It was a late Sunday evening and Ratbridge stood silver gray and silent in the moonlight. Early evening rain had washed away the cloud of smoke that normally hung over the town, and now long shadows from the factory chimneys fell across oily puddles in the empty streets. The town was at rest.
The shadows moved slowly across the lane that ran behind Fore Street, revealing a heavy iron drain cover set among the cobbles.
Then the drain cover moved. Something was pushing it up from below.
One side of the cover lifted a few inches, and from beneath it, a pair of eyes scanned the lane. The drain cover lifted further, then slid sideways. A boy's head wearing a woven helmet with nine or ten antennae rose through the hole and glanced around. The boy shut his eyes, and he listened. For a moment all was quiet; then a distant dog bark echoed off the nearby walls. Silence returned. The boy opened his eyes, reached out of the hole, and pulled himself up and out into the lane. He was dressed very oddly. In addition to the helmet, he wore a large vest knitted from soft rope, which reached the ground, and under that a short one-piece suit made from old sugar sacks. His feet were wrapped in layers of rough cloth, tied with string.
Fixed about his body by wide leather straps was a strange contraption. On his front was a wooden box with a winding handle on one side, and two brass buttons and a knob on the front. A flexible metal tube connected the box to a pair of folded wings, made from leather, wood, and brass, which were attached to his back.
The boy slid the drain cover back into place, reached inside his under-suit, and pulled out a toy figure dressed just like him. He held the doll out and spoke.
"Grandfather, I am up top. I think I'll have to go gardening tonight. It must be Sunday; everything is shut. The bins behind the inn will be empty." He looked at the doll.
There was a crackle of static, then a thin voice came from the doll. "Well, you be careful, Arthur! And remember, only take from the bigger gardens -- and only then if they have plenty! There are a lot of people who can only survive by growing their own food."
Arthur smiled. He had heard this many times before. "Don't worry, Grandfather, I haven't forgotten! I'll only take what we need, and I will be careful. I'll see you as soon as I am done."
Arthur replaced the doll inside his suit, then started to wind the handle on the box. As he did, the box made a soft whirring noise. For nearly two minutes he wound, pausing occasionally when his hand started aching. Then a bell pinged from somewhere inside the box and he stopped. Arthur scanned the skyline, crouched, and then pressed one of the buttons. The wings on his back unfolded. He pressed the other button and at the same moment jumped as high as he could. Silently the wings rushed down and caught the air as he rose. At the bottom of their stroke, they folded, rose, and then beat down again. His wings were holding him in the air, a few feet above the ground.
Arthur reached for the knob and turned it just a little. As he did so, he tilted himself a little forward. He started to move. Arthur smiled....He was flying.
He moved slowly down the lane, keeping below the top of its walls. When he reached the end, he adjusted the knob again and rose up to a gap between the twin roofs of the Glue Factory. Arthur knew routes that were safe from the eyes of the townsfolk, and would keep to one of them tonight on the way to the particular garden he planned on visiting. When it was dark or there was thick smog, things were easy. But tonight was clear and the moon full. He'd been spotted twice before on nights like this, by children, from their bedroom windows. He'd got away with it so far, as nobody had believed the children when they said they had seen a fairy or flying boy, but tonight he was not going to take any chances.
Arthur reached the end of the gap between the roofs. He dipped a little and flew across a large stable yard. A horse started and whinnied as he flew over. He adjusted his wing speed and increased his height. The horse made him feel uneasy. At the far side of the yard he rose again, over a huge gate topped with spikes. He crossed a deserted alley, then moved down a narrow street flanked with the windowless backs of houses. At the far end of the street he slowed and then hovered in the air. In front of him was another high wall. Carefully he adjusted the knob and rose very gently to the point where he could just see the ground beyond the wall. It was a large vegetable garden.
Across the garden fell paths of pale light, cast from windows of the house. One of the windows was open. From it Arthur could hear raised voices and the clatter of dominoes.
That should keep them busy! he thought, scanning the garden again. Against the wall farthest from the house was a large glass lean-to.
He checked the windows of the house again, then rose over the wall and headed for the greenhouse, keeping above the beams of light. He came to rest in front of the greenhouse door.
Dark leafy forms filled the space. As Arthur entered, he recognized tomato plants climbing the strings, and cucumbers and grapes hanging from above.
He moved past all these and made his way to a tree against the far wall.
It was a tall tree with branches only at its top. Dangling from a stem below the branches was what looked like a stack of huge fat upside-down spiders. It was a large bunch of bananas. As Arthur got closer, he caught their scent. It was beautiful.
Arthur could hardly contain his delight. Bananas! He tore one from the bunch and ate it ravenously. When he finished, he looked over at the house. Nothing had changed. So, he reached inside his under-suit, pulled out a string bag, then grabbed a hold of the banana bunch and gave an eager tug. It wasn't as easy to pick the full bunch as it had been to pull off a single banana, and Arthur found he had to put his full weight on the bunch. A soft fibrous tearing sound started, but still the bunch did not come down. In desperation Arthur lifted his feet from the ground and swung his legs. All of a sudden there was a crack, and the whole bunch, along with Arthur, fell to the ground. The tree trunk sprang back up and struck the glass roof with a loud crack. The noise sounded out across the garden.
"Oi! There is something in the greenhouse," came a shout from the house.
Arthur scrambled to his feet, grabbed the string bag, and looked out through the glass. No one was in the garden yet.
He rushed to collect up as many of the bananas as possible, shoving them into the bag. Then he heard a door bang and the sound of footsteps. He ran out of the greenhouse.
Clambering toward him over the rows of vegetables was a very large lady with a very long stick. Arthur dashed over to one of the garden walls, stabbed at the buttons on the front of his box, and jumped. His wings snapped open and started to beat but not strongly enough to lift him. He landed back on the ground, his wings fluttering behind him. Arthur groaned -- the bananas! He had to adjust the wings for the extra weight. He wasn't willing to put the bananas down and fly away empty-handed -- they were too precious. He grabbed at the knob on the front of the box and twisted it hard. The wings immediately doubled their beating and became a blur. Just as the woman reached the spot where Arthur stood, he shot almost vertically upward. Furious, she swung her stick above her head and, before he could get out of range, landed a hard blow on his wings, sending him spinning.
"You little varmint! Come down here and give me back my bananas!" the woman cried. Arthur grasped at the top of the wall to steady himself. The stick now swished inches below his feet. He adjusted the wings quickly and made off over the wall. Shouts of anger followed him.
Arthur felt sick to the pit of his stomach. Coming up at night to collect food was always risky, and this was the closest he'd ever been to being caught. He needed somewhere quiet to rest and recover.
I wish we could live aboveground like everybody else! he thought.
Now he flew across the town by the safest route he knew -- dipping between roofs, up the darkest alleys, and across deserted yards, till finally he reached the abandoned Cheese Hall. He knew he would be alone there.
The Cheese Hall had been the grandest of all the buildings in the town and was only overshadowed by a few of the factory chimneys. In former times, it had been the home of the Ratbridge Cheese Guild. But now the industry was dead, and the Guild and all its members ruined. The Hall was boarded up and deserted. Its gilded statues that once shone out across the town were blackened by the very soot that had poisoned the cheese.
Arthur landed on the bridge of the roof, and settled himself among the statues. As he sat catching his breath, it occurred to him that maybe he should inspect his wings for damage. The woman had landed a fairly heavy blow, but Arthur decided it would be too dangerous and awkward to take his wings off high up here on the roof, and besides, they seemed to be fine. Then something distracted him from his thoughts -- a noise. It sounded like a mournful bleat, from somewhere below. He listened carefully, intrigued, but heard no more. When he finally felt calm again, he stowed the bananas behind one of the statues, climbed out from his hiding place, and flew up to the best observation spot in the whole town. This was the plinth on the top of the dome, which supported the weather vane and lightning conductor.
A complete panorama of the town and the surrounding countryside, broken only by the chimneystacks of the factories, was laid out before him. In the far distance he could just make out some sort of procession in the moonlight, making for the woods. It looked as though something was being chased by a group of horses.
Copyright © 2005 by Alan Snow
Strange sounds were filtering through the woods -- scrabblings, bleatings, growlings, and, strangest of all, a sound closely resembling bagpipes, or the sound bagpipes would make if they were being strangled, viciously, under a blanket. In a small moonlit clearing in the center of the woods, the sounds grew louder. Suddenly there was a frantic rustling in the bushes on one side of the clearing, and three large barrel cheeses broke from the undergrowth, running as fast as their legs would carry them. Hurtling across the clearing, bleating in panic, they disappeared into the bushes on the far side of the clearing, and for a moment all was still again.
Suddenly a new burst of rustling came from the bushes where the cheeses had emerged, along with a horrid growling noise. Then a pack of hounds burst out into the open. They were a motley bunch, all different shapes and sizes, but they all had muzzles covering their snouts, and they all shared the awful reek of sweat. The hounds ran around in circles, growling through their muzzles. One small fat animal that looked like a cross between a sausage dog and a ball of wire wool kept his nose to the ground, sniffing intently. He gave a great snort, crossed the clearing, and dived onward after the cheeses. The other hounds followed.
The weird bagpipe sound grew closer, accompanied by vaguely human cries. Then there was a louder crashing in the undergrowth, and finally the strangest creature yet arrived in the clearing. It had four skinny legs that hung from what looked like an upturned boat made from a patchwork of old sacking. At its front was a head made from an old box, and on this the features of a horse's face were crudely drawn. A large, angry man rode high on its back.
"Which way did they go?" the man screamed.
An arm emerged from the sacking and pointed across the clearing. The rider took his horn (made from some part of a camel) and blew, filling the clearing with the horrible bagpipe-like sound. Then he raised the horn high in the air and brought it down hard on his steed.
"Hummgggiff Gummmminn Hoofff!" came muffled cries of pain from below.
The creature started to move in a wobbly line across the clearing, picking up speed as the rider beat it harder. More men on these strange creatures arrived in the clearing, following the sound of the horn. They were just in time to catch the lead rider disappearing. They, too, beat their mounts. As they did, shouts of "Tallyho!" and "Gee-up!" could be heard over the cries from the beasts below.
The front legs of the last of these creatures came to a sudden halt. However, the back legs kept moving and, inevitably, caught up with the front ones. There was an Ooof! and a sweaty, red face emerged from the front of the creature. The head looked up at the rider and spoke.
"That's it, Trout! I have had enough! I want a go on top."
"But I only got a turn since the start of the woods, and you had a long go across the fields," moaned the rider. Another face now emerged from the back end of the creature and joined in.
"Yes! And Gristle, you tried to make us jump that gate!"
"Well, I'm not going on, and I'll blame you two if we get in trouble for getting left behind," said the face at the front.
"All right then!" the rider said with a pout.
He jumped down, and as he took off his jacket and top hat, the creature's body lifted to reveal two men underneath. The man at the front unstrapped himself, and the rider took his place.
The body lowered itself, and the new rider put on the jacket and hat and climbed with some difficulty into the saddle.
"Don't you dare try going through the stream," the back end of the creature demanded.
"All right, but make sure we catch up," said the new rider. "You know the rules about being last!"
He then grabbed a large twig from an overhanging branch, snapped it off, and belted the back end of his mount. With a short scream and some cursing, the creature set off. Quiet returned to the clearing.
The woods now disgorged a weird procession. First the cheeses, then after a few moments the hounds, followed by the huntsmen. Baying filled the night air as the hounds got a clear sight of their quarry. Fear drove the cheeses faster. The hounds gained on them, and as they did, the cheeses' bleating became ever more mournful.
Then the first of the cheese-hounds struck. One of the smaller cheeses was trailing a few yards behind the rest. It was an easy target. In one leap, the hound landed its front paws on the cheese. Whimpering and bleating, the cheese struggled to get free, but it was no good. Its legs buckled, and it collapsed on the grass. The dog rolled the cheese onto its side with its snout and held it down firmly with his paws. Most of the other hounds raced after the other fleeing cheeses, but a few dogs paused long enough to worry the trapped cheese, growling threateningly. As they did so, the leader of the hunt arrived on his mount and clonked it mercilessly with his horn.
"Back to the chase, you lazy dairy-pugs!" he yelled. "Gherkin! Deal with this 'ere cheese!"
"Yes, Master!" replied a stubby rider close behind. He slowed his mount, stopped close to the cheese, and climbed down. Throwing a piece of dried bread to the ground to distract the hound, Gherkin put a boot on the cheese to keep it pinned down, then took some string from his pocket and tied it firmly to the cheese's ankle. Keeping a tight hold on the string, Gherkin climbed back onto his mount.
"Right. My boys, it's a gentle ride home for us," said Gherkin, stirring his mount back toward the town.
"It might be a gentle ride home for you, Gherkin, but it's a damnable long walk for us!" a muffled voice grunted from under the saddle. Still, off they set with the cheese in tow. The hunt was now in the distance, picking off the rest of the cheeses. Their mournful cries were replaced by a resigned silence.
Copyright © 2005 by Alan Snow
Arthur watched it all from his perch on top of the Cheese Hall. The procession drew closer to Ratbridge, and now he could make out most of the creatures involved. It slowly dawned on him what was happening. It was a cheese hunt!
He grabbed his doll from under his suit and raised it to his mouth.
"Grandfather! Grandfather! It's Arthur. Can you hear me?" There was a crackling and his grandfather replied.
"Yes, Arthur, I can hear you. What's happening?"
"I think I see a cheese hunt!"
There was a pause; then Grandfather spoke again. "Are you absolutely sure? Cheese hunting? Where are you?"
"I am sitting on top of the Cheese Hall. I am..." -- Arthur decided to gloss over earlier events -- "...having a break. I can see the whole thing. Riders and hounds chasing and catching cheeses."
"But they can't! It's cruel and it's illegal!" Grandfather sputtered. "Are you sure there are riders on horses?"
"Yes, Grandfather. Why?"
"Because all the cheese-hunting horses were sold off to the Glue Factory after the Great Cheese Crash."
"Well, they do seem to be riding horses...but there's something rather odd about them," Arthur told him.
"What is it?"
"They're very ungainly and somewhat oddly shaped. I can see that even from here. Who do you think is doing the hunting?"
"I am not sure," said Grandfather. "Where are they now?"
"They are approaching the West Gate."
"Well, they must be from the town then. If we could find out who was responsible, perhaps we could do something to put a stop to it. Do you think you could have a closer look without being seen?"
"Yes, I think so," Arthur said, starting to feel excited.
"Well, keep up on the roofs, and see if you can follow them." Grandfather paused. "But...be very careful!"
"Don't worry; I will be."
"And call me if you find out anything."
"All right. I'll speak to you later. And, Grandfather...I've got some bananas."
"Err...well...err...I rather like bananas...." Grandfather's voice trailed off.
Arthur put the doll away and wound his wings again. Here at last was a chance for some real adventure.
Copyright © 2005 by Alan Snow