Everyone else had left. Augustus Drake stood at the top of the mossy bank and looked down on Kingdom. At the ruined remains in the swampland. Both his heart and mind were numb, not just because he was drunk. The elixirs of Kingdom’s medicine man had impaired nearly all of his bodily organs, as it had with most who had been treated by Jacobi. They had all become mad. He still felt quite mad, certainly not quite normal, as if all that he had lived of the three years past since Kingdom’s first days had been some kind of out of mind experience – which is exactly what it had been. But he could remember all that had past. At least most of it. At least the bits that he chose to, even if he had to admit that there were some still mired in the madness that he couldn’t quite erase. Standing there, breathing the wet air, his bare feet squishing in the mud, his hands playing with the epidote stone strung on a strip of leather, he began to think through them.
As was usual, it was dark beneath the thick canopy, the day preferring the open fields between the swamp and the town. The smell was of earth. Birdcall and all other animal sounds echoed around the settlement that had been Kingdom, but no human voice. Until Augustus Drake began to murmur to himself. As he opened his mouth to talk to himself, his teeth fell out and landed in the fetid earth. Smacking his gums together, he fetched the teeth back to his mouth, sucking off the dirt and, with his tongue, clicking them to his top gum. With a grin, he tested their resolve. Both the teeth and the grin felt just fine to Augustus. It was Rebecca that recalled herself to his thoughts with that grin. He remembered standing in that exact same spot, when his grin might have seemed mad but his mind was not yet entirely.
‘This is where we shall settle,’ he declared. ‘Don Bindici might control the town and all that surrounds it, but he can no longer have any control over us if we live down here.’
Rebecca was smiling, but it didn’t seem to Augustus to be a smile of joy unbridled. ‘Dear Augustus.’ She rubbed his arm, slick from the humidity. She licked her top lip and folded one arm beneath her bosom. ‘I know that you would do anything to be free of the town, but do you really think that this is the answer? The swamp? It’s so . . .’ Rebecca looked all around her, at the high canopy, the spindly trunks of trees fighting for the open sky, her muddy boots.
‘I know what you’re thinking,’ said Augustus. ‘I know that you’re thinking that it’s too much work. But –’
‘Augustus,’ Rebecca interrupted, ‘I wasn’t thinking that I at all. I can’t think past getting out of here today. I was going to say that it’s just so unappealing. I mean, it is a swamp.’
Holding Rebecca by both shoulders, Augustus leaned his face towards her. ‘We can tidy it up,’ he said, nodding. She was so sweet when she got these ideas in her pretty head. She sometimes did find it hard to see the wood for the trees, or a kingdom for a swamp. Like when she had disagreed with him about discarding life measured by the calendar; she just couldn’t picture how life would be longer and less restrained if each day were lived just like the last. Anyway, she didn’t have to know yet that he had already found out that there was no covenant on this land. They could build where they liked. Once work began, he would bring her back down here and show her what the future looked like. It didn’t matter what she said, he had made up his mind.
‘But Augustus.’ He could feel her shoulders relax, which he mistook for her beginning to picture his vision. ‘Do you really think that Don Bindici will just let us leave the town? That he would just watch as we settled outside his jurisdiction? He has his rules.’
‘Look at it,’ Augustus said, turning Rebecca. ‘Just look at what we could have.’ Rebecca looked and saw only brown-green stagnant water, tangles of vines and swarms of biting flies. ‘The Don takes half of our earnings before we can spend a penny – another half of which is then taken by him under the guise of his protection. We can build here. We can create our own food sources. Others will come, you’ll see. They’ll see our life here and will want a piece of it. I remind you that there is no one who owns this land. It’s perfect.’
‘But I don’t see much land, Augustus. Where can you possibly build a house on here?’ Augustus surveyed the landscape of his dream. It was true that there were many trunks of trees, much undulating and sodden land matted with plantae. There was no obvious place for a dwelling, but that was probably why no one had previously even thought that this could be a developmental dream.
‘We will build many houses, my love, using the very land upon which we now tread. We will all live as one, in small and comfortable cottages, just like our ancestors. No one will have less than anyone else, yet no one will wish for more. Having said that, of course our house will be grander than any other. And having said that, I’ll ensure that we have a bit of privacy: I don’t know, we’ll build it on stilts, or something.’ Despite his vagaries, that was exactly how Augustus Drake had described his vision of his house – which was to stand just to his right at the top of the bank – to the consultant of the construction company that he had approached. To call them a construction company was fanciful. They were a fencing contractor, but he’d reasoned that they would be building out of wood, so could not really fathom a difference. ‘We shall be ruled no more, and we shall not rule. But any new ideas will have to be run past us first.’
Turning to face Augustus, head slightly cocked to one side, Rebecca shifted her shoulder from beneath his warm palm. ‘Augustus?’ she asked directly to his face. ‘You are asking me, aren’t you? You haven’t actually begun planning our lives in this swamp.’
‘You know that I’d never undertake any decision without first checking with you, my love,’ he replied. And he kissed her on the cheek.
He had proved them wrong, when no one had believed that he could build on this land. And then they had proved him wrong when their doubts came to pass and Kingdom failed. But he had been the first in proving anything at all, so Augustus believed that his proving held more substance. If it hadn’t been for the intervention of the Don then there wouldn’t have been any proving needed to be done by any parties. They had argued that it had all started to fail when the swamp water hadn’t been properly treated, distilled and filtrated – in that, even Augustus admitted that they were right, but only ever to himself, and only now, looking upon the ruins of Kingdom within the swamp. Now he had a lucid knowledge of the Machiavellian interventions that had destroyed what he built. Kingdom’s downfall was solely because of the Don. Solely him. And also Jacobi and his elixirs once the sickness had come and the water had turned yet more contaminated.
Narrowing his eyes, stroking his thick goatee beard, Augustus could still picture young Adam working down there in the smelly water in the first days of Kingdom, boring piles in preparation for the stanchions. Young Adam had been the most dedicated of workers. It wasn’t until Adam’s work on the house was finished and he had asked what else he could do now because he’d run away from home as he could no longer stand the company of his mother and this was the best place for him to be that the penny dropped for Augustus and he realised that young Adam was hiding by undertaking the work required in the bowels of the swamp. Provided that Adam continued to work as he did, Augustus couldn’t care what he was running from. So Adam built his own little house, one of the first in Kingdom. It was the second of the houses that he built that he lived in, because the first one he had built underground, which had turned out not to be the wisest of ideas in the swamp. When it flooded, young Adam was lucky to survive with his life. Even if his pet cat had not been so lucky. The next place that Adam built was up in the trees – a converse place for him to hide, but much drier. His new cat didn’t like it so much as it was scared of heights. That cat didn’t survive long either, breaking its neck when it fell from the treehouse, a bit too eager in peering over the edge looking for Adam. Standing there, once the deserters had deserted, Augustus remembered the day that he was looking for young Adam.
Adam was like the son that Augustus had never had – well, he had one, Junior Augustus, but he’d decided to run off when Augustus had decided for the family that they would move away from the town and into the swamp; he had a daughter too, but she’d always remained more like a daughter to him. Adam always did what was asked of him, and most often was doing things before he’d even been asked. But this day, Adam wasn’t where he usually was: up to this thighs in fetid water. Sure enough, Surly Jack was there, landscaping a bank of the swamp, but encumbered by the siphoning water that was creeping back over the ledge and landscaping the bank back to its natural state. Surly Jack had a habit of plastering thick layers of mud to his face. Eventually the eyes peered out from within the mask once he noticed the founding father of Kingdom standing on the bank above him, just to the side of the silty stream. Surly Jack grabbed a splodge of mud with each hand and slapped it on his cheeks.
‘Sire?’ Surly Jack spoke in his voice like the earth upon his face.
Augustus enjoyed to be called sire, not that he ever insisted, but nor did he encourage the speaker to desist. ‘Good morning,’ he replied, thumbs tucked into the tight space between belt and girth, rocking on his toes. ‘And how are you on this . . .’ He looked up. Beyond the canopy, he couldn’t be sure if it was a fine day or one just like any other. ‘. . . day?’
‘Very good, Sire,’ Surly Jack answered with a slight curl of his lip, cracking some of the older mud on his face. But it did not slip as it was encrusted to the beard that he was hiding within the cake of mud. Both of them watched as a large portion of the bank slipped down into the water, creating a little wave that travelled right the way to the other side, as well as a little waft of horridness.
Augustus wrinkled his nose; he wondered if Surly Jack’s bolshie appendage might be bunged with mud, as he could see no recognition of the stench. Perhaps it was simple acclimatisation. And then he noticed the little girl peek out from behind one of the larger trees. She often did that, just appear and then disappear. And she wasn’t really a little girl, either, just little by the fact that she was only about thirteen. She was actually rather tall. And was increasingly becoming apportioned of a female of much older years. Augustus shook his head, as if shaking trapped water from between his ears. ‘Good,’ he said, and resumed rocking on his toes, also now including his heels in the process. ‘Anyway,’ he said. ‘Good day.’
‘Sire,’ Surly Jack replied, hair sticking out from all angles beneath his mask, from both beard and brow.
Augustus looked out at all the workers working. He looked up into the moving leaves, certain that he had come here for something. Even though he was yet far from mad, even though not altogether sane as the society of the town might deign, it was a confusion that sometimes befell him that befell him now. As he looked back towards his house, he could see the little house hidden up in the trees beyond it, a marker stone towards the thought that he sought. ‘Ah, yes, I say . . .’ He could not recall the name of this worker – neither the Surly part of the name nor the actual forename . So he pointed a finger at Surly Jack instead. ‘Have you seen young Adam about at all? I have something that I need to mention to him.’
‘In the trees, Sire,’ Surly Jack replied.
‘In which trees?’ Augustus asked. ‘In his house in the trees?’ He pointed the way. Surly Jack did not bother himself with following the finger.
‘No, Sire. Just in the trees.’
‘Well, which trees, man?’
‘I, uh.’ Augustus watched as Surly Jack bit a piece of swamp mud from his lip and ate it. From his perch up on the bank, he could hear the crunch as Surly Jack chewed on it. He’ll catch something one day, thought Augustus, not yet cognizant of the horrors to come when all would catch more than something. ‘The trees.’ Surly Jack gestured all around. The trees, thought Augustus.
‘And what task has led him into the trees? For, perhaps, a direction to which I might trace his steps into the trees would be of some use, as I am seeking the man.’
A pink lower lip pouted out from the brown crust. Followed by a shrug.
‘I hope that you are of more use to my project,’ Augustus said, looking at the swamp water now flowing freely down the bank to his right, ‘than you have been to me today, or else you shall soon find yourself seeking employment in climes less plentiful with fruity slap to adorn yourself with. Good day.’ And with that satisfying admonishment, which seemed to have hit home, hard as it was to tell, Augustus turned on his heels and headed into the trees.
It wasn’t hard for him to find young Adam because, as chance had it, young Adam was headed straight in his direction. It had never really struck Augustus as curious that young Adam chose to work in the swamp in a three-piece suit, with his jacket hanging carefully from a nearby bough. But it struck Augustus as curious now. It seemed that it was the same suit that Adam wore each day, always clean before he plunged into the muck. Even covered in filth, he looked really rather smart, heading through the trees. He must have brushed his hair into a side parting, as he had a handprint leading from his forehead into his hair. Adam reminded Augustus of himself when he was a younger man: tall, slim, light brown hair – when clean of mud, becoming darker throughout the day – neat as a manicured bonsai and polite to all and sundry, regardless of their status.
‘What do you want?’ Adam asked Augustus, sniffing and smearing mud across the waist of his waistcoat and across his top lip.
‘Well, I . . .’ Augustus’ smile fell to his chin, before raising it again, although it formed a little skew-whiff. Young Adam sometimes acted this way after receiving a letter from him mother, which must be the cause of this impertinence, so Augustus decided to let it fly on the foul breeze. ‘I have come to find you, young Adam.’
‘Yeahs.’ Augustus looked at the way young Adam looked towards the trees around the swamp whilst picking his nose. He seemed to be keen to get back to work. Poor lad, it’s all that he really has to live for, Augustus thought. He could be an ambassador for Kingdom one day, if he can shake his penchant for slapping about in swamp mud. ‘Adam,’ Augustus continued, ‘I know that we have a rule here in Kingdom that we have no rules. But there is also a rule that I demand privacy about my house.’ Adam’s only response was to suck his lips and raise an eyebrow. So Augustus continued: ‘Having pondered upon it, I have concluded that the positioning of your lodgings is most unsatisfactory, as it looks directly upon my own house.’
‘But I only look upon your roof,’ Adam answered, gesturing his hands with the same impatience, and sneering with the same incivility as previously. ‘And I can’t look upon your roof anyway, because I have no windows.’
‘That may be so,’ Augustus said, approaching young Adam and putting a hand on his shoulder because it felt like the right thing to do in transmitting his understanding of the matter, and then removing the hand because he didn’t want to transmit anything else back to his person. ‘But I am planning to build a sundeck on my roof.’
‘But there is no . . .’ Young Adam looked up at the thick canopy that trapped the dinginess from the day. ‘Sire,’ he said, putting his hands in his pockets, finding slurry in each and slopping it onto the ground.
‘Rodelinda,’ a female voice whispered from within the trees. Young Adam’s attention was distracted by the voice. His feet shifted backwards, towards a tree. ‘Where are you, child?’ the voice breathed. ‘If you are chasing that old fool again . . .’ Augustus wondered not only who the voice belonged to but also what old fool the owner of it spoke of, and also what the woman would do if Rodelinda was chasing that old fool. Frowning at the ground, he tried to think of any old fools that could be found in Kingdom but could think of none.
‘I must get back to work, Sire,’ Young Adam said, his eyes narrowed and his head tipped slightly to one side. He glanced up at his tree house and then back at Augustus.
‘Of course,’ Augustus replied, ‘of course. I’m glad that we spoke today.’ As young Adam was walking off towards the swamp, Augustus called after him. ‘I say, young Adam. I say.’ Adam turned, his head still favouring one shoulder. ‘By the way, your new cat?’
Adam’s head sprung central, his eyes wide. ‘What? Has something happened to Timmy Two?’
Augustus laughed, crow’s feet stretching to his temples. ‘No, no, nothing has happened. But it might well if young Timmy Two continues to play with the well diggers.’ With that, Augustus left young Adam. On his way back to his house, he passed two workers having a smoke break. ‘I’m a bit concerned by young Adam’s behaviour today,’ he said to them. ‘I think that his mother might have attempted correspondence. Keep an eye on him for me. Although I’d advise giving young Adam space. And certainly be careful not to say anything that might upset him further,’ he added.
‘Young Adam?’ one of the workers replied. ‘You know that Adam’s forty-eight, Sire?’
Forty-eight, Augustus thought whilst standing in desecrated Kingdom. Who could have known that he defied his age by his youthful looks? And who could have known that it was those youthful looks that attracted young ladies, ladies who were not just youthful by prefix but by concrete reality. He clearly wasn’t a responsible young man, judging by the amount of cats that he went through. Timmy Two hadn’t lasted long. He hadn’t died by means of the well diggers or their well; it was justly reasoned that Timmy Two had been taken and eaten, most likely by a badger, but possibly by a hungry worker. After Timmy Two, Claude the cat had drowned; Muddy had been squashed beneath a poorly structured pile of logs; Claudette was only found by chance after being missing for four weeks, eventually discovered on the bough of a tall tree where she’d impaled herself on a broken branch; Timmy Three was sickly from birth, and proved it by dying before he was even a month old; Thiever found Jacobi’s stash of elixirs and suffered a horrific death, fizzing at the mouth and from beneath the tail at his end. And there were others too. Now that they had all gone and he was standing alone in Kingdom, Augustus didn’t wish young Adam any harm, wherever he had eloped to, but he could hardly wish him well, not after what he did. And he prayed for any more cats that might end up being pet to such a man.
Being housed in a swamp, Kingdom was founded on a fertile land – certainly more fecund than the arid streets and fields of the town. There would be a house for everyone, built by Augustus’ workers for little cost. A cosy settlement; a bedroom for everyone. A place where they could own their own land, their own dwelling. And most importantly, no shadow of Don Bindici over them, taking from them most of what was theirs. They would no longer live in fear of reprisals if they had not the capital to line the bulging pockets of their despotic ruler. It was that whisper that Augustus sent from house to house, via lips whiskered, rouged, or dry and cracked, some puckered and a few wizened, into ears young and old, and even the bristly ear of a goat. ‘Even if we must live here,’ Rebecca remarked to Augustus one day, now living in the leaky east wing in the new house in the swamp, ‘I can’t imagine that others will follow, as you believe they will. Could you envisage Nell and Ernest leaving their cottage of sixty years to start anew in a wooden shack, with his rheumatism? Can you picture Victoria tramping through the mud in her heels?’
‘Come here, my darling.’ Augustus led Rebecca to the wall that would join the east wing to the grand entrance hall, but was now just a flapping piece of tarpauling nailed to the wooden frame. ‘Look,’ he said, brushing aside the sheet and allowing the sopping elements in. All but one of the candles on the table blew out.
With rain splattering her face, Rebecca withdrew from the opening. ‘I’ve seen it in the daytime, Augie. I don’t think that there is anything new to see, on this night of all nights.’ She looked over at the darkened room towards their pallet bed. More significantly at the water snaking towards it.
‘Just look,’ he said, breathing the rich aroma in the air, which was at its best in wet weather. Rebecca was relighting the candles, so Augustus went to join her, but not after laying a couple of rocks on the bottom of the tarpauling to stop it flapping about. ‘This place,’ Augustus said, arms aloft, ‘this is our kingdom. In fact, that’s what I name it, right here and now: Kingdom. Yes!’ he said, pointing a finger in the air, and then another finger. ‘We don’t need anyone who doesn’t want to come and live here. We want people who can see our dream as we do; folks who embrace independence and have ideals like ours: to share what we have and grow what we can; to cherish life in its most primitive form – now don’t pull that face dear. I know what you’re thinking and it will get better. Men and women who will work for a common cause, who will not be oppressed and who will say no to tyranny. Those who . . . Rebecca, are you paying attention to me? This is an important moment in the history of Kingdom.’
‘Yes, Sire,’ Rebecca replied from beneath the sheets. Could get used to that, Augustus thought with a smile. ‘I’m just tired. I just want to get some sleep before the frogs start croaking in the morning and the birds start shitting on the window sills.’
‘Yeah, dad,’ Isobella said from her own pallet in the corner. ‘Me too.’
‘Ah, well,’ Augustus said, removing his coat and then putting it back on because he was rather cold. ‘We must all sleep, you are right. We must all be at our best each day, for that is how we shall all live in Kingdom, as if each day is new – which it will be, as ever – and as if each day comes with a new challenge – which I’m sure it will too.’
‘Goodnight, sweet princess,’ he said, kissing the bulge of sheets where he approximated Isobella’s head would be. ‘They will come,’ he muttered to himself, kicking off his boots. ‘They will,’ he reassured himself.
And they did, which even surprised Augustus Drake, not that he would ever have admitted it to anyone. Someone even brought the goat to Kingdom. It didn’t last long after it decided to feast on some poisonous berries, but it did create a feast itself, even if it did also create some dicky tummies. They didn’t arrive in any great number, and at first only taking provisional excursions into the swamp to see if it really was a possible venture. Some of the more free-spirited of souls plunged stakes into the land to claim their plot as soon as they saw what Augustus had already achieved. After he had spoken to them about the ideals of Kingdom – where everyone was their own leader, all standing shoulder to shoulder with their neighbour – and had shaken their hands, Augustus discreetly moved the marker posts so that no one would be too close to his own plot. After all, he’d later need the space to erect the fence that he had planned around his property.
Some of the others who had first dismissed the idea as too potty, typical of Augustus Drake, kept returning. If they returned more than once it was because they were actually quite impressed by what had been achieved in a relatively short time – particularly the grand house right in the centre of the swamp. A driveway had even been cleared, lined with woodchip, leading up to a double garage at the rear of the house. The repugnant smell of the place would surely be dealt with over time. So they would also stick a marker in the ground and pace out their new living area. Once they had returned to town, hands shaken, Augustus would surreptitiously kick leaves over the planned plot, move their stake, and have a quick word to the workmen, reminding them of the template size for the dwellings in Kingdom.
As the population not-quite-steadily grew – for the moving of marker stakes tended to create quite a hugger-mugger – Kingdom encountered a few teething problems, not least the problem of sewage. With foresight of such a problem, Augustus had employed an expert to offer guidance of the best way to deal with such an important issue. What he could not have foreseen is that a few disgruntled workers had rerouted the sewage pipes back into the part of the swamp that had been dredged with the specific purpose of supplying water clean enough to distil. With no expert of water treatment and distillation employed – because corners had to be cut in places to preserve funds for building – all of the denizens of Kingdom, almost without exception, not even Victoria, who had joined them in her high heels, became quite ill. A vicious cycle therefore began: the level of the water supply quickly filling up with grisly additions, contaminating it yet more. Something had to be done, and quick. It was no good if the workers had not the energy to work, and the settlers were feeling unsettled and talking about returning to sanitised living, even if it did been mean being oppressed and sometimes threatened. So Augustus, his belly rumbling louder than a festive brass band, had the idea himself: Let’s call on Jacobi.
‘Jacobi,’ he said, standing there and looking at his fallen fences, his tumbled house, his shattered vision – although the water supply pool was sparkling beautifully, capturing patterned light through the leaves high above. ‘It all began with Jacobi.’
Someone later told Augustus that Jacobi had been among the first inquisitive souls who had had his marker stake moved, long before Augustus had insisted on down payments before folks could claim a plot. That Jacobi had shared in the vision of Kingdom. It would have suited him down to the pongy ground, seeing as his vocation required venturing far from the village to forage for ingredients to concoct his elixirs. If only Augustus had known then what he knew now: that the Don had got to him first, as well as a few disgruntled workers in charge of sewage pipes. Augustus remembered the day when he had crawled out of his front door to find someone he could send for Jacobi.
The only person in Kingdom who had not been afflicted with gastrointestinal illness was Surly Jack, most likely because the amount of mud he ate from his face mask had built up some kind of immunity. Augustus had to crawl quite a long way, in fact finally just slithering along on his belly, to find Surly Jack. And in spite of his sickness, he was not happy when he did.
Seeing Augustus pulling himself along in a most undignified manner, Surly Jack quickly slapped some mud to his face, but the mud was dry and little of it stuck. Fortunately for him, the swamp mud that he’d applied earlier held firm.
‘What on earth are you doing, whatever you name is?’ Augustus asked, peering up from the ground, sweating heavily. ‘No need to look guilty about your choice of facial cover up, that’s not what I’m referring to. I mean, what are you doing with that earth?’
‘Building a shrubbery, Sire,’ Surly Jack replied, glowering.
‘For the Hendersons.’ Surly Jack shook his head and huffed. ‘Sire.’
‘Well who permitted you do such a thing?’ Augustus asked, rolling over onto his side, attempting to lean on his arm. His arm collapsed beneath him and he fell back on his side, finally settling on his back. ‘Come and stand here,’ he gestured with his head. ‘Where I can see you.’ All that Augustus had to do to regain dignity was to imagine that the Earth had tilted by ninety degrees and it was Surly Jack who was lying prone on his back. Augustus could feel the rumble of his stomach before it echoed around the azaleas that never flowered. His dignity might not hold for long.
A movement to the right of Augustus distracted his attention from the muddy-faced man. Augustus saw a pale little face pop out from behind a tree. Even though the face disappeared, the hands that the face belonged to were hugging the tree, no doubt because the owner of the arms didn’t have the strength to stand unaided. After a moment, the hands too withdrew. The only giveaway that the tall little girl was still behind the tree was the occasional fluttering of the material of her dirty white dress. Augustus’ stomach cramped. He returned his attention to Surly Jack.
‘Look,’ he said, peering up at the masked face. It was curious, this choice of mask. And not unimpressive, now that Augustus looked at it properly. The lighter ochre was deeply cracked from where it had dried, creating a complex pattern and making Surly Jack’s face appear as if it were made from rock. The darker, damper patches were like hilly contours on a map, creating the illusion of sediment deposited in a delta. It was rather fascinating. He hoped that Surly Jack would find some kind of kinship in the fact that both of them were covered in filthy mud. Augustus’ stomach reminded him that he had little time for admiration.
‘Look,’ he said. ‘Listen. I haven’t time to lay about fancying your face.’
Surly Jack’s face sank, causing a tumble of dry dirt. He picked it up and stuck it back in place like a master jigsaw puzzler. That done, his fixed grumpiness returned to his eyes. ‘Sire?’
‘I mean, there’s no time for talk of shrubberies,’ Augustus replied, realising that the sickness must have also weakened his mind. ‘And you really should stand up when you’re talking to me.’
Surly Jack looked all around himself, down at the ground, up at the treetops, at the founder of Kingdom laying in the dirt, his face pale and beaded with droplets of sweat; the slight curl of his lip creating an impression of guilt on his face.
‘Never mind that,’ Augustus continued. ‘We’ve more pressing matters of the . . . oooh.’ His hands clutched his stomach; he closed his eyes and tightened his lips. ‘We’ve no time,’ he said. ‘You must go to the town and ask for Jacobi, the medicine man – you are the only one well enough to. You tell him that a sickness has befallen Kingdom and his services are required, with immediate response. Tell him . . .’ With a foul sound and a worse smell, Augustus’ hands relaxed a little on his stomach. ‘It’s become a little more urgent, I fear,’ Augustus told Surly Jack. ‘Please, just go now.’
After Surly Jack had left, Augustus remained staring at the ceiling of leaves. He’d completed his task, perhaps one of the toughest undertakings of his life. He’d done his business, he needn’t hurry back. Lying there he had the most perfect feeling of clarity that he’d had in a while. It was happening; it had happened. What a beautiful place I’ve built, he thought. A perfect breeze was blowing over him; the warmth of the earth felt like the softest mattress that he had ever laid upon. He made another sound and the warmth beneath him increased. Nothing mattered any more, now that he was out from beneath the Don. This was life: nature most perfect. ‘Why didn’t I do this sooner?’ he asked aloud. And he smiled. His stomach was no longer cramping.
‘Rodelinda,’ Augustus heard a voice whisper on the breeze. He looked around to the tree that the girl had been hiding behind. It seemed that there was no one there. ‘Are you chasing that feckless old buffoon, child? Where are you? When I catch up to you . . .’
Rodelinda, Augustus thought, trudging over to where the Hendersons had indeed built their shrubbery. The little fence, not four inches high, that they had built around it remained, even if it had been trodden to the ground, but they had taken their shrubs with them when they had returned to the town. Someone had planted potatoes in their place. All that remained of them were brown leaves acned with blight, where they hadn’t been decimated by slugs, snails and caterpillars. Someone had also planted a sign made from stiffened clothes right in the centre of the shrubbery. It read: AUGUSTUS DRAKE IS A
He couldn’t quite read the last word. He thought that he knew what it said, but couldn’t be sure. He was more intrigued by the ingenuity of making a sign out of stiffened clothes. It looked as though the pole that supported the sign had been fashioned from pashminas. ‘How do you even begin to do that?’ he asked. After thinking about it for a while, he still couldn’t work it out.
There had been more signs, too, saying all kinds of inventive things about Augustus. If only people could realise that personal attacks on my person is no way of expressing political rationality, he thought. It had been the physical attacks on his person that had concerned him more. Nothing bad, really. Dunking his head in the sewage plant had been the worst of them, and had left him with no sense of smell for a while. Of course, Jacobi had treated him.
When Surly Jack had returned to Kingdom with Jacobi, the health of all had quickly improved. For the first time that anyone could remember, Jacobi had actually managed to concoct something that tasted quite palatable. The only problem with that was that everyone wanted as much of it as they could get their hands on, even after they were quite well again. It turned out not to be an issue at all, as Jacobi had been preparing this particular elixir for quite some time – being careful not to consume too much of it himself, despite its lovely taste, for he knew the side effects too well. When he had begun to self-medicate himself with too much, for it was so incredibly delightful, necessary actions had been taken, which including fastening his body to a chair and clamping his lips together. And when it was found that Jacobi had invented an alternative to the elixir in the form of a suppository, he had been fastened to the chair even more forcefully. But the affects that the concoction had on Jacobi proved just how powerful it would be.
Wearing his second pair of clean trousers, Augustus was sitting out on the veranda of his house, sipping from a glass of water and then taking regular trips to expel the liquid from his system. Like most of Kingdom, Rebecca and Isobella were both tucked up in bed in a fitful attempt at sleep. Augustus just couldn’t sit upright: it hurt to sit, to lay down, to stand up, to keep his eyes open and to close them. In the humid air, he was shivering. The veranda jutted out over the swamp, although here the swamp was now looking less like a swamp and more like a pond. He had carefully added – or got some workers to do it for him – a variety of oxygenating plants and water lilies and had stocked the pond with fish. Only a couple of the hundred or so fish had survived – and sitting there, he noticed that one of them was floating sideways on the surface of the water and gasping for air – but it had become his favourite place in the whole of Kingdom to sit and ruminate. Even when sitting itself became a jangly-legged dance.
Before he could see him, Augustus could hear the coming of Jacobi by the jingling of bells. And then he ventured on to the veranda, wild-eyed and fantastic. ‘Drake!’ he called. ‘You’ve been busy.’
‘Everything about my person is busy today,’ Augustus replied, twitching like he’d received a hefty electric shock.
‘Ah, yes.’ Jacobi stepped over to Augustus. ‘You’re feeling a bit sick, I hear.’
‘Would be to understate the fact, my old friend,’ said Augustus. He attempted to stand, but it hurt; so he sat back down, which hurt less. The very effort made his head swim with colour. ‘A ticky dummy,’ he said, rubbing his midriff. It was curious, both the hand and the empty organ within no longer felt like a part of him.
Placing a hand on the railing, Jacobi looked over the pond and the swamp beyond. Whilst he was doing that, Augustus looked Jacobi. He had made a new patchwork suit, colourful pieces of fabric embroidered with a mandalas and starbursts, flowers and checked-patterns, dots and stripes and all colours imaginable of cut up curtains, even a few patches of leopard print. It certainly was a contrast to his old patchwork suit that had consisted of just one shade of green, and had in fact been a perfectly functional suit already until Jacobi had decided to cut it up and stitch it back together. Augustus noticed a few patches of that suit had been stitched into this new one. Jacobi was deeply tanned, making his dark hair appear darker than ever beneath his patchwork top hat. In spite of the fact that his stubby body had always made his head appear like a boulder atop stacked piles of rocks, Jacobi looked . . .
‘You look resplendent,’ Augustus said.
Jacobi turned to face Augustus, his eyes twinkling. He put a fist to his mouth and chuckled behind it. The chuckle became a laugh, loud enough to startle birds from the trees, his arms opening up to the world. And then became louder still, shocking Augustus into sitting still for a moment and drawing the attention of some nearby workers. ‘Sorry,’ he said, wiping a teardrop from beneath an eye when he had finished. ‘Something just tickled me.’
‘What?’ Augustus asked, smiling.
‘Erm . . .’ Jacobi removed his hat and scratched beneath his heavy hair, thick thought lines ploughing across his forehead. ‘Can’t say,’ he said. ‘It escapes me.’ Standing and staring at a knot in the wood of the veranda, Jacobi returned his fist to his mouth. ‘Nope,’ he said. ‘Completely gone.’ He removed the patchwork satchel from his shoulder, glancing at the bottle that he had opened on the walk from the town and salivating. He licked his lips.
Augustus could hear Jacobi’s breathing rate increase. ‘You all right?’ he asked.
Jacobi snapped from his trance. ‘Yes!’ he said, clapping his hands together and doing a little dance, making the many bells on his patchwork suit jingle. ‘Fruity as summer pudding. You? Sorry, foolish question. You’re looking a tad peaky, Drake.’
‘I’ve been like this for days,’ Augustus replied. ‘We all have, everyone here. There’s something in the water.’
‘There certainly is,’ Jacobi replied, looking down at the ailing fish. Whistling, he plucked one of the brown bottles from his satchel. ‘This,’ he said, holding the bottle aloft, emitting a pleasured sound on a breath. Again he licked his lips, returning his tongue to each corner of his mouth. He closed his eyes and chewed his bottom lip.
‘Jacobi?’ said Augustus.
‘Yes, Drake?’ Jacobi said, opening his eyes, which immediately fixed on the bottle. Lowering it, he clutched it in his fist. ‘Yes. This. By chance I have been working on an elixir that will fix all of your maladies. It will not only cure you but will give you a renewed energy, fresh clarity and even increase your libido. In fact, I have refined it so that those who take it will be able to increase their drive towards any thought that they have: if you want to be able to do something, the contents of this bottle will accelerate your focus towards your goal just by thinking about it. This is . . . my greatest achievement,’ he said softly, looking at the bottle in his palm. Just as Augustus was about to snap his fingers at Jacobi, for staring at the bottle he had again fallen into some kind of daze, Jacobi’s hobnail boots skipped towards the pond. ‘Watch,’ he told Augustus, who was already watching.
Pulling out the cork stopper, Jacobi aimed the bottle at the floating fish and flicked out a line of the purple liquid. It splattered around the fish. Standing up, taking a moment for the spinning in his head to cease, Augustus joined Jacobi at the railing. It seemed that the fish had stopped its gasping. Its eye – the one that they could see – was staring, blind. ‘I don’t . . .’ Augustus began, just as the fish disappeared beneath the surface. ‘Where did it go?’ he asked, peering over the railing.
A ripple appeared on the surface of the water, getting quicker, speeding around the edge of the pond, making the plants wave as if in a wind. Waves emanated from the ripple, washing against the banks. And then the fish reappeared. ‘It looks as though it’s doing backflips,’ Augustus exclaimed. And it was. Series of them. And forward flips too. And then it exploded, splattering guts and scales onto the veranda.
Rubbing the fishy entrails from his hobnail boots onto the backs of his patchwork trousers, Jacobi seesawed a hand. ‘Not really meant for fish,’ he said. ‘But you get the idea.’
Augustus looked at the bottle. ‘I have an idea that maybe taking that stuff isn’t the best idea.’
‘Not at all,’ Jacobi replied. ‘Here.’ Raising the bottle towards his mouth, Jacobi’s lips became quite like a fish’s: opening and closing with little popping sounds. Tilting the bottle, he took a sip.
Augustus waited. He wondered if Jacobi might start flipping around all over the place. Instead he was quite passive. His lips were still moving in the same way, but now much more slowly. Augustus noticed how Jacobi’s eyes had glazed over, but when he looked up they were bright and wide, filled mostly by the enlarged pupil.
‘Zeeee?’ said Jacobi. ‘Phhh-iiine.’ And then he began breathing out in short, sharp breaths, as if he were convulsing, each time with a little jolt. The pleasured sound started again, a long groan of satisfaction. ‘Take . . .’ he breathed. ‘Take this from me.’ Augustus did as he said. Jacobi’s head sprung up. ‘See?’ he said. ‘Absolutely fine.’ He smiled at Augustus, showing every one of his bright teeth. ‘In fact, I feel great,’ he said, and started up his jig once more, rattling the many bells.
Augustus stood back a bit. He’d seen for himself that a fish felt great after taking this stuff, even if it had ended in quite a mess. He watched as Jacobi’s big head wobbled from side to side, his hobnail boots clopping on the veranda. After a while of watching Jacobi’s dance, which occasionally became star jumps and lunges and wild spinning, Augustus began to feel quite sick again. He was still holding the bottle in his hand. It was a beautiful little thing, shaped like a teardrop. He took a sniff. Hmm, he thought. Lemony. It didn’t seem that Jacobi was going to explode. He sniffed it again, taking a longer inhalation.
‘Have some,’ Jacobi said, suddenly standing beneath Augustus. He appeared even more youthful, as if his skin had been ironed out, particularly on his forehead. It was as if his tan resonated even brighter. ‘You’ll feel so much better, you’ll see.’
‘I haven’t been able to keep anything on my inside for days,’ Augustus replied. ‘Everything that’s touched my stomach has quickly become liquid. And then that liquid’s become airborne.’
‘You’ll see that your ills will cure,’ said Jacobi. His sparkling eyes were now for the bottle; an almost imperceptible shake of his head. ‘You’ll see.’
Augustus’ stomach roared and cramped, weakening his knees. He grabbed the railing. Jacobi’s hand reached for the bottle. Even through his pain, Augustus watched as Jacobi fought with his hand – halfway to the bottle; withdrawing; reaching again. He looked down at the open patchwork satchel. There must have been another fifty of these bottles in there. ‘I’ll feel better?’ he asked. Jacobi’s lips were going like a fish again. What the hell, Augustus thought. And he lifted the bottle to his lips.
In the coming days and weeks, no one was governing Augustus’ intake of the delicious brew or fastening him to chairs. Only very few of the inhabitants of Kingdom used the elixir just to get well and then continued their lives without it. The workers worked with huge grins on their faces and melodies in their head, loving the tasty elixir as much as anyone. The entirety of Kingdom reverberated with song and colour, and with the sugary, fruity taste upon the tongue. It had never been so productive before Jacobi’s elixir arrived.
Augustus walked around Kingdom with all of the colours of Jacobi’s coat filling the air around him. There was a brightness to Kingdom now, as if the trees above had parted to reveal a rainbow sky. He found that he no longer had any interest in moving the stakes marking peoples’ plots. Now he was painting the stakes to reflect the starry images in his eyes. When all the stakes were painted, he started on the trees.
Everyone was fit and healthy again. It had transpired that Jacobi also knew a thing or two about water distillation and purification, so he visited regularly to pour liquids into the water wells. And of course to deliver further batches of his elixir. The people of Kingdom awaited his arrival like hungry pigs. None more than Augustus.
Jacobi and his elixir had been a true revelation for Augustus. Kingdom had become a place beyond his wildest dreams. He had always envisaged that the people who lived here would be a happy people, but could never have predicted quite how happy. Along with the songs and the colours, laughter echoed around Kingdom in positive waves. One didn’t need something to laugh about, necessarily, and in fact it most often only took one person to start laughing for the whole swampy area to shake with it. Some of the dwellers – curiously those who didn’t feel the need for the continued use of the elixir – decided that this wasn’t for them after all, and chose to move back to the town. That was fine by Augustus: he didn’t want stick in the muds bringing anyone down from their weightless merriment. It was things like becoming stuck in the mud that usually brought such mirth. And all thanks to his friend Jacobi.
After his first few visits Jacobi had taken Augustus to one side and had shown him a green bottle, identical in shape and size to the brown bottles. Jacobi handed a handful of them to Augustus in a patchwork drawstring bag. ‘Sire,’ he said, because he had come to find it quite fun to call Augustus sire like the rest of them. ‘Sire, this is for your consumption only,’ he said. ‘It is a special mixture that will make you stronger and wiser than all within Kingdom.’
‘Oh, thanks very much,’ Augustus replied, shaking Jacobi’s bejewelled hand. And he took a sip of the juice straight away. And it was good. It was fantastic. ‘This is fantastic,’ he said. ‘How do you make these things? What’s in it?’ He began chuckling. It felt wonderful. So he chuckled some more. Jacobi appeared to be less bright-eyed, tanned and ironed out as he had done previously. He wasn’t sharing laughter with Augustus like he usually would; it was much more controlled.
Jacobi pulled a bottle of water out of his patchwork satchel and took a sip. ‘Health kick,’ he said, noticing Augustus’ perplexion. He looked at the patchwork bag containing the elixirs with something akin to disgust, like terror.
In the quiet of Kingdom, Augustus stepped over the veranda, one of the only parts that remained in tact. He looked down into the pond, alive with fish and wildlife. Not only because Augustus had one day demanded that they required ‘sturdier fishes’, they had finally managed to create a habitat that didn’t kill everything that they put in it, and it flourished still. He thought back to when he would look out from this place, to the day that he noticed that there was no longer careless laughter and happiness. Everyone would just be going about their job, even as the colours remained as vibrant as ever in his eyes. At the time he didn’t think anything of the looks that he received from folks when he burst into reckless song, danced to the rhythms in his head, or saw how high he could climb up a tree feet first.
It was standing exactly where he was now when he had seen that his son, Junior Augustus, had returned. Apparently Junior Augustus had heard of all that his father had achieved and had wanted to see it for himself. It had begun with a hug and smiles. And then followed approximately eight minutes of conversation and finger-pointing, strewn with manic outbursts of irrational laughter, before Junior Augustus had left again. Augustus had never seen him since.
His daughter, Isobella, had remained in Kingdom almost until the end of its days. She had travelled daily to the school in the town. But she was not happy. Most of the other children had begun to call her Swamp Girl and some of them just called her Smelly because, like a lot of the inhabitants of Kingdom, she did smell quite a lot. Even if one were to wash it wasn’t long before the stench of the swamp began to cling to the person again. It didn’t matter so much if they were just swamp dwellers and that was all, but if they had to travel to the town then it was possible that someone would be called Smelly, even once the sickness had worn off.
The sickness had quite quickly worn off for all of Kingdom, all except for their patriarch. He wasn’t outwardly sick, and he could quite easily wear just one clean pair of trousers on most days. There was no way that he could possibly see it for himself, blinded as he was with his addiction to Jacobi’s elixir. He could not have known that the animals and visions that he saw were not actually anything more than hallucinations. So on the day that he stared in wonderment as a huge Indian elephant tromped through Kingdom, running around and pointing out to folks this insane foreign arrival, people did look at him a bit funny. After a few more occasions when Augustus loudly made everyone aware of the chimpanzees swinging through the trees, the quite regular swarms of monster-sized butterflies, the alligators that were swimming through the legs of the workers, the zebras grazing further in the swamp at dusk, and the new bred of mammals with elongated limbs and West Indian accents, Augustus finally learned to keep these observations to himself. Except for the time when he believed himself to be undertaking a truly heroic action by warning everyone that he had seen a tiger stalking through the trees and that everyone should take cover. It had been there, he knew it; he had seen it through his own colourful eyes. Still, for days he had kept a watchful eye open lest it should return. And it was whilst he was keeping a watchful eye out that he had seen Rodelinda peek from behind a tree in the very area that he had seen the tiger.
Wearing his patchwork Bermuda shorts that he had commissioned Jacobi to make for him, Augustus leapt up and sped across the veranda. He stopped and sped back over the veranda for a swig of elixir, reasoning that it would give him the strength that he might need should he come face to face with the tiger. That tall little girl was in grave danger and only he could help her.
Augustus vaulted over the veranda railings, landing in a pile of not quite composted fruit and vegetable compost. If he had been wearing a regular pair of shoes that day, rather than his hobnailed Roman caligae, he might have lost one of them. Jumping out of the compost, he knocked over the large pile of Jacobi’s bottles that he had yet to return, skittling them all over the place. Even through his madness, Augustus figured that he would offer more danger to the girl if he ran and screamed through the trees, as that would be sure to bring the tiger back. So instead he stepped carefully, hunched over, as if tracking wild animals. He suddenly realised that tracking was exactly what he should do. So he began to look out for tiger-like footprints.
After a while of wandering around inspecting the floor, Augustus straightened out and put his hands on his hips. He couldn’t quite remember what had led him out here. He was sure that it involved something to do with searching for worms for the compost. Checking the pockets of his patchwork shorts, he found no worms. Looking back down, he saw a couple of worms, so he popped them into his pockets. As he looked up again, he saw the fluttering of a dress from behind a tree and a hand disappear. So he began to walk towards it.
‘Peek-a-boo,’ he said as he peered around the tree. The tall little girl clung tightly to the trunk, clutching a fruit knife, staring at Augustus with wide-eyed youthfulness. He looked into her pale apple-green eyes, her skin as white as her dress, only not quite as dirty. She was barefoot, her feet long and flat. He realised that he had a stone between his foot and the sole of his shoe. But he could come back to that. ‘Don’t be scared, child,’ he said, being careful not to do anything that might scare her. ‘All that I wanted to know is why you have this tendency to peek out from behind trees when I’m about?’
With her forehead pushed against the tree, Rodelinda inhaled. And then she legged it off towards the swamp, her long limbs circling in an ungainly fashion like one of the giraffes Augustus had once seen galloping through the trees out here. Leaning against the tree, he watched her go. And then he realised that his thumb was picking at a loose piece of bark. He turned to look at it and saw etched into the tree, I Love You
Standing there, Augustus thought about that for a while. And for the first time in a while his madness escaped him. Still leaning and looking at the inscription, with a finger he removed the stone from his caligae. And then he saw that it wasn’t a stone at all, but a large melon seed.What does it mean? he wondered, eating the seed. And then because he was not quite as mad as he usually was, he saw that it could mean only one thing. ‘She loves me,’ he said aloud. ‘Oh, well that won’t do.’ And then the madness came rushing back in. He wasn’t sure whether to laugh out loud or cry or what. He realised that doing either might attract the attention of the tiger.
‘The tiger!’ he yelled. ‘The bloody tiger!’ And he ran off, shouting and screaming at the top of his voice, yelling, ‘Tiger! Everybody seek shelter, there’s a tiger on the loose!’ And that was when Augustus ran into a tree and knocked most of his teeth out.
The reason that Augustus Drake had the funds to found Kingdom was when good fortune, in the form a great fortune, came his way. It did not directly come his way, as it was from Rebecca’s father. Augustus had always treated the inheritance as his own – carefully hidden from the unscrupulous eye of Don Bincini, as he would be certain to invent a reason to inherit his own slice of the hefty pie. But when the chunky dividends from the soap company that Augustus had invested some of Rebecca’s inheritance in began to spill through, the Don began sniffing around.
With the inheritance, the dividends, and the bit of money that he had embezzled from the bakery that he worked in, Augustus knew that he would never be poor again, unless the Don got his hands on his gains. It was this that inspired him to start looking for a new land to invest in. No one really knew about his fortune, and no one needed to, which was why there was never any argument over the sinking fund that residents in Kingdom were obliged to pay into. Living in a swamp and calling the compulsory maintenance money a sinking fund did not seem wise, Augustus surmised, so it was thereafter referred to as the reserve fund. He didn’t need the money and the rate of the funds was more than was necessary, but this entire concept and way of life was the sole imagination of Augustus, so he reasoned that this was fair enough. And also it had paid for the new conservatory that he had erected on the back of the house.
As his madness grew simultaneously with the spread of Kingdom’s population, Augustus craved for his nest egg to grow just like he craved the wonderful elixir. Rebecca managed to discourage him from setting up his own Kingdom bank, but when he discovered oil one day Augustus cartwheeled all the way around the house. It took some convincing to show Augustus that it was actually just oil on the ground from where he’d parked his car and that the oil sump needed replacing. On that unhappy occasion Augustus had sulked for hours on his hammock. The hammock was just laid out on the floor, as Augustus had taken it down from the hooks as he didn’t like the feel of the swinging. Laid out on the floor it was quite uncomfortable, yet satisfying nevertheless.
That night, laying in bed beside Rebecca, wearing his glasses that were not glasses but were two magnifying glasses stuck together with tape, Augustus was reading. He could sense Rebecca looking at the side of his face, so he turned to face her. ‘You look ridiculous,’ she said.
‘And you are still as beautiful as the first day that I met you,’ he said. Or at least that’s what he heard in his head. What actually came out of his mouth, still swollen from his accident with the tree, was a series of incoherent mumbles. Still, he continued: ‘I remember the day well, you were standing outside the pet shop, petitioning people about the cruelty of keeping animals in cages, in houses. I never did tell you – or I might have told you, I can’t be sure – but I had gone there that day to buy a canary. Ha, well I couldn’t buy a canary once I’d seen you with your leaflets.
‘You were wearing a tartan dress, and I remember seeing that epidote stone that you wear still hanging between your boobs. I swear that it was the stone that I kept looking down at. Although I did also look at your boobs, of course. You must have been hot because the day was so bright, the dust in the streets of the town burning like fire. And a fire began in me that day. That’s why I knew that you’d come to love it here, where we can all roam free and –’
‘Augustus,’ Rebecca said. ‘Please stop. I can barely understand a word that you’re saying, poor soul.’ She stroked his hair away from his forehead, and then left her hand there. ‘And take off those ridiculous glasses.’ She removed them for him. ‘Augustus, I love you, I do. I love you so much, in spite of the way that you have been since the sickness came. But I’m just not sure anymore that –’
‘What was that?’ Augustus said, sitting up in the bed, the book falling onto the floor. He looked out of the window to see someone looking in the window at him. The face disappeared back behind the tree. ‘This has got to stop,’ he said, pulling back the sheets, picking up his magnifying glasses and climbing out of bed.
‘Augustus,’ Rebecca called after him. ‘Are you seeing things again? Stop! You can’t got outside, you’re not wearing anything.’
Quite naked, Augustus stormed through the kitchen and out of the backdoor. With the cool of the night stroking his body, he put the glasses on and peered up at the tree. ‘Come on,’ he said. ‘Come out of there. I’ve had enough of this. You can’t keep –’
A middle-aged woman sprung out from behind the tree, her face fierce and an admonishing finger ready to prod at Augustus. She pulled back her hand ready to stab him with her grievances when she noticed that the man she had come to tell off was not wearing a stitch.
‘Ursula?’ Augustus said, looking at the startled woman. ‘What are doing out here? I was expecting someone rather more sprightly. And that is not to say that I was expecting anyone at all. And I am also not saying that you are not sprightly yourself. In fact,’ Augustus adjusted his glasses, ‘you are looking fantastic. How are you?’ The woman was simply standing there; her ferocious expression turned to simpering helplessness. ‘Oh,’ Augustus said, covering himself up. ‘Is there something I can help you with, Ursula?’
‘You. I.’ Ursula brushed her hands back through her hair, rolled her head, and batted her eyelashes. ‘I came here to tell you off for encouraging Rodelinda,’ Ursula said, curling the finger that had previously been pointing back into her hand.
‘Rodelinda is your daughter?’ Augustus said. Ursula seemed to have been able to understand him, even through his mumbling gums. ‘She is your daughter. That little thing that you used to carry in your arms when you visited the bakery is Rodelinda.’
‘Yes,’ Ursula replied, ‘only she’s not such a little thing these days, but I have noticed that you have noticed that.’
‘Well, no,’ said Augustus. ‘Well, yes. No she’s not. And I had noticed.’
‘And that is what I have come to tell you off about,’ Ursula said. ‘She tells me that you are in love.’
‘On that she would be right,’ Augustus replied. ‘I am in love.’
‘You scoundrel,’ said Ursula.
‘But she is wrong if she says that it is her that I love,’ Augustus said. ‘It is my wife that I love. My only love – although I do love things like walks in the trees and puzzles and things like that. But other people? I suppose that there is a kind of love there for all in Kingdom, but nothing like I love my wife.’
‘So . . .’ Ursula pouted out of the side of her mouth. ‘You haven’t had a dalliance with my little girl?’
‘Nothing of the sort,’ Augustus scoffed. ‘I was hoping to have a little dalliance tonight, and was doing quite well with my sweet talk in my attempts at heading there until I saw you looking in my window.’
‘Oh,’ Ursula said, looking at the window that she had been peeking in and then at the ground, and then slowly up at Augustus, now with his hands on his hips. ‘Well.’ Once more she ran a hand back through her hair. ‘Seeing you as, um, I have,’ she said, stepping forward, ‘I can see the attraction that young Rodelinda has taken to.’ She took another step forward. And another. ‘Even with your mouth smashed in as it is. In fact, I quite like that. I wonder if I might tempt you into a quick dalliance right now,’ she said, stroking his chest with the same finger that was earlier going to prod him dangerously.
‘Well, I, Ursula, no!’ Augustus mumbled toothlessly. ‘Did you not hear a word that I just said?’
‘Then I will tell everyone what you did to my daughter, my little Rodelinda,’ Ursula growled.
‘But I did not a thing!’ Augustus replied. ‘I might be mad but I’m not crazy.’
In the days when Augustus had been beset by a madness of the most chronic kind he had not been idle. One of his favourite pastimes was to whittle items from chopped wood. Mostly he would start something without real vision of what it would be, so would end up whittling a log into kindling, or whittling a log into staffs for the figurines that he had whittled – which didn’t look much like figurines, and looked more like a fat staff holding a thin staff. But one thing that he did whittle with great success was a fully-functioning rocking horse. And it was still functioning on his last day in Kingdom, so he sat there for a while just rocking back and forth, clicking his teeth in and out and thinking over what he could have done differently.
He stopped rocking and placed his head in hands, listening to the sound of the birds in the trees, the only sound that remained – although if he listened really carefully, he could just make out the water running from the fountain, inspired by Fontana del Tritone in Rome, that he had had installed in the centre of the circular driveway. More than fifty souls had come to set up home in Kingdom, sharing twenty-five little cottages interlinked by lighted woodland paths. They had bred livestock. They had built community ovens for the use of all – not that Augustus’ family had needed to use them, as they’d had an Aga installed in their open kitchen-diner. Kingdom had grown beyond Augustus’ fanciful dreams into a true home for people who wanted to be free. It had all meant so much, but nothing meant anything at all now that he had no one to share it with. And the fact that it was in ruins.
Even after puzzling it over for a while, Augustus couldn’t quite remember what day of the week that it was when the last person had left Kingdom. At some point he had reinstated his disregard of calendar days, which had worked quite wonderfully in Kingdom. Sometimes, though, he had found himself wondering what day of the week was – mostly so that he would know if Jacobi would be visiting again soon. He’d think about it for a while and then decide that it must be Sunday. It had always felt like a Sunday in Kingdom. He had lived whole weeks of Sundays. It had made him rather frustrated one Sunday when some helpful soul had told him, ‘Actually, Augie – sorry, I mean, Sire – it is in fact Tuesday.’ But he found himself wanting to know what day of the week it was that day. He settled upon Monday. He decided that this last day in Kingdom was a Monday.
Patting the rocking horse on the head, he took one last walk down to the swamp, the original centre of Kingdom, taking his cup with him. He had been so taken by Jacobi’s elixirs that he either did not know or could not remember when the workers had built their own distillery in the swamp, stealing hops from Don Bindici’s fields. It was good beer. He had drunk enough of it this day to attest to that.
The colours around him were natural, as they should be, untainted by the colours of the mind. Standing for one last time on the mossy banks he saw no exotic animals. There was no mirth in him. The water in the earth squeezed out between his toes. He closed his eyes once more. A solitary tear escaped from between each pair of lids. Between his fingers, he clutched the epidote stone hanging from his neck. Augustus’ feet slipped from beneath him and he landed on his backside. In his fall, he had managed to save most of the beer in his cup. He took a sip and attempted to straighten himself out, but slipped again and slid down the bank up to his knees in swamp water. Once the water had stilled, he could see his reflection staring back at him. His wild hair. His thick goatee beard. He hadn’t looked at himself in years, long before he started dressing in patchwork clothing. ‘What have I done?’ he cried out to desolate Kingdom, and then started crying into his muddy hands.
‘A son gone,’ he mumbled, ‘and then returned for a few minutes and then gone again. A daughter eloped,’ – with young Adam, no less, who had not turned out to be as young as he appeared, and whom Augustus had seen so much of himself inside, the thought of which terrified him – ‘a town – well, never quite a town – deserted. A wife . . .’ He gripped the epidote stone tighter. ‘A wife . . .’
A hand gently pressed on Augustus’ back. ‘Sire?’
Choking back his woes, Augustus looked up into the unfamiliar face. It was cleanly shaven. The stranger’s hair was cut neatly, not long but not short, a wavy mass of curls. Augustus frowned. ‘You are not familiar to me,’ he said. ‘Do I know you?’
The stranger scowled a bit and nodded. ‘Yes, Sire. I was known to most as Surly Jack.’
‘Surly Jack?’ Augustus said to himself. ‘Surly Jack? Say, did you use to wear mud on your face?’
Surly Jack was still nodding, so continued. ‘That I did. And I see that you’ve taken to doing so yourself now.’
Augustus looked down at his reflection to see that his hands had printed themselves onto his face. ‘It appears that I have,’ he agreed. ‘But not by intention. Tell me, for I am curious: why did you chose to wear mud on your face?’
Surly Jack shrugged. ‘I liked it. I liked the feeling. You see, Sire –’
‘Please, just called me Augustus.’
Surly Jack smiled. ‘Okay, Augustus. You see, I came to truly admire you and what you’d set out to achieve. I wanted to feel a part of it. I suppose that it was because I never really felt like I fit in anywhere. A lot of that was to do with the fact that I am naturally a bit grumpy, which was probably another reason why I used to wear mud on my face. Here . . .’ Surly Jack plunged his hands into the mud and was about to apply the lot to his clean face.
Augustus grabbed his arm. ‘No,’ he said. ‘You have a fine face. And you don’t seem grumpy or surly to me at all.’
‘Thank you.’ Jack sat down on the bank next to Augustus. He looked at him for a long time. They looked at each other. Augustus knew what he wanted to ask.
‘Where did it all go wrong?’ he said to Jack.
Jack nodded. ‘I heard what happened. That people were dunking you in the sewage and tying you to trees upside down and stuff. I heard that the place had gone to ruin, all that you built.’ Jack looked around, shaking his head. ‘I couldn’t believe it, it’s a legacy of so many who invested time into your dream, a dream we shared, so I wanted to come and see for myself.’
Letting go of the epidote stone for a moment, Augustus leaned back on his elbows and played the water between his feet. He wiped his face, forgetting that he had mud on it and smearing it right up to his ears. He looked up at the tree tops. ‘It was you that I sent that day, to go and seek Jacobi, the medicine man. I remember now.’ He looked at the side of Jack’s face. He was looking into the water. Augustus hoped that Jack liked what he saw, free from those thick layers of mud. He sighed. ‘Don Bindici was never going to allow this to work, I know that now. I thought that I could prove him wrong. And I did.’ Jack was nodding his agreement. ‘But when he saw that it was working . . .’
‘Jacobi?’ Jack asked, winking in a ray of light that had found its way through the thick canopy.
‘Jacobi,’ Augustus agreed. ‘The Don saw to it that we’d get sick and knew that we’d have to call for the medicine man. So he concocted a special elixir for us in Kingdom, which made certain that we’d get well, but also that we’d turn mad.’
‘I heard it said that there was an amended version of the elixir that didn’t have any of the poison in it, but tasted the same,’ Jack said. ‘Just a drink. But I guess that you weren’t given that one.’
‘Jack, I am still a bit mad,’ Augustus said. ‘My mind isn’t all that it should be. With all of the elixirs that I’ve consumed I think that I always will be mad. But even so, I have managed to conclude as much myself. I think that the elixir destined for my consumption was even more potent than the first batches.’
‘You probably don’t want to hear, then, that Jacobi has had such success with his drink that it’s now an international brand,’ Jack said. ‘He’s become quite wealthy. And apparently he’s starting a new company in the fashion industry too.’
Augustus raised his eyebrows and laid back. ‘I don’t care about that,’ he said. A pang shot through his heart. He clutched the epidote stone at his chest. ‘I don’t care about any of that, nor any of this, at all. Not even what that woman who was also mad started saying that I did to her daughter, none of which was true.’ He clutched the stone with both hands. ‘So many minds were warped. So many animals had to die for me to fulfil what was my dream – although I take no responsibility for any cat. It could have worked, I know that. It would have worked, but for the Don. It was Don Bindici’s schemes that made it fail, but I should have done more to protect my people, rather than jigging around to the reels playing in my head. At the end of any dream what are you left with? Just a new day and the vague memory of the dream. Nothing remains. I dragged everyone along with me and I was selfish. Maybe I’m a bad man.’
The two reflections in the water looked at each other. Jack shook his head. ‘You gave people hope, Augustus. You gave people who were simply living out their lives something to believe in. Sure, you infuriated quite a few people along the way – almost everyone, in fact. And everyone thought that it was a bit inappropriate when you used to sunbathe naked on the veranda.’
‘Did I?’ Augustus asked.
Looking at Augustus, Jack nodded. And then he smiled. ‘You’re not a bad man though. You’re unique. Like this place.’ They both took a look around at the shells of the burned out cottages, the deep ash mingling with the leafy floor. The broken bridges, the dangling rows of lights, and the felled trees. The cockeyed sign that read: ROT IN YOUR HELL, SIRE. YOU KIDDIE-FIDDLING PRICK.
‘Faithful to the last,’ Augustus said, a trace of a smile hidden within his beard. As his grip on the epidote stone tightened, his smile fell away. ‘Listen, I need you to help me with something. Something . . .’
Augustus led Jack back past the house, pointing out his rocking horse on the veranda, past the statue in the driveway and the garages, pointing out young Adam’s treehouse, just about the only thing that remained as it had been, and away to a clearing in the trees. The sunlight was bright and clear, opened up to the day above. There were flowers growing, a task that had been almost impossible in any other place in Kingdom, where the slugs had eaten all plant life except for that which had grown in natural abundance and that the natives had fruitlessly attempted to clear. Still with the stone in his hand – he had not once let it go – Augustus swallowed. ‘I need to exhume her,’ he said, staring at the headstone. ‘She didn’t want to be here. It was my selfishness, my foolish wish, the greed of my desire to prove a point that brought us here. It was Kingdom that killed her. This swamp.’ Augustus looked up at Jack. ‘I can’t leave and leave her here. Will you help me?’
Jack stared at Augustus for quite a time. And then he stared at the headstone for a longer time. ‘I can’t do that, Augustus.’ He watched Augustus walk to the shovel that was leaning against the headstone, pick it up. ‘I don’t think that you should either.’
‘Then bury me here,’ Augustus said, plunging the shovel into the ground alongside the fresh soil on the grave. ‘Bury me alive, I don’t care. I care for nothing but Rebecca. I would burn the earth rather than leave her here alone. Or I shall carry her with me wherever I go. I thought that this was life, but life is nothing without my sweet love. Even in my maddest of days she reciprocated that love without question. If you don’t do it then I’ll bury myself.’
Jack was running a finger along his lip, blinking in the sun. ‘You are still mad, Augustus,’ he said. ‘You are still quite mad.’