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By Sarah Hapgood


“Higher, higher!” said Joby, holding up the tambourine.

Adam gave it an energetic high kick, and succeeded in breaking the skin on it.

“That’s torn it”, said Joby, literally “Bang goes our Hare Krishna singalong sessions!”

“I wouldn’t bank on that if I were you”, said Adam, digging out a set of tom-toms from the cardboard box on the kitchen table.

This was the latest in a long line of cardboard boxes and packing cases which were steadily being dug out of the attics and cellars of Midnight Castle, and investigated.

“Perhaps they were a religious commune”, said Joby, referring to the mysterious people who were there before them, and about whom so far they had discovered remarkably little “Mind you, all of this is just a lot of old rubbish really. I mean, we haven’t found anything yet that’s gonna be of any great use to us”.

“Finia might be able to do something with this”, said Adam, pulling out a fancy pink lady’s hat. He put it on and affected a languid royal wave “All we’ve found out really is that some of them must have been women”.

“Not necessarily”, said Joby “They might have been a bunch of weirdo’s like us!”

The cockerel flapped his wings from the top of the dresser, where he had settled himself down as though to watch them both.

“Get him down from there, Joby”, said Adam “He’s really not supposed to be in here. He should be outside, impregnating his girlfriends”.

“It’d be just typical of us to have a queer cockerel wouldn’t it!” said Joby, grabbing a broom and jabbing it at the cockerel, who flapped his wings again and sidled along the shelf “C’mon get down, you little bastard!”

“You’ll have to get on a chair and do it that way”, said Adam.

Muttering, Joby got on a chair and jabbed the broom again. The cockerel deigned to get down, bouncing like a beach ball. Once on the floor he waddled imperiously to the back door, which was propped open with a large ceramic pudding-bowl.

Voices could be heard in the chimney-breast behind the kitchen stove, and suddenly Julian and Hillyard emerged from a door to the side of it.

“I wish we could seal that one up”, said Joby “It’s unnerving having people suddenly coming out from behind the stove like that!”

“That door most emphatically stays unblocked”, said Julian “Those steps are a useful short-cut from the first floor. Using them cuts out an awful lot of time getting between the bathroom and kitchen”.

“Ransey’s not in here is he?” said Hillyard, looking around him furtively.

“I think you’d see him if he was, old love”, said Adam “Have you two had a falling-out? He was being rather iffy about you earlier”.

“He’s been nagging me to buy this place”, said Hillyard.

“Who from?” said Joby, in astonishment.

“Gawd knows”, said Hillyard “Says until we’ve got everything officially sorted out, we’re nothing but glorified squatters”.

“What utter nonsense”, said Adam “If I remember rightly he once ridiculed me for coming out with much the same thing”.

“He says what are we going to do if the original owners turn up”, said Hillyard.

“Ask ‘em where they’ve been!” said Joby “This place hasn’t been lived in in decades. Sometimes I think we’re the first ones here in centuries”.

“That might well be the case”, said Adam “That’s why it’s taken us nearly 3 weeks to get this kitchen in practical working order”.

“Most of that was spent cleaning the stove”, said Joby “I thought we was never gonna get to the end of that”.

“A bit like my footbridge over the river”, said Hillyard.

“Oh don’t start on about that again!” said Julian “That seems to be your one topic of conversation at the moment”.

“Because it’s one step forward, two steps back with that at the moment that’s why!” said Hillyard “We never seems to get a good jag of work going on it”.

“As I have said constantly these past couple of weeks”, said Julian “You should get a lot more work done if you were firmer with the clowns. You don’t chuck your ample weight around with them enough. Instead you come boo-hooing to me. Where are the little swines at the moment anyway?”

“They went off earlier to have a game of golf in the forest”, said Joby “Although I’ve never heard of anybody playing golf in the middle of a load of trees before!”

“What were they using for clubs?” said Adam.

“Don’t ask!” said Joby.

“Actually they’re all up in the attic now”, said Hillyard, glumly “I heard Finia rounding ‘em up about an hour ago. He gets more use out of ‘em than I do!”

The attic was a warren of rooms all running into one another. In one of the few rooms up there that had a window, Hoowie and Bengo were bouncing up and down on a very squeaky iron bedstead, cackling manically, whilst Tamaz, Finia and Lonts opened more boxes and tea-chests.

“You can see the top of the sloop from up here”, said Lonts, standing at the window, which was at the front of the Castle, overlooking the river and up over the field which stretched up to the river on which they had left the sloop moored.

Tamaz was wrenching open an old biscuit tin, which turned out to contain only discarded buttons and curtain-rings. He slammed the lid back on in disgust.

“Give that here”, said Finia “They might come in useful”.

Tamaz gave him the tin and then went through into the next room, which was much smaller and completely windowless. As such, the air was stale and heavy in the midday heat. Bardin and Farnol were both gazing at the fireplace (which was painted a revolting shade of pink), whilst Rumble stood by them, holding a lighted candle for illumination.

“It gives me the creeps, that’s all I’m saying”, said Farnol “I keep thinking someone’s walled up behind it!”

“You’ve been reading too many Gothic thrillers”, said Bardin “You’re getting as bad as Joby”.

“Well it fires my imagination like”, said Farnol.

“Yours doesn’t need any firing!” said Bardin.

“I can’t sense anything weird about this room”, said Tamaz, impatiently “Other than you lot!”

“What I’m saying is there COULD be someone buried behind there”, said Farnol “And we wouldn’t know”.

“Stop going on about it, Choppsy”, said Rumble “Or I’ll have to give you a thick ear!”

“Ooh he’s so masterful sometimes”, said Tamaz, smacking his lips “Makes my nipples go all erect with excitement!”

Bardin looked at Tamaz as though he’d like to hit him with a blunt instrument. Tamaz invariably referred to breasts and nipples in Rumble’s presence at the moment, as a dig at the nipple-sucking fetish Rumble currently enjoyed with Mieps. Rumble never got annoyed by Tamaz’s jibes though, for the simple reason that he was too good-natured and easy-going to do so.

“Sometimes Freak-Face”, said Bardin “I think it’s lucky for you that Rumble’s a gentleman!” “He’s the only one of us who is!” said Farnol. “I’ll just bide my time in case we ever perform ‘Love In The Laundry’ again”, Rumble smiled.

Bardin was more annoyed by Tamaz’s mischief-making than Rumble could ever be, and even more annoyed by the screeching of rusty bed-springs, and Hoowie’s deep laugh, coming from the next room.

“Hoowie!” Bardin bellowed “Get in here you great, hairy, overgrown slug!”

“It’s a bit humid in here”, said Hoowie, coming in as Bardin had commanded “You wanna come into the other room with us, it’s got a window in it”.

“I want you to move this tea-chest in there”, said Bardin, nudging the said object with his foot.

“What’s the point of me lugging it from one room into another one?” said Hoowie.

“Because that room’s got a WINDOW in it”, said Bardin, as though talking to a chronic imbecile “And we can unpack it in there without Rumble having to stand over us with a candle! Tamaz’ll give you a hand to carry it through”.

“Me?” said Tamaz, outraged.

“Yes, why, what’s the problem? Can’t you manage that?” said Bardin “Don’t tell me you’re half-girl or something!”

“He’s not is he?” said Farnol, yanking up the front of Tamaz’s t-shirt “Gosh, so he is! I never knew that!”

“It’s always the one you least expect”, said Rumble.

The tea-chest was shifted through, but by now it was getting too hot under the rafters to work comfortably, so they all left the unpacking of it and went downstairs. The library was cool and shady, with the ancient tapestry curtains at the long window closed against the afternoon sun. Mieps was dozing on the windowseat. Farnol made a pretence of creeping past him stealthily, and Mieps suddenly grabbed him as though he was going to bite his thigh. Rumble sat down in one of the wing-chairs by the fire, and picked up his banjo, which he began to re-tune in a leisurely, siesta-style fashion.

It was the time of day when everyone usually found a favourite niche in which to sleep. Toppy liked one of the broad windowsills in the hall. Kieran liked to throw himself on a heap of bedlinen in the laundry-room. If they didn’t bump into Lonts or Kieran, Adam and Joby tended to go by themselves to the small bedroom by the pantry, where they lay with the wicker shutters closed against the blistering sunshine.

After making love and then dozing on this particular afternoon, Joby was lying next to Adam in the bed, telling him about the plot of one of the stories in the book he and Farnol had been reading.

“This bloke conjures up a demon, see?” said Joby “And then locks it in his cellar. But he gets killed by his neighbours ‘cos he’s not very popular”.

“The man or the demon?” said Adam.

“The man!” said Joby, impatiently “But they don’t know about the demon in the cellar, and it stays locked down there for hundreds of years …”

“Without so much as a magazine!” said Adam.

“I dunno why I bother telling you all this if you’re just gonna be plain daft about it”, said Joby, irritably.

“Well for goodness sakes”, said Adam “The way you and Farnol have been carrying on about that book anyone would think it was the latest blockbuster film!”

“To us it is, living out here!” said Joby “I tell you, some of those stories don’t half remind me of this house. It makes it feel dead spooky and all”. “Oh now really, that’s quite enough of that!” said Adam “You sound like you’re starting to spook yourselves and I’m not having that. I shall lock that damn book away in the dresser”.

“You can’t do that!” Joby protested “You can’t go censoring what we read, we’re not kids”.

“Yes you are, as far as I’m concerned”, said Adam “And I can do exactly what I like, no one can stop me”.

“Julian can”, said Joby, darkly.

“Only if I let him”, said Adam “I think you need a rest from that book for a while. I shall lock it away, and if you attempt to get at it I shall beat you very soundly”.

“Yeah, any old excuse”, said Joby “Perhaps we should invent our own family motto. ‘They’ll think of anything to get their hands on each other’! You could translate it into Latin, and we’ll carve it up on a piece of wood”.

“My Latin’s a bit too ropey for that”, said Adam “It never was much cop. You’ll have to get Julian onto it. It’ll give him something to do”.

Joby was lazily putting on his underpants when Tamaz belted along the corridor behind the pantry and skidded into the room. Lonts had had a nightmare, he exclaimed, could Adam come and calm him down?

“Don’t you mean an afternoon-mare?” said Joby.

“Has he messed himself?” said Adam.

“No”, said Tamaz.

“Bleedin’ miracle”, said Joby.

“You can get started on the bread-making”, said Adam, sternly “I want to do a special supper for tonight”.

He followed Tamaz back to the library at the other end of the house, where Lonts was lying on the sofa, sniffing violently, whilst the others stood around him as though in mourning. Adam knelt on the floor, and cradled Lonts in his arms, hugging him like a massive baby.

“It was the wood-spirit, Adam”, Lonts cried “I dreamt about the wood-spirit. I think it’s in trouble, trying to reach us”.

“Ssh, ssh”, said Adam, soothingly.

“This is what you get by filling his head with a lot of pagan nonsense”, said Kieran, who had suddenly appeared out of nowhere “I knew this would happen. You go telling him about wood-spirits and other such cobblers and he’s bound to have bad dreams. It’s a fertile ground for evil to grow”.

“Shut up Patsy, you sound like a social-worker!” said Adam “Somebody fetch me one of Lo-Lo’s books”.

Farnol pulled out a ‘Happy Bears’ book from a tea-chest of books, which was waiting to be sorted and put on the shelves.

“You come and sit in the kitchen, whilst Joby and I do the cooking”, said Adam, to which Lonts nodded in reply.

Lonts sat at the kitchen table, sucking his thumb and slowly turning the pages of his book, whilst Adam and Joby worked around him.

“What’s this special supper tonight in aid of then?” said Joby “We did Lonts’s birthday three days ago, unless you’re letting him have another one!”

“It’s May Eve, Walpurgis Night”, said Adam.

“So?” said Joby “Are we gonna all dance naked round a bonfire then?”

“In the Old Religion it was a very important day of the year”, said Adam “Like Christmas is to Christians. I thought it would be quite nice to do something to mark it, now we’re living back to nature”.

“I don’t think Kieran will like it, Adam”, said Lonts, sombrely.

“Kieran’s gonna get a slap if he carries on the way he is!” said Joby “I resent being told I’m practically a Satanist! It’s him I’ve been devoted to all these years, not Angel!”

“Why did he call you that?” said Adam.

“Because he found me and Mieps yesterday pouring some old red wine over the roots of a tree in the garden”, said Joby “We were doing it ‘cos it’s good for the tree, an old gardener’s trick, but of course the mad Irishman, who’s got a bloody one-track mind, thought we were offering up a libation to the wood-spirit! He’s getting bloody paranoid he is!”

Silence fell on the room as Kieran sidled into it. He sat at the table and folded his arms, looking glum.

“Are you sulking again?” said Joby “It’s getting really boring!”

“Well perhaps I don’t like being scolded in front of all the others!” said Kieran.

“Now hold on, Patsy”, said Adam “You scolded me first”.

“Yeah can it, Kieran”, said Joby “Anyway, you normally like it when Adam tells you off!”

Kieran pursed his lips cheekily in reply.

“Let’s have a drink”, said Adam, setting out four enamel mugs on the table, and then reaching for the enamel coffee-pot on the stove.

“Oh you mean that kind of drink”, said Joby, in disappointment.

“Have a little patience”, said Adam “I’m sure we can find some brandy somewhere”.

“I thought you was going to have a go at making your own brandy”, said Kieran.

“I am, but it’s not the season yet”, said Adam “Strawberry brandy can be done next month, and plum in September. Mieps’s homemade wine’s coming along a treat though. He’s made some beetroot, and even some potato wine out of old scraps”.

“Yeah, and I bet it tastes like it’s made out of old scraps and all!” said Joby.

“That stuff’s so damn powerful you won’t care”, said Kieran “It could give rocket fuel a good name!”

There was a strange hiatus as they all felt a presence go past the back door. This was nothing unusual, they had often noticed other-worldly inhabitants around since moving into the Castle, but they tended to be gentle, very shady, and completely non-threatening.

“Shit, it don’t half give me the willies when that happens”, said Joby, giving a shudder.

“After several years here you’ll regard it as part of the furniture”, said Adam.

Ransey broke the spell by coming through from the dining-room, where he had been laying the table.

“Candles”, he said, dragging out a box from the corner “We’re going to have to start learning how to make ‘em soon. Come the winter, we’ll be relying on them for light”.

“Plus the fires”, said Joby.

Kieran went with Ransey back into the dining-room to help him finish laying the table. Joby and Lonts took advantage of his absence to put a bowl of goat’s milk outside the back door. Lonts had been on for some time that he wanted to make an offering to the wood-spirit in this way, but they had to be careful that Kieran didn’t get wind of it.

“He won’t be at all pleased if he finds out what we’re doing, Joby”, said Lonts, as they stood outside in the dusk.

“We’ll tell him we’re putting it out for a hedgehog”, said Joby “And if he objects to that we’ll call him a bleedin’ hypocrite!”

Dinner was consumed, and then Lonts lit his pipe, which caused most of the others to decant to the main hall for a game of skittles. Joby stayed at the table, along with Adam, because he was getting increasingly worried that Lonts might become so obsessed with the wood-spirit that he went off looking for it.

“I wouldn’t do that, Joby”, said Lonts, indignantly “I wouldn’t want to cause Adam the worry”.

“Never stopped you before”, said Joby, coughing from the noxious fumes of the pipe.

Bengo cavorted into the room, clad in only a garland of orange flowers from the garden which he had strung together, and a circlet of them on his hair.

“Behold!” he cried “I am the spirit of Maytime!”

“I dunno about that”, said Joby “More like a blinking great fairy!”

“Go away, Bengo”, said Lonts “You shouldn’t be in here with no clothes on, this is the dining-room”.

“You make him sound like a little dog”, said Adam.

“He is a little dog”, said Joby.

Bengo jumped on Joby and licked his face in a very dog-like way.

“Get off”, said Joby “Or I’ll give you a good hiding!”

“I wouldn’t assume that was a deterrent if I were you, Joby”, said Adam, wryly.

“You’re supposed to be setting up the pins”, Julian bellowed from the double doors that led into the hall “Go and get on with it”.

Bengo scuttled past him and Julian aimed a kick at his backside, causing him to yelp. Julian flopped down on a hard chair.

“My back is bloody killing me”, he groaned.

“Must be all that hard work you’ve been doing, Jules”, said Adam, sarcastically.

“More like that glorified bed of nails I’ve been sleeping on”, said Julian “It must have got damaged somehow in transit. I can’t remember it being like that at the Town House. I’m going to try the four-poster again tonight. See if that’s any improvement”.

“You’ll have to chuck all the clowns out of it first”, said Joby.

“That will give me the greatest of pleasure”, said Julian “I don’t know why they can’t make do with a basket in the kitchen myself!”

“I’ll get them to go and fill the bath upstairs”, said Adam, standing up “You might find that’ll help”.

The bath-tub at Midnight Castle was huge, the size of a swimming-pool, and so took some considerable time to fill. Nonetheless it meant any amount of them could bathe in it at once, and sometimes the bathroom had the atmosphere of an open-air lido on a hot summer’s day.

“I for one am glad no one’s listened to you and sealed this staircase off”, said Kieran, going ahead of Joby up the narrow wooden stairs behind the kitchen stove. Joby followed him with a lighted candle. They had to be careful not to touch the wall on one side, as it got red-hot from the stove “I like it”, Kieran continued “It makes me feel like I’m escaping up into an old priest-hole, and it’s very good for a bit of private snogging”.

He turned and leaned down to kiss Joby, who had to be careful not to set Kieran’s long hair alight with the candle. He slipped his other hand around Kieran’s waist.

“Kiel”, Joby asked, quietly “I’ve gotta ask this. Are you losing weight again? Only I looked at you this morning whilst you was still asleep, and your ribs were really prominent”.

“It’s probably the way I was laying!” said Kieran “Me old trouble hasn’t come back, Joby, I can promise you that. C’mon now, you see me eating all the time. I’ve got a good appetite these days”.

“Yeah, but for all I know you could be vomiting it down the loo afterwards”, said Joby.

“Hah!” said Kieran “The plumbing in this place wouldn’t be able to take the strain! Now listen, if I’ve lost any weight then it might be due to all the exercise I’ve been taking since we’ve got back to the Bay. Just walking around the house is enough to burn off a fair few calories on it’s own!”

“O.K, but you can never afford to lose too much”, said Joby.

He studied Kieran’s face intently by the light of the candle.

“What’s the matter?” said Kieran “I suppose you’re going to tell me I look emaciated!”

“No, you look beautiful”, said Joby “Not emaciated. When you had the anorexia you looked terrible, like an old man, with your cheeks all sunk in”.

“I won’t ever put you through that again”, said Kieran, squeezing his friend’s hand “Not ever”.

They went up the rest of the stairs, and emerged from behind a tapestry at the top into the corridor where the bathroom was situated. All the others had congregated there by this time, either sitting on the edge, or swinging themselves using the long rope like a bell-pull, which hung down from the centre of the ceiling. There were also stone steps leading down into the bath, but it was considered more fun to swing into it. Bardin was telling Hillyard that the bridge-building would be undertaken with a force tomorrow. He would mobilise the clowns (and Hoowie), and Lonts had volunteered his services as well.

“Now perhaps you might stop moaning about it”, said Joby, who was sitting next to Hillyard on the side of the bath, dangling their feet in the water.

“I notice you haven’t volunteered”, Hillyard grumbled.

“Leave it out!” said Joby “Adam keeps me on a ball-and-chain in the kitchen! The only way I can ever escape to do any gardening is by threatening a starvation harvest if I don’t! I’m hoping to get a bit more done tomorrow in fact”.

“You haven’t used all those seeds Glynis sent you in the air-drop yet”, said Kieran.

“No, I thought I’d hold a few packets back, for emergencies”, said Joby.

“Why?” said Hillyard “She’s bound to drop you a few more at some point”.

“I thought we was sposed to be making it on our own here”, said Joby “That’d be a fat lot of use if we start relying on parcel-drops wouldn’t it!”

“I don’t think we need to be quite so purist about it”, said Ransey “We’re building ourselves a home here, not a scientific experiment on how to survive in the wild!”

“Yeah, don’t be miserly, Joby”, said Kieran “Shove ‘em all in”.

“O.K O.K”, said Joby “There’s a bit of ground up by the trees in the far left corner I can add to the growing land. I had a look at the soil the other day, plenty of worms in it, so it’s nice and rich”.

“You’re not using that”, said Julian “I’ve got my eye on that for my burial-plot!”

“Oh for goodness sake, Jules”, said Adam “You’re as bad as your grandmother, she had her coffin made and kept it in her bedroom!”

“She didn’t?” said Joby, in horror.

“I’m afraid she did”, Adam sighed.

“Didn’t she find it depressing?” said Joby.

“No, she kept her sewing-materials in it”, said Julian “Anyway, you have to think about these things at our age”.

“What do you mean, our age?” said Adam “I feel about 25, in fact I feel a lot better than I did when I was 25!”

“I can see, as usual, that it’s going to be left to me to think about anything practical”, said Julian “I’m sure that’ll be room for the two of us in there. You can come in with me”.

“No I’m damn well not!” Adam exclaimed, appalled “I’ve had a whole lifetime with you, I don’t want to be stuck with you for all of eternity as well! Anyway, I rather fancy the idea of a burial at sea. Having spent so much of my life on water, it seems quite appropriate somehow. You can just chuck me off the headland by the old lighthouse, cast me into the deep”.

“Adam”, said Joby, indicating Lonts, who was looking aggrieved.

“If you do that, Adam”, said Lonts “I won’t be able to come and see you”.

“The old chapel”, said Kieran “We can all be buried in the old chapel ruins, and then we can all be together. It’s right by the sea too”.

“But you don’t know what religion the old chapel was consecrated to, Tinkerbell”, said Julian “You might be volunteering to be buried in Proddy ground!”

“That’s a risk I’ll have to take”, said Kieran, darkly.

“There’s a problem with all this”, said Hoowie.

“If there is, we might have known you’d find it!” said Joby.

“Who buries the one that’s last?” said Hoowie.

“With any luck it’ll be you”, said Bardin, shortly “So you’ll get left out. It’ll be the only way we’ll get any peace and quiet in the after-life!”

The bedroom they used was a the easterly end of the house, situated over the library and the linen-room. It had windows in three of the walls, looking out over the river, the forest, and the garden. They liked it for this reason as it made them feel as if they were back in the cabin on the sloop. The room was stuffed with a motley collection of beds, most of which had been pushed together, apart from a four-poster without any hangings, and a single bed that had been brought down from the attic, and which couldn’t fit into the corner next to all the others, because of a doorway which led out onto an external staircase. There was no formal sleeping arrangement, any more than there had been on the sloop, it was a free-for-all.

When Julian got in there, he found that the four clowns were tucked up in the four-poster and were resolutely refusing to move.

“We’ve got a day of solid hard-graft tomorrow”, said Bardin “We need solid rest”.

Bengo didn’t like upsetting Julian though, and made to get up.

“Stay there!” Bardin snapped.

“Yes, Bardy”, said Bengo, in a very longsuffering way.

“You have to be off the mark very quickly to beat a clown”, said Bardin, triumphantly.

“I would dearly love to beat a clown!” said Julian, acidly.

“Perhaps we should get some curtains sorted out for this room sometime”, said Adam, climbing wearily into the end of the communal bed, next to Lonts.

“Why?” said Ransey “When there’s a full moon it’ll save us on candles”.

“Oh you old romantic!” Adam teased.

A naked Finia dodged in front of Julian and Ransey, and slipped into the only small space remaining, next to Adam.

“Looks like it’s you two for the single tonight doesn’t it!” said Adam.

“The only good thing about sleeping with you”, said Ransey, when he and Julian had finally struggled to get bedded down in the uncomfortable single “Is that you don’t shave your legs. Finia’s can be murder when they go stubbly”.

“I once knew a woman who had very hairy legs”, said Julian “She swore blind it’s what men found most attractive about her!”

“Takes all sorts I suppose”, said Ransey, and he removed his spectacles.

“You look like a rabbit when you’re denuded of your glasses”, said Julian.

“Shall I tell you what you look like?” said Ransey, glaring down at him “What you look like all the time in fact?”

“I think we’ll forgo that pleasure until another day”, said Julian “Goodnight”.


“We must go outside and see if the milk’s been touched, Joby”, said Lonts, standing in the kitchen at dawn the following morning.

“Alright, but let me sort this out first”, said Joby, raking the stove “Otherwise Adam’ll create”.

“What if it’s all been drunk?” said Lonts, excitedly.

“You’re putting too much emphasis on it all”, said Joby “If it’s been drunk it might just be an animal that’s had it, in fact that’s more than likely what’ll really have happened”.

“But it might not be”, said Lonts.

Unbeknown to them both in the kitchen, Ransey was approaching round the side of the house, having left the bedroom by the outside staircase which was reached via the door in the corner. He had got up rather thankfully, having endured an uncomfortable night haggling with Julian for precious space in the bed. He had stood at the window overlooking the river to put on his spectacles, and tying back his hair. He had seen the bewitching sight of a deer on the other side of the river, approaching the water for a drink. He had gone out onto the staircase for a better look, and had then decided to go to the kitchen by walking through the garden, which was an astoundingly beautiful sight at this early hour.

“Which particular moron left a bowl of bloody milk outside the back door?” he yelled, having just stepped in it.

Lonts gave Joby an anguished look, whilst on the other side of the door Ransey had kicked the bowl across the lawn.

“Quick”, said Joby “Leggit!”

They ran laughing up the stairs behind the stove. But instead of going on up, as Joby had down with Kieran the night before, they took an alternative route down a short conjoining flight which ran down into the dining-room. They hurtled around the long table and then skidded through the double doors into the main hall.

Hillyard had just performed the same task he had also liked doing up at the Big House, opening up the front door to “let in the day” as he called it. He was now standing contentedly in the porch, with his hands thrust into the pockets of his dressing-gown.

“We’d better not disturb him”, Joby whispered to Lonts “He’s fantasising about his bridge!” “How would you like to be chucked in the river?” said Hillyard.

Lonts whooped with laughter, and then stopped when Adam came out onto the stairs and demanded that he should come upstairs and have his hair combed.

“I’ve already done it”, said Lonts, sulkily “I did it with my fingers”.

“That doesn’t count”, said Adam.

“I thought we didn’t have to worry about that sort of thing anymore”, said Lonts, dragging his feet over to the stairs.

“Hillyard”, Adam continued “Jules wants you to come up and give him a massage. His back’s playing up. And Joby, you should be in the kitchen”.

“I’m always in the bleedin’ kitchen!” said Joby, resignedly ”It’s like being in a fucking gulag round here sometimes”.

“Nonsense”, said Adam.

After breakfast, Hillyard, Lonts and the clowns set to work on the bridge, hammering into place the strips of wood that Hillyard had been preparing for some weeks now. Mieps sat on the bank a bit further down, fishing.

Meanwhile, Ransey and Julian were in the small panelled room that opened off the hall, and which was now utilised as a gun-room. Julian was cleaning the guns, and Ransey, wearing a smart pair of tight-fitting black leather gloves, was filling cartridge cases with gunpowder.

“If Adam looks any more adoringly at Lonts, he’ll go into a beatific trance!” said Julian, standing at the window.

“Sweet”, said Ransey.

“Sweet, yes”, said Julian, drily “That must be the word I’m looking for!”

Adam had been watching the bridge-builders from the bank, or more accurately, watching Lonts, who was a truly magnificent sight, stripped to the waist and wading through the water.

“My back isn’t half giving me jip this morning”, said Julian, stretching himself “I don’t think I can take too many more nights of passion with you!”

“If it keeps playing up we’ll have to take you back to town and get it looked at”, said Ransey.

“Oh that’ll be a popular decision!” said Julian.

“We don’t all have to go”, said Ransey “We can leave the younger ones here in charge of the house”.

“If we did I doubt it’d still be standing when we got back!” said Julian “There’s nothing an osteopath can do for me that Hillyard can’t”.

“Maybe”, said Ransey “But no more nights in the single for you. You’ll just have to put your foot down with the clowns. Your need of the four-poster is greater”.

“Yes, quite”, said Julian “They should have more respect for their elders”.

Adam sidled into the room, looking distinctly unelderly with his tanned, firm body and blonde hair.

“Isn’t it amazing how Lonts is managing to build that bridge all by himself?” said Julian, sarcastically “You must be very proud”.

“Would you like some coffee, Ransey?” said Adam, pointedly ignoring Julian.

“Very much”, said Ransey.

“Excuse me”, said Julian, as Adam went to leave again “But why aren’t Kieran and Freaky out there helping with the bridge?”

“They’ve gone for a walk”, said Adam “Patsy wanted to have a little trek up to the old chapel. Joby’s gone too”.

“You’re too soft on that boy”, said Julian “He’s supposed to be your assistant. Sometimes he seems to be anywhere but where he should be”.

“I couldn’t help it”, said Adam “He looked so wistful, I had to let him go with them”.

“The idea of Joby looking wistful!” Ransey guffawed, which made Julian laugh as well.

“Do be careful you don’t get gunpowder up your nostrils”, said Adam “That could be very nasty!”

Kieran had gone off to look at the old chapel alone, whilst Joby and Tamaz lay in the grass under the trees. Kieran found more in the ruins than he had expected. He saw a congregation from many decades before, all kneeling in prayer in the pews which in reality were no longer there. The whole extraordinary scene lasted only a few seconds and wasn’t solid, giving an appearance that could only be described as looking as though it was made out of soapy bubbles. He came away from this image with a feeling of profound peace. He sought out Joby and Tamaz in the undergrowth, and lay down with them, gently stroking Tamaz’s breasts.

For a timeless hour or so they lay like this and then strolled back to the Castle, where the bridge building was reaching its final stages. Joby congratulated Hillyard on their progress, but he was annoyed to see Julian sitting on the window-ledge of the ground-floor bedroom which he, Joby, used as a retreat with Adam. Julian was smoking a cigar, and looking insufferably smug.

Joby ran through the Castle towards the kitchen, nearly colliding with Toppy in the dining-room, who was polishing the table. The kitchen was deserted, although the table was covered in neat rows of dead fish.

“Hello, old love”, said Adam, emerging from the downstairs loo “Did you have a nice walk?”

“Never mind all that”, Joby snapped “What’s Julian doing in our room? I thought that was gonna be our special room, and then you go and take him in it!”

“You haven’t objected when I’ve taken Lo-Lo and Patsy in there”, said Adam.

“That’s different”, said Joby “They don’t sit there looking all smug and triumphant, as though they’ve got one over on me!”

“That isn’t how he sees it at all”, said Adam, donning his canvas apron “I wanted to have my usual afternoon lie-down, but Lo-Lo was busy on the river, and you were out, and I didn’t see any harm in inviting Julian in there. You are very silly where he’s concerned sometimes. If he looks at all smug at the moment it’s because he’s just disciplined me, and he always looks like that afterwards!”

“I might’ve known you’d be easily bribed with a bit of poxy spanking!” said Joby.

“Put your pinny on and shut up”, said Adam “Mieps has been busy too, which means we’ve got all these fish to prepare. And don’t knock my hobbies, Grizzle-Guts! And don’t go saying anything to Julian. He was saying to me earlier that he’d dearly like another session with you like the one he had in the New Year!”

“He gets too carried away he does”, said Joby “We should put summat in his tea to calm him down, like strychnine perhaps!”

“These river-fish are all very well”, said Adam, scratching his head “But they can taste rather bland. We need to put something on them to pep them up a bit”.

“Tomato ketchup?” said Joby “They could match your arse then! I bet that’s looking a bit lurid at the moment”.

“Like yours will be if you don’t behave”, said Adam “I only have to call Julian in here you know. He would only be too happy to oblige”.

“Yeah I’m sure he would!” said Joby “Hey, I haven’t told you the interesting news”.

“You mean you’ve got some?” said Adam.

“Kieran saw a ghostly congregation in the old chapel”, said Joby “He said it was all a bit vague, sort of only halfway there, like an under-developed photo, but he says it wasn’t at all scary”.

“No, the ghosts round here don’t tend to be”, said Adam “Except when I’m alone in here, like this morning, and I thought someone was watching me when I was working at the sink. I turned round but there was no one there. That can be a bit unnerving”.

They worked in silence for a few minutes, and then Adam announced that he was going outside to fetch some mint for the potatoes. Taking the smallest pair of kitchen scissors with him he went up to the wall at the far end of the garden, which sheltered beds of rhubarb, mint and strawberries, all of which had happily grown wild during Castle’s long period of vacancy. After snipping a handful of mint he straightened up wearily, and rubbed his backside which was still smarting under his shorts.

He saw her watching him from the edge of the forest, a tall, very beautiful fair-haired woman, all dressed in black. A full-length black taffeta gown, and a black veil over her hair. She was watching him placidly, like a mother watching her small child playing in a sandpit. He had seen her before. He had even spoken with her. She was the same vision who had comforted him at the City Hospital, when he had been wracked with worry over Lonts’s brain operation. She turned and strolled back into the forest.

Adam ran back to the house and commandeered Joby, who was surreptitiously reading the volume of short stories he had dug out of the dresser drawer. Adam dragged him to the forest, gabbling all the while about the woman, of whom now no trace could be found.

“Why’s she appeared now, after all these years?” said Joby, as they strolled down one of the forest tracks.

“I don’t know”, said Adam “Perhaps she’s simply come back to see how I am. There’s nothing sinister about her, old love, you musn’t worry”.

“I wouldn’t be so sure about that”, said Joby, darkly “For all we know she might be some portent of doom”.

“I’m going to lock that damn book in the attic!” said Adam “What it really is is you’re still grumpy because I went with Jules this afternoon. You are always bad-tempered when I do that, and yet it’s utterly ridiculous. Lo-Lo doesn’t carry on like you do”.

“The only rationale I can think of for it is that it’s a hangover from the old days”, Joby sighed “I used to get really worried all those years ago in Pepuaah that you’d leave us and go off with him, Julian I mean”.

“You didn’t really think I’d have been capable of doing that?” said Adam.

“I wouldn’t have blamed you!” said Joby “There was us lot living in that shitty old wagon, near starvation half the time, and Julian had money, living in comfort, and plenty to eat and drink. I spose I worried about it so much it got under my skin, and it’s never really left me”.

“And at the same time he was getting down in the dumps precisely because I wouldn’t leave you and go with him!” said Adam “It was very difficult for him in those days to find himself suddenly playing second fiddle to all of you. He had been so used in the old life to having me completely under his sway”.

“It must give him great satisfaction to be able to beat seven sacks of shit out of you whenever he wants!” said Joby.

“He doesn’t beat seven sacks of shit out of me, as you so graphically put it!” said Adam “You’re grossly over-exaggerating as usual. Has it never occurred to you that it is all these little linking relationships within the group as a whole that makes us so strong? There are 16 of us now. We’re getting to the size where it would be only too easy to start splitting off into factions. Feuds forming. Many groups of our size would have split into half by now, with one half living at the Castle, and the other up at the clearing, and tribal warfare breaking out whenever the two met!”

“Yeah, I know what you mean”, said Joby.

“And do you know why that doesn’t happen?” said Adam.

“Sex?” Joby ventured.

“That’s a rather shorthand way of putting it I suppose”, said Adam “Because we are all interlocked in some way”.

“Yeah”, said Joby “Usually by sex”.

“That doesn’t matter!” said Adam “It is enough that it works. Which makes your insecurities seem rather silly really doesn’t it!” “At least I’m not domineering with it”, said Joby “Psychologists say that it’s usually domineering people who are insecure, like Julian, and Bardin. He’s the worst of all of us!”

“That must be the precarious upbringing they had”, said Adam “The theatre has always been a notoriously unreliable profession, so that would account for why he and Bengo have been prone to feeling insecure. I hadn’t thought of that before, it’s rather interesting. Anyway, it’s a good job Bardin in so domineering. Bengo desperately needs a firm hand, he’s so very highly-strung. Remember the states he used to get himself into sometimes before Bardin joined us”.

“This part of the forest reminds me a bit of the one near Kiskev, where we stayed at the old railway station with Fobbett”, said Joby “You and me went for a walk in that one too”.

“Actually you ran off and I had to come and fetch you!” said Adam “You’d got yourself in a state about a lot of nonsense there too”.

“Because I was feeling insecure then as well!” Joby protested “I thought you and Kieran was gonna run off together and abandon me”.

“The idea of Patsy ever leaving you is about as plausible as the Moon being made of green cheese!” said Adam “I tell you what I damn well should have done that day up there, taken your pants down and rogered you”.

“That would have been rape!” Joby exclaimed.

“Only if you want to be overly-technical about it”, said Adam “I prefer to think of it as taking a short-cut to the hotel in Husgalonghi. It would have saved you a lot of the misery and frustration that you endured over those two years”.

“I was such a pillock in those days I’d have probably burst into tears and had a nervous breakdown”, said Joby.

“Not if Patsy and I had taken more control of you”, said Adam “I think you would have come round to accepting the situation a lot quicker, and you wouldn’t have felt so left out and insecure because Patsy and I were lovers. We could have all three of us gone to the Love Suite at Marlsblad”.

“Oh don’t rub it in”, Joby gave a heartfelt moan at the loss of those delicious opportunities “I just didn’t have the confidence to know me own mind then”.

“None of us did in those days, my dear”, said Adam, tenderly “I hadn’t yet realised quite how much I cared for you”.

“Give us a kiss”, said Joby, stroking Adam’s arm.

They kissed and then strolled back through the forest. Back at the Castle kitchen they found Julian, and Hillyard (who was looking very red and sweaty), both perplexed by the kitchen staff’s sudden disappearance.

“We’ll be eating dinner at midnight at this rate”, said Hillyard, surveying the uncooked fish “It’ll go off before you get round to doing anything with it”.

“Have you tried out your new bridge yet, Hilly?” said Adam.

“Yeah”, Joby giggled “A good test would be for him to walk across it himself! If it can take his weight it can take anything!”

Joby found this so amusing he couldn’t stop laughing, all the while watched with placid sternness by Hillyard.

“I need an ashtray”, Julian barked, his cigar getting near its end.

“You shouldn’t be smoking in here”, said Joby, slamming a metal ashtray on the table “It’s not hygienic”.

“Dear me no, the health inspector wouldn’t like it at all”, said Adam, whose turn it was now to get uncontrollable giggles.

“Does cannabis grow on the trees round here?” said Julian, sharply.

Hillyard gave a longsuffering sigh.

“Why don’t you go and take a bath, Hilly?” said Adam “The water’s still in it from last night”.

“I think I will”, said Hillyard, heaving himself up from the wheelback chair and giving Joby another baleful look.

“I’ll join you”, said Julian, preparing to follow him up the staircase behind the stove “Don’t be all night doing the dinner”.

“We will if we feel like it”, said Joby, once Julian was safely out of earshot.

“I think we deserve a beer”, said Adam.

He went into the pantry and drew off two mugs of Hillyard’s homemade beer, which he had concocted from a homebrewing kit that made several gallons from one small sachet. It was rough and ready stuff, and it was always warm, but it served its purpose adequately enough. Adam simply relished being able to drink again, to be able to say in such a casual way that he was going to have a beer, without giving it another thought.

“The one good thing about going on a supply run to town is that at least we’ll be able to get some proper beer and wine to last us for a while”, said Adam.

“What supply run to town?” said Joby.

“I was discussing it with Bardin a couple of days ago”, said Adam “Twice a year we’ll have to take the sloop back to Toondor Lanpin, or the Village of Stairs maybe, and pick up things we can’t do without, that we can’t get here, like flour and yeast and sugar and rice for instance”.

“Nobody’s said anything about this before”, said Joby.

“Oh come on now, Joby, it was obvious we’d have to do something like that”, said Adam “What would we make bread out of when the flour and yeast runs out? Some things I’m afraid simply have to be purchased in civilisation”.

“Some getting away from it all!” said Joby.

“It’ll take us a few days to get there and back, plus one day in town to do the actual shopping itself”, said Adam “If we do two runs a year that makes a total of about 20 days out of 364. Hardly a great inconvenience now is it? Just think of it as like going to the local supermarket to do the weekly shop”.

“Yeah great”, said Joby, unenthusiastically “That used to be a bloody drag ‘en all!”

“Think of the little hedonistic luxuries you’ll be able to treat yourself with”, said Adam.

“There’s nothing I want”, said Joby, morosely.

“I’ll remind you of that when you’re gorging yourself silly at Persephone’s”, said Adam.

“When’s the first one gonna be then?” said Joby, warily.

“The end of next month”, said Adam “Around Midsummer, Bardin says”.

“The end of next month?” Joby exclaimed, in the same way Tony Hancock had once cried “A pint?!”

“We’ll have been here four months by then”, said Adam “It’s a good time span in which to go”.

Joby was unconvinced, and remained unconvinced as they all sat down to a dinner of fried fish and new potatoes in the dining-room.

“You keep on sulking like that”, said Kieran “And I’ll make you go and stand in the corner!”

“Good, save us having to look at his ugly face”, said Hillyard, sitting opposite to them “Hah, there I’ve got me own back for all his jokes about my weight!”

“Where’s Bengo?” said Adam, as the food-filled plates were passed around “He’s not here”.

“He’s bolted himself into the attic bedroom”, said Bardin, angrily “Joby’s not the only one in a state about the supply-run. Ballast-Brain is too”.

“But you can’t leave him up there, old love”, said Adam “His dinner’ll get cold”.

“That’ll teach him a lesson then won’t it!” said Bardin “Look, it’s no good me going back up there. He’s made it clear enough he won’t come down. Tamaz, perhaps you could go up and talk to him?”

“Me?” Tamaz exclaimed, picking up his knife and fork “Why me?”

“Because perhaps a woman’s touch is what’s required”, said Bardin “And you’re the closest thing we’ve got to a woman!”

“I’m eating”, said Tamaz “Send Mieps up there”.

“That wouldn’t be a very good idea”, said Bardin, through gritted teeth.

(Mieps’s idea of a “woman’s touch”, particularly where Bengo was concerned at the moment, would be to flog him within an inch of his life!)

“Freaky”, said Julian, in a voice that brooked no argument “Do as you’re told”.

Tamaz slammed away from the table, knocking his chair over, and pattered with bare feet across the stone floor of the great hall.

“Unbolt the door. It’s me, Tamaz”.

“Go away”, Bengo sobbed, lying on the iron bedstead in the attic “I want to be alone”.

“Don’t be stupid”, said Tamaz “If you don’t unbolt the door I’ll go and fetch Lonts, and he’ll break it down for me. Then you really will be in trouble”.

“Hold on”, Bengo got off the bed and sniffed his way across the room.

Once inside, Tamaz sat down beside him on the bed and picked at the hem of his best silk and lace drawers, which he had put on in honour of it being May Day.

“You’d better tell me what all this is about”, said Tamaz, fiercely “I had to come away from my dinner because of you and your antics”.

“I’ve never mentioned this to anyone before”, said Bengo “It was only when Bardy mentioned the supply-run that I realised how much it all still scared me”.

“What?” said Tamaz.

“No-Name”, said Bengo “And Thierry. I hate going past that place, I really do”.

“We haven’t called in there since all that happened with you”, said Tamaz “We just carry on past. I spect we’ll do that again this time. None of us wants to see that jerk either”.

“B-but I keep worrying that perhaps we might not have any choice but to call in”, said Bengo “Say something went wrong with the boat, or one of the animals got sick, and then we’d have to stop at No-Name. It’s not just for myself I get scared, but you too. He got such a hang-up about you when we were all up at the Big House”.

“Then I’ll stay on the sloop all the time”, Tamaz shrugged “And we’ll make sure none of us is ever alone, particularly not with him. Anyway, we might not go to Toondor Lanpin, we might go to the Village of Stairs, or Aspiriola, and then we won’t go anywhere near No-Name, see?”

“I hadn’t thought of that”, said Bengo.

“You never think of anything”, said Tamaz, tickling Bengo’s cuddly frame “No wonder you’re such a clown, a prize buffoon!”

“Well done, Freaky”, said Adam, when Tamaz reappeared in the dining-room with Bengo in tow, havin both slowly crawled down the unlit narrow stone staircase that wound down from the attic.

“I knew if anyone’d be able to get him down you would”, said Bardin.

“He was in a state ‘cos he thought we might call in at No-Name”, said Tamaz “And then Thierry might take another pop at him”.

“You really think I would risk that?” said Bardin “You’re a moron, Bengo!”

“I’m sorry, Bardy”, said Bengo, flinging his arms round Bardin’s neck.

“He doesn’t think, you see!” said Tamaz, sarcastically.

“That’s the first time I’ve ever heard you crack a really good joke, Freaky”, said Julian.

“Go and eat your dinner now”, said Bardin, gently disentangling himself from Bengo’s embrace “Whilst it’s still tepid!”

“It’s over here, mate”, said Rumble, indicating the space between himself and Farnol.

Bengo had to pass Julian to get round the table, but he stopped and decided to climb all over him as well, crying profuse apologies.

“Oh God, are we all gonna get slobbered over now?” Joby groaned.

“Who’d want to kiss and cuddle you, the mood you’re in!” said Kieran.

Julian flipped Bengo over and spanked his behind.

“Good job clowns aren’t prone to embarrassment isn’t it?” said Adam.

“I’ll have you know we’re very sensitive creatures actually”, Bardin growled, forking a whole new potato into his mouth and chomping on it lustily.

When they had all finished eating they left the plates on the table, and decided to walk across the fields to the sloop and watch the sunset from there. Hillyard was very proud of his new bridge and conducted everybody across it with great fanfare.

“It’s strong and sturdy”, he said “And it’ll save us a lot of hassle getting to the sloop and back”.

“It’d be no good in a severe flood”, said Ransey.

“Eh?” Hillyard looked at him uncomprehendingly “What are you talking about?”

“When the monsoon season comes”, said Ransey “This river could sell and burst its banks. I’ve found a lot of evidence in the cellar that this whole area has known severe flooding at times”.

“That’s precisely why we don’t store too much down there”, Adam pointed out “The Castle being so close to the river, we had already worked that out for ourselves, old love”.

“There’s no point talking to him”, said Hillyard, dismissively “He’s never happy unless he can find something wrong somewhere. I’d hate to be like him, it must be pure misery”.

“All I’m saying is”, said Ransey “That the bridge would be impassable at such times. That doesn’t mean I think you shouldn’t have built it!”

“Hey, if the flood’s get too bad”, said Hoowie “We’ll have to take to the trees and live there”.

“And you’ll have found your natural habitat at last!” said Joby.

“Aren’t Bengo and Bardin coming with us?” said Adam.

“They’ll be along in a minute”, said Kieran “They’re resolving their differences in the library”.

Bengo had lain on Bardin on the sofa and sobbed over him that he was truly sorry for the way he had behaved earlier.

“It’s not you who should be sorry, it’s me”, said Bardin “When we got hitched I promised you I’d always take care of you, and I don’t seem to do a very good job of it at times”.

“You do, you do”, Bengo hastened to reassure him “You’re perfect at it. It’s not your fault there are jerks like Thierry in the world”.

“I didn’t realise he was preying on your mind so much still”, said Bardin “I’ll tell you this much, if he comes anywhere near you again I swear I’ll kill him”.

“I’m gonna try real hard to stay away from him”, said Bengo “Except sometimes it doesn’t seem to matter how hard I try I still always foul it up”.

Bardin laughed, tenderly. Bengo’s innate haplessness was what had made him such a success as a clown. Right from when he was a very little boy he had carried that air of well-meaning ineptitude around with him. It was one of the reasons why audiences had always warmed to him instantly. The other reason of course was his incorrigible cuteness. That podgy little boy with the dimples and the mass of brown curls, all of which had incurred the other clowns’ jealousy, spite and wrath. Bengo quickly became the prime target for every act of sadistic horseplay on stage. More often than not it was Bengo who had to be tripped up, Bengo who had to be pelted with custard pies. Hal, Zooks and assorted cronies once even a betting-book running, to see how many “Bengo hits” they could score in one evening, until Ully found out and put a stop to it. Bengo was a good sport about it all, if only because Bardin drummed it into him that pleasing the audience was all that mattered, and Bengo getting clobbered always got a reaction of some kind out of them. Bengo had such an immense stage presence that Bardin had even seen the most grizzled and hardened of punters, (the sort of men you really wouldn’t want to meet down a dark alley), go moist-eyed at the sight of soft, naïve little Bengo walking straight into yet another cruel mishap that life had laid in store for him. He was a symbol to many of how innocence got abused in the harsh, brutal world they lived in. Of course it all upset Bengo sometimes too, and then he would throw spectacular tantrums backstage, his podgy little legs and fists drumming on the floor as he screamed in frustration at his plight. And then of course Bardin would be dragged to the scene, to talk him out of it, because even at the tender age of seven he was the only one who could.

As they got older and reached their teens, it became more and more obvious that Bengo and Bardin were leaving the other clowns behind. The audience wanted to see less of the clowns as an ensemble piece, and even more of Bengo and Bardin as a twosome. Bardin got more ambitious and devised sophisticated routines for them that were a gulf apart from the basic slapstick they were used to doing. He knew they had to at some point make the notoriously difficult transition from child stars to adult entertainers.

He devised an intricate mime routine called ‘The Tailor’s Shop’, wherein he played the tailor, and Bengo was a customer who urgently needed a big hole repairing in the seat of his trousers. Bardin wielding a very large needle was supposed to make Bengo acutely nervous, not helped by the fact that Bardin had to try and repair the trousers whilst Bengo was still wearing them. It was a complex and sophisticated piece of mimework, where they twisted, wriggled and danced all around a small space. They rehearsed it endlessly, and Bardin agreed with Ully that it should be performed. Ully argued back that with its balletic-style dancing it was “too classy” for their audience, but agreed to let them do one performance of it. They were a sensation, and the difficult adolescent bridge had been crossed. They had proved they could cut it as mature performers.

“What are you smiling about?” said Bengo, caressing Bardin’s lips with his fingers.

“I was just thinking of ‘The Tailor’s Shop’”, said Bardin “Do you remember that one?”

“Oh I loved that sketch”, said Bengo, and then added crossly “Mainly ‘cos I didn’t get hit with any pies in it!”

“It was the best thing we ever did”, said Bardin “We were more like ballet-dancers than clowns in that one. It was pure class. The audience thought so too”.

“I think they liked the sight of us writhing and wrestling each other all over the place, probably hoping we were gonna lose all our clothes in the process!” said Bengo “Perhaps that’s why I enjoyed rehearsing it so much! If I’d been more intelligent I’d have realised you were turning me on all the way through it. We could’ve gone straight home and lost our virginity together!”

“It’s easy to say that now”, said Bardin “With the knowledge we’ve got now, but it might have all gone wrong, and then we wouldn’t be here now like this”.

“And that’s all that matters”, Bengo sighed, contentedly.

The sun was almost set when they finally walked across the fields to join the others on the sloop, leaving pink and orange swathes behind it in the sky. It was a sight as regular and familiar as a pair of old socks, and yet it never failed to leave you in wonderment each and every time.

“They’re all cosy again now”, said Kieran, standing with Hillyard on the forward deck, and watching the clowns strolling towards them through the deep dusk.

“Your legendary charm hasn’t sorted Joby out yet then?” said Hillyard, glancing up at Joby, who was on the poop-deck looking out across the sea towards the old lighthouse.

“The twilight should bring him round”, said Kieran “At least his sulks only last for hours now, not days like they used to!”

The clowns climbed aboard the sloop, and Bengo bounded up onto the poop-deck to share the view with Joby.

“You o.k now?” said Joby.

“Yeah”, Bengo sighed “I acted like a pillock I know”.

“Not your fault”, said Joby “We should’ve chopped off Thierry’s balls last time and pegged him out to dry in the bush”.

“That’s practically what Bardy said”, said Bengo “But it wouldn’t have been fair on Dolores”.

“Not in the short-term perhaps”, said Joby “But it would’ve been better for her in the long-term. He’s the bane of her life, she’d be a helluva lot better off without him around, so would all the rest of No-Name I expect!”

Back at the Castle once more, after it had all gone completely dark. It was still warm though and the windows stood open, letting in the scent of the garden and the shrill cry of the bats. Everyone was meandering about on the ground floor of the house, doing their own thing. Bengo lit the candles in the library, which were shaded by glass chimneys, and lay down on the sofa to doze.

Tamaz had gone into the back garden to pick some pears, and now clambered back in through the window, with them stuffed in his drawers for convenience.

“Want one?” he said, as Bengo sat up to make room for him on the sofa.

Bengo accepted a pear, and they both squelched on them noiselessly, letting the juice run all over their hands and down their fronts.

“Afters!” said Bengo, appreciatively.

“Are you two eating again?” said Julian, carrying a cup of coffee into the room. He grabbed a hardback book from the open tea-chest and sat down in one of the armchairs, first arranging a cushion as support for his back.

“Can we come and sit on you?” said Tamaz.

“No, I’m reading, be quiet”, said Julian.

“But I’ve just had a brilliant idea, Julian”, said Bengo “Can I tell it you?”

“Good grief, certainly”, said Julian “It sounds a once-in-a-lifetime event!”

Bengo said proudly that Julian would be able to buy a new bed on their provisions run to Toondor Lanpin. Julian had already thought of this himself, but he was kind enough to accredit Bengo with a sudden infusion of profound good sense. Bengo was so thrilled by this he decided to run and tell Bardin, whom he found chatting with Rumble in the porch outside the front door. Both of them were obviously flirting with each other, and Rumble had released his hair from his customary ponytail and let it swish free over his shoulders. Bengo wasn’t tolerating any of this. He picked Bardin up in his arms and carried him into the gun-room.

“Rumble always gets too carried away around you”, said Bengo.

“I’m not surprised, I’m hot stuff”, said Bardin, who had been sampling Mieps’s homemade wine “Give us a kiss and I’ll prove it to you”.

“I don’t need proof”, said Bengo, lightheartedly pushing him against the table.

“Not in here!” Ransey thundered from the doorway “This is the gun-room. It’s no place for horsing around. Out! I think I should ask Hillyard to make his next project the building of a giant play-pen for you clowns!”

“You’re Captain, Bardy”, said Bengo, as they both scampered back out into the great hall “He shouldn’t really talk to you like that”.

“Shall you tell him or shall I?!” said Bardin.

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