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When Tom Scatterhorn's eccentric father disappears to the Far East in search of rare beetles, closely followed by his mother, Tom is left to spend Christmas with his uncle and aunt, keepers of the weird and wonderful Scatterhorn Museum. But don’t get too excited – because it's a dusty, dingy place, full of tatty stuffed animals and rickety cases of junk. Nobody really wants to visit it anymore, and it looks as if its days are numbered.
But when Tom comes to live there, he finds more to the museum than meets the eye. The animals may be ragged and moth-eaten but they have an incredible secret – a secret that originated when the stuffed animals were first made, a hundred years earlier. And then Tom discovers he can go right back to the time of their making. . . .
In an exciting adventure that threads in and out of time, from an Edwardian ice fair to the wastes of Mongolia to the jungles of India, Tom discovers that there is far more at stake than the fate of the museum. . . .
From the Hardcover edition.
"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.
Henry Chancellor is the author of the highly acclaimed Colditz: The Definitive History and James Bond: The Man and His World—The Official Companion to Ian Fleming’s Creation. He has made many documentaries for television, including Escape from Colditz which won sweeping praise and has been shown all over the world. He lives in England with his wife and children.
From the Hardcover edition.
A Strange Reception
‘What do you have in here; rocks, I suppose?’
It was three o’clock on a cold winter’s afternoon, and a small round man struggled around the back of a taxi with a battered blue duffel bag and heaved it onto the pavement.
‘Not exactly,’ replied the skinny blond boy, standing shivering in the wind in a thin coat.
‘Don’t tell me, there’s a few bricks in there too?’ wheezed the man, raising his eyebrows as he reached into his pocket for some notes. The boy smiled politely and braced himself against the buffeting wind. Even though it was only mid afternoon, the streetlights had already come on up and down the grey street, and the minicab driver unrolled the top of his steamed-up window just wide enough to slip out his hand for the money. He wasn’t going out in that; that was far too cold. That wind came straight from Siberia.
‘Cheers, mate,’ he said, taking the wad of notes and blowing noisily on his fingers, ‘have a good Christmas yourself.’ And away he sped through the puddles.
‘Right Tom, let’s get inside before we both freeze to death,’ wheezed the round man, and grabbing the duffel bag in both arms he tottered up the wide steps of the large, crumbling brick building behind him and disappeared through a small side door. Huge hailstones had started to fall, cracking hard against the stone steps, and Tom was just about to follow him inside when he caught the eye of two angry-looking stone dragons above the entrance. Between them they were holding a crumbling stone plaque that read:
The Scatterhorn Museum
Founded 1906 by Sir Henry Scatterhorn
Bequeathed to the people of Dragonport
God Save the King
Despite the hailstones and the icy wind whipping his face, Tom found himself smiling. Maybe it wasn’t going to be that bad after all. There couldn’t be many children who were about to spend their Christmas holidays in a museum that was named . . .
‘Tom Scatterhorn, get yourself in here right now before you turn to ice, boy!’
The voice boomed above the cracking hailstones and Tom suddenly remembered that his teeth were chattering. He scampered up the steps two at a time and ran inside.
‘So Mum’s taken off to Mongolia or some such place, has she?’
Tom nodded. He was now sitting in a small yellow kitchen at the back of the museum, with his fingers pressed onto the radiator. Slowly he could feel himself thawing out.
‘Good old Sam. Full of surprises.’
‘Well, let’s hope to goodness she finds him; it’s an awfully big place.’
‘She will find him,’ said Tom politely but firmly, ‘I know she will.’
Ever since his father had disappeared six months ago, and his mother had gone to look for him, this is what Tom had wanted more than anything else in the world.
‘Hmm.’ Aunt Melba poured the tea thoughtfully. ‘Well, let’s stay optimistic, shall we?’
Tom nodded, though his teeth were still chattering. He had to stay optimistic – he had no choice.Just as he had had no choice but to spend Christmas with his only other living relatives, Uncle Jos and Aunt Melba, on the other side of the country. They were the proud owners of the Scatterhorn Museum, and he had never met them before in his life.
‘Oh yes please,’ interrupted Uncle Jos, taking two.
‘Now just you wait, you great heffalump,’ snapped Melba, snatching one back and passing it to Tom.
‘This boy’s bound to be hungry; just look at the state of him.’
Jos crunched the biscuit noisily and peered over his spectacles at the skinny boy shivering on the other side of the table. Tom was eleven years old, tall for his age, but thin, with strikingly dark, piercing eyes. His hair was a wiry blond tangle that tumbled down over his forehead. He looked both young and strangely grown-up at the same time.
‘Just like his old dad,’ said Jos with a shrug. ‘He’s the spitting image of Sam.’
‘But thin as a whippet,’ added Melba with some concern. ‘Don’t your parents ever feed you, Tom?’
Tom looked across the table at the two strange looking people and all he could think about were his mother’s words as she had kissed him goodbye at the station that morning.
‘Just remember that Uncle Jos and Aunt Melba are a little bit different.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, they are older, and they’ve not had children of their own. They’re just a bit . . . different.’
‘Like . . . eccentric?’
‘No, not exactly,’ replied his mother, weighing her words carefully so as not to put Tom off, ‘just unusual, that’s all. They’ve spent a long time in that funny old place.’
Tom had wondered what ‘unusual’ meant as he watched the raindrops racing down the train windows. It could be unusual like his own parents – they scarcely counted as normal. But now that he had arrived he was beginning to see what his mother had meant.
‘Paste sandwich, Tom?’ wheezed Uncle Jos, holding a tiny plate of bread triangles out to him. ‘Go on, they’re the best: sardine.’
Uncle Jos was a round ball of a man, with red cheeks and a bald head that sprouted small clumps of hair in all directions. His most prominent feature were his eyebrows, which were as thick as hedges and met in the middle, hiding a pair of dark beady eyes that were constantly on the move. At the moment he was wearing two cardigans, one on top of the other, and his head was cocked slightly to one side like a dog listening to a public announcement.
‘Er . . . no thanks.’
‘No idea what you are missing, lad,’ said Uncle Jos, cramming another sandwich into his own mouth.
‘I think he might, Jos,’ clucked Melba disapprovingly. ‘Tom dear, do have some more tea. One can never have enough tea.’
If Uncle Jos was one extreme, Aunt Melba was quite the other. Instead of being short and round and rather jolly she was pale and slim and, with her hair cut in a pudding bowl like a medieval king, she looked rather severe. At this moment she was picking the crumbs off her plate with quick birdlike movements and placing them on the tip of her knee, where a long white rat with red eyes sat nibbling. This was Plankton, and he was having his tea too.
‘Plankton is the best mouser in town,’ cooed Melba, gently stroking his back.
‘Mouser?’ repeated Tom, who was sure that mousers were cats and definitely not rats.
‘Ah yes,’ winked Uncle Jos. ‘Didn’t you know mice are terrified of rats? Particularly white ones with red eyes. They meet Plankton in the dark holes in the skirting board and they think they’ve died and gone to hell.’
Jos picked up two jam tarts and wedged them beneath his huge black eyebrows. ‘He is the devil, you see, with big, red eyes! And he has come to punish them for all those naughty things they have done in their lives! Roah! Roah!’
Jos waved his stocky arms madly in the air like a weird little monster, and Tom stifled a laugh. The next moment Jos popped the jam tarts out of his eye sockets and winked.
‘So them naughty little critters turn tail and skedaddle. They never come back!’
‘Don’t you listen to it, Tom,’ said Melba with a smile. ‘But devil or no devil he’s a very fine rat, wouldn’t you like to hold him?’
And before Tom knew it Plankton was scrabbling about on his lap.
‘Er . . . thanks. I . . . er . . . ’ Tom had never been sure about rats, and Plankton, who smelled slightly of straw, did not change his mind.
‘I think he likes you,’ cooed Melba.
‘So . . . er . . . is this a . . . er . . . busy time of year for the museum?’ said Tom, trying hard to ignore Plankton’s scabby white claws investigating the pocket that happened to contain his last sherbet lemon.
‘Oh yes lad, it’s all go all the time,’ Jos replied breezily, ‘it never stops here, ever. Melba and I run this ship entirely on our own. Why, only last week we had . . . erm . . . who did we have, Melba?’
‘The school party from St Denis’s cancelled on Monday,’ she said, feeding Plankton a crumb.
‘Yes, ah, it’s a wee bit cold for the little ones this time of year,’ explained Jos. ‘But those old folks from the Dragonport Historical Society came on Tuesday and they definitely enjoyed it–’
‘Except for the two who swore blind they would never come again.’
‘Why was that?’ asked Tom.
‘Scared,’ replied Uncle Jos quickly. ‘We have to keep it very dark in there, you see. Some of the old dears’ hearts aren’t up to it.’
‘Three people on Wednesday.’
Jos harrumphed loudly.
‘You see, my dear, I just don’t think you’re counting properly. It was definitely more than that–’
‘Well, there was one old fellow who slipped in and out without paying at all.’
‘Leaky Logan?’ exclaimed Jos. ‘Not him again!’
‘He refused to pay because he says you owe him so much money for fixing the boiler that he deserves a free ticket in here for the rest of his life,’ said Melba pointedly.
‘Hagfish!’ muttered Uncle Jos.
‘Thursday, Friday, no one at all,’ Melba went on, and with a smile she relieved Tom of the troublesome rat.
‘Maybe so Melba, maybe so, but Saturday is always the biggest day of the week for the Scatterhorn Museum,’ Jos replied, refusing to be put down. ‘Why, in our heyday we’ve had thousands through here on a Saturday, crowds stretching right down the street. Like a cup final.’
‘But last Saturday it was just two. And both were from the Council, with more demands for money.’
‘All right,’ said Jos holding up his hands, ‘I know, it’s not exactly profitable. But, Tom, the point is,’ Jos cleared his throat, ‘the point is–’
‘What was it your father used to say?’ prompted Melba quietly.
‘As long as we’re here,’ boomed Jos, and standing up he suddenly grabbed Tom by the shirt, ‘then boy, we’re here.’
‘As long as we’re here, we’re here, we’re here, as long as we’re here, we’re here, we’re here,’ sang Melba in a thin reedy voice, and Jos’s shoulders began to shake violently.
‘As long as–’
‘Stop it!’ wheezed Jos, his eyes screwed up like tiny dots and his face turning such a deep shade of purple that Tom thought he might explode. Melba tittered. Tom looked from one to the other and smiled helplessly. He was beginning to wonder if Jos and Melba were completely mad.
‘Dear oh dear, never could work that one out,’ said Jos finally, wiping his eye. ‘But I took it to mean keep the place open, come hell or high water.’
And being an ex-navy man, this was a phrase that Jos could understand.
After tea Uncle Jos led Tom up the rickety back stairs to a small attic room at the top of the narrow slice of building behind the museum that was Jos and Melba’s home. The roof was so low and the door so thin that Jos struggled to get through it.
‘Sorry about the mess,’ he said, kicking some very old-looking packing cases out of the way and hefting Tom’s bag onto the bed. ‘Lord, that’s heavy.’
Jos sank down beside it, puffing so hard that his breath turned to steam like a kettle.
‘So, Tom,’ he said, glancing up with his head cocked to one side, ‘what do you think of your quarters?’
Tom looked around at the tiny room. It was dark and damp and cold, and every wall sloped inwards under the eaves. At the far end was a small desk before a window with a view out over the wet rooftops of the town and the wide grey river beyond. On the far side, Tom could just make out the yellow lights from the docks and the shadows of huge cranes, looming up out of the gloom like dinosaurs.
‘It’s great,’ he said, shivering slightly. ‘Maybe a bit cold but I–’
‘That can be sorted, lad,’ interrupted Jos. ‘Don’t you worry. It may be cold in here but you can bet your life it’s warmer than Mongolia!’
With a chuckle he heaved himself off the bed and navigated back through the boxes to the door.
‘I’m sure you want to get your stuff shipshape now, so I’ll leave you to get on. Tomorrow we’ll have a good look around the old place and you can tell me what you think of her. And I’ll want to know,’ he winked, ‘after all, you’re a Scatterhorn. One day you may end up taking the helm yourself.’ And with a wave he was gone.
Tom looked around the cold dark room once more, with its piles of musty books and old newspapers that smelt slightly sweet. Suddenly he felt very alone. Walking through the boxes to the window, Tom watched the moon racing through the silver clouds and listened to the howling wind. In his mind he imagined that same moon shining down on the other side of the world. There, on the edge of a vast forest, was a little tent with a fire crackling beside it. And there were two shadows beside the tent, always two shadows–
Tom turned away from the window, biting his lip. Right now he missed his parents more than he could possibly say.
‘Be brave my darling,’ Tom’s mother had said as the train pulled out of the station. ‘I’ll find him. I promise.’
Tom flopped down on the low creaking bed and stared up at the peeling wallpaper above his head. Angrily, he wiped away the tears with his sleeve. This was not how it was supposed to be.
Where had his father gone?
Some strange, empty country, full of forests and rivers. Tom rolled over and tried to ignore the truth that haunted him. After all, it might have been so very different...
From the Hardcover edition.
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