Acolyte Frink and his brother Eblow Frink were whiling away time on their journey home, delaying their entrance to the grand house for as long as possible.
They had sneaked out of their dormitory as soon as light gave them a little help in seeing their way down the stairs. The corridor was short but had more twists than Medusa’s labyrinth. No, it should have read: more twists than her snakey hair; or was that a different myth?. Surely it was the Minotaur’s? Anyway, a dive past the Beak’s room and then the matron’s room and round the, okay, just call it twisting, corridor and down the proverbial creaking stairs to unbolt the heavy oak door. The loud snoring cut through the quiet of that dawn, emanating from matron’s room and following them right to their fumbling at the door-bolts. They had smeared some grease off the bacon rinds they had saved from supper onto the barrel of the bolts before the evening bell to ensure no noise. Hearing the cacophony from matron’s room they were confident that even a battering ram would have gone unnoticed. Finally into the fresh air as they pulled the door closed and scampered over the flat stone path of their ‘House’ to what they called freedom and the open road away from Eton.
So now, dressed in their Eton mufti, the two lads were beginning to see their immediate future as the wide Portland stone portico began to loom towards them. The two circular lights (windows that had the bright yellow thrown out by the now electrified chandeliers) stared at them over the arched nose of the heavy roof. The steps, like a gaping lower lip forced their eyes up to the door, a black – panelled maw that was enthralling and had small vertical oblong windows in the upper half, like teeth that seemed to flicker as the boys moved forward.
They entered the shadow of the porch, like the mouth of the Oracle. Neared the wooden panels and the teeth grew larger. Two dogs barked like wolfhounds behind the door.
‘Cerberus’ whispered one lad to the other. ‘This is Hades, it must be!’ Was the comment back.
The great door swung open soundlessly and the two hapless boys were silhouetted on the steps in the gaze of the grey skirted figure before them. ‘Cerberus, sit!’. She spoke in undertones but the demand was instantly obeyed by the Labrador, however the the red setter just skittered between the mouth of the door and the sparking log fire in the hearth.
The woman’s jaw firmed as she chose what to say. ‘Your father is just across the river taking a customer’. No doubt he will be having a word or two with you when he returns.’
She threw a penny into the bowl on a dresser by the door and it rattled into the pile.
‘There’s a man waiting, he’s a bit iffy, don’t be rude to him. He is waiting for your father too, some sort of special request.’ She stepped aside, no longer barring their way.
Deep inside the room, sitting beside the now raging and spitting fire was a sad young man, a few years older than themselves. He looked across at them as they approached, relaxed a little to see they were not much more than children.
‘You can’t take that. He won’t let you. No room in the boat’. Said Acolyte bluntly.
‘It’s all I have got.’
‘What is it then?’
‘It’s a b-flat bass clarinet,’ the man replied, almost helplessly.
‘You might get away with a lyre’. Said Eblow.
‘It’s not. I haven’t got one. It’s this’, and he raised the ebony instrument, curlicued at each end.
The boys looked at each other and back at the young man. ‘Nah!’ They said in unison, shaking their heads.
At that moment a man rushed in depositing mud from the river bank off his boots. His gaiters smeared with the same mud, his tweed trousers too. His upper body was caped, a shiny seal-skin cape that hung over his shoulders and down to his shins, his arms darting out of the opening like tentacles as he grabbed his pie off the mantlepiece and took a huge mouthful. ‘Good, still warm!’
He looked at the two boys and then at the young man.
‘Can’t take that.’ He said, nodding at the clarinet. A chunk of pie released itself from the rest and fell on the floor. Two dog heads were immediately scavenging around his feet.
‘But they said I could, we made a deal, I am all set. See, I’ve got my Oracle card. One out and two of us back.’
‘Have you paid? What’s your name?’
The young man replied plaintively, ‘They said I only need pay for me’
‘Name?’ He asked again, wiping some pie gravy on the side of his trousers.
‘Orphid’. Said the young man.
The ferryman took a deep breath whilst considering the name then shook his head firmly.
‘No. Sorry, that name isn’t for taking yet. You got a brother called Orpheus? He’s got a special ticket.’
‘But I am sure they said I could. I am writing an opera and I need to get back to Bray. My father, the vicar…..’ His voice trailed away as he was hoisted to his feet, clarinet thrust into his hands and almost frogmarched to the door. The housekeeper opened the door, two dogs barked as one and the young man reluctantly walked outside. The door firmly closed behind and left him as a solitary figure walking disconsolately away.
‘Okay boys, what are your plans for this weekend? We could go fishing but this part of the river isn’t very good, the water is all mixed up and muddy.’ He clapped his hands, opened his arms wide and ruffled each lads hair, the static electricity making their hair stand up on frizzy ends like Strawlpeter’s.