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Julian stood at the porthole in his cabin, and held onto the edge of it for support. They had been on the unnamed river for a week, and although the countryside hadn't changed much, the weather most certainly had. Driving rain and squally winds had made the temperature plummet, and the river tumultuous. The Indigo was bucking like a bronco, and she now heaved restlessly at anchor in the middle of nowhere. The wind was chasing the black clouds across the sky, and they all felt horribly exposed under the gaze of the harsh slither of moon.
"Here's your supper tray", said Kieran, staggering into the room. He set the tray thankfully on the desk.
"You didn't cook it did you?" said Julian, warily.
"No it was the work of Joby's fair hands", said Kieran "He told me to bring it in to you, that's all".
"He's not still got the hump with me?" Julian exclaimed "Even Lonts doesn't keep up a grudge as long as him!"
"Joby's a proud man. He doesn't take too kindly to being thrashed with a strap".
"It was one switch for heaven's sake", said Julian "He wouldn't have lasted five minutes at our school".
"Too civilised you mean?" said Kieran, facetiously.
"Don't you get sanctimonious with me. You've done far worse to him in your time".
"Changing the subject a moment. The others have asked me to ask you if you can lift the alcohol ban".
"Not a chance", said Julian, firmly.
"It's been a whole week!"
"It'll be as long as I decide it's going to be".
"Aw c'mon Julian, it's New Year's Eve. You can't begrudge us a wee drink on New Year's Eve".
"Alright", Julian conceded, grudgingly "But a 'wee drink' is exactly what it's going to be. One each now, and another at midnight".
"You're all heart".
"Yes I am, and don't you forget it!"
Bengo was lying on the sofa in the saloon, cradling a bowl in his arms. Adam came in and tucked a blanket round him.
"It looks like you've caught a dose of 'flu to me", he said "Not just seasickness. You're running a bit of a temperature".
"That accounts for why my ears feel funny", said Bengo, groggily.
"Great", said Ransey, walking in behind Adam "That means it'll spread like wildfire on here and we'll all get it".
"I'm sorry", Bengo groaned.
"Take no notice of Ransey", said Adam "He's always like this. When Finia got pneumonia up at Wolf Castle, Ransey was busy building his coffin for him!"
Bengo now looked thoroughly alarmed.
"I can't help being concerned when we're miles from a doctor", Ransey snapped.
"We don't need a doctor for 'flu", said Adam "Plenty of rest and fluids, that's the cure, and I can't believe we're all going to get it at once. These things are usually staggered, so the everyday business of the boat can be kept going. Are you sure you wouldn't rather be in your cabin, Bengo?"
"Leave it out!" said Ransey "Would you want to be squashed up in a bunk with Hillyard pawing you when you're feeling under the weather?"
"Yes I see what you mean", Adam sighed.
"I'll sit with him for the time being", said Ransey "You'd better go and check on the youngest, he looked pretty ropey when I went in there just now".
The Youngest had become Ransey's euphemism for Toppy, who had stayed in the bunk below Ransey's since the storm had begun. Adam went into the cabin to find the place in darkness, and Toppy sobbing into his pillow. Adam lit the oil-lamp which swung violently from a hook in the middle of the ceiling.
"I'm afraid, Mr Adam", Toppy blubbed, pathetically "The storm's so rough".
"Let's have a little less of the Mr Adam", said Adam, sitting on the edge of the bunk "I'm not President's Consort anymore. We're all pretty informal around here".
"What do I call Julian though?"
"He tends to like Sir or Your Excellency", said Adam. He broke into a mischievous laugh, and Toppy almost join in "And as for the storm. We've had far worse than this since we set out".
"I don't think Julian wants me here", Toppy cried "I try to stay out of his way, but he still notices me and he scowls".
"Scowl back", said Adam.
"When I'm better I'll try to be useful. I can help Finia with the housework. He says I'll be better at it than Lonts", said Toppy "Except I expect that'll offend Lonts then".
"Nonsense. Lonts can stay in the galley with Joby and me full-time. He works very well with Joby. They understand each other. Lo-Lo can be as brash and exuberant as he likes with him, whereas I'm afraid Finia tends to find him a bit tiresome. I think you'll work perfectly with Finia though".
"Has this boy got out of bed at all today?" said Julian, appearing in the cabin.
"Have a heart Jules, he's not well", said Adam "And the storm's frightening him".
"Little wimp", said Julian.
"Julian for pity's sake, he's very young!"
"Fifteen. Not that young".
"He's a very young fifteen", Adam smoothed Toppy's bedclothes "I'll be back in to see you shortly, Toppy".
Adam then grabbed Julian by the elbow and marched him out into the gangway.
"He's only a little boy at heart. He's led a very sheltered life", Adam whispered.
"Oh well, another one to add to your collection", Julian groaned "You're too soft! Young boys should be treated with as much severity and harshness as possible. The little beasts deserve it. Even you in your more enlightened moments recognise that fact".
"You are such a big, overgrown brat sometimes, Jules", Adam hissed "One day I'm going to put you across my knee and give you the hiding you undoubtedly deserve!"
"Promise?" Julian's eyes sparkled "I'll lend you a paddle!"
"I was too harsh with Lonts when he was Toppy's age", said Adam, jabbing Julian in the chest "And it's something I've regretted ever since".
"It doesn't seem to have done him the slightest bit of harm".
"Maybe not, in the long-term, but Toppy seems to be a very sensitive boy".
"Effeminate you mean", said Julian, unimpressed.
"He's a good little housekeeper. I thought you'd approve of that".
"Maybe, but he needn't think he's going to take to his bunk everytime we have a gust of wind".
"This is a bit more than a gust of wind!" said Adam "I hate it when it's like this. One can't get away from it. I can hear it screeching all the time".
"Never fear", said Julian "At least there's land nearby if we have to abandon ship in a hurry. It's not like being out on the high seas. And if you get too afraid in the night, come into my bed!"
"Hey, I thought His Lordship said only two glasses", said Joby, sitting at the table in the galley with Kieran, who re-filled their glasses with rum.
"And we're only having two glasses", said Kieran, filling them to the top "But he didn't specify what size the measures had to be did he!"
"I feel pissed already", said Joby, in a thick voice.
"It's New Year's Eve. Pretend you're Scottish", said Kieran, taking a substantial sip from his glass "I've had an idea for making use of Julian's rights as Captain. We should ask him to marry us".
"Nah I don't wanna marry Julian".
"He marries us to each other, you eejit".
"We can't get married".
"Why not? We've been together long enough".
"Because we're a coupla fellas that's why!" Joby exclaimed.
"Only you could say that without any trace of irony, Joby!" said Kieran "We have been together, you and I, for ... how many years is it now?"
"About two thousand", said Joby "So what's the point in us getting married? It's not as if we're gonna have kids is it!"
"I'm an old-fashioned boy at heart", Kieran slurred "I've never really approved of living in sin".
"Could've fooled me".
"I want to settle down in me old age".
"Watch the grandchildren grow up?" Joby sniggered.
"Oh well if you're just going to be silly", said Kieran "We might as well go to bed. We'll smuggle the bottle in with us. It'll be safer in there".
"Yeah", said Joby "Julian won't be able to see it".
"Rough up there", said Hillyard, staggering into the galley. His waterproof jacket was drenched, and he was clutching a bowl of eggs for dear life "I don't know how the hens keep laying in this".
He placed the bowl in the sink for safety, and then picked up the half-empty rum bottle.
"I see you've started the New Year's Eve celebrations without me", he said.
"We've just got engaged", said Kieran.
"That so?" said Hillyard.
"Yeah", Joby groaned "You can be best man".
"To me", said Kieran "Joby's the bride. Wee Lonts can be bridesmaid".
"I think you need some kip", said Hillyard, pouring himself a large rum.
"I need to go to the karsey first", said Joby, climbing laboriously to his feet.
In the heads he found Toppy sitting on the floor, hugging his knees and whimpering.
"Wosthemarrer?" said Joby.
"The storm", Toppy sobbed "It never stops. Make it stop. That awful screeching".
"I can't make it stop. We've just gotta sit it out. Come on", Joby helped him to his feet "I'll help you back to your bunk".
He got the boy into his cabin, and pulled back the bedclothes.
"You must think me an awful coward", Toppy exclaimed, sitting down on his bunk "Thank you for not making fun of me".
"No sweat", said Joby "I've had years of practice from dealing with Lonts".
"How much longer is the storm going to last?"
"I dunno. As I said we just have to sit it out. They tend to blow 'emselves out eventually. Try and sleep. Chances are it'll bugger off in the night".
"I hope so", said Toppy, emotionally.
He fell asleep eventually out of sheer exhaustion, but then had the misfortune to wake up abruptly soon after midnight. The lamp had been extinguished in the cabin, and in the chilly darkness he could make out the bulge in the overhead mattress where Ransey lay, and in the bunk opposite Hillyard lay on his back with his hands on his chest, like a stone knight on a tomb.
With dismay Toppy realised he needed to visit the heads. He sat up gently and put his foot on the cabin floor. Occasionally the entire boat gave a violent lurch as another squall hit it, and the incessant noise of the wind made it impossible to feel at all relaxed.
He reached the cabin door and pulled it open. The topside doors at the end of the gangway rattled constantly as though someone was on the other side, trying to wrench them open. He could also hear a scrabbling noise coming from within the boat itself, as though there was a giant rat somewhere making its presence felt. Out of the gloom he noticed shapes forming on the ground, and on the steps leading up to the deck.
It was impossible to count them. Hundreds of spiders were forming out of the darkness, spiders as big as fists, so large that their every movement could be heard on the woodwork. They were swarming everywhere, and some were even trying to climb up his bare legs. Toppy held onto the brass hand-rail that lined the walls on either side and screamed with pure terror.
"There is nothing here, Toppy", said Adam, who was trying to calm him and ease his fingers away from the rail "It was just a bad dream. We all get them".
Toppy eventually opened his eyes and looked down at the floor. The spiders were gone, and instead he found himself being watched by the others from various doorways. He also realised from the warm sticky streak running down his leg that he'd peed himself. He could have screamed again, out of sheer embarrassment this time.
He stood numbly as Adam removed his wet pants, and cleaned him up with paper towels.
"Alright, you can all stop gawping at him", Adam snapped at the others "Lonts! Come here and take Toppy into the galley. Give him a drink and calm him down".
As Lonts was wearing his nappy under a t-shirt, Adam rightly deduced that this might make Toppy feel less embarrassed.
"Come along, Toppy", said Lonts, and he firmly frog-marched the boy into the galley.
"Don't you dare say a word to or about him, Jules", said Adam, sharply.
"I don't need to", said Julian "You must be thinking the same thoughts as me about how he's too sensitive and highly-strung, or you wouldn't be telling me off in such a touchy way".
"Just try and have a bit of understanding", said Adam "He's been living in a swamp for the past five years, with just one other person for company. And now suddenly he's plunged headfirst into living with us lot. He needs time to adapt".
"For crying out loud Adam, we have enough problems without having to provide a counselling service for every nutter we pick up. After our experiences with Uddle and Etyn I am understandably wary of taking on anyone who seems in the slightest bit iffy, and that boy is definitely iffy".
"No he isn't!" Adam exclaimed, hoarsely "He's just sensitive that's all. He reminds me of how I was at his age, and irony of ironies, the only person who made the slightest attempt to understand me was you!"
"Exactly!" said Julian "And I didn't do it by pampering you".
"Yes you did actually", Adam smiled.
"Well if you didn't insist on trying to pre-empt my every word, you would know that I was going to suggest the boy moves into the spare bunk above Finia's. Those two seem to have a rapport together, and Finia may be able to help him".
"Oh Jules!" Adam hugged him impulsively.
"You are absurd, Adam".
"I know, but it is kind of you. But you'll try not to frighten him too much won't you? Only the poor thing's scared stiff of you".
"Good", said Julian, abruptly "That means he'll try and be as unobtrusive as possible. You'd better go and rescue him from Lonts. Happy New Year".
Now that the grey dawn had arrived Toppy felt it might be safe to look across at Julian's desk. But no, the skull still looked as forbidding as ever. He hadn't slept since being moved into Julian's cabin a few hours before. Julian was terrifying enough, but the skull haunted him. He could feel its baleful dark sockets boring into him, even when he was cowering under the blanket.
He had thought it might be easier to cope with it in the dawn light, but this seemed to make it worse, as he could see it more clearly. He didn't know whether it was his imagination or what, but it seemed to be positioned at exactly the right angle for him to get the full glare of its lifeless gaze. He wondered if Julian would notice if he turned it to face the wall or the door, away from him. He was too scared of disturbing Julian to risk getting out of bed and doing it now, but perhaps sometime during the day, when Julian was elsewhere on the boat.
A short while later Julian got out of bed and stretched luxuriously. Toppy watched him, half-hidden by his blanket, quickly prepared to shut his eyes if Julian glanced in his direction, but he didn't. Julian slopped some cold water into his wash-bowl, and then slipped his nightshirt from around his shoulders. He caught it around his waist and tied the sleeves together to secure it in place. He then began to wash vigorously.
From elsewhere on the boat came noises of movement. Plenty of coughing and snorting, grunts of 'morning', and footsteps along the gangway.
The door slid open and Adam sidled into the room, wearing his bath-robe. He sprinted over to Julian and slapped him hard on the bottom, before Julian could dry his face and tell what was going on. When Julian had sorted himself out he pushed Adam against the desk and kissed him with much vigour.
"How's the boy been?" asked Adam, eventually.
"Do you know something?" Julian sighed "I thought for one moment you might have actually called in to see me, foolish person that I am!"
Julian adjusted his nightshirt and stormed out of the cabin.
"Jules!" Adam cried, but Julian didn't return.
The day that followed was one of misery for Adam. It was astonishing that even on a small tugboat like the Indigo it was hard to see someone if they didn't want to see you. He badly wanted to talk to Julian alone but it was an impossibility. Instead he spent the vast majority of the day in the galley cooking. No sooner had lunch been despatched than it was time to start thinking of dinner. On top of that Joby and Lonts were not the greatest of assistants, and seemed to spend most of the day hitting each other with tea-towels.
Adam got a brief respite from his labours late afternoon, but then found he had to spend it soothing Bengo, who was feeling worse than ever and reacting to illness like most healthy men, with abject terror and self-pity.
"Depressing having him lying around in the saloon", said Joby "It's like having an old person on-board".
"No, the old person is me", said Adam, wearily "Looking after you lot makes me feel about a hundred".
He went into his cabin and sat on the edge of his bunk for a while, folding, unfolding and refolding one of Lonts's clean nappies. Kieran came in to see him eventually.
"Don't take any notice of any of us", he said "You know what selfish bastards men are".
"It's not fair, Patsy", said Adam, tearfully "I ask a perfectly innocent question and Julian spends the rest of the day punishing me for it. He's so bloody unreasonable!"
Kieran sat down next to him and put his arm round him.
"Normally it's you telling the rest of us that", said Kieran "Where's your usual sensible attitude of just laughing at the silly bugger?"
"I don't know", Adam sighed "I feel so tired. I don't know what's the matter with me".
"All sorts of things", said Kieran "Firstly, we're stuck out in the middle of nowhere, with no idea when it's going to turn into somewhere. Secondly, there are ten of us holed up on this tub, so we're bound to get on each other's nerves, and thirdly, are you sure you haven't got a dose of Bengo's flu?"
"All in all not the cheeriest way to start the New Year", said Adam.
"I'm beginning to think we should've stayed on the Beyond", said Kieran "At least then we had some vague idea where we were going, and it was warm!"
"And Dalman after you?" said Adam "I don't think so somehow".
"I know exactly how you're feeling", said Kieran "I feel responsible because you're all doing this for me".
"Oh Patsy ..."
"I can't help it. I've been trying to get some chance of being alone with Joby all day, but it's been hopeless. He's always so damn busy all the time".
"At least you'll see him in bed tonight".
"Big deal! He'll start snoring as soon as his head touches the pillow".
"Oh lor", Adam laughed, and they both fell back onto the bunk "We're both in a bit of a fix aren't we?"
"You should go and talk to Julian now", said Kieran "I think he's in his cabin, and as far as I know Finia's in the saloon talking to Bengo, so now's your chance".
On his way to Julian's cabin Adam was distracted by the sight, through the saloon door, of Bengo stroking the pink satin ribbons on Finia's nightgown.
"You're so beautiful", Bengo was saying, with a noticeable trace of awe in his voice "Just like how I imagine a girl would be".
"That's what I try to achieve", said Finia, softly.
"I think I'd have liked women, if I'd been born into another time", said Bengo "But you're so nice I guess it doesn't matter".
Uh-oh, thought Adam, another tangled little web was being woven. Hillyard had better watch out.
He went into Julian's cabin, and was dismayed to find him sitting at his desk, with Ransey next to him.
"I didn't realise you were having a meeting", Adam stammered "I'll come back some other time".
"No it's alright, we're just finishing", said Ransey, picking up his books "There's not much to discuss at the moment anyway. We just have to keep on going as we are".
"Under a leaden grey sky", said Adam.
"Feels like a coffin lid coming down doesn't it?" said Ransey, pushing his chair back "It's been making me pine for the island, or Easter in Pepuaah. Do you remember that time, Adam?"
"Yes", said Adam "It all seems like such a long time ago".
"It was", said Julian, shortly.
Ransey said goodnight to them and left the room. Adam hovered, uncertain whether to stay or not. Julian suddenly reached out his hand and pulled him towards him.
"I've been hoping you'd come and see me all day", he said.
"I wanted to", said Adam "But cooking three meals a day for ten people takes up quite some time".
"It shouldn't", said Julian, pulling him on to his lap "You've got two assistants to help you".
"A fat lot of use they are!" said Adam "They've done nothing but muck about. What have you been doing all day?"
"Stuck up on deck for a lot of it", said Julian "Looking at an endless vista of flat, flooded marshland on either side of us. I thought travelling without a map here would be exciting. Instead it's rather tedious. We have no idea how long this landscape goes on for".
"I suppose I rather stuck my foot in it this morning", said Adam "It was you I was coming to see. It was just natural to ask about Toppy whilst I was here".
"It doesn't matter now", said Julian "It was my fault, resenting having someone else to worry about. I didn't want to lose you to yet another person".
"I don't think Lonts would be too pleased if I started paying too much attention to Toppy. Anyway, if I did that I might lose Lo-Lo to you".
"Bloody confusing round here isn't it?"
"And going to get more so I expect".
"Adam!" Julian gasped "Look at that!"
The skull on the desk was radiating a green, phosphorescent-like haze. The whole object seemed to pulse like a living organism.
"What on earth's it doing?" said Adam.
Julian reached out to touch it, but Adam grabbed his hand.
"For heaven's sake don't", he said "We don't know what it is".
As they watched the throbbing stopped and the haze died down, until eventually the skull was as normal again.
"I don't know what the hell that was", said Julian "But I vote we get rid of that thing pretty pronto-ish".
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