THE ELDERLY HEADMASTER OF the Tusitala School for the Gifted, Troubled and Strange sighed and walked stiffly into the staff room. His own dark office, which he rarely left, smelled comfortingly of books, tapestries, good wine and cigars. The staff room, however, was a displeasing miasma of forgotten lunch boxes, cheap coffee, red ink, tragic perfume and all the unique aromas of the fugitive ex class pets.
There was, by now, quite a large selection of small mammals and birds that had momentarily forgotten themselves and bitten children (although never that badly) or eaten their own young (although rarely in public) and had, therefore, officially left the school.
“Hide the guinea pigs,” hissed someone. “And cover Petrov.”
Mrs. Beathag Hide (owner of the tragic perfume) tossed a pantomime vampire’s cape over the cage containing the parrot that was supposed to have been removed after swearing
at the school inspector. Dr. Cloudburst and Mr. Peters started putting the guinea pigs’ cages into the lost property cupboard. Luckily the elderly headmaster moved slowly enough that there was plenty of time to do this.
The school cat, Neptune, uncurled from a hairy cushion and stalked off in the same direction, in the hope of finding himself shut in with the guinea pigs. He was quite deft at undoing their hutches. Mr. Peters shooed him out into the main corridor. At least Neptune no longer had to be hidden. His last misdemeanor had now been forgotten, and so he had recently begun to reappear in the school prospectus and annual newsletter. Parents liked cats.
Today, though, the headmaster was uninterested in the pets and their ignoble pasts.
“It is time,” he said slowly, once he eventually arrived in the center of the room, “to finalize our plan for the Winter Fair.”
Everyone groaned. It wasn’t that people didn’t like the Old Town Winter Fair. They did. But things always went wrong during fairs, fetes and open days. It was far better, in all the teachers’ opinions, to keep things well-structured and predictable. Get the children in, lock the doors and try to teach them something—anything—before the end of the day. That, translated into Latin, was the school’s motto, pretty much. Or it would have been if anyone had ever thought to have a motto.
“We do, presumably, have a plan?” said the headmaster.
“We’re sending five children to the university,” said Mrs. Beathag Hide. “Some first years expressed a desire to learn creative writing, and as you know, we have forged some links with the new writer in residence there. There will be workshops, I believe, for the lucky children.” The way she said “lucky children” didn’t make them sound very lucky at all. Quite the opposite, in fact.
The Old Town University traditionally held its open week during the Winter Fair. There were workshops for children, and public lectures for people who couldn’t afford to go to university and wanted to learn things for free. The beautiful old butterstone buildings were, for one week only, covered with colorful balloons.
“Ah yes,” said the headmaster. “A Terrence Dark-Heart, I believe?” He gave Mrs. Beathag Hide a searching look, or as much of one as he could manage at his age.
“Terrence Deer-Hart,” corrected Mrs. Beathag Hide. “Yes. A dreadful, sentimental children’s writer now apparently working on some dire epic for adults.”
“Remind me again why we are sending the children to him?” said the headmaster wearily.
“The other lecturers in the department are rather interesting. Dora Wright is now there, of course. The new head of creative writing is Professor Gotthard Forestfloor. He’s the Scandinavian novelist we talked about last week, if you remember. There’s also Lady Tchainsaw, the Russian avant-garde poet. The visiting professor, Jupiter Peacock, is also
a rather intriguing person. You may recall that he claims to carry around with him the spirit of the ancient writer Hieronymus Moon in a small ceramic bottle stoppered with a cork. The children are bound to learn something. And we’re only sending five of them. The others will be doing Winter Fair crafts with children from the Mrs. Joyful School.”
“What about Blessed Bartolo’s?” asked Dr. Cloudburst, peering at a test tube which had something dry and black stuck at the bottom of it. It looked a bit like tea that has been left in the staff room over a long weekend, but was probably more dangerous than that. “We won’t be sending any more children there, surely?”
It seemed no one could remember what the arrangement was with the Blessed Bartolo School, or what had happened to the children who’d gone there last year. Had they ever come back? Perhaps not.
“It’ll all be fun,” said Mr. Peters, the head of PE. “The children like a bit of fun.”
Everyone looked at him as if he was a complete simpleton.
But he was right. Most children did like a bit of fun, and if you counted as fun seeing bad men ripped apart by demons, hearing prophecies about your best friends’ deaths, almost dying because you have run out of magical energy, having to confront your worst fears, being expected to fight evil and traveling to other worlds from which you might never return, then yes, some of the children in this school knew all about fun.
“Everyone loves the Winter Fair,” said Dr. Cloudburst.
This was true. During the Winter Fair, stalls sprung up all over the Old Town, selling hot chestnuts, fermented doughnuts and marmalade made from foraged fruits. Every well-known shop had its own stall. The Esoteric Emporium brought out some of its dustiest vintage wines and oldest jars of sauerkraut to sell by the warmth of its little ovens, in which fresh sourdough bread baked gently. Madame Valentin brought her exotic snakes, all of whom were planning to escape again this year. The puppet man displayed his very best marionettes—many of which were too frightening for children under ten to look at. Luckily there were also roasted marshmallows and lots of glittery decorations.
The main thing was that the Winter Fair made people forget the cold and the dark as the northern hemisphere hurtled unstoppably toward the shortest day, and the various Midwinter celebrations that would keep people cheerful until the Turning of the Year, when mass depression would set in again, as it always did. It was almost as if our world—or, at least, this part of it, for it was Midsummer elsewhere—became a bit more like the Otherworld, just for a time. Not that most people believed in the Otherworld, of course.
Alexa Bottle closed the door of Mrs. Bottle’s Bun Shop and began walking the hundred or so yards to the house where she lived with her mother and father. She was only slightly late, which was unusual. Normally she was very late. It
wasn’t her fault—she just found her after-school job making magical remedies extremely absorbing and never quite remembered to look at the clock. At the moment she was also revising for various M-grade tests, and trying to remember the differences between all the old apothecaries’ systems of weights and measures. By Monday, Lexy had to know how many granums went in a scrupulum, and how many of those made a drachm. How many minims were in a fluid scruple? Twenty. At least she’d remembered that. Maybe Dr. Green would even be pleased with her for once.
Lexy was still in her school uniform, but in less than ten minutes she was supposed to be wearing her best dress for dinner with the Bottles’ important houseguest. What was his name again? Jupiter something. He was a famous writer and philosopher in town to give a public lecture at the university as part of the Winter Fair. Lexy’s family had won a raffle, which meant they’d got to host their very own visiting personage, and they had been assigned Jupiter Whatshisname.
Lexy’s mother, Hazel, was taking her responsibilities as host very seriously. For far too long, she’d said, she had simply been seen as the flower-power, hippy-dippy wife of the local yoga teacher. No matter how hard she tried, Hazel had never appeared quite like other, normal mothers. She had never hosted a successful dinner party (the last one had featured bean stew and group chanting). She wore the wrong things. She had crazy hair. She went barefoot in summer,
and in winter sometimes wore homemade skis to go shopping. She smelled of patchouli and herbal tea. She had never ironed a sheet in her life.
Until this week. This week, Hazel Bottle had declared, their houseguest was going to sleep on clean, ironed sheets, and in the morning his toast was going to be served in one of those little metal racks. Everything was going to be normal, just like it was in other people’s houses. And Lexy was not going to ruin it by being late, or by letting any of her remedies catch fire, or by making the whole house smell of burnt clove and scabious ointment, and she was going to tidy up her room and remove all her medicinal plants from windowsills around the house, and make sure the new kitten, Buttons, didn’t do anything too embarrassing. . . .
Lexy’s mind returned to the three drachms of powdered water lily in the jar in her school bag. Culpepper’s Herbal, a book Lexy was studying for yet another one of her tests, said that the herb “cools and moistens,” just like the moon itself. Lexy was going to use the water lily to make a new remedy for sports injuries and battle wounds. Her friends Effie Truelove and Wolf Reed always needed things like that. Lexy had also promised her friend Maximilian that she would make him some enchanted eardrops to enhance the sound of music. And Raven had asked for some magical hoof balm for her horses. It was going to be a busy weekend.
Lexy opened the front door to her house and found that the whole place smelled of the beeswax the Bottles used on
the rare occasions that someone decided to do some polishing. Something was cooking, and it wasn’t bean stew. There was some other new smell in the air too. Sort of like Earl Grey tea mixed with lavender and lemons and . . . Buttons ran to greet Lexy, which he did by clawing his way up her school tights and then her back until he was sitting on her shoulder.
“And who is this charming young lady?” came an unfamiliar deep voice as Lexy walked into the main living space of the house—an open-plan kitchen, dining room and sitting room area that looked a good deal cleaner and tidier than it usually did.
“This is Professor Jupiter Peacock,” said Hazel, removing Buttons from Lexy’s shoulder. Then Hazel took Lexy’s coat and bag and put them in a cupboard, where they did not usually go. Usually they just hung off the banisters with everything else that people couldn’t be bothered to take upstairs. “Professor Peacock, this is my daughter, Alexa.”
Professor Jupiter Peacock stood and held out his hand. He was a tall, broad man dressed in a pair of indigo jeans and a black velvet shirt with a yellow polka-dot cravat around his neck. His hair was swept up in an extravagant pompadour style like the ones men had in really ancient films. He looked like the sort of person who didn’t normally wear jeans. The Earl Grey smell was his aftershave.
“Enchanté,” he said, taking Lexy’s hand and winking. “You must call me JP. All my friends call me JP.”
“And I’m Lexy,” said Lexy.
Jupiter Peacock’s hand was hot, and his handshake was very firm, much firmer than any normal handshake Lexy had experienced. She winced and took her hand away as quickly as she could before he could break one of her fingers. She’d have to take an arnica tablet after that. Or maybe even try out her new remedy on herself, once it was ready.
“What a delightful child you have,” said Jupiter to Hazel Bottle.
Hazel blushed. The visit was going so well so far. At the end of the Winter Fair all the visiting personages were invited to rate their hosts, and the one with the highest score got a bunch of flowers and a box of chocolates and had their name engraved on a silver plaque mounted on the wall of the Town Hall. And Hazel Bottle was going to win this year; she was sure of it.
“Thank you,” she said.
As Lexy went upstairs to get changed a small bruise started to form on the outside of her hand. She decided to avoid shaking hands with Jupiter Peacock again. Of course, he hadn’t meant it. He was just one of those people who had no idea of their own strength.
When Lexy came down the stairs five minutes later, she was wearing her best pink tutu-style dress with matching ballerina shoes. Somehow this seemed like the wrong outfit in which to be spending the evening with JP. Lexy wished she had something that looked more grown-up, although she
wasn’t sure why. Maybe it was because her parents seemed to be acting so much more like grown-ups themselves. Her mother was using her most serious voice, which was a couple of octaves lower than normal, and Lexy’s father, Marcel, had on an ironed shirt. An actual shirt, rather than a crumpled, long-sleeved T-shirt with some “amusing” yoga message on it such as Yoga Dad, There’s No Place Like Om or Shake Your Asana.
As Lexy reached the bottom of the stairs she heard her father laugh in the way he did only when there were other adults around and he’d just said something he found very funny.
“That’s if any of us survive Midwinter, of course,” he said.
Jupiter Peacock now laughed as well. The sound was loud and strange, like a bittern calling for a mate.
“Don’t scare our guest,” Hazel Bottle was saying to her husband.
“Oh, I’m not easily frightened,” said Jupiter Peacock. “But I must say I am a little unnerved by the idea of the world ending while I’m in the middle of my lecture. That would be most unfortunate indeed.”
“The world never ends when people say it will,” said Marcel Bottle. “I wouldn’t be too alarmed.”
So they were talking about the prophecy as well. It had been all over Mrs. Bottle’s Bun Shop that afternoon. There were often weird prophecies flying about nowadays, but most
people ignored them. Of course, most people also thought that magic didn’t exist and there was no such thing as the Otherworld. Magical people, on the other hand, believed in everything, and took prophecies quite seriously.
Apart from this one. Even magical people thought this prophecy was a bit of a joke, as it had come from Madame Valentin. She’d been cleaning her crystal ball, she’d said, and it had gone off. The thing hadn’t functioned for years, and Madame Valentin had used up the last of her M-currency long before the worldquake. But suddenly the crystal ball had activated itself (this is not at all how crystal balls work, which was yet another reason to pour scorn on the whole story) and that was when Madame Valentin had seen it all unfold before her.
It was Midwinter, on the dot—this year that meant 8:12 p.m. on the twenty-first of December, which was this Monday evening—and the sky had gone pink, and then green, and then completely black, a black Madame Valentin had never seen before. There were hundreds of cats flying through the sky. And then . . . A massive explosion. The End.
“I’m sure when the world does end it will be in a way we haven’t even thought of,” said Hazel Bottle.
“All those cats,” said Jupiter Peacock. “How inventive.”
“Madame Valentin works in a pet shop,” said Marcel. “So that’s probably where she gets her inspiration.”
“She’s completely doolally,” said Hazel. “Has been for years.”
“In the nicest way, of course,” added Marcel. He always hated saying nasty things about people.
“But the end of the world, though,” mused Jupiter Peacock. “How fascinating that would be. Imagine surviving it.”
“Yes,” said Marcel Bottle uncertainly. “Just imagine.”