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The installation of the new stove dragged on into August, but eventually Bardin was able to announce that they were setting sail once more. He had decided that their next voyage would be up one of the many river arteries which cut into the hinterland beyond The Village Of Stairs. Everyone was sick of ocean sailing for the time being, and hopefully this journey would take them through warm climes. There was a flurry of last minute buying.
“Are we sure we’ve got enough stores now?” asked Bardin.
“My dear man”, said Adam “If we take anymore supplies on board it is doubtful that the ship would be able to move!”
No one regretted leaving The Village Of Stairs behind. There was a strange, unsettling atmosphere there, exacerbated by the humidity. The heat didn’t lessen any when they turned off up the Gold River (so-named because this area had once been abundant with gold mines. There were still a couple around, but most had been mined to extinction), but at least they could get away from the squawking crowds. The banks of the wide river were crammed with woodland, which added to the damp, hot atmosphere.
It was a more populated area than they had expected. Big country estates had sprung up, partly from the gold mines in the past, and more recently because of the prosperity in The Village Of Stairs. Not all was prosperity in this part of the world though. Some of the hamlets and hostelries they saw looked wretchedly poor. It was an area of extreme contrasts. In the rural areas, the prosperity hadn’t filtered as far down the chain as was first supposed.
When they progressed a bit further along the river, even more worrying signs began to appear. They came across buildings that had been incinerated. These ranged from big country houses to what had once been one-roomed hovels. Joby tried to suggest that perhaps this was the result of forest fires, but Ransey pointed out that none of the surrounding woodland had been burnt. No, it was clear these buildings had been burnt deliberately. They occasionally, in the waterside taverns, met people who still lived in the area, but they were surly and uncommunicative. It was extremely hard to get any information out of them as to what had happened. The very most they got was one old man telling them that the fires were all the result of “trouble”, which was hardly a startling revelation.
One burnt country house still had its wooden mooring stage intact, so the Indigo-ites decided to anchor here for a while. The burnt house lent a somewhat eerie backdrop to them, and at any moment they expected the owners to reappear and yell at them for trespassing, but otherwise it was as good a place as any to take root for the time being.
Brother Umbert seemed to calm down a bit in this new setting. It was as if he had shaken off his forebodings of doom once he had left the new-found rich decadence of The Village Of Stairs. He took to spending a lot of his time sitting in the dining-room listening to the sports results on the wireless, and smoking a pipe which Lonts had donated to him. Digby was still prone to getting agitated, as any change of scene seemed to have an unsettling effect on him, (and there had been rather a lot of changes of scene lately), but Umbert was good at calming him down with just a few words.
“Do you know”, said Bengo, who had been trying to untangle a knot in his hair and looking at himself in the kitchen mirror “The only thing I regret about giving up the stage is that I never got to play a romantic lead”.
“Well with your looks I think you would have been rather dashing”, said Adam.
“Until he went and fell over the furniture!” said Joby.
“That’s the trouble”, Bengo sighed “Good looks alone isn’t enough. You have to be suave and sophisticated too. But perhaps I could still play it in real life”.
“With Bardin as the heroine?” said Adam, causing Joby to break into spluttering laughter.
“Why not?” said Bengo “You said yourself that we’re in the process of taming Bardy, well I could be the romantic hunk who does so”.
“Yeah, but it never bleedin’ works does it!” said Joby “The very most we can hope for is that it shuts him up for a few minutes!”
“Well I’m gonna make it my project for this trip”, said Bengo “By the time I’ve finished the dashing romantic lead will have made the old cactus-tongue into a gentle and mellow creature”.
“Some romantic lead with knots in his hair!” said Joby.
“Come here, Bengo”, said Adam, picking up the scissors “I’ll snip it off for you”.
He was in the process of snipping the knot out of Bengo’s hair when Ransey came in.
“Has this place turned into a hair salon now?” he said.
“Did you want something, dear?” said Adam.
“A pot of tea”, said Ransey.
“And it will materialise if you use the magic word”, said Adam.
“A pot of tea, PLEASE”, said Ransey, and exited again.
“Do you know I thought Hillyard might have had a softening effect on him”, said Joby “Don’t bleedin’ well sound like it sometimes!”
“He’s a lot more relaxed than he used to be”, said Adam “I think it always takes him a little while to adjust to new areas that’s all”.
“You’ve no idea what it’s like working in this heat”, said Bengo, now lying in Hoowie’s bed, under the mosquito net, still with his pinny on “It’s alright for you. As ship’s tart all you have to do is lie around all day!”
“You must be joking!” said Hoowie “Bardin’s had me on latrine duty ever since we left The Village Of Stairs, and that’s a full-time job I can promise you. I clean it until you can see your face in it, and then five minutes later I go back and … well you don’t wanna know”.
“That’s the trouble with only having one loo between the lot of us”, said Bengo.
“I wish you’d get on with this taming of Bardin you’re supposed to be doing”, said Hoowie.
“I’ve made a start”, said Bengo.
“Can’t see as how I’ve noticed!” said Hoowie.
“Well I’m about to make a start”, said Bengo “I’m going to suggest we (me and him I mean) sleep up on deck this evening. Bardy always gets all romantic and submissive when we sleep under the stars”.
“I’ll take your word for it”, said Hoowie.
“BENGO!” came the voice of the romantic and submissive one from out in the corridor.
Bengo jumped instinctively to his feet.
“Is this the start you were talking of?” asked Hoowie, caustically.
“I might have known you’d be in here”, said Bardin, coming into the room “You two are always in each other’s pockets. Adam’s looking for you”.
“It’s my break time”, said Bengo.
“He’s still looking for you”, said Bardin, drifting over to Julian’s desk where he had left his logbook lying open.
Hoowie ran over and slammed it shut, then chucking it in the drawer for good measure.
“Bengo’s got a suggestion to make to you”, he said.
“Have I?” said Bengo “Oh yes. I thought it would be nice if we slept up on deck this evening, Bardy”.
“I don’t see why we need to do that when we’ve got a perfectly comfortable cabin below”, said Bardin.
“No no no!” said Hoowie, stamping his foot in exasperation “Bengo, you’ve gotta try harder than that. Three out of fucking 10!”
“What are you talking about?” said Bardin.
Hoowie ignored him and addressed himself to Bengo.
“Think how Julian would do it”, he said “He’d say ‘we’re sleeping up on deck tonight, get the bed-rolls ready’, that’s how he’d do it”.
“I’m not Julian”, said Bengo, pathetically.
“TRY!” said Hoowie.
“Bardin”, Bengo gulped “We’re sleeping upon deck this evening. Get the bed-rolls ready”.
“There’s scarcely much point getting them ready at 2 o’clock in the afternoon is there!” said Bardin, and he left the room.
“I think my timing was off with that one”, said Bengo.
“Well try again at sunset”, said Hoowie “Practice makes perfect and all that”.
It turned out to be a better night than Bengo had expected from its rather unpromising beginning. After the others had all turned in, Bardin had met him up on the main deck wearing his favourite pink nightie, and presenting him with a bottle of wine.
“Now all I’ve got to do is to get your starchy knickers off you”, said Bengo “It must be like wearing a corset wearing them!”
Afterwards, they lay on their bed-rolls looking up at the intense starry night.
“I wish you wouldn’t get so jealous of Hoowie, Bardy”, said Bengo “It’s silly really. Nobody, not even the great sex kitten himself, matches you for sex in my eyes”.
“You just seem to have such fun with him that’s all”, said Bardin.
“I have fun with you!” said Bengo “When you let me”.
“Did you know there’s some kind of summerhouse not far from here”, said Bardin “Whoever torched the big house clearly didn’t think it was worth burning that as well. It’s not in bad nick, just needs a bit of cleaning up. I was wondering if we could all use it as a sort of annexe to the boat”.
“That’s a lovely idea”, said Bengo “You’ll have to show it to me tomorrow”.
Bengo and Bardin took Adam with them to view the summerhouse. Bardin had had the idea that Adam might like to use it as a studio.
“Well it’s a sweet thought, old love”, said Adam, as they stood in the middle of it looking around them “But it’s a trifle dark. I don’t actually know why they put it in such a dense part of the forest as this. One would think on the front lawn would be better”.
Bardin looked rather disgruntled that his big-hearted plan had come to nothing.
“Now don’t sulk”, said Adam “And take your cap off”.
He plucked it off Bardin’s head.
“That’s better”, he said “You always look like a sparrow sitting forlornly under a drainpipe with that on!”
Bengo always went a bit sentimental whenever he saw Bardin looking vulnerable, so he let out a contented sigh of appreciation.
“Look, what’s going on?” said Bardin, standing arms akimbo “I feel as though everybody else has entered into some kind of conspiracy which I don’t know about”.
“Nothing for you to worry about, old love”, said Adam “We just want to be nice to you that’s all. It’s been a difficult few years, even by our standards, and you’ve done very well to lead us through it”.
Bardin still looked suspicious about this.
“Oh let me hug you both”, said Adam, gathering them into his arms “I get to cuddle two clowns at once. It’s not everybody who can say that!”
Ransey and Hillyard strolled casually into the summerhouse.
“Don’t tell me this is going to be the huggy room”, said Hillyard.
“Every blasted room we have is the huggy room”, said Ransey.
Suddenly several gunshots rang out in the distance.
“That’s coming from the direction of the ship!” said Ransey.
They all ran towards the galleon. When they got there they found Mieps standing on the main deck with a rifle in her hands.
“What’s going on?” Ransey shouted.
At the sound of his voice Hoowie swam out from under the wooden jetty, where he had taken cover. He hauled himself up onto the jetty, and lay there, naked and glistening, like a large fish.
“Somebody came out of the forest and started taking pot shots at us”, he gasped “I was having a swim for God‘s sake! Mieps fired back to scare him off”.
“Did you get a good look at this person?” asked Bardin, when they had joined Mieps up on the deck.
“Not really, it all happened very quick”, said Mieps.
“He looked fucking diseased if you ask me”, said Hoowie “He was all white and pasty and his skin seemed to be hanging off him”.
“This is starting to remind me too much of ‘The New Continent’ for comfort”, said Ransey “Diseased people, us getting fired at”.
“I think we should move on”, said Bardin, fishing out his whistle “We’re not welcome here either. I’ll do a roll-call and then we’ll set off down the river”.
The burning of the buildings in the area was still going on, as they were to find out very soon. A couple of days after leaving the burnt house, they were assailed by ashes flying towards them on the breeze. Very shortly, they came upon a small one-storey building which was blazing away in another clearing by the river. There was nobody else around. It was as if the building had spontaneously combusted of its own accord.
Any ideas they would have had about investigating it though, or seeing if there was anyone else around, they abandoned, as the horses down in the hold were getting too agitated by the smell, the noise, and the heat of the fire.
It was with some relief that the forest at last began to thin out. The forest had seemed to hold too many secrets for comfort, too many surly people carrying guns, too many seemingly spontaneous fires. The trees eventually thinned into a boggy, marshy expanse of land. The river widened with it, which helped to lessen the claustrophobic feel that the forest had generated. They docked at another wooden jetty, and Hillyard, Ransey, Joby and Kieran disembarked to go and explore a small village sitting scattered on some pastureland.
The village was very small, merely a ramshackle collection of wooden dwellings. Behind one of the largest buildings there was the smell of roasting meet and raucous laughter, as though a barbecue was in progress. Directly in front of the building an old woman, with a face like a walnut, was stirring something noisy in a cauldron over a small fire. Talking to her was a young woman, who was so slender of build and crop-haired with it, that from a distance she had looked like a boy. When she spotted the 4 Indigo-ites she burst into a big smile, and came towards them holding out her hand in welcome. Where hospitality is to be concerned, this was certainly a vast improvement on being shot at, so the Indigo-ites responded in kind.
She was clearly very proud of her village, and seemed to regard it in the way that an enthusiastic missionary might look on a community she had converted. She gave no sign of recognising Kieran, and Joby harboured the hope that she was too young to know who he was.
“Come and share the meal that Dulcina is cooking”, she said.
Unfortunately the cauldron contained boiled snails (hence the clanking sound as the old woman stirred it) and rice. Kieran had to suppress an urge to visibly recoil. He was too well-seasoned a traveller to show offence, as for all he knew snails might be the staple diet of people living in such a remote spot. A bigger test was to come. The girl took them round the back of the hut to meet the other villagers, and it was there that they found that the slaughtering of a wild pig was in progress. The animal was hung suspended between two poles, roasting over a fire, and another couple of grizzled old women were busily hacking out its intestines, ready to be scooped into a large bowl. This time Kieran couldn’t hold anything back. He hastily ran back round to the front of the hut and threw up on the grass.
“I’ve made a great impression haven’t I!” said Kieran,, when he had recovered himself.
“Just shows your commitment to being a vegetarian I spose”, said Joby “After all the sights you’ve seen that you can still be revolted by a pig being slaughtered. Christ, I’m glad Adam never has me and Bengo doing that! Mind you, I think we’d refuse! Never mind, Hillyard and Ransey can do all the diplomatic bit”.
Bardin walked towards them across the grass, leading the other clowns on what looked like an enforced route march.
“Have you met the villagers?” he asked.
“Summat like that”, said Joby.
“Is it alright if we anchor here?” said Bardin “Have you asked if they own this land?”
“We haven’t got round to that yet”, said Joby, rattled by Bardin’s bossiness “I assume we’re not trespassing. I mean no one’s threatened to shoot us yet!”
“He’s getting impossible”, said Kieran, when he and Joby returned to their cabin “He’s like a clockwork toy that’s been wound up too much. Something really has got to be done about him”.
“Bengo tries his best”, said Joby, getting out a bottle of brandy and two plastic mugs “But Bardin can’t seem to take it down a few notches”.
“He’s been like it ever since we left the City”, said Kieran “I know he’s always been highly-strung, concert pitch and all that, but I’m really starting to get worried about him”.
There was a nervous knock on the door, and Bengo poked his head round it.
“Is it alright if I come in?” he asked.
“Yeah”, said Joby, digging out another mug from the back of the wash-stand “Sit down”.
“You don’t have to do it, Bengo”, said Kieran “I know you’ve come in here to apologise about Bardin, but that’s not your role in life you know”.
“I don’t know what to do about him”, said Bengo, sitting down forlornly on a fold-up wooden chair “And I’ve tried EVERYTHING! He’s a kind man really”.
“That’s the trouble half the time”, said Joby “Too kind for his own good, that’s why he gets himself in such a state about things”.
“It’s just that he suffers from foot-in-gob syndrome”, said Bengo “Finia says it’s because he’s a Sagittarian, so I suppose I’m not much help there, being one myself”.
“This isn’t just about tactlessness, Bengo”, said Kieran “Rumble told us once that when you ran off, Bardin became an even bigger control freak, as though he was trying to hang onto what he had left. It’s a sign he’s deeply unhappy, and I think that’s what we’re seeing here”.
“I know and I don’t understand”, said Bengo “The rest of us were so relieved to get away from the City that nothing else mattered, and then we were relieved to see the end of The Quarantine Winter, but something’s got into Bardy, it’s niggling away at him”.
“I don’t think Umbert helps”, said Joby “At the moment it don’t look as though he’s gonna recover from what happened on ’The New Continent’. We’ve got a bloke on board who’s steadily going off his chump a bit more with each day that passes, and there’s nothing we can do about it”.
“That’s what’s bugging Bardin”, said Kieran, quietly “He wants Umbert to feel as though he belongs with us, and that doesn’t look as though it’s going to happen, not with Umbert feeling like he’s lost the only place where he ever belonged”.
“Well you see it meant so much to Bardy when you took him in”, said Bengo “He was so lonely”.
“Particularly ’cos you were planning on running away from him again!” said Joby.
“Oh don’t, Joby”, said Bengo, nearly in tears “I was such a childish fool in those days. The other clowns used to say I was nothing but a great man-baby, and they were right … for once”.
“Now stop being hard on yourself”, said Kieran “We don’t want you going loopy on us as well! It’s not your fault that Bardin’s always been such a difficult and complex person. Great men were never meant to be easy to live with!”
“Don’t I know it!” said Joby, pointedly.
“But what do we do about him, Kieran?” Bengo wailed.
“What would help a lot would be if Umbert were to pull himself together”, said Kieran “But I don’t think we should hang our hopes entirely on that one”.
“It could still happen”, said Joby “He might come out the other side”.
“Mm”, said Kieran “But in the meantime we have to think of something else”.
“But what?” said Bengo, in despair “We’ve tried everything there is. We’ve loved him, we’ve nursed him, we’ve joked him, we’ve given him hard smacks, what else is there?”
“Don’t suggest demoting him”, said Joby “That’d leave us with Julian back in charge!”
“No, Bardin’s the kind of man who needs purposeful work in his life”, said Kieran.
“Bardy was always a workaholic”, agreed Bengo “Even when we were tots”.
“Keeping him busy will help”, said Kieran “That’s why I think we’ve got to keep moving. It was a nice idea, at first, to stop for a while at the burnt house, but I think we should keep going up the river, no hanging around here for weeks on end”.
“You’re not just saying this ‘cos of seeing what the villagers did to that pig earlier are you?” Joby teased.
“No I’m not!” said Kieran “We keep sailing. Bardin can bustle around being Captain, with new scenery every day to look at. It’ll give him something to occupy his mind”.
“He will be happy if he can shout at us all day long”, said Bengo.
There was another knock on the door.
“Gawd”, said Joby “It’s like a bleedin’ public convenience in here sometimes!”
He opened it to find Adam standing there, looking rather frosty.
“I want you in the galley within the next 5 minutes”, he said.
“What for?” said Joby.
“What do you mean, ‘what for‘?” said Adam “To help me start preparing the supper, that’s what for! If you’re not there in the next 5 minutes, I shall appoint Toppy as my new assistant”.
When he had gone, Joby shut the door and sat down again, in a leisurely fashion.
“Don’t you think you should be getting along there?” said Kieran.
“No worries”, said Joby “He’ll never put up with Toppy as his assistant. He keeps moving things around, putting ’em away in the wrong place. That gets right up Adam’s nose that does”.
They got away from the small village fairly promptly a couple of days later. This departure came as a great relief considering, not only that they had just found out that Fleur (the chatty girl who had greeted them when they first arrived there) was a nun, (“where’s her bleedin’ habit then?“ Joby had asked, indignantly), but that she also had very little time for Kieran. This was why she hadn’t acknowledged him when they had first met. Hillyard was perplexed by this, as normally women were bowled over by Kieran’s soft voice and his blue eyes.
“It’s very archaic, that old school of religion”, she told him, briskly “All that spirituality and soul-searching. Instead it should be about practicalities, and Helping People”.
“Good heavens”, said Adam, when Hillyard told him, back on the galleon “I think we’ve had a narrow escape. She sounds like a female version of Codlik!”
Kieran though didn’t take offence.
“There have often been nuns like that”, he said “They try to reach God through doing good works, and they often achieve a certain level of holiness that way”.
“Well I’m glad you don’t do it!” said Joby.
“Do what?” said Kieran.
“Bustle around poking your nose into other people’s business all the time”, said Joby “That’d give me the right hump that would”.
“Particularly as I get the impression”, said Adam “That the villagers just sort of tolerate her. I don’t see any great level of affection there, it’s just they’re too polite to tell her to shove off!”
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