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By Sarah Hapgood

Bardin walked into one of the bathrooms and found Bengo perching like a gymnast on the thick hot-water pipe which ran directly beneath the window. Bengo had pushed open the window and was gazing out at the crisp, sunny morning. From this floor he could see over the garden wall and out across the marshes beyond.

“Don’t jump”, said Bardin, placing his hands on Bengo’s hips which were silhouetted under his nightshirt.

“The end of winter, Bardy”, said Bengo, getting down off the pipe and turning to face him.

To Bardin it was becoming more and more apparent how much the winter had taken its toll on his partner. Bengo hadn’t completely recovered hi full health since spraining his ankle at the Bone House the previous October. And since then he had had a brush with a zombie, a hex, the Devil, peasouper fogs, and assorted nightmares which still plagued him on and off. He looked pale, and had dark rings etched around his eyes.

“I’m going to get you completely well again”, said Bardin, firmly “It’s going to be my mission in life from now on”.

He shaved at the open window whilst Bengo ran himself a bath, and then Bardin left him to soak in it. Bardin walked downstairs, feeling as though he was carrying a sack-load of lead on his shoulders. The hallway looked like a warehouse, with packing cases and tea-chests piled around, waiting to be taken down to the sloop and loaded up. They were scheduled to set sail the following day. Bardin went into the dining-room, which had resumed its status as their bedroom, and sat down on the edge of their rumpled unmade bed.

Adam found him in there a few minutes later, staring disconsolately out of the window.

“After a few days back at the Bay, he’ll be quite his old self again”, said Adam, sitting down next to him “All he needs is plenty of fresh air and freedom to move about. All that has been quite limited here of late”.

“And as if I haven’t got enough to worry about”, said Bardin “Rumble’s started coming on to me behind closed doors! Gives me a lot of crap about what a great team we’d make, the two older, sensible clowns. I’m sure he’s right, but I could do without that added complication right at this time! I don’t feel like the stress of seeing Farnol looking all hurt at me on top of everything else!”

“Oh aren’t men simply delightful!” Adam exclaimed, in exasperation.

Farnol was in fact already starting to feel hurt. He had the uneasy sensation that he was grating on Rumble at the moment. He had sometimes had this feeling in the past, and was shrewd enough to know that all too often a little of his exuberant personality went a long way, even for someone like Rumble who was patient and tolerant, and genuinely loved him. At such times Farnol tried to tone himself down, although for one of life’s natural chatterboxes this wasn’t easy.

He was stood picking out chords on the piano, when Hillyard came into the room lugging a bucket of coal.

“When did you learn to play, Hillyard?” Farnol asked.

“At the camp when I was a kid”, said Hillyard, attending to the fire “We had one in the rec room and I don’t know why, but I took a shine to it. I just seemed to pick it up”.

“Must be nice to be able to play an instrument”, Farnol sat down in an armchair, and looked as glum as Bardin.

The living-room felt fresh after the closed-in fuggy feel of the past few weeks, with its glass doors flung wide open onto the garden. The male goat was tethered securely to a tree on the far side of the lawn and was staring back at Farnol contemplatively. Hillyard finished lighting the fire, and then suggested they go and look at the animals. The dewy grass made Farnol’s slippers cold and soggy, but he appreciated Hillyard’s company. He knew Hillyard wasn’t the right person to ask for advice on relationships. Hillyard could never understand why people got so intense about such things, it baffled him now as much as it had done when he was younger. But his burly presence could be comforting when life got confusing.

They progressed to the stables, where Hillyard fed the horses mints from his dressing-gown pocket.

“It’s not a bad old place is it?” said Farnol, looking at the back view of the house.

“Yeah it’s alright”, said Hillyard “Shame in some ways we can’t pick it up and cart it to the Bay with us”.

Farnol watched as Tamaz came out of the back door and strolled over to the yard-gates, where he stood leaning against the open one and looking out into the street. He was dressed incongruously in jeans, t-shirt and a pink satin wrap. This last had been bought for him by Joby, as a reward for turning the demon creatures to stone, and for frightening Angel and Caln so effectively. Tamaz was always good at thinking up rewards for himself, and in a short time he had grown very attached to this one, wearing it almost constantly. Farnol had even seen him visiting the bathroom in it.

Tamaz was waiting for Lonts to come back from his walk. Lonts had got exasperated in the kitchen with Toppy’s plans to turn Midnight Castle into an even more grand and stately version of the Big House. Lonts announced he was going out for a little walk before he “said something I shouldn’t”.

He was now returning in a leisurely fashion up the main street, walking bang in the middle of the road, as though he was back in Kiskev, and the only traffic he had to worry about was the odd gormless reindeer. Not that it mattered. Lonts cut such an imposing figure on his constitutional that nobody dared raise so much as a murmur to him, however inconveniently placed he was.

“Tamaz you are so beautiful!” he cried, on reaching the entrance to the yard.

Tamaz simpered coquettishly as Lonts kissed him boisterously on both cheeks. They both returned to the kitchen.

“Oh, are you back already?” said Joby, as Lonts shed his coat and dropped it on the floor “And don’t leave that lying there, you lazy little scrote! Someone could trip up on it, more than likely me!”

Lonts picked it up as though humouring an idiot and draped it over the back of his chair. He was scowling at both Joby and Toppy, as though trying to decide which one to bellow at first.

“I’m gonna go and see where Adam’s got to”, said Joby.

Adam was now alone in the dining-room, as Bardin was in the hall helping Ransey to inspect the packing-cases which were ready for taking down to the sloop.

“I’m getting the cutlery, plates and glasses sorted out”, said Adam, covering the table in such items.

“We don’t have to take all this do we?” said Joby, in dismay “We managed without it before”.

“Yes, but we’re actually going to be setting up a permanent home there now”, said Adam “We have to think ahead quite a bit. We don’t want to be living in Midnight Castle and eating off mess-tins!”

“Dunno why not”, said Joby “We’re gonna seem like a bunch of pampered aristo’s on a desert island with all this lot”.

“With you as the Admirable Crichton I suppose?” said Adam, tartly.

“That boat’s gonna be choc-a-bloc!” Joby protested “There won’t be room for us on it at this rate!”

“We can store some of the furniture up on deck as it happens”, said Adam “So that’ll ease pressure in the hold”.

“What furniture?” said Joby, aghast.

“Joby, dear, sweet, peasant boy”, said Adam, putting his arm round him “I don’t know if you can remember but the Castle is a little short on furniture. We are going to need chairs to sit on and beds to sleep in, for when we don’t use the sloop, such as during the rough weather”.

“Ah, but you haven’t thought of something”, said Joby, prodding him “This stuff isn’t ours to take, so there!”

“It’s ours for the next 90-odd years!” said Adam, prodding him back “Now give me a hand. Toppy can finish doing the breakfast”.

“Are we taking these then?” said Joby, digging out a set of silver candlesticks from the sideboard.

“I didn’t know we had them”, said Adam.

“We used ‘em Christmas night”, said Joby.

“Did we?” said Adam, in astonishment “I must have been too distracted by everybody’s costumes instead! Yes, put them in the heap. If Glynis wants silver candlesticks when she comes to stay here she can bring her own. She’s not short of such things up there. Oh dear, look at this”, he held out a tarnished silver cake-knife.

“That’s ‘cos we never used it”, said Joby.

“Mm, you have to maintain constant care of silver”, said Adam “I’m surprised Toppy didn’t keep it washed and polished”.

“He probably didn’t realise we had it”, said Joby “There’s all sorts of junk hidden away in here”.

“I wouldn’t call a solid silver cake-knife junk, Joby!” said Adam, replacing it in the tissue-paper “It’s such a shame”.

“Oh don’t worry”, said Joby “It’ll give Codlik and Glynis summat to tut over when they come to stay! It’ll confirm all their worst opinions about us!”

“We’d better hide it again”, said Adam “If Toppy sees it he’s liable to go into a sad decline”.

“Are you really planning to take all this?” said Ransey.

“I did try telling him but he wouldn’t listen”, said Joby.

“Oh thank you!” said Adam “Great solidarity amongst kitchen staff I must say!”

“It’ll need an extra tea-chest”, said Ransey, ominously.

“I’m sure that won’t tax someone of your intelligence and resourcefulness, old love”, said Adam.

“As if it’s bad enough that we have Hillyard wanting to take his instrument of torture along”, said Ransey, referring to the piano.

“I know, but it would make him so unhappy if we had to leave it behind”, said Adam.

“It seems to me there’s too much pandering to people’s whims going on around here!” said Ransey “How many beds are we taking?”

“Three”, said Adam “The one in here and the one on the landing, as I shouldn’t think Glynis will need those when she comes to stay, and Julian’s”.

“Julian’s?” Ransey barked “That great wooden thing? We’ll have to carry it down two flights of stairs!”

“I know”, said Adam, sympathetically “But he’s got very attached to it you see”.

“It’ll be a miracle if we can manage to float the bloody sloop by the time we’ve finished loading up!” said Ransey.

The packing-cases and tea-chests in the hall were loaded onto the hay-cart and then taken down to the sloop in the harbour. Once safely secured in the hold they returned for the piano, which was tied up in a lasso and dragged on its little castors out from the living-room and into the hall.

“Lonts”, said Ransey “Get on the other end and be prepared to lift when I give the word”.

“O.K”, said Lonts, keenly “Out of the way, Joby, we’ve got work to do”.

He pushed Joby up against the banisters.

“Isn’t he magnificent?” Adam purred, proudly.

“Anyone’d think he’d just split the bleedin’ atom the way you carry on!” said Joby.

“Have you ever thought of taking up another instrument?” Ransey snapped at Hillyard “The harmonica say, or a tin whistle! Something easy to carry around!”

“I’ve just had an idea”, Rumble, who had been sitting on the stairs watching it all, suddenly sprang into life “Hillyard, can I have some money?”

“How much do you want?” said Hillyard.

“Whatever you’ve got in your pockets”, said Rumble “I’ll try and bring you back some change”.

Hillyard pulled out a wad of notes and handed them over. Rumble thanked him and then sped on his long legs out of the front door, as though he’d just carried out a mugging.

“You didn’t even ask him what he wanted it for”, said Ransey, in despair.

“I expect we’ll soon find out”, said Hillyard, comfortably.

“The way you regard your finances is not for the faint-hearted!” said Ransey “Or at least not for faint-hearted accountants anyway!”

Julian had also nipped out to the shops. When he returned, Hillyard and the piano-moving party had just arrived back from taking it down to the sloop. Hillyard, hot and sweaty from all his exertions, was drinking from a bottle of cold beer in the hallway, mopping himself with a face-towel Joby had just given him.

“I can’t get over having all the outside doors flung open like this”, said Joby “Not after the way we had to seal ourselves in all over Chrimbo and the New Year. It’s like being let out of a dungeon”.

Julian came in through the open front door, carrying an enormous bottle of sparkling wine.

“That looks like champagne”, said Joby, in disbelief.

“And it even calls itself champagne”, said Julian “Although as there’s no Champagne region anymore I very much doubt that it is the real McCoy, but who cares? I ordered it from Krindei a few days ago, and I’ve just been to collect it from the post office. I thought it could serve as a little house-leaving present”.

“Good heavens!” said Adam, coming back inot the hall in search of Joby “A cherry-bum of shampoo! I haven’t seen one of those in years. My Mother used to keep an empty bottle as a souvenir of a holiday she once had when she was younger, in the happy days before she met my Father”.

“Knowing your mother”, said Julian “I wouldn’t be surprised if she had drunk the whole lot herself! Alert everyone that it’s about to be poured out in the living-room”.

“But I’ve packed up all the glasses”, said Adam.

“Then we’ll be frightfully decadent and drink it out of mugs”, said Julian.

Kieran came up from the cellar, whilst the pouring-out was in progress. He was covered in bits of earth from where he had been working with Bengo and Bardin, packing sacks of potatoes and other vegetables away in crates, ready for the sloop.

“You look like you’ve been rolling around down there”, said Joby, brushing him down.

“The very image of the Irish peasant”, said Julian, in a very Julian-ish way.

“I’m not a peasant”, said Kieran, fiercely “Me Mam was a successful businesswoman I’ll have you know!”

“Alright, middle-class peasant then”, said Julian “Let me take you in hand my little blonde savage. I’ll scrub you up clean, and teach you to read, and how to use a knife and fork!”

“Jaysus, we never had them where I come from!” said Kieran, sarcastically.

“The prodigal returns”, said Rumble, appearing back on the scene with a banjo in his hand.

“So that’s what you went out to buy?” said Adam “I didn’t know you could play, old love”.

“Oh yeah, many a time I paid for our supper that way”, said Rumble “Busking in the streets, until we had to sell it to pay the damn rent!”

“At least it won’t take up much room”, said Ransey, caustically, making Finia tut and roll his eyes.

“You bespectacled old scarecrow”, said Adam.

“Right, let’s toast the Town House”, said Julian, addressing them all once they were gathered in the room “It’s been a good home to us, even if we haven’t always treated it with due respect. We’ve had shootings literally on the doorstep, mad women hiding out in the cellar, and the Devil appearing in the bathroom and in the stables, but we’ve been at home here, and I hope Glynis finds it a useful town-base too. One thing I’ve learnt in life is to never say never, so it wouldn’t surprise me if we came here again one day, although I hope it’s not for a while. For reasons of our own we need to be in our own world for a time. So, a toast to the Town House, our Toondor Lanpin home, but an even more important toast, to the end of winter! Now then Rumble, give us a tune, old boy”.

Rumble gave a twang of the banjo strings in reply.


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