The cover picture says it all, but how do you come up with a wild, rambunctious book like The Runes of Ire?
Back in the day, I heard an old guy's name - Garney Barnicoat. Some names just seem story laden. Like Fabian Spice. The flavor in such names is like an echo of someone's ancestors.
I went in to a workmate and said, 'Garney Barnicoat. You could write a story.' She looked up and smiled. She knew what I meant. 'Garney Barnicoat goes South!' I said, 'or, Garney Barnicoat goes to Africa. Hey! Or even Garney Barnicoat and the Runes of Ire! What would that be about?'
Well now I know. I never guessed it would be such an enormous, rich, rambling adventure, or that Garney was just 12 years old. And I hadn't even thought of the House of Two Rooms, or 4 1/2 dimensions back then.
You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll tuck your kindle under your pillow at night. Here is the first chapter. You can get more by following the above link, and downloading the sample onto your kindle, or clicking on the 'Kindle for PC' or whatever icon on that site.
‘Go!’ she said, ‘Fly!’
He flew – up the corridor to the lift, only making out the inky scrawl upon it as he arrived:
‘OUT OF ORDER.’
Not again. Desperation edged his eyes as he ran to the window and looked down. A bus trundled along the street. He turned and pelted for the stairs, taking them two and three at a time; four above a landing. He’d done this before and knew the tight spots.
The echo from the concrete stairwell amplified the:
into an other-world racket.
‘Watch out Barnicoat!’ squarked the man from 405, dodging.
Above the sound of his hammering feet Garney heard ‘405’ enter his apartment, ‘The boy’s a public nuisance—never amount to anything.’
‘Perhaps,’ said Mrs 405.
KaPOK! Garney exploded from the ugly, grey apartment building where he lived, into a cold, grey, rainy morning. Late again!
In the far distance three people were stepping up into the bus.
‘Wait!’ he yelled. No one heard him above the sound of traffic. He sprinted for it; his schoolbag swinging wildly. The queue became two people.
Puddles soaked his socks so he did that funny ballerina run where you leap off one foot before the next one hits so the water shoots underneath the up shoe and you pull the down shoe out before the puddle sloshes back in. He was doing this with some success and the bus loomed close with promise. But not quite close enough.
‘Wait!’ he called again, but the last person was looking forward, stepping up, and didn’t see him. ‘Am I invisible this morning?’ he fumed.
‘Waaaiit!’ He swung his schoolbag high to attract attention, but it over-swung and landed on his foot like a lead soaked football. Books and sandwiches were booted out of the bag and into a long pool of water. He tripped and dived in after them. The wave sloshed out, then back, sending freezing water along his leg and into his underpants.
He looked up. The bus was still there! Maybe the bus driver was waiting! He frantically stuffed the soggy books and sandwiches back into the unholy mess that was his schoolbag and ran for the door…
…as it closed.
Had the bus driver been watching he would have seen a boy, muddied and wringing wet, nose pressed against the glass, pawing forlornly, with bits of grass and twigs sticking to him, looking like a soggy lamington waving a ticket, yelling: ‘S-T-O-P!’
But the bus driver was watching the traffic as he revved up, which drowned the sound. The bus drove away.
Garney stared as the bus dwindled into the distance. Silence rained down with the all swallowing drizzle. Water trickled in through the holes in his shoes. A long sigh of resignation misted in the morning chill. Marrott will be onto me again, he thought. His shoulders slumped.
Despite this, even a short swim on the sidewalk couldn’t long drain the happiness from Garney on this day, for on this day he was to come into his Twelfth.
‘In the Barnicoat family, this means inheritance, boy!’ his Uncle Horvest had impressed on him many times. ‘It means the House of Two Rooms! It means you’ll come into your Coat!’ Uncle Horvest often spoke with exclamation marks. How one could ‘come into a coat’ Garney had no idea. He had asked, but Uncle Horvest clammed up—only ‘Twelvers’ and over were allowed to visit or even talk about it. There was something secret about Two Rooms.
He knew only that it was ‘away’ in the country. In his mind Two Rooms was a cosy cottage; a place of warm fires and long stories told around the hearth. Being ‘away’, getting there wasn’t easy. Fortunately Aunt May was taking him there for the holidays—starting that afternoon.
To Garney it felt like the night before Christmas. It felt like standing on the edge of a cliff. And, soon enough, his walk became a bounce as he forged his way to school. It lasted almost till he reached the school gate.
At zero minus four minutes Mr Marrott was having a good day. He marched up the corridor to his classroom, scolding two students for slouching, one for shuffling as he walked, and two for ‘looking suspicious’. He was feeling particularly good because today was ‘come-uppance’ day. It was Grades Day and the best students (especially those who Mr Marrott thought met the grade) got good marks, while those that lived outside the square (especially one child) got bad marks.
By ‘outside the square’, Mr Marrott meant those—those children—who spent time in the world of dreaming. He never dreamed. Certainly he could never remember any—and would never ever admit it to anyone else. Mr Marrott lived in the perfect concrete world of action and consequence.
‘Actions have consequences!’ he told his students. Mr Marrott never allowed anyone to avoid the consequences of their actions. This went especially for one student who dreamed more than anyone Mr Marrott had ever met. It was as if that student had come from dream-land! And that student was about to get his come-uppance.
At zero minus three minutes Mr Marrott entered his classroom exactly on time, which was exactly as he should, because ‘One minute late is late!’ as he frequently told Garney when his homework was passed in. That certain student slipped in quietly behind Mr Marrott, one minute and five seconds later. Fortunately for Garney, Mr Marrott did not notice because he was organising report cards into order. This done, at zero minus two minutes, Mr Marrott strolled along the aisles of the classroom, handing out cards to the students as he passed.
‘Forsythe, straight A’s,’ he chortled, ‘Well done Forsythe.’ Forsythe was a good ‘book man’. Mr Marrott smiled—well, his mouth smiled, but the rest of his face was unmoved.
‘Harman, C’s. Try harder Harman. Huddersby, D’s. Huddersby, you are just like your father.’ Huddersby scowled, which was exactly what Mr Marrott had expected him to do—Huddersby’s father used to scowl too.
‘Johnson, A’s and B’s. Challenging Forsythe! Very good.’
Abruptly his chortle stopped like it had been crushed under a jack boot. He towered over Garney from what seemed a great height, his grades hand held high.
‘Barnicoat—G’s and H’s!’ He flung the grades card to the desk in front of Garney. Though it was not more than two pages, in Garney’s mind it landed with a thud-ud-ud. A cold, dead thing.
‘Phwaw!’ said the class. The blood drained from Garney’s face.
‘Until I met you Barnicoat, I didn’t know the school had G’s and H’s, so I had to look them up. You might be surprised to know that G and H doesn’t stand for ‘Good’ and ‘Happy’.’ The class sniggered. Garney looked ashen and tried to scrunch down in his seat.
‘It works on a sliding scale,’ Mr Marrott continued matter of factly, ‘where A is for Very High Achievement—that’s right, isn’t it Forsythe?’
‘Yes sir,’ piped Forsythe.
‘Through B to C—Satisfactory and D—Not Yet. True Huddersby?
Huddersby scowled again as expected.
‘On our sliding scale, G is for ‘Utterly Useless’ and H is for ‘Amazingly Utterly Useless. For goodness sake, in Science you scored minus four!’
Mr Marrott looked over at Forsythe, ‘Barnicoat… That’s one of those shellfish that clings to ships: a very low form of life, isn’t it Forsythe?’
‘That’s a barnacle sir, begging your pardon.’
‘Hmm,’ his eyes narrowed to tight, nasty, mean slits as he came in close to Garney’s ear, ‘Barnicoat, you are, all by yourself, lowering the class average by three points. You are in a class of your own;
one for ditherers—
The class exploded with harsh laughter.
The noise stretched out in Garney’s inner world like a slow motion nightmare. ‘Ha, ha, ha...’ on and on; an ugly, clawing madness. He pressed his eyelids together and stuck his fingers in his ears, trying to shut it out—wishing in his crying heart that it would all please stop.
Then suddenly it did. As sudden as being dashed with ice-water his inward focus sharpened like a razor drawn across steel. The real world shrank, like falling down an infinite well. In that well the laughter became a physical thing that he might reach out and break into powder. He reached for it, and with the first touch the ‘Ha...Ha...Ha...’ ground to a halt, as if time itself was rusting up. All utterances, laughter and hubbub stopped like someone had shut the door on a tomb. He hit the bottom of the well, abruptly aware that he was still in class, and that something very odd was happening.
The silence was so all pervading that Garney’s hammering heart was like a tom-tom.
He opened his eyes and unplugged his ears. Everyone was still there, frozen mid-laugh: glaring, leering puppets. Mr Marrott was bent forward in a frozen donkey’s bray of a laugh, right next to Garney’s ear. Garney pulled away.
Creeping out, eyes wide, he slipped out the other side of the desk and prickle-walked his way to the door, past Thatch Huddersby’s upturned face—a carnival clown grimace of laughter. Garney threw open the door and stepped through.
In the corridor the cleaning lady was bent over her bucket. Her big posterior, frozen in space, dared him to comment. But then she turned and caught his look.
‘`Ere. Wot’choo doin’?’
As if breaking the spell with her ordinariness, the classroom exploded into laughter behind him, until a silence of a more ordinary kind descended—the silence of complete amazement. Garney Barnicoat was gone.
Rare. That’s what they called him. It had been nearly six months since Garney had lost his father, and they rode him hard about it. Hiding in the toilets for the rest of the day, his memories returned to haunt him.
‘How many kids lose a parent?’ Huddersby had taunted. The other children counted.
One, they decided.
Him, they decided.
Rare, they decided.
He missed his father terribly. He had waited forever for his father to take him to Two Rooms. But now that chance was robbed.
Life had been one long strip of hell since his father was lost; with police, and lawyers and papers and everything up in the air. Perhaps that’s why I wigged out this morning, he thought. For some reason he could not understand, he and the world never seemed to line up. Everything was always wrong. Lifts broke down, buses took off, fathers got lost. Lateness was his name. Garney stood for ‘G’s-and-H’s’. He did not understand the world and felt that he might never understand it. He did not fit here. He was always late. He was always out of step.
For a little while there was no Two Rooms, no family name, neither reason nor rhyme. The sense of hope he felt about Two Rooms, that it might fix make things better somehow, trickled away into the spaces between the grey tiles at his feet and left him with no shield against harsh reality.
Later, Garney peered out of the stairwell window and scanned the schoolyard below. No Thatch. Children pushed and shoved, eager to find their buses. After a full minute he was sure. No Thatch.
He hammered the stairs. ‘Watch out Barnicoat!’ cried old Mr Cooper, dodging as Garney nearly took him out. Like an echo from the morning Garney heard Mr. Cooper enter the staff room ‘The boy’s a public nuisance. He’ll never amount to anything.’
‘Perhaps,’ said another.
Garney exploded from the ugly, grey classroom block into a cold, rainy afternoon. He stopped dead and looked cautiously around. No Thatch. He sighed with relief, spiked out to the footpath and looked for Aunt May’s car.
‘Barnicoat!’ said a voice in his ear. Thatch Huddersby and three of his gang. Icy chills traced the rain that trickled down his back. ‘Where have you been, hey?’ Thatch was big and ham-fisted and mean and was gunning for Garney.
‘I—‘ said Garney looking around desperately. No one came to his aid.
‘So our gang’s not good enough for ya, hey?’ said Huddersby, giving Garney a grand push. Garney had avoided Huddersby’s gang exactly because they were big and ham-fisted and mean.
‘Well I figure if yer not with us,’ Huddersby leaned in close, threatening, ‘ya must be against us. Right boys?’ His mates jeered. ‘What was that trick ya played on us today, hey? The others are all saying that ya dropped under the table and snuck out while we was laughing. But I saw. Well don’t think yer goin’ ter escape so easily now. We’ve got some unfinished business.’
Thatch pulled back with his fist but—big swing, no ding—at the last moment Thatch put out his other hand and punched it hard instead and said loudly ‘Yeah, baby!’ For a second Garney couldn’t figure, until:
‘Oh, I see you’ve been waiting with your friends Garnet’ said Aunt May who had come up quietly from behind. ‘Are you okay to go?’ For a brief moment the sun pierced the clouds and a single ray caught Aunt May exactly, as always, dressed in a black dress and a baggy-sack shiny silk hat.
Huddersby put his arm around Garney’s shoulder like they were best pals.
‘Yeah he’s right ter go,’ Thatch said brightly, ‘right as rain. I’ll catch ya soon, Garney…’ he turned toward Garney with a smile that teemed with menace, ‘…real soon.’ Huddersby’s gang slunk away. Garney shrank inside.
The lights of the repaired lift glowed dully as Garney and Aunt May headed to the 13th floor of his apartment building. The dingy carpet in the hallway was worn out and smelled. Garney hardly noticed; he had lived there too long.
‘I’m home Mum!’ he called as he entered the flat. The light of a bare bulb illuminated brown and grey furniture and peeling yellowing wallpaper. He found her in the bathroom/toilet/laundry, closing his suitcase.
‘Hi G,’ she said, ‘how was school?’
‘Fine thanks,’ he said. He didn’t mention his grades... or the strange incident in Mr Marrott’s class... or Thatch Huddersby’s intention to turn him into a human punching bag. His mother had enough to worry about.
‘I packed your case for you, since you somehow forgot to do it earlier.’ Garney had gone to pack his case twice that morning, but as usual it never happened. He just seemed to get distracted as he went to do things.
‘You’d best head off if you are to arrive before sunset.’ She kissed his forehead. A worried look touched every corner of her face. Since his father was gone, this was the only look he ever saw.
He threw his arms around her and squeezed hard.
‘It will be better,’ he said, ‘just you wait.’ She smiled a faded reflection of a smile. She had been like that ever since Garney’s dad was gone. These days she just seemed to shuffle through the day. Before he was gone, she was always bright and chirpy. But since then she took in other people’s ironing to make money and he knew he was one of the people that other people called poor. Aunt May had offered to help, Uncle Horvest and Auntie Joylene had offered too, but Crystal said no. Garney sometimes wondered if it was not the loss of his father, but Garney himself that made her worry so. Maybe his scatter-brained ways had tired her out.
In the refuge of Aunt May’s car the city gave way to country. The falling rain, the mist over the passing fields, the shadow world of the farmhouses that loomed and then were lost in the dreary light; all echoed the feelings in Garney’s heart. Having not returned to class, he would have more explaining to do after the holidays; another weight on his conscience.
‘So,’ said Aunt May, breaking into his mental cave, ‘How is your report card looking.’
Garney cringed, and Aunt May caught the look.
‘I shouldn’t worry about your grades yet,’ she said, ‘Boys your age never can concentrate. You just haven’t found anything worth focussing on so far. I know that you have it in you—there were Barnicoats in the past noted for having tremendous powers of concentration. I dare say that when the time is ripe, you will follow in their footsteps. Mind you, if you have any talent, it will need endless practise. I have always thought that if a person could focus—really focus mind—long enough and well enough, that person might have special powers.’
Garney nearly choked. To hear Aunt May talk of such things as—well powers—was kind of spooky. Until that moment Aunt May had been the pillar upon which logic rested. If she believed in powers...?
Aunt May flashed him a look in the mirror. ‘Now Garney, I haven’t lost my marbles yet. There’s powers and then there’s powers. There is the power of a positive attitude for a start.’
Garney frowned, ‘For a moment I thought you meant real powers, like real magic.’
‘Well, there could be some of that about too. I have heard certain fantastic tales about the Barnicoat clan. But I think that the magic of a positive mental attitude is probably the most important, for without it all good things go astray in the end.’
Of course, she was right. From the normalcy of the car Garney put his episode in class down to stress and imagination. He had imagined the whole thing.
Aunt May turned down a narrow lane. The scruffy hedges gave way to rows of stately trees with amber and green leaves that met high over the top of the car, creating a kind of living tunnel. The tunnel brightened as the sun came out and sparkled in the raindrops that clung to the leaves like a billion rainbow coloured jewels. The trees seemed to bow to him as they passed and shook themselves free of the rain. Maybe a breeze from the car made the leaves flutter. Garney didn’t know.
Behind the line of trees a hedge grew, red and yellow, too high to see over. He wondered whose place this was and who did the gardening. Perhaps a neighbour. Whoever it was must love the living things that grew there.
A tiny cottage came into view, almost inside the hedge. It looked cheery enough and Garney thought, ‘Well, this is it then,’ but Aunt May drove straight on. Garney opened his mouth to ask how far they had to go, but the lane ended and the sun shone brightly on his inheritance. He left his mouth firmly open.
‘Welcome to the House of Two Rooms,’ said Aunt May, ‘though why it is called that is “lost in the mists of yore,” as your grandfather, Diamond Jim, used to say.’
A huge house stood before him, grand yet warm and inviting. Its walls of amber sandstone, each stone was keyed to fit the one next to it, though no two stones were exactly alike in size. One half of the wall was covered in ivy that grew neatly around the windows. A great door it had and generous windows high up and low down.
Garney was thunderstruck, as well you might be if suddenly you were given a mansion. But how could he possibly, in his wildest dreams, hope to look after a place like this? Aunt May saw the look on his face. ‘Don’t worry. This place mostly looks after itself. And you’ll find a few others that live here also. It’s the shared inheritance of all the Barnicoats who have Pepper Barnicoat as their multi-grandfather.’
She fished into her coat pocket, then passed him a large silver key, shaped like a long thin dragon, the curves of its wavy tail forming the bumps that would trigger the lock. A small jolt of electricity arced from the key to his finger as he took it, making both of them jump.
‘Mmm,’ said Aunt May, a small mischievous smile kicking at the corners of her mouth, ‘It does that.’
The pebble path crunched under his feet as he made his way to the huge double doors. On each, like the key, there were silver dragons: not fat, but lithe, elegant creatures. They stared at him, daring him to enter. He looked down to the lock with a vague sensation that they were sizing him up. He shook this off, and sank the key’s tail into its hole.
Shloom-klonk! The sound of the door bolt making its retreat echoed through the vast building. The doors swung open. Opposite, past the entry area and through a large window, he saw a courtyard filled with trees laden with pink and yellow flowers—both on the same tree! The entry was bounded on the left by a wall with a door and on the right by an arched doorway next to a tapestry of the Barni-Coat of Arms—a shield with a man wearing a flowing robe and holding a staff.
Prickles of anticipation danced on his scalp. The door’s sandstone arch swept overhead as he mounted two steps onto a granite landing. At his right hand, a stairwell of stone and heavy wooden stairs spiralled up dimly, calling him to an unknown world. Garney was tempted to follow but, glimpsing the next room, he was drawn forward by his astonishment. He practically fell down the two stairs on the other side for his eyes told him that the next room wasn’t. Rather, it was a forest.
Slowly the space resolved into a vast painting where everything, even the furniture, looked like a forest. Its trees stretched back as far as the eye could see.
He ventured into its eerie quiet, then clapped his hands to break the spell of silence. The noise fell dead, lost in the trees that were not there.
‘Who’s that?’ asked a disembodied voice. Garney whirled around; his eyes darted this way and that. Finally a shape shifted in a chair that Garney had mistaken for a bush, revealing a boy wearing a cloak so drab, so utterly boring, it all but disappeared into the background. In the boy’s hand was a walking stick.
‘Eldeth!’ said Garney with surprise and delight, ‘What are you doing here? Where did you get that awful coat?’ Eldeth laughed and held out the grandest walking stick Garney had ever seen—it was covered in carved stories. Garney pulled on it, dragging Eldeth out of the chair and into a standing position. He hardly noticed Eldeth’s crooked spine and stunted legs anymore.
‘Have you forgotten?’ said Eldeth, ‘I came into my Twelfth…’
‘Three days ago!’ said Garney slapping his forehead.
‘Yes, exactly! And as for my Barni-coat—observe.’ He pulled it off and threw it away. Garney went cross-eyed trying to follow the drab thing against a background of trees. ‘Fetch,’ said Eldeth, grinning. Garney went over to it and reached down. What he thought was the coat was just a pattern on the floor.
‘Exactly,’ said Eldeth, and lifted it off the floor several paces away.
‘But…’ said Garney.
‘Beats me too,’ said Eldeth. ‘There is one here for you; just don’t put it down without thinking. It’ll take ages to find again.’
Like a ringmaster to an audience, Eldeth made an arc with the walking stick’s tip, circumferencing the walls. ‘How cool is this room?’ his eyes danced, ‘But watch out. It plays with your mind. Squint, and you’ll see what I mean,’ he fixed Garney with a conspiratorial look, ‘There’s something going on.’ He squinted, and looked deep into the forest painting. ‘Can you see?’
‘What are you doing?’ said Garney.
‘Just clam up and look and wait.’
Garney clammed up, squinted, and peered out through his eyelashes and waited. Nothing.
Time stretched out, but Eldeth didn’t move. Finally, Garney shook his head and opened his eyes—at which moment something flitted across his line of sight, too fast for him to be sure of what he had seen. He got an impression of a small red and yellow bat. He squinted again. Nothing. Perhaps he imagined it, except—there!— it happened again; this time further away, a larger animal leapt from behind one tree only to disappear behind another before he could properly focus on it. Pretty soon out of the corner of his eyes, beasts and creatures seemed to be moving all over the place, but not once could he properly catch them at it.
He tried to open his eyes wider to get a better look, but as soon as he did, the animal either disappeared or turned into a normal part of the painting.
‘I’ve been trying to catch the animals out,’ said Eldeth, ‘but after a while with all that squinting, you get tired, fall asleep and have weird dreams. And,’ he said, ‘the whole place is exactly nothing like it seems. Come. Look! Watch out for the dragon,’ he said, then without explanation, went to the spiral stairway and with a flick of his coat, disappeared into the dim.
Dragon? Garney blanched. Considering how real the forest room was, he wasn’t sure that he wanted to see any dragon, though his legs leapt after Eldeth, drawn by the magic of the place and a fear of being left behind.
Eldeth’s seemingly disembodied voice came to him from the hall above, ‘I’m so glad you got here. I’ve been wanting to explore the place—it’s so big!—but I wanted to go with you because I thought that would be better fun and also there are places around here that feel, well, spooky.’
Eldeth stayed ahead of Garney as they walked up a vast hallway. He moved fast for a kid with a walking stick. Finally Eldeth stopped before a closed door. When Garney caught up, he dropped his bag in astonishment. On that door was the most amazing carving of a dragon, he had ever seen. Coloured in Lapis Lazuli and gilt with gold leaf, it seemed to turn on him, fixing him with defiant eyes, perhaps a trick of the light. It one of the most beautiful creatures he had ever seen, lithe and beautiful. Its wings were curved as if it was caught in flight, pivoting in the air.
‘Don’t you love it!’ said Eldeth, ‘I knew you would. I’ve always thought that you would be good at dragons.’ What he meant by this, Garney couldn’t guess. ‘I’m in the room down the hall with the Lion-Thing on the door.’ Garney thought Eldeth had said ‘Lion King’ and so made no comment.
Inside, Garney found a bedroom fit for a king. Dragons graven into the walls seemed certain to fly away at any moment or to leap into the room and fill it with their majesty. After living in the tiny flat, he had forgotten that places could be so grand.
He yelled ‘I love it!’ and flung himself onto the bed.
Garney gulped. It was dinner time, but it was not the food that made him gulp. Rather, the blurred out water-washed colour of sea creatures rippled underneath the marble dining room floor. At least, he guessed it was marble, if very confused marble, and, at least, he guessed they were sea creatures.
Suddenly the whole floor darkened with the shadow of something vast and intimidating. The other colours ran away in schools. Garney dared not squint, for fear of what he might not-quite-see. No one else seemed to notice, or at least were quite pointedly not noticing.
He, Eldeth, Uncle Horvest, Auntie J and Aunt May inhabited only one end of the vast oak table that ran along the length of the dining room, edged with king’s chairs carved with the Barni-Coat of Arms.
Sporting a handlebar moustache on a red face, waistcoat and big fat tie on a big fat belly, Uncle Horvest stood out like a pumpkin at a party. ‘Glad to see you could make it old chum. Capital, capital.’ He pulled out a pair of large cigars and offered them to the boys, ‘For after dinner…’ he said by way of explanation when they refused, ‘…by way of celebration.’ He looked a bit put out, so, not wanting to offend, the boys took the cigars and put them in their pockets. They would never be smoked. Garney had puffed on one once and could feel the green flush through him just with the thought of it now. It seemed to him that having one after dinner would be some form of rare torture. He would just have to find somewhere to hide it.
‘I take it Eldeth has shown you around?’ Uncle Horvest twirled the end of his moustache.
‘Well really I’ve not yet...’
‘Oh fine, that’s good then. Capital!’ Uncle Horvest never really did listen to answers. Somehow the asking of the question seemed sufficient in itself—to Uncle Horvest at least.
‘This is a special day for you!’ said Aunt Joylene excitedly, pinching Garney’s cheek a little too firmly. Garney kept smiling, though he gritted his teeth and his eyes began to water. She rummaged in her handbag, ‘I’ll run and check the desserts. I wouldn’t want to mess up the mango mousse, but these should tide you over till I get back,’ Garney knew what they would be before the hand came above the edge of the bag. It was a handful of sweets. Auntie J always had sweets in that bag. It was as if they were a self-replenishing supply.
‘You’ll fritter away to a shadow if you don’t eat.’ There was no chance of Auntie J frittering. She turned and heaved to the kitchen, her buns reminding Garney less of buttocks and more of a pair of koalas fighting in a hessian bag. Garney sometimes wondered at the vastness of his Aunt and Uncle, given that Eldeth, their son, was so thin.
They had enjoyed a sumptuous birthday dinner in the huge, high domed dining room. Its walls were painted into scenes with strange animals—perhaps prehistoric, maybe mythical. The view seemed to stretch back forever. In the far distance creatures like those on the front doors of Two Rooms ducked and swooped over a blue sea. Seemed to duck and swoop, Garney corrected, though it was hard for him to be sure the movement was not real.
In the middle distance, the creatures flew above brightly coloured houses. Garney was reminded of the pictures that formed in his head when he read fairy tales. Truth was, the houses seemed exactly like the pictures in his head. Why this was, he couldn’t imagine. There were other animals, not as large yet no less magnificent. There were lion-things with golden, cat-like eyes. Garney was sure they were moving (‘capering’ might have been more accurate, for the movement was quite quick), though he could never quite catch them at it.
Upon the dome above him, as if at mid-morning, the sun shone. Seeing as it was the middle of the night, he asked Uncle Horvest about it. Horvest was all ‘poppycock’ and ‘fiddlesticks’ about it.
‘It’s just a light, what,’ he harrumphed, ‘and very difficult to replace when it blows too. Can’t see how the devil we will ever be able to get up there. Just as well it never blows!’
‘Never?’ said Garney.
‘Never,’ said Horvest, ‘and a jolly good thing too!’
Garney lifted his feet off the floor—the sensation of wetness from it too strong to ignore. He looked down for the hundredth time.
‘You see it, don’t you?’ said Eldeth. Garney nodded. ‘Well if that doesn’t beat all. I knew I wasn’t imagining things. I mentioned it to the ‘olds’ but dad said it was ‘Stuff and Nonsense’ and would hear no more of it. Mum said I was a boy with a “highly active imagination,”’ he imitated Auntie J. ‘Sometimes it feels like I might suddenly fall into the sea.’
‘It’s not Stuff and Nonsense,’ said Garney, ‘There’s something going on, like in the forest room.’
Aunt May overheard. ‘Take care in Two Rooms,’ she cautioned, ‘Things are rarely as they seem.’ Family history hinted of secrets, she said, and treasures, she said, both now well hidden. The Barnicoats had once been numerous, she told them, but time had taken its toll and few now remained. The stories had been lost. Now only the house remained—and Garney of course, and Eldeth, and precious few others. The emptiness of the rest of the table called witness to this fact.
Rather than dampening their interest, her warning had a livening effect. ‘Treasures and secrets!’ whispered Eldeth immediately. ‘We must find the attic.’
‘Attic?’ wondered Garney, ‘Why the attic?’
Eldeth looked askance at Garney, ‘Because surely, surely, that is where all the greatest secrets are held. Everyone knows that. And,’ he added, ‘I know exactly where to start.’