- And the lady just invited you in?
- Well, I had hubby by the throat, didn’t I? Promised her he’d live if she gave me the invite.
- And did you? Let him live?
- What do you think? pause Too much for you?
- No! Keep going.
- And I kill ’em. Right quick, the whole lot. But there’s someone missing. Supposed to be this little girl. So I get real quiet, and I hear this tiny noise, coming from the coal bin. This little sigh. So I listened harder, it’s very, very quiet… Buffy bursts in Oh… bloody hell.
- Spike, I need your help, Dawn is— Here.
- Spike was just telling a story, and he was just at this really cool part—
- What the hell is this? What is she doing here?
- Just hanging out.
- Can you please let him finish the story? Then you could do the lecture?
- Yeah. Okay. Let’s hear the story that Spike is telling my little sister.
- Right. Yeah. So, uh, I knew the girl was in the coal bin. So I rip it open, very violent, haul her out of there… and then I give her to a good family in a nice home, where they’re never ever mean to her, and didn’t lock her in the coal bin.
1895. A pub, somewhere in England. Probably.
'This is good stuff.’
The barmaid stopped polishing beer dregs into the bar with a rag for long enough to look up. ‘Best in this neck of the woods.’
‘Not arguing with that. Not best compared to what’s in other necks, but neck o’ the woods – not arguing.’ He drew a thoughtful hand under his nose and smacked his tongue, tasting the last heeltap lingering at the back of his throat. ‘You wanna give me ’nother one?’
The barmaid’s eyes flicked over to the door, as if her mind were considering something connected with exits in general.
‘You sure about that, cock?’ a man along the bar commented. ‘Sure you don’t want to be getting home to the wife and kiddies?’
‘Wife and kiddies.’ Will sniggered. ‘Yeh, o’ course.’ He raised an ironic glass. ‘Here’s to the wife and kiddies.’
The barmaid hesitated for a second longer, then shrugged and refilled his glass. ‘And we’ll have no more of that sort of talk, thank you, Pat Baxter,’ she remarked to the man who had spoken. ‘In The Hobgoblin a gentleman is entitled to take as much as he judges is good for him. He may be a little merry, but there’s no harm in that, and I don’t like talk that says otherwise. It drives away the customers and it ain’t healthy. There’s a sight too many of them blue-ribbon types in this ne— in these parts as it is.’
‘Now, now, Molly, no need to take on. He just seems a few sheets further to the wind than is altogether comfortable. I ain’t one of they preaching hypocrites, we’re all friends here.’ Pat raised his pint cheerfully.
She sniffed. ‘Well I’ve known you a long time, Pat, so I’ll let it pass this once. But I know them temperance sorts – won’t be happy till there’s not an establishment left in the country is what. And they ain’t to be trusted. Sneak in under cover they does and pretend to be regular folk. Then when your back’s turned – quick as a flash, they whips out a pamphlet, and there’s another decent customer gone to the Band of ’ope.’
She gave them all a marked look. ‘Steal the crusts from your children’s mouths they would and all the while preaching that it’s for your own good. It makes you want ter write to the papers sometimes, it gets that bad.’
‘Oh, terrible, to be sure, terrible,’ Pat said sagely.
‘An all the while keeping their own kiddies safe indoors!’ Will complained, banging his palm on the bar. ‘’s a bleedin’ disgrace.’
‘Right you are, cock. Disgrace it is.’
‘Enough to drive a man to drink.’
Pat leaned over and clunked his glass to Will’s. ‘It ain’t the men that’re the problem – not them what’s actually earned what pays for the occasional drop, mind, nor what needs a small glass o’ something after a thirsty day’s work. No. ’s the women. An’ if you ask me, they jus’ want to spend it all theirselves on hats or whatnot. Run the lot of them out of town we should. You’d like that wouldn’t you, Molly – no more bossy birds dashing around getting your customers to sign the pledge.’
‘Bloody women,’ Will muttered darkly. ‘Get rid of the bally lot of them.’
The barmaid looked outraged. Pat tipped her a wink. ‘Broken heart: ain’t no reasoning with one o’ they.’
She sucked on her teeth for a second and then nodded, and began to smear the bar again with an air of professional competence. ‘So, love, that lass I saw you with the other night is…?’
‘Not here,’ Will said firmly.
‘Ah, I thought she looked a right witch, that one,’ Pat said cheerfully.
‘She isn’t a witch! Well, all right then, she is a witch. But… but the thing people don’t understand, see, is that I love her.’ He wiped a tear from his eye. ‘Dark as the moon and the stars and three times as beautiful.’
Molly patted his hand. ‘Never mind, love. There’s plenty more fish in the sea.’
‘No!’ He raised an admonitory finger. ‘No fish. Fishmongers not good enough. Chimney sweeps not good enough. Barmaids,’ he nodded knowingly, ‘not good enough. Nothing’s sodding good enough any more.’ He took a long pull at his drink and then slumped forward miserably. ‘I tried everything I could think of, everyone and anyone, and nothing’s good enough. Nothing will please her.’ He gazed into the middle distance. ‘But she’s so beautiful.’
‘That’s nice, love.’
‘And currently tumbling on her back under that bastard cos I’m not up to snuff in bringing home the bacon—’ he hiccupped ‘—salesman. How was I supposed to know a salesman was too boring?’
‘You a salesman then, love?’
‘Me!’ he drew himself up to his full indignation. ‘That is a foul caluminity. Calomeny. Calmysomething. I will have you know that I am not in trade! I am,’ he belched, ‘a gentleman.’
‘Well, not a gentleman, obviously, cos I grew up on the streets an’ all. Obviously. But – you know – not… trade.’
‘Right,’ the barmaid said uncertainly. ‘Whatever you say, love. Another one then?’
He sighed. ‘What I need is something special. Something different. That would bring her round. Show her what I can do.’
‘Well tell you what then, why don’t you do something special? Take her some nice flowers – all the girls like flowers.’
‘Flowers? Why’d flowers help?’ he demanded suspiciously.
‘Girls like ’em. Something sweet – a bunch of violets or wallflowers. Or a rose. Nothing beats a rose.’
‘A girl like a rose?’ he said in confusion. ‘Where’m I goin’ to find a girl like a rose?’
‘No, no, love— Oy! Ernest Claypole, I’ve told you afore you ain’t to come in ’ere!’ She vanished in a steam of outrage.
Will glared at his glass accusingly. ‘A rose?’ The glass had no suggestions to make on the matter.
He looked around and his eye settled on Pat, leaning back against the bar and watching with evident enjoyment something occurring across the room. There was a fair bit of shouting coming from that direction. Will turned to have a look and managed to knock his glass with his elbow, sending beer spraying. He grabbed for it and the glass skittered away from him to sulk on the far side of the bar. He made another grab and it leapt from his hand and crashed to the floor.
‘There you are, cock – the evils of drink,’ Pat said cheerfully.
‘I am not drunk,’ Will said painstakingly. ‘I am undermined by the weight of me sorrows, is all.’
‘Or I may possibly have eaten something that disagreed with me.’
‘Ah, terrible bad luck is that.’
‘’s all I ever get is bad luck. Other people doesn’t, other people gets good fairies to come and look after them.’
‘Fairies! Hark to him.’
‘Fairies. Well known fact. Was made to read a book ’bout them just the other day. There’s a whole crowd o’ the buggers: veiny things, wi’ jewellery.’ He frowned ‘Or maybe they’re the small blighters with wings. Never remember all that bollocks. Don’t matter. Fairies – why didn’t I get a fairy?’
‘Only fairies you’re gonna find round here, cock, is the ones that hangs round Albert Street. And I doubt any o’ them has wings.’
‘That’s the place.’
‘And one o’ them can find me a girl like a rose?’
‘You won’t be finding many girls in Albert Street!’ Pat sniggered.
‘Then what use are they?’ Will looked bleakly into the remnants of his glass. ‘I only want a fairy. A pretty greeny, veiny fairy.’
‘Oh that sort of fairy.’ Pat mimed drinking and winked. He dropped his voice and hissed conspiratorially. ‘When you said you wanted something special why didn’t you say you meant the green fairy? I should have smoked you had come in here for something particular – you’d best have a quiet word with Molly about that.’
‘Really!’ Will immediately swung round and located Molly, who was partially obscured by a crowd of customers but seemed to be engaged in some sort of tug of war with a barstool.
‘Fairy!’ Will bellowed.
A suitably respectful silence fell. Molly yielded the barstool and turned round with folded arms.
‘Fairy,’ he demanded.
‘Now look ’ere…’ She glanced around at her other customers and tittered feebly. ‘This is a decent establishment. We don’t serve that sort of thing. Not a drop. Plain beer and the occasional drop of gin is all we serve here, not fancy foreign muck.’
‘Don’t have to be foreign, just want a fairy.’
‘Well I haven’t got any, I’m sure.’ She patted at her hair and straightened her apron. ‘None of that, not here, no, no, not at The Hobgoblin.’
‘But that man said—’
Pat grabbed his arm. ‘Hush! Course she ain’t goin’ to admit it in front of everybody! What with all the blue-ribboning round ’ere she don’t let on to just any Tom, Dick or ’arry. But you take my word for it: she keeps a little one under the counter for special customers.’
Will’s eyes widened. ‘What, she’s got a fairy just behind the counter?’
‘She has. Just ask quiet like when she comes back. Hey! Where you goin’? Come down, you can’t just—’
‘Oy! There’ll be none of that in ’ere!’
There was a great palaver. And the clink of bottles. People talking like a slow drip of icy water into his head. Shouting. And at least one point he probably hit someone.
The world was filled with a sharp scent of flowers, and giggling sugary girls that melted from emerald to lemon to pearl before his eyes. And rather confusingly, a man selling oysters.
Or had he been earlier?
There was singing, in a tune with a key that kept changing according to some scheme that no one would explain to him. And his mind felt sharp and clear as crystal, although perversely his body didn’t seem to want to move properly.
Finally there was the bang of a door, and the foggy night closed round him in an opalescent haze, smothering everything like a thick white blanket.
Tinged with green.
He lay in the gutter for a good long while, watching the stars revolve peacefully around the sky. Which was curious, given that it was foggy.
He sighed. He had been thrown out of a fair few pubs in his time, and had frequently been a little unclear as to the precise reasons, but never before had he come across one that seemed to have such a strong objection to fairies. It just wasn’t his evening.
There was a particularly irritating star tonight as well, which swooped in and out with a high-pitched gnat whine. He batted his hands at it, but it was always too fast for him. From time to time people passed by and made impertinent remarks, but he didn’t bother them.
Gradually an uneasy feeling grew that he had to do something.
He smacked his lips where the last floral traces of herbs and something altogether darker lingered. ‘Flowers,’ he muttered. ‘Find rose.’
Then it seemed safer to roll onto his side and cough up whatever it was his stomach seemed to be objecting to. He waited for a while, holding his head and considering the bitter dregs of his night.
‘Bloody oyster-men,’ he said to the cobblestones. ‘Shouldn’t go near ’em – always make me queasy.’
He swayed uncertainly to his feet and peered around. There was a large stone basin a few feet away, ornamented with acanthus leaves and a suitably classical-looking inscription that people who hadn’t eaten something that disagreed with them would doubtless enjoy reading. Odd. Who would leave a perfectly good basin in the middle of the street?
He staggered over and peered in. It was full of water, with a scummy quality that reminded him of a well used bath – had someone been bathing? He looked around, confused notions of nymphs and Roman ladies flitting through his mind. Then he looked back at the water and, since the Roman lady didn’t seem to be around to object, he plunged his head in.
It was cool under the water, and peaceful. He opened his eyes and squiggly brown things drifted past, revolving like miniature dancers. There were tiny transparent shrimpy beasts, delicate as crystal. The lady must have enjoyed bathing with such rare and beautiful creatures.
It seemed so cruel when someone started to pull at his shoulders; he really wasn’t doing any harm. ‘Let me go!’ he shouted, and got a mouthful of scummy water that made him rise up choking and spewing his lungs up once more.
He coughed up the last of the water and blearily opened his eyes. A narrow, tanned face was peering into his own, looking like an attentive if lugubrious donkey.
‘Are you all right, son?’
‘Gave me quite a turn there. Did you feel light-headed or something?’
‘Hot,’ Will said.
‘Cold enough now, I daresay. You really don’t want to be sticking your head in a horse trough in November – it’s for beasts, not men.’
‘Beasts.’ Will thought about this. ‘I am a beast, not a man.’
The man sat back on his heels, studying Will. ‘Is that a fact?’
Will nodded. ‘A beast. A cruel, vicious beast. And I only wanted a drink.’ He sobbed and then a deviously cunning thought struck him. ‘Are you a flower?’ The man looked confused. Will tried for the long shot. ‘Or a fairy?’ Still confusion, although the man now seemed rather cross as well. Will put out a reassuring hand. ‘’s all right, mate, you mustn’t mind me smoking it – I don’t want to kill you if you’re a good fairy.’
‘I am not a fairy.’
‘Oh.’ He sighed heavily. ‘Never have any luck me, I only asked for a fairy to come and help.’
The man seemed to be battling with some inner turmoil, but after a while he spoke. ‘Let me help you instead. You are wet, it is cold, and you appear to be in some distress. Let me offer you the humble comforts of my home. You may sit by the fire to dry off and we could have a cup of hot cocoa and… a chat about a few things.’
Will’s eyes narrowed. ‘Why’d you help me?’
‘Well you see,’ the man looked faintly embarrassed and then he straightened his shoulders and a distant light seemed to come into his eyes. He spoke more firmly:
‘“Oh, hear his call, and hasten forth
To render him what help you can
Remember when he struggles thus
He is a brother and a man.”’
‘Ah.’ Will didn’t really feel the explanation was helpful.
The man smiled resolutely and stood up, holding out his hand. Will was surprised, but memories of manners well dinned into him rose to the surface and he duly took the hand. ‘How d’you do.’
The man seemed amused. ‘Pleased to meet you. My name is Claypole - Ernest Claypole.’
‘And you are?’
‘Did you say something about a drink?’
‘Indeed. Hot cocoa.’
Will scrambled to his feet. ‘We can start with cocoa and work up to something else,’ he said decisively. ‘An’ the name’s Spike.’
‘This way, Spike.’
Will followed him, with only the slightest of qualms that he might be heading towards rather more than he had bargained for.
‘So someone once gave me a helping hand when I was in need and now it is only my Christian duty to do the same for others who have been led astray.’
‘I wasn’t led astray!’ Will tripped over an abnormally high cobblestone, but managed to recover himself.
‘No? You will forgive me for doubting you, Spike, but you don’t seem set on the right path to me.’
‘Wasn’t led,’ Will insisted. ‘Was pushed out the door and told to come home with something special or not come at all.’
Ernest smiled. ‘Well now, I think we can arrange that. I think we can send you home with the best present a man can give to his loved ones. I gave it to my wife once and Mrs Claypole hasn’t stopped being grateful since. And my children – my little Rose—’
Will eyed him suspiciously. ‘Rose?’
‘Yes, that’s my little girl, my sweet little Rose.’
‘Are you making fun of me, mate?’ Will demanded.
Ernest laid a gentle hand on his shoulder and another under his elbow. ‘No, son, I’ve been too far into the pit myself to ever make fun of another.’
‘Hmm.’ Will slapped his own cheek and blinked a couple of times to see if the world was going to abruptly change and he find himself having the conversation with a pillar box. Ernest still seemed solid enough.
‘Are you sure you aren’t a fairy?’
The man quickly dropped his arm. ‘Yes. Let’s get you that cup of cocoa.’
‘Hurrah for cocoa!’
‘Shush! You’ll disturb the neighbours.’
‘Sod the neighbours.’
Ernest took a hold of Will’s elbow again; there was a determined set to his jaw. ‘“Charity suffereth long and is kind.”’
‘That,’ Will said, ‘is a beautiful sentiment. I admire you for that.’
‘You’re welcome. So, this Charity that suffered, it weren’t by any chance a big bloke with an Irish accent and silly hair what done it?’
Ernest propped Will against a wall and started to search his pockets. ‘Quiet now, we mustn’t wake the children.’
‘Poor little children,’ Will bawled.
‘Hush!’ Ernest produced a key on a piece of string.
Will used his shoulder as a convenient pivot and banged his palm against the door. ‘Knock, knock. Open up. Gotta say nighty-night to little Rose.’
The door was flung open and a furious red face appeared. Will backed off hastily. Ernest might be a donkey but this woman was a positive mare.
‘And just what is the meaning of this?’
‘Now dear,’ Ernest held up his hands placatingly, ‘you mustn’t take on.’ He straightened up and patted Will’s arm. ‘Praise the Lord, my dear, he has brought us another soul in need.’
‘I haven’t got a soul!’ Will said in disgust.
‘You see, my love, what hopelessness this man feels?’
Mrs Claypole folded her arms. ‘I see something hopeless, sure enough. And what may I ask do you expect to do with him?’
Will turned to Ernest and whispered confidentially. ‘Tell you what, mate, I can see what drove you to drink in the first place.’ It was possible the remark hadn’t been quite as discreet as he had intended though, because Mrs Claypole gave a very loud sniff.
‘Now now, my poppet – think of our Christian duty. This man may yet be saved.’
‘Saved! It’s you as will want saving if you bring another one of these revolting drunks into my home.’
‘I’ll save him,’ Will said quickly. ‘Invite me in and I’ll save him from you all you like.’ He gave her his most disarming smile.
‘Don’t you leer at me you disgustin’ drunkard!’
‘Please, Spike, just leave this to me.’
‘Spike? What sort of name is Spike?’ she peered at him suspiciously. ‘Where d’you come from, Spike?’
‘Oh, here and there.’ He waved a vague hand, priding himself on his discretion.
‘I knew it!’ she shrieked. ‘Ernest, if you think I’m having some flea-ridden tramp in my nice clean house you have another thing coming.’
Will scowled. ‘But you’ve got to invite me in – I’m charming. It’s a well known fact.’
‘Over my dead body.’
Will growled. ‘That can be arranged.’
From behind the woman there was a muffled childish scream. ‘Yes – it’s a monster! Daddy’s bought another monster home. Hide!’ Followed by the sound of feet running away.
Will had a flicker of concern and felt up to his face. He turned uncertainly to Ernest. ‘Do I look all right to you?’
Ernest laid a comforting hand on his shoulder. ‘Have faith and all will be well.’
‘Cheers, don’t mind if I do. Who’s Faith?’
Mrs Claypole bellowed over her shoulder. ‘Horace! You’d better not be teasing your sister!’
Ernest called past her. ‘Rose, my sweet? It is quite all right, this is just a new friend of Daddy’s. He had an accident in a horse-trough and his name is… unfortunate, but he isn’t a tramp really. He won’t hurt you.’
‘See,’ Will said. ‘Trust your husband Mrs Clydesdale – wouldn’t hurt a fly me.’
Mrs Claypole narrowed her eyes.
‘Don’t like flies,’ Will said with all the craftiness he could muster. ‘Like tweeting birds and fluffy kittens and… and flowers. Sweet flowers for my own sweet girl.’ He snuffled a bit.
‘You see, dearest, he isn’t a monster. He is a poor unfortunate young man who has suffered in love and sought solace in the wrong places – think what good we will do if we can turn him to the right path.’
There was another scream from within, followed by a muffled bang.
‘But I haven’t even been invited in yet,’ Will complained.
Mrs Claypole swung round and glared down the passage. ‘Right, young man, it’s the brimstone and treacle for you.’ She marched off, but paused and looked back, pointing a finger of doom. ‘And I ain’t having no tramps in my house and there’s an end to it.’
‘But poppet…’ Ernest turned back to Will. ‘It is no use. How can I apologise?’
‘I am not a tramp,’ Will stressed. ‘I only had an unfortunate accident with an oyster-man.’
‘And given time I am sure she would forgive that.’ He spoke with melancholy. ‘They say she is a witch, but the thing they don’t understand, see, is that I love her. I would do anything for her. I took the blue-ribbon for her.’
Will nodded sadly. ‘Mate – trust me on this – I understand. Now why don’t you invite me in?’ He leaned his hand up against the barrier. Ernest looked slightly surprised
From inside the house the childish voice yelled ‘I won’t, I won’t, I won’t.’
‘You come here this instant!’
There was a pop and Will fell flat on his face on the scrubbed flags of the passageway.
‘Ow! By dose.’
‘Are you quite all right?’ Ernest helped him up solicitously and brushed him down. ‘I hate to say this, but the effects of intoxicating liquor…’ He smiled apologetically as Will rubbed his bruised nose.
Will scowled and plunged his fangs into Ernest’s neck.
‘How many bloody times! I’m not drunk, I just ate a bad oyster-seller that disagreed with me.’ He frowned and licked his lips thoughtfully. Oddly enough, Ernest distinctly tasted of gin. Then he tossed Ernest’s body into the front parlour and stalked along the passage towards the room at the back, from which came the sound of scuffling, punctuated by the occasional high-pitched yell.
He froze in shock.
In the back kitchen Mrs Claypole was engaged in some sort of wrestling contest with a podgy, beetroot-faced boy in a hyacinth-blue sailor suit. This colourful child was putting up a spirited resistance, wriggling and kicking her shins whilst she applied vigorous boxes to his ear with one hand and used the other to wave in front of his face a wooden spoon, loaded with some foul stinking substance.
She straightened up abruptly on seeing Will. ‘What the—?’ At which the child landed a particularly vicious kick on her leg and made good his escape.
‘Why you little monster!’ Mrs Claypole doubled over, nursing the injured limb. The monster in question retreated behind the kitchen table and stuck his tongue out.
‘Monster?’ Will asked uncertainly, trying to recall the names of bright blue and red demons.
‘Just wait till I catch you, Horace,’ Mrs Claypole promised. ‘And you,’ she turned the threatening spoon on Will, ‘can bugger off out of my kitchen. I never said as you could come in. Ernest!’ she bellowed. ‘You’re to take this tramp right back out to where you found him.’
‘He can’t,’ Will said. She looked surprised. ‘He’s dead,’ he added for clarification.
‘I knew it – drunk!’
‘Well, strictly speaking, yes, he has been, but…’
‘That bastard! How many times has it been?’ she screeched. ‘I’m givin’ up – he says. Everything’s goin’ to be better – he says. All the lies and stealing, and you and the children havin’ to do without, all that’s over – he says. Thinks I don’t know why he brings any layabout he can find home with him. Thinks that’s going to fool me into believin’ he means it! I knows all about the bottles out in the yard, I does. I ain’t stupid. I knows he’ll start by preachin’ at you, an’ talkin’ ’bout the straight an’ narrow path. But the only straight path what he’ll be following is the one out to the privy where he hides ’is gin, cos mark my words, when he can’t get you to sign the pledge there’ll be nothin’ but wailin’ and head holdin’, and sure as eggs is eggs he’ll be drownin’ his sorrows come mornin’. Well if it’s depressed he wants, I’ll depress ’im!’
Still wielding the foul-smelling spoon, she started towards Will.
He took a rapid step back, the sulphurous stench making his eyes water, and he uneasily recalled that Ernest had said something about his wife being a witch. ‘No, no, not drunk, he’s just having a lie down is all. An’ do stop shouting.’
Mrs Claypole stopped and folded her arms, the spoon sticking up from them like some malodorous flagpole. ‘Are you going or not?’
‘You give him what for, Mother!’ Horace shouted from across the room.
‘Horace is a beast,’ a small voice said.
‘Mother!’ Horace shrieked in outrage. He stamped his foot ‘Mother, Mother, Mother!’
‘Shut up,’ Will said.
‘Don’t you talk to my Horace like that!’ Mrs Claypole bellowed. ‘I’ve a good mind to give you a dose of this an’ all.’
Will felt a burst of satisfied pride as his punch sent Mrs Claypole flying out of the room. She crumpled into a deflated heap in the scullery and lay still, her head at a rather comical angle. She still seemed to be looking at him disapprovingly so he quickly shut the door on her.
Horace looked at Will with round eyes and a dropped jaw.
‘I can’t stand brimstone and treacle,’ Will explained. Horace began to bawl. ‘Shut up.’ Will put his hands over his ears.
‘Mummy!’ Horace wailed.
Will killed him.
He stuffed Horace under the table and slumped into a kitchen chair, resting his head on his hands. ‘Everyone is to stop shouting.’
He sniffed and thought it would be rather nice to have another drink, but the difficulties of walking all the way to find another pub depressed him no end.
‘Bet he was a sodding bacon salesman an’ all.’ He looked around the room. ‘And bloody blue ribboners an’ all, so never a drop to drink in the house, I’ll wager.’ He frowned. He had the odd feeling he had neglected something important. He shook his head and persevered with his moping. ‘And nothing interesting. Nothing to please her.’ He frowned again, something once more niggling at his mind. ‘Nobody understands.’
‘I understand,’ a voice said. ‘But, William, haven’t you forgotten something?’
‘Are you sure of that?’
‘You have forgotten something, you know.’ The voice sounded slightly less mellifluous that time. ‘Are you drunk?’
‘No! Now leave me alone when I’m feeling sorry for myself. I’ve got to think of a present for Dru, not be dealing with disembodied voices.’ He sighed. ‘Sweet Drusilla. Sweet…’ He paused. ‘Sweet Rose!’
He stood up quickly. ‘Rose!’ he called.
There was no response.
‘Rose?’ He staggered around the room, examining all the corners. ‘Where are you, little girl?’
He checked under the tea cosy and in the colander. ‘Rose?’
He stopped, swaying slightly. ‘Rose?’
There was a loud sneeze and he swung round abruptly, almost falling over.
‘Bloody oyster-man. Rose?’
There was silence. The sort of silence that only comes from someone being very, very quiet. Will took a step forward, and then another one. In front of him was a large wooden box with a heavy hinged lid; from it came the unmistakable smell of coal, and mixed in with it something very small and very human. With infinite slowness, Will put out his hand and slid back the bolt.
The lid flew up with a bang and a black face shot out like some heathen jack-in-the-box. Will yelped and stumbled backwards as the room did a most unnatural toss and pitch, shimmying unpleasantly. In the coal-bin the small girl placed her grubby hands on her hips and tilted her head. ‘You’re not a man.’
Will found his voice. ‘Er, no.’
‘Where’s my Daddy?’
Will pointed in the general direction of the parlour. ‘He’s lying down in there.’
The child frowned. ‘Why is he lying down, is he drunk?’
Will shook his head quickly.
‘Where’s my Mummy?’
Will pointed to the scullery.
‘And why is she in there, is she drunk?’
‘No. She just got a bit overwrought, see.’
‘And where’s Horace?’
Will pointed under the table.
The girl considered Horace. ‘So why is he lying down?’
Will pulled himself together. ‘He’s dead.’
‘Oh.’ The girl stuck her thumb in her mouth and sucked thoughtfully for a moment, then removed it. ‘Good.’
Will found himself warming to the child.
She held up her arms. ‘You will have to lift me out.’
‘Er, right.’ Will quickly took her under the arms. ‘Ups a daisy.’ He set her on the floor where she came up to about his waist. She at once skipped over to her brother and poked him with her pretty little button-boot. ‘I shall have a piece of plum cake.’
‘Are you allowed?’
‘No, Mummy says it is too rich for little girls.’
‘What?’ He blinked. ‘Er, right you are then. Where’s it kept?’
It was kept in the top cupboard, in a tin the size of a hatbox.
The cake needed it.
There were plums. There were currants and sultanas, and raisins. There were glace-cherries. Lots of them. There were nuts – walnuts, pecans, brazil nuts, almonds, hazel nuts. It was quite possible that somewhere there was a coconut but amidst everything else it was going quite unnoticed.
There was icing.
The sturdy kitchen table seemed to bow a little when Will set the cake down. Rose clambered up onto one of the chairs, and with her tongue sticking out of the corner of her mouth cleaved the cake into three precisely equal pieces using the bread knife. Then she clambered up further, sat cross-legged in the middle of the table, and proceeded to eat.
Will was reminded of tales of exotic pythons, who could dislocate their jaws to swallow a horse whole.
‘Well, that’s… different, I s’pose, you being able to do that. D’you think if we took the rest of the cake with us Dru’d like to see that?’ he said hopefully.
Rose paused long enough to shake her head.
‘No, you’re probably right.’ He sank down into the chair. ‘But if I don’t take her home something special she’ll never speak to me again – not ever! What am I going to do?’
Rose stopped chewing and looked at him.
‘If I took you to meet a very nice lady could you pretend to be something special? A circus performer, say. Or a Professor of Mongolian Literature.’
Rose picked a cherry off her cake and sucked the icing off it thoughtfully. ‘Don’t ’ou want your bit?’
At the mere thought, Will’s stomach did a small somersault followed by an energetic and well-executed jig. He placed one hand to try and calm it and with the other waved her vaguely away. ‘Be my guest.’ Rose giggled and then settled down for some serious chomping.
Will slumped forward onto the table, watching her with horrified fascination. ‘You know, I’ve seen some pretty ghastly sights since I got turned – seen a Skung demon in rut, for starters, and Angelus when he can’t find his pomade tin – but that has to rank as one of the worst. Who’s the third piece for – Horace?’
‘Horace is a beast,’ Rose said around a mouthful of cake.
‘Oh, yeh, right.’
‘Horace locked Rose in the coal-bin.’
‘That a fact.’
‘And he pulls her hair.’
‘So, no cake for Horace then.’
‘Of course not. The third piece is for me.’
‘Ah, and you’d be?’
There was a heavy sigh. ‘You really can be very slow, William. I am a fairy.’
‘Oh… bugger.’ Will sat up rapidly.
Rose carried on obliviously eating her cake. Will eyed the room guardedly.
‘It is no use your looking – to you I am imperceptible.’
‘Fine – pleased to not see you Miss Imperceptible. Are you goin’ to show yourself?’
‘Are you being flippant, young man?’
‘Me? Never.’ He ducked down quickly to check under the table. Only Horace looked back at him from unblinking eyes, and he hastily straightened up.
‘Sod!’ He rubbed his banged head. Rose laughed.
‘And that is what happens to greedy young men who take more than is good for them,’ the voice said primly.
‘Well where the bleedin’ hell are you?’
‘Language!’ There was a sharp snapping sound and a green spark smacked across Will’s knuckles.
‘Ouch. Bloody hell.’ A second spark landed in exactly the same spot.
‘Any more of that sort of thing and someone is going to get his mouth washed out with soap and water.’
‘I was only wonderin’ what you looked like,’ Will said, sucking at his smarting fingers. ‘I ain’t ever seen a fairy afore.’
‘Nonsense, dear, everyone has seen fairies, they simply can’t remember when they grow up. It is a well-documented fact. And do not say “ain’t”, it sounds affected and is entirely unnecessary.’
‘Er… right. Sorry.’
It was something about the voice – it went straight past his brain and down to the place where he was a small person in a world of very big ones. A world of stodgy nursery food and romps round the big wooden table, curling up in Nurse’s lap in the rocking chair for a story, and bath-times in front of the fire that lasted for hours, a walk in the park every morning and a glass of warm milk before bedtime. Where the most important thing was to remember to wash behind your ears, and the worst fate to be made to stand in the corner. Will was irritated to find he was sitting up straight and tried to affect a suitably nonchalant slouch.
‘So what do I call you then?’
‘Elbows off the table, please. You may call me Fairy Wilson.’
‘Yes.’ There was a certain stiffness to Fairy Wilson’s tone that had not been there before. ‘What of it?’
‘I’d just have thought – you know – Tinkerbelle. Or Mustardseed.’
‘Don’t be impertinent. I have never heard of such nonsense.’ If an imperceptible being could be said to be standing up straighter then Fairy Wilson was definitely rearing. ‘Mustardseed, indeed. Somebody has been reading far too much nonsense under the bedcovers when they ought to be in the Land of Nod.’
Will took his elbows off the table. ‘Sorry, Fairy Wilson.’
‘I should think so too.’
‘So, you been watching me for long?’
‘Say “have you been”, dear, there is no need to leave out the little words, they won’t cost you anything.’
There was a pause. Will rolled his eyes. ‘Have you been watching me for long?’
‘There is another little word that wouldn’t come amiss, young man.’
‘Er… Please, Fairy Wilson?’
‘There, that wasn’t difficult now was it? And no, dear, I came of course because Rose made a wish.’
Will looked at Rose, who giggled again.
‘You wished for a fairy?’
Rose nodded solemnly.
‘I asked for a fairy and I didn’t get one.’
‘Did you say “please”? I see. Well then what do you expect, William? I don’t know, anyone would think you grew up in a slum.’
Will opened his mouth. And then closed it again. ‘’s not my fault – ’n oyster-man disagreed with me,’ he muttered.
‘Nonsense, dear. And don’t pout – the wind might change and you’d be stuck that way.’
Will scowled and slid into demon face.
‘My, my, someone is a cross-patch today. A grumpy face won’t get you your own way, you know.’
Fairy Wilson’s voice seemed to waft sideways a little, and hover over the dresser. The lid of the sugar basin suddenly drifted up and a lump floated into the air, vanishing with a small pop. Will looked at Rose with a startled expression, but she was back to paying all her attentions to the cake, and didn’t seem to have noticed. He shook his head a couple of times and glared back at the sugar basin – which stood solidly immobile, the lid in place.
‘I think I need another drink,’ he said to the room in general.
‘Well really! And don’t you think you have already had far more than is good for you?’
‘No. I’m a vampire; we’re not renowned for our restraint.’
‘And look where it has got you – are you any further along in getting back into Drusilla’s good books?’
‘Or have you achieved anything else useful this evening?’
‘Exactly. And you’ve been mixing your drinks, haven’t you – it’s no good looking innocent, Fairy Wilson knows. A chimney sweep in one bar, a little barmaid in another. A blue-ribboner here, a fat child there, a quick sip of Pat Baxter – yes I saw that – and an oyster-man. William! Really, what were you thinking of? You know they always disagree with you.’
Will hung his head.
‘I don’t know, William. And of course now we have got ourselves into a pretty pickle, haven’t we, – don’t do that, dear – and I suppose you want Fairy Wilson to sort it all out for you.’
‘Can you?’ Will said wistfully.
There was a pointed silence.
‘So you goin’ to… Are you going to help then?’
Will scowled. ‘Look here, I am a vicious murderin’ vampire, you know. I could just eat Rose here, an’… an’ set fairy traps, an’…’
Rose sniggered once more.
‘Oh… Botheration! Please, Fairy Wilson, can you help me?’
‘Yes dear. That’s why I invited you in.’
Rose stopped munching.
‘Now,’ Fairy Wilson said, ‘watch.’
A glow started to form in the kitchen, just above the breadbin, a green glow with a pure silvery centre. And gradually, in the heart of the glow, something solidified. It was a shimmering vision of a rose, perfect in its crystal white innocence, and from its single thorn there hung a great drop of blood as profoundly beautiful as a polished ruby.
‘Fingers!’ Fairy Wilson said as Will snatched for it.
‘Ow! Will you stop doing that?’
The rose flickered paler, becoming almost transparent.
‘No grabbing. Not until you are told you may, William. Now, as those of us who were paying attention all know: young ladies like flowers. And making allowances for the fact that she herself is rare and beautiful – so any flower for her must be rare and beautiful – your Drusilla will be no exception.’
Will nodded eagerly.
‘Good. And so, because I am a kind and good fairy, I am prepared to supply you with a rose of appropriate quality.’
Fairy Wilson continued. ‘In exchange for a small fee. You are of course familiar with the basics of the fairy economy?’
‘Er, sugar lumps and a saucer of milk?’
Fairy Wilson sighed. ‘William, were you paying any attention when you read fairy stories?’
‘I only read them cos of Dru! She’s the one that does the attention paying. Well, sort of, given that it’s Dru.’
‘Deary, deary me, what is the world coming too? The elementary system of fairy exchange is the granting of wishes in return for good deeds.’
‘I thought you just granted the wishes if someone had suffered.’
‘No dear, that is vengeance demons.’ Somehow it sounded as if Fairy Wilson were holding the words at arm’s length. ‘Nasty, cheap wishes they grant in return too, is it any surprise you don’t get the quality? We fairies follow an altogether more sophisticated system – one good deed deserves another.’
‘Good deed?’ Will asked suspiciously.
‘Yes, dear, now you’re getting the idea. So just tell me about a good deed you have done recently – yes, I know you are a vicious murdering vampire, dear, but there must be something. What not anything? Haven’t you assisted any little old ladies across the road, or picked up someone’s dropped glove? Well I don’t know, I thought everyone must sometimes. How can I possibly give you a rose if you haven’t done anything to deserve it?’
‘Well, you could tell everyone I tortured you till you gave it to me.’
‘William, I hope you aren’t suggesting I tell a lie!’
Will bit his lip and looked at Rose to see if she had any suggestions.
‘I really could torture you,’ he offered.
There was an outraged snort and Will quickly sat on his hands to keep them safely out of range. ‘That was only a joke.’
‘Hmmph. I should like to see you try, young man.’
‘Sorry, Fairy Wilson. Please can’t I just have the rose anyway?’
‘Not unless you’ve done a good deed. Have you offered to help tidy up the lair?’ Fairy Wilson asked hopefully.
Will shook his head.
‘Well at least tell me that you always put your shoes away neatly.’
Will looked down at the floor and stirred his foot in a small circle.
‘So that nobody will trip over them…’ Fairy Wilson’s voice trailed off.
Rose was watching Will with big solemn eyes.
‘I could…’ Will started
‘Yes dear?’ Fairy Wilson said immediately.
‘Don’t be embarrassed, William, sometimes we just have to be brave and say difficult things.’
Will shook his head and gazed off into the middle distance.
Fairy Wilson started to hum to herself. Will drummed his fingers against his knee.
‘Well,’ Fairy Wilson said after a while. ‘It is a great shame about your rose. Still, I can’t be waiting about all night – plenty to do. And little Rose here had better be packing up a few things to leave. She won’t be able to carry much, being so small. She will have to leave all her toys behind.’
‘Yes,’ Will said.
‘I must be gone by morning but I can’t help wondering what’s going to happen to her. Of course since she probably has no other relations in all likelihood she’ll end up in the workhouse, or else out on the streets.’
‘It’s November, cold weather coming.’
Will poked at a scratch mark on the table.
‘Did you say something, dear? Oh well, never mind, I’m sure it will come back to you. And we mustn’t worry about Rose, children can be very resilient, you know. And it isn’t as if little Rose isn’t used to a harsh life – she is quite accustomed to one, given she’s had to live with Horace. And Ernest would be sure to have gone back to drinking full time, what with that wife of his – why it’s probably a blessing to the poor man that you killed him. And that Mrs Clydesdale can hardly have been a proper mother to the girl – look at the state of this kitchen: it’s a disgrace. There is dust all along the top of the dresser! No place to bring up a child. And what about that mark on Rose’s face – look closely now, is that just coal dust? Are you sure? Quite sure it isn’t a bruise?’
‘It is really quite dreadful, how could anyone treat a small girl in such a way. Locking her in the coal-bin! Such people frankly don’t deserve to have children at all.’
Will tilted his head and looked at Rose more closely still. It really was a bruise on her cheek.
‘And to recall that just a few weeks ago you came across that kindly couple who were regretting that they had no child to share their fortune with…’
‘Ring the doorbell.’
‘No, you ring the doorbell.’
‘It’s the middle of the night – I’m not ringing the doorbell.’
There was a heavy sigh. ‘I’m imperceptible, how can I possibly ring a doorbell? It wouldn’t be seemly.’
‘An’ I’m a vicious murderin’ vampire – I don’t ring doorbells so little girls can get to live with kindly couples in a pretty house with roses growing round the door. Sod “seemly”: hit it with one of those zappy spark things – ow!’
Fairy Wilson sniffed pointedly. ‘You may lift Rose up and she can ring the doorbell.’
Will bent over Rose and adjusted the large card hung round her neck from a piece of string.
I am an
little orphen girl
please give me
a nice home.
‘She looks suitably waif-like, doesn’t she?’ Fairy Wilson said anxiously.
‘She’ll do. The green tinge from being sick all the way here helps.’
‘I knew I shouldn’t have allowed the poor girl all that cake, but it just seemed so kind to let her have some after what she’s been through. Does she understand what she has to do?’
Will hunkered down in front of Rose and brushed a stray wisp of hair out of her eyes. ‘You goin’ to be a good girl, now, and do exactly what your Uncle Spike told you?’
Rose smiled and nodded.
‘And then the nice people will take you in and let you live in this lovely home without any Horace to be mean to you, or nasty horse-faced Mummy to hit you and give you brimstone and treacle, or Daddy to get drunk and steal all your things to pawn for gin.’
Rose nodded again.
‘Good girl. And… and when you grow up don’t ever invite strange men inside unless you’ve seen their reflection in a mirror or walked out with them in the sunlight first.’ He landed a hasty peck on her forehead and straightened up. ‘Right then.’ He hoisted her up so she could pull the doorbell, and then set her back on the step. She slipped one little hand into his. He squeezed it back and waited, listening. From inside the house there were the faint sounds of surprised people getting up to come downstairs.
‘I’ll just check they’re coming and then I can have my rose and be on my way home,’ he said. ‘That’s all right isn’t it, Fairy Wilson?’
Rose looked up at him and smiled.
Rose tugged at his hand and he bent down.
‘Uncle ’pike, who are ’ou talking to?’
‘But…’ he looked around frantically. ‘Can’t you see her?’
Rose shook her head.
‘But she said children could see her! And she was here just a second ago. She can’t be gone – what about my rose!’
From inside the house there was the thud of footsteps coming down the stairs.
‘Rose?’ Rose asked.
‘A beautiful white rose. It was to be a present for my girl and make everything all right again, and now it’s nearly dawn, Fairy Wilson’s gone, and if I haven’t got anything to give her then how can I possibly make things right with Dru? Where am I going to get a rose in November?’
The footsteps were crossing the hall, approaching the door.
Rose smiled, and she pointed in front of her, at a height where only a small girl would see, to a sheltered nook just under the window where the last white rose of the summer still bloomed. Will reached out and plucked it.
‘Will this be enough?’ he asked.
Rose nodded solemnly.
‘It isn’t made of crystal and there is no drop of blood like a ruby.’
‘Tell her you love her,’ the voice said. ‘The rest will sort itself out.’
There was silence.
‘Was she really here? I didn’t just imagine her, did I?’
The bolts of the door were being drawn back. Will looked bleakly at the plain little rose in his hand. It seemed stark and futile compared to the force of Drusilla’s pique.
‘But somebody invited me in.’
Then Rose flung her arms around him and gave him a last hug. ‘Thank you,’ she said. And it was time for him to vanish back into the night.