Wherefore art thou, Stu?
Still about, just…busy…
Here’s the story Millie requested I write for her 11th birthday, which – good heavens – is tomorrow!
It’s the story of a house with plumbing so complicated it becomes self aware.
Millie and number 25
It was stupid o’clock in the morning. Millie Harriet Carter was wide awake and not very happy about it.
A noise had woken her up and now she was wide awake while everyone else snored away in their beds (she thought she could actually hear her Dad snoring next door). Morning light was just beginning to creep around her curtains, lighting up her room for the start of a new day. Refusing to be beaten, Millie grabbed ‘nuffle, closed her eyes and slipped under the blankets away from the pesky daylight, in one final effort to get back to sleep before it was too late.
And then, just to make things even better, the heating came on.
CLONG! CLANG! BING-BING! WHOOOOOOM! CLANG! BONG-BONG-BONG went the radiator on the wall, the pipes under the floor and the boiler in the attic.
Every morning was the same in the little house in Bexley: if you were awake when the stupid heating came on you could forget about getting back to sleep. The house would BING, CLONG, CLANG and DONG like a hopelessly clumsy orchestra trying to quietly prepare for a concert but whose musicians kept tripping over each other.
CLONG CLONG CLONG went the radiator. WHOOOOOSH went the pipes. Millie sighed, pushing back the blankets to glare at her thrumming radiator, which gave out an almost tuneful DONG!
“Fine,” she muttered crossly, “It’s not like I was trying to sleep or anything.”
The radiator stopped, almost as though it had heard her, then began to make a peculiar MOMOMOMOM-sound. Rolling her eyes, Millie pulled the blankets back over her head; “Oh, shut up!” she hissed in the general direction of the thrumming radiator.
Again, the noise suddenly stopped as though the radiator had heard her. Poking her head out, Millie looked suspiciously at the silent radiator. “You’re not funny,” she told it.
CLONG DONG BONG-ONG replied the radiator.
“You’re not,” she repeated.
CLONG DONG, said the radiator. MOMOMOM BONG, then it went silent.
Still staring at the radiator, Millie counted to ten in her head. Still silence. “So-” she began.
CLONG BONG CLONG BONG CLONG! interrupted the radiator, so violently that it seemed to shake on the wall. DONG DONG DONG DONG DONG DONG!
“Shhh!” hissed Millie, “You’ll wake everyone up!”
Bong said the radiator, in what sounded like an apology.
Millie cocked an ear towards the door, but there was no sound from outside – perhaps they’d gotten away with it? She looked back towards the talkative radiator. “So-” she began again.
Clong the radiator chimed quietly.
“You can talk?” she finished.
Dong said the radiator.
“Shall we say ‘dong’ means ‘yes’ and ‘bong’ means ‘no’?”
Dong agreed the radiator.
“Are you magic?” asked Millie. “We’ve had magic here before; it usually means an adventure or some weird stuff going on. Are you magic?”
Clang? asked the radiator.
“You know,” said Millie, waving her arms about vaguely, “Magic. Like, talking gerbils and spiders that can spell and giant lobsters…”
Bong said the radiator, quite decisively.
“Are you sure?”
Bong bong bong.
“All right, all right, I was only asking,” Millie apologised. “Great. Now I’m apologising to my radiator,” she sighed.
“So, you’re not magical. Do you know what you are?”
“Are you going to tell me?”
Ding ding clang blong dongdong bong wooooosh ding-ding-ding, chimed the radiator excitedly, Boonng ding dong bing bong shoooooom.
“I didn’t understand a word of that. Can you speak English at all?”
“Well, this isn’t getting us anywhere. Let’s see if we can teach you, shall we?”
It wasn’t easy, and they had to do it in secret because the radiator was frightened Millie’s family might call a plumber to “fix” things, but two weeks later Millie’s radiator could speak English rather well.
Only, it turned out it wasn’t just the radiator that could speak, it was all the pipes or radiators in the entire house, which meant that calling it ‘radiator’ didn’t seem right. In the end the house chose the name ‘25’ because that was the house number and it seemed to fit; plus, 25 liked 25 because it was a square number. So, 25 it was.
“Are all houses alive, then?” Millie asked 25.
25 had a theory that it was a bit like a computer – but a computer made of pipes with water flowing through them, just like a computer was lots of minuscule circuits with electricity flowing through them, or a human brain was lots of tiny cells with chemicals and electricity flowing through them.
“First,” said 25, “I’m not a house. The part that’s me is the pipes. I can sort of feel the house, just like you can feel your body, but my thinking is done by the water flowing through my pipes.
“And second, no, I don’t think most other houses can think. My brain – or the plumbing in your house – is ridiculously complicated. There’s no reason on earth for it to have so many different pipes and taps and valves and outlets and dials and junctions and nozzles and joints and connections and meters and-”
“OK, OK, I get the picture,” interrupted Millie, “But what’s that got to do with anything?”
“Well, I think,” continued 25, “That’s why I’m alive – or awake – or whatever you want to call it. Your brain is really complicated, too – that’s what makes you alive and thinking and clever. Well, maybe not that last one…” joked 25, and the pipes went bing bing bing as it laughed at its own joke.
Millie pouted at 25.
“But, yes, whoever did the plumbing here did such a crazy job that…here I am. Most other houses have fairly simple boring plumbing that just pumps water around the house and heats the radiators or fills the bath or whatever. My plumbing is vastly superior to that,” 25 finished proudly. “I’m unique,” and its pipes gave a decisive BONG!
“So…” Millie hesitated, “you’re all alone, then?”
25 didn’t answer right away. It seemed to be thinking. “Well, that’s a very good question. No, I don’t think I am, actually.”
Again, 25 paused.
“I can…feel some…places just like me, through the pipes that connect me to the water and the sewer. These other places are connected, too, but…”
“But what?” asked Millie.
“Well, these other places are much bigger than me. They’re not houses, they’re shops or great big palace or schools, maybe? To get plumbing complicated enough to be like me they have to be huge and grand, and much bigger than little old me.” A faint, sad whooosh ran through 25’s plumbing.
Millie’s eyes went wide, “So, can you, like, speak to them?”
“Erm, well, yes, I suppose so…” said 25 carefully. “No, I’m sure I can. Hold on a minute.” There was nothing but a faint bubbling hum from 25 for a few moments. “Blimey! Yes, I can!” it suddenly cheered. Bong bong bong! chimed its pipes.
“What are they saying?” whispered Millie, in excitement. “Who are you talking to?”
“It’s Buckingham Palace!” said 25 in amazement, “I’m talking to Buckingham Palace – where the Queen lives!”
“Oh my god!” squealed Millie, nearly falling over in amazement, “This is amazing!”
“Oh,” said 25, suddenly, “Whoops! Sorry. Sorry sorry sorry!”
“What? What is it?” asked Millie, eyes wide.
“Well, er, it’s, um, well, the thing is…”
Millie shook her head, smiling, her long brown hair falling in front of her face.
“The thing is… Oh, this is embarrassing…” muttered 25, its pipes making a low shooooooom sound.
“What is it?”
“I shouldn’t say. The Palace wouldn’t like it.”
“WHAT IS IT?!” yelled Millie.
“It’s the Queen,” said 25, “She’s… Well, she’s…” 25’s voice dropped to a whisper. “She’s on the toilet. Right now.”
“Oh, my god,” gasped Millie, before both she and 25 exploded into helpless laughter at the thought.
The two of them had so much fun that night tuning in to palaces, shops and other buildings all around London. They tried to speak to a silly fat bank, but it wouldn’t answer – it just sat there wallowing in all its money and singing the Abba song about money, over and over again.
A sad, empty office b2uilding was desperate to talk to them. It had been empty for months and missed all the humans that used to work inside it. Even though it had moaned about all their mess and noise when they were there, it missed them now they were gone.
A museum in the middle of London was more difficult to get talking. It spoke very slowly in a terribly old-fashioned voice and got cross whenever Millie and 25 didn’t understand what it was saying. Eventually it called them “a pair of perfidious nincompoops” and refused to answer again.
They spoke to the South Bank, a place Millie had visited many times before (and even played the violin on stage there) but that seemed to be quite mad. It spoke in lots of different languages and couldn’t seem to concentrate on one thing for more than a few seconds at a time.
A distant airport, which sounded so far away they could barely hear it, didn’t really have time to speak to them anyway. It was trying to keep up with all the aeroplanes coming and going, passengers rushing everywhere, bags and supercases going round and around on carousels, cars parking, buses dropping off, shops selling lots of perfumes and big Toblerones and everything else airports do.
They spoke to an absolutely lovely sewage treatment plant, which was polite and charming as could be. The problem, it told them, was that no one wanted to speak to a sewage plant; which seemed rather unfair. Still, the sewage plant made the best of things and joked about how smelly it could be.
St Paul’s Cathedral sounded very posh and very old; some of the stories it tried to tell them sounded fascinating, but the poor thing kept falling asleep in the middle of telling them.
The Shard wasn’t very nice, so they didn’t spend long talking to it.
They spoke to a supermarket, although to begin with it was too busy to speak to them; but a little later, after it closed for the night, it sang them tunes from adverts for all of the things on its shelves.
London Bridge Station just sounded a bit confused. It kept getting them mixed up with Cannon Street station – which it had had a falling out with just after the Second World War. The two of them apparently hadn’t spoken to each other since then, but London Bridge sounded keen to make up. 25 promised to pass on a message from London Bridge to Cannon Street.
Finally, they spoke to Hall Place, which said it vaguely remembered Millie from the last time she came to visit and saw the owls – and didn’t she have a sister called “Dumber” or something? Millie and 25 laughed at this and said, no, she had a sister called Amber, but she was a bit of a dumbo, which made Hall Place laugh in return.
By this time it was getting a bit late. 25 was starting to get an ache in its pipes from all this talking, so maybe it was time for a rest, until tomorrow. In Millie’s room the radiator gurgled like your stomach does when you’re hungry. Blub blub blub!
25 giggled – bing bing bing.
Blub blub blub gurgled its pipes.
Bing bing bing giggled 25 again, sounding a little bit nervous this time. “Oh, Millie, help! I can’t stand it!” said 25 as the radiator gurgled again, “Oh, make it stop! Help!”
“What’s wrong, 25?”
Bing bing bing bing bing bing bing bing bing! giggled 25. “It’s my radiator in your room! It…it…it tickles!” And again the radiator gurgled.
Millie stared at her radiator – what was going on? What was happening to 25? And all of a sudden she had an idea. “25, hold on a second, I think I know what’s happening!”
Bing bing bing bing bing bing bing bing bing! was all 25 could say, as something tickled it mercilessly.
Running downstairs, Millie opened her Dad’s big red toolbox under the stairs. “Come on, come on, where is it?” she muttered, searching through all the tools, until she spotted what she was after: a small, cylindrical brass key. Upstairs, 25 was sounding a bit desperate – the same way you would if somebody kept tickling you.
Millie fitted the key into the side of her radiator and tried to turn it, but it wouldn’t budge. She twisted as hard as she could, until she thought her fingers might break; then, suddenly the key turned and there was a loud hiss of escaping air from the radiator.
Slowly but surely the hissing – and the bings of laughter from 25 – slowed; until the hiss was replaced by a splutter, and Millie quickly turned the key back the other way.
There was a long gentle whooooooooossshh from 25. “Oh. Oh, my goodness,” said the house with obvious relief, “Thank you, Millie. What was that? What did you do?”
“You needed bleeding,” said Millie. “My Dad showed me how to do it. You had air in your pipes, that’s all. I just let it all out.”
Whoooooossh replied a very relieved sounding 25; “Thank goodness. Millie, you’re a genius!”
Millie blushed and smiled bashfully. “Anyone could have done it,” she mumbled.
“But you did – thank you, I thought I was going to explode for a second there. How can I ever repay you?”
Millie shrugged, “Just…try and keep your pipes a bit quieter when the heating comes on, maybe?”
“Done!” said 25.
Then a thoughtful look came over Millie’s face. “Well,” she said, “Maybe there is one little thing you could do for me…”
Six weeks later, Millie Harriet Carter stood in the entrance of Blackfen School For Girls wearing a stiff and unfamiliar uniform, carrying a smart new school bag with a new pencil case and shiny red mobile phone. She looked around her at all the grown-up girls as they walked past: all of them seemed to know exactly where they were going in the big new school.
Millie, suddenly feeling very small and unsure what she was supposed to be doing or where to go next, swallowed nervously.
Just at that moment, there was a gentle clong from one of the pipes on the wall next to her.
“You must be Millie,” it chimed gently, “Welcome to Blackfen, Millie – any friend of 25 is a friend of mine…”
And Millie smiled.