The long queue of hopefuls stretched from the main doors of the amphitheatre, Circus McLeanus, to the town square in the distance. They huddled around small fires to keep warm in the chilly winter air. Some had camped outside for three days.
The four judges stood at a window looking at the crowd below. Behind them was a long table holding several jugs of wine and lavishly adorned with bowls of fruit, olives and figs. In the centre was a large terracotta platter piled high with plump dormice, their bodies stuffed with minced pork, herbs, pepper and pine nuts.
The main judge, Simonus Cowlus, plucked one of the rotund rodents from the platter, letting it spin on its tail before devouring it in swift bites. He washed it down with a goblet of wine. He smacked his lips and gave a loud belch.
“Right, I think we’re ready for the auditions now,” he said to the others.
Outside in the street, a sudden murmur ran through the waiting queue. People began to get to their feet, uncertain about what was happening but anxious not to be left behind. There was a rattle from inside the amphitheatre doors and the sound of heavy bolts being slid across. An excited roar went up from the crowd as the heavy wooden doors swung open.
The queue surged toward the gates and into the amphitheatre, which was already filled with people. As they jostled forward, they glimpsed the empty stage and a huge banner bearing the words Heretaungus Has Talent.
It took an hour before all the contestants had been herded backstage. Then Simonus Cowlus walked out on stage to a mixture of cheers and boos. He gave the audience an icy stare then cleared his throat.
“Welcome to Heretaungus Has Talent, the contest that will produce what all of our local politicians have failed to provide for decades – one voice for our region.”
There was a smattering of applause before Cowlus took his place alongside the other judges.
“Let’s have the first contestant,” he said.
A figure appeared from the wings dressed in a black singlet, woollen hat, coarse overalls and dung-coated boots. He looked at the judges and scratched the seat of his trousers.
“My name is Fentonious … er
Spontaneous,” he stammered. “This is a watered-down version of a song I wrote during a boring public hearing the other day. It’s called Frankly, I Don’t Give A Damn. It goes something like this … ” He blew a sharp note with his shepherd’s whistle.
“I don’t give a damn about critics, their complaints are becoming a farce.
I’d like to roll up all of their submissions and stick ….”
Cowlus held up his hand. “Next please,” he called. Spontaneous trudged off, muttering to himself.
A bearded man wearing a straw hat, striped
robe and brandishing a cane strode on stage.
“Name?” called Cowlus.
“Doltus Cassandrus,’ said the man. He picked up a leather speaking trumpet and began to sing in a quavering voice.
“I hear you knockin’, but you can’t come in. I hear you knockin’, go back to where you’ve been … boop boop dee doop.”
Cowlus shook his head.
“All a bit old-fashioned I fear,” he said, as Doltus stomped off the stage, shaking his fist at the jeering audience.
Cowlus shielded his eyes as a tall figure walked from the wings, his tunic glittering with sequins. He wore a peacock-feather cape and rhinestone-studded sandals. The man turned and smiled, a row of white teeth flashing light into the audience.
“Great Jupiter! Who in heaven are you?” exclaimed Cowlus.
“Lawrencus Oratorius at your service,” said the costumed contestant.
“I’m told the sound of my voice is music to the ears of Mars, my legendary lungs are a symphony to Saturn. I have called my song Amalgamatus Entwinus … or Come Together.
He twirled his cape and struck a saucy pose, drawing whistles from the audience.
“Tear down the ring fence, open your gates, a new day is dawning, amalgamation awaits,” he began in a shrill falsetto.
“I’ll be your voice, it will be my great pleasure. If you tick the right box, we can all come together.”
There were whistles and catcalls from audience. The four judges looked stunned.
Cowlus leaned over to his colleagues.
“Perhaps if the three of them formed a trio they’d sound better,” he ventured. But the other judges shook their heads.
“It would never work. One sings like he’s treading water, one seems to have acute paranoia and the third has a voice like a deflating sheep’s bladder.”
Cowlus held his head in his hands and groaned.
“Have we got any more contestants?” he asked.
The second judge consulted his list.
“The last entry is a massed chorus of some sort. They call themselves The Silentus Majorus.”
“The what?” said Cowlus. “The Silent Majority,” replied his companion.
A large group trooped on stage, milling around in no apparent order.
“Let all of Heretaungus hear your voices,” beamed Cowlus.
There was a deathly silence. Several scratched their heads and stared blankly at the audience. Someone in the back row coughed. A man on the left yawned. After an awkward silence they slowly wandered off stage.
The judged looked at each other.
“I think we’ve found the voice of Heretaungus,” said Cowlus.