Table of Contents

Chapter 1 - Archenland by A.J. Hall

“Oh, I’ve got one. Norbert Dentressangle.”

“Mm. I see where you’re coming from. Not the super-villain but the super-villain’s comic yet lethal side-kick. Norbert Dentressangle. Yes, I’ll give you that one. So — and in the same vein — Eddie Stobart.”

Eddie Stobart? No, Eddie’s not a villain. Not even a villain’s side-kick. He’s a recurring minor character. The sort who blunders along screwing up everything he touches, and feeds Bond the straight lines for all his best quips.”

“Mm. Yes, I believe I may have encountered the type. Once or twice.”

“Douglas. Would you care to say what you’re getting at?”

“Well, I was thinking of Arthur. But if you did have another candidate in mind, Martin, by all means make his qualifications for the job plain.”

“No. No, of course not. Arthur, Arthur — speaking of Arthur, Douglas, have younoticed anything funny about Arthur recently?”

“Three hours, give or take, to Fitton — well, I suppose I can compress my peroration on the peculiarities of Arthur to the scant time allotted, if I put my mind to it. You’ll miss some of the best bits, though. Rather like expecting me to commit the Ring cycle to a memory stick.”

“No, Douglas, I’m serious. Have you noticed any particularly odd behaviour from him, recently?”

“As they say in Marseilles, Pas d’un proverbial saucisse. Nothing but his quintessentially Arthurian self. What had you in mind?”

“To begin with, he managed to get through the whole of the phonetic alphabet this morning while you were doing the walk-round.”

“Did he now? Now that is disturbing. He’s only been working on it for the last two years. Evidence of demonic possession at the very least.”

“He didn’t get it completely right —”

“A cunning chap, Lucifer. No doubt he primed Arthur to put in an error or so to cover the whiff of brimstone.”

“But it was how he got it wrong that worried me. Normally he just panics and throws in words at random —”

“Well do I know it. Explaining to Arthur at least five times why Murray is not and never will be a substitute for Golf has cut my life expectancy by years, if not decades.”

“Today, it was Giant. Instead of Golf. From Arthur, I mean.”

“Unusual to have it begin with the right letter, I grant you, given Arthur’s ‘up Guards and at ‘em’ approach to the International Phonetic Alphabet.”

“He also slipped up with Foxtrot, Bravo, Lima and Tango.”

“Pretty much standard operating practice, for an Arthur, I’d have thought.”

“So he substituted Faun, Beaver, Lion and Tree.”

“Ah. Mm.”

“Douglas, you do see where this is going, don’t you? That’s not a random set of slip-ups. There’s a pattern.”

“Hardly a pattern. But I’ll grant you, a suggestive tendency. Of course, it’s not absolutely impossible he’s — you know — read the book.”

Read the book? This is Arthur we’re talking about, you know. I’m not even sure I believe he’s read White Fang. And certainly not twice.”

“Point taken. I suppose it’s possible something rubbed off from fraternising with those American academics we flew from Wheaton to Oxford last week —”

“Except it started before that. I would have said something at the time, only I thought — well, you know. Arthur.”

“Indeed. As you say. Arthur. But if you would care to share details —?”

“It was after the Seattle trip. We landed, Arthur started doing the clean-up and I was about to leave him to it when I realised I’d left three boxes of cinnamon, ginger and wintergreen altoids in the cockpit.”

“You hardened smuggler, you.”

“One of my housemates always asks me to buy the funny-flavoured ones for her when we go to the States. Anyway, Arthur had just gone through into the cockpit when I remembered. I saw the door shut behind him, so he couldn’t have been in there more than thirty seconds at the outside. Except when I entered, I caught him climbing out of the cockpit locker. “

“That’s unusual. Even for an Arthur. And he said?”

“He said, ‘Skip, I’m sorry you’ve had to come and look for me, I’ll finish cleaning GERTI now, honest.’”

“Once again, unusual. Even for an Arthur. So what did you do?”

“What could I do? All I could think of saying was, ‘That’s all right’ and I took my altoids and left. But the next flight, the Danish one, I managed to be first on board and just to put my mind at rest I —”

“You opened the cockpit locker. Of course you did. Better late than never, after all. In your place, I’d have lurked around the back of the Portacabin until I’d seen Arthur depart and gone straight back in that same evening. Anyway, I take it you found nothing there which shouldn’t have been there?”

“Well, I’d hardly go that far. To begin with, I found twenty unscheduled half-kilo jars of Marmite. But I supose you’d know all about those.”

“Crying out for the stuff in Copenhagen. One can practically see their wistful little Scandinavian noses pressed against GERTI’s windows before we’ve even taxied to a stand. But nothing, I take it, which could have accounted for Arthur spontaneously inventing the sport of in-aircraft spelunking?”

“Nothing. But it’s been preying on my mind ever since. And this morning brought it all back.”

“Mm, I can see why it would. Well, there’s only one thing for it — Arthur! We need you.”

“Douglas? Look, if it’s about the drinks, Mum did remind me about fruit tea and milk, but then I forgot again.”

“Nothing to do with tea, though I confess to a sense of relief in having pinned down the vaguely raspberry-yoghurty aroma in the cockpit to my mug, rather than worrying if the old girl had expanded her repertoire of untraceable electrical circuit-related pongs. Martin and I were merely wondering if we might have the pleasure of your company up at the pointy end for a few minutes.”

“Oh! Is it a game? Is it still ‘people who ought to be evil but aren’t’? Coming right through.”

“Ah, good to see you, Arthur. No; we didn’t ask you up here to join in all our pilot games — though you are of course always welcome to do so — but to ask you a question.”

“I ought to warn you, I’m really, really bad at quizzes.”

“Arthur Shappey, ever the self-effacing. This is your starter for ten. Why your recent fascination with the cockpit locker?”

“Oh! Oh no! Look, Skip, Douglas, you haven’t been climbing into the cockpit locker, have you?”

“Regrettably, Arthur, the duty of keeping a metal tube with a distinctly balky personality above the various mountain ranges of Central Europe rather precludes our taking time out to enjoy a convivial game of Sardines.”

“Douglas, trust me, you really, really don’t want to climb into the cockpit locker.”

“Until you put the matter in quite that uncompromising manner, I might have found myself rather in agreement with you. However, in my view, most major religions go wrong by ignoring the fundamental quirk of human nature that forbidden fruit is always the most enticing. But, leaving theological conundrums to one side, tell me, Arthur, why I don’t want to climb into the cockpit locker. Or, to be strictly accurate, why you don’t want me to climb into the cockpit locker.”

“It’s just really, really not a good idea to climb into the cockpit locker. And that goes for you too, Skip. And especially not Mum.”

“What a shame. Carolyn will be devastated. Just at the start of CEO nesting season, too.”

“Arthur, I’m the Skipper and this is an order. I need to know about any possible risk to the safety of this aircraft. Especially from whatever’s in the cockpit locker.”

“Sorry, Skip. But if I were to tell you, you’d just want to go looking for yourself, and then she’d find out, and you really wouldn’t want that to happen.”

“I’m not afraid of Carolyn —”

“I didn’t mean Mum, I meant — oh.”

“Ah. We have a breakthrough. Martin, suppose I take over from here. Arthur, would this ‘she’ of whom you speak by any chance be a remarkably tall, pale woman with a penchant for white fur?”

“You have! You’ve been into the cockpit locker!”

“I assure you, we haven’t. But since we have, it seems, happened upon the nub of the matter, it can’t hurt for you to fill us in on the details.”

“Oh. Well. OK. I suppose so. But you’ve got to promise not to say things.”

“Arthur, you have my solemn assurance that things will not be said. And Martin’s word, sworn on his sacred Captain’s hat. So spit it out.”

“Now, I know what you’re going to say, Douglas, but I hadn’t drunk anything, not even a pineapple juice, and it wasn’t at all like that time when we flew those musicians to San Francisco and I thought the bass guitarist was offering me an acid drop. Nothing went pink and there weren’t any giraffes at all, not even little ones.”

“Moving rapidly on, Arthur, having established that you were in a sober and legal state of mind at the relevant time — as a matter of interest, when was the relevant time?”

“When we flew back from Seattle. You two and Mum had gone, and I was doing the clean-up, and I heard something tapping on the cockpit locker from the inside and you remember that time we were flying those birdwatchers around the Med and that owl got into the cockpit?”

“In excruciating detail. So you thought there was a bird trapped in the locker?”

“It kept on tapping on the back of the door. So I went to let it out, and when I opened the door, there was this robin.”

“Let’s be clear, Arthur — what kind of robin was it?”

“Well — a robin. You know; a proper robin. A robin robin.”

“I take it you mean the annoyingly perky star of innumerable sanctimonious Christmas cards. Which, in turn, vouchsafes to us the valuable clue that it cannot have smuggled itself aboard in Seattle.”

“Why not? Flown in when we had the doors open to air, stunned itself — that’s why we didn’t hear it earlier — and revived when we landed.”

“This, Martin, is where interminable hours spent with wealthy and extremely loquacious twitchers pay off. It was, according to Arthur, a European robin, known to its chums as Erithacus rubecula. The American robin, the regrettably named Turdus migratorius, is larger, skinnier and in general resembles a thrush which has engaged in an unfortunate makeover. Even Arthur could never have confused the two.”

“So? Then it must have got on board at Fitton.”

“Winging its way through the cockpit, unseen and unsuspected, passing spectre-like through the locked flight-deck door and installing itself inside a shut locker, ready to ambush Arthur the moment he began cleaning?”

“Look chaps, I don’t think where the robin came from is really important at the moment.”

“Indeed not. Arthur, what did the robin do next?”

“It pecked at my sleeve. It looked really worried. I could tell, somehow, that it wanted me to help it.”

“Presumably you envisaged a distraught Mrs Robin and a clutch of about-to-be-orphaned eggs. So you climbed inside the cockpit locker with the object of lending succour to its family —”

“It went a lot deeper inside than it did that time when you pushed me in there to be Noel, when we flew Mr Aliakin to Molokai. And this time I could stand upright, too. And, after a minute or two, I spotted I was standing on snow.”

“Arthur! Stop this at once. You’re trying to tell me you walked into Narnia through GERTI’s cockpit locker?”

“Skip, have you been there too? I do think you and Douglas might have told me.”

“No, I haven’t. And that’s because Narnia doesn’t exist. It was just a country put into a story by a man called C.S.Lewis, years and years ago.”

“‘Scuse me, Skip, but I don’t think you’ve quite understood how books work. I mean, that’s like saying Canada doesn’t exist because Jack London put it into White Fang. And I know Canada exists, because I’ve been there and seen polar bears. So that proves it.”

“If MLM Air keeps going long enough, on that basis we may even acquire empirical evidence for the existence of New Zealand.”

“Douglas, shut up. Arthur, just keep on with the story. Did you meet anyone?”

“Yes. After I’d been walking along a bit I happened to turn a corner and I bumped into a man with a goat where his trousers ought to be.”

“Somehow, I rather think where academics speak of ‘Arthurian mythology’ this isn’t precisely what they have in mind.”

“Douglas —!”

“All right. Keep your hat on. Did this unusually attired gentleman offer you tea and cake in his cave, by any chance?”

“Douglas, that’s brilliant! How did you guess?”

“Oh, just a wild hunch.”

“Well, he did. And he told me that the place we were in was called Nar- — what Martin said — and that it was always snowy there, or it had been for years, anyway. Which sounded brilliant.”

“They don’t have Christmas there. I take it he left that point out, otherwise you’d concede it was distinctly un-brilliant.”

“Martin, how come you and Douglas know so much about this Nar-place, if I’m the only one who’s been there?”

“I told you. We read the book. And you must have done, too, and forgotten about it.”

“I don’t think I would, Skip. Forget, I mean. So the goat-chap — I forget his name — after we’d had tea he started playing music and I think I must have sort of dropped off. Music does that to me. Even quite bangy music. I just end up having dreams about thunderstorms and traction engines. I did warn him I might, but he said it didn’t matter. And then I ended up being shaken awake by this really short bad-tempered bloke who told me I had to come and meet the Queen, right now.”

“And — just to draw a bow at a venture — might she have been sitting in a sleigh drawn by reindeer?”

“Douglas, you’re really good at this. Are you quite sure you’ve never been there?”

“Abso-bally-lutely. So what then?”

“Well, she wasn’t really the Queen, obviously — I turned out to have a 50p in my pocket, and I checked, just to make sure, but I thought it would be rude not to call her what she wanted to be called. I learnt that on the course Mum sent me on about understanding people in Ipswich. And also, she reminded me a bit of Hester Macauley, and you know what she was like.”

“I do indeed. What a fascinating word-picture you paint.”

“So she asked me if I wanted something to drink, but I said no thank you, I’d just had tea and I was feeling quite sloshy as it was, and then she asked me if I wanted something to eat instead, and I thought it would sound rude if I said no again —”

“So did she by any chance offer you Turkish Delight?”

“No. I’ve got you there, Douglas. What she offered me was fish jam.”

Fish jam?”

“You know. Mr Aliakin left some in the fridge on GERTI once. I tried it on scones. It mixes really, really badly with cream.”

“You do surprise me. Remind me to head off Heston Blumenthal at the pass should he ever threaten to develop the oscietra cream tea.”

“Anyway, I pretended to eat it, only I didn’t, really, and I said I couldn’t stay long because I had to get back to GERTI, and she said ‘There are others of you?’ so I said yes, MJN Air was a small organisation but we prided ourselves on our unique approach to customer service, and she looked quite fierce and said, ‘How small?’ and I said there were four of us, and then she got really fierce and started asking all sorts of questions. Only I think she got a bit confused because when I mentioned Skip and you, Douglas, she said something like ‘There can be only one captain of a host’ and I think she may have sort of accidentally ended up with the impression that you were both the same person.”

“Wonderful. Even a figment of Arthur’s diseased imagination thinks Douglas is the captain.”

“Leave that aside for the time being. What did she say then?”

“She made me promise I’d bring you all back with me as soon as possible.”

“And did you promise?”

“Well — yes. But I had my fingers crossed, under the fur rug. I didn’t like her at all. In fact, I did sort of wonder if it might all be part of one of Dad’s plans, to get his hands on GERTI. So I thought the best thing to do would be to go on as if nothing had happened. And I still think that. In fact, I think it would be best if we welded the locker shut. It’s not as if we ever use it for anything.”

“Speak for yourself.”

“Arthur — when she — the Queen, I mean, was asking you to bring us back with you into Narnia — did she make any sort of, well, promises? About — about what we’d be, if you did?”

“I don’t know. I mean, I think she did say something, but I wasn’t listening because I was wondering what would happen if the two reindeer at the front got their antlers all tangled up while they were galloping along.”

“I can’t help thinking Professor Lewis missed a trick, there. Anyway, Arthur, would it be fair to say that you left the Queen under the impression that the four personnel attached to MJN Air were, in fact, you, Carolyn, GERTI and a composite we will, for the sake of convenience, refer to as Skip Douglas? That is, two males and two females or — as she doubtless described them while your mind was otherwise occupied in pondering fascinating questions of reindeer logisitics — two sons of Adam and two daughters of Eve?”

“Douglas. You can’t be saying what I think you’re saying.”

“Martin, as you yourself have just rather unsubtly hinted, in the sacred text in question the prophecy stipulates there are four thrones in Cair Paravel awaiting a precise combination of candidates. Arthur — with considerably more prudence than any of us might have gambled on — has sensibly decided to have nothing to do with it. But we can’t leave it like that. There’s one factor, Arthur, you overlooked. Your mother.”

“Douglas, you can’t tell Mum about this. She’ll — I don’t know what she’ll do.”

“And nor, for once, do I. But, both as a concerned parent and, more importantly, as the CEO of MJN Air she has a right to know. So here’s what we’re going to do. We are going to put the heaviest equipment we can lay hands on against the cockpit locker to ensure that it doesn’t accidently open in the remainder of this flight. And then, Arthur, the instant we land at Fitton you are going to go and collect Carolyn, tell her everything you’ve told us, and bring her up onto GERTI’s flightdeck so we can see that locker opened in the presence of all four of us. Got that? Good. Now, irrespective of any developing geo-political crisis in the cockpit locker, we have a plane to fly. Oh, and, Martin — “


“I’ve thought of one. Skadden Arps.”

“I can’t see why we’re going through all this. It’s Arthur who’s the problem. Why drag Carolyn all the way up here simply in order to make her look at an empty cockpit locker?”

“Martin, look at it this way. To call Arthur as ‘literal-minded’ is somewhat like decribing the Pope as a chap who suffers from an un-British lack of reticence about discussing religion in public. Furthermore, he can’t tell the simplest white lie without opening and shutting his mouth like a goldfish and having his ears go a fetching shade of petunia.”

“Well, that’s true, but —”

“Which means that this isn’t a case of an immersive fantasy which has got out of hand, and he can’t be deliberately pulling the wool over our eyes for reasons best known to himself.”

“But Douglas —”

“Let me finish. That leaves only two alternatives. First, of course, that Arthur’s admitted mental peculiarities have taken an unexpected turn and he’s gone delusional on us. If so, at the moment when we confront him with the truth, he most definitely will need Carolyn by his side.”

“Oh, poor Arthur.”

“Quite so. But that theory, of course, still leaves one thing unexplained.”

“Which is?”

“How his delusions can have cast him as a character in a book he’s never read. If Arthur’s not lying — and he’s not — and if he can’t be playing let’s pretend — which he can’t — and if insanity doesn’t account for all the facts — which it doesn’t — then there’s really only one thing left.”

“Douglas! You can’t possibly think there really is an entire magical country inside GERTI’s cockpit locker. What on earth is the CAA going to say?”

“Martin, sometimes I envy you. While I am suffering the almost unbearable suspense of wondering whether we might be on the verge of a numinous experience, your first thought is to demand its supplemental type certificate. But soft! Who comes here? Methinks I hear a lissom footfall in the cabin, like unto a wildebeest herd, hoofing it through the drought-parched savannah on the track of the fugitive scent of water.”

“Oh, hello Carolyn. Douglas was just talking about you.”

“So I gather. Now, Arthur, you idiot boy. Listen to me. Take a deep breath and this is all going to be over. You are going to open the cockpit locker door, in front of all of us, and we’re all going to see that there’s nothing untoward in there at all, and then we’re all going to go home and have tea.”

“Mum, I can’t help saying, I think you’re making a big mistake. That Queen person I met inside the cockpit locker, I really don’t think you’d enjoy meeting her.”

“But I’m not going to meet her, Arthur, my own, my sweet. That’s because she’s not real. There’s nothing’s in there.”

“Mum, do you remember that time when I was little, and you told me there couldn’t be a fox in the wardrobe?”

“Arthur! You don’t need to bring that up now. And especially not in front of Martin and Douglas.”

“Oh, but I think he does.”

“Oh, but I think he doesn’t. That was a completely different situation. And, in any event, it would have helped if he’d told me he’d put the fox in the wardrobe in the first place. Now, go on Arthur. Hand on the handle — yes, like that — turn it and —”

“Good grief!”

“Quite so. I’ve seen some remarkable bonsai in my travels in the East, but I rather think Arthur’s taiga-in-a-box would force even the great Japanese masters to take their hats off. To the extent hats are currently worn in the best bonsai circles. I fear my bonsai etiquette may be growing a trifle rusty.”

“Douglas, Martin — if this is your idea of a practical joke, I assure you I am proposing to take the dimmest of possible dim views.”

“Carolyn, if this were my idea of a practical joke — especially given the limited resources available to me in an aeroplane just landed from Nyíregyháza with a load of tractor spares — Derren Brown and I would by now be having practical joke-offs for fees calculated in the millions before syndication rights.”

“I did warn you, Mum.”

“It’s awfully chilly. Should I get the coats from the cabin?”

“Yes, Martin, but hurry. Somewhere on the far side of the forest which seems to have installed itself without so much as a by your leave aboard my plane, I am forced — however reluctantly — to believe there’s an evil witch with designs on my son. And I want her caught and stopped right now.