Word soon spread that Hubert had found himself a trophy wife. So there were three in the village now, if the story was true, which it might not be, and Dorian doubted it. "He doesn't have the capacity to acquire one, that is a fact, not an insult," he said to Gregor.

But it was an insult and they both knew it, a justified insult, for Hubert had never been remotely attractive to the opposite sex, neither in physical nor financial terms. And as for his personality, it was fungal and squalid, useful only for repulsing vermin and bats.

"But it could be worthwhile checking, just to be sure," replied Gregor, and he raised his head to gaze up the hill at the modest mansion that stood there, misshapen, almost deflated, crumbling, flaking, completely out of place in these environs, a true abomination.

Dorian considered this suggestion and then nodded.

"Yes, let's go up there. We'll take our own trophy wives along, say we are just paying a social call to a new member of our elite club, the club of local men with trophy wives. How about it?"

"Why not? That's one way of settling the question."

Dorian added, "We do need to confirm the rumours or put them to bed or we'll never be able to get any sleep."

"To bed," repeated Gregor with a frown.

"Yes, yes indeed, the rumours."

"What if he is in bed, with his trophy wife," wondered Gregor, "when we call, I mean? What will happen then?"

"He won't answer and we'll go away, but I hope that doesn't happen, I really do," answered Dorian, "but I guess we can always come back later or tomorrow or next week if forced to."

"Who will force us? Who?" asked Gregor.

"We'll force ourselves, of course. Enough chatter! Go home and fetch your trophy wife and I'll do the same and we'll meet back here in half an hour and climb up the hill to the mansion."

"Meet back here with our trophy wives, both of us?"

"That's the best plan," said Dorian.

"I'm not sure she'll want to come, my trophy wife," said Gregor with a thin smile that was more like a wince.

Dorian stared at Gregor for a long time. "I wonder about you, I do, and I sometimes find myself asking myself questions about you and one day I am going to make you answer those questions. You take her nowhere and show her to no one, keep her prisoner in that cottage of yours. Could it be the case that she doesn't actually exist?"

Gregor was shocked. "What are you saying?"

"I'm saying what I just said, no more, no less. You talk about this wife of yours, this trophy wife, but it's just words. I've never seen her and you haven't even described her to me. Maybe I'm the only proper member of the elite club, the club I mentioned earlier."

"Now hold on, stop right there!" gasped Gregor. "She's real, a trophy wife as genuine as yours or anyone else's. How dare you disparage me in this manner? I'm not a liar. I have a trophy wife, one of the best kinds, that's the truth and I don't care if you believe me or not. You'll see her someday, when she's willing, when she's ready. I don't know what sort of man you are, Dorian, but I don't pressurise my wife to do anything she doesn't enjoy. She's a trophy, not a tool."

"So she doesn't like meeting people or being seen?"

"As a matter of fact, she doesn't."

"Well, I'll just have to take you at your word, Gregor. I'm not happy about that but I don't have much choice right now. You can wait here if you like, right here, and I'll go and get my trophy wife, a wife who does whatever I want, and I'll bring her back here, and we'll go up and pay a visit to Hubert. That's still a good plan."

Gregor nodded and Dorian strode away, his fists clenched, legs strong and rhythmic, the muscles in the thighs and calves exactly what might be expected of a man who didn't have to lie about his wife, about having an authentic trophy wife, about his vigour.

A cloud passed across the sun and parked itself there and it rained but only on the mansion, and Gregor watched the droplets bouncing from the roof like translucent fleas, weirdly visible even at this distance, rainbows trapped in every one, like homunculi spectrums, and the scene brought to his lips a smile, but he didn't feel delight.

Dorian returned with a small woman who had big eyes, puckered lips and smooth brown cheeks. She wore a white dress, a flowing garment of classical simplicity, but her head was covered in a woolly hat that didn't go with the rest of her outfit; and yet it was her thin sandals that seemed most out of place. Sandals to climb a hill?

The ascent was steep, despite the fact it was served by a proper path, a regular track that farmers had once used to reach the pastures to the north, the sheltered lands below the disapproving mountains where fields of rye swayed in mild breezes and cows clanked their neck bells with the dullest possible thunks. Little stones rolled down.

Dorian's wife didn't speak a single word as they climbed. She held the hand of her husband tightly and he dragged her up, the soles of her dismal footwear sliding awkwardly over the rubble with a flatulent rasping noise that made Gregor chuckle secretly to himself, though he still felt unhappy inside. The rain ceased when they finally reached the door of the mansion and Dorian hefted the knocker and let it fall.

There were creakings and shufflings from deep within.

Dorian leaned forward impatiently.

"Just passing and thought we should pay you a social call!" he shouted even before the door fully opened, but Hubert didn't seem intimidated by the unexpectedness of the visit. He ushered them in, all three in a line, his billowing sleeves sheathing hands that everybody knew were inexplicably but naturally chequered like a chessboard.

"Certainly, how nice to see you! Welcome to my abode!"

"I have been here before," said Dorian.

"Really? Ah, yes I remember! After that business with the trumpet, or was it a trombone, and that dwarf, or was he a midget, who had taken up residence inside it and wouldn't vacate. We had to find a strong man to puff into the mouthpiece very hard, blow a low note, or was it a high one, and blast the blighter right out! Those were the days, or were they? Now then, may I fetch you a brandy or a juice?"

"I could have been that strong man, I could have puffed him out, but nobody asked me. I could have puffed him."

"Now, now," said Hubert. "They engaged Big Breath Bill, that's who they arranged for the task, and he did a good job, without any difficulties he got the miniature squatter out of that orchestral instrument, blasted him out the window and over a hedge, he did."

"I could have puffed him out myself, not just with my lungs but with my arse if need be, with my backside. That's how strong I am, potent. I don't like the fact they didn't ask me."

"Now, now," chided Hubert.

"We want to meet your trophy wife," said Dorian. He had suddenly seen no point in delaying the request.

Hubert shrugged. "Why not? Why the devil not? She's a fine example of the type. There she is, right there, look!"

And he pointed above the fireplace, to the thing that hung on the wall over the cold hearth. Mounted on a slab of wood shaped like a shield, it was, and the taxidermist had done a bad job, unless she had actually had a lopsided visage, with one eye up and the other down, and one pointed ear and one square ear. And two forked chins.

"That… That's your trophy wife?" stuttered Dorian.

"Certainly. Martha. I didn't catch her myself, though, there's no point lying about that. I found her in a market in the east, Samarkand, Xanadu, Margate, somewhere like that at any rate. Out east. The man who had her didn't want to sell, she wasn't for retail, he said. No, he kept her because he wanted her for himself, but I persisted."

Much to Dorian's dismay, Gregor spoke up. "You knew she was the right one for you as soon as you saw her?"

"Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, young man, that's correct."

"You fool!" spat Dorian. "You idiot!"

Hubert stiffened, one hand on the stopper of the brandy decanter, the other on a carton of juice. "That is no decent way to address a gentleman in his own relatively grand house nor even when he's not inside it. Who are you to insult me? No technical answers to that question, please! It was rhetorical, an expression of my outrage."

"Trophy wife? Pah!" spat Dorian.

"And what is wrong with her? What, pray?"

"Antlers, man! She has no antlers! None at all, not even stubs, nubs or buds. What are you playing at? Buffoon!"

And Dorian reached across, and with a very fluid motion, though not as fluid as the golden brown brandy within the decanter, or as the sweet scarlet juice inside the cardboard carton, he tugged off the woolly hat of his own wife, revealing the bony branches.

"That's the head of a real trophy wife, of my wife!"

"I see, I see." Hubert remained calm.

"And it's better to leave the head on the shoulders."

"I see, I see," repeated Hubert.

"You've done it wrong, all wrong," said Dorian.

Hubert considered this remark.

"But she's loving, yes she is. My trophy wife, she loves me, she's not just for show. I tell you that openly."

"Up there? On the wall! Loving! Not likely."

"Well, you say that, and yet-"

"Antlers! Head! Shoulders!" sneered Gregor. Unseen by the others, he left the room and the house, loping down the path to the bottom of the hill as if impelled by something stronger than gravity, a repulsive force from the mansion above him, from the skyline.

He hastened to his cottage, unlocked the door, went inside and closed the curtains, creating the necessary privacy.

He opened a little cupboard and there she was, glinting.

A silver cup won for rowing.

He wasn't sure who had done the rowing, or when, nor even what kind of boat it had been done in; but none of that mattered. He dusted her, kept her clean, polished her with a special rag.

"Come to bed, darling," he crooned with gentle passion.

She was meek and submissive.

Unbuttoning his shirt, he lay on his back and balanced her on his hairy sternum, never tiring of breasting her cup.