Juliet opens one eye … half opens it and assumes that’s going to be all she achieves today. She can see bare wood floors polished over the years by oil from feet, candle wax, stockings, socks and squashed insects.
She closes her eye. Let’s start this day again shall we? she thinks.
Juliet opens an eye and looks at the floorboards. This is a 400 year old thatched wattle-and-daub house. Nothing is straight. She has played marbles on those boards and can tell within a millimetre where a marble will end up when released anywhere in the room. Knots were, are, the best. To get a marble stuck in a knot won her ten points – from herself. The knot which looks a bit like a pirate ship being chased by a storm is an impossible knot. Marbles and pirates do not work together. Juliet may be the only person in the world who knows this.
Juliet had marbles, knots and gravity, and why you should never put them in your mouth, worked out before she could walk.
She decides playing marbles today would be therapeutic provided she can move that much without being sick.
Someone taps her door. It’s a door made of planks which were once used in the garden fence. Juliet loves that rattly weather-worn door and is about to cry because she’ll have to leave it soon – maybe forever.
Sod this, she thinks, my head is acting so bad it’ll get thrown off the stage. “Come in, Mum,” she whispers, “But only if you have a hangover. Any mothers entering without one will be beaten to death with…” she scrabbles around, fingers wiping dust from floorboards, “with this chewing gum wrapper.” Taking a deep breath to stop her head spinning, she adds, “Actually they will have to beat themselves to death or wait until I feel better.”
A tall and almost impossibly athletic woman, dressed in a see-through lace nightie pushes the door open, leans against the frame and slides down at half the speed of glacier. “Oh gods…”
“Mum, you look half dead.”
Parts of Victoria connect with the floor in a series of groans and soft thuds. “More than half, darling. The rest has aspirations in that direction.”
“What were we celebrating?”
“Who knows? Being alive? Sort of ironic, don’t you think?”
Juliet opens her other eye and sits up. “Does vomit laced with tequila make good floor polish?”
“You’ve seen my bedroom floor.”
“I’ll try to make it to the bathroom then. Oh …the window is closer.”
“I don’t actually care.” Juliet manages to get floor and feet roughly in the same place. “Tea? Black pudding, bacon, eggs, mushrooms… What else have we got? Fried bread…”
Victoria beats the floor with her palm, dust motes whirl. “You bastard.”
“That was your fault, not mine.” Juliet tries to stand. “Help me up. I want to fall down properly.”
Approximately seventy-nine minutes, two showers, a breakfast of fat, salt and protein later, Juliet and Victoria are bending pipes in their workshop. Victoria says, “That’s it. Neither of us are going to drink any alcohol for one month. Total ban.”
“I quite agree.”
“We’ll call it dry fortnight.”
“Nothing for a whole week, right?”
Juliet wails, “Mum!”
Juliet covers her ears while a heavy-duty generator struggles with an almost impossible demand as it powers a pipe bender. “Why am I working on mains pipe? Who is going to pay for this? Someone in the area who is stupidly rich and doesn’t know it could be done for a hundredth of the price of copper?” She looks at Victoria’s expression. It’s not blank as such, just all possible expressions mixed into one blur.
Victoria splutters. “Ah… now I remember what we were celebrating and why we are doing this.”
“Tell me before this sodding generator explodes. I want to know why I am going to die – there doesn’t have to be a good reason. I just want it on my life CV … do I need one of those?”
“Being alive is never anyone’s fault. Look, I was doing some house maintenance and discovered our mains is all made of lead. Lead. Real lead. Probably Roman or something.”
“Lead? Why aren’t we dead or poisoned?”
“We probably are … both. It’s all a bit of a mystery. But, if we replace the lead and sell it we can have a holiday in … anywhere … for the rest of our lives.”
“Where’s the spade?”
Victoria sniggers. “That is all under control … except for one tiny thing.”
“Tell me about your tiny thing.”
“Saying things like that is why you can never keep a boyfriend. Anyway, there’s a pipe, relatively modern, down beside the gutter drain. It needs investigation. It’s old copper and runs perpendicular…”
“How the hell do you get boyfriends with talk like that?”
“I’m sexy. I find it best not to talk anyway – just squeak now and again. Perpendicular to the house and heading towards the sundial.”
Juliet shouts over the howls of tortured metal, “We have a water-powered sundial? That’s so amazingly cool and profound.” She pushes the door open. “I’m going to investigate a singularly illogical, paradoxical … pipes anomaly thing.”
She walks across the lawn but pauses before entering an eternally shaded damp patch behind the house. Mushrooms, toadstools and fairy rings abound. “Nixies, brownies and sprites, I am about to enter this area on foot. Please check your house insurance.” Juliet, having graduated from a very strange and secret college in Cambridge University, knows better than to mess with nixies.
She follows an obvious trail through the fungi, clearly the route Victoria used. It leads to a hole, recently dug, and surrounded by abandoned tools. Juliet stares down at a ludicrously oversized lead pipe and the mysterious, more recent fitting. She’s an expert at judging the antiquity of stopcocks and the like – she’s a plumber. This stopcock appears nineteenth century. The ancient blue verdigris is untouched. Juliet decides it needs to be turned. Stopcocks, she reasons, have a purpose.
The wailing of metal and generator die just in time for her to whirl round at a faint noise in the garden. The sundial has turned in a grinding groan a full 180 degrees and the dais starts to tip. In a moment Juliet is at the workshop door, hands on the frame either side. “Weapons, torches. Now.”
The sight of two women dressed in college gowns and standing on a sunny lawn is not one to worry the village locals any more than Victoria and Juliet worry them anyway. They can forgive anyone for very strange behaviour when they are plumbers and always turn up when promised.
It may be necessary to point out that gowns worn by students attending that particular college are designed to cope with occasional emergencies.
That Victoria wields two bodkin-sharp titanium sai and Juliet a shining metal spear may raise comment but little more. They are, after all, locals and that means they can get away with even that.
Juliet switches her head torch on. “We are about to descend ancient steps into an ancient place. I worry it may be full of ancients.”
“Bound to be. Me first.”
Juliet elbows her aside. “Mum, they are unlikely to be handsome and desperate for it. I’ll deal with anything lurching and needing its head lopped off. Your pointy needles won’t work.”
They have spent twenty minutes wedging the entrance open and pegging the sundial Lilliputian-style into the turf. Sundials can usually be trusted in so many ways but people making secret entrances are likely to have more dubious intentions.
Juliet takes a first step into the stairway exposed by the tipped sundial. The stairs turn at a right angle twice and after a while Juliet reckons they are nearly under the house. Echoes indicate a large open area ahead and she steps calf-deep into cool water.
“What? What? What can you see?” asks, Victoria. “Keep moving!”
Juliet clicks her head torch to a stronger setting. “I … I… Mum, have you ever seen a temple of knees?”
“I never will unless you shift your fat arse.”
Juliet walks forward, her gown responding to mental instructions and shortening to cropped T-shirt proportions so she can wade. “Safety check,” calls Victoria as she follows.
“OK, nothing moving…” Juliet holds her spear tip-down, danger may come from the water. “Nothing alive on ceiling … unless … no, those are stalactites. Room fifty metres by thirty, vaulted ceiling with about fifty chains hanging down, no entrances.”
“Too many knees,” Victoria’s beam flashes over stone carvings dangling from the ceiling. “Why would anyone want eight hanging knees? I worry.”
“It’s a bit sparkly around here. Do you think we’ve accidentally disturbed some fairies?”
“Spare carvings all around the wall. Bits of animals, I don’t know … lions … scaly things too … so many legs, dragon tail. Yes, sparkles everywhere like at toyshop at Christmas.”
“Stop!” Juliet looks down. “A swimming pool? Deep. Don’t come any further.”
Victoria wades around the pool’s edge, studying carvings leaning against walls. “A crab claw… Hang on a tick … marbles … and some more. No, toes? Stone toes but without feet. In arcs under each knee. I was more sort of planning a normal day. Should have looked at my horoscope.”
“There’s a flat thing in the middle of the pool, an oval the same shape as the pool. No, it’s an oval trench rather than a pool. The central bit is lower though… I’m getting in to explore.”
Victoria pauses for a moment. “Unicorn head, uh, scorpion tail and sting, the body of a something. Another body. These all seem like things you can construct. Like a chimera kit. The pieces have slots and tenons so you can fit them…”
Juliet, spear strapped to her back, breaststrokes her way to the centre and climbs up. “Slots here too. Let’s think this through. A pool over which you can build…” She pauses and kneels down. “I’ve found the other end of the pipe. This is where the water comes in.” She goes on to all fours and pokes the pipe.
Victoria continues her litany, “I think I’ve found a centipede’s body.”
“The water doesn’t come in at all. It goes out! I turned the stopcock in the garden.”
“Not possible. How can water run uphill?” A flurry of drops fall from stalactites. Drops which run glowing over the carved knees and Juliet’s body. Victoria looks up at the ceiling. “I’ve just worked out where we are.”
“Well, go on.”
“Under the nixie patch in the garden. This water has drained from there into here.”
Juliet flicks a lip, deep in thought. “I did do the module but never met a nixie.”
“No one meets nixies. It’s best to run away. I think the water is supposed to fill the pool but not overflow. No one has been down here for a hundred years or more. What are the nixies up to? Oh gods!”
At Victoria’s horrified tone, Juliet says, “What, what? Tell me or I’ll kill you!” She plunges back into deeper water and heads for the side. Heaving herself out, she follows Victoria racing back up the stairs.
Victoria, leaving a blazing trail of water draining from her clothes, races to the stopcock and turns it off. The trail, where it is touched by sunlight flashes brilliant, almost blinding colours. She sniggers. “The little bastards. I think I know what they are up to.” She stands, walks back into sunlight and pirouettes, diamantine water droplets flying like a thousand multicoloured sparks. “Look at me. Spectacular or what?”
“When you’ve stopped being the worst tarty look-at-me git of all time, I’ll be in the workshop making tea. I’m not going into the house dripping nixie water everywhere.” Juliet marches away, glittering but trying to look serious at the same time. It doesn’t work very well and she’s preening as she switches the kettle on.
She goes back into sunlight, partly to get explanations, partly to sparkle some more before she dries off completely and lastly to watch her mother, who does the best pirouettes ever and is outperforming herself. Juliet watches, transfixed for a moment. “Go on… Talk to me.”
Victoria continues to whirl, her voice louder and quieter as she turns. “In the nineteenth century Brightwell-cum-Sotwell was two villages without the…”
“…word in between. They hated each other and competed. Sotwell was all terribly Christian and pious, Brightwell was into magic and did some very naughty things to wind up Sotwell. You know what we’ve just discovered, don’t you?”
Juliet rolls her eyes. “That’s a hard one. Maybe a well that’s bright? Come and get a cup of tea and stop looking like a deranged radiation victim.”
Victoria, too dizzy to remain upright, collapses on the grass and howls with laughter. Juliet brings out two steaming mugs and sits beside her. “OK, we’ve accidentally introduced nixie water into the village water supply. This is to do with the dragons and things people claim to have seen – the old legends. The last one was a colossal scorpion with human legs… Do you think the water is full of mushroom juice or something? That would explain collective hallucinations.”
Victoria sits up. “More than that. These hallucinations were seen as far as Wallingford, Abingdon – even Oxford. These are nixies, remember. I get the point regarding mass hallucinations but they must have been projected so other people saw them. Nixie naughtiness.”
“So tonight, or whenever, people around here are going to see monsters flying around?”
“I wouldn’t worry too much about Oxford. It’s term time and students see that sort of thing every evening. I do think…” She sips her tea. “I do think it’s only fair we drink some of that water too. I mean we did inflict it on everyone else.”
“I’m going to get our camera so I can get video of monsters.” Juliet rises.
“Take the chip out that’s in it, darling. It’s the one of me when I was dancing and fell off the pole.”
“Mum, that needs to be burned. You were outrageous!”
“No I wasn’t. Look, somewhere between thirty and forty you will stop being a prude. I think you ought to do it now and save time. There are spare chips in the cigar box on my desk. What are you going to do with your video of monsters?”
“Easy, upload it to every site possible.”
“But that will attract attention!”
“No it won’t. It’ll be dubbed fake immediately and any media interest will die down. I’m protecting the college as well as us.”
Victoria covers her mouth and shrieks with laughter while slapping the ground and kicking legs in the air.
Juliet knows the tone, clenches her fists, and hisses, “What?”
“The monster everyone is going to see!” Victoria chokes until Juliet has to slap her back.
Victoria takes a deep, whining breath in. “Lots of toes, eight knees and you on all fours in your knickers…” She curls foetus-style on the grass. “Get the camera quick!”
©Gary Bonn, 2018