The Dark Portal | Chapter 3

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

Unnatural things walked under the stars and spread fear over the earth.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: Now Audrey takes her first steps upon the path set out for her, desperation fuelling her to leave comfortable home and hearth. In the time-honoured tradition of heroic tales, she gives up something precious in exchange for information from an untrustworthy source, and so the wheels of her fate begin to turn.

This is a chapter which I still remember from the cassette version; the shadowy, furtive fortune-telling scene with Madame Akkikuyu had great atmosphere, despite that her accent was not exactly true to the book’s descriptions. I can recall my young indignation that Audrey had to forfeit the tail-bells which Twit had given her in such good faith, but the fact that Audrey is willing to believe that the likes of Akkikuyu can help her at all really shows her desperation.

Madame Akkikuyu is definitely one of those characters through which you can clearly see Robin’s background in model-making. With her tattooed ear, polka-dot shawl, and toy marble masquerading as a crystal ball, she is a perfect stop-motion specimen. It’s easy to imagine her eye-watering perfume and the filth under her long, chipped claws, and certainly in this chapter’s illustration she presents a bold contrast to Audrey’s frilly femininity.

Carrying on from the Chamber of Winter scene last chapter, there is foreshadowing aplenty in Audrey and Akkikuyu’s introductory conversation, as well as in the vision which follows. We are still in the early chapters, however, and the dread and doom are balanced with the occasional humorous moment. One that always make me chortle (and which is also a scathingly accurate summation of Madame Akkikuyu’s character) is when she admits that while her potions make her gullible patrons strong and happy, those spurious concoctions also ‘make them a little bit dead sometimes too.’

 

Matt’s Thoughts: Ah, Madame Akkikuyu! I don’t think I quite appreciated where Morocco was when I was younger, and so I always imagined her as having a vaguely exotic accent but I wasn’t sure exactly what it sounded like. And so, to make sure I get this correct in my head, and in case you find yourself reading this book out loud to little people, here is a YouTube of a how to speak in a Moroccan accent for reference.

This chapter is a great example of Mr Jarvis’ cinematic writing. Swirling colours in a crystal ball, flickering flames. It all reminds me of 80s animation, even though I couldn’t point to any one particular film. But a great example is this scene from The Secret of NIMH.

Also, pay close attention to Akkikuyu’s vision. Like another prophecy we’ll encounter in a few chapters, it foreshadows not just this book but the entire trilogy.

Finally, Piccadilly and Audrey meet for the first time, and it sets up two ideas: 1) Audrey’s denial about her father being dead. (Which, hey, I totally get.) And 2) Piccadilly’s crisis of faith. These may seem more mainstream now, but in 1989, there were few books aimed at kids with this much darkness, spiritual crisis and trauma going on. (And Robin hasn’t even started. He’s just cracking his knuckles in readiness for the real unpleasantness!)

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10 thoughts on “The Dark Portal | Chapter 3

  1. And we’re back for Chapter Three of The Dark Portal, a memorable part of the story for the simple reason that it introduces us to a memorable character. Her name was mentioned for the first time by Oswald and once we meet her, it becomes easy to see why Mrs Chitter was so impressed by the one and only Madame Akkikuyu. Once you’ve met her, she’s not easily forgotten because she happens to be one of the author’s most complex characters. As mixed in personality as the contents of the bags she hauls with her on her journeys, a curious blending of the despicable and grudgingly admirable. The exotic rat lady is an unmistakable survivor. She was originally from Morocco and what is no small step for a human being is a world away to tiny creatures like rats. Yet she made the journey to England safely and apparently not for the first time since she’s clearly a seasoned traveler. Another thing that sets her apart from the rest of the characters we’ve met up until now is that she walks in the underground empire of Jupiter without fear, treating the labyrinth of sewer tunnels like a twisting and turning camp-site and the bloodthirsty fiends who dwell there like the irritating locals she encounters during her stay. And though she knows as much about magic as the naive mice who are fleeced by her wherever she goes, she has something that has to be pretty close to it from the perspective of a rat. Limited though her knowledge of the science behind it is, she is able to use the gas-pipes running through the sewers to start a campfire, putting her several steps ahead of many other rats who have no concept of the purpose those things serve. Like I said, it’s easy to look up to Akkikuyu but beyond her charm there lies a darker side of this colorful character. Like Piccadilly, she’s a tough one but unlike Piccadilly who cares for those around him, she’s so cruel that she smiles nostalgically at the memory of the mice who have died as a result of drinking the so-called love potions she brews by tossing whatever may be lying around into her cauldron. She may not jump on you and bite your throat out like the other rats but she’s cunning and selfish, someone who doesn’t care who gets hurt so long as she gets what she wants. And that makes her dangerous as Audrey finds out when she pays the phony fortune-teller a visit which will lead to many unexpected consequences for both of them.

    Poor Audrey. This mouse maiden risks her life by entering the sewers and gives up a gift she was given by a dear friend in the desperate hope that she will find out what has become of her lost father. She’s brave to undertake such a quest. If only the wise woman she seeks was something more than a charlatan who takes the silver bells in payment and then launches into a halfhearted performance of her usual routine. The way Akkikuyu deceives Audrey is loathsome but our disgust is mixed with shock as she sees something within the crystal ball that makes her sit up and take notice. It strikes me as interesting how the fake fortune-teller can see the visions swirling before her eyes but these brief snatches of the future aren’t seen by Audrey whom plays such a prominent role in them. Is the mouse maid’s visit so special an occasion that some dormant power is triggered within Akkikuyu who becomes briefly capable of what she has falsely claimed in the past? Or is the crystal itself showing the respect due to the remarkable mouse who has walked into its presence?

    Akkikuyu’s musings which are interrupted by Audrey stumbling onto her campsite offer the reader more tantalizing hints about a larger world beyond the sewers and the abandoned house. Note that she toys with paying the gullible squirrel colony in Greenwich Park a visit. Who is the ‘wiley wise’ one whom crosses the rat-woman’s mind and why is it that even Akkikuyu is wary about fouling foul of her?

    When Audrey collides with Piccadilly who has survived his narrow squeak at The Altar Of Jupiter, the two of them take the tentative first step towards friendship which goes horribly awry when he realizes just who this pretty mouse maid is and tries to tell her that her father is dead. When I was reading this as a child, I gasped when Audrey lashed out at him and called him a liar. I was like “What the hell, Audrey? It’s not Piccadilly’s fault! I know that you don’t want it to be true but can’t you lay off him after everything he’s been through?” It came as a shock to me at the time but now I can understand why she rejects him so violently. The bearer of bad news is rarely made welcome and what Piccadilly tells Audrey is far from good. She is in agony when she bumps into him, fighting like mad to resist the horrible truth that everyone has been telling her. So when this stranger comes up to her and says that he as good as saw Albert die, she treats him as the embodiment of this truth. He becomes an enemy to be fought against at all costs. A target for her growing desperation not to accept what everyone else realizes and she is merciless with him. The reader wants more than anything for Audrey to offer comfort to this young mouse who has been through so much trauma, for her to tell him that he’s with a friend now and she’s going to lead him to safety, but the plain truth is that Audrey is going through her own trauma and does not realize how cruel she’s being. And so they walk off together through the sewer tunnel, two mice who might offer comfort to each other in their shared pain and sorrow but who may as well be worlds apart.

    It could be worse. At least the two of them are together and Audrey is determined to get Piccadilly back to the Skirtings if only so she can ensure he’s properly interrogated. And yet the situation could also be a lot better. Unbeknownst to the bickering pair, Madame Akkikuyu has overheard their confrontation and has a shrewd idea as to who else might be interested in hearing about it…

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  2. I hadn’t considered that about Akkikuyu’s crystal. Who gave her that momentary power? It certainly wasn’t Jupiter, from whom she would eagerly receive such gifts. If it was the Green it was a strange move for Him to make, failing to show Audrey, his chosen one, the vision as well. Perhaps Akkikuyu does in fact have some intrinsic but latent supernatural ability. I have my own ideas, but they’ll keep until we’re a few more chapters in.

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  3. Ah, Robin, and your questionable habit of writing accents into speech. Even as a kid, Madame Akkikuyu’s characterization made me uncomfortable. Though I think she’s a fine character, I do dislike the way certain accents belong only to the less.. “trustworthy” or even “violent” characters.

    The kitten head disturbed me when I was younger. I was very fond of cats. This book doesn’t pull any punches, even in the relatively tame chapters!

    I shipped Audrey and Piccadilly as a kid. Rereading, though, I’m not entirely certain why. Audrey and Piccadilly don’t really seem to even LIKE one another. Perhaps this changes in the later chapters/books, but I don’t actually recall them ever having a chat that didn’t end with someone getting the wrong idea/storming off. This encounter certainly sets the pace! Straight in there with the “You left my dad to die” business… yeesh. That being said, there’s still a soft spot for them both in my heart…

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    • I wanted Audrey to look at Piccadilly and see him as the mouse he really instead of the enemy she made him out to be. The injustice of her treatment of him after all he’d been through cut so deeply that from this moment on, I wanted more than anything for Piccadilly to prove himself and for Audrey to admit just how wrong she was about him. In my mind, the two of them were bound together by my need to see this happen. I was so overcome by the drama taking place between them that I didn’t even think of whether they were suitable for each other romantically until much, much later.

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    • I loved the accents in The Deptford Mice when I was younger (especially reading it aloud). But back then I was unaware of how the variety of British accents can be used by some people to make quick value judgements about class / background, etc.

      I’m presuming you’re talking about how the rats all sound as if they’d be at home in a Guy Ritchie film …

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      • I enjoyed them as a kid, too, for much the same reasons! It adds variety to the world. Thankfully, I think written accents (there’s probably a better term for this but it slips my mind) have pretty much been phased out these days – or at least, they’re used less as code for “these are the baddies”.

        I think Madame Akkikuyu’s character is a bit tongue-in-cheek considering even she knows she’s putting on a fortune-teller persona, but it’s still somewhat… iffy, in my mind. But the 90s were a different time!

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      • And not even 90s! Late 80s for this one … That said, this also reminds me that Jupiter is arguably the most well-spoken of the all the bad guys with his slightly King James turns-of-phrase. But that’s another old accent trope as well: posh accent super-villain, cockney henchmen.

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  4. Just a word about the accents. I try to give every character their own unique voice and patterns of speech, because it’d read very flat and dull otherwise and it’s an integral part of who they are. Also, it really isn’t just the ‘baddies’ who have these despicable accents.

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    • I admit that until this subject came up here I hadn’t really thought about the phonetic accents in The Dark Portal in detail. Accordingly, I went back and read over a few scenes to check, and found that both Twit and Piccadilly have accents. Since we can all agree that they are fine upstanding young mice, I think the accents in this instance are more of an indicator of the character’s place of origin than of their moral calibre.

      While I do have to agree with Emmy that Madame Akkikuyu’s dialogue does read as a little dated to an audience of 2017, to be fair, it probably would not have to the 1989 readership it was intended for. (Thank you, Matt!)

      Still, I like the idea that Akkikuyu maybe hams things up for effect because it’s what her patrons expect of her. Who knows, maybe she went through a series of phoney, theatrical accents to go with a plethora of different stage personas, before deciding, as she grew older, that she no longer had the energy to maintain them and slipped back into her natural cadence.

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