Not far away, in the cellar of The Parrot and Screwdriver, an esteemed local hostelry which also happened to be The Pan of Hamgee’s local, dark things were afoot. This was mainly because, despite the fact the cellar was thoroughly insulated to hide their current nefarious activity, the first of the pub’s landladies, Gladys Parker, wouldn’t let the second, Ada Maddox, turn on the lights.
“My eyes isn’t what they was. If it ain’t dark I won’t see proper.”
Every now and again there was a loud thump against the door and a harsh avian voice shouted, “Arse!”
Ada’s pet parrot, Humbert, had belonged to her uncle. He was a sailor and Humbert swore like one. Such a delicate experiment was no place for a domestic pet, especially not one of Humbert’s disposition. However, the reason for his exclusion was a complicated concept for a parrot to grasp, especially a parrot like Humbert when he didn’t want to be where Ada wasn’t.
In the dim gleam of a guttering candle the two old ladies were setting up something that looked like a gyroscope, only not. It was cobbled together from bits of a fully functioning original (which had met with an accident) a biro, an old saucer and some of the red elastic bands the postman always left on the step.
“Are you sure this will work, dear?” asked Ada, her voice full of concern.
“Yer. Trev went down the Business Side and found some longer elastic bands.” Ada wore a blank expression. “’S bigger parcels in business and more post,” Gladys explained. “It’ll wind longer, so’s it’ll get up more speed and run longer.” She was busy with a small wooden propeller that had a hook in it, twisting it round and round. One end of the larger elastic band under discussion was attached to the hook; the other was attached to the central spindle of the wobbly home-made contraption. As Gladys wound the elastic band, Ada held the machine steady with one hand, while in her other hand was a tuning fork.
Finally, Gladys stopped twisting the elastic band.
“Are you ready, dear?” Ada asked.
“Yer. What’s yer note?”
Gladys sniffed. “Should be an A.”
“I know dear, but there’s only one note’s difference. I’m sure I can find an A.”
“I hopes so. Does you have the jar?”
Ada checked that the jar of Gladys’ homemade chutney was within reach, towards the edge of the only clear surface available for them to set up their apparatus; the lid of the freezer.
A curt nod. “Hmph. You knows what’ll happen to the chutney if we done it.”
“Yes dear,” said Ada, who was aware, or at least partly aware of what would happen to the chutney - partly, but not wholly, on the grounds that while she knew the chutney would disappear, neither she nor Gladys had a clue where it would actually go to.
“I is going to count three.”
“THREE!” shouted Gladys, letting go of the propeller. Everything happened very quickly. By some miracle of science, the wobbly gyroscope began to spin with remarkable stability. Dim bolts of electrical charge flickered between the machine and the chutney jar. They gave off a green glow, while the machine itself hummed; a low bass hum. Ada bashed the tuning fork on the table, put it to her ear and sang:
Gladys grabbed a thing which looked a little like an upholstery needle and stuck it into the green flecks; moving it towards the jar. The note emanating from the machine changed. As the elastic band wound down, there was just time for the green flecks to turn blue before it ceased to spin.
The old ladies waited in silence. The chutney stayed where it was.
“Oh dear! I was so sure we had it that time,” said Ada. Gladys and Ada had been paying regular visits to the cellar to work on their project for some time. They planned to make contraband equipment with which they could establish an escape programme for the blacklisted; a ticket to a new identity and a new life. A one-way ticket, of course, because they couldn’t come back, but then, why would they want to? Where they were going, there was no Blacklist and nobody was vermin. OK so some of them weren’t exactly going to blend in, but there were other ex-K’Barthan residents waiting for them, ready to help. The original scheme had gone swimmingly for two years, until Ada had dropped a vital piece of equipment and Gladys’ son Trev had trodden on it. With the last few years’ purges, and the establishment by the Government of a New Moral Order, the need for this sorely missed social service was more urgent than ever. The old ladies sought to re-establish it fast, without being discovered by the wrong people; the State or the Resistance, for instance.
Gladys and Ada would donate their services to the organisation they belonged to – the Underground – and anyone the old ladies considered worthy, who needed to be somewhere else; because they were allowed a little discretion. People like that nice lad with the hat, The Pan of Hamgee. He was a dear boy – so well brought up and polite, so considerate of his peers, so kind to domestic pets, and so clearly blacklisted by the State. How he was still alive, neither could imagine.
In the face of substantial failure, Gladys and Ada were on the brink of giving up on their plan and informing their colleagues in the Underground that they had failed; that the organisation must make do with only very occasionally transporting its people or qualifying others (nice young men, with hats, who were kind to parrots, for example) to safety, by using a far more dangerous means, one of the few – and therefore, eminently traceable – pieces of equipment designed for the purpose. It could be done without discovery, but the fugitives could only be transported in small numbers, by people with enough special training. No, not people, a person – Sir Robin Get, the last of the great Nimmists, the last hope of the nation – special training aside, nobody else seemed to be able to do it, nobody who was alive any more, anyway.
Sir Robin was, as Trev would put it, ‘knocking on a bit’ and Gladys and Ada were keen to get their disposable transport system up and running before he, or they ‘pegged it’ (Trev again). It had taken some hours to get the machine going, and several apparently successful attempts to set up the chutney jar had turned out to be failures, when, for all the hopeful signs, the chutney remained stubbornly in position. This latest attempt was no exception.
“That were the note.” Gladys scratched her head. “We isn’t doin’ this wrong. I is sure.”
The two regarded the jar thoughtfully. Always a chutney jar and always full, because that was the only thing in the Parrot and Screwdriver that gave a suitable reading for conversion – on Gladys and Ada’s somewhat hit-and-miss machine, at any rate. Ada shook her head sadly.
“Oh dear. I don’t understand it. Why won’t it go?”
“’S gotta be an expla-... expla-... reason.”
Ada picked up the jar and turned it over. Nope. Nothing. The chutney remained stolidly where it was, except the jar was different. She held it in front of the candle.
“Has it changed shape a little?” In the dim light it was difficult to be sure but, it seemed to have acquired a waist. No. Surely not. She handed it to Gladys who tried to take the lid off. It wouldn’t turn.
“’S stuck.” Gladys banged it on the side of the freezer and removed it without further trouble. She stuck her finger in the contents and licked it.
“’S not done the chutney no harm,” she said, proffering the jar to her friend with a definite here’s-the-bright-side ring to her tone. Ada stuck her finger in and tasted some. A fine kick there – a little more than usual, perhaps – or was that simply down to age?
“I think it might be a tad richer than before,” she said.
Gladys put the jar down and they both looked at it for a moment.
“I is not surprised. We has been working on this jar a long time an’ given it time for aging. It’s good for aging, my pickle.”
“So what are we doing wrong?”
Gladys sucked a breath in through her teeth. “I dunno. It’s something blindin’ obvious I reckons. Or we is missing a step.”
There was a noise, small but growing louder and louder. Like the sound the water used to make running out of the bathtub upstairs in Ada and Gladys flat, before Trev and his mate Stan the Plumber had ripped out the old stuff and replaced it with something better – a noise like soapy water gurgling and screeching through ancient, decrepit pipes. And a pop.
“Ooo!” said Ada.
“Yer,” said Gladys.
The chutney had disappeared.
Something in Ada’s mind floated to the surface, something from a science lesson at school all those years ago, about vacuums. Of course it had disappeared. It would probably have disappeared a long time before now, she thought, if only they had taken off the lid.
“Should we try another?” s
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