James was sitting at a table near the window. When he turned to his right, he had a rather blurred view through the glass, which seemed to be made almost an inch thicker by the layer of dirt and general detritus that Herbert Grease never could get round to cleaning off. In front of him, he had a glass of water, which he had had some difficulty in ordering: when he mentioned the word ‘water’ to Herbert, the barman had looked as though this was a word he didn’t recognise as part of his working vocabulary. A few disconcerting and confused glances passed over his face during the next several seconds, but eventually he seemed to recover something from his long-term memory which connected the term ‘water’ with the clear liquid that came out of the grime-encrusted taps in his little kitchenette around the back of the counter. He disappeared, and in a couple of minutes he returned with the water (which had a somewhat worrying brown tinge to it) in a glass that looked unwashed. James instantly eyed it and knew that he wouldn’t dare to drink a drop, but he didn’t mention this to Herbert. Obviously.
It was whilst James Whinging was standing at the counter waiting for his drink to arrive that he noticed something: Herbert Grease was currently not the only person present in the dark, dusty, crumbling room behind the counter, of which James had a slanted view through the curtain of multi-coloured beads substituting a door. He heard voices; one was the distinctively monotonous voice of Herbert, which was so dull that James could scarcely distinguish it from the lazy dripping of the tap, but the other was less familiar. It was almost as low, but it was much faster and currently much more desperate. It chattered on and on, uttering things to which Herbert only gave short, uninterested replies:
“Awfully clumsy, you see; falling down a manhole like that, as I’m an awful scatterbrain at times, you know, because I’ll be walking along and barely registering where I am or what I’m doing, and before I know it I’ve banged into a lamppost or almost been run over by a passing car, yet I always know that the Barmy Duck’s somewhere I can come for support and comfort, you know; I’ve always felt that I’ve trusted you, Herbert; I have an awful lot of friends; an awful lot of friends, and they all agree that I’m a very trusting person, although sometimes I’m a bit too trusting and I’m in danger of falling in with some very dodgy people, you know, and it’s so comforting for me to know that I’ve got someone gallant and generous like you watching over me when I most need it; you probably know the feeling, though I don’t suppose you do, seeing as I’m sure you’re far too sensible to get up to that sort of irresponsible behaviour, Herbert…”
“Yes, yes, Lucy…”
James listened carefully, intrigued. It might just have been his imagination, but he got the feeling that this second presence behind the counter of the Barmy Duck was almost someone who liked Herbert Grease. James spent at least four seconds searching his visual mind for a possible image of someone who could possibly grow lonely and desperate enough to attach herself to Herbert Grease, but at last he managed to think of an option.
Someone quite elderly, of course, who would have no chance of ever managing to fit in with anyone else of Herbert’s generation. Judging from the woman’s tone of voice James decided that she must be genuinely in love with him, so he imagined that the person must be something of an outcast. Short, no doubt; Herbert was only about as tall as James, and many women had outgrown him. She couldn’t be particularly clever – if she was intelligent, or at least had some capabilities in understanding human behaviour, she would have realised a long time ago that Herbert Grease didn’t have the emotional capacity to become more interested in someone than he was with his closest friends, namely his five most frequent customers: Olive Whinging, Mary Maveryck, Hetty Waters, Edith James and Doris Reynolds. And most of them barely spoke to him. Going over this fact again, James concluded that the woman probably didn’t originate from the area either, because if she was from around there she’d have a much better knowledge of who Herbert really was. He imagined someone perhaps in a similar league to Hetty Waters, who had moved to this area of London shortly after James had been born thirty-four years ago.
No one who had set foot in the Barmy Duck since 1981 was even remotely normal – James didn’t feel ashamed to admit it. The woman would surely be eccentric, and her appearance would probably be very telling of this fact.
But James couldn’t see the woman, so he wasn’t able to tell whether his predictions were correct. By the time he had reached this area in his train of thought, Herbert Grease had returned to the counter, his mouth the grim, dead-straight line that it always was, and James was forced to return to his corner table. He didn’t bother to remove his long, brown, hooded coat; he wouldn’t have liked to, anyway, because even when he didn’t particularly need to worry about being recognised James was somewhat anxious in the outside world. Having grown up in such a household as his, James had learnt from a very early age that people were dangerous, especially to someone like him: they got him into trouble, they disapproved of him for no discernible reason and, moreover, they scared him to death. James was well aware that he looked a sad figure, sitting in front of the filthy window where no one could see his face, and cradling an untouched glass of murky water, but inside his head he was buzzing with excitement as he thought about the preparations for his newest novel.
The only problem with these contemplations was that James often underestimated the time in which he had been sitting, thinking. He had made an early start that morning so that he would be able to walk down the street when it was hopefully empty, and now it was getting on for midday. James resurfaced from his imagination and instantly became nervous as he eyed the people walking briskly to and fro through the dirty window.
It was at exactly this moment that the door opened. It was so sudden that the door was flung carelessly against the wall, and the loud banging noise made James jump violently, causing the grimy glass of water to slop all over the table. But a second later another shock made him jump once more, and this time it wasn’t anything to do with loud noises.
Olive Whinging, backed by Hetty Waters, Edith James and Doris Reynolds, had entered the pub. James immediately felt like kicking himself for being so blind – these were some of Herbert Grease’s most frequent customers and he had been so wrapped up in his own thoughts that he hadn’t bothered to consider the idea that they would be seen here late on a Tuesday morning in early June. How could he have been so stupid?
James couldn’t consider the idea that his mother might spot him sitting in this remote corner – he wouldn’t be able to bear the endless interrogations and scoldings which would surely result. Olive often behaved as if she actually owned the Barmy Duck, and she didn’t like anyone else in her family to go there, in case they overheard some plan of hers. James’s father, Frederick, had not been allowed in the Barmy Duck in over thirty years. And although James had never been specifically forbidden to go there himself, he was pretty sure that this rule applied to him as well. And James was terrified of his mother. Obviously.
He and the four women – James was too worried to wonder where Mary Maveryck was – were the only people in the seating area of the pub, so he couldn’t become lost in a crowd. He would have to stay sitting there until the four women left. James realised with gloom that that could be rather a long time. But then again, it might be interesting to finally find out what precisely it was that his mother and her friends spoke about when they were drinking in the Barmy Duck. James was generally an honest person, but he was never one to turn down an opportunity to eavesdrop. He thanked God that his brown overcoat had a hood.
James’s mother was getting impatient. “Where the hell is Mary?” she growled to her three other friends, tapping her shoes loudly on the floor as though that would hurry things along.
Hetty Waters shrugged carelessly and took another sip of the beer she had just carried over to the table from the counter (James had noticed with extreme interest that Hetty was apparently the only person who could extract a hint of a smile from Herbert – at least, James thought it was a smile) and peered at the faded photographs of old boxing matches on the wall of the pub. Edith James didn’t even acknowledge Olive’s question because she was so preoccupied with delicately nibbling peanuts, as though this was a process which required every ounce of concentration that Edith was capable of. Only Doris Reynolds was paying attention to Olive’s words, and, inbetween occasionally eating peanuts in a slightly less intricate manner than Edith, muttered quiet assurances to her friend. But Olive wasn’t listening to Doris. James supposed that she was very excited about something. He wondered what it could be.
Oh, but surely it must be about one of his mother’s various crushes? Olive, despite being married, got these every so often, and always with men who were much younger than herself. The crushes were often obsessive and took up every second of his mother’s time when they were at their height, but James always had cause to wonder whether Olive actually knew the people she spontaneously fell in love with – if ‘love’ was the correct word to describe it. James wasn’t sure that he had enough experience to judge. Briefly he wondered whether his mother had ever felt that way about his father. If she had, she certainly didn’t show it nowadays.
Many minutes passed. The four women barely said anything to one another, and the only sounds that could be heard were Olive tapping her feet, Hetty sipping, Edith and Doris nibbling, Herbert grunting as he wiped a glass, and, occasionally, a quiet cough from the concealed kitchenette, as though the woman called Lucy were trying to get Herbert’s attention.
After about twenty minutes, James was made to jump violently again as the door banged against the wall. When he had recovered, he looked around and saw Mary Maveryck scurry towards Olive’s table, armed with a number of brimming plastic bags. She looked as though she was struggling to hold them, but despite this (as well as the fact that Olive predictably didn’t make a move to help), Mary was looking cheerful.
“Where have you been?” Olive demanded angrily, standing up as though to intimidate Mary; Olive was a few inches taller. “We’ve been waiting here for ages!”
Mary just shrugged as she lowered the bags onto the floor. “Sorry, Olive, the bags were heavy!” she puffed. Then she glanced at the table. “Oh, hello, Hetty! Hello, Edith! Hello, Doris!”
“Hello, Mary,” muttered Hetty, accidentally spraying the table with beer as she spoke.
“Hello, Mary!” cried Edith, exclusively selecting a new peanut from the bowl and turning it round in her hands as though to assess where to begin work.
“Hello, Mary,” said Doris pleasantly, eyeing the bags near her feet with interest.
Mary proceeded to say hello to Herbert, only receiving another grunt in reply.
“Right, shall we get started?” Olive said authoritatively. James breathed a sigh of relief that his mother had interrupted; he had been momentarily worried that Mary would continue to glance around the pub and spot him – Mary, like James, had an eye for spotting things that others did not, and he didn’t like to think about what would happen if she were to suddenly cry out, “Hello, James!”
But James’s train of thought was abruptly stopped at that moment by something new he caught sight of when he turned his head slightly towards the right. He stared.
He was looking in the direction of the kitchenette behind the counter. Behind the tatty, thin curtains that Herbert kept draped over the doorway, James could see a face peering out. Not at him, however; the face was peering towards Olive’s table where it could not be seen by the five elderly women. He was instantly intrigued by the appearance of the face. It appeared that most of his predictions about the nature of this mysterious Lucy had been correct: she looked fairly old, the level at which her face – which somehow reminded James of Hetty Waters – was peering out suggested that she was somewhat short, and the peculiar, shocking nature of her hairstyle (which had the appearance of a large, ginger-and-grey heart that had been split right down the middle) confirmed James’s suspicion that she was out of the ordinary.
But the most startling thing was the woman’s expression. As Lucy listened to Olive’s voice and stared as Mary Maveryck struggled to lift the massive plastic bags onto the table in front of Olive’s blank, disapproving face, she had a calculating sort of look – well, James thought it to be a calculating look. It was a look that he sometimes associated with the looks of young children at his infants’ school when they were in the process of working out sums. So it seemed that Lucy was gazing at the five women’s table with a look of intense concentration, as though she was trying to remember something that had happened to her a very long time ago.
James eyes swivelled back towards his mother and her friends when he realised that Lucy’s motions weren’t going to be changing any time soon, from the looks of things. Hetty, Edith and Doris were watching blankly as Mary held the large, square book that Olive was currently poring over.
“Oh, I was sweet, wasn’t I?” Olive cried rapturously, and James instantly became aware that she was looking at one of their childhood photograph albums.
“Hmmm, I suppose we were,” said Mary unconvincingly.
“Oh, and look at this one!” Olive squealed, turning the page none-too-carefully and jabbing her finger at another picture. “Look, Mary, look! Hetty, Edith, Doris, look at this! This was taken just after we were evacuated!”
“Oh! I remember that!” Mary yelped – James was surprised by her sudden enthusiasm. “Isn’t that the photograph that Mr and Mrs. Baxter took of all of us whilst we were in the countryside? When we’d just arrived?”
“Yes!” Olive cried. “Oh, don’t I look lovely? All that blonde hair! I suppose you looked OK, Mary. Ugh, look at Fred; it’s like his clothes were full of cotton wool, he was so fat. And Augustus and Adolphus just standing there, looking blank. What was the matter with them? It’s a shame they couldn’t take another photograph…Oh, and there are Albert and Priscilla, looking like they owned the place…they should have at least smiled for the camera!”
James frowned. He had been exploring all the photograph albums in the Whingings’ house since he was less than two years old, but he wasn’t sure he remembered any photographs of his mother and their fellow evacuees – which included Olive and Mary, Frederick and his two brothers Augustus and Adolphus, and two rich aristocratic children named Albert and Priscilla from the Rowlings family – in the countryside after they had just arrived. But then, if the album had been buried in Mary Maveryck’s house it probably hadn’t seen the light of day in many years. Mary’s house was the most cluttered place that James had ever seen, thanks to Mary’s hoarding obsession.
Checking on the current state of the mysterious Lucy, James saw that she was leaning forwards even more and was doing her utmost best to catch every word that the five women were saying. He was desperate to know why this woman was so interested. James liked to listen to interesting conversations himself, but he wasn’t sure that this particular conversation was fascinating enough to merit such an extreme and desperate reaction in someone. Surely there must be a story to this; something that James could only guess at.
Meanwhile, Olive had apparently completed her inspection of the photograph album. “Mary, where’s the map?” Olive snapped at her best friend.
James was surprised. Map? What map? Both Olive and Mary were useless with maps. They had never been able to interpret any of the squiggly little lines whenever they went on car journeys. Olive in particular generally dismissed maps as ridiculous, confusing things anyway. He tried to imagine a situation in which his mother would actively and amiably accept such a thing as a map into her life.
But the object that Mary Maveryck took carefully out of another plastic bag was not what James had been expecting. From a distance, it looked like a large, bendy square with strange scribblings all over it. But when James looked at it a little most closely, he saw that it appeared to be four board game boards stuck together carefully with sellotape. He couldn’t see what had been drawn colourfully all over the boards, but he was intrigued all the same. As, apparently, was Lucy.
Mary placed the ‘map’ on top of the table, where Hetty, Edith and Doris began to stare at it in awe. Olive, however, remained sat with her back against the backrest of the chair, studying the board closely – James could tell by the way her eyes flickered over the board that she was trying very hard to find something to complain about. And sure enough, in the next few seconds Olive began to complain about the tape used to stick the boards together not being a very nice colour.
But nothing was being said about the nature of the map’s purpose yet. James was so curious about what this was about – none of his mother’s previous schemes had apparently been important enough to warrant such an invention on the part of Mary Maveryck – that he was almost tempted to get up and leave the pub, still with the hood tightly over his face, so that he might catch a glimpse as he went out. But James knew that this wasn’t an option; he would risk his mother and her friends seeing his face and realising his true identity, and, moreover, James would hear no more of the conversation.
Speaking of the conversation, however, the subject of it was currently just as vapid and uninteresting as Olive’s complaints about the colour of the tape – Mary had just loudly poured several of what looked like snapped chair legs onto table, and now the women were all fussing over and admiring them. Well, Olive was obviously complaining, but James became impatient as he waited to hear what exactly was going on. Looking over towards the face of Lucy, he could see that she appeared to have roughly the same feeling.
“Mary, where’s you-know-who’s?” said Olive eventually, and James could have sighed. Raymond, obviously.
Lucy looked stunned, watching intently as Mary handed a blue object to Olive, and she seemed to be craning her neck to try and get a better look. Then she strained to look towards Herbert, who was still wiping at the glass with the grimy rag. James guessed that he was trying to stall having to talk to another human being for as long as possible. Herbert wouldn’t have any interest in the fact that Lucy currently seemed to be in need of serious emotional support.
A few seconds later, her body gave a sharp jerk and she nearly fell loudly from the stool she was sitting on, only managing to recover her dignity by frantically gripping at the edges of it and clinging on for dear life. On her face was an expression not of desperation, but more one of wild fury and adrenaline. James could see even from several meters away that her whole body appeared to be shaking uncontrollably as she uselessly stretched out a hand with her fingers in claws towards Olive’s table.
James frowned. His mother had just said, “Oooh, isn’t he gorgeous?” and was turning round the blue object in her hands. James could see that it replicated a man; a man with a number of ill-carved and exaggeratedly large muscles on his arms and legs, and handsome face and fair hair. He didn’t see what this Lucy knew about Raymond Calzone, or why she would have such an extreme reaction to the idea that Olive was in love with him, but…
James’s stomach gave a strange jolt, as though replicating the movement Lucy had made just a few seconds ago. He realised with surprise that the name ‘Raymond’ had not been mentioned in the conversation yet. Unless something very strange was going on, Lucy could have no way of knowing that the figure in Olive’s hands – which wasn’t exactly realistic – was meant to represent Olive’s son-in-law. A second later, James understood everything.
As Mary Maveryck ordered, “OK, now put Albert and Priscilla’s figures in the ‘Rowlings Manor’ rectangle”, James saw Lucy stare desperately at Herbert Grease, who still wasn’t paying the slightest bit of attention to what was going on around him. Surely it was only natural that she would assume the worst. James knew from experience that mysterious figures from the past often cropped up again in unpleasant and unexpected ways, and there was obviously a story behind the reaction of Lucy when she had first seen Olive march into the Barmy Duck.
Almost as quickly as he had experienced the realisation of what Lucy was undoubtedly thinking, a prediction began to form in James’s mind: Lucy would assume that Olive Whinging was plotting to seduce and snap up Herbert Grease, the love of her life. James was certain that in a few days, Lucy would surely and dramatically arrive in Mary’s kitchen, having tracked down Olive’s whereabouts, through the secret trapdoor that only he, Mary and the Waters family knew about, and threaten Olive in a characteristically intimidating way, causing Olive to become massively more obsessive about this whole Raymond thing than ever before, which no doubt would lead to Mary Maveryck seeking revenge for her continual neglect in the only way she knew how: by creating a fake Facebook account under a shortened variation of her middle name. Yes, James had a fairly good idea of how this would turn out.
His head and heart were both racing manically as Edith anticlimactically murmured, “Errr, would you mind if I quickly pop to the loo?” This was the chance he had been waiting for. For the first time in his life, a realistic plan was forming in his head. Also for the first time in his life, he thought that this one could actually have a chance of working.
Lucy was scribbling hastily into some sort of notepad, just as James’s mother sometimes did when she suddenly came up with ideas or was in such a position of desperation that she needed to write something down just to make sense of the chaos in her head. Luckily, James had never needed a notepad for that sort of thing. They were too risky to keep on his person, anyhow; there was no telling who would come into your room and begin prying around. He had learnt that lesson at the age of seven, when he had walked into his bedroom one day to discover his mother sitting on the bed reading his private journal. He had never made another entry again.
James tried to keep calm, and he attempted to listen to what was being said in order to gather as much information relevant to the situation as possible:
“…Then, at the end of every week we’ll write up a report saying what’s happened during the week with all the necessary details, and what progress has been made,” Mary said suddenly. James looked over towards the kitchenette and saw an enormous wicked smile spread over Lucy’s face which sent a shiver down his spine. A report detailing everything that the women were doing…Mary may have had good ideas, but she never took necessary precautions. Such as hiding secret information like team reports.
“Who will write the report?” Hetty Waters asked as James saw Lucy almost unperceptively roll her eyes. “That sounds like hard work.”
“Oh, I guess I’ll do it. But the Team all has to be present when I’m writing the report, so everyone can give their evidence and all that stuff. Right, I think that’s about it to do with the map and everything…”
“Ooooh, good, is it my go now?” cried James’s mother, leaping to her feet. “Great!”
That’s when Olive got out her notebook, and James nearly gasped. That notebook, that precious notebook…sellotaped to the back of it, James knew, was a piece of plastic which formed a wide pocket on the inside cover. And inside this cover were all manner of things – and most of them had to do with things which had been confiscated from James over the years. It contained everything from letters from Dorkus Finn to university acceptances. Things which his mother had believed to be ‘dangerous’. He had almost forgotten them.
Olive, however, at opened the notebook at a page which James obviously could not see but which certainly provoked a number of extreme reactions in her friends.
“Hey, Olive! You said I could be a leader too!” Mary Maveryck was complaining as James tried to work out the best way to retrieve these precious pieces of paper. Would it be too risky to sneak into Olive’s room whilst she was sleeping? Too risky to make off with her bag? Too risky to simply demand them off her?
“You need to earn your place as a leader, Mary,” Olive said cruelly, sticking her nose in the air as Lucy and James listened carefully. “I founded the Team, so I’m a leader. You need to show me that you’re truly devoted to the Team before you can even start to become a leader.”
“But the Team was my idea! I said we needed a team to help take down Ethel, remember, when we had that conversation a few days ago when you found out that Operation Shannon had failed? And I made the map and all the figures and everything! I spent ages spying on the enemy’s house and getting myself invited in and then snooping in all the rooms!” cried Mary truthfully – James knew that this was true, having heard from his niece Anastasia that she had entered her bedroom to find Mary Maveryck hiding under her tiny desk.
“Mary, a leader has to be sophisticated, with leadership qualities,” Olive continued exhaustedly, and James heard what appeared to be a barely distinguishable snicker from the direction of the kitchenette.
“I am sophisticated!” cried Mary desperately. “I do have leadership qualities! Plus, you already told me I could be a leader. Remember, you got everyone to write that essay called ‘Why I Should Be Olive’s Co-Leader in the Smellypants-Uglyface-Busting boy-Catching Team of Awesomeness’? Mine was twenty-three pages long, and I used commas and colons and I even spell-checked it! It took me six hours, and no one else’s was more than half a page long!
“But Mary, I already promised Albert that he could maybe be a co-leader if he showed determination when we had the first proper meeting.”
“But he hardly did anything for his essay! All he wrote was ‘I have leadership qualities. I am the son of Lord and Lady Rowlings’!”
“I still think mine was good. Remember, I said all that stuff about how Olive’s so deserving and everything?” Edith, one of the least respected members of Olive’s friendship group of all, announced.
As Olive shouted at everyone to stop complaining, James looked firstly at Edith, then at Doris, then at Hetty, and then at Mary, searching relentlessly for weaknesses in their allegiance to Olive. People who could help him.
Edith…she was no good. James had to admit that Edith wasn’t incredibly bright even if she was good at recognising the obvious when no one else did, and if he dared to confide in her she’d probably just blurt out anything she heard to Olive. Doris wouldn’t be much help either. She was relatively intelligent, but only by way of gaining knowledge – when it came to using her common sense, she was no better than Edith. And although Doris currently didn’t show much interest in Olive’s latest scheme, he had doubts about the extent of her lack of loyalty to her friend. Hetty couldn’t be trusted, either. She was too much like Edith, the friend with whom she had something of a love-hate relationship: excitable, careless and rather stupid. And not to mention argumentative.
That left Mary, and he deliberated on her the most. Mary…intelligent. Good at making plans. Tired of Olive’s inveterate habit of verbally and psychologically abusing her. Eager for the respect and recognition she undoubtedly deserved. And that went without mentioning the feeling that James had had about Mary for a long time. He had always noticed something resembling a potential for friendship in her; something which suggested that they had the exasperation of Olive’s tyrannical behaviour in common. James maintained that he couldn’t have had this feeling for nothing. Was now finally the time to put it to the test?
“So,” Olive continued as the complaints died down. “Soon-to-be co-leaders are Albert Tarquin Rowlings and Frederick Ernest William Whinging, and maybe Mary Louisa Maveryck; it depends…So, then we have me as the member-of-honour. Extras are Augustus Octavius Edward Whinging and Adolphus Alfred George Whinging. James Horatio Whinging is a junior member, and then Priscilla Feodora Rowlings is chief rumour-spreader. Mary Louisa Maveryck might be promoted to chief spy, depending on whether she’s nice to me. Hetty Rebekah Waters is my bodyguard, Edith Laura James is the tell-tale if she suspects anyone to be a traitor, and Doris Amelia Reynolds is senior spy.”
Junior member, James thought to himself, rolling his own eyes. Typical. Not only was he given an insulting reminder that he still had the status of a child in his mother’s eyes, but he did not even seem to have any distinct function in this ‘team’. He almost thought that he would rather share his uncles’ roles as ‘extras’. Peering towards Lucy, James noticed that she was still hastily writing everything down that she heard.
James’s thoughts during the following few moments allowed several seconds to pass by, and when he started paying attention to the conversation again, it was to hear Doris Reynolds announce, “I think we should have the first proper meeting tomorrow. There’s no Bingo tomorrow.”
“Oh, that’s true,” said Olive, looking slightly relieved. She turned to her best friend. “Got that, Mary? Our first meeting will be tomorrow at…errr…six o’ clock in the evening. Have something ready, Mary.”
Mary enthusiastically agreed to Olive’s rather impolite demand; James instinctively knew that she was extremely anxious to impress Olive, as she had been for her whole life.
James’s mother was now standing up and announcing something about how it had been a good first meeting of the Team; James would have contemplated on how his mother didn’t actually know how advantageous her meeting had been to him as well as her and her friends, but he was concentrating on another, much more important fact, and it made his heart beat so rapidly it almost looked as though it was causing the water clutched to his chest to jolt. James’s mother had left her personal notebook lying on the table. And she was currently marching towards the exit of the pub along with her four friends, as though she had no intention of returning to collect it.
James scarcely dared to breathe. This was the moment he’d been waiting for for months. As Olive strode out of the door, he prayed that she wouldn’t spot it lying on the table. Luckily for James, Olive had no real need to turn round. She wasn’t the sort of person who held doors open for her friends, even when they were carrying several brimming carrier bags. She wasn’t the sort to look back and wave a cheery goodbye to her favourite bar-tender. And she was too careless to be the sort who looked back to make sure she hadn’t left any personal belongings behind. And moreover, Herbert Grease, still uselessly polishing the same glass as he had been working on for the past several hours, was not the sort to call after his customers that they had left their notebooks lying on one of the tables. For seemingly the first time ever, James was glad that both Herbert and his mother had the personalities that they did.
James waited until he saw the sketchy figures of Olive and her friends begin to walk drearily away in different direction before he unsteadily got to his feet, having to shake both of his legs because he had not dared to move for so long and was stiff. It was a fact only registered in the very back of his mind that the mysterious Lucy had hastily climbed down from her stool in the kitchenette, not even pausing to say goodbye to her beloved Herbert, and scurried out of the door round the back. Seeing that Herbert was busy shaking dandruff out of his hair in front of a mirror so filthy that it is amazing that he could even see his reflection, James walked with a feeling of numb excitement and weightlessness towards the table his mother had just vacated, never taking his eyes away from the precious book. Then he had it in his hands, and he could feel the weight of years of stolen opportunities; fragments of his life that his mother had filed away like the address of a long-forgotten friend. Not for the first time, James felt that his whole existence was contained within the pages of a book.
He was so awed and excited that he may not have been able to think straight if he had not had the sense to remember who he was and what he needed to do. James was aware that if he wanted to utilise the information stored within this notebook to the full, he had to make sure that his mother was suitably preoccupied with something; something big.
The current situation was ideal, certainly. But James had been a highly observant person over the years, and he knew that any scheme his mother devised was highly likely to fizzle out within a couple of months at the most, and then she would be back to terrorising her helpless family. James didn’t receive much attention, and it was extremely unfortunate that the little attention he did receive was mainly directed at keeping him from doing what he desperately wanted and needed to do. He had to create a diversion. And not just any diversion, either.
James only stared in awe at the cover of the notebook for about a minute before the first formulations of an idea began to come together in his head, and, realising that he had no time whatsoever to lose, James shoved the notebook deep into a pocket of his long, brown coat (he checked that he had zipped the pocket up properly three times) and barged through the door.
The street on which James was standing was a dull, lifeless road that managed to look dreary and grey even on the brightest of days. But today was not even the brightest of days, and so the only sign of true hope was the look on James’s face as he tore past the front of the pub, wildly checking around him to make sure that none of his mother’s friends were still around. Between the Barmy Duck and the neighbouring shoe shop there was a grey, narrow alleyway with a strange net lattice covered with pigeon feathers strung across the rooftops several feet above James’s head. As he ran through the alleyway with a demeanour of more excitement and energy than would have been considered possible in such a place, he heard the sound of pigeons ruffling their feathers and cooing frantically. A number of times James’s clumsiness almost got the better of him: he nearly tumbled straight into a couple of small dustbins spilling months-old banana skins into the alley, he met with a sharp turn and nearly slammed headlong into a brick wall and he nearly tripped over a stray brick lying forlornly in the middle of the ground. But in his haste, James absolutely forbade himself to fall or otherwise slow himself down.
The alleyway was now running between a pair of high grey walls which sectioned off a long row of gloomy Victorian back yards that stood behind the tall red-brick buildings of the small high street James had just left; this was the area where few sane souls dared to venture; an area forgotten by most and ignored by everyone else. There were so many twists and turns that James had no way of telling whether he was getting close or not.
But eventually James’s mission came to an end. Upon turning one particularly sharp corner, James saw a tiny person in a brown coat, rather like his, and a very large hairstyle, rather unlike his, at the other end of the alley. At the sound of his frantic running footsteps and exhausted breaths, the person turned round, and James was thrilled to find that it was indeed whom he had hoped to find. He had to catch his breath, so simply held up one hand in desperation to signify that he wanted her to stop and wait for him. Remarkably, it was the one time in his life that James had dared to speak to a stranger off his own accord. Even more remarkably, this stranger happened to be a woman dressed in a long, dark raincoat that he had encountered in a forgotten alleyway in the dodgiest part of town. But it was a person.
Lucy Waters eyed the strange boy who had stopped her with suspicion and ferocity. For Lucy, something of a criminal genius in her own right, was already constructing what she believed to be an exceptional plot, and to have someone hurriedly come after her following such a revelation was usually judged by Lucy to probably be a cause for concern. But James, although he was several inches taller than her, was small and puny-looking, and Lucy was at a loss to see how her obvious talent for intimidation and her knowledge of human nature was to be rivalled by such a person. Furthermore, something about James told her that he came with a purpose which would be advantageous to her. So she reluctantly decided to wait until he had caught some of his breath back and could explain himself to her.
James was delighted to see that Lucy did not run away or order him to leave her alone, or worse. Looking at her, he could see that she had a striking aura of menace about her; it was indeed true that she was the last person on Earth he would consider conversing with under normal circumstances. But these were not normal circumstances, and James was feeling stronger and more confident than he had in his whole life.
James smiled. “I have a proposal for you,” he said.