Art Pact 143
We rolled up the lane to Fox's house and a hushed silence fell over the passengers in the car. As Owl had said, the house had two driveways - one at forty-five degrees to the other. Each ended in a huge gilded gate, and Hedgehog pulled the car over to the side of the road. As the car stopped he began to rock wildly from side-to-side, squeaking uncomfortably. We watched him for a minute, until Owl (sitting beside him in the passenger seat) enquired politely if there might be some problem.
"I'm stuck!" Hedgehog complained.
"To the seat!" he explained. "The drive was so long, every time I pressed on the brake pedal it pushed my quills further into the fabric."
"What!" wailed Otter, in sudden distress. "Not my seat covers! What have you done?"
"If he's done anything," said Owl sternly, "it's your fault. You didn't have to get banned from driving, you didn't have to sign us all up to Fox's ridiculous plan. Hedgehog was kind enough to drive us here, and now you're going to help him get out of your car whether you like it or not."
"I don't want to get out just yet," Hedgehog said meekly. "I was just trying to turn around. I was going to ask the stranger which gate we should take."
I had no idea, of course - indeed, I wasn't entirely sure it would make the slightest bit of difference. But as the other animals seemed to look up to me, they had apparently decided that I was the arbiter of all their important decisions. I wouldn't have minded that, power being somewhat enticing after all, except that one important decision they were happy to make themselves and make very poorly was what constituted important. Still, I was reasonably sure that there could be no chance of mistake here, so I said in my most authoritative voice:
"The one in front of us." (Reasoning that there would only be more trouble if I made Hedgehog turn the car around in the middle of the country lane, and that it would at least get us to Fox's house and the commencement of this charade as quickly as possible. I was, of course, not to realise quite the mistake I'd made for another couple of days).
Hedgehog stopped his uncomfortable wriggling and settled into his little routine - checking his mirrors (although they could hardly have slipped a thousandth of a degree in the short time we had been stopped), looking over his shoulder (as much he could) at the road behind, starting the engine, and then slowly allowing the car to drift forwards. Hedgehog released the clutch like a mother Duck putting her chicks into the water for the first time - gently and reluctantly.
"The coverings are original," Otter moaned gently to himself. "Six months, it took me."
"What are you blubbering about?" Owl asked.
"Six months to get those seat covers," Otter said. "I had to wait for another car to be scrapped so that I could grab them and replace the crappy old ones. They don't make them any more, don't you see? The car will never be the same again."
"Oh, shove a wet sock in it," Owl told him.
As we turned in through the gates we were immediately presented with a wiggle in the driveway which took it around a bronze statue of Fox as a Roman god, swathed in the folds of a metallic toga and carrying in one hand the severed head of a gorgon and in the other a fistful of lightning bolts picked out in chrome so as to be extra gaudy. I pondered on Hedgehog's choice of word: Stranger. It had not seemed quite so odd to me before that none of them had recognised me - it had been a very long time, of course, and I had done my best to keep my pictures out of the children's books, but nevertheless the animals' individual memories seemed patchier than I would have expected. Perhaps I had really changed out of all recognition, or perhaps they were simply getting so old that their memories were beginning to fail them completely.
Owl at the very least I would have expected to recognise me, but he had been the most surprised of all, and in the month since I'd returned to Bridgetown he'd been the most subservient, clearly not his natural demeanour as his behaviour towards the other animals indicated. If he knew who I was and was hiding it, he was doing a very good job of it. Not only that, but if that were the case then what was his motive - was he working some sort of long con, perhaps? It wasn't his style, but I supposed that if I could have changed so radically during my absence, why not the others? Otter had clearly changed from the gentle hippy I'd known as a child into the bizarrely material creature who was sitting beside me and quietly lamenting the destruction of his property. What changes could time have worked on Hedgehog?
My train of thought was cut short by our arrival at the main house. I have said the word house more than twice now, and in order that it not become ingrained in your mind through over-use I intend at this point to stop saying it and to instead refer to Fox's domicile by a considerably more proper noun (although not its proper noun, which was spelled out in singularly tasteless gold letters stretching across the archway over the main doors). Fox lived, there was no other way to describe it, in a mansion. The building was bigger than anything in Bridgetown, bigger even than the church, the church hall, and the grain storehouse put together. Towers and minarets sprouted from every available flat surface atop it, and windows of countless designs dotted the front wall of the house, which itself stretched half as far as the eye could see.
Fox was standing in front of it, his arms wide.
"Welcome!" he shouted, as we stepped out of the car.
"Hello!" we said, and from behind us Hedgehog's voice issued from the driver's seat.
"A little help?"