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Julian looked in on Hoowie when they got back to the sloop. He found him in the hold distributing fresh hay amongst the horses, and singing a lewd song which involved much hip-wriggling and thrusting out of his bottom. Julian went into the cabin to work on his log-book, where Joby took him some coffee a short while later.
“I can’t stop”, said Joby, when Julian gestured at him to remain “We’re busy down in the galley, what with it being Christmas tomorrow, and you know what Adam’s like”.
“Just for a moment”, said Julian “I had quite an intense talk with Kieran on the way home. It’s not often one gets him to open up about things that are so private to him”.
“Oh yeah?” said Joby “What was he saying then?”
“He has very trenchant views on the quiet”, said Julian “Sometimes it amazes me he’s turned out as good as he has. It would have been so easy for him to have become a monster”.
“Usually it’s the other way round innit?” said Joby “We say about monsters that he could so easily have been a good man instead”.
“I think he would be quite mad if it wasn’t for you”, said Julian.
“No he wouldn’t”, said Joby “Not any madder than usual anyway! And if I didn’t have him I’d probably feel only half-alive”.
“We were talking a bit about the past, before we all crossed over”, said Julian “He didn’t mention it but I got to thinking about your previous time-slip to Sawney Beane’s cave, you rarely ever mention that”.
“Don’t wanna remember it, that’s why!” said Joby.
“Your bond must have been well-cemented there”, said Julian.
“I spose so”, said Joby “At the time we were too busy just surviving, staying alive. But I guess you can’t go through all that with someone and it not count for anything. I think for a long time we meant more to each other than we realised. Sometimes things are meant to be, and you just don’t see it for ages. I really had better get back now, or my life won’t be worth living”.
Joby came out of the cabin, just as Kieran did a very suspicious sprint round the corner.
“Oi!” Joby ran after him “Were you listening in? You’re as bad as Toppy or Tamaz! There’s no fucking privacy at all on this boat!”
“I was hoping to hear lots of good things said about me”, said Kieran.
“Eavesdroppers never hear good about themselves”, said Joby “Either that or they hear about Sawney Beane!”
“Yeah, I’m amazed, thinking about it, that he never cropped up in Hell when we were there”, said Kieran.
“Yeah well, I’d love to hang around and chat about cannibalism but you know how it is”, said Joby.
“Please will you let me come and work with you in the galley?” said Kieran.
“What’s this sudden mania for wanting to do kitchen-work?” said Joby.
“It’ll make me feel Christmassy”, said Kieran.
“It’ll be too crowded in there with you as well”, said Joby.
“Ach c’mon, I hardly take up a lot of room!” said Kieran “We’ll give Toppy the sack, what do you say?”
“It would be nice to have you in there, my skinny friend”, said Joby “But you’ll be washing up all the cooking utensils”.
“Easy work”, said Kieran “It doesn’t require much thinking”.
Joby picked him up effortlessly and carried him down the corridor. In the galley Adam was mixing a cake, watched with intense concentration by Bengo. Toppy was up on deck, having a short break. Adam wasn’t at all averse to the idea of replacing him in his absence though.
“He’s such a perfectionist”, he said “He took ages this morning just to clean the teapot. Bengo, run up and tell him we’re having Patsy as washer-upper for today. Break it to him nicely”.
Bengo promptly ran up to the forward deck and told Toppy he’d been fired.
“He didn’t take it very well”, said Bengo, on his return.
“What did he want, his P45 and a month’s notice?” said Joby.
“We’ll make sure he doesn’t starve”, said Kieran, who was already wrapped in the spare canvas apron.
Toppy appeared on the galley stairs to chuck his own apron at them.
“You might need to hang onto that, old love”, said Adam “There must be some washing you can do”.
“There you are, you’ve been promoted”, said Joby “Scullery-maid to laundry-maid in one morning. You can’t say fairer than that now can yer!”
“That is not supposed to be my job!” said Toppy “Anyway, I need some more soap-flakes”.
“Bengo, take Toppy to the hold and measure him out some soap-flakes”, Adam sighed “And try and do it sensibly, and not use it as an excuse to think up a new comedy routine!”
“It’ll be difficult to resist the temptation, but I’ll try”, said Bengo.
A short while later a cry went up from both them in the food-hold.
“Now what?” Joby groaned.
Bengo and Toppy ran back into the galley, jibbering about a spider.
“Is that all?” Adam exclaimed.
“It was huge, Adam”, said Bengo “As big as your head”.
“Nonsense”, said Adam.
“Was it hairy?” said Joby.
Toppy climbed up onto one of the chairs, saying that something had to be done about it. Nobody moved.
“You’re the eldest”, said Joby, looking at Adam.
“Oh very well”, Adam got a towel out of the drawer.
“What are you gonna do with that?” said Joby “Give it a bath?!”
“Eek!” Kieran cried.
“Pick it up in it and throw it outside”, said Adam.
“No you can’t do that”, said Bengo, climbing up onto another chair “It might crawl back in”.
“Not if it’s got any sense it won’t!” said Joby, running his fingers up Adam’s bare leg “Watch it don’t crawl up you”.
Mieps came down the galley steps.
“Perhaps you could do it, Mieps”, said Bengo “Ghoomers aren’t afraid of anything are they?”
“No, that’s why they’ve been virtually wiped out!” said Joby.
Mieps said he would flatten it with a rolling-pin, at which Adam protested, but not too strongly.
“I can hear it moving about in there”, said Bengo.
“Wears boots does it?” said Joby, as it was very obviously human footsteps at large in the food-hold.
Hoowie sprinted into the galley and hurled the spider into their midst. He laughed maniacally as they all screamed.
“It’s rubber”, said Joby, putting the ball of his foot down on the spider on the floor “It’s made of rubber!”
“You should have heard the way you all screamed”, Hoowie laughed “Like a bunch of girlies! Shriek shriek!”
“Where did you get this horrible thing, Hoowie?” said Adam.
“Borrowed it off one of the shipwrights”, said Hoowie “He plays jokes on people with it, chucks it in their laps in restaurants and bars, that sort of thing”.
“He sounds a perfect menace”, said Adam “Almost as bad as you! Pick it up and take it back to him. And I don’t want to see it on-board here again”.
Hoowie picked up the spider and held it out at everyone threateningly as he left the galley.
“I came down here to tell you that the geese have been delivered”, said Mieps.
“They are dead aren’t they?” said Adam.
The geese were to be tomorrow’s dinner, and Adam had images of them still roaming the forward deck, honking.
“Yes, they just need plucking”, said Mieps “Do you want me to do it?”
“If you would be so kind”, said Adam “Topside though please”.
Maria was the next victim of the rubber spider. The shipwright chucked it at her as he walked along the boardwalks later that afternoon, and it clung to her shirt. Evie extracted it with a broom and tossed it into the sea.
“At least that’s got rid of the wretched thing”, said Adam, as he and the rest of the kitchen staff ran to a window in the corridor to see what all the screaming outside was all about.
Up above them Bardin was heard yelling for Hoowie in a very angry voice.
“It weren’t me, I aint left the ship all day”, said Hoowie.
“I bet you gave him the idea”, said Bardin.
“I did say she might tear all her clothes off if he threw it at her!” said Hoowie.
“You should be locked up!” said Bardin.
The new propeller had been fixed into place that afternoon, and everybody went out onto the quayside to watch it being activated for the first time. Bardin had acquired a whistle from somewhere, and was using it to summon everybody and get them choreographed into the places where he wanted them, like an over-enthusiastic netball-teacher.
“That whistle’s gonna have to go for a start”, said Joby.
“It’ll be difficult getting it off him”, said Bengo.
“He has to sleep sometime”, said Adam.
The propeller whirred into life. Everybody cheered. It stopped. Everybody went “oh”. It whirred into life again, and now gave all appearances of being successful.
“We will leave tomorrow afternoon”, said Bardin.
“It’s Christmas tomorrow, Bardy”, said Bengo.
“That is of no consequence”, said Bardin.
“Oh”, Bengo sighed, once alone with Adam and Joby “I swear he thinks we’re still kids, and we had to work all over Christmas. I sued to have to make great efforts to make sure he enjoyed it. I insisted we always gave each other presents. I once got my hair caught in the bedsprings looking for mine”.
“How?” said Joby.
“I thought he’d hidden it under our bed”, said Bengo “He came in and caught me under it. He had to cut my hair loose with his penknife. He couldn’t say anything though, because I’d woken up early that morning and caught him searching through my theatrical basket for where I’d hidden his!”
(Bardin had denied it at the time of course, and had instantly started hectoring Bengo about practising his scales in preparation for a musical sketch.
“No and I don’t want to do that stupid sketch”, Bengo had said, on the brink of tears “It’s horrible”.
“Don’t be such a baby”, Bardin snapped, hacking at a loaf of bread for their tea “You’re not the only one who gets clouted with whipped cream. It happens to all of us”.
“I don’t care!” said Bengo.
“If you don’t do it”, said Bardin “I’ll make sure we have no Christmas. No presents, they’ll go back to the shops, no breakfast out tomorrow, and we won’t play our tickling game later tonight”.
Bengo cried quite desperately.
“Don’t do that”, said Bardin. He spread some strawberry jam on a slice of bread “Here, eat this. I didn’t mean it, we’ll still do everything. You don’t get me making all this fuss when I drenched in the custard do you! And I hate the smell of it, it lingers for ages. I’d much rather have a bucket of water anyday”.
“Oh so would I!” said Bengo “I don’t know why they can’t all just chuck water at me, that would be just as funny”.
“Yes, but Ully wants to see you all gooey”, said Bardin “He says it’s more satisfying for the audience”.
“Rotten audience”, Bengo mumbled.
“Half the audience will be going ‘aah!” when you get clouted”, said Bardin.
“And the other half will be laughing themselves sick!” said Bengo.
“That’s what they’re there for”, said Bardin “That’s the whole point of having an audience! Otherwise we might as well stay in here and entertain each other, and that’d be too depressing for words!”)
Adam sent Bengo up aloft with some coffee for Bardin, who was now on the poop-deck, looking over some maps in a very Captainly fashion, and staring pensively out over the bow to sea.
“Why do we have to go tomorrow, Bardy?” said Bengo “We don’t have to work at Christmas anymore you know”.
“We’ll be having lunch here”, Bardin explained “It won’t affect all the Christmas eating and boozing. We’ll all still be carrying on as normal, except that when we depart someone’ll have to do some steering and someone’ll have to work in the hold. Neither of which will be of any concern to you”.
“I just hope we don’t run the boat aground then”, said Bardin “’Cos we’ll all be so pissed!”
“You just leave me to worry about that”, said Bardin.
“I want to get away as much as you do, Bardy”, said Bengo “But I don’t see why we can’t delay it a few hours, and leave first thing on Boxing Day”.
“There are a number of reasons”, said Bardin “One of which is to get Hoowie away from here before he gets himself arrested!”
“They’re just pranks that he does”, said Bengo “The spider thing was just irritating that’s all”.
“You’ve got to realise that everyone out there”, Bardin gestured at the town “Doesn’t see him as we do. I can’t have eyes in the back of my head. I’d like to put him in a straitjacket in the hold until we leave here, but all the others’ll complain if I do”.
“Where did you get this?” Bengo fingered the whistle.
“I bought it yesterday in the market”, said Bardin “It’s useful”.
“Are you going to be using it a lot?” said Bengo.
“As and when I think it’s necessary”, said Bardin.
“I’d better get on”, said Bengo, going back down the poop-deck steps.
Bardin blew the whistle at him and pointed at his own cheek. Bengo returned and kissed it dutifully, before being allowed to go back to work.
“I can’t stick much more of this life”, said Angel, breaking the heavy silence in the cavernous dining-room, which for some while now had only echoed to the sound of their knives clattering against the platters of raw meat “Living out here with you. Sometimes the only sound we hear for years is our own footsteps on the marble floors. I could go mad living like this”.
“Why don’t you go into town then?” said Mullawa, in his breathy, asthmatic voice “I think your yellow-haired friend is still there. You could watch Hell open up and swallow him whole”.
“I don’t wanna see that”, said Angel “Those voices, the last time I listened in down there … I never wanna hear anything like it again”.
“The Devil afraid of his own kingdom, my my!” said Mullawa. He flicked his tongue round his bloodstained teeth “You’re a mischief-maker, Angel, the lord of misrule. There must be plenty of mischief you can cause at present, spoilt for choice I’d say. I of course don’t care what you do, so long as you don’t bring that Kieran here again as you did last year. I don’t know why you went to all that trouble to help him. We got nothing out of it”.
“Got rid of Caln didn’t it!” said Angel “That bastard really got on my nerves, at least he’s gone now. But I can’t stay here any longer. It’s alright for you, you don’t want anything except your meat, you like to pretend you’re back at the Winter Palace”.
Angel looked around at the dining-room, as chilly and antiseptic as an operating-theatre. The silence at this beautiful but frigid palace in the rainforest was all too often intolerable. The sounds of footsteps and the clashing of cutlery got magnified out of all proportion.
“Your little blonde friend won’t take you in, you know”, said Mullawa “Not again. He can live without you, even if you can’t live without him”.
Angel slammed a knife into the back of Mullawa’s bony hand. Mullawa winced and twitched with pain, but was otherwise remarkably unfazed.
“Temper temper, Angel”, he wheezed “It is Christmas you know!”
Kieran and Joby had spent their morning break doing a manic mock-ballet routine to a Strauss waltz playing on the gramophone in the cabin on the sloop. Lonts had previously filled the room with balloons which he’d been blowing up, and so occasionally their dance routine was punctuated by a loud bang as one of them went off.
“We should appear at the Cabaret of Horrors doing that”, said Joby, as the ‘Blue Danube’ came to an end.
“Yeah, we’d knock ‘em dead”, said Kieran, retrieving the aprons that they had temporarily removed “Now back to the kitchen to be bossed around by you. I’ve been watching you in there, on a right little power-trip aren’t you! Bossing me and Bengo around like that. So that’s what you get up to normally”.
“When Adam gives me a chance”, said Joby “Anyway, you and Bengo have to be bossed around. And you’d better pull your socks up and all. Anymore slacking and I’ll have to put you across my knee later!”
“If you do you’d better make it worth me while”, said Kieran “Spank me hard or I’ll be terrible disappointed in you”.
“Oh there you both are”, said Adam, when they reached the galley “You’ve been invited out for a meal this evening, by Evie and Maria”.
“To the ‘Butterfly Queen’ I hope”, said Kieran “I don’t fancy eating out in public, not at the moment”.
“Yes, over to their boat”, said Adam “I’ve instructed Toppy to iron your best shirts”.
“There”, Adam said later, smoothing Joby’s brocade waistcoat “You look reasonably presentable now. There’s not much I can do about your hair, but I suppose it gives you a certain ruggedness. Don’t be too late tonight. I think Ransey should come and collect you at about ten o’clock”.
“Don’t, that’d be so embarrassing!” said Joby “We’re not 6-years-old, Ad!”
“Well don’t go getting too drunk and falling into the sea on your way home”, said Adam “Remember what happened to Bengo”.
“How could we forget, we get reminded of it everyday”, said Joby.
“Ta-ra!” Kieran bounded into the room, wearing a denim waistcoat which rarely saw the light of day, and which Finia had embroidered with various crosses and vaguely Irish symbols which Kieran had drawn for him “How do I look? Like a male model I bet”.
“Not at all, you’re far too short and skinny”, said Adam.
“You look a bit smarter than normal”, said Joby “But that’s not saying much to be honest”.
“Huh, that’s all you know”, said Kieran “Hillyard had to practically take the sandpaper to me to get me scrubbed up this well. Is Tamaz still not speaking to us?”
“Actually Freaky said he regarded your date with brassy indifference”, said Adam.
“He would”, said Kieran “He’s probably going to look for his Christmas present whilst we’re out!”
Bengo wolf-whistled at them from the galley steps.
“I’m amazed they didn’t invite you and Bardin over”, said Joby “Not us”.
“No, they wouldn’t want us”, said Bengo “Bardy’s far too grumpy, they wouldn’t wanna have to put up with him snapping at them all evening”.
“Take these over with my compliments”, said Adam, handing Kieran and Joby two bottles of wine.
Evie had prepared a pie of broccoli and cheese, as a sop to Kieran’s vegetarianism. He and Joby remarked that Adam used to often bake such things when they were poor as it didn’t involve any expensive cuts of meat.
“Not that we’re implying you’re hard up”, said Kieran, as the four of them sat round the kitchen table on the ‘Butterfly Queen’ “Just that it makes us feel nostalgic”.
“The other one we used to do was Button Wellington”, said Joby “Button mushrooms baked in a pastry-case”.
“Evie’ll want the recipe for that”, said Maria, who was wearing her blue sequinned dress, famous for being the one she couldn’t get in (or out of) alone.
Earnest Evie was more interested in Kieran’s spiritual status though, and his views on the commune lifestyle.
“Why aren’t you in charge over there?” she asked.
“Me as Captain?” Kieran exclaimed “I’d be hopeless”.
“You were once president of the world”, Evie reminded him.
“That was dead easy”, said Kieran “I had various heads of departments to do things for me. All I had to do was say ‘yes that’s alright’ or ‘no I don’t like that’. Being Captain’s a different kettle of fish entirely. I’ve got me head up in the clouds too much. You need someone practical doing that job. Take the last couple of days for instance. Bardin’s had to be here, there and everywhere. Dealing with the shipwrights, ordering more supplies, getting our maps, keeping a close eye on Hoowie …”
“Why does he have to keep an eye on Hoowie?” said Maria.
“Nothing serious, just that Hoowie’s our problem child”, said Kieran “He gets excited too easily. We used to have similar problems with Lonts and Tamaz”.
“Worse in many ways”, said Joby “Hoowie can be a pain in the neck, but we’ll gradually lobotomise him! You wouldn’t like to take him on instead would you?”
“I did offer to”, said Maria.
“You offered to take in Hoowie?” said Joby “You must be as mad as he is!”
“He turned me down”, said Maria “He said it was important he stayed with you lot, as he helped to stop you all getting up your own bums”.
“No we just get up each other’s arses instead!” said Kieran.
“Kieran!” said Joby “A good little Catholic boy like you coming out with things like that! If you do it again I’ll have to take you home”.
“You’ll have to excuse me”, said Kieran “It’s the wine, it goes to me head”.
“It always does!” said Joby “You’d think the amount of practise you’ve had over the years you’d be more expert at drinking it by now!”
“Hopeless aren’t I?” said Kieran “Bengo and Bardin should have come instead. Bengo wanted to, but he thought you might be scared of Bardin”.
“I’m not scared of him”, said Evie “But he can be a little fierce at times”.
“Nah, he’s a pussy-cat really”, said Joby “After all, he …”
He stopped. He had been about to remark on Bardin’s penchant for wearing Finia’s nightdresses, but realised that this was one of those things the outside world didn’t need to know about.
“He what?” Evie prompted him.
“He’s a clown”, said Joby “He has to put on a sinister front sometimes, to make up for all the times he’s had to make a prat of himself”.
“Why are you still insisting on going on this trip?” Evie asked Kieran “It’s unlikely you could be of any help to the missing miners now. Whatever’s happened to them must have already happened, if you get my meaning”.
“Likely so”, said Kieran “But whatever this evil is that’s at large it’s gradually seeping into everywhere”.
“It’s haunting your home at the Bay”, said Maria.
“Our home’s always been haunted”, said Kieran “It just got so bad we couldn’t live in it anymore. And things here are going to go from bad to worse, unless we try and lead it away somehow. The disappearance of the miners suggests that things are happening up-river … and … oh you’ll just have to wait and see how things pan out”.
“Wouldn’t it be better to stay here and confront it in civilisation?” said Evie.
“No”, said Kieran “I can’t sort out this thing with the eyes of the world upon me”.
“It’s so dark tonight”, said Joby, as he and Kieran ambled back along the quayside “Makes me wish I had let Ransey come and fetch us”.
As the sloop was still in dry dock, they at least didn’t have to negotiate the boardwalks, but had the relative stability of the concrete ground instead. There were voices coming from a nearby tavern, but otherwise the waterfront was remarkably peaceful.
“Ach don’t be such a wuzz”, said Kieran “I’m gonna want you at your most brave, just in case you and me have to go off and do something by ourselves. How do you feel about that?”
“I’ll do whatever you want”, said Joby “But if you leave me and disappear with Angel, or anyone else, I’ll break your scrawny little neck”.
“I’m not gonna do that”, said Kieran “And I promise I won’t go mad again, like I did after Albatross Island”.
“That place was pant-filling that was”, said Joby.
“And I won’t let you down and try and die like I did up at Mundaba Heights”, said Kieran.
“Father Gabriel’s antics was enough to make anyone lose the will to live”, said Joby “He did some terrible things to you”.
“And he beat you on your feet”, said Kieran.
“Yeah but you …” Joby broke off and strained his eyes to see through the gloom.
“What is it?” said Kieran.
“There’s someone in the shadows over there”, said Joby “Hold onto me and don’t let go”.
Joby pulled a small pistol from the inside pocket of his waistcoat.
“What did you go and bring that our for?” Kieran cried, recognising it as the little snub-nosed gun which Adam kept in the drawer in the galley.
“Kieran, be quiet!” Joby ordered.
Something rustled nearby. Joby put his hand to his mouth and gave a muffled scream. He quickly regained his composure and resumed a firm grip on both the gun and Kieran. Neither of them spoke again until they were on the forward deck of the sloop.
“Now”, said Kieran, taking the gun from Joby and strokinghis arm “What was it you saw?”
“I only saw it for a split-second”, said Joby “I’m o.k, it’s alright. It fled back into the darkness”.
“What was it?” said Kieran.
“It didn’t have a face!” said Joby “It was someone, a person …”
“Man or woman?” said Kieran.
“I couldn’t tell”, said Joby “Not in that short a time, all I could see was this sort of ravaged bone. As though some terrible disease had eaten away at its skin. Oh God, I feel bad now. I remember saying this to someone else here, it could be someone with a disfiguring disease, who can only come out at night perhaps, and I went and screamed”.
“Understandable, it gave you a fright”, said Kieran “C’mon now, I don’t want you beating yourself up. You’ve a shock to the system. Let’s go and get some brandy”.
When they got to the bottom of the galley steps Joby halted. He could hear everybody in the main cabin, getting ready for bed by lamplight, and he didn’t want to go in and face them all looking swollen-eyed with shock.
“Do I look alright now?” he asked, adjusting himself.
“Ravishing!” said Kieran.
Hillyard opened the door and stood there in his dressing-gown.
“I thought I heard you two come home”, he said.
The bells across the Village of Stairs rang out on a crisp, sunny Christmas morning. Joby sat on a bench on the forward deck, slumped in his technicolour dressing-gown, as some of the others bustled around him, setting out the trestle-table for breakfast.
“Why are you moping again?” said Julian, standing there in his pyjama bottoms and a sun-hat, pouring out a cup of tea “I swear Adam would give you time off work if you so much as stubbed your toe!”
“The next time you stick your cock in my mouth I’ll bite the damn thing off!” said Joby.
“Peace and goodwill my darlings”, said Adam, setting a dish of scrambled eggs on the table.
“It doesn’t do him any good you know”, said Julian “When he’s had a shock he needs to be kept occupied, not left to mope. But I can’t expect a do-gooder like you to understand that”.
“If I’m a do-gooder, what does that make you then?” said Adam “A do-badder?!”
“Don’t start fighting about me”, said Joby, pulling himself off the bench “I’ll go down to the galley”.
“He’ll be a fire-hazard down there in that dressing-gown”, said Ransey to Adam.
“Only if we set him alight!” said Adam.
Joby heard a crash from below when he got to the galley steps, and a muffled cry of annoyance from Bengo, who had dropped a dish of bread rolls.
“What have you done, you little bastard?” said Joby, thumping down the galley steps “I can’t leave you alone for five minutes can I!”
Tamaz paused in the methodical unpacking of his Christmas stocking at the breakfast table, and looked across at Joby, who was opening the black dressing-case from Kieran.
“You shouldn’t have gone to all this trouble, Kiel”, said Joby “It’s all wasted on an ugly bastard like me”.
“I’ll be the judge of that if you don’t mind”, said Kieran.
“He hasn’t got one of those compact things in there that women have has he?” said Hillyard “You can imagine him powdering his nose with it!”
Tamaz had now gravitated round to Joby’s side of the table, and was practically salivating at the sight of the silver-plated contents of the dressing-case.
“Here”, Joby touched Tamaz’s nose with the soft shaving-brush “I can give you a shave with this next time you need one, in about six months time I expect knowing you!”
Bardin suddenly announced that he was bringing forward their sailing by a few hours to immediately after breakfast. Christmas dinner would be eaten out on the water, several hours journey down the coast from here.
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