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By Sarah Hapgood

Joby was dreaming. He was in a country lane and it was high summer. There were fields of golden corn all around him, but he couldn’t appreciate the warmth or the beauty of his surroundings because there was a zombie ahead of him, stalking Kieran. Joby couldn’t warn Kieran about the zombie without alerting the monster to his own presence nearby. All he could do was follow the zombie at a distance, keeping him in sight, and praying for an opportunity to get at the creature without it noticing him first. Kieran meanwhile was oblivious to both of them. He was sprinting naked around the country lanes, his long yellow hair flying around him, making him look like a woodsprite, a supernatural force of nature.

Joby woke up.

He groaned and felt for the clock on the bedside table. To see the time in the grey winter light though he had to hold the clock right up to his face. It was one o’clock in the afternoon.

He tried to roll over to face Kieran, but he felt stiff and sore.

“Kiel”, he said, eventually, prodding Kieran awake “Kiel, where’s Tamaz?”

Kieran pointed upwards.

“Eh?” said Joby, in alarm.

“With Julian”, said Kieran, not opening his eyes.

“Oh”, said Joby, with relief.

He lay back down again, but as the grogginess slowly cleared his mind became focussed more and more on the soreness around his backside. He touched it gingerly and felt thin grooves of raised flesh. He gave a yelp of panic and as he tried to get off the bed he knocked the riding-crop to the floor.

“I don’t believe it!” he cried.

He hobbled across the room to the chest of drawers and picked up the shaving-mirror. He held it behind him and tried unsuccessfully to get a glimpse of his backside.

“You took advantage of me!” he roared, getting to Kieran’s side of the bed.

Kieran laughed and opened his eyes. With his hair fluffed out on the pillow around him, he looked as though he was underwater, like a hermaphroditic mermaid.

“That’s not how I remember it, Joby”, he said “We came up here in the wee small hours, took our clothes off, and that weren’t easy I can tell yer! You’d well knotted that damn toga on! Then I started swishing the riding-crop about and you got all breathless and starry-eyed, the way you do when you’re aroused, and the next thing I know I had you cosily caught under me arm. I can’t remember you putting up a single murmur of protest”.

“How would you like it if I’d done that to you?” Joby snarled, going back round to his side of the bed.

“I’d have loved it!” said Kieran.

“Oh well that’s the response I should expect when I ask a pervert I suppose!” said Joby “I bet it was just sheer spite on your part. Getting your own back ‘cos I played the under-gamekeeper the other day”.

“I have never in my whole life ever said or done anything to you out of sheer spite!” said Kieran, angrily.

“I’m sorry”, Joby mumbled.

“You’ll feel less grumpy when I’ve put some cream on it for you”, Kieran groped in the cupboard by the bed for a pot of cream “Now don’t lie there squirming about or I’ll never get it on you, more of it’ll go on the sheets than you. Crouch over me like I do when you’re thrashing me”.

“Is it gonna sting?” said Joby, getting into position on all fours.

“No, you’ll just feel relief when the soothing bit kicks in”, said Kieran, gently massaging in the cream.

“Hello Stripey Bum, what’s this?” said Hillyard, breezing into the room fully-dressed and slapping Joby’s gooey bottom “Looks like Julian’s handiwork tome”.

“Well it’s not so piss off, Hillyard”, said Joby, trying to look at him upside-down.

“Why are you so hale and hearty this morning, Hills?” said Kieran “Why aren’t you dying like the rest of us?”

“I didn’t actually have that much to drink last night”, said Hillyard.

“No, too busy putting it in and out and shaking it all about!” said Joby “What are you doing in here now?”

“Wondering why no one’s cooking breakfast”, said Hillyard “I daren’t go in and ask Adam, Lonts might throw me out”.

“I can’t imagine anyone wants breakfast today”, said Kieran.

“I do!” said Hillyard “I’ve been out in the fresh air, grafting, feeding the animals”.

“Well that’s your problem innit!” said Joby “Go and cook your own breakfast, and don’t offer any to the rest of us!”

“Get Mieps to do it”, said Kieran.

“Tell Mieps to go down to the kitchen and cook me breakfast? Are you crazy?” said Hillyard “He’d tear me limb from limb! Nah, I’ll go and have a word with Ransey in a minute, see if he wants to do us any. First, I’ll nip upstairs and see how old Julian is”.

“Get him to cook your breakfast!” said Kieran.

“Funny boy!” said Hillyard.

On the top floor landing he met Tamaz emerging from the bedroom wearing Hillyard’s fur-lined dressing-gown.

“It looks better on you”, said Hillyard, gently stroking Tamaz’s bare breast which was poking out through the fur.

“Hillyard! Hillyard!” Julian roared from inside the room.

Hillyard kissed Tamaz’s hair and then went into the bedroom, where Julian was lying face-down on the bed, considerably the worse for wear.

“Where the bloody hell have you been?” he snapped.

“I slept in Mieps’s room” said Hillyard, taking off his clothes.

“I don’t feel well”, said Julian.

“I’ll soon fix you up”, said Hillyard, approaching him with an erect cock “You need a fast, furious screw and then a hair of the dog”.

“If I have either I shall probably kill myself!” said Julian.

Hillyard took no notice of him. He climbed onto the bed and rogered Julian with manic intensity. Julian shrieked under the onslaught, and his rage almost made him forget his hangover.

“You imbecile!” he cried, when Hillyard has finished “Surely today of all days I was entitled to some KY Jelly?!!”

“Not when I’m with you”, said Hillyard, mixing Julian a tumbler of brandy and soda “I have to be a mean sex machine when I’m with you”.

“I shall be feeling your bloody cock in my arse for the rest of the day!” said Julian.

“Than can always be arranged”, said Hillyard, handing him the drink “Get your whistling tackle round that”.

“Sex was about the last thing on my mind this morning”, said Julian.

“I bet it wasn’t last night”, said Hillyard, picking up Tamaz’s gold circlet from the floor “And it wouldn’t have been this morning if you’d just seen Joby. He’d have shaken you out of your nausea. Sporting a very colourful stripey bum he was”.

Julian sat up, instantly alert.

“Thought that might bring a sparklet to your eye”, Hillyard chuckled.

“Which fiend achieved that then?” said Julian.

“Kieran”, said Hillyard “Did a nice, neat job of it too. He obviously doesn’t go raving mad like you do with Adam”.

“I do not go raving mad as you put it”, said Julian “It’s simply that Adam requires a lot of discipline that’s all. A couple of limp-wristed nancy-boy strokes wouldn’t suffice for him!”

“You are very entertaining when you’re jealous, do you know that!” said Hillyard. Bardin woke up, hearing the foghorns first of all, and then seeing the mess in the dining-room from the night before, focussing in on a sausage roll lying abandoned under a chair. Bengo was still sleeping next to him, tucked up under the eiderdown with a contented smile on his face. For once he wasn’t coughing. He had been coughing a lot lately in his sleep, and it worried Bardin. If Bengo was developing a lung problem like Adam used to have, then Toondor Lanpin was about the worst climate for him, with its damp humidity, surrounded by marshland. The last outbreak of cholera was still within living memory, although, thanks to Hillyard’s money, the water supply in the town had been improved markedly of late.

Putting on his bath-robe, Bardin stumbled out into the hall. The Town House looked gloomy this morning. It badly needed redecorating, as well as re-carpeting and re-furnishing, but the Indigo-ites weren’t remotely interested in such niceties. They simply wanted somewhere warm and dry, with soft beds and plenty of storage space for food and drink.

Toppy, looking fragile in a pair of dark glasses, was carrying a cup of tea for Ransey into the living-room. As he came out again he collided with Bardin in the doorway, and gave a very waspish tut of annoyance. Bardin tutted back in an exaggeratedly camp way.

“Some people have no manners”, said Toppy.

“Some people need a kick up the pants!” said Bardin ”You great big girl!”

Ransey was sitting in an armchair, with his socked feet drawn up under him, reading a book. Bardin looked out of the window at the street, which was cloaked in river-mist.

“This climate’s not doing Bengo any good”, said Bardin “I think I need to get him back to the clean air of the Bay. It’s too damp here”.

“We’ll all go whenever you say the word”, said Ransey “You’re the one in charge”.

“I’d better check how all the others feel first”, said Bardin “This is supposed to be a democracy”.

“Is it?” said Ransey, astonished “I can’t say I ever heard Julian coming out with words like that during his reign of terror! It’s entirely up to you when you want to call time”.

Bardin went upstairs to use a bathroom. Mieps was locked in one, so he went in the other where Tamaz was now singing in the tub (and sounding exactly like Joby had once described him, like an “asthmatic duck”), and Hillyard was sitting on the edge of it, whistling along.

“We’re leaving here very soon”, said Bardin, peeing into the toilet “Just thought I’d warn you”.

“I need to get one of my fur coat’s cleaned first”, Tamaz protested “Finia borrowed it and got lipstick all over it”.

“Well I wasn’t suggesting we go this very afternoon!” said Bardin “We’re going to need a few days to think about supplies. Go back to quacking!”

Joby shot past him on the landing and ran into the bathroom Mieps had just vacated. Bardin glanced at Joby’s striped backside with interest. He went down to the kitchen, where Hoowie was watching Toppy staggering about in an effort to boil some eggs. Bengo, in his sheepskin coat, was sitting on the table, eating an apple.

“This is the warmest room in the house, Bardy”, he said, when Bardin protested at him being out bed “Anyway, I’m beginning to feel like an old person or an invalid, keep being told to get back into bed all the time!”

“Wouldn’t it be awful if one of these broke?” said Toppy, gazing at the eggbox.

“Yeah, but somehow I think we’d get over it”, said Bardin.

He picked up the birch brush that was used to sweep up the ashes from the stove, and ordered Bengo to follow him into the dining-room.

“I object!” said Bengo, once they were alone again “You’re not using that on me!”

“I wouldn’t dream of it”, said Bardin “I want you to use it on me”.

“But why?” Bengo wailed “Oh not that, Bardy! I can’t! Get Julian to do it”.

“I want you to do it”, said Bardin, handing it to him “I’ve got some serious thinking to do, and a thrashing always helps to concentrate my mind. Just pretend we’re acting out one of your ruthless brigand fantasies”.

“But I’ve had no build-up”, said Bengo “No anticipation”.

“Bengo!” said Bardin “Think of all the awful things I’ve ever said to you, think of the hiding I gave you last night, in front of everyone! Hoowie was watching!”

“I don’t care”, said Bengo, stubbornly “I wasn’t thinking of anyone but you at the time”.

Bardin shook him in exasperation, until Bengo agreed to do it. Bardin crouched on the bed, sticking his posterior in the air. The brush stung more than he had expected, practically making him cry, but he gritted his teeth in case Bengo stopped.

Ransey came in with a letter whilst all this was going on, which had been pushed through their front door, addressed to Bardin and marked “VERY URGENT”. It was from Myrtle. The clowns from the Little Theatre had been at her hotel for their festive dinner, accompanied by some old colleagues of Bengo and Bardin’s from the Cabaret of Horrors in the Village of Stairs, who had come up to take part in the Little Theatre’s Christmas season. Unfortunately armed rivalry had broken out between the two factions in true clowns’ style, and a food fight of epic proportions was now taking place on Myrtle’s premises. She had sent for Bardin to come and break it up. The Town Constable, apparently, was down with pneumonia.

“Oh I see”, said Bardin, hanging onto the bedrail whilst Bengo, under orders, continued to thrash him “So the entire law and order system in this town breaks down whilst he’s indisposed does it?”

“Don’t shoot the messenger”, said Ransey “I’ve only brought the note in from the hall!” “Why didn’t she send for Hawkefish?” said Bengo.

“He’s laid up in the cottage hospital”, said Ransey “He broke his leg falling off the roof of the Little Theatre last night”. “What the fuck was he doing up there?” Bardin exclaimed.

“Your guess is as good as mine”, said Ransey “Anway, I’d cut along there if I was you. She sounds desperate to me”.

He left the room. Bardin climbed awkwardly off the bed.

“Right”, he said, decisively “Go and round up Rumble and Farnol, Bengo. Get ‘em out of bed somehow, use dynamite if you have to! We’ll take Hoowie with us too. I’d pit him against all those jerks anyday!”

“What about Tamaz?” said Bengo “He’s the best weapon of all!”

“Forget it”, said Bardin “If he gets hit with anything from the sweet trolley he’d never let us live it down! He stays here!”

“It sounds fairly quiet in there now”, said Bardin, when the five of them had arrived in the foyer of Myrtle’s hotel.

“Well I can assure you they are still very much in action”, said Myrtle, in a state of repressed hysteria “They’ve taken William, my resident pianist, hostage. In return we have to keep them supplied with cakes and puddings! I have never known such a situation in all my life! That … that this anarchy should break out in my hotel! My kitchen staff are having a frantic time keeping them supplied. We’ll run out of food soon and then what will happen to William?”

“Absolutely nothing”, said Bardin, firmly “They’re all gob that lot. We’ll get him out of there. You go back to your office and have a brandy”.

“I’ve had a brandy!” Myrtle screamed.

“Then have another one!” Bardin practically pushed her in the direction of her office.

“I’m taking my sheepskin coat off”, said Bengo, imposingly “Or it’ll get ruined. They’re bound to target me. They always do. It’s ‘cos they’re all so ugly”.

“Oh well I’d better take my coat off too then”, said Rumble “My ravishing good looks really will get ‘em going!”

“You be careful, Rumby-boy”, said Farnol “You’re such a tall bastard you stick out like a sore thumb. Prime target”.

“What am I gonna do?” said Hoowie.

“I’m sure you’ll think of something”, said Bardin, dryly.

“Hey, but I’m not a clown!” said Hoowie.

“Bullshit”, said Bardin “You’re a natural, my dear!”

He picked up the dinner-gong from its stand, and stormed into the wrecked dining-room, with the others following on close behind. Amidst all the mayhem he had time to notice that the unfortunate William was cowering under the piano.

“Give him covering-fire”, said Rumble.

Bardin banged loudly on the gong, alerting everyone’s attention to him. In the meantime Bengo managed to quickly coax William out from under the piano and towards the door. Bardin got hit in the mouth with a large dollop of blancmange for his pains.

“Right, he dies!” he said, tossing aside the gong.

The culprit was a Cabaret of Horror’s clown, who had, long ago during their childhood (and for reasons now forgotten), been nicknamed Mutton Broth. He was a short, spindly little guy, who had spent most of his career being unsuccessfully fired (or not, as was usually the case) out of joke cannons. Bardin pursued him down the line of tables that had been pushed together down the centre of the room, followed by Farnol and Rumble. Bardin caught Mutton Broth with no trouble and lifted him up, clean off his feet.

“And now!” Bardin cried “For the old polishing the table with his arse routine!”

He tossed Mutton Broth along the line of tables, as though he was a tumbler of bourbon in a Western saloon, sending the remaining glasses and cutlery flying in all directions.

“You’ve lost none of your brilliant timing, Bardin”, said Farnol, slapping Bardin’s sore backside heartily “Well done, our kid!”

Unfortunately Bardin was feeling rather tender in that region, and he gave a yelp, pushing Farnol backwards. Farnol fell against Rumble, who fell against the sweet-trolley, which promptly collapsed like matchwood under their combined weight. Rumble sat there in a sprawl, picking chocolate icing disdainfully off his clothes.

“Hopeless”, Bengo tutted, getting up onto one of the tables for a better look “It’s all left tome to carry the show as usual!”

He did a little tap-dance on the polished table and then attempted a somersault, which as he was out of practice turned out to be rather ungainly. Bardin caught him and lifted him off the table.

“You wait til I get you home”, Bardin whispered.

Bengo gave a deep sigh of satisfaction and kissed him lustily. Hal, the fat clown, got irritated by this show of marital togetherness and lobbed the remains of a cream pie at them from close range. It splattered against both of them, catching them on their ears and hair.

“Time to restore order I think”, said Bardin, retrieving the horsewhip from Farnol, who had been carrying it for him. He cracked it at the opposing clowns, and was about to launch into a stern lecture, but was distracted by Farnol jokingly sucking the cream off strands of Bengo’s long hair. He glared at them, and Rumble grabbed Farnol by the ear and yanked him round to the other side of him.

Hal meanwhile was infuriated by Bardin’s interference. On stage Hal played the loveable fat buffoon, the dimwitted Billy Bunter character who was usually at the mercy of everyone else. Offstage though he could be a nasty piece of work with a foul tongue. As a child he had developed a strong resentment of Bardin, and had usually divided the clowns into two playground gangs. Those who did what he said, and those who did what Bardin said. His gang was more often than not the largest, if only because most of the other clowns were terrified of Bardin! His professionalism scared them, particularly when they often saw how he reduced Bengo to tears because a routine hadn’t been completely perfect. They would rather put up with Hal’s schoolboy sadism of twisting arms and being debagged in the toilets (which after all wasn’t much different to their antics on stage!), than Bardin’s withering sarcasm and verbal humiliations.

All this nonsense had carried on well into adulthood. As it became more and more obvious that Bardin had a special talent, so Hal got more and more bitter and twisted, and he spread his poisonous canker amongst all the other clowns. Apart from Bengo that is, who infuriatingly stayed loyal to his childhood partner and tormentor. Until Bengo ran off to join Kieran. And then Hal had his moment of glory, rejoicing in Bardin’s new “widowed” status. It was hugely to Bardin’s credit that he had kept his dignity through the following painful months. And then he had run off too, and the next time Hal saw him was at the first Toondor Lanpin Festival, where he saw that Bengo and Bardin had resumed their old partnership, still squabbling and fighting, as though the hiatus had never happened. Hal’s only satisfaction was that they hadn’t gone back to living together, and that Bengo’s new devotion to Kieran and his tribe had obviously rankled with Bardin. And then, and then! Bardin had bloody well joined them too! And as if that wasn’t enough, the next buzz on the grapevine was that Bengo and Bardin were visiting the Village of Stairs, and Bengo was hanging on Bardin like an adoring slave.

“You can’t come in here and tell us how to behave!” Hal boomed, in his usual boorish way “You always did think you was the bloody bee’s knees, well I never fell for it. I remember you as a snotty little kid who couldn’t even talk properly. Ully had to send you to a bloody voice coach to learn how!”

The other clowns looked aghast, almost shocked into sobriety. It was one thing to make fun of Bardin’s bossiness, there had always been open season on that, but to make fun of his facial deformity was going too far. As a child Bardin had been hampered by his harelip when it came to forming some words. He sometimes joked that he would open his mouth and nothing but gargling sounds came out. Ully had sent him to a special voice coach, and with his usual diligence Bardin had fought hard to overcome it. It was only Bengo who really knew how bad the “gargling” could get. He would wake up in the night to hear Bardin making the most extraordinary noises in his sleep. Bengo would roll him onto his side to ease it. He was shocked and enraged by Hal’s taunting, so was Bardin. In recent years he had got used to an absence of Hal’s kind of malice in his daily life. He didn’t know how to respond to it anymore. He didn’t have to. Hoowie clobbered Hal with the remains of the chocolate gateau, all the bits that weren’t actually sticking to Rumble’s clothes anyway!

“Nice one”, said Bardin “Come on, let’s go home”.

“Yeah, back to your cosy little nest!” Hal snapped “At least none of us have held out on our professions. We’re still working, doing what we was born to do!”

“I know”, Bardin smiled, maliciously “And aren’t you as hacked off as hell about it!”

“I thought he was gonna launch into the ‘I know my humble place’ speech next”, said Rumble, putting on his coat in the foyer.

“If he really did know his humble place he’d be living in a sewer!” said Bardin.

“Wasn’t Hoowie a marvel?” said Bengo, as Bardin hussled him back into his coat.

“I know about team-work”, said Hoowie “And that is the essential secret of good clowning”.

“You’ll be calling us ‘luvvie’ next!” said Rumble.

Bardin ordered the others to wait in the foyer, whilst he and Rumble went to see Myrtle in her office. Bardin said that the other clowns would probably clear up the mess, but any cleaning bills should be sent to the Town House and Hillyard would pay, seeing as the clowns were probably broke, and the financial resources of Hawkefish and the Little Theatre weren’t much better!

“I can’t expect Hillyard to pay”, said Myrtle, who had a soft spot for Hillyard, he was one of the few men in the town who had always been perfectly genial to her.

“Alright, Kieran then”, said Bardin “But to be honest, that’s the only way you’re gonna get your dining-room back to normal!”

Myrtle grudgingly consented, and then offered to stand all the Indigo-ites dinner there on New Year’s Eve.

“What, all 16 of us?” said Bardin, in astonishment “That’s more than generous of you!”

“The least I can do”, said Myrtle, and then added hastily “You pay for your own alcohol though!”

Bardin and Rumble thanked her again and left the room. Rumble groped Bardin’s backside all the way back down the corridor. In the foyer they found that Adam and Lonts had appeared, having seen the others through the glass doors as they returned rom visiting Hawkefish in the cottage hospital.

“Did you find out what he was doing on the roof of the theatre?” said Bardin.

“Well he wasn’t making much sense I’m afraid”, said Adam “They seem to have him on some pretty ropey medication. He said he and Hortense heard a rumbling sound out on the marshes, and thought perhaps it was one of those tall creatures back. He went up via the fire-escape to look from the roof, but he lost his balance and fell off. He’s very lucky it wasn’t far worse! He then started going on about giant dancing women who crackled electricity!”

“Sounds like he’s hallucinating about the chorus-girls!” said Bardin.

Bengo erupted into a fit of coughing.

“I think we had better get you home”, Adam passed him his handkerchief “Hold that against your nose and mouth until we get there. That’s what I used to do in the City”.

“Perhaps Bengo’s going to die!” Lonts suddenly wailed, in great dismay.

“Oh thanks, Lonts!” Bengo spluttered.

Adam sternly rebuked Lonts, and told him he wouldn’t put up with him distressing himself or Bengo. Lonts tried to repress his anguish all the way home in the fog, and then let off steam back in the hall at the Town House. Bardin spirited Bengo upstairs so that they could get cleaned up.

“We haven’t got enough cold turkey left to go round”, said Joby, appearing in his pinny.

“Well, use the remains of the ham and some bacon”, said Adam.

“How can you think about food at a time like this?” said Lonts.

“A time like what?” said Joby.

“Bengo might be dying, like Adam nearly was!” said Lonts “You’re a heartless fiend for mentioning food, Joby! A heartless fiend!”

Lonts thumped up the stairs noisily.

“Oi! Dickhead!” Joby shouted after him.

Lonts slammed his bedroom door.

“What’s all the noise out here?” said Julian, coming out of the living-room, carrying a cup of tea.

“Lonts is a dickhead”, said Joby.

“I’m afraid I must have scared him by equating Bengo’s coughing with my old trouble”, said Adam “I’ll go up and see him shortly. I’ll give him a few minutes to calm down first or I’m liable to get the chest of drawers thrown at me!”

“Trust the baby to get the wrong end of the stick and get himself in a tizz”, said Joby, who was now carving up the remains of the turkeys in the kitchen.

“Trouble is, he’s right to be worried”, said Kieran, sitting at the table “Bengo is ill”.

“Yeah, but it’s just a spot of flu, it’s not cancer!” said Joby, and then he looked at his friend anxiously “It’s not is it, Kiel?”

“It’s not cancer”, said Kieran “But look at what I found earlier when I was sorting through the washing”.

He rummaged in the canvas sack which he used to carry the soiled laundry down to the kitchen, and pulled out a pillow-case.

“There’s spots of blood on it”, he said.

“Is that Bengo’s pillow?” said Joby “What does it all mean?”

“He might have TB”, said Kieran.

“TB?!” Joby exclaimed “Fucking TB?!”

“Now try to stay calm”, said Kieran “It’s not as bad as it sounds. As soon as we can we’ll get him back to the Bay. The air is so pure and clean there. A bit of rest and he’ll be fine again. It’s this accursed climate here, it’s the worst thing for him. I don’t think we’ll be coming back here again. Until then he rests, no more somersaulting on tables!”

“You always make a fucking joke out of everything!” said Joby.

“I have to”, said Kieran “It’s the only way to survive. If I didn’t I’d start getting all self-pitying and blaming meself”.

“What for?” said Joby “As you said yourself, it’s the lousy climate in this town that’s to blame. That fog gets like a peasouper out there. Thousands used to die in those in the old days”.

“I just wish I could cure him”, said Kieran “I’ve got so carried away lately with me love-fests and taking years off everybody, I’ve started to think I could walk on water or something!”

Bengo came into the kitchen, fresh from the bathroom, clad in a robe and rubbing his wet hair with a towel.

“What are you doing walking around the house like that, you little scrote?” said Joby, angrily “No wonder you’re ill! You should be in bed”.

“I’m hungry”, said Bengo, sitting down by the stove and continuing to towel his hair.

“You’ve been nothing but a sodding worry this Christmas!” said Joby, savagely slicing up turkey “One damn thing after another with you, it never ends! And it’s not surprising is it? ‘Cos you never look out for yourself!”

“You sound angry”, said Bengo.

“Oh you’re a bright spark ent yer!” said Joby “Course I’m fucking angry! Bardin and Julian ent the only ones who can give you a good hiding you know, I can too!”

Bengo leapt up and kissed Joby on the ear.

“Joby!” Lonts swept into the kitchen “I have come to my senses!”

“Oh God, that’s all we need!” Joby groaned.

“I was wrong to call you a fiend”, Lonts galloped round the table, practically shoving Bengo into the sink as he did so “I should have known you would be just as worried about Bengo as I was”.

“You haven’t got a monopoly on worry and concern you know!” said Joby.

“I do know, and I feel ashamed for the dark thoughts I had about you”, said Lonts.

“Adam’s spoken to you I take it?” said Joby, sarcastically.

“Yes”, said Lonts “But I was also listening to you just now, from the other side of the door”.

“A bad habit you’ve picked up from Tamaz”, said Kieran.

“Let me kiss you!” Lonts threw his arms round Joby.

Joby was suffering himself to be kissed when he heard a wolf howling from some distance away.

“It must be out on the marshes”, said Kieran.

“But we’ve never heard them round here before!” said Joby.

“Wolves come down from the mountains in winter, Joby”, Lonts pointed out.

“Yeah, but we have never heard them in this town before!” said Joby, insistently “Not ever. Not even during that really cold winter a few years back!”

It howled again.

“It might attack our animals”, said Bengo, kneading Lonts’s arm “The chickens!”

“It won’t be able to get in our garden”, said Kieran “The wall should keep them out. As long as we remember to keep the yard-doors shut”.

“And we’re safe inside the house”, said Lonts.

The howling now seemed to get more persistent, but was joined by a dog barking back from further down the street. There are few sounds more domestic and mundane than that of a dog barking in someone’s back-yard, and this at least seemed to remind everyone that not everything in Toondor Lanpin and its immediate environs had completely gone over to madness.

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