In the mellow golden light of early morning, Bardin padded back through the ship towards his cabin. Everything was so quiet, so still. This was at marked variance to what it was normally like during the bustle of the day, when the place was a constant hive of people coming and going. This area was their last bastion of civilisation against a world that had been plunged into carnage and chaos … or so that was how it usually felt in any case. Here, on this odd little riverside mooring next to an inn with no customers, apart from themselves anyway.
“Bardy, where have you been?” asked Bengo his partner, raising his tousled head from under the bedclothes.
“To the heads”, said Bardin, slipping back into bed next to him.
“Oh good”, said Bengo “I woke up and I was a bit confused when you weren’t there”.
“It’s not hard for you to be confused now is it”, said Bardin.
“Your feet are rough”, said Bengo “I think you need to put some cream on them”.
“I’ve been walking round barefoot a lot lately”, said Bardin “Though it’s getting so hot during the day now that the deck gets too hot to do that with no shoes on”.
“Joby was complaining about the heat yesterday”, said Bengo “I don’t mind it though. Would rather have that than being back up in the cold north anyday”.
“How is Joby? Seems even more cranky than usual lately”.
“Oh he’s alright”, said Bengo “I think he’s just worried about Kieran. Says he’s concerned what might happen if those thugs up in the City get to find out where he is”.
“Yeah, but to be honest, that’s always been a worry”, said Bardin.
“I know, but it’s got worse since Ransey started picking up those odd messages on the wireless the other day”.
“But they weren’t anything. Not much more than white noise, from what I could make out anyway. The usual garbled voices. We often pick up things like that”.
“Weren’t you listening when Ransey was explaining it at the time?” said Bengo, exasperated.
“No, not really”, Bardin mumbled “Well he’s always going on about that bloody wireless! Sometimes I feel like ripping it out with my bare hands!”
“Well this time you should’ve listened”, said Bengo, crossly “Instead of thinking you know everything all the time”.
“Yes alright”, Bardin snapped “It’s too early in the morning for a character assassination. So go on, enlighten me then why are these garbled messages so different to the usual garbled messages?”
“Ransey thinks they’re from the Ministry”, said Bengo.
“What?” Bardin sat upright “What makes him say that?”
“He says they sound like old secret service messages the Ministry used to broadcast in the old days”, said Bengo.
“Hang on, I remember now”, said Bardin “I didn’t take any notice though. I thought he was just having a reminisce about his days there”.
“When does he ever do that?” Bengo exclaimed “You are a complete nit sometimes!”
“I shall discuss it with him later”, said Bardin, haughtily.
“Yeah, and admit you weren’t listening the first time!”
The day was promising to be another hot one. Joby wandered over to the inn, to trade some eggs from the ship’s hens for a sack of vegetables from Stanley’s garden at the back.
James and Stanley lived with their elderly mother, a lady who was happily in a world of her own most of the time. To Joby’s mild annoyance she always referred to him as The Stranger. Adam had said he should take this as a compliment, as she never seemed to notice anyone else.
“The Stranger’s in the garden”, Joby heard her telling James.
“Yes alright dear, I’ll see to him”, James replied.
Joby stood at the edge of the garden plot, looking out over the barren wasteland beyond. They were right on the edge of the Burnt Lands here, a vast area to the east of them which had been scorched by the Ministry, in order to try and wipe out all the demons and vampires which had tried to colonise the south. In spite of their most stringent efforts, they had failed, as everyone here knew full well. The other side of the river was cursed by pockets of demons, whose presence had permeated the entire land.
“OK Joby”, said James, carrying a large sack of fruit and vegetables towards him “These any good for you?”
“Yeah, they’re great”, said Joby “I’ve left some eggs for you in the kitchen. I dunno how you get such good produce. Like an oasis in the desert, this place”.
He looked with particular admiration at the fig trees which dominated the edge of the garden plot.
“We have a lot of time to work on it”, said James “And there’s no way we can eat it all by ourselves. You have as much as you want”.
“You dunno what this means to us”, said Joby “We seem to live for months at a time on bread and jam!”
He took the sack from James, and made his way back through the austere, but sunlit bar. Lord Robert’s women, Cloris and Jane, were playing a boisterous tune on the piano.
“We apologise for the racket!” Jane shouted gaily above the din.
“You wanna hear the racket that comes out of ours sometimes”, said Joby.
Outside, the two boats lay moored nose-to-tail on the river. The galleon, which was Joby’s home, next to Lord Robert’s yacht. Both were blazing with life, the main decks smothered in washing and half-naked bodies.
Sometimes it was hard to believe that they were surrounded by nothing but stagnation and Evil.
Ransey was having a mid-morning coffee-break, lounging back in a chair at the dining-room table, and gnawing on a rock cake. He was interrupted by Bardin bustling into the room and standing by him, arms akimbo.
“What’s up?” said Ransey.
“You need to explain the radio stuff to me”, said Bardin.
“I tried to, the other day”, said Ransey “You wandered off in a state of profound disinterest”.
“Well I’m interested now”, said Bardin “So explain”.
Ransey nearly coughed up his rock cake.
“You need thrashing!” he said.
“Go ahead then”, Bardin shrugged.
“No, that’s Adam’s job”, said Ransey, reluctantly getting to his feet “Come on then, let’s see if we can find anything on the wireless”.
He grabbed Bardin by the hand and dragged him towards the wireless room. Bengo watched from the galley doorway. He went back inside, tutting.
“What’s all the tutting noises for?” said Joby, who was upending the sack onto the kitchen table.
“I needn’t have asked really! What’s he up to now?”
“He ignored Ransey the other day when he was trying to explain about the Ministry secret codes on the wireless”, said Bengo “And now he’s demanding he explain it to him. Sometimes I wonder Ransey doesn’t punch his lights out”.
“Nah”, said Joby “We’ll just give him a good hiding at some point in the near future. We have been very remiss in that department lately”.
“I’ve listened to some of those noises”, said Bengo “The spook the hell out of me. They’re so weird they remind me of the voices we heard on the Sea of Torment that time”.
“I don’t understand any of it”, said Joby “Who on earth thinks up things like that? We had it back in our time too. Or dimension I spose we have to say these days. Not that it matters”.
“Erebus”, said Bengo.
“What suddenly made you say that?”
“He was the old man up North who told us you weren’t time-crossers but … well dimension-crossers I suppose”.
“Yeah I know”, said Joby “But what made you mention him?”
“Not sure really”, Bengo shrugged “It just came out. It was you saying the word ‘dimension’ I think. Brggh! I’m glad we’re not up there at any rate. Could you imagine living up there all this time”.
“Would rather not”, said Joby.
There was a murmur of male voices in the corridor, and Bardin burst into the galley, shouting over his shoulder.
“That was a complete waste of time! I thought you’d be able to tell us what the codes meant”.
“I can’t be expected to know after all this time!” said Ransey “And even if I did, the Ministry didn’t tell me everything!”
“Why not?” said Bardin.
“Because I was only a lowly accountant that’s why not!” said Ransey “All I said initially was that I recognised the signals as the type they’d used! I am going up on deck before I chuck something at you”.
“Oh go ahead”, said Bengo “He’s used to that”.
Ransey squeezed Bengo’s shoulder and, in a dignified fashion, left the room.
“Oh Bardy, you clot!” said Bengo “You’ve upset him now!”
“He’ll be alright”, said Joby “He just needs a nice sit-down in the sun. I’ll make him a cuppa tea”.
Adam was on the shore with Lord Robert. Both were greedily chomping on juicy pears from the Inn’s garden.
“I swear this is the most delicious thing I’ve ever eaten”, said Adam.
Lord Robert was too busy gorging for a while to reply.
“I’m sorry about the musical accompaniment”, he said, waving a hand towards the window, from which Cloris and Jane’s boisterous piano-playing was issuing forth.
“It’s lovely to hear them so happy”, said Adam “Particularly after everything we’ve seen in recent years”.
“No need to worry about them”, said Lord Robert “They are remarkably resilient”.
“Of that I’m in no doubt”, said Adam.
“I’ll let you into a little secret, Adam”, he said “I’ve never liked men”.
“Well I rather guessed as much, old love”.
“No, no, not just sexually, I mean I’ve never really like them, full-stop”.
“I can completely understand that!” said Adam “Coarse, vulgar creatures a lot of the time. I honestly don’t know why women put up with us”.
Lord Robert gave a bark of laughter.
“Have often wondered the same myself”, he said “No, what I was trying to explain, in a rather roundabout way, is that I’ve never really liked male company at all, until I met you lot that is. God knows, it’s rare to meet people who are both courageous and fun-loving”.
“Oh good heavens, I feel quite overcome”, said Adam.
“Are you that unused to compliments?” said Lord Robert.
“Well as a group we are, yes I suppose so”, said Adam “I don’t know why really, as most people we’ve met have been very kind to us. But we’ve also met some very grim hostility. Ultimately it’s made us bond together even more”.
“Yes, I can see that”, said Lord Robert “As the head of a small community myself I know how hard it can be to keep people together through thick and thin”.
“I think you develop an instinct as to who will fit in and who won’t”, said Adam “And be philosophical about it when it doesn’t work. It’s not easy, we live cheek-by-jowl, and it would be impossible for anyone who didn’t fit in”.
Ransey approached them, wearing a rather grim expression on his face.
“Adam”, he said “Sort Bardin out later. You know what I mean”.
“Always a pleasure, old love”, said Adam.
Ransey strode back to the boat, where Joby was waiting for him with a cup of tea.
Dinner was a pleasantly mellow affair. Bardin sat at the head of the table, as he usually did, but he seemed slightly restless, with a habit of scanning everyone’s faces and occasionally drumming his fingers on the table.
“What’s up with him today?” said Hillyard, who was sitting at the other end of the table with Kieran and Joby “He’s been like a cat on hot bricks”.
“Dunno”, said Joby “Adam reckons it’s the weather. Says there might be a storm coming”.
“Well I suppose it has gone all overcast and humid”, said Hillyard “I hope it is just that”.
“What else could it be?” said Kieran.
“And anyway, Bardin’s always leaping around like a tit in a trance”, said Joby “Sometimes I think he needs tranquillising”.
“Yeah, I just hope it’s not wonderlust”, said Hillyard “I’ve seen it before with him. Starts getting all fidgety, and then before you know it, there’s a call to weigh anchor”.
“Why would he want to move on though?” said Kieran “This place should keep us enthralled for a while. It’s an oasis of paradise …”
“Yeah, surrounded by demons”, said Joby.
“Ach Joby!” said Kieran “We’ve not had any bother from them since we’ve been here”.
“Not had any …?” said Joby “Will you listen to yourself! They’re demons. And they’re all out there. Somewhere. Probably watching our every move”. “All I’m saying is we have to stay here and sort this area out before we move on”, said Kieran.
“Well I hope you tell old Captain Starchy that”, said Hillyard, nodding in Bardin’s direction “Me and Ranz are planning on getting another still going”.
“What do you need a still for?” said Joby “You’ve got a whole pub on your doorstep!”
“I don’t suppose you ever do things just for the sheer pleasure of it, do you Jobe?” said Hillyard.
“Oh I dunno”, said Joby “I have my moments”.
“Well that’s what we want to do”, said Hillyard “I sometimes think we’ve forgotten the meaning of the word ‘pleasure’ round here”.
“Surely we haven’t?” said Kieran.
“Forgotten to do things just for the hell of it I mean”, said Hillyard “We’ve had to be so damn purposeful for the last few years. And now I think we should just …”
“Let it all hang out?” said Joby.
“Whilst keeping an eye out for demons?”
“I give up on you sometimes!” said Hillyard “Bloody old pessimist”.
“No, Joby’s not really being a pessimist”, said Kieran “He’s just …”
“Fed up with being constantly vigilant!” said Joby.
“Well stop it then!” said Hillyard “You’ve got me and Ranz to do that. Don’t you worry your pretty little head about it. You just make the rock cakes Ok? And keep the old lady over at the inn entertained. I think she likes you”.
“Do you mind!” said Joby.
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