Sunday, 4 April 2010

Armitage Shanks: Chapter 4



[Some of the action happens off the island in the next exciting episode ...]


"Are you sure you'll be alright Terrence?" The old car bubbled and burbled as his grandfather tried to get it revving smoothly. It was the second Thursday of the month - pension day - and time for their regular trip to the main island. "Don't fuss Nan, I'll be right. Do a bit of fishin' off the wharf." "Now you won't go out ..." "... in the boat. No Nan, I won't go out in the boat. If they're not bitin', I'll come back here and keep an eye on ... things." As he said this his eyes flitted to Peg's, and he gave her a broad insincere smile.


Peg had decided to go with her grandparents when she heard that her Pa would be going to the library. She needed to know more about Huntsmen, and about `benign'. But Terrence's malignant look chilled her. She wanted to get out of the car there and then, and rush to the toilet to warn Shanks. She'd warned him in a general way to keep away from Terrence, but this threat was more immediate. She was about to open her mouth when Pa revved and let the clutch out. With a noisy scrape of gravel, the station wagon circled the rough driveway. It was chased by a hoarsely yapping Pekinese. Car and dog both scraped down the hill, brakes full on. Terrence waved once, then walked off before they'd even made it to the bitumen. As the dog trotted back up the driveway, Peg stared helplessly out the back window.


***


If Terrence had had a moustache he would have been twirling it as he walked back onto the veranda. He was feeling so pleased with himself. They wouldn't be back for hours ... "on the 4 o'clock ferry" his nan had said. Plenty of time to find out what his crawly little sister was up to with this spider - this talking spider, he added with a grin. He sat down on the banana lounge to plan his next move, but had barely got his mind into its nasty rut when he was disturbed.


The ginger tomcat from next door half-miaowed as he heaved himself up onto the veranda and began rubbing up against the lounge. He made a noise that might have been purring, though it had a slight bubbling snarl to it. Terrence was about to stroke the cat when a dog of similar size scrabbled across the wooden floor and shoved his head under the boy's hand. The cat bumped it aside and jumped onto the boy's lap, still making that strange purr-like noise, and working its paws up and down on its host's thighs.


Terrence was wincing as he tried to work out how to get the cat off without being further scratched. The cat turned to him. "Relax boy ... sit back. We'd like to get to know a nice lad like you, wouldn't we Lump." In shock Terrence tried to stand up, but a claw began to bite into the flesh of his right leg. He sat down. "Tell him Lump." The boy tried to relax as the cat kept up its thorny massage. "O yeth, my word ... hruhh hrumm," and Lump Sum launched into a slobbering speech which left an astonished Terrence as ignorant as before.


Geoffrey Boycat sighed, stopped his clawing movement, and looked disgustedly down at the dog. "You'll have to excuse Lump, he can't think and talk at the same time. Disappear will you Lump, I think I hear Mumsy calling." Lump's face opened out into a beaming frothy smile, and he trotted off. Geoffrey followed with his eyes, then turned casually back to the boy. "Look ... the situation is this. You have a problem with a certain spider. We can help you out. Bring me a nice bit of fish, and we'll talk further."


Terrence felt top-heavy with strange thoughts and promising possibilties. He shuffled in his seat. Geoffrey looked carefully into the boy's eyes. Seeing there what he wanted to see, he slowly slipped off the lap, and took a sitting position beside the lounge, waiting. Terrence began to brush the fur from his pants, but was stopped by a swift insulted look from the cat. Instead the boy swung his legs over the side of the lounge and went to get some left-over gurnard. He placed it neatly on a cracked china saucer in front of the cat, who raised one brow before turning to eat.


As he finished, the cat began licking himself almost vigorously with his raspy tongue. When the ablutions were finally over, he looked up at the boy with the passionless smile of someone who knows they've got you where they want you. Terrence too knew he was cornered, but somehow he didn't care. It may have been simple curiosity about a talking cat. Or perhaps it was the thought that here at last he had an ally against his vile sister. Whatever it was, he eventually smiled back and said "Right-eo Wonder Cat, talk away."


* * *


After ten minutes of searching through the shelves marked "Vertebrates", Peg finally realised that spiders didn't fit into that category. She was flustered, too flustered to ask for help. But she also knew that her Pa would be back in less than half an hour. And anyway what good was all this if Terrence had got to Shanks? She miserably plopped down in the middle of the row, fighting hard against tears. One or two loud sniffs escaped before she took out one of her Nan's lacy hankies and noisily blew her nose. By now red-eyed, she looked around hoping to find the aisle still empty. Instead she was looking straight into the eyes of a boy. He was about her own age, and wore gold-rimmed glasses, and a gentle enquiring look.


Though embarrassed, Peg didn't turn away. The gentle boy smiled and tried to squeeze past. "Sorry . . . `S'cuse me." As he tucked a bundle of books under his arm, one fell onto Peg. "Oh, I'm sorry . . . Sorry. Are you okay?" Peg picked up the book and handed it back to the boy. "Sorright, I'm fine." As the boy took the book, Peg noticed the title - "Moths and Butterflies". The boy was still smiling an apologetic smile. "Sorry . . . Thanks." Seeing the girl's eyes obviously brighten, he pointed to the book and began to chat. "It's for a project on insect metamorphosis." When the girl's look faded into confusion, he stumbled on. "Um . . . on how they can change, you know, their skins and all that." Peg suddenly saw her chance. She wiped her nose swiftly on her sleeve, and struggled back to her feet, talking rapidly the whole time. "That's funny, `cause I've got a project like that too, only on spiders. You wouldn't know any good books on spiders would ya?" The boy pushed his glasses up on his nose and smiled enthusiastically. "You bet. Look, just over here."


Within minutes Peg was surrounded by a pile of books on spiders. The boy had given her some other helpful information too, like that a spider isn't actually an insect; that it has eight legs (not six like an insect); and that it isn't strictly right to call any Australian spider a Tarantula. ("They're from Europe actually.") In fact for a brain - which he obviously was - he was a pretty good bloke. She even managed not to laugh when he told her his name was Willoughby Chambers ("but my friends call me Will.") Nearly nine years with a name like Peg Priddle had to teach you something.


Though she only spent 5 minutes with him, Peg very nearly told him about Shanks. It was hard having a friend you couldn't tell anyone about. And Will seemed to have a gentleness about him that made her forget he was a stranger . . . and a boy. But in the end a well-dressed woman had peered around the end of the aisle and called out daintily "Come along Willoughby dear." Peg had stared wide-eyed at the tall woman. She seemed to send ripples of perfume and calm around her. But when Peg turned back to Will she was sure he rolled his eyes behind his glasses. All the same he obediently turned and followed his mother, waving a wordless farewell to Peg.


When her grandfather came to collect her he found Peg ready to borrow a bundle of reference and picture books. Surprised that most of them were about spiders, he didn't say anything. She seemed a lot happier than she had been in the morning, and that was good enough for him. He smiled at the squat figure who waddled jauntily down the library steps in front of him, bundle of books tucked under her arm. The purposeful look on her broad face reminded him very much of her mother - once just as innocent and keen.


The happy mood lasted only until the end of lunch. Talk of getting back to Terrence put Peg off her cream cake. She pushed the plate away from her, and flopped her head down on folded arms. She saw again her books on the floor. What use would any of that stuff be if he'd found Shanks? The thought was cold water on her soul. Without any warning Peg pushed her chair back and began to leave. Her grandmother, who hadn't noticed the sudden change, simply asked Peg whether she wanted the rest of her cake. Peg shook her head testily.


Mumbling "waste not want not", her Nan scooped up the cream cake and began demolishing it. Pa looked up at Peg. "Come on Peg, there's no big hurry. Come and sit down until Nan's finished and then we can all go." Peg squatted back on the edge of the chair, arms folded, face scarlet. Her grandfather, trying not to look at her, got up to pay the bill, then came back and tapped his wife on the shoulder. "Come on Moother, time we were gone." She glanced at her watch, then gave him a contrary look. But he had timed it well. Her mouth was still full, and she would no more speak with her mouth full than swear at the queen. With both Peg and her Pa already leaving, she had no choice but to follow.


* * *


Terrence kicked hard at an over-ripe plum, covering his shoes and legs with pulp. Even more disgusted, he picked up another and flung it at the garden shed. Two hours of looking, and not one sign of the big spider. The cat and dog had proved useless so far. "I've got it all worked out," the cat had said. "You just deliver the spider, and Lump and I will do the rest." "What rest?" he now asked himself. He wondered whether the cat had hypnotised him or something.
It was in this frame of mind that he went over to confront Geoffrey, who was usually to be found on the veranda next door. He knew "Mumsy" and "Dadsy" were out. Pension day saw half the population leave the island. "The island rises ten feet on pension day", his Pa was always saying. Terrence found Lump Sum first, and impatiently fended off his affectionate snuffles. Geoffrey, half-woken by the noise, looked up from his basket expectantly. The boy's lack of progress was soon obvious, so much so that the cat was quickly irritated by his complaints.


"Shut it, boy!" Terrence meekly obeyed. Lump Sum broke the silence with a fart. "And you too Lump!" The cat was almost becoming worked up. He sat up, looked from one to the other, boy to dog, with a stern expression on his face. When they were attentive again, he painstakingly went back over the whole plan. At the end, when the boy only nodded half-heartedly, Geoffrey stood up and walked over to him, a growling purr again clearly audible.


"I can see the boy needs some convincing that we're right with him Lump." Terrence took a step back, but the cat only stretched out casually, and lay down again on the floor boards. "Go and get the token, Lump. The skin . . . there's a good fellow." The Pekinese jumped up, and waddled off. "Yeah, thkin, I fetch the thkin."


Eventually the dog returned carrying a dirty piece of cloth in its mouth. He dropped it at the boy's feet. Terrence looked at the bundle dubiously, but then at a motion from Geoffrey, picked it up. Carefully he unwrapped it, to find what looked like a dead Huntsman. He spun around to Geoffrey. "Is it . . .?" The cat shook its head slightly. "No, look at it closely." Terrence had the creeps about all things crawly, but he obeyed the cat. Picking it up, he saw that it was in fact an empty spider shell. "But how?"


Geoffrey made a tutting sound. "They shed their skins, boy - as they get older and grow bigger. Slip out of one skin when the new one's ready. Disgusting really. Don't know why they can't just moult a bit at a time like any decent animal." Terrence was turning the shell around in his hand, a small grin dawning on his face. "Ah, I see you're starting to grasp the possibilities, boy. You scratch our back, and we . . . " He let the words hang for a while, then laughed in an odd way. Terrence was too far gone to hear any threat in it. Quickly Geoffrey gave him a revised set of instructions. Terrence nodded absently, all the while twirling the spider skin by one leg. Geoffrey had to give him a sharp tap with his claw to be sure that the boy had heard, and would comply. Finally the boy was allowed to leave, small cloth bundle in one hand.


* * *
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