Excelsior

by David Clarke

Chapter 3

Everything was smoke and chaos… except that this time I didn't wake up when the red-haired boy lost his grip on my jacket and I started to fall out of the hole in the wall again. But before I could fall free my jacket caught on a jagged piece of wood at the side of the hole, and it snagged me up for long enough for one of the crew to reach me and grab my arm. He dragged me back inside and away from the hole.

"Still in one piece?" he asked me, and I managed to nod.

"Good. Then I suggest you and Wolfie go over there in the corner and hang on to something."

The red-head – Wolfie, presumably – pulled me over into the corner the man had indicated and we sat on the floor, wedging ourselves against a couple of cabinets. The crewman stood up, examining the hole in the wall, and then he looked through it and gave a yell.

"There's another ship out there," he cried.

The bearded man produced his telescope and looked in the direction indicated.

"It's the Gouvion-Saint-Cyr," he announced. "Trust the damned Frogs to turn up when it's too late." He took out the other instrument. "Range about a thousand yards, at two-five-five degrees and down ten."

"Helm, port," ordered the woman. "New course two-five-five, and continue at down twenty. Maybe he can cover us. Guns, fire on that Eagle as soon as we have a bearing."

"We'll be damned lucky to hit at this range," said someone at one of the machines on the far side of the room.

"I know that," said the woman. "But we're due a bit of luck, and it might make them think twice about coming after us."

I wanted to ask the redhead where we were and what the hell was going on, but before I got a chance one of the crew yelled, "More Congreves, starboard bow!"

"Helm…"

But before the woman could complete the order there was a loud bang from somewhere above us. The ship lurched and tilted.

"Direct hit on sections two and three," called someone. "We have a fire in section two. Venting now."

"Can we compensate?" asked the woman.

"No. There's too large a hole in section three. Even if the fire doesn't spread to four we're going down."

"Predicted speed of impact?"

"Too damned fast, even if we don't stop another rocket."

"Pass the word to abandon ship," said the woman. "Bridge crew, too."

"Captain, that's going to be a problem," said the man who had rescued me. "That rocket took out the port storage lockers. We've lost all our jumpshades."

I wondered what the hell a jumpshade was, but when I stood up and looked out of the nearest window I realised that there was no water in sight. And that had to mean…

"Parachutes!" I gasped, waking up with a jerk.

"Huh?" said Alex, blearily.

"It's not a ship – it's an aircraft of some sort. In the dream, I mean. I got a bit further this time – I didn't fall out of the hole after all, and then a French ship appeared – I got the impression it was on our side. It was called… I'm not sure – the Goovio Sincere, or something like that. But before it could help us we got hit again, and this time they said the ship was going down – literally, because when I looked out of the window we were in mid-air. And we didn't have any parachutes."

"This dream is like one of those really old serials that always ended on a cliff-hanger," Alex observed. "'Don't miss next week's exciting episode! Can our hero survive this latest deadly threat?' I wouldn't worry too much, MM – the hero always survived the latest deadly threat. And you're here now, aren't you? So you must have survived – unless this is a dream from a previous incarnation, like I said before. In that case maybe you go down with the ship and die spectacularly."

"I don't think it can be," I said. "Can you think of any war when Britain and France fought together against Albania using… I dunno, balloons, or airships, or whatever these ships are? Because I sure as hell can't."

"If it's a past incarnation it doesn't have to be Albania," he reminded me. "Of course, generally Britain has fought against France, not with them, at least until the middle of the nineteenth century. But it could be the Crimea – Britain and France against Tsarist Russia. Or more likely against Austria-Hungary in the First World War – I know the Germans used airships in that, so the Austrians could have done, too."

"I'm pretty sure the British didn't, though. Besides, if it was as recent as that, why those obsolete rockets? And how come a woman was in charge – that certainly wouldn't have happened in 1916. No, I reckon it's just a load of old rubbish floating about in my head and coming together to make some sort of story that doesn't really mean anything."

"I suppose so. Pity – I'd like to know how you escape from the crashing ship."

"Well, if I have another 'exciting episode' I'll be sure to tell you. What time is it?"

"About quarter past seven."

"Shall we get up, then? It doesn't sound as if it's raining, so we might as well get on with it. I want to try to cover the arc from west to north today."

Alex undid his sleeping bag, crawled to the door, unzipped it and stuck his head outside.

"It's a bit cloudy, but it isn't raining," he said. "So I suppose we might as well get on with it, seeing that you've already woken us up."

He crawled down to the other end of the tent and started rummaging in his bag for a clean pair of boxers, apparently not caring in the slightest that he was completely naked. I didn't mind at all: the more I saw him naked, the better I thought he looked. I just wished I had a similar physique.

I got out of my sleeping bag, found a clean pair of boxers and changed out of my shorts and into the clean underwear. I didn't try to hide, but I didn't spend any longer than I needed to with my bits in the fresh air, either: whatever Alex said, I still didn't think they were exactly my best feature.

Once we were both dressed we went for a wash, nipped into the village for some milk and ate breakfast, and then it was back on the road once more. This time we got off the bus at the stop before Winterbourne Stoke and started exploring the arc from west to north of the barn. We followed every possible path and walked around the sides of any number of fields, but although we kept at it for most of the day, just taking a short break at lunch time to eat a couple of sandwiches, I didn't see anything that looked familiar. By this stage I was beginning to think we were on a fool's errand: after all, it had been around four years since I had been found in the barn, and since I couldn't remember how I had got there at the time, it seemed improbable that I'd have a sudden flash of memory now.

On the other hand, the weather wasn't too bad, we were away from London and everything that was going on there, and I was with my best friend, who was good company even when he was teasing me. I was in no hurry to pack up and go home.

That evening we got Alex's little single-ring gas burner out. Neither of us was much good at cooking, so we'd bought a couple of ready meals in the village shop, meals of the type that you can heat up just by putting the packet in hot water for a few minutes. It occurred to me just after we'd put them into the billy-can of water that we could have gone and asked the Germans if we could use their microwave for a couple of minutes – I'm sure a motorhome as gleaming as theirs would have had every modern device imaginable. As it was we were still waiting for them to heat through when the German boys wandered over to see what we were eating.

"It's a curry," I told them.

"A curry? Does it taste good?"

"Probably not," I admitted. "Or, at least, it won't taste like one from a proper Indian restaurant. But it's the best we're going to get around here."

"I do not think so. There is an Indian restaurant in a village close to Stonehenge. We saw it yesterday, and my father would want to try it. Perhaps if I ask him you could come with us – I think that we will go there tomorrow."

Alex and I looked at each other. A proper sit-down meal, and in a real curry-house, too?

"Yes, please," we said, together.

"Thanks, Lukas," I added. "We'd really appreciate it. Camping's fun, but the food is a bit basic. A good hot meal now and again makes a big difference."

"Then we will ask him now," said Lukas, and they trotted off to their motorhome, returning a couple of minutes later to tell us that we would be welcome to join them.

In fairness the packet curry wasn't that bad, but there wasn't that much of it. The idea of a proper three-course meal with side dishes was extremely attractive, even though it would be likely to make a bit of a dent in our wallets.

After we'd eaten and cleaned up we zipped the tent up and settled down to a game of chess, and that kept us busy until nine o'clock. Tonight neither Joe nor Auntie Megan had anything new to tell us, though Joe was understandably happy that his situation hadn't changed. He'd spoken to Carmody's mother, but she had only been able to say that Carmody had been remanded in custody and that he was supposed to be in court the following week.

"Probably it's when he gets to court that you and I will be for it," he went on. "If it's anything like all those American TV programs he'll offer to name names in return for a shorter sentence."

"Then let's just hope it doesn't work like that here," said Alex. And after we'd said goodnight and turned the computer off he looked at me.

"Do you think that is how it works?" he asked.

"I've no idea, but it sounds like the people who have been sentenced already are getting dealt with pretty severely. I suppose we couldn't blame Carmody if he didn't want to spend the next year in Feltham."

"I bloody well could! After all, he got me and Joe into it in the first place. The least he can do now is to keep quiet about it. I don't suppose he will, though… oh, well, I suppose there's no point in worrying about it. If Joe suddenly goes off the air next week we'll know the worst, and then at least I can go on the run – I brought my passport in case."

I stared at him. "Where would you go?" I asked.

He shrugged. "Nowhere, probably," he admitted. "After all, I haven't got enough money to get to Cyprus – I've barely got enough for the ferry to France. I suppose I could try hitching from there, but you know my French is crap, so that wouldn't work unless I could find an English lorry driver… or a Greek one, of course. Fat chance of that."

"Can you really speak Greek well enough?"

"Just about. That's why I have to go to Greek school most Saturdays in term time… anyway, I'm probably not going to risk it. With my luck I'd accept a lift from some total psycho and end up in a French ditch somewhere. No, I suppose that if Joe gets picked up I'll probably just go back and face it – after all, if he can find the guts to do that I suppose I can, too. You'll come and visit me inside, won't you?"

"I'll even bring you a cake with a file hidden inside. Cheer up, you idiot, it hasn't happened yet. And if they do nick you I reckon posting the trainers back ought to count for something."

"Not really – that just proves I actually took something in the first place, which is more than poor old Joe did. Mind you, he'll probably get done for leaving a nasty puddle on the shop's carpet. At least I didn't do that. Anyway, you're right: there's no point in worrying about it. So… do you want a massage tonight?"

"Yes, okay," I said. "I don't feel quite as bad as I did on Saturday, but it'll probably help me sleep. Just warn me before you start squeezing my arse this time."

"Okay. Get undressed, then."

I stripped down to my boxers and then stopped while I fetched my shorts from my bag.

"Don't bother with those," said Alex. "They'll just get in the way. Take your pants off and lie down."

I hesitated briefly but then shrugged, slipped my boxers off and lay down on my front. Alex came and knelt astride me facing my head and started to work on my shoulders, and almost straight away it began to feel good.

"So why do you wear those shorts in bed?" he asked. "It feels much nicer sleeping naked."

"Two reasons," I said. "First, if there's a fire and the fire crew break into my room to rescue me in the middle of the night, at least they won't carry me out into the street in the altogether."

"I suppose that's a good reason, if a bit pessimistic," Alex conceded. "What are the chances of a fire starting but you not waking up?'

"It could happen."

"Maybe. What's the other reason?"

"Oh. Well… I've started having wet dreams. Not the recurring one, of course, but… you know. Others. And if I don't wear the shorts… I'd be really embarrassed if Auntie Megan found stains on the sheets. Okay, there isn't very much yet, but even so…"

"Good for you," he said, moving to the small of my back. "See? I told you you were growing up. I bet you couldn't shoot six months ago."

"No, I couldn't. But I bet you could – so… don't you have wet dreams?"

"Sometimes. But I keep a box of tissues beside the bed and I normally manage to clean it up fairly well. I hate wearing anything in bed except when it's really cold."

He was working his way downwards, and after working on my lower back for a while he said "Okay, prepare to be grabbed!" and started to work on my buttocks. This time I was ready for it, and so it just felt great from the start.

He carried on working on my thighs and then my calves, and then he started to work his way up again. By the time he got back to my shoulders I was feeling really relaxed… and then he asked me to turn over.

"Huh?"

"I said turn over," he repeated. "You've got muscles on your chest, too."

"Are you sure? Skin and ribs, yes; muscles, I don't think so."

"You'd be surprised. Let me give it a try, anyway."

I felt a bit strange: okay, he'd already seen everything I have, but even so the idea of lying there completely naked while he worked on my virtually non-existent chest muscles seemed distinctly weird. But there was no denying that having my back massaged was very relaxing, and so in the end I rolled over.

"You might want to close your eyes," he suggested. "If you do, perhaps you can tell yourself that it's Karen Lester doing it instead of me."

"Karen Lester? Is she your idea of the perfect girl, then?"

He laughed. "I've already told you, there's no such thing," he said. "But she seems to be the one that most of the boys in our class want to get off with, so maybe you'd prefer to think of her giving you a massage rather than… what was it you called me? Oh, yes – a great ox like me."

"You know I didn't mean that," I said. "And I bet you only want me to think about her because you hope it'll give me an erection, and then you'll really be able to take the Mick."

"Would I?" he said, trying to look innocent and failing miserably.

"I won't bother answering that. Just get on with it," I said.

There were certainly muscles on my shoulders and upper arms, even if they weren't particularly big, and so he had something to work with at the beginning, but since I'm lacking the sort of pecs or abs that would qualify me to appear in one of those pretentious ads for male perfumes (you know - the sort that are shot in moody black and white and feature some hunky Italian stud getting out of the sea and smouldering at the camera) he didn't linger over my chest. Instead he went back to working on my legs, and that definitely felt good.

Of course he was now kneeling astride my ankles, and although he was working mostly on my thighs, he had an uninterrupted view of my genitals. He didn't make any nasty remarks – in fact he didn't say anything at all – but I was only too aware that he was looking, and of course once I started thinking about it my body began to react.

"Can we stop now?" I asked, starting to feel very embarrassed indeed.

"No, I haven't finished yet. Just relax – well, relax the rest of you, anyway." He grinned at me and kept working on my thighs. "Of course I always knew you fancied me."

"No, I don't! It's like you said yesterday – it just happens!"

"Sure."

"It's nothing to do with me, I swear!"

"Sure."

He worked away at my thighs for another thirty seconds or so.

"You know, that looks uncomfortable, the way it keeps twitching. Maybe I should do something about it." And before I could react he reached out and took hold of me.

"Alex! What the hell… do you think… you're……. ach, Teufel!"

He led go sharply and stared at me.

"Nein, mach's noch weiter!" I said. "Das war mir aber prima!"

"Since when do you speak German?" he asked, staring at me some more.

I gaped back at him. Somehow when he had touched me it had opened up one of the blocked memory circuits in my head, and I'd had a fleeting glimpse of someone else holding me like that, someone who spoke German and who had been teaching me his language – among other things…

"Do that again, Alex!" I invited him.

He obviously couldn't understand what was happening, but that didn't stop him from obeying me with alacrity. His hand closed around me once more, and I closed my eyes …

We were in one of the old servant rooms on the third floor, a place where we often came to play when we wanted to be out of the way of the grown-ups. Mostly we'd played harmless games up there, hunting each other round the attics and down into some of the disused servant quarters… it must have been raining that day, because I usually preferred playing outside in the grounds of the house, exploring the maze or running wild over the Long Meadow, through the Chase beyond and down to the river where our boat was kept. But that day we'd been playing more daring games indoors, going out onto the roof in our underwear or sneaking down the back stairs and mooning towards the smoking-room where the adults would be talking endlessly about the war.

And then, back in our headquarters on the third floor, my companion had said he had something to show me. He'd persuaded me to undress and lie on the bed, and then he'd taken hold of me and sort of squeezed and stroked at the same time, and it had felt so amazing, so absolutely different from anything we had done before, that now I couldn't for the life of me understand how I'd ever managed to forget it.

Alex was still holding me and stroking gently.

"Are you okay?" he asked.

"Yes, thanks. I just got some of my memory back – see, someone did that to me before, and when you touched me it sort of unlocked the door and I started remembering things."

"Oh. So who was it?"

"Well… I don't know. It's weird – I can remember so much, about the house and grounds and about the games we played, but I can't remember his face at all."

"He can't have made that much of an impression on you, then."

"Hey, Alex, are you jealous?" I asked, grinning at him.

"Maybe," he admitted. "It feels odd thinking that you had a whole life – and even a sex life, apparently – before I even met you."

"Well, you've got your hands on me now," I pointed out. "Literally. So you said something about doing something with what you're holding. What did you have in mind?"

He looked at me again. "Are you sure that's what you want?" he asked. "I shouldn't really have grabbed you like that, and I don't want to do anything you're going to feel bad about later. I don't want to mess up us being friends."

"If you understood German you'd know there's no risk of that," I said. "I told you not to stop, and that it felt really great. And it did – still does, in fact. So is there anything else you want to show me?"

"Well, if you absolutely insist," he said, and he began to rub it properly.

It felt really, really good. I closed my eyes and tried to remember the first time this had happened, lying on the bed in the little third-floor bedroom while my friend did this to me, and I sort of could, but I still couldn't see my companion's face. And so I decided to forget about the past and concentrate on the here and now.

"Can you move a little closer?" I asked.

Alex came and sat right beside me and then continued to rub me, and I put my arm around his waist and held him. He looked at me, a little startled; I smiled at him, and at that he smiled back and got on with it.

"Nicht so schnell… I mean, slow down a little," I said, floating in a sort of haze of contentment and not wanting it to finish too quickly. Obligingly he slowed a little, and that really did feel wonderful…

Eventually I felt things building up, and so I asked him to speed up again. And when arching my back and clenching my toes was still not enough to hold it back any more I gasped and spurted onto my stomach, while Alex, who was apparently well-versed in showing consideration to his partner, held on and squeezed gently until he was sure it was over. Then he went to his bag and produced a packet of tissues, a couple of which he handed to me.

"Now you're just trying to flatter me," I said, taking them nonetheless. "One of these would be plenty big enough."

"So? You can do it, and there's enough there for you to continue your family line, if you ever find out what it is. Seriously, MM, was that okay?"

"That was absolutely bloody amazing," I said, wiping myself down with one of the tissues. "Thanks, Alex. Okay, it's your turn."

"No, it isn't," he said. "Not straight afterwards. Right now you're feeling sort of down and you're only offering because you think you should. You'd do it, but you wouldn't enjoy it. Now if you'd like to offer again tomorrow evening, or even tomorrow morning, I might take you up on it, but right now you're probably feeling like you're ready to go to sleep, so that's what we're going to do. Okay?"

"Okay," I said. "Thanks. But tomorrow evening it's definitely my turn to do it for you."

I got into my sleeping bag – without putting my shorts on – and lay back, watching as Alex got undressed, put his stuff way and got into his own bag. Then I turned out the light.

"Alex," I said, "what made you decide to do that this evening?"

"Mostly, I thought you'd enjoy it. I was a bit nervous about it – after all, you might have reacted really badly. But I didn't think you would, somehow."

"So… do you think I'm gay, then?"

"Well… I don't know. It's more that you've never really seemed interested in sex at all, which I suppose is normal, seeing that you're a bit of a late developer. But I thought you'd enjoy it, and when you didn't object to the massage, or to losing at strip poker, I thought it would be safe to try. And if you really enjoyed it and you're not just saying that, I'm glad I did."

"And does that mean that you're gay?"

He didn't answer that for several seconds. Then:

"Yes, I think so," he said. "I'm not really interested in girls at all, but lately I have started finding some boys sort of attractive, so I suppose I must be."

"Who?" I asked.

"Huh?"

"Which boys do you find attractive? I bet it's Colin Ferguson."

"No, not really. I mean, yes, he's got the blond, blue-eyed sportsman look, but he's a complete dick, so I wouldn't want to go out with him even if he wasn't blatantly straight."

"Who, then?"

"Well, you, for a start."

"Oh, come on! There are loads of boys in our year who are better-looking than me."

"I don't think so. And none of them have got your personality. You're easily the most decent person I know."

"But… hell, Alex, I'm a dwarf!"

"No, you're not. You're just growing a bit more slowly than me. Anyway, you're six months older than me, so I'm not exactly cradle-snatching, am I?"

I thought about that for a moment. It was true that I'd never really thought too much about sex – at least, not in the past four years or so, although if my vision earlier was accurate it looked as if I had known a bit about sex in my previous life. Yes, I was interested to see what some of the boys at school looked like naked, and I liked seeing Alex without his clothes on – but then again I'd have probably been interested to find out what the likes of Karen Lester looked like naked as well. Fat chance of that ever happening, of course.

"Are you okay?" asked Alex, and he sounded worried. "Look, I'm sorry, MM – I didn't want to freak you out. Maybe you should go home tomorrow."

"Is that what you want?"

"God, no! It's great being here with you like this. But if you're not happy being stuck in a tent with a raving queer…"

"Did I say I wasn't happy?" I asked. "You're my best friend, and that isn't going to change. Besides, I really liked… you know, what we just did. I don't know if I'm gay or not, but I really don't care if you are – in fact if you're going to make me feel like that again I'm completely in favour of it. So stop worrying and go to sleep."

We settled down, but it took me a while to go to sleep: I had a lot to think about.

Although I was interested to find out how I'd escaped from the stricken airship I didn't have the dream that night –in fact I didn't have any dreams at all, as far as I could remember when I woke up. I sat up and saw Alex propped up on one elbow and looking at me. He looked worried.

"Are you okay?" he asked me.

"Of course! Why wouldn't I be?"

"Well, after what happened yesterday evening… I was sort of afraid you'd changed your mind about me."

I bent over him and gave him a gentle kiss on the cheek.

"Does that answer your question?" I asked.

"Yes, I suppose it does," he agreed, smiling at me.

"Good. Then let's get up and see what's out there today."

I started to get dressed, wondering why I'd followed that impulse to kiss him. I'd never kissed anyone before except for Auntie Megan – at least, not since I'd been reborn in the barn just down the road from where we were now. But it had seemed the right thing to do: it was a perfect way to show him that he was still my friend, and that his sexuality wasn't going to change that in any way.

We had breakfast and walked to the bus stop.

"How come you didn't know you can speak German?" he asked me.

"I suppose it just never came up. We don't do German at school, and I don't know any Germans – at least, I didn't until we met the Anagrams this week…"

Lukas's younger brother was called Klaus, hence the label we'd given them.

"Anyway, I suppose it was just one of those things that are stuck in my head somewhere," I went on. "Perhaps it's a good sign: perhaps it means all my memories are going to come back."

"As long as that doesn't change you, fine," said Alex.

"It won't – at least, not as far as you're concerned. I wonder if I can really speak German properly... Does Joe speak German, do you know?"

"What, Joe Silver? I don't think so. Why should he?"

"I just wondered if his family came from Germany originally. A lot of Jewish people did, and 'Silver' sounds like it might be a translation of a foreign name – like 'Silbermann', perhaps."

"No, his grandparents are Russian, not German. He can speak Russian – it's a family tradition to speak Russian at home – but as far as I know he can't speak German, and I don't suppose it's a very popular language around his grandparents at least. So you can't practise on him. But we're going out to the Indian with the Anagrams this evening, so you can practise on them and their parents."

"Yes, but I don't want to make a dick of myself by trying to speak to genuine Germans. I don't think I'm anything like fluent, and I probably have a terrible accent, too."

"I should think they'll be happy that you're making the effort. I bet they don't meet too many English people who are prepared to try saying anything at all in German. I'm pretty sure they won't laugh at you, anyway."

The bus came and we made our way back to the barn. Today we started out north of it and gradually worked our way round to the east, but once again nothing leaped out at me. The track that gave access to the barn for vehicles led away more or less due east, and so for our final exploration of the day we followed it to the road, climbed over the fence on the far side of the road and kept heading due east. We skirted around the bottom corner of a field, but apart from that we tried to keep going in a straight line. After about twenty minutes we came to a track that cut diagonally across our path, protected on either side by a barbed wire fence.

"Do you remember this?" asked Alex.

I shook my head. "But my clothes were torn, and I could easily have done that climbing through or over a fence like this. Let's keep going a bit longer – we've generally reckoned on half an hour's walk in each direction so far, so…"

I climbed over the fence, crossed the track and ducked through the fence on the far side, where the strands were more widely spaced. On the far side it seemed to be getting misty, and the further we went, the thicker the mist got. I was just wondering about going back to the track and following it to the nearest road when I saw things looming up in the mist, and a few more paces were enough to show us exactly where we were.

"Have you ever been here before?" I asked.

"No," said Alex, gazing at the stones. "It's sort of bigger than it looks in pictures, isn't it?"

"I think maybe the mist is helping with that. Auntie Megan and Uncle Jim bought me here when we went hunting for where I came from – that would be three years ago now. It wasn't misty when we were here and you could see the whole thing clearly. Auntie Megan told me that when she was a kid you used to be allowed right into the circle, but they stopped that a few years ago because they were afraid of erosion. That seems a bit silly to me – after all, it's been here about three thousand years and it hasn't eroded away yet, so I can't see that letting people actually touch the stones is going to make that much difference."

"I don't know," said Alex. "If a hundred tourists touch exactly the same place every day for a thousand years it's likely to wear away at it."

"Well, maybe. But that rather supposes the world will still be here in a thousand years, and I'm not sure that it will. Come on, let's walk round and have a look at the other side."

Somehow Stonehenge looked even more impressive wreathed in mist, but I wasn't quite sure why the mist was there: we hadn't seen any anywhere else all day. So when we bumped into one of the guides a bit further round the circle I asked him about it.

"It happens a lot around here," he said. "Like you say, it doesn't seem to happen anywhere else, but somehow it's been happening a lot around the stones. Only this year, though: this time last year we hardly ever saw any mist. It started just before Christmas last year, and since then we seem to get days like this almost every week, whatever the weather is doing five miles away. Strange, isn't it? We tell the tourists it's Merlin weaving spells, or some such tale, but it would be interesting to know what's really causing it."

We walked on, taking the path that led to the far side of the monument. Looking in the other direction, towards the north-east, there was no mist at all, but around the stones it was thick enough to veil them quite effectively. I stood and stared at the monument.

"What is it?" asked Alex. "Do you remember seeing Stonehenge on your way to the barn?"

"No, but…maybe that night was misty, or something…"

"Night?"

I turned and looked at him. "That's it, Alex!" I cried. "Of course – it was dark when I got to the barn. That's why I just stopped there and went to sleep instead of trying to find a house instead. It's no wonder I haven't seen anything I recognised: I wouldn't have seen very much at all unless the moon had been full and the sky clear. Maybe if we do the journey in the dark I'll see something, or run into something, that will ring a bell.

"Look, let's call it a day for now and go back to the site. That'll give us a chance to have a shower and rest for a bit before we go out with the Anagrams this evening. But suppose we ask them to drop us off here on the way back? We can go back the way we've just come, but we'll be doing it after dark, so perhaps… What do you think?"

"I think you're nuts. How are you going to see anything in the dark?"

"It won't be completely dark – there's a half moon tonight, and that'll give us enough light to stop us walking into things. Look, Alex, if this doesn't work we can go back to days for the last section, but I'd like to try this once at least. Please?"

"Well, okay, then. But I still think you're nuts."

We made our way – by road – back to the bus route and caught the first bus back to the site, and there we took a shower, found some presentable clothes to wear and then just rested until Lukas came to tell us it was time to go. We took our bags with us – I wanted us to have our flashlights and our waterproof coats, and I had my maps and compass, as well as my computer, which I still didn't like leaving in the tent, and we also took our sleeping bags, because at the last minute I thought that it might be interesting to spend the night in the barn.

The Anagrams' motorhome was every bit as shiny and well-equipped as I had thought, and I decided that when I was a bit older I'd have to get one of these: they're a whole lot more comfortable than a small tent and sleeping on the ground. Of course, I'd probably have to win the lottery before I could afford it…

It only took about fifteen minutes to reach the restaurant, and as soon as I stepped through the door I was hit by that wonderful smell that pervades the air inside any good Indian restaurant. Uncle Jim was a connoisseur of curry-houses, and he was quite prepared to travel all the way to Tower Hamlets or even Southall to try out a new one. He'd introduced me to curry less than a month after I moved in with them, and by now I knew what everything – or almost everything – on an Indian menu consisted of, so once we'd sat down and the Anagram boys started discussing between themselves exactly what was in a Lamb Rogan Josh I was able to intervene and explain it to them.

"How did you know what we were saying?" asked Lukas. "You speak German?"

"Well… yes, a bit," I said, in German. "I don't suppose my accent is very good, though."

"Yes, you do have an accent," agreed Lukas, "but it is not an English accent. You sound as if you come from the East – from Mecklenburg or Brandenburg, perhaps, or maybe from Berlin. Who taught you to speak German?"

"Good question," I admitted. "I honestly can't remember. I didn't even realise I could speak German until this evening… see, I had some sort of an accident when I was ten and I can't remember anything that happened before then. Apparently it must have included me learning German, though."

"I see. So if Klaus and I speak to each other you will understand everything?"

"Probably not. Try it and I'll tell you."

The brothers obligingly started talking about the weather, then about their holiday, and then, once it was clear that I had understood most of it, they went off into some sort of local dialect full of slang and left me for dead.

"Don't worry," Lukas said in German. "Probably nobody who doesn't live in Trier would have understood much of that. I expect you and Marco could speak to each other using London street talk and we wouldn't understand a word of that, either. So at least we know we can still keep secrets from you… seriously, I'd say you started very young and learned for several years, because you could probably pass as a native if you tried. And not too many foreigners can do that."

I thought about that during the first part of the meal: I was definitely English – the police had established straight away that English was my native language, and once they'd done so they didn't even bother checking to see if I spoke anything else – so why had I been taught German so thoroughly?

But in the end I couldn't remember anything at all that might help me to answer that, so I settled back and enjoyed the meal instead, and it was every bit as good as I had hoped. It wasn't even that expensive: even with three courses it was still well under ten pounds each, which was a fair bit less than we would have paid in London.

Afterwards we asked Mr Anagram – actually their name was Böttcher, but it was a lot easier to remember 'Anagram' – to drop us off at Stonehenge, telling him that we wanted to try doing a little cross-country walking at night. He wasn't entirely sure that it was safe, but I said we'd be staying off the roads and so wouldn't be in any danger of getting hit by a passing lorry, and that seemed to reassure him a bit. Nonetheless, when Lukas said that it sounded interesting and that he'd like to come with us, his father told him to forget about it, pointing out that we were experienced, used to British roads and conditions, and had come properly equipped, whereas Lukas hadn't either the experience or the kit.

We said goodbye, waved as they drove off and then went through the gate into the field that contains the stones. The moon was giving us some light, but the mist was still clinging to the stones, and as we got close to them it seemed to get thicker.

We followed the path to its closest point to the circle. There was one complete arch on this side, and I stepped over the low rope which is there to keep visitors away from the stones – after all, there was nobody about – and walked up to it, stepping under the arch and looking up at the lintel-stone. It felt surprisingly cold there – I suppose the mist was responsible for that – and so I stepped on through the arch into the circle. Directly ahead was one of the larger arches and I went and examined it: you really don't realise just how tall those stones are until you stand right next to them. Alex followed me through the arch and came to stand beside me.

"They're big, aren't they?" I said, putting my hand lightly on the stone.

"I suppose they are," he agreed. "Shall we go? This mist is getting thicker."

"Huh?"

"The mist… what is it, MM? Have you remembered something?"

"I don't think so, but…" I hesitated, but then shook my head. "No, it's nothing. You're right, it's getting thicker. Let's go before it gets so thick we can't see anything at all."

I got the compass out and set off, heading due west, a path that took us to the south of the outer arch we'd walked through and on out of the circle. And by the time we'd been walking for five minutes or so the mist had disappeared. Weird, I thought.

We'd walked for another ten minutes before I realised we hadn't crossed the track. I was sure we were heading in the right direction – I know how to use a compass, after all – so where was the track? The only explanation was that we'd crossed it while we were in the mist: there must have been a pair of open gates opposite each other.

In due course we reached the road, and that was where it was supposed to be, though the fence here was wooden rather than wire and so a lot easier to get over. We'd hit the road a bit further north than expected, but we found the track leading to the barn easily enough, even though the sky was beginning to cloud over. When we were about halfway between the road and the barn the moon disappeared behind the clouds, and after that it was hard to see anything at all. In the end we got our flashlights out, since the alternative might have been walking into a barbed wire fence.

The barn looked different at night, more solid somehow, and someone seemed to have been tidying up since we had left it that afternoon. There was also a large tractor parked in a separate building at the side, and that hadn't been there earlier in the day either.

We found a ladder leading up to a hayloft, and that seemed the perfect place to spend the night, so we unpacked our sleeping bags and laid them out.

"So," I said, "I seem to remember that it's my turn to do something for you tonight."

Alex shook his head. "Not tonight," he said. "I probably shouldn't have had the extra mushroom bhaji, because I'm not really feeling at my best. Besides, I'd prefer to wait until we're back in the tent… although if my stomach has settled tomorrow morning, maybe I'll take you up on it then."

"Okay," I said. "Just say the word. In that case we might as well go to sleep – it's after ten, so Joe will have given up on us for the night, and probably Auntie Megan will too. We'll talk to them tomorrow night."

We decided it might be better to sleep more or less fully clothed tonight – after all, farmers tend to start the day early, and if the one who owned this barn came along at daybreak to fetch his tractor and found us, it would be both embarrassing and impossible to make a run for it if we were sleeping in the raw. So we just took off our shoes, got into our sleeping bags and went to sleep, and tonight, even though I'd eaten a lot of spicy food before going to bed, I slept undisturbed.

I woke up next morning when I heard Alex calling to me. His sleeping bag was empty and his voice was coming from the foot of the ladder.

"You'd better get down here," was all he said when I acknowledged him.

I put my shoes on and went down the ladder, and he beckoned me to come outside the barn. When I got there I saw what the problem was: this simply wasn't the same barn. The one we were used to was metal and fairly basic; this one was wooden, quite a bit bigger and divided into different sections, and the tractor, which was still in the side building, was like no tractor I had ever seen before: it was huge, had metal wheels without tyres, and seemed to have been designed by an insane railway engineer with a passion for the 1880s, because there were gleaming pipes all over it, and a tall funnel, and some bizarre metal rods attached to the front wheels that looked vaguely like the things you see on the wheels of steam locomotives.

"What the bloody hell is that supposed to be?" asked Alex.

"A tractor?" I suggested.

"Ever see one like that before?"

"Well… not exactly."

"Me neither. Come on – let's get packed up. I want to get back to the road before the mad scientist who dreamed that up appears."

We went back to the hayloft, packed everything away and headed back along the track towards the road. There was no traffic on it when we got there, which seemed a bit unusual, but we headed north along it until we reached the usually busier A344. And here we found some traffic all right, except that the first five vehicles to pass us were all horse-drawn. And then came what I suppose was a lorry of some sort, except that there was a chimney at the back that was belching smoke, and as it passed we could see a man in the back shovelling coal into a firebox.

We stared at the vehicle until it passed out of our sight, and then we turned and stared at each other.

"Well, I don't know where we are," said Alex, "but somehow I don't think we're in Wiltshire any more…"

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