by David Clarke
According to popular fiction, if you forget things as a result of a bang on the head, the way to remember them again is another bang on the head. I don't think there's any actual medical evidence that this works in real life, but the idea seems to prevail nonetheless. But I don't think I've ever read a story in which memories are restored when someone has a particularly powerful orgasm – and yet I can bear witness to the fact that, in one case at least, it worked.
Okay, I don't think I got everything back, but I do know that when I came around – and it was to find the bandage off my right hand, the light turned on and Wolfie leaning over me looking worried – I could remember far more than I had been able to previously.
"Hey, Wolfie," I greeted him. "You never did that so well that it knocked me out before, did you?"
He shook his head. "Are you all right?" he asked.
"I'm fine. Turn the light out… no, wait a moment – throw me one of the towels so that I can clean up a bit."
He hopped around the bed and passed me a towel. After I'd used it he extinguished the light and hopped back to the bed, and once he was safely back beside me I rolled up close to him, hugged him and kissed his cheek.
"Give me five minutes to get my breath back and then I'll show you what I can do with my right hand," I told him. "So – apart from renewing our vows, what else were you going to try to restore my memory?"
"I hoped that just sleeping together might do it, but if not I was going to try going into the tunnels tomorrow when we wake up," he said. "That really ought to do it."
"I thought you couldn't manage in there now?"
"I'll be able to if you are there to help me."
"Hmmm. Look, Wolfie… when you smashed your leg up, did you do any other damage?"
"Nothing serious. Why?"
"Well, why… I mean, I've seen you swimming, and you can get up the last staircase on your own, too… so… why are you using a wheelchair?"
"Because of my leg, of course!"
"Sorry, Wolfie, but that's rubbish. Kids back in my world get their legs blown off by landmines or lose them in accidents, and a few months later they're walking again – not just walking, but running and playing football and stuff, and that's sometimes on two artificial legs. You've had a wooden leg for four years, so you should be able to run about on it as well as anyone by now. And I know you – you've never been the sort to give up on stuff. So what's going on?"
"I told you, I…"
"Wolfie, it's me," I interrupted. "We never lie to each other. Tell me the truth."
He was quiet, so I hugged him again. "Come on," I said, gently. "I want to know."
"You want to know the truth? I'm lazy," he said. "The chair is easier. And after the crash, when I thought you'd gone for good, I just lost interest in everything. Uncle Gil tried to get me going again, and my own uncle came and shouted at me, telling me that kings don't just give up. I told him I wasn't a king and hoped I'd never have to be one, and he said he hoped that too, since if I became king it would mean that he and his children would be dead, but that I had to act as if it was going to happen, all the same. But none of it did any good: I simply couldn't interest myself in a future that didn't have you in it.
"I know that's very stupid – after all, lots of people lose the people closest to them but still carry on, like your mother kept going after your father died, but… I was ten years old, so I suppose it wasn't unreasonable to behave childishly. So I decided I'd use the chair and only walk when I had to – it is still uncomfortable, you know."
"Yes, but if you'd used the leg straight away, by now it probably wouldn't hurt at all," I pointed out. "Anyway, that's going to change: now I'm back I want you walking. To start with you can still use the chair if we're going a long way – like if we go down to the river, for instance – but I really don't want to see you using it inside the house. Is that fair?"
"Well… I don't know. I think it'll hurt, and then I'll get bad-tempered, and I don't want to get into fights with you…"
"You won't. We'll be with you, and if you really can't manage on your own Alex and Billy will be around to help you, and obviously I will whenever we're up here. But in six months' time I want to see you running about the Long Meadow like we used to when we were little, okay? And maybe we can even try climbing the mast again, now old Wallis isn't around to yell at us for it."
"You remember that? That happened when we were barely eight, I think."
"You were still seven. It was funny, though – and we got quite a long way up it, too. No wonder the old git was so worried."
"You really can remember! How much else has come back?"
"Most of it, I think, at least as far as you and I are concerned. There are still some gaps, but I can remember pretty much everything we used to get up to. And one thing I can remember is how much you liked me to… well, lie on your back and I'll show you."
He did that and I took hold of him and stroked it until it went hard… and then I burst out laughing.
"What is it?" he asked.
"I've just remembered that bet you told me about, the one about who was going to get his pubes first. Actually I have got a few, but I don't mind conceding the bet, because you've obviously got a lot more than me… and if you like I'll pay the penalty tomorrow."
"I bet you won't!" he said. "You only remember what the passages were like when we used them all the time, but nobody has been in there for years, and the last time I looked through the panel there were cobwebs everywhere. Put it this way: I wouldn't even want to go in there with a light, and I certainly wouldn't go from the cellar to the attic stark naked and without a lamp, or even a box of lucifers, not for ten thousand guineas. So I won't make you do it either. Once we've cleaned up a bit and got rid of the cobwebs, and once we're sure there aren't any rats in there, then you can do the run. But even if you can remember the route – and you haven't been in there for four years, remember – if you tried doing it before we get rid of the spiders it would drive you insane."
"We never ever broke our word to each other," I reminded him, "so if you tell me I have to do it tomorrow, I will. But… well, you know I don't like spiders much, so I'd definitely prefer to wait until we've cleaned the passages."
"Then we'll make a start on that tomorrow. And you only have to do the run, too, not all the other things we added on."
"God, yes, that's right," I said, remembering. "We really went to town on it, didn't we? I mean, I can understand why I did: I was older than you, and so I felt sure I'd reach puberty first. But for some reason you were dead sure you would, and so every time I added something to the bet, you went one step further. And it turns out you were right, too – but what made you so sure?"
"Well, there are only four months between us, which isn't really very much. I was a little taller than you, too, and in other ways – you know – we were almost exactly the same size, so I thought that if I wanted it enough it would happen to me first. Except that by the time it actually did happen, about six months ago, I really didn't care any more."
"Well, I'm glad it did," I said, stroking his little curls, "even if I wasn't here to see it for myself. Still, I'll be here to see you get your first underarm hair, and for the first time you shave – assuming you're not going to grow a beard, of course?"
"No, I don't think so. I'm not sure that red hair really works with a beard. So – you're really going to stay, then?"
"Of course I am. I was going to anyway, but now that I can remember most of my past I don't think there can be any question that I belong here… or that I belong with you, either."
He pulled me on top of him and hugged me hard. "Oh, God, I've really got you back," he breathed.
"Yes, you have," I agreed, returning the hug. "But if that chair of yours hasn't been consigned to the attic by Christmas you might wish you hadn't, because I'll resurrect all the penalties for losing the bet about our pubes and apply them all to you instead."
"No, you damn well won't!" he said.
"Yes," I said, kissing him on the tip of his nose, "I damn well will. But first there was something else I had to do to you…"
I rolled back off him, took hold of his erection once more and set to work. I remembered that he had always wriggled around a lot when I did this for him, and so I did my utmost to draw it out this time, and by the time he finally climaxed he was writhing about like a man possessed.
"Good?" I asked afterwards, passing him the towel.
"Oh, yes. God, I've been waiting four years for that, and it was worth waiting for."
"You don't mean to say that you haven't done it at all since I got lost?" I asked incredulously.
"No, obviously not. But I've only done it myself, and that really isn't the same, is it?"
"No. But couldn't you have found a servant to do it for you? I'm sure you could have found a boots, or one of the stable-lads, or a gardener's boy, or someone like that, if you'd wanted to."
"Yes, but he wouldn't have been you, and I'd decided ages ago that I would never let anyone else touch me like that except you. Besides, I'm not sure about using a servant that way. Probably some wouldn't mind, but I'm not sure I'd be very happy if I were a servant and one of my masters ordered me to do that."
"I suspect Billy wouldn't mind," I said. "But now you've got me it isn't going to be an issue, is it?"
We settled down, although I lay awake for a while thinking about some of the memories I had just recovered. Certainly Wolfie had been right about one thing: being a duke wasn't a bed of roses. Not only did I have responsibilities to my family and the people who worked for me, but I also had responsibilities towards the Crown and the country as a whole. I think it's Spiderman who talks about great power bringing with it great responsibility, but the same was true of money: our family was undoubtedly wealthy, but that brought with it a lot of obligations, both locally – ensuring that the people who lived on my estate and who worked for me were provided for and looked after when they got too old to work, and supporting the king…
That had come as a bit of a surprise, but now I remembered that our history over the past two hundred years or so was substantially different from that of the world in which I had been living for the past four years. As a child I had studied the pivotal period of history in which the French Empire had begun, and I knew that in this country there had almost been a full-blown revolution as well: dissatisfaction with the growing insanity of George III and intense dislike of the wastrel Prince Regent, combined with the overthrow of the French royal family, had led to our own king and his heir being deposed. There had been a brief Republic under the leadership of Charles Fox, but after his death it had been felt that a monarchy was after all the preferred course. However, not wishing to see the return of the Georges, Parliament had instead decided to invite the current Jacobite claimant to return, on the understanding that Britain was a Parliamentary Democracy and not, as the earlier Stuart kings had claimed, an absolute monarchy.
And so in 1808 the Jacobite King Charles IV had taken the throne, and his successors had continued to reign, for the most part in harmony with Parliament, ever since. The present king, James V, had been on the throne for fifteen years and was thought to be a good king on the whole, although his passion for fox-hunting worried a few people: the spectacle of the king upside down in a muddy ditch isn't too edifying, and as his son was still only eight years old a lot of people worried about what would happen if the king broke his stupid neck one day.
Anyway, as a senior member of the aristocracy I was supposed to support him and advise him, and although the advice part of that was purely theoretical, the support for the institution of the monarchy was supposed to be unconditional. Unfortunately Auntie Megan was a Republican, and so for the past three years I hadn't heard anything very positive about the monarchy. I supposed that as long as I didn't express an opinion about it, nobody could complain.
The main method in which I was expected to support the country, apart from paying taxes, of course, was to provide military aid, which in my family meant building and flying airships. My father was unusual in preferring to fight with the land army, because flying was in our blood, and my mother's family had also been keen aeronauts, which is why she had been flying Daedalus as a privateer even before my father died. And now I could remember my earlier flights with her, and that made me all the more determined to continue the tradition. The only thing I still couldn't remember was jumping out of the stricken ship with Wolfie on the day my mother had died. I was still trying to wrestle that memory out of wherever in my head it was hiding when I fell asleep.
Next morning Wolfie and I got down to the breakfast-room before Alex (which didn't surprise me – I already knew that Alex liked to stay in bed when he could).
"Leo has got his memory back!" Wolfie told him, when he finally arrived. "That's really good news, isn't it?"
"Is that right?" Alex asked me.
"Who are you?" I asked him, as deadpan as I could, "and what are you doing in my house?"
It got him, too: for a moment a look of dismay came over his face. But then I couldn't keep a straight face any longer and I grinned at him and drew him into a hug.
"Gotcha!" I said. "Yes, it's true… well, not completely, because there are still a few gaps, but I can remember most of it. And I can still remember the past four years perfectly, too, so I haven't forgotten you. Like I said last night, I don't think that would be possible. So you got through the night on your own, then?"
"Not exactly." None of the adults had yet arrived, but he still lowered his voice – there were a couple of maids fiddling around the serving trays. "I didn't fancy being on my own, so I went upstairs to Billy's room and asked if I could sleep with him. I thought it might be a bad idea to ask a servant to sleep on the second floor, but I didn't think anyone could object too much if a guest wanted to sleep on the third floor. Anyway, he said he'd like that, and so I spent the night with him."
"And?" I asked.
"Come on, Alex - what happened?"
"Nothing! Well… nothing much, anyway. I persuaded him to sleep without his nightshirt on, and you know I prefer not to wear anything in bed, so it was cosy. But we didn't do anything more than look at each other.
"We did talk quite a bit, though. Life really is different here: until yesterday he'd never been further away than Abingdon. No wonder he thought London was huge – he's never even been to Oxford before."
"So what does he do when he's not working?"
"Plays with the other stable-lads, mostly. They go down to the river and swim, or chase each other through the woods and stuff. Except sometimes he likes to be on his own, and then he goes for walks, or if it's wet he has a corner of one of the hay-lofts that he uses. I asked him what he thought he would do in the future, and he said he doesn't really know, other than that he hopes you'll let him join the crew of Excalibur once he's old enough.
"He really enjoyed yesterday afternoon – it was every bit as good as he'd expected, and he definitely wants to do it again, though he won't ask you himself because he thinks it would make him look pushy. I told him not to be so stupid, and that you'd be happy to take him with us again, as long as you knew he'd enjoyed it the first time, but I'm afraid I haven't got him out of his feudal mindset just yet.
"I asked if he saw himself getting married – sorry, but I had to ask – and he said he hadn't thought about it yet, but that usually servants did get married – either he'd find someone on the estate, like one of the maids, or maybe when he's older he'd meet someone in Abingdon – most of the older servants seem to go there if they want to socialise. But maybe if I end up staying I can persuade him not to waste his time with girls…"
"So you've given up on me already, have you?" I asked, playfully.
"Leo, you're the duke," he reminded me. "That puts you out of my orbit, even if you weren't already spoken for." He looked meaningfully at Wolfie. "Besides, as soon as you're old enough they'll want to marry you off to some daughter of an archduke or prince with no chin, a face like a horse and an IQ to match."
I stared at him in horror. He might have been joking, but of course the bottom line was that this was true: my family would want me to father a son in order to keep the family name alive, and I'd only be allowed to marry someone 'suitable', which meant from the upper levels of the aristocracy. I had a terrifying mental image of ending up shackled to some inbred halfwit, and for the first time I contemplated just turning my back on all of this and going back to London with Alex.
But then I pulled myself together. In the first place, nobody could force me to get married: if I didn't, the line would simply move to my uncle's family instead, just as it would have done if I had never found my way back here. Plenty of aristocrats didn't get married: King Franz of Bavaria, who was currently in exile in Italy, had never married, and when he died the crown would simply pass to his brother Max and then to his children, so why should it be any different for me? And secondly, I was still far too young to worry about it. It wouldn't become an issue for several years yet, and if I did find myself getting leaned on then I could always threaten to go back to Alex's world unless they let me make my own decisions.
"To start with, I've got no intention of getting married any time soon," I told Alex. "And for seconds, I don't think being close to Wolfie stops me from having fun with you, too. So you don't have to abandon the idea of us going on the way we have been unless you really want to. Do you?"
"Well, then, shut up," I said. "Although if you want to have fun with Billy too, feel free. I won't mind a bit."
When my uncle came in for his breakfast I asked if he had any particular plans for us for the day, and when he said no I asked if we could borrow the auto-carriage so that we could go back to Winterbourne Stoke and start looking for the hole. He said he'd be happy for us to do that, and that he'd notify the chauffeur as soon as we'd finished breakfast.
The family steam-car turned out to be the same basic design as Sir Edmund's, though ours was painted red and had the full coat of arms on each side, which I thought was a bit ostentatious. But Wolfie assured me that it was expected for the aristocracy to announce themselves in this way wherever they went, and besides, I could hardly ask them to paint over it.
The chauffeur's name was Murdoch and, like Adams, was enthusiastic about the vehicle. I couldn't resist asking him if he had encountered any problems with the hopper when going downhill, and that confirmed me in his eyes as a car enthusiast, making him mine for life. He said that he'd modified the hopper himself which, together with the better grade of coal he was using, had eliminated the problem completely.
We took Billy with us – Wolfie had agreed to leave his chair behind, and I was afraid that if we did a lot of walking he'd find it hard to cope, in which case Billy and Alex might end up having to carry him – and found that he'd never been in an auto-carriage before. He said that it wasn't as good as an æthership, but it was still interesting.
It took us just over an hour to get back to Shrewton. Alex asked why we hadn't gone straight to the barn, and I said there was something I wanted to do first, and I opened the sliding panel behind Murdoch's head and directed him to the house of Squire Cheevers.
This time we rang the front doorbell, but it was still Mrs Peters who answered it.
"Do you think we could see the squire?" I asked. "Here's my card."
I'd remembered that I had a stack of ornate gold-embossed visiting cards, complete with the ducal crest, in a drawer in my uncle's study, and I had been delighted to find that they were still there. I'd hardly used any of them – ten-year-old boys don't do a lot of formal visiting, even if they are dukes – but I thought that this was a situation where they would come in useful.
Mrs Peters looked at the card and her mouth dropped open.
"Oh, I'm sure he'll see you, Your Grace," she said, trying not to look too flustered. "Please come with me."
She took us back to the study and announced me loudly, and the squire stood up and did some gaping of his own.
"I just wanted to come by and thank you," I said, while he was still trying to find his words. "It was your kindness that set me on the road to finding out who I was. You took a couple of scruffy boys from the street and looked after us, and then were generous enough to provide transport and an introduction to Sir Edmund. I am in your debt, and if ever I can be of assistance to you, you only have to ask."
"Well… I mean… bless me! I thought you were well-bred, but I never would have guessed… And as I said then, I was only doing my Christian duty."
"A lot of other people wouldn't have done," I said. "I'd have quite understood if you'd had us thrown into the street. But you didn't, so, like I said, if I can ever help you, I will. Oh, and may I present my friend Wolfgang-Christian, Margrave of Brandenburg-Bayreuth? Sadly, he is in exile, which is why he's my guest at present, but should the unfortunate state of affairs in the German kingdoms be reversed you'll find that you have a friend in Prussia, too.
"Anyway, we'll leave you in peace, but I wanted to come by in person to thank you."
"Well, you made his day," commented Alex, once we were back in the car.
"I hope so," I said. "After all, that was a damned good breakfast."
We got Murdoch to drop us at the end of the track that led to the barn, asking him to come back to pick us up at four o'clock, which would get us back to Culham in plenty of time to get changed for supper.
"There are three pubs in Shrewton," I told him. "I'm sure at least one of them will serve food. Probably it would be best if you don't drink too many beers with it, though."
I didn't know if it was an offence to be drunk in charge of a steam-engine in this world, but I thought I'd much rather he was sober to drive us home, whatever the law said.
Murdoch drove away and we walked along the track until we reached the barn. The track was around five hundred meters long, and although he didn't actually say anything it was obvious to me that Wolfie was suffering a bit by the time we got there: he probably hadn't walked that far in one go before. So I took us straight up the ladder to the hayloft where Alex and I had slept on the night we had changed worlds, and once we were there I told him to lie back and rest. I asked Billy to stay with him while Alex and I had a thorough look around the barn, checking everywhere we had been and looking in every corner in search of anything that looked out of place.
But after half an hour or so we were forced to come to the conclusion that this was exactly what it looked like: a farm building that belonged in this world, and this world only.
"How are you feeling?" I asked Wolfie.
"Not too bad," he said. "Provided I can rest every now and again I'll be fine."
"Well, look, it's quite a way from here to Stonehenge – it's at least a mile and a half each way, and I really don't think you should be trying to go that far just yet. So perhaps you should just stay here and…"
"No," he interrupted. "You were right: I should have done this a long time ago, and it's time I started. As long as we take it slowly I'll get there – and if it does get too much, perhaps Alex could carry me, just for a few minutes? He might as well do something useful with all those muscles…."
"What muscles?" I scoffed, and of course Alex promptly demonstrated them by picking me up and throwing me into a pile of hay.
"Can you do that?" he challenged me.
"I don't need to," I said. "I've got people to do that – if I ordered Billy to kick your butt you'd be in trouble."
Billy didn't look particularly happy about that, but Alex immediately gave him some incentive by saying, "He's got no more muscle than you have. Better make room in the hay, because if you do give that order he'll be flying your way in about five seconds."
"Go on, then, Billy," I said. "You don't have to stand for being insulted by an ox. Sort him out."
Billy did surprisingly well: he held out for a good couple of minutes before Alex managed to lift him and throw him into the hay next to me.
"What was that supposed to be?" I asked Billy. "You can't get shown up by a complete idiot. Come on – perhaps if we work together we can deal with him."
"Hang on, that's not fair!" cried Alex. "Two onto one? Although, come to think of it, you two just about make one put together."
This time it was Alex who ended up in the hay, although I'll admit that Billy did most of the work.
"Excuse me, children," said Wolfie, "but aren't we supposed to be looking for something?"
And so of course we threw him into the hay, too.
By this time Billy must have been feeling absolutely at home, because we all had hay in our hair and stuck to our clothes – we must have looked exactly like a gang of stable-lads on their day off. Squire Cheevers would undoubtedly have been a lot less likely to invite us for breakfast if we'd turned up on his doorstep looking like this… but who cared? It was fun.
However, Wolfie was right, and so we tidied ourselves up, picking the hay out of each other's hair until we looked fairly presentable again, and then we set off back along the track to the road. We took it slow, not just for Wolfie's sake, but because Alex and I wanted to keep our eyes open for any anomaly. Actually I have no idea what we were expecting to see: was it a big funnel with the air swirling about, or a blank space, or an actual hole in the ground? Still, we looked all around us as we walked, and we found absolutely nothing.
When we reached the main road we walked a little way north and then crossed the fence into the field, doing our best to keep to the route we'd taken on our outward journey. We stopped two or three times to allow Wolfie to have a breather, but eventually Stonehenge came into view, and today we could see it perfectly because there was no mist.
"Wow!" exclaimed Billy. "What's that?"
I doubt if there are many British boys of thirteen in Alex's world who wouldn't recognise a photo of Stonehenge if they saw it, so this came as a bit of a surprise.
"It's called the Great Circle," said Wolfie. "Nobody really knows why it was built, but it's old, at least four thousand years, we think."
"Haven't you ever seen a picture of it?" I asked.
Billy shook his head. "Mostly at school we're taught what might be useful to us in our work," he said. "There'd be no reason to tell us about a lot of old stones that are just there. But it looks interesting, all the same."
"It looks even more impressive when we get closer," I said.
We kept walking. Soon we were quite close to the stones, and at that point I realised something.
"There isn't a track in this world," I observed to Alex. "You realise what that means?"
"That we crossed over before we got this far," he replied. "So it's a waste of time looking at the barn, because the hole has to be somewhere around Stonehenge."
"Right," I agreed. "Now, I can remember pretty much where we went after the Anagrams dropped us off, so if we do it all in reverse… though that might be a problem, because if the guides are around we won't be able to go inside the circle."
But that turned out not to be a problem after all: when we reached the circle there were no guides – in fact there were no people at all, and no rope, either. Then I realised that the concept of tourism was unknown here, and that the only people likely to visit Stonehenge would be locals who had time on their hands or people who happened to be driving past and wanted a closer look. In any event, there was nothing to stop us walking right into the circle.
"Okay," I said. "Now when the Anagrams dropped us off we walked round to this side and then came through that arch… so let's do that in reverse."
I walked through the arch and found my situation unchanged: I was still clearly in the same world, because I could see Wolfie leaning on one of the trilithons a few yards away.
"Hold on," said Alex. "You touched that big stone in front of the arch, remember? Maybe that opened the hole."
So I went back through the arch and touched the large stone, but it didn't make the slightest difference, and nor did walking through that arch once more and then going back through the field – there was no path to follow in this world – to the point where the Germans had dropped us off. Nothing happened, and retracing our steps back through the arch into the circle didn't change anything either.
"Perhaps it only works at night?" suggested Alex. "After all, it was night when you first came through four years ago, and it was night when we came through, too. Perhaps we should come back after dark."
"That's going to be difficult," I said. "The sun doesn't set until about a quarter past eight and Murdoch is coming to pick us up at four o'clock. We'll have to arrange to come out some other day after supper."
"I don't think we could do that," said Wolfie. "It's too dangerous to use the auto-carriage after dark, and even a horse-drawn carriage would be at some risk, unless the moon is very bright."
That's when I realised that there were no lights on the steam car, which I suppose was entirely reasonable if nobody had yet invented the light bulb or the electric dynamo.
"Then we'll have to come out one evening before it gets dark, camp out overnight and get picked up again next morning," I said. "This has got to be done, and the sooner we can, the better. I'll try to fix something up with my uncle this evening."
We headed back towards the barn, but after three or four hundred metres it was clear that Wolfie was suffering. He didn't actually say anything, but he was limping badly, and the look on his face spoke for itself. So we each took a turn carrying him, and even I managed to get a reasonable distance with him on my back, although I'd have to admit that both Billy and Alex got further.
When we got back to the barn I fished my watch out of my pocket – I'd taken to wearing my tenth birthday pocket-watch instead of my wristwatch – and found that it was only about two o'clock, which left us with a couple of hours to kill before Murdoch came to pick us up. Wolfie was in no condition to do anything energetic, but Alex had his cards with him, and that gave us something to do. We had to teach Wolfie and Billy some of the games we knew – both had used cards, but not very much – but we stuck to simpler games, and soon they were both able to join in fully.
Of course one thing led to another, and in due course we found ourselves playing strip games. By now Billy was joining in everything quite happily, and he was not slow to join in when I lost and Alex started making derogatory remarks about the size of my equipment. I got my own back, though: we started adding forfeits for the losers, and in due course I was able to make Billy run around the outside of the barn naked, and when Alex lost shortly after that I dared him to run all the way down the track to the road naked. By the time he got back the rest of us were all fully dressed and Alex's clothes had mysteriously disappeared, and none of us would tell him where they were until he'd apologised to us for his insulting comments earlier.
I'm fairly sure that Alex wanted to take things further and introduce some overtly sexual forfeits to the game, and I'm pretty sure he would have done if Wolfie hadn't been there, but he still seemed to be a bit in awe of Wolfie's status and so was unwilling to risk annoying him by making him do anything he wasn't happy about. I could have told him that Wolfie would have been happy to do just about anything, but I didn't really get an opportunity to do so.
That night I slept with Alex again – that evening he was a bit down about our failure to find the hole and I thought he would prefer it if we could stay together.
"Look, don't worry," I told him. "We'll find it. You're probably right about it only happening at night – that would certainly help to explain why people aren't falling through it all the time. We'll go out again tomorrow evening – and at least now we know more or less where to look."
But it turned out that we weren't able to go back the following evening, because the next day was Sunday, and that was Murdoch's day off. Actually it was the day off for most of the staff, although Cook and some of the other kitchen staff had to work, and as far as I could tell Allchorn hardly ever took time off.
In the morning my uncle told me that we were expected to attend church. I wasn't all that keen: as I've said before, I'm not sure that I even believe in God, and so I thought it would be hypocritical for me to attend a service. But Uncle Gil said that as head of the estate I more or less had to attend, because it would give rise to a lot of adverse comment if I didn't. And so I put on a smart suit – our new clothes had arrived the previous afternoon, proving just how fast a tailor can work sometimes – and walked, with my uncle, Mr Hall, Alex and Wolfie, who sensibly used his chair because he was still a bit sore from the previous day, and followed by the household and the estate workers, to the church in the village of Clifton Hampden, which was the nearest church to the house.
The family had its own box pew at the front, and once we were installed I had to suffer an effusive greeting from the vicar, followed by a prayer of thanksgiving for my safe return. I'm glad the pew had high sides, because I must have been bright red with embarrassment. The one good thing about the service was that it wasn't too long, probably no more than three-quarters of an hour, and the vicar at least kept his sermon to a thoroughly respectable ten minutes.
After lunch I'd been hoping we might take the boat out again, but then I remembered that in this world the Sabbath was taken far more seriously than back in Alex's world: here everything was closed, frivolous pastimes were frowned upon, and people were expected to either pursue quiet activities like reading, or go for contemplative walks around the grounds. I didn't particularly fancy either, so I got Wolfie on his own and asked if we could spend the afternoon cleaning up the secret passages and exploring them.
"Well, I suppose we could call it 'walking'," he said. "We would just be walking with a broom and a duster. But… what about Alex?"
"Ideally I'd like him with us," I said, "but I know that the tunnels are really just our secret, so perhaps I could persuade him to go and see what Billy's doing this afternoon. But, look, Wolfie, sooner or later I want to tell him about them – and maybe Billy, too. I don't like keeping secrets from my friends."
"I know. Perhaps when we've cleaned them and made sure we can remember where they go… but I think it should just be you and I who reopen them."
So I went and found Alex. "There's something I need to do this afternoon," I said. "Seeing that it's Billy's day off, why don't you find him and take him for a walk, or something? Maybe he can show you round some of the outbuildings."
"You're trying to get rid of me again, aren't you?" he said.
"Don't worry, I'm not going to get all huffy about it. I know there's stuff you have to do – and I wouldn't mind visiting Billy's private hayloft. That might be fun."
So Alex went off to find Billy, and Wolfie and I made our way up to our room on the third floor. Wolfie had managed to get hold of a broom, a couple of feather dusters on sticks and an oil lamp, and I had brought my flashlight.
"What's that?" asked Wolfie, when I showed it to him.
"It's a torch," I told him.
"No, it isn't. A torch is a long bit of wood with some rags or something on the end that you can set fire to."
"This is an electric torch," I explained. "You don't need a fire, you just press the button. Look," and I turned it on.
"Wow! It's a lot brighter than an oil lamp! How does it work?"
"There are some batteries inside, and they light the bulb."
"What's a battery?"
I turned the torch off, unscrewed the bottom and pulled out the first battery.
"This is a battery," I told him. "I'm afraid I can't tell you exactly how it works – I just know that it does."
"And what makes the light?"
I unscrewed the other end and showed him the bulb.
"What, that little thing makes all that light?" he said. "That is incredible! I wonder what else you could do with that sort of thing? I'm sure it would make a huge difference to life here…"
"I suppose it could," I said, reassembling the torch. "Anyway… shall we go?"
I went up to the fireplace and pressed the catch, and the left side of the fireplace swung open once more. I stepped inside,with Wolfie close behind me.
After about five metres the passage divided, with one branch going straight ahead and the other leading to a steep staircase going down. I went straight ahead, and this passage soon became another steep staircase going up. At the top of the staircase was a low wooden panel, and when I pressed the release catch – I could still remember where this one was – the panel slid open and we were in the attic. Actually it was more of a roof space than a proper attic: there was barely room for us to stand upright, and although there was some junk up here, old furniture and the like, there was no sign that anyone had moved anything here for a very long time.
If we had walked straight ahead we would have come to the hatch that led out onto the roof, and beyond that, at the far end of the roof space, there was a proper staircase leading down to the third floor. We'd wondered if there was another set of passages over on the far side of the house, but if there was we hadn't managed to find it.
We went back down the secret staircase again, this time going on down to the second floor. Here there were more choices: a long passage leading off towards the servants' quarters at the rear of the house, and a shorter one leading towards the front of the house. Both appeared to be dead ends, but we were convinced they had exits into other rooms, if only we could find the hidden door releases.
Logic said that there had to be an exit into the ducal bedroom on the first floor, but we hadn't found that, either, or the one at the end of another long first-floor passage. There didn't seem to be an exit on the ground floor: the stairs just went all the way down to the basement, emerging at the back of one of the bays in the wine cellar. By the time we got there we were dusty and festooned with cobwebs, but the tunnels were more or less clear once more.
"That light of yours is going to be very useful," Wolfie commented, brushing the cobwebs and dust from my clothes. "You can see far better with it than with an oil lamp. Maybe we'll be able to spot where the other hidden door catches are with it."
"The batteries don't last that long, though," I told him. "And once they're dead we won't be able to get any more, obviously. But they'll last long enough for us to be able to do some good exploring."
We walked through to the normal staircase, which came out at the back of the great staircase in the main hall. This was right next to the cleaning cupboard beside the door through to the servants' part of the house, so we were able to dispose of our dusters and broom unseen.
That night I slept with Alex: Wolfie's comments about my torch meant that we had things to talk about.
"If we do find the hole tomorrow night," I said, "and assuming it's safe for you to go back to London... are you going to stay there or come back here?"
"Come back, of course," he said. "I can't just walk away from all this. I thought you knew that."
"I hoped that's what you'd say, obviously, but seeing that you've got a family back there… anyway, the point is this: if you go home and then come back here you'll be able to bring stuff with you. So we need to decide what you should bring."
"You mean spare batteries for the torches and stuff?"
"Well, yes, but I was really thinking in terms of technology. You could bring back some books, or print out stuff from online. It's pretty obvious that we could give this world information that would change the place completely, and would certainly help to win the war. The question is, what should we give them – or should we even mention technology from our world at all?"
"Well, of course we should! I mean, if we told them about aircraft, surely that would give us a massive advantage in the war? Even fairly basic planes are likely to be able to defeat the Russian airships, even if they do have armour."
"Yes, but think about it: that would mean we'd have to tell them about petrol-driven engines. Sure, it might help to win the war, although you can bet that the Russians wouldn't be far behind once they'd shot one or two of ours down and examined them, but I was thinking of the bigger picture: pollution, political chaos – I suppose most of the oil in this world is in the Middle East – and all the bad stuff that comes with the internal combustion engine. I don't think we'd really be doing this world a favour.
"Electricity, on the other hand… yes, we'd need to find a way of generating it cleanly if possible, but probably a few coal-fired power stations wouldn't be too bad, since everything uses coal already here. Can you think of anything else?"
"I suppose nuclear energy would be a bad idea," said Alex. "Telephones? Radio, perhaps? That would make a big difference to communications. Look at the way we had to stop and wiggle a semaphore around when we were talking to the French airship. If we'd both had radio we wouldn't even have needed to stop moving."
"Talking of airships, we definitely need to know about helium," I said. "Where is it found, how do you produce it, and so on. We'll draw up a list in the morning. And I'll ask my uncle if we can have some jewellery or something, because I don't think banks in your world would accept our currency. Then you can sell it and that'll give you enough money to buy some reference books. You'd probably better get your parents to do the actual selling – if a kid of our age tried selling jewels the shop would be sure to think they were stolen, especially this close to the riots."
The following afternoon we went back to Stonehenge, just the two of us – there seemed little point in either Wolfie or Billy coming with us, since we were simply going to wait until it was dark and then try to find the hole. I arranged for Murdoch to return next morning to pick me up: if we found the hole I'd be on my own, and if not… I preferred not to think about the negatives at this point.
We'd borrowed a small tent from the local militia, and we pitched it not too far from Stonehenge. If we'd done that in Alex's world the police would doubtless have appeared to move us on pretty quickly, but here nobody seemed to notice.
By the time we got the tent up it was starting to rain, so we dived inside and spent the next couple of hours playing cards, though not for forfeits this time: we were both nervous about finding the hole and so weren't really in the mood for strip games.
Gradually it got dark, and the weather got worse, too: by the time it was properly dark there was a brisk wind blowing the rain about, and although we had rainproof jackets on we were still pretty wet by the time we reached the stones. We went straight to the lone arch on the north-west arc of the circle and tried going through it, in both directions; both of us tried touching the larger stone next to the arch; and for good measure we tried touching every other stone that was anywhere close to that arch. Nothing worked: the area outside the circle where the path lay in Alex's world remained nothing but grass. By the time we gave up we were wet, tired and fed up.
"Well, it looks like you're stuck with me," commented Alex as we walked back to the tent.
"I don't mind that at all," I assured him. "On the other hand, I can understand that you might not be quite as happy about it as I am. And unless we can think of some other plan, it looks as if we're both stuck in this world for the rest of our lives…"
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