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By Sarah Hapgood

“What the hell are you doing?” Bardin shouted from the hatchway at the top of the quarterdeck steps “For fuck’s sake Hoowie, get your arse back down below!”

“I’m defying the storm, Bardin!” Hoowie yelled into the tempest which was swirling all around them. Wind roared, rain pelted down. The river ahead of them seemed to be a bubbling maelstrom of water.

“You stupid bastard!” Bardin hollered “Get below at once! If you don’t, I’m going to fetch Lonts to drag you below”.

At least Hoowie took note of this threat, and went towards the hatch. By the time Bardin had got him below, Hoowie was soaking wet.

“What the fuck came over you?” Bardin hissed “I told everyone to stay below. We don’t even have a night-watch in this storm because it’s not safe. You silly sod!”

Julian was playing cards with Hillyard, Ransey and Umbert in the dining-room, so Bardin pushed Hoowie into his cabin.

“Think yourself damn lucky I’m not throwing you in there to him”, said Bardin.

Bengo was seated in an armchair, his feet in a bowl of warm water.

“What’s Hoowie done now?” he sighed.

“Been an absolute fucking prat”, said Bardin.

“Oh Bard, don’t be like that”, said Hoowie.

Bardin grabbed a towel and threw it at Hoowie.

“He was up on deck”, said Bardin “In this storm! Just when I think he can’t be anymore of a plank, somehow he manages it!”

“For fuck’s sake, Hoowie”, Bengo muttered.

“This storm ain’t natural, fellers”, Hoowie moaned.

“You’re not natural, that’s for sure”, said Bengo.

“Even if it’s not”, said Bardin “How does you going up there shouting at it make things any better?!”

“I just wanted to DO something I suppose”, said Hoowie, helplessly.

“The tea things need washing up”, said Bengo “You could do that”.

“I knew there’d be no point trying to explain it to you two”, said Hoowie, flopping down in the opposite chair.

“Show some gratitude”, said Bardin “I’ve probably just saved your skin. Sometimes I think there’s a block of wood in your brain where your common-sense should be. We sit this storm out, at least until daybreak. If you can’t abide by that I’ll lock you in the wireless room”.

The storm had eased by daybreak, and the ships continued their stately progress up the swollen river. The land was heavily-wooded on both sides. After the apocalyptic noise of the storm, the silence felt intense. The wind had dropped completely, so there was no rustling of leaves on the trees, and there was no birdsong.

“I told bardin that storm wasn’t natural”, Hoowie persisted, sitting at the galley table, mindlessly sucking on a sugar-cube.

“I wouldn’t keep on about it if I were you, old love”, said Adam “You’ve got away with last night’s antics remarkably lightly. If you’ll take my advice, you’ll let the subject quietly drop”.

“You’re peed with me as well”, Hoowie grumbled.

“Going up on deck in that weather was an extremely silly thing to do”, said Adam “What if you’d got washed overboard? What if something had fallen on you?”

“A bloody great tree-trunk with any luck!” said Bengo, coming into the room.

“How long are you gonna keep all this hate up for?” said Hoowie.

“Oh years”, said Bengo, snatching the sugar-box “And don’t go eating all our sugar supply”.

“Look I can’t undo what I did can I!” said Hoowie

“Alright, let’s move on”, said Adam “Hoowie, you’ll just have to promise us not to do it again”.

“Huh!” said Bengo.

“Bengo, that’s enough, dear”, said Adam “You’re not an unforgiving person by nature”.

“Oh he can be!” said Hoowie “He NEVER forgets a mistake”.

“That’s enough!” said Adam, trying not to laugh.

Cloris appeared in the doorway. She looked tense and preoccupied.

“Can I see Ransey?” she asked.

“Yes of course”, said Adam “He’s in the wireless room next door. I’ll go and rouse him for you”.

Cloris found Ransey surrounded by a sea of disconnected wires, dials and screwdrivers.

“Oh dear, that looks a bit formidable”, said Cloris once they were alone.

“I don’t know why I’m bothering really”, said Ransey “I can’t remember the last time we got anything coherent on it. What can I help you with?”

“I suppose I’ve got a confession to make”, said Cloris.

“Kieran does the confessions”, said Ransey “Sorry, I didn’t mean to sound sharp. But if this is anything to do with the Ministry, you don’t have to explain anything. I’ve sort of guessed that a lot of the problems we’ve got are due to the Ministry mucking about in things they had no right to. They were doing it in my day too”.

“There were things at the Ministry”, said Cloris “I once stumbled into an area by mistake. Several levels into the earth. I got out again, and was told never to say what I’d seen”.

“And what did you see?”

“They were taking bodies down there. People who’d been abducted on the streets, and in the surrounding countryside. They were to be used both as a food supply and for experimentation. Oh God, perhaps I should speak to Kieran. I feel so damned soiled when I recall it all”.

“The Ministry can have that effect”, said Ransey “I don’t regard it as a high point in my life either. There were things I saw … and did … which would shock and horrify a lot of people. Many times it’s made me feel sub-human”.

“It can make you feel as though you don’t belong with the rest of the human race”.

“Yes. All I can say is you must fight that feeling. Kieran would be far better at all this than me. But the Ministry was a strange place. The important thing is, we’re not there now”.

“But I feel partially responsible for everything that’s happening”, said Cloris “If I’d warned everybody, the public, sooner. Warned them what the Ministry were up to, that they were in league with Evil”.

“It is doubtful you would still be alive now if you had”, said Ransey, bluntly “And what use would that be to any of us?”

“You mean, by being here I can atone in some way?”

“Now that really IS Kieran’s department!” Ransey smiled “The fact is what you know has been and will be very useful to us”.

He escorted her to the bottom of the quarterdeck steps, where they bumped into Joby, who was hurtling out of the galley with the scrap-bucket for the goats He apologised curtly and moved on,

“Sorry about that”, said Ransey “Joby gets a bit preoccupied at times”.

“Joby has an incredible inner strength”, said Cloris “He really is the salt of the earth type”.

“You got all that from our Jobe?” said Hillyard, appearing in the doorway to the dining-room.

Cloris smiled and went on up the stairs.

“What was all that about?” Julian barked at Ransey “Why did she want to see you?”

“Don’t be so damn nosey!” said Adam.

“She just wanted to talk about the Ministry”, said Ransey.

“What? Some kind of old Ministry hands reminiscence was it?” said Julian.

“She had to offload some stuff”, said Ransey “The Ministry can really screw you up”.

“It was bad enough living there”, said Hillyard.

“Did she say anything useful?” said Julian.

“Only what we more or less already knew”, said Ransey “That the Ministry were forging some strange alliances, and there was evil stuff going on below the Min HQ”.

“There wasn’t when we lived there”, said Lonts.

“The world’s regressed since then, Lonts”, said Ransey “We don’t know what They’ve been up to there since our time. Cloris was feeling guilty she didn’t tell the public. I pointed out that the Ministry wouldn’t have let her live if she had”.

“What a ghastly thought”, said Adam “Tell Cloris next time to put a lid on the guilt”.

“Yes”, said Julian “We leave Kieran to do all the guilt trip stuff. He enjoys it”.

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