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By Sarah Hapgood

“I knew I wouldn’t be invited along”, said Joby, as he helped Kieran to get togged up into his outdoor gear.

“It looks a wee bit much for you at the moment”, said Kieran “We’ve got to suss it out first”.

“But the place has got some kind of trolley lift up to it!” said Joby.

“Yes, but it looks pretty dilapidated”, said Kieran “What if it were to break down halfway up, and we had to climb up the rest of the way on foot? Or get back down on foot?”

“Yeah alright”, said Joby.

“If it’s any comfort I wish you were coming with us”, said Kieran “You could protect me. From Bardin I mean. I think he’s gunning for me now. He’s got that evil clown’s glint in his eye which speaks of revenge at some point when I least expect it”.

“Serves you right don’t it!” said Joby “You shouldn’t have yanked his trousers down!”

“Hah!” said Kieran “So I suppose I shouldn’t expect any sympathy from you when I walk in here covered in custard and whipped cream!”

“Adam’ll flay him alive if he tries anything like that”, said Joby “He’s really sensitive about food waste at the moment”.

Kieran was now coated and booted up.

“Right”, said Joby, stepping back to look at him, as if he’d just done a spot of window-dressing “You’ll be careful won’t you, Kiel? I mean we dunno what the hell’s up there. Could be anything”.

“And then again there might be nothing at all”, said Kieran “Nine times out of 10 it usually is that way for us”.

“I hope you’re right”, said Joby.

The trolley car which accessed the house was little more than a large metal bucket on a wire. The owner had obviously installed it to save the hassle of climbing up the steep incline to the house on foot. The bucket itself barely cleared the ground, which was reassuring to its new occupants, in case it broke down.

“I’m not even sure it’s still going work”, said Bardin, eyeing it up dubiously.

He was wrong. With a greet wheezing and clunking the contraption geared itself into life. Bardin, Bengo, Kieran, Julian, Mieps, Ransey and Hillyard piled tightly into the bucket. They all glided jerkily up to the house, with no certainty whatsoever of what they might face at the top.

One of the doors to the main entrance was hanging on its hinges. It bore the unsettling appearance of having been torn off from the outside. The hallway inside was bare, save for a wide wooden staircase leading upwards.

“Let’s all shout ‘hello’ at once”, said Bardin “Just in case there is someone here”.

On a count of three they all hollered “hello!” They repeated the process several times just to be sure. The house listened but emitted no reply.

“OK”, said Bardin “We’d better have a look round. But no wandering off alone, and be cautious”.

He, Bengo and Kieran went into the nearest room on the left, whilst the others headed to the back of the house. The room on the left had been a main reception room. It was now covered in dust and cobwebs. The books lining the walls looked as if they would crumble to pieces if anyone handled them.

“No one’s been here in years”, said Bardin, gloomily writing his name in the dust on a side-table.

“I’m not so sure”, said Kieran “There’s some residue, but whoever it is has gone now”.

“Dead?” said Bengo, in a whisper.

Kieran nodded.

A shout came up from the back of the house. Julian galloped along the dark corridor which ran alongside the staircase.

“What have you found?” said Bardin.

“Two bodies”, said Julian “Lying on the kitchen floor. Badly decayed. Have been there some while”.

Bardin went along to see for himself. The first thing he saw when he entered the kitchen was the back door opposite him, which stood wide open. Lying across its threshold was the corpse of a badly-decomposed woman. She seemed to have been trying to crawl outside. Another body lay by the stove, reclining on its side as though sleeping. A man this time.

“There’s no sign that they were attacked”, said Ransey, who had just done a quick inspection of them “I can’t see any gunshot or knife wounds, or anything else to suggest violence. They’re too far gone to get a really sound idea though. It could be entirely natural”.

“Natural?” Bardin exclaimed “Both of them?? At the same time??”

“I would suggest starvation”, said Ransey “Just a gut feeling, but it seems most likely”.

“That would account for herself trying to get outside”, said Kieran.

“OK”, said Bardin, exhaling sharply “Well first things first. We need to go over the whole house and see if there’s anyone else here. Dead or alive. And then we’ll give these two a decent burial outside. Kieran?”

Kieran nodded in agreement.

A gloomy, apprehensive search was conducted of the rest of the house. Every room they entered, and every closet door they opened, they expected to find more bodies. Fortunately they didn’t.

By the time they had finished it was getting near sunset, and Bardin decided that they just had time to bury the couple they had found in a shallow grave at the back of the house. There was no garden to the house as such, it was surrounded instead by rolling peat land, which was at that moment buried under permafrost. This all made the digging of the grave very laborious. They had unearthed a pick and some shovels in a wooden outbuilding attached to the side of the house.

The only other items outside were a cattle-trough (now completely frosted up), and a wooden bench, placed (presumably) to admire the stunning views to the rear. Almost completely deforested hills and a valley rolled away from them as far as the eye could see.

The digging of the grave took longer than Bardin had anticipated, and the sun was setting by the time Kieran (feeling denuded without his Bible) said a few appropriate words over the pathetic corpses. Bengo, carried away by the oppressive poignancy of the moment, burst into tears leaning on his spade.

“There’s nothing more we can do here today”, said Bardin “We’ll come up again tomorrow for a more thorough look round”.

“I don’t think it can have been starvation Ransey, me old mate”, said Hillyard, who had paused in the kitchen on the way out to inspect a couple of the cupboards “There’s cans of food in here, and packets. Mind you, I can’t tell in this light how old they are”.

“We’ll get Adam up here tomorrow”, said Ransey “He can do a good check over of all the cupboards”.

“They’re late, it’s getting dark”, said Joby, who was sitting by the galley stove, with his foot propped up on the fender.

“Do stop fretting, old love”, said Adam “You’re setting me off”.

“I don’t like it”, said Joby “There could be anyone up there, and we’re helpless down here”.

“Scarcely helpless”, said Adam “If nobody reappears we’ll go up and look for them”.

Suddenly the dogs barked and Tamaz yodelled, and before they knew it Kieran and Bengo were in the galley, shedding outdoor gear as they talked.

“Yes I’ll come up tomorrow”, said Adam “How awful about the bodies. That sounds very trite, but I can’t think what else to say”.

“Hillyard says we saw worse in the City on the New Continent”, said Kieran “But it doesn’t make it any easier”.

“I wonder what happened to them”, said Adam.

“Bardin says we’re not to indulge in wild speculation”, said Kieran.

“No bleedin’ chance of that rule working!” said Joby.

“On a more pragmatic note”, said Adam “Is the house any use as a long pit-stop?”

“It’s a miserable old pile”, said Kieran “And parts of it are damaged, like the front door, but the rest of it is sturdy enough. There’s rudimentary electricity even, which I admit I’m surprised at, must be a generator somewhere “.

“Hence how the trolley-car works I suppose”, said Adam “And it might not be so depressing with everybody in it”.

“It’ll be even more depressing!” said Joby.

“Yes, thank you, Joby”, said Adam.

The same party went up to the house early the next morning, this time accompanied by Adam. The house was very much as they had left it. No fresh bodies had accumulated overnight, and the house didn’t seem to have been ransacked by whatever had visited it before.

On the way to the kitchen Adam paused in front of a picture in the hallway. It depicted the house, but in a way that perfectly captured its starkness, like a lonely sentinel atop its ridge.

“What a very striking picture”, said Adam.

“Do you think so?” said Hillyard, who was impatient to show him the food cupboards “A bit too gloomy for my tastes. I’d prefer to hang something more cheerful on the walls”.

They progressed into the kitchen at the back of the house. Adam inspected the food cupboards first.

“It all looks fine”, said Adam “All tins and packets”.

“Yeah well”, said Hillyard, getting absurdly embarrassed, like a shopkeeper offering sub-standard goods “I suppose we can’t expect fresh fruit and veg up here, particularly at this time of year”.

Adam turned from the cupboards and scanned the room.

“Both the bodies were in here?” he asked.

“One by the stove here”, said Hillyard “And the other sort of halfway out the door. Kieran reckons she was trying to crawl outside”.

Adam glanced out of the window and saw the fresh new grave close to the edge of the ridge. He gave a shudder.

“I believe it could still have been starvation”, said Kieran, from the doorway which led to the hall.

“But …” Hillyard indicated the food cupboards.

“Oh I know”, said Kieran But they might have done it on purpose. I’ve heard of it before. A case back in Ireland. A family of women deliberately starved themselves to death”.

“Why?” said Adam.

“I can’t remember”, said Kieran, joining him by the window “It was before my time. I’m not even sure anybody ever did really find out. I think they’d just turned too much in on themselves”.

“Needed a man around you see”, said Hillyard.

“Oh Hillyard!” Adam laughed.

“It’s true”, said Hillyard, unrepentantly “He would’ve kept them on an even keel”.

“Yes, men are always so sane, logical and rational aren’t they!” said Adam.

A narrow door slowly creaked open in a far corner of the room. They all stood and watched it apprehensively. Bengo strolled in.

“What?” he said, when he saw them all watching him.

“Where did you emerge from?” said Hillyard “I thought that was a broom cupboard!”

“It’s some back stairs”, said Bengo “Leads up to the bedrooms at the back of the house. Oo! I’ve never made a sinister entrance before!”

“I don’t think you should be roaming around this house on your own, Bengo”, said Adam.

“I’m not”, said Bengo “Bardy’s with me. He’s just being a bit slow”.

He turned and shouted up the steps.

“Come on, Bardy! You’re messing up the entrance!”

Bardin gradually emerged as well. The doorway and back stairs were so narrow that it looked as if he was emerging from a crack in the wall.

“Those stairs are too steep to rush down”, he said.

“Did you discover anything new up there?” said Adam.

“Just rooms and corridors”, said Bardin.

“There’s an attic floor”, said Bengo “We looked in the first room of it yesterday, but the rest of it’s difficult to get to”.

“Too much rubbish in the way”, said Bardin “Plus the floorboards feel too wonky”.

“And it’s bloody cold up there”, said Bengo “Takes the skin off you”.

“Alright old love, you don’t have to make excuses”, Adam smiled “I’m sure there will be plenty of time to explore the charms of the attic over the coming months”.

“Kieran, could you do a blessing all over the house sometime?” asked Hillyard, unexpectedly.

Kieran was pleasantly taken aback by this. Normally whenever he suggested doing a blessing, the others reacted with bored groans.

“In fact, I’ve brought me Bible up with me”, said Kieran, pointing at his canvas bag, which he had left on the table.

“In case we had to have another funeral?” said Bengo.

“Well I was hoping more in case we needed to have a blessing or a cleansing”, said Kieran.

“Make a start today”, said Hillyard “But you can do as many as you like, anytime you like. I think the place needs it”.

“Back in time to see the one-legged tea-making machine in operation”, said Joby, who was making up two large pots when Adam and Hillyard walked in on their return home.

“That’s just what I need”, said Hillyard, collapsing into the chair by the stove.

“You look knackered”, said Joby.

“Yes, you do a bit, Hillyard”, said Adam.

“I’m alright”, said Hillyard “Just that house is a bit miserable at the moment. I’ll get used to it”.

“I take it we’re staying here for the time being then?” said Joby.

“It would be a convenient place to sit out the bad weather”, said Adam “Though I suspect we’ll probably still be sleeping down here”.

“Particularly as it sounds like the House Of Usher!” said Joby.

“It’s in a good position up there though”, said Hillyard “We can see all the countryside for mile around, and Kieran’s been given free-rein to do as many blessings as he likes”.

“Oh blimey, he’ll be made up by that”, said Joby “Like giving him unlimited spanking!”

“I thought you did these days”, Adam laughed.

“There’s never enough where Kieran’s concerned”, said Joby.

“He really is the most extraordinary man”, said Adam “As long as he’s got his Bible and a sore butt he’s blissfully happy!”

“Don’t knock it”, said Hillyard “It all rubs off on the rest of us”.

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