Rosalind and her companions now found themselves standing on a ledge inside a wide tower. They stood on a slanting balcony, which they soon realised was part of a spiral stairway. It had no steps, just a winding ramp that went both up and down. They could see the ramp spiral up above them. It was like being on the edge of some strange ‘Wall of Death’, thought Tchi, only with a fenced ledge around it, upon which they stood. Looking down into the dark muddy brown light of the tower he noticed small arrow slit windows in the cylindrical walls.
In the middle of the stairway, some way above them, hung a giant shiny golden ball, like an gigantic Christmas tree globe, suspended in space without any visible means of support.
Deep down below, on floor level, everyone could see a moving hemisphere. Everyone leapt back from the wall of the balcony when they realised it was an enormous eye resting in a mechanical socket which, like a lizard’s, kept flicking around, always looking up, first to this side and then to that.
“Oh no! We’re in the wrong place,” said DagDag. “This is the headquarters at the entrance to the city. This place will be crowded with military!”
“Be ready with your swords,” said Serendipity. I think I can see Buzzor dust.” She bent down and picked up a piece of yellow fluff off the green carpet that ran all the way along the spiral balcony. “You’re supposed to get lucky if you find some of this,” she said, smiling whimsically. “And we could certainly do with some.”
They all thought so as they looked up to see where a sudden hum was coming from. Four Buzzors were coming from behind the golden orb. They were swooping down towards the new arrivals. Within seconds they had grasped a foothold on the balcony wall.
Gluid was not restrained, he leapt forward with his sword and as the first Buzzor put its insect forefeet on the plaster wall of the balcony, the sword swung and chopped them from the insect. The Buzzor fell back but went flying upwards, unable to steady itself. Serendipity took the wolf head off another one, which almost made Rosalind quail. She knew, however, she had to put aside her fear and join in and help her friends. She leapt to the balcony edge and swung her sword about, not entirely sure of its direction. A Buzzor was flying towards her. She summoned up her courage as it came closer and then – as it was almost on her – she feinted a move to the left but moved to the right and bought the sword down on the side of the massive insect. A sickening thud was heard and the Buzzor and one of its wings separated and both tumbled down into the lower tower, towards the lizard eye. Another Buzzor which had been approaching suddenly changed its mind and flew back up behind the golden ball and became obscured by it.
“It’s gone back for reinforcements,” said Maximouse.
“We did better than I thought we would,” said Tchi.
“It’s because they can’t quite get into the balcony,” said Serendipity. “This is their headquarters and guard house – they have never fought anyone in here before.”
“They didn’t have their crossbows with them this time,” said Rosalind.
“Watch out,” said DagDag, “They’re coming back.
And he was right. Another four Buzzors were spinning round out of the golden ball and heading towards them.
Serendipity’s gang crouched down, hidden by the solid balcony wall, and waited. As soon as the first Buzzor had alighted onto the wall top, they simultaneously leapt up and started stabbing and thrusting with their swords. It was mayhem and Rosalind was lucky to step back just as Gluid swung his sword round to decapitate a Buzzor or she would have lost an arm first.. The fighting was furious and frenetic, but the Buzzors still could not make headway and after the leading two fell away with injuries the remaining two remaining flew into retreat.
The gang were quite exhausted, but they didn’t have a great deal of time to rest before another onslaught began. However this time it came from three directions at once.
Tchi noticed it. He was looking down over the balcony trying to observe what the lizard eye was doing when he saw eight Buzzors walking up the spiral balcony, two floors below. Then he looked up. Two floors up, on the opposite side of the stairway, another eight Buzzors were walking down the balcony towards them. He warned the others. They all leant over to have a look. “We’re trapped,” said Maximouse with a long sigh.
“We’ll die like heroes,” said Gluid. “We’ll stick it up ‘em.”
But there was more. Another four Buzzors were coming out of the golden orb above. Two Buzzors drew a light air vehicle, like a sleigh, behind them. Two Buzzors flew behind it. Inside sat a strange looking man.
“In that air chariot,” said Serendipity, “is one of Ursula’s supporters.”
The air chariot quickly came alongside the foreigners.
“You will not succeed this time,” the tall spindly man said. He wore a yellow singlet. On it was printed a symbol Rosalind recognised, a black triangle within a ‘’U in the middle of it.
“You’re dead, Eggplant!” swore Gluid swinging his sword over his head.
The man turned a metal dish which he held in both his hands towards them. “My new device will finish you off.”
Suddenly everyone felt a force on their metal weapons. The swords they had been holding on to began to be drawn away from them. Serendipity’s soldiers hung over the edge of the balcony wall desperately gripping their weapons, but the pressure was too great, and one by one they sprang out of their hands towards the air chariot. The metal weapons began to hit the Eggplant’s dish, clang, clang, bang. Rosalind not only felt her sword being pulled away from her by an invisible force, but also her grandfather’s watch in her pocket. Letting go of her sword, she fell face down behind the balcony wall, the weight of her whole body now lying on top of the watch. Suddenly, and with great relief, she felt the invisible force, which was still trying to tear the metal watch out of her clothes, stop.
“You are finished now,” said Eggplant. “You’re pathetic attempt at insurrection has failed. Ha! And look how far you have got! You are defenceless and our soldiers are coming for you.”
Marie put her head in her hands.
“You are mere amateurs!” he scoffed, holding his sides in laughter. As one of his eyes looked continually straight ahead, the other seemed to roam around freely, as if he had a glass eye.
Both divisions of Buzzors had now arrived on the same level as the children and surrounded them. The children were sandwiched between those coming up and those coming down. Their only escape was to leap over the edge and that would have been to certain death. They were finished.
“Unfortunately we cannot kill you yet,” shouted Eggplant. “We have to inform the great and magnanimous and Unstoppable Ursula of your capture and then we can completely erase the island of you puny terrorist intentions, once and for all, and make an example of you for all to see.”
Marie was screaming as the Buzzors manhandled her into a cage that was brought alongside. As they were trying to get her in, DagDag suddenly burst into the air and sped upwards flying for all he was worth. As two Buzzors gave chase, the rest of the prisoners, Gluid, Maximouse, Serendipity, Rosalind, Tchi and Marie, continued to be herded into the prison cage and clung to its metal spokes like grim death. The cage was like a giant birdcage on its side, and it would have been easy to have fallen between the large spaces between the wires. It was transported like an air chariot, with two Buzzors at the front and two at the back, all connected by silver wires. They floated down towards the lizard’s eye, but at one floor above it they were docked into a large entrance into the side of a tunnel, a tunnel that had not been visible from where they had previously stood.
A Werg – as Serendipity described him – instructed them. This Jailmaster, as he described himself, ordered them to disembark from the prison cage. Standing next to him, but saying nothing, stood a rather overdressed Buzzor who wore a powdered wig on his vulpine head.
The prisoners were led up a short measure of wooden steps to a corridor with windows, a bridge of windows between two buildings. Rosalind got the chance to look out over the streets of Plasticia. She couldn’t make head or tail of it. Not only were tethered air ships flying all over the place, but so were creatures of all types – some looked human – flying in the air, all leashed to the ground by long ropes. Down on the ground were hundreds of cars and other modes of transport, but none of them were moving. She tried to make sense of it by stopping, but the Jailmaster came back and shouted a command at her to move along. She followed him on up some more steps back into another corridor, this one without windows. Soon they turned into double swing doors to find herself in a large wainscoted court room. A man sat high up in front of them who Rosalind correctly ascertained this to be a judge. Above him was written in big fancy letters: ‘The House of Correction’. Under this was written in smaller letters. ‘Guilty unless proven innocent’.
Rosalind, Serendipity, Maximouse, Gluid, Marie and Tchi were all constrained at the back of the court in a wire mesh cage. Over the course of the next hour, one by one they were brought out of the cage, put on a strange machine and then led to the dock where their crimes were read out and they were sentenced. Rosalind looked around for a jury, but no jury was to be seen. There was a court secretary who spent most of his time tapping on a machine, and a couple of court officials who sat to the left of the judge, but down at floor level.
Rosalind sat down on one of the uncomfortable pews in the cage. The Jailmaster and the bewigged Buzzor, who had both helped to bring them in, sat next to their cage, so she strained her ears occasionally trying to make out the quiet comments they occasionally made to each other.
“Oh it’s not him again, is it?” said the lawyer.
“Perhaps he’s in a better mood today,” said Jailmaster.
The Judge, who they had obviously been talking about, then spoke aloud from his bench. He directed a question at them.
“When is this banquet, Jailmaster, I could do with a bit of fun?”
“It’s tomorrow, m’lud, at three in the afternoon,” answered the legal wasp, despite the question not being addressed to him. “It’s in the banqueting rooms next door.”
“Oh jolly good, I shall look forward to trying some of that excellent Drummond wine they have on these important occasions.”
“You can say that again,” whispered the Jailmaster sarcastically to his colleague, and out of earshot of the judge, although Rosalind caught every word.
“Bring the first defendant forward to the Pollyploy,” said the judge.
Gluid was brought forward and put on the machine that stood next to the dock. After he had stood in it for about half a minute it stopped making whirring noises and printed out a sheet of paper which was passed to the judge.
“You are accused (hic) of undermining the government of this City and being a dissenter to the Magnanimous and Benevolent Ursula the Unstoppable. We need to wait to see how she considers your terrible crimes, but as we will have to wait until she arrives, I – “ Here he picked up the sheet of paper from the pollyploy, “ – it says here you have a talent for cooking – will condemn you to the work of assistant cook and galley slave in the banqueting hall. You are dispensed forthwith. Enjoy it because you will not live long. Guards!” He pressed on a red buzzer in front of him and the double swing doors at the back of the room opened and two Buzzors came in and marched Gluid off.
After the doors had swung to, the judge put his head in his hands and sighed. Then he sat up and somewhere from the judge’s high bench the sound of a liquid being poured could be heard. This was followed by the judge putting his head down out of sight of the rest of the court. When it reappeared Rosalind noticed that his lips looked a lot fuller and redder.
The Jailmaster expressed her thoughts. “He’s on it again,” he whispered to his legal companion.
“That means he’s going to be lenient again,” said the lawyer. But if he was showing lenience, Rosalind hated to think what sort of sentences he handed out when he wasn’t lenient.
Everyone who followed Gluid to the dock was accused of exactly the same crime as Gluid. The next to come before the judge was Maximouse, although why he was called next, Rosalind couldn’t fathom, it all seemed quite random. “The fat Moonbeasley next!” shouted the judge pointing his wiry finger at the creature.
Maximouse protested at the insult but was bullied along to the pollyploy and the dock by the one of the court Buzzors who stood at the back of the room.
“I see by your pollyploy information,” the judge was now saying, “that you like eating. Well we can’t employ anyone as an eater, I’m afraid. The simple truth is that you are a lazy lounge lizard and a fat computer nerd. We treat obesity as a dreadful crime in Plasticia. I hereby condemn you to a life of ego-gas.”
“Jolly good,” said Maximouse.
“Jolly good! Are you mad!”
“I’m not mad,” said Maximouse.
The judge yawned and ducked his head again. When he reappeared his lips looked red again. “Tell him, Secretary, what this means.”
The court secretary was caught unawares. He stopped tapping away on his recording machine and stood up and addressed the defendant. “It means two fleshy humps will be constructed on your back in our plastic surgeon hospital,” he said. “These humps will contain super light ego-gas. You will then be sent up, tethered to the ground, to float over the city. This will serve to set an example to the rest of the population not to break the law.
“You will be able to control the height at which you hover, “he continued, “because you will be able to regulate your own gas, but if you come down too low you will be shot with the cross-bows bolts of the Buzzors. You will not be able to steer yourself away and escape as one of your feet will be tethered to the ground – you can only go up or down, and drift a little in the wind. Eventually your gas will run out, and you will descend, and at that time you will be shot. You will be given a long tube from a 7th floor window to drink from. You will be allowed six hours sleep a night on the ground. You will be dressed in a convict’s shirt. You will float continuously over the city as an example to all other city dwellers of how not to behave.
“And to scare away the scavenger birds and provide a useful public service,” added the judge.
“Couldn’t I do some cooking like Gluid?,” asked Maximouse.
“That’s awful!” shouted Rosalind from her cage.
“Silence in court, or it will happen to you too. Take this stupid creature away!” The judge pressed the yellow button on his bench and Maxmouse was marched off by more Buzzors.
Serendipity was next up. She stood in the dock quietly fuming as she was sentenced to working in the Banquet hall orchestra pit playing a harp.
“He keeps forgetting to ball and chain them,” said the lawyer.
“She won’t need a ball and chain if she’s down there,” said the bewigged Buzzor to the Jailmaster, sniggering, “Nobody could ever climb out of there.”
Marie was less composed and was sniffing as the judge, having noticed her aptitude for cooking and herbs, condemned her to work in the City farm as a weedkiller.
“Put her in a ball and chain,” shouted the powdered wigged lawyer, unable to contain his frustration at these weak punishments.
“Okay then,” said the judge, “with ball and chain.” Again, the Buzzors marched their prisoner away.
The next up was Tchi. After the judge had studied Tchi’s pollyploy read-out, he said, “You are good with old cars. You will serve as a Mechslave, in the city. We can never get anyone who has the ability to do that.” Again he pressed his button, whereupon Tchi was marched away like Gluid by two Buzzors.
“Whatever’s a mechslave?” asked Rosalind to Serendipity.
“I think you call them grease monkeys. The city has too many old cars everywhere. He’ll be conscripted into helping to remove them.”
By the time Rosalind – who was called up last to the dock – stood in front of the judge, he seemed to have become very confused. He became greatly confused by her pollyploy print-out as it didn’t give a lot of information that was useful to him. He eventually decreed that she would be incarcerated in the penal Education unit.
Rosalind wasn’t marched away by the Buzzors only, the Jailmaster decided to join her as well.
“I’ll take her over to the penal Education Unit, I’m going in that direction,“ shouted the Jailmaster to the judge.
“Take the two Buzzors as well. Remember these insurgents are very devious and dangerous.”
They all descended in a lift and came out at the bottom floor where the hooded lizard’s eye rose up before them like some monstrous poached egg. Rosalind thought it was hideous as they all walked around it. They steered round the eye passed a floor marked ‘Cyclops-Psycops’
“You don’t like that eye, do you,” said the Jailmaster sneering.
“What’s it for anyway,” said Rosalind.
“Don’t you know? It’s our Secret Service and burglar alarm. The eye, in conjunction with the brain below that it’s connected to, scans the building for intruders. That’s how the Buzzors knew you were here. And they can make anyone talk and dance. Our secret service can interrogate or brainwash anyone.”
“I can’t say it’s something I would want for my birthday,” said Rosalind.
“Don’t bother thinking about escape. We’ll be keeping our eyes on you. The judge should have put a ball and chain on you, like your friend.”
“I don’t even know why I’m here,” said Rosalind angrily. “I don’t even live on this island.”
“A likely story.” He led the way with the two Buzzors to a door that led past several more rows of guards into an open street. For the first time Rosalind stood outside in a street in Plasticia. It was a sunny day. Everything around her was in bright clear colours. As they walked creatures of every shape and size gave them wide birth, fear written on their faces at the sight of the Jailmaster and his guards.
The first thing that struck her was the amount of discarded cars on the side of the streets everywhere, forcing the walkers to continually change direction so as to avoid them.
She complained about it to the Jailmaster who walked beside her.
“Plasticia has had its troubles,” he said. “Those are from the days when we had so many cars that it just all grid locked and it then took so long to get anywhere that people found it quicker walking. You’ll still see some cars driving around, if they can find a way though the mountains of advertising literature. Since the availability of aircars and boom-jets, some of the wealthier citizens bought have them and prefer to get around that way. Look, there’s some up there.”
Rosalind could see two red and yellow fairground bumper type vehicles that were flying around the sky above.
“Why are there so many people flying in the air on leashes?”
“Didn’t you listen to the judge? Fat and lazy people are inflated and shamed in the air. That will happen to that fat Moonbeasley friend of yours. We also have prison airships if you look a little higher,” he said pointing.
Then she noticed a number of creatures sitting on a public square all looking straight ahead as if in a trance. “Who are those?” she asked.
“They’ve had too many Malmals. The government likes everyone to take two Malmals a day but they take packets and all they can do is stare and do nothing.”
“What are Malmals?”
“The sweets that the government gives to everyone to calm them down. They make you feel nice. You’ll be given some in the Penal Education Unit. Malmals are produced in the South Darklands, and issued everywhere.”
“And what’s that big fence over there?”
“That is where the rich citizens live. The hospitals are in that complex as well. It’s heavily fenced off. You need a permit to go in there.”
Rosalind couldn’t get over all the advertising. Apart from all the junk mail on the ground, which at times was knee deep, advertising was on every brick, on every building, on all the awnings on the shops and on virtually all the clothes on the backs of the city dwellers. Everything advertised some business or concern. Most of them were advertising two firms: SOOPERBUY and GETITCHEAP. She commented to the Jailmaster.
“Yes,” he said, “They are both competitive companies and both owned by Ursula the Unstoppable.
“She must be very rich,” said Rosalind.
“Oh she is,” said the Jailmaster. “She also owns the company that produces Malmals.”
Eventually they came to a cobbled side street. The massive building taking up most of the street, was architecturally peculiar. On its top three floors it had the elegance of a dashing English country house. Its stone buttresses led up to a roof topped with baroque gargoyles. Along its upper floors were an abundance of tall arched windows. Yet this style changed completely at the ground floor. This was dressed in glass, steel and concrete, making it lack any personality at all.
Steps led up to its grey door. The lower storey walls contained hardly any windows. In the sombre foyer there were two signs. One was in fancy calligraphic writing: ‘The Gooniversity of Doshification’ and pointed upwards and the other, in bold sans serif letters read, ‘The Penal Rectitude Unit,’ and pointed downwards.
“In here,” said the Jailmaster leading the way into a small room at the side. “Sit here and someone will come for you. You won’t be able to escape.”
“What will happen to me?” asked Rosalind.
“It’s tough. You’ll be stuck below in the dungeons with the festering bodies of dead rats and forgotten prisoners until they decide what to do with you. It’s too bad. It’s unlikely you will survive.”
Rosalind was left locked in a grey sterile room, with a ticking clock and a grey filing cabinet for company. Every piece of furniture, even the chair she sat on, was bolted to the floor. In the dimness, she waited her fate.
She didn’t wait long. Ten minutes later the lock turned and the door opened.
“Oh Hello. I’m so sorry. I didn’t know you’d arrived. I just came in here for some rubber bands,” said the be-suited, bespectacled man, now looking in the filing cabinet.
“Hello,” responded Rosalind.
The tall thin man now regarded her again, looking a little exasperated. “I’m so sorry I must be behind time, or you must early. Sorry about that. Come with me. We’re all upstairs. It’s the full analysis, isn’t it?” He said in a high frenetic voice.
Rosalind didn’t know what he was talking about, but decided that this sounded better than being locked in the dungeons – unless that was what ‘the full analysis’ actually meant.
“Yes,” she lied.
“Your name is Veekricide, is that right?”
“Well I’m honoured to meet you. I’m professor Argle-Phark. I’m so sorry you’re in the wrong room. Follow me.”
From the foyer, they entered a lift, which climbed up through the building. Rosalind then followed Professor Argle-Phark up the embroidered olive carpet of an elegant staircase into a room where a man and a woman sat behind a large desk. She was invited to sit opposite them. Professor Argle-Phark sat down and introduced his colleagues.
“This is Dr. Malwapin,” he said, pointing to a man who looked like a tortoise without a shell, having been replaced with a suit. “And this is Ms. Loomey.” She wore glasses and had her hair in a bun. She looked very old fashioned.
“Pleased to meet you,” said Rosalind, starting to offer her hand, but then realised her interrogators were too far distant across the desk to attempt a handshake.
“It is a great honour to welcome you to the Gooniversity and to help you to decide what it is you want to do with your life and to put you on the right course to do that,” said the Professor. He then sighed and rummaged around with the paperwork on the table. He had very dimpled cheeks and an elongated head.
“Thank you,” said Rosalind earnestly. She decided it would be best if she didn’t say too much.
“Yes, we’re all here to help you find yourself,” said Ms. Loomey.
“Good, I could do with knowing where I am,” she said.
“Now, from the pre-doshification reports that I have received,” said the professor picking up one folders of paper, “I can see that you haven’t had the easiest of times finding a natural propensity for the direction of those talents which would be deemed useful for a person in your position,” said the professor, slightly raising the frenetic speed of his speaking as he went on. “I read that although you have an empathy with animals, this is not the sort of aim in life that would create satisfaction in the responsibilities that you will have on your shoulder in the future. For that reason I would recommend that we start you on the BMC Course II in Rice Pudding Diplomacy. This will set you up in life properly. Not many people of your age realise how a knowledge of talking to Rice Puddings can benefit you in the higher echelons of society.”
Rosalind could understand each word he spoke, but had no idea at all what he was talking about.
“Rice puddings? ” queried Rosalind.
“There are other options,” said Mrs. Loomey quickly, staring at Rosalind, “You don’t have to make your decision this very moment. For example you may be interested in our split-arts M. Phil course in ‘Going to the toilet elegantly’, which has been running from our department.” Her face lifted with pride. “It’s been refreshed this year and it’s in the new prospectus.”
“I saw a course in your new prospectus, Mrs. Loomey, for an evening class: ‘Love Making’’ on Thursdays. Can I sign up for that?” asked Dr. Malwapin.
“I’ve told you before, that was a printer’s error. It was ‘Lace Making’”
“Oh I can do that,” said Malwapin. “Talk about dumbing down,” he added, muttering more to himself than anyone else.
Rosalind couldn’t contain herself any more and fell about laughing, hardly able to get her words out. “Going to the toilet!” she screamed with laugher, “I can’t see what any of this has to do with me? It’s crazy!”
“Aha! How many times we have heard that?” countered Mrs. Loomey in a robust voice, “just you mark my words, young girl, in many years time, you’ll be saying, “How I wasted my time in my younger days. If I had studied that course my life would have worked out wonderfully. They all do, you know, they all do.”
“It is true,” said the professor, coming to Ms. Loomey’s defence, “students who have studied the module: ‘Going to the toilet elegantly,’ do lead a very stress free life.”
“You do need to go on the best of courses,” said Ms. Loomey.
“That’s right,” agreed Dr. Malwapin, “there’s no substitute for proper doshification, there’s no substitute for a good Gooniversity.”
“Indeed!” said both of his colleagues.
“So what happens there then?” giggled Rosalind.
“Here, at the Gooniversity?” said the professor, “Well, you learn important but elementary things, like how to shine your shoes, how to handle your knife and fork, things like that. Do you know, I think you’re the sort of talent that might enjoy our tremendously popular course in ‘Gossip’.”
“Yes, that stuff that turns the planets round. I think it could be very useful to you later in life, and by reading your report it would seem as if you do possess a talent for it.”
Rosalind thought he was getting personal, but bit her lip.
“People can be hurt by gossip,” he continued, “it can be rather tacky stuff, but it does no good to pretend you can escape it. You cant, even if you set about being the blandest person in the universe. You have to remember that gossip is all quite meaningless in the long run, you know. My course is always over-subscribed every year, and I have a 100% pass rate.”
“But what do they gossip about on your course?”
“Anything and everything. For the first couple of days, my teachers introduce all the new students to each other and lots of Doshification tasks to be carried out. And then, after about 24 hours, we find there’s so much gossiping going on by the students about the staff and the other students we just let them carry on for the rest of the course. It’s not only easy for them and easy for us – it’s jolly interesting too.”
“That’s silly,” said Rosalind.
“Shame on you! They all love it. In fact, they rarely bother to attend our lectures in Celebrity, Political and Royal gossip, because they are too busy gossiping about each other to attend.
“Nevertheless,” he continued, “we do get quite a large number interested in our ‘Malicious Gossip Study Group’, and our ‘Play-One-Off-Against-Another’ Master Class. They adore these. When they pass their degree they can apply automatically for their post graduate award a year later, because they will have learnt so much outside of our Gooniversity that we give it to them anyway. After this they automatically become Doctors of Back-stabbing “
“I shouldn’t think you’d want to meet them by that time anyway.”
“Absolutely not. Quite horrible people – but usually very successful.”
“It doesn’t sound the sort of course I’d like at all,” said Rosalind.
“It isn’t always about the sort of course you’d like,” said Ms. Loomey, “but the sort of course that would be useful to you to do.”
“Just start her on our compulsory Commerce and Retail Course and have done with it,” said Malwapin, looking irritated. “She can be thinking about further courses while she’s doing that”.
“I do agree we need to make some sort of decision here to get things started,” concurred the professor.
*** *** *** ***
Rosalind followed all the three lecturers down a maze of corridors until they came to a room which looked like a large shop.
“Welcome to the world of Commerce and Retail, isn’t it wonderful?” said Professor Argle-Phark.
“It’s alright. It looks like a supermarket,” said Rosalind.
“Right. What are you going to buy?” coaxed Ms. Loomey
“I don’t need anything at the moment.”
“No? Come on, a girl of your age, cosmetics to make you prettier, more attractive to the boys? New clothes? There is a delightful fashion department. They could make you look like a supermodel, almost. Although you may need to take a little off that nose – ”
“Well, there’s plastic surgery for that,” said Malwapin, “That’s upstairs.”
“I see,” said Rosalind, “I think I’m beginning to understand. I’m not good enough as I am, as I stand here, I have to buy all these products to make me into a better person.”
“Hello, can I help?” interrupted a man, also wearing a suit and tie.
“This is the shopping centre’s trainer, Mr. Stock,” said Ms. Loomey, slowing down her machine-gun voice.
“I couldn’t help overhearing what the girl said,” said Mr. Stock, turning to Rosalind. “And you are quite right. All consumers are stupid, useless and ugly. But we make them feel better. In fact we can make you so clever and sexy that you will feel superior to everyone else.”
“Why should I want that?”
“Surely, everyone wants to look down on everyone else?”
“I don’t. That’s preposterous.”
“Then surely everyone wants to better themselves, make their lives better in every conceivable way. And we have every product that you can imagine to do that.
“And they are so easy to buy! You can buy over the counter, or on the escalators, or in the lifts, or on the stair cases. You can phone for them to be delivered, you can press buttons on your TV remote control, or order from your computer – if you’re lucky enough to have a government licence to own one. You can come and get them or you can have them delivered. Whatever you buy you will then receive, free of charge, hundreds of mail order offers to buy more of the product sent free to your address. And if you take advantage of one of these offers you will automatically become entered into our grand shopping lottery which takes place every month, and you could win up to £50 million.”
“Why would I want £50 million,” asked Rosalind.
“Well…just think of the shopping you could do.”
“And you should buy now because everything will be going up soon, and we have limited stocks,” continued Mr. Stock.
“But I don’t want anything,” said Rosalind. “I’m quite happy with the things I’ve got and with who I am.”
Professor Argle-Phark, Ms. Loomey, Malwapin and Mr. Stock all looked at each other, and for a moment no one spoke. Shocked, they all made a deep sigh and looked down at the floor.
Then Malwapin said, “But what about self-improvement?”
“What do you mean?”
“We could send you onto more training courses to make you a better, more skilful or a nicer person.”
“And if you’re too sensitive, we also have an alternative training course that could make you into an assertive and desensitised person as well,” said the professor rubbing his hands with glee.
“Well I suppose I’m not against people improving things, and developing inventions to make things better, but what I can’t understand is what happens to all the stuff that isn’t sold.”
“It’s sold off cheap.”
“So that means if I wait long enough I will be able to buy what I want cheaper?”
“It’s all a case of supply and demand,” said Malwapin.
“That’s complicated,” said Rosalind
“If there is a great demand for a product it becomes expensive because everyone wants it.”
“I see,” said Rosalind.
“And if there is hardly any demand for a product it – “
“ – is cheap because hardly anyone wants it,” interjected Rosalind.
“No. It becomes more expensive because it is scarce,” said Malwapin.
“So everything is continually getting more expensive,” said Rosalind, shrugging her shoulders and looking quite exasperated.
“Not exactly,” said Malwapin.
“Oh never mind, don’t tell me anymore. All this money stuff seems to confuse me.”
“But you’re n-n-n-not suggesting that we don’t need all these things, these labour saving devices and beautiful objects?” stammered the professor.
“It seems that people work all day and night for things that are labour-saving,” said Rosalind, “And it seems that the energy we waste in providing these so called desirable things create a world of pollution and land-fills of yesterday’s goods,” she added.
“Well, well. I think she should be a left wing politician, don’t you everybody?” said Professor Argle-Phark.
“The Politician Course!” shouted both the professor and Ms. Loomey in unison. “Hooray!”
“So you want to be a politician?” said Malwapin.
“I don’t know,” said Rosalind, yawning. “I don’t care what I do at the moment. Go on then, I’ll have a look at that course.”
Malwapin leapt onto the desk and shouted, “We’ve got one! Somebody wants to be a politician!”
She was bemused, and getting tired. What on earth was this all about? She was not clever enough to be in politics. It was a dry, legalistic type of job, where you had to keep changing your mind everyday. But she was pleased they was pleased at last.
Professor Argle-Phark and Ms. Loomey were standing around Rosalind clapping. “Brilliant!” said the professor. “Let us show you our ‘So You Have Political dreams’.”
Without another word they bustled Rosalind out of her seat and took her off through more corridors, these crammed with glass cases and exhibits. They climbed the stairs to the next floor and went into a small room containing a central chair with lots of electronic apparatus placed around it.
“Sit there! Sit there!” said Ms. Loomey.
“Put these on!” said Malwapin, clamping a pair of headphones on to her head and clipping a pair of crocodile clip electrodes on her ears. A whirling noise began accelerating behind her as the professor flicked a switch and threw a handle.
“I’m not sure about this. This is like being at the dentist’s,” complained Rosalind, lines creasing in her forehead.
“Switch it to Earth language and English history,” said Malwapin.
“Done,” said the professor, “just lie back and learn to pontificate for your country.” The professor hovered over Rosalind enthusiastically like a mad surgeon. “Soon you’ll be in our new multimedia educational package: ‘So you have a Political vision.”
And they were right. Rosalind felt herself leaving the room. She felt she was on a helicopter flying into a golf course. There were credits rolling up in front of her eyes, but it was a different than watching TV. This was all in three dimensions and, although she knew it wasn’t really happening, she felt that everything around her was actually happening. Nevertheless she felt quite safe.
There was lots of talking going on, although it didn’t seem to coming from anyone in particular, but more of a general narrative going on her left ear. It was talking about wanting to do good in the world, and that sorting out the world’s problems was the best job in the world. It talked about people called Ghandi and Churchill whom it said were good politicians and Hitler, Saddam and Castro who it said were not.
Then the names of the people who had created this educational package were written on the end credits. Namely: Dr. Malwapin, Professor Argle-Phark and Ms. Loomey.
“Well, didn’t you think it was brilliant?” asked Professor Argle-Phark, when Rosalind returned to consciousness.
Around her were the expectant and proud faces of her three advisors.
“It was okay,” she said, not wishing to disappoint them.
“And do you still want to be a politician?”
“I don’t think I’d be clever enough.”
“Nonsense!” said Malwapin, “All you need is to be confident, thick skinned and stupid.”
“I’m certainly not thick skinned and I hope I’m not stupid!” retorted Rosalind.
Malwapin moved to Rosalind’s ear and said in a conspiratorial whisper, “Most people start by standing for the local council.”
“Don’t you have to join a party first?”
“But they’re all the same,” she complained, “They all say they want law and order, and the best economic prosperity for everyone – but who doesn’t?”
“To succeed at your age,” said Malwapin, “I would advise you to join the party that has the least votes because in a few years, when you are an adult, their time will come round – it always does – and you will get into power.”
“She won’t need to get into power,” said the professor, “she already has it.”
“Aren’t you supposed to join a party because you believe in what it stands for?” asked Rosalind.
“By Immelda’s kneecaps, no! Haw! Haw! Haw!” chortled Malwapin. “You have to join the party that you think will turn out best in a few years time.”
“Surely you can’t just join up and become a counsellor?” queried Rosalind, “Longer standing members in that party will be first in the queue to be a candidate before any new member, surely?”
“Oh isn’t she a darling!” cried Ms. Loomey.
The other two educationalists chuckled and chuckled.
Rosalind couldn’t understand the joke.
“No one wants to do it!,” explained Ms. Loomey at last. “For most of the parties there is no waiting list. Parties are desperate for local candidates. They are so desperate that they would put up my cat for council if my cat would agree. He doesn’t. No one wants to do it.
“But they get paid don’t they?”
“They get a few pounds expenses, but they have to put in all that reading, letter writing and time taken at meeting after meeting for nothing.”
“Well, I suppose you would have your finger on the pulse of the city or town then,” said Rosalind trying to grasp it.
“No. Most of it is about homeless people knocking you up in the middle of the night demanding that you find them somewhere to live – ”
“And about dogs pooing on the pavement.”
“And about people’s drains.”
“But don’t you get paid as an MP?”
“Now that’s different,” said Professor Argle-Phark. “Yes you get loads of money for being an MP, and there’s always lots of people who want to do that.”
“I’ll tell you what we’ll do,” said Malwapin. “We’ll stand you as a local councillor within the Plasticia, you lucky person, you!”
“I think I’d like some time to think about it,” said Rosalind.
“Don’t be a wet blanket,” said Ms. Loomey, “You can do it, gal. We need to make up the same number of males and females on the council, and we are short of females.”
“No. It’s not for me. I can’t stand up and speak a load of what I know are lies.”
Suddenly, all the good cheer around her vanished.
“Oh dear,” said the professor.
“Oh dear, oh dear,” said Malwapin.
“She’ll have to be a journalist then.”
“What, me? A reporter?” Said Rosalind.
“Yes, the fourth estate. If you can’t utter lies, you’ll have to write them,” said Ms. Loomey, “it’s the way of the world.”
“Come this way and we’ll put you on apprenticeship at the local city newspaper,” said professor Aggle-phark.
“Whatever,” said Rosalind, yawning again.
Professor Argle-Phark, Ms. Loomey and Malwapin took Rosalind out of the building and across to a small office on the other side of the street. It was a dingy place, full of the sound of typewriters clicking. Rosalind’s mentors didn’t seem so keen to stay with Rosalind at the Daily Torch, so they left her with the editor of the newspaper, Night Owl, and Seahorse the Arts correspondent.
Night owl was busy and rather vexed at having this girl plonked on him, when he had deadlines to meet. He got to the point quickly, trying to type at the same time.
“I’m told you need a general explanation of the job of journalism and reporting,” said Night Owl.” Sit down at my desk here and I’ll give you a crash course in a matter of minutes. Help me with this one, Seahorse.”
“Okay boss,” said Seahorse putting down a can of aerosol glue.
Rosalind sat around a table filled with piles of documents.
“Answer this question. Why has an author more freedom than a king?” asked Nightowl typing simultaneously.
“I’ve no idea.”
He stopped typing. “I’ll tell you. An author has more freedom than a king because he can chose his own subjects.”
“And as an author you must put your grammar right,” said Seahorse.
“Put my grandma right about what,” retorted the Night Owl. He started typing again.
“Now girl,” continued Seahorse, “concentrate and listen to this story and tell me what’s wrong with it. ‘Mind you don’t hurt the kittens, Peter,” called mother as Peter was carrying them along to show a visitor. ‘It’s okay mum,’ Peter replied, ‘I’m carefully carrying them by their stems’.
“That’s daft,” said Rosalind.
“Of course, but the point is ‘you must use the precise word’.”
“I see,” said Rosalind laughing.
“Now listen to this conversation: ‘Did you notice that pile of wood in the yard?’ ‘Yes ma’am I seen it.’ ‘You’re careless about your grammar, you mean you saw it?’ ‘No I don’t. You saw me see it but you haven’t seen me saw it.’
“That’s just as silly,” said Rosalind. “Who would ever write like that.”
Night Owl stopped typing again. “Answer this exam question on Defamation of Character and libel: why do solicitors make good soldiers?”
“I don’t know?”
“Because they love to charge.”
“Now to be a reporter you have to learn two basic questions and vary these accordingly,” said Seahorse. The double act they were doing was making Rosalind feel dizzy.
“A wife and 4 children are killed in a fire. You then must ask the surviving father: ‘How do you feel?”
“That’s the business,” interjected Night Owl.
“And you have to ask: ‘Why have you made a big cock-up?’”
“It works pretty well everywhere. Politicians, football managers, entertainers, business leaders, teachers, doctors, police commissioners.”
“Also you really need is be super hot on psychology, don’t you?” asked Night Owl, stopping his typing again.
“It’s the study of what people are thinking.”
“Now, you’re a clever person, tell me, what am I thinking?”
“You’re thinking that I’m trying to think of the answer.”
“No I wasn’t. I wasn’t thinking that at all. Try again.”
“You’re thinking about having a big tea.”
“No. Wrong. So what does this prove?”
“I may have been lying, but you can’t tell, can you, whether I was lying or not. What does it prove?”
“It proves that I can’t tell what you are thinking.”
“Correct. And therefore what does that make psychology?”
“I’m not sure.”
“It makes psychology a load of nonsense,” said the owl.
“Golly!” exclaimed Seahorse
“Now, little girl, did you notice something wrong there?” asked Night Owl.
“Psychology is really okay?”
“No. You weren’t listening to Seahorse. You’re not allowed to say certain things anymore. Gosh is all right but Golly is politically incorrect.”
“I think I understand that,” she said.
“And then of course you need to understand celebrity,” said Seahorse.
“You mean someone’s who’s really clever and good and has a fantastic lifestyle and loads of money, like David Beckham.”
“Never heard of him,” interjected Night Owl.
“What do you mean?”
“Exactly. You take my point? Stars flare up and burn out. Here today gone tomorrow. They sell newspapers and products for a while but after a while we need a new face. Eventually it’s a case of ever decreasing circles for them, the less they appear the less their promotional appeal. In the end their Public Appearance requests dry up and their toast – until ten years later when media nostalgia sets in.”
Rosalind yawned again. “OK, is there anything else I need to know.”
“Lots. You might wonder why the Human Torch newspaper is printed on lavatory paper?” asked Night Owl.
“I’m sure you are going to tell me.”
“Because it’s a tissue of lies.”
He continued: “You need to understand we do not print the truth, we print what our rich customers and advertisers want to see written down. So we flatter all of those people with money and we criticise all those without any money or power. It’s quite disgusting.”
“If you don’t like the Human Torch why do you run it?”
“I edit it because everything in my life is a fake. All the artwork I have been collecting for years was recently found to be fake; I had bought it off a crooked agent. The paper money in my pocket isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. My marriage is a con. And recently I found out that I am adopted, so my parents are a con.”
“Oh dear,” said Rosalind, quite genuinely concerned for the state of Night Owl’s soul. The telephone rang on owl’s desk.
“Hello, Human Torch, Night Owl speaking. I see. Yes, yes of course. Immediately.”
After he put the phone down, he looked at Rosalind and winked. “Now I have to stop the front page. I was running with a story: DANGEROUS RAVEN ESCAPES BUZZOR GUARD but the Cylops-Psycops department have rang me and told me I can’t put it to bed.”
Rosalind blinked. When she unravelled what he was talking about, her eyes lit with excitement. DagDag had successfully escaped.
“You wouldn’t understand that expression – it means I can’t print the newspaper.”
“Why can’t you print what you want if it’s your paper,” she said.
“I don’t own it. I only put in it what they allow me to put in it, like all newspapers.”
“It’s not what you know, it’s twit twhoooo you know. I do enjoy revealing the truth in part. I tell stories, exaggerations, fictions, malicious rumours, fabrications, falsehoods, inventions, mis-statements and lies, all with a smile in my eyes. I con, deceive, trick, cheat, fraud, hoax, sham and perjure my way into and out of every situation.”
“Well I’m sure that not all reporters and editors are like that. I certainly wouldn’t want to be, and I don’t want to be a reporter on this newspaper.”
“I thought so,” said Night Owl, and began typing furiously again. Then he stopped and made a quick phone call.
Within minutes Malwapin, Ms Loomey and the professor had come back to collect Rosalind.
“How did you get on?” asked Ms. Loomey.
“I’m just too tired to concentrate now,” said Rosalind. “I’ve been awake for an eternity.”
“Oh dear,” sighed Malwapin as they walked back out of the Human Torch, “you are a extremely hard person to please.”
“This is a 24 hour Gooniversity,” said the professor. “We go on all night.”
“What about a Self Improvement course to make her into a more effective person,” said Mrs. Loomey
“She seems a bit dim to me, what about a kitchen course?” suggested Malwapin.
“Anything, if you let me go to sleep,” said Rosalind.
“Very well,” said the professor, “Take her to the Queen Bee Suite and we can continue with the employment advice section in the morning. We might have to start again at the beginning.”
While Rosalind was experimenting in an absurd world, Marie was experiencing a dreadful one. From the moment she arrived at the city farm she had been balled and chained and put to work, weeding the furrows of the massive fields. She had been chained in tandem with a boy who said he was not human but a Drummond, although to her he came across like an ordinary boy, scruffy, shabby and obviously not very bright, as he could remember only his first name: Rig. He’d been caught as a vagrant in the city pick-pocketing and sent to the farm as a penalty. He had been there for over a year, and had four more years to do.
Before they started he told her that they had to remove at least one weed a minute, or they would get flogged by the Baronarki, the farm regulator’s ghastly cruel and merciless sadist. “They know if you slack because they have a surveillance time and motion computer wired into the ball and chain,” he sighed wearily.
“So the ball and chain is like a guard that spies on you?”
“Yes, they’re switched on while we’re working, just to make sure we bend down enough times.”
“This is hell.”
“Yes. And if you think a weed a minute doesn’t sound too bad, think again – bending down 60 times an hour for nine hours soon makes you realise you’ve got a back. You have to go fast and then rest for a bit. There’s a knack to it.”
What time do we finish?” asked Marie.
“We start late in the morning, just before midday and then carry on until ten at night. We have fifteen minutes to eat daily rations out of the food boxes.”
“And what do we do in the morning?”
“They come round and give us Malmals. They’re sweets that make us feel a little better about what we do. And we have to go into the barn and listen to government tapes about working hard.”
“Sounds like drugs and propaganda to me.”
And so they spent all that day in wearisome work, pulling out weeds, while another gang came along with a weedbarrow and collected them.
It was just before they had their short break that Marie spotted some plants growing wildly that she didn’t recognise. “Oh by the saints of the Illumination,” said Rig looking around furtively to see if anyone was near or within earshot. “Those are Rubscumscum herbs. They are rare and potent. They have high street prices. In light doses they send the Buzzors to sleep and if the dose is heavy enough it actually kills them. If the Buzzors spot it, or the farm stewards, then it will be destroyed immediately, and if anyone is found in possession of it, then they’re in big trouble.”
“Let’s pull them up quickly before the weedbarrow comes. We can put them in our pocket,” said Marie.
Working furiously they pulled up all the Rubscumscum plants and stuffed them in their clothes just before two prisoners in the wheelbarrow gang arrived. Rosalind saw that she had missed a plant and quickly stood on it, so that no one noticed it.
“You haven’t been doing much weeding,” said one of the weedbarrow pushers. “We’re supposed to report you wasting time.”
“She’s only started today,” said Rig. “That’s why we’re a bit behind.”
“Well, it will be noted on the ball and chain electronics, so I’ll have to report it. You will be sent up to Baronarki tomorrow to be reprimanded.”
“Don’t do that,” said Rig, “Please don’t do that. Look it was all this black girl’s fault. She suggested it.”
“Shut up! As you argue, you are wasting more time and making it worse for yourself. As an instant punishment you can miss your break time. Keep working.”
At ten o’clock that night, “End of day” was shouted all around the field. The prison labourers took themselves off to parts of the field to rest. Marie and Rig sat under a tree, lit by a full moon. Marie was crying, whimpering from the cold, her depression and exhaustion. How did she ever get in this dreadful place? Perhaps she should take the Rubscumscum herb and finish herself off. She didn’t think she could stand another day of this. Marie watched in the distance all the other prison labourers eating out of their lunch boxes, and she opened hers for the first time that day. Rig, her continual and somewhat annoying companion, connected by a foot chain, had fallen off to sleep.
She ate a sandwich. The bread tasted stale, the contents tasted slightly of fish-paste, although what it was she had no idea. She only ate one sandwich. It left such a horrid taste she drank the whole bottle of orange juice that accompanied it. At last she pushed the box down on the soft earth and shivered. She put her head in her hands and tried very hard not to sob.
“You must stay very quiet,” said a voice in the dark.
She looked in the direction from where the voice came but could make nothing out in the darkness, but she recognised the voice.
“Keep very quiet,” it whispered. “It’s me.”
“Hello,” she said softly.
“Don’t let anyone know you’re talking to me. Don’t speak unless you really have to, and then keep your voice very low.”
“Okay,” she whispered.
She felt his feathers on her arm. She knew who it was now. She was so pleased he had come.
“I’m going to set you free,” he said.
“How can you do that?”
“I’ve been to see Tchi,” said DagDag, “He’s working as a mechanic. I’ve bought some metal cutters from his workshop. With these you can cut the chains from your manacle.”
She felt round and found the cutters near the raven. She slowly began finding the thinnest chain near her ankle and exerting pressure on the cutters.
“Try not to make any noise,” DagDag whispered into her ear, now having hopped up next to her shoulder.
Marie didn’t want to do that, as she didn’t want to wake up Rig. Despite only one day of attachment, would she be pleased to be free of her Siamese twin!
A small crack ricocheted into the night as the link broke under the power of the cutters. She used the end of the cutters to lever the link open to release the restraint on her leg.
“How did you find me?” she whispered.
“I lost the Buzzors and hid on a roof outside the courtroom waiting for one of you to come out. Some of you came out of different entrances but I saw Tchi. I followed him. I eventually spoke to him and he told me what had happened to every one of you. Although he had no idea of what had happened to Rosalind.”
“What’s err… happening?” said Rig, stirring.
Neither Marie nor DagDag spoke. Rig sat up.
“What’s going on?” he said aloud.
“Shhhh…shhhhh,” whispered Marie slowly and quietly holding up the broken chain. “If you’re quiet you can escape with us.”
“Keep quiet. I’ve undone the chain. Don’t wake anyone up.”
“Oh. I see. Okay.”
A few minutes later Rig had cut off the ball from his chain.
“Okay, then,” said DagDag, “both of you follow me. And be very quiet. Keep down on all fours. If you lose sight of me, just stop and wait and I’ll come back to find you. Any remaining bits of chain hold in your hand or it will rattle. Bring the metal cutters. Marie first, Rig you follow.”
“Thanks DagDag,” she said, “you’re my friend.”
They followed him towards the large hedge at the edge of the field. Following DagDag’s command, they stood up and walked crept down a jitty avenued with tall hedges. At the end they came to a tall gate that was padlocked. “Snap this,” he said.
The gate insisted on squealing as they pulled it sufficiently ajar to slip through.
Five minutes later they were in the road, full, as before of litter and vehicles. The abandoned cars gave them some cover from any potential pursuers or spying eyes.
“Where are we going?” said Marie.
“Somewhere safe, I hope,” Said DagDag.
“I’ve got some stuff that puts Buzzors to sleep,” said Marie.
DagDag stopped and looked at the two escapees in the moonlight.
“It’s Rubscumscum herb,” said Rig.
DagDag insisted on stopping and having a look at how much Marie had got. It wasn’t enough, he said.
“Rig’s got some in his pockets too,” said Marie.
“You can’t have mine,” said Rig. “I want to keep that.”
“Come now, Rig,” said DagDag, “I’ve just got you out of the city farm. I think you need to pay me.”
“Yeah, well I’m out now, aren’t I? I can’t say I’m not grateful but you should have extracted your price when I was in there. Now I’m free and I ain’t giving this away for nothing.”
“Then I shall fly back and somehow let the Buzzors know where you are.”
There was a long silence and then Rig thought the better of it. He shrugged and pulled all the plants out of his many pockets. Marie took them while DagDag grubbed through the litter on the ground. He came up with a plastic bag, into which he put all the plants.
“I’m off,” said Rig. “I want to get out of this city alive, not by hanging around with your two. I’ve got ambitions.”
Marie was quite relieved, as she had found him, from the moment she had met him, irritating and untrustworthy.
The following morning, the enslaved cook, Gluid, was stirring a massive cauldron of soup in the kitchen of the banqueting hall, when he heard a tapping. It seemed to be coming from the pantry. Through the open door, he realised it was coming from the frosted window. Nobody could be outside the window because it was so high up off the road – and consequently was no use for escape – which he had already thought about. Shutting the pantry door behind him and checking that none of the other cooks were around, he unlatched the window and slid it up. The black shape that had been wobbling about behind the frosted glass now presented itself as DagDag.
Gluid’s face beamed with shock and pleasure but he was just mindful enough to suppress his squeal of hope. DagDag didn’t mince words and told him that he had a plan. He came straight to the point.
“There is to be a banquet here, this afternoon, for all the high and mighty in Plasticia, at three o’clock,” rasped DagDag quickly.
“Yes, we’re slaving away on preparations.”
“ Put all these herbs in the soup that Ursula and her cronies are going to drink. It will send them to sleep. When they are asleep I will return with Marie – who is safe with me – at half past four and we should be able to able get you out of there.”
“Serendipity is in here too, but we will never be able to rescue her. She’s in the deep orchestra pit,” said Gluid. “It’s so deep with sheer walls.”
“Don’t talk, just listen. Yes. Put this in the soup and wait for me to return.” DagDag passed over the plastic bag full of Rubscumscum. He began to beat his wings, in preparation to fly off.
“Wait!” said Gluid. “Take some food for the you and the girl.” A minute later, he had filled a bag full of bread and provisions from the pantry.
“Don’t forget, they need to be asleep before 4.30.”
“I’ll do my best,” said Gluid.
“One other thing. You remain in the kitchen during the banquet. I’ll come back and tap on the window and you can tell me if the plan’s worked, then we can set about releasing Serendipity.”
“Okay,” said Gluid.
DagDag flew back to Marie who was now waking. They had both hidden overnight in a old windowless van in a side street in the city.
*** *** *** ***
A black shadow lowered down into Plasticia, blotting out more and more light as it descended. The helicopter came down through the busy skies and eventually landed outside the steps of the ‘Gooniversity of Doshification’. On the inside of the helicopter’s opaque windows, sat two females. They sat stiff-backed on a luxury black leather sofa, somewhat obscured by a black cloud of smoke floating between them.
The girl had dark hair, interwoven with fly-agaric mushroom caps. She was complaining. The older one, her mother, sat next to her and smiled like a corpse, her mouth fixed and lopsided. She smiled in her way but did not appear to be listening.
“But mother, I don’t want to go to the Finishing School.
“Veekricide, you’re disappointing me.”
“I don’t want to learn any of their snobby arts. Mother are you listening? Oh, I see. You’ve switched on that blasted nemotoxigen again haven’t you?”
“Yes, dear, but don’t worry.”
“But I am WORRIED!”
The mother grimaced, then turned her head and looked her daughter squarely in the face. She saw the annoyance written there. She put her hand to down to her waist and flicked the toggle switch located on her hip, accessible through a hole in her clothes. Suddenly her expression transformed from a frozen complacency to one of considerable anxiety.
“I don’t want to do this stupid course.”
“But I have booked you in with Professor Argle-phark and his illustrious colleagues.”
“Well, you control the country, cancel the booking.”
“Oh well, if you are sure my cherubim, then you just won’t have to bother.” Ursula, for she it was, once again flicked on her hip switch and went back into her trance of inapproachability. Then she sent instructions to her pilot through an intercom to fly off back to her hotel at the North of the city.
*** *** *** ***
When Rosalind woke from a deep sleep that morning she found herself in a delightful antique bedroom with a four poster bed. She set her mind to wondering how she could escape from this silly school she was in. Her first lesson didn’t inspire her to stay there any longer, ‘How to use cutlery’. Despite telling them that she understood it all, they appeared to have given up listening to her and no longer paid attention to what she said.
By the beginning of the afternoon, Rosalind was in another consultation abut her career with them across a desk. Her face ached from trying not to laugh every time Malwapin, Professor Argle-Phark and Ms. Loomey said something daft – which was usually every time they opened their mouths.
She knew they had obviously mistaken her for somebody important, and she wasn’t going to inform them that she really was a prisoner who should be rotting in the dungeons below. Her pretence to be who they thought she was, was going swimmingly well, until an owl, dressed like a guard, came into their room, followed by a couple of Buzzors.
“A prisoner escaped yesterday,” said the owl. “Have you seen anyone suspicious around the building?”
Rosalind faced her teachers, and had her back to the guards so that they were unable to see her face. She didn’t turn round, she didn’t want to risk that they might recognise her.
“Do you mind!” said Malwapin angrily. “We are holding a very important educational consultation in here and you dumb-heads burst in, without so much as even a knock.”
“Sorry Doctor, but it is very important. This prisoner is very dangerous.”
“I saw a girl that could be your prisoner running off, about an hour ago,” offered Rosalind without turning round.
“Did you indeed?” said Dr. Malwapin.
“Someone opened the main door for her and she ran off down the street,” added Rosalind.
“Well you heard the young Cherubim, are you going to stand there all day?” he shouted at the owl and his two rear guards.
This was enough for them, and they turned for the door. “If she’s gone missing on my watch then I’m toast!” screeched the Owl running off.
Half an hour later, Rosalind’s new teachers informed her that she was to be taken to a great feast at three o’clock. They would be informing her further and testing her too on the great etiquette and behaviour that she had learned with them that morning. “I like parties,” said Rosalind, but secretly wondered how quickly she would be able to find a way to escape.
“And you’ll meet your mother there,” said Prof Argle-Phark.
“Uh?” said Rosalind very perplexed, but then thought better of making any other comment.
“So you’ll have an doshificationally rewarding family time,” said Ms. Loomey.
“The banquet hall must be very close if it is beginning soon,” said Rosalind, looking at the cuckoo clock on the wall.
“Oh gawd! The girl’s right. The banquet!” said Malwapin. We’ll be half an hour late by the time we get there.”
“Oh no! She’ll have our heads off,” shouted the professor.
“We’ll go in the side door at the back, no one will notice, and hopefully we’ll escape with our lives,” said Mrs. Loomey, going crossed eyed.
“Can we get an air-cab?” suggested Malwapin.
“No it’s a public holiday and all services like that are suspended. No one’s around today, apart from a very few street guards like the owl, everyone is at the banquette.”
“There’s no way around it, we’ll have to run!” said Argle-Phark.
“Come on! We have to go!” said Malwapin, highly exasperated
*** *** *** ***
Malwapin, Ms. Loomey and the professor escorted their charge through the city streets. Following in the wake of Malwapin, Rosalind climbed over the litter. She meandered between the jalopies, when she saw something that made her heart race. She caught sight of a massive TV screen affixed to the buildings. A head and shoulders photograph of a boy was depicted who had escaped from captivity. ‘Dangerous prisoner escaped from City Farm’, was written below.
“They put all escaped criminals on the ASBOID screens,” said Malwapin, noticing that Rosalind had taken quite an interest. “They give a reward for anyone who leads to their capture, and the caught criminal is executed.”
Then Rosalind swallowed hard. The next mug shot to be shown was a photo of Marie with the same words printed below. Suddenly it passed through her mind that she may be next up on the screen. She had to get her crazy mentors away from the screen. “There’s something over here, I don’t understand,” shouted Rosalind, taking over the lead from Malwapin and leaping over more litter and forging ahead. “Come on, don’t dawdle, follow me.” She knew she was heading the right way as a black signpost above her directed: ‘Great Banqueting Hall’.
The teachers – who were not in their prime – were already hurrying as fast as they could, and were somewhat irritated to be told to hurry up by a student, however important she might be. Rosalind had almost managed to get them round a corner, leaving the ASBOID screen behind. Then Rosalind noticed Mrs. Loomey hanging back. She looked behind her before catching up with them all.
“I could have sworn I saw you on that ASBOID screen,” laughed Mrs. Loomey.
Rosalind tried to laugh as much as she could. Then she quickly looked around for something to point and marvel at, so as to change the subject.
“Look, what’s that?” she asked.
Rosalind pointed up to a crowd of creatures and humanoids floating up in the top storeys of the sky scrapers.
“Oh, they’re Ego-gassers,” said Malwapin. “Come on, we haven’t got time to stand and stare.”
Rosalind scrutinized the floating bodies condemned to a life in the sky. She tried to spot Maximouse. Then she saw him, floating a 100 yards above, connected to the ground by a long thick rope. But she didn’t have time to study him for long, the teachers pushed her forward, complaining that they were late enough.
The kitchens at the banqueting hall had been a mania of speed and industry, emitting the hiss of steam and shouts of frustration, the kitchen complex contained a vast amount of kitchen hands and cooks that were involved in preparing an enormous amount of food that had to be perfection itself. Their lives depended on it. Tables had been laid out in row after row with white silk tablecloths, laden with a mint of cutlery and a lorry load of crockery. Busy bodies squeezed past each in kitchen corridors desperate to execute a chore that had strayed wildly beyond its deadline, waiters and organizers blocked every doorway; crisis stood brimming at every doorway and in every pan. Because of all this, Gluid found great difficulty putting the Rubscumscum herb in the vast cauldron of soup that was simmering. But at last, there was a moment when all the chefs, drafted cooks, waiters, and organizers had left the kitchen. He couldn’t wait for a second chance and in went the herbs. He stirred and stirred for all his worth, furtively looking around to see if anyone had noticed what he was doing. The herbs were not dissolving as quickly as he had hoped. Within seconds he heard the corridor to his left fill up again with running feet and more manic instructions to kitchen staff. The kitchen once again swelled with intention and employees.
But, probably due to the panic, no one noticed the added herb, which looked like sprigs of Rosemary floating on top of the soup. He occasionally hurried past it, intent on carrying out his orders, but secretly praying the herbs would have dissolved. Gradually they did, and their presence gradually diminished every time he passed the cauldron. He looked at his watch. In half an hour – if all went to plan – the soup would be served to the entire guard of the city.
And everything did go to plan for once. There was a brief welcome to all the guests and especially the great and magnanimous Ursula for coming to the first great Midland banquet for five years. Everyone looked up on a balcony above the stairs, the same black figure that had previously arrived by helicopter, stood up and took a bow to thunderous applause. After she had sat down, Eggplant stood on the stage and spoke into the microphone. He declared the banquet had begun! He invited everyone to tuck in and everyone followed his orders with relish. Down below in the deep orchestra pit, Serendipity – out of sight of all the diners – was now commanded to play her harpette. The acoustics of the pit was so well designed that her music radiated at a soft level all around the massive hall.
After about forty five minutes, the three course meal was now coming to an end and everyone knew that Ursula or one of her ministers would address the entire audience with a serious speech about how Palingenesis Island was changing. Those closest to Ursula and her supporters were happy with the changes, but there were rumours that one or two Blackbod scientists were wary of her plans.
While Eggplant rattled the microphone, and coughed a few times, and Serendipity’s beautiful lyrical playing came to a close, a side door at the back of the hall opened. Malwapin, Professor Argle-Phark, Mrs. Loomey and Rosalind slipped into the room like soft shadows. They were lucky. Desperate to avoid attracting any attention by walking around looking for an empty table – a nearby waiter noticed them immediately and led them back to a dark part of the hall under a staircase, where – now that the bulk of kitchen work was over – most of the kitchen staff and organizers had been eating themselves. Gluid had done as DagDag requested that morning and stayed in the kitchen, keeping in view of the pantry window. Rosalind was relieved to be sitting at a table, hidden to most of the other guests, as she certainly didn’t want to be noticed. There was still plenty of food left, so the waiters quietly served them with the meal courses. As all this was going on Eggplant had began to talk into the microphone.
“Once again, welcome everyone to this wonderful day when we can all see the great and magnanimous Ursula in our home city. What a day this will be to tell our grand progeny about.
“As you all know, the boundaries only changed five years ago, when Ursula and her allies, took control of our wonderful city. Today she is stronger in her position than ever, due to her increase in the Buzzor guard – not only here – but right across the island, due to her increase in Malmal prescriptions for everyone, due to her segregating the rich from the poor, due to her crack down on criminals and insurgents.
These are some of the great things that she has done, but she will soon do her greatest. She will introduce nemotoxigen into the Northern part of the island, and you will all be invited to breathe it – aha – you will have no choice!”
They all laughed.
“It has a wonderful flavour and – although it takes a little getting used to – it makes everyone’s life so different. Malmals calm us down but nemotoxigen will get you up and about. Last week, we were still short of supply of the wonder-gas, but within days we should be able to create enough to cover almost the entire Southern and much of the Northern part of the island. And I can say I am proud to be a part of that scientific turn around.”
Here the entire hall burst into applause, which Eggplant let go on for quite a while.
“And all of this has not been done without a struggle against opposing forces. Even today we have had insurgents try to invade the city. The Buzzor guard – and I have to say I had a little hand in this – captured six of them and they have been dealt with, however one remains at large: a big black raven called DagDag. We have known of his activities for years, he has always been an opponent of our changes for the better. If you see him, do not tarry, kill him on sight. He is a danger to Ursula the Queen of our island.”
Here many of the guests put down their eating implements and banged the table with great accord and agreement.
“And so I keep my speech quite … quite short because… because …” here he coughed and then began spluttering. “Because we have the magnanimous Ursula on the balcony.. on the balcony…” Here, to the astonishment of his audience he sank down on to his knees. “Oh dear,” he said, but no one could hear him because he had left his microphone in the stand. Slowly. gradually Eggplant rolled over and lay flat on his back, as if he was dead. People weren’t sure if it was a part of some act or it was real. A Buzzor on a table near him eventually stood up and went to his aid, as did another from the table to his left. Neither made it to the stage as they both began coughing and spluttering and then sinking to their knees. Another Buzzor stood up from another table, and another, but they both met the same fate before they had even left their tables, and within seconds sank back on to their seat and lay their heads on the table cloths or in their plates and began snoring. Another Buzzor, near the large entrance door, stood up and shrieked, “We have been poisoned,” and then collapsed back into his seat.
“Kill the cooks!” screamed a manic voice from above.
All around the hall the sound of screeching chairs being pushed back filled everyone’s ears as Buzzors and guests tried to get up from their seats, but it was hopeless. Within seconds their heads fell into their plates or they missed the tabletops completely and fell onto the floor beneath.
Rosalind and her teachers were completely astonished.
“It must be some performance that they are all involved in,” said Malwapin.
“I hope our food isn’t poisoned,” said Rosalind.
“Don’t be daft,” said Argle-Phark, “If it were, then we’d all be going out like a light.”
“But we started our food -,” began Rosalind, but stopped. She could see her friends! DagDag was flying into the hall with Maximouse and Marie behind him. She jumped out of her seat and ran screaming with pleasure towards them.
“Where on earth is she going?” asked the professor.
“I think we might have said something to offend her,” said Mrs. Loomey.
“I don’t like the look of that bird, down there,” said Malwapin. “Is that the DagDag that Eggplant’s just been on about?”
They all looked astonished at Rosalind who seemed to know this band of villains.
“Thank God you’re okay,” Marie greeted Rosalind, “We had no idea where you were.”
“Grab that rope ladder and throw it down to Serendipity,” said DagDag.
The only way into or out of the orchestral pit was by way of a rope ladder, which had been pulled up and coiled on the side. Because it was so long, it took a lot of hauling to throw it back down into the pit, which Rosalind and Marie did as quickly as they could.
“I’ll fly down and tie it around her,” said DagDag.
But Serendipity had already climbed six feet of it by the time he got to the bottom, but she wasn’t happy.
“I’m no good at heights,” she said to the raven, “I can’t climb all the way up there.” DagDag quickly flew back to the top.
“Quick,” said DagDag to Maximouse, “Give Marie your rope.”
Maximouse had coiled the rope that had kept him in the air all around his body, from his left foot all the way up to his arm pits. He quickly turned as Marie and DagDag threaded the rope into the pit. “I’ll go down and speed it up. Give me some slack!” shouted DagDag, and grabbing a part of the rope in his beak he leapt up over the small wall and flew down once again into the blackness.
“Can you hear us Serendipity?” shouted Marie. “Its your friends. Tie yourself on to the end and we’ll pull you up.”
The pit was so deep that she couldn’t see the fairy at all, but they could hear Serendipity’s reply as they acoustics were so good.
“I’m doing it,” shouted Serendipity
Then they could hear DagDag telling her to be still while he flew around her allowing the rope to attach her securely. By the time most of it had uncoiled, Maximouse had twirled around so many times he had gone dizzy.
Gradually the Maximouse, Marie and Rosalind pulled Serendipity up from the pit. As they did so, DagDag went into the kitchen to fetch Gluid. Everything had been going excellently, but as Serendipity gradually came up the pit, the escape began to go down hill.
For not everyone in the hall had eaten the soup. There was a table of four Buzzors who had also come in late. The Buzzor who had ordered for the rest had not noticed the first course and had omitted it from the table’s order. Also, even though Rosalind’s teachers had cogitated at their table for quite some time as to whether they had made a mistake, they had now decided that they had and now it was their duty to apprehend DagDag and all his revolutionaries. So as Serendipity was hauled towards the lip of the pit, four Buzzors raced towards her three rescuers intent on destroying them all. Not far behind them on the other side of the room was professor Argle-Phark and Malwapin racing down an aisle, also trying to do their duty for the city. Mrs. Loomey, however, was so upset she remained at her table, unable to move or talk.
From one of the Buzzors a crossbow bolt now fired across the hall, but fortunately missed all of the escapees. Then Gluid came rushing out of the kitchen carrying a sack over his shoulder and a carving knife. Seeing what was happening he put down the sack and ran towards the armed Buzzor, who himself was heading for the girls. Gluid flung the knife and took off the giant insect’s tentacles, sending the insect reeling to the floor, the crossbow landing in a plate of seafood at a nearby table.
Marie concentrated on pulling on Serendipity’s rope as hard as she could, but her eyes almost popped out when she spotted another Buzzor coming at her. She screamed. Rosalind turned and quickly kicked over a small table in the path of the horrible adversary.
DagDag appeared and landed on the Buzzors head and started pecking at it’s dreadful red and black eyes. As this was going on Serendipity’s hands came over the edge of the pit and grasped a firm hold, allowing her to pull herself into the room.
“Out of here, everyone!” shouted Rosalind.
“You’re not going anywhere,” shouted Malwapin, grabbing her around the throat. “You’ve been taking us for a right little ride, you little…. You are one of the prisoners and to think we thought – ouch!”
Rosalind elbowed him in his stomach and ran towards the main door. DagDag was in the air just above her, leading the way. Behind her was Marie and Serendipity. Gluid was the last to get out. He collected his bag, threw it over his shoulder and walked out backwards, defensively waving his knife threateningly in the air.
But now more and more of the Buzzors were beginning to wake. It only took them seconds to remember where they were and what was happening.
“Outside to the left,” shouted DagDag to Rosalind, “Tchi’s waiting!” She followed the raven down a main street and then a side street, which ran alongside a park. And there was Tchi standing in front an old red car.
“Where have you been!” he shouted, “You said you’d be here ten minutes ago.”
“Things didn’t go to plan,” said DagDag landing on his head. “Get in the car quick!” Tchi quickly jumped into the driving seat.
DagDag flew back to Gluid to see how many were chasing them. It was not a wise move. Buzzors were pursuing at speed and arming their crossbows. He was soon leaping about in the air trying to avoid the bolts.
Everyone was clambering in the car. The last to get in was Gluid, but as he did, a bolt flew through the air travelling straight at him. The tip rent his back, the bolt going all the way through, the arrow tip sticking out at the front of his body where his heart was placed. His inert body and the bag it carried fell into the car and slumped over Rosalind on the back seat. She yawned – rapidly losing consciousness from drinking the soup – and tried to push him off. The car engine started immediately, and was now throbbing eager to pull off, but waiting for DagDag to fly in the open back window. But as the raven dived down another bolt came along and swept the bird away. He cart-wheeling uncontrollably away, his wing becoming pinned to a nearby wooded barn door. “Go without me,” he barked in pain, “Get out of here! Now! You must stop this woman!”