An exert from "That Other Place"
by Stephen A Gilbert.
...Once upon a time there was Pax Limpopo. This was a myriad collection of lands, similar, but not quite like the Empire we have all been told about at school during our history lessons. This Empire is never mentioned on the documentary channels on television; and nor is it the same Empire we can sometimes find within the pages of books purchased at musky smelling antique shops. No this is that other place which sometimes can be found within the fragile realms of nostalgia; often discovered within the innocent minds of children, and is occasionally kept alive due to the fantastical creations of Dickensian style authors.
This is an Empire which never was... not in the true sense of historical chronology... though it could have existed, and without having to stretch the imagination too far at all. Though this intriguing little inner world does exist within the emotions and inspirations of those special few individuals who feel drawn to the past, and who sometimes think they would have been better suited, perhaps, living in another more splendid and magnificent Victorian-esque age.
Have you ever been inside a Museum or strolled through an Art Gallery and seen the paintings of England during the Great Freeze of 1739-40? They say that in London, the Thames actually froze over during those two long winters; and families took their children ice skating on the river and ate roasted chestnuts upon the banks beneath the clock face of Big Ben.
Well now, imagine a world where one day, winter came along as usual... then simply refused to go away again at the normal appointed and expected time. That's exactly what happened one day within the realm of Pax Limpopo, and the place was never quite the same again. Some called it a mini ice age, though personally, I think the capricious Gods just wanted to see what would happen if they did it.
The small Britannic island realm became encased within a picturesque landscape.... like one of those glass globes you can buy in the shops, which if you shake gently, creates a snow storm raining down upon a quaint miniaturised Yuletide cameo. Well, old Jack Frost certainly didn't need much shaking to produce snow during these freezing times.... proving that the old adage "it's too cold to snow" really is just an old wives tale. But anyway, for the most part the people of Pax quickly got used to the change.
All this is actually how Pax Limpopo got its name in the first place. Apparently, Pax means "peace" in Latin, and "Paxus Rexus Idiom Regina" had been the family motto of the Royal Peerage for generations. When Her Majesty, Princess Victorian Angelica Constance of the House Tumultuous was just a small child, she had taken a rather pleasant holiday to one of her colonial provinces in Africa, and had spent such a lovely time sun bathing and drinking homemade lemonade upon the banks of the Limpopo River, that years later (when the Great Freeze metaphorically placed Britain in a giant ice box) the Princess had insisted the Army be dispatched to Kipling's Land to bring the Limpopo back to London to fill the Thames.
Advisors to Her Royal Majesty at the time failed to point out to the young and somewhat innocent Princess, that the sun which normally heated the mighty river would no longer be able to influence the water's temperature once they gathered it up in buckets. However, vast fleets of ships did indeed draw millions of gallons of the Limpopo across the ocean, where bore holes were drilled into the Thames ice, and the now somewhat chilled African waters were poured into the frozen river with steadfast dedication to Her Majesty's royal edict.
The Princess was so delighted by her own cleverness; she became obsessed with the notion of re-naming the entire land after her insightful endeavours... and so Rul Britannia became punk, and Pax Limpopo was born, and a New Age of Reason sprang into the world... Halleluiah.
As the years passed, Pax Limpopo grew accustomed to the Long Winter, and within a decade the people almost forgot the world had ever been any other way. You have to remember that this was an age when the lower middle and the working class masses could barely comprehend what the rest of the world was even like. Plate images within books sometimes displayed giraffes, rhinoceros, raptors, elephants and tigers, and so forth, but these all looked like creatures from a child's worst nightmares... and hardly resembled the real thing at all. But to the people, this was a grim reminder to them just how fortunate they all were to be a part of the Paxish Empire – safely wrapped in the warm cocoon of Her Majesty's most royal charge.
Stories within newspapers such as The Strand, and The Worker's Gazette in big easy to read letters informed their readers in simple terms about foreign affairs and terrible wars on various distant continents; which for the most part terrified the people so much, they hardly ever got the inkling to pack their suit cases and go further afield than Blackpool or Margate on their annual Wakes Week Holidays to the seaside. Of course, people did sometimes travel abroad; deported convicts, prospectors, soldiers, and missionaries sent to convert the Godless heathens in the ways of the true Blessed Way. Naturally the richer types travelled the sky and sea lanes all the time, but communication between the masters and the workers was poor at the best of times, so news of the real world seldom jumped the cultural class barrier.
Princess Victoria grew from a child into a beautiful and cultured young lady... just the type the people liked to adore and worship and by the age of sixteen, she was versed in the refined ways of country and state. She had dozens of potential suitors flocking round her like bees to the honey jar, and the Palace was a buzzing hive of parties, frolics, and a never ending bunch of balls.....
Now, it should be pointed out that this is only one rumour how Pax Limpopo originally came by its name. There are many other tall stories... all equally as improbable as this one, and if you have a more logical explanation; simply jot it down on the long list of possibilities, go to bed with a pill, and when you wake up in the morning it will all feel much better.
The Game: "A Near Rum Thing"
It is Yuletide Eve in a quaint little town just outside the suburbs of London.... actually, it is Yuletide everywhere else as well; but this story concentrates upon the nocturnal activities of our main heroes and protagonists, and takes place in the centre of Portestone's frost covered, cobble-stoned high street.
Major General Sir Wellyn Shaftesbury: hero of the Age, adored by the people, hounded by the press, loved by the Princess, envied by other men, and chastised by his nanny.... has heard through the military grape vine (i.e. his regiment of 11th Hussars stationed near Hyde Park Barracks) that Portestone has a rather delightful bawdy house (Pippa's Place) situated within the enclosed grounds of a rather grand converted Abbot's tower and ancient monastery abode.
Taking his old faithful Irish blood hound Seamus O'Toole with him to secure them both lodgings within the finest suite of rooms the establishment has to offer, Wellyn is looking forward to a pleasant Yuletide long weekend away from the rigours of military duty, and the fearful nagging tongue of his family nemesis - the nanny.
It is late evening, and the first stars can all ready be seen twinkling through the fuzzy blue black mantle of dusk; and Wellyn has a mind to engage the rather pretty buck he spied walking the frosty streets a few hours ago as they entered town. Wellyn decides to bring Seamus along, so he can point the girl out, and have his servant approach her with a proposal for some light evening refreshment and a spot of gaslight tiffin.
Wellyn and Seamus are just leaving the courtyard gates of their esteemed residence, and are preparing for a casual walk through the streets in search of their prize, when the action kicks off.
Jack The Stripper: just happens to be sojourning in Portestone this Yuletide; and even as Wellyn and O'Toole are wending their merry way through the streets in search of Trudy, Jack is all ready ahead of them, and is himself preparing to 'entertain'the young woman.
As everyone knows, Jack has a liking for ladies of the night, and his criminal indecency has made him a high priority on the Most Wanted list of the London Boroughs busy constabulary.
Jack has an unfortunate lewd bent: he likes to get as close as he can to these unfortunate fallen women... whip out his concealed brush, and with lightning speed, he will paint a nude fresco of his victim for the world to witness his passion.
No one is safe from Jack's perverted hand. Especially now his pleasures have started to expand, and occasionally includes the odd non prostitute or two. Unfortunately for Jack, the French government recently caught up with this notorious criminal while he sojourned in France on his annual hols with Auntie Betsie, and in return for their silence regarding his true identity, the French Secret Service have coerced Jack to perform certain... erm... favours for them from time to time, and as occasion demands.
Jack is so highly strung right now, he can hardly contain his ardour... and earlier this evening, before he could help himself, he created a small pornographic masterpiece on the dark wall, half way down a narrow back alley somewhere in Portestone's less well to do East End.
Suggestive French Lady on Feminine Penny Farthing: Ohh-la-la Lily Le Fête is a French Spy who poses a deep threat to the safety of Britain's Green and Pleasant Land (well, it will be green again once the snow goes away). Her mission to subvert the course of Paxian justice leads her to don many strange and exotic disguises in the line of her own nefarious duties. Just recently, Lily discovered Sir Wellyn Shaftesbury's holiday whereabouts, and disguised as a loose bawdy house girl, she hopes to get Wellyn into a few compromising positions so she can sell her story to the press. The headline is all ready etched in her mind: "Sir Wellyn Shaftesbury, most trusted agent of her Royal Majesty, supreme hero of the nation, caught with his trousers down whilst in the clutches of a common harlot." If her contact Mr. X (aka Jack the Stripper) can be trusted to do his stuff; the mission is as good as in the bag.
Local Portestone Constables, Nob Chase & Morley Piecroft: make a fortunate discovery, when Charlie Dicks the local rogue and general bad boy, hoping for a substantial reward, reveals to the local bobbies that Jack the Stripper is, in fact, in town. When Police Sergeant Chase ask him how he could possibly know something Scotland Yard themselves have never even been able to ascertain with any authority. Dick replies that he has just seen (what can only be described as) one of Jack's paintings recently scribed onto a wall of one of the streets down by the riverside – and the paint is still wet.
Juger Fuhrer, Ludwig Von Lieberwits & his Prussian Gyro-Pilots: Meanwhile, Prussian intelligence has also accurately determined that Sir Wellyn Shaftesbury is on a Yuletide holiday in the quiet and secluded town of Portestone, and has decided to seize this opportunity to capture the foremost soldier in the Paxian Empire, and hold him for ransom. An airship Das Whirly- Birden captained by Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän (or "Danube steamship company captain," for short) is carrying a Hunting Squadron of Prussian flyers on a mission to locate and kidnap their target as quickly and as quietly as they can.
Even as Nob Chase and Morley Piecroft are creeping along the hedgerows seeking to arrest Jack the Stripper ~ a section of Prussian Ship's Marines are moving panther like through the trees, attempting to approach Pippa's Place undetected by the sleeping inhabitants of the lazy backwater town. Once the Marines have located the building with the red gaslights shining from the bedroom windows, they are to strike a flare into the air, which will be the signal for the Juger Fuhrer and his elite gyro-pilots to descend upon the building and overpower Sir Wellyn Shaftesbury... all secondary targets have a rescinded priority rating.
Sgt. Major Bedrock: and a company of raw recruits from the 1st Regiment of the Royal Lifeguards just happen, as luck would have it, to be temporarily billeted in a small army camp just outside Portestone. Sergeant Major Bedrock himself is personally leading a platoon of miscreants who have unfortunately found themselves on a charge for insubordination and drunken misbehaviour. Night manoeuvres and urban Wargames through the icy streets and back alleys of Portestone on Yuletide Eve is a punishment the Sergeant Major believes will teach the men under his command a serious lesson in military protocol. Little do they know there are Prussian Marines approaching them from the wooded hills to the rear of their present position.
Initial set up.
"So, where exactly do you think the lady's going to be at this time of the evening, Major General, Sir?" Seamus O'Toole enquires in his pronounced Irish Munster County accent. "Tis fierce cold out here, and t'would freeze the knobbly bits off a brass monkey... if you'll forgive d'military expression, sir."
Shaftesbury & O'Toole head out into the streets.
Wellyn simply takes a deep swallow from the brandy glass he'd swiped on his way out of Pippa's luxurious pleasure house, and doesn't answer immediately. Strange that he should be so enchanted.... captivated, even... by the wisp of a thing he'd spotted earlier as he'd entered the town. Young, with long raven locks, and wearing enough cotton and silk lingerie to keep even the most extreme fetishist content with his miserable lot in life.
'Right now I could be inside a nice warm lounge, roasting his toes in front of the inglenook fireplace and toasting crumpets over the flames.'Wellyn chastises himself:
'But instead, here I am chasing a common street hooker half way across town, and why..... for half an hour's hanky-panky and possibly a dose of speckled willie to boot?'
But inside, Wellyn all ready knows the answer to his rhetorical, self posed question. The filly in question is a devilish rum beauty, and well worth the discomfort of listening to Seamus Furtive O'Toole complaining about his chilblains for a little bit longer!
"Steady on there, old boy." Wellyn slurs slightly, as the noxious toxins from the alcohol, which is coursing through his veins, reaches his head and collides with adverse effects due to the cold air being inhaled into his lungs.
For a few moments Wellyn feels rather giddy, and contemplates turning round and simply walking back into the building they have just vacated. But sheer tenacity and a driving urge to quench his enormous appetite drives him onwards.
"Besides, she really is a rare beauty, and once I'm finished with her, you can have your fill... on the house, courtesy of yours truly."
Wellyn does a little jig on the pavement, and finishes his routine with a courtly bow.... spilling brandy into the snow, losing balance and nearly falling flat on his rump in the process.
"Ssssssssh!" Seamus cocks his head on one side for a moment and listens into the fast approaching gloom of night.
"Wha... whazzat?" Wellyn slurs slightly.
"Hark a minute Mr. Shaftesbury, sir. I think I can hear something." Seamus looks round at his master, and places a finger to his lips to emphasize his point.
"Whazzzat! I don't hear a bloody thing, old boy."
For a full half a minute, Seamus stands stock still and opens his ears. Wellyn merely hums an out of tune cadence from some Music Hall song.... burps twice, and farts loudly.
Suddenly looking as furtive as a fox on full alert, Seamus enquires: "Mr. Shaftesbury, sir.... do you hear an engine high above us. You know, up in the sky?"
But the off duty drunken Major General has all ready staggered away down the street in a zig-zag line, singing snatches of:
What are we going to do with Uncle Arthur?
A blinking stallion, is Uncle Arthur.
When he goes a-strolling in the park,
Watch your step, girls, especially after dark.
Any old skirt's a flirt to Uncle Arthur,
He's over eighty, but how he can run!
'Give us a kiss, my dear,'he'd say,
And tickle you up the boom-di-ay,
And say it was just an 'armless bit of fun.
A bit further down the road, and Wellyn suddenly quickens his pace and calls cheerily over to his companion, who is still looking up into the sky and doing an almost crab like walk in the process:
"I say, Seamus, there she is... what a bit of good fortune * hic*"
Wellyn increases speed and walks up the main street towards the town centre where he has spotted the girl of his dreams leaning against a lamp post.
A fine ice mist and the insufficient gas lighting makes it hard for Wellyn to make out any details at first. But as he gets closer, he notices the street walker is not alone.
"What rotten luck, she's all ready got a punter."
Through the fog, Wellyn spies a gentleman in a top hat and long dark coat talking to the girl from the relative seclusion of a small dark alleyway.
But suddenly, several things begin to happen all at once. From further up the cobbled high street, Wellyn notices a pair of police officers striding towards the town centre from the opposite direction. One of them points towards the girl leaning against the lamp, and blows a whistle.
Simultaneously, obliquely to the right of the police officers, but also coming from the opposite direction to Wellyn: the darndest thing catches the Major General's attention, and for a moment he thinks he is seeing things. But when he wipes his sleeve against his eyes and looks again, the image is still there! Coming down the middle of the road, legs wide apart to allow the pedals to work themselves in their downhill descent, a rather pretty, foreign looking woman dressed in a revealing set of white cotton undergarment comes careening down the hill on a penny farthing, waving a yellow handkerchief in the general direction of the prostitute and would be punter... as though to warn them off.
At the same time, in the distance, the muffled sound of rifle fire can be heard echoing through the night. Wellyn's senses suddenly wind into overdrive. He may be drunk, he may be a bit of a rotten fop at times, but he hasn't stayed alive all this time, and against all the odds by being stupid. The Major General knows the sound of Prussian rifles being discharged any time of the day or night.
"Put your Back into it, you 'orrible little man, you."
"But Seargent Major, it's cold and I can't get my fingers to work properly."
"Would you like me to fetch you a hot water bottle, sonny?"
"Oh wow, would you Sergeant Major?"
Sergeant Major Bedrock walks stiffly over to the sorry looking line of would be soldiers, and shakes his head with silent exasperation. He stops when he reaches the place in the line where Private Pyke is shivering uncontrollably in the chill winter air.
"Listen here you pathetic little maggot, when I tell you to lock and load your bundle, I MEAN LOCK AND LOAD YOUR BLOODY BUNDLE, DO I MAKE MYSELF CLEAR PRIVATE PYKE?"
"Yes Sergeant Major."
"Are you looking at me when I speak to you, private?"
"No Sergeant Major."
"WHY AREN'T YOU LOOKING AT ME WHEN I SPEAK TO YOU PRIVATE!?"
Several gun shots ring out from somewhere behind the platoon of recruits, and suddenly the air is alive with bullets and smoke. Private Pyke slumps to the ground in a dead faint... in utter terror. Fear has chased his bowels to the finish line and won by a knock out finale.
He will wake up some time later... after the main action is concluded, and he will recall little of his inexperience; but will relate to his mates in the barracks how he grappled a hulking brute of an enemy, and carried his wounded Sergeant Major safely from the field...
... after all, tall tales are the life blood of the army, and promotes personal ambition and boosts morale – which is why most officers turn a blind eye to it. The ragged line of Paxian Lifeguards turn left and right like headless chickens trying to locate the enemy. Only the Sergeant Major keeps his head, and tries to rally his men into the proper semblance of a fighting formation.
Placing his swagger stick firmly under his right armpit, he straightens up to his full height, and like a kettle building slowly into a full blown boiling whistle, he yells:
"HOLD YOUR POSITION AND RALLY ROUND ME, YOU HORRIBLE LITTLE MEN!"
In a voice which brooches no argument, he stands as immovable as a rock. Private Pyke's first action, witnessed through closed eyelids as he faints away in fright... a Prussian bullet whizzes past his head and it's time to say night night for a while.
Rule Mechanics: The Prussians win the initiative for the first turn by throwing a 6 on the six sided die. The Paxian forces and allies roll a decent 4, but still lose the opening round, and get to move after the enemy.
Jack attempts to roll a 1 or 2 on a six sided die, but fails. He does not get to fresco a painted lady this turn of the game. Meanwhile, the French spy on the penny farthing has spotted the two police officers creeping up on Jack, and tries to use her special attraction skill to warn him of the impending danger. She fails to make the required number, and continues riding down the hill towards the centre of town.
Wellyn and Seamus approach the town centre and spot Trudy, the prostitute being chatted up by Jack, and hurry towards them in the hope of getting in first. Seamus 'highly tuned senses are working overtime.... something doesn't seem right to him.
Meanwhile, the Prussian Marines coming out of the woods above the bawdy house have run right into the rear of a small platoon of Paxian Lifeguards out on night manoeuvres.
Naturally, they panic slightly; wrongly assuming the game is up and their mission is known to the enemy. But they are elite troops, and are determined to continue with their objective. They come charging down the hill firing their weapons as they go - intent on sweeping the Paxian riflemen nonchalantly aside as they rush towards their goal.
A single red coated enemy drops to the ground and is out of the action. But a stout hearted NCO is trying desperately to rally the surprised and disorganized Lifeguard, and the Prussian Marines believe they may be up against stiff resistance.
Sergeant Major Bedrock watches his platoon come apart, and frowns in dismay. He sees red jackets flowing away into the gloom, and more than a few of them are lying on the ground and not moving. A few of the braver soldiers rally round him at his call, and shakily form a thin red line with the NCO in the centre. Bedrock breathes a silent prayer of gratitude, and thanks Pax for the training his men have received upon the rifle ranges. The Prussian Marines flowing towards them out of the gloom meet a small welcome committee of dedicated rifle fire, and the enemy pop apart before his eyes as the first volley smashes into them at close range.
In absolute confusion... and perhaps because their plight is now desperate, one of the Prussian Marines cracks off a flare which will call the gyro-pilots into the fray.
Meanwhile, Lily Le Fête the French Spy finally manages to alert Jack of the danger he is in - just as the two police officers appear round the corner of a low wall and charge headlong towards him with truncheons and handcuffs at the ready... blowing whistles as they come until their puffed out cheeks go red with the effort.
"Vere did sey come from, ze mission viil fail if ve can't kwickly locate ze Major Geneval." Obergefreiter Klaus screames to his superior over the gunfire."
"Ve viil charge zem – NOW!" Feldwebel Himmelshmitt replies calmly over the din.
Amongst their ranks, a solitary flare shoots into the air and lights the sky overhead with an eerie green glow.
"Who did zat.... who DID zat?" The Feldwebel demands, tearing his helmet off his head and throwing it to the ground in rage.
"I think maybe, Mr Shaftesbury, sir... we should be heading someplace away from here." Seamus'bloodhound nose is now positively twitching with full alert and fear for their safety.
But Sir Wellyn had all ready sobered up considerably, the second he had heard the Prussian Mauser rifle fire ... followed by the sound of British Whisky Henry's being fired in a ragged volley.
"I think.... yes. Maybe we should not return to our lodgings tonight?" Wellyn muses and looks sharply to his faithful companion for his thoughts.
"My thinking entirely, Sir." Seamus nods his head furiously, his dishevelled locks of red hair look like an angry wave breaking upon a stubborn furrow of wrinkled brow and stoic concentration. "and if I'm not much mistaken, Sir, those things floating down out of the sky over yonder, aren't a flock of belated migrating ducks!" He points a shaking finger towards a florescent green skyline, where a group of figures are descending out of a cigar shaped machine as large as small dark cloud.
A hail of bullets ping and ding all around the valiant Lifeguard standing firmly around their Sergeant Major; many of them wishing they had chosen the cowards route and were now routing the field with their less steadfast comrades. But heroism is no one's friend, and several brave soldiers fall to the ground in less fortunate circumstances than the snoozing Private Pyke.
Sergeant Major Bedrock keels over and falls flat on his back when a lone Prussian bullet plucks the helmet clean off his head. The armoured hat has saved his life: but when he wakes up, he will have no memory of this day's events due to a severe concussion caused by the blow from the enemy shell. It is precisely at this moment that Private Pyke recovers from his faint... quickly assesses the situation, and decides discretion is the better part of valour.
As he crawls away into the dimpsy grey mantle of dusk, he hears a groan from his prone Sergeant Major. Blood is coming from a deep scrape along the side of his helmetless head, and a nasty bruise is rapidly forming over his right ear. Private Pyke does the only thing his training and instinct tells him to do. He takes hold of both feet, and drags his Sergeant Major to safety.
A few seconds afterwards, an entire squadron of Prussian Gyro-Pilots descend from the sky and check the entire scene with a fine tooth comb... by which time, Private Pyke and Sergeant Major Bedrock are safely away and vanished into the night.
The Juger Fuhrer, Ludwig Von Lieberwits has his men sweep the battlefield with effortless efficiency. When Ludwig is confident his path is clear of any immediate danger, he shines a helmeted gas light onto a small detailed map of the surrounding lands.
After a few minutes while he takes time to orientate the position of his squadron with pin point accuracy; he snaps the light off, rolls the map away and hands it to his semaphore and signal man.
He utters confidently to those nearest to him.
"Ze flare has been lit too soon... but no matter. Ve will march double time tovards our objective, and complete the mission viz in the next five minutes.... move out!"
Lily Le Fête allows the hill's momentum to carry her away to safety upon her gaily painted penny farthing. Behind her the policemen's whistles and cries to "Stop, in the name of the law!" Can be heard echoing off the buildings in her wake. She has escaped unscathed.... uncompromised. Now it is time to abort the mission and report to headquarters via her nearest safe contact.
She only hopes Jack also managed to escape through the alleyways of Portestone. Those two buffoons following don't look terribly fit, and Miss Le Fête is fairly confident Jack can give them the slip. It would be a shame to lose such a valuable ally. But if it came to the worst... what did he know about her – nothing! He hadn't even gotten a decent look at her as she cycled past him at top speed just now... and fortunately, all former communication had been via messages, and good old Jack had never actually seen her face before tonight. But Hmmmmm! How had the mission ended up being so badly compromised? Lily would get to the bottom of this mystery... Lily always got to the bottom of things.
When Ludwig Von Lieberwits bursts into the supposed target area of Major General Sir Wellyn Shaftesbury three minutes later... amidst tear gas and concussion grenades; the screams and cries of the party girls is drowned only by the sounds of multiple shards of breaking glass and splintering portals as the gentlemen clientele try hurriedly to climb to safety out of the windows and back doors.
But it soon becomes apparent to the Prussian Hunt Leader that their bird has most emphatically flown the coup.
Two minutes later, after having ordered his men to search every nook and cranny within the premises... both he and his entire squadron vacate the scene as quickly and as efficiently as they first entered.
The sounds of a large mechanical contraption drifting away into the night is like the soft gossamer thread of a grasshopper's wings floating away on the cold winter wind.
© 2008, Stephen A Gilbert.