Cold Shoulder RoadJoan Aiken
Table of Contents
Also by Joan Aiken in Red Fox
Cold Shoulder Road
COLD SHOULDER ROAD
“Oy!” shouted Is. “Don’t forget about us! We’re still down here! Hi! Hollo! Let down the ladder, ye dumfoozle squareheads. Don’t leave us down here!”
There was no reply.
But, a moment later, a loud bang overhead caused Is and Arun to jump. Looking up they saw that a heavy, round wooden cover had been lowered into place over the hole. And a metallic clang suggested that it had been bolted down. At the same moment their lantern went out.
Also by Joan Aiken in Red Fox
The James III sequence
THE WOLVES OF WILLOUGHBY CHASE
BLACK HEARTS IN BATTERSEA
NIGHT BIRDS ON NANTUCKET
THE STOLEN LAKE
THE CUCKOO TREE
DIDO AND PA
THE WINTER SLEEPWALKER
(illustrated by Quentin Blake)
THE WHISPERING MOUNTAIN
MIDNIGHT IS A PLACE
THE SHADOW GUESTS
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EVERY NIGHT, AROUND NINE O’CLOCK IN COLD Shoulder Road, the screaming began. It came from the end house in the row. It was not very loud. The sound was like the cries of the gulls who flew and whirled along the shingle-bank on the seaward side of the road.
People who lived in the road (there were not many of them) took no notice of the screaming. It’s the gulls, they thought, or the wind; or, whatever it is, it’s no business of ours.
Only one person felt differently, and she lived next door to the house from which the screaming came.
Night after night she clenched her hands and stood trembling by the window.
Something has got to be done, she thought. Something must be done.
At last she did it.
ON A CHILLY EVENING IN LATE SPRING, MANY years ago, the schooner Dark Diamond was feeling her way through the narrow passage known as the Downs, between the coast of Kent and the Goodwin Sands. Nothing could be seen, nothing could be heard, save the creak of ropes and the wash of water along the side of the ship. Fog lay like thick white wool over the English Channel. If there were lights along the shore, half a mile away, they were hidden behind the misty blanket.
“But likely there’s none,” observed Captain Podmore on the bridge, gloomily peering ahead and rubbing his bristly chin. “That tarnal great flood-wave what came a-raging down this coast last January – that drowned a many souls along the Essex and Kent shores. And swept away a many houses. Folk is still hard at work putting all to rights – those as wasn’t drownded. They do say the naval boat-yard at Deal was a right hurrah’s-nest – stove-in vessels perched atop of house-roofs; and they found one thirty-three-gun frigate a couple of miles inland at Womenswold, lodged in the crotch of a big old chestnut tree. It’s still there, I’ve heard tell; nobody can figure out a way to get it down.”
The two passengers on board the Dark Diamond, who were standing with Captain Podmore on the bridge, looked at one another anxiously.
“Your mother, Arun—” began the girl.
“Nay, nay, I know what you’re a-thinking,” Captain Podmore said hastily. “You’re a-thinking that Mrs Twite might ha’ fared badly down at Folkestone town. But don’t you be frit, Arun my boy, you can surely set your mind at rest. Folkestone did none so badly. That turble flood-wave bore on south’ards, on towards France, arter it scraped Dover. Towns west o’Dover didn’t get it nigh so hard. And, farther down the Channel, past the Island, it were naught to write home about.”
“That’s the Isle of Wight?” asked the girl.
“Right, Missie Is. That’s why the old Dark Diamond come through without a splinter off her gunwale.” He patted his ship affectionately. “We was hove to in Poole Harbour, and never felt no more than a ripple.”
“Up north it was dreadful,” said Is. “The whole town of Blastburn was flooded out, and the coal-mine filled with water.”
“Aye, because the doddy fools thought fit to build their town low down inside of a cave. What could they expect – do there come a high tide? And what’s befallen that Channel Tunnel the Folkestone people spent years a-building, I wonder?”
“Did they finish the tunnel, then?” asked Arun. “They were still digging it when I ran off from home.”
“Aye, ’twas finished and working – unless the tidal wave stove it in.”
“Do people ride through to France on horseback, then?” asked Is.
“Nay, nay, lass, they’ve a wagon-train that runs through, once a day. You can fit a tidy-sized coach in one o’ they wagons, and they have horse-boxes too, and folks does the crossing inside o’ their own carriages. Twenty-six miles to Boulogne, it be, and that-ar old train does the crossing in only one hour, will you credit it?”
Captain Podmore spat vexedly over the side of his ship. “And the worst of it is, that-there tunnel is putting honest free-traders out of business.”
“Why, Captain Podmore?”
“Why, up to five years agone, there was a big cross-Channel trade in run goods – any brig sailing these waters, you could lay your sweet life she’d be half full of run brandy, or ‘baccy, or French kickshawses. But now all these cargoes, they comes th
rough by tunnel. (Folk do say.) Taking the bread out of our mouthses! There be a new tribe of folk running the business – the Merry Gentry, they calls theirselves. – O’ course I don’t have owt to do wi’ them,” he added hastily. “Very nasty coves they are, to tangle with, ’tis said. Hang you up by your heels from a lamppost as soon as kiss-your-hand. To make an example, d’ye see? So folks knows better than to meddle with their comings and goings.”
“But aren’t there police or customs officers at the entrance to the tunnel, at each end, to oversee what comes through?”
“Oh, aye,” said the Captain. He winked. “They has a gate at each end, like a portcullis. And a chap at the gate to lock-all-fast when the train has run by. And other coves in King’s uniforms a-poking and a-prodding at folkses’ bags and bundles. But, lord bless ye, there’s a deal of contraband still goes through. A coin in the hand is worth two in the bank, and a blind horse knows which side his hay be buttered on. – Mammoths’ tusks, they do say, is the prime article these days.”
“I wouldn’t be a-knowing,” said Captain Podmore virtuously. “Sea-coal and a drop o’ Highland Malt is all I ever carry. But ’tis said they dug up a deal of those old, frozen long-ago elephant critters up in the step-lands near Muscovy and Hell-Sinky. Loads o’ they tusks are a-coming south, through Norroway and Jutland and the Lowlands and Normandy; and now, the word goes, they runs ’em through the Tunnel.”
“But what in the world do folk want mammoths’ tusks for?” asked Is. “Diamonds, now, I could understand—”
“They carves ’em into snuffboxes, lassie. Sneeze-coffers. – Or into false teeth,” added Captain Podmore. “All the crack, sneeze-boxes made from mammoth tusks are. And rich folks nowadays has sham teeth screwed in when their own has worn out. Flying in the face of Nature, if you ask me. Anyhow there’s a mighty deal of rhino to be made in the trade, so ’tis said.”
He peered forward, for Dover light was now faintly to be seen ahead, and most of his attention must be given to navigation.
“But don’t you fret about your Ma, Arun my boy,” he went on after a minute. “Folkestone town be set mainly on the cliff. That way the folk stayed high and dry.”
“Yes,” agreed Arun. But still he sounded worried.
It’s because he ran away from home, Is thought, and never wrote to his Mum in years. And now he feels bad about it.
“Hearken, young ’uns,” said Captain Podmore, when they had passed Dover and were putting in towards Folkestone. “Ye’ll not think me disobliging if I don’t take ye right into harbour, but get my man Sam to row ye to the foot of the jetty steps?”
“Of course we don’t mind,” said Arun, a little puzzled. “It was very kind of you to bring us all the way south from Stonemouth. But why – why don’t you plan to go into harbour here?”
Captain Podmore laid a finger alongside his nose. “What the eye don’t see, the heart don’t glather over,” he said. “They be mortal sharp, they Preventive chaps around Folkestone, and there were a little bit of bother over French strums—”
“What you’d call periwigs, for the Mayor and Corporation, what never paid a penny of Duty. I’d as lief not show my nose in this port until they’ve other matters on their minds – let alone cut queer whids with the Merry Gentry, who are powerful strong along this stretch o’ the coast, so ’tis said . . .”
He stared ahead into the foggy dark and called softly, “Ease her to stabb’rd, Sam!”
“The Mayor and Corporation? Well!” said Is, shocked.
“Eh, well, when it comes to run goods, Missie, even the highest in the land ain’t too toploftical. That’s why the folkses that fetches the goods gets to be so powerful strong. Now bring her to, Sam! And step lively, lower a dinghy, but don’t let me hear one dunt or scrunch.”
So, after whispered farewells and thanks, Is and Arun found themselves, ten minutes later, at the foot of the dripping, slimy stone steps that led up to the seaward end of Folkestone Pier.
Captain Podmore watched them anxiously and solicitously from the ship, as they began the steep climb.
Then, behind them, silent as a moth, the Dark Diamond drifted away southwards, towards Hastings.
Ahead, as they walked quietly along the pier, Arun and Is could see a few lights, scattered up and down a high rampart of black land which began to show against the paler night sky.
The air felt bitterly cold and dank. A gusty wind chewed at their elbows and ankles. Nothing could be heard but the slop of waves along the stone jetty.
“Whereabouts does your Mum live, Arun?” whispered Is.
“At the east end of the town.” Arun pointed with his right hand, forgetting that she could not see it in the dark. “In what they call Frog-Hole Lane.”
“Rummy kind of name.”
He shrugged. “Scruffy kind of neighbourhood. Not very friendly. Its other name is Cold Shoulder Road. You see, that’s where the Sect first settled, when they came over from the Low Countries.”
“I told you about them, didn’t I? My Mum and Dad belonged to a Sect, the Silent Folk. They don’t allow any talking, not by anybody. Except the Elder, and he speaks only when it’s needful. Like, maybe, talking to folk who don’t belong to the Sect. And, of course, when he preaches on Sundays.”
“Nobody talks at all?” said Is, aghast. “But how the pize do you find out anything you want to know?”
“By making signs. Or, if it’s too hard for signs, you write on a bit of paper. Or a slate. I used to do a lot of that when I was a kid.”
“But what a fubsy way of going on! – Now I come to think, your Dad did say summat about it.” But, after a moment’s thought, Is burst out laughing. “Hey, though, it wouldn’t matter to us, would it?”
Is and Arun were able to speak to each other by using thoughts instead of words. They did not always choose to do so. But sometimes an idea crossed over more quickly if it did not have to be translated into language. So their talk was often a patchwork of words and silences during which thoughts flashed back and forth between them like shuttles on a loom.
“That was why I ran off from home, d’you see,” said Arun. “I couldn’t stand all that silence. My Dad used to wallop me if I asked a question. Or else I’d be shut up in my room. And that was only a cupboard.”
“Your Dad was sorry after you ran away,” said Is thoughtfully. “He was real sorry, later on, when he lay a-dying.”
“It was too late then, wasn’t it?”
Arun’s tone was impatient. He was peering ahead, into the gloom. “Can you hear music, d’you think?”
“No. Did your Mum wallop you too?”
“No. She didn’t. But she’d never cross my Dad. She always did what he told her. Dad would never allow what the Sect called flightiness. Even fetching a bunch of primroses into the house – he’d say that was flighty. I – I sometimes thought my Mum would have liked to bring a bunch of primroses into the house. Or dandelions.”
“D’you reckon she stayed with the Silent Sect after your Dad died? How many of ’em are there?”
“Forty or fifty. Most had come over from Dunkirk. Some joined in Folkestone. They’re a-saving up to collect enough cash to shift the whole Sect over to New England by and by, get themselves a plot of land there, and build a village.”
“Maybe they’ll have gone already?” suggested Is.
“Not very likely. They are mostly weavers, or basket-makers, or joiners, or chimney-sweeps – those trades don’t make enough to save more than a few shillings a week. Dad was a chimney-sweep and cobbler. But he never saved much. He was out so often, roaming about.”
“Well,” said Is, “I think it’s a scaley notion, choosing not to talk to folk. Why did we ever invent words in the first place, if we ain’t to be allowed to use ’em?”
“Song and dance was even worse,” Arun said. “My Dad joined the Sect partly because he couldn’t stand Uncle Desmon
d and his music. Dad said they were the Devil’s tunes.”
Is sighed. “It’s true, my Dad really took the bun when it come to wickedness. A proper rat, he was. But that’s not to say his music is wicked. That’s plain foolishness. – Hey!”
She stood still, grasping Arun’s arm. Then she said, “You’re right, someone is a-playing music. And that’s one of my Dad’s tunes they’re playing – ‘The Day Afore May-Day’.”
“Maybe there’s a fair,” Arun said. “Or a market.”
They had by now reached the inner end of the jetty and turned right along the harbour front. A thin slip of moon was rising, and it was possible to see that, though not destroyed, the town had suffered in the flood. Bits of the sea wall were missing, a number of houses had boarded-up windows or stove-in doors; chunks of masonry lay here and there on the muddy, sandy roadway.
Another few minutes’ walking and they could clearly hear the sound of music ahead of them: a tune intended to be cheerful was being played slowly and dolefully on a crumhorn.
“Ah, it is a fair.” Is peered ahead at the cluster of little booths and market stalls in a space where the houses fell back from the sea front. “Rabbitty little set-out, though, ain’t it? Still, maybe one of ’em will have summat we could buy your Mum for a fairing, Arun?”
“My Mum?” he said, astonished. “Take my Mum a present? Why? My Mum never had a present in the whole of her life. The Silent Folk don’t give each other presents. They don’t hold with such doings.”
“Well then, it’s high time she did get given summat, even if it’s only a new milk-jug,” Is retorted, thinking of all the presents, small but welcome, that her aunt Ishie and her sister Penny had given her.
But when they reached the meagre little row of stalls it became plain that there was no great choice of goods to be bought. Most of the things on sale were food – rows of silvery herrings, a handful of withered apples, cabbages, a pot or two of honey, and some loaves and pies. There were, too, old clothes, a few household wares, some wooden whistles, pipes, and tops.
A skinny old man, sitting on a box, played tunes on his crumhorn, but so slowly and wearily that even the liveliest ones sounded like funeral marches.