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"I was a trustee at Henang", Fobbett explained, as they all sat around on hard wooden chairs in an echoey room with yellow-painted walls "I worked on your wing. I recognised the three of you immediately".
"You lot are crims?" said Hillyard "Why didn't you tell me? I wouldn't have dropped you in it, how could I!"
"We didn't not tell you", said Adam "We just never got round to telling you".
"So what happened at the prison?" asked Kieran "Where did everyone go?"
"I know as little as you obviously do. I awoke one morning to find my cell door open, and the whole place completely silent. Very untoward. Being a trustee of course I had no cell-mate, so I felt horribly alone. I left the prison as soon as I could, in case anyone did turn up, and headed south. I cut across the bottom of the Uncharted Area, and headed here into the forest".
"Exactly the route me and Stombal took", said Hillyard "I'm not a crim though, but that's more luck than anything. I do a bit of poaching. So what did you three do time for?"
"Vagrancy", said Kieran, rather sharply.
Fobbett looked askance, but cottoned on quick that they hadn't told Hillyard they were time-crossers.
"Did you see no one else at the prison that morning?" asked Joby.
"Well put it this way if I'd known you three were around I would have come looking for you".
"You didn't though", said Adam "That's strange when you stop and think about it. You didn't look around the prison at all thoroughly did you?"
"I wasn't about to risk being caught again when I had a chance to get away", Fobbett protested, in his soft lukewarm voice "Eight years I had been in that place. Eight years! I was merely concerned with getting out before anyone turned up and locked me in again".
"If you were a trustee", said Joby "You must have known Angel".
"A-Angel?" Fobbett went white "Yes I knew Angel. How did you know him though? He never worked on your wing. He's not here is he?"
"You seem pretty certain he survived as well", said Adam, narrowing his eyes like a cat "Why is that?"
Fobbett stood up and began to pace the floor as he spoke.
"Angel was the only other person I saw that morning", he said "Although I'm very glad to say he didn't see me. Angel! The misnomer of all time. He was a demon. A fiend. He stank of evil. Anyway I..."
Fobbett removed his spectacles and pressed his fingers to his forehead in a gesture of pain.
"I heard a noise", he said, as though recalling scenes from a previous life "It was a disgusting noise. I decided not to announce my presence by bursting in on whatever was causing it. It was coming from the cell next to mine. An old man lived there. I was frightened for him, but I was even more frightened of the noise, it was so horrible and depraved. So inhuman".
"What kind of noise?" asked Adam.
"A gulping and a tearing. A tearing of flesh".
Fobbett collapsed back onto his chair, and rubbed his hands on his trousers.
"I crept across to an empty alcove opposite the cell doors. It was where we used to stack the used trays during the dinner rounds. From there I could watch the cells without being seen myself. After a while Angel came out of the cell. H-he was naked ... and his upper body was splattered with blood. He went into his own cell, a few doors down from mine. Then I heard him splashing water, and I knew he was cleaning himself. I did not hang around after that. After all, I knew by then there was nothing I could do for the old man".
"Did you already know Angel was a vampire?"
"Everyone knew! It was common knowledge. One of the great scandals of that place was that a person such as he could be made a trustee at all. I avoided him as much as I could, and had nothing to do with his sick little games. But then I was fortunate. There was nothing of his that I wanted in return. Others were much more desperate".
"Angel travelled with us for a while", said Adam, and immediately saw a look of panic cross Fobbett's face "But I assure you that's he's not here now".
"You hope", Joby grunted.
"We left him many miles back. At the time we believed he was dead ... now unfortunately we aren't so sure".
"Then how do I know he hasn't made you vampires?" cried Fobbett "How can I be sure he didn't contaminate you? How do I know!"
"You don't. And there's no way of proving otherwise. You'll just have to trust us. For a long while we had no idea what he was. Not until he began acting in a most peculiar way".
"How do we know you're not a fucking vampire!" Joby sprang from his seat and advanced on Fobbett "Why are we sat talking to you when you could be like he was!"
Joby's outburst thoroughly terrified Fobbett, who cowered in his chair under the verbal onslaught.
"Joby!" Kieran roared "Shut up and sit down. You're frightening the poor bastard".
Joby subsided into his chair like water running down a plughole. He continued to glare at Fobbett, but was silent.
"I need to know", Fobbett began, awkwardly "How did Angel seem to you?"
"Scared of his own shadow most of the time", said Adam "Out of it. Detached from life".
"Did you feel threatened by him in any way?"
"Not in the slightest. As I said he seemed to be the scared one most of the time".
"Until he died", said Joby "Now he's got the power".
"He always did have it", said Fobbett, softly.
"I can't believe that", said Kieran "He was like a terrified rabbit".
"Apart from when he did that nifty bit of throat-cutting that time", Joby remarked.
"But he was scared of everything though", said Kieran "Scared of countless monsters and demons, when in reality he was one himself. It doesn't make sense. Unless he was simply frightened of his own destiny".
"What were you jailed for Fobbett?" asked Hillyard.
Fobbett took a gentle sip of his coffee and then turned to stare intently at the boy.
"Witchcraft", he said, simply.
"You practised the black arts Fobbett?" said Adam, incredulously.
"I did not. I practised alternative healing, with a little regression therapy to boot. All harmless, all purely designed to help people enhance their lives in a spiritual fashion. I was performing a public service, and goodness know we all need as much help as we can get nowadays in spiritual comfort. I felt that men had become frightened of talking about themselves, about their innermost thoughts and feelings. There is so much tension and repressed anger around that I sometimes feel as though everyone is wired up to an invisible current".
"You're saying you took them back into past lives?" said Adam.
"Yes, that was one of the things I did. Who we are now and how we act is governed by how many souls we have had before. Some people are so old and worldly-wise before their time, so tired with life at an inordinately young age, that I could only assume that they had lived many lives already. I was rarely proved wrong. My main line though was healing. That is how I earned my living. But I was arrested and charged with fraudulently passing myself off as a doctor, which was completely absurd. Another reason for my imprisonment I feel is that the authorities did not approve of my regression treatment. Did not approve of me putting people in touch with previous lives. I think they felt I made men restless. I was bad for morale".
Kieran sat on the platform in the chilly twilight and listened to the bats squealing through the surrounding trees. He was sitting in a pool of light thrown by the oil-lamp just inside the door. Voices murmured from inside.
"This Angel sounds a right nutter", said Hillyard, his shadow crossing the lamp.
"Nutter is putting it mildly", was Adam's response "At one time I felt sorry for him would you believe!"
"Angel could fool many people", said Fobbett "And in particular the prison governor, who even doctored the official records so that no part of Angel's little peculiarities was mentioned".
Kieran let the voices melt away from him, and concentrated on his own small isolation. For a moment he experienced a pang of homesickness so intense that he felt almost physically winded. The revelation of how far he had moved from Amy in terms of distance, time, experience and emotions was terrifying. He hoped she was happy. In her time only three months had elapsed since they had parted. For him it was 2000 years. At that moment he felt an intense longing for her. In his mind's eye he could no longer see her as a whole person, but sometimes he got vivid flashes of aspects of her, giving away small bits at a time as though his memory was playing the miser with him.
And such memories! The way she laughed. Her pubic hair glistening in the shower. The red jacket she wore in cold weather. The way she pronounced certain words. Crazy, stupid little things all coming at him at random like an incoherent radio transmission from outer space.
"You're upset", Joby's voice seemed to be coming from as great a distance.
Kieran shook himself back to the present. Joby was beside him on the platform. The pool of light had moved because the oil-lamp had been carried further into the room, away from the night chill.
"Just thinking", Kieran said, quietly.
"I bet I know what about".
"Oh no you don't. I never thought I'd say this to you Joby, but I'm glad you slept with my wife".
"You what?" Joby looked incredulous, and braced himself for some withering sarcasm to follow. It didn't come.
"Yes I am", Kieran gently held Joby's elbow and steered him down the platform, out of earshot of the open doorway "I mean it, because you know all about her. And not only that you're the only other bastard here who knows what it is like to love a woman".
"Does that mean you're going to stop buggering?" Joby asked, excitedly.
"No it doesn't".
"I don't know how you can".
"It's not easy, but I haven't bled yet".
"You've gotta be mad! To go through all that just for the sake of a screw!"
"I'm very fond of Adam and that's a fact. I get fonder of him everyday. But all I'm saying is I'm just glad I've also got someone else around me who knew Amy".
"And now here you are, back in the world of Angels, and superstition, and deformed creatures, and mass disappearances ..."
"Not forgetting the odd visitor with burnt-off feet", Kieran giggled, madly.
"Very odd that one ... and his friend's not much better".
They came to the end of the platform. It was decorated with rotting crates, a rusting sack-truck and a bench that was still relatively intact. They sat down, and let their eyes follow the disused railway line as it meandered on and away from them into the darkness. A hundred yards away it turned sharply to the left and disappeared from view into the dense forest.
"I wonder what we will find if we keep following that", said Kieran.
"More empty buildings", Joby sighed "I mean, apart from Buskin's house everywhere we've come across so far has been empty hasn't it?"
"We must come to people sooner or later, unless everyone has topped themselves. I think that the reality of this place won't really hit us until we reach the City".
"It's hard to imagine what it's going to be like. No women, eunuchs instead", Joby reached into his pocket "Got something to show you".
Shyly he held out the silk stocking in his hand.
"Have you been carrying that since Green Ways?" asked Kieran.
"I spose you're going to laugh at me now", said Joby, with a resigned acceptance of the inevitable.
"Why should I? I wish I had something of Amy's to carry about. I haven't even got a small photo of her. I never saw the point, silly bastard that I was. I always thought the only blokes who did that were ones who rarely went home, and so needed to be reminded what their wives looked like. I was a bloody fool and no mistake. Took so much for granted. And I have so much trouble now just trying to remember her face. It's frightening how quickly we lose track of people. How easy it is to forget the essence of them".
"We might still get back yet", Joby punched his arm "You shouldn't give in until you're sure".
"Do you believe we'll ever get back?"
For a very brief while the question hung between them in the air, like a knife.
"There are time-cusps everywhere", said Joby, feeling and sounding blatantly unsure "You know that. We've only got to find out where they are".
"Even if we crossed into one the chances of us crossing into our own time must be pretty low".
"We managed it before".
"God knows how".
"Exactly, so there's no reason why we can't manage it again. There must be a pattern to these things I would've thought, so there's always hope".
They sat together on the bench until the coldness became too unbearable, and then went in. They were greeted by a blast of warm air from the roaring stove, and the tangerine glow of the oil-lamp. Fobbett was frying bacon on a shovel. Adam was smoking one of his filthy Kiskevian cigars. Hillyard was talking at no one in particular.
"Do you know", he said "I read somewhere that when a pig has an orgasm it can last for thirty minutes".
"Now that's the sort of thought that can haunt you for the rest of your life", said Kieran.
When Adam awoke it was barely daylight. The dawn was as cold, grey and sharp as an axe striking an executioner's block. The fire in the stove, which had been blazing merrily the night before, was now a slack heap of whiskery embers. The whole world seemed to be snoring around him, and in the air hung the distinct early morning whiff of the male sex.
Adam had always disliked the whole idea of literally having to sleep with people. He didn't see how sex or love, however grand the passion, merited having to wrestle bedclothes with someone afterwards, or listen to their nocturnal noises, nearly always disturbing or unpleasant. For that reason he had been quite happy since leaving the prison (once he understood there was no sexual threat) for Kieran to bunk down with Joby.
He disentangled himself from his blanket, the mustiness of which reminded him of the prison, and slipped outside. The sun was spectacular. A huge, scarlet bauble rising slowly above the pine trees, a foretaste of the winter to come. He pulled his fur-trimmed robe around him, and briskly wandered down the platform to generate some body-heat. At this time of the morning the world could seem as though it had been scrubbed clean overnight, ready to get sullied all over again during the coming day.
The platform was coated with a fine dusting of snow. There were small track-marks in it besides his own, those of an animal, probably a rabbit. Adam suddenly had the crazy idea that he and the rabbit were the only living creatures left in the world.
"And then I'd probably have to end up eating it", he thought, wryly.
He came to the end of the platform, near the spot where Kieran and Joby had talked the night before. Like them, he watched the bend in the tracks as it disappeared into the trees. He tried to think rationally about the journey ahead, but found it hard to do so when he had no idea what to expect.
A glimmer of movement caught his eye at the edge of the trees, where the forest had been cleared for the railway. A flash, and what seemed to be a pillar of white, except that it moved slightly. It was human, or normal shape and size. He could vaguely hear the soft rustling of garments. It appeared to be trying to reach him, but was prevented from crossing the railway line by an invisible, yet impenetrable barrier.
Adam stared in a half-mesmerised fashion. He found it was like watching a photograph slowly develop. As the seconds passed the shape became less sketchy, and more detail was filled in. Ivory skin, that was smooth and unblemished, dark hair, slender figure. A woman. Middle-aged, yet still beautiful.
He was under no illusions whatsoever. He was seeing a ghost. There was a two-dimensional feel about her, a flatness, as though she was a film image enlarged and projected onto the real landscape. Rather as Green Ways had felt when they first saw it.
Adam jumped down onto the overgrown tracks and cut across diagonally to where the figure was standing. He knew he had no real hope of the figure staying put. And sure enough, before he had reached the other side, the figure had vanished, like the reflection in a stream distorting and disappearing because someone had plunged their hand into it. She was no longer there.
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