"Batten down the hatches, loose cannon, shiver my timbers, three sheets to the wind, even keeled," listed Clifton. "I don't think this is working." Clifton was attempting a form of exposure therapy. His sister, Pip, suggested he list nautical expressions to cure his fear of water.
"Try it again in a pirate accent," said Pip.
"I'm not doing that," said Clifton. "I just have to face that I will never set foot on a boat or compete in one of those Birdman Rallies, where people run off a pier in a homemade glider."
"Do you want to do that?"
"Not really, but I'd like the option."
Pip laughed as though she'd been set on fire and called Clifton silly.
"Are you that frightened of the Fishmen?" she asked.
The Fishmen was a story their father used to tell to them as children. Pip din't find the story itself scary; the frightening part was the thrashing their father would deal out to their younger brother Yernip if Pip and Clifton didn't laugh in the right places. But to Clifton, their father's tales of the underwater undead had stayed with him, compounded by the fact his father would pelt dead fish at him while screaming, "They smell like this! They smell like this!"
"The Fishmen is just a local legend," insisted Clifton, unconvincingly, "like the Horsepeople or EFTPOS receipts."
Pip raised an eyebrow at Clifton, then raised her elbow, but lowered it again once she'd caught sight of it and realised how foolish she looked.
"And yet you still never venture near the water."
"Yeah," said Clifton, despondently. "Though no adult, child or National Geographic documentary film crew has ever seen the Fishmen, they frighten me like no other ting on this Earth."
Pip ignored that Clifton has mispronounced "thing" and took him by the arm.
"You should go to the farm tomorrow and meet with Farmer Jessup."
"I don't know," said Clifton. "I'm kinda busy at the moment."
Pip was well aware this was a lie. Since returning home for the summer holidays from university, Clifton had done practically nothing. The only thing he had done was block out days in his calenders by writing: be idle.
Clifton had not always been lazy; in high school he'd been a diligent, model student. But since undertaking an undergraduate degree in "I don't know, I think it might be Arts or something" he'd taken a slide into apathy.
He had even stopped putting effort into his appearance. Patches of facial hair were scattered about his jaw and Clifton had worn his once skinny, low-riding jeans so much they ballooned at the knees and required two belts around the waist to hold them up.
"You're going," said Pip. "I'll make the arrangements."
Clifton did not sleep well that night; he was apprehensive about traveling to the farm and distrusted Farmer Jessup. Even though he was renowned throughout town as a genius, Clifton had always been skeptical of Jessup's "brilliance". It was well know that Jessup's property had not functioned as a commercial farm for some time and while on work experience at the local bank, Clifton had seen Jessup sign a cheque by drawing a tree.
Clifton had also noticed an increased amount of corporate types rolling through town on the way to the farm for bonding retreats and he worried that Jessup was merely a self-styled guru who would offer him no real insight. But Clifton equally worried the farm would would facilitate personal growth and that by the end of the visit he would need to seek the Fishmen to move forward with his life and be able to step into a pool without screaming like a wounded puma.
The following morning, Pip arrived to take Clifton to the farm. She had built a horse and cart overnight especially to make the journey. Building the cart had been a simple task; however, building a horse from scratch without any expertise in genetics or chemistry proved slightly more difficult.
"Thanks for taking me," said Clifton.
Pip laughed as though her legs had just exploded and told him not to mention it. They climbed aboard the carriage taking great care not smell the driver, who in addition to a top hat, wore a cape of rancid tuna tins.
"Giddyup!" spat the driver and they rolled away.
The journey did not take long as the farm was next door.
They were greeted at the farm gates by one of Farmer Jessup's many maids. She wore a black, baggy jumpsuit and was able to camouflage herself against native flora when threatened. It was a fun party trick, but had little practical application outside a forest setting. The maid ushered Clifton and Pip into the farm house. The interior was so dusty that even the cobwebs were covered in grime.
"I haven't had a chance to wipe down the cobwebs this morning," the maid apologised, noticing Clifton was staring at the webs.
It was seven hours before Farmer Jessup made an appearance, which gave time for Clifton to say goodbye to Pip and make rude noises for his own amusement. When Farmer Jessup finally arrived he left Clifton suitably unimpressed. Jessup wore a filthy akubra hat and nothing else. He held a kerosene lamp for no apparent reason, as the room was perfectly well lit.
"Work begins in the mornin'," the naked farmer grunted and he left the room just as unremarkably as he'd entered it.
As Clifton sat meditating on his first encounter with Jessup, he caught the maid staring at him. She sheepishly looked away.
"Is she attracted to me?" wondered Clifton, hopefully. "Why is the room so filthy if she's employed as a maid?"
Clifton caught her eye and smiled. The maid gave a panicked half-smile back, then scurried toward the indoor wattle plant in the corner and disappeared.
The morning brought hope to Clifton and a tin of fermented lily-eggs to the Paddingtons next door. After a full 47-course breakfast, Clifton was ready to begin his journey with Jessup.
Still naked and holding a kerosene lamp in broad daylight, Jessup met Clifton by a cattle fence. He laughed maniacally, then stopped suddenly. Holding the lamp up to Clifton's face, the farmer studied his pupil.
"Patchy," said Jessup, judging Clifton's facial hair.
"Where do we begin?" asked Clifton, nervously.
"You're first challenge will unparalleled in difficulty!" snapped Jessup. "You, my friend are about to embark on an inward-peering personal journey."
"You know, what?" said Clifton. "I'm not really one for inward-peering. Let's call it off; I'm scheduled to be idle in half an hour."
"Too late!" cried Jessup and he threw Clifton over the fence among the cows.
Clifton whipped his head around from side-to-side in a near panic. The cows seemed utterly uninterested and seventeen of them barely noticed. Farmer Jessup cackled and pointed mockingly as Clifton held his head with eyes clamped firmly shut.
As the cows looked around at each other, some perplexed, some puzzled but most indifferent, Clifton saw deep inside himself. At first he saw a drawing of a hula-hoop, then a pigeon holding a nightstick, then a bus carrying passengers who only answered to the name of Marty Scheckleton. He opened his eyes to find himself in Farmer Jessup's lap being nursed like a baby kangaroo. Clifton spat out the milk bottle nipple being lovingly held to his mouth and leapt away from the farmer. Inside the bottle was not milk, but a model airplane.
"What are you doing, you moron?" cried Clifton.
Farmer Jessup threw the milk bottle and struck Clifton in the chest. It shattered and turned into one thousand stereo cables, each more expertly crafted than the last.
Phase two of the training was less hands-on and was lead by the maid. Clifton had not responded well to phase one and had demanded he receive an abridged version of the full training. Phase two consisted of Clifton dunking his head in a bucket of water and drinking himself out. He was then required to write down what irked him about the task. He simply wrote: everything.
That night lying in bed after a hearty meal of damp biscuits, Clifton could not shake the image of the maid disappearing into the wattle from his mind and severely damaged his neck while trying. The only other concern that featured in his thoughts were the Fishmen. Had Farmer Jessup's seemingly pointless tasks focused his mind? He had not given any thought to them during his encounter with the cows or the bucket. But now, he found his intrigue regarding the Fishmen rising like a cricket bat set to strike a bereaved owl. In truth, the prospect of living another day with Farmer Jessup was even more frightening the facing the Fishmen. This in itself was motivation enough to leave the farm. If this was Jessup's intention, then he truly was a genius. If not, then Jessup was what Clifton suspected: a filthy, naked, mad man.
Farmer Jessup did not bother to attend the morning's debrief, citing an a mediation hearing with a model airplane maker as the reason for his absence. Instead, the debrief was presided over by the maid. In an elaborate ceremony watched by a busload of Martys, Clifton announced he would return to town to discover the nature of the Fishmen. He only set himself the aim of discovering their nature, figuring if he made his quest slightly intangible, it would be easier to accomplish.
Pip met Clifton at the farm gates to take him back to town.
"How did it go?" she asked, squinting to shield her eyes from the dust.
Clifton had learned three things during his time at the farm: never again listen to Pip, don't trust naked farmers and when hiring a bus you're entitled to a group discount if everyone in your party is named Marty.
"Sod off," said Clifton, bitterly.
Pip laughed as though a saloon had fallen on top of her and helped Clifton into the carriage.
"I'm ready to find the Fishmen," Clifton proudly announced.
TO BE CONTINUED...
Clifton and Pip's folkloric adventures with monsters & ghosts will continue every week.
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