The Kings Company
Grandma’s Travel Bag series - Book 2
The King’s Company
So here I am, sitting, looking at this stupid bag and wondering if it’s going to do anything, like open up and be a time travel portal like the last time when I looked in the stupid thing. Do I even want it to? No way! Don’t be a portal again, bag, not ever! Stay just what you are supposed to be: an ugly old travel bag. Look again, Tiffany, just in case. There’s that voice in my head again. Ignore it! But no, I must be such a duff, because, d’you know, I look inside the bag and there’s a little specter of me, deep inside my brain, that’s dancing around, going ‘Yeah? Yeah? Has it changed yet?’ No. It’s dead ordinary. And that’s a good thing, just in case you were wondering. Look, ordinary! Stitching, crumbs, one of Gran’s hair pins, all gooey with something, ugh! Yuk, Gran!
I don’t want you here, you horrible ugly bag. You’re Gran’s bag. Why on earth did she leave you to me? Specifically in her Will, she said: ‘To my beloved Granddaughter, Tiffany Davis, I leave $1,000 and my favorite Travel Bag.’
I got some of her clothes, too. Sounds stupid, doesn’t it, that I wanted some of my Grandmother’s clothes. But she’d bought us matching black silk scarves in Egypt and I wanted hers. She’d given it to me on the same night that I was nearly killed during a terrible storm in the Valley of the Kings. It wasn’t right that anyone else should have it. Now I have them both…
Egypt! The last time I saw this stupid bag, was when I stepped out of it to come back here, into my own time and place. Gran and I had spent a week trapped in Egypt, back in 1922 with Howard Carter just as he discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings. Except that it was me, I discovered it. Tiffany, you tripped over the entrance when you were playing Frisbee with Yussef. That hardly counts as ‘discovered’. Yeah, well, it was still me. You’d have thought there’d be some mention in the history books.
And that was nearly a year ago. The bag’s time-portal hadn’t opened since. Gran had traveled around the world on trips and always taken it, but the only things that went in and came out of the bag were her personal belongings and an ever-growing supply of pills and wrinkle creams. And not one of them had slipped through the time-portal at the bottom. When she reached her destination, every single item had presented itself to be unpacked. Damn! No, not damn! Good!
I pick up the bag, hug it to my chest and let the memories flood back. The last time I’d hugged it, I’d been pushing my way through a crowded bazaar in Luxor and using it as a sort of battering ram. And I’d been invisible. Yeah, try explaining that to anyone. Now it’s like my only link to Gran and I squeeze it as hard as I can as if I was trying to reach her and get her back. But Gran’s dead and the stupid magic bag won’t travel there, only into the past.
“She was only sixty-six. And so full of life! It’s so sad,” everyone said. Gran had been hit by a P-plate driver and had the life knocked out of her as her head cracked against the kerb. Bang! Just like that. Dead.
“I hope you had on clean underwear!” I whisper to her. I can’t help smiling at our shared joke. Apparently my great-grandmother had always said ‘Wear clean underwear – just in case you get run over!’
“You used to annoy me, you orangutan, you. I remember when I couldn’t wait for you to leave. Then when you did, I wanted you to come back!” I’m still sitting on my bed, cuddling her bag and rocking and I can feel my tears soaking into the material. “I wasn’t even nice to you! But when I fell through the bag, you came looking for me. Thanks Gran, I will always remember you.”
“I will always remember…” Those had been the last words Dazur spoke before he dropped me back through the portal into my own time. “I’ll always remember you, too,” I whisper, but then I realize that I haven’t thought of Dazur for months. Now I feel guilty.
Outside, a car accelerates wildly and screams down the street; next door’s dog barks mechanically, hoping to annoy his owners just enough to let him in. Downstairs, the TV is on and I know mum’s watching the news on the ABC and upstairs, alone in my bedroom, I’m hugging my Gran’s bag and remembering Dazur. Dazur of the Desert! No, not really. Dazur of the Dig. Yes, that’s better. Gran had introduced us at the excavation site in Luxor with: ‘Tiffany, I’d like you to meet Dazur’ and, and what? Go on, say it. Did I fall in love? Well, why not? He was the most gorgeous man I’ve ever seen, and with, you know, really great strong arms. He’d lifted me up and carried me, and for weeks after I came back I re-lived every moment, picking it apart in my memory. When I’d left, he was so sad. But he was still the one with the strength to send me back to my own Time. And now he’s dead and probably his children and grandchildren are all dead, because that happened nearly a hundred years ago. But for me, it was just one year ago. One long year of silence. Because I can’t tell anyone, can I? Imagine saying: ‘Oh, did I mention I fell into the past and had a boyfriend? No? Oh, musta slipped my mind…’
“Kissy lips, remember? With that little smile at the corner, like he was thinking something pleasant and was just about to tell me – or maybe not. And he had those lovely deep brown eyes. And he cried when he sent me back!” My own tears are running into the rough material of the bag because I am going to relish every last pain I can wring from this memory. Yes!
‘Finished yet? Oh, boo-hoo, Tiffany! You know you couldn’t have stayed. You’d have hated it in 1920’s Egypt. No proper toilets, remember? No air conditioning. You can’t speak Egyptian. You couldn’t go anywhere on your own. Women died in childbirth. Have I said enough or do you want to keep wallowing? Come on, Tiffany, you had a lucky escape and you know it’. Shuttup! I don’t want to be sensible just right now. Honestly, the way I talk to myself!
Mum’s yelling from downstairs. “Tiffannneeeeeee!” The glass in the windowpanes trembles, but decides not to shatter. “Telephone for yooooooooou.” I run downstairs, taking great gulps and wiping my eyes on my sleeve. Mum’s not fooled but she doesn’t say anything.
“It’s Julie,” she says and hands me the phone.
I take one more big breath. “Hi, Jules. Whatcha doin’?”
“Checking up on you. How about I come over and do your homework for you? You know how rubbish you are.”
I can’t help it, I laugh, which was exactly what she expected. “Thanks Jules, but I’m right up to date. Still, I’ve got to try out for the play; do you want to help me learn my lines?”
“What, Eliza Doolittle? Do you reckon you can do a cockney accent? ‘D’ya wanta buy a leetle flowa, Mista?’”
“That’s an Italian accent! No, I don’t think so, that’s why I need to practice.”
“Right, I’ll be there in half an hour. In the meantime: The Rrrrain - in Spain - falls main-ly on the Pla-ain!”
“I think you’ve got it!” We both laugh and I hang up. “Mum, Jules is coming over. We’re doing lines.”
“You’ve got lines? What are you in trouble for this time?” Mum walks out of the kitchen folding a tea-towel. Sometimes I think it’s grafted to her hand ’cos I hardly ever see her without it. I bet she takes it to bed with her, just so’s she can polish the pillows.
“Doing lines! Learning lines, for the play, Pygmalion, the school play, I’m auditioning for the part. Eliza Doolittle. Remember?”
“Oh, that’s all right then. I thought that – oh, never mind.” She starts to go back to wiping something but says, “Mum used to like acting. She was in the local theater for years. She was its president once. So there you go, it’s in your blood.” She smiles because she’s had a happy memory, but now I’m thinking about Gran again and this was supposed to stop me.
Think about Julie instead. Now she’s a year older and she’s cut her hair she looks even more like Lady Evelyn. Gran said she’d often seen people in the past that looked just like people she knew. She reckoned the Time Travel did it on purpose. But I reckon there are only so many things you can do with a face! Sooner or later, nature has to run out of original ideas so does re-runs. Jules was a dead ringer for Lady Evelyn, it was weird! And she’s not ‘Spotty Jules’ any more. When we got to be friends, I told her to drink buckets of water and drop the fizzy crap and she did and her skin cleared up in weeks, much better than all that cream she used. Well, that cemented me as BFF and as my first BFF, Jaimie, was into her boyfriend more than school or me or anything, there was a sorta vacancy. I know we all want a boyfriend, but five minutes of hearing, “He’s so hot!” followed by a stomach churning description of how he kisses. And conversations that go like: “Jaimes, what do you think about conspiracy theories, government plots and stuff?” “Well Chaz thinks that …” “Yeah, but what do you think?” “I agree with him.” And she always wants to sit with him for lunch these days and they just get lip-locked at every opportunity. I wonder when they come up for air. Yeeech! Girlfriends are important, Jaimes. I sorta miss you.
Fatimah was a sort of a friend. I only knew her for one day, but she was nice and the prettiest little thing I’ve ever seen and she really, really wanted to go to school. She was learning English and she practiced on me. You’re so lucky, she said. I would give anything to be you. I wonder how she turned out. She’s another one that’s been dead for nearly a hundred years.
Much more of this and I’m going to get really depressed. More de-pressed than a wrinkly suit. Ha! Pick up the play, Tiffany. Get on with it. Pygmalion. What a stupid name. Pig-may-lion. If I remember later, I’ll Google it.
Okay, imagine a cat yeowling. Now give it an Aussie accent. That’s what I sound like in the auditions. It’s not good. Okay, I so I don’t get the hiccups like Hillary. And I remember to project! And then Kaylagh asks when are we going to do the songs? And they go: No, that’s My Fair Lady, and we all laugh. Poor Kaylagh! She’s so dumb.
Mrs. Butler says she’ll let us know and thanks us all for coming and we are all wonderful and it is going to be really hard to pick which ones for which parts but nobody should be discouraged because there are only a few parts and a lot of us competing and we all nod and not one of us believes her.
“I’ll be making up a short list and on Monday I’ll call some of you back for a second reading before I allocate the parts. So practice over the weekend, because you might be called on Monday. In the meantime, thank you and have a good weekend.”
I trudge out with my heart flopping round my ankles like a pair of old knickers without elastic. I didn’t even get a hint that I’d got the part! It would have been nice to do this. Maybe I’ll get a lesser role – the housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce, for example. It’s not fair; I’d be an excellent Eliza. But learning the lines is going to be a pain. In her Oscar acceptance speech, Tiffany thanked her drama teacher because she got her first break performing in the school play and was spotted by a talent scout… Yep! I can totally see that happening!
“Hey, Tiffany. Hey!” It’s Tayler. He’s trying out for the role of Freddy Eynsford-Hill and if he gets it and I get Eliza, he’ll be telling me how wonderful I am and how much he loves me. Hmmm. I could live with that.
“Hi, Tayler. Good luck getting the part. I thought you were good.” Well, if that doesn’t put me in his good books… I smile up into his huge blue eyes.
“Back atcha. I thought you ruled. You’ll get that, no worries. S’pose we’d better wait ’til The Butler confirms it on Monday, and then we’ll have to make up a timetable to rehearse together.”
“You sound confident. You reckon you’ve got it?”
Tayler looks round to make sure nobody else’s listening in. “Are you serious? I aced it. Only Jeremy came close and I’ve got him pegged as Pickering. You and me, Romeo and Juliette, Freddy and Eliza, Tayler and Tiffany.” He starts doing that breathy thing into my hair that guys do and they think you like it and I’m wondering: do I like it, or do I want to tell him to push off? I dodge away and look back, smiling. I might as well keep my options open.
“Here, I’ve got something for you.” He holds his hand out in a fist, the way kids do when they go, ‘guess what I’ve got in my hand’. I hold my hand out, palm up. He drops a screwed up thing into my palm. It’s a length of thin black leather that’s been looped into a bracelet. It’s nothing special. “It’s a good luck bracelet. I made it for you.”
I seriously doubt that, but I guess it’s the thought that counts. “Thank you. It’s cute.” I sort of dangle it, wondering what to do.
“Do you want me to tie it on for you?” Suddenly, Tayler looks a bit shy and I like him better for it. I smile.
“Please.” I hold my hand out and he ties it onto my wrist. We smile, like this is some great achievement.
“I’ll see you Monday. I’ll get practicing. Thanks!” I skip off and I’m still smiling. It’s nice to be flirted with. Yep, I can think about that over the weekend.
All the way home, I run over the lines in my head. ‘Buy a flower, mister. Buy a flaher frum a paw gel’. Jeez, did they really, like, say that stuff? Credit!
Omigod, its Saturday! It’s my birthday and I wish it wasn’t. I’m sixteen and I want to stay in bed all day and not get up. In the end, Mum and Dad come in and bounce on the bed, one sitting on each side and both singing ‘Happy Birthday to you…’ and then they pull off the doona and drag me downstairs.
There’s a whopping great card propped up in front of the fruit bowl and Dad sits me down and Mum brings us over a cup of tea that she’d prepared and though I like it hotter, if there’s one thing I learned from Egypt, it’s be grateful for what you get and don’t complain. Well, not so much, anyway.
The card is huge, which is Mum’s style. And, of course, the little poem isn’t enough. She’s written all down the inside page about how proud of me they are, and how great I am, and how they hope and wish that this year will be the next in a great many years of great years to come. I’m surprised she managed to fit it all on one page! By the time I’ve read it, my tea’s even colder but when I look at her, I see the woman who just lost her own mum and I get all choked up. So we just cuddle and my tea forms a skin on the top and I don’t care.
Dad comes over and joins in. That’s nice but kinda weird. I suddenly realize they haven’t given me a present and I can’t help it, I want my present! “What; no present this year? Did we go broke and nobody told me?”
They’ve got this secret smile and dad goes: “We’re taking you out to dinner tonight. It’s special.” Then they both shut up and leave me on the sofa to think about it. Hmmm. Going out to dinner and it’s special. So, not TGI Friday’s, then. Not La Porchetta. What’s so special about going out for a meal? Huh! Parents!
“Great. Should I dress up or is it at Macca’s?”
“Dress up. It could be McDonald’s. You used to like Macca’s. You used to have parties in their play-room and you loved the climbing frame so much, we could hardly get you to eat your food. You might like to revisit the past,” Mum teases and fortunately I’m looking the other way or she’d see the look that I can’t keep off my face.
“Sounds great. I’ll see if I can still fit into my fairy dress with the wings.” I run upstairs before my face takes over and I flop back on my bed. Just last year, I’d had a birthday party and Gran was here and she was an absolute embarrassment. Fairy bread! Omigod! Tiffany, don’t say that, it isn’t nice.
I’ve just remembered something: I’ve still got my old Mary Poppins hat, the one I found in Egypt. I’ve thought of a use for it. I bet I can find it. I hid it at the back of the wardrobe. I’m pulling stuff out when Mum bangs on the door.
“Don’t go back to bed!” she yells and opens the door.
“I’m looking for something to wear and I thought I might clear out the wardrobe at the same time.” I sit on the bed and smile my most innocent smile.
Mum looks at my clothes strewn over the carpet and she gives that tiny shake of the head and small tightening of the lips that all mothers have perfected for when they’d really like to rant but they’re holding it in for now and god help everyone if that rant actually gets out. I wonder if I’ll be able to automatically do that when I’m a mum. Oh look, she’s smiling. It must be my birthday!
“Dad and I are going shopping. Do you want anything?”
I nearly say, a real birthday present, but I just go: “Nope. I’m fine. Maybe some deodorant, but that’s it.” Yep, I’m good! I reckon I’ll have that mouth thing perfected in a few years.
“No worries; see you in a couple of hours then. Let me know if you go out and don’t forget to lock up. Will you be okay?” I wonder how she can start a sentence with ‘No Worries’ and then list three?
“Fiiiiiiine. I’ve said it before: I promise not to set fire to the place!” She closes the door and I hear her clonking down the stairs. There’s the garage door opening. There’s the car door. Car starting, backing out, door closing, car reversing, pausing, driving off. Silence. Nothing here but me and my breathing. Quiet as the tomb and I should know.
I’m sitting on the Mary Poppins hat that I found in Egypt. It’s so battered-looking already, it doesn’t even look crumpled as I pull it out from where I hid it (under my bum!) when Mum walked in. What was someone thinking when they made that? Okay, imagine a nice piece of black velvet that someone really hated and fashioned into a mess of crinkles to sit on a head. And sadly, I was wearing it when we came back from Egypt. Couldn’t be wearing my lovely aqua blouse, could I? Nooo. Stupid hat, yes. Lovely silk blouse, no!
I try the hat on and pull faces at myself in the mirror. Eliza Doolittle wore a hat. I wonder if this thing will do. Do I dare wear it at the audition and risk showing myself to everybody? Hmmm, I’ve got the black silk scarf, too.
Suddenly I get all enthused and I pull on my black Goth dress, the scarf and the hat. I twist my hair into a bun and I pose in front of the mirror: “So cheer up, Keptain and buy a flawer orf a paw gel.” “Aaaah, Oooooh!” “Youse orta be stuffed wiv nails, youse orta!” Yep, I could do Eliza Doolittle. I’ve got boots in here, somewhere.
I start scrabbling around the bottom of the wardrobe and, of course, there’s The Bag, where I jammed it out of sight yesterday. I don’t even look at it this time; I just chuck it onto the growing pile of stuff behind me. I’m amazed that my wardrobe holds this much. Is the door to Narnia at the back? If it is, please stay closed. Gottem! I hold up my black lace-up boots that are in serious need of cleaning. Not only do they have a year’s worth of dust on them but, under that, the sands from the Valley of the Kings. Normally, I’d do this little weepy thing, but right now I’m channeling Eliza Doolittle and I’m in ‘The Zone’ as I lace up my boots. Oh Yes! If I can wear this little number on Monday at rehearsals, I’m gonna blow ’em away! I twirl a few more times and pose, hands on hips.
“I ain’t dirty! I washt moy ’ands an’ face befow I come ’ere, I did!” I think I’ve got it! I stand in front of the mirror and nod at myself in approval. My black Goth dress, teamed with the black scarf, the boots and all topped off with the Mary Poppins; I really do look the part. Yes, I’ll take this outfit to school with me on Monday and get changed into it before the auditions because the clothes maketh the character! Hah!
I grab Gran’s bag to put everything in but when I open it up, it’s not empty anymore. I can see something! There’s a large key on a length of black ribbon and the bottom of the bag is glowing.
Oh no! Not again. Yes, again!
Oh no, no, no, no, no! Oh Yes! You could go back and see Dazur! No! Yes! Remember his smiley eyes…? No! Remember the lack of air conditioning? No real toilets? You had that conversation with yourself just yesterday. ‘Lucky escape’, remember? Yes, but, you don’t have to stay for long. Just take a quick look; just to see if he’s alright. No! And No is the answer!
I go into a sulk but I’m not going to change my mind, not for me or anybody.
I take one last look and shut the bag with a very loud click. There! Gran had told me that when you shut the bag, it closes off the portal.
Okay, now I’m dithering. Okay. Dither… Do something, Tiffany! There’s a pile of clothes on the floor behind me and I’m automatically picking them up and folding or hanging them and putting them back in the wardrobe, but my mind isn’t paying any attention. Suddenly, everything’s put away and I glance around the room; it’s tidy, I haven’t missed a thing. I should go mad more often! I look at the bag. There’s a specter of me picking at the lock of the bag and trying to get it undone with ghostly fingers. A little voice croons: ‘My precious!’
“Oh Tiffany, you are one sick puppy! Bag – you are going! I’m going to take off this costume and carry it to school in a plastic bag before I let you anywhere near it.” I grab Gran’s bag and I’m going to throw it away for sure – but it flips open in my hands. Oh, the portal’s still open and the key’s still there. I wonder what it’s for. It’s huge. I’ve never seen a key that big. It looks like a jailor’s key, but on a ribbon not, a chain. I reach in carefully and using just my little finger, I hook it out by the ribbon. Okay, I’m safe, still here, still standing in my bedroom, just holding a big key, nothing strange about that. I hold it up to the light to see it better.
A strong arm shoots up out of the bag, grabs my wrist and drags me down, into the bag, right through the portal!
I scream and a man wrenches my arm as he pulls me up out of the bag.
“How’d she get in there?
“Iss one of them magician’s bags, innit? Got a false bottom. Come ’ere, you! You’re not gowin anywheres!”
He’s dragged me through the bag and now I’m grabbed round my wrist by the dirtiest, smelliest, ugliest, disgustingest, man that ever existed! I can’t help myself, I scream and I try to hit him and I struggle, but he twists my arm around my back and pulls me close so that we’re eye to eye. I get a better close up of him than I could ever want. His skin is dirty and his large open pores are blocked and black. No teeth have survived in that sewer of a mouth and he smiles like a cavern as he examines me. “Wot a beauty! Still young, got all ’er teeth. Runaway? Good, I likes ’em fresh.”
“Don’t spoil ’er, Josh. She’ll bring us a good ’un frum the Wivers.”
“I won’t spoil ’er, but just a little kiss…” He tightens his arm around me and pulls me close. Terrified, I smile into those dull eyes and bring my knee up as hard as I can into his groin.
As he doubles over, I just run. Panic takes over. Run, Tiffany! Oh no, the bag, I’ve left the damn thing behind and I have no idea where I am, but it’s not Egypt this time. I can’t stop and think; I’ve just got to run. The other man is running after me, shouting “Stop! Thief!” and I can’t think why, ’cos he’s got my bag and I haven’t got anything of his. And then I realize; I’m still holding the key on the bit of ribbon! Damned if I’m going to stop and give it to him. He’s not going to do a swap; more likely rape me! I loop the ribbon round my neck, shove the key down my bra and keep running.
The streets here are cobbled and narrow. I just have time to wonder if I’m in Old Melbourne – because it’s a bit like the Poo Lane behind my house – when I see a house that’s built upside down. True! It’s bigger on the top and smaller on the bottom. Omigod, which way? I dart down the nearest small alley. Well, that was stupid! I should have gone down the bigger alley, where I might have found a crowd and then he wouldn’t have been able to, umm, grab me or whatever. But feet don’t think, they run. I can hear him behind me and I think I’m outrunning him; his yelling’s getting further behind. But then it happens: I catch a cobble and go flying. I’m just scrabbling up when a hand grabs my arm and shoves me into a doorway.
“S’truth! Be quiet!” A shadow blocks me from the lane. I shrink into the doorway as I hear the running feet slow down. My legs have turned to jelly and my stomach to lead. I don’t think I can run again so I let myself slide into a puddle of panic as I hear the footsteps stop.
There’s a sound of horrible gasping breaths, then he calls out, “Where’d she go?”
“Wot, lost yer strumpet? Like I’d tell you, Barnaby Mathews!”
“I’ll be taking my fist to you, William. Which way?”
“Poor gel! You won’t get her back, she’ll be able to smell you comin’ frum two streets away. There, down Blackfriars, prob’ly headin’ for the bridge. An’ good luck to her.” Barnaby speeds off and as the sound of his steps recede, I hear another pounding noise. My heart is thumping so loudly it fills my head. I stand up and step out, only to be pushed back by the boy who’s rescued me. “Wait! Not yet. Where he is, Joshy won’t be far behind.” He’s right. At that moment, Josh staggers round the corner.
“Whence’d they go?”
“Blackfriars direction. What happened to you?”
“Bitch got me in the knackers!”
I heard a laugh. “Well she must have a bloody good aim! S’not a big target, or so I’ve heard tell.”
“Best keep your friends near, lad, lest you’d be meetin’ me in an alley one dark night!”
“Oooooh. Now I am a’feared! If you seek your boy chum, he’s thataway.”
“Watch your words, William Gwynn,” growled Josh. “I’ll not be called unnatural!”
“That’s right,” I hear William’s scorn. “You tell that to the Papists.” I can’t see, but I know he points and I can feel the snarl Josh gives him. I reckon I can smell the breath from it. Josh hobbles away.
“Stay thee hence and I’ll see,” William whispers. I hear him move off, and then he comes back. “Hasten. They’ll be back afore long. Off with you now and God’s speed.”
For the first time, I get a look at the boy who’s saved me. He’s fourteen or fifteen, I’d guess; there’s not a hint of hair on his face. A large black cap shades his features, but I can see he’s got an angelic look about him and eyes that a girl would kill for. He’s trying to shoo me off but I don’t move. Omigod, this is not Melbourne. Where and when am I? How do I find out? And more importantly, how do I get back? I should have burned that bag when I had the chance!
“I can’t go anywhere. He’s taken my bag. It has everything I own, my clothes, my papers, everything. I have nothing now. Do you know where he’s gone? I need to get my bag back.” Well, that story worked for Gran in Egypt; let’s hope it works now for me.
“Odds bods! You have to go somewhere. Remain here and he’ll have you on a ship to the colonies afore the tide’s turned. Off with you. Runaways aren’t safe here. Go home.”
“I can’t, I’m an orphan. I have no home. I came here to seek my fortune. But I can’t get employment without my bag; there was money in it – and all my clothes.” I’m desperate now and the story just pours out. This is awful. At least in Egypt, I had friends, a job, shelter, food, everything, now that I come to think of it. Here, I’ve been pulled into the past and I was just about to be abducted, but I’m not much better off rescued if I can’t get my bag back. Only ten minutes ago I was in my bedroom and my biggest worry was: can I get the part of Eliza Doolittle? I want to scream! This can’t be happening!
The boy called William sighs. He looks at me and shakes his head. “Come with me. He’ll be ’awking that bag fer the price of a bottle. Hmmm. Skunners’ll know. I’ll take ye there but then I gotta go. The oranges don’t sell themselves an’ I’ll be for it, if I’m late.” The boy turns and marches off up another alley and I’m left to limp after him. I’ve banged my knee on the cobblestones but I have to keep up. “How’s thee doin?” he asks as he stops to peer round a corner. “’Tis a long ways yet but we’re along to Drury Lane this direction, lest wise you’d be on your own. I’ve not the fortune to pick my leisure. I needs be at Bridges Street Theater inside the hour and it’s almost four now.” The boy hurries along and stops at corners, checking the route and then darting further into the maze of upside-down houses.
“These are amazing,” I gasp out to him. He pauses and looks up.
“Wot, this lot of tosh? They’re waitin’ to fall down if thou wants my opine on the matter. Don’t catch me walking under one in the rain; I’d prefer to get wet.”
“Guard de l’eau!” yells a voice and a bucket of water cascades down from an upstairs window.
“Oy! Bit more warnin, thanks!” yells William, as he leaps out of the way. He’s answered by a shrieking cackle as the window slams shut above his head. “Sayin’ it in French don’t make you posh, you old cow!”
He hurries off and I follow, trying to keep an eye on him, the cobbles and anyone else that might be chucking dirty water out of an upstairs room. We spend nearly half an hour, making our way across town, dodging around piles of indescribable muck as most roads aren’t cobbled, just packed mud. In the centre of an alleyway, a small huddle of fur is moving unnaturally. As we pass, I realize it’s a dead cat, being fought over by two big rats. There’s an awful rending sound as one pulls a leg off the dead creature and darts away. The other rat stays and gorges and I keep my distance. Omigod! What if it leaps up at me? Don’t they go for the throat? Those things are full of germs!
William is hurtling down the hill before me and I can see a turgid river in the distance. He stops and waits for me and points. “Afore you gets to the Thames, turn right into Maltravers Street. Just a ways along is Skunners. Say William Gwynn sent you and ask what’s known of Josh and Barnaby. The pawnbroker hath the lie of the land. Skunner knows of the break and entry ere the householder’s even aware!”
“You aren’t coming with me?”
“I am needed at the theater. That strumpet, Mary Lee would take my part ere my wig is cold! If thou hast need of me, find me at the Bridges Street Theater, but avoid the Papists when asking your way. They’ll direct you wrong and send you to the river!” With that piece of advice still ringing in my ears, William was off again. I watched to see which way he went, but at the first turn, I lost him. I hope I won’t need to see him again. With any luck, I’ll just get my bag, and get home. This place seems to be full of people that can’t be trusted and I feel more of a foreigner here than I did in Egypt, where I didn’t even speak the language.
I scan ahead in case Barnaby or Josh are still looking for me. There are couples and groups walking around so I feel a bit more confident. If those two find me, they won’t be able to do much if I’m surrounded by a street full of people. For the first time, I take in my surroundings. Well, this is different, the buildings are all wonky! Nothing is straight. Not a single wall goes straight up and down; they look like they’ve been patted into place and held together by timber beams to give them strength. Windows are very small and made up of those little diamond shaped panes that Real Estate Agents would call ‘quaint and cottagey’. I know, they’re leadlight! How on earth do I know that? I amaze myself sometimes. I reckon I should go on a quiz show on the TV, I know such weird stuff. Just don’t ask me sports questions. Or maths. Other than that, I’d get the million dollar prize. Oh, and don’t ask me what town’s in what state ’cos I put Broken Hill in Western Australia the other day. New South Wales – won’t forget that again! Concentrate, Tiffany. You’ve got to find your way to that pawnbroker.
I know where I’ve seen houses like this before: in cartoons and Christmas cards, but these are real. Okay, now the interesting thing is the second and third storeys of the buildings: they stick out over the top of the lower floor! True. By the time you get to the roof tops, the houses are almost touching. It makes it really dim down here in the street, almost like being in a rabbit warren.
I take a good look around, walk confidently and before long I reach the junction of Maltravers Street and turn right, looking for the pawnbroker. And there it is. Omigod, this is going to be easy. I don’t even have to buy the bag: just ask to see it, step through the portal, get home, then close the bag tightly and no harm done. And then I’m going to take that stupid, scruffy, dangerous bag into the back garden, pour some petrol on it and set fire to it. End of story!
The pawnbroker has the three round balls of his trade hanging in front of the tiny shop window. The small panes are rippled and bubbled, set in diamond shaped frames of lead and surrounded by heavy beams of blackened timber. I push my face up against the thick glass. It distorts everything inside but I can see that pride of place is taken by a stuffed little monkey dressed in a sailor suit and posed to play a drum that is glued into his lap. Around it are arranged various little boxes, vases, candlesticks, some spoons, a hand mirror and a small pile of books. No travel bag, I notice. I take a deep breath and push open the heavy paneled door bearing a polished brass sign, ‘Nancy Skunner, proprietor’. As I enter, a bell hanging over the door ‘tings’. I stand in the gloomy shop adjusting my eyes as I wait for the shopkeeper to appear. Please, bag, be here. Please bag! I promise I won’t burn you. Just be here and get me home again.
Behind the counter a curtain shifts and an old lady in a grotty black dress walks in. Omigod, it’s my Gran!
* * *
We hope you have enjoyed this excerpt from The King's Company.
This novel has been removed due to an exclusivity agreement with Amazon / Kindle Direct Publishing.
This will shortly be available on Amazon.com. Just wait a few days... Thanks.