Go back to previous chapter
"Ransey!" Joby screamed "Where the fuck are you? I need help. We're getting snowed under here".
He looked with horror at the queue that had formed at the ticket barrier. To Joby, left on his own to man the turnstiles, it was a terrifying sight. The first air-buggy had arrived, laden with punters, and Natalie (looking very smart in a tailored white skirt-suit) was waiting on the other side of the barrier to act as front-of-house.
"Ransey!" Joby cried out, again.
"Alright, stop panicking", Ransey galloped into view carrying a board and a paintbrush "I've rigged this up in case of trouble".
He slammed the board down in front of the barrier. It read "ALL HECKLERS AND TROUBLE-MAKERS WILL BE SHOT". To stress the point he wore his revolver in a shoulder-holster.
"Just in case", he said to Joby with a wink.
Caroly was ten-years-old but looked ninety. He suffered from a rare disorder which meant he aged ten years for every one year of his life. Adam had been shocked and appalled when his mother had suggested putting him in the freak show, until he learn that this had in fact been Caroly's own express wish. He was too old to get steamed up about people staring at him, and as long as he had a comfortable couch to doze on he didn't care.
His appearance, breathlessness and perpetual tiredness all spoke of extreme old age, and yet when Persephone gave him a toy road-buggy as a gift, he showed a young boy's delight and enchantment with it.
"I've been so worried about him wanting to appear", said his mother, standing by the barrier to the sideshow "But he said to me that if Lonts was appearing at the Festival he didn't see why he shouldn't. He empathises with Lonts you see. They are both little boys trapped in grown men's bodies".
"I hadn't thought of it that way", said Adam "But yes, of course, it is similar".
"It's an easy thing to overlook", she smiled, sadly "Lonts looks so fit and healthy, and Caroly ..."
Adam squeezed her arm affectionately. Caroly was making himself comfortable in the couch alloted to him, like an old man preparing for a long night's sleep.
"Lonts is much more of a handful though", said Adam "At least Caroly settles down to his nap without arguing!"
"I expect Lonts's little temper outbursts can be terrifying. Has he ever attacked you physically?"
"Very occasionally, but he's easily sorted out. The important thing is to never show fear. That's how I've kept his confidence, I've always stayed in control".
"He's such a big lad too".
"Big and completely soft", said Adam "I must go and see where the dear Vanquisher has got to. His public awaits!"
The dear Vanquisher was run to earth in one of the wagons, where he was sitting alone in the stuffy dark getting blotto on whisky. Adam was at first dismayed and then sympathetic. He remembered many years ago, when they had stayed at the 'Moon and Stars' in Marlsblad, Kieran hiding in his room getting drunk on plum brandy, because he couldn't stand everyone keep staring at him.
"Pats", Adam took the bottle and glass from him "They want to see you. Come now, you normally handle these occasions with such aplomb. What's gone wrong this time?"
"I'm an imposter", said Kieran "A charlatan. They'll tear me to pieces".
"Of course they won't, you silly-arse!"
"Thou shalt not set up false idols. I am a false idol".
"If you say so", Adam sighed "But if there is a Lord God Almighty He hasn't sent down a thunderbolt on you yet".
"Oh what do you know! You're just like Joby, a right pair of heathens".
"Yes I am a heathen, and bloody proud of it! And if you'd been brought up by a raving fanatic like I was you would be too", said Adam "Now I'll excuse this little lapse as the heat getting to you, but it's not really acceptable, Patsy".
"Where's Joby?" Kieran began to cry softly.
"Working very hard in the box-office I expect", Adam pushed open the door and yelled out "Toppy! Go and get some coffee from the refreshments area. Black and strong, and be very quick about it!"
He had barely finished issuing this instruction when Ully appeared on the wagon steps, waving his wig in his hand like a fan.
"Hey kid", he said, on catching sight of Kieran "Don't go to pieces on us now. You're one of our star-turns".
Ully had always had a soft spot for Kieran, and during their time at Cootie's circus he had felt sorry for him, fearing he was too young to bear the huge responsibility that people were putting on him. He remembered dressing him in his ceremonial robes at the presidential inauguration, and being horrified by his thinness. All these years on Kieran was still way too thin, but he had survived, and Ully had felt sometimes that this had been against all odds.
"I've made a mess of it all", Kieran lay down on the bunk and muttered into a cushion "Made a mess of everything".
Ully looked tormented. He himself had had a drink problem for years, which had ruined his career, and knew all there was to know about guilt and regrets.
"Take no notice", said Adam, hauling Kieran into a sitting position "We've heard this one many times. Patsy, this is extremely silly. Now buck up or I'll send for Julian, and you wouldn't want that!"
Kieran put his arms round Adam's neck and leaned drowsily against him.
"He hasn't had a turn like this in some time", said Adam, apologetically "I think it must be the mass influx of outsiders that's making him nervous".
Toppy appeared, solmenly bearing a mug of coffee.
"Drink this, Pats", said Adam, holding the mug under Kieran's nose, and dismissing Toppy again.
"I'm sorry", Kieran took a sip "You've all worked so hard, and I suppose I'm scared of all these outsiders running over our wee town. I feel responsible for the women here. We have the largest female population of anywhere in the world. The women ... They ..."
"Will be absolutely fine", said Adam "We're expecting a bunch of tourists, not marauding Vikings!"
"But what if there's any trouble?" said Kieran.
"Then we'll lock the trouble-makers up with Tamaz", said Adam "I'm sure you wouldn't object to that!"
He decided to take Kieran outside and walk him up and down in the sultry evening air, hurriedly in case the punters got to the sideshow sooner than anticipated. Outside though he found Toppy upended in a water-butt, and Lonts standing by it gloatingly. Lonts was incapable of concealing when he was guilty and jumped nervously when he saw Adam. Hillyard came rushing over as soon as he saw the scene and hauled Toppy out of the water.
"Why, Lo-Lo?" Adam shouted.
"He was being all prissy about Kieran, and going on about drink being evil", Lonts protested "He was getting on my nerves".
"That's no reason to try and drown him!" Adam grabbed Lonts and slapped him hard on the backside a few times. Lonts immediately erupted into loud shrieks and tearful wailings, as though in competition with Toppy, who was also making quite a row now he was out of the water.
"SILENCE!" Julian roared, marching across the compound.
Ully decided to make himself scarce, on the grounds that this was obviously a "family matter".
"This is a bloody disgrace!" Julian went on "The first punters are here, and you lot are carrying on like a Greek tragedy. I won't have it, do you hear me? I hold you responsible for this, Adam".
"I know", Adam sighed, having heard this accusation on many other occasions too.
"It's all Lonts's fault", Toppy blubbed.
"I've always said he was nothing but a little sneak", said Lonts.
"You two are both going to be flogged senseless once this Festival is over", said Julian "I will also have you scrubbing decks, washing sheets, unblocking the heads, and every other chore I can think of. On top of that there will be no time off, no alcohol, no sweets, and no other treats that I can think of at any time".
Toppy looked so horrified by all this that Lonts, a paragon of illogical behaviour, hastened to reassure him.
"He doesn't mean it, Toppy", he said "Adam's always saying his bark's far worse than his bite".
Adam gave a moan of deep distress and put his hands to his face, as though hoping to blot out the whole scene. Julian though had realised Kieran's condition by now and had moved onto him.
"And the Vanquisher, the star of our show", he said "Is rat-arsed! Natalie had to open the Festival, I hope you realise that. She did an excellent job of it, but even so there were mutterings amongst some of the punters, who were hoping to see you".
"I'm so sorry", Kieran muttered, with great dismay.
"You will be, Tinkerbell", Julian prodded him in the chest with his riding-crop "To make amends to our paying public I'm putting you and Tamaz on at eleven o'clock, straight after Bengo and Bardin's routine".
"You can't!" said Kieran "We're not ready. You agreed that we could do our first stint at four a.m, when it was quiet, so that we had time to iron out any tricky bits and get Tamaz used to it all".
"That was before you let the side down", said Julian, crushingly "If we don't exhibit you soon the public will not be amused. In the meantime get out front and do some Codlik-style pressing of flesh. That should appease them until you go on".
Kieran nodded dejectedly and allowed Hillyard to lead him away by the hand. Adam watched him sympathetically. He remembered so many occasions when Kieran's nerves had got the better of him. Dinners and speeches during his presidential days when he had been unable to eat for some time beforehand, existing on cigaretts and tea, and vomiting up anything he did digest.
Meanwhile Julian had demanded the loan of Snowy, who had spent the duration of the scene sitting under a wagon, apparently gnawing at one of the iron-tipped wheels. Lonts handed the bear over to him with dire misgivings, which were realised when Julian callously dropped it into the water-butt and held it under. Lonts gave a whimper of pain.
"Just to show you that I am a man of action as well as words", said Julian, before sauntering off.
"You got off very lightly there, Lo-Lo", said Adam "I am also going to have strong words to say to you when all this is over".
"And you're going to punish me until then? For the whole week ahead?" Lonts wailed "Toppy upset me. I didn't think!"
"You never do!" Adam replied, angrily "I am angry at both of you. Toppy shouldn't moralise, and you shouldn't over-react. Now get on with some work, before Julian comes back again".
Kieran washed himself in the water-butt nearest the ring-entrance, and then Hillyard pulled off his own t-shirt and handed it to him to dry himself on.
"Still valeting for me, eh?" Kieran laughed softly, as he came up for air "Bit different to the presidential suite though. Looking after me's always been a thankless task".
"No it's not", said Hillyard "Sometimes I miss the days when I used to scrub your back and turn your bed down. All those chances I missed! I used to want to lie on your bed and wait for you to come back, but Joby usually turned up instead, telling me to bog off".
"Don't come it", Kieran laughed "I know how you feel about Joby, like everyone else in the world feels about him, or so it seems at times. I know damn well you tried it on with him enough times when I got held up at late meetings".
"Yeah I know", said Hillyard, ruefully "I remember once doing that, and he yelled at me saying he wanted a quiet hour with his gardening catalogue instead!"
"Don't take it to heart, I've had that rebuff enough times meself!" Kieran exclaimed "Come on, I'm as sober as I'm going to be for a few hours. Come and help me charm the punters. If you keep yer shirt off it'll make that task a wee bit easier".
Kieran and Hilllyard got out front to find the first party of punters ignoring the chorus-girls in the ring, and instead decimating the refreshments set up on two long trestle-tables, as though they'd just endured an enforced route-march than a gentle stroll from the hotel.
All these visitors were from the City, which still boasted a largely male population, with a small influx of women and girls that had emigrated there from No-Name as part of Lady Red's circle. The women that made up the female contingent of this group of visitors were all middle-aged (who Lady Red had once nicknamed her "sewing circle") and had soon found themselves husbands in the City. They now enjoyed an elite lifestyle up there, commanding respect and attention wherever they went, without too much of the earthy attentions the younger women constantly got.
Kieran always immediately relaxed in female company (apart from Lady Red that is, who made him feel jittery in case she wanted another stab at procreating with the Vanquisher. Fortunately, for him, she couldn't come to the Festival, as she was currently holidaying in (inspecting?) Marlsblad). Once amongst women usually though he wallowed, letting their voices waft over him, taking him back to his childhood days when male infuences had been few and far between.
As soon as the women saw him they forsook the food and clustered round him, embracing and prodding him in turn. The men carried on eating, which was only what Kieran had come to expect from his own sex.
"You're too thin", said one gnome-like woman, who had a disconcerting habit of raising her spectacles (kept on a chain round her neck) to her eyes whenever she spoke to anyone. She was garrulous and exuberant, reminding Kieran irresistably of the busybody neighbour in 'Rosemary's Baby'.
"You shouldn't let yourself get so thin", she went on, sighing deeply as she spoke, as though in wistful sadness "If that Angel fiend was to return, how would you fight him when you're that size? You tell me that!"
"I was skinny then too", said Kieran, with a wry smile "It's not what you've got it's what you do with it that counts".
"You wanna get some flesh on you, like handsome Hillyard here", Gnome-Woman continued, and then she dropped her voice to a concerned throb "Did that Angel creature beat you up real bad? Do you suffer from it still?"
"He did", said Kieran, who never ceased to be amazed that strangers always wanted to know about his fight with Angel "But he left no long-lasting effects, I'm glad to say".
"What made you decide to fight him, couldn't you have found some other way?"
"We decided a straight one-to-one fight would get it over with quicker", said Kieran "I got out of it luckier than I expected really, but I hope it never comes down to that again! I was a lot younger in those days!"
By ten-thirty that evening, when they were due to perform their first routine of the Festival, Bengo and Bardin hated each other with a vengeance. This spilled over into their act, where the thumps, whacks and splats became far more aggressive than usual. The audience, thinking this was normal, loved every minute of it. Watching anxiously from the wings, Kieran couldn't help feeling that his blood-shedding fight with Angel had been nothing compared to what these two were about!
For the greater part of the performance Bengo came off worst, and his whispered asides to Bardin to "tone it down a bit, mate!" went unheeded. In the last minute the amiable Bengo snapped and landed Bardin such a smack on the jaw that his colleague keeled over backwards and landed unconscious in the sawdust. Hillyard dashed into the ring and dragged Bardin out by his feet. The crowd, blissfully assuming that everything was feigned and this was really part of the act, went into raptures.
"Shove him into one of the wagons", said Julian, backstage "He's got a few hours to recover until his next turn".
"I couldn't help myself, he was asking for it", said Bengo, pushing his way through the leaden-footed dwarves, who were still vainly trying to rehearse anything that remotely resembled a dance-routine "I'm surprised I'm still in one piece after what he's been doing to me".
He sat down on a straw bale and began to remove his elbow- and knee-pads. His hair was matted with egg-yolk and shaving-foam, and parts of his body were a nasty, stinging red form where Bardin had hit him with an assortment of tin-trays and wooden bats.
"Don't apologise, old love", said Adam, on his way past "The punters loved it. The persecuted little man hits back at the bully at the eleventh hour ... it's a scenario that always goes down well. I thought it was pure comic genius, worthy of Buster Keaton".
"So", said Julian, quietly, during a brief lull when they were alone "I take it the wedding's off then? You and Bardin won't be eloping to the City together?"
"As far as I was concerned it was never on the cards in the first place", said Bengo.
"Good", said Julian "Well you'd better wash that muck out of your hair, and then I'll treat you to a doughnut to celebrate".
After the clowns' roaring routine the audience felt relaxed and slightly satiated, but next on the menu was Kieran and Tamaz's even more extraordinary double-act. The small band who were providing as much of the Festival's musical accompaniment as was humanly possible, were instructed by their leader to "forget these two following us, we'll have to follow them". He hastily downed another pint of beer in case his nerves weren't up to the task ahead.
Kieran and Tamaz stepped gingerly into the ring to the sort of awed hush that was usually only to be found at funeral services. There was a ripple of uncertain applause, and then the band struck up a rolling jazz piece, which had been chosen because it gradually increased in tempo but always kept its jolly boyancy. It was perfect roller-skating music.
Both of them wore arm- and knee-pads, like the clowns, and Tamaz had on a pair of khaki trousers over his black teddy. For a little while they both skated separately, as though doing warm-up exercises, with the audience content to simply gape at Tamaz, the extraordinary creature who had dominated the public's imagination for so long.
The music moved up a gear and Kieran skated over to Tamaz. As he neared him it felt as though the entire audience was leaning forward to watch his next move. A daunting sensation.
"Let's go into the laps of speed-skating now", said Kieran, circling Tamaz like a benevolent vulture "We went over all this backstage, so you know what to do. We just go round and round in a circle, trying to get up as much speed as possible. Ready?"
It started well, although Kieran could sense Tamaz was getting annoyed because he wasn't managing to out-pace him. Bent forwards, they both steamed ahead like two race-horses intent on reaching the winning-post first. Suddenly Kieran felt a sharp pain in his leg and he lost his balance and crumpled to the ground. Tamaz, delighted with himself for kicking him, shrieked with laughter and stuck out his long tongue. The audience were giving a collected "ooh!" and a hiss which showed the age-old dislike of foul-play.
Kieran got to his feet, determined to ignore the burning sensation in his leg. He went after Tamaz, using his good leg to kick up speed like an ice-skater revving up for a triple-axel. For a couple of minutes he forgot all about Tamaz the bewildered captive, and remembered only the Ghoomer Tamaz, who had bragged in Thetislog of surrendering the Earth to the forces of darkness, of ushering in the Age of the Goat, i.e the Devil. And then he forgot Tamaz even, and remembered only the tattered black spectre of the Devil himself appearing on Albatross Island, and then later shrieking and taunting him at the gates to Wolf Castle. On both occasions it had precipitated a short period of dementia and mental breakdown in Kieran, the horror of which would never leave him.
He caught up with Tamaz and pushed him bodily over the barrier and into the audience. Those sitting close by uttered terrified exclamations and backed away in horror. Tamaz landed on all fours, hissing and spitting like a rabid cat. Kieran leaned over the barrier, grabbed Tamaz's arm and hauled him back towards him into the ring. Once there, Kieran got him into a waltzing position and shrieked at him to "dance!"
They did a frenzied gallop of a fox-trot round the ring, with Kieran hanging onto Tamaz for grim death, and both of them attempting to lead.
"You keep yer pert little tits away from my Joby, do you hear?" Kieran hissed at him "And stop trying to lead this dance. I'm the one who should be leading".
"Who says?" Tamaz exclaimed "I'm as male as you are".
"I've got a cock".
"So have I".
"You won't have for much longer if you don't keep your paws to yourself!"
"He sniffs round me actually", said Tamaz, triumphantly "Must be my pert little tits that does it. Didn't your wife have pert little tits? Perhaps they remind him of hers. After all, they were close weren't they?"
"Bloody ancient history, Tamaz", said Kieran, whisking him round in a waltzing-beavers move "We sorted all that out years ago in Hell. If we hadn't we'd still be there. What'll Hell be like when you face it, Tamaz? Endless re-runs of Gorth rubbing his clammy cock against your ... er ... pert little tits?"
Tamaz gave a tongue-whipping shriek which came out more like a yodel, and sprinted Kieran into an even faster whirl.
"You mention Gorth again and I'll leave the ring", said Tamaz, squeezing Kieran's hand painfully like a vice.
"And spoil the fun?" said Kieran "Don't be daft, the audience are loving us. Let's give a big smile and do a few more twirls. By the time we've finished they'll be chucking money at us!"
"You promise?" said Tamaz.
Go forward to next chapter
Return to Sarah Hapgood's Strange Tales and Strange Places web site