Saturday started crap and got worse.
Fresh from the bathroom, Ted peered through his bedroom curtains at a grey December morning. He pulled a face and the shoulders of his reflection sagged. The streetlights were still on and they turned the drifting cold drizzle into an orange mist. Eventually he would have to cycle out in that to get to work, and just knowing he still had another half hour of centrally heated warm and dry didn’t make him look forward to it any more.
He lifted his eyes a little towards Stephen’s house the other side of the street, dark and lifeless. His shoulders sagged a bit more. No, don’t do that.
He looked back at himself and his reflection cocked an eyebrow, encouraging him to look on the bright side. When he rubbed his chin, his fingers felt resistance: he was pretty certain he was actually growing something that would be worth shaving at last, once it had got past the spots. He angled his head from side to side to study his hair, still tousled from towelling. At the end of the summer he had decided to stop gelling it and just let it grow. The extra length meant he was learning things about it he had never known before. There were darker streaks in there, lurking in the blond-brown depths, which he was sure added an element of maturity and worldliness. It looked suspiciously like it might go curly if he let it grow too long, so he would have to keep an eye out for that. But it was bulking out nicely – just the right length for a girl to run her fingers through.
If he could find a girl prepared to defy the UN global embargo on going out with Ted Gorse.
“Arse,” he muttered: a general statement of his inner feelings towards wet mornings in December, and girls, Stephen, and the lack of both in his life thereof, and everything else that did or might weigh heavy upon him that day.
The door opened behind him and a brother’s instincts told him who it was without turning round. It would be a girl who was very much in his life, six years younger than him, wrapped snugly in her dressing gown. His little sister.
“I had a weird dream last night,” said Sarah.
“Gee,” said Ted as he turned back to the room. “If only there was some way of, you know, standing outside a door and communicating that you’d like to come in but you need to check that it’s okay with whoever’s in there and they’re not naked or asleep or anything – I mean, if only you could do something like phone or text or book an appointment or send telepathic messages or – hey, here’s a good one! Or sort of clench your fist, like this, and then lightly rap the knuckles against the wood. We could invent a word for it. We could call it, I dunno, ‘knocking’.”
Sarah looked blankly at him for half a second more than the time it took his words to flow effortlessly over her head.
“Yeah. I had this dream and you were in it too.”
“I’m warning you, I’m getting dressed now.” Ted was already wearing his shorts and a shirt that hung unbuttoned – so, he was perfectly decent for his own sister but there was always the hope that she would shriek, “Ugh! Gross!” and flee.
No such luck.
“And so was Robs and so was Zoe.”
“Uh-huh–” Suddenly she had his attention, but he wasn’t going to let her see it. He picked his jeans up off the floor.
“And so was a zebra.”
“Right.” False alarm. He relaxed and tugged his jeans up round his waist.
“But that went away and it was just us outside the cathedral. And there was this other guy–”
Arse! Ted suddenly found he had forgotten how to button up a shirt. His fingers fumbled as he tried to act normal.
“… only it was your friend Stephen, you know, before he died, and I was fighting him, and I was flying, and so was he and … and–” She screwed her face up, trying to remember more. “The zebra might have come back. But,” she added, pleased with herself as if she had just remembered a key point, “it was definitely, I mean, I knew it was the night Robs got better and we found him in the car outside the cathedral, didn’t we?”
Ted tried very hard to keep his face stony cold, but he obviously failed because he saw the triumph flash onto her face.
“It was, wasn’t it! I’m remembering what happened! What happened?”
“I thought you said you were remembering it.”
“Te-e-d! Tell me!”
“Well, you were right about the zebra. In fact there were lots of them. Zebras as far as the eye could see. All around the cathedral.” His fingers worked their way down his shirt front. “Making zebra noises.”
“What noises do zebras make?” asked a freshly broken boy’s voice. And there was Robert, standing behind Sarah. Ted’s brother was nearly fourteen and his voice was cracking into adulthood, but he looked at you with the tilted head and blank innocence of a small child. For four years, Robert had been catatonic in a hospice, his mind totally absent from his body. Now his mind was back but he was a nine year old in the body of a young teenager. He had special schooling to help him catch up with his age group, and boy did he know how to milk it.
“They sort of go ‘zebra, zebra, zebra’,” said Ted, “very quietly. That’s how they get their name.”
Robert giggled. Sarah wasn’t going to be distracted.
“Ted, tell me about my dream!”
“Who am I? Joseph and his techno-multicolour coat thingy? I can’t interpret dreams.”
“Sarah! Robert!” That was their mum calling. “One of you should be in the bathroom by now.”
“Ted’s being mean to me,” Sarah called back.
“Ted! Stop distracting your sister.”
“I am not distracting her!” Ted strode to the door and shouted down the hallway. “I’m trying to get dressed and she wants me to tell her what her dreams mean!”
“Sarah! Leave Ted alone! He’s got work to go to!”
“Ooh!” Sarah’s glare was like a pair of lasers beamed out through narrowed eyes. Ted swaggered back into his room and made his grin as smug as he possibly could. They both knew he had escalated this to the supreme authority and she had no choice but to back down.
“Ha, ha! Mum owned you!” Robert laughed. Sarah switched her glare to her other brother and gave him a punitive pinch. “Ow!” His smile turned into a scowl and his hand drew back in a fist.
“Oi, oi!” Ted was immediately between them. He grabbed Robert’s hand and guided it back down to waist level. “You–” To his still smouldering sister. “Get into the bathroom. And you–” He gave Robert a gentle shove between the shoulders, guiding him to the door. “Let’s have breakfast.”
“I wouldn’t have hurt her,” Robert grumbled as Ted threw bowls and cereal boxes onto the table.
“Yeah, you would. You’re thirteen now.”
“I hate being thirteen. I want to be nine again.”
Yeah, well, Ted thought, I hate being seven months older than the age of consent and no sign of me ever consenting, but you get used to it.
“You know you’re probably the only thirteen year old in the world who thinks like that?” he said instead. “Anyway, it means you’re way bigger and stronger than her.”
“I’ve always been bigger and stronger than her,” Robert pointed out logically.
“So you shouldn’t ever hit her, should you?” Ted checked his watch: by now, he was close to running late. He slammed some bread into the toaster and spooned cereal quickly into his mouth, not bothering to sit down.
Their stepfather, Barry, appeared briefly in the door, still in his gown. Ted was the only one who had to be dressed early on a Saturday morning. The rest of the household took it at a more leisurely pace.
“Ted! Be civilised!”
But he moved on without checking Ted had obeyed the instruction, which he hadn’t. He spooned the last of the cereal down and started to butter the toast.
“What was Sarah talking about?”
Robert was sitting at the table, cereal barely touched, watching him eat. Ted paused, and sighed, and kept on buttering.
“It was about the night you got me back, wasn’t it?” Robert pressed on.
“Maybe.” Ted didn’t look at him.
“I know it was.”
Until this morning, and Sarah’s dream, Ted had been the only one to have any proper memory of that night. He fully intended it to keep it that way.
Well, Robs, it’s like this, he might have said. Your mind got wiped by this evil magician guy, this thief, so he could get at this store of hidden knowledge about magic, see, which was kept in a kind of alternate-universe-Salisbury-thing, and he brought it back to this world, and I kind of had a part to play in that too though I didn’t realise it, and there’s this witch too who it turned out was on our side …
Nope. Way too complicated. And that was just the précis.
Ted crammed the toast into his mouth.
“I’ve got to get to work,” he said. “I’ll be late.”
Barry appeared in the door again.
“You’d better get to work, Ted, or you’ll be late.”
God, I’d be a wreck if I didn’t have you to manage my life, Ted said, but not out loud.
“Can’t you teach me to drive?”
“Can’t you be seventeen yet?”
“Stop distracting Ted, he needs to get to work.” Ted’s mum buzzed irritably past the kitchen door. Barry opened his mouth, thought better, closed it again. Ted was about to grin when he saw, in an unguarded flash of a moment, the hurt in Barry’s eyes.
Robert scowled up at Ted, oblivious to the low-key parental drama and knowing he was being fobbed off. Ted gave his brother’s head a quick ruffle before pulling his coat on.
“When will you give me the anti-Talk?”
Barry hadn’t yet moved out of earshot.
“What’s the anti-Talk?”
Ted stood for a moment, caught between two opposing forces. The anti-Talk, Barry, is the remedy for the Talk. It was hideously embarrassing when you gave it to me and you hadn’t got any better at it when you gave it to Robert. The number of things I need to set him straight on …
“Bye!” he said brightly, and ran out of the front door.
So, that was the crap start. As for getting crappier …
Ted pulled his bike out of the garage, swung his leg over it – and paused.
Why do you do this, Ted? Every freakin’ day …
He couldn’t help it. He glanced over at Stephen’s house on the other side of the road. The sale had finally gone through; complete strangers would be moving into the house of his childhood friend after Christmas.
God, he missed Stephen.
He had used to wonder how anyone who believed in an afterlife could be unhappy when someone died. If they really believed that person was in a better place, what was the problem?
Well, Ted was ambivalent on the afterlife but he knew for a fact Stephen was in another place, gone forever because his body in this world was smashed beyond hope of fixing, and it didn’t do the slightest bit of good, because one place Stephen resolutely wasn’t was here.
Okay, okay, enough with the schmaltz. He kicked himself away and coasted down the drive. His bike wobbled as he tugged the zip of his coat up and pulled the hood over his head. He ducked down to get the morning drizzle out of his eyes and set off down Henderson Close.
His backpack felt suspiciously light …
Ted skidded to a halt, swung the bike round and was back inside in thirty seconds.
“What the–?” said his mum has he barged past her on the stairs.
“Laptop!” he shouted. He emerged from his room and tried to stuff the laptop into his bag at the same time as he took the stairs two at a time on the way back down. He stumbled and almost fell before his mum caught him.
“Do you really need that?”
“Yes!” he gasped. “Bye!”
So now he was even later as he got back onto his bike and powered off back down the road, standing on his pedals to add weight to each thrust.
That was when he realised his hands were cold. More than that: they were freezing. It was only a ten-minute ride into Salisbury, but this was the first really cold morning of December, and if he kept going like this then he would get to work with two numb ice blocks on the end of his arms.
Later he admitted that he could have just stopped for ten seconds to put his gloves on.
They were in his right coat pocket. He tugged one glove out of his pocket with his right hand and tried to balance it on his raised fingers so that it would just sort of slide over his fist. It didn’t – it got stuck half way and almost fell off. So Ted held the base of the glove between his teeth, blocking one eye’s view of the road, and tried to work his hand into the rest of the glove.
One down! By now he was rather enjoying the challenge of putting gloves in flight. He put his right hand back on the handlebars and carefully reached across with his left for the other glove. This time he tried a different tactic. He used the thumb and forefinger of his right hand to hold the glove steady against the handlebars while working his left hand into it. It meant that out of a possible ten fingers to control the bike, just three of his right hand were now being used for the task.
At some time during what followed, it seemed that his spirit rose out of his body and into the air, and from a safe distance he observed the actions of a complete wally who should never have been allowed out onto public roads.
The bike was already leaning to the right. It hit a bump and began to swerve. He was still holding the handlebars and glove with his right hand, and his left hand was still stuck inside the glove. Both hands were on one side of the bars. He took a moment to work out what to make his left hand do, so the situation got a little worse before he was able to correct it. He corrected it so hard that he over-compensated and the bike swerved over to the left. Another over-compensation and it was heading to the right again, leaning at a dangerous angle.
He began to topple.
And here it goes, his detached mind thought as the bike finally leaned past the point of no return. I wonder if I’ll die …
Ted slammed into the road in a tangled mass of limbs and metal. His chin took the brunt of the impact and the rest of his body telescoped bone by bone into the back of his head. His brain vibrated in his skull and only the high, padded collar of his coat saved his jaw from being split open.
Then it was over. For a moment he just lay there in the road, his detached mind suddenly reunited with his aching body, and contemplated being alive.
He moved, very slowly, arm, arm, leg, leg, neck. Nothing seemed to be broken.
Ted realised he was lying in a public suburban road. He pushed himself gingerly upright, though it felt like he was pulling himself out of a hole in the ground. He sat on the wet road and tilted his face up to the dull, wet sky. Drizzle fell gently down upon him. Then he climbed slowly to his feet, while every move made pain stab into him at random points.
For a moment he thought of going back home, but there was no real point. He wasn’t that badly hurt and anyway, the thought of going back to Barry and saying, “I fell off my bike” …
He pulled the bike upright and climbed gingerly onto the saddle. He paused to let his head clear a bit more, then kicked the bike forward. It stopped so suddenly that he almost slid off. And that was when he noticed, through his daze, that the front wheel had buckled. This bike wasn’t going anywhere.
He swore one more time and turned slowly back to his house.
“I fell off my bike,” he muttered when Barry opened the front door. He stared with sullen dignity at his stepfather and dared him to laugh. Barry didn’t, though the effort made him slightly cross-eyed.
“I’d better give you a lift, then.”
And so Ted was officially late for work, because Barry still had to get dressed, and get the car out, and Ted’s mum decided that she had to run through a list of things to do that day, and they both had to pause for a very understated argument that absolutely had to be held there and then …
Ted phoned ahead to the shop to give his apologies while he waited for the bickering to die down. At least these disagreements were regular and predictable, though apparently not so predictable that they couldn’t see them coming.
He still wasn’t quite sure why they had married in the first place. His mum had only been a widow for two years when it happened, and it wasn’t out of the question that they only got together under the influence of the thief as part of his greater overall plan of totally buggering up Ted’s life. Now the thief was gone, it was quite possible they would find they had no reason to stay together. Or, as Zoe liked to point out, maybe they would, they just needed to reassess where they stood. Or something.
But the thought of them separating made Ted a lot unhappier than it would have a few months earlier.
Finally, he was in the car with Barry and heading down Henderson Close. They approached the corner where Ted had had his spectacular fall. Barry indicated, slowed–
–and with an interesting crunching noise the car lurched into a deep pothole that flung Ted hard against his seatbelt.
“What the-!?” Barry exclaimed. In a flash he was out of the car and running round to the passenger side. He stared down and ran his fingers through his hair. “I don’t believe it! How long has that been there?”
Ted wound his window down to have a look at the hole in the road. It was right next to his door.
“Just what the hell are those morons doing with our council tax? Right, I’m writing to them the moment I get back–”
Um, Ted thought. He peered again at the impression. Unlike Barry, he was looking at it almost directly from above. It was certainly bigger than your average pothole and it was right where he had fallen.
Exactly where he had fallen.
And it looked horribly like a human outline. As if he had fallen into plasticine, rather than onto tarmac, and made a full body mould.
Barry was crouching down and examining the side of the car.
“I think the shock absorbers took it … If not then the bloody council are paying for it, I promise you that! Right. Let’s get you to work.”
Ted closed his window again, and told himself it couldn’t be his outline. He sat back in the seat, tried to ignore his aches and pains, and comforted himself with the silver lining thought that from now on the day could only get less crap.
The King burst forth from the earth.
His bare feet, planted on the damp turf, could sense the power in the land. He knew immediately where he was. He had lived here; he was the King of this place and every living thing was subject to him.
Yet, it had changed. He could never have recognised it just by looking. He stood where his palace had been, at the highest point of his domain. It was the top of a round hill, a massive mound of earth, and it should have had views in every direction down into his kingdom. Now the spot was encircled with the remains of walls and a large earthen rampart so that in fact he stood in the middle of a giant bowl. Inside the rampart were the remains of buildings – buildings of stone, when his palace had been of wood – and even though he could sense they were very old in the terms of man, he knew they were still very young compared to him.
How long had he been away? And what had happened to make him leave?
Cold, light rain gusted across the grass of the mound and beads of water clung to his chest hair. He looked down at his stocky body and was intrigued to find himself completely naked. He pursed his lips approvingly as muscles slid beneath taut skin. He hadn’t lost anything in his time away. He didn’t feel uncomfortable, because he was the King, but being naked was inconvenient, so he scratched himself as he looked around and made a mental note to find clothes.
The King could sense a massive concentration of power to the south. He walked up the slope of the rampart and his eyes widened as he gazed out over the plain below where four valleys met.
A city had been built there. It covered the plain and crawled up the sides of the valleys, and it thrummed with life and energy. Surely there were more people living down there now than there had been on this entire island in the days of the kingdom.
What kind of people could build such a place? Whoever they were, they had a high opinion of themselves. The centre of the city was dominated by a giant building with a stone spire that thrust hundreds of feet into the air, challenging the very heavens. People like this, he decided, were worthy of his rule.
A stone-lined gate was cut into the rampart, and on the other side was a deep ditch. Someone had turned his old home into a fortress. A wooden bridge carried him across the ditch and then there was a locked gate at the far end, but no lock in the kingdom would keep him out and it fell open at his approach. Beyond the bridge was a wide open area of grass, and as he walked the turf gave way to a strangely hard surface, like stone but not. Next to it was a notice, a flat piece of painted wood stuck into the ground. There were also words, which he could understand because the artist had been a royal subject of his kingdom and he could sense the intent behind them.
Old Sarum. The original Salisbury.
He kept reading.
5000 years of history.
He blinked, his eyebrows rose, and he read it again. The information didn’t change. Five thousand years … and that was as far back as these people knew. He suspected he might be even older than that.
His thoughts were interrupted by a bass rumble, a regular sound like a giant animal purring. A brightly painted metal cart was rolling up the hill towards him. Its top half was transparent and a man sat within, staring at him with as much astonishment as the King stared back.
A side of the cart swung open and the man climbed out.
“Opening time isn’t until ten, and what the hell are you doing standing there naked?”
He too was a royal subject, so the King could understand him perfectly and reply without effort.
“Obviously, waiting for you to give me your clothes.”
The man’s mouth dropped open as he finally realised who the King was.
“I am so sorry! I didn’t think. Please, take them–”
A few minutes later, the King was comfortably clad in the clothes of the present time and the first of his royal subjects to acknowledge him was standing shivering and cold in the rain. The King cast a farewell eye over the desolate mound with its empty ruins. He suspected he would not be returning here.
This had been the beating heart of the kingdom; the place he held his court, full of life and revelry and sheer joy in being alive. He remembered feasts; his Queen by his side; the companionship of his lords. (Ah, yes, his Queen! Of course, she would not be up here. He would need to seek her out again.)
Now there was no question that the focus of his reign would be the new city, so thoughtfully prepared in advance as his royal capital.
“I will need your cart.”
“Please, sir, yes! It’s all yours.”
The door was still open. The King sat where the man had been and looked at the wheel and the switches and levers and dials mounted in front of him. Clearly, they did something but he had no idea what.
The man was still waiting and shivering, so the King got out again and went over to the passenger side.
“Take me down to Salisbury,” he commanded. Salisbury. He relished the taste of the name on his tongue.
“Right away, sir!
The man climbed into the driver’s seat and pulled the door closed. A gentle warm breeze filled the car as soon as the engine was turned on. As it began to move, it suddenly struck the King that he was possibly leaving his old home for the last time. He must have left it before, but he had no memory of doing so. What had happened to bring about the end of his reign, over five thousand years ago? Had he been – it was a strange thought, but it had to be faced – cast out? Defeated? Overthrown?
Already he had one – no, two – no, three tasks ahead of him. Find the Queen. Re-establish the kingdom. And make sure that whatever had happened before could never happen again.
The King sat back, enjoying the comfort of the upholstery, and let himself be transported down to his new home.
[End of chapter – return to homepage for The Comeback of the King]