“Champagne Charlie is my name…”
A spectral voice drifts down the tunnel, the words it sings pinging off the damp chamber walls , echoing and multiplying.
“…And champagne drinking is my game…”
The woman’s voice continues the rough, lusty melody. A rhythmic clump-clump-clump of heavy hobnail boots on a hard wood surface accompanies the tune as it barrels down the tunnel. Jack and Johnson approach the cavern’s entrance, stepping into a bright, flickering light, the glow almost blinding them as the approach the owner of the voice.
“…There’s no drink as good as fizz! fizz! fizz!
And I drink every drop there is! is! is!”
Rounding the final subterranean corner, Jack and Johnson are greeted by the sight of Kate, high-kicking across the length of the occasional table’s top, gaily swishing her petticoats from side to side in time to her tune. She is lit from below by a rag-tag collection of bare bulbs, lanterns and candles, all pointed up at the table top stage, music hall-style.
“…and around town it is the same…”
Kate continues her song, oblivious to the two men watching her.
“…by pop! pop! pop! I won my fame…”
Johnson drops theatrically to his knees, throws his arms open and his head back and joins in the melody in perfect top-tenor harmony with Kate’s shrill soprano song:
“…oh, I’m the idol of all the barmaiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiids!”
Kate looks down in surprise from the table-top, squinting into the light.
“Who the bloody hell is that?” she calls, jumping down from the table, perspiration drying on her red-rouged cheeks.
“Terribly sorry.” Johnson gets to his feet, “Johnson’s the name. I…”
Jack lays a bear-sized hand on Johnson’s shoulder, cutting him off mid-sentence. “That’s enough from you mate. Kate, this is Johnson. Lofty Johnson he calls himself. I found him in Tunnel C.”
Kate’s eyes dart in confusion from Jack to Johnson and back again. “Lofty Johnson? But he’s…he’s so piddily.”
Johnson chimes in: “Ah, it’s kind of a joke, you see”.
“Shut it you”, Jack snaps. “I’m doing the talking here.” He turns his attention back to Kate.
“I reckoned I’d better bring him back here, love. He’s a ghost too, far as I can tell. I figured you might like the extra company.”
Kate smiles. “Oh you are thoughtful Jack, but you know you’re all the company I’ll ever need. Saying that”, she grins at Johnson, “it’s always nice to see a friendly face. It’s been awful quiet down here since all the others faded away.”
“Ah, the fade” Johnson says, “I’ve heard of that. I never knew it actually existed though. Is that why there’s no bugger else down here?”
Jack applies a little more pressure to Johnson’s shoulder and hisses into his ear: “Oi! I thought I said I was doing the bloody talking round here?”
“Oh Jack, don’t be a grump”, Kate says. “Why don’t we get our guest a nice cuppa and we can all get to know each other a little better?”
Johnson beams rakishly at Kate, his monocle gleaming. “That would be delightful, simply delightful. I can’t recall the last time I had a decent cup of char. Those dashed Municipal chaps had me locked up for lord knows how long. The brutes.”
“Oh you poor dear. They are buggers, aren’t they?” Kate’s tone is sympathetic as she fills the teapot to the top with steaming hot water. Jack, Johnson and Kate take seats round the table while the tea brews. There is a brief, awkward silence, before Johnson says, smiling endearingly at Kate:
“I must say, you’ve the loveliest voice, like an angel. Were you a singer of some kind?”
Kate giggles. “Ooh get you, you old rogue!”
“Hmph!” Jack grunts, glaring into the table-top. Kate continues:
“Don’t you mind Jack. He acts all tough and grumpy, but he’s really a big old softy underneath. Now what were you saying?”
“That you had a lovely voice.”
“Oh yes. Thankyou. I did try my hand at the old stage once, but it didn’t work out. My, erm, my employer didn’t like me pursuin’ other interests. I still enjoy a nice sing-song every now and then though”
“Oh you have to have a good old warble every now and then” Johnson replies with gusto, “it’s good for the soul. Do you know ‘Tipperary’?”
“Oh who doesn’t? Fancy singing it?” Kate gets up from her chair. Johnson gets up from his seat and faces her. They both begin to sing, their voices meeting in a rough harmony:
“It’s a long, long way to Tipperary…”
“Oh for fuck’s sake”, Jack says, getting up. He marches up to the teapot and pours himself a cup while the other two finish their song. Johnson and Kate sit back down, laughing breathlessly. “He’s a right giggle this one” Kate calls to Jack, pointing to Johnson. “You should bring back friends more often!”
“He’s not a friend.” Jack replies darkly.
“Oh sh!” Kate admonishes him. “Sorry Johnson. He’s usually better fun than this.”
Johnson smooths the ends of his moustache: “I’m sure he is. You’re an old salt aren’t you Jack? I’m sure we’ll all get along famously.”
Jack doesn’t even dignify this with a response. He sits back down forcefully, slopping tea from his cup. Kate tuts at him. “Cheer up Jack. Might never happen!” She picks up a metal tin from the table and pulls out three cigarettes. “Care for a woodbine, boys?” Jack takes one. Johnson follows suit, then feels around in his jacket pockets.
“I can’t find my damned lighter”, he complains.
“Oh never mind. We’ve got plenty of matches.” Kate offers him a matchbox.
“I’m afraid I really must find that lighter”, Johnson says. “It’s got, well, sentimental value. I’ll retrace my steps and see if I can find it.”
“I’ll come with you”. Jack makes to get up. Johnson gestures for him to stay put. “No need old boy. I know the way now. I shan’t be long.” He leaves the table, pushing his chair in neatly before he setting off down the tunnel Jack had led him through earlier.
“You shouldn’t have just let him leave like that” Kate says to Jack as she clears the cups from the table. “He might get lost”.
“I bet you’d hate that wouldn’t you”, Jack sulks.
Kate leans down and nuzzles Jack’s neck: “Ooh, jealous are we, grumpy-chops? You know you’ve got nothing to worry about. I’ve only got eyes for you. I’d probably been long gone if you hadn’t’ve found me. You know that.”
Jack turns round and kisses her cheek. “I’m sorry pet. I love you. I don’t know what’s got into me today. Reckon I’m just not used to having company any more.”
“Not to worry” Kate says. “Lofty’ll be back and soon and then we’ll have a right old laugh, you’ll see. After all, we’ve still got plenty of brandy knocking about.”
Stepping softly, Johnson finds himself back in the main tunnel. He stops to listen for Kate and Jack, but can hear no trace of their voices. Satisfied, he reaches into his flight jacket and brings out a bright gold fob watch. He flicks open the circular lid, revealing an ivory clock face. He presses this down and it too clicks open, revealing a tiny video display, which flickers into life. A black uniformed man appears on it, his shoulders heavy with silver badges of rank. His voice registers tinnily through a tiny speaker below the screen:
“Have you made contact?”
“I have”, Johnson replies. “They’re stronger than we thought though. It’s going to take something special to get shot of them.”
The man on the video screen leans back in his high-backed leather chair. “I’m sure you’ll think of something Johnson. You’ve done this plenty of times before, you ruthless old bastard.”