Excelsior

by David Clarke

Chapter 11

When I woke up next morning I saw Sparrer propped up on one elbow looking at me.

"You orlright?" he asked.

"I think so. Why?"

"'Cos you was wrigglin' abaht an' talkin' to yerself. I fort you was 'avin' a bad dream or sumfink."

"I can't remember one."

"Then maybe yer worryin' abaht Curly. 'E'll be orlright – e's tuff enuff."

"I hope you're right," I said. "It's whether or not he can get back that worries me. We've been friends for a long time, and I'd really miss him if he couldn't get back here"

"Well, there ain't no point in worryin' abaht it. 'Ave we got ter get up yet?"

I looked at my watch, which I'd put down beside the sleeping bag. "No, not yet," I told him. "Murdoch won't be coming to pick us up for a couple more hours."

"Then d'yer wanna play some more cards – or shall we skip the cards an' jus' get on wiv the sex?"

"You don't believe in subtlety, do you?" I commented. "Still, when you put it like that… let's skip the cards this time."

"Good! I was 'opin' you'd say that. Open yer bag aht so we can both lie on it."

So I unzipped the sleeping bag and laid it flat, and Sparrer came and lay down next to me, pulling his blankets over us to keep us warm. To start with we just lay quietly with our arms around each other, and that felt good, and I wondered if we shouldn't in fact just stick to that – after all, I was supposed to be committed to Wolfie… or I supposed that I was supposed to be committed…

Actually I wasn't quite sure how sex fitted into our relationship. Before the day Daedalus went down we'd certainly masturbated each other, but I don't think either of us had considered it to be in any way separate from the rest of our friendship, and certainly I hadn't really thought of it as 'sex' at the time: it had just been something we'd done to make each other feel good. Now that we were older, however, it did seem more significant, but we hadn't taken any vows of exclusivity, and I hadn't felt guilty about doing stuff with Alex, not even after I got my memory back. But did that mean that it was okay to do stuff with Sparrer? And if Sparrer, why not Billy, or why not even get into a complete orgy with Graham Reed and a dozen of his fellow stable-lads? How would Wolfie feel about that?

Actually I thought that Wolfie would probably be fine about it as long as he got to join in, but maybe that was just wishful thinking on my part. I decided that I probably ought to have a long talk with him when we got back, just to clarify how he felt about… well, sex and stuff.

In the meantime something – either my fantasising about an orgy with the stable lads or the way Sparrer was nuzzling against me – or possibly both – had got me aroused, and so I decided to seize the day and make the most of the fact that I was in bed with a nice-looking and completely naked boy. I pulled him on top of me and began to stroke his back, and he gave a sort of purr and nuzzled against me some more. Then, after a couple of minutes, he slipped off to my right side, took hold of my erection and began to stroke it gently.

"Nah," he said, after a couple of minutes of this, "I reckon as 'ow we should do it different today." And before I'd worked out what he was doing he had wriggled down beside me and taken my erection in his mouth. And that felt very, very strange, but at the same time very, very nice, and I made some sort of inarticulate noise in response.

"Ain't you never 'ad this done before?" he asked.

"No," I replied. "I've heard of it, obviously, but nobody's ever done it for me."

"Then I'll 'ave ter make sure that I don't fuck it up," he said, and he set to work once more, slowly sliding his lips up and down the shaft and licking away at it at the same time. And it felt… well, it's impossible to describe how it felt, because I'd never felt anything like it before, but I can certainly say that I liked it. A lot.

He wasn't hurrying, and it was some time before I felt things starting to build up, but when I finally warned him that I was getting close he simply made a sort of noise to indicate that he'd understood me, but otherwise just kept going exactly as he had been. And so I got closer and closer until…

It was better than being rubbed, somehow – it felt almost like an orgasm in slow motion, every bit as powerful but lasting longer than the one he'd given me by hand the previous evening. And when it was finally over he didn't even spit it out.

"So?" he asked, coming back to lie beside me.

"That was pretty amazing," I said, once I'd got my breath back. "Have you had a lot of practice at that?"

"Nah, but I've been on the uvver end a few times, so I know 'ow it's supposed to go. Albie used to blow me from time to time – 'e sed it kept 'is 'and in when 'e weren't working, like. An' 'e wuz fuckin' expert at it. So I jus' tried ter do wot 'e done."

"Well, you done… did it brilliantly. Now let's see if I've picked it up properly."

I started to move, but he grabbed me.

"No!" he said, firmly. "You ain't blowin' me. It wouldn't be right."

"Sparrer, what the hell are you talking about?"

"Yer a fuckin' duke, you dick'ead! They don't come much 'igher than you. An' I'm a dipper from the sewers, and they don't come no lower than me. So there's no way you can suck me, is there?"

"Why the hell not? Look, I'm tired of this – people keep going on about the difference between me and them, like that's all that matters. What about all the ways we're the same? We're the same age, more or less, we live in the same house, we're both orphans, both our fathers died fighting the Russians…"

"An' my muvver was a whore an' yours was a duchess."

"So what? They're both dead. And, most important, we're friends – aren't we? I didn't ask to be a duke, any more than you asked to be a sewer-rat. Right now we're just two boys in a tent, and we like each other… well, I like you, anyway…"

"Me an' all. I told yer that last night."

"Well, then, let's just forget who we are for half an hour and just be friends. And if you can do that for me, I want to be able to do it for you. Please?"

"Well… you sure?"

"I'm very sure." And I didn't give him any more opportunity to argue about it: I wriggled down under the blanket until I was contemplating his genitals from a distance of less than six inches. He was obviously still not sure about this because his penis was showing no signs of interest, and to be honest I wasn't completely sure about it either. Yes, I wanted to be fair to him, and it would have been completely hypocritical of me to have told him I wanted to be treated as an equal and then have refused to act in the same way, but of course I'd never actually done this, and there was still something a bit repellent about the idea of actually putting another boy's penis in my mouth.

But he'd already done it for me, and there was absolutely no denying how good it had felt to be on the receiving end. If I really wanted to act like a proper friend it was only right that I return the favour. So I took a deep breath and slipped Sparrer's little soft penis into my mouth.

There was no particular taste, and that made me feel a lot better – and even when I licked it, it only tasted of skin. So I did it again, and it began to stir, and within thirty seconds it had transformed into something hard and twitching. That made it possible for me to close my lips around it and to slide them slowly up and down, the way Sparrer had done to me. He gave a little groan, and that encouraged me to keep going, squeezing and licking as I slid it into and out of my mouth.

I managed to draw it out for a while, but soon Sparrer was moving against me, his hands on the back of my head, urging me to keep working, and after a little more of this his body went rigid and he gave a gasp. I stayed still until he moved his hands, and then I slipped it out of my mouth and returned to my place alongside him.

"Was that all right?" I asked, when he didn't say anything.

"Yeah, that was pretty good. Course, yer not in Albie's league, but then 'e's a pro. Fer a beginner yer done it fine. Couple of lessons an' you'll be good enuff ter go on the game."

"No, thanks!" I said. "I only ever want to do that for people I really like, and there aren't that many of them."

"Well, if yer goin' ter do it fer Curly you'll 'ave ter get used to the taste of spunk," he pointed out. "'Cos we know 'e's got loads of it."

"Does it taste bad?" I asked.

"Nah, not really. Course, I ain't done it fer anyone wiv as much as Curly, but I reckon as 'ow I could 'andle it. You got a little bit, an' yours tastes orlright."

"I'm glad to hear it! Anyway, shall we get up? We might as well pack up ready for when Murdoch gets here."

"'Ang on." He rolled up against me and put an arm round me, hugging me. "Yer strange, Leo. I ain't never met nobody like you. See, one fing yer learns in the sewers is ter watch out fer yerself an' not ter worry abaht anyone else, 'cos it's 'ard enuff ter keep yerself alive wivaht worryin' abaht uvver people. But you – yer spend all yer time finking abaht uvver people: will Curly be safe where 'e's going? Are you making Ginger-nut walk on 'is dodgy leg too much? Is Billy really 'appy away from 'is 'orses? 'Ow do all the 'omeless people cope, and wot can yer do fer 'em?" He looked at me seriously. "Yer can't fix the world, Leo, even if you 'ave got piles of money. It's too big, an' there's too much that's fucked up abaht it. You spend too long tryin' ter change fings an' yer'll do yer 'ead in. Yer need ter relax an' 'ave fun wiv yer friends. I reckon you an' Ginger-nut should just get in that bloody great flyin' machine and fuck off fer a few weeks. Go somewhere a long way away, 'ave some fun and let the rest of the world fuck itself."

"It's certainly tempting," I admitted. "Course, you'd have to come with us."

"Yer don't need no bloody gooseberry," he said. "I know 'ow yer feel about Ginger. If I came wiv yer I'd just be in the way."

"Well, we could take Billy as well. I'm sure he could keep you occupied."

He grinned at me. "I reckon 'e could, at that," he said. "Jus' persuade 'im ter dye 'is 'air black an' I might even start ter fancy 'im!"

"I think he likes being blond."

"Pity. Oh, well, yer can't 'ave everyfing."

I gave him a quick return hug. "Come on," I said. "Let's get up."

By the time Murdoch arrived we had the tent packed up and were leaning on one of the Stonehenge arches and waiting for him.

"Is Mr Demetriou not coming?" he asked as we got into the car.

"No, he's gone to visit his parents," I said. "He'll be coming back in a week or two."

At least, I hoped he would, I thought: although I knew that I was actually in the world I belonged in, I still thought of Alex's world as 'home' sometimes, and with him gone I'd lost my connection to it. I hoped he wouldn't be gone for too long.

Over the next two weeks I managed to get my campaign to help the homeless off the ground, but it was a depressing experience: nobody seemed to want to know. Those politicians I managed to speak to, from both Houses of Parliament, made vague noises indicating moral support for the notion while at the same time declining to get involved financially, claiming that the war was taking up all available funds. The concept of a tax rise to pay for extra housing went down like a concrete æthership, and exactly as my uncle had predicted I ran into plenty of people who said that the poor should stand on their own two feet instead of looking for handouts from anyone else.

A couple of my fellow peers did seem to have some concept of what it meant to do their 'Christian duty' and pledged to donate some money to help, and I was very grateful to them, but overall I came away profoundly unimpressed with this world's ruling class. By the time I got back to Culham I'd come to the conclusion that the best way to raise a decent amount of money would be to patent some of the technology I was hoping Alex would provide on his return. But Alex was still missing, and worrying about him didn't make me feel any better.

On my first night back from London – this was Saturday September 17th - Wolfie and I slept in our headquarters on the third floor. I'd been thinking about showing him what Sparrer had taught me, but I wasn't really in the mood, and I was also having second thoughts: maybe Wolfie would think it was really disgusting, and the last thing I needed at the moment was to lose my closest friend. So in the end I kept my lips to myself, except for returning Wolfie's kiss when I got into bed beside him after turning the lamp out.

"Leo, you've got to relax," he told me. "If you insist on going on with this quest to house all the poor people in London you should find a couple of professionals to run things for you. Start a proper charity, find someone to manage it and maybe someone else to deal with the money and let them get on with it. At the moment you're trying to do everything yourself, and it's going to make you ill. You need to step away from it and let other people do the work. According to my uncle, that's what good leadership is all about."

"He's probably right, but… it's hard, Wolfie. I keep thinking that I should be doing something, but I can't work out what."

"What you need to do is to forget it completely for a bit. We should just go away somewhere, preferably in the opposite direction to London."

"That's what Sparrer said," I told him. "He reckoned you and I should just get on board Excalibur and fly off somewhere for a bit."

"Did he? But I bet you said he'd have to come too, didn't you?"

"Well, yes. But I also said we'd have to take Billy along, so they could entertain each other while you and I just did… whatever we wanted, I suppose."

"Then maybe you're not so stupid after all."

"Who are you calling stupid?" I asked, jabbing him in the ribs. He jabbed me back, and by the time the fight ended and I'd remade the bed I felt a lot better.

"Look," said Wolfie, snuggling up to me again, "let's take a day off tomorrow. I want to use that magic lamp of yours to explore the tunnels – and if we clean out the cobwebs again, maybe you can have another try at doing what you were too feeble to do last time… no, let's not fight again, I've just got comfy. But you could, couldn't you?"

"I suppose so," I said, unenthusiastically: the thought of groping my way through the passages naked again wasn't one that I particularly liked.

"Then that's decided. And if we look really closely at all the dead ends I'm sure we'll find some more exits. It wouldn't make sense for them to bother building passages that don't go anywhere."

So the following afternoon we collected a broom and dusters and headed off into the passages once more. Some of the spiders had been at work again since our previous visit, but it was a lot easier to clean up this time, and by the time we'd finished the tunnels were more or less clear of arachnid activity. I knew with my luck that one or two of them would be back before I came to try the naked run once more, but I decided not to worry about that right now. Instead, once we'd finished cleaning, we set off down the long passage on the second floor, the one that apparently came to a dead end somewhere close to the servants' part of the house. Wolfie had brought a triple candlestick, and of course I had my electric torch, and so we started to examine the end wall really closely, looking for signs of a hidden catch.

We must have pressed every inch of that wall, paying particular attention to the corners, but nothing we did had the remotest effect. We were getting ready to give up when I had a thought: by now we must be close to the rear wall of the house, and in that case…

I switched my attention to the left hand side, and here, a yard or so before the end of the passage, I found a small hole in the wall. It wasn't very big, only five or six millimetres across, and it didn't look as if it went in very far, but I thought that it had to do something. The only problem was that we weren't carrying anything that would fit into it, so we made our way back to our room and started looking. There wasn't much in our room, so we went back downstairs to my room – I thought a pencil would probably fit, or maybe a screwdriver, if we could find one of those. Or a wire coat-hanger…

I opened my wardrobe and found that this world didn't believe in anything quite as basic as a wire coat-hanger: all the hangers here were hand-made of polished wood. But right at the end of the rail I spotted something I hadn't noticed before: it looked like a black skewer, or one of those metal tent pegs you can buy to replace the ones you've lost. It was about eight inches long, and it was exactly the right diameter to fit into the hole.

"Look what I've found!" I said, showing it to Wolfie. "I bet this fits – I reckon it's supposed to be a key to the bit of the system we haven't found yet!"

"It certainly looks old," he agreed. "That closet looks as if it was built into your room right from when the house was built, so it could have been there since the passages were built, too."

"Then I wonder…" I took the torch and examined the back of the closet very carefully indeed and, sure enough, there was a very small hole in the top right hand corner. You'd never have noticed it unless you'd been looking, because the wood was very dark, almost black, and there was no light in the closet itself – and obviously it would be very dangerous to bring a candle into a closet that had clothes all along the rack. Fortunately I didn't have too many clothes as yet, and some of the ones I did have were in London, and that made it possible to get at the back wall.

I took the skewer and inserted it into the hole. At first it didn't seem to do anything, and turning it had no effect either, but when I shoved it in a bit harder there was a click and part of the back wall swung open. We went through and found ourselves in what we had thought was a short dead-end of the passage system.

"That's probably why we couldn't get in from this side," I said, pulling the key from the hole and pushing the wall back until it closed with a click. "We were pushing and looking for catches, but we weren't looking for a keyhole. I wonder if you can use the key from this side too?"

I used my torch to examine the wall. Sure enough, there was a hole on this side, and when I pushed the skewer into it there was a click, but when I tried pulling the skewer it simply came out of the hole. I tried again, this time turning the skewer to the right after it clicked, and this time I was able to use the hook at the handle end of the skewer to pull the panel open once more.

"I bet there's another panel like this in the ducal bedroom downstairs," I said. "We'll have to look later."

We took the skewer along the passage to the hole we'd found earlier, and once again pushing it in firmly was rewarded with a click, although this time the section that opened only moved about an inch, and because it was only a small section at the foot of the wall, less than two feet high, we didn't notice it at first. When we did spot it we had to push very hard in order to persuade it to open further: although most of the panels we'd found so far opened without too much effort, this one seemed to have seized up. But eventually we got it fully open.

This time, instead of a passage leading away, the panel had revealed a square hole in the floor. Shining the torch into it didn't reveal very much, but there were some metal bars set horizontally into the wall at one side that were clearly intended to serve as a ladder. I shrugged and backed into the opening, putting a foot on the first bar.

"Be careful!" said Wolfie, grabbing my arm. "If those bars have been there as long as the house they might not be safe any more!"

I tried slowly putting my weight on the bar and found that it seemed safe enough. Of course it would depend how far down this shaft went: if it went all the way down to the wine cellar I certainly wouldn't want to risk falling, but a quick flash of the torch revealed a floor not too far below me, and in fact the ladder was only half a dozen rungs long. I reached the floor, called up to Wolfie that I was safe, and turned to look around.

I was in a small room about three metres square. There was no furniture at all and considerably fewer cobwebs than I'd have expected in a part of the system that hadn't been used for a very long time, but then I realised that if the room had been sealed off for a long time there wouldn't have been too many insects in here, and hence nothing to keep the spiders alive. The fact that there were any cobwebs at all suggested that there had to be air coming into the room somewhere, and when I looked around I saw that there was a very small grille set into one wall, and at the far end of the room there was a small fireplace.

"I'm coming down," called Wolfie. "Can you get ready to catch me in case I fall?"

I took up position at the foot of the ladder and watched as Wolfie came slowly down. It was difficult for him because of his artificial leg, but he made it safely.

"I guess this is a sort of ancient panic room," I said. "If anyone broke into the house, the duke and his family could come and hide in here. I expect there's a way to close the door from down here…"

I looked around and, sure enough, there was a lever set into the wall opposite the foot of the ladder. I tried moving it and found it very stiff indeed, but at last I managed to shift it, and the panel at the top of the ladder swung closed. There was a hook on the wall next to the lever, and by putting it over the lever you could ensure that the panel couldn't be opened from outside, even if someone had a key.

"I hope you can open that again," commented Wolfie, nervously. "Nobody knows where we are, remember."

"It'll be fine," I said. "It was just a bit stiff, but now it's been moved it shouldn't give us any problem. It might still be a good idea to bring an oil-can next time we come, though. So I wonder where the other entrance is… After all, there's a long corridor coming this way on the first floor, too…"

We looked around the part of the room closest to the ladder, since it was logical that the other corridor – which I thought was directly underneath the one we had used to get here - would enter the room at the same end, but nothing sprang to the eye.

"Oh, well," I said, "if we try from the other side we'll probably find another keyhole. We'll go that way later on. So what are we going to do with this place? It would make a brilliant hiding place if they wanted us to go and do something boring, I suppose…"

"If we can find a way to disable that lever so the room can't be opened from the inside, I can think of something it would be perfect for," said Wolfie. "I could throw your pet gutter-rat in here and leave him, and if he calls me 'Ginger-nut' once more I swear I'll do it, too."

"Does it bother you that much?"

"It bothers me that the little bastard talks to me at all, let alone calling me stupid names. Look, Leo, I still don't understand why he's here: he's a thief, and he's completely unreliable. He's already told us that he doesn't care about anyone except himself. How do you know he isn't going to stab us in our sleep and make off with everything he can carry? Why can't you see how dangerous he is?"

I stared at him. "Is that what you think?" I asked. "If so, you're wrong. Yes, I know that 'Every man for himself' is the motto in the sewers, but he's not in the sewers any longer. He hasn't let me down since we got here, and he's had plenty of opportunities."

"He's just waiting for the right one! I just wish I could understand – the old Leo wouldn't have even looked at a piece of crap like that, far less tried to make friends with him."

"The old Leo didn't even know people like him existed. Until I was ten the only time I ever spoke to anyone not of our class was to give them an order – 'Polish my boots', 'Fetch my carriage', 'Saddle my horse', that sort of thing. And then I found myself in another world, with no memory of this one. For several months I lived in an orphanage with other kids that nobody wanted – kids whose parents were dead, or whose parents couldn't cope with them, or even abused them. We were lucky, I suppose, because we were in a decent orphanage where nobody beat us or abused us, like happens in some of the ones Sparrer told me about, but we were still basically just forgotten kids nobody cared about. Then I got lucky and got adopted, but by an ordinary couple of working class people – my new father drove a truck and my mother worked part time in a library, and I went to an ordinary state school with a lot of ordinary kids. And there my best friend was a builder's son and both of his parents were immigrants.

"So I've lived with people like Sparrer – it's just that the kids I knew were luckier than him. You've never been there – the only people you and I mixed with here were other nobles, so all you know about poor people is what you've read or been told by other aristocrats, and that's why you expect the worst of them. I know that if you treat people decently, most of them are capable of acting decently in return, and Sparrer hasn't given me any reason to doubt that yet. Yes, I could be wrong, and if I am you can say 'I told you so' as much as you like, but I'm no more going to send him back to the sewers than I would send you to Prussia to be kept under house arrest by the Russians. Okay?"

He didn't say anything, and I wondered if I'd gone too far in making a direct comparison between him and Sparrer. I could remember my old life well enough to recognise how uncomfortable Wolfie was with the way I now ignored boundaries of class and social convention: he'd just about been able to accept Billy, but that was probably because, at least to start with, Billy had been no more comfortable with it than he had been himself.

"Look," he said, eventually, "I can see that you want to do something about the homelessness in London, and that's a good thing. But why can't you do it like your peers do – find a good cause, give money and pay someone professional to deal with it? Why do you have to get so involved? Can't you see that isn't the way we do things here? This isn't Alex's world, Leo – you're the one who's out of step."

"It's the twenty-first century," I argued. "Queen Victoria isn't on the throne any longer… sorry, I mean Charles VI and Robert II. That was over a hundred years ago, so why do we still have to act as though this was 1875? Sure, the class system works for us, and it might even work for our staff, because this estate is well-run and the workers are taken care of. But not all estates are run like ours, and in the big cities I don't think the system works at all, if that number of people can fall through the cracks. I want to do something about it, and that means getting involved. And I'd like to think my friends will support me, because if not, well, maybe you're right: maybe I don't belong here after all. Maybe I ought to go back and live in a world that doesn't turn its back on thousands of people just because they didn't happen to be born with a 'Lord' – or a 'Margrave' - in front of their name."

I knew I was being unfair here, and I also knew that plenty of people in Alex's world did feel that nobody gave a monkey's about whether they lived or died – and quite possibly that feeling of hopelessness had contributed to the riots. But I was angry, and when you're angry you often say things that you normally wouldn't.

"'Margrave' comes after my name, not in front of it," he pointed out. "Or are you so tired of me that you can't even remember my name any longer? Are you so dazzled by your lower class friends that you've forgotten what we used to mean to each other? Maybe you're having so much fun running about the sewers with Rat-boy that you don't want to waste your time with a stupid cripple any longer."

"No!" I protested. "God, no, you know that's not true!"

"Are you sure? Because when you talk about going back to the other world it certainly sounds like you've had enough or me."

"I'm not going back. I only said that because I was angry. I know that I belong here with you, and nothing's going to change that. But I wish you'd give Sparrer a chance. Maybe if we can fix the lever I ought to lock both of you in here, and I wouldn't let you out until you agreed to get along with each other."

"No, thanks. I wouldn't mind being locked in here with you – at least, as long as you're not acting weird – but I wouldn't want to try it with anyone else."

"Well, will you at least talk to him? Maybe if you do you'll find out that he's just a kid like us, but who wasn't as lucky with his background – and then maybe you can stop worrying about him stealing from us. Because he won't – he knows he's better off staying here than he would be nicking a couple of watches and running, because where could he go except back to the sewers? And I know he doesn't want to end up back there again."

"And what are we supposed to talk about? We have nothing in common."

"You might be surprised, and you won't know unless you try. Please?"

"Well…if you really want me to, I suppose I could try. But if he calls me 'Ginger-nut' I'll strangle him."

"Fair enough, as long as you don't call him 'Rat-boy'. And if you can't talk to each other politely I'll strangle both of you. Put it this way: kings have to deal with all sorts of people, so you can think of it as a bit of practice in case you become king."

"I'm sure if I'm king I won't be expected to talk to too many guttersnipes, except perhaps to say "Off with his head!" or something. But I'll try to restrain myself. So – shall we go and see if we can find the other entrance?"

"Well, since we're here we might as well clear the cobwebs first," I said, and I took my duster and started to work my way down the far side of the room, while Wolfie set to work on the ladder side. And once I'd cleared the cobwebs away from the far end of the room I spotted another little hole in the wall, diagonally opposite the ladder.

"Hey, look at this!" I said. "Another keyhole!"

"Where do you think it goes?" he asked, eagerly. "Do you think it goes around to the other side of the house?"

"Only one way to find out," I said, and I fished the skewer out of my pocket. Actually, at that moment I didn't care where the new door led: its discovery seemed to have completely wiped away our argument, and that was more important to me than anything else.

I put the skewer into the hole and pushed, and once again a panel swung open. It took us to the top of a narrow flight of steep stairs that led down into the depths of the house somewhere.

"I don't know who built all this," I said, "but they did a brilliant job of hiding it. There must be dummy walls and short rooms all over the place. These look a bit steep, though: do you want to risk it?"

"Of course – I want to find out where this goes as much as you do. If you go first you can catch me if I slip."

So I set off down the stairs, moving fairly slowly so that Wolfie wouldn't be left behind. After about fifteen stairs we reached a small landing, but although I looked closely I couldn't see any keyholes, so I continued down the next flight, until finally I reached the bottom of the fourth flight and found myself in a little space about four feet square. I flicked the duster over the walls, but there was no keyhole on either the wall to my right or the one in front of me.

"Well, there has to be a way out of this," I said, running my fingers down the edge of the left-hand wall. "Otherwise this is the most pointless staircase ever."

We must have spent at least ten minutes pushing bricks, searching assiduously for keyholes and even saying 'Open sesame!' without success, and I was about ready to give up when Wolfie found it: four steps back up the staircase there was a small hole in the wall, an inch or so above the stair.

"If you didn't come equipped with a duster and a light I don't think you'd ever find that," he commented.

I handed him the skewer and he put it into the hole and pushed, and part of the left-hand wall swung open, revealing a tunnel heading off into the dark, beyond the reach of the beam of the torch.

"This has to be the escape tunnel," I said. "I bet it comes out somewhere in the woods… how's your leg? Shall we try this now, or do you want to leave it for now and come back tomorrow?"

"Well… would you mind if we come back tomorrow?" he asked. "Only that staircase was a bit difficult…"

"Of course we can," I said. "It'll be more fun if we have something new to look forward to, anyway. But if we stop now you're going to have to go back up the stairs. Do you think you can make it?"

"If I take it slow. Of course, you could carry me if you want…"

I looked up the stairs doubtfully.

"Well, I'll have a go if you want," I said, "but there's no handrail, so if I overbalance backwards we're going to fall, and you'll end up underneath. I think it would be a lot safer if you go first."

He sighed. "I suppose you're right," he said. "If we had an accident in here they'd never find us. Come on, then."

He led the way slowly back up to the hidden room. We'd had to leave the panel at the bottom of the stairs open because there seemed to be no way to close it from this side (the keyhole wasn't actually in the door itself, so we couldn't use the skewer to pull it closed - I supposed that if you were going to use the escape tunnel you'd just close it by pushing from the far side), although when we got back to the room at the top of the stairs we were able to use the skewer to pull that panel closed. It took an effort, but I thought that once the hinges were properly oiled we'd be able to pull it closed much more easily.

There was a nasty moment when I thought the lever in the hidden room wasn't going to move – even after I remembered to undo the hook it still refused to budge at first. But eventually I persuaded it to do its job by heaving on it with both hands and the panel at the top of the ladder creaked open. I climbed the ladder, pulled the panel the rest of the way open and climbed through, and then I leaned back through and helped Wolfie up and out.

We couldn't close this door either because once again the keyhole wasn't in the panel itself, but I could see how it was supposed to work: there was a metal peg on the top of the panel, right by the inside edge. If we looped a piece of string over the peg – and if the hinges were lubricated – we'd be able to pull the door shut, and it ought to be possible to pull the string free afterwards. But as we didn't have any string I wasn't able to test the theory. Instead we left the panel open and headed back to my room.

Once we were in the room Wolfie collapsed onto the bed and I closed the panel and came and sat next to him.

"Tomorrow we need to take an oilcan, some string and my compass," I said. "We ought to try mapping the system out, and I'd like to know which way that long tunnel in the basement is heading. But… look, Wolfie, do you think we ought to tell someone where we're going? If we'd fallen down the stairs, or if we hadn't been able to open the door at the top of the ladder, we'd have been in really bad trouble. At least if someone knows where we are they can come and look for us."

He looked doubtful. "It's supposed to be our secret," he said. "I know you wanted to tell Alex, but he's not here any more, so who were you thinking of telling? Your uncle?"

"Maybe. Or maybe we could tell Billy and swear him to secrecy. I'm pretty sure that if we did that he wouldn't tell anyone else about it, not even Sparrer."

"Well, perhaps that's true. But if we left all the doors open, would we need to tell anyone?"

"Leaving the doors open wouldn't stop us from falling downstairs. Okay, I suppose if we left everything open, including the panel in the closet here, someone would find it eventually. But it's still a big risk – if we were seriously hurt they might not find us until it was too late."

"I suppose so. But what if we wrote a letter explaining where we were and left it here in your bedroom? If we went missing someone would be sure to find it. We could put a map in, showing what we've found so far, and if anything happened they'd be able to follow it and rescue us."

I thought about that. "I suppose that would work," I said. "But we'd have to leave the doors open as well, otherwise they wouldn't be able to follow us."

"Yes, all right," he agreed. "At least that way if everything goes well nobody else will find out about the passages – and I'd really like to explore them completely before we tell anyone."

"Me, too," I admitted. "So, okay, we'll do that. How's your leg?"

"Sore – I don't like climbing much. But it'll be all right if I rest it for a bit."

'Or I could give you a massage," I suggested.

He thought that was an excellent idea, and so a couple of minutes later he had removed his trousers and his artificial leg and I was working on his left leg, the end of which did look red and sore. I stroked it gently for a couple of minutes and then fished my watch out of my pocket and checked it.

"We've got an hour and a half before supper," I said. "Perhaps we should just rest until then – you've definitely done enough walking for today, anyway. Get the rest of your clothes off and we'll get into bed for a bit."

I helped him off with the rest of his clothes and got him into bed, and then I threw my own clothes off and got in beside him. For a good ten minutes we just lay together, him lying on his back and me on my side facing him with my arm around him.

"Wolfie," I said quietly, "I'm sorry, all right? I was unfair to you earlier. Of course you don't know what the other world is like. I shouldn't have said half of what I did. Will you forgive me?"

"And you swear you're not going to go back to the other world?"

"I swear. This is where I belong."

"You really mean it? Because I've just gone four years without you and I couldn't stand it if I lost you again."

"Wolfie, I'm not going anywhere. I couldn't leave, because I love you."

He looked at me and then reached up, pulled me on top of him and hugged me hard.

"That's the first time you've actually said it since you came back," he said. "Not that I was actually doubting it… well, not really – but it's still nice to hear you say it. And I'm sorry too, because I know what happened in the other world is an important part of who you are, and I shouldn't ignore it. It's changed you, and if I'm honest I think it's changed you in a good way. Perhaps we do spend too much of our time just locked into our own social class without thinking about those outside. So I'll definitely talk to… to Sparrer, if you think it'll help."

Instead of saying 'thank you' I kissed him gently, and then we just snuggled for the next half hour or so. I wasn't sure how well their conversation would go, but getting them to talk to each other at all was definitely a step in the right direction.

So after supper I told Sparrer that Wolfie wanted to see him.

"I bet 'e doesn't," said Sparrer. "I bet this is your idea, innit?"

"Well, yes. But he knows you're coming. Look, I just want him to see that you're not just what…"

"Wot 'e finks I am?" he finished. "'Ow'm I gonna change 'is mind, then?"

"Just talk to him. Talk about something that interests you. Or you could ask him some questions, or something. I just want you to talk, that's all."

"Orlright. But I don't fink it'll do no good. 'E don't like me, see?"

"Then change his mind," I said. "Find something to talk about that interests him, or ask him questions about what he likes doing, or… well, I don't care how you do it, but I'd really like it if the two of you could get along. Please?"

"Well, I'll 'ave a go," he said. "But don't 'old yer breff."

"Good. Okay, wait here five minutes, and then go up to his room. I'll go and warn him you're coming."

So I did that. Wolfie wasn't looking forward to it any more than Sparrer was, but at least he hadn't changed his mind. I wished him luck and then left his room and ran along the corridor to the one next to it, which was the one that Alex had been using, letting myself into it and closing the door. The fireplace in this room backed onto the one in Wolfie's room, and by sticking my head a short way up the chimney I could hear what was happening next door. Yes, okay, I know I should have just left them to it, but I wanted to be able to intervene if they actually started hitting each other.

I heard a knock on the door and Wolfie calling for the knocker to come in, and as soon as Sparrer opened his mouth my heart sank.

"'Ello, Ginger-nut," he started. "I know yer don't want me 'ere, but that's fine 'cos I don't wanna be 'ere eiver. But I promised Leo as 'ow I'd talk ter yer, so 'ere I am."

"Yes, well, I'm only listening because Leo asked me to. I promise you this wasn't my idea. And don't call me 'Ginger-nut', unless you want me to start calling you 'Rat-boy'."

I almost ran next door to stop them then, because this was about the worst start I could have imagined.

"Fair enuff," said Sparrer. "Yer can if yer want, though. I lived in the sewer and I nicked stuff, so I ain't gonna argue. Come ter that, you 'ave got very red 'air."

"So? I've got a name, too. Why can't you use that?"

"Ain't I sposed ter call you "Your 'Oliness' or sumfink?"

"Probably not. Leo doesn't like titles much. Sometimes I think he's going to be the first ever anarchist duke."

Sparrer laughed. "That would be kinda funny," he said. "So d'yer want me ter call you 'Wolfie', then?"

"Well… I think that's what Leo would like."

"Yeah, but it's your name, so you oughta decide. Probly it's better than 'Ginger-nut', though."

"I suppose it is. So should I call you 'Sparrer', then?"

"Well, yeah, 'cept… you know as 'ow Leo said I should pick a first name ter go wiv it? Well, I fort abaht it, and I fink I got one. I wanted sumfink wot sounded classy an' sort of 'proper upstanding citizen', so I reckon… 'ow abaht Ebenezer?"

I burst out laughing. I couldn't help it: the idea of a little guttersnipe being called 'Ebenezer Sparrow' was just too much. And of course they heard me.

"Leo!" exclaimed Wolfie. "He's hiding in the chimney!"

"Sorry," I spluttered. "Give me a moment…"

I got myself under control and walked round to Wolfie's room, because there clearly wasn't any point in staying where I was.

"I'm sorry," I told them both. "I just wanted to make sure you weren't going to murder each other, that's all."

"Wot, yer don't trust us?" asked Sparrer.

"I'm sorry," I said again. "How could I not trust someone called Ebenezer Sparrow?"

"I've decided as 'ow me friends can call me 'Ben'," he said, trying to look dignified.

"Well, that's certainly better. But why 'Ebenezer'? To me, Ebenezer Sparrow is a character in Dickens. He..."

"'Oo's Dickens?" interrupted Sparrer.

"Oh... well, he was a writer who wrote a lot of stories about a hundred and fifty years ago, and his characters always had strange names. I can see his 'Ebenezer Sparrow' now - he's about fifty, with big grey side-whiskers and a pot belly and he carries a silver-topped cane, and he owns… I don't know, an antiquarian bookshop, or something."

"And is 'e a pickpocket wot lives in a sewer?"

"Well, no."

"There yer are, then," he said, triumphantly. "Wiv that name I sahnd like an onnist citizen."

"Okay," I said, raising my hands in surrender. "Ebenezer it is, then. But I'd certainly feel happier calling you 'Ben'. And I'm sorry for listening in. I'll go and wait downstairs, in the front receiving room."

So I did, and about half an hour later they both came and joined me.

"We found something we agree on," Wolfie told me. "We both think you're weird. But it's a good sort of weird, if you can understand that. So we're going to try to get along if we can. That doesn't mean the two of us will be rushing off to do things together, but we won't fight or insult each other either. He's going to call me Wolfie, which I suppose I can put up with, and I'm happy to call him Ben, if that's what he wants to be called. Actually I'm not sure why you don't like the name 'Ebenezer' – it's not that uncommon."

"It is in Alex's world," I said. "It's very old-fashioned. Still, there aren't a lot of Leos there either, and certainly there weren't any Wolfgang-Christians where I used to live, so what the hell, why not?"

And I thought as I went to bed that evening that at least one problem had been solved. I just hoped Alex would manage to get back to us soon. Quite apart from the fact that I was missing him, I couldn't wait to see his face when he heard Sparrer's new name.

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