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"I wasn't expecting this town to be quite so sophisticated", said Kieran, standing at the window of his hotel-room "I thought it would be all fish soup and chewing on the bladder of a whale. But this hotel's quite smart".
"It's popular for conferences apparently", said Joby, sitting morosely on the sofa "Ideal for executive jerks to think deeply away from it all. Male bonding in a remote place, that sort of thing. We should be experts at it by now".
"I wish you'd stop sulking", said Kieran "We're warm, we're eating decent food and we can see daylight. What more do you want?"
"The sight in my other eye, that's what I want!"
"You heard what Adam said, it's a temporary hysterical reaction. Some people have been known to go completely blind from it".
"Oh so I should be grateful should I?"
"No, just stop moaning!" Kieran yelled "At least you didn't go grey like Hillyard did. At least we're all still alive".
"Is this a private slaughter or can anyone join in?" said Adam, walking into the room.
"What are you doing in here?" Joby growled.
"I popped in to see Patsy", said Adam "I'm not going to come in to see you am I? Not when you're in such a foul mood".
"Have you left the baby alone?" said Joby, in an accusing tone of voice.
"No I haven't", said Adam, irritably "Hillyard's taken him over the street to that little restaurant. They do huge pancakes with syrup apparently. I think they were also going to call in at the outfitters, get us all some new clothes. Julian and Finia have gone shopping too".
"What are they paying with?" said Kieran "I don't think the bank's open today, for some unknown reason".
"President's credit", said Adam "The same rules apply in Stokva as they do in the City. If you haven't got a lot, then make sure you know someone important who has. Have you been onto the Ministry yet?"
"I sent the boot-boy down to the telegraph office with a short note saying we were all well", said Kieran, lighting a cigarette "And asking them to get an air-buggy to us as soon as they possibly could. I bet I'm in trouble, buggering off for so long".
"Will you tell them about the Ghoomers?"
"I feel I should, particularly as it seems to be easier for those people to get out than I thought. And if I don't then the rumours about the existence of real women will only get all out of proportion, and I really don't want to see anymore of those headless crucifixions".
"What if they capture one and exhibit her?" said Adam "Think what a draw she'd be in the City".
"Not my problem", said Kieran, abruptly "Knowing what we know about them they can look after themselves. I'm not giving such beasts Ministry protection. When Gorth takes over of course he can do what he likes. Make one his consort if he's mad enough".
"How many times have I told you about smoking in bedrooms?" said Joby "You're determined to piss me off today".
"Oh run off with a Ghoomer, Joby", Kieran sighed.
"That's probably what you're hoping I'll do", Joby snarled.
"Dear dear", Adam tutted "We are in a filthy mood today. You carry on like that Joby and I'll be tempted to put you out with the rubbish".
"I've got an idea for trying to stop the Ghoomers and all their demonic friends", said Kieran "And that is, get the Ministry to organise a task-force. Go behind the wall and down the tunnels and destroy them all somehow. Fill the underground places with poisoned gas perhaps".
"Hopeless", said Joby "You'd probably never find all the entrances. I expect they've got holes all over the Uncharted Area, like Swiss cheese. And how would you get blokes to destroy women these days?"
"Show them their handiwork, the gallows", said Adam, quietly.
There was a commotion of voices outside the door and then Hillyard walked in, followed by Lonts and Ransey. All were carrying large soft paper parcels.
"Have you cleared out their entire stock?" said Kieran.
"We had a go", said Hillyard "It was great fun. We just went in and scooped stuff off the shelves. Whole heaps of shirts and trousers, and the magic words 'send the bill to the Ministry'. Almost as good as sex".
"They'll definitely be glad to see the back of us when I abdicate", said Kieran, joining in the frenzy of tearing paper off the bundles.
"I doubt you'll find anything to fit you properly", said Hillyard, as Kieran tried on an oversized shirt "But they don't do children's sizes anymore".
"Ha bloody ha", said Kieran.
"How did you get hold of these?" said Joby, pulling a wad of nappies out of one bundle.
"They keep a few in stock for old men suffering from incontinence", said Ransey "I think Lonts was a bit annoyed we took those too".
"I'm not", said Adam, taking them off Joby "It's far too stressful only having one to our name".
"I don't need them", said Lonts, sulkily "I haven't messed in ages".
"You've been very good indeed", said Adam "But it's nice to have them here, just in case".
"I don't suppose anyone thought of picking up some underpants?" said Joby.
"What's the matter with you today?" said Hillyard, aggressively "Do you think you're the only one round here with a brain cell?"
"A brain cell is the right way to describe Joby", said Kieran.
"Here!" Ransey hurled a pile of underclothes in Joby's direction "We didn't check sizes, just picked up as many as we could. Small, medium, large, extra large. And I expect there's even a Joby size in there somewhere".
"What's that supposed to mean?" said Joby.
"We really should stop being unkind to Joby", said Adam.
"Why?" said Kieran.
"Because he's been half-blinded that's why".
"The way he's carrying on I'm tempted to knock his other eye out too", said Kieran.
"Oh fucking brilliant!" said Joby "Where's the Saint Kieran bit when we need it most?"
"He only comes out when he's had a shave", said Kieran, rubbing his face ruefully.
"I recommend the barber's down the street", said Ransey "After the way we've been living, to be handed a warm towel just for your face feels like debauched luxury".
"Pats doesn't need a barber", said Adam "I'll pop in again later and do it".
The bank, as they later discovered, only opened in the afternoons. So Joby visited it, drew out some cash, and then took Lonts to watch him winning at the card-tables in the bar. This was Joby's idea of babysitting, so that Adam could have his turn at being alone with Kieran.
"Michael Flatley entered the Guinness Book Of Records doing this", said Kieran, performing a nimble-footed jig in the cold afternoon sunlight pouring through his window "He could do about three trillion taps a second, or something like that anyway".
"They said a similar thing about Nijinsky", said Adam, lying under a single sheet on the bed "I find it very hard to believe such claims. After all, how do they count the taps if he's going that fast?"
"They must have had a way I suppose", Kieran broke off from his impromptu cabaret to put another log on the bedroom fire "I wonder if Joby's made his fortune yet".
"He certainly seemed in a better mood when he left", said Adam "I swear I almost saw him smile at one point. Did you give him a good seeing-to?"
"How did you guess?"
"No one understands men better than I do. I've made them my life's work", said Adam "He's very lucky to have you".
"I doubt he sees it that way sometimes", said Kieran, climbing back into the bed.
"Oh I think so", said Adam, slipping his arms round him "If he didn't have you I dread to think how he'd have turned out. A miserable little git would be putting it mildly. Like some of the ones you see around the Ministry. Nothing in their lives but their dreary jobs, endlessly moaning and seeing the world as a conspiracy against them".
"I know just the sort you mean", said Kieran "There's one in particular. I'm never entirely sure what he does at the H.Q, but he helps serve the drinks at large functions sometimes. He makes my skin crawl. He has a way of looking at you when you ask him to do something that comes across as downright vicious".
"I recognise the one", said Adam "He has this horribly defeated way of walking, sort of hunched-shouldered. He sidles around, glaring at people. He hates me! A couple of times now I've asked a favour of him and he's completely ignored me. Turned his back on me once and started talking to someone else".
"You should've told me", said Kieran "I'd have made sure he was reprimanded. That's dumb insolence, and you are the President's consort".
"No point Pats", Adam sighed "The poor old bastard's ill. Not right in the upper storey. There's a lot of it about, think of our old neighbour, and Power with his windowless house".
"Even so ..."
"Chances are the Grim Reaper will carry him off before long. Particularly as he lost the will to live years ago, if he ever had it in the first place".
"And with any luck he'll be entirely Gorth's problem soon", said Kieran "It'll be nice to retire to Wolf Castle, live in a place that's not a glorified bus terminus, with complete strangers milling around all the time. I expect you'll feel safer where Lonts is concerned too".
"Yes, sometimes it does feel as though I should put him on toddler's reins", Adam laughed "Is it just going to be us at the Castle? Are you taking any staff there?"
"Well originally I was going to have Hirrid running the house", said Kieran "But that's all gone by the board now unfortunately. I don't really know to be honest with you. Joby and me won't need anyone out in the woods, but you lot might feel differently. Wolf Castle's a big place to look after".
"We'll manage", said Adam "I don't mind handling the cooking, and Hillyard can do the housework".
"Finia is pretty expert at anything domestic", said Kieran "I caught him once making up some complicated mixture using sugar, just to get a stain out of one of Julian's shirts. I'd have found it easier to go out and buy him a new one!"
"Then you wouldn't last five minutes in Julian's employ", said Adam "He could have given Mrs Beeton tips on correct household management. I sometimes think he and Finia could do a good double-act on our new wonderful television service. They could be the Fanny and Johnny Craddock of the Fifth Millennium! 'Julian's Useful Tips On How To Stage An Unforgettable Dinner-Party', that sort of thing. Julian's useful tip number one, insult all your guests, preferably using antiquated class warfare".
"You wouldn't be saying this if he was here", said Kieran, playfully prodding Adam's chest.
"Oh yes I would", said Adam "The memories are uncomfortably vivid in my mind. Julian's useful tip number two, start spouting on in an offensive manner about something you know absolutely nothing about. Julian's useful tip number three, before the evening's over attempt to shag one of the guests, regardless of your partner's feelings".
"How the blazes did you put up with him?" said Kieran, and then checked himself "Stupid question really, when you consider I put up with Amy".
"I bet she never deliberately offended people", said Adam "Anyway there is only one answer to our old predicament, and that is that there is no answer, except perhaps that we found them too unbearably attractive to give them up".
"Partly", said Kieran "And partly in my case, being a bloody Catholic. And I didn't want to end up alone as me mam did".
"Same for me too", said Adam "I started drinking when I was with Julian, but I drank far more when I came out of prison and he wasn't there. No one to lavish my vast reserves of love on, so I started lavishing them on the bottle instead".
"Did you feel abandoned by him?"
"Like a babe in the woods", Adam smiled "But you came into my life eventually. My beautiful rescuer. Your hair's getting so long, it's lovely. Promise me you won't cut it for a while. I love the silky feel of it running through my fingers".
"Now Angel's not here that should be a fairly easy promise to keep", said Kieran.
Someone knocked on the door. Kieran groaned and reluctantly slid away from Adam's warm body. He put on his shirt and opened the door. The endlessly-smiling boot-boy was standing there, attempting to peer over Kieran's head at Adam as he spoke.
"Some messages have come in for you at the telegraph office Your Grace", he said "From the Ministry. We thought you might want to reply to them personally, and they've closed the office for your exclusive use. Plus there's an extra one that we can't make out who it's from, and it doesn't make sense. We think it might be in code".
"Alright I'll find me way there in a few minutes", Kieran shut the door on him, and then shrugged at Adam apologetically.
"Cheer up Pats", said Adam "The presidential treadmill won't be for much longer".
"Not before time", said Kieran.
Adam escorted Kieran to the telegraph office at the end of Stokva's single street and then slowly retraced his steps. Stokva was a schizophrenic kind of place. It had the climate and culture of a Scandinavian or Alaskan port, and yet looked like a village in Provence. The vivid bright yellows of the plain square buildings set against the stark landscape, stimulated his artistic imagination. He went into the town's only restaurant on the opposite side of the street and ordered a coffee. Business in the restaurant was very slow today. Most of the current inhabitants of the town were at this moment either engaged in a card-game in the bar of the hotel, or listening to a very worthy lecture which was part of one of the business courses, and which basically exhorted men to look for God in all areas of their lives. Adam didn't think he'd have too much trouble guessing which activity was getting the most rapt attention.
"Good grief Adam, you're alone", said Julian, appearing next to his table "I could hardly believe my eyes when I walked past the window just now and saw you sitting in solitary splendour, like Patience on a monument. You've usually got one or more of your boys hanging round you".
"Sometimes you make me sound like the Old Woman Who Lived In A Shoe", said Adam.
"If the cap fits, dear heart", Julian noticed a waiter hovering near him, as though uncertain whether to ask him what he required or ask him to leave instead "I'll have a brandy".
"A brandy?" the waiter mumbled, uncertainly "May I ask what you want it for?"
"I want to drink it", said Julian, in such a scandalised tone that the waiter beat a hasty retreat in search of the offending liquor "What does he think I want to do, clean my teeth with it?"
"Shades of Elizabeth Taylor in 'Butterfield 8'", said Adam.
"That was bourbon".
The waiter returned with a glass tumbler containing a droplet of brandy.
"And what is that?" Julian asked, with an ominous catch in his voice.
"It's a glass of brandy", said the waiter, without batting an eyelid.
"You may call that a glass, I don't", said Julian "In fact I would go so far as to say that it looks more like a receptacle you'd keep your false teeth in. I want a glass that befits brandy".
"You are a ridiculous snob Jules", said Adam, as the longsuffering waiter departed once more, this time in search of a glass "For these past few weeks you've been drinking brandy out of anything that was convenient".
"So what if I have?" said Julian "We're back in civilisation now. Allegedly. Normal service can now be resumed".
"A glass of brandy", said the waiter, placing a brandy balloon in front of Julian.
"Thank you, that was quite painless wasn't it?"
The waiter walked away without bothering to reply to this.
"You give me a headache sometimes Jules", said Adam "You're just like your mother, harping on about trivialities and threatening to leave the country everytime a Labour government got in. She never actually did the decent thing and emigrated though did she?"
"Yes well we all know in which department you take after your mother don't we?" said Julian, bitchily.
Adam rose to leave, but Julian grabbed his hand.
"Alright I'm sorry", he said "I'll slit my throat if it'll make you feel better".
"There's no need for that", said Adam "Just try not to be such a confounded snob that's all. I hate it when you're like this. The others tar me with the same brush you know. They start thinking I'm an upper-class jerk as well".
"One should never ignore one's origins. They form our identity".
"Some of us don't want reminding of them".
"You're being unfair to your own kind", said Julian "They weren't all bad".
"No", Adam sighed "Some were merely useless instead".
"By saying such a thing you're exerting snobbery yourself, of an inverted kind. I know you desperately want to be like your peasant boys, but you're not and that's a fact you've got to accept".
"I can, but what I can't accept is you making out we're better than them".
"I don't, but neither do I think we're worse either".
"You're a strange mixed-bag Jules", said Adam "For as long as I've known you you've harped on about doing things the right way, never letting anyone forget what your father's status was, and yet you yourself kicked against it by running away with me! I'm surprised after the way things turned out that they didn't disown you".
"It helped considerably that I wasn't the eldest child", said Julian.
"Even so, they can't have enjoyed the publicity after I'd been arrested".
"Oh you know my family Adam", said Julian, in a way that implied he wished he himself hadn't "Duty and public fortitude came first. To have disowned me or gone to pieces over the publicity would have caused too big a disruption in their routine. Heavens, they might have been a couple of minutes late sitting down to lunch!"
"Hideous", Adam shivered.
"It was. Why do you think I needed you so much? You were so unlike them. So wild and intolerant of duty, so much pent-up emotion in you. Whereas their juices had long been stifled. If only they could see us now. I would quite like to take you and your demented Eskimo to tea with them".
"I don't think they would ever recover from the shock of Lo-Lo".
"Neither would the tea-service I expect".
"I can just see him, like Eliza Doolittle", said Adam "Beginning some eyebrow-raising anecdote of life in Kiskev".
"And then offering to dance for them", Julian laughed "Oh talk of the reindeer and he will appear".
Joby dragged Lonts into the restaurant by his elbow. Joby was yelling, Lonts was crying. It was obvious that strong words had been exchanged all the way up the street. As soon as he saw Adam, Lonts threw himself at him, wrapping his arms round his neck and sobbing hysterically. Joby slammed a chair on the floor and sat down.
"What on earth's the matter?" said Adam, trying desperately to surface from under Lonts's body.
"He's fucking hopeless", said Joby, and turned to the reluctant waiter "Brandy! Make it a whole bottle, I'll help meself".
"Lonts hasn't been that bad has he?" said Adam.
"If somebody could tell me the point of Lonts I'd really be interested", said Joby "He hasn't got a brain, and unlike everyone else I don't think he's all that good-looking. In fact I think he looks like a young werewolf".
"I don't", said Lonts, angrily "Gimmit was a werewolf. I don't look anything like Gimmit".
The waiter placed a bottle of brandy on the table.
"Don't I get a glass then?" said Joby "Or do you charge extra for that?"
A glass was produced and placed solemnly in front of him.
"Service is a bit ropey in here", said Joby, after the waiter had moved away.
"What is it that Lonts has done?" said Adam, trying to settle the said boy on a separate chair.
"I had a run of good luck at the tables right?" said Joby.
"You generally do", said Adam.
"Lucky at cards, unlucky in love", Julian opined.
"As I was saying", said Joby "I'd managed to win what is called a comfortable amount. Suddenly finding in all the excitement that I needed to visit the karsey, I gave my loot to Lonts to look after. Now I know that was probably the most brainless thing I have ever done".
"And the competition for that accolade is fierce", said Julian.
"But I didn't expect him to give it all away!"
"Oh Lonts, you didn't", said Adam.
"It was a good cause Adam", said Lonts.
"Some stupid nerk was walking round the bar collecting for a dog's home", said Joby "I've always thought there should be a law against things like that".
"Dog's homes?" said Adam.
"Charity collectors preying on people in pubs", said Joby "And that's all the fault of that mad Irishman, he changed the law so that they could spring out on you anywhere. Anyway, Lonts goes and gives him all my winnings! He only has to hear about stray dogs and he goes all bleedin' daft, even softer in the head than usual".
"They do good work at these places Joby", said Lonts, earnestly "When we get back to the City I'll take you to one. You can see where your money went".
"Thanks", said Joby, sarcastically "I'll enjoy that".
"Cheer up Joby", said Adam "You don't need the money anyway. You'd only spend it on gardening magazines, and you've got enough of those to wallpaper the Ministry with already".
"Maybe", said Joby, unconvinced.
Adam ordered a round of plaited apple loaf with whipped cream to cheer them all up. When the food arrived Lonts found he had trouble picking up his spoon. He patted at it in frustration, but his fingers were tingling so much they refused to co-operate. In the end Joby picked up the spoon and wrapped the boy's fingers around it.
"Are you feeling alright Lonts?" said Adam, suddenly looking afraid.
"Just my arm went to sleep, that's all", said Lonts "I'm fine now".
Kieran desperately wanted to get out of the telegraph office. At first he had been irritated by the messages he had received from the Ministry, they seemed to imply he had deliberately gone AWOL, and had been enjoying a holiday somewhere out of contact of them. Their announcement that they were sending an air-buggy to collect him, arriving in Stokva the following evening, made him feel like an escaped prisoner being rounded up by the authorities.
One of the messages though was deeply disturbing.
"GORGON IS REPUTED TO BE AT LARGE IN THE HENANG PROVINCE", it read "STRONG POSSIBILITY SHE MAY BE ON ALBATROSS ISLAND. PRESIDENT IS URGENTLY ADVISED TO CONSIDER HIS OWN SAFETY AT ALL TIMES".
Kieran knew what that translated as, i.e don't go visiting Albatross Island. He promptly asked the telegraph operator where it was.
"A short distance off the coast here", he replied, looking ashen-faced on hearing of the Gorgon's supposed whereabouts "It's never been inhabited. Some fishermen have occasionally been forced to land there for a night, due to bad weather. Some haven't come back. It has a bad reputation for disappearances. No one knows what happens there. It's safe in the daytime, but after dark ..."
"Yes alright", said Kieran, who had heard this description of numerous places since crossing over "Is it connected to the mainland at all, like a bridge or a causeway? And why haven't I seen it from the town?"
"We get a lot of sea-fog in these parts", the operator explained "Albatross Island is often hidden from view. I expect that has enhanced its mystery over the years. And as far as I know there is no link to the mainland".
"As far as you know?" said Kieran, sharply.
"Many years ago Stokva was notorious for smuggling. There are always rumours of underground tunnels, some even going under the sea. Including a rumour of one leading to Albatross Island. I don't believe it myself, it would have to be too long. And not even smugglers would want to visit that place".
"Cobblers", said Kieran "They probably invented the rumours to start with! I suspect there is a tunnel somewhere. It's the only way I can think of as to how she got there".
"There is also this peculiar coded message Your Grace".
"Oh yes", said Kieran, taking it from him "Where did it originate from?"
"I don't know", the operator looked embarrassed "I don't recognise the co-ordinates".
"KIERAN ... HELP ME ... THEY'RE COMING FOR ME ..."
"The gaps signify where the transmission kept breaking down", said the operator "The entire message took some time to receive in full".
"THEY BETRAYED ME", it went on "THEY WANT VICTIMS. AS MANY AS POSSIBLE. I'VE TRIED TO HIDE. THIS IS THE LAST RESORT. I PRAY THAT WHOEVER PICKS UP THIS SIGNAL CAN CONTACT YOU ... EVIL CREATURES ARE AFTER ME ... DEMONS ... SO MANY OF THEM SWARMING ... VOICES HORRIBLE ... I CAN FEEL THEM APPROACHING NOW ... THEY KNOW WHERE I AM ... THEY ARE BEHIND ME ... THE GHOOMERS ARE ..."
The message trailed off into an unintelligible mess. Kieran didn't need to know anymore though. The sender was dead, and probably had been for some time, his pathetic last message floating around in the ether waiting for someone to snatch at it.
"Hirrid", Kieran whispered, softly.
He returned to the hotel in a daze, and met Hillyard standing at the bottom of the main stairs, preparing to take a bottle of beer up to his room.
"Don't let Ransey see you wandering about the town alone", he joked "He'll have a fit".
"Bugger Ransey", said Kieran, wearily.
"I'd rather not, thanks. He's not my type", said Hillyard "You look all in".
"I am a bit", said Kieran "Is Joby upstairs?"
"Yea, he turned in early. Are you sure there's nothing you want to talk about? It's private in my room, we could go there if you wanna chat".
"Hillyard, I've had some very bad news".
"Oh ... um ... nothing really", Kieran decided not to tell Hillyard about the last message. One guilty conscience was quite enough in the group "Just the Ministry giving me a hard time".
"If you say so", Hillyard wasn't convinced "They haven't had plague in the City again have they?"
"Not as far as I know", said Kieran "Although the Ministry might be saving that as a surprise for me when I get back".
"If there's anything you want to tell me ..."
"Nothing that can't wait a while", said Kieran, with a briskness he didn't feel "In the meantime I'm going to bed".
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