Joan Aiken Cockatrice Boys

ISBN 13: 9780606286718

Cockatrice Boys

 
9780606286718: Cockatrice Boys
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After the world is invaded by monsters and modern civilization collapses, the English countryside becomes a dangerous wasteland, and a heroic band leaves London by train in an attempt to transport some now valuable vegetables to Manchester.

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Review:

The idea for this book might have come from National Enquirer: hideous demonic monsters invade England, laying it waste and devouring most of the inhabitants. Embargoed by the rest of the world, the English barricade themselves underground. After five years on the defensive, an armored, heavily-armed train is built to attack and, if possible, find the source of the plague: the Cockatrice Belle and her crack Cockatrice Corps crew. The train sets out for Manchester, and by chance it picks up Sauna, a young girl who embodies both cause and cure.

Joan Aiken's characters are evocatively Dickensian and strange--Sauna, Dakin, Clipspeak, Bellswinger, Tom Flint. This send-up of every other alien-invasion story is a quirky, inventive fantasy.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter one
 
 
Nobody seemed to know where the dreadful things came from. Some people said one thing, some said another.
But experts mostly agree as to the day when the evil invasion of the British Isles first began.
It was on a wretched rainy Sunday in the month of September. Recently the winters had all been bitterly cold and snowy, while the summers were shorter and windier and wetter. On this September Sunday people were coming home from their holidays, flying in from Sardinia and Spain and Sicily. For most of them, wherever they had been, the weather was so nasty that they hardly felt they had been away.
Tired, disgruntled passengers disembarked from their planes at the big airport outside Manchester. They scurried through streaming rain to the airport building, then filed slowly through Passport Control, and began waiting in the baggage claim hall for their luggage to arrive. Soon they hoped to see it come sliding up a moving ramp, tip over the top, and come slithering down on to a travelling circular platform. All the passengers squeezed as close to this platform as possible, hoping to be the first to grab their own bags and hurry off to customs.
But a whole lot of time passed by. People waited and waited. They grumbled more and more loudly as they gazed at the luggage belt, which kept sliding by with nothing on it.
"Only twenty metres walk from our plane," said one woman. "A one-legged rheumatic snail with athlete's foot could have fetched the luggage faster than those handlers are doing it."
"Snails don't have rheumatism," snarled her husband. "And I told you, Brenda, only to bring carry-on luggage for a weekend in Brittany."
"It wasn't a weekend, it was five days."
"I can see something coming," said a small pigtailed girl who was with her aunt. She had red hair and looked thin and sad. Oddly enough, from where she stood it wouldn't have been possible to see anything coming up the ramp. But she turned rather pale and her mouth opened in a silent gasp of fright. And then, in a moment, something did come rolling over the summit of the ramp and toppled down the other side.
"That's not proper luggage," said the woman called Brenda.
It certainly wasn't. It was an enormously large, lumpy, shapeless sack, tied at the neck with thick rope. It seemed to have some object inside about the size of a sofa but not at all the shape of a sofa; this thing, whatever it was, must have had as many corners, dimples, bulges, dents, points, swellings, creases and gibbosities as a seven-ended pineapple. The sack which contained it was uncommonly thick and stout, rather grimy, as if it had travelled half across the world, covered with tags and labels and scribbles, and coloured in wide stripes of orange and purple.
Almost at once it was followed by another sack of a similar kind and quite as large, but a different shape; this one was long, about the length of two beds put end to end, but lumpy, with a fitted bit of the sack covering a kind of prong that stuck up at one end.
"Maybe there's a camel inside it lying down," guessed the pigtailed girl.
"Don't be silly, Sauna," snapped her aunt. "People don't send camels in parcels. Oh my stars, I wish our luggage would come. I want to get home. I want my tea."
Everybody wanted to get home and have their tea. Still the luggage did not come. Instead, more and more and more of the large mysterious sacks came trundling up the ramp and tumbling out on to the moving circular beltway, until the whole circle was covered with them, gliding along, one after the other, like a lot of purple and orange ghosts.
"What the dickens can they be?" people were saying. "Who do they belong to?" "Why doesn't somebody claim them?" "It's not right! There's no room for our luggage with all those things out there."
"Maybe they are musical instruments," said the woman called Brenda. "Maybe they belong to one of those pop groups."
"Oh, sure!" snarled her husband, whose name was Ron Glomax. "And what stage in the whole world do you think is big enough to hold all those outsize objects? And what do you think they are? Superpianos? Alphorns?" "Matterhorns, more like," somebody said. "Anyway if they are instruments, where's the group they belong to?"
"P'raps they come from Mars and are stuck at immigration."
"I'm going to complain," said Ron Glomax.
The moving belt was now completely packed with the big shapeless bags, wedged tight as dominoes in a box and all shiny with wet.
"One of them moved!" cried the pigtailed girl.
"Nonsense!" said the aunt. "Stop fidgeting around, Sauna. You stay close by me and behave yourself."
At the end of its track the moving belt travelled through a hole in the wall beyond which was the outside area where the handlers stacked the baggage. This hole was screened by a curtain of swinging leather straps. Beside it was a door marked no exit for passengers. Ron Glomax opened this door and put his head out. But the rain outside was coming down in blinding sheets, so he pulled his head back in again, grumbling that it was all quite disgraceful.
But now, strangely, the number of sacks began to decrease. Gaps appeared between them. Then the gaps became wider. Nobody was seen to take a bag off the belt, yet there were fewer and fewer, until at last there were hardly any at all.
"They go out under the curtain, and they don't come in again," said the girl called Sauna. Then she gave a whimper of horror, her eyes grew enormous and she cried, "Oh, I can see something huge--"
"Quiet, will you, for goodness' sake," said her aunt. "Thank heavens, there comes our blue case at last. You hold my handbag while I reach for it--"
But Sauna stood trembling uncontrollably for several minutes before she was able to obey her aunt's order.
People were so happy to find their luggage that they soon forgot about the big lumpy bags; nobody wasted any more time wondering who had sent them or who picked them up, or where they had gone to on that streaming wet Sunday in late September.
* * *
A couple of months went by before the first of the Cockatrices--for that was what they came to be called--made its appearance.
On a dark freezing December evening a truck driver called Sam Dwindle burst into his foreman's office looking very upset. He was white and sweating, and he shivered badly despite the thick jacket he wore.
"Yeah, yeah, I just know what you're going to say," he told the boss. "But listen to this: an hour ago when I was coming up the A3 from Portsmouth, on that new bit of bypass, I see this Thing, with big three-cornered flaps along its back and a tail the length of a tennis court and round ears that swivelled about like radar shields, and it was running along beside the motorway on its four fat legs. Running as fast as I was driving! And I was doing seventy--"
"Then you didn't ought to of been," said his boss, "not with a load of wineglasses. I suppose you'd put in a couple of hours at the George in Milford?"
"No, I hadn't, then," said the driver, injured. "I knew you wouldn't believe me. And if you don't, I'm sure I don't care. But I'm telling you, if that Thing had taken a fancy to cross the A3, instead of going off Dorking way, your truck would have been as flat as a Brillo pad and me with it.
"It had a tassel on its tail," he added. "And flaps there too."
"And a bow of pink ribbon on its head, I suppose," said his boss.
"OK, OK! You can give me my cards. If there's going to be things like that around, I'm going back to window-cleaning."
* * *
The next of the Cockatrices was sighted by a school botany class, who were out on the moor near the town of Appleby-under-Scar, two hundred miles to the north of the first occurrence. They were hunting for rabbit and deer tracks in the snow.
Two boys, Fred and Colin, had run on ahead of the rest, but they came racing back to the main group as fast as their legs would carry them.
"Miss! Come and see! There's a dinosaur in Hawes Dell."
"Now what moonshine have you got in your heads?" remarked the teacher, Miss Frobisher. But the whole class hurried up to the lip of the dell and looked down into it.
"Gracious me! Somebody must be making a film," said Miss Frobisher. "But that's not an ordinary dinosaur, Colin. It's a, it's, um, Tyrannosaurus Rex. You can tell that from its teeth and claws. The claws are at least eight inches long, and the teeth--"
"Will it bite us?" nervously asked a girl called Lily.
"No, dear. It's only a model, a very clever one indeed. I wonder where the cameramen are, and the film technicians. Dear me, what a lot it must have cost to make a model that size."
"It's coming this way," said Fred.
"Coo, it doesn't half stink," said Colin. "Like a whole truckload of rotting seaweed. Are you sure it's only a model, Miss?"
"Now, Colin! Use your intelligence! You know there aren't dinosaurs about any more. They lived millions of years ago."
"Look at its tracks in the snow," said Lily. "Aren't they huge? Listen to it pant. Miss, I'm scared. I want to go home."
"Don't be a baby, Lily," said the teacher. "Just when you've got a chance to study this very clever model, which must be radio-controlled. Now you can see what it would have been like to live millions of years ago--"
Those were her last words.
The newspapers carried the story of the mysterious disappearance of Miss Frobisher and her class. "Their tracks were traced as far as the top of Hawes Dell," reported Appleby Herald, "but heavy snow falling soon after prevented the police from discovering where they had gone after that. A local farmer, James Robson, claims to have seen what he described as a 'mammoth footprint' in the snow, but there has been no confirmation of his suggestion that some large beast was responsible for the strange fatality. Mr. Adrian Mardle, Chief Constable of West Humberland, is in charge of the case."
* * *
The next sighting was by an old lady, Mrs. Ada Backit, who lived in a high-rise apartment block in Glasgow, two hu...

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