This one is for Elizabeth. Of course, you know the original, but this is better. Trust us. If Verdi had had Cobweb as a librettist, there would be an opera house in every town. And no diva behaviour.
“I’m sorry, darling, but I really think we must go,” said Carabosse, in that tone which conveyed very clearly to Cobweb that the word ‘sorry’ was not supposed to express dismay but only courtesy. She hated – she really hated Corporate Hostility events. In particular, she hated Carabosse’s Corporate Hostility events: large numbers of Wicked Fairies, comparing notes on wicked things they had done, and she wasn’t allowed to punish any of them. And their notions of fun ways to spend a day! There had been an afternoon running round a forest pretending to shoot at each other: that had turned out more entertaining than had quite been expected, since the original teams had, being Wicked Fairies and their associated hangers-on, proved entirely incapable of any sort of bonding. Cobweb had spent forty minutes Shifting from one appearance to another until none of the younger Fairies knew who or indeed what she was; when they were all utterly confused and shooting randomly at each other, she had calmly turned herself into a tree, as the Gnome had taught her, and become a non-participant. That had been very satisfactory, since one or two individuals had worked out that such-and-such a person had in fact been the Spank Fairy, and had started looking for her, and becoming more and more annoyed by their failure to find her. By the end of the afternoon, when she wandered back to base, picking pine needles out of her hair and displaying entirely unpainted clothing, her wild wood credibility had been much strengthened.
The golf day hadn’t gone nearly so well; Cobweb was one of those who thought golf an invention of. . . well, probably of her partner. Even the walk in the countryside was spoiled by the necessity of stopping to hit balls with sticks. She had flatly refused to do this, not being a great player in the BDSM scene, and the afternoon had actually been considerably improved by Bossy’s discovery that she had been interfering with the topography of the course, so that some players had found a spiral staircase requiring careful play on the seventh hole, and others had been obliged to play down one side of the Grand Canyon and up the other on a golf course ostensibly in Scotland.
But this was just too much. The opera? The opera?
“Why can’t you take Elizabeth?” she asked, crossly. “She likes that sort of thing. Tangled plots, major angst. Particularly major angst. I don’t do angst, you know I don’t, and I can’t be having these ridiculous plots where nobody knows who anybody is and everybody pretends to be somebody else. I can’t manage the suspension of disbelief.”
Carabosse struggled for a moment. This, he thought, from a Fay who had, at least in part (he knew how much of the blame to cast upon the Gnome) brought about the most unbelievable and incomprehensible Plot ever to affect Faery, by being several individuals of both sexes, and at one point, a chthonic Mother Thing? She couldn’t manage the suspension of disbelief?
He shook his head. He knew enough not to let himself be distracted by side issues. The point here, after all, was that he needed to keep on good terms with professional associates.
“I can’t take Elizabeth because the invitation is for you; I’m sorry it’s the opera which you don’t like. . .”
“Which opera is it? One with real tunes or just noise?”
“Ummm. . . It’s Faust.”
“Oh well, could be worse, I suppose, Could be something by Wagner. Life’s too short for Wagner, even for an Immortal. Faust? I might have guessed that, I suppose.” She might, she thought; she really might. Bloody Irishman.
Carabosse and Cobweb are cordially invited to join Mephist O’Pheles and the Leanan Sidhe at the Fuiseog Opera House for the Annual Outing of the Tuatha dé Danaan.
March, 7:30 p.m.
Cobweb’s corporeal body was rather more corporeal than she quite liked; she had, she thought dismally, trying to arrange her dress so that the boning in her bodice didn’t catch her under the ribs, put on weight again. It didn’t help that Carabosse weighed exactly what he did when she had met him first, nor that the sight of him in a black bow tie and a shirt the colour of a swan’s wing did something peculiar to her insides. It wasn’t fair that after so many years he could still do that to her. . .
She gave herself a little shake. No point in thinking about that. The workings of the Tuatha dé Danaan were sufficiently unlike anything the Carabossieri did that Bossy wanted to give them his whole attention. He would not be amenable to sneaking off in the first interval to do something more interesting in a private box. She flicked disconsolately through her programme, looking, as usual, for something to read. There was a plot resumé (she could see why this opera had been chosen – vanity, no other word for it), a list of sponsors, a selection of advertisements and. . . well, it wasn’t much, but it was all there was. Forthcoming productions, highlights thereof. Famous characters from equally famous. . . was that where he had ended up? She hadn’t seen him since he had walked off with her corkscrew and that was neither yesterday nor the day before.
Vi Volauvent rolled down the car window, and leaned out, screaming abuse at the traffic jam ahead of her. In the next lane, Cobweb pretended not to look. Barnabas, feeling her distraction, thrummed a little, and she absent-mindedly revved him up. “What’s with the car, Barnabas? That’s not her usual style at all.”
The motorbike shrugged. “It’s what you get with the Plot. I would have expected a little sports car, or even deux chevaux, she likes horses, but it said a Paris saloon, so she gets that unfashionable thing.”
Cobweb frowned. Vi Volauvent had never been known for her brains, but her good style had been famous throughout Story. This was not at all what Cobweb would have expected her to be driving. She ought not to have a car at all, it was entirely the wrong period, she ought to have been in a. . .
“Salon, Barnabas, not saloon. A Paris salon. She’s supposed to be having a party.”
It took only a minimal amount of Power to rearrange this particular reality; Cobweb was well aware that Story had its preferred routes and disliked being forced out of them, so that quite a small shove brought about a pretty pastel painted room, a pretty pastel wine waiter, and a selection of pretty pastel party animals – Flora Bigvoice, the Marquis Obsequious, Baron Pholderol, and Gallstone, who had brought a friend with him.
“Vi, darling? This is Alf. Alf Germolene. He’s been begging me for ages to introduce him to you.”
Cobweb, watching from the shadow of the velvet curtain, was struck again by how old she was (on the other hand she was younger than the Gnome, a statement which would have been more reassuring if he hadn’t been older than everybody), and how young so many of these individuals were. Alf Germolene looked barely old enough to be out on his own; she was aware that Vi herself was only just old enough to be street legal, and had been only just old enough to be street legal for many years, thereby explaining why a girl so young was normally represented on stage by a soprano of 43 and 14 stone. Nonetheless, it was obvious to the unbiased observer that Alf was inclined to dribble when he looked at Vi. Romantic love, she thought, in the words of the Proclaimers (she preferred the Proclaimers to opera), romantic love rots the brain, no doubt about it. He was giving Vi the look that implied a great vacancy in his head; Cobweb was well aware that at other times he was quite bright, but at the start of this particular Story he was as thick as cassoulet. She stepped back to be sure of being out of view; Alf Germolene at this stage wouldn’t know who she was but at other points of Story he had known her for years and appearing in Act One would only confuse him. He needed to pay attention to Vi, who had got as far as offering him a drink.
“Only I can’t find the corkscrew. . .”
Not a-bloody-gain! Cobweb hastily split the gauzy veil of Imagination, shoved her hand into the kitchen drawer in the Website and snatched up a corkscrew, which she flicked neatly onto an occasional table behind Vi. The table attempted to turn itself into an escritoire – well, this was one of the occasions on which it had ambitions towards not being a table – but a swift kick from the Spank Fairy settled it back into its squat shape, and it edged towards Alf in an attempt to remove itself from Cobweb. She scowled threateningly at it.
“Here, dear lady, allow me to fill your glass, and we will drink and sing a song about Libya.”
That didn’t sound right. Could that be right? There was an orchestra in the next room, which must be a laugh a minute to the people who lived downstairs, and Vi’s guests were moving towards the music. High heeled shoes, a wooden floor and an orchestra: Cobweb was amazed that the people downstairs had never lodged a formal complaint. She knew there was something for her to do here, but so far she wasn’t very sure quite what it was. Her musings were interrupted by a whisper of frothy skirts and the hefty thump of a body hitting the floor; she looked round to see Vi leaning on the table leg, rather white and shaken. Well, that was something she could deal with. Fainting fits in young women? They usually just needed Mothering after all. A faint idea chased through her head and she made a mental note to ask what precisely her American contact had meant by calling her One Angry Mother. It didn’t sound as if it meant exactly what it said.
“Mademoiselle? Will you let me help you back to your room?”
Vi looked at her blankly, with absolutely no sign of recognition. Well, so much the better, Cobweb supposed; it could only complicate things for the girl to remember that they had spent a night in a cocktail bar in Barchester, eying up rugby players and learning the words to a most peculiar song about wild animals. As she recalled, Vi had pulled; she hoped that the young man’s shots had all been up to date.
“Mademoiselle?” She hooked an arm around Vi’s waist and heaved, going faintly bug-eyed with the effort. Yes, well, that explained something. She would deal with that, for a start.
Ten minutes later there was a tap at the door and Cobweb hurried to open it. Alf was there; he too gave her a look of some confusion.
“Do I know you?”
“I’m Mademoiselle’s maid,” she said firmly. That should stop him paying any attention to her; nobody ever noticed the maid in this sort of opera. It was only in the comic operas (an oxymoron of the worst type) that the maid ever had any significance; in those she was allowed to be vulgar with the hero’s valet. “My name is Toile.”
“Bugger off, then, I want to be alone with Vi.”
Yes, well, that would cost him. Goddess, yes, that would cost him. She had no time for people who were rude to the staff. She melted back into the scenery.
“Vi darling! Let’s rut like rugby players!”
I’ve been working too hard, thought Cobweb; there shouldn’t be any rugby players in this Story. There are no operas about rugby players.
“Certainly not. Sex means nothing to me.”
That wasn’t right either; the girl was a pro, for pity’s sake. It was love which meant nothing to her. Sex was what paid her rent.
“Awwwwww, g’wan. Please?”
It ought to be more dignified than that, surely.
“Not tonight, Alf. I don’t feel very well.” Yes, well, Cobweb had a notion about what was causing that. “Tomorrow?”
The trouble with holding yourself out as a lady’s maid was the necessity to do lady’s-maiding. Cobweb could wield a decent hairbrush (as many a chastened young man could testify) but the finer points of. . . well, actually, it was only topping, wasn’t it? Take some daft bird who couldn’t look after her own wardrobe and daily life – that was a fine definition of the female Brat. Well, or the male Brat, come to that. Idiots all. No, if it came to getting her sensibly and decently from place to place in the right clothes and with the right accessories, it was simply topping and topping she could do.
“Toile? Do you think it might be him?”
“Do I think what might be him, Mademoiselle?”
“Do you think he might be the one? The Only Man?”
Most decidedly Cobweb did not think so. She didn’t believe in love at first sight (lust at first sight, yes), nor did she believe that there is only one possible partner of the heart. Men have died, from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love. That was the bald man again: he had such a way with words. As You Like It, she thought, and he had liked it with the back of a hairbrush. . . Still, this was not wholly her Story. She ought to play by the rules.
“I think so, Mademoiselle, yes. He seems very devoted.”
“But a clinger. I think I like being single better.”
It took three months for the Spank Fairy to get Alf and Vi into the country house outside Paris, largely because neither of them had enough money to put down a decent deposit nor enough sense to settle for something they actually could afford. Cobweb had hinted several times at the desirability of living within ones means; the flat refusal of both Alf and Vi to consider it made her huff and mutter about the dangers of two Brats together. Everybody knew, she thought crossly, that the brattery of a BratBrace wasn’t DoubleBrat but BratSquared.
“Toile! Where are Madame’s diamonds?”
Madame, thought Cobweb, wryly. He hadn’t married her; the Plot would have been working itself out quite differently if he had done.
“She’s hocked them, Monsieur. You ate them last night, the partridges and asparagus. And hock.”
“She did WHAT?”
Good grief, how stupid could the boy be? He had no income because he didn’t work; Vi had no income because she had stopped working. What did the boy think they had been eating? Brat, she thought again. None of them ever seemed to have the first notion of how to draw up a budget and then stick to it.
“Right. That does it. I’m going back to Paris, Toile, but you needn’t tell Madame. I’ll go and get back her jewels and sort out some money.” Yes, likely. Cobweb could believe that. Not.
But she held her tongue, told Madame that Monsieur had gone to the city on business, sighed to herself and started to pack when Vi decided that she would follow him.
The rooms in Paris were empty; if Cobweb had realized that Vi had kept them she would have Done Something About It. These two idiot children couldn’t afford one lot of rent, never mind two. And the silly bitch hadn’t put a forward on the post either; there was a pile of junk mail, bills, magazines and. . . invitations. An invitation from Flora Bigvoice to a party. Vi’s consideration of this was interrupted by the doorbell, and in the absence of any other staff, Cobweb went to answer it.
“Madame? Monsieur Germolene.”
“Alf darling, where have you. . . oh!”
For this was not Alf. This was an older man, taller, hook-nosed, with high cheekbones and a most desirable sneer. This man did not overlook the maid; he gave her a Look which turned her knees to string and made her shift uneasily from foot to foot. It was not usual for Carabosse to appear personally in Cobweb’s Stories, and when he did, they tended to end painfully for her as well as for everybody else – but damn, he looked hot in those clothes. Knee breeches were sexy, no denying it, and all those buttons. . . She gave herself a little shake.
“Mademoiselle Volauvent, I am Alf’s father.”
No, you’re not, thought Cobweb. Just as well, too; I couldn’t jump Alf’s father, he’s human-ish, and I’ve met him and he’s a prat, just like his son. Prattishness is genetically transmissible, and remarkably unsexy. I couldn’t – I wouldn’t! – screw Alf’s father in a broom cupboard, but you needn’t think you’re getting away untouched.
“Mademoiselle, I must ask you to consider the damage you are doing to my family’s reputation. The scandal of your affair with my son is damaging my daughter’s engagement; my daughter has the purity of an angel but her good character cannot be maintained in the light of your liaison. I beg you to renounce Alf and to allow him to return to his previously unblemished life.”
Bloody typical, thought Cobweb. Just because Vi had been known to make her living in just about the only way open to her, she was doing damage to the reputations of Alf and his family. No suggestion that Alf was doing anything he didn’t ought in setting up a mistress, cohabiting with her openly and living off her money because he hadn’t got any of his own, oh no. And in any event, the daughter wore denim dungarees and Doc Martens and had buzz-cut her hair; not proof of her unwillingness to marry, not nowadays, but it was certainly suggestive. She opened her mouth to say so, and shut it again. There would be another time for this. This time she was going to Sort Out this particular couple; she would leave Sorting Out the whole of Opera for the future.
“How, sir, can I do such a thing? Your son is all to me and I to him.”
“How can it be so when by your existence you do him harm?”
There would be half an hour of this, thought Cobweb crossly and wandered off to the kitchen. She would have ample time for a cup of tea and a sandwich; and then she would catch Père Germolene in the cupboard under the stairs. She knew all about the basics of opera: she had learned them from George Bernard Shaw, who had explained them to her as ‘A tenor and soprano want to make love, but are prevented from doing so by the baritone.’ They would be ages yet, but at the end, Vi would renounce Alf and they would be able to get on to the second interval. She was beginning to regret not having gone to the bar in the first one.
Sure enough, by the time she had washed up her tea cup and put it away, Vi was sitting alone in the parlour (here, where had Père Germolene gone? Had she missed him? Damn, that was going to put her out of humour all day) surrounded by scribbled notes.
“Toile? See that these are delivered, please.”
That would be. . . yes, high minded renunciation of Alf, in writing, and acceptance of Big Flora’s invitation (she was a mezzosoprano, of course she was a big girl. Cobweb was big enough herself to belong in any of these scenes, but there was no power behind her own mezzo, and anyway, the lady’s maid is always a soprano. No point in trying to meddle with that). She lifted the letters and opened the door, coming up hard against Alf in the doorway.
“Vi, what’s going on? My father’s outside, wittering about going to live in Provence. Why do we want to live in Provence?”
“We don’t want to live in Provence, it’s too provincial. You have to go. I have to go. We can’t live together any more. I love you desperately but. . . “
She bolted, leaving Alf standing looking as stupid as any man in the same situation is guaranteed to look. Cobweb helpfully handed him the note; if he would just read it and get on, they might make it to the second interval and she could have a drink.
“Oh, sorry, that’s the wrong one. The ‘I’m no good for you’ note is this one. That’s the ‘Party? Where? What time?’ note for the Bigvoice cow.”
Yup, here was the traditional making of assumptions. Alf was assuming that Vi had a new lover and was meeting him at Flora’s. Well, there was a surprise. Not. And why did these men never take these setbacks calmly? He was hitting a right top note about the whole thing.
Something she had never fully grasped was how the characters in opera always seemed to know what was going on. That, presumably, was something to do with recitative. In any event, by the party that night, to which Vi had rolled up in company with Baron Pholderol, the Marquis Obsequious knew that Vi had left Alf, and was cheerfully telling everybody else about it, when Alf arrived himself. Been drinking, deduced Cobweb, who had abandoned her lady’s maidship, and was carefully circulating around the room bearing a tray and collecting dirty glasses. He was certainly in a dreadful temper, stamping around and snarling at everybody. Brat, she thought wearily. He was a Brat (or whatever ridiculous name was currently applied to someone with neither sense nor self-control) and everybody knew how she felt about Brats. How on earth she was supposed to reconcile two Brats and get them living Happily Ever After, she did not know. Oh, good grief, now he was going to play cards. That meant that. . . she looked furtively around. She must be here somewhere. Come on, come on, she shouldn’t be hard to spot – how many women could there be here with a cornucopia, a rudder of destiny, and a wheel of fortune? Who was that in the corner, behind the thin girl in the improbable shell suit and the trainers?
Why was anybody wearing a shell suit and trainers at a party like this one?
“Nike? What in the name of all the Goddesses are you doing here and what are you wearing? And why?”
“Oh, hi, Nemesis, thought I might see you here. Which one is yours?”
Cobweb silently indicated first Alf and then Vi.
“Right. Overlap, then. The bloke over there is mine, Baron Pholderol; he’s going to play cards with yours.”
“But what’s he to do with you? You’re going to give him Victory, are you?”
Nike made a face. “They told me you’d had a big refit in the Nemesis business; well, we’re having ours now. Tyche has gone over entirely to being Fortuna; she’s gone into music, spends all her time Orff in concert halls being called upon by choirs. So there was a gap for a Lady Luck, and. . . do you have much to do with the USA?”
Cobweb shook her head in some bewilderment. “Not if I can possibly avoid it. I find I don’t understand the language.”
They exchanged a look of sympathetic understanding. “You and me both,” said Nike, gloomily. “I’ve suddenly been given Hellenistic Neo-Pagan Sects in the US.”
“Hellenistic Neo-Pagan sex?” echoed Cobweb. The Gnome would like that, she thought.
“Sects. And they are so wet. We’re talking candles, incense, scented oils, all that sort of stuff. Magick. As opposed to magic. There isn’t one of them can do any of either sort and most of them don’t even know that they aren’t the same. Cobweb, they’ll believe just anything, some of them. Never mind Intelligent Design, they’ll believe Plain Stupid Design.” She was becoming agitated, and Cobweb hastened to calm her with a half bottle of hock.
“Never mind, honey, never mind. What are you here to do?”
“Skin my guy,” she said miserably. “Let him down. Yours is to win and win on a major scale. He needs to be able to throw money about and the money he’s to throw about is from my man. It’s not fair, Cobweb, he’s a decent enough sort, if not very bright, and he’s got to fund the whole of Act 3.”
“We’ll sort something,” promised Cobweb reassuringly. “Trust me, my man is going to regret his many bratteries as soon as I can think of a way to make it happen; I’ll fix a credit note for yours when I get back to the office. Give me a call next week if the paperwork hasn’t arrived. Meanwhile, you’d better get on his case: the card tables have been set up in the back room for the past half hour.”
Nike gave a little squeak of dismay and hurried for the door; that, presumably, thought Cobweb, was the reason for the clothing and footwear. She had always been slightly late for something, for as long as Cobweb had known her, always been hurrying to catch up; she was extraordinarily quick about the place which was how she got away with it, but frankly, a little more organisation. . . She went back to her waitressing duties. Within half an hour, the noise from the card room was beyond being ignored; Cobweb glanced around the door jamb and caught Nike’s eye. The other girl nodded at her; plainly Pholderol had, as expected, dropped a bundle on Top Trumps or Three Card Brat. Time to get this Plot advancing: Cobweb moved back to the dining room and rang the gong for supper.
She was aware that Vi had placed her hand on Alf’s sleeve as he went past, and naturally, being almost as nosy as the Gnome, she melted into the background again to eavesdrop on their conversation.
“Alf, please go. Please. You’ve had a good evening at cards, everybody saw that you won, and Pholderol lost. Now just go.”
“What’s the matter? Afraid I’ll leave him too skint to pay you?”
Cobweb winced. That really wasn’t nice, she thought.
“No! But he might. . . I don’t know, he might. . .”
Might take a swing at you, thought Cobweb, although his manners are better than yours and I doubt it.
“I don’t want to see a fight, that’s all.”
“Hah! You’re just afraid I might mark your pretty boy’s face. Just because I’m tougher than him, you’re scared. Go on, that’s it, isn’t it?”
Cobweb sighed. No sense, that Vi. Ought to leave them to get on with it. Pholderol might be short on the brains side of things, but he was a big man – another baritone, and she rather liked baritones. In a fight between Pholderol and Alf, surely not even Alf could think that he would win. But no, Vi was going to do the wet self-immolation thing again, pretend she loved Pholderol, sooner than say ‘if you piss him off and he smacks you one, you’re going to stay smacked’.
Yup, and there went Alf, major tantrum and calling for his friends: he was going to. . . oh boy, he was going to take the rude and stupid option. One of these days, Cobweb thought, one of these days she would find on her books some characters with a full set of brains. Perhaps one who, when for the first time in his life he was satisfactorily in funds, didn’t go for the theatrical option of throwing real cash money at the feet of the girl who had left him.
It took her several glasses of gin to put together a plan (hock simply wasn’t going to cut it), and by that point she was well aware that starting straight away would be a mistake. Much wiser to go home to the Website, sleep on the plan – what the hell, sleep with Carabosse and stuff the plan. The Fay who arrived at the Baron Pholderol’s lodgings the next morning had a distinct air of menace about her. There was going to be Sorting Out.
Nike was still hovering about on the doorstep. “Cobweb? What are you. . . oh no, you’re going to tell me I can’t do it, aren’t you? Cobweb, it’s not fair!”
She raised one eyebrow. It had always been a useful skill.
“Do what, Nike? Haven’t you finished with your boy?”
The Goddess (well, only a Personification really, but Cobweb felt that anyone taking over Neo-Paganism in the USA was entitled to think of herself as a goddess) wriggled nervously. “Cobweb, he’s got this duel to fight. And I told you, he’s a good boy really, and. . . well, I am Victory. I don’t see that it would make any difference to Plot if he were to win. I mean, I’ve looked it up; your boy has to get back with the girl in time for her to die, and he wins the duel but my boy is only wounded, and not badly, and I don’t see why it would make any difference if he came out on top.”
Cobweb patted her reassuringly on the shoulder. “It won’t, Nike. It won’t. But you need more capitals in that sentence. He is going to Come Out On Top. It’s time for the baritone to be the hero. It’ll go much better, too, if you come and help. This scene doesn’t show in the Book of Words, but if we get the ends joined up, then presently this will be the way it has always been. Now, about this duel: we’ll manage it much better if you run it. The Baron is going to win, and that’s your department; what he’s going to do afterwards is mine.”
The duel itself had been arranged for the fencing school, so that it might be passed off as an unfortunate accident later; Cobweb and Nike exchanged grins over that. It was a relatively simple matter requiring only the faintest push at Story to position their Shifted selves as the respective seconds of the unsuspecting principals. Cobweb, looking across the room at the Baron’s ‘friend’, who was apparently engaged in checking the point on his smallsword and opposing him in foining practice, wondered how mortals rendered themselves so blind. The wings on the Goddess were tall, heavily feathered and inclined to moult on the floor, always a problem at this time of year. She looked at the weapon Alf was intending to use and swore, softly; a Pass in the air halted Time and drew Nike’s attention.
“What’s the matter?”
“Smallswords won’t do. Too thin. I like the flexibility, but there’s too much edge to be safe. We would do better with backswords, with a flatter blade. Yes, look, like that. Straight edge, not cavalry sabre. O.K? Ready to rock?”
“Think so, yes. You’re sure this will work? I mean, he’s never done anything like that, and nor have I, and. . .”
“Chill, Nike, of course you have. You know as well as I do that in anything written by – well, Elizabeth, for one, the Top always wins. Which means that there’s a Victory, and where there’s a Victory, you must have been present. You just didn’t know it. Tops worship you, with sacrifices of weeping Brats. Relax and go with it.”
The Personification nodded, assuming an expression of serious concentration, and shrugging her shoulders, an act which left a further flurry of feathers in the air. “Let’s go, then. You’re happy that I run the fight?”
“You’ve more experience than me. Ready?”
She was very good, observed Cobweb, dispassionately. As Lady Luck, she seemed dreadfully nervous and twitchy; as a Winged Victory she was confident and swift. She dodged round the swordsmen, flicking Alf’s blade clear of Pholderol, tapping his wrist so that his thrusts fell too low, pulling his sleeve to unbalance him. She hovered on the verges of visibility so that he hesitated, not certain of Pholderol’s movements. Her final intervention, done with such skill as to have Cobweb applauding, was a tidy tap to the back of Alf’s heel, causing his feet to cross and destroying his balance.
“Neat,” approved Cobweb, halting Time again.
“Learned it from a rugby player. See, he’s dropped his sword. He’d have dropped the ball too.”
“And it’s legal, is it?”
“Entirely. O.K., now what? Look, he’s half way to the floor, Pholderol will run him through with his sword and there’ll be blood everywhere if we aren’t careful.”
“Haul him a little this way. Good. Now, we want him to fall forwards and slightly to one side of Pholderol. No, the other side. He’s right handed, and we want Alf on his left. That’s it. Now, can we. . . Hmmm. Look, I’ll start this at half pace, and then. . .”
For Alf, it was as if time had gone into slow motion, a concept of which he was wholly ignorant. His ankles crossed, his weight tipping helplessly towards his opponent, he thought for a ridiculous moment that he felt feathers against his face, and a strong arm under his waist coupled with a heavy hand on the back of his neck. He doubled up, head downwards and. . .
Later, Baron Pholderol was quite unable to explain what he had been thinking. He saw his opponent trip and lean, and began to swing his sword to take the advantage; it was ridiculous to believe that there had been a voice, an oddly accented voice, whispering in his ear, suggesting that what Alf Germolene needed wasn’t a serious flesh wound, but –
Six months later, Branks collected an armful of files and started to restore them to their proper places.
“Miss Cobweb? There’s a file here not signed off.”
“Show me? Hells and damnation, I’d forgotten them. How much is still open?”
“Hmmm. The male Brat has been allocated to a Top – quite a good Top, from the look of it, he hasn’t been in any serious trouble for the best part of half a year. The female Brat is dying of consumption. Can’t be long now. Do you want to. . . we don’t allow that, do we?”
“We do not. Specially since I don’t suppose for a moment that she actually does have consumption; I held her up, and light and bird-like she was not. The girl is built like a brick whatsit. Have we got a Top for her?”
“Not allocated, no. She’s definitely het, isn’t she? We haven’t got a het Top free. If you want her sorted, she’ll have to have a bi Top.”
“Mmm. Of course we could – tell you what, Branks. Let’s see if we can do a Happy Ever After. Give me that file.”
In Vi’s bedroom, the doctor was holding her wrist delicately and entirely pointlessly; it made a pretty scene but served no useful purpose. He let Vi’s hand drop and headed for the door.
“She’s dying,” he said bluntly to Cobweb, who was once again pretending to be a lady’s maid. “Can’t go on much longer now. I’ve sent for the lover. Any chance of anyone paying my bill?”
“No,” said Cobweb, equally bluntly. “Some doctor you are. That’s not consumption.”
“Of course it is! Why would you think it wasn’t?”
Cobweb leaned over the lacy bedspread and began to turn back the fine voile of the nightgown to reveal a pale pucker. (No! What sort of Story do you think this is? Gods and goddesses! She rolled up Vi’s sleeve, O.K.?)
“Because, Doctor Gremlin, that is the mark of a BCG needle. The woman is immune to tuberculosis.”
“But she’s so thin! And the cough! And the fainting!”
Cobweb cast him a glance of some dislike, and slid an arm under Vi’s shoulders. “Sit up, dear. Doctor, a pair of scissors, please, or a knife. A scalpel will do.”
The parting laces made a ‘tunk’ sound as Cobweb cut through them; “Now, Vi, a deep breath please. And another. The glass of water, please, doctor.”
“See? She’s coughing.”
“Yes, well, if I cut a 21 inch waist corset off you, I dare say you would cough. And if I didn’t, I dare say you would faint. Vi isn’t a tuberculosis victim, she’s a fashion victim. It’s not consumption, it’s conspicuous consumption. The thinness is lingerie, not lingering illnesses; the cough is probably something to do with her smoking unfiltered Gauloises. In fact the only sensible thing you’ve done to date is send for Alf. I can hear him on the stairs; shut the door on your way out.”
It was not merely Alf; Pholderol followed him closely.
“Vi? Vi darling? I’ve come to beg your pardon.”
“Alf? Why, darling, why?”
“Um. . . because Pholly says that if I don’t, I won’t sit down in a fortnight. He says I’ve been rude, and rude boys get hot bottoms, and honestly, Vi, I don’t want to be spanked again, I really don’t!”
Vi’s eyes widened, and widened again as Baron Pholderol came further into the room.
“Well, missy, and what have you got to say for yourself?”
“Addio del passato,” she said weakly.
No more tomato ketchup? wondered Cobweb, blankly. Couldn’t be that, surely. Didn’t make sense.
“Are you feeling stronger?”
She nodded, half hypnotised; the Baron sat down on the edge of the bed and reached for her.
“Good. Now let’s talk about vanity, and smoking. My Brats don’t smoke, not either of them. Alf, hold her wrists.”
Cobweb smirked to herself. So Mephist O’Pheles thought he knew something about opera? He was a novice. A mini-singer. A man who would sit through Wagner as well as Gounod. She crept away, drawing across the scene behind her a heavy fold in the fabric of Reality: a Curtain.
She, on the other hand, was Faust among equals.
Click on Idris the Dragon to go back
© , 2006