Joe and Bobby have survived ten apocalypses, four armageddons and global decimation before coming unstuck.
“All right, that’s enough of your nonsense...”
“Enough!” She says, yanking out the power cable. “You can both go outside into the real world and get some fresh air.”
“That’s so unfair!”
“You’ve spent the entire half-term holiday killing zombies.”
“But, Mam, it’s all cold and foggy out there.”
Jo and Bobby have no choice. Without mains power, their chance of facing another bloodthirsty hoard is looking remote.
“Anyway, I need you to fetch me five pounds of apples from Strong’s.”
“Never mind your back chat. I’m busy sewing Maisy’s costume for her Halloween party.”
“Strong’s is miles away. What’s up with the car?”
“You guys can go on your bikes.”
“Aw, mam, do we have to?”
“Now get your jackets on,” she says, and hands Bobby a banknote. “Take this twenty and bring me the change right?”
Halting the legions of the undead has been postponed.
The late morning sun struggles to do its job today. Low-lying clouds arrived uninvited and took up residence three days ago. The motionless autumnal air hangs like a limp mosquito net and carries a hint of wood smoke, decaying leaves and gently toasted pumpkin flesh.
Joe and Bobby exit the garage and push their bicycles down the garden path. The neighbours have been busy in advance of the celebrations. Their Jack-o’-lanterns are littered about their front gardens, and tiny battery-powered candles flicker within the hacked out interiors.
Bobby adjusts the straps of his rucksack and they set off in single file; Bobby is on point. Without the clamour of their digital assault rifles and high impact incendiaries, the silence outside is post-societal. The boys glide along the streets beside the identical looking and well-ordered properties. There is evidence of cabin fever wherever they look; grimacing masks in every window and ghoulish decorations on every door.
Joe surges past Bobby and takes the lead, which lightens their mood, and before long they’re travelling side-by-side and jostling for pole position. During term time, their horseplay would’ve been reported home in double quick time by any number of concerned residents. Today the lack of local traffic allows them licence for their carefree road sense. They pick up the pace, chase each other and show off as they leave behind the endless suburban housing. A brooding line of dark telephone poles measures their progress beyond the edge of town. The looping cables umbilically connect their own district with the neighbouring one, out of sight in the distance.
They approach the local refuse collection and recycle centre. Bobby pauses and points out the billowing white vapour belching from its stack.
“Look, it’s the cloud factory.”
“So that’s where it’s all coming from.”
“Quick! We have to hold our breath or we’ll both be poisoned.”
“Agh! radioactive zombie gas.”
The boys see who can hold their breath the longest as they scoot past the plant and push onward to Strong’s out-of-town store.
Joe shows off with no hands and dodges Bobby’s side swerve. Joe loses his balance. He skids across loose gravel and shrieks as he crashes into one of the solid wooden poles. He hits it at an awkward angle. He’s fine, but shouts for Bobby to pull over. Bobby turns round and freewheels back to assess the damage. Joe’s got a mangled front tyre.
“You’re kidding me?”
“Hey, it could’ve happened to you.”
“Ok, well, phone Mam and get her to pick us up.”
“Err, I thought you had your phone. Mine’s on charge.”
Bobby rolls his eyes and sighs, he’s the oldest and so he should’ve been prepared. The boys are six miles from their home turf and a couple of miles from Strong’s payphone.
There is an imposing Eastlake house a hundred yards further up the road. It’s the Endlebury’s old place. The uppermost floor of the building and the tall pines surrounding it are lost in the rolling mist. A six feet high yellow sandstone perimeter wall protects the property from curious passersby.
The boys push their bikes towards the old house. Bobby hands Joe a bicycle pump from his pack. Joe sits down on the roadside and attempts to re-inflate his tyre. Bobby approaches the wrought-iron gates. There is an ornate metal arch spanning the two sandstone pillars. It supports the Endlebury family shield that portrays a muscular embowed arm clutching a writhing serpent. Bobby peers through the rust-flecked railings and turns to Joe, who shrugs. There aren’t any obvious signs of life, and certainly the house’s decorative woodwork is looking forsaken. The windows are furnished with sagging grey lace curtains. The glass is unwashed except where rivulets of condensation have run down the inside. There’s no obvious connection to the present century.
“No power either.”
Bobby nudges the gate with his front tyre and it groans at the first touch. He tries again, and it lurches but catches on the gritty footpath. The gate halts at twenty degrees and refuses to budge. It’s enough to squeeze through with his bike. Bobby looks in both directions up and down the empty road, and back to his brother who has lost his patience and tosses the pump to one side.
“It’s not really trespassing if there’s nobody here?” says Bobby. “If we stash our bikes, no one will know.”
The boys pass under the archway and leave their trusty steeds out of sight. They meander up the moss covered gravel path. On either side are unkempt low shrubs and bushes. To the left and right of the house are innumerable lines of precisely planted and heavily laden trees.
“Hey, aren’t those…?”
“It used to be an orchard.”
“You know what I’m thinking, right?”
“We could split the twenty.”
Bobby produces a canvas shopping bag from his rucksack and passes to his brother. The pair walk towards the nearest tree. High above their heads, but out of reach, the lustrous fruit is ripe and asking to be picked. Bobby looks around and spots a set of elderly step ladders leaning against the distant west wall. He heads off to investigate, leaving Joe trying to detach the fruit with a long stick. Joe thrashes with all his strength, but the tempting orbs refuse to fall.
“Would you like one of my apples?” says a little voice.
Joe turns round to see a young girl with inquisitive dark eyes. She has a pale face that’s in need of a wash. The urchin has a dishevelled bob with bangs and she wears a tatty pinafore with tiny bare feet. She holds an apple in her outstretched hand.
“Please take it, we’ve got lots more.”
“Th-th-th-thank you,” he says. “But how did you…?”
“My father’s passes them down,” she says, “and my brothers and sisters collect them.”
“Where are they now,” he says, looking around.
“There’s a party in the back garden.”
Joe extends his hand towards the fruit. It has a dark red skin and a wonderfully flawless surface. It’s bigger than the ones he’s used to. It’s the size of a softball. His fingers hover above the fruit and he feels a static crackle. Joe plucks the apple from the girl’s hand. His fingers tingle as he raises it to his open mouth. He detects a flowery citrus odour. It’s pulses in his hand as he lowers his teeth towards a first bite.
“Hey Joe!” It’s Bobby’s voice echoing through the trees. “Come on!”
Joe turns to look for his brother.
“I’m heading round the back.”
Joe drops the fruit in his canvas bag and looks up to see the girl is wandering off.
“Hey there, wait up!”
She turns to observe him. The girl looks fresh-faced and her hair is tangle free. Her dress is clean; its colour less faded. She smiles and beckons him to follow her through the trees. The clouds have lifted overhead and he can see the azure blue of midday. There is birdsong and distant strains of melodic musical phrases. He can hear voices too, the joyful yelps and cheers of young children. Joe feels calm and at peace, although he can’t spot Bobby anywhere under the canopy of leaves.
The lines of trees end and he sees the rear garden for the first time. There is a vast expanse of cultivated flowers, trimmed shrubs and manicured bushes. In the centre there is a meadow with a huge red and blue striped canvas shelter held up with poles and ropes. Underneath the awning are dozens of excited small creatures in colourful costumes. They are dancing and cavorting to the music of a band of ragamuffins.
“Hey, Joe, where have you been?” It’s Bobby who approaches and reveals the rucksack laden with apples. An old man in a careworn leather apron and black cap that rests on his head like a sleeping crow accompanies him.
“Mr Chauncey, meet my little brother Joseph.”
Joe offers his hand to the elderly gentleman.
“You’ve a firm grasp for a young’un.”
Joe displays a toothy grin and retracts his numb fingers, and looks to his older brother for an explanation.
“Mr Chauncey works here. He maintains the gardens and looks after the place.”
Joe opens his mouth, however, when his brother raises an eyebrow, he bites his lip and settles for silence. Bobby is doing just fine.
“I’ve mentioned your broken wheel and I believe Mr Chauncey can mend it.”
“It’ll be a Heath Robinson job, I’m afraid,” he says. “Best I can do.”
“Oh, thanks mister, err, mister…”
“Chauncey’s the name,” he says, tipping his cap above his wizened forehead.
“There’s only one thing, Joe,” says Bobby. “We have to ask permission from old Mr Endlebury.”
“Enid here will show you the way,” says the old fellow.
The pale-faced girl with the bangs raises her arms, a broad smile illuminates her face, and she wraps her dainty fingers around their wrists. She tugs the boys onwards and leads them through the swirling crowds of colourful little folk. The music retreats into the background under a sea of laughter and joyful voices. Whirlpools of life swirl past them like forces of nature, detached from the earth and not of this world. The boys stride up the rear doorsteps behind their guide. Enid’s tiny toes come to rest on the patterned ceramic tiles of the rear vestibule floor. The waif points through the nearest door into the depths of the house. Joe and Bobby peer inside and blink at the sight of the lavish interior that’s both expensively appointed and finely decorated.
“The head of the household is up the stairs at the top of the house, if you please,” she says. “Just follow your noses up to the attic and you’ll be fine.”
The boys pass a kitchen with its fragrant smells and singing kettle merrily boiling water on the wood-burning stove. Joe and Bobby notice an open door leading to a pantry with shelves full of preserves and boxes of fresh vegetables. They cross an intricately tiled hallway and reach the bottom of the stairs. The stair runner has an entwined design that overlaps itself as it twists and turns; its seething pattern rises like an organic escalator and seemingly offers to transport the boys to the top of the house. Bobby leads the way and has to grip onto the wooden banister rail for support. Joe follows his brother, and he is elevated faster than his feet can move and swept upward.
When they reach the top landing, the carpet churns in a circular motion beneath them and disappears like water spiralling down a plughole. It leaves them standing on dusty floorboards and they look up to discover a bare wooden door. There is a large brass knocker shaped like a fist clutching a snake that’s swallowing its own tail. Bobby knocks. The noise echoes through the house like thunder. Joe flinches and grips Bobby’s tense arm.
“Come in!” calls a deep voice from beyond the door. Joe and Bobby step forward and find themselves inside a poorly illuminated and high-ceilinged room. Hunched over a tall table and frowning hard is a giant of a man. He is so huge that Joe wonders if he can stand upright or move at all. He is surrounded, on all sides, by dozens of straw-lined cages and wooden baskets.
“Good day, Mr Endlebury,” says Bobby as he swallows.
“It’s not a good day at all,” says the man. “It’s a bad day; the worst, in fact. I can’t get my books to balance.”
“Well, bad day then,” says Joe. Bobby grips Joe’s forearm.
The man lowers his spectacles and stares at the boys.
“We’re here to ask your permission,” says Bobby.
“I’m not helping anyone today,” growls the man. “I told you I can’t get these sums right, so go away.”
“We can’t go back without his help,” whispers Bobby.
“What sums are they, sir?”
Mr Endlebury leans forward and pulling Joe’s sleeve lifts him up onto the top of the desk. When Joe has got over his initial surprise, he looks at the ledger book. When he sees the calculations that are puzzling the old man, he covers his mouth and almost laughs out loud.
“Hey Bobby, if two male vultures, four pairs of mating pangolins and one owner with his dog went for a journey together, how many containers would you need?”
“I know that answer,” says Bobby, “it’s six cages and one basket.”
The man turns to the end of the book to verify the answer. “You’re correct. How did you work that out? Do another one.”
The boys do all the sums for Mr Endlebury, who studiously scribbles down all the figures in his ledger. When they are all finished Joe climbs down from the table and whispers to Bobby that it’s time to ask for permission again.
“We’ve helped you, now we would like to ask for your help.”
“I’ve told you it’s a bad day and I help no one on bad days.”
“I don’t believe you can help if you can’t even do simple sums.”
The man tries to move and the boys hear the ceiling joists creak and bits of plaster tumble around his shoulders. The tall table complains as he shifts his tremendous weight.
“What is it you need from me?” he shouts.
“We need to ask you to tell Mr Chauncey to mend my bike so I can go home.”
The man rings a bell and bellows instructions down a coiled metal pipe attached to the front of his desk. A squeaky little voice responds and confirms the request.
“Consider it done, young man,” he says, “but now I need you to stay and help me with my work.”
“But we’ve helped you already, sir.” Says Bobby leading Joe towards the door. “We need to go home now.”
There is silence in the room apart from Mr Endlebury’s exertions as he strains to move. The entire room appears to shake with his efforts, and his face turns a dark shade of puce. There is movement inside the cages. The straw churns as though it is alive. One hundred scaled heads rise and stare at the boys. There is a hissing sound that builds to a piercing crescendo and Mr Endlebury’s ceiling gives way. The man roars as he forces himself free from his room’s constraining dimensions. The top half of his body rips through lath and plaster, destroys felt-covered rafters and smashes slate tiles. He is jammed in the upper structure of his house and kicks wildly with his feet. He lashes out as he tries to free himself and sends cages and baskets tumbling in all directions.
The first rattlesnake set loose wriggles toward the boys. More baskets are upset and in turn release poisonous vipers, coiled mambas, writhing copperheads and rearing cobras. There is a tidal wave of slithering venom heading towards the doorway when the boys reach the top of the staircase. They tumble down the first set of stairs and daren’t look back to see how close the scaly tsunami is behind them. The hissing and spitting follow them ever downward. As they descend the building appears to age and fall apart. The walls now appear stained and dirty. The interior woodwork has become tarnished and split. Glass in framed pictures crack before their eyes. The carpet is in tatters and the ground floor tiles are chipped and worn.
They burst out of the front door and scamper down the gravel pathway to their bicycles. Joe’s wheel has been mended, and both machines look polished and new. The boys push forward on their handlebars and mount the bicycles at a running pace. They are on the fog bound road once more and heading homeward. They pass the cloud factory, dash through the deserted suburban roads and recognise their neighbours’ houses. The lads dump the two-wheelers in the garage and catch their breath only when are safe and secure behind their front door.
“Where have you guys been all day?”
“We’ve been chased by snakes and there was a giant and…”
“And a girl witch and a cloud factory too…”
“And magic apples I suppose?”
Bobby unhooks his rucksack and shows the shiny apples as proof.
“Ok, wise guy,” she says, “so where’s my change?”
“In my pocket,” says Bobby as he wrestles to extract the banknote. “Here.”
“You spend too much time in that digital fantasy world,” she says and smiles.
Joe pulls Enid’s apple from his canvas bag and offers it to his mother.
“If you don’t believe us,” he says, “try this one...”