"Hello dearie," she says.
"Ah," says Beardie, who has never been entirely comfortable in the presence of the tender gender. "But... you're a woman!"
"Observant, isn't he?"
Gruffly, Beardie ploughs on. "You'll be, er, one of those border types, I suppose, judging by the face paint. Always waving your arms in the air and screeching like a banshee."
"Ooh, well... ladies' pleasure, dearie."
"What?" Now it is Beardie's turn to be bewildered. This isn't what she's meant to say at all. She's meant to say, "Oh my dear, I do feel queer"; to which Beardie is ready to respond, "It must be all that Watneys beer." Beardie decides to improvise (desperately).
"Oh dear mother, what a fool I be," he says.
"Yes. Six young fellas came a-courting me... you know. Don't you?"
The lady edges away. Beardie makes at a face at her, urging her to respond. Why doesn't she respond?
"Well aren't you the blue-eyed stranger?" she says. "And you can stay that way. I'm off."
Beardie stares after her, then looks at Del, imploringly.
"Why did she call me that? I'm not the Blue-Eyed Stranger. I'm the Gallant Hussar."
The ticking of the bar clock bores into Del's skull. Beardie looks as if he needs something to steady his nerves, but Del thinks better of suggesting it. A man enters the bar. He looks remarkable only because he looks unremarkable. Marks And Spencer Chap isn't often seen in The Braying Ass. Beardie looks up only briefly.
"Hmm! Not one of us. Obviously wandered into the wrong pub. Your round, I think."
But Beardie is mistaken. The chap approaches their table. He draws up a chair, eyes darting between Del and Beardie. After a moment's indecision, he addresses himself to Beardie. Huskily.
"How D'Ye Do, Sir?"
"Fine thanks," says Beardie.
The chap looks confused. His instructions had been quite clear, and he's followed them to the letter. This shouldn't be happening. It isn't happening.
"Perhaps I could help?"
The chap turns. It is Del who has spoken. Beardie's mouth drops open.
"How D'Ye Do, Sir?" the chap tries again.
"Oh, Bobbing Around," says Del.
The chap hesitates, then decides to continue.
"The Monk's March," he says.
"The Fool's Jig," says Del.
"They do indeed," says the chap.
"Have you got the papers?" asks Del.
The man reaches into his coat and draws out an envelope. "No," he says. He hands the envelope over. Del seems satisfied.
"What about him?" asks the chap, indicating Beardie.
"Oh, don't worry about Mel," says Del. "He won't remember a thing in the morning."
"Slipped something in his glass, have you?
"About ten pints of best bitter. I wanted to find out how much he knew."
"Not that it matters now."
And with that, the chap rises to leave. "I'll go and enlist for a sailor, then." "Good idea," says Del.
Once again, Beardie looks at Del with popping eyes.
"You must be... one of The Donkey's men! Or my name's not Mr Mel Sourditch."
"Actually," says Del, casually, "Your name's not Mr Mel Sourditch."
"We probably should have mentioned it earlier. It was thought best you didn't know. But don't be put out: I'm not really Del Porter."
"Del Porter is just an anagram."
Feverishly, Beardie scribbles letters on a beer mat.
"Yes, I think... oh. Lord!"
Del Porter - or whoever he is - sips at his ginger beer, with a hint of a raised eyebrow.
Beardie blusters on. "Then you're... The Creator."
"You flatter me. But no. You think you see Del Porter before you, but Del Porter is just a code. I am, you might say, a mere cipher."
"And Mr Mel Sourditch?"
"The key to the whole riddle, my dear friend. As you heard, the envelope I've been handed does not contain the missing papers you've been waiting for. We secured those weeks ago, after a long search. There were a few technical details to sort out, but now The Donkey is ready to release them to an excited morris world. Contained in this envelope are the final instructions. Would you like to see them?"
Beardie reaches out a trembling hand. He tears at the envelope.
CONGRATULATIONS ON GETTING THIS FAR (says the sheet inside). WE DIDN'T THINK ANYONE WOULD HAVE THAT MUCH TIME ON THEIR HANDS.
SO - YOU WANT A SNEAK PREVIEW OF THE RETURN OF ONE OF THE BEST-LOVED OF ALL MORRIS SIDES... WHICH NO ONE HAS EVER SEEN DANCE?
TO REVEAL THE NAME OF THE SIDE, UNSCRAMBLE THE LETTERS OF THE FOLLOWING ANAGRAM:
"MR MEL SOURDITCH"
THEN GO TO THE "SEARCH THE DONKEY" BOX ON WWW.THEDONKEY.ORG. KEY IN THE NAME. ALL WILL BE REVEALED.
IT'LL BE WORTH IT. UNLESS, LIKE OUR FRIEND BRIAN, YOU HAVE ALL THE EARLY EDITIONS OF MORRIS MATTERS MAGAZINE.
©2001 Simon Pipe, Mark Rogers