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The Song of Mat and Ben

Joan Aiken



  Title Page

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven



  AS I JOGGED towards the door of home I could hear the phone ringing inside the house, and I knew at once that it would be my Aunt Lal. I knew because I’d had a dream about her last night and when that happened it nearly always turned out that she had been dreaming about me. I opened the door, dropped my football boots on the mat and ran to the phone. But Mum had got there first.

  ‘Yes, he is, Lally,’ she was saying. ‘Out playing in a match, yes; I should think he could – I’ll ask him when he comes in – Oh!’ she said, turning and seeing me, ‘There you are, Ned. Aunt Lal wants to speak to you –’

  She passed me the phone.

  ‘I dreamed about you last night,’ said the voice of Mum’s sister.

  ‘I know. I had the same dream.’

  ‘In the book shop?’

  ‘Yes, with the two little boys.’

  It had been my Uncle Adam’s book shop, which is on a sharp-angled corner site in the harbour town of St Boan. Antique bits and pieces, which the shop also sold, were displayed at the front, inside the window, and the books were at the back on three sets of shelves shaped like slices of pie. Uncle Adam has a stepladder, so that customers can reach the top shelves. In the dream Aunt Lal had been sitting at the desk and I was up on the ladder looking for some wonderful book which I was certain would be there, when these two little characters came toddling into the shop. They could not have been more than about three years old, and were twins. I knew that, although they were not much alike. One of them had a tendency to go on all fours. The other one led him along on a lead. They had untidy brown curls and freckled noses, and wore queer little rusty black suits with white Peter Pan collars.

  The upright one was singing as they came into the shop:

  ‘Oh what adorable music we made, As we danced through the town in the Pilchard Parade.’

  I knew the song of course, it’s famous, though his scrawny little piping voice didn’t do it much justice.

  Then the singing twin stopped singing and asked, ‘Have you got our music book for us, with our song in it?’ And Aunt Lal said, ‘No I haven’t, but Ned has it for you.’

  Then I woke up.

  ‘Do you know who those boys are?’ said Aunt Lal over the phone.

  ‘No idea.’

  ‘They are the lost Pernel twins.’

  The name was vaguely familiar, though I didn’t pick up the link at first.

  ‘Do you want me to help find them?’ I said cautiously.

  When Aunt Lal calls up it is often about some problem. She and I have a knack of helping each other sometimes, because of this shared-dream thing; we can come up with useful answers for each other’s questions. But there was a football match tomorrow, our school against St Pardon; I had just got into the team. I didn’t want to be away from home just then.

  ‘No,’ said Aunt Lal, ‘the twins were lost a hundred years ago and they’ve been found, and that’s what has led to a lot of trouble in the town. I’d very much like you to come over to St Boan, Neddy – I think you might be useful…’

  ‘Could it possibly wait a day, Aunt Lal?’

  ‘Better not. I think things might turn nasty…’

  My heart sank. I knew that I ought to go. But how could I explain to Mike Pengelly, the team captain?

  At that moment there came a knock at the door. And it was Mike.

  ‘Hold on a tick, Aunt Lal – I’ll just see what Mike wants.’

  It was to say that tomorrow’s match was postponed.

  ‘There’s a terrible weather forecast,’ said Mike. ‘Blizzard and three inches of snow.’

  ‘Snow? In Cornwall? In March?’

  Easter was close at hand, gardens were ablaze with daffodils.

  ‘That’s what they say,’ said Mike. ‘Fifty-mile-an-hour gales and a fifty-degree drop in temperature. I’d not plan any fishing trip in the next few days, young Ned. And the match is put off till tomorrow week. So long, see you.’

  Off he went. So I told Aunt Lal I could come over and stay for a couple of nights.

  ‘Oh dear,’ said Mum. ‘Is this a good time for you to go over to St Boan?’

  The town where Uncle Adam and Aunt Lal lived was a seventy-minute train ride.

  ‘Getting there should be okay. Coming back may be harder.’

  ‘Well, at least snow can’t last long in March,’ Mum said.

  Five minutes later a neighbour of Aunt Lal rang to say he’d be driving through Abbot’s Yarn in half an hour’s time and could give me a lift. That would be quicker than the train which stopped at half a dozen tiny stations on its zig-zag journey.

  ‘But I wish your new mail-order pyjamas had come,’ said Mum.

  ‘Aunt Lal won’t mind holes in the elbows.’

  In fact, while I was packing my toothbrush and well-worn pyjamas, a package arrived from Talland and Thermal Mail-wear, but it turned out to be only the Mystery Gift with a packer’s note which said NIGHTWEAR TO FOLLOW. The Mystery Gift, when undone from layers of wrapping and an egg-sized box lined with cottonwool, proved to be a shiny new two-penny piece.

  ‘Are they allowed to do that?’ said Mum. ‘Send money as a gift?’

  ‘Shouldn’t think so for a moment,’ said Dad, who had just come home from fishing and was warming his frozen hands.

  ‘I’ll keep it for luck,’ I said and slid it down the inside pocket of my Perdidas jacket.

  There was another knock at the door. This time it was Aunt Lal’s neighbour. He said his name was Mark Hardisty.

  ‘I hope you are ready,’ he snapped. ‘I don’t want to lose any time.’

  Luckily I was ready.

  ‘It’s very kind of you, Mr Hardisty,’ Mum said doubtfully. I could see she didn’t like him any more than I did. ‘I do hope you get to St Boan before the bad weather sets in.’

  ‘So do I. Throw your bag in the back and let’s be off,’ said Hardisty. I hardly had time to wave goodbye to Mum and Dad before he slammed the car into gear and roared off up the hill.

  He was a lean, pale man with a big jaw full of teeth, and colourless eyes. He drove frighteningly fast. But I could understand why. A huge cliff of black cloud was climbing up the north-east sky behind us and the wind whistled past the car, even faster than we were going.

  To distract myself from the way Mr Hardisty screeched round corners on two wheels, I tried to remember as much as I could about the Pernel twins.

  They had been the children of a musician and composer, Carl Pernel, who had lived about a hundred years ago. He had written that famous tune, ‘The Pilchard’s Parade’, which was sung and danced every year in St Boan at the August Festival. He was a native of St Boan and lived there all his life and had written a lot of other well-known music, ‘A Cornish Symphony’ and ‘Atlantic Airs’ and ‘The Nine Maidens Cantata’. We learned about him at school He had played in all the capitals of Europe and his favourite violin was still to be seen in the St Boan Museum.

  But the twins? His childen? There had been some mystery about them, I couldn’t remember just what.

  By now we had climbed out of Abbot’s Yarn and were streaking along the high ridge road that runs a mile inland from all the little coast villages. The fields on each side are bony and bare, with rocks here and there, and groups of spooky white power-generating windmills, looking like Martians, now spinning madly in the gale, and here and there the granite tower of a deserted tin mine. It was a glum landscape, not made any mor
e cheerful by the swarming snowflakes, like killer bees, that were pouring out of the black sky. I saw with relief the turn to Trenole Beach and knew that the St Boan road would be the next right.

  ‘You certainly made good time, Mr Hardisty,’ I said politely, hoping that he would slow down a bit, for the road narrowed here on a tricky right-hand bend known as Zawn Corner. But if anything he drove faster. Nothing could be seen ahead because of the seething snow.

  And then suddenly – a pair of headlights, dazzling through the murk, straight ahead. Hardisty stamped on his brake, the car spun like a billiard ball, and turned clean over. After a moment of crazy confusion I found myself dangling head down in my safety belt. To make matters worse, my face was in water.

  I jerked my head back, managed to reach for the knob of my belt, and undid myself. Hardisty was nowhere to be seen. The driver’s door was half open and I supposed he had been thrown out. I couldn’t get myself across the car and out of his door because the water was pouring through it – the car had landed slant-ways and upside down in a ditch. And I could feel that it was sinking.

  On my side I couldn’t escape because the door was jammed against the ditch bank. So I crept over my seat back, or under it, rather, into the back of the car. The rear seat had been folded flat to make more boot-space and the boot had been loaded with sacks of potatoes, which had split, and potatoes were bobbing about in the muddy water.

  The prime question was could I open the boot door from inside?

  At first I tried hammering and yelling for help, but nobody answered.

  Then I took a look at the lock, which was held in place by four screws.

  If there was a tool-kit in the boot, with a screwdriver, it was not to be seen. It might be underneath the potatoes. Then again it might not. And the water level was rising quite fast.

  At that point I remembered the Mystery Gift, the lucky two-penny piece I had tucked into my inside pocket.

  It took me fifteen minutes to unscrew those four screws, using the lucky two-penny. When I pushed up the boot lid, water gushed in, and I just had time to scramble clear before the car filled up and sank down lower. I saw my night-bag floating among the spuds and grabbed it.

  Next – with my heart in my mouth – I looked about for Hardisty. If he had been flung out he might be lying somewhere with broken bones, or a broken neck. But, strangely, there was no sign of him at all. Could he be under the water of the ditch? And where was the other car, whose lights directly ahead had caused Hardisty to skid?

  With none of these questions answered I started the two-mile downhill trudge into St Boan.

  Up at the top was a new supermarket, in process of building, and below it the big town school, the Hardisty School, built, I supposed, by an ancestor of my driver.

  St Boan looked like a ghost town below me as I struggled down the hill through the snowstorm. It was packed tightly and steeply round a U-shaped harbour. The main road that I was on led straight to the quay. The snow-covered roofs of houses below me stuck up like sharks’ teeth and the harbour water beyond them was black. A rough, gaping trench ran down one side of the street, wide and deep enough to drop a kitchen stove in, and was protected by white-painted trestles to stop people falling in, and signs that said






  Not a soul was about. I might have been the only person in the place. No doubt the natives were all at home by their cosy fires. I saw nobody until I crossed Queen Street, the main shopping street of the town, where a woman came tottering up to me on the snow-covered slippery cobbles and accosted me in a high, piercing voice.

  ‘Hey there! You! Have you seen two boys?’

  I didn’t like the way she spoke. There was something condescending about her voice, as if she only spoke to me because there was nobody else in the street.

  But what right had she to be so haughty? She was a weird-looking scarecrow of a female, dressed as if for some party in a long draggly skirt of thin skimpy material. She had idiotically high-heeled shoes (considering the snow and the cobbles) and a kind of ostrich feather-scarf round her neck. Her lank, scanty hair, white, dyed yellow, blew about her face in elf-locks and her face was hollow-cheeked and haggard beyond belief. She looked like Noah’s mother who had been left behind off the Ark and knew there was no use expecting help from anybody in this world

  ‘Have you seen those two boys?’ she demanded again angrily.

  ‘No,’ I said. ‘No, I haven’t seen anybody.’

  She swung a thin leather strap in her hand. It was a dog-lead, I noticed.

  She said, ‘Tell the boys their Aunt Alida wants them right away. They have got out – they have run off – tell them!’

  ‘But I haven’t…’

  She didn’t wait to hear my answer, but tottered away round a corner, slipping on her high heels and with the wind blowing her flimsy draperies. Perhaps the storm had sent her wits wandering, I thought. There were flashes of greenish lightning through the snow and every now and then a snarl of thunder.

  It was definitely not a night to be out in freezing-wet clothes, and I was glad when I came in sight of Uncle Adam’s cottage, which perched on a rocky headland at the western edge of the town.

  For a moment, as I walked up to it, I thought there was a person in black standing by the door, waiting for me – then I realised that it was a young fir-tree, probably planted out there after Christmas.

  I tapped on the door – a light showed inside – and went in.


  SOME PEOPLE THINK my Aunt Lal is an odd-looking woman. But she was not half so odd as the woman I had just met in the street. Aunt Lal has snow-white hair, worn flat and straight. Her nose is long and bony and usually rather pink because she suffers from hay-fever. Her eyes are blazing blue and see through you like laser beams. And she wears thick, heavy clothes bought at thrift shops. Nothing ever surprises or shocks her.

  When I arrived, soaked, shivering, and speechless, she behaved as calmly as if I had just stepped off the Mailcoach Express. She had run a bath, phoned the local police, and fetched out some old clothes of Uncle Adam’s before I had been in the house five minutes. And by the time a police inspector arrived to hear my tale, I was warm, dressed, and sitting by the fire drinking hot tea with a spoonful of Aunt Lal’s walnut-leaf cordial in it.

  ‘Well, Mrs Carne,’ said Inspector Mutton. ‘We’ve been up to Zawn Corner, that’s a bad spot, that is. There’ve been plenty of crashes there – and we did find skid marks and indentations showing that a big vehicle had recently been overturned in the dyke, but,’ he said, ‘the vehicle itself had already been removed. Somebody must have got a breakdown service to the spot pretty smartly.’

  ‘And there was nobody – no body – in the ditch?’ I asked. ‘You’re sure of that?’

  ‘Quite sure, young man.’ The inspector glanced at me keenly. ‘What was the name again – the name of the gentleman who gave you a lift?’

  ‘Hardisty, Mark Hardisty. He said he was a neighbour of Aunt Lal.’

  The Inspector and Aunt Lal exchanged an odd look. At least I thought it was odd. Then he said, ‘Well – as no injury or fatality has been reported, we can take the matter no further at present. But I’ll be in touch with you, Mrs Carne, directly, you may be sure, if anything should come up.’

  And he left.

  ‘It almost seemed as if he didn’t believe me,’ I suggested when the door had closed behind him.

  ‘Oh no, he believed you,’ Aunt Lal said thoughtfully. ‘He believed you all right.’

  ‘How do you know that?’

  ‘Because Hardisty is a local name. There are several in the town. And more in the graveyard.’

  ‘Do you know a Mark?’

  ‘Only in the graveyard.’

  After a minute or two I said, ‘What is the trouble about the Pernel twins?’

you notice that half the streets in the town have been dug up? Deep trenches everywhere?’

  ‘I certainly did!’

  ‘They are laying new water pipes. The existing ones were put in a hundred years ago and they are corroded. And it is just about a hundred years ago,’ said Aunt Lal, ‘that the Pernel twins were lost. Their father had gone off to play in a concert in Plymouth. When he came home he found his house on fire, his brother and sister-in-law who lived there too were out at some meeting. He battled his way in to rescue the twins, but they were not in their beds. They were never seen again. The brother-in-law accused Pernel of leaving the boys to die. When he dashed into the burning building, all he brought out was a valuable violin. After that there was a lot of bad feeling in the town against Pernel.’

  ‘What about the boys’ mother? Where was she?’

  ‘She had died when they were born. Her name was Lilian Hardisty. Her brother was Mark.’

  ‘So,’ I said slowly, ‘perhaps he was the grandfather or great-grandfather of the man who gave me the lift.’

  ‘Perhaps,’ said Aunt Lal quietly.

  After a moment she went on, ‘When they dug up Fore Street to lay new waterpipes, they found two small skeletons on the site where Pernel’s garden would have been. Their necks were broken. The house itself had been pulled down forty years before, when they widened Fore Street.’

  ‘So perhaps the boys were dead before the house burned down?’

  ‘The bones showed no sign of burning,’ agreed Aunt Lal.

  ‘What is the trouble in the town, Aunt Lal?’ I asked. ‘And why do you think I might be able to help?’

  ‘The trouble,’ she said. ‘Ever since those bones were found, people keep seeing the ghosts of the twins. Sometimes on the shore, sometimes wandering along the street. Crying. It’s as if being dug up disturbed something. A dozen times they’ve been seen in different places – by people you’d never expect to see a ghost, like Tom Pollard next door. Everybody in the town is getting jumpy and bad-tempered. They can hear the twins crying all the time. People say seeing the twins is a sign of bad luck. You know the Hellwethers and the Tollmen?’