Sunday, 29 August 2010

The Resurrection Bureau - part 1


It was, give or take a decade, the early fourteenth century.
Mr Craft strongly suspected it was the year 1313, but he didn't like to mention this to Mr Grace. Mr Grace had become deeply superstitious, and not for the first time. There had been that awful business in the sixth century. One moment they had been on the verge of Saxon enlightenment, the next moment it had been all horsehead demons, cynocephali, magic swords and water witches. It had all been very embarrassing. And all because Mr Grace had refused to cross running water. Dreadful.
It was an inevitable part of the Mission that sometimes they saw patterns in the fabric of things - it didn't actually mean these things were true. But if they couldn’t see that pattern, then how would they ever unravel that fabric?
The problem was that Mr Grace and Mr Craft were entirely dependent upon one another, and the Mission could not be fulfilled if either one of them failed to pull their weight. Mr Grace was currently pulling Mr Craft's weight as he sat in a cart. For obviously reasons they did not have a horse, but Mr Grace was easily as strong as one of those animals.
Mr Grace was almost seven feet tall and broad enough to just fit between the cart's forks. Mr Craft was small, little more than five feet tall, but he had deceptively long legs that were folded under him now in the rank straw. They looked as different as it was possible for two men to look, even down to the colour of their skin, but they shared the same piercing blue eyes. Mr Craft took them from Mr Grace now, pushed them into his nicotine brown eye sockets, and looked out across the drab landscape.
Bleak hills sat beneath an iron-grey sky as rain fell indefectibly. Half way up the valley a stuttering light showed.
'Straight on, Mr Grace.'

It was undeniably, and predictably, a hovel.
A more cynical creature than Mr Craft would have been disappointed, but Mr Craft understood the intricate pattern of Creation. He understood humble birth led to spiritual and philosophical enrichment, and eventually...
Well, “eventually” was the whole point of course, “eventually” was why Mr Craft’s boots were filled with mud and his hair was plastered across his mahogany brow.
‘Shepherds, Mr Grace,’ he commented, climbing down from the cart.
Mr Grace nodded minutely, his empty eye sockets sinking into his doughy white face. ‘Inevitable,’ he sighed.
Mr Craft stepped up to the grey and brown structure, momentarily considered knocking on the reed screen, and then simply stepped inside.
The room – to call it a house would be a gross exaggeration – was dimly lit by yellow candlelight, and was filled with a stench of manure so thick that Mr Craft was certain he could chew the air. Mr Craft found himself looking into the baleful brown eyes of a cow. A sheep, and then a large rat pressed against his calf.
‘Can we help you, sir?’ a man’s voice, Mr Craft wasn’t surprised. The woman, he knew, would be silent and pious, and probably no older than fourteen. He always chose the mothers very carefully.
‘Stars,’ Mr Craft said. He looked up, and through the patched and rotten ceiling he saw nothing but iron cloud. ‘What do you make of clouds, humans?’
The shepherd did not reply. The silence that followed was broken by the sound of Mr Craft drawing his sword from its silver scabbard, and the low whine of the newborn baby.


Eddie Halcyon was the sort of bloke who seemed to inevitably collect nicknames. He had many at the orphanage when he was a kid – Teddy Edward, Teddy Have a Poo, and Thick Ed were just three of the more pleasant. His foster mum, Tracy, had called him “Bear” and he had rather hoped this name would stick, but it never did. He just didn’t look like a “Bear”, he had long ago accepted. Halcyon’s friends called him “The Ghost” and occasionally “Captain Kirk” due to his habit of suddenly disappearing half way through a night out.
The nickname didn’t bother Halcyon – well, it didn’t bother him much anyway. With his skinny frame geeky red hair and spectacles the last thing he wanted to be associated with was Star Trek. But the fact was at age 22 it was up to him when the night was over, not anyone else, they could call him what they wanted. It wasn’t as if he couldn’t take his drink.
Halcyon stepped out of the pub’s doors and took a deep lung full of cold night air. It tasted a lot better than another pint, he decided. He took a big step forward – and a small step back.
He was not drunk. Definitely not drunk.
He walked out of the pub somewhat jerkily and looked up into the blue night sky and the rash of star immediately above his head. Halcyon never got drunk, he always knew when he had had enough, and he was not drunk now.
‘Blimey,’ he murmured. ‘Stars...are pure brilliant.’
Halcyon stumbled forward, was surprised to find the steps his feet had expected were not there, remembered soberly at there had never been steps outside The Bitter Drayman, and finally looked down.
He squinted around. The city glimmered in front of him, casting a bow of blue light pollution across the sky. Somewhere behind him he heard the scream of an accelerating car and the persistent bark of a small dog. A white horse cantered down the centre of the road.
‘Um,’ Halcyon murmured.
The horse trotted by looking momentarily ghostly in the yellow light of the pelican crossing. The illusion passed, and the horse was within inches of Halcyon. The creature was startling white with blackened hooves, nostrils and eyes. It smelled of tangy sweat and stagnant water, and it was big. The horse’s back was higher than Halcyon’s head, its own head almost two feet long.
The horse cantered down the centre of the street, and then, with a snort and a toss of its huge head, it broke into a run. In a moment the horse had disappeared into the darkness.
Halcyon looked left and right at the pelican crossing, then crossed slowly, turned at the other side of the street, and looked up and down. Dirty brick houses, some of their windows blocked with dull steel, battered and rusty car, pizza boxes, Carlsberg cans and red elastic bands. No horses.
‘Where you headed, pilgrim?’
Halcyon frowned, looked up and down the street once more, and then turned on his heels.
In a rubbish choked garden, in a house with broken windows and a gaping front door, an old man sat in front of a blazing fire. The old man was dressed in a green parka, blue suede brogues upon his feet. A brown woollen hat that looked, to Halcyon, like a tea cosy, cover his grey head. Green eyes sparkled like emeralds beneath the shadow of his brow, and the old man’s white beard ended in two forks, crooked white teeth grinned at Eddie Halcyon.
It occurred to Halcyon he had not seen the man when he had looked across the street just moments before, but it didn’t seem to matter much. ‘Did. Um.’ Halcyon scratched his head, waved his hand mutely down the deserted street, and burped. ‘Sorry. Horse.’
The old man’s grin did not falter. His eyebrows wiggled expressively. ‘You might want to sit down before you fall down, pilgrim.’ He indicated a striped deckchair across the fire from him.
‘I’m okay.’ Halcyon squinted at the deckchair. It was the old-fashioned wooden kind of deckchair with a striped canvas seat. It was impossible in the flickering firelight to see just how dirty the chair was. Very dirty, Halcyon suspected, though the old man, with his startling white teeth, looked very clean. ‘Did you ... see ...?’
‘Where you headed, sunshine?’ the old man interrupted cheerfully. ‘Off on an odyssey?’
‘Just...’ it had been on the tip of his tongue to say he was heading home, but that wasn’t true, was it? Halcyon looked back across the street over the squat shape of The Bitter Drayman to the horseshoe shape of the block of flats where he lived. He had been heading ... No, he hadn’t. He hadn’t been thinking of her. Definitely not.
‘That,’ the old man’s cheerfully voice interrupted the run of Halcyon’s thoughts, ‘That is one of the last deckchairs from the Titanic.’ The old man pointed a long-nailed manicured finger across the fire, ‘One just like that sold a few years ago for thirty five thousand pounds.’
‘Titanic?’ Halcyon stepped closer to the chair and squinted at it. Sure enough, in the centre of its striped canvas were the words RMS Titanic and a crest showing a red flag with a white star in its centre. Halycon made an impressed sound and cautiously sat on the chair. The instant he sat back he found he couldn’t imagine a more comfortable place to be than sitting in the Titanic deckchair by the firelight. ‘Where’d you, like, get it?’ he asked, wiggling comfortably and sighing.
‘From the Titanic, of course,’ the old man replied with a grin. ‘I was asleep on it, sunbathing, when the ship sank. I awoke with surf around my knees. Luckily these are sturdy chairs,’ he slapped his own deckchair to demonstrate. ‘So I just lay back and floated away to safety.’
Halcyon frowned at the old man, who grinned back at him, firelight twinkling in his eyes. ‘You were sunbathing,’ he said slowly, ‘when you were hit by an iceberg?’
The old man chuckled. ‘You got me there, pilgrim. I was up on deck awaiting a young lady for a romantic dalliance. Molly Juniper was her name. I’d had a mite too much champagne, and maybe just a little bit whisky too, and I fell asleep on the deckchair. Woke up all at sea, in more ways than one.
‘I floated along for twenty days and twenty nights, with nothing to sustain me but a small bratwurst sausage and a half bottle of champagne I had taken from the buffet earlier that evening. Eventually I was cast ashore on a desert island which was occupied almost entirely by dog headed men and cat head women. Fortunately I’ve always had a way with animals.’
The old man smiled, and, as if on cue, a large black cat sprang from the shadows of the rubbish-strewn garden onto his lap. The old man began stroking the cat, ‘This is Bas, a cat of my acquaintance.’
Halcyon digested this information for several moments while the old man contentedly stroked Bas, the black cat. Then he leaned forward, squinting through the flames, and asked, ‘What’s your name?’
‘My name is Eddie,’ the old man replied.
Halcyon frowned, confused. ‘That’s my name!’ he exclaimed.
‘Eddie Ambrosius,’ the old man added, ‘but I have a middle name, if that’s of any help?’
Halcyon shook his head. ‘How could you have been on the Titanic? That sank in, like, 1930 or something.’
‘Actually,’ Ambrosius replied, ‘it sank on April 14, 1912 at around midnight. I can’t be exact on the time, as I said, I was asleep and quite drunk at the time.’
‘1912, so that would make you, um...’ Halcyon counted and recounted his fingers several times over. ‘At least, like 120 years old, right?’
Ambrosius chuckled. ‘That would be quite ridiculous,’ he replied.
‘Exactly!’ Halcyon cried triumphantly.
‘I am much, much older than that.’ Ambrosius smiled serenely while Halcyon did his best to focus on the odd little figure. The cat, Bas, stared impassively at Halcyon with, he noticed, eyes that were exactly the same green as the old man’s. Eddie Halcyon pondered the old man’s ridiculous story, and then asked the question that bothered him the most. ‘What happened to the girl you were supposed meet?’ Halcyon asked. ‘What happened to Molly Juniper?’
The old man leaned forward, his forked beard almost touching the flames of his camp fire. ‘Now that,’ he replied, ‘is a very interesting story.’
There was a loud thump, making Halcyon jump in his chair. The thump was followed by a raucous cheer, and Halcyon turned to see his three friends – Tetley, Young Brian and Jaffa – stagger out of the doors of The Bitter Drayman. Halcyon turned back to Ambrosius, half expecting to see the old man had disappeared. He had not disappeared, but he looked so odd that it occurred to Halcyon for the first time that he must either be very, very drunk indeed, or more likely was dreaming this whole thing while lying in a beer sozzled heap in the snug of the Drayman.
‘I must be going now young pilgrim,’ said Ambrosius, springing to his feet with the vigour of a much younger man, and folding his deckchair with a single dexterous movement. ‘I just thought I would look in on you before it all began.’
Halcyon barely heard the old man’s words. He pointed at the brown tea cosy hat Ambrosius wore on top of which, much to Bas the cat’s fascination, sat a small bird with a bright red breast.
‘Yes, of course, if you get in trouble,’ the old man touch his index finger to his forehead and the bird hopped down onto it, ‘do tell a robin.’
‘Um...’ Halcyon held out his hand and the bird hopped onto the palm and looked up at him with inquisitive black eyes. ‘Um...Trouble?’
‘Oi! Oi! Captain Kirk!’ came a loud shout, and the robin flew off, vanishing into the night instantly in an explosion of feathers. Bas gave a loud and frustrated yowl.
‘What do you mean, trouble?’
‘Trouble,’ said Ambrosius, ‘is definitely not my middle name,’ and with that he swirled his folded deckchair in front of the fire, which disappeared in a puff of smoke which blinded Halcyon in a choking cloud. ‘You can keep the deckchair, by the way.’
‘What you doing, Kirky?’ Halcyon blinked up at the unshaven face of Young Brian, then looked around. The old man, his cat and the red robin had gone, and of the fire there was no sign at all.
‘Come on Eddie,’ said Tetley, grabbing Halcyon under his arms and pulling him to his feet, ‘We’ll get you home.’
‘That deckchair is worth three hundred and fifty grand,’ Halcyon said pointing at what, somehow, had transformed into an upended milk crate. ‘Um.’
‘Time to go home, Ghost,’ said Jaffa, throwing Halcyon’s arm over his shoulder. ‘Deb won’t want you coming round tonight.’
‘The bitch,’ spat Tetley.
Halcyon looked up guiltily from the milk crate that was definitely not the remnant of a lost ocean liner. ‘I wasn’t.’ He said weakly – but of course he had been. And that more than anything else – more than a crazy old man or a red red robin – that convinced Halcyon it really was time to go home. He had been heading for Debbie’s. Arthur help us.
‘Course not, but let’s get you home anyway,’ Tetley replied, and he saw the three of them exchange a knowing look as they carried Halcyon out of the junk-strewn garden.
They stopped at the edge of the road while Young Brian threw up unselfconsciously in the gutter. Halcyon took the opportunity to look up and down the street. Barred windows, pizzas boxes, and an absurdly large collection of red elastic bands – check. Old geezers with forked beards, galloping giant white horses – negative.
Halcyon closed his eyes. The world spun pleasantly in the dark. It was nice being drunk with his friends, even if he hadn’t just inherited a priceless deckchair—
‘Blimey, look at that!’
Halcyon almost fell face-first into the gutter as Jaffa slipped from beneath his arm. He opened his eyes – counted himself very lucky he had not fallen into the gutter considering what Young Brian had just deposited there – and was just about to start shouting, when he saw what Jaffa had dropped him for.
At the other side of the pelican crossing sat a black cat. It was looking at the four drunken men with insightful green eyes. Sitting on the top of the cat’s head was a tiny robin.
‘Can you see that!’ Jaffa pulled his phone out of his pocket. ‘I’ve got to get a ... Oh. Crap.’
The cat had gone. Jaffa shoved his phone back into his jeans pocket. ‘Bugger. I could have got two hundred and fifty notes for that!’
‘That’s not for photos, it’s for videos,’ Tetley replied.
‘That’s right,’ Young Brian nodded, wiping the sick off his face. ‘You’ve been framed, two hundred and fifty quid.’
‘I never said You’ve Been Framed. When did you hear me say You’ve Been Framed?’
‘Where you going to get two hundred and fifty for a photo of a cat and a sparrow then?’ Tetley demanded.
‘Robin,’ Halcyon said. ‘It wasn’t a sparrow. It was a robin.’
‘Come on, let’ get Bill Oddie home before any bobbies show up,’ said Jaffa.
And between them the three carried Halcyon home.

Halcyon awoke in the middle of the night, and stared into total blackness, his heart pounding. He tried to gather the threads of his dream, but all he could remember was a cat headed woman had been walking towards him. She had been naked, but it barely seemed to matter – she had been tattooed from head to foot with weird designs that covered her skin much more effectively than ever clothes could. The cat woman had stared at Halcyon, and then, in a voice that was a deep purr turned into words, she had said, ‘You must pull it out.’
‘I don’t even remember putting it in,’ Halcyon murmured, and within seconds he had fallen into a deep and dreamless sleep.

To be continued...

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