Monday, 31 March 2014

Hunger on the rise. Why?

“One third of all deaths of children under 5 in developing countries linked to undernutrition” – WORLD FOOD PROGRAMME 

“842 million people do not eat enough to be healthy” – WORLD FOOD PROGRAMME 

“One in every 8 people goes to bed hungry each night” – WORLD FOOD PROGRAMME 
       A lot of people are going hungry right now - and it’s not just developing lands which are suffering.  As well as parts of Africa and Asia where droughts, famines, despots and wars have always caused problems, food shortages now seem to be spreading to the West and once thriving economies such as Japan.
Recently, a British couple committed suicide because they couldn’t cope with unemployment and the lack of money. To supplement their meagre income, they’d  been walking for  42 miles a day to collect rations from a charity centre and, whether from shame or sheer despair, reached the point when they simply gave up - just two more victims from an increasingly desperate generation. Greece, Italy, even America, all are having to cope with a sluggish economy, joblessness and rising food prices.
       In the UK, food inflation is currently outpacing the average wage increase, spiking last year to a 5% increase in what was once perceived to be, if not recession-proof, then certainly a recession-resistant industry.  Delegates at the Oxford Farming Conference a couple of years ago were asked to consider just who has power over food prices. According to the experts, it’s certainly not consumers. Nor is it farmers, who are currently being squeezed by dwindling suppliers on the one hand and the decrease in retail customers on the other.
       But how much power do governments wield? On the surface, very little, they would argue, citing  two reasons: For one thing, agriculture now operates in a global context, and secondly (at least as far as the United Kingdom is concerned), the government is keen to reduce farm subsidies in the belief that increasing world demand along with higher prices will compensate growers for these lost revenues. The demand will always be there, of course. But where is the supply? And  how can people on low incomes afford it?
       As well as the unwarranted increase in costs, another worrying factor is coming into play – the monopoly of food by huge transnational (TNCs) who are investing billions in agriculture and supplies.
Has anyone noticed the speed with which small farms and food outlets are going out of business? How global conglomerates are buying up land for intensive farming and how supermarket chains are getting bigger and more powerful?
       Speaking to the OFC, Dr Alan Renwick – SAC Head of the Land Economy & Environmental Research Group, identified a few of these TNCs with genuine clout. Cargill, Syngenta, Monsanto, Wal-Mart and, to a certain extent, Tesco, are far more influential than the state whose intervention in agriculture and trade has been diminishing.  To date, three TNCs control almost 50% of the proprietary seed market.
       Personally, I wouldn’t discount the role which governments are playing - or are likely to play in the future. No doubt it suits them to maintain a helpless and therefore blameless  profile in the face of rising food scarcity. However, they must surely appreciate the power such a monopoly can wield. Control the world’s food supplies and you control the world.
       We can also count on genetic engineering to create further demand, thanks to the proliferation of GM cereals. At one time, farmers could depend on nature to provide genrously – with one seed purchase providing healthy crops for several years. Yet there is nothing natural about some seeds produced by scientists in labs. They may be resistant to certain pests or climates, but many GM seeds are not self-propagating. Instead of having plenty of fertile new seed for the following crop, the farmer is forced to buy fresh seed from the supplier every time.
       Sadly, starvation and malnutrition are nothing new.  Back in the 1980s, an article in The Boston Globe stated: “A world with nearly a billion persons living close to starvation has to find ways to help the poorest nations to enjoy something approaching the bounty reaped by the richest nations, “The most disheartening  aspect of undernourishment . . . is that the world has a clear-cut capacity to feed everyone.” 
       Surely it’s time that capacity was realised.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

"In the Blink of an Eye" by Peter Coghlan - Sample chapter

Chapter 1
Six o’clock in the afternoon, 21st March 2011. Another summer’s day in Perth. Another barbecue with family and friends.  Me and my stepfather Ted on the terrace downing a couple of ciders, talking, laughing, enjoying a smoke, then me a bit tired, feeling fuzzy, going for a nap....
Awake confused and agitated, slurring my words, remembering the fuzziness earlier in the day, the temporary blindness when my eyes went fuzzy with stars: “Think I’ve had a stroke.” Everyone  sitting by the bar - Jade, Dave, Ted, Sean, Julia, my sister Vicky – are really concerned, trying to get me walking, to walk a straight line down the garden. Then comes the vomiting and my mind starts whizzing – but, hey, it’s cool, it’s cool: “I’ll be okay, just  a piece of toast and a cup of tea, I’ll be okay,” hoping it’ll pass over me like it did before, but my words are slurring badly, the old ticker’s racing and Jade and Vicky are on the internet, seeing what’s wrong....”Better get you to hospital!” says Jade, trying not to sound worried. “Just in case.”
Now things really kick off! I’m in the car and it’s dicing down the freeway and all I see is lights, lights, flashing lights, and Jade is saying “Stay with me! Stay with me, Pete!”  Dave’s driving, foot on the floor, holding me upright in the front while Jade tries to steady me from the back, holding my shoulders while I’m throwing up all over the place, and she’s pleading, “Stay with me! Stay with me!” Racing, racing down the freeway, over a ton, 150 kilometres per hour but it’s too late, I’m losing it, going limp, and Jade’s still yelling, but louder now: “Stay with me, Pete! We’re nearly there! Stay with me!”
Jondaloop Hospital – Emergency Department
We’ve stopped now, at the hospital. I’m being pulled out of the car, then I imagine that two big  blokes are lifting me up, talking about what’s happened, “It’s genetics, mate,” and suddenly they disappear and I’m being wheeled along a corridor, must be hospital, but just don’t know anymore, don’t know anything anymore....God please help me!
Sitting upright in a chair in a big open room with a needle stuck in my arm. Lungs bursting, fighting for breathe, retching, puking, heart going nineteen to the dozen with loud, heavy, ominous thuds. Helpless, lifeless, witless with fear.  “He’s not had anything!” cries Jade, frustration and sheer panic rising in her voice. Three times they ask, wasting time and oxygen; three times she answers; “He’s not had ANYthing!” Wish I HAD taken something, then at least I’d know what’s wrong, but no one ends up this bad after two halves of cider. Jade’s been given a form to fill in while my sister Vicky starts banging on the window, frantically yelling for a doctor.  Nurse walks off, people passing by, ignoring me. Maybe they’re embarrassed because now I’m going into spasm, arms twisting in ways they were never meant to go, shaking like an egg-whisk on full speed. Maybe I’m not here at all; maybe it’s just a bad dream - yes, that’s it, that must be why I’m slipping into the blackness.....
Sir Charles Gardiner – Intensive Care Unit
Vicky really kicked off – so, no doubt realising I’ve not got DTs or OD-ed on ecstasy, the doctors finally arrive, but now I’m shuddering, shaking so violently the only thing they can do is put me into a coma.
Weird place, coma. Dark room filled with smoke, me on a bed, helpless, limp and my head feels so, so heavy, I can’t lift it from the pillow, not even a millimetre. Jade, Mum, Vicky and Maria, they’re here but, hey, something’s not right. THEY’RE not right, not looking at me, expressionless, soundless, weird. A voice telling them to join in – some kind of ‘entertainment’ it says. Middle of the room, an enormous ottoman-type sofa, bright blue and circular and the voice is now telling the girls to take their clothes off.....What? Here? Funny kind of hospital, this. Can’t believe what I’m hearing, can’t bear what I’m this really happening? Now blokes, loads of them, all standing round, waiting for their turn with the girls on the ottoman,  and me – karate brown belt and ju-jitsu enthusiast, ex-soldier - just lying here not able to move, not able to make them stop! Wanting to shout, scream out loud yet powerless to speak, crying inside with pain because these zombies are having an orgy, pleasuring themselves with women I care about, and one of them is Jade.....
Jade. The one. The only. I knew it from the first. Tumbling, dark-brown hair, a smile to split your heart open, a smile to put the sun to shame - that’s if you ever saw the sun in Derbyshire. Move over Mills & Boon.
Trying not to look. Trying to blot it out. It’s not real, can’t be real, I know my Jade! Suddenly the girls have gone and I’m in this purple room, some kind of brothel, with 8 other people and it’s my turn to be a slave, to lie back and take it. I’m desperate to get out, but I just can’t move, my head is so very, very heavy...
Vaguely, I’m aware of my friend Dan d’ Silver arriving while I’m still in ICU. He’s come straight from the airport to see me but they won’t let him in“Carry me out of here, Dan! Please, please get me out of here!” But they won’t let him in! I’m a prisoner! What I need’s distraction, yes, to take myself away, far away from tubes and hospitals and doctors and the rancid stench of vomit and fear. Back to reality, back to the familiar, back to the known.....If only I could lift my head off the pillow.
Just like the cobbler’s children with holes in their shoes, being the son of a copper was no guarantee of good behaviour. From the moment I burst into the world on the 5th July 1977, sucking in huge lungfuls of oxygen to fuel my ear-piercing shrieks for attention, I’ve been a bit of a tearaway. Actually, I’ve been a lot of a tearaway, so much so, it’s a wonder I didn’t end up in jail - can’t even make the usual excuse of a miserable childhood, having never been bullied, abandoned or abused in any way.
On the contrary, I was given the best upbringing ever by my loving parents Phil Coghlan, a policeman, and his wife Anne, a qualified nurse, in the pleasant rurals of Stockport, near Manchester. My childhood was idyllic with sunshine holidays, family celebrations and all the usual mischief small boys get up to. When I was 4 years old, our family was increased by a new arrival, Victoria, my little sister and the closest family member I’ve ever had.
Vicky and I grew up not just as siblings but as real friends, sharing each other’s problems and secrets; you know, the ones no teenage kid ever wants parents to find out about. But Vicky and I - we were close – I felt it was my duty and privilege to protect her for the whole of our lives.
I wasn’t perfect, of course. Especially at school where, as far as I was concerned, reading and writing were the pits! I couldn’t wait to leave the education system and get into the big, wide world to do all the things I enjoyed, such as sport. As soon as I was tall enough to stare Stallone in the kneecap, I took up martial arts, graduating seamlessly through the coloured belt system with surprisingly little bruising in the process. My first love was Shotokan Karate, a very demanding form of self-defence, calling for intense discipline and high levels of physical fitness. Even then, I wasn’t satisfied. After achieving my brown belt, I took up yet another challenge - Jiu-jitsu, which I stuck at for three to four years.
In common with most teenage lads, girls were never far from my mind and me and my two closest pals, Dan Hodson and Matt Storey, made a formidable trio, sneaking the odd pint of beer and tarting ourselves up for nights spent chatting up the local talent. All in all, we didn’t do a bad job of it either, considering none of us were what you’d call street-wise, having never ventured far from our rural village surroundings.
I seem to be in some kind of hell and there’s something really, really disturbing going on. I’m being raped, at least I think I am - but no, no, it’s just an enema, a tube full of water, and it’s being pumped into my rear until I foul myself while Dad and Vicky are watching, laughing at me and pointing at the mess. Of course, it isn’t really happening, they’re not here, not really, only in my mind. Reality is Auntie May, shaking her head with a pained, sad look on her face: “Such a shame, so young, so young.” But then, she can’t see those other people, strange people with no bodies, just massive heads on sticks. Seriously! Human heads on plastic lollipop sticks. They terrify me! Far nicer are the miniature men, two of them, barely three inches tall in tiny black suits and matching blue shirts. I don’t mind them. I think they may be brothers, two kindly little souls who tuck me in, wipe my brow and pull my covers up around my neck to keep me warm. Daft, maybe, but in this half-lit, nightmare world, I’ll take any comfort I can get – however small. Wish I was a kid again, a cheeky kid running wild...
Me and my mates were bound to get into trouble some day. Only with us it was every day, especially in the summer. On one of our treks through the bracken strewn hills and rich green forests of Derbyshire’s High Peak we came across a caravan. You know the sort – dumped in the corner of a field, exterior moulded over green, with windows blackened with age? But for young kids like us, this was a real find, a den, our own special hideaway.
“Best clean it up a bit first,” suggested Carl. Carl Farrell, whose Dad was also a policeman, was a local lad I hung out with occasionally. He was particular like that. So we got started, me with a ragged old hankie, Carl blowing the dust off surfaces and choking himself in the process, although neither of us tackled the cobwebs; that’s ‘cos we were both terrified of  spiders but too macho to admit it. Then I had a brilliant idea.
 “Let’s try this,” I suggested eagerly.
Rooting through my backpack I eventually found what I was looking for – a full can of Easy Start and a box of matches, packed away for just such an occasion. This was a stunt I’d been dying to try, ever since seeing it in a James Bond movie. After shaking the can vigorously, I lit a match with one hand and with my other hand pressed the spray button on the Easy Start can.  Hey Presto! The moisture burst into flames, which in turn ignited the cobwebs along with all their resident creepy-crawlies. Unfortunately, they ignited the curtains too.
“Ooops!” I said, looking sheepishly at Carl, and paused to consider the effects.
“Know what I think?” Carl nodded understandingly – I’d swear the lad was psychic but come to think of it, there was only one thing TO do.
”GET-OUT-OF-HERE!” I yelled, and we hurled ourselves out of the caravan, now engulfed in flames, and managed to sprint a few yards distance before the whole vehicle morphed into an enormous fireball. Had we any sense, we’d have legged it there and then before the fire engines arrived, but were so fascinated by our home-made inferno, didn’t think to run until the farmer grabbed us each by the ear....
It won’t move. My head won’t move. It’s like a massive demolition ball, a dead weight dropped from a great height, smashed into the pillow where it now slumps helplessly, too heavy to move. I try to raise it, even an inch, but no. It won’t budge. Nothing will budge. The only thing moving in my body is saliva, drools of it, dribbling freely down my chin, my neck, my sheets, everywhere, litres and litres and litres of the stuff....
The caravan escapade cost me a packet – a year’s pocket-money in I had to help out at the farm to make amends! Make the punishment fit the crime, my Dad always said, but it didn’t put me off. Some folk never learn do they? My next trick was more ambitious - setting fire to a whole row of ‘House for Sale’ signs, an act of vandalism everyone blamed on turf wars between rival estate agents, a mythical feud which many locals believe in to this day.
On another occasion, I almost combusted my best friend, Dan, by placing lighted tapers between his fingers as he lay unconscious in a barn after a particularly heavy acid session. No malice intended, of course. Thanks to his sense of humour and amazing tolerance, our friendship has remained inflammable. Looking back, this not-so-latent pyromania no doubt influenced my decision to live in Australia – all those Barbecues!
Jade’s here. Not sure how, not sure when, just know she’s here. But that’s Jade, always with me, from the beginning. And she knows that I’m here too. Bends over to whisper in my ear, voice kind and gentle: “Pete?  Can you hear me? If you can hear me, blink.” And I blink. Afraid she’ll think it’s just a natural tic, I blink again, harder this time, hard as I can. That’s done the trick, now Jade knows I can hear, she can talk to me and I can answer her! Thank God! I’m not alone anymore! Jade’s with me, stepping in, sharing the nightmare.
My Dad never knew the half of it! When I wasn’t blowing up caravans, me and Carl were crawling through sewage pipes underground, exploring empty buildings, whatever mischief we could find that we had a fair chance of getting away with. In all honesty, I was verging on criminal at times, like when stealing chocolate from the local newsagents. This was a regular practice until being caught red-handed with the ‘loot’ - over 200 Mars Bars in one summer! Don’t ask me why, as I never ate them, maybe it was just to irritate my Dad, being the rebellious little so’n'so I was!
Head still heavy, still glued to the pillow by my own mucus and spit dripping remorselessly from my ever-drooling mouth. My mouth and jaw seem to sag to one side, drooped in a permanent downward sneer.
Whether it was coincidental or a subconscious act of rebellion, I can’t say, but when Dad was with the Drug Squad for a spell, I rolled home delirious after eating magic mushrooms, freshly picked from Disley Golf Course. One of their effects was to dilate my pupils, turning my eyes coal black, giving me a demonised look which I tried to blame on beer. Of course there was the usual lecture but, as usual, I wasn’t listening. All I could see was Dad creating trails of technicolour rainbows as he waved his hands about and me enjoying the light show while he ranted and raved. Boy, he was mad that night! I must have been nuts but, back then, a mushroom tea and the strains of Black Sabbath on a Saturday afternoon were my idea of heaven!
Getting arrested, of course, was purely a matter of time. Yet, when it did happen, it wasn’t for arson but for mooning at staff at a MacDonald’s take-away! Police officers on duty were not amused, even less so on learning my father was a cop. “You should know better then, shouldn’t you?” was their only retort, refusing to make any allowances for my family connections as they bunged me and my mates into a squad car.

Locked-in for the very first time.

(For further information:

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Pete working out 

Sunday, 2 March 2014

"The Runaway Children, Vol 3 - Showdown at Shivering Mountain". Sample

          After Joe and Odi fell overboard, there was pandemonium as Mr. Smyle took charge of the rescue. "Over there! No, over there! They can't have gone far! Please help those poor, poor boys! I don't know, turn your back for five minutes and this is what happens! I'll never forgive myself! Never!" So he continued, ranting and raving, blubbing and bawling, determined no one should rest until Joe and Odi were safely back on the Smyle of the Ocean.
Finally, it was left to the Captain to explain to Mr. Smyle, as gently as he could, that there was no chance of either boy being found alive.
On hearing the news, Alice and Miles were devastated. "But what happened? How did they.....?"
"It was dreadful," sighed Mr. Smyle, shaking his head with disbelief. "One minute they were laughing and shouting in that endearing way they always had, and then..." he brayed loudly, as tears flooded, like fountains down his cheeks. "I blame myself. If only I hadn't left them. I only nipped back to the galley for a few moments...and when I returned, they just weren't there any more!" He paused to blow noisily into his massive silk handkerchief. "Naturally, I just assumed they'd gone to their cabins, but, alas, they were overboard, struggling and screaming and screaming and struggling...all alone, entirely alone! Two helpless little boys in a sea of sharks!"
He tried to lay his head on Laurel's shoulder, but she moved away instinctively and put her arms round the children instead. Alice was sobbing uncontrollably and Miles’ face was the colour of chalk. “Do Mum and Dad know?” he whispered.
“Yes, and of course they’re devastated. Devastated. But listen Miles,” Mr Smyle drew the boy away from Laurel into the far corner of the lounge where they couldn’t be overheard. “You mustn’t blame yourself.”
“Why would I?” asked Miles, confused.
“Well, as the older brother, I’m sure you must feel a little responsible. But then, you’ve been so busy lately, it can’t have been easy looking out for Joe – and, of course, your parents understand that.”
Miles gasped. “They think it’s my fault?”
“No, no, Miles. I’m sure they don’t think that. After all, your parents love you and they’re sure to forgive you in time. Now, I’d better see to Alice, she must be feeling dreadful.”
Stung by Mr Smyle’s comments, Miles blurted out, “It was more her fault than mine!”
Alice looked up briefly, shocked by Miles’ outburst, then dissolved again into tears and fled back to her cabin.   
"Ah well" said Mr. Smyle finally, and Laurel couldn't help but notice how quickly his eyes had dried. "No use crying over spilt milk...I mean Boys! We who survive must carry on.” Laurel sighed and made for the door, intent on finding Alice. “No, don't cosset her, Laurel” he advised, “it will only prolong the agony. After all, we can't grieve forever, can we?” With that, he ruffled Miles' hair and sauntered off for his daily sauna.
That night, they had fish fingers for tea - tactfully cut into shark shapes, causing a fresh outbreak of tears – which, of course no one wanted to eat. Miles just sat there gazing into space, much to Mr Smyle's irritation.
Alice annoyed him too. Even before the tragedy she’d been moping in her cabin day after day, listening to dreary music about lost love and stuff. Her humiliation at the party left her totally unwilling to resume her social life, and the thought of facing a barrage of cameras every where she went filled her with dread. And now, with Joe and Odi, it was unthinkable.
Of course, Mr. Smyle didn't see it that way. He had quite enjoyed watching Alice hold court amidst the glitterati, especially as it helped her to develop such awesome attitude! In fact, it was widely reported that when Alice Hadwin threw a wobbly, she made even temperamental film stars seem positively mouse-like in comparison. She was Mr. Smyle's experiment; Eliza Doolittle to his Professor Higgins, and it offended him to see his monstrous creation going to waste. 
Miles, however, was a different story.  For several weeks, Mr. Smyle had been giving the children pocket money in which, he noted to his satisfaction, Miles was showing an extraordinary amount of interest, counting it each night and sleeping with an ever-increasing stash of coins beneath his pillow. "Why Miles!" Mr. Smyle remarked "I do believe you're becoming a miser!"  Yes, Miles was shaping up nicely and, as Mr Smyle hoped, it wasn’t long before his young friend started taking an interest again. Also, since Joe’s unfortunate accident, there was a certain coldness in Miles which Mr Smyle hadn’t noticed before and which pleased him immeasurably. It was as though the old Miles had withdrawn out of reach, and a hard shell had formed over the new version. Yes, Miles was shaping up very nicely indeed. 
Every evening, after supper, they'd stroll round the deck together, discussing banking and finance and takeover bids.  In this way, Mr. Smyle kept their conversations strictly controlled so that if Miles happened to pose an awkward question - for example, 'when will we get to Australia?' or 'have you heard from my parents yet?' - all Smyle had to do was draw attention to the Dow Jones Index, or the latest fall in interest rates, and Miles would give up asking.
The last time the Hadwin parents come into their conversation was during a rare journey ashore some days before Joe and Odi went missing. While picnicking on a glorious desert island, Mr. Smyle took an urgent call on his mobile. "Oh good!" he shouted "Oh, that's marvellous news! The children will be thrilled! Yes, of course, I'll tell them!" He clicked off his phone as Miles, Joe and Alice gazed up at him expectantly. "That was your mother!" he exclaimed.
"Mum?!" said the children in unison. "Can we speak to her!? Where is she? How's Dad!?" The questions rapped out fast and furiously.
"Calm down, calm down! One at a time!" Mr. Smyle exhorted. "Your mother couldn't speak because she and your father were just about to catch a plane to England! But she sends her love and says your father is much better now. No doubt we'll see them when we get home!"
After that, Miles rarely referred to his parents and, since Joe’s accident, not at all, spending most of his time either locked in his own office on the yacht, or talking to his mentor about the state of the economy.
"If only I'd had a son," Mr Smyle would say "I'd want him to be exactly like you, Miles. In fact, you play your cards right, and I might make you my heir! How would you like that?"
"Me?" Miles gasped. "But I'm not anyone important."
"Stick with me, son, and one day you could be the second most powerful person in the universe!"
"And when you die, I'd be the first." reasoned Miles.
"Yes, well, let's not dwell on details. Besides, plans are already in progress to make sure I don't die. Isn't that marvellous!? An immortal Smyle on the face of the earth!"
          At that moment, he was interrupted by Soames, who crept towards his boss and whispered something and a shadow flickered across Mr Smyle’s face. “Are you sure?” he asked and Soames nodded gravely.
          “I’m needed on the bridge, Miles,” he explained leaping to his feet.  “You stay here and buy some more commodities - Cereals, grain, that’s what we want. Anything edible.”
“Is something wrong?” enquired Miles.
“Oh, nothing for you to worry about,” Mr Smyle replied. “A matter of some urgency has arisen which requires my immediate attention. However, I must insist that you children stay in your cabin until further notice.”
          What that matter was, Miles never found out, but he noticed that, all of a sudden, the Smyle of the Ocean seemed to change course and accelerate quite alarmingly.

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"The Runaway Children, Vol 2 - The Astonishing Mr Smyle". Sample

                  Perched on the top of a cliff overlooking the Atlantic ocean, the 'Castle of Smyle's' was an astonishing place.  White with a hint of pink, and set amongst acres of magnificent gardens, it offered panoramic views from every direction. To the west - sea; to the east - vineyards and orchards; to the north - meadows and forest. Yet none of these were quite as spectacular as the view from the south with its orange grove, lakes and waterfalls, perfectly framed by gently rolling hills.
The interior of the castle was no less impressive. On arrival, the children and their companions were led into the main hall, which seemed to be made entirely of marble, its creamy floors, walls and enormous staircase flecked with gold and polished to a mirror of a shine. The high domed ceiling had been carved in alabaster, then decorated with a zillion tiny gems so that it sparkled overhead and, in the middle of the floor, was a sunken pool the size of a lake with a huge fountain spouting out of it.
“Awesome!” Odi gasped.
“There’s only one rule here,” exclaimed Mr Smyle as he ushered the children through this magnificent lobby, “You can do exactly what you like, as long as you do it with a smile. Smile, smile, smile! That’s the law!” and to illustrate his point, he contorted his face into such an enormous grin it was a wonder his ears didn’t drop off.
After tossing his cloak towards an apple-cheeked lady, who also seemed to smile a lot, he skipped part way up the magnificent staircase, turned to face his audience and flung out his arms dramatically. All he needed was a top hat to go with his gold-tipped cane, and he could have been the star of a 1940s musical.
        “This” he announced, “is my kingdom and I’m willing to share it with you, so please consider yourselves my guests for as long as you wish. Mrs Bennett will show you to your rooms and maybe afterwards, you’d like to explore. I’d give you the guided tour myself but as always, I am very, very busy so you’ll have to amuse yourselves for a while.”
And he gave another little skip, and an extra hop for good measure. “Now, are there any questions?“ But, without waiting for a response, he twirled back down the staircase and made towards one of the huge reception rooms that led off from the lobby. “Good!“ he bellowed. “Enjoy your stay! I’ll be in the library, Mrs Bennett, looking forward to a cup of tea and a slice of your most excellent cake at ten o’clock precisely.”
The children watched him march across the enormous hall, nudging each other nervously until, just before their host disappeared completely, Miles plucked up the courage to speak. “We want to see our parents?!” he blurted, then feeling this sounded rather impolite, added the all important little word, “Please.” 
Mr Smyle stopped, turned and stared blankly at Miles, as though he’d no idea what the boy was talking about at first, but then his eyes flickered with realisation. “Ahh, your parents, yes!” he murmured, almost to himself. “Now here’s the irony. Since you went missing, they’ve been travelling quite extensively in their search for you and, at this precise moment, I’ve no idea where they could be. But I’m sure we can track them down eventually so don’t worry, everything’s taken care of, young man. Absolutely everything.” With that, he gave a final nod to Mrs Bennett who, in turn, clapped her hands. Immediately, a swarm of servants appeared, or ‘Aides’ as Mr Smyle preferred to call them, all dressed in smart red uniforms and all smiling broadly as they led the children, Roots and Laurel up the sweeping marble staircase.
“Hey, it’s show time, campers!” cried Odi, “All we need now is the Big Nose contest, and we all know who’d win that, don‘t we?” and he smirked at Alice.
To everyone’s astonishment, especially Odi’s, the aides began to laugh - not just titter, mind, or chuckle politely behind their hands, but positively howl with merriment, doubled up with laughter, tears running down their cheeks, shrieking hyena-like with glee.
“Ooooh, Master Odi, you are a wag!” cried Mrs Bennett, stressing the point with a friendly shove, “I can see we’re going to have to order more tissues!”
“Wasn’t that funny!” muttered Odi, “although you’ll have to get some man-sized tissues for my lady here!” and set the aides howling all over again.
Alice would normally have answered this jibe with her usual, disdainful glare, but she too was taken aback by the servants’ reaction. Yet this was nothing compared to the astonishment of seeing their rooms!
Each was decorated in the theme of a particular jewel. Alice had the sapphire suite, which Mr. Smyle later claimed to have chosen for her specially on account of it matching her ‘wonderful blue eyes’, (the fact that they were green having apparently escaped him). Miles was given the emerald suite, while Joe and Odi shared the turquoise room which had two large beds with mattresses so springy you could bounce on them as high as the ceiling.
Roots, being an unexpected (not to say uninvited) guest, was assigned to somewhat more humble quarters.....a sparse, tiny room in the attic with nothing but a bed and a cupboard, although Laurel fared rather better with the Oyster room – apparently, she reminded Mr. Smyle of a Botticelli painting. Having had a proper look at Laurel, he decided he was rather glad he’d agreed to let her come. "Exquisite!” he sighed to her great embarrassment, “A veritable Venus, Venus de Milo emerging from her shell!"
"Isn't he wonderful?!" exclaimed Alice. "So kind, so friendly. And this house.....I must be dreaming!"
"It's like being in a fairy tale" said Roots, dryly. "Grimm!"    
"Aw, you're just jealous 'cos you've got the dog's room" Odi remarked before generosity got the better of him. "But you can share our bathroom, if you like. It's got a power shower, and a jacuzzi big as a swimming pool....."
"Mine has too!” yelled Miles running from one suite to the other. “And it’s even got a basin for your feet!”  Roots sniffed, refusing to join in the excitement. "Actually" he began "I'm not struck by all this luxury. This consumption is far too conspicuous by half, if you ask me. I mean, what does an eight year old want with a jacuzzi, for heavens’ sake! Give me a kennel any time - at least you can trust your neighbours!"
"Don't worry, Roots," begged Alice. "We won’t be here for long, so we might as well make the most of it."
At that moment, the butler appeared.  "Mr. Smyle thought you'd appreciate a little snack before bedtime." He clapped his hands and a procession of men in white jackets carried silver platters full of food into Miles' bedroom. There was a mouthwatering choice of dishes, including vegetarian ones, West Indian ones and traditional English ones such as beefburgers, fish fingers, and curry. If anything could send them to bed happy, it was grub!
The next morning, the children awoke to a beautiful day and leapt out of bed to explore, only to find their clothes had disappeared! All they had to wear were the fluffy towelling bathrobes they'd been given the night before.
Roots was particularly upset. "Someone's stolen my stuff!" he raged. "I've only had those strides a year or two....and I got them from a really posh skip in Prestbury!"
"Perhaps we should ring for the housekeeper" Alice suggested and, in the flicker of a wick, Mrs. Bennett arrived, all bustling and friendly and efficient. Their clothes had been taken to the laundry, she explained, but in any case, there were plenty of garments in their closets if they cared to investigate.
"Most were flown in from Paris last night," she continued. "And, not wishing to disturb you, I took the liberty of hanging them up in your dressing rooms while you were asleep.” To demonstrate, she calmly walked into Alice’s room, opened the door to an enormous walk-in wardrobe and swept a hand over an eye-boggling array of garments. The rails were simply stashed with all the latest designer clothes, immaculately hung and coded in every conceivable colour.  “Will there be anything else?"
"When's breakfast?" Odi enquired. "Whenever you're ready, Sir" came the reply.
Too excited to care about food, Alice ran into wardrobe in her room and started rifling through the clothes, examining the labels on each item. "Wow!" she yelled. "Gaultier....Yves St. Laurent......Givenchy......Chanel....Versace..."
"Galtier! That’s nothing, just check the ID on these babies!" Odi hooted from his own quarters. The boys' clothes were more 'street' but no less expensive. Sportswear, jeans, sweats, shirts, trainers......dozens and dozens of trainers! Trainers with flashes, trainers with lights, trainers with blades, silver trainers, purple trainers, trainers of every hue - there were even trainers encrusted with diamonds!
Laurel too had a fabulous new wardrobe and, despite her lack of materialism, found it hard to resist. "The amazing thing is, they all fit perfectly!" she mused after trying on one mouthwatering creation after another. It was the same for everyone - everyone, that is, but Roots. Although not left out completely, Roots had to be content with a couple of jumpers, two pairs of jeans, Doc Marten boots and an anorak – all from a budget range.
"That's not fair!" protested Joe, yet Roots insisted he didn't mind. "What on earth would I be doing with designer clothes? You can’t dig tunnels in Armani."
Nevertheless, Joe refused to wear any of his new things until Roots had a better selection too, so Mrs. Bennett was duly summoned and agreed to arrange for another delivery. 
With all this finery, it was an amazingly well-dressed family who assembled for breakfast that morning, eager to see Mr Smyle and find out more about their parents. But their host didn’t appear that day, nor did they see him for another two weeks and neither Mrs. Bennett, nor the butler - nor indeed, any of the staff – were able to help. "You'll have to ask Mr. Smyle" was the constant response. "Can we see him today?" begged Alice.
"I'm afraid that will be quite impossible,” said Mr Soames the butler. "Mr. Smyle has temporarily left the country, although I am assured of his impending return." 
When the master of the house did return some days later, it was with an unusually long face.
"Oh dear oh dear oh dear!" he sighed. "Oh dear oh dear oh dear."
"What's the matter, Mr. Smyle?" Alice wanted to know. "Is it about our parents?"
Mr. Smyle nodded sadly. "I'm afraid so, Alice. It’s just as I feared,” he said, and beckoned the children into the library. Waiting for his guests to be seated, he stood with his broad back to the fireplace, holding his gold cane in front of him. "They’re in Australia," he announced.

"The Runaway Children, Vol 1 - Flight from the Nunjas" Sample

Get up Miles! cried Alice, banging on his bedroom door Mum needs help with the shopping. Come on lazy bones!
It wasnt like Miles to lie in bed, but he hadnt slept terribly well the night before, owing to a dull ache in his stomach. Groaning, he pulled the covers over his head and cursed his rotten luck. Couldnt be on a school day, oh no! he thought like when theres a maths test or anything. Has to be on a Saturday when its football practice! And he swore never again to eat more than three apple pies at a sitting - least not on a Friday.
At the thought of food, he vaguely considered getting up for some breakfast and was trying to decide between scrambled egg and corn flakes when he heard another bang.
All right, Im coming! he yelled crossly. But then he realised it wasnt Alice this time but someone at the front door, hammering so loudly, the house began to shake.
Theyll break the door down in a minute Miles murmured to himself. From downstairs, he heard his mothers angry voice. Who on earth can that be!?
It could be those Jehovahs Witnesses…. Mr Hadwin said as he made towards the door. But he stopped mid-sentence as a huge crack, then a mighty thump, resounded from the hall.
Whats going on?! cried Richard Hadwin.
From that moment, pandemonium ruled. Miles heard shrieks from Joe and Alice, Mum and Dad protesting, the sound of a scuffle as strange male voices yelled Shut up! Shut up! Shut up! over and over again.
Now fully awake, Miles leapt out of bed and pulled on the first garments he could find lying on the floor. Shaking, he flew down the stairs to see one man standing in the now empty doorway barking orders while two other men, all in black trench coats, manhandled his mother. His father was being held face downwards on the floor by yet another three burly men, his hands manacled behind his back.
Richard and Jennifer Hadwin! Youre both under arrest! the first man said.
What for?! cried Mrs Hadwin.
 Shut up! Shut up! one of the other men yelled.
But Jennifer Hadwin was not easily intimidated. Our MP will hear of this… she began. The first man laughed unpleasantly. He cant help you, we arrested him this morning…..
Shut up! Shut up… his colleague continued.
Not me, you idiot! the boss snapped and whacked the offender across the face.
Sorry Mr Mordant, got a bit carried away there.
As I was saying continued Mordant, theres been a coup. Youre under a new government now. He laughed again and began toying with a large signet ring.
Mummy, Daddy!
It was Joe, crying pathetically as Alice held him tightly, her face white and rigid with shock. Miles was standing on the bottom stair, frozen to the spot, his eyes fixed on Mordants finger. He felt his spine tingle just as it had under the street lamp when Uncle Jeff showed him….The snake he gasped.
Up until then, the intruders had ignored the children, but now Mordant, his gloating interrupted temporarily, jerked his head towards them.
Get them! he snarled. Well take them to the Babel Retreat.
This stirred Richard Hadwin to his senses. With superhuman effort, he raised his head from under the heavy black boots that had nailed him to the floor and yelled to the children with all his might:
And suddenly, Miles remembered Uncle Jeffs warning about the three-headed snake, the same symbol now glaring menacingly from Mordants ring. When you see it, run!  Run for your lives! Run! Run!
Then his mother joined in, shouting at the top of her voice Run children! Run!
Come on! cried Miles and flew from the stair and dashed towards the kitchen and the back door. Alice and Joe needed no further prompting and chased after him, narrowly dodging the clutches of two black coated men. 
Skinner, Brown, Griswold - get after them!
Hearts pounding, legs pumping, sucking in air, the children fled - out the back door, across the yard and into the field behind where the local rugby team was practicing.
If we can just make it to the woods…. thought Miles, his mind racing as he  dodged the rugby players, intent on reaching the other side of the pitch. Fortunately, their pursuers were not so nimble and found themselves the objects of some rather fine tackles. After freeing themselves from the unseemly scrums that followed, the men resumed their chase, but Alice, Miles and Joe, now far in the distance, had disappeared over a hedge and were now heading, full-pelt into the woodland.
Then something awful happened. Joe let go of Alices hand and stopped. He didnt know what was happening. He didnt know why Miles and Alice were running, or who the big men were. All he knew was he wanted to be with his parents. Slowly and deliberately, he started to walk home.
In her panic, Alice didnt notice Joe slip away. She and Miles kept running, not daring to look behind them, jumping over ditches, scrambling under barbed wire, panting until they felt their lungs begin to burst. At last they reached the trees and flung themselves into a mass of dense undergrowth until they could catch their breath.
Only then, did they realise that Joe wasnt with them anymore. Wheres Joe? cried Alice, looking around frantically. Weve lost Joe!
They must have got him! said Miles between gasps. Alice started to panic and made to stand up, Joe! she called and would have gone on screaming had Miles not put a hand over her mouth and dragged her down again into the bushes.
Theres nothing we can do he reasoned. Theres too many of them….. But Alice wasnt listening. Tears welled in her eyes and she started shaking with terror. Joe, Joe… she whimpered.
Miles grabbed her shoulders and shook her briskly. Look, we know where theyll take him, that Mordant man said. So well wait until those men have gone and then well find him and get him out! Please Alice, we have to stay calm, its our only chance. Were going to find him Alice. And Mum and Dad too. Everythings going to be all right! Its going to be all right.
In the distance, they heard the men shouting to each other as they raced in pursuit.
            "Which way did they go?" they were yelling. "Spread out" one of them said, and Miles and Alice could only freeze at the sound of shrubs being kicked and of twigs being broken underfoot. At one point, a man came within yards of their hiding place, and was just about to find them when one of his colleagues called out, "There's a ditch to your left. Look down there!"
With the man out of earshot, Miles and Alice began crawling on their elbows, commando-style, through the prickly bushes to get deeper into the wood. Before long, they came upon a fallen hollow tree trunk which had just enough room for the two of them to curl up inside. Miles pulled a branch up behind them so as to conceal the entrance, and from their hiding place, the children squashed together, hardly able to move.
Before long, an enormous pair of feet could be heard approaching the old tree trunk. "Stay here, Skinner." was the command. "I'll station myself at the north end of the wood, Brown will guard the west side and the others can flush them out."
"Okay, Griswold," said his companion. Once his superior was out of sight, Skinner sat down on the trunk. He was easily the biggest of the men with an unbelievably wide bottom, and as soon as he made contact with the fallen tree, it creaked ominously. All Miles and Alice could do was pray their hiding place would hold up under the strain. Moments later and to their great relief, they heard another shout.
"Oi! Skinner! Get off your fat behind and start searching! The boss ain't moving 'til we get those brats!"
Skinner leapt up, but in doing so, the weight of his bottom dislodged the tree which jolted into motion and began to roll downhill - slowly at first, then gathering speed, flattening everything in its path as the hill dropped perilously towards the river that gushed through the gully below. Miles and Alice held their breaths, unable to scream, helpless and stiff with terror. Being so tightly packed into the trunk helped brace their bodies against much of the impact, but it was still the most terrifying white-knuckle ride theyd ever experienced!  
"This isn't doing my tummy any good at all" Miles thought to himself, as the hollow log continued to roll faster and faster downhill, stopping only when eventually, it hit the river with a tremendous splash. Instead of being spun head over heels, the children now felt themselves being thrust from side to side as the current swept them along.

Miles could hear Alice hyperventilating and instinctively reached out a hand. "It's alright now," he said. At least they were safe from the men who, convinced their prey were still hiding in the wood, had found sticks to probe the foliage inch by inch. Some time later, Griswold had another bright idea. "Set fire to the place!" he yelled. "We'll smoke the beggars out!" But by this time, Miles and Alice were speeding down the river.

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