In the last episode, we heard of the Tilting Tower, the Woman’s Guild, and Rex’s church terror. As he laughed at his imaginings, and stood sadly by the hole, Mrs Post arrived at The Palace, Patricia decided to break in to the Manor, and Dr Hafiz pondered briefly upon his cat. The Kid? She made a lovely fire under the stars, there in the doorway of the Tilting Tower.
We discover Inky trying to be really clever, though not necessarily succeeding.
After leaving Jane and Cadbury, on his mission to get help, Inky had decided to be really clever and take a short cut through the wood. He loved short cuts and used them all the time! He would cut through Old Wood, which led down to the river. Inky could hear the amazed conversations even now. On recounting his exploits in the future, with reference to this journey, people would say something like: ‘There’s literally no one in the whole wide world as fast as Inky on a bicycle!’
That was the plan, and Inky was absolutely brilliant at plans of any sort.
‘I could plan for England!’ he said amusingly.
But though he could plan for England, he couldn’t plan for what happened next, which was the last thing he needed in a race against time. On entering Old Wood, he first got a puncture, then a twisted ankle, and finally, as the darkness fell, became completely lost. A wood by day is a different wood by night – and it’s not just the strange noises and thoughts of frightening films you’ve seen.
This was a disaster. Suddenly Inky’s speedy wind-through-the-hair world was reduced to a frightened and stumbling hobble. The redundant bike he pushed through the undergrowth was sometimes a crutch, taking the weight from his swelling ankle. More often than not, however, with grasping brambles and deep divots, it was a liability, catching on this and bumping into that. And then:
He cried out in fear as he tripped down an unseen slope, tumbling with his bike, falling into the cold dark.
Inky lay on the wet ground, taking stock. He was apparently at the edge of a woodland pond. Like a rabbit freshly trapped, he was nervous, in shock, and in pain. He could feel himself breathing, could feel his ankle throbbing and when he reached out, could feel the moss on the exposed roots of a tree. He felt also the sobbing tears breaking hot on his skin. He wanted someone to save him; he wanted a wonderful woman, a woman in white, kind and caring, to emerge from the gloom, like they did in medieval times:
‘Hello, my little prince. What brings one so fine so low? Here, let me help you. We will go together to a better place, and there we shall make you well. Come with me – I live not far from this place.’
Inky would have gone wherever she took him.
Patricia was not used to breaking and entering, and hesitated in the hallway of the Manor. She had been a nurse and worked briefly in publishing, but she had never been a house breaker. Should she assume control of the situation, or play the discreet detective? Were the burglars still here? Or were they long gone, leaving only Lord Jo tied up? Was he tied up in the master bedroom for instance? The four poster bed gave ample opportunity for secure binding.
It all seemed quiet enough, as she tip-toed across the hallway. And then suddenly, she heard steps approaching down the corridor from the kitchen.
‘Oh my God!’ she thought to herself.
What to do? She was mad to be here, mad to be doing this, and now she was to be caught in flagrante. Instinctively, she made for the grand staircase and removing her high heels, made silent progress up to the first floor, from where she could see the lie of the land. There she knelt in breathless terror, looking down through the landing rails. She really couldn’t believe this was happening!
‘I cannot believe this is happening!’ she said to herself under her jerky breath.
And when she then heard voices downstairs, she panicked, opened the door nearest to her, and ran inside. It could have been a clothes cupboard or bathroom; it could have been any of many upstairs rooms – but turned out to be the master bedroom itself.
Patricia was seemingly trapped in Lord Jo’s bedroom.
With water dripping in the eating area, David had closed the café. He’d turned the ‘Open’ sign round to ‘Closed’.
‘No one’s been in for a couple of hours, so it’s not exactly hitting trade,’ thought David. ‘But there is a certain finality to the ‘Closed’ sign; it removes any hope there might have been, and declares no further chance of income today. For the moment I must live on what I have – no one’s coming to help.’
His largest bucket had contained the water for two hours, which had given him some breathing space, but no more. The bigger picture was this: he shouldn’t be here in Misty Longings:
‘This is a beautiful village, full of exquisite charm,’ he thought to himself. ‘Perhaps when I came here, I thought the beauty and the charm might rub off on me. But this has not been so. We can’t ask our surroundings to save us. We can’t even ask helplines to help us. And proof of that is that here I am, more desperate than ever.’
These were bleak words, but perhaps true. Who knows? He did think of going to see Rex who was a good man in his way. But he knew the bluff reverend would only try and jolly him out of it:
‘Think of the starving in Africa, David! We have so much to be grateful for here in Misty Longings!’
But two despairs do not make one happy.
So instead of going to the vicarage, which was always a bit cold, David cooked himself some cheese on toast, and settled down to read The Final Scream. It was less a novel, and more an extended meditation on a lonely man’s final scream before he hangs himself. It was no comedy, but then David didn’t want a comedy tonight; it wasn’t a comedy sort of an evening.
Tonight, he wanted a story which left him hanging.
There was laughter to spare at The Palace, however, as Algernon gave his 1940s jazz collection a good work-out. Mrs Post hadn’t realised how agreeable sweet sherry could be, and though watchful, she had drunk slightly more than intended. And she was certainly saying more than she intended:
‘It was Mrs Pump who first called him the ‘Persian Rug’!’ she declared.
‘Then I say, ‘Naughty Pump-Pump!’‘ said Algernon. ‘I will smack her bottom when I next see her!’
‘Yes, well, I wouldn’t do that – but of course Cadbury found it rather upsetting, what with her stupid crush on the doctor.’
‘Ahh! Young love!’
‘I just told her to wake up and smell the coffee!’
This was not a phrase Mrs Post had ever used before, and was a clear sign of the demon sherry.
‘She should stay away from the stupid man. For as they say, ‘Lie down with dogs, and get up with fleas.’‘
‘Mr Algernon Key!’
‘Am I incorrigible?!’
‘A loveable rogue, perhaps. But one must be careful I think.’
‘I really don’t know how you work with that girl, Deirdre!’ said Algernon, cutting a rogue’s pose by the mantelpiece above the fire.
‘I don’t know how I work with that girl either!’ said Mrs Post. ‘It would be quicker to do everything myself!’
‘I’ll tell you what, Deirdre: you should have an OBE for all that you do in that Post Office.’
An OBE? Mrs Post’s heart almost stopped! Did Algernon know something she didn’t? After all, they did say he had the ear of government. Why else would he go to London? Mrs Post was slightly unsure about him using her first name, but also unbearably excited.
‘I just try and do what’s right,’ she said, locking her jaw in the shape of duty and endurance. ‘I don’t seek reward.’
And then the doorbell rang.
Algernon raised despairing eyebrows, but almost danced to the front door in response. Had he once been a dancer? It’s possible, for free of his stick, there was much grace in his movement. It wasn’t Swan Lake, but there was a hint of a pirouette as he moved through the small hallway. He swung it open, and if surprised at the visitor, he hid it well:
‘A vision of beauty! It’s Long Lane Jane!’ he said, with a mischievous grin. ‘You have come a little out of your way, on a cold winter’s night! But perhaps I am worth it!’
The moon hung low in the sky, diced by spindly branches, as Jane wiped her feet and went inside.
Inky would never forget the moment he saw the fire. However many questions he asked in his life – and in truth, it would be a fair number – he always knew this moment to have been an answer: an enormous, and totally wopping great answer. And he hadn’t even asked a question!
Lying on the ground, he had become slowly aware of a flickering orange light in a distant space, which became in time a beckoning beacon in the hanging mist. A fire! Someone had lit a fire!
‘I cannot believe that a fire burns out here, on a night like this,’ he said to himself.
He was quickly up on his feet, and pushing both body and bike to get there. He limped slowly across the field, as the outline of the Tower sharpened against the riverside trees and moonlit sky. It was strange: even though he had lived in Misty Longings all his life, he had never before been here:
‘Looks like I didn’t know my home as well as I thought,’ he muttered in some amazement as the scene grew before him. He had a hundred yards to go, and everything was hard and not at all as planned, but drawn forward he was; drawn forward by the flickering orange and gold.
On reaching the Tower, Inky could not have been more surprised to find a young girl fanning the flames and eating a toasted crumpet, with jam. The young girl could not have been more surprised to see him, either! She quickly withdrew into the shadows.
‘Don’t worry!’ he said. ‘My name’s Inky. What’s yours?’
The Kid opened her mouth, but nothing came out.
‘I won’t harm you,’ said Inky. ‘Though a crumpet might be nice!’
He always wanted looking after, Inky!
‘I’m just in a spot of bother,’ he said.
In the fire was a gnarled metal pot, heating water. The girl held up a cup and asked with her eyes if he wanted a drink. Inky remembered saying ‘Yes’, just before fainting. He fainted, because despite never having visited the Tilting Tower, he knew he had just come home; and there was simply nothing else which needed to be done.
There were things that Lord Jo needed to do. When his body-heat alarm system had registered an intruder in the hallway, he abruptly ended the maddening phone conversation with Mrs Pump, and made his way with a rolling pin out of the kitchen, down the corridor and into the war zone. In his current mood, this was all pleasure.
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