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By Sarah Hapgood

The following few days seemed almost normal, compared to what had gone before. Ransey was frustrated that the Town Constable had ordered the boarding up of the windows and doors at the house where the murdered woman had been found, so that they couldn’t get into it, or get permission to get into it. He felt they were trying to hide things, but Adam reasoned that it might simply be to spare people’s feelings, particularly those of the widower, who had been taken in by a kindly neighbour.

On New Year’s day another shopping expedition was organised into the village, and also to take bushel-loads of chopped wood with them, to try and encourage the villagers to go back to using the saw-mill, as so far they seemed to have been strangely reticent to do so. Adam was accosted by Hegley in the main street, bounding towards him with a basket on his arm and beaming all over his face.

“My, you do look well, old love”, said Adam “Moving away from us has obviously agreed with you! I hope Piers and Josh aren’t too much trouble?”

“Oh they’re not too bad really”, said Hegley “Josh doesn’t say much, just points at the stove when he wants his dinner, and Piers is alright if you keep his glass filled”.

At the other end of the main street Bardin and Bengo weren’t having such a nicely sociable time of it. Dobley was found slumped on a public bench, considerably the worse for wear, and being given a wide berth by everyone else, except Hal and the other Village of Stairs clowns who were stood around him, helplessly.

“Oh Bardy!” said Bengo “This is the worst he’s ever been”.

“What are you gonna do?” said Hal, coming over to Bardin.

“What am I going to do?!” Bardin exclaimed “Why have I got to sort him out? Why can’t you do it?”

“’Cos it’s your job”, said Hal, pointing a podgy finger at Bardin.

“MY JOB?!” said Bardin “What am I, fucking Union Leader all of a sudden?”

“Well I always thought you’d make a good shop steward, Bardy!” said Bengo.

Kieran and Joby overheard this and thought it was very funny, but feeling that it probably wasn’t nice to laugh uncontrollably in front of a man in such a pathetic state, they went into the ‘Moon and Stars’.

“Somehow I think Bardin will sort it out”, said Kieran, climbing up onto a stool “And he won’t appreciate us hanging around giving advice”.

“I’ve never thought of it before”, said Joby, still gulping with laughter “But yeah, Bardin as a shop steward, ‘point of order, brothers’, ‘on behalf of the committee’ and all that!”

“The cap and whistle really helps with the image of course”, Kieran laughed “Perhaps we should get him a clipboard as well!”

A few minutes later Bengo shuffled in, looking crestfallen, as though his duffel-coat was all that was holding him together in one piece and keeping him from falling to the floor in a sobbing heap.

“Ah now Bardin won’t like you deserting the picket-line, Bengo!” Kieran teased.

“Isn’t it terrible, Kieran?” said Bengo, climbing up onto the bar-stool in the middle of them.

“Yeah, what are you having to drink?” said Joby.

“Apple juice”, said Bengo.

“Apple juice?!” said Joby “Are you feeling alright?”

“I don’t feel like boozing, not with Dobley in that state”, said Bengo “I haven’t turned teetotal, I just don’t feel like it at the moment”.

“Well conversions like that can happen”, said Kieran “It was the vampires’ eating habits that turned me vegetarian!”

“It’s not fair is it, Kieran?” said Bengo “I mean loads of performers have been involved in scandals, and yet they’re allowed back into the fold eventually. Why is Fate being so harsh on Dobley?”

“I must admit he does seem to be being punished more severely than usual”, said Kieran.

“It’s not as if he himself did anything wrong”, said Bengo “He didn’t kill anyone or hurt them in any way. He just had the bad luck to be at that stupid party at Starhanger. I mean, where would we all be if we were all made guilty by association like that? And he has tried to rise above it, whatever Bardy says. I’ve listened to him sometimes, he has tried to be brave about it all”.

“You’re a sweet fella, Bengo”, said Kieran, squeezing his hand.

“And I’m probably a harsh one”, said Joby “And what I’m about to say is gonna sound harsh, but Dobley really has got to get his act together. If he carries on the way he’s going he’s gonna end up killing himself, it’s as simple as that. And I don’t think people are being particularly unfair to Dobley. O.K, he didn’t kill anyone himself, but he was involved with the Starhanger crowd, and he took their money and ran when they offered to get him out of the hot-seat. That looks cowardly, and that’s what people don’t like. He should have stayed in Magnolia Cove and tried to brazen it out, not went and hid in a 5-star hotel in Krindei!”

“I know you’re right, Joby”, said Bengo “But you see what happened in here on Boxing Night was the last straw for him. To die on stage like that … well it’s every performers worst nightmare. It’s hard to deal with under ordinary circumstances, but when you’ve hit the bottom of the pan like he has, well it must feel like the end”.

“But I feel Bardin has been right about one thing all along”, said Kieran “Dobley’s talent does seem to have deserted him. I’m not saying it’s gone forever, but it’s certainly not there at the moment. He does need to rethink things for the time being. Perhaps if he got involved in some charity work, helping others on their uppers like himself. They might appreciate him helping them, and that’d do wonders for his self-esteem, if he felt people liked him again”.

“You’re right of course, Kieran”, said Bengo, taking a sip of his apple juice and wincing.

“I dunno how you can drink that”, said Joby “It looks like a urine sample to me!”

Adam came into the bar.

“The other clowns have taken Dobley upstairs to his room”, he informed Bengo.

“I’d better go up and help”, said Bengo.

He found Bardin sitting at the top of the stairs. He looked so dejected that at first Bengo thought Dobley had died.

“Is he alright?” said Bengo, nervously.

“Yes, we’ve put him down in his room”, said Bardin “He’s asleep”.

Bengo sat down next to him and rested his head on Bardin’s shoulder. Bardin relished the feel of Bengo’s soft curly hair on his cheek. Suddenly a loud cry went up from nearby.

“Dobley!” Bengo exclaimed.

Dobley had the narrow room which adjoined the big room Kieran had had when he stayed at the ‘Moon and Stars’. This was now occupied by the Village of Stairs clowns, who were all standing in the middle doorway with their mouths open.

“Get back in there”, Bardin ordered them “You lot are fucking useless!”

Dobley was shaking from head to foot on the bed and crying like a baby.

“I’m dying!” he yelled “I’m dying, help me!”

“You’re not dying”, said Bardin, as he and Bengo tried to make him more comfortable “You’ve just got the shakes that’s all”.

“That’s all?!” said Dobley.

“Yeah, it’s what happens when you binge on the booze like you did!” said Bardin.

“Make it stop!” Dobley cried “Make it stop!”

“I can’t!” said Bardin “You’ve just got to go with it, it’ll stop eventually”.

When Dobley seemed to have calmed down a little, Bardin said he’d go downstairs and try and get some tea.

“You stay here with him”, he said to Bengo “Just sit with him, that’s all, and keep those useless buggers out! God help us when the shakes stop, because all his demons’ll come at him then!”

“Yes, Bardy”, said Bengo.

Dobley had calmed down, but he continued to sob helplessly. Bengo tried to soothe him by putting a damp towel on his forehead.

“It will pass, Dobley”, he said.

“That’s if it don’t kill me first”, Dobley wept.

“It will eventually if you keep doing it!” said Bengo.

“I panic you see, Bengo”, said Dobley “If I don’t numb meself a bit I panic. It sort of seizes hold of me, like some kind of terror. Daft innit? We panic before we go on stage, and we panic when we think we’ll never go on it again! ‘Cept you don’t, you’ve got it sussed”.

“It’s nice to do it again occasionally, for old time’s sake”, said Bengo “But I don’t miss the stress of it”.

“I bet Bardin does”, said Dobley “He was always such a pro”.

“He doesn’t miss it either”, said Bengo “It’s been so nice since we stopped, we don’t have clowning getting in the way of our relationship anymore. Anyway I’ve seen what happens to some clowns when they get old. It’s different for you, being a stand-up comedian, but physical comedy takes so much out of you, what we put ourselves through just to raise a laugh. I’ve seen some old clowns, burnt-out, worn-out old wrecks, still insisting they can do it all. It's a young man’s game really”.

“Oh I used to do a fair bit of charging around too sometimes”, said Dobley “I used to love dashing down into the audience, grabbing one of ‘em and dragging ‘em up on stage. They could never believe it …”

Dobley stopped sadly, recalling his glory-days.

“Try not to think about all that, Dobley”, said Bengo “One day you’ll be able to think about it and it’ll give you pleasure, but not now”.

“When I look back over me old scrapbooks you mean?” said Dobley, sarcastically.

“Well why not?” said Bengo “I sometimes wish me and Bardy had kept more souvenirs, but it was never our thing. We’ve got some old photo’s that Ully gave to Hawkefish, and he gave them to us, but it’s not much really. Not much to show for all that work!”

Dobley gave a wry laugh, “I know what you mean”, he said.

Bardin kicked on the door. Bengo opened it and let him in. Bardin came in carrying a tray holding three cups of tea and a bowl of sugar.

“Here, this might buck you up a bit”, he said, spooning several sugars into a cup and handing it to Dobley “You look so rough, something’s got to help!”

“Thanks”, said Dobley “You know how to flatter a guy!”

“That’s because we’re Sagittarians”, said Bengo “Finia says that we’re famed for our honesty, brutal honesty in some cases”.

“Drink that”, Bardin snapped, handing a cup to Bengo “And don’t be all night about it, the others must be itching to get off home”.

“I haven’t had a shave today, that’s the trouble”, said Dobley, running a grimy hand over his chin.

Bardin noticed how Dobley’s hands were shaking and remarked “Well I wouldn’t try having one at the moment if I was you!”

Bengo dreamt about Dobley that night. He dreamt that he and Bardin were in some large, empty building and they were constantly trying to find a room in which they could get away from Dobley, only to keep having him bursting in on them. He woke up to hear Bardin shouting something in the distance, and half-awake he murmured “O.K Bardy, I’m coming”. When he fully came to consciousness he found that he and Joby were alone in the back bedroom, and Bardin’s voice was downstairs, shouting at one of the others.

“I thought he was shouting at me”, said Bengo.

“I dunno how you ent a nervous wreck after a lifetime of living with him!” said Joby.

“I am!” Bengo giggled “Is Adam letting us have a lie-in?”

“Looks like it”, said Joby, going over to the washstand. He poured out some cold water and winced when he splashed it on his face.

“We can’t leave him to do everything on his own”, said Bengo.

“S’alright”, said Joby “He’s got Toppy helping him I spect”.

“Oh but Toppy drives everyone up the wall when he helps them!” said Bengo.

“Adam don’t seem to mind him as much as we do”, said Joby “They can be two old fuss-pots together!”

“The sun’s out”, Bengo crossed over to the window and looked out.

On the terrace below Lonts was giving the dogs their airing. He noticed Bengo looking down at him and shouted excitedly. Bengo opened the window and leaned out.

“Strange footmarks have appeared, Bengo”, Lonts shouted “Like the ones that clown intruder made. Come down and have a look! They’re everywhere!”

“Shut that fucking window!” said Joby “It’s fucking freezing in here!”

“I’m reminded of the Devil’s Footprints”, said Adam, standing at the glass doors with Joby about an hour later “You must know the story. One snowy night in Devon in Victorian times, villagers woke up to find marks like cloven hooves everywhere, even on tops of walls and in enclosed courtyards”.

“Yeah”, said Joby “But I also remember reading somewhere that it was really all caused by an escaped balloon with like a long kite-tail on it, and that was what had made the marks. Makes more sense than anything else”.

“I guess you’re right”, said Adam “Still it won’t stop Patsy thinking Angel made them!”

Bardin was more irritated by the marks than unnerved. He considered, quite rightly, that he had more than enough to think about at the present time, without the Clown Intruder trying to disturb them now with faery-fay antics. Rumble and Farnol had gone into Marlsblad that morning to see how Dobley was, and came back at noon to report their findings to Bardin.

“He’s now saying he wants surgery”, said Rumble, as the four clowns sat up in the front bedroom drinking glasses of wine.

“A brain-implant?” said Bardin, hopefully.

“Cosmetic surgery”, said Farnol “He thinks some of his troubles might be down to getting older. Showbusiness wants youth, he says”.

“He can’t be serious!” said Bengo “He’s going to have plastic surgery? He must be mad! I saw a face-lift down on the t.v once, it made me feel really ill!”

“Well at least if he does decide to have it done he’ll have to leave Marlsblad”, Bardin sighed “I should imagine Krindei’s the only place that you can get all that done. It might be one way of getting him out of our hair”.

“Oh Bardy you can’t let him do it!” Bengo wailed “It’s grotesque! What difference is having his skin pulled up over his head gonna do to his career?! You must stop him!”

“Why is it me all the time who has to wet-nurse Dobley?” Bardin exclaimed “You’re worse than Hal and that other bunch of useless tossers!”

“Dobley doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing”, said Bengo “He’s flaying around like a man in a fit. He needs putting back on the straight and narrow, and you’re very good at doing that”.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” said Bardin, as Rumble and Farnol sniggered into their wine-glasses.

“Dobley isn’t being at all rational”, said Bengo.

“Look, we’ve given him good advice until I’ve bored the arse off myself with it!” said Bardin “As far as I’m concerned the only truly good thing that can be done for Dobley is to have him certified! He’s spending his whole time seriously deluding himself. He’s not rational”.

“Exactly, so he can’t be left to his own devices!” said Bengo “You wouldn’t leave a madman to look after himself. That little man in the village didn’t dump his mad wife did he! We haven’t dumped Hoowie!”

“Mind you, we have tried a few times!” said Rumble.

“You need to go and tell him that he’s not to have plastic surgery, it wouldn’t do any good at all”, said Bengo.

“Do you seriously think he’s going to be lectured on plastic surgery by ME?!” said Bardin, pointing at his own lip.

“Oh I might have known you’d bring all that into it”, said Bengo “Me me me, that’s all you ever think about!”

“Would you two like us to leave?” said Rumble.

“I resent being made to be concerned about Dobley!” Bardin went on “Why? It’s not fair!”

“Because he’s got nobody else to be concerned about him”, said Bengo.

Rumble and Farnol quietly got up and left the room, in an attitude of quiet discretion.

“I’m sorry, Bardy”, said Bengo “I didn’t mean what I said about you only thinking of yourself”.

“Particularly as most of the time I’m thinking about you!” said Bardin, nearly close to tears.

“I know”, said Bengo “And I understand how you feel, but I feel really sorry for Dobley. I’d hate to be in his position. I’ve often thought that being a double-act isn’t easy, but it’s a lot easier than being solo. He’s how I would have been if I hadn’t had you”.

“You wouldn’t be threatening to have plastic surgery!” said Bardin.

“I might have”, said Bengo “If I was ageing and resented it. Kieran’s given us a wonderful gift with having our youth back. I guess we take it for granted these days. I don’t know what it’s like to have people whispering ‘oh he used to be quite good-looking when he was younger’. Like they said about that poor woman in the village, ‘she was quite a looker in her day’. Without Kieran I’d have probably got old and fat and grey, all blubbery and revolting, a dribbling old halfwit. You’d have been better off than me then, Bardy. Getting old wouldn’t have affected you as much”.

“Having always been ugly you mean?” Bardin rasped.

“No!” Bengo giggled “Just you’d have always been slim, and you being fair-haired being grey wouldn’t have shown up so much. You’d have probably looked quite distinguished”.

“Yeah right”, said Bardin “With a twisted lip! Very sophisticated! You do talk a lot of rubbish at times!”

“Perhaps”, said Bengo, dolefully “We will help Dobley though won’t we?”

“How?” said Bardin “You’re not suggesting we have him live with us? We’ve only just got rid of Hegley!”

“Well he can’t stay at the ‘Moon and Stars’ forever”, said Bengo “He won’t be able to afford it for much longer I would’ve thought”.

“Hal and the others have got digs in the village”, said Bardin “Why can’t he go and live with them?”

“I wouldn’t send a mad dog to live with that lot!” said Bengo “You’ve said yourself what a useless bunch of tossers they are. You think he’s a basketcase now, he’d be homicidal after a week of living with them!”

“Hegley then?” said Bardin “He’s already looking after Piers and Josh, one more fruitcake shouldn’t make any difference!”

“Bardy, Dobley needs constantly watching!” said Bengo “Hegley can’t do all that on his own! Whereas here there are …”

“Seventeen of us”, said Bardin, when it appeared as though Bengo was having trouble with his calculations.

“I know, I was just trying to remember!” said Bengo “It’s been very confusing lately!”

As they walked out of the bedroom to go downstairs the door to the back bedroom closed softly.

“Was that Toppy?” said Bardin “What’s he creeping around for?”

“He’s always creeping around!” said Bengo “Probably eavesdropping on us”.

Downstairs Lonts was noisily divesting himself of his new skiing equipment. Once he was free of that he chucked some logs onto the fire, complaining that the others had allowed it to get low.

“Can’t we get a tranquilliser gun for him, Ad?” said Joby.

“Ah clowns, there you are”, said Adam “I’m afraid I’ve got some rather trying news”.

“Oh that’ll make a nice change!” said Bardin.

“Toppy has gone on strike”, said Adam “He complained that we were taking him too much for granted and he’s gone upstairs in high dudgeon”.

“Well that’s brilliant timing that is!” said Bardin “Just when we’ve got Dobley the walking road accident coming to live with us as well!”

“Oh he’s not is he?” said Adam “I don’t wish to sound callous, but Dobley is so depressing!”

“You don’t have to tell me that!” said Bardin.

“Oh go on everybody have a go at me”, said Bengo “It was my idea after all. I’m the one to blame!”

He looked nervously at Joby, who was standing near him holding a milk-jug. Bengo, with a clown’s dismayed foresight, fully expected the contents to go over him. Adam though ordered Joby to return the jug to the larder.

“You’ve turned into a right bleedin’ do-gooder you have!” was what Joby had to be satisfied with saying to Bengo “We’ll be having prisoners on parole living with us next! We’ll turn into a bleedin’ halfway house!”

Bardin seized a broom and banged on the ceiling with the handle. A massive thud was dispatched in reply.

“Who would ever have thought that Toppy had such big feet!” said Adam “Bardin, I think you should upstairs and negotiate with him, bring your union leader skills to the fore”.

Joby sniggered.

“I’m not going up there and talking to that nutter!” said Bardin “Let him stew! He’ll get bored anyway after he’s played a few rounds of Patience”.

“And he won’t be able to stand the thought of us managing alright on our own”, said Bengo “You know how he thinks he’s the only one who knows how to do things properly!”

Kieran was sitting by the fire reading the local paper.

“Did you know there was to be a séance on in the village on Twelfth Night?” he said.

“That’s all we need!” Joby groaned.

“A séance?” said Bardin, almost sounding offended “That’s their idea of festive entertainment is it? A séance?!”

“You’re not going anyway”, said Joby to Kieran “Chances are it’ll be you going into the trance, not the daft medium!”

Julian came in through the glass doors, followed by Tamaz. They had been down in the saw-shed talking to Ransey and Hillyard. Tamaz yodelled excitedly and tugged on Julian’s coat-sleeve.

“Yes alright”, said Julian “Let me get in the house first!”

Julian reached in his pocket and put a small glass object on the kitchen table.

“We found that outside the door of the saw-shed”, he said.

“Good heavens”, said Adam “It looks like an old eye-piece, a monacle”.

“I think that’s exactly what it is”, said Julian.

Bardin screwed it into his right eye.

“It rather suits you, Bardin”, Adam smiled.

“So who’s been going around leaving monacles around the place?” said Joby.

“There are so many strange things going on around here”, said Adam “That I think we just have to go along with it. Anyway, Bengo’s got something to tell you about Dobley, Jules, haven’t you, Bengo?”

“I have?” said Bengo, looking appalled “Why me?”

“Because it was your bleedin’ idea”, Joby growled.

“What about Dobley?” said Julian.

“He’s moving in”, said Kieran.

“Patsy, stop stirring!” said Adam.

“I wasn’t!” said Kieran “It’s just we’d have been going round the houses all afternoon if it’d been left to you lot!”

“We’re going to have that gloomy shade mooning around the place with his hangdog expressions?” Julian exclaimed.

“That’s about the size of it”, said Joby.

“Of course he might not come”, said Bardin, feeling he had better come to Bengo’s rescue “We haven’t mentioned this to him yet. I mean, he was threatening to go and have plastic surgery, so he might not come”.

“Except Bengo doesn’t want him to go and have plastic surgery”, said Rumble, who WAS stirring it.

“I don’t expect Dobley will be any trouble really”, said Adam, putting on a confidence he didn’t really feel “We can find him plenty of useful things to do”.

“What useful things?” Julian snapped “He’s a fucking t.v presenter, he’s not cut out to do useful things!”

“Oh and there’s another thing”, said Kieran “Toppy’s gone on strike. He’s gone upstairs, probably to have a protest lie-in!”

“PATSY, I won’t tell you again!” said Adam.

“Than hadn’t you better go up and order him down?” said Julian to Bardin “I mean, you are Captain, and we can’t have him lying around making the place look untidy”.

Bardin went upstairs, and then returned down again almost immediately. He sat halfway down the steps and burst out laughing.

“He’s sat up there”, he spluttered “With a pink blanket round his shoulders playing cards! You’ve never seen such a sight! He’s really lost it this time!”

“You’d better watch out he doesn’t borrow your pink nightie, old love!” said Adam.

Bardin flatly refused to allow Toppy to have his lunch taken up to him on a tray.

“If he wants to eat he comes down here”, he said “He’s not ill! Nobody is to inconvenience themselves in any way whilst he’s up there swinging the lead! He’ll come down when he’s hungry”.

“I hope you’re right”, said Adam, as everyone took their places at the table “There’s not a lot of him to start with to go wasting away”.

“Oh well if he does, we’ll bury him in his pink blanket!” said Joby.

There was a knock at the door.

“Who is that now?” said Adam, in exasperation “What a stupid time to call!”

“I’ll go”, said Julian.

The others all looked suitably astonished. Julian had NEVER been known to go and answer the door.

“It might be Piers”, was Julian’s explanation for this thoroughly untoward behaviour.

He was at the door for a little while, and could be heard asking if any reply was expected. More conferring and then Julian came back to the table.

“A messenger”, he said “From the village. The First Man has invited us to a little soiree he’s having at home on Twelfth Night”.

“Ah, that’s the day of the séance”, said Kieran.

“I wish you’d forget about that bloody séance!” said Joby.

“He’s invited ALL of us?” said Ransey, who thought that anyone who invited them all into his house at one time would have to be raving mad.

“’A reasonable number’”, said Julian “I have no idea what he constitutes as a reasonable number, but play it safe I suppose and put it at six”.

“You’ve accepted then?” said Bardin.

“Yes, but you can of course make all the final decisions as to who goes”, said Julian, with more than a hint of sarcasm about him.

“Thank you”, said Bardin.

The Indigo-ites had taken on board Hegley’s comment that it was virtually impossible to find privacy in the Old Mill-House, and as they intervening months to summer couldn’t exactly be hurried along, they had to find other means until they were able to use the terrace and the forest more. Amongst the heap of rejected furniture and objects d’art unearthed in the outhouses in the courtyard they had discovered an antique screen, the sort that people used to undress behind in the days before corridors linked bedrooms. Adam had had this brought into the house and had cleaned it up himself. It was now used to screen off a small corner of the living-room, so that anyone simply wanting to sit by themselves for a little while could do so. So far Mieps had been the one to make most use of it. She would often sit there and work on her knitting, even though Joby said that Farnol’s new jumper looked like the results of someone suffering from chronic vomiting disorder.

On the afternoon before Twelfth Night (Bardin had decided to take himself, Bengo, Kieran, Joby, Adam and Julian to the First Man’s do) the little alcove was in constant use. Julian decided that Bengo must be “punished” for his do-gooding, even though Dobley hadn’t been approached with the generous offer yet … and so Bardin still held out hope that he would turn it down. Bengo was alarmed at first. He knew how unpopular the Dobley offer was with the rest of the gang, and envisioned the strap being sent for, but he soon realised that Julian only meant to have his customary bit of fun. At that Bengo perked up enormously. The frantic never-ending busyness of moving in, getting settled, plus Christmas and New Year, had meant that the usual fun and frolics hadn’t been as much in evidence as they were usually. His eyes sparkled at the thought of a bit of jolly chastisement, and his moans of appreciation gave testament to his own enjoyment, as he was soundly spanked. Julian’s own enjoyment was helped by Bengo wearing his baggy shorts, as in spite of the wintry weather it still got very hot in the house doing the kitchen work.

“I hope you manage to calm down by tonight”, said Bardin, who was horrified at what the First Man would make of Bengo’s sparkly eyes, heavy breathing and dimpled cheeks. Bardin already had dim views of the First Man’s probable sexual activities, regarding him as a “bloody old slimeball”.

“It doesn’t matter, Bardy”, said Bengo “I think he only likes women”.

“You are such a child!” snapped Bardin.

Bardin then commandeered the private space for himself. The others were all going down to the outhouse for a few minutes to see what else they could find. Bardin intended to use the unusual solitude of the living-room to spy on Toppy. He was convinced that, deprived of lunch, Toppy would now be in a state of frenzied hunger, and would come creeping downstairs looking for nourishment once he knew the others were out of the way. Bardin was proved to be absolutely right. He had secreted himself behind the screen, and barely as soon as the others had gone down into the courtyard, Toppy came creeping stealthily down the stairs, the pink blanket still festooned around his shoulders. Bardin waited until Toppy had his hand in the biscuit tin before springing out at him, pointing the broom-handle for good measure.

“Caught you!” he cried, thrusting it at him accusingly.

“You are being unreasonable, Bardin”, said Toppy “A man needs sustenance, he has to eat. I don’t know how you can even consider leaving me up there to starve!”

“Leaving you up there to starve?” Bardin exclaimed “You chose to go and sit up there! You waffled on about going on strike! And now you expect us to give you room service on top of it all! There was nothing to stop you coming downstairs at lunchtime and sitting at the table with everyone else”.

“No”, said Toppy, drawing his pink blanket around him “Because you would have all sneered at me”.

“Only for about a minute”, said Bardin “And then we’d have all got bored and talk about something else”.

He sighed and thrust the biscuit tin back at Toppy.

“But I might not be coming back to work today”, said Toppy “I haven’t made my mind up yet”.

“Well have a biscuit whilst you’re making it up”, said Bardin.

Voices were heard approaching the terrace, and the others entered the house.

“Have you stopped being daft, Toppy?” said Lonts.

“Very unlikely!” Joby growled.

“But I DO work very hard around here”, Toppy protested.

“No one has ever disputed that, old love”, said Adam.

“Not as hard as I work”, said Hillyard, as Joby groaned “I mean REAL work, out there in all weathers, doing really shitty jobs”.

“Oh for God’s sake somebody stop him”, said Joby “Or we’ll be listening to him all night!”

“Not sitting indoors in the warm”, Hillyard continued “Doing jobs like ironing”.

“Toppy stands up to do the ironing, Hillyard”, said Lonts.

“Toppy’s work is very valuable”, said Adam, in his best diplomatic manner “And we all appreciate it very much, don’t we, everyone?”

A ragged chorus of unenthusiastic “yeahs” was the response.

“Did you find anything down in the shed?” said Bardin.

“Oh a few odds and ends that might come in useful sometime”, said Adam “Nothing very exciting I’m afraid”.

“Not quite true”, said Julian, carrying an old carpet-beater. He swiped Toppy on the behind with it.

Best clothes were donned for the outing to the First Man’s house. Bengo was having trouble tying his floppy tie in front of the mirror in the front bedroom when Julian came in.

“Is Bardy getting impatient?” said Bengo.

“You look like you’re having trouble”, said Julian “Come here”.

Bengo kissed him when Julian had finished helping him out.

“Oh I shouldn’t have done that”, Bengo giggled “Bardy’ll moan about me getting too excited. He complained earlier that I looked like a picture of sexual arousal!”

“You are an intoxicating creature!” said Julian “I absolutely adore you”.

“That’s because I love having my bottom smacked!” Bengo teased.

“Not the only reason I can assure you!” said Julian.

“It’s nice that we’re getting settled in here at last”, said Bengo “I was beginning to wonder if we ever would”.

“Christmas got in the way a bit, that’s all”, said Julian.

“I was missing getting spanked on a daily basis!” Bengo laughed.

“It might be hard to do all that if your friend the gloomy Mr Dobley moves in with us”, said Julian “His permanently crestfallen expression will not be conducive to an atmosphere of sexual frolics!”

“We could do all that in here”, said Bengo “And ban him from coming in. Get Hillyard to put a bolt on the inside of the door”.

“Very good idea”, said Julian.

“And anyway”, said Bengo, sitting on Julian’s lap, and relishing the way his trousers were chafing his sore behind “We never let Codlik stop us messing about, so why let Dobley?”

Bardin came into the room and looked outraged at finding Bengo sitting there intimately with Julian. He despaired at ever getting the tell-tale sparkle out of Bengo’s eyes before they met the First Man.

“Oh behave, Bardy!” said Bengo, leaping to his feet “I wish it was bedtime already, I’d give you a really good seeing-to!”

Bardin whimpered, helplessly.

“That’s Hillyard bringing the truck round”, said Julian “We’d better get moving”.

He slapped them both on the behind before leaving.

An old sofa, that was so low-down that it was like a futon with arms and a back to it, had been put in the back of the truck to try and make for more comfortable travelling. Kieran, Joby, Bengo and Bardin were sitting on that, whilst Julian drove, and Adam sat up front with him. Because of the intense winter cold they had all come equipped with blankets.

“I dunno about more comfortable travelling”, said Joby “I can feel every bloody bump in the track!”

“Oh I’m quite enjoying it”, said Bengo “It’s nice and cosy like this, shame we’ve got to arrive really”.

“I’ve always thought you were weird!” said Joby.

“Ach now come on, Bengo’s right”, said Kieran “This is a bit of alright”.

“It’s fucking freezing!” said Joby.

“Well put your hands under the blanket then”, said Kieran “Anyway we owe Bengo, he hasn’t half put Julian into a good mood this evening!”

Bardin made an incomprehensible noise, but suffice it to say it didn’t exactly ring with approval.

“What’s the matter with him?” said Joby, leaning forward to get a look at Bardin, who was sitting at the other end of the sofa.

“There’d be absolutely nothing the matter with if we weren’t going to see the First Man”, said Bengo “He thinks the First Man is probably a pervert!”

“I agree he’s a bit slimy”, said Kieran “But pervert’s putting it a bit strong!”

“You wait and see what happens this evening”, said Bardin “I’ve got a feeling in my bones”.

“I do wish we were turning up in something a little less gaudy”, said Adam, as he and Julian stood on the snowy pavement outside the First Man’s house, looking at their multi-coloured truck.

“Since when did you get so damn middle-class?” said Julian.

“Well I just feel it reflects on Patsy that’s all”, said Adam.

“Reflects on him?” Julian exclaimed “Look at all the trouble we had getting him into the bath-tub earlier!”

“He doesn’t like taking off all his clothes when it’s this cold”, said Adam.

“And you think we’re supposed to worry about letting HIM down?!” said Julian.

He let down the back of the truck and ordered the four of them out, giving each of them a light smack as they descended. Adam meanwhile was beginning to get the gravest misgivings about the evening, and it turned out that they were justified. It was highly surreal affair from beginning to end.

After much ringing the door had been opened by a little man with a round face, fair hair and rimless spectacles of the sort that Ransey wore. Because of his general shifty demeanor and the white gloves he was wearing the Indigo-ites mistakenly took him to be some sort of butler, and after announcing themselves, divested themselves of all their outdoor clothing and heaped it onto him. By the time they had finished it was amazing that he didn’t keel over like a cartoon character. A plump middle-aged woman with suspiciously bright red hair burst out of a nearby room and went into raptures of delight at seeing them. The Indigo-ites had no idea who she was but assumed she was some partner of the First Man. Lila, (such was her name), particularly went into raptures about their “silky hair”, and demanded to know what they washed it in. “Sometimes carbolic soap, sometimes beer, sometimes lemon juice”, said Adam.

Lila led them into a large living-area, which was spartenly furnished, but what items of furniture there was were not cheap. The big log-fire and the ankle-deep white fur carpet were particularly to be valued on such a cold winter’s night. The First Man was sat, Buddha-like as always, on a black leather sofa. Miniscule amounts of sweet sherry were handed round as an aperitif. Bengo sat contemplating Lila through this short preamble, trying to work out if she was the woman with the bright red melons that had been in the portrait in the side room at the ‘Moon and Stars’.

The First Man made a comment to the effect that he hadn’t been expecting so many of them to appear, which annoyed Julian and made him wish that the whole lot of them had turned up now. Joby grunted that if this was a problem two of them could go off to the ‘Moon and Stars’ for the evening. Lila squealed that she wouldn’t hear of such a thing, and she was “fairly certain” that the meal could be “stretched”. This was hardly the most welcoming start to a sociable evening.

Double doors were slid open and a candlelit table could be glimpsed invitingly through them. They were joined at the table by the sandy-haired man, who most emphatically was NOT a butler, but instead appeared to be some friend of the family. Instead they were waited on by an old lady, drafted in from the village for the evening to help. No staff apparently lived in the house. They were served a spoonful each of tomato and tapioca soup, followed by some stringy birds that had been shot in the woods(Adam dreaded to think when!) and plastered in thick tomato sauce. Bengo secretly wondered if Lila and the First Man had a thing about the colour red. More of the unspeakable sweet sherry was then brought out, now to pass muster as a digestif.

All through the meal the First Man had proudly detailed how he had been studying ancient history, and had built up quite a little library on the subject. He said he was particularly interested in Kieran’s ancient culture and was intending to make that his specialist subject, as it were.

“As such”, he announced, importantly picking up his glass of sweet sherry “I would like to propose a toast in the manner of Kieran’s old culture”.

Kieran naively thought he was going to speak some Gaelic, and so sat there reduced to speechlessness when the First Man, in improbably jolly tones, said “Kill the English!”

“Well … um ...” said Adam, also uncertain what to say for the best “That is a novel way of complimenting one’s guests I suppose!”

“I think we should find another toast”, said Kieran, recovering his power of speech.

“Bottoms up!” said Julian.

They were herded back into the living-room for coffee, served tongue-witheringly black in tea-cups. Lila and the First Man had disappeared, and the man with sandy hair (who hadn’t been introduced at all) sat nearby picking his teeth noisily with what looked like the spoke of a grappling-iron. Joby had slumped into a sulky posture, a nerve twitching in his cheek. Kieran kept shooting him ferocious looks, and desperately wanted to shake him and say “You don’t think I had anything to do with all that did you!” Bengo and Bardin, bewildered by the entire evening, sat perched primly on the edge of the sofa, terrified of dropping their coffee-cups on the white carpet.

Suddenly the double doors were slid open again and Lila burst in, this time clad in swathes of red chiffon. She proceeded to belly-dance, accompanied by the First Man twanging on a long stringed instrument, which sounded more and more excitable the longer he played. Lila had plenty of belly to dance with, and she was a formidable sight as she gyrated, bounced and wobbled around the room. It was very uncertain what to say for the best when she had finally finished.

“Well”, said Adam “No one can say that an evening at your house is predictable can they!”

Bardin’s mouth had dropped open throughout the dance and was still stuck like it.

“Close your mouth, old love”, said Adam.

“I think I need a bit of air”, Joby growled “I’m stepping outside for a minute”.

Kieran made as if to follow him, but Julian, who was absolutely certain that they’d start punching each other the moment they were outside the door, grabbed his wrist and held him down.

It was one of the rare occasions when Joby wished that he smoked. A man standing outside the front door smoking wouldn’t look at all unusual, whereas just standing there with his hands in his coat pockets made him feel like a policeman on sentry-duty. He was joined by the sandy-haired man, who, having kept up a near-total silence all evening now launched into chummy chat.

“I come from Aspiriola”, he said “Have you ever been there?”

“Yeah we know it quite well”, said Joby, wishing he would go away.

“A very beautiful place isn’t it?” said the sandy-haired man, in his wispy, breathy voice.

“It’s alright”, said Joby, never one to commit himself to an overflow of superlatives.

“My name is Hanzi”, said Hanzi.

“I was beginning to wonder if you had a name!” said Joby “Are you a relation then?”

“I am Lila’s brother”, said Hanzi.

“Oh right”, said Joby “Do you live here?”

“I haven’t decided”, said Hanzi, and he suddenly grabbed a strand of Joby’s hair.

Joby batted him away, irritably, as though Hanzi was a particularly irritating fly.

“Pack it in!” he said “I don’t like being pawed!”

Hanzi ignored him and continued to stroke his hair.

“KIERAN!” Joby yelled “ADAM!”

Hanzi held up his hands as if in surrender. Joby pushed past him into the house. Then, feeling he couldn’t really slam the front door on someone when it wasn’t his house, he snapped at him like a troublesome cat.

“Are you coming back in or not?”

Hanzi shuffled past him and they returned to the living-room. Joby resumed his slumped posture in one of the chairs, Kieran glowered at him from the far end of the sofa, and Adam wished he could box the ears of the pair of them. Bengo sat silently wishing they could go home.

“Is it snowing outside?” Julian asked.

“A bit”, said Joby.

“Then I don’t think we should leave it too late before going home”, said Julian, with all the gratitude of an actor having just been fed a vital stage-cue. Adam could have kissed him.

Thanks for a wonderful evening were exchanged, and the Indigo-ites poured back into the hallway and fell on the heap of coats, scarves, hats and gloves like ravening wolves on a carcass. When Bardin bent down to pick up his coat he felt his trousers split down the back.

“It’s usually me who that happens to!” Bengo laughed, uproariously, whilst Joby was looking around furtively to check that Hanzi hadn’t seen anything.

“I’m not putting on weight am I?” said Bardin, with a dancer’s extreme paranoia of weight-gain.

“I can’t imagine that for one moment”, said Adam “You’re as slender as a rail. Far more likely that your trousers have shrunk a little in the wash”.

Bardin tried desperately to see behind himself, where the pristine white gleam of his undershorts were shining through. Julian placed his hat over Bardin’s posterior and walked out into the snowy evening with him.

“Joby, what the hell is the matter with you?” said Kieran, when they reached the back of the truck “You can’t seriously think I had anything to do with that stupid toast? Since when have you ever known me come out with IRA slogans for fock’s sake?”

“I know that”, Joby sighed “It just felt like he was taking the piss that’s all”.

“He’s thick, he doesn’t know what he’s on about!” said Kieran “There’s no way he can understand the significance of something from over 2000 years ago!”

“Yeah alright”, said Joby “And another thing, I got groped up by bloody Hanzi when I was outside”.

“Groped up?” said Kieran.

“Well sort of pawed”, said Joby “He reminds me of Thierry, you remember, Dolores’s brother at No Name”.

“Yes I remember”, said Kieran “Well you tell me if he does anything like that again”.

“I won’t give him the bleedin’ chance!” said Joby.

“Get inside”, said Adam, coming up to them “I shall deal with you both when we get home!”

“Oh great!” said Joby.

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