‘Stop chatting to your friends,’ said Miss Taff, ‘and pay attention.’ She snatched Sidney’s mobile, stuffed it into her crocodile handbag and snapped the clasp shut. The boy mumbled that he didn’t have any friends and sat down in front of the make-up table. Rummaging through a box of grease paints he found a stick of red carmine and streaked a scar across his mouth. Then he stared into the mirror and pulled a gruesome face.
‘Yes, very impressive,’ sighed his drama teacher, ‘but real acting isn’t like that. You’ve got to make it convincing, boyo. This is a big competition and I know you can win. You simply have to concentrate on …’
Sidney tried to tune out. Once old Taff was in full flow you simply had to wait ‘til she ran out of steam. He scraped a comb through his dark hair and wished she’d stop calling him ‘boyo’.
‘Understand you character’ she droned, ‘True emotion comes from within. You can’t put it on like a mask or a suit of armour. And shoes, Sidney – you have to put yourself in other people’s shoes.’
‘Yeh, yeh,’ he sighed. His own shoes felt fine thanks, sort of comfy trainers with grubby laces – and he wasn’t going to change them for anyone. Instead he yawned, grabbed a tissue and wiped the paint from his face. It left a pleasing hint blood on his pale skin, and he admired his reflection. He considered adding some black eyeliner, but decided against it.
‘Mmm, maybe not – handsome enough already,’ he purred. The tension broke and Taff laughed. She was his best-ever teacher but she got a bit wound-up on these big occasions. Winning the top prize at the drama festival would be great for both of them, but he knew that talent wasn’t always enough. If the judge didn’t like the sound of you right away, well that was it – curtains. On the other hand, Sidney had already sussed out the opposition. He’d watched the other competitors in rehearsals and decided they were rubbish, or moderate at best – all except one – a quiet girl called Lucy. ‘Touch of class,’ he thought. A smile licked across his face, and he forgot to scowl.
Even so, the Young Actors’ Competition was really tough, and Sidney longed to be left alone. But there was Taff, putting him through his paces again; the words whispered and shadowy gestures traced. The judge’s bell rang, sharp as a knife. On cue, Sidney picked up his jewelled crown and stepped onto the stage.
Out on the bare platform of the Festival Hall the boy said his piece. First he was a tormented man, betrayed and bewildered – next he was a warrior, tall and triumphant. Seizing the crown, holding it aloft, he was madman and monarch rolled into one. Like his teacher had said, the boy couldn’t lose – and he didn’t. The judge proclaimed him the Competition Winner. Sidney bowed to the audience and graciously received the Metamorphosis Cup and Mystery Voucher.
Applause wrapped around him like a warm coat. When the local press crowded round he basked in their attention, took all the credit for his success and forgot to thank his teacher. He shouldn’t have ignored Miss Taff when the cameras clicked – or turned his back on her and walked away – but he did.
‘Lucy, where’s Lucy?’ he shouted and ran off to look for the girl. She wasn’t in the hall or in the dressing rooms, but someone had scrawled a message across his mirror in bright lipstick.
‘Congratulations. You deserved to win!!’ It was followed by a pink kiss and a swirly letter ‘L’. Sidney stuffed the silver trophy into his bag and ran outside to see if Lucy was there. But it was raining and the lamp-lit street was empty.
Alone on the number 25 double-decker ‘bus, Sidney admired the Metamorphosis Cup. Amid the fancy silverwork was a space where his name could be engraved, and above it was a shining star. The cup’s ornate lid was fixed securely with tape, but Sidney prised it off and stared inside. There, in the bowl of the cup lay a plain envelope. He pulled it from its resting place and ripped it open. Much to his disgust there was no prize money – nothing except a ticket with curly writing on it. One side said ‘Mystery Voucher’, and the other said, ‘Congratulations from our Sponsors, Metamorphosis and Co. You have won a ticket to Dream Cellar Studios and a chance star in Claim to Fame! Meet our host with the most, the one and only – wait for it, wait for it – Rikki Gleeson!’
The bus ground to a halt outside a seedy-looking red brick building. A grubby neon sign blinked on and off. ‘TV Studio’ it said, and an arrow pointed to some chipped marble steps leading down to a basement.
‘Not exactly The Royal Shakespeare Company,’ grumbled Sidney, but a chance was a chance, and he took it.
Presenting the ticket at the Stage Door, Sidney stepped into an uncertain future. His feet hardly touched the studio floor when a battery of lights swung towards him. A gloved hand removed his bag and another propelled him past the audience and shoved him onto another stage – empty except for a shimmering curtain. There was a deafening drum roll and the curtain parted to reveal – wait for it, wait for it – the one and only Rikki Gleeson. The audience shrieked its welcome as the rotund figure, complete with sequinned jacket and tight black trousers, bounded onto the stage.
‘Sidney ma boy – or can I call you Sid?’ yelled the confident compere. He hugged Sidney to his sparkly chest and flashed a smile at the camera’s wicked eye. Overcome by a gust of stale breath, Sidney tried to recoil from the stranger’s embrace, but failed. Beneath layers of greasepaint he saw the man’s pitted skin and thought of lizards – lizards soaking up the sun, stealing energy from other people’s lives. For a moment the boy pictured his own skin sucked clean, spat out, hung up to dry. This man in his shiny suit wasn’t so much a host as a parasite; questioning, probing, pulling stupid words from Sidney’s mouth.
‘So you wanna be famous?’ sneered Rikki. ‘You wanna be a movie star? So what does it take to be great? Talent, you say? Hey, folks – this boy thinks he’s got talent!’ The audience jeered and stamped its feet. ‘So let’s see what Clever-clogs can do!’ The band struck up ‘Singing in the Rain,’ and Sidney found himself dancing a soft-shoe shuffle across the stage. Someone threw him an umbrella, and before he could open it someone else drenched him with a bucket of cold water.
‘That’s Showbiz for ya!’ yelled Rikki, and the audience cheered.
Colour rose in Sidney’s face – such bright humiliation in the camera’s glare. But for a split second he saw himself smiling like Rikki, wearing his jacket, usurping his fame. The fat man, who could read his thoughts, held him tight and gabbled nonsense at the crowd. Close up, the compere’s sleek tongue disgusted him. Flecks of foam gathered in the corners of the man’s mouth, yet how fast he could talk and never falter, and how, despite his weight, he danced on dainty feet. Fascinated, Sidney watched as Rikki charmed the rows of sycophants grinning in the dark. Like automatons, they obliged their master with applause and false delight – on cue.
‘Or else, folks, we’ll be here all night,’ snarled their favourite man.
‘Fear controls them,’ thought Sidney, ‘fear is the key.’
‘And talking of keys,’ said the Host from Hell, ‘let’s give a big hand for the one and only Keystone Clown!’ There was a blast of trumpets, and across the stage leapt a ragbag of a man wearing harlequin trousers and a coat of coloured shreds.
‘This way,” shrieked the madman, ‘lies the Cellar of Dreams, and around my waist are the Golden Keys!’ He flung off his coat to reveal a belt threaded with scarlet ribbons, and at the end of each ribbon was a golden key.
The raggy clown turned and turned, until the ribbons fluttered and the keys jangled. Like a human tambourine he cart-wheeled towards Sidney and froze like a statue with staring eyes and wild green hair. Lights dimmed, drums rolled.
‘Okay Sidney,’ whispered Rikki, ‘now’s the time for your Claim to Fame. First you have to catch the right key, the only key – the key that opens the box!’
Round and round twirled the clown until the golden keys fanned out like a ballerina’s skirt. And at each turn the keys hummed a melody, until one key alone sang out. Like the sound of the wind under the sea, it howled through hollows where the skulls of dead men lay. White bones gleamed under coral crusts and empty mouths flickered with the tongues of tiny silvery fish. In empty sockets sea anemones winked cutely, coyly – waiting for their prey.
‘Stop!’ screamed the boy, and his eyes brimmed with tears. ‘You’re spinning too fast. I can’t catch the keys.’
‘Go on, laddie,’ bawled the crowd, Choose one, any one! Everyone’s a winner. It’s the fun of the fair!’
All at once a key detached itself and flew into the palm of Sidney’s outstretched hand. He shuddered as the Fool clutched his sleeve and dragged him towards a cabinet packed with red lacquer boxes. Each box had a golden keyhole.
‘Which casket, which cupboard? What nightmares, what dreams are waiting for Sidney and Curiosity’s schemes?’ trilled the key as it headed for home. And as if by magic the biggest box in the cabinet burst open.
‘Ooh,’ gasped the audience as the camera zoomed in. Sidney peered inside the box, but there was nothing at all except darkness. The Fool pushed Sidney’s hand deeper into the box until it touched something flat and shiny. He drew out the prize and saw that it was nothing more than a black and white photo of himself. The audience groaned and fell silent.
‘Game over!’ shouted Sidney and headed for the exit. He needed to get away from this den of villains and painted thieves.
‘Not so fast, sonny,’ croaked a voice in his ear, and turning, he saw Rikki’s lizard eyes sliding towards a large screen. And there, on its stretched surface, was a huge picture of the back of Sidney’s head. Fascinated, he watched as the layers of his skull peeled back and the bone, thicker than expected, opened up to reveal a grey cauliflower – or was it his brain?
‘Amazing, these computer graphics,’ mused Sidney as a step-ladder unfolded from the portrait. Taking a deep breath, he climbed up it and stepped into the tangle of tubes which bubbled on the screen. A network of twisted tunnels pulled him deeper inside his head.
‘Rely on your inner resources,’ Miss Taff advised when he suffered from stage fright. Now that he was indeed exploring his inner resources Sidney was surprisingly calm. It was only when he tripped over one of the gristly bits that he noticed the shoes. They weren’t his. In place of his grubby trainers was a pair of leather boots. And they had high heels – high heels, heaven-help-him – with jangly bits at the back.
‘Spurs,’ thought Sidney as the spiky silver wheels spun round, ‘spurs on boots like they have in cowboy films.’ He was reminded of old movies where deserts sprout weird cactuses and bones of animals are bleached in the sun, and tumbleweed tumbles along dusty streets in deserted towns.
Before he could fathom what was happening, Sidney found himself tying a pair of reins to a wooden post beside a scummy-looking water trough. At the end of the reins was a horse. It didn’t appear to be particularly friendly and it definitely wasn’t Trigger or any of those sleek, smarter-than-human-type horses that gallop to the rescue of distressed persons in the nick of time. With its large feet and scrawny body this creature would never outrun an enraged posse or a horde of hostile tribes-people, not even on a good day with the wind behind it. Sidney detected a faint sneer on the animal’s sour face and hoped it wouldn’t bite him or trample on his high-heeled shoes. Instead the horse-with-no-name looked up from the water trough and said, ‘Well go on then, leave me here. Force me to drink this contaminated sludge while you enjoy yourself in the Hangman’s Saloon. See if I care. Hope you choke!’
Sidney was about to reply that he had no wish to visit some sleazy pub in a ghastly Ghost Town when the saloon doors swung wide open. He couldn’t help noticing the length of thick rope, tied in a loop, which hung from a sort of flagpole over the door.
‘Someone in there wants to see you,’ whispered the horse, hoarsely, and nudged him in the back. Sidney guessed that behind those doors were men, real men with ten-gallon hats, who muttered into their moustachios while they shot at rows of whiskey bottles and spat a lot.
Sidney refrained from spitting, but couldn’t help noticing the stripy blanket which had draped itself over his shoulders. Strapped around his chest were bullets and heavy metal things – guns to be precise – two of them, and another one in his belt. Clearly someone in the costume department had gone into overdrive.
‘Hell’s teeth,’ gasped Sidney, ‘hope I’m the good guy,’ and was relieved to find that his wide-brimmed hat was a comforting shade of white. Breathing deeply, as Taff had taught him, Sidney strode into the Hangman’s Saloon. Nobody moved, and nothing stirred, not even a cup of coffee or the sawdust beneath his feet. That horse by the trough had lied. No-one in the saloon bar wanted to see him, no-one at all.
‘Talk about being ignored,’ he thought as the bunch of smelly cowhands and wild-eyed prospectors paid him no attention. They simply carried on playing cards, eating beans and drinking something which probably wasn’t water.
‘I’ll have some of that please, barman,’ said Sidney in his most confident tone and placed a coin on the counter. Nothing happened, apart from a sudden shoot-out at one of the tables and the arrival of undertakers from the Funeral Parlour next door.
When they’d departed with their cargo, the barman emerged from his usual hiding place, and Sidney tried again. This time he waved a fistful of dollars, but the loot failed to kindle a light in the barman’s mean little eyes.
‘Service – plee-ease,’ implored Sidney,’ I’d like a …’, but again there was no response. Nothing at all, nada. What could he do to grab some attention?
‘I got plenty of nuthin’ – and nuthin’s plenty for me-ee,’ sang Sidney, doing his most exuberant Howard Keel cowboy-impersonation. Not a ripple, not a murmur, not even a rotten tomato greeted the lad’s musical rendition. Were they deaf as well as blind? What did one have to do to get noticed in these parts – tap dance on the table?
Suddenly a glass of something wet and brown whizzed along the counter.
‘Yep, service at last. This one’s for me,’ said Sidney but failed to grab hold of it. Next came a plate of bean-infested stew. It was dumped right in front of him, and snatched away by another hungry honcho in a poncho.
‘Sidney,’ said the boy to himself, ‘you gotta get a grip.’
Just then his attention was caught by a yellowing sheet of paper fixed to the wall with something sticky. It was a Wanted Poster with a picture of an outlaw on it, and apart from the moustache, the desperado was a dead ringer for Sidney. He was wondering how much reward money he’d get for turning himself in, when the wording on the Poster re-arranged itself. Ominous phrases like, ‘Not wanted now,’ ‘Gottim!’ and ‘Recently Deceased’, were slapped across his photo-fit face. For those who couldn’t read, there was a cute picture of a limp body suspended from a noose.
Sidney snatched at the offending item, but the poster floated from his grasp and was carried away by a gust of air. He barged about the saloon trying to retrieve it, but nobody noticed him. Or to be more accurate, nobody saw him – no-one apart from a gnarled old woman with second sight and a taste for too much cactus juice. How rude they all were, these cowboys and rough gauchos. He might as well have been a shadow for all the attention they paid him. It was then, beneath the flickering light of an oil lamp, Sidney noticed that his shadow was missing. Or was it his imagination? He glanced up at the fly-blown mirror behind the bar; saw the backs of whisky bottles and the barman’s head. Then he understood. Turning a whiter shade of pale, he tried not to stare at his own reflection because he knew it wasn’t there. And from outside the saloon came the whinnying noise of a horse laughing.
‘Well gringo, don’t say I didn’t tell you,’ it snickered as Sidney launched himself into the saddle. ‘If you come to a Ghost Town you gotta expect to see ghosts!’
‘Whaddya mean “see ghosts”? There weren’t any ghosts,’ squealed Sidney into its mule-like lugs, ‘no ghosts except for me!’ And he almost inadvertently pranged its ribs with the jangly bits at the back of his boots.
‘Ouch!’ said the horse.
‘Yep, I was the only genuwine ghost in that there Ghost Town,’ drawled Sidney, warming to the part. ‘I was the only spook that spoke – it was me!
‘It was I,’ replied the horse pedantically, and received another jab from Sidney’s silver spurs.
‘Double ouch!’ neighed the horse.
‘Cretin!’ spat Sidney.
‘Ah, a name at last,’ said the horse, and strode blissfully into the desert.
‘Where are we going?’ asked Sidney?
‘Wait and see,’ whispered the tumbleweed, ‘wait and see.’
Together the boy and his horse rode through a canyon, its sandstone walls carved by the wind. On the far side the horse picked its way among a forest of sun-scorched cactus plants. To Sidney they looked like petrified people abandoned in the sand. Spines bristled on their rigid arms; others were studded with gaudy flowers, shocking pink and chrome yellow.
Soon the desert gave way to a dusty track. The horse shook his mane and broke into a trot. Leathery toads hid under stones, and fat little mice snoozed in the roots of a squamash tree. Vultures circled overhead and a snake rattled as it snatched its prey. But there, amid the pampas grass and parched land, was a cascade of clear water. It bubbled from an outcrop of rocks and poured itself into a perfectly round pool. The horse lurched towards it. Stretching out his neck, he puckered his lips and hoovered up the cool, clear liquid. Then he waded into a muddy swamp, sank to his knees and rolled over. Maybe the horse had forgotten that there was a passenger on board – or maybe not. Either way, slime oozed into Sidney’s boots, seeped into his denim jeans and dampened the fringes on his cowboy jacket. Ignoring the boy’s yells of rage, the horse began to gargle and spit. When his teeth were thoroughly clean he hauled himself onto his big flat feet and squelched towards the bank. There he scrubbed his bony rear against a bunch of reeds.
‘Ummm, delish!’ sighed the horse. ‘You should try it.’ Then he whirled his soggy tail round and round like a windmill until it created a mini-rainstorm.
‘Cold showers – so invigorating, don’tcha think?’ snickered the horse. Sidney crouched low in the saddle and shut his eyes tight. When he opened them again he saw a shadow of a man across the pool’s surface. There was a scraping sound of something being dragged across the desert floor, and soon more shadows shivered on the glassy pool. The sun turned orange and dipped to the horizon. The air was cool.
‘Don’t turn round sir,’ hissed the horse, ‘there’s someone behind you.’ Sidney slid round on the wet saddle, ready to greet the stranger. But there was no-one there, no-one except an enormous cactus, prickly arms outstretched and statue-still. Then he saw its eyes, sunk deep into a furrowed face. The mouth crunched open into a scarlet, zigzag smile as the cactus called the rest of his tribe. For there, behind him on the desert path, trudged a crowd of cactus men and their noisy cactus wives. Dragging dry roots behind them, they lumbered towards the watering hole. Sighing, they bent their sturdy knees, knelt down beside the water, and drank and drank until the pool was dry. When there was nothing left but puddles, the cactus folk heaved themselves up and stared at the horse and his boy.
‘Food’ they mumbled, ‘food!’ they rumbled as thunder shook the sky. Spines sprang from the cactus men’s hands, and their fancy wives burst into flower, all sugar pink and luminous yellow. Lightning split the sky and flashed on Sidney’s spurs. Sparks flew as he grabbed the reins and the horse lurched into action. The boy held tight as they cantered towards the desert, but the cactus women barred their way with a web of tangled roots. There was nothing for it, but to retreat. Sidney gripped the horse’s ragged mane as they turned tail and galloped back towards the empty pond. Skimming over its marshy surface, Sidney and the horse plunged down a rocky tunnel behind the reeds and emerged into a green and pleasant lane.
Ahead of them was a small wooden house, and Sidney thought he heard the strains of a soft guitar. ‘High Noon – that’s what this dude’s playing,’ he whispered. ‘Do not forsake me, oh my darlin’,’ warbled Sidney and jumped down from the saddle. He tiptoed round the corner to see who was strumming his secretly-favourite tune.
There, in a rocking chair on a veranda sat an angel playing a harp. The instrument’s frame was shaped like an elongated dragon and smoke popped from its nose as the strings were plucked. Long golden hair half-hid the angel’s face and music hung in the sultry air. Feathery wings folded and unfolded in time to her song and rainbows shone in the garden.
‘I’m dead,’ muttered Sidney, ‘I’m definitely dead, aren’t I? ‘
‘Oh no, boyo,’ drawled the angel in a faintly familiar voice.’ It’s more like going on holiday in someone else’s shoes. Here’s something to help you on your next adventure.’ With that, the angel dipped into her crocodile handbag, handed over a postcard and faded into the blue.
‘Typical,’ groaned Sidney, ‘she gives me a stupid postcard and no stamp or anything to write with. Bet there isn’t a post-box either.’ He heard the beating of wings and distant laughter. The angel was fading away. ‘Hey you – come back. You’ve still got my mobile! I want it – and I want it now!’ He was about to leap into the saddle when he realised it wasn’t there – and nor was the horse. A faint whinnying came from aloft. Sidney looked up and saw that Cretin had sprouted Pegasus wings. Someone had plaited his moth-eaten tail and scabby mane. His dusty coat gleamed, and his hooves shone. And there he was, clip-clopping into a cloud.
And she’s hijacked my horse!’ he roared at wherever it is that angels hang out.
‘Rustled, boyo, the word is rustled,’ sang the angel. ‘Do try to keep in character – and don’t trip over your spurs!’ But it was too late. Sidney wanted to throw the postcard after her, but it stuck to his fingers. He was trying to shred it into a million pieces when a message appeared on its shiny surface.
‘This way to El Dorado,’ it said. A neon compass and an arrow sprang from one edge of the card. The postcard sang something about following a yellow brick road, but Sidney walked down the lane and came to a signpost instead. The arms on the ancient sign all said the same thing – El Dorado. Whichever way he turned the postcard arrow changed colour. Various shades of pink indicated ‘Warm, warmer and you’ve arrived.’ Luminous green meant ‘Sorry Sidney, this is the scenic route, and you’re totally lost and miles from anywhere.’
There was a whirring noise and a new message appeared. A voice said, ‘Find the fork in the road.’ It sounded quite terse, rather like his teacher. He wondered what sort of fork he was looking for. Was it a tiny fork for eating tiny cakes, or a huge fork for digging huge holes? Then the answer arrived. Roaring round the corner came a fork-lift truck. It had a trailer full of workmen on the back and it stopped beside him.
‘Hop in,’ said the driver. ‘We’re blasting holes in the mountain today. Stick with these guys, and don’t get lost.’ Someone made him wear a hard hat. The higher they climbed through the pine forest, the colder it got. The truck jolted to a halt and fumes billowed out.
‘Can’t go no further – you’ve gotta walk from here,’ said the driver, and dumped them in the snow. A bitter wind blew and the sky grew darker. The prospect of spending the night on a bare mountain made Sidney shiver. When the blizzard hit he took refuge in the mouth of a cave. After a while he moved deeper inside. It was pitch black in there, but cosy enough despite the scattering of snow. He wrapped himself in his stripy poncho and lay down to rest. The sound of his breathing was comforting, but after a while he heard some-one else’s breathing and suspected he wasn’t alone. Sliding the postcard from his top pocket, Sidney pressed the compass and activated a dim light. There, lying quite close to him, was huge mound of a creature. It was brown and furry. When it rolled over Sidney saw that it had little round ears, a button black nose, marmalade eyes and sharp yellow teeth. It wasn’t exactly Paddington or Rupert Bear, and it wasn’t very pleased to discover the unexpected lodger. Fortunately it was halfway between waking and hibernation. This gave Sidney a sporting chance to escape. Even so, the bear was up on his feet and flexing his claws. The postcard gave a tiny scream and its light went out. Pressing his back against the wall, Sidney edged sideway, hoping to reach the mouth of the cave. But the way was blocked by the creature’s vast belly. If only there was somewhere safe to hide, but it was dark and the bear was lumbering towards him. In his panic to escape Sidney caught his spurs on a jagged flint stone and sparks shot out towards the furry animal. Then two things happened: first the slightly-singed bear froze in terror as the boy pelted it with snow to quench any flames, and second, Sidney discovered a gap in the wall. It was too narrow for the bear to follow, so he dived in and found himself in another long tunnel. The postcard coughed into action and shed enough light so he could see where he was going.
‘Keep on runnin’ – keep on hiding,’ warbled the happy card as Sidney climbed higher and higher inside the snow-covered mountain.
The tunnel snapped shut behind him and he found himself on a wide ledge above a large cavern. Safe at last, he lay down among the rocks and slept. The noise of shouting woke him. Sidney raised his head above the parapet and looked over the edge. Someone balanced on a ladder was hanging a grimy banner across the back wall. Someone else was shouting ‘Left hand down a bit.’ Then they cleared off and Sidney could see that, among the smoky paw prints, the banner said ‘Welcome to Dragon TV! This is Our First Ever Cookery Show!’ There was a small explosion as a barbecue overheated and a chap with a blow-torch flew into the air. He said a rude word as he landed.
‘Testing, testing,’ whined a tinny voice, and a microphone crackled with glee. The chap got to his feet and staggered away, dragging his tail behind him.
‘Different,’ agreed Sidney, and settled back to watch the show.
Image by giant mice kill rabbits