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Airship Downs

In the last installment of Karen Zipslicer’s adventures, Badger and Corblimey, we left Karen and Winton dealing with the bureaucracy at the Municipal Financial Emporium. Now Karen can set her sights on her goal: finding a way home.

Karen and Winton walked a while after leaving the Municipal Financial Emporium, but they soon parted company. Winton explained he had “some business to attend to”. Karen thought it would be nosey to ask what. She was keen to express her gratitude for everything he had done. In her mind, this was going to be the last time she would see Winton; her plan was to catch the next airship to London. Winton, in contrast, made it clear that he would be home by 5.30pm. He insisted that, come the evening, Karen should return to his house if she was not already half way home. Winton was adamant that Karen should not stay out after dark, not under any circumstances. He clearly marked his house on the map he gave to Karen. As well as the map, Winton gave her a couple of pfennigs “for lunch”. Karen then asked how she was going to pay the fare for her airship flight. Winton said nothing in response, only giving an uncomfortable shrug. It was clear that the two pfennigs were all Winton could spare. Karen already felt deeply indebted to him. Although they swapped addresses, and she promised she would pay him back, neither knew how that might be accomplished in practice.

After waving each other goodbye, and taking several steps in opposite directions, Winton called back to Karen, “maybe you could sell the boots, to pay the fare?” Karen was still wearing the magnificent red boots she had found in Winton’s shop. She now felt doubly guilty and ungrateful. Karen had put her Heelys in her backpack, forgetting all about the new boots she had ‘borrowed’. She felt like taking them off, right there in the middle of the street, and returning them to Winton. But Winton was still walking away, talking as he did, “it’s alright, they were getting dusty on my shelves, maybe they’ll bring you more luck than they brought me.”

To catch an the airship, Karen needed to walk to the borough of Ossulstone, and find a green hill called ‘Airship Downs’. Karen mused that it was a funny name, but by Lundern’s standards, not all that funny. Winton had been very particular in marking out the route she should follow, drawing a thick red line through all the streets between his shop and the Downs. Though she felt nervous at walking around a strange city alone, Winton had given her a practical tip: “if all else fails, walk towards any large groups of airships that you see.” Though stupidly obvious, it was also comfortingly sensible. Then again, the morning mist had not dissipated like she had expected, and the air was gloomy. She hoped the airship captains could still see where they were headed. Perhaps they rose above the grey. She would like to do the same.

Karen walked confidently, but was discrete. She only checked her map furtively, not wanting to attract attention by waving it around. She soon realized that navigating Lundern was going to be difficult. There were few street signs, none of Lundern’s streets were straight, and there were few recognizable landmarks she could check against the map. Many people had black boxes over their eyes, like those worn by the daughters of the Dowager Duchess D’Nunzio. The ones who did would barely notice Karen, even when she spoke to them. They would keep on walking right past her, despite her polite excuse me’s. It was with some relief that Karen happened upon Newton Town Hall, the one major building on her route, about halfway to the Downs. The Town Hall stood out from the other buildings. It was not just larger than other buildings, but it also had a thin strip of public garden in front and to either side. The gardens sported various shrubs and small trees. There she stopped, and sat on a low wall surrounding the gardens, taking off and adjusting her boots, which had begun to chafe her ankles. Her fingers were cold from the moist air. She cupped her hands and warmed them with her breath. Even so, she fumbled her left boot after taking it off, and dropped it behind the wall, into the garden area behind. “What’s that, what’s that?” said an abrupt and squeaky voice. As Karen leaned back to reach for her boot, a long thin creature with short legs and brown and white fur leapt up, on to the wall beside her. She shrieked. “Who’s that, who’s you?” said the animal; he was manically jumping and hopping from side to side. So crazy were his movements, arching its back and leaping about, that it fell off the wall almost immediately, landing in front of Karen. Karen wondered if he was a weasel, but before she said anything, he announced, whilst still madly jigging around, “I’m a ferret, you woke me, when you dropped your boot.” Though she had been startled at first, Karen realized his antics were playful and not meant to frighten. “Yes, I dropped my boot. I’m sorry I disturbed you.”
“Too late, never mind, dropped your boot, on my burrow, I was sleeping, no harm done,” continued the ferret, in his hyper manner.
Karen smiled at the ferret, and his frenzied display. For the first time since saying goodbye to Winton, Karen felt her nervousness dissipate.
“Put your boot back on,” said the ferret, without it being clear if this was a question or a suggestion.
“I’m going to,” answered Karen, who picked up her boot, and slid her foot back inside.
“Big boots, I could climb inside.”
“That’s not a very polite thing to say to a woman,” teased Karen.
“No offence, just observation, boots big, that’s all.”
Karen couldn’t be offended by anything the comical ferret said. She redid her laces, taking care to tighten them just right.
“Pretty too, nice red, what’s your name?”
“Karen. What’s yours?”
“Whiteley, I’m Whiteley, twice-nightly, too-rightly, I’m Whiteley.”
“Are you called that because of those white spots on your face?”
“That, and reasons besides.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Whiteley. I’d like to stop and chat, but I have an airship to catch.”
“Fly in the sky? Dangerous high. Know what you are doing, I’m not so sure.” Whiteley’s dance was growing gradually less energetic. Karen was glad, because she felt sure that if it continued unabated, it would only be a matter of time before Whiteley threw himself under the foot of one the black box-wearing passers-by, who were so ignorant of their surroundings.
“I’m sure it’ll be fine. I want to go home.”
“Not from here? I’ll be your guide. Take you to your perilous ride.”
“You know the way to Airship Downs?”
“Know it for sure. Business I’ve there. Though prefer the ground, to up in the air.” And before anything else was said, off set Whiteley, showing Karen the way. Karen threw her bag back over her shoulder, and hurried along behind.

Karen soon caught up to Whiteley. Though he ran along energetically, her strides easily kept pace with his short legs. Difficulties only arose when confronted by busy crowds on crowded streets. Whiteley would dart between legs, slipping around and over and under and through the procession of feet, whilst Karen would have to squeeze past people, be pushy, and say sorry, to avoid losing sight of her diminutive source of direction.
“What do you do twice-nightly?” asked Karen, half-wondering if she would regret the question.
“Catch rabbits,” answered Whiteley, with a hint of glee in his voice.
“Oh, that’s not very nice. I like rabbits.”
“Many do, nice price, that’s what nice, about rabbits.”
“You’re a hunter?”
“Hunter’s helper, I am, or sometimes I’m guard, keep the rats from the grain, stored at the docks, but cats like that work, and rabbits pays better.”
It had not occurred to Karen that animals that could talk might still be eaten for food. But now she thought about it, she supposed that Lundern’s animals were all expected to be useful, one way or another. Though Whiteley was very excitable, he was happy to run through the streets without talking. Karen occasionally asked him about his life, or about places that they went by. Other times she was quiet. It was enjoyable to follow Whiteley in silence, not needing to worry about her map. As she did, she observed Lundern life in the relative daylight permitted by the mist. Lundern was different to anything Karen had experienced before, but it did not seem as daunting during the day. Karen realized she was lucky, compared to Lundern’s inhabitants. The clothes of the Lunderners were generally less colourful, and made of simpler material than Karen’s. Those without black boxes would sometimes linger as they looked upon her, but mostly people were too engrossed in their own lives to pay her any mind. There were no cars on the roads, and few machines of any description. With this thought, she pulled out her mobile phone. There was no signal, and no messages. She had left it on all night, and the battery was half run down. Karen also clutched her iPod in her pocket, making sure it was still there. Though she thought about getting it out, she immediately changed her mind. It would be rude to listen to music whilst following Whiteley. Lunderners seemed to live a more basic life, though occasionally Karen spied gadgets that she could not recognize, and the black boxes were a mystery to her; nobody would wear sunglasses on a dull day like today. What really pleased Karen was the thought of being home soon, and of travelling there on an airship. She could not remember hearing of any airships ever landing in London, but that did not trouble her. She had never heard of tube trains to Lundern either, and yet she had caught one last night, even if by accident.

Misty as it was, Karen could feel the hulking mass of the dirigibles, as she and Whiteley drew close to Airship Downs. As they walked up to the base of the hill, she became aware of the shadows of the looming airships. They overlay the fog. Their long ellipses dominated the sky in this part of town. Many were a hundred feet long. Some reached beyond two hundred feet. Their dense scrum caused Karen to gasp in wonder. Some were leaving. Others arrived. Yet more jostled and manoeuvred for position. The airships hung above like monstrous elongated lampshades, except that they cast a spell of greyness upon the ground beneath. The airships were themselves coloured a uniform grey; the thin fabric of their shells had no lustre to them. A more generous description might call them silver, but shrouded in Lundern’s fog, they occluded colour, and their shadows drained any last verve of sunlight that might have otherwise reached the people below. Upon their sides were written codes of giant letters and numbers, presumably for identification. They hovered above Airship Downs, dominating it. The hill was a wide expanse of trampled grass, bordered by roads on each side. Hefty warehouses ringed the far side of each road. The green of the grass had been churned and often scarred to brown. A thousand feet, hooves and wheeltracks had left their mark. Airship Downs gently rose to its highest point, which was the nicest thing that could be said about its aspect. Mooring masts were arranged in a regular square pattern all the way across it. A third of the masts were occupied by tethered airships. The airships that were moored sat like strapped party balloons, wavering when the breeze changed direction, but held tightly by many thick ropes tied to iron hoops in the ground. At their moorings, the balloons hovered barely above ground level, with their gondolas hanging beneath like windowed pot bellies. They hung so close to ground that Karen might almost touch them if she stood beneath and jumped up. Those in the air droned so thickly that the sound hugged the hillside. Karen and Whiteley had to raise their voices to speak to one another. But the airships were not the most daunting aspect of the Downs. At ground level, there was such a gaggle of people and birds, and all manner of other creatures, that the mind struggled to grasp what they were all doing, or to take in the racket that they were all making. To Karen’s eyes, the Downs looked like organized bedlam of every dimension. Some crews, numbering fifty or more, were strenuously hauling ropes and tying down newly-arrived airships, or pulling up gantries, or using hand-cranked cranes for the weightiest items. Large birds squawked and cried at each other in mid-flight, as they lead the way for their respective ships, guiding them through the melee, holding their airship’s tethers in their mouths. Tanks of gas where wheeled too and fro by horses, then hooked up by men to replenish the balloons. Families and friends waved fond farewells, or bounded for joy at the arrival of their loved ones. Cargoes were loaded and unloaded, to and from the beasts of burden, or the wagons they pulled. Between the confusion on ground level, boys ran back and forth, shouting their offers of tickets for sale, to destinations that Karen had never heard of.

Whiteley kept bounding forward, running toward the nearest mast, at the closest corner of the Downs’ expanse. “No!” shouted Karen. She ran up behind Whiteley, and picked him up in both hands.
“What’s this please? Hold me, but don’t squeeze!”
“It’s alright Whiteley, I just don’t want to have to chase you through this…” she tried to think of the right word, but the best she could come up with was: “… mess. You’re small and can quickly dodge your way through a rabble like this, but I can’t.”
“Fine enough, where now?”
“I was hoping you might know.”
“I know this field is right, but not which airship is your flight.”
“Do you always talk in rhyme?”
“No.”
“Should I ask one of these boys?”
“Airships they know, places…”
“Okay.”
“…they go.”

A nearby boy, of about thirteen years of age, saw Karen and started shouting in her direction: “tickets for Wassailham, Chapstow and Duncester.” Karen walked closer, squelching through a patch of mud as she did. As she approached, she began to speak. “Which airships go to London?”
“London?” His face was blank.
“London.”
“Is that foreign?”
Karen was not sure of the answer. She guessed, “yes.”
“Dirigibles to foreign places moor close to the top of the hill, miss.”
“Thank you.” She sighed. From where Karen stood, it was about five hundred yards to the hill’s highest point. That would be a trudge if a straight-line walk. It was a marathon whilst weaving around and through the frenetic activity. At least she was wearing the right footwear, Karen mused to herself. Through the throng she headed purposefully, though often forced to detour around a dense crowd, or a moving wagon, or to avoid the landing zone of an incoming airship. As she walked up, she would catch the eye of ticket-boys and ask them each: “to London?” None knew better than the first boy she had asked. With diversions and hold-ups, it took her half an hour to get near to the top. Whiteley fidgeted in her hands, but did not speak. She reached the mooring mast of an especially long airship, which had just taken off and was rapidly soaring upwards, looking like a fat cigar fired from a slow-motion cannon. An older boy stood by the base of the mast. Unusually for a ticket-boy, he looked up to watch the airship depart. “Excuse me, where’s the airship to London?” said Karen, to the boy.
“To where?”
“London. London, in England.”
“Fingland?”
“England.”
His eyebrows kitted together in thought. “England?” he said back at her.
“England. London. London, capital of England,” she elaborated.
“You just missed it. That was it,” and he pointed straight up at the ascending dirigible.
“When’s the next one?”
“You know, maybe that wasn’t it. London, London…” and then he shouted at another boy, standing thirty yards way, to come over. “Desmond, do you know of an airship to London, England?”
Desmond, who was not only older but better dressed, wandered over, and spoke to the boy that called him. “Why are you asking that?”
“This girl asked,” and the first boy pointed at Karen.
“Why does she want to know?”
The first boy just puffed out his cheeks and looked up. Karen spoke instead: “I’m from London, well, just outside actually, and I want to get back as soon as I can.”
Desmond sucked his teeth. “Are you from there, really?”
Karen nodded. “Just outside.”
“Alright, you look like an honest sort. Follow me.” Desmond led Karen over the rise of the hill and slightly down its far side. There was a small shack with a corrugated iron roof, little more than a shed with windows on either side. Desmond rapped his knuckles on the window. “Thomas? It’s Desmond.” The window swung open, and a fat bearded man looked out. “What do you want?” asked the bearded man.
“This ‘un here wants to go to England,” he nodded in Karen’s direction. “To Lon-don.”
“Who told you?” asked Thomas, the bearded man, to Karen.
“Told me what?”
“You know what.”
“What what?” squeaked Whiteley, suddenly very excited at all the mystery.
“What’s what, that’s what’s what,” said Thomas, even more mysteriously.
“I’m from London, and I want to fly back on the next airship going that way.”
“You’re from London?” Thomas frowned. Desmond sucked his teeth again.
“That’s what she said,” added Desmond.
“I don’t believe it,” and Thomas smartly pulled his window shut.

Karen felt she was getting used to the eccentric behaviour of Lundern’s inhabitants, but she could not abide rudeness. Desmond stood there, leaning against the shack whilst looking at her. She brushed right past him, opened the door of the shack, and walked straight in, swinging the door shut behind her. Inside there was a table top, perched up on boxes instead of legs, covered in piles of paper, with each pile at least a foot high.
“You can’t come in here,” said Thomas.
“Well, I have,” said Karen.
“She did,” said Whiteley, “and me too!”
The bearded man rose to his feet again, and placed the palms of his hands flat on top of some of the paper piles. “This here’s the filing office, and we’ve got confidential paperwork in here.”
“Just tell me about the airship to London, and I’ll leave.”
Desmond was looking in at the window. Thomas noticed, and rapped the back of his hand against the glass, driving Desmond away. “You know it’s entrapment, to ask about illegal places. If I answer your question, you can’t say anything about it in a court of law.”
“London’s not illegal.”
“It is here.”
“Illegal places!” added Whiteley. Whiteley was so animated that Karen found him almost impossible to hold.
“How can London be illegal here,” rejoined Karen, “when London isn’t here?”
“I don’t make the laws,” replied Thomas, obliquely.
“And why’s London illegal?”
“I can’t tell you.”
“Is it illegal to tell me?”
Thomas said nothing, but his eyes widened, which Karen took to mean it was illegal for Thomas to tell her.
“So, it is illegal to tell me.”
“Did I say that?”
“No.”
“Your eyes did,” said Whiteley, butting in.
“Not my mouth.”
“Mouth no, eyes yes, good game, next guess?” said Whiteley, who made about as much sense as Thomas.
“My guess is that you’re at secret war with England,” pronounced Karen, emphatically. Thomas’ face did not flicker.
“Bad guess,” said Whiteley.
“You’re smuggling something illegal to London?”
Thomas scowled.
“Getting warmer,” said Whiteley.
“You’re buying something illegal from London?”
“Bingo, my go,” said Whiteley, “you’re smuggling TV game show formats into Lundern.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” said Karen. But as she spoke, she noticed a change in Thomas’ expression, and realized that Whiteley had got it right. “Does it?”
“I cheated. I knew already,” tittered Whiteley.
“Whiteley, why didn’t you tell me?” asked Karen.
“You never asked me,” which was true.
“Alright, as you seem to know what’s going on,” said Thomas, relaxing and sitting back in his chair, “it’s true. They’ve been taking ideas from foreign entertainment, and bringing them over by airship.”
“You don’t smuggle ideas in airships,” pleaded Karen, who was utterly bemused.
“You do, if they’re written down on paper,” said the bearded man. He lifted one hand up and Karen looked at the sheet beneath. It was an idea for a show where Simon Cowell competed with a fortune-telling octopus to see who could correctly predict which celebrity team would win at synchronized swimming. Karen thought it sounded awful.
“So now I know you fly airships to London, when’s the next one?”
“Tomorrow. You missed today’s flight.”
“I knew that,” said Whiteley.
“You did?” said Karen, more bemused than ever. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“You didn’t ask,” said Whiteley.
“I did. I asked you which was my airship.”
“I don’t know which, just when. 12.30pm”
“So why didn’t you warn me to get here sooner?”
“You were slow, leaving no time to stop and talk.”

Karen sighed. She turned her attention back to Thomas. “So how do I get on board tomorrow’s airship?”
“By paying me five hundred shillings,” said Thomas.
“Five hundred shillings!” exclaimed Karen. Then she turned to Whiteley and whispered: “is that a lot?”
“It’s a lot of lot,” whispered Whiteley back.
“That’s extortion,” complained Karen.
Thomas rubbed his beard and ruminated, “we’re criminals, not anarchists.”
“What if I told the police what you’re doing?” threatened Karen.
“That’s extortion,” said Whiteley.
“Yeah, he’s right. That really would be extortion,” said Thomas. “Also, your friend would get in trouble, because he seems to know all about it. And this is all entrapment, and nothing we’ve said can be repeated in court.”
Karen paused, and wondered what she might say to change her luck. “Would you like a pair of boots?” she asked, desperately.

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