The light in the tavern is dim. 14th century Britains don't expect any better. Gobbo peers at Zoppo, not minding that he can't see him well.
“So,” asks Gobbo, “is this the Great Plague or the Black Death?”
“Who gives a swive,” says Zoppo. “Some historians say the term Black Death wasn't invented till later but what do they know? What we know is folks are dying like flies, which gives us work, humping corpses into carts and digging pits to bury 'em in.”
“So, it's an ill wind, one might say, or is that another anachronism?”
“Who gives a swive! Your round.”
“No way. I gave the landlord a groat and he gave me these, tuppence three farthings. So that makes it your round, you scurvy rapscallion.”
Zoppo's eyes blare with the customary distaste these two drinking companions share. The familiar sight of Gobbo's hunchback stirs his bile but he stands and lurches to the bar, his longer leg dragging along behind the shorter.
“Two more,” he snarls at the innkeeper, who glares back, calculating how many ales his two 'best' customers have imbibed so far.
“Bring me your goblets, if you want 'em filled.”
Zoppo's eyes narrow before he shuffles off, then slams the goblets on the bar. His laser eyes force the innkeeper to keep pouring till the level reaches an acceptable level, even though they both know Zoppo's weird gait will involve spillage, even if he sips from both. Gobbo looks balefully at the goblets, muttering about the bastard innkeeper giving short measure – as always.
Why are these two here together drinking in the grimy tavern, as always? Because of the curse of the age – lack of choice. Nowhere else will allow them in and no one else will drink with them. Gobbo the hunchback and Zoppo the cripple are only friends according to the Devil's dictionary – someone who hates the same people and things as you. The crushing lack of choice has been cemented by time, this being the second year they have been sharing their evening ales in the dirtiest corner of this stinking inn.
Despite over 700 drearily similar evenings, some strange demon has possessed Gobbo tonight. He almost tells a joke.
“So Geoff Stinkfeet says to me, that bloke over their must be a king or at least a lord. Why do you say that, says I? Well, he's not covered in shit like the rest of us.”
This provokes an eerie snarl, as close as Zoppo gets to a laugh.
“Bet he stole that line from Monty Python,” which comment provokes rage in Gobbo.
“Don't mention that thieving bastard's name to me! I once said something very clever and witty about not knowing the name but the face rings a bell. That swiving git repeated it to everyone claiming it as his line.”
“You can never trust those so-called jesters – all liars and thieves.”
Gobbo's rage is slightly assuaged by this speedy agreement but seethes on. He broods over all the jibes levelled at him over the years in the name of jokes. Thinking of the ones passed on against Zoppo brings little comfort or amusement. Nor is he consoled by the fact that his hunch was probably the decisive factor in landing his present job. There weren't many volunteers but his and Zoppo's disabilities pushed them to the front, even if political correctness or positive discrimination had not yet been invented.
When sitting, Zoppo's straight back and muscular shoulders give no hint of his ill-matched, twisted limbs, so the former can stir jealousy. With no evidence Gobbo begins to suspect that Zoppo has enjoyed more sexual experiences than his own very limited few. The green-eyed monster in his head provokes a weird plan, which he announces as he quaffs another goblet.
“Tonight I'm going home through the graveyard!”
Zoppo's chin nearly hits the table – “You cannot be serious!”
“Why in hell's name should I take a mile detour every swiving night?”
“You know, like everyone, that the graveyard is full of demons at night. Only last week that mad Scot, Jock Tosspot, got drunk enough to set off into the graveyard and no one has seen neither kilt nor sporran of him since.”
“Good riddance; never liked that haggis-guzzling git.”
“So you don't want to be swallowed up by the same demon.”
“Swive that and swive you. I tell you I'm going through the graveyard – tonight.”
“Well swive you, you're on your own.” Zoppo stands and stomps off. As Gobbo watches he knows he must leave at once, go straight to the graveyard and start walking through, before he has time to think, time to fear.
As he steps outside the bitter wind slaps both his cheeks and pinches his nose. It isn't raining but he can smell it in the air. The wind boxes his ears and thumps his forehead. He grits his teeth and forces himself to take those first steps. He has to get away from the inn quickly to avoid any possibility of slinking back inside. Though distant the howl of a wolf is near enough to shiver his spine. What if my life ends tonight, it's been full enough of pain, sorrow and derision? What is there to cling to, to make me fear the welcome embrace of death?
Of course, lurching on, as a medieval peasant, the idea of death as an ending soon fades. Perhaps tonight the demons will seize him, drag him down to hell, an eternity of suffering far greater than all his pitiful life so far. But he will not go back to face the scorn of Zoppo and the others. Nor will he deviate, taking the usual mile long detour.
The first thunderclap jolts him, the rain begins to pelt him but he presses on assisted by the lightning flashes, which reveal it is only bats swooping round his ears – no demons yet. His feet are sinking deeper into the mud which sticks to his boots making every step more difficult. Still, he ploughs on. Another flash reveals a large tombstone inches from his nose. He recognises it as at the very centre of the graveyard. Halfway – is that good, or a disaster?
As he moves to the left to avoid the stone a fiendish cry rips his eardrums. A pungent sulphurous stench fills his nostrils like a rotten egg right in the face. In the centre of an eerie glow he finds himself staring into the blazing red eyes of an enormous devil.
“Gobbo, Gobbo!” the devil screeches, “what in hell's name are you doing here?”
Gobbo's teeth are rattling, his blood frozen in his veins, speechless
but his brain is telling him he must speak, must answer the question.
At last, he stammers, “Just going home, just taking the quickest way home. All I want is to be home as quickly as possible.”
Something about the hideous noise from the demon reminds him of laughter, the mocking aggressive sort he has known since childhood. The devil looks him up and down for an age before asking, “What's that on your back?”
“It's… it's... it's a hunch.”
“A hunch! I'll have it, give it to me.” Long scaly arms reach out, sharp claws grip, then he is flung to the ground. A wrenching pain sears his back as he passes out.
He has no way to guess how long he has lain on the soggy mud, lucky not to have drowned. The rain has stopped, the clouds blown away to reveal a watery moon. As he arises his stance feels changed, taller and straighter. His hands over his shoulders feel no hunch, though a fierce ache lingers. What had he said to the demon - just want to be home as quickly as possible? The mud still clings, the moonlight is dim but walking is easier, his strides longer, his balance better. He collapses into bed not sure if awake or in the grip of a weird dream.
The dawn light seeping through the cracks in his door pierces his eyelids giving warning of the pain of opening them. His whole body is stiff, feeling like it has been dropped from a great height. The pain round his head is like an iron band, put on red hot and now contracting. Random memories of the night before butterfly around his mind. Amid the physical pain is a strange sense of loss, something missing. Then his hand rises to scratch his hunch and the memory of the demon kicks him in the stomach. He hauls himself from bed and it is true – standing upright without a hunch. A decision is made – he will not work today. A day of rest and recreation – let Zoppo sweat and think he has been swallowed up like the Scotsman.
The pain of his head eases as he moves around his hovel, lurching at first but gradually with more assurance, poise even. He steps out to take the air and looks up. The sky is different, the world another place with chin up and shoulders back. He has no immediate neighbours but a stab of fear hits him – what will they think when they see him? But why fear? Let them fear him. Those who mocked him will see he can run after them, catch and throw them in the ditch. Never before has he felt the lack of a looking glass but how good would it be to see his new body as others would see it.
He eats a lot, relaxes, and moves his body in different ways. Then as night approaches, he feels his impatience rising as the sun sinks. He can wait no longer and marches out. How satisfying the sharp intakes of breath, the scuttlings and muttering he hears on his way through the outskirts of the village. Small knots of shadows seem to be following, but keeping their distance, trying to keep out of sight.
Without knocking he flings wide the inn door, his eyes scanning in the gloaming as jaws drop and mouths gape. He swaggers to the bar, slams down his fist, “Yesss, shit-face, it's me. Bring me my usual ale but not to the corner. Tonight I will sit here at this central table.”
The innkeeper wilts under the withering glare, stammers, “Yes sir. At once sir.” Muttered comments and furtive glances are exchanged as the ale is delivered.
“So, Zoppo not here yet?” - he addresses not just his neighbour but the inn in general.
“No, not yet.”
“It's a bit early for him.”
“Yes, he usually comes later.”
“Let's hope it's soon – can't wait to see him,” announces Gobbo– can that be a smile?
Eventually, one who has drunk deeply plucks up the courage. “You look different tonight, Gobbo.”
“Don't I just! And I have a fine tale to tell how this came about but perhaps we should wait for Zoppo."
The anticipation and excitement lures Gobbo into giving an outline of his meeting with the devil. He is wallowing in all the attention, finding his vocabulary and storytelling swelling as he answers questions, all thought of Zoppo forgotten, till the door creaks open, and in he hobbles.
The silence is oppressive, his eyes dart hither and thither, then into his usual corner. No Gobbo. Slowly his eyes slink back to the centre – who is this figure? There is a solid thump as he collapses.
As consciousness seeps back he is amazed to find himself the centre of attention. All around voices are urging him to wake up, ale is thrust between his lips, then a voice cuts through the hubbub.
“So, you recognised me, my old friend, Zoppo, or did you?”
He catches the note of irony in friend, the hint of menace in the question. “What's happening? Is this a nightmare?”
“No! Awake to the new reality! Pin back your ears while I tell you the tale.”
Gobbo recounts the events of the previous night, giving full emphasis to Zoppo's part, the blame/credit, which drove him through the graveyard. He delights in the shivers he causes in all his audience but especially in Zoppo, as he details the encounter with the demon.
“So there you have it. It seems even the most fearsome fiend can be turned into a friend, to do you a good turn, if you have the courage to face up to him.” These words bring a roar of approval as Gobbo returns to the bar for more ale, leaving the poor cripple to sulk in his corner. The air of jollity and celebration filling the inn fails to penetrate his remote corner as his previous contemptuous toleration of Gobbo the hunchback curdles to a deep hatred of this new upright character. The customers are laughing, singing, buying ale, including for Zoppo, who slumps in his corner, mirthless, song-less, more excluded than ever. An adamantine decision crystallises in his heart. He too must pass through the graveyard.
Around midnight he arises unsteadily and croaks to no one in particular, “Courage, is that what it takes, you say? Let no one say that I lack courage.”
As he lurches out people guess where he is going; no one rises to stop him. As he emerges the bitter wind slaps both his cheeks, pinches his nose hard, then boxes his ears. Gritting his teeth he sets his course. It is not raining yet he can smell it in the air. He cannot turn back, he must press on. Pelting rain and howling wolves will not stop him.
A lightning flash illuminates the central tombstone. Zoppo forces himself to look behind it. Of course, the real demon is far more terrifying than the description. Despite his failing sphincters, he knows he must answer whatever the question.
“What's that on your back?”
Zoppo's mind is reeling but he must answer. “Er... er... nothing.
“Here, have this hunch!”
Can that terrible sound be described as a laugh?