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The oppressive atmosphere increased inevitably within the dankness of the jungle. It was a cheerless place, too quiet and dark for its own good, like being marooned in a remote house with no electricity and no company. Things were hardly jollied up by Ransey's announcement that they had no spare water for washing. To get rid of the mud on themselves they would have to wait until it dried and then brush it off. This was hardly a satisfactory solution, as it left an ugly, itchy brown stain on their skin.
"I have never felt more dirty", said Julian "This whole trip has been nothing but an absolute nightmare".
Finia could only heartily agree. He had changed into white slacks and a quilted jacket for the journey (his idea of expedition gear), and these were now completely ruined. Mud had also got into his wig. In fact it felt as though mud was everywhere.
"It's supposed to be good for the skin", he said, dolefully.
Hillyard had shot some pigeons prior to leaving Mixx's place and wrapped them in foil. Adam proceeded to bake these in the embers of the camp-fire.
"Are they going to take long?" said Ransey "Only I'm starving".
"As long as it takes", Adam snapped "What am I, the token girl around here?"
"I never said that", said Ransey "But until we get the real thing you'll do!"
He slapped Adam's bottom in passing, which had Adam gibbering with rage.
"I don't know why any woman in her right mind would want to join you bunch of misogynists", Adam spat.
Ransey found Lonts standing at the edge of the jungle clearing, staring through the trees at Angel, who was doing nothing in particular as usual. Ransey dragged the boy back into the clearing, and gave him a lecture about roaming off. Lonts, who like everyone else was dirty, hungry and tired, got overwrought and for a moment looked in serious danger of throwing a tantrum.
"I'm only trying to keep an eye on everybody", Ransey protested "It's my job when all's said and done, and that boy never seems to learn that he shouldn't go off on his own".
"I was only over there", Lonts wailed, pointing at the edge of the clearing "You could all see me".
"Hillyard", said Adam "Could you put Lonts's nappy on him and get him to lie down until dinner's ready?"
"Yea alright", Hillyard began rooting around in Adam's bag for the necessary articles.
"I don't want to put that thing on", said Lonts "Angel makes fun of me in it".
"I don't give a damn!" Adam roared "You're wearing it and that's final. One more word out of you Lonts and I shall spank you!"
"Better do as he says Lonts", said Hillyard, softly "He's obviously tired".
"I'm not a baby", said Lonts, tearfully.
"You are when it suits you", said Joby.
Julian emerged back into the clearing, carrying a roll of soft toilet paper.
"Where have you been?" said Ransey, angrily.
"To empty my bowels", said Julian "I trust you had no objection to that?"
"How many times do I have to say that no one should wander off alone round here!" Ransey exclaimed.
"The message has been received and understood", said Julian "But I object to having an audience when I'm performing mankind's most basic task. And that is my final word on the subject".
Tempers were mollified slightly by the meal, which turned out to be surprisingly delicious. The pigeons had a strong nutmeggy taste to them, as this was what the birds largely stuffed themselves with. It didn't alleviate the worry though that their food stocks were getting generally low. They had brought along some of Mixx's packet stuff, but they required water to be added to them, and that would increasingly become a precious commodity if the jungle didn't start offering up a bit more bounty than it was currently doing.
After dinner they put up their tents and were more than happy to retreat under canvas, in spite of the early hour. Jungle nights in these parts were very long, very dark and very quiet. A pretty unpleasant combination, which at times gave a sensation of being buried alive.
"In spite of all the sulking and whingeing by everyone", said Joby to Kieran "I'm glad I'm not alone here".
"I was just wondering when I should suggest turning back", Kieran whispered "We may be close to the discovery of the century, but I don't think it's worth risking starvation for".
"See how we get on tomorrow", said Joby "And aren't you glad I stopped Ransey getting in here with you?"
"Oh he wasn't suggesting that was he?" said Kieran "I sometimes think I have the most zealous head of security any president could ask for".
"It's the jumpiest I've ever seen him and that's saying something", said Joby "Oh God, I keep feeling creepie-crawlies in me blanket. What wouldn't I give for a bed off the ground, with a duvet and pillows on it!"
The following day they made further in-roads into the jungle. They had been walking for several hours without seeing any other glimpse of life before they came across their first positive sign, a waterfall. They decided to pitch camp there, and Kieran fretted again about whether it wouldn't be wisest to turn back.
Bad-will was rampant. To escape Ransey's incessant fussing, Adam took a couple of Lonts's nappies down to the water to wash. He was wringing them out when the boy joined him.
"Come to have another go at me have you?" said Adam.
"What makes you say that?" said Lonts.
"Oh the simple fact that I've not had a civil or friendly world out of you for some time", said Adam "I tried making things up to you in the tent last night, but you bit my head off and said all I did was tell you off".
"I never said that".
"Yes you did actually".
"I didn't mean it", said Lonts, sitting down beside him "It's just that I get frustrated, having to wear those things".
"I know", said Adam "I'd be exactly the same, worse in fact. And I suppose it doesn't help when some miserable old basket like me threatens to lather your butt".
"You were fed up Adam", said Lonts, kissing the older man's shoulder "That's all. And I should've helped you, not carried on".
"It doesn't matter. I understand", Adam nudged him gently "If it's any comfort I don't think of you as a baby all the time. In fact there are many occasions when we are very much man-to-man".
"Do you want me?" Lonts bits his lip in gleeful anticipation.
"I always want you", Adam kissed him.
"Can you hear that noise?" Ransey yelled from above.
"Oh God, what is the matter with him now?" Adam sighed "It's like being on an expedition with a hyperactive guard-dog. He needs sedating".
The noise was one they had least expected to hear in such an uncivilised spot. It was the sound of a party. Glasses clinking and laughter. Some of the voices sounded suspiciously female. They followed the noise through the tangled plants and trees until they came to a large clearing. The house that occupied it looked like it would have been more at home in Atlanta, Georgia, circa 1860. It was large and white, with a front dominated by neo-Grecian pillars. It was splendid but faded, with weeds growing up the pillars and sprouting in large tufts from the stone floor of the terrace. Nonetheless there were definitely people, of both genders, inside. They all glanced at each other nervously and walked towards the building.
They were greeted at the door by a man in liveried uniform with white gloves on his hands. He imperiously asked them who they were.
"The President and his party", said Kieran, by now pretty certain no one in this house would have heard of him.
"The President?" the steward raised a quizzical eyebrow.
"That's right", said Kieran.
"Ahem", the steward cleared his throat and walked across to a set of double doors on his left "The President and his party!"
"We have to go with the tide on this one lads", said Kieran "Come on".
The faded baroque splendour continued in the room to which they were admitted. A group of about two dozen people were just sitting down to dinner at three separate tables. The men were all in dinner jackets, the women were like exotic birds in soft pinks and blues. Most of them dressed in strapless ball-gowns and exposing acres of bosom displaying gaudy jewellery. The lowest age of the group seemed to be about forty-five, and it was a universal but sad truth that all of them had seen better days. The men were flabby and red-faced from drinking too much. The women were better preserved, but only because they gave the impression that their lives were dedicated to this self-preservation. But to what possible point? They were in a decayed house in the middle of the Uncharted Area, seemingly oblivious to how different the world was outside!
Not one member of this extraordinary gathering looked askance at the way Kieran and his men were dressed, which was still pretty scruffy in spite of the fact that they had removed most of the mud. Instead an appreciative ripple ran round the room, and approving murmurs of "the President!" echoed around.
The steward meanwhile had directed two male members of staff in laying up an extra table. Kieran and the others were then seated round it and offered champagne. Little plates containing stuffed peppers were also circulated.
"I think we should get out of here", said Hillyard "I don't like it one bit".
"Seriously weird", said Joby.
"And a complete waste of time", said Julian "The odds are pretty unlikely that you'll get good breeding stock out of this lot. Some of the women might manage it at a push, but they're all getting a bit long in the tooth if you ask me".
"There might be young people around somewhere", said Adam "Even children".
"I hope not", said Kieran, unexpectedly "I don't like the idea of trying to protect a bunch of little girls when we get back to the City. Fully-grown ones would be bad enough".
"He seems to be the one in charge", said Joby, glancing at a rather bewildered-looking individual sitting at the head of one of the tables "There seems to be a lot of deference to him anyway, even if he isn't enjoying it very much".
Somebody tapped a knife against their glass and the room fell silent. The unlikely-looking leader rose to his feet and began to give a speech which he found highly-emotional, even if not a word of it made sense.
"We are the fortunate ones", he said, tearfully "The privileged few. But we must remember that that isn't the case for everyone, and that is why we are here tonight. To help those beneath us in our society less fortunate than ourselves. It is our duty to them, as their ruling class, to see to their spiritual and material welfare".
A murmur of heartfelt approval ran round the room. The leader fiddled with his cuff-links nervously before going on in much the same vein.
"What's he talking about?" Joby hissed.
"... So please dig deep into your pockets and give generously", the man concluded, and sat down.
A basket was circulated in which men dropped silver cigarette cases and cuff-links, and the women shed their jewellery. When the basket reached Kieran's table they all looked at it helplessly. He apologised to the steward that they had nothing valuable on them.
"It is of no consequence", the steward shrugged "These possessions are returned to their owners at the end of the meal. It is a charade we enact every evening". "No one's noticing us, so sit down and explain what's going on here", said Kieran.
"Are you from over the wall?" said the steward, placing the basket on the table and sitting down on one of the chairs.
"Yes we are", said Kieran "How long have you lot been here?"
"Many many years", said the steward "We all crossed at once whilst attending a house-party on one of the Greek islands".
"Everything slipped?" said Kieran "The house as well? Extraordinary. Not often you hear of that".
"We found ourselves here, in the middle of this swamp", said the steward "We have been here ever since. Every evening they all get dressed up and pretend they're at a charity fund-raising dinner".
"Are they mad then?" said Joby, bluntly.
"They were confused", said the steward "They only knew one way of life and that was a pretty shallow one. I don't know how it happened but they got themselves locked into a cycle, a way of doing things, and they can't get out of it. My advice to you is to leave here, forget everything you've seen. The women are old, they are of no use to you now. Nothing can be achieved by making them leave here".
"It looks as though we've had a wasted journey", said Kieran "Right, back we go!"
"If they've been here all this time", said Joby "How do they live?"
"We manage", said the steward "We hunt".
"Hunt what?" said Hillyard "There are no animals here as far as I can see. This place is completely lifeless".
"They go beyond the wall on occasional forays", said the steward, trying to sound as cryptic as possible.
"How?" said Joby.
"Hot-air balloon, remember?" Hillyard muttered.
"That would account for the so-called mythical sightings of women in these parts", said Kieran.
He indicated for his party to rise. As they did so the bewildered-looking leader, obviously remembering grand dinners of old, rose to his feet also and raised his glass in their direction as a toast. The strange house-party gave more murmurs of approval and clapped as Kieran and his men left.
On their way out of the grounds they stopped to pick some melons and sweet potatoes out of the remnants of the badly-cultivated garden. It was then that Hirrid electrified Kieran by announcing that he was staying behind.
"With this lot?" Joby exclaimed "You're madder than I thought".
Kieran tried to argue with Hirrid, but he was so wearied and shell-shocked by the events of the day that he could barely piece his words together. Hirrid had made up his mind. He could no longer countenance the idea of continuing to work for Kieran when things had gone so badly wrong with Hillyard.
"Look, he's just doing this because he wants to be dramatic", said Hillyard "He doesn't know what the hell he's saying".
"You want to stay here?" said Kieran to Hirrid "In this swamp, with a lot of deranged fossils?"
"He'll probably feel right at home", Joby grunted.
Kieran could sadly see the truth in this. The outside world certainly had nothing to offer Hirrid, and from a purely selfish point of view he would be one less problem to deal with. But he had a duty to protect his staff, and he said so.
"From what?" Hirrid exclaimed "I'll be quite safe here. I've got a lot of respect for you Kieran, and I've enjoyed my time in your employment, but I've had enough".
"I will miss you", said Kieran.
"And I you", said Hirrid "I hope you enjoy your retirement when you finally get it".
He turned abruptly and walked back to the house.
"He's not the Hirrid I've known all these years", Kieran sighed "And it's all your damn fault Hillyard!"
"I know I know", said Hillyard.
"Promise me you'll never get mixed up in a serious relationship again", said Kieran "You're like Bluebeard! The world is littered with your burnt-out rejects. Enough is enough!"
"That was a very disturbing day", said Julian, crawling into his tent, where Finia already lay "And an extremely sad one".
"A wasted journey you mean?" said Finia, adjusting a bright orange bandanna around his head.
"I don't know why you don't wear that all the time", said Julian "Far more practical in this heat than a wig".
"My wig's ruined anyway", said Finia "So I might just have to. Anyway, why haven't any of them reproduced, the fossils I mean? And if they did, where are the kids?"
"Fled as soon as they could, if they had any sense", said Julian, removing his shoes "Oh don't ask me Finia! It's all beyond my tired old brain tonight".
Ransey could be heard squelching through the mud outside the tent.
"At least if we haven't got any women here I don't have to worry about being seen in the nude", he said.
"God forbid", Julian sighed "It's a sight for sore eyes at the best of times! How are you getting on with Ransey these days, Finia? You tow were getting rather cosy not so long ago".
"He's o.k", said Finia.
"He's alright, kind", said Finia "But he's not exactly daddy material".
"No", said Julian "More like old woman material. What exactly do you want from this mythical daddy figure anyway?"
"Someone to take care of me", said Finia "To protect me from the world".
"You've got me for all that", said Julian "I don't see why you need to go looking elsewhere".
"There's a bit more to it than that Julian. You don't want my body".
"I thought that would be quite a relief for you after the life you've had! Anyway, it's not a case of me not wanting you in that sense, it's ... well it's just I find it hard to think of you in that way. You're like a son to me, or a daughter to be more accurate I should say".
"The Kiskev Fruitcake is like a son to Adam but it doesn't stop them pawing each other", said Finia.
"You'd hate it if I carried on like that", said Julian "Those two can't leave each other alone. But Adam was always like that. He'd much rather have lap-dogs than an adult relationship. Daft old queen".
"Not jealous by any chance?" Finia smiled.
"Jealous?" Julian exclaimed "Of the way he keeps mauling his cute boys, slobbering over them and muttering mawkish endearments? Of course I am! Rabidly so".
"He does it to you too".
"Yes but I don't get the camp exclamations of 'oh you are my adorable gorgeous boy, let me eat you up' bit. I rather miss out on them", said Julian "Shame you had your cock cut off Finia. Adam would have been a perfect daddy figure for you otherwise".
"No I couldn't hack the competition", said Finia, sliding under his blanket "When I get a daddy I want him all to myself".
"I see what you mean", said Julian, lying down next to him "It's no good going with Adam if you're afraid of crowds!"
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