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Hogfather

Hogfather

Page 29


dirty and yet expensive clothing, whose pleasant tenor voice was drowned out by the quacking of a duck on his head. He answered to the name of Duck Man, although he never seemed to understand why, or why he was always surrounded by people who seemed to see ducks where no ducks could be. And finally, being towed along by a small grey dog on a string, was Foul Ole Ron, generally regarded in AnkhMorpork as the deranged beggars' deranged beggar. He was probably incapable of singing, but at least he was attempting to swear in time to the beat, or beats. The wassailers stopped and watched them in horror. Neither party noticed, as the beggars oozed and ambled up the street, that little smears of black and grey were spiralling out of drains and squeezing out from under tiles and buzzing off into the night. People have always had the urge to sing and clang things at the dark stub of the year, when all sorts of psychic nastiness has taken advantage of the long grey days and the deep shadows to lurk and breed. Lately people had taken to singing harmoniously, which rather lost the effect. Those who really understood just clanged something and shouted. The beggars were not in fact this well versed in folkloric practice. They were just making a din in the wellfounded hope that people would give them money to stop. It was just possible to make out a consensus song in there somewhere. 'Hogswatch is coming, The pig is getting fat, Please put a dollar in the old man's hat If you ain't got a dollar a penny will do-'

'And if you ain't got a penny,' Foul Ole Ron yodelled, solo, 'then - fghfgh yffg mftnfmf...' The Duck Man had, with great presence of mind, damped a hand over Ron's mouth. 'So sorry about this,' he said, 'but this time I'd like people not to slam their doors on us. And it doesn't scan, anyway.' The nearby doors slammed regardless. The other wassailers fled hastily to a more salubrious location. Goodwill to all men was a phrase coined by someone who hadn't met Foul Ole Ron. The beggars stopped singing, except for Arnold Sideways, who tended to live in his own small world. ' -nobody knows how good we can live, on boots three times a day...' Then the change in the air penetrated even his consciousness. Snow thumped off the trees as a contrary wind brushed them. There was a whirl of flakes and it was just possible, since the beggars did not always have their mental compasses pointing due Real, that they heard a brief snatch of conversation. 'It just ain't that simple, master, that's all I'm saying-' IT IS BETTER TO GIVE THAN TO RECEIVE, ALBERT. 'No, master, it's just a lot more expensive. You can't just go around-' Things rained down on the snow. The beggars looked at them. Arnold Sideways carefully picked up a sugar pig and bit its nose off. Foul Ole Ron peered suspiciously into a cracker that had bounced off his hat, and then shook it against his ear. The Duck Man opened a bag of sweets. 'Ah, humbugs?' he said. Coffin Henry unlooped a string of sausages from around his neck. 'Buggrit?' said Foul Ole Ron. 'It's a cracker,' said the dog, scratching its ear. 'You pull it.' Ron waved the cracker aimlessly by one end. 'Oh, give it here,' said the dog, and gripped the other end in its teeth.

'My word,' said the Duck Man, fishing in a snowdrift. 'Here's a whole roast pig! And a big dish of roast potatoes, miraculously uncracked! And... look... isn't this caviar in the jar? Asparagus! Potted shrimp! My goodness! What were we going to have for Hogswatch dinner, Arnold?'

'Old boots,' said Arnold. He opened a fallen box of cigars and licked them. 'Just old boots?'

'Oh, no. Stuffed with mud, and with roast mud. 's good mud, too. I bin saving it up.'

'Now we can have a merry feast of goose!'

'All right. Can we stuff it with old boots?' There was a pop from the direction of the cracker. They heard Foul Ole Ron's thinkingbrain dog growl. 'No, no, no, you put the hat on your head and you read the hum'rous mottar.'

'Millennium hand and shrimp?' said Ron, passing the scrap of paper to the Duck Man. The Duck Man was regarded as the intellectual of the group. He peered at the motto. 'Ah, yes, let's see now... It says “'Help Help Help Ive Fallen in the Crakker Machine I Cant Keep Runin on this Roller Please Get me Ou-”.' He turned the paper over a few times. 'That appears to be it, except for the stains.'

'Always the same ole mottars,' said the dog. 'Someone slap Ron on the back, will you? If he laughs any more he'll - oh, he has. Oh well, nothing new about that.' The beggars spent a few more minutes picking up hams, jars and bottles that had settled on the snow. They packed them around Arnold on his trolley and set off down the street. 'How come we got all this?'

' 's Hogswatch, right?'

'Yeah, but who hung up their stocking?'

'I don't think we've got any, have we?'

'I hung up an old boot.'

'Does that count?'

'Dunno. Ron ate it.' I'm waiting for the Hogfather, thought Ponder Stibbons. I'm in the dark waiting for the Hogfather. Me. A believer in Natural Philosophy. I can find the square root of 27.4 in my head. 20 I shouldn't be doing this. It's not as if I've hung a stocking up. There'd be some point if... He sat rigid for a moment, and then pulled off his pointy sandal and rolled down a sock. It helped if you thought of it as the scientific testing of an interesting hypothesis. From out of the darkness Ridcully said, 'How long, do you think?'

'It's generally believed that all deliveries are completed well before midnight,' said Ponder, and tugged hard. 'Are you all right, Mr Stibbons?'

'Fine. sir. Fine. Er... do you happen to have a drawing pin about you? Or a small nail, perhaps?'

'I don't believe so.'

'Oh, it's all right. I've found a penknife.' After a while Ridcully heard a faint scratching noise in the dark. 'How do you spell “electricity”, sir?' Ridcully thought for a while. 'You know, I don't think I ever do.' 20 He'd have to admit that the answer would be 'five and a bit', but at least he could come up with it.

There was silence again, and then a clang. The Librarian grunted in his sleep. 'What are you doing?'

'I just knocked over the coal shovel.'

'Why are you feeling around on the mantelpiece?'

'Oh, just... you know, just... just looking. A little... experiment. After all, you never know.'

'You never know what?'

'Just... never know, you know.'

'Sometimes you know,' said Ridcully. 'I think I know quite a lot that I didn't used to know. It's amazing what you do end up knowing, I sometimes think. I often wonder what new stuff I'll know.'

'Well, you never know.'

'That's a fact.' High over the city Albert turned to Death, who seemed to be trying to avoid his gaze. 'You didn't get that stuff out of the sack! Not cigars and peaches in brandy and grub with fancy foreign names!' YES, IT CAME OUT OF THE SACK. Albert gave him a suspicious look. 'But you put it in the sack in the first place, didn't you?' NO. 'You did, didn't you?' Albert stated. NO. 'You put all those things in the sack.' NO. 'You got them from somewhere and put them in the sack.' NO. 'You did put them in the sack, didn't you?' NO. 'You put them in the sack.' YES. 'I knew you put them in the sack. Where did you get them?' THEY WERE JUST LYING AROUND. 'Whole roast pig does not, in my experience, just lie around.' NO ONE SEEMED TO BE USING THEM, ALBERT. 'Couple of chimneys ago we were over that big posh restaurant...' REALLY? I DON'T REMEMBER. 'And it seemed to me you were down there a bit longer than usual, if you don't mind me saying so.' REALLY. 'How exactly were they just inverted comma lying around inverted comma?' JUST... LYING AROUND. YOU KNOW. RECUMBENT. 'In a kitchen?' THERE WAS A CERTAIN CULINARINESS ABOUT THE PLACE, I RECALL. Albert pointed a trembling finger. 'You nicked someone's Hogswatch dinner, master!' IT'S GOING TO BE EATEN, said Death defensively. ANYWAY, YOU THOUGHT IT WAS A GOOD IDEA WHEN I SHOWED THAT KING THE DOOR. 'Yeah, well, that was a bit different,' said Albert, lowering his voice. 'But, I mean, the Hogfather doesn't drop down the chimney and pinch people's grub!' THE BEGGARS WILL ENJOY IT, ALBERT.

'Well, yes, but-' IT WASN'T STEALING. IT WAS JUST... REDISTRIBUTION. IT WILL BE A GOOD DEED IN A NAUGHTY WORLD. 'No, it won't!' THEN IT WILL BE A NAUGHTY DEED IN A NAUGHTY WORLD AND WILL PASS COMPLETELY UNNOTICED. 'Yeah, but you might at least have thought about the people whose grub you pinched.' THEY HAVE BEEN PROVIDED FOR, OF COURSE. I AM NOT COMPLETELY HEARTLESS. IN A METAPHORICAL SENSE. AND NOW - ONWARDS AND UPWARDS. 'We're heading down, master.' ONWARDS AND DOWNWARDS, THEN. There were... swirls. Binky galloped easily through them, except that he did not seem to move. He might have been hanging in the air. 'Oh, me,' said the oh god weakly. 'What?' said Susan. 'Try shutting your eyes--' Susan shut her eyes. Then she reached up to touch her face. 'I'm still seeing. . 'I thought it was just me. It's usually just me.' The swirls vanished. There was greenery below. And that was odd. It was greenery. Susan had flown a few times over countryside, even swamps and jungles, and there had never been a green as green as this. If green could be a primary colour, this was it. And that wiggly thing 'That's not a river!' she said. 'Isn't it?'

'It's blue!' The oh god risked a look down. 'Water's blue,' he said. 'Of course it's not!'

'Grass is green, water's blue... I can remember that. It's some of the stuff I just know.'

'Well, in a way...' Susan hesitated. Everyone knew grass was green and water was blue. Quite often it wasn't true, but everyone knew it in the same way they knew the sky was blue, too. She made the mistake of looking up as she thought that. There was the sky. It was, indeed, blue. And down there was the land. It was green. And in between was nothing. Not white space. Not black night. Just... nothing, all round the edges of the world. Where the brain said there should be, well, sky and land, meeting neatly at the horizon, there was simply a void that sucked at the eyeball like a loose tooth. And there was the sun. It was under the sky, floating above the land. And it was yellow. Buttercup yellow. Binky landed on the grass beside the river. Or at least on the green. It felt more like sponge, or moss. He nuzzled it. Susan slid off, trying to keep her gaze low. That meant she was looking at the vivid blue of the water. There were orange fish in it. They didn't look quite right, as if they'd been created by someone who really did think a fish was two curved lines and a dot and a triangular tail. They reminded her

of the skeletal fish in Death's quiet pool. Fish that were... appropriate to their surroundings. And she could see them, even though the water was just a block of colour which part of her insisted ought to be opaque... She knelt down and dipped her hand in. It felt like water, but what poured through her fingers was liquid blue. And now she knew where she was. The last piece clicked into place and the knowledge bloomed inside her. She knew if she saw a house just how its windows would be placed, and just how the smoke would come out of the chimney. There would almost certainly be apples on the trees. And they would be red, because everyone knew that apples were red. And the sun was yellow. And the sky was blue. And the grass was green. But there was another world, called the real world by the people who believed in it, where the sky could be anything from off-white to sunset red to thunderstorm yellow. And the trees would be anything from bare branches, mere scribbles against the sky, to red flames before the frost. And the sun was white or yellow or orange. And water was brown and grey and green... The colours here were springtime colours, and not the springtime of the world. They were the colours of the springtime of the eye. 'This is a child's painting,' she said. The oh god slumped onto the green. 'Every time I look at the gap my eyes water,' he mumbled. 'I feel awful.'

'I said this is a child's painting,' said Susan. 'Oh, me... I think the wizards' potion is wearing off...'

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