Excelsior

by David Clarke

Chapter 2

Everything was smoke and chaos, as it always was, but this time I could actually see what was going on, rather than just hearing it.

I was in a room, maybe seven or eight metres long by about four or five wide. There were a number of cabinets set about with dials and gauges, but the most obvious piece of equipment was the large wooden ship's wheel, which looked as if it belonged on a Napoleonic ship-of-the-line, rather than in this enclosed space. I'd always thought that ship's wheels – at least, ones that looked like this one – belonged on deck, not in a room little bigger than Auntie Megan's living room. The man holding the wheel belonged on a deck somewhere, too: he was wearing something that might have been a naval uniform of sorts, and he had a pair of enormous grizzled side-whiskers that would have made him perfect for the part of the bo'sun in any Victorian tale of derring-do.

"There's another enemy ship behind us!"

The speaker was a tall man wearing a black frock coat which made him look like a Victorian politician, a shirt with lots of ruffles that made him look like a Regency fop and a pair of shiny black boots that made him look like a Nazi storm-trooper. He also had receding hair and a short black beard that had been neatly trimmed to a point. He turned and looked out of the window behind him once more, opening an instrument that appeared to be a compass with delusions of grandeur and holding it up to his eye.

"Bearing one-seven-five, about seven hundred yards," he continued.

"Navy or privateer?"

This was a slim woman who was standing at the other end of the room. She was wearing a short black jacket decorated with lots of black and red braid and a pair of jodhpurs, and she also had a sword attached to her belt, all of which made her look like a nineteenth-century cavalryman. Her hair would never have passed muster, though: it was long and wavy and dark blond, cascading down over her shoulders. And the little round black hat she wore tilted over to one side wasn't standard military issue, either.

"Does it make any difference?" asked the man with the beard.

"We might be able to reach an accommodation with a privateer. Which is it?"

The man put down his compass-thing and opened a naval telescope.

"Wait… it's navy," he said. "I can see the eagle."

At that point someone nudged me and, turning, I saw a young boy of about my own height standing beside me and offering me a small telescope. I took it, hearing the woman utter the usual line about the ship in front as I did so. The boy pointed and I raised the telescope to my eye, and at the same time the bearded man yelled his warning about Congreves. By chance I got the direction exactly right, because when I looked through the telescope all I could see was a huge black eagle with two heads, but distorted somehow, as though it were painted on something that was dome-shaped rather than flat. And then out of the corner of my eye I saw a smoke trail heading straight for us.

The bang, the flash and the falling all followed as usual, though this time I was aware that I was falling out of a large hole that had just appeared in the wall. The other boy grabbed me and managed to hold on for a second, but then gravity prevailed and I started to fall again…

I woke up and found Alex kneeling beside the bed with a concerned look on his face – there was enough light filtering through the curtains for me to be able to see him He was also, I realised a moment later, holding my hand and squeezing it.

"You okay?" he asked.

"Yes, thanks," I said. "It was just a bad dream. Actually I should say it was the bad dream, because I've been having it a lot recently. And you can give me my hand back now if you like."

"Huh? Oh. Sorry – but you were thrashing about a bit, and I thought it might help. I thought maybe I could get into your dream and help, or something."

I could still see the face of the other boy from the dream, but he looked nothing like Alex: he had straight red hair and a narrower face, and he was probably three or four years younger than Alex, too.

"Oh. Thanks for trying, then… what time is it?"

He peered at his watch. "Just after six-fifteen," he said.

"Then let's try to get a bit more sleep," I suggested.

I settled down again and Alex did the same.

"Hey, Alex?"

"What?"

"Thanks again."

"Any time."

I got through the next hour and a bit without any dreams – or at least without any that I could remember when I woke up. I got out of bed and woke Alex and he peered at me blearily.

"Morning," he said. "Again. You okay?"

"Yes, thanks."

"Good. So what's this dream about, then?"

"I'll tell you later. Do you want first use of the bathroom? That'll give me a chance to make the bed and finish packing."

"Okay." He climbed out of his sleeping bag, dug his washing kit out of his bag and left the room, and I made the bed, got my own back-pack out of the wardrobe and shoved my sleeping bag to the bottom of it and then added my black shoes, a pair of trousers, three random shirts and a handful of underwear and socks.. Then I went out to the airing cupboard and found a couple of towels, and I was just packing those when Alex came back.

I went and got washed, packed my sponge bag with everything I thought I might need and then went back to the bedroom, chucked it into the top of my bag and closed it. By now Alex was sitting on the end of the bed looking ostentatiously at his watch.

"Yes, okay, you're ready," I said, glaring at him. "Do you want to go and see if breakfast is ready?"

"It's okay, I'll wait for you," he said, grinning at me.

That led to me having to take off the shorts and put on a clean pair of boxers while keeping my back to him. And if he makes another crack about my rear end, I thought, I'll push him under a train. But he didn't, though I was sure he was looking at it: I could almost hear him smirking.

After breakfast I added a few last-minute items to my bag – my laptop, a couple of books, my pocket chess set (even though Alex told me he'd also brought his – at least now we'd have spare pieces if any got lost) and my sleeping shorts. I also took my pocket-watch: I thought that maybe if we showed it to people it might ring a bell with someone. Then we said goodbye to Auntie Megan – and I was really impressed that she managed not to fuss over me, even though I could tell she was worried about us – and set off for the station.

"So tell me about the dream," he said again once we were on a train.

I shrugged. "I can only remember the last bit," I told him. "I'm on a ship of some sort, and we're fighting someone – apparently the other lot's flag is a black eagle with two heads. And they start attacking us with rockets. One of them hits right next to where I'm standing and I start to fall overboard, and that's when I wake up."

"Rockets? Like cruise missiles, or something?"

"No, nothing like that. It's something called a Congreve – I remembered the word and looked it up after I woke up one time. It's more like a really big firework rocket than a modern missile – they were used early in the nineteenth century. Apparently they were pretty inaccurate, but if one did hit the target it could do a fair bit of damage. Anyway, that's all there is, except that this morning I actually remember seeing some of the other people there: there was a man with big side-whiskers – he was the helmsman – and another man with a beard, and a woman – I think she was the captain… at least, she seemed to be in charge. And there was another boy there too, a kid with red hair. There were some other people there, but I can't remember anything about them."

"That sounds a bit odd," said Alex. "Old-fashioned weapons and a woman in charge – I don't think those things could actually happen at the same time. Have you tried looking to see who uses a black eagle? I mean, I know the Nazis did, but I'm pretty sure theirs didn't have two heads."

I shook my head. "I'd never seen the eagle until today," I told him, "so I haven't had a chance to look for it yet. Perhaps I'll try later today. And if I have the dream again while we're away I'll try to tell you everything I can remember the moment I wake up. That way maybe one of us will remember it long-term."

The train rolled on.

"Did you get rid of the trainers?" I asked.

"Yeah. I wasn't going to at first – I thought maybe if I brought them with us it would be safe to wear them while we're away, and by the time we get back they'd be broken in a bit and wouldn't look brand new."

"Sounds reasonable."

"Yeah, but… it still felt wrong. I was going to throw them in a skip, like you said, but then even that felt wrong. Obviously I've been spending too much time hanging with you."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Oh, you know – you never seem to do anything wrong."

"So… are you saying I'm a little goody-goody, or something?"

"No, it's nothing like that. If you came across as one of those holier-than-thou tossers I'd just tell you to fuck off. You've never preached at me, have you? But… I dunno, somehow you're different. It's like you've been taught different standards to the rest of us. I suppose that's down to your aunt and uncle."

I shrugged. "I suppose they've set a good example, but I don't think they're really any different from your parents. Perhaps it's down to wherever I lived before."

"It must have been a bit special, then. Perhaps you were training to be a priest or something."

I burst out laughing. "Yeah, and perhaps you're going to be king of Greece one day. Come on, Alex – I'm not even sure that I believe in God. What sort of a priest would that make me?"

"Honestly? I reckon you'd make a good one. But then I think you'd be good at a lot of things."

"Yeah, playing pantomime dwarfs, wriggling up chimneys to clean them or exploring rabbit-holes. Anyway, let's get back to your trainers. If you didn't chuck them in a skip, what did you do with them?"

"I wrapped them up, printed a label on my printer, took it to the post office and posted them back to the shop."

I gaped at him. "Aren't you afraid they'll trace it back to you?" I asked. "I mean, most post offices have CCTV."

"I wore my cap – the right way round. And I didn't use the local one – I went up to the main branch in Southgate. There are so many customers go through there the clerks will never remember me. I wiped the box before I wrapped it up, and I wore gloves after I wrapped it, and if by any chance they do manage to trace me I'll say some kid I met in the street gave me a couple of quid to post his package for him. Look, MM, I had to, okay? It's been like having a bomb hidden in the wardrobe. I know you think it was stupid of me and that it would have been much safer to just dump them, but…"

"No," I interrupted. "I mean, yeah, it was sort of dim, but at the same time I reckon you did the right thing. It must have taken some doing, though - I don't know that I could have done that."

"You wouldn't have nicked them in the first place."

"I dunno – I can imagine that it must be hard to say no if someone offers you something for nothing."

"Yeah, but I shouldn't even have been there, should I?"

"Well, since you ask – no," I said. "Like I said before… anyway, at least you can forget about it now. And if they do go looking for you while you're away, at least they're not going to find any stolen goods in your bedroom."

The train reached the terminus at Moorgate and we walked the short distance round to Liverpool Street, the main line station for trains to East Anglia. And as we stepped inside the station we were intercepted by a couple of policemen.

"This is a routine stop and search under Section 60 of the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act," the first one said. "We're looking for material that might have been illegally removed from premises in London over the past week. Where are you going with those big bags, then?"

"We're going camping for a few days," I said.

"I see. Got any ID?"

They checked who we were and went through our bags. I'd heard that quite often police doing a stop and search could be thoroughly nasty and intimidating about it, but these two were polite enough, and once they'd satisfied themselves that we weren't carrying anything we shouldn't have been they let us go. We walked on into the station, and once we were out of their sight Alex leaned against a wall and took a deep breath.

"Like I said, you did the right thing," I said. "And I reckon that proves it. You okay?"

"Just about. Shit, MM, if I'd kept them they'd have nicked you too, probably." He took another deep breath. "Now where do we go?"

"Now we take the batteries out of our phones," I said, pulling mine from my pocket and dismantling it. I put the battery in one pocket of my bag and the rest of the phone into a different one. When he had done likewise I led him to the tube station and we took a Circle Line train round to Victoria.

"Now if the worst happens and they try to trace us they'll be looking in the wrong direction," I said. "Actually, running into those cops was quite useful, because they'll confirm we were at Liverpool Street. But we can't put the batteries back into the phones until we're sure they're not looking for us, okay?"

He nodded. "What about your laptop?" he asked. "If we go online won't they be able to trace the IP address and find out where we are?"

"I run everything through a proxy," I told him. "Okay, it's a free one, so it's probably not too sophisticated, but it should stop them finding out where we are without a bit of effort."

We got out at Victoria, but instead of going into the railway station I led him onto Buckingham Palace Road.

"Where are we going?" he asked.

"The coach station. Train tickets cost the earth, especially if you don't buy them about a month in advance. Coach tickets don't."

We got lucky, in that the first coach to Salisbury wasn't fully booked, so we bought two tickets for a fraction of what train tickets would have cost, paying in cash. But the clerk said he still needed our names to put on the reservation sheet, so I just made up two on the spot. He gave us our tickets and we went and found somewhere to sit until it was time to get on board.

"So you think I look like 'Danny Fielding', do you?" Alex asked me. "And since when have you called yourself 'Lee Jordan'?"

"Well, I had to call us something," I pointed out. "Those names are fairly ordinary without being as obviously fake as 'Smith and Jones'."

"Yeah, but why 'Danny'? I really don't want to share a name with that arsehole Carmody."

"Sorry. I didn't want to give you an obviously Greek name, and 'Danny' was the first name that sprang to mind. But it's only for this journey: once we're off the coach you can pick your own name for the rest of the time we're away. Actually I might change mine, too: 'Lee Jordan' sounds a bit chavvy."

That kept us entertained for the rest of the time we were waiting and the first part of the coach journey, as we came up with ever-more elaborate and ridiculous names for each other: I went from 'Fred Bloggs' to 'The Honourable Algernon Montgomery Fotheringay-Fortescue-ffinch Of That Ilk', while he did the rounds of European aristocracy, ending up as 'Archduke Karl-Friedrich-Sigismund von Brandenburg-Bayreuth'. (Later that evening we discovered that there really was once a house of Brandenburg-Bayreuth, so I suppose I must have seen the name in a history book somewhere). Then we got serious and chose a sensible name each. In the end we decided to stick with Jordan and Fielding, but I changed my first name to Paul, and he changed his to Marco.

"I'm supposed to be half-Italian," he told me when I queried this. "That explains the curly black hair, and the fact that I'm amazingly fit and handsome, and brilliant at football."

"You wish. And what about the fact that you can't speak a single word of Italian?"

"A minor problem," he said, airily. "I was born in England and have never actually been to Italy. Anyway, I can swear in Italian. Tony taught me."

Tony was an Italian boy we played football with from time to time. In fact one of the benefits of living in a multicultural city like London was that you could learn to swear in several languages, and although I tried not to swear at all, at least if things got too much for me I could swear in a language that not too many people would understand.

The coach reached Salisbury in mid-afternoon, and after a short wait which we used to get some provisions and maps, we caught a local bus to the camp-site I had chosen, which was about five miles north of Winterbourne Stoke. I'd chosen it because it was small (and so might be overlooked by anyone looking for us), because it had excellent facilities including wi-fi and because it was one of the closest sites to Winterbourne Stoke. We booked in as Paul Jordan and Marco Fielding and then went and set the tent up not too close to anyone else. Alex's tent was officially a three-person one. I thought it would be a bit of a squash with three, but there was plenty of room for two.

"So what's the plan for tomorrow?" he asked me, once we were safely inside the tent with the door zipped closed.

"We take the bus to Winterbourne Stoke, find the barn where they first found me – I know roughly where that is – and then we walk. Of course I don't know how far I walked before I fell asleep in the barn, but they said I couldn't have come that far, not with two cracked ribs and a bang on the head. I'd guess two or three miles, tops. So we'll want to check everything within a two or three mile radius of the barn. That'll probably take three or four days if we do it really thoroughly."

"And what if after all that we don't find anything?"

"Then I give up and we can go somewhere else – on the south coast, or wherever you fancy."

"Okay. So what are we going to do this evening?"

"We'll try chatting to Joe at nine, and I can chat to Auntie Megan, but apart from that we can do whatever you like."

"Right, then shall we start by looking for your eagle? I'd like to know if it actually means anything."

So I got the laptop out of my bag and turned it on, logging in and using the code the campsite owner had given me to connect to his wi-fi network. Then I passed the laptop to Alex, who tapped away for a moment and then swung it round to face me once more.

"First of all, did it look like this?" he asked;

I was looking at a picture of a black eagle on a yellow background. The eagle's necks were quite long, and there was a sort of crown above its two heads.

"No," I said. "It was black all over, not just in the outline, and the heads were closer together. And this one's wings are wrong – they're wider at the bottom than the top. Why, what's this?"

"If you'd said it was this one I'd have had to kill you," said Alex, grinning at me. "This is the flag of the Greek Orthodox Church, and if you were fighting against it, you were fighting against God and it would be my duty to murder you. Okay, if it wasn't that one, let's see if we can find a country that has a double-headed eagle…"

He tapped away some more.

"Well, there seem to be only four countries that have a double-headed eagle on their standards," he reported. "Armenia and Serbia are both landlocked, so they wouldn't have a navy – and their eagles aren't black, anyway; Montenegro's eagle isn't black either, so…apparently you were fighting against the Albanians."

"What?" Somehow I couldn't imagine Albania putting out large fighting ships – if I'd been asked to describe the Albanian navy I'd have guessed at a couple of speedboats patrolling the Adriatic coast.

I looked at the picture Alex had found. This was certainly closer to what I had seen through the telescope: it was a solid black, and the necks were shorter than on the Greek eagle, and that seemed better, but somehow it still wasn't quite right.

"I don't think so," I said. "Got any more?"

"Nope. At least, not unless you were in a time machine – these are the only ones in use today. Of course, if you're dreaming about a war you fought in some previous incarnation, there are a few: the Austro-Hungarian Empire used a black two-headed eagle, and so did the Tsar of Russia, and so did the German Confederation, though theirs reverted to one head once they became an Empire. Or if this is a really old incarnation I suppose you could have been fighting against the Holy Roman Empire. Or Byzantium."

"Or maybe I'm making the whole thing up," I said. "Alright, let's forget the stupid dream. Shall we go and see if there are any shops in the village?"

So we went and explored the village, finding that it had a small post office and village store, a pub we probably wouldn't be allowed into and a petrol station whose shop would probably be open even if the post office was closed.

When we'd finished exploring we went back to the tent, ate the collection of sandwiches and snacks Alex had bought for our supper and then sat and played chess until it started to get dark. Then we turned the computer on again and I logged into WLM. I'd added Joe Silver to my list of contacts the previous evening, and at the same time I'd blocked everyone else except for Auntie Megan: I didn't want to have to lie to all my friends about where I was and what I was doing. Then we sat and waited for Joe to log in.

Nine o'clock; nine-fifteen; nine thirty. No Joe.

"He might just have forgotten," I said.

"Yeah, right," said Alex, gloomily. "More likely they kicked his door in first thing this morning and dragged him off to share a cell with Carmody. And they probably kicked mine in, too. I hope my parents are okay."

"I'll ask Auntie Megan to go round and check," I promised, and as soon as she logged in, shortly before ten, I did so, switching to audio so that we could talk more easily. She hadn't heard anything about anyone being arrested locally, but Joe lived quite a distance from us on the far side of Green Lanes, and I doubted if word of an arrest there would have carried to our house. She was glad to hear that we had arrived safely – and it was interesting, and gratifying too, that she didn't ask where we were. I took it to mean that she trusted me enough to let me keep secrets if I thought it best. I thought that if she was prepared to trust me that much I should trust her too.

"We're in Wiltshire, not far from Winterbourne Stoke," I told her. "I'll let you know if I find anything."

"Okay. I'll go round to Alex's in a minute, and I'll send you an email when I get back."

We closed with a flurry of 'love you's that made me feel kind of homesick. I turned the computer off so as not to waste the battery, though I hoped that the site owner, who had seemed very friendly when we checked in, might let me use one of the unused caravan electric points to recharge it if I asked nicely (and next morning he said that would be no problem – in fact he even lent us an extension lead so that we could connect to the nearest spare electric point from inside our tent), and we played another couple of games of chess to give Auntie Megan time to go round the corner to Alex's house and back. We didn't play very well – it was obvious that Alex was worried about his parents, and it was sort of catching, so after the second game we just put the set away.

At half past ten I turned the computer on again, and there was a mail from Auntie Megan saying that the police hadn't been near Alex's house and that his parents were fine.

"That's really good, isn't it?" I said, switching off once more. "I mean, I hope for his sake Joe hasn't been arrested, but if he has and he tells them you weren't there, like he promised, maybe the police will decide Carmody was lying about you."

"Maybe. I hope Joe's okay, though. I don't think he could handle being locked up. Oh, shit, MM, why were we so stupid?"

"I think probably Joe couldn't have said no to Carmody – after all, they live right next to each other, and they spend a lot of time together from what I've seen. And Carmody's definitely boss of the relationship."

"I suppose so…there's no excuse for me, though. I'm just a dick."

Usually I'd have taken that as an opening to agree with him enthusiastically, but even though it was pretty dark in the tent now that I'd turned the computer off I could tell he was feeling really bad, too bad for jokes.

"No, you're not," I said. "Everybody messes up from time to time, but just because you make one mistake it doesn't make you a dick. I wouldn't hang with you if I thought you were that much of a knob, would I?"

"Maybe you just fancy me," he said, and I could imagine the grin even if I couldn't see it.

"In your dreams," I replied. "And talking of which… let's get some sleep."

I turned my flashlight on for as long as it took to fish my shorts out of my bag and then we both stripped to our boxers. I switched the torch off… and waited. Surprise, surprise, five seconds later Alex's torch came on.

"Looking for something?" I enquired, grinning at him.

"No, just tidying up," he said, with a look that was presumably supposed to be injured innocence. "Unlike some people, I don't like to leave my clothes strewn about all over the place."

He made a big production out of folding his clothes up and stacking them neatly at the foot of the tent. Then he got into his sleeping bag, but he didn't turn the torch off.

"Don't you want to tidy your stuff up?" he asked.

I gathered up my clothes and chucked them down to the bottom of the tent.

"Satisfied?" I asked.

"Some people have no self-respect," he observed, switching off the torch.

I waited for about ten seconds and then, when the torch stayed off, wriggled out of my boxers and into my shorts, chucking the boxers down to the end of the tent with the rest of my clothes. I got into my sleeping bag, settled down and went to sleep.

I slept surprisingly well, considering that I hadn't been camping since the previous summer and so wasn't used to sleeping on the ground. As far as I was aware I got through the night without any dreams, and when I woke up the following morning I felt refreshed and ready for the day ahead. Alex was still asleep, so I opened the sleeping bag and got dressed, thinking that for once I could stare at him while he was trying to get changed – let's see how he likes it, I thought. But once he woke up he simply pulled his jeans on over the boxers he'd been sleeping in. I could probably have made some sort of comment about that, but I decided not to bother.

We tidied the tent and walked into the village to buy some milk, and after breakfast we caught the bus to Winterbourne Stoke. In the course of that day we covered the area south and west of the barn, which I found without difficulty. I was surprised that the area was so hilly: you hear the words 'Salisbury Plain' and you get a mental picture of a large flat area, but it isn't anything like that: we seemed to spend an awful lot of time going uphill, and precious little coming down again. I kept my eyes open, but despite covering quite a bit of ground nothing leaped to my eye. Of course I hadn't really expected it to on the first day: my luck doesn't work like that.

Eventually we gave up for the day, returning to the main road and following it until we reached the village of Shrewton, a short distance north of Winterbourne Stoke. This was quite a large place, and I'd hoped they might have a chip shop, but instead it had a pub that served food, and since there was a separate dining area we were able to eat there. The food was good and not too expensive, and I was thinking that this was a perfect way to end our first day, right up to the point where I discovered we'd missed the last bus back to the camp site. I'd thought that it didn't leave here until a quarter past eight, but then I realised that the timetable actually said 1815.

"You knob!" commented Alex, with some justification, I thought. "Can't you read the twenty-four hour clock?"

"Usually," I said. "Just not today. Sorry."

"I don't suppose you're going to carry me back to the site, are you?"

"You don't suppose right. I suppose we could get a taxi."

"Yes, if you don't mind waiting a couple of hours for one to get here from Salisbury, because I bet there aren't any closer than that. You are such a dickhead… how far is it back to the site?"

"About three miles, I think."

"Then it'll definitely be quicker to walk than to wait for a taxi. I suppose we could try thumbing it, but nobody's going to stop for an ugly midget like you."

"They'd be more likely to stop for a midget like me than for a great ox like you."

That was unfair – there was nothing remotely ox-like about Alex, and he wasn't that much bigger than me. Still, that crack about ugly midgets had got to me.

We started walking. Predictably, nobody stopped to offer us a lift. It took us about an hour to get back to the campsite, and when we got there I was ready to drop – I'd probably walked between twelve and fifteen miles in the course of the day, and I really wasn't used to that sort of distance. When we got into the tent I just more or less collapsed.

"You look knackered," said Alex.

"I am knackered," I told him.

"I can probably help you there. I'll go and fill up the water bottles; you get changed into your shorts."

I stuck my head out of the tent after he left, expecting him to be lurking outside, but no, he really was heading for the washroom, carrying our water-bottles. So I got undressed and put my shorts on, folding up my clothes neatly this time.

"Okay," he said, zipping the tent closed. "Now lie on your front."

Mystified, I did as he said, and he came and knelt astride me, put his hands on my shoulders and began to rub slowly.

I'd never had a massage in my life, so I had nothing to compare this with, but I can say that this felt good. He concentrated on my shoulders, neck and upper back to start with and then moved down to my lower back, and it was definitely very relaxing. Then he shifted position and started on my legs, first working on the calves and then moving up to the thighs, and I could almost feel the day's miles melting away. He came and knelt astride me again, only this time facing my feet, and he worked some more on my lower back, and then…

Then he slid his hands under the waistband of my shorts and started kneading my buttocks.

"Whoa!" I cried. "What the hell are you doing?"

"Chill," he said. "There are some major muscles here. Trust me."

"Yes, but… that's my arse!"

"Oh, really? And there I was, thinking it was your brain. Just shut up and relax."

I managed to shut up, but the relaxing wasn't so easy: this felt seriously weird. Nobody had ever touched me there – at least, not that I knew about. But gradually the soothing feeling took over and I did manage to relax.

"That's it," he said suddenly, moving away. "How do you feel?"

"Honestly? Better. A lot better, in fact – although you might have warned me before grabbing my arse."

"If I'd warned you, you'd just have shoved me away, and then you wouldn't have got the benefit. Seriously, was it any good?"

"Definitely. When did you learn to do that?"

"Well, to be honest, I've never done it before – or not properly, anyway. See, a few months ago my sister did something to her shoulder. I'd seen people using massage on TV, so just for a laugh I said I'd massage it for her, and even though I didn't really know what I was doing she said it helped. So since then I've been trying to learn how to do it properly, and tonight was the first chance I've had to try it for real. So I'm well glad it actually worked… anyway, if we're going to be doing a lot of walking I don't mind doing that again. It's supposed to help you relax, so maybe you'll sleep properly tonight and not get woken up by an Albanian firework."

"Maybe. Thanks, Alex - although I wouldn't mind having the dream some more. I might learn something from it."

"Try eating a lump of cheese just before you go to sleep, then," he advised. "That's supposed to give you bad dreams. Or just have a look at yourself in a mirror – that really will give you nightmares!"

I gave him the finger and got into my sleeping bag.

"Going to sleep already?" he asked. "Aren't we going to speak to your Auntie this evening?"

"I don't think we need to. I doubt if anything much has changed since last night. Anyway, I'm really tired."

"Me, too," he admitted. "Okay, then, let's have an early night. And it's Sunday tomorrow, so we can have a lie-in, too."

"Good plan," I said sleepily, rolling over onto my side. That massage really had felt good – even, I admitted, when he'd been squeezing my buttocks. In fact, especially when he'd been squeezing my buttocks. Should that have felt good? Did the fact that it had felt good mean that there was something wrong with me? But then I gave a sort of mental shrug and settled down. Oh, well, I told myself, there's no point in worrying about it...

I don't know if it was because of the massage or not, but I got through the night untroubled by Albanians and woke up feeling more or less fully recovered from the previous day's endeavours. Of course we wouldn't be doing a lot of exercise today: the bus didn't run on Sundays, and so we would probably spend most of the day lazing around.

Alex was still asleep, so once again I took the opportunity to get dressed in peace. I know I'd agreed to his suggestion of a lie-in, but I'd slept really well and now I just wanted to get up and do something, so I grabbed my washing kit and towel and headed over to the washroom. The sky was a bit grey – I thought we'd be lucky if it didn't rain – but if it had to rain it was better that it should happen today and not while we were out waking miles from the nearest shelter.

I washed, walked back to the tent and dumped my towel and washing kit. Alex was awake but not showing much sign of getting up.

"I'm going to the shop for some milk," I told him. "Mind you're up by the time I get back."

"Yes, Mum," he said, grumpily. "Is the shop even open today?"

"Nine till twelve. I checked. See you in fifteen minutes."

But when I got back with the milk and some stuff for lunch he had apparently gone back to sleep, so I sat and ate a bowl of cereal and then, when he still didn't show any signs of life, I kicked the sleeping bag until he sat up and glared at me.

"If I don't get my beauty sleep I'll turn into an ugly git like you," he complained. "And that really wouldn't be fair on anyone."

"You'd have to sleep for a thousand years before you were as good-looking as me," I retorted. "Are you getting up, or what?"

"What, I should think," he said, lying down again. "If I do get up, what are we going to do?"

"I dunno. I expect we'll think of something."

"Great. What's the weather like?"

"Dull, like you."

"I might have to beat you up for that."

"You might have to try."

Eventually he sat up and ate some cereal, and by the time he'd eaten it he was sufficiently awake to get up properly, and once he had been for a wash he was more or less his usual self.

There were three or four other tents on the site and quite a few caravans and motorhomes, and we spent most of the morning kicking a football about with a couple of German boys and a pair of brothers from Yorkshire (and watching the Germans trying to communicate with the Barnsley kids was most entertaining: they were all speaking English, but you would never have realised it if you didn't know).

But after lunch the Germans went off in their motorhome to visit Stonehenge, which was only a few miles away, and the Yorkshire boys went off with their family to visit Salisbury, and that left us on our own. And then it began to rain. We retreated to the tent and zipped it closed.

"Should have brought the Xbox," commented Alex.

"If I'd known we were going to have access to mains electricity I would have done," I told him.

"Are there any games on that?" he asked, indicating the computer.

"Just the usual – Solitaire, stuff like that. We can always play chess."

"Boring. Lucky I bought my cards."

We spent the next couple of hours playing gin rummy, knock-out whist, beat your neighbour and blackjack, and it was actually a lot more fun than I had expected. Probably I should have seen what was coming next, but I didn't.

"Okay," said Alex, having just been roundly thrashed at rummy. "I want revenge! Let's play strip poker."

"Get lost!" I replied. "No way are you taking the Mickey out of my physique."

"Chicken! Chick-chick-chick-chicken!"

"Alex, I'm not eight years old," I pointed out. "You can't get me to do something I don't want just by going 'chicken!' at me."

"How about 'scaredy-cat'?"

"Nor that either."

"Look," he said, "we're going to be in this tent with each other for ages yet. I have no intention of wearing the same pair of boxers night and day for the next fortnight…"

"I'm glad to hear it!" I interrupted.

"…and I don't suppose you want to have to go through contortions changing into your shorts without making a spectacle of yourself every night, either. So why don't we just get it over with?"

"Well, if you want to wave your bits about in the air, feel free."

"It wouldn't bother me too much. And… look, I'm not going to laugh at you, okay?"

I stared at him.

"Seriously," he went on, and he did sound serious. "I know you're probably smaller than me, but I don't care, and I'm not going to take the piss. Don't you trust me?"

"Oh, come on – that's right up there with 'chick-chick-chicken'! You know perfectly well that I trust you – you're my best friend. But there's a difference between trusting you and handing you ammo for next time we have an insult contest. I trust you not to talk to anyone else about it, but I don't trust you not to use it against me."

"I won't, I swear… well, not very often. Cut for deal."

He put the cards down between us and cut. I'd have carried on arguing, but it occurred to me that I'd quite like to see what he looked like in the raw – after all, there was an equal chance that he was going to lose. And so I took a deep breath, reached out and cut myself up a two, which was hardly a good omen. He showed me the ten he had cut himself, picked up the pack, shuffled and started to deal.

Apparently that two wasn't a bad omen after all, because although I lost the first hand I won the next five, and that was enough to reduce Alex to his boxers.

"I bet you wish you'd never suggested this now," I commented.

"Hey, don't get too cocky – you haven't won yet!"

'Yet' was the operative word, because two hands later he lost again.

"Hah!" I said. "Come on, then – or are you the one who's chicken?"

"Well, if you insist on me making you jealous…"

He wriggled out of his boxers and knelt up facing me. Actually I was almost relieved: for some reason I was expecting him to be hung like a porn star, possibly because one of the other Greek kids in our class actually was that big: he'd flashed us all in the Games changing room once or twice. But Alex was absolutely normal for a boy who had just turned fourteen, at least if my internet research was anything to go by. He had quite a lot of black curly hair, but his organs were just… well, normal-looking. But then he started to get an erection, and at that point he got quite a bit bigger – I'd guess that by the time it was at full size it would have been around five inches or so.

"You want to explain why you're pointing at me?" I asked.

"It just happens," he said, making no attempt to hide it. "If you ever reach puberty you'll find out for yourself. It's called an 'Eer – reck – shun'." And just to annoy me further he did the little inverted comma thing with his fingers, which he knows I hate.

"I reckon it shows you fancy me," I retorted.

"You so wish."

I looked at him for a few more seconds, wondering why I liked seeing him this way but thinking that he definitely looked good. Eventually I snapped out of it.

"Okay, you can get dressed," I told him.

"Good. Okay, your deal."

"What makes you think I'm going to play any more?"

"Oh, come on, you have to give me a chance of revenge."

"No, I don't. But since you're my mate… okay, but if you lose again you have to swear to leave the tent and let me get dressed in peace every morning from now on."

"Well… okay, you're on."

I should have quit while I was ahead, because I lost the second game easily. I sighed, put down the cards and took hold of the elastic of my boxers.

"If you laugh we're through," I warned him. "I mean it, Alex."

I slipped my boxers off and knelt up the way he had. I didn't have an erection, but I almost wished I had, because at least then it would have looked bigger. But Alex didn't laugh at all.

"You look fine," he said. "What were you worrying about?"

"It's pathetic," I said.

"No, it isn't: you're normal for your height. Your balls are growing and they hang down properly, and you're getting some hair, and pretty soon your cock will start growing too. By this time next year you'll look just like everyone else."

"Do you really think so?"

"Sure. Seriously, M… Keith. Once your hair starts to appear everything else follows pretty quickly. Okay, you've only got a few and they're still almost colourless, but they've started, and that's what counts. By next summer you'll look like I do now."

"You can call me MM," I said. "Somehow you calling me 'Keith' sounds really weird. Anyway, can I get dressed now?"

"Of course. But from now on you don't need to play all coy when you're getting changed, okay?"

"Okay," I agreed, pulling my underwear back on. "And thanks for not taking the piss."

"Hey, you're my mate. And there's nothing wrong with you anyway."

I wasn't entirely convinced, but that did make me feel a bit better about myself.

That evening we turned on the computer to talk to Auntie Megan, but to our surprise Joe came online first.

"What happened?" I asked, turning on the microphone. "We thought you'd been nicked. Did they give you bail?"

"No, they haven't been near me," he replied. "Sorry, guys – I suppose I should have warned you that I don't use the computer on Friday nights. It's Shabbat after sunset. You probably think it's a bit silly, but typing counts as work, so no computers on Friday night or Saturday before sunset."

"Yes, you should have warned us," said Alex. "Shit, man, I was really worried about you."

"Seriously? Then I really am sorry. Anyway, you'll know for next week. But where were you last might? I waited for about an hour."

"My turn to say sorry," I said. "We were really tired and went to bed early. But we thought you'd been arrested, so we didn't expect you to be on last night."

"What are you going to do?" Alex broke in. "Are you going to hand yourself in?"

"No," said Joe. "We talked about that, but my parents say it's best just to wait and see what happens. After all, they might decide not to try to trace everyone who was there, and Danny might not have grassed us up…"

"I wish I could believe that," said Alex.

"Me, too," admitted Joe, gloomily.

We spoke for a bit longer, and when Auntie Megan came online I chatted to her for a while too, but she didn't have anything new to tell us.

We turned the computer off and I got changed into my sleeping shorts without bothering to hide what I was doing.

"See?" said Alex, removing all his clothes and getting into his sleeping bag naked. "Isn't that easier?"

I supposed it was, though I just before I fell asleep I did find myself wondering why I found the thought of Alex sleeping naked so interesting…

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