Dimity McKee and the Bad Lord Lionel

Dimity McKee and the Bad Lord Lionel

A Story by David Neilson
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Sample - Chapter 1

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Orphan Dimity McKee’s contented life of exotic teas, old books and antiquated records is threatened by compulsory social inclusion. But a five-inch lion offers her new dimensions, not only in his native Leonville, but also in the pair’s confrontation with Otto deFrost, chief priest of the Great Sturgeon, who aims to impose a demented creed on the rest of the universe. In her deepening relationship with the Bad Lord Lionel, Dimity is forced to make adult choices in the otters’ fenland of Waterborne. Dimity’s vividly-realised world is presented with fun, irony, and a hint of savagery, in a cliff-hanging story which moves at an increasing lick.


 

1        My House Is Haunted

It was seeing a used egg-cup that made Dimity McKee think her house was haunted.

Dimity’s parents were dead. She lived on her own, though she wasn’t very old at all, in a house that was much too big for her. Her uncle had died too, and her aunt, who was Dimity’s mother’s sister, had run away with a matador, leaving a note to say that she needed to find herself. This had happened before Dimity’s uncle died. People said he had died because he drank too much, out of sadness at his wife running away, though Dimity often wondered if he’d died of a guilty conscience, because he had been a robber " and a particularly cruel one, since he didn’t just rob his victims, but put their eyes out.

Dimity didn’t know when exactly he had worked as a robber, because all the time she’d lived with him he’d been an undertaker, but she’d often heard him say, when he had too much to drink, that he always took care to rob his customers blind. Anyway, having worked in robbery, he’d left behind plenty of money, so whenever Dimity needed anything, like a new tape measure or an avocado slicer, she just took some of Uncle Jim’s money and went out and bought it.

She didn’t go to school, though she was supposed to, and somehow they’d never noticed her absence. She’d been at school, of course, but she didn’t like it. She was a little too tall and a little too thin, with a sharp nose and a piercing stare, and black hair that was a little too long, and the other children had never heard of anyone called Dimity. They had normal names like Shawn and Derrykke and Shey-Anne, and they called her ‘Dim’ instead of Dimity.

This was very unfair. Although Dimity had never been in school for very long, she used to read a great deal and had learned many things which the other children hadn’t; their classroom time was devoted to projects, which involved printing off coloured sheets from the Internet and sliding them into plastic pockets without ever reading them. Dimity could tell you that Napoleon came after the Vikings, but when the other children did history projects they used to stick up pictures of Napoleon battling cavemen, with the Coliseum in the background.

As long as they did all this together they got extra marks and special certificates for group work, and if their folders were exceptionally tidy they came back to school once they’d grown up and taught it themselves, showing the children how to draw and cut out stovepipe hats to help them learn about the Victorians. But Dimity stayed at home instead and spent her afternoons reading about how things had been in the past, or poring over stories and poems.

She preferred to read in a little room with a low ceiling that led on to the garden, because she could make tea there and drink it in a big china mug. Dimity didn’t like mugs with writing; she might have accepted a mug with a coloured band round it, but she wouldn’t have drunk from a mug that said Worlds Best Mum or Champion Tea Drinker of 1997.

On really nice days she took her tea into the garden and read there, with a few broken shafts of light falling across her page, for the back garden was overshadowed by leaves and its wall was high and close to the house. It was five feet seven inches away, to be precise: Dimity had measured the distance when she’d bought a new inch tape and wanted to practise on something. She was very glad that the wall was so high, because it made it harder for Miss Haister from next door to peer in, as she always did when passing Dimity’s gate on Milton Row. Miss Haister sometimes appeared over the wall with a pair of hedge-clippers, but Dimity was usually alerted to this by a few languid clipping noises beforehand. She’d never noticed any actual hedge on Miss Haister’s side of the wall.

Dimity would sit in the garden, crouched on the side doorstep, or perch on the window sill, her scuffed heels digging into the earth as she pushed her legs stiffly in front of her. She liked to do that especially after it had been raining, when she could smell the leaves of the big high bushes that nobody ever trimmed, higher than the wall itself, through the fat raindrops, not yet dried, that lay scattered like tiny glass paperweights of different sizes.

Every so often she’d look up from her book at the sound of a bird, but she wouldn’t see it. Although that stopped her reading for a moment, it didn’t disturb her, for when she looked at the page again, she saw the letters as little grooves of ink, and the rough bright edge of the white page against the printed letter, and the silence seemed even deeper as she read on.

But sometimes, when she’d lost herself in a gripping passage, the thuds from a passing car would wrench her up to the surface of the world, and she would flounder there for a few confused seconds, like a swimmer panicking offshore.

Then she would look down at her mug and notice a little pool of cold tea with a ring stain inside, because she’d left it untouched for so long.

‘Let’s go inside,’ she’d say, without any idea who she was talking to.

One afternoon, shortly after four, she went back inside the house and opened the cupboard door over the worktop, which was so high that she had to stand on a chair to stretch. She had just found the bag of lemon and pistachio teabags, her hand groping blindly in the cupboard over her head, when she heard a distinct scurry behind her. She stopped quite still, hand poised in the air, and listened again without looking round.

But this time she didn’t hear anything.

It was an old house, Dimity thought: there were spaces between the walls and bits of masonry were always crumbling in there. She put down the packet of lemon and pistachio teabags, lifted up the kettle, poured water from the tap, switched the kettle on, and waited for the water to boil. When the kettle got louder she wondered if she could hear scurrying again, and thought she did, but when she listened carefully, holding her breath, there was only the bubbling water.

When the tea was ready she took it into her sitting-room with a plate of ginger and spelt-flake biscuits, which she bought from a special shop in the high street. She sat down in the chair with the walnut arms and opened her book. She poured herself a cup of tea and tried to find her page again. Lighting on it after a moment, she stirred her tea and started to read. She took a sip of tea, lifted a biscuit and took a big bite of it. It was a very crunchy biscuit, which she liked very much, and of course eating it made a very crunchy sound.

That was why she wasn’t sure if she’d heard the scurrying again, or just the crunching of her biscuit. She took a deep sip of her tea and swallowed it slowly, making sure she didn’t have any biscuit left to crunch. She listened very intently.

She couldn’t hear a thing. The entire house was silent. After a while she heard some people passing outside, screaming at the tops of their voices and banging sticks on lamp-posts. Whooping very importantly, they moved on, and soon her house was as quiet as before.

‘It could be mice,’ she thought. She meant the scurrying, not the shouting outside. She didn’t like the thought of having mice. For one thing, she’d have to lay traps for them, and when she came down in the morning she’d find them dead and have to get rid of them, when all she wanted was for them to go away and not have to be killed.

Listening to music would take her mind off it. Dimity didn’t have CDs or iPods; she had thick black records with red labels that were kept in brown paper holders. They didn’t any pictures on them, except for the ones of a small dog. The records were called seventy-eights and she’d never met anyone else who’d heard of them. She listened to them on a gramophone with a square wooden base and a big brass horn which she used to dust and polish twice a week. In fact, the small dog on some of her seventy-eights was listening to the horn of a gramophone just like hers. The records sounded very scratchy and only lasted for a few minutes before she had to change them, and then she had to wind up the gramophone again with a big handle; but she loved them. She listened to Riccardo Tangelli singing O dolce Vesuvio and then to Dame Natalia Tschschschkaya singing Purtroppo cor mio, in Russian, in 1924. Most of her records started off with wavery violins or shaky trumpets, and after that the singer would sing an introduction and then the main tune, and then the orchestra would do a bit on their own again and the singer would come back to the tune and round it off with a loud, high note. Often, when the record was finished, and there was only the scrape of the needle, she would utter a deep, appreciative sigh and wait a moment before getting up and putting another one on.

She could go on like that for hours, even though she had to change the record every couple of minutes, which she hardly noticed doing, since each record seemed to last forever. After a while, when she decided it was time to make some tea again and, (if she were hungry) a chilli and almond tortilla, she’d go in and make it and then look for another book in the large stacks that rose from the sitting-room carpet like skyscrapers in a not very well-planned landscape.

Tonight, though, she thought she’d have a boiled egg. She only had one egg left in the fridge. It was a hen’s egg, not a plover or a quail’s egg (the special shop having run out), but she had some slices of oat and rye bread in the freezer, or thought she had, so she took her tea-tray back into the kitchen to check.

Dimity laid her hand on the worktop (it was red mahogany, put in by Uncle Jim’s carpenters) and went to open the freezer door. That was when she noticed the egg-cup in the sink.

It was her china egg-cup, in the shape of a chicken, with a hole for an egg to go in, standing on two chicken feet on a saucer, the spoon beside it.

She lifted the saucer and egg-cup out of the sink, quite slowly, and put it down to one side of the tea-tray. I’ve gone dotty, she thought, and even as this occurred to her she remembered that nobody said ‘dotty’ any more. They had invented a lot of other names that were meant to be less offensive and weren’t, and that were meant to sound more medical, and certainly did. But whatever you called it, she was dotty.

She knew she was dotty because all she’d had to eat that day was porridge, in her porringer with the three bears on it, and her ginger and cinnamon biscuits in the afternoon. No boiled egg at all. She’d washed the porringer and dried it and put it away. She edged the cupboard door open. The porringer gleamed on top of the other plates. She’d had pints of tea, of course " black tea with milk, gooseberry and papaya tea, and lemon and pistachio that afternoon.

She couldn’t remember boiling and eating an egg, which meant she must be dotty. Plucking up the courage to open the fridge took a moment. Inside, she saw a small carton of milk and some butter wrapped in silver foil. But no egg.

Worse, traces of runny yolk ran down the sides of the eggshell and down the egg-cup itself. That meant that she’d left the egg-cup in the sink without even washing it. She was dotty for sure.

Her heart was pounding a bit by now, but then she remembered the scurrying from earlier. That offered a little hope. If she was right, and had heard scurrying after all, she could have mice. They might have been in the kitchen boiling the egg while she was reading. Once she’d put her records on, they could have banged and clattered as much as they liked; she wouldn’t have heard them.

She breathed a long sigh of relief. She wasn’t dotty at all. She just had mice and they’d gone into the kitchen, poured water into a pan, and boiled themselves an egg. And had it in an egg-cup.

That thought only made her anxious again, because it was highly unlikely that mice would trouble to use an egg-cup. She was dealing with an altogether higher level of intelligence.

A knowing smile passed across her lips. Rats. Only rats could have managed an operation quite that complex.

Then she thought, I really am dotty. But the title of a book popped into her head, which usually happened when she had a problem to solve. She was sorry she’d only ever dipped into that particular volume; she might have noticed the warning signs if she’d given it more attention. It was in one of the stacks, probably quite far down, because she used it so rarely.

When she opened the sitting-room door, she breathed in sharply. On the first stack was a large book, slightly open. It had a bottle-green cover and the gold lettering on the spine said ‘Being Dotty and its Causes’.

Dimity never left books standing on a stack. She picked up ‘Being Dotty and its Causes’, her hands trembling. The last book she’d been reading, the one that ought have been at the top of the pile, was face-up underneath. Looking round, she sat down in her chair. As she turned the title page and consulted the list of chapters, she glanced up quickly again, thinking that someone must be watching her. But the room was quiet. She consulted the list of chapters. Since the book, by Professor Friedmund Bergkäse, had been written in 1915, Dimity felt it should be fairly up-to-date in its ideas. There were, she read, four principal causes of being dotty.

The first was hanging upside down in childhood. A small boy called Heinz had done a great deal of this in his youth, and later succumbed to the temptation of aiming at bishops with his pea-shooter. Dimity examined the evidence for some minutes, and then crossed hanging upside down off her list.

Number two was loitering in streams and brooks. Little Albert, who lived in Vienna, had spent many hours in water up to his knees. One day he climbed on his school-desk to do spontaneous impressions of a great fish, thrashing his mighty fins until he’d been led away. But this hadn’t been one of Dimity’s follies, as far as she could tell.

Number three (freckles) had to be superstition, and number four (called ‘Miscellaneous’) covered a whole range of disorders including eating toffee at night, pretending to be a squirrel, and, in one intriguing case, obsessively drawing thick black crosses with sideways bars at each end.

No matter how closely she looked, Dimity couldn’t find anything useful. She closed the book, wondering what on earth was the matter with her.

And, sitting with the book open on her knees, she quite distinctly heard someone whistle O dolce Vesuvio on the stairs.

 

Dimity McKee and the Bad Lord Lionel is available in the Kindle Store

© 2011 David Neilson


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Added on August 5, 2011
Last Updated on August 5, 2011
Tags: Children's, Fantasy, Humour

Author

David Neilson
David Neilson

Germany



About
After twenty-five years in further education, in roles including head of English, David Neilson left Glasgow to live on the Rhine, where Dimity McKee and the Bad Lord Lionel (available on Kindle) was .. more..