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Authors: Robert Rankin

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The Witches of Chiswick

BOOK: The Witches of Chiswick
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The Witches of Chiswick
Robert Rankin

Henry Ford wasn't wrong when he said that, "history is bunk". He could still remember the days when the wireless transmission of energy had powered motorcars, mighty airships and space cruisers. And when Britannia ruled not only the waves, but all of the Earth and much of the cosmos besides. Have you ever wondered how Victorians such as Jules Verne and H.G. Wells managed to dream up all that fantastic futuristic fiction? Did it ever occur to you that it might just have been based upon fact? That War Of The Worlds was a true account of real events? That Captain Nemo's Nautilus even now lies rusting at the bottom of the North Sea? That there really was an invisible man? No? Then what about the other stuff?

The Witches of Chiswick
Robert Rankin

This book is dedicated to SPROUTLORE on the occasion of its tenth anniversary. 

To those who began it, Anna Casey, Eimer Ni Mhealoid, Robert Elliot and, of course, the now legendary Pádraig Ó Méalóid a special thanks.

For contributing to the
Mercury
, among other nefarious tasks: Tom Mathews, Peter McCanney, Darren Sant, Stephen “Wok Boy” Malone, Kaz Rathgar, Matthew Vernon, MJ. “Simo” Simpson, Chip Livingstone, C. elsewhere, Martin Gooch, Alan Holloway, Rachel Turkington, Katie Atkinson, Stephen Gillis, Mark J. Howard, Alf Fairweather, Paul Tonks, Simon C. Owen, Mark Howard, Neil Hind, Gordon McLean, Karl Macnaughton, Leanne Whelan, Laura Haslam, Mark Bertenshaw, Mark Paris, John Cross, Richard Allinson, Diana Hesse, Neil Gardener, John Flynn, Steve Baker, Daev Walsh, George and Chelle Bell, Kryten Krytennicus, Mark Stay, Nicholas Avenell, J. Oost, Alan Sullivan, J. Hagger, Ian “Red” Brown, James “Elite” Grime, Lee Peglar, Joe Nolan, Emma Jones, David Hill, Sarah Laslett, Andrew “P.A.L.F.” Bacon, Tim Keith, Stuart Lemon, Alec Sillifant, Bob Harrison, Tim McGregor, Keith Lawlor and the great Cardinal Cox, you wordy, hard-working people.

For making events what they are, and for being there since the earliest of days: Emma King, Lorraine Loveridge, Toby “Tobes” Valois, Robert and Hazel Newman. Dr Pete and Flick, Neil Johnson, Jason Joiner, Andrea Swinsco, Hillary Simpson, Dave Elder, Anne Stokes, Matt Langley, Rev. Jim de Liscard, Meike Benzler, Nolly, Rory Lennon, Sam and Greg Elkin, Liam Proven and Kjersti, John Waggott, Liat Cohen, Jonathon Baddeley, Trond Miatyeit Hansen, Anders Holmstrom, Mike “Sparks” Rennie, James Brophy, Leonia Carroll, Helena and Heidi, Ben Dessau and Heather Petty, Julie Rigby and Alex McLintock, Paul Atton, Mick Champion, Isabel and Debbie Cordwell, Lizanne Davies, David Jones, Joe Ritchie, Silas Potts, Stephen Shirras, Luke Shaw, Karl Scrammell, Nicholas Avenell, Clive Duberly, Andi Evans, Sarah Laslett, Bob Tiley, James Walker, Alan Westbury, Tony Wearing, Steven Dean and Mick and Phil O’Connor.

To those who have left this mortal coil, we bid you adieu, and toast your names: John Joseph O’Dowd and the great Gerry Conlon.

To the main movers and shakers, writers of great skill and wondrous workers: Lee Justice, Dave Baker, Billy Stirling, Alix Langridge, James Shields, Stef Lancaster, and Michael Carroll.

And finally to the guy who runs it all, surprises me with ingenious ideas, and insane capers, has a strange glint in his eye, a smile and a gift of the gab that could charm the knickers off a nun. He has made Sproutlore what it is, and what it continues to be, a wonderful fanclub. The best, to James Bacon; my sincerest thanks, my good friend.

Acknowledgements also to Sean Gallagher, who thought up the title of this book.

1

It was the day after the day after tomorrow and it was raining.

Upon this particular day, the rain was bilious green, which signified a fair to middling toxicity and so was only hazardous to health if you actually went out in it.

Will Starling would have to go out in it. He was presently employed and wished to remain so.

“Winsome Wendy Wainscot, Channel Twenty’s wonderful weather woman, says it will clear by Wednesday,” ventured Will’s mum, a moon-faced loon with a vermilion hairpiece and hips that were a hymn to the hamburger. “I could call you in sick, Will, and you could apply yourself to doing a few odd jobs about the home.”

“No, thanks,” said Will.

“But some of the jobs are
really
odd. They would appeal to you.”

“No, thanks,” said Will, once again.

Will’s portly father, a man who never said no to a native and took his coffee as it came, raised a quizzical eyebrow to his lady wife’s banter. “The lad has work to go to, woman,” said he, forking a sausage from the mountainous pile upon his breakfasting plate, popping it into his mouth and munching upon it. “He is now the winner of the cakes in this household, and for this much thanks, my sweet Lord of the Laminates.”

The area in which these words were exchanged was the breakfasting area of the Starling household, the household itself being housed in a housing unit in a housing tower in the housing district of the Utility Conurbation of Brentford, which was itself to be found to the west of The Great London High Rise. The housing tower was three hundred and three storeys high. The Starling household occupied a corner of the two hundred and twenty-second floor. The windows of the breakfasting area, triple-glazed in polarised polythene, faced east, which was always a blessing on Tuesdays.

(Today, this particular day, this day after the day after tomorrow, was, however, Monday.)

Regarding the breakfasting area itself, what might be said? Well, the furnishings, at least, were not entirely without interest. Will sat at the breakfasting table, upon a chair of his own design and construction, a narrow chair of wood, of antique wood, of two-by-one.

Much, of course, has been written of the wonders of two-by-one, hailed, as it was, by twentieth-century DIY enthusiasts the world over as “The Timber of the Gods”, “The Carpenter’s Friend”, “The Wood That Won The West”, and many other such appellations.

You didn’t see a lot of it about on this day beyond tomorrow, what with there being so few trees left to cut down and hew. Two-by-one was hard to find, although, in truth there were very few now who actually went searching.

Will’s father, William Starling senior, occupied a more orthodox sit-upon: it was Post Christian Orthodox, of the IKEA persuasion. Will’s father was a part-time lay preacher to the Church of IKEA (IKEA having brought out the Christian franchise some fifty years before).

Will’s mother did not share her husband’s faith; she remained true to the church she had grown up with. She was a Sister of Salisbury’s. Her seating was a family heirloom: a white plastic garden sofa, dating from the age of private gardens, and a collector’s item in itself, should the age of the collector, or indeed the private garden, ever return. The sofa’s sidearms had been cut away to afford admittance to her broad posterior. Will’s mum was a very substantial woman.

But for these items of seatery, the breakfasting area was, as all other breakfasting areas in the housing tower were,
bright
and
orange
. Just the way that the future had been promised to be, in a time before it was.

“You’ll need to put on your chem-proofs, Will,” said Will’s mum, swallowing a fried eggette (a synthetic egg, packed with goodness and minerals) and scooping up another with her spoon. “And your weather dome. Coffee, husband?” She proffered the plastic pot.

“As it comes,” replied her spouse, urging another sausage into his mouth, “that’s the way I like it.” He smiled winningly towards his son. “Take heed of what your mother says,” said he, as he chewed. “Upon this occasion she isn’t talking twaddle.”

“I certainly will,” said the son of Starling. “I never, ever take risks.” This, however, was a lie. Will
did
take risks. Will thrived upon risks. Sadly for Will, the opportunities to take risks rarely arose, but when they did, he was always ready and willing.

Will’s father reached across the breakfasting area and placed a mighty hand upon the forearm of his son. “You are a good lad, Will,” he said. “You make your mother and me proud of you. We care about you, you know that, don’t you?”

“I’ve never had cause to doubt it,” Will eased his arm from beneath the pressure of his pater’s portly palm, “except upon one or two occasions, such as the time that you tried to sell me to Count Otto Black’s Circus Fantastique because you needed money to buy Mum a new wig.”

“A God-feeling woman can never have too many wigs,” said Will’s mum, downing another fried eggette.

“It’s God-
fearing
,” said her husband, helping himself to yet another sausage. “But your mother’s right, Will. Do you recall the time that your Aunt May was caught wigless at the wedding of a tribal chieftain? That reflected very poorly on the family.”

“Yes, but trying to sell me to a freak show …”

“A Carnival of Curiosities,” said Will’s mum, downing yet another eggette. “An Odyssey of Oddities. A Burlesque of the Bizarre. A—”

“Get out while you’re winning,” said Will’s dad. “Your mother and I felt that it was the right thing to do, Will. So you could, you know, be amongst your own people, as it were.”

“But you’re my own people, you’re my family.”

“You know what I mean,” said Will’s dad, chasing baked beanettes with his fork. “I don’t have to say the word, do I?”


Slim
?” said Will. “Is that the word?”

Will’s mum traced a sacred S (for Sainsbury’s, not for slim) across the vastness of her breasts. Newly proffered coffee spilled over Will’s dad’s waistcoat.

“Now look what you’ve done.” Will’s dad struggled to his feet, plucking at his steaming front.

“I’m slim,” said Will. “It’s not a disease. It’s not something to be ashamed of.”

Sadly, however, this was
not
the case. In these days after the days after tomorrow, being slim no longer held sway when it came to looking good. These were now the days of the weighty. That mankind should grow, not only in mental but in physical stature too, was probably an inevitability (although not one that had ever been accurately predicted). But then, the science of prediction had never been noted for its accuracy – not even when the course of future events seemed obvious.

For instance: in the year of Elvis Presley’s death, nineteen seventy-seven, there were, at most, several dozen Elvis impersonators in the world. By the year two thousand and two, however, there were more than thirty-five thousand. Given this expanding growth rate, it was accurately predicted that by the year two thousand and twelve, one in four people on the planet would be an Elvis impersonator.

This, of course, proved not to be the case.

The figure was actually a mere one in six.

But those days were now long in the past, and in these days, after the days after tomorrow, things were not as might have been expected. They appeared to have escaped all attempts at prediction. That the future lay in fatness had certainly slipped right past Nostradamus.

By the days after tomorrow, the average weight of the Western human was fifteen stone. By the days after the days after tomorrow, the scales were being tipped and strained at the twenty-stone mark, and rising.

But Will was a slim ’un. And although his parents were proud of him, in the way that parents always are, the social stigma of slimness was always there.

And Will was
very
slim.

The features were fine enough – noble, almost: a good strong nose and bright blue eyes and a mop of blondy hair. But his neck was of a longness, and his fingers too. And there was also an awkwardness about him. And there was an other-worldliness about him too, although this was nothing to do with his slimness. It was more to do with the fact that Will dwelt for most of his waking hours in a world of his own making: a world of romance and adventure, a world where he could
really
take some risks.

For the world that Will inhabited was not very kind to Will. Folk pointed at him in the streets, laughed as they pointed, called him “skeleton boy” and “you slim bastard!” They gave him a very hard time. Will ate as much as he could manage, but it didn’t help.

It was no fun being different.

But different Will was, in more ways than one.

“I’m sorry, Dad,” said Will. “I’m sorry, Mum, too.”

The coffee was cooling on Will’s dad. Will’s mum mopped at his waistcoast with a proprietary-brand dishcloth. “It’s all right,” she said, without conviction. “It doesn’t matter, Will. You are what you is, as Frank Zappa once said, and so long as you’re happy, we’re happy for you.”

“I
am
happy, Mum. I love you and Dad and I love my job too.”

“Tell me about this job of yours.” Will’s dad shooed away his wife’s fussing fingers. “Is it at IKEA? Does it involve any two-by-one?”

“No,” said Will, “It isn’t and it doesn’t. Have you ever heard of the Tate Gallery?”

“Is that a trick question?” Will’s mum lowered her prodigious bulk once more onto her modified lounger and returned to her consumption of fried eggettes. There were still eight left on her plate and she meant to finish them before she began on her baconettes. “I mean, will there be a forfeit if we get it wrong? Like there is at the supermarket?”

“It’s not a trick question, Mum. The Tate Gallery is an ancient building in London Central. It houses paintings from the past. You remember art, surely?”

Will’s mum made a face of considerable perplexity. “Was he a presenter on daytime TV?”

“Of course your mother remembers art,” said Will’s dad, resuming the demolition of his sausage mountain. “It’s when pictures were produced by hand, using coloured pigments applied with a bundle of animal hair secured at the end of a stick.”

“There’s no need to be obscene,” said Will’s mum. “Honestly, putting ungodly ideas like that into the boy’s head.”

“It’s true,” said Will. “The bundles of animal hair were called brushes.”

“The boy is a regular hysteric,” said Will’s mum.

“Historian,” said Will’s dad. “And you have actually seen these pictures, Will?”

“Not up close.” Will, sipped at his coffee, which came as it came, but which was not altogether to his liking. “They are housed in the vaults deep beneath the original gallery. They are far too precious and fragile to be put on display any more. They are presently being re-photographed, so that accurate reproductions can be made and displayed in the gallery. You’ll be able to see the official reopening of the Tate on the home screen soon. And all the reproductions of the paintings too.”

“Why?” asked Will’s mum. “What are these
paintings
for? What do they do?”

“They don’t do anything. They are art. They are beautiful works of human achievement. You simply look at them and appreciate them for what they are.”

Will’s mum spooned in further eggettes. “Do they sing?” she asked.

“No. They don’t even move about.”

Will’s mum shrugged her ample shoulders. “Well, if you’re happy and employed, I suppose that’s all that matters.”

“I
am
happy,” said Will. “There’s something about the past that has always fascinated me. Something about the Victorian era.”

“The
what
?” asked Will’s mum.

“Be silent, woman,” said Will’s dad, sending another sausage stomachwards.

“The years of Queen Victoria,” said Will. “She ruled this country, and much of the world besides, for sixty years. She died in 1901.”

“King Charles ruled for seventy-five years,” said Will’s mum. “And so did Queen Camilla.”

“I don’t think you could really call that ruling,” said Will’s dad, “although I’m impressed that you should know even that. I recall as a child learning about the last of the Royal Household of England. They didn’t actually rule that long – they didn’t actually rule at all. They were both assassinated at their coronation. It was a virtual reality programme that did all the subsequent ruling – until it crashed in the late twenty-first century.”

“Same thing,” said Will’s mum. “The present World leader is a programme: President Adidas the 42nd. ‘Corporate wisdom for a better world’.”

“Hmm,” went Will. “Well, that may be as may be, but there was a time when the world was run by human beings. And in the days of Queen Victoria, there were many wonderful things. Wonderful art and wonderful architecture. And books that were written by people.”

“I once had a book,” said Will’s mum, finally beginning work on her baconettes. “I liked the pictures in that.”

“That was
not
a book,” her husband told her. “That was a manual, for the home screen’s remote control.”


I’ve
seen books,” said Will. “And I’ve read them too. I’ve been to the British Library.”

“The boy is just full of surprises.” Will’s dad held out his cup for further coffee. “But you can call up books on the home screen.”

“Not like these Victorian books. I’ve read
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
. The works of Oscar Wilde. And amazing books by H. G. Wells, Jules Verne and Edgar Allen Poe. I go every lunchtime. I have a special pass because I work at the Tate. I can’t touch the actual books, but they’re all on digital.”

“I’m amazed,” said Will’s dad. “But surely you should be on your way to work now?”

“Indeed, yes.” Will finished his coffee and rose from his special chair. “Off to work. Off to the art and the literature of the past.”

“He’s a weirdo,” said Will’s mum.

“He’s not,” said Will’s dad. “He’s simply Will.”

 

Will togged up in sufficient protective outerwear to ensure the prolongation of his existence and bade his farewells to his mother and father. He would have taken the lift to the ground floor, had it been working. But it wasn’t working. It was broken yet again, and so Will was forced to trudge down the many, many stairs, no easy feat in a chem-proof suit that was many, many sizes too large, before braving the acid rain and plodding through it to the tram station.

BOOK: The Witches of Chiswick
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