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It was a choppy voyage to Aspiriola, which at times, when they were out on the bleak depths of the ocean, made it quite scary. Otherwise the journey passed without incident, apart from Toppy trying to give Bengo fencing lessons. This got off to an inauspicious start when Toppy grandly exclaimed “Present!” Bengo looked totally baffled, and Toppy, in a very rattled voice, had to explain that this meant Bengo had to hand him his sword.
At Aspiriola they had the usual farce of the Custom’s Inspection. As they normally lived their lives free of any official rules and regulations, it was always especially tedious on the rare occasions they came up against any. And the customs men of Aspiriola were mind-bogglingly diligent in their enthusiasm for petty officialdom. Not just throwing open drawers and cupboards, but even emptying bowls and jugs (on one instance one man even managed to empty the wash-stand over himself, and Bengo had to stuff the hem of his singlet into his mouth to stop himself laughing). Fortunately this embarrassing incident seemed to dampen their fervour (literally) and they left the boat soon afterwards.
The Indigo-ites’ plan was to go into town that morning and inspect the livestock at the indoor cattle market. Bardin went into the cabin to find out why Bengo was taking so long to change his top.
“I put it on inside out first”, said Bengo “So I had to take it off again and reverse it”.
“What am I gonna do with you!” said Bardin.
“I know I know, I’m really stupid”, said Bengo.
“You’re not stupid, just a bit daft sometimes that’s all”, said Bardin “You’ve got too much life in you to be really stupid. Really stupids look like that”, he put on a blank, gormless open-mouthed expression “And talk v-e-r-rr-y slow-ly”.
“And then you become a Customs Inspector at Aspiriola!” said Rumble.
They all piled in one of the horse-drawn carriages that patrolled the waterfront as a sort of taxi service, and went to the indoor cattle market. Their business there was conducted in as quick a time as they could manage. The others waited outside, and Bardin and Mieps went inside, sauntered purposefully around the pens until Mieps saw a couple of pigs that he deemed worthy of looking at, and then ran his hands over them in a capable fashion. Money changed hands, the pigs were arranged to be delivered to the sloop that evening, and they left again. Much to the relief of the other traders, who felt jumpy at having such a grave-looking Ghoomer in their midst.
Orders were placed at various other traders in town. This was done in a very quick, efficient way as Bardin had drawn up detailed lists during the voyage. Relieved to have completed their business so soon they all trundled off to the largest restaurant in town, a newly-opened palace of delights, which claimed to lay on entertainment twelve hours a day, whilst people ate. As such the Indigo-ites fondued raw steak whilst watching a lurid wrestling match on the stage in the middle of the room.
“Did you have to wear your diamonds out?” said Bardin to Tamaz, who was wearing a t-shirt, jeans, his pink taffeta wrap, and a diamond necklace “In here of all places?”
“They’re paste, not real”, said Tamaz “I left my real ones behind at the Castle”.
“Oh I beg your pardon, Duchess”, said Bardin.
Hoowie was hassling some women who were sitting nearby, offering to dance for them. Bardin ordered him to shut up and calm down.
“Drinking in public seems to have gone to his head”, said one of the women, as though Hoowie was a boisterous four-year-old “I expect he’s not used to it”.
“He’s used to drinking”, said Bardin “It’s the ‘in public’ that’s gone to his head!”
“I like pain!” the winner of the wrestling match screamed rather theatrically from the ropes “I love pain!”
“If he wasn’t so big I’d suggest he became a clown in that case”, Bardin muttered “All clowns need to be masochists”.
“We didn’t knock each other about like they do”, said Bengo, who had watched the wrestling match with horrified unease.
“No, you saved the more extreme stuff for off-stage!” said Rumble.
Farnol laughed uproariously and then stopped guiltily when he caught Bardin glaring at him.
“Excuse me”, said Farnol, coughing in a decorous manner.
“You did used to get pretty violent”, said Tamaz “I’ve seen how you knocked each other about”.
“Ando now the moment you’ve all been waiting for!” cried the compere.
“The end of the wrestling?” said Bardin.
“This week’s lottery draw!” said the compere, and the audience erupted into the wildest applause they had shown so far.
A plastic box of numbered ping-pong balls was brought out. Before activating the draw the compere said “very good luck to you all”, and an impatient woman screamed from the audience like an animal “Get on with it!” It was depressing. The ping-pong balls started whizzing round, and a hushed silence descended over the whole auditorium, which only finished at the close of the draw, and disappointed groans and tearing up of lottery slips when a winner came forward.
“How do you follow that?” said Bardin, gloomily.
“Let’s get some more booze and some hash to take away”, said Rumble “And go back to the sloop and fool around”.
The hash waiter was called over, and his menu scrutinised with great care. Bardin made a selection and a small, squashy brown paper parcel handed over. They left the restaurant half-an-hour later, after watching a truly amateurish comedy routine.
“What a shit clown he was!” said Bardin, clambering tipsily into a waiting carriage, not made easy by the crate of beer they had dumped on the floor of it “He’s the sort who gives us a bad name”.
“I thought that juggling with his shoes bit was … was different”, said Bengo, trying vainly to think of something charitable to say.
“Any old arse can juggle with two objects”, said Bardin “Even Hoowie could manage that! He couldn’t even do a pratfall! What kind of self-respecting clown can’t even do a pratfall!”
“I don’t think he’s been doing it properly for very long”, said Bengo, still trying to be charitable “He needs more practice perhaps”.
“Clowns are born, not made”, said Bardin.
“That’s certainly the case with you lot!” said Tamaz.
“You would know, you’re one too!” said Bardin “Don’t even think of trying to deny it”.
“No, or we’ll suck your tits”, said Rumble.
“At least wait until we get home”, said Tamaz “If you can control yourself for that long”.
Rumble would have to contain himself for even longer, as the pigs were delivered when they got back to the sloop, and had to be settled into the hold, where they were stroked, oohed and aahed over as though they were kittens. Tamaz and Mieps carried over bundles of hay to tuck round them like blankets.
“God knows how we’ll ever bring ourselves to stick knives in ‘em”, said Bardin.
He felt rough and shaky when he woke up the following morning, and instantly yelled for Bengo, who was nowhere in sight.
“He’s in the galley”, said Tamaz, who had been washing himself at the same bowl as Mieps on the other side of the cabin “He’ll never hear you from here”.
“I need help putting my shirt on”, said Bardin.
Tamaz gave a longsuffering sigh and came over to help him.
“That stuff must have been dodgy that we had last night”, said Bardin.
“We’re alright”, said Tamaz.
“You’re not human”, said Bardin.
He walked very shakily out into the corridor, which felt as though it had grown substantially in length overnight. He was pleased to see Bengo sauntering towards him with his hands in his pockets. Bardin leaned thankfully against the door of the heads and waited for him.
“What the hell did we get up to last night?” said Bardin, when Bengo got close to him “I can remember everyone dancing in the nude to the gramophone and that was about it”.
“All good clean fun”, Bengo smiled “We all just messed around a bit that was all, played a few raunchy games”.
“Then why do I feel as though I’m choking on dog-shit?” Bardin snapped.
“Because you had more to drink than the rest of us”.
“No I didn’t”.
“Yes you did actually, Bardy”, said Bengo “Don’t worry, it’s very captainly. I can remember loads of times when Hillyard and Finia had to put Julian back together again the morning after”.
“Maybe, but I’m never doing it again, never”, said Bardin.
Bengo burst out laughing.
“I mean it!” said Bardin.
“Sure!” said Bengo “Pigs arse you do!”
In spite of his fragile state Bardin was acquiescent about going on a final tour of the town that morning. They all hired another carriage and instructed the driver to show them all the touristy bits. Bardin paid very little attention, having the energy to do little more than sit slumped in a corner of the carriage, fanning himself with his cap. He sat up abruptly when he realised they were trundling down a seedy back street that seemed to be full of cheap theatres and cinemas, even cheaper bars, and numerous pictures tacked up everywhere showing all the glories (or not as was the case in some instances) of the naked human form.
“What the fuck are we doing in this shit-hole?” Bardin yanked at the driver’s sleeve.
“I thought you guys might like to see the red light district”, said the driver, an exceptionally ugly but amiable young man.
“Why, are you on commission or something?” said Bardin.
“We might as well have a look round now we’re here”, said Rumble “Anyway, the traffic’s so slow we’ve got to sit here until we get spewed out at the other end”.
He was right. The narrow one-way streets were clogged with other tourist carriages, rickshaws, horse-drawn dray-carts and other delivery vehicles. It was as if they were all on a slow-moving conveyor-belt. Bardin noticed a lurid photograph outside one theatre showing a naked male butt rogering another one. Emblazoned across the top was the words “SEE WHAT ONE ACTOR HAD TO DO TO GET A PART IN A T.V SHOW!”
“That could’ve been you if I hadn’t kept an eye on you”, said Bardin, nudging Bengo.
“You more like”, said Bengo “You were the one who kept on at one point about breaking into television”.
“No I didn’t”, said Bardin “Television would have been beneath us”.
Rumble and Farnol were laughing themselves silly on the opposite seat.
“Ah shaddup”, said Bardin.
Finding themselves stuck in what seemed to be the slowest traffic-jam in history, they abandoned the carriage, paid off the driver, and went into a nearby cinema, mainly in order to escape from the intense glare of the noon-day sun. This flea-pit specialised in showing low-budget sex and horror shlockers. At the moment the current film was showing to a tiny but near-empty auditorium. The Indigo-ites seemed to fill it by their presence alone.
The big screen was showing a man and a woman having a bath together. The woman was fondling the man which had him groaning in ecstasy, with his head thrown back and his eyes closed. He was so absorbed in this that he didn’t notice the woman lean over the side of the bath and pull out a carving-knife from under the rug.
“Oh no!” said Bengo, who had a queasy presentiment as to what she was going to do with it.
“Pay attention, you wanker!” Rumble hollered at the man on the screen, who was still blissfully unaware of his impending doom.
The mutilation took about half-a-minute to carry out, but to those watching it felt more like five hours. When she had completed her home-made castration, the woman got out of the bath and tossed the bloodstained knife casually into the wash-basin.
“Look what she’s done to me!” the man screamed.
“Oh for fuck’s sake don’t show us!” Farnol pleaded.
In vain as it turned out. The man got out of the bath in a welter of blood and mutilated flesh.
“Whose fucking brilliant idea was it to go in there?” Tamaz squawked, as they left the cinema in rather shocked state.
They found their carriage and driver still in the same spot where they had left them.
“Haven’t you moved at all?” said Bardin.
“You’ve only been gone a few minutes”, he replied.
“Really?” said Bardin “It feels more like I’ve aged about thirty years!”
“Didn’t you like the film then?” said the driver.
“Watching blokes having their dicks cut off isn’t my idea of a good time!” said Bardin, as they all clambered back into the vehicle.
“I sometimes think it would be the ultimate sexual thrill”, said the driver.
“It wouldn’t be one you could repeat too often would it!” Farnol brayed.
“Don’t encourage him, he’s obviously a right weirdo”, said Bardin.
“I’m hungry”, said Tamaz, and then sulked when Bardin glared at him. Tamaz thumped Bengo on the arm.
“What?” said Bengo.
“It’s your role to keep Bardin in good temper”, said Tamaz “You’re falling down on your job”.
“I can’t do anything with Bardy when he’s being a cross-patch”, said Bengo.
“I’ve got a splitting headache”, Bardin snapped “I don’t want any of you to talk for a few minutes at least!”
“O.K”, said Rumble, sitting opposite him “But the street noises might be a bit tricky to switch off, mate!”
“Hey it’s Bengo, Bengo the clown!” a woman shouted from a window overhead. A host of other faces crowded at neighbouring windows.
“Bardy, wave”, Bengo hissed at his partner “They’ve recognised us”.
“It’s you they’ve recognised”, said Bardin.
“Don’t be so fucking boring”, Rumble leant across and tore off Bardin’s cap so that he could be fully seen “Give ‘em what they want. It’s not as if they see you too often”.
“Wave, Bardy”, said Bengo “Be more professional”.
Bardin glared at him but waved.
“Oh aren’t they sweet!” one of the overhead whores cooed down.
“See, she means both of us”, said Bengo “Let’s kiss, that’ll really get ‘em going”.
“They’ll be wanting us to do an erotic floorshow next”, Bardin grumbled.
“Well you’re in the right place”, said Rumble.
Bengo planted a kiss on Bardin’s lips and an appreciative cheer went up all around, particularly from a young male tart wearing only white underpants, who jumped up and down on the pavement.
“Get me out of here”, Bardin grumbled, again.
When they finally got back to the prom, Bardin handed the wad of cash to Rumble and ordered him to pay the driver. He thumped onto the sloop and then below deck to the cabin.
“Shit!” he said, spitting out the mouthful of water he’d drunk from the wash-jug “It’s all soapy”.
“That’s ‘cos we all shaved in it”, said Bengo.
“Couldn’t you have poured it into the bowl first!” said Bardin “Then I’d know”.
“I’ll get you some fresh”, said Bengo.
He sprinted along to the galley and then back again with another jug of water.
“I’m dreading the journey back”, said Bardin, lying on the communal bed.
“Why?” said Bengo “It means we’re going home”.
“It’s the night we have to spend out on the ocean I hate”, said Bardin “So far away from the shore. I fee vulnerable out there”.
“But it can also be safe”, said Bengo “Remember when the zombies came at us at the coast just below the Village of Stairs? It was by putting out from the shore that we saved ourselves. They couldn’t get to us out there”.
“True, I hadn’t thought of that”, said Bardin.
“I can’t wait to get home”, said Bengo “I want us to go off by ourselves for a couple of days, into the forest, or to the old lighthouse. Just the two of us. I could cook for you, I’ve picked up a lot since working with Adam and Joby”.
“Nothing too ambitious though I hope”, said Bardin.
“How could I do anything too ambitious over a portable gas stove!” said Bengo.
“You could borrow one of Finia’s frilly nightdresses as well and play the woman completely!” said Bardin.
“I think you would like to play the woman actually”, said Bengo, bashing him gently with a pillow “Bring out your feminine side. I wouldn’t be surprised if you had transvestite tendencies”.
“Oh Bengo!” Bardin laughed and pulled back onto the bed, raking up his shirt to hungrily grope at his body.
The door opened and Rumble came in, accompanied by a barrage of what sounded like furniture-moving noises. He coughed ever so discreetly.
“Everything’s being delivered”, he said.
“Then shouldn’t you be up there checking it?” said Bardin.
“I’ve already done that”, said Rumble “I just wondered what further orders you had. Thought I’d better check with you before you got too engrossed down here”.
“Do the others want to visit the town’s bath-house?” said Bardin.
“I don’t think so”, said Rumble “All that can wait properly until we get home. It’s only each other we have to stink out on here”.
“Then as soon as everything’s delivered”, said Bardin “And you’ve checked it all properly on my lists, we might as well lift anchor and set off. No point hanging around. Can I leave you to supervise all that?”
“It’ll be a challenge”, said Rumble “But I’m sure I’ll hack it. Oh and by the way, I think you’d look a real peach in a frilly nightie!”
“Have you noticed how he always has to have the last say?” said Bardin to Bengo, once they were alone again “There’s no sodding privacy anywhere!”
Bengo sprinted across the room and bolted the door. He stood with his back to it and looked very pleased at Bardin, who patted the bed and called him back over.
Much later in the evening, when Aspiriola was reduced to being a string of coloured lights on the horizon, Bardin sat with Rumble up on the poop-deck after dinner, sharing tumblers of whisky. Rumble remarked on Bardin being closeted away with Bengo below deck for several hours.
“Nice to see you being so relaxed about the pleasures of the flesh these days”, said Rumble.
“Why, what the hell was I like before?” said Bardin “Some uptight jerk I suppose?”
“Yeah”, said Rumble “I think you saw sex as a necessary evil in those days. Of course there was one reason for that, you only had one grand passion, and that was Bengo. Why you refused to do anything about it in those days I’ll never know”.
“Because it felt like incest, something perverted”, said Bardin “We were too close for all that. Not that Bengo would have minded. It never bothered him when he still woke up wrapped around me. He used to look at me as if I was mad when I said we couldn’t do things like that anymore, now we were no longer little kids. And I was bloody mad too! The misery I could’ve saved myself!”
“You needed a shock to the system to bring you to your senses”, said Rumble “Some people are just like that, and you’re one of them. Bengo did you a favour in the long-term by running off”.
“Yeah, sure he did!” said Bardin “Didn’t you feel at all weird the first time you got like that with Farnol? You two were like brothers, just as we were”.
“It happened by chance”, said Rumble “We were in our room one evening and he was talking nineteen-to-the-dozen about nothing at all …”
“Sounds familiar!” said Bardin.
“And I jokingly laid my head on his shoulder and pretended I was falling asleep”, said Rumble “And then I was stroking his arms and his back, and it just went on from there. I think if he’d made a fuss about it afterwards I might have got hung up, and started going on that it shouldn’t have happened, but he just carried on as normal, so we were fine. The only real difference was he started introducing mock-sodomy gestures into our routines, which he hadn’t done with to me before. And I got more relaxed about grappling with in some routines. I’d felt nervous about it before. It was really him who carried us over the bump”.
“I should’ve just gone along with Bengo too”, said Bardin.
“No, that wouldn’t have worked, not with you”, said Rumble “You’d have got into a guilty state about it afterwards, and that could’ve driven a wedge between you. It might even have caused you to split completely. Could you imagine it? You both living and working in the same town, but not with each other? Perhaps even with a different partner?”
“No, it would’ve been shite”, said Bardin “I can’t imagine having the rapport with anyone else that I had with him. After he ran off to join Kieran, Ullly said to me it’s going to be nigh-on impossible to replace him. We had a special chemistry. He could be a temperamental little sod, but we were in tune with each other, like you are with Farnol. Ully suggested some other partners, but he was only half-serious. After all those years I couldn’t even think about working with someone else. I said I’d go solo instead. For ages I was the saddest clown on the block”.
“You were still good though”, said Rumble “No one else had your physical skill, the way you could tie yourself in knots and leap over backwards was second to none”.
“Maybe”, said Bardin “Audiences were kind on the whole. I think they felt sorry for me! But I knew they really wanted my cheeky dimpled little sparring-partner back. Whatever complicated, clever things I did alone didn’t make up for the pleasure they got out of seeing me and Bengo kick each other’s arses!”
Hoowie burped loudly and in a long drawn-out fashion as he passed by below them on his way to the galley steps.
“Rumble”, Bardin whispered, laying his hand on Rumble’s “Tell me truthfully, as one old friend to another, when I was real drunk last night, I didn’t … DO anything with Hoowie did I?”
“I don’t think there’s that amount of drink in the world!” said Rumble.
“Thank God!” said Bardin.
“Jeesus, it’s hot”, said Hoowie, finding Farnol and Bengo in the food-hold, where they were eating handfuls of dried cereals out of a packet “I feel a bit spooked you know, as though we’re being watched. Can you feel that?”
“No”, said Farnol “Perhaps whatever it is is only watching you, Hoowie-Boy!”
Bengo snorted with laughter, which annoyed Hoowie.
“Your two partners are having a real lovey-dovey conversation up on the poop-deck”, said Hoowie “Mind you, I don’t blame ‘em, they don’t get much satisfying conversation out of you two fatties”.
“Satisfying conversation!” said Farnol “Where did you learn really long words like that?”
“What were they talking about?” said Bengo.
Farnol gave a groan at Bengo’s dim-wittedness at falling into Hoowie’s trap.
“You two”, said Hoowie “Mainly you though. You know how Bardin likes to harp on about when you left him. And Rumble encourages him, ‘cos then he can be all sympathetic …”
“Bengo!” Bardin called from the galley “Come and help me settle the pigs for the night!”
“O.K”, Bengo sighed.
Bardin then practically pounced on Hoowie in the doorway.
“And if you don’t zipper it shut for the rest of the night”, he said “You can spend the night in the hold!”
“I won’t say another word”, said Hoowie.
“I wish I could believe that was true!” said Bardin.
“But I think you ought to be aware somebody’s watching us”, said Hoowie, calling after him “I’m very sensitively-aware of this kind of thing. Sometimes I think I’m as psychic as Kieran!”
“There’s no way I’m gonna believe he’s got anything in common with Kieran!” said Bardin, as he and Bengo crouched in the straw next to the pigs “His trouble is he’s got imagination but no brain. It’s a bloody irritating combination at times! And you’re mad when you encourage him to wind you up”.
“Hoowie does it all the time, it’s hard to stop him”, said Bengo “Anyway fools speak the truth sometimes”.
“When?” Bardin barked.
“Rumble does enjoy talking about the old days with you”, said Bengo “He likes anything that makes me look bad, and him all kind and caring and sympathetic”.
“Rumble hasn’t got a spiteful bone in his body”, said Bardin “He’s not interested in those kind of tricks. He cares as much about you as he does about me. If it’d been me who’d run off and left you, I’m certain he would have kept an eye on you as he did on me. Probably even more so as you’re such a great baby! For your information he used to have a go at me plenty of times backstage for being too hard on you. The amount of times I heard him say ‘give the kid a break’. So there!”
“That didn’t stop him beating me up that time in the dressing-room!” said Bengo.
“You were being a right brat”, said Bardin “It was high time you got given a good hiding. My only regret is I didn’t do it myself!”
“I was only little”, said Bengo, causing Bardin to play an imaginary violin “Nine-years-old I was”.
“And I was 10, how strange!” said Bardin.
“And there was Rumble, a great, stringy tall thing of …”
“I only came up to his chest”, said Bengo.
“You still do!” said Bardin.
“I was sobbing and hollering like mad”, said Bengo.
“You were doing that before he started smacking you!” said Bardin “Look, you might as well jack this in. I didn’t give you any sympathy at the time, and I’m certainly not going to now! He hardly left a mark on you anyway. From what I remember he was the one who ended up with all the bruises from where you kicked and punched him!”
“Bardy”, said Bengo “You won’t ever divorce me will you?”
“Are you crazy?” Bardin exclaimed “After everything we’ve been through! Has Hoowie been winding you up on that score too?”
“No, it’s not him”.
“No, it was a dream I had when we dozed off this evening”, said Bengo “I dreamt we were old, and I had got really fat and dopey”.
“Well that bit sounds likely!” said Bardin.
“And you summoned me to you”, Bengo continued “And said in this cold voice ‘Bengo I’m divorcing you. I’ve found someone younger and fitter’. Oh it was awful, it was so real. I could only stand there, feeling helpless. I didn’t know what to do with myself”.
“Stop it!” said Bardin “You’re just winding yourself up. It was only a stupid dream, and we’ve all had more than enough of them lately! Can you honestly believe I’d do that? I’d have to completely bonkers! It doesn’t matter how fat and daft you get in your old age, I’ll still take care of you. I can see me changing your incontinence nappies, like Adam used to do for Lonts”.
“And I’ll do the same for you if needs be”, said Bengo.
“Thanks”, said Bardin “Now let’s turn in, it’s been a long day. Night night piggy-wiggies, oink oink!”
Bengo and Bardin went into the cabin, where they found Tamaz and Toppy playing ‘Snap’, and Mieps sprawled on his stomach on the bed, leafing through one of the fashion magazines they had bought for Finia. He stared at each picture with a disgusted look on his face, as though he took each one as a personal affront. Bardin jumped on the bed and spanked Mieps’s bottom, which brought forth the usual hissing from him.
“Can you sense anything round here?” said Bardin.
“Like what?” Mieps snapped, getting ready to use the magazine as a weapon if necessary.
“Hoowie, that vision of loveliness who has such a civilising effect on the rest of us, thinks we’re being watched”, said Bardin.
“He’s mad”, said Mieps.
“There is that of course”, said Bardin.
It was like the return of some old enemy, in fact it was the return of an old enemy. Bardin woke up in the middle of the night to hear footsteps overhead, pacing steadily backwards and forwards, just as they had done at the Big House.
His nerves stretched taut, Bardin jumped out of bed and ran across to the corner of the room, where the rifle was propped. Bardin feverishly shovelled cartridges into it. The sharp crack as he re-set the barrel woke up the others.
“Listen to it”, he hissed “Listen”.
The footsteps stopped and there was a sound as though whatever was causing the noise had flopped onto its stomach and pressed its ear against the floor to listen to them.
“The door!” said Tamaz, running across the room “It’s not bolted!”
He slid the bolt across, whereupon their persecutor suddenly thundered across the deck overhead, down the quarterdeck steps, and with unnerving speed hurtled towards the cabin door. Whereupon it ceased, as though it had vanished on the spot into thin air.
After what seemed like an eternity of anxiously waiting, but nothing further happened, Bardin wiped his face clean of sweat and disabled the gun.
“Is that it?” said Hoowie “Has it gone?”
“We’re not going out there after it are we?” said Toppy, looking anxiously across at Bardin.
“No, but I’ll sit up in here and keep watch for what’s left of the night”, said Bardin “And then at full light we’ll set sail”.
Rumble pulled out a fob-watch from the jumble on the desk and flipped it open.
“Christ, would you believe it!” he said “It’s four-thirty!”
After their stressful night, and his own depleted ration of sleep, Bardin was in a foul mood when they pulled anchor in bright, sparkling sunshine and set off on the final leg of their journey back to the Bay. He snapped bad-temperedly at Rumble up on the main deck, and told him to tie his hair back as he looked “like a bloody girl!”
Rumble went below to comb his hair, as directed, and clean his teeth. He was joined in the cabin by Bengo, who sympathised with him over Bardin’s attitude. Rumble playfully dabbed a dollop of toothpaste on the end of Bengo’s nose.
“Don’t waste valuable toothpast like that”, Bardin barked from the doorway.
“Oh Bardy, that was a really boring thing to say”, said Bengo.
“Who’s driving?” said Rumble.
“Mieps”, said Bardin “He gets irritated if I watch him too closely”.
“I know how he feels!” said Rumble “I’m gonna go into the hold and check Farnol’s not cracking up”.
“Toothpaste is a really stupid thing to get hysterical about”, said Bengo, when Rumble had gone.
“I was not getting hysterical”, Bardin protested.
“You’re lucky I don’t squirt the lot down your trousers, Bardy!”, said Bengo, and then he too flounced out of the room.
Farnol got tense so rarely that it was instantly noticeable when he did. Rumble gave him a shoulder massage in the unbearable furnace-like atmosphere of the boiler room.
“I wasn’t expecting all that to happen again out here, not right out here”, said Farnol “I don’t think I can cope with it, Rumby-boy. Perhaps I’m going through a mid-life crisis”.
“You’ll cope with it fine”, said Rumble “I know you too well to think otherwise”.
“It’s alright, it’s only me”, said Bengo, coming into the room. “I haven’t brought HIM with me. He’s sulking back in the cabin”.
“That means he’ll follow you though”, said Rumble.
“Do you want me to leave then?” said Bengo “I can go and help Toppy in the galley”.
Rumble and Farnol protested sincerely that he should stay.
“It’s fun to watch you handle him when he’s like that”, said Farnol “And I, we, could do with all the laughs we can get after last night!”
“Choppsy thinks he’s going through a mid-life crisis”, said Rumble, still massaging Farnol’s shoulders.
“No you’re just tired that’s all”, said Bengo “You look very tired. It’ll be easier when we get home”.
“We won’t feel so vulnerable”, said Rumble “And we are vulnerable out here”.
“Which is probably why It’s done it”, said Farnol “Whatever the shitbag is”.
“And at home you won’t have this lousy job”, said Bnego, glancing round the boiler-room “Back on the old Indigo I used to help Hillyard in the hold sometimes. He said I was all that kept him sane in there”.
“Don’t let old cactus-tongue hear you going on about that!” Farnol chuckled.
“Why not?” said Bengo “It can’t make him any more grouchy than he already is!”
Bardin made them all jump by suddenly walking into the hold.
“You’re not allowed in here”, said Farnol “This is the Funny Clowns Private Club. To gain admittance you have to prove you’re a funny clown”.
“And the mood you’re in I don’t think you could manage it!” said Bengo.
“Oh fuck the lot of you!” Bardin exclaimed.
He turned to leave in a huff and promptly fell over an abandoned packing-case, sending him sprawling onto his belly.
“I think you’ve just secured yourself life membership!” said Rumble “And I always thought it was really Bengo who was the king of the pratfalls! Are you alright, mate?”
“You’re not hurt are you, Bardy?” said Bengo, helping him to his feet.
“Of course I’m not hurt!” said Bardin, his clown’s honour outraged by such a suggestion.
“It’s what we needed was a good laugh like”, said Farnol.
“I’ve got things to do”, said Bardin, and he left the room, this time without falling over anything.
“I’d better go after him”, said Bengo.
He found Bardin leaning moodily against the wall in the long corridor, with his arms folded.
“I think you should have a shave, Bardy”, said Bengo “You don’t want to go home looking like that”.
“Why not?” Bardin snapped “We’ve been at sea, why shouldn’t I look like this?”
Bengo gently but firmly steered him down the corridor. As they neared the corner by the heads Bengo kicked him in the pants, to which Bardin promptly kicked him back. All was well again. For a while at any rate.
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