Excelsior

by David Clarke

Chapter 10

Alex and I looked at each other and then back at the girl.

"Aren't there any orphanages here, then?" I asked.

"Sure, if you fancy working yerself stupid and then probly gettin' raped every night," she said. "Prisons is better than that, so most of us prefer it dahn 'ere."

I was distracted by a flash from beside me, and when I turned I found that Alex had pulled his mobile phone from his bag, reassembled it and started to take pictures.

"They'll never believe this unless we have evidence," he explained.

"You're right. Carry on," I said, wishing I'd brought my phone too. "I'm going to try to find out why this is allowed to happen, and if I can offer some evidence it'll carry more weight. So how long have you been here?" I asked the girl.

"'Bout eight years, I fink," she told me.

"And how do you manage? Do you manage to nick enough stuff to keep everyone fed?"

"Usually. Course, nah and again we lose someone, and sometimes we 'ave to spend the money on med'cine instead… I know this dodgy doc 'oo passes me stuff for cash, off the books, like. And we can get food from uvver places – the Savoy 'Otel's just over our 'eads, and when the kitchen chucks aht its leftovers at the end of the night there's good stuff in the bins. Course, we're not the only ones as knows abaht that, so we 'as to fight for it…"

That conjured up a picture that I didn't want to think about. "Bloody hell…" I said. "Sparrer, come here a moment."

The ragged boy came close and I whispered in his ear.

"If I give her some money," I said," will she spend it getting food and stuff for all of you, or will she just head for the gin-shop?"

"Ah, now yer sahnd like yer not so stupid!" he said, grinning at me. "Nah, she's alright. She might get 'erself 'arf a bottle, but the rest'll go on the kids 'ere. She's wot keeps us togevver."

"What's your name?" I asked the girl.

"Me name's Annie, but the kids 'ere all call me Auntie," she said. "I looks after 'em, see?"

"Right," I said, getting my wallet out and handing her all the notes in it. "There's about fifteen pounds here – that should help you out for a bit. I'm going to try to raise some more, and I'm also going to try to do something more permanent for you as soon as I can. But in return I need to borrow Sparrer for a bit."

"Fancy 'im, do yer?"

"No!" I denied loudly, feeling myself blushing at the very idea. "I just need someone who knows his way around your world, and he seems to."

"Oh, right. Didn't fink anyone could fancy 'im, to be honest – 'e's an ugly little sod."

"Fuck you, Auntie," said Sparrer, though without any animosity. "If we 'ave to sell ourselves, I'll make more than you every time."

"Only if the punters are blind. Anyway, milord, I dunno what you fink you're doin' dahn 'ere, but fanks for the folding stuff. We won't need to 'it the bins tonight."

"Don't spend it all on gin," I said.

"Don't knock it," she said. "When the world looks more like shit than usual, Muvver Geneever makes it look better… but, nah, we'll get food wiv this. I swear it."

"Come on, then," I said to Alex. "We'd better get back or Billy will be looking for the nearest copper. Sparrer, like I said, I need your help for a bit. Will you come with us?"

"Yer not gonna turn me in?" he asked, distrustfully.

"My word on it," I promised him.

"Then, orlright, I'll tag along. You're an entertainment, right enuff."

He led us back the way we had come. By the time we got to the manhole that led out of the system Wolfie and Billy were looking very jumpy: Wolfie had his watch in his hand, and Billy had already edged his way back along the alley.

"You're late," said Wolfie, accusingly. "We've been having kittens here."

"Sorry," I said. "We've been finding out about what passes for life down there. Why in God's name hasn't anything been done about it?"

"I think people up here like to pretend that the poor people don't exist," said Wolfie. "If you're out for a night at the theatre, or in an expensive restaurant, you don't want someone looking like our friend here hovering in the background, so they make sure the police do their job and keep them out of sight. And talking of the police – can we go and hand him over now?"

"No, we can't," I said. "I need him. I want to find out how widespread this problem is, and he's going to be my guide."

"What! No, Leo – you can't trust him! He'll drop you down a drainshaft somewhere, or arrange for you to get stabbed, or something!"

"No, he won't. Why would he?"

"To get hold of your wallet and watch, obviously!"

"My wallet is empty, and he knows that. And as for my watch… I don't think he will. Anyway, I'm going to trust him. After all, he owes me for not turning him in."

"That just means he thinks you're a soft touch!"

"'E's right," said Sparrer, unexpectedly. "I've never met a softer. But I still ain't gonna fuck yer abaht. I'll do what you want me to – at least until I get bored wiv it!" And he gave me another flash of his dirty teeth.

"Right. Then I want to see some of the other places the homeless use – adults as well as kids."

"Not wiv an empty wallet, yer don't," he said. "Kids is orlright, but grownups would do yer over fer yer wallet, an' when they find it empty they'll do yer in fer wastin' their time."

I thought about that. "Thanks, Sparrer," I said. "Okay, maybe we ought to postpone the expedition until I can get to the bank, or at least get some food to take with us. So let's just get back to the house for now. We can decide how to do this this evening."

"You're not bringing him with us, are you?" asked Wolfie, indicating Sparrer.

"Why not?"

"Because he'll sneak away in the middle of the night, taking everything that isn't nailed down with him."

"E's not stupid, yer mate," commented Sparrer. "E's got my number, orl right."

"You'd have to be pretty stupid yourself to do that," I replied. "Stick with me and I'll see that you're well looked after."

I thought that Wolfie had done enough walking for one day, and so once we were at the front of Charing Cross station I hired a cab. Of course, when we got back to the house I remembered that my wallet was empty, so I had to borrow a couple of pounds from Wolfie to pay the fare.

The reaction of the staff was interesting: it was a question of whether their professional poise could survive an encounter with someone who wouldn't normally have got within ten yards of the door without someone calling the police. In the end the senior footman's poise just about held out.

"Will the, er… gentleman be staying?" he asked me.

"Yes, but don't bother making up a room. He can come in with one of us," I said.

"Don't yer trust me?" asked Sparrer, grinning.

"Ask me again in the morning," I said. "Anyway, the first thing we're going to have to do is to find you some decent clothes… Billy's about the closest to your size, but I don't suppose you brought too many changes of clothing, did you, Billy?"

Billy shook his head. "I only brought one change of everything, and I'll want to use that myself tomorrow. I suppose we're going to church?"

"I suppose we will," I said, unenthusiastically. "Well, then I suppose I'm next closest. I'll see what I can find, but first, Sparrer, you're going to need a bath."

"Are you saying I smell?"

"You might not notice it yourself, seeing that you live in a sewer, but trust me, the rest of us can certainly smell it. Colby, can you check the cleaning cupboard and see if we've got anything suitable for disposing of, er…"

"Lice?" suggested the footman, looking at Sparrer over his glasses. "Fleas? Nits? Crabs, maybe?"

"Oi!" objected Sparrer. "I ain't got crabs!"

"Then we'll confine our search to methods of removing the other assorted livestock," said the footman. "And if we don't have any in the house I'll send out for some."

"Thank you, Colby," I said. "Bring them up to my room. It'll be easiest if we use my bath, I think."

We escorted Sparrer up to my room. Here I'd been unable to escape using the ducal bedroom, and although it wasn't quite as monumental as the one at Culham, it was still big enough. Sparrer's reaction wasn't so very different from my own.

"Bugger me!" he exclaimed. "Is this just for you? Yer could sleep fifty in 'ere wivaht any trouble:"

"I didn't choose it," I said, defensively. "Anyway, the bathroom's through there."

"Wot? No gold taps?" he said sarcastically, when he saw the bathroom.

"No," I said. "We had some, but we got rid of them because we thought that if you nicked them we'd end up with water all over the floor."

"Now yer getting' it!" he said, grinning. "Seriously, though, this is class. I ain't never seen nuffink like this!"

I started running the bath. "Okay," I said, "get those rags off. We'll find you something to wear afterwards."

"Fuck off! I ain't gettin' naked in front of this lot! I don't trust 'em."

"Why not?"

"Curly's a thug, Ginger-nut 'ates my guts, an' I don't need no lackey starin' at me."

"You're not making any friends here, you do know that?" I remarked. "Still, if that's what you want… go on, guys, we'll come and find you once we're finished."

"Watch him," said Wolfie, glaring at Sparrer. "I don't trust him an inch."

"Don't worry. Somehow I can't see him murdering me in my own bedroom."

Wolfie looked unconvinced, but the three of them went out, closing the bedroom door behind them

"Does that mean you trust me?" I asked.

"I don't trust nobody, but I reckon yer better than them. Anyway, yer soft, so if you laugh at me I'll smash yer face in."

"Why would I laugh at you?"

"'Cos I'm skinny as fuck and I ain't got much where it counts."

"Don't worry, neither have I," I admitted. "So I'm certainly not going to take the piss out of you."

"You better not." He started to remove his clothes, which were virtually falling off him anyway: everything was torn and patched and horribly dirty, and I thought that the best thing we could do with them would be to chuck the lot in the furnace.

"If there's anything in the pockets you want, get it out now," I said. "You won't be wearing that stuff again."

"Why not?" he asked. "Height of fashion, these are!"

"I doubt that, somehow. Look, I'll wait in the bedroom of you prefer."

"Nah, yer can stay. Maybe yer can scrub me back for us."

"Okay."

There was a knock at the bedroom door and Colby came in carrying a large block of soap, a scrubbing brush and two bottles.

"Put some of this in the water," he said, indicating the first bottle. "And wash his hair with this one. I've taken the liberty of asking a barber to call in an hour or so."

"Thank you, Colby, that's an excellent idea. If we cut most of it off the nits will have nowhere to hide."

"My thinking exactly, Your Grace."

Colby bowed his way out again and I took the first bottle through to the bathroom and poured most of it into the bath. Sparrer was waiting by the window wearing something that had presumably been a pair of underpants when they started out but which now looked like a scrap of rag that had been used for cleaning a particularly grimy kitchen.

"Come on, then," I invited him, and he whipped them off, dropping them on top to the pile of his other rags, and then came over to the bath, his hands held strategically over his main assets, and stepped into it.

"Fuck!" he gasped. "It's 'ot!"

"Oh shit, I'm sorry!" I said. "I thought I'd checked it and that it wasn't too hot."

"No, I mean… I ain't never 'ad a bath in 'ot water – we only got cold… is it safe?"

"It's safe," I promised him, "and it's a lot nicer than cold water, too. Sit down and see what you think."

Slowly he lowered himself into the water.

"It feels funny," he said, once he was sitting down, "but it's orl right… yeah, I like it."

"Good," I said. "Here's the soap. Get as far as you can, and give me a call when you want me to come and wash your back."

"You really gonna do that? I wasn't serious."

"Yes, I'll do it. It'll be easier than trying to do it yourself. Shout when you're ready."

I went back to the bedroom and started checking through my clothes. I'm not sure who had packed my trunk – Mrs Sweeting, probably – but they had put in far more stuff than I needed. I suppose the idea was to leave some of it here so that it would be ready next time I came to London, but whatever the thinking was, it meant that I had plenty of clothes here, and that meant that I could donate a set to Sparrer easily enough. I picked out a set of underwear, socks and a plain white shirt and then found the plainest trousers and jacket I could. That wasn't easy: apparently the tailor, perhaps on Uncle Gil's instructions, had made me a set of clothes that were, by the standards of Alex's world, distinctly ostentatious. But I found a pair of trousers whose purple colour wasn't completely ridiculous and a black jacket that, while unlike anything I'd seen in Alex's world, with an upright collar, wide lapels and a four-inch red cuff on each sleeve, looked fairly conservative for this world. Of course I was about four inches taller than he was, so the trousers wouldn't be a perfect fit, but they were a hell of a lot better than anything he owned right now.

"Oi, Your Nobbiness!"

"Watch it," I said, returning to the bathroom. "If you take the piss I might have to drown you."

"Sorry," he said, "but I dunno wot I'm sposed to call yer."

"My name's Leo," I told him. "That's what my friends call me, and I prefer it to the official stuff."

"Yeah, but I can't call a nob by his proper name, can I? There 'as ter be a law against that."

"Don't you start! I have enough trouble persuading Billy not to call me 'Your Grace' all the time. As far as I'm concerned you can call me Leo, and if anyone objects, refer them to me. Anyway, come to that, what sort of a name is Sparrer? That's never the name you were born with."

"Nah, but I got no idea wot me real name is. I spose I knew it once, but Auntie started calling me 'Sparrer' soon after I joined 'er mob, 'cos she reckoned I woz like a sparrer – there's thahsands of 'em in the sky an' in the parks and that, but nobody ever notices 'em. It's coz I can move abaht in crahds wivaht being noticed – well, usually. Your bloody lackey spotted me this time. Anyway, I been 'Sparrer' so long I forgot me real name."

"Well, Sparrow is a perfectly good surname. If you pick a first name to go with it you'll have an official name, although you can go on being called Sparrer if you want."

"Well… I'll fink abaht it. Sparrer will do for nah, though."

"Okay. So, you ready for me to wash your back?"

"I fink so. I done everyfink else."

He handed me the soap and leaned forward, and I set to work washing his back. When I'd done that I took the shampoo Colby had given me, turned on the spray attachment and washed his hair four times – I hoped that four times would be sufficient.

"Okay, that's enough," I said, rinsing it for the last time. "Now stand up and let's see what sort of job you've done."

"'Member wot I said abaht laughin'," he reminded me, and he stood up. I used the spray attachment to wash the soap off him and found that he'd done a pretty good job of getting rid of at least most of the grime. I also found that he hadn't been joking when he described himself as 'skinny as fuck' either: he was horribly thin, with every rib clearly defined. His limbs were mostly skin and bone, too. Of course, I couldn't resist checking out his other attributes, and he hadn't been kidding about those, either: he was smaller than me in every department, and he had no hair at all. I supposed that an inadequate diet might well result in late development. In any event, I decided that it would be better not to comment.

"Let's see your feet," I said, and he sat on the edge of the bath and raised his left foot. As I'd expected, the sole was still far from clean: I guess if you don't have any shoes and you live in a sewer it's going to be a while before all the dirt comes off the soles of your feet.

"You'll just have to give your feet a really good wash every time you have a bath," I said. "Provided that you wear shoes from now on you'll get them clean in the end. Okay, let's find you a towel."

I went to the cupboard and pulled out a large, fluffy towel, and while he used that I found a smaller one and used it to dry his hair. When he was done I led him through into the bedroom and showed him the clothes I had found for him.

"They won't fit perfectly, but we can get you something new on Monday," I said. "These'll do until then."

"Can I really wear these?" he asked.

"Well, you sure as hell can't keep wearing what you came in with," I pointed out, "and while it would be sort of fun if you were to walk about naked, I think the servants would object. So let's see if this stuff fits you."

The underwear and socks were fine, the shirt was a bit big but still looked pretty good, and the trousers needed the legs rolled up a bit and also called for a belt, because his waist was rather smaller than mine. And my shoes were a size too big, but that was obviously better than a size too small.

"They feel weird," he said. "I ain't worn shoes since… I dunno when."

"Time to get used to it again," I said. "Stick the jacket on and let's see how you look."

The jacket was a little large as well, but overall it didn't look too bad, and when I steered him in front of the full-length mirror beside the wardrobe his reaction was everything I could have wished: his face lit up.

"Fuck, look at me!" he exclaimed. "I'm a bleeding member of the uppah clarss!"

"You need to work on that accent a bit more," I said, grinning at him. "Okay, you can take off the jacket for now. Let's go and see if the barber has turned up yet."

By the time we sat down for supper Sparrer's hair was a lot shorter – in fact he looked like a new recruit who has just had his first military haircut. Actually, short hair suited him, though he wasn't quite sure about it himself.

Supper was interesting because we more or less had to teach him from scratch how to use cutlery, a lesson he wasn't particularly interested in learning, until I pointed out that he would have to learn if he was going to be staying with us for any length of time. Once he realised that if he did it our way he wouldn't have to return to his sewer for a couple of days at least he was much more amenable to learning, although it would be fair to say that the lesson was less than one hundred per cent successful.

That night I invited him to share my bed, mainly because I wanted to talk to him a bit more about life in the sewers, and he said he didn't mind where he slept, and that my bed would do as well as any other. But once we were in our room and getting ready for bed he said that I didn't have to share with him if I didn't want, and that he would quite happily sleep in the bath.

"No, I want you to find out how it feels to sleep in a normal bed for once," I said. "And, besides, we won't be able to talk if you're in the bathroom."

"Sure yer don't jus' fancy me?" he asked. "Maybe Auntie was right."

"What, when she called you an ugly little sod? Although I bet she'd say something else if she could see you now: now you're clean and you're hair's been cut I reckon you look pretty good."

"So yer do fancy me, then!"

"No, I don't. I said you're not bad looking, not that you're my type."

"Aha, so you do like boys! So wot is yer type, then?"

"I haven't got a type! I just said… oh, never mind. If you'd prefer to go and sleep with one of the others, feel free."

"No, fanks. Ginger-nut would strangle me in me sleep, and Curly would probly roll over in the night and crush me. I spose Billy ain't bad looking, but I've never been big on blonds, meself. I prefer nice black 'air, 'cept I like it straight, so you can stroke it easy, so Curly is gonna be aht of luck. So wot do I do wiv me clofes, then?"

"Oh, hang them up in that wardrobe. If you want something to wear in bed I can give you a nightshirt."

"No, fanks. Wot's the point of stuff you only wear in bed? If it's cold, keep yer clofes on; if it ain't, you don't need to wear nuffink."

And he removed his clothes, put them in the wardrobe and got into bed wearing 'nuffink'.

I stripped to my underpants, turned out the light and got in on the other side.

"Fuck, this bed is sumfink else," he commented. "It's that soft… I ain't never slept in a bed like this. It's good, though… so, orl right, nah yer can tell me the troof: why did yer bring me 'ere reely? 'Cos I don't believe all that bollocks abaht wantin' a guide."

"It's true," I insisted. "I want to find out just how bad the homelessness problem is, and you're the best person to teach me about it."

"Yeah, like you'd reely trust me not ter lose yer in the sewers, deliberately-like, or ter make sure no piss-head wiv meths fer brains don't cut yer up 'cos yer went where yer shouldn't."

"That's exactly why I want you, to make sure I don't do anything stupid."

"Yeah, right. An' wot's in it fer me? 'Cos you ain't doin' me no favours 'ere: ter gimme a bath and a set of clofes is orl fine, but 'ow d'yer reckon I'll feel goin' back ter Bazalgette's after this? Yer give me a glimpse of 'ow nobs live and then jes' tell me ter piss off back to me sewer when yer done wiv me? Fink I'm gonna be grateful, do yer?"

"I'm not going to send you back," I said. "I'll find you a proper job somewhere, either here or back at Culham. I'm not sure that Wolfie will approve, but it's my estate, so it's my decision. Because you're right: letting you live like us for a couple of days and then just dumping you back in your rat hole would be seriously cruel. I mean, obviously if you want to go back, you can, but I'm not going to make you."

He was quiet for a while after that.

"Yer reely mean that?" he asked, finally.

"Yes, I mean it. I'll definitely find you a job. Of course, it'll mean you have to work, and you might find it pretty boring after a life spent nicking stuff, but you'll have a home and you'll be fed and clothed and looked after. You'll get paid, too, so you'll be able to buy yourself sweets and stuff instead of having to steal like you do now."

He wriggled across the bed, grabbed me and hugged me hard.

"If yer do orl that fer me, I swear I won't never let yer dahn," he said. "And I'll even be polite to yer mates, even Ginger-nut."

I'd flinched slightly when he grabbed me, but then I realised that he now smelled of medicated shampoo and disinfectant, rather than of sewers, and that was actually quite nice. So I relaxed and hugged him back.

"D'yer wanna fuck me?" he asked, after a bit. "'Cos I won't mind if yer do."

I didn't know how to respond to that. I hadn't ever considered doing that with anyone, male or female, and so far my entire sex life had consisted of mutual masturbation with Wolfie or Alex, and I hadn't done even that more than a couple of times – at least, not in the past four years.

"I'm clean," he went on, when I didn't answer him. "I know, 'cos I've never done it, yer know? Yeah, some of the boys at Auntie's are on the game, but I've never 'ad ter, 'cos I'm a good dipper. A couple of 'em like it – they reckon it makes 'em feel good, an' my mate Albie reckons getting' shagged makes 'im come ev'ry time, but I don't fancy lettin' some drunk ole man 'ave me up the arse for 'alf a crahn. So I stuck ter dippin' wallets an' wotches. And I ain't never done no-one else, neether - not even Albie, an' 'e wanted me to - 'cos… well… my prick ain't reely big enuff yet. So I'm a genwine virgin. So if yer want ter 'ave me, I'm not gonna give yer nuffink 'orrible, like the clap an' that."

"Why, Sparrer, what an enticing, romantic invitation!" I said, and he cracked up laughing, and so did I.

"Thanks," I said, when we had both recovered. "I mean that. But I'm a virgin too, and I don't think I'd know how – and to be honest I'm not all that big either, so it probably wouldn't do a lot for either of us. Maybe if you still want to when we're both a bit older – and bigger – I might take you up on it, but for now I'm happy just to cuddle a bit. If you don't mind, that is?"

By way of answer he hugged me again, and that felt good, and so eventually I fell asleep with the scent of medicated shampoo in my nostrils.

Next morning after breakfast we went, accompanied by the servants, to St James's Church. Fortunately the vicar here didn't know who I was, and I managed to prevent Colby from telling him, which meant that I was able to remain safely anonymous throughout the service.

After lunch the five of us went to the library. It was a bit smaller than the one at Culham, but it still held a good number of books, and also – and this was what I had been hoping for – a street map of central London. Sparrer couldn't read, of course, but got the idea of which blob on the map represented what, and when I pointed out the entrance to his own part of the system, and the Savoy Hotel, which was almost above Auntie's place, he was able to indicate some other places where homeless people lived.

So on the Monday we went to a large bakery and bought up as many rolls and small loaves as we could carry, and then Sparrer took us to some of the places where homeless men tended to congregate – around and beneath the main line railway stations seemed to be a popular choice.

"If this goes wrong, maybe I'll get a chance to see how fast I can run," Wolfie said as we approached Westminster Bridge Station (which in Alex's world was called Waterloo).

"Good point," I said. "Maybe you and Billy should wait outside."

"Oh, no! We did that last time, and I was worried sick. This time I'm coming in – I'm sure I'll manage to move fast enough if I have to."

"We should have brought his chair," commented Alex. "I can't imagine that anyone would attack a kid in a wheelchair."

"That's a really good point," I said. "Wolfie, maybe we should do that tomorrow."

"Yer wouldn't get a chair dahn where we're goin'," said Sparrer, and a couple of minutes later we saw what he meant: getting down to the area the homeless used meant scrambling down a dirt slope and almost crawling under a disused platform. And even though it was daytime, when anyone who could do so was out begging or stealing or whatever else they did to pass the day, there were still close to fifty people down here, most of them in poor health, to judge by the amount of coughing that was going on.

At least none of them had the energy to attack us, though a few gave us some verbal abuse about 'fucking do-gooders' who ought to just leave them alone. But most seemed happy to grab some bread from us, and I was able to talk to some of them and got their stories – invalided out of the army, or got too ill to work and so lost their job, or had come to London from the country but couldn't find work and didn't have the money to travel back home… Today I'd brought my mobile, and so both Alex and I snapped off some photos.

Then Sparrer took us somewhere else, and so on for the rest of the day. When we ran out of bread we bought some more and carried on.

We spent Tuesday in much the same way, and by the time we got back to the house on Tuesday evening we had plenty of photos and even some spoken testimony: that day I'd taken the computer with us and used the inbuilt recorder.

I'd have liked to go straight to the authorities, but even though I was supposed to be an adviser to the king I thought it unlikely that I could just march straight into the palace and start stirring things up. So instead I decided to go back to Culham and ask Uncle Gil for his advice. I checked with Sparrer that he wanted to come with us, and he said he'd like to see what the country looked like, and so on the Wednesday morning after breakfast we left the house, intending to walk down to Piccadilly to find a cab. And we found that the weather had changed: we were in thick mist.

"Wind's dropped," observed Sparrer. "There's always mist when there ain't no wind. It comes off the River, see?"

"Well, it's a damned nuisance," I said. "Come on – if we walk up to the Ritz we should be able to get a cab there."

We walked carefully along the pavement. At one point I almost walked into a pillar box that loomed up through the mist. Then I realised that Alex had stopped.

"What's up?" I asked him.

"Does this remind you of anything?" he asked me.

"Like what?"

"Like the night the Anagrams dropped us off by Stonehenge. The stones inside the circle appeared out of the mist just like that post box did…and I was wondering – suppose the hole can only appear when there's no wind? If it's not very stable, maybe a strong wind could blow it away. Perhaps it can only appear when the weather is calm…"

"Calm enough for mist, you mean? You could be onto something there," I said. "Remember the guide saying there was often mist around the stones even when there wasn't any anywhere else? Maybe the mist appears when the hole is open. They'd never realise it because in your world nobody is allowed inside the stones except on special occasions like the solstices, and in this one people hardly ever go there anyway… good one, Alex. Maybe we've got a way back after all. All we have to do is find out when the weather's expected to be calm – and we know they have a fairly decent weather forecasting system here because you need it to know when it's safe for ætherships to fly. I'll have a word with Uncle Gil when we get back and find out how far ahead they can forecast the weather, and then we can arrange to have another go at looking for the hole."

"And if we find it, will you come with me, now you know this world isn't quite as perfect as we thought?"

"No, I don't think so. Maybe I can actually do something about it – I want to try, at least. But it would be good to know that it's possible to go back if things change."

We reached Piccadilly and walked up it as far as the Ritz Hotel, and there, as I had hoped, we were able to get a cab back to Paddington.

We didn't have to wait too long for a train, and soon we were on our way back to Didcot. Once we got clear of London the mist cleared, and Sparrer stared out of the window.

"Where's all the 'ouses?" he asked.

"There aren't any out here – well, there are a few, but it's not like in London. This is mostly farmland, where most of the country's food comes from. Haven't you been out of the city before?"

Sparrer shook his head slowly. "I mean, yeah, yer sorta know London 'as to end somewhere, but I'd never imagined it like this."

"It was the opposite for me," Billy told him. "I'd spent my whole life in the country, so when I saw London from Excalibur it was like seeing another world."

"Wot's an Excal… wotever you said?"

"It's my uncle's æthership," I told him. "We flew over London a week or so ago."

"You got a flying machine? Fuck, I'd like to go up in one of them."

"It's amazing," Billy told him. "I'd never been up in one before, and it's incredible – everything is spread out underneath you, and you can see for miles and miles. It was the best day I've ever had. And Leo says as how I can join his crew when I'm old enough. I expect he'll let you join too, if you're going to come and live at the house."

"Yer fink? Oh, wow – I can't imagine it, but I sure as fuck wanna try."

"I'm sure it'll be all right – won't it, Leo? After all, sparrows are supposed to fly, aren't they?"

"I don't see why not. I'm not sure when we'll be going up next, but of course I'd like you all to come."

"Great!" said Billy. "You're really going to enjoy it, Sparrer."

"Tell us all about it – please?"

"Well, first of all, it's really big. You can't really tell when you see them flying overhead, but when it's on the ground it looks really huge. And there are little rooms attached to the bottom of it…."

Billy went on giving Sparrer a blow-by-blow description, and I was pleased, if a little surprised, to see them chatting happily together. Maybe flying can do that – bring people together, I mean.

We got off the train at Didcot, rescued Wolfie's chair from the guard's van and crossed to the Oxford platform.

"You realise you've hardly used your chair once since we set out for London?" I asked him.

"I know. I still get a bit sore, but it's not as bad as when I first stopped using it. Maybe next time we come to London I'll risk leaving it at Culham."

"See? I knew you could do it!" And although we were not alone on the platform I still gave him a hug.

It was only two stops up the line to Culham, and so we were back at the house shortly after midday. I hadn't thought to send a message warning them that we were coming back and so there was no meal prepared, but I told Cook we'd settle for a sandwich and catch up with a proper meal at supper time, and that solved that problem.

Once we'd eaten Billy volunteered to give Sparrer the tour of the house and said he'd speak to Mrs Sweeting and get a room made up for him on the third floor, and that left the rest of us free to go and talk to my uncle, but that didn't turn out to be a very encouraging conversation.

"Nobody wants to know," he told us. "The Government has other things to worry about, and in any case they'll tell you there's no money available."

"Then why don't they raise taxes? Ten pee… I mean, two shillings in the pound is ridiculously low. They'd only have to raise it by a couple of pence, and if they don't want to admit it's going to help the homeless they can always claim they need it to build more ships or something."

"No government likes raising taxes, because it almost guarantees they'll lose the next election. And even if you could persuade them to raise taxes, they'd really want to spend the extra on defence. There aren't any votes in helping the homeless."

"Votes aren't everything, surely? And…" I thought of Squire Cheevers. "Isn't it our Christian duty to help the poor?"

"I don't want to sound cynical here, but most people are happy to do their Christian duty as long as it doesn't cost anything. In fairness, the churches do their best to help out, providing food and a few beds where they can, but the churches aren't exactly rolling in money. But I can almost guarantee that the response, if you tried persuading people to donate money, would be that the poor should learn to stand on their own two feet."

"Really? On Monday I was talking to a man who didn't have two feet, because the Russians shot one of them off. These men fought for us, and now we're prepared to let them starve in the gutter? What kind of world is this?"

"Leo, it's good that you care, but really there isn't a lot you can do to change people's attitudes. And to be honest I doubt if your friend's world is so very different."

I had to admit that was true, but even so… "Well, can I at least try?" I asked. "Am I allowed to address the House of Lords? I presume I've got a seat there."

"Not until you're twenty-one," my uncle told me. "But it might be possible to arrange something. Just don't get your hopes up – an extra two pence in the pound would hit most landowners hard. Oh, they can afford it, but if you think they're just going to nod and smile and blithely hand over an extra two thousand a year in tax without a pause, you're going to be disappointed. Still, I'll see what can be arranged. Maybe if you can interest the newspapers it'll help, but I'd still advise you not to get your hopes up."

"Well, that wasn't very hopeful, was it?" I said, once we were back in my room.

"No, but then your uncle was right," said Alex. "If the government tried raising taxes to help the homeless in my world… well, you can imagine the response. About the only way you're going to persuade the government to put more money into helping the poor is if you persuade the Tsar to abandon the war and go back to Moscow. Then the money could be used for helping the poor instead of building airships."

"St Petersburg," I corrected, absently. "Here that's the Russian capital. But you're right: if the war ended… Okay, we're going to have to do what we talked about before: when you go back home – and let's hope you're right about the hole being there in calm weather – you'll have to get hold of everything you can find about electricity, radio, telephones and helium – and anything else you can think of apart from petrol engines and nuclear energy – and bring it back here. Maybe we can patent some of it – that ought to bring in some money, and we can use that to sort out some sort of decent accommodation for the kids in the sewers. And whether we can do that or not, we ought to be able to find some means of using it to win the war, and then maybe the government won't have any excuse."

I'd already started to sort out some jewellery to give to Alex that would enable him to buy books and so on. I wasn't sure how much it would fetch in his world, but I thought it would be enough for what we wanted.

"You realise I might be gone some time?" he said. "After all, presumably the weather is different here from in my world, and I suppose the hole won't open unless it's calm on both sides. So even if I do manage to get through it from this side there's no way of knowing how long it'll be before I can get back. I don't think you'll be able to camp out waiting for me – it could be weeks."

"I hadn't thought of that," I admitted. "What'll you do?"

"Well, I could start by going and rescuing the tent. I should think the guy at the camp-site will have held on to it, since we still owe him some money. And then I suppose I could camp out there for the return journey too and just wait until weather conditions are right. Better hope that doesn't take too long, though."

"There's often mist in the autumn," I pointed out.

"Yes, but we're still in August! Maybe if the police aren't after me I could stay at home until the forecast looks right… anyway, that'll be my problem. I'm not sure how I can get from Stonehenge back here if the hole does reopen, though – I can hardly go and bother Squire Cheevers again."

"I don't think he'd mind, but maybe it would be better not to. Let's find out where the nearest railway station to Stonehenge is – if it's in walking distance you can walk there and get a train back here. Just make sure you take some of this world's money with you."

We went to the library and checked in Bradshaw's and found that the nearest station to Stonehenge was either Porton or Wishford. Wishford was probably slightly closer, but from there he would have to go into Salisbury and change.

"I'll worry about that if I get that far," he said. "Now, how do we get the local weather forecast?"

My uncle had disappeared, so we went and asked Mr Hall, and he told us that there was a page in the daily paper which was generally very reliable for the day ahead and, as he put it, just about better than nothing for the next two days after that. And according to today's paper it was likely to be windy at least through the following day.

Eventually Billy and Sparrer finished their tour and came and found us.

"This 'ahse is massive!" commented Sparrer. "I reckon all us lot wot live wiv Auntie could get in 'ere easy!"

"Maybe you could," I said. "But I'd never find work for everyone, and I think you'd miss London. It'll be far better if I can find you somewhere to live there, where you can get to schools easily and the older ones can find work."

"I know. I was jus' sayin', that's all."

For the next day or so we took it easy. Billy showed Sparrer round the grounds, including a visit to the hanger where Excalibur was kept, while Alex and I tried to think of modern technology that might be of use in the war. We thought that probably a lot of military hardware might be useful – like guided missiles, for a start – but we thought it might not be easy to get too much information on stuff like that.

On the Friday the weather was calm, and according to the paper it was supposed to stay that way throughout the day, and so Alex got his belongings together and I arranged for Murdoch to run us back to Stonehenge straight after supper, as that would give him time to get back to Culham before it got dark. We took the tent again, because if we found the hole I'd still need somewhere to stay overnight until Murdoch could come and pick me up on the Saturday morning. And because I didn't fancy staying in the tent on my own I asked Sparrer if he'd like to come with us to keep me company. He didn't really understand where Alex might be going, but he agreed all the same.

"It's going to be crowded if we don't find the hole," Alex pointed out.

"I'm sure we'll manage, I said.

Billy and Wolfie came to see us off.

"You're definitely coming back, aren't you?" Billy asked Alex.

"Of course I am. This world is far more interesting than mine."

"Promise?"

"I promise."

"Sounds like Billy's going to miss you," I commented, once we were in the steam-car.

"We get on pretty well," said Alex. "I shared his bed while we were in London, as well as here, and we've got used to each other."

"Have you?" I asked, grinning. "Is there anything else you want to tell me?"

"No," said Alex, virtuously. "We're just friends."

"Hah!" put in Sparrer. "So 'ow come Billy reckons you got a big prick, then?"

"He told you that?" asked Alex in surprise.

"'E told me lots of stuff. But 'e certainly likes yer."

"He's only human," said Alex, grinning.

This time Murdoch dropped us off right next to the stones, and so we were able to get the tent up, in the same place as on our previous visit, very quickly. We had an hour or so to wait before it got dark, so we went into the tent and Alex got his cards out. And I wasn't particularly surprised when Alex suggested playing strip poker, nor when Sparrer agreed. What did surprise me was how well Sparrer played – in fact he did so well that I found myself wondering if he was cheating. I didn't care too much, though, because I wasn't the one losing: that was Alex, comprehensively. He lost his boxers before either Sparrow or I had even had to remove his shirt.

"Shit, Billy was right!" commented Sparrer, staring. "That's a nice package! Bit too much 'air for my liking – it gets in the way – but yer got big bollocks and a huge prick. Betcha I can get it bigger, though."

He took hold of it and Alex didn't object in the slightest, and pretty soon it was fully erect.

"Fuck, that's big," said Sparrer. "'Ow long is it?"

"Five point six inches," said Alex, promptly.

"Huh? When did you start measuring it?" I asked.

"Billy measured it for me on Sunday evening," he admitted.

"Oh, did he? That doesn't sound like acceptable Sabbath behaviour!"

"You're just jealous!"

""Well, if Leo ain't, I sure am," said Sparrer. "An' I bet you got lots of spunk too. Lie dahn an' we'll find aht."

Alex lay down without any hesitation and Sparrer lay down next to him, took hold and started to rub slowly.

"Leo, lie on 'is uvver side and stroke 'is balls," suggested Sparrer, and I thought that was a nice idea, and so I did.

We had plenty of time, and so we didn't rush it at all. Sparrer and I took it in turns to rub, the non-rubber stroking Alex all over, but especially round his balls, and by stopping every now and again we were able to draw it out for a very long time. Eventually Sparrer took hold once more and began to do it a little faster, and this time he didn't stop. Alex arched his back, cried out and spurted several times, the first jet reaching his neck, and by the time Sparrer finally let go there was quite a lot of sticky white stuff on his chest and stomach.

"Bloody 'ell," commented Sparrer, his eyes almost popping out, "I ain't never seen no-one 'oo can make that much!"

I dug into Alex's bag and found his tissues. By the time he had cleaned himself up and we'd all got dressed it was almost dark outside, and when we looked towards the stones we could see that it was misty all around them. Alex picked up his bag and we walked to the circle, making our way around to the north-west arch – and when we looked through it this time we could see the path and the rope, although looking from any other angle there was nothing there but grass.

"So now we know," I said. "The hole is through this arch, so at least you won't have to spend ages looking for it next time. Is the battery in your phone?"

"Yes, I think so."

"Then disconnect it before you go through. Take mine – there's no reason for the police to be looking for me – and then go through and call your parents."

He dismantled his phone, took mine and stepped through the arch, and once he reached the path he called his home number. We couldn't hear the conversation, but after a couple of minutes he hung up and came back to the arch.

"It's okay," he reported, handing me back my phone. "Nobody seems to be looking for me. I'll call a cab to take me into Salisbury, and I should think I should still be able to get a train back to London tonight. Then I'll start getting together all the stuff we talked about. I'll be back as soon as I can, but obviously it'll take me a while to find everything we need, and then I might have to wait for the weather, so I suppose I'll see you when I see you. But thank you both for just now in the tent: that was a hell of a send-off!"

And he grinned at us, hoisted his bag onto his back and set off down the path. I watched him go until he disappeared into the mist, and at that point I turned and led Sparrer back to the tent.

"It's a bit early ter go ter sleep," he said, "so let's you an' me play some more cards."

Alex had kindly left his pack in the tent, and so we closed the flap and started playing again – and once again Sparrer was soon winning. And then he got clumsy.

"Cheat!" I accused him. "You just dealt off the bottom!"

"Took yer long enuff ter spot it," he said, grinning.

"I thought you'd been winning a bit too often this evening!"

"A mate of mine at Auntie's does the three-card trick – find the lady, yer know? – an' 'e taught me some moves. First time I've 'ad a chance ter try wiv a real sucker – no offence."

"Plenty taken," I said, glowering. "Take off everything except your trousers and underpants, and I'm dealing from now on."

But despite that I still lost, though at least I was confident that I'd lost fair and square. Soon I was lying on my back and he was stroking me.

"See wot I mean abaht 'air getting' in the way?" he said, tickling the base of my penis. "You ain't got much, but if we was goin' ter do this a lot I'd tell yer ter pluck 'em aht. Albie does that 'cos the punters prefer 'im smooth – not that 'e 'ad much anyway, an' 'e sez 'e likes it better wivout 'air… Course, I'd like ter 'ave the choice…"

"You will," I promised him. "Once you've been eating properly for a bit your body will get back to where it should be and you'll start to grow, and then you'll reach puberty."

"I 'ope so. You got any spunk yet?"

"A little."

"I 'aven't. So let's see wot we can get outa you."

Once again he took his time, and it felt really, really good. Wolfie was good at this, and so was Alex, but Sparrer was better, and I suppose that if he'd practised with friends who were rent boys he'd have learned some pretty good techniques.

"'Ow's it coming?" he asked, stopping yet again after about fifteen minutes.

"It's amazing, but I'm not there yet," I told him.

"Yer not meant ter be," he told me, grinning. "Yer don't get ter come until I fink yer deserve it! I don't fink this fing of yours is gonna get any bigger, though, is it? 'Ow long is it?"

"I don't know. Billy's never asked to measure me."

"Let's find out, then," he said, and he held one of the playing cards against me and found that it was exactly the right length.

"If this is a standard card, that makes yer free and an 'alf inches. You 'ave ter know 'ow big the card is ter see if it'll fit up yer sleeve," he explained.

"That's pretty small, I suppose," I said, gloomily.

"It's smaller than Curly, right enuff, but it's still 'alf an inch more than I've got, so don't worry abaht it. An' we still 'aven't seen wot it can do yet, so let's get on wiv it." And he got on with it, and after a few seconds I stopped worrying about my lack of size and just enjoyed the sensation, a sensation that got better and better until finally I had an amazing orgasm – and I'm sure I produced more of my watery stuff than I had before.

"See?" he said, scooping some of it up with his finger. "You got nuffink ter worry abaht."

I grabbed a tissue – Alex had also left us the box – and wiped myself down.

"Okay," I said. "Get those pants off – it's your turn."

"Yer don't 'ave ter," he said.

"I know, but I want to. It's not fair that me and Alex both got to feel good and you didn't. I've told you, round here we all share stuff."

"Well… if yer really don't mind," he said, and he slipped his pants off and lay back. He was already stiff, so I was able to get straight to work, and soon I had him wriggling about, much like Wolfie did. I stopped a few times, but eventually I just kept going until his whole body tensed up and he gave a stifled gasp. I held on tight until his erection stopped throbbing and then slowly let go.

"Was that alright?" I asked.

He nodded. "Yer good," he said. "I bet yer done that a few times before."

"A few," I admitted. "Anyway, I'm going out for a pee. Back in a minute."

I took a few steps away from the tent and started to pee, but before I was finished Sparrer appeared at my side.

"Good idea," he said. "Yer strange, Leo: anyone 'oo saw yer ternight would never guess yer a duke, wot wiv 'avin' a wank wiv a guttersnipe like me an' then pissin' in the open like this…"

"Guess I'm just an unusual duke," I said.

"You are, at that," he agreed, "but I fink you'd be a good mate 'owever you lived an' 'ooever you were. If you lived wiv me dahn Bazalgette's I reckon we'd be solid. So I'm goin' ter try ter do me best livin' in yore big 'ahss not ter let yer dahn. I'll even let yer learn me ter talk proper – if yer can."

"Now there's a challenge!" I said. "To be honest, I don't care how you talk, but if you can posh it up a bit it might help other people to take you seriously – especially if Uncle Gil can fix it for us to talk to the Lords. Because I want you to come with me and tell everyone what it's like in the sewers."

We went back to the tent and I got into my sleeping bag while Sparrer wrapped himself in the blankets he'd brought. I lay awake for a while, trying to think of things to say to convince people that we should be doing more for the homeless, but instead I found myself worrying about Alex. Just how stable was the hole? Maybe it only appeared very occasionally, in which case it might be ages before he was able to get back. And would it really be safe for him to go back home? It was still only three weeks since the riots – probably the police were still working their way through all the CCTV evidence. If things went badly it might be months, or even years, before I saw him again…

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