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Easter was to be early that year, which meant that Lent started very early. The Indigo-ites had a pessimistic thought that, come the onset of February, Brother Umbert would grow all austere on them. There wasn’t much sign of that though. His generosity was as lavish as ever. He even offered to clothe them, and invited them over to have a look at a selection of robes and boots in an upstairs store-room at the tower. The Indigo-ites had worn monks’ cassocks before, in their travels with de Sade and Crowley, so they were quite happy to attempt it again.
“This is good quality stuff too”, said Bengo, as he and Hoowie went through the chests in the small room, whilst some of the others were partaking of Umbert’s hospitality in the room below.
“Dig these boots, Benje”, said Hoowie, holding up a pair “Real suede too”.
“No good in wet weather”, said Bengo.
“Oh who cares about that! Hey”, Hoowie pulled one of the robes on over his clothes “These old habits can be dead sexy. Ease of access and all that”.
He pulled the front of his up, as if to demonstrate.
“Think of Bardin in one of these, eh?” he nudged Bengo.
“There won’t be much ease of access if he’s got his starchy knickers on!” said Bengo.
“Perhaps we can dye one of these pink and then he can have a sort of woolly nightie!” said Hoowie.
Bardin chose that moment to walk into the room, making Bengo jump out of his skin.
“Hoowie”, said Bardin, imperiously “Julian’s climbing to the top of the tower with Ransey and Hillyard, he wants you to join them”.
“OK”, said Hoowie, pulling the cassock off “I hope they don’t ask me anything intelligent”.
“Why the hell would they do that!” said Bardin “Bengo, start parcelling some of these things up, ready to take back to the ship”.
“Yes, Bardy”, Bengo sighed.
Hoowie had had to follow Ransey up the tower steps, and had been trying not to barge into him all the way. Ransey had snapped at him for sitting next to him at the dinner-table the night before, which had left Hoowie feeling rather shaken. Unbeknown to him though, Finia had given Ransey a lecture earlier about the vital need to lighten up a bit, and be more human to people. (Hillyard had overheard this last bit, and it had given him hours of untold amusement afterwards). So, today, Ransey was trying to be friendlier Hoowie hadn’t cottoned onto this yet though, and was still a bag of nerves.
“Not much to see, my fellow poor brethren”, said Hillyard, who had been first with the brass telescope which was fixed to the top of the tower “Just slowly thawing tundra”.
“What’s that square thing on the horizon?” said Julian, who was next “Like a large, white square building?”
“Let me have a go”, said Ransey.
In the very far distance he could see the vague outline of what (from here) seemed to be a large block of salt sanding next to winding forest.
“Is it a house?” said Hillyard.
“Impossible to say”, said Julian “From all this distance”.
“If Umbert doesn’t know“, said Ransey “I suggest we wait for the complete thaw and the tracks in the field to reappear”.
“And then have a little drive out here?” said Hillyard, his eyes lighting up at the thought of driving again “We can christen the truck we bought in The Village of Stairs!”
Hillyard wasn’t to get his heart’s desire for quite some while though. Time seemed to have little meaning at Brother Umbert’s sanctuary. Originally, they were only going to be there until the Spring came, but when the Spring came they were distracted by Umbert’s orchards and kitchen garden, and in the Summer the cove itself was too idyllic to miss. In all this time they only saw one of the Tall Creatures once, and that was moving very slowly away from them, on the far horizon. There were air-drops from the City, but owing to the bad conditions there, these were few and far between, and the pilots of these vehicles didn’t seem to show any interest in the galleon lying at anchor off-shore, not enough to land and investigate anyway. After all, that was what Brother Umbert was there for: to provide shelter for weary travellers.
Incredibly, a year went past, and the Indigo-ites were still in-situ. They were never ones to look a gift horse in the mouth, and this haven was too good to vacate in a hurry. Brother Umbert was a genial host, even though his enormous whisky measures caused Adam some moments of consternation, and Brother Digby could be annoying, but was easily put in his place with a few firm words.
The daily routine of life at the chapel was one that was soothing to the nerves, particularly nerves that had become rather frayed after some difficult times at sea. The Indigo-ites, for all that they might look unorganised (and at times downright anarchic) on the surface, liked order and ritual. It was what helped to make them so good as seafarers. And in this life there was plenty of order and ritual, not just in working the land, but in the chapel itself.
The clowns loved the theatricality of some of the services, most particularly when they carried the candles into the building at sunset, and saw their own shadows dancing on the walls. For Brother Umbert, who had been conducting services often in the past just for himself and Digby’s delectation, all this attention was very gratifying.
“Here, just another”, said Brother Umbert, pouring a measure of whisky that looked more like a mug of cold tea.
“Oh no, not for me”, said Adam, hastily. He was sitting in the window of the kitchen at the chapel. The window was spattered with raindrops. It had been raining solidly for nearly a week now, and the snows of Winter had become the mud of Spring. “I’ve got the dinner to cook”.
“Come and eat over here”, said Umbert, throwing his arms wide in an expansive gesture.
“But then we’d have to get back to the ship at the end of the evening”, said Adam, who didn’t relish that prospect in this weather.
“Stay here”, said Umbert “We’ve got all those guest-rooms standing empty”.
The guest-rooms were a row of monk-ish cells strung out along an upstairs corridor. They were inhabited very rarely.
“To tell you the truth”, said Umbert “I could do with some company this evening”.
“Is there something on your mind?” said Adam.
“We haven’t had an air-drop for quite some while”, said Umbert.
“Well we’re not exactly short of things here”, said Adam, who secretly thought that a whisky shortage would do Umbert no harm at all.
“No, no, it wasn’t that I was thinking of”, said Umbert “I was thinking that this could mean The Sweats have got really bad in the City. What if everybody’s been wiped out?”
Adam wanted to reassure him, but he remembered those enormous piles of rotting rubbish heaped up around the massive City gates. He wondered how much they had contributed to the general chronic illp-health of the City-dwellers.
“Have you tried contacting them by wireless?” he asked.
“Every night, for weeks now”, said Umbert “Not a word back, not a single bloody word”.
“Yes I see”, said Adam “That doesn’t sound too good”.
“Do you think”, said Umbert “That Hillyard would agree to take me there in the truck? I know it’s a long way, but I’ve got to know the worst”.
Adam remembered entering the City in The Old Continent after Father Gabriel had been deposed, and finding it strewn with corpses. He wasn’t sure if Umbert really would want to see the worst.
“I’m sure he would agree to take you there”, he said “If that’s what you wanted, but I would argue that you give a little more time first”.
Bengo, Bardin and Tamaz were sorting out some candles in the chapel.
“Look at the stains on this altar cloth”, Bardin was complaining, when Toppy suddenly hurtled down the steps that led upstairs. He landed with a thump on the floor of the chapel, his cassock up around his waist. Bengo burst out laughing.
“Shut up”, said Topy “I’ve got important news”.
“Ooh, get you!” said Bengo.
“Brother Umbert wants Hillyard to take him to the City in the truck!” said Toppy, excitedly.
“You’ve been listening at doors again”, said Tamaz.
“Does it matter how I got the information!” said Toppy.
“What does he want to go there for?” said Bardin.
Toppy explained about Brother Umbert’s fears.
“But it’s such a long way there”, said Bengo “I’ve seen Brother Umbert’s maps. It would take weeks in the truck”.
“It’d be another adventure”, said Bardin, gloomily.
“I’m sick of adventures”, said Tamaz “I’ve liked this past year. We’ve not had any”.
“All good things must come to an end I suppose”, said Bardin.
“Why?” Tamaz demanded to know.
“It’s a stupid idea if you ask me”, said Bengo “If the City is riddled with a contagious disease, then Brother Umbert could catch it”.
“And if everyone is wiped out”, said Bardin “The shock could do for him too”.
At dinner Lonts was the only one to raise the issue of the Tall Creatures. That several weeks of travelling across open country in a truck would leave them exposed to them. The fact anyway was that no one particularly wanted to know what was going on in the City. It was clearly a place that had been decaying for a long time … but there was Brother Umbert and his worries to consider.
“This is what you get from making friends with people”, said Joby “You end up getting caught up in their problems”.
“I’ve got a better idea”, said Ransey “In the meantime anyway. I’ll play with the wireless every evening and see if I can pick anything up”.
Julian stood with Brother Umbert at the top of the tower, as they both looked out over the surrounding countryside. Not a snowy tundra at this time of the year, but a dusty plain.
“Has Ransey picked anything up yet?” Umbert was asking “Only it’s been weeks now”.
“I know”, said Julian.
Ransey and Hillyard had been fiddling with the wireless set most evenings after supper, sometimes until well into the night, but they hadn’t been able to pick up a damn thing.
“I’ve tried on ours too”, said Umbert, dejectedly “No joy”.
There had been times recently when Julian had cynically wondered if it was the prospect of running out of whisky that so terrified Umbert, but listening to the palpable note of sadness in his voice today said otherwise.
“Have you never been attracted to a woman, Julian?” Umbert asked, suddenly.
“The old girl”, said Julian.
“Any other?” said Umbert, who still, even after all this time, didn’t know what to make of Mieps.
“I’m gay”, said Julian, bluntly.
“But women have a softness to them that men just don’t have”, said Umbert “Don’t you think?”
“Since you’ve asked, I will tell you”, said Julian “I find women rather a drag on the whole. There have been a few notable exceptions, but most of the time I’ve found them to be rather whiney”.
“Men whine too”, said Umbert “Oh God, can they whine!”
“Yes, but I can sort them out”, said Julian “Give ’em a clout and tell them to put a sock in it. You can’t do that with women, not without incurring high drama. Tears and shouts of what an unfeeling monster you are, that kind of thing, which is all a bit of a bore really”.
(This was rather ignoring the fact that Adam often referred to him as an unfeeling monster on a regular basis!).
“I haven’t any patience with all that”, said Julian “Gets in the way of having a good time. Is there a woman in the City you’re concerned about?”
“Oh just …“ Umbert looked awkward and flustered “There was nothing between us. She had someone else. I don’t think she ever took me seriously, and I haven’t seen her in years. She’s probably forgotten I ever existed … that’s if she’s still alive”.
So that’s your big secret, thought Julian, unrequited love. That would account for the massive whisky consumption too.
“Women have such soft, smooth faces”, said Umbert, as they turned to go down the stairs “Don’t you agree?”
“Prefer the scratch of stubble myself”, said Julian, unrepentantly.
Over on the galleon, Joby was lying in Julian’s bunk with Hoowie. During the past year Joby had got over his angst about Hoowie’s sometimes over-powering sexual presence. This had been helped by a confrontation with each other, in which Hoowie had said that he couldn’t be blamed if he flirted with everybody, as sex was the only blasted thing he was any good at!
And Hoowie was certainly good at it, as Joby soon found out for himself. It wasn’t just that Hoowie was a versatile and energetic sexual athlete (although God knows he needed to be to cope with Julian), but there was a softness, a vulnerability, and the way his body gently yielded, which was irresistible.
“Having sex with Hoowie is like putting a knife gently through soft butter”, Joby had remarked afterwards.
“I’d better get a move on in a minute”, he now said.
“No need to rush”, said Hoowie.
“Julian’s in a right mood this morning”, said Joby “I don’t wanna set him of any worse”.
“You won’t make him worse”, said Hoowie “He’ll probably give me a spanking, but I’d have got that anyway!”
“You’re as bad as Kieran you are!” Joby laughed, as he gathered up his clothes from around the floor “Sometimes, when Julian’s been extra vigorous with you, you get a little wriggle in your walk. Dead sexy is that”.
“I wriggle even more when I go to sit down!” said Hoowie “You know something Joby, I agree with you about coming to this place. We should have moved on when the thaw came last year. Now we’re caught up in Brother Umbert’s problems. He sort of lured us into his web with comfort though”.
“I’m not gonna disagree with you”, said Joby “Even though there are high-minded souls who would probably think I should”.
“What high-minded souls?” said Hoowie “One of our lot?”
“No, some of the Codlik clones in the outside world”, said Joby.
“I don’t give a monkeys what they think”, said Hoowie “They’d probably gon on about how Julian handles me, and yet I need it”.
Joby had barely got his shirt and pants on when Julian came into the room.
“Don’t scuttle off, Joby”, he said “Doing your thief in the night impression”.
“I thought I’d go and see where Kieran is”, Joby blushed.
“Where he usually is at this hour, I expect”, said Julian “Down in the hold, looking after the horses”.
Hoowie got out of bed and kissed Julian’s hands, as was his custom. In the old days, Joby would have been irritated by this, seeing it as Julian’s massive god-like ego being stroked even more, but now he saw it gave Hoowie as much pleasure as it did Julian.
“Have you been amusing my little pet in my absence?” Julian teased Joby.
“Yeah alright, lay off!” Joby groaned.
“I’ve found out Brother Umbert’s secret”, said Julian “Unrequited love. Some woman back in the City that he’s been carrying a torch for all these years”.
“That’s not good news”, said Joby “It means he’ll go on at us to take him there even more!”
“I don’t like all this, Hillyard”, said Ransey, late that night.
He was sitting once again at the wireless set, which was situated in a corner of the dining-room.
“What in particular?” said Hillyard, placing two mugs of strong tea on the table.
“Of all the places we’ve travelled to over the years”, said Ransey “This has to be the eeriest. This whole vast land with so few people in it, and those freakish creatures”.
“And there’s another little matter”, said Hillyard “Umbert seems intent on going to the City, but he doesn’t seem to have considered that he would be putting his head into the lion’s mouth. He oculd get struck down with this terrible disease”.
“And that’s not the worst possibility”, said Ransey “What if everybody has been wiped out? How is he going to cope with that?”
“What’s Bardin said about it all?” said Hillyard.
“Just the same as us”, said Ransey “But he’s also said that if Umbert is determined to go, there won’t be much we can do distract him from it”.
Bardin had a surprise in store for them though. When everybody had assembled round the table for breakfast the next morning, he bustled into the room clutching a map that Brother Umbert had given to him some time before.
“Alright, listen up”, he said “I’ve had an idea”.
Bengo looked worried at this. He didn’t like it when Bardin went getting ideas on his own. He felt a definite lack of control in his life when that happened.
“Umbert reckons it would take about a month to drive to the City from here”, he said “If we took the truck”.
“That would be a terrible thing to do”, said Lonts, in a doom-laden voice “If one of those Tall Creatures was to come upon you when you were stuck in the middle of nowhere on your own …”
“Oh don’t start all that again!” said Joby “We can picture what could happen, thanks. We don’t need you to draw diagrams for us!”
“It doesn’t matter anyway”, said Bardin “Because I have a better solution. I have worked out that it would take us just as long to sail there, and if we did it would be a lot safer”.
“And we could all stay together”, said Toppy, girlishly.
“That would certainly be a relief”, said Adam.
“When are you going to put it to Umbert?” said Ransey.
“Bugger what he thinks”, said Joby “If he doesn’t like it, he can travel overland with Digby, and we’ll go and find our house!” Adam went ashore to see Brother Umbert, and found him well in his cups. Fortunately, Umbert wasn’t a violent drunk, or a petulant one, or a sulky one. He merely got more voluble and expansive, which was useful when you were trying to get information out of him, even though at the same time Adam was dismayed at the size of his measures.
“So … how exactly do you feel about Bardin’s little idea?” said Adam, as he tried to restrain Umbert from trying to top up his (Adam’s that is) whisky glass again.
“You would do all that for me and old Digby?” said Umbert.
(Old Digby was at this moment playing the organ down in the chapel. For man who - as Adam strongly suspected - possessed very few brain cells, he always seemed to find something with which to occupy himself).
“Well it seems the only way really”, said Adam.
“I suppose”, said Umbert, dolefully “If there’s no one left in the City at least you won’t get shot at again”.
“There’s nothing like looking on the bright side is there!” said Adam.
“Be warned though”, said Umbert “If the people are still there, you might see terrible sights. The bad atmosphere in this land didn’t just create some monstrous animals, it also caused deformities in people. I’ve seen some with huge growths, tumours, on their faces. The most shocking thing you could ever see”.
“Whatever that thing was that came from The Chain Islands”, said Adam “It was truly terrible”.
“When are you planning on going then?” asked Umbert.
“A few days yet”, said Adam “The others want to give the animals some exercise first, before setting off on a long voyage. They’re going to gallop the horses up to the horizon. Take the truck too”.
“They want to see what that white building is don’t they?” said Umbert.
“Yes”, said Adam “We have all been rather laggardly in that respect lately”.
It turned out to be an old petrol-station. Abandoned for quite some considerable time, most likely centuries.
Which was a bit of a letdown really, all things considering.
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