‘For fucks sake!’ George exclaimed loudly after dropping his spanner into the bowels of the engine for what felt like the hundredth time today. It had taken him ages to position his large frame into just the right place, balancing precariously on the front of the car, legs flailing in the air, in order to get at the bolt that held on the belt tensioner and now all of that work was for nought. He pivoted around awkwardly on his tummy until his feet found purchase on the driveway and pushed himself off of the car slowly. ‘Piece of shit’ he blurted out in a fit of annoyance, giving the rusted old car a hefty kick in the process. This caused the number plate to break free from its mount on one side and swing for a bit before clattering to the ground. George huffed exasperatedly as he knelt down to pick it back up, struggling to block out the pain of a thousand needle sharp pieces of loose gravel that now dug into his knees. He then lent forward and started fishing around under the car for the errant spanner. George had asked some of the others to help him push the car into the barn since he knew that rain was forecasted but they all had their excuses. ‘The concrete floor would make kneeling down more comfortable’ George thought as his fingers made contact with the fallen spanner ‘but there’s no way I’ll be able to push the car along the gravel driveway alone’.
Over the last few hours, he had checked everything, again and again, working through the whole system in his head to try and identify why the engine wouldn’t turn over. In the process George had burnt his hand, bashed his thumb, scraped his arm, got dirt in his eye and received a surprisingly strong electric shock. He’d replaced parts and repaired others but it made no difference. George was certain that it had belched its last dark cloud of smog. The problem was getting the rest of the household to accept this fact.
Back when he first arrived at the old rectory, George was only occasionally assigned maintenance tasks, as his adventurous nature made him better suited for doing hits. That was until a particularly nasty high-side on a motorcycle that broke his back in three places. From then on, he was forced to take a backseat from some of the households more energetic exploits and grudgingly became the resident handyman. These days absolutely everything in the old rectory needed some form of repair and since each task was considered a high priority by at least one person, George had become more and more agitated. He was sick to death of rewiring electrics and soldering copper pipes but most of all he was fed up with fixing the damn car. It was always the same old cycle. He gets the car running, someone takes it out and then it reappears on the back of a recovery truck. He stood up, collected his thoughts for a moment before getting his head back under the bonnet, spanner in hand.
Through the gentle pattering of rain that was now failing onto the cars raised bonnet, George could hear the far away noise of someone slowly ambling up the driveway towards him. Peering around the car he saw Archie, leaning heavily on his walking stick with every step as he trudged through the loose gravel. George put his free hand on a piece of the cars bodywork and transferred his weight onto it, with a view to push himself up but as he did so the bodywork came loose. George fell to the ground with a heavy thunk.
‘For fucks sake!’ shouted George angrily, throwing his spanner at the car in disgust.
‘Language George’ exclaimed Archie breathlessly, quickening his pace. ‘Give me a moment and I’ll help you up’.
‘Don’t worry, I can manage’ George said pushing himself up off the ground. After brushing loose bits of gravel from his clothes he said ‘Hey Archie, I was looking for you earlier. John said you wanted me.’
‘Yes I did, I mean, I do. It’s the tap in my room. It’s dripping and the noise is keeping me awake at night’ Archie replied. ‘If you could have a look at it I would be ever so grateful.’
‘Oh’ said George, a little crestfallen. He had hoped for something a bit more exciting, but he should’ve known better. ‘I might as well come and have a look at it now, get out of this rain. Just let me clear this stuff up and...’
‘Oh, no not just now George’ said Archie, ‘I desperately need to speak with Ethan and its best I do it straight away to ensure I don’t forget anything, memory not what it once was after all.’ He tapped his walking stick gently against his head and then started trudging towards the front door of the old rectory.
‘Wonder what that’s all about’ thought George as he started picking up his tools and throwing them onto the backseat of the car. Once all of the tools had been rounded up and launched into the relatively dry confines of the car, he had to jump into the car himself to get out of the rain, which had suddenly started bucketing down.
It wasn’t long before the tinny thudding of rain on the rough was once again joined by the crunch of someone walking along gravel. The pace was a lot quicker this time, with a more even and steady stride. Looking out from where he sat, he recognised Michael looking wistful and dazed, strolling up the drive. His meagre tracksuit bottoms and T-Shirt offered zero protection against the pounding rain and were completely sodden.
George cranked down his window and shouted ‘You mad? You’re gonna catch pneumonia you bloody fool, get in here lad’.
There was no indication that Michael had heard. He just continued to walk straight past the car towards the front of the big house.
‘Oi’ shouted George, banging his fist down on the roof of the car.
Michael started, turned and looked around. Peering through the rain spotted windscreen, he recognised George.
‘Oh hey George’ he shouted against the rhythmical backdrop of failing rain. ‘Sorry, didn’t see you there. Any luck getting this shit heap running again?’ He gave the car a light tap with his hand. ‘It sounded pretty terminal when it went. I would have thought you’d have given up hours ago.’
George gave a hollow chuckle. ‘Yeah well you know Ethan. If I don’t spend a whole month trying to fix it, he won’t accept that it’s fucked.’
Michael smiled. ‘Yeah, but this time its proper fucked. Maybe we can finally get a new one.’
‘Doubt it’ said George with a wry smile ‘I’ll be out here again tomorrow, come rain or shine. Anything to save a few pennies’
Michael felt a pang of guilt. It was only an hour or so earlier that he’d had a suitcase crammed full of money flashed at him. ‘Why didn’t I just take it and run’ he thought to himself. He decided to change the subject.
‘Fancy a drink’?
‘Sure’ said George jumping out of the car and following Michael.
The old rectory was constructed at a time when Queen Victoria was mourning the death of her beloved son Affie and the parish of Sloughly Dossit had urgent need to re-house its vicar Henry Matthews, after his accommodation was heavily damaged by fire. The original proposal detailed how the fire damaged thatched cottage, which sat adjacent to the church, would be demolished and a new slightly larger thatched cottage would be built on the same site. Somehow though, the whole project ended up being relocated onto an expansive plot on a hilltop that overlooked the village and the four bedroom cottage grew into a twelve bedroom manor house. These changes are generally attributed to excessive lobbying by Henry towards the Archbishop of Canterbury, Frederick Temple, citing that he wanted to establish an informal academy to train army chaplains, in lieu of the ongoing Boer war.
A few years later, when the Boer war was over and there was a new Archbishop of Canterbury at the head of the Church of England, the parish of Sloughly Dossit was informed that it needed to make cutbacks and the ever escalating cost of the large manor house’s upkeep meant it needed to be sold off. Henry, who was still the village vicar, swiftly resigned his position and purchased the old rectory that he loved so dearly, offering free lodgings and training to aspiring army chaplains. Unfortunately, since the buildings maintenance costs were so high and Henry was not charging students for accommodation, the building started to descend into disrepair. From a distance the exterior looked OK but these days, the interior was a dilapidated mess. When Henry Matthews died in the nineties, he’d left the old rectory and general control of things to his thirty year old son Ethan in his will.
If a surveyor ever visited, they’d have condemned it on the spot but luckily for its inhabitants, no outsiders had visited in a very long time. Not even the postman made an appearance anymore, not since George installed a post box on the tall iron gates at the end of the drive, in an effort to keep the oldest resident of the house, Piers, active. George thought his actions would encourage Piers to stroll up the driveway to collect his morning paper since he moaned vociferously if it hadn’t arrived in time for breakfast but what he didn’t consider was Piers’ aversion to change. It therefore fell to the others to fetch the morning post. But on those days when it was cold and wet, no one felt particularly inclined and this really annoyed Piers. On such mornings, he would shout at George across the breakfast table ‘Go and get my bloody newspaper you interfering little sod.’ Needless to say, Piers’ confrontational approach rarely produced results.
Michael stood at the kitchen window waiting for the kettle to boil and gazed out at the river that snaked along the edge of the grounds and off towards the village, whose church spire could just be made out through the low lying cloud.
‘We’ve got hobnobs, digestives, custard creams’ George called out as he pulled half-filled packets of biscuits from a cupboard and placed them on the counter.
‘Ah, making a brew are you’ asked John who’d just entered the room with a giant marrow in his hands. ‘I’ll have a cup please and mind you provide a few biscuits that withstand a good dunking. I don’t much care for biscuits that break apart and leave mulch at the bottom of the cup. Who has the patience to spend the next five minutes digging it out with a spoon?’ John placed his abnormally large vegetable on the kitchen table and looked at it with a loving smile.
‘Just grab a selection George, I’m not sure what I fancy at the moment’ said Michael turning around and eying John enquiringly. ‘So, are we finally going to taste your wondrous mega marrow then John? How are you planning on preparing it?’
‘Well now, I’ve been doing some research in the library’ said John eagerly ‘and I think the firm favourites are marrow rum, marrow jam, marrow soup and roasted marrow.’ He looked around at the others, who were both staring at him in disgust. ‘What?’ he said, the smile falling from his face.
‘Marrow jam?’ Michael said, screwing his face up in an expression of disgust.
‘Yes, well marrow and banana jam actually. It was a popular treat back in the day, well, whenever you could get hold of some bananas. I read about it in one of Walters old diaries.’
‘Oh well that explains it then. There was sod all decent stuff to eat when he lived here. They had to make do with whatever they could find and try to turn it into something edible.’ said Michael.
‘Rubbish’ replied John. ‘It’s good for you and if I make it into a jam, it’ll keep for ages.’
‘Oh there’s no doubt it will keep for ages John, can’t fault you there mate’ said George ‘but the reason it’s gonna keep for ages is because no bugger will eat it.’
George and Michael both laughed lazily while John pursed his lips, hefted up his marrow and left, spouting something like ‘I’m going to check on my plums’ causing the other two to look at each other before laughing just that little bit harder.
John wasn’t the easiest member of the household for Michael to get on with due to his sage personality but he was an extremely good horticulturist. There wasn’t much he didn’t know about growing fruit, vegetables, herbs and flowers. His knowledgebase even extended to items that were generally deemed illegal. It was a bit of a specialist subject really. Sadly, John knew next to nothing about cooking. None of the household did, which was why lunch and dinner were mostly all solitary affairs. It was only at breakfast when most people would eat together, providing they all got out of bed at a similar time of day, which was rarely the case. The problem with cooking a main evening meal for every single person in the house was that no one could quite get either the menu or the quantity of food right. With seven mouths to feed, it can get quite tricky.
Humphrey, one of the more enthusiastic residents, once agreed to make a three course meal for everyone, promising a sumptuous delight. He had spent a full two days preparing, although this did include the time taken to walk into the village for supplies, which for Humphrey could account for anything up to one whole day due to his popularity among the locals. It seems physically impossible for him to go anywhere in or around Sloughly Dossit without being stopped and quizzed about how he was getting on. Everyone seemed to know his face, and everyone wanted to stop and have a chat with him. When he finally returned, laden with supplies, he got down to making a meal that included French onion soup, roast beef with all the trimmings and a chocolate sponge pudding for dessert. The soup was well received. Everyone sipped it and dunked their homemade bread in without complaint. Even John, who could always be relied upon to be outspoken on most subjects seemed content, possibly saving his criticisms for later in the evening after all of the courses had been tasted. The roast beef would have been OK too, if not for one tiny, but pretty fundamental mistake. Humphrey had gotten distracted by something whilst grabbing what he thought was the gravy off the sideboard and pouring it onto each serving. It wasn’t until people started commenting on the gravy’s unusual smell that Humphrey realised what had happened. He had poured the wrong thick brown sauce over the roast dinner. He had picked up the chocolate sauce he’d prepared to accompany dessert instead. Rather then owning up to his mistake, he moaned about how he had only been following the gravy recipe recommended by ‘one of those god awful TV chefs. They’re too experimental, that’s the trouble.’ The truth came out in the end though when Archie, trying to be helpful, went out and poured what he assumed was chocolate sauce all over each helping of the sponge pudding, ruining the third course of the meal.
Michael, George, John, Archie, Humphrey, Piers and Ethan all live at the old rectory together. Important decisions weren’t made unless Ethan was consulted and in the fifteen years since his father Henry was laid to rest under an old weeping willow whose long bows overhang the grounds lake, he’d been forced to make a number of tough ones. The most emotionally difficult decision Ethan had ever had to make came shortly Henrys death. It involved banishing someone, something his father had had to do too.
Rumour had it that longstanding recruit William was in league with the rival Farthingsworth organisation after he was spotted in deep conversation with Arthur Farthingsworth on a number of occasions. It was suggested that together they may have been trying to bring down the Arcanum from within and obviously Ethan couldn’t just sit back and wait for everything to fall down around him, not so soon after the loss of his father. No, Ethan had to act and so William, just like Farthingsworth himself, was banished. It didn’t take long before word got back to Ethan about just how long their organisation had been infiltrated by the enemy. It turned out William actually joined the Arcanum after first being recruited by Farthingsworth to act as a double agent. He was feeding back information from the start.
Over the next decade, William became the most successful employee of the Farthingsworth Corporation but Ethan wasn’t fazed by this. His primary focus was to ensure that the legacy his father had started back at the turn of the century continued operating for as long as possible, while thwarting the endeavours of Farthingsworth, William and his band of miscreants wherever possible. In order to do this he had to trust everyone in his team and at the moment he trusted them all completely, although he did have concerns about Michael. Ever since Michael had joined the Arcanum, he’d seemed a step removed from the rest of the team. Was this due to the age gap between him and the others or something more sinister? Ethan couldn’t be sure, but he did know that somebody needed to keep a close eye on him.
‘I was in the coffee shop when William arrived but decided it would be better if I waited across the road at the bus stop, to ensure I wasn’t spotted by Michael when he turned up’ said Archie, who was short of breath and patting his forehead with a handkerchief. Going up two flights of stairs to get to Ethan’s study always took its toll on Archie. He was nowhere near as spritely as he used to be, before he got shot in the leg. Ethan stood at the drinks cabinet pouring a couple of whisky’s while Archie reclined into a leather armchair, his bad leg outstretched and resting on a poof. The room was cluttered with books, papers and various other items while a huge wooden coat of arms hung on the wall above the fireplace, dominating the room. The coat of arms had a golden shield, embossed with an arm holding a flaming torch, an hourglass and a potions bottle, while a couple of chimeras stood either side. Wrapped around the bottom of the shield was a scroll with the Latin transcription “Amor Sine Fine”.
‘Michael turned up about a minute after the hit had been made by William’ Archie continued, his breathing starting to settle. ‘He was running down the road like a madman, desperate to get to the targets. Such commitment I haven’t seen in years.’ He remarked raising his eyebrows in astonishment.
‘No doubt that’s why he’s on Farthingsworths radar’ Ethan replied, with a low tone, passing a glass to Archie and taking a sip from his own.
‘Indeed’ answered Archie ‘but when he saw he was too late, his energy left him. He looked demoralised and absolutely exhausted. He practically fell into the seat opposite William.’
Ethan paced the room for a while, swilling his whiskey around the glass and then asked ‘Were they in conversation long?’
‘He was there for a good ten minutes or so. William did all the usual stuff, flashed the money in his briefcase, pointed out the car, etcetera. Mind you, when he pointed out the window at the car, I froze. I was right in their eye line, but I think Michael was too transfixed on the car to notice me stood at the bus stop. A bus was slowly driving past at the time too. I don’t think either of them saw me.’
‘Are you sure?’ Ethan asked with some concern creeping into his voice, ‘because if they did see you it would almost certainly complicate things? I don’t want Michael reacting impulsively because he thinks we’re following him.’
‘Well’ said Archie, stroking his chin, ‘I can’t be 100% certain but although Michael has his faults, he is loyal.’ Sipping at his whisky he added ‘He’s Humphrey’s nephew as well, don’t forget.’
‘True’ said Ethan nodding, ‘I’m sure family counts for something, even in this day and age. He surely wouldn’t humiliate Humphrey by switching sides. I must admit though, there is still a part of me that has concerns.’
‘Maybe there’s a way we can test his loyalty’ said Archie.
‘I’m listening’ said Ethan, lighting a cigar. ‘What did you have in mind?’
Back on the first floor, George and Michael had retired to one of the rarely used studies with their tea and biscuits. Being on the first floor meant that George could have a cigarette in peace without Piers appearing and complaining about the fact that no one had fetched his newspaper. Piers didn’t like stairs anymore and so refused to move from the ground floor. Just one of his many eccentricities. Michael and George entered the Ivy room, named so due to the almost total obscuration of the windows by ivy climbing up the wall outside. George had wanted to trim it back for a while now, as it would allow beautiful views of both the grounds and valley beyond but gardening was John’s territory and it just wasn’t worth the hassle.
There was very little by way of furniture in the study and what was there had sheets draped over them, the long remnants of when someone decided to redecorate the room but gave up before they started. It most likely would’ve been George, but he couldn’t remember and at the moment didn’t care to.
‘Chuck us your lighter’ he said throwing the sheet off a well-padded sofa chair and sinking into it.
Michael tossed across an ornate silver lighter that he’d inherited from his grandfather before removing the sheet from his own, less comfy chair and sat down. George caught the lighter expertly in one hand and after a few exploratory puffs on his roll up he said ‘so tell me, why’s your day been so stressful?’
Michael looked down at his feet.
‘Well, you know I went on a hit this morning’ he started ‘against Ethan’s wishes?’ George nodded as he blew thick white smoke rings expertly up to dance around the cobweb riddled chandelier. ‘I now know why he didn’t want me to go. It wasn’t because he thought it to be a giant waste of time like he told me last night.’ Michael paused briefly and looked up. ‘It was because he knew what was going to happen.’
A puzzled expression passed over George’s brow and he said ‘I don’t quite follow.
‘Well’ said Michael, taking in a calming breath, ‘let me ask you this. When you used to go out on hits, did you ever come into contact with Farthingsworths lot?’
George’s expression looked more confused now and he said ‘Not really. I saw them every now and again. Obviously we sometimes went after the same targets, you know, but we never exchanged pleasantries or nowt.’
Michael, who was looking down at the floor once more said quietly ‘they want me.’
George quickly stood up and moved to the door. He did this so swiftly that it startled Michael and he immediately felt flustered. He thought George was going to storm out and report this news to the rest of the house but before he could plead for compassion, George had pulled open the door, popped his head out, peered every which way and then shut it firmly. Michael drew a calming breath. George was just checking that no one else was listening in. Why hadn’t Michael thought of doing that? He’d just assumed no one would be but he should take more care. Such carelessness could ruin everything, especially if someone overheard their current conversation.
George returned to his armchair and pulled it closer to Michaels.
‘It’s been a while since Farthingsworths lot last tried to headhunt from us’ George whispered. ‘Thinking about it, the last one was probably William although he wasn’t really headhunted since he was working for them from the start’. George pondered the thought for a moment. ‘Actually no, it would’ve been Charlie. He was a good guy who got blinded by Farthingsworths smoke and mirrors. It must be quite a compliment to be headhunted though.’ George gazed out the window and through the ivy, wondering what it must feel like to be appreciated and acknowledged by your peers.
Michael finally moved his gaze from the floor and looked at George with grateful eyes. This was going so much smoother then he’d imagined on the long walk back from the bus stop, but then he always knew George would understand. George was the most grounded person he knew. The difficulty would be facing Ethan, especially after disobeying his wishes. Michael shuddered.
‘What should I do’ he asked.
‘Well’ said George, puffing on his cigarette ‘you should go up and tell Ethan about this right away’ George replied simply. ‘If you’re right and he did know what was going to happen, he’ll be concerned. You should go and laugh off the pitiful attempt Farthingsworth made to steal you away from us because after all, they failed didn’t they?’
Michael nodded, although George noticed a look his eyes that he hadn’t seen before. Was it fear? Was it something else? He pushed this thought to the back of his mind. After all, he liked Michael.
George leaned back with his hands behind his head and his cigarette poking out from his mouth. ‘Maybe you should have something to chill you out before speaking with Ethan. It’d help you relax, clear your mind and give you time to figure out what to say and how to word it’.
Michael smiled and said ‘Sounds like a plan, shall we go find John?’
‘Can’t’ replied George. ‘Now that I’m done with that piece of shit outside, I best get started on Archie’s leaking tap.’
‘Right, well I’ll go and get the greenhouse key from John and maybe catch up with you for a smoke later then.’
George nodded and blew out a large smoke ring, which went up and danced with its fellows around the cobweb ridden chandelier.
Michael stood up from his chair, opened the door and as he entered the hallway heard George call after him ‘One more thing. I would recommend having a shower before you talk to Ethan. You stink like a hobo.’ This was then followed by George’s bellowing laugh.
‘Cheeky bastard’ thought Michael, but as he walked along, he raised his arms like a pirouetting ballerina and sniffed. ‘Not too bad’ he thought lowering his arms again ‘bearing in mind all the running I’ve done today.’
As he descended the stairs and entered the hall he spotted Piers peering curiously into a vase as if looking for something. ‘I wonder what that old fool is up to now’ he thought as he peeled off into the kitchen, which he soon found was empty and devoid of life.
Michael poked his head back into the hallway and called out ‘hey Piers, do you know where John is?’
‘Go get my paper, then I might tell you’ was the terse response.
‘I see. Thanks for that’ said Michael in his most sarcastic tone as he strolled back into the kitchen. Grabbing a glass from the cupboard, he moved over to the sink to fill it with water. Through the window he spotted John out in the rain, standing on a step ladder in the orchard. ‘Ah, there he is’ he thought as he placed the glass under the tap. He was holding the glass upside down so water sprayed out over both the floor and himself. ‘Bugger’ He said, picking up a dish cloth from the sideboard and dabbing at the spill.
‘What did you call me, you ungrateful little street urchin’ shouted Piers from the hall.
‘I wasn’t talking to you’ replied Michael distractedly as he placed the dish cloth back on the sideboard and stepped towards the back door which led to the garden.