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By Sarah Hapgood

“It might be an idea if you learned to use the karsey”, said Joby, on emerging from the heads to find the rooster waiting outside “Then we wouldn’t keep coming across chicken-shit everywhere!”

He shut the door to the heads and then the cabin door to stop the rooster getting into either. He then returned to the galley where Bengo was standing at the door, waiting for him. The boat was gently swaying as it made its way through the slightly choppy waters between The Bay At The Edge Of The World and the Village of Stairs.

“It’s too hot to work in here”, Joby grumbled.

“Stop whining or I’ll make you go and work in the hold”, said Adam, who was chopping vegetables “You’ll really know what heat is in there!”

“Perhaps we should work with no clothes on”, said Bengo.

“In a kitchen?!” said Joby “No thanks. Reminds me of those nutters who have barbecues in the nude. Gives me the jitters just thinking about it!”

“Doing the grilled sausages would be quite precarious”, said Adam.

“In our undies then?” said Bengo.

“Wait until we’ve bought Joby some new ones first, old love”, said Adam.

“When’s all these jokes about my underwear gonna stop?” said Joby “At least they’re clean! I dunno, with everything else that’s going on at the moment you’d think you had more important things to talk about than my underpants!”

“Ah, but your underpants are more interesting!” said Adam.

They all ate on deck at the long trestle table, which had been meticulously laid by Toppy. The evening was beautiful and humid, and as the meal progressed what few items of clothing that had been worn were largely consigned to the floor of the deck. They were at anchor in the middle of nowhere. Because of the frightening episode with the zombies further down the coast some time before, they anchored well away from the shoreline, out to sea.

“I wish we could live like this all the time”, said Lonts “Just on the sloop like this, in the middle of nowhere, forever”.

“Get a bit boring wouldn’t it?” said Joby.

“I suppose so”, said Lonts, sounding unconvinced.

They certainly lingered for as long as possible out in the middle of nowhere, free as they were for the time being of neighbours and “ghostly” brothers. Subsequently the sun was setting the following day before they steamed into the harbour of the Village of Stairs, where they got a pleasant surprise.

The waterfront, which before had been a picture of bustling, seedy decay, had been rejuvenated, cleaned up, with new boardwalks put around, and a general air of more orderliness about it. One of the possible reasons for this became more clear as they sailed along the waterfront looking for a space to fasten up. There were women about, and quite a few of them too! Up until now the Village of Stairs had been left relatively untouched by the expanding female population, but it certainly wasn’t the case now. In fact it began to seem as though it was solely women who now inhabited the waterfront.

And when the women realised that Kieran, no less, was descending amongst them, they went wild. Kieran had never been really at ease with what he called “the popstar phenomenon” he sometimes generated. He was always convinced that they had got him muddled up with someone else! But there was certainly no case of mistaken identity today. It was Kieran they wanted.

The Indigo-ites finally anchored the sloop at the far end of the harbour, the last boat in the line, with the town on one side and the whole vast swirling ocean on the other. Kieran had no choice but to disembark and greet his excited fans on the boardwalk. Most of the other Indigo-ites disembarked as well, to get their “land legs”.

The clowns couldn’t believe the transformation that had come over the waterfront, which had been a hive of muddle, disorder and seediness for as long as they could remember. They ran along the boardwalks, shouting and exclaiming at it all.

It wasn’t just Kieran who was getting adulation.. So was Lonts, who Joby afterwards referred to as His Royal Kiskevian Magnificence. Adam, Julian and Hillyard were doing pretty well too. And Joby earned a rather guarded respect. His reception might have been as fulsome as the others, if the public weren’t so intimidated by his famed grumpiness.

At one point he heard one of the women telling Kieran that everyone on the waterfront had had their sleep disturbed the night before by a “horrible voice”.

“What do you mean, a horrible voice?” said Joby.

“Well I couldn’t make out what it was really”, said the girl “I couldn’t tell what he was saying or where it was coming from, or even how I heard it”.

“You were probably dreaming!” said Joby.

Bengo ran out onto one of the gangways and promptly fell into the sea. No one at first was unduly alarmed about this as, like all the other Indigo-ites, Bengo was a strong, capable swimmer. But then he didn’t resurface, and he seemed to be below for what felt like to the others a worryingly long time. Bardin froze where he stood and shouted Bengo’s name in a very strained voice. Eventually Bengo came gasping to the surface, obviously fighting for air. Rumble leaned over and hauled him up onto the boardwalk as though he was a small dinghy. He laid him face down on the boardwalk and kneaded the excess water out of his body.

When Bengo was sufficiently recovered, Bardin took him back onto the sloop, stripped off his sopping wet clothes and smothered him in towels.

“Rumble’s convinced now you did it on purpose”, said Bardin “As a practical joke. I said you wouldn’t do a joke that would worry us all so much. Anyway, I was always the one who did the high-risk bits”.

“Like that time you climbed out of our bedroom window?” said Bengo, now nursing a glass of brandy.

“What took you so long to swim back up?” said Bardin “I was amazed. You’re normally a good diver”.

“I felt as though I was being pulled down”, said Bengo “Not like the hands in the marshes that time, not as though someone was grabbing me, but as though I was being sucked down, like a … like a …”

“Like a vortex?” said Bardin.

“That’s right”, said Bengo “It was completely terrifying, Bardy. I could just feel myself being pulled down and down and down, and everything was going pitch-black. I really had the impression that I could just keep going down into blackness and oblivion forever. It was the scariest thing that has ever happened to me”.

“Sounds like gravity gone mad”, said Bardin.

“Like a whirlpool really”, said Bengo “Sucking me in”.

“Well”, Bardin gave a sigh “We’ve really had quite a start to this trip haven’t we! Women going on about horrible voices in the night, and you nearly falling into the abyss! And we thought we were coming here to get away from it all!”

After a night free of horrible voice and terrifying vortexes some of the Indigo-ites went ashore, whilst Joby and Bengo sifted through the straw in one of the holds to look for eggs laid by the chickens. Joby complained that it would be easier to go ashore and buy some!

“I’m surprised at you not wanting to go out”, he said to Bengo “You could see Hal and Shag and Dork-Face and Snot-Rag, and all your other old showbiz pals”.

“There was no one called Dork-Face and Snot-Rag”, Bengo giggled “Although it would have been appropriate I think! Something’s been puzzling me, how come you and Josh were so different in personality?”

(Joby quietly took this as the greatest compliment he had ever been paid).

“I dunno”, he said “Perhaps he was a throwback. Perhaps there was someone generations back in our family who’d been a right sod, and it incubated for generations and finally came out again in Josh. I strongly believe a lot of these things are genetic you know”.

“That’s worrying”, said Bengo “I remember me and the other clowns talking about this once. How scary it is not knowing what’s in our genes”.

“I don’t think you’ve got anything to worry about somehow”, said Joby “Yours must be pretty harmless!”

“We need to utilise this trip to consider some very pressing problems”, said Ransey, sitting in a bar-room window with Julian and Hillyard.

“We are on holiday, you silly old fool”, said Julian “Why can’t you just relax?”

“We are effectively now homeless”, said Ransey “AGAIN!”

“We’ve got the sloop”, Hillyard protested.

“And we always seem to have been happiest living on boats”, said Julian.

“It would be no good living on the sloop during an extended period of bad weather”, said Ransey “Like during Storm Season for instance. We only have two habitable rooms below deck, the cabin and the galley”.

“Can’t we at those times just sail up-river, away from the worst of it?” said Hillyard “We’ve done that before. Or, tell you what, why don’t I buy another boat? We could have two then. The sloop’s handy for keeping the animals on, but perhaps get another tugboat for living on during bad weather. We could run a gangplank between the two of ‘em and hop from one to the other. Sounds alright to me does that. Am I talking to myself here?”

“I’ve just heard someone speculating about our ages”, Ransey whispered.

“So what?” said Hillyard “I’m amazed they don’t do it more often. After all, we must be about a 100 really. Or you certainly must!”

“How long have we been coming to the Village of Stairs now?” said Julian.

“Gawd knows, years”, said Hillyard “The first time was when Gorth died, and we met Bengo, and Adam had to go into hospital”.

“Mm, rather a long time ago”, said Julian “And we look years younger now than we did then! I’m amazed no one’s tried to burn us at the stake!”

“Well I can’t sit here talking about these things”, said Ransey “I’ve got a date with Adam in the food-hold to make up the shopping lists”.

Julian jealously watched him get up to leave, and then hassled Hillyard to finish his beer so that they could all return to the sloop.

Bengo had been reluctant to leave the boat at all, terrified of falling off the boardwalk again, but Bardin had nagged him into coming for a walk with him. They went up to the Cabaret of Horrors to look at the photographs outside it, and see who was performing there these days.

“The same dreary old faces”, said Bardin, with a certain grim satisfaction “That photo of Hal must be years old! He looked a lot older than that when we saw him in Aspiriola”.

“I’m surprised he didn’t have a go at us about our perpetual youth”, said Bengo.

“Oi!” Joby exclaimed, standing a few steps below them with one of the goats on a leash “Don’t go on about that in public or people’ll notice”.

“But they’ll notice anyway!” said Bengo.

“We could wear masks I suppose”, said Bardin.

“Don’t be cheeky”, said Joby, moving down a few more steps to where Kieran was sitting on a bench, feeding another of the goats from a paperbag of apples.

“Don’t let her scoff all those or she’ll be sick”, said Joby, sitting down next to him “She’s a greedy little wotsit that one, we should have called her Tamaz!”

“What were you having a go at the clowns for?” said Kieran, squinting at him from under the brim of his battered straw hat “People will notice our gift of youth, but if we brazen it out they might just accept it’s us and our strange little ways. You can’t blame me for pulling off that one surely? Coming here again always reminds me how close we came to losing Adam, and how we couldn’t see a future without him”.

“Alright alright you don’t have to sell it to me!” said Joby “I can’t cope with this humidity AND you being all missionary on me. Anyway it’s not immortality is it?”

“There’s no fooling you is there!” said Kieran “We’re not immortal in the old fairy-tale sense of the word. It’s not like those old films you used to get where someone couldn’t be killed, even if he throws himself under a train. Bengo falling into the water last night showed that we’re still vulnerable, when he said he felt as though he could keep falling forever”.

“Don’t remind me”, said Joby “Here comes Lonts. Better not go on about it with him here”.

Lonts plodded heavily up the steps towards them and then threw himself down on the bench, squashing Joby and Kieran up along it.

“I keep looking out for your brother, Joby”, said Lonts “But I haven’t seen him yet”.

“How would you know him if you did?” said Joby “You’ve never met him”.

“Adam told me he looked just like you”, said Lonts “Only even uglier”.

“Oh thanks!” said Joby “Backhanded bleedin’ compliment if ever I heard one!”

The clowns came down to them, Bengo grumbling fractiously that he was too tired to walk around in this heat.

“You’re just looking for an excuse to go back to the sloop”, said Bardin “You’ve got lazy and out-of-condition”.

“No, I’ve been working hard lately that’s all”, said Bengo “Unlike you, who just walks around pretending you’re Captain all the time! Haven’t I been working hard, Joby?”

“Reasonably”, said Joby.

“Bardy’s trouble is whenever we’re here he just wants to go up to the theatre and sneer at everyone who still works there”, said Bengo “I expect he wonders why the place hasn’t fallen down now he no longer works in it!”

“We were the only class act that place ever had, that’s why”, said Bardin.

One would have thought in that case that Bardin would have been delighted that his own peers wanted to acknowledge him and Bengo as a “class act”. Not so.

That afternoon Joby was supervising some deliveries into the food-hold. He had barely finished this when a messenger appeared with a missive for either Bengo or Bardin. “I dunno where Bardin is at the moment”, said Joby “I’ll give it to Bengo. I spose you’re wanting a tip now. Well I haven’t got any money on me, you’ll have to go and ask Hillyard”.

Joby went into the galley where Bengo was laboriously kneading what was supposed to be dough in a large bowl.

“You’ll have to read it to me, Joby”, said Bengo, holding up his sticky hands helplessly.

“’The Village of Stairs Performers, Musicians and Artists’ Guild …’” Joby began.

“Oh not that bunch of wankers!” said Bengo “They were always trying to call strikes all the time. Bardy once said he was amazed they didn’t call a strike because somebody didn’t like their costume! Mind you, Bardy said clowns shouldn’t really belong to a union, as we’re supposed to be naturally anarchic and not fit in anywhere. They do do a lot for performers down on their luck though, old washed-up has-beens would starve if it wasn’t for them”.

“Are you gonna let me read this to you or not?” said Joby “Right, let’s start again, with no interruptions. ‘The Village of Stairs Performers, Musicians and Artists’ Guild wish to take the opportunity of you both being in town to honour you with an award at tonights’ annual Pre-Yuletide Dinner, in recognition of your outstanding contribution to showbusiness. 7:30 at the function room of the ‘Dirty Duck’ in Puddle Alley’! Sounds a really salubrious setting does that, not exactly the Hollywood Bowl! Still, you’d better go and ask Toppy nicely if he’ll iron your best togs”.

“Try and sound grateful when you get there”, said Rumble, giving some furtive last-minute words of advice to Bengo as he left the sloop that evening “In spite of what His Captainship’ll tell you, they don’t dish these things out to just any old sod. I suppose you’re gonna let him do the acceptance speech? Can’t you do it instead?”

“I’m no good at that sort of thing”, said Bengo “I’ve always been a physical performer, not a stand-up comedian”.

“It’s easy”, said Rumble “Just say what an honour it is, and thank them all ‘from the bottom of your heart’, blah-blah-blah. That’s all they’ll want to hear anyway”.

“I’d still rather Bardy did it”, said Bengo.

“O.K”, said Rumble “But if he starts getting all snide give him a good kick. It’s unusual for them to honour clowns in this way, it’s normally some poncey old singer or actor. Don’t let him cock it up for us!”

“This is sad loser stuff”, said Bardin, as they washed their hands in the men’s room of the ‘Dirty Duck’ before the presentation.

“I don’t know how you can call it sad loser stuff at all”, said Bengo, glancing round nervously to check that no one else had come in “They don’t give awards to losers do they! You don’t get ‘Best Loser Of The Year’ award! I think it’s nice”.

“You would!” said Bardin.

“They could have forgotten all about us, Bardy”, said Bengo “Yesterday’s news. But no, they’re giving us an award. I bet Hal and the others are real pissed off about it”.

“That’s the only satisfaction it gives me!” said Bardin.

“If you’re rude to them out there I’ll divorce you on the spot”, said Bengo “I mean it, Bardy! Some performers would give their eye-teeth for this kind of recognition”.

“Some performers need it!” Bardin growled “Alright, don’t look so cross. I’ll behave, I promise”.

At the end of what felt like a very long evening indeed, Bardin sat halfway down the fire-escape of the “Dirty Duck’ and casually turned the abstract metal figure around in his hands. He couldn’t pretend to feel something he didn’t, and it was true that he really didn’t feel anything about this award, although it had given him a chance to publicly pay tribute to Bengo. That was all he could say for it really. Otherwise he had felt too sure of his own talent (and that of his partner) to need lumps of carved metal to be bestowed upon him.

“Where have you been?” he snapped at Bengo when he finally appeared “I thought I was gonna be out here all night waiting for you!”

“I thought Adam might like this”, said Bengo “I cadged it off the president”.

He unrolled the poster which had formed the backdrop to their presentation. It was a blow-up of a professional photograph taken of them in their teens, both sitting on a packing-case outside the stage-door, in the traditional clowns’ vagabond garb of big shoes, baggy trousers, oversized tatty frock-coats, and battered stovepipe hats. The photographer had taken the unusual move of reversing their normal poses and getting Bengo to look serious and Bardin to give a rather wry smile.

“Yeah I’m sure he’ll love it”, said Bardin “Now let’s get home. I don’t like being out in these streets this late, it’s not safe”.

The streets were largely deserted, which only added to the eeriness. The gas-fired street-lamps flickered in the gloom.

“What was that?” said Bengo, clutching Bardin’s arm at one point “I heard a groaning sound, like that zombie that time in Toondor Lanpin”.

Bardin didn’t feel in the mood for telling him he’d probably imagined it.

“When I say run we run, o.k?” he said.

He then lobbed the abstract metal statue in the direction of a blind alley opposite them and yelled “Run!”

“We thought it might be another zombie you see”, said Bengo, the following morning “So we chucked the thing at it and just ran”.

“Oh Bengo!” said Adam “That was your lifetime achievement award!”

“It was an ugly thing anyway”, Bengo shrugged “And you weren’t there, it was real eerie last night. When we were kids we often heard weird noises outside at night. This place a den of mystery”.

“Everywhere’s a bleedin’ den of mystery if you ask me!” said Joby.

The three of them were walking around the fish market on the quayside, all carrying baskets. Joby watched one freshly-caught fish being vigorously gutted, and winced.

“You’re gonna have to get Mieps to do all that”, he said “Or Hillyard”.

“Hillyard seems to have gone out on the prowl today”, said Adam.

“He’s just gone to do a bit of shopping that’s all”, said Joby “Anyway, what would he need to go out looking for sex for? He gets more ‘en enough of it at home”.

“He’s a man”, said Adam “Who knows what goes through his head sometimes”.

“We’re men too”, Bengo protested.

“Well we are”, said Joby “Perhaps Adam’s not sure about himself at the moment!”

“All I’m saying is that Hillyard used to make a habit of that sort of thing in his younger days”, said Adam.

“So did you!” said Joby “Many decades ago! That idiot in Marlsblad who was always fagged out on morphine, then there was that drip in Lixix, the failed actor who wanted to follow you to the ends of the earth …”

“Yes alright, don’t go on, it’s depressing!” said Adam “All that was a very long time ago”.

“So was Hillyard’s antics”, said Joby “He said he had some shopping to do, but he wouldn’t be long, that’s what he said to me. If he comes back with a present for you, I’ll tell him how distrustful you’ve been”.

“Joby, I’m going to put you across my knee when we get home!” said Adam.

Bengo sniggered.

“Bengo, I’m gonna put you across my knee when we get home!” said Joby.

“Who do I get to do it to?” said Bengo.

“Hoowie?” Adam suggested.

“With his hairy arse?” said Bengo “Yuck!”

Adam took their baskets off them and went up to one of the long trestle-tables, groaning with wet fish, which passed for a shop counter. Behind him, Joby fooled around with Bengo, trying to yank his straw hat down over his ears.

“Stop that, you little bastards!” said Adam.

“Bardy would be able to make up a brilliant sketch out of all this”, said Bengo, looking around at all the wet fish in awe.

“Don’t even think about it!” said Adam.

“It’s gonna be a pain in the arse cooking these over that poxy little stove in the galley”, Joby grumbled.

The baskets were filled and they turned to leave the market. Julian appeared and prodded Adam with his walking-cane, demanding to know what Hillyard was doing.

“Oh not you as well!” said Joby “He’s just gone out to do a bit of shopping that’s all!”

“He’s taken Mieps with him”, said Julian.

“Well there you are then”, said Joby “He can’t be on the prowl then”.

“I never said he was!” said Julian.

“Adam did”, said Joby.

“My concern is that he’s gone to buy another bloody horse!” said Julian “And if he’s taken Mieps with him that only compounds my fear”.

“We haven’t got room for another horse”, said Joby.

“Exactly!” said Julian.

They got back to the waterfront to find that Hoowie had caused a major public stir, by taking off all this clothes and peeing into the sea.

“What possessed you?” Bardin demanded to know, having insisted on speaking to Hoowie alone in the cabin “For crying out loud even you’ve been toilet-trained!”

“I was repelling the evil spirits beneath the waves”, said Hoowie.

“Look, where has all this rubbish been coming from, Hoowie?” said Bardin “Don’t tell me, I already know, those bloody monks! And Toppy tells me you haven’t been eating properly”.

“Toppy told you that?” said Hoowie.

“I rely on him to keep me informed about you”, said Bardin “It’s not easy to keep track of everyone in a group this size all the time. Why haven’t you been eating?”

“Fasting helps bring on a state of religious ecstasy”, said Hoowie, although he sounded bewildered by his own words, as though he’d been hypnotised at some point.

“Fasting eventually brings on death by starvation, you nincompoop!” said Bardin “I know you’ve not been that well lately. Even worse than usual I mean. But if you go around doing things like that in public you could get carted away for gross indecency. And then if they go analysing you they might decide to lock you up!”

“Like they did to Lonts?” said Hoowie.

“Yes!” Bardin exclaimed.

“I don’t wanna go in one of those places, Bardin”, said Hoowie “I’ve always been scared of that”.

“Then you have to help us protect you by calming down whilst we’re in civilisation”, said Bardin “It’ll be easier when we get back to the Bay. There aren’t any authorities there”.

There was a scrabbling noise at the cabin door, as of somebody very tentatively knocking on it. Bengo opened it to find Bengo outside.

“I said we weren’t to be disturbed”, said Bardin.

“The others sent me down to see how things are”, said Bengo.

“Going o.k I think”, said Bardin “I’ve threatened him with the loony-bin and that’s calmed him down a bit. Hopefully it’ll last until we get back to the Bay, and once back there we keep him away from the monks. They’re a bad influence on him!”

Bardin remained restless and agitated by the whole Hoowie problem though, and immediately ordered the other three clowns to come out to lunch with him. They were annoyed about this, and even more so when he took them to a flea-bitten bistro that was notorious for never changing its tablecloths, and which they remembered too well as a cheap place to eat when they had been penniless performers.

“Is this some kind of sick nostalgia trip?” said Rumble, pushing his mutton broth and dumplings round his bowl “Is that why you’ve made us come here?”

“I know we clowns are supposed to be masochists at heart but this is ridiculous!” said Farnol.

“We could be having freshly-caught fish fried in butter back home”, said Bengo.

“Eat your lunch”, said Bardin.

“I can’t”, said Rumble “I’m scared stiff what I might find in it! How the hell did we ever survive eating this muck!”

The door opened and a man came in wearing a self-made old crown of tarnished bells on his head. The clowns recognised him as a down-at-heel street entertainer who had been around all through their childhoods and formative years. He had done rather shaky tap-dances and jigs to entertain unenthusiastic crowds, occasionally branching into animal impressions as an added sideline. He was one of those people whose continued existence was a constant source of astonishment to everyone else.

“He’s still alive, Bardy!” Bengo whispered in amazement.

“Now you must realise how lucky you’ve always been”, said Bardin “That could have been us”.

“That was us!” said Rumble “At times. You two would have always been alright though”.

“Not necessarily”, said Bardin “The public are notoriously fickle. They could have decided at any moment that our star was on the wane”, he reached for some money in his trouser-pocket “Go and give him this, Bengo. He’ll accept it off you. He’d probably think I was lording it over him”.

Bengo slid off his seat and went over to the old man, who was sitting down in front of a plate of three burnt sausages, and absolutely nothing else.

“If you start telling me now how I should be grateful for this pig’s swill”, said Rumble to Bardin “You’ll get it on your head!”

“Oh we are tetchy today!” said Bardin “I’m the one who had to get Hoowie sorted out, not you”.

“I’ve always said Hoowie shouldn’t be allowed out in public”, said Farnol “Certainly not on his own anyway. How he’s never been carted off to the funny farm in the past I’ll never know!”

“The old man says he’ll come over and have a word with us when he’s eaten”, said Bengo, returning to the table.

The old man did. He told them he was going to use the money to pay for a bed for three nights at a local vagrant’s doss-house.

“You’re brave”, Bardin joked, as this particular establishment had always been a notorious den of iniquity, chiefly because of the way the inmates were all squashed in together like sardines, with complete strangers often sleeping four to a double bed.

“I’ve got nothing to fear at my age”, said the old man “I get left alone, largely. Good job none of you ended up there. Young Bengo would have been like a sugar-bowl in a roomful of flies!”

“No he wouldn’t”, said Bardin “I would have taken care of him”.

“There are some sad cases stay there”, said the old man, dragging over an empty chair “Ones who’ve ended up having to work as ‘extreme wrestlers’, know what I mean?”

“Brggh!” Bardin gave a mock-shudder, and took his cap off to hold it over his heart “The clowns’ graveyard!”

“I would have thought it’d be safer to sleep in the street!” said Rumble, who was rolling a cigarette for the old man.

“I used to have a nice little patch down on the quayside”, said the old man “I’d get some of those old collapsible packing-cases from the market and line ‘em with newspaper, always plenty of that lying about down there. I was well-set down there, but not now”.

The clowns looked at him expectantly, but the old man was a seasoned entertainer, and wasn’t going to give them what they were now so eagerly wanting without more “encouragement”. Bardin sighed and extracted another coin from his pocket, passing it over to the old man.

“There are strange creatures roaming this town at night”, said the old man.

“There always were!” said Rumble, but Bengo remembered the strange, disturbing feeling he and Bardin had experienced when they were out the night before and shushed him urgently.

“What have you seen?” said Bardin, fully expecting that the old man would say we-e-ll he hadn’t actually SEEN anything.

“A strange creature”, said the old man “With half his face eaten away, as though he’d been ravaged by some terrible disease, you know, like syphilis perhaps”.

“O.K, but why would that on its own stop you sleeping down at the waterfront?” said Bardin “Or did this bloke threaten you?”

“He wasn’t a man!” the old man protested “He was a creature I tell yer! A demon. And his voice, horrible it was. I couldn’t make out what he was saying, or who he was talking to, but I never wanna hear it again. And you’ll get more of this sort of thing from now on, you mark my words. This is what you get when you let women into the town”.

“Oh come on!” said Rumble “You surely don’t wanna go back to the way it was?”

“The world’s a big place”, said Farnol “There’s gotta be room for the ladies as well, surely?”

“It’s because the women are here that these things are being attracted to the town”, said the old man “The women’ll attract ‘em I’m telling yer!”

“But what do you think these creatures are?” said Bardin.

“Who knows what lurks out in the countryside around here?” said the old man “There’s bits of it where no man’s ever been”.

Bardin thought of the castle in the rainforest, only a few hours drive from here, which nowadays housed Angel and Mullawa, and conceded that the old man might have a point after all. And one of the girls on the waterfront had mentioned hearing a “horrible voice” too. Bardin decided he’d better tell all this to Kieran forthwith, and hustled the clowns out of the bar. They abandoned their meal with few regrets.

The sloop had a mildly festive air when they got back to it. Hillyard and Mieps had indeed been shopping but, fortunately, not for another horse. Finia, the resident astrology expert, had remembered that Bengo and Bardin’s birthdays both occurred at the beginning of December and, after much head scratching as to what he could buy them, Hillyard had seen some very fancy gold-braided waistcoats in a men’s outfitters, and bought them for the two Sagittarian clowns.

Bardin now wore his up on the poop-deck, having a whispered consultation with Kieran and Rumble. Bengo was below-deck, dancing round the cabin in his, which looked rather unusual over his shorts and t-shirt.

“There is no reason to hang around here any longer”, Ransey was muttering to Julian. The bespectacled one was getting nervous with all these weird tales going around.

“If Tinkerbell decides he wants to start solving any of these mysteries”, said Julian, in a heavily resigned way “We’ll be lucky if we’re away from here by Christmas of next year, let alone this!”

Joby was unsettled by this remark and went up to the forward deck, where Kieran was now leaning on the bulwark, staring out at the vast expanse of ocean in front of him. Lonts was leaning nearby, sucking his thumb and swinging Snowy by his foot. He straightened up when he saw Joby, as though seeing him as a welcome distraction from all this reflective melancholia.

“What do you think the man with the funny face might have been, Joby?” he asked.

“Not necessarily summat evil, that’s for sure”, said Joby “He might be somebody with a skin disease, or skin cancer perhaps, who’s self-conscious about it and only goes out after dark. As usual, everyone’s jumping to conclusions”.

“What would be the worst thing you could see on the quayside?” said Lonts “Apart from your brother I mean”.

“Codlik!” said Joby, which made Kieran laugh.

“I mean a monster”, Lonts sighed “And it could be one of your imaginary monsters from your own time”.

“A Morlock”, said Joby “I was really scared of them when I saw ‘The Time Machine’ when I was little”.

“You great Jessie!” said Kieran.

“I was a very sensitive child”, said Joby.

“What was so frightening about Morlocks, Joby?” said Lonts.

“They were horrid, savage, lumbering great things”, said Joby “And they had eyes that lit up in the dark”.

“Tamaz’s eyes light up in the dark”, said Lonts “And so do Mieps’s. That’s not scary”.

“It was to me!” said Joby “And they were cannibals. They lived underground, and they bred people just so that they could eat ‘em”.

“A bit like the vampires at the Winter Palace”, said Lonts “Except they didn’t breed people, they didn’t know how”.

“Even stupider than the Morlocks you see!” said Kieran.

Lonts and Joby looked around them surreptitiously, as though expecting Angel to suddenly materialise. Shortly after this conversation Joby and Kieran went for a walk around the town. They ended up in Ship Street, a dead-end side street that contained mainly second-hand shops and a seedy cinema.

“I don’t like that one at all”, said Joby, looking at a cast-iron statue outside a bric-a-brac stall, it was of a naked headless man with a big burnt hole where his pelvis should be.

“That’s what happens to you when you don’t eat your greens you see”, said Kieran “Excessive masturbation can have much the same effect of course”.

“It falls off!” Joby laughed “Talking of which …”

He looked at a selection of nude snapshots outside the cinema. They both went in, mainly to get out of the glare of the sun, but also for a laugh. The cinematic masterpiece on offer was the most tedious type of porn, in that it styled itself as “an important social comment” and “advice to men on what they needed to know about women”. An earnest-looking man in spectacles seated behind a massive desk introduced a series of shots of various women in the throes of passion.

“You can tell a lot about a woman’s true character by her cunt”, the voice-over ominously intoned, whilst the camera panned over a woman frigging herself on a sofa.

“What have you brought me to see!” Kieran exclaimed.

“Stop complaining”, said Joby “I bought you a bag of toffees didn’t I!”

“I bought me the toffees”, said Kieran “You came out without any money on you. Anyone’d think you was the Queen of England!”

“No, that’s Adam!” said Joby.

A man two rows behind shushed them and said he couldn’t hear the film.

“Is he trying to kid us he came in here for the commentary?” said Joby “Sad git, he must be to come to a cinema like this”.

“We’re in a cinema like this!” said Kieran.

“Yeah, but we’re only visiting”, said Joby “He probably lives in here! Oh God, see what that one’s doing a bit further along”.

“I can’t very well, it’s too dark”, said Kieran.

“Be grateful for small mercies!” said Joby “Some people are disgusting, why can’t he wait til he gets home like any decent person would!”

A woman up on screen was holding up one of her ample breasts and was licking it like an ice-cream.

“Could we train Mieps to do that?” said Joby “Tamaz can’t, his tits are too small”.

“Don’t tell him that”, said Kieran “He’s very sensitive that his breasts aren’t as big as Mieps’s”.

The bespectacled man reappeared, now looking rather quietly excitable.

“From those shots you have just seen”, he intoned “You can see for yourselves how women will use their bodies to ensnare men”.

“That’s what the men are hoping anyway!” Kieran whispered.

Joby laughed and got shushed again. He gave a quick disgusted look over his shoulder.

“How can a man protect himself against such predatory wiles, you may ask yourself”, said the presenter.

“No we weren’t actually!” said Joby.

“The only way a man can truly be safe is alone in the wilderness”, cut to shot of beefy-looking man hiking down a mountain path in solitary splendour “But there are other ways that man can seize control in the sex war”, cut to shot of a naked woman tied to a tree being whipped to a bloody pulp by an enraged man.

“Gawd, this’d be Julian’s favourite bit!” said Joby.

Kieran winced at each earsplitting crack of the whip.

“I’m glad we don’t’ let him get carried away quite like that!” he said.

“I bet he would given half a chance!” said Joby “Strewth, that’s enough ennit! She won’t have any skin left on her back. It wasn’t that Sade guy who directed this was it?”

“It’d be right up his street”, said Kieran “It’s starting to make me eyes water”.

“Have another toffee”, said Joby.

“The woman will be more under control after a disciplinary session like this”, said the voice-over.

“I should think the woman’d be half-dead after a session like this!” said Joby.

“I’m going to ask to have you two removed”, said the man behind.

“Don’t bother, we’re leaving”, said Kieran.

“That is a potentially dangerous load of cobblers”, he said, once they were walking back down the main street of steps “That’s the sort of Women Are Evil nonsense that led to the Massacre”.

“No it wasn’t actually”, said Joby “It was religion that caused that! The only blokes who take those sort of films seriously are sad sicko’s”.

“There are a lot of them about!” Kieran exclaimed.

“And a lot more who aren’t!” said Joby “Nine out of ten blokes who would watch a film like that watch it for the naked women, not to believe a lot of propaganda about how ‘evil’ the female sex is. Don’t talk a lot of rubbish, Kieran. You just wanna face the fact that it was the bloody God Squad who led to the Massacre of the women, like the old Taliban regime in Afghanistan, not porn-makers!”

“I long ago faced the truth of that”, said Kieran “But I still want to know who made that film, it’s highly irresponsible it is”.

“And what’ll you do then?” said Joby “Get it banned? This isn’t Ireland, Kiel, you can’t go around doing things like that anymore!”

“I don’t wanna ban anything!” Kieran protested.

“Could’ve fooled me!” said Joby “Listen, whoever made that film has probably had trouble with the local authorities getting it shown. So he has to pay some lip-service to ‘em by getting it dressed up as an ‘educational’ film. It wouldn’t fool anyone, but they can all appease their consciences somehow, and the pile of crap can then be put on at some smelly old picture-house. That’s all it is. Everybody playing the game, very simple really. Even an Irish Catholic could work it out, if he tried!”

“Joby!” said Kieran “I’m gonna thump you in a minute, good and proper!”

“Oh very grown-up that’d be”, said Joby “Us brawling in the street. Imagine what Adam’d say when he read it in the local paper tomorrow!”

“He’d say a lot”, said Kieran.

“Yeah, exactly!” said Joby.

They linked arms and strolled home.

When Joby walked into the cabin on the sloop he found Adam sitting in the armchair, reading the local newspaper. “We can’t be in there already!” said Joby “No, hang on, what am I talking about? We didn’t have a fight after all”.

“What are you talking about you silly boy?” said Adam “I was looking to see if there was anything about Bengo and Bardin’s award, but they must have finished too late for it to get included today. Why, have you and Patsy been fighting, as usual?”

“No!” said Joby “We’ve been to the pictures. There was a new film showing”.

“Oh?” said Adam “The film industry must have had a whole new lease of life since the ladies have reappeared”.

“Yeah you could say that!” said Joby.

“Oh I see”, Adam sighed “THAT kind of film, I might have known”.

“Don’t go getting all morally superior”, said Joby “Don’t try and kid me you’ve never watched anything like that”.

“Yes, but hetero porn is always so negative in its attitude”, said Adam “Women are there just to be abused and tortured, basically that’s all it seems to be”.

“No!” said Joby “I spose you’re gonna tell me queer stuff was always done in the best possible taste! That no one was ever tied up and flogged, ‘cos I wont’ believe you, not after all these years of living with Julian!”

“There would be a little of that”, said Adam “Now and again”.

“There’d have to be”, said Joby “To stop everybody dying of boredom! Otherwise it’d just be a load of blokes sitting around moaning about their jobs or summat!”

“Ta-ra!” Bengo burst into the room, naked apart from a black shiny thong.

“I’m afraid Hillyard didn’t just buy Bengo a waistcoat”, Adam explained “He got him a thong as well, not exactly contributing towards domestic harmony!”

“Didn’t Bardin get one as well then?” said Joby.

“Hillyard said he saw this in the shop and he instantly thought of me”, said Bengo.

“Yeah I bet he did!” said Joby.

“Hillyard can be extremely irresponsible sometimes”, said Adam “You’d better put something else on, Bengo. That isn’t very practical for cooking the supper. You’d be too much of a distraction for a start!”

Joby walked with Bengo to the long corridor, where he had left his shorts and t-shirt in a small heap on the floor. Bengo peeled off the thong and put his ordinary clothes back on.

“I bet Bardin wasn’t too pleased with this”, said Joby, as Bengo handed him the thong to hold whilst he got dressed.

“Oh Bardy can be such a twit sometimes!” said Bengo.

“Too true!” said Tamaz, coming out of the galley, wearing a billed cap pulled almost down to his nose “He must be if he wants a dork like you on the vigil tonight”.

“What vigil tonight?” said Joby “No, don’t tell me. When in doubt we have a night-time vigil! It never seems to clear up any mysteries, just deepens ‘em if anything”.

“We’re curious to know what’s going on on the waterfront”, said Tamaz “We want to see for ourselves”.

“And Bardy wants me in it too?” said Bengo, always pleasantly surprised when Bardin bestowed any kind of responsibility on him.

“It’s to keep you and your new thong away from Hillyard really”, said Joby.

Ransey suddenly emerged from the hold like a cuckoo clock. He pointed accusingly at Bengo.

“Don’t leave your clothes lying around in the corridor”, he said “It’s an obstacle and a fire-hazard”.

He returned to the hold again as quickly as he’d emerged.

“He gets weirder”, said Joby.

“The button’s come off my shorts”, said Bengo, looking around him in a distracted fashion.

“You’d better find it then”, said Joby “Meanwhile, I’ll go along to the galley and find you a safety-pin”.

“Here, I got those for Bengo, not you”, said Hillyard, noticing the black thong in Joby’s hand as he walked into the galley “I’ve got my eye on a little purple sequinned number for you!”

“And you know what you can do with ‘em and all!” said Joby “Are you on some kind of death-wish or summat, buying Bengo presents like this?”

“I thought it’d be worth putting up with Bardin sulking and carping for a few days”, said Hillyard “Just for the sight of Bengo in ‘em”.

“You insatiable old tosser”, said Joby, shutting the thong in one of the kitchen drawers, and then attending to Bengo with a safety-pin “Get Toppy to fix these up properly sometime. It’ll give him summat to do other than to keep walking around tutting at everything”.

“You’re fastening them too tight”, said Bengo “I won’t be able to breathe”.

“So?!” said Joby.

Kieran appeared on the galley steps.

“Will you come and join me for a brandy up on the poop?” he asked Joby.

“No I can’t”, said Joby “Not at the moment. Adam’ll be in cracking the whip about supper in a minute”.

“After supper then?” said Kieran.

“O.K”, said Joby “If I’m still awake that is. This day seems to have gone on forever!”

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