Willy was a little disappointed to discover that the streets of London were not paved with gold. They were, in fact, filthy.
It had been dark when the Black
Skulls arrived the previous evening in an area of London called Slaughterside.
They’d gone straight to their lodgings at Mrs McScottish’s boarding house. And
it was still dark when they’d trudged to the Billericay Bowl theatre that
morning to begin rehearsals for their popular play, The Sheeted Dead.
So this was Willy’s first real
chance to get a good look at the city in all its bustling, glitzy, Londony
glory. The dirty streets didn’t put a dent in Willy’s good mood. In every other
way, London was exactly as he’d hoped it would be.
As he and Yorick started down the
theatre steps, a knot of paparazzi buzzed into life, parchment pads and quills
at the ready. But they sank back with a groan when they realised it was no one
famous. It was just a scrawny-looking eleven-year-old country bumpkin and,
behind him, a great hairy lump of a man, who looked as though he’d be more at
home wrestling bears.
The paparazzi, along with a small
band of fans known as the “Utter Nutters”, were camped outside the theatre for
one reason only. They were hoping to catch a glimpse of Olly Thesp, the lead
performer with the Black Skulls, England’s most famous theatrical troupe.
Yorick, the Skulls all-round Mr Fix-It, and his new dogsbody Willy, clearly
didn’t count as stars.
Yorick shouldered his way through
the Nutters, and onto the crowded street, with Willy close behind. At the foot
of the steps, Willy paused and looked down Denmark Lane, to where the River
Thames could be glimpsed between the buildings. Willy threw his head back,
closed his eyes and flared his nostrils to suck in some London air when …
The contents of a bucket of slops
hit Willy between the eyes and sent him spluttering to his knees, his head and
shoulders covered in revolting goop.
“Wot you doin’ standin’ in the way,
you great bletherin’ bumpkin?” yelled a woman from an overhanging balcony.
“Can’t you see I’m tryin’ to clean me billet?”
Willy scraped the worst of the slops
from his face and spat into the gutter. A mangy dog barked at him and, in his
haste to get away from it, Willy spun around and banged his head against
something. That something was a beggar’s knee.
“Do you mind?” said the beggar,
shaking a grimy bandaged hand at Willy. A bit of the beggar—possibly a
finger—fell off and bounced into the gutter. “Oh, bleedin’ marvellous,” he
said. “Fanks fer nuffink, chum.”
“C’mon, Waggledagger,” said Yorick.
“There’s no time fer lazin’ about! This is London, old son. We got fings to do,
people to see.”
“But …” spluttered Willy. He
scrambled to his feet, blinking furiously.
“No ‘buts’, matey!” said Yorick.
“Sundial?” hissed a low voice next
to Willy’s ear.
Willy turned to see a scruffy
individual holding open his greasy cloak to reveal a row of small wooden
sundials pinned inside.
“Excuse me?” said Willy.
“Sundials, chief. Best you can get
this side of the river. Genuine ’andmade timepieces these are, accurate to
wivvin five hours! Only ’alf a penny to you, squire. Robbin’ meself blind, I
Yorick shoved his fist in the man’s
face and wiggled it about. The man inspected it carefully.
“That’s right, Marlowe, take a good
look at it,” said Yorick. “Now clear orf, afore I give you an even closer look.
The lad’s new in town and ’e don’t want no moody sundials, right?”
Marlowe backed away, clutching his
sundials to his chest. “Seein’ as yer in a bad frame o’ mind,” he said, turning
away, “I’ll take me bizness elsewhere.”
Yorick shook his head at Marlowe’s
retreating back. “You be careful, Waggledagger,” he said. “London’s got more
iffy characters than one of Walden’s plays. They’ll take yer money faster than
you can say ‘ching-ching’.”
“I haven’t got any money,” said
“Don’t matter,” said Yorick.
“They’ll still take it, you mark my words.”
He turned on his heel, pushed his
way through a gaggle of black-clad priests, and set off towards Burgess’s,
London’s finest theatrical supply shop. Yorick was on a mission to find some
long hoses for his new fog machine. He was very excited about the fog machine
and was keen to get it rigged up as soon as possible.
Willy brushed as much of the filth
from his tunic as he could and scampered after the big man.
“Do try an’ keep up, Waggledagger!”
snapped Yorick. “This fog machine will be jist the fing to start everyfink off
perfick. If we impress the audience wiv a good job, it’ll make it easier fer
you to stay in the Skulls!”
Willy picked up the pace. He wanted
to stay in the Black Skulls more than anything else in the world, even though
he was just a lowly gofer. He didn’t mind running errands or doing dirty jobs
because he felt at home in the Skulls. Without their help, Willy would still be
in Stratford. He’d still be working for his horrible, red-faced father in the
family tannery, and getting spanked at least once a day.
Willy shuddered and turned his
attention back to Yorick, who was still talking.
“… We gotta get everyfink jist right
if we want to impress the King!” Yorick said.
“I thought we had a Queen,” said Willy. “We met up with her
last week, remember? You almost married her.”
“Not yer actual King,” snorted Yorick, swerving
between a man carrying three geese in a basket, and a ragged gang of child
pickpockets. “Although, as far as theatre folk are concerned, ’e might as well
Yorick broke off to lift a
pickpocket’s hand from Willy’s tunic. “Lorst summink, ’ave you?” he said, and
cuffed the pickpocket across the back of the head.
The child went sprawling into a
flock of sheep.
“Where woz I?” said Yorick. “Oh,
yeah, the King. This bloke is the court-appointed Big Cheese. The Master of the
Revels being ’is proper title, although everyone in the game calls ’im the King
of Denmark Lane. Got it?”
Willy nodded doubtfully. “Er, I
think so. What’s his name, this ‘King’?”
Yorick scratched his beard. “Good
question, Waggledagger. Last time I woz in London it woz summink like ’Arold ’Ardwick.
No, wait, it woz a bit more fancy than that. Lots of letter ‘a’s in it, I
remember that. Aaron, that’s right. Aaron Aardvark Ardent.”
Willy’s mouth fell open. He skidded
to a halt in front of a chestnut stall.
“’Ungry?” said the stallholder,
thrusting a handful of shrivelled nuts under Willy’s nose.
Willy waved the man away impatiently.
This was no time for nuts. “Did you say Ardent?” he asked Yorick.
“Aaron Aardvark Ardent. Funny name.
Why?” said Yorick.
“Because,” said Willy, “he’s my