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The zero hour

CHAPTER 37

In the last episode, what didn’t happen? Billy disturbed Charles and Cromwell, who all then went berserk; Mr Johnson and the ambulance crew had a good idea; David saved Inky, Cadbury caught Billy and farmer and king said goodbye. Meanwhile, Patricia, the vicar and Mrs Post were undertaking a difficult task. And then the tremors came!

Dr Hafiz had been the first to sense the danger.

‘We must leave this place,’ he said firmly.

‘But why?’ asked Cadbury.

She was still with Billy, stroking his hair, and telling him everything was all right. ‘Everything’s all right now, Billy.’

But everything wasn’t all right with Inky, who was not pleased to see Cadbury with another man – especially a miscreant like Billy! Trying circumstances, but he reasoned with himself to stay calm:

‘I must allow these things,’ he said to himself. ‘Despite the feelings presently passing through my body. No conclusions should be jumped to whilst I’m in this state. It doesn’t mean she doesn’t love me. And if it does, I’ll kill him; or something. Anyway, who needs women? I can take them or leave them!’

It was then that Hafiz started talking of danger, and soon they all felt the rumblings. Cracks were appearing in the rock above their heads, scree beginning to fall, and all of a sudden, the only thing to do was get out – if only they could find their way back to the surface.

‘Follow me,’ said the Kid.

‘Are you sure?’ said Jane. ‘You’re so young.’

The Kid looked at her.

‘If we die, we will die as adventurers!’ said Inky.

‘Well, I’m glad I came – whether I die or not,’ said David. ‘And I’m glad I came with you all.’

‘And I’m glad that Billy came,’ said Cadbury.

Billy was just loving being part of all this, and not being sent away somewhere. ‘I don’t know what came over me back there!’ he said.

‘The past,’ said the doctor. ‘The past came and whispered lies into your ear. But it will whisper less as time goes by.’

But Inky still had a bone to pick with him: ‘You can’t do that sort of thing, Billy. Attacking people! It’s not acceptable behaviour.’

‘Be quiet,’ said Cadbury.

‘Do you love me, though?’ asked Inky.

‘Inky! Billy’s my friend! We go way back!’

‘Darlings, darlings!’ said the doctor. ‘Let us stand in a circle.’

‘Do we have time?’ asked Jane.

More rocks were falling, and a spray of water was now dowsing them in cold.

‘There is always time for solidarity,’ said Hafiz.

‘Well, do you?’ asked Inky.

A boulder crashed to their left, as they solemnly took each others hands; and as Cadbury gave Inky’s hand a special squeeze.

‘And now we must fly like birds from a trap,’ said the doctor. ‘Fly like birds towards the sky and air. An exquisite world awaits us; our dear village – Misty Longings! And we shall get there together – or die in the attempt! Yes?’

‘Yes and yes again!’ they all said.

‘Rock on!’ said Inky. ‘Get it?’

‘Cue lights, bells and whistles, darlings!’ said the doctor. ‘We follow the Kid! The enlightened one must lead the way.’

*

After the eruptions of the day before, Tuesday dawned crisp, bright and sunny in Misty Longings. It was the perfect winter morning, and effortlessly beguiling. Granted, not a good day for wall-menders, for surely the frost would buckle a stone or two; but for the rest, white grass and deep red holly berries.

‘I must get the church heating on early today,’ said Rex to himself as he walked through the graveyard, remembering the events of the previous afternoon with some relish. For after the amazing earth tremors, things had worked out surprisingly well.

Patricia had got the car back on track, and Mr Post had been returned to his wrapping. It had been a shock to find the dead man’s foot resting on his shoulder, but that was soon forgotten by Rex on reaching the church.

‘Nearly there!’ said Rex, as the three of them staggered inexpertly up the church path.

‘Carrying an inert body is not as easy as it looks,’ said Patricia despondently.

‘Especially one that smells as bad as this!’ said Rex.

‘I hadn’t been going to mention the smell,’ said Patricia, who was planning on a two-day deep body clean after all this.

‘Still, noses to the grindstone, eh?’ said Rex, playing the encouraging leader.

‘I wish my nose was to a grindstone’ said Patricia. ‘Anywhere, in fact, but where it is now!’

It was her misfortune to find her face uncomfortably near the dead man’s groin.

And then Mrs Post had posed the question: ‘Do we have a coffin ready, vicar?’

‘A coffin?’ said Rex, playing for time, because he had completely forgotten about a coffin.

‘We’ll need a coffin obviously.’

‘Obviously!’ said Rex.

But to Rex, it was anything but obvious as to where he would find one before 11.00am tomorrow. It wasn’t as if the village shop did them; the village shop hardly did anything, with the new owner showing a considerable lack of will.

‘He wants to sell it,’ so Mrs Mole said.

‘Sell it? He’s only just bought it!’

‘Says he didn’t realise the work involved,’ said Mrs Mole with a scowl. ‘Doesn’t know he’s born, that one.’

These days, the shop would run out of bread by 10.00am, and milk by midday. So what chance a coffin on the shelves?!

But then on reaching the porch, it had been Mrs Post who spoke first: ‘A coffin!’ she exclaimed.

Rex followed her gaze, and yes, a rather beautiful – and empty! – coffin, was standing upright in the porch, as if it had just been delivered by a highly reputable coffin company:

‘Just sign here, sir’ – that sort of thing.

Rex was utterly flummoxed – but happily so.

‘You’ve had a coffin delivered, vicar!’

‘You like it?’ said Rex.

‘I think it’s beautiful, and wholly appropriate. Just the right thing; just what we should have done. My father loved ancient coffins. Where did you get it?’

‘I caught a cold – and just started coffin!’ said Rex, intoxicated by his good luck, and unsure as how best to lie in the circumstances.

‘I’ve thought you an idiot in the past,’ said Mrs Post, ‘but I certainly cannot fault you here.’

‘Thank you,’ said Rex.

*

So that was yesterday, and unsurprisingly, there was a spring in the vicar’s step, as he approached the church this Tuesday morning. A little ice lurked on the red brick path, but other than that, no surprises left, surely?

And then that voice: ‘So it was the vicar, in the vestry, with the lead piping?’ said Lord Jo, who was waiting for him in the porchway.

‘Ahh – Lord Jo.’

‘Or with the lead, at least – lead mixed with in with Red Leicester? Where did you learn that one?’

‘I read of it in a poisoner’s manual,’ said Rex, suddenly shame-faced.

‘Did you now?’

‘Yes – I got given it last Christmas. It’s a fund of useful information – well, useful if you wish to poison someone, and probably a lot of people do, if you think about it.’

There was a frosty pause, in more ways than one. The vicar saw his breath in the air.

‘We haven’t quite sorted this one out, have we vicar?’

‘Haven’t we? No – I suppose the nettle hasn’t been completely grasped,’ said Rex, rather hoping the whole thing had quietly blown over. ‘I mean, in a way it was nothing.’

‘Not from where I lay in hospital.’

‘Did it hurt?’

‘Hurt? My guts felt like they were melting in acid!’

‘You’d just been so beastly to me!’ said Rex, breaking down in tears. ‘You were always saying the Winter Fayre was rubbish!’

‘It is.’

‘Well, it may be,’ said Rex now sobbing uncontrollably, ‘but it’s not very nice if that’s all I hear as the organiser! Not very nice at all.’

The vicar was reaching for his hanky, but in clerical dress, this could take a while. There were side holes in the robes, but he could never find them in time – particularly when about to sneeze in the pulpit. Embarrassing! In the end, Lord Jo gave him a hanky of his.

‘Here, take this,’ he said. ‘It’s clean; and it’s paid for.’

‘Thank you,’ said Rex, as his weeping calmed. ‘And I am sorry for what I did. There’s no excuse, I know. Apart from the one I just gave, obviously.’

‘I’ll take it no further, on one condition,’ said Lord Jo.

‘Really? What’s that?’ asked Rex.

*

They had spent the night in the driest enclave they could find; chill to the bone, and huddled together, seeking each other’s warmth.

‘We’re lost,’ said Inky. ‘We’re as lost as the Lost City of Atlantis!’

‘We do seem to have taken a lot of wrong turnings,’ said David, beginning to feel like he used to in Café Disappointment. Why had he dared hope again?

‘No such thing,’ said the Kid, as she returned to the group after some private exploring.

‘Well why aren’t we out of here then?’ asked Inky.

‘First, find the paths that lead nowhere,’ said the Kid.

‘We’ve done that pretty well!’

‘And all else will become apparent. It’s only a wrong turning if you don’t learn from it. Shall we go?’

Hungry and irritable, the party set off in the dark. Billy found himself next to the doctor.

‘What will become of me, Dr Hafiz? I mean, can people like me be healed?’

‘That’s up to you,’ said the doctor. ‘But we are not so different.’

‘But everyone else is so nice.’

‘Hah!’

‘While I just do mad and dangerous things.’

‘You know what they say, Billy: ‘Every saint has a past, and every sinner a future’.’

They all walked in silence for a while.

The kid then asked them to turn back the way they’d come, which didn’t improve the general mood. But Billy was still smiling: ‘If those are the last words I ever hear, doctor,’ he said, ‘Then I’ll die happy.’

But he smiled alone. For there, in dark corridors of despair, they had reached the zero hour; the hour which either breeds new equations – or destroys all.

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