5,127
26.12.2018

And every one, except for the dog, who was sniggering, had his mouth open.

The handleman’s hand was still turning the handle. He looked down at it as if its presence was new to him, and stopped.

Dibbler seemed to come out of whatever trance he was in.

‘Whoo-hoo,’ he said: ‘Blimey.’

‘Magic,’ breathed Soll. ‘Real magic.’

Dibbler nudged the handleman.

‘Did you get all that?’ he said.

‘Get what?’ said Ginger and Victor together.

Then Victor noticed Morry sitting on the sand. There was a sizeable chip out of his arm; Rock was trowelling something into it. The troll noticed Victor’s expression and gave him a sickly grin.

‘Fink you’re Cohen the Barbarian, do you?’ he said.

‘Yeah,’ said Rock. ‘There was no call to go callin’ him wot you called him. An’ if you’re going to go doin’ fancy swordwork, we’re applyin’ for an extra dollar a day Havin’-Bits-Chopped-Off allowance.’

Victor’s sword had several nicks on the blade. For the life of him, he couldn’t imagine how they had got there.

‘Look,’ he said desperately. ‘I don’t understand. I didn’t call anyone anything. Have we started filming yet?’

‘One minute I’m sitting in a tent, next minute I’m breathing camel,’ said Ginger petulantly. ‘Is it too much to ask what is going on?’

But no-one seemed to be listening to them.

‘Why can’t we find a way of getting sound?’ said Dibbler. ‘That was damn good dialogue there. Didn’t understand a word of it, but I know good dialogue when I hear it.’

‘Parrots,’ said the handleman flatly. ‘Your common Howondaland Green. Amazing bird. Memory like an elephant. Get a couple of dozen in different sizes and you’ve got a full vocal-‘

That launched a detailed technical discussion.

Victor let himself slide off the camel’s back and ducked under its neck to reach Ginger.

‘Listen,’ he said urgently. ‘It was just like last time. Only stronger. Like a sort of dream. The handleman started to take pictures and it was just like a dream.’

‘Yes, but what did we actually do?’ she said.

‘What you did,’ said Rock, ‘was gallop the camel up to the tent, leap off, come at us like a windmill-‘

‘-leapin’ on rocks and laughin’-‘said Morry.

‘Yeah, you said to Morry, “Have at you, you Foul Black Guard,” ‘ said Rock. ‘And then you caught him a right ding on the arm, cut a hole in the tent-‘

‘Good sword work, though,’ said Morry appraisingly. ‘A bit showy, but pretty good.’

‘But I don’t know how to-‘ Victor began.

‘-and she was lying there all longgrass,’ said Rock. ‘An’ you swept her up, and she said-‘

‘Long grass?’ said Ginger weakly.

‘Languorous,’ said Victor. ‘I think he means languorous.’

‘-she said, “Why, it is the Thief of : . . the Thief of . . . ” ‘ Rock hesitated. ‘Dad’s Bag, I think you said.’

‘Bagged Dad,’ said Morry, rubbing his arm.

‘Yeah, an’ then she said, “You are in great danger, for my father has sworn to kill you”, and Victor said “But now, o fairest rose, I can reveal that I am really the Shadow of the Dessert-” ‘

‘What’s languorous mean?’ said Ginger suspiciously.

‘An’ he said, “Fly with me now to the casbah”, or something like that, an’ then he gave her this, this, thing humans do with their lips-‘

‘Whistle?’ said Victor, with hopeless hope.

‘Nah, the other thing. Sounds like a cork coming out of a bottle,’ said Rock.

‘Kiss,’ said Ginger, coldly.

‘Yeah. Not that I’m any judge,’ said Rock, ‘but it seemed to go on for a while. Definitely very, you know, kissy.’

‘I thought it was going to be bucket-of-water time myself,’ said a quiet canine voice behind Victor. He kicked out backwards, but failed to connect.

‘And then he was back on the camel and dragged her up and Mr Dibbler shouted “Stop, stop, what the hell’s going on, why won’t anyone tell me what the hell’s going on,” ‘ said Rock. ‘And then you said “What happened?” ‘

‘Don’t know when I last saw swordplay like that,’ said Morry.

‘Oh,’ said Victor. ‘Well. Thank you.’

‘All that shouting “Ha!” and “Have at you, you dog”. Very professional,’ said Morry.

‘I see,’ said Victor. He reached sideways and grabbed Ginger’s arm.

‘We’ve got to talk,’ he hissed. ‘Somewhere quiet. Behind the tent.’

‘If you think I’m going anywhere alone with you-‘she began.

‘Listen, this is no time to start acting like-‘

A heavy hand settled on Victor’s shoulder. He turned, and saw the shape of Detritus eclipsing the world.

‘Mr Dibbler doesn’t want anyone running off,’ he said. ‘Everyone has to stay until Mr Dibbler says.’

‘You’re a real pain, you know,’ said Victor. Detritus gave him a big, gem-studded grin. [13]

‘Mr Dibbler says I can be a vice-president,’ he said proudly.

‘In charge of what?’ said Victor.

‘Vice-presidents,’ said Detritus.

Gaspode the Wonder Dog made a little growling sound at the back of his throat. The camel, which had been idly staring at the sky, sidled around a bit and suddenly lashed out with a kick that caught the troll in the small of the back. Detritus yelped. Gaspode gave the world a look of satisfied innocence.

‘Come on,’ said Victor grimly. ‘While he’s trying to find something to hit the camel with.’

They sat down in the shade behind the tent.

‘I just want you to know’, said Ginger coldly, ‘that I have never attempted to look languorous in my life.’

‘Could be worth a try,’ said Victor, absently.

‘What?’

‘Sorry. Look, something made us act like that. I don’t know how to use a sword. I’ve always just waved it around. What did you feel like?’

‘You know how you feel when you hear someone say something and you realize you’ve been daydreaming?’

‘It was like your own life fading away and something else filling up the space.’

They considered this in silence.

‘Do you think it’s something to do with Holy Wood?’ she said.

Victor nodded. Then he threw himself sideways and landed on Gaspode, who had been watching them intently.

‘Yelp,’ said Gaspode.

‘Now listen,’ Victor hissed into his ear, ‘No more of these hints. What is it that you noticed about us? Otherwise it’s Detritus for you. With mustard.’

The dog squirmed in his grip.

‘Or we could make you wear a muzzle,’ said Ginger.

‘I ain’t dangerous!’ wailed Gaspode, scrabbling with his paws in the sand.

‘A talking dog sounds pretty dangerous to me,’ said Victor.

‘Dreadfully,’ said Ginger. ‘You never know what it might say.’

‘See? See?’ said Gaspode mournfully. ‘I knew it’d be nothing but trouble, showin’ I can talk. It shouldn’t happen to a dog.’

‘But it’s going to,’ said Victor.

‘Oh, all right. All right. For what good it’ll do,’ muttered Gaspode.

Victor relaxed. The dog sat up and shook sand off himself.

‘You won’t understand it, anyway,’ he grumbled. ‘Another dog would understand, but you won’t. It’s down to species experience, see. Like kissing. You know what it’s like, but I don’t. It’s not a canine experience.’ He noticed the warning look in Victor’s eyes, and plunged on, ‘It’s’ the way you look as if you belong here.’ He watched them for a moment. ‘See? See?’ he said. ‘I tole you you wouldn’t understand. It’s – it’s territory, see? You got all the signs of bein’ right where you should be. Nearly everyone else here is a stranger, but you aren’t. Er. Like, you mus’ have noticed where some dogs bark at you when you’re new to a place? It’s not jus’ smell, we got this amazin’ sense of displacement. Like, some humans get uncomfortable when they see a picture hung crooked? It’s like that, only worse. It’s kind of like the only place you ought to be now is here.’ He looked at them again, and then industriously scratched an ear.

‘What the hell,’ he said. ‘The trouble is, I can explain it in Dog but you only listen in Human.’

‘It sounds a bit mystical to me,’ said Ginger.

‘You said something about my eyes,’ said Victor.

‘Yeah, well. Have you looked at your own eyes?’ Gaspode nodded at Ginger. ‘You too, miss.’

‘Don’t be daft,’ said Victor. ‘How can we look at our own eyes?’

Gaspode shrugged. ‘You could look at each other’s,’ he suggested.

They automatically turned to face each other.

There was a long drawn-out moment. Gaspode employed it to urinate noisily against a tent peg.

Eventually Victor said, ‘Wow.’

Ginger said, ‘Mine, too?’

‘Yes. Doesn’t it hurt?’

‘You should know.’

‘There you are, then,’ said Gaspode. ‘And you look at Dibbler next time you see him. Really look, I mean.’

Victor rubbed his eyes, which were beginning to water. ‘It’s as though Holy Wood has called us here, is doing something to us and has, has-‘

‘-branded us,’ said Ginger bitterly. ‘That’s what it’s done.’

‘It, er, it does look quite attractive, actually,’ said Victor gallantly. ‘Gives them a sort of sparkle.’

A shadow fell across the sand.

‘Ah, there you are,’ said Dibbler. He put his arms around their shoulders as they stood up, and gave them a sort of hug. ‘You young people, always going off alone together,’ he said archly. ‘Great business. Great business. Very romantic. But we’ve got a click to make, and I’ve got lots of people standing around waiting for you, so let’s do it.’

‘See what I mean?’ muttered Gaspode, very quietly.

When you knew what you were looking for, you couldn’t miss it.

In the centre of both of Dibbler’s eyes was a tiny golden star.

In the heartlands of the great dark continent of Klatch the air was heavy and pregnant with the promise of the coming monsoon.

Bullfrogs croaked in the rushes[14] by the slow brown river. Crocodiles dozed on the mudflats.

Nature was holding its breath.

A cooing broke out in the pigeon loft of Azhural N’choate, stock dealer. He stopped dozing on the veranda, and went over to see what had caused the excitement.

In the vast pens behind the shack a few threadbare bewilderbeests, marked down for a quick sale, yawning and cudding in the heat, looked up in alarm as N’choate leapt the veranda steps in one bound and tore towards them.

He rounded the zebra pens and homed in on his assistant M’Bu, who was peacefully mucking out the ostriches.

‘How many-‘ he stopped, and began to wheeze.

M’Bu, who was twelve years old, dropped his shovel and patted him heavily on the back.

‘How many-‘ he tried again.

‘You been overdoing it again, boss?’ said M’Bu in a concerned voice.

‘How many elephants we got?’

‘I just done them,’ said M’Bu. ‘We got three.’

‘Are you sure?’

‘Yes, boss,’ said M’Bu, evenly. ‘It’s easy to be sure, with elephants.’

Azhural crouched in the red dust and hurriedly began to scrawl figures with a stick.

‘Old Muluccai’s bound to have half a dozen,’ he muttered. ‘And Tazikel’s usually got twenty or so, and then the people on the delta generally have-‘

‘Someone want elephants, boss?’

‘-got fifteen head, he was telling me, plus also there’s a load at the logging camp probably going cheap, call it two dozen-‘

‘Someone want a lot of elephants, boss?’

‘-was saying there’s a herd over T’etse way, shouldn’t be a problem, then there’s all the valleys over towards-‘

M’Bu leaned on the fence and waited.

‘Maybe two hundred, give or take ten,’ said Azhural, throwing down the stick. ‘Nowhere near enough.’

‘You can’t give or take ten elephants, boss,’ said M’Bu firmly. He knew that counting elephants was a precision job. A man might be uncertain about how many wives he had, but never about elephants. Either you had one, or you didn’t.

‘Our agent in Klatch has an order for’, Azhural swallowed, ‘a thousand elephants. A thousand! Immediately! Cash on delivery!’