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By Sarah Hapgood

In the wintry noon-day sunlight Bardin ordered the clowns and Tamaz to scale the masts to see if they could see the top of the island from there, and where the steps might lead to, if anywhere. Adam and Joby watched from the side of the deck, not envying the others this task, however nimble and agile they were. There was nothing to report though. As far as they could see, the steps simply ended at the top of the island. There was also nowhere to land on the island in any case. The steps began too far up to be reached from the galleon, and there was nowhere to get onto the island.

They decided to press on, further into The Chain Islands, and that was the last they saw of any sunshine, wintry or otherwise, for some time. In fact the atmosphere became so dark and forbidding, Bardin ordered that everybody was to sleep in the big saloon together, until further notice. A miasma of negativity seemed to engulf them. Some of the animals became sick and drooped with fatigue. Joby was disgusted to find himself breaking out in spots, for the first time in many a long year. Adam had to remonstrate with him about trying to burst them in the galley.

“Well they’re depressing me, Ad!” Joby protested.

“We’re none of us looking our best, old love”, said Adam “I can’t remember the last time I had a bath!”

Late that night, after he had emerged from the heads, Joby was convinced he had seen a shape at the other end of the corridor, and got himself rather distressed about it. Matters weren’t helped by Hillyard trying to joke that it was a giant zit coming to get him.

“What the hell is all this row about?” Ransey demanded to know, coming into the saloon “I could hear you all from up on deck!”

“Joby saw a shape in the corridor”, said Lonts.

“OK”, said Ransey, and to Joby’s delight actually took him seriously “Joby, come with me, we’ll go down and investigate”.

“I didn’t mean to lose it”, said Joby, when he and Ransey were alone down the corridor “But nobody was taking me seriously, it was really pissing me off!”

“Alright, never mind them”, said Ransey, who had hold of Joby’s hand “What did this shape look like?”

“Horrible”, said Joby “Like a big, furry spider, made my skin crawl just to look at it”.

“I suppose we have to be prepared that that is exactly what it was”, said Ransey “Bear in mind that many plants and insects we saw in The New Continent were much larger than is usual”.

“Oh God I hope it wasn’t real”, said Joby “I fucking hate spiders. Ever since those ones crawled all over my legs up at The Big House!”

“Cheer up”, said Ransey, patting Joby’s behind “I’ll protect you. I’ve always had a particularly soft spot for you, you know”.

“Don’t mention spots!” said Joby, making Ransey laugh.

As they were pulled every further into The Chain Islands, it felt as if they would never see sunlight, or even real daylight, again.

And then something truly strange happened.

To everyone’s concern they had found themselves being pulled towards a large island which seemed to be almost entirely composed out of rock and ice. Cut in the middle of it was an enormous, black gaping archway, and it was towards this that they were inexorably heading. They gave each other pep talks that they must be prepared to face absolutely anything on the other side, and most of them were assuming that it would be something like ’The Cursed Isle’, or even worse. The air was electric with fear when they were swallowed through the archway, and then …

They came out into dazzling sunlight.

It was like the river running through The Great Forest all over again. Everything was lush and verdant, and the sun was dazzling as it dappled through the branches of the trees and shimmered on the water. They seemed to have come out of a dark, brooding icy ante-room to Hell, and into … well Paradise, quite frankly.

Aside from the river that had carried them into this strange, sunlit lagoon, there was a small, grassy, wooded island. Round the back of this, another river led up to what appeared to be the remains of a large temple, now almost wholly collapsed into ruins. It’s roof was completely gone, and all that remained were fragmented pillars and headless statues that could have belonged to any gender. A stone altar and some wrought-iron candle-holders completed the scene. The temple was reached by a very broad flight of stone steps leading up from the water’s edge, and the Indigo-ites spent a mellow afternoon roaming this area and speculating on what seemed to be the strangest part of the world they had come into so far.

It was as if they had entered some time-pocket, a miniature parallel universe of its own set in the icy southern ocean. And it had very exact boundaries. A small group of them took the skiff and explored the river under the arch that they had taken to enter there, and found that the ocean beyond was still as grey and cold as it had been when they came in.

As the days went on they carried out even further and more thorough searches of the old temple site, and after digging at some soft earth in one corner uncovered a flight of indoor steps leading downwards into the bowels of the earth. Both Kieran and Bardin got very excited about this. They were convinced (on a fancy) that this might solve the mystery of all the underground places they had come across on their travels over the years. Including the perennial mystery of the trains that they had often heard in the distance when travelling in remote places, and even on one memorable occasion, had been seen briefly underground.

But a short excursion down a small part of the way of these steps had successfully cured them of any desire to investigate more fully. The dark and excessively damp confined subterranean space was not inviting.

Bardin presented his and Kieran’s conclusions in the dining-room. He finished by saying that they were going to leave this place as soon as they could, and head back to the house they had first lived in on The New Continent.

“We have to do a supply-run though”, said Bardin “Possibly to The Village Of Stairs, it would be better than going back to Aspioriola”.

“It’ll be good to get some fresh stuff in”, said Julian “Make a change from that muck we’ve been served lately”.

“Thank you dear, we do our best”, said Adam.

“Well just how many tins of corned beef have you got?” Julian exclaimed.

“Oh loads”, said Adam, unrepentantly.

Ransey rapped on the table, and everyone turned to look at him.

“If these tunnels are networked all over the world”, he began.

“Yes, that’s quite a thought isn’t it!” said Adam.

“Then it stands to reason”, said Ransey “That they also connect under The Cursed Isle”.

“So our firing up their ship made no difference at all”, said Farnol, glumly.

“We weren’t to know that at the time, old love”, said Adam.

“There is also the problem of how to get away from here”, said Ransey, who clearly was in doom-laden mode “We were led here against our will, it might not be that simple a matter to get away again”.

“I’ll do a blessing”, said Kieran, rising purposefully to his feet.

“I might have known”, Joby groaned.

This made no odds to Kieran, who was now marching towards the galley.

“Don’t use all the table salt, Patsy!” Adam called after him.

Paradise that small lagoon might have seemed to be, but the Indigo-ites were desperate to be away from it. Adam, Joby and Kieran were reminded of their brief stay long ago at ‘Green Ways’, before it turned back into the decayed ruin of ‘The Loud House’. They had a suspicion that the same thing could happen here. That this mirage would fade, and something dark and horrible take its place.

At first it would seem that their fears about leaving the place were justified. After Kieran had carried out his first blessing, a strange haze came over the area, rather like a heat haze in that it made everything appear blurry. Julian suggested (somewhat caustically) that Kieran was only making things worse, which understandably riled Kieran, who retaliated that he was in fact breaking down the façade of the place. All very well of course, but the other Indigo-ites weren’t sure that they wanted the façade breaking down … there was no knowing what might appear in its place!

“Let’s just get out of here”, said Julian, in exasperation “That boy’s a bloody menace sometimes, with his constant meddling!”

“To be fair, Jules”, said Adam, who was in his cabin with him “His theory about all this is sound. He thinks that this Heavenly illusion was put here on purpose, to lure people into staying here, and stopping them from getting away. He’s caught between a rock and a hard place. He needs to do the blessing to protect us enough to get us away, and yet at the same time, ripping down the edifice is a dangerous gamble”.

Julian felt that Kieran had done enough of the dangerous gamble for the time being though, and ordered Hillyard to “escort” Kieran to his cabin, and put him back under restraint.

All this took its toll on Hillyard, who subsequently joined Joby in the galley for mugs of black tea, liberally laced with cooking brandy.

“Isn’t there any milk?” Hillyard asked.

“It’s on ration”, said Joby “The goats have started acting up again. They’ll be alright when we leave here I expect”.

“Isn’t he brandy on ration too?”

“This is Adam’s secret stock of cooking brandy”.

“Oh right”, said Hillyard “Well if you won’t tell I won’t, cheers!”

“Don’t get too upset about Kiera”, said Joby “When that fanatical gleam comes in hi eyes, there’s not much else we can do but get rough. I mean, I think he’s right about this place, but he doesn’t know the meaning of the word ‘caution’”.

“God, he’s an extraordinary creature!” said Hillyard “And to think that when I very first knew Kieran I thought he was just a blonde tart, a pretty little bauble”.

“Oh yeah, you did, I remember”, Joby laughed.

“I was totally obsessed with you in those days”, said Hillyard “God knows why”.

“Thanks Hillyard!”

“No I mean I still am. But I just don’t see how I could have dismissed Kieran as just a pretty boy”.

“People often did”, said Joby “Julian did at first. Thought he was just some fluffy piece of trade. Mind you, I spose Julian thinks that way about most people he’s interested in! ‘Cept Hoowie would have to be a little hairy piece of trade!”

Hillyard laughed. Such gay little pleasantries were cut short though by the sound of Adam’s voice in the corridor. Joby had barely had time to secret the brandy bottle back in its cupboard when he (Adam) walked in accompanied by Tamaz.

“Have you both been having a nice cup of tea?” said Adam “Because I can certainly smell it!”

“They’ve been on the cooking brandy”, said Tamaz, just in case anyone was still in any doubt.

“Ennit time you were in bed?” Joby barked at Tamaz.

“Time everybody had some rest I think”, said Adam “Bardin’s going to attempt a break for freedom at first light, to try and get away from the magnetic pull of this place. It would help if everybody was feeling reasonably ‘compos mentis’!”

At first light the small watch-party on the main deck reported that “black rain” was beginning to fall. This was like papery flakes of soot falling down, or as Kieran said, it would be more accurate to describe it as like an old film tape breaking up. The mirage was disintegrating. Bardin, who like all the others, had no wish to see what lay underneath, ordered the engines to be started at once, and they immediately got underway.

This was a nail-biting time. Getting back out under the archway wasn’t a problem - they had done it before in the skiff - it was getting clear of the magnetic pull of this island which, they felt sure, would prove to be troublesome. Julian went below to his cabin to raid his precious, dwindling stock of cigar-butts. He was only distracted from this absorbing task when he heard the pounding of feet dancing on the deck overheard.

They were back out in the sunlight, the TRUE sunlight of the open high seas, at last.

The decision to go to The Village Of stairs to pick up supplies was a popular one. Not only because the food situation was on its way to becoming dire, but some of the older Indigo-ites were getting grand plans in their heads. Ransey thought that they should acquire an air-buggy, and then a small party of them could fly on ahead to The New Continent (the galleon following on behind). This would be a practical and safe way of seeing how the current situation on The Cursed Isle was panning out. Also, it would give them many advantages to exploring The New Continent further. They could then fly over the rubbish-encircled city. This proposed trip was considered even more important because, although they had now been to part of The Chain Islands, they still had no idea what it was that had come from there and managed to wreck an entire continent.

Unsurprisingly, they wanted their visit to The Village Of Stairs to be as low-key as possible, which meant that Kieran would have to be kept out of sight. To Julian’s astonishment, Kieran was fully acquiescent about this, and raised no fuss whatsoever. Ransey and Hillyard though, after what felt like a royal audience with Kieran in his cabin, came to the sad conclusion that Kieran was simply too weak and exhausted to raise a fuss.

“He needs beefing up”, Ransey said to Hillyard when they left. “Let’s hope we don’t end up in any more cursed areas where he needs to protect us!” said Hillyard.

Out in the full glare of the sunshine on the high seas though, they were all made uncomfortably aware of how unsightly they looked. This was scarcely surprising after so long at sea, in some of the wildest parts of the world, living on basic rations and with little opportunity or bathing and other bodily pampering.

They knew that during their brief stopover at The Village Of Stairs, they would have to head to the nearest bath-house, and it would be an act of downright callousness to forbid Kieran from taking part in such an essential pleasure.

First though they had to get through a visit from the town’s customs officials (“I had forgotten they had that little tradition here”, said Adam). What to do with Kieran whilst the officials were aboard the galleon was a problem, until Joby suggested “losing him”.

“Joby?” Adam exclaimed.

“No”, said Joby “What’s the best place to hide someone … in a crowd. Put him in the big saloon with everybody else. We can make him blend into the background”.

Putting a kerchief over Kieran’s distinctive hair, and making him keep his (equally distinctive) eyes lowered over a game of chess with Lonts, helped to hide him considerably. It helped that the customs officials weren’t the most diligent of workers, and simply couldn’t be bothered to probe too deep into what was gong on aboard the galleon.

“If they worked for me I’d put a rocket up their arse”, was Ransey’s verdict.

“Don’t knock it, old love”, said Adam “It’s worked in our favour!”

The Village Of Stairs was currently inundated with visitors, which might have accounted for the customs officials’ flying visit. To the Indigo-ites surprise, it turned out to be the run-up to Christmas, and the streets, shops and bars were heaving with people. The harbour was also heaving, although the galleon’s grace and size still managed to stand out amongst all the smaller vessels.

Bengo and Bardin had done a quick walk round the centre of the town, and reported that the only sign of Kieran they had been able to find was an old silver locket in the window of a junk shop, which had contained Kieran’s picture. Even so, it was quite hopeful that people still wouldn’t know who the picture was of.

“Can I come out now then?” said Kieran, removing the kerchief from his head when he heard this.

“You can go to the bath-house with Joby, Ransey and Hillyard”, said Adam “But then you come straight back here”.

“Why?” said Kieran “I can’t imagine they’re going to!”

“Don’t give us trouble on this one, Patsy”, said Adam.

“But as far as everyone here’s concerned, I’ve been relegated to history”, Kieran protested “I promise to keep me hat on if it’s any use!”

“Kieran”, said Joby, firmly “Behave!”

The four of them had a private room at the bath-house. Such extravagance was countermanded by the somewhat chastening realisation that they all had fleas! (“No doubt picked up from that bloody cat!” said Joby). So they spent some time picking them off each other like monkeys, and shaving each other’s armpits and pubic hair.

Afterwards Hillyard and Ransey were to escort Kieran back to the galleon, because Joby had been summoned to a nearby bar for a drink with Julian. Kieran threw a tantrum at this, and said he felt like “a focking prisoner”, and “it simply isn’t fair”. Joby had to agree that it wasn’t fair, and although he managed to persuade Kieran to go back to the boat, it was in a sombre mood that he went to meet Julian.

The waterside bar Julian was frequenting was about the roughest dive he could have found. Not that this mattered to Julian, who was sat in the window with a bottle of white rum in front of him, as though he was in the restaurant at Harrods.

“Ennit bad form to drink with your hat on?” Joby grumbled, sitting down next to him.

“In a place like this I would have said it was sound commonsense actually!” said Julian, pouring out a glass of rum for him.

“What did you wanna come here for?” Joby exclaimed “What’s the old joke about not a case of having your gun taken off you at the door as you go in, but given one if you haven’t! That’s what this place is like!”

“It’s very convenient for the harbour”, said Julian “Not so far to stagger home afterwards”.

“Weren’t you afraid?” said Joby “Coming in a place like this on your own?”

“Why on earth should I be?” said Julian “I’m a member of the 12 inch club!”

“Alright for some!” said Joby “Where’s Hoowie gone anyway?”

“Off on a little nostalgia ramble with the clowns”, said Julian “Which no doubt means he’ll come back extremely upset, and Bardin will be throwing 40 disgusted fits having seen what the Cabaret is doing these days. I can’t imagine that, whatever it is, it will meet with his approval somehow!”

“It’s K … ’Fred’ I feel sorry for”, said Joby (‘Fred’ being their nickname for Kieran whilst they were in port).

“Oh don’t start all that again!” said Julian.

“Well it ent fair on him is it, being treated like a prisoner”, said Joby.

“It’s only whilst we’re in port”, said Julian “Ye gods, when we’re at home you can’t prise him out of bed, but the minute we get anywhere where he NEEDS to stay hidden, he suddenly decides to be a social butterfly!”

“How are your fleas?” said Joby, bluntly “We’ve had them, so you must have as well”.

“They will be attended to in due course”, said Julian “In between everything else that is going on around here. Tomorrow I’m going out to an air-buggy hangar with Ransey and Hillyard, pick ourselves out some appropriate vehicle”.

Adam heard the clowns returning, and went out to the bottom of the quarterdeck steps to meet them. Somewhat predictably, Bardin was complaining, loudly.

“The Christmas entertainment at the Cabaret not up to speck?” Adam enquired.

“If you can call one silly sod dressed up in a chicken suit organising a singalong with the audience entertainment!” said Bardin “Quite the WORST thing I have EVER seen!”

“Oh I’m sure I’ve seen worse than that”, said Adam.

“Yes, probably one of our shows”, Bengo sighed, going mournfully into their cabin.

“That was totally uncalled for!” Bardin shouted after him.

Hoowie came down the steps carrying a guitar which had all its strings cut.

“Oh yes, and that’s another thing”, said Bardin, now well-launched on his sense of grievance “We had to buy that!”

“Why did you buy a guitar with broken strings?” said Adam.

“We had to”, said Bardin “Go on, tell him why we had to”.

“It was on display in a shop we went into”, said Hoowie, wretchedly “And I sort of picked it up and decided to have a go with it”.

“But you can’t play the guitar, Hoowie”, said Adam.

“I know, but I couldn’t resist it”, said Hoowie.

“This is in spite of me repeatedly telling him over the years that he isn’t to touch ANYTHING when we’re in shops”, said Bardin.

“Bardin, why don’t you go and have a lie-down, before you have a stroke”, said Adam “Anyway, we might be able to restring the guitar”.

“It would be more appropriate to restring Hoowie!” was Bardin’s parting-shot, before he went into his cabin to inflict his presence on Bengo instead.

“Does Julian have to know about this, Adam?” said Hoowie, faintly.

“I think it might be quite hard to keep it from him”, said Adam, hearing Bardin still ranting on behind his cabin door “Don’t worry, old love, I’m sure he’ll find it all very amusing. He always does where anything to do with you is concerned!”

Julian had come back from town rather the worse for wear (although he did remember to bring what was left of the contents of the rum bottle with him). On getting back to the galleon he went straight to bed, and Hoowie laid down and snoozed with him. They were woken a couple of hours later by Bengo ringing the hand-bell, summoning everyone to supper in the dining-room, and yelling “overture and beginners please!” Julian got out of bed, and wearily began to put cream on his flea bites.

“Bardin’ll go on and on this evening, you’ll see”, said Hoowie, glumly.

“No he won’t”, said Julian “We’re expecting some deliveries this evening, so that should distract him”.

“I wouldn’t bank on it”, said Hoowie.

“What are you going to do with the guitar?” asked Julian, glancing at the sorry-looking instrument which was languishing on a chair.

“Give it to Rumble as a Christmas present”, said Hoowie.

“Are you going to have it re-strung first?”

“No, he can do that. Give him something to do when we’re out on the high seas”.

“Well it’s the thought that counts I suppose!” Julian laughed.

There came the sound of Tamaz yodelling from the dining-room.

“I think the first delivery’s just turned up”, said Julian.

“I trust there isn’t any tinned corned beef lurking amongst this lot?” he said, when they went into the dining-room, which was now full of tea-chests, as well as the preparations for supper.

“Of course there is, Julian”, said Adam “It’s very useful as emergency back-up”.

“I quite like it”, said Bengo.

Ransey strode purposefully into the room and rapped on the table.

“Listen up, it’s important”, he said, as a few of the others groaned “The air-buggy scheme is off”.

“Oh why?” Bengo gave a wail.

“Too much red tape”, said Ransey “They practically wanted to see birth-marks when Hillyard and me went to inquire. We can’t afford somebody asking us too many questions like that. It’s not exactly good for staying undercover”.

“It also just wouldn’t work”, said Hillyard “Technology may have come on a bit in recent years, but they still haven’t invented an air-buggy that could fly over that vast stretch of ocean without needing to touch down and recharge”.

“And the only place to recharge out there, as far as we know anyway, would be ’The Cursed Isle’”, said Ransey.

“That wouldn’t be very pleasant”, said Adam.

“Exactly”, said Ransey.

“But we’re going to get a new truck instead”, said Hillyard.

“We’re gonna fly that are we?” said Joby “Like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang!”

“We’re going to use that on The New Continent”, Hillyard explained, patiently “It’ll get us around a lot faster than on horseback, and this is going to be a really swish model. One a handful of us can camp in the back of, so we won’t have to use the tepee anymore”.

“Oh but I like the tepee”, said Bengo.

“You and Bardin can sleep in that then”, said Joby “Give the rest of us some peace and quiet!”

“And another thing”, said Ransey, imposingly “We’re going to buy a wireless set”.

“What for?” said Adam “We’ve always agreed that we’re better off without one of those things”.

“It’ll be handy for eavesdropping”, Ransey explained “We can fiddle with it on The New Continent, and see if we pick anybody up on it”.

Bardin set the galleon in motion first thing the following morning. Bengo knew that this was because he wanted them all to be out on the high seas when they came to celebrate Christmas Day. Unbeknown to just about everybody aboard though (even the redoubtable Ransey) they were leaving just in the nick of time. Rumours had slowly been percolating round The Village Of Stairs about the true identity of the folks aboard the galleon. Ironically, this wasn’t because anybody had recognised Kieran (who had succeeded after all in keeping a low profile), but some of the rest of them, most particularly the clowns - who would have been completely astonished if they heard that they had still been recognised after all these years.

As it was, Bardin’s decision to get out into the isolation of the ocean in time for Christmas, turned out to be a wise one.

Christmas proved to be a helpful (if brief) diversion to the monotony of a long voyage across a bleak, featureless ocean. There was an extra one in that Bardin was suddenly stricken with a bad attack of flu, and had to be laid up in his cabin. When first taking to his bunk he constantly bewailed that the ship would not be able to function without his constant presence around. So Adam immediately decided to appoint a deputy … Bengo.

“Bengo!” Bardin exclaimed, in horror “But that’s completely ridiculous!”

“No it’s not”, said Adam “A little extra responsibility will do Bengo good”.

“But he hasn’t got a brain!” Bardin protested.

“That’s not a very nice thing to say”, Adam scolded him “And anyway, Bengo is very good at man-management. He knows how to keep the other clowns in order”.

In fact, the other clowns were delighted at this news, and were of the unanimous mind that Bengo would be a vast improvement on “old Starchy-Knickers”. Adam meanwhile thought it would be good for Bengo as well. He would get to see that Bardin’s job was entirely about “marching around, yelling, and getting in everybody’s way”. Bengo was delighted that he would “get to wear Bardy’s whistle!”

And so a somewhat surreal couple of days ensued, with Captain Bengo in charge. Adam was right in that Bengo was very good at handling the other clowns. Where Bardin shouted and ordered, Bengo cajoled and sympathised. Both, in their own different ways, got results. Bengo soon realised also that Bardin’s job was indeed a lot more complicated than he had realised. Bardin had a knack of seeming to be in three different places at once (the other clowns often remarked that you never knew where he was going to spring out from next), and this was a trick that Bengo, with his laid-back ways, was finding hard to master. He also didn’t have Bardin’s ability to stand up to people quite so firmly. And this came to a head with Hoowie, who took advantage of the new regime to ask that he be allowed to have a go at the helm.

“I’ve never been allowed to steer the ship”, he said.

“Are you surprised?!” said Bengo.

“But what can I run into out here?” said Hoowie “There’s nothing for miles, not a damn thing! Oh go on, Benje, this might be the only chance I ever get”.

“Hoowie”, said Bengo, in his gravest, quietest voice “You do realise that if you make one, just ONE, very small mistake, that neither you or I will ever be allowed to forget it, EVER!”

He cast his eyes downwards significantly.

“And you know to whom I refer”.

Hoowie got his wish, but only for a sort while. Afterwards, Ransey remarked that Hoowie had done a reasonably competent job, but he didn’t want to have to live through it again. Hoowie was simply too much of a wild card for comfort. He was ecstatic with his stint though, and dangerously looked in danger of wheedling another one out of Bengo, until Julian said very firmly “No Hoowie, and this decision is not negotiable”. Hoowie knew better than to try and argue this one. Even so, Bengo was exhausted by the whole thing, and announced that he was ceremoniously handing the whistle back to Bardin.

“If you want a deputy captain”, he said to Adam, who was in nursing attendance in Bengo and Bardin’s cabin “You’ll have to do it”.

“I don’t want the wretched job!” said Adam “I’ve got quite enough to do already!”

“Give it to Kieran then”, said Bardin “He’s handled big responsibility before”.

“Yes, but he hated it”, said Adam “That’s why he abdicated”.

“Adam”, said Bardin “It’s either that, or I give the reins to Julian”.

“No”, said Adam “He’ll get too used to being in charge again, he already gets far too much his own way as it is!”

Bengo clapped his hands with joy at the thought of Kieran being Captain, and said the whole thing would be “magical”. Ransey’s more prosaic reaction, when he heard, was that it would stop Kieran spending all his time in his cabin “reading that damn book” (That Damn Book being The Bible). The younger Indigo-ites hadn’t been around when Kieran had been President, so it was a chance for them to see his leadership style for the first time. It was noticeably quieter and less flamboyant than the noisy turns by Bardin and Julian, but his Presence was still considerable.

His first priority was to try and keep morale going. This was a particularly long and tedious voyage, with nothing but churning grey sea to look at for weeks on end. It was also coming on top of several months of gruelling travelling, including the short stint at The Chain Islands. His top priority was to keep everybody looking ahead to their final destination, and fortunately this wasn’t something Kieran had any trouble with.

Bardin meanwhile was chafing at the bit with frustration. He wasn’t a person for whom sitting or lying around for long periods at a time was a good thing. By the time the worst of the flu was wearing off he was becoming a bundle of pent-up nervous energy. One afternoon Bengo burst into the cabin in a fit of feverish excitement. Bardin was sitting by the fire wearing a candlewick dressing-gown (one of the many things acquired during the smash-and-grab raid on The Village Of Stairs), and looking none too happy about it.

“Why have I been given this vile dressing-gown to wear?” he grumbled “And where’s my silk bath-robe?”

“It’s not vile, it’s a very nice dressing-gown, Bardy”, said Bengo “And your silk bath-robe’s been taken away because it’s not warm enough. Anyway, never mind all that, come up topside for a minute”.

“Oh I’m allowed up there now am I?” said Bardin, sarcastically.

“Briefly”, said Bengo “There’s an extraordinary sight, you must see it”.

The ocean, after a recent tumultuous spell, had become extremely calm, like a millpond in fact. And in the midst of this neat apple-pie bed stillness a massive metal structure was sticking up, like some enormous phallus, out of the water. It had no marks on it at all, it was simply a huge metal three-sided pillar.

“We haven’t come across this before”, said Rumble.

“We normally sail a bit further north than this”, said Bardin “But we’re giving ’The Cursed Isle’ as wide a berth as possible”.

“I wonder what it is and how it got here”, said Adam “It’s not the remains of an old oil-rig or something like that is it?”

“No, it don’t seem like that”, said Joby “It looks more like a marker or a monument of some sort”. “How on earth did they get it here I wonder?” said Adam “Whoever they are!”

The metal structure at least provided them with a temporary diversion from the monotony. Soon after Bardin was back on his feet again, and Kieran was glad to hand the whistle back to him, even though he had never used it, except to make Joby jump once by blowing it in his ear (and he got clouted for his trouble). Bardin had barely resumed the reins of power again, when he was woken up in the middle of the night by Rumble coming into his cabin, carrying a bulls-eye lantern.

“Just thought you’d be interested to know”, Rumble whispered “There’s thick freezing fog up there”.

“OK”, said Bardin, sleepily “Keep the lamps burning on deck. It’s unlikely there’s anybody else around, but if there is we don’t want them running into us. I’ll put my trousers on and come up and have a look”.

“Righto”, said Rumble.

Bardin took a turn round the deck, listened to the night-watch party grumbling about how cold it was, and went below to make some coffee. At the bottom of the quarterdeck steps he bumped into Julian, who asked how thick the fog was.

“Peasouper”, said Bardin.

He went into the galley and raked the stove into life. Julian collected up a handful of mugs and set them on the table, which was something else he wouldn’t have dreamt of doing until recently. “Is Hoowie asleep?” asked Bardin.



“I wish you’d cut him some slack, Bardin”, said Julian “I know he’s given you a few headaches in the past …”

“And not just in the past”, said Bardin “He’s been giving me a few lately too! He waited for me to be laid up to wheedle his way round Bengo. Not that it’s hard for ANYONE to wheedle their way round Bengo, the soft-headed little clot!”

“That won’t happen again, you have my word on it”, said Julian “He’s been severely reprimanded, and when I get a moment I’ll reprimand Bengo too, for giving into him! In the meantime, why can’t you be happy that there is someone around at last who not only wants to keep Hoowie in order all the time, he has a positive enthusiasm for it! I thought that would be the answer to your prayers!”

“It is”, said Bardin “Only … well you see it’s like this. Hoowie’s a very annoying person. He fidgets too much, he talks too much, he does EVERYTHING too much, and he runs off at really annoying tangents sometimes and then does stupid things. I wouldn’t blame you if you eventually got fed up with him! But you see if that were to happen, well Hoowie that unhappy would be capable of anything. He’d probably burn the boat down around our ears!”

“Can I get it through to you once and for all that I am never going to dump Hoowie!” said Julian.

“But what about if the passion began to wear off?” said Bardin, sounding like Ransey “I wouldn’t expect anyone to keep the level you two are at for years and years”.

“Why not?” said Julian “You and Bengo have managed alright! You seem to have an unshakeable belief that there isn’t a person on earth who can put up with Hoowie!”

“Can you blame me?!” said Bardin “Sometimes he’s completely insane, and when he’s not he’s a time-waster! I’ll tell you something I’ve never told you before. I believe Hoowie could have got somewhere on the stage. He’s got a strange sort of charisma that makes people notice him, and I don’t think it’s just because he looks completely weird! If he could have harnessed that and developed his talent he could have been something, but no, he’s never had the discipline or the application, and that’s what’s always bugged me about him. You wouldn’t believe the amount of people I’ve met who have recklessly flushed their chances and their talents down the pan, and he’s one of them!”

“But does any of that matter know?” said Julian.

“I guess not”, Bardin sighed.

“Who knows what may happen in the future?” said Julian “Eternity’s a long time. If you get to tread the boards again, then you have my full permission to knock Hoowie into whatever shape is required”.

“Let me just tell you one more thing”, said Bardin, suddenly “It might help you to understand me where he’s concerned. I used to try and help him out. When we had a big show on I’d get him taken on as an extra. But he often repaid me by turning up drunk at rehearsals. I mean I was putting MY reputation on the line here as well! Once, to try and get him to tow the line, I made him do the rehearsal in his underpants! I said all the costumes weren’t ready yet. I was trying to get him shamed into behaving himself. It didn’t work”.

Julian understood. To someone like Bardin, who had built his whole life around being a professional, the idea of turning up drunk at a rehearsal would have been too appalling for words.

“But at least now you know his whole history”, said Julian “You can understand perhaps WHY he was turning up drunk”.

“Yes, but by doing so he was ballsing up the real chances he was being offered!” said Bardin, who was by now almost in tears with exasperation.

“Ssh”, said Julian, squeezing his hand “Let the past go and hang itself, Bardin”.

Bengo appeared in the doorway in his nightshirt.

“Are you coming back to bed, Bardy?” he asked.

“When I’ve made the coffee for the others”, said Bardin “That kettle’s taking an absolute age to boil”.

“I’m not surprised”, said Bengo “You haven’t put it on the hob!”

Hoowie had been lying in his bunk, waiting for Julian to return. All the while he had been listening to some sort of mild consternation going on above him on the main deck, but as it didn’t sound particularly alarming in any way, he didn’t think it was worth getting out of bed for.

“It’s bloody freezing”, said Julian,, clambering into the bunk when he returned.

“Where have you been?” said Hoowie.

“Talking to Bardin in the galley”, said Julian “There’s thick fog topside”.

“Oh that must be what they’re going on about”, said Hoowie “For a minute I thought they’d seen land or something. I’d have got out of bed for that!”

“There is something going on isn’t there?” said Julian, and he promptly got out of bed again.

“Oh Julian!” Hoowie wailed.

Reluctantly he followed Julian out of the cabin, pausing to put on his coat first. Feeling hard done by, he followed him up the steps and onto the main deck.

“Seen this, man?” said Farnol, who was one of the night watch party.

“What am I supposed to be looking at?” said Julian, peering into the dense gloom.

“If you stand and watch for a moment”, said Rumble “You’ll see little blue lights darting about”.

“Yeah, I thought the fog was making me hallucinate at first!” said Farnol.

“Like a will-o-the-wisp”, said Julian, catching a glimpse of a small blue light, like a tiny blue gas flame, suddenly appearing and then disappearing again.

“Something up?” said Bardin, carrying a tray of coffee-mugs up.

“Look”, said Farnol “Perhaps they’re leading us somewhere”.

“Now you’re getting fanciful”, said Bardin “Drink your coffee”.

The fog had dispersed by the following morning, leaving an invigorating day of bright, if very chilly, sunshine and strong breezes. Adam decided to celebrate by making pancakes for breakfast. Afterwards Bengo went up on deck to get some fresh air, and was leaning on the bulwark, feeling the wind blowing through his hair, when Hoowie joined him.

“You’ve got coal dust on your face”, Bengo giggled.

“That’s because Bardin’s had me lugging buckets of coal up from the hold, for the fires”, said Hoowie “Boy, has he really got it in for me sometimes! It’s alright for you”.

“How is it alright for me?” said Bengo, who got heartily sick and tired of hearing this mantra from the other clowns.

“People don’t take against your face on sight like they do mine”, said Hoowie “It was the same in our theatrical days. Audiences loved you as soon as they saw your cute face”.

“I’m amazed they got to see my face at all!” said Bengo “Considering that most of the time it was hidden under a custard pie!”

“Hey if it’s any comfort”, said Hoowie “I always used to think you looked dead sexy when you was covered in shaving foam and cream. It was sexy also the way Bardin used to do it …”

“Yeah thanks, I remember!” said Bengo, shortly “And stop all this Bardy’s got it in for you cobblers. He loves you, so do I, although God knows why sometimes!”

To Bengo’s alarm tears began to well in Hoowie’s eyes. This was bad-timing as well, because Bardin had just appeared on deck.

“Oh fuck don’t let him see me like this”, said Hoowie, emotionally.

“If he says anything, I’ll say the wind’s making your eyes smart”, said Bengo.

“Bengo!” said Bardin, briskly “Adam’s calling for you. Do you know sometimes I feel like the bloody messenger boy round here! What’s the matter with him?” (pointing at Hoowie).

“The wind’s making his eyes smart”, said Bengo.

Bardin didn’t look very convinced by this, but contented himself with the rather obvious retort that it made a change from his arse smarting.

The unexpected sunshine had proved to be a much-needed morale-booster. As such Bardin decreed that a special supper was to be held that evening, to commemorate the return of the sunshine. Bardin was almost Pagan in his enthusiasm for this (an analogy which wouldn’t have pleased Kieran, but never mind about that). Bengo was also pleased, and announced that everybody should turn up in their best clothes. He and Bardin, he said, were to wear their flashy gold waistcoats.

“Oh Bardy, you look so trim in yours”, said Bengo, when they were getting ready in their cabin beforehand.

“I’m not surprised”, said Bardin “I spend all day marching about all over this ship. I never get a chance to sit down!”

Bengo looked him up and down approvingly.

“I’ll be boss-eyed with lust by the end of the evening”, he said.

“Good”, said Bardin “I shall look forward to bedtime!”

There was the sound of many voices in the dining-room next door, as everyone began to arrive for the special supper.

“Bardy”, said Bengo.

Bardin turned to look at him with mild exasperation, much as he had done when they were children, and Bengo had suddenly got an urge to go to the loo just as they were in the wings waiting to go on stage.

“I love you so much”, said Bengo, almost sounding like he was apologising.

Bardin melted at this sudden outburst though.

“I love you too”, he replied, moist-eyed.

“This has been a tough voyage”, said Hillyard, who had formed a cosy nest with Kieran, Joby and Ransey at one end of the dining-table “We seem to have been moving forever”.

“Well I for one”, said Ransey, who like the others was rather tiddly “Sometimes wish we had stayed at the muddy archipelago”.

“Yeah, it would have suited you there”, said Hillyard “All dark and gloomy”.

“You liked it too”, said Ransey “I seem to remember you were nagging me about us staring up another distillery there!”

“There’s nothing to stop us going back there one day”, said Kieran, who was gnawing at a very large pickled onion, speared on his fork “At the time we had to move on because Adam was getting worried about the supply levels”.

“You enjoying that are you?” said Joby, cradling a glass of cider in his lap.

“I could live off pickled onions all the time”, said Kieran.

“That’s alright then”, said Joby “’Cos we’ve got jars of the bloody things all over the place!”

“Anyway, as I was saying”, said Kieran “We could go back to the muddy archipelago. But after we’ve had a little rest somewhere else first. I think everyone’s a wee bit tired of being out on the high seas”.

Rumble suddenly produced his banjo.

“Why don’t you play the guitar I bought you for Christmas?” said Hoowie.

“Excuse me!” said Bardin “Did I just hear you right? The guitar YOU bought him for Christmas?! I bought the damn thing, and only because you had broken it in the shop!”

“I haven’t got round to re-stringing it yet anyway”, said Rumble.

“Stop grumbling, Bardy”, said Bengo, leaping to his feet “Let’s do one of our old jolly final songs”.

“Yeah, that should really put the tin-lid on the evening!” said Joby.

Hangovers abounded the following morning. In the galley Adam sacrificed a valuable egg to make Ransey a Prairie Oyster, and asked Hillyard to take it to him.

“Why’s he getting 5-star service?” Hillyard grumbled.

“Don’t argue, Hilly”, said Adam “Just think of this as you in your nursing capacity”.

“What, as a change from me in my stoker capacity, or groom capacity, or vet capacity, or plumber capacity, or engineer capacity?!” said Hillyard.

“Well surely it’s nice to be a man of many parts!” said Adam, unrepentantly.

“Can I have one of those?” said Hoowie, drifting forlornly into the room and eyeing up the Prairie Oyster.

“I’m not sure”, said Adam “The hen’s are being a bit iffy today”.

“They’re got to save all their strength in case Ransey needs another one!” said Hillyard, sarcastically.

“I shall clout you in a minute!” said Adam.

“I feel really rough”, said Hoowie, sitting down and cradling his head on the table.

“Don’t lie around there”, said Joby “It’s not hygienic!”

“Come on”, said Hillyard, putting his hands under Hoowie’s armpits to hoist him up “I’ll help you”.

“Hillyard”, said Adam, in a warning voice.

“I was just going to help him back to bed”, said Hillyard.

“I know!” said Adam “That’s what I was afraid of! I’m sure Hoowie isn’t so incapacitated he can’t find his way back to his own cabin by himself!”

“The only thing he’s suffering from is bad acting”, said Bengo “I’m going to have to re-name him Hoowie The Ham!”

“That’s not fair”, said Hoowie “I feel really out of it”.

“So what else is new!” said Joby.

“That was quite a night last night wasn’t it?” said Hillyard.

“Somebody last night told me I looked like a loo brush”, Hoowie complained.

“Oh that sounds like Bardy”, said Bengo “It’s the sort of thing he’d say”.

“I dunno who it was”, said Hoowie “But when I remember I’m gonna use them as a fucking loo brush!”

“I wonder who invented the loo brush”, said Joby.

“Good grief”, said Adam “We have been at sea too long if you’re starting to ponder things like that!”

There was the sound of Toppy galloping down the quarterdeck steps and shouting for Adam.

“It’s not like Toppy to get excited”, said Adam.

“Well I can’t imagine it’s anything for the rest of us to get excited about!” said Bengo.

Toppy flung the door open.

“Toppy dear”, said Adam “You look positively animated!”

“Land!” Toppy exclaimed, breathlessly “Land!”

“But we’re not expected to hit land just yet”, said Adam.

“I expect we drifted in that bloody fog”, said Hoowie “We’re probably way off course, could be anywhere by now”.

“Oh I do hope it’s not ‘The Cursed Isle’ again”, said Adam “Frankly, that would be rather tedious!”

The island, as they approached it, seemed about as salubrious as ‘The Cursed Isle’. The part facing them was made up of dark volcanic rock, which gave it a very forbidding appearance. They sailed round to the south side to find somewhere to dock, and discovered that this side of the island was slightly less intimidating, although it still didn’t look the most cheerful of places. Dark woodland fringed the bottom part of the mountain, and there was a rather grey, dingy sort of a beach.

“Not exactly a tropical paradise”, said Adam, with a wistful sigh, when they assembled on the main deck to have a look at it.

“At least it’s got some vegetation on it”, said Hillyard “It’s not like that bald island we came across when we first got to ’The Chain Islands’”.

“It’s not ’The Cursed Isle’ anyway”, said Joby.

Bardin said that he would take the skiff and have a quick look round on the island, as much as they could anyway considering that much of it was rocky mountain. He would take the usual scouting party of Bengo, Kieran, Joby, Hillyard and Ransey. At the last minute he also decided to take Mieps, which delighted Hillyard no end.

They had managed to moor at a place fairly well tucked into the sheltered cove. The water stayed deep quite some way close to the shore, and there was a long, dilapidated mooring platform running out on wooden stilts into the water. For this first trip though they decided to take the skiff, in case they wanted to take any local produce (if there was any worth having) back to the galleon with them.

First impressions of the island, when they finally reached the beach, were not encouraging. The silence for one thing was intense. There was no bird noise, and even the ocean sounded muted. Bardin and Mieps found some hoof-marks embedded in dried mud, which were too small for horses, and they came to the conclusion that there may be wild goats on the island.

“Certainly it’s been inhabited”, said Bengo “With the landing stage there and all”.

“You don’t say!” said Bardin “We would never have figured that out for ourselves!”

“There’s no need to be such a rotten dog, Bardin”, said Bengo “Just because you’re nervous, there’s no need to take it out on me!”

“Alright calm down, you two”, said Ransey.

“How’s the hangover, Ranz?” Hillyard boomed.

“I don’t know if anyone’s interested, but there’s a track leading up from over there”, said Kieran.

The track seemed to lead through the densely wooded area and on up the volcanic mountain. The 7 of them set off up it, feeling as though every footfall they made was too loud for the island to bear. The atmosphere was heavy and cloying. Warm (though certainly not humid) and very damp at the same time.

“This track was properly surfaced at one time”, said Kieran, pointing down at the bits of tarmac which had managed to survive the degradations of time.

“It was a long time ago then”, said Joby “It almost looks as if someone tried to dynamite it”.

“Perhaps they did”, said Ransey.

On one side of the track they came across a row of small brick cottages, now fallen completely into a state of disrepair, and almost buried under wild grass and trailing plants. Windows hung off hinges, roofs sported gaping holes, and doors had long since disappeared. Ahead of them though a pair of large iron gates blocked the path. The gates were padlocked and topped with barbed wire. But there was somebody, a person of slender build, standing just on the other side of them.

“Alright”, Bardin whispered to the others “It’s important we don’t come across as threatening in any way”.

“And what if THEY come across as threatening?” said Joby.

“Then we apologise for trespassing and leave … sharp-ish”, said Bardin “Have we got anything white we can wave?”

“Here”, Bengo pulled a grubby handkerchief out of his pocket.

“I suppose that will have to do”, said Bardin, and he held this sorry-looking article aloft.

“We mean no harm!” he shouted at the person on the other side of the gates.

He repeated this 3 or 4 times as they slowly approached the gates. The person on the other side suddenly began to unhook the lengths of chain binding the gates together. When they emerged they could see that she was a woman, possibly aged in her 30s, although it was hard to tell. She was shockingly gaunt and thin, and the singlet and shorts she was wearing seemed to be made up more out of patches than the original material. Her hair though was abundant and frizzy, and tied back in a ponytail for convenience. She was carrying a rifle slung over her shoulder, but she didn’t grab it to point at them, which was encouraging.

“Who are you?” she asked, and her soft voice sounded more confused than threatening in any way.

“Our ship is moored below”, Bardin explained “We’ve been sailing out on the ocean for some while. We must have drifted off-course, because we weren’t expecting to find this island here”.

“I see”, she said, as though all that made the most profound of sense.

“We apologise if we’re trespassing”, Bardin began, but she interrupted him.

“Nobody owns this island”, she said “At least not we know of. But I would strongly advise you not to stay on it after dark, go back to your ship before the dark comes”.

She cast a nervous look up at the sky, where some storm clouds had been gathering all the time they were on the island.

“When the storm comes it will get very dark”, she intoned “You must leave before then”.

“Is it alright if we stay for a couple of days?” said Bardin “It’s just that our animals have been cooped up, and it would be nice to give them some exercise whilst we’re here”.

“I’ve told you”, she said, still in the same gentle tone as ever “It’s not up to us. All I can advise you is to confine your visits to daylight hours … and daylight hours that are not dark, as this is becoming”.

She had a strange, slightly lyrical way of speaking, almost like someone who has learnt all her speech from old books.

“Are there many of you on the island?” said Bardin.

“Four”, she replied “Myself, my two brothers, and my sister”.

“You’re the only ones here?” asked Bardin.

He peered through the gates behind her, and caught a glimpse of a large house which had been built out of a clearing in the woods. It was two-storied, and ringed all round by a veranda with fancy iron fretwork on it. It certainly looked like the sort of grand place which had once seen better days.

“We have always lived here”, she said.

“We would love to meet you all”, said Bardin “Why don’t you come down to our ship tomorrow morning and take some refreshment with us?” (And by God, you look as though you need it! he thought).

“In d-daylight?” she stammered slightly, as though asking his confirmation of this.

“Certainly”, he said “If it makes you feel better”.

“Please hurry”, she said “The darkness is growing”.

“What did you make of all that then?” said Hillyard, after they had walked a short distance in total silence.

“Bloody weird”, said Joby.

“I found myself talking like her!” said Bardin “Talk about courtly old-fashioned manners!”

“It doesn’t sound like she’s used to talking to people”, said Ransey “Living out on this island, just the 4 of them, I suppose that’s not surprising”.

“And what was all this scared of the dark stuff?” said Bengo.

“Could be absolutely anything”, said Bardin “That’s why I was keen to get her to come down to the galleon tomorrow. She might explain things then”.

Adam reacted strangely to this informal invitation. He seemed to be implying that they should have made an exact appointment! To make matters worse, they hadn’t even exchanged names. In private, Kieran and Joby decided that being so long at sea had addled Adam’s brain a bit, and he was reverting to type, in other words acting like a mad aristocrat who had been isolated from the real world for too long. Fortunately, Adam didn’t get to hear these conclusions.

Bardin took Adam’s reaction as a criticism of his diplomacy skills, not helped by the fact that it had also rankled with himself afterwards that he hadn’t asked the woman what her name was. Bengo didn’t see how any of it mattered a damn, particularly as he personally couldn’t care less whether he saw the woman, and her mad witterings on about not being on the island after dark, again or not. It was all of monumental unimportance as far as he was concerned. He was glad when Bardin seemed to have seen sense the next morning, and announced that he wasn’t waiting around on the galleon for her to turn up, as the horses needed taking to the beach and exercising. Bengo heartily concurred, and said that he was glad that Bardy was still occasionally capable of using his brain.

Kieran and Joby meanwhile decided to go for a walk up through the woods, on the grounds that it was a fairly bright day, with no hint of dark cloud, and so no one could possibly object, surely. When they reached the area where the house was they patrolled the perimeter of it and found that much of the wall had crumbled away completely, so the performance at the big gates yesterday, with the length of chain, had been a bit of a charade. They followed the crumbling wall until they came to the back of the house, where some bedraggled-looking hens were pecking around in a sort of rundown kitchen garden. The door leading into the kitchen area of the house was standing wide open. The woman they had seen at the gates yesterday was wearing a dressing-gown, and whipping up eggs in a bowl. She didn’t seem remotely surprised when she saw them. Instead she put the bowl down on a table, and stood with her hand extended in a formal greeting.

“I am pleased to see you again”, she said, in a very Eliza Dolittle-ish way “My name is Miss Annabel”.

Alright, if that’s how she wants it, thought Joby, and so he introduced himself as “Mr Joby” and Kieran as “Mr Kieran”.

“Please come in”, she said “I am making a souffle”.

“A souffle?” said Joby “They’re quite difficult. You have to get them exactly right”.

“Yes you do”, she said, sadly, as though getting it wrong would mean certain death.

Three other doors stood open in the kitchen. One opened into a dark passageway, another to an even darker flight of stairs which led downwards (presumably to the cellar), and the third into a sunlit living-room. Directly facing them through the doorway was a scowling woman lying on the sofa, wearing a rather tatty dressing-gown. She was every bit as fat as Miss Annabel was thin, which surprised Kieran and Joby, who had put Miss Annabel’s emaciated form down to bad nutrition, particularly as the island didn’t exactly look as though it was overflowing with abundant produce. It was hard to see how anybody could get fat living there.

“That is my sister Miss Deborah”, said Miss Annabel, and she went over and shut the door.

This was somewhat of a relief as Miss Deborah had looked rather hostile. Suddenly a loud banging noise broke out from below them. Miss Annabel went swiftly over to the cellar door and slammed it shut, which muffled the sound a bit, but didn’t exclude it completely.

“Our boiler is rather old”, she said, in explanation.

“Your boiler?” said Kieran, who was surprised to learn that the island ran to such modern conveniences.

“One of our brothers must be running a hot water tap upstairs”, she said “It sets it off you see”.

“What does it run off?” asked Kieran.

“I don’t really like to say”, she said, coyly, and then whispered “Animal dung”.

“Oh right”, said Joby.

“You do not mean us any harm do you?” she asked.

Kieran and Joby looked askance, and both began to protest at once.

“No!” said Joby “We don’t mean anyone any harm”.

“We’re travellers”, said Kieran “That’s all”.

“I see”, said Miss Annabel, which sounded loaded in some peculiar way.

All of this was getting on Joby’s nerves, and he made excuses for them to leave. When they got back out into the forest he let rip.

“I couldn’t have stood it in there a minute longer!” he said “I don’t have any time for people who can’t even bring ’emselves to say ‘shit’! And as for that reclining compost-heap in the next room!”

“That wasn’t very gallant, Joby”, Kieran laughed.

“Well did you see the face on it?” said Joby “It looked like it had spent its entire life sucking on a crate of lemons! God, I hope Bardin isn’t intending for us to stop here for any length of time. I couldn’t stand that lot as neighbours!”

They came to a vantage point overlooking the beach, and they stood looking down at Bengo and Bardin below, who were racing each other on horseback along the beach. By the time Kieran and Joby got below, the clowns were ready to take the horses back to the boat.

“Oh that was great”, said Bengo, holding onto Zelda’s mane “That was almost as good as sex!”

Joby went to help Bardin off his horse (though he could just as easily have got off by himself), and relished the feel of Bardin’s slim body running through his hands.

The feel of Bardin’s body, (made particularly pleasurable after Bardin’s vigorous spurt of exercise), was a brief interlude of pleasure for Joby though. The visit to the house had left him on edge. Late that evening, Adam found him glumly examining his face in the mirror in the galley.

“God, I look uglier than ever”, said Joby “Bloody great scar down me face, and big shiny spot growing on the end of me nose. I swear it’s gonna be able to glow in the dark at this rate!”

“What a shame Christmas is over then!” said Adam “We could have called you Rudolph!”

“Oh very funny”, said Joby.

“What’s the matter with you?” said Adam “You seem gloomier than ever this evening. You barely said a word all through dinner. Was it something Miss Annabel said?”

“Miss Annabel”, Joby gave a snort of annoyance “Trying to talk to her is like trying to communicate with an alien. She doesn’t talk like a normal human being”.

“Oh be fair, old love”, said Adam “I strongly suspect she’s spent nearly all (if not all) her life out on this wretched island. She hasn’t had much opportunity to learn how to interact with people”.

“Summat too damn weird about the whole set-up if you ask me”, said Joby “It wouldn’t surprise me if it turned out they was a colony of aliens who had crash-landed here years ago!”

“I think you’re letting you’re letting your imagination run away with you”, said Adam “And it’s late. I suggest you go to bed”.

“I will, but I’m gonna take a turn up on deck for a moment”, said Joby “Try and clear my head a bit”.

“Well don’t be too long”, said Adam “Bardin wants to lock all the hatches tonight”.

“I don’t blame him!” said Joby “Not with that lot about over there!”

Once up on deck Joby lit one of Julian’s cigar-butts, which he had pinched from Julian’s dressing-gown pocket earlier in the evening. It was a very still night, except for the gentle bucking of the galleon as she sat on the ocean surface. The island was a dark hump sticking out of the water, with only a few dim lights from up where the house was.

“What’s up, lad?” said Hillyard, coming across the deck.

“I wanna get away from here, that’s what’s up”, said Joby.

“I don’t think we’re staying here for long”, said Hillyard “There’s nothing to keep us here. It’s just long enough to give the animals a bit of a break from being cooped up that’s all”.

There was a thump behind them, as Bardin put the lantern he had been carrying on the surface of the deck, whilst he negotiated himself and his pink nightdress up through the hatch.

“Now look”, he said, crossly “I want to lock up. Just how long are you two going to be staying up here?”

“We were about to turn in”, said Hillyard “Stop getting your nightie in a twist!”

When he got back to his cabin, Bardin complained that the others had been laughing at him.

“You’re a clown, Bardy”, said Bengo, drowsily “They’re supposed to laugh at you!”

“Oh well”, said Bardin, huffily “As long as I’m just here to entertain everybody!”

One thing Joby had been worrying about was if they stayed too long at the island, Kieran would begin to get wrapped up in the lives of the people at the house there, and as far as Joby could see, they weren’t worth getting wrapped up in. Fortunately though Kieran was very excited about the thought of setting sail again In fact, he was like a dog that was gleefully anticipating going for a walk.

“I hope that’s settled your mind a bit”, said Hillyard, as he and Joby sat on the dilapidated wooden quay, and watched Lonts playing ball with the dogs on the beach.

“Yeah”, Joby grudgingly conceded.

“Good!” said Hillyard “You never know, if you stop worrying your spot might clear up!”

Hillyard suddenly jumped to his feet. He had spotted somebody standing at the edge of the trees. A stringy, rather pasty-faced looking man, who was (presumably) one of the brothers. He was levelling an air-gun at one of the dogs.

“Hey!” Hillyard ran towards him, closely followed by Joby.

The man took flight into the woods, but they pursued him. They came to a stop when they found that the man with the air-gun was now having a verbal confrontation with another man. This one was even more seedy looking, with a shaved head and a body as equally emaciated as Miss Annabel’s. Like her, both of them were wearing clothes that weren’t much more than rags.

“You’ve got to give me something”, the skinny, bald man was saying “I’ve got nothing!”

His brother responded by punching him viciously in the mouth.

“What the …!” Hillyard erupted again.

The assailant turned and levelled the air-gun at him, letting it off, missing Hillyard’s arm by a whisker, and hitting a tree instead. Joby said afterwards, when reporting this incident to Adam, that Hillyard’s face at this point “had been a picture”. Lonts appeared on the scene, and his forbidding size and booming voice fortunately set the idiot with the air-gun off into the forest.

“I am taking the dogs back to the ship”, Lonts announced, loudly “If anyone tries to attack them again THEY WILL DIE!”

“Yeah alright, calm down!” said Joby.

This outburst wasn’t hot air on Lonts’ parts, but then again Lonts’ outbursts never were. When enraged like that, he meant every word he said. The Indigo-ites sensibly decided that they couldn’t risk stay any longer on the island. The idiot with the air-gun was clearly every bit as daft as he looked, and he certainly couldn’t be trusted not to go firing it willy-nilly again.

It was in a stangely mood light of dawn that they set sail again, off on what was increasingly beginning to feel like a voyage into eternity.

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