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Part Five
A History of Sponge in Medieval Europe

Shop fronts were dark and empty, shutters were drawn. The torrent of rush hour traffic had ebbed and dwindled to a trickle. Evening was drawing in and as the sky turned from deep orange to purple, and then to black, the party people began to emerge: people painted in bright colours and reeking of expensive perfume and aftershave. They swarmed towards the bright lights and the music; the 'in' places; the places to see and be seen.

Nigel sat on a wall and watched them for a while as they stumbled happily from one club to the next. He was in quite a happy mood himself. A carrier bag sat on the wall next to him and if you listened carefully you could just hear the gentle purr of exactly four hundred and twelve drugged crocodiles snoring their snouts off. It felt good to have done something positive, to have taken a stand, but Nigel realised that his little act of sabotage was only a temporary measure. The powers that be would soon find more crocodiles and the execution of Nigel's parents would go ahead as planned. Nigel had bought himself a little time to consider his next move - unaware that his mother and father were already at liberty.

As he watched the crowds come and go, a single figure suddenly caught his eye. He blinked and leaned forward. Across the road a podgy little girl with blond curls was weaving her way through the drunken hoards of happy idiots. Nigel watched her as she shouted at people and pushed them aside in order to get through.

There was no doubt about it: this was most certainly the same girl they had found in Nigel's bed; the very girl who had brought them all this trouble in the first place. Nigel picked up his bag of crocodiles and set off in pursuit of her.

Phlegm's was the kind of night-club that made every effort to attract a particularly select crowd: pop stars, high-fliers, fashion icons, and anyone else who didn't mind paying six and a half quid for a glass of Pernod with an umbrella in it. A line of hopeful punters shuffled warily through the entrance while huge bouncers stood to one side, turning people away at random, thus fostering the club's reputation for exclusivity.

"Hold it there sonny," one of the bouncers said as he stopped a young man dressed in several jumpers and a dirty overcoat. "We don't need your sort in here."

"I beg your pardon?" one Michael 'Scabby' Albatross replied indignantly. He took a step back and feigned offence. The bouncer was at least six feet wide and it was necessary for Scabby to be some distance from him in order to fit him into his field of vision. "I'll have you know that I'm an eccentric millionaire."

"Oh, is that right?" the bouncer replied, clearly not believing a word.

"Too right," said Scabby. "I've got my own airline, you know. And my own chain of burger bars. In fact I probably own this nightclub as well. Trouble is I own so much stuff that I find it difficult to keep track of it all."

The bouncer grinned and cracked his knuckles. "You know, you're the eleventh millionaire I've met tonight," he said. He shook his head, and muttered, "And they say there's a recession on."

"Ah well, we're on a day trip, you see," Scabby said. "We belong to a special millionaires club. It's very exclusive. So, how about letting me in?"

"How about I smash your stupid face off?" the bouncer countered.

Scabby looked at him uncertainly from the corner of his eye. "Is that a no?" he asked.

"That's a no," the bouncer confirmed, and he pushed Scabby backwards, sending him tumbling into the street.

The line started to move again. The bouncer let a few more people through before he stopped a grey-haired old man wearing a baseball cap and lycra running shorts.

"Hey what's going down dude?" the old man asked politely.

"Are you over eighteen?" the bouncer wanted to know.

"Chill out man," said the old guy. "I'm eighty-four, er, cat."

"That's all very well," said the bouncer. "But are you over eighteen?"

"Take it easy dude," the old man said. "All I want to do is rap with my homeboys and hang out with the posse, or something."

"I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you for some proof of your age," the bouncer said. "Have you got any identification on you?"

The old man handed over his bus pass. The bouncer examined it carefully. "This doesn't look very much like you," he said, pointing to the photo.

"I didn't have my teeth in when it was taken," the old boy explained.

The bouncer shook his head. "No sorry, you're not coming in. Sling yer hook."

The old guy trudged away disappointedly and the bouncer turned to the next person in the queue.

"Plumber!" announced Scabby, holding up a sink plunger and waving it under his nose. "Emergency drain operation." He tried to squeeze past.

"Funny that," the bouncer said. "We've also had half a dozen plumbers this evening." The bouncer swung him around and propelled him back out into the street.

Scabby landed on his backside in the middle of the road. "That's no way to treat a tradesman," he mumbled.

A shadow fell over him. Scabby squinted up at the dark silhouette as it reached out towards him. He took the outstretched paw and the figure pulled him to his feet.

"Oh," Scabby said disappointedly once he was upright. "It's you. I'd hoped you would have been dead by now."

"Oh that's nice," Nigel said. "It's good to see you too."

"What are you doing here?" Scabby asked.

"I was following a girl," said Nigel. "She went into that office block down there."

"Following a girl, were you?" Scabby said. "You can get into a lot of trouble like that, you know. This time next year you'll be stealing underwear from washing lines."

"No, listen, it was the girl from our house," said Nigel. "You know, the little fat girl that I found in my bed?"

Scabby looked down the street. "And you say she went in there?" he asked, indicating the dark office building silhouetted against the smoggy, sodium-lit sky. "That building is the headquarters Woolfe Enterprises," he said.

"Who?"

"B.B. Woolfe," Scabby explained. "He's a big property developer. He owns half this borough. You must have heard of B.B. Woolfe?"

Nigel shook his head. "No," he said. "But he sounds worthy of investigation."

"I know somebody who used to work for him," Scabby said. "His office is on the top floor. They say he likes to lean out of the window and gob on people walking by in the street below." Scabby giggled to himself. "God, I wish I could be that cool."

"Right," Nigel said. "You can help me break in."

"You what?" Scabby replied.

"We're going to break in and have a look around," Nigel said.

"Not me matey," said Scabby. "I'm going to have another go and trying to get into Phlegms." He leaned towards Nigel and spoke in a low voice. "I've heard that they serve a drink in there called a 'Bacardi Boomerang'."

"Oh," said Nigel, who wasn't particularly interested. "And it's supposed to be quite good, is it?"

"Good?" said Scabby. "It's like getting your tackle shut in a revolving door by Kylie Minogue."

"Ah, I see," said Nigel, who was none the wiser. "Oh look, they're never going to let you into that club. Come on, help me to break into Woolfe's office."

"You must be crazy," said Scabby. "Or drunk. That's it, you've been drinking."

"Me?" said Nigel. "I haven't touched a drop!"

"A likely story," said Scabby. "Nobody who is even remotely sober would ever dream of breaking into B.B. Woolfe's office. You must be smashed out of your tiny mind!"

Nigel stood erect and looked at him rather haughtily. When he spoke it was with exaggerated ire. "I most certainly am not drunk!" he protested. "Look, would I be able to do this if I was drunk?"

He leapt onto a wall and carefully began to walk its length. Then, about halfway along, he missed his footing and fell into a yellow plastic bin that was hanging on a lamppost. He breathed heavily, muttered something of little consequence to himself, then climbed out.

"Well," he said as he brushed soggy cigarette ends and cold chips out of his fur. "I think that proves my point. If I was drunk I would have missed that bin entirely."

There was a certain logic to that, thought Scabby. What was plain was that Nigel wasn't going to stop pestering him. "All right, so I'll help you," he said. "I think you're as mad as a bucket, but you're obviously not going to take no for an answer."

Sneaking around the back of the building they were able to reach the fire escape. Had they known at the time that it was only fixed to the wall with three screws and a knob of chewing gum at the top they might have thought twice about it, but luckily they managed to reach the gantry outside Mr. Woolfe's office in safety. It didn't take Nigel long to prise open the window, and the two of them clambered through.

"Piece of cake," Nigel whispered as he fumbled around in the darkness. "Can you find the light switch, before one of us breaks his neck?"

"Growl, growl, growl, growl," said a gruff voice from the darkness.

Nigel stood still. "I beg your pardon?" he asked.

"I didn't say a word," said Scabby.

They stood and listened, and the voice spoke again. "Woof, woof, growl, growl," it said.

Nigel stared into the darkness. "Who's there?" he called. As his eyes grew accustomed to the shadows, he could just make out a huddled shape and a pair of evil black eyes glinting in the light from the street lamps.

"Scabby, don't move!" he hissed. "I think there's a dog in here with us."

"You bet your bottom there is," growled the dog. "And I'm a bloody great Doberman as well, so you'd better flippin' watch it!"

"Scabby, it's a Doberman!" Nigel said.

"I know, I know - I heard!" Scabby replied. He bumped against the desk, reaching out and feeling for the lamp. With a sharp click he switched it on. It cast a bright circle of light onto the floor, and standing illuminated in the middle, looking pretty ferocious, was a lethal, vicious, snarling Yorkshire terrier.

Nigel suddenly found himself overwhelmed by the urge to laugh.

"What are you giggling at?" snapped the terrier, clearly offended by this reaction.

"I thought you said you were a Doberman?" chuckled Nigel.

"I am," said the terrier. "So don't argue with me, matey, or I'll have your flippin' leg off."

"Are you sure about this?" Nigel asked him. "I always thought Dobermans were great big animals, the size of a small horse."

"Yep, that's me!" said the dog. "And I'm lethal, so you'd better be bloody well frightened."

Nigel stifled his laughter and turned to look briefly at Scabby, but it was clear from his expression that he didn't know what to make of it either.

"All right," Nigel said thoughtfully as he turned back to the dog. "Let's just get a couple of things straight, shall we. You - despite your claims to the contrary - appear to be a small and rather insignificant little Yorkshire terrier. I, on the other hand, am a grizzly bear with sharp claws and vicious teeth, which means I could probably knock seven bells out of you without having to be in the same room. So give me one good reason why I should be frightened?"

"Look pal," said the dog, who was beginning to get a little annoyed. "I should be very careful what you say to me. I admit that I may not look all that terrifying, but one wrong move and your number's up."

Nigel just scoffed. "Go on, pull the other one!" he said.

The dog made a sudden movement, but Scabby saw what he was up to. "Get down, he's got a gun!" he shouted, and bundled Nigel to the floor. The bullet whistled harmlessly over their heads, ricocheted from a picture frame, glanced off a filing cabinet and shot out of the window in the direction of Heathrow Airport. From here it took the three-thirty flight to Madrid where it did a spot of shopping, picked up some souvenirs, then journeyed overland to Calais and caught the ferry back to Dover. From Dover it was able to hitchhike the rest of the way home.

Nigel and Scabby were just getting to their feet when the bullet, now wearing a sombrero, and carrying two bottles of duty free sherry and a raffia-work donkey, flew back through the window and killed the dog.

With a sigh of relief, Nigel stepped over the dog and crossed to the other side of the room. In the light of the desk lamp he had noticed the curious display laid out on a table opposite. It was a little model landscape, complete with trees and intricately detailed houses, and for some reason it seemed strangely familiar to young Nigel.

"This is where I live," he suddenly said. "Yes, I'm sure of it! This is my neighbourhood... but my house doesn't seem to be on it. There's a big ugly building there instead." He beckoned to Scabby. "Bring that lamp over here so I can seem more clearly."

Suddenly the main light was switched on. Nigel wheeled around. There was a figure in the doorway. He was wearing a dark suit and a long coat, and a broad brimmed felt hat cast a shadow over his face, obscuring his features.

"Is that better?" he purred in a soft, velvet voice.

Nigel was thrown into panic. "I can explain everything," he said hurriedly. "My name is Heinrich Plankton. I am a seafood salesman from Munich. I was just passing the building when I smelt something fishy, so I - "

"It's Mr. Woolfe!" Scabby exclaimed.

Woolfe stepped forward. "Well, I wouldn't want to keep you gentlemen in the dark," he said, most charmingly. "The building you referred to is the proposed design for my latest project: The Woolfe International Refuge for Bewildered Sheep. It's a sort of ovine health centre."

"You want to demolish our house and build a holiday camp for sheep?" Nigel asked in a startled voice.

"Oh dear, you make it sound so sordid," said Woolfe, "But essentially that's the nub of the matter. I made several attempts to buy the property, but your father refused every offer I made. So, you see, my only option was to become more... persuasive."

"What are you saying?" Nigel said.

"I'm saying that I needed to stir things up a little bit," Woolfe told him.

Nigel nodded. "I see," he said. "It was you who sent the little fat girl round."

"My niece," said Woolfe, nodding. "Delightful, isn't she? She was supposed to burn the place down, but the plan went somewhat awry. She does get so excitable. Still, it hasn't turned out too badly in the end. With your parents safely out of the way, the house will be mine."

"Oh no it won't," Nigel said. "The house will become mine."

"Not," Woolfe said ominously, and it would have been useful at that point if he'd had some sort of dramatic backing music, "if you're dead!"

He stepped forward, and as he did so the light fell onto his face. Nigel flinched. It was an ugly, demonic visage, covered in coarse hair. He had a long snout, a black nose shining wetly and his cheeks were stretched tightly over his pointed teeth.

"You're a wolf!" Nigel exclaimed.

"Yes, that is my name," Woolfe confirmed.

"Yes, but you actually are a real wolf," said Nigel.

"Don't be ridiculous," replied Mr. Woolfe. "I'm a successful businessman."

"No you're not," Nigel argued. "You're a successful businesswolf."

"Businessman!"

"Wolf!"

"Businessman!"

"You must be a wolf," said Nigel. "I mean, look what big eyes you've got."

"All the better to read the fine print in dodgy contracts," explained Mr. Woolfe.

"But what big ears you've got!"

"All the better to overhear what my staff are saying about me behind my back," said Mr. Woolfe.

"And my, what bad breath you've got!"

"Well nobody's perfect," said Mr. Woolfe. "It proves nothing!"

"But Mr. Woolfe, what big teeth you've got!" Nigel said.

"All the better to rip your throat out and devour your carcass with," said Woolfe.

"Ha, what a giveaway!" cried Nigel in triumph.

Mr. Woolfe scowled and snapped his fingers. Two hired thugs entered, both of them trying to walk through the doorway at the same time. After much jostling and struggling they eventually forced their way through, bringing the doorframe and much of the partition wall with them.

"Gentlemen," said Mr. Woolfe. "We have intruders."

The two thugs glanced about frantically. They always got confused when there were more than two people in the room. Mr. Woolfe whistled to them.

"I'm over here," he said patiently, then pointed to Nigel and Scabby. "These two vandals have forced their way into my office. I want you to take them outside and teach them a lesson."

Woolfe winked at them and the thugs signalled that they understood. They manhandled Nigel and Scabby out of the room, into the lift and then out of the building. Then they took them into an empty back street and gave them an hour of geography and an essay on economics to complete by Tuesday.

Nigel and Scabby fled the scene as quickly as they could, clutching their homework beneath their arms. Once they were far enough away they stopped to catch their breath.

"That was close," Nigel gasped.

"Close!" said Scabby. "We're finished, you fool. Woolfe is not the sort of person you mess with. He'll soon have someone after us to finish the job."

"He wouldn't dare," Nigel said. "We'll go to the police."

"And tell them what, exactly?" said Scabby. "That Woolfe framed your parents? The fact is we've got no evidence. Who are the police going to believe - us, or a highly influential and much respected businessman like B.B. Woolfe?"

"Well, we'll have to think of something else," Nigel said optimistically.

"No, you'll have to think of something else," Scabby told him. "I'm sorry, but you've got me into enough trouble as it is. I've been dumb, really dumb. I should never have got involved with you in the first place."

He started to leave. "You can't just go!" Nigel called after him. "Not after everything we've been through together." Scabby didn't even look back. He reached the bottom of the street, turned the corner and that was the last that Nigel saw of him.

A spot of rain fell on the young bear's face and trickled down the bridge of his nose. Nigel looked up into the dark, murky sky as the rain clouds gathered, and he realised that his chief concern right now was to find shelter. He hefted his bag of crocodiles onto his shoulder and began walking. After about half a mile he decided to chance his arm by knocking on the front door of the Robinson family house and attempting to convince them that he was their long lost Uncle Frederick.

They were a little puzzled at first. As far as they could remember their long lost Uncle Frederick had never been a grizzly bear. Nigel explained that he had not been feeling well lately and the Robinsons, although initially a little dubious, gave him the benefit of the doubt and let him in.

Mrs. Robinson made up a room for him and suggested that he make use of the bathroom facilities. He declined at first, not wanting to put the family to too much trouble, but Mrs. Robinson insisted and pointed out - very politely, Nigel thought - that he stank like a sack of manure. Nigel sniffed at his fur and came to the conclusion that she was probably right.

Half a bottle of bubble bath later, Nigel slid slowly into the hot water and disappeared beneath the frothy foam. Never had a tub full of soapy warm water felt so good. He lay back and relaxed as long slicks of dirt spread out across the surface. For a while he was able to forget his troubles. All his worries dissolved into the water along with the dust and the grime, and he became quite playful. He splashed about in the foam and played submarines with his parrot. Then he tried to see if he could get his toe wedged up the hot water tap, and managed to get his whole foot stuck up there, which he was quite pleased about.

Eventually, after topping up the bath with hot water for the fourth time, it started to lap over the sides and Nigel decided that he ought to get out. He dried himself, wrapped himself in a robe and went downstairs. The snooker on the television had been cancelled because the reigning champion had been mauled by a rhino, so the Robinsons had decided to play scrabble instead. It wasn't a game that Nigel was particularly fond of but the Robinsons persuaded him to join in nonetheless. Twenty minutes into the game he was losing dismally, then suddenly he got a lucky break.

"Ha ha!" he cried triumphantly in Mr. Robinson's ear. "I've got a seven letter word!" He began to lay the tiles down on the board, spelling it out as he did so. "L, V, I, A, S, O, L."

Mrs. Robinson looked anxiously at her husband. "Oh I don't know about that one, do you Dennis?"

Mr. Robinson puffed a little harder on his pipe. "What is it supposed to spell?" he asked.

"Well," said Nigel as he studied the board. "It spells 'lviasol' doesn't it?"

Great clouds of smoke emerged from the bowl of Mr. Robinson's pipe as he puffed more furiously. "And what exactly does 'lviasol' mean?"

Nigel chewed his bottom lip as he considered his answer. "Ah, now, it's a bird, I think. Yes, a type of small green bird that lives under the ice in Norway and eats baked beans."

"Baked beans?" Mr. Robinson asked, his entire head now completely engulfed in tobacco smoke.

"Yes, they're small, orange, err... beans," Nigel said helpfully. "Surely you've heard of them?"

"And this bird eats baked beans?" Mrs. Robinson asked, a worried frown on her face as she leaned forward.

"Mostly baked beans, yes," Nigel affirmed. "Sometimes small fish or liver pâté sandwiches."

Mr. Robinson was disinclined to pursue the matter. He gave up and declared Nigel the winner. Besides, the two children, Billy and Bertie, were bored with scrabble and wanted to hear a story before they went to bed. Billy and Bertie were twins and it was often quite difficult to tell them apart, but if one was very observant one could detect slight differences. Billy, for example, was freckle faced and had a wild mop of ginger hair, whereas Bertie was forty-six year old accountant with a moustache and an extra arm in the middle of his chest.

"Please can we have a story, Uncle Freddy?" Billy pleaded as he shunted his toy train along the floor. "Pleasey, weasey, please, Uncle Fredikins?"

"Yes, could we possibly have a story please, Frederick?" Bertie said as he looked up from his paperwork.

"No," said Nigel.

"Oh please, Uncle Freddy-weddy?" Billy whined. "Can we have the one about Little Red Riding Hood?"

"What about the story of the Wolverhampton Chainsaw Massacre?" Nigel suggested.

Billy was quite adamant. "Red Riding Hood!" he demanded. Nigel agreed, fearing he might blow his cover if he made too much of a scene.

"Once upon a time," he began, "there was a girl called Red Riding Hood, a curious name for a little girl, you might think, but then - "

"Get on with it!"

"All right," said Nigel. "Well, Little Red Riding Hood was a spoilt little bitch, who kept demanding that people tell her stories. Anyway, one day she went to Wolverhampton and was killed in a chainsaw accident."

"Oh no she wasn't."

"Oh yes she was," said Nigel. "I should know, she used to live next door to us. She was definitely killed in a chainsaw accident. It was a horrible mess. There was a double page spread in the paper the next day."

"Just a minute," said Mrs. Robinson. She suddenly stood up. "Something has just occurred to me."

"What is it?" her husband asked as he gently placed his pipe down on the coffee table.

Mrs. Robinson turned to Nigel and looked at him though narrowed eyes. "We haven't got an Uncle Frederick."

Nigel was kicked out into the street. Again. By now he was becoming quite accustomed to the feeling of his backside sliding across the tarmac. In fact, he thought, in many ways it was quite a pleasant way to travel, as long as you didn't mind the friction burns. He reckoned that with a little more practice he could become quite expert at this. He came to a sudden stop when his head connected with a wall. Obviously steering was a problem.

He got up, feeling a little dizzy, and looked back to the Robinsons' house, some hundred metres back up the road. Ah well, it had been nice while it had lasted. Now he was faced with the prospect of finding a convenient doorway to doss down in. He shivered and thought of his own bed as he looked up at the black clouds scudding over the rooftops.

Suddenly he decided that he wanted to go home. He realised that it would be dangerous: it would probably be the first place that B.B. Woolfe would consider looking for him, but he found that he really didn't care anymore. He wanted to sleep in his own room; to have his own things around him. He took a moment just to get his bearings, then started to walk.

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