By Sarah Hapgood

“The tree’s just been delivered, you see”, said Joby “So of course no one can put it up without plenty of booze inside ‘em”.

“And you didn’t have enough in the house?” said Persephone, in surprise.

“Not beer”, said Joby “They’ve got a hankering for beer. So we’re here with the sack-truck to pick some up”.

“You’ve picked a rough night to come out”, said Persephone, putting the first of the stone beer-jars on the counter-top.

The foghorns by the river were blaring out their doleful cry. Toondor Lanpin was enveloped in a river mist the consistency of a peasouper. Joby was standing just inside the main door of Persephone’s bar. Mieps stood next tohim, shrouded from head to foot in a black hooded cloak which clung to his body all over, revealing only his extraordinary face, and the reptilian eyes which would disturb anyone encountering them for the first time in the winter gloom.

“It’s so dense out there”, said Bengo, stepping back inside the door “That when I stuck my hand out it disappeared”.

“No it ent, it’s still there, look”, said Joby, yanking Bengo’s hand up and down. “We’d better not hang around”, said Mieps, uneasily “Anything can happen in this weather”.

“You Ghoomers are too nervy”, said Joby “We’ve only gotta go up the road”.

Even so, the mournful wail of the foghorns was beginning to unnerve him too. Not helped by the silence of Persephone’s near-empty bar, which was broken only by the sound of the shipping-forecast being read out on a radio in the back room. It felt too surreal for Joby, to hear Buskin’s hearty voice after all this time. He thought of the gloomy wastes of the northern lands where they had met him, and Joby thanked his lucky stars that they were down here in the southern hemisphere, which, however bizarre it could be at times, was at least well-populated.

He and Mieps loaded up the sack-truck with the stone casks of beer and then lifted it over the front step. The fog seemed to have got noticeably denser even during the few minutes they had been in Persephone’s place.

“This is beyond a joke”, said Joby “We’ll be lucky if we don’t lose each other in this”.

“Where’s Bengo gone?” said Mieps, looking around him frantically.

Bengo had disappeared into the mist and was nowhere to be seen.

“Bengo!” Joby called out, and then muttered “I’ll kill the little bastard! He’s always getting himself lost. Bengo!”

They were frightened when they got no reaction from the little clown at all. Joby now began to screech Bengo’s name, as terrified as a mother who had lost sight of her small child.

“He must be around here somewhere”, said Mieps “He must be!”

“Shit, what was that?” Joby jumped as a low groaning noise broke out nearby.

It sounded like a large, heavy man groaning with pain. Worse – it sounded like a zombie. A sound they were familiar with.

“We can’t hang around in this”, said Mieps, his eyes stinging with tears of cold and fear.

“Yeah, but we can’t leave Bengo out here either”, Joby cried “BENGO!”

“Joby?” Bengo appeared at his elbow, his face was deathly-pale in the gloom “Did you two hear that noise?”

“Where the fuck were you?” Joby screamed, grabbing him by the shoulders and shaking him vigorously “You scared the shit out of me! I haven’t been so angry with you since you walked over my lettuces!”

“Home. Home”, said Mieps, firmly.

“Hang onto my coat”, Joby ordered Bengo “Don’t ever do that to me again, you little scrote!”

Bengo was more distraught at upsetting Joby, than his near-encounter with what everyone now thought could well have been a zombie. Anything was possible in Toondor Lanpin. It was a town which seemed to exist permanently on the borders of some other world. The whole incident had caused understandable emotion in the Town House, and Ransey had immediately gone around fastening shutters and bolting doors. He even took a torch and inspected the cellar, in case any undesirable visitors were lurking down there, as the Scissor Woman had once done.

Bengo was feeling decidedly over-wrought. The whole incident had frightened him, but he was equally upset that he had managed to commit another Ballast-Brained Bengo Special. His knack of getting himself into scrapes was legendary, and the chief one was getting himself lost. He was almost hysterical with the shame of it, and he ran into the dining-room, which he and Bardin also used as a bedroom, not wanting to face the others at all. Apart from Bardin that is, who he clambered all over like a small boy, sobbing into his hair.

“Bengo, c’mon now, calm down”, said Bardin, patting and stroking him “You’re just shaken up that’s all. But you’re safe in here”.

“I’m such a fool, Bardy”, Bengo sobbed, working himself up into a fine old lather “Why can’t I ever be sensible?”

“You can”, said Bardin, kissing him “You often are. Look at the amount of times I’m the crazy one, and you’re the one who talks sense. It happens loads of times”.

“Joby was so angry with me”, said Bengo.

“He was frightened that’s all”, said Bardin “He’ll be alright now. I’ll have a word with him later. You know what he’s like, his bark’s worse than his bite”.

“This’ll ruin Christmas”, Bengo wailed.

“Don’t be silly”, said Bardin, sternly “You think no one’s got anything better to do than go on about what a plonker you can be? Bengo’s being a very daft puppy if he thinks that”.

Bengo whimpered, but he seemed to be calming down. Bardin helped him off with some of his clothes, stripping him down to his shirt, and then putting him to bed. He then poured out a brandy for him, an cradled him in his arms like an invalid whilst he drank it.

Julian came in, looking tense and angry. Bengo quailed at the sight of him. “What happened?” said Julian, sitting down on the bed “How did you manage to get lost this time?”

“He stepped outside to look at the fog getting worse”, said Bardin, because Bengo was weeping again “And he said it seemed to close in around him”.

“Why did he step outside?” said Julian “He should’ve known to stay with Mieps and Joby”.

“I thought it wouldn’t do any harm!” Bengo flung his arms round Julian’s neck.

“Bengo, I said calm down”, said Bardin.

“He won’t calm down until you’ve disciplined him”, said Julian, raising up the back of Bengo’s shirt and inspecting his smooth, unblemished backside “I’m surprised you haven’t”.

“I was too relieved at getting him back in one piece”, said Bardin “I’ll have to do it soon though I guess, or he’ll just keep getting hysterical”.

“You look too shaken”, said Julian.

“You do it”, said Bardin “Please”.

Bengo arched his buttocks like a cat being stroked.

“I’m angry”, said Julian “So it’ll hurt”.

He put Bengo face down over his knees, as he had done many times before, and smacked his bare cheeks, warming the flesh. Bengo did find it upsetting to be spanked in anger, and yet at the same time his whole body seemed to demand it. He certainly understood Kieran’s Catholic doctrine of paying a penance to redeem a sin. That mortification of the flesh could be cleansing. He had wanted this beating. And either Bardin or Julian doing it would have been entirely satisfactory.

“I’ll go and have a word with Joby”, said Bardin, as Julian paused for a brief rest, his hand resting on Bengo’s smarting buttocks “Bengo, get into bed when it’s all done. I’ll only be a few minutes”.

Bengo continued to stare at the carpet until the spanking was finished, and then Julian set him back on his feet. He was noticeably calmer now.

“If I have to hear tomorrow that you’ve been brooding on what happened earlier”, said Julian, kissing his face “I shall be even more cross”. “I won’t brood, I promise”, said Bengo.

“I wasn’t planning on doing all that”, said Julian, shaking his head ruefully “Adam was going to give you a hot bath to calm you down, and I strongly suspect he would have paddled you afterwards. The way my hand’s feeling right now I should have left it to him!”

“He can do that tomorrow”, said Bengo, kissing Julian’s hand.

“How much punishment can you take, you sexy little beast?” said Julian, laughing.

“Any amount”, said Bengo “I’m a clown when all’s said and done. Bardy’s the same”.

“Hm, well he’d better not go getting himself lost in the fog just to incur a beating!” said Julian, standing up to leave.

“No, I’ll do that one!” said Bengo.

Bardin had located Joby in the pantry, which smelt of apples and cinnamon. Joby was now wearing his technicolour bath-robe, and was scooping out the insides of a jar of lemon-curd with his finger. He took one look at Bardin and before they both knew it, they were engaged in a vigorous snogging session, which to an outside observer would have looked more like an intimate wrestling-match.

“We have an affinity, you and me”, said Bardin, huskily, when they eventually re-surfaced.

“Both got cute little bastards for partners you mean?” said Joby, returning nonchalantly to the lemon-curd jar.

“It must have been hard for you being President’s Consort all those years”, said Bardin “I don’t know how I would have coped if Bengo had been President”.

“Bengo as President?” Joby guffawed “I like it! He’s so daft it could work! The world would certainly be safe. It’s the ones who are too brainy for their own good you have to watch! How is the little scrote now? I hope you gave him what-for”.

“Julian did”, said Bardin “He’s got rosy cheeks for Christmas now”.

“Bengo by gaslight!” Joby laughed.

“I’m not sure it counts as punishment though”, said Bardin “We both enjoy all that”.

“Takes all sorts”, said Joby ‘”You’re as bad as Kieran. He’d have made a good clown, I always thought. He’s certainly got the masochism for it!”

“It never appeals to you?” said Bardin, in surprise.

“Being thrashed by Julian?” said Joby “Do me a favour!”

“You gave a little squirm then”, said Bardin, teasingly “I saw it”.

“You’re a little squirm!” Joby laughed.

“What’s this poking out here?” Bardin reached through the folds of Joby’s robe and gently grabbed the tip of his lengthening penis “And the thought of being walloped by Julian really doesn’t turn you on?!”

“No, that’s standing right close to you does that!” said Joby.

“Coo-er!” said Bardin.

They were chased out of the pantry by Ransey, who was rattled by their snogging session, and said that nowhere in the house seemed to be safe from such activities. The tree had been put up in the living-room, but was likely to stay unadorned for the rest of the evening, whilst everyone drank beer and speculated about the zombie instead.

“We can do it tomorrow, in the daylight”, said Lonts.

This also rattled Ransey. As a favour to an old Ministry colleague, he had agreed to take on a temporary job for a couple of weeks, helping him to re-organise the town’s various administrative departments. He had been talked into this over a couple of glasses of red wine, and had regretted it almost immediately. His fortnight was due to finish on Christmas Eve, and it couldn’t come quick enough for Ransey, who was being made to re-live the tedium of office life all over again. It all made him even more crotchety than normal, and was constantly reminding those “lazy gits” at home that they had no idea anymore what working for a living was like.

“I didn’t think you were getting paid for it though, old love”, said Adam “So how can you call it working for a living?”

“That makes it better does it?” Ransey snapped “That I’m not getting paid for it?”

“You don’t need wages”, said Hillyard, boisterously “Not when you’ve got me to keep you in pink fluffy jock-straps!”

This of course had caused untold hilarity in the ranks. And now here was Lonts proposing that they decorate the tree in the daytime, whilst he, Ransey, was chained up in his bureaucratic dungeon.

“Just think what a nice surprise it’ll be for you when you come home”, said Adam “All festive. It’ll bring a warm glow to you”.

“Bit like Bengo’s arse really”, said Joby.

Bengo meanwhile had got into bed on the other side of the hall, and pulled the sheets gingerly over his posterior. Bardin crept stealthily into the room and dealt him a whack across the tender area.

“Sod!” Bengo yelped.

“That’s my reward for sorting out Joby for you”, said Bardin, taking off his trousers and climbing in next tohim.

“I bet he was calling me a few names”, said Bengo.

“He didn’t get much chance to”, said Bardin “I kissed him. God, he’s hot-stuff when he gets going! When Lady Tamaz finds out I’ll be horse-meat”.

“Serves you right”, said Bengo “Next time, wait til I’m there too and then I can join in!”

“Arf! Arf!” said Bardin.

“It’s awful to think of that thing, zombie, whatever it is, out there in the streets”, Adam whispered, as Lonts slumbered in their bed behind him.

“Well what do you want us to do?” said Julian, wryly “Invite it in for a glass of sherry and a mince-pie!”

“Don’t be silly”, said Adam, tidying up Lonts’s pipe and his collection of little wooden bears on top of the chest of drawers “I’m just saying that’s all”.

“Daft old bat”, said Julian “You don’t have to worry about it once we’re indoors, and from what I remember of my Husgalonghi days, they only come out at night, so daytime will be perfectly safe”.

“So you say”, said Adam “The days are very short at this time of year, and how do we know all zombies are the same?”

“Oh I see”, said Julian “You think as this will be one of the Toondor Lanpin branch of the family, his habits might be different!”

“You’re asking for a damn good smack!” said Adam, testily.

“Just merely trying to reassure you, old fruit”, said Julian “We are quite safe locked and bolted in here. All you have to do over the next few days is to get on with the Christmas baking”.

“That’s what you think”, said Adam, airily.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” said Julian, sharply.

“Keep all windows shut tonight!” Ransey bellowed from the landing.

“We’re hardly going to have them open in this weather”, Adam sighed.

“It’s like being back at school with him around sometimes”, said Julian “I’m surprised he doesn’t come around doing dormitory inspection!”

Ransey came into the room, and Adam had to violently suppress a giggle.

“Time for lights out is it?” Julian snapped.

“Don’t bicker in here, you two”, said Adam “Lo-Lo’s asleep”.

“Keep a close eye on the boy tonight and after dark at all times, Adam”, said Ransey.

“I generally do”, said Adam, caustically. Ransey left the room. Adam kissed Julian goodnight, and then ushered him out as well.

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