The Frost on the Mirror – An Extract

This book went to my publisher (Stone Table Books) yesterday. It’s the second in the quartet. I hope to see it in print by July. Here’s chapter one.

‘I hate parks,’ said Closer. ‘They’re all the same.’

Bernard Crowley looked out across St. Modhran’s Field. Along the central avenue were the parallel lines of beech trees. At its end was the pond with the circular path about it. Behind that was the plaque with the names of soldiers who had died for the Unification, and the statue of Frederick the Strong on his rusting horse, his head all covered in white streaks. St. Edward’s Field and Hectorville Gardens did look almost exactly the same, it was true. Someone in the last century must have decreed the shape of all parks henceforth, and no one since had thought to argue. No one, that is, except his old friend in the wheelchair.

‘Let’s go and break the ice on the pond,’ said Closer. This was the old man’s favourite winter game, throwing large rocks at the ice sheet to see if he could break a hole in it, and then using the hole as a target for smaller ammunition. In summer, he liked to destroy the flowerbeds with the wheels of his chair.

‘No. They’ll kick us out, or give us a fine,’ said Bernard.

‘We can pretend we didn’t know it was illegal.’

‘That hasn’t worked in years. Anyway, they know where we live, since last time.’

Closer’s speech began to quicken. ‘All right, how about the river? There’s probably some ice at Benny’s Landing. That’s not illegal, breaking that. They even like it. Got a penny?’

‘I’m not paying a landing fee just to watch you throw rocks at ice,’ said Bernard. ‘Keep this up and we’re going home.’

Jeremy Closer was desperate now. ‘Come on, Crowls! How about setting up some old bottles as targets, then? Or we could go to Longmarket, and pick up money that people have dropped on the ground. It’s Midwinter, the day of Destiny. We have to do something!’

‘Jemmy, it’s freezing, and we have no money. We’re not going to Longmarket. We’re having a cup of soup, and then we’re going home.’

‘I hate alms soup,’ the old man replied. ‘I’m sure they make it out of turds, up here.’

Bernard knew far better than to get into the argument about the pitiful Northern alms versus the bounteous alms of Sinton, where Closer had spent his teens. Things up in Elonia were entirely different to Sinton. Without being allowed the use of magic, the Martha-house in Elonia was no more than a gaggle of lonely old women making three-day boiler for the poor and needy, just so they could have some company. Most were widows, and none were attractive. It was a sorry entertainment, but a cheap one.

On the upside, the day was fine, meaning at least that it was not cloudy, although the sun was just a distant lamp in the southern sky and would only rouse itself to generate heat during the hours around midday. At half-past ten, the light was still the pale grey-blue colour that people get around their lips when they are dying of exposure, and all the other colours had decided it was still too cold for them and they were waiting until things warmed up.

Through this bleak outlook, Bernard wheeled his old friend along the park’s main avenue, down to its northern end, where they both had soup from the Martha-cart. They’d pay the ha’penny, because the women knew they were not so very poor, just two retired folks out for the day, struggling to get some sunshine into their bones before cloud and shadow began to creep into the northern sky at three o’clock in the afternoon.

‘Happy St. Jude’s to the both of you,’ said the alms-lady, a red-faced woman with large hair. ‘It’s goat, today.’

‘Which goat did it come from?’ asked Closer. There were several on the grass nearby.

‘Very funny,’ said the woman sourly. ‘If you don’t want it, don’t buy it. We’ll give it to someone who needs it.’

‘I don’t suppose the goat needed it,’ laughed Closer.

‘Two, please’ said Bernard. ‘I’m sorry for my friend. He’s out of sorts.’

‘He’s never in them,’ came the terse reply.

Soup in one hand, Bernard pushed his friend over to the embankment and they slurped at the feeble broth for five minutes before they’d had enough, and lobbed the half-full cups over the wall into the river. It was still only ten minutes to eleven.

That was when boredom, the great enemy of old age, got the better of them both.

‘Let’s do some magic,’ said Closer.

‘Yes. All right.’

Closer laughed. ‘You’re not arguing? You normally do.’

‘No. We should. If we find anything, we can say it was done on my license. You can say you were never there.’

Jeremy Closer whooped with delight. ‘Yes! I knew you were curious. You’ve been thinking about it all the time, haven’t you? Ever since we first discovered it!’

Bernard wasn’t going to let that stray pronoun slide. It had been his observation, that a passage in a certain book produced a peculiar effect when read aloud through a mirror. The book in question was called the Testimony of Giddens, Knight of Happenstance, Concerning the Nature of Events in the Ordinary World, and it was Bernard’s favourite text. Closer hardly knew it at all, and he’d been down at a public house, when Bernard had made the discovery.

‘Hold on, we didn’t discover anything,’ he said. ‘You were trying to chat up Mavis Elder, while I was figuring out about the happenstance passage. This is my discovery!’

‘Typical of you, Crowls,’ said the old man. ‘It was your discovery. You have the ideas. You have the magic license, the house, and the family. You have everything. I’m just a cripple who life passed by. Are you happy?’

‘You know I didn’t mean it that way,’ said Bernard. ‘You can be involved. Just don’t take everything over.’

‘All right, I promise not to take over. But this time, we’ll tell Inch, as well. She’s mad as get-out, but she’s still a fine magician, and her voicing spell could really make all the difference.’

‘Yes, we can tell her, this afternoon, if you like. But if there’s any recognition to be had, it’s mine. Understood?’

To this, Closer gave a ‘humph’ and a minimal nod, and they set off through the park again. They would have made it home by lunchtime, but Destiny intervened, in the form of a carnival showman in stripey pants, who stepped out onto the path before them as they rounded some trees.

‘Fancy a game of skill, gents?’ said the man, proffering Closer a hefty wooden ball. Large skittles were arrayed twenty feet away, with newly painted stripes on them, and a hand-cart with a selection of prizes stood beside him, including a selection of small wrapped hams. ‘Three balls a ha’penny, fine sirs. Will you try it?’

‘We’ve got business,’ said Bernard, trying to push on, but Closer had already taken the ball, and used his brake to stop the wheelchair’s progress. ‘How many down for the ham?’ he asked, feeling the weight of the ball.

‘All ten, sir,’ said the man, who seemed honest enough, but was doubtless not to be trusted. Such travelling showmen were often conners, whose games were rigged, or who talked a good rap to distract their mark while another fellow came up behind and had away with their valuables.

Closer was wise to it. ‘How do I know they aren’t stuck to the ground?’

‘Go over and see for yourself, good sir,’ said the showman, and Closer wheeled himself over to the pins and wheeled right through, knocking them all over. The young fellow stayed calm as he set them right again. ‘As you see, sir,’ he said, ‘there is nothing but the weight of the world to hold them down.’

Meanwhile, Bernard had been scanning about in case there really was an accomplice, and he’d found one. It was a young woman with blonde hair, whose appearance greatly reminded Bernard of someone else – a thing he did not fully appreciate until the following day. She was hiding over behind a beech tree, keeping an eye on Closer and the showman as they came back to the pitching post, with the old man still complaining about his chances of winning the game.

‘It’s only heavy enough to knock down two or three at once, I’ll bet. You can never win.’

‘That is the skill of the game, sir, to make one pin fall into another,’ explained the showman.

‘Jeremy, we need to be going,’ said Bernard. ‘I’m sorry, mister, but we do not have time for your game today.’

‘Yes we damn well do,’ said Closer, and threw the ball straight at the skittles with a boyish power and accuracy, knocking down eight of them, and holding out his hand for the second ball, grinning.

‘Fine shot, sir. You have won a kite already.’

‘Do I look like the sort of man who’d want a kite?’ said Closer. (In fact, he did.)

‘Who is that girl over there by the beeches?’ Bernard interrupted. ‘A friend of yours?’

‘I’m sorry, sir? Where?’ They both looked over and saw no one. The blonde girl had gone.

‘She was just over there, watching us. I think I’ve seen her before.’

‘I’m on my own, today, sir. No girls for me, alas,’ said the man.

‘Hmmm. Where are you from, may I ask?’ said Bernard, still suspicious.

‘Right here in Mine Right, my friend.’ Bernard knew this for a lie at once. Something about the man’s approach was out. It wasn’t his accent, but something about the words he used, the pace at which he spoke. Despite this, Bernard remained silent as the showman turned to watch Closer’s second attempt. The cripple heaved the second ball at the skittles and knocked down the reaming two with ease.

‘Oh, another excellent shot, sir. You throw like a grenadier, and have won a ham! That will make a nice change from soup I am sure. Would you like another turn? You might win one for your friend.’

‘Hold on, I only had two throws, and you said three,’ said Closer. ‘I’ve still got one left, and they’re all down. I should get four shots next time. Fair’s fair.’ Saying this, he ran over the young man’s foot.

‘I’m sorry about my friend,’ said Crowley as the showman hopped backwards, stifling grunts of pain. ‘He’s out of sorts.’

Published by sjmckenzie

Writer. Celticist. Banjo picker. Family Man.

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