A few weeks after the narrowly-avoided debacle over the New Bridge and, as it turned out, several months before its formal opening, Kevin received a surprise invitation. The message came completely out of the blue, addressed to Kevin and Tanji, written in English and delivered to Tanji's magic slate.
Kevin had been fascinated by these slates when he had first encountered them. They were typically about the size and weight of a large notebook, and allowed one to write or draw on the matt black surface with what looked like white or coloured chalk. Then, using a sequence of gestures that Kevin had not yet mastered, the markings would fade and the message would be delivered to the recipient after a few minutes. Apparently, these devices had been a part of Lyndesfarne society for centuries and he had noted that few people in that world would travel without a slate carried in some satchel or rucksack, or perhaps a capacious pocket.
Kevin read the chatty note, which extended an invitation for the two of them to dine and stay overnight at Bret's family home in a little less than a week's time. The invitation was signed 'Bret', but Kevin got the distinct impression that the person actually doing the inviting was his Mother.
Tanji seemed dazed, almost overwhelmed, by the summons that had arrived so unexpectedly. Kevin tried his best to re-assure her.
"It's just a quiet family dinner, with a few friends," he explained.
"But she's the Ferryman!" Tanji objected, referring to Bret's mother.
"Well, that's true," Kevin said in a placatory manner, "And I admit I didn't know it when I first visited. But everyone will be really friendly, I'm sure."
It turned out that Tanji did not need a great deal more persuading. Kevin came to the conclusion that, although rather nervous, she really did want to meet the near-mythical Ferryman or, more precisely, to meet this august personage under less confrontational circumstances.
Kevin had thought hard about gifts, after the unexpected success of the toy Teddy Bear he had almost accidentally presented on his previous visit. He sought advice from Tanji, wanting to bring something he was sure would be appreciated, without any risk that the gift would be damaged by the effects of the barrier between the Two Worlds.
After some thought, he had finally procured a very fine magnum of Champagne. Tanji had assured him that this was a drink held in high regard by many people in the world of Lyndesfarne, even though rather few of them knew the otherworldly origin. She also packed a gift, something she had picked up on one of their infrequent shopping trips. It was a leather-bound journal, with an old-fashioned clasp to hold the covers shut, the kind of thing that one might use to record one's most secret and innermost thoughts.
In the afternoon of the appointed day, Tanji and Kevin set off from his flat in Manchester. Kevin drove his aging Volvo sedately, with Tanji dozing in the seat next to him. The road was not particularly busy, and he was able to cruise along with minimal attention on the traffic.
He found himself musing about just how many persons knew about the crossing and the Other World. It could not be very many, he considered, maybe tens of thousands in each world, or perhaps even fewer individuals in his own world. He imagined that the bulk of these people would live clustered around the crossing itself, on both sides.
Even so, he had divined that the Board of Control in Lyndesfarne maintained a network of agents - he was tempted to think of them as 'spies' - in his own world. He wondered whether the converse was true - whether organisations in his own world also had contacts and scouts in the world of Lyndesfarne - or whether the relationship was so one-sided that this was just not possible.
They arrived at the causeway and pulled up in the nearly deserted car park. Kevin stretched over and woke Tanji with a tender kiss, which caused her to stretch and wriggled in a luxurious fashion, at least it seemed to him.
They emerged from the car into the chilly wind. Kevin pulled bags and capes from the back seat, then placing, as had become almost automatic nowadays, his mobile phone, watch, and the remote locking 'plipper' in the boot of the car. He locked the vehicle with the simple mechanical key which would survive unscathed the repeated passage between the worlds.
They set off, each carrying a small rucksack with a few essentials and, in Tanji's case, the ubiquitous slate. On his first visit to Bret's home, Kevin had travelled from the site of the New Bridge construction by horse-drawn trap. This was before he had been exposed to portals, and this method of transport was presumably used on the grounds that instantaneous transport might prove unsettling for newcomers.
This time, they travelled by portal, something that Kevin was now rapidly becoming accustomed to. Tanji's skill at navigating the portal network meant that it only took a few minutes before they emerged in what Kevin soon recognised as Bret's home town.
"What's this place called?" he asked Tanji, realising that he had never asked this question before.
Tanji spoke a single word with the accents of the Lyndesfarne language, and Kevin repeated it.
Tanji winced slightly at Kevin's pronunciation, and repeated the word, nodding in faint approval at his second attempt.
It was quite a blustery autumn evening, overcast and already getting quite dark as they made their way to Bret's family home. There was discreet lighting in the streets, on various houses and around the gates of their destination. Kevin recognised the house and directed Tanji along the gravelled path before knocking at the door.
The door was opened by Bret herself, in her true female aspect. As a woman, Bret was tall and slightly blocky about the shoulders, as if she regularly swam long distances, but the curves of her hips and breasts left no doubt of her femininity. Her long blonde hair had been left loose, instead of the neat ponytail she normally adopted, and she wore flowing pale blue robes and soft shoes - slippers, really - in a matching shade.
Kevin had been half-expecting this transformation and he managed, he hoped, to suppress any surprised reactions. He briefly wondered what Tanji's reaction would be, but she seemed entirely unfazed by the change in appearance.
Bret took Tanji by the hands, drawing her into the house, and spoke a few words in the Lyndesfarne language that Kevin thought he recognised as an informal greeting. She leaned forward to embrace the other woman, giving her a peck on the cheek. She then welcomed Kevin with a firm and stereotypically masculine handshake, which bizarrely struck him as entirely at odds with her feminine appearance.
The visitors dumped their bags and hung their capes in a spacious cloakroom by the door, then allowed themselves to be guided through to the main room of the house. It was exactly as Kevin remembered it. A large dining table was set with eight places and placed conveniently close to the door marked out by a large bell hanging alongside it, which led to the kitchen.
At one end of the room, a wide staircase led down, Kevin recalled, to several levels of bedrooms and what were always translated here as "bathing rooms". At the other end of the main room was an eclectic collection of worn but very comfortable easy chairs and sofas clustered around a large log-burning fireplace.
One wall was almost entirely formed from windows overlooking the gardens to the rear and most of the other walls were set with bookshelves and display cabinets in dark wood. Altogether, Kevin felt, it was a very comfortable and homely place, and he was re-assured to see that Tanji visibly relaxed almost immediately.
The two of them were welcomed warmly by Bret's mother, who was altogether rather less formidable in these domestic surroundings than on the previous encounter.
Bret's father emerged from the kitchen shortly after their arrival. He was a large man with a hearty laugh, wearing a butcher's apron, his beard even bushier than before. He kissed Tanji lightly on the cheek, then embraced Kevin rather more heartily than he had expected. An enthusiastic cook himself, Kevin had a good deal of respect for the other man's culinary abilities, realising that creating balanced and imaginative meals for a large family was an art form all of its own.
The enthusiastic welcome appeared to have a profound effect on Tanji. She seemed to Kevin to be happy, bright-eyed, almost as if she was on the point of tears. He thought he knew why this was so. As he understood it, this kind of family life was very much part of the Lyndesfarne culture, but Tanji has never really known it. She was an only child whose parents had died when she was quite young, and she had no other relatives other than her rather older Aunt and Uncle. Kevin had never quite understood exactly what had happened to Tanji's family, and he had been too discreet to enquire directly.
Disengaging himself for a moment, Kevin retrieved his rucksack, then presented the bottle of champagne to Bret's mother with a flourish. This was received with a gratifying display of appreciation, making him feel that he had made the correct choice of gift.
A tray set with wineglasses and bottles, some already opened, stood on a sideboard near the kitchen door. Bret poured generous measures of red wine into two glasses and handed them to Kevin and Tanji. She then swept up her own glass and toasted their arrival.
Eosin, Bret's husband, joined them. He was a rather quiet man, who had much less command of English than his wife but was, Kevin had been assured, a talented designer of magical sprites. Eosin's day job was the maintenance of the magic which prevented other magical items from working when taken to Kevin's world, and the corresponding disablement of sophisticated technology taken to the Other World. Kevin raised his hand in greeting in a rough approximation of the Lyndesfarne style, noting that both Eosin and Tanji did the same.
Bret's father appeared at the kitchen door and rang the bell to summon the household for dinner. Bret and Eosin's children appeared up the stairs. Kevin, in a - for him - unusual feat of memory, recalled that they were named Andhra and Myra. On his last visit, the two girls had rapidly overcome any shyness and quizzed Kevin relentlessly about his world, a process that he had found both amusing and slightly intimidating. The kids clearly recognised Kevin immediately and he predicted - correctly, as it turned out - that he would be subjected to a similar interrogation later on.
There was a short period of confusion while everyone in the room settled themselves at the table. Eventually, things settled down, and Kevin and Tanji were encouraged to tuck in and eat it "while it's hot". As on the previous visit, the food was delicious: beautifully cooked and presented, and finely flavoured, although slightly old-fashioned in style, at least to Kevin's way of thinking.
After a few minutes of desultory conversation as the diners turned their attention to their plates, Bret's mother put down her knife and fork, and clinked a wineglass to attract everyone's attention. The talk stopped immediately but, Kevin was pleased to note, there appeared to be no expectation that people should stop eating.
"I want to express just how welcome Kevin and Tanji are," the Ferryman began, sounding unexpectedly formal in the comfortably domestic setting, "I also want to extend an apology to you both, on behalf of the Board of Control, for the upset and discomfort you suffered."
Recent events flashed through Kevin's mind, taking him to the time he had met Tanji, less than a month ago. He remembered their first quiet dinner together, and the purchase of a glass paperweight - one magically enhanced to predict the weather and other things. Then, his inspection of the - still incomplete - New Bridge from a small boat, and being blown to the English coast by a sudden storm. With a sudden private smile, he remembered taking Tanji back to his flat in Manchester, where they had become closer than Kevin had ever imagined possible, and then the astonishing discovery, in the morning, that the paperweight still worked.
Becoming more serious in the thoughts, Kevin remembered taking the discovery to Professor Alan at NISSA, there being imprisoned and threatened. He and Tanji had escaped through the window, eventually crossing the New Bridge using the flimsy wooden scaffolding which had been put in place to allow the last section to be completed. He thought about the struggle through the rain to the castle and the portal trip to Tanji's family home, where they had had their first encounter with the Ferryman.
It had happened, he considered, all so quickly, and it all seemed like a distant blur now.
"Frankly, Kevin, you have impressed us all," the Ferryman went on, a wry smile playing about her face, "Me, Bret, not to mention others on the Board, all impressed with your intelligence and willingness to ask questions, your capability to stay calm and make hard decisions under pressure."
She stopped for a moment, fixing Kevin with a low-power version of the steely gaze he knew she could deploy when necessary.
"So," she concluded, "We would like to be able to call on you, from time to time, to help with, shall we say, little problems as they come up."
Kevin was not sure what to say. He strongly suspected that his skills and attitude were being overrated, but felt he could not reasonably refuse such a request.
"Well, I'm not sure what I could do," he answered finally, "But, if you think there's some way I can help, then of course you've only got to ask."
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