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It had been a spectacularly uneventful journey so far. The landscape had been nothing but rocks and marshes. Coming at the end of the dog days things were remarkably dry. In a couple of weeks time, when the rainy season began, the area would flood, but until then it resembled the surface of Mercury.
Nevertheless it was a great relief to be a away from the gaze of civilisation, to be able to do things without having to consider a whole host of neighbours first. They travelled in the mornings, and then dropped anchor at lunchtime when the worst of the heat set in. After lunch they would slip across the gangplank to stretch their legs amongst the rocks.
Joby was grateful to be in an environment where he couldn't get into too much trouble. On the third afternoon he lay on his bunk, talking to Lonts, who sat on the floor next to him.
"You're always so deep in thought", said Joby "Whenever I see you on the quayside or in here, you seem to be thinking about something. Don't tell me it's tram-cars all the time!"
"That's only when I'm trying to sleep", Lonts giggled "I think about bears a lot. I've made up a family of them in my head. I put bits of us into them".
"Oh yeah?" said Joby "And is one of them a stupid dork called Joby who's always making a pillock of himself?!"
"No one thinks of you like that", said Lonts "Am I really thoughtful?"
"Put it this way, you've quietened done a lot in the last couple of years. You don't run off anymore or wreck furniture. Must be old age coming on. I spose it might be 'cos you're not the youngest anymore".
"Finia was always younger than me anyway", said Lonts "And Bengo, Tamaz and Toppy are all younger than me".
"I know, quite the elder statesman aren't you!"
"Sometimes they're all so young I think they're silly", Lonts pouted "But I feel sorry for Tamaz, because he's been through a lot. But Bengo and Toppy are really childish at times".
"You're not really the baby anymore are you?" said Joby, sadly "In fact, I think in your old age you're going to be all stern and fierce. You'll probably frighten the shit out of me!"
"No I won't", Lonts rested his head on Joby's chest "I promise".
A hiatus occurred later that afternoon when Tamaz momentarily disappeared. He had been allowed to go ashore with the others and had vanished out of sight behind a clump of rocks. He hadn't been missing for long, but it was enough to cause real concern. Joby eventually located him, finding him sitting staring into space.
"You know you're not supposed to go off alone", he said.
"I didn't", said Tamaz "I didn't realise you couldn't see me".
"Come on back to the boat before Julian blows a gasket".
Joby reached out to grab Tamaz's arm. Tamaz reacted like a nervouse horse and went to bite him.
"You do that again and I'll give you a good hiding!" said Joby, angrily "Now come on!"
Back on the deck of the Indigo Tamaz received another scolding from Julian.
"I'm not a prisoner!" Tamaz protested, stamping his foot.
"That is exactly what you are", said Julian "You may not be in the cage anymore but you are still in our custody. If you weren't you'd be locked in a cell underground at the Assizes Court, or back with the Ghoomers. We don't impose many restrictions on you these days, but one thing I do insist on is that you stay in sight of us at all times. This is as much for your own safety as anything else. Now you can stay in my cabin for the rest of the day. Joby, take him below and give him a wash, he's filthy".
"I forget", Tamaz whimpered, after Joby had cleaned him up "I forget I'm still a prisoner and I always will be".
"You don't do too badly", said Joby "When Lonts was younger he'd have got beaten for disappearing like that, so think yourself lucky. Anyway, it's not as if you're kept under lock and key anymore. It's not so bad on here is it?"
"I don't want to go back in the cage", said Tamaz, sulkily.
"Then it's very simple, behave!" Joby picked up a clean camisole and Tamaz declined it.
"It's too hot", he said "And I expect you'd rather look at my tits wouldn't you?"
"Why?" said Joby "Why should I get turned on by a vicious little sod like you? You tried to bite me earlier!"
"I know", Tamaz sighed, and slipped his skinny arms round Joby's neck "But most of the time I do everything you want don't I?"
"You're more manipulative than ten women!" said Joby "I don't know what I did to deserve you!"
"Joby!" Julian yelled from the corridor "Come into the saloon, I want to talk to you".
"O.K", said Joby, and he directed Tamaz onto his bedding.
"I think there's rather too much pawing going on between you and Tamaz", said Julian, once he was alone with Joby in the saloon.
"But Kieran doesn't mind", said Joby "So what's the problem?"
"The problem is that I don't want that freak getting pregnant!" Julian spat.
"Neither do I", said Joby "That's why I'm always very careful. Anyway I only have full sex with him once in a blue moon. Most of the time we just cuddle, and I've never heard of anyone getting pregnant from that!"
"I really doubt the wisdom of having him on-board here sometimes", said Julian.
"I don't see why", said Joby "He's been really well-behaved since he's been living with us. He hasn't got violent or tried to escape, and he's easily kicked back into line. A lot easier than Lonts used to be! I think you're too hard on him, Julian. He never gave us any trouble at Cockroach Mansions did he? Or at the Festival, and today's was accidental".
"Alright, alright", Julian held up his hands in surrender "I really don't know why you don't marry the wretched creature and have done with it!"
Julian paused to light a cigar, during which he was visibly agitated.
"I wish you'd trust him", said Joby "He's one of us now, he's not going to cause any trouble".
"For heaven's sake I believe you!" said Julian "It's just that occasionally I remember exactly what he is".
"Take no notice, Joby", said Hillyard, walking into the room "He's been like a bear with a sore head since he got up this morning. Must be missing Bengo, his bed-warmer!"
"I must admit, it's weird not having him here", said Joby "I keep walking in here and expecting to find him standing on his head or something! I hope he's alright on his own".
"He's not on his own", said Julian, testily "He's living with Fradie".
"Fate worse than death", Joby grunted.
"He's missing him like crazy", said Hillyard "He just won't admit it that's all".
"There is considerably more room in my cabin without him", Julian snapped "And if you'd go and sleep in the hold as all stokers should, there'd be even more!"
"Oh you're a real miserable old b-b-b-b-basket today aren't you!" said Hillyard, giving Julian such a hard slap on his rump that he nearly dropped his cigar.
Five days had gone past and Bengo was sunk in the glooms. It was hard enough that he was missing the Indigo, but Fradie's bedsit was certainly not comforting substitute for it. In theory Fradie was an easy person to live with. He didn't impose petty rules and regulations, he wasn't possessive over Bengo's company, and he didn't go around locking cupboards so that he couldn't wash or eat. Fradie was also a heavy sleeper. He slept for at least ten hours a night, dead to the world, and didn't insist on Bengo creeping round him on tiptoe at such times.
But in spite of all this Fradie could still be insufferable. During his conscious hours he talked incessantly, about anything and everything. He observed any slightest minute detail of life and enthused over it, plus when he wasn't thinking about food and where to get it, he was thinking about sex and where to get it.
Having lived on the Indigo for a couple of years Bengo wasn't easily distressed by anyone else's lack of discretion, but Fradie's took the biscuit! When arriving home Bengo never knew who to expect to find him in bed with, or how many. And Fradie was certainly not averse to screwing women whilst Bengo was in the same room with them. Bengo felt sorry for some of the women, who were obviously as disconcerted by his presence as he was! Occasionally though they took a shine to him and his cute looks. only to have Fradie pronounce "Don't waste your time on him, he's a faggot!"
"Or are you?" Fradie asked one night, when they were alone "I won't say anything if you bring a cunt home. When you've finished with her you can pass her onto me. Surely it'd be an improvement on having donkey dick Julian poking it into your brass eye? Jeez, I don't know how you can take that! I'd rather be put on the rack!"
"There are ways round it", Bengo mumbled, awkwardly "To help get over the pain".
"Don't tell me, I don't wanna know! What I can't understand is why you faggots get so turned on by guys with big grinders! If I was in your position I'd want someone with as small a prick as possible!"
Bengo was rather amused by this and laughed, much to Fradie's gratification. Even so, the writer was rather disappointed that Bengo never suggested bringing any of the showgirls home. Truth to tell, Bengo felt he had quite enough of them during working hours. Sometimes he found them as tiresome as he did Bardin, and usually very spoilt and grasping. They tended to size everyone up as a potential source of goodies, and were forever saying things like "Well I'm worth a bit of pampering aren't I?"
Towards the end of the week Bengo began to get very restless indeed. He was expecting the Indigo back at any time, and was always deeply disappointed when he looked out towards the waterfront and found it wasn't. He came home after the Friday rehearsal to find that a friend of Fradie's had arrived from the City to stay for a while. It was made clear to him that he wasn't expected to leave, but Bengo couldn't help feeling that three men in a very small room was pushing good relations somewhat. Added to that, Fradie's friend was another writer, and one who could have given Mr Hawkefish lessons in pretension and grandiose gestures!
To add insult to injury Mezlin (such was his name) seemed to regard Bengo as his house-boy and spoke to him as such, constantly sending him off on errands. Bengo got off onto the wrong footing with him by innocently asking if he'd ever had anything published. This is a fatal question to ask a writer. If the answer is 'yes', he will take it as a gross insult because the whole world should KNOW he's been published, and if the answer's 'no' it becomes a very sore point indeed, like a asking a horizontal boxer if he's ever won a fight! Bengo didn't find out which was the truth in Mezlin's case all the time he was living with him.
Mezlin had some rather trying little habits, such as dropping things on the floor and then staring at them pointedly until Bengo, ever the amiable one, stooped down to pick it up for him. And astonishingly pompous turns of phrase like "every word I write has to be torn out of my soul!"
On the following Monday (by which time the continued non-appearance of the Indigo was getting Bengo frantic) Mezlin decided to start "soul-tearing" with a vengeance, and this was a very depressing activity to watch. The little room suddenly became too grim for words. Unlike Fradie, who put all his golden words directly onto a typewriter with seemingly little effort at all, Mezlin did all his first drafting by hand. He began by lining up his pens in a row on the table next to an alarm clock. This last piece of equipment was vital, as it was to ensure Mezlin didn't do a minute longer than two hours at any stretch, even if it meant stopping in the middle of a word, least of all a thought. He did several of these two-hour stints in one day, interspersed by equal-sized rest periods, which were again timed to the minute. This could get quite farcical at times, with Mezlin kicking his heals with boredom during a rest period, obviously desperate to start work but unable to do so because the clock decreed he had another four minutes of rest left!
"Yeah I know he's a prat", said Fradie, in Persephone's bar that evening "But what can I say? I can't turn him away".
Bengo took solace at the theatre, and when he was home he upped his trips to the bathroom to get out of Mezlin's hair. Even this became awkward though when he walked in on a woman just as she was sitting down on the loo. He had blurted out apologies and walked out again. When the woman came out she actually grabbed him by the nose and tweeked it painfully, hissing "You should knock first, knock!"
On Tuesday afternoon the rains came. The monsoons could be as disciplined as Mezlin's writing. For instance it was fairly predictable that it would lash down from four until six in the afternoon, every day. This made the room dark and stuffy, and very claustrophobic. They were situated at the end of the first floor corridor, which meant they didn't get much passing traffic, and as Mezlin demanded a monastic silence whilst he wrote, the quietness could become uncomfortably intense.
Bengo, normally such a placid person, began to get fretful and even tearful. By Thursday he was convinced the Indigo had disappeared for good. They had abandoned him. He couldn't have felt more marooned if he'd been dropped by spaceship onto a deserted planet. There was no performance at the Little Theatre that night, and he wanted to curl up under a blanket and try and sleep away his misery. Mezlin was still scratching away on his pages like an automaton. Scribble, scribble, scribble. Didn't he ever pause to yawn, scratch himself, THINK?! And how on earth did he train his bladder to only need attention during rest periods?
Suddenly, to just do something as simple as put the kettle on the tiny gas-ring for a cup of tea, would look as disturbing as a house-fire! Bengo was just trying to psych himself up to do this horrendous deed when there was a light tapping noise on the door. Mezlin put down his pen with frightening significance, and glared across at Bengo, who stared at him horrorstruck. Good God, it was like trying to apologise to someone because you had run over their dog!
"I'll answer it", Bengo gulped, nervously "I'll answer it now".
Mezlin continued to glare at him over the top of his writing-glasses.
Bengo ran for the door, fully intending to tear the intruder to pieces. When he opened it though he was ecstatic to find Toppy standing in the corridor, soaked through from the monsoon outside.
"I've been sent round to tell you we're back", he said, peering over Bengo's arm at Mezlin.
Bengo let out an animal whoop and picked Toppy up, all but tossing him in the air.
"I'm coming home rightaway", he shrieked "Where have you lot been? It's been two sodding weeks!"
"W-we said we were going to be a few days", said Toppy, breathlessly.
"What have you been doing?" said Bengo, making it sound like an accusation.
"Just going up and down the river", Toppy stammered "T-there wasn't much to see. Nothing much happened apart from Tamaz getting lost behind some rocks for a few minutes, and a lot of fishing was done, a-and drinking. You didn't miss anything".
"It sounds Heaven", said Bengo "I'll pack my bag. You'd better wait out here or you'll disturb Mezlin".
"You are!" said Mezlin.
A couple of doors down the corridor was the room belonging to Milich's girlfriend, Eva. She had occasionally encountered Bengo on the stairs and had tried to smile at him, but he had usually been hurrying out and hadn't noticed her. Eva, so brash and foul-mouthed in public, was heartily sick of her life, which, at the age of seventeen, seemed to have got itself embedded in a stagnant rut. The biggest problem was undoubtedly Milich. Early on in their relationship she had been very fond of him, but for the past few months she realised she had got herself into a situation surrounded by dead ends.
Milich was a drunk, a whining, cowardly, disgusting drunk. He drank mainly beer, which caused him to put on weight, and his young face became flabby, coarse and petulant. He was hopelessly out of condition and wheezed when he climbed the stairs, like an old man. He came to Eva's room mainly to sleep (he slept all afternoon most days), and to escape his mother, who nowadays only spoke to him to lecture him on his drinking. When Eva tried to talk to him about it herself he would either storm out (to get drunk, predictably enough), or burst into tears, his spoilt mouth twisting like a gargoyle as he whined sottishly that "You sound just like my mother!" Boo-hoo-hoo! Tears trickling down his fat little face.
It is a horrifying thought to realise that the person you are with revolts you, and Milich now undoubtedly turned Eva's stomach. Why she still put up with him she couldn't in all honesty have said. It was partly out of pity for him, and partly out of fear. Milich after all was full of big talk about what he would do to her if she found someone else.
And now this afternoon, here he was, asleep in her room as always. She was so tired of these long afternoons! Of sitting there waiting for him to wake up. And then when he did he would usually find an excuse (however desperate) to pick a fight with her, so that he could legitimately pick up his jacket and storm out ... to the nearest bar. Which was where he would stay for the rest of the evening. Occasionally playing snooker with his so-called friends, but more often than not these days just mindlessly drinking, swaying like a tree in a gale as he did so. And then at the end of the evening (if she was lucky!!) he would sometimes make his way back to her, usually with more bottles tucked away in the inside pockets of his jacket. Once, she locked the door on him and refused to let him in, so he had stood there shrieking "You fucking slag!" until she relented and opened the door.
Eva blamed Myrtle for all this as much as she blamed Milich. Myrtle was a monstrously bad mother. She hadn't been able to control her son since he was about 18-months-old, and now basically saw the ridiculously young Eva as a means to get rid of him at long last, foist him onto someone else. He could now be Eva's problem, as far as she was concerned. "I thought you would be able to sort him out", said Myrtle, petulantly, when Milich had worried them both one night by going off on yet another bender.
Next to her, on the small couch in her room, Milich came to consciousness. He roused himself blearily, gave a small moan of appreciation as he rubbed his hand across her breasts, and then got up to search for his cigarettes. If there was one thing guaranteed to irritate the hell out of Eva, it was the performance Milich made about something so simple as smoking. He couldn't just light a cigarette and smoke it, he would stand there inhaling it into his lungs like an asthmatic having a seizure, whilst glaring down his nose at her venomously. Quite why he had to do it this way was beyond her completely.
"Where are you going?" he growled, as she made her way to the door.
"To the bathroom", Eva replied.
"No you're not", he grabbed her wrist and yanked her back "You're only doing that to get away from me".
"I'm going because I have to!" she exclaimed.
"I don't believe you, you go far too much".
"I'm on a fucking ration now am I!"
"I won't be here when you get back", he said, triumphantly.
I couldn't be that lucky, thought Eva, but experience had taught her to keep it to herself.
I wish he'd die, she thought as she went down the corridor to the bathroom. He's no bloody use to anyone, why can't he just die now?!
Suddenly Bengo and Toppy came hurtling along the corridor towards her. Bengo was carrying his bag. This could only mean one thing, he was going back to the Indigo. For ten days Eva had entertained fantasies in her head that Bengo would rescue her from Milich's grasp. Quite how Bengo was to achieve this wasn't clear. He may have been super-fit, but he didn't exactly have an aggressive, fighting nature, and showed no inclination whatsoever that he wanted to go pursuing anyone of the female gender. But his handsomeness and amiability (all such a huge contrast to Milich) had completely won her over. She was like a storm-battered boat desperately looking for a safe harbour to rest in, and in her loneliness she had decided on Bengo when he came to stay in the same building for a while.
And now in his excitement to be gone from the gloomy block he hadn't noticed her at all!
"Watch where you're fucking going!" she had screamed.
"I'm s-sorry", Bengo stammered, appalled by her anger "Are you o.k?"
"No fucking thanks to you!"
Once outside the building Bengo had forgotten the encounter in his hurry to be back on the Indigo. He and Toppy ran through the teeming rain down the street to the waterfront, where they splashed along the wooden jetty to their home.
"My left leg has been tingling all day", said Julian, standing in the middle of the saloon whilst Adam, on his knees in front of him, massaged it "That can't be natural can it? Perhaps I had a mild stroke in my sleep".
"Oh don't be so silly, Jules", said Adam.
"Well it can happen!" said Julian.
"I find it very hard to believe you've had a stroke", said Adam "Anyway, that sort of thing just won't happen to you. You'll live til you're a 109, and the others will have to shoot you then out of desperation to be rid of you!"
"What makes you think we'd wait that long!" said Joby, sitting on the sofa.
"I'm home!" Bengo threw himself into the crowded saloon like an excited puppy "I'm home, home, home! You're never going to leave me behind again. Never!"
"It's lovely to see you again, old love", said Adam, getting to his feet "I'll go and make some tea".
"I've missed everything so much", Bengo chucked himself at Julian and smothered him in kisses "And now I'm back, back, back!"
"ALRIGHT!" Julian thundered, trying to extricate himself from his grasp "I think we've got the message! Get off!"
"Oh Jules, isn't he sweet?" said Adam.
"He's completely deranged", said Julian, adjusting his clothing, which had got pulled out of kilter by Bengo.
"Artistic temperament", said Joby, glumly.
"When I went to get him", said Toppy "He threw me in the air".
"If I'd done it I'd have hit the ceiling with you", said Lonts, darkly.
"Lo-Lo!" said Adam, before going out to the galley.
"Are you working, Ransey?" asked Bengo, peering over the said man's shoulder, who had strewn his notebooks out on the table.
"I had a job come in just before we went away", said Ransey "I was going to work on it on the trip, but I never got round to it. There's a notebook of mine missing. Finia, have you seen it?"
"I never touch your accountancy stuff", said Finia, who was languidly sitting on the back of the sofa.
"If it's not in your cabin, it might have got shoved in the bookcase by mistake", said Hillyard "It's happened before".
"More than likely", Ransey went across to the bookcase and began pulling out the motley contents, scattering them on the floor around him "Look at the crap in here! 'A Double-Bill Of Erotica: The Bondage Of Love & The Solace Of Sin'. That must be one of yours".
He shied it at Julian, who deftly caught it.
"'Egbod's Punishment'", said Ransey, removing another volume.
"Who's Egbod?" said Joby.
"I don't know", said Ransey, passing it to him "But judging by the cover I'm glad I'm not him!"
"'Found guilty of a crime he didn't commmit ...'" Joby read from the blurb on the back.
"Aren't they always!" Julian sighed, flicking through his own book.
"'Egbod is sent to the notorious Island Fortress'", Joby continued "'Where prisoners are subjected to rigorous and humiliating punishments, under the stern eye of the sadistic Officer Kersey. There, Egbod is cleansed and finds spiritual salvation ...'"
"Good grief", said Julian, in horror "It sounds awful, like pornography written by Kieran, heavily sponsored by the Catholic Church!"
"I thought it'd be right up your street actually", said Kieran.
"You're the practising flagellant", said Julian.
"K-Kieran", Toppy looked shocked "You haven't done that have you?"
"He hasn't done lately", said Julian "But he had quite a mania for it at one time. He used to thrash himself with a little whip".
"I don't expect a heathen like you to understand the subtleties of it all", said Kieran "But it's one of the things that's stopped me becoming a complete monster".
"As averse to an incomplete monster", said Joby.
"Why does he need spiritual salvation if he's really innocent?" said Hillyard "Egbod, I mean".
"It's called a plot device", said Bengo, lifting his leg up to his shoulder "To make you have sympathy for him in his plight".
"You can tell he's been living with Fradie these past ten days", said Joby "All this talk of plot devices, we'll be getting character development and chapter turn-rounds next".
"We performers have to think about such things too", said Bengo "Clowns have to ensure they get the audience's sympathy".
"You talk about clowning as though it's an art-form", said Ransey.
"It is an art-form!" said Bengo, indignantly.
"And we all thought it was just custard pies and ferrets down trousers", said Julian, facetiously.
"Kieran would make a good clown", said Bengo.
"Oh cheers, thanks", said Kieran.
"No you would", said Bengo "No one illustrates the little man up against the world better than you".
"Well I suppose there's not much difference at times between being President and being a clown", Kieran sighed "It's all about painting on a smile and doing a turn you hope the people'll like".
"Except you're too beautiful", said Bengo "The audience would probably find it upsetting if you got covered in ucky stuff".
"Oh I don't know", said Kieran "There's plenty of sadistic bastards out there. Anyway, you're not exactly unsightly yourself!"
"I don't look delicate", said Bengo "Nobody, or not many anyway, likes to see delicate beauty humiliated".
"You should write a book on it", said Hillyard, genuinely impressed "I can just see it, 'The Art Of Clowning And Slapstick'".
"By Bengo the Clown!" Joby chortled.
"Does Egbod escape in the end?" Lonts asked, suddenly.
"I dunno, I haven't read it", said Joby.
"Well read it and tell me", said Lonts, putting his thumb back in his mouth.
"Tell you what, I'll read it to you later as a bedtime story", said Joby, mischievously.
"You'll give him nightmares", said Hillyard.
"Found it!" said Ransey, pulling his notebook from the back of the bookcase "At long last! I'm going to have to have a brandy to celebrate".
"Don't forget your beloved Captain if you're pulling out the stopper", said Julian.
"Oh terrific", said Adam, carrying the teapot into the room "I suppose you don't want this now".
"I'll have the brandy in it", said Julian.
"It is an absolute mess in here", said Adam.
"We've been having quite a discussion", said Julian "Very high-brow indeed. Psychology, religion, literature".
"Yes, I can just see what sort of literature too", said Adam, nodding at the pornographic books "The collected works of a certain Mr Mezlin".
"Mezlin?" Bengo gasped, grabbing 'Egbod's Punishment' from Joby "Mezlin writes this stuff?"
"We've got quite a few by him in the bookcase", said Adam "I tried to read one myself once out of sheer boredom. It was atrocious".
"Mezlin is a friend of Fradie's", said Bengo, excitedly.
"Figures", said Joby.
"He's been staying there too", said Bengo "Oh he's awful! I was scared stiff of him. He sat down to write as though he was working on some great epic, and I wasn't to interrupt the genius at any cost. And all the time he was writing this rubbish!"
"You should've come with us, Bengo", said Lonts, crossly "Then you wouldn't have had to put up with him".
"Lo-Lo, that's hardly fair", said Adam "Bengo had a job to do".
"No he's right", said Bengo "It's been horrible. I'm never being left behind again!"
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