D Crossley

37 Abbot Court


Tyne & Wear




Chapter One

Alexander Fleuret woke up about six o' clock in the morning and found himself lying on the bed wearing only socks, Marks & Spencer navy underpants and brown PVC gloves.

His head throbbed and his mouth felt oppressively dry.

Sprawled over his bed, he stared at the ceiling. His frizzy black hair spilled across the white, overstuffed pillows. He opened his mouth, displaying only rotten stumps for teeth, put one hand to his fragile head while the other found the solid reassurance of the side of the bed. He craned forward groaning.

He stumbled to the bathroom. Hearing to his dismay the cushioned but resolute footsteps of Carl on the stairs below, he made a dash for it. He mumbled a few words before scampering in and bolting the door, his hands clasped over his groin.

Sober for over a year--and now this!

Several embarrassing incidents had made him want to stop. He would drink between half and a full bottle of Bell's whisky a day on top of tranquillizers. One night he woke up in his best navy blue pin-striped suit, lying on his back halfway in the greenhouse doorway. The profound contemplation of the stars was the last thing he remembered. Halfway up the path there was a whisky bottle.

Lately, morphine had been his main sedative, but he was still taking the odd Diazepam just out of habit. Regardless of whose company he was in, he would sit swigging from a bottle of Kaolin and Morphine mixture, up to three a day.

When the kids were playing in the street outside, during the school holidays, they were a regular source of annoyance to him. When he was drunk, they enraged him. On one occasion he had been stewing all morning but when he plucked up the courage to say something to them, they were no longer to be seen. Eyes bloodshot and hair on end, an egg in one hand and a sword in the other, he planted himself outside their house and challenged them to come out. He was proud they hadn't, though he would have been slightly less so had he known that he had thrown down the gauntlet to a three-year-old, a four-year-old and their teenage baby-sitter. In the end he let fly with the egg at the window and stormed off.

Every morning was cold turkey. He shook so violently that he couldn't pour water from a kettle without most of it ending up on the floor. He was at his most belligerent then, before he could straighten himself out with morphine.

He relied on his friend Carl to buy it. His shaking would have given him away had he tried to buy any, and besides, chemists would only sell it to the same person in limited quantities: certainly no more than a couple of bottles per week. As Alexander's tolerance rose, he required bigger doses, sending Carl further afield when they refused to sell him it locally. Some of these trips involved hour-long bus journeys to towns up to twelve miles away where he would collect half a dozen at a time. Although Alexander could have bought a bottle up the road, he didn't want to spoil himself there in case he ever needed it urgently when Carl wasn't around. In any case, why should he when he had a mug like Carl?

Back in his room, he tried to remember the events leading up to his present state. He took a swig of morphine and impatiently wiped away the white ring of kaolin left round his mouth. He remembered pouring some of it into Carl's whisky and afterwards Carl's grotesque dancing that would overshadow a shaman in ecstasy.

The celebrations were in respect of a letter he had received from solicitors Tileshed and Tileshed. It had informed him that an uncle whom he had never seen, a French nobleman, had suffered a fatal accident involving a harpoon gun. His uncle had left instructions that Alexander should be made to complete a task and by 'drawing the sword from the stone' prove himself worthy before acceding to the estate.

There were four alternatives: he could either be entombed alive in his uncle's ancestral crypt for a week, or if that seemed too unpalatable, he could place a score of leeches at specified points around his body and allow each to take its fill, or he could eat a plateful of live slugs, but only if they were the big black shiny carnivorous ones. He decided to choose the fourth which he considered to be the least morbid and might at least prove exciting.

This last alternative was a 'fairly-secret' mission to Egypt on a replica of a seventeenth-century warship. Work on it had already begun and Alexander was due to accompany the solicitors to meet the crew. He insisted that a friend should come along on the voyage to keep him company. Damien Creame was chosen.

Creame was a solemn man in his late twenties. His hair was like copper wire on small transformer cores; it was of the same hue and bristly, squared off with a subtle parting.

He was a time-served electrician, having worked for a couple of years in the trade before being made redundant. After that he went to college for a year. Then he spent a couple of years on the dole before escaping onto the Community Programme, as it was then. After that he became an 'alarm specialist' and has never looked back since.

Not that he was a close friend of Alexander's, preferring to be named only as an 'associate', but he was responsible. Alexander wanted somebody not only as a friend, but as a kind of minder, which he knew Carl couldn't handle. Creame's official position was as Alexander's on-site orator, for legal reasons, but his real purpose lay in keeping him amused.

He unlocked the bathroom door. He flushed the toilet to ensure he could not be heard hurrying back to his bedroom, where he dressed rapidly.

Carl often sat in his bedroom playing war games. Alexander tried to get him to come on the journey as well, but he was reluctant, saying he had a bad heart.

When they played war games, Alexander's father, Tort, was allowed to shake the dice for Alexander, which was one of the few privileges left to him in his dotage. Until recently, Alexander's mother had waited patiently on Tort; before that the Navy had taken care of him and before that it was Tort's mother. Being waited on hand and foot all his life, he was now too old to change. When he tried his wife's patience so much that she had left him, Alexander was burdened with taking care of him, at a time when Alexander couldn't even take care of himself.

Lately the old man had been intolerable to live with. Alexander found the soap, covered in fluff, stamped into the carpet and a crinkled toilet-roll would often appear floating in the bowl. Not content with being helped to reach the toilet, he would often make a horrible mess once in there and call out for help to Alexander, whose bedroom was next door. Carl had the task of mucking out and had to bath him on several occasions. It was something Alexander wouldn't do, despite getting an attendance allowance for allegedly taking care of his father, which meant he could laze about all day and not have to make himself available for work.

Whenever there was a dirty job to do such as mucking out for Tort or the cat, Alexander would ask Carl, who would oblige with: 'Sure, I'm used to dirt'. Of course he was, and not just to other people's as a former nurse, but also to his own. Alexander found this out when he went to stay for a few days at Valium Lodge, a guest house near the Roman wall. He left Carl to take care of Tort and upon returning, discovered Carl had gone through most of the drinks' cabinet including his father's spiced rum, which had changed from its usual rich molasses' colour to that of weak tea, being now mostly diluted with water. Carl was sitting back in the armchair as merry as could be, tittering at everything in a high squeaky voice. Alexander managed to get him up to the spare room where there was a mattress. He tried to take off his shoes but had to give up because of the stink. Then Carl had retched, leaving a yellow stain halfway up the white wallpaper as if someone had thrown a carton of curry sauce over it. He had also retched all over himself and other places in the room. His first task upon sobering up was to clean it up upon instruction. Later in the day he went home and the strain on his chest brought on a heart attack. As if this were not a lesson to him, he stole a drink from a whisky bottle which Alexander had filled with cold tea before leaving. When he got back he noticed that the level of the liquid had diminished and Carl was asking what was in the bottle. Alexander had questioned him as to why he should ask such a thing. Carl's halting reply was that it looked murky. Alexander made a show of smelling it. He pronounced it to smell like cat's piss, sending Carl scuttling to the toilet.

It was Sunday and all the chemists were shut except for one in the town centre. They were playing a wargame and Alexander, swigging at his last morphine bottle, was getting desperately low. Carl, as usual, had to go for more. Alexander half-heartedly offered to pay for a taxi but Carl caught the minibus, which got him there just as quickly. If Alexander had to go anywhere, he either went by taxi or, less often, walked because he looked upon bus passengers as scum.

'I could only manage two,' said Carl dejectedly when he got back clutching two chemist's white paper bags.

'I suppose you want paying for them,' said Alexander abruptly, feeling his bristly chin and nodding absent-mindedly before leering at him with a gummy, questioning smile between pale, bloated cheeks.

Carl put the bottles on the chair and pretended not to hear, deliberately rustling the bags.

'You haven't been drinking by any chance, have you?' Alexander said at last.

'No, Alexander,' Carl intoned implying both hurt and cynicism. In trying to defend himself, he forgot about the money he was owed and Alexander's ploy was successful.

'Good. You know it upsets the old man, don't you?'

Earlier that evening the 'old man', who usually had problems in speaking coherently, suddenly mustered up an outburst of uncharacteristic lucidity and asked Carl to stay the night. Carl knew just why, just as he knew why Tort was now asking if Carl was going home. Tort knew that Alexander was getting dangerously low on morphine and that this would make him irritable, even foul-tempered by morning so the old man had wanted Carl to be there to act as a buffer between them. Carl could go running for more morphine to calm Alexander down. At the mere suggestion that Carl had been drinking, however, Tort didn't want him in the house. Carl might have acted unpredictably. Alexander didn't want him 'fulminating' all over the place. He was no longer needed. Only when they were absolutely certain that there was no drink in Carl could he stay (Alexander had insisted on smelling his breath).

'You'll stay tonight, won't you?' Tort said when all was settled.

'I can't, Tort. I have to go home,' replied Carl in a patronizing voice.

'You won't go just yet? It's only eight o' clock,' said Alexander.

'I still have over an hour.'

'Good. Splendid. Then you can go for the suppers. I'm paying, remember.'

This was a weekly ritual. They took it in turns to pay for the Chinese take-aways. Carl always had to go for them and would have to queue for half an hour. Recently because of his bad heart he had gone on a diet and only had a bag of chips which meant that for each meal he bought Alexander, he only got a bag of chips in return.

Alexander studied the menu as though he were choosing a new car. Finally he said, 'I think I'll have a pork curry.' This seemed to suggest a jaded palate. He chose such a mundane stodgy dish from among more exotic dishes with water chestnuts, orange sauce, etc.

They adjourned the game while Carl went for it. The war games they played in their heyday a couple of years' ago were much more thorough. Then Alexander was more scrupulous and less cynical and world-weary. They fought mostly ancient re-enactments. Alexander enthused on getting the layout on the board as realistic and as historically accurate as possible; he moulded papier mâché hills and painted them green, bought model trees and forts, made his own ballistae and spent hours intricately painting his Roman army in red, flesh and gold. He fought as Scipio Africanus, against Carl the Barbarian. A few years' ago he could rely on beating his buck-toothed, half-demented cousin, also. They had drawn up a set of rules in which conventions were established, such as designating a spear as being thrown if it was ringed and deciding how far armies could march in one turn. That night, as lately, they had been fighting mostly re-enactments of the Second World War. Carl had taken the side of the Allies and Alexander the side of the Axis forces.

In the Second World War games they played, the rules were a lot more relaxed. They concentrated on the competition of the game itself at the expense of detail. Instead of the paraphernalia of the ancient war games, there was just a flat board, painted green with a red stripe running down the middle. It was supposed to represent whatever section of the road they were contesting. There was a patch of azure which was once a lake and a few wavy black lines scrawled here and there on the board itself. When Alexander had shown it to his father's home-help to impress her, she was rather disappointed. After he had prattled on to her about the war games they used to play, she had expected something more. Two plastic crescents resembling false teeth, were usually placed on either side of the board for cover. A few simple obstacles were scattered around for effect. Occasionally he would erect a conning-tower that had been improvised from a Saxa salt cylinder painted olive, or a bunker which was a Co-codamol pill-box painted grey with slits in the sides.

The player whose turn it was would designate a target and commence firing at it. A throw of the dice indicated one shot from a piece. This was done at the start of the turn. If a sufficiently high score was thrown, the target was deemed to be destroyed and removed from the board. The required score was dependent on the relative strength of the pieces and whether or not the target was under cover.

Sipping lemon tea, Carl stressed the name of each tank that fired, believing this to make him sound more knowledgeable. He would say, 'I think I'll fire my Renault...now the Char B...' etc.,'...at your King Tigers'. The more models they could buy to add to their armies and the faster they could build them, the greater their strength. It reached the stage where each of them was spending a small fortune each week on model kits which were put together slap-dash and mostly unpainted. All that mattered was getting them on the board as quickly as possible for the extra fire-power they obtained. Consequently great globules of glue surrounded the cockpits of aeroplanes, the finicky guns of battleships and the tracks of tanks (which were the worst of all, having to be assembled almost shoe by shoe). Alexander's hands were rarely steady anyway, but Carl had stubby, clod-hopper fingers, so they were both at a disadvantage. It was Carl's technique to advance a squad of soldiers behind each of his tanks, which meant that the opponent needed to throw a higher score to hit them than if they had been in the open. Carl had to move them forward one by one every time he moved the tanks that they were hiding behind, which became a headache for him, as they regularly fell in a heap.

At one point Alexander decided to massacre all of Carl's officers. They were allowed three officers each. An officer could fire his 'pistol' once in a turn. Alexander knew Carl to be low on officers, so it wouldn't be long before he began to run short of them. Alexander laughed at seeing Carl's stubby fingers raking round for longer and longer periods for more unscathed officers from the reserve box. Eventually Carl had to promote NCOs to replace his fallen officers so that he could still claim their shots. Alexander had not anticipated this.

Carl also insisted on manning every available machine gun on his tanks. Alexander chose not to. If a machine-gunner was shot, another would jump up from among the crowd hiding behind the tank to replace him. Carl was just as greedy in the air. They were fighting in the period 1941-42 and the only jets operational in the war, the Meteor and the Messerschmitt, came out in 1944 and even then did not play a significant part in the war. Carl seemed to think it was all right having a Freedom Fighter, two Mosquitoes and a Harrier jump-jet fighting for him. He would consider buying aeroplanes only with the maximum number of bombs, missiles and rockets. His Harrier had twenty-seven missiles hanging in great red clusters like lit cigarettes under its wings.

Carl employed no military strategy beyond simply pushing forward aggressively with all he had and trying to overrun Alexander's strongholds, whereas Alexander at least spoke of refusing the left flank and of pincer movements. Alexander accused Carl of using Ulysses S. Grant's tactics, pushing forward regardless of the consequences, and refused to use his flame-throwers. He said they were barbaric, even apparently in a war-game. He could have saved himself the trouble of picking the dead off the board with the attendant risk of knocking over the surrounding soldiers by just transferring a man straight from the reserve box to the dead box if he was shot, but it detracted from the realism.

Alexander won battle after battle and in accordance with actuality, had retaken Tobruk and chased Carl down the coast into Egypt. He was determined to go on expanding his boundaries, which he would proudly mark on the map after each game. He would not be content until he had taken the whole world off Carl. His phenomenal success was due in part to the intervention of the Russians, such as when Carl had retreated precipitately for many thousands of miles 'to save his men' without firing a single shot. In the whole of the North African campaign, Alexander, heavily outnumbered, having fought back waves upon waves of tanks and air strikes, had pushed faster and faster along the coast until he reached Alexandria and then had launched a counter-attack down the Nile, towards Cairo. Since the recapture of his two airfields at Tobruk, Carl had to forewarn Alexander of the launch of the planes further away by an agreed number of turns.

Alexander had placed a German pocket-battleship he called the 'General' Graf Spee off the coast, flanking it with a Russian gunboat and a Russian battleship he named the Tzar Nicholas I. He greatly admired and even likened himself to the Tzar except for the moustache. He detested facial hair. Alexander allowed himself twenty heavy-artillery shots from the Graf Spee which had a range of up to twelve miles inland. He told Carl that the Russian ships were just bystanders, but on the other hand were also protecting it. So Carl couldn't fire back. To do so would be treated as tantamount to an open declaration of war with Russia. Alexander commanded superior military strength in Russia compared with all of Carl's forces put together and Carl knew it. Eventually the Russian ships began to take pot-shots at Carl's army but Carl still didn't return fire. At their next session Alexander truculently and solemnly announced that he was bringing Russia into the war any way, authorizing himself as Tzar Nicholas I. This he considered to be no more illegal than carl's involvement of jets in the war.

Tort was shaking so much when he threw for Alexander, both Carl and Alexander had to steady the tray for him on his knee. Usually at least a five and a six were needed to destroy a target, but if the target was a big tank, a double six was needed as a rule. Tort seemed to think he exercised some influence over the score and Alexander often blamed him for losing with, 'Look, the old fool can't even throw the dice.' This made Tort redouble his efforts to strive to win Alexander's approval. He rattled the dice frenziedly in the greasy, palm-stained tumbler for far longer than was necessary. In the extreme, he grew too nervous to even roll them out properly and one would stick in the tumbler, aggravating Alexander even further. When he did score, he would point, wide-eyed, at the board, shouting, 'Look, look, I got it!' like a small child until Alexander congratulated him. When Tort got confused and thought he had thrown well but hadn't, his enthusiasm was checked by Alexander.

When the game was adjourned, Carl busied himself with sitting in the corner next to the television, stupefied by Valium. He would sit through any old rubbish: if a quiz show was on, he would blurt out the answer a split second after it had been announced, or if he was too slow to sound convincing, he would say, 'I knew that!' Alexander was gulping more on his food than concentrating on the television. Carl was sticking to his diet. Whenever during the war game Carl was losing badly he would clutch his chest, breathe rapidly and insist on fetching his bottle of tablets from his coat. He said he kept a bottle of nitro-glycerine tablets by him for such a contingency.

Alexander sat on his bed. He used his bedroom at the back of the house as a living-room, spending most of his time in it with Tort and Carl. It was not unusual for a visitor to find them all huddled into it like mice, with the two-bar electric fire on full and the curtains fully drawn even on a sweltering summer's day. As if one pair of curtains wasn't enough, he had seven pairs between his small window pane and the inside of his bedroom, one over the other, excluding all daylight and in the cold weather making it a trap for condensation and damp. He had put newspapers on the sill between the outermost layers but they had become soggy and speckled with mildew.

He had finished his meal and stacked up the plates for Carl to wash later. He looked at the television. 'There's another red tie! I hate yuppies!' He got to his feet, bottle in hand and stood louring over the television screen. 'Why have they all got to wear red ties and braces?'

Alexander was just calming down when the advertisements came on. He hated the inane singing and dancing in most of them. This was typified in one cant which went: 'We like seafish, mama....' When this came on, it was sure to send him up the wall.

'Why do they have to sing all the time?' Alexander whined as he sat through the fifth one in a row that conveyed no reason for buying a product other than the assassination of intellect with raucous, vulgar pop music and acts of crass naivete.

'Well fuck 'em! Fuck 'em all,' he shouted at the screen from the middle of the room, his lack of teeth unimpeding the mixture of spit and kaolin and morphine that exploded from his mouth at every fricative.

They resumed the game. Alexander sat on his bed as usual. Carl sat in his chair in the corner next to the television. Tort sat in the armchair between them. Alexander drifted into a daze for a few minutes, bottle in hand, while Carl was taking his throws of the dice. He looked at his father and said for the umpteenth time that day, 'Are you all right, father? Do you want to throw for me? Clear your chest, now.' Tort began coughing up all colours of phlegm. Alexander shouted, 'Clear it! Come on, cough it up,' until he nearly coughed his lungs up. Tort would sit annoying Alexander till bedtime. The phlegm that had accumulated overnight would make him growl like an ogre. Alexander would pester him to clear his chest. He would bark to Carl, 'How am I supposed to put up with this...thing sitting over me all day? I can't handle it. I wish it were dead!' and then he would sneer, 'Why don't you die and leave me in peace?'

One morning had found Alexander particularly evil. He threatened to put Tort in a home. Tort replied he would first drive Alexander to suicide.

That was the final straw for him.

He glared in disbelief and asked slowly, 'What did you say?'

His father looked down at his slippers and offered no reply.

'What did you say?' he emphasized.


'Yes you did--what did he say, Carl?'

'He said he'd make you kill yourself before you put him in a home,' Carl replied reluctantly.

A pause. 'Yes. I thought that's what he said.' With a curling lip and a simmering tone, he added, 'Get out of my sight. Now! Go on.'

His father staggered to his feet. His arms arched like caterpillars in exertion on the arms of the chair. Carl had to assist him.

'Thank you,' he managed to say to Carl as he farted in Alexander's face. As he lurched towards the door, Alexander bent his foot round and kicked him up the arse.

For a moment, Alexander sat in a daze. His old man had reached his bedroom next door. Carl had come back into the room, having left him there.

Alexander jumped up and went to see him. Carl assumed he had changed his mind and had gone to offer his friendship.

Often he would wish his father dead and call him everything under the sun. Then, after putting him to bed, he would add, 'You know, I love that old man. I don't know what I would do if anything happened to him.' He usually followed this by pumping Tort full of sleeping pills. He didn't want him wandering about in the night, disturbing him. Alexander needed his sleep.

Carl was taking advantage of Alexander's considerable absence by heaping coffee into his cup (and into Alexander's as a subterfuge), when he heard a horrendous crash. He dashed out to the landing and saw Alexander trying to strangle his father, who was screaming like old Steptoe. A lemonade bottle lay on the floor, smashed to pieces. Alexander released him when Carl warned that he would be up for manslaughter if he did not stop. He calmed down a little. He had kicked the wall and his shoe now bore a pale dent.

Tort was exiled from Alexander's sight. While he thought over what to do, he got some black polish and rubbed it into his shoe. Carl swept up the pieces of glass. Alexander had smashed the lemonade bottle, but he would not allow of the disposal of the remnants in the dustbin. If the binmen cut themselves, he might be held responsible, so Carl had to bury the shards in the garden.

A telephone call brought to the house two women. They were duty social workers. One would not enter Alexander's bedroom unless he removed his cat, Psi.

Psi was all-white, stone deaf and had been a stray. It had first made its appearance in his neighbour's garden. His neighbour, Taffy, had chased it into Alexander's garden. Taffy avowed that white cats were unlucky. It had grown like a space-hopper. Every time Carl visited, it seemed to have enlarged. He was sure it would explode and one day he would arrive to find bits of white fur all over the ceiling. Its name was taken from the Greek letter, but Carl joked it could have stood for Pounds per Square Inch.

Alexander's previous pet was a wild mouse called Rodney. He put food out for it every night, but it didn't last long after Psi's arrival.

This cat, which had slept through the war game, stirred and began to paw at the door. As Tort had been made to return to Alexander's bedroom for the duration of the visit of the social workers, he saw the cat trying to get out.

'Look! The little bugger!' he shouted, gesticulating at the cat.

'Oh, it's all right, father. Let it go out,' was Alexander's weary reply.

The least thing would be enough to cause the old man distress: the cat was not allowed to go out because it would fight; the curtains had to be drawn without a gap; the table had to be first over here, then over there, then somewhere else. This was a product of boredom, for he spent his entire day just watching others. He would not read a book, but sat gawping, saying nothing and generally putting others ill at ease.

'Father, what are you looking at? I'm not here to amuse you!' Alexander would point out indignantly. Cups could be shifted endlessly from chair to table, from table back to chair and so on, or if there was no convenient cup to fumble with, Tort's answer would seem to lie in his slippers, as though he could pluck it from them like a piece of fluff.

He explained the situation: he was thirty-five years' old; he couldn't leave the house; he had to sit and watch his father all day. If his father wasn't watched he would burn the house down, or do something similarly disastrous: unless something was done, manslaughter was a distinct possibility.

They agreed to take him into care for a fortnight. After that it was up to Alexander whether or not to have him back. If he decided to leave him in, his Attendance Allowance would cease. Apart from that, it was all cut and dried. The house was already signed over to Alexander. It was one of the first things he had made sure of when his mother had left. This, in Tort's case was tantamount to signing away what little say he had left.


Chapter Two

Damien Creame sat pondering, his head in a whirlpool of considerations about his part in the voyage as an on-site orator.

He had met Alexander in the Conservative party ten years' ago. He tried not to associate with Alexander too much. He had a proclivity to make a spectacle out of himself at meetings. Finding it unavoidable at times to go canvassing with him, he had invited Alexander into the pub afterwards. While Creame drank pints, Alexander sipped petitely at tomato juice. When Creame offered to buy him another, he refused. He said it would make him sick.

Alexander intrigued him, so alien did he seem in society. Typically he wore a shirt and tie, pin-striped suit, shoes which usually leaked, with galoshes in bad weather. He sometimes carried a black portfolio under his arm for his 'political documents', by which he usually meant leaflets.

Creame identified the root of the problem as lying with his parents. They, being stick-in-the-muds, had brought up their only child in an insular and old-fashioned way. Being conceived late in their lives made it a lot worse. They made sure he got an education: from school he had progressed to University, coming out with a BA in History and Politics. Whether this choice of subject was in line with his parents' wishes, Creame did not know, but he knew that history was always Alexander's best subject and mathematics his worst. In his school maths exam he spent most of the time playing with the slide rule his parents had bought him and trying to work out how to use it. It was not surprising then that he got two per cent and half of that was for writing his name.

Creame provided Alexander with a bodyguard for the voyage. His name was Patsy. Creame had met Patsy when at college. They were all due to meet up at Patsy's.

The next morning when the Tilesheds took Alexander to meet Patsy, it was miserably cold and grey. His breath reeked through the damp college scarf that hid his weak lower jaw, leaving only a red, blackhead-infested, hooked nose like a squashed strawberry between it and his black, glittering eyes. He was driven by RK Tileshed and son in their Mercedes. They rolled through the sodden countryside at a leisurely pace, stopping only to enable Alexander to relieve his bladder, which the cold had affected, behind a hedgerow. They set off impatiently again when he resumed the back seat. He leaned over the two grey-coated men in front to insist that they limit their speed. Satisfied at having asserted himself thus, he slouched back and produced an empty powder-compact which he used to examine his eyes, so bloodshot that they looked like a road map, his frizzy black hair, his white puffy face and finally his rotten, toothless gums. Seeing a coating of dandruff imposing itself on his lavishly-furred collar, he flicked it away in disgust. The reluctant mid-morning sun shone orange light into their faces, making Alexander squint even more than usual.

Creame had met Patsy in art lessons. He was instantly impressed with what Patsy brought in to draw: knives, guns--you name it, if it was capable of being used as a weapon and portable, he would reverently set it on the table and proceed to draw it, regarding it as no more out of the ordinary as if it were a vase of flowers. It also impressed Tony Clark, their tutor. While they were drawing, he would saunter round passing the odd comment on the work. He told Creame that his drawings had a good, 'pwimitive' quality to them, especially when he began to sign them with 'I knew Tony Clark', as a ruse for getting better marks. With Patsy, the tutor usually steered well clear, avoiding Patsy's table like the plague. When Mr Patsy asked his opinion, Tony Clark replied: 'It's excellent: very good'.

It seemed that Patsy had the best method for getting good marks.

Although Patsy had attended college with Creame only a few years' ago, he was middle-aged and balding, but he tried curing the baldness by rubbing molasses on his head. Before that, removed by an interval of some years spent on the dole, he had enjoyed travelling the country in his Gestapo-approved overcoat and swigging rum, as a representative for a tailor. During his stagnant periods, he tried to form his own business, as approved by the Enterprise Allowance Scheme. He thought the more traditional toys would be in the offing so he started making plywood cut-out cartoon characters for young children. He spent hours making 'Bobbity Bunny' headboards and 'Leonzo Lion' lamp stands by hand and managed to sell two out of the dozens he had made. He had asked Creame to help him retrieve the unsold ones in his van and take them back to his house, where they stood piled up in his bedroom until he burnt them. As a last resort he tried to sell them dressed as Santa Claus. He certainly looked authentic by way of his ginger, fatherly beard, his red, shiny, puffed-out cheeks and his eyes like No Entry roadsigns. He finally got sick of the brats sitting on his knee sticking toffees and lollipops in his beard and pulling it to see if it was real.

He had been pacing the room for over an hour when Alexander arrived with the Tilesheds. The blood vessels were standing out like string from his red, shiny temples and neck. He was sweating in spite of the chill in the air, but the discomfort was due rather to his hot impatience than to climatic conditions, for he had risen from his bed even earlier than usual that morning, having endured half the night lying in disagreement with the sheets, restless with anticipation of what was to come. He looked from his pocket-watch to the loaded shot-gun he kept hanging on the wall over the mantelpiece. It looked like an ornament but was handy for blowing the heads off any burglars.

When the solicitors' car eventually slide into view through the lower half of the bay window, he rushed to the front door and jerked it open, scowling.

'You're late,' seemed a good way to greet them and show his displeasure in one.

Alexander could feel the solicitors' eyes burning into him in accusation as he slithered from the car.

Ignoring Patsy's brusque remark, the elder solicitor introduced them thus: 'Good-day, Mr Patsy. This is Alexander, nephew to the deceased, and this is Mr Patsy.'

Patsy's rubicund, bearded face broke into a polite, benign smile as he dismissed Alexander as harmless and puny. He beckoned them along the hall, hanging their coats with great reverence on the antique Botswanan hat stand before following them into the front room.

His guests met the sight of the armoury in front of the fire-place with some amazement. Pistols and shot-guns covered the wall, some singly hung, others crossed over in pairs. Daylight glinted from the cold steel of dozens of unsheathed blades; apart from this, it seemed like any other living-room. A grey cat lay sprawled out indifferently on the fireside rug: one of eight cats he kept called Andy, Bandy, Candy, Dandy, Handy, Mandy, Sandy and Randy.

'Excuse me, gentlemen, but I must go upstairs. There's a bar in the corner, if anyone wants a drink,' Patsy said when he had sat them down.

'I thought you said this was a bungalow,' Alexander addressed the Tilesheds, frowning perplexedly when Patsy had left the room.

'It is, but I believe he's built the toilet in the attic,' Tileshed junior explained with an air of bewildered amusement.

'What an odd place for it!' commented Alexander, who was already in the process of breaking his resolution not to drink, by pouring himself a whisky.

After a tense silence, Tileshed senior added: 'I understand it's the only place he could get the pipes right,' masking a smirk with his hand.

After five minutes and several more whiskies, Alexander was prancing around with a glass in one hand and a kukri in the other.

'Should I play the Roman fool and die on my own sword?' he asked the bewildered Tilesheds.

When he tired of this, he exchanged it for a shot-gun. 'I could really do things with this,' he said with bravado as he took it down from its supporting nails and aimed it at the Tilesheds.

'Don't point that thing at me,' Tileshed junior warned.

'But it's not loaded,' Alexander replied ebulliently, fiddling with a catch and pulling the trigger in demonstration, with the gun pointing at the wall.

This time there was an explosion and half of Patsy's wall crumbled away. When the dust had settled, there was a patch of bare, scorched brickwork showing through a raggy hole in the plaster and a pile of broken plaster held together with wallpaper on the floor. Mr Patsy came rushing down the step-ladders from the loft in distempered fury, half-falling and half-jumping, with his trousers dangling round his ankles; he was baring his yellow teeth that were grinning and gnashing hideously and his eyes were like knife-edges. He came charging through the door, bearing down on them like a ton of bricks, before the plaster dust had settled. By this time Bandy the cat, which had been asleep so peacefully on the rug, had clawed its way up to where it thought safety lay, at the top of Mr Patsy's head and had fastened its claws into his face. Mr Patsy reeled around in blind fury, swiping at everything in his way and fell on the couch, where in his mental confusion he began to strangle one of the solicitors. The other tried to pull him off. Meanwhile Alexander had dropped the gun and had run out of the front door.

'He's gone! Leave off!' Tileshed junior shouted as he rolled about on the couch under Mr Patsy, who was growling and trying to bite off his nose, until he managed to fling the cat off his head.

When calm was restored, they went to look for Alexander in the street and they saw him waddling down it like a drunken penguin.


Chapter Three

Creame was going to see his friend Mr Patsy. He turned into a quiet and quaint little side street that was lined with colourful, squat, little bungalows. Coniferous shrubs in white plastic pots stood on either side of the doors. It appeared the most exciting event possible in that street was a man walking his dog.

He stopped at Mr Patsy's bungalow, tunefully swinging open the wrought-iron gate. The small front garden could have been quite pretty, had Mr Patsy not poured cement all over it in a brutal attempt to smother the weeds. The door-knocker was a scaled-down replica of the Sanctuary knocker at Durham cathedral. Not that anybody would find much sanctuary in Patsy's.

Shortly after he had cemented over the garden, a petty dapper Council official had paid him a visit. It was an eyesore and would have to come up, he said. Patsy's response had been to sling his clip-board into the street, with a solemn promise that he would shortly follow it if he did not become immediately scarce.

The door was jerked open and the red face of Mr Patsy appeared.

'Hello, Creame. Come in.'

He explained the accident. Creame sat for a while in thoughtful repose, studying the mess. He liked to convey the impression that each decision he made, no matter how inconsequential, was arrived at only after profound meditation. In reality it was a reluctance to commit himself. Procrastination was such a severe trait of his that he sometimes ended up doing nothing, working himself instead into a state of agitation. Where to go for a night out was a tremendous decision for him to take and whenever he could, he left it for someone else to decide. Then once a suggestion was made, he would put obstacles in the way and wait for another suggestion. Aspirating his words, he would quibble with those who were trying to help him. This he thought would make him seem hard to please rather than indecisive.

Finally he agreed to help look for Mr Fleuret in the Tilesheds' car.

After a quarter of an hour of driving around, they had scoured every back lane. They were considering calling it off when they discovered him. He darted out from behind a telegraph pole and tripped over a rubbish bag. When they noticed his characteristic lumber they gave chase, but he spotted their car hurtling towards him. He ran out of the back lane, zigzagging across the main road. They pursued him across it, stopping him just short of ramming him in the legs, at the mouth of the lane opposite. His hand slammed onto the bonnet. Tileshed senior yelled out to his son to stop, but the car carried him onto it. They instinctively leaned back, as though expecting him to come through the windscreen; they saw his thick furry collar looming towards them and felt themselves being jerked to a stop.

Patsy was first out of the car. He marched round the wing to catch Alexander as he slid from the bonnet. He slumped down and Patsy grabbing him, shook him like a rag doll.

The next ten minutes were spent in heated debate, with Patsy pressing Mr Fleuret for compensation. He threatened that if he did not get it, he would 'Superglue' his eyes together. They managed to placate him by getting Alexander to write out a cheque for an agreed sum. Creame then said that he knew of a plasterer with tattooed ears who would call round to see him soon, to repair the damage.

Their differences resolved, they settled down to business. They had agreed to meet at Mr Patsy's and then to go and meet the captain and crew of the ship that was to take them to Egypt. The will had stipulated that the expedition was to be led by a certain 'Captain Morgan', as he was known colloquially. They had arranged to meet him at the Barrel Inn, which was his drinking haunt in the seediest part of town.

Captain Morgan was an escaped prisoner from a banana republic, 'wanted for murder in eighteen counties', as Creame had put it. This red-faced, drunken hard man had been delegated to choose a crew from the numerous callused spray-hardened sea-dogs that he knew. Having spent his youth loading and unloading ships, his arms were brown and brawny; he looked like a huge lobster in a white tee-shirt with a ship's wheel logo. His eyes were dark and puckered through sea-spray and looked like prunes in his red face with a yellow beard. Countless times during his tempestuous career he had been flogged for insubordination and he would thump the table when arguing, sending beer glasses flying.

Finding him had been no problem: a few drinks and a word in the right ear had been enough to direct them to a gutter behind the Barrel Inn, where they had found him lying blind drunk. Being hard up for beer-money, a contract had been agreed on the spot. That day he was expected to have his crew ready for inspection.

This had not been done. The only way he could have a crew ready in time was to press-gang them, since recruitment under Captain Morgan was not widely regarded as felicitous. Realizing then that he had but a few hours to put together a crew, he finished his drink and tumbled into the frosty night air. He rubbed his raw hands together vigorously and his boozy breath reeked in the fog. From the dockside he surveyed the boats' navigation lights swaying rhythmically. He turned into a cobbled blind alley, where he noticed a drunken man slouched up against the wall.

With a grunt he lifted the limp body over his shoulder and stumbled home with him. He lived just at the end of the alley. He had managed to secure six other victims by the time he met the Tilesheds with Mr Fleuret. Morgan was quite drunk himself by the time they walked apprehensively into the bar of the Barrel Inn. Creame had excused himself earlier, saying he was going to look for Chilly the plasterer, leaving Mr Fleuret and Mr Patsy with the Tilesheds.

Mr Patsy strolled confidently over to the bar, weighing the situation up through narrowed eyes. The bare floor boards told him that this was his kind of joint. He would have preferred a spittoon here and there and sawdust, though. Mr Fleuret and the Tilesheds huddled together like frightened rabbits. They were met with a suspicious look from the burly bartender and hostile stares from the customers.

'I bet he's wearing fishnets,' sneered one roughneck, pointing at Mr Fleuret. Ignoring the raucous laughter that followed, Tileshed senior stepped forward and asked a group of men at a table if they knew of a Captain Morgan.

'It's the filth!' said the roughneck.

'Shut it Jack,' said the man next to him: 'Who wants him?'

'I'm over here, it's all right: send them over.' The captain stood up, swaying and grinning. The atmosphere suddenly became less tense and they found his table.

'What 're yer 'avin'?' he asked, smelling of grog.

'Nothing for us, thank you kindly,' replied Tileshed senior on behalf of them all.

'I'll have a whisky,' said Mr Fleuret.

Morgan stood up and yelled over someone called Lil.

'Bring us a double whisky and a rum...and make these gentlemen welcome,' said Morgan to her.

By this time, money was changing hands between Tileshed senior and Morgan. Lil's eyes widened when she saw this. She singled out who she thought to be the dumbest and sauntered over to Mr Fleuret, wasting no time in planting herself on his lap.

'The name's Lil, a businesswoman. My rates are very reasonable. How about a drink, my dear?' she whispered, licking the inside of his ear.

Mr Fleuret became flustered.

'What do you mean, a businesswoman. What do you sell? Are you working late?' he stammered.

'Nights especially, dear. You'll find out soon enough. But let me give you a free sample,' she said, putting one arm round his neck and the other down his trousers.

He jumped up in disgust, sending her cascading onto the floor and yelling: 'Get off me, you whorish slut!' A scene followed, with Lil screaming obscenities at him and the other surprised customers half standing and muttering ominously. Mr Patsy was almost ready to step in, but with a few shouts Morgan managed to placate them. Then he rounded on Mr Fleuret and said, 'What the hell do you think you're playing at?' Mr Fleuret replied that she was a whore and as such not fit to walk the earth. 'Yes, but that's no reason to throw her onto the floor,' Morgan replied. He was enraged until Tileshed junior reminded him that, had it not been for Mr Fleuret, Morgan might not have been paid. When all was calm again, Morgan took them to his house to see the crew.

'Funny place for a crew,' Alexander muttered on the way there. 'I thought we were supposed to be meeting them in a pub.'

'Yes, but you see, you don't know them like I do. I had to kennel them up in the cellar to keep them out of the boozer. Already most of them were too pissed to stand.'

Morgan was leading them from the inn, where they were made the butt of tawdry jokes on the way out, up the cobbled lane beneath a starry sky, up to his three-storey high, terraced house that seemed no wider than a canoe but made up for it in height. The filthy black windows displayed neglect.

Norman was a local gypsy-type, lean, swarthy and wearing an ear-ring. He had black curly hair and shouted, particularly when he had his teeth in. He wore a dark brown heavy suede overcoat with a black woolly collar like Mr Fleuret's, a sleeveless leather jacket and faded, tatty drainpipe jeans that made his legs look like pipe cleaners. Together with the jacket, his clothes were more suitable for the washbag, together with him in it.

His friend, Frankie, who had been with him when they were taken prisoner by Morgan, had a bulbous nose and a head which looked two sizes too big for his small body. He was ten years Norman's senior. A quiet man, his eyes were continually flitting about for cans of lager, for which he had a nose like a bloodhound. He spent all his waking hours looking for them and all his sleeping hours dreaming about them: cans, cans and more cans.

On Giro days, Frankie would stir at five o' clock in the morning and call round for Norman. They would go round and wake Jimmy (who referred to them as the Dawn Patrol), to see if he had any cans, or go round to the paper shop for the cans while waiting for the Post Office to open, if they could afford it.

Although Frankie was capable of some unorthodox reasoning when drunk, such as vomiting over his gas fire and then pissing over it to hose it down, he couldn't hold a candle up to Jimmy, the third prisoner. Jimmy's vice was whisky and whenever he touched the stuff, he could guarantee serious consequences. Not long ago, he had been a sleek man with a baritone voice, but now all that was left of him was the baritone voice, grown hoarse by the years of strenuous service to hard and steady drinking. He was able to do perfect Louis Armstrong impressions. He was reduced to a skin-shrouded skeleton, with the bones practically sticking out of his face and jaundiced, staring eyes. His hair, unkempt, brown, thin and straggly, looked like pond-weed when it was long; Giro days if he had enough money for a haircut, his ears stuck out like wing-nuts. Being slouched into a chair with legs crossed, he would try to blow smoke rings. In this position he would sit quite easily and sail away into oblivion, often sitting so still for so long that it looked doubtful whether he were still alive.

He turned up at a friend's house drunk at four o' clock in the morning and knocked him out of bed, giving him a can as a peace offering. Then he broke the terrible news. The doctors had given him only six weeks to live. That was two years' ago. He had done the same thing several times since when in the middle of the night he felt like somebody to talk to.

He seemed to have an affinity for arm-chairs, fitting into them like a snail in its shell and becoming part of the furniture. On his last legs after (according to him) five bottles of whisky one morning, he saw a blurred vision of a comfortable arm-chair in the window of a TV rental shop. He staggered in and flopped into it. He was asked to leave several times. His mouth, which had been a ring of encrusted dirt and saliva, mumbled indistinct obscenities. At last they called the police, who tipped him out of the chair. But when the policeman tried to lead him away, he clung to him salivating over him and craving his pardon so that the additional charge of besmirching his uniform was brought. After charging him, they threw him into a cell for eleven hours until he sobered up. He was bewildered when he woke up and found himself lying in that stark, strange little room, covered only by a horsehair blanket and even more confounded when he couldn't find his way out.

Not that this was unusual, except for him getting a fifty pound fine. Behind with the payments, he approached a policeman in the street and asked how long he had before they would come for him and lock him up. The policeman cordially offered to arrest him on the spot, but Jimmy politely turned down his offer and was told he had another month in which to pay.

He had always been a bit of a buccaneer with the law, often escaping justice by the skin of his teeth. He began to think that he was too witty and glib ever to be caught and charged. Early one morning he had woken up hugging a lamp-post on a traffic island. The traffic was whizzing by him perilously close on either side. On another morning, he had opened his eyes to the sky and found it whirling round. He was lying on a merry-go-round like a starfish. Someone must have given him a push.

Sometimes he would abstain from the drink and stock up with food or pay off the mounting bills, when he was more discerning. He would read a great deal in between bouts, going to the library almost daily or obtaining books from a book club and listening to opera. The TV rental shop that had him arrested had even tried to sell him a TV when he went back to find out what he had done!

One Giro day, when he could afford both food and booze, he had bought a few quids' worth of meat in a carrier-bag, which he lost when he got drunk. When he sobered up, he realized what he'd done. He racked his brains to think where he could have left it, but it was impossible to remember even where he had been: whether it was in one of the many pubs, or the betting shop, or a telephone kiosk or toilet. By the time he'd recollected his senses, he realized it would have been pointless to look for it. If it wasn't already feeding someone, it would have been a pile of maggots, the weather being hot.

Another of his feats was managing to get thrown out of a working-men's club for taking pool balls and hiding them. Dancing up to women, he look more foolish by wearing an old green, nylon Parka which somebody had lent him a couple of years' ago because it was too small and had a splash of white paint over the shoulder, which looked as though a two-stone parrot had shit on it. It looked as though it had been shrink-wrapped onto him and this was attested to by the fact that he never seemed to have it off his back. He had been frog-marched out but had wormed his way back in and treated his neighbour, an eighty-four-year-old pitman, to two double whiskies and two pints at once before falling asleep on him. When he woke up, he took a dislike to someone who had insulted him and went at him swinging a chair round his head. His heel shot out from under him and the chair came crashing down on top.

Although he regretted this, it did not teach him not to do it again. Often he would say to Norman or Frankie:

'Do me a favour and nail my feet to the floor.'

One night he had a drinking session with Norman, Norman's brother and Frankie round his kip. He awoke from a snoring bout in the arm-chair in the small hours and could smell burning. Just before falling asleep, he had rested his feet on a stool next to the gas fire, because it was cold. During the night, snow had begun to fall lightly as Jimmy's leg was being toasted. He leaped up, his leg smouldering, and he shook Norman awake, accusing him of turning the fire on while he was asleep. Norman protested that he had never moved from the spot. An argument had flared up, in which Jimmy, wading about ankle-deep in empty beer-cans and doing his best to avoid slipping on them, rolled up his trouser-leg and pointed to what he said was a burn mark.

A third person who had been taken prisoner by Morgan had been there, sleeping on the couch under a pink duvet. Norman had been asleep in a chair and Frankie was squashed onto the end of the couch, also asleep. Jimmy had told this third person, whom they called Billy Buck, not to come to his house late at night drunk, despite the fact that he himself had been guilty of it many times with other people. That night when Billy turned up, he had stretched out his hands and said: 'Sober as a judge, Jimmy. Honest,' before toppling back into the long grass that covered the front garden.

Though the pink blanket was seldom washed, its value lay in it being the only one downstairs, so that it was in great demand as a convenient shroud by whoever was too drunk to make it to a bed. On the night in question, they had agreed to take it in turns to sleep on the couch buried beneath the pink blanket. When they were all awakened by Jimmy's argument, another argument flared up as to whose turn it was for the pink blanket, with Norman snatching it from Billy Buck, Jimmy snatching it from Norman and Norman trying to snatch it back from Jimmy.

Billy Buck had once resembled the Roxy Music star Brian Ferry, when he had his false teeth in and didn't wear his crombie; but years of sleeping where he could and ruinous heavy drinking had turned his black hair and eyebrows hoary. His sleek face, with its once demure, handsome looks, was turned old, gaunt and melancholic. Brain damage had disposed him to spar with an invisible opponent, like when he was a boxer, and to prattle on to no one in particular for most of the time. Jimmy felt sympathetic towards him because he could remember the time when, long ago, he could talk coherently. He had put the pink blanket over him. For Jimmy knew the root cause of this deterioration. One night Billy had spilled his heart out to him about his separation from his wife, about how she had moved over the road to him, and how they couldn't live together and couldn't live apart--and then about her fatal overdose.

Billy used to visit Jimmy when Jimmy's mother was alive. It was she who had first found him the name of Billy Pluck, which after her death became corrupted to Billy Buck. They had met while drying out at the same hospital. They had all done a spell in there and it was their own local university. 'You haven't been nowhere if you haven't been in there,' Jimmy would rant. 'I was in there nine weeks drying out.'

When Jimmy had dried out he'd been given some tablets to take to overcome his addiction. On these he had sailed down the stairs without touching any of them, while watching the floor hurtling towards him, until it hit him. He was working at the time and had been going in for weeks with a fractured skull, in a permanent daze, sometimes not even having remembered having been in. When they had tried to stitch him up in hospital, he had run out screaming, with the needle still on the thread that was attached to his head and a half-bottle of vodka in his pocket. He had chosen vodka instead of whisky because he knew that it was less likely to linger on his breath.

Billy Buck hadn't been to see Jimmy since shortly after his mother's death. He then had a completely different set of friends; who had a margin of respectability, but they had long since forsaken him when they realized how fast he was approaching the gutter. They were replaced by drunks and tramps. Billy Buck, despite his confused mental state, noticed this straightaway when he returned after his long absence. During those dark years he had been sleeping where he could: sometimes in doss-houses though mostly rough, getting into trouble as he usually did and nightly finishing up covered in blood. When he awoke and saw the drunks flanged out all over Jimmy's house, he singled out Norman and stood up to him.

Norman did the same. Both were so unsteady on their pins that they were swaying about like daffodils in a rough wind. They approached each other and conducted their quarrel slouching forward.

'Who's these guys? What's he doing here?' Billy shouted, pointing at Norman.

''Ere! Never mind who I am. Who are you?' Norman replied, pointing back.

Billy withdrew his face from norman's a little by straightening up and began stamping about on the floor of Jimmy's living-room, saying: 'This is your mother's house!' over and over again to Jimmy. He was breathing heavily and stabbing the air with his finger as he walked round in circles. He even managed to twist his face into a wry sneer as he noticed the bare floorboards he was now strutting about on. He said: 'So we're all cowboys now--is that it?' before tiring himself out and flopping into the couch still murmuring: 'All cowboys now....All cowboys now,' until his reedy voice petered out. There had been no bare floorboards on his last visit; there had been a carpet down then.

Norman fell asleep again. When he woke up, he needed a piss. He had already pissed on Jimmy's couch when drunk, for which he had been bollocked, so this time he tried to reach the toilet upstairs. He lifted himself clumsily out of the chair and made a sound like a charging bull as he lost his balance and toppled forward headlong. He fell over Jimmy who was in the chair which he hit like a bullet. Jimmy, who had also lapsed into a stupor, woke up and found himself lying on the floor with Norman on top of him.

'Leave me alone. I'm dying,' Jimmy croaked as Norman was trying to get off him. Norman, who was so pie-eyed that he thought it very witty, chuckled and slapped Jimmy in the chest.

The last two prisoners were Group Captain Onion and Squadron Leader Yellowman: survivalists who were embarking on some manoeuvre when they had been clubbed unconscious by Morgan. In fact, Morgan was the very person they had been sent to keep their eye on. They were founder-members of the Unarmed Combat Training Club (UCTC).

Onion knew a scout master who had granted them use of his hall to train in. He had managed to scrape together some old rubber mats, bits of plywood cut into the shapes of daggers, nylon bars for 'soft' truncheons and old crash helmets and leg-guards. The aim was not only to instruct his members in unarmed combat, but also in self-defence of a rather wider nature, and in survival. Advertisements in the local papers had brought in weaklings, fat middle-aged men and anyone else who nurtured hopes of being turned into Rambo in a couple of weeks; and even a couple of housewives, for whom a separate class was being set up. One timid old man, after hours of individual tuition by Squadron Leader Yellowman (who was far from perfect himself), had managed to get one simple move right. All he was required to do was to raise his hand over his face, palm towards it, pivoted at the elbow, so that his forearm ended up vertical and parallel to the rest of his body, while at the same time he was to place the other hand palm-down beneath his elbow. He had to turn to the side while doing this, as though executing a right- or left-turn in regular drill. Even in this, which was such a rudimentary move, the old man had proved perversely stubborn: Yellowman had to go over it with him time and again, saying: 'Raise your left hand to your face and turn to the side;' upon which he would step forward and raise his right hand, grinning oafishly when each blunder was pointed out to him.

Those at the far end of the hall practised on mats while these others were doing their basic training. They were long-standing, experienced members who had been awarded a stripe. One of these would wear a crash helmet and stand on a rubber mat, where he would have to fend off the rest, who would come at him from all sides, with nylon truncheons, wooden daggers and anything else they could lay their hands on as an improvised weapon.

If this looked like a rugby scrum, the sight of a line of men stepping forward all at once, kicking, punching and chopping the air, grunting and wheezing to Croup Captain Onion's barked-out commands, was no more awe-inspiring than a row of chorus-girls at an audition.

One weekend a month they went on an exercise. When they had last been due to meet up, the weather had been so abysmal that nobody except the two leaders had bothered to turn up. They ended up sitting in a muddy trench they had dug, sharing a meat pie while the rain splattered off their waterproofs. Onion had argued that you don't find meat pies in the wild, but had been too hungry and uncomfortable to put up much resistance when Yellowman offered him a bit.

The previous exercise had been more eventful. About a dozen of them had turned up then to invade a forest. They were armed with machetes, daggers, etc. They had divided themselves into two teams: one led by Onion and the other by Yellowman. As well as having to survive in the wild, one team had to hide from the other team, which would try to capture it. Trampling down the countryside, Yellowman's party had run amuck, pitching tents, using man-traps and walkie-talkies. The half of them that didn't get lost ended up with sprained ankles through wandering around in the dark. Some of them even got caught in their own man-traps. It was a fortunate decision of theirs to file the teeth off before setting them: a few members had been in favour of leaving them on. They had been bothered by game-keepers. Potatoes impregnated with nails when hid in puddles on the tracks over which their Landrovers patrolled resulted in a debilitating puncture which left them unable to catch trespassers.

The seventh and last victim secured by Morgan was Russ.

The smell of Morgan's house was due to lack of inhabitation. The untrimmed candle that Morgan lit threw out a flickering, smoky spire of light, allowing them to see the starkness of the place. In front of them a bare, eerie staircase stretched into the darkness. There was a closet-door under the staircase in the hall. Morgan told them that it opened onto another flight of stairs in the cellar where the prisoners were. Leading the way, he pulled open the closet door, telling them to mind their heads. They huddled together as they went down.

It was then, when they felt that they needed him most, that they noticed Mr Patsy's absence; they had come out of the Barrel Inn without him.

When Mr Fleuret and the Tilesheds were all safely at the bottom of the lower set of stairs, Morgan appealed for silence and listened intently about him. The circle of light that attended him left the others in darkness. He seemed to have sobered up.

From this envelope of darkness they heard a shuffling about the stone floor. Morgan drew back, intimidated, as they all were. They were surprised when a huge figure lunged forward and threw itself over Morgan. The candle fell to the floor and went out.

In the darkness came the sound of a struggle and then of blows being exchanged. Then came the crash of a barrel bouncing off the wall, then scuffling, then someone shouting and cursing as he tried to find the candle.

When it was relit, it was by a big hand.


Chapter Four

The hand belonged to a member of the crew whom the others called Russ; though otherwise they didn't seem familiar with him. He was brandishing a glinting knife in his other hand. No one doubted he would use it as promised, if anyone gave him cause to. Even without it, he looked formidable. He stood over six feet; his shoulders and jaw were square. He had Mr Fleuret and the Tilesheds motionless with fear. They saw Captain Morgan sprawled over an empty barrel which had rolled across the floor. It had stood in a corner along with a dozen more. A man, shivering in his shirt sleeves, was standing over the other victims, who had all been tied together.

Russ tied Mr Fleuret's hands, after ordering Tileshed senior to tie his son's hands and Mr Fleuret to tie Tileshed senior's hands. The thought of leaving a loose knot did occur to Mr Fleuret. When Russ threatened him with castration if he found any of them loose, Mr Fleuret bound Tileshed senior's hands so tightly that he nearly broke the old man's wrists. When all three had their hands tied, Russ ordered them to stand in a ring facing outwards. He tied them together using the rest of the rope he somehow managed to wriggle free from: he tied their legs together in pairs: Mr Fleuret's right leg to Tileshed senior's left leg; Tileshed senior's right leg to Tileshed junior's left leg; and Tileshed junior's right leg was tied to Mr Fleuret's left leg, closing the ring. Then he stood back and admired their triptych form. Turning to Tileshed senior and Fleuret, who were facing him, he said: 'You see, it's like this: I stabbed him. You know I did it, so I chose to tie you up and give you a chance, rather than kill you all as well.'

'Some chance!' muttered Tileshed junior.

'That way, even if you do get out of here--which I have to admit is looking doubtful--by the time you can squeal, I'll be gone.' He walked with the candle towards the stone steps. 'Well, I'll be off then.'

Terror ran through them. Mr Fleuret, who had never faced death, realized that the cellar was to be his tomb. In monotony he spurned life, but what he wouldn't give to cling to it! He loved his bedroom, he loved his mother, he loved his father, he loved his wargames. He even loved Carl, who thought suffering was being laid up in a warm bed with a cold and five bottles of whisky, for medicinal purposes only, of course. Here he was stuck in a cold cellar, ready to die. He would even have exchanged his lot for Carl's. He had watched the flickering light glide up the stairs towards the door. Tileshed junior was beseeching him to have mercy. When it became clear this was having no effect, he lapsed into silence, resigned to being locked in that dingy cellar without reprieve. As Russ stood by the door and his long shadow grew and shrank with the candle flame, Mr Fleuret shouted up: 'At least leave us the candle, you curmudgeon!'

He opened the door, turned and hurled the candle. It hit the floor and went out.

'Certainly, it's the least I can do.'

Before he slammed and bolted the door, their eyes had become accustomed enough to the darkness to enable them to depict the silhouette of his powerful frame against the twilit hall of the house.

In the blackness and stillness that followed, Alexander felt as if he were already dead. Although it seemed like longer, that silence lasted but a few seconds. Presently they heard shuffling followed by a ghastly moan.

'Does anybody have a match with them?' Tileshed senior called out.

It took them a while of scratting about to locate the candle. When they eventually found it, they could not pick it up, let alone produce a light. Tileshed senior asked if they could sit down for a while, as he was breathless. When he sat, Tileshed junior and Mr Fleuret also had to sit, back to back. While they were recovering, they heard more shuffling noises.

'Who's that?' Mr Fleuret cried our, horrified.

'Jim McGory,' came the brief, baritone reply.

'We could still try the door,' Tileshed junior suggested.

'What's the point? We might as well just sit here and wait to die. What difference does it make? We're all going to die sooner or later,' said Mr Fleuret in his usual, cynical way. '"Memento Mori," my boss with the sandals used to say. Even if we reached the door, we couldn't break it down like this, could we?'

'My hands are tied in front of me. I saw him tie yours behind you. Come over here and I'll try to untie you,' Jimmy said, having to raise his voice over the grunts of his reviving colleagues beside him; most of whom were recovering from a cosh of only a liquid kind.

'Up, everybody!' Tileshed junior shouted. They struggled to their feet with difficulty. They had to commend Jimmy for his efforts with the ropes but it was no good. The ropes were beginning to burn their wrists. Just as Mr Fleuret was telling them of the pain involved in starving to death and dying of thirst, Tileshed senior had an idea.

'You go blind and all your hair falls out,' Alexander was telling them.

Tileshed senior asked if anyone could remember what was underneath the stairs. According to him, Morgan had said there was a secret passage running from the cellar to the coast, which was not far away. He had mentioned it at the Barrel Inn during the fracas, when Tileshed senior had asked him if there was any chance of the crew running away, but in the noise nobody else had heard. 'None at all. I've locked the cellar door and there's only an old tunnel under the stairs that the smugglers used to use, but it's blocked up now,' Morgan had replied. The pile of barrels in the corner had probably also been used by them, which seeing had reminded Tileshed senior of the secret passage.

They found a stone block in the wall underneath the stairs that made a different sound from the others when kicked. It made a hollow grinding sound. Two of the unconscious men revived and joined in. Plenty more kicks encouraged it to descend into the equal blackness of the tunnel.

One by one the other men began to go down it, after the first one found out by dropping stones that it wasn't very deep. Although they were all still strung together like mountaineers, in most cases the rope was long enough to permit this. With the Tilesheds and Mr Fleuret, it was different. Because of the way these three were tied, it meant that they couldn't descend individually. The others promised to help them down. But once they were in the tunnel, Mr Fleuret and the Tilesheds were still awaiting their assistance when they were shocked to hear their strident voices fading away down the tunnel in search of a way out. No amount of shouting would persuade them to return. They decided they would have to take their chances and drop down unassisted, tied up as they were like a human tripod and hope that it would work out.

After several half-hearted attempts, each of which was thwarted by Mr Fleuret, who on each occasion dug his heels restively in and kept them away from the edge with his foot against the wall, they agreed that they could only achieve it by jumping together and trying to land on their feet. To this purpose they dragged Mr Fleuret over with them. His struggle lost them their balance and Mr Fleuret landed on his head underneath the Tilesheds. They could still hear the faint scratching and squabbling of the others echoing down the tunnel as they lay there.

When Mr Fleuret revived, he could remember neither where he was nor for how long he had been there. He opened his eyes and it made no difference. He thought he had either gone blind or was dead. He tried to move and felt the ropes rubbing against his sore wrists. He felt oppressed by the darkness, suspended in blackness, utterly silent. The Tilesheds had gone, but his hands were still tied behind his back. He called out for them but received for his reply only his own voice echoing back. He had a notion that it would have been possible to work out how long the tunnel was, judging by the time it took for his echo to come winging back to him, but he wasn't a bat and he certainly wasn't a mathematician, he told himself.

He got to his feet as best he could in the confinement and began walking, with a pain like ten morphine hangovers in his head. Walking wasn't easy, particularly with his hands behind him, because he had a tendency to slip and twist his ankles on bits of rubble that in normal light wouldn't have bothered him but in the darkness were like boulders.

He had been walking for a couple of minutes when he began to notice a chink of daylight to one side. He walked with renewed vigour as the light intensified like a dawn, until he could see the curvature of the tunnel wall with its irregularities, which had prevented him from seeing the openings before. As he rounded the bend, the broad daylight illuminated a rock-strewn, upward-sloping floor. At the opening he could make out grass and the hiss of the tide. He clambered out as best he could and stood squinting, covered with mire.

He had come out on a gorse-strewn hillside, halfway up a ravine that went down to the beach. There was no sign of the Tilesheds. He staggered around looking for them. Caught in a gorse-bush at the mouth of the tunnel was a piece of grey cloth, which he thought might have been ripped from Tileshed's suit on the way out. Since his hands were still tied, he stooped over and picked it off the branch with his teeth. As he did so, he saw that there was an old man in rags sitting on the hill above him watching him surreptitiously. Mr Fleuret decide to approach him for help.

The sight of him against the oceanic background, grass and shrubbery with his hands tied behind him, in his 'sodium'-orange, quilted coat, hair sticking out, begrimed and biting on a piece of cloth with rotten teeth made the stranger retreat more so when he heard the muffled ranting. Mr Fleuret cornered him in a thicket and spat the cloth out to speak.

'I'm sorry to trouble you, but I should like to know what has become of my business colleagues. I was also wondering if you would be so good as to untie me,' Alexander said as he advanced towards the trapped figure that was pressed against the bushes.

The old man mumbled something.

'What did you say, my man?' Mr Fleuret boomed out.

'No,' he replied quietly. His eyes glazed over, then he asked quite distinctly, 'Who are you?'

'I am Alexander Fleuret, BA, related to a French nobleman. And who might you be?'

'So thee would try stealin' my pigs and land, eh?'

'No, no. Let me explain. I am a Rousseauist.'

'You French pig! You know what will happen to you!'

It became apparent how dirty the farmer's face was when he bared his teeth like a rabid dog. He even began to act like a cornered animal and began snarling and tried to get away by running past Mr Fleuret, who tried to detain him. Alexander shot out his leg and tripped him up, as he could not grab hold of him with his arms tied. When the farmer was lying on the ground wondering what had happened, Mr Fleuret knelt down beside him and asked if he would untie him. Again the farmer refused and tried to get up. Mr Fleuret held onto his garment with his teeth, uttering a strange whining sound like a hoverfly on a leaf. They grappled and rolled down the hill until Mr Fleuret realized that they would fall to their deaths over the cliff if they didn't stop.

He put all his energy into trying to stop them with his feet. They came to rest, panting. While he sat there recovering his wits, Mr Fleuret told him he had a flask of whisky in his inside pocket which he would give him if he was untied. This was an offer he found too good to refuse. While he was being untied, Mr Fleuret told him that he was looking for some men and he described the Tilesheds; he showed him the piece of cloth he had found at the entrance to the tunnel. The man, a farmer whose wife had just left him, taking his prize pig with her, admitted to having seen two men answering to their descriptions running across the heath. They were being chased by two soldiers.

'Ah, now we're getting somewhere,' Mr Fleuret said as he observed the increasingly garrulous farmer swigging greedily from the small flask of whisky and morphine. Soon he insisted on singing a folkish lilt, the words of which occasionally wafted across Mr Fleuret's thoughts:

'There is a line just south of Manchester

And south of that the sun shines all day

And south of that they inherited all the good things

Like Bavaria, Sense and Common.

...The rest can all go to hell.'

He paused and said: 'One of them was holding something. It could have been a knife, by the looks of it.'

Mr Fleuret pressed him for more details.

'Well, all I know is there was this young'un and this old'un, both in suits being chased by soldiers. I remember when I was a young whippersnapper and I walked two hundred miles south, to where I thought the grass was greener...in Guernsey, where they grew the flowers and there was plenty of good soil.'

'Well, I must be orf,' Mr Fleuret said bombastically while the farmer was still talking, after taking back his empty flask.

The two he had seen being chased were surely the Tilesheds, Alexander reasoned as he strolled away from the farmer, who was still reminiscing about his youth. He had caught a glimpse of two men in camouflage in the cellar before the candle went out.

The sun had just set behind the distant, shady trees and was turning red the vast, shimmering wheat-fields outspread before him, like a rippling red bedspread. A breeze was blowing across it and the sky was nearly flawless. He was undecided, whether to look for them. It was dusk and he was on unfamiliar ground. He was almost surprised to discover that he had been walking for some time while he thought.

He stopped and turned abruptly. The overgrown footpath along which he had fought his way trailed off between the fields. Beyond this, on the horizon, he could depict the scrub where he had left the farmer and beyond that, the dark blue sea as it rolled towards night. Right on the horizon, a necklace of orange, twinkling of lights was all he could see of a ferry out at sea on its way to Norway. To his right was a copse of majestic trees that extended like a giant cordon of police to the coast. These trees and the ones he was heading for framed the gap where the sun had set; where there were many miles of rolling hills. Occasionally the only sign of human life,--the Intercity train--could be heard roaring through the hills on its way south. He was taken aback, for in those brief moments he had spent examining his surroundings, both the sea and the sky above it seemed to have darkened, he noticed when he looked at them after turning full circle. Panicky, he glanced round him again, concentrating more on the immediate area: nothing but fields, a row of hawthorn bushes to the right and an old fence to his left lined the path that faded into obscurity ahead of him.

He decided to press on a little further: not only was it a long way back, but his conscience was beginning to nag him: he felt that if he had not knocked himself senseless, the Tilesheds wouldn't have been in this mess. Further on the terrain became even more hostile and slowed him down to about half his normal pace. The grass and weeds closed completely over the footpath, forcing him to hack and untangle his way through it. The trees seemed to loom larger and nearer that before. Overhead, the swifts engaged themselves in aerial acrobatics, carrying their shrill cries all around him as though warning him of something; but these soon diminished into quietude as they ascended to find their lofty beds, where the first pale stars were shining.

Following the vague direction given by the farmer, he assumed the Tilesheds to have preceded him along the only navigable route. He continued walking. Darkness's curtain fell with every step. He noticed a faint white glimmer ahead. At first he thought it was a star until he saw the dark hills huddled behind it. He knew then that it must be coming from the ground. He hoped it was coming from an inn, where he could stay the night, as the only alternatives were the open air or the Barrel Inn; neither of which struck his fancy. He wondered if he would find the Tilesheds there and whether he would be able to rescue them from the soldiers if they were there and what they would do to him if they captured him as well. During the next couple of hours it took him to reach the source, he had been thinking of resuming the rôle of Custor in the Battle of Little Bighorn--but this gradually receded from his weary mind the closer he got.

When he drew near, he saw that the light was coming from an old shed. Rot had gnawed away at the bottoms of its planks of wood, allowing light in in places. He crouched down. That it was inhabited was evident, but were they asleep? He couldn't hear a sound. Had he stumbled across a nest of thieves dividing their spoils? If so and he was spotted, they could cut his throat as soon as look at him, he thought. He shuddered and waited longer, but nothing happened. It became clear to him by the curved roof that it was not a shed but an old railway carriage.

He waited for a great part of the night, trying to catch some sleep, but found it impossible; or so he thought until a creaking floorboard woke him up. The door opened and a figure stood there in silhouette for a moment before going back in. He recognized it to be the farmer he thought he had left behind, by the soiled garb in which he had rolled on the ground with Fleuret; the marks were in the same place. It was cold so he approached and jerked open the door, looking for shelter.

'Wondered where you'd got to. Did you know where I live?' the farmer said.

'I left you ages ago. How did you get here?'

'Walked, up yonder,' said the figure, now in the chair, pointing vaguely. The lamp cast a shadow of his arm, exaggerating the gesture wildly. With straight brown hair and smock, he was smoking a pipe. His thoughts seemed to be wrapped in the haze of smoke around him. Casually he said: 'Come in and close the door.'

Alexander learned in the subsequent conversation that the farmer he left behind him at the coast had outstripped him by a shorter route. Going to the door, the farmer pointed down the embankment on which the carriage was resting, where there was a disused railway route. It appeared that Mr Fleuret had described an arc about the hut, only closing in on it like a moth when he saw the light. He had made his journey unnecessarily long. Could the Tilesheds have taken this road? In the morning he would advance up it to look for them.

The farmer was more at ease than at their first meeting, but introspective. Alexander asked him if he could sleep there but received no answer. Mr Fleuret removed his long, pointed shoes and orange coat, sinking into a heap in the corner where there was a comfortable pile of straw. The farmer returned with a flagon of wine which he had hidden in a bush outside. The interior of the carriage bore a touch of intimacy, maybe because of its curved roof, white with spare cowshed paint. The phenol base left a lingering smell of disinfectant, though it had discoloured. The floor was bare except for straw in the corners. The wine had affected the farmer, causing him to reminisce again. Mr Fleuret was asleep. His body was spread-eagled, his head was thrown back rakishly revealing the hole through which he was snoring, whistling loudly. His stomach was heaving in and out and the belt of his black, baggy shiny trousers could be seen against his white nylon shirt and imperial purple tie.

He had the most fantastic erotic dream....She was trying to undo him....Cynthia had lovely hands....He awoke to find a huge Rotweiller towering over him, licking his genitals. The sight of it from below was not appealing as it moved up to lick his face. Terrified, he slithered further into the corner.

'Fritz, get down!' shouted the farmer, who was eating a bowl of stew and lentils. After persuading him to withdraw the dog, Mr Fleuret asked for some food, because he was weak with hunger, he said.

'I've got the cauldron going outside,' the farmer burped.

Mr Fleuret peered out. Just to one side there was a cauldron over a fire. Its contents defied classification. He peeped in. He sniffed aristocratically at the savour and it smelled good. When it was ready, the farmer offered him some in a bowl, which he accepted delightfully, hunger forcing him to abandon etiquette as he slurped noisily from it.

He consumed it and feeling much better, sat back to loosen his belt.

'I say: that was most substantial--what was it?'

'Let me see....I made it last week. It's mostly pigs' heads, so don't be too surprised if you find the odd eyeball staring up at you, if you haven't already eaten it. They're chewy, though: it takes a few chews to burst them.'

Mr Fleuret was at the door vomiting before the farmer could finish listing the ingredients. He did not return, but staggered off, his face chalk-white, leaving the dog to lap up his sick.

Staggering through the hills without morphine was like struggling through the desert. He held little promise of finding the Tilesheds. Climbing the nearest hill for a vantage-point, he stood breathlessly peering over the other hills after clawing at the stony ground and sturdy grass.

One of the truly beautiful sights he experienced in his unfulfilled life was there, a panorama of hill beyond hill for as far as he could see. Each was shadowed and sculptured and decked by the sun which had just peeped over the misty horizon, causing Alexander to blink at its warming rays. Just as it ended the night, the clarity and simplicity of that morning felt like a spiritual enlightenment. Around his head and about the quilted landscape the swifts dived and screamed, disappearing and reappearing, skimming and shooting upwards in an elaborate display of aerial warfare and courtship. The cold, earthy smell of the ground was being drawn up by the mist.

While admiring this, his gaze chanced to fall upon a spire of smoke that looked like the end of a long beard. He was drawn towards it almost: going into the shade and into the sun; over the hill and into the valley; encountering the life-saving warmth of the hill-top and the shuddering coolness of the valley. Each time he surfaced on an island of warmth, the smoke seemed to be no nearer, but the sun was rising rapidly, diminishing and scattering the dark, lingering pools of night-air. When he looked over the last hill, he saw them.

There below in the valley were the Tilesheds and the two soldierly men described by the farmer. They had built a meagre fire and they sat with their backs to it, tied together and sitting back to back. The smoke rose like black plumes in the still air of the valley, annoying Mr Fleuret when it screened the Tilesheds. He had just discovered how they were tied when another black cloud mushroomed up and hid them as though in spite. The smaller 'soldier' was huddled against the fire and was feeding it with sticks and dead branches. He was rubbing his hands nervously up and down his shins and staring solemnly into the fire. Even from that distance, Alexander could see them more distinctly than he had done in the cellar. The other man was a stocky, dark-haired partisan who was walking briskly round the fire; both were dressed alike in combat jackets and camouflage trousers and black, bulky boots.

Alexander remained hidden over the hill. The burly man in the combat jacket walked up to his colleague at the fire and began barking out what seemed like orders, which echoed faintly against the hills. Alexander could not understand them, because to him they sounded like shrill, swinish grunts, but the smaller man sprang like a ship's planking to attention, gave a quick, fervid salute and ran off, picking up brushwood on the way. When he came back he was loaded with branches, which he began throwing on the fire. The bigger man unstrapped a canteen from his waist and when he saw that it was empty, flung it at the other man's feet and flew into a tantrum. His face discoloured, he thumped his chest like a gorilla and it was only after he had rolled about on the ground that he seemed satisfied.

'But I thought I had filled them, sir,' Alexander could just make out the other man's tremulous, submissive cry.

When he had recovered, the bigger man seemed to be trying to demonstrate how to poke somebody in the ribs with a stick. He pointed to the Tilesheds and the smaller, red-faced man nodded sagely and dutifully. When he was satisfied, he got the smaller man to present arms with the stick after saluting and began to walk away with a regimental gait, stopping only to glance back before disappearing among the hills. The small man seemed to be nervous when left on his own and went over to the Tilesheds and wandered round them in circles, as though wondering what to do about them. He appeared to slacken his vigilance and sat down by the fire, poking it with his stick. He put down the stick and rubbed his hands against the fire. It seemed that Mr Fleuret had been lying on that hill for hours when suddenly he got to his feet, picked up a stone and ran down the hill shouting. The strain of waiting without morphine for so long had caused him to have a mental aberration that made him fearless. The man turned, startled, then jumped to his feet, faced Mr Fleuret, then turned about and ran away. He scrambled over the route his friend had taken, shouting for help. This victory upon the part of Mr Fleuret greatly uplifted his ego: he came swaggering down the hill, swinging his arms with his head held high before nearly tripping over a sod and losing his balance, but he carried on as if nothing had happened and reached the Tilesheds casually proclaiming: 'I'm glad he had some sense.'

Exploiting their ignorance to the full as he untied them, Mr Fleuret expanded his journey into a terrible ordeal encompassing rare bravery, in which he was attacked by mad farmers and mauled by wolves. They sat in stony silence while he talked himself to a standstill, until he got round to asking them how they fared.

The Tilesheds had been lying in the tunnel with Fleuret when a couple of the crew returned and kidnapped them.The two men who had captured them were Onion and Yellowman. They had kidnapped the Tilesheds with the idea of stealing the ship. They had tried to escape and that was when the farmer must have seen them.

Mr Fleuret made such a fuss over untying them, indicating in doing so that it was tantamount to saving their lives, that Yellowman had time to come back with Onion.

'Oh, my God, they're back!' Alexander cried.

'You should have been quicker, instead of prattling on,' said Tileshed junior.

The two men came running down the hill and split up to outmanoeuvre them. Alexander was shouting: 'I didn't mean to throw that pebble at you: I was just trying to grab your attention.'

'I'm Group Captain Onion and this is my Squadron Leader, Yellowman, both in the special service of the Queen,' said the big man.

'Oh, I'm a great admirer of the Queen. I've got a portrait of her hanging on my wall,' Alexander replied. His mother had bought it for him years ago and he had once slashed at it with a knife in a drunken frenzy. He would have removed it had it not been covering a hole in the wall from another incident.

'Good for you. I'm arresting you for contemptuous and threatening behaviour towards one of my senior officers.'

'You can't do that,' argued Tileshed senior.

'It's our job to defend ourselves against the likes of you, so we're commandeering the ship. You have the right of appeal, of course,' said Onion briskly.

'How?' Mr Fleuret asked.

'You appeal through me, by asking me to reconsider.'

'Well, will you reconsider?'


Yellowman was nodding sheepishly at everything he said.

'What are you going to do with us?’ asked Mr Fleuret.

Yellowman marched up to his superior, saluted him and began: 'With your permission, sir...'

Group Captain Onion nodded just enough to be perceived, yet appeared aloof.

'...I was going to suggest that we tie them to him.' Yellowman forwarded no useful contribution of ideas, other than the most obvious and was forever trying to ingratiate himself with Onion. When Onion made no reply, as he usually didn't, it meant that he had already thought of the suggestion, or was considering it, or had considered it and dismissed it as rubbish.

'I wish we had a base,' Onion said at last.

'Can't you sleep indoors?' asked Mr Fleuret.

Yellowman cast him a derisory glance. 'You'll not be. It's only the officers that sleep inside.'

'They'll be lucky to sleep at all. We'll be on the march for most of the night,' said Onion. 'Squadron Leader Yellowman, untie the men,' Onion snapped, jerking his head towards the Tilesheds. Yellowman drew out his dagger and carelessly slit the rope holding them.

'No, not like that! A rope or string is a very useful commodity in survival. You can fish with it, set traps with it, garrotte people with it--and now it's good for nothing!'

Yellowman was used to this. He lowered his head.

'Right, form up the men in marching order.'

Yellowman saluted, fell out and ushered them into single file, with Fleuret in front. When he had done this, he marched over to Onion, stamped his foot on the ground, stood to attention and saluted.

'The men are formed up, sir!'

Onion stood at their side and shouted, 'By the left, quick march!' At which Tileshed senior was the only one to step off by the left foot, which he remembered from his National Service days. Tileshed junior set off on his right foot and Mr Fleuret on neither foot, causing the others to collide with him.

'Halt!' screamed Onion. 'You and you, fall out.'

Mr Fleuret and Tileshed junior exchanged puzzled glances and stepped out of line; they stood slouching forward in front of Onion.

'Stand up straight!' Onion yelled. '"By the left, quick march" means just that. You step off with the left foot. Do you understand?'

As nobody answered, he yelped at the top of his voice: 'Do you understand?'

'Yes,' replied Mr Fleuret and Tileshed junior, flatly and one after the other. Tileshed senior was meanwhile standing perfectly still.

'Yes, what?'

'Yes, sergeant,' replied Mr Fleuret.

'Sergeant? I'll teach you to be funny with me. Run to the top of that hill and back. Move!'

Alexander stood scowling for a moment and Onion, seeing this, said, 'Well, what are you waiting for?'

Alexander shook his head. 'I can't, Mr Onion....I can't run. I refuse to. You can't make me. I shouldn't have to do jerks. I should be made an officer.' He was frowning in the hope that it would make him look more resolute.

'And what makes you so bloody special?'

'I'm a BA. Carl says I could get in the Education Corps of the Army and I wouldn't have to do a single physical exercise, by virtue of that alone.'

'What does "BA" stand for--"Bloody Arsehole"?'

'Should I wallop him, sir?' asked Yellowman eagerly, stepping forward with his stick.

'Not yet. Now, get going, or the next time my 2i/c asks if he can discipline you, I'll give him permission.'

Mr Fleuret turned round and began striding up the slope, until Onion shouted: 'Run!', making him break into a trot.

'Faster. Raise those knees!' Onion could still be heard screaming as he approached the top of the hill; then on the way back shouting: 'Faster, come on, you can make it!'. Mr Fleuret began to sweat. He got a pain in his abdomen and thought he was having a heart attack. He stopped running to take off his orange anorak, scarf and tie, which he threw on the ground rebelliously and began to storm round in circles, raving, like some clown doing a ludicrous dance, in white shirt and black baggy trousers, hair sticking up like a neglected paintbrush and features haggard, hooked nose and toothless gape.

'If I have to come up there and get you, there'll be trouble,' he heard Onion threatening. He decided to make it back to Onion, who was encouraging him and threatening him alternately. He staggered towards the finish and dropped to his hands and knees. From this level he saw Onion's muddy black boots moving steadily towards him and then stop at his head.

'Get up, or I'll kick you up.'

'Please, Mr Onion, sir, let me rest. For God's sake, I'm having a heart attack.' He clutched at his chest dramatically.

'You're only just warmed up. You're good for another twenty miles yet. Now stand up. I'm going to take you through the pain barrier.'

Tileshed junior came forward to help him up when he saw him collapse, but Onion snapped: 'Get back! Let him carry his own cross. Now, run to the top of the hill and back, and if you stop this time, I'll kick you the rest of the way. You've got to get it into your head that you do as you're told. Go!'

Mr Fleuret staggered off again. He didn't know how he kept going with his two lungs about to burst and he was staggering so much on the way back that just before he reached Onion he fell over and rolled down the slope, causing Yellowman to laugh vulgarly.

'All right, you can rest for a few minutes.'

Alexander flopped down beside the Tilesheds while Onion went to have a word with Yellowman in private. During the break, the rigours of discipline were relaxed and Onion came over and talked to them, as he would to his own UCTC members.

'How are you feeling?' he asked Mr Fleuret, squatting down beside him.

'Fucked,' Mr Fleuret spat out sourly.

'Good. Don't worry about it. You'll get used to it,' he said, as if considering him for membership.

Tileshed junior finished smoking his cigarette and sent the butt of it cartwheeling away, with the last lungful of smoke.

'Okay, get into line. We're going for a run.'

He led them over a few hills without stopping, until Mr lemon's hair was drenched with sweat. On the way, he told them how he had acquired his name. When he was in the 'Special Services', the CO had said he knew his onions. Yellowman was his second-in-command, being content to wallow in Onion's glory as such: but the way Mr Fleuret had frightened him, sending him scampering out of the valley had proved that he was 'yellow' in more than name. Without his instructor in self-defence, he had fled like a whipped mongrel. Group Captain Onion already decided what his punishment would be. He was to be reduced to the ranks and ordered to complete an assault course. Onion walked up to him and rudely pulled off his stripe, at which Yellowman showed no emotion.

For deserting his post, he was taken to a rope stretched between two pegs over a morass. His hands were tied behind his back and he was ordered to pull himself along with his teeth. After a formal objection by the penitent, Onion agreed to half the length of the rope. It took Yellowman a long time of heaving with his teeth, arching his back and gasping for breath. As the camouflaged figure squirmed like a caterpillar, Onion hurled 'encouragement' at him by way of insults, as he had done with Mr Fleuret, who was watching the punishment with justifiable amusement. After all Yellowman had laughed at him. Onion placed his bucket-shaped head near to Yellowman's square head so that they seemed to be kissing, screwing up his eyes, wrinkling his battered nose and peeling back his prehensile lips through which he was screaming. Yellowman was baring his own teeth as he bit on the rope in pain. The Tilesheds slipped away with Mr Fleuret. Onion seemed to have grown bored with them in any case.



Chapter Five

They were closer to civilization than they realized. Over a couple more hills they met the sight of buildings, lit up in the dusk. They descended, becoming aware of a caravan-site before the village. Although it looked like a gypsy site, they did not hesitate to make towards it. They feared Onion might be chasing them. He would have noticed their absence by then. As they came to the outskirts of the site they noticed tins half-buried in the hard earth and paper blowing about. A dog barked and the curtains of a caravan window fluttered.

'Let's find out in God's name where we are,' Tileshed senior said, stepping up the short ladder and knocking on the door of the first caravan.

He nearly fell off the ladder with surprise at what he saw. The door was jerked open by a long-haired person that appeared to be wearing an emerald-green, flowered dress and trousers of the same colour. It spoke in a pitch between a man and a woman.

'Yes, Ms Person?'

While Tileshed junior was trying to ignore its appearance, Mr Fleuret noticed it was wearing a bead necklace and a white shirt or blouse, but no make-up and its shoes were half-stilettos.

'Can you tell us where we are? We're lost,' Tileshed senior said, trying not to sound surprised.

'Me can't tell you: you will have to ask the Map,' it replied.

'The Map?'

'Me will show you,' said the person. Mr Fleuret thought he detected masculinity in its voice. It led them to a caravan nearby and walked in without knocking. The door closed and they were left for a few minutes. Muted voices came from inside. It re-emerged and beckoned to them. A single, pillowless bed was covered with a horsehair blanket. A bare light-bulb hung from the Formica roof. A small chest was in the corner, and a laundry bag. A double of the first person was facing them, with a slightly bowed head and a deferential smile. It outstretched its arm. Alexander grabbed it and tried to shake it vigorously. The hand withdrew suddenly, then it stretched forward again and slowly swept out, parallel with the ground. The other said: 'Them don't know the greeting of Equality yet.'

The other looked surprised. 'You mean you haven't told them? You take your arm like hir's done and bring it round to meet the other person's hand in the same position, so that they touch at the thumbs, palm down.'

Mr Fleuret spoke up. 'Who's "Hirs"?' he asked, deeply interested. He thought maybe it was a famous historical character.

The two exchanged perplexed looks. 'You haven't told them anything?' one asked.

'No, not yet. Me thought it best to leave it for the time being.'

'Don't worry. Us will explain. Me is Stephany. Hir is Neili.'

Why did they speak like this? And why did they dress queerly? Why did they have strange names and live in caravans? What was the Greeting of Equality and why was it done?

Tired, they accepted their accommodation from them for the night. They did not want Onion to find them. Not much more was said, but they were taken to rest. Another caravan with two single beds, but was otherwise similar. They were too tired for conversation when 'Neili' wished them a peaceful night and shut the door, leaving them in the dark. Mr Fleuret and Tileshed junior were in one bed and Tileshed senior in the other. Mr Fleuret, who that night slept with all his clothes on, had a tussle with Tileshed junior for the single, horsehair blanket, but soon after fell asleep thinking how ascetic their lives must be.

They were awakened the next morning by the same person bearing three bowls of brown liquid with a lot of brown beans floating in it. The bearer of the food wished them a fulfilling day. When Mr Fleuret awoke lying with a strange person looking up at a strange ceiling, he was disorientated and the shock made him cry out. He remembered Creame often telling him he had experienced the feeling. He had been with him when he picked up two strumpets and got invited back. While Creame was entertaining both at once, Alexander sat in a chair looking on disdainfully because he 'respected them too much' to do that sort of thing. Creame wished he'd done the same when he found out that he'd picked up more than he bargained for.

Alexander was disappointed, when he peered into the bowls and saw what was similar to the broth the farmer had served him. Instead of eating it, he paced about the small space, frowning at the stark walls and mumbling while the Tilesheds sipped from their bowls.

They finished and were just about to discuss plans when the door opened. It was Neili, beaming. 'Me hopes you enjoyed that offering. We would like you to see a play, if you are ready. We put one on each morning. Would you like to bring your friends along?'

Pleased at being made their spokesman, Alexander readily committed them.

'Then you will find out more about our aims,' it added, as if he agreed to this as well.

For the play, they formed a circle on the ground with about a hundred members, all dressed in emerald green skirts and trousers. The actors and the audience were dressed alike, but the leading person was dressed in regalia and head-dress supposed to portray the Sun God. It was killed because of its status. The play finished without applause and the actors retired to indifference from the audience.

There was something explained to them as 'Bowing out', which they did at the end of every play. When it was time to disperse, the actors would mingle with the audience and they would confront each other with a bow. They reply was a reciprocal bow. The person who bowed first would be allowed to leave. Then it would be up to the other person to beat somebody else to the bow, so that it could be allowed to leave. The slowest bower throughout was declared the winner.

As Neili was among the first to bow out, it stalked over to Alexander and the Tilesheds, intrigued by the bloom of colour amid a sea of green, where they stood out like poppies in a cornfield.

A crowd which had retired from the audience stood nearby, so Neili said: 'Peers, let me introduce you to the three persons who have honoured us with their visit. We hope that they will be active participants in our society.'

At this, Tileshed junior became restless and whispered in his father's ear. Neili had asked Mr Fleuret to come forward.

'Do not be afraid to show yourself in front of your equal. Come forward.

'Me can tell you are a person of great intellect and sensitivity. Tell me, have you ever used this power in any way for the furtherance of personkind?'

Mr Fleuret told them that he was a BA in History and Politics, and that he had had books published.

While Alexander was overjoyed at being given the chance of rambling on egotistically to an audience, Tileshed senior was quickly gaining inside information about the society from a neighbour.

The group had been formed at the time of the Sex Discrimination Act, which had inspired its principles and workings which aimed at an existence in which there was no discrimination of any kind, with particular regard to sex, but they found that they could not achieve totality of success without removing the main physical differences between a man and a woman. The result was a community of androgynes that wore men's and women's clothes. To convey and emphasize their sexless meaning they used the word 'hir' as a neutral pronoun, to avoid the use of 'him' or 'her' and 'me' rather than 'I' to play down self-ie the rain pelted on its darkened windows. Inside, Alexander screamed.


Chapter Six

The first hospital they came to turned them away because it was full, the second because of a strike. In the end they had to settle for a local mental and rehabilitation centre, where Norman, Frankie, Jimmy, Billy Buck and most of their friends had dried out at one time or another, being fed on pork pies and thiamine.

'God, what do we pay our taxes for?' exasperated Tileshed junior.

'The old bastard!' Alexander shouted from the back, remembering the time his father had lost his false teeth after he'd been on the home brew.

Before Tort had got old, he used to get into drunken stupors through drinking his home-brewed daffodil wine. He was accustomed to go out early in the morning in spring to raid parks for the daffodils which he believed should be collected on a dewy, east-facing bank to bestow their full therapeutic effect. Having got the daffodils, he would trample them bare-footed in a tin bath before straining off the pulp and adding boiling water and yeast, pouring it into demijohns and leaving it to mature. After it had been standing for six months, he would celebrate by drinking it with his family, friends and pet poodle that died on Christmas day. On the dog it exhibited great potency and its hair fell out of its nether regions. People would come from streets away just to enjoy witnessing a half-bald poodle staggering about the floor, occasionally trying to copulate with Mr Fleuret's leg.

It affected Tort no less spectacularly. As soon as he touched the stuff, he would rise from his chair and start to jiggle, lurching about and lightly swinging his arms. This in turn would debilitate his legs even further and make him tilt slowly further and further backwards, until he fell over if he was not caught in time.

Alexander thought Tort had swallowed his false teeth when they went missing, but he also accused Carl of stealing them. Alexander had travelled in an ambulance with his father while they whisked him from one hospital to the next throughout the night to have X-rays and tests done. They could find no trace of them inside him and said that if he had swallowed them, the damage would already have become apparent. It wasn't surprising, because they turned up the next day.

It took them half the night, after they had scoured every square mile of the country, before they came to a hospital that would accept non-urgent cases, by which time the worst of Alexander's effects had passed. When he returned to normal he said that the Sunny People had given him a bowl of soup and a bottle of something to drink that had a 'bit of a kick' to it: they told him it was a necessary part of his initiation.

When he was released from hospital, they had the problem of finding him somewhere to stay for the night, as it was late and they were at a considerable distance from home. Mr Fleuret was still pale and shaken and could not face a ride home, but he could just stand up. The streets were filling up with drunks as it was just after closing time. Therefore it was more pressing to get him indoors somewhere for the night.

They found a room each in a doss-house. The air-vent wouldn't shut properly in Tileshed junior's room, letting in a chilly draught and the radiator was inadequate. In the room was an old dressing-table, a wardrobe, a wooden chair, a single bed and a washing-basin with taps that didn't work. In fact, none of the taps on that whole floor worked and the toilets wouldn't flush, making the bathrooms even more fetid than usual. The walls were breezeblock; the cables ran down them in conduit. Pinned on the door was what appeared to be a makeshift calendar with some of the days crossed off as though someone had been counting down the days of his release from prison and below this on the door-frame was a small light over a push-button.

He was awakened in the middle of the night by a commotion coming from another part of the building. It sounded like someone breaking windows. He was too sleepy to wonder what it might be, but before going back to sleep he wondered if this sort of thing was regular.

His father's knock awakened him later in the morning.

'Shall we see if we can cadge some breakfast?' asked Tileshed senior.

'Did you hear the racket last night?'

'It sounded like somebody was being murdered, with all that screaming and shouting,' admitted Tileshed senior.

'Screaming and shouting? I didn't hear any of that. I just heard windows breaking--at least that's what it sounded like.'

'Ah, that was the second lot: there was more earlier on.'

While Tileshed senior was speaking, Tileshed junior was quietly getting dressed. When he was ready, they went down for breakfast, which they had been told was at 8.30, expecting Mr Fleuret to follow. In the dining area the cook was dishing out a few beans on half a slice of toast. There was a pot of tea on each table and that was the only adequate thing there. Even the people looked pale and half-starved. When they saw the size of their meals, they knew why. The tables catered for four, but they were lucky enough to find a table to themselves in the corner. They ate in silence, avoiding eye-contact with the other guests. Even those who seemed to have been there a long time did not have much to say, treating it as a solemn occasion. The Tilesheds at first assumed that the crust and the few beans they had been given must be their hors d'oeuvres as they could not see how anything as insubstantial could be called a breakfast, but they were surprised when they saw people leaving after they had eaten it, some taking mugs of tea upstairs with them. Their breakfast had been too meagre to do more than summon up their hunger, which they had to try to stave off by filling themselves with tea.

'It's a disgrace, those young children having to go to school on this. They must be permanently hungry and malnourished,' Tileshed junior could not help saying, rather louder than he anticipated.

'I quite agree,' Tileshed senior muttered over his weak tea. Though he agreed and always had a sympathetic ear to clients' problems, doing something about it was quite a different matter, and he would sooner have buried his head in the Daily Telegraph than look around at this.

When they finished, Mr Fleuret had still not come down, so they both went up to his room. The corridors were even more depressing than those of the mental hospital they had been in with Alexander.

What they saw when they reached him was astounding. Mr Fleuret lay of the bed nursing a black eye and whimpering. The dresser had been overturned and its half-moon mirror lay in shards on the floor.

'What on earth's happened?' asked Tileshed senior.

Alexander nodded cynically several times before answering with a tirade of obscenities. He said that he had got up in the middle of the night to find a toilet and when in the corridor, he was chased back into his room by a drunken Scotchman wielding a club.

'Could you recognize him again if you saw him?' asked Tileshed senior.

'Of course I could! I'd knock his fucking teeth out, if I did!' spat Mr Fleuret, who was not wearing any himself.

'Come on then,' urged Tileshed senior. 'Lets go to the office.'

'Where are we going?'

'To see somebody,' he replied rapidly, taking Mr Fleuret by the arm. 'We paid for a room, not a going over.'

'He chased me back to my room, Mr Tileshed. I tried to barricade myself in, but I didn't have time. He came in like a tornado,' said Alexander, to fire them up further.

They came across an old man wearing a cardigan and carrying a mug of tea upstairs. He looked at them in surprise.

'What are you doing in the corridors?' he asked, drawing closer to them and giving them a knowing look. 'Are you trying to make a run for it?'

'Make a run for what?' demanded Tileshed senior.

'From him! Mad Jock,' he answered in a harsh whisper, intimately fingering Tileshed senior's lapel and looking mainly at Tileshed junior.

'Is that who assaulted me last night?' Mr Fleuret cried out.

'You three couldn't have been on the Parish long though.'

'On what?'

'On the Parish. You must be guests in that case.'

'Of course we're guests,' snapped Mr Fleuret.

'The lucky ones, eh? I can't understand why he attacked you, though. He had no reason to.'

'What are you talking about?' Tileshed senior asked, but he was by this time already hurrying away.

Further down the stairs, they ran across a toothless old hag, who nearly fell over backwards on seeing them.

'Just a moment.' Tileshed junior caught up with her. 'Will you kindly tell me what's going on here?'

'You shouldn't be out. It's not your turn,' she croaked in some distress.

'Why not?'

'The lights aren't for you.'

'Lights? What lights? Do you mean astrology or something?' he said, cornering her as Tileshed senior and Alexander came up.

'The green light. We're not supposed to be out if it's not on. I can see what's happened to him,' she said, pointing at Mr Fleuret’s black eye.

'But why?'

'Because he needs us for our dole. He collects it for us. If we get out, he can't claim it for us any more, can he?'


'Mad Jock.'

'Let me get this straight: he imprisons unemployed people in here so that he can claim money for them. How does he do it? I didn't see a lock on any of the doors,' Tileshed senior said.

'Oh, he doesn't lock us in, but if he sees us wandering, he gets us, I can say,' she spluttered at him.

'What does he do?'

'He gets heavy with us.'

'What if someone's stronger than he is?'

'He's got heavies. You can't win,' she said resignedly.

'What do you do if you want to defecate or eat?'

'To what?'

'To shit,' Alexander explained indelicately.

'Oh, there are special times for that. We can only come out when the green light shows, or if it's really urgent, we can press the button, but he doesn't like that.'

'What does the button do?'

'It rings something in his office. I don't understand it. If our light comes on, it means we can come out.'

'And if not?'

'If not, we can't.'

'Couldn't you escape?' Alexander asked.

'We'd end up like you.'

'If you are referring to my visitation to the latrine last night, madam, I was unaware that it was clandestine.'

'Most of us wouldn't take the chance. We're happy enough where we are. What do we want to get out for? We've our own colour tellies and we get our meals.'

'Don't you ever go outside?'

'Why should we? We're safer in here than out there. We sign our Giros over to him and he takes care of the rest.'

'How much spending money does he give you?' inquired Tileshed junior.

'A tenner a week if we want food. Fifteen without.'

'Without food? How can you manage?' gasped Alexander.

'Oh, he lets us slip away to the soup kitchen now and then, if we leave him a bond.'

'The soup kitchen? Where's that?'

'It's a caravan run by nuns. They turn up every day in the park, and give out cups of soup and rolls of bread. It's better than what we get in here.'

'I've seen what you get in here. It's a disgrace. What do you do with the money he gives you? Do you buy food with it?' Tileshed senior asked.

The hag seemed to find this funny. 'Save it? You couldn't have been here long, could you? No, we plonk it up.'


'Buy plonk with it. He does most of our shopping. I'll have to go, or I'll have my head slapped if he sees me standing here talking to you.'

As they approached the office, the other two could tell that Tileshed senior was seething. They waited outside the office while he went in after a single knock. At last they heard shouting. Tileshed senior emerged, waving a piece of pink paper, which he said would get them past the bouncer on the door.

'What did he say?' they both demanded.

'He told me that the system operated for their own benefit. Everyone who went there was looking for peace, security and a room of his own. He said that there were few other places that could offer all that on the dole. The reason for the green light system was purely for their own convenience: a lot of them led such "straightforward" lives watching their fantasies being acted out on their tellies all the time that they had forgotten how to "communicate" with one another and feared bumping into their neighbours for lack of anything to say. He said that before the tellies were installed, it had really been bad because at least if the worst comes to the worst now and they do accidentally meet on the stairs, they can discuss what they watched on their tellies. He says the system's optional in any case--you don't have to wait for a "green" before you can come out.'

'What, according to him, happens if you walk out and there is no green?' Alexander inquired.

'Nothing, according to him. Just that if you do, you run the risk of bumping into somebody.'

'I bumped into somebody all right--or rather he bumped into me.'

'He's got infra-red sensors scattered all over. With them, he can tell if there's anybody where they shouldn't be. He says he put them in because people were walking out of the fire escape with his tellies. With them, he knows when to throw another green for somebody else awaiting clearance to come out. When you press the button on the door-post, you go into a stacking system. It's all computerised. All clever stuff.'

'You surely don't believe him, do you?' asked Mr Fleuret.

'Whether I do or not, there's little that can be done. We're out of it now.'

'Couldn't you persecute--er, I mean prosecute (Carl's got me at it now) him for assault and battery and grievous bodily harm?'

'How to prove it is the thing,' said Tileshed senior.

They continued to discuss it as they passed along rows of council houses and flats until they reached the top of a hill, where the road split into three; the way ahead was no more than a country road. The morning mist did not prevent them from seeing the hostel from where they had just come, looking ordinary in the valley below. Behind it, still shrouded in mist, was the house they had brought Alexander to and further back still, on the horizon, the caravan site of the Sunny People.

They carried straight on and after a difficult, upward trek, made it to a farmhouse standing on its own. A flock of seagulls circled in the sky above it making loud cries. At the side of the road was a crudely painted sign saying: 'Potatoes. Eggs. Seagulls. Kittiwake.'

'They've surely not taken to eating seagulls round here!' said Fleuret.

'It wouldn't surprise me. I've seen everything else round here. Let's see if we can buy ourselves something to eat. I'm starving,' said Tileshed junior.

They knocked hard at the front door, which was answered by an old woman with dyed blonde hair and a plastered face. She had her head tilted right back, as though looking at something in the sky directly above. Everyone looked up, but there was nothing to be seen except seagulls. They were about to ask her what she was looking at, but Tileshed junior nudged them and pointed to her eyes, which were closed.

'Ye-es?' she drawled.

'It's about your sign. We would like to buy some eggs.'

She slowly lowered her head, opened her eyes and stared at them. They were beginning to think her a madwoman when she said: 'I beg your pardon?'

'The sign you have there that advertises eggs and potatoes,' Tileshed junior explained.

'I have no such sign. I think you're just being cheeky,' she boomed.

'Madam, it's over there. You can see it,' Tileshed junior retorted.

'You've had your little joke,' she said, preparing to shut the door on them.

At that moment Alexander came staggering over with it like a sandwichboard man. 'Now do you believe us?' he shouted.

'Oh, the chauffeur will have put it there.'

'You owe us an apology,' Alexander blustered.

She looked at him as though he'd just called her indescribable names and said: 'I owe nobody an apology--least of all you.'

'Well, do you have any eggs?' Tileshed senior asked to change the subject; he was used to dealing with bored housewives.

'Any what?'

'Any eggs.'

'Oh, you'd better see the chauffeur about that. He'll most likely be round the back. Tell him I sent you.'

They went round the back and could see nobody until they peered into the grubby window of the shed, which was filthier than Morgan's.

Inside the shed was a glowing red square coming from a Calor gas fire that was full on. The light from it was just enough to illuminate a body lying on an old mattress, covered with a blanket. They hammered on the door and window. They were beginning to think it was a corpse until it stirred. It propped itself up with its elbow and was obviously startled to see three dark figures louring at it through the window. In a moment it sprang up and opened the door.

It was Norman.

'We were looking for food,' said Tileshed junior.

'Come in,' he answered. 'How did you all get on?'

'Not too well,' Alexander replied. Aided by Tileshed junior, he explained to Norman, who would occasionally throw back at them an outburst of his hyena laugh, what befell them at the hospital and the hostel.

'It wasn't as bad as that when I was there,' said Norman, with reference to the hostel, which was in what he called 'Giro City'. He did say that it was well known there that every week the cook used to order a hundred pounds' worth of food out of the £40 he was allocated, the rest going in his pocket.

At that moment a voice pierced the air.

'Butler! Butler! Come!'

'Is your name Butler?' asked Tileshed junior.

'No, it's not,' Norman replied sourly.

'Then who's she shouting for?' Mr Fleuret asked.



'Never mind--I'll tell you later,' he said as he got to his feet and went out.

When he returned, Mr Fleuret asked him again why she had shouted for 'Butler'. His reply was that she employed him as her butler.

'But she said you were her chauffeur a minute ago,' he insisted.

'I am her chauffeur, and her butler, and her handyman and her dog's body--all right?' Although Norman would laugh heartily at times, he was given to sudden changes of mood and bouts of sullenness and sharpness.

'She wants you to dine with her. She feels sorry for you without food,' said Norman.

When they went in, they found her sitting at the head of a small banqueting table--or at least that was what it was set up to look like.

'I just thought you'd like something before you go.' She was simpering and nodding her head augustly. She said Grace when they were seated and ordered Norman to bring in the food, still calling him Butler as he brought in four cups and saucers, a milk-jug, a sugar-bowl, a teaspoon, a teapot and four plates with a scone on each. The scones were finished before Norman had finished pouring out their tea, except hers, which she nibbled petitely. While they were waiting for the main course, she took great delight in talking about her son, who was studying at a 'Red Brick' university. Mr Fleuret piped up that he had also been to university, but that it was more of a grey concrete one, then he showered everyone with crumbs as he laughed. She was still keeping them waiting while she took her time with the scone. At last she sipped her tea and infuriated them by saying: ' Well, thank you all for coming. Now I must go and check if everything's all right,' as the bottom of her cup touched the saucer and Norman began clearing the table. She looked on in stony silence until it had all been cleared up and then rose, saying: 'Now you may go.' They all rose hesitantly, almost feeling themselves compelled to bow as they went out the way they had come in, through the kitchen, while she shuffled out through the other door.

When they were back in the shed, Norman resumed his drinking from where he had left off.

'Does she mind you drinking on duty?' inquired Tileshed senior.

Norman looked stunned. 'Mind? The old cow's got no say in it. I'm the only mug who'll put up with her. Her son left her because he couldn't stand the sight of her. She's sozzled herself all day long on gin. That's what she drinks. She's already had one burst artery through it. When she says she's going to check on the rooms, she wants you to believe that she's got a hard job looking after the house all on her own, to make you think I'm lazy. Her husband said she should have been a factory manageress instead of a meddling housewife, but she's really too pissed to do anything.'

'Where's her husband? Is he dead?' asked Tileshed junior.

'He's working in Saudi. I don't think he'll be coming back, though.'

'I must say, that "meal" wasn't up to much,' Alexander delivered. 'It was hardly worth going in for.'

'Especially when we had to listen to her prattling on about her son the whole time,' added Tileshed junior.

''Ere, you didn't think it was for your benefit why she gave you the scones, did you? She thinks it will earn her a place in Heaven.'

'What are all those seagulls doing round here, anyway? They must make a disgusting mess,' said Alexander.

'I'll tell you why she keeps those, shall I?' said Norman with a wink as he opened another can of cheap lager. 'She sells them.'

'I should be sick if I should try to eat one of those things,' Alexander said, grimacing.

'Who's talking about eating? You don't eat them,' Norman said,' laughing like tyres squealing. 'You wear them.'

'What? Do you mean stuffed on the shoulder like what's-his-name?'

'It's supposed to be a status symbol. The more seagulls' shit you've got over you, the more seagulls people think you've got. Those who are rich enough buy a kittiwake, because it's cry sounds like: "Get away!".'

I saw the sign advertizing one. Is there one here?' asked Tileshed junior.

'Yes, but she keeps it under lock and key. She's not supposed to have it, what with it being a wild bird like, but she even takes it out for walks on a piece of string.'

'How much is it worth?'

'Quite a bit, on the black market. I couldn't say for sure, but all the top knobs round here have one. Ah, but I can see what you're thinking. There's no chance of getting it. I've got my eye on it.'

'Oh, but I wasn't dreaming of stealing it,' Alexander protested.

'I bet you weren’t,' he added sarcastically.

'What kind of people round here have them?' inquired Tileshed junior.

'Only Lords, top Yuppies and people like that. Most ordinary Yuppies, farmers and other city gents only have seagulls. They wear them at seagull parties and dance shirtless when they're out on their country estates.'

'Listen, you seem like a decent fellow. You know that Morgan didn't get a chance to put a crew together?' said Tileshed senior.

'Too right he didn't.'

'I noticed when we were in the cellar, you knew a few of the others. Could you see if they want to make a bit of money?'

'They'll walk to Hell and back for the price of a bottle. Mind you, I wouldn't,' Norman put in, trying not to sell himself too cheaply. He told Tileshed he would do his best to track them down and where he could be reached.

'And don't forget to bring a seagull on your shoulder,' joked Alexander.


Chapter Seven

The next morning they were all back where they belonged, having found their bearings again. After a good night's sleep, Mr Fleuret was sent to the library to read up on ships, while Tileshed junior went to look for more crew.

Creame's suspicion had been aroused by the way in which Alexander's mother had left. He knew that Tort had become intolerable to live with: but what he did not understand was why she should want to exacerbate it. He had visited Alexander on the week she left and had caught her stuffing a toilet-roll into the lavatory bowl. When she saw him watching her, she reddened and explained that she was trying to fish it out after Tort had thrown him in; which, she said, was a habit of his. He was curious as to why she had purposefully stuffed it in--he had no doubt of this--and then had lied to him. He wondered how many other things that she had done and which Tort was blamed for. Was it that she felt guilty before leaving and was trying to justify it by demonstrating just how trying Tort could be? But she knew that if she was not there, the burden would fall on Alexander. Why didn't she put him in a home, instead of leaving it all to Alexander? Had she run off with somebody and if so, why just when this money was coming to Alexander?

Finding it impossible to fathom the way she thought, he decided that the next stop was to see Tort himself, instead of going with the Tilesheds to see the crew, which Patsy would be able to tell him about. Besides, his suspicion might become evident and so he excused himself, pleading a visit to Chilly with the tattooed ears to ask him to plaster Patsy's wall, which Alexander had blown a hole in with Patsy's gun.

Creame knew that Tort was keeping something secret. The notion arose upon their first meeting. The old dotard, upon being left alone with him and fearing that his wits were going fast and observing that Creame was one of the few sober, upright men who visited the house, took him by the arm and charged him with Alexander's care, saying that he would leave Alexander a secret in his will, the inklings of which he imparted to Creame. He was too incoherent at the time to be wholly understood, and they were disturbed before Creame could question him further.

At the old folks' home, Tort was very reticent, in spite of the bottle of rum that Creame had smuggled in for him. He wheeled him into the grounds where they were out of earshot of everyone and plied him with as much rum as possible. Details came very sparsely. They were these:-

While he was in the Navy he had once saved the life of a very important man under whom he had been serving and who later became a 'Big Cheese' in the DSS. In return, he let Tort into a secret, which Tort would not reveal until after his death; beyond implying that it was of critical constitutional importance. Creame had tried pandering further to the old goat but he couldn't learn more.

His next task was to get into the DSS to learn more. After several unsuccessful attempts, it was hinted that he would stand a better chance if he were disabled. As he didn't much care for the idea of intentionally disabling himself, he decided to feign disability. He went to the doctor, who was about eighty and half-blind, and informed him that he was suffering from palpitations of the heart, dizzy spells, hay fever and the recurrence of a strained groin injury he had sustained several years' ago while cycling. His records showed that he was a schizophrenic and granted him a sick note pronouncing him unfit for work. This was his passport into the DSS. The interview went swimmingly, as he pretended to misunderstand even the most straightforward questions and for the rest of the time, limited his answers to 'yes' or 'no'.

He got the job and found out that surprising procedures were carried on in there. The guidelines for the daily routine are given in the Appendix.

He also learned of the pyramidal structure of those civil servants. Those at the bottom were called Grunts; being employed as janitors, cleaners, security guards, etc. The typical security guard who stands at the door in readiness to evict troublesome claimants might be a grey-haired, bulky, sagging Army ex-cook. His personality would range from peevishly stupid to plain stupid.

Some civil servants in higher positions prefer not to consider Grunts within the main structure at all, and insist on treating them as an underclass, under which category the claimants also fall. Next come the Monkeys, who deal directly with the claimants. These act as shock troops and buffers. The ideal Monkey would have been a scapegoat and buffoon at school, the best training a Monkey can have. In triplicate, (ie one at each of the three cubicles) they can be referred to as a Stooge, the Stooge being the basic unit for battle formation with the public. All assume a cold dullness as a defence against the public, as is their refusal to give their names, or their standard reply of, 'I'm sorry. There's nothing I can do,' meaning 'no'.

They can be dull, overgrown schoolboys who, though not academics, have been honoured as monitors at school. A female would have an overbearing attitude that would render her hard and unapproachable.

Next come the Flunkies. Flunkies are the lowest tier in Unemployment Benefit Offices and come immediately above the Monkeys in Social Security departments. With the Flunky comes the first significant manifestation of pride, for they are above Monkeys, but still only office juniors and whipping-boys. They are Clerical Officers (CO) or Clerical assistants (CA). A CA is the whipping-boy of a CO and as such is a Flunky’s Flunky. A CA is a greasy, podgy lump of dough scarcely out of puberty.

The lowest level of management is the Executive Officer (EO).

The Supervisor, if a woman (and they usually are) is a Hen. She does everything topsy-turvy, such as filing new claims in an old claims section. Her underlings have to put up with this because they are not allowed to ask 'why?'. She is married with two children, living on a new estate and is starving herself to pay off a crippling mortgage in a quarter of a century's time, by which time we could all be blown to pieces anyway. She is a catalogue agent and organizes Tupperware parties. She talks always of her children. She knows something of the DSS Procedure Manual, but only in a superficial, hotchpotch way, and likewise can operate the computer but talks of it as if she knew how it worked down to chip level. However, she breaks down when it breaks down. She is sour-faced, thin and seedy and does not have an identifiable sense of humour, though she toadies to her superiors and is chatty to her favourites, who are robots. She is a failed primary school teacher, and less compassionate. Everyone must rush off their work in the morning so they can sit around doing nothing in the afternoon.

She is responsible to a manager. He is typified by a bald, cholesterol-sodden, red-nosed prig. He struts about in the office singing one morning and hectoring everybody the next. Out of respect, at this level nicknames peter out, but he is still known sometimes among his juniors as 'The Pig'.

Little is known about the people who decide claimants' benefits, ie the Adjudication Officers, both local (AO) and Regional (RAO), as there is only one to a building and he spends most of his time locked away in a back office on the top floor. They work on their own for most of the time and are not disturbed as long as they get through their quota. At times their very existence has been doubted, especially the RAOs, who have never been sighted at all. If the local AO has a problem with a claim, he will 'refer up' to the RAO. This does not mean he actually sees him, or even gets to speak to him, or sees any of his handwriting. A letter of inquiry is despatched to the office and a typed reply is returned. The notepaper is headed in red embossed cursive letters: 'From the Regional Adjudication Officer,' which provide the only indication as to its author. (Lately, however, it has become increasingly common to use computer printouts. This sparked off the Three Hours War, a bitter feud between the traditionalist RAOs and other, progressive movements within the system. An uneasy compromise resulted, but nobody was sure what it was.)

Shortly after he started work for the DSS, Creame was informed of what happened when the Tilesheds and Mr Fleuret had gone to see the crew. Patsy had 'been detained' by an argument in the Barrel Inn, in which he had got somebody who had upset him in the toilets by the scruff of the neck and held his knee up to his genitals, saying: 'Move and you'll make my day, Sonny'. Patsy had called on the Tilesheds before he saw Creame and had been told that they were still short of a crew. Creame, who was always on the make, decided how he could use the situation to his advantage.

There were five clerks at the DSS on a Youth Training Scheme, who were due to leave. In their last week he told them that he could find them jobs if they paid him a fiver each; which they did. There was one other condition, he told them: it was to note down anything suspicious, extraordinary or bizarre and bring it to his attention, both in that job and in the one he was to find them.

When Patsy informed Creame they were still looking for a crew, he told him to go back and tell the Tilesheds to call at the DSS offices. There they would find what they were looking for.

A large glass tower was in the street Mr Patsy had told Mr Tileshed junior to go down. He stopped at the main entrance where, beneath the official sign of ‘Department of Social Security,’ he saw a hand-written notice that read: ‘Civil Servants for Sail/Sale. Good Value. Previous Experience at Sea. Good Value. Apply here.’

At first he thought it was an odd joke, but as he walked on he thought a little more about it. There was probably a surfeit of them--a civil servants’ mountain--because of ‘rationalization’. There were some with ‘previous’ experience at sea--as though they could have future experience! He could buy them from the DSS cheaply and save on the cost of advertising. With this idea he returned to the big building, which looked like a huge, upended fish-tank, probably full of tiddlers. In the foyer, he stopped at a notice board on which was pinned a poem. It read:

‘Filthy Rich

They harvest our wheat and give us the chaff;

They eat all our meat and throw us the fat;

They zoom past in cars and push us on kerbs;

They farm all our land and use us as serfs;

They skim off our cream and let us eat whey;

They pollute our streams and burn off our hay;

They chain us in laws and deny us our say;

They started all wars and spit where we lay.’

‘You’ve got a notice outside--,’ he said to the security guard.

‘Yes, that’s right. You’re interested in it, are you? Just a minute. I’ll get someone.’ He spoke into an intercom by the door: ‘I’ve got a man interested in your sign.’ Presently he nodded and came back. ‘Have a seat, please. He’ll be out to see you shortly.’

Through a set of double doors he could see miserable people, young and old, loafing about, staring at the tiles on the floor. There were screaming kids everywhere. He was glad he did not have to wait in there.

After a few minutes, a well-groomed young man emerged from a door that was partially obscured by a big potted plant.

As he strolled over suavely, Tileshed junior was at once struck by his incongruous attire. He was dressed like a civil servant, in black shoes, grey flannel trousers, white shirt, grey tie and neatly combed ginger hair and moustache, but why he was wearing a top hat and tails, was beyond Tileshed.

‘We’ll adjourn to the back, sir, if you don’t mind,’ he said, laying a friendly arm on Tileshed’s and ushering him through with, ‘Mind the plant. I really should use the other door.’

They proceeded down a carpeted corridor and stopped at a door near the end. Tileshed junior was intrigued. The door had a star on it and a sign reading ‘Damien Creame. Training Officer.’

Once inside, Tileshed junior recognized the face and said: ‘We’ve met before, haven’t we?’

‘That wasn’t me. It was someone else.’

‘Yes, we have met. It was in the car with Fleuret. You had a beard then and anyway, I recognized your name on the door. Why are you behaving like this and how come you get away with it?--Oh, I get it: you’re trying to get yourself paid off, is that it?’

Creame studied him then said: ‘No, that’s not it. I’m trying to stay here, if the truth be known.’

Tileshed junior glanced round the small room: at the playing cards stacked into houses on the desk; at the Newton’s cradle that was still swinging; at the magic wand beside it; and at the old film-bills of Clark Gable on the wall and then he laughed.

‘You think you’re in a respectable job now, do you? My, how things have changed. Somebody would turn in his grave now if he knew.--It sounds like they’re having a party upstairs.’

‘They are, every Friday.’

‘That’s no excuse.’

Creame stared back. ‘All right, I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll come clean with you, since we know each other.’

‘You denied it a minute ago.’

Creame swallowed hard. ‘I’ve had a few in for an interview today. The Boss says I’ve got to find a replacement. We’re all here on ET, you know.’

‘Does that mean you let inexperienced youths loose on people’s benefits?’

‘This is it. Now, the thing is, I’ve got five young lads leaving at the end of the week. They’re as good as gold. We don’t want them to go, but they’ve done their stint and we can’t keep them on.’

‘Why not?’

‘It’s rules. The government says so. They’re outside now. Should I bring them in so that you can have a look at them? You’d be doing the young lads a favour by taking them on. After this week, they’ll be back on the Monkey.’

He went out and came back with five young men, all aged about eighteen, in grey suits. He ordered them to line up against the wall. Before Tileshed could object, he was leaving the room, adding: ‘I’ll let you get on with it. Ask them anything you like. I’m going for a cup of tea. I’ll be back shortly.’

‘Wait! What am I supposed to do with them?’

‘Interview them, play cards with them--throw them out of the window, if you like.’

‘All the better, in that case.’

Tileshed junior was nervous. If there were just one of them, he wouldn’t have minded, but five strangers in grey suits lined up against the wall would have unnerved anybody, he thought. To mask his unease, he reclined back on his plastic chair, crossing one leg over the other and setting away the Newton’s cradle.

‘What an odd place you have here!’

They stood staring blankly ahead of them, not moving. They were similar, with straight and neat hair with the exception of one, who had very long, loutish, ginger hair, a moustache and depressed shoulders that drooped like his moustache. Their faces gave nothing away in lieu of their silence. He offered them a cigarette but none responded; not even the flicker of an eyelid escaped any of them.

He jumped out of his chair, paced up to the one at the end and said: ‘What’s your name?’

‘Robins, sir.’

‘And what’s yours?’ he asked the others each in turn. Each answered him respectfully if tersely, except for the long-haired lout at the end, who said: ‘I want a solicitor.’

Tileshed smirked. ‘I thought I might have trouble out of you.’ At that moment the door opened and Creame re-entered.

‘How’s it going?’

‘I can’t get a word out of them. What are you pushing on me--a bunch of dummies?’

Creame drew a deep breath, held it until he started to go purple and paced back and forth in front of them, taking big, exaggerated steps like John Cleese. He gave them a dressing-down and told them that they should try to be more civil to Mr Tileshed, who was in a position to offer them real jobs. He turned to Tileshed and bade him to try again. This time their answers were much more forthcoming as each related his own curriculum vitae. One had been a ledger clerk for a shipping company on a week’s work experience and another had been in the Merchant Navy and another had done a stretch in the Royal Navy until he had tired of going to so many different countries and his parents had bought him out; the other two had been on a chummy canoeing holiday in Scotland.

‘Are these all you’ve got?’ asked Tileshed junior. He would have preferred sea-dogs.

‘The thing is, older men wouldn’t be as able-bodied and they can’t swim as fast.’

‘We only need them for a short time,’ said Tileshed, wondering what swimming had to do with it.

‘Even so, they’ll take lower wages and ask fewer questions than if they were older.’

‘All right. You said," For sale" in the sign--.’ Tileshed junior was quickly muffled by violent coughing from Creame, who motioned him to be quiet. Then, taking him aside, he said: ‘They don’t like being talked about in that way. It makes them feel cheap. I’ll accept a tenner each for them. I’ll need to buy the poor lads something before they leave and maybe even give them something to tide them over. There’s one with holes in his shoes. I gave him a copy of the Regulations to line them with.’

‘Fifty quid the lot? The most I’ll give you is twenty.’



‘Done. Mind no cheques. I don’t have a bank account. I’ll mark their cards up as soon as I can. Now, it’s a straightforward job from here. I’m going to give you five EC1 forms to take over to the JobCentre. They’re already filled in, so all you have to do is hand them in. Got it?’

‘Why can’t they take them over themselves?’

‘Because they’re still supposed to be working for me, alright?’

‘But I thought they were now working for me.’

‘They are, from next week.’

‘Oh, very well,’ said Tileshed junior wearily.

‘Go in and give them to whoever’s at the desk and just say these are for the five people starting work.’

Tileshed junior sauntered over to an empty desk in the JobCentre. He had been sitting in front of it, looking about him nervously, but when nobody came, he got up and went over to a woman at another desk, who was reading out job descriptions to an applicant.

‘Is there anyone in charge of that desk over there?’ he asked authoritatively.

She shot him a steely glare and replied coldly, ‘If there’s nobody there, then probably not.’

‘Then why hasn’t it got a sign on it saying "closed"?’

‘Excuse me, but I’m before you,’ interrupted an old woman, who had stepped forward from the queue behind him.

He could do nothing but wander humbly to the back and wait his turn behind some kids. While he was waiting in the queue, he heard a ‘Restart’ interview in progress, the biannual effort of ‘easing’ people into work.

‘Thanks for coming,’ the girl behind the desk was saying to the middle-aged unemployed man. ‘Do you realize that if you hadn’t turned up, your benefit would have been stopped?’

‘Why are you telling me that? I’m here now, aren’t I?’ he grumbled with all due sharpness. Though the interviewer couldn’t have been more than eighteen, she was leaning forward provocatively showing her breasts. She seemed to enjoy asserting herself.

After the preliminaries were dealt with, she asked him what he was interested in doing. He replied that he had tried to become an inspector for the RSPCA, but he needed a driving licence, which he didn’t have. She asked him if he had ever thought of working in the stables on ET.

‘You mean shovelling shit, don’t you?’ he retorted. ‘How is that supposed to train me?’

‘It would show that you were interested in working with animals,’ she replied.

‘Let’s face it, what good would it do me? I bet you wouldn’t do it,’ he protested.

The next bright idea she had for him was to suggest he went on a course to gain a HGV licence in nine weeks. She didn’t even realize that, even if this length of time was not ridiculously short in itself apropos, it was necessary not only to be in possession of an ordinary driving licence, but to have had it for at least a year before putting in for an HGV. As the bloke rightly pointed out when she told him he would also learn related skills like loading and sheeting, they would only be concerned with making him graft all week, loading stuff onto the wagons and if they had to, they would put him through his test with a minimum of training and not care whether he passed or failed. Even so, which company would be daft enough to let a newly-qualified driver with no experience loose on its £30,000 rig?

When it was Tileshed’s turn in the queue, he sat before another desk and began by asking why there were so many desks.

‘Because we don’t have enough staff to fill them,’ was the curt reply.

He saw the irony of this, in a JobCentre.

‘I want to hand these in,’ he said, casually throwing over the five forms.

‘What are they?’ she asked.

‘Why don’t you look at them and find out,’ he replied in a severe, mocking tone.

‘There’s no need to be like that about it,’ she snapped back.

He was reminded of Andrea, the secretary in his father’s office, whom he was sure his father had hired for her looks above efficiency. She would come and go whenever she pleased and she even had the audacity to receive private calls at work from her boyfriend. Whenever her boyfriend telephoned her at the office and Tileshed senior answered, he would patiently hold out the handset and cant, ‘It’s for you’; to which she would reply, ‘Who is it?’, instead of just taking the call and finding out.

The woman in front of him was flicking apprehensively through the forms he had beset her with.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said at last, looking up. ‘These are for five different people.’

‘Yes, they would be different--the people--if there are five of them. Or could they be clones, perhaps?’

‘Why have you brought me forms for five different people?’ she persisted.

‘Because I was told to do so by a man from the DSS. He said that all I had to do was to bring them here and you would stamp them, or something.’

‘It’s no good, they’ll have to bring them in themselves--and whoever told you that doesn’t know what he’s talking about.’

‘Do you expect me to tramp all the way back, find them and to bring each one here personally?’

‘I can’t take them otherwise.’

‘Don’t you think that could be just a bit cumbersome and inexpedient? Does it take five people to do what one could do easily? Anyhow, they can’t do that and neither can I: they can’t get here and I’m a busy man.’

‘Why can’t they get here themselves?’

‘They’re working.’

‘Well, if they’re working, they won’t need these,’ she said, thrusting the forms back at him.

‘Won’t need them? Are you sure?’

Tileshed hesitated for a while. When he got up to leave, he muttered, ‘I wish I’d known.’

At the DSS building where Creame worked, he noticed three civil servants standing outside the entrance. They were trying to eat their dinners, which seemed to be meat pies. The pies were steaming hot and because of this, more ended up on the ground than in their mouths. They would have found it easier trying to eat boiling mud with chopsticks.

‘Silly buggers,’ he murmured under his breath as he went in. He asked for Creame and was told that he’d gone to lunch. He waited for him in the main waiting-room, the one he had dreaded to wait in, but fortunately it was less populated than in the morning. Most of the people there at that time were waiting for emergency payouts. A ticket system operated and eventually the numbers began to roll over as everyone was attended to and a Monkey from behind the shields called out: ‘Is everybody happy--are you all being seen to?’ As nobody went forward, Tileshed junior ventured to go over and sit at a kiosk.

‘I was sent over to the JobCentre with a load of forms and they told me to come back here. What are they?’

‘Let’s have a look,’ the Monkey said as Tileshed junior put them in the tray below the screen. ‘Oh, it looks like an EC1. You’ll need an A7.’

‘How do I get one of those?’

‘Right, you’ll have to go along to the Unemployment Benefit Office. Where do you live?’

‘Just over the water, but what’s that got to do with it?’

‘I’m sorry, then, but you’ve got the wrong office: it’s the other one you want.’

‘Listen, I get the feeling that I’m being sent from pillar to post. I just won’t put up with it. I want to see the manager,’ Tileshed junior said hastily.

‘I’m sorry, but I can’t do that.’

‘Why not?’

‘Because it’s not our policy.’

‘Let me have your name, in that case.’

‘I can’t do that, either, sir.’

‘Damn you! You’re a public servant, aren’t you? I’m paying taxes for you. It’s the only place I know of where I’m not allowed to complain. Give me your name. I’m going to have you.'

‘I’m sorry, but I can’t,’ the Monkey persisted.

‘Can’t? You mean won’t. Why won’t you?’

‘Because it could lead to reprisals.’

‘That screen might save you for the time being, but it won’t stop me, the way I’m going to do it,’ he shouted, storming out. Some of the claimants were sniggering.

He went round to the nearest Unemployment Benefit Office listed in the Phone Book and asked them for a form A7. The Unemployment Benefit Office was much smaller than the gigantic and much more impersonal DSS building and the atmosphere wasn’t quite as tense. There was not a security screen to be seen.

He was told that he couldn’t have a form A7 until he signed off.

‘How do I do that?’ he asked the clerk at the counter.

‘You’ll need to send us your dole card.’

‘How do I get a dole card?’

‘You have to be signing on.’

‘How do I sign on?’

‘Are you out of work?’

‘Certainly not!’

‘Then you can’t sign on. You need to go to the DSS to claim Income Support.’

‘But I’ve just come from there and they’ve sent me here.’

‘Well, I’m sorry. There’s nothing I can do. It’s all in their hands. They tell us what to do and we do it.’

He finally managed to track Creame down.

‘Oh, you’ve gone up a blind alley there. They must have thought you wanted to sign on. Why didn’t you tell me?’

‘Because I didn’t know where the hell you were. Ah, but I want you to do me a small favour. There’s a little pen-pusher behind the counter in the middle cubicle. He was very brusque with me. I want you to do him. Do you understand?’

‘Of course. I’ll see to it. He’s in for a rough time anyway, if it’s the one I’m thinking of, but just to make sure, I’ll send someone in to rearrange his files before he turns up for work in the morning. That’ll throw him. It’ll put him back at least a week.’

‘Good--and if ever you need a divorce, you know where to come, don’t you?’

‘I think I might need to get married first.’

‘Tell me something: why do they need to have screens up in there?’

‘It’s to stop people from hitting them. Those at the cubicles are just shock absorbers between those out there and us in here. They carry the can.’

‘But the Unemployment Benefit Office doesn’t have them.’

'No, because they don’t make the decisions about who gets what. They just end up sending them all to us. We get the rough end of the stick every time. Besides, people on Unemployment Benefit aren’t terminally unemployed, since Unemployment Benefit only runs for six months maximum and then they go on to Social Security. We get some real neck-enders in here saying they haven’t got a bot to live on. They take offence at the word ‘no’, so we just don’t say it; we just tell them we’re sorry. It’s psychology. They find it harder to get upset at this.'

Chapter Eight

Some miles away, Mr Fleuret was engrossing himself in the reference library, reading about the Roman general, Scipio Africanus, having tired many hours ago of reading about ships, the original reason for his visit. Suddenly he snapped shut the book and hurried out, muttering. He had a plan, the effecting of which necessitated a visit to a second-hand music store he had passed on the way there.

He got what he was looking for fairly soon. It had given him the idea when he sighted it in the window on his way to the library. He had been turning it over in his mind ever since and now he emerged from the shop carrying a big brown parcel, which he took to the park, where he knew there was a quiet bench hemmed in by shrubs. Every Monday when he took a taxi to the town to shop in Mark’s and Spencer’s and to scout about for morphine, he sat there, finding it very relaxing. He had fed the birds there every day in his lunch hour when he worked at the museum nearby.

He tore the brown wrapping of a set of bagpipes. After giving it careful consideration, he decided which pipe should go where. He put the blow-pipe to his mouth after wiping it with his handkerchief, grabbed at the bourdons with both hands and blew hard. The bag began to inflate and a sound like a deflating balloon escaped. He tried wrestling the bag into other unlikely combinations and tried to blow through each of the pipes in turn, but the most he could get out of it was a discordant whine.

Soon a crowd enveloped him, finding what he was doing much more exotic than walking their dogs. A few began to make suggestions as to where the bourdons should go, while children were prodding and pulling at the bag and tittering. After getting no more than a series of chanters and skirls from it which sounded even worse than Carl snoring, he gave up and stormed off, trailing it behind him.

This appealed to the dogs, for they ceased their frolics on the grass and tagged along. In keeping with the human population the smallest of the pack, a yapping Yorkshire terrier with a face like a half-eaten mince pie, plucked up the courage to attack the bag. This acted as a cue for the rest of them. Mr Fleuret tried to wrench the bagpipes away, but in doing so, aided their destruction. While their growling pets shook the bag, the owners converged on them in trying to control them. One middle-aged man with a chain-lead began to whip his big black dog. Another man kicked his. The Yorkie belonged to a fat old woman, who was last on the scene. She made a feeble attempt to unlock her dog from the bag by spanking its ugly, wet, quivering nose with a force too small to even make it sneeze. While she was giving it its worst punishment for years, she harangued the other owners for their cruelty, compounding the confusion. Finally, Mr Fleuret released the bagpipes and giving them one almighty kick, stormed off screaming.

It had been his intention to lead a procession, playing the bagpipes to rekindle clannish pride. Undaunted, he hired a sporran, kilt and bearskin and slinked into a toilet cubicle to change.

When he was ready, he unlocked the door and passed the men standing at the urinals. They could not believe their eyes. He held up his banner, which read: ‘Alexander needs you. Join his crew,’ and began to march with a solemn expression, handing out leaflets he had printed specially. These read:

‘Expedition to Egypt.

An expedition is to be arranged in a war ship in the style of the seventeenth century Anno Domini. All those interested in joining should follow the procession for an ad hoc meeting.’

Without consulting the authorities or the police, he began to march on his own down the middle of the High Street, holding up the traffic. He managed to congest the whole of the town centre before he was stopped by the police. Horns were sounded on all sides from cars at a standstill and several angry drivers were for getting out of their cars and thumping Mr Fleuret. A crowd had gathered on the pavement to jeer at him. People leaned out of office windows or came to their office and shop doorways. The police intervened just as a riot was about to break out and they manhandled him away to a quiet corner for a word. He began to rail at them and raise his arms, causing him to come within a hair’s breadth of arrest, much to the amusement of the crowd.

He insisted on his democratic rights and threatened retributory action if he was not allowed to continue unmolested: he was going to write to the Queen and the Chief Constable. Despite the fecundity and earnestness of his threats, he was issued with another stern warning to ‘scoot’, which he heeded not too soon and crept away.

Whilst Mr Fleuret was verbally grappling with the Law and Tileshed junior was looking for a crew, Tileshed senior had been to check on how the ship was coming along. As it was an enormous task, it had not been without its setbacks and work on it was running late. Tileshed senior had all this related to him over the telephone. Even finding a shed big enough to hold it had been hard. Eventually this problem was solved by building the masts remotely and uniting them with the hull at the final stage. He arranged to view it the following day at six o’ clock.

Satisfied at this, he decided to repair to a friend’s house for the rest of the day.

It was already dark when he drove to the large, rural house. The stuccoed front was interspersed with pillars in Regency style. He telephoned his wife on the way. She also was a solicitor and away on business.

His friend’s house was well-situated for a keen golfer, being right on the edge of a golf course. Often they would use the club bar. Had it not been dark, they would have played but Tileshed didn’t arrive until after nine o’ clock.

He was surprised to find his friend’s house in darkness. Usually there was an outside light on. Curious, he parked his car on the road outside the gates to the drive, switched off the lights and walked towards the house. The crunch of his leather soles on gravel was irrepressible so he moved onto the verge, in the shadow of a row of privets lining one side of the drive. Behind this was a low wall, over which a street light shone through the swaying trees. He kept in shadow all the way up the drive. There was a rustling and a cracking of branches somewhere ahead. At first he thought it was a roosting bird he had disturbed. Something was moving in the trees near the house. A dark shape was gliding swiftly along. Suddenly he encountered a man in a greatcoat with an upturned collar, holding something poised over his head. It was a knife.

‘Don’t move,’ he threatened gruffly.

Tileshed remained calm.

The man was in partial silhouette, with only one side of him illuminated by the street light. From what Tileshed could see, he was about forty years’ old, unshaven and dishevelled. All in all, he looked like a desperate man.

‘We thought we’d find you here.’

‘What do you think you’re doing?’

‘Where’s the other one--the one who was with you today?’

‘Who? I’ve...I’ve been with a number of people today.’

‘You know who: the one in the Cowie shop.’

‘Please, I don’t know who you are or what you want, and I don’t understand what you’re saying.’

‘Maybe we’d better step inside, then, and have a little chat. Would that suit you? I’m sure it would! Get over there by that door, Rubbish!’

Tileshed did as he was told. Still holding the knife, the stranger kicked open the door, shattering several small panes as it banged against the wall in the darkened hall, setting off the burglar alarm.

‘Good. That’s exactly what I wanted. Now get inside.’

Tileshed complied with this and switched on the hall light as ordered. Next he was ordered to switch on every light in the house and the television, radio, record player and anything else electrical. At first, Tileshed thought he must be scared of the dark, but shortly he announced his intention of having a party. The heavy way he had of breathing through his nose was the way a madman would breathe after tiring himself out through convulsions in a strait-jacket. He was a thin, furtive man with a maniacal stare and a meagre grin.

‘You must excuse my breathing,’ he shouted at Tileshed, as if reading his thoughts. ‘I suffer from pneumoconiosis. I worked as a miner for years before the civil service took me out of charity, being disabled and good for nothing else,’ he delighted in informing Tileshed.

‘That’s all right. Why are you doing this, though? What have I done to you?’

‘I’ve been given six weeks to live. Before I go, I’m going to have a party and you’re invited. Now, get up and dance.’

‘You...you want me to...to dance?’ he said at last.

‘Yes, I want to see you up and dancing by the time I count to three. If you’re not, I’ll stick this knife in your guts. Got the picture?’

The spectacle of the old solicitor jiving about would have made anybody laugh, in less hostile circumstances. The knifeman held his fixed, stony stare, but occasionally darting his eyes around him and his breathing grew more laboured by the minute. As soon as the record he had put on had finished, he shouted: ‘Right, sit over here. Now, as it’s a party, we must have a drink, mustn’t we? What would a party be without a drink, eh? I’m sure there’ll be a drink around here somewhere,’ he said as he strolled round looking for the drinks’ cabinet. The record he insisted on playing over and over was I Can’t Get No Satisfaction by the Rolling Stones. When he found the drinks’ cabinet, he swept most of the glasses it contained smashing onto the floor. A bottle of port in a wicker basket remained intact.

‘Ah, what have we got here? You like port, don’t you?’

‘I don’t like port,’ Tileshed replied tetchily.

‘Well, you’re going to have some, all the same. Here,’ he said, splashing it over him. Now drink.’

Tileshed took the bottle and drank some reluctantly.

‘That’s right: now have a bigger swig.’

After Tileshed had hesitantly complied, he retrieved the bottle from him and drank half of it in one go.

‘Do you know why I’m here?’

‘I haven’t the slightest idea.’

‘I was sent. Do you see this knife? I can throw it with deadly accuracy. Have a good look at it, feel it.’ He put it against Tileshed’s throat, grazing him. ‘It’s sharp, isn’t it?’

‘Why are you putting me through this? If you’ve got a grievance, why don’t you just tell me what it is?’

‘I’ve got a grievance, all right. I’ve got a few. First you handled my wife’s divorce and she killed herself.’ He swallowed hard and seemed disturbed before continuing: ‘I’ve never forgiven myself for that. I’ve not got long myself now, so when the DSS wanted a fall guy, I volunteered.’

‘You volunteered for what?’

‘For this. To come here, to put the fear of God into you and ask you a few questions.’

‘You’ve managed to do two of those,’ said Tileshed dryly.

‘Where’s the skinny dark-haired one in the suit who was with you today? He was at the DSS.’

As it was against his grain to disclose information gained by way of his profession or which might put others at risk, he decided to sit it out and say as little as possible. The description fitted his son, though he knew nothing about any visit to the DSS.

‘You’ll have to be more precise,’ Tileshed replied, stalling for time. ‘I don’t know anyone who’s been to the DSS today--or if they have, then I’m not aware of it.’

‘Look, somebody you were seen with was at our place today, trying to buy off our staff and giving one of the buffers a hard time. My boy is going to be shipped off to Egypt, and I’m just supposed to take that!’


‘The Buffers: the ones who have to tell the public about the decisions those upstairs have taken and take the blame.’

‘I promise you that I know nothing about it, but if you’ll trust me, I’ll see what can be done.’

‘That’s not good enough. I’m taking you hostage until my boy gets his old job back. You’re going to phone the Big Cheese and tell him that--and I’m not talking bloody RAOs, either. I mean the man at the top. Get over there to that phone and dial the number I tell you.’

When he read out the first digit, Tileshed rapidly dialled the first number that came into his head, which was Creame’s and got through to an answering machine. Her managed to leave his number and say that he had been taken hostage before the knifeman cut him off.

‘Now dial the right number. It doesn’t bother me if somebody comes. I’d prefer it. Try again and don’t spoil it this time, or I’ll spoil you. When somebody answers, ask for Newton.’ He eased the knife away from Tileshed’s throat but kept it close to his body.

This time he did what he was told. A moment later he found himself timidly asking for Newton. He covered the mouthpiece and told the civil servant they wanted to know who was calling.

‘Tell him that it’s not important to him to know, but that it’s a matter of life and death.’

Tileshed relayed this.

‘He told me to hold on,’ he said with a bleak shrug of the shoulders. At last another, firm voice came on and told him to be more precise. At this, the civil servant lost patience and snatching the handset from Tileshed, said: ‘Hello? I want to speak to Newton and to no one else. Just tell him that I’m holding someone hostage and he’s got precisely two hours to live if I can’t get no satisfaction.’ He laughed and hung up.

Creame heard the message left for him by Tileshed when he got home from work. Alexander paid him a visit just as he was trying to figure out what to do. Alexander was saying he wanted to tour the historic sites and monuments of the British Isles before the voyage, in case anything should happen to him and he wanted Creame to drive him there. He knew at least that Creame was a safe driver, but he told Creame that if anything happened to him, he wanted to be buried at sea in his best pin-striped suit wrapped in the Union flag; upon which, Creame eagerly offered to do the job while he was alive.

Creame telephoned Tileshed junior and told him about the strange message. Tileshed junior said that he would ring up his father’s house while Creame telephoned the number given by Tileshed senior on the answerphone. Creame got through to the house where he was unlawfully imprisoned. It was the knifeman who answered.

‘Hello, Newton?’

‘Who?’ said Creame.

‘Look Newton, I’m holding a solicitor at knife-point and I’ll kill him if you don’t talk. His name is Tileshed. Do you want a word with him?’

‘Er, yes, put him on.’ Tileshed came on. ‘Hello Tileshed. Are you all right, old chap? Can he hear me?’

‘Er, fine....No, I don’t think so. I’ve been kidnapped, though.’

‘Good. Listen, it’s me, Damien Creame. Don’t worry. I’m a-coming to bust you out.’ That was all he had time to say, for at that, the civil servant broke in with: ‘Is that good enough for you, Newton?’

‘Er, yes: what’s on the agenda?’

‘I want all civil servants in the office where I work to be guaranteed a job for life and I want you to get rid of the management.’

‘Sure. No problem. Now will you let him go?’

‘I...I want you to send a courier over here with a written guarantee,’ said the knifeman, unable to believe that his demands were being complied with so facilely.

‘Of course.’

‘I’ll tell you where I am. But just a minute. You haven’t asked where I am referring to. What’s your 'phone number?’

‘I’m ringing from a payphone.’

‘I’m sure I recognize your voice.’

‘Well goodbye. It’s been nice talking to you,’ with that Creame hung up. He told Alexander and Tileshed junior what was going on and they arranged to meet up with Tileshed junior at the house. Tileshed junior recognized the house from the telephone number as belonging to a friend of his father’s. Creame rushed with Alexander to his work van.

He drove at breakneck speed and Alexander begged him to slow down. After taking numerous wrong turnings and ending up in a few farmers’ fields, he arrived there to find that Tileshed junior had beaten him to it. Now he knew what Scott felt like. Tileshed junior was standing in the drive, watching the house.

‘What do you suggest?’ he asked Creame.

‘I thought you would have been in there by now.’

‘I’ll go and get help,’ volunteered Alexander, eager to be out of the way of danger. He decided to try the golf club bar.

As he walked in he heard people sniggering.

‘Help! Somebody get the police. There’s a man being held at knifepoint in the house over the road!’

‘It’s that nutter again who stopped all the traffic in the town,’ he heard someone say. Thus he lost all credibility. The more earnestly he begged them to be taken seriously, the more they laughed at him. At the finish, the whole circuit had erupted into vivacious laughter and he was ordered out.

‘I’ll show them, bastards!’ Outside, he picked up a half-brick and hurled it through the window.

By this time Creame and Tileshed junior were creeping up the side of the drive as had done Tileshed senior earlier that evening. Tileshed junior was brandishing a tiny blade. It was part of a free gift keyring and Creame called it a ‘pig-stabber’.

‘What should we do?’ Tileshed junior asked Creame again.

‘We could drive a car through the front window, Mr T,’ Creame suggested flippantly.

‘As long as it’s yours and not mine.’

‘No chance,’ muttered Creame, as though it were a serious proposition. He valued his car almost as highly as himself.

‘I’ve got some tools in the back of the work van from when I used to be an electrician. I could cut of the juice.’


‘Easy. I just walk in the door, find the main fusebox and pull all the fuses out.’

‘Then we storm the house?’

‘Just a minute,’ Creame went to his van and was gone quite a while. When he came back, his face was blackened, he was wearing a Rambo-style headband and carrying a toolbox. Behind him there came a clamour.

‘Stay back, you bastards! I’ve got a knife and I’ll use it,’ a gruff voice threatened from within.

Inside, the civil servant was reclining on a chair and smoking a cigarette whilst Tileshed senior was perched on the couch at the base of a pile of furniture against the door as a barricade. Tileshed senior had tried to reason with him at every opportunity but he got nowhere and was eventually told to hold his tongue before it was cut out. The knifeman pointed out that he had listened to too many do-gooders like him before and that it had got him nowhere.

‘We know you’re in there. You can come out now and there’ll be no danger. Just drop the weapon and come out with your hands in the air. We’ve got the place surrounded. Release your hostage,’ Creame’s voice rang out in staccato in the dark.

The knifeman then recognized his voice from the DSS.

‘Is that you Creame? Do you think you’re a policeman now, is that it? Well, come and get me, copper!’ he laughed.

Tileshed senior was beginning to wonder about the long silence following this when he found himself plunged in darkness and something came crashing through the window. Before anybody had any notion of what was going on, Creame, disguised in a ‘Dirty Harry’ outfit including sunglasses, was being dangled on a rope attached to a pair of ladders when the lights came back on. A toolbox had come through the window and was lying on the floor. Once he stopped spinning round on the end of the rope, he said with a contorted expression, ‘Hey, punk, I’m your boss, hear me?’ He had to pause whilst he completed a revolution and ended up once more facing the astonished civil servant.

‘If you wanna do something stupid, go right ahead. I just don’t want you to leave a mess,’ he managed to say before rotating in the opposite direction. By now the novelty had begun to wear thin. He was grimacing more out of discomfort. The rope was cutting into his groin, giving him a mean squint. He swore at somebody outside to let go of the ladders, which were from the roof of his van. He was sent crashing to the ground, with the ladders on top of him. This was too much for the distraught civil servant, who scrambled madly to the door, clawing away all the piled-up furniture that was forming the barricade with inhuman speed, while Creame was helped from his harness.

Creame had intrigued to channel the energy of the maddened crowd who chased Mr Fleuret from the golf-club bar, into the rigging-up of a harness. When they had fitted this on to him, using handkerchiefs for padding, he had felt comfortable enough and audacious enough with their support to be swung through the window to act as tough-guy negotiator.

The civil servant was caught as soon as he ran out of the house. He ranted to the crowd as they caught him, of how Tileshed junior had agreed to buy off surplus civil servants on the black market and the scandalous, almost slavish way that Creame and a few others in a self-appointed band of personnel and managerial officers had treated their juniors in an attempt to preserve their own jobs and line their pockets. They had conspired to sack all clerks instead of themselves, and had even accepted bribes from those not wishing to lose their jobs, sometimes amounting to as much as half their wages. Not content with that, they put the frighteners even more on the clerks by threatening to suspend their benefits once sacked.

Creame, of course, dismissed all this as pure fiction.

‘It sounds like an unbelievably frightening state of affairs, if it’s true,’ Tileshed senior felt it worthy of him to comment. ‘But why did he choose me? What have I to do with it all?’

‘The DSS clerks whose jobs were on the line have banded together to form a resistance militia. You were established after surveillance as being intricately linked with the man who bought off one of my boys from the DSS. Your telephone was monitored by a member of a parallel organization working deep within British Telecom.’

The police arrived, took away the knifeman and nothing more was said of it.

Chapter Nine

They went to see the ship next day, with Tileshed senior driving. Tileshed junior was in the passenger seat and Mr Fleuret was in the back. They did not say much, as Tileshed senior was reluctant to discuss the terror of the previous evening, so had to content themselves with gazing at the cows or thinking of their journey on the ship. Tileshed junior was surprised that his father had not expressed disapproval at his attempt to buy a crew and as far as he understood it, the deal was still on. They were still short of experienced seaman, which may have swayed his judgement.

They eventually drew within sight of the makeshift shipyard, which grew from the size of a matchbox on the industrial horizon, to a shoebox size at the foot of the hill and finally into a large shed, unpainted of late and very shabby.

‘It’s a grim old place,’ commented Tileshed junior.

They clambered outside and could smell the river. The seagulls dived over the grey, choppy water, causing them some unease, especially since one had shit within feet of Mr Fleuret when they had been with Norman at the farmhouse. They stopped in front of a weather-beaten door.

‘Are you her owners?’ a husky voice barked out. They turned to see an old man in a flat cap and big navy blue overalls sidling towards them.

‘We are the commissioners,’ said Tileshed senior.

‘Can we take a look inside?’ asked Mr Fleuret.

They were all delighted with what they saw. When they entered the shed by a postern gate, they found themselves looking at the smooth, as yet untreated beechwood stem. Mr Fleuret was especially impressed with the pageant of gilt figures along it. Directly above them was some kind of fabulous sea-monster clutching a sailor by the leg, who in turn had hold of a sea-serpent. All seemed to be racing towards a couchant lion figurehead. The line of ten guilt soldiers above this especially impressed Mr Fleuret, being two-thirds his own height. On either side, twelve foot long anchors attached to the catheads prompted him to comment: ‘I wouldn’t like one of those on my head.’

They were allowed to climb up the scaffolding on the side of the 30ft high hulk. Despite being forewarned, Mr Fleuret marched boldly to the bulkhead of the forecastle, slipping on piles of cordage and tackle that were lying everywhere. He managed to reach the lion figurehead and rested his hands on it, scowling down imperiously. Meanwhile the Tilesheds were being shown round the upper deck, Tileshed senior was admiring the intricate figures carved on the timbre-heads and on the twelve bronze cannon on the upper deck that weighed nearly a ton each and were resting on gun trolleys each the size of a small car. On the gun-deck were another 25 a-side, not including stern- or bow-chasers. Most of the interior was still not ready for inspection, so they had to be content with a look in one of the berths. They had to be careful in making their way about the deck, because there were holes where the masts would be. They were shown into a room flanked by the galleries, which let in light from two fluorescent beams from the shed. Ahead of them were two big sternlights through which two beams of light met in the middle of the floor, the leaden strips stencilling the deck with their shadows. Next they were shown the poop and transom, where there were more gilt soldiers and coats of arms, where rampant lions were embossed on a white background with painted red curtains as a surround. The lantern was a globe topped with a gilt crown. A pole from the deck brought it to the height of a man. They made their way back to the waist and Tileshed senior shook his head as he watched Tileshed junior manage a couple of turns on the capstan.

While everything was being made ready, Mr Fleuret continued to play wargames with Carl, who was staying there because Mr Fleuret was too scared of being alone.

The day came and he pounded up the steps of the Tilesheds’ office, setting the gold lettering and glass of the inner door into oscillation, shimmering with reflections of the busy street outside.

‘Are they here yet?’ he asked the girl at the desk breathlessly.

‘They’re in the board-room, they had to start without you,‘ she replied. His anguished increased with the sound of importance lecturing through the door. He took a deep breath and burst clumsily into the room.

Tileshed senior was at the head of the table, speaking and he refused to acknowledge him until after he had finished. While Alexander was waiting for him to finish, he had the opportunity of scrutinising the other people round the table. Rubbing his chin and nodding ponderously, he inspected each of them clockwise.

The nearest to him was a middle-aged man. He was wearing the strangest uniform Alexander had seen. It resembled a police uniform. His trousers were tucked into his boots and he was wearing fluorescent pink braiding, a fluorescent green tie and he had a scraggy black beard. He said he was an official, purporting to be a captain in John Smith’s navy, which, he said, operated by licence as an anti-pirate squad. He mentioned that it was also his job to enforce safety standards at sea.

‘I should think we’ll need to meet all sorts of requirements,’ put in Tileshed senior.

‘Quite a few, but we’ll sort it out. There’s just one thing, though--you don’t mind if we pass the tow in the dark, do you?’

‘Why?’ asked Mr Tileshed, startled.

‘It’s just that we think the tide will be in our favour then. Also, we operate a shift system and it’s the only time we can slot you in. We’ll have to launch her in secret, as well, to avoid unwanted publicity.’

Some gave out that they were not happy at this, but Tileshed senior silenced them with a gesture.

Next to him and the JS Navy man was Tileshed junior, saying nothing but looking deep in thought. On the opposite side of the table were five young men in dark suits, white shirts and red ties. All had short hair, except one, who was wearing a ‘Status Quo’ type waistcoat and had long red hair. The five were fixed on Mr Tileshed to gauge his reaction to Mr Fleuret’s belatedness.

‘You are aware of the time, Mr Fleuret,’ he said woodenly at last.

‘Yes...well...what happened was that a fellow started an argument with me and I had to punch him to get rid of him--’

‘--I’m not interested in why you’re late, Mr Fleuret. Sit down, please,’ he said to the accompaniment of sniggering.

He sat down, scowling, while Tileshed continued:

‘As I was saying, gentlemen, unless Mr Mortimer here is completely satisfied that we comply with the Rule of the Road at Sea, we cannot sail. We are therefore going to have to "bend" the terms of the will a little...’ Mr Fleuret was becoming bored until pulled from his reverie by everyone bustling and ‘spreading themselves out’ as directed by Tileshed. This done, the John Smith’s navy man and Tileshed senior went over to a small table stacked with parcels at the front of the room. Tileshed senior picked up the first one and grasped at the flap, but glanced at the JS man for approval, which he gave. He tore open the parcel, extracting a wad of green booklets, which he began to distribute on each of the desks, while the JS man followed him round with blank sheets of paper. With one hole in the top left corner, ‘Question Number Only’ at the top of the right-hand margin, it was identical to the school examination paper that had to be tied together with string before handing in, except that instead of the name of some reputable examining body, ‘JOHN SMITH’S NAVY SYNDICATE’ was the heading. The green booklet thrown in front of Alexander was front down and just as he was about to turn it over, Tileshed senior appealed for silence. He looked at his watch, at the clock and said: ‘You have one hour from now. We finish at three minutes past two. You may begin now.’

There was an eager rustling as they turned over their papers and Alexander took in the title of ‘Preliminary Ship Management’.

One hour later found Alexander still on his first question, having written only a few sentences. It had been unremitting torture, sitting there wrestling with such questions as ‘What is understood by mechanical advantage? Give two examples of its application.’ In reply he wrote something about the Thirty Years War, because it felt like that long he had been sitting there.

The answer papers were collected in and strung together and the civil servants began to compare their answers: ‘How many? ...Five? I had four....Yes, a pulley...’ and so on ad nauseam. Mr Fleuret caught up with Tileshed senior on his way out, elbowing his way through the civil servants who were fawning round him and the JS man to enquire about the answers to the exam they had just sat; as though it would make any difference now. Alexander button-holed him and asked, ‘What was all that for?’.

‘All what for?’

‘This exam--what’s it all for?’

‘For?’ Tileshed was blinking owlishly at him and perceiving Alexander’s bewilderment, added, ‘Your marks will determine your rank at sea.’

‘Then I needn’t have sat the exam.’


‘Yes--it’s obvious I shall be captain.’

Amazed at this effrontery, Tileshed explained. ‘The testator was quite specific on this subject, Mr Fleuret. Morgan was to be captain, but since he’s...he’s no longer with us...it remains for us as the executors to appoint a new captain.’

‘Half of those questions were loaded against me. You know I can’t do maths to save my life.'

‘The sums weren’t very hard,’ one of the civil servants interjected tritely, probably to curry favour with Tileshed senior and thereby obtain a higher position, Alexander thought.

‘Where are we to meet up, sir?’ asked another civil servant.

‘Yes, everyone,’ said Tileshed senior, allowing his voice to rise. ‘Be back here in a couple of hours. Is that okay with everyone?’

‘I won’t be here,’ spat out Alexander.

‘Why’s that?’

‘I won’t be treated like a dog. I want to command. Goodbye, Mr Tileshed!’ With that he stormed out of the building and disappeared down the street.

‘Somebody go after him and make him see sense,’ said Tileshed senior.

‘It’s no joke, son,’ Tileshed junior reprimanded a civil servant who was laughing.

‘It’s too late to pull out now,’ added Tileshed senior.

The sycophantic civil servants took to their heels like a pack of hounds after Alexander, who was loping off down the street. He began to sweat as he exerted himself almost as hard as when forced to do so by Onion. He ran round the back of a church with the idea of hiding in it but found himself back on the street again, covered in mud and slime.

Creame found out about his abscondence when he had to telephone Tileshed senior to say he would be late because his bus had broken down.

He had been commissioned by Tileshed as a crimp and for that purpose he had got hold of an old double-decker bus and was touring the town with it picking up Norman and friends. Norman had mentioned to Tileshed senior in the shed that he would be willing to provide a crew out of his friends and Tileshed senior had passed on their particulars and whereabouts which he found out from Norman to Creame. Creame had the bus parked outside the Unemployment Benefit Office all morning and had a sign in the window advertising for ‘Instant Muscle’. When unemployed men came to sign on and saw the sign, they came on board to see what it was all about. After all, they had very little to lose. Creame had signed them up there and then with the promise of easy money. He had been crouched behind the steering-wheel all morning like a preying mantis and already several passengers were waiting to start work. Around noon he took away the sign saying ‘Work Bus’ and drove away, an ‘Action for Jobs’ sticker still prominent over the original bus company logo.

To minimise the risk of anybody changing their minds en route, he drove it flat out, until its engine could take no more and a smell of burning rubber began to pervade the interior, causing some disquiet among the dozen or so passengers.

Then the engine blew.

He had to order every man off to push it to the nearest garage and by the time they got there, he found that only about half of the original crew remained, the rest having petered out on the way, sickened by what Creame called an ‘improvised stamina test’.

When he finally reached the Tilesheds at their office, the civil servants were still looking for Alexander. Several had stopped to wipe with their handkerchiefs, mud off their shoes which had become besmirched when attempting to follow Alexander behind the church: which area turned out to be no less than a bog. Creame was sent out to join in the search as well and he found the civil servants and picked them up too. They toured the streets looking for him.

‘There he is!’ yelled a civil servant.

He was trying to cross a busy road leading to a roundabout.

‘Find a destination that suits him,’ Creame, still driving, ordered a civil servant.

‘Which one?’ asked the civil servant.

‘I don’t know. Just wind it round quick!’

Alexander scrutinized the changing destinations on the front of the bus with great curiosity, one rolling past the other until he looked as though he was about to stick his hand out for it. Both parties were hoping for a bus stop nearby, though for opposite reasons. Creame yelled, ‘Keep it going. He’s interested,’ but the civil servant who was winding it had stopped and was proudly admiring a destination of ‘Emerson DSS’. That was where he worked. Mr Fleuret’s face registered abject terror as he read this and looked into the bus to see who was in it. He made a run for it over the road and jumped in some shrubbery in the middle of the roundabout. Creame circled it several times, allowing the civil servants to make a landing on it from all sides. A few of the men Creame had recruited also joined in, wading in to Mr Fleuret, who was still hiding in the middle. When all had disembarked, Creame left the roundabout and parked his bus not far away. When he saw them dragging Alexander out kicking, biting and screaming, he drove back and slowed down while they hurled Alexander in and followed him.

Creame ‘cleared’ at the Tilesheds’ office and went for the rest of the crew with an empty bus. He picked up Norman, Jimmy, Frankie, Billy Buck and Carl, but could not find Mr Patsy. He could only persuade them to come by offering to buy them liquor, but he figured this was a reasonable price to pay since the Tilesheds were paying him more for every man he press-ganged and they could certainly afford it. Again and for the same reason as before, he drove like a maniac. On the lower deck Jimmy, Norman and Frankie were falling about singing with bottles in their hands, while Carl and Billy Buck were sleeping it off upstairs. They operated on a cycle of drinking, sleeping, drinking and sleeping again. Three were singing downstairs while two were sleeping it off upstairs, then they would change round. Only Jimmy remained downstairs through it all, not realizing what was going on and trying to keep up with them all the time, till he was too drunk and tired to see, upon which he fell asleep in a heap.

‘You’ll all be sailors, soon!’ Creame shouted back over the thunder of the engine. They all broke into raucous laughter, with Norman’s hyena-laugh outstanding.

‘’Ere, some of us is sailors now. One bottle and we just sa-i-l away,’ said Norman, laughing again.

Jimmy woke, stood up, swaying and said: ‘Is it true that people hides money from Norman under the soap?’

‘’Ere, I’ll give you a clip in a minute, son!’ jockeyed Norman.

‘Ladies and gentlemen, you’ve all heard of John Conteh. Now meet his brother, Silly Conteh,’ said Jimmy, stretching out a hand in Norman’s direction.

Jimmy then began to regale them with how he had been once threatened in a bar by a group of Puerto Rican seamen, punching one of them unconscious who had broken a pool cue over his head and walking through their midst with a bone sticking through his hand dripping blood. His head was like a brick wall. He went to get the injury seen to in hospital and there was the same seaman lying stretched out cold in a side-ward.

He claimed to have thrown five policemen down the stairs to a public toilet, but the stairs became a four- then a five-foot high wall.

He had been thrown out of Belgium, where he had walked into a glass tower, drunk, of course. Getting barred from anything less than a country would not have been much of an achievement for him: when he was barred from a pub, he later insisted to friends that they had even barred him from the car-park.

He happened to have been on a bus with a friend, going round and round in circles in the dark, when an illuminated cathedral came into view. They got off and found they were in Cologne and that Elvis Presley was playing there. Jimmy had gone up to Elvis after the concert and kissed him, then told him to get lost. More like it was Elvis who told Jimmy to get lost.

He went to Carlisle on the train, created havoc there, but couldn’t remember having been there until his friend told him. He opened his eyes the next morning and found himself in a park. His big brown ‘Jimmy bag’ that held his plonk and went everywhere with him like a dog was beside him. All he could see was a big factory straight ahead. He stopped a vagrant and asked him where he was. The vagrant told him the name of the park.

‘No, I mean which town am I in?’

‘You don’t know which town you’re in. You must been on a right bender. You’re in Glasgae, Jimmy.’

Jimmy shook his head. ‘Glasgow? How did I get here?’ He pulled a bottle of whisky out of his bag and the tramp’s eyes nearly popped out, so he offered him some. Apparently he had got on the wrong train.

‘Jimmy, you’re a liar,’ Norman said.

‘Give the poor cow a chance,’ Jimmy muttered, a standard saying of his. Then he was thrown from one empty seat to the next as the bus turned a corner, so it was unclear whether he was addressing Norman or Creame for his driving.

By the time they reached the office, everybody was long since tired out with carousing and was asleep. Upstairs, Carl was lying stretched out over the back seat and Billy Buck was slumped forward with his back to the window and his head resting on his lanky legs while downstairs Jimmy was slumped in a stupor with his legs crossed, his legs flopping about and his hand hanging limply over the edge of the seat, his cigarette now burning its way into the seat. A ring of flotsam had collected round his mouth. Norman had his head propped against the window and Frankie was splayed out in the seat in front.

Creame realized his mistake when he looked round and saw them like this. The Tilesheds would never accept them in such a state. He would have to wait until they were at least sober enough to stand, before he could show them, so he parked the bus and went to work on the engine.

Tileshed was about to read out the marks to the exam they had sat to Alexander and the civil servants. Tileshed senior had compromised by offering to make Alexander an honorary captain when they got out to sea.

‘But in the meantime, I’m sure you can stick it out until we get organized. Now, I have your results here. I’ll read them out.’ He cleared his throat and began:

‘Fleuret, eleven. Roberts, fifty-three. Robertson, fifty-three. Robins, fifty-three. Robinson, fifty-four. Robson, forty-three. Tileshed, fifty-six.

‘I shall now read out the positions you will occupy whilst at sea. I’m not familiar with naval rank, so I’ve only drawn from those positions I know. To decide this, I’ve taken your examination performances into account but I’ve also weighed up your personal aptitudes. Are there any questions you want to ask me before I start?’ There was none and he said, ‘Very well’, cleared his throat and began:

‘Fleuret, cook. Roberts, officer. Robertson, rigger. Robins, assistant rigger. Robinson, handyman. Robson, painter and decorator. Tileshed, boatswain.’

‘Sir, what rank of officer am I?’ asked Roberts.

Tileshed appeared hesitant for a moment, then said: ‘second lieutenant’.

‘Who is the first lieutenant?’ he persisted.

‘There isn’t one yet.’

‘Who am I responsible to, then?’

‘Me, of course.’

‘Are you the captain?’

‘For the time being, yes.’

‘Mr Tileshed, can you tell us why you have not appointed a mate?’ asked Robson of the long hair, as though trying to turn it into a press conference.

‘There are more to come. They should be on their way here in the bus, as I’m sure you know.’

But by the time Creame arrived, only Tileshed’s secretary was there.

‘Where have they gone? I’ve brought some recruits.’

‘You’ve just missed, them, I’m afraid, Mr Creame. They’ve started on their way. The sailing is tonight.’

They had all set off in their cars for the docks. Tileshed senior had told them he would see them there. Alexander became the passenger of Tileshed senior, with whom he felt safer.The civil servants were taken in Robson’s Mini and a car belonging to another civil servant.

Behind Tileshed senior was Creame’s bus, headlights blazing. He sounded the horn once or twice and gave them a wave as he passed. Alexander was amazed with what he saw in the open door of the bus. Somebody was crouched down vomiting a trail all over the road and somebody else was holding on to him by the scruff of the neck, stopping him from falling out.

It was not long before Creame caught up with Tileshed junior, who was still stuck behind the civil servants in the Mini. When Tileshed junior looked in the mirror, he was distracted by the piercing stare of Creame behind a pair of yellow-tinted driving glasses. Before he could react, Creame had borne down on him and had swerved, creating a sudden draught that rocked the car. Someone was banging furiously on the rear window, but Tileshed junior was overjoyed to see that Creame was taking a wrong turning, probably distracted by the noise in the back. Coming from the bus, he could faintly hear them singing, ‘If you get it wrong, you’ll get it right next time.’

Alexander glimpsed his first view of the topmasts. The ship looked much bigger with masts. When he got closer he could make out the hawsers of the fore- and main- stays and then the halyards, so that the masts looked as though they had been scribbled over with a pencil. In the foreground, dark figures were milling about secretively, as though waiting for something.

For a while, they huddled round in groups, not knowing what to expect. Some of the civil servants were very nervous and one even went over the side to vomit.

Presently a small removal van pulled up and began unloading belongings and provisions for the voyage. Robson, one of the civil servants, insisted on bringing his seaman’s cutlass, just in case they ran across any pirates.

Chapter Ten

Mr Mortimer, a captain in the John Smith’s navy, which he maintained was a private division of the Royal Navy, had brought along more crew. This had been facilitated with arrangements made under Tileshed when it became apparent that such steps were deemed necessary. Mr Mortimer was an Adjudication Officer for the DSS and a very good friend of Tileshed junior’s and was there by his recommendation. All his men had some knowledge of the sea, having at some time or other served under a colleague of Mortimer’s, who was once a big wheel in the Navy.

Although Mr Mortimer seemed very efficient, Tileshed senior showed reservations about him. A brief quarrel had flared at the outset.

The anchor cables were cut, the courses unclewed and the yards braced up and with one of Mortimer’s men at the tiller and a leadsman on the chains sounding, they got underway.

Just then a dark, solid object loomed out of the darkness and someone began to shout: ‘Action stations!’ Tileshed senior asked for a volunteer to go aloft for a better view.

Robertson, who was a quiet man, volunteered to go up and in the next second had leaped onto the chains and was bounding up the ratlines in the dark, his feet as assured as a pianist’s fingers.

‘Brave fellow, that man,’ Mr Fleuret muttered solemnly.

‘Deck there!’ he wailed down. ‘It’s a small cutter making in at about three knots but yawing wildly--be lucky to get here like that.’

Then there arose the sound of shouting and singing.

‘It sounds like a boat-load of drunks,’ said Tileshed junior.

The singing got louder and they could make out several figures trying to row while the others seemed to be falling about, especially when the ship’s bow wave hit them, when one of the boat’s crew could be heard spewing his guts up. Several on the ship had been sick too.

‘Quick, heave-ho till we see who it is,’ called Mortimer.

‘Permission to come aboard, Sah!’ a voice called out from below the foretopsail.

Creame had arrived.

They were helped up the battens with rope-ladders while the boat’s sternfast and painter were secured to the kevels. Even so, it was a miracle how they all managed to get as far as they had without losing oars, for they had been rowing like a bunch of drunken smugglers. One of them had already narrowly escaped death. The hair-raising incident had happened when one of them had parked the bus by the side of the road for those who wanted to relieve themselves. A disorientated and befuddled figure had been spotted crawling in a sub-human manner across the road in the spaces between the cars. When it reached the other side, it had turned about and come back, as vulnerable as a cockroach on a busy footpath.

‘Where did you get that boat from?’ asked Tileshed senior sharply.

‘We found it lying on the beach,’ was Creame’s explanation. He was wearing a drab olive army jumper, navy trousers and a huge pair of boots like Onion’s. Alexander remarked on how splendid he thought Creame’s uniform was.

‘I suppose you found them on the beach as well,’ said Tileshed senior sarcastically pointing to his incongruous attire. ‘Your luggage?’

‘Had to jettison it, sah.’

‘Robinson, take this man below and find him something decent to wear,’ Tileshed senior said. ‘The rest of you in your spare moments can unsling the hammocks from the fo’c’sle nets and find yourselves berths.’

When they got underway again and tacked, Jimmy happened to be standing in front of the foresail so that when the yards were braced round and the canvas bellied out, it covered his face and he began blindly and ignorantly punching into it, thinking he was being attacked or press-ganged again.

The rabble dispersed, making for the forecastle with Jimmy at their head shouting, ‘Ar, Jim lad!’ Several minutes’ later, a purge occurred in the forecastle and a stream of Mr Fleuret’s suitcases, blankets and shirts accompanied by the sound of vulgarities came pouring forth. Mr Fleuret came thumping along the deck to complain.

‘Really, Mr Tileshed, I must insist--’

‘Please, I’m trying to sort everything out here. Come and see me later in my cabin, if you must. Meanwhile, would you be so good as to light the galley-fire and make us something to eat?’

Mr Fleuret, who had been so disagreeably displaced from his berth along with his belongings by the ruffians, decided to say nothing more for the time being.

Tileshed senior walked up to the foremast where Robson, the painter and decorator with the long hair had taken it upon himself to daub ‘No Swearing’ in bright red. The notices had been mysteriously appearing all over the ship and people had been getting the wet paint on their hands. Now he knew who was doing it, he asked Robson by whose authority he was doing this. Robson replied coolly that it came under his contract as painter and decorator. But Tileshed replied that it didn’t and ordered them to be rubbed off at once.

Robson went below, gloomy and sulking, to find a rag. There he found Creame changing into civilian uniform under protest. They both enjoyed calling Tileshed senior behind his back: something Creame did extremely well in general. Robinson had found him a white fisherman’s jumper that had been in the boat they found on the beach and a grey pair of polyester strides which he tucked into his boots. Because of the amount of yomping he did, the fabric between his legs soon wore out, leaving a hole through which bulged his underpants with ‘Monster’ written on them, around the white strands of frayed polyester. Moreover, the material was very prone to clicking, caused by regular chafing against the wood of the ship.

All those not assigned duties had found themselves berths and were just beginning to settle down for the night, when the lookout shouted down: ‘Deck there!’

‘Deck here,’ Mortimer replied.

‘It’s another boat making for us, sir.’

‘Right, Robinson, find something to beat to quarters with and clear the deck for action. Douse the galley-fire and sand on the decks,’ said Mortimer.

‘Pardon, sir?’

‘Make a noise and get everybody up!’

As soon as the alarm had been raised, there were shouts above the flutter of the sails and people scurrying about in all directions. Even the plonkies who had just got their heads down in the forecastle were roused; these were wondering how anyone could be so cruel as to get them up in this of all other forms of rude awakening, just when their heads were beginning to throb. One of them was already experiencing the Horrors and was hallucinating spiders and snakes and began screaming; another was talking about the ‘Drying-out Man’ being just around the corner. Robson came bounding back to Tileshed senior to report that certain of them wouldn’t rise.

‘Oh, will they not? I’ll show you how to get drunks out of bed,’ he said as he strolled over to the fire-bucket that Robson was trying to nail to the mast.

Creame was taking his turn at the tiller, doing nothing more than keeping a steady course, unaware of the trauma that had broken out above him. In between choking on his tree-trunk cigar, he was trying to better Jimmy’s Louis Armstrong imitation by singing ‘Hello Dolly’. He hoped to keep himself cheerful by doing this. He was worried about contracting the nasty diseases that sailors were prone to and this conduced him to reflect on smoking-related diseases. Every time he opened a packet of cigarettes, it depressed him to see the health warning on the side and for this reason he preferred them from abroad.

Meanwhile Tileshed senior had sluiced a bucketful of bilge water over the rest of the drunks in the forecastle and had thereby raised even the most stupid sleeper. In a flurry of animated protests, the drenched figures began to swarm out newt-like from the forecastle, in a sluggish state like fumigated wasps from their nest.

A voice boomed out over the sea through a loudhailer:

‘Do not attempt to escape. This is the Coastguard and we are about to board you.’

Alexander was horrified. He couldn’t stop his knees and teeth from knocking together.

Then he smelled burning.

Clouds of dense smoke were bellowing out of the gunports, making the ship look more like a garden incinerator, which signified that the coastguard’s vessel could be nearer to them than at first assumed, her lights having been partially deadened by smoke.

‘The bloody spaghetti!’ Alexander was heard to howl before disappearing below deck. He obtained a bucketful of smelly bilge-water from the chain-pump and poured this over the smouldering fire. A nauseous stench of bilge-water filled the galley and Alexander staggered above deck with a blackened face, tongue hanging out and gasping for breath, pawing at the cloying air.

‘All right, Mr Creame: would you masthead Mr Fleuret,’ said Tileshed senior.

Creame, aided by the long-haired Robson, carried Alexander kicking and squirming and yelling, over to the chains and up the main port shroud in the dark, one on either side of him. Mr Fleuret’s prelude gave way to a stony silence, the result of his fear of heights, coupled with the idea that further struggle would be useless.

Tileshed senior felt dizzy just looking up. Above him through the futtock shrouds he could make out the dark shapes moving cumbersomely against a background of stars. His reason for giving the order was to ensure that Mr Fleuret was safely out of the way.

‘Ship’s on the larboard bow, Mr Tileshed, sir,’ Robson shouted down. ‘She’ll be abeam in no time.’

Creame and Robson had just succeeded in strapping Mr Fleuret to the mainmast head when there was a thunderous crash and a jolt that made the ship shudder. Looking up, Tileshed was relieved to see the rigging still intact. They could not afford a disaster. He hoped there was no damage below the waterline, or everybody would be bailing like mad.

‘Throw us a line, up there,’ came a shout from over the side.

‘Why should we?’ Mr Fleuret demanded from above, far out of their reach.

‘Because if you don’t, I’ll have you nailed to the boards!’

Tileshed senior gave the order to make sure they boarded safely and moments later a big, swarthy man in a strange uniform clambered through the entry port. He was followed by two other men, one also in a strange uniform that was similar to Mortimer’s, but he looked more like a Christmas tree with yellow and green lights flickering on and off in sequence round the hem of his blazer, where the braiding would normally have been.

‘What are you--some sort of clown?’ Tileshed junior asked.

‘I’ll ask you to address me by my proper title. I’m a member of the John Smith’s Inspectorate and as such, I’m entitled to be honoured with the title of "JS Inspector Cavendish of the Inland Revenue.’

‘We already have a JS man on board,’ Tileshed senior commented.

‘We know. He told us.’

‘Judas!’ Mr Fleuret screamed down from the crow’s nest.

‘Belay that there!’ shouted Tileshed senior.

‘And I’m JS Inspector Stone, of the John Smith’s board of Customs and Excise,’ said the other uniformed man.

‘And who’s he?’ Tileshed senior enquired of the third man.

‘I’m John Smith of the John Smith’s Broadcasting Corporation. I’m a reporter.’

‘Who is this "John Smith" anyway?’

‘John Smith is the major shareholder in this country’s wealth, I’ll have you know.’

‘I suppose they’ll be privatizing the government next and calling it the Mafia,’ Mr Fleuret shouted down.

‘That won’t be necessary,’ JS Inspector Stone replied dryly.

‘What do you want with us?’ asked Tileshed senior.

'We’ve had a tip-off that there’s illicit quantities of morphine stowed away on the ship and you’re trying to smuggle it out of the country.’ JS Inspector Stone showed his warrant and was going below while JS Inspector Cavendish was leading Tileshed junior towards the taffrail for a private conversation when Robson, waving a tarbrush wildly about his head and crying aloud: ‘Ye gads!’ lunged forward.

‘What’s this?’ Stone asked in bewilderment.

‘Please do not make me irate!...All right, what do you think of it, HM Inspectors? Do you think this is the end of sticking up for what we believe in?’

‘Robson, shut up now,’ came the admonitive cry of the officer whose name was Roberts, ‘or you’ll be sorry!’

Robson, who had become drunk on paint fumes, had a resentment of authority typified by the uniform. As the drink was still in him, he began to rant and rave about being beaten up by thugs at Stonehenge every year.

‘They’ll most likely be the JS Constabulary,’ JS Inspector Stone remarked.

Someone began to shout from aloft: ‘Let me down!’

Robson, who was normally scared of heights, as he was of his own shadow, had no sooner heard the cry than he responded to it by racing across the deck and in an instant was negotiating the starboard chains in an attempt at getting on the shrouds, waving his arms about and getting them caught in the deadeyes, shouting: ‘I’ll try anything once! It ended in near catastrophe, with him clinging onto Mr Fleuret who was still mast-headed. Both men nearly fell from the shrouds as they descended, each tripping the other up like stags locked in combat.

‘I know you’ll always stick up for me and the HM Inspectors,’ Alexander said on the way down.

‘It’s one of the frailties of being a human being,’ Robson conceded with a demure sigh.

There was nobody with the desire and confidence to put up much resistance to the JS men. Carl was the only one in the forecastle capable of sitting up and talking. Everybody else had crawled out after the soaking and collapsed on deck, some with teeth chattering, others half-delirious. Alexander went straight to the forecastle to look for his belongings. There he found Carl, who had been protected from a soaking by some of Alexander’s blankets. He had cast the wet layers off and was still wrapped in two or three blankets that extended round his head, sniffing dismally, head bowed, he sat in the pools of water, lit only by a tiny light-bulb hanging from the ceiling, he looked like a meditating monk.

‘You know, all this water reminds me, I must give Wendy a bath,’ he said upon seeing Mr Fleuret. Anybody within earshot would accredit the name to a woman instead of his dog, and this was his intention.

Stone came through the bulkhead and began searching for morphine in the forecastle, uprooting belongings and throwing them aside. Mr Fleuret was just about to protest when a member of the crew scurried forward shouting: ‘Man overboard!’

When the inspectors’ boat had collided with the ship, Creame was catapulted over the side. Mr Fleuret saw him thrashing about in the water, being buffeted by the waves from the ship and shouted: ‘By Zeus, he can’t swim!’ Mr Fleuret, helped by Robson, threw a life-belt for him but it went wide of where Creame was thrashing, gargling with the sea and bobbing up and down in a wreath of froth. Mr Fleuret did a sort of clockwork jig along the bulwark to the next life-belt and handed it to Robson, wasting precious time, who threw it to within a couple of yards of Creame.

‘Blast this dark! I can’t see a dreaded thing,’ Alexander yelled.

‘Christ!’ yelled Robson so that everybody heard. Suddenly, removing his boots, he took a run and a jump over the side and shouted: ‘This’ll sort out the men from the boys!’

A splash followed a few seconds later as Robson, holding his nose dramatically, leapt into the chilly sea. His long, red hair splayed out like the tentacles of a jellyfish until he hit the water and plunged beneath it before surfacing, pale and spluttering. Furiously, heroically, he swam chopping through the foam and leaving great swaths of it behind him. When he reached Creame’s particularly frothy area, he stopped swimming and bobbed about looking for him. Not being able to see any sign of him, he dove under like a duck and emerged a moment later holding Creame like a prize by the hair. He towed him over to the life-belt and propped his flaccid body against it, balancing it on the other side with his own body. He looked up to see officer Roberts trying to communicate something to him from the ship.

‘What?’ he yelled back hoarsely, water dripping from his raggy moustache and long, sodden hair.

‘Just support his head. His body will float.’

‘It serves the bugger right!’ Alexander said. He had been telling Carl of the time he had cut his finger and walked up to Creame with blood spurting from it and had asked him to mend it. Creame had replied that it was beneath his station to administer such rudimentary first aid: in other words, he didn’t see why anyone qualified to his standard in first aid should be called upon to treat anything less than a compound fracture or a stoved-in chest. But Alexander declined Creame’s offer to bestow these on him so that he could be deemed worthy of Creame’s attention. A mere spelk had been more bearable. It had come from somebody’s garden fence when he had been trying to clamber over it to escape from Mr Patsy after he had shot his wall to bits.

‘You said you wouldn’t give me mouth-to-mouth resuscitation if I had another heart attack,’ Carl reminded him.

‘And so I wouldn’t. God knows what I might catch,’ Alexander replied.

‘Bring him in. Reduce canvas. Clew up the buntlines. Wear round,’ Roberts shouted.

‘Help! I can’t hold out for much longer,’ Robson screamed. Robins and Robinson came into view, dragging a rope between them which was to save him. At that moment Tileshed junior jumped over the side. Robson’s shaggy head had dipped below the water.

‘Robson, wake up!’ screamed the assistant rigger; at which Robson pulled round a little but it was obvious that he was nearing unconsciousness.

‘What?’ he grunted back faintly, lifting his head a little. The rope was thrown very close by, but it lay just out of reach. He did not seem fully conscious, though his arm was still keeping Creame’s head above the water. Tileshed junior swam over and attached the rope to Creame and they hauled him up while Robson was kept afloat by Tileshed junior. Robson was recovered by the same method, with Tileshed junior pushing from below. A drunken cheering arose from the ship’s belly, where a mob led by Jimmy was ranged along the bulwarks, trying to help out. Jimmy shouted crudely: ‘Ar, Jim lad, who be puttin’ sand in the Vaseline? I be feelin’ rather sore!’

JS Inspector Cavendish said: ‘I think we should lie him on his back and squeeze the water out of him.’

‘This is not a flippin’ Tom and Jerry cartoon,’ officer Roberts replied indignantly. Behind him, Stone appeared to be trying to feed the other end of the rope through the tackle-block. While Roberts and Mr Fleuret dragged Robson into the captain’s cabin, the inspectors agreed to attend to Creame. They laid him out on the couch and Mr Fleuret began admiring the furniture.

‘What are you doing?’ Roberts demanded. 'Come over here and give me a hand.’ Officer Roberts took control and told Mr Fleuret what to do. Mr Fleuret looked on in disgust as Roberts gave Robson the kiss of life. He checked his pulse.

‘I can’t feel anything!’ Mr Fleuret exclaimed.

‘It’s: "I can’t feel anything, sir".’

Even though a man’s life was at stake, etiquette still had to be adhered to. He checked it for himself and then announced: ‘He’s dead. We’re going to have to try to revive him.’

‘Oh, I’m not touching a dead man!’

‘You’ll do as I say, or you’ll be a dead man. Now, put both hands over his chest and when I give him five inflations, you push down, but not too hard--and remember to check his pulse every minute.’

If he ever was dead, Robson revived after a struggle and Mr Fleuret announced that he could see his neck throbbing.

‘I’ll be able to manage now. Go and give the others a hand with Creame out there.’

Creame was not so fortunate, as none of the crowd round him had any knowledge of first aid. One of the drunks had tied a tourniquet around one leg and had bandaged his head, which was propped up by a rolled-up coat. Only the John Smith’s Broadcasting Corporation man was trying to reason that he should be given artificial resuscitation, but this was thrown out of the window by the more forceful personalities of Stone, the drunks and Cavendish who claimed to have been on a half-day first aid course two years’ ago and as such, they said they knew exactly what was to be done. They strung him up by the feet while the others were tugging in all directions. Robins was trying to ask him if he was all right but all he got in reply was a gurgle, accompanied by a strange rolling of the eyes. Robertson had hold of his right forearm and was trying to rescue him from the detrimental clutches of Stone, Cavendish and the drunks, who wanted him strung up like a turkey to let the water drain out of him. Jimmy was more concerned about his own liver, about which he was constantly grumbling. Someone was fetching water to pour over him to try to liven him up. Finally he was saved from further abuse when Tileshed junior pulled them off and told Stone that his father wanted a word with him in his cabin.

Trouble was brewing before the mast. Jimmy and the others who had come aboard had been putting their sore heads together and no sooner had Stone left to find Tileshed senior when a man in a crombie stepped out of the darkness, saying: ‘The men are starting to dry out, King. There’s talk of mutiny. They say they want their wages as promised them.’

‘They do, do they? Where’s Creame? He brought them on board.’

‘He told us you’d pay us as soon as we were on board.’

Tileshed junior thought about it for a while, then he asked him to send one of them up as a spokesman. They elected to send Carl, thinking his Pandean, intellectual beard and drawling monotone would impress Tileshed junior as much as it had impressed them. They forgot that when drunk, some wild joker had put a note on his back saying: ‘Kiss Me Hardy’. They had not removed it and he still had it on when he met Tileshed junior.

‘Now, what’s all this about?’

‘Well...erm...Mr Tileshed...it would seem that some of the men appear somewhat...unsettled...that is to say, refractionary even, about getting their renumeration,’ Carl hedged.

‘What’s the good of remuneration,’ Tileshed corrected him, ‘and where are they going to spend it out here?’

‘I suppose you could open up a little shop for them. Then you could make them buy their comestuals,’ Carl suggested,’ his beady eyes penetrating the orange tint of his glasses.

‘Now that’s what I like to hear: enterprise initiative, just for which I’m making you their paymaster.’

‘But what do I pay them with?’

‘Tell each man that I’ll be opening a shop soon. The best-behaved will get the most tot. I’ll leave that for you to decide.’

‘That’s all very well, Mr Tileshed, but the men want paying now. What do I give them in the meantime? And how will you remember how well-behaved everyone’s been?’

‘Make them out some payslips. You don’t have to pay them just yet. Just tell them they can use them at the shop when it opens.’

When Carl returned to them, they no longer seemed interested in what he had to say. During his conversation with Tileshed junior, Stone and Cavendish had moved into the forecastle and were giving it a jerquing. They unearthed a suitcase full of 200ml bottles of kaolin and morphine mixture BP and after staring at them uncertainly for a moment, Stone asked several of them whose it was.

‘It belongs to the queer gadgie with the parrot’s hooter,’ said Jimmy.


‘The Emperor Testacles, or whatever he calls himself.’

‘Where is he?’

‘He’s below somewhere.’

‘Right,’ Stone said, clutching a bottle of morphine.

Meanwhile Carl had used the distraction to ensconce himself in a cubby-hole, where he was using pages torn out of the ship’s log to write out payslips for the crew. They were no ordinary payslips: instead of ‘Gross Pay’ he put ‘Conduct’ and instead of ‘Gross to Date’ he put ‘Conduct to Date’; instead of ‘Tax’, he wrote ‘Misdoings’; ‘National Insurance Contributions’ was replaced by ‘Accidents’, ‘Superannuation’ by ‘Good Words’ and ‘Holiday Pay’ by ‘Good Deeds’. Beside each of these entries he wrote a value he deemed appropriate for each person. He returned to hand them out, saying: ‘Pay day, all’. Everybody eagerly flocked round him as he read out their payroll numbers and gave each who came forward, laughing and joking at the prospect of being paid, their payslips.

‘’Ere, I’ve got two hundred pound. How much have you got?’ Norman asked Frankie.

‘I don’t know. I can’t work it out.’

‘Where’s our pay then, squire?’ Norman asked.

‘Oh, that’s something I was going to tell you. It’s not in actual money. It’s just how well you’ve been doing, but Mr Tileshed has promised you’ll be able to use it just like real money when he opens a shop.’

‘Not in readies?’ There was an expectant silence, until someone blurted out: ‘A school report! He’s given us a school report!’

‘This spells mutiny, lads,’ said another, tearing his payslip in half and hurling it at Carl’s feet. The others did the same.

‘I’ve got a bad heart, you know,’ Carl pleaded with them while backing away.

‘So have I: I’ve had three heart attacks,’ Jimmy said. ‘And that bastard’s nearly given me another!’

In the galley, where JS Inspector Stone found Mr Fleuret making more spaghetti, he was showing him the bottle of morphine and asking him where it came from and what he was doing with it.

‘It’s for my diarrhoea. I don’t trust the water,’ explained Mr Fleuret.

‘There’s nothing wrong with the water in the scuttle-butt. I’ve had some myself. Now I’m arresting you for drug-smuggling. You might be hanged quickly, if you’re lucky, depending on where we end up. I hope it’s somewhere that carries the death penalty.’

‘You can’t do that--I demand to be treated with some dignity and not like a common criminal. I’ve got letters after my name.’

‘So has this stuff,’ Stone said, pointing to the bottle. ‘"BP". It makes no difference. Come with me. If you take my advice, you’ll not kick up a fuss.’

When they reached the upper deck, they noticed a rabble banging on the cabin door. Stone knew that the other inspectors and the Tilesheds would be huddled together behind the door, terrified out of their wits by the drunken rebels. There was a bog hole for ventilation between the two doors in the bulwark that some of them were already attempting to crawl through. Stone ordered Alexander down the battens where the cutter was tied and when Alexander protested, Stone said: ‘Go down, or I’ll kick you down’.

Stone cast off, ordering Mr Fleuret to take one of the oars that had been boated.

‘Where are you taking me?’ Mr Fleuret demanded, thinking he was going to die a castaway.

‘To my boat. I think I can just see its lights on the horizon.’

Mr Fleuret squinted trying to see it, but Stone ordered him to keep his mind on the rowing. It was getting light.

The boat was not the JS Inspectors’, but Onion’s, which he had borrowed from a friend. He had used his redundancy money as a fork-lift driver to finance the expedition, fitting them out with victuals, green woolly fingerless gloves and balaclavas. His fait accompli had been to lay his hands on a 9mm Browning sub-machine gun and a small amount of bullets.

Onion was scudding along, keeping abeam of them just within visibility. He was practising drill and shouting. When he had finished, he went through the gangway to wake Squadron Leader Yellowman.

Group Captain Onion had lighted on the RAF system of hierarchy for his self-defence classes because he considered it to have a ring of sophistication about it.

After morning yomps, Onion sent Yellowman below to cook breakfast. As they sat munching their fried cheese, Swiss rolls and starchy rice, the two held a council of war. Onion had cleared his food in under a minute, cramming the last of it into his cheeks like a hamster. His philosophy was that fast eaters were naturally more privileged by denying competitors the chance of stealing their food, so he had practised fast-eating for years and sometimes he could be mopping up with a slice of bread before Yellowman had managed to pour the tea. Sometimes he did not even deem it worthwhile to sit at the table for meals. The disadvantage was that he always left the table, the front of his shirt and his mouth covered in food. He ate straight from the table, using both hands to shovel the food into his mouth. Yellowman could not bring himself to do this. He liked at least a plate and fork. Onion mentioned that these were superfluous, it was easier to wipe a table clean.

‘I suggest we try to board them from behind with a boarding-pike and give them a nasty shock with thunderflashes. I imagine storming a ship is like storming a ’plane. We used to do all that in the "Special Services",’ said Onion, drawing lines in the water on the table as he spoke.

Every time those venerable words passed Onion’s lips, the face opposite him became more livery and the eyes widened to look like hard-boiled eggs as Yellowman marvelled at his conception of what sort of life Group Captain Onion must have led. He finished his ration of water, looked at his chronometer and said: ‘It’s getting windy. I’ll go and take a look outside while you wash up.’

Yellowman nodded meekly and put on a frilly apron over his combat trousers. Onion went on deck. He drew a small telescope from one of the many pockets in his webbing and scrutinized the horizon. He could make out the masts of the warship poking through the mist like candles on a three-year-old’s birthday cake. He took off his green beret he had dyed himself and ruffled his short black hair, just as a fleck of brown caught his eye in the offing.

Yellowman sat down to enjoy a peppermint. Whereas anybody who smoked would most likely produce a pipe or a cigarette, he would undo the small flap of his combat-jacket and take out a packet of peppermints. He heard Onion calling for him.

When Onion hailed anybody, he wouldn’t just call out the name of the person once and wait for him to answer: he would scream it incessantly.

‘Look over there,’ Onion said, pointing to a blob on the horizon. Yellowman’s eyes began to pulsate. A boat. It was just possible to make out two figures in it, both making hard work for themselves in rowing.

‘Should I blast them out of the sea, sir?’ Yellowman asked, indicating the gun wrapped in oily rags on the deck.

‘No, save it, Squadron Leader. They might have something interesting to tell us.’ Onion was standing with thumbs hooked through the belt-loops of his trousers as the boat carrying Stone and Fleuret came slewing in. Mr Fleuret bore an intense scowl as he rowed like a toy man on the shaft of a garden windmill. Stone suddenly stopped rowing, resulting in Alexander rowing them vigorously in a circle.

‘Stop rowing, you imbecile!’ Stone ordered him.

Onion and Yellowman were watching them keenly as they approached.

‘Start rowing us back,’ Stone ordered. ‘It’s not our lot.’

In the intensifying daylight the plain black flag that hung from the masthead distinguished them as pirates.

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘Quickly, man--they’re pirates!’

‘Oh, my God!’ uttered Mr Fleuret. The oarstrokes had turned them round so that they could see Onion leaning over the rail on the prow like a watch-dog and figurehead combined. Onion began doing press-ups against the rail.

‘Row, will you? What’s the matter with you?’

Alexander could not reply because he was bringing up his supper over the side. It formed a peculiar, yellow scum on the glass-edged sea. The gulls, vultures of the sea, swooped on it almost before he had disgorged it.

‘Should we give chase, sir?’ Yellowman asked hopefully.

‘Not them. I want the ship. It’s Hoffman who wants them. We’ll dispose of them as we like.’

While they were trying to make it back to the ship, Onion’s yacht intercepted them, Onion at the wheel and Yellowman pointing the gun at them.

‘Hey!’ he shouted amid a series of cracks as he fired on them and a row of what seemed like hailstones bespattered the sea in front of them. Mr Fleuret held up his hands and screamed: ‘I surrender!’; until Onion emerged and disarmed Yellowman of the gun he was brandishing. In case he wasn’t seen trying to surrender, Alexander tried to stand up in the sternsheets of the boat, lost his balance and fell headlong into the water. His arms and legs were flailing about like a cat being held near a high ledge. He reached out and managed to wrap himself on one of the oars. Stone found he couldn’t row with just one oar, so he dove into the sea and frantically tried to swim the rest of the way to escape. Yellowman was pushed into the sea by Onion, when he had disarmed him of the weapon.

Stone was seen no more. Yellowman swam with difficulty over to the boat in which Alexander had relocated himself and was sitting there shivering and wet through. Yellowman tried to climb aboard and Alexander took to pushing him off with the oar. They only stopped when Onion threatened to shoot them both.

After his capture, they held Alexander hostage. He was told this, as well as being told that he would have his ears cut off if their demands were not met. Pursuant to this, Alexander sent a note to the ship. It read:

‘My dear, dear friend, Mr Tileshed,

I have been taken prisoner by the most unscrupulous and barbaric bunch of blackguards and they are threatening to kill me per gradus ad ima, if their demands are not met. You must do as I say and if anyone disagrees, you have my full permission and authority to kill him. You must surrender the ship forthwith. I await deliverance at your hands and remain you noble, loyal friend, servant and countryman,

Alexander Fleuret, esq. BA.’

Had not a full mutiny occurred while they were away, this toady letter might have worked, but when Yellowman came to deliver it, he found a strange captain being ministered to by henchmen, with the Tilesheds and the other JS men having been relegated to menial duties. The new captain read the letter, laughed and tore it up.

After this, they took Alexander for dead, despite the Tilesheds’ pleading to save him.

Creame, who was nearly recovered, was the first to notice the blinking lights and hear the fire-cracker burst of gunfire that signalled the start of the assault that evening. He took the fork and plate he had been using and crawled outside, banging them together furiously.

Robins came running down behind him. It was just dark when the assault began and shots were being directed at the ship’s main poop lantern. He had been coming to report a strange boat closing in. Creame told him to crawl along the deck to warn the crew whilst he searched below for any weapons. Creame began to crawl along the deck as though he were stuck to it, until he reached the safety of the bulkhead, when he burrowed below, tripping over the stairs, falling over fire-buckets and banging clumsily into things in the dark. He retraced the way he had come, to find a noisy rabble assembling amidships, while he did more crawling and knocked their legs from under them so that they hit the deck like a pack of cards. He realized that the main lantern had gone out when he could not make out their faces clearly; in which case, he thought, it would only be a matter of time before the assailants attempted to board.

‘Our best bet is to stop them from boarding,’ he told them squarely. He further added that Norman and Frankie should patrol the outskirts of the ship.

Norman and Frankie had not been gone for long when they came rushing down from abaft, clearly startled, shouting that there was an attempt being made to board. There was a flash and then another as the thunderflashes began to fly. Creame came running down. He decided to play it cool, ducking behind the cutter that was wedged between the capstan and the mainmast and doubling back.

'Stun grenades. A lot of smell, a lot of noise, but no real damage. We used then in the SAS,' Creame lied. 'Somebody find a heavy crate, or something. When you've done that, report back to me.'

Billy Buck and Frankie came back dragging behind them Alexander's heavy suitcase.

'Right, join me,' Creame said. He told them to keep well inboard as he ran up the ship with the stealth of a rat. He saw a boarding-pike come hurtling over the side, just missing them standing on the quarter-deck. Creame dived at it like a cat after a mouse as it slid across the deck in its search for anchorage. He held onto it, his heels digging into the deck as he was pulled across by it until he was preventing it from locking onto the gunwale, from which it would be irremovable.

'Bring it over here!' he yelled. They dragged the suitcase over as fast as they could. He could already feel the tug on the rope as somebody tried to clamber up it at the other end. They attached the suitcase to it and Creame threw it overboard. It disappeared into the dark. Looking over, they could see nothing but hear a splash followed by the 'glug' of rising air bubbles. There was an uncanny silence after that.

Then, just as Creame had returned to the rest of the crew and was preparing to congratulate himself, a grapnel came over but this time, before he could prevent it, Onion was clambering on board, breathing heavily.

'What Fleuret said still holds: either you surrender the ship or he gets it. Yellowman's got orders to shoot him if he doesn't hear from me soon,' said Onion.

'It's not me who's stopping you from having the bludy ship,' Creame said petulantly. 'It's the new captain who's in charge now. There's been a mutiny. Remove him and it's all yours. But if Fleuret's not made captain, we'll none of us be entitled to the will. Take control of the ship, by all means, but let's keep Fleuret as captain--at least if only on paper,' he reasoned.

'I see no objections to that,' stated Onion.

Chapter Eleven

'Do you think I did the right thing?' Creame asked the civil servants, but none bothered to answer him and he could tell by their faces that they hadn't, by bargaining with a pirate. He hit on a way to cheer them up and ingratiate himself with Mr Fleuret in one.

'I've just thought of something,' he announced. Mr Fleuret's been through it, you know. Let's give him a rousing reception when he comes on board.'

'How?' one of them asked.

'Well, it's usual to pipe a captain on board, isn't it?'

'Er, how do we go about that?'

'We'll all line up and salute him. That should make him laugh. And we'll all make a noise like a kazoo.'

That seemed to suit civil service mentality, as they all found it very funny. When Mr Fleuret, bedraggled and downcast, was escorted on board, they all cheered him three times and saluted him. Immediately his spirits revived and he began nodding solemnly to each in turn and muttering, 'Thank you...thank you so much,' like some royal dignitary on a walk-about.

When Mr Fleuret took up his position as honorary captain, he invited Creame into his cabin to thank him formally. Outside, Yellowman was busying himself trying to lower the Union Jack from the top of the upper mainmast. It ended with Onion having to clamber up the shrouds to untangle the mess left by Yellowman. 130 ft above deck, the ship small and narrow-beamed below him, the men tiny, he clung as the ship lurched. Onion looked like a gorilla clumsily swaying in the upper branches of a high tree. The Union Jack fluttered down like a crippled butterfly as Onion ripped it unceremoniously from the masthead. As the black pirate flag was hauled up in its place, Carl discreetly folded the Union Jack and put it in his pocket, hoping for the day when the shadow of piracy would be lifted.

'I say, Creame, I can't thank you enough for what you've done for me. When we've seen this voyage out and I inherit my uncle's estate, I'll make you a baron,' Alexander told him in his cabin.

Creame laughed spuriously.

'Why not have a drink with me as a celebration?'

'No, I really shouldn't,' Creame replied, thinking of the bottle of whisky he had two weeks before leaving shore.

They discussed uniforms. Creame brought Alexander to the edge of his seat at the thought of being dressed up as a seventeenth century sea captain. Creame imagined himself as 'Larry', he said.

'You mean Larry Olivier?' asked Mr Fleuret.

'No, I mean Larry Holmes, actually. He lives next door to me. At the mention of 'Larry', Alexander prompted Creame to orate to him, which is what he was there for. He told Creame he was looking for an epithet that would elevate him to the heights of the Roman emperors.

'Try this one for size,' Creame began to beat his breast and saw his arms:

"And it came to pass that a clarion call went out, and out from the mists of time itself there came a hero unlike any before, and all who beheld him were sore afraid, and he was called--Alexander".'

'Oh, goody! That's very good, but it burlesques the Bible just a little, don't you think? But let's have more!' he shouted, clapping his hands and reminding Creame of a toothless seal.

'Hem...try this one: "Friends, Romans, generals, lend me your spears"'.

Mr Fleuret laughed. 'It's good, but it sounds a bit contrived, if you don't mind me saying so.'

Creame knew where the jam was: the installation of Mr Fleuret as captain, as well as having him piped on board, had not been accidental. He contrived to keep Alexander amused, which was being facilitated by Mr Fleuret's intoxication. He was beginning to slur his words and plant his arms heavily on the table. Furthermore, he hung his head for longer and longer periods and flung out his feet carelessly.

He got up and before Creame could stop him, he was through the door, staggering over the deck with his hand in his shirt, shouting: 'I'm the captain now--do you hear? Do you hear me, you bastards? I say, that man--get out of my way.'

'Hey, you! Belay that talk!' It was Onion from aloft.

'It's all right, I'll take care of him,' Creame said, dashing after him to drag him back.

Onion had been helping out with the sail while they were trying to tack. With the exception of Tileshed junior, who was now the cook, each man was not assigned particular duties but helped out in general, as long as he obeyed Onion's orders.

It was Creame's turn to take the bring-'em-near and climb the crow's nest as lookout. He left Alexander covered with a horsehair blanket, sleeping off his drunkenness on the floor.

'Land!' He nearly fell out of the crow's nest. All but Mr Fleuret and Tileshed junior stood on the shrouds. Onion was shouting for them all to come down but nobody obeyed him. The JS men had been confined to their quarters and had it not been for the occasional scant meal by the cook, they probably would have starved. As far as Onion was concerned, it would mean less mouths to feed if they did. Prior to sighting land, Onion had been thinking of casting them adrift in the launch, but Yellowman had argued that they might need it for an emergency.

Creame went to wake Alexander and found him snoring, slumped over the couch. His head was tilted to one side and Carl was squatting naked over a bucket into which he was trying to defecate.

'The poop door's for that sort of thing,' Creame told him, shunning him as he went to rouse Alexander.

'I beg your pardon?' Carl said as though he'd been interrupted sitting at an office desk.

'The poop door's for that, I said. You stick your arse out of it and shit in the sea.'

'I'm certainly not doing that!' Carl told him. 'People will see.'

'It can't be any worse than what you're doing now, can it? Besides, who's going to see you?'

'Well, it's just not the sort of thing I would do, I'm afraid,'

'What's going on here?' Creame asked Alexander, rousing him.

'I gave him a drop morphine in his whisky and he's never been the same since,' Alexander admitted.

As the grey, cloud-like smudge on the horizon unravelled into a definite coastline, everyone showed relief. Fleuret and Creame were ordered into a dinghy that was to scout ahead and check for any dangerous protuberances in the sea-bed. Onion shouted at Fleuret to go with Creame, Fleuret pointed out that the dinghy might capsize if he got in it. Onion couldn't give a monkey's. Onion threatened to have him keel-hauled.

Fleuret and Creame slandered him once they were out of earshot in the dinghy.

'What's his game with us: he's already tried to do us in once,' Fleuret complained, thinking of the time he had forced him to run up the hill and back.

'So you've noticed it as well? I'm damned sure there's something up with him. It's too much of a coincidence, isn't it?'

They saw the ship slowly sinking.

'Hurrah!' responded Fleuret.

'Yes, I knew of it. Wonderful, isn't it?'

'You knew all about it?'

'Yes. I did it. I knocked a few holes in it before we left. It should delay them for a bit.'

'Oh, Creame, I say, you're brilliant.'

'Yes, I know.'

There was a deep submarine groan followed by the sound of splintering wood.

'Well, that's them done for. It's a pity about your poor old friend Carl, though. He might have been the only one worth saving.'

'Oh, he'll probably swim to shore, knowing that lucky little shit.'

'Can he swim?' asked Creame.

'He says he can swim underwater but not on top.'

'I've never heard that one before.'

It lurched and the topmasts broke away, but the rigging kept them staid.

'Where are we?' Alexander asked.

'I don't know yet. Africa, perhaps.'

Alexander shuddered.

'Well, this is it,' Creame remarked when they reached the shore. He stepped out and lay down in the shallow water, letting the cool waves lap over him.

'It doesn't seem very tropical to me,' Mr Fleuret remonstrated.

'Perhaps it's their winter.'

'They don't have winters in the tropics.'

'Perhaps it's near the South Pole, or something. I don't know.'

'We've only been at sea a couple of days.'

'It's a miracle I came across land when I did, or I may have ended up eating you,' Creame said.

Alexander looked horrified for a moment: 'You wouldn't do that, would you?'

Creame had to reassure him that he wouldn't. Alexander hated barbarism and cannibalism.

'What are we going to do now?' Mr Fleuret asked.

'We could split up to look for food and water,' Creame suggested.

'No, I want to stay with you,' Alexander promptly replied.

'It's just the two of us, then, is it?'

'I'll be all right with you, Creame. We stuck together in the Conservative party, remember?' He was reflecting on the times they had gone canvassing together, when Creame had smoked a pipe and branded himself a political animal.

'I'd rather not.'

Towards nightfall they built a fire, having spent the day collecting wood for it and crabs to roast over it. While they were sitting round it, Creame entertained Alexander by singing him hymns. They both laughed, Creame wrinkling his nose and guffawing and Alexander by whooping like a walrus, but Creame fell silent and urged Alexander to do likewise.

'What is it?'

'Shh! I thought I heard something.'

'Maybe some of the crew have gone ashore,' suggested Mr Fleuret.

'Whatever it is, I'm not taking any chances.'

'Where are you going?'

'To the dinghy: I'm going to get the hell out to another part of the island.'

'Wait for me! I'm coming with you.'

'Do you have to follow me everywhere?'

They rowed further up the coastline until they came to a creek that wound through a wooded area, where they headed so that they would not be seen, but before they had quite reached the shore, the moon came out and Creame immediately stopped rowing and squatted on his haunches like a gorilla. He pulled back his shoulders and looked up at the moon, baring his large, glinting teeth.

'Let's wade ashore,' Alexander said, terrified.

'I don't know. I can't swim after they patched me up after the crash.' He brought his gaze level with Alexander and used his 'Archer' muppet smile on him. Suddenly he jumped overboard and scrambled for the shore.

'Wait for me!' Alexander shouted, but Creame wasn't listening. He was urging his legs against the water, garnishing himself with foam. Alexander chased him, panic causing him to writhe like a mosquito that has broken the skin of a pond and cannot escape. When he reached the shingled shore, he began to feel very cold, weary and forlorn.

'Creame, where are you?' he shouted into the dark mass or trees surrounding him. Getting no response, he kicked the sand in frustration and sat down, his brow furrowed. Something whistled past his head and landed beside him with a dull thud. He jumped up and glared around him. When another object landed in almost the same place, he spun round and shouted defiantly: 'Come out and show yourselves, you bastards!'

Hearing a shrill whistle, he looked for the source but saw only trees. It came again and this time he saw a grey pair of trousers through the trees. Someone was running from tree to tree and hiding.

'Is that you, Creame? Stop playing silly buggers, will you?' He advanced cautiously. A man leapt out from behind a tree and loped off. Alexander sat down feeling bewildered. It was not long before he was startled by another noise and he turned to see Creame trying to sneak up on him.

'How, Tonto.'

'I think what you just did was despicable, Creame.'

'Me not Creame; me Crazy Horse.

'You see that?' Creame said, indicating a very old oak. 'They used to hang shipwrecked frogs on it thinking they were monkeys.'

'How do you know that?' Alexander's tone was querulous.

'Because there was someone up there shaking the boughs and shouting "Monkeys" last time I looked.'

'I think you're making a monkey out of me.'

'No, seriously. Go and take a look.'

'It's all right, I'll believe you. Where are we going to sleep? I'm cold.'

'We daren't light a fire for fear of being seen, but a blanket of sand's as good as a kick in the nuts. Watch me,' Creame said, ploughing out a bed for himself, getting in it and covering his body with sand.

'I don't know how you can be happy with this,' Alexander complained when they were both settled in their sand-beds side by side.

'Me? Oh!' Creame laughed. 'I'm not happy unless I'm sleeping under three feet of snow, with blocks of ice covering my feet. I call this warm.'


'Yes, and furthermore, I dip my head in a bucket of benzene every morning.'

In the morning the sun was shining cheerfully. They awoke within a few minutes of each other and made their way inland. They were surprised to come across a flock of sheep grazing in a field. Creame went forward to try to stroke one.

'Don't get too close, Creame, for God's sake, or you might stampede them and we'll be crushed.'

They decided to strike out away from the forest and had not gone very far when Creame grabbed Alexander by the neck with one hand and tried to point to something with the other. ‘Look!’ he said and showed Alexander a village in the valley.

Alexander began to weep for joy, shouting: ‘Civilization at last, after filth and squalor.’

Creame spoke to his watch, saying: ‘I’m going down to take a look, Jim.’

‘What are we going to do? We haven’t any money. We’ll starve like dogs.’

‘Leave that to me.’

‘What if they don’t understand you?’

‘I can speak in Tongues.’

‘Look over there in the valley: the Red Lion pub.’

‘I thought so. We must be in America. You wait here while I go down.’

‘What are you going to do?’

‘Wait here. You’ll see,’ said Creame; he liked to keep people in suspense.

Alexander sat on a hill overlooking the village, watching Creame making his way down to the small country pub. He was gone a long time. Alexander was starting to worry when he reappeared.

‘What happened?’ asked Alexander.

Creame said nothing but placed a sympathetic hand on his shoulder. ‘Well, chum, I’m sorry to have to break it to you like this, but I’m leaving you.’

These words hit Alexander like a pile of bricks; his head spun round for a while and he thought he was going to collapse: his heart was thumping him into oblivion. Creame explained that he had just landed himself a job fitting spotlights on the pub.

‘There’s good news, however. We’re still in England. We must have been blown back to shore, eh?’ Creame went on talking, but Alexander was no longer listening. Creame was relating his plan, which was, as he put it, to accumulate enough money to enable them to look for treasure on their own; he said that he had a suspicion that there was some buried nearby. He suggested that Alexander endeavour to find employment in the meantime and cordially offered to keep him from the threshold of starvation by smuggling out food for him. Roundly speaking, this would consist of peanuts, crisps and any slops he could lay his hands on that were on the pub’s menu.

He was to start work immediately and would be staying at the inn until the work was done.

Alexander stood on the hill-top, brooding in deep despair. Below, Creame fetched out a pair of aluminium ladders and he heard the distant clatter as Creame set them up to reach the first sign that required illuminating.

So he had disowned him. It was as though a bitter, cold, mercantile and estranging influence had suddenly overtaken him.

When Alexander got over the shock, to as much extent as he could, he set his task to hunting out local churches, libraries, museums and other places of historical influence, where he hoped to find work as a guide.

He tried everywhere without success. Penniless and broken, he went back to Creame and asked him if he could give him the money to get him to the Roman wall, ie his own Wailing Wall: for consolation if not for work.

Alexander felt it was there he belonged. Just to be walking up and down the wall for the rest of his life would have suited him.

While staying at Valium Lodge on a previous visit (which was within sight of the wall), he became inspired to write the following:

‘As I sit here looking out over a gloomy, bruised sky above the line of the wall that reminds me of advancing Romans, I realize that it is here where I belong, along with the noble blood of the Romans that gave their lives for their empire, and now lie fertilizing the soil with their precious life-blood. I long to become one of them. Outside, there is a howling gale and even some snow. Here is where I belong--a true Son of Rome.’

When he had shown Carl this, all he could manage was to make some puerile joke, calling Vindolanda, ‘Vindaloo’.

This time too, he thought that the spirit embraced him like a dying opponent he had just slain. Opening the front of his white shirt and thrusting his fist triumphantly into the air, he declaimed from the top of the wall: ‘I, Caesar!’, to the sheep.

Walking along the straight, military road that ran by the wall, he made it to Hexham and caught the train back to where Creame was, removing his plastic shoes on the beach. He realized that his feet were blistered. He ate the food in the plastic bag thrown in the back lane by Creame and thought over the events of the day.

Apart from the disappointment of being rebuffed by Creame and then by the people he approached for work, one scene stuck stubbornly in his mind.

When he tried the primary schools, he noticed through one classroom window that the teacher had lined the pupils up against the walls of the classroom and was making them hold hands and sing:

‘New York, New York, so good they named it twice. New York, New York, all the scandal and the vice...’

He advanced into the sea, yelling: ‘Socrates!’

Chapter Twelve

Mr Patsy was 'in town'. On getting home, he checked his answering machine and found that Creame had tried to reach him with news of a job. He invited him to visit him at the pub. He was told to bring a 'heavy', as there might be a 'blag' on.

The only really heavy friend Mr Patsy could think of was Bertie Bivouac. Mr Bivouac kept a butcher’s shop. Although he was quite young, he was balding, his chin was smoothed over with fat and he could hardly walk.

Mr Patsy packed his bags into the back of a taxi and was taken to where Bertie lived, above the butcher's shop. He was still in the shop, sweeping up the mess on the floor, when Mr Patsy arrived. He answered in a blood-stained apron, wiping his hands on a rag. His eyes glittered like blackcurrants in a slab of dough upon seeing Mr Patsy, who opened with: 'Bertie, I've got to have a parley with you'.

'Come inside,' he replied, removing his bulk which was blocking the doorway and stamping into the middle of the sawdust-covered floor. His tiny feet waggled out of his body like the eyes of a crab and his whole body seemed to float like a hot-air balloon.

'Bertie, can you come and help me find something?' Patsy said, once inside.


'Yes, if you can. I've got a cab waiting outside.'

'Okay then. I'll just lock up,' said Bertie, changing into his nylon anorak. He squeezed into the front of the taxi with the ease of a marshmallow being stuffed into a keyhole. He thought that whatever Mr Patsy had in mind would take no longer than half an hour at most and then he would be driven back. Mr Patsy waited until they were on the open road before telling him that they were going to catch a train. Bertie replied that it would be out of the question, because he would have to make arrangements with somebody to look after the shop while he was away, but he would gladly follow as soon as he could.

'That's okay, sonny. Just go,' Mr Patsy replied as the last of the suitcases was being unloaded at the railway station. 'I'll pay the driver to take you back, if that's what you want.'

As Patsy watched Bertie Bivouac leave him standing on the platform with a pile of luggage, his parting shout of, 'I've seen them come and go in my time, that's for sure,' echoed after Bertie.

The only cheerful thing Mr Patsy saw in the town at his arrival was the bus shelter, strewn with cigarette ends and empty whisky bottles, where some drunks had set up camp. Those who were still awake were watching a drunken old tramp in a paint-stained green nylon Parka that was two sizes too small for him dancing round the bottles and trying to sing like Louis Armstrong. Someone somewhere was trying to sing a carol.

He screwed up his red face against the sun, hideously baring his yellow teeth that were ameliorated only slightly by his ginger, fatherly beard. His eyes were shaded by a sombrero that had recently taken his fancy. It was sundown by the time he arrived at the brilliant inn where Creame worked.

'Creame, A've bin walkin' all day. I've never been in this neck o' the woods before--are you readin' me?'

Creame studied him queerly in silence while he sat in a chair, tugged off his boots and massaged his feet. He decided to accommodate him on straw in the cellar until the arrival of Bertie Bivouac.

When Bertie did arrive, about a week later, Mr Patsy was as sick as a parrot and was ready to go home. His big figure loomed in silhouette in the doorway. He called out to Mr Patsy who had been carving on a few pieces of wood by candle-light. Mr Patsy spat on the floor and answered in a gruff voice: 'Yep, I'm here. Come on down'.

Bertie proceeded cautiously down the rickety wooden stairs, afraid that they would give way under his weight. Mr Patsy shared his concern. He had intended carving until Bertie reached him, when he would look up with a mean squint, but the thought of Bertie Bivouac rolling across the floor and knocking him over like a skittle put paid to this.

'I was just getting ready to ride,' said Mr Patsy, pausing from carving the wood. Creame appeared with a plate of food and gave it to Bertie, who set it aside saying that he was not hungry and would eat it later; but Creame saw the way that he looked at it.

They were left together for the night, sleeping under straw in the cellar.

It became cold at about four o' clock in the morning. Mr Bivouac trembled like a huge jellyfish.

At six o' clock Creame entered bearing a huge tray.

He could not see his way in the dark and his feet stumbled on the wooden stairs. He was calling out softly just as a piece of crockery smashed onto the floor, causing Mr Bivouac to jerk with a grunt, but soon he shuddered and rolled over again like a whale. Mr Patsy ate the bacon and eggs brought by Creame and having rended the meat from the fat like a rugged tiger, licked his fingers.

Bertie woke up. His flabby face sagged even more when Mr Patsy mentioned that he had eaten all the food. The smell of cooking was tormenting his empty stomach. To his relief, Creame appeared again, this time with an ice-bucket full of tomato soup which was left over from the guests.

Bertie's tongue nearly touched the floor as he grasped it with both hands and swigged greedily from it like the captain of a victorious football team. Creame looked on in silent abhorrence as Bertie poured the soup in the general direction of his mouth and gulped it down with all the ferocity of famine, as if he had not eaten for a week.

Since Creame had taken on the pub job, he had become more apathetic. He had appointed himself his friends' supervisor. By the afternoon he had fitted a light-socket into the cellar ceiling. The next day he wheeled in a gas-bottle on a trolley to keep them warm. When they got the flame roaring, he sat on the first wooden step and gazed at his fingertips while Bertie and Patsy practised exercises under his instruction. Occasionally he would look up and make a suggestion, but otherwise he was silent and introspective. It appeared that the work was slack.

When the air was sufficiently warm for him and intolerably hot for those who were working out, he would turn off the heater, leaving a ringing of it in their ears. He referred to this routine as a 'training course', to toughen them up for their 'mission'.

He was promoted to Assistant Manager of the inn, while the manager took a holiday. Patsy and Bertie were growing bored. Their daily routine of looking for work met with as much success as Alexander’s. Mr Patsy had even tried the local circus, but the only vacancy was for an acrobat. He was terrified of heights: when he had to go up to repair the roof of his bungalow, he would cling to it as his cat clung to his head. He built himself a cat-ladder that must have weighed a ton, because he was afraid that it would break. There was more danger of it crashing through the roof because of its weight. He liked to have both his feet on the ground; although in many cases his head was in the clouds.

Creame’s job was paying well. He spent his evenings at the end of the bar with a clique of flatterers who were constantly seeking drinks on the house.

The barman was a local drunk named Mad Mick, who staggered from table to table when collecting glasses and regularly ended up floating face-down in the river on his way home.

Creame drank vodka, wore a fake Rolex watch, expensive grey suits and had gone twenty miles for a pair of shoes that exactly matched, while Mr Patsy and Bertie spent their evenings in the cellar playing cards. Sometimes Creame brought them slops out of the beer trays and he allowed them the use of an outside toilet, where they could ‘wash’ themselves with cold water.

While they were turning filthier and smellier by the day, Creame was seeing a customer called Maria, whom he would walk home and after a rainstorm she would kick off her shoes and dance barefoot along the road.

Mr Fleuret lay on the beach in shabby trousers and faithful fur-collared anorak reading a copy of the Daily Telegraph he had stolen from a newspaper rack. Although he never smoked, he decided to start and he managed to buy a packet of cigarettes with some change Creame had thrown him. By the time he had smoked half of a cigarette, he was staggering around intoxicated, green in the face and expectorating. Not fully aware of what he was doing, he threw the butt into the open window of a taxi. He heard someone shouting behind him but was too ill to care.

Asking for Creame at the inn, he was surprised by his appearance in a grey suit.

‘Hello, Alexander. How’s it going?’ (He was almost as fond of saying this as he was of, This is it.)

But before Alexander could tell him, Creame said he wanted to introduce him to someone. He promised Alexander a place to sleep and a plate of Harrods’ cake; which cheered him up no end when Creame told him that the Queen Mother ate it.

‘I say, Creame: this is all rather splendid.’

‘This way.’

‘But through there is the kitchen, isn’t it? I thought you were going to show me where I’m staying.’

‘I am--okay?’

Being escorted made him feel important and he clasped his hands behind his back as he followed Creame through.

In the gloom of the cellar, Mr Patsy slowly turned to Bertie and said, with a mischievous glint in his eye:

‘Sounds like somebody’s got a big mouth,’ though clenched teeth which he had just been rubbing clean with his finger. There was a clamour coming from upstairs as though pan-lids were being thrown around. The noise ceased and Creame appeared in the door-way, lingering as if digesting a stubborn morsel of thought before coming down.

‘Somethin’ bin chewin’ yer, matey?’

‘Patsy, cut the cowboy crap,’ said Creame, ejecting a lump of chewing-gum which landed beside Mr Patsy. Mr Patsy went as red as a beetroot but kept his silence.

‘Alexander’s been back. I offered him a bed for the night if he did some washing-up, but he walked out on me,’ Creame explained.

‘What? A real bed?’ quivered Bertie.

‘Well, I actually meant a space on the floor in here.’ He snapped his fingers and said: ‘We’re away tomorrow. Be ready by noon.’

The next day they were awakened by Creame, who turned on the light. He was dressed in khaki shorts and football boots.

‘Get up. We’re going for a warm-up,’ he ordered, while running on the spot. He led them through the streets in the brisk morning and his studs hit the pavement louder than a whole field of runners.

They returned with Bertie Bivouac five minutes behind. Creame changed into his suit after a shower and brought them a plate of the biggest turkey legs wrapped in foil that they had ever seen. For dessert they were given as much jelly as they could eat. When Bertie could eat no more, he lay back blissfully massaging his flab and was ready to sleep it off when Creame returned with a couple of hard scrubbing brushes and a bucket of cold water.

‘I come bearing gifts. Okay men, get cleaned up. I’m not taking a couple of tramps with me.’

As they had been nowhere near a bath for several weeks, they stripped off and scrubbed themselves with the hard brushes. Mr Patsy was enjoying this crude shower, scrubbing himself raw. He commented on the days he spent ‘in Her Majesty’s service’, meaning his Army days, but by which Bertie inferred that he had done time. Bertie tried to scrub lightly, which was difficult with a hard brush. He was complaining of the absence of soap and hot water. Creame threw them a jumble of clothes, saying: ‘Try these on,’ and left. They found women’s and men’s clothing in the pile that showered over them. Mr Patsy strolled naked over to some of the clothes. Having worked for a tailor, he was meticulous about clothes, caressing the fabric, stretching it and sniffing it. He tried on a pair of snow white trousers followed by a chequered shirt. After parading round in them incessantly seeking Bertie’s opinion, he said forlornly: ‘I can’t wear these: I look like a puff.’

Bertie was even less fortunate. There were shirts and trousers all over, but none would fit. The only garment that came anywhere near was a pink frilly girl’s frock. It looked as if it had been made for an overgrown schoolgirl of about twenty-five stone. Mr Patsy’s face turned scarlet with amusement as he watched the colossal Bertie parading round in it and the cladding of fat quivering round his pale, hairy legs.

Creame dismissed their protests by saying that if they were not satisfied, they could bugger off. He did manage to find Bertie a shaggy ginger wig and a razor. He shaved his legs and face and put on the wig, making him more monster than girl. Creame brought him some bright red lipstick Maria had thrown at him after a row. He handed them two suitcases and told Bertie to speak in a high falsetto voice.

In town, he hired a green Ford Escort with a roof-rack for their digging-tools, which he also hired.

It took them most of the day to reach wherever it was that they were supposed to be going; which location Creame did not disclose.

As they climbed higher on the dusty road that took them into the mountains, they stopped at the roadside to take a look around. It was cold and windy and the air thin, causing their ringing ears to pop. Both looked on in amazement as Creame knelt down and kissed the ground.

They were at the top of a concave slope. The whole landscape seemed to be tinged with purple. Mr Patsy felt a chill running through him, and the howling wind blew their hair about them. Creame turned and said: ‘Well, Patsy, do you think we’re anywhere near it yet?’

‘I don’t know--I just don’t know. I thought you might know,’ he replied, eating the wind.

Creame turned and shuddered. ‘I think we’ll try over there,’ pointing to a boulder at the roadside. ‘Let’s get to it with the shovels.’

‘What do you expect to find under it, if I may ask?’ said Patsy.

Creame was puzzled and then he laughed. ‘If I knew that, I’d be laughing.’ He did not want to admit that he was acting on no more than a speculative rumour.

Mr Patsy shook his head in bewilderment and began to unstrap a spade from the roof-rack. Two excavated while one rested; though Creame always seemed to be the one resting. He ordered them to undermine one side so that it could be rolled away.

It looked about ready to give. They got behind and humped it forward. They did not count on it rolling so cleanly, on account of the slope of the land, but it jumped out of the hole they had made for it and went careering into the side of the car.

Creame got into the car and tried to start it, without success. He opened the bonnet and looked inside, calling for his tools that were in the boot. He undid a few nuts and, finding that he still couldn’t start it, threw the nuts at Mr Bivouac’s feet, accusing him of negligence. He lost his temper and behaved like a spoilt child smashing a toy that wouldn’t work.

‘And you can shut up, too!’ he yelled at a crow. They nearly laughed, until they realized it was a manifestation of pettishness.

Finally he had to concede defeat and he sat on the ground, leaning against the side of the car and shut his eyes, made weary by his efforts.

He opened them and mumbled something. Mr Patsy asked him to repeat it.

‘I said, Where’s the nearest telephone?’ he baulked.

After cogitation, Bertie replied: ‘We passed one in the village a couple of miles back.’

He returned about an hour later, and said: ‘Somebody’s coming. It’s a mechanic friend of mine who lives locally.’

As nobody was talking, they soon picked up a sound like a wasp, which was identified as a two-stroke engine at a distance. A moped came towards them.

At the roadside, the rider stopped and dismounted, taking off his crash-helmet, which seemed of more worth than his moped.

‘Can you fix it, partner?’ Patsy asked, as the rider strolled over to the incident like a highway patrolman.

‘That all depends, mister. I’m only the mechanic, not a magician.’

Apart from cutting a very unusual figure, his speech was slow and simple, as though he were speaking to children. His leathers could not hide his bulging belly. This was Mr Goose. He had bug-eyes and was bald, except for a tuft of hair brushed back so that it looked like a Gorbachev birthmark.

He told them he was a time-served mechanic. Mr Patsy asked him where he had served his time. He cited ‘Butchinsky Transport Co.’; which was rather odd as Creame remembered it to be ‘Bronson Transport Ltd’.

‘She’s badly dented. What was it--an avalanche?’

‘You could say that, matey.’

Mr Goose scratched his madman’s beard and commented, ‘It’s not in bad nick for an S reg, is it? Had it long?’

‘About half a day.’

‘I’ll have to go back for my Snap-on tools.’

‘I’ve got some in the boot,’ said Creame.

After trying them, Mike Goose said they were the wrong size and insisted that he would have to go back for his own. Creame went with him, to give him a hand.

‘Hop on, mate. I’ll get you there in no time.’

‘Where’s the spare helmet?’

‘There isn’t one. You’ll be all right, though. No Bears come this way.’

Instructing Patsy and Bertie to sit in the car and touch nothing in his absence, Creame sat frigidly clutching Mike as the moped swerved all over, trying to pull the increased load.

They arrived at a row of council houses where he rented an upstairs flat. An unsavoury smell manifested itself like an evil presence at the foot of the stairs. A small black mongrel began rolling about and pissing over itself. It had been driven half-mad by Mike firing replica cap-guns at it at point-blank range. It in return had considered its master to be of such merit as to anoint his pate with ordure whilst he was asleep; for which it had ‘gone parachuting out of the window without a parachute’.

He was too repulsed by the smell to take much notice of the framed pencil sketches of film stars lining the staircase walls. They were adeptly drawn, though not professional. One was of John Wayne, after whom he named his dog ‘Duke’. He had drunkenly tried to strap a gun-belt to 'Duke'. Another was of Noel Coward. Creame did an excellent impression of him, prompting Mike to don a camel-hair dressing-gown and strut up and down, one hand in pocket, the other lazily holding a cigarette. He smacked his lips and said: ‘My dear boy,’ while half closing his eyes.

Creame tired of this and glanced at what he first thought was a bookshelf. It turned out to be a shelf for videotapes and CDs of Star Wars, The Omen, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, Mad Max, and a series of Star Trek and Bronson movies.

‘I see you’re admiring my little collection,’ Mike said, finally noticing Creame’s shift in attention away from him.

‘Yes, it’s got bigger since I was last here. How can you afford this lot on the dole?’

Creame got no answer, but was anyway studying a crack in a picture on the wall and asked how it got there.

‘I had a bit of a brawl with a buddy and he fell against it.’ Mike related how he had pinned him against the wall and sprayed air-freshener down his throat after offering him a ‘sausage’-roll made with a dog turd.

In the kitchen, Creame noticed more evidence of Mike’s uncleanliness. Something in a forgotten corner had a lavish coat of mould. Mike, noticing him staring at it, remarked: ‘It’s a Christmas dinner I didn’t like very much. It’s penicillin, though,’ which to demonstrate, he plucked off a piece and ate it, smiling oafishly. Creame averted his gaze in disgust. By this time the coffee was nearly ready and Creame found it unavoidable to drink it, since he had accepted the offer before witnessing this ghastly demonstration.

Creame followed him into the room on the other side of the landing, where his bedroom was. The bed was a filthy mattress bedecked with a knot of grimy sheets. A pool table was set up in the middle of the room and broken pieces of railway track and models heaped beneath. A stack of Mayfair magazines reached the height of the bed beside it.

‘Fancy a quick frame?’ he asked, and was setting up the pool balls before Creame could object.

Halfway through the game, which was about even, Mike threw his cigarette across the room. He kept picking it up and repeating this performance. At first, it looked so contrived that he wasn’t sure whether to laugh, but after a few times he began to think it a ruse for sympathy. Then Mike began to smack his lips and fiddle with the buttons of his cardigan, staring absently into space.

‘Are you all right?’ Creame enquired at last.

Mike shook his head as though to ward off tiredness and replied: ‘Yes, it’s probably just a minor attack. My petite mal’s playing up again. It’s probably because I’ve got nothing to eat.’

Creame wondered why he could not buy food instead of cigarettes with his money. Often he had come back from the shop laden with cigarettes.

‘I’d buy a "fishie", if only I had the money,’ he now said.

A ‘fishie’ was a fish lot and his remark an intimation that he desired one at Creame’s expense. Creame normally hardened his heart against such pleas, but because he was borrowing his tools, he felt it incumbent on him to buy Mike one. As if to emphasize the point, he added, ‘There’s a chip shop down the road, if you want to buy yourself one before you borrow my tools. I’d offer to buy you one, but my Giro doesn’t come till next week.’

Creame returned with two fish lots. Mike fed a portion of it to his dog that also hadn’t eaten in days. Then he repeated the trick with the cigarette. Although a minor epileptic, he played on it and would often fake a fit in an effort to detain Creame. This time he bent down to pick up the cigarette, fell on the bed and began twitching and gurgling. Then he looked up imploringly, murmuring a feeble prayer for an ambulance.

‘Where’s your telephone?’ asked Creame, flustered.

‘In the dustbin. I smashed it up after they cut me off in the middle of a call.’ He neglected to add that he had been served with a disconnection notice months beforehand.

Creame had to go to a public call-box. Mike insisted that Creame accompany him in the ambulance, but as soon as he realized what he had done, he began to revive. The feeble, twitching form that was stretchered into the ambulance made a total recovery in transit. He emerged on sturdy legs, joking and telling them he was all right.

Unbeknown to him, his troubles were just beginning. Arriving back at his house, he discovered that while one branch of the emergency services had been attending to his mind’s habitat, another had been concerned with his body’s.

‘There seems to be a lot of people gathered. It looks as though there’s been a fire,’ Creame remarked as they drew into the his street in a taxi paid for by Creame. ‘It’s very near to your house, Mike, in fact. You did pick that cigarette up off the carpet, didn’t you?’

While Mike was throwing real fits on the pavement outside his house, having bounded from the taxi before it had stopped, Creame decided it was time to leave.

‘Drive on,’ he told the driver.

Mike found his dog rolling about merrily outside the remains of the brunt-out shell that was once his home. He carried it to the police station and threw it on the desk.

‘Me and Duke’s been made homeless,’ he told the duty officer, with his arm round it to stop it scrambling over the desk.

‘What do you expect me to do about it?--And get that mut of my desk!’

‘I’m not moving an inch until you’ve found me somewhere to live. Get down, Duke,’ said Mike, shoving the dog off.

‘We can’t. The only thing I can suggest is that you try the Little Sisters of the Poor. They sometimes put homeless people up. They own the convent that overlooks the town.’

‘Right-ho,’ said Mike, dragging his dog across the floor. ‘But I’ll be back if I don’t get satisfaction.’

‘You’d better not,’ warned the policeman.

Mike walked until he was at the foot of the highest hill in the area. He climbed the path breathlessly, until he was at the top, looking over the whole town.

The convent, which was surrounded by a wall, looked like an old infirmary. A porter’s lodge was by the main iron gates, which were locked. Seeing a bell, Mike rang it. It was not a bell as such, but pushing the button generated an eerie organ sound somewhere within. He was greeted by a very decrepit, red-faced old man.

‘I need somewhere to stay for the night; the police sent me here,’ he told the porter, who seemed a trifle deaf.

‘You can’t come in here with that cat.’

‘I can’t leave Duke--and he’s not a cat. He’s a dog. Aren’t you, Duke?’


‘Well, all the same, get rid of it, and then we’ll talk about it. Good-night,’ and he closed the door of the lodge.

It was not too cold, so he decided to sleep at the foot of the hill, where he jotted down a poem on some toilet roll he had stolen from the hospital.

Epitaph for Duke

O Duke who once all my company

You could not give me words to console

The hands that clawed and gorged with misery

When jobbing ended fruits of endless dole.

My body you warmed with black fur when holes

Like sad woofs moonlight shone disgrace through jeans

That were my only pair. At whom does your soul

Snarl now? Does your new master feed you with means?

I gave you food when I had none;

I my decision made for you when instead

Everyone said I should kill you and keep my home,

But with you and moonlit bench I made my bed.

With you and Elvis I'll lay down my head

We'll all be happy; we'll never hunger

And though the frost will bite when we are together

It'll freeze the birds but make us laugh: we'll be dead.

Creame and his friends were also in need of a place to stay for the night. Being told of the same place by the taxi driver, he left Mr Bivouac in the car to watch over it while he and Mr Patsy went to the nunnery. They reached the foot of the hill on the opposite side to where Mr Goose was dossing.

There was a grove leading from the nunnery to a dismantled railway line. They could see a speck of light moving along its course in the distance. It was a Reliant Robin. Mr Patsy called it a 'Plastic Pig'. They hid in the trees of the grove. They were startled to see it turning towards them.

'Get ready to overturn it if it stops,' said Creame.

'I'll do my best,' growled Mr Patsy, pushing back his shirt sleeves.

The three-wheeler followed a stony track through the trees, passing them. They saw in it two nuns.

They were intrigued to discover a sunken archway going under the wall, through which it was obvious the car had gone.

'I wonder why they don't use the main entrance?' said Mr Patsy.

'Hide! They're coming back,' Creame whispered, pushing Mr Patsy into the foliage. He had seen two nuns strolling down to the archway. When they reached the lowest point, directly beneath the wall, they each took hold of one half of the iron gate, folding them together. They chained and padlocked it.

'How very odd!' mused Creame.

'I suppose we'll just have to go round the other way now.'

'You are missing the point, old chap. They're up to something in there: I can sense it, or why else would they have come this way?'

'Perhaps the other way was too steep for them.'

'But look: there's a road round the wall,' he said, pointing it out. I'm afraid you'll have to go over the wall to gather intelligence.'

'I'll never get over that. I'm too dumpy.'

'You will with my help. You can get onto my back, if you like.'

After he checked the coast was clear, Mr Patsy stepped onto Creame's back. Creame, being startled by a noise, stood upright, sending Mr Patsy hurtling over the wall.

As would be Mr Patsy's luck, a lush crowd of nettles was waiting to greet him on the other side. A yell from Mr Patsy compromised the investigation. What an odd sight he looked squirming about mawkishly on the ground in an attempt to rid himself of the pain as silently as could be endured. Once past this obstacle, he wove his way between the horse chestnut trees and found among some yews a garden shed which looked well-maintained. It was not locked. It was reached by a well-trodden path. Inside, Mr Patsy could see two nuns' uniforms slung in a corner. They were still warm.

Taking advantage of the opportunity, he changed into one of the uniforms. Hobnailed boots and a part of his hairy ankles stuck out. He stumbled towards the nunnery, making the Sign of the Cross when a nun stared at him. Round the corner, he could just make out two men entering a door high up by a fire escape. He decided to follow them in the hope of discovering something. He reached the top of the metal stairs.

The door opened onto a landing. After peeping round it for a while, he was contemplating going in further when someone bustled up the stairs. It was one of the men he had followed. A nervous, red-faced man, he was hurrying by with a stack of papers under his arm.

Deciding this was too dangerous a place to intrude, he continued up as high as he could go on the outside staircase. It ended in a fire exit, which rattled awfully when he tried to open it. A few seconds' later a bar on the other side was thumped and the door flung open. A red-faced man looked out.

'Well?' he demanded. 'What's the idea of coming up this far in uniform? Do you want to get us all found out?'

'I'm--I'm sorry. I'll go down immediately and come up the proper way.'

'You might as well come in now that you're here. If anybody's seen you, it's too late to do anything about it now.' The red-faced man beckoned him into a small study. Three walls were lined with books. A small wooden chair and a workbench were in the middle. On the workbench was a curious machine.

'I don't recall having seen your face before. Proselyte, are you?'

Mr Patsy frowned and decided to humour him. 'Yes. That's right--Proselyte,' he stammered, stepping forward to shake his hand.

'Who nominated you?'

'Nominated? Oh, yes, well it was Patsy,' Mr Patsy gave for want of a better name.

'Patsy? You don't mean Sister de Patsy, do you?'

'Yes. D. Patsy's my sister,' he stammered.

At that moment he was saved from giving himself away under further interrogation by a bold knock at the door of such force as to have burst it down had not its hinges been hale.

Upon receiving permission to enter, a robust man in fatigues, but wearing a nun's veil and wimple came marching in, saluted and said: 'Permission to speak, Doctor Hoffman, sir.'

Hoffman nodded, then, noticing his hesitation because of the stranger's presence, added: 'It's okay, Nun-captain Onion. Go ahead.'

'There's a man sleeping at the foot of the mountain, sir. The porter reported him.'

'Describe him.'

'Flabby posture. Balding. Baggy jeans. Appears to have a dog with him.'

'Have you any idea what he's doing there?'

'The porter says he was here looking for a place to stay, but he wouldn't let him in because of the animal.'

'He might be a snoop.'

'Should I mobilize the Nun Police, sir?'

The doctor scratched his chin thoughtfully before answering: 'Later'.

Patsy agreed to dig the garden in return for a meal and a bed for the night.

Creame had grown impatient hiding in the bushes and he decided to go over the wall.

'Can I go forward when my heart is here?' he said before coming to grips with the bricks and afterwards with the nettles in the same manner as Mr Patsy.

He pushed back the obdurate boughs of the horse chestnuts and embarked on the same path as Mr Patsy had done several hours' before.

Creame felt as though he were ploughing his way through a jungle rather than just a couple of acres of a nunnery's grounds. When he found the shed, he fell asleep in it for the night, there being no alternative.

The next morning, after having spent the night curled up in a ball on some rags, he stretched his stiff limbs and went to take a look round. His progress was hindered by the sight of a nun vigorously digging a trench in the flower bed and throwing soil by the spade full in a pile on the lawn behind her. The trench was about a yard by two yards and having excavated several feet of soil, she paused to catch her rasping breath. Creame could not believe what he saw when she took off her veil and wimple and bared the face and beard of Patsy. He staggered forward, breaking from his cover.

‘Mr Patsy, why are you digging that hole? And why are you dressed as a nun? What’s happened?’

‘I’ve been ordered to dig a grave,’ he said, sticking the spade in the ground and wiping his brow with his gown.’

‘What for?’

‘I don’t know--Doctor Hoffman just said so.’

‘Doctor who? What’s a doctor doing in this place? Is it a man?’

‘I think so, but you can never tell these days,’ Mr Patsy growled.

‘Take me to the heathen’s nest!’

Creame followed Mr Patsy up the shaky fire exit and barged in. Hoffman stood up indignantly from his desk, his face quivering; Creame was surprised with what confronted him.

‘Yellowman!’ he shouted at the doctor.

‘What about him?’

‘Surely you’re Squadron Leader Yellowman,’ said Creame, less confidently.

‘He’s my brother. Now who the devil are you to barge in here uninvited, and who is this man?’ he demanded of Mr Patsy. ‘Why have you brought him here, and how does he know Yellowman?’

Creame, recognizing that here was a servant for his knowledge, took advantage of his anonymity, composed himself and strolled forward confidently, with a smirk like a policeman catching a petty thief red-handed.

‘The Right Honourable gentleman does not know me, but I have the honour of being acquainted in some depth with his brother.’

‘Stay where you are,’ said Hoffman nervously, slamming his hand on the desk, where there happened to be a push button. This raised the presence of the burly Nun-captain Onion, formerly Group Captain Onion. The door was pushed open against the wall.

‘Bother, sir?’ he asked breathlessly.

‘Yes, keep an eye on this man. You, de Patsy, can resume your duties.’

Mr Patsy slunk out the way he had come, dropping his gaze as he passed Creame.

‘You’re a pirate. We thought you drowned,’ said Creame.

Onion glanced at Hoffman and said: ‘I don’t know what he’s talking about. Do you, sir?’

‘I’m sure I don’t, but I intend knowing about it.’

‘Violence isn’t the answer--you know that. I’ve already been molested once by this gorilla here. Let’s sit down and talk about it like civilized gentlemen.’

‘Certainly. Will you take tea?’

‘No, thank you. I don’t drink during the day,’ Creame replied as he pulled up a chair.

Hoffman told Creame that Yellowman was his half-brother, but that in spite of their common father, Hoffman’s mother was a fallen nun who had reared him in a convent, while Yellowman’s mother was by all account a whore. That accounted for their different names. When Hoffman was old enough, he had begun to take an active rôle in the putting-up of the homeless. He began to deal with claims made to the DSS on their behalf, until he was their sole appointee dealing with claims.

Creame was suspicious of Doctor Hoffman’s motives for running the charity. Hoffman was connected with the DSS in that most of the homeless people were on state benefits of one kind or another. Creame decided to pursue this line of enquiry.

‘How long have you been here, doctor?’

‘Some time, but why?’

‘I can check.’

‘What has this to do with anything?’

‘Well, it seems rather odd that you should have known about that ship. Its launch was meant to be kept secret, at least from the authorities. We were attacked by somebody calling themselves "The JS Men" and then by your henchmen. I just think it’s rather strange. Did you know and tell the "JS Men", or was it the other way round?’ Creame raised his eyebrows quizzically.

‘They have nothing to do with us. Where did Fleuret go?’

‘I know where Fleuret is. But you’ll have to answer a few of my questions first.’

Although Hoffman looked impatient and annoyed, he seemed to exercise self-control. ‘Go on, ask away.’

‘I can also tell you where his father is. The first question is--just to satisfy my curiosity--how many were saved from the shipwreck?’

‘Not many. Apart from you, Onion--and Fleuret, you say. Yellowman can’t swim very well, but Onion saved him. Apart from that, some of the JS men, I think. I'm not sure.’

Creame looked saddened. ‘Mmm, that’s unfortunate. It could put the mockers on it, that could.’

Hoffman looked startled. ‘You know something of a secret, don’t you?’

‘Only what you do.’

‘You know about these bricks, for instance.’

Creame wasn’t to be fooled.

‘And about Fleuret and his father?’ Hoffman pursued.

‘Yes, of course I do.’

‘Where are they?’

‘Before I answer, I want you to do me a favour. I want you to put me up here for a while in return for work.’

‘That’s easily done. What kind of work would you like?’

Creame wanted to stay there for what he could learn. He knew that Hoffman was up to something with respect to the will, or why would his servitors have attacked the ship? Was it possible that it was just by chance that they had learned it from Morgan when he press-ganged them? But the connection between Tort mentioning the DSS in relation to the will and Hoffman running a hostel for those on the dole took a certain amount of explaining away, especially when looked at in the light of Onion’s attack. It remained to be empiric what that connection was.

‘Well, something in the church would be most suitable.’

‘We run a church here. Could you be a layman, for instance?’

‘Well, I would really prefer something higher up the clerical ladder.’

‘A vicar, so to speak?’

‘Yes, a vicar would be fine. I nearly was one once, you know.’

Hoffman wanted Creame to stay there because he suspected he could be useful to him. As well as knowing the whereabouts of Fleuret and his father, he could be persuaded by having nominal titles bestowed upon him, to act favourably on Fleuret, as well as being sounded himself by Hoffman, all in good time.

‘Then you’re my man, and who knows--maybe even a bishopric will be yours one day.’

‘Splendid,’ Creame agreed, delighted at his new office. ‘There’s one other thing, though: who’s going to be my curate?’

‘No problem,’ Hoffman replied. ‘Who would you like?’

‘The nun who showed me up would do. Patsy, wasn’t it?’

‘Yes, Patsy can double as your curate.’

Both men laughed and shook on it, after which Onion was charged with showing him his ‘church’, which turned out to be a garden shed.

Chapter Thirteen

Mr Goose, having been persuaded by the desperation imposed by inanition and exhaustion, decided that there was no alternative but to lose his dog.

This was easier said than done. He tried everything without success: shouting at it, kicking it, throwing rocks for it then at it. It trotted along gaily behind him as he went to the same police station as before. He picked up his dog, strolled in cradling it and seeing the same policeman on the desk as before, threw the dog at him and walked out, closing the door behind him. He had had a more immoderate plan of standing on a footbridge over the highway like ‘Dirty Harry’ with the dog poised over his head to be sent crashing through the windscreen of the first patrol car that passed below.

He returned to the nunnery and spoke again to the aged porter, who this time telephoned the nunnery to see if he could be accommodated. The person on the other end wanted to speak with him and when he was handed the telephone, a voice like the Pope in a bathroom--if it were not God himself--asked him who he was. It conjured up images of the ‘Godfather’ with a hernia.

‘It’s Mr Goose,’ Mike replied.

‘What do you-a want?’

‘A bed for the night.’

‘Are you-a signing the dole, Mr Goose?’


‘Well and good. Then I’ll send Sister de Patsy to show you up.’

After a delay, a nun with a glaringly red face, horn-rimmed glasses, yellow buck-teeth and a gruff voice came to collect him. She took him without further ado to the porch and up a few flights of stairs to where another nun was waiting for him.

‘This is Sister de Patsy,’ said his guide, leaving him.

‘How do you do, matey? Very pleased to make your acquaintance,’ the second nun said to Mr Goose.

‘I’m Mike Goose,’ he said, shaking the proffered hand before recoiling in horror as he noticed the appearance of the grisly nun.

‘Arggh! You’ve got a beard! You’re not a nun; you’re a bloke!’

At the moment of realization, the hand retained his in a vice-like grip and dragged him spider-like through a door that led to Hoffman’s study. A recording of organ music conveniently drowned out his protests. At the other side of the door, the ruddy, smiling face of Hoffman was waiting to greet him, arms outstretched in loving benevolence.

‘Ah, poor soul. You must be very cold. Sit down here while we sort out your DSS claim first, for your Giros to be sent here, then we’ll give you a nice warm. How about that?’

‘Very well, but I must protest about this brute dragging me in like this. I’ve seen him before. He’s one of Creame’s friends. He was in the car that broke down.’

‘Sister de Patsy is a novice and as such, full of the passions of youth. Do forgive her,’ Hoffman said, winking at Patsy as he moved round the table and drew back a chair for Mike to sit on.

‘I’d rather stand, if it’s all the same.’

‘Oh, that won’t do, you know. We like our guests to feel at home. Help him to sit down, will you Patsy?’ At these words Mr Patsy, intoxicated by his newly-vested dual offices of nun and layman, moved forward and thrust him into the chair. At the same moment Hoffman drew a belt around his throat, until it nearly choked him.

‘Will you sign these forms, first of all, sir?’ Hoffman said.

‘No, never,’ Mike gurgled.

‘Okay, de Patsy. Take over and give his face a massage,’ Hoffman said, leaving.

Mr Patsy did not show mercy; he threatened to ‘tail’ him as punishment for a number of supposed sex offences, repeatedly head-butting him and denouncing him as unholy scum. Mr Patsy had drawn up closer, thinking Mike was trying to tell him something, who instead gobbed full in his face. For such an uncharitable gift, Mr Goose was hauled from his chair, over a table, which he was strapped to. Jump-leads were attached to him and the electricity turned on and increased gradually by Mr Patsy gleefully at the side of the workbench, causing his whole body to convulse in spasms in between ear-piercing screams, until at last his trembling hand was made the recipient of a pen and it scrawled something on a form held out by Patsy. He went out to show the signature to Hoffman, forgetting to turn off the electricity supply.

They both returned a few minutes later. An acrid smell of charred flesh and smoke filled the room. Daylight beamed through the haze where the fire-door stood open and when they stumbled to the table with handkerchiefs over their faces, they found it vacated.

‘Quick! He’s broken loose. Get after him,’ Hoffman yelled.

Making for the door in an abstracted state of mind, Mr Patsy said: ‘If this gets out, I’ll be hanged for crimes against humanity.’

Hoffman immediately went to alert Nun-captain Onion and Nun-constable Yellowman. These made up the ‘Nun Police’, whose job it was to keep order in the nunnery. He had decided to join in the chase with Sister de Patsy.

Whenever the Nun Police mobilized to look for an escapee of the nunnery, they drove their white van into the countryside, several miles to windward of the convent. When they were sure they had not been observed or followed, they would drag out a hot-air balloon and outspread it over the ground, to inflate it and get it airborne. As a disguise, a ‘Mission England’ banner was draped over the side.

Nun-captain Onion and Nun-constable Yellowman, once airborne over the hills, espied him through binoculars, sitting forlornly at the side of the road right on their course.

‘Are you sure it’s him, sir?’ asked Yellowman.

Onion glared at him and replied: ‘Am I ever wrong?--Of course it is: the baggy jeans, the funny walk and the bald head say it all. Now give us a lift.’

They rocketed higher into the tranquil sky.

‘Look, sir--over there!’ Yellowman appeared to be pointing to what looked like a bulky school-girl in a frilly pink and white chequered frock lying face-down by the roadside. ‘By...she’s one hell of a size,’ he added, making reference to the exhausted corpse of Bertie Bivouac.

‘So he murders them after raping them, does he?’ Onion responded thoughtfully.

‘Should we carry on?’

‘Yes. We can’t allow ourselves to be distracted.’

They were approaching Mike, who saw them and took fright. He started running along the road, his singed clothing flapping about him like bruised banana skins. On either side, the terrain would have made it heavy going: to his left was a steep hill and to his right, a steep embankment; so he was left with no choice but to continue along the road. Onion managed to gain some directional control by manipulating the burner. Mike stopped running for a moment and they saw the white ball of his upturned face, as he saw them bearing down on him.

‘Get the sandbags ready,’ Onion ordered.

Yellowman grabbed hold of a sandbag they had got ready and just as they were coasting overhead, Onion was about to order Yellowman to hurl it at him, when they took a steeper descent than anticipated.

‘The sandbags--get rid of them!’ Onion ordered.

Yellowman hurled one after the other at Mike. One hit him and floored him, but he was up again and running in an instant. The basket swooped down behind him and crashed into him. To save himself from being knocked over, he grabbed hold and hung on to it whilst the balloon began to rise because of the ballast just jettisoned.

‘Get him off!’

‘How, sir?’

‘I’ll do it,’ said Onion, putting a booted foot over the side and trying to kick away his purchase before remembering that they wanted him in the first place. He told Yellowman of his intention of keeping him hanging on over the side until they were over the nunnery; when they would let him drop, but instructed Yellowman not to let him aboard in case he sabotaged the balloon.

Creame had worked miracles with the semi-derelict shed given to him by Hoffman as a church. He was at that moment celebrating mass. He had got Patsy to sweep it out, varnish the walls and floor and install old school forms as makeshift pews and a wardrobe as a vestry. In accordance with his Methodist upbringing, a huge unhewn boulder served as an altar. It was lit by candles borrowed from the nuns, as was the wardrobe. A scarf served him as a stole and a blanket with a hole cut in it for the head, served as a chasuble and a sheet underneath as an alb and his priestly face made him look genuine to the plonkies he had invited along.

He had returned to the desolate beach, where there was no sign of them until he saw a habitation in a ravine. It had been made out of bits of flotsam and other rubbish lying on the beach. The roof was a mosaic of corrugated iron and the walls had been curiously woven from bits of wood and the stems of seaweed. Several surly figures were grouped round the vague smoke of a fire in front of the dwelling.

Further up, where the crescented coastline began to narrow, lodged in a saddle was a wigwam, shamelessly built out of mouldy old carpet.

As he neared, he saw that clothes were being dried and that something was being cooked in the fire.

The small seaside town was populated only by a few courting couples and jacketless pub-crawlers. The shipwrecked winos had gone scouting round for an off-licence but found none. A pub attracted their attention on the coast road.

Inside, they stood at the bar drinking pints and wondering how to make their meagre resources stretch. They had managed to claim an emergency payment from the DSS, but it wasn’t much. Jimmy had been ‘clocking’ the customers in the hope of seeing someone gullible enough to ‘put the bite on’. Noticing a grim grimy cowboy who looked too drunk to care propping up the bar, he sidled over to him and said: ‘Hey, Chief, can you stand a round and I’ll see you all right tomorrow?’

The man lifted up his head unsteadily, eyeing him both and said, when he had decided which one to talk to: ‘Sure. Just a minute.’

Several minutes passed before he emerged from somewhere in the crowd, beer spilling from a half-full pint he was holding. Jimmy made short work of it and asked him for another; which he fetched in the same, mysterious manner. He also brought over several drinks for Norman. Jimmy thought it strange that every one was less than full and he put it down to it having been spilled, but he wondered why each one was a different type of drink. This went on until Jimmy followed him and discovered that he was just snatching them from tables when nobody was looking.

By the end of the night, they were all extremely drunk and the man who was so generous with other people’s drink introduced himself as Den.

Jimmy had been lying in a doorway when a police car was flagged down by a concerned straggler from the pub. He had kicked what he thought was a bundle of rags and was startled to see it move. It started to cough at having a bottle of smelling salts thrust up what the man presumed was a nose. Jimmy’s eyelids were peeled open and a light was shining into his face. He wondered if it was morning and this was the sun, but everywhere around it still seemed dark. Suddenly there were voices...somebody was using a transistor radio...now he was being asked if he could stand up.

The straggler had summoned two policemen who were now attending to him and shining a torch into his face. They had been up the road checking on a car that was parked on double yellow lines. One of them was checking to see if it had been stolen while the other began shining his torch around the wheels which were over the yellow lines, in an attempt to establish whether or not it was reasonable to assume that the yellow lines continued underneath the tyres. In the end, they decided they could not be conclusive about it without moving the car.

Next day when Creame was on the beach and saw the huts and wigwam, Jimmy gave an exclamation of surprise, saying he thought Creame had drowned.

‘I haven’t had a bite to eat for four days. Norman’s been trying to charm food out of the sea, but even crabs don’t find him very charming. He wants to eat starfish next,’ said Jimmy, drawing closer.

‘There are shops nearby,’ Creame replied stiffly.

‘I haven’t got a bot. Can I borrow a cigarette?’

With a weary sigh, Creame extracted a cigarette from the packet he had just bought and flipped it over to Jimmy, who had to grasp at it in mid air but missed. As he stooped to pick it up, a lighter bounced off his nut.

Norman rounded the promontory of the coastline, grinning broadly. The lobster that was slung over his shoulder appeared beside his dark, curly locks like a huge, grotesque ear-ring

‘Ugh! How ghastly! Take it away!’ was Creame’s reaction to it, as he averted his face from it and upturned his nose. He detested all arachnids, spiders in particular, which he would bravely squash underfoot.

‘So you won’t join us?’ Norman asked when they were cooking the lobster.

‘Certainly not!’

He did, however, invite them along as a congregation while he said mass, luring them with the promise of bread and wine. As he was preparing to deliver his first sermon, the ex-wife of Den heard about the installation of the new clergyman and took it upon herself to be re-married in church. This was prompted by her interpretation that day of the sight of two crows sitting together on their roof as harbingers of doom.

That evening, his wife put on her wedding dress and dragged him over to the small garden shed just as Creame was getting ready to emerge from the wardrobe in the vestments, having put them on with difficulty in the torch-lit confinement. The small congregation was impatiently awaiting his service when they strolled through the door.

Creame had got hold of a few bottles of cheap wine, some loaves of bread which he had flattened down and some crisps which stood in a cardboard box at the foot of the altar. As soon as he emerged from the wardrobe, there was a great raucous cheering, more like they were expecting a strip-show than a sermon; no less a one when the bride and groom walked in. He surveyed the congregation, the bride and the groom.

‘Do you do marriages?’ the bride asked him.

‘I can do,’ he replied thoughtfully, ‘But you’ll have to wait until after I’ve celebrated the Eucharist’.

‘Yes, we’ll wait--won’t we?’ she said eagerly, nudging Den in the ribs. They took their places as part of the congregation, squeezing in beside the plonkies.

‘It must be a great day for you, love,’ Jimmy said to her.

‘Oh, yes,’ added Den, who had already been married five times.

Holding the prayer book, Creame raised both hands in supplication, appealing for silence.

‘In nomine padre, filius et spiritus sanctum,’ he canted, whilst making the Sign of the Cross at them. He paused, looking around him and blinking blearily out of his taut, shiny face. A few of them nudged each other to reciprocate the blessing. Creame began to read the Last Rites and was halfway through before floundering and realizing that he was reading the wrong page. He abridged the rest hoping no one would notice and hurriedly flicked through the pages and went into the Liturgy.

‘"He took the bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to his disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body".’ Then, taking a swig of wine from the bottle, we went on: ‘"And he took the cup, and gave thanks and gave it to them, saying, Drink, ye all of it.

‘"For this is the blood of the New Testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. Do this in memory of me".’

There being no bell, he clinked together two bottles of wine and decided to round off the service, being weary of it, as were all those whose tongues were hanging out.

‘I’ll pass round a couple of bottles of this plonk and you’ll all have a swig.’

‘I’ll drink to that,’ said someone.

Several more bottles were consumed and after they had sung, Onward Christian Soldiers, Bringing in the Sheaves and When the Saints go Marching In, stamping their feet with bottles in their hands, Creame halted them again.

‘We’ve forgotten the marriage ceremony.’

‘Yes, yes, let’s all get married,’ some jester shouted, who was well on the way like the rest of them.

‘No, the bride and groom. Let’s have you.’

After probably the shortest marriage ceremony ever, in which Creame simply pronounced them man and wife, he drew out some crisps from the cardboard box and holding up a packet, said: ‘These are holy crisps. They’ve been blessed by the Holy Father Himself. Send for more wine and then I’ll hand them out.’

A crate of wine was obtained from the nunnery’s supplies, being accompanied halfway to the shed by an irascible nun, who said she would report the theft to the Mother Superior and was answered that she could report it to God Himself if she liked.

‘What sort of crisps are they?’ someone asked.

‘Salt and vinegar.’

‘I don’t like salt and vinegar.’

‘Salt in Christ’s wounds and vinegar in his mouth,’ Creame replied and got a roar of appreciation at this.

The wedding ceremony degenerated into a wild, noisy stamping party with drunks singing, dancing and falling over.

At that moment, the balloon happened to be overhead, with Mike still hanging on to the side. Onion, seeing that the nunnery garden below would make a secure repository for him, turned the burner on him and he fell away with a scream. There was a crash and turmoil in the shed below. When the dust had settled, there was Mike, charred as a bonfire potato, who had fallen straight through the roof of the flimsy shed and landed in the midst of the drunks.

Creame stepped up to him and said: ‘Here is Satan. Come forward, my son, and be cured.’ He led Mike to the altar and said: ‘Come, rest your sparsely-populated head against the altar. This boulder stoppeth Christ’s tomb.’ Placing Mike’s coconut-like head next to the boulder, Creame muttered something like a prayer and then tried to crack it like a nut against the boulder, declaiming: ‘Out! Out!’ He stood him up and held his head between his hands, his every muscle straining. Trembling, twitching and shuddering, he shouted with frothy vehemence: ‘Begone, demons!’ Urging someone to open the wardrobe door, he head-butted him into it and locked the door.

‘Phew!’ he said, sitting on the altar and wiping his brow. By this time Mr Patsy had arrived and was watching the goings-on with awe.

‘That was hard work,’ said Creame. ‘I should get paid for it. What’s the going rate for exorcisms?’

‘Oh, say a tenner? But that looked like a multiple one. You nearly died getting them all out,’ said Mr Patsy.

‘So I did. Say a hundred, then. I reckon there must have been at least ten demons in him. A tenner a demon, then, with a ten per cent discount for ten or more. He stays in there until he’s ready to pay up.’

‘Won’t he be exempt from paying, with him being on the dole? Like for prescriptions, I mean?’ asked Mr Patsy.

‘Yes, very probably. We’ll sort that out later. I’m too exhausted now.’

They were beginning to fall asleep, having worn themselves out with carousing and drinking, when some were awakened by a moan, followed by bestial screaming and bellowing coming from the wardrobe. A fist punched its way like a steam hammer through the plywood and began to tear at the hole, until the door was just a patchy framework hanging from its hinges. A bloody, blackened monster fought its way like an undead mummy out of its tomb and made for the door of the shed, trailing bits of framework trapped on its limbs. The commotion awoke Mr Patsy, who chased him through the door and caught up with him when he was halfway between the shed and the main building.

There Mr Patsy came to grips with him and sank him teeth into his leg like a bulldog. But with the strength of a madman, Mike reached the foot of the drain-pipe and began climbing it. Mr Patsy’s gnashers were not able to take Mike’s weight and he fell away, spitting out a lump of Mike’s flesh.

Mike climbed higher and higher, until he was nearly at the top. Just as he neared the apex, he uttered a loud cry like a seagull--his Burt Reynolds laugh--and the drain-pipe gave way.

Chapter Fourteen

At a time when things looked at their most bleak, Creame was to get his first lead when Patsy, digging in the garden, unearthed some bricks. Creame had suggested where to dig. He looked for one which had ‘OHMS’ stamped on it and searched for a small hole in it, no more that a quarter of an inch on the other side. He tapped it cautiously and used a matchstick to prise out a small leaden pellet. It was dull with age. He used his penknife to carefully slit open the leaden pellet and extract from it a small folded piece of paper.

‘What is it?’ asked Patsy.

‘It’s part of the secret. Hoffman’s probably dug this garden over many times to find the special bricks. This is one of them.’

Mr Patsy barged into Hoffman’s study and announced he had disposed of the body.

‘What body?’ asked Hoffman.

‘The one that fell from the top of the building: Mr Goose’s.’

‘Oh, that one! How exactly did you dispose of it?’

‘Well,’ Mr Patsy began, through clenched teeth, ‘I scraped his guts off the ground, swilled his blood away, then I carried his remains into the shed, where I put them over a boulder and smashed and pulverized and mashed them.’

‘Calm down and give me a logical account,’ interrupted Hoffman.

‘Yes, well...I smashed his bones with a hammer, then I jumped up and down on what was left and my feet got into a mess, then I took him outside and set fire to him under a pile of leaves, so as no one would notice. Clever thinking, that. After that, I stamped on his ashes and buried him in the garden.’

‘Is that all?’ asked Hoffman sarcastically.

‘Er, well, I could go over it in more detail, if you want me to.’

‘Excuse me, sir,’ put in Yellowman feebly, through what sounded like a mouthful of porridge as he bolted for the door.

‘I’ll have him scrubbing the floor with a toothbrush and scraping the urinals with a blunt razor blade for this,’ Onion screeched.

Mr Patsy continued: ‘The reason why I came up, sir, was because I wanted permission to build a small shithouse for myself with all the bricks I’ve found while burying Mr Goose in the garden.’

‘Show me,’ said Hoffman, jumping out of the chair.

‘It’s just that I like a good stiff crap in the morning. I like to read the paper and smoke a cigar in peace, but it’s impossible when you’ve got people banging on the door every five minutes.’

‘Yes, of course. Just lead me to the bricks and I’ll buy you a luxury shithouse, with heated seat, a gold-plated chain and a year’s supply of the softest toilet paper money can buy.’

‘That’s very kind, but if it’s all the same, I’d prefer a plain old-fashioned midden with squares of newspaper hanging up with string. Even sandpaper would be better than the candyfloss stuff the puffs use.’

He led Hoffman over to where a mound of clay-encased bricks stood, still damp.

Hoffman picked up a brick and examined it. It was brown-red like half-tanned, half-sunburned skin and slightly crumbly. He picked up another, looked at it in the same way, saw nothing remarkable about it and threw it down, brushing the soil off his hands.

‘Right, you and Onion: I want them all smashed open. Get to work.’

‘But what about my shithouse?' Patsy called out.

‘See Onion!’ Hoffman replied, and followed it with a barking laugh.

Onion and Yellowman smashed bricks against each other. They forgot what they were looking for, until something flashed and twinkled like a coal beneath a freshly-poked fire, except that it reflected the off-white sky. Yellowman had seen it first, but as he stooped to pick it out, a brick knocked him out. Onion started; he was holding a brick he had yet to smash.

‘What did you do that for?’ he asked Mr Patsy, who was standing as if he had just thrown a discus and was pleased with its course.

Suddenly a stone flew out of one of the nearby trees, narrowly missing Onion’s head and even Mr Patsy had to dodge it.

Creame’s legs went wobbly as he realized the implications of what he had done. Onion had frozen for a second.

'Okay, Onion. Stay like that. I’ve got you covered.' He appeared from the trees holding a stone in readiness. He had the backing of the JS men.

'What's in the brick?' Creame had managed to say, but Onion’s brick hit him in the stomach.

What followed was over very quickly and resembled a custard pie fight, except that bricks were being used. Mr Patsy reached for a brick and hit Onion hard in the chest. He was like an unstoppable robot. Though Onion had recovered sufficiently to attack Mr Patsy, out from the foliage emerged about a dozen uniformed shapes. They began to beat him with sticks, stones and names, while he fought back bravely and rounded on them with incredible speed and fluidity, but being beaten back to the pile of bricks amid a barrage of clubs and missiles, he leapt straight into the air and disappeared into the trees.

‘After him!’ one of them yelled.

‘No!’ others objected.

About a third of them bolted after him, while the others were scrambling doggedly over the pile of bricks. Mr Patsy was helping Creame to stand.

‘I’ve found it!’ shouted a man, who was standing at the top of the pile and waving a brick over his head.

‘You didn’t: I found it,’ said another, snatching it from him.

‘It doesn’t matter who found it; we’ve got it now and that’s all that matters. Let’s go,’ said another reproachfully.

‘What about me?’ asked Creame.

One of them turned round and said: ‘You don’t matter any more; you’ll never be one of us, no matter how hard you try.’

All but two jumped in the back of the camouflaged truck with tarpaulin at the back which they had parked.

Those in the back were singing:

‘It’s the same the whole world over,

It’s the poor that get the blame,

It’s the rich that get the gravy,

Isn’t it a bloody shame?’

‘Cunts!’ Creame yelled, throwing a brick into the pile.

‘Who were they?’ Mr P asked.

‘That was the "JS Men". Yes,’ Creame went on sourly. ‘I told them where to come for the brick and they double-crossed me!’

‘How?’ asked Mr Patsy, bewildered.

‘Go and ask them.’

‘How can I?’

‘That wasn’t my fault. With the brick they’ve just got, it means they’ve got the complete set but one, which should still be here.’

Onion re-emerged, strolling placidly out of the trees.

‘Like to continue the fight?’ he asked, observing that the JS Men had gone.

‘Er, no. Some other time. Look, the bludy AOs have got away with one of the special bricks that Hoffman was looking for.’

‘We’ll forget about the fight for the time being then, but I’m not finished with you. I’ll get the nun wagon started. And you as well, Yellowman. Get up! How dare you lie there in that state!’

Yellowman’s consciousness returned with each kick administered by Onion’s huge, steel-capped boot. He was being ordered to follow his captain into the vehicle.

Onion, Yellowman and Creame, with Onion driving, capered down the stony bank, being thrown from side to side. They could see the army wagon in the distance.

They had completely lost the other wagon when Onion pulled into the side of the road and announced it was time for Creame to get out. He was to look on foot.

Further on, he saw some people dressed like the Ku-Klux-Klan milling about an Ordnance Survey stone on a hill. There seemed to be someone sitting on the stone. He was bedecked in regalia and seemed to be the focus of their attention. The army wagon had stopped at the foot of the hill.

The man with the crown looked like some Shakespearean king in a native setting as he sat in the late evening sun, scintillating and iridescent, surrounded by attendants and green hills.

Standing below in a dejected-looking group were nine people. They seemed to be a fair cross-section of society: one was a wizened old lady, but there were middle-aged and younger people amongst them. All were shouting and arguing amongst themselves and occasionally directing abuse at the gathering on the hill.

It was getting dark by the time Creame staggered up the hill, holding out a small crucifix.

‘What’s that for?’ one of them demanded.

‘Where’s the "JS Men"?’ he retorted.

‘What do you want, Creame? Go away. There’s no room for you here,’ one of them blared through the pillowcase he was wearing over his head.

‘What’s going on here? I’ll have you all on probation to the RAO, if you don’t tell me.’

‘Stuff the RAO. We don’t need him any more. We’ve got what we need; we’ve got the UAO--our own Ultimate Adjudication Officer, Supreme Overlord of the Poor; the One who holds the power of life and death over the rabble and--’.

‘--Stuff the bloody UAO. I’m not scared of him. Now, are you going to reveal yourselves, or maybe you’re too scared to?’ challenged Creame.

The man on the stone had been overlooking all this intently. What at first appeared to be his impressive regalia turned out upon closer scrutiny to be nothing more than a shocking arrangement of gaudy, improvised frippery and trimmings: he looked more like a king in a school nativity play. His crown was gold paper. On it, somebody had written ‘UAO’ and ‘DSS’ in black felt marker pen. A grey fur coat was slung round his hunched shoulders. By his side, there dangled a pink plastic sword. He had been watching them avidly, as a dog watches other dogs. He was a pug-faced, small, beady-eyed man with grey locks of hair washing over his shoulders. He didn’t look like he was used to power, but would relish it and would become tyrannical if given the chance. He wore a battered pair of tartan slippers.

‘Will one Adjudication Officer unmask?’ he cried out.

Immediately they all made to take off their pillowcases.

‘I said one Adjudication Officer...you!’ He pointed to the nearest one, who slowly eased off the stripy pillowcase.

‘My God...Cavendish!’ Creame blurted out: ‘So you’re alive?’

‘I am, and so is John Smith and JS Inspector Mortimer: they’re here.’

‘Oh, yes. I remember Smith. He was from the BBC, wasn’t he? I can’t say I recall the other one, though.’

‘Mortimer was at the Induction before we set sail. And Smith is not from the BBC; he’s one of us.’

‘Whom?’ Creame boomed out.

‘You know--an Adjudication Officer.’

‘I thought you were JS Men. You seem to have changed your careers very suddenly. You, I seem to remember, were a very close friend of JS Inspector Stone.’

‘Stone’s missing, presumed dead.’

‘But you called yourself a JS Inspector: which, in my opinion, is tantamount to high treason.’

‘No such thing.’


‘He said there wasn’t such a thing. We abolished the monarchy two days' ago.’

‘Er, well, we haven’t exactly abolished it--it still exists--but we just refuse to acknowledge it.’

‘What? You damned hypocrites! You think that grim-visaged thing you’ve crowned and given a plastic sword to--that isn’t fit even to be mentioned in the same breath as our monarch--is going to usurp anything?’

There grew a general discordant humming from the crowd when he spake thus, except from those in plain clothes who were stood at the foot of the hill cheering and cackling. The tallest of the distinguished figures clustered protectively round their king stepped forward and said: ‘We do, as a matter of fact’.

‘Do you think that anyone will listen to you?’

‘We don’t care; all we care about is that we will listen to His Civil Highness.’

‘I thought you were all in the employ of John Smith,’ Creame persisted.

‘So we are. Who do you think is our king?’

‘How did you know his name is John Smith?’

‘We didn’t and it isn’t.’

‘Then why are you calling him John Smith?’

‘Because we didn’t know who he was until we got hold of the last brick. Someone began a rumour that his name was John Smith, and it became the official name of the Ultimate Adjudication Officer. We changed his name to suit ourselves, rather than mess up all our paperwork. We got it from John Smith who was on your ship. But what business is it of yours?’ said the large Adjudication Officer.

‘It was through a friend of mine that this whole secret got resurrected. I told you where to find the last brick, on the condition that you would let me become an Adjudication Officer, but you didn’t. Well, I’ve got news for you: the brick is fake. I planted it myself. You double-crossed me.’

‘Don’t listen to him,’ screeched His Civil Highness.

‘We’re not stopping you from coming in. You can still join us if that’s what you want--can’t he, your Civil Highness?’ said Cavendish, turning and moving uneasily towards their king as he spoke.

‘Is he an Adjudication Officer?’ His Civil Highness asked.

‘Are you an Adjudication Officer?’

‘No,’ Creame replied.

‘No,’ Cavendish relayed to His Civil Highness.

‘His Civil Highness asks if you have ever been an Adjudication Officer.’

Cavendish relayed back the same negative answer.

‘And does he ever intend to become an Adjudication Officer?’ His Civil Highness asked again.

‘Do you ever--?’

‘No, I bludy well don’t. They’re all out for themselves and the rich. They’re one and the same. Roll on the glorious revolution, comrades. They make decisions that affect other people’s lives and they don’t care a damn. All they want to do is to drive home in a flash, porky car at the end of a cushy day in the office, buggering about with other people’s dole money and wondering how they can make life even harder for them.’

At this the air swelled with a cheer from the nine ordinary people at the foot of the hill. The AO replied: ‘It’s not like that’.

‘Silence!’ HCH ordered.

‘If you say you are not, never have been and don’t intend to become an Adjudication Officer, then what gives you the impression that you have the right to form part of our constitution?’ he continued.

Creame pretended briefly not to understand the question and then he suddenly burst out: ‘Because I can prove you’re an impostor!’

This created another sensation among the crowd. The ordinary citizens were enjoying it better than the television and some of them thought they had been invited especially to enjoy some Shakespearean play acted in the round. The old woman was wondering whether Creame was Richard Gere and was ready to ask for their autographs at the end of the first act.

‘Produce your deposition,’ said the king to Creame.

‘You think you’ve got it all sewn up, don’t you? After all, you think you have the complete set of bricks.’

‘Yes,’ admitted the Ultimate Adjudication Officer, ‘we do, don’t we?’ Several of his henchmen concurred.

‘You’ve every last one of the Secondary bricks, for instance?’


‘How many are there?’

‘One hundred and forty-four.’

‘And you’ve gathered these in over a period of time from points distributed all over the country, have you not?’


‘How did you know where to look?’ Creame pursued like a barrister examining a witness.

‘What’s this? We don’t have to answer to you.’

‘You must have had your work cut out, though, travelling all over the country, going to each benefit office in turn and whenever you found one of the special bricks, quarrying it out of the wall. How did you do it?’

‘For your information, we pretended to be surveyors, so as not to arouse suspicion. In fact, it was the brick in the nunnery that gave us the most trouble: it was buried in the rubble of what had once been an Unemployment Benefit Office. We couldn’t understand it being demolished. That’s why we used you when you got in touch with us and offered to help. We thought you might be useful, being so involved with it all, which we guessed was no mere accident.’

‘What gives you the right to use them?’

This question appeared to have the Ultimate Adjudication Officer flummoxed and he had to throw it open to the floor: ‘Would anyone care to answer him?’

‘Er, yes, if I may,’ a small, brisk figure said, stepping forward. ‘Regulation 9(a)(ii) of Brick 10 states that "A person can at any time be appointed to the office of Ultimate Adjudication Officer in order to administer justice in cases where Regional and Local Adjudication is not deemed to fall within the scope of their officers. The identity of the Ultimate Adjudication Officer shall be known from his National Insurance number, which is published and carried in the nine Primary bricks. Let him who has understanding reckon the number of the Ultimate Adjudication Officer".’

‘It sounds to me as though it was written by a bunch of semi-baked nuts,’ Creame interposed. ‘But still, it doesn’t say where they are to be found or how they are to be recognized,’ he added smugly, hoping to draw them out.

‘Ah, I’m coming to that bit,’ the toady individual said in readiness to vaunt his astounding sponginess of all official claptrap. ‘"The bricks shall be recognized by a seal bearing the letters ‘OJSS’."’

‘That couldn’t be right,’ Creame complained; ‘What does "OJSS" mean?’

The question seemed to confound all those present.

‘Well,’ said the speaker at last. ‘We had to update it slightly. It replaces "OHMS" and stands for "On John Smith’s Service".’

‘How dare you insult the Queen in that manner,’ Creame objected.

‘How dare you mention that woman in the presence of His Civil Highness,’ one of the AOs contraried. ‘We had to change it anyway to avoid being too Royalist.’

As if to antagonize them, Creame resorted to doing his Prince Charles impression while saying: ‘And where does it say anything about using an Ordnance Survey bench mark as a throne?’

‘Regs 8(b)(i) state that the Ultimate Adjudication Officer's "... throne shall be in a location given by making reference to his National Insurance number in conjunction with the DSS Map".’

‘How do you know that man there is the rightful UAO?’

This brought a sparse burst of applause from the crowd of nine onlookers, for some inexplicable reason.

‘Because of his National Insurance number,’ replied an AO.

‘And what is it?’

‘Er, what is it?’ they whispered between themselves. Presently the answer came back: ‘NA788154C’.

‘How would you feel if I told one one was wrong?’

‘What? We can’t possibly be wrong. We’re never wrong. None of us has ever had one of our decisions overturned by an appeal tribunal yet. It’s not possible for us to be wrong. To even insinuate that an employee of the DSS, let alone an Adjudication Officer, is wrong, is absurd and shocking,’ said the Adjudication Officer.

At this, their attention was diverted to the sound of a faint engine spluttering in the distance. For a moment, Creame thought it might have been the ghost of Mr Goose, come on a ghostly moped to seek retribution, but it was a bright red speck moving among the hills, so far as they could see. It was Hoffman’s three-wheeler and even though it was nearly dark, he had no lights on, by which Creame inferred that he intended to approach clandestinely. Most probably he had discovered the brick that Mr Patsy should have led him to by Creame’s instruction.

Hoffman came screeching up in his Reliant Robin. He took a blind bend too hastily and turned the car over. Luckily for him, the car ended upright again. As it was still rocking from side to side, the door was squeaked open and Hoffman, apparently unhurt, burst out and began cursing them, jumping up and down red-faced.

In the thick of it, Creame slinked away and rounded the corner of the wagon. In a jiffy, he found himself in the driver’s seat and was starting up the throaty engine of the van. Before he could drive off, the big civil servant who had done most of the talking had sprinted forward for the stirrups at the back. He managed to get one foot through and was hanging on for grim life as the lorry screeched away. It swerved violently to avoid the crowd and tried to throw its unwelcome passenger.

It tore on through the countryside, the Adjudication Officer still hugging the back, like a ghost in his sheet and pillowcase. Eventually he managed to catapult him into a ditch.

A white van came tearing round the bend. Out of the passenger window a camouflaged arm was being waved furiously and the horn was blaring. It skidded to a halt. Yellowman and Onion bounded from it. Onion was studying the army van. It did not have an ordinary registration plate, but ‘DSS’ was written on it in green.

‘What does that stand for?’ he asked Creame, pointing it out. He had noticed the lack of a tax disc as well.

‘God knows. Who cares?’ He suggested they swap vans. Onion and Yellowman jumped into the pseudo-army van as happy as larks and drove away.

They were on their way to recover the rest of the bricks. They had just evaded ploughing through the throng.

Hoffman had managed to get close enough to the Ultimate Adjudication Officer to be able to argue face to face with him but he was dragged back by several AOs, but not before he had managed to unseat him. Hoffman had demanded to be made UAO, declaring that they had got it wrong and that if he was not crowned immediately, he would grass them up to the ministers.

While this was going on, Onion and Yellowman were driving to some buildings they were meant to find.

Onion and Yellowman arrived close to midnight at the Unemployment Benefit Office that had just been completed by the rogue AOs, who before their defection had persuaded the DSS that it was absolutely necessary because of severe overcrowding at other offices. That it happened to be built in the middle of nowhere, miles from the nearest village, did not seem to have been queried before the money was made available to build it. The sign outside read: ‘Department of Employment. Unemployment Benefit Office. Hours of Opening. Monday. 9.0-9.05am. Tuesday. 9.0-9.05am. Wednesday. Closed. Thursday. 9.0-9.05am. Friday. Closed.’

Onion and Yellowman drove up to it in the AOs’ lorry and walked round it, casually examining it brick by brick. To begin with, they started at ground level and crawled round it in opposite directions until they met up again. When they got to the bricks that were higher up, Yellowman had to sit on Onion’s shoulders. All bricks looking alike, they decided to break in and examine the interior.

Chapter Fifteen

Creame went to the main DSS building where he last worked and decided to bluff his way in. He parked the van on double yellow lines in the lane behind it and strolled away by the back entrance, having first changed into a pin-striped suit and accoutred himself with the Financial Times and an attaché case. He knew of an AO ID card system, but he confidently stopped the first clerk he came across on the stairs and said: ‘You! AO here. Door wasn’t opened for me!’

The clerk did not recognize him from when he worked there, but even if he had, it was not inconceivable that Creame had worked his way up to become an Adjudication Officer, especially if he was a member of the bourgeoisie or his father was a baronet.

The clerk started back, nearly dropping the pile of papers he was carrying and said: ‘Sorry, sir: you are an AO?’

‘That’s what I said, didn’t I? Do I have to repeat myself for nothing, man?’ Creame bellowed at him, looking peachier than ever. ‘Why wasn’t the door opened for me?’

‘Er, I don’t think that we were expecting you, sir,’ the clerk stammered.

‘That’s got nothing to do with it, imbecile! Get everything ready.’

‘Can you show your card?’

‘What?’ Creame screamed, his face growing purple with raw rage and waving his clenched fists at the clerk.

‘Okay, sir. Just a moment. What shall I do with these I’m carrying?’

‘Am I not worth more than a bundle of silly papers? Put them on the floor, man, and go and get everything ready.’

Creame’s blustering seemed to frighten the clerk into submission and he scurried away to the upper echelons of the building to make the AO’s suite ready, allowing Creame the prime opportunity of browsing through what he had been carrying. It was to prove a catalogue of misery and dejection for the intended recipients. The first leaflet read:

‘Dear Claimant, I am writing to tell you that there is a new scheme available for claimants like yourself who have come to regard the DSS as your only source of income.

‘The scheme will offer you ten pounds a week over and above your normal dole money (a generous offer, though I say so myself!), which means that you will be able to become even better off.

‘Please call in and see one of my underlings on 24 March, for a discussion. Don’t forget you have been especially selected for this offer from a list of quite a few. Hurry, or you may find yourself losing benefit!

‘There’ll be loads of free tea and coffee on the go! Yours Truly,---’

Along with each sheet was a folded broadsheet stapled to it, which looked like a comic or cartoon book. In the first frame of the cartoon there was a workman in a flat cap and overalls, getting out of bed with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, saying: ‘Is that the time already? I nearly slept in again, but I’m not used to getting up before noon’. The second frame showed him shaving with a collar and tie on and a bubble coming out of his mouth saying: ‘Tra, la, la!’ The third frame showed him standing outside a big building on a bright, sunny day looking hard at what appeared to be a map in his hands. Behind him there was a sign saying: ‘Restart. This way’. Next it showed him turning round and asking a passer-by the way to the Restart place. By the next frame, he had managed to find his way up the stairs and was sitting in a room full of people laughing, smoking and drinking cups of tea. A sign on the wall read: ‘Thank you for coming’.

Another leaflet Creame unearthed from the pile was quite the contrary and derogatory; it read:

‘Dear Claimant, I am writing to let you know that I am stopping your benefit (you may call it ‘Dole’) because you have refused/neglected to avail yourself of a reasonable training opportunity.’

Gazing at this reminded Creame of the letter Mr Goose had once written in. He wrote them a letter telling them of his intention of doing away with himself if they didn’t give him any more money. The reply came back: ‘Thank you for your letter about your intended suicide. We would be grateful if you could complete the enclosed form beforehand, as we may need to know about you from your former self, in order to assess your eligibility in the next world. After you have returned the suicide questionnaire, we will then be able to tell you if you are due to any benefit, but don’t forget that you must return your Giro if you have committed, or intend to commit suicide before the end of the period it covers (except for any days of employment you have already told us about). You may find it convenient to appoint a beneficiary to help you do this. If in any doubt, ask us.’

In a leaflet at the bottom of the pile and unlike any other leaflets, there was only one, it read:

‘Dear Claimant, I am writing to let you know about your predicament. You have been out of work for some time and have either attended several Restart interviews without a favourable outcome, or have not attended them at all.

‘I am therefore advising you to attend our latest scheme. It’s called ‘Kickstart’ and under the rules, anyone who does not attend without good cause is liable to lose benefit.’

Creame also learned of the ‘Net’, which operated when they called them in and invited them through a back door for a private interview. The door led onto a back yard and the ‘interview’ was with several uniformed policemen with drawn truncheons. It had been reported by several of the office staff that the screams coming from the yard were a distraction to them, though others leaned out of the windows and cheered.

‘This way, sir,’ the clerk beckoned. Creame followed him up the stairs to the luxury suite reserved for AOs. He was shown to a big door and he noticed with pleasure that on either side of it a clerk was standing guard. The floor was carpeted with red plush and the walls were decorated with flock wallpaper. A glass chandelier hung overhead. The decor at this level was in pronounced contrast to the harsh tiles, perspex screens and dog-end hunters that grovelled on the ground floor. Creame knew he was taking a gamble by going there as an imposter, but he had gained enough knowledge and confidence through working in the building to know the ways of a distinguished AO. Since the real AO was one of the rogues he had last seen arguing with Hoffman, he knew there was little chance of him returning, at least for the time being. He only hoped that none of his former colleagues would recognize him. In any case most did not want to find themselves mistaken and on the street with no dole and a charge.

The two clerks guarding the door gave him the standard DSS salute, which he knew how to return. His escort opened the door for him and asked him if he wanted anything. Creame deliberately held out a slip of paper to the clerk.

‘A name to go with this NI number.’

The clerk bowed servilely and asked if he required any female assistance. Creame had the right reply handy to this as well: had he been genuine, matters would have been different.

‘No. Last one was like a can of beans.’

‘Very good, sir. The information you requested will be sent up in the hatch presently,’ the clerk rejoined, bowing himself out.

Inside, Creame flopped into one of the armchairs and poured himself a badly-needed drink from the decanter on the tinted glass table. He looked around him appreciatively, smacked his lips and sighed regretfully. Maybe if he had stayed in the civil service long enough, all this could have been his, he mused, before bringing himself back to the business in hand. In any case, one couldn’t become an AO by starting at the bottom. Everyone knew one had to be in the know, mix with the right people, etc.; nevertheless, it appealed to him.

He thought of all those miserable wretches on the ground floor, waiting to be seen by the Stooges, sitting for hours just staring between their knees, wondering where their next meal was coming from.

A soft chime registered the communication hatch was ready. At lower levels it was a raucous, importunate buzzer. Creame sauntered over to it. He opened the hatch and took out the silver platter. On it lay the official notepaper with the information he had requested, hopefully. Now that he had bluffed his way into the AO’s suite, he had access to almost anything he wanted. He could give an order that would not be queried. The sign over the hatch read:

‘Control of Information

‘The DSS staff accepts that the AO knows best and will not query an intelligible command.’

With trembling hands he unfolded the notepaper, which read:

‘The NI number you have requested is not known to us to belong to anyone.’

The shock nearly caused him to drop the tray it came on. He sat down, wiped his brow and continued to stare at the paper.

Either it was the truth or they had found him out as an impostor, but why not in the latter case feed him a lie, rather than arouse his suspicion by refusing him the information?

An Adjudication Officer would have carte-blanche with all the information relating to DSS and Department of Employment affairs: without it, he couldn’t do his job properly.

Creame’s mind refused to function and his gaze flitted round the room. On a shelf there were ten volumes of the Adjudication Officers’ Procedure Manual, lavishly bound with gilt and purple. He was wondering if he could order that National Insurance number to be bestowed on Alexander. All he had to do was send a note down the hatch saying that he wanted the National Insurance number just enquired about to be allocated to Mr Fleuret. Then he could use Alexander as a puppet, to control him as suited him. He would have liked to have been made the Ultimate Adjudication Officer himself, but if anything backfired, he would get the blame. He was sure that giving the NI number to the clerks would incur little risk, as they would be ignorant of the significance of it.

There was just one thing puzzling Creame, which was why the NI number given by the nine bricks seemed to belong to no one in particular, or if it did, those downstairs were unable to supply it. It was out of the question to withhold information requested by an AO, so he reasoned that they either didn’t know it, or it really didn’t belong to anyone.

He was wondering how to go about giving the order to have the number bestowed on Alexander when he opened the drawer and found a pile of blank notepaper headed ‘From the AO--Order!’ He stuffed a few of these in his pocket for later use, saving one to write his order on and send down the communication hatch. After he had instructed them to transfer the NI number of the UAO to Mr Fleuret, he coolly sauntered out of the door. The sentries saluted him as he left. He had a clear passage out the way he had come.

While Hoffman, Yellowman and Onion were away from home, he could slip in and out of the nunnery unobtrusively, especially in their van. Those who did not recognize it as Hoffman’s would assume it was making deliveries. He just hoped that Hoffman would not return sooner than expected.

As he had expected, Mr Patsy was in his newly-built midden, smoking a cigar and reading the paper. His style of architecture was as crude and utilitarian as could be achieved. The tower of bricks rose to a pinnacle. In one side in a doorway squatted a shady figure, holding a magazine.

‘How long have you been in there now?’ Creame asked, standing several yards in front.

‘Three hours or more; it’s all this bran I’ve been eating.’

‘And how long do you intend to stay in there?’

‘Until I’ve emptied my pouch.’

To Mr Patsy, sitting on the toilet was one of the few pleasures left, apart from guns. Gun catalogues he got sent from arms dealers. He was reading one at the moment. He fed himself on bran to prolong the enjoyment, but it scraped his innards raw. Creame could see the leafy cigar smoke wafting out of the place even at a distance. He had thought that the place was on fire, though it was drizzling.

‘I need your help.’



‘Oh, well...will I need to come out?’


‘Oh, well...okay. I suppose the rest can wait another few hours circulating poisons round my body and making me old and decrepit before my time,’ Mr Patsy grumbled, grabbing at one of the squares of newspaper that he’d attached on a six-inch rusty nail in the wall and began a long, laborious process. Each tearing noise followed by a rustling, crumpling sound signified one wipe, of which Creame counted forty-six. Halfway through it he said: ‘Are you ever going to come out of there?’

‘I like a good hard wipe,’ came the gruff reply.

At last he came out, sniffing the air tentatively.

‘Where’s the brick I gave you to look after?’ Creame asked.

‘Brick? Let me think,’ said Mr Patsy, scratching his half-bald head.

‘Come on, man: where is it?’ Creame said, turning blotchy again and jerking his head in annoyance as he spoke.

‘Oh, I seem to remember building something with it.’

‘You did what? What did you build with it?’

‘Well, I was sitting here early yesterday morning whistling to myself when suddenly I heard a rustling. I stopped whistling and stood up, covering my parts with a newspaper. When I looked out, there was Sister Peter standing behind a bush looking at me. I was very embarrassed at being spied on like that in my own privy. I would have put a door on it if I could find anything to make it out of and if I had a light inside to read by, but there was only bricks and--’

‘--Yes, so?’ Creame hurried him on.

‘She told me it was nothing to be ashamed about, as Adam and Eve had done it. I asked her what she was looking at and she said she was admiring my shithouse...well, she didn’t put it quite like that. Anyway, she admitted to being a bit of a naturalist--at least, that’s what I think she said. She said she loved the open air and told me she wished she had one of her own just like that, so I offered to build her one just like mine but she said she wouldn’t trust it without cement. I saw what she meant because mine being all dry-built, I was sitting in it this morning when suddenly the roof fell in on me. It’s a wonder I wasn’t killed. You can still see the bruises on my forearms here,’ he said, proudly rolling up his sleeves. ‘Anyway, getting to the point, I had to rebuild the roof at the same time as I started the second shithouse, using cement.’

‘I see,’ said Creame wearily, who had been staring at him keenly. ‘You’ve been a fool. The ‘nun’ was probably Hoffman or Yellowman in disguise, trying to find out if there were any more secret bricks. Where’s the one I gave you to look after?’ he asked, with a fresh note of anxiety in his voice.

‘I think I put it on top of the roof, so it shouldn’t be too difficult to get at.’

‘It should be all right there, at least for a while. Guard it with your life until I return; don’t leave it.’

‘I will. Can I get back to my business now?’

‘By all means,’ said Creame, hopping back into the van and driving away to pick up Alexander and see how Hoffman and the AOs had been making out.

Alexander had returned home and had shut himself away in his room, refusing to see anyone except Carl, who had managed to encourage him to eat Yorkshire puddings flavoured with morphine.

Carl answered the door and Creame had to practically force his way inside to see Alexander: until such time Carl just stood stupidly blocking the doorway and blinking owlishly at him, as he usually did when he answered the door.

‘Who is it, Carl?’ a gruff, anxious voice drifted down the stairs.

‘It’s Mr Creame, Alexander. He wants to see you,’ Carl replied softly in the same, coaxing tone that one would use on a spoilt child, to get him to take some horrible medicine.

‘Tell the bastard to go away.’

‘That’s not a very nice thing to say, Alexander, after he’s come all this way to see you.’

‘No, it’s not. Nor is it very nice to try to drown me and leave me to starve.’

‘I think he’s a bit tense at the moment,’ Carl suggested. ‘I’ll take him up some morphine in his porridge in a minute and that should relax him a little.’

From upstairs there came the sound of footsteps pounding across the floor and a door being jerked open.

‘Go on: piss off,’ Alexander clamoured down the stairs, followed by a plate in his tantrum. Creame noticed that he had no teeth in and his face was pale and puffy.

‘If you want to sit in the lounge while I get him calmed down, I’m sure that would be all right,’ Carl offered.

‘Sure, no problem. Go ahead.’

He pushed open the lounge door whilst Carl went into the kitchen to finish off what he was preparing for Alexander. Although everything was still tidy, dust and dankness suggested that it had not been inhabited for weeks. Old photographs were of his father in his Navy greatcoat as a young lieutenant clutching a cigarette and smiling blandly in the company of another officer; of his mother and father in some distant sunny garden; and of Alexander himself in a white jacket, scowling. The room was dotted with little ornaments and signs of the once tightly-knit family that had animated it before those cheerless times when the old family had dissolved and there was nothing to replace it. As he had known Alexander for some years, he remembered the last deep glow of the dying family ember. ‘Gran’ would be sitting on the couch where Creame was now sitting; his mother and father would be in armchairs on either side of the fire, and a stretched-out poodle between them, that had died on Christmas day. He was shocked to see that the top of the gas-fire was now crammed with pill bottles.

‘I’ve spoken to Alexander and he says he’ll see you for two minutes only,’ Carl informed him on slipping into the room. ‘He took a lot of persuading.’

‘We’ll see. I don’t know why he’s being so obtuse. I’ve done nothing to upset him.’

‘Okay Alexander...he’s coming up now....Remember what I told you,’ Carl shrilled up the stairs, before turning to Creame with: ‘Mind the broken plate.’

Alexander yelled back, ‘I will, my friend.’

To Creame, this sudden calmness was bewildering and unnerving.

Upstairs, he eased the door open and took a few steps inside, his face grim, like a priest being summoned to a deathbed.

There was an odour of stale food. A pile of clothes and odd war books barricaded the door. A model Messerschmitt suspended from the ceiling had a sock drooped over it.

He stepped over the clutter and sat on the chair by the foot of the bed. He looked steadily at Alexander.

Alexander’s hand was resting on a military book that was lying face down, which he had evidently just been reading. An untouched meal was on his bedside cabinet, where a dozen empty morphine bottles had been pushed back to make room for it. Among these were pill bottles of what Creame took to be tranquillizers. Alexander was in pyjamas, propped up with two pillows, hair tousled, unshaven and eyes glittering.

‘What are you doing in bed at this time of day?’

‘That’s my business.’

Another long pause, before Creame said: ‘Well, if that’s your attitude, I’d better leave.’

‘Yes, I think you’d better.’

Creame strolled towards the door.

‘You won’t want to hear what I’ve come to tell you, in that case. I’d better give it to somebody who’ll appreciate it.’

‘Give what?’ Alexander asked, startled.

Creame, who by this time was nearly through the door, stopped. ‘I’ve come to offer you the crown.’

‘Eh? What crown?’

‘The Ultimate crown: the crown of...the Ultimate Adjudication Officer. I came to offer you it, but since you don’t want it, I’ll have to give it to whoever’s next in line.’

‘Wait!’ Creame was on the landing by this time. ‘Tell me more. Who is this "Ultimate Adjudication Officer"?’

‘Oh, just perhaps the most powerful man in England,’ Creame said casually, now halfway down the stairs. ‘Or will be.’

‘Why have you come here to offer me his crown?’

‘Because it was a part of the Will.’

‘Damn the Will! I’ve nearly half-drowned and half-starved through that blasted Will!’ he protested, now at the door, peering after Creame.

‘That wasn’t it for which you half-starved and half-drowned. That was a mere game. That’s all water under the bridge now. Now there’s no more suffering. You’re it.’

‘I’m it? I’m what?’

‘The UAO.’

‘Stay for a minute, will you? I want to discuss this with you. Carl will make you a cup of tea.’

‘I’ll sit downstairs for five minutes, but you can forget the tea. I don’t drink on an afternoon. It makes me heavy.’

‘Okay, okay, just wait for me, please. Give me a few minutes to pull myself together.’ He heard Creame creeping downstairs without another word.

When he had satisfied himself that Creame had gone into the lounge instead out of the front door, as he had half expected, he quickly shed his pyjamas, gulped down a couple of sleeping tablets and plodded downstairs. He heard low muttering coming from the lounge and caught the words ‘I think they were his father’s.’

‘Is everything all right?’ he asked, slouching into an armchair.

‘Yes, fine, Alexander,’ Carl replied. Creame said nothing, but simply pushed himself further back in the couch.

He explained.

When he had finished, Alexander said: ‘Even for your sake I’ll not take it. I’ll put it by.’

‘What?’ gasped Creame. ‘But you must. I insist.’

‘What do you think, Carl?’

‘Well, it’s up to you, Alexander.’

‘Come on, Carl. Be decisive for once. Don’t just sit on the fence.’

‘Well, it’s your life, Alexander. You must do as you please. If you take it, it could lead to greater things.’

‘It could end up that way, the way the AOs are talking,’ said Creame.


‘I don’t want to say too much at this stage, but there’s talk of a revolution.’

‘Oh, you can count me out, then. I’m no good at fighting.’

‘Not that kind of a revolution, bird-brain; the other kind: a subversion from deep within. Do you know what’s happening all over the country and in every major organization you can think of? Little groups of dissatisfied people--Trade Unionists and such like--are popping up everywhere. The only hope now is for an undercover organization that is nationwide in its ramifications in all aspects of industry, to replace the Trade Unions. Unfortunately their power can only be reinstated by uncompromising and insidious measures. Scargill has been silenced by money or by fear, or both, because without co-operative labour from the workers, money would be worthless.

‘There is a certain group of people in the DSS which co-ordinates the activities of all these undercover organizations, besides encouraging the birth of new cells. British Telecom is perhaps the most successful of this kind, since it was privatized some time ago. Now they are working on British Everything.

‘In the DSS? They’re all bourgeoisie in there. They tried to rope me into a scheme not so long ago, so I picked up the phone and told them they were all minions of the stinking rich,’ Alexander retorted, spitting with rage.

Creame raised an eyebrow and said: ‘Some of them are and some of them are not; in fact, most are only doing a job and that’s as far as it goes. I can tell you that straight from the horse’s mouth, but those who are, are generally those from the rank of AO upwards. That’s just what I was coming to.

'Some time ago, some AOs tried to form an undercover organization. It was to be the elite of them all. Their policy was always to go against the government in favour of the claimants. Obviously they could not fall short of the law, but only in matters where it was left to their discretion. It was a noble but prodigious ideal.

'But a rift developed between those rogue AOs and those loyal to the government. For a while, both sides were at loggerheads: neither would recant their views and being colleagues, it was out of the question to take their dispute to the government, who would have sacked all the rogues at once, of course.

'You know the War of the Roses? Well, it was as factious as that. Close friends and even relatives were sundered by it. Previous to that, all the AOs used to meet at Christmas parties, but ever since, when one group of AOs held a Christmas party or a Tax New Year party, the other would hold it somewhere else. The solution came with you, Alexander.'

'How?' Alexander looked aghast.

'It's a long story. I haven't time to tell you now, though. Come on.'


'To get the crown.'

'Don't worry, Alexander. I'll look after the house while you're away,' Carl shouted after him when he was ready to leave, but even as he said this, Carl's beady eyes were already taking stock of where the food and drink could be found.

Meanwhile Creame climbed back into the van, had started the engine and was already sloping off down the road, when Alexander capered after it, with his coat hanging off his shoulder like a toga.

'I'm sorry I was a bit sharp earlier on, Creame, but I was low on tablets and Joan told me she didn't want anything to do with me when I tried to get back with her.'

'You were very cynical. When I saw you slouched in that bed in a drug-sodden mess, I felt like tipping you out of it and kicking you in the stomach and head several times before walking out and leaving you for good,' Creame said.

Chapter Sixteen

The Ordnance Survey point where they had the Ultimate Adjudication Officer invested was where a fierce row had developed between Hoffman and the Adjudication Officers, which had degenerated into a slanging match.

It had started when Hoffman thought he had found the secret bricks and therefore the number of the true Ultimate Adjudication Officer. He went to the Unemployment Benefit Office where Onion and Yellowman were busy quarrying a corner out of it.

'What are you doing?' he asked when he saw them excavating.

''You asked us to get the bricks out of the building,' Yellowman replied.

'I meant only the special ones.'

Yellowman's face sagged in disappointment as he said: 'But we've been up all night doing this.'

'I can see that,' Hoffman said, glancing at the big pile of bricks in the corner. 'Just look for the sign,' Hoffman said, stepping ever the rubble. 'Look through that lot and see if any of them have got "OHMS" stamped on them. I'll check the other side.'

Presently, while Onion and Yellowman were still raking stupidly through the rubble, there came a shrill shout of triumph from round the other side of the building.

'Here! Here! Quick! They're not even cemented in!' Hoffman yelled out jubilantly while reaching up and trying to claw away the bricks above the lintel on the main entrance.

'Pull these out for me, but don't mix them up with the others. Put them in the van, but keep those with "OHMS" stamped on them separate, then we can get going.'

'Okay, Sir,' Onion said, saluting him brassily.

Later, as they were in the driver's cab, Hoffman sat rubbing his hands together and smiling gleefully, fondling the nine Primary bricks which gave the National Insurance number of the UAO, as lovingly as if they were made of gold. Onion and Yellowman looked on in amazement as he chuckled hysterically to himself, reminding them of a small child tipping sweets out of a tube as they watched Hoffman trying to remove the leaden capsules from the bricks.

'What's all the fuss about?' Onion asked briskly.

'Fuss? I've been trying to get my hands on these little gems for years.'

'What use are they?'

Hoffman studied them for as long as he could bear, wondering whether he was joking. At the back of his mind, he was asking himself if they really were any good, since it was the number that was important and he couldn't see them being of use to anyone who didn't own the number. Still, he was much too enthralled to reason fully: he knew he just must have them, after searching for them for years. He had given up hope of ever finding one, let alone the whole set; but that fortuitous event came with the arrival of Mr Patsy, who had miraculously unearthed one in the nunnery's garden.

The ancient leaden capsules were dull with age and verdigris, apart from the newly-made bright scratches which evidenced the fact that they had already been opened up. The seal had been broken open and by the looks of it, crimped back together, because the 'OHMS' stamp was fibrillated with cracks and fragments which could be picked away easily.

Had someone attempted to disguise the fact that they had been tampered with? If so, why? He knew they had been opened at least once to enable His Civil Highness to be identified by the number given therein, but why try to conceal it? He examined each piece of vellum he extracted from the nine leaden capsules and examined in particular that from brick 4. He whipped out a small pocket lens and examined it, whereupon he thought he detected that the lead was shinier and therefore newer. There was no 'OHMS' stamp on this brick. Because of this, it seemed beyond doubt with him this was a fake. Evidently it was a red herring.

What happened next was that Hoffman had turned up telling the AOs who were still arguing the toss about the UAO, that they had just crowned a phoney. They said he wasn't. Hoffman said he was and could prove it. They asked him how. He said that he had the real brick 4; they said they did. They asked him what was its number. He said 'six'; they said 'eight'.

Upon driving back to the area of the coronation, they were amazed at what sight greeted them. A small crowd had moved in and some had pitched tents in the vicinity round the OS stone. Several groups had bivouacked on the ground and a file of cars was parked on the roadside. At the foot of the hill, as though outside a church at a Sunday service, people were still pouring out of their cars and making for their shrine. The AOs were gathered round in a group near the OS stone, where they seemed to be conversing about something. A car came hurtling down the road, so Hoffman leaned out of the window and asked the driver what was going on.

'They're making a new constitution. They sent me for their take-aways because they're hungry,' the driver replied.

'But who are those people?'

'It started off with their friends and relatives, but now it's a free-for-all. I can't stop. It's all fun and games up there,' said the driver, pulling away.

They drove on, looking for a place to park, which was to prove difficult. From the corner of his eye, Hoffman glanced a movement in the throng and a man stood up on the OS stone and waited for silence, which he got.

'We're here to form a new constitution, because we're sick of the old one.' There was an encouraging smattering of applause as the figure spoke. 'We don't need kings, or queens, or princes, or dukes, or marquises, or earls, or viscounts, or barons, or lords. We don't need the ministers, either, to try to tell us what's what. From now on, it's our show!' There was more applause and this time some cheering. 'From now on, our sovereign His Civil Highness will be our ruler in name and might. He will rule with a fair and gracious rod, completely obliterating parliamentarianism, the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy. Thus the power is restored to the people through the hands of the monarchy. He personally will hold himself responsible for your welfare, ladies and gentlemen. Bring the press, bring the camera crews, bring the media of the world to witness the start of a new and fair society. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you His Civil Highness John Smith!' the piping voice came down the hillside, blending into a raucous cheer.

'I've never seen anything like this,' Onion blurted out as His Civil Highness John Smith, Ultimate Adjudication Officer, was helped up the stone and mumbled a few grateful words by way of addressing the crowd, by which time Hoffman was also at the top of the hill. He had barged his way through the bewitched crowd, with Onion and Yellowman seeking desperately to keep close to his flicking heels; but not too close.

'Call the crowd to order,' he told Onion when he had stopped within earshot of the focus of their attention.

'Yessir!' Onion barked, cramming his lungs full of air, holding it for a moment and then shouting: 'Oi! Listen up. My CO wants to say a word.' There ensued complete silence, except for Onion's earpiercing yell which was still ringing in the distance.

'This man is an impostor,' Hoffman began. 'I've got reasons for saying so. He was selected on the strength of the National Insurance number given by the nine Primary bricks, but one of them is a fake.'

The crowd watched in stunned silence.

Hoffman continued: 'I must say that brick 4 is a forgery, because I have here the number of the true brick 4 contained in the palm of my hand. Look!' holding the leaden capsule aloft and turning it round for everyone to see. A gasp of amazement escaped from the crowd.

'He's a liar!' the UAO declaimed. 'Don't listen to him. He works for the government.'

After a brief, stunned pause, one of the rogue AOs blasted out: 'He's a spy. Burn him! He's a government agent.'

One of them started towards Hoffman, but Onion intervened and stood his ground between them, as rigid as a plank, adopting a threatening posture and said brusquely: 'Halt! The first one who goes near the doctor gets his neck broken.'

This seemed the most incontrovertible of the preceding statements and gave rise to a nervous tension all round. Yellowman darted behind Onion for protection and he vouched in a quaky voice loud enough only for Onion to hear: 'He means what he says, you know.'

'That's enough!' Hoffman asserted, stepping forward again. 'There's no need for violence. We must have this sorted out properly, otherwise we could have total anarchy, as well as having the government on our backs. That man is a charlatan. I hold the true content of Brick Four, with the official stamp and a paper signed by John Smith saying the fourth character is a six. Therefore I move that the rightful UAO, whose National Insurance number is NA768154C, come forward and claim the rightful title.'

There erupted a jubilant commotion from a part of the crowd and an old lady was thrust forward out of it, as if she had just been selected from the audience to take part in a game show. The enthusiastic crowd bore her along, patting her on the back and helping her up the hill.

'Wait!' said the UAO, whose number was NA788154C. 'How do I know that his is not a forgery?'

'Supposing it is, it could only be equal to yours, which is almost certainly a forgery,' Hoffman retorted.

'How do you know?' an AO bickered.

'Because I happen to have the real one right here.'

'Liar!' the AO accused Hoffman.

'That's enough! That's no talk for an AO,' His Civil Highness cautioned him.

'I'll strike a bargain with you,' Hoffman said. 'Since you don't rightly know who the true UAO is meant to be, let me have it and there'll be no more said about it.'

There was a disconcerted muttering after which one of them stepped forward and said: 'Hold on.' They conferred among themselves until one of them broke decisively away from the group and asked, 'What will you do if we don't agree?'

'It's very simple. I'll squeal to the government for putting the wrong UAO in power,' Hoffman replied.

They held another tête-à-tête, during which they looked over and pointed at Hoffman every so often. Finally they appeared to agree on some stratagem by nodding profusely and the same AO approached Hoffman again and said: 'We simply can't agree to your request, since we've already sworn allegiance to His Civil Highness, but we're willing to appoint you Penultimate Adjudication Officer as a sweetener, if you agree to obey our rules.'

'What about me?' the old woman chirped in. 'Do I get a say in this?'

'I agree, providing she comes under me,' Hoffman declared, realizing she might form a favourable alliance with him.

'We'll agree to appoint her Antepenultimate Adjudication Officer, providing the same applies to her.'

'Which is what?'

'At the moment, our rules, which are that we make the rules and take the decisions whilst you and she concern yourselves only with appeal and petitory matters that do not interfere in the general course of things.'

'Would you be prepared to listen to us in an advisory capacity, then?' asked Hoffman.

'Yes, we agree to that. Now, if you'd like to take your places at the foot of the throne, we can begin to make the constitution.'

'Where are we to sit?' asked Yellowman.

'On the ground, of course--who are you?'

'I'm his brother.'

'Well, I'm sorry, but there's no place for you here, brother.'

'Hey, just a minute: we work for him,' Onion interjected, pointing at Hoffman.

'Is that so?'

'Yes, we're his bodyguards.'

'Okay, in that case, you can sit beside him, but no one more,' the AO said.

'I can't sit on hard ground; I want a seat,' the old woman objected.

'There aren't any seats here, Granny,' the AO replied patronizingly.

'The lady deserves a seat. Someone find her a seat,' the UAO said, hoping to redeem her from Hoffman.

A spectator chirped in, 'I've got a portable workbench in my car boot, if that's any good.'

'Yes, fetch it. It'll have to do. Give him a chitty for it, someone,' the UAO said.

'We've got no forms, Your Civil Highness,' an AO said.

'Oh, well, she'll have to wait until we send for some forms, in that case,' said the UAO, who had quite readily grasped civil service mentality.

'This is absolutely farcical. I resign,' said the old woman.

'You can't. You have to ask for our permission,' said an AO, bridling with hauteur.

'I can and I'm going to!' she stormed, typical of her type.

'I'll take her place,' Yellowman offered eagerly.

'Accepted,' said an AO.

'Despite your position, I'll not have you making a mockery of this system,' the UAO shouted at the AO, tapping his plastic sword vigorously on the stone. 'Damn this...give me something better than this,' throwing it to the ground. After a general appeal, a walking-stick was procured from a member of the public and presented to him by a subservient AO, who bowed. The UAO scooped it up impatiently and began to rap it furiously on the Ordnance Survey stone, making a noise like a woodpecker.

'What we need here are some rules and a scrivener,' he announced.

'I'm a scrivener,' an AO informed him, lightly stepping forward.

'I recognize that voice,' Yellowman said.

'Enough!' pitched in the Ultimate Adjudication Officer, banging his stick on the stone he was sitting on, sending the vibrations ringing through Hoffman's and Onion's backs. 'Let's have the first law.'

'The first law is that everything we decide from hereon in will be law up and down the country, as long as we say so,' an Adjudication Officer said.

'Write it down,' the Ultimate Adjudication Officer prompted.

'And couch it in good English,' Hoffman said.

'I'll write it down as I know how,' Tileshed junior replied. He had joined the group as an associate rogue Adjudication Officer, since he had sat on the Social Security Appeal Tribunal, being a solicitor.

Although Tileshed junior was not an Adjudication Officer proper, he had been allowed to join the JS men by virtue of the fact that had it not been for him, the rogues would never have known about the attempt to raise the bricks.

It was only when Tileshed junior was hired to go on a suspicious sea journey and was informed that the reason it was to be executed clandestinely was because it was feared that the client could become Ultimate Adjudication Officer that he notified the other rogue Adjudication Officers, who then perceived that they could tarry no longer if they were not to lose the secret and so be unable to have the chance of using it themselves. Previous to that, they had just been biding their time until it was considered expedient to raise the bricks themselves and install the Ultimate Adjudication Officer with their backing.

A pen and paper was produced and handed to Tileshed junior, who scribbled down what they said and called it law.

'The second law should be that what I say goes,' said the Ultimate Adjudication Officer.

'Er, decisions are taken by the majority of Adjudication Officers. The Ultimate Adjudication Officer has the right to advise, question or examine our decisions, and even to request a reappraisal of a decision or law, but does not have the power to overrule them; similarly, the Penultimate Adjudication Officer and Antepenultimate Adjudication Officer have similar such parts to play. Yes?' another Adjudication Officer canted, sounding like Mr Fleuret at his most bombastic.

'Steady on. I thought I was supposed to be all-powerful,' returned the Ultimate Adjudication Officer, shaking his walking-stick like a witch-doctor's spear. 'What do we mean by Civil Assent?'

'A mere formality,' the same Adjudication Officer indulged himself in saying.

'You answer to me, do you understand?' the Ultimate Adjudication Officer harangued.

'Okay, but only on the grounds that it's honorary. There are more of us and we know what's best for the people,' Tileshed junior said.

'You are chasing them all away with all these boring laws,' Hoffman protested, angrily pointing at the dwindling number of people and the convoy of cars leaving.

'Never mind them, what's the next law?' the Ultimate Adjudication Officer demanded, rapping his stick against the stone.

'The next law is that below the Ultimate Adjudication Officer, Penultimate Adjudication Officer, Antepenultimate Adjudication Officer...come the Adjudication Officers. They will make the laws by a majority decision.'

'We've already had that out,' the Ultimate Adjudication Officer said.

'No we haven't. Get it down,' some AOs said.

'Enough of these laws. We'll decide the rest later. Let's have a case,' the Ultimate Adjudication Officer demanded, waving his stick angrily. 'This walking-stick is a symbol of my authority.'

'Another law...write it down,' said an AO.

'No! The plastic sword is. We agreed to it until we could get something better,' contended a fellow Adjudication Officer.

'The plastic sword is a symbol of the Penultimate Adjudication Officer's authority and not mine. It's too soft and hollow for me,' the Ultimate Adjudication Officer said.

'It's not. We should stick to what we agreed on in the first place,' an Adjudication Officer said.

'I will not have that thing thrust upon me; it degrades me.'

'You will.'

'I won't! I will not,' the Ultimate Adjudication Officer shouted in a gravelly voice, casting the walking-stick down. Under it, Yellowman's head happened to be.

'This is a farce,' someone shouted from the crowd and several more were beginning to agree.

'How do you expect to make laws if you keep arguing?' the old woman said.

'We need a case to liven things up,' Hoffman said.

'Yes, a case, but first I want more titles.'

'Such as?' Hoffman quizzed the UAO.


'You can't be a lord if you're already a king.'

HCH John Smith smiled wilily at this blatant admission of his superiority and then added quietly, 'Regent, then?'

'No, a regent is someone who rules in the absence of a king. I should be regent and lord Protector, since I'm second in command,' said Hoffman.

'Granted,' said the UAO.

'It's not granted. We take the decisions round here!' stormed Tileshed junior.

'Make your decision, then.'

'Shall we give it to him? Yes, okay.'

'I want more titles,' cried out the Ultimate Adjudication Officer.

'And so do I. I've got none yet,' Yellowman grumbled.

The argument was finally settled when it was suggested that they play quoits for titles. Yellowman did quite well and was made Lord of the Dole and Defender of the Grey.

'Defender of the what?' he asked, dumbfounded.

'Defender of the Grey. As you know, for us, grey is our own colour. It needs defending.'

'And I'm supposed to defend it? How do I do that?' Yellowman asked, perplexed and rather apprehensively, wondering if what he had to do involved any fighting.

'By wearing it, of course,' an Adjudication Officer informed him.

'Grey what--grey anything?'

'Grey suits, mainly.'

'But I don't have any grey suits.'

'You'll need one, if you want to be Defender of the Grey.'

'How can I get one?' Yellowman asked anxiously.

'Buy one.'

'But I can't afford one.'

'Tough. Unless you have one, and only the best quality, such as the ministers themselves wear, we can't let you hold onto the title, can we lads?' sounded an AO, smirking to his colleagues.

They all agreed he couldn't.

'You can always try the dole,' one of them suggested glibly.

'Can I have leave to go there now?' Yellowman asked, rather uncertainly.

'Certainly,' they guffawed.

'I'll be back shortly. Don't let anybody slip in my place when I'm gone. I'll be back as soon as I can,' said Yellowman, standing up and wiping away the grass from his combat trousers. 'Can I borrow your car?' he asked Hoffman. 'I'd look out of place going in the van.'

Hoffman threw him the keys carelessly. The car was still parked at the Unemployment Benefit Office.

He realized he held the title of Lord of the Dole until it was taken off him, irrespective of whether or not he had a grey suit. If he was Lord of the Dole, surely it meant that he could walk into any dole office in the country and demand anything: they just couldn't argue, as he had the full backing of half the AOs in the area. If they did argue, he could go back to them and claim it wasn't working, in which case a grey suit would be to no avail anyway.

By asking directions, he found his way to the nearest Social Security office and parked. Inside, he found to his chagrin, the waiting area was stowed out and crawling with people waiting to be seen. He rashly decided that being Lord of the Dole entitled him to priority in being seen and he strolled confidently over to the counter.

'I want a grey suit,' he stoutly told a Monkey behind the screen.

'There's a queue here, you know, Cher,' said the chesty old man whom Yellowman had jumped in front of.

'I'm sorry, but you'll have to take a ticket and wait your turn like everybody else here,' said the Monkey.

'Do you know who I am?'

'Hey, Yellowman!' somebody shouted from behind. He turned round and recognized some of the crew of the ship. 'Come over here, me Hearty.' It was Jimmy, in the shabby green Parka with the paint stain in which Yellowman had seen him last. The gypsy and Frankie were there. It was the last thing he needed: for these bums to come and trivialize the crucial moment. They still knew him as a pirate, not as the more prestigious 'Lord of the Dole'. Trying to ignore them only made it worse and Jimmy came staggering over to him and clasped his arm, saying: 'Come over here and talk to us'.

He realized that was all he could do, that his plan had been flouted and his dignity rendered incredulous seemed apparent. He meekly allowed himself to be shown to a seat in the corner, where Norman and Frankie were sitting bantering.

'Where's Humphrey your camel, then?' Frankie was ribbing Norman. He would often joke like this because he said Norman looked like an arab and rode a camel called Humphrey. Though it must have been invisible, some of the states Norman got himself into, it looked as if he were trying to ride it rather than walk.

'It's outside having a drink,' Norman replied.

'You should have brought it in here with you. It could have claimed some Nash money.'

'Don't give him any money--he's a pirate,' Jimmy joked at the Monkeys, pointing to Yellowman.

'Give me some of that, gutsie,' he said, snatching the opened can of beer from Norman.

The security man came over and said: 'You'll have to leave if you don't keep quiet.'

'Bill, my old son!' Jimmy said. 'Meet Yellowman. He's a pirate,' getting to his feet precariously and putting one hand on the security guard's shoulder while pointing to Yellowman with the other. He began to writhe his hips in a travesty of a dance. 'Bill's my old pal, aren't you, son? We used to drink together,' he explained.

'Old pals or not, Jim, if you don't quieten down, you'll have to go.'

'Sit down, Jimmy. You're showing us all up,' Norman protested.

'Ha! You can talk! What about your coloured friend who's got you on video? Did you show yourself up then, or what?...Do you know what he did?' he went on, turning to Bill. 'We went into the corner shop for a bottle. At the time, I thought no more about it, but while I was busy getting served, Norman was mooching about in the corner. When I got outside, he showed me a tin of brass polish he'd swiped. He didn't even have any use for it. I told him to take it back.'

'No you didn't,' yelled Norman.

'I did. You can't remember. You were pissed, that's why you took it in the first place. Anyway, he's admitted it,' Jimmy said, turning back to Bill. 'That night, Mohammed was watching through his video and he was on it taking it. When I went in the next day, he mentioned it to me and said he was thinking of prosecuting him, but that he was a good friend of mine. I said he's no friend of mine. You can do what you like. But I have to say that, sober, Norman's as good as gold; drunk, he's a kleptomaniac.'

Bill allowed himself a wry smile and after warning Jimmy again, he disengaged himself from Jimmy's arm and meandered away, casting chary glances back.

'What did you have to tell him that for?' Norman shouted at him.

'Because you mentioned I was showing you up.'

'But there was no need to go into that--was there, Frankie?'

Frankie declined to comment. He didn't like calling people and was rarely known to have done so.

'I could have mentioned the things you've done when you've been drunk.'

'And I could have mentioned when you tried to become a security man and got sacked for being pissed on the job.'

'The dog got me the sack. I found it as a stray and took it down because you had to have your own dog, but it wouldn't bite anyone. It would have just licked anyone trying to break in.'

'A fine pair you made. You too pissed to stand and a dog that would lick someone to death.'

While these were arguing, Frankie was quietly quizzing Yellowman about the reason for his visit to the DSS and asking him what had made him become a pirate, as though it were his chosen career. He said that Yellowman's fingers were pianist's fingers.

Suddenly Norman sprang up, realizing that it was his turn to be seen and his lanky legs took him over to the cubicle. Jimmy also began to take an interest in Yellowman's circumstances, initially to see if he was 'carrying', but more especially when he mentioned his business there as being connected with the other side of the DSS.

'What happened?' he asked Norman, upon seeing him lumbering over with much less enthusiasm than he had when he went. 'Have they knocked you back?'

'I've got to hang around till half past three for some food vouchers,' he replied morosely.

He was referring to the system then operated by the DSS whereby persons of no fixed abode were entitled to claim a daily subsistence allowance. Although they were not supposed to be exchangeable for liquor, they sometimes managed it by selling their vouchers to someone else at a discount.

Jimmy nodded sagely and mumbled: 'I thought as much.'

When Yellowman was getting seen to, Jimmy conversed with Frankie and Norman about what Yellowman had just been telling them. 'He says that this Damien Creame bloke is in some racket with the Nash. He's up to something or other with the nunnery.'

'Like what?' Norman asked sceptically.

'Who knows. It could be dipping or something,' Jimmy responded, with a deft flick of the wrist to indicate something underhand.

'How can he be dipping into tills when the DSS don't even have them?' Norman quibbled.

'I think he's bleeding somebody for something. It might be worth our while paying him a visit. I hear they've got a soup kitchen up at the nunnery. It means we can spend Norman's food voucher. Wait till Yellowman gets seen to and we'll see if he'll give us a lift up there.'

Yellowman was not long in being seen to, as he got nowhere at the cubicle. Being Lord of the Dole entitled him to nothing, he was told. If he wanted a grey suit, even if it was for a job interview, he would have to go through the normal channels. When he asked how he would go about that, it was thought he could apply for a discretionary loan, but he would have to pay it all back by instalments: even so, it would be left to the discretion of the Adjudication Officer, but he would be unlikely to get it because most of their allocation for that kind of thing would be spent up at that time of the month. When he told the Monkey that he came from the Adjudication Officer, he was told to approach him directly, instead of wasting the Monkey's time.

Yellowman was just sliding quietly out of the door, wishing the ground would swallow him up, when Jimmy, Norman and Frankie came tumbling towards him and caught him. They asked him to wait until Norman got his voucher so that Yellowman could give them all a lift back to the nunnery.

Yellowman, pirate and self-defence expert, did not dare refuse.

When Yellowman returned, he was sorry that he had missed out on the chance of gaining the title of Lord Keeper of the Bricks, which they had been playing quoits for in his absence.


Chapter Seventeen

Creame took Alexander to Mr Patsy, from whom he retrieved the real Brick Four. When Mr Patsy learned that it was required for the sake of Alexander, he growled like a dog with a bone, until Creame managed to talk him into parting with it.

'I don't like that man,' Alexander said as an afterthought.

'He doesn't like you,' Creame retorted.

They drove up to the Roman wall as was suggested by Alexander. Creame wasn't particularly keen on the idea but thought he had better play along with Alexander to keep him happy.

Alexander booked in at the local guest house, past Once Brewed, past Twice Brewed and past a place Creame called 'Never Gets the Chance to be Brewed,' which was a joke of his with reference to Norman's home-brewing hobby, the oldest vintage of which was four days in the bucket before it was drunk. They looked for somewhere to hide the brick. Really for Alexander it was just an excuse to be there. As Alexander knew the layout of the wall intimately, he suggested a few cubby holes where they might manage to install it, but none of these pleased Creame: he wanted it completely hidden. Alexander refused to allow him to desecrate the wall itself; every time it was mentioned that certain farmhouses in the area were built from it, it would send Alexander spuming with rage. Creame's face blotched a little as he told him not to be so daft, but Alexander still would not relent and even intimated that he would report him if he saw him violating it.

Creame pondered for a while and came up with an answer.

'Wait here. I won't be long,' he said at last.

'What are you going to do? Where are you off to?' Alexander asked nervously. 'You're not going to leave me here alone, are you?'

'You'll see: just wait for me, okay?' he said a little tetchily.

Alexander was left clutching his brick against the scenic background of Roman bricks, being warmed by the evening sun, watching the blue sky and scudding clouds being tinged from white to red by the sun setting.

'I don't know what's so important all of a sudden,' Alexander muttered to himself when Creame had gone, then he began poking idly round the hole in the middle of the brick he was carrying before finally setting it down on the ground and turning to admire the long, undulating line of the wall. He flared out his nostrils like a valiant warhorse, pursed his lips, scowled down his nose, trumpeted air down it several times and struck his breast melodramatically. Feeling his nose partially blocked, he pulled out a nasal spray and squirted it up both nostrils of his hooked, blackhead-infested nose . He uncorked the spray-bottle from his nostril, put it away and stooped to pick up a handful of soil, saying: 'I am a son of Rome. Here is where the noble empire ends,' as he crumbled it symbolically in his hand.

When Creame returned, Alexander was strolling up and down on top of the wall, with his hand thrust in the front of his shirt.

'That'll do, Scipio. Come and give me a hand.'

'What is it?'

Creame, who had been unwrapping something on the ground, straightened up a little and said through clenched teeth and rolling eyes, in his best Kirk Douglas voice: 'It's a Roman device, a present to the emperor Scipio, from Spartacus.'

'Ho! Very good!' Alexander guffawed, making full use of the size of his Adam's apple.

Creame produced a brown paper bag in which were two pizzas, one of which he handed to Alexander.

'Ugh! It looks absolutely disgusting: it looks like sick.'

'Give me it back, if you don't want it.'

'What is it?' he asked, showing a little more interest.

'It's a Honkburger,' he replied, sitting on the ground while Alexander sat on the wall.

'I'll try it first, I think,' he wavered, nibbling at a bit; to which Creame rejoined, 'I don't want it after you've been at it.'

'Oh, yes. It's very good. Mm, mm, mm,' he continued to utter all the way through eating it. In between 'mm's and appreciative nods, he still managed to devour it before Creame had got halfway through his. This annoyed Creame, who liked to consider himself a fast eater as he correlated it with manly voraciousness and he piped up: 'I thought you said you didn't want it.' Alexander had sat back, huffing and puffing and patting his stomach as though he had gorged himself; finally he said: 'Phew, I enjoyed that. It'll be my turn to get them next time.'

'There might not be a next time if the ministers get to us first,' Creame said worryingly, but still continued to wipe his mouth as though he couldn't care less.

'Pardon?' Alexander asked him after a reflexive pause.

'You heard.'

'Ministers?' Alexander seemed to have been moved to the quick with apprehension, as Creame had obviously intended. 'What ministers? Do you mean church ministers, or government ministers, or what?'

'Would that they were,' he laughed cynically.

'But surely you don't mean religious fanatics, do you?'

He sighed. 'In a way, yes, I do. They treat it as fervently as if it were a religion. If they found out that we were threatening to expose them, then they might do away with us in no time,' Creame said, tunnelling a wide-eyed stare at Alexander. 'You see, the ministers are a force--to be reckoned with.'

'Oh, we must steer well clear of them in that case. I don't want to be murdered. Even though I've often said I'd rather be out of this pitiful misery and living hell we call life, I'd still rather choose the means and the moment,' Alexander spat out.

'"...Ere the bat hath flown

His cloistered flight; ere to black Hecate's summons

The sharde-borne beetle with his drowsy hums

Hath rung night's yawning peal,

There will be done a deed of dreadful note."

...Larry was simply splendid, you know,' Creame mused.

'What's to be done?'

'We must prevent them from bewitching us.'


Creame was determined that Alexander should be made to beg for every scrap of information.

'A charm; a talisman, of some sort, would maybe do it.'

'Surely the ministers couldn't be that bad! Who are they and whom do they serve?'

Creame's pale countenance grew stiff and became laved with reverence as he spoke: 'They're just known as "The Ministers" in DSS circles. As to whom they serve, I can't tell you: I'd be hexed if I did. It's one of the trade secrets of the DSS, to which I'm sworn to secrecy upon penalty of death.'

Alexander's face became endued with wonderment as he conjured up images in his mind of a coven of grey-haired men dancing round a cauldron at the cross-roads at midnight.

'Tell me more about the ministers.'

'If I do, you must promise never to reveal a word of it to anyone, not even yourself, Alexander: do I make myself clear? They are hungry for souls.'

'I won't say a word: you can rely on me.'

The enfolding darkness struck a chill note with him and although he was glad of Creame's company, he scared him. He hoped he wouldn't see the ghosts of Roman soldiers marching past, because that would be sure to completely enervate him; but if he did and he could have put his fear behind him, it would have been the best thing to have happened to him.

'Let's go back to the guest house,' said Alexander.

'No, let's stay here. The ministers--full ministers who are not just dilettantes--number thirteen in all. All are, of course, extremely evil people, but it is they who run this country. They do not necessarily correlate to the government ministers, but each of the thirteen has his own rôle to play. It's one of the first things they tell you when you join the civil service, if you are lucky enough to be accepted into their inner circle. I was once a rogue.'

'You--a rogue?'

'Sure I was. I was one of them once, but they betrayed me as I thought they would, which is why I planted a dud brick in Hoffman's garden. I knew they'd come for it, with me in front to show them where it was, and then betray me. That's why I palmed them off with a dud. I did virtually the same with Hoffman, so he's also got a dud, except both duds have got different numbers on them. With Hoffman, as soon as Mr Patsy unearthed the real one, I switched it and told him to go up to Hoffman saying that he'd found a pile of bricks and ask if he could build himself a toilet with them. I knew they wouldn't have me anyway, because I wasn't one of them proper.'

'One of what?'

'An Adjudication Officer. But getting back to the point, though, these thirteen ministers are responsible for different tasks.'

'What are they?'

‘Oh, Let me think....I can’t just reel them off the top of my head, but the one we’re concerned with is the minister for the DSS. Like all of them, he speaks to the government minister through the Oracle.’

‘He sounds very important. I bet he’s a rich pig.’

‘He doubtless is, but that’s not what makes him so formidable. No. What makes him so formidable is that he’s a Free Spirit.’

‘A what?’

'I said a Free Spirit. A Free Spirit is a devil of the highest caliber. The Oracle is his voice, answerable only to Hecate herself, whom they worship. The devil cannot be vanquished by mortals and even most immortals would have their work cut out, so they told me in the DSS. Only Satan or, in the Oracle's case, his mistress Hecate, can rebuke him. Below him comes a Black Spirit and then a Pin-Striped-Suit Spirit and then a Grey-Suited Spirit and then a Checky-Suited Spirit.'

'But I thought the government runs this country.'

'Ah, big mistake. There are, I believe, some ministers who have taken on human form and are members of both cabinets, but the two exist side by side. The government cabinet is a phantasmagoria of the real thing.'

'Like Plato's Theory of Forms?' Alexander interjected.

'Some forty years ago the ministers took over this country. They offered peace, but of course there was a price. We sold the country out to Hecate and the Devil.'

'Do you mean Hecate the Greek goddess presiding over magic and spells, who wears a long robe, holds burning torches and is one- or three-formed, to allow her to look in all directions at once from the crossroads?' Alexander asked, who had studied some Greek as well as Roman mythology.

'Yes, probably. It's a Faustian agreement. It's peace at the expense of justice. Now, however, we're having to pay more and more interest to the bloodthirsty and usurious ministers.'

'What do you mean?'

'Look, we've had peace for over forty years, but it's only a temporary measure. It's like borrowing money and not paying it back. The interest just accrues until it becomes impossible to even keep up the interest payments.

'At the end of the last war, we made a pact with some nasty sorcerers. Through his devils, Satan granted us a certain period of peace in return for allowing greater injustice to proliferate at an everyday level. Now it's catching up with us, though and soon we'll be unable to keep up in repaying even the interest. Once that happens, we'll have a catastrophe on our hands.'

'But why did they allow it to happen in the first place, if they knew what it would be like?'

'Because it was a group of unscrupulous profiteers who didn't want their businesses hit by war that sold us out. It didn't bother them what would happen in forty or fifty years' time: most of them are dead now, anyway. Social injustice didn't bother them either, as long as it wasn't against them or their interests. If the poor got poorer, so be it. Vandalism and the occasional riot even provided them with good business, at the expense of the councils and therefore of the people who lived in the affected areas. So long as big businesses weren't affected, it was all right.

'Now the price is becoming too high and the situation is reaching crisis point. Like an uncontrolled fire, the longer it burns, the bigger it gets and the more it consumes and is still never satisfied. Apparently there has not been enough social injustice and we've got some catching-up to do. They're working at it night and day now, to try to avert a crisis. Every day they come up with something new to increase the amount of social injustice, because we're liable to go under otherwise.'

'What will happen then?'

'The interest will become too high for us to keep them at bay.'

'And then?'

'And then the end of the world...complete disorder. Something like that....I don't think anyone knows all the details.'

'But why on earth do these ministers want to make our life hell in the first place?'

'Because they in turn are answerable to the fiends of hell, in the same way as the government ministers are answerable to them. They struck a bargain with Old Nick himself and all his demons in return for power. They must propitiate their ministers by dogging the lives of the government ministers. It's a delegation of evil, if you like, a parallel system. Whenever a government minister is discredited, it's very likely to be their doing. The evil sorcerers, or true ministers, conjured up these evil spirits for their own ends and were in turn asked for help by the government ministers, who thus enmeshed themselves and the people in a snare of evil: we who rely on these government ministers are also in it. It should never have bludy well been allowed.'

'But that's hellish. That's absolutely horrendous. Can nothing be done to stop it?'

'Only by increasing social injustice greatly can it be brought under control. If we increase it sufficiently, it may be brought under control but before that happens, a lot of blood must flow and even then it's doubtful. We've allowed things to go too far. The point of no return could already have been reached. It's partly why the DSS was set up: to administer social injustice under the guise of "Social Security". They answer to the demon in charge of the DSS, through the minister for Social Security and the relevant sorcerer.'

'That's awful. Do you think you could exorcise it?'

Creame shook his head gravely: 'I don't know. I just know it could be a very tricky business. It could even backfire on me.' His eyes widened into a stare.

'What would happen then?'

'At the very least, it could take over me...possess my body and use it for its own ends.' A shiver ran through Alexander when he heard this. 'But that comes later. First, though, we'd better install you in the office of Ultimate Adjudication Officer.'

'I'm not sure I like the idea any more, Creame...I mean, if my life's going to be at risk, and I'm going to be carrying out the work of a demon...'

'You won't. That's just it. You'll be helping to restore the level of social justice. It would be within your remit to do so then.'

'But I thought you said that we couldn't have social justice.'

'Not yet we can't. We must propitiate the demon first.'

'Oh, God...I really am sorry, Creame, but I'm afraid you'll have to leave me out. I wasn't cut out for this sort of thing.'

'But justice depends on it: you can't just ignore it.'

'I don't see that it should be left up to me to sort out. I didn't sell anybody up the river.'

'Neither did I! It's me that'll be taking all the risks: all you have to do is watch,' Creame shouted.

'Just watch...is that all?'

'Yes,' Creame barked.

'Nothing more than that?'


'And I won't be spellbound?'


'All right. I'll do it.'

'Good man. Now, first thing's first. We'll have to get this brick hidden until I can hold another conference with those lunatic Adjudication Officers and try to get them to see sense by letting you have the title of Ultimate Adjudication Officer. With you acting as Commissioner to all the laws passed, you'll be able to implement them. Now, no more said for the time being. Help me with this gear.'

Alexander looked surprised upon seeing it and asked, 'What is it?'

'It's a black box with a wire sticking out of it.'

'What's it for?'

'What do you mean, what's it for? You want this brick secure, don't you?' Creame shouted at him.

'Y--yes, but how will that help?'

'I've already told you it's a black box with a piece of wire.'

'I see,' said Alexander, not seeing but too apprehensive of further rebuke to grub for an explanation.

'Yes, it's a spook device. I got it from a friend of mine who's a general dealer. It's really only a modified burglar alarm. You see this wire here? It stretches for twenty yards on either side of the black box. If anyone touches it, it induces an electromagnetic field in the wire which sends a current along the wire which triggers the alarm. It's even sensitive to magnetic fields and through a thermocouple, to sudden changes in temperature.'

'Gosh, it sounds very clever.'

'Yes, isn't it?' Creame said eagerly, beaming. 'I did a lot of work on it myself. There's also a sucker we can attach to the brick so that if anyone tries to pull it off, it sets off the alarm.'

'It must have taken hours of thinking out. I'm hopeless at all that technical stuff, but I can imagine how much work you must have put into it.'

This compliment seemed to enrapture Creame no end, as he became more enthusiastic about the device and insisted in trying to explain to him how it worked, but it fell on deaf ears and he might as well have been talking to the wall itself.

'Yes, it's very very good--brilliant,' was all Alexander could say. 'You know, your talent is wasted. You should have been a psychic investigator.'

'I am.'

They let out the wire along the wall in both directions from the black box, which he connected somehow to the brick and buried both in the soil at the foot of the wall. When the task was done, he stood erect and said: 'I appoint you custodian. Guard that brick with your life. The password is "Scipio".'

'Ha! Ha!' Alexander guffawed.

Creame's face became solemn, with self-importance rather than because the situation called for it and he said: 'I'm not laughing. We'll take turns to watch over it all night, so watch it closely. If the phantoms don't try to get at it, then the JS men might. Now, we'll have a dummy run. I'll just make sure that it's working first, though.'

With these words he stooped down and did something to the top of it which was still sticking out of the ground and had a button and a few lights on it. Soon, a klaxon nearly deafened them. Alexander put his hands over his ears and staggered away.

Creame laughed throatily. 'That should scare 'em. It's an American system. It would make you throw up if I left it on for long enough. The frequency of 10Hz corresponds to our brainwaves and causes resonance.'

'It makes a hideous racket,' admitted Alexander, who had been melodramatizing the thing, as he did when he ate, as much as Creame had exercised his tendency to overstate matters, especially when they redounded to his credit.

Neither was he content to let it rest at that, for he said: 'Now I'll try it out. You stand beside the brick and the box and I'll be the intruder. I'll walk down and accidentally tread on the wire. Are you ready?'

'Right. Here we go.' Creame walked along the top of the wall and set the klaxon off again.

'Well, come on,' he shouted above the din.

'Come on what?'

'You've got to challenge me.'

Alexander ran towards him shouting, 'Who goes there?'



'Scipio. Scipio Africanus's the password.' He seemed satisfied at last in having played his little game and then he climbed off the wall and turned off the blare, almost painfully slowly, much to Alexander's discomfort.

'Right. Now it's nearly dark. We'll take shifts. I'll sleep in the guest house here until four o' clock while you stand guard, and then I'll come and relieve you and watch over it till dawn. Got it?'

Alexander appeared to cogitate for a while and then reported suddenly, 'But it gets light at about four o' clock. You won't have a very long shift, will you?'

'Don't worry, old chap. I'll let you have a little lie-in in the morning.'

'I'm not at all sure about this, Creame. I mean, when I was up here before, I got attacked by Satanists.'

'If you do, you know all you have to do is to activate the alarm. That'll scare them. I don't think they'll bother you this time, though, not with me around. Well, cheerio for now. I'll bring you out some soup and cucumber sandwiches if they have any, later on,' Creame said flippantly.

'But what--' Alexander began to say, but Creame was already out of earshot, treading towards the guest house. He was looking forward to staying there at Alexander's expense.

'No, please--' he called out mournfully to the shady, retreating figure.

Creame stopped, turned around and walked back a little way, called out, 'Oh, and don't leave your post until I come for you. Good luck, Tribune!'

Alexander, feeling totally wretched and forsaken, slumped shivering against the cold face of the wall. He was remembering the time when Creame left him in a similar lurch, cold and starving while he slept in a warm bed.

'Bastard!' he shouted after him.

It began to drizzle slightly and Alexander huddled deeper inside his anorak, trying to encase himself completely in it; but try as he might, he could not stretch it far enough to convolve his legs and when he pulled it over his head, it left a cold draught engirdling his waist. Eventually he drifted into a light sleep, fraught with lassitude and regret for not taking a firmer stand in allowing Creame to talk him into it.

He awoke several times during the night and each time felt colder and more desolate: the night seemed interminable.

When at last the first streaks of light appeared, he perked up, knowing that Creame would not be far behind. His breath reeked into the serene, misty morning, which was punctuated only by the rough callings of the crows and even these were mellowed by the soft coos of the wood pigeons.

He fell asleep again and awoke with the sun streaming on his face. He had been asleep he knew not for how long since dawn, but it felt like a replenishingly long time. He stood up and gazed about him, wondering where the hell Creame was. He had promised Alexander a lie-in in the morning, but he hadn't thought he had meant it in this context. He felt inclined to go and seek him in the guest house, but he remembered Creame's edict that he was not to leave his post until Creame came for him.

Casting envious eyes over to the guest house which was being bathed in morning glow across the road that cut through the wall, he could picture him sleeping comfortably in the bed Alexander had hoped by now to be occupying. For the next hour or so he rehearsed what he would say to Creame, whilst walking about clapping his hands against the warm island of his body, but his rhetorical notions were dispelled when Creame did appear, his face so pink in the fresh breeze that it looked almost cherubic; as it had at the age of seventeen when he used to dress up in drapes and ride in strange cars to strange places with strange people.

'Had a good night?' he asked as he watched Alexander, who was crouched against the wall, his arms folded.

Alexander ignored him.

'Hail, Tribune!'

'Huh!' was all this could elicit from Alexander, but Creame now knew that he was making an inroad into Alexander's icy defence.

'Ug!' Creame let out a rough grunt, following it with a gorilla impersonation, by jumping up and down grunting and screeching.

'It's you who have made a monkey out of me,' said Alexander, trying to refrain from laughing.

Creame suddenly became serious. 'How's that?'

'Because you've been snug in bed all night while I've been out here dying from hunger and cold. Where's my soup?'

'Listen, Crabshit-brains! It was your idea to come here in the first place. I went along with it to please you, so don't come that with me. As it happens, I've been up all night praying while you've been lying there sleeping.'

Creame was trying as usual to shift the blame from himself to Alexander and Alexander felt it easier to acquiesce than to dispute it.

'Why have you been praying?'

'I've got a tough job ahead of me.'

'What do you mean?'

'I've got to save the human race.'

'I think we have a slight tendency to exaggerate, Creame.'

'You might: not me. Let's get cracking. We've hung around this dump long enough. Fetch the brick, please.'

'I can't--it'll set the alarm off.'

'Can't you do anything? You saw me set it,' Creame yelled.

'Look here. I think I've done enough already. I should warn you that I won't tolerate that kind of behaviour coming from anybody. I've got letters after my name and I've had books published.' The 'books' to which he was referring was a set of four booklets about the Romans, the most interesting feature being a drawing of some Roman soldiers sitting on middens in the latrine block of their camp. He had paid for their publication.

'You mean pamphlets?'

'I mean books!' Alexander snorted, standing up and glowering.

'Let's get out of here,' said Creame, retrieving the brick himself.

'I thought we were leaving it where it was. That's why we brought it up here in the first place, remember?'

'If that's your attitude, we might as well call it off.'

'But wait. What should I do?'

'Well, if you're not going to moan, you can stay here a little longer and watch over the brick until I return.'

'Where are you going?'

'I'll tell you when I get back. I'll not be more than half an hour this time.'

'Are you sure?' But Creame was already on his way. 'What about me?' he called out after him.

'What? I can't make you out,' was Creame's indistinct reply, which sounded like 'Keep hold of the brick'.

He drove to the Ordnance Survey stone again, but this time it was quite a different mis en scene. Now all the people had dispersed, except for a few drunks loitering beside it. He noticed there was a car still there among a lot of litter left by the sightseers. The car was unmistakably Hoffman's Plastic Pig.

He parked behind it, perceiving it to be vacant and jumped down from the wagon to look at the crowd still on the hill. There were about six of them crowded round the OS stone, but nobody was on it anymore. Suddenly they began waving and shouting at him. They didn't look like a threatening bunch. Climbing the hill made him aware that in the group was Jimmy, Norman, Frankie and Yellowman. Yellowman was in charge of the Plastic Pig.

'What's the score? Jimmy told me that you're trying to rip off the DSS,' Norman quizzed him.

'It's just what I heard off Yellowman,' Jimmy defended himself with.

'I heard it from Onion,' Yellowman was quick to point out.

'Let me get one thing straight: I'm not trying to rip off anybody. What I'm doing is perfectly well-founded and I've come on behalf of Alexander Fleuret, whose lord Protector I am, to make room for him. He's going to be our new Ultimate Adjudication Officer,' said Creame.

'Hoffman won't like that,' said Yellowman, shaking his head ruefully.

'Shake not thy gory locks at me,' Creame retorted. 'Hoffman and the others can go suck. I've got the true Brick4 and they haven't. They can't argue. If it comes to the crunch, I can oust the lot of them.'

'You're going to put that arsehole in office and you haven't even paid us for the journey,' said Norman.

'What journey?' asked Creame.

'The journey on the ship. What journey do you think I mean?'

'Oh, that journey--yes, well, things didn't work out quite as planned. But I'm still looking into it. For the nonce, however, when I crown Alexander UAO, I'll tell him that the first thing he's got to do is to make you lot happy.'

'How are you going to do that?' Jimmy asked suspiciously.

'As UAO, he'll be able to use his power of discretion over existing laws, some of which have not seen the light of day for over forty years, to your advantage. He'll be able to sanction loans, grants and all sorts of things.'

'Is it true you're a spy?'

'Shut up, Jimmy. This is important. Listen to what he's saying,' Norman shouted.

'Okay, as I was saying, it's worth waiting for. Once I install Alexander as my puppet--he's pumped full of Diazepam, so he'll take notice of anyone--once that happens, wheels will start to turn, believe me. I've come here to demand that the present Ultimate Adjudication Officer resign. Where is he?'

'I dunno. We've just got here ourselves. We all slept in the car last night.'

'I think they'll either be up at the Unemployment Benefit Office or at the nunnery,' Yellowman advised him.

'Yes, but which?'

'Hoffman's been given a title and so have I, but they're only nominal, so it's quite likely he's joined those at the UBO.'

'Why aren't you there, then?'

'I found out I wasn't really Lord of the Dole, but Hoffman doesn't know that the titles are only nominal,' Yellowman answered glumly.

'The only legitimate title around here is Ultimate Adjudication Officer, and even that won't work for them, because they're one brick short. I suppose they could be holding some sort of inauguration ceremony over there. It's worth a try,' said Creame. 'See you there!'

'Hey, wait! What about a lift?' Jimmy called out.

Without turning but continuing to walk down the hill at a steady pace, Creame called back, 'I don't give lifts to drunken people.'

'That's nice! Cheeky sod! Hear that?' cried out Norman, turning to the group.

'Yes,' Jimmy affirmed.

'He can piss off if that's his attitude, but he still owes us money for the journey. He gave us a lift when he needed us, didn't he?'

Creame went to visit the AOs at the UBO that was their base and inside, he rang the bell at the counter, but soon found that it didn't work and even if it had, he was aware that nobody could have heard it because of the sound of merry-making that was proceeding from behind the partition that would have screened off the rear office from the public view, had there been any public there.

'Oi!' he shouted testily.

The noise dwindled and he heard somebody saying, 'Who was that?'; to which somebody else replied, 'I didn't hear anything. It was probably just one of us.' As the revelry started up again, Creame bellowed again; this time they all fell silent and somebody remarked, 'I'm sure I heard somebody shouting. It seemed to come from the other side of the glass.' 'Go and look,' somebody else urged. 'If it's that Mr Goose again wanting to sign on, tell him we're closed.' The glass door slid open purposefully and one of the AOs slipped through.

'It's Damien Creame, isn't it?' he said in a surprised tone.

'That's right. Tell that bunch of ne'er-do-wells in the back that I want to see them out here.'

'I can't tell them,' he sighed. 'They're far too busy.' He went through and Creame heard him say, 'It's Damien Creame. He says he wants to see you all out there.'

'Tell him to bugger off. We're busy,' said another voice.

'Can you bludy well hear me in there, you lot?' Creame screeched. 'I want a word with you, so if you don't come out, I'm coming in.'

'I'm afraid you can't do that. The area behind the counter is not open to the public.'

'I'm not bludy public!' Creame retorted, snorting like Kenneth Williams. 'How do I get in there?'

'Look, I've told you--' the AO began to stipulate, but before he had the chance, Creame was already on the counter. The AO scurried into the back to warn them. Creame's feet seemed to whir in a flurry in the counter for a moment as though he were trying to remember a Ukrainian dance, then he was over it.

In the next room the extraordinary scene was that of the AOs sitting along the sides of a long banqueting table that had been improvised out of the many smaller tables abiding in the room having been pushed together. At the head sat the UAO that had been on the Ordnance Survey stone, still wearing his party hat. A lot of them were drinking pink gins, but other types of drink cluttered up the tables. It seemed like a Christmas party was taking place.

All were unhooded, so he could see all their faces distinctly for the first time. He recognized Tileshed junior, Hoffman, Onion, Cavendish and Smith. One of them had just been relating some of the excuses that some of his claimants had given for wanting more money, such as: 'I lost my Giro in my pants when they got washed;' which was apparently a great favourite, or: 'The dog ate it.' They all laughed merrily as they heard one tale after another, especially when he told them he had refused them all another Giro.

Creame studied them contemptuously for a while, until they all became aware of his presence. While doing so, he tried to open a small bottle of imported beer that he had plucked from a four-pack on the table near him, first with his teeth, gnawing on it like a dog, but finding they were not strong enough, he used a bottle opener that someone handed him sympathetically before taking a big swig from it, saying: 'I drink to your health.' As most of them were quite drunk, they all warmed incoherently to his toast by clanking together bottles and glasses and toasting the poor, followed by all Adjudication Officers and then the Monkeys or the Stupids or the Monkeys' dogs and then broke into fits of boyish laughter.

'Have you come to join us?' Tileshed junior spoke out at last.

'Er, no, I haven't as a matter of fact. I can't stay. I just popped in to ask you if you will recognize Alexander as your new and true Ultimate Adjudication Officer.' Creame's hastiness to leave was a result of apprehension in case they found what he had to say unpalatable and tried to lynch him, but in any case, he felt too self-important to linger.

'Have I been good to you, lads?' asked the UAO.

'Yes!' they answered heartily.

'Good on other people's money,' Creame tried to say, but could not make himself heard over the rabble.

'Who made a law stating that AOs can have all the booze they want on the system?'

'You did,' they all cheered him. 'We need it. It's a very stressful job we've got, so it's only fair,' was the point that one of them raised.

'Don't forget to put your receipts in with the expenses claim forms and remember that they have to be in by the end of the month,' someone added.

'Yes,' they all agreed, some of them searching their pockets for any more receipts to throw on the table, some of which were already being used as beer mats.

'So do you want Alexander Fleuret as your new UAO instead of me?'

'No!' they all clamoured as one, except one who had risen from his seat and staggered forward to the fire exit, which he managed to push open, sending the bar clattering up and flinging it outwards just in time. He disappeared outside, looking very peaky.

'Right. That's all I wanted to know: so your present UAO won't abdicate, even though Alexander Fleuret is the rightful Ultimate Adjudication Officer?'

'It's too late now, son. It's gone down in the minutes--where are the minutes?'

'They're in a filing cabinet somewhere,' someone else replied. 'Either that or we've lost them again.'

'Then I want nothing more to do with this little fiasco. You're all heading for a lot of trouble and I wouldn't like to be in your shoes when it comes, comrades. Anybody who wishes to do so can come with me and swear allegiance to the rightful UAO, Alexander Fleuret. As for the rest of you renegades, I'll have the DSS excommunicate the lot of you for this,' he said, edging his way round the room to the fire exit as he did so, taking care to step over the drunken body lying sprawled across the threshold.

'You just try!' he heard one of them challenge him amid the jeering as he was leaving. He was disheartened to see that nobody had thrown his lot in with him, not even Tileshed junior.

He went from there to pick up Mr Patsy, whom he thought it advisable to have in with him in case of any trouble.

Alexander was patiently guarding the brick when the alarm went off. He instinctively ran along the wall like an agile, eager spider, to discover that it was Creame and Mr Patsy who had triggered it.

'What are you doing? What's the meaning of bringing him along? And why are you late?' Alexander fretted.

'If you must know, I've had to make an important phone call to London on your behalf. I've spilt the beans on the Rogue AOs, as a matter of fact. Mr Patsy's come along to help you be crowned UAO,' Creame stated.


'Yes, come on. We've got no time left.'

'Shouldn't I clean myself up first?'

'You can powder your nose later,' Creame remarked, more for Mr Patsy's amusement.

Creame briefed Mr Patsy and left him guarding the brick. When out of earshot of Mr Patsy, Alexander complained, 'You needn't have make that snide remark.'

'What snide remark?' Creame snapped back at him.

'About powdering my nose.'

'Well you do, don't you?'

Seeing Alexander's look of vexation, he slapped him on the back and said, 'Don't fret. You'll be UAO very soon.'

They drove back to the Ordnance Survey stone where Jimmy, Norman, Frankie and Yellowman, having been joined by a few of their friends, were waiting with Cavendish and Smith, whose red cars were parked at the foot of the hill. They did not seem to notice Fleuret and Creame arriving until they were nearly on top of them. Cavendish appeared maudlin and he was telling Jimmy, who accorded him the odd grunt of acknowledgement and understanding nod, his life story, including how he had once been a distinguished Adjudication Officer who looked set to go places. He had won the Government Award for Misery and he looked set to rise even higher and to be nominated for the even more exclusive post of Regional Adjudication Officer. He said he'd once been invited to open nearly every new Unemployment Benefit Office in the area, but he couldn't open anything much bigger than a box of matches since his disgrace. When Tileshed junior found out that Alexander Fleuret was after the title of UAO, he persuaded Cavendish to defect to the rogues and had even encouraged him to board the ship as a spy and tell lies about being a privatized division of the HM Inspectorate called the John Smith's Inspectorate, hence the rogue sobriquet of 'JS men'. He claimed that at first, the intentions of the rogues had been honourable, being in the claimants' interests, but now there were hardly no depths to which they would not stoop and were stooping lower by the minute to stablish themselves with titles and office. For that reason, he had decided to come in on Creame's side.

'There they are,' Jimmy said when at last he noticed Creame and Fleuret climbing the hill. 'Does anybody want to buy the moon?' he asked enigmatically.

'What?' asked Mr Fleuret.

'The moon. They're privatizing it, or might as well be. That's the story we got from Tileshed, eh?' he asked Cavendish.

'It wouldn't have surprised me if he'd said that as well,' Cavendish observed mistily.

'What's all this talk of privatization? It rings a bell,' Creame, who was also now on the scene, remarked.

'So it should. The JS men, who boarded the ship, I was just saying, were almost a bunch of pirates themselves, led by that grey-haired serene old man, Tileshed senior. " John Smith's Inspectorate" was a fictitious name and so was "John Smith".'

'What, Tileshed Senior their leader?' Creame seemed genuinely taken aback. 'Why would he do a thing like that?'

'Because he's a crook. He wanted to find out what you were up to,' Cavendish replied.

'Old Tileshed, a crook? Surely not! He's a distinguished solicitor. He's got letters after his name,' gasped Alexander.

'If you believe that you'll believe anything,' avowed Cavendish.

'Privatize the moon!' Jimmy wailed again.

'No, go on. I'm interested,' prompted Creame, blinking owlishly.

'I don't know exactly what his job is, but I do know he's definitely not a solicitor--his son might be, but he's not. He works for the DSS.'

'Really? Could he not work in the DSS and still be a solicitor?'

'I don't think he is. I have my reasons,' he added weightily.

'What is he? He's probably only a clerk or something like that,' Alexander interjected, frowning disdainfully down his nose. 'I bet he's not even a graduate.'

'Oh, he's not a clerk, he's definitely not a clerk--or if he is, none of the lads has ever seen him in the local offices. He must be quite high up.'

'I must admit I haven't seen him while I was working there,' Creame said.

'Nobody has, but when I was a rogue, his son told me he worked for them. That's how I know.'

'Flog the moon,' Jimmy shouted.

'Will somebody tell me what's going on?' Norman shouted.

There was a brief silence before Cavendish said: 'Maybe I shouldn't be telling you this. It's not a definite fact and even if it were, it would be all the worse for me.'

Creame raised an eyebrow speculatively.

'We in the Civil Service have had our doubts about him for a long time, but we can't be certain. It's one of the most closely guarded secrets--even to AOs.'

'I thought Adjudication Officers could get hold of anything they wanted,' said Creame.

'Yes, within reason and if it's known. The DSS staff is told not to query an Adjudication Officer's request for information, but there are limits even to an Adjudication Officer's privileges.

'When an AO requests information, it goes downstairs via the hatch to the clerks, who firstly try to retrieve it from the files or the computer. If that is unsuccessful, the next step is to try the manager, who has more privileged access. Up to this point, no one is qualified to deny an AO his request. If either the clerks or the manager can lay hands on it, they must make it available to the Adjudication Officer requesting it.

'If, however, neither the clerks nor the manager can assist, the request goes external to the government, which then decides whether the AO should have it. The government's first task is to determine whether the request is a legitimate and justified one. If so, he gets it and it may then be put into general circulation.'

'And if not?' asked Creame.

'If not, then the government will want to know why he wants it. He is summoned before a tribunal, which he must satisfy.'

'And then?'

'Then if he can satisfy them, he is allowed to resume his duties with the information, usually within three working days.'

'What about if the information he requests is dodgy? What then?'

'Then he's sacked on the spot.'

'And supposing you asked for something which your office didn't have: would you be able to intercede to stop it from going to the government?'

'No. I would receive a memorandum informing me that the information I requested was not commonly available and that external sources had been approached. We can do nothing to impede the enquiry from going external once the request has been made.'

'You mean once you set the ball rolling, you can't stop it?'


'That must make you very reluctant to ask for certain information,' said Creame.

'It does, and that's what it was designed for. It could involve matters of great importance, such as national defence. The point I was going to make is...that's not why we can't--daren't--find out whether or not Tileshed is what we think he is.'

'Which Tileshed?'

'Tileshed senior. Tileshed junior's just a rogue AO--and not even that, really. That much we know. No, it's his father we're thinking about. We think he's an RAO.'

'What, a Royal Adjudication Officer?' Creame asked, which he regretted doing when he heard the reply.

'No, no. Such a title doesn't exist to my knowledge. A Regional Adjudication Officer is what I mean.'

'Oh, that's a bit of an anticlimax, isn't it? I mean, I'm the Ultimate Adjudication Officer and you're making all this hullabaloo about a piddling little Regional Adjudication Officer,' said Alexander.

The AO considered that Alexander needed to be disabused of the notion he had just construed, so he turned on him and said: 'The Regional Adjudication Officers are made strong by their numbers and not by the power invested in a sole individual. They're like the barons who forced King John to sign the Magna Carta: they're as powerful as that. They're a warlike breed which, when coupled with their astuteness makes them formidable. I wouldn't like to cross them. If there's going to be any threat to the authority of the UAO, it'll come from that quarter.'

'Oh my god!' cowered Alexander. 'Please, Creame, don't let me meet with Ceasar's end. They all sound like Brutuses to me.'

'Don't worry, old chap. I'll protect you. I'm lord Protector after all, aren't I? I'll live up to my title. But first we'd better invest you.'

'They're phoney titles,' Yellowman protested.

'I beg your pardon?' Creame said, disparaging him with blinks.

'They appointed me Lord of the Dole, but nothing happened. I only made a fool out of myself.'

'You did 'n' all,' Norman confessed.

'Well let me tell you this time it will be different, because I'm going to be conducting the ceremony, so it's back to Hoffman's shed we go,' said Creame.

'Er, no, I've got to tell you that the laws say that it has to be here,' Cavendish answered.

'And just how did you deduce that?'

'Because this is the location given by the Map.'


'The Map. We once had someone working for us known as the Map.'

'Do I read you right?' Creame asked, digging his hands into his pockets in the manner of a private eye.

'Yes, you got me man. We once had an AO working for us known as the Map. He was a very splendid AO--the best we ever had, in fact. His name was Chris, I believe. Unfortunately he turned a bit funny in the end. He set up his own monastery, or something, I believe. It's a shame--he was a bright boy--Women's Lib and all that palaver got to him. He had to go, of course, when he started turning up for work in women's clothes.'

'What of it?' asked Creame, who normally would have been interested in such scandal, had he not been more concerned with the Map.

'His responsibility was to memorize the DSS map, which, incidentally, is nothing like any map available to the general public. The Regs state that the UAO must be crowned upon the same location as is given by the UAO's National Insurance number, working to the DSS map. This is location NA788154C, where we are now.'

'Ah, there we draw a blank. We want location...I'd better not say, until we establish you're not a spy.'

'I can tell you candidly I'm not, but I respect your caution, all the same. Only the Map can tell you where all the locations are. I don't have it all. The original Map was destroyed for security's sake,' said Cavendish.

Creame ran his fingers through his gingery hair that was squared off like a policeman's. In fact he could have passed for a priest or a policeman equally easily.

The Sunny People, he thought.

'I suppose we'll have to chance it,' he said after a moment's contemplation, during which he was uneasily reminded of the horrendous rescue which the Tilesheds had attempted when Alexander was kidnapped by the Sunny People and which had spit in the face of adversity. Alexander had told him all about it and although he wasn't present, he could imagine the scene. Alexander was still jumping up and down and trying to impress upon Creame how evil they were when he heard Cavendish refer to them. But he had to discover location NA778154C according to the DSS. He didn't dare risk imposing himself in the AO's office again to find it out, not least because if his last request had been forwarded to the government and they felt it was suspicious, they would have sent for the true Adjudication Officer and then would have realized that he did not make that request. The only alternative was to send Alexander back to them with the news that he been abducted from them last time and that he now wished to be accepted back into their company. Then, provided they didn't get the chance to get their claws into him again, he could ask the Map where location NA778154C was and they would be sure to give him it, if they had no foreknowledge of his intent and providing he had won their confidence, which he would be securing by his return.

'Where is this place where you met the Map?' Creame asked Mr Fleuret.

'I don't know: I was drugged.'

'Come, you must have some recollection of it. You went there before they drugged you.'

'I haven't, honestly. If I knew, I would tell you.'

Creame suspected that Alexander had read his mind and that he was lying to avoid going back to the place in case he was subjected to another harrowing experience.

'It could be anywhere, in other words--is that what you're saying?'

'You could ask the Tilesheds. They were with me.'

'I'd rather not,' Creame returned abruptly. 'They're on the other side.'

Creame drove him in the general direction and they eventually came across what appeared to be the remains of the site, Alexander first having caused him to bang the steering wheel and take uncomfortably sharp turns in exasperation, with every wrong direction he gave. Finally standing on top of the hill overlooking the rows of terraced houses, Alexander insisted it was the place. The rubbish on the ground confirmed that it had once been a site.

'Well they're not bludy well there now, are they?' Creame said pettishly, heaving a deep sigh.

'I'm sorry about this, Creame. I really don't know where they've gone. They were definitely here once, though. I'm sure of it. They must have moved to a different site. Maybe the council's moved them out, or something. I don't know,' Alexander said, holding out his arms from his side and letting them fall back in exasperation with a wry grin.

With another sigh, Creame wandered back to the van and climbed inside it. When Alexander followed him back to it and sat beside him in the passenger side, he found Creame slumped back heavily in his seat, apparently staring at the roof, but his eyes were tight shut. His breathing was steady and he seemed to be in a peaceful trance.

'Are you all right, Creame?' Alexander said searchingly as he had done many times to his father.

Creame did not answer.

'Creame, are you all right?'

Creame slowly tilted his head forward and then turned to Alexander and said solemnly: 'What?'

'You had me worried there.'

'Did I? That's unusual.'

'We'll have to try the council.'

'More petrol!'

They asked there and were told that there had been a group of gypsies camped there. They had recently moved on, but nobody was sure where. They tried asking at the police station and were told the gypsies had been given a stately home by the council, who had evicted them from the original site after complaints.

Just before the Sunny People took over it, it had been used as a hall of residence by some Poly students and a lot of them had decided to join the group and stay there when they found out about the take-over, since which all weapons and suits of armour in the old hall had been removed and even weapons that featured in portraits had been masked with sackcloth until they also could be found a home.

As they were standing in the entrance hall, the sight of these abjections was sufficient to dispel what idea Creame was considering of accompanying Alexander further.

'This is weird,' Creame gave out at last.

'You see now that I wasn't lying or exaggerating, don't you?'

'Why is there nobody about?'

'They might be watching a play.'

'Right, I'll leave you to it. I'll meet you at the gates this time tomorrow. Good luck.'

'Wait, I thought we were going in this together.'

'Huh! That would be some good, wouldn't it? They would probably drug us both and then who would rescue us? Besides, some of them might recognize me, being from the DSS.'

In a moment, Alexander was alone; it was like his first day at school.


Chapter Eighteen

Alexander found a squeaky floor board and jumped at the noise, his heart beating fervently.

'Can I help you?' a man's voice echoed down.

Alexander let out a shrill, horrified cry and jumped like a jolted skeleton into the air. He clutched his heart to make sure it was still beating and looked round towards the top of the mahogany banister, where he saw a white hand sliding down it, surmounted by a pale, smiling face.

'Neili?' he managed to stutter.

'Me is Les. Whom do you want?' it said as it gracefully descended the stairs. Its long thin hair, emerald green dress and half stiletto heels had reminded Alexander of Neili. As soon as it had reached him, it turned to perform the Greeting of Equality on him, but Alexander had forgotten about it and when it offered its extended hand, he mistook it for an ordinary handshake and he tried to shake it; at which it pulled its hand away in disgust.

'How dare you perpetrate that disgusting act here!' it said, as though Alexander had just pissed on the floor.

'I was only trying to shake your hand,' Alexander said bemusedly.

'Just tell me what you want and leave.'

'Now just one minute, my man--'

'You sexist pig. Me've given you two warnings. You're out--banished from the fruits of Hermaphrodites.'

'Where's Neili?' asked Alexander, scowling.

'Hir's teaching. What do you want hir for?'

'I joined the Sunny People before and Neili was assigned to take care of me, but I was kidnapped. Now I want to return.'

The other's expression became more sympathetic and it said: 'Oh, dear, I see. Was it by force?'


'Come. Me'll take you to see Neili. Me's sure hir'll be very interested in what you have to say. It'll make a good appendix to our play.'

'Oh, I've been to one of your plays and they're jolly obscure, I can say.'

'Have you? They're usually for members only,' imparted the thing that was leading him through the inner doorway, where it met up with a being of similar appearance and comport and greeted it with the Greeting of Equality.

'Where's Neili?' Alexander's escort asked its colleague.

'Hir's in the garden.'

'Is the play finished yet?'

'Nearly: they're bowing out now.'

'So, you've decided to come back and join the flock,' Neili said to Alexander good-naturedly when the bowing out was finished and he was introduced again.

'Er, yes: I never really wanted to leave in the first place, actually. I was abducted by some men...but where's Neili?'

'Why...me's Neili.'

'You all look the same. Please forgive me.'

'That's all right, but tell me about these evil, violent men who abducted you. Me's interested. Also, you'll have to renounce your possessions all over again. Do you still have your cheque book on you?'

'Yes. It's here somewhere, in my jacket pocket,' Alexander said, feeling for it.

'A cheque book is one of the most noxious evils ever to be inflicted on a person. Let me tell you how you can be rid of it,' Neili said encouragingly, leading him genteelly away.

They stopped at a flower island on the lawn where the play had been staged.

'You see the blooms here have all been cut away, don't you?' it said to Alexander as it pointed out the rose bushes that had been pruned back to extremity.

'I say, isn't it a bit early in the year for pruning?' Alexander commented, feeling it incumbent on him to say something.

'Oh, no, they haven't been pruned. We've just taken off their flower heads.'

'They must look very nice in a vase.'

'In a vase? We don't put roses in vases round here.'

'Don't you?' Alexander asked, examining the bushes that would have sported a roseate flourish at that time of year. 'What do you do with them, in that case?'

Neili's patience seemed to be wearing thin and it appeared that it was silently vexed about something. 'We feed them to the pigs.'

'Eh?' Alexander spluttered incredulously.

'It's all they deserve. Be seated, please....Roses are too proud to bloom here. The weeds don't get a look-in....No, not like that: sit with your legs crossed like me's doing. That's it. You see, we think there's a certain aesthetic and cultural value in weeds. Take the dandelion, for instance. How much they have to endure! How many times have you seen them kicked and cuffed by children and misdemeaning dogs, trodden on by people who go walking, not even giving them a second glance?'

'I hadn't really thought about it like that.'

'And the poor groundsel, forced to abide wherever it can, until it's either uprooted or sprayed by some callous farmer or gardener. Who gives it a second thought? Would you like to be urinated on by every stray dog?'

'No, no, I wouldn't,' Alexander said earnestly.

'That's why we formed the Weed Installation, Maintenance and Preservation Society. This flower bed will be growing nettles shortly.'

'Nettles? Isn't that rather dangerous?'

'Don't you think they've a right to get their own back once in a while? A nettle is the most unassuming of weeds, but if it's attacked, it has the right to defend itself. Our main aim here is to encourage the spread of nettles. That would certainly teach them!'

'I must say, you've certainly made me look at things in a different light,' Alexander said, nodding.

'Such is the primary aim of the Sunny People. We aim to change the world by peace. We've already got undercover gardeners out sowing nettle seeds in people's gardens most nights after dark. Have you ever wondered why so many weeds seem to be springing up in gardens while the so-called cultivated flowers don't? It's due to our new weed-killer-resistant strains we're developing. Come on, let me show you.'

They had been sitting cross-legged at the edge of the flower bed, but Neili stood up and led Alexander to a greenhouse that had been hidden from view by a clump of trees which were shortly to be chopped down, Neili informed him.

Inside, in pots on the shelves was a riot of lovingly cultivated weeds. A person dressed in the uniform of the sect was watering a knotty entanglement of crab grass that had spread itself all over the ground beneath them and reached knee-high in places. In one corner was a peerage of thistles. The plant-pots and seed-trays were a breeding-ground for daisies, dandelions, nettles, rosebay willowherb and a host of other small plants that Alexander had seen many times growing wild but could not put a name to. Apart from the variegation of umbelliferous white-flowering plants such as cow parsley and sweet cecily alongside comfrey, the canopy overhead had gone out of control and its tendrilled spray threatened to engulf the whole place. The rank smell of vegetation, therefore, came as no surprise.

Neili perpetrated the Greeting of Equality to the person attending to the garden of chaos and announced, 'This is Alexander, our new person. Me've been explaining to hir our aim.'

'Me sees that he's not yet in weeds,' the other person commented suspiciously.

'We haven't found him a uniform yet,' Neili replied unhappily, referring to the unusually striking combination of emerald green trousers and skirt that they always wore. 'Anyway, me'll leave hir with you for a while and you can show him round, okay? Me'll come back for you in half an hour or so, Alexander. Hir'll take good care of you--won't you Terry?'

'Of course.'

Neili left and Terry, who was Neili's assistant and could have been mistaken for its twin, asked Alexander how he had come to hear of the Sunny People.

I just bumped into them on my travels one day,' Alexander replied fatuously because of the stupefying effect of the morphine.

'Oh, all the better for you. You know, you're very lucky to have an insight into our society. Usually we don't admit strangers.'


'No. We had to put a stop to it after so many people were just turning up to laugh at us.'

'Yes, they would do, the Bulletheads. My next door neighbour's a Bullethead. Do you know what he did? We got one warm day in February and he was out there in his garden stripped to the waist sunbathing.' Alexander shook his head reprovingly as he said this. There followed an uneasy silence while Alexander watched Terry getting on with watering the plants. So unusual was the situation in which Alexander found himself that he found it difficult to manufacture conversation without the risk of sounding flippant.

'Neili seems like a friendly enough chap,' Alexander ventured at last.

'Oh, hir's that,' Terry replied flatly, as though the statement did not need qualifying.

'I'm sure you'll get to like it here. Everybody is very friendly, but there's one thing you've got to remember: you must not mention sex: you must not even remind anyone of what sex it is. For "him" and "her", use "hir". You know the Greeting of Equality?'

'Yes, vaguely.'

'You'll be given a copy of the rules. Whenever you see anybody, you must give them the Greeting of Equality. Actually, if there's a crowd or you see anybody more than a couple of times a day, we usually let it lapse, although we're not supposed to. When Neili first took over, hir was very strict. Hir used to insist that it was done at every opportunity. Eventually we all got sick and a crowd of us followed him around from morning till night doing it, until hir arm nearly dropped off. Hir soon got sick and relaxed that rule a little.

'Another thing to remember is to call yourself "me" and never "I", which is considered to be too vulgar and proud.'

'Oh, gosh. I don't think I'll ever get the hang of all that,' Alexander said as he put a hand to his brow.

'Don't worry. You'll be given time to take it in. You won't be expected to memorize it all in one day. At first, if you make a mistake, you'll be pulled up gently. It takes most people time to become accustomed to our way of life. The problem that causes the most difficulty is laughing.'

'I beg your pardon?' Alexander asked sharply.

'Laughing. That's seen as a manifestation of a feeling of well-being at the expense of others less fortunate and that's why it's forbidden. It's expressly forbidden to laugh at someone's downfall directly.'

'Oh, I see....Listen, Terry, I don't think I'm quite cut out for this, if you know what I mean. I need time to think it over,' Alexander said tentatively.

'Oh, don't worry. Everyone's nervous at first, but you'll soon get used to it.'

At that moment Neili appeared.

'Is everything all right?' it asked.

'Yes. Me's just been explaining the rules. Hir's coming on nicely.'

'Good. How are the weeds today?'

'They're thriving. Me's testing a few with Paraquat now.'

'Me'll have to take hir from you now. Me's going to initiate hir.'

Alexander found himself being conducted to a great hall in the main building, where he was about to be made the object of an initiation ceremony. There were at least a hundred Neili-like figures arranged cross-legged on the wooden floor. Neili hirself led Alexander to the dais at the front, where he perceived there was a bath of water standing free. At Neili's instigation they all broke into an ominous, rising hum. Alexander was told to close his eyes, think of the sun and drink from the mug that was offered to him. Being too scared to do otherwise, he gulped it down noisily. As he watched the many pairs of eyes fixed on him and wondered whether he could escape, a warmness sifted through him and he began to feel light-headed.

He found out later that the warmness was the warmness of the bath; but when he awoke, the water was tepid and the hall empty except for Neili, who was sitting on a stool beside him reading a book. Alexander's head felt colder than the rest of him, so he put his hand up to where he thought his hair should have been, only to discover that it wasn't there any more. To his horror he felt that his head was as smooth as an egg. He was completely bald. Looking down, he saw his body rippling through the water, naked. He couldn't imagine what had happened to him.

'You passed the test,' Neili announced coldly, noticing that he had stirred.

'Look here, I demand an explanation. Why have I been deprived of my dignity? I've a good mind to get out of this tub and clag you!'

But when he tried to rise out of the water, Neili let out a shrill whistle, the result of which was that four people rushed upon him from behind a door and pinioned his arms and legs which were flailing about.

'Now calm down,' Neili advised him sternly, standing at the head of the bath and looking down at him. 'We've all had to go through it. You've been cleansed.'

'Where's my hair and clothes?'

Departed, along with your moral filth. You're one of us, now.'

'No, I won't have it. Damn you! Let me out!' Alexander screamed, writhing and splashing about like a dog being bathed before tiring himself out and falling back helplessly.

Neili sighed. 'Do you really want to leave us, Alexander?'

'Yes! Yes! Yes!' he spat, nodding like a pigeon.

'You may leave us, by all means, providing that you pay us for the cost of your inauguration. We must be recompensed for cleansing you of all moral filth.'

'I didn't have any moral filth in the first place, but what do you want from me?'

'The usual fee is to make over to us all your worldly goods.'

'Yes, all right. Just let me go and I'll do it.'

'All right. Let him go and bring his cheque book and a pen,' Neili ordered, adding quietly, 'I don't think he'll be going far like this.'

'What happened to the "me" you were so fond of using before?' Alexander asked querulously.

'Sod that! That's only for mugs like you. Get over to this chair and sign me a cheque, or you'll never get out of here,' Neili spoke harshly now.

'You crook! I'll tell the police once I get out,' Alexander threatened as he was hoisted from the bath, dripping wet, over to the chair by the four assistants, one of whom was the Map.

'Fetch something to dry him on,' Neili ordered. A plain white sheet was brought through one of the doors and Alexander was towelled briskly with it so that he wouldn't drip water over the cheque as he was signing it.

He had the prescience to try to use a different signature, but when Neili took a look at it, he tore it out and punched Alexander in the gut, saying: 'Now sign it properly: do you think I'm a complete fool? Your visa card has your correct signature on it and that's what you'll sign it like, exactly like the signature on the card.'

While Alexander was on all fours on the floor trying to catch his breath, a thought struck him.

'I'll sign it on one condition,' he gasped while resting his gaze on Neili's half stiletto shoes. 'You tell me the whereabouts of a location on the Map.'

'What map?' Neili asked sharply.

'You mean the National Insurance system of maps? It's obsolete now,' said the Map. 'Sure, what do you want to know?'

'Where is location NA778154C?' Alexander asked.

The Map thought for a while, while Alexander was still recovering. 'If me remembers rightly, it's in the "NZ" square of the National Grid--the DSS always did do things back to front! It's in the little square where there's a nunnery. We used to send Giros to a hostel there, if me's right. We were always suspicious about whether real claimants lived there or whether it was just being used as an address. What do you want to know for?'

'I know an Adjudication Officer who said you wouldn't tell me, that's all.'

'Me just did. It's not important now, anyway. One time, when we decided to allocate everyone a patch of land, restoring it to the people from their greedy lords, we divided up the country equally according to the National Insurance number of each person, but the RAOs confounded it. That's why it's meaningless now--are you satisfied?'

'How did you know that was the location without looking at anything?'

'It was my job to know, once. That's why they named me the Map. But me was no longer needed when the scheme backfired.'

Alexander signed the cheque dutifully with a trembling white hand.

'There, are you satisfied?'

Neili snatched it away from him, studied it for a long time and finally said:

'It'll do, but there's just one thing more, to be sure: sign this receipt for your belongings. It's just for extra surety.'

Alexander signed it without reading it, being at such a low ebb and far too exhausted.

'Right, now you can go.'

'What about my clothes? Don't I get them returned to me?'

'I said you can go.'

'Not even my underpants?'

'They've been burned. Now go, before we burn you.'

Clutching the flimsy white sheet protectively round his skinny frame, Alexander shuffled backwards towards the door, his face a grimace of despair, as though he had expected to meet an angel and had found the devil. Once outside, he sprinted across the lawn, the white sheet billowing out after him and his pale, unseasoned legs striding across the grass, giving him the air of a pantomime ghost.

Once through the main gate, he crossed the quiet country road that wound past and hid in some bushes opposite, sitting cross-legged, bearing a resemblance to Gandhi.

What could he do now? He couldn't wander the streets in the hours of daylight dressed as he was. He decided to wait until after dark, when he would try to raid a washing line.

He had not been sitting there for long when a van drew up next to him. He squinted at it, rose to his feet, studied it harder and recognized Creame as its driver.

He broke from his cover and tapped urgently on the passenger window. Creame glanced over and his eyes nearly fell out. He immediately took off and his tyres left skid marks on the road as a reminder of his frenzied getaway.

Alexander returned to his lair. He felt more forsaken than a wild animal as he put down his head in a cluster of nettles and jumped up cursing and screaming; everywhere he could find to lie down was painfully sore to his head. Finally he resolved the problem by wrapping the sheet round it. Because he was still partially drugged, he fell into a muzzy sleep.

He was awakened by a 'Psst!' coming from nearby. He jumped up, startled and found that it was dark and that a van was framed in the trees by the roadside.

'Go away. Leave me alone. I don't want to join your tribe,' he whimpered, shrinking back into the trees.

'It's me...Creame.'


'Yes. Come on. I've come to take you home. Get in the van.'

Alexander advanced hesitantly, trying to see if the figure in the van was really Creame in person, or whether it was an apparition brought on by the drug. He touched the van to make sure. When he saw Creame, it was like an apparition had appeared to him.

He tried to open the door on the passenger side but found it locked.

'Climb in the back,' Creame rasped through the open window.


'Don't argue. Just do it.'

Alexander scurried round the back and wrenched and tugged on the handle. Through the door he heard Creame's voice. 'Pull it.'

'I can't. Which way?'

He eventually succeeded and just as he was disappearing inside the black chasm, barking his chins on the step, Creame pulled away violently before he had the chance of making the door secure, so that he nearly tumbled out.

'Steady on,' hailed Alexander.

'I can't hang about. We're not playing games now. Hold tight,' warned Creame, taking a bend sharply and throwing Alexander from one side of the van to the other as he did so.

'Where are you taking me?'

'I'll tell you later,' he replied impatiently. 'Keep down. They might be after you.'

'Where were you? They could have killed me.'

'I can't hold your hand all the time. I did rescue you. If you want, I'll take you back there.'

He took Alexander to the wall, where Mr Patsy was still growling over the brick he was charged with guarding; by which time it was getting late, but Creame seemed to be inspired with unrelenting vigour as he told Alexander to wait in the van while he jumped out and left him there without an explanation.

Several minutes passed before he heard low voices murmuring just above the sound of marching footsteps. The door was wrenched open and a bulky figure climbed in beside him while Creame resumed his seat in the front.

They drove on in silence, Alexander doing his best to glimpse the dark shape opposite him. He was too apprehensive to venture to ask who it was, but he had an inkling that it was Mr Patsy and that the dark bundle he was clutching under his arm was the real Brick4.

'Did you get the location?' Creame asked.

Alexander, not being sure at whom the question was aimed, remained silent.

'Oi! Did you get the location?' Creame asked.

'Who--me?' Alexander returned.

'Who do you think I meant?' Creame retorted, at that moment causing the van to swerve violently and in doing so, sending Mr Patsy diving to the other side; which he dented and a metallic thudding sound rang out when he headbutted it, just missing Alexander as they took another steep bend.

'Sorry in the back: am I going too fast?--it worries some people, you know.'

'That's all right,' Mr Patsy replied stiffly, picking himself up.

'Does someone want to sit in the front?'

'I'm all right,' Mr Patsy growled stoically. 'Shaken but not stirred, as you would say, Creame.'

'The Map said it's in the nunnery,' said Alexander, in reply to Creame's question.


'The Map said it's in the nunnery itself.'

'What's in the nunnery?'

'The secret location where the Ultimate Adjudication Officer is to be crowned.'

'Yes, we thought as much, didn't we, Mr Patsy?'

'It stands to reason,' Mr Patsy agreed.

'If you knew all the time, then why the hell did you send me back to the Sunny People?'

'Because I thought the change of hair might do you good!' Creame guffawed.

'I'm glad you think it's funny. Why don't you take the piss out of someone else for a change?'

'No, seriously, we know where location NA788154C is, through the AOs: they had that number through the false brick and that's where they crowned the UAO. Since we know that, a little bit of intuitive logic with a little help from Cavendish enabled us to work out that the location we sought was in the adjacent vicinity.'

'Huh! What now?' Alexander asked, folding his arms and trying to look cross. He was unaware that the sheet had slipped from him, leaving him exposed.

'You are about to become the Ultimate Adjudication Officer, Alexander I,' said Creame to appease him.

'It's about time.'

'Will the gates be open at this hour, Mr Patsy?'

'If they're not, the porter will be in.'

'Awake the porter of hell gate with thy knocking,' said Creame.

Mr Patsy returned a loud, easy laugh without knowing why.


Chapter Nineteen

When they got to the nunnery, Creame sought out Hoffman in his study, ostensibly to return the keys of his van; but more purposely to enquire if he could be accommodated for the night.

The light round the fire door indicated that he had returned. He and Yellowman were talking.

'Oh, it's you,' Yellowman said when he saw Creame standing against the black background at the top of the fire escape.

'Who did you think it was: Father Christmas? Who were you expecting?'

Behind Yellowman a quick, furtive movement caught his attention. It was Hoffman, brandishing half a pool cue. He was approaching menacingly.

'Hey, just a minute. I've come to talk peace. No violence, right?'

'I was arming myself as a precautionary measure, nothing more. You don't know who's going to come knocking at your fire door this time of night. But come in....Yellowman, don't keep him standing out there in the cold. Bring him in,' Hoffman said warmly, smiling from behind his scarlet face. His eyes held in them a glitter that unnerved Creame.

'It's not cold,' Creame said blandly as he entered.

Everything in Hoffman's study was laid out in the same manner as before, except that in the corner, neatly-stacked, was a pile of bricks.

'I would like us to be friends, Hoffman,' said Creame. 'You need me and I need you. I see you've got the other bricks here.'

'I have. Onion's taking care of the rest. He should be back any time, when he's got those Adjudication Officers sorted out.'

'As you probably suspect by now, due to the confusion arising over the bricks, there are some fakes about and you've got one of them, courtesy of myself along with the indispensable agency of Mr Patsy, who fed you the bait, with his story about the toilet.' Creame paused and raised his eyebrows.

'Go on. I'm listening,' said Hoffman, assuming his chair.

'When Mr Patsy was burying Mr Goose in the garden, he stumbled across the real brick. He told me about it and I held onto it and made up two duds: one for you and one for the JS men, whom I led here with the news that I had found one of the bricks. That put the frighteners on them and caused them to raise the rest of the bricks, which you stole off them. So you have me to thank for your neat little pile in the corner there.'

'The AOs won't admit their brick is a fake.'

'Yes, they still insist that they've chosen their man and he's there for good, but what good will it do them? Do you think that the ministers will take notice of a bunch of renegade cowboys who can't even choose the right man and have him crowned in the right place?'

'Apparently not: Yellowman says he was snubbed by the dole.'

Yellowman grunted and nodded.

'What you really need is some accurate information as to where the UAO is to be crowned and, of course, the right brick, don't you?'

Hoffman said nothing.

'Don't you?' Creame insisted.

'If you say so,' Hoffman replied stoutly.

'So can I take it that if I could supply the correct procedural information, together with the missing brick, that we can become confederates in this matter?'

'It's a possibility, but what's in it for me, and how do I know that you have the true brick?'

'I know it's the true brick because I examined it myself and found it intact; also, I checked the National Insurance number I got by substituting the digit given by the brick into the number the AOs told me was the UAO's and asked the DSS to check it to see if it belonged to anyone, which it didn't, by impersonating an Adjudication Officer (for which there is a Scale 4 fine according to the regulations, I might add). As far as what's in it for you...titles, glory, power. Isn't that enough?'

'Show me the brick, then we might talk business.'

'Ah, it's not as simple as that. For a start, I haven't got it with me. For another thing, once I do that, how do I know that that ape of yours isn't going to break it over my cranium?' said Creame.

I think if we are to come to any sort of arrangement, then we ought to start trusting one another, don't you? You still have some information, remember, and the only way we could extract that from you is...is by torture.'

'Like you tried on Mr Goose?'

'Yes, but he was different. He was a nobody. We wanted him dead.'

Yellowman tittered in the corner, where he was leaning against the stack of bricks. Hoffman rounded on him with: 'What are you sniggering at? Get off those bricks.'

Yellowman stammered and blushed, looking like a scolded schoolchild, his paramilitary uniform serving to make his awkwardness more pronounced.

'Do you know where the regulations state that the UAO should be invested?' asked Creame.

'Of course I do. It's in those bricks over in the corner.'


'It's the location of the OS stone; everybody knows that. It's no secret.'

'And what is the name of that location?'

'It's in chapter three, I think. I have copies of them in the drawer,' said Hoffman, pulling open his desk drawer and taking out an arch lever file marked with 'DSS Regs', which he opened, fingering through the first few pages.

'Yes, there it is. Regs 8(b)(i) state that the Ultimate Adjudication Officer's "... throne shall be in a location given by making reference to his National Insurance number in conjunction with the DSS Map"." It goes on somewhere else about all the correct procedures and everything: about how many bishops to use and all.'

'Bishops? Nobody mentioned bishops before now. Where do they fit in?'

Hoffman gazed at him. Yes, I believe you're quite right. That's another good reason why the UAO they've appointed over there is invalid: they didn't have any bishops.'

'What does it say about bishops?'

'It says here: "The Ultimate Adjudication Officer shall be conveyed in procession to the appointed place, there to be crowned by a Regional Adjudication Officer in the presence of no less than six attendant Adjudication Officers".'

'Does it say what to crown him with?' asked Creame. 'Surely not a party hat and plastic sword, like they had over there. Even Alexander would turn his nose up at that.'

'It says the crown is to be recognized as being made of cast iron, adorned with three tiers of seven stars, being a tiara. The signs of the zodiac are imprinted around its base, signifying the twelve ministers, excluding the prime minister. A technical drawing follows, detailing its construction.'

'You mean that we have to make it ourselves?'

'That would appear to be so.'

'We need to find a competent fitter, then.'

'Indeed,' Hoffman agreed. 'Let's do this together, then.'

Creame accepted the extended hand. 'Just a minute. I might know one. If he's not competent, he's cheap. Jimmy said he used to be a fitter. I'll check him out in the morning. But that's another day. Have you anywhere for me to sleep?'

'You can sleep with Yellowman, or Onion when he gets back. Take your pick.'

'I'd rather not! A tradesman of some repute, such as myself, shouldn't have to sleep with the likes of them.'

'We'll keep the bed for you, then and Yellowman can sleep on the floor.'

The next morning, Creame went down early to see Alexander and Mr Patsy, having woken up with the bustle of matins. Mr Patsy and Alexander did not like each other and this was made worse by their close confinement. Thus when Creame returned to the garden shed in which they had spent the night, Alexander was standing outside, heaving in pantomimic gulps of the fresh morning air. Mr Patsy was still asleep inside, having chased Alexander out because of Alexander's heavy snoring. Alexander had in turn complained of Mr Patsy's rantings in his sleep about what he was going to do to a bunch of filthy bandits in Uruguay who had tortured him for months on end in a palisaded fort, keeping him in a dreary cell with only bread and swamp water to live on.

Creame elaborated on this to Alexander, saying that he had been instrumental in securing Mr Patsy's release. He told him that he had approached the palisaded fort wearing a bulletproof vest and had been shot at time and again until finally the bandits got him in the hand. He showed Alexander the star-shaped scar between finger and thumb, adding that at one stage he thought it might have meant the loss of his trigger finger.

'So what happened?' asked Alexander.

'I still managed to reach the fort. I asked for Mr Patsy. They said, Who? I repeated it.'


'Well what?'

'Well what happened then?'

'Oh, not much. There's a rookery over there,' he rambled, pointing.

'What happened next in your story, Creame?'

'Oh, no big deal. I asked them if Mr Patsy was being held there and they said they'd never heard of him. I said, But when will he be released? and they said, Maybe by Christmas.' After a pause he said: 'Mr Patsy's never been the same since. For several months after he got back, he would speak to no one and would not even bother to shave or keep himself tidy. He even lost interest in his kipper tie collection.'

'I see. But surely it was his own fault to embark on such a foolhardy and ill-prepared mission in the first place.'

'He was after easy money. He signed up with some partisans. He later found out that the two hundred strong army he thought he was signing up with was no more than half a dozen grubby spicks with only a couple of antique guns between them. Needless to say, he didn't get paid.'

'How awful! But I don't think you should have joked with him about me in the van last night.'

'Listen Monkeyshitbrains! I had to. Mr Patsy's been through the mill. He wants to kill people. If I'd not been there, you could have found yourself in very deep water, Chummy, or even in a motorway flyover. I only joked to lift his spirits up about you. He can turn into an animal at the drop of a hat.'


'Should we go in and wake him up now? Better still, you wait here. It's a very delicate task, waking him up. He could turn nasty.'

'I'll not come in for your sake.'

'For my sake? Don't do it for my sake. Wait here then. If you hear strange noises, it's probably only him trying to strangle me. But don't worry. I can handle him. He's still living in the jungle. Even the Welcome-home party from Uruguay passed him by.'

Alexander took a step backwards in abeyance, wondering how he could have endured to sleep beside such a brute. He considered himself lucky to be alive.

He woke Mr Patsy up and asked him to keep an eye on Alexander while he went back to Hoffman's study to try and get a shower and a shave. He found out that Onion had returned at some hour of the night with the rest of the Secondary bricks and some AOs who had tired of their UAO already. Among them were Cavendish and Smith as well as Yellowman and Jimmy.

Arrangements were made to install Jimmy in a government Enterprise workshop as part of the Community Re-employment Action Programme. Consequently, under the pretext of wanting to be retrained for employment, he found himself in a dingy, smelly dog-hole which housed a lathe, a few other machines and an office in the corner, which housed in turn his instructor, a detestable old man who blended into the grime. The toilets and washrooms were neglected, so it looked like he was used to loafing about in such hovels.

The workshop had once been a prestigious thriving little factory, and the office that had contained no idlers was a partition of old painted frames and corrugated glass. The office contained a locker on top of which was a huge valve radio set that brooked the margin to the ceiling. Two of the walls were bare brick. An old desk, a couple of chairs and a stool was all the other furniture besides a shabby old rug with black patches of grime. In the corner were welding rods and copper and steel pipes. Blizzards of cigarette ash swept eternally round the scorched desk top, being whipped into a frenzied whirlwind from the overflowing ashtrays by the slightest gust from his waving hand as he strove to make a point. The floor was nearly hidden under squashed cigarette ends. Jimmy was sure that the place hadn't been swept out since before it was taken over.

Slumped back on a chair at an angle to the desk, a cigarette in his right hand and a doodling pen in his left, was a man who looked like a crab.

'Are you the instructor?' Jimmy asked.

'Come in. Did the Jokeshop send you?'

'I don't know. Someone arranged it for me.'

'What do you mean, you don't know?' Charlie asked capriciously looking up. 'Either they did or they didn't.'


'The JobCentre.'

'It's not that simple. Creame arranged it,' Jimmy mumbled.

'Creame? Who the hell is Creame?'

'He's like an agent. He works for the Cowieshop.'

There began a strange and eventful relationship drawing from which both men sat around all day in the office parleying and bantering. Jimmy found out that he was the only trainee there, the rest having found Charlie too obnoxious and unpalatable to tolerate. He had insisted that they were on time whilst he would often turn up an hour late, leaving them shivering outside on the coldest winter mornings while they waited for him to open up; or he would set them trivial, derogatory tasks like putting in order thousands of different sized drill bits or, worse still, not giving them anything to do but insisting they did nothing standing up in case of an official visit. Besides he had a wilful, cavilling disposition. Any one of these reasons alone would have been enough to send even paid workers packing. One had quit because Charlie had received his gift of a few cans of beer by slinging them all over the workshop floor and then telling him to pick them up and get rid of them, purporting never to drink when working, which was itself a rarity.

Although nearing retirement age, he chose to perpetrate this farcical pretence of employment rather than stepping back gracefully to allow a younger man to take his place; nor was his age any impediment to his owning a motorcycle, on which he would sometimes ride to work until it was stolen, whereupon he, whom Jimmy thought of whimsically as one of the original Hell's Angels, smashed the telephone off the wall in a tantrum and began to rant tearfully about the war and ask why he still wasn't allowed to kill people.

Jimmy and Charlie got on like a house on fire, until one day. Jimmy came to use a piece of welding apparatus, only to discover bits missing. He asked Charlie where they were, only to be told curtly to mind his own business. Jimmy retorted that it was his business. Upon further enquiry, he found out that the jump leads and half the earthing of the building were lying buried in Charlie's back garden serving as an earth for his shortwave radio.

Finally the UAO's crown was made. It was made from mild steel, that being malleable and therefore easier to work with than cast iron. He could always contend that there was iron in steel and that he could 'cast' it to the ground; which he did when Charlie was trying to use the phone, just to annoy him. He told Charlie that it was to give whomever was on the other end the impression that somebody was working.

It was a rustic affair, being a band of steel bent into a ring with jagged edges and the signs of the zodiac engraved on it with a shaky hand. Brazed onto the base were narrow strips of steel subtending another two layers. The stars were cut out irregularly with secateurs. The job finished, he told Charlie he was leaving because of a nervous breakdown.

Charlie said he wasn't interested in why he was leaving and told him that if he wanted to leave, he should just go as soon as possible.

Not long after this, Jimmy heard that Charlie's wife had thrown him out and that he was on crutches and sleeping rough.

Alexander had meanwhile decided to buy a new pair of underpants to celebrate his investiture. Thus the emerged from Marks & Spencer with a pack of three St Michael underpants: one light blue, one medium blue and one dark blue. He bore a proud look and affected a limp which went well with his knotty sword-stick, his defence mechanism when out unaccompanied, like a tortoise's shell. Surely nobody would strike a cripple, but if they did, the sword-stick would make a good weapon.

Somewhat bolder was his deportment when out with a friend, especially one who was useful in a fight, when he would march through the crowd swearing at everybody and knocking them out of the way.

But that day, being alone, he was a hobbling cripple.

He did not need any more underpants, as he already had dozens of them his mother had bought, but it was a good excuse to be seen in Marks & Spencer, where he did all his shopping. He would buy their expensive sandwiches and would spend more time trying to unwrap them than eat them. But he liked to be seen just tumbling groceries into his basket heedless of the cost.

The day, time, site and manner of the coronation were arranged with due meticulousness. Hoffman, Creame and a few AOs often endured all-night sessions poring over the extra regulations unearthed by the bricks like Egyptologists.

They built him a sedan in which he would be conveyed to the place where he would sit on the throne and be crowned by an RAO in the presence of six local Adjudication Officers, as required. A few Executive Officers and Clerical Officers would also be present, including the five civil servants who accompanied them on the ship. One of them had even brought along a tape recorder and a camera and was going to give a commentary on the procession while the others would carry Alexander in the sedan chair.

Several of them had worked out that the best route would start at the OS stone and wind through the hills towards the nunnery where they had erected a throne for him on top of Mr Patsy's toilet. Hoffman had a quiet word with the nuns, who had agreed to line the route and cheer.

The day of the coronation began with several civil servants going over the intended route picking up litter.

'It's going to be a good day,' Creame announced, sucking in a lungful of the hazy early morning air. 'Very auspicious.'

They still needed an RAO to crown Alexander. Since the only possible RAO they knew of was Tileshed senior, a messenger was dispatched to the Unemployment Benefit Office over the hill to ask whether he would be willing to officiate at the ceremony. The answer came back that Tileshed senior was not available for comment and that even if he were, he would not wish to sanction such an illegal move. The reply further stated that if the coronation went ahead, it would be tantamount to treason.

Hoffman and Creame held a conference at the OS stone, with several of the AOs who had defected to them advising them. Several more requests were made to Tileshed senior via his son, but the reply was invariant, even when Creame mentioned that they held all but one of the trump cards, particularly when the recent defection of Smith and Cavendish and several of the Executive Officers and Clerical Officers were taken into account and the possession of the bricks through which only they knew the true number of the UAO.

In the shed, Alexander had employed Carl as a batman, writing him IOUs which he never intended to honour, to wash his bald head over a tub over which he stood like a crescent moon, his eyes screwed shut complaining that the shampoo was getting in them. When he dried his head, Carl rubbed olive oil on in accordance to the Roman ritual, at Alexander's insistence. Alexander continued to wear the white sheet for the duration of the ceremony, Carl having washed it. He decided to wear it over a white shirt and purple satin tie and his best pin-striped suit, with cuff-links, tie-pin and red pocket handkerchief. Carl polished his clownish shoes as best he could, Alexander having announced his intention of not wearing his galoshes on that special occasion.

Everybody had been working hard since dawn. Creame had been up with the larks and he was now strolling about examining everything fastidiously. He seemed to have appointed himself the MC and having donned a strange uniform of pin-striped pegged trousers, waistcoat and tail-coat, on which was pinned a strange star-shaped order, he was bustling through the small crowd ushering everyone into place and constantly reminding them to cheer when Alexander came into sight.

After a further scrutiny of the regulations, Creame and Hoffman decided they could get away with two AOs who had joined them from the other side and for to have the numbers made up with Executive and Clerical Officers. They were still stuck for a Regional Adjudication Officer and several of them were urging that the whole thing be called off until they found one. But this was overruled on the grounds that it was almost impossible to find out who the RAOs were, let alone bring one out into the open to crown Alexander. The matter rested on the rendering forth of someone 'with the adjudication of no less than an archdiocese', which they assumed, since it was relevant to the civil service, to refer to an RAO, until Creame pointed out astutely that it could apply to an archbishop.

'What difference does that make? Where are we going to get an archbishop from at such short notice?' asked Hoffman.

'You were able to make me into a parson and Mr Patsy into my curate without too much fuss, weren't you?' said Creame.

'Uhu,' Hoffman replied.

'Then why can't you make me into an archbishop?'

'I can't do that. It takes years to become an archbishop. You can't just jump from a vicar to an archbishop. An archbishop's a different kettle of fish.'

'Why not?'

'You just can't, that's all. It's just not done. There's bound to be someone from the Vatican who'll start asking questions. Even an Anglican bishop has to be invited into office by the prime minister.'

Creame thought again for a moment as he surveyed his intended archdiocese, where it was just possible in the distance to make out the small square of the Unemployment Benefit Office formerly with only one claimant and now with none, since the death of Mr Goose. They should have built it on the North Pole for him and let him get there with his dog and a sledge.

'We can get together a group of people and they can vote me in,' Creame suggested. 'And as far as an invitation from the prime minister is concerned, we can sort that one out with the Oracle later.'

'I'll leave that to you. I don't want to risk excommunication while I'm living here,' said Hoffman.

'Just as you wish.'

Creame's method was to convoke a meeting with Mr Patsy, Yellowman and anyone else who was standing around and who was willing to help, in the shed that Alexander was using for his dressing-room. Creame claimed their support and had them vote him into the office of archdeacon. Once an archdeacon, he immediately made them all priests and then made them appoint him a bishop; then he appointed them archdeacons so that they could vote him an archbishop, upon which he immediately appointed them all bishops, making a bench of bishops for the purpose of Alexander's investiture. Having qualms about it immediately afterwards, he decided to be known as 'Archbysshop' instead of archbishop if there were any repercussions.

For his uniform, he managed to buy a mauve shirt, which he buttoned up to the collar through which he struck a strip of white cardboard, so that it looked like a dog collar. A lemon and lime coloured satin curtain hanging in Hoffman's study caught his eyes for a dalmatic, or cloak, and it was easy enough to improvise a mitre out of two kite-shaped pieces of cardboard with some glue and paint and similarly a staff out of an old broom, since it ended in a cross instead of the more awkward and ornate crozier of a bishop. Once he had wrapped the curtain round himself and hung the rosary beads he had borrowed from Sister de Patsy round his neck, he could have been mistaken for a real archbishop by a blind man.

Some of the 'Bysshops' were adorned with sheets from the nunnery. Onion and Yellowman were told to stand guard on either side of the nunnery gates. Some of the original spectators remained and these were clustered round the sombre figures of the nuns lining the route like a cordon of reverent police, including Mr Patsy as Sister de Patsy in his undercover mode planted in the crowd by Creame in case of a terrorist attack: for which contingency he had a bucket of nails at hand to bless them with.

When the preparations were at an end, Creame and Hoffman called on Alexander, who still wasn't ready because he was trying to stop the sheet which Carl had pinned round him from sliding off him.

'Hadn't you better wear one or the other?' Creame asked, seeing that he wore the sheet over his suit.

'I was going to, but I couldn't decide which one to wear,' Alexander replied.

'Why don't you wear only the toga until you receive the crown, and then you can go back to your suit?'

'I was thinking of that actually, but it might be a bit chilly wearing just that and nothing else.'

'Nonsense. You could do it the other way round, if you liked. Come here. Take your shirt off and your suit,' Creame patronized, stepping forward.

Alexander complied sheepishly and stood there shivering in his underpants like a dipped skeleton with only his belly prominent as if suffering from inanition while Creame deftly and nimbly re-arranged the sheet round him, fastening it neatly and firmly on with a safety-pin.

'There. Turn round...splendid! You look just like Marcus Crappus,' he said facetiously.

'I hope this won't take too long. I'm cold already.'

'No. It shouldn't do. Are you ready, or would you like some privets on your head?'

'I'm as ready as I can be,' Alexander conceded.

He was taken to Hoffman's 'Plastic Pig' and bundled in the back, Creame getting in the front with Hoffman. The other processionists had already set off in their cars for the start.

Alexander sat back in his seat and crossed his arms and legs, looking out of the window for the rest of the journey.

When they got there, the processionists were milling round the OS stone waiting for them to begin. The Reliant Robin stopped and Alexander got out, much to the delight of the others, who cheered him, laughed at him and even wolf-whistled at him.

'I think they're after you making a little speech,' Creame whispered to him.

'Couldn't you give one for me? I'm hopeless at making speeches.'

'No. Just stand up there and tell them that you'd like to thank them for their support and say that when you speak to them again, you'll be on your throne.'

'I couldn't,' Alexander was just beginning to say as Creame announced to the assembly that Alexander wished to say a few words before the ceremony. He pushed Alexander forward and both he and Hoffman helped him cumbersomely onto the OS stone, which he was going to use as a platform.

'Friends, citizens--' was all that Alexander managed to get out before the sheet fell away from him, leaving him standing only in his socks, new underpants and shoes which were slipping about on the damp surface.

'Who pulled it off?' he asked, turning and scowling at Hoffman and Creame, who were laughing along with the rest of the crowd.

'The safety-pin came undone,' said Creame.

Alexander wasn't sure whether to believe him fully, but when he was placated, the procession moved off. Creame scouted ahead, making a final check that the road ahead was clear. He reached the nunnery, but did not return to the procession, choosing instead to await it at the nunnery gates where there was a gathering of nuns and the spectators were most.

'I'm so excited. I can't wait. It's just like a royal wedding,' one of the nuns was telling Creame, who was telling them to cheer as he passed. One of them had opera-glasses and some of the others had chosen to stay behind and were leaning out of the windows. Every so often someone would set off a false cheering that would soon die away.

Creame was starting to feel uneasy when the nun with the opera-glasses shouted she could see them. All Creame could see was a thin straggly line stretching into the distance. He thought he could hear a few shouts on the breeze.

Then the procession came into view.

At first sight everything seemed in order. The sedan chair was in the middle. The few nuns at the end of the line began sparse clapping and cheering, which transmitted itself down the line.

'Who's this, Mr Creame?' asked a nun.

Creame noted that in front were five Clerical Assistants. Being mostly very junior, they had raw, spotty faces but impeccable haircuts, suits and deportment. They were marching in pairs very proudly. After them came the Clerical Officers, whose grey suits showed the occasional crease at the back through sitting-down. They were sleeker, more confident and casual than their predecessors and there were quite a few of these, most of them having defected from the other side. They showed the first signs of individualities, unlike the clone CAs: their hair was not always parted in the same standard right-hand side; they wore different shades of grey and some also smiled slightly as they marched by, not quite in step than the more regular CAs.

Behind these came the Executive Officers, the lowest tier of management. These seemed to be in short supply, there being only two of them, both strapping fellows with blow-dried hair in the style of EOs and prominent bristly chins and stripped shirts with white collars. They weren't marching as such, just keeping up a brisk, orderly step.

'Who are those two?' one of the nuns asked Creame.

'I'm not sure. They look like Tweedledum and Tweedledee. They must be new arrivals from the other side.'

Then came AOs, some of whom were draped in sheets. They looked like a less formal version of the EOs that were in front of them. Most of them were just strolling along and some even took the unprecedented step of smiling and waving to the public.

Behind them the sedan, which had only just been finished out of planks of wood painted silver, draped with net curtains and covered with other curtains taken from Hoffman's study. It had only just come into view from a dip. An astonished gasp kept up with it from the crowd. Creame soon discovered why when it drew alongside him and he could see inside.

'Is that HRH in there? Oh, I can't wait to get a look at him. I bet he's a handsome young man. Do you think that he'll wave back?' a nun was chattering to Creame.

'Yes, HCH,' Creame corrected.

'I can see him now....Oh, dear me, what a picture!'

Creame peered into the box. On the chair which had its legs sawn off to fit, instead of the nodding, smiling, waving potentate he had ordered Alexander to emulate was a miserable figure, squatting arms folded, staring grimly ahead. Two AOs carried it jerkily. It occasionally heeled over, nearly spilling Alexander out. The fine net curtains and Alexander were bespattered with tracts of mud. Behind this was a group of men which seemed to have fallen out of the procession and were ushering along a sheeted bundle, around which they were densely clustered.

In front of the procession, the CAs had come to attention and Onion had stumped up to them, demanding to know who they were and what their business was there; which he knew fine well but it was a formality. When they told him, he let them pass with a salute.

The procession marched in with the bundle in its rearguard.

Mr Patsy had kindly built Alexander a ladder to reach the top of the toilet. The procession slowed to a halt. Alexander spilled onto the ground as the sedan was lowered at a kilt. The sheet slipped away from him as he got to his feet, sending him into a rage. He threw a clod at the feet of one of the bearers, who replied with: 'I'm sorry, but there's nothing I can do.' Creame elbowed forward to try to bring things under control.

'Are you ready to ascend, Alexander?' He helped him awkwardly to the foot of the ladder which Sister de Patsy was now standing beside.

'Come on, me old China,' Sister de Patsy said, straining to push him upwards onto the broad planks of wood nailed across the rungs.

He had just about reached the top when a rung gave way, jolting Alexander and forcing him to make a grab at the rung in front. His arm overshot and his feet slipped. As Creame shot forward in a rescue attempt, Alexander fell back. Creame gave his buttock a hard pinch, spurring him forward while at the same time giving him a push.

'Remind me never to go mountain climbing with him,' Creame said breathlessly, standing back.

'I'm all right now. Should I sit on my throne?'

'You'd better.'

'Right. I'm on it now. What happens next? Where's my crown? I must say, this is quite good. I can see for miles. Where did you get all these gold bricks from?'

'They're painted gold, Hinnie,' Patsy answered.

'It's very good, all the same.'

'What happened? Why's he covered in shit?' Creame asked of one of the clerks in a low tone. Nobody offered an explanation except Alexander, who called on from above: 'Because that bastard threw it at me!' pointing to the sheeted figure.

'Who is that? Uncover him,' Creame demanded.

At this, the clerks formed themselves into a protective ring around him and began to pull at the sheet from all directions.

'What's the problem here? Why don't you pull it off?' said Creame. 'De Patsy, go see to it.'

Sister de Patsy stepped up to the group and tried to reach the bundle, but those around it seemed reluctant to let him near. He said to one: 'Step aside, Sonny, or I'll take you into my toilet for an interview.'

'We look after our own kind. I should warn you that it is an offence to assault any member of the DSS. We've been trained to handle assaults,' he replied.

'Stop your prattle and unhood him,' Creame said from behind.

Some of them respected him from being in the DSS. De Patsy was allowed to step through them and pull away the sheet.

They beheld the grim, soiled and sneering face of Tileshed junior.

'Where's your father?' Creame asked at last.

'What do you mean, where's my father? You'll never catch him. You wouldn't have caught me if I hadn't been betrayed,' he added bitterly as he struggled to free himself from the belt that bound his hands together behind him.

'What should we do with him?' de Patsy asked Creame.

'Leave him for now. We'll judge him later. Now I'll go and put on my vestments.'

They went into the garden shed that was nearby, where he went to the wardrobe where he had his vestry, being careful to avoid slipping on any pools of water and oil that were on the floor, Mr Patsy seeing if he required assistance.

'We've got a tough job here, Patsy,' Creame said as he slithered into his tight-collared mauve shirt that had been hung up neatly on a wire coat hanger, along with the rest of his archiepiscopal vestments. The door of his vestry had only just been repaired after it had been broken down by Mr Goose.

'So it would appear,' Mr Patsy grunted.

'No; I mean how we actually crown the imbecile. Have we got another pair of ladders?'

'No, I don't think so. He shouldn't have gone through that other one I knocked up for him though. I tried it out myself before I let him go up it.'

'Well, you know how it is with Alexander. I'd rather be looking after a two year old if you want the truth.'

'How are we going to do it? I could climb up there and crown him myself.'

'No: I must do it. You're not an archbishop.'

'Then you could climb up?'

Creame studied him fixedly for so long that he began to blush and rearrange his wimple nervously. He was just resorting to playing with his rosary beads when Creame added: 'Do you think you could suggest something sensible?' Creame saw the effect that this rebuke had on him and said by way of redress: 'That wouldn't do for an archbishop, you know, to be seen climbing up a toilet wall.'

'I could carry you on my shoulders, I suppose,' Mr Patsy offered.

'I can see no alternative,' Creame admitted after he had given it some thought. 'But how are you going to manage? You'll drop me.'

'I shouldn't do. I know I had to stop doing press-ups on the barrel of my shot-gun when it poked through my gut and gave me a hernia, but I reckon I'm good for a few more years yet before I reach the knacker's yard.'

After consideration, Creame said: 'All right, I think we'll give it a go. I can hear them muttering outside. I think they're getting impatient.'

So it was that Creame, as an 'archbishop', was carried out on the shoulders of Sister de Patsy, whom he pronounced a venerable Goliath, stooping through the door, benedicting and showering blessings on the astonished congregation, interlarded with the occasional 'Et Domini vobiscum sanctum' which he did not know the meaning of, or even if it made sense, but it sounded good as he waved his staff pastorally in front of de Patsy, whose view it partially obscured, causing him to stumble forwards and catapult Creame onto Alexander's lap in an emblazoned streak of winnowing folds. He clutched the throne and scrambled onto it, the colourful sheet around him suggesting to Alexander the crumpled wings of a newly-emerged butterfly trying to struggle onto a branch from its chrysalis. Hoping nobody would notice the slip-up he tersely demanded the crown, which was brought on a cushion from the shed by one of the AO-bysshops, who joined the other AO-bysshops now gathered in a circle round the base of the toilet. The clerk with the tape recorder began to play Saint-Saëns' Symphony No.3, before recording.

Creame, squatting at Alexander's feet, reached up and put the crown on Alexander's head. Alexander nodded and had to catch the crown which was sliding off.

'Now bring the sceptre,' Creame ordered, comporting himself like a primate of one order or another as he squatted on his haunches.

Patsy brought the sceptre, which was an iron bar with a double helix wrapped round, roughly meant to denote the 'SS' of Social Security. The orb was a cricket ball sprayed gold with a crucifix stuck in it. It was brought and given to Creame, who bestowed it on Alexander. He clutched it awkwardly, as if he had just caught somebody out with it.

Creame ordered de Patsy to take him on his shoulders again back to the shed, warning him to be extra careful this time; but even as he spoke, de Patsy stumbled, hurling Creame to the ground.

'Imbecile!' yelled Creame when he got up. He threw some mud at his shiny boots and said: 'Help me out of these ridiculous garments.'

Mr Patsy reached forward and did his best and as he was carrying them away to the shed, Creame ambled up to the toilet from where, undaunted, he addressed the crowd:

'My Lord Bysshops, I give you the Ultimate Adjudication Officer of the DSS, Alexander I, or Alexander the Very Great, whichever the case may be, Defender of the Poor, Supreme Overlord, Commander-in-Chief of the Clerical Forces...'

A sparse, perfunctory applause crackled around him.

'And now let us decide the first case. Tileshed junior is charged with seditious behaviour, being liable to cause a breach of the peace, riotous behaviour, high treason, nuisance, treachery and being drunk and disorderly,' said Creame. 'Do you understand the charge?'

'This is an outrage. I wasn't drunk!' Tileshed junior spluttered.

'Ah, but you admit the rest?'

'Not at all.'

'I'm the prosecuting attorney and I say you're guilty. You will be charged with contempt of court if you plead otherwise. Do you have anyone to represent you?'

Tileshed junior made no answer.

'Where's your Counsel for the Defence?' Alexander demanded.

Tileshed junior still did not answer.

'Contempt of Court, I see,' Creame rejoined.

'Let's have the first witness,' said Alexander.

'I call Mr X,' said Creame.

After an expectant pause, Mr X failed to make himself known.

'Well, where is he?' demanded Alexander.

'It is an established fact that any AO does not have to be present at a hearing to defend his decision, but on paper he is ascribed as being there, so everything is conducted as though he were present, to the extent of addressing his empty chair: the same licence must be adopted here.'

'How is he going to act as a witness if he isn't here?' queried Alexander.

'As is quite normal under the circumstances, he will speak through a medium.'

'Who is--?'

'The presenting or prosecuting officer: in this case, me,' said Creame.

'Then let him give his account, ex curia.'

'Well, it appears Tileshed junior was sent to break up this procession and he was caught in the act of doing so by attacking Alexander Fleuret, the First.'

'HCH Alexander I,' Alexander corrected him.

'Alexander I,' Creame asserted. 'But he was caught, bound and brought here like a slave. Am I right?'

'No, I only threw mud at him,' Tileshed junior protested. 'My driver deserted me: he drove off in the getaway car while I was doing it, otherwise I would never have been caught.'

'Order! I sentence Mr Tileshed junior to one week in a shed with only twenty pounds to live on. Take him away. Next case,' said Alexander.

'There are no more cases,' said Creame.

'Are there any supplicants, then?'

'Not one.'

'Help me down. I'm going to get changed. Here, take the crown.'

'All rise,' put in a clerk, but realized belatedly they were standing already and went red in the face.

They adjourned to lock Tileshed junior in the shed. Alexander was helped down and led into the shed in front of Tileshed junior as prisoner, leaving Patsy to stand guard outside while Onion and Yellowman guarded their prisoner, preventing him from attacking his jailer.

Creame and Hoffman sauntered up to Hoffman's study with the tape recorder in order to make a transcript to send to the ministers.

'Let's see what it sounds like,' said Creame when they entered the study and slouched into chairs. Hoffman unloaded the tape recorder on the desk and rewound the tape.

'I'm not happy about that other lot, you know,' Hoffman confided to Creame.

'What, you're worried about that bunch of scum-bags? They'll not give us any more trouble. If they do, we can hold them to ransom with Tileshed junior as our prisoner.'

'But what if the ministers decide to take notice of them instead of us?' Hoffman asked anxiously.

'Because if they do that, they'll be breaking their contract with the true ministers. Remember, it was agreed in writing with those that the only man whose National Insurance number was given by the Primary bricks was suitable to become UAO.'

The tape was started but they could hardly make out a word.

'We'll have to guess what we can't make out,' Creame said at last.

They wrote down a transcript, prior to dispatching it to the ministers, House of Commons, London SW1.

'You know, it's a pity you killed Mr Goose,' said Creame, scribbling away.

'Surely you don't feel sorry for him!' said Hoffman.

'Don't be silly. I just thought he would have made a damned good courier on his wasp to save us the postage....Still, it was all for the best. The poor sod should never have been born....Do you know what he used to do?'

'The story I got from him when he was here is that when he got his Giro, he would fritter it away. We were worried about that.'

'That's right. First he would clomp up the road in his cowboy boots, with all his pockets stuffed with two weeks' supply of Raffles cigarettes and then he would go and get pissed and make an arse of himself, often smashing shop windows and getting into trouble. If he had enough money left and he was still at liberty after all that, he would buy everybody "fishies", Elvis-style and would wake up the next day with no food and no money, just a bad head and a patchy recollection of the embarrassments of the night before. The Giro that had had to last him for a fortnight had been blown in a day. Yet he could still afford videos, CDs and an "Elvis" tombstone for a dog. He even built himself a sensory deprivation box like they use in ESP experiments. He used to lie in a coffin wearing earmuffs, blindfolded and cardboard tubes over his arms and legs and stay in there for days, just trying to forget that he existed until next payday.'

They were interrupted by the sound of an argument coming from just outside the fire door. Hoffman, who was nervous of being overheard, jumped up and banged it open. Outside, de Patsy had been blocking the way in for Yellowman and was now thrown against the railing by the sudden force of the door.

'What's going on here?' Hoffman demanded of his half-brother.

'He won't let me in.'

'What do you want? I thought I told you that we were not to be disturbed.'

'It's urgent, or I wouldn't have bothered you.'

'Well, what is it?'

'It's Tileshed junior. He's gained the nuns' sympathy and they're revolting. First they were bringing him food, but when Onion put a stop to it, they demanded to see him. Now they're nearly besieging Onion, who's trying to hold them back and one of them has even brought a placard saying, "Free Tileshed Junior".'

'Do you mean to say that a bunch of silly nuns has got Onion terrified. Tell them to disperse immediately, and tell Tileshed junior if he wants anything, we'll get it for him, providing he pays us for it.'

As Yellowman was turning to go, Patsy had just recovered from his gasping attack which was the result of him being hit by the door and nearly plummeting to his death and was turning round to say something when Hoffman slammed the door shut on him.

Hoffman resumed his seat coolly.

'I've just about finished this transcript. What now?' said Creame.

'I think it might be wise to scrap the first session.'

'It could make us look rather ridiculous in the light of this revolt.'

'Okay. Does Alexander understand what's required of him? Have you briefed him?'

'In what way?' asked Creame.

'With regard to his powers. The secret regulations state that the UAO is responsible for interpreting and implementing, but that he cannot interpolate, any of the existing statutes or statutory instruments, under threat of plagues or excommunication by the DSS.'

'He ought to understand that.'

'Now let's discuss the important issues. I wish to peruse through those regulations which may be of benefit to us.'

They spent time going through the 144 regulations brick by brick, examining the implications of them and discussing how each could be put to best use.

While Alexander was in the shed with Tileshed junior, he grew impatient, not least of all because Tileshed junior had been calling him names and once when the situation looked physically threatening, Alexander had called on Onion for help, because Patsy was on the toilet. But Onion was more concerned with fending off a Nun's rebellion. Originally he was put in the shed for his own safety, to prevent him from being kidnapped by the other side and manipulated, but now he found he was trapped inside by the nuns who, as well as bewailing Tileshed junior's captivity, were calling for Alexander to be exorcised as the Antichrist.

When Creame and Hoffman emerged from 'chambers', as they now called the study, they found that they had to battle their way through some old battle-axes to reach Alexander. But the clerks had thrown a cordon round them. De Patsy was told to mingle to gather intelligence; at which behest he pushed his way in among the nuns, blaspheming as he went.

Creame reached the shed but could not open the door for the throng of nuns around it. He whispered a few words to Onion, who promptly formed a stirrup with his hands to allow Creame to climb on the shed roof. Hoffman went up next.

Both men surveyed the black and white tide below and felt themselves marooned in a boat in a sea of sharks, in the midst of which they could depict the squat, uneasy, bearded figure of Sister de Patsy barging through. Hoffman being the more familiar to the nuns, appealed for calm and was granted a respite, during which he said that Creame wished to say a few words. Below them Alexander and Tileshed junior thought the roof was about to cave in.

'What should we do?' Hoffman asked Creame.

Creame seemed to be in a pious or serene state. He closed his eyes and tilted back his head. 'Make them sit.'

'I can't do that and even if I could, the grass is wet.'

'Very well. Will the good sisters accept our gratitude for their support. Bring your poor,' spreading his arms in supplication. 'This very day, Alexander I is to bring out of the closet some very old statutes that will make life more bearable for the poor.'

'Did he say statues?' asked a deaf old nun.

Directly below them, Alexander heard this 'Sermon on the Roof' appreciatively.

'You fool. Do you think your guardian angel up there can do anything for you or the poor? You'll come to a sticky end,' Tileshed junior told Alexander in the shed.

'Like you, you mean?' Alexander sneered.

'I'm not done for yet. My father will break me out of here.'

'I suppose you think you can get away with anything, just because your father's something,' said Alexander taking another swig of morphine.

At that moment the door opened and Creame stepped in smiling, followed by Hoffman.

'Are you ready for them?' he asked Alexander, who was trying to stow the morphine bottle out of sight in his jacket.

'Ready for whom, or what?' He was wiping away the kaolin stain from his mouth.

'For the next sitting. Do you think that being UAO is all bludy fun and no work?'

'But I don't know what it is that you expect of me. I'm very sorry. You'll have to tell me. If you'd only just tell me what to do,' he said fretfully.

In response, Creame just clapped him on the back and said: 'Relax. You'll be all right. But we'll have to get you a wig: you look more like a monk than a king.'

'Why? What does it matter how I look?'

Jimmy, Frankie and Norman had been picnicking on beer for most of the day nearby. They were visiting Cockney Frank, but they had not been sober enough to stand. Finally they ran out of beer. Norman was trying to polish off the last can by himself whilst others were making a grab for it.

Frankie said: 'It's out of date. You can't drink that. You'll get poisoned.'

'It will be out of date just now,' Norman replied, following it with his throaty chuckle followed by his characteristic squealing laughter.

'Let's go and see what's happening over there,' said Jimmy, standing up and taking a step forward. But he aimed too high, lost balance and went reeling to the ground in befuddlement, his arms a flurry. He managed to get up after several attempts and stood there swaying, checking a further near fall with, 'Woah, Silver!'

Since that morning's mist, Jimmy had been spewing up fish, fish, fish, which looked like chewed canaries. He couldn't remember eating fish, which he did not like, until Norman told him he had bought a fish lot from the nearby village and had tried to sell him a piece of fish for a fiver.

Like something out of Last of the Summer Wine they rollicked forward by fits and starts. They were heading for the crowd of nuns.

The next 'parliament' was just sitting. Alexander I had taken his place on the throne, with Archbishop Creame and the AO-bishops forming the Lords Spiritual on one side and several of the officers forming the Lords Temporal on the other. There were also several commoners drawn from the rank of Executive Officer downwards. The nuns had loaned them several long forms to sit on, on a promise of an imminent parole for Tileshed junior.

Alexander had been trying to pass a law banning the consumption of alcohol in the vicinity, until someone pointed out that, if that were the case, opiates such as morphine should also be outlawed. As Alexander wore the white kaolin lipstick of his addiction, he had very little ground to stand on. In any case, being partly stupefied by morphine and Diazepam, he did not seem to comprehend that it was not within his purview to make laws; merely to interpret those given by the bricks. Like Moses, in a way.

Creame suggested that they consider the first case. A spectating nun asked that she should be allowed to fetch a homeless man who was staying at the nunnery and was down on his luck.

While she was fetching him, they found something else to debate. An Executive Officer suggested a topic:

'Why is it that the watermark in each Giro sent out is that of the bust of Mercury, messenger of the gods? What are they trying to say?'

'It should be of me, or course!' declaimed Alexander.

'Er, I don't think there's any provision made in the regulations for the alteration you have in mind. It doesn't make a strong case. After all, is it economically justifiable?' said Hoffman.

'Of course it is,' snapped Alexander, bristling. 'Change it. They should all have my bust impregnated on then. Have it arranged at once. Also, I want a porcelain bust of myself erected in every Benefit office in the country. Carl, will you make sure it all gets done?'

'Er, yes, right away, Alexander,' Carl readily replied, jumping to his feet from the stool he had been occupying on the periphery and bowing to Alexander as he left.

Creame smirked at Alexander's bombastic, lunatic demands, knowing that they would never be fulfilled.

The poor man was brought before the parliament by two nuns. He seemed very confused and bewildered. He kept turning round with a sudden start and muttering to himself. The nuns positioned him before Alexander, between both forms, where he stood looking about him nervously and fidgeting.

'What is your name, fellow?' Alexander boomed out at last.

The subject addressed seemed to be heedless of his surroundings, for he showed no sign of having been spoken to.

'Your name!' Alexander called out harshly.

'Billy! Billy!' he shouted at last. He was shambling around in the little clearing. He made poking movements with his fists, waved his arms around, turned and turned, as if trying to hit an opponent who was not there. He looked like he was playing blind man's bluff without the blindfold.

'Somebody stop him--what's he doing?' asked Alexander, perturbed.

'Perhaps a demon has taken hold of him,' suggested Creame.

'I suppose it'll require another exorcism, in that case,' de Patsy remarked.

'It's the drink that's done that to him,' a nun explained.

'Then he shouldn't drink,' said Alexander.

'He's not always been like that,' continued the nun.

'It's his own fault, if he's drunk,' said Alexander, tapping his sceptre against the throne.

'No, wait!' urged Hoffman, rising from the bench. 'Have some compassion. He's not drunk. He's non compos mentis. He needs help and rehabilitation.'

'Is there anything about that in the regulations?' asked Creame.

'I believe a Commissioner's decision, [R (SB) 38/68], ruled that those in need of rehabilitation, including ex-convicts, should be given preference when applying for jobs within the civil service. In the case of where there are more than one applicant, the most seriously mentally ill should be given the job. It's called the Lunatic Opportunities Programme,' said an officer.

'So we give him a job in the civil service. Anywhere in particular?' asked Alexander.

'Does it matter?' queried a cynical Clerical Officer, envious of Billy's impending status.

'Where should we send him?' asked Creame.

'From what I've heard of it, he'll integrate nicely at DSS North Bridge Street.'

'We'll send him there, then--with of course His Civil Highness's permission,' Creame suggested while glancing up at Alexander. But Alexander, being at a vantage point, was watching the three unsteady figures coming over.

'Er, yes, anything you like. But who're those coming towards us?'

'JS Men!' somebody yelled, which panicked some of the younger clerks.

'Onion, see who they are. If they're JS Men, get rid of them,' said Hoffman.

Onion trotted off, rumbling towards them in combat jacket like a rolling mossy boulder.

He was disappointed to discover that they were no more than a couple of petitioners whom he couldn't eject without contravening the constitution.

'What do you want to see them about?' he asked gruffly when he reached them.

'Joe King says my mate can't have his heating allowance restored because he worked for a week, so is there any chance he can get it back?' Jimmy rambled on.

'Who's Joe King?' barked Onion.

'A mate of mine. He works in the advice centre. He knows what's what.'

Jimmy was set before parliament while Norman and Frankie caroused in the background. When they had deciphered his request, permission was granted that his friend should have his heating allowance restored. Regulation 11 of the Supplementary Benefit (Requirements) Regulations 1983, which made provision for a heating allowance, was revoked in 1986. It stated that:

(1) The items to which the category of additional requirements apply are those for which provision is made in Schedule 4.

(2) Subjects to paragraphs (2A) and (2B), the weekly amount of the additional requirements of a claimant, including the requirements of any partner or dependant of his, shall be determined -

(a) in relation to heating, in accordance with regulation 12 and Part 1 of Schedule 4;...'

Schedule 4 stated that the additional requirements of a 'Person who is a householder where the home, excluding any bathroom, lavatory or hall, consists of - (a) not more than four rooms; (b) five or more rooms; and is centrally heated by a central system, including night storage heaters, which (notwithstanding that individual parts of the system may be operated independently of each other) is operated by a central point and is the normal means of heating the living or dining areas' is

(a) £2.20

(b) £4.40.

Next up was Norman, who requested a loan from the Social Fund for £200.

'What's this loan for?' Alexander asked sceptically.

'A new pair of trousers for a job interview,' Norman replied.

'Does a pair of trousers cost £200?'

'No, but I also need a few other things with it. I want to visit my dying sister in Australia.'

A sour-faced AO stood up and cross examined him, asking who she was, what she was dying of, how long she had to go, whether it would not be possible for her to make the trip over here and what she was doing in Australia in the first place. During the lengthy cross examination, the story was greatly amended so that Norman said he needed £7 for a pair of trousers, with the other £193 going to Tommy's funeral, claiming that Tommy was an intimate friend of his who died through taking an overdose because somebody had threatened to kill his dogs whilst he was in prison. Norman was granted a Budgeting Loan after seeing a Social Fund Officer and filling out form SF300.

Next up was Frankie who, taking notice of his predecessor, requested a loan for £500 to pay for decorating his kip. When asked where he was residing, he said he was staying at the nunnery.

'Then why do you need money to decorate your room if you do not live there in your own home?' asked Hoffman, who was familiar with the cell-like rooms they gave to homeless people, as a temporary measure, which had to accommodate four people until they could avail themselves of more suitable and permanent accommodation.

'Because it's for when I find a place of my own,' Frankie mumbled, who talked as though he had a mouthful of socks.

Creame seeing an advantage to be gained in acceding to his request, asked, 'Do you mean that you wish to contribute some of the money you receive to charity whilst you are resident here?'

'Yes, yes, to charity, that's it,' Frankie responded overzealously and laughed rather naively, thinking Creame was making a joke.

'It might not be a bad idea,' Creame pondered, hoping to bribe the nuns out of any uprising they were planning.

'All right. Your request is granted. Now, are there any more petitions or can I get down off here? It's most uncomfortable,' said Alexander. Everybody interchanged glances, looking for some other business and though no one spoke, Hoffman appeared to be hemming rather insistently.

'Er, can we assume His Civil Highness to have concluded only external affairs?' Creame hedged.

Alexander looked puzzled and he asked Creame what he meant.

'I mean simply that you have taken care of business as regards these petitioners but as yet we haven't quite formalized our own titles and other...er...attributes.'

'I'm not sure that I understand you,' Alexander said.

'For a start, you could do with a wig, couldn't you?' Creame said, becoming quite openly vexed with having to explain himself.

'What's that got to do with it?'

'Now it's your chance to get one. Just say that you want one and we'll get you one from the DSS, even if we have to take if off the Secretary of State's head.'

'All right, so long as it's a smart one and not one of those stupid things the judges wear. I want a proper wig.'

'Right, that's settled. Now, what about us?'

'Surely you don't all want wigs!' Alexander guffawed, clutching his sides and nearly falling out of his throne as he let out a deep, guttural laugh.

Creame shot him a steely glance and followed it with a wry smile and a cutting remark:

'No, not quite. We didn't all get buggered by the Sunny People. But I was going to suggest that there might be something in it for the boys, you know.'

Alexander's face became distorted with disgust and rage as Creame made this scurrilous remark. It led him to construe 'Something in it for the boys' as a continuance of the former vein. He stood up on the throne, threw down his sceptre and crown and announced his abdication unless he received an immediate apology. 'You will apologise for that remark.'

'Like hell I will,' said Creame, flustered.

'I'll have you flogged!'

'You just try it,' Creame replied.

'Arrest that man!' Alexander commanded, pointing at Creame and looking at the AO-bishops, none of whom would meet his stare. After a moment, he added: 'Didn't you hear what I said? Arrest him! You owe me allegiance!'

Nobody lifted a finger in his service. Creame saw this and guffawed cruelly. Then he said: 'Nobody owes you allegiance. Did anyone swear allegiance to you? Of course not! I made them what they are--just as I made you what you are. Likewise I can destroy you.' At this point Hoffman grabbed his arm as a tacit warning that he should say no more. Creame stopped inveighing Alexander, stared flatly into space for a few minutes and then snapped his fingers and said: 'All right, I've had it. I resign.'

'You can't resign--I won't let you!' Alexander screamed, his reasoning opiated.

Creame began to stroll towards the nunnery, purposefully and at a measured pace as Alexander called out after him: 'And don't come back!'

Chapter Twenty

Carl would have hung onto Alexander's shirt-tails in this as in every other matter had he not been so selflessly preoccupied in making for the nearest functional Unemployment Benefit Office as fast as his little legs could carry him. It was not a very good time, because the office was in turmoil due to a Claimant Advisor who had been trying to advise Cockney Frank to 'move out of unemployment' as he put it and even threatened to stop his dole because he had been late for the interview. The reason he was late was that he was supposed to be signing there at that time. By the time he had waited in the queue, he was a few minutes' late to take his place at the other end of the office.

'I'm sorry, sir, but your benefit may be suspended, as you weren't here on time,' the Claimant Advisor told him.

'But I was here on time. How am I supposed to be in two places at once?'

'You should have signed a few minutes' early.'

'How was I supposed to do that?'

'You should have asked,' the Claimant Advisor, a reformed EO, told Cockney Frank.

'But I didn't know there was going to be all this palaver, did I?'

'I'm sorry, but there's nothing I can do. You can appeal.'

'How do I do that?'

'You'll have to wait until you're notified of the decision.'

'But you've just told me.'

'Notified in writing, that is.'

'Oh, that's marvellous, that is--what am I supposed to do in the meantime? Fucking starve?'

'There's nothing we can do.'

'Who made the appointment for me?'

'It was somebody in this office.'

'Can I get an emergency payment?'

'We don't handle that sort of thing. You'll have to see the Social Security office about it.'

'Do you think I stand a chance?'

'I couldn't say. It all depends on your circumstances.'

'Would you have me walk all the way there just to be told I'm not getting anything?'

'You could try phoning them.'

'Do you think I've got the money just to be kept hanging on all day, while they piss me about I`m not Alan King yer nar?'

'Well, I'm sorry.'

'Up yours, then,' Cockney Frank said as he stormed out.

'Like taking candy from a baby,' the Claimant Advisor muttered as he left the cubicle and strutted past an Executive Officer who smiled his approval.

There was a bustling queue shuffling up to Box 1. Carl joined it.

Had it not been at the behest of Alexander, Carl would never have dreamed of going into such a place. He had only been in such a place once in a blue moon, since he was not required to sign regularly whilst on Invalidity Benefit.

As the queue shortened, he became more concerned as to what he should say. Big men, little men, clean men and dirty men, surly men and burly men, young men and old men and women stood in front of him still did not make him feel any less of a misfit, which he felt like most of the time. He wondered how Alexander would have fitted in.

When Alexander's father signed over to him all his hard-earned money and the house, Alexander had raised his head proudly and told everybody that he would never sign the dole again in his life and would even set fire to their office when they telephoned him to ask if he was looking for work and then told them that he would prosecute them for harassment. Then he bombarded them with threatening letters, some of them obscene and anonymous, posted in their own pre-paid envelopes.

All this was meaningless when he was not dependent on them for his daily bread. After that, they would have been sure to mark his card with the maximum Hassle Factor of ten when he did sign, as Carl was sure he must soon do, despite all his objections and denials.

Suddenly when the man in front moved away, Carl found he was at the front of the queue. A Clerical Assistant was sitting behind the counter with a box of cards at his fingertips. A cheap ball-point pen was tied to the counter by means of a dirty piece of string that was wound round the pen at least a dozen times and was strapped in place with yellowing Sellotape. No doubt it was proof against Jimmy and his quick fingers which, when he was swine-drunk, would lift an egg from a cloister. He had recently 'dipped' Carl for a green BIC pen and upon discovery, insisted that it was his.

While Carl had been gazing at the pen which Alexander hoped never to stoop to touch, not least because it was an instrument of the unwashed, the CA was waiting for him to produce his dole card. Finally he said: 'What's your name then, if you've forgotten it?'

'It's Carl--no, I haven't forgotten it,' Carl stammered and blushed.

'Carl what?'

'Carl, sir.'

'How do you spell it?'

'C...A...R...L. What does it matter?'

'Because you can't sign if we haven't got your name or signing card.' He used the official 'we'. 'How do you spell "Sir"?'

'I haven't come to sign anything. I've come from the UAO to deliver a message.'

The CA looked very puzzled and asked: 'Who?'

'The UAO: the Ultimate Adjudication Officer.'

'You want to see someone called that?'

'No, I've come from him.'

'What do you want?'

'His bust erected in this office.'

He sighed. 'Go to Enquiries at the end of the counter and you'll be seen to shortly,' he said impatiently. Carl shuffled over sheepishly, under the derisory scrutiny of those behind him in the queue who were annoyed at him holding them up. He pushed the button on the counter and was surprised to hear it play 'Hi Ho, Hi Ho, It's off to work we go....' It was a devil of a while before anybody came and he had to ring the bell twice more before a plain clerk, except that he deemed himself remarkable enough to grow a Clark Gable moustache, came to his attention. As the glass door slid open, Carl could just make out a man with a big, bushy red beard and long hair at a desk. The beard impressed itself even on Carl's dull mind as being an uncharacteristic excrescence of an office worker, but when Carl glanced in his direction again, the man had slipped away like a red fox.

'I've come from the UAO,' Carl began.

'Have you?' the clerk said, humouring him.

'You've heard of Alexander I, I take it?'

'Er, vaguely,' the clerk replied, thinking he was making reference to the Russian Tzar of that name.

'Well, he's my friend. He wants you to erect a bust of him in your office,' Carl went on, gaining in confidence when he thought the clerk knew and feared his potent friend Alexander Fleuret, whose ambassador he was.

'Oh, I see. We'll have to do something about that right away, then, if the emperor says so.'

'Emperor? How did you know he was an emperor? He told only me that.'

'Ah, well, unfortunately secrets get around when you're in the civil service,' said the clerk, wagging his finger. 'Tell me, how's Napoleon getting on these days?'

'Napoleon? He doesn't know anybody called Napoleon.'

'What do you want? Does your emperor want to sign the dole?'

'He says he'd rather poniard himself first. But I've just told you: he wants a bust of himself erected in this office and in every office in the country and he wants the watermarks on the Giros changed to be of him.'

'I didn't know they had watermarks in them, to be honest. Now, will you tell me what I can do for you?'

'I've already told you.'

'Look, I'm very busy. We're shortstaffed here, so if you haven't come for anything more mundane, I'll get back to work, if you don't mind.' With that, he left the same way he had come in and a couple of seconds' later he heard hoots of laughter coming from inside the office. Carl left in bewilderment, having been made the laughing stock of the place both inside and out.

The man with the red beard was next sighted by Jimmy, when he went to cite the case for the restoration of his friend's heating allowance, though this was at the social security office where Cockney Frank had been told to go. When Jimmy went in and quoted the authority of the UAO, the interviewer went away and was replaced by the man with the red beard, who questioned him in depth and wrote everything down that he said, asking him to sign a statement at the end. Finally he said: 'It will be looked into. You should be hearing from us--and don't worry, our informers are well rewarded.'

When subsequently Norman and Frankie turned up at the Social Security office, they too were interviewed in private by the same man. He said that he might be able to fix it for them, but that first they must produce written authorization signed by the UAO. When they came away to fetch it, both seemed pleased with what thorough service they had received. They put it down to the mentioning of the UAO's name.

Meanwhile, with Alexander and Creame still at variance with each other, Alexander refusing to even come out of the shed and Hoffman spending most of his time engrossed in parliamentary bills and other paperwork in his study, the rest of the parliament was dissolved in disarray. Numerous messages were passed between the two sides, with Carl acting as Alexander's ambassador and Patsy as Creame's. It was not for a lack of effort by Carl and Patsy, as they tried to persuade each other's masters into remission, that they did not make up. While they were not talking, the forms were removed, the throne demolished and the AOs began a steady exodus, some going back to their original constituencies and others rejoining their counterparts who had remained loyal to the first UAO crowned by the other side, each accompanied by an entourage of officers and attendants. It was an exigence that should have been foreseen and prevented.

By the time one of them broke the deadlock, the loyalist AOs in the UBO over the hill had built up their numbers to a dangerous level and could easily have mounted a crippling attack.

Furthermore, there was developing an excruciating differential of opinion between Creame and Alexander; both sides received opposing and conflicting reports of how successful their sessions had been: Carl had returned to Alexander with the report that he had not been taken seriously while Jimmy, Frankie and Norman had returned with gleeful optimism, asking Creame and Hoffman for written confirmation of their decisions. It was because Creame and Hoffman required the sign manual of the UAO that Patsy was sent to ask Alexander to reconsider his opinion and agree to a truce.

Alexander had all this time not been without company; Tileshed junior was still being held prisoner in the same shed where Alexander was staying and thus was given ample opportunity to win him over.

'Look,' Tileshed junior was saying, 'do you really think this will get us anywhere? Creame and all his high-flown ideas will be laughed at if they reach the ears of the ministers--which I doubt. If they do anything, it will be to send the boys up from the fraud squad in London and then at best, you'll be locked up in a mental institution.'

'I don't see how that necessarily applies, Mr Tileshed. According to Creame, they'll have no option but to accept me. It's written down in the law.'

'Don't tell me about the law. Don't you think it odd why you should be selected for the UAO? Why you of all people?'

'It was my father's secret. Creame promised to give me the number. I'm waiting for my National Insurance card.'

'You'll have a long wait, then. Only the Secretary of State can confer National Insurance numbers.'

'How's that?' Alexander asked naively.

'You can't just take away somebody's National Insurance number, any more than you can take away and use a car registration plate from somebody's car. It doesn't work that way.'

'Ah, but what you don't realize is that it belonged to no one in the first place,' Alexander said smugly, taking a few purposeful steps across the shed floor, feeling well-satisfied.

'And Creame just waved his magic wand and gave you this number, eh?'

'No, not exactly. You see, he pulled a few strings in the civil service.'

'Did he? All strictly above board, I suppose?'

'I'm sure.'

'Look here, if you know what's good for you, you'll come over to our side. You're in with a bunch of no-hopers here.'

'Where would I fit into your mob anyway? I bet you wouldn't let me be UAO over there.'

'I'll let you into a secret, shall I? When the news gets out that there's been a conflict between two UAOs, they might send up a team of investigators to find out what the hell's been going on. It might have already happened. If the situation looks threatening to the centralists, they might instruct each county to become autonomous--in which case your UAO policy is up the spout.'

'How's that?'

'There's a regulation that caters for it. You'd better ask Hoffman if you don't believe me. I'm surprised he hasn't told you. It goes something like this: "It the Ultimate Adjudication Officer acts irresponsibly, or if there is an insurrection in his officers the Secretary of State shall be empowered at any time and without prior notice to withdraw the Ultimate Adjudication Officer's powers and also to punish him accordingly".'

'If they try to remove me from power, I'll sell my story to the gutter press. They'll know all about what's been going on, including the deal that was made with Hecate forty years' ago.'

'The press wouldn't touch it. They're not that stupid.'

'As well as that, they'll have a blood bath on their hands.'

'The only blood that would be spilt would be yours. Apart from anything else, there'll be nobody else's blood to be spilt. They're deserting you in droves for the other side.'

'I've still got Hoffman and Onion and Yellowman--and probably Creame--on my side.'

'Yellowman's as much good as a chocolate fireguard--you saw him on the ship. He's a born coward. Onion will go wherever he thinks there's money when the chips are down, and so will Creame for that matter. They know they'll get nowhere with you as UAO: even Carl will tell you that.'

'In that case, why did you take the trouble to throw mud at me?'

'We didn't know your capabilities at the time. As far as we were concerned, you posed a genuine threat to our sovereign. I was sent to dethrone you. I thought that the best way I could do that would be to provoke you into chasing after me and turn the procession into a farce, but you yourself took care of that yourself. But what I also didn't realize was that you were too thick-skinned for it to be effective. Before I could rally a more effective assault, my driver deserted me. They must have planned to let me be the fall guy.'

'You will apologize for that remark--about me being thick-skinned.'

At that moment, muttering was heard outside the shed at the door burst open and Creame marched in. He was carrying the magic wand that Tileshed junior had seen on his desk in the DSS.

'Come on. We'll start on a fresh footing. Let's go,' he invited Alexander, jerking his head back to indicate somewhere outside.


'I'll tell you later, but it's the big one. You'd better bring a crucifix. We might need it.'

Tileshed junior, who was also making for the door, was stopped with, 'Not you, Tileshed. You're staying here.'

At the moment they chose to leave, Patsy was just about to string Alexander up by his feet for breaking his toilet, which had suffered damage when the throne was demolished, but it was without his knowledge that Creame was taking Alexander on that sublime mystery tour.

Hoffman had been trying to instruct Yellowman to play chess. Hoffman's chess was more complicated than ordinary chess. As well as retaining all the conventional pieces, he had added a third row where the pawns normally would have been, in between the pawns and the back row. In this row were pieces of Hoffman's own fantastical invention, such as Crabs, which were a kind of sideways moving pawn, those on the right half of the board moving to the left and those on the left moving right; Starfish, which could move like a king but twice as far; Boxes, which could only move at right angles to the previous direction they had moved (a feat for memory, or paper); and in the 3D game, Rockets, which could only move up; Bombs, which could only move down; and Yo-yos, which could move up and down.

Although Yellowman could barely play ordinary chess, Hoffman was trying to teach him 'Hoffman Chess' as the game progressed, by trial and error. It was no easy task. Hoffman hadn't had the chance to try out the 3D version yet, because, since in the 2D version the board was 64 squares by 64, instead of the normal eight, making a total of 4,096 squares, as well as occupying the whole table, they had been playing the same game for nearly a year and were still nowhere near finishing it.

'Crab takes Spike: tertiary check,' Hoffman declared as he moved one of the leaden pieces he had cast himself, knocking over another piece with it and removing it from the board.

'How did you manage that? I thought that was a left Crab, not a right one,' Yellowman said, completely baffled.

'In addition to the distraction provided by this, any noise the van made in leaving would have been likely to have been masked by the sound of workmen at the nunnery's gates.

'Did you hear a van?' Yellowman asked Hoffman as Hoffman was taking his Jellyfish with a Crab; but Hoffman was too engrossed in the game to listen, let alone reply, so Yellowman let it rest.

Jimmy was at that moment entertaining Norman and Frankie with drunken impressions with a walking stick he had found. He had achieved a smooth, seamless transition from the Long John Silver, through the Godfather to the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Consequently in their amusement they also failed to notice the van leaving.

The clerks also were playing a game. Several of them had become proficient in working out games and puzzles with matches in their boredom at work and it was they who kept sending them in to be printed on the back of matchboxes.

'I think I could be made a saint if we pull this one off,' Creame said optimistically as they were leaving the nunnery behind them.

'And perhaps you could recommend that I be at least beatified,' Alexander rejoined.

Creame sneered as he said: 'I doubt it; not with a juice that ugly.'

'What?' asked Alexander.


'Where are we off to? You're always driving somewhere but you never seem to get there.'

'When I get there, I go somewhere else.'

'Where are we off to then, Creame, for the second time?'

'For the second time? We haven't even been there a first time yet.'


'To see the Oracle.'

'The Oracle? Where's the Oracle and why are we going to see it?'

'It's necessary for the task before they declare UDI.'

'Eh? Who's going to declare UDI?'

'The ministers are. It's inevitable, of course.'

'Tileshed mentioned something about that, but I wasn't sure what he was talking about. I thought it was a ruse.'

'Tileshed? Which Tileshed?' Creame said, taking both hands from the steering wheel and jerking the van forward a couple of times while he looked round expectantly at Alexander.

'Tileshed in the shed.'

'Tileshed in the shed? It's Tileshed out of the shed--his father--that we've got to worry about.'


'Why? Because he's a bludy RAO!'

'How do you know?'

'Well, he might not be a self-confessed RAO--none of them is--but nevertheless it's almost a certainty. All he has to do is approach a minister, ask for UDI and Bob's your uncle....I'm sure Bob's a general dealer now.'

'What are we going to do?'

'We're going to get there before he does.'

'Where? Surely we're not going to the minister directly?'

'You've got it.'

'Oh, my God,' said Alexander, wiping his brow, 'that's miles away!'


'No? Where is he? I thought they were all clustered in the Home Counties.'

'Ah, big mistake, that man. They're based at the Centre of Gravity.'

'At where? Do you mean the centre of the earth?'

'That's not what I said, is it?'

'You'll have to stop talking in riddles and answer me directly, if I'm to understand,' Alexander said, folding his arms and looking straight out of the side window.

'What do you want to know?' Creame snapped.

'Where are we going?'

'To see the Oracle.'


'To restore you to power.'


'By getting him to pass legislation.'

'Is this Oracle one of the devil's ministers you were telling me about when we were up the Wall?'

'You might have been up the Wall; I certainly wasn't. Yes, Hecate's minister, at any rate.'

'And he wields power over the government ministers?'

'Yes, as well as the Secretary of State for Social Services. He acts as an intermediary between the demon he serves and the ministers.'

'So we are going to see him to tell him not to let Tileshed lobby MPs for UDI?'

'Something like that. Hecate's minister is a Free Spirit. He sometimes doesn't have a body and therefore he's likely to be invisible.'

'You mean we're going after a ghost?'

'In a manner of speaking.'

'Where is he?'

'At the Centre of Gravity of Britain, taking into account the curvature of the earth, of course.'

'What on earth's that?'

'Surely you know what a centre of gravity is!' Creame blurted out.

'Oh, look, you know I'm no good at technical stuff.'

'It corresponds to a balancing point in a small object. In a massive object in certain circumstances it's the same.'

'Yes, all right. Can you explain it in plain English.'

'I'm not exactly explaining it in Swahili now. Take a map of Britain, glue it onto a piece of cardboard and cut round it. You understand that much?' he said patronizingly. 'Then you try to balance it on a pin-head.'

'Gosh! I would think that would take forever.'

'It did. That's why I was up all night, trying to do it and I still didn't manage to get it perfect.'

'But you know approximately where it is?'


'How are you going to find him, if you can't see him?'

'Why do you think I've brought this wand? I may have to charm him out of the ground.'

'Eh?' boomed out Alexander, sitting upright in his seat for the first time since the start of the journey and glancing back at Creame with a puzzled smile.

'It might also come in handy if we have to dowse for him.'

They drove through the countryside apace and Alexander was beginning to nod off as dusk was creeping in, when Creame stopped. Alexander opened his eyes and said: 'What is it?'

'We've arrived,' he replied starkly.

'What do we do now?'

'Now we go in. We haven't much time, though. I'm expecting the ministers to show up at any time. Tonight's one of the nights that they come.'

'How do you know that?'

'They use Stonehenge and the moon as a calendar.'

'How do you know that?'

'It says so in the regulations.'

'God! It sounds weird.'

'It is,' Creame admitted, smacking his lips and thumping the steering wheel dramatically. He added, 'Did you know that the AOs are descended from Druids?'

'No, I didn't, actually. Tell me more,' said Alexander, squinting studiously.

'It's a closed shop--you know that, don't you?--Yes, see, the AOs' ancestors were the first to strike the protocol of the Faustian bargain with the ministers of Hecate when they were Druids. Since being Druids, they have held a variety of responsible positions, finally ending up as AOs in the DSS. Naturally the government grew chary over this, because they feared sedition, so they struck a deal with Hecate's ministers, that provided a safety net so that if the AOs ever ran amuck, the government ministers could quell them by the appointment of the Ultimate Adjudication Officer of their choice. They were mindful to achieve this by leaving the National Insurance number of the intended UAO unfilled until it was needed. As an additional safety measure, in case the UAO betrayed them, they made arrangements with their fiendish counterparts for every archdiocese to declare UDI in such an event, being governed from then on solely by the RAOs of those regions. The UAO would then be anathematized by the DSS. That's what may befall you.'

'What can I do?' Alexander suddenly burst out.

'I'll do my best, don't worry.'

'You know what I have is yours, don't you? Whatever little power I can hold onto I'll be willing to delegate to you. I don't want it. I'm getting too old for this sort of thing.'

'You've said enough to convince me.' He reached into the glove compartment for a bar of chocolate, which he broke in half, offering half to Alexander.

'What's that for?'

'To eat.'

'Oh...right...thanks very much.' For a couple of moments they ate silently observing the landscape in front of them. They were situated quite high up in the hilly countryside with only a few rustic outbuildings scattered for as far as they could see, which was delimited by the gathering darkness rather than the horizon.

When Creame had finished his snack, he licked his fingers and wiped them on a pair of overalls on the floor. He was already lighting up a cigarette when he said: 'Right, lets see what we've got here,' hauling a haversack from behind his seat and tipping its contents out on the seat between them. He handed Alexander the wand, a bottle of petrol, a bottle of turpentine substitute, a bottle of water, a Bible, a rolled-up carpet and yet the haversack had not been completely evacuated.

'Good. That's all I need for now. Are you ready? Get out and close the door and I'll lock it.' He put the things back in the haversack and gave it to Alexander.

Alexander got out clumsily and Creame reached over and locked the door. Then he drove forward. Alexander became near hysterical with the thought that he was going to leave him there, but was vastly relieved to see that Creame's only intention was nothing more sinister than to park it in a sheltered spot. When he switched the headlights off, darkness resumed.

'Have you got the crucifix I asked you to bring?'

'Oh, I think I forgot.'

'I asked you just as you were leaving. We'll just have to manage on some prayers and holy water.'

While Alexander was considering this, a piercing note cleft the air nearby.

'The bludy alarm!' Creame yelled as he strolled briskly round the side of the van to attend to it. He liked to set off the alarm on a regular basis and often used it to alert people he was visiting.

Alexander came staggering towards him clutching and thumping his chest and breathing rapidly. His nerves were already jangling and now he thought he was having a heart attack.

'Right, grab the haversack and let's get doing. I think I can see the lake,' Creame said when calm was restored.

'Are we going for a swim?' Alexander asked naively.

'You can, I'm not. If I'm right, it's the same lake Patsy had his eye on. There's an island in the middle he wanted to buy to breed snails on.'

Alexander thought of the Weed Installation, Maintenance and Preservation Society of the Sunny People and was prompted to ask, 'Is he going to throw them into people's gardens?'

Creame shot him a withering look. 'Why should he do that? No, he wants to sell them as delicacies. He steals them from people's gardens late at night by torchlight. The exotic ones only feed on certain plants. Patsy climbs into the gardens which grow these plants. He doesn't usually get caught because the gardens he frequents are usually very big and he disguises himself with his habit as a hedgehog, though really he looks more like a big black beetle.'

'Why doesn't he ask for them? I'm sure the owners would be only too glad to be rid of them.'

'He doesn't want to let the cat out of the bag, does he? About their worth, I mean. Obviously if their owners thought they were worth anything, they might try to sell the snails themselves, to him or to anyone else and the bottom would fall out of the market.'

'How on earth does he not get caught? I would have thought he's rather big to pass himself off as a hedgehog.'

'Well, the disguises are a last resort. He only uses them when he's been spotted. The only time I can remember him saying he had to use it was when he was in a very small back garden late at night. Suddenly a light came on in the kitchen and an old woman appeared at the window. He froze, not knowing what to do. He knew that if he moved, there would be a good chance of him drawing attention to himself, so there he was, rooted to the spot, when he heard the key turning in the lock of the back door.

'Realizing the game was up, he crouched down on all fours and began grunting and snuffling about like a hedgehog whilst making for the fence, hoping the biddy was dim-witted or short-sighted or both. He must have thought himself to be in a larger garden, where perspective would have made him look smaller. He realized it hadn't worked when the door was flung open and the Hound of the Baskervilles came bounding after him. Before he had time to clear the fence, the dog had sunk its gnashers into his backside and had torn away a chunk of flesh and left a hole in his habit.'

Alexander laughed until Creame told him to shut up, as they were walking in the direction of the lake, with Alexander following blindly in his footsteps.

'Be silent now. Follow me and do as I do.'

They came to the lakeside before Alexander realized he was in its vicinity. Creame was standing beside him. Both gazed at the dark serpents mirrored on the mahogany surface of the water.

'We must seek the Oracle.'

'Yes, I know.'

'Be quiet! We must see the Oracle. We must seek him here, in the lake. I want you to look deep into those waters while I'm away and tell me what you see when I come back.'

'You're going away?' Alexander asked, surprised, as he broke from gazing at the black, spangled water.

'Yes, I must look around. Keep gazing. Don't let yourself be distracted. "Save me, O God; for the waters are come into my soul".'

'Yes, but where are you going?'

'I won't be long. Hoot like an owl if you see anything strange or if you get frightened and need me,' he was already vanishing into the darkness like a train in a tunnel.

'Oh, my God, I'm so scared! Scared and cold. I wish I was in bed,' Alexander said to himself. Suddenly his reflection seemed to be sprouting horns, which branched like a stag's and began to wriggle. He was engrossed in watching with abhorrence this ghastly phantasm when a low voice said from behind: 'See anything?'

Alexander nearly jumped out of his skin and into the lake.

'What's up? Has something frightened you?' It was Creame's voice. He had been standing behind him wiggling his fingers above Alexander's head. Alexander, who did not want to admit that he had been scared by a shadow, said: 'Yes, yes, I saw something.'

'What was it?'

'It was horrible!'

'What was he, that usurp'st this time of night?' Creame intoned.


'What was it?'

'It...er...defies description.'

'Try me.'

'It was only a fleeting glimpse I had of it. It was of a pale, grim face. It had a shock of fire-red hair and burning sea-green eyes. It had no body,' Alexander lied, giving Creame a superabundant description of Creame himself.

'You'll have to appease it,' was Creame's verdict.

'You mean a sacrifice?'

'Right on, sister. Now, take your clothes off so that I don't have to undress you before I sacrifice you.'

Alexander started back and said almost incredulously: 'You wouldn't, would you? Please tell me you're joking.'

'Maybe it won't be necessary after all. There's a big slimy monster slithering out of the water behind you.'

Alexander glanced round but, seeing nothing, looked back at Creame and said scornfully: 'You would stab me in the back, is that it?'

'Don't be stupid. Get out of the water, before a spirit gets you.' Creame kneeled down and appeared to be examining something on the ground. 'It'll do,' he finally pronounced after feeling it.

'What is it, may I ask?'

'It's polystyrene. I'm going to make a fire boat with it.'

'I beg your pardon? I want nothing to do with it if that's what you're up to. I happen to think they're despicable and abhorrent weapons of war--ooh! don't scrape it like that! It goes right through me.'

'I've got to, okay? I must pare bits off it and hollow bits out for a mast,' he was working at it vigorously with a small pen-knife.

'What's it for, if you don't mind me asking?'

'It's a sacrifice to the spirit of the waterhole. We must play it their way and sacrifice fire to water, see?'

Creame had managed to stick a branch into the middle of the polystyrene and had turned a paper bag he had found lying into a sail, thereby making it into a raft.

'Hand me the turps.'

Alexander handed him the bottle.

'Are you sure that this is the turps? We'll bludy well know about it if this is the bludy petrol.' He sniffed at it and when he was satisfied, he lightly sprinkled it over the raft until it was soused.

'Matches,' he demanded, holding out his hand as if for a surgical instrument.

'I haven't got them.'

'Well where the bludy hell are they? I thought I gave them to you.'

'I think you left them in the van after you lit your cigarette.'

'Go and fetch them, please,' Creame said levelly.


Creame eyed him fixedly for a moment, sighed and said: 'You stay here and I'll go, if you're scared.'

'Like hell I am! Give me the keys,' Alexander shouted.

Creame threw him the keys but they landed in the mud. Alexander crouched down to look for them but after several minutes, he had to admit he couldn't find them.

'This isn't going at all well. It could be an ill-omen,' Creame said as he sat down cross-legged at the side of the lake and waited as Alexander combed the area again.

'We need a light. There's only one thing for it.' With that he rose and gathered in a few reeds that were growing in the lake. He thrust one in Alexander's face and found it very amusing when Alexander took a swipe at it, thinking it was a moth. Creame plucked and parted the feathery substance from the tips he intended to use as combustible material, setting some of this around the mast of the raft and apportioning the rest of it to another fire he intended to make. Next he set about making a bow to turn the mast round in the hole to start a fire.

He had been turning the stick round and round in the hole for some time when he said: 'We'll have to scrub that idea.'

'Where are we going to sleep, Creame?'

'We haven't come here to sleep, we've come here to perform a task before dawn. I've just thought of something.'


'Watch,' Creame said as he dipped the wand in the lake three times and sprinkled water over the boat. 'Now try looking for the keys.'

Alexander looked again but he still did not find them.

'We'll have to try something else instead. Our time's running out.'

'What would you suggest?'

'I would suggest that we denude ourselves and run round the lake in opposite directions as fast as we can. Where we meet, that will tell us where to look for the keys.'

'Oh, my God, Creame, have some restraint. There's absolutely no way that I would ever even urinate in a public place, let alone run about like a fucking monkoid!'

'A what? Oh, well...it was a suggestion. Forget it then,' he said sulkily. With that he fumbled around in his pocket and produced a lighter and lit a fire, casting off the raft when it was fully alight. It drifted gracefully across the Stygian water, which it illuminated as it burned brightly and noiselessly.

'You had a lighter on you all the time, then?'

'So what?' Creame asked starkly.

'So why did you make all that hugger-mugger over nothing?' Alexander asked, rubbing out the creases in his brow that were put there by exasperation.

'What hugger-mugger? I made no hugger-mugger. I'm just low on gas.'

The boat burned brightly but soon went out when the turps had burned, though Creame said this did not matter, as long as it was burning when it left the shore.

'That's the Night Boat dealt with; next comes the Day Boat,' Creame said, standing up and rubbing the soil from his hands.

'Ra and Osiris?'



'The water, quick! Pass the water!'

Alexander rummaged through the haversack he was carrying for Creame and handed him the plastic pop bottle, hoping that it wasn't the one with the petrol in it, as it was too dark to see what was in it and Creame seemed to be too impatient to wait while he examined it more properly. That was confirmed when Creame snatched it from him and unscrewed the top with all the desperation of Jimmy grabbing a bottle of plonk. He took a long, loose swig at it; finally his wet drawing lips left the rim of the bottle and he gulped in a draught of air like a drowning man. He stood, poised with the half-empty bottle in his hand.

'Undulu!' he yelled as he swung it through the air and let it go. Alexander was too bewildered by this to say anything.

'I've cast a spell.'


'I drunk as much as I could manage in one go and waited for the word.'

'You waited for the word?'

'Yes, the word that comes up through the ground. I had to wait until just the right moment, until I could feel it travelling through my legs. That was the word I shouted straight out while making the sacrifice.'

'Creame, I do wish you wouldn't prevaricate such. I just don't know what to make of it all.'

'Shh!' Creame cupped his hand to his ear.

'Did you hear anything?' he asked after an interval of silence, now cupping his ear to the wind.

'No--should I?'

'Shh!...Keep listening. You might hear it yet.'

A few minutes' later, a dog's bark came filtering through on the wind.


'What does it mean?'

'It means that our sacrifice has been accepted by the spirit of the waterhole.'

'And what does that mean?'

'Nothing in particular. I may have increased power for a while, though, as a result; then again, I may not.'

'Increased power to do what?'

'To overpower adversaries,' he said as though explaining the obvious.

'What happens if you don't...if you don't have enough power?'

'Then it could spell the end for both of us.'

'Do we have to go on?' Alexander asked apprehensively.

'I'm afraid we do, old chap. There's no turning back now. "So steeped in blood..." and so on and so forth.'

'How will you know you've got enough power?'

'The only way I can tell is to endure...the Night of Terror,' he said gravely.

'A Night of Terror? I don't much care for that. When is it?'

'Could be tonight.'

Alexander shuddered involuntarily.

'Look inside that haversack. You should see a pair of pliers.'

'Yes, I've got them here.'

'Give them to me.'

'What are they for?'

Creame seemed to take umbrage at this question and he said: 'From now on, don't ask silly questions. Just stick close by my side and do what I tell you. Got it?'

Alexander nodded reluctantly but Creame did not perceive this in the darkness and he mistook the silence for surliness.

'Look, we're dealing with unknown forces that could swallow us up and send us packing to another sphere in the bat of an eye. Do as I say and you'll be in with a chance. Do you follow me?' Creame felt the need to explain.

'I know you're an experienced exorcist,' Alexander sneered, as he did not like being looked down on. Creame was busy grappling with the pliers in a contorted sort of way, nearly tying his arms in knots in the process while he was grasping the wand between his teeth. He finally settled on holding each handle with the opposite hand, forearms crossed.

'Follow me,' he mumbled through the wand. He was divining for sorcerers.

Having stumbled along in this manner for some time, with Creame holding the pliers straight out in front of him without a twitch and Alexander following, his arms suddenly began to jerk spasmodically.

'Look!' he shouted. A bat was flitting overhead. '"Ere the bat hath flown his cloistered flight..."--What did I tell you? Keep your eyes on it. We must follow it. It's our guide into the spirit world.' Creame's voice had become very raspy.

'It went over there, behind that hill,' Alexander pointed out.

'We must follow. Come on...jog.' Creame set the pace and expected Alexander to keep up with him. Alexander tried his best but tripped over in the dark and cried out.

'Are you all right?' Creame came back and regarded him as insipidly as a roadside tramp.

'God...I don't know,' he replied, shaking his head. 'I can't run like you in the dark.'

'No, of course not. I was forgetting you haven't learned the Mosquito Dance.'

'The Mosquito Dance?' Alexander got up and was trying his ankle.

'It's a way of running in the dark. Remind me to teach it to you sometime. It would take too long now. We'll walk from here.'

'I'm glad to hear that. It's this heavy haversack filled with junk that's making it so difficult.'

'Junk? Junk!' Creame trilled. 'That's not junk! The tools of sorcery are in there. Look though!'

A gleam of light had diffused into the sky from behind a hill in front of them.

'What is it? Do you think it's a spaceship?' Alexander asked, overawed.

'No. Don't be so fanciful. You don't believe in that twaddle, do you?'

'It certainly isn't the sunrise. We can't have been out two hours,' Alexander remarked, glancing at his watch.

'Is that all? We're making good time then.'

'For what? Good time for what?'

'You'll see. Don't ask questions.'

Creame asked for his Bible as they advanced, taking it in his right hand while he held the wand in his left.

'This could be dodgy,' he warned, tapping the two together.

'How do you mean?'

'It's rumoured that the ministers are guarded.'

'Who guards them?'

'It could be one of two things that I know of...maybe three.'

'What are they?'

'Oh, you wouldn't want me to tell you.'

'Yes I do. Tell me!'

'First there's the Seven-legged Octopus.'

'What happened to its other legs?' Alexander asked humoursomely.

'It didn't have another leg. But its seven hundred times more deadly than the normal, eight-legged ones, and ten times bigger.'

'What will we do if we meet it?'

'Oh,' Creame shuddered. 'If we meet it, it will be a terrible thing. Our only hope would be to charm it.'


'By dancing with it.'

'Dancing with it! Are you serious?'

'Never more serious. I told you we're not dealing in normal spheres, didn't I?'

'What happens if you succeed?'

'It goes back into the water and it means we're through to the next round. We live to fight again.'

'What's the next stage?'

'The second stage is the Chinese dragon.'

'Good grief! What do you have to do with that?'

'Get where it can't reach you.'

'You mean like up a tree, or something?'

'Oh no! It can get you there just as easily as it can get you on the ground. It can fly.'

'Can it? So how do you conquer it?' asked Alexander, by this time sure that Creame was demented. He responded by humouring him and preparing to make a run for it if things got too bad. He was unaware that Creame was just trying to scare him whilst making himself look brave and wise.

'You have to go where it can't get you.'

'And where's that?' Alexander said.

'On its back. It's rumoured that it can't bend back on itself. You have to ride it until it wears itself out.'

'Then what?'

'Did I say two or three things? Oh, yes, I remember now! Yes, the third one is the Blue Tits.'


'Yes. If the Blue Tits come for you, whatever you do, resist the temptation to fly away with them. Their song is so sweet and alluring that if you're not careful, you'll find yourself starting to rock backwards and forwards and then you'll fly away with them, never to be seen again. That's what started the American Civil War.'

'Gosh! Are there any more?'

'One more. It's the strongest and most deadly of them all. I didn't want to mention it.'

'It must be bad. What is it?'

'It's likely to be there tonight. It's the police force itself.'

Chapter Twenty-one

'The police force? You're surely kidding,' Alexander said.

'Look over there! There they are!'

They saw what they had come for when they peeled over the hill. They were at the precipice of a disused quarry. Far below them sat a squat, bald man. He was surrounded by distinguished-looking figures in grey suits.

'The government ministers,' Creame whispered.

To see these dozen, sublime, silver-haired politicians, who would have looked uncomfortable to have been seen even sunbathing in public, begriming their suits and their crocodile shoes by squatting in the mire in so obsequious a manner was as anomalous as to have seen Jimmy, Norman, Frankie and Billy Buck instated in their offices.

A rough road led up from the centre of the whorl where they were sitting, which was partially blocked with a long low line of shiny black limousines. Forming a cordon round them were dozens of squat police cars with their headlights directed to the centre. Policemen were lounging on the bonnets of their cars.

'E pluribus unum,' said Creame.

'Is this a dream? I didn't think such things went on,' said Alexander, bewildered.

'No, it's real. That's what I've been trying to tell you. Wake up and realize that these things go on.'

'Should we go down and ask them what's going on?' Alexander asked, thinking that no atrocities could be perpetrated against them in front of so many policemen.

'No. That's the very last thing we ought to do. If we don't get arrested, we'll be shot as a security risk.'

'They can't do that.'

'Can't they? You'd be surprised at what goes on.'

'What do we do about it? Do we have to sit here all night?' Alexander asked bitterly.

'Yes, if that's what's required. They won't be here all night, though. They'll depart long before dawn; not only do they rely on the cover of darkness for secrecy, but it's said that the Oracle's powers decline at about that time.'

'Is that the Oracle down there in the middle?' asked Alexander, pointing at the bald man.

'Down there is the bodily form of a Free Spirit.'

Alexander was standing up to take a look, when Creame pulled him down again by the seat of his pants, to get him out of their line of sight, saying that they were bound to be equipped with night sights and sniffer dogs.

They settled down for a long vigil, but when the sky began to lighten, Alexander found that Creame was asleep and that he had to shake him to wake him.

'What is it? Has one of my alarms gone off?' he said blearily upon waking, thinking he was being called out in the small hours of the morning to service one of his alarms that had been set off by burglars.

'Er, no, it's not quite that,' Alexander explained. 'I think they're getting ready to leave.'

'Who are?'

'The ministers.'

'What ministers?...Oh, yes. I remember. How long have I been asleep and why didn't you wake me? Never mind. What's happening over there?'

The ministers stood up and were brushing the dust away from their suits; car doors were being slammed as the police prepared to escort them away. Voices were heard as the meeting broke up and they bade farewell to each other and each departed in his own car. The motorcade struggled up the track, crunching gravel loudly, being led by three police cars in the rearguard.

'Rich pigs,' Alexander spat out. 'I wish I could have planted a bomb down there before they came.'

'It wouldn't have done any good.'

'I'd love to have gone down there with a machete and hacked their heads off.'

'You wouldn't have managed to get one of them before they shot you down like a mad dog.'

'Huh! I didn't see anybody carrying guns.'

'They'll have been carrying them in shoulder holsters,' Creame explained.

'Most of the policemen down there were too old and fat to stop me before I got to the ministers,' Alexander puffed.

'Don't kid yourself. They were probably senior policemen. It doesn't take a lot of strength to pull a gun and use it. The aim is what counts. Besides, the ministers were probably wearing bullet-proof vests.'

When the ministers had gone, they crept down the side of the quarry, rolling helplessly on the loose rubble. As there was nowhere to hide and they were making so much noise, it would have been impossible not to have been noticed by the Oracle, were he a corporeal being of the dullest perception, much less a sorcerer as Creame made out; yet despite this, he seemed totally disinclined to notice them as he stood up from his squatting position and began to hunt for things on the ground about him.

'What on earth's he doing?' Alexander asked.

'I don't know, but I aim to find out.'

They kept advancing and were almost within shouting distance of him when he disappeared. One moment he was there, the next he was not.

'The devil,' Creame exclaimed loudly.

The spot where he had been sitting bore no trace of him, except where he had been picking dandelion heads and the sap was still fresh; they wouldn't have noticed, except that Creame insisted on finding out what he was taking off the ground.

'I can't understand it. He was here a minute ago, surrounded by the entire cabinet, and now he's gone. Was I dreaming?' Alexander asked, examining the spot where Creame was kneeling over and then straightening up scratching his petite chin as he looked about him.

'There are more things in Heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy, Horatio...Alas!...poor Bivouac, I knew him well.'

'Knew him well?' Alexander quibbled.

'Well what?'

'Well, where is he?'

'He's dead....Oh, the sorcerer, you mean? I don't know.'

'What does he want with dandelion heads?'

'Ah, these sorcerer fellows are queer types. He seems to have left the full-blown flowers and only to have picked those with the fluff on them.'

'Why would you say that is?'

'Oh, now we're speculating, aren't we? If he's a wildman, he might want it to line his coat with.'

'Why?' Alexander asked, blinking rapidly.

'To keep him warm. Or he might make a potion out of them.'

'It could be for his budgie. He might want the seeds or the down for a nest. Or he may be working against the Weed Installation, Maintenance and Preservation Society,' posited Alexander.

Creame didn't respond to this, because he was busy unfolding what looked like a circular carpet.

'What are you doing?'

'Haven't you seen a portable magic circle before?'

'No, I can't say I have--a magic circle, you say?'

'That's what it is. It has to protect us in case he tries it on with the funny business.'

'What funny business?'

'Haven't you ever heard of "Noddy" suits? Suits for Nuclear, Biological and Chemical warfare? Well, this is ours for spiritual warfare--this, and my vestments.'

'Do you think he'll use that?'

'Quite possibly. Look! He's over there!' Creame was pointing at some gorse bushes at the side of the quarry and although it was not quite full daylight, it was light enough to convince Alexander that had there been anyone there, it would not have escaped his notice.

'I see nothing.'

Creame appeared disappointed and said: 'He's disappeared again. I'm sure he was there a minute ago.'

'What was he doing?'

'Do you see that clearing in the bushes? He was in there, waving and pointing at the ground.'

'What could that mean?'

'It could mean that there's something buried there that he wants us to find.'

'Are you going to look for it?'

'We are. Come on, and bring the magic wand. I might need it.'

Alexander hurriedly folded the magic circle which Creame had left as well and he had a job to stuff it into the haversack, by which time Creame was well ahead of him. The area of gorse he referred to was practically unreachable without a great deal of pain; so dense was the furze that there was no easy way in.

'Is all this really necessary, Creame? I mean, there might be nothing in there. What on earth do you expect to find?' he grumbled.

'How should I know until I've found it? I hope that sacrifice stands me in good stead.' Creame waded in, gritting his teeth and crying out at being scratched, stabbed and prickled. When he reached the spot, he stooped down and was nearly out of sight for a long time so that Alexander thought he might have become impaled over one of the branches.

'Creame? Creame? Are you okay?' he shouted.

Creame did not respond, but continued to dangle there like a drowned man. Once he mumbled something indistinct and then he dropped out of sight. Alexander had just about given him up for dead and was bracing himself for an onslaught through the prickles, but Creame stood up again. He looked as if he had seen a ghost.

'Creame! What on earth's the matter? Are you all right?'

Creame was staggering back like a zombie, his normally peachy face was chalk-white, his lips were quivering as if praying fervently and his eyes trying to burst from their sockets.

'What happened?' Alexander called out, running forward to break his imminent fall.

'I've discovered his lair. It's the real Mc.Coy. It's where he lives during the day.'

Alexander let out a gasp as he helped Creame lie on the ground.

'Loosen my collar, will you?' he requested feebly as he lay back on the cool, sparse, dewy grass. 'Ah, that's okay. Give me a moment or two.'

A moment later, Creame sat up and pronounced that he felt slightly re-invigorated and narrated what had happened in the gorse.

'I've stumbled across the very gates of Hell. I nearly fell into it. It's a bottomless pit. I dropped a stone in it and could not hear it hit the bottom. I shouted, "Hello!" and what do you think came back at me?...A man's voice! Next I shouted down, "Do you know who I am?" and what do you think the reply was?'

'I've no idea; please go on.'

'The reply was, "Do you know who I am?" exactly as I said it. Odd, isn't it?'

'That was your echo speaking,' Alexander said scornfully, rather disappointed; 'and last night was probably only a dream. I wouldn't be surprised if I woke up soon.'

'Oh, I see. It was my echo that said I'd hung a tortoise, then?'

'Pardon?' Alexander boomed out, not quite believing what he was hearing, especially in the light of all the strange antecedents.

'I'm telling you he accused me of hanging a tortoise when I was a kid.'

'And did you?'

'That's not the point. The point is, How did he know about it? I told no one. He told me something else. The underground voice, at any rate, shouted up that I should form a tribunal to take his place and that he would fix it with the ministers next time he saw them. The tribunal is to consist of one man to represent the rich, another man to represent the poor and a third man to represent the union of the rich with the poor. Furthermore, he stated that if each party was properly represented, that we would never vanquished be until there were less than three in the tribunal.'

'And did he say who was to form this tribunal?' asked Alexander sceptically.

'He said that you were to represent the rich.'

'Me? Oh, good God! I'm not rich. How can I represent the rich? I hate the rich!'

'And I'm to represent the poor,' Creame added and shrugged indifferently.

'That's more of the job I would have liked.'

'But he declined to suggest who should represent the union between the rich and the poor.'

'So it could be anyone?'

'I suppose so. Well, not just anyone: it's a very important rôle: we need somebody who's understanding, temperate and--most important of all--who can reconcile different and conflicting points of view.'

'Mr Patsy's been in both boats, hasn't he, Creame?'

'Yes, that's what I was thinking myself. He's been a rum-swigging mercenary and a nun in his time. But, speaking of boats, we'll have to sail the Day Boat and then get the hell out of here while we still have the chance.'

For the Day Boat, the Night Boat was re-used, having been only scorched, but this time Creame turned it upside down, rigged up another sail and poured the petrol over it. He asked Alexander to light it. Thinking it would burn as before, Alexander put a match to it and was immediately engulfed in a ball of flame. Even though it was too small and brief to have serious consequence, Alexander insisted in letting out wild and torturous screams as he rolled about in the water, yelling for Creame to put him out. When he was sure that he was no longer alight, he stood up, a soaking, muddy mess.

'Something must have gone wrong. It didn't do that before. All I can think of is that it's been bewitched by that sorcerer. I've heard strange tales of evil spirits turning food into maggots. I doubt he'll have time to work on you to that extent, though. It would be me if it was going to be either of us. After all, I went right up to his lair. Well, let's get going.'

Alexander had begun to shiver in a flimsy manner normally reserved for his father. He was sullen and quiet in the van as they were driving back to Hoffman's to fetch Mr Patsy. Creame had managed to pick the Ford Transit's lock with Alexander's tie-pin.

The exterior of the nunnery was desolate. The crowds had gone home, the nuns had returned to their supernal activities and Hoffman and Yellowman had been out since the early morning and the civil servants had all defected. Only a solitary, stolid builder was carrying out his work. The builder was Mr Patsy, still dressed in the habit of a nun but without head-dress. He was trying to repair his toilet, which had caved in because of the extra bricks he had heaped on top. When he saw Creame and Alexander approaching, he approached them and appeared to be smiling, but Alexander soon realized that it was a grimace, when Mr Patsy threw himself unmitigatingly on him and began grappling with him on the ground.

'You'll ladder your tights,' Creame said poignantly as he watched, making no attempt to separate them. It was only when he decided that if it went on for any longer, it might attract unwelcome attention that he pulled Alexander off Mr Patsy and pinned his arms to his side, giving Mr Patsy free rein to lay into him, accusing him of breaking his toilet.

Creame told Mr Patsy what he was wanted for, so that he lost interest in beating Alexander and released him and he slunk off somewhere. He was still explaining it to Mr Patsy when Alexander came charging up behind Mr Patsy and smashed him over the head with a brick, rendering him unconscious.

'What did you do that for, you stupid bugger?'

'What did you expect? If you don't watch yourself, I'll do the same to you,' Alexander blustered, emboldened by his conquest.

'I wouldn't bank on that, sonny,' Creame replied, taking off Mr Patsy.

'We can still get the brick without him.'

'It just means he's going to be no damned good to us for a while--for a long while, at least, if you haven't killed the poor beggar.' He looked at Alexander, who seemed carried away with lunatic amusement at what he had done.

'If he threatens me again, I'll do the same again. I'm not a violent man, but when I'm provoked...Did I tell you of the thrashing I gave to my milkman once?' he said, grinning satiably.

They threw Mr Patsy's body in the back of the van and Creame sent Alexander to the nunnery's kitchen to beg food for his Grace. Alexander said that he had never begged anything in his life and that he wouldn't start now. He observed to say that it was required as an indefinite loan for a pilgrimage.

He came back carrying a bin-liner full of food.

'Why do you look so downcast?' asked Creame upon seeing how much he had obtained.

'Because it's all stale bread. They must have been ready to throw it out or feed it to the birds.'

'Some of this must be weeks old. Look at it!' Creame said, holding up a crust that was so mouldy that it could have been mistaken for blue cheese. 'Ugh! Even Mike would have had a hard time eating this.'

'Yes, I quite agree. Throw it away. Give it to the birds.'

'No, we'll give it to Mr Patsy. Did you get anything to drink?'

'No, but I've got something here in my top pocket. I don't drink, so you can have it. Here,' Alexander said conspiratorially, looking magnanimous as he handed Creame a miniature bottle of whisky. Creame accepted it, regarding it as though it were some quaint ornament. When he had appreciated it, he broke the seal and downed it in one.

'I needed a drink to go through with this one, old chap.'

'I bet Patsy's full of bruises when he wakes up, through being thrown about in the back there.'

'No doubt.'

'Serves the blighter right.'

'So'll my shoulder be, through humping him into the van. He must weigh fifteen stones. I hope I never have to carry his coffin, but if things go wrong for us, I'm sure I won't.'

'What are we going to do when we get there?' Alexander asked, casting nervous glances behind him in case Mr Patsy should wake up and seek his revenge.

'Sit and wait. There'll be another meeting, either tonight or tomorrow.'

They drove to where they had parked the van before. Due to Creame's unwonted generosity, they pulled up at a chip shop on the way and he bought them fish lots. It was a pleasure that Mr Goose would not miss, now he was dead, Creame thought whimsically. Often on a Sunday night before his Giro day, Mr Goose would be treated to some fish and chips, when he was penniless and starving, without even dried milk for his tea or a cigarette and licking his lips when looking at the dog food.

Alexander finished the fish lot in his usual, gulping manner while giving a running commentary on its delightfulness. Even so, Creame was the first to finish, grumbling about how unhealthy it was.

'Throw this lot outside, will you?' Creame said, handing him a greasy ball of newspapers.

'Can't we find a bin?'

'Why?' said Creame, giving him a piercing stare. 'Get rid of it. Just throw it out.'

'But I'll be messing the countryside up.'

'If you're so bludy concerned about the bludy countryside, then you should be bludy well out there cleaning it up, instead of playing Roman soldiers with Carl all day. Roll on the day when they make teams of the unemployed go about picking up litter all day. Make them work for their dole, that's what I say. They should even have mud huts all the way down the sides of motorways so that if an employed person's car breaks down, a team can emerge from the nearest hut and push it to the nearest garage.'

'I don't see why anyone should have to work,' Alexander retorted.

'Oh, you're going to make a good representative of the rich, aren't you?'

'You can be it. I've told you, I hate the rich!'

'It's impossible to exchange. It is decreed. You'll just have to do your best. Persecute them, if you can't do them any good. It seems to be the vogue.'

A grunt, then a feeble scrabble and then a long groan arose from the back.

'I think Patsy's coming round,' said Creame.

Patsy said: 'Who beat me up?'

'You beat yourself up, old chap,' Creame replied.

'I did what?' Patsy asked, unable to believe what was being said.

'Yes, don't you remember? You went to the toilet and started head-butting the wall and then the roof fell in on you. We had to pull you from under a pile of bricks.'

'I haven't felt this rough in years. I feel as though I've spent the night in a concrete mixer.'

'That's the way it goes,' Creame remarked, thinking it would make an interesting variation of his usual platitude of, This is it.

'And I did this all by myself, did I?' he asked, rolling up his shirt sleeves and frowning at the plethora of bruises appearing on his arm. 'I must pack a hell of a punch. There isn't one part of me that isn't covered in bruises. I hope I didn't break anything.'

'I've felt your punch before, remember? It was in the Rosedene when we tested each other's strength by punching each other in the stomach and I sent you flying across the table.'

'Yep, and I sent you flying across the bar and that Negro barman was going to knife us.'

'Yes, quite.'

'Maybe I should get treatment. I've had these attacks before.'

'Yes, I remember when you were out one night looking for hoodlums to beat up. You told me you couldn't find anyone so you beat yourself up.'

'Yes, I'm just glad I didn't stab myself. I was carrying a kitchen knife at the time.'

'And what about the time I took you and Alice for a Sunday ride all round the lakes. You both snuggled up to each other in the back like love-birds and it seemed to cheer you up no end. It came as quite a surprise when you threw a man in the lake.'

'Well, I recall he made a smart remark about my kipper tie.'

'Do you know why you're here? I've got a mission for you.'

'Oh, you should have said so sooner. That would have made the pain more bearable. What is it?'

'You'll have to guard a hole.'

'Oh, is that it?' Patsy's face slumped.

'The hole leads to an underground cave where a very dangerous sorcerer lives. You'll have to stop him if he comes out or goes in, whichever is the sooner. It may also happen that if he doesn't appear after a while, that I might give you instructions to go in and get the bastard. But you must wait until I give the word. Do you understand?'

'I just hope that you give it soon.'

'That is a strong possibility,' Creame conceded. 'Don't worry about food. There's plenty of scran in the bag and I'll be going for some water later on.'

When they got there, Creame led Patsy to the gorse where the sorcerer's den was situated, stopping short himself at the outskirts of the impediment while Patsy carried straight on through it without a wince of pain.

'He's a remarkably tough fellow, isn't he?' Alexander said as they watched.

'Yes, he's good to have around,' Creame agreed.

'He would have made a splendid centurion in the Roman army, to set the men an example.'

'No doubt,' Creame answered dryly.

'How's he going to answer the call of Nature? I mean, there aren't any latrines round here.'

'Yes, I've forgotten how much he likes a good stiff crap, especially in his own toilet. Perhaps he will be just as happy to do one down the hole.'

'That's abhorrent! He would never do that, would he?'

'What would you suggest: that he holds it in like Carl, for five weeks? No wonder he smells. It must be coming out his skin by now.'

'Let's change the subject. You're just trying to provoke me. When are the ministers due? Tonight, you say?'

'Tonight or tomorrow.'

'How are we going to deal with it?'

'Simple. You've already got your head shaven, right? And from a distance, you could probably be mistaken for the sorcerer.'

'What are you suggesting?' Alexander asked suspiciously.

'That you take the place of the Oracle and when the ministers turn up, I'll come down and tell them we're in charge now. You would be simply the bait to lure them down with.'

'Oh, I see. And what happens if the real Oracle turns up?'

'Hardly. Not with Patsy standing guard.'

'You promise that you'll come down the instant they show up? Why don't you just come down with me?'

'Because they're not likely to show up if they think there's a rabbit away.'

'What do I do if they try to shoot me?'

'Don't worry. I'll come straight to your rescue. You know me. They wouldn't last long under a barrage of holy water and if that fails, I'll throw the Book at them after I've read them Psalm 94.'

'Psalm 94? What's so special about that?'

'It'd scare the hell out of them: "Shall the throne of iniquity have fellowship with thee, which frameth mischief by a law?".'

'Oh, yes, I know you. Like the time you left me to starve like a dog on the beach.'

'This time it will be different. If I don't come down, you can tell them where I am.'

'What do I have to say to the ministers?'

'You don't have to say anything. Just sit there and hum.'

'You'd better not try to make me look like a fool.'

'Would I do such a thing?'

'You tried it with the Sunny People.'

'We didn't have any choice. I had to confirm where the location was where you were to be crowned UAO. But this is far greater. As UAO, you were only responsible for carrying out the laws made by the Oracle. Now you will have a hand in making them.'

At sunset, Alexander was persuaded to go down and sit where the Oracle had sat. It got dark and cold and Alexander got terrified. He began to shiver. Luckily he had managed to obtain a bottle of morphine at a chemist near the fish and chip shop, otherwise he wouldn't have had the nerve to go through with it. He found that if he nibbled at a sleeping tablet, it eased him even further.

To this extent, he was partially oblivious to his surroundings, until a cold wind roused him and made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. Hitherto, with his eyes shut a warm darkness was upon him and he felt almost as if he were tucked up in his own bed, but when he opened his eyes again, the sight of the bleak high walls of the quarry made him feel vulnerable and depressed his spirits.

A waxing golden light like the rising of the sun before his closed eyelids recalled him to sensibility. He opened them to another surprise. The golden light was dozens of pairs of car headlights moving into position all round him, on all sides, though in his barbarized state of mind these represented the infernal, glowing eyes of demons. Presently he heard a voice declare: 'All hail the Oracle of the DSS, thrice-favoured minister of Hecate.'

'Discarnate spirit, are you out of favour with any of us?' asked a man's voice that sounded elderly and suave. Alexander could now focus on several silhouetted figures before him against the headlights.

'Who are you?' he asked weakly.

'Do you not know? I am your counterpart in the government and these are the other apostates who are here as witnesses. Will you favour us with your first command?'

Alexander began to rally his senses. He could understand that they were government ministers awaiting orders. 'Will you obey me?'

'Of course, as is within my power to do so.'

'I want the watermark of the Giros changed.'

'What did he say?' he heard someone else whisper.

'Would you kindly repeat your request, discarnate one?'

'I demand that the watermarks on all the Girocheques be changed, from Mercury's bust to mine.'

'Are you saying that you wish us to change the watermark in our Girocheques?'

'Yes. It's perfectly simple.'

'It's not the province of the Department of Social Security, but I'll speak to one of the other ministers about it.'

A few shouts told him that Creame had been discovered.

'We've found someone from the press lurking about,' Alexander heard a voice rising out of the darkness.

'Bring the intruder forward. Let me see his face,' Alexander ordered.

'Very good.'

'May we now ask for your infallible advice?'

'Yes, certainly.'

'Will it be acceptable to take five pounds off the poor and give it to our rich friends, the captains of industry?'

'Why do you want to do that?'

'You remember the contract, surely, which was signed by our predecessors declaring social injustice? Besides, we have a great regard for our friends. They help us whenever they can.'

A cry of 'Bring the captive forward,' was heard; at which Creame was manhandled forward by the policemen.

'I demand an explanation! Release me, you ruffians! I, your superior, command it,' Creame shouted at them indignantly.

'And who are you?' said one of the ministers, boldly stepping forward.

'Who am I? Who am I?' Creame trilled. 'I represent the poor and he represents the rich,' pointing out Alexander.

'Do you know this man, sire?' the minister asked Alexander.

'Yes. Set him free. He's my assistant.'

One of the ministers began to whisper something into the ear of the DSS minister, then the DSS minister turned to Alexander and said: 'We think you're an impostor. The Oracle works alone, not with assistants.'

At this there was a tremendous roar coming from the direction of the Oracle's den. It sounded like a thousand lions.

'All right, nobody move, or he gets this over him,' said Creame, seizing hold of the DSS minister by the scruff of the neck and holding the miniature whisky bottle, which he had filled with 'holy' water, to the minister's face. 'I'm not joking. It would kill him in seconds.' Creame led the quivering minister like this down towards where the noise had been expelled, where he encountered a scorched, bedraggled figure, cut and bleeding, staggering out of the darkness. Upon seeing Creame he stretched out his hands and collapsed.

'Spock! What did this to you?' Creame rasped as he left off the minister to move up to where Mr Patsy was lying.

'The Oracle: I climbed down the hole after it.'

'What made you do it? I told you not to.'

'I couldn't resist it. It challenged me, so I went down the hole after it and wrestled with it.'

'What did it look like?'

'First it was an old man in a long, black robe with stars and planets on it and a pointy hat, white beard and staring eyes. Then it seemed to change into all sorts of forms.'

'Proteus!' uttered Alexander, who had moved up close.

'What happened next?' urged Creame.

'I held onto it until I couldn't hold it any more. It turned itself into a bunch of worms and they all slithered away. Only its ring was left.' He opened out his fist and there in the palm of his hand was the ring. The ministers seemed unaccountably shocked by the sight of it and took several steps back, herding more closely together. At the head of them there came forward a minister who looked to be a bit of a dandy, wearing a white shirt and red tie with white polka dots, gold tie-pin, pin-striped waistcoat out of which dangled the gold chain of a pocket-watch; pin-striped, pegged trousers and gold-chained moccasins. He said: 'Surely that is not the ring.'

'The ring is special to you, then? What will you give us for it?' said Creame.

The minister cast him a derisory glance and said: 'Why should we give you anything for it? You're vastly outnumbered and you're dealing with politicians, some of whom may be knights, but in name only, not in gentility.'

'Mr Patsy, eat the ring if an attempt is made to gain it from you,' Creame ordered. Patsy was putting the ring into his mouth when the minister bolted for it and tried to wrench it out of his hand.

Creame started shouting as he splashed holy water about, but it dripped off the ministers without effect. He stood back in stupefaction. He didn't have a lot to start with, so he had to dilute it with ordinary water to homeopathic proportions, which he could now see had been a mistake. He had been told by an unfrocked priest that one mole of holy water would kill about half a dozen medium-strength demons, but what he had put in the bottle could only have amounted to less than a drop and in spite of the fact that he had blessed it himself as an archbishop, it didn't seem to be working.

'Police! Get that ring!' another minister ordered.

The policemen who had been standing watching silently from their car bonnets stood up but before they could take decisive action, Creame shouted: 'Stop! You'll have to send for a WPC!'

'Why's that?' one of the ministers blasted back.

'Because Patsy's a nun. He's taken the veil.'

'Don't be so damned comical,' a tall, suave, grey-haired minister said. 'Whoever heard of a nun with a beard and the strength of Hercules?'

'He's a freak caused by Chernobyl. You, if anyone, should know about that. I bet you've hushed up more monsters after that than there are in Greek mythology.'

'Take the ring off him,' said the minister. Just as a peal of thunder broke over the hills, a roar of lions came again. The ministers looked at one another and decided with quivering lips that the best thing for it was to leave. The police were already jumping into their cars and driving off, so also were a few of the ministers' chauffeurs without the ministers, necessitating ministers to crowd into any car they could find, whether their own, or another minister's or a police car. Once the retreat had started, there was no stopping it. Even the bolder ministers who were predisposed to stay felt themselves let down by the desertion of half their numbers. Creame saw this as an opportunity to escape and started running towards the van. Alexander pursued him and there they both waited for Patsy, who was tottering forward, reeling like an egg.

'Phew, that was close!' Creame said to Alexander when they were both in the van. He had his chin on the steering-wheel and was gripping and ungripping it nervously.

'Why did they want the ring?' Alexander asked, flummoxed. 'And why did they run off like that?'

'Who knows? It could have been the holy water,' Creame could not refrain from accrediting himself with the success of the ministers' sudden retreat. 'But we got it, or Patsy has. Here he comes now.' Mr Patsy was still drawing up when Creame started the engine and the van began to slide forward. Mr Patsy looked up, dismayed and Creame began to stab the air with his finger, indicating that he wanted him to get in the back. Just when it seemed that he had caught up with the van, Creame made it go a little faster and he fell back. This continued for some time until finally Patsy stopped altogether and Creame stopped just in front, revving the engine. Patsy clambered in and they drove off, Creame dropping Alexander off at his house.

'Now we try a last resort. We try to strike a bargain with the RAOs against the ministers.'

Chapter Twenty-two

The sight of his front street, of his house with the uncut lawn was a welcome to Alexander. Creame dropped him off and drove off when he saw Carl was at the door. Carl stood stupidly blocking the doorway, blinking dumbly at Alexander from behind his dark glasses, until Alexander was wondering whether he was going to let him into his own house.

'Have there been any calls?'

'Yes. Quite a few, actually,' Carl said, following it with a long pause.

'Well, are you going to tell me who they were, or do I have to guess?' Alexander asked irritably as he was hanging up his coat.

'I don't know who. Whoever it was kept hanging up before I could answer. It lasted all day yesterday. I didn't want to leave it off the hook in case you called.'

'Yes, all right. As a matter of fact I did try to get through once, but couldn't. It must have been on the blink again.'

Alexander's telephone had been dodgy ever since he had knocked it to the ground in a fit of temper, causing its casing to come loose. He had been too scared to report it to British Telecom, as he thought he could be jailed for criminal damage to their equipment. In addition the dial had become very stiff, which often led to wrong numbers being dialled. This did nothing for his temper when he woke up in the mornings shivering from withdrawal symptoms and had tried to obtain more Diazepam from the doctor 'for his father'; nor did it help when he did manage to find the right number only to find the line engaged, when he would wail, 'Oh God!' and slam the handset back with a clatter. When his father heard this, he would begin chewing his trembling fingers that were continually passing anxiously over his pallid, quivering face.

'Is there anything to eat?' Alexander asked Carl.

'No, I'm afraid there isn't. The fridge door wasn't shut properly and it all got ruined, so I gave most of it to Psi and I tried to use as much up as I could by eating it,' Carl said as though in doing so, he had done Alexander a service.

'Oh, my God! What's all this? Where's all this mess come from?' Alexander was standing in the kitchen as he said this. It looked as though someone had taken a dustbin and scattered its contents maliciously over the entire area. Containers of every description and of various vintages were festering and mouldering in even the most dank and mouldy corners; spoons were left stuck in empty tins of tomato soup that were lying one on top of the other, like the bayoneted corpses of soldiers. He had even the deepest recesses of his cupboards turned out and had sifted nosily through long-interred paraphernalia, such as mouldering bottles of cod liver oil and quinine and rusty old tins of curry powder and spices, as well as all manner of odd tools and utensils, including a hob-iron, a sextant, an old astronomy book and parts of a coffee percolator.

'What's been happening? Were the tins in danger of going bad too? I want all this cleaned up, but before you do that, you'll have to go to the shop for me.'


Alexander went up to his bedroom and found that this, at least, was much as he had left it. It seemed that when Carl had called to feed the cat over the previous few days when Alexander was busy, he had concentrated on the kitchen. He could hear the clatter of the empty tins already being thrown into the dustbin while he sat upstairs writing out his shopping list on his vellum notepad. Marcus Aurelius must have looked similar when writing his Meditations.

Alexander went down and gave him the list, saying: 'I want you to go to the grocer's and the butcher's.'

Carl studied the list, stroking his beard, with all the gravity of reading a summons. Finally he seemed satisfied.

'Oh, and will you stop off on the way and get me a bottle of kaolin and morphine?'

Carl scratched his beard again and murmured: 'Mmm...it might be tricky, Alexander. I was in there only last week, but I'll do my best.'

'I'll write you out a prescription, in that case.'

'What do I do if I can't get what you want, Alexander?'

'Oh, just get whatever you see fit.' The same applied here as it did when Alexander shopped carelessly in Marks & Spencer.

'Right, I'll be as quick as I can.'


Carl returned about an hour later, having performed these tasks with the usual sluggishness. Alexander hurriedly relieved him of the kaolin and morphine bottle and took a swig at it, which made his lips white with kaolin. 'Did you get everything?'

'Well, there was one little thing, Alexander. I was just going to mention it. When I was in the butcher's and I gave him the list, he said that he didn't have what I wanted, so I asked him to give me whatever he thought best in its place.'

'Yes, well?'

'And so he gave me some kind of meat which he said was very good value. Then he asked me what else I wanted. After this, he just kept on saying, Anything else, sir?'

'So you bought half the shop, in other words?'

'Er, well I did have to dip into my own resources.'

'How much did it come to?'

'Er, £21.'

'Eh? You're kidding! Just at the butcher's?'

'Well, yes.'

Alexander was on his feet and glowering over Carl by this time, bottle in hand.

'You're going to take the whole lot back and get a refund....Either that, or you can pay me for it all yourself.'

'Er, could I pay in instalments?' Carl suggested sheepishly.

'No, you can't!'

'It's like that, is it?' Carl was piqued enough to venture this unusually terse remark.

'Yes, it's like that.'

'I couldn't just wait for a couple of days, could I?'


'So that it would go puce and I would be able to say it was like that when I bought it.'

'Puce? You mean putrid! Ha! No, but it's given me a good idea.' With that, Alexander scurried into the kitchen to look for something, laughing mischievously. Carl saw him raking around in the dustbin with a stick from the garage. He hoisted out a plastic bag full of rancid offal that was weeks' old, since that was how long since someone had bothered to put the bin out. He carefully unwrapped one of the parcels of meat that Carl had bought and emptying it into a bowl, put the rancid offal in its place and wrapped it up again. He told Alexander to take it back with the other parcels and to say that he had only just bought them there and they were already rancid. He thereby kept the original contents for himself and told Carl to wait until the shop was busy before he complained; as it was a warm, sunny day, the shop was sure to be already full of bluebottles and flies and Alexander suggested that Carl make as big a stink as possible to get his point across and not to hesitate to point them out that dined free in the shop window. If he felt like it, he could also point out that the butcher selected the meat he purveyed by means of his bare hands, but this was unlikely to make much of an impact, because such was a standard practice, regardless of where those hands had been.

Carl returned a short time later, flustered but cheerful.

'Did you manage all right?' Alexander asked as he opened the door for him, hopping from one foot to the other.

Carl informed him that he had achieved his aim without adopting the measures Alexander had suggested because, as he undid the parcel of stinking offal, half of the customers in the shop left, the rest nearly retching. The money was thrust back at him and he was curtly told that in future his custom would be better appreciated elsewhere.

Alexander laughed heartily upon hearing this and even offered to cook Carl a meal with the meat he had purloined through it and the other provisions obtained by Carl. He considered himself to be a capable cook, boasting that he could cook lasagna and casseroles, even if they did come in ready-made mixes and required a minimum of skill to be able to reconstitute them with boiling water.

Carl knew that the price for eating a dinner cooked by Alexander was to be lumbered with the washing-up. While he was doing it, Alexander sat with the cat, having hauled the shaggy ball of fur onto his knee, where he could cuddle it and talk to it like a baby, until it tried to escape by struggling and mewling. Carl, with all his penchant for 'counselling' and amateur psychology, reckoned that it served him as a surrogate child, Alexander having no children and no desire for any. Carl called Psi 'Bast', thus ineptly demonstrating his acquaintance with the Egyptian cat-god, Bubastis.

Creame turned up the next day and said that he'd been in touch with the Tilesheds and that they were expected to send somebody over to look into the affair with the ring, although the Tilesheds had tried to deny any knowledge of RAOs.

They decided to turn the living-room into a tribunal room.

'Are you going to work, or pull bits of string round for the cat all day?' Creame asked Alexander irksomely.

Not that there was much to remove, seeing that Alexander had given away most of the ornaments and just about everything else. For the occasion Creame had worn an old pair of 'McQuade' jeans that had been given to him by Mr Patsy after doing a job for him.

When they had got all the junk thrown out, Carl swept the floor while Creame and Alexander dragged the furniture around. They shifted the long, folding dining-table into the middle of the room and gave it a polish. The three stiff-backed chairs between it and the fire-place made it clear where the tribunal was to sit. At the other side of the table a sofa was reserved for the RAOs. In accordance with convention, an armchair was placed in an alcove to the side of the fire-place to signify the AO's authority, but which would remain empty. Hoffman and Onion turned up and Hoffman brought with him and laid before them his file containing transcripts of the contents of all bricks. As a polishing touch, Alexander hung his portrait of the Queen on the wall behind him.

All that was left to do was for them to occupy their positions and wait for the arrival of the RAOs and Mr Patsy.

Unfortunately, Patsy had still not arrived at 2.50pm and the RAOs said they would be coming at three o' clock. Creame explained this by saying that he had taken his coat off to somebody in a back lane on the way there, telling him to go on without him, saying he would follow them there. Obviously, Creame suggested, a fight had developed more serious consequences than anyone had anticipated. This left them with the problem of finding a suitable candidate to act as the representative of the union between the rich and the poor, in accordance with the regulations laid out by the Oracle. Thus far they had chosen Alexander to represent the rich, Creame to represent the poor and Hoffman as clerk to the tribunal, but this was still not a quorum; according to Creame, the Oracle had failed to specify who was to occupy the unfilled office, so as a desperate measure, they gave it to Carl and he took his seat in between Alexander and Creame.

Three o' clock arrived but still no signs of any RAOs. They were beginning to fidget in the tense silence that had developed when, at a few minutes after three, there was a light knock at the door.

'Is that them?' Alexander queried when Creame got up.

'You'll find out soon enough.'

Alexander didn't hear much noise as Creame answered the door. He straightened his tie and brushed the creases out of his best blue pin-striped suit, the one he had woken up in the greenhouse once with and the one he wanted to be buried in. He glanced worriedly at Carl as he heard the sound of low murmurous voices over a bustle in the passage outside. Carl looked as though he was about to stand up for their entrance, so Alexander said quietly, 'Remain seated'.

Two people entered the room with Creame. Neither of them was Tileshed. Alexander could not remember having seen them before. One was a fat ugly old man with sagging jowls and heavy breathing while the other was a mild dark angular man who could easily have been a young officer in a regiment commanded by the older man, who looked like a grumpy and wheezy old colonel. Both were wearing red jumpers, baggy white trousers and open-necked shirts like golfing ex-film stars. Creame introduced them to the members of the tribunal and told Alexander and Carl that they were Sir Glans Surpig and his assistant, 'Mr A'.

'Are you the RAOs we were expecting?' Alexander asked, frowning.

After an awkward silence the older man said: 'Let's just say we represent them and leave it at that.'

When they were seated on the low couch in front of the table which must have appeared bewilderingly high to them, Hoffman outlined their grievance, the main or even sole burden of which was that the JS men had usurped the UAO's authority and had even created their own UAO, which contravened what was contained in the purview of the bricks.

When the RAOs' representatives heard this, they produced a document which they said was a 'purple paper'. This was, they said, similar to a House of Commons Bill, or green paper, except that it did not require to be passed by both houses before becoming law. They said that the JS men had already given it civil assent, thereby making it law.

The tribunal studied the paper, which began with an introduction and stated that:

'Clause 1 amends the provisions of the Principal Act, to allow the Chief Adjudication Officer to receive advice from the Ultimate Adjudication Officer.'

There then followed the preamble:

'Be it enacted by John Smith's most excellent civility, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and commons, in the present Parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same, as follows:-'

and then the clause:

'1.-(1) Section 97 of the Principal Act (duties of adjudication officers) shall have effect with the amendment made by subsection (2) below, which is made for the purpose of ensuring that the Chief Adjudication Officer takes advice from the Ultimate Adjudication Officer as appointed by John Smith's Inspectorate.

(2) After subsection (1C) of the Principal Act (duty of the Chief Adjudication Officer to advise Adjudication Officers on the performance of their functions) there shall be inserted -

"(1CC) It shall be the duty of the Ultimate Adjudication Officer to advise the Chief Adjudication Officer on the performance of his functions under this or any other Act."

Alexander looked horror-stricken, Creame pensive and Carl blank as this was put before them. Finally Alexander put the question: 'Can you paraphrase it in English?'

The RAO nodded demurely and said: 'It simply means that the JS men have made it law for the CAO to obey their own UAO.'

'Who's this CAO chap? I hope he doesn't think he can get the better of me.'

'The Chief Adjudication Officer, until this came along, was the highest-ranking Adjudication Officer.'

'But that's scandalous! Can't we do anything to stop him?' queried Alexander.

'I'm afraid not, unless you have the Oracle's ring. Only that can validate the purple papers. The other lot managed to get him to stamp it on theirs by sacrificing to him.'

'Good grief! What did they sacrifice?'

'Informants, and the like, who'd burnt them to the DSS and so they scorsed them.'

'Poor devils.'

'Can anything be done if we have the Oracle's ring?' Alexander asked.

'Well, that's what we're here to discuss, isn't it? Do you have it?'

'Yes, we do.'

'Couldn't we produce our own purple paper, overriding theirs?' the younger representative suggested to his companion.

His companion scratched his white whiskers ferociously for a while and then said: 'Yes, if they could give it the seal and get it to the printers in time.'

'But is the printer necessary? Surely they would accept handwriting as long as it's legible.'

'It's not a question of that. It could work if the seal appeared beside any alterations on the existing purple paper....'

'That's what we'll do, then,' the younger man said energetically. 'Right, here's what we'll do: by the consent of the tribunal, we'll alter the wording so that it reads in your favour.'

'How would you do that?' Alexander asked suspiciously.

'We'll have to write in the margins and then you can give it the seal. Here's what we'll do...'

They obliterated any reference to John Smith and replaced it with the Oracle's representative and then they decided to insert a second clause which meant that in between the UAO and CAO came the rank of RAO. Finally, the tribunal was required to pass it and give it the Oracle's seal. The snag was that, Carl not being able to make up his mind about anything, he couldn't about this either. Finally they had to leave him out of it and agree to a majority decision. As they couldn't find any sealing-wax, Creame used chewing-gum. Alexander hesitated, considering it as momentous as the signing of the Treaty of Versailles.

Alexander looked up with a smooth grin. 'Will that do it?'

'We'll be better able to tell you next time,' said one of the RAOs' representatives.

Chapter Twenty-three

The next session was due to take place at the same time a week later. The arrangements were the same as the week before, except that Mr Patsy had been found and was present; though it was decided to retain Carl as Representative of the Union and to put Patsy on guard outside.

'Well, I've got good news,' the younger RAOs' representative beamed at him: 'The Bill's been accepted in its present form. I had envisaged terrible amendments to get it through. I have the purple paper here.'

Their enthusiasm was checked by the sudden crackle of a two-way radio which the older representative pulled out of his pocket and spoke into:


'Just a minute--who's he talking to?' Creame asked suspiciously.

'It's a record of what's being said. It's a kind of verbal shorthand, but in hexadecimal machine code. We at the DSS have been trained to understand it so that it can go straight into the computer. There's someone sitting in the van at the bottom of the street keying it straight onto disk,' the younger RAOs' 'representative' explained.

'Yes, some of the boys have moved exclusively in DSS circles for so long that they can scarcely speak a word of English. It's all DSS jargon with them now,' the older RAOs' representative adjoined.

'10-4,' the reply fizzled back over the radio.

At that moment all hell broke loose. From somewhere upstairs came a sound of shattering glass, followed by shouting, scuffles and footsteps.

'What's happening?' asked Sir Glans Surpig.

'Come on, sir--come on! We're getting out!' said his assistant, dragging him to his feet. Several bangs followed by the sound of shattering glass coming from the front door signified that it wouldn't hold for much longer. There was an exchange of gunfire at the foot of the stairs and a scuffle was heard, followed by a pounding of feet.

'There's a bugger in the lavatory! He's locked himself in,' Mr Patsy was heard to shout.

The scuffle in the hall soon died away and then came the sound of vehicles starting up and squealing tyres. Further shouts and shots came ringing up the street but these too died away after a few seconds.

The members of the tribunal, upon hearing the gunshots, had upturned the table and dove behind it, so that they couldn't see what was going on. Presently footsteps were heard entering the room.

It was Mr Patsy who said, 'Is anyone there?'

When Creame recognized his voice, relief flowed through him: never had he seemed so happy to see Mr Patsy. The ordeal was like a bad dream, yet it was over in a few seconds. Creame hazarded to raise his head after shouting a cautionary warning.

'Who's that? Identify yourself, before I put a bullet in you,' came the gruff, dogged response.

'Creame,' said Creame.

'Creame? Where are you?'

'I'm behind this table. I'm going to get up now. Promise not to shoot me through the head.'

'Okay, I agree,' Mr Patsy growled unhappily as Creame popped up a pale, solemn face.

'Patsy! Am I glad you're here. What's that you're holding?'

'Oh, just a little toy. It's my M16. I thought I'd better go back for it. Afterwards I climbed onto the roof and stormed the lavatory when I saw a bugger in it acting suspiciously. He had a rod.'

'Who was he and how did he get in?'

'Through a window, perhaps. He must have been in good shape to do it. I couldn't tell you what he looked like, but he ran out when he saw me at the window. A few of his mates were at the front door ready to barge in, but they didn't last long after I began to pepper them with bullets.'

'Who were they?' Alexander cut in. 'Could they have been the ministers' men?'

'Bludy RAOs, more like,' Creame cut in.

'What were they after--the ring?'

'Where did you put it?' Creame snapped.

'Oh, my God, I hope not!'

'Where is it? You had it.'

'It was in between the fifth and sixth curtains of my bedroom window. I'll go back and check.' Alexander's face was chalk-white as he dashed up the stairs, but stopped halfway up and shouted down for Mr Patsy to come with him as an escort, in case their enemies were still working there, then nearly fainted when he heard a voice shouting down that all was clear, until he recognized it as belonging to Onion; Onion had gone chasing after them but could not catch them, so he returned to check the bedrooms.

They did not have time to conduct a thorough search and Alexander found the ring where he had put it.

'Come on. Let's get after them,' a voice came up the stairs just as he found it and by the time he was ready at the top of the stairs, everybody was already piling into the van.

After driving round the side-streets fitfully for half an hour looking for them, it was becoming clear that it was a waste of time, until someone suggested that they should try Tileshed's house.

'I don't know where he lives,' Creame said.

'What about his friend's house?' Alexander suggested.

'Which bludy friend's house?' Creame roared.

'The one where the siege took place.'

Creame thought for a moment and then he ventured, 'It's worth a try, I suppose; there's always the golf club bar, as well. Someone in there might know him. But you can go in and see if he's in there, Alexander.'

'Me? Oh no, I'm sorry, Creame, but I'm too well-known in there, you know, through the siege episode, when I threw a brick through their window to grab their attention.'

'That was a clever thing to do as well,' Creame said bitingly.

'I did it because we needed help, Creame,' Alexander pleaded.

'Look, don't blame me. You were stupid enough to do it,' Creame said.

'Yes, but it means I'm barred out of there for life. Why can't someone else do it?'

'No. Tileshed's friend and Tileshed knows us.'

'There's a nun's outfit and a pair of dark glasses in the van here somewhere,' Hoffman suggested, 'and you'd make a better nun than most of us, except perhaps for me, but too many people have seen me in this nun disguise before. Some of the JS men are likely to be in there if Tileshed junior is. The outfit would only fit you, anyway, apart from me--and Yellowman, probably, but he's been seen in it too.'

'What about you, Carl?' Alexander postulated.

'Don't be stupid! He's got a goat's beard,' Creame remonstrated.

'Patsy got away with it in the nunnery.'

'Yes, de Patsy was only dealing with nuns there, and even they didn't see him all that well, or even paid him that much attention. After all, who takes any notice of one more nun in a nunnery? When you go in there, you'll be the only nun in the whole bar. A beard would be a dead giveaway under the circumstances.'

Alexander nodded cynically. 'I see...and what am I supposed to be doing in there as a nun anyway?'

'Collecting for charity, or course. But ask around while you're in there, for Tileshed or any of his cronies. Say they've promised you a donation.'

'But I don't have a collection box,' Alexander protested.

'Nobody's going to notice that.'

'I'll do it on one condition,' Alexander said.

Creame raised his eyebrows like a doctor listening to a patient describing a particularly embarrassing ailment.

'...That you'll drive me to the historical sites.'

'Oh, no conditions, but we'll see in due course.'

When they got to Tileshed's friend's house, they found it cloaked in darkness. Not even the driveway light was on, so rather than risk another siege, they made the short trip to the golf club bar on the opposite side of the road which was, as usual, brilliant. Alexander's ungainly limbs fought their way over the seats and into the back of the van, with as much ado as a turtle coming ashore to lay its eggs. When he had struggled into the outfit, Creame reversed the van up to some bushes so that nobody could see him getting out of the back of the van. The nun's costume and the dark blue, penny-farthing glasses lent him the look of some weird pop star.

'Okay, remember to be careful, and keep your eyes open for Mr Tileshed. If you see him, don't attempt to engage him in conversation but come straight out and tell me. Don't attempt to tackle him or any of his friends single-handedly,' Creame suggested, as if Alexander would.

'Don't worry, I won't.'

'Good luck,' said Creame.

Alexander stumbled off across the car park on a blustery night as a gust of wind caught his gown and blew it up to his head, so that his galoshes, socks, hairy legs and posterior were fairly visible before he managed to beat it down like a woman's dress.

Compared with the fresh breeze outside, the oppressively hot and smoky atmosphere inside made his heart flutter and steamed up his glasses, which he could not see properly out of in the first place; even with untinted glasses, the problem would have struck him almost blind; but now he was stone-blind. He did not have time to take them off, for suddenly as he was stumbling along and before he knew it, he felt a stabbing pain in his stomach and he fell over something and was lying sprawled out on the floor.

He felt somebody trying to help him up but blushed with embarrassment at the thought of his lower half being widely visible. He felt that his gown had slid up to his knees.

'That's no nun. That's a rogue trying to pass himself off as one, to steal from charity,' he heard someone say.

'It's a bounder's trick,' added someone sounding a bit like Tileshed.

Those in the van could not imagine what befell Alexander as and even when, they saw his cloaked figure suddenly cartwheeling through the air and landing on the tarmac in a flurry of limbs and gown, descending like a shot bird.

The burly figure which had apparently ejected him was strolling forward and seemed keen to start kicking him, but another shape manifested itself in the light that fanned out from the club-house doorway and seemed to be instrumental in preventing it.

'I'll give you a piece of advice, friend. Go back to them that sent you and tell them not to bother us any more. We don't like it,' said the bouncer to Alexander.

'Why don't you tell them yourself? They're in the van,' Alexander replied: he knew that he and those that sent him had been tumbled.

The man who had rescued him from the kicking strolled up to the van and tapped crisply on the window, undaunted by the fact that Creame, Onion and Hoffman were squeezed into the front and Carl, Patsy and Yellowman were in the back. The stranger's wrinkled mouth and hand were miming for someone to open the window.

'Where's Tileshed?' Creame asked him sharply, winding down the window.

'Never mind that--what the devil do you want with him, any way?'

'Who are you?'

'You should know me. I'm Tileshed's friend. I was standing in the crowd watching when you gave that terrorist a taste of his own medicine.' He was referring to the crowd who came to the siege at the house of Tileshed's friend.

'We know he's an RAO and we want to see him about the Oracle.'

'How do you know he's an RAO?'

'That's our business. We've got something he could use.'

Tileshed's friend could see no point in disguising the fact that he was an RAO, and so he led them to his house where they had been before.

'Yes, I thought I knew you. You were the one who rescued Mr Tileshed from that terrorist.'

'Did I?' Creame asked innocuously.

'You wanted Fleuret crowned UAO for your own purposes and you thought the RAOs were trying to put the mockers on it. Is that why you sent him?'

'Sent who?'

'The terrorist, for information--the rescue was just a front. You hoped he would tell you, but it went wrong when the crowd showed up,' the RAO plied cunningly, 'and Mr Fleuret: I recognized him as soon as he set foot in the club-house bar.'

'Oh yes?' His theory being wrong, had failed to elicit a significant reaction from Creame. 'And what about the terrorists you sent round to steal the Oracle's ring?'

'Where? What terrorists?'

'The ones who tried to storm Fleuret's house just now, when Sir Glans Surpig was round.'

'If there were terrorists round just now, we didn't send them, you can rest assured on that.'

'If you didn't, who did?'

'It could have been the JS men. What did they look like?'

'One of them had a gun, you said, Patsy?' said Creame.


'It couldn't have been them, then. They don't usually carry hardware.'


'--or PAOs sent by them. God help us if there's a posse of PAOs up here.'

'What are PAOs?' Alexander asked Tileshed's friend.

'The Principal Adjudication Officers. The PAOs are a ruthless band of cut-throats trained in 'anti'-terrorist techniques who work in London for the Chief Adjudication Officer. The CAO's staunchly loyal to the ministers, by tradition. He's done us no favours.

'If the PAOs are up here, it spells trouble. Either he'll have sent them, or, worse still, he'll be with them. We could have a civil war on our hands. He won't like being usurped by the RAOs or UAO alike.'

'What does this CAO chap look like?' asked Alexander.

'Hard to say, there's been that many conflicting reports about him, but the general consensus of opinion is that he's got a long, bright red beard and is nick-named Redbeard.'

'So what do we do?' Creame asked anxiously.

'Give me a minute to work it out.' The RAO thought and then sprang for the telephone. He got through to Tileshed senior and asked him to come straight round on an urgent matter, but warned him to take care, because he suspected that the PAOs would be after him. He said that he didn't want to go into any detail over the phone.

When Tileshed senior did arrive, he was admitted after giving a secret knock and explained the fact that there were two other old men accompanying him who, like himself, were all attired in short green 'Peter Pan' cloaks, by saying that he had had to cut short an initiation ceremony for RAOs he had been in the middle of when the call came through.

'I'm sorry, but I had to ring; the PAOs are up,' his friend explained.

'Oh my God!' Tileshed muttered, running a shaky old hand over his feverish face.

'Exactly,' his friend rejoined.

'We'll have to stop them.'

'Yes, certainly. What do you have in mind?'

'I was thinking of a blockade by the Commissioners.'

The Commissioners were affiliated to the RAOs, many having once been RAOs themselves. Their job is to decide difficult appeal cases that are thought to rest upon a point of law, having been first referred to them through the appeal tribunal by the appellant, by and with the leave and consent of the chairman.

'So what went wrong?' Hoffman asked.

'By and large, I would imagine the PAO or the Oracle has pulled a coup d'état. You see, what I was thinking was that it was strange that the Oracle should tell you to form a tribunal,' said Tileshed.

'Why's that?' asked Creame.

'Because of this: one man had to represent the rich and another man had to represent the poor. Yet a third had to represent a union between the two. Yet, I argue, that a union between the two would cancel each other.'

'He said that we would never vanquished be until the tribunal consisted of less than three,' Creame said.

'But it had to consist of less than three, because the third man cannot take office until the Day of Judgement, not until then will the rich be joined with the poor,' Tileshed put forward.

'Ah, but just a minute,' Creame said, perking up slightly. 'The third man was Carl, but as usual, he said nothing. He couldn't make his mind up about anything.'

'Then how on earth can you reach a decision? The interests of the rich in social security matters must always run contrary to the interests of the poor, since it is the rich who have to give to the poor. Properly run, one man would say 'yes'; the other 'no'; and the third would not be allowed to sit: so no majority decision could be reached,' Tileshed contested.

'Ah, yes, but Carl, although he sat, didn't actually say anything,' Alexander threw in eagerly.

'It doesn't matter. Even if the rich and the poor could agree about, say what you agreed about on in the presence of Sir Glans, you're still at loggerheads. According to section 19, subsection 3 of the Tribunal and Injuries Act 1971 (Chapter 62):

'"References in this Act to members of tribunals include references to the person constituting a tribunal consisting of one person."

'It means that Carl could be considered, for the PAOs' purposes, as constituting the whole tribunal.'

'But that's daft,' Yellowman plucked up the courage to say.

'Why didn't they accept his or our authority, then, instead of storming the house?' Creame said.

'They probably led you on, until they could follow Sir Glans and find out where you were. The purple paper can be regarded as null and void if they wish it.'

'How?' trilled Creame, standing dramatically on tip-toe.

'Because of the Social Security Act 1975 (chapter 14), part III, section 103, subsection (3).'

'Is that as daft as the last one?' Alexander asked.

'Dafter, you could say. It says that:

"The Adjudication Officer, tribunal or Commissioner may -

(a) postpone the reference of, or dealing with, any question until other questions have been determined;

(b) in cases where the determination of any question disposes of a claim or any part of it make an award or decide that an award cannot be made, as to the claim or that part of it, without referring to or dealing with, or before the determination of, any other question".'

'What the hell does all that shit mean?' Creame shouted.

'It means that they can do what the hell they like.'

'You might be covering up for the JS men, of course. Your son was involved with them,' Creame pursued.

'It was he, once he found out about the will from your mother, Alexander, who defected to them with his strong ideals and told them where to find you. He precipitated the storming of the ship masquerading as JS Inspectors. We were both on different sides of the fence. The JS men split us up,' Tileshed said sadly.

At that moment the phone rang. It was one of Tileshed's informers on the line to say that the ministers had decided to declare UDI if the Oracle's ring was returned to them.

'What does that mean?' Alexander said, crestfallen.

'It means that the ministers have conceded defeat. They've given us RAOs complete control over our regions. For the time being, at least, we are once again strong, free from the scourge of the Chief Adjudication Officer and other centralists.'

'--if you give them the ring,' Creame put in.

'Yes, if we give them the ring.'

'What's so special about this bludy ring anyway?'

'You don't know?'

'It has magical properties, or something,' Alexander said.

'Oh, it has magical properties all right. It's been used to blackmail the entire Cabinet for years, since it was stolen off the ministers a long time ago,' Tileshed said. 'It's their wedding-ring from their marriage to Satan. Once the sorcerers got hold of it, they used it to manipulate the government ministers for their own ends as middle-men because they knew that if Satan found out that they had lost the ring he had given them, his wrath with them would be unbounded. That's what gave rise to the position of Lord Oracle, with the UAO being left up to the government ministers to appoint and interpret laws in a manner that suited them as well. This included the laws contained in the Secondary bricks.

'To preserve the laws from complete destruction, one of each was built into separate local government offices round the country. That way if one building was hit by a raid or something, the loss wouldn't be that substantial. Copies couldn't be made because it would increase the likelihood of discovery.

'The government ministers were, in effect, treading a tightrope of popularity between the Fiends of Hell, who always wanted to harm the people the government ministers represented, the real ministers (sorcerers) including the Oracle, who were acting independently but were essentially black, and the people. Now they've relinquished responsibility to us,' Tileshed concluded.

'But the office of UAO wasn't filled until I took it and the JS men wanted it all of a sudden--why's that?' Alexander inserted.

'Because the office of UAO was really only a safeguard against the Oracle for the ministers. It wasn't considered necessary under the circumstances. However, when word got out that it was known about by you and that you were trying to obtain it, things started to happen,' Tileshed said.

'How did you know I was going to get it?'

'Your mother knew that your father knew the secret and was going to bequeath it to you in his will. He, in turn, had learned of it from an old navy colleague he had served with. It was when your father saved his life and in return was offered a place in his secret society that was similar to ours but on a ministerial level, that he was told of the possibility of creating the position of UAO, simply by giving somebody the right National Insurance number, which was found by putting together in sequence the nine bricks which were hidden in the Unemployment Benefit Offices. Your mother didn't want you to know the secret so she approached us.

'I believe she didn't trust you with it. She thought you'd come to no good with it, so she decided to put the mockers on it. She aimed to do this by driving you and your father apart,' Tileshed said.

'Yes, I gathered as much when I saw her trying to provoke enmity between the two of you by pushing toilet rolls down the toilet and stamping soap into the carpet and blaming him for it. Of course, you took the bait and put it down to his senility. When she left, that made matters more unbearable because it meant that you were lumbered with him. The response was predictable: you put him in a home and in doing that, you proved that he was intolerably senile and therefore incapable of rational thinking. That meant that if he died there, he wouldn't be near you to fill you in about the secret and the secret itself would become suspect,' Creame said.

'But where does the will from my uncle Rastas fit into all this and what of all this voyage-to-Egypt nonsense in a seventeenth century warship?'

'Well,' continued Creame, 'while your father was in a home, it meant that you could still see him. She had him moved once, I believe, but it still didn't preclude the possibility of you finding him again--and the secret would be yours. So she came up with another idea, which was the ship.'

'The ship was her doing? But how?'

'Quite simple. You have a rich uncle living in Scotland. He had it built for her, because she promised him a share of the secret, which would go to her instead of you if you were drowned at sea or assumed dead,' Tileshed said.

'My mother wanted to drown me?'

'No; she wanted to make it look as though you'd drowned. The more realistic it looked, the better. Hence the reason for the ship. She didn't tell your uncle that she had no intention of letting you drown, because he never would have built it had that been the case. As a matter of fact, things got a bit hairy because your uncle whom she approached, believing that she really wanted you dead, offered to spare no expense in ensuring that it was made as unsafe as possible: the idea that it should be a seventeenth century galleon originated with him, because he thought you would be more likely to drown in that than a modern vessel.

'Naturally she couldn't argue, or he would begin suspecting her motives, especially if she tried to get you a booking on a luxury liner instead. No, she had to go through with it, but then she came up with another plan to save you just in case anything did go wrong.

'She approached your other uncle, Hoffman--'

'Hoffman? My uncle!'

'--and told him that you would be sailing on a ship and if he could offer you a hiding-place, he could have it. She arranged for you to be taken off at sea and harboured in the nunnery until after Tort's death, promising to let him in on the secret as well if he complied.

'He was already at the nunnery up the coast by her previous direction because she had told him that, according to Tort, one of the bricks was buried there (she had overheard him telling Creame this), but even so he had not managed to find it until Creame arrived. The ship was to steer towards them.

'That was when she approached me as a solicitor and asked me to find a crew that would ask no questions. I knew that Morgan wouldn't have if we'd hired him because I threatened to turn him over to the police, who were looking for him, if he gave any trouble. She also wanted me to supervise the voyage and explain it to you by offering you the excuse of a fake will made by a fictitious person.

'She was to get your father to sign it, doping him up if she had to, thus avoiding recrimination for the fake will. After all, if he signed it, it could make a strong case against the real one. It might have worked, but somehow the cat got out of the bag and we were attacked by a rogue bunch of AOs from the DSS who resented the UAO authority. Of course, my son was with them and could have told them.'

'Yes, and I scuttled the ship to get rid of them,' Creame said. 'But I couldn't. I had an idea of where the brick in the nunnery was buried because I got hold of the plans of where the old Unemployment Benefit Office, which has since been demolished, used to stand. So as not to arouse suspicion, I set Patsy to work digging for it as a gardener once we were in the grounds. When he found the brick that I suspected was buried there, I swapped it for two duds, burying them in slightly different places, that contained wrong information and told the JS men that if they gave us the rest of the numbers, I would tell them where the final brick was. I then sent Patsy up to Hoffman with a cock and bull story about him finding some bricks whilst burying Mr Goose and asking if he could build himself a netty with them. There was some code as to which order they were in which only the JS men somehow knew (apparently it worked mathematically rather than being physically imprinted on the bricks), but it was part of the deal that they tell me what that order was and where in it the last brick fitted, otherwise I wouldn't hand it over. They stole the dud from me, which I wanted them to have, for I wanted to know where in the coded sequence they would put it and did not trust them to give me correct information. By substituting the real brick there, I would know the correct NI number of the UAO, so that I could give it to Alexander. I did the same with Hoffman, telling him after they had stolen the first dud that they had all the bricks now but one, which might still be in the garden. That was the other dud. All I had to do was to arrange for a meeting (divide and conquer!). I also suggested he look for the rest of them at the Unemployment Benefit Office over the hill. This he did. One of them had let slip that that was where they were hiding them. I let him do the rest, knowing I could make another deal using the true brick as a bargaining token. All I had to do was sit back and wait. Once I'd got the rest of the number of the UAO, the rest was easy. I found out that nobody owned it and gave it to Alexander. When Cavendish mentioned the Map and I managed to connect it with what Alexander had said about the Sunny People, it was in the bag. That was the secret.'

'Well, now it makes no difference,' Tileshed said. 'And as far as you go, Alexander, naturally we've checked your ancestry because of this affair and it appears that rather than being related to a French nobleman, you're the cousin of a notorious French murderer and rapist.'

'Rubbish,' Alexander protested.

'He has to be kept in a strait-jacket. Give me the ring and I'll forget the trouble I've been caused.'

'Give it to him,' Alexander urged Creame who had it. Alexander wasn't sure that it was, but if what Tileshed was saying was true, he wouldn't have wanted it to go any further. It would have wrecked his political ambitions.

'Blackmail, Mr Tileshed?' Creame said, raising his eyebrows.

'An exchange, Mr Creame. I'm sure we can find a place for you in the new constitution. The RAOs run a society. In return for just a little co-operation, we could nominate you for initiation. Think about it. You, Alexander, don't have a sensible alternative.'

'None at all,' muttered Creame, 'and my ancestors were all monkeys,' and with that, he sprang for and ran out of the door, taking the ring with him. The rest poured out after him, but he flung the ring into the night, after a last, appreciative look at it.



DSS Schedule

8.15am. Non-combatants travelling to work must keep their eyes open for anything suspicious, like a known claimant carrying a haversack.

9.0am. Allow 2 minutes if sunny or 10-15 minutes if cold and rainy before opening the doors to the public.

9.30am. Start to person the cubicles with a ratio of one third of the total number of cubicles present, or less on busy days. (Ref. Procedure Manual: 'Reaffirming Authority').

9.45am.Begin dealing with claims.

10.0am. Hurry off dealing with present claims for tea-break.

10.15-30am. (depending on what time tea-break started) Continue dealing with claims.

12.0 noon. 1st shift go out to lunch. Remember not to encourage bad habits by eating in the building. Combatants (Snoops, etc.) should not loiter outside unless seen eating something.

1.0pm. 2nd shift go out to lunch. Same procedure as first shift.

2.15pm. Tea-break. Same procedure as morning tea-break, but remember to collect all fractions of a penny that have been saved by rounding down on Giros for a raffle.

3.30pm. Close doors to the public. Finish off claims.

4.50pm. Gather in Snoops' reports. Send most junior member to post Giros so that he can be held blameworthy if Giros do not come on time.

5.0pm. Go home.


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