Nobody seemed to know where the dreadful things came from. Some people said one thing, some said another.
But experts mostly agree as to the day when the evil invasion of the British Isles first began.
It was on a wretched rainy Sunday in the month of September. Recently the winters had all been bitterly cold and snowy, while the summers were shorter and windier and wetter. On this September Sunday people were coming home from their holidays, flying in from Sardinia and Spain and Sicily. For most of them, wherever they had been, the weather was so nasty that they hardly felt they had been away.
Tired, disgruntled passengers disembarked from their planes at the big airport outside Manchester. They scurried through streaming rain to the airport building, then filed slowly through Passport Control, and began waiting in the baggage claim hall for their luggage to arrive. Soon they hoped to see it come sliding up a moving ramp, tip over the top, and come slithering down on to a travelling circular platform. All the passengers squeezed as close to this platform as possible, hoping to be the first to grab their own bags and hurry off to customs.
But a whole lot of time passed by. People waited and waited. They grumbled more and more loudly as they gazed at the luggage belt, which kept sliding by with nothing on it.
“Only twenty metres walk from our plane,” said one woman. “A one-legged rheumatic snail with athlete’s foot could have fetched the luggage faster than those handlers are doing it.”
“Snails don’t have rheumatism,” snarled her husband. “And I told you, Brenda, only to bring carry-on luggage for a weekend in Brittany.”
“It wasn’t a weekend, it was five days.”
“I can see something coming,” said a small pigtailed girl who was with her aunt. She had red hair and looked thin and sad. Oddly enough, from where she stood it wouldn’t have been possible to see anything coming up the ramp. But she turned rather pale and her mouth opened in a silent gasp of fright. And then, in a moment, something did come rolling over the summit of the ramp and toppled down the other side.
“That’s not proper luggage,” said the woman called Brenda.
It certainly wasn’t. It was an enormously large, lumpy, shapeless sack, tied at the neck with thick rope. It seemed to have some object inside about the size of a sofa but not at all the shape of a sofa; this thing, whatever it was, must have had as many corners, dimples, bulges, dents, points, swellings, creases and gibbosities as a seven-ended pineapple. The sack which contained it was uncommonly thick and stout, rather grimy, as if it had travelled half across the world, covered with tags and labels and scribbles, and coloured in wide stripes of orange and purple.
Almost at once it was followed by another sack of a similar kind and quite as large, but a different shape; this one was long, about the length of two beds put end to end, but lumpy, with a fitted bit of the sack covering a kind of prong that stuck up at one end.
“Maybe there’s a camel inside it lying down,” guessed the pigtailed girl.
“Don’t be silly, Sauna,” snapped her aunt. “People don’t send camels in parcels. Oh my stars, I wish our luggage would come. I want to get home. I want my tea.”
Everybody wanted to get home and have their tea. Still the luggage did not come. Instead, more and more and more of the large mysterious sacks came trundling up the ramp and tumbling out on to the moving circular beltway, until the whole circle was covered with them, gliding along, one after the other, like a lot of purple and orange ghosts.
“What the dickens can they be?” people were saying. “Who do they belong to?” “Why doesn’t somebody claim them?” “It’s not right! There’s no room for our luggage with all those things out there.”
“Maybe they are musical instruments,” said the woman called Brenda. “Maybe they belong to one of those pop groups.”
“Oh, sure!” snarled her husband, whose name was Ron Glomax. “And what stage in the whole world do you think is big enough to hold all those outsize objects? And what do you think they are? Superpianos? Alphorns?” “Matterhorns, more like,” somebody said. “Anyway if they are instruments, where’s the group they belong to?”
“P’raps they come from Mars and are stuck at immigration.”
“I’m going to complain,” said Ron Glomax.
The moving belt was now completely packed with the big shapeless bags, wedged tight as dominoes in a box and all shiny with wet.
“One of them moved!” cried the pigtailed girl.
“Nonsense!” said the aunt. “Stop fidgeting around, Sauna. You stay close by me and behave yourself.”
At the end of its track the moving belt travelled through a hole in the wall beyond which was the outside area where the handlers stacked the baggage. This hole was screened by a curtain of swinging leather straps. Beside it was a door marked no exit for passengers. Ron Glomax opened this door and put his head out. But the rain outside was coming down in blinding sheets, so he pulled his head back in again, grumbling that it was all quite disgraceful.
But now, strangely, the number of sacks began to decrease. Gaps appeared between them. Then the gaps became wider. Nobody was seen to take a bag off the belt, yet there were fewer and fewer, until at last there were hardly any at all.
“They go out under the curtain, and they don’t come in again,” said the girl called Sauna. Then she gave a whimper of horror, her eyes grew enormous and she cried, “Oh, I can see something huge—”
“Quiet, will you, for goodness' sake,” said her aunt. “Thank heavens, there comes our blue case at last. You hold my handbag while I reach for it—”
But Sauna stood trembling uncontrollably for several minutes before she was able to obey her aunt’s order.
People were so happy to find their luggage that they soon forgot about the big lumpy bags; nobody wasted any more time wondering who had sent them or who picked them up, or where they had gone to on that streaming wet Sunday in late September.
* * *
A couple of months went by before the first of the Cockatrices—for that was what they came to be called—made its appearance.
On a dark freezing December evening a truck driver called Sam Dwindle burst into his foreman’s office looking very upset. He was white and sweating, and he shivered badly despite the thick jacket he wore.
“Yeah, yeah, I just know what you're going to say,” he told the boss. “But listen to this: an hour ago when I was coming up the A3 from Portsmouth, on that new bit of bypass, I see this Thing, with big three-cornered flaps along its back and a tail the length of a tennis court and round ears that swivelled about like radar shields, and it was running along beside the motorway on its four fat legs. Running as fast as I was driving! And I was doing seventy—”
“Then you didn’t ought to of been,” said his boss, “not with a load of wineglasses. I suppose you’d put in a couple of hours at the George in Milford?”
“No, I hadn’t, then,” said the driver, injured. “I knew you wouldn’t believe me. And if you don’t, I’m sure I don’t care. But I’m telling you, if that Thing had taken a fancy to cross the A3, instead of going off Dorking way, your truck would have been as flat as a Brillo pad and me with it.
“It had a tassel on its tail,” he added. “And flaps there too.”
“And a bow of pink ribbon on its head, I suppose,” said his boss.
“OK, OK! You can give me my cards. If there’s going to be things like that around, I’m going back to window-cleaning.”
* * *
The next of the Cockatrices was sighted by a school botany class, who were out on the moor near the town of Appleby-under-Scar, two hundred miles to the north of the first occurrence. They were hunting for rabbit and deer tracks in the snow.
Two boys, Fred and Colin, had run on ahead of the rest, but they came racing back to the main group as fast as their legs would carry them.
“Miss! Come and see! There’s a dinosaur in Hawes Dell.”
“Now what moonshine have you got in your heads?” remarked the teacher, Miss Frobisher. But the whole class hurried up to the lip of the dell and looked down into it.
“Gracious me! Somebody must be making a film,” said Miss Frobisher. “But that’s not an ordinary dinosaur, Colin. It’s a, it’s, um, Tyrannosaurus Rex. You can tell that from its teeth and claws. The claws are at least eight inches long, and the teeth—”
“Will it bite us?” nervously asked a girl called Lily.
“No, dear. It’s only a model, a very clever one indeed. I wonder where the cameramen are, and the film technicians. Dear me, what a lot it must have cost to make a model that size.”
“It’s coming this way,” said Fred.
“Coo, it doesn’t half stink,” said Colin. “Like a whole truckload of rotting seaweed. Are you sure it’s only a model, Miss?”
“Now, Colin! Use your intelligence! You know there aren’t dinosaurs about any more. They lived millions of years ago.”
“Look at its tracks in the snow,” said Lily. “Aren’t they huge? Listen to it pant. Miss, I’m scared. I want to go home.”
“Don’t be a baby, Lily,” said the teacher. “Just when you’ve got a chance to study this very clever model, which must be radio-controlled. Now you can see what it would have been like to live millions of years ago—”
Those were her last words.
The newspapers carried the story of the mysterious disappearance of Miss Frobisher and her class. “Their tracks were traced as far as the top of Hawes Dell,” reported Appleby Herald, “but heavy snow falling soon after prevented the police from discovering where they had gone after that. A local farmer, James Robson, claims to have seen what he described as a ‘mammoth footprint’ in the snow, but there has been no confirmation of his suggestion that some large beast was responsible for the strange fatality. Mr. Adrian Mardle, Chief Constable of West Humberland, is in charge of the case.”
* * *
The next sighting was by an old lady, Mrs. Ada Backit, who lived in a high-rise apartment block in Glasgow, two hundred miles north-east of Appleby.
“Eh, Hannah,” she said to her daughter, who had come in to cook her supper, “there’s a face at the window looking!”
“Och, come on, Ma, be your age,” said Hannah, from the kitchenette where she was cooking fish fingers. “How can there be a face at the window when we’re thirty floors up? Unless it’s an angel wanting to watch Neighbours?”
“There’s a face,” repeated the old lady obstinately. “I can see its two big sad eyes the size o’ porridge plates. I’m going to—”
Then there was silence. Hannah, walking in next minute with the dish of fish fingers, found nobody in the room.
“It was quite a shock to me,” she reported that evening on local television, “because there is no other way out of the room. So where could Mum have gone? The window was shut and locked, and the flat is thirty storeys up.”
QUEER DISAPPEARANCE OF GREAT-GRANDMOTHER, the newspapers called it.
* * *
Then there was the business of the Christmas tree at Chid-dinglea.
The residents had, as usual, erected a twenty-metre tree in the middle of the village green and decorated it with lights, tinsel, and coloured fruit. On Christmas Eve a party was always held on the green organized by the chairman of the Tree Committee, Colonel Clandon. Carols were sung, the lights were lit, and the whole village danced hand-in-hand round the tree.
“Hey!” called the boy named Michael, pausing to stare up at the star-filled sky. “Hey, look! There’s something up there!”
Three or four people heard him and gazed up likewise. They saw that the stars were being blotted out by what seemed like a huge inky cloud. From this cloud something hung down which swept in circles with a faint whistling sound. And, from the very centre of the blackness, two great pale luminous eyes glared down at the revellers. Suddenly, with a loud sucking snap, the Christmas tree was uprooted from its fastenings; it flew upwards like a pin raised by a magnet.
Gasps and yells of indignation and fright rose among the dancers.
“Hey! What’s going on?” “Put back our tree!” “What kind of joke is this?”
“If it’s that aerial club from Wormfleet with their helicopter—”began Colonel Clandon, but he said no more.
The carol singers at Chiddinglea, like the schoolchildren of Appleby, vanished for ever, sucked upwards into the dark like spilt sugar into a vacuum cleaner.
* * *
Very soon the population of the British Isles had become noticeably smaller.
Cars stood around without drivers. Houses appeared to be empty. Bus queues were very much shorter. Babies’ prams had no occupants. High streets of towns were empty and silent at midday.
In five years, half the country had become a desert. Buildings had fallen, or been knocked flat. The whole of London had gone underground. People didn’t dare venture out in daylight any more. Shops were hidden in cellars. Parliament sat in a dungeon under the Tower of London. Schools were held in crypts. Even the Royal Family lived in the basement, which was all that remained of Buckingham Palace.
“Things can’t go on like this much longer, Harold,” said Lord Ealing, the Prime Minister, to General Grugg-Pennington, the Minister of Defence.
“No, they won’t,” agreed the defence minister. “Soon there won’t be anybody left at all.”
The two men were sitting on deckchairs on the Piccadilly Line, westbound, in Leicester Square tube station. Nobody else was there.
wonder where the monsters all come from in the first place?” mused Lord Ealing. “None of our scientists seem to agree about that. Do you suppose they can all have grown up from some nasty bacillus? Or mutated…?”
“Oh, who cares where they came from? The point is that very soon they will have the whole country to themselves. The Snarks are the worst,” said General Grugg-Pennington with a shiver.
“How can you tell? You’ve never seen a Snark.”
“Of course I haven’t! Everybody knows that if you see a Snark you vanish.”
“I’d rather vanish than be munched up by a Flying Hammerhead.”
“Remember that football match between Ipswich and Nottingham Forest?”
“Hammerhead got the goalie just as he was going to make a beautiful save,” sighed the prime minister. “That was the last match played above ground.”
The two men sat in silence for a while. Then Lord Ealing said, “Harold, I want you to set up a Cockatrice Corps.”
People had fallen into the habit of calling all the creatures Cockatrices. There were too many kinds to remember their individual names: Kelpies, Telepods, Bycorns and Gorgons, Footmonsters, Brontotheres, Shovel-tuskers, Glyptodonts, Bonnacons, Cocodrills, Peridexions, Basilisks, Manticores, Hydras, Trolls, Sphynxes, and Chichivaches. And, worst of all, the deadly Mirkindole.
The country was completed infested with monsters. They had grown and multiplied, interbred and increased as fast as tadpoles in a pond.
So far as could be ascertained, the British Isles seemed to be the only territory at present affected by this disaster. Strict quarantine regulations, hastily put into effect, had up to now protected European, African, transatlantic countries, and the Antipodes.
Various attempts to end the siege of the infested islands by means of long-range missiles had proved wholly ineffective. The missiles simply melted before arriving at their targets.
The situation seemed hopeless.
“A Cockatrice Corps?” repeated the defence minister doubtfully. “But what about transport? How would they get about the country?”
“Underground? I do not think that would be feasible.”
“No, we shall construct a special armour-plated train capable of running above ground.”
“But what fuel will it use?”
Stocks of oil, coal, and gas had long ago been exhausted. People had to manage without.
“The train will run on wind power. Or maybe solar energy. Or stellar energy. There’s plenty of that.”
“Better than solar,” said the general. “The monsters raise too much dust by day.”
This was true. Monsters flying in swarms over the dry bare ground raised such thick clouds of dust that the sun was hardly ever seen and, even before fuel had run out, aircraft had to stop flying; the dust got into their compressor blades and the engines caught fire.
“And wind power,” said Lord Ealing. “There’s plenty of that. Or diesel bricks.”
“Hmn, a wind-powered, armour-plated train. That might be a possibility…”
“All the old tracks are still there, so far as we know,” pointed out Lord Ealing. …Gregory Clipspeak would be a good man to put in charge of the corps. But it would be a most dangerous mission. We’d have to call for volunteers.”
“You’d get plenty. People are fed up with living underground.”
“Very well,” said the defence minister. “I’ll set up an operations room at once.”
And that was how the Cockatrice Corps came into being.
* * *
While the engine of the Cockatrice Belle was being lovingly assembled by skilled volunteers in London, the food shortage in some northern towns was becoming more and more severe.
“It’s not a case of tightening belts,” said the Provost of Manchester. “It’s got down to eating them.”
One November day the Hempfields District Emergency Warden took a look at his afternoon’s agenda, and saw that he was due to pay a call on a Mrs. Florence Monsoon at number fifteen, Brylcreme Court. This was a melancholy, rundown council block, and number fifteen was on the fifth floor, up five flights of battered concrete stairs. Dashed over the staircase walls were various dramatic portrayals of monsters executed in spray paint, but these had been done several years before, when the monsters were still a novelty; now the pictures had faded, as had the enthusiasm for doing them, and the supply of spray paint had long since run out, and the artists had, many of them, been swallowed by the monsters so the walls beyond the third and fourth storeys were mostly undecorated. And there were no pictures at all on the corridor walls leading to Mrs. Monsoon’s front door. But an inscription very low down (as if it had been done by a dwarf or a fouryear-old child) read: “Mrs. F——Monsoon is an old witch.”
The warden, whose name was Mr. Mossready, shook his head at this as he lifted the metal knocker on the door and gave it a couple of sharp raps. (Electric bells in Manchester had long since ceased to function.)
After his knock there followed a long suspicious silence inside the flat, though Mr. Mossready felt fairly certain that he could hear someone moving around inside, and a woman talking in a low voice.
He rapped again.
By and by, he became aware that he was being observed through the tiny glass spy-hole by a hostile pale-grey eye.
“ ’Oo’s that?” snapped a voice.
“How do I know you’re what you say? There’s all sorts about these days.”
For answer he held his warden’s badge up to the spy-hole and, after another extended unfriendly pause, the door was very slowly drawn open. Inside stood a thin scraggy woman with a long pale face, grey hair done in a bun on top, and a grey apron, which had once been white, tied over a lot of cardigans worn in layers, like onion skins.
“Mrs. Florence Monsoon?”
“ ‘Oo else’d be living here?” she demanded.
“Who else is living here? That’s what I want to know. You applied for an extra ration of carrots for your niece Sauna Blow. Where did she come from? There was no niece mentioned before, when the ration cards for meat and bread were issued.”
“She don’t eat no meat nor bread. Only carrots.”
“That’s her business, ain’t it? Oh well, s’pose you best come in, don’t need to have the whole building sticking their noses into my affairs,” grumbled the woman, giving a sharp glance up and down the empty corridor, as if elephants’ ears extended, quivering, from every closed door.
The warden followed her through a lobby about the size of a chair seat into a very small living room. In the middle of the room was a card-table covered with a hairy brown cloth, and on top of that one of yellowed lace; round the table were crammed four chairs with red velour seats; the walls were covered by display shelves, and in each corner but one there were triangular chiffonieres; the fourth corner held a dead television set, and the rest of the space was taken up by small coffee-tables with spindly legs. On all of these stood a multitude of tiny china mugs and jugs, each with an inscription from some seaside resort: “A Present from Margate,” “A Present from Blackpool,” “A Present from Ryde.” There must have been thousands of them. It seemed that Mrs. Monsoon had been busy dusting them, for she held a piece of rag, which she now tucked into her waistband in a martyred manner. A brown-tile fireplace held a paper fan in a jam jar, and a small potted palm stood on the window-sill, blocking off any light.
Dusting all those little things must take a tremendously long time, thought Mr. Mossready, tired at the very thought. All day, most likely every day.
“Well?” snapped Mrs. Monsoon. “What nosy-parkering set of Paul Prys sent you along here?”
“Food Rationing and Public Security.”
“Public Security, huh! Not much of that these days.”
Mr. Mossready displayed his badge again, and drew out a long form like a scroll, which he had wrapped round a dead ballpoint pen.
But while he did so his eyes were fixed in fascinated disapproval on the girl who sat motionless at the opposite side of the card-table, with her back to the window.
The reason she couldn’t move was that her hands were tied tightly with strips of rag to the back of her chair, one on each side.
Her cheeks were extremely pale. Her red hair was done neatly in two plaits. She gave Mr. Mossready a weary glance, but said nothing. She did sniff a little, though, as if she would have liked to blow her nose. The warden wondered if she had been crying, or if she had a cold.
“Are you Sauna Aslauga Blow?” he asked, consulting his form. “Daughter of Ted and Emily Blow of Newcastle-upon-Tyne?”
“Your parents are dead, and Mrs. Florence Monsoon is your guardian?”
“Yes, sir,” she said again sadly. “That’s right.”
“What relation is she to you?”
“Father’s cousin,” put in Mrs. Monsoon.
“Why, might I ask, do you keep the child tied up?”
At this the girl’s eyes flew nervously to the woman.
“Well! What a question!” said Mrs. Monsoon acidly. “I should have thought any fool could see the reason for that. The child’s so active and restless, the very first day she was here she smashed eleven of my precious souvenirs. Naturally I wasn’t having any more of that; so, since then, except at mealtimes—which she takes in the kitchen—she has to have her hands tied.”
Mr. Mossready glanced at the kitchen, which he could see from where he stood. (He had not been invited to sit down. In fact there would scarcely have been room.) The kitchen was the same size as the front hall, with sink, stove, and cupboard arranged round the sides of a standing space.
“Mrs. Monsoon, how long has the child been living with you?”
“Five years. Ever since her mum and dad was killed in an air crash in Spain. Just before the Troubles, that was.”
Sauna was heard to sniff again.
“Why does she not eat meat and bread? (If available.) Is she on a special diet? A vegetarian?”
“Meat an’ bread’d make her too active, wouldn’t they?” demanded Mrs. Monsoon. “There’d be no holding her, once she’d gobbled a lot of stuff like that. So that’s why I put in for extra carrots.”
“Do you like carrots?” the warden asked Sauna. She nodded, resignedly.
“Oh, very well. In the circumstances I am prepared to allow the application.” He made a tick on his form. “Does the child ever get out?”
“I don’t see as that’s any of your business,” said Mrs. Monsoon coldly. “But, yes, she does, when there ain’t too many Snarks about.”
“And how long do you expect to have her residing with you? Does she have any other friends’ relatives’people to care for her? If something should happen to you?” the warden said delicately.
Mr. Mossready was not one for rushing in where angels fear to tread. But he did feel this arrangement was highly unsatisfactory.
The child looked so very pale and glum.
When he said “other friends” something slightly odd appeared to happen to Mrs. Florence Monsoon.
The pupils of her pale-grey eyes dilated and began to shine, as if they were made from small blobs of mercury.
She stared at the warden for a few minutes, without answering.
He looked into her eyes, lulled into a kind of waking trance by the bright points of light in their pupils. It seemed
to him that he could hear a shrill, tiny voice, like that of a gnat or mosquito, which whined plaintively somewhere up above him near the curtain rail:
“ don’t like it here” How much longer do I have to stay in this airless ugliness? When can I rejoin my friends? Abiron, Asmodeus, Belial, Chamoth—when can we play together again? In air? In air and darkness? I was not told that I would have to hover here in a trap-in a trap, in a trap, in a horrible trap—”
The voice ended in a batlike squeak.
“I beg your pardon? What did you say?”
Mr. Mossready was exceedingly startled, and more than a little scared. The child had not spoken, he’d be prepared to swear; her lips were pressed tightly together, and she had been looking down at the yellow lace cover on the brown hairy tablecloth.
But the voice had not seemed to come from the woman either; could he possibly have imagined it? A voice up there above his head? Near the dead electric light bulb in its fringed lampshade?
Mrs. Monsoon was still gazing at the warden in a strange sightless manner, her eyes like two silver nail-heads fastening something down in her blank face.
Now the girl spoke.
“It’s just Aunt Floss’s hearing-aid, sir; it does go like that sometimes. So does the kettle. It’s—it’s just the airwaves round here. Aunt doesn’t hear ordinary sounds so well when it’s like that. But—but, I don’t mind it so much here, you see, I’m waiting—I’m hoping—”
“Hoping for what, child?”
“Hoping for my cousin Dakin to come along,” explained the girl. “He’s way off still, but I’m pretty sure he will come, by and by—” She was talking very fast and softly, with a wary eye on her aunt.
Mrs. Monsoon suddenly gave her head a quick, angry shake.
“Cousin? Whatever are you talking about, you silly girl?” she snapped. “Hoping for your cousin Dakin, indeed! I’d like to know what use he’d be! He’s only a bit of a lad, somewhere down there in London, probably et up long ago by a Terra-pod. Don’t take notice of the child, Mr. Mossy, she talks a right lot of nonsense at times. Gets silly notions in her head. It’s all I can do to keep my patience with her.”
The woman’s eyes were normal again now, her pupils dark, the same as anybody else’s might be. And the bat-like squeaking voice—from a radio speaker, could it have been, except who had a radio these days?—was silent.
Quickly, uneasily, Mr. Mossready rolled up the public health form again, nodded at the two inmates of the flat and stepped back towards the entrance door.
“…When can my friends come and play?” whined the tiny voice.
Hurriedly—not far from panic—Mr. Mossready stepped out of the front door and slammed it behind him. Standing in the passage, he thought he heard Mrs. Monsoon’s angry exclamation, “Hush! Not yet! I've told you over and over!” There’s something downright peculiar, not at all what it should be, about the set-up in that place, ruminated Mr. Mossready, making for the staircase. But what can do? Nothing’s as it should be, these days. I’m sorry for that poor child, though.
As he reached the stairhead, a fat woman was struggling slowly up. He could hear her puffing and wheezing while she climbed the last flight, so he waited politely on the top step.
“You just been visiting Mrs. Monsoon?” asked the woman as she came level with the warden and paused to get her breath. “She’s at home then, is she?”
“Yes, she is,” said the warden, hoping to get a little more information about that forlorn child. “Er-are you a friend of Mrs. Monsoon?”
“Ow, no, no, Mister—not to say a friend,” declared the fat woman hastily. “More of an acquaintance, like. A neighbour. She gives readings, you know, Mrs. M does-cards, dreams, tea-leaves. She’s from
up north, in Scotland, see, where the nights are so long they can all see in the dark. Clear-seeing, they calls it. Mrs. Monsoon can scry, like.” Then growing nervous, wondering if she had been indiscreet, she added, “Not in a crystal ball, don’t get me wrong, Mister, nothink of that gipsyish sort, no funny business, and never for money—she reads hands, see, gives advice. It’s all ever so ladylike and refined. Nothink nasty, nothink nasty at all, money never changes hands—”
Wouldn’t be much good if it did, reflected the Warden. Money had long since ceased to be of any importance or use.
The woman pushed hurriedly past him, leaving a strong aroma of garlic behind her.
“Does the child help her?” asked Mr. Mossready.
The disapproval in his voice made the fat woman even more nervous.
“No, not to say help, Mister—not to say help. Oh dear me, no, that wouldn’t be legal, would it? But, of course, she’s there, in the room; can’t help that, can she, if she sometimes lets fall a word or two. She gotta speak sometimes, don’t she? Truth to tell, she can see through walls, at times, that kid can. Useful gift, ain’t it? Wouldn’t mind having the knack myself, right handy it’d be when the rent collector comes a-calling for his ten pairs of hand-knitted socks!” She laughed wheezily, then gave Mr. Mossready a cautious glance, trying to guess his reason for being there. “Well, we all got to do the best we can for each other, these awful times, don’t we?” she added vaguely.
She waddled off along the passage towards Mrs. Monsoon’s door. Staring after her uneasily, Mr. Mossready noticed for the first time that she had a dog with her. Or had it been there, lurking outside in the passage, all the time? Or—was it a dog? Something smallish, about the size of an Aberdeen terrier, scuttled along the corridor, keeping close to the angle of the wall.
Maybe I’m coming down with the flu, thought Mr. Mossready, rubbing his brow; they say there’s a real nasty virus going about, affects your hearing, makes you think you hear bird calls and cats mewling, makes you think you see peculiar things that aren’t properly there. For I could have sworn that what I saw scurrying along the passage was not a dog but a face, running on six legs and looking up at me with a nasty grin as it went.
What I need’s a nice cup of hot turnip tea to go with my mint and parsley sandwich.
Reassuring himself Mr. Mossready patted his jacket pocket, and for a second time wiped his brow, which was covered with a shimmer of sweat. I’ll be right glad to get out of Brylcreme Court. The ventilation in this building is very poor, and that’s a fact. Nasty odours about, something like rotten eggs with a dash of hot melted metal in there as well.
So Mr. Mossready was decidedly put out at being waylaid again, down in die lobby, by yet another stranger. You’d think, from its look, that this building was mostly deserted, he thought, rubbish scattered all over the floor, no proper maintenance, peeling paint everywhere, so quiet you could hear an ant hiccup, yet there seem to be a lot of odd bods about.
The man who now intercepted the warden at the foot of the stairs could certainly be described as an odd bod. He was extremely thin and pale, so thin that his face looked like a skull. A cowlick of lank hair hung down over his white bony brow, and two doleful mud-coloured eyes peered about as if they had never seen anything to interest or please them, and never expected to.
The man wore a kind of grey canvas uniform and carried a nasty-looking tool, part spade, part bill-hook, part cleaver.
“Afternoon, sir,” he addressed Mr. Mossready politely enough. “I reckon it’s just about afternoon, n’now, eh? Sun’s climbed as high as it’s going to, would you say?” He gave a sniff at his own flight of fancy.
“Noon to ye,” mumbled Mr. Mossready, wishing the man would step out of the way and let him go by, into the fresh air.
“Now I wonder, sir,” said the man without budging. “I see you are an emergency warden, sir, I see it by your badge—I wonder if by any chance you would have been calling on Mrs. Florence Monsoon?”
“Now why should you think that?” snapped Mr. Mossready, not at all pleased at being interrogated about his professional pursuits by this scruffy stranger.
“It’s just, sir, that, to the best of my knowledge, Mrs. Monsoon is the only resident of this building, these days. Unless, of course, you were inspecting the block so as to condemn it as unfit for human habitation?”
The mud-coloured eyes were fixed searchingly on Mr. Mossready’s face.
“No; that is not my function,” said the warden. “Anyhow, compared with some, this building’s not too bad. Who are you, may I ask?” he added, still wishing the man would move out of his way.
“Tom Flint, sir, dog operative. Under the latest regulations, section Twenty-two-B of clause seventy-nine, Functions of local government officials, fifteen August last year, I am empowered to search out and destroy any unclaimed domestic canines—”
“Oh, is that so, yes, yes, I see—” interrupted Mr. Moss-ready, still trying to get past. “Excellent, very proper, can’t have unclaimed mongrels roaming all over the city—”
“And you tell me that you have recently made a professional call on Mrs. Florence Monsoon, sir, and that you would say she had no resident canine pet in her apartment?”
“I didn’t say that I had called on Mrs. Monsoon,” contended Mr. Mossready peevishly. “But, as it happens, I was in her place—and not greatly impressed by the state of affairs there. I may say—” he went on, more to himself than to the other man, “the child seemed very much in the dumps; don’t care to see a young ’un kept under restraint like that.”
“A child? The occupant of number fifteen has a child residing with her?” inquired Tom Flint. His tone, which had been rather vague, now turned quite sharp.
“What concern is that of yours, pray?” snapped Mr. Mossready, still trying to edge past the dog operative, who had a dank, musty, sweaty odour about him, which combined most unpleasantly with the stuffy atmosphere of Brylcreme Court.
“Why—kiddies and dogs go together—don’t they? You get a kiddy in a flat, nine times out o’ ten you get a puppy too—or a kitten, or a hamster, or one o’ they canary birds. And pets breed, you know, one thing leads to another, before you know where you are, there’s a whole drawerful of white mice, a kennel full of tykes, or half a dozen moggies; something that’s clean against present-day regulations. Now—to save me trouble, sir—would you declare as you had seen nothing of that nature in Mrs. Monsoon’s place?”
“No…oo…” said Mr. Mossready, a little uncertainly.
Tom Flint pounced.
“Ah hah! There was summat dicey? Not quite as it should be? You smelt cats, maybe—or heard birds a-tweeting?”
“No, I didn’t. No, I did not. Nothing like that. But there was a queer voice…”
Mr. Mossready wished more and more that he could get away from this annoying interruption and find a quiet place to eat his parsley sandwich and get a cup of something hot.
“A parrot, maybe?” suggested Tom Flint. “Parrots can do funny tricks with their voices?”
“No. No. Nothing like that,” Mr. Mossready repeated. “Just a voice. The radio, perhaps.”
He scowled at the other man, waiting for him to say that since there was no mains electricity in Manchester, and batteries were not to be had, he could have heard no radio.
“I tell you what I did see,” he suddenly—to his own amazement—found himself volunteering. “I saw a face, running along on legs. Right nasty, it looked.”
“Ah. A face on legs.” Tom Flint greeted this statement without the slightest surprise. “So. Where was that, then?”
“Up yonder.” Mr. Mossready waved to the staircase. “Outside Mrs. Monsoon’s place. Maybe it came with the woman who was calling on her.”
“A face on legs…Did it have a collar?” Flint asked.
“I saw none. Right nasty it was,” Mr. Mossready repeated. “Had a spiteful grin. Made me feel queer.”
Tom Flint surveyed him.
“What you need,” he said in an unexpected tone of friendly sympathy, “is a herbal doughnut and a mug of hot rhubarb wine. And I know just the place to go for that.”
This seemed such an attractive programme that Mr. Mossready felt inclined to ignore his first mistrust of the man who suggested it.
“That does sound champion,” he said. “Would it be far from here, though? I’ve another three calls to make in this area.”
“Nay, not a step. Just round the corner. A gaffer I know has his own stall down by the Ship Canal. I’ll show you, just you come with me. He brews his own rhubarb wine-fresh-picked rhubarb that grows in the ruins of the town hall—I’ve had it many a time, and I can tell you, it’s better than tea!”
“Tea!” sighed Mr. Mossready, following with docility as his companion led the way round the street corner and along a narrow alleyway between piles of rubble, and so down to the towpath where the canal ran greasily between huge ruined buildings.
“There—d’ye see—along there?”
Sure enough, Mr. Mossready did think he saw a makeshift stall, built from old bits of lath and galvanized iron. And behind its ramshackle counter a man was boiling a kettle over what looked like a Bunsen burner. The flame of the burner flickered between the stallholder and his customers; Mr. Mossready could see nothing of him but a vague misty shape.
“Tansy tea or hot rhubarb punch?” he asked in a low creaking voice as they came alongside the counter.
“Tea for me, punch for my mate,” Flint told him.
Two thick china mugs were filled with steaming fluid.
Mossready was preparing to take a sip when Flint stopped him.
“Nay, man, that’s not the way. Inhale a grand sniff of the steam first. That will relax the coats of the stomach. Hold your nozzle right over—that’s the way—and breathe in, hard. Once, twice-three times…”
Tom Flint and the shadowy figure behind the counter watched with calm interest as Mr. Mossready inhaled his third breath and began to stagger uncertainly across the towpath.
“Feels like you can hear the music of the spheres a-whirling round your head, don’t it?” said Tom Flint in a quiet, solicitous tone, and he gave Mr. Mossready a sharp push between the shoulderblades which sent him plunging into the canal.
Just before the waters closed over his head for ever, Mr. Mossready heard Tom Flint ask, in a pleading tone, “Did I do well, Master?”
But what the answer was, if, indeed, one came, the warden did not hear.
Copyright © 1993, 1996 by Joan Aiken Enterprises, Ltd.