Go back to previous chapter
“Come away from there!” Joby ordered Bengo, at the top of the galley steps “You must’ve seen a dead seagull before! Leave it alone, we’ll get one of the others to remove it”.
He pulled Bengo back down the steps, and they resumed their respective tasks, Bengo peeling potatoes, and Joby sifting flour to make bread.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if albatrosses started flying into us”, said Bengo.
“Don’t be daft!” said Joby “Dead birds are found on boats all the time. Your imagination’s getting maudlin. I know I shoudn’t have listened when you insisted we go and visit Brother Iggy yesterday. Apart from you completely cleaning me out of loose change making me buy him flowers, he fills your head with all sorts of grotesque fancies”.
“I felt we should make up for Bardy refusing to go and see him”, said Bengo.
“Why is that?” said Joby “Why won’t he go?”
“He hasn’t forgiven Brother Iggy for all that nonsense about Hoowie”, said Bengo “You know, sacrificing the weakest person and all that”.
“Well I must admit it did sound a bit Nazi-ish to me and all”, said Joby.
There was the familiar tapping of Mieps’s walking-stick as he came into the galley.
“Something’s just grabbed me!” he said “Just as I was coming out of the heads, I felt this hand on my …” he indicated his left breast “Squeezing it hard”.
“That’s all we need!” said Joby, kneading dough “A phantom groper on board now!”
“Do you think it might have been your brother, Joby?” said Bengo.
“More ‘en likely!” said Joby.
Adam came down the galley steps carrying a box of fresh tomatoes, which Hillyard had just delivered.
“It’s high time somebody removed that dead bird”, said Adam “It’s been there for hours”.
“Well don’t look at us”, said Joby “It’d be unhygienic if we touched it!”
“I wasn’t meaning you necessarily”, said Adam, putting the box down on the table “What’s the matter, Mieps? Have you hurt yourself?”
“Something groped him by the heads”, said Bengo.
“Something invisible”, said Mieps.
“Probably Josh”, said Joby.
Adam flicked on the torch he kept in one of the drawers, and examined inside Mieps’s shirt.
“He doesn’t seem to have left any mark”, said Adam “There’s no bruising. I think you’ll live somehow”.
“Was it you who grabbed Mieps earlier?” Joby asked Josh, who had dropped in when Joby was alone in the galley that afternoon.
“Dunno what you mean”, said Josh.
“Twelfth Commandment eh?” said Joby “Thou Shalt Not Admit To Anything”.
“Still dunno what you mean”, said Josh “You alone in here?”
“Looks like it don’t it!” said Joby, who had been transferring homemade biscuits from a baking-tray to a wire rack for cooling “Not for long though I spect. Adam’s only nipped out to take Lonts for a proper haircut at the barbers. He’ll only be a few minutes”.
“And the clown?” said Josh.
“In the cabin”, said Joby “With his partner”.
“He don’t half speak funny don’t he?” said Josh “That Adam I mean. Right old silver-spooned fairy queen!”
“He’s alright, you leave him alone”, said Joby “I dunno what we’d have done without him at times over the years”.
“Who’d have thought you’d turn out to be such a good cook, eh?” said Josh, eyeing the steaming biscuits “Our Nan’d be dead chuffed! Mind you, it helps if you’re a poofter I spose”.
“Don’t call me a poof!” Joby growled.
“Well you are aren’t yer?” said Josh.
“At least I’m getting it, and plenty of it too!” said Joby “When was the last time you had anything? You probably can’t remember! And when you did it wasn’t anything to write home about. I remember some of those old dogs you used to hang about with. Talk about rough!”
“At least they didn’t have dicks!” Josh retorted.
“I wouldn’t be too sure about that!” said Joby “Some of ‘em looked like they had to shave twice a day!”
“You’re only saying that ‘cos none of ‘em ever fancied you”, said Josh.
“Thank God!” said Joby.
“They always used to ask me if you was still a virgin”, Josh laughed, which wasn’t a pretty sound “And I used to say ‘well what do you think? Who in their right mind would want our Joby! He’ll have to turn queer first to get anything!’ And I turned out to be right didn’t I?!”
“Congratulations”, said Joby.
“Can I have one of these?” said Josh, looking at the rack of biscuits.
“No you can’t”, said Joby “They’re for the others”.
“You’re a heartless bastard”, said Josh “I’m existing on the breadline I am!”
“Well that’s your problem ent it!” said Joby “Anyway, with your knack of being able to appear and disappear at will I’d have thought you’d have found a way of getting by somehow”.
“Joby!” Lonts shouted from above “Joby, I’ve bought something!”
He came thumping excitedly down the galley steps, his flip-flops smacking against the wood. He was clutching a bulky paper bag to his chest. He stopped short when he saw Josh, stared at him hurtfully, and then exited by the door leading to the long corridor.
“What’s the matter with Lonts?” Hillyard could be heard asking out in the corridor.
“I think I know”, Kieran replied “He gets jealous of Josh”.
“Why?” said Hillyard.
“For being Joby’s brother”, said Kieran “I’ll go and see if I can rustle up a pot of tea”.
“I’ll be in in a minute”, said Hillyard “I’m just gonna top up the horses’ water”.
Josh vanished the instant Kieran came into the room. Joby could never get used to these sudden Angel-like vanishing tricks, and he reeled slightly.
“Steady now, me ole fella”, Kieran grabbed him “I’m gonna make some tea, you go along and cheer up Lonts”.
Joby found Lonts slumped in the armchair in the cabin, glaring balefully into space. Bengo and Bardin, both half-dressed, lurked nervously in the background. When either of them tried to approach him he growled at them to leave him alone.
“Leave us alone”, said Joby to the clowns “And try and sober up a bit. Julian’s gonna have a fit when he sees how much of his brandy you’ve had!”
“We’ve sent Rumble out for a fresh bottle”, said Bengo “So hopefully he won’t notice”.
“You should be so lucky!” said Joby, shutting the door on them.
He approached Lonts, who didn’t growl this time.
“This is all so daft I dunno why I’m bothering to sort it out!” said Joby.
“He’s one of your blood, Joby”, said Lonts.
“Oh thanks, I really want reminding of that don’t I!” said Joby “What did you buy then? A friend for the bears?”
Lonts pulled a bright pink rabbit out of the bag. It had mad staring eyes and buck teeth.
“Strewth, it looks like Toppy!” said Joby, making Lonts chortle “Is it meant to be that colour?”
“I’m going to call him Pinky”, said Lonts.
“Thought you might somehow!” said Joby.
Tamaz hissed and spat from the other side of the door. They went out to find him apparently fending off some invisible assailant.
“Oh he’s struck again has he?” said Joby “The Phantom Groper of Lixix!”
Julian was writing in his log-book that afternoon when a rather serious-looking telegram was delivered to him in an envelope. He read it with a look of abject dismay on his face, and then asked Lonts if he could fetch Adam.
“What is it?” Adam asked, on arriving in the cabin.
Julian passed it to him. It read “JULIAN. PLEASE MEET ME AT THE RED MOON HOTEL AT 3 PM. PIERS”.
“At least he’s crawled out from under his stone at last”, said Julian “You will come with me won’t you? I don’t think I could put up with him without you there!”
“I thought mint juleps would be just the thing, so I ordered them”, said Piers “And then I realised you probably can’t drink can you, Adam?”
“Yes I can”, said Adam, picking up one of the tall glasses stuffed with greenery “Patsy cured me. Along with giving us our long-lost youth back. Who gave you yours by the way?”
“I-I’m not sure”, said Piers “I just sort of found myself here. Well chin-chin anyway”, he raised his glass, and blushed awkwardly when Julian refused to do the same (Julian had been ominously quiet ever since he had arrived) “Still, it’s jolly nice to be young again isn’t it? Young and good-looking as we all are. One of my worst fears would be to be ugly”.
“You are ugly”, Julian spoke “You have a face like a pig!”
“Julian!” Adam exclaimed “That was very rude, even by your standards!”
“He hasn’t changed much has he?” said Piers.
“Yes he has actually”, said Adam “He’s quite wonderful, normally. Our unruly brood positively adore him”.
“Joby doesn’t”, said Julian.
“He does”, said Adam “In his own way”.
“Is it you who has been groping our girls?” Julian barked at Piers.
“I-I was curious, that’s all”, Piers stammered.
“Underhand little creep”, Julian muttered.
“Does that mean you have Joby’s brother’s ability of becoming invisible?” said Adam.
“I don’t know Joby’s brother, but I can manage it”, said Piers “For short periods of time. I think it’s like a form of astral projection, only you can’t see me”. “So you’ve been having a good old spy on us then?” said Julian.
“N-no, not at all”, said Piers “I’ve only been there twice, and both times … well I was curious about hermaphrodites”.
“The others are simply bursting to know what all this is about”, said Adam “I think perhaps you should join us for dinner on the Indigo”.
“Jolly good idea”, said Piers “Perhaps you need a bit more aristocracy there!”
“I didn’t think it was possible”, said Julian, as he and Adam waited in the foyer for Piers to emerge from the men’s room “But he’s an even bigger plank than I remember!”
“He has an unfortunate manner at times that’s all”, said Adam “When we were younger he was desperate for people to like him, a bit like Bengo but without his endearing bits. Nowadays, unfortunately, there seems to be a lot of your grandfather in him. He tries to act all imperialistic and confident, but you can see it’s all a front. It’s all rather sad really. He expects people to be impressed by him”.
“When there’s no earthly reason why they should be at all!” said Julian.
A ripple of excitement ran round the Indigo when the horse-drawn landau pulled up on the quayside. “Julian’s brother’s here!” No one could imagine what Julian’s brother would be like, and the rather nondescript dark-haired man who emerged from the vehicle was clearly a disappointment to most of them. The brother of such a godlike creature as Julian should be more impressive than THAT!
“He doesn’t look anything like Julian does he?” said Bengo, who had come aloft with Joby to witness this historic event.
“You get that sometimes in families”, said Joby.
“It’s weird when you think how much you look like Josh”, said Bengo.
“No I don’t!” said Joby.
Julian slouched aboard with his hands in his pockets, looking like a man who had just lost his entire fortune on one turn of the roulette wheel. He barked at Toppy to organise a round of brandies for everyone, and Toppy silently gave thanks that Rumble had returned with two bottles hidden inside his jacket (in case he bumped into Julian).
Piers meanwhile was introduced to everyone, except Kieran, Lonts, Mieps and Tamaz, who were all still below-deck.
“Welcome aboard”, said Bardin, shaking hands with him somewhat gruffly, a bit annoyed that Adam had introduced him as “our little captain”. “This is my partner, Bengo”, Bardin added.
Like all vain people (i.e ones who aren’t anywhere near as attractive as they think they are) Piers didn’t relish meeting someone who was genuinely beautiful, and his greeting of Bengo was distinctly offhand.
Julian noticed this, and it gave him the first ounce of pleasure he’d had since Piers had, rather inconveniently, walked back into his life. He decided to increase Piers’s discomfort by demanding to know where Kieran was.
“He’s exorcising downstairs”, said Hillyard “Mieps and Tamaz wanted it done, to put the mockers on the Phantom Groper”.
“Tell him not to bother”, said Julian “The Phantom Groper is here with us now!”
“It was you?” Hillyard exclaimed, looking Piers up and down rather contemptuously.
Lonts could be heard thundering up the quarterdeck steps, his rich bass baritone voice shouting at the others below him to hurry up as he thought Adam had come home.
“Who is that?” Piers quailed at the imminent arrival of this bellowing giant.
“That’s Lo-Lo”, said Adam “My little boy”.
Lonts burst onto the deck, saw Piers and asked Julian if this was his brother. Julian grunted and took a hefty slug of his brandy. Kieran, with his soft voice and diminutive body, couldn’t have presented a bigger contrast to Lonts. Piers had seen plenty of pictures of Kieran since his arrival in the 40th century, but the impact of him in person was still considerable. Nothing could have prepared him for the penetrating gaze of the Irish blue eyes. It really did feel like having your soul examined to be stared at thus.
Mieps and Tamaz hung back warily, and presented the most formidable sight so far. The other Indigo-ites didn’t press them to come forward and be formally introduced, they decided to let Piers flounder in embarrassment on this one, which he did. His artificial veneer of aristocratic self-possession deserting him as effectively as if it had been wiped away with a damp cloth.
It didn’t escape the attention of Ransey and Hillyard that Julian was drinking at a rate that was unusual for him. Julian normally paced himself well when boozing, short but intense spasms of binge-drinking were things he didn’t normally indulge in.
“I haven’t seen him this fed up since we last had to entertain Codlik!” said Ransey.
“All I know is it’s gonna be me who has to put him to bed!” said Hillyard.
“O.K, I grant you he’s not the sharpest tool in the shed”, said Hillyard, helping Julian off with his waistcoat “But I still don’t see why you’re carrying on like this”.
“What would you know, you great overgrown rent boy!” said Julian, allowing himself to be undressed “You haven’t got any long-lost brothers turning up to plague you. You were lucky enough to be hatched in a laboratory and brought up in a children’s commune!”
“Yeah, some luck that was!” said Hillyard “You’d better lie down now, gently does it”.
“You’re a jewel at times”, said Julian “I’ll remember you in my will”.
“Don’t do that”, said Hillyard “Codlik’ll only get his hands on it!”
“Sorry, old boy”, said Julian “Didn’t mean to remind you of your loss”.
“It don’t matter”, said Hillyard “Me and Ransey are trying to come up with a plan to get it all back”.
“What kind of plan?” Julian sat up again sharply “What are you up to?”
“Don’t worry about it”, said Hillyard, pushing him back down again “We won’t do anything without talking it over with you and Bardin first, I promise you”.
The following day didn’t bode well for Julian either. He was woken up by Bengo, who told him that Piers had come round again and was desperate to see him. Bengo offered to wash and shave Julian first, but Julian, feeling hungover, said he had no inclination to tart himself up just for Piers’s sake.
In spite of all the urgency Piers didn’t have much to say, as far as Julian was concerned anyway. He wanted to discuss family matters with Julian, who made it clear he wasn’t interested, and (from Piers’s point of view) showed a shocking lack of sympathy when Piers told him about their mother losing her mind in her old age. Piers had never married, and after the death of their father, their formidable mother had managed everything for him. “A true born field marshal”, as Piers described her. He had found himself virtually cut adrift when she went senile.
“And the staff could be so cruel”, said Piers “Sniggering at her behind her back”.
“Well she never exactly made life easy for them did she!” said Julian “We must have had the highest staff turnover rate in the county!”
“She got to be too careful with money you see”, said Piers “She even refused to buy new Christmas decorations, and so one year she made the staff decorate the big tree in the hall with all these broken old baubles that should have been thrown out years before. It was like a grotesque comedy. They decorated the tree with them and laughed at her all the time …”
Piers was finding it hard not to cry.
“I used to long for you to return, that’s how desperate I got!” he continued “You at least would have controlled the estate better. I would even have put up with all those peculiar friends you used to have”.
And still do, thought Julian. He had an image of Adam and Joby organising the tea-room, Bardin and Bengo selling guidebooks (dressed in jesters’ costumes of course), Ransey collecting money at the main gates, and Hillyard and Lonts running the safari park!
“I’m not laughing at you”, he said, when he caught Piers looking anguished at him “But you can’t expect me to feel too much sympathy for our dear mother, Piers. She used to call me the abortion she should have had! One doesn’t warm to people who come out with things like that, particularly when it’s one’s own mother!”
Piers tried to think of something to do to ease his brother’s pain, but neither of them had ever hugged each other, and a huge emotional chasm prevented them from doing so now. Julian wearily asked him to leave, and Piers complied.
“Have you been waiting out there all the time?” Julian asked Bengo, who had come in as Piers left.
“No”, said Bengo “Adam asked me to see if you wanted anymore coffee”.
“I haven’t drunk this lot yet”, said Julian, pouring a cupful from the lukewarm pot “How much longer does Bardin intend us to stay in Lixix?”
“Not long at all”, said Bengo “He says the whole town’s getting on his nerves. He wants to go up to Magnolia Cove, where you lot spent the summer once. It came out unscathed from the City earthquake apparently”.
“Good idea”, said Julian “I enjoyed that summer. Apart from the assassination attempt on Lonts, and some idiot making up lurid stories about Hillyard in the tabloid press”.
“You wouldn’t think they’d need to make up anything about Hillyard would you!” said Bengo.
That afternoon Bardin finally decided that if he wanted to leave Lixix he needed to find out what Brother Iggy’s plans were first. He and Bengo put on their best clothes and went hospital-visiting. They found Brother Iggy in a tranquil but chirpy mood, full of serenity about life. Bengo had to do most of the talking to him, as Bardin sat slouched in the chair, only deigning to grunt occasionally. When Brother Iggy said that he felt much better and he was being well looked after, Bardin looked positively indignant at this news, as though he’d been secretly hoping that the doctors and nurses had been prodding him with red-hot pitch-forks!
Brother Iggy was airily dismissive of his future plans, saying he hadn’t really got round to thinking about them.
“Well what else have you had to do here?” Bardin snapped.
“I’ve been thinking about Kieran a lot”, Brother Iggy beamed “It gives me such a feeling of wellbeing”.
“Evangelical twat!” Bardin cried, when they got outside. He attacked a bush by the main doors of the hospital, and had to be pulled away by Bengo, who expected an irate gardener to suddenly appear.
The clowns headed for the streetcar stop. It was very hot, and Bengo took off his jacket, pulled his shirt out of his trousers and donned his sunglasses. Bardin was too busy muttering to notice the heat. The streetcar was crowded when it arrive. Bengo got the last remaining seat, jammed in next to an obese middle-aged man whose flesh sprawled way beyond his own space. Bardin stood over him, strap-hanging.
“It’ll be midnight by the time we get home at this rate”, Bardin grumbled, as the trolley-bus seemed to stop every five minutes to gorge and disgorge hundreds of passengers.
A vaguely familiar figure got on, and took a seat that had become vacant near the driver. Bardin recognised him as the man he’d seen in the galley, in that disturbing dream-like episode involving the unfortunate pig having its eyes gouged out.
“I see what you mean about the mad, staring eyes”, Bengo whispered “He looks like he could hypnotise anybody”.
“Be careful going past him if he’s still here when we get off”, said Bardin “Don’t let him touch you in any way”.
“It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been touched up on public transport!” said Bengo, causing the obese man to give him a sideways reptilian glance.
“I didn’t mean that!” said Bardin “I meant … well I’m not sure what I meant, I … it’s just a feeling I’ve got. He might try and pass something to us”.
“Like what?” said Bengo.
“I don’t know!” said Bardin “It’s just a feeling. I can’t explain it. Just try not to touch him, and don’t take anything he offers you”.
“I’m a bit old to be told not to take sweets from strange men, Bardy!” said Bengo.
“I’m being serious!” Bardin insisted “You’re hopeless you are, hopeless. Almost as bloody hopeless as Brother Iggy!”
“You’re the one who’s not making any sense though!” said Bengo.
The streetcar gave a sudden lurch and ground to a halt amidst a violent screeching of brakes. Bardin had fallen onto Bengo and had to right himself. Everyone else on the bus was craning forward and muttering to each other.
“Body in the road”, one man grunted.
“Body of what?” Bardin exclaimed.
“Another suicide”, the obese man next to Bengo spoke. “Another?” said Bengo “How do you mean?”
“It keeps happening”, said the obese man “They throw ‘emselves out of windows or off the tops of buildings”.
“Why?” said Bengo.
The obese man shrugged.
“Let’s get off”, said Bardin “We could be stuck here for hours”.
Outside, a small crowd had gathered round the lifeless figure lying face-down in the middle of the road. Blood oozed out from underneath him. Up above, a third-floor window stood wide open, its curtains floating gently in the torrid breeze. The clowns rounded a corner into a side street, and Bardin searched Bengo’s pockets, just in case Crowley had managed to slip anything in as they went past. All he found was an old boiled sweet stuck to the lining of Bengo’s trouser pockets, which was rather typical of Bengo but nothing to worry about.
“I felt a bit of a chill as I walked past him”, said Bengo.
“Who?” said Bardin “Crowley, or the man lying in the road?”
“Both, now I come to think about it”, said Bengo.
“We’d better see if we can get a local paper on the way home”, said Bardin “See if we can find out just what’s going on here”.
They were in a particularly undesirable quarter of the town. It was filled mainly with hole-in-the-wall bars, some of which didn’t open until after dark. There was a “voodoo shop” (also shuttered), which had plastic shrunken heads stuck to its door. The clowns were constantly accosted by low-lifes, all asking for money to “get senseless” with. Apart from one man who pathetically claimed he wouldn’t spend it on drink.
“We’re not being followed are we?” Bardin kept glancing behind him.
“Crowley?” said Bengo.
“I don’t think we are”, said Bardin “It must be something about this area that makes you feel like you’re constantly being watched all the time”.
“How could anyone kill themselves that way?” said Bengo “I mean, there must be more comfortable ways of doing it surely?”
“But not as guarantee-able I guess”, said Bardin “Dashing your brains out on the pavement is a pretty surefire way of doing it! Don’t think about it, Bengo”.
“But we must, Bardy”, said Bengo “In case it’s some kind of mass hysteria gripping the town or something”.
“Even more reason to leave then!” said Bardin.
Go forward to next chapter
Return to Sarah Hapgood's Strange Tales and Strange Places web site