When the windows of the cafe darken and its walls begin to surge, everyone who has had more than a passing acquaintance with the cafe knows that it is about to move. But no one knows or can predict where it will appear next. To those who live in the cafe, each new arrival is a cause for interest.
Or will the cafe materialize on some other world, or underwater, or at the heart of the sun?
Beyond the windows of the Out of Time Cafe, motes of light wheeled in darkness like static on a vast television screen. Occasionally, shapes seemed about to form – they might have been giant flowers or surging waves — but they always dissolved to randomness before they could become anything completely recognizable. It had been like this for days, and those who lived in the cafe and called it home, stared at the windows with the blank resignation of convicts.
Bob stood at the bar, as lively as a pot plant could be, and stared through eyes like roses at the teeming windows. In front of her were rows of gleaming glasses, each of which had been polished, breathed on, and then polished again at least fifty times. The bottles were full, ashtrays were empty and the little howls of salted nuts and crisps were untouched. Bob waited.
Seated at a table beneath one of the cafe’s Alhambra-style mirrors and idly cleaning his fingernails with a fork was a dowdy little man with diminishing hair. Despite his narrow shoulders and grease-spattered t-shirt, he sat with a certain calculated swagger as though trying to impress an invisible companion. Occasionally he swept his thinning hair back in an extravagant gesture, and his grey eyes looked up at the cafe windows from beneath seductively lowered lids. Then he would shrug and sigh and murmur, ‘Hope we get there soon. There are crowds waiting a mile long at Memphis, Tennessee.’ Louder he said, ‘Did I ever tell you about the reception I got at Vegas?’
From the opposite side of the cafe, a beer mat, thrown like a Frisbee, arched through the air and thumped the wall near Herb’s head. ‘Yes,’ a voice called. ‘And if you tell us again I’ll thump you so hard you’ll be looking out the back of your neck.’ The speaker was Beano, the burly-shouldered pilot. He looked pleased with himself. The moment of aggression had broken the boredom. ‘Hey Bob,’ he called. ‘Another shot of Red Eye.’
The pot plant flexed and one of its branches performed a cartoon-like transformation to become an ivory white arm, complete with a fingered hand with rings and blood-red nails. The hand reached down and located a bottle of whisky from below the bar. It poured a double shot and slid the glass expertly down the bar to where Beano could reach it without having to stand.
‘Merci,’ said Beano and downed the whisky at a throw. ‘Here’s to a happy landing.’
Silence descended on the cafe again.
A middle-aged woman, with handsome if somewhat blunt features, emerged from the kitchen wiping her hands on a piece of old toweling, and stood staring at the blank window. Amelia Earhart was not amused. Her print dress was stained with sweat at the armpits and wisps of hair were working loose from beneath her bright headscarf. ‘Will it never end?’ she asked, speaking to no one in particular. ‘I mean, is it going to go on like this for the rest of eternity? It’s three weeks now since we left that horrid swamp where slugs crawled up the windows and Beano had to kill the spiders with the lavatory mop. Three whole bloody weeks of this…’ She gestured dramatically at the windows. ‘Will it never end?’ No one answered and Amelia looked round the cafe. ‘Bob, I’m talking to you. Have you ever known it to go on so long? I mean, a day or two of fog followed by a happy landing in some exotic paradise or a hell hole… that I could take. But this?’
Bob’s leaves ruffled and one of the flowers closed to a bud and then opened again in the botanic equivalent of a wink. But Bob uttered not a word. Amelia sighed. ‘Well, would anyone like cheese on toast?’ There was still no reply. Beano studied his whisky glass like a fortune teller studying a crystal ball, while Herb gently muttered to himself. ‘I don’t know why I bother,’ said Amelia, and retreated into the kitchen, slamming the door behind her.
As though that were a cue, there was a sudden commotion at the back of the cafe and the sound of feet hurrying downstairs. A small foxy-faced man poked his head through the bead curtain that separated the living area from the dining section. ‘Hey! What’s the news? Anything happening yet?’ His eyes settled on the windows at the front. ‘Aw Jeez. No change.’ His body slumped, giving the impression of a glove puppet that has just had the hand withdrawn. He pushed through the bead curtain and came into the room. Manny was a small man by anyone’s standards. His shoulders were narrow, his ears stood out like cup handles and his hands looked too large for his thin wrists. On his face, his characteristic expression was that of a dog expecting to be kicked. When the inmates of the cafe were feeling bitchy, they vented their feelings on Manny because he never fought back. Even so, there was something special about Manny, something latent.
He stood for a moment, staring out the window in dejection, his hands thrust into his jacket pockets. Then he rallied. ‘Hey, I’ve got an idea. Why don’t we stand in a ring and all hold hands and wish. I mean, this place, this cafe or whatever it is, might just respond to our wishes. I read a story once —,
‘The servery hatch slid open with a violence that made the glasses clatter. Amelia’s flushed face peered out. ‘Stand in a ring?’ she said incredulously.
Beano stared at Manny with the kind of look he normally reserved for drunks that missed the spittoon. ‘Hold hands?’ he growled.
Herb, lynx-eyed, merely curled his lip in contempt, a mannerism that in his case simply made him look vacant.
But Bob blossomed. A thousand flowers burst into bloom, drenching the air with the perfume of roses. The pot plant became a pine tree. The flowers became staring eyes and just as quickly transformed into yo-yos that sank to the ground and lifted in synchronization. Then, before the pine tree could touch the ceiling, it wavered like seaweed at ebb tide. Its colours flowed like wax melting in a pan. And then, just as it was about to become a kaleidoscope puddle, Bob reasserted herself as a dapper middle-aged man wearing a white bow tie, tails, top hat and with a silver-tipped cane in his mitt. The picture was complete when a cigar budded out from his lips and puffed itself alight. Bob banged the cane down on the top of the bar and removed the cigar with a flourish. ‘Look,’ she shouted.
They all turned. They stared. Beyond the windows a change was taking place. The darkness had been replaced by blue light. In one corner of the window, a stain of red and orange grew brighter. The tumbling random specks of white light were vanishing one by one as a landscape gradually established itself like a photograph in a developing bath.
They stared at rugged, snow-capped peaks. The sun was setting behind the mountains, turning the few wispy clouds to skeins of gold. The sky merged from a bright airy blue near the sun to deep purple overhead. The first stars were already peeping and the last rays of the sun made the blank snow slopes gleam, catching the tops of the trees and a flock of birds as they peacefully winged their way home. As the clouds moved, the sunlight came slanting in through the cafe windows, revealing the streak marks where Herb had failed to rinse the windows after the last washing. They could all feel the sun’s warmth.
In front of the cafe, just outside the revolving door, was a patch of meadow filled with wildflowers. A few paces from the door a flock of white goats ambled about, knee deep in grass. They stared at the cafe while they chewed, with no appearance of surprise.
Beyond the goats the meadow sloped down to a dark lake surrounded by a copse of tall eucalyptus trees.
‘Beautiful,’ breathed Manny. ‘Just the kind of place I always dreamed about.’
‘But not many guests tonight, me thinks,’ murmured Amelia.
They stared while the evening gathered about the cafe. Each had their own thoughts as they contemplated the scene outside. When Manny tried to go out to pick some wildflowers, he found that the revolving door would not budge.
‘Paradise is not for you today, little buddy,’ murmured Bob wistfully.
‘There’s Someone down there,’ said Beano, pointing. ‘Down by the lake. Two figures, I think. Coming this way. Look there. Under the trees.’
The residents of the cafe pressed their noses against the windows in their eagerness to see. As they watched, two figures emerged from the woods into a clearing by the lake. It was too dark to be certain but the shapes looked like men and they seemed to he carrying boxes and bundles. They also seemed to he hurrying, as if trying to escape from something. They paused in the clearing, catching their breath, and then the smaller one pointed up the hill towards the cafe and waved. Immediately he began to climb, dragging a box after him. The taller figure lingered behind for a moment and seemed to be doing something to his head. Then he followed.
‘Is it Arthur and Rollo?’ asked Amelia. ‘We’re almost out of everything since the chickens escaped.’
‘Nope. Doesn’t look like them,’ said Beano. ‘Too lively. Too big and too quick.’
‘Then I smell trouble,’ whispered Amelia darkly. ‘We’ve never been in a place quite like this, but I suppose I’d better get the grill warming. I expect they’ll need a feed when they get here.’ Beano, Herb, Bob and Manny watched the men toil up the hill. Occasionally they lost sight of them in dead ground. but whenever they reappeared they were always closer. The goats watched, too, standing stiff legged and with ears alert.
Finally the two men came over the brow of the hill. It was almost night now and Bob switched on the outside lights with a tap of her cane on the switch. Outside, the meadow became garish in the flickering neon light. The two men were revealed as they stood puffing from the exertion.
The tall man was a giant, standing some ten feet high. He wore sandals, homespun breeches and a leather jerkin that did not meet across his broad, hairy chest. However, the clothes were less remarkable than the fact that he was wearing a coarse sack over his head and this completely hid his face. One small hole, about the size of a milk-bottle top, had been cut into the front of the sack.
The other man, while smaller than the giant, nevertheless stood a good head taller than Beano. He had the build of a wrestling champion.
His hair was golden and curly and his face had the precise, chiselled regularity of features associated with Greek temple statues. His only piece of clothing was a short green tunic that did nothing for modesty and everything to reveal his solid muscles and manhood. In his arms he carried a large brass-bound box that he treated with obvious care.
‘Hell’s bells,’ breathed Beano, looking at the giant who, having casually picked up one of the goats by its hind legs, now calmly proceeded to slit its throat with one slice of his thumbnail. He held the kicking body away from him fastidiously, to avoid the falling blood.
‘Oh lordy,’ whispered Herb, suddenly hoarse as he gazed at the perfect profile of the other man. He wondered just what he would do if that one chose to tread on his blue suede shoes.
Manny said nothing. He just stared, his eyes and mouth forming three circles. He was seeing everything he had always wanted to be. Tall… Strong… Handsome… Mysterious…
Behind them they heard a rustling sound, and when they turned they were just in time to catch Bob transforming into a nightclub hostess, wearing a low-backed silver dress that fitted her like a second skin. ‘A. girl’s got to move with the times,’ she said huskily while her hair permed itself to waves of platinum. ‘Oh, and my name’s Bobby from…’
Before she could finish her sentence, the revolving door turned without so much as a squeak and the young man with the box entered. He was closely followed by his companion, who had to stoop low and who banged his sack-covered head on a light fitting when he straightened up.
They stood together uncomfortably, and then the young man placed his box carefully on the ground. He was about to speak when there came a sudden hissing from the box, the kind of sound you get when cold water is dropped on hot fat. He stooped and whispered something and the box quietened to a sound like sea on shingle. ‘Excuse us,’ he said, and the giant nodded his sack and waved his hand. ‘We hope we are not intruding. We had not expected to find.., that is… We never know what surprises the gods in their wisdom will spring on us next. We are tired with travel and need a place to stay.’
‘Well, you’ll be right as rain here,’ piped Manny. ‘Grab a seat. Take the weight off your feet.’
‘We brought our own supper,’ rumbled the sack, and he held up the still-dripping goat. ‘And something to drink.’ He hoisted one of his bundles, which proved to be a leather bottle, and they heard the unmistakable sloshing of liquid.
‘Amelia,’ called Bob, smoothing imaginary wrinkles in her shimmering dress, ‘come and meet our guests. And you can forget about the cheese on toast. We’ll be having roast goat for supper.’
‘And wine fit for the table of the gods,’ added the young man with a sudden dazzling smile.
‘And wine,’ said Bob, taking the leather bottle and handing it to .Manny. ‘Let me introduce myself. I’m Bobby.’ She flicked her hair back with a toss of her head. ‘I do everything round here,’ she added with unnecessary emphasis. The young man took her offered hand and held it uncertainly. It was obvious that he knew nothing of old style courtesy. ‘Well, you can shake it,’ said Bob dryly, ‘or, if you’re feeling more imaginative, you can kiss it. The only thing you can’t do is bite it.’ The young man nodded and looked at her seriously. Then he held the hand formally and shook it slowly, but before he released it he bent forward and kissed it at the wrist so that his golden curls tumbled forwards. Those watching had the pleasure of seeing Bob turn blue, then green and then red, before finally returning to her demure self as she gained control of her metabolism.
‘My name,’ said the young man quietly, ‘is Perseus.’ Behind him the giant rumbled under his sack. ‘And this is my good friend Polyphemus.’ The giant offered his mighty paw and the most that Bob could do was shake two of the fingers.
But the ice was broken and everyone felt more relaxed. Manny, Herb and Beano introduced themselves one by one. Finally, Amelia came hurrying in from the kitchen. She stopped in her tracks when she saw the hooded giant and his young companion.
But being the lady of breeding that she was, Amelia quickly recovered herself and held out her hand, rather like a member of the royal family being introduced to rugby players.
‘Amelia meet Percy and Polly,’ said Bob, and then added, ‘Amelia does the cooking round here.’ Perseus and Polyphemus bowed in unison. ‘Okay,’ continued Bob briskly, ‘now that we’re all acquainted, let’s get convivial. Herb, get some glasses. Manny, you figure out how you pour from that leather thing. Beano, rearrange the table so we can all sit together. I’ll lower the blinds and put the “Sorry, We’re Closed” notice up. Then we can be cozy.’
As she spoke there came a sudden gust of wind, which rattled the windows of the cafe and moaned in the chimney. This was followed by a distant rumble of thunder that seemed to roll round them, and then get closer.
‘The weather changes quickly round here,’ observed Beano. ‘It was a fine summer evening five minutes ago.’
‘As Zeus wills,’ replied the muffled bass of Polyphemus. ‘I think we shall all he glad to be indoors tonight.’
The thunder roared again, definitely closer, setting up echoes in the cafe and making Manny jump. Then lightning flashed for the first time, like a sudden glare of headlights, casting the shadows of the blinds in bars across the walls of the cafe. The thunder tore again and rolled directly over them like an iron ball in a trough. Last came the rain, beating on the roof.
‘Yes,’ rumbled Polyphemus, ‘it’s definitely going to be one of those nights. But Father Zeus will protect us. And besides, we have food, wine and shelter. What more do we need except music and a fire? Come on. Let’s be merry while we can.’ Then he whispered something to Perseus, who laughed and nodded. ‘Tonight,’ continued Polyphemus, ‘you will be our guests.’
Without waiting for a reply, Polyphemus thumped the body of the dead goat down on the table, plucked a knife from his belt and proceeded to skin it. However, while it was clear that he was an expert at this, it was also obvious that he was severely hampered by the sack that kept slipping forward when he bent over the table.
Amelia, tactful as ever with new company, noticed this and suggested, ‘Would it help you Mr… er… Polyphemus, if you removed your hood? I’m sure none of us would mind.’
The giant paused. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I’m rather singular-looking. I didn’t want to frighten you or anything.’
Manny offered, ‘You can’t shock us none, Mr Polly. I saw a man once with a face full of shot from a sawn-off shotgun. We called him Chilli con Carne after that.’
‘In any case,’ drawled Bobby, ‘we’re used to seeing strange shapes in this place. Ain’t we, boys?’ Everyone nodded. ‘And what’s more, you’re going to find it mighty inconvenient to drink with that heavy sack your face.
That argument clinched the matter. The giant set down his knife and proceeded to work the sack up over his head. Outside, thunder surged like a drum roll. The sack came off with one last tug.
‘Lawdy Miss Claudy!’ breathed Herb and fainted. Even Beano, who thought he was a tough guy, turned away. But Manny, ever irrepressible and curious, stood up close, and stared. ‘I was expecting something really scary and hideous,’ he said. ‘But you’re just ordinary scary and hideous. I can live with that.’
The cyclops blinked his single eye and licked his black lips. He barred his teeth, which were filed to points, and growled deep and guttural, like a cornered bear. Manny stood his ground. ‘Don’t I scare you?’ asked Polyphemus in surprise.
Sure you scare me. But you scared me before. Hell, scaring me don’t mean nothing. My own mother could scare me. That’s one advantage of being a coward. You always know where you are.’ Polyphemus scratched his head. He’d heard many reactions to his lack of physical beauty, but this was the strangest of all. And then he laughed, revealing a big rough tongue like an ox.
Amelia cleared her throat to gain attention. She had been looking at the cyclops with steady detachment. ‘Do you mind if I ask you a rather personal question?’ she said. Polyphemus turned his singular gaze on her. ‘Tt’s just that if you’ve only got one eye, how do you cope without parallax?’
There was a long silence. ‘Dunno,’ shrugged Polyphemus finally. ‘Never used one. And you don’t miss what you’ve never had, eh?’ He grinned at the company and then winked his one eye. With that Amelia had to be content.
Of all the inmates of the cafe, Bob’s reaction to the cyclops was the most interesting. ‘You are beautiful,’ she said simply.
And there are then she started to transform .She grew taller. A third eye erupted in her forehead and the other two eyes closed to sockets that in turn smoothed to flesh. Her blond hair turned to carrot. Her arms and legs thickened with muscle. The metallic dress became a skirt of leather and a cape of fur. She was topless and bold, and her lips were black and sensuous.
Polyphemus looked at the transformation in wonderment; then he beat his chest with his lists and his roar of desire deafened the thunder, causing a Toby jug to jump off the bar. ‘Zeus, I thank you,’ he called. ‘And you, too, Aphrodite ‘cos ‘I’m sure you had a hand in it. And you Dionysus, you drunken sod. Tonight we dedicate to you, to all of you.’ Thereupon he picked up the leather bottle of wine, squirted some wine on the floor as a libation, and then pointed the nozzle at his mouth and squeezed. A jet of wine hit his face and he drank it in until the wine ran down his beard and he had to pause for breath. ‘And now let’s prepare a feast.’
And that was what they did. Perseus removed the old Japanese screen from in front of the fireplace while Manny fetched pine cones and logs from a storeroom at the back of the cafe. Perseus picked up the antique fire-irons and began to bend them until he had fashioned a spit with a handle that Manny could turn. Soon there was a blazing fire and although the lightning cracked and danced outside and the rain came down in torrents, the inside of the cafe felt warm and snug and safe.
Beano and Herb were sent to the kitchen and set to work peeling potatoes and carrots and slicing onions. They worked under the watchful eye of Amelia, who herself began to bake Irish soda bread with pine nuts, garlic and sesame seeds. Beano worked glumly. He’d observed Bob’s transformation to cyclops and knew that in Polyphemus he’d met his match.
At the main table in the café, Polyphemus and Bob butchered and cleaned the goat, stuffing it with herbs and garlic. ‘They were inseparable and spent as much time kissing and drinking and laughing as they did preparing the carcass. Soon Manny found himself perched up by the fire, turning the spit while the goat crisped and crackled.
They all drank the red wine, which seemed to swirl in their stomachs and flow straight into their blood and thence to their heads. It was Amelia, ever watchful, who noticed that although they drank freely and whenever they wanted, the wine skin never emptied.
But Perseus was restless. He prowled round the cafe, often going to the window and raising one of the blinds, cautiously peeping out. He tried the back door and made sure it was unlocked. He opened the door to the lift and poked his head in.
‘Don’t go in there,’ called Manny anxiously. ‘We don’t know where it goes. But whatever goes down never comes hack up.’
‘Useful,’ commented Perseus, and closed the lift door carefully. Then he continued exploring.
Manny, who was suffering a bad case of hero worship, watched him closely. Finally, when Perseus again approached the fire, Manny plucked up the courage to speak. Perhaps it was the wine that made him bold, perhaps just a desire to help. ‘Are you expecting more company?’
‘Eh? Oh, no. Well, at least, I hope not.’
‘Only I couldn’t help noticing that you keep looking out the window. And if I might level with you, you’re acting a bit like a fugitive. And I should know because I’ve been on the run all my life. In fact, most of us living here are fugitives of one kind or another.’
‘Yep. So anyway, your business is your business and I don’t mean to pry, but if there is someone after you and you need to hide, I suggest you go upstairs, second door on the left. That’s my room. The floorboards under the washstand lift up and there’s room there for you and the big fellow to stretch out. I’ll keep you supplied until the danger’s passed. Go on. Check it out, if you want.’
Perseus did just that and when he came back downstairs he gave Manny the thumbs-up sign. He was beaming and obviously relieved. ‘You are a good friend, Manny. I won’t forget this.’
Manny swelled with pride. He felt honoured that a man as handsome and tough as Perseus should call him a friend.
At that moment the box, which had been quiet for some time, let out a loud hiss. Perseus crossed to it, tapped its lid gently with his knuckles and whispered some soothing words. The box became quiet again. Manny continued cranking the spit but his curiosity was getting the better of him. ‘Have you got some kind of pet in there?’ he asked.
‘Well, no, not a pet,’ said Perseus. ‘More like an old friend, really. I look after her. Keep her from harm. But she’s dangerous, too. Very dangerous if she fell into the wrong hands.’
‘What do you call her?’
Perseus thought for a moment before he replied. ‘I will tell you her name but very softly, eh? It is a dangerous name to say too loud and you must promise not to tell anyone else. Okay?’ Manny nodded and almost fell of his perch in his eagerness to listen. Perseus put his lips near Manny’s ear. ‘Her name is Medusa,’ he whispered. ‘She’s very beautiful, but one look and she can turn you to stone.’
Manny’s eyes were wide open with surprise, like a child at story-time. But then he laughed, suspecting a joke. ‘Hey Percy, you nearly got me going then,’ he said.
But Perseus was not smiling. ‘Our secret, eh?’ he said.
‘Sure, Percy. Whatever you say. You’re the boss. Our secret,’ said Manny. The name Medusa meant nothing to him.
‘Hey you two, how’s the meat doing?’ called Polyphemus. ‘The potatoes are cooked. The carrots are ready. The bread is baked. The table is laid. The wine is poured and I’m bloody starving.’
‘Coming,’ called Perseus. He sliced a piece of meat from the flank of the goat and the juices ran, making the fire crackle. ‘Cooked to perfection,’ he said. ‘Get everyone seated. I’ll bring it over. You can carve.’
So the feast began. They ate and drank and ate and drank, and strangely there always seemed plenty left over. They sang songs and Beano kicked the jukebox into life. Such was the good feeling round the table that Herb was allowed to perform ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ and no one seemed to mind that the music playing was ‘Some Enchanted Evening’. Then they toasted one another with brimming cups. They toasted the cafe and the stars. They toasted Father Zeus and even the rain and thunder that still rumbled outside, and the lightning that danced in the mountains.
Then, when they’d eaten their fill, they pushed the tables back and danced. Amelia trundled Perseus round the cafe in an approximation of a quickstep. Manny and Herb danced together, improvising rock’n’roll, while Beano slouched at the bar. But if prizes had been awarded for agility, they would have gone to Polyphemus and Bob. The one-eyed giant took his dancing seriously. He danced in the pagan way, leaping and shouting and baring his soul, and Bob matched him pace for pace. They whirled round together. He hoisted her. She lifted him. And at the climax of their dance they came together, thrashing on the floor with a frankness of passion that left Beano sag-jawed and sent Amelia looking for her smelling salts.
But then the box, which had all the while been ignored in the corner, set up a furious hissing. Moments later everyone froze as they heard, coming from outside, the unmistakable drumming of hooves. The sound was still distant, but it was approaching, and fast.
‘Them,’ growled the cyclops, climbing to his feet and blinking his eye in rage. Perseus crossed the room in a bound, picked up the box, and called to Polyphemus in a language that none of the others could understand. Manny held back the bead curtain and gestured for the two guests to hurry. They departed upstairs quickly and Manny followed them.
They were none too soon, either. The bead curtain was still swaying when the galloping reached the meadow outside and stopped. Those inside could hear the tramping of many hooves as they circled the cafe. Something hammered on the side wall and Bob, realizing that her present manifestation would give the game away, transformed into a cactus with sharp spines. Herb lifted the blinds from one of the windows and then cowered back. Illuminated by a jagged flash of lightning he had seen the mighty shape of a horse as it reared and then turned and kicked at the window. Shards of glass scattered round the inside of the cafe. Amelia, Beano and Herb ducked down behind the table. They heard men shouting, while the wind howled, making the remaining blinds clatter and flap.
There was a moment of silence and the trio took the chance to peep over the table top. They were just in time to see a giant horse leap boldly through the gaping window. But it wasn’t a horse — or at least not entirely. It was half-man, half-horse. The upper half was a man, with shaggy black hair and a cloven heard and strapping muscles. He was mother- naked and the rain ran down his shoulders and arms. But where his legs should have been there was the body of a horse, all four legs and a long black tail. The hooves were massive and brassy, and they scraped and clattered on the linoleum floor. And he was angry. He saw the three cowering behind the table. ‘Where are they?’ he shouted, picking up the table and hurling it across the room. ‘Where are they?’
‘Who?’ asked Herb.
The half-man, half-horse reached down and plucked him up by his greasy shirt-front with one hand. ‘Don’t you get smart with me, pimple face,’ he said. ‘That big fella with one eye and that young kid with a box. We know they came through here. You show me where they are or we’ll wreck the joint.’
As he spoke the revolving door at the front of the cafe went through half a turn and then was wrenched bodily out of its sockets by two more of the horse-men. With a whoop they threw it down the hillside and then came piling into the cafe, looking for something else to break, They were both as mean-looking as their leader.
‘We want that box, see,’ said the leader, ‘and if we don’t find it, we’ll string you up for kicking practice. Savvy?’ Then he threw Herb into the corner near the fire. ‘Okay boys, search the place.’
And search they did. They broke the tables and pulled down the lamps and smashed the bottles behind the bar. They threw the stuffed animal heads on the floor. One went into the kitchen and could be heard overturning the stock pots and emptying the larder. The leader made his way upstairs and started tearing the bedrooms apart. He threw the beds down the stairs. Herb heard his guitar crushed under a hoof. Amelia heard her mirror smash. Then, suddenly, the leader gave out a whoop of triumph. The other horse-men stopped their labours and stamped, smirking to themselves, and one relieved himself noisily into the fireplace. Moments later the leader came clattering down the stairs. In one hand he held the leather wine bottle and in the other he held Manny. ‘Look what I’ve found,’ he shouted. ‘They were here. This little runt was trying to hide the wine bottle in his bed.’ He glared round the room. ‘All right. So one of you start talking and quick. We’ll take this entire building apart if we have to, and you with it. Where are they?’
It was Manny who broke the silence. He was bruised about the face and had difficulty speaking. ‘You’re right,’ he muttered. ‘They were here. They came just when we were eating.’
‘So where are they now?’ asked the centaur. He poked Manny with his finger. ‘Speak.’
Manny winced. ‘They’re…’
‘No,’ called Amelia, standing up. ‘Don’t tell them, Manny. Be brave for once in your life. Don’t…’ The man-horse near her reached out and pushed Amelia, and she sat down with a bump.
‘What’s the use?’ said Manny. ‘We can’t pretend. They’ll find them anyway.
‘Okay. So now we’re getting somewhere,’ said the leader softly. ‘Where are they hiding?’
‘They’re in the cellar.’
‘Cellar? What cellar?’
‘Where we keep the wine and spare tables. There’s only one way in. They’re trapped.’
‘So where is this “one way in”?’
‘There,’ said Manny, and he pointed to the lift.
‘Right,’ said the leader. He dropped Manny and the leather wine bottle on the floor, cantered over to the lift door and opened it. He sniffed about and seemed reassured. ‘Okay. Here’s what we do. There’s only room for one of us so I go first. You, Hippo,’ he pointed to one of the horse-men, ‘you come after me and keep quiet. You, Bruce,’ he pointed to the third centaur, ‘you stay here and keep and eye on things, just in case. Okay?’ The horse-men nodded and cracked their knuckles. ‘Right. Let’s go.’
The leader backed into the lift and Manny closed the door. Moments later they heard the lift descend. It stopped. There was silence. Then they beard it start up again and seconds later a bell rang. When Manny opened the door, the lift was empty.
Hippo backed in and was despatched the same way. The lift returned empty.
Everyone stood listening but there was not a sound from below. The seconds became minutes, and finally Bruce said, ‘Say, how big are these cellars?’
‘No idea,’ said Manny. ‘No one’s ever come back from that lift to tell us.,
‘What?’ But before Bruce could so much as rear, Bob the cactus, who had remained quiet all the while, suddenly expanded and rammed some of her spikes into the man-horse’s rump. Manny seized the wine bottle and let fly with a well-aimed squirt straight into Bruce’s face. Amelia picked up a log from the fire and singed his tail. Herb threw a pepper pot and Beano did what he had been wanting to do all along. He ran over and aimed a punch straight up into the man-horse’s tangled beard.
And all this might have availed them nothing except that at that moment Polyphemus and Perseus came bounding down the stairs. Bruce didn’t have a chance. Perseus grabbed his tail and twisted while the giant, round at the front, let fly with three quick punches to the chest and then a haymaker straight to the jaw. The man-horse sank to his knees without a sound.
‘Well done, little hero,’ said Perseus, slapping Manny on the back. ‘You saved us. I thought we were finished that time.’
‘Aw, gee. You’re welcome. It was nothing,’ said Manny. ‘I don’t know what to say.’
‘Words don’t matter,’ said Polyphemus, bending low. ‘It’s deeds that count. Always. And now I’ve got a deed or two of my own.’ He eyed the groaning centaur, then grabbed the man-horse by the tail and dragged him outside onto the soft damp earth.
The rain had stopped and the air smelt pure. The storm had moved beyond the mountains and the stars were reappearing. A bright silver full moon was rising.
Polyphemus wasted no time. He hobbled the horse-man’s legs and bound his arms. In this work he was helped by an adoring and amorous Bob, having again transformed into her one-eyed splendour. ‘He’ll survive. Bloody centaurs are just about indestructible. You can’t even turn them to stone, they’re so dumb.’
Later, when they went back inside, they found the others sitting among the wreckage of the restaurant. They were all very quiet. It was like the lull that descends after a very noisy party. Finally Amelia spoke up. ‘Well, I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m going to bed. I’ve had quiet enough excitement for one day. But before I go I want to say thank you to Manny. You were very brave and very clever. I never thought you had it in you.’ She gave him a light kiss on one of his bruises. ‘And now I wonder if one of you strong men would mind carrying my bed back up-stairs.’ Perseus obliged. ‘Good night all,’ she called, and made her way upstairs.
They all chorused ‘Good night.’ Again silence descended.
Manny nodded to himself and then said, ‘Yep. It’s certainly been quite a night. Who ever said life in this cafe got boring?’
‘Not me,’ said Beano, stretching and yawning. ‘But you can have too much of a good thing. Like, I think I broke my wrist when I punched that Bruce, but it was worth it. Hell yes, it was worth it.’ He yawned again and tottered away to find a corner where he could lie down.
Herb was already asleep in front of the fire, his knees drawn up and his thumb in his mouth. Manny placed a cushion under his head and covered him with one of the curtains.
‘So what now?’ said Bob brightly, looking round at the mess. ‘I don’t feel like sleeping or cleaning up.’
‘Nor me,’ said Polyphemus. ‘I wondered if you’d like a stroll? There’s still plenty of wine left and we could look at the stars.’
‘I’d love to,’ said Bob. ‘Anything.’
And with that they departed into the night.
This left Manny alone. He sat for a while and was suddenly filled with a sadness that he didn’t understand. ‘This has been the best night of my life,’ he murmured. A tear trickled from the side of his eye, down over his bruised face and into the stubble on his chin.
Minutes later Perseus called down to him from upstairs. ‘Hey, Manny. There’s a time for fighting and a time for every hero to have some rest. I’ve made your bed up. Tomorrow’s a new day with new adventures. So you come and get some sleep now.’
‘Coming,’ said .Manny, standing up. ‘Just coming.’ But then he paused and looked out at the magnificent snow-capped mountains shining in the moonlight. He whispered, ‘Good night, Zeus. And the rest of you. Thanks for everything.’
And so the story ends.
But not quite. For the Out of Time Cafe is a strange place where every ending is also a beginning. And so, while Polyphemus and Bob made noisy love under the stars and the rest of the inhabitants of the cafe slept, the cafe began to heal itself. Window-frames rejoined; tables that had been kicked to kindling reformed and became solid; shards of glass lifted from the floor and fitted together to become smooth panes; bottles of spirits, trampled under-hoof, recovered their form and contents and jumped up to take their place on the shelf; the electric wiring snaked back into the walls; chairs mended; tablecloths shook themselves, and even the fire-irons unbent from the spit and returned to their natural shape. Most amazing of all, the revolving door rolled up the hill and slotted itself back into place.
But no one heard a sound.
Shortly before dawn, Polyphemus and Bob returned to the cafe. They were drowsy and amorous but tired and satiated, too. ‘Oh look,’ said Bob. ‘Someone’s tidied up. How nice.’ She made herself a cup of tea in which she dissolved a dozen aspirin. Polyphemus sipped a last glass of wine. The wine skin was now empty. With arms round one another they watched the sunrise. It made the mountains seem to leap towards them.
They heard someone moving about upstairs and moments later Perseus tiptoed down the stairs, carrying his box. He looked fresh and alert and ready for action.
‘Time we were leaving, Polly,’ he said. ‘You know the rules. We have to keep moving.’
‘Tell me,’ said Perseus to Bob, ‘do you have any mice round here?’
‘Mice?’ said Bob in astonishment, ‘Well, I’m sure there are. in the kitchen. Amelia’s always putting traps down, hut there always seem to be more mice than traps.’
‘Right,’ said Perseus. ‘Be hack in a minute,’ and he departed, carrying his box. Moments later they heard a loud hissing from the kitchen and then the slam of the box lid. When Perseus returned he was carrying a stone mouse in his hand. It was perfect in every detail, caught at the very moment it was sitting hack to devour some cheese. ‘For Manny,’ explained Perseus. ‘I said I’d give him something to remember us by. Well, now he’s got something to show his grandchildren. I’ll put it by his bed.’
So saying, Perseus set the box down and ran upstairs.
Manny was fast asleep, snoring noisily. Perseus placed the stone mouse on the pillow where Manny would see it as soon as he woke up. ‘Then he reached up and plucked one of the golden hairs from his head and tied it round the neck of the stone mouse. Satisfied, he tiptoed out of the room.
Downstairs, Polyphemus and Bob were locked in a last fond embrace.
‘You will write to me, won’t you?’ said Bob.
‘Of course,’ said Polyphemus, disentangling her arms from about his neck. ‘Every day and twice at full moon.’
‘He’s a terrible liar,’ said Perseus, bundling the giant out the door. ‘Don’t believe a word he says. He can’t even write his own name.’
‘Cyclops!’ said Bob as the revolving door turned. ‘They’re all the same!’
She watched them through the cafe window. They untied Bruce and Polyphemus climbed up onto his hack. The centaur seemed none the worse for his experiences and he reared and cantered about until Polyphemus cuffed him.
Then, with a last wave, they set off down the hill. Bob watched them until they reached the lake and entered the trees. They were gone. A tear trickled from her single eye and dripped from the end of her nose.
‘Coffee. Has anyone made coffee?’ It was Beano speaking as he crawled out from one of the corners.
‘Oh, get lost,’ said Bob with a sniff. ‘Make it yourself.’ So saying she hopped up onto the bar and transformed into a pot plant.
Beano stared round the cafe in astonishment as slowly the windows darkened. Outside, motes of light began to dance.