It was a Tuesday when I finished The Templar Mosaic. I remember the day because that evening I went with Matt to the Nursery to meet up with Boom and Mr Biggar. Since the night of the tower crane incident these Tuesday nights had become quite a regular outing, and all the more pleasurable for me because a change in the training schedule for the hockey team meant that Hugh could not join us.
While we were being served by Alice, Annie’s charming, gimlet-eyed granddaughter, the landlady herself came over.
‘Evening Annie!’ said Matt cheerily. ‘Is Boom in yet?’
‘Oh he’s in alright,’ she answered darkly. ‘Even managed to find ’imself a couple of dolly birds an’ all!’
‘Oh he has, has he?’
‘Yeah. God knows ’ow! I just hope they know what they’re letting themselves in for.’
‘We’ll warn ’em Annie, don’t worry!’ Matt turned to me. ‘I wonder which poor souls Boom has sunk his claws into this time...’
We made our way to the Diogenes Club and found Boom and Mr Biggar very comfortably ensconced in our favourite corner by the fireplace and with them, two very pretty girls I had not seen before. Mr Biggar was chattering away, gesticulating wildly. Whatever it was he was saying must have been interesting because both girls were smiling and seemed to be hanging onto every word.
When Boom and Mr Biggar saw us they stood up together and greeted us with what I can only describe as an ostentatious parody of a Roman salute.
‘May the Ron be with you!’ they boomed in unison.
Matt responded in kind and we all sat down. With these formalities out of the way, Boom quickly introduced us to the girls, who were called Jane and Siân, then added, ‘Anyway– thank God you made it, Matt! It’s been ab-so-lute-ly horrendous! If it hadn’t been for the girls’ help I don’t think I’d ever have got Mr Biggar back on his leash!’
‘Or to put it another way,’ explained Jane with a charming smile, ‘Siân and I were sitting over there, quietly minding our own business, when this lunatic comes over, gets down on his knees and says he won’t go away until we agree to help him get his friend back under control!’
Matt recoiled in horror, glared long and hard at Mr Biggar, then turned to Boom. ‘Oh my God!’ he cried. ‘He’s not been at it again? Who was it this time? No– not that first year geologist!’
Boom nodded, his face a picture of profound sorrow. ‘’Fraid so,’ he confirmed sadly. ‘The doctors say she’ll never walk again.’
Matt turned on Mr Biggar with some vehemence. ‘My God, man! Have you no shame? No sense of decency? And what do you think your parents will say when they find out about this latest outrage?’
‘Very little,’ replied Mr Biggar dryly. ‘They put me up to it.’
Matt shook his head in despair. ‘So it’s insolence as well as infamy!’ He turned to Boom. ‘I can see why you had recourse to outside assistance!’
The girls looked at each other and giggled, amused and intrigued by the whole charade. ‘What exactly has Mr Biggar supposed to have done?’ asked Siân. ‘I mean, look at him– he wouldn’t hurt a fly!’
‘That’s because he’s very fond of flies,’ replied Matt grimly. ‘I’m afraid human beings are an entirely different matter.’
‘Exactly,’ added Boom. ‘Some of the things Mr Biggar gets up to would make your hair stand on end!’
Jane smiled. ‘Really? Try us.’
Boom pretended to have been caught off guard. ‘Ah, well, er, yes... if, er, you can just give us a minute to make something up...’
‘In the meantime,’ put in Matt with a sigh, ‘I feel it only proper to give you the relevant background to what is in fact a very tragic case. I know to look at him you’d think that Mr Biggar was just another one of those fuzzed-up whackoes that are ten a penny in and around campus. But I’m afraid the truth is more disturbing than that. Far more disturbing. You see, Mr Biggar here suffers from a rare and, sadly, incurable debility known as Wiggy’s syndrome.’
‘What?’ asked Siân with a giggle.
Matt sighed deeply. ‘Incredible, I know. It’s a little-known condition, and I don’t pretend to understand all the ins and outs, but basically what it boils down to is this: Mr Biggar lacks both the emotional, and the intellectual apparatus necessary to cope with university life, and the frustration this feeling of inadequacy engenders leads him to commit acts of unspeakable depravity over which he has very little control.’
‘That’s right,’ confirmed Boom.
‘And so, in a final, desperate attempt to curb his worst excesses, the University authorities have entrusted Boom and myself with his constant supervision and care. The trouble is, the minute you turn your back, he’s off, slaking his debased urges in the most foul and sickening manner.’ Matt sighed again. ‘I don’t know what more we can do! We’re really at our wits’ end.’
‘Sounds to me like it’s you two that need constant supervision and care,’ remarked Jane.
‘Hear, hear!’ cried Mr Biggar.
‘Look,’ said Matt, ignoring this last interjection, ‘I know you both mean well, but you have to understand, these are matters best left to the experts...’
‘Experts?’ snorted Mr Biggar. ‘There’s a laugh!’
‘Mr Biggar!’ roared Matt and Boom in their best schoolmaster’s voice.
‘Leave poor Mr Biggar alone!’ said Jane, whereupon the girls started petting and stroking him like a particularly lovable puppy. I would have given a lot to have been in his shoes just then.
‘Don’t encourage him,’ warned Boom. ‘Anyway, Mr Biggar can take a small step on the long road to redemption by recapping what he was talking about before you two came in.’
‘Well,’ began Mr Biggar, turning to Matt and me, ‘I was just telling this lot about some of the latest research into animal communication.’
‘Some of the communication strategies certain animals use can be remarkably sophisticated. I’m sure you learnt at school about honey bees doing a dance to show their fellows the location of a plentiful source of nectar?’
Matt nodded. ‘We did.’
‘Well, what you probably weren’t told is the bit that’s even more remarkable– that inside the hive it’s pitch black so the bees can’t see the dance. In fact they hear it.’
‘Yeah. But for me the most incredible thing of all is that, given the tiny size and comparative simplicity of the insect brain, bees are capable of both sending and understanding such complex signals in the first place.’
‘And when you think about it, the implications of that are quite astounding. Because if bees, with their tiny, structurally crude brains, are capable of such a high level of communication, what are species with infinitely greater neural capacities capable of?’
‘I never thought of that!’ said Jane, clearly impressed.
‘Have you any more examples?’ asked Matt.
‘Well, at the moment research into the kinds of signals the higher species send each other is still in its infancy, but one thing’s clear– we’ve only seen the tip of a very large iceberg.
‘Yeah. You see for years zoologists concentrated on searching for recognisable patterns in animal communication– trying to decipher a language if you like. We now know that was completely the wrong tack, because it’s clear animals are quite capable of communicating in ways that go way beyond what you and I would normally think of as language.’
Mr Biggar paused to take a sip of his beer. I could hardly wait for him to carry on where he had left off.
‘Yes,’ he continued thoughtfully, ‘some of the initial findings are so incredible, that if you suggested that human beings might have similar capabilities, people would say it was all nonsense, you know, like ESP or something like that.’
‘Who says ESP is nonsense?’ asked Jane.
‘Well, you know what I mean– once something gets labelled ‘paranormal’ every crackpot going comes crawling out of the woodwork and serious scientists head for the hills.’
‘So does that mean you don’t believe in the possibility of ESP yourself, then?’
‘Well, I wouldn’t rule it out altogether, but you know, without any proper scientific research...’
‘Actually,’ said Matt, ‘there has been some serious research in this area.’
‘Really?’ asked Jane. ‘What was it?’
‘It was during the Cold War. Both the CIA and the KGB were known to have funded top secret research programmes into all sorts of parapsychological malarkey, including ESP.’
‘Well, I suppose they thought if certain people did have extra sensory abilities, they might be able to use them to get one over on the other side.’
‘So did anything come of it?’
‘Not sure, actually. A lot of this stuff is still classified, but I doubt if the superpowers would have invested so heavily in this sort of thing unless they believed there might be some substance to it.’
‘Well, one thing is for sure,’ added Mr Biggar with a chuckle, ‘the KGB would soon have found out if anyone taking part in the experiments was faking it!’
‘Yep,’ agreed Matt. ‘And you’d hardly need clairvoyant powers to foretell the fate of anyone mad enough to try!’
‘Actually,’ remarked Boom quietly, ‘there was someone at school who’d read up on all that stuff about ESP. Smith his name was, he was in “Pop” Naylor’s class... Anyway, he reckoned the case for ESP had already been proven.’
‘Yeah. And I found out there’s a lot more to it than I previously thought. I always used to think that ESP was a kind of gift. You know, one person in a million with some sort of special powers.’ Boom shook his head. ‘Oh no. Apparently all of us have a measure of extra-sensory receptivity, it’s just a case of finding out how sensitive you are.’
‘I don’t follow,’ said Jane.
‘Well, there’s something called an ‘index of receptivity,’ a kind of scale that shows the degree to which a given individual is predisposed towards ESP. And there are tests to go with it as well. Apparently a surprising number of people show some predisposition, but only a very few are at a level you’d class as truly receptive.’
‘So did you ever try any of this stuff out for yourselves?’ asked Matt.
‘Not half! Smith’d found out how you could devise simple tests to measure your receptivity.’
‘Yeah. And you can imagine how this sort of thing went down with a bunch of rowdy sixth formers! But after a few goes the results soon shut us all up.’
‘And so how did you fare in all this?’ asked Jane, a mischievous twinkle in her eye.
Boom grinned. ‘I’m afraid you wouldn’t believe me if I told you.’
‘Ooh! Playing hard to get now are we?’
‘Well, if you insist... On the receptivity index I scored highest out of the whole year.’
‘Oh, come off it!’
‘See– I said you wouldn’t believe me!’
‘And I suppose the accuracy of that prediction is proof of your special gift?’
Matt chuckled. ‘Now, now, children!’
‘So– tell us a bit more about these tests,’ said Mr Biggar when the laughter had died down.
‘Well, you’ll have seen the sort of thing on TV. The person conducting the test looks at the image on a randomly selected card: a square, a circle, a star or whatever, concentrates on it, and the test subject either says what’s on the card or selects a matching card from a parallel set.’
‘Obviously we didn’t have those special cards, but Smith came up with a simplified version using a coin.’
Jane laughed. ‘A coin?’
‘Yeah. One person tossed the coin, looked at it, and the other person had to say if it was heads or tails.’
‘So what does that prove? You have a fifty-fifty chance of getting it right every time!’
Boom threw up his arms in mock despair. ‘O Ye of little faith... Sure– any mug can get it right once or twice, but to keep on doing it time after time, so that you eliminate the element of chance altogether, now that takes some doing.’
‘So how many times did you get it right?’
‘Well, I could usually get to double figures before I got one wrong, and the chances of that being some sort of fluke were thousands to one against. Funny thing is though,’ he added after a pause, ‘I was only successful if certain people were tossing the coin. With others, I did no better than anyone else.’
‘How come?’ asked Mr Biggar.
‘Dunno. Smith reckoned there’s a kind of extra-sensory bond between certain people. He called it proto-telepathic empathy.’
‘Right!’ announced Jane. ‘Let’s give it a go! Then we can really see what you’re made of!’
‘Yeah!’ Siân was so keen she was fit to burst. I was too.
‘Okay,’ conceded Boom with a reluctance that surprised me. ‘But I can’t guarantee anything will come out of it.’
‘Well, we can give it go for nothing,’ said Mr Biggar. ‘What’ve we got to lose?’
‘Okay then, but you’ve all got to take it seriously or it’ll never work.’
‘No girly giggling for a start,’ added Matt sternly.
Siân suppressed a giggle. ‘We won’t!’
‘I meant Mr Biggar.’
‘Right then,’ said Boom, getting out a ten pence piece, ‘this is how we do it. We need one person to lead the test, or be ‘Chief Tosser’ as we used to call Smith—it can’t be me obviously— and the rest of us can call it. You carry on till you get two wrong, then you’re out.’
‘Two wrong in a row?’ asked Siân.
‘No, two in total.’
‘That’s a bit harsh!’
‘Boom grinned. ‘That’s the rules.’
Jane straightened up in her chair and put her hand out. ‘Right, let me have a go with that coin!’
‘Okay... but you remember what I said about my extra-sensory powers only working with certain people?’
‘Well, it’s been clinically proven that they never work when a girl is tossing the coin. Ever.’
Jane blessed us with her most enchanting smile. ‘Maybe I’ll be the exception you’ve been looking for all these years.’
‘I’m sure you will be. But I’d still feel more confident if we started off with a male member of the population.’
‘Oh, alright,’ said Matt reluctantly, ‘I’ll do it! Don’t hold out much hope though.’
‘Come on, Matt!’ pleaded Siân. ‘It’ll never work if you have that attitude!’
Boom nodded. ‘That’s right. You don’t need to believe it yourself, Matt, but you have to do it properly or it won’t work.’
‘Toss the coin, and make sure no-one else sees it. Then look at it yourself. Picture it in your mind.’
‘Okay, okay,’ agreed Matt wearily. ‘I think you’re all mad, but I’ll give it a go... Right– ready everyone? Here goes!’
He duly tossed the coin, slapped it on the back of his hand and took a sneaky look at it.
‘Concentrate everyone!’ ordered Boom.
‘Heads!’ announced Mr Biggar confidently.
‘Me too!’ said Jane.
Siân and I both plumped for tails, which only left Boom.
‘Mmm, let me see...’ he murmured, evidently concentrating hard. ‘Tails. Yep, definitely tails.’
‘Tails it is,’ confirmed Matt, showing us the coin on the back of his hand.
‘Fallen at the first hurdle!’ remarked Mr Biggar ruefully.
Boom shook his head. ‘Not necessarily. If you get the next half dozen right this one won’t matter.’
‘Okay everyone, get ready!’
Matt tossed the coin again. This time the girls and I went for heads, while Mr Biggar, after much deliberation, finally settled for tails. We all looked at Boom.
‘You’re right, this time Mr Biggar,’ he said. ‘It’s tails again.’
‘Matt?’ asked Jane.
‘I hate to say this, he answered with a sigh, ‘but he’s right again. Still, it’s a bit early to get too carried away.’
‘Yeah,’ agreed Boom. ‘Two in a row doesn’t mean anything.’
‘That’s easy for you to say, Mystic Meg! Siân’s already out and the rest of us are in Last Chance Saloon!’
‘Well, what do you want me to do about it? Anyway, I’m sure nobody would object if we allowed the lovely Siân a “Dog’s Life”.’
After a few more rounds we were all out except Boom and Mr Biggar. After Matt had tossed the coin again Mr Biggar said:
‘Why don’t you go first this time, Boom?’
‘Yeah!’ we all chimed in.
‘I’d hate to influence your decision...’ he replied modestly.
‘Chicken! Okay then– tails!’
Boom sighed. ‘Bad news, I’m afraid. It’s heads. Definitely.’
‘Matt?’ asked Jane. ‘Please tell us he’s wrong!’
‘Wish I could... Trouble is, the lucky so-and-so’s right again!’
Boom grinned. ‘Luck’s got nothing to do with it.’
‘That remains to be seen,’ replied Matt. ‘You’ll have to get a whole lot more right before you convince me. Ready?’
Matt carried on tossing the coin and Boom kept on calling it correctly. I had lost count of how many times Boom had got it right when Jane asked:
‘How many times is that now? Twelve? Thirteen?’
‘Thirteen.’ confirmed Mr Biggar.
‘So what are the odds of that? Boom?’
‘Let’s see...’ said Boom, starting his mental arithmetic. ‘Two to the power of thirteen... that’s er, it’s one chance in eight thousand one hundred and ninety-two of this being random guesswork.’
Jane gasped. ‘God!’
‘Even I’m impressed!’ admitted Matt.
‘Actually,’ said Boom thoughtfully, ‘I’m a bit surprised myself. I don’t think I ever did more than eleven or twelve on the trot at school. The thing is, you can’t keep up that level of concentration forever. And I’ve certainly never got fourteen right before.’
‘Go on Boom, go for the record!’ said Siân.
Boom looked unimpressed. ‘Dunno... I can feel my concentration going and I’d hate to end on a failure.’
‘Oh, go on,’ pleaded Jane. ‘Please!’
He grinned. ‘Who could resist the charm of you two lovelies? Okay then, but this is definitely the last time. Matt, are you ready?’
Matt tossed the coin for the last time. We all waited expectantly, hardly daring to breathe. Boom thought long and hard and finally said, ‘Damn!’
‘What’s wrong?’ asked Jane.
‘I told you my concentration was going,’ he answered bitterly. ‘I can’t see a damn thing!’
‘Go on, Boom, you can do it!’ said Siân. She sounded really concerned, but I’m sure we all felt the tension.
‘Okay, okay! Give me a minute! Wait a bit... yes, it’s coming... Right, got it!’
‘Are you sure?’ asked Matt.
‘Yep. No doubt about it. But before I reveal my verdict to the world, Matthew, can you show everyone, without me seeing, okay?’
Matt duly showed us all, then Boom delivered his verdict:
‘Right. At the end it came through clear as a bell. I’ll stake my reputation on the fact that what Matt just showed you was... tails!’
‘Hurray!’ we all cheered at once.
‘Phew!’ gasped Boom. All that concentration has given me one hell of a thirst! Same again, everyone?’
‘Need a hand?’ asked Matt.
‘No, it’s okay. I’ll grab a tray.’
As Boom headed off to the bar, we all took a moment to reflect on what we had just seen. Mr Biggar was the first to break the silence.
‘So– what did you make of all that?’ he asked, addressing the girls.
‘I’ve never seen anything like it!’ answered Siân with enthusiasm. ‘I was getting really tense by the end!’
‘Me too.’ Jane nodded in agreement but then her face clouded over and she shuddered visibly. ‘Urrgh! Now that I think about it, it’s all a bit creepy...’
‘Matt?’ asked Mr Biggar.
‘Well, I don’t know what to think. Obviously the thought of having any sort of special bond with Boom—extra-sensory or otherwise—fills me with indescribable horror, but I have to say I’m intrigued by what we’ve just witnessed.’ He paused a moment then added, ‘Mind you, knowing Boom as we do, I suppose I should’ve expected it.’
‘You can say that again!’
‘What do you mean?’ asked Jane.
‘Don’t get me wrong– Boom’s not as mad as you might think. In fact he can be quite sensible when he puts his mind to it. But then there’s this strange, irrational dimension to his life...’
The girls laughed. ‘Oh we know all about that!’ said Siân.
Matt smiled. ‘Oh, I’m not talking about his predilection for madcap escapades!’
‘Well, how can I put it? Weird, sometimes terrifying things seem to keep happening to him. And if it’s not him, it’s members of his family, or his friends, or people he comes into contact with.’
‘It’s true,’ confirmed Mr Biggar. ‘Some of the ghost stories he comes out with are pretty damn creepy.’
‘Yeah. To hear him talk you’d think he was from the most haunted place on the planet.’
‘So where’s he from, exactly?’
‘Wa-ake-field,’ intoned Boom in his best Boris Karloff voice, startling the girls who had not seen him approaching.
‘Oh!’ Jane looked up and smiled. ‘We were just talking about you!’
‘Nothing good I hope.’
Mr Biggar snorted. ‘That’ll be the day!’
‘Mr Biggar!’ bellowed Matt and Boom in unison.
Jane continued, ‘Matt was just telling us you’ve had more than your fair share of supernatural encounters.’
‘Oh he was, was he?’
‘Indeed. So why don’t you regale us with one of your Tales of Mystery and Imagination?’
‘Could do...’ said Boom thoughtfully. ‘Trouble is, this lot’s heard most of ’em.’
‘Oh come on Boom!’ urged Siân.
Boom grinned. ‘I wouldn’t want to scare you.’
‘Oh come on!’ scoffed Jane. ‘I’m quite sure we can handle anything you can— Aaargh!’ she suddenly shrieked as Annie, who had been quietly collecting empty glasses in the room, put a gnarled hand on her shoulder.
‘Sorry Love, I’m only after your empties,’ she said. ‘Anyroad, ’e’s the one you really ought to be scared on!’ she added with a contemptuous nod in Boom’s direction.
We all sniggered at this then Boom asked, ‘Annie, we were just wondering, have you ever had a brush with the uncanny or the unexplained?’
The girls were trying so hard to suppress their giggling I thought they were going to explode.
Annie paid no attention to Boom and carried on addressing Jane. ‘I don’t know what rubbish ’e’s been fillin’ your head with Love, but I wouldn’t take a blind bit o’ notice– ’e’s bleedin’ puddled!’
‘Bravo Annie!’ cried Matt. ‘I’ve been saying the same thing for years!’
Annie ignored this, adding drily, ‘And that one ain’t exactly a full shillin’, either!’ before turning and heading back towards the bar.
Of course we all cheered, and although Boom sent a Parthian ‘That will be all, Mrs Hudson!’ in the direction of the retreating figure, we all knew who had carried the day.
When the laughter finally died down a little Jane said, ‘Annie’s certainly lost none of her sharpness.’
‘Yeah,’ agreed Boom, ‘this place wouldn’t be the same without her.’ He echoed a sentiment I know we all shared. ‘The only thing I can’t understand,’ he added, assuming a suitably rueful expression, ‘is why Annie has such a low opinion of me.’
‘Nothing mysterious there!’ said Mr Biggar
‘That will do, Mr Biggar, thank you!’ warned Matt.
‘She’s always having a go,’ continued Boom, pretending to look hurt. ‘When I was at the bar just now she said, “Where’s that fat bald bloke you normally come in with?” And when I said, “That’s no way to talk about my girlfriend!” she just burst out laughing!’
‘So you normally come in here with your girlfriend, do you?’ asked Jane with a sly gleam in her eye.
‘Not anymore. We had a bit of a fallout.’
‘Yeah,’ explained Mr Biggar, ‘she refused to shave her beard off!’
A booming ‘Mr Biggar!’ from Matt and Boom was the inevitable response.
‘Anyway,’ said Jane, ‘I still can’t see why you won’t tell us one of your ghost stories.’
Boom nodded. ‘I will, I promise,’ he said. ‘But it’ll have to be the next time we meet. As I said, this lot’s heard ’em all before. And besides, it gives me an excuse to see you again, doesn’t it?’
Jane did not reply but her smile showed she was not against the idea.
A thought suddenly occurred to me. ‘Well, if you’re interested in the mysterious and the unexplained you’d love the book I’ve been reading,’ I found myself saying.
‘What is it?’
‘It’s called The Templar Mosaic...’
Matt chuckled. ‘Is that the one that proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Jesus managed to escape the crucifixion, made it all the way to dear old England and opened a tea shop in Glastonbury with Joseph of Arimathea?’
‘Even more controversial than that,’ I answered with a laugh. ‘Actually it’s quite a serious study. Adam put me on to it.’
‘Who’s that?’ asked Jane.
‘Adam?’ Matt replied, ‘Does second year French. You’ll have seen him around. He’s a really nice guy.’
I gave everyone a brief outline of the book. I was flattered to see they all looked quite interested.
‘Sounds really good,’ said Jane when I had finished. ‘Any chance of having a look at it?’
‘Don’t see why not, but I’ll just have to check with Adam. I’m sure he won’t mind but it’s only fair to ask first...’
An hour or so later I was on my way home with Matt. Boom and Mr Biggar had just left us to walk the girls back to their halls.
‘All that stuff with the coins was pretty impressive,’ I began after a while.
Matt smiled. ‘You think so? Nothing to it really. Boom and I just had a little game of footsie under the table. One tap of the foot meant heads, no tap, tails.’
‘It’s an old trick we wheel out every once in a while. We did it a couple of times last year, but this one worked especially well because we hadn’t planned it and it developed so neatly out of the general conversation. But whatever you do,’ he added after a pause, ‘don’t tell Mr Biggar.’
‘You see Mr Biggar is young, he’s impetuous... And for a scientist he’s something of a dreamer. He wants to believe there’s more to the world than what we see around us, that there’s something out there that goes beyond the dictates of logic and reason. I’d hate to be the one responsible for shattering these innocent if somewhat foolish illusions.’
I nodded. ‘I understand, Matthew.’
‘And besides,’ he added with a mischievous chuckle, ‘we might want to try and fool him again in the future.’