It took me almost half an hour to settle on an outfit for that evening’s plan of ‘take Tarquin and Gwen to band rehearsal and subsequently decamp to pub’. Wibbly knees and general fatigue made it difficult enough to dress as it was, and the fact that I couldn’t pick what to wear made it worse.
It was easy enough for Scorpius, who could just unclip the ‘hello, my name is Scorpius and I am here to help!’ badge from his work shirt, put a cravat on and instantly look smart, aside from the uncontrollable hair. I went through seven blouses, two skirts and three pairs of tights before I found the right combination.
Scorpius is also not the best for outfit advice, given that he tends to make most of his clothing selections based on the age of the garment (the more vintage, the better) and fabric paint resistance. While he perched on the end of the bed and took his time fiddling with shirt buttons, I went through my several wardrobe changes at lightning speed.
‘Not the navy blouse…’ he said, as I threw on blouse number four and twirled on the spot. ‘Not with a black skirt, they don’t go…’
‘Fine,’ I wrenched it off and tossed it over my shoulder. A moment later I’d pulled on a white blouse and buttoned it up, only to turn around and see that the navy blouse had landed on his head. Ever the doormat, I noticed that he’d carried on doing up his shirt without complaint.
‘You’re so passive,’ I said, plodding over in my stocking feet and sitting beside him. I took the blouse off his head and smoothed down his ruffled hair with my hands, only for it to spring back into chaos a moment later.
‘Are you permanently static?’ I said, combing my fingers through his hair and willing his fringe to move by telekenisis.
‘Nope,’ he said. ‘Just an artist.’
I managed to sculpt it back into a sort of quiff, only for it to ping back into its usual librarian-in-an-electrically-charged-sauna look.
‘And your glasses are filthy!’ I changed tack, snatching the offending spectacles off his face and giving them a clean on the hem of my blouse. ‘And there’s paint on your face and in your hair!’
‘Lucy,’ he pushed my hand away as I brandished a licked finger at the paint splodge below his eye. ‘Stop…cleaning me.’
‘I’m just looking out for you and you need to look smart.’
‘It’s…it’s an artistic statement?’
I gave him my best disapproving look. ‘Where would you be without me?’
‘Festering in a gutter, living off instant noodles…’
‘Exactly,’ I said, scuttling back over to the mirror, plonking myself down on the floor before it and zipping open my makeup bag. My routine was so well-practised that I barely had to think about it – not always a good thing, because when Scorpius came and sat cross-legged beside me, I lost my concentration and nearly poked myself in the eye with my eyeliner pencil.
‘All set,’ he said, doing up the last button of his maroon cardigan. ‘Here, let me-’
And then, abruptly, he pawed at my hair. I inched away, giving him what was probably a pretty scary look given that I’d only put eyeliner on one of my eyes.
‘See?’ he said. ‘Now you know how it feels.’
‘I just want you to look semi-presentable!’
‘But I’m an artist!’
‘I know,’ I grinned, turning back to the mirror. Then, a moment later, the doorbell rang. Scorpius swooped in to kiss me on the cheek, and then departed to let Tarquin and Gwen back in. I hastily finished pencilling a wobbly black line around my eye, smudged it a bit for that sultry/smoky/grubby look, then shoved my feet into my cute (and puddle-stained) blue suede loafers and scuffed my way into the kitchen.
The kettle was whistling away in a corner, Scorpius was sorting out mugs and teaspoons, Tarquin and Gwen were perched on the sofa and Mr Andrew Socks was perched on Tarquin’s lap. I took the armchair opposite them, noticed the makeshift coaster ashtray, then snatched it up before either of them could notice and carried it over to the sink. I mean, I know it was useless because I was pretty sure they had noticed, but I was a bit mortified in case they thought we just happened to leave dirty ash-covered coasters lying about. Sometimes , you know, I like to keep up appearances.
The kettle clicked off the boil and Scorpius began to fill mugs. Running the coaster under the tap, I said ‘After the rehearsal,’ I said. ‘What’re we going to do about tea?’
'We could come back here,’ he said. ‘I could make something.’
‘Yeah, I could make…um, Le Plate Mystique.’
‘Recipe my Dad passed down to me.’
‘And what recipe is that?’
‘Pierce film lid, tap twice with wand, leave to stand for ten seconds, repeat,’ he said. ‘It’s probably best we go to the Duck for tea instead.’
We took the cups of tea back over to the sofa. Scorpius let me have the armchair whilst he balanced on the arm, which had the effect of making him a couple of feet taller than the rest of us. We sat, mugs in hand, peering up at him.
‘Someone say something,’ he said. ‘I feel like a statue.’
‘Nah,’ Tarquin said, staring reverentially up at him. ‘You’re good at this awkward lark.’
About half an hour later we were ready to go. Anoraks zipped up, shoes laced and scarves around necks, we set off for the town hall.
It wasn’t exactly freezing outside, but the blast of warm air that greeted us inside the town hall door was the atmospheric equivalent of a warm, cuddly duvet. It was probably an excellent idea to bring Tarquin and Gwen out of the small, crummy flat and into the bright, warm town hall and its free supply of shortbread and butterbeer. Okay, hardly the dingy little boozers we’d spent so many happy and surreal hours in during our art school days but, you know, cozy nonetheless.
Instruments were nowhere to be seen during this rehearsal, though. More importantly, neither was music. It was an evening of lyrics; we were all compelled, Tarquin and Gwen included, to draw up wobbly plastic chairs and sit around a few fold-down tables in the centre of the room, sharing scraps of parchment and paper and even napkins to scribble upon.
‘I think we need a love song,’ Jock said. ‘Seriously, I do. If you listen to the charts, it’s all about love, isn’t it?’
We all nodded in agreement.
‘Love,’ Surly Kevin said absently and surly…ly. ‘Lovey-dovey love. Pfft.’
‘Just saying, it might improve our chance if, you know…’ Jock smiled around at us. ‘If we pander to the masses.’
‘We can pander alright,’ Jean C said. ‘We can pander and we can do it in tartan.’
‘So we need some lyrics,’ Jock said, flattening his hands on the table.
A few heads turned to look at me.
‘Lucy, can you come up with anything? You’re our resident writer…’
‘Oh, yeah, you’ve got a real way with words!’
‘Yeah,’ Scorpius said in an undertone. ‘Lucy’s good with her mouth.’
‘I can’t do lyrics,’ I said. ‘Not at all.’
‘Look, it’s easy,’ Jean C said. ‘We just need to find things that rhyme.’
Everyone contemplated their navels for a few minutes.
‘Okay, why don’t you start us off, Jock?’ Jean C said.
Jock looked up towards the stage as if seeking spiritual guidance. ‘Well…’ he said. ‘Why don’t we start with…love is…’
To my surprise, Scorpius answered first. ‘Tea and toast,’ he said, almost without thinking.
I felt like giving him a high five, pat on the back and also possibly a kiss all at once, but I’m not sure that’s entirely possible what with the laws of physics getting in the way and all.
Jock raised an eyebrow, but continued. ‘Love is…’
Sticking to the rhyming theme and also the theme of home comforts (for there are no more comfortable comforts on this planet than tea and toast), I jumped in with ‘a Sunday roast!’ before I’d even realised it.
‘Er, okay,’ Jock said. ‘Love is tea and toast and love is a Sunday roast.’
Jean C, evidently in the midst of some profound moment, chipped in with ‘love is forlorn hope.’
‘Love is soap on a rope,’ Tarquin said.
‘Love is wanting to elope…’
‘To the…cape of good hope.’
‘That’ll do,’ Jock said, but the assembled New New Elginers and hangers-on had evidently been gripped by rhyme frenzy.
‘Love is a walk in the park,’ Jean P piped up.
‘Love is not getting eaten by sharks!’
‘Love is a witty remark…’
‘Love is a bit of a lark.’
‘Love is never a question mark.’
‘Love is Northumberland National Park-’
‘Okay, bit obscure,’ Jock said.
‘Love is a duck,’ I said, kicking Scorpius under the table.
‘Love is bloody good luck.’
‘Love is a bloody good f-’
Jock let out a rather loud and forced cough that interrupted Tarquin mid-speech.
‘So we’ve got…some lyrics,’ he frowned, once the giggling had died down and the room had got back to normal (as normal as we ever really could be, which was about as far removed from normal as the Earth’s nearest star). ‘Good…rhyming scheme.’
‘I like the first couplet,’ Knitting Prentice chipped in. ‘All those food comparisons.’
‘Well…’ Jock looked disparagingly down at the piece of parchment he’d been scribbling lyrics on. ‘It’s very…acceptable.’
‘We can probably write a bit more,’ Knitting Prentice said. ‘Love is Loch Ness.’
‘Love is a hot mess-’
‘I think we’ve got enough to be going on,’ Jock raised his voice. ‘This’ll do.’
The mass rhyming died down. We then sat in rapt silence as Jock read our lyrics aloud, start to finish. Okay, it was hardly chart material, but I think it summed up quite neatly how weird and ultimately pretty naff we all were. And how tea and toast were the most important things to us. I know that, if I had to be stranded on a desert island and could only pick three things to come with me, I’d take Scorpius, tea, and toast. I don’t even know how that word work logistically seeing as I’d need a constant supply of teabags and fresh bread and maybe even a kettle and a toaster, but this is all very hypothetical and technically it’s my fantasy and I could take our whole flat if I wanted. But Scorpius would definitely be a priority. As long as we didn’t have any we’ll talk later moments or anything.
Lyrics written, the rehearsal petered out and eventually came to an end. We declined an offer of tea and biscuits to take Tarquin and Gwen over to The Drookit Duck for a proper tea; Knitting Prentice and Surly Kevin accompanied us, although the latter was mostly obliged to come because his shift there started at half past eight.
Inside the Duck (and yes, that is a phrase that doesn’t read well out of context) it wasn’t particularly busy; not a patch on the regular Wednesday evening pub crowd, anyway (which, in Scotland, seemed to be a fairly large one. Tales of a national fixation with drink are not altogether exaggerated, which made me fit in quite nicely.) A few of the older New New Elginers were huddled around a table in a corner and, by the window, call-me-Mary-Sue was sitting with a sketchbook open on the table in front of her, looking completely lost and alone.
I mean, as much as I was hating on her for being a suspected spy/having fluttery eyelashes, my heart really went out to her. In the strangest way, she reminded me of Rose. Not for cruel reasons – I was trying as hard as I could to think of Rose in purely positive ways for sake of karma – but I heard Rose in her cut-glass accent, saw Rose in her neat flat, recognised Rose with the vague feeling that there was something not quite right about her, like she was hiding something beneath her pretty pre-Raphaelite exterior. So, when Tarquin and Scorpius went up to the bar to have a shot at acting like manly men and order a round of drinks, I took Gwen over to call-me-Mary-Sue’s table, asked if she minded us joining her, and then took the seat directly opposite.
She snapped the sketchbook shut as soon as I sat down, but she needn’t have bothered; I could see that it was totally blank.
‘Gwen, this is Mary-Susannah,’ I said. ‘Mary-Susannah, this is Gwen.’
‘Gwendolyn,’ Gwen said. I remembered talking about call-me-Mary-Sue in a couple of my letters to the two of them, but I couldn’t for the life of me guess what Gwen had up her sleeve. But, metaphorically speaking, Gwen had pretty big sleeves that were more than ample for hiding jokes and schemes in. Maybe not to the same level as Tarquin, who was a sort of unquestionable god of banter, but she definitely trumped him in the evil schemes sleeves stakes. Anyway.
‘You’re from London too, right? Gwen said.
‘Kensington,’ call-me-Mary-Sue smiled. ‘I was brought up in Mayfair.’
‘Well, I’m from Wales,’ Gwen said, almost defiantly. ‘I was raised by sheep.’
Call-me-Mary-Sue gave her a look that was somewhere between worry and confusion, but was stopped from asking anymore by the appearance of Tarquin and Scorpius and the drinks.
‘Name your poison,’ Tarquin said, as he put a glass (complete with duck on a cocktail stick) down in front of each of us. ‘And then drink the beer we bought you. Love the thing with the ducks, by the way.’
‘Uh, Tarquin, this is Mary-Susannah,’ I said, as he settled into the armchair beside Gwen.
‘Oh?’ his eyebrows arched up. ‘Hello, Mary-Susannah. You’re the one from London, aren’t you?’
Call-me-Mary-Sue looked politely puzzled, evidently unaware she’d been the subject of several letters. ‘Yes, that’s me-’
‘Oh, I’m from Birmingham,’ Tarquin said. ‘Well, Spain. Well, Peru, really, if you dig around in the family tree a bit, but that’s stretching it.’
‘Peru?’ call-me-Mary-Sue said. ‘That’s…interesting.’
Scorpius gave me quite a knowing look. I returned it; this was one of the glorious moments where we could sit back and watch something unfold. And then possibly step in before it all got a bit too gnarly for comfort.
‘So what do you do for a living?’ Gwen said, leaning in. ‘Bet you’re a model.’
‘I work in the Auror Office, but I have done a bit of modelling in the past-’
‘The Auror Office?’ Tarquin cut in. ‘Wow, that’s exciting!’
‘I suppose it is…’
‘Are there a lot of explosions?’ Gwen said. ‘I’ve always wanted to work with explosions.’
‘What do you do, then?’ call-me-Mary-Sue asked, evidently keen to divert the attention away from herself.
‘Me?’ Gwen pointed at her own face, going a little cross-eyed as she stared down at her finger. ‘I’m a…magician. And Tarquin is my glamorous assistant.’
‘She’s very good at sawing me in half,’ Tarquin nodded emphatically. ‘And we do a fantastic act where she pulls me out of a top hat.’
‘I’m always finding him in strange places,’ Gwen tittered.
‘That’s…interesting,’ call-me-Mary-Sue said slowly. ‘Where did you meet?’
‘Same as Scorpius and Lucy,’ Tarquin said. ‘Art school.’
‘I just walked in and saw him there with paint on his face and knew he was the one,’ Gwen said.
‘We bonded over paintballing.’
‘Usually indoors, it’s more fun that way.’
‘Except we weren’t as boring as these two,’ Tarquin nodded to us.
‘So where did you two meet?’ call-me-Mary-Sue span to face us, now evidently very keen to divert the attention away from Tarquin and Gwen. ‘Art school too, yes?’
‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘Sort of.’
‘She grew on me,’ Scorpius said.
‘Like mould,’ Gwen said in a stage whisper.
‘I actually nicked him off my cousin Rose,’ I said.
‘It was dramatic,’ Scorpius added.
Call-me-Mary-Sue seemed to have gone white, probably out of fear; Tarquin and Gwen were doing a pretty good job of being, well, really creepy. Forget busking, hedge-hopping and paintballing, the two of them should have been hired to do tours of haunted houses.
‘So what’s your story?’ Tarquin said, and, get this: he fluttered his eyelashes at her.
She looked nothing short of terrified.
‘Um…my…my mother is Italian and my father is from Edinburgh,’ she said. ‘Nothing…nowhere as exciting as…Peru.’
‘Beats being from Manchester,’ Scorpius said, in an attempt to try and be nice to her. Given that Scorpius is almost chronically too nice, it actually went quite well; call-me-Mary-Sue did look a little placated.
‘Yes,’ she smiled. ‘Yes…indeed. Well,’ she snatched up the sketchbook and shoved it into her handbag. ‘I should be going.’
‘Don’t leave on our account!’ Tarquin beamed. ‘Stay for the chit-chat-’
‘No, really,’ she said firmly. ‘I really must go. It was nice meeting you two.’
She bade us all a good night and left the pub; Tarquin and Gwen burst out laughing almost the moment she’d gone.
‘Wow,’ Gwen said. ‘Did you find her in a kid’s toybox? She’s like a doll!’
‘It’s so weird,’ Tarquin furrowed his brow. ‘I get the weirdest, weirdest feeling I’ve seen her before-’
‘Probably in a Miss Magic ad,’ Gwen snorted.
‘Probably,’ Scorpius smiled, although it was a little too taut to look sincere. I, too, had the uncomfortable feeling that call-me-Mary-Sue might just be the sequel to Rose: someone I’d been undeservedly cruel too. Even if she had possibly knocked me out so that The Coven could abduct me. There was just something about her that unsettled me.
‘You two in this little town,’ Tarquin said, suddenly changing the subject. ‘It’s very cute. Very weird. Very whimsical. Very you. Ducks in the pint, tartan in the everything. How’d you get on at the primary, Scorpius Hyperion?’
Scorpius indicated the smudge of paint that was still on his face. ‘Only just survived.’
Gwen swilled the remnants of her pint around the glass. ‘I keep thinking I should get a proper job,’ she said. ‘As in, you know, something with sick leave and maybe even a salary.’
‘I just want a job where I don’t have to write zombie smut,’ I said. ‘You know, maybe something with a desk. And a kettle in the office. And a lot of juicy gossiping about colleagues. A water-cooler to gossip by. Christmas parties. A stationery cupboard. Biscuits.’
‘I just hope the kids don’t kill me,’ Scorpius said. ‘Well, I hope the chemicals don’t kill me either, but the kids seem like more of a threat.’
We all contemplated the table for a moment.
‘None of us are getting any younger,’ Tarquin said heavily. ‘But, really, Lucy, you shouldn’t commit to any job without checking if there are biscuits involved first.’
There were a couple more pub visits and one more band rehearsal before they left, the former being fairly raucous and cheerful and the latter being lacklustre and unproductive. Without me noticing, Gwen managed to steal and read my post-apocalyptic romance trash in a day, and spent an entire hour going over everything she knew about horror fiction because –
‘This isn’t anywhere near gory enough.’
‘You call this a zombie horror?’ she said, gesticulating to my manuscript (I’d reverted back to the zombie apocalypse plot some time ago). ‘This?’
‘You need to get more gruesome! At least one decapitation, I should think. And it’s such a giveaway when Algernon joins the resistance – he was a total minor character before that, you just know he’s going to be pulled limb-from-limb by zombies in the next chapter…’
‘Okay, cool,’ I took the manuscript back off her. ‘I’ll bear that in mind.’
She grinned. ‘Just make it bloodier. Soak it in blood.’
Euphemia Flitter’s idea of romance it wasn’t, but I decided to take Gwen’s advice anyway on the grounds that I trusted my mildly deranged goth friend over my mildly deranged editor.
Once we’d waved them off at the train station, I felt pretty exhausted, not that we’d exactly done much to have sapped up all my energy. I trundled home with Scorpius and, after a cuppa and a cursory game of filling-in-the-crossword-with-rude-words, we turned in early.
It was then that I had the weirdest dream. The two of us were back in the London flat, me hunched under the covers and Scorpius bleary-eyed and dishevelled again, the dartboard and map hanging on the wall in front of us. This time, he chucked the dart, and with an audible whizz-thunk it pierced a spot somewhere in the middle of the North Sea.
‘Well,’ he said. ‘Nothing for it. We’ll just have to be pirates.’
Then the dream shifted and suddenly we were standing on the deck of this immense galleon (and by that I mean the boat, not the coin, although my dreams are weird enough for us to have been standing on a giant piece of currency) in the middle of a storm. I was in full pirate garb, epaulettes and a feather on my magnificent hat and all – only the parrot on my shoulder was, in fact, Mr Andrew Socks. Scorpius was dressed a bit more humbly in ragged trousers and a striped top, with a skull-and-crossbones adorned eyepatch over one eye.
The rain poured down on us although, weirdly, I barely felt it. We were the only ones on deck, but I could see the blur of another ship on the horizon. My hand went to my cutlass.
‘Raise the jolly roger,’ I told Scorpius.
‘Aye aye, cap’n,’ he said, dashing off.
Then the dream cut straight to the moment we drew level with the other ship, which was entirely populated by call-me-Mary-Sues in ballgowns: I ordered Scorpius to fire the cannon and, without him even moving, a blast signified the moment that our ship sunk a ton of lead into the other.
I was at the very gunnels of the ship, leaning over to brandish my cutlass at call-me-Mary-Sue and her clones whilst Scorpius yelled something about starboard bows to my left. Then the scene shifted again and suddenly one of the call-me-Mary-Sues was standing on a plank whilst everyone I’d ever known stood on the ship behind her, shouting for her to walk it. And I was just about to tell her to get a bloody move on when her face changed and then it was Rose on the plank, and all of a sudden I was leaping up and down and waving my hands in the air and yelling at her to get off the blimmin’ plank and back onto the ship.
But Rose just gave me a sad little smile and walked forward. And the weirdest thing was that she didn’t fall, just floated gracefully down to the sea and vanished as soon as her toes touched the surface. Then the ship she’d turned up on was floating away with everyone on it, still screaming for someone, anyone to walk the plank – and no matter how much I shouted out to it and tried to say goodbye, none of them heard me.
It was gone in seconds, vanished into mist, but then Scorpius turned up at my side with a telescope in his hand. Mr Andrew Socks purred from my shoulder as Scorpius raised the telescope to his eyepatch-less eye and peered off in the direction the ship had come from.
There was just time for him to yell ‘Land ahoy!’ before I woke up.
Mr Andrew Socks was sleeping on the pillow next to me; I guess that’d been how he’d figured in the dream. The window sparkled with raindrops, although it didn’t even look like the sun had come up yet. The bed was empty next to me, but still warm; I guessed it was only just past six.
Right on cue, Scorpius came back into the room at that moment, and I was strangely disappointed to see him with both eyes present and correct. He was holding a bit of parchment that he held aloft as soon as he noticed I was awake.
‘Letter from Tarquin and Gwen,’ he said. ‘Weird, they scrimped on the nicknames this time. Also, good morning.’
He gave me a few moments to wake up properly before he gave me the letter to read.
‘Curious letter,’ he said, and he actually looked a bit worried. ‘Curious, curious letter.’
I took it from him, smoothed it out on the duvet, and started to read.
Dearest Lucy and Scorpius,
Thanks for the marvy hospitality. Scotland is nice, but, you know, very Scottish. We’re heading back to London for a day, then we might take a wander oop North again, pay a visit to a certain Barry. We’ll bring you something nice for the next time we’re up. The ducks we got to keep from the pub were truly something wonderful, really. You know us and ducks. And frogs. And newts. It was nice to meet your Mary-Susannah and your Jock and your Jeans to the power of five. And the knitting boy, didn’t catch his name but he’s a devil with the needles.
This is just a little letter, though, really, because we don’t have much time until the next train turns up and the Post Office shuts in five minutes. First, thanks. Second, you need help. Both for your mental bits and your band. We love your band. But you’re missing something. You’re a bit half-hearted right now. You just need some sparkle. Some oomph. Maybe even a bit of cowbell. So we decided to do something about it.
Love always and then some,
Gwen and Tarquin.
p.s. hope you don’t mind but we put Lettuce on the next train.
a/n: symbolic dreams? shambolic lyrics? tartan in the everything? this chapter was cobbled together from lots of little bits and pieces I had kicking around my notebook, so if it reads like a bunch of vignettes stapled together by a blind donkey, that's just me typing at 3am as per usual.
thankfully, that last line means that the actual plot is coming to the party soon. better late than never! I hate to use the word pumped, but I am pumped to write the last few chapters of this story. do you want dancing, cowbell, and enough drama to suit an episode of hollyoaks? well, tough if you don't, because that's what you're getting.
thank you to everyone who is still reading and putting up with this pile of angst and fluff and angsty fluff and fluffy angst. you are all magnificent ♥
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