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By Sarah Hapgood

“Bengo, little Bengo”, came an unwelcome voice “Bengo!”

“No!” Bengo cried “Leave me alone! Bardy will be home in a minute! I’m not alone here for long!”

He was convinced he could hear the door creak open a little, and an unpleasant voice say slyly “Can I come in?”

“No!” Bengo yelped and tried to dive under the bed, but it was too low down and his bottom stuck out.

“Fat Arse!” said Bardin, slapping him across it “It’s cold out there, get back into bed”.

Bengo looked up at him in disbelief.

“B-Bardy?” he said “It’s you! We’re in the Town House!”

“We are indeed”, Bardin sighed “Get back into bed. Kneeling on the floor in the middle of the night won’t do your cold any good”.

“I must have been dreaming”, said Bengo, in bewilderment “I thought our old landlord was after me”.

“He’s a long way away”, said Bardin, removing the hot water bottle, which had gone cold “Get back into bed”.

“It was so real, Bardy”, said Bengo, sounding very shaken as he climbed back between the sheets “It really did sound like him”.

“Well it wasn’t”, said Bardin “And even if it was I wouldn’t let him get you. I protected you as best as I could in the old days didn’t I?”

“Yes you did”, said Bengo, sliding into his arms “But I thought he’d found some way of getting in”.

“Settle down now”, said Bardin, in the firm tone of voice which instantly made Bengo capitulate to his every demand.

Adam had been awake soon after Bengo’s nightmare, but in an altogether different frame of mind. He had been watching Lonts unpacking his stocking and taking great pleasure in his boyish glee at each discovery. Now he was no longer the baby of the family Lonts tried very hard to be as serious and dignified as possible. Adam understood that this was because he didn’t want to lose any respect in front of the younger ones, but even so he was glad when Lonts still occasionally deigned to “be silly”. Lonts was still his little boy when all was said and done, and nothing would ever change that.

Before daylight came Lonts went down to the kitchen to help Adam and Joby do the breakfast. Lonts took his new teddy-bear with him, and Joby infuriated him by setting it up with Snowy in various copulation poses. Adam ordered Joby to behave, and Joby reacted by nearly jumping out of his skin when he heard a thudding noise coming from the yard outside.

“It’s Hillyard going to feed the animals”, said Lonts.

“He must have gone out through the living-room”, said Adam “He does that in his gumboots just to wind up Julian”.

Hillyard came to the back door a few minutes later, demanding the bucket of scraps for the goats.

“You’re supposed to leave it outside the door for me”, he said, beaming at Adam cheekily “You’re not doing your job properly. I shall have to come in there and give you a slap!”

“Only if you want this over your head!” said Adam, passing him the scraps bucket.

“If I was Julian you’d be turned on!” said Hillyard.

“Go away”, said Adam, shutting the door on him.

Hillyard knocked on it.

“What?” Adam snapped, after opening it again.

“You’re dead beautiful when you’re feisty!” said Hillyard.

Kieran had managed to get Tamaz alone in the living-room, and presented him with his gift, an expensive gold bracelet which caught the firelight and set off Tamaz’s colouring to a treat.

“Is it real gold?” said Tamaz, turning it round in wonder.

“Well I hope so or I’m asking the jeweller for me money back!” said Kieran “If we settle at Midnight Castle for good, I want you to have a very expensive relic of civilisation to take with you”.

“Why?” said Tamaz, who was normally told by everyone that he got far too much money spent on him!

Kieran studied him in the firelight. They were both wearing serviceable nightshirts, designed chiefly for keeping out the cold. Both looked beautiful and androgynous, but with Tamaz it would have been truly impossible for a stranger to have guessed his sex without knowing.

“Oh let’s just say for being a good sport”, said Kieran “And putting up with us all”.

“You know I wouldn’t have any kind of a life without you”, said Tamaz, sitting on the sofa, which was still covered in Toppy’s bedding “All this strange good magic in the air, you’re behind it aren’t you?”

“Let’s say it’s a little of everything”, said Kieran, sitting down next to him “Something within ourselves, something of Midnight Castle … I’m just stirring the pot”.

“Everyone’s missed the obvious”, said Tamaz “When Mieps first joined us, he lost years off his appearance overnight. And now the same is happening here, mostly with Adam and Julian, but with everyone else too. Joby’s face has got softer, rounder. Why can’t you admit it’s your doing?”

“It’s not the right time”, said Kieran “But that will come. Eventually”.

“It wasn’t a fucking dream I tell you!” said Hoowie, who had plonked himself down bang in the middle of Rumble and Farnol’s bed on the landing, much to their annoyance.

“You heard an old man outside the front door”, Farnol sighed “It was either a bad dream or a drunk who got the wrong house!”

“That guy’s voice was something else”, said Hoowie “He sounded … dead”.

“Now you’re reading too much into it”, said Rumble “You’ll be saying it was the zombie next”.

“Well why not?” said Hoowie.

“Zombies don’t usually speak”, said Farnol “Not unless they’re called Hoowie anyway!”

“Did Toppy hear it?” said Rumble.

“He was asleep”, said Hoowie.

“Probably dreaming about the correct way to peel bananas!” said Farnol.

“Bardin?” said Rumble.

“Got narked at me when I asked and slammed the dining-room door in my face”, said Hoowie “He really loses it sometimes!”

“Whereas you’re out of it all the time!” Farnol muttered.

Hoowie climbed off the bed and thumped downstairs. Farnol gave a contented sigh and rearranged the bedding to his satisfaction.

“Glad that jerk’s finally gone”, he said.

“Oh I dunno”, said Rumble, reflectively “I kinda miss old Hoowie!”

When Julian descended into the kitchen for breakfast he found Lonts contemplatively turning sausages in two large frying-pans on the stove, whilst Adam inspected Hillyard’s naked foot which was propped up on the table.

“Is that disgusting sight really necessary at meal-times?” said Julian.

“Matilda kicked me”, said Hillyard, sounding betrayed “She’s never done that before, not ever. She’s normally got a really amiable temper, but today she kicked me in the stables”.

“I don’t think she did, Hilly”, said Adam “There’s no bruising, and it doesn’t hurt you when I prod it”.

“He probably imagined it”, said Julian.

“I knew I wouldn’t get any sympathy out of you”, said Hillyard.

“If there was any bruising I’d have you down to the cottage hospital quicker than you could blink”, said Julian “Whilst everyone else was still faffing and fussing no doubt!”

“I really don’t see anything wrong there, Hilly”, said Adam “Lo-Lo, I think the sausages are done now, and Joby, why haven’t you put all the plates and mugs out?”

“’Cos I can’t do everything whilst you’re playing doctors and nurses!” Joby retorted.

Breakfast was consumed, and Adam was then glad when he was left in the kitchen with Joby, Lonts and Toppy to act as his assistants. He opened the oven to prod and inspect and baste the two huge turkeys that filled the main section, all the while bemoaning that there was no accurate way of gauging oven temperatures on huge archaic stoves like this.

“You only know it’s really hot when you practically get your hand incinerated”, said Joby.

“What are we going to do next year if we stay at Midnight Castle?” said Lonts “We won’t have turkeys there”.

“We’ll truss you up and put you on a baking tray”, said Joby “And prod you with meat-skewers”.

“We’d need a big baking tray!” said Toppy, whilst Lonts glowered at him.

“Toppy made a joke!” said Joby “Strewth, it must be Christmas!”

Kieran came into the room, clutching a small gift-wrapped package.

“Good grief, Patsy”, said Adam, straightening up after putting the birds back in the oven “You’re all washed and dressed, a miracle!”

“I was finally allowed in one of the focking bathrooms!” said Kieran “Can I borrow Joby? I won’t snatch him for long”.

Adam warned him that it’d better be quick, and Joby stepped outside the back door with Kieran into the harsh, frosty air. The sun burned like a huge red blister in the sky. Kieran handed the small package to Joby, and Joby unwrapped it suspiciously, as though it was a combustible practical joke.

“What is it?” he said, on opening the box.

“A gold ring”, said Kieran, patiently.

“What do I do with it?” said Joby.

“You stick it on your dick, what do you think!” said Kieran, in exasperation.

He took Joby’s hand and slid the ring onto one of his fingers.

“How say we now count ourselves as married?” said Kieran.

“We always have been”, said Joby, quietly “Why are you suddenly lashing out buying expensive presents like this?” “Well if we live at the Bay all the time as from next year, I won’t get the chance to then will I?” said Kieran “And I wanted to give you a token of me love and esteem”.

“You didn’t have to”, said Joby, emotionally.

“You damn English!” said Kieran “In some cultures it would have been counted as an insult to tell someone they shouldn’t have given you a gift! Why can’t you just say thank you?”

“Thank you”, said Joby.

An hour later the kitchen staff escaped to the living-room for a Christmas drink, which the clowns were setting out on the tables, covering them in glasses of brandy. Julian was dipping the poker from the fire into his glass. Mieps suddenly appeared and held up a scrap of yellow gauze which was to be his costume at the toga-party supper later.

“Cripes Mieps”, said Hillyard “That won’t even cover your bare essentials!”

“It covers more than you think”, said Finia, leaning over the back of the sofa.

“Not too much I hope!” said Hillyard.

It became obvious that a frenzied amount of whispering was going on in the corner by the Christmas tree. Bardin was hissing at Hoowie to shut up, and Bengo was looking wretched.

“If something is causing this much excitement I think we all have a right to know about it”, said Julian.

“It’s nothing”, said Bardin “It’s just Hoowie being a dork. No change there!”

“It can’t have been a bad dream after all, Bardy”, Bengo whimpered “It really must have been the landlord!”

“No way, not possible”, said Bardin, emphatically.

“What landlord?” said Julian, waspishly “What are you talking about?”

Bengo miserably recounted his bad dream. When he had finished Bardin ordered him to go and sit in the nearest armchair.

“I’m sitting in it”, said Joby.

“Sit on the arm then”, Bardin ordered Bengo.

“Only it wasn’t a fucking dream I tell you!” said Hoowie “How could it have been a dream if I heard it too? Me and him don’t share the same dreams!”

“It was probably Angel playing tricks”, Joby grunted.

“You might be right there”, said Kieran.

“I’m always right”, said Joby “Just nobody ever listens to me!”

“Now listen up”, said Bardin, firmly “If it happens again, then whoever hears it must come and tell me straightaway. Whatever the time. Simple solution, o.k? Now belt up about it, Hoowie”.

“Well said “, said Julian.

Bengo was so pleased to hear that it might only be the Devil, and not their perverted old landlord that he fidgeted with excitement and slid from the arm of the chair onto Joby.

“Get off!” said Joby “You’re like a sack of potatoes!”

“Let’s have a Christmas toast”, said Bardin “Before Bengo goes and spills his drink completely!”

“Oh that’s not fair!” Lonts wailed.

“What now?” Joby groaned.

“Adam can’t join in”, said Lonts.

“Yes he can”, Kieran crossed to the sideboard and rooted around amongst the bottles jammed close together on top “Now we’d better not start you on brandy straightaway. After all these years of abstinence we’d better start you off slowly and work up”.

“Patsy, what hocus-pocus is this?” said Adam.

“Hocus-pocus I think you’ll enjoy”, said Kieran, selecting a bottle of beer and flicking off the top.

“I know you think you’re invincible at the moment”, said Adam “But I can’t go along with this one, much as I appreciate the sentiments. If it goes wrong and I get ratarsed, it could ruin Christmas for everyone”.

“You have to trust me”, said Kieran, pouring the beer into a glass “Look into my eyes and trust me, as you once said to me a very long time ago on an intimate occasion”.

“Lo-Lo”, Adam grabbed Lonts’s hand “What do you think I should do?”

“I think you should trust Kieran”, said Lonts.

Everyone then watched avidly as Adam took a long and determined swallow of the beer.

“Hell, that’s disgusting!” he said, when he came up for air “Where on earth’s it made?”

“It’s the local brewery”, said Hillyard “Over the river”.

“Then it should be pulled down!” said Adam “I really don’t think I can drink anymore of that!”

“Probably find the zombie works there!” Joby laughed.

“That wouldn’t surprise me at all!” said Adam.

“What used to be your tipple?” said Kieran “Before you went off the rails I mean?”

“When we were students I used to be quite partial to cider”, said Adam.

“We’ve got some of that”, Finia gave Tamaz a gentle shove and told him to go and fetch the smallest stone urn from the sideboard.

“Be warned”, said Julian “Cider used to make him very randy! I have vivid memories of him all over me in the back of a taxi once. We nearly got thrown out!”

“I didn’t need the cider to get like that!” said Adam.

“Perhaps we should make sure he’s finished cooking our dinner first”, said Julian.

“All the worst bits are done really”, said Joby ‘What’s left’s straightforward enough”.

“After all these years”, said Adam, awesomely, taking a sip of the cider “Oh yes, that’s a vast improvement. Nice and creamy”.

They had barely performed the Christmas toast when someone hammered on the door.

“I thought we all agreed no visitors today?” said Julian.

“No visitors ever, I thought!” said Joby.

“I can hear music”, said Adam “It’s not the booze playing tricks is it?”

“It’s carol-singers”, said Hoowie, at the window “That’s if I’m allowed to speak to tell you!”

“Carol-singers?” said Joby “I thought they’d all been exterminated!”

“I haven’t gotta go and answer the door to ‘em have I?” said Bengo, in dismay.

“No, ignore them”, said Bardin “They’ll soon get bored and go away”.

“But they must know we’re in here”, said Bengo.

“So?” said Bardin “We didn’t invite ‘em round!”

“They’ll want to stand there and sing at us”, said Ransey, in disgust.

“This morning is too precious to have it ruined by hearty goodwill and hail-fellow”, said Adam.

“You’re cured”, said Kieran “We’re all going into our prime, and Joby and me are now officially married, well officially as far as I’m concerned anyway”.

“That’s what the ring’s all about then?” said Ransey.

“It was a very low-key wedding”, said Joby “We wanted to keep it as quiet as possible, just me, him and the dustbins!”

“Now you’re married, Joby”, said Lonts, gleefully “You’ll have to be like Bengo is with Bardin, and do everything Kieran says”.

“Hah, I can’t see that happening somehow!” said Kieran “Nice thought though”.

“Just think of the carol-singers waiting outside”, said Julian “All menacing and shiney-faced, waiting with sure and sadistic expectation that we will open the door and be nice to them”.

“They obviously don’t know us very well”, said Ransey “They don’t appreciate that we’re …”

“Cool”, Joby purred “Real cool”.

Toppy, the only one of the kitchen staff to still have a spotless apron, went into the dining-room to begin the lengthy operation of laying the table for Christmas lunch. Whilst he did this, Bengo lay on the bed cracking and scoffing walnuts.

“I thought you were sposed to eat them after dinner, not before”, said Farnol, coming into the room with Rumble “No wonder you’re getting a little cuddlier each day!”

“I think it suits him”, said Rumble, draping his long, spindly frame over a hardbacked chair “But then I like ‘em a bit on the juicy side”.

Toppy tutted as he tried to edge round the two of them, all the while fussing about with a white tablecloth.

“I take it you’re going to show us your ‘how to peel a banana’ trick later?” said Farnol, joshingly.

“It’s not a trick!” Toppy snapped “Don’t you ever stop performing?”

“He can’t”, said Bardin, entering stage left “He was programmed at birth!”

Bardin methodically took the bowl of walnuts and the nutcrackers away from Bengo and put them back on the sideboard.

“Everything he says he turns into a joke”, said Toppy “I think it’s a defence mechanism against life”.

“This is Toppy showing us how real educated he is”, said Bengo, facetiously.

“We’re impressed!” said Rumble.

“The only built-in defence mechanism I have is the one I need for Hoowie”, said Farnol.

“Has he been winding you up?” said Bardin.

“Is Kieran a Catholic!” said Rumble.

“Rumble and me is on the skids apparently”, said Farnol “Our relationship is doomed, and now we’re only joking around to paper over the cracks!”

“All that must be because you kicked Hoowie out of your bed this morning”, Bardin smiled.

“You think Hoowie’d be used to that happening by now wouldn’t you!” said Rumble.

“Me and Rumble is finished”, Farnol wailed, theatrically “He doesn’t think I’m funny anymore! I shall have to go and throw myself in the river! Rumble, I leave you my giant dick prop as a keepsake of all the happy times we had together”.

Rumble gave a laconic thumbs-up as a response.

“None of you make any effort to understand Hoowie”, said Toppy.

“Is there anything in there to understand then?” said Rumble.

“Perhaps if he shut his mouth and used his brain to understand US occasionally”, said Bardin “We might get somewhere. At the moment all he seems to do is to try and make mischief”.

“Because he feels the odd one out”, said Toppy.

“He’s odd alright!” said Farnol.

“There is no odd one out, Toppy”, said Bardin “We’re not even an odd number anymore, soI thought with you and he being the two youngest you paired off naturally”.

“But we’re not an item”, said Toppy, thoroughly bewildered as to exactly what they were!

“Then perhaps you need to get all that sorted out”, said Bardin “And stop Hoowie tearing around the rest of us like a loose cannon all the time!”

“It’s not such a bad idea, Toppy”, said Bengo “After all, sex is the one thing Hoowie’s any good at … s-so I’ve heard Tamaz say anyway”, he concluded hastily, as Bardin was looking round at him suspiciously.

“And you are sexually active these days, Toppy”, said Farnol, grabbing lasciviously at Toppy’s behind.

“Toppy smoulders quietly, he’s a slow burner”, said Bengo, and then quailed as Bardin gave him another look “Can I have the nuts back, Bardy? I can’t say anything you don’t like whilst I’m eating them!”

“Now you should definitely try this ruby port, Ad”, said Joby, opening another bottle to add to the already opened mass on the draining-board.

“I would dearly like to get given the chance, old love!” said Adam, who had been urged to try each drink only for Joby and Lonts to beat him to it each time.

“Ah you’re out of practice that’s your trouble”, said Joby.

“Yes, by about 30 years!” said Adam. “How are the birds doing?” said Joby.

“O.K I suppose”, said Adam, dropping tiredly onto a chair.

“They look alright to me”, said Joby, eyeing up the two huge golden turkeys which were basking on top of the stove, after having been divested of their foil coverings.

“Yes, but I don’t feel like eating them now”, said Adam, scratching his ear with a meat-skewer “I keep remembering some grotesque French film I saw once, about a bunch of people who hole themselves up in a decaying mansion to eat themselves to death. I’m starting to feel like I’m one of them!”

“How did they eat themselves to death, Adam?” said Lonts, sombrely.

“They all ate so much that they had heart-attacks and died”, said Adam.

“Thank God for that!” said Joby “I was beginning to think you’d say they’d burst or summat!”

“There was a scene in it where a woman hacks off the head of a turkey, whilst it’s still alive!” said Adam “It’s wings were still fluttering. How can we make Patsy sit and watch us eat these, after everything he’s done for us?”

“He won’t mind, as long as he doesn’t have to eat it too”, said Joby “You should try and remember a nice Christmas film for a change, like ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, or ‘A Christmas Carol’, which would be quite appropriate as you seem to be turning into Scrooge!”

“Nonsense”, said Adam.

“This is what you get when you start thinking about those weird people from your time”, said Lonts “The ones that weren’t real, but you always pretended they were, which is really daft”.

“Well we’ve always pretended you’re real, so we must be daft I spose!” said Joby.

“I am real!” Lonts boomed.

“Are you?” said Joby “I thought you was just some horrible figment of my imagination! A great, lumbering spectre of doom”.

“Adam, I think you should tell Joby off”, said Lonts.

“I seem to have spent my entire life telling Joby off”, said Adam, finally getting to sip the ruby port.

“He keeps putting the bears in rude positions too”, said Lonts, who had found Snowy supposedly buggering the new yellow bear behind the bread-bin.

“Well it’s their Christmas too!” said Joby “Why shouldn’t they have any fun?”

“Because Yellowey is too young for all that”, said Lonts. “Encouraging Snowy to corrupt a minor!” said Adam “Joby, you should be thoroughly ashamed of yourself”.

“Ooh I am!” said Joby.

“We need to start thinking about getting all the food into the dining-room”, said Adam “You two go outside and fetch the big tea-trolley in from the stables”.

“What’s it doing out there?” said Joby.

“Tamaz took it out there to play with a few day ago”, said Adam “Don’t ask me why!”

Joby and Lonts rescued the tea-trolley from the stables, and Lonts wheeled it across the yard with Joby reclining across the top of it.

“Fuck! It feels cold here after the Bay”, said Joby.

“This is nothing”, said Lonts “In Kiskev it used to get much, much colder than this”.

“Don’t remin me”, said Joby “One night in that place was more than enough for me!”

Lonts stopped suddenly and glanced up at the sky.

“Can you hear that weird noise, Joby?” he said “It sounds like the clouds crackling”.

“There are too many strange noises in this town”, said Joby “C’mon, let’s get inside”.

The dining-room was bedlam already, with Toppy’s decorated table an oasis of good taste and elegance in the midst of people falling over themselves to get to a seat, and the clowns fooling around pulling crackers.

“Clowns!” Adam barked “Calm down until the food’s been put out”.

“Who gets a leg?” said Tamaz, looking at the turkeys.

“Not you, that’s for sure”, said Julian. “I think we should have another toast in a minute”, said Ransey “To the four chefs: Adam, Joby, Lonts and Toppy”.

“But Toppy hasn’t been in the kitchen for the past hour!” Lonts protested.

“No, but he’s made a masterly job of this table”, said Julian.

“I’ve used every bit of cutlery I could find”, said Toppy “It’s a shame that with all our money we haven’t got a really nice canteen of cutlery”.

“Pearls before swine, old fruit”, said Julian “Many of them have only just mastered the art of using eating-irons at all!”

“Where’s Hillyard got to?” said Adam “He should be carving”.

“Perhaps he’s gone outside to sharpen the knives”, said Joby “You know what a performance he makes out of doing that back at the Bay”.

“He gave them a really good sharpen on the back doorstep earlier”, said Adam.

“I think he might still be in the bathroom”, said Finia.

“I’ll go and call him”, said Adam.

He went into the hall and yelled up the stairs. Hillyard came down, looking strangely shaken.

“Are you alright, old love?” said Adam “It’s not your leg playing up is it?”

“No, I’m beginning to think Julian was right, that I imagined the horse kicking me”, said Hillyard “I heard a peculiar noise upstairs just now, sounded like an electric storm coming. I was leaning out of the bathroom window, trying to figure out what it was, but I couldn’t see anything that could account for it”.

“Toondor Lanpin gets more and more surreal everyday”, Adam sighed “Come and carve”.

Hillyard bucked up when faced with one of his favourite occupations. Adam gave Kieran a plate of vegetables and cauliflower cheese, which he began to eat straightaway.

“Did you make this?” he said, as Joby sat down next to him.

“Yeah, why, what’s wrong with it?” said Joby, suspiciously.

“Nothing, it’s very nice”, said Kieran “Are you going to take your pinny off whilst we’re eating?”

“I’ve worn this so much lately I’m beginning to think I was born in it!” said Joby, standing up again to remove his canvas apron.

“I have pimples around my nipples”, said Mieps, who had been gazing with rapt interest inside his shirt “They’re horrible”.

Adam got up and inspected Mieps’s chest from close angles.

“I’ll be the first to admit I know little about female anatomy”, he said, in conclusion “But I really don’t think it’s anything to worry about, it’s just the way you’re built that’s all”.

“I’m getting pimples all over me at the moment”, said Joby “It’s the weather, lack of fresh air and sunlight on our flesh”.

“If it was anything serious we’d soon get you sorted out”, said Hillyard, putting a leg of turkey on Mieps’s plate, which caused Tamaz to look mutinous “That’s one advantage of being back in civilisation again I suppose, having the hospital nearby”.

“I don’t agree”, said Mieps “If I was on my way out I’d want to go somewhere quiet and die”.

“Rubbish”, said Julian, stoutly “We used to get all that codswallop from Adam when he was ill, and if we’d listened to him he wouldn’t be here with us now! If you get ill, Mieps, you would have no choice but to get treated, believe me!”

“This is a depressing conversation for Christmas Day”, said Lonts “All about one of us dying!”

“Don’t fret, Lonts”, said Joby “We haven’t managed to lose anyone yet, even though we’ve tried fairly hard at times! And it’s not a depressing conversation. I’ve heard far more depressing ones at family Christmasses back in our time!”

“Hear hear”, said Julian, raising his glass like a toast.

“I don’t see what can be more depressing than people dying”, said Lonts, spearing carrots into his mouth.

“Huh, you wanna get the annual conversation of ‘this year’s Christmas t.v is crap’, which we always had without fail”, said Joby “The weird thing was every year everyone said the t.v schedules were the worst ever, and every year they were always right! Amazing! At least we don’t get that”.

“It’d be a bit difficult”, said Kieran “When we don’t have a t.v!”

“There’s no reason why you can’t have one if you want one”, said Hillyard, who was still carving “We could even have one at the Bay. A clockwork one’ll work anywhere, provided you can get a signal”.

“Oh we don’t’ want one at the Bay”, saidAdam “We’re retreating from the world there, not taking it with us!”

“You don’t need television”, said Bengo “Not when you’ve got us to entertain you”.

“Quick, let’s get a telly, Hillyard!” said Joby.

Bengo was pouring gravy over his dinner and rather going to town over it.

“Try and leave some for the rest of us”, said Hoowie, who was sitting nearby, on the other side of Bardin.

“Bengo loves his gravy”, said Adam, indulgently.

“He drinks it out of a cup sometimes!” Lonts laughed “When there’s any left over”.

“No wonder he’s putting it on a bit”, said Joby “We’ll have to use a crowbar to get him into his cabin boy outfit later!”

“Oh well if Bengo can’t get into it”, said Adam “We’ll dress Patsy up in it instead”.

“No!” said Julian “You need a good arse for that costume, and he hasn’t got any!”

Kieran stood up and wriggled his flat backside suggestively at Julian before sitting down again.

Tamaz yodelled and pointed at Mieps.

“Tell him, Julian”, he cried “He’s got it out again!”

“Put your tits away, Mieps”, said Julian “Whatever the significance of your pimples are, you’re not going to die of them before this meal is over!”

“They’re not sore are they?” said Joby.

“Not really, no”, said Mieps.

“Perhaps it’s cystitis or something like that”, said Adam, uncertainly.

“Cows get that”, said Tamaz, bluntly, whilst hacking at his dinner as though he was excavating an archaeological site.

“Silence, Freaky!” said Julian, pinching Tamaz’s thigh.

Tamaz shrugged and carried on eating.

“I thought you was going to give a toast, Ranz?” said Hillyard, who had finally finished carving.

Ransey put down his knife and fork, stood up, and toasted the kitchen-workers. The others joined in boisterously.

“Well if Hillyard ever loses all his money”, said Adam “I suppose we could always open our own restaurant. Lo-Lo, Joby and myself in the kitchen, Toppy waiting on tables, Bardin doing front-of-house, and we’ll put little Bengo in the window to lure the customers in!”

“In his cabin-boy outfit!” said Joby.

“That should attract some pretty dodgy clientele”, saidJulian.

“Yeah, men like you most likely!” said Hillyard.

“Cheers!” said Julian.

“I feel about 8 months pregnant”, said Rumble, sprawled on yet another wheelbacked chair, this time in the kitchen.

“Serves you right”, said Farnol, flicking a damp tea-towel at him “You had a bigger portion of meat than me”.

“I think I had half a flamin’ turkey all to myself”, said Rumble.

Hoowie was washing up at the sink, very slowly, and Bardin stood nearby impatiently, waiting, like Farnol, to dry.

“Get a sprint on, Hoowie”, Bardin snapped “Or we’ll be here all night!”

“Hah!” said Hoowie “I notice your brown-eyed little boy isn’t in here giving us a hand”.

“He’s having a rest”, said Bardin “He’s feeling a bit under the weather”.

“That didn’t stop him putting the food and drink away at a rate of knots though did it?” said Hoowie “He certainly knows how to eat that’s for sure!”

“Bengo always did like his grub”, said Bardin “When we were kids I used to call him Bengo The Pudding!”

“Talking about me again?” said Bengo, coming into the room, clutching the empty wine bottles from the dining-room table to his chest.

“You’re supposed to be in bed”, said Bardin.

“I couldn’t rest”, Bengo cooed “I was missing you”.

He put down the bottles and grabbed Bardin round the waist, kissing and nuzzling him.

“Nice to see marriage hasn’t destroyed romance”, said Farnol.

“Particularly when you’re ratarsed”, said Hoowie, scraping laboriously on a baking-tray “It also helps ifyou’re a great big overgrown baby like Bengo”.

“Well that’s better than being a miserable sour-faced old tart!” Bardin retortd “Of which you’re doing a damn good impression! I don’t think we should call you Hoowie anymore. I think we should give you a miserable old tart’s name instead”.

“What’s the name of that grocer’s wife in town?” said Bengo “She’s a real old sourpuss, always looks at us as though we’re about to pinch something”.

“Sue”, said Rumble “Sour-Faced Sue I always think of her”.

Hoowie was destined to spend the rest of the day being addressed as Sue. Bengo and Bardin went to bed for the afternoon, to shore up some energy for the evening’s festivities.

“Toppy needs to get his act together that’s the trouble”, said Bardin, who was gently combing Bengo’s hair, draping it over his pillow “Hoowie at least seems to mellow a bit with him”.

“Hoowie’s got really scabby lately”, said Bengo “He seems to be causing even more trouble than usual. He went on at me the other day that you held back my career in the Village of Stairs. That I had loads of wealthy, influential guys interested in me, but you kept me on a short chain all the time”. “And I’m damn glad I did!” said Bardin “More than half the promises they would have made you would never have amounted to anything. You would have gone the way of every chorus-line posy and movie starlet since showbusiness was invented. Passed around like a trophy from one disgusting old git to another. When they weren’t shagging you, they would have been making you pour drinks and empty ashtrays for their equally slimey friends. You think I wanted to see you treated like that?!”

“Hoowie did go through all that himself, during his nude modelling career”, said Bengo.

“Yeah, but he’s such a jerk he could have handled it I spect”, said Bardin “He’d know how to take and control, but you’d have withered and perished without any love in the equation”.

“I know”, said Bengo, emotionally.

“You should tell me when Hoowie starts jabbering like that”, said Bardin.

“I didn’t think it was worth it”, said Bengo “Toppy used to be like that sometimes, when we lived on the waterfront. He used to try and wind us all up by playing us off against each other. He used to hate it ’cos I’d never take any notice of him. I just thought oh that’s just Toppy, he’s a nut. I mean, he used to get books out of the library just to correct the typo’s in ‘em!”

“Jesus, talk about the perils of celibacy!” Bardin roared with laughter.

“I could never take him seriously ‘cos he came to us as the booby-prize with a food-hamper!” Bengo laughed.

“Pendor gave him away!”

“You can’t blame him can you!”

“We’ve got the same problem now with Hoowie”, said Bardin “Rumble said to me once back at the Bay that we have to take care of Hoowie otherwise anything could happen to him. He’d just go more and more off the rails, more and more peculiar”.

“Lonts once said a similar thing about Toppy”, said Bengo “Hoowie and Toppy already have a relationship, of sorts ….”

“Yes, but Toppy needs to start showing a bit more commitment”, said Bardin “He was born to look after people, that’s what he’s good at. That’s what he did so well for us at the Festival in Port West, and Hoowie sure as hell needs looking after! Toppy’s perfect for him. He’ll fuss round him and feed Hoowie’s ego, which unfortunately won’t stop Hoowie being a pain in the neck, but at least it might cure the crabbiness he’s got at the moment”.

“We have to cure that”, said Bengo “We can’t have someone crabby in the family. That sort of thing is poisoning!”

Kieran took a bath soon after dark and was annoyed beyond measure to be suddenly joined in there by Angel, who was bored out of his mind on Christmas night and looking for trouble to cause. When Kieran made it clear that he wasn’t interested in anything Angel had to say, Angel (predictably) got very nasty and bragged that he could take Kieran off anywhere in the world and dump him there, and the others might never be able to find him. Unfortunately (for Angel that is) Joby came in at that moment. He was furious to meet Angel’s hairy, halitosis-ridden self.

“It’s Christmas, jerk”, said Angel “Goodwill to all men and all that”.

“You’re not a man”, said Joby “You’re a fucking demon!”

It was with great difficulty, but to his own amazement he managed it, Joby wrestled Angel back up against the windowsill, in the narrow gap between the washbasin and the bath, and succeeded in getting the window open, shoving Angel backwards out of it.

“I expect he survived the fall”, said Joby, lugubriously, and fastidiously wiped his hands down his front in disgust “I don’t like the thought of him in the house”.

“I can’t say I’m too thrilled about it!” said Kieran.

“It gave me a right turn coming in and finding him in here”, said Joby “I’ve already had enough of a fright this evening seeing Hillyard in his toga! He looked like that bloke out of the ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’!”

“But Hillyard hasn’t got curly hair”, said Kieran.

“Eh?” said Joby “Did Leatherface or whatever his name was have curly hair then? Can’t say I noticed his hair much. You don’t really do you!”

“Why haven’t you got your toga on yet?” said Kieran.

“I wanted to get ready at the same time as you”, Joby mumbled, awkwardly “I didn’t wanna go down there on my own like it. Julian’s bound to laugh”.

“Well laugh at him back!” said Kieran “We’re all going to look like eejits this evening, so don’t’ fret about it”.

“I bet he doesn’t!” said Joby “I bet he looks like Julius Caesar!”

“Yeah”, said Kieran ”As played by Kenneth Williams no doubt!”

Joby would be annoyed to discover that Julian cut a very elegant dash in his makeshift toga. He stood in front of the living-room fire, looking as though he was about to address the Senate on some matter of grave importance to the Empire. In fact though he and Adam were engaged in an enthralling discussion about the most over-rated Christmas films of all time.

“I never liked ‘Singin’ In The Rain’”, said Adam, from the sofa “It’s appeal completely passed me by. Debbie Reynolds was such an irritating goody two-shoes, and when Gene Kelly was doing a dance with some other guy in one scene I was completely distracted by the diagrams on the wall behind them! It was all so flamin’ wholesome. I prefer the clowns dancing. At least they have a touch of anarchy about them”.

“You can say that again!” said Ransey, reading in an armchair.

“You have to admit Tamaz reminds us of Lina though!” said Julian “Certainly in personality anyway”.

“Yes that’s very true!” Adam laughed “Personally though, I think the song ‘Singin’ In the Rain’ was put to much better use in ‘A Clockwork Orange’”.

“And you always accuse me of having no romance in me!” said Julian.

“Can you talk about something the rest of us know about?” said Lonts, sitting next to Adam “It frustrates me when you get onto these imaginary people discussions”.

“The Happy Bears are imaginary, but you don’t object to talking about them”, Hoowie pointed out, sulking after having been called Sue all afternoon.

“I know about them, Hoowie”, said Lonts “So I can join in”.

“It’s a great shame really, Lo-Lo”, said Adam “You’d have probably loved all these old films we talk about. It always makes me sad when I realise how much has been lost to us”.

“Don’t be”, said Julian, bluntly “If it was all still around you’d only have to watch it!”

“There seems to be some activity in the dining-room”, said Finia, leaning forward and looking across the hall.

“Toppy’s putting the buffet out I hope”, said Ransey.

“Where do you put it all, Ransey?” said Adam “You never gain weight, quite amazing really”.

“The clowns are horsing around”, Finia sighed “Again!”

“Getting Bengo into his cabin-boy outfit with any luck!” said Julian.

“I’ll get the gramophone going”, said Lonts.

“I hear Bardin’s going to be Master of Ceremonies this evening”, said Ransey, sharply “What does that mean exactly? I want thorough warning so that I can get a headache in good time and go up to bed!”

“He’s going to organise the games”, said Adam.

“Games?” said Ransey “Which particular games?”

“We don’t know yet, old love”, Adam shrugged “I’m sure it will be fun whatever he comes up with. All I know is that Bengo and Freaky are going to be serving-boys”.

“And Freaky’s as pissed off as hell about it!” said Julian, gleefully.

Mieps caused a substantial hiatus by coming into the room wearing only his scrap of yellow gauze, followed by Joby and Kieran, also in costume.

“Alright alright!” said Joby, as Adam wolf-whistled at them “This is a daft costume to wear!”

“Oh I think they’re rather comfortable”, said Adam “It leaves plenty of room for one’s body to breathe. I’ve missed getting air on my legs since we’ve been back here. The Romans knew a thing or two about comfort”.

“Yeah, ‘cept they didn’t have to live in a damp, draughty climate like this one”, said Joby.

“Oh I don’t know”, said Julian “Rome could get quite chilly in winter”.

Bardin came into the room wearing a short toga and banging a wooden spoon on a saucepan.

“As Master of Ceremonies”, he cried “I welcome you to tonight’s festivities. Put yourself into my hands and I guarantee you the thrills of a lifetime!”

“That’s what I’m afraid of!” said Ransey.

“But first and foremost”, Bardin continued, undaunted “What’s the surest way to any red-bloodied man’s heart?”

“Bengo in his cabin-boy outfit”, said Julian.

“That too”, Bardin winked.

“You managed to get him in it then?” said Joby.

“It fits where it touches”, said Bardin, suggestively “But firstly, we must eat! Toppy and Rumble have raided the pantry for choice delights to tempt your palate”.

Ransey sprinted out of the room in a swirl of bedsheet. Across the hall and into the dining-room, where Toppy, Bengo and Tamaz were standing expectantly by the table, waiting to wait on everyone. Toppy and Tamaz both wore indecently-short togas, with Tamaz sporting a gold circlet in his fiery hair. Bengo looked outrageous in a striped jerkin and breeches so tight they looked pasted on. Bardin had washed and towelled-dried his abundant mane of hair for him, which contrasted well with his bedroom eyes.

Tamaz knew that Bengo would get most of the leering attention, and he was right. He had meant to be annoyed about this, as well as having to wait on table, but the atmosphere was too highly-charged for that, and he was captivated by the sight of Mieps’s well-toned muscular thighs under the skimpy gold gauze. He was also thawed by Lonts’s enraptured glances at him.

“Although I wouldn’t want Tamaz wearing that in the street”, Lonts said, soberly.

“Oh Lo-Lo, you’re so deliciously old-fashioned at times”, said Adam “But do do an old man’s heart good, Tamaz”.

“You’re not old anymore”, said Tamaz, who was filling both their glasses from a pewter flagon of wine.

“Well I certainly don’t feel it tonight”, said Adam, skittishly “And I can drink too. Wacko!”

Julian wasn’t the only one who was waiting impatiently for the first mistake by a server, who would then have to be “punished”. Tamaz was absolutely determined it wasn’t going to be him, and nobody would have got many thrills out of Toppy being chastised. It would have to be Bengo, who was sporting a large juicy pink ribbon tied in a bow on his rear.

Unfortunately it looked as though Bengo’s innate clumsiness had deserted him this evening. He poured the wine without any mishap at all, and moved around the table as deftly as Toppy. He gradually worked his way up to Joby and Kieran, served them expertly, and was then left with only Bardin to do. It rapidly became clear that he had had a hidden agenda all along. It helped enormously that he was aided and abetted by Kieran, who pulled at the pink ribbon, removing the seat of Bengo’s breeches. Kieran inserted his little finger into Bengo’s anus. Bengo jumped and sloshed some of the red wine into Bardin’s lap. When he saw what he had done, he sloshed out the remaining wine for good measure. Bardin stood up and held out his sodden, stained toga.

“One simply can’t get the staff these days”, said Julian.

Bengo dipped his hand in a bowl and grabbed a wodge of thick brandy butter, smearing it under Bardin’s toga and around his balls.

“Come on, Bardin!” Farnol shouted “Retaliate man, retaliate!”

“Do you want to borrow my leather paddle?” said Julian.

“I can manage”, said Bardin, as the cream slopped down his inside leg.

He spanked Bengo with his distinctively firm smacks. Bengo tried to shut everyone else out whilst he was being punished, aware that everyone’s attention was focussed entirely on his reddening backside. He himself concentrated on Bardin. It could be said then that the party had really begun.

Bengo didn’t get his breeches put back together until nearly 4 o’clock the following morning, when the party slipped into its final mellow phase, and everyone began to slope off to their own corners.

Bardin, who had abandoned his wine-stained toga, and put on a shirt instead, retied the pink ribbon.

“I arranged it on purpose so that it would be you who got me, Bardy”, said Bengo, holding onto the bedpost “Kieran must have sussed out what I was thinking”.

“That wouldn’t surprise me at all!” Bardin smiled.

“I wasn’t expecting him to do that with his finger”, said Bengo “It amazes me what hot stuff he is sometimes”.

“He is”, said Bardin “But I also think he understands your needs to a t. Look what he gets up to at Midnight Castle when he walks you around the maze on the dog-leash! There you are, all tied up again. Although your arse has been too warmed to get draughty!”

“It’s been so funny this evening”, said Bengo “I’ll never forget Mieps’s face when Ransey was trying to roll the orange down his front with his chin”.

“Yeah, I don’t think Mieps took to that game very much”, said Bardin “Shame, ‘cos he and Tamaz are the only ones with the tits to make that game such a laugh”.

“They’ve got all the interesting lumpy bits for the orange to get caught round”, said Bengo.

“Mieps looked like he was suckling Ransey at one point!” said Bardin “Right, let’s go and see where Rumble’s got to with the coffee”.

In the kitchen they found Rumble sitting yawning with his feet up on the table.

“You’re a hive of activity again I see”, said Bardin.

“The water’s on the stove”, said Rumble “And Farnol’s sposed to be getting things out of the pantry. Choppsy, where have you got to in there?”

“Got held up, Rumby-Boy”, said Farnol, coming out clutching a pitcher of milk “Hoowie’s sitting in there, having a nervous breakdown! Nobody loves him apparently. He’s going to leave us”.

“Not at this time of night he’s not!” said Bardin “Hoowie, you jerk, come out of there! I knew it was a mistake letting you get on the gin! You get as weepy and boring as a tatty old chorus-girl!”

“What’s he being upset about now?” said Bengo, confused “No one’s done anything horrible to him”.

“No, he got off lightly in the humiliation stakes this evening”, said Farnol, as Hoowie emerged from the larder “I think he’s missing his opportunity at the moment. He should be getting on in there with Toppy, thawing out the Ice Boy a bit more”.

“It won’t work with Toppy”, said Hoowie, in exasperation “Can’t you jerks see that?”

“No”, said Bengo, perplexed.

“Toppy’s in love with Tamaz!” Hoowie shrieked. “So?” said Farnol “We is all in love with Tamaz, boy. Tamaz exists as our mascot”.

“Yeah, you’re crazy if you’re putting that up as an obstacle”, said Bardin “I bet Tamaz isn’t with him at the moment”.

“Tamaz is upstairs”, said Rumble “Julian wanted to have a bath, and he ordered Tamaz to scrub his back for him”.

“There you are, see?” said Farnol to Hoowie “If you don’t go and get in there now, warm up the Ice Boy on this chilly Christmas night, we’ll be calling you Susie right into the New Year!”

“February at least I’d have said”, said Rumble.

“What do you want me to do then?” Hoowie snapped “Get a goddamn proposal of marriage out of him?!”

“Don’t do that”, said Rumble “Toppy getting married in white seems like overkill somehow!”

“Just let him know how you feel”, said Farnol “What your innermost needs are, how you want to be taken seriously as a man and a lover”.

“Miracles do happen at Christmastime I suppose!” said Bardin.

“Make yourselves a loving unit of joy”, said Farnol, now well-launched “Just like Bengo and Bardin is, just like Rumble and me is, in spite of all the malicious bollocks you’ve been saying about us lately!”

“You need Toppy”, said Bardin “He’ll pander to your monstrous ego for you”.

“Hah!” said Hoowie “Just like Bengo does to you! Yours … yours is a mile wide and an ocean deep!”

“I suppose as it’s Christmas I’ll let him have the last say”, said Bardin.

“He’s left the room, Bardy, you don’t have much choice”, said Bengo.

“This is a gloomy bathroom”, said Julian, reclining in the bath, smoking a cigar, as Tamaz washed his private parts “This’ll be even more fun when we get back to Midnight Castle, sweet child of mine, you’ll be able to get in with me, in that delicious sunken bath there”.

“I suppose you’ll have me swim between your legs to soap you”, said Tamaz.

“Would you object?” said Julian.

Tamaz didn’t answer. He was always awestruck by the size of Julian’s cock, and now it was growing in his hands.

“You do have heterosexual tendencies”, he said.

“No, I guess I simply just like people with hermaphroditic tendencies”, said Julian “Adam is the prime example there, though for goodness sake don’t tell him I said that!”

“That doesn’t fit Hillyard though”, said Tamaz “He’s all-male”.

“Hillyard is my bit of rough”, said Julian “Anyway, most often you seem to me like a highly precocious young boy, albeit one with cross-dressing habits. Very exciting”.

He suddenly levered himself out of the bath.

“Come upstairs”, he said “Now!”

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