Go back to previous chapter
Bengo was sitting in the crook of an overhanging tree, looking through a pair of binoculars at the river ahead. Below him on the forward deck Hillyard and Julian were watching him intently.
"Is there anything on the near horizon?" said Julian, shading his eyes against the sun.
"No, just more of the same", Bengo shouted down.
"O.K, you can come down now", Julian replied.
Hillyard watched proudly as Bengo climbed with great agility out of the tree.
"It must be love", Julian drawled "You're gazing at him as adoringly as Adam looks at Lonts".
"I just enjoy being with him", said Hillyard "I've never been with someone so easy-going before, such fun. I keep expecting him to start nagging me or whining about something, like Hirrid always did. But he doesn't. It's terrific".
"You stayed with Hirrid for far too long", said Julian "He gave you a jaundiced view of relationships".
Bengo reached the deck, and paused to clean the binoculars on his t-shirt.
"He seems tidier", said Julian "Must be his new hair-style. Was it you who hacked it off at the shoulders?"
"Finia did it last night. I think it makes him look even more hunky. What do you think?"
"He's certainly a lot less Neanderthal", Julian admitted.
"It's swamp-land packed on either side of us for as far as is visible", said Bengo, handing the binoculars back to Julian "Nothing else".
"Dispiriting thought", said Julian "Perhaps you would be so kind to find a lookout post everyday, and keep a sharp scan for anything out of the norm?"
"Sure", said Bengo.
"Good", Julian turned and went below.
"I never know what to make of him", said Bengo "His moods seem to change so sharply. One minute he's hard like flint, the next I think he's all gentlemanly and retiring".
"A bit of everything, like all of us", said Hillyard "He's alright as long as you don't give him too much rope, 'cos then he'll only try and choke you with it!"
Julian marched into the heads only to find Joby there, sitting on the lavatory with the lid down.
"Fucking hell", Joby wiped his face hurriedly with the back of his hand "There's never any privacy on this boat. None at all".
"What are you weeping in here for?"
"Fuck off, Julian".
"That's a nice way to talk to your beloved Captain!" said Julian "Bligh would have keelhauled you for that!"
"I'm sorry", Joby mumbled "I'm just a bit upset".
"That much is obvious. Do you want me to fetch Auntie Adam for you, or would you prefer Tinkerbell?"
"No, I'm alright, just everything got to me that's all".
"I don't see why. You haven't got a man's death on your conscience".
"You did the right thing. Exactly the right thing. You put the lives of your own people before his, and that's the way it should be. Kieran was saying only this morning that you showed strong leadership".
"Everybody's been very supportive", said Julian "Ransey even tried to put his arm round me earlier. It was the most frightening experience of my life! So what's setting you off, anything in particular?"
"Just a backlog of everything", said Joby "Relief after Adam's operation. Still feel humiliated after what Uddle did to me, which I know is daft but I can't help it. Worried about Kieran, which is nothing unusual. Upset because no one'll believe I saw that person on the footbridge. Shell-shocked after last night. Angry because of what Etyn did to Lonts".
"Yes, that does seem rather enough to be going on with", said Julian "You need to catch up with yourself. Sort out this maelstrom of emotions. I prescribe a day's bed-rest to be going on with".
"That won't go down well. The others might think I was milking it".
"No they won't. You never gave yourself a chance to recover mentally after the incident with Uddle. Remember how Hillyard felt after Tamaz and his crew beat him up? And what happened to you was more jolting psychologically. Hark at me, psychology on tap! Who'd have thought it!"
"What about what you've been through though?"
"I've got Adam to help me. Why isn't Kieran helping you?"
"He does, but I feel stupid keep going on about Uddle. He went through far worse with Angel at the Loud House that time, and he put it behind him so quickly".
"Well we can't all be visionaries with phenomenal inner spiritual strength can we?" said Julian, sarcastically.
"Oh he has his moments of doubt too", said Joby.
"I'm relieved to hear it! Now come on, off there, I want to use it".
The next few days passed routinely. Bengo went up into the trees every morning, and came down again a short while later to report that everything was "much the same". Occasionally Hillyard and Ransey went ashore into the swamp to shoot pigeons for fresh protein, but otherwise they all mainly just ate and slept, and steered the boat ever onwards.
The only thing that ever changed was the width of the river. In some places it was so narrow that the trees on either side of the bank almost met overhead, making them feel as though they were enclosed in a rather murky aquarium. Sometimes the swamp was so silent that it felt as though the noise of the Indigo's engine and propeller could be heard all over the world.
"River has now widened again to a reasonable width", Julian recorded in his log "All of us are immensely relieved. Couldn't bear the thought of getting wedged in here. I'm sure none of us would be too thrilled at the prospect of doing a Humphrey Bogart and trying to haul the damn thing out physically! I live in the great hope that at some point we will come upon something to break the monotony. Preferably no more five-headed worms though!"
They stood on deck the next morning, watching a posse of alligators wallowing lazily in the mud on the shore.
"Look at 'em", said Joby "Evil bloody lot".
The others didn't speak. Lonts, Kieran and Bengo were morbidly fascinated by these grim-faced relics of the Prehistoric age. It was hard not to get paranoid and assume that the reptiles seemed to be congregating in ever larger numbers the further up river they went.
"What's going on here?" said Julian, appearing on deck.
"Nothing's going on", Joby replied.
"Exactly!" Julian exclaimed "There are jobs to be done around here. I want you and Lonts to give the saloon a good clean for a start".
"Does it matter if it's cleaned or not?" said Joby, testily.
"Yes. To me. And if it matters to me it should certainly matter to you", he turned to Kieran "And it's high time you did some washing".
"I thought we were back on a water shortage", said Kieran.
"We can still spare enough to wash underpants", said Julian.
"What everybody's?" said Kieran, in dismay "You sadist!"
"There's a pair of rubber gloves in the galley if you wanna borrow 'em", said Joby.
"We're supposed to be doing this together, Joby", said Lonts, as he laboriously scraped an ancient carpet-sweeper across the saloon floor "I'm not your slave".
"Yes you are", said Joby, who was lying on the sofa, reading a book and scratching his balls.
He had unearthed a thin paperback from the back of the bookcase which bore the title "Debreeching: Twelves Tales Concerning The Discipline Of The Same". The front cover showed a sketch of a man bent over the back of a chair with his trousers round his ankles, being caned by someone off-screen.
"This isn't fair", Lonts wailed.
"Oh shut up and get on with it", said Joby "I'm trying to read".
"Read what?" said Lonts, peering suspiciously at the cover "Is it about people being punished? Julian reads a lot of those. I can't understand why anyone would want to write a whole book about that".
"There are a lot of sad gits around", said Joby.
"If they'd all been punished as often as I have they wouldn't find anything enjoyable about it".
"Oh yes they would! Now finish that or I'LL do some damage to you".
Lonts flung the carpet-sweeper aside and stood glaring at Joby, arms akimbo.
"I said get on with it!" Joby bellowed.
Lonts flew at him and wrestled him off the sofa, until they both landed on the floor. They rolled around for some time, pummelling and tickling each other. Eventually Lonts got the upper hand and sat astride Joby's back, alternately tickling his waist and slapping the tops of his legs.
"Don't want to spoil the fun girls, but Julian's heading this way", said Kieran, standing over them with a bowl of damp washing in his arms "And he's under the mistaken impression that you've nearly finished in here".
"If you'd get this lunatic off me it might be a help", said Joby, who was trying to keep his face out of the carpet.
"Remind me to do it to you sometime", Kieran laughed, as Lonts dismounted.
"At least you won't squash the fucking life out of me", said Joby, getting to his feet breathlessly.
"This isn't good!" Julian thundered, from the doorway "I came in here expecting to find this place spotless, and it looks worse than before you started! And what are you doing in here, Scrubber? Out!"
"Is there anywhere on this boat I am allowed to go?" said Kieran "I keep getting thrown out of places".
"Try and make sure you thoroughly rinse all the soap powder out this time", said Julian.
"I've put extra in yours!" said Kieran, and he left the room haughtily.
"I wonder who Yorick was", said Adam, looking at the human skull which was now at home on Julian's desk.
"I don't know", said Julian, who was washing himself out of a china bowl "Some hapless soul who wound up in the swamp I expect. Goodness knows where Etyn got it from, unless he just fished it out of the water or the mud-flats on the side".
Kieran walked in, carrying a heap of clean towels.
"About time", Julian snapped, snatching one from him "Perhaps if you spent a bit less time gossiping with your boyfriend and more time working, things would get done more efficiently".
"Oh go and boil your head!" Kieran exclaimed.
"Take no notice, Patsy", Adam picked up the debreeching book which had also found a home on Julian's desk "He's obviously been exciting himself too much with this stuff".
"Takes all sorts", said Kieran.
"I got it from Joby actually", said Julian.
"Joby?" said Adam "That's not normally his scene".
"Just shows how much you know", said Julian "I bet he would relish a sound thrashing, the way he feels at the moment. The Victorians firmly believed in the idea of corporal punishment as therapy. You should heartily approve, Tinkerbell, being Catholic".
"I can't see it helping Joby terribly much", said Adam.
"Anyway, Lonts has beaten you to it", said Kieran, mischievously "Literally. He was giving Joby a good going-over earlier. You just missed it, Julian".
"Goodness, I bet that was a sight for sore eyes", said Julian.
He was interrupted by a whistling noise coming from the voice-tube. He unplugged it, and listened to what Ransey had to say from the poop-deck.
"O.K, I'll be right up", he said, replacing the stopper "Ransey says we've got a change of scenery coming up. The river is widening out into a lake and he thinks there might be some buildings on the far side. He's putting Bengo back up in the trees to check things out".
"It's not marked on the maps the Governor gave us", said Kieran, as the Indigo steamed in alongside a grand-looking waterfront. Spotless white steps flowed up to the pillared entrance of a large building that looked like the guest-house of the gods on Mount Olympus.
They shut the engines, weighed anchor and climbed out onto the steps. All of them went up to the entrance cautiously, uncertain of what reaction they were going to get. There was no doorway at the top as such, the pillars led directly into a darkened hallway with a brown marble floor. The most striking aspect of the entire place was the cleanliness. As though a hundred slaves worked flat out on the scrubbing and polishing of it everyday.
Out of the pristine gloom stepped a young boy, aged about fifteen. He was attractive, with dark hair and a solid sprinkling of freckles over his nose. He wore a black jacket and trousers, with an immaculate white shirt and matching gloves. He looked like the star pupil at an exclusive school.
"Sorry to disturb you", said Julian, stepping to the head of his motley crew "But we were wondering if you could spare us some fresh water".
Hillyard held up the empty barrel that he was carrying.
"If you could give us a top-up", Julian continued "We will be on our way as soon as we can".
"I'll have to ask Pendor", said the boy, nervously "This is his place, you see".
"We only want some water", said Julian, testily.
"Please give Pendor our apologies", said Adam, stepping in hurriedly "And reassure him that we will be on our way as soon as we can".
The boy nodded and walked through a set of chocolate-coloured doors at the far end.
"What a performance!" Julian exclaimed "Anyone would think we were asking if we could roger the boot-boy!"
"Don't go upsetting them as soon as we arrive, Jules", Adam sighed "We need their help. They might be the only source of fresh water for many a mile".
"Dear God, I do hate having to beg", said Julian.
"And the rest of us love it, of course!" said Joby.
"Such a striking-looking place", said Adam, taking off his sun-hat and fanning himself with it "More like a temple than a home. I'd love to see over the rest of it".
"Can I help you?" said Pendor, approaching through the inner doorways. Aged thirty-ish, slim, with dull hair the colour of old leaves, he would have been completely nondescript if it wasn't for his long eyelashes and pronounced cheekbones.
"I was just commenting on what a handsome place you have here", said Adam "Did you design it yourself?"
"Adam!" Julian, exclaimed, in exasperation "We merely wish to take some fresh water ... erm ... Pendor".
"Toppy will show one of you the way to the kitchen", said Pendor.
The black-suited boy approached Hillyard, who followed him cautiously as though he was uncertain he would ever see the rest of them again.
"Who's in charge here?" said Pendor, and his gaze rested on Kieran "You I suppose. I've seen your face on enough bank-notes".
"Not these days", said Kieran.
"Thought as much", said Pendor, brusquely "So who is then?"
"I am", said Julian.
"Would you like to join me in a glass of wine?" said Pendor "I don't get many visitors out this way, so it'd be an honour".
"Sure", said Julian.
"Your crew can wait here", said Pendor, and he led the way back through the inner door. Julian followed.
"Bloody marvellous", said Joby, who was angry that Kieran had been given such short shrift "Some leader Julian is! You wouldn't have buggered off and ignored us like that, Adam".
"That's just Julian I'm afraid", said Adam "It wouldn't have occurred to him that we might get offended".
"As we're nothing but a bunch of peasants", said Kieran.
"Adam's not a peasant!" said Joby, indignantly.
"Now don't get offended on my account", said Adam "I've had nearly fifty years to get used to Julian's little ways. As soon as Hillyard returns with the water we'll all go back to the Indigo, and leave His Captainship to fend for himself".
Pendor's inner sanctum was impressive, even to Julian, who in his time had designed all manner of house interiors, and had lived in some pretty grand places as a child. There were no further walls and doors as such. Areas were partitioned by silk and net curtains, or split on different levels and reached by wide shallow steps. Furniture was kept at a minimum, carpets were hung on the walls not the floors, and the whole place gave the impression of having been designed and lived in by a man who wanted an inviolate sanctuary against the world.
"He's not been President for some time now has he?" said Pendor, pouring out what Julian considered to be a niggardly measure of wine.
"He abdicated a few years back", said Julian.
"Yes, not cut out for it you see", said Pendor "A real man never abandons his calling".
"To be fair it was a lot of responsibility for one so young", said Julian "And he never asked for it in the first place".
"I expect you're wondering why I choose to live out there?"
Julian shrugged, as though the matter was of extreme indifference to him.
"I don't like the world", Pendor went on "It's a brutal, sickening place. So I created my own. My haven here. I originally wanted to charter a luxury cruise-ship and just sail around the world, putting into dock at tropical places, and paid for by men with a similar mentality to my own, and with the necessary money of course. But the longer I thought about it the less the idea appealed to me. I foresaw myself being holed up with a lot of fractious and spoilt rich people, unable to get rid of them again. So I came out here, and created a place solely for myself".
"You live here alone?"
"Apart from Toppy, my house-boy", said Pendor "This is a little paradise here. The surrounding countryside is rich in produce, and we live here quite satisfactorily. What brings you out here?"
"We are doing almost what you originally intended to do", said Julian, taking a sip of his wine and wincing at the sweetness of it "Sailing around the world. We came up the Beyond River to escape from the outside world. Have you heard that Gorth is dead?"
"Yes, I keep in touch with my stockbroker in the City via a handset", said Pendor "He informed me recently that Tamaz has now taken over. It makes me more glad than ever that I came out here. The will be mass bloodshed in the City before long".
"There was a lot of that sort of talk in the Village of Stairs", said Julian.
"Tell me", said Pendor "Do you believe that Kieran is really the so-called Vanquisher of Evil?"
"All I know is that there is something remarkable about him", Julian sighed "Quite what that is I wouldn't like to describe. It's not something that can be put into words".
"Then why is he choosing to hide himself away, instead of avenging Gorth's death?"
"Every man has a right to peace, and he is searching for his. I have always strongly believed that one cannot help others if one doesn't first help oneself".
"Quite", said Pendor.
"So I'm suddenly the villain of the piece am I?" said Julian, following Adam into the galley on the Indigo a short while later.
"That is putting it mildly", said Adam "Marching off and abandoning us like that, as though we weren't fit to be in civilised company!"
"Don't be absurd", said Julian "I'm the Captain, it's only right he should have wanted to vet me first. Am I now going to get a long spiel on worker's rights?"
"Joby was practically singing 'a la lanterne' earlier", said Adam.
"Hardly anything new", said Julian "Anyway, for your information we've all been invited into Pendor's home tonight for a bath".
"A bath?" Adam exclaimed.
"Yes, he has one of those big Roman-style efforts. And I happened to mention that we haven't been able to shower much on this trip, not properly anyway, and he's invited us all ashore for a bath and a bit of a nosh. Think of it as like a glorified pool-party", said Julian "Oh don't look so po-faced, Ada. Never look a gift-horse in the mouth, that's what I say. It also means a free meal, and anything that doesn't put an added strain on our rations is to be welcomed. And just think how nice it will be to wash properly in all those places that have gone neglected for so long!"
"Oh very well", Adam sighed.
"And you'll get to see the rest of his house", said Julian, putting his arm round Adam's shoulders "That should satisfy the nouveau riche in you".
"Go to hell!" Adam cried, and then burst out laughing.
"I can't wait to frolic in a hot tub with you again. It's been quite some time", said Julian "And who knows? That delicious little house-boy of his may get his kit off too. Either that or we'll both have to give Lonts a good seeing-to".
"Hm", Adam tried to look disapproving but couldn't "Well it certainly promises to be interesting!"
Go forward to next chapter
Return to Sarah Hapgood's Strange Tales and Strange Places web site