As the train rattled through the Austrian countryside, the travellers, all busy memorising their new Swiss identities provided by Kermit Hackensack, were for the most part oblivious of the scenery, and Jakob Feldman moved along the corridors, first to check that everyone was aboard and secondly, to ensure that their stories would hold up when it came to the first Border crossing, where they would enter Germany, although Kermit – a more seasoned international traveller – had assured him that as the train would only be making a relatively short detour before re-entering Austria for the final run towards Liechtenstein and then crossing the Swiss Border, the German Border Guards would not be particularly interested: "we won't have any stops in Germany, so they will have no reason to be concerned, for as we shall not set foot on German soil, and the interior of this train is ex contractu Swiss, diplomatically, we don't exist!" but Jakob, by nature, always expected something unexpected to happen and wanted everyone to be word-perfect; he wasn't too worried about the Cabaret Voltaire performers, who were used to memorising songs or dialogue, often at short notice, and even handling hecklers, nor the staff from Hackensack's International News Agency, all of whom were bilingual – at least – but rather the back-room workers, the wardrobe mistresses, scenery builders, props, lighting, administrative staff, usherettes, box-office girls, stage-hands and the two boys who sold programmes, niggled at him: they were loyal, supportive and enthusiastic about the Cabaret and it's aims, but they all had a lot to learn about their cover stories and unlike the actors had no experience in creating and adopting a character – the slightest discordant note, a tirrit brought on by anxiety or panic, could upscuttle the whole venture: "you have to believe that you are the person identified in your passport, Frau Gertrude Stieffle," he impressed on the middle-aged woman who worked alternate nights in the box-office, "think about the kind of person she is, you are, about the place where you were born and lived as a child, your childhood friends, your first Communion, going to dances, where you live now, who you live with, what you do in Zurich in your spare time, what you spoke with your doctor about the last time you had a consultation," he advised her: "these are all the grace notes in a characterisation which no-one will hear, because they are in your heart and head but if you believe them, it augurs well for the person glancing at your papers being more likely to believe that you are the person carrying them, the person entitled to carry them; he has no good reason not to," and she nodded gratefully, thinking of how she was always able to tell her husband that a new hat cost half of what she had paid for it, because she had been telling herself that very same story on her way home, and so he never doubted her; and the newly re-named Herr Franz Stieffle thought back to all the things she had told him over the years and wondered if any of them were true and remembered also how easily he knocked off a couple of beers from the total he had drunk while out at the local bar with his workmates, and wondered if it was too late in life for him to become an actor instead of a salesman – and then realised that he had actually been an actor all his working life!
And as the train taking them all to Zurich began to pull out of the station, Jakob Feldman found a seat in a compartment where Dada Heidler, the Artistic Director of Cabaret Voltaire, with his girlfriend Magda Bloom and his sister Paula – one of Kermit Hackensack's large Secretarial Department – were discussing this rapid change in their lives and fortunes: "this will be the first time outside Austria," said Paula, with a mixture of excitement and apprehension, her face glowing at the prospect: "of course Dada has been to England, you know, Herr Feldman?" and the young artist grinned: "well, really just Liverpool, I don't think that equals the whole country just a lowly job in the hotel where my brother Alois worked, and most of his friends were from Dublin or Belfast," and Jakob remembered being told that Dada's sister-in-law was an Irish woman, as the young man continued: "in fact, a lot of the hotel staff were Irish and some of them even spoke their Gaelic, so it probably wasn't really typical of England at all," and he laughed, "you know, before yesterday's Company Meeting, if anyone had said I'd soon be scurrying out of Austria like a thief in the night, and heading for neutral Switzerland like a traitor, I'd have laughed in his face – you want to hear something?" and Jakob nodded, then Dada said: "well, I don't feel like a traitor at all – oh, yes, a few years ago, when I was mixed up with those irascible Nationalist Germans with all their grandiloquent denunciations, blaming and scapegoating, I too would have said that we were all traitors, had made Faustian bargains to save our own skins, but I've changed so much, thanks to you Jakob, and Magda and Miriam and everyone else in Cabaret Voltaire – I realise that this war is a spat between the Crowned Cousins, it's not even about Franz Ferdinand and the Bosnians any more, but more about Empirical Expansion; young Tristan loaned me a book by Friedrich Engels and about thirty years ago he predicted just what is happening now and like Herr Hackensack said yesterday, the whole of Europe is going to become the funeral pyre of an entire generation – well, if War is an Extreme Measure of Population Control. . . . ." and he hung his head for a moment then looked back up, with his usual cheeky grin restored: ". . . . . I suppose our emigration to Switzerland could be regarded as a Minim of a Measure of Population Control for the benefit of Austria!"
"Ecce!" cried a station porter, pausing in the act of transferring luggage from a trolley to the train: "Anarchist Assassin!" and he stared at Grigor, as if challenging him to deny the accusation, but Pearl Pinkus and her sister Pola, burst out laughing: "naughty Polly, bad parrot!" and explained in several languages to the porter and his mate who gawped, bewildered by the onslaught from to two elderly women, that as ever man trod shoe-leather, their pet had developed a life-long fear of Anarchist Assassins and was forever trying to start a hue-and-cry by accusing men in general and respectable police officers, sailors, ex-soldiers, railway porters and door-to-door salesmen of being such villains, on the run, and the offer of some currant cake convinced the porters that the parrot was one of those hyper-vigilant citizens forever trying to create mayhem where no grounds existed, so when Pearl put the thick cover over the cage, the quieted bird was moved onto the train and Grigor moved his hand away from his ankle and the revolver and sat back on the bench with a feeling of desuetude replacing the sense of panic and fear that he might so easily have been arrested; by which time the other newly-naturalized Swiss passengers from the Cabaret Voltaire and Kermit Hackensack's News Agency had arrived and were about to begin boarding; but first Kermit explained that their two Wagons-Lit coaches and the dining-car which was positioned between them, would be taken by an Austrian Imperial Railways engine to the Border with Germany, just west of Salzburg, then the Austrian locomotive would be replaced with a German one, which would take them for the short dog-leg west skirting the Chiemsee to Rosenheim and then south towards Kiefersfelden and back into Austria, where yet another Austrian locomotive would take over for the long sweep towards Switzerland: "as this is an Express Train," said Hackensack, "there will only be a few stops – when the engines are being changed over – we shall stay on board these Wagons-Lit carriages until the train arrives at it's destination – Zurich; the only people who will board it, will be Border Guards when we cross the Austrian-German border twice, at Nirgendwoistville and Derortmitkeynnomen, then Liechtenstein Border Guards when we enter the Principality and Swiss when we cross the final frontier into Switzerland; our restaurant car is stocked with a week's provisions . . . . ." and to cries of anger and distress that a journey of only 593 kilometres might take a whole week, he appealed for calm: "it should only take us two days but I have allowed for delays; Austria and Germany are officially at war with France, Great Britain, Russia and pretty much everyone else and their railway networks are now carrying military materiel – the desire of a group of Neutrals," and he looked up as though asking the Lord to forgive this necessary deception, "to go Home already, is secondary to their war preparations – be grateful we're not trying to get from Zurich to St Petersburg, now that would be quite another kind of journey!
Grigor the Doorman slept not a wink – his bags were packed half an hour after he returned to his room when the Grande Finale of the Cabaret Voltaire finished and he spent the rest of the night checking and rechecking everything, from his toothbrush to the old revolver he had wangled after his brief military service in the Balkans thirty years ago; he took it apart, oiled it and put it back together three times, counted the bullets he still had (17) and tried to hide it among his clothes, in his greatcoat and eventually strapped it to his wooden leg after practising his Quick-Draw technique, and once he had it down to seven seconds he was satisfied; then, in the doldrums of the wee small hours he kept his mind active by reading his only book, Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship and Travels, for the fort-seventh time, but ere he reached the end his little alarm clock chimed 6am and it was time to leave; naturally, he was the first to arrive at the station and found the Queueing Point – the passengers for Zurich were to board the overnight St. Petersburg-Wien-Nice-Cannes Express in two private carriages which were officially designated as Swiss Territory so would not be examined by Customs Officers at the German Border; from Strasbourg they would join another train travelling from Paris to Zurich; all the details of their itinerary would be with their tickets and passports when Herr Hackensack arrived at the station – in the meantime, Grigor made himself comfortable beside a newspaper vendor, spruiking the Headlines into his sales-pitch: "Read all about it – Millions to Starve in Winter Wa-ar! Emperor Predicts New Austria from Adriatic to German Sea-ee; Three Players Die in Football Friendly in Bos-nia-aa!" next came the two octogenarian Pinkus sisters who oversaw the Costume Department, with seven large suitcases and a parrot in a cage – the parrot took an instant dislike to Grigor and began squawking: "Anarchist Assassin on Run!" which then became part of the newspaper seller's spiel.
Even before all the declarations of War between the Cousins – the Emperor of Austria-Hungary, the King of Great Britain, the Kaiser of Germany and the Czar of Russia – the Cabaret Voltaire in Vienna had been the scene of an urgent meeting attended by the Writers and Performers, Artists and Costume/Scenery Designers, Composers and Musicians, Fundraisers, Joiners, Electricians, Seamstresses, Cleaners, Caterers, Box-Office Cashiers, Usherettes, Artistic and Business Directors, Grigor the Doorman and the two small boys who sold Programmes and slept under the stage; it was a rowdy meeting because everyone had a point of view and needed to state it, regardless of the fact that all were pretty much agreed: Vienna was going to be a dangerous place for a politically radical, satirical and subversive venue for what was becoming known as AgitProp -Agitation Propaganda – and it didn't really matter where the collection of people came from: those who were Citizens of the Empire were liable to be conscripted into the Army, or arrested as political subversives; those who were citizens of nations now at war with the Empire (French, Russians, Bulgarians, Romanians, British, Turks) or simply Gypsies or Jews of any nationality, likely to be arrested and jailed as Enemy Aliens; and the two small boys would probably be sent to a Christian Orphanage, or abandoned on the streets; oh the Drums of War were beating out a Quadrille and all Europe was dancing at the end of a Hangman's rope: but it was Kermit Hackensack who jumped up on he stage and demanded "SILENCE!" and when he got it, addressed ther entire Company: "you all know me, I run an International News Agency and the wires from London, Paris, Rome, Warsaw, Moscow, Constantinople, everywhere, are Smoking. the War will be a conflagration that will destroy most of Mittel-Europ and take millions of human lives with it; I have taken an Executive Decision and tomorrow my entire operation is going by chartered train to Zurich – I will still have correspondents in every capital of Europe but need to be based in a Neutral and Switzerland is the obvious place for me; I can provide Jakob with Swiss Passports for everyone here who wants to travel with us – they are a bit of a kludge job but a blind man running for his life from a rabid dog with it's tail on fire wouldn't be able to tell them from the real thing, and a 20 note will ensure that they are stamped before the billywitch chicks hatch and as soon as the train passes into Switzerland we will all have been aladdinized into good Helvetian burghers and matrons and next stop Zurich!" and "or Bust!" shouted Grigor, throwing his cap in the air and starting to sing: "for he's a jolly good fellow," waving and pointing at Kermit, which everyone joined in and The Motion was Passed by Accolade, as Miriam wrote in the Cabaret Voltaire Minute Book that night.
"Why are you telling me all this?" asked Ezekiel, then sat back and linked his hands behind his head, watching Greymalkin's thought process in operation; he knew that cats, like dogs and most other animals, only had a limited range of facial expressions, but Greymalkin was an exception to that general rule, just as he was the first animal Ezekiel had ever come across that could communicate with a human by thought transference – in English; then he sat up as an idea struck him, one that had not come from the cat: "tell me, Greymalkin, can you actually speak?" and he noticed a startled look cross the cat's face, which made it look slightly more like a rabbit caught in the headlights; after a few moments, Greymalkin, hesitantly at first, then beginning to gain confidence, replied to him in a light, albeit husky, voice: "this is the first time I have spoken to one of you people, it isn't something that I broadcast, thought transference is capable of more subtle expression, and I know that my own larynx is not designed for speech in the way that a human's is; how does it sound to you?" he asked and Ezekiel replied: "your voice is easy to understand, your pronunciation is good, although it sounds immature – I don't mean to imply that you sound like a child, but rather as someone who doesn't have confidence, because they can't hear their own voice quite the same as another person listening would; if anything, you sound like a young woman who smokes twenty cigarettes a day," and Greymalkin actually laughed; then Ezekiel asked him: "have you always lived here, or are you, like me, in a kind of Limbo?" and now Greymalkin climbed down from his usual perch on the back of Sister Mariah's armchair, and jumped across, to land in Ezekiel's lap, where he sat and sniffed the man: "there was a time," he said quietly, "when I was not as I am now – nor was I a human being in the Earthly sense – I come from a planet a million light years away, and The Creator saved my life but felt it safer for me to live somewhere else, and put me here; Nurse Mariah had always had a cat, sadly he had died and The Creator – who has always had a soft spot for her – gave me the choice: be here as myself, or as her cat; really, there was no contest, for the inhabitants of my home planet look very different from you people here on Earth, so I was aladdinized and became Greymalkin; Mariah is a wonderful nurse, I've seen how she cares for her patients, she is a lactivist and advocates that new mothers should breastfeed their babies, says that Mothers' Milk is the best thing for them, she treats the elderly with great care and respect, and knows much more than the Doctor; and she plays the banjo, guitar, ukulele, mandolin – even a bandura! she is the only person here with whom I communicate, she knows where I come from, but she is affected in the same way as the others by the sporadic vagaries of the Time Loop: at home, I was what was called a Seeker, the best way to explain it is to say I was a Mental Detective – there was never any crime on my home planet, so no need for police, but even so, some patterns of behaviour, or connections between events and actions, what you here call coincidences, required to be understood and explained, to enable equilibrium to return; in my case, that meant understanding errors and discrepancies within the Universe, wrinkles in Space and Time, Loops like here, the Worm Holes you and your associates exploited," and when Ezekiel looked sharply at Greymalkin, taking a short intake of breath, the cat nodded: "oh, yes, I know exactly who you are – I have known of you for many years, long before I came here, but I never expected to actually meet you; although, as I said, our society at home is crime free, I have often wondered about the origins of Evil. . . . ." at which Ezekiel stiffened: was this Cat about to lecture him?
"So, how long have you been here?" Ezekiel asked Greymalkin, and the cat cocked it's head, as though making calculations, then shook it in the universal representation of saying 'No," and the words that Ezekiel received in his mind were: "could be years, months, weeks or days even – you asked about the strange passage of Time here, that makes it impossible to work it out; basically there is a segment of about 10 days that repeat, but not always in the same order, and days don't necessarily have twenty-four hours, some are stretched and others are truncated – you saw the clock stopping and winding backwards, that happens at random; you might go to bed on Saturday night and get up on the previous Thursday morning, you just never know," so, Ezekiel asked: "what makes one day different from another?" and Greymalkin purred, and spoke again to Ezekiel, by thought transference: "on one day, the Church Steeple is being repointed and the bells limned; on another Soft Mick is discovered to be alive, in his coffin, in it's grave; and yet another is the day Mick climbs his ladder without the Lamplighter to hold it steady and falls to his death; and then there is Mick's funeral, and his wedding, and the re-enactment of the original Soft Mick returning from the war with the village banner, and Christmas Day of course, and Easter, with the excursion to High Hill and everyone rolls down it after the picnic, and Market Day, and the day of the Great Flood! but you don't know what day it is at the start, because they all start more or less the same, and anyway, the villagers just go about their daily lives regardless of, or oblivious to, the randomness, and after a time, you stop trying to keep a tally, because it's pointless, it doesn't mean anything – except for the rare day in which everyone is aladdinized, but don't look out for it, because every day starts exactly the same and you won't know what day it is until the paper comes; and anyway, I have observed that the humans have no idea what's going on, it's like they are wakened afresh every morning and it doesn't make much difference to them one way or the other, and you will soon fall into that pattern," but Ezekiel closed his eyes to concentrate, then said: "but if I plan to escape, what then?" and Greymalkin actually laughed, then said: "fuhgeddaboudit – no-one ever escapes, alive!"
But after breakfast, Nurse Mariah took the medical bag, with it's lotions, potions, unguents, plasters, poultices, pills and powders and went off to do her morning round, leaving Ezekiel and Greymalkin in the cottage: "she should get a bicycle," said the visitor to the cat, who replied, by his thought transference means: "don't have them, never been invented. no real need, maybe a little lorry, you know, a cart she could pull along," and Ezekiel, not particularly wanting to chivvy the cat, but at the same time keen to learn about this place of confinement, ventured: "what's the name of the village?" and the answer, in his head, while Greymalkin stared hard at him, until Ezekiel backed down and blinked, was "Bigge Village," which prompted Ezekiel to ask: "is there a Smalle Village?" and the response was: "Smart Alec!" and Ezekiel, who genuinely wanted to know more about this place, asked: "so what's it's story?" and the cat definitely smiled: "it's a sort of appendix, a safe place The Creator made to act as a kind of holding cell, like a Quarantine, until a decision is reached as to whether to terminate, or release, and in your case, Termination is very likely!" and that really was a smirk on it's furry face, but Ezekiel wanted – very much – to learn whatever it was that the cat knew and might help him: "so, tell me something of it's history, has anything important ever happened here?" and Greymalkin yawned, stretched out his paws and sank his claws into the back of the chair, along which he was stretched: "it was after a Hundred Years War, all the able-bodied menfolk of the Village went off in answer to the King's call to defend the country against an invading army – and only one came back; his name was Soft Mick and he brought home the Village Banner and raised it high in the Market Square to show that he had saved it from the invaders, while all the other men had been dewitted by the violent mob who had dared attack their peaceful kingdom – oh, there was wild weeping, gnashing of teeth, all that sort of thing – and the Lord of the Manor held a meeting with the Mayor, the Rector, the Lamplighter, the two biggest Farmers, the Doctor and the Village Clerk and they decided to shut off the Village from the outside world, to put a cordon sanitaire around it, and preserve it for the future generations – they managed to have it erased from all the maps of the country and expunged from all the records and histories, so that in future it – and it's people – could live in peace and be untroubled by the Outside World, even the Universe, until the brubru should return from it's annual migration and let them know that the World was now peaceful and there would be no more wars," it actually snarled: "that ain't happened yet and never will, because the last brubru was caught in a land far to the south and eaten by a hunter, but the fools are still waiting for it, and every now and then, a stranger arrives, someone The Creator has decided to put in a Sin Bin until their future is decided upon; the fools – by that I mean the Humans, who think they are very smart, always recognise the newcomer as one of the missing menfolk and that is why you are called Ezekiel, he was one of the ones who didn't return," and he began to clean his face with a well-licked paw; and Ezekiel found that his mind was empty, he didn't know what to say, what to ask, what to do, then said: "what about the Time Loop?" and the cat smirked again, and Ezekiel was surprised how much facial expression it had: "don't ask me, I'm only a cat!" and actually chuckled, then gave Ezekiel a wink.
In the morning, although precisely which morning is not clear, Nurse Mariah was unsurprised to find Greymalkin curled up at the foot of the bed where Ezekiel was still sleeping, quietly lifting the cat and taking him downstairs, so as not to awaken the young man; the sleeping draught which she had added to the two bowls of parsnip soup had ensured that her guest caught up with much-needed sleep and the sun was showing above the rooftops of the cottages on the other side of the lane by the time Mariah heard the sound of movements from the spare bedroom, followed shortly by Ezekiel making his way down the narrow stairs: "good morning, Nurse Mariah," said Ezekiel as he entered the parlour, looking positively sheepish, "you have been so kind to me and I never thanked you properly last night," and he saw the grey cat flash him a look which have been either approval of his good manners, or a warning not to overdo it; Mariah indicated that he should sit at the table and offered him a choice of bacon, sausages, eggs, tomatoes or mushrooms, adding, with a wink: "or why not have some of them all?" and she laughed, "they are all cooked and it seems a waste for us not to have a hearty breakfast," and the voice of Greymalkin slid into Ezekiel's head: "ain't that what condemned men are given before they're hanged?" and he could have sworn that the cat was grinning as it stretched out fully on the back of Mariah's chair by the hearth; while he ate and drank the dandelion tea which Nurse Mariah had poured, Ezekiel studiously avoided any topic of conversation which might not accord with the Time Loop into which he believed he had strayed, a loop which seemed to twist and turn, absurdly re-arranging the sequence of events – Soft Mick's fall from the ladder occurring after the Sexton had spoken about it in the Inn, his own return to the scene with Nurse Mariah happening at an earlier time, and the clock stopping and then rewinding – so that he now had no idea of the present moment's place, nor, for that matter, where his supposed mother – of whom Mariah had spoken – lived; how could it possibly be that the Nurse, and the other villagers he had met, identified him as this Ezekiel, yet Greymalkin knew immediately that he was not? he dared not voice these concerns to Mariah, for he sensed that there would be danger to him if Greymalkin's warning was ignored; and although the concept was ludicrous, he really needed to discuss these things with the cat, who seemed to know much more about what was happening than any of the human inhabitants he had met and while Ezekiel did not want to nestorize the animal, it – although that term felt rather like a misnomer in Greymalkin's case – was undoubtedly astute and well-informed; perhaps by it's very condition it was able to discur almost invisibly. dogs and cats being generally less noticed than people in a small village and so able to gather information without being heeded; for a moment he wondered whether the cat was possessed of the nine lives, or was anhedonic, although he doubted if he would be fast enough to give it a boot up the backside: "you should be so lucky!" popped into his head and he remembered that, of course, Greymalkin picked up his every thought!
"I don't know who you are, but who you ain't is Ezekiel – you don't even smell like him – and you don't belong here, but whatever you're up to is only gonna bring unhappiness to my Mistress, so it better not be – understood?" and, feeling himself hypnotised by the cat's fixed stare, all he could do, listening to the cat's disquisition, was give a barely perceptible nod in return, but it must have been enough, for the cat, Greymalkin, still stretched along the high back of the chair facing him, yawned and began to clean itself, fastidiously licking it's paw and then using the damp paw to rub it's ears, occasionally flicking a brief, contemptuous glance towards where he sat, listening to Nurse Mariah as she rattled pans in her scullery, behind him: "what brought you here – you some kinda space cadet went off-course?" asked the cat, when it had finished, and he fought the impulse to speak, trying instead to form coherent sentences in his mind, piecing together what little he could remember, from the moment he crashed onto the haywain, but without the small detail that he had actually seen the driver, the skeleton wearing only a hat, as he jumped off; then, partly to end the hiatus without answering the question he asked one of his own, feeling rather foolish to be asking it of a cat: "time doesn't seem to behave as it should here, is it looped?" at which the cat's expression became a scowl, as it replied: "just a bit, but don't mention it to Mariah," and then it yawned, and Ezekiel noticed that the clock, where the hands, which had barely moved during this conversation, a prorogue which he wasn't able to explain satisfactorily to himself, now started moving backwards, only stopping as Nurse Mariah returned with a bowl of soup, and smiled as she handed it to Ezekiel: "it's parsnip, I hope you like it," and he smiled in return as the fragrance reached his nostrils and reminded him that he hadn't eaten in – how long? he had no idea – too long, and it was delicious, so delicious that when he had finished and Mariah offered him another bowlful, he accepted gratefully, all the time aware that Greymalkin was licking his own lips as if he wanted some of the soup for own supper.
When it happened, Ezekiel simply accepted it for what it was, no ifs, buts, whys or wherefores, the thoughts which entered his head had come from outside of his physical boundaries, they were thought transferences, no less likely than travel through the Space/Time Continuum by way of the Worm Holes which transcended the weft and warp of space matter, rode the wrinkles like a surfboard and deposited the accidental traveller seemingly at random; he accepted them without question - it was just that they had originated in the cat! and it's pie-eyed gaze never flickered, though Ezekiel felt himself trembling like a space cadet, satiated with new experiences, who could never be a virgin again, as he took in Nurse Mariah's white-blonde lockering, worn in ringlets which feel near to her shoulders, her simple white gown, with the red cross of her calling, and her wooden clogs, not unlike his own – which always started awkward and near-excruciating, but over the seasons came to fit like a second skin; he had lost track of what Mariah was saying to him, for Greymalkin's thought-message was dominant, direct, and quite, quite, deadly!
When Ezekiel and Nurse Mariah reached the place where Soft Mick had fallen from the ladder, there was no sign of the ladder, the body of Mick, nor the Curate, Churchwarden or Sexton; Ezekiel showed Mariah the very spot where the body had been, the position of the ladder before it had slipped, and even described the small dog which had probably been the unwitting cause of the accident; Mariah listened carefully, then suggested that Ezekiel sit down and, with his back against the wall, he slid down to a sitting position on the pavement, his head spinning and feeling quite unwell of a sudden; the Nurse felt his forehead, held his wrist to check his pulse, and told him that he seemed to have a fever, high temperature, rapid heart-rate, and he admitted to a tittling kind of sensation in his chest as well as a lightness that made him feel as if his body would quite easily lift-off, like a balloon, and float up to the sky, where the silver moon hung directly overhead: "now, then. Ezekiel Sidebottom, I want you to take slow, deep breaths," said Mariah, beginning to feel an anxiety on his behalf, as she saw beads of cold sweat trickle down his face, "you probably haven't had enough sleep, or eaten regularly, am I right?" and he nodded, suddenly aware of the beer he had drunk just a short time before and beginning to feel nauseous: "might be sick," he muttered; Mariah took a small vial from her bag and explained: "this is a blend of neroli and lavender oils, which are miscible in strict proportions and I am going to apply to your forehead, and to the insides of your wrists, it will lower your temperature and relax you, and I will sit here beside you until you feel able to stand up, then I will take you back to my cottage, it's nearer than your mother's house; do you understand?" and Ezekiel nodded, although her voice had seemed to come from a long way away, and even as he looked at her, she seemed to be far away too: "am I shrinking?" he asked, "or are you? because I can hardly see you, you are way, way away and the moon seems to be going out too, and the darkness. . . . . ." his eyes closed and everything was black; a few moments later, he opened them and was surprised to find himself back in Nurse Mariah's cottage, sitting in her parlour, and she was sitting opposite him, looking closely at him: "hello, Ezekiel, it's good to have you back," and although his mouth felt strangely dry and his limbs were heavy and leaden, he managed to ask: "what happened?" and Mariah smiled: "you fainted, but the young Carter, you know, Jabez, was passing by with his handcart and he helped me get you onto it and he wheeled you back here, he's a strong lad, takes after his father, and he was able to lift you in here, I don't think I would have managed myself, now I want you to take this cup of camomile tea, it will restore you," and as he accepted to cup, Ezekiel asked: "how long was I unconscious for?" and Mariah smiled: "about an hour, maybe an hour and a quarter, but don't worry, Jabez took a note to your mother saying you were here and that I'm going to keep an eye on you till the morning," at which Ezekiel tried to stand, but didn't have the strength, or determination, to push himself up from the chair, gave up, and slumped back, then, as Mariah had instructed, he sipped some of the tea, and felt much calmer: "thankyou, Mariah, I don't know what would have happened to me if you hadn't been there," but she waved his remarks away: "well, I was, so there's no need to say any more – and I haven't been sitting here watching you the whole time, I had other things to do, so Greymalkin kept watch for me," which was when Ezekiel noticed the dark grey cat stretched along the back of the Nurse's chair, regarding him with it's unblinking gaze, as if he were a mouse.
Nurse Mariah opened the door, saw Ezekiel standing on her step and invited him in: "are you alright, Ezekiel Sidebottom? it's not your mother, is it?" but he assured her that his mother was well – hoping that this was true – and told her about Soft Mick: "oh, he shouldn't have gone up that ladder when the Lamplighter wasn't there to hold it steady, he got a bad bee-sting, you know, I managed to pull it out, it was a deep one, and I sterilised the wound and sent him home with a poultice to keep on overnight, it draws any of the poison out, you know, he should be well tomorrow," and Ezekiel asked her: "where was he stung?" and she said: "down by the Smithy, he thought it was a horse-fly, but it was a bee," and Ezekiel managed to stop himself from laughing, for what he had meant was: where on himself had the Lamplighter been stung? but when Nurse Mariah told him to take a seat while she got her emergency bag together, he sat by the fire and wondered for the first time since arriving in the village, what he was hoping for? answer: a way out – it wasn't rocket science, he thought, looking at the garniture on the mantle above the fire-place, a collection of small ornaments and little pictures, including one of a boy trying to lasso the moon; that was what he had to do, MacGyver himself some way of reaching the moon, perhaps the Lamplighter's ladder would get him close enough and if he could make a long pole with a noose at the top and enough room to cast it upwards, a bit like a fishing fly; he was certain that the moon was in the right position – the only problem might be the shower of meteorites, if the Sexton was right about them falling en masse and one having bonked poor Mick on the conk, he would have to be on the lookout for those falling stars, which was when Mariah came back in, bustled them both out of the cottage and hurried along beside his great, loping strides, the chill air turning their breath into clouds of steam!
And that was when the Curate and the Churchwarden came strolling along, heads close, as though they were discussing something ecclesiastical, but when they saw the Sexton and Ezekiel, they became rather furtive, looking around as if they were lost and unsure which direction they should be taking: "it's Soft Mick," said the Sexton, indicating where the body lay, "reckon he's been smitten be a meteorite, or sumpn," and the Curate blanched, while the Churchwarden asked: "alive or deceased?" and the Sexton said: "dunno, reckon sumdy'll have to determine that," at which the Curate vomited, and the Churchwarden handed him a duster to clean his trousers, then turned to Ezekiel: "can you, Ezekiel? determine the matter?" but Ezekiel shook his head and the Sexton, as if trying to be helpful, said: "more a matter fer the Doctor, I mean it might be a meteorwrong, what smote him, but if he's alive, maybe the Nurse'd be more help than Ezekiel, don'tcha think?" and the Churchwarden pondered, and sighed: "would you mind, Ezekiel? it would be helpful, if he's still alive he'll need nursing, at the very least, but if he isn't, we'd not need the Doctor, then," so Ezekiel, putting his cap back on, bade farewell to the Sexton and walked back down the street towards the Nurse's house, pondering the chances of a meteorite, or wrong, travelling millions of light-years only to hit poor Mick on the head, then dismissed the idea as a fatuous, epichoric fancy, just the sort of illogical notion believed in by the sort of people who lived in this sort of village, miles and miles away from civilisation as he knew it; so, reaching the Nurse's cottage, he knocked loudly on the green door.
When Ezekiel left the Inn, arm-in-arm with the Sexton, he saw Soft Mick, climbing his ladder, like an astronaut about to enter the rocket which would take him on the moon-shot, for wasn't that pale glowing orb above the ladder the very Moon itself? while the Sexton spoke of the Squire's ambition to begin developing a sericultural industry which would be the making of the village, that was when they both heard a plaintive cry as the ladder began to slip, and Mick to fall, and a small dog, something like a maltipoo, it's trailing lead tangled with the foot of the ladder, broke free and scampered off, as Mick's trajectory seemed to aim his large, pale head towards the pavement and the two men, too far away to be able to intervene, could only watch, horrified, as the Moon plummeted to Earth!
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