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"Why is everybody looking at us in such a hostile way?" said Julian, scanning the small theatre audience below their box a few days later.
"They blame us for bringing Angel here", said Adam, rooting around in a bag of toffees.
"We didn't bring him here", said Julian "We were all quite happy to leave him behind in the City. He followed us".
Adam and Julian were attending a low-budget stage production of an old mystery play, which was being put on at the Thetislog Theatre. It said much for the chronic lack of entertainment in the area that even an over-long (it ran at nearly four hours) production, full of obscure verse and performed by second-rate actors, could still pull in the crowds to such a degree. Although Adam couldn't help but feel that this was because it was more a cheap way of keeping warm for the evening, more than any cultural aspirations. In fact precious little attention was being paid to the play, which rumbled on in the background like a faulty central heating system. The audience was concerned with catching up on their sleep, making forays to the bar, or buying from the peddlers that roamed freely amongst the benches.
"It's like Restoration theatre really isn't it?" said Adam, leaning on the edge of the box to peer at everyone "Except there are no buxom girls selling oranges".
"No", said Julian, pouring himself another glass of red wine from the bottle at his feet "More like grizzled old men selling potions made from the penis of the Yzel tiger".
"They're not are they?" Adam exclaimed.
"Has very good aphrodisiac qualities apparently".
"Better not let on to Patsy about it. He'll have a fit. Nothing riles him quicker than any mention of illegal hunting".
"Why are this lot so wound-up about Angel anyway?" said Julian "I know he can be excessively irritating at times, but he's not dangerous anymore".
"They still have superstitious fear of him", said Adam "It's a bit hard to pretend you're a harmless, ordinary guy when everyone knows you were once possessed by the Devil. And Angel plays on it. It gives him a kick. From what I can gather he's been haunting the pub and the shop in the village, and intimidating the owners. Taunts them that he's not leaving when closing-time comes, that sort of juvenile behaviour".
"Seems rather pointless to me".
"It gives him an interest", said Adam, wryly "After all, it must infuriate him like mad that he doesn't get any attention out of us at home, and he keeps trying hard enough".
"The only one he can intimidate there is your little darling", said Julian.
"I try and keep Lo-Lo away from him as much as possible", said Adam "Ransey has been an absolute godsend lately. He takes Lonts out running most days, which means he's safely beyond Angel's reach for a couple of hours at least. But Angel's behaviour isn't making life easy for any of us. I had the local shopkeeper bending my ear about him earlier".
"Mr Cliche-Man", said Julian.
"As far as I can gather the local shop-keeper is incapable of speaking in anything other than cliches. All I get out of him are such nuggets of wisdom as 'your money soon goes doesn't it', 'doesn't last five minutes these days'".
"Not at his prices that's for sure".
"He said to me that he could tell I didn't do the shopping very often", said Julian "Because I couldn't find anything. Bloody cheek! The reason I couldn't find anything was because I'd never been in there before! I'm sending Finia down in future, as otherwise I can see I shall strangle the wretched man with his own cliches one day".
"I am accursed!!" yelled a bearded old actor from the stage. He boomed it so loudly that he momentarily had his audience's attention. This was a brief aberration that the audience made sure didn't happen again.
"Oh cheer up", Julian shouted "It's not that bad. I've seen worse".
An actor playing the Devil (who for some obscure reason was wearing a lizard suit) climbed up a pillar at the front of the stage and then clung to it, farting loudly whilst the bearded accursed gentleman flogged him rather lethargically. Suddenly a character they had never seen before appeared stage right, clutching a length of chain about his person.
"Who the bloody hell is this meant to be?" said Adam, hastily flicking the pages of his programme.
"The keeper of the toilet chain obviously", said Julian "That's the trouble with this play. Characters are introduced and then disappear mid-scene, never to be seen again. None of it makes a blind bit of sense".
"Well it is a mystery play I suppose", Adam sighed.
"The only mystery about this play is how it got put on in the first place", said Julian "I'm sure everyone here would have much preferred a farce, or a bit of hammy horror".
"Perhaps the theatre-owners have a high cultural or religious quota to fill", said Adam "A bit like some t.v companies were in our day. So many hours of the week had to be set aside for programmes nobody wanted to watch".
"I suppose it makes a change from the mindless mediocrity we get the rest of the time", said Julian, sniffily "Look, all that row on the stage is distracting us from our conversation. Let's go and sit in the bar".
It was obvious from the way the bar was packed to seething point, that the only reason anyone was sitting in the auditorium at all was because the bar was full.
"Who are all these people?" said Adam, in disbelief "Where do they come from? We're in a one-horse town halfway up a mountain for God's sake! I could understand it being this busy if we were back in the City".
"Quite a few live round here. Farmers and forestry officials mainly".
"At times like this I begin to wonder what Patsy's on about, when he goes on about the ongoing catastrophe of the shrinking world population", said Adam.
"He's a Catholic", said Julian "Bound to be a fixation of his".
"Well I suppose it is pretty serious Jules", said Adam, facetiously.
"Nonsense. I'm looking forward to things being a bit quieter in future. Think how the crime rate'll drop, and service in the shops will improve no end".
"It's such a strange feeling", said Adam "In our time the big concern was over-population. Now the human race is shrinking all around us. You don't see very small children anymore".
"There aren't any that's why", said Julian, bluntly "Perhaps that's why Lonts is so popular. After all, every magazine article I've seen on him stresses the Baby Lonts bit. He's their substitute for the real thing. That's why daft old men like you go all gooey around him. All wanting to pull him onto their laps and squeeze him".
"Lonts is so wonderfully squeezable", said Adam "He's got this delightful little giggle when you squeeze him hard ..."
"Yes alright", said Julian, impatiently "I must know all Lonts's endearing little habits backwards by now, you've got them so well catalogued. He's the ultimate fantasy baby. He'll never grow up. He'll always be utterly dependent on you and adore you. He'll never go through the nasty adolescent phase of hating your guts".
"No, we have Angel for that", said Adam.
"Can't you do anything to help him?"
"Me? Help Angel? What makes you think I can?"
"He's got an addiction that he needs to kick if he's going to survive. Well you've been in that situation too. Beating the booze can't have been easy".
"You can say that again", said Adam "And the joke is you go through it all and come out the other side, and yet you never really beat it. It'll always be there, a noose around your neck".
"The same applies to Angel".
"Angel can only be helped if he wants to be", said Adam "And the harsh reality is, what's he got to cure himself for? He's never going to have any quality of life. I can't see Angel falling in love, or having a worthwhile job, or just simply enjoying himself. So, for all the difference it's going to make, he might as well carry on as he is".
"People probably said that about Lonts in the old days, when he was first released from the Assizes".
"Yes that's true", said Adam "I probably said it myself. If anyone had told me in the winter of 3999 that I would one day make Lonts the centre of my life I'd have told them they were crazy. I would not have believed I could have fallen in love with him the way I did".
"When did the turning-point come?"
"It happened very gradually. Probably started when we found him on the convict-ship. I was so appalled by the way he'd been treated. Felt terribly guilty too, as though we'd abandoned him back in the City. I suppose we had really, although we thought he'd be safe in hospital. We had no idea Gabriel would go as far as he did".
"So you fell in love with him on the island?"
"I'm very good at suppressing my true feelings when I have to", said Adam "Something I learnt in prison, the first time round. After all, that was where giving free rein to my feelings had got me. So for a while on the island I stood back. We all accepted Lonts as Hillyard's responsibility, and I felt I had no right to care for him".
"Hillyard and responsibility aren't words that make good bedfellows", said Julian.
"Quite", said Adam "I've told you the story of how Lonts went for me one day in the hut. It was then that I realised no one else would give him the attention he needed. The others seemed to be afraid of him most of the time. Dangerous explosives. Handle with care, that sort of thing. It was the last thing Lonts needed. Delicate handling only makes him feel more isolated than ever. The Kiskev nutter. The freak. Draw a wide circle around him and keep him at bay".
"So you thrashed him?"
"I wouldn't put it quite as bluntly as that! I was just drawing up lines and limitation for him. Once Lonts was aware of those, our relationship got steadily easier. He had been disciplined and punished in hospital, but that had been a cold clinical process. The rules mustn't be infringed, that kind of thing. Whereas I suppose I was the first one to show him that what he did really mattered to people. It mattered me to me most of all".
"He's perfect for you", said Julian "You always had so much impassioned emotion to give, and Lonts always needs more".
"Don't you need any these days then?"
"Only from you", Julian smiled.
"Anyway, why this sudden great concern over Angel? Have you got the hots for him again?"
"I have not", said Julian, crisply "Truth to tell he revolts me. But there are still traces of the beauty he once was, and I've never liked the thought of beauty being flushed down the pan needlessly".
"Neither do I. But Angel can't be saved, it's as simple as that. Could you force yourself to love him?"
"No", said Julian "And even if I could, he'd only take advantage of it".
"Exactly. That's why it's unfair to compare him to Lonts. Lonts hasn't got an evil manipulative bone in his body".
"Oh-ho!" Julian exclaimed "There are plenty of times he's manipulated you, and with consummate ease".
"Only because I'm happy to be manipulated by him", said Adam "Do you want another drink? The crush is beginning to thin out a bit. I can probably get to the bar reasonably unscathed now".
"There's a good reason why it's thinning out", said Julian, pointing at a large noisy gang who were engaged in an ominously aggressive drinking contest on the other side of the room "They look like the crowd Ransey's been seeing around and about".
"Yes, he said he didn't like the look of them", said Adam "He caught a few of them riding their nags up by our perimeter fence one morning. They were doing it in a very intimidating way, as though to say they could ride on our land too if they had the inclination".
"No respecter of Tinkerbell?"
"No respecter of anyone from what I can gather", said Adam.
"They've spotted you", said Julian.
"Bully for them".
One of the louts clambered onto the table, amidst whoops and screams of encouragement from his friends. He fished a large crucifix out of his pocket, fluffed his hair and proceeded to give a reasonable impersonation of Kieran giving a speech.
"Considering he's probably never heard an Irish accent other than Kieran's", said Julian "He's quite good".
The speech was a rambling affair, containing several jokes which speculated on the President's sex life, and which functions his consorts provided. The small crowd that was still in the bar appeared uneasy, and glanced at Adam nervously, as though he was about to whip out a bazooka and annihilate them all.
"We're leaving", said Julian, getting to his feet "Come on. Don't argue Adam, everyone's looking. A dignified exit is called for here".
Julian managed to get Adam outside, but with some difficulty. He couldn't relax completely until he had got him into the cart, which they had left parked round the back of the theatre.
"It is very hard to put up with a person you love being slagged off in public like that", said Adam.
"For heaven's sake Adam", Julian cried "It's nothing personal, it goes with the territory. People have been lampooning leaders and politicians since they were invented. Would you rather we lived in a police state where any off-colour remark about the president was forbidden? And anyway, they were only doing it because you were there".
"I suppose so".
"No suppose about it you silly-arse! Are you going to drive this contraption home or do I have to do it?"
Adam took the reins and steered the cart out into the village street, which was lifeless apart from some piano music coming from the inn.
"I wish I knew who that lot were", said Adam.
"Just a bunch of nutcases with nothing better to do", Julian sighed "Are we giving Hillyard a lift back up, or is he still in the pub?"
"He said he'd make his own way home", said Adam.
"Rather him than me", Julian shivered "Walking through a wood alone on a dark, frosty night is not my idea of fun".
"Knowing Hillyard, I expect he's hoping for company on the way".
"Why in God's name, on a night like this, can't the silly fool be satisfied with climbing into a nice warm bed with the ever-grateful Hirrid?"
"I don't know Jules", said Adam "Why weren't you ever satisfied with just getting into a warm bed an ever-grateful Adam in the old days?"
"Because I was young and very foolish then", said Julian "Whereas Hillyard must be well into his thirties by now so he doesn't have the excuse of being a reckless teenager anymore. I don't understand what's wrong with the silly man. After all, he's getting to the age now where, as Mrs Patrick Campbell once put it, you start longing for the warmth and comfort of the double bed after the hurly-burly of the chaise-longue. Well she said words to that effect anyway".
"She was talking about marriage actually", Adam laughed.
"It doesn't make any difference, the meaning is the same", said Julian "I don't understand what's the matter with Hillyard. I'm beginning to wonder if it's some kind of psychological disorder that he's got".
"The only way he's going to be cured", said Adam "Is when some cute young piece laughs at him and calls him a sad pathetic old fool. At the moment he's still too good-looking for that to happen, so he'll just keep trying it on".
Hillyard wasn't having much luck. He had spent a gloomy evening drinking beer in the pub, which had been almost deserted. He had thought about going across to the theatre, but felt he would be unable to cope with Adam and Julian's comments. As it was he felt enough of a joke already, without them joining in. Hillyard loved Hirrid, simple fact. But Hillyard couldn't cope with being in a monogamous relationship, another simple fact. And he couldn't handle Hirrid's sensitivity, his headaches that were governed by his moods, and his long, withdrawn lapses into silence when Hillyard unwittingly said something wrong, which was increasingly happening of late. He was ashamed to admit it, but he couldn't cope alone with the responsibility of someone else's feelings. He could give any amount of love to Kieran, Joby or Lonts. Simply because they were like cute babies, at the end of the day they could be handed back to their rightful owners. He was like an indulgent uncle with them, ready to spoil them with care and affection at any time, yet grateful to know that the ultimate responsibility for their happiness lay with someone else.
He emerged from the pub to see the cart containing Adam and Julian disappearing out of the village. He was now faced with a trek of several miles through forbidding dark woodland, on a night that had temperatures well below freezing. He braced himself for the journey. His nerves weren't helped by the full moon. Rimmed with a sphere of ice, it lit up the trees in uncomfortable detail. Hillyard was reminded of the Marlsblad woods when the Gorgon had walked there. It was not a welcome comparison at such a time.
When the attack came, his body was so taut with tension and cold that he couldn't even begin to fight them. They sprang out of nowhere, all he saw was a crazed blur of faces and fists. He tried to protect himself by curling himself up into a ball but they only started kicking him instead. When they finally left him alone it was with a choice selection of sniggers in their wake.
Unable to face the chilly delights of his bottle-green bedroom alone, Julian had said goodnight to Adam at the foot of the stairs and gone into the library for a nightcap and a read. The read turned into a doze though and when he was woken up by a faint tapping noise on the french windows, he found the hands of the clock on the mantelpiece stood at twenty-to-five, and the room was freezing.
He pulled himself off the sofa and immediately confronted a bloodstained visage leaning up against the window. He had given out an involuntary scream before realising that it was in fact only Hillyard.
"What the bloody hell happened to you?" he said, pulling the bloodied man into the room "Who did this Hillyard?"
"Do I look terrible?" said Hillyard, groggily.
"Sit down", Julian led him over to the sofa "I'll get some brandy and something to clean you up with".
"As soon as I've got you upstairs I'll send someone for a doctor", said Julian, dabbing at a cut above Hillyard's eye "You'll probably need stitches on that. I just hope he can do it here, and doesn't insist on all the performance of taking you to a casualty unit".
"Not very likely, stuck right up here", said Hillyard, warmed by two brandies in rapid succession "Too much hassle to get to a hospital from right up here. It took me half the night to get home as it was. I-I've never been attacked like that before. I feel so weak, so stupid".
Hillyard broke down and cried. Julian gave a moan of exasperation, and lifted the man's head to finish the cleaning process.
"Why me?" Hillyard wept.
"Why not you?" said Julian "You were convenient that's all. They might have attacked you because you were a member of the President's party, some people are like that. Back in our I'd have assumed they were gay-bashers. Some people are like that too".
"It went on in your time did it?"
"More than was commonly let on", said Julian "I expect these boys are the same ones Adam and I saw at the theatre. They're bored, desperate to get their kicks somehow. And you were alone and vulnerable. Could have happened to anyone. I expect if you were to ask them why they did it, they wouldn't be able to give you a coherent answer. Perhaps if we had walked home too they might have attacked us. Two oldies would make up for one of you".
"It would have been the death of Adam if they had", said Hillyard.
"Yes well fortunately you're younger and made of more resilient stuff", said Julian, briskly "I expect a quick overhaul by the quack and you'll be fine again".
"That's not the point though is it?" said Hillyard "These wankers seem to have something against us. It was me this time, but who knows next time? Adam ... or the baby for instance?"
"I strongly suspect the demented Eskimo could scare them off single-handedly just by raising his voice very loudly and having one of his terrifying tantrums", said Julian "And as for Adam ... well we'll just have to make sure they don't get a chance to have a pop at him, won't we?"
The village doctor came and stitched up Hillyard's eye, examined the bruising on his back and stomach, and said as far as he could see, there was no cause for alarm. No prospect of any long-term physical damage. After he had gone Hillyard lay alone in his room and felt as though he never wanted to leave it again. He himself had never been severely chastised as a child, but he had always fully sympathised with the plight of the boys who had been given public whippings in front of the whole camp. Now he understood their humiliation more than ever. His failure was written all over his cut and swollen face, and he only had to move slightly to feel the soreness of his body.
Joby had got impatient with his shame, saying he had nothing to blame himself for and he would have had to be Bruce Lee (whoever he was) to fight off half-a-dozen attackers at once. Hillyard had refused to be mollified, and he had later heard him and Ransey, in Kieran's room next door, exclaiming excitedly that They Would Have To Do Something About This.
"You won't do anything!" Hillyard had yelled through his cracked lips "Leave it be!"
Lonts now walked into the room carrying a cup of tea.
"Adam sent me in with it", he said, placing it carefully on the bedside table and then sitting down on the edge of the bed "Kieran says you're taking it all on yourself and you mustn't. It's not your fault".
"I can't help it Lonts", said Hillyard, tears welling in his eyes "I felt so helpless. So ashamed for being weak".
"You mustn't though Hillyard", Lonts took his hand "I know how you feel. Back in the hospital, if we were really bad, they'd shove us into the showers and turn a hose on us".
"Did that happen to you?"
"Once", he said "When I refused to take some new pills one morning. I wouldn't eat my breakfast either, so I think they got fed up with me. When they do that to you, turn the hose on you I mean, all you can do is curl up and wait for it to stop. You can't fight it, it's too strong. You just have to go with it until they've had enough".
"I sometimes think you're stronger than all of us", said Hillyard, touching the boy's face gently.
"Julian says I'm indestructible", said Lonts, proudly.
"No one's going to to turn any hoses on you here", said Hillyard, trying to sound reassuring.
"I know that Hillyard", Lonts giggled "What a strange thing to say".
"Just me trying to be protective".
He hugged Lonts, and tried not to wince when Lonts's firm embrace jarred with his sore body.
"You must drink your tea now Hillyard".
"Where are you going then? Can't you stay and talk to me for a while?"
"No. Adam says I mustn't tire you", Lonts rose to leave "Rest now Hillyard".
He lay down after Lonts had gone, and watched through his window as the wintry sky turned into deep twilight.
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