A Kind of Alchemy
by London Lampy
"EEEeee!" Sam heard the scream coming from the hallway down in his basement bedroom. He ran upstairs half dressed to find an equally half dressed Fran being hugged by an overexcited Fudge.
"She's coming home for Midwinter!" Fudge squealed, letting her uncle go. "My Mama's coming home! She'll be here in time for the party!" The girl was waving a letter over her head which Fran plucked out of her hand and examined.
"I thought you were being attacked or something." Sam grumbled, failing to understand her excitement as he shivered shirtless in the cold hall.
"She says she's going to try to make it to Parnell in time for our Midwinter's eve party." Fran said after perusing the letter. "That doesn't necessarily mean she will be here, at least not by then anyway."
"She will." Fudge replied firmly. "She wasn't here last year, and she was away on my birthday too. She promised she'd come home this year."
Fran caught Sam's eye over the girl's head, he looked concerned. "Fudge sweetheart, please don't get your hopes up too much, you know what she's like."
"She will be here!" Fudge sounded irritated now. "You're just pissed off because Mulligan isn't coming home for Midwinter this year. You should be happy that Mama is, she is your sister." And with that she grabbed the letter out of her uncle's hand and stamped up the stairs hard enough to make the floorboards tremble.
Fran sighed and shook his head. "I'm afraid my sister isn't the most reliable of people, but Fudge refuses to see that. I've lost count of the number of times she's let her down, and the number of times I've had to buy Fudge birthday presents and pretend they're from Ava because she's once again chosen to forget that she has a daughter."
"Why does she want to forget about Fudge?" Sam asked, hugging himself to keep warm.
"She was only seventeen when she came home off tour pregnant with Fudge. She didn't want a baby but she'd left it far too late to do anything about it, if you know what I mean." Sam nodded to indicate that he did indeed know. "I think she was trying to ignore the whole thing, hoping that it would somehow go away on its own, unfortunately for her that wasn't going to happen. She left on a singing engagement shortly after Fudge was born and as our mother was still performing herself at that time and our father was busy running The Empress somehow I ended up looking after the baby. It was only meant to be a temporary arrangement at first, Ava promised that once she had fulfilled her commitments she'd come home to raise her daughter, but there was always one more place that she just had to go to, and she never really came home at all. And of course now Ava permanently claims to be twenty nine the last thing she wants people to know is that she has a sixteen year old daughter."
"What about Fudge's father, the Surosian prince?" Sam asked, curious now despite the chill.
Fran let out a humourless laugh. "More like a stage hand than a prince I fear, but she told Fudge her father was a prince, so that's what Fudge believes."
"She lied to Fudge?"
"Probably. Ava would never tell any of us who was responsible for getting her pregnant when it happened, and a doomed romance with a prince makes for a better story to tell your daughter than she was the result of some one night stand doesn't it? But with my sister you never know, it might just be true. Come on, go and finish getting dressed, you're starting to turn blue."
Back in his cluttered room Sam found a shirt to wear while thinking about what Fran had just told him. He didn't think that Fudge's mother sounded like a nice person, he couldn't imagine his own mother ever ignoring Marni and him like that and she'd always made a huge fuss of their birthdays, despite their father's objections that too much spoiling would turn them "soft". Sam felt a sudden sharp pain deep inside him when he realised that he wouldn't be spending his next birthday with his family, and that unless he told people no one would even know when it was. He wondered if he would still be living here by then, or would Fran have had enough of him and asked him to leave? His birthday wasn't until late summer, anything could have happened by then.
As he buttoned up his shirt he glanced into a large mirror that was propped up in the corner of the room, it had been almost two weeks since he had visited Victor's studio and the deep purple red marks the painter had left on his chest had finally vanished. Victor was keen for Sam to return, as was Sam, but Fran had been keeping him busy, possibly deliberately, and he'd not yet managed to find a time when both of them were free.
With the money that Victor had paid him, along with his wages from Fran Sam had been able to buy some clothes of his own, but not enough to entirely replace Fran's cast offs. Today he was wearing his own shirt and trousers but because of the cold over the top he'd had to add a borrowed sweater that was patterned with thick black and white stripes. The last time he'd worn it Fudge had told him he looked like a mint humbug. At times Fran had quite an odd taste in clothes and Sam was very much looking forward to the day everything he wore had been chosen by him.
Having wrestled the letter from his sister back off a sulking Fudge Fran took it to the living room to read it properly. It seemed that Ava was going to be passing through the area on her way back from the Northern Continent and she was possibly going to make it to the city in time for Midwinter to spend it with her family, possibly being the important word.
While Fran loved his sister he dreaded her visits to Parnell. Seeing her mother made Fudge much too emotional, for weeks beforehand she would be overexcited to the point of distraction, then after Ava left, or even worse didn't show at all, the girl would be tearful and mopy. Ava also had no idea about what was appropriate for her daughter, in the past she had bought her clothes that would have been rejected by a street walker for being too revealing, although fortunately she didn't have any idea of Fudge's dress size so frequently Fran had a good excuse to return the garments to the shop and exchange them. She also had a tendency to tell her daughter rather too colourful stories of her life on the road, although Fran had to admit that his niece was growing into a young woman and whether he liked it or not soon she would have boyfriends of her own. He knew that Earnest the apprentice lampy was sweet on her, and he was also pretty sure that Fudge and Sam had talked about Sam's visit to Victor's studio, and seeing as the two of them were the same age it must have crossed his niece's mind that if Sam had a sex life them maybe she was old enough for that too.
Fran looked up at the mantelpiece, it was pretty much a time line of Fudge's life, starting with a picture of a nineteen year old Fran cradling a chubby, hairless baby of indeterminate gender, and finishing up with recent a photo of Fudge in her school uniform with her leavers diploma. She'd chosen to leave rather than stay on to take higher exams because she planned to work full time at The Empress, and Fran hadn't objected as it was all she wanted to do in life. He found himself thinking about what the next pictures would be, in a few short years he could imagine a wedding photo joining the others, then perhaps one of her holding her own baby. The one thing that was for certain though was that he couldn't stop her from growing up.
"So, how many then?" Fudge asked again while up to her elbows in soapy water washing up their breakfast things.
"Erm...three with Victor." Sam blushed as he replied, glad that he had his back to her as he was pulling wet laundry out of the washing machine. Sam had been fascinated by the washing machine when he'd first seen it. Fran had originally bought two for the theatre for the visiting acts to use and he had been so impressed with them that he'd gone out and got one for his house, stating that it would save them money on taking everything to the laundry in the long run, and save them time straight away. Back in Dovedale even a laundry service would have been a luxury, Sam's mother and sister would spend hours every week at a steaming tub of water scrubbing the family's dirty clothes with lye soap over a wash board until their fingers were red raw. He wondered what his mother would think if she knew that there was a machine that could do the job?
"So who were the other two?" Fudge quizzed him as she noisily stacked plates on the draining board.
"Someone who worked for my father, and my friend Jack." He muttered, loading the wet clothes into a basket.
"Jack? Isn't he the one you came to Parnell to find?"
"Yeah." He sighed. He hadn't thought of Jack in a while, in fact he'd almost forgotten about him and realising this made him feel somewhat disloyal, but then he recalled it was Jack who had joined the army and disappeared.
"Did you love him?" Fudge turned around and lent on the sink, wiping her hands on a tea towel and looking at Sam.
"I..." Sam had wondered this himself. "He was my friend, I don't think I was in love with him, but I missed him like hell when he left the village."
She nodded, taking this in. "If you don't think you were in love with him then you most likely weren't. In all the books I've read when you see the person you're in love with your heart pounds and your knees turn to jelly and you hear bells ringing, did that ever happen to you?"
"No." He shook his head. "I never heard bells."
"Then you can't have been in love." Fudge grinned happily at her assessment of the situation.
It was a cold but dry and breezy day so Sam took the wet laundry out to the yard to hang on the line. He'd almost finished and the yard was full of flapping clothes when he heard a strange voice saying "hello" from somewhere nearby. He looked around him, the voice was oddly cracked and didn't sound like anyone he knew, and when he heard it again he thought it might be Fudge playing some kind of stupid trick but he couldn't see her, or anyone else either in the yard or at the windows of the house.
"Hello?" He said back, puzzled.
"Hello hello dirty sinner." The voice replied.
"Mrs Anglemol?" He could only imagine their next door neighbour saying something like that.
"Dirty sinner dirty sinner dirty sinner." The voice repeated, but there was still no one to be seen and the sound didn't appear to be coming from over the fence. The whole thing was starting to spook Sam, so when a sudden scrabbling noise did come from the fence that divided their yard from the Anglemol's he almost jumped out of his skin.
The cause of the scrabbling soon became clear, Mrs Anglemol's grandson was climbing over the fence and he dropped down onto the concrete next to Sam. Sam came to the conclusion that the voice must belong to him, and that he was as crazy as his grandmother, especially as he seemed to be carrying, of all things, a large birdcage.
"What the hell are you doing?" Sam demanded as the boy crept across the yard among the washing, all the time looking upwards.
"Ssh, or you'll scare him." Came the reply, in a hushed but perfectly normal voice.
"What? Scare who?" Sam was utterly perplexed, none of this made sense.
"Him." Sam followed the boy's pointing finger up to the top of a street light that overlooked the yard. Sitting on top of it was the oddest bird that Sam had ever seen, it was quite large, coloured bright red with flashes of blue and green along its wings and had a big grey hooked beak.
"Hello dirty sinner." The bird opened its beak and said.
"That bird can talk!" Sam blurted our, starting to wonder if he was having a very odd dream.
"Ssh!" The boy said again. He then held the cage up in front of him so that the bird could see it, slowly opened the door and put a handful of shelled peanuts inside.
"Come on Bob, there's a good parrot." The boy muttered, holding the cage over his head. "Come on, please." He then made a whistling noise between his teeth and that seemed to do the trick. The bird took to the air with a noisy flap of it's wings and skimming just inches away from Sam's face it landed inside the cage with a squawk. As soon as it was inside the boy shut the door and drew two bolts home to lock it. "Got you!" He said triumphantly.
"That bird can talk." Sam said again, staring at it as the boy put the cage down.
"Haven't you ever seen a parrot before?" He asked Sam curiously.
"No." He shook his head. "Can it understand us?"
"No." Came the amused reply. "It just copies what it hears, it doesn't know what it's saying."
Sam had only ever seem Mrs Anglemol's grandson in passing, usually while trying to stop his grandmother from berating one of them, so he'd never really looked at him before. He looked nothing like his grandmother, Sam would guess that he was a little older than himself, he had a shock of dark reddish brown hair, bright brown eyes and a smattering of freckles across his nose and cheeks. His face was open and more than a little handsome as he grinned happily at having caught the errant parrot.
"Gran left his cage open, she forgets stuff like that, and he flew out the window. Thank the gods I got him back, she'd go spare if he was lost for good."
"Dirty sinner." The bird said.
"Why does he keep saying that?" Sam asked.
"That's all he knows, that and hello. I guess it's what Gran says all the time."
"I know." Sam replied darkly.
The boy looked at Sam. "I'm sorry, she's not right, up here." He tapped his head. "She's not been right since my mother and the rest moved out."
"Why didn't you move out too?"
"Someone's got to look after her, and I'd just been offered an apprenticeship so I stayed."
"What's your name?" Sam realised that he'd only ever heard him referred to as Mrs Anglemol's grandson before.
"Edmund." He winced, clearly not liking his name. "But most people call me Ed, except Gran."
"I'm Sam." Sam said, just as Mrs Anglemol's voice floated over the fence, shouting at Ed to see if he'd found the parrot yet.
"Yes, he's in his cage." He shouted back, looking at Sam and rolling his eyes. "You couldn't pass him up to me, could you?" Ed indicated the cage and he began to scramble back up the fence.
Sam was surprised at just how little the bird weighed as he held the cage up for for Ed to take. Ed grabbed it off him a disappeared back into his own yard with a shouted "thanks" as he went, leaving Sam staring at the spot where he'd been. He considered the last few minutes events and the two rather surprising facts that he'd just learned. Firstly, that some birds can talk, and secondly, that Mrs Anglemol's grandson was completely unlike her, and really quite handsome.
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