Saturday, October 27, 2012

A Mystery...

An excerpt (pages 41-47) from the new thing I'm polishing:

The café was dark and grubby with an indeterminate colour lino floor, wooden chairs and round tables. Spiller’s was a perfect name for it, seemingly describing the behaviour of most of the occupants. It was nothing at all like the new shiny, chrome and black leather cafés that were popping up everywhere, with lots of glass windows and outside tables. While she preferred the idea of having hot chocolates at the new ones, Sally swiftly decided this one suited their purposes better. She felt sure no one from school would see them here.
With the nose blowing and the excuse making they were five minutes late for their meeting with Milo Lestrange. When they walked through the doorway of Spiller’s to the tune of a bell over the door they could see two little old ladies wearing what looked like tea cosies on their heads sharing a pot of tea and a plate of dainties in the far corner by the counter. Only two other tables were occupied. An old man wearing a disgusting stained overcoat and a knitted beanie pulled down over a mess of hair sat at a table also near the counter and a tall school girl sat at another by the front window. They were both horrified to see the school girl was wearing a St Welt’s smock, blazer and hat, and even more horrified to see that the school girl was Vanessa Blunt. She didn’t look up when they came in but seemed deeply absorbed in a book and a large piece of carrot cake. Sally shivered at the sight of her enemy. Avoiding the table near the window Sally and Abigail wended their way through to the counter. The old man cleared his throat as they passed.
An older girl had come through the plastic strip curtain to stand behind the counter when the doorbell had rung and now they gave her their order for two hot chocolates, two pieces of cake and a filled roll. Charmaine, said the badge pinned to the front of her white pinny.
“We don’t do hot chocolates. It’s either coffee or a mug of cocoa each. Alright then?” she said, not looking terribly fussed whether it suited or not. They nodded and as she rung up their order on an ancient till, Abigail handed over some money. The girl then busied herself pulling two slabs of carrot cake and an overflowing filled roll from the display case and arranging them on three plates.
“I’ll bring your drinks over,” she said pushing the laden plates towards them.
Abigail and Sally grabbed their food and turned back to survey the tables.
“Ahem,” came the old man again. This time the two girls glanced over and he was staring straight at them. He winked and tilting his head to one side, nodded.
“He wants us to sit with him,” Abigail whispered to Sally, a horrified expression on her face.
“I think its Milo,” Sally whispered back, “In disguise.”
Sure enough now that they were looking straight back at him they could both see that he wasn’t actually old at all. It was just his coat that looked like it had been through three life times. And they could see his hair had obviously grown quite a bit longer since the photo for the expedition was taken but it was still the same dark coloured wild mess it had been back then.
They walked towards the table and when they were close enough Sally leaned forward.
“Mr Lestrange?” she asked as quietly as she could.
The man nodded and they sat down at the table pulling their chairs around so their backs were towards Vanessa. She still seemed totally spellbound by the large book she was holding close to her face.
“Oh Mr Lestrange I forgot to get you something,” Sally said.
“Shhh, don’t say my name out loud like that,” the man said leaning forward over the table towards them. “And it doesn’t matter. I brought my own,” and he pulled a little flask out of his coat pocket and shook it. It made a light sloshing sound as if he’d already consumed most of the contents. Sally and Abigail smiled faintly.
“So which of you is Barque’s daughter?”
Sally stuck her hand up a little and said, “Me, I’m Sally. Oh, and this is my best friend, Abigail Fray.”
“Do you have a brother?” Mr Lestrange’s voice went down to a whisper.
Sally nodded.
“Any other’s?”
Sally shook her head.
“I remember Barque talking about his two children,” he continued. “A boy and a girl. Michael and Sally. No, ... that’s not quite right.”
“Malcolm and Sally?” Sally offered.
 “Yes...that’s it.  You do look a bit like him.” he whispered.
“Why are you whispering?” Abigail asked preparing to take a bite of the filled roll she had squashed into submission. Milo and Sally both turned to glare at Abigail. “Shhh,” they chorused.
“Well,” Milo said in a low voice. “Call me Milo.” He glanced at Sally. “I remember Captain Barque very well. Bill. That’s what he told me to call him. He was kind to me. No one else was on that voyage. I was the youngest and Bill took me under his wing. Treated me like a son. Or a younger brother. I remember it like it was yesterday. In fact I’ve had trouble forgetting it. Well, parts of it anyway. Other parts…hmmm…I don’t know. But one thing I know for sure. That one voyage changed my life completely.”
“It changed mine forever too,” Sally said softly.
“Here are your cocoas,” Charmaine said plonking two chipped mugs of flat muddy liquid on the table. Abigail smiled up at her in thanks and grabbed her mug to wash down the roll before she started on her cake.
“So what happened then,” she said.
“Well things were already difficult before we left port. Although your father had everything running smoothly Sally, Professor Angstrom and Major Blunt were complaining about everything from the food and the size of their cabins to the way their equipment was stored on board and the route your father was recommending they take. It all came to a head when we were only two days out to sea. I’d been laid up in my cabin the whole time with sea sickness. But on that second night I felt a little better and I thought it was time for some fresh air and I got up and went for a walk up on deck. I was outside the galley and I heard shouting. It was the Major and he was yelling at your father. Calling him names. Saying the expedition would be a disaster because of him. Your father was saying something about turning the ship round and returning to port right then. There was the sound of breaking glass and then steps and bangs and thuds and a shout. Doors were being opened and slammed shut and then more footsteps... and then the sound I can’t get out of my head. A scream and a crash and an enormous splash, like something very big had fallen in the water…”
“Dad...” Sally whispered, her eyes round and swimming with tears.
“I rushed around to the other side of the ship as fast as I could and I looked in the water and I called ‘Man Overboard’ and the crew came running but in the dark, even though they turned the ship around... you know even for a small ship like the Pole Star it takes a really long time. They don’t turn on a dollar coin you know. Well anyway, it was too late. We couldn’t find the body and…” Milo looked at Sally’s face.
“Please keep going,” Sally said in a small voice.
“The only person missing was the captain. The major was in the infirmary bandaging up the professor’s head. He’d taken a nasty knock and couldn’t remember anything. The major said it was the professor who’d screamed.”
“What did he say had happened to the captain,” Abigail asked breathlessly, peering over the top of her cake as she took another bite.
Milo looked from Abigail to Sally, uncertainty on his face. “I…he said…he said the captain had fallen.”
But Sally hadn’t heard. “There was that photo in the book,” Sally said staring off into space, her mind fidgeting around for something. “Of the Professor on the stretcher all bandaged. You couldn’t see his face.”
“That’s right,” Milo said.
“It could have been anyone,” she said, her expression suddenly hopeful.
“Ahhh, it looked like the professor. Whoever it was in the infirmary had the professor’s long black coat on too,” Milo said.
“But you never saw his face,” Sally persisted.
“No but the captain was a lot shorter than the professor, and the professor was…”
“But you couldn’t be a hundred percent sure. And it was a long time ago.”
“Well yes…but Sally, I don’t think it was the captain.”
“You didn’t see who went overboard?”
“No. Only the major knows what happened. And the professor. But he never recovered from the accident. He’s been in St Olaf’s ever since.”
“That’s not an ordinary hospital though, is it?” Abigail interjected. “It’s a mental hospital. Ooo, what if he’s too drugged to remember or so he can’t tell the truth or something.”
Milo looked aghast. “Look you two. It was all very straightforward back then. Don’t go inventing things that just aren’t true.”
“But it wasn’t straight forward at all.” Sally protested. “You said in your book that they weren’t going to the South Pole for oil. It was all about the army or something.”
“I don’t…remember…,” Milo said looking confused all of a sudden.
“You don’t really know the truth yourself, do you,” Sally said. “I want to know what happened to my Dad.”
“I can’t tell you any more than I’ve already told you. Although I do know the ‘Pole Star’ never made another voyage after that. It’s been in dry dock ever since. Down at the port.”
“Shhh,” Abigail said, winking and nodding her head towards Vanessa’s table. Sally turned to see Vanessa leaning back in her seat as far as she could without tipping backwards. Her book lay closed on the table and her cake plate was empty.
Sally’s face turned a livid red colour and she stood up so suddenly her chair fell to the floor with a loud clatter. She marched over to Vanessa.
“What do you think you’re doing, nosey parker,” she said banging the back left leg of the chair with her foot as hard as she could. The back legs slid under and the chair fell back with the tall solid Vanessa crashing down like a brick wall. Everyone in the cafe stared at the girl lying on the floor. Sally marched right back to the table, picked up her own seat and sat down. She didn’t look back. Vanessa lay in a tangled heap with the chair, like a tortoise stuck on its back unable to right itself, legs and arms waving in the air helplessly. Abigail snorted hysterically into her serviette.
“I guess somebody ought to help her up,” Sally said out loud in a most insincere voice so the whole café could hear.
 “Oh Sally,” Abigail gasped through tears of laughter. “How could you. She might be hurt.”
“She looks quite alright to me,” Sally said without even turning round to look. “I imagine it would take quite a lot to damage Vanessa.”
Eventually Charmaine emerged through the plastic curtain and helped Vanessa off the floor. “Lean too far back did we Miss. Happens all the time. There you go. Alright?” She picked up the chair and dusted off the back of Vanessa’s smock. Vanessa glared at Sally, gathered up her book and school bag and stalked out of the café.
“My goodness,” Milo said, “that was the major’s daughter. What a coincidence. Do you know her Sally?”

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