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EMBARKATION


Very early on Tuesday morning, John May arrived at his partners house in Chalk Farm to find him already outside, trying to close the doors of Almas van.

Theres a mile of string tied around this engine, he said, peering beneath the bonnet of the old white Bedford. It looks like its holding the distributor cap on.

Your obsession with reliability is misguided, Bryant replied cheerfully, opening the passenger door and checking the musty interior. My father used to make deliveries all across London in one of these, right through the 1950s. It took them ages to catch him. This was the sort of annoying remark Bryant was wont to make, in that it obscured as much information as it illuminated. Do you think it will hold the Garden of Eden?

Im sorry? May looked up from under the hood. His partners conversation always left you feeling youd missed something.

The closing night show is taking comparative religious myths as its theme. We need to get a hardboard Garden of Eden in the back, along with several apple trees, a horn of plenty, two plastic gazelles and a partial view of a mountain built for Almas church production of The Sound of Music thats still covered in goat pellets. Were staging the fall from grace without a volcano, as our Adam had to be taken to the infirmary suffering from smoke inhalation last time we ignited it. It wasnt my fault; the ventilation in St Peters Holborn is a disgrace. I suppose I made the production a touch too theatrical. When the snake turned into Satan accompanied by the detonation of an Ariel Bombshell, the ladies in the front row looked as if theyd just given birth.

The news that Bryant had reenacted the Creation in a city church came as no surprise to May. At this time of the year, and at a time in life when most men were fantasising about spending their afternoons in a soft armchair, Arthur was more likely to be found organising a conference for ufologists or leading a hunt across the East End in search of the Dagenham Strangler. He seemed able to draw on reserves of strength that powered him through the winter and propelled him towards another spring, much as a vehicle low on petrol might charge a hill in order to coast the next down slope.

At least you wont need to pack costumes. May chuckled.

Oh, we will. Theres Ganesh and Shiva, Buddha and Mohammad, plus robes, hats and props for their followers. We take a quick canter through all the major myths and legends. We usually manage to incorporate Arthurian and Celtic tales, too, if weve room to take the dragon. Sometimes we chuck in a bit of Hans Christian Andersen. Its all for charity, you see, Children in Poverty. We get the local school to help out, although never the Catholic ones, as theyre not keen on having their Lady of Grace sharing the stage with half a dozen trolls and an elephant-headed god covered in sparklers. Those who take their religion too literally can be very narrow-minded about such things. We try to show that whether youre pagan or Protestant, you can still learn something from those who draw strength from faith.

Are you telling me youve discovered faith in your old age? asked May.

Good heavens, no. Bryant readjusted his spectacles and squinted up at his partner with watery wide eyes. I just like a nice bit of theatre. Doesnt everyone?

When are we leaving?

Just as soon as we get these doors shut and I remember where I left my hearing aid batteries. We should be able to reach Plymouth by late afternoon, which will give us time to unload the van and set up for the start of the convention on Wednesday morning. It only lasts two days, climaxing with the awards ceremony and the show on Thursday evening. We can either stay overnight and set back first thing Friday morning, or leave the night before. Can I trust you to be captain of our supply team? Ive got enough to do just sorting out my pills.

What do I have to do?

Alma has manufactured a hundredweight of sandwiches for us to take along, and some of her special thick pea-and-ham soup that might come in handy for fixing radiator leaks. Shell give you the full list of comestibles.

Good heavens, were not going to the North Pole, Arthur.

Just as well, because its not there anymore, said Bryant gloomily. Global warming. I read in the paper that its melted clean away. I dont suppose Ill see a frozen landscape again in my lifetime.

Youre wrong about that, Mr. Bryant. Alma Sorrowbridge had come into the yard behind their home waving a copy of the Daily Mail. Blizzards, it says here, turning very nasty. Look at the forecast, the coldest winter in fifty years. Its snowing in Somerset, and going to get worse. The gritters are going on strike and the roads will be like ice. Decent people will freeze to death in their beds.

Always the bearer of cheering news, arent you? Bryant sighed, slamming the van doors with finality. She just wants me to cancel the trip because she doesnt approve of my multifaith approach to spiritualism. That, and the fact that last year we made a chapter of her evangelists gospel choir share their dressing room with a pair of Brahmins and some Hasidic Jews. Bryant neglected to mention that the choir had brought a family bucket of pork ribs into the dressing room and had almost started a war.

The doctrine of salvation by faith is the essence of gospel teaching, said Alma hotly. Its Protestant, not Pick n Mix. I dont approve of throwing all these religions together with nonbelievers.

Theres no such thing as a nonbeliever, Bryant stated. Everyone believes in something, whether it involves alien visitations or simply being nice to each other and repairing a fractured world with good deeds, a cabalistic lesson you might learn the next time you consider torturing me with your culinary experiments. Now be so kind as to go and finish packing my warm clothes.

It was a little after 8:15 A.M. when they embarked on their journey. John May had agreed to come along partly because his partner was not to be trusted with directions, but also because he had never shown an interest in Bryants enthusiasms, and had decided it was about time he did.

Ive planned our route, said Bryant, settling into the passenger seat and pulling the collar of an enormous astrakhan overcoat up around his ears. We need the A38, possibly via Bittaford and Moorhaven, assuming those villages are still there after two world wars. Perhaps we should stop and buy a more recent map. Do you think I should put a satellite navigation system in my Mini Cooper?

You are the last person in the world to be trusted with SatNav, May retorted. Remember what happened when you borrowed Dan Banburys car?

Oh, er, vaguely. Bryant sank further into his overcoat, recalling his flustered response to the insistent electronic voice warning him to turn right. It had led him into a closed street where work on the London Underground system was under way. Bryant surprised the railway workers by shooting Banburys vehicle into a trench filled with exposed electrical cabling for the Northern line. He had managed to shut down the City Branch during rush hour, and since then none of the electronic readouts in Banburys car had ever worked properly.

So whats our route? asked May.

We make our way to Hammersmith and get onto the M3 as far as Winchester, then head for Salisbury and Yeovil on the A30, switch to the A303, past Exmouth and Newton Abbot, skirt the southern edge of Dartmoor on the A3 8 and hit Plymouth by teatime. If were running ahead of schedule, we could visit my Auntie Dolly in Weymouth. She just had her telegram from the queen, and still does her own shopping, although some of the things she comes back with take some explaining.

AH right, Ill handle the M3 and you can take the back roads. Lets find a garage first. No doubt youll want to stock up on boiled sweets.

No, Ive taken to buying them wholesale. Ive got a pound of Rhubarb and Custards in the back, some Jelly Tots, and a half of Chocolate Limes. Do you want a Pear Drop?

No, acetone takes the roof off my mouth. You think Janice can manage looking after the PCU? Weve never left her in charge before.

Shell probably be better than you or I, Bryant told him. Well only be away for a couple of days. What could go wrong in that time?

What about April? Do you think shell be all right? I mean, now that weve talked about her mothers death.

I dont see why not. For heavens sake, stop fretting about everyone. Bryants thoughts were generally so abstracted that he found it hard to empathise with other peoples personal problems. April can call you if theres anything on her mind. Put your foot down, I have my heart set on a pint of scrumpy tonight.

May turned the ignition key. There was a grinding noise beneath the hood, then a peculiar squeaking sound.

Wait! Alma came running out. Open the bonnet! May did as he was told, and the landlady reappeared from beneath the hood with an armful of mewling kittens. They were keeping warm under there. Im minding them for a neighbour.

This time, the van started.

Im sure Im going to regret this, muttered May as he pulled out into the peristaltic column of traffic passing slowly through Chalk Farm.

Look at it this way, said Bryant, leafing through pages of villages that no longer existed. For the next three days you wont have to think about solving a single crime.


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