Chapter 6/18 of a story about two groups of children who meet on a magic UK island one Easter. In a war to stop a hotel (the 'haughtyhell') being built on a special 'spititual' place, they meet a reclusive American painter and a strange fellow Jojo calls Grimbeard. Is he a merman? Can they help?
"Plague House Island," said David quietly.
SIX – CHAMBERS AND TOMBS
6.1 The Gates of Dawn
By the time David and Jojo reached the foot of the hill near Megalopolis, all they had seen was one loco plodding along to milk his cow, tethered and standing patiently in one of the little fields. Another was going, they thought, to his fishing boat moored at the quay. They were seen by neither. In fact, they seldom were. And now more than ever they trusted no one.
The sight of locals, even those just going quietly about their ordinary jobs troubled David and Jojo. They climbed the hill in silence, picking a way between brambles and bracken, stepping on glistening bun-topped rocks which speckled the ground like huge mushrooms pushing up through the turf. They found the tombs easily enough because a path well-trodden by viz led right past them to a viewpoint on a knob of slightly higher ground, but there was nothing to indicate this was the place. No sign of a cave or anything.
They sat on the granite edge of one of the tombs and dangled their feet in a grave older than they could possibly imagine – as old as the hills themselves. It was difficult to imagine that once the bones of ancient clan chiefs had lain there. Out at sea, over the islands and all the tiny islets which were hardly larger than big rocks, dawn seeped away. Slinking off before she could be bullied by a new loud and leery day. The piping of the waders on the shore out of sight below them wore less shrill, coming now in fits and starts. Odd mechanical noises limbered up, getting into gear for a new day’s work but still dim on their hearing. The sun stole in, sucking the mist up through the shrubs and trees in wispy coils. It also rose from the surface of the sea which was spread out below like corrugated blue enamel. As though it had no business there, the raw mysterious dark nature of night quietly surrendered itself to the noise and glare of her deadly enemy.
‘We’d better start looking before people come and spoil things,’ said David. Jojo shot him a look for he hardly ever used the word ‘people’. Here, natives were ‘locos’ while visitors were ‘invaders’, ‘looters’ or just plain ‘viz’.
‘OK.’ Jojo jumped up brightly. ‘Where do we start?’
David dug the message and translation out of his bag.
‘It says, ‘Go below the tombs’. So suppose we should scout round the hill?’
Hoping to meet back where they started, they went in opposite directions, picking their way through dewy bracken, stepping over the briar trip-wires which lurked everywhere, just as they had on the Big Giant. It was not long before Jojo heard David calling.
‘Here! Over here.’
6.2 Marks in the cave
She found him standing in the entrance of a slit in the hillside. It narrowed overhead as though a zip in the rock had come apart at the base and not run all the way up. They peered inside but eager anticipation was quickly replaced by disappointment. One thing for sure, it was not a secret cave. Signs of human life were everywhere: graffiti, names, dates decorated (or defaced) all the walls. On the floor there were blackened rocks and the remains of long dead fires. Dinged and trampled gaudy cans were scattered about, some stuffed into cracks in the rock faces. Out of their normal habitat, the bright colours shrieked at the soft greys of the rock. Litter skulked miserably in corners.
‘Last year’s viz,’ said David squinting into the gloom.
‘Why can’t they take their grot with them,’ said Jojo.
‘Archaeology of the future,’ said David.
‘Huh, it’s not exactly Roman coins or treasure is it?’
‘Might be to an archaeologist in the future.’
‘Whatever,’ Jojo snorted.
‘Anyway, it must be the place,’ David tried to rekindle his enthusiasm. Despite the grot, which he had to agree was grot however interesting it might be in years to come, the cave seemed quite a good new place. ‘Funny we’ve never found it before. Never even looked up here, have we?’
‘It needs looking after,’ said Jojo. ‘Old. Needs protection.’
‘Too near Megalop.’
‘Suppose there’ll always be invaders.’
‘They’ve got to go somewhere.’
‘But if we hid the entrance... disguised the path ’til it grows over,’ pondered Jojo. ‘You know. I wonder how many would find it. Or even care.’
‘Just think what this would have been used for in Stone Age times. It’s so near the tombs and the quay.’
‘There may not have been a quay then.’
‘Bet there was. It’s a fantastic look out place anyway. Must have been really important.’
‘Come on,’ said Jojo. ‘Let’s look round. That’s why we’re here. What are we supposed to be looking for anyway?’
In the milky light coming through the high triangular entrance, David peered at the note. ‘It says, de dah, de dah, de doo, The mark leads one to two. And then, and I may be able to help you.’
‘Mark. What mark?’ said Jojo. ‘There’s loads of marks all over the place.’
‘Dunno,’ said David. ‘P’raps it someone’s name. Try and find someone called Mark.’
Suddenly, their eyes caught each other’s as they remembered the words of the strange grey man.
‘Grimbeard,’ breathed Jojo.
Could it be? They looked about in the flickering yellow torchlight.
‘Guh, these batteries are pants,’ said David. ‘I recharged them before we came too.’ He poked the beam into the recesses and around the walls of the cave. ‘It doesn’t seem to go very far.’
‘Good,’ said Jojo. ‘I don’t like caves much.’
‘Huh, fine time to say.’
‘Oh, I don’t mind that much but your torch is a bit feeble.’
‘Well, at least I remembered one. Good enough for now.’
Farther into the cave, the names and messages got a bit more original. There were also one or two drawings which were not bad. Some reminded Jojo of prehistoric cave paintings. At the back of the cave, there were no graffiti. The walls were moist and crumbly. No one called Mark, or who loved Mark, or even knew Mark, ever appeared to have visited the cave or felt inclined to record the fact. David scrutinised all the walls, until he grew tired of being told that Emma loved Tony, and that someone or other ‘woz ere’.
They returned to the cave entrance and looked out. Sunlight glanced off the sea straight into their eyes. The day was hardening, mundane sounds taking over, but Jojo found that by closing her eyes, she could stay a bit longer in her primeval world. She rested back against the rock and followed her thoughts. The pulse of the sea closed round her, much as the dragon’s breath had that afternoon beneath the elm trees.
Somewhere below them a lone dog barked, just once, adding to the surreal feeling. David looked down but could see nothing to connect himself with civilization, and again had that strange feeling of being separate from ordinary everyday life. As if to reassure himself that he was part of the real world he checked the time.
‘Gah,’ he groaned. ‘Haven’t got my watch, have I? Gave it to that damn girl.’ He looked over to where Jojo was dreaming. Surely this was the place. Everything was right. He read the message again. THE MARK LEADS ONE TO TWO. What mark? It didn’t sound like the name of a person, did it, written like that: ‘The mark’? Quietly, rising, he went back into the cave, to where the brightening daylight now pushed a little farther in.
Among all the marks, was there a special one? He searched the walls again, looking higher up towards where the roof had yet to be ‘unzipped’. A narrow shadow, just a little darker than the darkness all around, caught his eye. He shone a glimmering yellow beam on it but could see nothing else. As he lowered his torch, it flickered across a drawing. Why did his gaze linger on it? Was it perhaps just a little different? More like a genuine cave painting though the subject was a strange one. David supposed that the artist had drawn an image and then signed it with a shape like a pencil, a sort of logo or tag.
He was on the point of yelling out to Jojo when he caught sight of her profile. She looked kind of peaceful against the sunlight. As he went back to the entrance he noticed for the first time that Jojo was really quite pretty. He sat down beside her. If it wasn’t for this stupid Haughtyhell, everything would be all right. They’d be together, doing things. Like what though? Games? Pretend? Getting into trouble? Perhaps this was better. At least it was real. No mistake and not make-believe either. An adventure? Was this what it was like to be an adventure? One of his own?
He had always had this sneaky feeling that the adventure stories he devoured by the shelf full would not be so much fun to actually be in. The characters usually got caught up in events without realising it. Only afterwards, in the retelling did it become thrilling. Was it more fun to read or be told a story than actually be one? If so, perhaps it was more fun to remember it than live it.
As all these questions bounced round his brain, knocking into each other and forming others. The sound of an inboard diesel engine hovered then intruded. He opened his eyes to see Jojo standing gazing down towards the sea.
‘What’s going on?’ he asked.
‘It’s the launch,’ she replied. ‘Just going off.’ And, without thinking, she waved like people do for some reason when on trains and boats or when watching them. Immediately, two voyagers waved back. Jojo was surprised that she could be seen so clearly and shrank down so that the rocks in front of her reared up, closing off sight of the sea.
‘What’s up?’ said David.
‘Someone saw me.’
‘Well of course they did. If you go jumping, waving your arms about like that.’
‘Yes, sorry. But I didn’t jump about. I just raised my arm without thinking. They must have been looking right here.’
‘Don’t worry about it. They’ll just think you’re a viz. Come and look at this and tell me what you think.’
David led the way back into the cave, switched on his torch and pushed into the darkness, lighting the ground at his feet so that Jojo could see her way behind. He waited until she was standing alongside him, then dramatically swung the beam up until it showed the pencil drawing.
Jojo looked at it for no more than a second or two before exclaiming: ’That’s it, you idiot!’
‘I know,’ said David with strange resignation. ‘I somehow knew it was but couldn’t see why.’
‘Oh, Davey. It’s the Daymark. Don’t you see?’
‘Yes, it is. I thought it was a pencil.’
‘So, it’s got to be the mark we’re looking for. Are you feeling all right?’ Jojo asked, grinning at David’s serious face, flittering in the yellow light.
‘Yeah. Sorry,’ mumbled David. ‘Stupid, eh?’
‘No, you’re not,’ said Jojo fondly. ‘I’m teasing. You did find it after all while I was doing nothing.’
‘Doesn’t help much, does it?’ His voice tailed off; suddenly everything seemed to leap into place, like a film of a plate dropped on the floor and run backwards. THE MARK LEADS ONE TO TWO. Of course! The crack in the rock which had made him see the drawing in the first place.
‘Look,’ said David. ‘Up there, that crack?’ Jojo peered in the wake of the wobbly torch beam. ‘That’s where the mark’s pointing!’
‘Can you reach it?’ asked Jojo.
‘Don’t think so but if I lifted you...’
‘Come on then!’ And in the dark chamber, Jojo’s hand crept towards the pencil-thin crack in the rock. Closing her eyes tight and trying to think of the bright sunshine outside, she gulped and slid a long delicate finger into the crevice. As she did so, her mind dwelt on those weird Aye ayes from Madagascar, their ugly yet sweet faces and scrawny long fingers, and then of the demons which the natives thought them to be. Then she thought of Gollum. Her stomach squirmed. No, she had to do this, if only for David. After all she had been teasing him just a minute before.
‘There’s nothing,’ she said a bit too hastily, and was just about to extract her finger, which in truth had only probed a few centimetres, when it touched a sharp edge. ‘No, wait a minute, there is something!’
‘What? Don’t push it farther in. Hurry up, you’re getting heavy.’
6.3 Marks make Messages
Jojo squeezed her eyes tighter shut and managed to tease the paper out. David collapsed, Jojo slid down the rock face, grazing the palm of her hand but barely noticing it. Back at the entrance, the sunshine flooding over her, Jojo danced about, gloating over the folded slip of paper. There was writing they now recognised. It said, YOU HAVE DONE WELL! When unfolded there was more writing inside but no pictogram. It said: 3 For the final part of the first you must go to the cross base in the wall. Amidst the graves of old islanders find the two figures you need. I hope to see you soon. Good luck. Your friend (I hope), VG '.
They sat in the sunlight which had now claimed the day. Even so, Jojo shivered from the chill of the chamber which seemed to linger around her. She handed the paper to David, who stroked it flat. It was already speckled with damp so how long had it been in the crevice? He took the first message from the bag and compared the two. This one was written in pencil, not pen like the first, but the paper was the same. David had never seen any like it before: pale grey and quite thick.
‘The ‘3' and ‘1' are part of the next map reference, that’s obvious. But where’s the rest?’ David muttered to himself.
‘Where it says,’ said Jojo. ‘Why can’t he just say what he means?’ She felt niggled.
‘Look,’ said David. ‘We’ve done well. He said so. Got two thirds of it already.’
‘What do you mean, two-thirds?’
‘Two thirds of the map reference: we’ve got two parts, only the last bit to go. Come on, let’s find the others. It must be really late. Sammy’ll have sent a message by now.’
Jojo was not going to argue. She didn’t like the cave, with its debris and graffiti. Somewhere else ruined, just as the Reservation was going to be.
Freddy reached the store red in the face, having run hard most of the way. He flung himself inside setting the door bells jangling furiously. Mrs Bell who was balanced on a stool arranging some tins on a high shelf had to grab onto it to stop herself from toppling over.
‘Good grief!’ she shouted. ‘And it’s the devil at your tail, is it?’
‘Yes,’ panted Freddy. ‘He is.’ His words came out in a torrent with barely a pause between them. ‘Well no he isn’t but he might be ’cos it’s really urgent.’
‘Well, what is? Slow down a bit,’ said Mrs Bell, still recovering from her shock.
‘I need some marshmallows, quick.’
‘And that’s urgent, is it?’
‘Yes, it is. Sammy wants to put the fire out.’
Mrs Bell peered at him suspiciously but decided she cared not to hear any more.
‘No, I don’t see,’ she said grumpily, descending the step ladder uncertainly. ‘On that rack over there — with them other packets.’
Freddy grabbed a bag, scrutinised it. He decided they would do and slapped them onto the counter. Fiddling about with money he became aware of some movement outside. Squinting through the window, between cards, boxes and the jumbled displays of all the different things you get in a shop which is the only shop on an entire island, he could see David and Jojo gesticulating frantically at him. He slung some money on the counter, snatched up the marshmallows and hurtled from the shop.
Because it was as hard to see into the shop as it was to see out, they were unaware that Mrs Bell, with cash till and mouth open, was watching from behind the counter. She had her own spy holes, established over years of needing to know everything that was going on.
She saw them rapidly exchange news. ‘We found it!’ / ‘Sent signal.’ / ‘It was where he said.’ / ‘Continuous smoke. What does it say?’ / ‘Invaders.’ / ‘So they won’t be coming.’ / ‘Rubbish all over the place.’ / ‘Dummy and Mad have gone on the launch.’ / ‘What does it say?’ / ‘Where to? Must have been them who waved at us. Where’s Sam?’ / ‘Stayed at the fire. Marshmallows, marshmallows, we can toast marshmallows. What does it say?’
David handed the new message to Freddy, who looked at it blankly. ‘What does it mean?’
‘Dunno yet,’ David shrugged.
‘Go and toast these,’ prompted Freddy. ‘Come on. Before the fire goes out.’
‘All right,’ said David at last. ‘We can tell Sammy. See what she thinks. We’ve got all day. What time is it anyway?’
No one had a watch.
‘There’s a clock in the post office, there always is,’ said David.
When he went to squint through the window, he noticed Mrs Bell still watching and recoiled, immediately wishing he hadn’t. It must have looked suspicious. He turned to the others and shrugged. As he did so, the bell on the shop door jangled again. David spun round. Mrs Bell stood in the doorway, and seemed to take up the entire space as though wedged there. He looked at her guiltily. Mrs Bell held out her hand.
‘He… young un,’ she said nodding at Freddy, ‘didn’t take his change. Don’t you want it?’
David approached and took the cash. ‘Thanks,’ he mumbled. ‘Er, have you got the time please? That was what I was trying to do. See the clock.’
‘Gone ten,’ said Mrs Bell, disappearing back into her lair.
They walked away, beyond sight of the store, wondering what the message meant. Passing the small church, sitting on a wall, they could look down along the bay towards The Refuse. It reminded each, privately, of the Haughtyhell. No sign of smoke from Sammy’s fire nor, indeed, of Sammy herself. In fact, there was no sign of any life at all save for a small boat moving by the old quay.
‘We should’ve bought some icecream,’ said Freddy.
‘Greedy little devil,’ said David. ‘You’ve got marshmallows. Anyway can’t afford them.’
‘Sammy could,’ said Freddy. ‘I’ve seen her purse.’
‘It’s not her money. It’s for emergencies. Anyway you shouldn’t go looking in it.’
‘She told me to,’ protested Freddy.
‘Come on, don’t fight,’ said Jojo. ‘It’s a nice day. We’ve done well. Let’s see that message.’
They read it again. And then again.
‘Its all graves,’ said David. ‘It can’t be where we’ve just been, can it? There’s lots more tomb places. Can’t explore them all.’
Jojo looked up and saw the steeple of the little church. An idea crept forward. ‘If it doesn’t mean old like prehistoric, it might mean here,’ she said pointing.
‘Might, I suppose,’ agreed David, looking at Jojo in admiration for the second time in one day. ‘Let’s go see.’
Freddy was all for returning with the marshmallows and only with great difficulty could be persuaded to look round the church first. The old weather beaten arched door was locked so they wandered round outside. There were loads of old graves of old islanders within the old wall. They walked round twice. Freddy had manoeuvred himself near the gate by the lane eager for the bonfire on the beach when he heard his name shouted. He found David and Jojo staring up at two figures chalked in green on the wall above a curious stone with a deep hollow in it.
Freddy looked at the figures chalked on the wall. ‘It says 76,’ he said. ‘So?’
‘So. So! Only the last part of the map reference!’ exclaimed David. ‘It tells us where to go next!’ He tore the map from his bag, and spread it on the ground, tracing the ‘eastings’ up with one finger, and the ‘northings’ across with another, until they met. He bent low and stared at the map. So did the others. ‘It works,’ he shouted gleefully. ‘It is somewhere!’
Jojo was about to say, ‘Well of course it’s somewhere. Everywhere is somewhere,’ but before she could, a quiet voice spoke behind them.
‘You go there then?’
The three migrants sprang up, staring at Grimbeard with their mouths open. An odd mixture of alarm and reassurance swept over them. David was the first to find his voice.
‘Sorry, I don’t understand. Is it you who’s been writing us these messages?’
Grimbeard swivelled his pale eyes to David; his expression little altered. ‘The young maid your sister where is she?’ he asked.
‘Sammy?’ said David. ‘Why do you want to know?’
‘She has sighting,’ said Grimbeard. ‘She may see, I believe. For you. For all of you.’
‘Sorry, don’t understand,’ repeated David.
‘Perhaps not yet. You may, in time. We shall see,’ said the grey man.
‘But who are you? What do you want with us?’ demanded Jojo, remembering her confusion about the codes and all the mystery.
‘In a while,’ said Grimbeard.
‘But why should we do what you say?’ asked David.
‘Do not,’ said Grimbeard. ‘Follow your own… ah… prospect.’
‘Eh?’ David looked puzzled. ‘But what’s all this to do with you?’ Then adding, as he folded his map, ‘If you don’t mind me asking.’
‘You feel a need to believe? In me?’
‘What do you mean? How do we know if we can?’
‘Have I not shown virtue?’ David looked mystified but Grimbeard carried on, ‘Did I not counsel you befriend the savages?’
David gazed at the tall figure. ‘Oh… yes,’ he said faintly. ‘Sam did say something like that. I forgot. But I still don’t understand.’
‘No matter. Follow your own wisdom,’ said Grimbeard. ‘You have much, we see. But,’ his voice darkened a tone, ‘watch for the tides and wiles of men. And the tides that bear one down.’
‘We’ve got to go back,’ said Freddy. ‘Sammy wants us.’
‘We don’t all have to,’ said David.
‘You decide,’ said Grimbeard. ‘But leave here now for we have wasted good time.’ Grimbeard spoke more urgently. ‘Haste! Send a runner.’ He nodded at Freddy. ‘Bring the maiden with the moist eye. Quick, before she ventures to the sea. Tell her, meet at the causeway, yet she may show you the way.’
‘Maiden with moist eyes...? I’m sorry,’ said David. ‘I don’t get it. I don’t understand anything you mean. We should talk it over. Not being rude or anything.’
Grimbeard looked down at David. His arm moved slightly towards him but stopped. Inclining his head a little instead, he made no move to leave. David, minus Sammy, felt responsible for Jojo and Freddy. They looked to him for guidance. Once more he unfolded the Ordnance Survey map with its familiar reassuring yellow cover and spread it on the ground, bending over it, and giving the appearance of concentration. The others copied him, infected with the same unease.
‘Look,’ murmured David under his breath. ‘Got all day. Make the most of it. What do you say? Freddy, go for Sammy.’ He lowered his voice still more. ‘Tell her to meet us at Aksai, you know.’ David pointed on the map to the natural causeway that joined the little island they called The Comma to Balerium at low tide. He looked up to make sure that he was shielding the destination from other eyes, but Grimbeard had gone.
The migrants looked round then stared at each other. Freddy dashed to the lane but shook his head. ‘No one,’ he yelled. ‘Where’d he go?’
‘Could’ve gone into one of the fields, I suppose,’ said David to Jojo with more confidence than he felt. ‘You know how small they are. It’s easy to vanish round here, if you want. Come on, let’s start. The map reference says The Comma. Fred, come on. Per-lease! Go and get Sammy. Then we meet at Aksai.’
But Freddy was already running down the lane. David called after him. ‘Get Sammy. Tell her, meet at Aksai.’
Freddy just waved his arm and ran on.
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