‘I like bugs, but not to eat. I sometimes lick them, just to taste, but I wouldn’t hurt one. Bugs like to be licked. Did you know that we’ve discovered four hundred thousand species of beetle, but there could be as many as twelve million, yes, I said twelve million, and at the current rate of discovery we won’t have named them all until the sun expands and obliterates us, which makes me sad, very sad, yes, it does, thinking of all those beetles without names.’
The kid was clearly distressed by this, and J-Man comforted him.
‘It’s OK, Flo, it’s OK,’ he said, putting his arm around Flo’s shoulders. ‘You’ll name them beetles, I know you will. Let’s get your softy.’
J-Man took Flo over to his bunk and gave him his softy, which turned out to be a cuddly toy beetle, the size of a teddy bear.
‘Flo’s a genius-level brainiac,’ said J-Man when he came back. ‘But he’s not too good with people.’
Then the huge ogre shambled over.
‘This is Igor,’ said J-Man. ‘His real name’s Quentin, but he just doesn’t suit that. But don’t let appearances deceive you. He’s a sweet kid. Just don’t get between him and his gruel or he’ll put his hand down your throat all the way to your knees and turn you inside out. And believe me, nobody wants to see your guts on the outside of you.’
Igor and I exchanged nods. I quickly made up a little poem to help me remember Igor and his foibles:
Only a fool
Would mess with Igor’s gruel;
So don’t, or you’ll
Be in for a shock
When he turns you inside out like a sock.
Not my greatest ever poem, I admit, but I made it up on the spot in my head, so you have to make allowances.
Last, I met the spotty kid, who was called Ernesto Gogol. Ernesto creeped me out a bit: his front teeth seemed to have been filed to points. Either that or they were just naturally pointy , but as far as I’m aware, pointed front teeth just aren’t part of the human genome, belonging more properly to the world of bats, cats and rats.
Suddenly a siren whined, wailed and screamed. It sounded like a vat of bats, cats and rats being baked alive.
‘What the heck’s that?’ I said. ‘An air raid?’
But I got no reply from J-Man, for the droning of that siren had a bizarre and deeply unsettling effect on the inmates of Hut Four. J-Man stopped literally halfway through a word. His eyes glazed over, and I thought I saw the glistening of a little line of drool at the corner of his mouth. He didn’t quite put his hands straight out and start groaning, zombie style, but it wasn’t a million miles away from that. He was not alone. The others all looked the same. 2
J-Man turned away from me and, along with the others, headed out the door. Outside, I saw lines of fat zombies streaming from all the other huts in the compound. The lines converged, and together they trudged towards the mess hall. It was like one of those massive migrations you see on nature programmes, you know – wildebeest on the Serengeti.
I didn’t know what else to do, so I followed along. I found myself behind the giant, Igor. I tapped him on the shoulder, meaning to ask him what was going on, but he just shrugged me off, making one of his grunts.
From the outside, the mess hut simply looked like a bigger version of the dormitory huts. However, its smell was even worse. There’s some kind of cosmic law that says that wherever kids are compelled to eat, there must be the accompanying smell of cabbage. I reckon that even in school dining halls for Eskimos in Greenland, where there isn’t an actual cabbage for, like, ten thousand miles, and all they eat are dolphins and snow, there’s still a good old cabbagey smell, like a donkey farted into a bag of brussels sprouts.
I followed Igor in, and found a typical canteen, with a counter at one end and tables crowded together, in no recognizable order. Except there
a sort of order – each table had a little red flag with a number on it. One for each
Reshonda Tate Billingsley