Lance recognised the knock at the door, two short ones followed by a longer one – a beat and a half later. He knew his visitor never waited to be called and Lance had just enough time to slip his cherished copy of The Boys’ Big Rugby Annual 1974 under the stack of buff-covered files on the desk. The door handle turned and the CEO sat up in his chair, affecting a look of puppy-dog eagerness. His visitor bustled into the room and planted a Sainsbury’s shopping bag on one of the two directors’ chairs that had been placed in front of the desk. Each chair had the same name stencilled onto the back – “Mike”. MSQ sat down in the free chair. “Morning boss!” said Lance brightly, “What’s new?”
MSQ did not return the greeting. “I’m putting together an inventory, for… ahem.. insurance purposes. I’m also removing any valuable items for security reasons, so they don’t go missing during the lockdown.” MSQ picked up the shopping bag and rattled it. “I’ve already emptied the trophy room and I’m just checking all the offices to make sure I haven’t missed anything.”
Lance nodded. “Nothing in here boss.”
“What about all this stuff?” He pointed to the extensive array of framed signed shirts around the wall.
Lanced held his hand up defensively. “Those are all mine. I brought them from home when I moved in here. All except that one.” Lance pointed to a frame at the far end of the office.
“What on earth is that? It looks like an ancient slingshot of some sort.”
Lance looked up at the dirty grey jockstrap. “It’s the last thing we have of Mike Teague’s. He took all of the shirts and caps and left us with that. I think he was trying to send us a message.”
MSQ grunted. Then something on Lance’s desk caught his eye. It was a silver figure atop what looked to be a large pencil sharpener. The figure was a rugby player in the throes of passing to an unseen team-mate. MSQ picked it up “What’s this?” He looked closer and saw an inscription. To my bud, from your homey, Danny. Thanks for always being in my corner, man.
MSQ weighed the figure in the palm of his hand. It was heavy. He unscrewed the figure from the top of the sharpener, reached inside his pocket and pulled out a jeweller’s glass. He put the glass to his right eye and scrutinised the base of the metal figure. He tutted, then mumbled to himself, something that sounded to Lance like “Nickel-pated” and he threw the little rugby player back onto the table.
MSQ squinted at Lance. “So nothing else here of value?” He pointed to the desk. “Nothing in the drawers?” Lance shook his head. MSQ sighed disappointedly. “Well I’d better be off…time and tide..”.
“Um before you go…” ventured Lance, “I need your signature on something.”
MSQ sighed. “Make it quick. I want to get back in time for Cash in the Attic.”
Lance went over to a stack of cardboard, bankers’ boxes, lifted the lid off one and started rummaging through it. “Ah, here we are.”. He fished out a short, wide notebook, the shape and size of a letterbox. MSQ was puzzled. It was way too small for a ledger or a sealing book. Lance placed it on the desk and held out a pen. On the leatherette cover was embossed Rugby Autographs – St. to Su. A page had been marked with a sliver of a Post-it Note and Lance turned to it. “If you wouldn’t mind signing there – just below Philippe Saint-André.”
MSQ was about to thrown the pen back on the desk, but then relented and started to make his mark. “Just how many of these books have you got in those boxes?” he asked casually.
Lance looked pleased at MSQ’s sudden expression of interest. “Two hundred and forty three, last time I counted.” He beamed. “They are my pride and joy. I’ve been collecting them since I was seven.”
MSQ stroked his nose thoughtfully. “And worth quite a bit by now I should have thought.”
Camilla and Stephanie, squeezed up together on the plush George Skivington sofa. It was the week of “Matso”, the Matson Contemporary Dance and Cider Festival, cancelled this year because of the virus, but the BBC was broadcasting highlights of some of the best acts of the last 12 years. Stephanie couldn’t repress a squeal as Lauren Laverne announced the big act from 2016 – “Guys, we always save the best until last, but this year is very special indeed. Let’s give it up in the way that only Matso can for… BAMPTON MORRIS!”. The producer cut away from the host, to a drone-shot of tens of thousands of fans swarming towards the front of a giant stage. Massive TV screens showed sixteen men running onto the stage, all stripped to the waist, their muscles rippling, white handkerchiefs tied to their wrists, bells jangling at their ankles.”
Stephanie nudged Camilla. “I like the look of your two.”
Camilla smirked, emptied a glass of Bastareaud ’83 in one gulp and held out her glass to Vickery for another.
Baz gave her a baleful look. “Christ, that’s three hundred quid a bottle and you’re knocking it back like its Prosecco.” He turned to his butler, “How much have we got left Vickery?”
“I believe sir this was the first bottle from the last case.”
Baz gripped the arm of his chair in horror. “But we still had fifty cases at lockdown. We can’t have drunk 600 bottles?”
Vickery corrected him, “Five hundred and eighty nine to be precise sir.”
“Alright, five hundred and eighty nine then.”
Vickery raised an eyebrow. “I’m rather afraid you have sir. Not to mention all the Perrier Jouet Belle Epoque champagne AND the last case of McCrae’s 25 year-old Speyside Malt AND all the 1963 Cockburn’s Port.”
OG momentarily roused himself from his drunken semi-slumber on the other side of the room “It was bloody good stuff though.”
Baz was aghast. “So what is left down there?”
“The last time I looked sir, half a bottle of Advocaat, a barely touched bottle of ouzo and a bottle which has lost its label. It rather smells like cherry brandy, but could easily be Ribena.”
“Good heavens Vickery, why on earth haven’t you restocked? Get on the phone to Marshall and Woodward immediately and order some more.”
“I’m afraid sir, our account has been suspended.” Vickery gave Baz a withering look. “As has our account with Banahan the Butcher.”
Baz closed his eyes and let out a deep silent breath. So it was come to this. They couldn’t even pay their butchers’ bill. Baz thought of his old mum in Matson, scraping together the coppers out of her battered biscuit tin to buy Baz and his dad a scrag end of lamb for their Sunday lunch. How the wheel had turned.
Baz was a multi-millionaire no longer. The Bazsoft factory was based in Wuhan and for six months production had stopped completely. Tens of thousands of Son of Samsung phones had been impounded by the Chinese authorities in lieu of unpaid tax. The Bazsoft share-price had gone through the floor and the banks had quickly turned their backs on him. His beloved house, his last real financial asset, was now up for sale, but his agent, Seville’s, hadn’t had a sniff of interest. The world’s billionaires had retreated to their private bunkers on their Caribbean islands and had no interest in coming to live, even for part of the year, in one of the most infected countries in the world.
Baz tried to choke back his emotions, but it was too much. “Christ. What the hell is to become of us?”
Steph tried to cheer him up. “Look we could try and save a little money on the heating if you want. Cammie and I could move into your room with you. That old four poster must be big enough for the three of us.”
Baz waved his hand dismissively. “It would save just a few pounds possibly, not enough to…” But then he stayed himself. “You know what Steph? If you’re prepared to put up with that kind of hardship, just to try and save this old place, then it would be beyond churlish for me to refuse that kind of offer.”
OG suddenly perked up. “I say, would it be helpful if I moved in as well?”
“NO!” chorused Baz, Stephanie and Camilla together.
At the back of the old cave at the end of the deep fissure on the other side of Painswick Beacon Mutey was stretched out on a pile of old blankets. He was struggling to breathe and was sweating profusely. Every few minutes great eruptions of coughing would rack his entire body. It was clear that Mutey was dying.
With a superhuman effort he managed to summon the breath to call out to the Banshee. “My love,” he croaked, “my love, I must speak to you.”
The Banshee put down her large ladle next to the cauldron and bustled over to him. “’Ow you doin’ Mutey?”
“I feel terrible, so terrible,” he whispered. “I think I am done for.”
The Banshee smiled. “That’s excellent. ‘Ow long do you think you’ve got?”
“I don’t know.” he gasped, ” A few hours at the most.”
The Banshee patted his hand. “Not to worry then. Still plenty of time.”
The crone returned to her fire and her cauldron and started whistling merrily to herself. “Now then where is it?” she reached up onto a high shelf a brought down an old Branston Pickle jar. It was stuffed with hundred small, pale jelly-like globules. Eyes of Newt – a standard of every wise woman’s store cupboard. She took two of the small globes and threw them into the mixture. There was a great eruption of smoke accompanied by green flames.
Mutey suddenly cried out again. “Good God, what is that evil stench. Is this some foretaste of hell?”
The Banshee soothed him “Oh this? It’s Charlie by Revlon, I got it from the perfume counter in Poundland in the Eastgate.”
Mutey gasped, “Not that! What you’re cooking?”
The Banshee cooed. “This my little Blazered Beauty is our future.” She ladled a little of the mixture into a battered old enamel cup, blew on it several times and took it over to where Mutey lay dying. “Now get your laughing gear around that my love.”
She poured a little of the liquid onto his dry, broken lips and allowed it to seep into his mouth. Suddenly Mutey’s body started to shudder and then it went into huge deep convulsions. His fingers were bent down to his toes – something that hadn’t happened for more than thirty years. Then he gave out a long, slow, guttural rattle.
Then he sighed. Then he smiled. “Oh my word, that’s better!”
Four days later, Mutey was breathing heavily as he returned to the family hovel fresh from his 10k run. The Banshee was cackling over her lap-top. On YouTube two billion viewers had already watched Mutey rise from his death bed. News organisations around the world were now describing him as The Modern Lazarus. She looked over at him admiringly. “It’s all done my love!”
Mutey removed his earbuds. Wagner’s Ring Cycle was still hissing away. “What is?”
The Banshee pointed to the email on her screen. “Just got the okay from Humphreys, Ackermann and Vaughan, our New York lawyers. We’ve got the worldwide patent on the antidote. “
Pulling off his Cipriani running top, sniffed at it then mopped his brow with it. “What does that mean?”
“It means my old beauty that we are rich – rich beyond our wildest dreams. The lawyers have already got emails from all the big pharma companies, offering us royalties on every tablet they sell.”
Mutey grinned. “Did I ever tell you that you’re a VERY wise woman, Carol?”
“Our family’s womenfolk have been wise for centuries. Two hundred years ago old Jenner took all the credit for Old Mother Banshee’s work. It ain’t ‘appening this time.”
Mutey took a deep refreshing draught from a delightfully chilled bottle of Tom Oliver’s At the Hop Cider and smacked his lips.
The Banshee cackled. “As soon as I known there was bits of bat in the virus I knew all you had to do was add a touch of eye of newt. It’s Wise Woman 1.01. all the way from old Bill Shakespeare’s time. And when you went down with the virus Mutey, it was the best thing that could have happened to us. You were my little Dursley guinea pig my love.”
Mutey slipped of his skimpy Hohneck running shorts and wiped under his arms. “Oh I do love you Carol.” He kissed her gently below her moustache. Then he looked down and smiled. “Now there’s an unexpected side-effect.”
* * *
Three hours later, Mutey was lying naked, puffing on a large Montecristo cigar. The Banshee was sucking contentedly on her clay pipe. Both were in a state of post-coital bliss. She stroked at some of the long grey hairs that covered his entire body. “Mutey…”
“Do you know that village, Lower Downe, on the other side of the A40 towards Stow?”
“I think so.”
“There’s a big ‘ouse there called Fumblings. It’s up for sale.” She stroked his inner thigh. “Can we go and ‘ave a look?”
Mutey tickled the extensive ginger thatch below her abdomen. “Anything for you my love.”
[TO BE CONTINUED]