Race day arrived. Pip had dubbed the event College Race II: The Race-en-ing. Time to Go Kayak to the Future. The rest of the town called it by its official title The Rowing Race Replay. Clifton took his seat on the VIP barge next to the Mayor, who sat closest to the lectern. Clifton had bought a new outfit, but decided to stick with his worn-out black jeans and a over-sized t-shirt on principle. Pip sat to Clifton's left wearing her full old timey diving suit. "Why are you wearing that?" asked Clifton.
"Sorry," said Pip, "I can't hear you through the helmet!"
Brigitte and Aldous were racing for the Red Team. Brigitte warmed-up by performing vocal exercises, while Aldous prepared by flattening the brim of his new boater. The crowd settled into their seats. The student rowers readied themselves.
The Mayor, chewing on a rolled-up Picasso, made her way to the lectern. "Welcome to the Xavier Brandon Rowing Race Replay!" cried the Mayor to rapturous applause. "It's good to see so many of your on this glorious, sunny day. Before official proceedings get underway, I'd like extend a welcome to my special guests Clifton and Pip Rogers."
Clifton waved, but nobody clapped. "He went to Destitute High," whispered the Mayor into the microphone in a fashion completely lacking subtlety.
The crowd collectively oh-ed and called out patronising things like, good on you and very clever and look at you up on a barge! Clifton grumbled.
"And now, please welcome to the stage Li Huang, who will tell the story of the events that made today's race possible in a speech called The Hope of Togethership."
"I don't think that's a word," mumbled Clifton.
"What?" shouted Pip.
Mayor Birch sat and tucked into a bag of diamonds. Li took to the lectern. "Mayor Birch, the people next to her, fellow students, townspeople and friends," she began. "Facing one's demons is never easy, especially when you, as an exceptionally capable member of the community, must carry extra weight. But myself, Brigitte and brave Aldous did exactly that, utilising our calmness of spirit, our sense of duty and"--she over emphasised--"our togethership. Our less fortunate friends to my left were wrought with terror."
"Hey!" said Clifton.
"As we rowed down river, into unknown territory, it became evident they were dead weight. But as spectres appeared all around us and we of Brandon College fearlessly faced the haunting apparitions, I realised that we should not judge dear Clifton and Pip. They, unlike us, did not have the same educational opportunities, the same supportive upbringing and the same access to fine clothing. So, I did what anyone in my position would"--she paused reflectively--"and should do. I extended a hand and said, 'Come, there's plenty of room for you on our together-ship.'"
Clifton held his face in his hands. The lectern creaked and Clifton shot it a hopeful look. "Break," he whispered, "come on, break!"
The Mayor chewed away on her diamonds blissfully engrossed in Li's speech.
"We were facing spirits," continued Li, "but our spirits never wavered. When it was safe, we hid Clifton and Pip on the riverbank away from danger."
The lectern creaked again, this time louder than before.
"Break," urged Clifton.
"And we faced the ghosts that had ended our beloved race. As they floated before us, I realised that a true victory did not lie in lowering ourselves to their level and fighting with gun and cannon. We fought the ghosts with what we must fight every one of life's battles: understanding."
"For the love of God, break!"
"Thank you and I hope our story, nay, our journey will serve as an inspiration for future generations," said Li. "And Clifton and Pip, the gangplank to my together ship will always be there for you. Thank you and have a great race!"
The crowd roared and Li stepped down from the lectern to be presented with flowers by Mayor Birch. "Pip!" exclaimed Clifton. "The lectern was meant to collapse so Li would fall forward and knock the diamonds out of Birch's hands!"
"What?" shouted Pip. "Lurching sands? I'm sorry, I don't know anything about beach erosion!"
Mayor Birch rang a bell and the rowers climbed into the boats and took their positions. The crowd cheered wildly.
Up stream Clifton noticed a dull, phosphorescent glow. He felt a deep sinking feeling, which was, admittedly, in part due to the the Mayor's robes weighing down the barge as she waddled back to her seat.
Brigitte stood-up in her boat and the crowd fell silent. She calmed herself and then performed a thundering rendition of the school's song, providing her own percussion by playing the spoons. “Qui Lono et un Cliftonus,” she sang.
Storm clouds darkened the sky and it was as though night had suddenly fallen.
"I hope the mosquitoes don't think it's dusk," said Pip.
A sweater tied around our shoulders
Protects our necks from the wind of our helicopter’s blades
We are born to rule!
Or live an idle life by the pool. Ah! Ah! Help! Ah!
The crowd applauded enthusiastically as lightning cracked across the sky. The rowers were poised awaiting the starting gun. Mayor Birch looked with concern at the sky and raised a questioning eyebrow at Clifton. He shrugged.
The starter pointed their gun skyward. The water glowed yellow-green and bubbled. Clifton swallowed hard and looked for a discreet exit. The crowd began to notice the glowing water and they murmured worriedly.
Before the starter could fire, there was a large crack and the lectern finally gave way. It spectacularly collapsed and fell across the air hose that was attached to Pip's diving helmet. Pip gasped for air. In a panic, she leaped from her chair and flailed her limbs wildly. Pip desperately pulled at the air house, but the wood was too heavy. Why did I use redwood? she thought. Pip dropped the hose and tried to reach her helmet with a dramatic upward swipe. Her arm knocked the diamonds out of Mayor Birch's hands. They flew from the barge and disappeared into the water.
"No!" cried Mayor Birch, who fell to her knees in a last ditch effort to catch the diamonds.
Clifton seized the opportunity and quickly yanked the ornate, mayoral chain from around her neck. He threw it in the river, but as he did so, the Mayor pulled a Faberge egg from her pocket and brought it to her mouth. Clifton grabbed the Mayor's arm and pulled it away from her jaws. The crowd had turned its attention to the commotion on the barge and gasped. Mayor Birch mustered her strength and brought the egg back toward her. Pip finally managed to remove the helmet. She took in a huge gulp of air and flung her helmet away. It hit the Mayor in the back and the egg flew from her clutches and into the river.
The Mayor screamed and dust exploded from her face and hands. "You!" she said, pointing at Clifton. "Give me gold, silver, rubies, Ming vases, rare comics, anything!"
Birch's hair greyed rapidly. Her skin aged, wrinkled and thinned, then it fell away until she was nothing but a skeleton. Her bones collapsed under the weight of her robes, leaving her decomposed head atop a pile of mayoral garb.
The river stopped bubbling and the glow dissipated. Pip surveyed the Mayor's remains. "Gives new meaning to rowing sculls, doesn't it?"
The crowd groaned.
"Thanks," said Pip, waving to the crowd and pretending to hold a microphone. "I'm here all week!"
Clifton fell to the floor in relief. "Good work," said Clifton.
"Thanks," said Pip.
Clifton shot to his feet. "Mayor Birch was a fraud," he announced.
"Hey dudes," cried Aldous, "can we row yet, or what?"
"Yes, sorry." shouted Clifton. "Go for it."
The starter held their finger on the trigger.
"Ready?" cried the starter.
The water bubbled again, with great intensity. The river and the surrounding vegetation glowed. The cannon emerged from the river and the Lieutenant shot out of the water laughing manically. "Fire!" she cried.
Soldiers materialised on the shore and the cannon fired at the boats, shattering them. The students dived into the water.
"Did we just kill the Mayor for no reason?" asked Pip.
"I don't know," said Clifton. "Run!"
TO BE CONTINUED…
Next instalment of Clifton and Pip’s folkloric adventures will be next Saturday.
If anyone has any thoughts on the story, or jewel encrusted snack recipes, comment away!