Ungodly Critters - Maria Thermann - ebook
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Every Monday, every bloody week the same. He stumbled into the bathroom, cursing the last four pints he'd had the night before – all Barry's fault – and tore up the toilet seat to relieve himself. He was willing, but nothing came. No tinkle, no waterfall, no manly display of pee-prowess. He looked, refused to believe what he saw, closed his eyes and tried again. Focus! No, this was definitely a change from last Monday morning. Carl stared, fingered the spot where his penis should have been, but was not. Gone. Vanished. No doodah, no balls. Nothing but a smooth pink patch in hairy wilderness.So begins Carl's Monday morning...and it gets worse from then on...According to the Good Book, God made the world in seven days. Writers create their own universe...playing at being god. So here are seven stories of humans and other critters not having a terribly good time of it in god's splendid universe.

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Maria Thermann

Ungodly Critters

Dedicated to Rachel Davies in gratitude.BookRix GmbH & Co. KG80331 Munich

The Misiing Link

6 o'clock. Carl squinted at his alarm clock. No chance squeezing another fifteen minutes in bed out of that cruel little machine! Its slave-driver mentality demanded he got up that instant or else he'd be out of job. Another bleak Monday morning! Another bleak week with that woman! Question: why did they hold these early Monday morning meetings every week? Answer: because Belinda The Bitch Barrington-Farrell said so! Carl rolled on his side with a grunt, pulled back sheets and blankets and fell rather than stepped out of bed. His toes sought and found his slippers and, thankfully, his feet still recalled the way to the bathroom without guidance from his brain. How he hated this endless rigmarole of getting up, showering and shaving, dressing, running for the bus and the lift that would catapult him at stomach-turning speed up to the 28th floor and into the orbit of Belinda The Bitch. Every Monday, every bloody week the same. He stumbled into the bathroom, cursing the last four pints he'd had the night before – all Barry's fault – and tore up the toilet seat to relieve himself. He was willing, but nothing came. No tinkle, no waterfall, no manly display of pee-prowess. He looked, refused to believe what he saw, closed his eyes and tried again. Focus! No, this was definitely a change from last Monday morning. Carl stared, fingered the spot where his penis should have been, but was not. Gone. Vanished. No doodah, no balls. Nothing but a smooth pink patch in hairy wilderness.

Carl staggered back to his bed, sank onto the mattress and thought. Could he have dropped his penis somewhere? He searched pillows, sheets and blankets, looked under the bed. Nothing. Did he lose his wedding tackle when he peeled off his jeans? Barry had teased him last night how tight those new jeans were. That must be it. It'll be in there somewhere, balls and all the rest, he thought. Carl went into the living room and retrieved his jeans from the floor, where he'd dropped them the night before. He shook his jeans hopefully, but nothing fell out. He peered into the denim trouser legs, in case the missing body parts got caught in the fabric's creases. Nothing. Carl searched the pockets, front and rear. His Nike trainers were empty too. Nothing. Gone. Vanished. He'd been robbed! No penis, no balls. He sank to his knees and became a misty reflection of misery on the polished oak floorboards. No lone wolf in the forests of snowy Alaska could have howled with more heart-wrenching intensity.

He slumped down, head in hands, and curled up into a foetal position. After a while, Carl's sluggish mind began reviewing the practicalities. Women. Tiffany. Wedding. Shit. She'd kill him! Pressure building up in his lower regions demanded he'd set immediate priorities, before dealing with the whole Tiffany issue. How was he going to pee from now on? The answer came almost immediately; a bright yellow jet of pee shot out of his left ear, bringing instant relief on the abdomen front, but at a cost to his luxury apartment. The smelly stream hit the magnolia-coloured ceiling, then plunged to the floor where it stained the pale green, antique Persian rug he'd bought only the other day with the rest of last year's bonus. Carl burst into tears. He'd just turned twenty-eight and overnight he'd become a rug-wetter!

He was dimly aware of another noise in the room, a high-pitched squeak that wouldn't shut up and leave him to his grief. Carl looked around. He was six floors up. Rats seemed unlikely, but not impossible in St Katherine Dock's premier apartment block. One took these things in one's stride in exchange for some of the best views of the Thames and a berth in the marina. Carl listened more intently. If this was a rat...the proximity of the White Tower could be trying. Tourists, ragamuffins, rubbish, rats. Further investigation revealed the squeak came not from a rodent on luxury holiday from next door's medieval dungeons, but from his mobile phone on the coffee table. He checked his watch. Shit! How could Belinda the Bitch Barrington-Fuck-You-Farrell possibly know that he'd be late for that Monday morning meeting? It wasn't even time yet to stand in that damn lift with all the other sales office underlings, who stared at their highly-polished, hand-made shoes, wishing they were somewhere else, anywhere else, but on their way into the office. Carl crawled on all fours to the coffee table and grabbed his mobile. With relief he recognised the number on the tiny display. Barry! Carl answered, but before he had even uttered one full syllable, Barry's voice came sobbing through the line.

“It's gone, mate, it's fuckin' gone. I've looked everywhere. Gone. Vanished. Oh God, what am I going to do?”

Barry was what Tiffany called a New Man, so he often wept unashamedly into the phone. Lost rugby matches, lost football matches, lost car keys, it was all the same to Barry's tear ducts. Or could it be...Carl's eyes widened. He sat up, cleared his voice and ventured a guess. “No penis, no balls?”

“Man, ho-how d-d-did you -”

“Same here, Barry. Gone. Vanished over night. Nothing but a pink bald patch among the hairy bits. Carl the Man is no more. Meet Carl the Eunuch. What the hell's going on, Barry?”

“It's those witches, Bro', that's what it is, they've evasculated us. Spoke to Joe earlier, same thing there. Gone. Vanished over night.”

Ever since Barry had been dumped by some New Age cow with knockers the size of melons and a mane of red hair down to her buttocks, Barry suspected witchcraft beneath every blouse he met. One had to humour him on the subject, or he'd get really hot under the collar. Carl's roving eye fell on a dream-catcher that dangled from the ceiling, spinning in the warmth of the radiator. A house-warming present from Tiffany when he'd moved in eighteen months ago. Bloody dust-catcher! It was so typical of Tiffany to give him something that had no earthly use, while she expected gifts of jewellery, designer handbags and perfume in return.

“Emasculated, Barry, that's what those bitches have done to us! Bloody feminists, the world's positively crawling with Barrington-Fuckin-Farrells these days. Witches. Perhaps you're right. Tiffany's dabbling in this New Age crap too. Black magic, must be. Oh shit, did you say they got Joe?”

“Stick your head out of the window, Bro'! Joe says all over the city men are howling at the top of their lungs.”

Carl looked at the windows. The sun rose at that moment, bathing his living room in hues of copper, cinnamon and orange. The colours of Hell. Even if he had the strength to get to his feet, he doubted he'd have the guts to listen to all that male misery.

“Mine don't open,” he said at last. “This block was built after the last banking crisis. Some crap about suicide prevention. Safety-glass. Apartment's air-conditioned throughout, no need to open windows.”

“Well, just switch on the fuckin' TV then! If Joe's right it must be all over the news, Bro'!”

Carl reached for the remote control, pressed the ON button and stared at the wall-mounted screen above his designer gas fire. From the BBC to Channel Four News, every channel showed men huddled in doorways, hiding under desks in offices, or prostrating themselves on pavements in front of churches, mosques, synagogues and Hindu temples, hands raised towards the heavens, praying, pleading. Or sitting in their cars howling, weeping, tearing their hair out and beating their chests. Carl noticed something else. Every news channel was manned by a smirking female newsreader!

Could it really be a conspiracy of women? No! They wouldn't dare! This had to be some sort of stunt, a weird hallucination. That was it. They'd all been hypnotised the night before. By one of those TV magicians. During the England versus Scotland match. On his birthday too! What a foul prank! He clamped his mobile between chin and shoulder to have his hands free for the remote control.

“Barry, it can't be all over the city. No bloody witches' coven could be that powerful. I mean, there's more than four million men living in London. You'd need a spell so powerful...like the National Grid. We've been hypnotised, man -”

“You're still not getting it, are you? It's not just London. It's all over the world. Everywhere. They got every last one of us, Brother! Look at your bloody TV and tell me I'm wrong.”

Neither of them spoke, while Carl digested this latest devastating blow. He flicked back and forth between the channels, returning to BBC One again. “Hang on Barry, the PM is about to make an announcement. It's live from No. 10 Downing Street!”

The BBC News showed a close-up of the British Prime Minister's wrinkly grey face. April Bowers, addressing a pack of reporters. April Showers, as left-wing media called her on account of her unpredictability, although some members of her own party said it was due to her chilling nature. Would the Government know what had happened to the nation's men? Carl turned up the volume. Unbelievably, Britain's PM tried to blame the European Union!

"If Brussels thinks it can break Britain's spirit during Brexit negotiations by emasculating our men with some bizarre bio-chemical attack, our EU friends have got another thing coming! I've still got the balls to stand up for British interests, even if none of the men in my Cabinet have! Britain shan't be blackmailed into accepting unfavourable trading terms or rejoining the EU. Brexit still means Brexit, as far as I'm concerned!" The PM stared at the female reporters assembled outside No. 10 Downing Street.

“No dick still means no dick! Can you believe that woman?” quacked Barry's voice at the other end of the line. “She's still got balls? Tory bitch! What about us? What's the bloody government going to do about our balls?”

”Hang on, Barry, here comes the US President. Let's hear what he's got to say.”

The screen showed a fat, orange-faced man in a crumpled white suit who minced across a stage that was draped left and right in the American flag. With both hands folded over his groin President Howard Frump leaned towards the microphone in front of him, pouting for a moment with the expression of a three-year-old about to throw a tantrum. Then he threw a sombre glance at the assembled American newspaper correspondents and TV reporters, before addressing the room.

"You'll have seen my earlier Tweet. There's little to add, other than so far no Islamic extremists have claimed responsibility for this latest cowardly terror attack", squeaked the US President.

Carl couldn't help himself any more than the assembled media people in Washington D.C. could. He roared with laughter.

Barry, at the other end of the phone, spluttered. “Oh man, the head of the US government has also lost his balls! He sounds like a nine-year-old!”

A terrible thought struck Carl. “Do you think that's what's going to happen to us too? Our choir boy voices will come back?”

This horrifying notion sobered them both in an instant. Barry stopped cackling. “Let's meet somewhere. To hell with work. This is a world-wide crisis. Even your Barrington-Fuckin-Farrell bitch must get that.”

“I don't care if she does or not, Barry. I'm not going into work today.” An impatient vibrating in the bowels of his phone told him there was another caller trying to get through. “Hang on. That's probably the Bitch calling right now. Perfect. I'm just in the mood to give that woman a piece of my mind.” Carl checked the identity of the caller. “Oh shit! It's Tiffany!”

“For heaven's sake, don't answer it!”

“What do you take me for! In any case, what could I possibly say? There's nothing to say, since we don't actually know what's happened to us.”

“Well, if she does manage to track you down, say it with flowers. Women respond better with a bouquet under their noses.”

Carl snorted. “Honestly Barry, even your New Man act can't hide the fact that we're dick-less, witless and shit-scared. What would you have me do? Hold a bouquet of roses in front of my groin throughout my wedding night? I think Tiff's going to notice at some point that there's something missing in the bedroom, don't you?” Carl thought quickly. “Call Joe and we'll meet at Luigi's in half an hour. We've got to get our stories straight before I can cope with Tiff. She's bound to accuse me of goodness-knows-what to have brought this about. Whatever this is.”

Barry agreed and they both hung up. Butler's Wharf was a convenient location for both of them, as Carl's younger brother lived in the new St Saviour's Dock development on the other side of the Thames, a short walking distance from Luigi's bar. Their cousin Joe, a high-flying executive in petrochemicals, had a luxury apartment in The Shard tower, also within walking distance of their favourite Italian restaurant. Carl just needed to cross the river, then he'd have the shoulders of both his younger brother and older cousin to cry on.

Under the hot jet of his shower, Carl tried to imagine what his fiancée Tiffany would have to say about his condition. Whatever her response, it would probably start with I told you so, which would be a reference to his beer consumption, and end in you'd better not have left it behind at some tart's, in reference to the one and only occasion when Carl's beer consumption had led him astray and into the arms of Tiffany's best friend. It had taken him the better part of a year to woo Tiff back into his life. And now? Would one even be allowed to marry an It, a creature formerly known as Man? Carl stepped out of the shower, rubbed himself down – carefully avoiding the pink bald patch between his thighs – and got dressed.

He made a point of wearing comfortable Bermuda shorts and an equally baggy T-shirt. One had to give one's wedding tackle every opportunity to make a miraculous come-back, so baggy trousers it would be from now on! Who knows, he told himself, perhaps with a bit of encouragement the little chap would come home to Daddy. One simply had to believe this was not irreversible. A final look in the mirror. He should have a shave, but really, who cared about the bluish shadow around his lantern jaw when there was a crisis of cosmic proportions brewing? The pale face that stared back at him with bushy brows over big brown eyes had a long, slightly crooked nose over a generous mouth that was usually quick to smile. This arrangement was framed by chestnut brown hair that had a tendency to stick up at the back. He sighed. At least he still looked like a man...

Carl locked his front door and sprinted along the corridor to catch the lift door, which was just closing behind an elderly lady and her poodle, a fluffy white menace intent on nipping every ankle in the building. Great! Now he'd have to share a lift with that beast! Carl survived the fifteen second journey down to the ground floor without being mauled. He hurried past the boats bobbing in the marina and turned into St Katherine's Way. Here and there he heard sobbing coming from the yachts and houseboats moored along the quays that formed the western triangle of St Katherine Dock, but he didn't meet a single soul. The sound of traffic roaring past as he turned left and onto Tower Bridge Approach was like a blow to the stomach after the quiet of the marina. Carl trotted across the bridge, wondering where all those fire trucks, ambulances and police cars were headed that were speeding past him with sirens screaming and lights flashing.

He left the ancient White Tower of London behind him to face the white and blue turrets of Tower Bridge that loomed above him and the glass and steel towers of London Bridge City Park that glared at the world of men just in front of him. He shuddered, but not because of the icy blast Old Father Thames sent up the bridge's arches, tugging at Carl's windcheater and chilling him to the bone. The blast of a horn alerted him to some drama about to play out in the centre of the river.

A couple of tug boats and a water-bus were racing towards a small black dot floating away from Tower Bridge with some speed. He stared down into the mud-grey abyss, those waters that could carry you off in seconds and drag you goodness-knows-where. Carl gulped. A suicide victim? People were always jumping off this bridge. Some did it for a dare, others with a broken heart or because they'd gone bankrupt in some City deal gone wrong. He could make out legs and arms, outstretched like those of a discarded doll, a sodden black suit, a thatch of blonde hair. Oh God, there was another one! Carl lent across the railings for a better view. He counted quickly. There were five of them! Bloody hell. Five men. Five dead men. Men as young as he perhaps, with stories to tell of their weekend exploits in pubs, nightclubs, in the football stadium. Men with girlfriends or wives, kids even, all of them now waiting, waiting in vain, because none of these men would ever come home. It suddenly hit him. They must have jumped together. Just ahead of him. Jumped off the bridge, a bridge that they travelled across every Monday morning, just as he did. A suicide pact of friends? Colleagues? Neighbours? Desperate strangers who'd only just met on their final walk across the bridge and decided to give each other courage for that leap from the balustrade? Carl had to steady himself on the iron railing, before he could walk on. The view ahead wasn't any more encouraging either.

Just ahead, at the other end of this landmark bridge, lurked The Bitch. Actually, a whole tower full of Belinda Barrington-Frump-in-a-Barrel-Farrells, since most of his female colleagues seemed to model themselves on their boss these days. Trouser-suits, short bobbed hair, sensible shoes. Designer handbags big enough to slay a fellow with one whack over the head. At this very moment, he suspected, all the sales bitches were sitting around the huge table in the boardroom, laughing their heads off at what had befallen men in their office, across the city, the country – the whole bloody world. But today Belinda the Bitch wouldn't get a chance to humiliate him in front of other sales executives. He wouldn't even bother to phone, so there! And if these bitches were responsible for some prank that had cost those five men's lives...well, the medieval dungeons behind him contained plenty of racks and thumbscrews. Let those bitches fight for their lives with their outsized designer handbags. Men still ruled this City, dicks or no dicks, in the same way they'd done when William the Conqueror built the White Tower in 1078, a potent phallic symbol that still guarded the Thames Embankment today and had served for centuries as inspiration to legions of architects!

"Just take a look at next door's office block, ladies, No 30, the St Mary Axe Building, better known as The Gherkin", muttered Carl grimly under his breath. "Gherkins rule the world, ladies, never you forget it!"

Recovered in spirits, if not in the gherkin department, Carl took the dark, dingy staircase down to Butler's Wharf two steps at a time. A cloud of urine, rotting burgers, rat droppings and Thames mud hit his nostrils on the way down. Turning the corner at the bottom, he was surprised to find that even on a day like this there was a group of Japanese tourists queuing up for the Tower Bridge Experience, their expensive cameras slung around their necks, their shorts revealing goosebumps above the inevitable white tennis socks and designer trainers. Carl grinned mirthlessly. Yep, this was the true London Experience - nowhere else in Europe could the month of May be so chilly, bleak and unpredictable. He checked his watch. Not even 8 o'clock yet. Phew, these guys still had a long wait before the exhibition opened. Why turn up so early?

He wondered if perhaps the tourists hadn't been able to bear a lonely bedroom, and had gathered in their hotel lobby for the comfort of being with another male. Unable to show their true feelings, they'd probably trotted along the Thames Embankment until they got to the spot they were meant to meet their guide much later in the morning. Poor things! He searched the men's faces for a sign of his own desperation, but as expected, that famous Asian stoicism compelled them to keep their emotions firmly in check. Carl felt resentment building up in his heart. Hadn't these guys noticed that there was something vital missing in their shorts? Why weren't they committing kamikaze...or was it hara-kiri? Anyway, whatever the Japanese normally did with their chopsticks, they should be doing that, not trying to squeeze through turnstiles to follow a tour guide wielding a yellow umbrella as a beacon. If ever there was a day in history, where men could weep and wail openly without shame, this was it!

Carl turned into Horsleydown Lane, trotted past closed bars, boutiques and cafes, wondered where all the road sweepers had gone, then took a sharp left into Gainsford Street and dived into a narrow alleyway that led into the bowels of Butler's Wharf. Another thirty-seconds' trot brought him to the door of Luigi's bar. Open 24-hours, every day of the year, the Italian bar-restaurant was the brothers' favourite haunt. Beer and spag-bowl, an unbeatable combination. Other chaps might brag about their Madras curry exploits or their Mexican chilli pepper prowess, but for Carl, Barry and Joe it had always been pasta and a pint. He opened the door and a blast of warm air enveloped him in a welcoming hug. He inhaled deeply. Oregano, thyme, mozzarella, garlic, Heineken. This was home from home!

He found Barry and cousin Joe ensconced behind their usual round, green marble-topped table in the darkest corner of the restaurant, two pints of amber nectar foaming gently before them. Joe, well-groomed as ever in an immaculate Savile Row suit, got up and spread his arms wide in preparation for a bear hug. Barry was quietly sobbing into his sleeves, his head resting on muscular arms between the two pint glasses. Like Carl, he had chestnut brown hair and brown eyes but, unlike Carl, Barry's face had a straight nose over a permanently pouting mouth. Two years younger than Carl, he had managed to carve out a successful career as a City Trader, raking in pots of money, much to his family's amazement.

Carl looked expectantly at the bar's counter, where the moon-shaped face of mine host should have been beaming at him. “No Luigi?”

Joe jerked his thumb towards a curtained doorway to the right of the mahogany gantry and twinkling brass optics. “It's help yourself to whatever you fancy this morning, dear boy. Luigi's no more.”

“WHAT?” Carl sprinted across the bar area, tore back the curtain near the bar counter and gasped when the sight of a dark red puddle greeted him.

“You've only just missed the constables and paramedics on their way out. All women, incidentally.“ Joe made an expressive hand gesture across his throat. “Topped himself with the pizza cutter first thing this morning. The fruit and veg girl from Borough Market found Luigi, when she delivered today's basket of tomatoes and that hot green stuff he used to put on the Margherita to catch out his customers.”

“Chillies,” muttered Carl under his breath, still reeling from the sight of that red puddle on the tiled floor.

“Yeah, seeing that blood stain gave me the willies, too,” said Barry, looking up for the first time, his expression one of utter incomprehension. He squinted at his older brother with red-rimmed, swimming eyes. “Five years we've been coming here, Bro', ever since Luigi's opened. It's a tragedy. We should have phoned ahead. For support like. Oh, why couldn't he have waited until we got here...we might have talked him out of it!” Barry's voice broke. He emptied his beer glass in one giant gulp and let his head sink back onto his arms in helpless sorrow.

The green-and-white gingham curtain slipped from Carl's fingers. He clung to the door jamb and blinked away tears. “What did the police say? Should we even be here, Joe?”

“A passing WPC, who'd responded to the vegetable girl's cry for help, called Luigi's wife from here, when we arrived. Luigi's home telephone number was pasted to the side of the till. Arabella's on her way; she told the policewoman we're regulars and should just help ourselves until she got here. I've put money for a round of drinks next to the till, dear boy.”

“But...this...isn't this a crime scene or something? Didn't those coppers tell you not to touch anything until their fingerprint people had dealt with the place?”

His cousin shook his head. “Suicides all over the country. There's not enough coppers or forensic people in Britain to process them all. Started at 5 o'clock this morning; apparently they've been inundated with emergency calls ever since. They've had to draft in every available female police officer, even retired ones, to deal with...” Joe waved his hands around in a helpless gesture, “whatever this is.” Then he went back to checking for messages on his mobile phone.

Carl staggered over to the counter, took a glass from the gantry behind him and drew himself a pint of lager from one of the polished brass taps. Like a sleepwalker he stumbled over to the table where Joe was quietly cursing his mobile. Apparently it was still refusing to deliver a message he was waiting for. Carl slumped into his customary seat and allowed the cold lager to run down his throat until his hands stopped shaking and the ringing noise in his ears ceased. By the time he'd emptied his pint glass, Joe had given up punching the tiny keyboard on his phone and was nursing his pint glass between hands that trembled just as much as Carl's.

Joe turned a tear-stained face towards his cousin. “Do you think our condition is permanent, Carl?”

“I hope to God it's not, Joe! I'm about to get married. What's Tiff going to say when all I've got to offer on our wedding night is a willing smile and a pink patch of great big NOTHING between my legs? She wants kids, man!”

Joe looked down at his silent mobile on the table and nodded thoughtfully. “Ye-es. Mankind could become extinct. Who or what's behind this? Some animal rights' nutter with the scientific know-how to de-ball us all? Bring back paradise on Earth as it used to be before Homo Sapiens wrecked it?”

“Witches! They're behind this. We've all been de-balled by witchcraft,” Barry sobbed into the sleeves of his blue pin-stripe suit. “They've found a way to copulate the world without us.”

“Populate, Barry”, corrected Joe and Carl mechanically over the rims of their beer glasses.

“Whatever. The point is: we'll be stuffed and mounted as exhibits for the Natural History Museum soon! In a hundred years Mum and Dad Gorilla will turn up as tourists, gawping at us with their hairy kids, laughing their heads off.”

They sat in silence for several minutes; the clock above Luigi's collection of autographs signed by Italian footballers would tick-tick-tick away their lives, until it was time for extinction. Hot tears ran down Carl's cheeks; he let them fall. What was the point of trying to be cool and manly, when all one had to look forward to was a spot light in a glass case, where one would gather dust as an exhibit? With a brass plaque underneath that read X-Man to amuse some future ape. Get it? An ex-man. Extinct male human. What would happen to women, Carl wondered. Clever bitches like Barrington-Farrell would find some way of staying alive without male in-put into humanity's survival. Proof positive that Darwin's theory about the survival of the fittest was correct. Well thank you, Mr Charles Bloody-Know-It-All-Darwin. Because now the Belinda-Barrington-Fucked-You-All-Didn't-I-Farrells of this world had won! Proved once and for all that women were better than men and were not ever going to hand back the reigns, even if future gorillas managed to stage a second coming of Homo Sapiens' male.

Hang on a second. Were men really finished as a species? Carl put the beer glass down, wiped a sleeve over this flustered face and stared at the calendar hanging over Luigi's antique till, where a rearing stallion advertised a particular brand of super sports car. In the lift this morning! Carl thumped the table with his fist, sending empty beer glasses into a merry little dance. “Listen. The world's not totally dick-less, my friends! Whoever is responsible for our condition, they didn't wipe out all bollocks.”

Joe looked up excitedly, but Barry merely emitted a wail without lifting his tousled head.

“There's a pocket of men somewhere in the world who still carry, dear boy?”

“Possibly, Joe. This morning I shared a lift with my neighbour. She's got one of those bloody awful dogs. Poodle. That still had all its tackle. So it stands to reason there are males somewhere in the world, right? The Y-chromosome still rules the animal kingdom.”

Joe nodded slowly, causing his wavy blonde hair to flop over his broad forehead. “So, if Barry is right and this is all due to witchcraft, whoever did this ran out of witchy-woo power before they could eradicate all male genitalia. Whatever caused this, bio-chemical attack by religious fundamentalists or animal rights' campaigners or even France's ultra-right Marie Le Pig using a very powerful spell to rid the world of yet another type of person she hates. There's a chance this can be reversed. Even if all male humans are now de-balled, there's a chance that apes, our nearest ancestors, are still carrying. Mankind's not destined to become extinct then.” He looked at his cousins with a flicker of hope in his round blue eyes. “Our clever scientists will figure out how to grow male bits in a lab, won't they?”

Barry lifted his head and stared at his cousin. “You mean, like they do with ears and livers growing out of the backs of mice?”

Joe nodded. “Something like that. Yes, if it's possible to grow organs like livers and what-have-you. They just have to figure out how to graft the goods back onto us.”

“I'd rather have no dick than a mouse dick!” Barry jumped up. He punched the palm of one hand with a fist the size of a pizza. “Mouse bollocks! It's...debating!”

“De-bas-ing, Barry!” corrected Joe and Carl in unison.

“Whatever. Can you imagine what women will say when we drop our trousers to get down to bedroom duties? They'll be squealing with laughter, not ectoplasms, my friends.”

“Orgasms, Barry!” Joe rolled his eyes and pushed their empty beer glasses towards his cousin. “Go and get us all another beer. Your vocabulary tends to improve after the third pint.”

“It's neither here nor there, if a dick's grown on the backs of mice or elephants. Having the equipment doesn't mean one can shoot straight.”

They both stared at Carl. “What do you mean?”

“You can probably grow a length of flesh, skin and gristle in a lab, but what about the reproductive qualities? Sperm, gentlemen, is what makes the world of humans go around.”

“Ah,” said Joe.

“Oh,” said Barry.

“Exactly. We'd be shooting blanks.”

Barry scratched his belly, producing a ripple in his Hawaiian shirt's beach scene that would have pleased any number of surf-dudes. “I can't think straight.," he said at last. "All this talk about dicks makes me want to pee.” He trotted off towards a door at the rear of the restaurant. It was marked Gentlemen. Barry gave the little porcelain plaque a wistful glance, before pushing the door open.

Roused by Barry's slamming of the door against the wall of the next room, Carl looked up in alarm. “Take care where you aim it, Brother! I had to pee this morning, and it was quite a shock. I doubt I'll ever get that stain out of my Persian rug.”

“You're a nasal piss artist, too?” Joe asked with feeling, as Barry shut the toilet door with a grunt.

“What?” Carl's jaw dropped. “Nasal? Oh God. I didn't realise, I thought we'd all be the same in that department. No, I shoot from the ear.”

Joe shook his head sadly. The sound of a toilet flushing and the hand-dryer's roar masked Arabella's entry. Realising neither of her two customers had noticed her entrance, she announced her arrival with a polite cough. How long had she been standing in the doorway? Carl wondered. Long enough to catch the last of their conversation, apparently.

“According to the telly some of you shoot from the ear, others pee from their nostrils, and some...well, it's early and I haven't had my breakfast yet, so let's not go there,” their landlady said with a sigh.

She dropped her handbag onto the table closest to the door, untied the knot of a red headscarf under her chin and looked at them with sadness. At that moment Barry reappeared in the doorway of the Gents, still mopping his face with toilet paper. He must have caught Arabella's last words, for he turned brick-red and slunk back to his seat in the corner with his head down. Joe put down his mobile phone, got up and strode across the room. He offered his hand in condolence on behalf of them all. She shook it solemnly.

Then she wheeled around, locked the entrance to the bar, reversed the Open sign that dangled on the inside of the glass door and changed it to Closed. “There, now we're officially a private party, not to be disturbed.” She turned back to her three customers. “Can one of you tell me what happened here? I can't take it in. My Luigi, that dear, fat old moon-faced man. Why in the name of Santa Maria? We've been through so much together, we'd have weathered this storm as well.”

 

Carl and Barry looked at their cousin with pleading eyes. Relenting, Joe cleared his voice and repeated what the policewoman had told them, when they'd arrived at the bar earlier that morning.

 

Arabella lowered her rump into a chair and, drawing plump fingers through jet-black hair, stared morosely at the table top without speaking another word. For a moment they thought she'd cry, but she merely sat in silence, then got up again with a grunt. “I must keep busy. If I sit here and allow myself to think, I shall lose what wits I've got left.”

They watched her wordlessly as she took a green and white striped apron from a hook behind the bar and made her way towards the kitchen. She folded back the gingham curtain and stared into the little passage beyond. With a squeal she dropped the curtain and dived behind the counter, only to re-emerge moments later with pail, bucket, brushes and mop. Furious slapping and slopping noises told them that Luigi's last Hurrah in the little passage was being swept away before their very eyes. Cleaning utensils rinsed out and stored away again, Arabella offered to make them breakfast. On the house, she stressed, noting with undisguised pleasure the twenty-pound-note Joe had placed next to the till earlier. For the first time that morning, Carl became aware that the hollow feeling in his stomach was not just from the multiple shocks he'd received so far. He'd not had breakfast!

While their corpulent landlady busied herself with eggs, toast and bacon and the espresso machine gurgled and spluttered in sympathy over Luigi's demise, the three X-Men hunted down the remote control and switched on the TV that Luigi had installed so his customers could enjoy football matches while sipping their drinks. The three men turned to BBC News first.

It seemed that all over the world, people were trying to blame whoever they disliked most. The US government first blamed Islamic terrorists, then all Muslims, finally resorting to insulting Mexicans, Canadians, the French and Germans, when the White House had run out of Middle Eastern countries to berate. Russians blamed China, China blamed North Korea. North Korea suspected the entire Western world.

Out of touch with reality and with heads firmly stuck in the past, Britain's Tory government was still foaming at the mouth over Brexit rather than worry about the fact that the world would no longer produce future generations of Tory voters. Africans first blamed each of their neighbouring states in turn, before collectively blaming former colonial powers. Indians blamed Australians, who in turn suspected Tasmanians. Iceland and Tibet accused the world of wrecking the planet twice over, first with global warming, and now this – and Japan announced that, as the world was going down the toilet anyway, they might as well help themselves to all the whales and tuna in the seas right now and have a final feast before ending their own lives, as decreed by their Emperor. Everybody ignored Native Americans' plea for common sense and wisdom, nothing new there. Mysteriously, Tasmanians blamed the Easter Islands, who in turn blamed Denmark for some unfathomable reason.

Predictably, nobody had any useful suggestions. Nobody knew who, or rather what, was responsible for the male condition – the ex-male condition, as Channel Four's Jeremy Flaxman corrected some Westminster politician fiercely. The man had talked at length about the crisis but had said very little of substance, just like a politician! News presenter Flaxman was one of the few ex-male reporters who still appeared on British television, it seemed, after Carl had checked the other channels. Virtually all news programmes were now staffed by women. One simply couldn't risk broadcasting images of people who might at any moment urinate live on air, shooting pee out of an ear or nostril, said Channel Four's new Controller, a busty blonde with a squint.

By late lunchtime, the world was beginning to accept that something extraordinary had happened for which no single nation was responsible and which no single terror group could possibly have carried out. Californian women were already referring to ex-men as BLANKS, while US President Howard Frump's supporters now blamed inter-racial marriages for the disaster. All over the Dark Net, conspiracy theories ran rampant, blaming right-wing aliens, left-wing feminists and liberal dinosaurs in turn.

Meanwhile, a (fairly) bloodless revolution was sweeping across Islamic countries, where a harassed-looking Arab prince had already appeared on national television, ushering one of his wives to where the microphone stood in front of a group of reporters. A little flushed, the royal wife announced breathlessly that from now on the ruling of the country would be carried out by female members of the Royal Family. At the end of her little speech she gestured to the prince to come up to the microphone. “Go on, say something. You're not normally stuck for words. Never shut up, when I'm trying to have a nap, do you, my little prince?” She gave his nose a playful tweak that evidently hurt more than perhaps intended.

The Arab prince stared at her with swimming brown eyes, before finally piping with the voice of a six-year-old: “I confirm all my wife's decreed. Everybody, just do as she says. Can I go back and play with my new Ferrari now, please?”

By 6 o'clock, tea-time, Arabella lay curled up on a banquette for a rest. She was exhausted, ase she'd done the night shift prior to Luigi's final stint behind the bar. Barry took over her duties to keep Joe and Carl in liquid bliss. While women were taking over the Islamic world. In places were fundamentalists had made female lives a misery, a few shocking acts of revenge came to light.

Afghanistan's women, carrying machine guns and machetes, were forcing BLANKS out of cars, high-jacking the BLANKS' vehicles so all women could finally learn how to drive without worrying about recriminations.

“We're not stealing these cars, we just want to drive them for a bit! I want to race along a lonely track into the desert, drive as fast as I like! I want to be free of constraints those bloody BLANKS, that offspring of diseased goats, have put us through over the years!” explained an elderly Afghan woman from behind the steering wheel of a high-jacked jeep. Then she sped off in a cloud of dust and pebbles, squashing the foot of an ex-male reporter from Germany's ZDF Channel.

In Saudi Arabia, the United Emirates and Pakistan, BLANKS were being paraded around with their necks attached to a dog collar and leash; these ex-men were wrapped from head to toe in fuchsia-pink bedsheets and had to endure lots of laughter from the female population. Now that the power-base had shifted, the women had dyed their BLANKS' beards canary yellow and pink.

Speaking to bemused UN observers, hastily flown in to monitor the situation should sanctions prove necessary, a Burka-less, business-suited lady from Dubai, who called herself Fatima Freedom Fighter said: “Never fret, they're quite safe. We're only doing this to teach them a lesson. Show them who's boss now and make them understand what it was like for us being under their thumb for so long.”

A head-scarf-less young Iranian woman, interviewed live on CNN, said: “Don't get us wrong, we're proud and happy to be Muslims. In his infinite wisdom Allah has punished men for their evil deeds, punished men for the way they have treated us. Praised be Allah, who was moved by women's plight and has done something to teach men humility.”

The three ex-men back at Luigi's bar watched in disbelief as the Iranian woman then drew a cattle prod from under her capacious black coat to herd a group of terrified young BLANKS into a factory building, shouting "Back to work you useless foals of camels and donkeys!"

In Paris, BLANKS were forced at gunpoint to carry oversized Gucci, Chanel and Dolce & Gabbana handbags and stagger around in stilettos, while manoeuvring prams filled to bursting point with babies onto Metro trains.

Speaking to a reporter representing the Daily Croissant, a militant young woman working for The Louvre Museum said: “Let our BLANKS see what kind of lives we've had while they sat on their bottoms drinking coffee, ogling other women all day! Men demanded women should look beautiful all the time. Now BLANKS will find out just how much hard work that really is, when you have a job, kids and a household to look after!”

In other places around the world, demagogues were being driven out, when supporters heard their squeaky voices for the first time. One simply couldn't take seriously a moustachioed tyrant who demanded absolute obedience from his citizens with the voice of an eight-year-old about to cry. Russia's president, Mr Brushthemof, had actually burst into tears on TV, although that was because his dog, a present from those peace-loving Japanese, had bitten him in the butt while he was being interviewed live on air. This had resulted in jets of yellow pee shooting from both the President's ears.

After such a ridiculous display, Russia's women had taken matters into their own hands. In direct response to recent legislation that permitted Russian husbands to beat wives and children without being punished for it, battered women and girl-children armed themselves with frying pans, rolling pins and ladles and whacked the BLANKS of their families with gusto, until said BLANKS fled marital homes and hid out in the endless forests of the country. Some former heads of families now stood huddled together outside the Kremlin, licking their wounds and demanding justice. Russia's President was not available for comment. A female news team showed him lying face down on a stretcher, having his butt cheek sewn back together again by a grinning nurse. A spokeswoman for the Kremlin confirmed that the Russian President's dog was being deported for displayingratherunbecoming conduct for a diplomat. It was now on a plane back to Tokyo. Dog Yoko was therefore not available for comment.

Milan's city centre was brought to a standstill, when supermodels raided fashion designers' studios and threw hundreds of designer gowns out of windows, chanting, "No more skinny fashions dictated by BLANKS! Hips and Bottoms are in again! Give us pasta, not anorexia!"

In New York thousands of women gathered outside Frump Tower to protest against the US President's misogynist policies. When the city's mayor pleaded for calm with a voice sounding just like Mickey Mouse, the mood turned ugly. Long-held resentment boiled up, and the women stormed Frump Tower. They pulled its gaudy interiors apart and threw many of the President's most prized possessions, among them his diamond encrusted wig-stand, gold-plated golf clubs and platinum-plated chip-fryer, down the elevator shaft, where said items were promptly crushed when a contingent of New York's finest female fire-fighters travelled up and down in the elevator to check each floor for potential fire hazards.

The protesters eventually managed to open one of the windows in the President's suite and soon after astonished TV audiences all over the world watched the US President's underpants being carried off by gusts of wind, fluttering across the Hudson River like so many migrating geese. The President, meanwhile, had taken refuge in a downtown Washington burger bar, where he sat glowering at a TV screen, watching his NYC home being ransacked. His security people were clearly visible through the windows of the barricaded doors, their guns drawn, their faces pinched, their squeaky voices shouting commands at female passers-by.

In Amsterdam many BLANKS had taken refuge in cafes where thoughtful proprietors handed out cups of coffee that came with free magic-mushroom cookies to dull their pain. Strumming guitars and banging tambourines, these ex-men were singing 1960's protest songs like We Shall Not Be Overcome and Big Yellow Taxi, hoping this would soften women's hearts. All over the Netherlands women were taking over governmental departments, threatening to enforce washing-up, child-rearing, food shopping and vacuum-cleaning duties for BLANKS living in shared households. Non-compliance to be punished with prison sentences of up to six months. The Dutch Queen decreed that this should be so, since women now had to be the main breadwinners. One simply couldn't leave the running of the country to rug-wetters.

In Stockholm armed BLANKS had retreated to the tiny island of Riddarholmen. They had erected road blocks in the cobbled streets separating the island's 17th and 18th century buildings that housed government offices, where fellow BLANKS sat behind barricaded doors and windows. A spokesperson for the BLANKS' protest group VASA said that, "the proud male ship might be sinking, but it wouldn't go down without a fight."

Miraculously, Munich's BLANKS hadn't actually noticed yet that something was amiss, as they were still too befuddled from their latest beer festival.

“Lucky sods,” said Carl. “Encased in their sturdy Lederhosen they probably won't notice for another day or so.”

“What, even when they shoot pee from nostrils and ears?”

“You've clearly never been to Munich's Oktoberfest, Joe.” Carl rolled his eyes and took another gulp of lager.

Joe reached for the remote across the table and turned down the volume in disgust. All things considered, they knew as little now about what had caused their condition as they had that morning. Carl and Joe particularly objected to the term BLANKS being used. Barry was past caring, having just imbibed his tenth pint. It hadn't escaped Carl's notice, although no longer sober himself, that Joe was eyeing his mobile phone anxiously every so often. When it eventually rang, Joe grabbed it with the speed of a broker about to make a killing on the stock market. Joe pressed the phone to his ear and sprinted to the other side of the restaurant, as far away from the TV, Carl and Barry as possible. After what seemed quite a heated discussion to Carl, his cousin returned to the table, flushed pink, but beaming from diamond-studded ear to ear.

“He's alright! The silly sod's alive and well, nursing a tumbler of whisky somewhere near Blackfriars Station,” said Joe with a shake of his head. “All day I've been leaving messages. The stupid bastard ran out of the house this morning without his phone. He's on his way here now. God, I was so worried!”

Joe wiped a tear out of the corner of his eye and drained his pint in one deep draught. Carl remembered the five floating bodies that morning. Joe must have been going out of his mind about his – his what? A broad grin spread across Carl's face. Mystery finally solved! For years they'd been wondering. He eyed his cousin discretely. It was obvious, really. The tight trousers, the head of wavy blonde hair, the pink and white shirt stretching across muscular chest and biceps as if about to split open like the Hulk's when he throws a fit. “What's his name? How long have you been seeing him, Joe?”

“His name's Mark. We've been together for two years, three months now.” Joe's chest swelled visibly. “You'll like him. He's a great guy.”

“I'm sure we shall. But...why didn't you tell us about him? Two years and three months, that's serious commitment, Joe.”

“Wasn't sure how you'd both react...me coming out of the closet.”

“You should know us better than that, Joe. Our reaction would be the same hearing such news, gay or hetero.” He turned to where Barry was slumped across the bar. Picking up a beer mat, he aimed it at his younger brother's head to rouse him. “Oy, barkeep, two more pints over here and a glass of whisky. Make it a double, there's a good man. We need to dull our pain, for Joe's no longer one of the Free Men. He's joined the ranks of fettered love-slaves!” Carl fished in his trouser pocket for money, produced a twenty-pound note and waved it with an airy hand. “And another pint for your good self, barkeep,” he added with a chuckle.

Mark arrived about half an hour later. He turned out to be a foot shorter than Joe, a chubby guy with a flat nose and freckles, a mop of ginger hair and the professional bossiness of a top chef. Which he was. Trained at The Dorchester, now looking around for his own restaurant premises. Introductions over, the four men drank to Arabella's health and Luigi's memory. The landlady, refreshed after her nap, proposed spag-bowls all round and scuttled off to the kitchen, but was called back when Carl turned up the volume on the TV again, shushing everybody. “Listen up, it's the German Chancellor speaking from Berlin. Looks like there's been some development. Breaking news it says at the bottom of the screen.”

Angela Ferkel, Germany's diminutive Chancellor, stood on a platform erected in front of the Brandenburger Tor. An assembly of her party's representatives, all women, flanked her left and right. She took a deep breath, stepped up to the microphone and said in a ringing voice that seemed intent to wake the whole world.

“With a history like ours, nobody knows better where prejudice of any kind will eventually lead. And that means we Germans categorically reject the term BLANK. It cannot be used for the people we have known as our husbands and fathers, our sons, nephews, cousins and brothers, our colleagues, friends and neighbours. It is unacceptable to refer to anyone in such terms. However, to the assembly of the United Nations, NATO, and all the other international organisations I have one thing to say: there are, frankly, far more important issues at stake than deciding how to address the other half of humanity, when referring to their genderless state. So stop your silly arguing! Nor is this the time for certain quarters,” here the German Chancellor turned to glare at several suited, bulky figures looming up behind her female supporters, “to worry if super sports car production will collapse in favour of small economy cars that are easier to park for women.”

After refuelling her lungs with a deep breath, Angela Ferkel addressed her audience with a sadness in her voice that spoke volumes. “As a species, we are now threatened with extinction. Having spoken to the Max Plank Institute and various other science labs, I have been informed that sperm banks around the globe only contain female eggs. So far no clinic has found any viable sperm among their stores. The Y-chromosome is missing from all of their samples.” She paused dramatically.

“Having spoken to the Vatican in Rome, the Dalai Lama and other religious leaders around the world, we can only come to one conclusion. This was an Act of God,” cried the German Chancellor. “And it is neither here nor there, if you're Muslim or Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu or whatever else. This is God's punishment for all of us, no matter what faith we subscribe to, because we have wrecked this beautiful planet and have done nothing but fight and kill each other. Worse! As a species we have been too arrogant to acknowledge the immense value of other beings in our midst.”

Barry stopped drawing pints and spluttered. “We've been de-balled because there's aliens in our midst and we've ignored them?”

“Shush,” hissed Joe and Carl automatically over the rim of their refilled beer glasses. Mark grabbed the remote control and raised the volume to its highest setting.