply. “’No proof’ sounds pretty clear to me.”
“But Brother Periwinkle didn’t say it was all made up, did he?”
“No,” Lawrence agreed. “He didn’t. And he said that some things in the world are easier to explain with Tale-Spinners than without them. And he said… I’m sorry about this, Mr Phigg…”
“Get on with it,” Mr Phigg replied, through gritted teeth.
“He said he’d always thought it was a lovely story.”
Johanna laughed and clapped her hands, as Mr Phigg’s eyes rolled up towards the ceiling.
“OK,” he said. “Let’s just imagine for the sake of argument that the fairy tale is true: what then?”
“Let’s start with the facts,” said Simon. “Bron knew a girl called Monica Morphet. Monica went away suddenly. He heard nothing from her for years and years. Now Bron has had a strange dream which he believes was a message from Monica asking for help. Well, you and I both know that genuine messages can come through dreams. If it was anybody else, we’d start looking for the person who might be in danger.”
“But, if it’s a genuine message, the Tale-Spinner thing makes responding more difficult,” said Sigmund. “I can show Monica’s picture to all my team and search across the world – but she might not look anything like that now. She could be a woman or a spider – or a sea lion, for that matter… and could switch into something else the moment we saw her.”
There was a silence around the table as they thought about that and realised just how hard the task might be.
“I know!” Johanna erupted. “We should ask another Tale-Spinner! One of Monica’s sisters. They must be able to see what’s going on beneath the disguises.”
“Very good, Johanna,” said Mr Phigg drily. “So, in order to find one mythological creature who could look like anything, you want us to track down another one first and ask them to help. Sorted.”
“Hang on,” said Lawrence. “I think Johanna’s on to something. Hard as it might be, it still must be easier to find aTale-Spinner than to focus on hunting for a particular one from the start. I was talking to Dr Solomon at breakfast and he thinks there would have to be an awful lot of energy involved in shape-shifting which it ought to be possible for us to monitor. He suggested this.”
Lawrence produced a round, flat device from a carrier bag at his feet. It looked very like a smoke alarm – except that it had eight arms sticking out from its side. He laid it on the back of his hand and wrapped the arms around to attach it. He shook his hand to and fro and turned it upside down. “Good grip, you see – you can attach it anywhere. And it will send a signal back to base if there’s any shape-shifting going on in the area. The Doc calls it the SpiderBider: it waits till it detects that shape-shifting energy, then it lets us know. There are three of them here and he said he’ll make some more if we need them.”
“That’s good,” said Mr Phigg. “But where would we start looking? The world is a rather big place – and if there are any Tale-Spinners out there, they could be anywhere.”
“If the Tale-Spinners are where the world’s oldest stories come from, we should start with the places where those old stories are the strongest,” Simon suggested. “People say that the seven sisters have backed away as the world has got fuller and people want to tell stories of their own, instead of listening to the old ones. But some of those old legends haven’t gone away.”
“So, where are these old stories strongest?” asked Mr Phigg.
“Tintagel!” shouted Lawrence. “The Doc and I were there yesterday. King Arthur’s castle, the sword in the stone and the Knights of the Round Table. It’s full of stories.”
“What about Stonehenge?” said Johanna. “We went there in the Easter holidays: standing stones and druids and the sun’s rays on Midsummer’s morning… it’s like going back in time.”
“And… and… and what about Loch Ness,” Harry added, determined not to be left out. “That scary monster, deep down in the black lake.”
“Ah,” said Mr Phigg. “That’s one I do know a bit about. Hamish is a big lad, it’s true, but he’s not really what you’d call monstrous. Rather shy and quiet, actually. Not keen on the dark…
“Still, I get the idea: those all seem good suggestions and if we’re going to do this, we have to start somewhere. I suspect we may be looking for some time, though…
“So, you’ll be in charge of planting your SpiderBiders, Lawrence. Sigmund, you brief the See-Gulls, and Simon, you’ll need to recalibrate the Bedquarters systems: we need to make sure we pick up any sign of anything odd that could be a clue.”
Amidst all their activity, Mr Phigg leant back in his chair and put his feet up on the table.
“It’s good to keep busy,” he said contentedly.
“But what about us?” asked Johanna, looking round at him, her brother and Bartram. “What are we going to do?”
Chapter Seven – A Phigg’s Best Friend
“It’s all right,” said Harry. “Come on in.”
His sister had been to check that their mum was safely in her office, two floors above, and they had the basement to themselves. Johanna was always a little nervous when Mr Phigg was on the premises – and that was when there wasn’t a sheep involved too…
“Mmmm, this is very nice,” said Bartram, stepping into the kitchen. “Very tasteful.” He knocked into one of the tall stools at the breakfast counter, but Johanna just managed to catch it before it crashed to the floor. ‘If a little cramped,” he continued.
‘Can we just try to keep the noise down and stand… in… one… place?” said Johanna in an agitated whisper.
“Relax,” said Mr Phigg, perching on the stool and grinning. “Make yourself at home, Johanna… oh, I see: it’s because you are at home.” He smirked at Bartram.
“Ha-ha,” said Johanna mirthlessly. “Ha, ha and ha.”
“Now,” said Mr Phigg. “This friend of yours who’s lost her sparkle – we’re just the people to find it for her. We’ll have her perked up in no time. And I think your idea is an excellent one, Johanna. It should work, too, given that I am, as you know, a master of disguise.”
“It was something Mrs Cuthbert’s niece said that made me think of it…” Johanna began to explain, but her voice tailed off as she watched Mr Phigg produce a strange assortment of things from his pockets and line them up on the counter.
“One dog’s lead, leather, red,” he said to himself. “One matching collar, studded. One ball, rubber. One pair of spectacles, plain glass. What else?
“Harry – run upstairs, will you? I need to borrow a hat and a scarf and a coat of your father’s. There’s no need to look so worried – I’m not going to do any damage to them. We’ll have them back in a couple of hours. Nothing special, mind: the more boring the better – and I bet your dad has a lot of boring clothes. I just need to cover up so I won’t be recognised if we go back again later.”
Harry looked dubious but did as he’d been asked. “Mum still goes on about that sheepskin hearth rug,” he muttered as he went, remembering the last time Mr Phigg had borrowed something for a disguise.
Five minutes later, Mr Phigg was admiring himself in the mirror. His long hair was tucked up beneath a skiing hat, his colourful shirt and waistcoat hidden beneath a navy duffel coat and a plaid scarf. He doesn’t exactly look normal, Johanna said to herself. But he’s a bit less noticeable than usual.
“Yes,” said Mr Phigg, turning to squint at himself in profile. “I look just the sort of caring, socially-minded chap who’d take his dog into a nursing home to cheer up the residents.”
“You’ll do,” said Johanna. “But where are we going to find a dog?”
Bartram coughed, meaningfully.
“What? You’re a sheep…”
“Good call, Johanna. But haven’t you ever seen a Bedlington Terrier – everyone always says they look just like sheep.”
“Except they’ve got big floppy ears and skinny tails and claws and sharp doggy teeth and –”
“Hang on,” Mr Phigg interrupted. “Calm down. Let’s take this step by step… Ears, floppy.” He produced a package from his trouser pocket with a flourish. “From Desmond,” he said proudly. “My theatrical costumier.”
Johanna took the package from him and read aloud: “Ear Today, Gone Tomorrow”. In smaller print the label continued: “Temporary appendages, without fuss or major surgery. Stylish and odour-free.”
Mr Phigg snatched the package back and opened it. He peeled the backing paper off some adhesive strips on the false ears and positioned them carefully on Bartram’s head. Then he put the dog collar round the sheep’s neck.
Harry was watching with his head on one side. “It could work, I suppose. Those ears are rather good.”
“What about the tail?” Johanna objected, pointing to Bartram’s stumpy, short one.
“Perhaps a tragic accident…” Mr Phigg began. “A lawn mower, a food processor, the propeller of a speedboat – I KNOW! Harry, where’s that sheepskin rug?”
“It’s in my bedroom. Mum said it wasn’t fit to have in the living room any more, after we lent it to you last time.”
“Good. Go and get it, will you? Oh, and a coat hanger.”
After a few more minutes’ work, the socially-minded citizen had a passable Bedlington on a lead at his side. A strip cut from the hearth rug and moulded round a bent wire hanger was fitted over Bartram’s own tail. Further pieces of the rug had been attached with tape to mask his cloven hooves.
“Just try not to open your mouth too much,” said Mr Phigg. “And remember that you can’t talk.”
“Grrrrr-RUFF!” growled Bartram and, as an experiment, worried Mr Phigg’s trouser leg.
“Down, boy! That’s the spirit!”
“I’ve got the number of the nursing home,” Johanna said, pressing the buttons on the phone and listening before handing it to Mr Phigg. “It’s ringing.”
Mr Phigg pinched his nose between his thumb and forefinger. “Hello? Is that the Gentle Thoughts Nursing Home? Could I speak to the matron please? Ahh, you are she… good afternoon, Miss Webster, good afternoon, such a pleasure to talk to you…
“Yes, yes, of course I will get to the point… I… if you’ll just let… I’m calling from Brashleigh Council. I’m afraid we have a health and safety issue. Your plans for emergency evacuation are overdue for review. Yes… I’m afraid the regulations are very clear… it’s subparagraph (b) of section 114. A full review at least annually…
“Well, you might consider it a formality Miss Webster, but the rules are there for a reason. I would hate to have to order the closure of your home until this is sorted out…” He held the phone away from his ear at arm’s length and grimaced: the others could hear Miss Webster’s strident tones clearly as she berated Mr Phigg. Eventually she paused for breath.
“If you could just pop into the Town Hall, I’m sure we can get this sorted out… Yes, it will have to be this afternoon… In about half an hour? Yes, that will be fine. I look forward to meeting you, dear lady…” He held the phone at arm’s length again, before shaking his head and ending the call. “Thank goodness I won’t have to. Come on!”
He led the way to the door at the back of the kitchen, closely followed by the sheep-dog and the two children. After peering through he said “OK” and ushered them out.
They emerged into a shed at the back of the Gentle Thoughts Nursing Home’s car park. Most of the space in the room was taken up by tall metal drums marked with a skull and crossbones symbol and stickers warning Highly Flammable.
“What do you think all these chemicals are for?” asked Johanna.
Mr Phigg shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess it is a bit odd to find them here – but we’ve no time for that now.”
He pointed through the window, where Miss Webster was emerging from the home, slamming the front door behind her. She stomped furiously to a red sports car and drove away at speed.
Mr Phigg and the others went across to the main building. He rang the bell and the door was opened by a nurse in a smart blue uniform.
“Hello, er, Precious,” said Mr Phigg, peering at the name badge on her apron. “I’m Wystan Twigg of Pets for Patients – we’re expected, I trust?”
“Um, no. I’m afraid not. I haven’t been told anything about any visitors.”
“But I made the arrangement with Miss Webster herself… She was very clear on the therapeutic benefits… though I have to say she did seem a little distracted when we saw her outside just now. Is there some problem this afternoon?”
“She’s had to go out suddenly. I’m the only one here… But I suppose if you’ve arranged it with Miss Webster, you’d better come in.” She held the door open.
“Don’t worry about us,” said Mr Phigg. “We’ll sort ourselves out. You just carry on with… with whatever it is you do. Nursing, and all that.”
“The day room’s down here,” said Johanna, leading the way.
As before, the beige armchairs were lined up along the wall, each housing a quiet old lady.
“Hello, Mrs Cuthbert!” Harry called, as he and Johanna ran to greet her.
She had been snoozing, but opened her eyes when she heard their voices.
“Hello, my dears. How nice to see you again. Who is that man with the strange animal?”
“Oh, we met him on the way in,” said Johanna, avoiding Mrs Cuthbert’s eye. “He’s from Pets for Patients. Apparently, they bring their dogs into hospitals and nursing homes to cheer people up.”
“Well, it’s a very odd-looking dog.”
“Now, ladies,” said Mr Phigg, loudly, as he paced up and down in front of them. Bartram was sitting, like a dog, in the middle of the floor. He looked distinctly uncomfortable. “Ladies, we have a special treat for you this afternoon. I’d like you to meet my dog, Barty.”
He gestured dramatically to Bartram – who couldn’t help saying “Barty?” audibly, in disgust. The ladies sat forward on their seats.
“Did he just speak?” one of them asked, excitedly.
“Him? No, of course not,” said Mr Phigg. “How could he? He’s a dog. But as part of your special treat, I have been learning some ventriloquism.” He showed all his yellowish teeth – and the various gaps between them – in a fierce grin. “And I think I may have been able to fool some of you with my skills –”
“He did speak,” said the lady, but Mr Phigg carried on talking.
“– and, while talking is not amongst them, Barty has some special skills of his own. Like every dog, he can fetch…” Mr Phigg produced the ball from his pocket and rolled it the length of the room. Bartram dutifully trotted after it, picked it up in his mouth and returned to sit at Mr Phigg’s feet. “Good boy,” he said, then patted Bartram’s head and took the ball.
“Yes, all dogs can fetch, but not all dogs can catch.” He went up to Mrs Cuthbert and offered her the ball. “Would you care to throw it to him, madam?”
She tossed it gently in Bartram’s direction. He flicked it up in the air with one hoof, sent it higher in the air with his head, and then caught it on his back, just as a professional footballer might do.
There was a moment’s stunned silence and then the ladies all began to talk and applaud at once.
“He can do better than that!” shouted Mr Phigg over the hubbub. “Can I have your assistance with this one, young man?” he said to Harry and led him to the far end of the room. “Let’s imagine that this door is the goal and you’re the goalkeeper. Let’s see if Barty can get the ball past you.”
Bartram took up position at the other end of the room and Mr Phigg rolled the ball to him. He flicked it in the air and kept it up with alternate touches of his front hooves, before suddenly unleashing a fierce shot down the room. Harry leapt to try and catch it… as the door behind him opened and Miss Webster swept in. She ducked just in time to avoid the ball, which went bouncing down the corridor.
“Oh, golly,” said Bartram.
“What on earth is going on in here?” thundered Miss Webster, her face scarlet.
“Ventriloquism,” said Mr Phigg faintly, pointing towards his own mouth.
“That’s not what I mean, you fool. I’ve been dragged out on a ridiculous wild goose chase, then half an hour later I come back to find my select establishment… overrun. Children – with no appointment and no responsible adult. Animals – I dread to think what diseases may have infected us. Uproar – my poor ladies shocked and over-excited. Who is responsible for this outrage? WHO??”
Nurse Precious sidled into the room behind her and pointed at Mr Phigg. “He said that you’d agreed it, ma’am.”
“Me?? What?? He?? Who?” Miss Webster started with a roar and got louder with each word. Johanna stared in fascination at the sinews of her neck, straining further and further outward. There was a sudden ping as the top button of her blouse flew off and rattled on the lino.
Miss Webster advanced menacingly towards Mr Phigg.
“Run!” he shouted and headed for the opposite door, with Bartram and the children close behind him. Once they were through, he slammed it shut and turned his silver key in the lock. They ran out into the car park and faced a row of outbuildings.
“Any one will do,” said Mr Phigg, trying the handle of solid steel door, set between barred and shuttered windows. “Locked.” He took out his key again and polished it in his trousers. “We’ll soon see about that.” He smiled confidently at the children and tried to turn the lock. It didn’t open. “What?… that hasn’t happened before.” He stared at the key in puzzlement.
“No time now,” said Johanna, tugging at his arm. “She’s coming round the other way.”
Miss Webster was advancing towards them: a battleship at full steam, all guns primed.
Bartram and Harry had got another shed door open. They all rushed through and bolted it behind them. They could hear Miss Webster pounding on the other side as Mr Phigg’s key successfully opened a connecting door in the far wall, through which he was able to get them all back to the children’s kitchen.
As soon as they had emerged and closed the door behind them, they collapsed in a heap together on the floor.
“That was scary,” said Johanna, eventually. “I thought she was going to explode. She was even worse than yesterday.”
“And I’m sure she was much bigger than yesterday,” Harry added. “She was bursting out of her clothes. Can people grow that much in a day?”
“It was fun, though, wasn’t it?” said Mr Phigg. “And we gave the ladies some entertainment – eh, Barty?”
Bartram gave a convincingly canine growl and jumped on top of him. “I just wish I had the teeth to match my ears. This is your second narrow escape of the day, Mr Phigg.”
“Oh, no – has it happened again?” asked Johanna from the kitchen stairs.
“Oh, yes,” her father replied, waving his mop in greeting. “I’m getting rather good at this now.”
“There wasn’t any rain last night, was there?”
“Not so you’d notice. I just don’t understand it. Water all over the kitchen, and a funny yellowy colour too. I’ll ring the what’s-it when they’re open.”
“What on earth are you two going on about?” said Harry, pounding down the stairs, past his sister. “Has anyone checked the drains?” He went into the garden and Johanna and their father followed, glad of the interruption.
“No – no sign of any blockage there.”
“Or here,” said Johanna, checking the grate at the other side of the house.
“I don’t know what’s happening. But I’ll speak to the Council later,” said Mr Blake. He nudged his daughter. “Got there in the end, see? I’m not as daft as you think I am. Not yet.” Then he went into the house to get ready for work.
The children went back inside too. They got dressed before going back down to the kitchen for breakfast.
“Why is he forgetting everything?” Johanna demanded, through a mouthful of muesli.
“I don’t know – I suppose old people just do.”
“But he’s not old, not really, not like Mrs Cuthbert.”
“Or my Uncle Bron,” added a familiar voice from the back of the kitchen. “Your dad shouldn’t be ready for the Cornish Past-Ease just yet. Mmmm, breakfast – I knew I’d forgotten something this morning…”
Mr Phigg strode in to join them, then paused to look at the wet floor. “It’s a bit early in the day for cleaning, isn’t it?”
As they all ate, the children told him about the mysterious floods. Eventually, Mr Phigg had had enough toast and marmalade. “Well,” he said. “I like a puzzle, as you know. Come on!”
They went out of the front door and turned down a little alleyway at the end of the street. Mr Phigg stopped and took a screwdriver out of his pocket. “Keep a lookout and tell me if anyone’s coming,” he said, before bending down and prising open a manhole cover that was set in the pavement. Underneath, a ladder led straight down into the ground. Mr Phigg put his screwdriver away and took out a small torch.
“Down we go,” he said. The children clambered in and he closed the cover behind them.
They climbed down about twenty steps by the light of Mr Phigg’s torch and emerged onto a brick-lined walkway in a tunnel with just enough room for them to stand upright. There was a dim glow of light from one end of the tunnel, but they still needed the torch to see around them. Down the middle of the tunnel ran a sluice channel which was barely half-full of water.
“As we thought: there’s nothing wrong with the drains,” said Mr Phigg. “We need to go deeper.”
They started off towards the lighter end of the tunnel but had only gone a few paces when a shadow shot across the path in front of them. Harry jumped backwards with surprise and squealed “Oh… oh… it’s a… a…”
“A rat,” said the rat, stepping back into the torch beam. He stood on his hind legs with his front paws on his hips. He was not happy. “Oh, it’s a rat, indeed. What exactly did you expect to find in a sewer? Do you catch me squawking Oh, my sainted whiskers, a human child and then going off for a lie-down to get over the fright? No, you do not. But I’d be more entitled to, wouldn’t I?”
“Keep the noise down, Roger, will you?” said another rat, stepping into the tunnel. “What are you shouting about now? Ah.” He looked Mr Phigg and the children up and down and sniffed. “More tourists, is it?”
“I blame the Council,” Roger said. “They started running those sewer trips in the Festival and suddenly you can’t move for two-leggers down here. What’s the attraction? Is it the atmosphere?”
“We’re not tourists,” said Mr Phigg. “We’re investigating. We’re looking into some mysterious flooding, up top.” He jerked his head back to indicate where he meant. “There’s nothing wrong with your drains down here, but there are cellars filling with water up there. It’s a puzzle.”
“No, it’s not,” said Roger. “It’ll be those incomers, that will. Messing things up again.”
“Incomers?” asked Mr Phigg.
“The new lot. In the river,” said Roger, pointing down the tunnel to the light. “Why don’t you go and gawp at them, instead of bothering us?” Then he walked off in the other direction muttering to himself, “Why can’t things just go on like they used to? There’s always somebody sticking their oar in and making things worse than they already are…”
“Don’t you mind him,” said the second rat. “He’s a good lad really. But I’ll leave you to it.” He set off to follow Roger, before adding over his shoulder: “Watch out for the newcomers, mind – they’re a funny bunch.”
Harry had recovered his equilibrium. “What is it down there?” he asked. “What’s making that light?”
“I’m not sure about the light or who these newcomers are,” said Mr Phigg, “but there is a river there, as he said – an underground river that flows beneath the town, from the Downs to the sea. Let’s go and have a look.”
They set off down the tunnel. After a couple of minutes, they no longer needed the torch. The glow continued to get brighter as they walked towards it. And the sound of running water became louder.
Eventually the tunnel opened out into a spacious cavern which contained a wide expanse of water. A huge candle was burning at one end of the cavern and an ingenious arrangement of mirrors around it meant that the whole space was filled with light.
“We’re underground,” said Johanna, “but if you don’t look up at the roof, you’d never know it.”
“It’s amazing,” said Mr Phigg. “That light, and so much more water than last time I was here.”
As they walked on, they saw that there was a substantial dam stretched across the cavern, made of tree trunks and branches, and blocking off the river. It was the dam that had caused the pool to form. In the middle of the pool was a pile of branches. And on the top of that pile stood a bulky figure, surveying the cavern through a brass telescope, which was flashing in the light. As they watched, the telescope swung towards them and the figure leant in towards a microphone on a stand by his side.
“Intruders detected,” said a harsh voice, which some sort of public address system sent echoing across the pool. “Step forward and identify yourselves.”
Mr Phigg walked towards him. “And good morning to you too, my fine fellow. We’re very well, thank you so much for asking. How are you doing?” Then he muttered to the children “Really! I’ve had a warmer welcome from an angry bull.”
As they walked closer it became apparent that the figure was a beaver. He was chunkily built and his fur was sleek and wet. A gold ring flashed in one ear and he wore a red checked scarf around his neck. His outfit was topped off with a battered bowler hat.
There was a narrow causeway leading to the shore from what they now realised was the beaver’s lodge. As Mr Phigg and the children drew closer to their end of the causeway, the beaver stepped down on to his and walked along to meet them, with his big, flat, muscular tail dragging along behind him. But before setting off he leant in to his microphone again and said “All hands on deck – we have visitors.”
By the time the beaver had reached the shore, six heads had appeared in the water behind him. And, in a moment, six more beavers were standing silently behind him, dripping gently. They also wore earrings and scarves, but their heads were bare.
“Hello,” said Johanna cheerfully. “How nice to meet you all.”
The beavers scowled back in silence.
“Are we supposed to find this threatening?” said Mr Phigg. “What have you got against visitors?”
“It’s more what visitors have got against us,” said the beaver. “Wherever we go, whether it’s up top or down below, we hear the whispering. Folk make it clear we’re not welcome. So, we make sure we can look after ourselves.”
“And you get your retaliation in first,” said Mr Phigg.
Johanna nudged him to be quiet and asked: “So you move around a lot, then?”
“Yes, my girl. We always have done: we come from a long line of travelling beaver clans. There used to be dozens and dozens, all across northern Europe, criss-crossing the countryside. But the old life is getting tougher all the time and there are not many of us still on the road.”
“Why is it so hard?” Harry asked.
“Because the world keeps getting smaller, young man. Year by year, smaller and smaller: more people, more buildings, more maps, more photographs. More scientists studying beavers and telling you where you’re supposed to be and where you’re not. How you’re supposed to behave. Whether you’re established in some environment – or extinct. They don’t realise some of us just like to keep moving. According to the experts, there are no free beavers in Britain, so we’ve got to be very careful not to draw attention to ourselves.”
“Have you been down here long?”
“Three months now. Last year we were in the Scottish Highlands. There’s still some space up there. Then we moved south and spent the winter in the Midlands. We found a quiet tunnel close to a canal. Then one of the locals saw something and started to ask questions, so we moved on. By then we’d heard about this place. There’s far more water underground than most people think – and a lot more goes on down here than the Greyworld knows.”
“Well, you’ve got it looking very nice and cosy,” said Johanna. “But I’m afraid there is a bit of a problem –”
“Oh, there always is, isn’t there?” the beaver interrupted.
“Steady on,” said Mr Phigg. “This is a fine spot for beavers and we’re very glad to see you here. But your dam is just too good, you know: you’ve got the river completely blocked off and it’s overflowing into unexpected places. It needs a bit of adjustment…”
The beaver gradually became calmer as the conversation continued. “We’re not ready to move yet,” he said. “That candle still has a couple more months in it and I’m not prepared to go scuttling out of yet another place with my tail between my legs.”
“No, I can see that wouldn’t be straightforward for a beaver,” said Mr Phigg. “And there’s no need to try it. You’ll be fine here for as long as you want to stay, I’m sure – provided we can stop the flooding.”
The beaver clan sat down with Mr Phigg on a couple of logs and talked over some of the finer points of dam design and overflow channels and different sorts of timber. Johanna was soon bored with the relative merits of beech and sycamore and the density of spring foliage… she wandered down to the river’s edge and stared out across the water. What was that, out in the middle?
“Here!” she shouted. “Come and look at this!”
The others got up and came to join her. Out in the river there was a patch of something yellow, like a long, narrow slick, floating on the top of the water. It was catching the light of the big candle as the water moved and it seemed to be glowing.
“What is it?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” Mr Phigg replied. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“Nor had we,” said the beaver chief. “Not till we came here. A slick like that comes down the river every few days, then seems to disperse. We keep well away now, after what happened to Monty.” He gestured towards the smallest member of the clan. There was a pause.
“Well?” asked Johanna, going up to the young beaver. “What happened?”
“I don’t rightly know,” he replied, looking at the ground. “It all went fuzzy there for a while.”
“He fell off the dam,” said the chief, “right into one of those slicks. He’s clumsy like that. We were laughing at him like we usually do, but he just lay there in the water. Eventually we hauled him out, but he didn’t know who we were – didn’t even remember his own name for an hour or two. But we gave him a hot toddy and put him to bed and he seemed fine next morning.”
“Or as fine as he ever is,” said another of the beavers. “Still, we don’t want to risk that happening to anyone else.”
“Curious,” Mr Phigg said, frowning. “Very strange.”
“And I wonder if it was the yellow floodwater that made my dad forget things too. Have any of the other animals down here said anything about it?” asked Johanna.
“What? Like those rats and things? We don’t talk to them – we keep ourselves to ourselves.”
“Oh, they’re not as bad as you think,” said Mr Phigg. “You should have a go at being a bit more sociable. We’d better be going now, but we’ll drop in and see you again. Don’t forget those adjustments to the dam, mind.”
He and the children said goodbye to the beavers and made their way back along the tunnel. They climbed the ladder and emerged safely in the alleyway.
“I’ll leave you here,” said Mr Phigg. “I have some errands to run – and then some research to do. Yellow stuff and forgetfulness. I don’t know: you solve one mystery, then up pops another…”
“Have you heard any more about the Tale-Spinners?” Johanna asked. “Has Lawrence found anything yet?”
Mr Phigg smiled. “Don’t hold your breath for that. I’m sure the SpiderBiders are very clever gadgets, but I still don’t know if there’s anything out there for them to find. See you later.”
He raised his hat and bowed before walking off down the alley.
“Well,” said Johanna. “Beavers. Beavers that talk.”
“And talking rats, too. And an underground river.” Harry smiled.
“Result!” His sister replied and they exchanged a quick high-five before turning the corner into their street. “I’m so glad Mr Phigg came back.”
As the children entered the street, Mrs Blake was parking her car outside their house.
“There you are. Inside, both of you – now.”
Uh-oh. Johanna grimaced at her brother. What have we done this time? They followed her indoors.
“I’ve just been to see Mrs Cuthbert.”
“Oh, how is she?” asked Johanna brightly.
“‘How is she?’ Butter wouldn’t melt, would it? Why didn’t you say you were going up there yesterday?”
“Because you knew you weren’t allowed just to turn up there without making an appointment, didn’t you?”
“Don’t bother making up some story. Did you have anything to do with the performing dog?”
“We were visiting Mrs Cuthbert and this man turned up with it at the same time,” Harry offered.
Which is true, said Johanna to herself. Sort of.
“Well, you’ll be glad to know that Mrs Cuthbert thought it was all hilarious. She said she hadn’t enjoyed anything as much for months. She was feeling rather weak today, but that certainly made her smile.”
I knew we’d cheer her up!
“Miss Webster, on the other hand, was less than happy.”
“I don’t know about a piece of her mind, she gave me a whacking great chunk of it, for about 20 minutes. I heard all about the shock and upset caused to her staff and ladies, her extensive views on my lack of control as a mother, and a graphic account of her own palpitations and nervous anxiety – but the short version is that you two are barred: no more visits to the Gentle Thoughts Nursing Home for you.”
“But that’s not fair!” said Harry.
“It’s not fair on Mrs Cuthbert,” Johanna added. “She likes us visiting!”
“I know. She does. It’s a great shame. But I’m afraid it’s Miss Webster’s place and she makes the rules. I can try to bring her round when she’s calmed down. But for now, listen to me. You… Are… Not… Allowed… In… There… Do you understand?”
Johanna and Harry nodded solemnly.
“OK. Now run along and… and just try to keep out of trouble, for once. You’d better stay in the house for the rest of the day. If only you were back at school – these holidays are just going on and on.”
They trooped down to the basement and started work on some more cards for Mrs Cuthbert.
“School?” said Johanna with scorn. “We’re far too busy for that.”
– o O o –
The signal from the back of the kitchen was a welcome diversion: it was late afternoon now and the children had run out of acceptable things to do some time ago. They were getting restless.
“Mr Phigg!” hissed Johanna. “Thank goodness! We’re grounded.”
“We’ll see about that. I’ve just had a message from Lawrence: one of his devices has gone off. We’ve to meet him at Stonehenge.”
“But we’re not allowed,” said Harry. “Mum will kill us if she finds we’ve gone out.”
“But she won’t.” Mr Phigg smiled. “You’re forgetting that when we travel by gateways, I can have you back in no time. She’ll never notice you’ve gone.”
Sigmund waddled into the kitchen behind him.
“Time we were moving, Phigg. Bartram and Lawrence are waiting for us in Wiltshire. The sun has already set and it will be too dark soon.”
“Well?” asked Mr Phigg.
Johanna and Harry exchanged the briefest of glances before Johanna replied: “OK – let’s go!”
They left the kitchen through the little door and emerged into cool evening air at the back of the Stonehenge visitor centre. It was closed for the day, with shutters masking the windows and doors. All was still, and the ancient standing stones of the monument loomed majestically in the gathering gloom.
“At last,” said Lawrence, coming round the corner of the building with Bartram to meet them. “The light is getting pretty dim.”
“So, what have we got?” asked Mr Phigg.
Lawrence showed him a small electrical device that he was carrying in his hand. There were a series of dials and indicator lights, one of which was regularly flashing red.
“Two bursts of unknown bio-energetic activity in the last hour.” He pointed across to the stones. “Coming from just over there.”
“What’s bio-whatever-it-is?” asked Harry.
“Energy produced by living things. This is at a much higher level than anything any of us could come up with – and Dr Solomon has set the filters so that we’re only getting readings from invertebrates: animals like spiders and insects that don’t have a backbone, and that are usually very small.”
“Usually,” repeated Johanna. “And I expect they wouldn’t usually do anything to produce those sort of readings?”
Lawrence shook his head. “No, nothing like. This is seriously odd.”
“Let’s take a look, shall we?” Mr Phigg opened an access gate with his silver key and they made their way across the grass towards the stones.
Lawrence checked his monitor and pointed: “The energy pulses were right in the middle of that inner horseshoe shape of the biggest standing stones.”
Mr Phigg took out his torch and shone the beam in that direction. As they got closer to the stones, there was a sudden flash of greenish light and a faint, muffled thudding sound.
“That’s it!” whispered Lawrence, excitedly. “That’s what’s giving the readings. And it’s still in the same position.”
“We need to do this carefully,” said Mr Phigg. “Spread out in a circle around it, and then close in when I give the signal.”
Johanna, Harry, Lawrence, Bartram and Sigmund spaced themselves out, each about thirty yards from the place where the light had been. Mr Phigg waved his hand and they all walked slowly inwards, watching closely. At about ten yards away, Mr Phigg hissed: “Wait!”
They could see a dim green glow at the base of one of the standing stones. Mr Phigg inched towards it as quietly as he could and then suddenly dived in with his arms outstretched.
As he shouted, “Got it!” there was a further flash of bright green light from between his hands and a further thudding sound…which actually sounded rather like a sneeze.
“Oi,” said an outraged, high-pitched voice from inside Mr Phigg’s cupped hands. “Let go of me!”
“Are you a Tale-Spinner?” asked Johanna.
“A what?” said the voice. “Never heard of them.”
“It could be trying to fool us,” said Bartram.
There was another flash of green light and another sneezing sound, followed by some angry spluttering. “Now look what you’ve done,” said the voice. “Set me off again, haven’t you?”
“This doesn’t feel right,” said Mr Phigg. “We’d better have a look.” He opened his hands to reveal… “A… firefly?”
“Brilliant. Well spotted,” said the firefly. “Now put me down. It’s bad enough having the worst cold a beetle ever had, without being stalked and manhandled by a gang of bullies. Put me down, I say!”
“It could still be a trick,” warned Bartram. “It might change shape if you let it go.”
“Change shape? I’d change your shape for you if I was bit bigger, you woolly great–”
“All right, all right,” said Mr Phigg and set the firefly on the ground. “We’re convinced. We’ve made a mistake and we’re sorry.”
“I should think so,” said the firefly and spread its wings. “I’m going, before you get any more clever ideas.”
They watched as his green glow faded into the evening sky. There was one more distant flash and thud before he disappeared from sight.
“Well, Lawrence,” said Mr Phigg with a grin, “I think that your SpiderBiders might need a slight adjustment.”
– o O o –
“And where do you think you’re going?”
Mrs Blake came downstairs to the kitchen before Johanna and Harry had had time to take their coats off. “I said you were to stay in today.”
“Did you mean we couldn’t go in the garden?” asked Johanna innocently. “Just for some fresh air.”
“Hmmm,” said her mother. “You two are up to something, I can tell. I just don’t know what.”
“It’s terrible to be cooped up all day.”
They closed the backdoor behind them.
“We’re going to have to stay out here for a while,” said Harry. “And it’s getting cold now.”
“You poor thing. Past your bedtime too, isn’t it? And Mummy didn’t make you any cocoa.”
Harry’s jaw set in a way that Johanna knew was strongly suggestive of imminent violence. But as he advanced towards her a large shape swooped down and perched on the garden wall. Sigmund shook out his wings and winked at Harry.
“At ease, young man. I have a message for you both from Phigg: meeting at Bedquarters tomorrow morning to take stock. Be ready after breakfast.”
Without waiting for a reply, he flew off again.
“…all of which means that we’re confident that in future it will be only events which are definitely spider-related which trigger the detectors,” Lawrence concluded.
“No more wild firefly chases?” asked Mr Phigg.
“Definitely not. Tested, reset, re-tested, tweaked and re-re-tested. We were in the lab half the night.”
Mr Phigg raised one eyebrow. “Why doesn’t that completely reassure me? Anyway,” he looked around the Bedquarters conference table. “Have we got anything more on Tale-Spinners?”
“We’ve been running searches on shape-shifting,” said Simon. “There’s a lot in the old stories, of course: Greek gods becoming bulls and swans and what have you; the prince who’s turned into a frog, and then turns back again when the princess kisses him. But more recently, there’s really very little.”
“Maybe it used to happen more than it does now,” Johanna suggested.
“Or maybe it’s never happened, and people are a bit less gullible nowadays,” said Mr Phigg.
“You should never underestimate the power of a kiss,” said Mabel firmly. “Love can change the world, you know.”
“Strike my last comment from the record,” said Mr Phigg. “Some people will still believe anything.”
Simon cleared his throat loudly. “Anyway…” he continued “… most of the current internet hits on shape-shifting seem to be for diet plans and plastic surgery. And the news channels weren’t much better.” The elderly sheep shook his head and frowned. “Run that clip will you, Mabel?”
She glared at Mr Phigg briefly before pressing some buttons on her computer and a large screen on the wall came to life.
“Local news from Kent. The last item in the bulletin.”
A middle-aged man in a waisted anorak was on camera.
“… yes, I’m certain it was a lion. I’ve seen them at Whipsnade. A lioness. Or perhaps a particularly large puma, I suppose. Anyway, a huge cat, golden, stalking some prey along that hedge there.” He pointed and the camera panned across an open cornfield to its boundary with some woods. “I called my wife and she clearly saw its tail as it went into the trees.”
A serious-looking woman in a matching jacket nodded gravely at his side. “It was definitely a tail,” she confirmed.
“Oh, run it on, Mabel: we can skip the usual guff about journalists staking out the area and finding nothing.”
The footage fast-forwarded to a reporter speaking to camera.
“…so, I returned to ask Mr and Mrs Coats about the fact that a labradoodle reported lost about half a mile away two hours before their sighting has now been reunited with his owners.”
“Well, it was definitely a lion when I saw it,” said Mr Coats firmly.
“Or at least a panther,” his wife added, “going by its tail.”
The film cut back to the studio where the newsreader straightened her papers and beamed at the camera:
“… and I suspect it is only that tail which will get quite to the bottom of the beast we are now calling the Sittingbourne Shape-Shifter.”
The clip ended. “Boom-boom,” said Mr Phigg. “Is this what we pay our licence fees for? Have you got anything else?”
“No,” said Simon. “That’s all we’ve found.”
“Oh well, back to Plan A. We’ll have to see if the Doc’s devices come up with anything better, now that they’ve been adjusted.
“Now, what about our second mystery: what’s this yellow stuff that’s getting into the underground river in Brashleigh and is affecting people’s memories? What’s going on there?”
“Well,” said Simon. “We haven’t been able to find any chemicals that just affect memory, without doing any more serious harm to people.”
“We’ve found a few that could turn water yellow,” added Lawrence. “They’re all either safe or more straightforwardly poisonous. Do you want the list?”
“No, thanks,” said Mr Phigg. “We have to assume that the yellow whatever-it-is is messing up memories – it’s too much of a coincidence otherwise, what with Johanna and Harry’s dad and that beaver.”
“So, we’re looking for something new,” said Johanna. “Unknown to science.”
“And not just Greyworld science either,” Lawrence added. He shot a sideways glance at the children: “No offence…”
“None taken.” Johanna smiled back at him. I’ve already seen a few things here they didn’t tell us about at school…
“And what do we know about the river?” asked Mr Phigg.
“Rather more,” said Simon. “Mabel?”
A map of the area around Brashleigh appeared on the screen with the course of the underground river marked in red.
Simon got up and pointed with a stick. “It starts here, in the foothills of the North Downs and flows pretty much due south through Surrey and Sussex, underground all the way. It passes us here, about a mile to the east, and then it runs down below Brashleigh, straight under Johanna and Harry’s house, until it reaches the sea here.”
“And the Greyworld folk know about it?”
“They know it’s there. They’ve had to be aware of the water when they’ve built their sewers and roads and so on. But I’m sure they don’t know there’s room for anyone to live down there.”
“So, this weird chemical might just be something someone wants to get rid of and the river is an easy place to dump it?” asked Johanna.
“I can’t see that anyone would be setting out to target your dad and the beavers, especially when no-one else knows the beavers are there,” Mr Phigg replied. “I think it’s your standard, thoughtless, reckless sort of pollution: ‘we don’t want it, where can we get rid of it?’”
“Where could it be getting into the water?” Johanna asked.
“All we can be sure of is that it’s upstream from your house.” Simon pointed at the map again. “And, to the north of us, the river’s basically flowing under farmland. So, my guess is somewhere between you and us: somewhere in Brashleigh. Zoom in a bit, Mabel, please. Well, as you can see, there’s street after street of housing, and then this little industrial estate just a few hundred yards west… We’ll do a bit more checking on what the adjoining properties are used for.”
“Thanks, Simon. Thank you, team,” said Mr Phigg, getting up. “I think that’s probably as far as we can take things now.”
He went outside with the children. “I’ll drop you back,” he said. “You could call in again on Mrs Cuthbert later. How’s she doing after we saw her?”
Johanna explained that Mrs Cuthbert was in good spirits but that they had been barred following their last visit. Then, as the events of that visit played back in her mind she suddenly stopped. “Hang on! Don’t you remember? All those drums of toxic stuff and a lock your key couldn’t open? And the nursing home is right on the course of the underground river. It could be there that the yellow stuff’s coming from.”
“But how would a nursing home be producing some new chemical unknown to science? And why dump it in a river?”
“I don’t know,” said Johanna. “But it’s odd, isn’t it?”
“The oddest thing was that lock.” Mr Phigg took out his silver key. He polished it with a large spotted handkerchief and then studied it closely. “It seems just like it always was, and locks like that are never usually a problem for it. I’d like to have another go.”
“But we’re not allowed,” Harry protested.
“You’re not allowed, nor is Wystan Twigg – nor his dog, Barty, for that matter. But everyone else can get in. And that gives a master of disguise quite a lot of scope.”
“What are you planning?” asked Johanna.
“A trip to my friend Desmond,” Mr Phigg replied. “Come on!”
The three of them went through the door in the bank at the end of the field and somehow swapped the morning sun for night-time. They were in a narrow street of little shops and houses with stars winking in the sky above their heads and snow swirling gently in the air around them. But it didn’t feel nearly cold enough for snow…
Johanna held her hand out to catch the flakes: they disappeared as they touched her hand, leaving no trace. How can that happen? she asked herself.
“Don’t worry,” said Mr Phigg. “It’s fake. So’s everything else round here, except for Desmond – well most of him is real, anyway.”
They had stopped outside a shop – and now Johanna was aware of the snow machine running rather noisily on its roof. The sign above the door read Desmond Mojo’s Star-Spangled Manor – Stage Costumes and Jewellery. They went inside.
A tall red fox in improbably tight trousers was leaning on the counter with a tape measure around his neck. “Hello, Desmond,” said Mr Phigg, “I’ve got quite a list.”
“Don’t you worry, Phiggy,” the fox replied, winking at the children. “I’m sure we can straighten you up again.” He picked up a notebook and pen. “I’m always available to take down your particulars.”
“We’ll start with three white tailcoats: one for me and two for slim chaps about this height, when they’re standing up,” said Mr Phigg, holding his hand level with his waist. “And then a nice diamante tiara with a matching necklace…”
Desmond scribbled away in his notebook.
“…and a nurse’s uniform,” Mr Phigg concluded.
“If it was me,” said Desmond, “I wouldn’t wear that with the jewellery.”
“Good thinking,” said Mr Phigg. “It’s always reassuring to know that I’m working with an expert. Taste, you see,” he nodded to Johanna and Harry, “not just a well-stocked wardrobe.”
“What exactly are you planning?” Johanna demanded.
“I’m not sure about exact… I do like to leave a bit of room for improvisation, as you know. But we’re going to see Mrs Cuthbert again, and we’ll have a little look around the Gentle Thoughts Nursing Home while we’re there.”
Ten minutes later they had said goodbye to Desmond and staggered back to Bedquarters with an array of bags and boxes, all covered with his trademark stars.
“I’ll just take you back to Brashleigh,” said Mr Phigg lightly, “now that we’ve got everything we need for tomorrow.”
Oh, no, you don’t…
Johanna stood firmly in his path, hands on her hips. “We’re not going anywhere until you’ve told us what you’re planning. And until I’ve had chance to tell you what’s wrong with it. We’ve got to be very careful with Mrs Cuthbert – and with Miss Webster.”
“All right,” said Mr Phigg, with a grin, sinking down to sit cross-legged on the grass. The children sat beside him.
Mr Phigg spoke for quite a while and explained what he wanted to do. Then Johanna spoke for rather longer, while Mr Phigg nodded.
Half an hour later, Mr Phigg was looking at himself in the kitchen mirror. Had the children not seen the change taking place, they would have been hard pushed to recognise him.
He was wearing a nurse’s uniform in sky blue and white, with a pair of their mother’s tights and sandals that he’d borrowed. His long hair was tied up in a bun with one of Johanna’s scrunchies. He had already made liberal use of her mother’s make up bag, which was open on the table next to him, and was just putting the finishing touches to his bright red lipstick. He made a moue at himself in the mirror before turning and giving a neat curtsey: “Well?”
“Very different,” said Johanna. “And you’re right: it does need testing before tomorrow.”
Mr Phigg went to the door at the back of the kitchen and turned his silver key in the lock. They emerged into a small fenced area full of green wheelie dustbins, at the back of the Gentle Thoughts Nursing Home. Mr Phigg pulled a couple of them over to one corner, so they blocked off a space just big enough for the children to slip into and stand unseen. “If anybody comes, hop in there and wait. I shouldn’t be too long. You can watch through the cracks in the fence.” He wriggled his shoulders and smoothed down his dress. “How do I look?”
“Lovely,” Harry replied, and Johanna giggled.
Mr Phigg slipped through the gate and they watched his progress. He headed for the staff entrance, wiggling his bottom determinedly, and rang the bell.
Then the door was flung open and Miss Webster came bustling out, her jowls wobbling. The buttons of her smart blue suit were straining to contain her. “Yes. What do you want?”
“Oh, Miss Webster. What a pleasure to meet you at last,” said Mr Phigg in a strange high voice. “The agency sent me: I’m Kirsten Fittall.”
Miss Webster looked confused. “There must have been some mistake: I booked a relief nurse for the afternoon shift tomorrow. We’re fully staffed until then.”
“No – there’s no mistake: it’s all part of the special service I provide,” said Mr Phigg. “I like to come in the day before a new assignment to get my bearings, so I can hit the ground running when I start properly.” Mr Phigg fluttered his eyelashes and smiled shyly. “At no extra charge.”
“Well, I haven’t heard of that before,” said Miss Webster, “but I’m impressed. And –” she stared down her nose at Mr Phigg “– I am not a woman who is easily impressed.”
“No, I’m sure you’re not,” Mr Phigg replied. “So, it’s a two o’clock start tomorrow?”
“Two-thirty start. Can’t the agency get anything straight? You’ll have Betty and Precious with you while they serve tea, until three-thirty. Then you’ll be on your own until the evening girls come in at five. I shall be at the hairdressers.”
“I’ll just come in and check the layout with you, if I may,” said Mr Phigg, maintaining his high voice with some effort. “Then I’ll get out of your way.”
Miss Webster led the way back into the home and Mr Phigg turned to raise his thumb to the watching children before following her inside.
Five minutes later he was coming back out of the staff entrance – just as Mrs Blake’s car pulled into the car park.
“Hurry up!” Johanna muttered under her breath. “Just ignore her!”
But Mr Phigg teetered across the car park to greet her mother as she locked her car.
“Ah, a visitor!” he said, in his strained voice. “How nice! The ladies do so appreciate it.”
Mrs Blake looked him up and down. “Hello. I’m not sure that I’ve seen you here before.”
“No. I’m from the agency: just helping out. Who are you going to see?”
“Maggie Cuthbert – she’s an old friend.”
“Lovely, lovely – she’s doing quite well, you know. We just need to get her to exercise that ankle. Build up her confidence.”
“You seem to know a lot about her already.”
“Oh, we have to do our homework.” Mr Phigg bent to consult the watch that was pinned to his uniform. “Good gracious – is that the time? Must dash. Give my regards to Mrs C.”
Mrs Blake watched him waggle around the corner of the dustbin enclosure before she shrugged and went into the nursing home.
“What did you do that for?” asked Johanna.
“I was only being polite.” He took his phone out of his pocket. “Now, I just need to ring the nursing agency and let them know Miss Webster won’t be needing any help tomorrow after all…”
Chapter Eleven – Shall We Dance?
“This is getting silly,” Mrs Blake said, coming down the basement stairs to join her children for breakfast. She was carrying her husband’s briefcase. “This was sitting in the middle of the hall. He’s gone to work without it.” She frowned. “At this rate, it won’t be long till he has to join Mrs Cuthbert at the nursing home.”
“Don’t worry, Mum,” Johanna replied. “Everybody forgets things sometimes.”
“I know, but I’m sure he hasn’t always been this bad.”
“How was Mrs Cuthbert yesterday?”
“She said her ankle was stiff, but she was in good spirits. Still chuckling about that man with the funny dog – and asking after you two. I’ll have to try to talk to Miss Webster about you visiting, but she’s a very odd woman. You know, she seems to be bigger every time I see her,” Mrs Blake laughed. “And some of her staff are pretty odd too – I met a very curious nurse there yesterday afternoon…”
– o O o –
Eventually the clock’s hands found their way round to two-fifteen and, right on cue, Mr Phigg – dressed as Kirsten – opened the door at the back of the kitchen and beckoned to them to come through.
They were back in the outbuilding at the nursing home where the drums of chemicals were stacked. “We’re all set for later,” Mr Phigg said, “but I thought we should do a bit of exploring first.”
Johanna was studying the labels on the drums. “There’s loads of different things here: hydrochloric acid, ammonia, then some written in an alphabet I haven’t seen before… I suppose it could all be for cleaning or maybe something medical.”
“Maybe,” said Mr Phigg. “I’m afraid chemistry was never my best subject… And, no, I’ve never seen letters like that either. Brother Periwinkle would know, or Dr Solomon. We’ll check with them later. But let’s see about that door.”
They emerged cautiously into the car park and made their way to the solid steel door which had resisted Mr Phigg’s key three days before. Johanna and Harry tried to look through the barred windows at either side of it.
“You can’t see anything,” said Harry. “There’s not even a crack in the shutters.”
“And look at the size of these bars,” Johanna added, pulling at the thick steel. “They don’t want anyone to get through here.”
“Well, there is a keyhole,” said Mr Phigg, “and my key will go into it.” He twisted the key in the lock. “And that is usually that.” He twisted again and frowned. “But not now: I’ve never known anything like it. I’ll give it a bit more welly.”
As he tried to wrench the key around in the lock there was a sudden flash of blue light. Mr Phigg went flying through the air backwards and landed on his bottom with a jolt. The children ran to help him up and dusted him down.
“Woah!” he said, shaking his head. “This is seriously weird. I don’t know how they’ve done that. We’re going to need some expert advice on this too.”
“Was it an electric shock?” Johanna asked.
“Kind of… but not quite. Some sort of barrier. But we’ll have to think about that later, or we’ll lose our time slot.” He led the children round to the fenced-off area for dustbins. “Wait here and I’ll come and get you in a couple of minutes.”
The children watched as he made his way to the staff entrance and went inside. After a short while he was back, pushing a wheelie bin into the enclosure. “Right,” he said. “I just need to take back an empty one – so, hop in.”
Johanna and Harry took a little persuading but eventually clambered into an empty bin that did not seem toogrubby and they made a dark and rather smelly passage into the nursing home. After taking a number of corners and bouncing uncomfortably over a couple of steps, the bin stopped and Mr Phigg opened the lid and helped them out.
They were in a dining room, which could clearly also be used for entertainments: there was a piano against one wall, with a music centre and a little raised stage next to it. “We’ll just close the blinds,” said Mr Phigg and went along the row of windows doing so, “and we’ll draw this curtain…”. He pulled a heavy, floor-length curtain across an alcove in the opposite wall and positioned the children behind it. “You’ll have a good view from here.” It was possible for them to see out to the stage and the front of the room without anyone being able to see them.
“Nearly there,” said Mr Phigg. “I’ll just go and help Betty and Precious with the tea.” He left the children behind the curtain. “Some of the ladies might like a little something extra to help them enjoy a nice afternoon nap afterwards…”
Just after three-thirty they heard Mr Phigg say a high-pitched farewell to his colleagues in the adjoining corridor and then the outside door slammed shut. All was quiet for a couple of minutes and then the dining room door opened. Mr Phigg passed a bulging carrier bag through the curtains to the children. “Can you do the honours,” he asked, “while I sort out our guest?”
As he left the room again, Johanna opened the bag. She spread a starched white cloth on the table nearest the stage and added a candle, which she lit, then an ice bucket with a bottle of champagne, and two tall glasses. Meanwhile, Harry adjusted the lights so that spots shone on the stage and the area in front of it and the rest of the room was in darkness. He put a CD in the music centre and passed the remote control to his sister. Then he waited by the door, looking out into the corridor beyond.
After a couple of minutes, he raised his arm and said “Now”, then rushed to join Johanna behind the curtain. She pressed play and the smooth sounds of big band jazz filled the room.
A moment later, the door swung open and in walked Mrs Cuthbert, without her walking frame, resplendent in a diamante necklace and tiara. She was leaning on the arm of Mr Phigg – but leaning lightly, and walking with confidence and poise. He was transformed once more, and wore a white morning suit with a top hat and cane.
Mr Phigg led her to the table and helped her to a seat, before opening the champagne with a flourish and filling the glasses. He bowed deeply, raised his glass and said “Welcome, dear Mrs Cuthbert, to Tristan Riddle’s Ensemble de Danse.” He flicked the tails of his coat back dramatically and took a seat next to Mrs Cuthbert. Then the show began…
As the CD played a short medley of tunes from old musicals, Mrs Cuthbert’s cats, Fred and Ginger, strutted into the room in outfits matching Mr Phigg’s and began a stylish dance routine. It ended with a flurry of taps and the two of them flinging their top hats high in the air, before catching them neatly and shimmying off to sit at another table. Mrs Cuthbert, eyes shining, clapped loudly and said, “That was lovely – I didn’t know my boys were so talented”, while Mr Phigg put his fingers in his mouth and produced a loud whistle of appreciation.
As Johanna shuffled the CD on to a gentle waltz. Mr Phigg stood up, bowed to Mrs Cuthbert and held out his hand to her. “Now it’s our turn,” he said.
“I couldn’t possibly,” said Mrs Cuthbert, flustered. “My ankle…It’s still not right…”
Mr Phigg stayed in position with his hand stretched out. “But you didn’t think you’d be able to walk in here either, did you? I’ve been told that in this place feet belong on the floor. So, let’s give it a go – I’ll hang on to you.”
The music kept playing and Mr Phigg kept holding out his hand and eventually, tentatively, Mrs Cuthbert reached up and took it. He helped her to stand and then led her into a dance, holding her close.
Mr Phigg was rather shorter than Mrs Cuthbert, but his top hat made up for that. They made a very stylish couple, swinging gently around the room. She quickly relaxed, and after they had danced through three different numbers, it was Mr Phigg who suggested that he should escort her back to her room.
He was just returning from doing so, checking his watch and murmuring “Excellent – still twenty minutes left”, when the front doorbell rang. He froze. “Ah,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting that.” The bell rang again, followed by a heavy burst from the knocker.
“Quick,” said Mr Phigg. “Pack everything up.” There was a frenzy of activity as Fred and Ginger pulled off of their suits, and Johanna and Harry cleared away the things from the table.
Then they heard a voice. The person at the front door was now shouting through the letter box. “Come on, I know there must be someone in there. You can’t all be out. I want to see my auntie.”
“It’s Karen,” whispered Johanna. “What do we do now?”
“That’s simple,” said Mr Phigg. “We get out of here!”
He sprinted for the staff entrance, followed by the others. But just as he reached for the handle, there was a loud rap on that door. “She’s come around to the back!”
At that point there was a thunderous knocking at the front door again and Miss Webster’s voice boomed through the letter box. “Open this door! What on earth is going on? Nurse Fittall? Kirsten!”
“Surrounded,” whispered Mr Phigg. Then he leant forward and spoke quietly at the staff door in his Kirsten voice. “Is that Karen?”
“Yes. Who’s that?”
“It’s Nurse Fittall. Would you mind going back round to the front, please? There’s been a slight door malfunction here, I’m afraid. We must have the wrong sort of catch for the ambient weather conditions…”
They waited till they heard her footsteps withdrawing, straining to make that sound out against the increasingly loud clatter of Miss Webster’s knocking and shouting at the front.
“Now!” shouted Mr Phigg and flung the door open. They all rushed across the courtyard and into the open outbuilding. As he pushed the children through the door into their kitchen, he said “I’ll drop Fred and Ginger back, then we’ll regroup in a few minutes and check things out from Bedquarters. We may need some Dreary Dust to calm things down…”
– o O o –
“Can we see what’s happening at the nursing home, please, Mabel?”
Mr Phigg leant forward in his chair and smiled in anticipation. The screen came to life and showed Karen sitting next to Mrs Cuthbert’s bed, talking to her aunt.
“I’m getting worried about this place, now. The staff can’t just lock the doors and disappear like that. Anything could happen. Though I suppose I might be tempted, too, if I had to work for Miss Webster. What was going on in here?”
“I don’t know, love: I’ve been very sleepy. I must have dozed off after tea. There was a nice new nurse who said I should have a lie down. Then I was having the most extraordinary dream. It was lovely… and so vivid. There was a dapper little chap in it… He could have been Nurse Fittall’s brother, now I think about it. Fred and Ginger were in it too… and they were dancing.” She smiled at her niece. “And then I was dancing… It was lovely… Such a nice dream…Then there was a knock at my door, and you were here.”
“You certainly look well on it,” Karen smiled back and squeezed her hand. “It’s good to see you so happy.”
“Thanks, Mabel, that’ll do” said Mr Phigg, and the picture faded. “I think we might have got away with this one, after all. Better check on Miss Webster, though.”
“I’ll turn the volume down for this,” said Mabel, adjusting the controls.
The scene changed to the nursing home’s office: Miss Webster was on the phone.
“Don’t you dare tell me I cancelled anything – I have not spoken to you since I booked the nurse for this afternoon. No, I am not in the habit of forgetting things like that. No, I do not think there has been any mistake. What I think is that you are the most disorganised, incompetent and pathetic excuse for an agency that I have ever had the misfortune to encounter. Yes, I am sure about that. The good name of my establishment is in tatters. My reputation is besmirched. And let me tell you another thing…”
“Well,” said Mr Phigg, as Mabel turned off the screen. “That all seems very satisfactory too.”
“Not really,” said Johanna. “We only did half a job. That was great for Mrs Cuthbert and I’m really pleased she enjoyed it. But we still don’t know what’s behind that steel door or why your key won’t work on it. And we don’t know if those chemicals that we saw have anything to do with the weird yellow stuff in the underground river.”
“Fair point,” Mr Phigg replied. “But we’ll dig into all that tomorrow. I’ll get Lawrence and the others over in the morning.”
“Would anyone like more toast?” asked Simon. “I’m sure Lawrence will be here shortly.”
Mr Phigg, Johanna, Harry and Bartram were sitting round the Bedquarters conference table – and time was ticking on.
“Breakfast meetings are a good idea in theory,” said Mr Phigg irritably. “But this one is about to shade into a working lunch…”
There was a pause, then Bartram and Harry started to say “Well, maybe just one more slice” at exactly the same time. They giggled and Mr Phigg scowled.
At that point, the door swung open and Lawrence entered at speed, his lab coat billowing out behind him.
“At last,” said Mr Phigg. “Now, about these drums of chemicals–”
“No time for that now,” Lawrence panted. “Look at this.” He planted the SpiderBider control panel on the table in front of them. A bright red light was flashing and the needle of one of its meters was jerking back and forth.
‘What does it mean?” asked Johanna.
“A Tale-Spinner – or something very like one. It has to be.”
“Tintagel. At King Arthur’s castle.”
“Just one question from me,” said Mr Phigg, getting up and marching to the door. “What are you lot waiting for?”
The team followed him out of the building to the gateway in the bank at the end of the field. This time the door opened on to sunlight and a fresh, salt breeze. They were on a steep path, running down from high cliffs to a rolling sea, its slope interspersed with steps. Below them, by the white-topped waves, were ruined walls and the remains of a castle.
“Tintagel,” announced Mr Phigg, presenting the view to them with a flourish of his arm. “King Arthur’s ancient seat.”
“Yes. We came here last year on holiday,” said Johanna. “Our Gran is Cornish.”
“Is she, now?” said Mr Phigg, turning and studying the children for a moment. “Hmmm.”
He was interrupted by a woman’s voice. “Well, it’s Mr Phigg, with young Lawrence and some friends: you’ve time for some shopping, I hope?”
A tiny old woman, no taller than Harry, stood at a door set into the hillside, hidden by the twists and turns of the rocks.
“Hello, Joan,” said Mr Phigg. “I’m afraid we’re in a bit of a hurry.”
The old woman was dressed entirely in black and wore a small conical hat.
“More haste, less speed,” she murmured. “You need all the help you can get when you’re hunting for something special. You all seem to be in a bit of a spin, I’d say.” She held Mr Phigg’s eye.
“How did–?” he began, but then said: “What can you tell us, Joan?”
“Come in for a moment,” said the little woman, crooking her finger. “Come inside.”
By the door was a small shop window, with a burning oil-lamp above it and a sign saying Joan’s Generous Stores.
“Aren’t shops usually called General Stores?” asked Johanna.
“Usually, yes,” said Joan, “but Generous is more apt for mine. It isn’t the usual sort of shop – and I can guarantee that all my customers will come away with rather more than they bargained for. Come on in, now, all of you.”
Mr Phigg and the others ducked their heads and filed after Joan into the shop. It was very dimly lit, and the children struggled to see what was for sale. Every so often they would see a flickering glow, like a tea-light, up on one of the shelves, but when they went to get a closer look it seemed to have gone out or moved somewhere else.
“So, it’s spiders you’re looking for?”
“Spiders that might look like anything at all,” said Mr Phigg. “Just to make the job interesting. What do you know about Tale-Spinners, Joan?”
“I’ve heard the stories you’ve heard. And I’ve also heard the ones my mother told me, a long, long, time ago.”
“Will you tell them to us, Joan?” Lawrence asked. “If you can remember them?”
She laughed and shook her head. “Oh, I can remember: these aren’t stories that will fade. My mother knew things about the Tale-Spinners. She told me how the eldest of the seven sisters fell in love with a mortal man. She stayed with him in human form long enough to bear him a daughter, and that was never meant to be. This eldest sister died – and thatwas never meant to be: the sisters’ tales were meant to spin on and on through time, as long as there are people in the world to hear them. But once a story has begun, even its teller cannot be sure just how it will turn out. The six sisters who were left were very sad, of course, and they became more wary and began to turn away from the world. Or most of them did.”
“But not Monica?” asked Lawrence.
“Who can know a Tale-Spinner’s real name?” Joan turned away. Her story seemed to be over.
Johanna took a step closer. “But what happened to the daughter?”
Joan smiled and touched Johanna’s cheek lightly with her wrinkly hand. “That’s a good question, for a Cornish girl. But not one I will answer today. Go on, now – I hope you all find what you’re looking for in the castle. And remember: should you find a Spinner, hold on tight. The stories say they’ll change and change to try to shake you off.”
She turned to consult an old leather-bound ledger, chained to the wall behind her. It was clear that she did not intend to say any more, and so they said their farewells and began to leave. But Harry, who had been studying the shelves at the back of the shop, took a glasses-case up to the counter: a second set of Cornish Past-Ease.
“Excuse me. Are these for sale?” he asked. “We know some people in Brashleigh who are forgetting things.”
“Not many people would have found those glasses back there, lad; they must have wanted to go with you. Take them – and we’ll talk about the price another time.”
Harry thanked her, put the case in his pocket and followed the others outside.
“What did you make of that, Mr Phigg?” asked Johanna. “She was nice, but a bit scary at the same time. It was all about ‘stories’, but she seemed to believe they were true.”
“That sounds about right.” He smiled. “You don’t mess around with Joan. She knows a lot, but she’ll only say what she wants to say.”
Lawrence was studying the indicator panel: a red light was flashing. “Another pulse – less strong, but still in the same place.” He pointed down the steps towards the castle. “Though lower down, somehow.”
“There are caves underneath the castle,” said Mr Phigg. “That must be it.”
They went down the steps as quickly as they could and arrived at the beach. It was low tide and across the sand they saw the mouth of a large cave under the cliffs. As they went towards it, Sigmund swooped out of the sky and landed gracefully in front of them, folding his broad wings back neatly. “You’re later than we were expecting, but we’ve been watching since you got the signal. No movement in the castle and nothing has come out of the cave.”
“Very good,” said Mr Phigg and took his torch from his pocket. “You and your chaps keep guard outside, Sigmund, while we have a look in there.”
The cave had a wide entrance, but it soon narrowed and turned a corner, so the light quickly grew dim. The thin beam from the torch picked out rough stone walls and an occasional clump of seaweed on the damp sand floor.
“It could look like anything,” said Johanna, poking at some barnacles on the edge of a shallow rock pool. “What should we be looking for?”
“I think we have to assume that it will be in spider form, unless it has had a reason to change,” said Lawrence. “That’s supposed to be the Tale-Spinners’ natural state – and a spider would fit with the readings we’ve seen.”
Mr Phigg turned and silently put his finger to his lips. Then he tiptoed towards a crevice in the back wall of the cave, at about chest height. He slowly put his hands into the crevice, as he peered into it. Then he brought his hands together. “Got you!” He looked at his cupped hands. “Um… What next?”
Johanna bent down next to him. “Hello. Are you a spider?”
There was a pause, then a soft voice came from between Mr Phigg’s fingers. “Yes, I am. Thank you for asking.”
“But are you a real spider,” said Harry, pushing forward.
“I’ve never had any reason to doubt it. I come from a long line of spiders. But if I’m the last of that particular line, let’s not play silly games. If you’re going to eat me, you should get on with it. I’m sure I won’t poison you.”
“Of course we’re not going to eat you!” said Johanna, elbowing her brother to one side. “Why would we want to do that?”
“I can’t see why else you’d want to abduct a spider,” the voice replied.
“We’re not abducting you. We need some help,” said Johanna. “From a special sort of spider.”
“What sort of special?”
“Well, are you always a spider?”
“I’d hardly switch into being anything else, would I? Unless I was a Tale-Spinner, or something… Ah, that’s it… You’re looking for a Tale-Spinner, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” said Mr Phigg. “Have we found one?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“Careful,” said Bartram. “You could open your hands and find anything there – a lion, or a wolf, or anything.”
“Good thinking, Bartram,” said Mr Phigg. “So, what do I do now?”
“But if it was a Tale-Spinner,” reasoned Johanna, “the fact that you were holding it wouldn’t stop it changing shape, would it?”
“It might be a double-bluff,” warned Bartram darkly.
“You’ve lost me now,” said Mr Phigg. He opened his hands and addressed the small spider he was holding: “Are you going to take us by surprise?”
“Hardly,” said the spider. “Can I go back to my crevice, please?”
“In a moment, yes, of course,” Johanna replied. “But what made you think of Tale-Spinners?”
“I’ve heard the stories, like everyone else. But those stories seem to be getting closer to home now.”
“How do you mean?”
“A stag beetle told me yesterday he’d seen a white rabbit up there, further into the cave. And I’m sure I heard something with hooves walking past yesterday. Why would that be? The residents have been talking: something’s definitely going on round here.”
“Hmmm,” said Mr Phigg, reaching up to put the spider back in his hole. “That’s very interesting. Sorry for disturbing you, er…”
“…Gerald. Thank you for your help.” He turned back to the others. “We’re on to something here.”
They followed him deeper into the cave. It was very dark now, apart from the beam of the torch and the regular pulses of red light from Lawrence’s control panel.
“I’m sure this means current activity,” said Lawrence, adjusting a dial. “There’s a Tale-Spinner somewhere near, but it isn’t in spider form at the moment.”
“I hope it is near,” Mr Phigg replied. “I’m not sure how long my torch batteries are going to last in here.”
They walked on for several more minutes. The cave was narrowing, and they seemed to be reaching its end.
And the torch is getting dimmer, Johanna said to herself. What are we going to do now?
They were walking in single file, following a twisting path, and the roof of the cave was only a few inches above Mr Phigg’s head. He was just starting to say: “We’re going to have to turn back in a moment…” when the torch caught a pair of pink eyes, set in a furry white face.
“Oh, my ears and whiskers!” said the rabbit and darted forward, straight through Mr Phigg’s legs.
Mr Phigg whirled round as he tried to grab the rabbit. He collided with Lawrence, whose control panel went flying into the air and came down heavily on Bartram’s head. The rabbit weaved between them as all three fell to the ground in a heap. Harry flung himself forward in a full dive and his outstretched hand brushed the rabbit’s foot before closing on empty space.
“Late,” said the rabbit, glancing backwards to gloat. “You’re too late – all of you!”
It started to sprint away but had failed to spot that Johanna still stood between it and escape. The rabbit ran straight into her and she instinctively closed her arms around it and hung on. Got you!
The rabbit wriggled and squirmed in her grip, but Johanna held tight.
“Now, just calm down!” she managed to say. “We’re not going to hurt you – we just want to ask you some questions.”
She was starting to wonder how long anyone could keep hold of a wriggling rabbit when she found that she wasn’t anymore: she was firmly gripping something, but it didn’t seem to be a rabbit anymore.
The fur between her fingers became thicker and coarser. Her arms had been wrapped around the rabbit’s body, but the rib-cage she was holding quickly grew bigger and bigger and her arms could no longer reach around it. She shifted her grip to one of the creature’s swelling, strongly-muscled, forelegs – and was then conscious of the sharp claws at the end of its thickly padded paw. She felt the vibration of a deep growl and then hot breath on the top of her head. She looked up – and wished she hadn’t: a large and angry bear was staring down at her, showing a wide mouthful of sharp white teeth.
She closed her eyes tight. This isn’t real, she tried to tell herself. It’s just a spider, playing tricks.
The bear, meanwhile, was rearing up on its back legs, lifting Johanna off the ground and carrying her along with no obvious effort. She had no choice but to keep hold.
OK – it’s a pretty good trick, I have to admit.
“Let go of my sister!” roared Harry, hurtling along the cave behind them. He launched himself into the air and landed on the bear’s broad back, with his arm around its neck.
“Hang on, you two,” said Mr Phigg from a few yards further back. “The cavalry’s coming.”
The bear was slowing now, with the weight of both children. Its head turned quickly from side to side, its options limited by the close walls of the cave.
“Hah!” said Mr Phigg triumphantly, as he attached himself to one of the bear’s back legs. “You take the other one, Bartram.” The sheep followed suit and clung on tight. The bear stumbled to a halt.
We’ve got him now, thought Johanna.
But then she found they hadn’t.
The bristly fur was fading between her fingers, the broad rib cage that had been pressed against her chest was somehow shrinking. The shape-shifter was changing again. Harry slipped from its disappearing back and landed on top of Mr Phigg and Bartram.
There was no fur left for Johanna to feel. Her hands were locked around something cold and slick and wriggling. Wriggling furiously as it tried to shake her grip. It flailed even more strongly and suddenly a face was staring into hers, its strange, acrid breath filling her nostrils.
It was a black snake, with a flat head and shining scales. White, needle-sharp fangs loomed from its open mouth and a long, forked tongue flickered between them. In her surprise, Johanna couldn’t help loosening her grip and the snake took its chance, squirming over her shoulder and down her back and away towards the entrance of the cave.
Idiot! she told herself furiously. What were you thinking of? Come on, now!
She spun round and sprinted after the snake as it sped along the sandy floor of the cave. It was so fast! Desperately she dived flat onto the floor with outstretched hands and just caught its flicking tail. She tightened her grip and then began to haul back the thrashing animal, one hand over the other in turn, as if she was climbing a rope in the school gym.
“It’s no good,” she panted. “Stop struggling. I know you’re a Tale-Spinner and I’m not letting go till you answer our questions.” She had almost worked her way up to the snake’s head when she felt a third change begin beneath her fingers.
“It’s no good!” she repeated. “I know what you’re doing – you won’t take me by surprise again!” She twisted the shape-shifter’s head around to face her. “Listen to me!”
And then Johanna’s stomach lurched and the cave seemed to fade away around her and the blood was pounding in her ears. She was looking straight into the eyes of her mother.
“I am listening to you, Johanna,” said her mother’s voice, in exactly the cold and disappointed tone that she dreaded the most. “And I am astonished by your behaviour. What are you thinking of? Let go of me, this instant.”
Johanna’s thoughts were racing: she smelled her mother’s perfume, and a familiar guilty conviction that she had done something very wrong swirled through her brain…
Where am I – and what am I supposed to be doing, anyway?
Then Harry landed on top of them and wrapped his arm firmly around the Tale-Spinner’s neck. “Don’t look at her, Johanna. It’s not Mum. Just hang on.”
Moments later, Mr Phigg and Bartram and Lawrence had caught up with them and taken firm hold of the shape-shifter’s arms and legs.
Johanna shook her head to clear her thoughts: it was just so weird to be wrestling her mother to the floor… but it wasn’t her mother…
“All right,” said a soft, female voice. “You have won – you have beaten me in a way that no-one has done before. You have my word: I will not try again to escape.”
Another change was underway. Shortly afterwards they were sitting in a circle facing a large spider, with eight long black legs, its body the same size as Johanna’s hand. The body was covered in deep reddish fur, the colour of a fox.
She wasn’t actually glowing, Johanna remembered later, but somehow the cave was lighter and warmer… and, after all that chase and struggle, everything was suddenly calmer…
“You… you’re a Tale-Spinner,” said Johanna.
“Indeed,” said the spider coolly. “I don’t think any other creature could have done what you saw me do just now.”
“You’re real, then,” added Harry.
She laughed lightly. “So it would appear.”
Lawrence looked up from the flashing lights of his control panel: “The SpiderBider shows definite shape-shifting activity.”
“Phew,” said Mr Phigg. “So that’s what it was. The wonders of science, eh?” He turned to the spider. “Don’t mind him, madam. And I’m sorry if we were a little rough with you.”
“Why have you been trying so hard to talk to me?”
“We’re worried about one of your sisters,” Mr Phigg replied, “and we didn’t know what else to do.” Then he told her the story of Uncle Bron and Monica Morphet, and about Bron’s recent dreams.
“Oh, dear,” said the Tale-Spinner, when he’d finished. “Oh, dear, dear.”
“Do you know where she is now?” Johanna asked.
“No. We haven’t spoken for many years. She keeps herself to herself. There was a falling out, you know – when she fell in love with the mortal man.”
“Yes. She always liked to be out in the world. We all do, of course – we couldn’t have done our work otherwise. But we all know the dangers and we’ve learned to keep our distance. Our youngest sister – the one you call Monica – was different. She became so bitter when we persuaded her to break with your uncle. She didn’t want to be with us. And she so liked her human body. She stayed in the Greyworld more and more and we lost touch.”
“Was that a problem?”
“Oh, yes. A big problem. We Tale-Spinners are shape-shifters, as you know: we are built for change. If we spend too long in one form, we can get stuck – and then things go very wrong. You know how we work? How we collect memories and weave them into new patterns?”
“Yes – like the memory of how my Mum looks and sounds and smells…” said Johanna ruefully.
“And what she says when she’s cross,” Harry added.
“That’s right. We don’t mean to be hurtful: it’s our nature. But when we’re not in our spider bodies we can’t weave our stories. The memories keep collecting but we can’t do anything with them… A Tale-Spinner who’s stuck like that soon wouldn’t know what were her thoughts and memories in amongst everyone else’s, and what she’d created, as her mind got more and more crowded.”
“I see. So, Monica might be stuck in human form – not knowing what she’s doing?” asked Mr Phigg.
“I fear that is very likely,” the spider said grimly. “Our youngest sister failed to learn from the hard, hard lesson our eldest sister taught us.”
“But what about these messages Uncle Bron has been getting in his dreams? How can she be sending them?”
“Who knows all that our brains can do? Even when someone’s mind is confused, their dreams will often still be clear. And we all hold tight to our dreams, whatever changes on the outside.”
“Like Mrs Cuthbert,” said Johanna softly.
“Your old friend? Yes, her younger self is still there, inside. And it is even more important for a shape-shifter to hold fast, deep down, to the self that doesn’t change–”
Their thoughtful mood was suddenly shattered by the melody of ‘Colonel Bogey’ rendered very loudly in rasping electronic beeps.
Mr Phigg reached into his jacket pocket and answered his phone.
“What… Really?… Are you sure?… Yes… We’ll go there now and see. OK. Bye.”
He put the phone away.
“Uncle Bron. He’s just woken up from his afternoon nap. And he’s had another dream.”
“Monica?” asked Johanna.
He nodded. “She said that time was running out, apparently. And she told him where she was.” He looked around the circle of expectant faces.
“It’s Brashleigh, of all places. We’d better go there now.”
– o O o –
“I told you I’d catch us a Tale-Spinner, didn’t I?” asked Mr Phigg proudly, as they walked back up from the beach to the gateway.
“What you actually told us,” said Johanna, “is that Tale-Spinners don’t exist and that anyone who thought they might do was soft in the head.”
“I don’t think I put it quite like that… It helps the team if someone puts the alternative arguments, you know. I like to try out different ideas and test your thinking.”
“You like to have your cake and eat it, more like.”
“But haven’t we done well?” Mr Phigg spread his arms wide, as if to embrace them all, and did a little capering dance around the group.
“Don’t change the subject!” laughed Johanna. “But, yes: we have done very well. We found a Tale-Spinner and we didn’t let her escape.”
“We’ve found out more about Monica,” Bartram added.
“And we think we know where she is now,” said Lawrence.
“And we’ve got the Cornish Past-Ease for Mrs Cuthbert,” Harry chipped in.
“What a team!” concluded Mr Phigg, as he turned his key and opened the little door in the hillside. “Now, here’s the plan: if Lawrence can go and get some more SpiderBiders and Bartram, you check what’s happening at Bedquarters–”
He paused till they nodded.
“–then Johanna and Harry and me will head back to Brashleigh and take the specs to Mrs Cuthbert. We’ll all rendezvous there later and see if we can find ourselves another Tale-Spinner. That all sounds straightforward, doesn’t it?
“A quick afternoon’s work, then we can put our feet up.”
“Here we are,” said Mr Phigg, stepping into the children’s kitchen. “As if you’d never been away. As always.”
Then he stopped and listened. “It’s very quiet, isn’t it?”
“They’ll both be out,” said Harry. “Working, I expect.”
“I don’t mean quiet as in ‘no-one home’,” said Mr Phigg, still listening. “I mean quiet. There’s no traffic, no sirens – I can’t even hear any birds…”
“What’s all this?” Johanna was at the foot of the stairs leading up to the living room. She pointed at a mass of cobwebs stretched across the stairs. “They weren’t here this morning.” She pulled at them. “Yuck. They’re sticky – not like normal cobwebs. And how could they grow this quickly? I’d better have a look upstairs.”
She pushed through the sticky strands and made her way up to the ground floor of the house. The cobwebs were thicker there and: what was that? A great clump of them on the floor by her father’s chair. Almost as if they were wrapped around a person… Wait a minute!
In a moment Johanna was on her knees scrabbling the cobwebs away from her father’s face. He was unconscious and breathing very slowly and very deeply. She shook his shoulders hard, and then harder. There was no reaction: still the deep and steady breathing…
“Mr Phigg!” she shouted, as she shook. “Harry! Come up here! It’s horrible… Help!”
As the others arrived and crowded round, Mr Blake’s eyes briefly flickered open. “Flooded again,” he muttered softly. “More of it… couldn’t mop… and slugs… huge slugs… and Sally.” Suddenly his whole face was agitated, and he stared straight up at Johanna. “They took her… your mother, Jo, took her… and I couldn’t… couldn’t…” Then the lids closed over his eyes and he slipped back into sleep.
Johanna shook his shoulders again. “Wake up, Dad, wake up! What’s going on? He was delirious – and now he won’t wake up.”
Mr Phigg gently put his hands on hers and stopped the shaking. “Gently, now, Johanna.” He felt for her father’s pulse and bent to listen to his breathing. “This is all very strange. He’s asleep – but he’s calm and steady. I don’t think he’s in any danger.”
“I’m going to call an ambulance.” Johanna ran to the telephone and dialled 999. “Or the police or something. We need help and we need to know what’s going on. Come on! Answer the phone!”
“What about Mum?” said Harry. As his sister bounced from one foot to the other impatiently waiting for an answer, he ran from the room to check the rest of the house.
Mr Phigg tried his own phone. “I haven’t got a signal here.” He frowned and poked at the controls. “That’s strange. It’s always worked here before.”
“No answer,” said Johanna. “It just keeps ringing and ringing.”
Harry ran back into the room, panting. “No – she’s not here. The rest of the house is empty. This is scary.”
Mr Phigg grimaced. “I know. But we’ll sort things out. Don’t worry.”
“But look outside,” said Harry, going over to the window. “I saw from upstairs. It’s not just in here that weird things are happening. I’ve never seen anything like this.”
They went over to him and looked out on the strangest of scenes. A thin, yellowish mist was stretched across the sky. The streetlights were all lit, though it was still early afternoon. No cars were moving and there were no people on the street. There were more cobwebs here and there, on vehicles and buildings. All was silent and eerie…
“This is awful,” said Johanna, slamming the phone down. “No answer from the emergency services. And Brashleigh’s a ghost town. What on earth is going on?”
Mr Phigg shook his head. “I don’t know. I wondered if some sort of chemical might have escaped and sent people to sleep. But that doesn’t explain the cobwebs.”
“Or the fact that we’re awake,” Johanna added. “I don’t want to leave Dad like this, but we need to find out what’s happening.” She took a cushion from the couch and put it under her father’s head, then tucked a throw around him.
“So, where do we start?” asked Mr Phigg. Two silent faces frowned back at him, thinking hard.
“The beavers,” said Johanna at last. “We should talk to them. Before Dad got on to that weird stuff about slugs and Mum, he was clear that there’d been another flood. We know from when we met the beavers that there was something strange getting into the underground river. Maybe that something has got worse.”
“Sounds good to me,” said Mr Phigg. “Let’s go.”
They went out of the front door and walked down the empty street. They found a woman wrapped in cobwebs lying on the ground at the corner, her shopping spilled from the bag by her side. As Mr Phigg checked her pulse, she grunted slightly and shifted like a sleeper hearing a noise in the night. “Just like your father,” he said to the children. “I don’t think she’ll come to any harm. We should concentrate on finding out what has happened.”
“And then stop it happening,” said Johanna firmly.
After they had turned into the alleyway at the end of the street, Mr Phigg lifted the manhole cover and they went down the ladder into the sewers.
Harry looked around cautiously. “No rats today,” he observed. “Do you think everyone is asleep down here too?”
They carried on down the walkway until they reached the underground river and the chamber lit by the giant candle. Walking by the side of the lapping water, they could see the dam and the beavers’ lodge, but the brass telescope was not manned and no-one seemed to be home. At the end of the dam they stopped.
“Hello!” bellowed Mr Phigg, and his voice echoed back and forth.
“Is anyone there?” Johanna shouted. “We need help.”
But the only answer was a fading echo: “Help… help… help…”, bouncing across the cavern around them.
“What now?” asked Harry. “Hang on, though – what’s that?”
He pointed and they saw a bowler hat emerging from the beavers’ lodge, followed by the chunky figure of the beaver chief.
“If you’re looking for help, you’d better try somewhere else,” the beaver said grimly. “I seem to be the only one round here who’s in working order just now.” He pointed back into the lodge. “I’ve stowed the others in there for safe keeping. Damned if I can wake them. I’ve never known anything like it.”
“It’s the same above ground,” said Johanna. “Everyone except us is asleep. But what happened down here?”
“I don’t know: I missed it. And I’ve got those rats to thank, I suppose, for being able to tell you about it now. I’ve had just about enough of them – skulking around, sniggering, pinching things when they think they can away with it, up to no good, the lot of them…
“Anyway, I came out this morning and there was one, big and brown, cocky as you please, helping himself to Monty’s best scarf off the washing line. I saw red and chased after him, but he had a head start and they can shift when they want to, those rats. In and out of tunnels, higher and higher we went: must have run a mile or more. We were almost in the Overground before he lost me.
“So back I came, empty-handed, only to find all the rest of the clan lying round here, fast asleep, and everything soaking wet.”
“What did you do?” Johanna asked.
“I tried to wake them up, but they weren’t having it. I just managed to get few words out of them, here and there. Seems there was a big surge of water down the river and a huge wave washed right over the dam and everywhere. And there was more of that strange yellow slick on the water. I’m guessing that’s what’s sent them all to sleep.”
“We need to find out more about that yellow stuff,” said Mr Phigg. “What it is and where it comes from. It’s about the only clue we’ve got.”
“Let’s follow the river upstream and see what we can find,” said Johanna. “It must be getting into the river somewhere. Will you come with us, Mr Beaver?”
“Yes, my dear, I will. I want to know what’s going on, too. And there’s not a lot I can do here just now. You can call me ‘Chief’, by the way – everyone else does.”
“Are we ready, then?” asked Mr Phigg.
“One moment,” said the Chief and bobbed back inside the lodge. He was soon back out again, carrying a large and rusty blunderbuss.
“Is that thing safe?” Mr Phigg asked.
“So long as you’re at this end of it,” said the Chief, patting its worn wooden shoulder-stock.
“What’s it loaded with, as a matter of interest?”
“Buckshot and carpet tacks, my Dad always said. This gun has been in our clan for generations.”
“Yes, I can believe that. Have you ever fired it?”
“Well… My father did once, so he said. It’s a powerful piece of weaponry, though. You never know when we might need it.”
He hefted it on to his shoulder and marched after the others. “After all,” he added darkly, “we may meet some of those rats.”
There was a narrow path along the side of the underground river, just wide enough for them to walk in single file. Mr Phigg went first, followed by Johanna, then Harry and the Chief at the back.
The tunnel narrowed as they walked further upstream and, after about twenty minutes, the ceiling was almost brushing the top of Johanna’s head.
“Mr Phigg?” she asked. “I’ve been thinking: what would we do if there was another big surge of water down the river?”
He coughed. “Well, there’s a time and a place for thinking, I always say. And this probably isn’t it.”
They walked in silence for a few more minutes, studying the water level closely. There had been no branches or exits on either side for quite some time.
“Look!” Harry shouted, pointing ahead. There was a thick, yellow slick on the surface of the water, reaching upstream as far as they could see.
“Come on,” said Mr Phigg, stepping up the pace. “Keep well away from the water. We need to see where that’s coming in from, if we can.”
They came to a point where the river bent sharply and, rounding the corner, they found what they were looking for: a wooden sluice gate set into the side wall was ajar and yellow liquid was dribbling through the crack and into the river. Upstream, the water was clear. Next to the sluice gate was a steel door.
Mr Phigg tried the door handle: it was locked. He took his silver key out of his waistcoat pocket and polished it with a spotted handkerchief. He put the key in the lock and tried to turn it. Nothing happened.
“Not again!” he said, in a pained voice, and studied the key closely. “This is going to have to go back to Dr Solomon for a service.”
“But there’s only been one other lock that it wouldn’t open,” said Johanna. “Do you think this door leads into the nursing home?”
Mr Phigg shrugged. “It could be. We’ve come in the right direction from your house. And it might explain the key not working.”
“Look!” said Harry, pointing. “The sluice is opening wider.”
As they watched the gate rose and cleaner water began to pour out into the river, washing the yellow slick downstream. Within moments they could see the level of the river beginning to rise.
“It’s happening,” said Johanna. “That thing we didn’t plan for.”
“Yes,” Mr Phigg agreed. “With the water coming in at this rate we wouldn’t have time to get back down the tunnel before it fills.”
“And we don’t know if there would be any way out if we went further upstream,” Johanna added.
“And we can’t try to swim for it because of all the yellow stuff,” Harry chipped in.
“And I don’t want to depress anyone,” said the Chief, turning down the path and raising his blunderbuss to his shoulder, “but we’ve got unwelcome company.”
Two large brown rats were trotting up the path towards them.
“Hold it right there!” the Chief shouted. “I know you rodents – rascals all of you! Up to no good, aren’t you? Hands up!”
The rats stopped and slowly raised their front legs.
“I’m not sure if you realise,” said one, “but beavers are rodents too, you know.”
The Chief jerked his gun. “Don’t get clever with me!”
“It’s all comparative,” said the rat. “Cleverness, I mean. And compared with beavers…”
“Oh, hello,” said Johanna, stepping in between them. “It’s Roger, isn’t it?”
“Hello,” said the rat. “Yes, it is. I can’t say that I’m impressed with your choice of friends.”
“I do think,” said Mr Phigg, “that we might save the insults for later, when we’re not all about to drown.” He pointed down to the river, which was now lapping onto the path. A few moments later it had reached their feet.
“It’s not a problem,” said Roger, scrambling up the side of the sluice gate and squeezing into a small crack between its top and the tunnel roof. He stuck his head back out again: “Not for us, anyway.”
“Very good,” said Mr Phigg. “Very agile. Do you think you might see your way to popping down the other side and unlocking this door, please?” The water was round their ankles now.
“I’m not sure about that,” Roger replied. “What’s in for me?”
“It’s nice to help other people when they need it,” said Johanna. She shivered as the cold river water reached her calves.
“I’ll have to think about that. Come up here and join me while I do, Ricky.” Roger beckoned to the other rat, who set off to climb the gate. But the Chief quickly grabbed his tail and held on tight.
“You’re staying with us,” he said. “Whatever happens.”
“How very tiresome,” sighed Roger. “OK – I’ll see what I can do.” He disappeared from sight through the crack above the gate.
The water level was close to Johanna’s knees when they heard bolts shifting on the other side of the steel door. Mr Phigg tried the handle again and this time it turned. The door opened inwards to reveal a stone staircase. They splashed their way inside and started up the stairs.
Roger was standing at the top. “Will there be a reward?” he asked.
“Just a warm inner glow of satisfaction,” Mr Phigg replied.
“Thank you very much,” said Johanna.
“Very generous. Oh well, we can’t waste any more time here. Come on, Ricky.” The pair of them scampered off ahead and disappeared from sight.
“What did I tell you?” said the Chief. “It’s never any good appealing to a rat’s better nature: they just don’t have one.”
“They did the right thing,” Johanna replied, “whatever they might have said. And that’s good enough for me.”
They soon reached the top of the staircase, where a short corridor led to another closed door.
Mr Phigg pressed his ear against the door and listened for a moment before trying to turn the handle. Then he grinned broadly: this one wasn’t locked. The door opened into a storeroom, full of stacked shelves and orderly piles of boxes. There was tinned food, cleaning products, paper napkins – nothing obviously sinister or unusual. They passed quickly through the room and followed the same procedure with the door at its far end.
“Ah–hah,” said Mr Phigg as he waved the others through. “It is the nursing home. Kirsten Fittall knows this kitchen well…”
“So, what is a home for old ladies doing making weird chemicals?” Johanna asked.
“I don’t know,” Mr Phigg replied. “It’s very quiet here too, isn’t it?” He pushed open the door into the day room. Half a dozen forms were slumped on the chairs lined along the wall. Two more bodies were lying on the floor. All were wrapped in cobwebs and all seemed to be sleeping deeply.
“Mrs Cuthbert!” said Johanna, and she and Harry ran to check if their friend was amongst the sleepers on the chairs. They pulled the cobwebs from their faces. “No. She’s not here,” she reported. “And these ladies are just like my Dad and the beavers – fast asleep but breathing steadily.”
Mr Phigg had been crouching by the bodies on the floor. “So are the nurses,” he said. Then he thought for a moment. “It must have happened suddenly, you can see – they were walking across the room, doing their jobs. And now they’re lying on the floor, covered with these cobwebs – or whatever they are.”
“But they all seem very peaceful,” said Johanna.
“No sign of any fight,” the Chief added.
“There’s no need to sound so disappointed,” said Mr Phigg. “I haven’t ever come across a shoot-out in a nursing home that I can recall.”
“But have you ever come across anything like this either?” Johanna asked.
“No, I haven’t. We could do with Dr Solomon running some tests on these cobwebs.”
“And the yellow stuff,” said Harry.
“Yes. All these people have been drugged with something, somehow. But I’ve no idea what.”
“Or why,” said Johanna. “Is this some weird accident? Or was it deliberate. I can’t see why anyone would wantthis to happen.”
“No, me neither. Let’s see if we can find out where the yellow sludge is coming from.”
He led the way to the back door of the nursing home and they went out into the car park. The same yellow mist they had seen at the children’s house lay in a murky blanket all around the buildings.
“Now, where was that door we couldn’t open?”
“Here,” said Johanna, pointing out the outhouse with a bare steel door set between barred and shuttered windows.
“Look at this.” A tall steel chimney rose above the outhouses and was belching yellow smoke into the foggy air. “That wasn’t there before. And listen.” There was a faint hum of machinery coming from behind the door. “What’s going on in there?” She tried the handle carefully. “This door isn’t locked now.”
“Let’s take this very slowly,” said Mr Phigg. “We’ve no idea what’s in there.” Together, they gently pushed the door ajar and peered around the crack.
“Oh, my,” said Mr Phigg softly.
Johanna looked back to Harry and the Chief and put her finger to her lips. Then they all went inside.
The door opened on to three steps down to a steel gallery running around an enormous underground area, which seemed to be some sort of factory. A furnace blazed at the centre, feeding smoke up into the chimney they had seen from outside. Around it, a strange collection of machinery and conveyor belts was whirring. Drums of chemicals and boxes of whatever-it-was were being fed in at one end. At the other, a stream of yellow discs, about an inch across, was emerging and being funnelled through a hopper into waiting sacks. The machinery was operated by women in grey overalls, who each had one of the yellow discs in the centre of their foreheads. They seemed to be working with their eyes closed, in a series of slow, deliberate movements, as if they were underwater.
Mr Phigg, the children and the Chief crouched behind a row of steel drums at the edge of the gallery and tried to take in what they were seeing.
At the far end of the room sat Miss Webster – or something like her. She had grown even bigger – swollen somehow, to about twice any normal human size. She was enormous. No-one can grow that quickly, Johanna told herself. She was eating as they watched, steadily munching her way through… what? It’s those cobwebs, Johanna suddenly realised – cobwebs that a succession of grey-overalled workers were bringing to her on broad platters. After they had been thoroughly chewed, Miss Webster spat them out again and workers took the remains to the furnace.
There were sudden flashes of rapid movement around the edge of the factory area, in sharp contrast to the sleep-walking motion of the workers. It seemed to Johanna that they were giant slugs, about the size of sheep, shooting here and there, leaving thick and glistening trails of slime behind them as they went. They seemed to be on guard, checking and watching, looking for anything untoward… The four intruders above instinctively sank lower behind the steel drums that were hiding them.
Now, this is seriously strange. Then Johanna saw something that made her stifle a gasp and point, horrified, down to two of the workers below.
There, carrying trays of cobwebs, in grey overalls and with closed eyes, yellow discs fixed upon their foreheads, were her mother and Mrs Cuthbert.
Mr Phigg gestured to the others to follow him back outside, as quietly as possible. As she closed the door behind them, Johanna whispered fiercely: “We’ve got to go back in there, Mr Phigg, and do something. We can’t just leave Mum and Mrs Cuthbert with that weird thing, whatever it is she’s doing. We–”
Mr Phigg put his hands on her shoulders and his face in front of hers. “Steady, now, Johanna. Of course, we’re going back and we’re going to get them out. But we can’t just go blundering in. We need to know more about what’s going on. And we need reinforcements.”
He led them round the corner and into the car park. “This should be far enough.” He took his phone from his pocket and dialled quickly, then flicked it to the speaker setting and held it in his hand so the others could hear.
There was a sharp burst of static and then a fuzzy voice said “Hello? Are you there, Phigg?”
“Simon? Is that you? We can hardly hear you.”
“You’re breaking up too,” the old sheep replied, through the crackles. “Are you in Brashleigh? Something very strange seems to be happening there–”
“You’re telling me.”
“Sorry. Go on.”
“I’ve never known anything like it. The Bedquarters systems just can’t pick up anything. On the visual channels we’re just seeing some sort of yellow– CRRRRK.”
“Yellow fog, that’s all we’re seeing. And on the audio, it’s all static and crackles – as I think you can hear.”
“Yes, we can.”
“CRRRRK. Yes, you what?”
“Can, Simon, can. This is hopeless: it’s getting worse.”
“CRRRRK Getting what?”
“I’m going now, Simon. I don’t know if you’ll hear any of this, but: send reinforcements. Repeat: send reinforcements. And get Dr Solomon onto this. Dr Solomon.”
There was no further answer, just random crackles and squawks. Mr Phigg switched off the speaker and put the phone back in his pocket. He shook his head: “Well, that was a lot of good, wasn’t it? Who knows what’s going on here?”
“Um. Mr Phigg?”
“Um. I think I might.”
“Go on, then.”
“Well, the Tale-Spinner told us that if one of her sisters gets stuck in a non-spider shape, they carry on absorbing memories and making stories, but they can’t do anything with them. Meanwhile, the person we know as Miss Webster is in charge of this factory – making all these things that are messing up people’s memories. And she’s getting bigger and bigger. Then, Uncle Bron is told in a dream that Monica is in Brashleigh and that ‘time is running out’, just as all the weird stuff starts happening here. And Miss Webster’s name is Monica too–”
“And there’s another hint in the Webster bit, isn’t there? Brilliant, Johanna – I think you’ve got it!” Mr Phigg gave her a hug and kissed her decidedly pink cheek. “Monica Webster is Monica Morphet. Those cobwebs are somehow collecting memories from people – like strips of flypaper – and she’s eating them up. She is swelling and swelling. She can’t get rid of the stories in her head and now she doesn’t know what she’s doing. Clever girl!”
“But what can we do about any of that?” asked Harry.
“I know how to sort it out,” said the Chief, presenting arms with his blunderbuss. “I’ll go and shoot her.” He started back towards to the steel door.
“Hang on, hang on,” said Mr Phigg quickly, grabbing his shoulder. “She’s surrounded by those slug things and zombie workers and who knows what else. Plus, she’s the love of my Great Uncle’s life. Plus, we’ve no idea what would happen to everyone who’s asleep if you did manage to take a potshot at her. No, we need a proper plan.”
At that point there was a loud flapping of wings above them and Sigmund came in to land.
“There you are,” the seagull said. “I didn’t think I was going to be able to find you, but I just managed to get a lock on your phone signal. What with this fog and all the electronics messed up… it’s a strange business, Phigg, very strange.”
“It’s getting stranger all the time,” Mr Phigg replied and explained Johanna’s theory to the bird.
When he’d finished, Sigmund asked: “So, what do you want me to do?”
“The main thing is to find Lawrence and Bartram. They were supposed to be coming to Brashleigh – can you try and tell them what’s happening here? Oh, and if you can get a message to Uncle Bron, tell him that we think we’ve found his Monica.”
Sigmund spread his wings and rose into the air. He was soon hidden by the fog.
“So, have we got a plan?” asked Harry.
“Yes,” said Mr Phigg. “I’m going to appeal to her better nature. She’s still a Tale-Spinner and, if she was well, she’d be horrified to know what she was doing. I’m sure that’s why she’s somehow been sending the messages to Bron in her dreams.”
“What if she won’t listen?” asked Johanna. “It could be dangerous.”
“Let’s see about that,” Mr Phigg replied. They were back at the steel door. He turned to the others. “You go back to where we were hiding and then take your lead from me.”
They went inside and Johanna, Harry and the Chief crouched down behind the drums. Mr Phigg crept quietly along the gallery till he was directly over where Miss Webster was sitting, but with his back against the wall so that she wouldn’t be able to see him.
“Hello, Monica,” he said loudly.
She stopped chewing and looked around her. “Who’s there?”
“I’d like to talk to you, Monica.”
“My name is not Monica anymore – and the time for talking is over. It is time to act. I am the Grey Spinster now, and all will come to fear the webs I weave.”
“I think a part of you still is Monica,” said Mr Phigg. “And it’s Monica I want to talk to. She wouldn’t have been proud of stealing people’s memories. Miss Morphet has morphed into something that is not very nice. The Tale-Spinners should be giving the world its stories, not taking them away.”
“Don’t talk to me about Tale-Spinners! Don’t talk to me at all!”
“That’s not the real you talking, Monica. You sound like all the other weirdoes who want to rule the world. Try to think, now. Try to remember. Concentrate on what is real. What about Bron? What would he think about what you’re doing?”
“Stop it! I refuse to listen to you. Slug-Guards – seize him!”
Some of the giant slugs were dragging a metal trolley down towards the end of the room below where Mr Phigg was, on the gallery. Above a box lined with switches and lights was what looked like the barrel of a cannon.
“It’s a gun!” hissed the Chief. “They’re going to shoot him! I’d better get them first.” He started to raise his blunderbuss, but Johanna grabbed his arm.
“No!” she said in a sharp whisper. “Let him try. Mr Phigg knows what he’s doing – sometimes. She did say ‘seizehim’, and not… not the other thing.”
“We’ve been speaking to one of your sisters, Monica,” Mr Phigg continued. “She’s very worried about you.”
“Sisters? I have no family now!” The Grey Spinster was furious and shouted louder and louder. “I have no past – all of that is nothing to me now! And I am making my own future – alone!” She turned to the slugs. “What are you waiting for? Fire, you fools!”
There was a flash of light from the metal device on the trolley and Mr Phigg was suddenly covered from head to foot with the sticky cobwebs. He sank to the floor of the gallery.
“Listen to me, Monica,” he said in a fading voice, “this… isn’t… going… to… work…”
The Grey Spinster laughed as she watched him fall. “I rather think it is, you know,” she cackled.
As Mr Phigg lost consciousness, two women in grey overalls slowly climbed the steps at the other end of the gallery and went towards him. One of them placed a yellow disc on his forehead and then they carried him downstairs, one holding his shoulders and the other taking his feet.
“We’re not having that!” said the Chief, standing up. “Come on, you two.”
Johanna grabbed his arm and tried to pull him back down behind the metal drums. “No,” she whispered, “we can’t just go rushing in.”
“And we can’t just hide here and wait for them to find us.” He shook off her hand, raised the blunderbuss and headed round the gallery towards Mr Phigg.
Harry stood up too. “Sorry, Jo, but he’s right. We’ve got to do something.” He ran after the Chief.
Idiots! Johanna clenched her fists in frustration, but sat tight in her hiding place and waited to see what would happen.
“Now, look here,” said the Chief loudly. “This is unacceptable.” He pointed the blunderbuss at the women carrying Mr Phigg. “Put him down and back away.” The women stopped and looked towards the Grey Spinster for instructions.
“I haven’t told you to stop! You will follow my orders – bring the intruder to me!”
“In that case, I think our quarrel is with you, madam,” said the Chief, swinging his gun round in her direction.
“Buffoon! Do you think you can threaten me? What do you think one of you can do? One… what are you, anyway? Some sort of coypu?”
“He’s a beaver!” shouted Harry catching up with him. “And he’s not on his own.”
“Ah. Now I am getting frightened. A beaver in a hat and a loud little boy. Should I surrender now, or should I go down fighting?”
“I recommend surr-” the Chief began.
“SHUT UP! It was a joke, you foolish animal! Take them – now!”
Her zombie slaves began to turn the cobweb gun towards the Chief and Harry.
“You leave us no choice,” said the Chief. “Come on, Harry!”
The pair of them pounded down the steel steps towards the Grey Spinster. There was a flash of light from the device on the trolley and then Harry was covered in cobwebs and fell to the floor at the foot of the stairs.
The Chief stepped over him and raised his blunderbuss, aiming straight at the Grey Spinster. “This is your last chance. Call your people off now, or I will have to fire.”
Just as the Chief went to pull the trigger, the Grey Spinster hurled a bundle of cobwebs towards him. They landed on the end of the barrel of the gun. There was a muffled “PHOOT!” as the weapon went off, the barrel split all along its length and carpet tacks flew harmlessly in all directions. The Chief stared in amazement at the wooden stock he held in his paws, which was all that was now left of the gun.
Meanwhile, the grey-suited figures were turning the cobweb device towards him.
“OK,” said the Chief sadly, raising his paws. “But before you coat me in those cobwebs, at least tell me what is going on. What do the cobwebs do?”
“They’re not cobwebs,” said the Grey Spinster. “They are fogwebs. They will send you to sleep and then collect your dreams and memories – just like a spider catches flies for food. Those memories make a tasty treat for me.” She bit into one of the webs by her side with relish. “Umm, yes.” She licked her lips. “So nicely bitter-sweet…”
“And what about those yellow discs?”
“They are forget-me-dots. They ensure that my followers forget about themselves and their past and focus entirely on what I tell them. As you will soon discover.” She laughed and raised her arm. “Now, fire!”
There was a further flash of light and the Chief crumpled on the floor, wrapped in fogwebs.
He’s very brave, thought Johanna sadly, in her hiding place. And clever, too – getting her to talk like that. But what on earth am I going to do now?
Grey-suited figures went up the Chief’s immobile form and a forget-me-dot was pressed onto his forehead.
Just then, a loud sound of knocking was heard. Someone was at the outside door. The knocking continued and all eyes turned towards it. The door opened slightly, and a head peered round it.
“Hello? Only me. Is there anybody there? Everyone seems to be asleep in the nursing home. It’s most peculiar…”
The face that peered around the door was dark and rather hairy, partly hidden by a flat cap and a large pair of mirrored sunglasses. The short body that followed it inside was covered in a long coat, below which only a pair of green wellington boots were visible.
“I’m sorry to disturb you all, but do you know what’s going on?”
The strange figure came through the door and advanced onto the gallery. He held a leather lead in his hand, attached to the collar of what the casual observer might assume was a Bedlington terrier.
Bartram winked at Johanna as they passed her hiding place behind the metal drums. It’s Lawrence who’s with him, she realised. I wonder what they’re planning?
“I’m Lawrence Chimpney, from Pets for Patients,” he announced, leading Bartram towards the stairs. “Barty here was so looking forward to seeing the ladies again, but they’re all asleep. And so are the nurses. It’s very strange. Now, you must be Miss Webster, I presume…”
All eyes were on him as he spoke, while he and Bartram slowly made their way down the staircase. The Grey Spinster stared at them: incredulous and increasingly furious. Her face became pinker and pinker, and then redder and redder, till she looked very much like a giant, angry beetroot.
As Johanna watched in fascination, a furtive movement registered in the corner of her eye. She glanced round to see Mrs Cuthbert’s cats, Fred and Ginger, sneaking in through the open door. Fred was carrying a bundle that looked like a rolled-up tent. Ginger caught Johanna’s eye and raised a warning paw to his lips.
“It’s a Winternet,” he whispered, nodding to the bundle. “Dr Solomon sent it.”
They tiptoed past Johanna and went along the gallery.
Below them, the Grey Spinster finally exploded. “What is the meaning of this? That animal is barred from my establishment. And this is a private area. You will not – repeat not – interfere with my plans.”
“You seem a little agitated, Madam,” said Lawrence. They had reached the bottom of the stairs. “Would you like to give Barty here a little cuddle? It does seem to help people relax. He won’t bite, you know.”
Now the former Miss Webster was on her feet and screeching. “Stop them! Capture them! AND SHUT THAT MAN UP!!”
Her grey-overalled slaves lurched into action and started towards the pair. Lawrence dropped Bartram’s lead and then took off his coat and pulled the wellies from his feet. The chimpanzee hurled his boots at the oncoming zombies and, unencumbered, climbed swiftly up the outside of the staircase and dangled from the bars at the top. Meanwhile, Bartram began to zoom around the room at speed, butting everyone within reach. As the Grey Spinster shouted and pointed frantically, her followers were turning from side to side in confusion.
That’s a pretty good distraction, boys, Johanna thought. I wonder what the cats have got from Dr Solomon? She turned to watch Fred and Ginger who were now directly above Miss Webster. They had each put a pair of thick woolen mittens over their front paws and had unpacked what must be the Winternet. It did indeed seem to be a net – the sort Johanna had seen on the side of fishing boats in Brashleigh harbour. But a net that was now steaming faintly as the cats lifted it up over the side of the gallery, like a carton of ice cream taken from the bottom of the freezer.
Down below, the fogweb gun was being trained on Lawrence, but before the Grey Spinster’s slaves could fire, Bartram careered into them and knocked it sideways. The web hit the wall and slid harmlessly to the floor. But then Bartram was surrounded by Slug-Guards and could not break through. A second shot hit him squarely and he fell to the floor. The zombies turned the gun back towards Lawrence.
“Er, WAIT!” Lawrence shouted suddenly. “I think you’re making a big mistake, Miss Webster. You really need to have me awake just now.”
As he spoke, Fred and Ginger were dangling the Winternet right above her head.
“What possible use could I have for a talking monkey?” she said scornfully.
“Just wait and, er, think for a minute…” Lawrence tried to stall her. “A message!” he shouted, with sudden inspiration. “I have a message for you.”
“You don’t,” said the Grey Spinster. “You’re lying… you’re playing for time. Why?” A sudden intuition made her look up and see the Winternet falling towards her. She hurled herself sideways with surprising speed and the net caught only two of the nearest Slug-Guards. As it landed, Johanna saw it somehow tighten around them before a thick cloud of steam obscured her view. When it cleared, the two giant slugs were encased in a solid block of ice. The Grey Spinster was back on her feet next to it and incandescent with fury.
“TAKE THEM NOW!” she screamed, “or you’ll wish you had never been born!”
Within moments a further blast from the fogweb gun had brought Lawrence to the floor and Fred and Ginger were surrounded on the gallery by Slug-Guards and slaves. They lifted their paws in surrender and forget-me-dots were soon pressed onto their foreheads.
“At last,” said the Grey Spinster. “This futile resistance is over and I can get on with my work.”
Well, thought Johanna. That’s it. Only me left. I’m not going to get any more help from outside. What can I do?
As she pondered, order was restored below. The sleeping forms of Mr Phigg, Lawrence, Bartram and the cats were dragged to one corner of the room. The furnace was stoked, machinery whirred and the Grey Spinster settled down to chew more memories from her piles of fogwebs.
What can I do that the others couldn’t? Johanna asked herself. I’m on my own. I’m not stronger than them. I’m not smarter than them. And I haven’t got any gadgets from Dr Solomon…
As she watched, she saw her mother and Mrs Cuthbert, with blank faces above their grey overalls, working like robots, piling fogwebs onto carts and slowly wheeling them to the Grey Spinster. Johanna clenched her fists and stood up. I’ve got to do something. She wormed her way through the metal drums which had been hiding her and stood at the rail of the gallery, leaving some protection behind her.
“Hello, Monica,” she said, loudly. “Will you talk to me now?”
The Grey Spinster raised her eyes and sighed. “Not another pointless interruption… what do you think you can achieve, little girl? You will fall like all the others and you will do what I want, as all you weak and silly humans will from now on. Don’t waste any more of my time.”
“You didn’t always think we were weak and silly, did you? You liked us. You wanted to spend your time with us. You wanted to be a human too.”
“Don’t talk to me about the past! The past is gone. I am alone and I do not need anyone else.”
“We all need other people. I’m sure Tale-Spinners do too. Why do you find our memories so tasty?”
The Grey Spinster’s eyes flashed angrily. “I expect that you drink milk, little girl. But you don’t seek out the company of cows.”
“You’d be surprised. I’ve been surprised. You’ve got to talk to people – and animals can be people too. We all make connections – and we all need those connections.”
“I don’t know what you are talking about and this charade has gone on long enough. I am alone and I am in command. Slug-Guards, slaves – take her. And stop her talking!”
“Monica! Think! Remember!” Johanna shouted desperately as she watched the Grey Spinster’s slaves coming up the two staircases to surround her. “There was a time when you didn’t want to be alone, wasn’t there? There was a man – a man you loved! Wasn’t there?”
For the first time, the Grey Spinster seemed confused and doubtful. She’s wavering. I’m breaking through, Johanna told herself. “Can you see him now? Do you remember, Monica?”
Suddenly another piece of the jigsaw clicked into place in Johanna’s head.
“Monica. Monica Morphet. Little Miss Morphet. That was your farewell message to Bron, wasn’t it? There came a big spider that frightened Miss Morphet away. But you didn’t really want to go…”
Then the Grey Spinster screamed, howling like an animal in pain. “NO! I can’t remember. I won’t remember. I won’t. Shut her up! Make this go away!”
Johanna focused once more on the slaves coming towards her. No! Her mother was at the front of one column, with Mrs Cuthbert just behind her.
“Mum! It’s me – Johanna. She can’t make you hurt me!”
Her mum’s dead eyes turned towards her and a frown seemed to flit across her impassive face.
“That’s it! Think! Remember who I am and who you are! Think of Dad and Harry – think of all of us.” Her mother had stopped walking now and the frown was back on her face. “Look behind you: it’s Mrs Cuthbert. You remember her.”
Her mother turned and saw her friend, then her eyes turned back to her daughter, wild and frightened. I’ve got through! I’ve got through! Johanna was telling herself in triumph…
… just as she was seized roughly by the first two slaves from the other column, which had marched up behind her while her attention was on her mother. They wrapped a fogweb round her mouth, then pulled her backwards and half-dragged, half-carried her towards the stairs.
“Put her with the others,” the Grey Spinster ordered from below. “I’ll hear no more from her. A forget-me-dot for her forehead will see to that.”
The game was up.
We’ve tried our best, thought Johanna, as she was carried bumpily down the stairs. But our best wasn’t good enough… They always say “Just do your best”, but what happens now? There’s nobody left…
She was feeling sorry for herself now, and sorrier still for her mother and Mrs Cuthbert… and Dad back at home, wrapped in fogwebs… like I will be in a minute… Hot tears filled her eyes, but a sudden effort of will stopped them rolling down her cheeks. No! I won’t give up. Mr Phigg wouldn’t and I won’t…
She looked carefully at the machinery they passed and studied the Slug-Guards, with a shudder, as they came up close. If I could just find a clue… If I could just come up with something… Think, Johanna… Think…
Then she was being laid upon the floor between the sleeping bodies of Harry and Mr Phigg, and another grey-overalled slave was coming towards her with a yellow forget-me-dot in her hand.
But just before the slave reached her there was a loud clatter from upstairs as the outside door was flung open once more and new and unexpected visitors pounded onto the gallery. All eyes in the room turned to see an astonishing sight.
It was a cavalier, mounted on a very small horse. The rider wore a wide-brimmed hat, decorated with a large red feather. His brocade doublet was trimmed at the collar and cuffs with bright white lace. He had a shiny steel breastplate and a sword swung at his side. He held his mount’s reins in one hand and carried a long lance in the other.
Then Johanna spotted that the cavalier’s white pony was wearing a navy-blue sweater – and all was suddenly clearer. She scrambled to her feet and pulled the fogweb away from her mouth. “Uncle Bron!” she shouted joyfully, “Finlay! You’ve found us!”
The pair of them paused and Finlay reared up on his back legs, beating the air with his front hooves, as he’d seen horses do in cowboy films. Bron stayed on Finlay’s back with some effort and peered down at the scene below.
“Goodness! Is this your doing, Monica? You must let my nephew and his friends go, right now – and stop being so silly!”
The Grey Spinster was in turmoil. “I… am…. not… MONICA!” she raged. “The past has gone! It has gone for good! Seize him, now!” she urged the slugs and slaves. “Bring him down – and SHUT HIM UP!”
“No need to bring me down,” Bron replied. “We’re coming down anyway. CHARGE!”
On command, Finlay raced headlong down the stairs and into the main room, with Bron just about hanging on. They did one quick circuit, evading all the outstretched hands which tried to stop them, then paused at the opposite end of the room from the Grey Spinster.
“Come on, now, Monica,” said Bron. “This is your last chance. I don’t want to have to hurt you…”
“HURT ME? YOU CAN’T HURT ME! WHERE IS THE FOGWEB GUN, YOU IDIOTS?”
“Have it your way, then,” said Bron sadly. He aimed his lance straight at the Grey Spinster and Finlay began to race as fast as he could towards her. But halfway across the floor the galloping pony’s hooves slid into a thick slick of Slug-Guard slime, glistening in his path. Finlay’s legs went sideways under him and Bron was thrown – spinning high into the air. As he came down, the tip of his lance hit the floor first and he was flung onwards like a pole vaulter, arcing up across the floor and landing smack on top of the Grey Spinster on her throne. Before she could do anything to stop him, Bron stood up on her lap, put his arms around her hefty neck, and kissed her straight on her lips.
Then something remarkable happened. The Grey Spinster’s whole oversized body began to shimmer and shake and, in an instant, it was gone, leaving a large spider with beautiful golden hair standing on the throne next to Bron. The Tale-Spinner was back in her own form at last.
But that was not all. A bigger spell had clearly been broken. The Slug-Guards all began to shrink back to normal slug size. Before Johanna’s startled eyes ,the fogwebs and forget-me-dots and all the machinery that had made them started to melt away like a bad dream. The slaves in their grey overalls sank to the floor and slept and seemed, as they did so, to be regaining their normal clothes, as spots of colour burst into the grey and spread over them, like ink seeping through blotting paper. Meanwhile, as the fogwebs melted from around Mr Phigg and the other more recent captives, they woke and scrambled to their feet.
“After all this trouble I have caused, I must risk changing once more,” said the Tale-Spinner softly to Uncle Bron. The air around her shimmered and she shifted her shape again. Now, there was no sign of the spider, nor the bloated form of the Grey Spinster. Here was Monica Morphet, the flashing-eyed girl from the picture on Bron’s wall, not looking a day older than when her portrait was painted.
“This is the Monica I know,” said Bron, smiling. She took his wrinkled face in her hands and kissed him gently.
“Hang on,” said Mr Phigg. “That kiss didn’t seem to work. I thought you might be able to turn him into a handsome prince.”
“He is a handsome prince and always has been,” said Monica with a sad smile. “My handsome prince.” Bron blushed proudly and patted her hand. “But it cannot be, my love. You’ve seen where the joys of human form can take me: I’m too dangerous for this world. Let’s take one short walk together, but then I must say goodbye.” She stood up and held her hand out to Bron. He took it and rose to join her, then they walked slowly up the steps together and went outside.
“Och,” said Finlay, shaking his head. “It’s a sad business: she’s a lovely girl, isn’t she? Except when she isn’t, if you see what I mean.”
“I see just what you mean,” said Johanna, hugging him. “But you and Bron have saved the day. You did what had to be done. You put things right.”
“Did we?” asked Finlay.
“Yes, did they?” asked Mr Phigg. “I think I might have nodded off for a moment back then. What happened?”
Johanna started to explain what they had missed, but before she had finished the story, Bron came back inside alone and walked down the stairs to join them.
“She’s gone,” he said. “Off to find her sisters. She says she can’t risk taking human form again. Still,” he forced his mouth into a smile, “I got to see her again. And you–,” he delivered a sharp poke to Mr Phigg’s ribs, “–you found out that she was real after all.”
“I never doubted it,” said Mr Phigg. “I just took a questioning position to help tease out the facts. You know me.” He put his arm round Bron’s shoulders and gave him a squeeze.
“Yes,” said Johanna, “we do know you. Now, isn’t there some sorting out and clearing up we ought to be doing?”
They looked round at the sleeping figures on the floor, some of whom were now starting to stir.
“It’s going to be a bit of shock for them waking up here, whatever we do. But being greeted by a Shetland pony and a beaver who can talk is liable to make things trickier.”
“And we don’t want Mum seeing me and Johanna as soon as she wakes up,” added Harry.
“Quite right,” said Mr Phigg. “It’s all manageable, of course. But I should go back to Bedquarters now – and start to manage it.
“I’ll pop you two back home: you can check up on your Dad there. And if you tell him your Mum had said she was going to visit Mrs Cuthbert, then you can all come back up here and fetch her.
“What else? Fred and Ginger – you’d better head home to Karen’s before you’re missed. Well done, boys.
“Lawrence and Bartram – you’re with me. Come on, now.”
He started running up the stairs, two at a time, before pausing and looking back. “One more thing. Chief: can you get your people out of the underground river as soon as possible? There’s bound to be a lot of activity down there. Best if the Greyworld folk don’t find you when they start looking for answers.”
“But where are we supposed to go?” the Chief asked dolefully. “It’s always like this for travelling people. We’re always in the wrong place. Nobody wants us.”
“Don’t you be so sure about that,” said Finlay, clapping him on the shoulder. “You should come back with us. Bron’s got a nice little creek that’s crying out for proper management. All that flooding we’ve had: we need some experts with water…”
“Well, I think we’re getting there…”
Mr Phigg pushed his chair back from the computer screen he had been studying and smiled at Johanna and Harry. “Sometimes it needs an all-nighter, but we’re nearly there now.”
Sigmund had called for them after breakfast and brought them to Bedquarters. They found the room in a mess, with papers, plates and coffee cups spread all around the floor and tables, along with the remains of a bale of hay. Sheep were bustling busily here and there. Bartram was talking animatedly on a phone. Lawrence was sitting with Simon, working through a checklist on the old ram’s desk.
“Let’s take stock,” said Mr Phigg. “Patch in that last news bulletin, will you, please, Mabel?”
The big screens flickered and a newsreader appeared: “… and in Brashleigh, the emergency services continue to investigate yesterday’s strange events. Most of the inhabitants of the south coast town were mysteriously sent to sleep for several hours but then woke up, apparently with no ill effects. There are different theories about what happened. Floyd Gurney is in Brashleigh – Floyd?”
The scene switched to Brashleigh High Street where a reporter pointed a microphone at an elderly man, blinking behind thick spectacles.
“I can’t really tell you what happened. I’d just had lunch. It must have been about one o’clock. I was just going out to the shop when I noticed this yellow mist all around the house, getting thicker and thicker. Then I saw what looked like tumbleweed blowing down the street. Loads of it. But you don’t get tumbleweed in Sussex, do you? Anyway, then I remember suddenly feeling very sleepy.”
“What happened next?”
“The next thing I knew, I was looking at my watch and it was quarter to four.”
“And how did you feel?”
“I felt fine – like I’d really slept well. But I’ve no idea what happened.”
Floyd Gurney turned to face the camera. “That is the mysterious story we have been hearing all over Brashleigh. Three hours lost from the life of the town, with no explanation. And there is more. Some of the inhabitants report strange hallucinations as they were slipping into unconsciousness: a number believe they were bound in cobwebs; several saw giant slugs. What might have caused all this? Baxter Periwinkle is a visiting Reader in Natural Sciences at the town’s university.”
The camera-shot switched to a small, wizened man, standing in front of a blackboard covered with formulae and chemical symbols.
“Brother Periwinkle!” shouted Johanna, recognising Mr Phigg’s old teacher, despite the fact that he had swapped his monk’s habit for a rumpled corduroy suit, with a velvet skullcap over his tonsure. “How did you–”
“Shhh!” said Mr Phigg. “Later – or you’ll miss it.”
“… sure we will find a full explanation for all this in a series of chemical reactions and geological anomalies,” Brother Periwinkle was saying, calmly and evenly and boringly. “The key fact to bear in mind is that an underground river flows directly under Brashleigh, from here –” he traced a line on a map “– to the sea here. My colleagues and I suspect that waste materials have been dumped into that river which, over time, have combined to form the chemical that has caused the problems. Given the path of the river, gases could very easily percolate through the town – but, with the Downs to the north and the sea to the south, they probably would not spread further afield.”
“That’s all very logical, Professor Periwinkle, but what chemical could send people to sleep like this?”
“I don’t want to speculate at this stage in the investigation, but there are many gases that can cause unconsciousness. And unscrupulous people may have dumped all sorts of things down drains over many years that have only now combined in this way. The lucky thing, of course, is that the gas was dispersed before it could have any lasting ill-effects – the wind changed direction and was blowing strongly out to sea by yesterday evening.”
“And what about the hallucinations?”
“Oh, the human brain can do strange things, Floyd, when it’s on the edge of sleep. Just think about some of the dreams you have had, even without any chemical influencing you.”
Floyd Gurney turned to the camera.
“So, a scientific explanation of these strange events does now seem to be emerging, after a night of wild speculation. I understand that at one point in the evening, Morris, the fastest trending subject on Twitter was #giantalienslugs. But now, in the cold light of dawn, police and council workers are down in the tunnels below Brashleigh looking for evidence of what really happened when a whole town lost an afternoon. I’m Floyd Gurney, returning you to the studio.”
“Brother Periwinkle was very good,” said Johanna. “Do you think his story will stick?”
“It’s been a hard battle,” said Simon. “We’ve had to send a lot of Dreary Dust down the Ewe Tube. You’d be surprised just how many Greyfolk are still ready to believe in magic.”
“Or shape-shifting aliens who abduct people and steal their memories,” Lawrence added.
“Well, to be fair,” said Johanna, “that is nearly right.”
“Exactly,” Mr Phigg replied. “Which is why it needed a lot of effort to get them to think something different.”
“We had the Shadowflock running triple shifts all across the area,” said Simon. “Getting folk off to sleep as soon as we could, before the Soft Centaurs spread an extra ration of peaceful dreams. And I think the Tale-Spinners may have been helping too, weaving around what we were doing, so our story was what people wanted to believe.”
“But Brother Periwinkle played a blinder,” Mr Phigg said. “I think he swung it. Once we’d persuaded him to come and help… he was at a crucial stage with his blackberry brandy, apparently.”
“I’ve just been speaking to him on the phone,” said Bartram, joining them. “The brandy turned out fine, you’ll be glad to know.” He turned to Johanna and Harry. “How are your Mum and Dad?”
“Like everyone else in town, or so it seems,” Johanna replied. “They’re all right, but they’re puzzled – they can’t remember anything between going to sleep and waking up.”
“The awkward thing is Mum doesn’t know how she got to the nursing home,” Harry added. “She’s worried about that, and she thinks she dreamed about being kidnapped and that Jo and me were trying to rescue her. She said it all seemed very real. She was giving us some very odd looks at breakfast.”
“She’ll get over that,” said Mr Phigg. “Don’t worry.”
“When we went up to the home with Dad to fetch her, everything there seemed fine. Mrs Cuthbert was on good form. No-one could find Miss Webster, of course. People were surprised about the big empty room under the outhouses, but there was nothing suspicious left there.”
“We took all those drums of chemicals down to the tunnel by the river,” Lawrence explained. “It will help back up the story when they’re found there.”
“So,” Mr Phigg concluded, “that all went rather well, if I may say so. I think I might have a nap after I’ve taken you two home. But don’t forget: it’s Uncle Bron’s birthday tomorrow. We’re all invited there for tea.”
“No, I don’t see why you shouldn’t come too, now that woman seems to have left…”
Mrs Blake was going to visit Mrs Cuthbert, and Johanna and Harry wanted to join her. “Mrs Cuthbert seemed very well yesterday, despite all these strange goings-on. I’m sure she can cope with you.” The children cheered and went to get their coats.
They were soon pulling in to the Gentle Thoughts Nursing Home’s car park. Johanna and Harry raced across the gravel but pulled up short when a familiar figure opened the front door. Nurse Fittall was there to greet them.
“Well, well, well,” said the nurse, with a welcoming smile on her thickly crimsoned lips. “Mrs Blake – how nice to see you again. And these must be your splendid children – what a treat.”
“Hello,” said Mrs Blake, before adding nervously: “Has Miss Webster come back to work yet?”
“Oh, no. She’s disappeared without trace, it seems: no message, no forwarding address – it’s all very strange. The agency has sent me along to help out. We’re coping without her. And I think you’ll notice a few changes already.”
The children and their mother went through into the day room. The net curtains had been taken down from the windows and sunlight filled the room. The chairs had been moved away from the wall and grouped around little tables. Bright cushions and woollen throws covered up the beige vinyl. A lot of the ladies were chatting or reading. Swing music was playing softly in the background. Mrs Cuthbert saw the visitors coming in, put down her newspaper and got up to greet them.
“I’m feeling so much better, you know,” she said when she had found Mrs Blake a seat. “So much steadier on my feet – and my head is clearer too.” She squeezed Johanna and Harry who had taken up their positions on the arms of her chair. “I think I could even manage taking you two on one of our trips, like we used to do.”
“Where to?” asked Harry.
“Back here, of course!” they all said together.
They were still laughing when Mrs Cuthbert’s niece Karen came into the room and joined them. She was carrying her son Charlie. “Hello,” she said. “I’m glad someone’s having fun.”
Mrs Blake stood up. “We’ll go now and let you talk to your aunt.”
“Don’t go on my account – we’re all friends, aren’t we? It’s really nice for me to see all the connections Auntie Maggie has around her.” She put her hand on Mrs Cuthbert’s shoulder. “It’s quite a web you’ve managed to weave, isn’t it? I just have one question for you now, and a bit of news to tell.”
Mrs Blake sat down again and they waited to hear what Karen had to say.
“My question is this: are you happy living here, Auntie Maggie?”
Mrs Cuthbert grimaced. “Well, it’s got rather better in the last couple of days, love. The staff are friendly, it’s clean, it’s warm… but it’s not like home. And now that I’m feeling better, I…” She looked around the room to check no-one else was listening and lowered her voice. “I find some of the people here rather old.” She gave a quick, sad smile. “I can’t go back to living on my own, now, I know, but…” Her voice tailed away.
Karen patted her shoulder. “I thought it might be like that,” she said briskly. “Now, do you want to hear my news?”
They all nodded, while privately thinking that she wasn’t being very sympathetic.
“I’ve just come from having a scan: in about five months’ time young Charlie here is going to be having a little brother.”
Then they were all talking at once: congratulating Karen, tickling Charlie and thinking about babies.
“Now, the thing is…” said Karen, making herself heard above the din. “The thing is, our flat isn’t going to be big enough for four. We’re going to have to move. And we were thinking, what if we got somewhere big enough for five? That is, if you might like to join us, Auntie Maggie.”
It was soon clear that Auntie Maggie would like that, very much indeed, thank you. In the happy hubbub which followed, Nurse Fittall wandered over to add her congratulations – and then caught Johanna’s eye and looked meaningfully at the door.
“Um, we were thinking, Mum,” Johanna said, “that it’s such a nice day now, me and Harry might walk home.”
“That’s fine,” their mother replied.
“You run along, now,” added Mrs Cuthbert. “I know what it’s like being cooped up with old folk!”
The children said goodbye and left.
– o O o –
After they had waited in the car park for a minute or two Mr Phigg came sprinting from the back door in his normal clothes, wiping lipstick from his mouth with a tissue as he ran. “We’re on a tight schedule now,” he said, as he turned his silver key in an outhouse door.
The children followed him through the door and they came out on to a familiar grassy path above the sounding sea. “First stop, Tintagel – and a quick trip back to Joan’s store.”
They scurried down to the little shop set in the hillside, tasting salt on the breeze and hearing the waves crash onto the rocks below them. Joan was waiting at the door, as before, in her black robe and tall hat.
“You found your Spinner, then, I hear.”
“Yes, Joan,” said Mr Phigg. “We found two of them, in fact.”
“You’ve done a good thing, all of you, rescuing her from herself. It is never easy to do that for someone.”
Mr Phigg shrugged and smiled. “We didn’t have much choice, once we’d started. One thing leads to another, doesn’t it?”
“And what leads you back here now?”
“It’s Uncle Bron’s birthday. We need one of his candles and a present, please.”
They followed Joan into the dimly lit shop.
“We get a birthday candle every year in my family,” Mr Phigg explained to the children. “So everyone always has the same number as their age.”
“And this will be Bron’s four hundred and twelfth candle,” said Johanna.
“That’s right,” said Mr Phigg. “You remembered.”
Joan was consulting her old leather order book, chained to the counter: “Here we are: Auberon Quincey Phiggles.Yes – four hundred and twelve. I’ll get it from the stockroom.”
“What’s your full name, Mr Phigg?” Johanna asked as they were waiting. “You’ve never told us.”
“It’s Mr Phigg.”
“Is that all? What’s your first name?”
“Mister. It’s quite a common first name in my family, though not so much for the girls, I suppose. I used to have more names when I was small, but we tend to lose them as we grow older.”
Johanna and Harry exchanged sceptical glances, as they generally did when Mr Phigg launched into an unlikely story.
“In my family names are like moon rockets: you need some extra bulk and push to get you off the ground; then some bits fall away when they’ve served their purpose and you’re safely aloft; still more drop off as you head out towards the stars.”
“Um…” Harry began. But Mr Phigg pressed on.
“So, when I was a little baby I was known as Dear Little Mr Phiggles, but the Dear went fairly quickly. I started nursery as Little Mr Phiggles and then Little was the next thing to go. I remember the morning of my thirteenth birthday very clearly: my father gave me a new pencil and two pineapples and said ‘Well, Mr Phigg – it’s time now to put away some childish things.’ ”
At that point he had to pause for breath and Johanna took her chance.
“Was he called Mr Phigg too?”
“At one time, certainly. But by then most people knew him as Phi.”
“I hope I’m not interrupting anything,” said Joan, coming back into the shop with a long yellow candle in her hand.
“No. Not at all. You’re just in time,” said Mr Phigg quickly. “We’d finished that conversation.” He took a bottle from a shelf and put in on the counter. “Quite finished. And a bottle of this Pisky Whisky, too, please. Could you put a ribbon round it?”
Joan put the candle and the whisky in a bag and handed them to Mr Phigg. As they turned to go, Harry suddenly stopped and said, “Wait a minute”. He put his hand in his pocket and produced the Cornish Past-Ease. “I never got to give these to our friend. And now she doesn’t seem to need them. You should take them back, Joan, for someone who really does.”
“That’s a kind thought,” she said. “Thank you.” She put the glasses on a shelf behind the counter.
“Can I ask one thing in return?” said Johanna. “When we here before, you said there were stories that one of the Tale-Spinners had a daughter with a human father – but you wouldn’t say any more…”
“And you’ve been wondering why?”
“It was my mother who told me the story, many, many years ago, when I was smaller than you. And it was a story that was very close to her heart.”
“You mean she–”
“Yes, I do. She was. And that’s all I’m going to say, my dear. Give my love to Bron, now, won’t you? Goodbye.”
She turned back into her stockroom and Mr Phigg and the children went outside.
“Goodness,” said Johanna. “Imagine.”
“Yes,” said Mr Phigg. “That explains quite a lot – about Joan and about what happened to the Tale-Spinners. With some of their genes in the human line, maybe that’s how people got so much better at telling their own stories – especially Cornish people. But we can think about all that another time. Come on, now – or we’ll be late.”
He lurched off to the side of the path into what Johanna had thought was an impenetrable gorse hedge; but, no – a narrow winding path opened up in front of them and the gorse closed back around them as they followed it.
They carried on walking for several minutes and the children noticed that the sounds of the sea had faded away. Instead, they could hear faint voices singing something indistinct, but with a naggingly familiar tune…
All at once the path opened out into a clearing and they had reached Bron’s thatched cottage, in its garden full of flowers.
“About time,” said Finlay, trotting around the corner of the house. “We nearly started without you.”
He led them to the open back door. Johanna realised that the singing they had heard was coming from inside. And that the song was Happy Birthday.
On the kitchen table was the most enormous chocolate birthday cake. It needed to be enormous to accommodate the hundreds of burning candles which were set into its thick icing. The singing was coming from the candles – but there was something not quite right and incomplete about it, the harmonies not resolving as you would want them to, as if every chord had the ghost of a seventh note hovering above it.
“Have you got it?” asked Finlay. “Number four hundred and twelve?”
“Yes,” said Mr Phigg and unwrapped the candle he had brought. He touched its wick to one which was already burning and, just as the flame caught and he stuck the candle into the cake, so the structure of the music came properly and sharply into place. It was right.
Finlay smiled with relief. “Thank goodness for that. Isn’t it lovely?
“Let’s take it through.”
Finlay and Mr Phigg lifted the huge cake on its silver tray and motioned to the children to open the door at the opposite end of the kitchen. As they all went through into the cosy living room, Johanna spotted half a dozen small and hairy people who were very obviously relatives of Mr Phigg. Then there was the Chief and the rest of the beaver clan; Bartram with Simon and Mabel from the Shadowflock; Lawrence and Dr Solomon; and, leaning on the mantelpiece, swapping stories with Uncle Bron, the thin figure of Brother Periwinkle, back in his familiar monk’s habit.
They put the cake on a table in the middle of the room and, drawing the deepest breath you can imagine, Bron blew them all out at once. As the applause finally died down, Mr Phigg took a glass of champagne from a tray on the sideboard.
“Bit full in here, isn’t it, uncle dear?” he said with a smile. “There’s hardly room to raise a glass.”
“Quite right, you young fool!” Bron replied forcefully. “That’s how it should be on a birthday. We all go through our lives making connections, weaving our different webs. And this is the time for an old fool like me to sit at the centre of my web, with my friends and relations and memories… and think how lucky I am.”
“I’ll drink to that,” said Mr Phigg.
“I think we all will,” said Johanna.
And they did.