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By Sarah Hapgood

Having safely deposited Beatrix and Kitty at the house, Bardin was anxious to move on. He didn’t want to run the risk of either of them changing their mind and wanting to return.

“Let’s get away from here as quickly as possible”, he said.

It was an idea that went down well on both boats. They left that strange, melancholy house with little regret. It seemed to be permanently under a lowering sky, as though brooding on all the rampant Evil in the world.

“Can do without all that”, was Bardin’s typically blunt analysis.

Two days down the river, they moored for the night at a still, featureless spot. Out of the vicinity of the house, and with Beatrix and Cat woman out of the way, everyone noticeably relaxed, even with the prospect of a hellish unknown facing them.

Bengo led Bardin into the big saloon, and gently put him down on the bed.

“I am shattered”, said Bardin “It must be relief. Why the fuck did we put up with those two mad scabby old bints for so long?”

“We didn’t have any choice really”, said Bengo.

“I still have some sneaking suspicion we’re still not shot of them”, said Bardin.

“I’m going to remove all your clothes”, said Bengo.

“Go on then”, said Bardin.

Bengo lovingly undid his partner’s trousers, and slid them off. Hillyard appeared in the doorway, carrying a large jug.

“Sorry to interrupt”, he said “But I’m about to serve a new keg of beer in the dining-room, and then we’re going to have a little musical soiree. Thought you might like to be in on it”.

“Just the family?” said Bardin.

“Yep”, said Hillyard “The night-watch are on duty, so you can leave your trousers off. Give us all a treat”.

“You can leave them off all the time whilst the hatches are locked”, said Bengo.

“And when we’re moving”, said Hillyard “No one can get on then”.

“Oh well if it’s good for morale”, said Bardin.

They followed Hillyard to the dining-room, where Umbert was tinkling out a tune on the piano, and the other clowns were holding a ragged sing-song. Pitchers of beer were spread at convenient spaces along the table.

“Reminds me of that holiday we had up near Snow Lake that time”, said Joby “‘Cept it’s nowhere near as warm as that”.

“Oh yes, the fishing-and-spanking-Bardin holiday”, said Bengo “That was one of the best we’ve ever had”.

“It feels like we have thrown off a load”, said Julian “I can say that now whilst Ransey’s up on deck. I tried saying it earlier and I just got a lecture about how there are probably untold difficulties facing us. Can’t that man stop being an accountant for five minutes?!”

“I think even Ransey’s relieved”, said Adam “He just doesn’t want to let himself go completely about it”.

“Someone’s got to keep a cool head around here”, said Hillyard, imitating his old friend.

“Oh now just think of him up there on guard-duty”, said Adam.

“Yeah, missing the clowns’ singing”, said Joby “Lucky bastard”.

“I’ll take him up some beer”, said Bengo “Could you spank Bardin first though? It’ll do him good”.

“Of course”, said Adam.

He put Bardin over his knee and smacked his behind. Bardin went so floppy with relaxation that he wondered if he’d be able to get up again.

“When was the last time we did this?” said Bengo.

“I dunno”, said Joby “But we’d better do it more regularly from now on”.

Julian had retrieved a paddle from his cabin next door, and Adam vigorously applied that to Bardin’s bottom as well.

Bengo shrugged into an oilskin jacket, and then took two mugs of beer up on deck to Ransey and Rumble.

“You’ve missed a treat”, he said to them “Bardy’s just had his arse whipped”.

“I’m sure I shall see it again at some point”, said Ransey.

“Breakfast time would be nice one”, said Rumble.

“I’ll put that onto Adam”, said Bengo “There seem to be permanent rain-clouds overhead in this area”.

Bats circled around. Bengo was glowering up at them dolefully when he heard Bardin shouting from the bottom of the stairs.

“What is it?” Bengo shouted down to him.

“Abandon the night-watch”, said Bardin “Look, let’s just take the risk. Lock all the hatches, and come below. We’re miles from anywhere, and we’re anchored in the middle of the river. Let’s rely on the dogs to act as security”.

No one was more surprised than Bardin when Ransey agreed to this unexpected idea without a murmur. The simple fact was that even Ransey, like the rest of them, was sick of being on a constant war footing. Without a word of protest they locked the hatches and came below.

The musical soiree went on until around four o’clock in the morning, getting increasingly mellow as the night wore on. Everyone went to bed in a raggedy fashion. The dogs pattered around the corridor until they too finally settled down.

A couple of hours later Joby awoke to hear a faint buzzing sound coming from overhead. He sat up awkwardly in the communal bed. He roughly elbowed Julian who was next to him.

“What is it?” asked Julian.

“Sounds like a helicopter”, said Joby.

“Surely not?” said Julian “An air-buggy?”

“Well whatever it is, I don’t like the sound of it”, said Joby.

“There’s only one way to find out”.

Julian threw on his coat over his naked body, and stepped over the dogs on his way to the steps. Joby followed him up to the main deck.

Day was breaking. The pinkish glow to the clouds gave a promise of a rare fine day ahead.

“There it is”, said Julian, pointing at a small black dot of a vehicle flying eastwards.

Joby raised a small telescope he had grabbed from the table in the saloon.

“S’no, I can’t make out much”, he said, passing it to Julian “Most likely an air-buggy I spose”.

“I think we just have to agree it’s some kind of aircraft”, Julian sighed, lowering the telescope “I hope Bardin doesn’t take this as a sign that the night-watches have to resume permanently”.

As it turned out, he didn’t. He agreed with Ransey that he was sick and tired of the constant state of brooding alertness.

“The world is so mad”, he said “That there’s no damn point worrying about every damn thing that could happen”.

He picked up his shaving-bag and headed purposefully for his own cabin at the other end of the ship.

“Well”, said Julian to Joby “Adam’s clearly having an effect”.

“I hope so”, said Joby.

“For all I know we could be stuck on another sodding river for months and years on end, like the last one”, said Bardin, as he and Bengo washed and shaved in their own cabin.

“Hillyard wants to rest up somewhere”, said Bengo “Now that we’ve dumped Beatrix and Cat Woman, and the weather’s warming-up. Give the animals some exercise”.

“Yes, that’s a point”, said Bardin, rubbing himself dry with a towel “Give us a chance to have a pow-wow. Plus, if someone’s spying on us, then it’ll give ‘em another chance to appear”.

“What if they start firing on us or something?” said Bengo.

“Dear God”, Bardin sighed, and rolled his eyes “You clearly spend too much time with Joby!”

“All I’m saying is what will we do if that happens, Bardy?” said Bengo.

“Use some of your rock cakes as anti-aircraft missiles probably”, said Bardin.

Bengo swiped him on the behind with a towel.

“C’mon, help me get dressed”, said Bardin.

Bengo supported him as he clambered into a pair of extra starched shorts.

“I hope you don’t put your trousers on today”, said Bengo.

“I’ll have to at some point”, said Bardin “When I got topside, and I expect Cloris will want to pop over at some point”.

“Will we need to lock you in here when she appears?” said Bengo.

“That won’t be necessary”, said Bardin “I shall be gravely cordial … and leave Adam to do all the chin-wagging”.

Adam was lying in wait for them outside the galley door. He gave Bardin a brisk before-breakfast spanking. This rigorous diet of spankings seemed to be having the desired effect. When Cloris came over after breakfast, Bardin greeted her with the promised grave cordiality, and then took himself off to the big saloon, where Hillyard could give him a massage.

Meanwhile, a tired-looking Cloris unburdened her heart to Adam over cups of tea in the galley

“I feel like I’m recovering from a serious illness”, she said “After unloading those two women”.

“Well you are in a way”, said Adam.

“It’s only now they’ve gone I can see just how awful they actually were”, said Cloris “The trouble is, it was never anything hugely big. If it was you could have a big dust-up, and feel perfectly satisfied in dumping them ashore. But no, it was just a daily drip-feed of awfulness. I tried everything. We let them cook one night, thinking it might make them feel more a part of us, and everything went wrong, and they got stressed, and everyone was miserable. Recently I offered Beatrix a pair of my deck shoes. She practically snatched them out of my hands, and then complained they hurt her toes. It was the way she said it ‘those shoes you gave me hurt my toes’, as though it was all my fault, as though I had done it on purpose”.

Cloris broke down in tears.

“Oh it seems so silly crying over a pair of deck shoes, with everything else going on. I’m so sorry”.

“Ssh”, said Adam, stroking her hands soothingly across the table “It’s often the little things that push us over. And Beatrix and Kitty specialised in petty needling. They simply don’t know how to be happy or appreciate kindness. In their own way they are vampires too”.

“I’m hoping now they’ve gone”, said Cloris “That our ship can become less fraught. I mean, we are a happy community on the whole. We have our disagreements, but they are usually sorted out. We’re very like you in that respect”.

“Yes, we do well on the whole”, said Adam “We all have our fights and tantrums too. I know Bardin can be a stroppy little devil, but he is good at keeping order”.

“How’s that then, Rosy Cheeks?” said Hillyard, sitting back on his haunches. Suddenly he briskly smacked Bardin’s bare buttocks.

“Ow! That’s not your job!” said Bardin.

“Sorry, I promised Kieran I’d do it”, Hillyard chuckled “He keeps saying you can’t possibly feel anything through all that starch”.

“Yes, he likes to keep banging on about that one”, Bardin snapped “Well he can pipe down. I’m the one getting walloped every five minutes, not him”.

“Oh I don’t know”, said Hillyard, wiping ointment off his hands “Old Jobe keeps him in order”.

“Tell Kieran”, said Bardin, wagging his finger as best he could whilst lying on his stomach “It’s my shorts that enable me to be smacked so often. I’d be covered in bloody blisters otherwise”.

“I’ll pass that onto him”, said Hillyard.

“You can help me into my trousers”, said Bardin.

“What do you need to put those back on for?”

“Because (a) Cloris is still on-board, and (b) I’ll be going up on deck”.

“I want to pull ‘em down”, said Hillyard “Like I used to back in Snow Lake”.

“You can do that below deck”, said Bardin “Whilst we’ve got neighbours everything has to be below deck”.

Whilst Hillyard was helping him to get dressed, they heard a woman’s voice overhead.

“Sounds like Cloris is leaving”, said Hillyard “She almost looked ill when she arrived. I hope Adam’s been able to help her”.

They found Adam up on deck, watching as Cloris returned to the yacht.

“How is she?” said Bardin.

“I think she’ll be OK”, said Adam “We had a few tears, but I think she had a lot to get out of her system”.

“I’m not surprised, after having had to put up with Beatrix and Cat Woman!” said Bardin “We seem to have had them hanging round our necks for too bloody long. If Kieran ever lectures us that we didn’t show them enough Love, I’ll kick him all over the ship”.

“I don’t think that’s very likely, old love”, said Adam “Kitty used to drive him mad with her bullying, faux spirituality, and he knows how unhappy Beatrix had made me. How tantalising you are, standing there with your trousers on, concealing all that starched cotton decadence underneath”.

“Oh don’t you start”, said Bardin “Hillyard keeps threatening to pull them off. I’ve insisted they stay on above deck”.

“Come and see me in the galley at cocoa-time tonight”, said Adam “And I’ll put you over my knee again”.

“Privately?” said Bardin.

“Well occasionally I don’t see why not”, said Adam “Unless Bengo wants to come in too”.

They carried on sailing eastwards up the river in the middle of the day After lunch Bengo and Bardin returned to their cabin for some “cosy time”.

“I don’t seem to have done much today”, said Bardin.

“Who cares?” said Bengo, kissing him all down his back, sore buttocks and along his legs “Who says we have to be paralysed with terror all the time?”

“I didn’t think we were!” said Bardin “We have to be alert that’s all”.

Bengo gently climbed onto him, and lay prostrate on his back. There was a knock on the door.

“If that’s Hoowie I’ll personally kill him”, said Bardin.

“No it’s me”, said Ransey “Only came in to tell you everyone wants to stop for a little while. We’re in the middle of nowhere, good visibility for miles. Thought we’d better check with you though”.

“How kind”, said Bardin “What’s so fantastic about this magical wasteland then?”

“Nothing”, said Ransey “Just gives us all a chance to think that’s all”.

“That would be a bloody miracle!” said Bardin.

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