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By Sarah Hapgood

The "Oyster Sock" was a three-masted schooner who was considerably tougher than she looked. She was capable of breaking through ice-packs for one thing, and it was this essential skill which had led to her being commissioned by the President's party for their reluctant trip to the Loud House. She carried a skeleton crew who were there to perform the necessary tasks of the voyage but otherwise had had to keep dumb about the purpose of it, at least until it was over. Down in the hold sat Vanod's coffin, lined with lead and sealed many times over. None of the crew and few of the passengers went near it, except Trixie. He spent many hours sitting next to the forbidding bulk, either incongruously making Christmas decorations, or ranting at it. The others were concerned for his sanity, but the purpose of the voyage, to take the casket into Hell, was so overwhelming that it even over-rode these concerns.

"You're a mean bastard Ransey, making me work on Christmas morning", said Kieran, as Ransey handed him yet another sheet of paper to sign.

The tiny cabin he had on the "Oyster Sock" was a far cry from his sumptuous stateroom on the "Killarney". Here, he shared quarters with not just Joby, but Hillyard and Ransey too. The cabin was so small that there was only just room for two sets of bunk-beds on either side of the sliding-door. These were so close together that he and Ransey could work quite comfortably without getting off their respective bunks to show each other papers.

"You don't want all this piled up to the ceiling when we get back to the Headquarters do you?" said Ransey.

"Oh what a nice thought", said Kieran "Getting back to the Headquarters I mean. Suddenly that place feels like home. It didn't before, too much like living over the shop. But since being on this thing it has. Seeing nothing but either ice-packs or fog-banks everyday has made me quite wistful for the rose-garden and the quadrangle".

"I know what you mean", said Ransey "I even miss that grotty colour scheme in the State Dining-Room, and setting my watch by the clock over the bridge every morning. Oh well, not long now".

A loud commotion broke out in the saloon over the gangway. Lonts was yelling loudly and making no sense at all. Joby's voice screamed back at him, and was equally indefinable.

"I thought they were supposed to be having a quiet game of draughts", said Ransey.

Adam brushed against the cabin-door as he demanded to know what was going on.

"Joby bashed the board against my head", Lonts wailed.

"Serves you right if you can't accept losing", Adam replied.

Things seemed to quieten somewhat after that. Adam went back to his cabin, and from the sounds of draught pieces being noisily sorted it appeared that Joby and Lonts were preparing to give it one last go.

"Things are still fraught between Adam and Brinslee", said Ransey.

"I know", said Kieran "It's such a bloody shame. They always got on like a house on fire before. I think Brinslee's being bloody unreasonable towards Adam. Lonts disappearing was upsetting enough without Brinslee blaming Adam for it all".

"He sees it as his big chance to get Lonts to move to Port West".

"Adam was joking about it the other night", said Kieran "He said the way everyone keeps wanting Lonts as their consort, we should start up a consort agency with the baby as the star attraction. Except I get the impression Brinslee's feelings towards Lonts aren't so much sexual as fatherly. He keeps going on about how Adam hasn't brought him up right, which is absurd".

"What was all that yesterday about a book of poems?" said Ransey.

"Brinslee's given Lonts a poetry book for Christmas", said Kieran "Well you know as well as I do that, apart from the Bible, Lonts has never opened a book in his life, let alone poetry".

"And not likely to start now".

"Quite. This was pointed out to Brinslee. He just lost his rag and said it was because we had never bothered to educate Lonts".

"We have tried, somebody should tell him".

"No point Ransey, he won't listen. He's hoping that by the end of this trip he'll have persuaded Lonts to leave us. Even after the past few months he still sees Lonts as nothing but a pretty face".

"You have to live with Lonts for several years, like we have, to fully appreciate the dirty nappies and the violent tantrums", said Ransey.

"Also Brinslee has no idea how much what happened at the fortress has affected the baby", said Kieran "Adam says not a night goes past without Lonts having bad dreams. He's obsessed with the idea that he's a killer, and is convinced he's damned. I'm really hoping that when you, me and the others have returned from ... you know where, that somehow Lonts will feel safe again".

Julian walked carefully down the central gangway between the cabins until he came to Adam's door. The entire ship seemed to be creaking, and felt claustrophobic in the extreme, not helped by the fact that they had seen only lead grey skies for a couple of weeks now. He knocked curtly and walked into the cabin to find Adam staring pensively at a pot of cold coffee.

"Do you want me to make you some fresh?" said Julian.

"Stop it Jules!" Adam cried "You're as bad as everyone else".

"What have I said, you miserable old cow?"

"Treating me like some decrepit geriatric who can't do anything for himself".

"Oh so suddenly it's a crime to be concerned is it?" said Julian "You did insist on coming on this trip, against everyone's advice. You can't blame any of us if we get worried when we hear you coughing your guts up every morning".

"I resent being sidelined Jules", said Adam, emotionally "Always, on previous trips, I played a leading-role. For a long time I was in charge, keeping Patsy and Joby under control in the very early days. And now suddenly I'm being practically locked in the attic like some senile great-aunt".

"People's roles change", said Julian "That's like still expecting Tinkerbell to be the cute little bobkin he was when you first crossed over. The days when he was an irresponsible airhead. But he can't play that role anymore. Not just because he's President, but because he's not that young anymore. And you have got to accept the fact that you're going into semi-retirement. And don't look daggers at me. It's either that or certain death. You've got to stop hanging onto the past. It's over".

"But I don't want to be old!" Adam yelled tearfully, sounding not unlike Lonts in a rage "I can't accept it Jules, I just can't. I can't accept that I've had my best years".

"I wasn't suggesting you had. You've had your most active years that's all. Who's to say they were the best for crying out loud?"

Julian coaxed Adam gently onto his bunk, and then sat close to him. He kissed his fingers, whilst all the while staring into his face intently.

"Everything you do in life has a price", said Adam "All those cigars, the living rough. Bound to have an effect in the long-term I suppose".

"It would be downright weird if you didn't get to our age and not have your body showing some signs of wear and tear", said Julian "At least it shows we've lived".

"You can say that again".

"Don't you think you deserve to put your feet up?"

"You won't be happy until you have us dusting your china every Tuesday morning", said Adam "Washing each other's hair on alternate days, and feeling wicked if we open a tin of peaches for our pudding".

"I'm not having you touching my china", said Julian "Finia's the only person, apart from me, who's allowed to do that. Likewise he does my hair for me. You're there for screwing and stimulating conversation, plus keeping that demented Eskimo from wrecking all my possessions. I've noticed how that boy moves like a bull in a china shop. I dread to think of the damage he'll do when I move my things into your place".

"Lonts is a good boy really".

"What made you come out with that?"

"Oh just something I overheard Finia saying the other day", said Adam "He was telling the cabin-boy that he was going to have to move in with a nutter when he got home, and that the odds were high that Lonts would murder him in his bed".

"And you didn't open your trap and yell at him?" said Julian "You must be getting old".

"It saddened me more than anything. Trouble is I know Lonts has brought Finia's distrust on himself, after the soup incident".

"And the paint incident", said Julian.

"Are we doing the right thing Jules?" said Adam "Moving in together I mean? Those two loathe each other, and Lonts just won't be reasoned with on the subject. He sees Finia solely as a eunuch".

"We'll cope", said Julian "Anyway, Tinkerbell informs me he's already got plans to turn my rooms into a secondary VIP suite. So you see, we can't back down now".

"Come on you wankers!" Hillyard yelled, as he paced up and down the gangway outside "Yule dinner's about to be served in the saloon. Not to be missed!"

"I hope he hasn't cooked it", said Adam.

During his morbid sojourns by the side of Vanod's coffin Trixie had made enough paperchains to completely swathe the room. Kieran remembered to thank him for making such an effort, knowing full well the others wouldn't, but felt like he was praising the inmate of an asylum for exemplary basket-weaving.

The Captain joined them for dinner. Although still in his thirties he had the grizzled, seafaring cynicism of a man much older. He was also extraordinarily sensitive, and prone to going into aggressive sulks at the slightest provocation. This was unfortunate, as most of Kieran's lot couldn't resist goading him. Adam had sarcastically nicknamed him "The Rugged Individualist", and insisted on using that instead of his name.

Kieran was as dismayed as ever by the relentless teasing, but he couldn't help but feel that the Captain deserved it. When he had hired the "Oyster Sock" to take them to the Loud House, Kieran had been told by the shipping office of the Captain's legendary exploits on the high seas, so he had been expecting the fifth millennium's answer to Errol Flynn. But during the course of the voyage so far he had stood silently whilst Trixie berated him hysterically and irrationally for being "common", and on another occasion he had foolishly challenged Hillyard to a bout of wrestling, and been soundly trounced. Kieran resolved to find out once and for all if there was something about this particular trip that was bothering him, although he couldn't help but feel that this was a rather foolish question considering what they were carrying.

"Things'll be easier when we've got rid of our friend in the hold", said Kieran, as he poured the Captain a large measure of brandy after the meal "It'll lighten the mood on the ship. Nobody can relax whilst he's still around".

"Perhaps", said the Captain, sceptically "It's not just that though, it's ..."

"It's what?" said Kieran, sitting down next to him "It won't go beyond me if you're worried what people'll think".

"I'm not normally a fanciful man, Your Grace", he said "But ever since this trip began this whole ship's felt alive".


"Yes, as though it's a living entity in its own right".

"But what makes you think that?"

"Objects move when I touch them", said the Captain "Inanimate objects I mean, like the arm-rests on this chair, table-tops, the walls, even blankets".

"They move of their own accord?"

"They feel alive, and they move like animals. I know I'm not making much sense".

"What kind of animals?" said Kieran "Is it fur you feel, feathers, or something else?"

"No it's not fur. It's a kind of skin, but not human skin. It's too smooth for that, too cold".

"And you've not actually seen anything to account for this?"

"Not directly", said the Captain "Although sometimes, lying down in the dark in my cabin, I fancy I catch sight of a small animal on the floor".

"Like a worm with legs?"

"Yea, that's exactly it. How did you know?"

"We've had experiences like that ourselves. A long time ago now, mind".

"But what is it?"

"An elemental", said Kieran "Shaped like a worm, or an eel if you like. The Devil's sperm".

"You shouldn't have told him all that", said Joby, as they climbed into bed later that evening. They shared a bunk, which left the fourth one free for Ransey to spread his papers on "It might make him panic, go off his head".

"I think he's a bit more level-headed than that Joby", said Ransey, from the opposite bunk.

"How can we be sure?" said Joby "The way he carries on he could be on liquid morphine like that git in charge of the convict ship that time".

"I think we'd notice if he was", said Kieran "I've told him to try and close his mind to it, but that's hard to do unfortunately".

"This trip's enough to make anyone see things", said Hillyard "This is a depressing part of the world. I don't know how we haven't all started running amok with cabin-fever".

"Don't say that Hillyard", said Kieran "It doesn't bear thinking about".

Trixie climbed out of his bunk and managed to get out of his cabin without disturbing Brinslee. He walked down the gangway, unnerved by the creaking of the ship, and wishing he could go back to bed, but his destiny was no longer in his hands. He went down into the hold. Vanod's coffin was like a living creature in its own right. It seemed to pulse with life.

"I did love you really", Trixie wept "It's just you made me so lonely".

He climbed on top of the coffin, and buried his face in the cold metal. When Hillyard found him the following morning, he had already been dead for several hours. His body was frozen so solid that he had to be lifted away in the foetus position he had curled up in. And when they came to bury him at sea, he slid under an ice-pack in that exact same pose.

"I don't suppose we'll ever know why he did it", said Hillyard, standing on the frost-bitten deck with Kieran after the brief ceremony "Or how he came to freeze quite so quickly".

"He did it because he'd slowly gone out of his mind", said Kieran "As to why he froze, let's just say I hope we get Vanod to the Loud House before it happens to anyone else".

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