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For several days there was almost a temptation to turn around and head back to Hannah’s Sanctuary. The silence around them was oppressive. There was simply no sign of life anywhere at al. Even attempts to fish on the river yielded nothing in return. They were faced with the depressing prospect that they could be stuck on yet another lifeless river for months on end.
“It’s a real fear”, said Bardin, pacing around the dining-room, tapping his fingers on the table.
“We won’t be”, said Bengo, who was dodging around him, setting out plates “Oh stop brooding Bardy, it just gets boring when you do that”.
“Oh really?” said Bardin, standing arms akimbo.
“Yes really”, said Bengo “We know where Snow Lake is. It’s not like the other river, which we didn’t know at all, and didn’t know what was on it. We know where we’re heading this time”.
“I see what you mean”, Bardin sighed.
“Oh good!” said Bengo.
“I just hadn’t thought about it that way before”, Bardin shrugged.
“Huh, sometimes I wonder why we made you Captain”, said Bardin.
“I just get concerned about everybody’s mental health I suppose”, said Bardin, talking to Kieran in his cabin a short while later “I don’t think I’ve ever known such a downbeat start to an adventure as this one”.
“Oh I don’t know”, said Kieran, digging out a new bottle of whisky from under the wash-stand “Calling in at Erebus up North was pretty gloomy from what I recall”.
“We seem to have had gloom for a long while now”, said Bardin “The other river, Toondor Lanpin … is this world ever going to get back an on even keel?”
“Well first we have to properly assess the damage before work that one out”, said Kieran, pouring out the drinks and handing a tumbler to Bardin “And that may take us a while. But Bengo’s right, at least we know where we’re going this time”.
There was a string of expletives yelled from outside the door, and a crashing of buckets. Bardin jumped to his feet, and went out of the cabin. He found Hoowie sprawled on the floor outside the heads, with a mop, bucket and a scrubbing-brush around him.
“What the hell are you doing now?” said Bardin.
“I’m going on fucking strike, Bardin!” Hoowie yelled “You’re taking the piss you are, keep putting me on heads duty. You’ve always been a sadistic little bastard,a nd this is proving it”.
“Alright, calm down”, said Hillyard, walking up and yanking Hoowie to his feet “You great lanky loon”.
“He’s being a bloody diva, nothing new under the sun”, said Bardin “Hillyard, take him to his cabin, and see if you can calm him down before Julian sees him. Useless great nit”.
“I’m still going on strike” said Hoowie.
“Right”, said Bardin “Then I shall treat you as if you don’t exist from now on. It will be as if you’ve left the ship.
“Now come on fellers”, said Kieran “This is no way to carry on. Hoowie, we all have to do jobs we hate. Do you think Hillyard and me enjoy mucking out the horses every day?”
“He doesn’t do any of that does he!” Hoowie pointed at Bardin “He just barks orders and looks at maps all day”.
“Bardin has to take all the responsibility for everything”, said Kieran “That is no sinecure, I can tell you. And he provides us with endless free entertainment whenever he gets spanked”.
Hillyard gave a bark of laughter, and firmly escorted Hoowie away by his elbow.
“Selfish little prick”, said Bardin, when he and Kieran went back into the cabin “If he had his way, he’d sit around all day, acting as Julian’s pampered pooch. Heads-cleaning is good for his character”.
“Ach now Bardin, I thought I was supposed to be the Catholic round here”, said Kieran.
“Have you calmed down now?” said Hillyard, who was sitting alongside Hoowie on Julian’s bunk, both of them propped against the wall.
“He’ll never let me forget this”, said Hoowie “Not ever. What a depressing thought. Bardin never forgets anything. I’m surprised he didn’t bring up the time I turned up drink for rehearsals once. You’d be amazed how often that one gets dragged out for an airing”.
“Kieran didn’t given him a chance this time”, said Hillyard “But you having a meltdown isn’t going to help any of us. Kieran’s right. We all have to do shit round here. Finia had to sort out the callouses on Ransey’s feet yesterday. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone!”
There was a perfunctory knock on the door, and Bengo came in, carrying a tray with two mugs of coffee on it.
“We heard all about the commotion”, he said, scowling at Hoowie “And Adam sent me along with this. Though you don’t fucking deserve it”.
“Oh Benje, for fuck’s sake, you always side with Bardin”, said Hoowie.
“No I don’t”, said Bengo “You clowns make me dry-heave. Oh boo-hoo, Bardin’s being awful to us. He’s been far worse with me over the years than any of the rest of you!”
“Yeah, and you’ve had a few meltdowns in your time”, said Hoowie “You used to go and hide up in the flies, and refuse to come down!”
“Well I haven’t exactly done that anytime recently have I!” said Bengo “You wanna try doing some REAL work. Providing meals for you ungrateful tossers all day long!”
“Yeah alright, we’ve already had the Who Works The Hardest competition”, said Hillyard “Anyway, I’d win it hands-down”.
“And it’s not true he’s always cleaning the heads”, Bengo went on “Farnol was doing it the other day, and … AND he had to unblock the sink in the galley. You would be disgusted at what he found down there”.
“Come on, cheer up”, said Julian, pouring out two glasses of brandy “No one will remember all this tomorrow”.
“Oh yes they will”, said Hoowie, who was lying on the bed “Bardin will, he never forgets a damn thing, particularly if I’ve done it! It’s just I get so fed up of being the arse end of the pantomime horse around here. There must be something more useful I can do than clean out the fucking heads!”
“There will be, when we reach new areas and go ashore”, said Julian.
He joined him on the bed. It was late, and there was as soft rain falling outside.
“And then we’ll be exploring the areas along the way”, Julian continued “I shall need you as my right-hand man. You’ll get plenty of chances to prove yourself then alright”.
“You make me feel a clot now”, said Hoowie, mumbling into his brandy.
“Good!” said Julian “We might end up in situations where you’ll wish you were back here cleaning out the heads! Didn’t you get enough adventure on our trip to the Big House?”
“Perhaps I’m still jangled after all that”, said Hoowie.
“We all are”, said Julian, slapping Hoowie’s knee “Anyway, snap out of it. It would only take one of us to go into some kind of negative meltdown to make life intolerable. We don’t need anyone doing a Lord Robert round here”.
“Should I go and apologise to Bardin tomorrow?”
“No, I’d leave him alone for a little while. He’s got enough on his mind at the moment. Just try and fade into the background a bit, and hope he forgets about you”.
“Fat chance of that!” said Hoowie.
Before breakfast the following morning, Ransey, Julian and Mieps were up on the main deck, scanning the river and the surrounding countryside. Everything was slightly damp from the overnight rain, but this time the usual oppressive silence was being interrupted by faint noises in the very far distance. It sounded like shouting and dogs barking.
“It’s a helluva way away”, said Ransey “Noise travels quite a way in this silence. God knows where that’s coming from”.
“Sounds like they’re hunting to me”, said Mieps.
There was a distant blast of a trumpet.
“Complete with hunting-horn”, said Julian “Well at least it means there’s someone else around out here”.
“Hm yes”, said Ransey “Though I’m not sure we should be in too much of a hurry to meet them. Tread cautiously I say”.
“Do we ever do otherwise?” said Julian “Come on, let’s go and have some breakfast”.
Bardin had been spanked soundly. Afterwards he ambled into his cabin, carrying his trousers in one hand. He found Hoowie making a shambolic attempt at changing the sheets on the bunk.
“Oh Bard”, he said, jumping nervously “You weren’t supposed to find me in here. Toppy asked me to help out. But Julian said I was to make an attempt to fade into the background”.
“Fat chance!” said Bardin.
“Funny, that’s what I said”, said Hoowie “Can you pretend you haven’t seen me?”
“Bit hard to do when you’re standing right in the middle of my cabin”, said Bardin “Only YOU could choose to fade into the background by standing right in front of me! Leave the bunk alone. Don’t know what Toppy was thinking of assigning it to you”.
“He thought you might like it”, said Hoowie.
“Then he’s as mad as you are!” said Bardin, tossing his trousers onto the back of the chair.
Bengo bounded into the room and slapped Bardin heartily on the behind.
“Ow!” Bardin exclaimed “You’re all bloody mad!”
“Breakfast is ready”, said Bengo “And the others have heard some noises in the far distance. Thought you might be interested”.
“Ransey’s right”, said Bardin, when he had been appraised of what the others had heard up on deck “We should be careful. Try and be inconspicuous until we find out if they’re friend or foe”.
“Bit hard to be inconspicuous on this galleon”, said Joby.
“As inconspicuous as I was in the cabin just now”, Hoowie hooted.
Bardin rapped on the table and proceeded to explain.
“We’re a harmless nomadic religious order”, he said.
“Oh that one again”, said Joby “Not cassocks time again is it?”
“Not at the moment”, said Bardin “We can always say they’re not practical on the boat”.
Bardin ordered Toppy to finish making his bed, not Hoowie, and then stamped up the quarterdeck steps.
“Hey”, said Hillyard, nudging Joby “He didn’t put his trousers on first. Things are looking up. Can’t remember the last time he did that”.
“Yeah”, said Joby “Let’s hope we don’t meet anyone else too soon”.
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