When Josh finds a cat’s skull belonging to a strange woman who feeds cats on waste ground, he believes that its powerful magic controls him. Then things begin to go wrong. Kevin, a sinister boy who is new to his class, steals the skull and manipulates Josh’s friends against him. He induces them to beat him up on a lonely path beside a railway. Unless Josh can find a solution to Kevin’s bullying and the power of the skull, worse may happen.
You can order “The Skull” from Amazon, on kindle or in print, and from selected bookstores.
"Quick-moving and continuously intriguing, this creepy mystery will hook and hold young readers… It reads like a contemporary answer to Mary Downing Hahn’s eerie tales…
Josh grapples with troubles that will be familiar to many teens, including bullying and the fast-shifting tides of teenagers’ affections, and meets these challenges with a maturity beyond his years. The relative darkness of The Skull and its central themes are tempered by explorations of right and wrong, as well as by…musings on who and what we leave behind as we grow."
"Written with elements of magic, The Skull is a true to life story that shines light into the dark corners of a child's psyche. Young Josh's struggle in his fight against evil will matter to us all. With the ever increasing problem of bullies in our schools, This book is a must read."
"A suspenseful read for intrepid pre-teens, especially ones who have some experience with bullying, The Skull is a hair-raising tale about an ordinary schoolboy drawn into a nightmare world of mystery, treachery, and baffling hostility."
“That’s all of ’em then!”
Flashlight beams raked the bushes on the other side of the fence, and the “cops” hooted in triumph over a cornered “robber.” Just in time, Josh rolled into the waste plot and lay on his back, panting.
“What about Josh?
“I reckon he’s sloped off!”
“He could have gone…in…there?”
“So the robbers win!”
“You wish! If he’s buzzed off, the cops win…”
The voices dwindled away.
Josh twisted onto his stomach, and his hand found a smooth stone. Or was it a stone? Digging under the chickweed, he saw a pale domed object in the twilight. He slipped it in his pocket for later and was lurching back through the tussocks when his sneaker sank into a spongy mess.
“Ugh!” he shouted, “Heck…what the…ugh!”
He tore away his foot from the slime and dashed it again and again across the wiry grass, gagging at a smell of festering flesh.
Once clear of the fence, Josh looked behind him and shuddered. Back there, wild cats not only lived…they died; he had lain on a graveyard. Dead or alive, the cats owned the plot.
Tomorrow, in daylight, little girls with pursed lips would call to them beyond the fences, “Puss, puss, pussy!” But the tigers would arch and spit and set them running. Only Mad Nancy, jolting her cart of cat scraps over the broken fence, dared to linger in the waste plot.
The last of the light had gone. Stinking of death, Josh ran home. When he pulled the thing out of his pocket and held it on his palm, Josh felt a little shiver crawl over his skin. It was a bald white skull, the size of a tennis ball but oval.
“A bit morbid!” Dad said.
“Why don’t you put it outside in the rockery?” Mum suggested. Josh shook his head for he wanted it.
Josh had not found the skull; it had found him. He carried it to his room and put it on his bedside table.
Lying in bed, he examined its smoothness, like soft ivory. The dark eye sockets told of decay seeping into the earth; the long teeth threatened him. He’d scrubbed his trainer until it squeaked, but it still smelled of death and so did he. Unable to stop looking at the skull, he fell asleep.
The next morning Josh cut across the housing complex and turned into the “Cut”. Most kids took the school bus along the main road, but Josh liked the privacy of the short route to school between the railway line and a fenced-in estate. If he hung about long enough, the 8.45 a.m. train would roar out of the tunnel.
The air was close and still; not even a bee blundered over the thistles. He sensed something watching, but try as he might, he couldn’t detect the source. Then they were on him. Cats slithered forward, more and more of them, seething round his feet, eluding his steps.
Swinging his backpack, he whirled it wide to clear a path, but as often as he made a space, the cats closed in. What did they want? Josh broke into a sweat. Looking toward the end of the path, he saw a still figure outlined against the sky. He opened his mouth to scream, but the boom of the train muted his cry, and a hot flurry of leaves and dust blinded him.
When the grit cleared, the cats were gone. At the end of the path, her boots flapping open, Mad Nancy leaned on a battered shopping cart. Josh blinked hard. Could he have imagined the whole thing? He pulled himself together and moved down the path to pass the old woman whose odd eyes stared, unseeing. As he edged round the shopping cart, she kept up a steady muttering, and the smell of tainted cat meat clung to her. Perhaps the cats had been real after all, but if so, where had they gone? Why hadn’t he seen Nancy before on his way to school? It seemed that she also could appear and vanish, catlike. She gave him the creeps.
Josh recollected that he was very late now, and he shot off to school.
At recess, fumbling in his pocket for his locker key, Josh’s fingers found the skull. As kids gathered, he clutched it jealously, half wishing to hide it.
“Whatcha got there, Josh?” A giant in size eleven sneakers blundered past. As usual, Artie’s bland smile pulled Josh back to reality.
“Dunno. Found it lying around.”
“That’s part of a skeleton,” said Budge, who liked to think he knew things.
“Yea, it’s a skull,” said Henry, who really did know things. “A rabbit’s, I think.”
“Budge’s ancestral pa,” drawled Les. “Pea brained.”
“Watch it!” yelled Josh.
Budge, short-legged and urgent as a terrier, was leaping up to grab the skull.
“Get your thieving pickers off!” growled Josh. “You nearly made me drop it.”
He turned away from the group, shielding the skull possessively. “I’m going to keep it.”
“That’s sick!” said Alisa, wrinkling her nose.
Josh ran a finger over the cranium. “It’s…it’s…sort of…awesome!” Then, reddening, he added, “Well, nobody else has got one.”
Kevin, a pale new boy standing on the edge of the group, was watching. Josh noticed his look beneath the gingery lashes. The boy said nothing, but his lip curled in a slight sneer.
“Hey, Josh,” Henry shouted later, following him into lunch, “I know what it is.” He showed Josh a library book page of some small mammal skeletons. “Just a common, old, domestic tabby cat that snuffed it!” said Henry as Josh matched the skull to a drawing.
“So it is a cat’s skull!” Josh didn’t need the evidence for he already knew it. Some bad dream had caught up with him.
All through lunchtime he was unusually quiet. At last Budge hooked him with his foot and Josh went down, sprawling. No one laughed as Josh got up.
“Why can’t you leave people alone, you pint-sized pest?” Josh shouted, grabbing the front of Budge’s T-shirt.
“Hey! Cool it! said Artie.
Josh glared as Budge, released from his grip, turned to the others, shrugging and rolling his eyes. “What’s his problem?” he muttered.
Alisa gave Josh a shrewd look. “You must admit that you’ve been a bear with a sore head all morning, Josh. What’s getting at you?”
Josh slumped down on a bench, turning his back on them. He refused to speak to anyone but didn’t know why. Unable to understand his fear of the cats or of Nancy, he couldn’t talk about it. He wanted to kid and hang about with the others as usual, but a shadow cut him off. Something smacked of magic, and ordinary kids like him didn’t get into stuff like that. He was beginning to wish he hadn’t found the skull.
Budge shook his head on mock sorrow at Josh’s back, tapping his finger on the side of his forehead. “He hasn’t been the same since he showed us that rabbit’s brain box yesterday. P’rhaps it’s jinxed.”
“Uh?” said Artie.
“Brings bad luck,” Henry explained, “and that rabbit was a cat.”
Where did he get it anyway?” Alisa asked.
“I bet he picked it up at the dump,” said Budge, “where Mad Nancy chucks offal to them cats.”
“What’s offal?” Artie looked blank.
“Offal is animal guts, which quickly go off.” Budge gave a cocky grin. “So off…that they’re…awffal.”
He held his gut and made vomiting noises. Everyone groaned, but Josh wouldn’t be drawn out. Gwyneth lowered her voice to a stage whisper.
“Perhaps the skull’s possessing him.”
“Well, that’ll be a change from you hooking your claws into him,” Alisa snorted.
“Huh!” Gwyneth sniffed. “Catty!”
“Groan, groan and double groan!” said Les. “That’s quite enough about cats!” And he went off to fetch a soccer ball.
Josh hadn’t moved.
I spent my Yorkshire childhood in a stone house built in 1649, the year the English King Charles 1st was beheaded. The king’s enemies had hunted down priests so my sister and I tapped the three-foot thick walls looking for priest-hole hiding places. We only found spiders, but we did dig up an old gold pendant in the garden.
Mum raised chickens and I brought them in, wet from the egg, to dry off by the enormous fireplace where Peter-the-Dog gently nudged them back to their box when they ran away. It was fun in my village. On Mischief Night we kids would knock on doors or even tie the door knobs of terraced houses together before hiding nearby to watch for results.
There were some weird characters like the old woman who lived on our lane and who rubbed a gold wedding ring on my eyelid to heal it. She grew houseleek on the stone tiled roof of her cottage for medicine, and healed sprains with boiled comfrey leaves. One day the poor old soul drank ammonia and died a dramatic death. We were sure that she was a witch.
Teenage was not as much fun but it led me to university and to teaching in a Lancashire cotton town in Gas Street, where I looked out every day on sooty mill chimneys, most of which have now gone.
Then my husband and I moved to Switzerland. My most precious teaching years were spent in the International School of Geneva where I fought and won battles to build the first drama workshop. I wrote and produced plays for the wonderful children I taught who are now adults, scattered throughout the world.
Extracts from poetry and drama workshops, including work on “The Skull”, with students aged 7-12 years.
Listen to me read an extract of “The Skull”. Children's voices read by Emilie and Oscar Colliar. Recorded and edited by Sarah Judge.
Listen to me discuss my book “The Skull” - interviewed by Seetha Chinnappa-Sarwal and originally broadcast on Radio Frontier Geneva.
Dressed for his role as a girl in a Shakespeare play, Dickon has to chase through the streets of Elizabethan London after Tobit the dog who has run off. Dickon needs Tobit to act with him on the stage of the Globe Theatre.Read "A Dog Will Have His Day"
“I'll never own one of these,” sighed Piers, dusting down Sir Bumbleby Buzzbrain's suit of armour.
“What good is nobility without cash?” (Life has never been fair, has it, even for toffs?)
Trained to be a knight since he was nine, Piers couldn't afford to become one. He knew how to serve meat at his lord’s table, how to fight, and how to polish his lord's weapons. All the castle pages cheered when he hit the target at the quintain or crossed swords with dull-brained Gareth, the other squire in training.
“I wish Pa wasn’t always hard up,” he confided to Brand, the warhorse. “I think Great Grandpa drew the short straw when they gave out manors.” Brand blew down his nose, in sympathy. “You’re worth more than I am, horse,” said Piers, tickling his ears.” As for this suit of armour, it’s worth a fortune and Sir Bumbleby doesn’t even wear it.” Piers sniggered. “It’s rather a tight fit these days.”
Knights were supposed to fight wicked knaves, save ladies from dragons and joust at tournaments (as I’m sure you all know.) They had a set of rules on how to be gentlemen, called the Code of Chivalry. In their spare time they could spear wild boar in the forest or guzzle venison pasties. Sir Bumbleby liked guzzling but he was too fat to fight.
The king, hearing complaints about this neglect of chivalry, summoned him to Camelot. “I want you to rescue the damsels imprisoned by the Black Knight in the Castle Hazardous,” said the king. “He’s becoming a bore. He bumped off Sir Eglantine last week. Pity! I was saving him for a grail quest this weekend. It’s your turn Buzzbrain. Deal with it.”
Sir Bumbleby swallowed. “Sire, your wish is my command.” Several knights of the Round Table smirked as he waddled out.
Back from his long journey on horseback, Sir Bumbleby was soaking his sore buttocks in a tub of boiled borage. “It's your fault, wife,” he grumbled. “You shouldn't have minced around that trouble shooter, Sir Gawain, when we had to give him bed and breakfast. I paid through the nose for the troubadour and all those soppy chansons made him sweet on you. He must have dropped me in the…”
“Don’t be course, dear, said his wife. “Why don't you consult Piers? He's not just a handsome hunk you know. That boy’s got style and cunning.”
“How do you know?” said her lord, suspiciously.
“All squires need to be crafty. Tell Piers you'll give him the loot if he saves your skin. He'd look marvellous in that black outfit.”
“Hmph!” huffed Sir Bumbleby, squeezing into his linen. “What's for supper?”
“Salad and carp: no marchpane. (Marzipan of course!) Your horse is looking saggy in the middle. Anyway we’ve run out of honeyed almonds.”
Next morning, in the armoury, Sir Bumbleby pleaded. “You've got to come up with something, Piers, or I'll end up spitted like a hog on a spear. He cunningly added, “Then you'll never get your knighthood.”
“I'll think about it,” said Piers, burnishing a helm.
The knight paused. “His armour and weapons are yours if you bust him.”
“Throw in the horse, and you're on,” said Piers.
“Oh all right,” said Sir Bumbleby, grumpily. “But remember, if I fail, you fail!”
The knight and his squire rode through the fens for many days. Sir Bumbleby lost some weight: his horse lost more: Piers lost the way, and found it again. In a dark forest, they came to a sinister tarn overhung with weeping trees. Ravens cawed from the grim battlements of a castle, picking at heads on spikes (the way they did when heads were readily available.)
“Deary me!” moaned Sir Bumbleby.
“What now? said Piers.
“Eglantine. Up there. Third from the left.”
“Well,” said Piers, “ I guess he knew the Code: prowess-and-helping-the-weak-and-good- manners and stuff, but did he know know The Rule That No One Mentions?”
“What are you yapping about, boy? What rule?”
“Cunning,” said Piers and he blew a piercing whistle through two fingers. A black knight on a plunging charger reared up beneath a creaking portcullis.
“Show off!” muttered Piers: his master winced. “Sir Knight, “ Piers said. “My lord requests the release of the maidens wrongfully detained.”
“Ha! I'll knock his block off,” cried the Black Knight, wheeling his horse for a charge.
“Rude!” remarked Sir Bumbleby who knew all the mentioned rules.
“Your saggy nag hasn't a hope,” whispered Piers. “Accept his challenge but wrench your horse away just before impact.”
“B...b...but that's cheating!” blustered the knight. “Er... not in The Code.”
“Do you want to be the fourth from the left??”
“Of course not but...”
“Well, do it. If he mentions Rules, remind him about defenceless females, knocking blocks off fellow knights, and bad manners. Anyway he's causing a traffic jam,” said Piers, pointing to several wagons and a goose girl grousing about the hold-up.
Snapping shut his visor, Sir Bumbleby levelled his lance. The Black Knight came thundering down at him. Sir Bumbleby swerved aside. Slap into a farm wagon went the black charger and goose feathers flew. Hurled over the crupper by the collision, the Black Knight lay on his back like a struggling stag beetle. The traffic jam jeered.
“Demand his hardware or his life,” hissed Piers. But by the time Sir Bumbleby had dismounted, disentangling his spurs from his stirrups, his enemy was advancing with drawn sword, cursing all cheats.
“Too late!” sighed Piers giving his sire the sword and a shove. “I'll think of something.” Feebly waving his broadsword, Sir Bumbleby ducked blows designed to behead him. Loud clanged the hardware and the goose girl put her fingers in her ears.
Piers threw his master a mace, which went mysteriously off target. Sneakily, the chain, weighted by the ball, coiled round a black mailed foot. The Black Knight hopped wildly about, missing his swing.
“God’s wounds!” he yelled, “I’ll flay that scurvy knave and slice his lardy lord to streaky bacon. Then he crashed down upon his whimpering opponent.
“Oof!” whistled Bumbleby.
The Black Knight bounced off the fat paunch, trapping his sword beneath him.
“Battle axe coming over, sire,” shouted Piers, tossing it to his master. The weapon landed perfectly to hand.
“Take that, you crud faced cad!” Sir Bumbleby shouted, seizing the axe and getting in a good one.
The Black Knight's visor pleated like a concertina. Unable to see through the slits, he tore in vain at the jammed hinge: the crumpled helmet steamed. The knight staggered up and swiped blindly at a stray goose. Tripping over the ball and chain, he landed heavily, exposing his rear to attack.
“Well played, Fatty!” shouted the goose girl. The traffic jam cheered.
Sir Bumbleby spared the Black Knight's rear in exchange for the maidens, his horse and his gear.
“Cheat!” screamed the Black Knight much later that day, as he limped into court in tattered underpants. He had blisters. King Arthur sniggered: his knights laughed: Queen Guinevere tittered into her wimple: the maidens blushed. The bully didn't have a leg to stand on. (I am not referring to his limp.)
Sir Bumbleby returned to his lady wife and the venison pasties: he gained renown and an even larger paunch. Piers went on quest to find more distressed gentlewomen. He had gained a horse, armour, and knighthood – all rather dented. (But you and I know that nothing is perfect.) He looked marvellous in the black outfit.
*Geoffrey Chaucer, 14th century poet
“...So because of her curiosity, Pandora disobeyed the gods' instruction never to open the box. Surely a girl, the most enchanting creature ever created, would be forgiven for peeping inside. She raised the lid and out flew plagues and rheumatism, malice, greed and murder – all the ills from which mankind would now suffer for ever. Whilst Zeus laughed and Prometheus wept, Pandora crouched in terror as black shadows emerged, staining the world. When the box was empty, she gazed through her tears at the dark interior and there, in a dusty corner, Pandora saw a small creature with the fragile wings of a moth. It was Hope. Although humans must now know pain and sadness, they would never be destroyed by them as long as hope remained.”
Miss Briggs smiled and closed her book just as Friday's finishing bell rang and the class burst away.
That night, Dora lay in bed staring at the oak box on her shelf. She had found it in a built-in cupboard on the crooked landing. Black spiders scuttled off as she blew away the dust.
Roger tried to prise it open with a kitchen knife but Dad shouted at him because it could be as old as the sixteenth century house. Dora kept it safe, but at night when the moon silvered the filgree clasp, it lay like a lodestone, tempting her to search inside.
When Dora woke on Saturday morning, she could hear gusty rain thrashing the window. Mum and Dad would be scraping off wall paper and sanding floors all day.
“Blasted weather!” said Roger at breakfast, kicking savagely at the table leg, “I was going to play football.”
“What about exploring that old garden shed?” said Miles.
“No you don't!” said Dad from behind his newspaper. If anyone breathes on that roof it'll collapse. How about scraping wall-paper?
Miles and Dora suddenly found the cat fascinating.
“No thanks,” muttered Roger, as Dad disappeared, with a scraper.
“I'm going to look inside that box,” said Dora.
“How?” said Roger. It doesn't have a key or key hole and it wouldn't budge with a knife. Dad'll kill me if I try again.”
“There must be a secret spring,” said Dora.
“Perhaps there are emeralds inside,” said Miles. “Or Spanish doubloons.
“Idiot! Pirates didn't leave loot lying around in cupboards,” said Roger.
“Well I want to look,” Dora said.
The boys drifted after her through clouds of dust and sat on the floor while her finger tips probed.
“Try underneath,” said Miles. Roger sprawled on his back and yawned. In turn, each prodded. Then Dora, kneeling, turned it upside down and saw, a tiny bead sunk in one of the warped joints. She poked at it with her finger nail and the box gave a twitch in her hands. Squealing, she dropped it and it lay upright on the floor boards.
“What's up with you?” said Roger, propped on one elbow.
Dora, white-faced, had backed away, staring. “I felt it move.” she said.
“Well so would you if someone turned you upside down and dropped you on your elbow,” scoffed Roger.
“Try the lid again,” said Miles, reaching out.
“I'll do it,” snapped Dora. “I found it.”
Dora squatted back on her heels holding her breath, and raised the lid. When she peered inside, the box was empty save for a musty smell and a papery thing, like a dead grub.
“Satisfied? No emeralds and no gold. Not even a dead parrot,” said Roger strolling off.
“Can I see?” said Miles, grabbing at the box.
“Take your paws off it, Miles,” Dora snarled.
“It's only an empty box, stupid,” shouted Miles, holding on.
“Get off, you thieving toad!” yelled Dora, pushing Miles against the iron bed frame.
Dora saw the visible lump rising on Miles' forehead but when she tried to giggle and say “sorry”, her mouth shut like a mouse trap. Furious, Miles stormed off, shouting, “Some people are just paranoid! Keep the rotten thing, then. See if I care!”
At lunch, Dora hunched over her pizza while her parents, coated in white sawdust, sprawled like two weary ghosts. Miles suddenly dashed off to the bathroom muttering “sick!” and came back green-faced. Mum leaned over to feel his forehead and saw red spots on his throat.
“Just what we need! You've caught something,” she moaned, and went off to find the thermometer.
“Er...I need your help to shift that sideboard, Roger,” said Dad as Roger sloped off.
“I'm busy on my computer. Can't it wait, Dad?” said Roger.
“No, it can't,” said Dad, crossly.
“Why does it always have to be me?” grumbled Roger, sudden temper tarnishing his cool-guy image. “It's never Mum or Miles or Dora. Always me!”
“Because you're fifteen and fit.”
“For crying out loud!” shouted Roger, “This is a dump. I'm sick of hitting my head on low beams and putting my foot through dry rot. Why couldn't we have bought a normal off-the-peg house like everyone else...?”
“That's enough, Roger,” said his mother, reappearing at the door. “Go to your room.”
“Not until he's helped to move that sideboard,” said Dad, lunging at Roger and stepping into a pan of wood varnish that splashed the wall.
“Simon!” shrieked Mum, “All over the new wall-paper!”
Whilst Dad hopped over the floor dripping varnish from his right foot and sticking to the drips with his left, Dora slid away to her room.
A cloud seemed to press her down. Within an hour of opening the box, everyone was in a temper. She had wounded Miles and now he had spotted plague. Roger had been rude to Dad who had dripped varnish down Mum's newly decorated wall. A lot of nasties had come out of that box.
Then she remembered that Pandora's box had something left so she opened her box. She gasped. In the corner was a Painted Lady butterfly resting on an ugly, wrinkled grub case. Spreading its brilliant wings, it fluttered into the grey mist beyond the open window. Dora suddenly understood. After Pandora had opened the box, humans could never be perfect, but they could always hope to be better.
“Food allergy,” said Mum at tea time. He's itching.
“Teenage tantrums,” said Dad. We moved the sideboard in five minutes flat and he volunteered to clean up the varnish.”
“Dad,” said Dora. “I discovered how to open that box.”
“So what did you find? Queen Elizabeth's knickers?”
“Nope,” giggled Dora. “I found a butterfly. It flew off but the chysalis is still there.”
Dickon looked in the mirror and Silvia smiled back under her red curls. He was a beautiful girl, ready to woo the
groundlings on the sawdust ring and the rich folk in the balconies.
“I hope you know your stuff,” he said to the theatre company dog sitting on Dickon’s discarded doublet. “The groundlings will need some laughs this afternoon. It looks like rain.” Tobit whined, scratched at a flea and fidgeted.
Dickon had come early to put on his brocaded gown over a farthingale and to rehearse his lines. Master Shakespeare didn’t like his actors making things up. Some remembered the flaming rows he’d had with Will Kemp for adding jokes, but no one could stop a clown from clowning about. The audience loved it. It was different for heroines.
Robin, the potboy from the inn, knocked and entered the tiring room, balancing his tray as he held the door with his foot. “I see it’s Two Gentlemen of Verona. You can’t beat a dog to draw ‘em in, specially that one,” said Robin, nodding at Tobit. … “Aagh! Watch out dog, I nearly dropped…” Tobit squeezed round Robin and bolted outside.
“Tobit!” roared Dickon. “Come back!” If the dog were to miss his entry he, Dickon would be dead meat. He tore off after the play’s leading attraction. Unluckily the street door was open.
As Dickon ran, his farthingale flapped round his knees and his wig slipped awry. He zoomed round a loaded wagon of ale kegs, charging between two startled gentlemen of the City in tall hats and velvet cloaks. “Zounds, young mistress, where… ?
“Stop that dog!” Dickon screeched like a fishwife.
“Whatever’s the matter, darlin’?’” leered a tattered drunk waving a wineskin. “Lost yer servant and yer way, then? Come ‘ere, and give us a cuddle.”
The drunk lurched to grab the richly dressed wench who was behaving like a lunatic. Dickon panicked and punched out with his fist.
“What th…Wh…ooh…er!” Cursing, the man rolled in the rotting garbage of the central street gutter.
“Her be a shrew and no mistake,” a man with a fish cart spluttered. “She give ‘im a bloody nose. Haw!Haw! But she’d better watch out. Dressed like a duchess and behavin’ like that! Askin’ for trouble she is!”
Down filthy narrow streets, under the over hanging gables of wooden houses, Dickon dodged beggars on crutches and watermen stinking of the river.
“Oooh! ‘ere’s a game one!” yelled some apprentices on their way to the bear pit. “Come on then, sweetheart, what’s your name?”
Keeping his eye on the white streak of terrier, Dickon aimed a kick at the kneecap of a pimply youth, which was no small feat in a farthingale! Astonished, the youth crumpled and mouths fell open. Dickon fled to rousing cheers.
“Tobit,” he bawled at the dog rollicking in peelings and dung. Tobit paused and waited. “Here, Tobit, good dog!” Dickon crept up, sweetly murmuring, but it takes one actor to know another. With perfect timing Tobit shot away.
All along the river bank to London Bridge, Dickon puffed. No time to worry about the mud and horse muck splashed up his silken skirts or to reflect that the “holy fair” Sylvia was now an unholy mess.
Tobit whizzed onto the bridge. On either side tempting smells from pudding shops and sweetbread stalls halted his advance. Diving between the skirts of two gossiping matrons, he seized a hot pasty cooling on a baker’s window ledge.
“Hey!’” shouted the pie man. “Stop that dog!’ “Stop that dog!” yelled Dickon. “Stop that dog!’ roared a ragged group of urchins, giving chase while their mates nicked plum tarts in the confusion.
A woman leaning out of an upper casement yelled to the shoemaker three houses down, “Oi, Hal! Grab that thief!” Hal, not sure which thief, flung a sturdy boot at the crowd. It hit the paunch of a stout alderman who sat down plump in a pile of horse droppings. Shaking his staff of office, he joined the bellowing throng of shopkeepers, housewives, pickpockets, street urchins, servants with brooms, cooks with rolling pins, all chasing something, a dog or a girl– it didn’t matter what.
A carrier of small coals trying to drive his loaded cart across the bridge laid about the crowd with his whip and a few fights broke out. People loved a street show, especially when they were in it.
Suddenly, a huge man pulled along by three pit bull terriers with neck chains appeared, on his way to the bear pit. The crowd backed away before the hounds, but Tobit, prancing cockily ahead suddenly found himself staring down an angry red throat. His skid stop was masterly. The bull terriers bared yellow fangs and wobbled their slobbering jowls.
“Oh drat it!” said Dickon, “They’ll tear him to ribbons!” The man hauled on the chains as the bulldogs reared, snarling. Tobit prudently bolted under Dickon’s bedraggled farthingale where he peeped out, pretending it wasn’t his scene.
Dickon stood in the middle of London Bridge, his robe torn and muddied,his false curls limp. He had lost a red-heeled shoe and his eye makeup had mingled with runnels of sweat. Behind, the bulldogs clamoured for blood: in front, the audience snarled for action. Seizing Tobit, who was covered in excrement and fish heads, Dickon gripped his collar.
“Hey!” a young apprentice cried. “That’s Launce’s dog… he’s the best show in town... I saw ’im in the play at The Globe.” He paused and stared at Dickon. “And I bet that girl’s Sylvia. Only that aint no girl; it’s a boy! I seen ’em both on stage in Master Shakespeare’s play.”
“Yes,” said Dickon, quick on cue, “and if you’ve got a penny, me and the dog will be on stage again in five minutes.”
There was a long silence broken only by the bulldogs’ choking. Then the coalman began to laugh. A cheeky lad darted out and tried to peer under Dickon’s farthingale. An orange girl tossed him a fruit and the pie man hooted, punching Dickon on the upper arm.
Perched on the coal sacks, Dickon and Tobit were cheered all the way back to Bankside.
When they approached The Globe, the trumpeter was blowing his blast from the turret under the flag; the comedy was about to begin. Word had spread. Crowds were pouring in to see the jolly performing dog
“And how are you going to pay for that very expensive costume?” said a frowning Master Burbage. Sensing high tragedy, Tobit dropped down his head between his front paws and Dickon winced.
Master Shakespeare glanced shrewdly round the packed wooden O. “You know, Richard, I think young Dickon did a better job than the play bills. He’ll make a good publicity manager when his voice breaks. Meanwhile, shove him under the pump and… into Juliet’s ball dress.”
*Hamlet, William Shakespeare