Nigel woke, damp and bitterly cold, at the edge of a little clearing in the Enchanted Forest. He had journeyed northwards through the night, wending his way across the sleeping city until he had reached this glade. It had been his intention to travel on until he reached home, but at about half past midnight he had become weary and footsore. After settling down to rest for a while on a bed of moss and wet leaves, he had unwittingly fallen asleep.
He raised himself and stretched his aching body, working the cramp from his legs. Then he moved into the sunlight so that something of the cold dawn rays might warm his body. His stomach growled, startling him. The last meal he had eaten had been before the trial when he and Scabby had dined on the cruddy bits that they had collected from a dozen discarded Kentucky Fried Chicken boxes. But things would be very different now that he was on his own territory. He had learned the ways of the forest, he knew its many secrets and he was confident that he could survive in style.
He set to work. Making use of an old tree stump, two young saplings and an outboard motor, he constructed an ingenious contrivance to waylay passing carrots. The trap set, he decided to go for a walk, but as he stepped out of the tangled undergrowth he was halted by the sight of two figures further up the path ahead of him.
"Ho there! From whence doest thou come, and what business hast thou at such an ungodly hour?" one of them called out to him.
"Come again?" shouted Nigel.
The two figures came slowly towards him. The sun was directly behind them and Nigel could make out little, except that one of them appeared to be riding a very small pony.
"'Tis but six-thirty," called the stranger. "A time when most civil men are tight asleep in their beds. Or perchance thou flees from some wench's bed before her husband returns to split thy goodly cranium asunder with a mighty steel axe?" The stranger laughed heartily and mightily.
"Err, no, not really," said Nigel, somewhat confused. "Who are you?"
The newcomers were close enough now to be seen clearly. One was a knight dressed in rusty armour who sat atop a magnificent black pig, as apparently there was a shortage of horses in these parts. The other was his serf, a young boy dressed in rags who trudged uneasily by his side.
"My name sir," proclaimed the Knight, "is Sir Jickle-Spirit. Allow me to introduce my companion, Tom." Tom smiled weakly and lifted his hand in greeting. "I'm afraid you must excuse him," said the Knight. "We have been at large all night slaying maidens and rescuing dragons. My friend is new to the profession and I regret that so far he has proved unable to stand the pace."
Sir Jickle-Spirit's pig started chewing Nigel's feet. Nigel shook himself free and stepped back a pace. "Shouldn't it be the other way round?" he asked.
"What?" Sir Jickle-Spirit asked, looking momentarily flustered. In one smooth movement he threw up his arms and fell off his pig.
"You said that you've been slaying maidens and rescuing dragons," said Nigel. "Well shouldn't it be the other way round?"
"Believe me, if you'd seen some of the maidens that hang about with us you'd feel pretty much the same way." The Knight paused for a moment to take in a lung full of fresh, morning air. He decided he liked it and paused again to fill the other lung. Then he tried to climb back on the pig, which was snapping viciously at his ankles. "And so, pray tell us how you came to be here, young sir?" he asked as he struggled.
"Forsooth!" Nigel began, deciding he'd better get into the spirit of the encounter. "Gadzooks and verily, and all that kind of stuff. I am journeying home, there to rest and gather strength, and plot to free my captured parents who are at this moment languishing in the dungeons of the Castle of Old Bill, awaiting execution by crocodile."
"What ho!" cried the Knight, as the pig dug its incisors into his shinbone. "You are surely a lad of great spirit! I wish we could stay and help, but alas, we are away to battle the evil hag Moorwaaga."
"Who's she then?" Nigel inquired. "Do I know her at all?"
"Ah, that is another story," said the Knight, and having successfully remounted his pig he and his serf promptly rode off into another story.
Nigel watched him go. "Strange man," he muttered to himself, then returned to his trap to discover that he had caught a fine crop of carrots. He ate hungrily, then set off once more towards home.
Nature thrives, even in the largest cities. In these ugly, urban sprawls it is still possible to be woken by birdsong. If one is about early enough it is not uncommon to see the odd fox scavenging amongst the dustbins of side street takeaways; and field mice and hedgehogs have moved in next door to mankind, having forsaken the fields and woodlands for concrete forests.
A single unmarked police car turned into the main road and a herd of majestic wildebeest parted to let it through. The elephants drinking at a nearby water hole looked up as the car passed, and startled giraffes shinned up telegraph poles where they would remain for the rest of the day, throwing coconuts down at terrified pedestrians.
Detective Inspector Lionel Crump looked sleepily out of the window as they were passed by a milk float for the third time that morning. "Can't we go any faster?" he asked Sergeant Pinewood.
Pinewood gripped the steering wheel tightly and made a point of glancing in the mirror. "To go any faster would endanger the lives of innocent civilians going about their ordinary workaday lives," he said. "Twenty-five miles an hour is the optimum safe limit in these conditions."
"There are no other people about, not at this time in the morning," Crump reasoned. His stomach gurgled, embarrassingly loud in the confines of the car. Early morning starts always upset his stomach. "We're in pursuit of dangerous criminals, remember? If they're heading for the house, then I want to make sure I get there before them."
"There's really no hurry," Pinewood reminded him. "Sergeant Trumpet and his men have had the house under surveillance since the Bears escaped."
"Exactly," Crump said dismally. "This is the same Sergeant Trumpet that reported his own squad car missing after forgetting where he'd parked it. I wouldn't trust Trumpet to pick his own nose without falling in, so if it's all the same to you I'd rather be at the house myself if and when the Bears show up."
"Well, I'm sorry," said Pinewood. "But I would feel uncomfortable if we drove any faster."
Crump just grunted. He turned to look out of the rear window as another milk float zoomed past them. PC Gibbon and Pinewood's horse were sitting in the back seat and they both grinned back at him.
Inspector Crump turned back. "And was it absolutely necessary to bring that filthy, disease ridden creature with us?" he asked.
"As I recall," said Pinewood, "it was your idea to bring PC Gibbon."
"I meant the horse," said Crump. "Couldn't you have left it behind just this once?"
"It's a vital piece of police equipment," Pinewood said.
"Just put your foot down, all right?" Crump replied. "Or I'll send both you and your damn horse back to Canada in so many pieces that it'll take ten years to put them back together again."
Sergeant Pinewood grudgingly obeyed. The needle on the speedometer gradually crept from twenty-five to twenty-seven. The G-force was almost unbearable. Then something weird happened. Swiftly and silently an eerie green fog descended around them, almost totally obscuring the road and all the buildings that they passed.
"What the hell's that?" said Crump.
"It's an eerie green fog that's suddenly descended around us, obscuring the road and all the buildings that we pass," said PC Gibbon helpfully.
"I can see that, Gibbon," Crump replied sarcastically. "I really don't think you should open your mouth too often, just in case your brain decides to make a run for it."
"Well I hadn't said anything for a while," Gibbon explained defensively. "I didn't want you to think I'd been kidnapped, or fallen into an interspatial warp matrix interface, or anything like that."
"We're not blessed with that sort of good fortune, Gibbon," Crump said dryly.
The fog became thicker, until it was hardly possible to see the road at all. Sergeant Pinewood slowed to a crawl, in spite of Crump's efforts to urge him on faster.
"We can't go any faster," Pinewood protested. "We might hit something."
"I'm telling you to go faster," Crump insisted. "That's an order."
And then they hit something: something rather large and metallic.
"We wouldn't have hit that if you'd been going faster," Inspector Crump said beneath his breath.
Crump and Pinewood got out of the car. The fog was cold and reluctant to let them through, but they shunned its fumbling advances and moved towards the strange object with which they had collided. It was vast, stretching right across the road and squatting there like a giant rugby ball. There was a faint drone of machinery coming from its innards, though in this frozen air it sounded more like a distant, mournful wail.
"It couldn't be, could it?" Pinewood said. He reached out to touch the surface of the object: smooth metal, which softly pulsated with an emerald green light. "Impossible," he breathed.
Crump's stomach was now even more unsettled. He looked round nervously. There was no one else around - no one, that is, except two morris dancers standing on the pavement, who were also transfixed by the strange object.
"Pinewood!" Crump hissed. "This... This is a spaceship!"
As he finished speaking there was a click, a loud hiss and a door began to open in the belly of the object. Crump's heart leapt into his mouth and he and Pinewood took a step backwards. A brilliant white light flared towards them, forcing them to look away. The glare seemed to cling to their faces for a while, then it softened and they were able to see that a ramp had been extended from the opening.
They waited silently. The fog grew denser. You could have heard a pin drop, but you wouldn't have been able to see to pick it up. Then something appeared in the opening and began to lumber down the ramp. The air suddenly heaved and rolled with the rasping sound of its laboured breathing. It walked uneasily, with a gait suggestive of some creature unfamiliar with Earth's gravity.
As it came closer they could make out more detail. It was vaguely humanoid: it had a head, a body, two arms and two legs, although they weren't necessarily in the same order. Its skin was scaly and of a mottled brown and green colour. Lumps of it were inclined to drop off at awkward moments. Its head was large in relation to its body; its three eyes were wide and penetrating. Its nose was non-existent and its mouth was just a thin-lipped flap.
When it reached the bottom of the ramp it turned slowly and moved over to the large dent where the car had struck the side of the ship. When it spoke its voice gurgled in its throat, almost like a growl.
"Why don't you look where you're going?" it said. "You bloody maniac, you shouldn't be allowed on the road."
Crump was speechless, but only momentarily. Alien or not, he wasn't going to let anyone speak to him like that. "You've got a nerve!" he said. "Do you realise you're causing an obstruction?"
"Well that doesn't give you the right to ram me, does it?" argued the Alien.
"Look, I don't think you realise who you're talking to," said Crump, rather pompously. "I happen to be Detective Inspector Lionel Crump of the Metropolitan Police Slightly Serious Crime Squad."
"I don't care if you're Lord Zog, the infamous pig swindler of Xon 4 - you're not getting away with this," said the Alien. "Now, if you'd kindly give me your insurance details..."
Sergeant Crump's manner suddenly changed. After all, these incidents can count against promotion. "Well there's no need to take the matter that far," he said in more reasonable tones. "I'm sure we can work something out. It's really only a scratch."
The Alien was livid and its ears suddenly swelled to three times their normal size, which is what happens to aliens when they're livid. "Only a scratch!" it growled. "Look at the size of that dent! I've been through meteor storms and come out with smaller craters than that."
"Oh it'll knock out all right," Crump assured him. "All you need is a bit of filler and a few coats of paint."
"This is a highly technological piece of equipment," said the Alien. "It's not a clapped out 1978 Ford Cortina with a dodgy wing. It'll take more than a few coats of paint to put this right, I can tell you. Do you realise how difficult it is to get a colour match for softly pulsating emerald green? The whole thing will have to be re-sprayed."
"Well there's no way I'm going to pay for a complete re-spray," Crump said emphatically. "I'm more than willing to pay for the damage, but don't try to pull a fast one on me, sunshine."
Whilst they had been arguing, Sergeant Pinewood had been pacing ponderously around the edge of the craft, and presently he returned to them. "Excuse me sir," he said, addressing the Alien. "I assume you're a sir, though it is somewhat difficult to tell as you have no wobbly bits - well not in the same places that we have them anyway."
"What is it, Sergeant?" Crump asked impatiently.
"Well I just noticed that the Alien gentleman's road tax has expired," said Pinewood.
"Has it really?" Crump said with a grin.
The Alien's face suddenly fell. He picked it up and put it in his pocket. "You know, you're right," he said quickly. "After all, it is only a scratch. Hey, forget it, yeah? A bit of filler and a few coats of paint and no one will ever know." He disappeared swiftly into his spaceship and took off. The two morris dancers on the pavement applauded loudly.
"Well done Pinewood," said Crump.
"I think we should go after it," said Pinewood.
"Don't push your luck, Sergeant," said Crump.
They returned to the car to find that PC Gibbon had fallen into an interspatial warp matrix interface. "It seems like our luck is in today, Pinewood," said Crump. "Now let's get a move on. While we're standing here talking, the Bears could be escaping under our very noses."
The two morris dancers watched the car speed off. Once it was out of sight they took off the big floppy hats that had previously been concealing their faces.
"That was a close one," said Daddy Bear. "I thought they'd recognised us for a moment."
Mummy Bear yawned and stretched. They had spent the night sleeping on a fourth storey window ledge and at first light they had hit the road. It bloody hurt as well. It's no joke falling four floors to land flat on your back in the middle of Oxford Street.
"Well, we can't go home," said Daddy Bear. "Not now."
"But we've got to make sure Nigel's all right," Mummy Bear insisted. "He needs his mother."
"You heard what they said: they're going to the house," protested Daddy Bear. "Let's wait until the heat's off."
"But our son!" Mummy Bear said. "I'm going to stand by him, even if you won't." She started to walk down the empty street, the air still tinged green by the remnants of the strange fog. Daddy Bear watched her as the bells on her braces softly jangled. The ribbons around her knees sent out fluttering waves as she walked.
"This is insane," he said to himself, then reflected that he had never been a serious contender in the sanity stakes himself. "What the hell?" he said, and he set off after her.
The road was clear and the sky was just beginning to lift itself out of the foggy grey of first light towards the pinky-blue that promised another fine day. In the distance was a rumble, like the sound of thunder trapped in a box. Then, over a rise in the road, came a truck. It was a long, sleek truck, its chrome glistening under the gaze of the fresh-faced sun; its jet-black paintwork almost glowing. It was an unstoppable monster; Gargantua with leather seats. Relentlessly it brought its cargo hurtling forth: one hundred gross of Mr. Pop-Up's Liquorice Flavoured Novelty Condoms. Wouldn't it be ironic if it suddenly got a flat tyre?
Sitting at the wheel - alert, conscientious, at one with his vehicle - was Bert Phlegm. Bert Phlegm wasn't his real name, of course. That would be silly. You can't go through life with a name like Bert Phlegm, now can you? Everyone would laugh at you. People would forever be calling you 'Snotty' or 'Greeny', or something like that. They'd see your name in the phone book and ring you up to call you 'Mucus Head'. And what kind of career could you hope for with a name like that, apart from being a professional game show contestant?
No, Bert Phlegm was certainly not his real name. His real name was Sidney Anus, an epithet that has no comical connotations whatsoever.
At the moment Bert was behind schedule. Yesterday had been a bad day as far as traffic was concerned; everybody, it seemed, had wanted to go the same way as him. At least an early start this morning meant that he could make up for lost time while the roads were still empty. He hadn't encountered any traffic in the last hour, with the exception of an unmarked police car and a large, softly pulsating flying saucer that had cut him up at the last roundabout.
Even so, in spite of his good progress, he was quite phenomenally fed up. Bert was just like that. His frequent and extensive bouts of grouching were like a drug to him. More than that: it was his joy, his sole purpose. His life's work was to pick fault with everybody and everything in existence, and nobody who knew Bert would say that it was beyond him. If he'd been sitting in heaven, dining on ambrosia with the Son of God, he would doubtless have complained that his rice pudding was too cold, and that he didn't like those sandals that Jesus was wearing.
Ahead of him he spied what appeared to be two morris dancers hitch-hiking, and he slowed down to pick them up. It wasn't that he was in any way helpful or philanthropic by nature, it was just that like all professional moaners he needed an audience.
The truck rolled to a stop, wheezing and groaning like an elephant on an exercise bike, or like Bert himself whenever he climbed up into the cab. He pushed open the passenger-side door and leaned out in a way that only lorry drivers can.
"You want a lift, do you?" he said as the two morris dancers eagerly approached. "Well you're lucky I came along: this road's deserted. I'm not surprised either. I've never seen so many potholes. I don't know whether this is supposed to be a road or an assault course. Honestly, it makes you wonder where all your road tax is going, doesn't it?"
"Yes, quite," said Daddy Bear. He stepped forward, about to climb up into the cab.
"Hold it!" said Bert. "Just a minute. You wouldn't happen to be grizzly bears, would you?"
"Us?" said Daddy Bear, trying to look innocent. "No, not us. We're just morris dancers."
"Are you sure?" Bert asked. "'Cos I heard on the radio that them two bears had escaped. You know, them that did them murders."
Daddy Bear bit his lip. "Yes, I'm sure," he said. "We're definitely morris dancers."
"Ah yes," said Bert. "I can see that you're morris dancers. But are you morris dancing grizzly bears, that's the question?"
"Oh that's ridiculous!" Mummy Bear responded. "Who ever heard of morris dancing grizzly bears?"
"She's got a point," added Daddy Bear.
"I suppose so," Bert admitted. "It's just that you're both so... hairy."
"And who said that morris dancers can't be hairy?" asked Mummy Bear. "It doesn't go against tradition, does it?"
"Ah well," began Bert, "when I say hairy, I mean abnormally so."
"Who are you calling abnormal?" Daddy Bear demanded. He looked up at Bert with a bitter scowl on his face.
"No, no, let me finish," Bert said quickly. He paused for a moment to consider his argument. "What is normal for one is abnormal for another. Being covered from head to toe in brown fur is pretty abnormal for your average morris dancer. On the other hand it's perfectly normal for your average grizzly bear."
"That's as may be," said Daddy Bear. "The fact remains that we are morris dancers and not grizzly bears."
Bert sat back and fixed Daddy Bear with a withering stare. Daddy Bear met his eye bravely. "All right," Bert said as he rolled his tongue thoughtfully around the capacious recesses of his mouth. "If you really are morris dancers, give us a demonstration."
"What?" responded Daddy Bear. His crestfallen expression indicated that he was not at all taken by the idea.
"Go on," said Bert as he leant back expectantly. "Show us some morris dancing."
"Well I'm game," said Mummy Bear, and Daddy Bear reluctantly agreed. He led them off by tucking one leg up behind his back and hopping round in a circle. Mummy Bear, impressed as she was by her husband's agonising acrobatics, decided that the nature of her own participation in this event should be a little more dignified. To this end she took out a handkerchief and waved it in circles above her head. Bert put up with a whole minute of this, before calling the performance to a halt.
"And that's it?" he asked.
"You stopped us just when we were getting to the good part," said Mummy Bear.
"You call that morris dancing?" he asked.
"I can't think of anything else to call it, can you?" said Mummy Bear.
"There are a couple of words that spring to mind," said Bert. He shook his head slowly. "You're not morris dancers at all, are you?"
"Oh yes we are!" Daddy Bear protested.
"Well if you really are morris dancers," Bert
concluded, "you must be particularly crap ones. Look, morris dancing is an art form that goes back many hundreds of years, a folk tradition handed down from generation to generation. You can't just hop around on one leg and wave a handkerchief over your head. There's a lot more to it than that."
"Oh?" said Mummy Bear. "Such as?"
Bert thought for a moment. "Such as hitting each other with sticks," he said. "Look, I'll show you." He climbed down from the cab and launched into an energetic and moderately impressive display of morris dancing, taking particular delight in hitting himself over the head with an imaginary stick. While he was doing this, Mummy and Daddy Bear jumped into the truck and drove off.
"Do you know what this truck is carrying?" Mummy Bear said as she took the wheel.
"What?" asked Daddy Bear as he snatched it back.
"A hundred gross of Mr. Pop-Up's Liquorice Flavoured Novelty Condoms - wouldn't it be ironic if we got a flat tyre?"
"Yes," agreed Daddy Bear, but they didn't get one.