A tale set in an alternative reality, featuring conscious curries, headbanging sheep, telepathic cats, magic cheese, an evil Baron, some very sexy faeries and a Welsh Viking Flatulence Rock band. 'Sometimes there are tales that must be told, songs that must be sung and farts that must be farted'. —
Merlin ‘Cracky’ Crackfoot was not quite his usual cheery self today, despite the success of the previous night. Today was the 30th anniversary of his father’s death and he still missed him greatly.
Morgan Crackfoot was the last of the great wizards of Llangollen. He was also a kind and patient man who used his powers to help others, and Cracky had always wanted to emulate him. When he was young he would practice magic every day, sitting on his father’s knee, whilst the attentive Morgan watched and guided him with wise and loving words. Sadly for Cracky he was what could be described as ‘magically dyslexic’. He understood the principles of magic, but he simply couldn’t get to grips with it in any kind of practical perspective. That’s not to say he couldn’t perform any magic at all, it’s just that it never quite went as he intended. His first real attempt with fire spells provided a clue to his unfortunate condition.
It all started fine, as he adopted the correct posture, thrusting his arms out and concentrating on the freshly-chopped wood piled high on the log fire. It was only when he opened his mouth that things went slightly awry, with the words ‘Inflamus Logs’ somehow being translated by his will into ‘Inflamus Rocks’. Sadly, the large log fire in the cottage remained unlit, whilst the cat with the flaming testicles made a very swift exit into the nearby stream.
However, Cracky discovered that he did have a natural aptitude for cookery, after imaginatively embellishing a recipe he found one day in his mother’s cookbook. He assembled all of the listed ingredients, seemed to know intuitively what to add to enhance the texture and flavour, and created what both his mother and father agreed was a delicious steak and raspberry soufflé.
From this point onwards there was no stopping him, and, if anything, his prodigious talent for creating gourmet masterpieces from mixing together the most unlikely ingredients was the equal of his father’s gift for wizardry. However, as gratifying as it was to see his parents so proud of his culinary achievements, he still longed to follow in his father’s magically altruistic footsteps… so the cat kept out of his way most of the time.
‘Excuse me,’ Aiden said, from the doorway of Cracky’s Diner, ‘but is there a bank around here at all?’
‘What?’ Cracky said, snapping out of his thoughts. ‘Oh, yes, about ten minutes’ walk, just on the outskirts of the town centre.’
‘Thanks. Er, what’s the branch called?’
‘The Black Bank, of course,’ Cracky replied. ‘They’re all Black Bank branches now, sadly.’
Cracky looked Aiden up and down, noting his hair, clothes and general demeanour. ‘I sense that you’re a stranger to these parts, Mr…?’
‘Peersey, Aiden Peersey.’
‘Well, Mr Peersey, my instincts tell me you are quite a ways from home. And, I would add, not too familiar with this area?’
‘You could say that,’ Aiden replied. ‘But please, call me Aiden.’
‘Aiden it is then,’ said Cracky. ‘I can accompany you, if you like. I need to head down to the bank myself. By the way, the name’s Merlin Crackfoot, but please call me Cracky, everyone else does.’
‘Thanks, Cracky. I’d appreciate that.’
Aiden found Cracky to be very good company. In the ten minutes it took to walk to the bank, he told him all about his Diner, all about Llangollen and its inhabitants, and he strongly recommended ‘The Sheep’s Stirrup’ as a place to stay. He was particularly scathing about Baron Blacktie, who, he said, ruled North Wales, Chester and the Wirral with an iron fist, and had introduced many unpopular laws.
The sign in the window of the Black Bank said ‘Bank with the Black Bank and Your Money is Safe.’ In smaller letters underneath it read ‘After all, it’s not as if you have a choice’. Aiden could see another poster on the wall behind the counter which read ‘Your Money is Our Money… and we like to keep it like that’.
‘Right, I’m going to see Mr Grabitall, the manager,’ Cracky said. ‘Unless he wants a fight again, I shouldn’t be more than five minutes. There’s the ATM in the doorway.’
Aiden tentatively inserted his card and fully expected it to be eaten by the machine, no doubt followed by alarm bells, armed guards and god knew what else. Instead, the screen asked for his pin number. He entered his pin and was given the option of how much cash he wished to withdraw. Having no idea what things were likely to cost, he opted for the maximum, which was £200. A few seconds later his card was returned and a little metal flap opened, providing him with a mixture of ten and twenty pound notes. He breathed a sigh of relief, placed the card back in his wallet and examined the money.
All the notes bore the image of Baron Blacktie. On the front of £10 note he was dressed in military regalia, looking out to sea; on the back he was seen playing with children, laughing (although Aiden noticed that the children didn’t look so cheery). On the front of the £20 note he was sat on a throne with a ferret on his knee; on the back he was in serious pose reading from a book.
For all his vanity, and there was a great deal of that, Baron Blacktie was as astute with money as he was devious and treacherous. After he was elected Supreme Ruler, he decided to merge all of the independent banks under one banner, ‘The Black Bank.’ Now, not all the banks were keen to simply throw in their lot with the Baron, irrespective of his promises of higher interest rates for loans, lower interest rates for savings, and the introduction of harsh penalties for unauthorised overdrafts. The Baron didn’t take too kindly to any dissenting voices and made personal visits to see the concerned parties. He was always accompanied to these meetings by his personal bodyguard, Grunt.
Now, Grunt may have been a troll; he may have been the missing link between man and Neanderthal; he may have been abandoned by his parents because he’d never be in a successful boy band; or he may simply have come from Rhyl. Nobody knew, but nobody asked and nobody argued with him. The dissenting voices became assenting voices when they met Grunt.
‘Now, come on, Mrs Muncher, you know the rules,’ an armed bank guard said, as he escorted a little old lady out of the bank’s front door.
‘But I’m only 10p overdrawn,’ protested Mrs Muncher, ‘and that’s because I didn’t think the direct debit for my new subscription of “Tai Chi Bingo for Beginners” would come out until next week, and that’s when I pay my pension in.’
‘That’s too bad, I’m afraid,’ the guard said, as a second guard handed him a large hammer. ‘Now, if you’ll kindly lie down here so I can get a good swing at those knees, please.’
Mrs Muncher lay down and the second guard grabbed her ankles. ‘Now keep still, this will only take a second.’
‘What on earth do you think you’re doing?’ Aiden said, standing in the way of the guard with the hammer.
‘Move out of the way, sir, please. This is a bank matter, I’m sure you understand.’
‘No, I bloody well don’t understand. The lady said she’s only 10p overdrawn and you’re going to kneecap her. That’s barbaric!’
‘Well, overdraft punishment is overdraft punishment, and she drew straws to see which one she’d get after all,’ the guard said. ‘She could have got nostril stretching or severe ear twisting, but she got kneecapping. That’s just the way it goes, I’m afraid. Rules are rules.’
Aiden weighed up the situation. He wasn’t exactly small, but he figured that the two guards would be able to overpower him easily if he physically intervened. Plus, if this ritual was in some bizarre way accepted in this reality he was in danger of exposing himself as an outsider, and the last thing he wanted was any kind of brush with the authorities, particularly if this is how they dealt with overdrafts.
‘So, do you actually want to break her kneecaps?’ he said to the guard with the hammer.
‘Er, no, not really, sir. But, as I said, rules are rules.’
‘But, if you do break her kneecaps it’s pretty likely she won’t be able to walk again, particularly given her age, would you not agree?’
‘Oh, there’s no way she’ll walk again after this, sir. Not a chance,’
‘In fact, it’s possible that she could die from shock, or from a heart attack?’
‘I’d say that’s a very likely possibility, sir.’
Mrs Muncher was still lying on the ground listening intently. So was the second guard. ‘And,’ Aiden continued, ‘if that happened she’d still be overdrawn and wouldn’t be in a position to be able to clear the overdraft.’
‘I never really thought about it like that, but I believe you’d be right, sir.’
A small crowd was beginning to gather, and Aiden felt he was on a bit of a roll. ‘So, you’d actually serve the bank better if you didn’t kneecap her, as that way she’d still be a regular customer.’
‘Are you suggesting that we stretch her nostrils or twist her ears severely instead, sir?’
‘No, no. I’m suggesting that you, Mr… ’
‘Tenderhands, Albert Tenderhands,’ the first guard replied.
‘I’m suggesting that you, Mr Tenderhands, make an executive decision to delay her punishment, thereby allowing her to collect her pension next week and pay it into the bank.’
‘And then we kneecap her?’ said the second guard, who was still holding Mrs Muncher’s legs.
‘No, you won’t have to, because then she’ll have cleared the overdraft and there’ll be no reason for any punishment.’
‘Doesn’t sound right to me, Albert,’ the second guard said.
‘Executive decision, eh,’ said Albert. ‘I’ve never had to make an executive decision before. Why it would almost feel like a promotion.’
‘Yes, it would,’ Aiden said. ‘Now, Mrs Muncher, can you promise that you’ll come in next week, as soon as you get your pension, and pay it into the bank to clear your overdraft?’
‘Too bloody right I will,’ Mrs Muncher said, nodding frantically.
‘Well, then, Mr Tenderhands, are you going to bend the rules and make that executive decision, thereby doing the bank a great service?’
‘Bend the rules. That’s a new one, I’ll say,’ Albert said, and you could almost see the wheels of his mind turning… slowly.
‘Right then, Mrs Muncher,’ he said after some serious chin rubbing, ‘I’ve made an executive decision. I hereby grant you a delay in your overdraft punishment, thereby allowing you to clear said overdraft next week when you pick up your pension. Do you agree?’
‘Oh, yes. Thank you, thank you,’ said Mrs Muncher, as she was helped to her feet by the second guard.
‘If you don’t, of course, your kneecaps are forfeit,’ Albert added.
The small crowd broke into a round of applause and Mrs Muncher stretched up to plant a kiss on Aiden’s cheek. Cracky walked out into the street just as the crowd started to disperse. ‘What’s all the commotion here, then?’ he asked.
‘That young man just saved Mrs Muncher from a kneecapping,’ shouted a small, portly gentleman with a red face and matching cardigan.
‘Did he now?’ Cracky said, raising an eyebrow, as Aiden simply shrugged. ‘C’mon, then, I’ll walk you back to the Diner and then lunch is on me. After that we’ll sort you out a room at The Sheep’s Stirrup.’
‘By the way,’ he added, as they set off down the street, ‘do you happen to like rock music, by any chance?’
‘Yes, as a matter of fact I do.’
‘Well, you’re in for a treat later. It’s live music night at the Stirrup and Sacred Wind are playing. They’re actually very good.’
‘Oh, right,’ said Aiden, blissfully unaware of what the night would bring.
‘C’mon, Tikky we’re going to be late,’ Vindy shouted to his wife, from the sumptuous surroundings of the Wrexham Grand Palace morning room. ‘What are you doing?’
‘I’m still getting dressed, darling, I won’t be too long,’ Tikky, shouted back.
‘Just a little more around the edge and a slight sprinkle on top and then I think we’ll be done, Your Majesty,’ Tikky’s hand maiden, Greta, said. ‘You look absolutely delicious and I think there’ll be gentlemen drooling when they see you today.’
‘You’re very kind, Greta. Let’s just hope the King appreciates all the effort. The people expect us to set an example and the least I can do is to look my absolute best when we go on walkabouts.’
‘Is it Your Majesty’s intention to travel straight to Llangollen, following the parade?’ Greta asked.
‘Indeed it is. The King and I haven’t had a good night out for ages, and I do so enjoy the music at The Sheep’s Stirrup. I’m ever so glad Maurice invited us over. But please remember, not a word to anyone. We want to keep this strictly under the radar,’ Tikky said, as the two of them began to make their way down the main stairway to where the King and his man servant, Harold, waited.
‘My dear, you look absolutely divine. I’ll be the envy of every curry in Wrexham,’ King Beef Vindaloo-Boiled Rice III said. ‘That touch of parsley and sprinkling of coriander really beings out your flavour, and you smell scrumptious.’
‘You don’t look so bad yourself,’ Queen Chicken Tikka Masala-Coconut Rice said. ‘I love the mango chutney, it makes you look sweet. Was that Harold’s idea?’
‘Of course, I don’t know what I’d do without him,’ the King replied.
‘Your Majesty is too modest, in this instance.’ Harold said, ‘Although the idea may have been mine, the choice of placement on the plate was His Majesty’s.’
‘You look very nice too, Harold,’ said Greta. ‘That jacket really sets off your eyes.’
‘And you look as radiant as ever, Greta. It is my honour to walk at your side, as well as to carry my King.’
‘I think there may be love in the air, Vindy,’ Tikky whispered to her husband.
‘Heh, heh. I think you might be right, my darling. I can hear the sound of wedding bells already.’
Wrexham had been a ‘Currydom’ since 1979, following the hardship the people had suffered during the ‘Risotto Wars’. Prior to this, men and curries had lived in peace and harmony for many years, respecting each other’s cultures and sympathetic to each other’s needs. However, following the 1968 legislation by the Welsh Parliament officially recognising curries as conscious entities, dark forces sought to infiltrate the curry community, spurring on insurgency, sabotage and acts of terrorism. Suddenly, eating in a curry house was no longer the peaceful, gastronomic experience it once was. Attacks by suicide Naan breads became common, overly hot poppadoms became the norm, and many curries sought to make themselves unpalatable by ingesting copious amounts of cinnamon.
The self-proclaimed leader of the rebel movement, ‘El Currieda’, was Bishop Chicken Biryani-Onion Bhaji, a mad zealot who believed the words written in ‘The Holy Recipe Book of Curry’ should be taken literally. He blamed men for the corruption of the ‘pure’ curries, and so began his campaign of terror and watery rice. His second in command was the evil genius Dr Prawn Balti-Naan, who desired to create the ‘super curry’, conducting hideous genetic experiments involving turmeric powder and strawberries.
However, not all curries viewed the actions and ambitions of Bishop Chicken Biryani-Onion Bhaji as representative. This group, ‘Curry Action for Culture and Knowledge’, or ‘C.A.C.K.’ for short, at first sought a diplomatic path with the mad Bishop. Their leader, Colonel Pork Pasanda-Chapati, tried in vain to convince him that his crusade of wanton curry-led violence was tearing the community apart. A series of meetings proved fruitless, largely due to the Bishop’s increasing megalomania but also due to a dearth of sultanas. Draft treaties were torn up and the curry community of Wrexham effectively found itself in a state of civil war.
All this chaos let the Italians in, with the head of the Wrexham Risottos, Luigi Risotto Alla Milanese, sensing it was time for them to make their move for power. Spurred on by the division in the curry ranks, the Risottos opened many new restaurants and also took over previously established curry houses. As the ruling council of El Currieda watched the madness of their leader accelerate, and witnessed their rapid decline as the dish of choice, they realised there was only one course of action that could be taken.
Bishop Chicken Biryani-Onion Bhaji met his grim end during a parade through the centre of Wrexham on a cold November morning. The Chapatis came out of nowhere and many suspected it must have been an inside job to get past all the security. Some said they only saw one, others said it was at least two, and many more swear that the last Chapati came from behind a grassy knoll. Nevertheless, the Bishop’s plate was wiped clean and only a lone Chapati was caught, and he was killed shortly afterwards by a rogue Samosa. The conspiracy of who killed Bishop Chicken Biryani-Onion Bhaji continues to this day.
With the Bishop gone, Colonel Pork Pasanda-Chapati and his brave second in command, Lieutenant Beef Vindaloo-Boiled Rice III, galvanised the curry populace and took the battle to the Italians. The final showdown took place in Fabio’s Pizzaria, with curries and Risottos on the same table for the first time. Bedlam ensued, but the Risottos had bitten off more than they could chew and the curries emerged triumphant… but it took weeks to get the rice out of the carpet.
However, although victory was theirs it came at a heavy price, when an errant Italian waiter knocked Colonel Pork Pasanda-Chapati to the floor. Faced with certain death due to a severely smashed plate, the Colonel passed over command to the young Lieutenant who had served him so well, and who promised to make his wish that men and curries would live in peace once more a reality.
The people of Wrexham, endeared by the bravery and morals of the curries, recognised that their own rulers in the council were actually a bunch of idiots who cared more about attending fetes, filling out expenses forms and erecting statues of themselves rather than governing effectively. So, following a request that they all bugger off, an independent poll was held and it was decreed by the people that Lieutenant Beef Vindaloo-Boiled Rice III be crowned King.
The royal monthly walkabouts in Wrexham were always joyous occasions, and Vindy and Tikky would always make a point of greeting everyone who queued up patiently to see them. As usual, the press were there and the royal couple were also equally gracious to them, always posing for photographs. They understood all too well the advantages of having a good relationship with the media.
‘Over here, Your Majesty,’ a skinny fellow with odd eyes from the Wrexham Gazette said, to Tikky. ‘If you can just turn slightly sideways, please, so I can get a good shot of your bay leaves.’
Back at the palace, the preparations were being made for tonight’s undisclosed visit to The Sheep’s Stirrup. As the King and Queen returned they were greeted by the head of their Imperial Guard, General Lamb Korma-Saffron Rice.
‘Good day, Your Majesties. And can I just say that you both look splendid.’
‘Why thank you, Saffy,’ the Queen said, using the informal name that both she and the King addressed the General by. ‘And you look as dashing as usual. Is everything prepared?’
‘Yes, Your Majesty. Your unmarked carriage awaits, and I will accompany you for the trip, if Your Majesties are in agreement.
‘I’m not surprised you’re not letting us out of your sight, Saffy, and it is appreciated,’ said the King. ‘I must say, though, I would have thought you’d have insisted on some form of armed guard for the trip.’
‘Well, ahem, although we may be travelling effectively alone, we will be followed by a battalion of elite Tandoori Naans. However, they are under orders to keep their distance and only to move on my command,’ Saffy replied.
‘Oh, one more thing, Saffy,’ Tikky said, as they were carried into the carriage, ‘are we still to meet with you know who?’
‘We are Your Majesty. I have received communication that both parties will be present this evening.’
‘Ok, then, what are we waiting for,’ said Vindy. ‘Let’s hit the road, cause I’m in the mood for dancing!’
‘Calm down, dear, you’ll make your rice go sticky,’ Tikky said.
And with that the carriage sped off to Llangollen and their date with destiny.
Aiden thought the food at Cracky’s Diner was rather good, as he quickly polished off a healthy portion of Chicken of Catastrophe and Scallops of Shock, with some Peas of Dread on the side. This was washed down with one of Cracky’s excellent home-brewed ales.
‘I have to say, Cracky, I’d never have guessed that melon, garlic and chicken would work so well together. That was one of the best meals I’ve had in ages.’
‘You’re welcome,’ said Cracky. ‘One does one’s best. Now, I’m not due to open again until 5:00 pm so, if you’d like, I’ll walk over to the Stirrup with you. I can have a quick catch-up with Maurice.’
‘Thanks, but I was going to have a walk down to the park first to have a look at the fair. I believe there’s a sheep orchestra playing and that’s something I’d like to see.’
‘The OSO, yes, they’re very good. Would you mind if I joined you?’
As they began the short walk to the park on the banks of the River Dee, Aiden thought he’d better check on his car. ‘Well, bless my soul, you don’t see many of these old things anymore,’ Cracky said.
‘Oh, yes it is a bit of a classic,’ said Aiden, proudly. ‘I didn’t see any other cars on the roads when I arrived, so parking was pretty easy. Is this because of the fair?’
‘No, not at all,’ Cracky said, ‘hardly anyone drives these machines these days. They went out of fashion about forty years ago. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one in such good condition.’
Aiden’s look of surprise didn’t escape Cracky’s notice, and as they walked to the park an uneasy silence decided to hang around to see what was going to happen next.
‘I think, my friend, that you are, shall we say, quite a long way from home. Would that be fair?’ Cracky said, after about a minute.
‘It would appear so,’ Aiden replied. ‘It’s a bit of a long story.’
‘Well, I tell you what, then. Tomorrow, after you’ve had an enjoyable night at the Stirrup and perhaps feel a bit more settled in, why don’t you come to the Diner for lunch. I’m cooking a new special, The Salmon of Panic. I think you’ll like it; the bananas really bring out the flavour. And perhaps afterwards we can have a chat.’
Aiden smiled and agreed with a silent nod.
The Grand Carnival of Shearing and Hoof Waxing was a kaleidoscope of colour and sound, wrapped up in an intoxicating blend of aromas. People and sheep bustled hither and thither, meandering between the many stalls that were selling a variety of produce. There was certainly plenty of hoof waxing and shearing going on, with the vendors competing vigorously with each other for customers.
‘Get your hooves waxed here! Only the finest Welsh hoof wax used. Ten pence a hoof for ewes, fifteen pence a hoof for rams, and its buy one get one free!’ a large man in a trench coat and a straw boater hat yelled.
‘Free hoof waxing for lambs!’ another man wearing white overalls shouted. ‘And free lollipops too. We use the same hoof wax as the OSO; it’s the finest English Shimmy Shine.’
The stalls offering shearing were equally as assertive with their advertising strategy. ‘Ewe, madam, yes, ewe!’ a rather dashing-looking young farmer shouted to a giggling group of sheep. ‘Look at the styles we’ve got on offer today. Tight perms, loose perms, why we’ll even perm round your udders. C’mon, the rams won’t be able to resist ewe!’
‘Latest cuts from the City,’ a stocky man with shorts and very hairy legs proclaimed. ‘Want to look like a celebrity? Well you’ve come to the right place. Get the fleece you’ve always dreamed of. Shampooed, cut and blow dried to perfection. Go on, you know you’re worth it!’
Aiden and Cracky watched the OSO perform a couple of well-executed pieces of music to an appreciative crowd. He may have been in a completely different reality but Aiden actually felt quite at ease, thoroughly enjoying the music and festivities. And then he spotted something on the river that made his heart skip a beat. It was a replica Viking long ship, complete with a mighty wooden dragon at the prow and another at the helm.
‘Come on,’ Cracky said, walking towards the ship, ‘there’s someone I’d like you to meet.’
As they got closer, Aiden could see a huge man in a Viking costume standing proudly with his arms crossed on the prow, watching over the throngs of people and sheep on board. ‘Five minutes until we sail!’ shouted the Viking. ‘For Odin, for glory and for Sacred Wind!’ Then he uncrossed his arms, lifted his huge broadsword into the air… and farted loudly, which was met by cheers from the crowd.
‘See him,’ said Cracky, pointing at the Viking. ‘He’s the lead vocalist and guitarist in the band you’ll be watching tonight.’
‘You’re not serious?’ Aiden said, with a smile.
‘Oh, yes. Fantastic voice and a pretty good guitar player.’
‘My, my and how is my good friend Mr Crackfoot today,’ a small man with a very long, grey beard said.
‘I’m very well, Mr Olafson. Nice to see you again,’ Cracky replied, warmly shaking the bearded man by the hand. ‘And this here is Aiden Peersey.’
‘Oldfart,’ the bearded man said, extending his hand towards Aiden.
‘Pardon,’ Aiden replied.
‘Mr Olafson… Oldfart Olafson,’ the bearded man said, keeping his hand outstretched. ‘But please call me Oldfart.’
Aiden couldn’t help but smile again. ‘Pleased to meet you, Oldfart,’ he said, accepting the handshake.
‘Are the band well-prepared for tonight’s gig at the Stirrup?’ Cracky asked.
‘Well, that’s what they tell me,’ Oldfart said. ‘They’re trying out a couple of new numbers tonight, so we’ll have to see how they get received. It’s a very strong set list now, though, and I reckon they’re ready to move on to the next level.’
‘Oldfart’s the manager of Sacred Wind,’ Cracky said to Aiden.
Aiden was continuing to eye the Viking ship on the river, which didn’t go unnoticed by Oldfart. ‘Would you like a trip on the boat? I’m sure we can squeeze you two in somewhere.’
The man in the Viking costume released the anchor, whilst another equally large Viking untied the thick hawser that moored the boat to the old, wooden jetty. The craft then moved silently out into the river, steered manfully by Oldfart Olafson. The passengers cheered again and Aiden felt rather splendid. The sun was shining and the river glistened as it reflected the warm rays. ‘Isn’t this exciting!’ said one of the little sheep that Aiden had met earlier, still dressed in its pirate costume.
‘Yes, it is rather,’ he replied, truthfully.
It was after about five minutes that Aiden started to think about propulsion. He couldn’t detect a motor, there was nobody rowing, and even though the huge sail was raised there didn’t really seem to be enough wind for the ship to be travelling as effortlessly as it seemed. The big wooden dragon that towered over Oldfart, as he navigated the ship, stared silently ahead, like an immense, unmoving guardian. Then, only for a split second, it moved its eyes and looked sideways at Aiden.
‘Cracky, did you see that? That dragon’s eyes moved, I swear to you.’
‘Really?’ Cracky responded. ‘You’re very honoured, she normally doesn’t give most folks the time of day.’
‘Ethel,’ Cracky said. ‘That’s her name. She’s very rare, you know. In fact she may be the last of her kind. It’s her ship. Well, essentially, she is the ship.’
Aiden stared up at Ethel, but her eyes were now unblinking, focussed on the river ahead. ‘Would you like to hear the story?’ Cracky said.
‘I’d love to.’
‘Okay, then. Legend has it that long, long ago a fleet of Viking ships set sail in search of adventure and treasure. They sought a magical island that was thought to be lost, yet which had been sighted on several occasions by sea farers. After many weeks of searching, they finally sighted the island; but then, from nowhere, a mighty tempest erupted around them. The storm claimed all but two of the ships, but both were badly damaged, although they eventually managed to reach the island. Now, Odin, who as you may know is the King of the Norse Gods, watched these events from on high and was impressed by the bravery of the men who had managed to steer their ships through the violent storm. Many, though, had died and those that were left were close to death. So, the legend says, he gave them the Blessed Bottom Breath of Life, thus reviving and repairing their bodies, and enriching their souls. Also, in order for them to safely return home, he gave the same gift to the two ships, infusing them with life... and a soul. This is one of the reasons that Vikings regard the passing of wind as sacred. They believe every fart is a blessing.’
‘Oh, I see,’ Aiden said, with a barely-concealed smile.
The dragon once again turned its eyes slightly towards Aiden and winked. ‘I really have seen everything now,’ he said, as the ship turned and began the journey back to the fair.
‘Actually you probably haven’t,’ chuckled Cracky. ‘Anyway, let’s head for the Stirrup when we get back on shore. We’ll get you sorted out with a room and then I need to open the Diner.’
‘I am Mr Breezy and my partner here is Mr Waft,’ the tall man holding the briefcase said. ‘We’d like a room, please,’
‘Yes,’ said the shorter man, ‘preferably one with a view of the river.’
‘It’s your lucky day, good sirs,’ said Maurice Fluffywool. ‘We’ve only two rooms left but they both have a lovely view of the Dee.’
‘We’ll only need one, thank you,’ Mr Breezy said.
‘Oh, I see,’ Maurice said, winking. ‘Well, we’re very enlightened around here, so that’s not a problem.’
‘Ah, I fear you may be incorrectly assessing our status,’ Mr Breezy said, his face reddening. ‘Ours is purely a business relationship. There is, I assure you, no impropriety of any nature. We share a room so we can keep our costs low and so that we may discuss and plan our business strategy.’
‘Indeed,’ Mr Waft added, ‘we sometimes sit long into the wee hours discussing the ins and outs of things.’
They both wore long, green coats and had matching black, bowler hats. Maurice thought they looked a bit shifty so he decided to probe. ‘What kind of business are you gentleman involved in, then?’
‘These are strange times, Mr Fluffywool,’ Mr Breezy said, dramatically. ‘We are here on matters of extreme sensitivity. Our clients do not always like to wash their dirty linen in public, so to speak.’
‘Ah, so you two are spies are you?’ Maurice replied.
‘Er, no, no, of course not,’ Mr Waft said, slightly agitated. ‘What makes you think we are spies?’
‘Well you do have the look of spies about you gentlemen, and I’ve met a few in my time. Also, isn’t that black briefcase a spy kit?’
Mr Breezy and Mr Waft looked at each other and laughed. Then they looked at Maurice and chortled. Then they tittered… and ended with some ‘tee, hee, hees.’
‘No, Mr Fluffywool, we are purely Vagrant Vacuum Cleaner Exorcists, trying to earn an honest crust,’ Mr Breezy said.
‘Oh, I had no idea vacuum cleaner possession was an issue these days,’ Maurice said. ‘I’ve certainly not heard of anything of that nature in these parts of late.’
‘Ah, you would be surprised, Mr Fluffywool,’ said Mr Breezy. ‘We have just crossed the border from England and the situation in some villages there was horrendous.’
‘Horrendous,’ echoed Mr Waft.
‘Indeed,’ said Mr Breezy. ‘Sadly, we got to one village too late and they had already begun burning vacuum cleaners at the stake, fearing this was the only method they could employ to stem the evil tide. It was a terrible sight.’
‘And a dusty one,’ Mr Waft added.
‘We hope that the special blessings we can bestow on your town will perhaps prevent you from witnessing the horrors we have seen. This is our goal, this is our purpose, this is our quest,’ Mr Breezy said, grandly.
‘Here, here!’ shouted Mr Waft.
‘Well, in which case, I can only wish you gentlemen good fortune,’ Maurice said. ‘And I’ll certainly sleep more soundly in my bed knowing that my vacuum cleaner is far less likely to indulge in projectile-vomiting and speaking in tongues when I try to get into those tricky corner areas. Right, the room will be £10 a night, including our rather delicious Welsh breakfast. How many nights will you be staying?’
‘I would envisage just two,’ Mr Breezy said. ‘Although this will obviously be dependent upon when we feel our mission, and your safety, is assured.’
‘Well, if you can just sign here, please, Mr Breezy,’ Maurice said, passing him the guest book. ‘And here’s your key to Room 13. Go up the stairs and it’s the last room on the right, at the end of the corridor.’
‘Thank you, Mr Fluffywool,’ Mr Breezy said, as he and Mr Waft walked towards the stairs. ‘Oh, one more thing,’ he said, turning back to Maurice. ‘We have a passing interest in ancient structures and we noticed a fascinating old cheese mine near a large group of standing stones as we travelled here. Do you perhaps know anything of this mine and who it belongs to?’
‘Oh, that’s been closed for many years. It used to be owned by a quaint old chap called Hairy Growler, but he transferred ownership to the McSvensson clan just days before his death.’
‘The McSvensson clan!’ Mr Waft said, somewhat alarmed.
‘Yes, have you heard of them?’
‘We have,’ Mr Breezy replied, as he and Mr Waft exchanged nervous glances. ‘They are the most feared warriors in the land.’
‘Yes, indeed,’ said Maurice. ‘But Angus McSvensson bequeathed it to his cousin as a birthday gift, on the understanding that he takes care of it from time to time. As you can imagine, the McSvenssons don’t tend to travel to these parts much.’
Mr Breezy and Mr Waft relaxed visibly. ‘And would you know the whereabouts of this cousin at all?’ Mr Breezy said.
‘His name is Agnar the Hammered and he plays drums in a quite excellent band by the name of Sacred Wind. They are performing in this establishment this very evening, so I’m sure I can introduce you.’
‘Thank you, Mr Fluffywool, that information is much appreciated,’ said Mr Breezy, as they went up the stairs.
‘I thought he was onto us for a minute there,’ Nob said, closing the door to room 13 behind him.
‘Yes, but I feel our supreme acting skills have once again ensured that our disguises remain intact,’ Hob replied, putting his briefcase down next to one of the two single beds.
‘Quite,’ Nob agreed.
Hob went over and stared out of the window at the pleasant view of the town and river below. ‘So, it belongs to a drummer,’ he said. ‘This could make our task easier than we thought.’
Virtually as soon as Mr Breezy and Mr Waft had disappeared upstairs, Aiden and Cracky walked thought the door. Aiden was still smiling. ‘You seem very happy, Mr Peersey,’ said Maurice. ‘And good day, Mr Crackfoot, I believe that the “Cuisine de la Terreur” went very well last night.’
‘Good day, Maurice. Yes, it did, thanks,’ said Cracky. ‘I just need to take it easy with the garlic and pineapple sauce next time.’
Maurice immediately began to fill up two glasses for them. ‘And I do feel much better now, Maurice,’ Aiden said, as he and Cracky leaned on the bar. ‘I was feeling a little odd before, but the visit to the carnival has cleared my head a bit.’
‘Cheshire Black,’ Maurice whispered to Cracky.
‘Aiden would very much like a room, if you have any spare,’ Cracky said. ‘Although we’re not sure how many nights this would be for.’
‘You’re in luck, Aiden,’ Maurice said, ‘I’ve only one left, but it’s very nice with a lovely view of the Dee. Mind you, it’s a good job the two spies who’ve just checked in only wanted one room.’
‘Spies?’ Cracky said.
‘Well, they said they were Vagrant Vacuum Cleaner Exorcists, but I’m pretty sure they’re spies. I can smell them a mile off. They want to chat to Agnar about that old mine of his. I suspect they’re probably harmless but I’ll keep an eye on them.’
‘I knew a lady whose vacuum cleaner became possessed once,’ Cracky said. ‘It used to drive her up the wall… and even onto the ceiling sometimes. I’ll check out these two “spies” tonight, as well.’
Maurice placed their drinks on the bar and Aiden produced his wallet, only to be waved away by Maurice’s hoof. ‘No, this one’s on the house, gentlemen. First drink is free for guests and as Mr Crackfoot kindly recommended my establishment as your abode of choice, he can have one too.’
‘Very kind of you, again,’ Aiden said.
‘Yes, cheers, Maurice,’ said Cracky.
‘So, did you enjoy the OSO today?’ Maurice asked, bringing out the guest book from under the bar.
‘Very much so,’ Aiden replied.
‘My brother, Henry, is their conductor and musical arranger, you know. He’ll be around tonight, as he tends to stay over when they’re playing in the area. If you’d like I’ll introduce you to him. He can be a bit snooty but he has a good heart really.’
‘I’d be delighted,’ said Aiden.
‘Right then, the room will be £8 a night, including breakfast. And just wait until you’ve tried my Blanche’s sausages! I swear you’ll never want to taste any other sausages again. Sign here please.’
Aiden signed his name and Maurice handed him the key to room number 11. ‘Up the stairs to the left and it’s the third room from the end of the corridor, on the right hand side.’
‘Thanks, Maurice. I’ll have a quick look now, but then I need to go back into town to try and buy some spare clothes. Can you recommend anywhere?’
‘Well, you could try “Ruffles Garments”,’ Maurice said, ‘although he tends to specialise in sheepwear. There’s also “Chez Viking”, but I’m not sure if their styles would suit you.’
‘Yes, I think Aiden requires something a little more contemporary,’ Cracky interjected. ‘I would have thought that “Mr Kneepatcher’s Trouser and Jacket Emporium” may well fit the bill.’
‘Now, why didn’t I think of that!’ exclaimed Maurice.
‘Right, then, if you walk with me back to the Diner now, I’ll give you directions. It’s literally around the corner,’ Cracky said. ‘But watch out he doesn’t try and sell you his entire stock. He’s a nice chap but he can be pretty pushy.’
‘So what is it that sir is looking for exactly?’ Mr Kneepatcher quizzed, his tape measure draped around his neck and his glasses perched on the end of his long nose.
‘A couple of pairs of pants, jeans preferably, some t-shirts, socks, underwear, a shirt, a pair of boots and perhaps a jacket,’ Aiden replied, as the pound signs began to light up in Mr Kneepatcher’s eyes.
‘Of course, sir, of course, absolutely-dutely,’ Mr Kneepatcher gushed, as he pulled the tape measure from around his neck. ‘Please come this way so I can take sir’s measurements. Has sir had a good day?’
‘It’s been interesting,’ Aiden replied.
‘Is sir going to the concert at The Sheep’s Stirrup tonight, to see Sacred Wind?’ Mr Kneepatcher said, as he took Aiden’s inside leg measurement. ‘Ooh, I do love those Viking costumes. They make me go all of a dither!’
‘Yes, I am, as a matter of fact. I’ve heard they’re very good.’
‘Oh, they are, sir,’ Mr Kneepatcher said, putting the tape measure around Aiden’s chest. ‘That Olaf, the singer, he gives me goosebumps when he sings the high notes in the big ballads. Mind you, I’m not surprised when his trousers are that tight. I swear I just go to putty.’
As Aiden was being measured up for just about everything, he looked out of the shop window. The Hefty Swingers had used many different methods of transporting equipment to gigs in the past; vans, cars, even by train once. However, he was pretty sure they’d never used a horse and cart.
‘Watch out for that pothole, Smid, my right bass drum nearly jumped out of the cart last time,’ Agnar the Hammered shouted, from the back of the cart.
‘We’ll be fine, Agnar, Smid the Merciless said. ‘The suspension’s been fixed and old Bertha’s calmed down a bit now that stallion’s not in the field next to the pub anymore.’
‘I do hope Roisin will be there tonight,’ Agnar said, with a dreamy look.
‘Oh, you’re not still trying to woo her, are you?’ said Grundi the Windy. ‘She’s out of your league.’
‘Aw, now c’mon, Grundi,’ Agnar said. ‘She smiled at me the last time we played here.’
‘I think that may have been wind, my friend,’ Smid laughed. ‘Anyway, didn’t she say she was happy just being friends? That’s what girls say when they don’t fancy you. I mean, how many times have you asked her out?’
‘Twenty-four,’ said Agnar. ‘But they do say that Odin loves a trier.’
‘Well, maybe you’d have more luck asking Odin out,’ said Grundi.
‘Knowing my luck he’d be washing his bloody hair as well!’
The three band mates laughed heartily as the cart pulled up outside The Sheep’s Stirrup. ‘Whoa, Bertha,’ said Smid, pulling on the reigns.
‘What time did Olaf say he’d be here, Grundi?’ Agnar said, as he grabbed one of the large PA speakers from the back of the cart.
‘Anytime now, I would think. He went round to see Ophelia earlier this afternoon. She’d promised to shine his helmet again.’
‘Maybe I should ask Roisin to shine my helmet,’ Agnar suggested.
‘I really wouldn’t,’ Smid advised.
Mr Kneepatcher was also very keen on helmets, particularly selling them, and he passed one to Aiden. ‘No, thanks, I don’t really think it’s me,’ Aiden said, looking at the cone-shaped, metal headwear.
‘Oh come now, sir, I think you’d look very dashing. Just give it a quick go,’ he enthused, trying to place it on Aiden’s head.
‘Honestly, no thanks, but I would like to have a look at that jacket, though,’ Aiden said, pointing to a thick, brown leather coat that had more pockets than one would ever really need.
Mr Kneepatcher flamboyantly threw the helmet onto a handily placed sofa and smiled the smile of a shopkeeper whose customer had asked to see something expensive. ‘Of course, sir, your taste is divine,’ he said.
‘Now,’ Mr Kneepatcher cooed, ‘this princely garment has been fashioned from only the finest Scottish leather. It was tanned by an ancient family of Scottish tanners, who ate only haggis for supper and whisky porridge for breakfast during the process. The leather was ripened in the glens of the highlands and then taken over foggy lochs in rowing boats, where seagulls would sing to it. Then it bore witness to the sacrifice of a virgin haggis and the ceremonial burning of the boots of Old Charlie McSniffysoles. Finally, it was serenaded by a lone piper in the light of the full moon before being tanned to perfection. It’s easy on the eye, comfortable as the warmest faerie’s bed and tough as sheep’s hooves.’
‘How much?’ Aiden asked, as Mr Kneepatcher helped him put the jacket on.
‘To you, sir, £40.’
‘Well, I am buying quite a few other items,’ Aiden said, feeling the need to haggle, ‘so why don’t we say £25?’
Mr Kneepatcher developed a nervous twitch in his right eye and a few beads of sweat appeared on his forehead. ‘Did I tell you the lining has been blessed by the Avuncular Monks of Lothian, and that it has been stitched with the finest thread by the Uncanny Old Ladies of Inverness.’
‘£25,’ Aiden said again.
‘£35 and I’ll let you have a free pocket knife.’
‘£30, but I’ll still take the pocket knife.’
Mr Kneepatcher shook his head with the look of a man who had actually got the price he really wanted. ‘You drive a hard bargain, but £30 it is.’
‘We have a deal,’ Aiden said, shaking Mr Kneepatcher’s hand.
‘Wonderful!’ Mr Kneepatcher said, clapping his hands together. ‘Now, would sir like a cravat with that?’
As Aiden walked back to The Sheep’s Stirrup he was thinking about Humphrey. He knew that Mrs Perriwinkle would look after the little dog until he could return home, and she’d give him a hard time for leaving Humphrey alone for so long. A nice box of chocolate gingers would probably soften the level of Mrs Perriwinkle’s scolding, and he’d make it up to Humphrey by taking him on a really long walk, including canal swimming, and buy him some serious doggy treats, maybe even some steak.
And so, feeling slightly better, Aiden crossed the road in front of the pub, just as the sun began to set. In the clear sky above, the first speckles of starlight appeared, like the distant lanterns of faraway travellers. He drew in a long breath from the clean, crisp air and smiled; blissfully unaware that this was actually the calm before the storm.