Charlie spark villain.., p.14
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       Charlie Spark - Villain Extraordinaire, p.14

           J M S Macfarlane
 

  With all the activity and his attempts to back away from the wall, he stumbled and fell over the carpet then wrestled with Cadwaller and the prop forward, keeping them both at bay, with his right arm around the Cad's shoulder and throat in a half Nelson and his knee on the stout chest of the prop. While in this position, someone had their shoe wedged under his chin and was trying with all their might to push his head off his neck.

  In the middle of this knotted entanglement, it was uncertain what would have happened next, had the door not swung wide open as Sir Staynesford Loathbery suddenly wandered in. Unconscious of all of them, he removed his dressing gown revealing spotted silk pyjamas, climbed into the bed on which Antoinette Loathbery was sitting and went to sleep.

  The combatants froze in mid-entanglement and looked up from the floor, wondering what to do next. Then it dawned on them that Lord Loathbery's brother had absent-mindedly returned to the wrong room and rather than disturb him, they quietly disengaged themselves, picked themselves up and crept out with Antoinette turning out the light as they went.

  Outside the room, there were whispered growls and crowings as both sides parted in different directions, not without the promise of a return bout.

  When Charlie Spark got back to his own room, feeling more disappointed than when he left it, he discovered that the clips on his cummerbund had snapped and that there was a size twelve shoeprint indelibly stamped across the front of his frilled white dress shirt. And every atom of him howled bloody vengeance.

  Chapter 37

  Rooks for Breakfast

  Early the next morning, a weak glimmer of sunshine greeted Bob King and the others as they cooked their breakfast some distance away from the stables and its equine reminders.

  It was at Wandsworth Prison that Pat Rourke had learned how to wrestle frying pans. As he pushed around a pan full of venison sausages, swimming in lard over a primus stove, he thought that this time at least, he wasn’t surrounded by warders and bars. Every so often, there were minor showers of grease and fat when the sausages burst open.

  Rooney, Valenti and Taffey all moaned that they were starving ; Griffey merely stared into space and was still drunk from the night before. While the servants had had to put up with the slops from the gaming tables, the villains had been downing vintage champagne in the cellar all night. After the rumble with the lackeys had ended, by three in the morning they were dancing jigs and reels. Now they felt as if someone had removed all their heads and used them as bowling balls.

  Many of them were ill at ease in the country but Bob King decided he wouldn't let any whining upset the morning’s tranquillity.

  "Ah kin see why the nouveau riche dinnae hang aboot in London. This is th' business, pahl. Nae juggernauts, nae polis sirens, nae tower blawks, nae dirt and pollution. See those nobs with theer fayne big hooses and limo's and heer's us, sharin' hay wi' yon hoorses. Ah kin tell ye, I'm goin’ to level the scoor, youse kin mark ma werds."

  Griffey had come out of his trance but remained lying on his back. "I can't wait to get back to London – the country gives me the horrors. But London’s always teeming with life – it's impossible to get bored there. I love the old places, it's as if the streets and buildings are alive and speak to you wherever you go."

  "Aye," said Bob King,"an' the nicks an' slammers do an' all."

  Nearby, in the branches of some willow trees, sat some rooks. They were huddled together, looking like a set of tar babies stuck up amongst the leaves. Each of them eyed the sausages as the smoke of the pan drifted skyward.

  Paddy Rourke agreed with Bob King. "I think you’re right, Bob – it's good to be in the sticks again after a spell inside. Here, look at those rabbit hawks sitting up there. Will ye just look at them now ? What are they waitin’ for, up there, I should like to know ?"

  "Rubbit hawks ? What rubbit hawks are ye flappin' on aboot ?" said King.

  "Those ones – those big, black birds up there – see 'em ? They're meat eaters and scavengers. They want to make off with our bangers."

  "You daft block of wood – they're not rabbit hawks,” said Taffey. "Anyone can see they're crows."

  The aroma of the venison had become irresistible to the rooks so they debated amongst themselves whether to play their usual begging game. After a while, the toughest and greediest bird could bear it no longer and swooped down to within ten feet of where Griffey lay sprawled out in the sun with his eyes closed.

  "Sure enough. There's one of your stupid rabbit hawks now," said Riley. "Look at the size of him. He needs to keep his strength up alright," and he took a piece of burnt sausage out of the frying pan and threw it to the bird which jumped on it and chopped it up with its beak before gulping it down. Soon the other rooks joined in as they saw that the ice had been broken. Between them, there was a race to see who could cadge the next piece of food, by edging closer and closer to the frying pan.

  "Throw the buzzards another piece," said Taffey but this time Riley accidentally threw a piece which landed on Griffey's chest. A brief spell of sunshine had caused the brewery sponge to nod off to sleep.

  It wasn't until the closest rook hopped up onto Griffey's coat to claim its prize that he suddenly awoke to discover a black, shiny thing blinking down at him with one beady eye turned side on which made him roar in terror. As the rooks took flight in one direction, Griffey tore off to the horse trough and dunked his head several times : another attack of delirium tremors ; a few months ago, it was technicolour frogs ; no more bo’suns rum for him.

  Just as they finished their breakfast, Charlie Spark arrived to collect his clothes for the morning's fox hunt and recounted how he'd been attacked by Cadwaller and several thugs but had beaten them off.

  "Looky heer, ah knoo youse," said Bob King with narrowed eyes. "Dinnae expect me tae swallow that load o’ old tripe, 'cause I kin see yoo're layin', Jim."

  But Spark swore on his absolute honour that everything had happened, just as he'd described it and anyway, what about the cuts on his face ?

  "Ye probably tripped over your own dozy feet, ah wouldnae doot."

  Seeing there was no mileage to be gained in disputing the call any further, he told the others to be ready with field provisions in two hours time and to meet them half way down the Old Shaledone Road where the hunt would end its run. They would have to make some sort of show for the Loathberys even if it meant that some of them had to prance about in silly get-ups and pretend to be lackeys.

  Before Spark headed back to his room, the Scotsman took him to one side, where they wouldn’t be overheard and described the revelations of the State Room during the night.

  After talking it over between themselves, both of them knew that the game had now changed and that it was for Sir Harry to decide the next step. More than one person was interested in the State Room vault but one thing was certain, Snaggs wasn’t there to go fox-hunting with the toffs – he was after the same thing as them.

  “It’s nay for me tae say but ah reckin, we should stay th’ coorse,” said the Glaswegian defiantly. “That red-heered ferret doesnae frayten me.” And just as he was about to launch into the story about how he stormed a Vietcong machine-gun post single-handedly, Spark said “Gotta go,” and raced off, as quick as he could.

  Chapter 38

  The Morning of the Fox Hunt

  Inside the Manor House, the atmosphere had reached boiling point.

  The hunt was to start on the stroke of half past eight : many of the sleepy, dishevelled, hung-over aristo’s, politicians, stockbrokers, tycoons, literati, heiresses, musicians, fashion-models, wastrels, marquises and duchesses were scrambling about in their rooms, falling over while getting dressed, arranging their riding clothes and searching for the breakfast room through the labyrinth of the west wing.

  Lady Birch’s head was pounding as she squeezed herself, inch by inch into her jodhpurs. Further down the corridor, Piers Loathbery and Amanda Teece were parading before full length mirrors, changing in and out of various red
and black coats with white cravats, riding boots, spurs, whips and top hats as each of them asked the other “How is this ? “ or “How do I look now ?” or “What do you think of this ?”

  Downstairs, in the dining hall, Lord Loathbery was seated at the far end of the high table, sporting a black coat with buttons displaying the tail and head of a fox. Looking over the share prices in his morning newspaper, he sipped his tea with a dour expression : half his attention was on the menagerie around him and the other half was deciding which horse he'd ride that day. The grey stallion was too jumpy and prone to ditch its riders over fences or into streams. Someone else could have it such as Simon the Cad who boasted he could ride through anything.

  Soon, the corridors and dining hall resembled Liverpool Street Station at rush hour with everyone tearing about fetching this or carrying that.

  Sir Harry entered the room, resplendent in a red coat which was slightly too big for him, his boots creaking with every step and his trousers strangling his waistline. His face had a ruddy glow, betraying his fight with his clothes and the rush to get dressed in time. As he looked around, there was plenty of space beside Lord Loathbery but apart from that, there was nowhere else to sit. Clearing his throat as a prior warning, he fixed a wooden smile as he drew up his chair next to the peer.

  After a curt "Good morning," which could have come from the first in the punishment queue outside the headmaster's study, Sir Harry bowled his first delivery and said : "Lord Loathbery, we haven't been properly introduced – but I think we've gotten to know each other since last night..."

  "Oh, I already know all about you, Sir Harry. Your reputation is well known," retorted the peer unabashed. (First ball of the over hit for six as Sir Harry stretched every nerve-ending not to panic.) "Pleased you could attend – this is all merely an amusement but essentially for business, you understand and as a gesture to celebrate my youngest daughter's betrothal...."

  Then pausing, he moved nearer to Sir Harry and said in an undertone, "I say….couldn't lend me a couple of hundred pounds could you ? Only..I left my blasted wallet upstairs and the hunt will be starting any moment. Small matter of paying the hunt master before we're off…." (Second ball hit over the grandstand.)

  As the peer looked up at the wall – and out of the corner of his eye – and waited, the varnished grin on Sir Harry's face stretched ever wider as he declared it an honour. From his wallet, he counted out four fifty pound notes with suppressed annoyance : this was why the others had avoided the same seat.

  Espying the fullness of his guest’s wallet, Lord Loathbery said : "You couldn't make it five hundred, I suppose – there are some other expenses and..." But Sir Harry said he needed to pay some of his fellows for the day’s outing and his cash was limited to which Loathbery muttered, "No matter..." and pocketed the original sum as he mumbled something while looking in the opposite direction.

  To make conversation rather than just sitting there like a preserved Jeremy Bentham, Sir Harry said : "The weather’s being kind to us today, by the look of it," but receiving no reply, he examined the tarnished silverware and chipped porcelain on the table, thinking that a swagful mightn't fetch a great deal in the Walworth Road.

  By this stage, he was weak with hunger so he turned his attention to the table laden with food and surrounded by red and black coats. His appetite had been sharpened by the previous night's events and he was forced to push his way in. When he’d managed to get to the front of the table, he piled on his plate, a mound of toast, bacon, eggs, kippers, mushrooms, tomatoes and bread rolls and had to cover it with a second plate to prevent being jostled by the scrum and losing it all on the floor. His usual breakfast sitting was at the local pie and mash café where he’d order a large mug of tea and anything from toad in the hole to bubble and squeak or a simple bacon butty.

  Lord Loathbery was astounded as Sir Harry put away the entire plateful in five minutes flat : if all of these parasites remained much longer, thought the peer, the Manor House would soon be bankrupted by the food bill alone.

  To prevent Sir Harry returning for another trowelful of food, he said "Sir Harry, I hear you've accepted a challenge from the cricket eleven at the Golden Pot – you may be interested to know that we will be batting with them. I’ve left everything to the publican to arrange. But on a different subject altogether, I dare say you've heard of our Obsydian Group ?"

  Loathbery had the annoying habit of speaking to walls when he could be bothered conversing with anyone, rather than speaking to them directly. And so the conversation proceeded at different angles.

  "Truth be told, I hadn't until I met Herr Schwager and Monsieur Bulot recently," lied Sir Harry.

  "Ah yes, our continental friends. I hear from them that you've spent some time in the Middle East and Africa."

  This was pure fiction and nothing of the kind had been said by the Eurofiends : Loathbery had simply guessed as much by anticipating their next move. He wanted to manipulate them. Sir Harry might help him do this – without even knowing it.

  “I have been monumentally foolish,” began Lord Loathbery. (“Not so foolish as you’re going to feel in a few days if things go the right way,” thought Sir Harry but also wondering if his plot had been uncovered.) “For years I ignored the opportunities in Africa but lately I have decided they are irresistible,” and he went on to give a sanitised account of the arms trade. This was why the continentals were interested in all the trading concessions up for grabs. But it all depended on certain 'administrative procedures' being followed with the right political connections. In other words, thought Sir Harry, Loathbery wanted some fly-by-night who could wheedle his way through the corruption, nepotism, graft, double-dealing and extortion – but who would be stupid enough to do the job ?

  "Where in Africa were you based ? I'd be interested to hear what you think of our plans. Can we meet this evening after dinner ? I don't think we need bother our continental friends."

  "Certainly...." responded Harry, appearing intrigued but secretly worried.

  "Shall we say, ten o'clock then, in the library in the east wing ? My staff will direct you there."

  Sir Harry said he'd keep the appointment and headed off to find Charlie Spark. On the way, he thought of the hundreds of far-fetched tales he could dredge up, more extraordinary than in any of the books in all of the British Library and narrated to him by one or two inventive, daredevil drunks and maniacs who had fought as mercenaries and paratroopers, in all manner of exotic places before finally coming to rest at the Black Lion and the Tyburn Tree, filled with their experiences on any subject you could name. From them, he intimately knew Lagos, Cairo, Daar-Es-Salaam, Yemen and countless other cities and countries : he hadn't been to any of those places but if called on to describe them, he could easily have done so in a convincing way. (This had already been put to the test with Bulot and Schwager).

  The most imaginative story-teller was Bob King. No-one could outdo him for breadth of subject matter or versatility of rendering : he had supposedly swum in crocodile and python-infested waters to avoid capture by South American guerrillas even though it was said (when he wasn’t around) that he hadn’t been further south than the Isle of Wight ; he'd allegedly hacked his way through the Cambodian rainforests during a 'secondment' (the cavillers said he’d really been a gardener in the Tropical Plants section of Kew Gardens). But no-one could really say whether any of his stories were actually genuine or not because no-one dared challenge him to prove he was telling the truth. However, all of the Scotsman’s escapades were nothing compared to the dangers of living on the Haytted Estate in Peckham which required the skill and agility of the most cunning jungle fighter or urban commando, merely to negotiate a return journey to the corner shop to pick up a pint of milk – without being assaulted, kidnapped or robbed by the local disaffected element.

  Chapter 39

  The Riders & Their Mounts

  The noise in the Dining Hall had grown deafening – scores of guests sat at the lo
ng tables, prattling excitedly to each other, grabbing handfuls of bread, sausages or bacon from their plates, pouring cups of tea and spilling it everywhere or filling hipflasks from brandy bottles ; the women were gossiping and adjusting their riding habits and hairnets ; the men strode pompously up and down puffing on cigars ; some impatient or anxious riders cracked their whips against their top boots ; the kitchen staff and servants rushed pell mell delivering this or collecting that and outside, the hounds yowled wildly for a day's gallivanting around the countryside.

  In the middle of the confusion, Charlie Spark's feet were trodden on and his arms and sides were bumped and jostled as he tried to wolf down whatever breakfast he could lay his hands on, as if surrounded by a lot of greedy porkers. When some of the guests went off to the stables to select their mounts, he found a spare bacon roll and stuffed it into his coat pocket, caking the inside of his jacket with butter and grease. As he was drinking a cup of tea, he almost choked at the sight of the Cadwallers entering the dining hall. He quickly slid under the table and into the crowd to avoid encountering them. On his way to the stables, he ran into Sir Harry.

  "You're in a rush. Can't wait to get into the saddle, eh ?" asked the bookie as Spark walked with Sir Harry on his right side to hide the scratch on the right side of his face received during the contretemps in the early hours.

  Earlier that morning, Sir Harry had slipped a fifty pound note to the stable boy to look after their two mounts which had arrived from Ted Todd's stud farm. Sir Harry’s horse was a two year old stallion called Bolton's Revenge or the Bolter for short. The horse was a true thoroughbred, ideal for hunting, a steady ride but with fire in his belly when the courses and hedges were even. The equivalent of learner plates had been chosen for Spark : his horse was a docile, seven year old chestnut mare, near to retirement but still able to canter well over a medium distance.

 
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