A Kind of Alchemy

by London Lampy

Chapter 11

A ruckus from the hallway that was loud enough to cut through the sounds of singing and piano brought Fran and a fair few of his guests out of the living room to investigate. At first he couldn't see what was occurring because of the crush of people, but his heart sank when he realised that it sounded like some sort of fight had broken out.

"Oh my gods! I got blood on me!" Fran heard one of the ballet dancers squeal, and he pushed through the crowd until he found the source of the problem.

On the floor just at the top of the stairs that led to to the basement level of the house were Sam and Edmund engaged in what looked like a particularly vicious fight. Sam seemed to currently have the upper hand, he was sat on Edmund's legs whilst punching him in the ribs, but from Sam's bloodied nose Fran guessed that the other boy had got some blows in too.

"STOP THAT AT ONCE!" He shouted at the top of his voice, to no effect whatsoever. As he was trying to decide how best to separate them Teddy, the flyman and ex pirate, waded in and physically pulled Sam off of Edmund. Fran silently thanked the gods for the man's intervention, Teddy might look like his best years were long behind him, but having spent his entire adult life hauling ropes both at sea and now in The Empress he had an impressive upper body strength that would shame a man half his age.

As Teddy heaved a protesting Sam away Fran looked down to where Edmund lay on the floor panting. He put a hand out to help the boy up but it was swiftly knocked away and Edmund struggled to his feet by himself, one arm held protectively over his chest.

"I think you'd better go home." Fran said levelly once he was stood.

"Gran's right, you're all a bunch of fucking dirty bastards!" Edmund spat, glaring at Fran.

"Come on, out." Fran grabbed Edmund by the shirt front and pulled him toward the door, the crowd parting to let them through. Before they could make it all the way there was another disturbance, still holding onto Edmund Fran looked around to see Fudge standing unsteadily on the stairs pointing at Sam and screaming that he was covered in blood.

"Calm down please, he's fine." Fran shouted back to his niece, who he now realised was very drunk.

She looked down at her uncle, seeming to see him for the first time then said. "Uncle Fran...I don't feel..." She didn't managed to finish her sentence before she suddenly produced an impressive stream of vomit that spilled down the stairs, over several people and onto Fran's feet.

Torn between dealing with the original problem and this new one he strode the last few steps to the door through the rapidly emptying hall, opened it, shoved Edmund out swiftly then slammed it behind him.

The vomit had succeeded in almost completely clearing out the area so it now only contained Teddy and Sam, with Teddy getting Sam to lean forward and pinch the bridge of his nose to stop the bleeding, and Fudge, now supported by a shocked looking puke splattered Earnest helping her to descend the slick steps.

Fran opened his mouth to swear, but before he could get a single syllable out someone started to shout and hammer at the front door, and he recognised the voice as belonging to Edmund Anglemol.

"FUCK OFF!" Fran shouted, managing to get his swear out, but instead of following Fran's suggestion the pounding became louder and more frantic, and Fran realised that rather than sounding angry Edmund's voice was panicked.

"Help...please!" Fran could hear him saying.

"What? What's wrong?" He yelled back.

"It's Gran, she's had an accident."

The first thought Sam had when he saw Mrs Anglemol sprawled on the pavement in front of her steps was that Ed should have salted them like he had suggested. It was clear that the old lady had slipped coming out of her house, she was wearing her long, hairy coat, the front door was ajar and a dozen of so leaflets entitled "Mend Your Ways Or Go To Hell" were scattered around her, a couple were still clutched in her hand. One of her legs was bent in a way no leg should be and although her eyes were open she didn't appear to be seeing the small group of people that was now surrounding her, at least none of her usual hectoring insults were coming out of her mouth. Instead she seemed to be muttering under her breath, and Sam assumed that she was praying.

"Sam, Teddy, we need to get her back into her house, can you help me?" Fran called out to them.

A small crowd of party goers whose noseyness had overcome both the state of the hallway and the freezing temperature outside were now watching this with interest from Fran's front steps.

"You shouldn't move her, her back might be broke." A voice confidently called out from among them, followed by murmurs of agreement.

"What, you propose I leave her out here in the street, cold and in pain?" Fran replied irritably.

As the three of them attempted to lift the stricken Mrs Anglemol Sam could hear a number of differing opinions on what was to be done for the best, but Fran chose to ignore them all and instructed him and Teddy as they got her off the ground. Sam was aware of a forth person coming to join them, it was Ed and he was supporting his grandmother's head as they carried her into the house. The pair of them briefly locked eyes before Ed looked away as they carefully manoeuvred her through the doorway.

Sam had been so sure that his attraction to Ed was mutual, not that he was any expert in these things but he was far more confident of a successful outcome in an attempted kiss than he had been when he'd done the same thing to Jack, but the two occasions couldn't have ended more differently.

After shouting at him Ed had punched Sam square on the nose then ran from the room. If the house had been empty then Ed would have easily made it out of the front door before a shocked Sam could retaliate, but as it was he was slowed down by the crush of people and Sam had knocked him to the ground at the top of the basement steps and attempted to extract revenge for his bloodied nose before Teddy had dragged him away.

Mrs Anglemol was surprisingly heavy and the four of them had to be careful to lower her gently onto the threadbare couch in her living room rather than simply drop her there. Once she was safely deposited Sam looked around the room in amazement. The house was identical in size and layout to Fran's, as were all the houses in their row, but the room felt tiny and claustrophobic compared to its twin next door. In Fran's house the living room was light and airy with cream coloured walls, tastefully upholstered sofa and chairs and family pictures, books and the occasional ornament filling the shelves, mantelpiece and the top of the piano. Here Sam could hardly tell the colour of the walls, or even where one piece of furniture stopped and another began because filling the room, crowded onto every surface possible were all manner of images of the gods. Having grown up being taken to weekly chapel services by his parents Sam could name and recognise almost every member of the pantheon, and there were well over one hundred of them from the greater to the lesser gods, but he'd never seen anything like Mrs Anglemol's living room. None of the images seemed to match any another in size or style, some were sheets of paper that looked like they had been torn out of books and pinned to the walls, while other were gaudy paintings or ornaments or statues, from almost life size down to smaller than his thumb, and every single one of them seemed to be staring at him blankly. The whole effect was extremely macabre.

"Edmund, you have a bicycle don't you?" Fran was asking. Ed nodded in reply, his eyes wide with shock.

"Do you know where the hospital is?" Once again Ed nodded.

"Go down there and fetch a doctor, if he wants paying up front use this." Sam saw Fran pass him a small bundle of notes from his pocket.

"I'll be as quick as I can." Ed replied as he tucked the money away.

"Do that, but be careful, don't forget how icy it is out there. You're helping no one if you break your leg too."

Once Ed had gone Teddy went upstairs to look for a blanket to cover Mrs Anglemol with, who had now closed her eyes and stopped muttering. In the light Sam could now see that her skin was a nasty shade of grey.

"There's blood on her head, she must have cracked it when she fell." Fran said as he knelt down beside her and felt her wrist for a pulse. "I wonder how long she was lying outside like that?"

"It can't have been more than an hour, because Ed wasn't at the party any longer than that." Now things had calmed down somewhat Sam was becoming increasingly aware the pain coming from his nose. He wondered if it was broken, it hurt like hell and he was sure that it was swelling up.

"Do you want to tell me happened?" Fran asked, looking over at him.

"I..." He was interrupted by Teddy re-entering the room, a thick blue woollen blanket slung over one arm.

"Shit, if you think it's bad in here you should see the rest of the place. Found this." He indicated the blanket. "In the lad's room, only one that looks half way normal."

As Fran tucked the blanket around the old woman Sam heard a familiar voice saying "dirty sinner" and he spotted Bob in his cage at the far end of the cluttered room. The parrot's favourite phrase didn't seem quite so amusing now.

"What a beauty!" Teddy exclaimed when he too saw Bob. "I used to have a parrot back in my sailing days, but it wasn't half a big or as colourful as this one."

"Dirty sinner." Bob said again as Teddy stroked his head through the bars of the cage.

Sam looked back at Fran, who seemed to have made the old woman as comfortable as possible for now. "Could you go back and check on Fudge?" He asked Sam. "I think Teddy and me will be fine here now."

He was more than happy to get out from under the gaze of all the gods and goddesses and he hurried back to the relative normality of Fran's house. In the hallway he found Earnest and a couple of others attempting to clean up the vomit with mops and buckets of hot water and disinfectant that they must have got from the kitchen, while in the living room a scene slightly reminiscent of the one next door was taking place. Fudge, barely awake and stripped to her underwear, was lying propped up on the sofa with Victor kneeling beside her attempting to get her to drink a glass of water. The only other person in the room was the young man Victor had arrived with, who was sat on a chair at the other end of the room, he had his legs crossed with one ankle resting on his knee and was flicking boredly through the pages of a book that he must have taken off the shelves. The rest of the party goers seemed to have decided that it was best to leave and had vanished into the night.

"Is she all right?" Sam asked Victor.

"She's paralytic and is going to have one hell of a hangover tomorrow, but she's fine. How are you?"

"My nose hurts." Sam admitted. "I think it might be broken."

"Doesn't look it." Victor said after appraising it for a few seconds. "Might have to wait to paint you again until it settles down though, you're not going to look quite like yourself for a few days." At the mention of painting him Sam noticed Victor's date look sharply up from the book and glare in his direction, Sam decided to ignore him.

"Do you want me to put Fudge to bed?" Sam suggested.

"That would be the most useful thing you could do right now, but first can I suggest you go and clean yourself up and get changed, you're covered in blood."

Sam glanced down, the smart white shirt that he had borrowed off Fran for the party was splattered scarlet across the chest, and he doubted that even a turn in the washing machine would be able to save it.

The house was silent. It was gone two in the morning but Sam couldn't sleep, his nose hurt too much, and so did his feelings and he was sat in the living room wearing an old pair of Fran's pyjamas with socks on his feet and his overcoat over the top for warmth. Fran had finally returned home around an hour ago, he'd accompanied Ed and Mrs Anglemol to the hospital in a carriage, then because he'd given all of his money to Ed to pay for the doctor he'd had to walk home rather than take a cab. He'd told Sam that the old woman was very ill, she'd broken both her hip and her leg, but the real worry was the injury to her head. Apparently Ed was blaming himself for leaving her alone, and despite their fight and his earlier rejection of him, Sam felt sorry for Ed.

Ed's actions had hurt him but they were nothing compared to the deep and sudden attack of homesickness he was suffering from, and it had been the realisation that it was now Midwinter's day that had set it off. He could picture his home back in Dovedale, it would be blanketed in deep glittering snow by now and the house would be smelling of a comforting mixture of wood smoke from the fire and his mother's cooking. On Midwinter's day the whole of the village came together in the village hall, each household bringing a different dish or two to share out, and there would be hot spiced cider to drink and music and dancing and games. And by the end of the day his mother would be a little drunk and she would insist on hugging his sister and himself and telling them both how much she loved them and how precious they were to her. For the past few years Sam had found this deeply embarrassing, but right now he longed to be held by his mother and he felt his eyes fill with tears as he realised just how much he missed her, and he was starting to cry in earnest when he heard the unexpected sound of someone unlocking the front door.

As far as he knew everyone who had a key to the house was inside it, then it occurred to him who it must be, Fudge's mother must somehow have made it back to Parnell to spend Midwinter with her family. Scrubbing his eyes with the palms of his hands he made his way into the hall to greet her, she'd most likely be expecting the party to still be in full swing and would be surprised to find the house in darkness, but the surprise turned out to be Sam's.

Entering through the door was not the small, bottle blond woman in her early thirties that he was expecting to see, but instead there was a tall broad shouldered and darkly handsome man who looked to be in his forties. He was wearing a long overcoat, had a scarf wrapped around his neck, a felt hat was on his head and he was carrying a large suitcase. The man shut the door then spotted Sam and stopped, and they stared at one another, equally puzzled.

"Am I in the right house?" The man's voice was deep and warm.

"Um...I don't know." Sam replied.

"I must be, the key fits, but where's the party?" He looked around and sniffed. "Why does it smell of vomit in here? And who the hell are you?"

"The party's over, Fudge puked down the stairs and I'm Sam." Sam decided on the direct approach.

"More questions than answers there, but at least that explains the smell. Are you a refugee from the party?"

"No, I live here."

"Since when?" The man frowned at him as if he didn't believe him.

"Since about five weeks ago." Sam replied defensively, what with the night's earlier events he'd had about enough.

"Really? I live here too." The man looked at Sam as if expecting him to disagree, which indeed he was about to when the penny finally dropped as to who he was.

"Are you Mulligan?" He asked.

"The one and only." The man replied, removing his hat to reveal a head of close cropped dark hair that was greying at the temples, and bowing a little. "I take it Fran still lives here?"

"Yes, he's upstairs in bed."

"In that case I'm going to join him, if you'll excuse me." With that Mulligan replaced his hat, picked up his suitcase and bounded up the stairs. Sam watched him go, thinking that at least one of them was going to have a happy Midwinter.

Fran was woken from a shallow sleep by what sounded like voices coming from downstairs. Whatever was going on he really didn't want any part of it, he was exhausted and he suspected that it was nothing more than Fudge and Sam. Sam had been up when he'd gone to bed and possibly still was, and he wouldn't be surprised if his niece had gone down to use the bathroom and they'd encountered one another. When he heard footsteps on the stairs he assumed that it was Fudge making her way back up to her attic bedroom, and when his bedroom door opened he assumed that she was going to climb into bed with him, the way she had when she was little girl, and still did occasionally when something had really upset her.

"You want a cuddle?" He asked, without bothering to sit up or even open his eyes.

"I want more than that, I haven't come three hundred miles through blizzards for a cuddle." A deep voice that was very definitely not Fudge's said.

"Mulligan?" Fran sat up, wondering if he was dreaming.

"Yes, and I think you owe me some sort of explanation about that very blond and bruised boy downstairs who claims that he lives here, but that can wait, because first I'm going to fuck you."

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