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As Bardin had promised, they set sail immediately at daybreak. After breakfast, Joby took advantage of the sunny morning to sit up on deck and play a couple of rounds of cards with Umbert for a few minutes.
“Do you ever miss your old place”, Joby asked him “The one back on ‘The New Continent’?”
“Not these days”, said Umbert “I missed it for a while, and when I was losing it back there in The Village of Stairs I used to get a hankering for it, but I know I was hankering back to an illusion. I couldn’t have gone back to living there after finding out the truth about The City”.
“It’s just that it’s all a bit weird for you”, said Joby “Going from all that peace and privacy to living in this mad-house … mad boat”.
“I have more space here than you think”, said Umbert “It works out OK. When I want space I’m given it, and that’s what’s important”.
Lonts and Hillyard both let out a shout at once. Joby turned round and saw them both pointing up above. Far above them an air-buggy was flying silently through the clouds.
“First time we’ve seen one of those in ages”, said Joby.
It is very easy when travelling in isolation for some time, as they had been doing, to start seeing great significance in everything, and it was hard not to do this with the sighting of the air-buggy. This was mainly because the town of Lebicca was never far from their thoughts.
As they travelled further that day a strange sort of despondency began to settle on the galleon. They were moving further and further away from Abbus Isle and the idyllic life they had found there. Plus they were moving further away from ever solving the mystery of what had happened to their friends there. The feeling of closing the door behind tem had never felt stronger. And the pain of it was almost debilitating in its intensity.
“So we go back to the Village of Stairs”, said Bardin, when Adam took him some coffee after lunch “And then what?”
“Well I suppose it rather depends what we find there”, said Adam.
“We can’t just leave Abbus Isle behind us forever”, said Bardin “I feel that so strongly in my heart, Adam”.
“We shan’t, old love”, said Adam “I think the idea is that we go back to the Village of Stairs largely to see if we can discover any information, anything pertinent about Lebicca for instance, anything helpful to us. Who knows, we might even be able to get an air-buggy and fly over the region …”
“We didn’t manage to get an air-buggy last time”, Bardin pointed out, with almost childlike petulance, leaving Adam to muster every bit of patience he could.
“I know what your trouble is, Bardin”, he said “All this is going to take time, oodles of time, and you haven’t got much in the way of patience. But the stark fact is that we haven’t much choice really”.
“I know, said Bardin, miserably.
“Now for heaven’s sake do try and make some effort to lighten up a bit”, said Adam “We all seem to be afflicted with a fit of the glums at the moment, and having a sad-faced clown at the helm isn’t exactly helping matters!”
Fortunately the beauty of the landscape they were passing through helped to give some cheer. The last time they had travelled this way it had been Summer, and the heat had been intense. Now it was well into Autumn, and although still warm there was a welcome freshness to the air after the soggy humidity of before. The mountains in the far distance were now snow-capped, and breath-taking to look at. It was extremely hard to be despondent with such a backdrop.
They arrived back at the small riverside village which was under the thrall of the unctuous missionary, Sister Fleur. This was their first meeting with other people since the folk of Abbus Isle had disappeared (the Fat Controller didn’t seem to count somehow), and the Indigo-ites felt wary at the thought of having to be sociable again.
At first glance the village didn’t seem to have changed much in the intervening 2 years. Someone had killed and stuffed a crocodile and hung it over the entrance to the main community hall, but that was about it.
“Oh God, it’s that abominable woman again”, said Julian, from up on the main deck.
“Julian, for heaven’s sake!” said Adam “Don’t cause offence the very moment we arrive. Sister Fleur might be able to help us in some way”.
“I shall hang around discreetly in the background”, said Julian “You won’t even know I’m around”.
“As if!” said Joby.
Sister Fleur only had eyes for Kieran though. His return to the village was a major event, in her eyes at least. The villagers themselves looked too exhausted by Sister Fleur’s continual presence to get too excited about anything else that might be going on.
Any formal greetings were scuppered by the Indio-ites getting their horses and mules off the boat for some much-needed exercise. Amidst the chaos Sister Fleur invited them all over for a village feast that evening in the community hall.
“I don’t feel like going”, said Bardin, who was sitting in the armchair in his cabin, wearing his best clothes “I’m not in the mood”.
“Bardy, you have to go”, said Bengo “You’re the star of the show”.
“I thought that was Kieran actually”, said Bardin.
“But it’s you who’s the ringmaster”, said Bengo “I dunno what’s the matter with you at the moment. Whatever happened to the-show-must-go-on?”
“It’s a long time since I’ve found it this hard to do”, said Bardin “Not since … not since you left me that time”.
“You’ve got to come”, said Bengo, going over and perching on the arm of the chair “The whole evening will feel really weird if you don’t, and I won’t enjoy it at all. Plus it’ll look rude”.
It was a good thing Bengo’s powers of persuasion worked on Bardin, as when they got over to the hall, they found the villagers had gone to a lot of trouble decorating it with bunches of wild flowers. To help himself get through the evening Bardin put on the same air of grave formality he used to assume at the Governor’s house on Abbus Isle, and it worked here too.
The same could not be said of some of the others. Bardin had insisted that Julian and Hoowie be seated separately for the evening, and thus Hoowie was put with Joby, Adam, Lonts and Tamaz at one part of the table, and Julian was with Hillyard, Ransey and Mieps at another. Kieran had been commandeered by Sister Fleur and was seated with her, and Bengo and Bardin were at the head of the table.
“Here”, said Joby to Adam “You’re going it a bit this evening ent yer?”
Normally Adam was quite careful with what he drank, as the dark, distant days of his alcoholism were always there at the back of his mind, but this evening he seemed to have thrown caution to the wind.
“I felt like letting my hair down a little“, Adam replied “And someone else can be in charge of breakfast tomorrow”.
“I doubt anyone’s gonna want breakfast tomorrow!” said Joby.
Lonts filled up Joby’s wooden cup to the brim with red wine.
“Oh bloody brilliant, Lonts”, said Joby “Just how am I spose to drink that without a straw?!”
“Just drink it, Joby”, said Lonts “You keep complaining all the time”.
“That’s how we know he’s alive!” said Adam.
Joby carefully picked up the wooden cup. Unfortunately Hoowie’s penchant for causing mischief was never too far away, and tonight was no exception. He chose a wildly inappropriate moment to jab Joby in the armpit.
“You fucking little Herbert!” said Joby, gazing down at the reddened front of his shirt in despair.
“Oh Hoowie, and you were doing so well this evening as well”, said Adam.
“Look at it, it’s ruined”, said Joby.
“Toppy’ll get that out“, said Lonts, with quiet confidence.
“It’ll be a little challenge for him”, said Adam.
“Why don’t you go and take a swim in the river?” said Joby to Hoowie.
“In this river?” said Hoowie “Not on your life. Something tried to grab me when we was round this way before”.
“Oh so it did”, said Adam.
“No it wasn’t”, said Lonts “He got shot at”.
“Even better!” said Joby.
“Now on earth could I have forgotten that?” said Adam.
“I’m sure something tried to grab me as well”, said Hoowie “Or did I dream that?”
“Probably Julian when you were asleep”, said Adam.
“I can’t sit here like this”, said Joby, picking at the front of his shirt “I’m going home”.
“No don’t do that”, said Adam “We haven’t got much longer to go. Sit it out. Hoowie will make it up to you tomorrow”.
“How?” Joby barked.
“You’ll have to think of something, won’t you, Hoowie?” said Adam.
For once Hoowie looked lost for words.
“Yeah”, he finally stammered “What did you have in mind, Joby?”
“I’ll think of summat”, said Joby “Overnight, and let you know in the morning”.
“And I think there should be no limits on retribution don’t you?” said Adam.
“Have another drink, Ad”, said Joby “You get wickeder with each cup-ful”.
“He always did”, said Julian, suddenly looming up behind them “The party’s breaking up … at long last”.
“Shut up, Julian”, said Adam “It’s been a good evening”.
“Hey-up Joby”, said Hillyard “You’re supposed to drink it you know, not wear it”.
“I know that”, said Joby.
He rose form his chair in as stately a fashion as possible, and with a casual gesture pushed Hoowie off his.
“Does that count as retribution?” asked Hoowie, from the floor.
“No”, said Joby, with a sinister-like serenity.
“How did you end up with that all down you?” said Kieran, when he and Joby were back in their cabin.
“That fucking hairy dingbat, Hoowie”, said Joby, pulling off his shirt and throwing it in the corner.
“You lot seemed to have more fun than I did”, said Kieran, getting undressed in a more leisurely fashion “Fleur made sure i hardly got a word in edgeways all evening”.
“Did she tell you anything useful?” said Joby.
“I got a full and detailed list of all the wondrous things she’s been doing here”, said Kieran “And there was a guy in plaits who kept telling me how they were trying to keep their lives as pure as possible - all whilst he was smoking the filthiest roll-ups imaginable!”
“Not much point in hanging round here then?” said Joby.
“Only to let the animals have a bit of freedom for a couple of days”, said Kieran.
“Are you alright?” said Joby “You seem a bit doleful”.
“That’s what spending an evening listening to worthy people does to me”, said Kieran “Particularly when, like the rest of you, I just wanted to let me hair down”.
“Bardin didn’t help to lighten the mood at all?” said Joby.
“He was too busy being in his role as Captain Bardin of the Indigo Galleon”, said Kieran.
“You can let your hair down tomorrow“, said Joby “I’ll keep you with me and we’ll have some fun. We can go and drown Hoowie or summat”.
“Julian would never forgive us”, Kieran laughed.
First thing the following morning Joby took Adam (who was lying in bed alone in the big cabin) some breakfast. The breakfast consisted of a mug of black coffee and a current bun.
“And that is breakfast is it?” Adam grumbled.
“Somehow I didn’t think you’d want a greasy fry-up this morning”, said Joby “And somehow I don’t think I’d want to cook it!”
“Oh very well”, said Adam, struggling to sit up.
“Is it alright if I skive off this morning?” asked Joby “And go riding with Kieran?”
“Yes, try and be back for lunchtime though”, said Adam.
The door opened and Julian came in.
“Joby, you look seedy this morning”, he said “Go and get cleaned up”.
Joby poked his tongue out behind Julian’s back and left the room.
“Don’t speak to Joby like that, old love”, said Adam “It’s not very nice to tell someone they look seedy”.
“He’s lucky I don’t give him a damn good hiding!” said Julian “Letting you drink like that last night”.
“I take grave offence at that remark”, said Adam, getting out of bed and looking for his clothes “It’s alright for you to quaff brandy all day long, but one night in a blue moon I get a little tipsy and I get the Riot Act read to me”.
“I was concerned for you”, said Julian, looking and sounding vaguely humble (for Julian that is) “it brings back bad memories to see you drinking like that”.
“Oh Jules”, said Adam “Sweet of you, but I’m fine. The way I feel this morning I certainly don’t need another drink in a hurry! Be more concerned about Patsy. I have a feeling he’s heading for a stand-off with Sister Fleur”.
The stand-off came sooner than he had anticipated. Bengo and Bardin had joined Kieran and Joby on the ride into the forest. It was a beautiful, mellow morning, and at first the only fly in the ointment had been Bengo’s pony, who couldn’t stop farting. In spite of that it was relaxing, until Sister Fleur steamed up to them, riding a rusty old bicycle. In full and frank terms she told them they were to go no further. To say Kieran took umbrage at this would be an understatement. He let rip at her. He accused her of being an obnoxious old busybody (even Joby was taken aback by the force of that one) and went on:
“If you spent a little more time in practising some reflection, instead of constantly bustling around telling people what to do, you might achieve a more genuine sense of spirituality!”
Sister Fleur was not a woman to be knocked down easily though.
“I wish I did have more time for that”, she retorted “But unfortunately I don’t have a fleet of people to do things for me, and some people clearly DO need others to look out for them!”
“Bloody good for her, she’s gone up in my estimation”, said Julian, having tea with Adam, Ransey and Hillyard in his cabin “I wish I had been there to witness the verbal spanking she gave him!”
“Oh you are rotten to Patsy, Jules”, said Adam “You’ve got to admit Fleur is rather a bossy little madam”.
“And Kieran thinks he can just swan into a place”, said Ransey “And do exactly what he wants!”
“Anyway”, said Julian “Nuns often are bossy. He’s Irish, he should know that”.
Kieran walked in carrying an empty mug.
“This seems to be the only place in the boat where I can get a cup of tea at the moment”, he said, helping himself from the samovar.
“Is your arse still sore, Tinkerbell?” said Julian “After Sister Fleur’s walloping?”
“She didn’t do that”, said Kieran.
“Metaphorically-speaking, of course”, said Adam.
“Not even metaphorically”, said Kieran.
“You’ve got a face like a smacked bum at any rate”, Hillyard chuckled.
“As I was saying just now”, said Ransey “Your trouble is you think you can do just what you want when you want, even when you’re in someone else’s territory”.
“And sometimes Ransey it can sound like you really don’t like me”, Kieran teased.
Ransey, who had loved Kieran since the very first time he had seen him, pulled Kieran’s nose.
“I think someone should go and smooth over troubled waters with Fleur” , said Adam “Hillyard, you have a way with the ladies, could you go and heal the diplomatic breach?”
“If you insist”, said Hillyard “Shall I say Kieran’s been clapped in irons and fed bread and water?”
“He’s taken her a present of a bottle of our port”, said Joby, when he met up with Kieran in their cabin a little while later “I was hoping he’d take some of our tinned stuff instead. Like those manky old broad beans that look radioactive!”
“It should be me offering the olive branch really”, said Kieran.
“No, you might get in another argument”, said Joby “Leave Hillyard to do it”.
“I suffer from the sin of pride, Joby”, Kieran opined “I tend to look down on missionaries liker her and I have no right to do so. In her own way she’s doing good work”.
“Well not everyone can go around wrestling devils and demons can they!” said Joby “Some of us have to do more mundane things”.
“That’s exactly it”, said Kieran “I suffer from false pride”.
“Oh bollocks!” said Joby “Nobody’s perfect, not even you. Not even her come to that!”
“Kieran’s heart’s always in the right place”, said Hillyard to Sister Fleur “But sometimes his mouth isn’t. He wouldn’t have meant any offence”.
“So why hasn’t he come to apologise to me himself?” was Sister Fleur’s perfectly reasonable question.
“Because Kieran likes an argument”, said Hillyard “And we were worried he might try and pick another one with you”.
“He isn’t what I expected”, said Fleur “I always thought he would be a gentle sort of a person, but he’s quite hard in many ways”.
“Oh Kieran’s quite gentle”, said Hillyard “But he couldn’t have survived this long if he didn’t have a hard streak as well”.
Hillyard had to restrain himself from adding that when Kieran got too stubborn and fanatical he usually had it beaten out of him. But he felt that Sister Fleur didn’t really need to know that. Instead he presented her with the bottle of port. She accepted it with a grave courtesy.
“And we’ll be out of your hair in a couple of days”, said Hillyard “We’re heading off back to The Village Of Stairs”.
“I don’t think that’s wise”, said Fleur “I’ve heard reports of disease there”.
“So have we”, said Hillyard “And we want to find out for ourselves what it’s all about”.
“Please stay here”, said Fleur “It’s not a good time to travel. The weather will get worse, and the forest along the Gold River isn’t safe. That’s why I went out to warn Kieran and the others yesterday. Things happen there”.
“What things?” said Hillyard.
“I think it’s bands of ruffians”, said Fleur “There have been a lot of burnings in this region. I think the only reason they don’t bother us is because we confine ourselves to the village”.
“Have you seen any of these … ruffians?” said Hillyard.
“No, never”, said Fleur “But I’ve heard things sometimes, in the still of the night. Odd noises from amongst the trees”.
“You live in fear here”, said Hillyard, more of a statement than a question.
“But I know we’ll be safe”, she said “As long as we stay here”.
“That’s not exactly our way though is it?” said Hillyard, when he related the details of this conversation to Kieran back on the galleon.
“Not really, no”, said Kieran.
To Hillyard’s amazement, Kieran seemed more preoccupied with cleaning his cabin than listening to the latest information. Normally Kieran’s attempts at housework were desultory to say the least, so this sudden Toppy-ish enthusiasm was a trifle disconcerting.
“It’s part of my penance for sticking me foot in me gob with Fleur”, he explained.
“Wouldn’t it be easier to get old grumpy-chops to smack your bum?” said Hillyard, referring to Joby.
“Ah yes, but I’d enjoy that you see”, said Kieran “Whereas I don’t enjoy housework, so this is much more of a penance”.
“I call it making life unnecessarily hard for yourself”, said Hillyard “I think I’ll go and start the engines”.
Somewhat nonplussed, he adjusted his crotch and left the room, and cannoned into Adam.
“You won’t be able to start them up just yet I’m afraid, old love”, he said “Sister Fleur has offered us some of the herbs from her garden plot, and I’ve sent Bengo and Hoowie over to collect them”.
“What did you send Hoowie for?” said Ransey, who had overheard all this from the main cabin “He’s bound to get into trouble. He attracts it like a magnet!”
“He wanted to go along for the walk”, Adam protested “I hadn’t realised we were running a prison ship here!”
Hoowie did get into trouble, but for once it wasn’t his fault. He had got bored whilst Bengo was walking round the herb garden with Sister Fleur, ad had wandered off a short distance away to the edge of the forest. Bengo had had him in his line of vision all the time. Suddenly he saw Hoowie give a start and then fall to the ground. At first it had looked so theatrical that Bengo assumed Hoowie was playing a practical joke on him. He went over to him anyway. He found that Hoowie had genuinely fainted.
“I saw something in the forest”, he said, when Sister Fleur had brought him round with smelling salts “This horrible thing”.
“What did it look like?” said Bengo.
“I dunno”, said Hoowie “Sort of like a monkey. A big monkey”.
“Hoowie, I warn you”, said Bengo “If this is another of your silly practical jokes I’ll throttle you, and that’ll be nothing compared to what Bardy will do!”
“It had no eyes, Bengo!” Hoowie exclaimed “No fucking eyes, and it STANK. Can’t you smell it now?”
“There’s something”, said Bengo “I thought it was the villagers’ animals. We’re not far from the compost heaps here either”.
“No I told you”, said Sister Fleur, breathlessly “There ARE things in the forest. That’s why you have to be so careful about going there!”
“Do you think you can make it back to the galleon?” said Bengo to Hoowie “Or shall I go and fetch a couple of the others to help you there?”
“No I can manage”, said Hoowie, struggling to his feet “If I can lean on you whilst we walk”.
“Yeah OK”, said Bengo “But don’t overdo it, or Bardy’ll accuse you of milking it for all it’s worth”.
Kieran surmised that what Hoowie had seen had been a demon (“the horrible pong, the misshapen body, general freakish appearance, it all fits”), and insisted on departure being delayed for a couple of hours so that he could go and perform a blessing in the village.
“Of course I blame you for all this, Adam”, said Julian, who was somewhat miffed.
“Oh of course”, Adam snapped “After all, if the Earth were to suddenly stop revolving you wold find some way to blame ME for it!”
“If you hadn’t let …” Julian began, but Adam smartly walked off and left him standing there.
When Hoowie woke up it had gone dark, and the engines were going, so it was safe to assume that Kieran was back fro his blessing and they were finally on the move. He found a piece of paper lying on his chest. It read: ’HAVE GONE UP ON DECK FOR A SMOKE. DIDN’T WANT TO DISTURB YOU. WILL BE BACK SHORTLY. J’.
Julian had left the lamp lit on his desk, and Hoowie could see that he had broken off from doing his log-book. “Probably put ’Hoowie got into trouble AGAIN today’”, thought Hoowie, miserably.
There was a knock on the door and Bardin came into the room. Hoowie - expecting a telling-off - instinctively shrank back against the pillows.
“It’s alright”, said Bardin “Bengo’s told me I have to be nice to you or he’ll twist my nipples off”.
“That’d hurt”, said Hoowie.
“Yes it would”, said Bardin, perching on the edge of the bed “Are you OK?”
“Yeah I’m alright”, Hoowie sighed “I’m more pissed off at getting all the ’trust it to happen to Hoowie’ remarks when I got home”.
“They’re concerned for you”, said Bardin “That’s all”.
“Oh fuck it, Bardin”, said Hoowie “Everyone’s right though aren’t they? I can’t seem to stay out of trouble”.
“This wasn’t your fault”, said Bardin “It could have happened to anyone. Remember that weird creature I saw when we were living at Marlsblad? I was ill for days afterwards”.
“Yeah but nobody went around saying ’trust Bardin to get into trouble’ did they?” said Hoowie.
“They probably did!” said Bardin “You’re just one of those types of clowns who always takes it too far. That’s why I always worried about you so much, because they always come a serious cropper in the end”.
“Audiences were scared of me weren’t they?” said Hoowie.
“No I think they quite liked you”, said Bardin “Except when you got out of control and then they got nervous. Probably thought you were going to take them hostage or something! It was usually me who scared them! That’s why I needed Bengo. Having him as a partner rendered me harmless. They loved him. Bengo’s a natural-born clown, in every fibre of his being. And audiences feel safe and reassured with him. They know they’ll come out feeling better. With the likes of you and me they’re not so sure. And you’ve got a destructive streak in you. At times it was almost like a reflex action”.
“I’m really gonna try and stay out of trouble from now on, Bardin”, said Hoowie “I really am”.
“Don’t make rash promises you can’t keep”, said Bardin “Who knows what we might have to face next”.
“Yeah but whatever it is”, said Hoowie “It won’t be through any fault of mine, I promise you”.
Bardin (understandably) wasn’t convinced by this, but he squeezed Hoowie’s hand anyway.
“I’d better crack on”, he said, rising to his feet “I’m going to carry on the night-watches whilst we’re on this river, particularly after what happened to you. As Sister Fleur said, there are weird things in the forest”.
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