Mulberry Toots

  

A collective adventure  by Andrew Meek, Val-Rae Christensen, B.Lloyd with supporting lines by Perryn Blood  . . . 

Forsake sanity all ye who enter here . . . 

‘Night of the Steaming Tabby’ or ‘Somesuch’ 

Chapter One. 

It was a dark and… well, it was dark anyway. The old house was quiet now, save for the sound of wood cooling – cracking – as it settled in for the night. The sounds of the big house didn’t trouble Mr Pickles any… the cold did though, especially if his inconsiderate owners; the Lord and Lady of Kumquat -on-the- Turn shut their respective bedroom doors – what is a black and white 

Mr Pickles sees something strange . . .

domestic short-hair to do for warmth on a January night as this? Mr Pickles looked out through the gathering frost on the drawing room window at the full moon. 

. . . And then. . . the most bizarre thing happened. He could have sworn he saw, what, for all the world, looked like the silhouette of a cat peddling some kind of bicycle suspended from a hot-air balloon!… and the bicycle seemed to have a small house below it, complete with a smoking chimney pot… 

Note to self, he meewsed as he padded off toward the kitchen, stop stealing the cheese from the mousetraps, they must be putting that weird old Irish stuff in them again. 

Mulberry Toots peered through the wrong end of his telescope, sighed, snapped it shut and continued pedalling. Only a few more centimetres to the left, he calculated, and them he could land safely. 

It didn’t all go as smoothly as he had hoped however, and he crash-landed in the attic of Lord Kumquat -on-the- Turn’s home. ‘Drat-me-whiskers,’ he cursed, dragging the rest of the paraphernalia through the remains of the roof. ‘As if I hadn’t enough to contend with . . .’  However, all in all, after a few adjustments had been made, it seemed not  all had gone entirely awry. The fire was still going indoors. The balloon would need patching up, but in the meantime, his main concern was for . . . supplies. Mulberry Toots unrolled a leathery looking piece of parchment and spread it out on the attic floor. He snapped open a bull’s eye lantern in his helmet, and pawed over the diagrams scratched out on the map. ‘So we are . . . here . . . and if I multiply x by the root of sardines, to the power of four, I should find – aha  . . .yes, I see, –  X marks the spot, as we say . . .’ and so saying, he rolled the map up again. Time to explore. 

As has already been said, a house on a dark and… well, a dark night in January is still and silent, save for the occasional crackling of a dying fire. And the snoring. We mustn’t forget the snoring. And the screaming. But of course that was not until the aforementioned collision of a flying bicycle, which had left a gaping hole through three levels of ancestral home. Lady Kumquat-on-the-turn blinked twice and stood agape. The insurance would never cover this. But what did it mean? How did a small thatch-roofed cottage manage to find its way into their own once stately manor? “Pickles!” Someone must have an explanation for this. Lady Kumquat-on-the-turn found herself jostled rather forcefully forward to find that her noble lord had at last roused himself from his slumbers to follow her. Perhaps this was his fault after all. If only Lord Kumquat-on-the-turn had listened to his worthy wife and had taken care of those birds’ nests as he had a thousand times been bid to do. Then surely such a misfortune as this might have been avoided. Or would it? “Pickles!” Yes, surely it would. It must, you know. Where was that cat? And it was then that our good lady observed the remains of a small bicycle, hanging precariously amidst a web of rope tethers caught in the rafters above and which extended downward, evidently supporting the little cottage itself. The bicycle, with its rather misshapen wheels, swung to and fro in the breeze of the now open roof. Then fell with a clatter from its awkward perch, at last allowing the cottage to settle more firmly onto the drawing room floor. A column of smoke wafted up from the little chimney. Together the Lord and Lady Kumquat-of-the-turn knelt to peer into one of the windows. Lord Kumquat-of-the-turn drew forth a handkerchief, and taking it, his worthy lady wiped the windows clean of the steam now collecting upon it, and looking within, gasped to find… 

“Oh dear me! My word! Oh my giddy aunt!” he exclaimed peering myopically into the darkness. “Surely that isn’t…” 

But it was. Seated comfortably in a wicker chair, tucked in with a patchwork quilt and sporting a tea cosy, patiently unravelling a cornucopia of string, teaspoons and thimbles, their unexpected guest seemed totally unaware of their presence, at first. It was only when Lord Kumquat accidentally knocked over the flower pot on the window sill that the inhabitant finally deigned to look up. ‘Ah, we’ve landed,’ said Flimsy de Hartbottom. “Tis high time, too.” And taking up the spyglass that lay on the floor beside her, the aged rabbit extended the device to its full length and tapped thrice upon the ceiling. “Mulberry, darling?” she said in a calm, though petina cracked voice, “It appears we’ve landed, dear. And we’ve guests.” Lowering the telescope, she exchanged it for an ear-horn. And listened. Hearing nothing, she shook her head and tapped the horn hard on the table beside her, then again upon the arm of her chair and reinserted it. Still nothing. Her nose twitched, her eyes looked askance. And at last, seeing nothing else to do, she turned to her nosy and rather rude visitors. “Well?” she demanded of them. “I suppose you’ll be wanting some tea?” 

Mulberry, meanwhile, had managed to navigate his way down to the first landing. This was not easy in the moonlight, hampered as he was by his equipment : compass, tennis rackets(for snow-walking), butterfly nets (well, they might prove handy), teabags (for emergency refreshment) and thermos flasks (for emergency anything else). He was beginning to regret he had quite so much clobber tied on, added to the weight and encumbrance was the question of noise : however discreetly he moved, there was a mild clinking and clatter, akin to the sound of a scullery maid dropping the tea-tray – but it was too late to worry about that now . . . ‘onwards and downwards’ he muttered, ‘provender first, THEN back to the map . . . ‘

 

Meanwhile, the villain of the piece, Marmaduke Montmorentcy d’Estranged, was hard at work in his secret hide-out, padding about from one table to the next, consulting maps, instruments and charts, his long ginger fur gleaming flame-gold in the gaslight. He twiddled a few dials and a screen flickered up unevenly, with barely legible handwriting on it. ‘Please don’t do that again,’ it said.
‘Rats and bilge water,’ he snapped, and hit another button with his paw. Steam came out of the screen, and it went a dull blue.
Marmaduke sighed and trotted over to a big table in the centre of the room with piles of papers and books on it. In the middle lay a map with any number of green, red and purple circles, arrows and labels scrawled all over it. Something resembling an ice-cream cone (only made in brass) hung from the ceiling, attached to a long tube. He grabbed hold of it and blew down it, then held it up to his ear. After a while, a whispery whistle came slithering out of the cone. He winced (for it tickled his ears) and spoke into it : ‘ Calling Five Oh Four Catswhiskers, are you receiving me, over and out ?’
‘Fflflfefle ffghssss phrrrrewwwww,’ went the cone.
‘Send down the tabbies. I need help with the bellows again.’
There was a squealing, screeching, not-been-oiled-in-months sort of sound. On and on it went.
A hatch in the wall opened up and several well-padded tabby cats in bustles with lace mob caps on clambered out and shuffled over to the mangle in the corner. 

Sreeek skruck skreeeeek went the mangle as they turned the handle.
Mamaduke went around to the other side of it where a huge set of bellows lay wheezing.
‘Come on, more, more !’ he exhorted the bustled tabbies, who speeded up their mangling. He stepped up onto a small platform where a kettle sat boiling over a camp fire. The steam went up a funnel, linked to a pipe, one end of which linked up with the bellow’s nozzle, the other of which connected in a labyrinthine fashion with the dull blue screen.
Finally the screen flickered back into life.
‘Technology eh,’ muttered one of the tabbies. ‘Who wants it ?’
‘Gives me old back gip every time,’ agreed another. ‘If it was for something useful like toasting mice in seconds, or -‘
‘Silence!’ snapped Marmaduke, as he hovered over the screen, intent on dire and devious machinations . . . . 

                                                              *                                                           

Uncle Totter strolled along the bridge, hopping out of the way of passing carriages, smoking his pipe as he did when preoccupied. His nephew Mulberry should have contacted him by now, and he was beginning to worry that the latest escapade was not progressing as it should. He stopped halfway across the bridge to gaze down at the water. ‘No worries, mate ?’

 Uncle Totter turned to see a Koala in dining jacket leaning up against the parapet, smoking a cigar. ‘No, no worries. Thank you.’

  ‘Ah well. Was just checking. That’s a fine pipe you have there, by the by. ‘Minds me of them meerschaum things Holmesy likes.’

  ‘Er, Holmsey ?’

 ‘Chum of mine. But yours, mate, yours is a real diamond of a pipe. That’s quality, that is.’

  ‘It er, yes, it belonged to my grandfather in fact.’

  ‘Did it now, did it ? That explains it. They don’t make’em like that any more now, do they ?’

 ‘No,’ agreed Uncle Totter, now on firmer ground. Pipes and tobacco were familiar subjects, whereas itinerant Koalas and cigars . . . ‘You, ah, you visiting here ? Or come back home, as it were ?’

 ‘Aha, the old accent gave me away, did it ? Well, a bit of both, to tell you the truth. Bit of business, bit of family.’

(Is the Koala a decoy ? A long lost friend or relative ? A member of a desperate band of kidnappers, eager to get a ransom with which to acquire huge amounts of eucalyptus leaves and retire to an island to live off the interest . . ) 

                                                             *

Mulberry Toots unrolled the cracked, crisp, stained parchment. It was  covered in squiggles and drawings of cogwheels, bellows and curly bits, ink-spots and dried sardine bones. There were recent paw-marks where he had leant on it a trifle too enthusiastically after oiling bicycle wheels. ‘It’s these symbols here,’ he murmured, ‘along with the words “Miaowet – followed by a cat in profile, then “Purrk”, twice, then an owl, and then something shaped like a crown – one of those high white ones.’

 ‘Upper Kingdom. Definitely. Miaowet. Hmmm. Haven’t seen that in a long time . . . ‘

 Uncle Totter licked his chops reflectively. To tell the truth, he was a trifle worried.

The Book of Fluff was one of those myths nobody really believed in but which any archaeologist worth his salt dreamed of finding. Naturally it came with its own curse – what ancient book of any worth did not ?

The worrying thing was, the last time Uncle Totter had come across Miaowet, it had been scrawled across the desk in the Museum library – just before the chief librarian had disappeared in a puff of green smoke. Word went around that he’d copied the word from the Book of Fluff as a warning to the others. And now here was his own nephew up to his whiskers in it.

Uncle Totter puffed at his pipe.

 ‘I suppose PurrkPurrk might be fairly positive – like, who’s been at the cream sort of thing . . .but .. .’

Mulberry’s eyebrows drew together.

 Something in his uncle’s voice told him all was not quite  as it should be.

‘But ?’he asked. ‘Not quite dangerous enough? Not puzzling enough ?’ His tail whisked about a bit.

                                                        *

 

Lady Cynthia MountHorsesBadly sighed and staggered slightly as her maid tightened the strings of her corset still further. Close on eleven in the morning and they only got so far with her dressing. They hadn’t even started on the farthingale. She puffed and panted – then pointed at the window . . (or at the door – or at the painting ? . . . )

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