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It took some time to make arrangements, and by the time Kieran had re-allocated all his duties it was nearly Easter, and the warmer weather had well and truly arrived. They closed up the Castle, left arrangements for a man in the village to look after the dogs, and departed down the north side of the mountain with as little fuss as possible.
During the past few weeks things had been relatively quiet in their part of the world. Power had been seen around the village wearing a t-shirt which proclaimed 'DOWN WITH RELIGION', but by now they had all convinced themselves he was a harmless nutter, and keeping the mummified corpse of a woman in the house wasn't anything out of the mainstream really. Of Hillyard's attackers there was no sign at all, and Mr Cliche Man at the shop informed Joby that they had moved on elsewhere, and they had only rented a house in the area for a few weeks in order to do a bit of shooting.
"They could have started with each other", Joby remarked.
All these issues were forgotten in the journey down through the Thet Forest, which radiated so much peace and tranquillity it was hard to believe there was any evil in the world at all. Odd shapes glimpsed through the trees turned out to be nothing more than roe deer, and a suspicious and unnerving high-pitched squealing noise heard on one occasion turned out to be a red-faced old man on a rusty bicycle.
On their first evening they made a camp in a clearing near a mountain stream, not far from a level-crossing which bordered the main railway line in the land. Joby took Lonts for a skinny-dip in the water, and Kieran watched them from a wooden bridge overhead.
"Alright?" said Hillyard, joining him "I'm just off to meet Hirrid. He's go on ahead to some pub near the railway halt. Do you want to join us?"
"Playing gooseberry has never been my scene Hillyard", said Kieran.
"You wouldn't be", said Hillyard "Come on, I'd like you to".
"That's a strange attitude for a man who's got an assignation with his lover".
"You'd be doing me a favour. He won't go on as much if you're there".
"He only nags 'cos he's insecure Hilly", said Kieran, as they began to follow the woodland track through the trees.
"Do you know what his latest brainwave is?" said Hillyard "When you've abdicated and we're all at Wolf Castle for good, he wants to build US a cottage in the grounds".
"Well as long as it's not right next door to ours I don't mind", said Kieran "We want some privacy in our old age".
"As far as I'm concerned it won't happen at all", said Hillyard "He's got all these big plans for it, even down to the colour of the fence! And inviting the family round for coffee, and little lunch-parties, that sort of thing".
"Sounds a bit of all right", said Kieran "If free food's on offer you'll never get rid of us".
"But I don't want it, it's not me", said Hillyard "I was never cut out for this sort of thing. I can't bear the idea of what he wants to turn me into".
"What's the alternative?"
"I carry on as I am", said Hillyard "I enjoy the way I live, and it suits me living with you lot as you don't keep giving me grief, and I have freedom to move. You lot don't nag me if I come in late for one thing, or sulk if I'm less than perfect".
"You've got to get house-trained sooner or later Hillyard", Kieran laughed "And there's a lot to be said for having one special person who's always there for you".
"We've all managed fine up 'til now", said Hillyard "You and Joby give each other plenty of space, and it's the same with Adam and Julian. I don't see why I have to swear blind devotion, and be bored stiff day-in day-out".
"Are you bored with Hirrid then?"
"Sometimes", Hillyard mumbled "Don't get me wrong, I do love him. It's just there are times when I don't like him very much".
"That's perfectly natural in a close relationship", said Kieran "The amount of times Joby and me have got brassed of with each other doesn't bear thinking about".
"You don't get bored with him though do you?"
"Yes, sometimes. And he does with me. Usually when we're both catching each other getting into the pants of someone else! I'm hoping that the cottage will change all that. Apart from Adam coming for a visit one night a week, we'll be completely monogamous".
"Yea but I won't even get that", Hillyard exclaimed "Catch Hirrid putting up with me balling someone else once a week on a regular basis. I'd never hear the end of it!"
"Adam's so much a part of us he hardly counts as being unfaithful", said Kieran "It helps a helluva lot that Joby has a fairly intimate relationship with him too. What you've got to decide sooner or later is whether you'd prefer to be in a close relationship with Hirrid, and take everything that goes with that, or whether you'd be happier stopping it now. The decision's as drastic as that. You can't keep stringing him along forever. Is your life going to be better with Hirrid a part of it, or not?"
"I don't know", said Hillyard, frankly.
"Then you can't love him as much as you think you do", Kieran gave a sad sigh "Or you'd have answered with a definite 'yes'. My relationship with Joby isn't perfect by any means. We get bored with each other. There have been times when we've hated each other. But I couldn't bear the thought of him not being there. I really couldn't".
"At one time I thought Adam was the love of your life".
"It's a different love I have with Adam", said Kieran "In many ways he is the father I never had. I can't imagine life without him either. If anything happens to him it's going to create an enormous void for all of us. As far as me and Joby are concerned we're a three, and have been for so many years now. Julian would find his life pretty empty too. And it doesn't bear thinking about what it would do to Lonts".
"I suppose if anything happened to me no one'd notice", said Hillyard.
"I think we would somehow".
"What would you do with Lonts if anything happens to Adam?"
"Try and look after him as best we could, try and stop him pining away for a start. You could be a help there".
"There's no way I could replace Adam", said Hillyard "I could change Lonts's nappies and wash them, practical things like that. But I couldn't give him the relationship he's got with Adam in a million years. I haven't got Adam's strength, and before you know it Lonts would be running wild. I can love people, but sometimes I just don't care enough to do everything that I should. Sometimes I see Adam responding immediately to Lonts's every question, every action, all of it, and I think how does he do that? Day in, day out".
"Adam's got a great deal of love to give", said Kieran "For years it was his biggest weakness, because men were scared of it all. I was when he first started coming onto me, so was Julian. But Lonts will always need more and more. He and Adam are perfect together".
"And I'd be the worst one for him", said Hillyard.
They neared the log-cabin in the woods which housed the 'Signalman's Arms'. It also served as a sort of station waiting-room, as men waited here as well for a train to arrive in the locale (sometimes for days), where upon they would go out to the railway line and flag it down like hitch-hikers.
This evening it was fairly busy, and the noise level was enhanced greatly by an accordionist sitting in the corner churning out tunes without cessation.
"I could do without that on a Sunday evening", grumbled one man, who was sitting near the door.
"I can't tell whether he means the accordionist", said Kieran "Or me turning up".
"Don't be daft", said Hillyard "They love it when you do this sort of thing. Better than some presidents in the past, who holed themselves up at the Ministry H.Q and were only wheeled out on special occasions".
Kieran was certainly made to feel welcome. By the time they had located Hirrid, sitting at a table near the bar, Kieran had been inundated with gifts. So much so that he suspected they might have anticipated his presence at some point.
"I hope you don't mind me bumming along Hirrid", said Kieran, depositing the small selection of goodies on the table "I'm sure you'd rather be alone with Hillyard".
"We wouldn't have arranged to meet in a bar if that was the case", Hirrid smiled warmly "Looks like Yule's come early for you".
"Except most of these are for someone else really", said Kieran "The wee blue teddy-bear is for Lonts, he'll probably end up trying to bite its nose off, and the book is a collection of old gardening tips for Joby. Which he'll either throw himself into and we won't get a word out of him for days, or he'll take it as a great insult. Teaching your granny to suck eggs, that sort of thing. I can just hear him now, 'amateur bloody gardeners'".
"Talking about Joby?" said Hillyard, setting a glass of brandy down in front of Kieran.
"Actually I don't think any of these are for me, except this bar of chocolate", said Kieran "And that looks like it's been carried around in someone's back pocket for about six months".
"Perhaps because you're President, they feel there's nothing they can give you", said Hirrid, flicking through the gardening book "Will Joby have his own plot of garden at your cottage later?"
"Of course", said Kieran "He's also going to be working on the main garden, so I hope he and Ransey, my future estate manager, don't fall out too often".
"Perhaps Joby will be able to give us some tips on how to cultivate our own little piece of land when we get it eh Hilly?" said Hirrid.
"I'm sure he will", said Kieran, looking uneasily at Hillyard.
As they talked Kieran felt that the biggest stumbling-block to the relationship of the two men was Hirrid's innate niceness. His willingness to please, which made him such a superb steward, would eventually become anathema to such a free spirit as Hillyard. Hirrid would expect his devotion to be returned, and Hillyard wouldn't be capable of it.
"Go on, tell me I'm a bastard", said Hillyard, when it was Hirrid's turn to go to the bar for the drinks "He's a nice guy, he deserves better. I know it".
"He is a nice guy", said Kieran "And he'll only really be happy with a sweet home-maker such as himself".
"So you don't think we're suited then?" said Hillyard.
"I think you're very fond of each other", said Kieran "That much is obvious. But you're bored with him already Hillyard. You don't listen when he's talking. Your concentration wanders. You don't even give him the attention you give me".
"I like looking at you that's why", said Hillyard.
"I don't know who's going to be the right one for you", Kieran sighed "Perhaps you really need someone like Julian".
"A callous git you mean?"
"Someone with a much harder streak that's for sure", said Kieran "But all I ask is that you try not to hurt Hirrid anymore than necessary".
"That won't be easy".
"You'll just have to try".
Finding Angel's presence by the camp-fire decidedly unrelaxing, Adam and Julian had gone for a stroll beyond the railway-line. Even though it was early evening the sun was still warm overhead, and once beyond the vicinity of the 'Signalman's Arms' not a sound could be heard in the heavy rural peacefulness.
"Strange place this", said Julian "We could be anywhere couldn't we? Britain, Europe, South Africa, Australia".
"Perhaps we are in any of those places", said Adam "I do try and work out where we are sometimes but it's hopeless. All I know is we crossed over in Yorkshire and ended up at Henang, which I suppose makes the Grey Sea the North Sea, which means the Loud House was underwater in our time. As to where the City was in our time ..."
"I sometimes wonder if it was Rome", said Julian "I crossed over from Egypt and wound up in Lixix. And the City's about as far from Lixix as Rome is from Egypt".
"No that doesn't make sense", said Adam "I remember how long it took us to travel from Henang to the City. It was a damn sight further than from Yorkshire to Rome".
"Only because you insisted on taking the long route".
"It can drive you mad thinking about it", Adam sighed "The atmosphere here reminds me of 'Picnic At Hanging Rock', all this intense silence and a feeling time standing still".
"Perhaps it was once a time-cusp", said Julian "Before Caln and his merry men sealed them all up. I wonder if any will ever start re-opening again".
"Let's get back", Adam shivered "I don't want to chance fate, and find myself on the other side of a time-pocket from the others".
"It is a bit spooky", said Julian.
A pig hurtled out from the side of the forest directly opposite the railway-line. It was squealing hysterically and being chased by what appeared to be a tall well-built woman wielding a stick. She whacked the stick across the pig's back and chased it into the trees. From the brief glimpse they had had of her they noticed that she had untidy dark hair, and wore a mannish black coat over bare legs and mud-splattered shoes.
"W-Was she real?" said Adam "We did just see a woman didn't we Jules?"
"We can follow her if you like", said Julian, doubtfully.
"Not on your life", Adam exclaimed "Perhaps you're right and a time-cusp has re-opened".
"Then again it could be just a haunting", said Julian "After all, she didn't seem to take any notice of us and we were standing right near her. Are you alright? Your chest is starting to make the most unholy row".
"She just gave me a stir that's all", Adam gasped "Somehow you just don't expect to see women charging out of the undergrowth like that".
Adam was gasping so much when they got back to the camp that it was obvious to one and all that something was wrong. Julian sat him down by the fire and explained as coherently as he could what they had seen.
"I don't know what you're both getting so worked up about", said Joby "You saw her for about a split second, and you said she was well-built and wearing a man's coat. She probably was a bloody man!"
"She was female, Joby", said Adam, insistently "I know I'm not the world's greatest expert on the female sex, and neither is Julian come to that, but I would swear she was a woman".
"So would I", said Julian.
"You mean to tell me a woman has been hiding up there all this time and stayed completely undetected?" said Joby, incredulously "I find that hard to believe".
"More likely it was a haunting", said Ransey "Some places still carry very brief lingering traces, even though all the time-cusps have been sealed".
"It is the most likely explanation", said Julian "She didn't see us for one thing, and there is a very strange atmosphere up there".
"If it is a time-cusp opening again", said Ransey "You did the right thing by not pursuing her. You could have ended up anywhere. There'll be plenty of time to investigate it properly, and take all the right precautions".
"Where's Patsy and the two H's?" said Adam, fretfully.
"Gone for a drink up the 'Signalman's' I expect", said Joby "I saw Kiel walking up with Hillyard a short while back".
"They can't be up there", Adam wailed "What if they go walking off too?"
"Adam, calm down", said Julian "Lonts is looking alarmed".
"But what if they walk into it too?" Adam began to pace round the fire, wringing his hands "They might never come back out again. They'll just disappear".
"Adam!" Julian grabbed his hand and pulled him into the trees away from the others "Pull yourself together. You're carrying on like some old spinster in need of the smelling-salts".
"I can't help it".
"Yes you can. Think of Lonts".
"There you are", said Joby, walking up to them "Look, I'll go and see where they've got to".
"No Joby don't!" said Adam.
"I was only gonna go as far as the pub", said Joby.
A din of voices broke out near the camp-fire. One sounded like a distinctly merry version of Kieran. Adam blundered back through the undergrowth, and found Kieran dolling out presents. His hat was on the back of his head and his cheeks were flushed from several large glasses of brandy drunk in quick succession.
"Where the bloody hell have you been?" Adam roared.
"Addy me ole darlin'", said Kieran "What are you sounding so upset about? Whatever it is up there is no cause to get so worked up. You're making your chest sound something terrible. You should sit down and rest, that's what you should do. As for me, I was only having a wee drink. Now I mean it, you be a bright fella and sit down by the fire".
"Poor Adam", said Kieran, during the chilly dawn the following morning "No wonder he was worried. I would've been too in his position".
"I was more worried about him", said Joby, busily filling containers with water from the stream "Puffing away like an old steam engine. He's got to learn to calm down a bit. He can't keep getting worked up like that".
Kieran buried his face in a wet handkerchief for a moment.
"Your head splitting is it?" said Joby, gloatingly.
"Was I a total embarrassment last night Jobe?"
"Yep. You did a brilliant impersonation of a stereotypical drunken old Irish slob. Your dad would have been very proud of you I expect".
"I just didn't notice what I was drinking", said Kieran "At one point every man in the place was wanting to buy me a brandy. I felt I couldn't refuse".
"Of course not", said Joby.
"I'm surprised Adam didn't swing for me", said Kieran "He would have done in the old days. Carrying on like that when he was so upset".
"It would have probably finished him off at that moment if he had", said Joby.
"That was quite some experience he and Julian had", said Kieran "Do you think she was real?"
"God knows", said Joby "If Adam hadn't been so shaken by it all I would've said he was mistaken, but he's no fool. If he says he saw a woman, then the chances are pretty high she was one. Whether she's around in our time, or whether she's a ghost, is another thing entirely".
"And what if she is real?" said Kieran "Here in our time, now?"
"Well somehow she's managed to stay out of the limelight", said Joby "I can't imagine how, unless she disguises herself as a man most of the time".
"Hence the man's coat she was wearing", said Kieran "My first idea was for all of us to go looking for her. But what the hell do we do when we've found her?"
"I shouldn't think she wants to be found", said Joby "She'd never get any peace again".
"But we can't just leave it at that. This is an important discovery. What if there's more than one of them up there?"
"And what if they're not very friendly?"
"We have to take that risk", said Kieran "What's the matter Jobe? Don't you want to find a woman?"
"No!" Joby startled him by saying "I don't think it's gonna be worth the hassle somehow".
A couple of hours later they went back up the railway-line to the spot where Adam and Julian had briefly sighted the Pig Woman, as they now inelegantly called her, the previous day. The path that she had disappeared into led through a dense piece of forest which wound steadily upwards. No one spoke during this journey. It was as if they were too much in awe of the prospect ahead of them. That, after all these years, they would come face to face with a real live woman.
The path petered out into a clearing. There was little to say about the house and extensive gardens situated there, other than that it seemed to have been abandoned some time ago, and the leaving had taken place quickly. Indoors dust liberally coated the surfaces, including the bedlinen and crockery, there was the mouldy and stale remains of food in the kitchen. The wardrobe and closets were filled with serviceable shirts and trousers which gave no clue as to the gender of the wearer, other than that he/she was of the hardy, outdoor type. Even the vests and pants found in the drawers were fairly unisex. The most telling discoveries though were a hardwearing black coat found hanging on the back of the kitchen door, and a dilapidated pig-pen round the back of the house.
"Pretty conclusive evidence Holmes", said Adam sadly, as he and Julian stood in the fly-infested kitchen "We saw a ghost".
"There was no razor in the bathroom", said Julian.
"Doesn't mean a thing", said Adam "It might just signify that the man who lived here didn't shave".
"He looked pretty clean-shaven when we saw him yesterday", said Julian.
"Just drop it Jules", Adam snapped "This whole place is enough to drive me crazy".
"No documents anywhere", Kieran sighed, as he came into the room "Nothing at all".
It was a very gloomy atmosphere indeed in the kitchen. There was something so unbearably soul-destroying about the place. They wandered out into the overgrown garden, which was oppressive in the stillness. Flowerbeds which had been planted too many years before sent up dense clouds of pollen in the early summer sunshine.
Joby wandered beyond the pig-sty and into what had once been a towering mass of sweet peas, now so twisted, over-grown and riddled with green-fly that he itched to take a pair of secateurs to the lot of it, and keep snipping until it was all pared down to the bone. Lonts was standing in the middle of it all, peeing into the mass of weeds. Standing only a few paces from him was someone whom he seemed to be completely unaware of.
She was wearing some gaudy orange dress that wouldn't have been out of place on a Romany fortune-teller. Her dark hair weaved around her head in an untamed fashion and hadn't seen a pair of scissors in years. The face was haggard, sporting eyes that appeared to be mere black hollows. She spotted Joby immediately, and have him a smile which he could only describe later as "not pleasant at all". She took a step in Lonts's direction, and Joby suddenly had a bizarre mental image of her opening her mouth to a quite inhuman capacity and swallowing the boy whole.
"Lonts!" he screamed, diving into the mass of tangled flowers "What the fuck are you playing at? Come here!"
"Joby?" said the boy, visibly quailing at his friend's anger.
Joby hurtled across to him and yanked him away. He was now so close to the woman that he could see unnaturally large brown moles all down one side of her face, like chocolate sweets stuck to her skin. For a brief hideous moment he was transfixed by her stare. All he knew, after staring into those hideous dark eyes, was the simple fact that she wasn't completely human.
"Joby I don't understand", Lonts wept, as Joby hauled him down towards the pig-sty.
"How many fucking times have you been told not to wander off?" Joby screamed.
"But I needed to go", Lonts wailed "And I didn't want to mess myself. I didn't think anyone would mind".
"I mind", Joby was now screaming hysterically "I fucking mind!"
He smacked Lonts on the bottom several times until the boy was gibbering with a combination of fear and rage.
"Joby for god's sake calm down", said Adam "Lonts wasn't doing any harm".
"The woman!" Joby bellowed "She was looking at him".
But even as he spoke he knew the woman would have vanished by now. And she had.
Lonts kept up his wailing all the way back to the camp, until Joby was almost driven distracted by it. The eternal injured refrain of "Joby smacked me!" rang out repeatedly for what seemed like an age. By early evening he had at least subsided into a sulk, although this didn't really lighten Joby's load any.
"Look I've said I'm sorry", he exclaimed, as Lonts glared at him whilst noisily sucking his thumb "What more do you want, blood?"
"Better not", said Adam "It might get Angel all excited".
"That's a point", said Kieran "Where is Angel?"
"I dunno", said Joby "He came to the house with us".
"Well didn't anyone notice him coming back?" said Kieran.
"No, I try to ignore him as much as possible these days", said Joby "With any luck the Pig Woman's got him".
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