Maskerade Page 11

'What was the third way?' said Nanny. 'Oh, you could go down that little alleyway into Shamlegger Street and then cut down into Treacle Mine Road,' said Henry. 'But no one ever amounted to anything who went that way.' He sighed. 'I made a few coppers singing in taverns and suchlike,' he said, 'but when I tried for anything better they said “What is your name?” and I said “Henry Slugg” and they'd laugh. I thought of changing my name, but everyone in Ankh-Morpork knew who I was. And no one wanted to listen to anyone called plain Henry Slugg.' Nanny nodded. 'It's like with conjurers,' she said. 'They're never called Fred Wossname. It's always something like The Great Astoundo, Fresh From the Court of the King of Klatch, and Gladys.'

'And everyone takes notice,' said Granny, 'and are always careful not to ask themselves: if he's come from the King of Klatch, why's he doing card tricks here in Slice, population seven.'

'The trick is to make sure that everywhere you go, you are from somewhere else,' said Henry. 'And then I was famous, but. . .'

'You'd got stuck as Enrico,' said Granny. He nodded. 'I was only going to do it to make some money. I was going to come back and marry my little Angeline-'

'Who was she?' said Granny. 'Oh, a girl I grew up with,' said Henry, vaguely. 'Sharing the same gutter in the back streets of Ankh-Morpork, kind of thing?' said Nanny, in an understanding voice. 'Gutter? In those days you had to put your name down and wait five years for a gutter,' said Henry. 'We thought people in gutters were nobs. We shared a drain. With two other families. And a man who juggled eels.' He sighed. 'But I moved on, and then there was always somewhere else to go, and they liked me in Brindisi. . . and. . . and. . .' He blew his nose on the handkerchief, carefully folded it up, and produced another one from his pocket. 'I don't mind the pasta and the squid,' he said. 'Well, not much. . . But you can't get a .decent pint for love nor money and they put olive oil on everything and tomatoes give me a rash and there isn't what I'd call a good hard cheese in the whole country.' He dabbed at his face with the handkerchief. 'And people are so kind,' he said. 'I thought I'd get a few beefsteaks when I travelled but, wherever I go, they do pasta especially for me. In tomato sauce! Sometimes they fry it! And what they do to the squid. . .' He shuddered. 'Then they all grin and watch me eat it. They think I enjoy it! What I'd give for a plate of nice roast mutton with clootie dumplings. . .'

'Why don't you say?' said Nanny. He shrugged. 'Enrico Basilica eats pasta,' he said. 'There's not much I can do about it now.' He sat back. 'You're interested in music, Mrs Ogg?' Nanny nodded proudly. 'I can get a tune out of just about anything if you give me five minutes to study it,' she said. 'And our Jason can play the violin and our Kev can blow the trombone and all my kids can sing and our Shawn can fart any melody you care to name. 'A very talented family, indeed,' said Enrico. He fumbled in a waistcoat pocket and took out two oblongs of cardboard. 'So please, ladies, accept these as a small token of gratitude from someone who eats other people's pies. Our little secret, eh?' He winked desperately at Nanny. 'They're open tickets for the opera.'

'Well, that's amazin',' said Nanny, 'because we're going to-Ow!'

'Why, thank you very much,' said Granny Weatherwax, taking the tickets. 'How very gracious of you. We shall be sure to go.'

'And if you'll excuse me,' said Enrico, 'I must catch up on my sleep.'

'Don't worry, I shouldn't think it's had time to get far away,' said Nanny. The singer leaned back, pulled the handkerchief over his face and, after a few minutes, began to snore the happy snore of someone who had done his duty and now with any luck wouldn't have to meet these rather disconcerting old women ever again. 'He's well away,' said Nanny, after a while. She glanced at the tickets in Granny's hand. 'You want to visit the opera?' she said. Granny stared into space. 'I said, do you want to visit the opera?' Granny looked at the tickets. 'What I want don't signify, I suspect;' she said. Nanny Ogg nodded. Granny Weatherwax was firmly against fiction. Life was hard enough without lies floating around and changing the way people thought. And because the theatre was fiction made flesh, she hated the theatre most of all. But that was it-hate was exactly the right word. Hate is a force of attraction. Hate is just love with its back turned. She didn't loathe the theatre, because, had she done so, she would have avoided it completely. Granny now took every opportunity to visit the travelling theatre that came to Lancre, and sat bolt upright in the front row of every performance, staring fiercely. Even honest Punch and Judy men found her sitting among the children, snapping things like '

'Tain't so!' and 'Is that any way to behave?' As a result, Lancre was becoming known throughout the Sto Plains as a really tough gig. But what she wanted wasn't important. Like it or not, witches are drawn to the edge of things, where two states collide. They feel the pull of doors, circumferences, boundaries, gates, mirrors, masks. . . . . .and stages. Breakfast was served in the Opera House's refectory at half-past nine. Actors were not known for their habit of early rising. Agnes started to fall forward into her eggs and bacon, and stopped herself just in time. 'Good morning!!' Christine sat down with a tray on which was, Agnes was not surprised to see, a plate holding one stick of celery, one raisin and about a spoonful of milk. She leaned towards Agnes and her face very briefly expressed some concern. 'Are you all right?! You look a little peaky!!' Agnes caught herself in mid-snore. 'I'm fine,' she said. 'Just a bit tired. . .'

'Oh, good!!' This exchange having exhausted her higher mental processes,. Christine went back to operating on automatic. 'Do you like my new dress?!' she exclaimed. 'Isn't it fetching?!' Agnes looked at it. 'Yes,' she said. 'Very. . . white. Very lacy. Very figure-hugging.'

'And do you know what?!'

'No. What?'

'I already have a secret admirer!! Isn't that thrilling?! All the great singers have them, you know!!'

'A secret admirer. . .'

'Yes!! This dress!! It arrived at the stage door just now!! Isn't that exciting?!'

'Amazing,' said Agnes, glumly. 'And it's not as if you've even sung. Er. Who's it from?'

'He didn't say, of course!! It has to be a secret admirer!! He'll probably want to send me flowers and drink champagne out of my shoe!!'

'Really?' Agnes made a face. 'Do people do that?'

'It's traditional!!' Christine, boiling over with cheerfulness, had some to share. . . 'You do look very tired!' she said. Her hand went to her mouth. 'Oh!! We swapped rooms, didn't we!! I was so silly!! And, d'you know,' she added with that look of half-empty cunning that was the nearest she came to guile, 'I could have sworn I heard singing in the night. . . someone trying scales and things?!' Agnes had been brought up to tell the truth. She knew she should say: 'I'm sorry, I appear to have got your life by mistake. There seems to have been a bit of a confusion. . .' But, she decided, she'd also been brought up to do what she was told, not to put herself first, to be respectful to her elders and to use no swearword stronger than 'poot'. She could borrow a more interesting future. Just for a night or two. She could give it up any time she liked. 'You know, that's funny,' she said, 'because I'm right next door to you and I didn't.'

'Oh?! Well, that's all right, then!!' Agnes stared at the tiny meal on Christine's tray. 'Is that all you're having for breakfast?'

'Oh, yes! I can just blow up like a balloon, dear!! It's lucky for you, you can eat anything!! Don't forget it's practice in half an hour!' And she skipped off. She's got a head full of air, Agnes thought. I'm sure she doesn't mean to say anything hurtful. But, deep inside her, Perdita X Dream thought a rude word. Mrs Plinge took her broom out of the cleaning cupboard, and turned. 'Walter!' Her voice echoed around the empty stage. 'Walter?' She tapped the broom-handle warily. Walter had a routine. It had taken her years to train him into it. It wasn't like him not to be in the right place at the right time. She shook her head, and started work. She could see it'd be a mop job later. It would probably be ages before they got rid of the smell of turpentine. Someone came walking across the stage. They were whistling. Mrs Plinge was shocked. 'Mr Pounder!' The Opera House's professional rat catcher stopped, and lowered his struggling sack. Mr Pounder wore an old opera hat to show that he was a cut above your normal rodent operative, and its brim was thick with wax and the old candle ends he used to light his way through the darker cellars. He'd worked among the rats so long that there was something rat-like about him now. His face seemed to be merely a rearward extension of his nose. His moustache was bristly. His front teeth were prominent. People found themselves looking for his tail. 'What's that, Mrs Plinge?'

'You know you mustn't whistle on stage! That's terrible bad luck!'

'Ah, well, it's 'cos of good luck, Mrs Plinge. Oh, yes! If you did know what I d'know, you'd be a happy man, too. O' course, in your case you'd

be a happy woman, on account of you being a woman. Ah! Some of the things I've seen, Mrs Plinge!'

'Found gold down there, Mr Pounder?' Mrs Plinge knelt down carefully to scrape away a spot of paint. Mr Pounder picked up his sack and continued on his way. 'Could be gold, Mrs Plinge. Ah. Could very well be gold-' It took a moment for Mrs Plinge to coax her arthritic knees into letting her stand up and shuffle around. 'Pardon, Mr Pounder?' she said. Somewhere in the distance, there was a soft thump as a bundle of sandbags landed gently on the boards. The stage was big and bare and empty, except for a sack which was scuttling determinedly for freedom. Mrs Plinge looked both ways very carefully. 'Mr Pounder? Are you there?' It suddenly seemed to her that the stage was even bigger and even more distinctly empty than before. 'Mr Pounder? Cooo-eee?' She craned around. 'Hello? Mr Pounder?' Something floated down from above and landed beside her. It was a grubby black hat, with candle ends around the brim. She looked up. 'Mr Pounder?' she said. Mr Pounder was used to darkness. It held no fears for him. And he'd always prided himself on his night vision. If there was any light at all, any speck, any glimmer of phosphorescent rot, he could make use of it. His candled hat was as much for show as anything else. His candled hat. . . he'd thought I He'd lost it but, it was strange, here it was, still on his head. Yes, indeed. He rubbed his throat thoughtfully. There was something important he couldn't quite remember. . . It was very dark. SQUEAK? He looked up. Standing in the air, at eye-level, was a robed figure about six inches high. A bony nose, with bent grey whiskers, protruded from the hood. Tiny skeletal fingers gripped a very small scythe. Mr Pounder nodded thoughtfully to himself. You didn't rise to membership of the Inner Circle of the Guild of Rat catchers without hearing a few whispered rumours. Rats had their own Death, they said, as well as their own kings, parliaments and nations. No human had ever seen it, though. Up until now. He felt honoured. He'd won the Golden Mallet for most rats caught every year for the past five years, but he respected them, as a soldier. might respect a cunning and valiant enemy. 'Er. . . I'm dead, aren't I. . . ?' SQUEAK. Mr Pounder felt that many eyes were watching him. Many small, shining eyes. 'And. . . what happens now?' SQUEAK. The soul of Mr Pounder looked at his hands. They seemed to be elongating, and getting hairier. He could feel his ears growing, and a certain rather embarrassing elongation happening at the base of his spine. He'd spent most of his life in a single-minded activity in dark places, yet even so. . .

'But I don't believe in reincarnation!' he protested. SQUEAK. And this, Mr Pounder understood with absolute rodent clarity, meant: reincarnation believes in you. Mr Bucket went through his mail very carefully, and finally breathed out when the pile failed to disgorge another letter with the Opera House crest. He sat back and pulled open his desk drawer for a pen. There was an envelope there. He stared at it, and then slowly picked up his paperknife. Sliiiiit . . . . . .rustle. . . I will be obliged if Christine sings the role of Iodine in 'La Triviata' tonight. The weather continues fine. I trust you are well. Yrs. The Opera Ghost 'Mr Salzella! Mr Salzella!' Bucket pushed back his chair and hurried to the door, opening it just in time to confront a ballerina, who screamed at him. Since his nerves were already strained, he responded by screaming back at her. This seemed to have the effect that usually a wet flannel or a slap was necessary to achieve. She stopped and gave him an affronted look. 'He's struck again, hasn't he!' moaned Bucket. 'He's here! It's the Ghost!' said the girl, determined to get the line out even though it was not required. 'Yes, yes, I think I know,' muttered Bucket. 'I just hope it wasn't anybody expensive.' He stopped halfway along the corridor and then spun around. The girl cringed away from his wavering finger. 'At least stand on tiptoe!' he shouted. 'You probably cost me a dollar just running up here!' There was a crowd in a huddle on the stage. In the centre was that new girl, the fat one, kneeling down and comforting an old woman. Bucket vaguely recognized the latter. She was one of the staff that had come with the Opera House, as much part of the whole thing as the rats or the gargoyles that infested the rooftops. She was holding something in front of her. 'It just fell out of the flies,' she said. 'His poor hat!' Bucket looked up. As his eyes grew accustomed to the darkness he made out a shape up among the battens, spinning slowly. . . 'Oh, dear,' he said. 'And I thought he'd written such a polite letter. . .'

Prev Next