Both the boys looked discontented, “No, it’s one I had for Christmas,” Neil said. “You ought to know the way they go on about wasting time and money on useless things. They won’t give me another till my birthday.”
“Then that’s easy,” said Howl, “You won’t mind stopping if you’ve done it before, and I’ll bribe you with a new one—”
“Really?” both boys said eagerly, and Neil added, “Can you make it another of those that nobody else has got?”
“Yes. But just take a look at this first and tell me what it is,” Howl said, and he held the shiny gray paper out in front of Neil.
Both boys looked at it. Neil said, “It’s a poem,” in the way most people would say, “It’s a dead rat.”
“It’s the one Miss Angorian set for last week’s homework,” said the other boy. “I remember ‘wind’ and ‘finned.’ It’s about submarines.”
While Sophie and Michael blinked at this new theory, wondering how they had missed it, Neil exclaimed, “Hey! It’s my long-lost homework. Where did you find it? Was that funny writing that turned up yours? Miss Angorian said it was interesting—lucky for me—and she took it home with her.”
“Thank you,” said Howl. “Where does she live?”
“That flat over Mrs. Phillips’ tea shop.
,” said Neil. “When will you give me the new tape?”
“When you remember how the rest of the poem goes,” said Howl.
“That’s not fair!” said Neil. “I can’t even remember the bit that was written down now. That’s just playing with a person’s feelings—!” He stopped when Howl laughed, felt in one baggy pocket, and handed him a flat packet. “Thanks!” Neil said devoutly, and without more ado he whirled round to his magic boxes. Howl planted the bundle of roots back in the wall, grinning, and beckoned Michael and Sophie out of the room. Both boys began a flurry of mysterious activity, into which Mari somehow squeezed herself, watching with her thumb in her mouth.
Howl hurried away to the pink-and-green stairs, but Michael and Sophie both hung about near the door of the room, wondering what the whole thing was about. Inside, Neil was reading aloud. “You are in an enchanted castle with four doors. Each opens on a different dimension. In Dimension One the castle is moving constantly and may arrive at a hazard at any time…”
Sophie wondered at the familiarity of this as she hobbled to the stairs. She found Michael standing halfway down, looking embarrassed. Howl was at the foot of the stairs having an argument with his sister.
“What do you mean, you’ve sold all my books?” she heard Howl saying. “I needed one of them particularly. They weren’t yours to sell.”
“Don’t keep interrupting!” Megan answered in a low, ferocious voice. “Listen now! I’ve told you
before I’m not a storehouse for your property. You’re a disgrace to me and Gareth, lounging about in those clothes instead of buying a proper suit and looking respectable for once, taking up with riffraff and layabouts, bringing them to this house! Are you trying to bring me down to your level? You had all that education, and you don’t even get a decent job, you just hang around, wasting all that time at college, wasting all those sacrifices other people made, wasting your money…”
Megan would have been a match for Mrs. Fairfax. Her voice went on and on. Sophie began to understand how Howl had acquired the habit of slithering out. Megan was the kind of person who made you want to back quietly out of the nearest door. Unfortunately, Howl was backed up against the stairs, and Sophie and Michael were bottled up behind him.
“… never doing an honest day’s work, never getting a job I could be proud of, bringing shame on me and Gareth, coming here and spoiling Mari rotten,” Megan ground on remorselessly.
Sophie pushed Michael aside and stumped downstairs, looking as stately as she could manage. “Come, Howl,” she said grandly. “We really must be on our way. While we stand here, money is ticking away and your servants are probably selling the gold plate. So nice to meet you,” she said to Megan as she arrived at the foot of the stairs, “but we must rush. Howl is such a busy man.”
Megan gulped a bit and stared at Sophie. Sophie gave her a stately nod and pushed Howl toward the wavy-glass front door. Michael’s face was bright red. Sophie saw that because Howl turned back to ask Megan, “Is my old car still in the shed, or have you sold that too?”
“You’ve got the only set of keys,” Megan answered dourly.
That seemed to be the only goodbye. The front door slammed and Howl took them to a square white building at the end of the flat black road. Howl did not say anything about Megan. He said, as he unlocked a wide door in the building, “I suppose the fierce English teacher is bound to have a copy of that book.”
Sophie wished to forget the next bit. They rode in a carriage without horses that went at a terrifying speed, smelling and growling and shaking as it tore down some of the steepest roads Sophie had ever seen—roads so steep that she wondered why the houses lining them did not slide into a heap at the bottom. She shut her eyes and clung to some of the pieces that had torn off the seats, and simply hoped it would be over soon.
Luckily, it was. They arrived in a flatter road with houses crammed in on both sides, beside a large window filled with a white curtain and a notice that said: TEAS CLOSED. But, despite this forbidding notice, when Howl pressed a button at a small door beside the window, Miss Angorian opened the door. They all stared at her. For a fierce schoolteacher, Miss Angorian was astonishingly young and slender and good-looking. She had sheets of blue-black hair hanging round her olive-brown heart-shaped face, and enormous dark eyes. The only thing which suggested fierceness about her was the direct and clever way those enormous eyes looked and seemed to sum them up.
“I’ll take a small guess that you may be Howell Jenkins,” Miss Angorian said to Howl. She had a low, melodious voice that was nevertheless rather amused and quite sure of itself.
Howl was taken aback for an instant. Then his smile snapped on. And that, Sophie thought, was goodbye to the pleasant dreams of Lettie and Mrs. Fairfax. For Miss Angorian was exactly the kind of lady someone like Howl could be trusted to fall in love with on the spot. And not only Howl. Michael was staring admiringly too. And though all the houses around were apparently deserted, Sophie had no doubt that they were full of people who all knew both Howl and Miss Angorian and were watching with interest to see what would happen. She could feel their invisible eyes. Market Chipping was like that too.
“And you must be Miss Angorian,” said Howl. “I’m sorry to bother you, but I made a stupid mistake last week and carried off my nephew’s English homework instead of a rather important paper I had with me. I gather Neil gave it to you as proof that he wasn’t shirking.”
“He did,” said Miss Angorian. “You’d better come in and collect it.”