“Duh,” said Carla, as Freddie slapped his head with his paw, making Jack feel stupid as he realised how dumb he sounded.
“It’s the chimneys,” said Carla.
Going as fast as their sodden clothes would let them, the children walked towards the town. As they got closer, Jack started to make out vague shapes, rectangular and tall, amidst the smoke. And then, when they were close enough, the smoke engulfed them, making Jack cough as it hit the back of his throat. It reminded him of the pipe his Grandpa used to smoke. Sickly and thick smelling, but this was a hundred times worse. He could barely see Carla now, and he couldn’t see Freddie at all.
“Where’s the cat?” he said, thinking he probably knew the answer already.
Carla tried to laugh but burst into a fit of coughing. “He’s not stupid enough to come in here,” she rasped, barely able to speak.
Jack held his jumper over his mouth and nose as he wondered why they kept ignoring Freddie’s silent but extremely good advice.
It wasn’t until they actually entered the town that Jack could finally see the buildings properly. Each one was a giant brick chimney, with a door and windows and a front garden like a regular house. The chimneys, as you would expect, were billowing out thick smoke from their tops.
The street was quite busy and every single person had a long think pipe sticking out of their mouth. An old man and an old woman stopped in the street to talk to each other: the shook hands, blew smoke in each other’s faces and then coughed profusely.
“Did you see that?” said Jack, not sure if he could trust his eyesight.
“They’re saying hello,” answered Carla.
First Freddie pouncing on him, now this, thought Jack. How many more weird ways were there to greet each other in this strange land?
“Excuse me,” Carla had gone up to the old man and woman. “Could you tell me where I can find Lord Puff?”
She then got a thick waft of smoke sent in her direction, which engulfed her head completely for a moment, although Jack could still hear her coughing.
“Heavens dear,” said the old woman. “Where on earth is your pipe?”
She was looking at Carla with a mixture of confusion and disgust.
“I…” Carla spluttered.
“How do you expect us to have a conversation with you in that state?” asked the man, shaking his head.
Carla tried again, “I just want to know where…” but again her words were lost in a gasping cough.
A little boy, no older than seven or eight, rode up on a tiny six-wheeled bike that was much too small for him. He was wearing a smart jacket with shiny gold buttons and a flat cap. At the front of his bike was a basket filled with different coloured pipes, long and thin like all the others. He held out a blue and a green one to Carla and Jack, shoving them into their hands before they had time to protest.
“With compliments from Lord Puff!” he announced proudly, puffing his chest out. Then he peddled quickly away, his knees almost touching his chin as they went round and round.
“Let’s follow him!” said Jack, waving away the smoke that was coming out of the blue pipe in his hand. Not knowing exactly what to do with it, or in fact having any desire to figure it out, Jack passed the pipe to the old woman, who then looked extremely pleased.
“I’ve always wanted a pipe straight from Lord Puff!”
“Me too!” said the old man as Carla gave him the green one.
Then the two of them descended into another round of coughing.
The children took the opportunity to run off in the same direction as the little boy, off down the street, which was now even busier making it hard to follow the bike. As they rounded a bend in the road they saw a chimney house that was much bigger, and as a result much smokier than the others. The little boy was pedaling towards it with all his might.
“That’s gotta be it!” said Carla with a cough.
They didn’t see until they were close up-because of all the smoke of course-that the big chimney’s front door was wide open. This surprised Jack, as he’d expected someone as grand-sounding as Lord Puff to have guards, or a guard door, or at least a tightly locked door with a peep hole for inspecting visitors before letting them in.
There was no door bell either, so after some deliberation Jack knocked loudly.
“Enter!” a voice boomed almost at once.
Carla and Jack looked at each other, then Carla stepped into the house (or chimney, if you’d prefer). At the end of a corridor was another open door. They tried to look in but all they could see was grey smoke.
And then from inside there was a sudden burst of wheezing, coughing and what sounded like choking. The children stood still at the doorway, waiting, with no choice but to listen to the awful noises. Jack promised himself there and then that he would never take up smoking, not even a pipe like his Grandpa. After a very long minute, the coughing stopped.
“Well don’t just loiter there,” the booming voice said, “Come in!”
They stepped slowly and carefully, with no real idea of which way to actually go. After a few seconds of being in the room, Jack’s eyes were stinging badly.
“Who are you?” came the voice.
“I’m Carla and he’s Jack,” said Carla, her voice cracking as she stifled a cough.
Either the some of the smoke lifted then, or Jack’s eyes became more tolerant, but he could now see more clearly.
Sitting in a big red comfy red chair behind a large solid wood table, was a fat bald man with four chins and four pipes sticking out his mouth to match.
He didn’t even take them out when he spoke. “How can I help you?”
“Your Grace-” said Carla, but Lord Puff held out a chubby hand to stop her.
“Lord Puff, if you don’t mind.”
Carla stared again. “Lord Puff. I’d like to know the cure for Spratsy.”
Lord Puff didn’t say anything. He took a long drag from his four pipes, exhaling masses of smoke out at the children. Jack saw wisps of blue and orange and green. Then Lord Puff started coughing again, which again went on for ages.
The children stood silently waiting, again. Jack started to wonder how people ever got anything done in this town, with all the coughing and waiting around that was going on.
Eventually the coughing died down. “I’m afraid I know nothing of these matters.”
“But….” Said Carla, but Lord Puff cut her off again.
“I’m sorry you came all the way to see me, but I can’t help you.”
“But…” Carla tried again. “I was told… I thought…”
“You thought wrong my dear,” replied Lord Puff. “And you really shouldn’t believe everything you are told.” He took a smaller drag of his pipe and blew the smoke out, the rainbow colours twirling around and forming an arrow facing towards the door (as far as Jack could tell).
“Follow the road south from Chimney Town and you’ll find the big ancient mansion. I’m sure Mr. Old can help you.”
“Who’s Mr. O-“ started Carla, but Lord Puff cut her off for a third time.
“I really must get on now,” he said. Then he reached in one of his desk drawers and pulled out two gold pipes, holding them out to the children. “These are for you.”
“No thankyou,” said Carla, turning on her heel and marching out in the direction of the arrow, as fast as she could in the smoky circumstances.
Jack looked at Lord Puff who had now opened a big book and was scribbling very quickly in it. Feeling like he should say something, he muttered a quick, “Thanks,” and “nice to meet you,” before following after Carla.
Back outside it felt like the air was fresh as a spring meadow compared to Lord Puff’s house.
“I’m sorry he was so useless,” said Jack.
“Let’s get out of here,” said Carla, marching off again. “Which way’s south?”