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By Sarah Hapgood

“This is the dead, cold heart of the forest”, said Kieran.

“For fuck’s sake Kieran!” said Joby, strolling along beside him with his hands thrust deep into his pockets “I think I can grasp that one without you pointing it out!”

“I was trying to cheer you up”, Kieran protested, his breath wafting in the cold air.

“How is that cheering me up?”

“Well we’ve reached the centre, it can only get easier from now on”.

“You reckon? We’re going back to the ship. Come on”.

He yanked Kieran along by his elbow.

“OK OK I can manage to walk meself back there”, said Kieran “I don’t need man-handling”.

“Sorry, but this really is a dismal armpit of a place”, said Joby “It’s hard to imagine anything could ever live here, or that the sun ever gets a look in and it gets warm”.

“It doesn’t”, said Kieran “This is Sleet Cold”.

“This is actually It?” said Joby “Where SHE lives? The part-woman part-decomposing corpse, or whatever she is”, he looked around him cautiously “Where is she then?”

“She’s out of sight just at the moment”, said Kieran “We haven’t found the entrance to her domain yet”.

“Come on”, said Joby “Let’s get home”.

Kieran peered round the edge of the galley door.

“Could I come in and make a cup of tea?” he asked Bengo, who was alone in the room “I can take it as a peace-offering for Joby. I seem to have annoyed him when we were on the shore, going on about how cold and dead it was”.

“Oh it’s not you, Kieran”, said Bengo “It’s the porridge”.

“The porridge?”

“Joby always gets grumpy when it’s porridge time, and Adam always make us serve it for breakfast on cold mornings”, said Bengo “Joby hates it”.

“Really? Oh I quite like it”, said Kieran “Mind you, he has said in the past it must be my Catholic masochism coming out”.

“It doesn’t help that HIllyard keeps winding him up about it”, said Bengo “You know how much he likes teasing Joby. Adam says he could wring his neck sometimes. Bardy can be cruel about it too. Sometimes I’m tempted to tip it over his head”.

“I can just see what Adam’d say to that!” said Kieran.

Bardin was currently picking his way along the shoreline when he glimpsed a movement out of the corner of his eye.

“That stupid fucking clown again”, he hissed, reaching inside his coat for his gun.

The clown loitered once more in some bushes, staring at him.

“Speak, cretin!” shouted Bardin, pointing his gun at him.

The clown’s garish red mouth spread in a disgusting leer.

Bardin fired the gun at the ground in front of the bushes. The clown’s leer turned into a grimace. Bardin slowly raised the gun and levelled it at his head. The clown turned and scooted further back into the forest. Bardin set off in pursuit.

“Bardin! Wait!” Ransey yelled from up on the main deck of the galleon.

Bardin pursued the clown to a boulder set in a bank of moss-coloured stones. The clown briefly glimpsed behind him, before sidling tightly toward the back of the boulder, and disappearing out of sight.

“Bardin!” Ransey yelled again, firing his gun into the air.

Fortunately this stopped Bardin in his tracks, and stopped him from pursuing the clown any further.

Bengo threw on his coat and boots, and followed Ransey onto the shore. They met up with Bardin by the boulder.

“How the hell did he get through that gap?” said Bengo “It’s too damn narrow”.

“He’s very skinny”, said Bardin.

“Yeah but even so, even Kieran’d have a hard job squeezing through there”, said Bengo.

“Don’t give him ideas”, said Ransey “At least all this means we’re not dealing with some supernatural creature. It’s flesh and blood”.

“And this sort of thing”, Bardin tapped the boulder “Is how he’s been managing to disappear so quickly”.

“Go away cunts!” a voice suddenly shouted from behind the boulder.

“That’s nice”, said Bengo.

“You keep appearing and making a spectacle of yourself”, Bardin shouted “You can’t blame us for giving chase”.

“We don’t want you around here!” the voice yelled back.

“We don’t want to be around here either!” Bengo exclaimed.

“Exactly”, said Bardin “We’re just passing through. If you’d stop turning up and preying on us you’d be shot of us a lot quicker, I promise you”.

“Yeah, what would we want to hang around your crappy, joyless place for”, said Bengo “You’re welcome to it”.

“Everything happens when I’m in the heads”, said Kieran, running over to them, pursued by Joby “Why are you fellers talking to a boulder?”

“That stupid clown’s on the other side of it”, said Bengo.

“We don’t want you here!” the voice shouted again “Fuck off! Get out of here!”

“With pleasure!” said Bardin.

“You fucking morons!” said the voice.

“The compliments just keep coming with him”, said Bengo.

“Are there many of you in there?” said Kieran.

“Fuck off!” the voice returned, now sounding nigh-on hysterical.

“Come on Kieran”, said Joby “He’s not gonna give us a guided tour”.

“When you get to the tunnel”, said the voice “You keep going. You don’t stop. You keep going, d’you hear me? Don’t come and bother us. Just keep going …”

“Yes alright, we get the message”, said Bardin “If everyone around here is as charming as you we won’t have any incentive to stop!”

“We’ll drive you off y’know”, said the voice “We’ll make sure you don’t stay”.

“Come on”, said Bardin, to the others “Let’s get back to the ship. This is the kind of conversation that could go on all bloody day”.

They turned and began to walk away.

“We drive everyone out of this forest you know!” it shouted after them “Everyone!”

“Why did the silly sod dress up as clown though?” said Bengo, when he was setting out pots of tea, bread and jam on the dining-room table.

“Too scare us”, said Bardin, grabbing a loaf and tearing off the heal of it.

“But why would we be scared of another clown?” said Bengo.

“No you don’t understand”, Bardin mumbled through a mouthful of bread “I expect he doesn’t know we are clowns. That get-up is to frighten anybody into not lingering around here. All part of the magical intimidation of the forest. Same with the hanging monkey I should think”.

Hoowie had been listening to everything open-mouthed. He suddenly piped up.

“But what IS this place?” he said “Really, what is it?”

“It’s a prison”, said Kieran, strolling into the room “Only the inmates don’t realise it is”.

“Well I can’t imagine anyone would WILLINGLY live here”, said Bardin.

“What do you mean, they don’t know it’s a prison?” said Hoowie.

“Oh it’s not a conventional prison with bars”, said Kieran “The inmates can walk in and out, and yet it’s a prison all the same. A dark, cold prison of the mind”.

“This is all getting rather too existential for comfort”, said Julian.

“Maybe”, Kieran shrugged “But I suspect that’s the way of things”.

“Is it Hell?” said Bengo “That sounds like Hell, where you went to all those years ago”.

“No, Hell is an After-Life thing”, said Kieran “Whereas this place is of this world. But otherwise yes, it’s like Hell in many ways”.

“Then I strongly suggest we don’t linger here”, said Bardin.

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