Excelsior

by David Clarke

Chapter 12

In fact Wolfie and I didn't get a chance to resume our exploration of the escape tunnel next day because, as we had both forgotten, the next day was Monday September 19th, which was the day school began. In fact it should have been two weeks earlier, but Uncle Gil had deemed my work on drumming up support for the homeless was sufficiently educational, and consequently he had postponed the resumption of our classes until I got back from London. But he reminded us at breakfast that morning that we would have to work hard to make up for the missing two weeks, and that could mean working later into the evening, unless he heard good things about our efforts from our tutor.

So straight after breakfast we went up to the schoolroom on the second floor. Of course it had been four years since I had last had lessons here, but the room didn't seem to have changed at all in that time, and neither had our tutor, a strict forty-something professional teacher called Mr Devlin who had been lured from the nearby Radley College but who had lost nothing of his ability to keep a class of twenty in order. And that meant that the two of us had no chance at all.

However, he wasn't without a sense of humour.

"Master Leo, you're four years and twelve weeks late for school," he said when I entered the room. "I should think that merits a detention every day for the next… shall we say four years and twelve weeks?"

"No, we shan't," I said, firmly. "I've been going to school for the whole of that time, even if it wasn't here."

"So I understand," he said. "To be honest I'd be very interested to hear how another world handles the education of its young, and I'm sure Master Wolfgang would be interested in what you've been doing, too. So perhaps we could talk about that today, and then we can get back to normal lessons tomorrow."

So I explained the education system in Alex's England as best I could. Of course, there were some quite substantial differences in teaching methods: obviously there were no computers here, no language laboratories, no televisions, no videos or DVDs, and no interactive whiteboards. All we had was a very old-fashioned blackboard and some rather dry textbooks.

Some of the subjects taught were rather different, too: history and geography, for a start, were substantially different here, and science lacked a lot of the content I'd known at Alex's school (imagine physics in a world with no electricity!). And of course discipline was rather different, too: Mr Devlin was profoundly shocked to hear of a world in which teachers were not allowed to beat badly-behaved students. He said he couldn't begin to understand how discipline could be maintained if the children had nothing to fear. I pointed out that he'd never had to beat either of us, and he replied that we were both good students, and also that it's hard to hide misbehaviour in a class of two, and so sensibly we had never tried.

After that Mr Devlin wanted to know about the differences between the two worlds, and that subject kept us occupied for the rest of the morning. He found it hard to grasp that the two most powerful countries in Alex's world were America and China, because in this one China was still an inward-looking agrarian society stagnating under an emperor who had sat on the throne for the past seventy years without changing anything at all, just as his father and grandfather had done before him. As for America, here there was no such place: like Greenland, the New World was off-limits to the European powers by international treaty, and so was inhabited only by its indigenous people. Quite how that treaty had remained unbroken for five hundred years was hard for me to understand, but perhaps living in Alex's world had made me cynical, because here even the powers who had not signed up to the original treaty, like the Japanese Empire, had agreed to abide by it once they became aware of its existence.

In fact that discussion took up quite a lot of the afternoon as well, as we discussed history and geography and some elements of science, though I kept quiet about some developments, electricity in particular. I thought it would be best to wait for Alex to get back before I broached that one, because I was really no scientist and wouldn't have known where to begin an explanation of how to build a generator.

After that Mr Devlin laid out what we would be doing during the coming term, and I was disconcerted to discover that it included Latin and Greek, both of which I should have started long before this – Wolfie had been studying Latin for three years and Greek for two. I thought I might get into trouble for suggesting that in the current political climate Russian would be rather more use than Greek, but actually Mr Devlin agreed with me, saying that if he could find someone to teach us a little Russian he would certainly do so, but that it would be in addition to Greek, not instead of it.

I suppose we could have gone exploring in the secret passages after supper, but we decided instead to wait until the following weekend, when we would have a lot more time. And from Tuesday onwards it wasn't really possible, because we had homework to do after supper every day. Now I was really missing the internet: instead of getting answers to Mr Devlin's questions online in about ten seconds we had to trawl through the various encyclopaedias and reference books in the library, and that took ages.

I got an afternoon off on the Thursday because Uncle Gil had found someone to run my charity for me. This was an old friend of my father's, a military man who had been invalided out of the army and who said he would be only too happy to have something worthwhile to occupy his time. I showed him the pictures we had taken in the sewers and was able to play him a couple of the recordings I had made before the laptop's battery finally ran out, and I also rounded up Sparrer, who was getting some basic reading lessons from one of the footmen while the rest of us were in school, and persuaded him to give Colonel Edwards some first-hand stories of life underground.

I let Uncle Gil deal with issues like staffing and salaries, gave the colonel the names of all those who had expressed an interest in contributing, and with Uncle Gil's help drew up a draft on my bank for five hundred guineas to get things started. I did ask the colonel to make sure that, as soon as we had found suitable accommodation, Auntie and her collection of orphans from below the Savoy Hotel got the first places, but I told him that after that he was to exercise his own judgement.

"Fanks for that," said Sparrer, after we had left the reception room. "Yer will make sure they're goin' somewhere decent, won'tcha?"

"Don't worry. I'm going to inspect whatever accommodation they find and make sure it's suitable, and I'll also want to make sure whichever adults are put in charge are decent people who will treat the kids properly. Of course, I'll want the kids to behave properly, too: school for the younger ones, work for the older ones, and no more dipping or begging or selling themselves, all right? Any kids found breaking the rules can go back to the sewers."

"Can I come wiv yer when yer go ter visit? 'Cos I'd like ter see me mates again. And I can make sure they knows as 'ow yer serious 'bout stickin' to the rules, an' all."

"Sure. It might be a good thing if they hear it from you."

'Great! Fanks, Leo."

"So – how's the reading going?"

He scowled. "Not too good. Ter be onnist, it's a fuckin' pain in the arse. Do I 'ave ter know 'ow ter read?"

"Yes, you do. And I thought you'd promised to stop swearing, too."

"Sorry." He grinned. "Wot yer gonna do abaht it? You gonna smack my botty for me? 'Cos I'd like ter see yer try."

"No, I'll just wait until Alex gets back and then get him to do it. That way I get the fun of watching without having to exert myself."

"You're no fun," he said, grinning some more. "I wuz lookin' forward ter beatin' you up when yer tried ter do it yerself."

"You think you could? Right then, I'll see you after supper!"

"Yer gonna be sorry! So… you reckon Curly's orl right?"

"I hope so," I said, getting serious again. "I was hoping he'd be back by now."

"Yeah, an' I know Billy's missin' 'im, too," said Sparrer. "I 'spect 'e'll be orl right, though. Maybe 'e's 'avin' crap wevver where 'e is."

"I hope that's all it is… oh, well, I suppose there's no point in worrying about it. Let's get you back to your lesson."

I took him through to one of the prep rooms near the kitchen, where his temporary tutor was waiting for him.

"Good," said the footman/tutor. "Come along, Ebenezer – let's see if you can remember how to write your name."

"Thank you for your help, Foulkes," I said. "Is he doing his best, do you think?"

"I think so, Your Grace. If he works hard until Christmas, maybe he will be able to go to the village school with the others in the New Year."

"Let me know if he gives you any trouble," I said, and Sparrer flashed me a rude gesture, making sure that Foulkes didn't see. I grinned at him and went back to my own lessons.

After supper that night I went and found Sparrer – he was up in his room playing cards with Billy – and took him down to my bedroom, and there I handed him a piece of paper and a pencil.

"Come on, then," I said. "Let's see you write your name. Get it right and maybe I won't have to spank you so hard."

He sat down and slowly wrote 'BEN'.

"Good," I said. "Can you write all of it yet?"

"I fink so. An' I can do it proper, too, wiv little letters."

And this time he wrote 'Ebeneser', which was a good effort, I thought. I corrected the mistake and got him to write the correct version.

"About what Foulkes said earlier," I said. "Would you like to be able to go to school with the other kids?"

"Well… yeah, I spose. But I'd probly get inter fights, 'cos of where I come from – I bet the uvver kids would take the piss. And I bet they'd put me wiv the little kids, too, cos of 'ow I ain't never been ter school, an' I'd get called names fer that an' all. And if I started beatin' kids up I bet you'd be pissed off wiv me."

"Would that bother you?"

"Well, yeah, obviously. You're why I ain't in the sewers no more. I don't want you finking I'm a piece of crap."

"I'm not going to think that. And I reckon you'll be alright at school, too. I'll introduce you to the stable lads before you start school. If you get on alright with them – and I'm sure you will – they'll make sure nobody takes the Mick out of you at school. Of course, if you keep swearing I'll just have to keep punishing you, like I'm going to now… would you like to apologise?"

"Fuck off!"

"Good, I was hoping you'd say that!"

I grabbed him and pulled him onto the bed, and we started to wrestle. Since I was taller and heavier than he was I expected to win fairly easily, but it turned out to be hard work: every time I thought I had him pinned down he somehow managed to wriggle free. On the other hand, he couldn't pin me down either, and so after a few minutes I was ready to call it a draw.

"Nah," he said, when I suggested this, "let's make it more intrestin'. Let's get undressed."

I thought that would definitely make it more interesting, and so I said yes, and once we were both naked I grabbed him again. It was no easier to pin him down like this, but it was definitely fun, right up to the point where he grabbed my balls and started to squeeze.

"Billy reckons this is 'ow ter sort you aht," he told me. "'Grab 'is big balls', 'e sez, 'an' 'e'll give up right away'. So, yer wanna give up?"

I struggled for a few seconds, but it hurt and he clearly wasn't going to let go, and so I stopped struggling and just kept still. He flipped me onto my stomach, transferred my balls to his left hand and then spanked me firmly with his right.

"Nah yer know wot will 'appen if you moan at me fer swearin'," he said. "You'll get yer arse smacked."

He let go and stood up, and I rubbed my sore bum.

"Good fing Wolfie never saw that," he went on. "If 'e saw a duke get 'is arse warmed by a street-rat I reckon 'e'd 'ave an 'eart attack. Fings like that don't 'appen in 'is world."

"You called him 'Wolfie', not 'Ginger-nut," I pointed out.

"Huh? Oh, yeah, 'e don't like bein' called 'Ginger-nut' so I promised I wouldn't do it no more."

"Good," I said, seriously. "Thanks, Sparrer… I mean Ben. I really want to see you and Wolfie getting along."

"An' I'll try ter stop swearin' an' all," he said. "It's 'ard, 'cos that's 'ow we all talk dahn Bazalgette's, but I know it ain't right ter do it 'ere. An' if yer really want ter beat me fer swearin', I'll let yer."

Instead I stood up and hugged him. "It's fun to try to spank you like this, but I wouldn't do it for real, because I know you're trying hard to change the way you behave. And I think I can imagine how hard that is. I know you're working hard on your reading and writing, too. I'm really proud of you."

"Fanks. So… now d'yer wanna 'ave some sex?"

I thought having some sex was an excellent idea, and so we spent the next half hour or so feeling, rubbing and eventually sucking each other, and it was a lot of fun. I decided I was definitely going to introduce Wolfie to this sooner rather than later.

The week went by. On the Saturday the weather was so fine and warm that Wolfie and I decided to postpone our exploration of the tunnels in favour of taking the boat out again and going for a swim, and so this time it was Sparrer's turn to get a lesson from Billy on how to stoke a boiler. He wasn't keen on doing what he saw as 'work' at first, but when Billy pointed out that it could easily make him suitable to get a job on Excalibur when he was older he changed his mind in an instant, and after that he couldn't wait to learn what to do.

We spent an hour or so swimming – and this time Billy showed no reluctance to join us – and then sailed on, this time continuing through to the end of our private cut and then turning right and returning home through Abingdon. I decided that I definitely liked having my own boat, and made up my mind that once Alex got back we would have to take a longer journey – perhaps all the way down the river to London. Always assuming that I could convince my uncle that such a journey would be 'educational', and would thus merit an absence from school, of course…

Sunday was as usual devoted to virtuous and contemplative activities, and so, leaving Billy with the daunting challenge of keeping Sparrer quiet for an afternoon, after lunch Wolfie and I took a virtuous and contemplative walk through the secret passages. This time we went in through the ducal bedroom, where we were not too surprised to find another skewer and another well-hidden keyhole in the back of a closet. This led to the long first-floor passage, which came to a dead end, just as the one on the second floor had. But this time the keyhole was on the end wall, and when we inserted the key and pushed we found ourselves in the panic room once more. This time the panel into the room actually had the lower three rungs of the ladder attached.

"It would be bad luck if the person from the second floor was halfway down the ladder when the duke arrived," I said. "He'd get squished against the wall."

"I expect he could shout," Wolfie pointed out. "Or maybe the panel is too heavy to move if there's someone on the ladder."

We'd brought an oil can this time, so we set about lubricating the hinges for both this panel and the one at the top of the ladder, and then we oiled the lever that opened the upper panel. It took us a while to discover that the lever controlled both the upper and lower panels: if you pushed it closer to the wall it opened the first floor panel, and pulling it away from the wall switched it to the upper panel.

I'd brought a piece of string with me this time, and I found that it could be used to close the exit doors from the panic room in the way I had suggested, by looping it around the small pegs set into each door and then pulling. Now that the upper panel had been oiled this worked well enough.

Next we went down the narrow staircase to the start of the long brick-lined tunnel we had discovered the previous weekend. My compass told me that the tunnel led roughly north-north-east, which would take us up into the woodland of the Chase, and that made perfect sense, because once in the trees you would be hidden from any watchers on the roof of the house.

We set off to follow the tunnel, but after only about ten yards we found another tunnel going off to the right. This one was quite short and appeared to come to a dead end, but a careful search with my flashlight eventually revealed another keyhole. Out came the trusty skewer once more, and when this panel swung open we found ourselves at the foot of the other flight of stairs, the one we already knew about. And straight ahead was the panel that led out into the wine cellar.

"Well, at least now we know there's another way out," I commented, pulling the panel closed again with the skewer.

We went back to the main tunnel and set off along it once more. There were no further turnings, and the tunnel simply led off into the distance. After a bit I switched the flashlight off.

"Hey!" said Wolfie, nervously – suddenly the three candles on his candlestick seemed extremely feeble. "What's the matter?"

"I just want to save the batteries," I said. "We don't really need the torch here – there's nowhere to go but straight ahead, and I doubt if we're going to find any exits before we get to the other end. And if there is a draught and the candles go out I can always switch it on long enough for you to relight them. You did bring a box of lucifers, didn't you?"

He nodded and tapped his pocket.

"Then carry on," I said, gesturing him onwards, and after a moment he started walking again, though a little more slowly than before.

After another fifty metres or so we came across a small alcove with a big metal lever in it. It looked a bit like the manual levers used for switching the points on a railway track.

"Do you think this opens a way out?" I asked.

"I don't know. It seems strange: every other door has had a hidden catch or has needed the key. Why should this one be different?"

"Good question. I suppose there's only one way to find out." I took hold of the lever, but then I let go again. "Suppose it does something else? What if it sets off a booby-trap – like you pull the lever and a bomb goes off, or the roof falls in, or something like that? Maybe it's supposed to catch enemies. After all, we're thinking of pulling it even though we don't know what it does, and probably anyone else who found their way in would do the same thing. It would be a good way to stop intruders."

"Or it could just open a door."

"Yes, but, like you said, none of the other doors open like that except the one in the secret room, and that was a much smaller handle than this one. I think it might be safer to leave it alone. If we get to the end of the tunnel and find there's no way out, then okay, we can come back here and try this, but otherwise I think it'd be better not to risk it."

"Perhaps when we get back we should look in the library. Maybe there is a history book there that will tell us about the tunnels."

"Good idea, Wolfie! There must be a set of instructions somewhere. I like us doing it like this, exploring when we don't know where it goes, but perhaps it would be sensible to find out if there are some proper descriptions somewhere."

We walked on. The tunnel was now sloping downwards, suggesting that it was dropping down towards the river, and it continued to descend right up to the point where it came to an end at a brick wall. Hanging on a hook to the right of the end wall was a large, rusty old key, but there was clearly no keyhole in the wall that would take a key of that size. I switched my torch on again and looked for a hole small enough for the skewer, but instead I found another catch, like the one that opened the panel in our fireplace. I pressed this and the end wall swung away from us, leading into a dark, dome-shaped room. We stopped into this room and found that the floor sloped down gently towards a drain in the middle of the room.

"Now I know where we are," said Wolfie. "This is the old ice-house."

"I think you're right," I said. "And if you are, probably the tunnel was originally just to connect the ice-house to the cellar, so that you could bring ice up to the house on a hot day without it melting, and it only got used as the escape tunnel later."

I found the door, but the lock was seized up and the old key wouldn't turn, so I gave everything a good squirting from the oil can and we waited for ten minutes. And this time the key turned and the door creaked open, and we found ourselves a short distance above the river and not far from the boathouse. A set of steps led down to the river bank, and a path ran off to left and right, though that leading right was very overgrown. I went back into the ice-house, put the key back on its hook inside the tunnel and pushed the tunnel door closed, and then I rejoined Wolfie on the path outside. We pushed the ice-house door closed – of course we couldn't lock it without the key, but since it was empty I didn't think that mattered – and then we followed the left-hand path the short distance to the boathouse.

"I'm not sure that this is really such a good escape route," I commented, as we set off up the path that led back to the Long Meadow. "You'd have to hope the enemy were too busy ransacking the house to come after you, because you'd have to wait about half an hour before you got up enough steam to sail away."

"Probably the tunnel's been there longer than we've had steam," Wolfie pointed out. "Perhaps there was a sailing boat here back then, or even just a rowing boat – you could row across the river and disappear before they could find another boat and come after you."

"That could be it," I agreed. "We'll have to find a map and find out what's on the other side."

We walked up to the house, and then I went back onto the passages long enough to close all the doors we'd left open, while Wolfie went to the library and started looking for books about the history of our family and the building of the house, and that search kept us busy until supper time. We didn't find anything, but at least we thought that we'd now discovered the whole system – even if we still didn't know what that lever was for.

Another week went by. Every evening when we went to the library to do our homework we spent a little while looking for a book that could tell us about the secret passages, but every evening we failed to find one. The weather was still warm and fairly calm, but still there was no sign of Alex, and I was really starting to worry now: although I told myself that the weather in his world might be too windy for the hole between worlds to open, the more time that went by, the more concerned I became.

There wasn't any news from the meteor watchers, either – at least, none that was of any use to us. The nearest we had come to success was a meteor that had landed in the sea about seven hundred miles north of the Faroe Islands. Still, the odds were that sooner or later one would hit Greenland, and so the only worry there was that the later in the year the expedition took place, the more difficult conditions would be.

By the beginning of October I was fully back into the routine of home-schooling. The weather was still not too bad, but I was afraid that if it turned nasty it would not only make any expedition to Greenland that much more difficult, but it could also prevent the hole between the worlds from reopening: too much autumnal wind and rain might leave Alex stranded in his own world. I began reluctantly trying to decide what I should do if Alex never came back.

But then on Monday October 3rd, during our mid-morning break, I looked out of the window and saw a pair of cyclists coming up the broad drive that led down to the station. At first I didn't recognise them, but the first one was wearing a baseball cap, and I hadn't seen any of those in this world. Come to that, I didn't think I'd seen any bicycles, either, and that had to mean that Alex was back – but who had he brought with him? The second rider was wearing a cap too, and so I couldn't see his face.

I headed for the stairs in a hurry. Could it be Carmody, I wondered – had he jumped bail, and had Alex felt sorry for him and offered him a place where he wouldn't be found? I hoped not – I didn't want Carmody around. Although I supposed he might stop calling me 'short-arse' once he discovered that I was a bit less insignificant in this world…

I ran down to the ground floor and out through the front door, reaching the bottom of the steps just as Alex reached the same point.

"I was starting to get worried," I said.

"Sorry. It took a while to get the stuff together, and then we had to wait for a few days before the hole opened. But at least we managed to get plenty of reference books for you."

It certainly looked that way: the bike had a pair of bulging panniers, and Alex was wearing a backpack too. And the second bike, which was just approaching, was similarly burdened. The rider wasn't Carmody, though – it was Joe Silver.

"Hi, Joe," I greeted him. "What are you doing here? Are you on the run?"

"No, I just wanted to see your new house," he said. "Alex told me a bit about all this, and when I finished calling him a liar – sorry again, Alex – I decided I had to see for myself. So is it true that you're a lord now?"

"'E's a duke, not jus' a lord," said a familiar voice from behind me. "Yer 'ave ter call 'im 'Your Grace'."

"Yes, all right, Ben," I said. "Joe's a friend. He gets to call me Leo – that's my real name, by the way, Joe. Anyway, Ben, how come you're not at your lessons?"

"'Cos it's break time, innit? Foulkes needed a ciggy. I 'ave that effect on some people, even though I can't fink why. So 'oo's yer new friend?"

"This is Joe," I told him. "Joe, may I present Ebenezer Sparrow?"

"Oh, come on!" said Joe. "His name's never 'Ebenezer'!"

"Chose it meself," said Sparrer, proudly. "Wot's wrong wiv it?"

"Well, it's just… nobody's called Ebenezer these days!"

"Yeah, they are – I am, fer a start. But me mates call me 'Ben', an' seein' as 'ow yer a friend of Leo's I reckon as 'ow you can call me Ben an' all."

"Okay. At least I can say 'Ben' without falling about laughing."

"Oi, wotch it – if yer make fun of my name I might 'ave ter beat yer up!"

"You can try!" invited Joe, who I was fairly sure wasn't much of a fighter. But he was around eight inches taller than Sparrer, and a fair bit heavier too, even though Sparrer was starting to fill out a bit after a month or so of decent food, and I suppose the size difference convinced Joe that this was one fight he couldn't lose.

"Yer on," said Sparrer. "Yer wanna fight now or after lunch?"

"Nobody's fighting," I intervened. "I don't want my guests beaten up before they even get in the house. Ben, can you go and find Billy? I'm sure he can find somewhere to store the bikes. Joe, you'd better come and meet my uncle."

Sparrer disappeared back inside the house while Joe and Alex dismounted and unstrapped the panniers from their bikes, and when I took Joe's panniers from him I found out that they were as heavy as they looked.

"Books, mostly," said Alex, when I asked. "But we did bring a few other bits and pieces. Have you decided what you're going to do about patents and stuff?"

"I'm hoping Uncle Gil knows a good lawyer," I said. "The sooner we get the legal stuff done, the sooner we can start making money out of this stuff, and the sooner we can get all the sewer kids rehoused. So… how much has he told you, Joe?"

"Well, I know that you're a member of the aristocracy who fell through a hole into our world about four years ago. And he's told me a bit about this world, how it's sort of stuck in the Victorian age with no electricity or petrol engines, and how we're at war with Russia, but it's more like a nineteenth century war with no civilians involved and strict rules of combat – but that's about all I know."

"I suppose that's the important stuff. So what's happening in your world? Have the police come looking for you yet?"

"No, and we're fairly sure they won't now, because we know Carmody didn't grass us up."

"How?"

"We went to see him. It was my brother's idea – he really likes Carmody… did you know I've got a kid brother?"

I shook my head. "Sorry," I said. "I suppose I don't really know all that much…"

"Hey, Alex!" shouted a voice, interrupting me. "You're back!"

Billy ran down the steps and gave Alex a big smile. "Let me carry those bags for you!"

"It's okay, I can manage. You need to find somewhere safe for our bikes," said Alex, indicating them. "Maybe we can get together after lunch, and then I'll be able to tell you anything you want to know."

I led Alex and Joe into the house, leaving Billy and Sparrer to move the bikes round to the stables, or wherever Billy decided to store them. I was about to invite Joe to continue his story, but my uncle had obviously heard us, or perhaps been notified of Alex's return by Allchorn, who was beside him as he came down the stairs.

"I'll have your room made up, Mr Demetriou," said Allchorn. "And will your friend be staying?"

"Yes, please," said Alex. "This is Joe Silver. Joe, this is Mr Allchorn – he's the butler."

"Just 'Allchorn', if you please."

"Uncle, this is my friend Joe, from where I lived in London," I said. "Joe, this is Lord Folliot of Chisbury, my uncle."

"Oh!" said Joe, looking flustered. "Hello, your lordship… do I bow?" he added to me in an audible whisper.

"I wouldn't bother," I said. "You don't want to have to bow to me every time we meet, do you? Because officially I outrank my uncle, so if you bow to him you probably ought to grovel and kiss my feet, or something."

"Oh… so you mean I don't have to, then?"

"No, Joe, you don't. Lighten up!"

I turned to my uncle. "Alex has brought back some of the reference material I told you about," I said. "So we'll need a good lawyer to sort out the patents, and then we're going to need a team of scientists to start actually making stuff. I should think electricity is the first thing, so we'll need to build a generator… anyway, we should probably do the legal stuff first. Do we have a good lawyer?"

"Yes, but we'd probably want an expert in copyright law. I'll ask our solicitor to call round and see if he has any recommendations. But aren't you supposed to be at your lessons at the moment?"

"Well… yes, I suppose so. I'll take Alex and Joe with me for now – that'll give Mrs Sweeting time to make up their rooms."

We carried all the bags up to the second floor and dumped them in my bedroom, and then we walked to the schoolroom, where Wolfie and Mr Devlin were waiting for us.

"New students?" asked Mr Devlin.

"Well, they're really guests," I said.

"They're school age guests, and this is term time," said Mr Devlin. "That means that they are supposed to attend classes, unless your uncle has expressed a wish for some sort of practical work as an alternative. Has he?"

"Well… not as such," I admitted.

"Then go to the storeroom and find them each a desk and a chair."

"Sorry," I muttered to Alex and Joe.

"Don't be. I reckon this could be a laugh," said Alex, which simply demonstrated that he didn't know Mr Devlin at all. Fortunately we were doing English this morning, a subject which was basically the same on both sides of the hole, although the way it was taught here – strict grammar to the fore – was a bit different to what we'd been used to in Palmer's Green, and Alex's inability to parse a sentence, or even to know what parsing was, didn't go down too well. But eventually lunchtime arrived and we were able to escape.

After we had eaten the four of us went to my room to talk. First we filled in a bit of the history for Joe, which gave me a chance to tell him that the boy I'd earlier introduced to him as 'my friend Wolfie' was actually the Margrave of Brandenburg-Bayreuth, and that he was significantly senior to me in precedence – which, as I'd hoped, got Joe all nervous again, until Wolfie told him to relax.

"Leo doesn't bother much with precedence," he said. "That's why we spend most of our free time hanging about with a stable-lad and a London guttersnipe. To be fair, I like Billy, and I'm even starting to like Sparrer a bit, but I think if my uncle saw me wrestling with a sewer-rat he'd have a heart attack. And that would put me one step closer to a throne I really don't want, so when he comes visiting we'll have to make sure we lock Sparrer in the cellar first."

"Nobody's lockin' me nowhere!" objected Sparrer, arriving with Billy just in time to hear this. "Not even you, Wolfie. If yer don't want me arahnd, jus' say so an' I'll fuck off somewhere fer the afternoon."

"It's all right, Ben," said Wolfie. "I'll only want that when my uncle's around – or if you start talking about my hair colour again, of course!"

"I ain't done that fer ages," Sparrer pointed out. "So, new boy – d'yer want ter 'ave that fight nah?"

"I don't think so," said Joe. "I don't want to get your blood all over MM's… I mean Leo's room."

"It ain't gonna be my blood, Big-ears!"

"Hey, leave my ears out of this!"

"Orlright – is Bumpy-nose better? 'Ow abaht Forest-brows? Or jus' plain Ugly-Mug?"

"Go ahead, Joe," I invited. "Teach him some manners."

The rest of us sat and watched while Joe wrestled with Sparrer. If I'd been into gambling I'd have stuck a guinea or two on Sparrer, and I'd have been right: by the time Sparrer had kneed Joe in the nuts a couple of times and dug his thumb into various nerve points it was clear that Joe had had enough.

"I give in!" he gasped, and Sparrer grinned and got off him, helping him up.

"You fight dirty!" Joe complained.

"I'm a gutter–rat – wot d'yer expect?"

"Yeah, well, I can fight dirty too. Next time I'll get you."

"I don't fink so. But yer can try again after supper if yer like."

"Yes, okay! So… what do you mean by a gutter-rat, anyway?"

"I used ter live in a sewer, till Leo come an' got me aht. See…"

I decided that while Sparrer was giving Joe his life story I might as well do something useful, and so I asked Alex to show me what he'd brought back. Most of it was books, or sheaves of material printed off the internet, and it covered the theory and practice of electricity generation, radio, telephones and electric light bulbs. There was also some material on helium production, and after a quick look at that I realised that there was no chance at all of an immediate switch-over: distilling helium from natural gas involved extremely low temperatures and high pressure. It would probably be years before we would have enough helium to fill an æthership, let alone an entire fleet.

He had also brought some two-way radios, some more flashlights and several batteries, and both he and Joe had brought their laptops. If we could get an electric generator built before too long we'd be able to recharge them, too – well, we'd be able to if we could find some suitable connections, and the correct voltage and amperage, and a few other such minor details.

I still didn't get to hear Joe's story, though, because Sparrer had barely finished telling him about his life underground when we heard a bell ringing at the far end of the corridor, summoning us back to school. Sparrer went unenthusiastically back downstairs to resume his lessons with Foulkes; Billy went with him – he would normally have been at school, but today he and the other kids in his class had been sent home because two of the teachers were sick, and so today he was helping out wherever Allchorn thought he could be useful; and the rest of us went back to the schoolroom.

This afternoon we were supposed to be doing Latin, but neither Alex nor Joe knew anything about it, and I'd only been learning it for a couple of weeks, which suggested that Wolfie was going to have to sit twiddling his thumbs while Mr Devlin taught the rest of us to recite 'Amo, amas, amat' parrot-fashion. But when he discovered that his two new pupils had never learned Latin Mr Devlin asked them which languages they had studied, thereby finding out that Alex spoke Greek and Joe spoke Russian.

"Good," he said. "Then perhaps you can each pass on the fruits of your learning to the rest of us? I know Classical Greek, of course, but I've never had occasion to learn the modern language, and as Master Leo himself pointed out a while ago, Russian would be useful for all of us. I'll try to obtain a textbook for each, but perhaps we could spend a while this afternoon comparing the two alphabets…"

The rest of the afternoon would probably have been really interesting to anyone who spoke several languages, but I spoke only English, the German I'd learned from Wolfie – though in fairness that was pretty good – and some rather feeble school French, and consequently I was left floundering. But I still thought it would be useful to learn Russian and hoped that Joe might be able to teach us, if he stayed long enough.

We had some free time between school and supper, and so we returned to my room and I invited Joe to continue with his story. But now he didn't look quite so keen.

"If I'm going to tell you the whole story – and Alex thinks that I should – well, I'd prefer to keep it…" He tailed off, looking at Wolfie uncomfortably.

"Hey, you don't have to worry about Wolfie," I said. "He's like my second self."

"Yes, but… well, I don't know him at all, and…"

"It's all right," said Wolfie. "I understand. I'll go to my room. You can come and find me afterwards."

Wolfie got up and left the room.

"Okay," I said, "so what's the big issue?"

"Well…you remember asking me that time why I hung around with Carmody even though he treated me like shit? Well, it was because I didn't have any choice. See, I…oh, shit, this is difficult…"

"Just tell him," said Alex. "He'll understand. Remember what I told you?"

"Well, yes, but even so… Okay. See, MM – I mean Leo – I'm gay." He looked at me, obviously watching for any adverse reaction.

"Okay," I said. "I've already told Alex that it doesn't bother me, and I'm sure he's told you that, so stop worrying and carry on with the story."

"Oh. Great! I mean… anyway, I was stupid. I had some stuff on a flash drive – not porn… well, not pictures, anyway, but some stories off the net, and one I was trying to write myself, too… I don't normally carry that drive about with me, but I'd picked up the wrong one – I keep a separate one to use at school. Anyway, I used it for the IT class, and then… I thought I'd put it in my bag, but when I got home I couldn't find it. I decided I'd probably left it in my desk, but next morning I found out that Carmody had got hold of it. He said I'd left it in the machine after IT, but I'm almost certain I hadn't, and I think he'd actually nicked it from my bag when I was out of the room. And of course he'd got nosy, found the stories, and – to keep it short – said that unless I did what he told me to he'd make sure everyone in the class got to find out about my taste in fiction.

"I should probably have told him to get lost, but when he hinted that maybe my parents might get to find out about it I rolled over."

"What a bastard!" I said. "I mean, I knew he was a bit of a git, but that's well out of order!"

Joe shrugged. "It could have been worse," he said. "To be fair to Carmody he never breathed a word about it at school, and the only person he told – after swearing him to secrecy first – was my brother."

"Bloody hell!" I exclaimed. "That must have been bad. If I had a brother I'd hate him to know something like that about me."

"I wasn't too happy about it either," Joe went on. "Still, Simon's not a bad kid, and he certainly wouldn't have told our parents. See, he and Carmody always liked each other, even though Simon is two years younger than me and Carmody. I think it's because Simon's more interested in sports and stuff than I am – he and Carmody have been kicking a ball about in either his garden or ours for years. You know I'm rubbish at football… Anyway, Carmody thought it would be funny if my brother got to join in with bossing me about, and of course Simon couldn't wait. So I've been doing what they tell me to for months and months…"

"So what do they make you do?" I asked.

"I'd rather not say – at least, not right now. But obviously one thing was that I had to join in with whatever Carmody wanted to do, so when he decided to go to Enfield during the riots I didn't have any choice but to go with him."

"I don't know… I think I'd have said no, and if he told anyone about me being gay I'd have just called him a liar. After all, he could have downloaded that stuff onto the flash drive himself."

He shook his head. "There was a lot of other stuff on there that proved it was my drive – school work from that day, and some stuff I'd been doing at home – not just the story but other stuff. And by the time the riots started the flash drive was the least of it: by then he had some photos and bits of video that I wouldn't want anyone to see. There was no way for me to get out of it. And so when he got arrested I was absolutely sure they'd come for me as well.

"But he never said anything. He went to court and got eight months… actually, he got lucky there, because if he'd been two months older he'd have been old enough to go to Feltham, but instead he got sent off to some place on the south coast – apparently there weren't any spare places for fourteen-year-olds in London.

"Simon was really worried about him and kept going round to ask Carmody's mum if he was okay, and so one day when she went to visit him – they were allowed to visit every two weeks - she asked if Simon would like to go too, and in the end I went with them.

"Carmody didn't look too bad, though he was sort of quiet compared to how he used to be. He was surprised to see us, but happy too. There was a sort of shop there where visitors could buy tea, soft drinks and sweets and stuff, and his mother went to get something for us, which meant that we were able to talk to him on our own. And so of course I asked if the police were looking for me and Alex.

"'No,' he said. 'They asked who I was with and I told them nobody, I'd just decided on the spur of the moment to go and see what was happening. Then they showed me some CCTV pictures and asked if I recognised anyone, but they were pretty poor quality and I doubt if even your mother would have recognised you, Joe. So I said sorry, I just found myself with a crowd of strangers and just went where they went. They asked a couple more times, but I got the impression they were just going through the motions.'

"'Thanks', I said. 'Didn't you think that giving them my name might have earned you some Brownie points?'

"He shrugged. 'I reckon they'd just have looked down on me even more for being a grass,' he said. 'Besides, you wouldn't have been there if I hadn't made you come with me. I'm not a complete bastard, you know.'

"So I said thanks again, and he said I could reward him when he gets out. And then his mother came back with the drinks, and we spent the rest of the time talking about how he was coping and so on. So the bottom line is, unless they have better CCTV pictures that Carmody didn't see, me and Alex are safe. And I think if they did have better pictures they'd have shown them to him."

"Great," I said. "So, Alex, does this mean you'll be going back?"

"Well, no. Like I said, this world's a lot more interesting, and I reckon my career choices are likely to be a lot better here, especially when my best friend is rolling in dosh!" And he grinned at me. "Especially if I get my name on some of those patents we're going to take out. In fact I was thinking that maybe I could bring my family here too. What do you think?"

"I don't see why not," I said. "There's always work for builders, so your dad would be able to work if he wanted to – although he probably won't need to if you become this world's version of Edison or Marconi. And now that you've raised it, I suppose I could ask Auntie Megan and Uncle Jim to move here too… What about you, Joe? Do you want to stay?"

"No… well, probably not. I was thinking of this as a bit of a holiday. I mean, I've only just got here, so I don't know anything about this world yet. Of course, if things work out half as well as Alex thinks they will, maybe I'll change my mind, especially if I could bring my family with me."

"I'd have thought you'd be glad to get away from your brother if he bosses you about all the time."

"Not really. I'd miss him a lot if we were separated. It's not like he does anything too horrible to me, and I think family is sort of important."

We went and collected Wolfie and then went down to supper. I was glad to know that Alex seemed to be off the hook as far as the riots were concerned, although I did worry a little that this might mean him changing his mind and going back to his own world. Yes, he was keen enough to stay now, but I thought it would take months, if not years, for us to sort out the patenting and then manufacturing the new technology he had brought with him, and in the meantime he'd have to put up with a life with no electricity and some very old-fashioned schooling. Once the winter came he would have to survive without central heating as well, and I was afraid that might turn out to be too much to ask…

Talk about this story on our forum
Authors deserve your feedback. It's the only payment they get. If you go to the top of the page you will find the author's name. Click that and you can email the author easily. Please take a few moments, if you liked the story, to say so.

[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. If the email address pastes with %40 in the middle, replace that with an @ sign.]