Excelsior

by David Clarke

Chapter 4

"So what do we do now?" asked Alex.

"Good question. I don't suppose there's any point in going back to the camp-site, because I'll be amazed if our tent is there… perhaps we ought to find a police station or something."

"Do we have to? I'm trying to avoid the police at the moment, after all."

"Somehow I don't think the police here are going to be looking for you. Besides, in these parts you're Marco Fielding, remember? Come on, let's just head for Shrewton. Maybe there's a police station there."

Alex didn't look very enthusiastic, but when I started walking in the direction of Shrewton, which was the nearest village, he quickly fell in beside me.

"So where do you think we are?" he asked.

"Seriously, I don't know where we are or how we got here. Perhaps there was something strange in the samosas last night and we're hallucinating all this, but I've never heard of a hallucination affecting two people in exactly the same way. What we really need to do is to find out how to get back to where we belong, but I think we probably need to find out where we are first. That's why I want to find a copper, or at least someone with a map."

"Are you sure you're not already where you belong?"

"You mean, this could be where I came from originally? Well… I did wonder about that. But I still can't remember anything here, and I'm pretty sure I'd remember it if I'd seen one of those coal-burning trucks before."

We walked on for another five minutes, and then a wagon drawn by two horses pulled up beside us.

"Can I offer you young gentlemen transport?" asked the man on the driver's bench.

"That's very kind of you," I said. "We're only going into Shrewton, though."

"You might as well ride, all the same," he said.

I know you're not supposed to get into a vehicle with a strange man, but this vehicle was open-topped and probably wouldn't be going very fast, so we could jump out any time we wanted. And the man didn't really look strange, either, even if his clothes looked a little rustic. So I said thank you and climbed up next to him, and Alex passed me the bags and then came and sat beside me. The man shook his reins and the horses moved on.

"So where have you come from, then?" he asked me.

"That's a good question," I said. "We're lost… well, sort of lost. I mean, we know where we are, but not how we got here. I'm hoping someone will be able to help us. Is there a police station in Shrewton, do you know?"

He turned and looked at me. "If it's the constabulary you're after, you'll not find it in Shrewton," he said. "Nearest constable will be in Sarum, most likely."

"Oh. Well, is there anyone else who might be able to help us?"

"From your voice I'd say you were quality," the man observed. "Best I take you to Squire Cheevers, I'm thinking."

"That would be kind. Thank you," I said, though I had no idea what the local squire might be able to do… and then I wondered how I even knew what a squire was, because you don't meet too many of them in Palmer's Green.

"'Tis strange attire you have, Sir," observed the driver a little later, looking in particular at my jeans and trainers.

"Ah, yes. It's... experimental," I said. "We're from London, you see."

"Ah," he said, nodding sagely. Obviously coming from London could explain away all manner of strangeness.

Before too long we were coming into Shrewton, which looked rather different from the version we had seen before: here the houses were made of traditional materials and looked much older than those in the one we'd seen previously. Several had thatched roofs, and there wasn't a pre-fab in sight. The village was also about half the size of its counterpart, though it had three pubs instead of one.

The squire lived in a fairly large house on the far side of the village. The driver took us round to the back of the house and rang an old-fashioned bell that hung by the back door, and a large woman dressed in black with a white apron opened it and ushered us inside. The driver spoke quietly to her for a moment, wished us good luck and went out again, while the woman told us to take a seat and then disappeared through another door.

We appeared to be in a kitchen, but one that had been lifted straight out of a history book: there was a huge cooking range that took up one end of the room, a deep sink with a pump handle over it, an array of cupboards and shelves, and the large wooden table at which we were now sitting, a table which certainly hadn't come from an IKEA catalogue: it was solid and heavy and a bit rough in places, but it looked as if it had been in the room for about five hundred years and was good for five hundred more.

In due course the woman reappeared and beckoned us to follow her, leading us into first a corridor, then a large hallway, and finally into a room that might have been a particularly old-fashioned doctor's consulting room: there were bookshelves along one wall, some rather dreary portraits on another wall, and a solid-looking desk beside the window, behind which sat an individual who looked as though he'd just been auditioning for the part of Mr Pickwick: grey curly hair that had receded to a narrow strip of territory above his ears and round the back of his head, amazing side-whiskers, round, red face and a pair of pince-nez perched on his nose.

"Thank you, Mrs Peters," he said, and the woman retired.

"I understand that you're in difficulties?" he went on, addressing Alex, presumably because he looked the more imposing of us.

"Well, yes," I said, drawing his eyes back to me. "You see, we don't know quite how we come to be here. We seem to be lost."

"This is Shrewton," said Mr Pickwick.

"Yes, we know that. We know where Shrewton is, too. The problem is that this Shrewton isn't the one we were in yesterday."

"What on Earth do you mean, boy?"

"Yesterday we were in a different Shrewton, a larger one, where vehicles aren't horse-drawn and buildings are different. I don't know how we got from there to here, but somehow we did, and somehow we have to try a way to get back."

"A different Shrewton? What nonsense is this? You're wasting my time, boy!"

"Show him your computer," suggested Alex.

I thought that was an excellent idea, so I pulled my computer from my bag and turned it on.

"Have you ever seen something like this, Sir?" I asked, selecting 'My Pictures' and showing him three photos, starting with Uncle Jim in his truck and moving on to one of the three of us standing outside our house (Alex had taken that one), and then one of our neighbours' new Porsche.

Clearly he hadn't, because he just gaped at the pictures.

"This is our world… at least, it's Alex's world," I told him. "I'm not sure whether it's mine or not, though it's where I've lived for the last four years. You see, I had an accident when I was ten and I lost my memory, and so I don't really know anything about where I came from – it could be here, or it could be the world in those pictures. I really need to find out – that's why we came to this area, because this is where I was found… well, here, but in the other world."

The squire was still staring at the photographs, but then I thought of something else to show him. I went back into my bag and took out my watch.

"This is the only thing I was carrying when I was found," I said, handing it to him and taking the computer away at the same time – I didn't think he'd have anything useful to say until he stopped staring at the photos. "Do you know where it might have come from?"

He took the watch, examined it and then opened it.

"This is a very fine piece of work," he told me, in a completely different tone of voice. "To buy this new would cost at least two hundred guineas. It is not the sort of instrument you would give to a boy on his tenth birthday unless your family was very rich, or unless the boy was highly unusual. If this is indeed yours, then you are undoubtedly far above my station. Might I ask your name?"

"I'm afraid I don't know it, Sir," I admitted. "My foster-parents gave me the name Keith Lambert, but I know it isn't the name I was born with."

"That is most unfortunate. Well, I am minded to send you to the Lord Lieutenant – he is better equipped to speak of the aristocracy than am I."

He pulled a string on the wall behind him and we heard a distant bell, and a few seconds later Mrs Peters reappeared.

"Tell Boulding to prepare my carriage," the squire told her. "Gentlemen, have you partaken of breakfast?"

"Well, no," I said.

"Then take them into the dining-room and prepare a light breakfast," the squire instructed Mrs Peters, and she took us into another room, told us to take a seat and promised us that she would bring breakfast in a few minutes.

"Well, that was interesting," I commented, once she had left. "Do you think he's really going to send us on to this Lord Whoever, or is he on the phone right now to the local loony bin, telling them he's caught a couple of escaped nutters?"

Alex, who was being uncharacteristically quiet, merely shrugged, so I answered my own question.

"Come to think of it, I didn't see a phone," I said. "But somehow I think he means what he said. Certainly his mood changed when he saw my watch. Perhaps it's the local version of a Rolex – not too many kids wear those."

"Carmody said he was going to get Joe to sniff him one out in Enfield, remember?" said Alex, rousing himself a little. "Perhaps the squire thinks you nicked it."

"I don't think so. After all, he never once questioned my ownership of it. Anyway, since we've got the computer out, let's see if we can get online."

I wasn't particularly surprised to find that we couldn't: every attempt to connect to the Internet or to my email account brought up an error message to the effect that no network was available. Of course it could just have been a wi-fi dead spot, but by now I was fairly sure that this whole world was a wi-fi dead spot.

About fifteen minutes later Mrs Peters came in pushing a trolley that contained a number of silver covered dishes, which she set out on top of the sideboard.

"Please help yourselves," she invited us. "I'll be back with the tea shortly."

Squire Cheevers's idea of a 'light breakfast' was dishes of sausages, bacon, tomatoes, mushrooms and eggs both scrambled and fried, together with a rack of toast and a dish of creamy yellow butter which, I was fairly sure, had not been supplied by Tesco: more likely it had come straight from the farm. And it, and everything else, tasted wonderful. We were just finishing off when the squire appeared, holding a thick envelope on which was written, in copperplate lettering, "Maj.-Gen. Sir Edmund de Breville, Bart".

"My man will conduct you to Sir Edmund at Devizes," he told us. "I have written you a letter of introduction. I feel sure that he has the contacts to discover the origins of your watch."

"Thank you, Sir," I said. "And thank you for breakfast, too – I can't remember when I last enjoyed a meal so much."

"You are too kind," replied the squire. "I fear my poor table cannot compare to those to which you are accustomed."

"Trust me, that was something special," I said.

He led us out to the front of the house. Mrs Peters was waiting by the front door, so I said "Thank you for a lovely breakfast" as we went past, and she looked rather surprised – perhaps she wasn't used to guests thanking her in person – but nonetheless pleased.

At the front of the house was a light carriage with a pair of matched horses harnessed to it, and a chap in livery holding the door open for us. We climbed inside and he closed the door and got up onto the driving seat at the front.

"Thank you again," I said to the squire. "We'll be sure to tell Sir Edmund how kind you've been."

"It was simply my Christian duty," replied the squire, though he looked pleased, too. I seemed to be managing to find all the right things to say.

The driver shook the reins, and as we began to move I ducked back inside the carriage and sat down. Almost immediately I became aware that Alex was just sitting there, staring straight ahead and trembling slightly.

"What's the matter?" I asked him.

"I want to wake up now," he said, quietly.

"Huh?"

"I said, I want to wake up now! I've had enough of this, okay? This was a good dream, but it's gone too far – right up to when I started eating that breakfast I was sure I was dreaming, but I can still taste it, so… please, MM, help me to wake up!"

"I'm sorry," I said, "but I can't. You're not asleep."

"But I must be! This simply isn't possible – there's no such thing as a time machine, so we just can't be in this… this place!"

"I don't think it's anything to do with time," I said. "There was a newspaper on the squire's desk and it had today's date on it. I think this is another version of England, somehow – maybe the oil has run out, so there aren't any more cars, or maybe the car was never invented in the first place."

He shook his head slowly. "But how did we get here?" he asked. "Even if you're right – and I don't see how that's possible either – how did we get here – and how do we get back?"

"I don't know. Perhaps the man we're going to see can tell us."

"But we're going the wrong way! We should just go back to the barn – that has to be where we went wrong!"

"But it might not be. It might have been earlier, in the mist – or maybe it was nothing to do with us at all. Maybe someone else did something, and we just got caught up in it."

"I don't care! I just want to go home…"

There was a tear running down his cheek, and that was really worrying, because I didn't think I'd ever seen Alex cry before. The problem was that I couldn't think of anything to say that might help, because I had no idea what was going on either. But it was different for me: I thought I might actually be on the trail of my past here – certainly the squire's reaction to my watch suggested that this might be the case – and while I would have been a lot happier if I had known how we had got here and how to get back, I was quite prepared to carry on in order to find out as much as I could. Poor Alex had just been dragged along with me, and he obviously wasn't happy about it.

"We're going to be okay," I said. "After all, everyone's been decent to us so far, haven't they? I think this is a pretty interesting place, and it has to be more interesting than just wandering aimlessly about the fields, like we were doing. This is a proper adventure!"

But he didn't respond to me at all, just seeming to hunch up even smaller in his seat and looking straight ahead.

I moved as close to him as I could and put my arm round him.

"We have to stick together," I said. "I need you, Alex – who else is going to pick me up and carry me when I fall over?"

That didn't get a response either. I opened my mouth to try again but then glanced out of the window and saw that we were just passing the campsite – at least, the place where the campsite was in our world. The farm was still there, but there were cows grazing in the field where our tent should have been. I didn't think it would help Alex's state of mind if I mentioned this, so instead I said, "Look at it this way: there's no way I'm going to able to carry you, so you need to be able to walk out of here when we get to wherever we're going."

Still no answer, and now I was really starting to get worried.

"Come on, Alex," I begged. "Please don't give up on me. You're my best friend. I love you."

Slowly his head turned to face me. "What?" he said.

"I said 'You're my best friend – I love you'," I repeated. "Okay, I know you're not supposed to use that word with boys, but I don't see what else I can call it. You're a proper friend: you've never let me down and you've always been there when I needed someone, and if you weren't around I wouldn't be able to cope with life at all. So, yeah, I love you. Is that okay?"

There was a long pause. Then, "Good psychology," he said, with a faint smile. "Say something outrageous – that ought to snap the stupid great ox out of it."

"Are you saying you don't believe me? Come on, Alex, look at me – now, do you think I'm lying?"

I don't know what sort of expression I was wearing, but whatever it was it seemed to convince him.

"No," he said, quietly. "No, you're not lying – hell, you never lie. Sorry, MM. But even so…"

I leaned in close and kissed him on the cheek once more, and that shut him up, just as it had the first time.

"Do I have to do that every time just to convince you I mean what I say?" I asked.

"No, but I certainly won't mind if you do. Look, I'm sorry about… you know, the rabbit in the headlights thing, but this just feels wrong. Maybe this is real – maybe it's even where you came from – but to me it's as if I'd gone to bed at home and woken up in Africa, with no idea of how I got here or how to get home. In fact it's worse than that, because if we were in Africa we could just go to the nearest airport and fly home, and I'll bet we can't do that from here. And as for this being an adventure… adventures are great to read about, and I like stories where people are stuck in weird places and likely to get killed at any moment, but I've never wanted to be in one myself. In stories the hero strides about as if being whisked off to another planet is just like going shopping in Oxford Street, but when it happens for real, all I can say is that I'm not sure whether I'm going to puke or piss myself first. I guess I'm nobody's idea of a hero."

"We've barely started yet," I pointed out. "Maybe in the end you'll die heroically to save my life."

"More likely I'll just wish you luck as I run out the door."

"I don't think so. Anyway, like I said, this place looks completely safe right now, doesn't it?"

"I suppose. It's just not knowing how to get back that scares me. If we knew that all we have to do is to go to sleep in the barn again, or run three times round Stonehenge shouting 'I'm a loony' or something, then I could probably relax a bit, but as it is… what if we can't ever get home?"

"We got here easily enough," I pointed out. "I don't see why going the other way should be any more difficult. All we have to do is to find out how, and maybe" (I re-read the envelope the squire had handed me) "Major-General Sir Edmund de Breville, Bart, can explain it to us. After all, it would be odd if we were the first people ever to end up here, and he's supposed to be the big man in Wiltshire, so if anyone knows…"

"Yeah, I suppose. But… promise me you won't go off anywhere without me."

"Of course I won't. We're a team."

He gave me another faint smile, and although I didn't think he was back to his old self yet, at least he seemed to relax a little.

The carriage rolled on. I wasn't sure how far it was from Shrewton to Devizes, but the journey took about fifty minutes, and it was a very smooth ride: the carriage was well-sprung and the road surface was very flat.

Sir Edmund lived in a large house just south of the town. It was an imposing place at the end of a tree-lined drive, and I have to admit I found the mere sight of it intimidating: at that moment I felt like a dead-ordinary kid from North London, rather than a lost scion of the aristocracy, and I wondered how on earth I was supposed to address a Lord Lieutenant.

But the carriage delivered us to the front door rather than the tradesmen's entrance round the back, and that left us with no choice but to try to look like decent, well-brought up boys, rather than a pair of scruffy yobs who had slept in their clothes.

The door was opened by a man in a black suit who had to be the butler. He looked down his nose at us, clearly unimpressed by our 'experimental' clothing, and said "Ye-e-e-s?" in an intimidating tone.

"Good morning," I said. "We have been sent by Squire Cheevers at Shrewton. We are here to see Sir Edmund."

"I see. Do you gentlemen have an appointment?"

"No, I'm afraid not. But we do have a letter from the squire."

I handed it to him, and he looked at it as if I'd just handed him a week-old kipper. He seemed uncertain as to whether he should close the door in our faces or tell us to go round to the tradesmen's entrance, but in the end he took a deep breath and invited us in.

"Thank you," I said to the squire's coachman, and at that the butler twitched in apparent disapproval: I supposed that thanking mere servants for doing their job wasn't the Done Thing.

The coachman bowed and went back to his carriage, and the butler told us to wait in the hall and glided away into the distance.

"Are you sure this is a good idea?" asked Alex quietly.

"No, but we're here now," I replied. "Let's see what happens."

Three or four minutes later the butler returned. He didn't look a lot friendlier, but he did ask us to follow him, and that was definitely a step in the right direction. We followed him through to a study that was not so very different from the squire's, except that this one was lighter – it had a much larger window – and the portraits, being of brightly-dressed ladies rather than miserable-looking men, were a lot less gloomy.

Behind the desk was a man of about sixty who was wearing what appeared to be a black velvet jacket and a small round pill-box hat with a tassel in the middle, and who was wreathed in tobacco smoke from the pipe he had clenched between his teeth. He looked up as we came in, removed the pipe and set it down on a polished brass device that was obviously designed for the purpose, and then he asked us to sit down on two chairs in front of the desk.

"Squire Cheevers tells me that you've been suffering from amnesia and can't even remember your true name," he began, and unlike the squire he was hedging his bets by looking straight between us. "But he says you have a watch that he thinks will allow me to identify you. May I see it?"

I pulled the watch from my pocket and handed it to him, and he looked it over, paused to look at me, and then opened it and read the inscription inside.

"I can see why the squire found this interesting," he commented. "This is certainly a valuable timepiece, and quite unique. Perhaps you had better tell me what you know about yourself."

So I explained about being found in the barn, and that I had no memories before then. Then came the tricky bit, where I had to try to explain that the world I had been living in for the past four years wasn't this one.

"Yes, the squire mentions that. He says he would have thought you a lunatic, had it not been for your… the squire describes it as a 'magic book' that contains pictures from the place where you live. Would you be good enough to show it to me?"

So out came the computer again. I turned it on, found the picture of Auntie Megan, Uncle Jim and me and showed it to him.

"That's my foster-parents," I explained, "and the house behind them is where I live. It's in North London. Oh, and this thing – it's called a 'computer' - can play music, too. Hold on a moment…"

I spun the computer round and opened 'My Music'. Actually most of what's in there is not 'my' music but Auntie Megan's – I generally use YouTube or Spotify if I want to listen to something, but Auntie Megan had copied some of her music tracks onto my machine one day when I'd asked her what sort of music she liked. In fact I thought it was probably just as well it was mostly her tracks rather than mine, because I couldn't see a sixty-year-old soldier being particularly impressed by grime or rap.

I'll admit I quite like some of Auntie Megan's choices, so I selected Radiohead's Exit music for a film, which I thought wouldn't be too loud or strident for someone like this, and double-clicked it. The reaction was everything I could have wished for: the Lord Lieutenant stared at the screen (my player has a visualisation of swirly geometric shapes) and then examined the whole machine, trying to work out where the sound was coming from. Clearly it defeated him, because after a few seconds he just sat in his chair and watched the screen in silence until the end of the track.

I was tempted to follow it up with some Tinie Tempah, but then I came to my senses and turned the computer off instead.

"I don't know where you obtained that machine, young man," he said, "but I am certain that it was not here. I do not even recognise the material from which it is constructed. In any event, it certainly lends credence to your story. And now I might have something to show you, but first: do you know the date that you were found asleep in that barn?"

"September 20th 2007," I told him. It's a date I know perfectly, because to all intents and purposes it was the day I was born.

He nodded slowly and stood up. "That would fit," he said.

He went across to one of the bookcases in the room and came back with something that turned out to be an old-fashioned photo album, and from the sepia tones of the pictures in it I assumed it had belonged to his great-great-grandfather. But apparently that wasn't the case at all.

"I know you say that you have no recollection of what happened before you were found," he said, "but I would like you to look at this photograph. Perhaps it will help you to remember something. Is there anyone in this photograph that you recognise?"

The picture took up the whole of one page of the album and showed a group of around fifteen or sixteen people. The men were wearing evening dress or military uniforms, and the women were in full-length dresses, and at first glance I would have guessed it was a photograph of Queen Victoria's cabinet ministers and their wives, or perhaps a collection of minor royalty. Whoever they were, I didn't recognise any of them, but then I hadn't expected to: I had no idea what Disraeli looked like, or any of Victoria's numerous children or cousins either. I was about to hand the book back, but then I looked again…

I'd been concentrating on the men because, after all, in Victoria's day there were hardly any women of importance anywhere except for the queen herself. But there was a woman in the back row of the photo who did remind me of someone: it was the long, wavy, light-coloured hair that had taken my eye. I couldn't be sure, and on the face of it it was absurd to think that the wife of a Victorian aristocrat could have commanded a flying machine, but even so there was definitely a likeness. And the man next to her in the photograph had a small pointy beard… okay, several of the men in the photo had beards, but even so, this could have been the guy with the telescope in my dream.

"I've no idea who they are," I said, "but I think I might have seen these two before."

By now I was beginning to think that Alex's conjecture about the dream being the remnant of an earlier incarnation was true, and so I expected the Lord Lieutenant to tell me that the photo had been taken in around 1912. But instead he nodded.

"It certainly fits," he said. "That photograph was taken at Christmas 2006. The woman is the Duchess of Culham – Dowager Duchess, she was by then - and the man is her brother, Lord Folliot of Chisbury. It is most interesting to find that you have some memory of them."

"Why? Who do you think I am?"

"It would be better for me not to say, I think. Better that I ask Lord Folliot to speak to you in person, because if I am wrong and speak too soon it would cause great embarrassment to several people, not least yourself."

He pulled on one of the strings on the wall and a minute or so later the butler reappeared.

"Ask Adams to fire up his boiler and tell Rodber to saddle up – I'll have a despatch for him shortly," his boss instructed him. "And perhaps you could ask cook to prepare some lemonade?"

The butler's expression was interesting: clearly our status had changed, and he was wondering if we might complain about his attitude towards us – if we hadn't already done so, of course. So he bowed to his master and favoured us with a little nod, too, as he left. I'm not generally one to cause trouble, so I kept quiet.

Over the next hour or so we watched Sir Edmund write a letter which he subsequently sealed and handed to a teenage boy in riding clothes, drank some delicious lemonade that had nothing in common with the bottles of fizzy stuff you buy in the supermarkets, ate a couple of ham sandwiches and played Sir Edmund a couple more tracks from OK Computer. Then the butler returned to announce that Adams had completed his preparations and to take us downstairs to the front of the house, where Adams and his vehicle were waiting for us.

It was about the size and shape of a hearse, although it was mid-blue rather than black, with a normal driving position at the front and a passenger compartment on the right hand side behind the driver's seat. The left hand part was closed off from the passenger compartment by an internal wall, though the top part of this was glass, allowing you to see out of both sides of the car. There was a large hopper at the top of the left-hand compartment towards the front, and underneath it a closed area of what appeared to be black metal. And at the back of the car was a chimney.

The passenger compartment could seat four, two with their backs to the driver and the other two in a more normal position opposite them, facing forwards. I like to see where I'm going, so I took one of the rear seats, and Alex came and sat next to me. The chauffeur closed the door, walked round to the driver's seat and got in.

The next few moments were kind of surreal: my eyes suggested that this was a normal car journey, but my ears were telling me that I was on a train pulled by a steam engine, especially when Adams blew the car's whistle as it rolled out of the gate.

The vehicle seemed capable of a good turn of speed, and once we were clear of Devizes it was soon rolling along at around forty to fifty miles an hour. It slowed down a bit going uphill, but it turned out that it was going downhill that caused a problem, because after one quite long descent Adams stopped the car at the side of the road and got out. We were interested to see the engine, and so we got out too and came round to the left-hand side of the car, where Adams had opened a panel and was poking about in the hopper with a metal rod.

"It's a design fault," he explained, when I asked what was wrong. "The hopper is the wrong shape, and the feed chute is a little too small. When we hit a downslope the coal jams in the feed – not every time, but often enough to be a nuisance. I've started to make a replacement. I haven't finished it yet, but I hope it'll fix it."

"How does it work?" I asked.

"Haven't you been in an auto-carriage before?" he asked.

"Not one like this," I said.

"No, of course – this is one of the most recent models. Well, as you know, when the technology was first applied to private vehicles they started out with a two-man crew, the same as in the military and commercial vehicles. But while that works well in something the size of an auto-cannon, it cut down the passenger space too much in a private conveyance, and so the self-loading firebox was developed. I can control the coal feed and the water supply from my cab, so there's no need for a fireman – at least, I could if the hopper worked properly. Still, I think that should fix it. If you'd like to get back aboard, gentlemen?"

So we set off once more. I wasn't sure exactly where we were heading: the compass suggested that we were going basically north-east, but since there was a huge metal boiler right beside us I wasn't sure how reliable that reading was.

Alex noticed a sliding wooden panel at floor level in the wall between us and the boiler and firebox assembly, and when he opened it a gust of hot air came through. He closed the panel again smartly.

"This would be a good way to travel in the winter," he commented. "It would almost be like a mobile sauna: you strip naked, slide the panel wide open and divert some of the steam in here, and then when the car stops you can get out and roll about in the nearest snow-drift."

"Only if you're a complete masochist," I said. "Rolling naked in the snow doesn't sound like my idea of fun."

"That's what you're supposed to do with a sauna. In places like Russia and Finland that's exactly what you do. It's supposed to be very refreshing."

"I'll take your word for it. Anyway, I imagine that if we jumped out of the car naked we'd probably be arrested, even if we tried to claim we were just looking for a snowdrift."

"Well, we would now, obviously, but in the winter we might be okay. And perhaps this world doesn't get all wound up about naked bodies the way our world does."

"Do you want to try putting that to the test?" I asked.

"Yes, okay," he replied, and he actually started getting undressed.

"Alex!" I hissed, hoping that Adams wasn't going to turn round. There was a glass panel between us that prevented him from listening to our conversation, but if he'd looked over his shoulder…"I wasn't being serious! What if it's an even bigger no-no here than it is at home?"

"Chill," he said, doing his shirt up again. "As if I'm really going to. Mind you, I seem to remember there was something you were going to do for me today, and this would be a really interesting place to do it. I bet none of our friends can claim to have done it in a steam car."

"And we're not going to be the first, either," I said, firmly. "I promised I'd do it for you, and I will – in fact I'm looking forward to it. But we're not going to leave nasty sticky marks all over Sir Edmund's car, so you're going to have to wait until this evening."

"Oh, okay then. But it would be sorta fun to do it in here."

"Tough," I said. But somehow the image of the mobile sauna stayed with me, even if I thought I'd give the snow-rolling a miss. I wondered if the people we were going to visit owned a steam-car…

We'd been travelling through countryside, just seeing an occasional village, and the roads were mostly free from traffic, with just the odd rider or horse-drawn vehicle, and I wondered where we were going. I had an idea that Oxford ought to be somewhere in this direction if my compass was telling the truth, but I didn't see any road signs at all, and nor did I manage to read the name of any of the three or four small villages we passed through.

But then I did manage to read a sign at the edge of another small town: Abingdon, which I'd vaguely heard of and thought was somewhere close to Oxford – so perhaps my compass was working properly after all. And then, two or three minutes after leaving Abingdon, we crossed a railway line, turned left and followed a driveway that seemed to lead into open green countryside – until we turned a corner and found ourselves looking at a very large country house, or perhaps it would be better to describe it as a 'stately home'. Whoa, I thought, whoever lives there has to be rolling in money… and once again I felt like an insignificant kid from one of the less fashionable London suburbs. What on earth was I doing in this sort of environment?

The car drew up outside the front door. Adams came round and opened the car door for us and we followed him up the steps to the front door of the house. He rang a bell, and the door was opened by another butler, though this one was wearing a grey morning coat and pin-striped trousers, rather than Sir Edmund's butler's funeral director black. And while Sir Edmund's man had greeted us with barely-disguised disdain, this man's reaction was quite different: for a moment his professional reserve slipped completely: his eyes opened wide and his mouth dropped open. But then he recovered and his face returned to a neutral mask.

"Are these the young gentlemen of whom Sir Edmund de Breville wrote?" he asked, addressing Adams, and the driver nodded.

"Sir Edmund's rider reached us fifteen minutes ago," the butler continued. "I believe that the household are ready to receive guests. Please come in, gentlemen."

I said "Thank you" to Adams and followed the butler into the hall.

"May I know your name?" he asked Alex, and Alex gave him his real name – clearly there was no further need for Messrs Fielding and Jordan here.

"And I've been living under the name 'Keith Lambert' I said. "I know it isn't my real name, but it's the only one I've got."

The butler opened his mouth but then apparently thought better of whatever he had been about to say, because he closed it again, turned and walked on into the large hallway.

"If you would like to follow me, gentlemen?" he said, and we followed him to a door on the left-hand side of the hall, which he opened, gesturing us to go in.

There were five people in the room, but the first one I saw was the man with the pointy beard. The beard, and his hair, were now grey – in my dream they had been black – but I was fairly certain that this was indeed the same man.

"His Grace, the Fifth Duke of Culham," announced the butler loudly.

So Pointy Beard is now the Duke, I thought. There was no sign of the blond woman, and I wondered if it meant that she was dead, because in that case it was logical for the title to have passed to her brother… and then I noticed someone else I recognised.

Sitting off to one side was the red-haired boy. He was older than in my dream, too, and I guessed that he was probably about the same age as me. As I entered the room the boy stood up and took a step towards me.

"Oh, God, it is true – you are alive!" he exclaimed.

"Wolfie?" I asked, and that was enough to get him moving towards me at a stumbling run.

Behind me Alex had now entered the room and I heard the butler say, "And Mr Alexandros Demetriou." It took a moment or two for that to sink in, but then:

Hang on, I thought, what do you mean by 'And'?

But before I could develop the thought the red-head reached me and threw himself into my arms, kissing me fervently and then enveloping me in a firm embrace.

"I thought I had lost you," he said. "I thought I would never see you again…"

He swung me round, and that left me looking over his shoulder at Alex, and the expression on Alex's face told me that my life had suddenly become a great deal more complicated…

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