Chapter One – Peculiar Hill
Peter came to live at Aunt Maggie’s shop after his parents were kidnapped by pirates and eaten by tigers, and the Overseers of Children decided the lad was too young to live in the hut on Evil Island alone. Peculiar Hill was not exactly safe – not by the standards of Manchester or Basingstoke, for instance – but the Overseers ruled that it had the edge over Evil Island, being very impressed with the absence of any crocodiles.
So, Peter moved in with his aunt and uncle, arriving one day with a trunk full of all his belongings, except for his hat which was stuffed in a hole in the wall of the hut on Evil Island, to keep out the rain and the pirates.
“We’d better get you a new hat,” said Uncle Bob as he lifted the trunk onto the back of the cart at Strange Station, with a bit of help from the Station Master, who didn’t have much else to do as this was summer and there weren’t many tourists around. Uncle Bob was a big man with a friendly face and a bulging belly. His skin was tanned and leathery, like a well-worn pair of shoes. “You’ll need a hat here when the weather turns cold,” he explained.
“That’s right,” said the Station Master. “You’ll need a hat here when the bogeys start flying around. Otherwise your head’ll get covered in fizz.”
“What are bogeys and fizz?” asked Peter, who had never heard of such things.
Uncle Bob glared at the Station Master, then took the reins to encourage the mules up the hill.
“You’ll find out soon enough, Peter,” he muttered.
Aunt Maggie was standing at the door of the shop when the cart drew up, next to a large sign saying “Mules for hire.” She had a welcoming smile on her face and a long pole in her hand. She was thin and wiry with pale skin and bulging eyes like a fish. She kept twitching and peering about her anxiously.
“You must be Peter,” she called out, as the lad climbed down from the cart, and she gave him a sloppy kiss on the cheek and pointed at the sky.
“You see up there?” she asked.
“Yes,” said Peter.
“That’s the sky,” said Aunt Maggie. “That’s where bogeys come from and don’t you forget it.”
“Don’t you go and worry the lad,” said Uncle Bob. “It’s not as dangerous round here as you seem to think.” And he took down the trunk and it slipped and fell on top of him.
“Let that be a lesson to you,” said Aunt Maggie, when they had called out the next door neighbours and got the trunk off Uncle Bob with a system of ropes and pulleys. “Don’t you go and tell the lad that it’s safe round here, ’cos it’s not. Not unless you take the proper precautions.” She turned her bulging eyes upon Peter. “You see that pole?” she said. “I always keep that pole handy in case I need it for fending off great big bogeys.”
“But the bogeys don’t fly till November,” Uncle Bob protested, “and it’s not even July till a week on Tuesday.”
“You can’t be too careful,” Aunt Maggie said sternly, rolling out a large bandage to put on Uncle Bob. “Now where does it hurt most?”
When Uncle Bob was bandaged up, they pulled the trunk into the shop. Inside, it was quite dark, but Peter could see that the walls were covered with row upon row of shelves, crammed full with tins and cans and packets of stuff. Some of these he knew well enough, like baked beans and corn flakes, but others had small, hand-written labels which Peter could hardly read. One tin had a picture of a creature with large wings, cruel little eyes, and great big, sharp teeth, and Peter wondered if this was one of the flying ‘bogeys’ that everybody was talking about. He rather hoped it wasn’t. He stooped closer to try to read the label: “Aunt Maggie’s Home-Made Glop,” it read. “Regular use keeps bogeys at bay. Always read the instructions.”
Uncle Bob was opening Peter’s trunk.
“Let’s see what you got in here,” he said, and he and Aunt Maggie started taking out Peter’s things.
“He’s got no pole for the bogeys,” cried Aunt Maggie.
“He’s got no hat for their fizz either,” said Uncle Bob.
Aunt Maggie muttered something under her breath and it seemed to Peter that she might have been saying a prayer.
“You won’t survive round here very long,” said Aunt Maggie, “not without a pole for the bogeys and a hat for their fizz and a pair of boots to guard against the heeble-greebs. Didn’t you have any things like that on Evil Island?”
Peter had never heard of bogeys or fizz or heeble-greebs, let alone come across them himself, so he shook his head.
“Then I’m not surprised your parents got eaten,” said Aunt Maggie, in a tone which suggested it served them right. “Your Uncle Bob and I would be eaten as well if we didn’t take proper precautions.”
“Now don’t you go and worry the lad,” said Uncle Bob. “It’s not as dangerous round here as you seem to think.” And the door to the shop swung suddenly open and hit Uncle Bob on the part they had bandaged first because it hurt the most.
“I was just saying,” said Aunt Maggie, handing Uncle Bob a piece of cloth to stick in his mouth to sti[e his cries so they didn’t disturb the canary, “we wouldn’t survive very long without proper precautions.”
“Very true, Mrs Arkenthrobb,” said a thin, wizened man who had entered the shop. “That’s a nasty old sneeze you got there,” he told Uncle Bob. “Stuck half way up your nose, is it?”
“He’s not sneezing, he’s crying out in pain,” Aunt Maggie explained, “and he keeps on saying it isn’t dangerous round here.”
“That’s a mistaken belief is that,” said the wizened man, stepping forward and standing on Uncle Bob’s big toe, which was the bit they had bandaged second because it hurt the second most. “I’ll have a bottle of unge please, Mrs Arkenthrobb,” he continued, “and a can of glop and a packet of liquorice all-sorts.”
“There you are,” said Aunt Maggie. “Mr Grimble needs unge and glop. If it wasn’t dangerous, he wouldn’t need stuff like that to protect him, now would he?”
“Just getting set for the winter,” said the man she had called Mr Grimble. “After all, it’s July a week on Tuesday.”
“What are unge and glop?” asked Peter.
“Well…” began Aunt Maggie.
“Don’t tell him, Maggie!” said Uncle Bob, removing the rag from his mouth at last, the worst being over for now. “It’s too much for one day, what with the travelling and all. I’ll tell him tomorrow when he’s had chance to get used to his new home. He’s not going to die overnight, now is he?”
Aunt Maggie said nothing, but she and Mr Grimble exchanged glances and shook their heads in a worried sort of way.
“Well,” said Mr Grimble, turning to Peter. “It was very nice to meet you – I hope we shall meet again.”
But he looked as though he feared this might never happen.
Chapter Two – Aunt Maggie’s Lucky Day
“Did you have a good night?” asked Uncle Bob, when Peter came down for breakfast next day.
“Yes,” said Peter, sitting down at the table and helping himself to a slice of toast. He peered doubtfully into a nearby dish. The stuff inside it was lumpy and yellow and looked as though it might glow in the dark.
“Is this supposed to be marmalade?” he asked.
“No, that’s a bowl of unge,” said Uncle Bob. “The marmalade’s in that jar over there, the one with the cross on the top. Turn it three times widdershins before you open it up.”
“Turn it three times what-ershins?” Peter asked.
“Widdershins,” said Uncle Bob. “Some folks call it ‘anticlockwise’ but we call it ‘widdershins’ here on Peculiar Hill.”
“I’ll explain later,” said Uncle Bob. “Now are you sure you slept all right?”
“Yes,” said Peter, turning the jar three times round and helping himself to some marmalade. His bedroom was a little small and all the cobwebs made him sneeze, but as soon as he’d got used to the spiders it had been all right, he supposed.
“Nothing hovering outside your window or anything like that?” asked Uncle Bob, in the sort of voice he might have used if he had been asking if Peter had enough pillows.
“Not that I noticed,” said Peter.
“Good,” said Uncle Bob. “And no flashing lights in the sky or strange little scuttling sounds in the skirting boards? Nothing whooping and howling outside your door?”As he spoke, Uncle Bob pretended to study his fingernails very closely.
“No,” said Peter, “nothing like that – not that I can remember.”
“And no hideous screeching sounds and nothing lying in bed beside you, all wet and hairy and growling from time to time?”
Peter thought very carefully.
“I don’t think so – not apart from the spiders.”
“That’s good,” said Uncle Bob, suddenly relaxing, “much as I thought, really. Now, your aunt and I have decided that after breakfast, I should have a little chat with you about some of the things you might \nd here on Peculiar Hill that you might not have come across on Evil Island.”
“Like unge and glop and bogeys and fizz and heeble-greebs?” asked Peter, taking another mouthful of toast.
Uncle Bob looked uncomfortable.
“Er, yes,” he said, “only…”
“Only what, Uncle Bob?”
“Only, well, you don’t really need to know everything, Peter, not a young lad like you. I don’t want to go putting funny ideas in your head…”
“What do you mean, uncle?”
“I don’t want to scare you and make you want to take too many precautions.”
“But Aunt Maggie…”
“Aunt Maggie…” Uncle Bob began. Then he looked around and leaned forward and lowered his voice. “Aunt Maggie is working in the shop at the moment. Otherwise she’d be here now and telling you this herself, but I can’t help but think it’s lucky it’s me instead.”
“Why’s that, Uncle Bob?”
“Because your aunt is someone who takes too many precautions.”
“Like what, Uncle?”
Uncle Bob peered round again. Then he leaned forward even further and whispered under his breath.
“Like never going out of the house – except on a Thursday.”
Peter had to admit that this seemed unusual.
“Why’s that, uncle?” he asked.
“She once found a five pound note on a Thursday,” Uncle Bob explained. “So she says it’s her lucky day. Myself, I prefer Fridays. I once dropped a piece of toast on a Friday and it landed butter-side up.”
“But what about all the other days of the week?”
“The other days, it always lands butter-side down,” said Uncle Bob, “but I try to remember to drop it before I put on the butter.”
“No,” said Peter, “what I mean is: why does Aunt Maggie never go out on the other days of the week?”
“Ah well,” said Uncle Bob, “that’s ’cos she thinks it isn’t safe. And that’s where she’s wrong, you see.”
“So it’s really safe after all, is it?”
“Well,” said Uncle Bob, pouring himself a cup of tea. “One thing is certain: it’s not as dangerous round here as your Auntie Maggie seems to think.” And the lid came off the pot of tea and it poured all over his hand. Peter gave him a napkin to stick in his mouth to stifle his cries, Aunt Maggie having explained about trying not to alarm the canary.
“Thakk yeurr,” said Uncle Bob, sounding rather muffled on account of the napkin.
“So you think Aunt Maggie’s wrong to stay in all the time?” asked Peter.
“I do,” said Uncle Bob, taking the napkin out of his mouth, the worst being over for now, “because it’s not exactly safe outside, but neither is it inside neither. There’s no escape from danger on Peculiar Hill.”
Peter must have looked rather alarmed, because Uncle Bob was quick to explain what he meant.
“The way I would put it is this,” he said, “it’s nowhere near as dangerous as your…” Then he stopped and looked around him nervously. “Perhaps I should put it another way, now I think about it,” he said. “There’s danger here on Peculiar Hill but nothing to get upset about – not as long as you take all the right precautions.”
“Like putting a bowl of unge on the table and turning the marmalade three times round before you open the jar?” asked Peter.
“Good lad,” said Uncle Bob. “That’s the sort of thing – that and a few other sensible measures should see you safe enough.”
“Sensible measures like what?” asked Peter.
“That’s what I want to tell you about,” said Uncle Bob. “I’ll just get myself bandaged up and then take you up to my study.”