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Adam paused to get his breath as he walked down through the woods towards Kieran and Joby's cottage. As he rested for a moment on a tree-stump he found it hard to believe that elsewhere (the City mainly) men were talking feverishly about the end of the world. It was true that for the past few weeks a comet had been visible in the night-sky, but to believe it would plunge into the earth and destroy it was hard to comprehend on such a beautiful and peaceful day as this. But the newspapers were taking it seriously, although Adam felt that was hardly a sound argument in its favour, as they were probably only too glad to have something sensational to print.
Since Kieran's abdication the Ministry had been a very sombre and well-disciplined place, not exactly rich fodder for the gossips. And Gorth was not a popular president. He hadn't actually done anything wrong. He was competent and full of integrity. "Worthy but dull" was how Julian summed him up. And for that reason the public were not inclined to forgive because he wasn't Kieran. One of the sleazier rags had even ran an opinion poll recently, along the lines of "who would you rather date, Gorth or a donkey?" As a means to publicly humiliate the poor man it worked a charm. Kieran had been genuinely furious. He had personally selected his successor, and the public's refusal to like or accept him was like a kick in the teeth for him too.
The biggest irony these days though was that Gorth was now getting lambasted for being an "uncaring" president. What good was a president who shut himself up in the Ministry all the time? Where were the great crusades against evil that Kieran had waged? Conveniently forgetting of course that a year ago Kieran had been hauled over the coals in the press for his "great crusades".
As for the comet, so sensational was this story that it was hard to believe who was taking it seriously and who wasn't. Peddlers jokingly sold tin-hats on the streets, to protect against "comet debris". The government set up emergency procedures as a precaution, and posted details of where to find temporary shelters in the event of a "comet strike". The old man who had once accosted Adam in the coffee-shop, appeared on television to warn people to protect their eyes against the comet's glare and repent their sins, in that order.
More serious debates occurred on screen and in lecture theatres, as to the exact extent of the damage the comet would cause. As with everything else no one could agree on this either. Although it was pretty certain that if the comet burnt up in the atmosphere, it might devastate an area for about fifty miles but the rest of the world would be unaffected. If the comet actually succeeded in plunging into the earth, either into the sea or the land, then total devastation would follow. Scientists talked frighteningly of the sun's rays being blocked out, of the earth being burnt to a cinder, of plant life and large animal life (anything bigger than a mouse) ceasing to exist, leaving no food source for any human survivors. They also spoke of a horrifying drop in global temperatures, and a freezing winter of perpetual darkness lasting for anything from six months to two years, followed by a steady warming. Nightmarish artist's impressions of this scenario showed apocalyptic scenes in which fork lightning raked the sky whilst swirls of poisonous gasses whipped around on the earth.
No, none of it seemed real, thought Adam, as he sat watching a grey squirrel scurrying about in the undergrowth. It was so wonderfully quiet here. The sound of someone chopping wood lured him onwards to the cottage. When he got there he found Joby busy with an axe outside the simple but sturdy little dwelling. A soft breeze rustled the pine trees behind it, and made the whole scene heartbreakingly idyllic.
"Hello", Joby looked up and smiled "Come to see how the other half are living?"
"Oh I thought I'd come and rough it with the peasants for a while", said Adam, fanning himself with his hat.
"Kieran's gone off on one of his rambles", said Joby "But I can fetch him for you if you like. He'll be sitting in one of the fields nearby. You know what he's like. Spends hours just sitting there".
"Don't disturb him on my account", said Adam "I know how important his meditations are to him. Even if Julian reckons he spends all day 'mooning about the woods' as he puts it".
"I'll make you some coffee", said Joby "I spose even in this heat you'd like some, although I think we might get a storm later".
"I'd actually like a cold beer", said Adam, admiring an earthenware jug containing a potent local brew, which rested in the grass "But that's out of the question, so coffee'll do".
They went into the cool of the cottage, and Joby put a pan of water to boil on the range, which stayed lit at all times. The remains of a lunch of bread and cheese lay on the table, and a stack of newly-washed shirts were piled on one of the chairs.
"It's so peaceful and homely here", said Adam, admiringly "So uncomplicated".
"That sounded heartfelt", said Joby "Trouble up at big house then?"
"Lonts nearly gave me a heart-attack", said Adam "The little horror got up onto the roof, all the better to see the comet apparently".
"He should wait 'til dark, he'd have no trouble seeing it then", said Joby "And I've told you lot about getting a padlock put on the door to the roof loads of times".
"Ransey's putting one on now", said Adam "Better late than never I suppose. How Lonts didn't fall off and break his neck is a miracle I can only be grateful for. At one point he was doing a tightrope walk along the parapet!"
"He always did have a head for heights", said Joby "Where is he now?"
"In our room, bawling his head off with any luck", said Adam "I left Julian to administer some discipline. I had to get out for a while. I don't trust myself to speak to him, not when he frightened me so much".
"How's Ransey's comet precautions coming along?" Joby chuckled.
"Oh don't remind me", Adam groaned "It's like living with an over-officious air-raid warden. He's reinforced the cellar doors, and stocked the place up with tinned food and bottles of water. I shouldn't complain I suppose. If this bloody thing does hit us we might be grateful for all his work".
"I dunno", Joby sighed "I sometimes think it might be better to go suddenly on impact, than live through the nuclear winter they're talking about".
"He wants you and Patsy to move back to the Castle until the danger's past", said Adam "I must admit that he paints such a graphic picture of you two struggling to get to us through all the mayhem that I'm inclined to agree with him".
"It takes us eight minutes to walk to the Castle from here", said Joby "Much less if we run. I take it we'll get some warning of when this thing's going to strike?"
"They should be able to predict an exact time several days in advance", said Adam.
"Well when they do we'll move back up straightaway. Promise you", said Joby.
"What on earth have you two been up to?" said Adam, picking up a small multi-thronged whip that had been lying on the dresser.
"Nothing to do with me", said Joby "It's Kieran's. He hits himself with it".
"Joby!" Adam exclaimed "You should stop him. That's not healthy at all. It's the sort of thing Gladstone used to do".
"It's alright, he doesn't hurt himself", said Joby "It's not a proper whip. Apparently the Catholic Church in the old days used to encourage it. Self-flagellation it's called. Mortification of the flesh. All part of penance and self-regulating of sins, and all that guff. He explained it to me. You have get the strokes just right apparently. Too little's ineffective, too much and you might start enjoying it. I think it's quite comical to look at. He swishes it over his shoulders, makes him look like a pharaoh swatting flies!"
"I still don't like it", said Adam.
"You'll have to talk to him then", said Joby "I don't think it's anything to worry about though. He just fancies himself as a monk that's all. Trouble is, he can do the poverty and obedience bit alright, but he has problems with the chastity part".
"I'm relieved to hear it", said Adam "It Patsy starts abstaining from sex I really will worry".
"No chance of that", said Joby.
"It's clouding over outside", said Adam, tilting back in his chair to peer out of the door "I'd better get back in case it starts bucketing down".
"You can always stay here for the evening", said Joby "Let Lonts stew".
"Better not", Adam sighed "Or he won't let me forget it in a hurry".
Barely a few minutes after Adam had left the heavens opened in a spectacular summer downpour. It did little to relieve the intense heat, but it was so torrential that Joby hoped Adam had made it back to the Castle without getting too soaked. Kieran still hadn't reappeared though, so Joby donned his oilskin jacket and went in search of him. This wasn't an unusual occurrence. Kieran could easily get so lost in his meditations that he was oblivious to what went on around him.
This afternoon Kieran had gone to a field nearby, where harvesting was in progress. The men working there were used to seeing their former president take up a meditation pose in their midst, and had even been known to work round him. He would sink into such a deep reverie that one day he didn't even notice when a fight broke out because one man had stuffed a dead rat into his colleague's lunch pail.
Joby found him sitting in the middle of the drenched straw, his clothes sodden to his skin, and his long fair hair plastered to his head.
"It's raining", said Joby, standing over him.
"Oh Joby", Kieran giggled, shyly "So it is".
"You're an idiot".
"Come home", said Joby "You'll have rheumatism and kidney trouble in your age you will".
"That wouldn't be very nice", said Kieran, as Joby helped him to his feet "The men must have gone home".
"Of course they have. They've got more sense than you".
"Not good for the harvest you know", said Kieran "This rain coming now. It means they can't get it in".
"I don't spose comets are much good for harvests either", said Joby.
"It won't destroy everything Jobe", said Kieran "I am certain of that. There will be destruction, terrible loss of life. But not as widespread as everyone's saying".
"I hope you're right", said Joby "I only know one thing, and that is I'm sick of hearing about the bloody thing".
He got Kieran back to the cottage and put him next to the stove. He divested him of his clothes and wrapped him a blanket.
"Adam was here just now", said Joby.
"Oh it's a shame I missed him", said Kieran.
"Came down to let off steam. Lonts has been a pain in the backside. Got up on the roof and scared the living daylights out of him".
"Perhaps I should talk to Lonts sometime. Try and get some sense into him".
"Huh, that should be a conversation and a half!" said Joby "An Irish nutter advising an Eskimo nutter!"
"Do you really think I'm potty, Jobe?"
"Of course I do, I always have!" said Joby "Put it this way I'm glad you're not normal, you might be like Ransey then, or worse ... Gorth!"
"Poor old sod", said Kieran "He never got a honeymoon period, everyone was determined to dislike him from the start. And within his first year in office he gets all this business with the comet to deal with. I think he's sorting it out just fine. Not panicking, but arranging emergency procedures just in case. Exactly what I would have done".
"Exactly what most people would have done", said Joby, unimpressed "Sometimes you seem to think it takes a genius to be President, when any old fool could do it really. After all, most of the time you just do what your advisors tell you to anyway. I mean, how many times did you write your own speeches?"
"Sometimes", said Kieran "But I'd often amend the ones I was given. I made a point of that. The last thing I wanted was to end up like the old Queen of England and just mouth what was put in front of me parrot-fashion".
"And half the time I bet you didn't know what you were signing".
"Oh yes I did. Always. I've never in me life signed anything without reading it first", said Kieran "Anyway, so much of being President is all about being user-friendly, of clicking with the public at the right times".
"Summat Gorth's failed at".
"They haven't given him a chance, Joby. I appointed him because he was the most competent man in the Ministry, and he was incorruptible too".
"They don't want competence and decency though", said Joby "They want you".
"I wish you'd put that a bit better!" Kieran laughed.
"You're not thinking of going back are you Kiel?" said Joby, sounding worried.
"Never", said Kieran, firmly.
Adam had reached the Castle just before the heaviest of the rains started. As he walked into the lobby and threw his hat onto the hat-stand, Hillyard appeared behind him, carrying a bucket of potatoes which he had been peeling in the garden.
"The Castle seems quiet Hillyard", said Adam "Has Lonts stopped wailing?"
"I think Julian went upstairs and spoke to him", said Hillyard "I don't know what he said, but Lonts quietened down a lot after that".
"Where is Jules now?"
"Said he was going to his room for a lie-down".
"Fine, I'd better go up and see how Lonts is", Adam sighed.
"Don't be long", said Hillyard, lugging the bucket towards the back of the house "I'll be dishing up soon".
When Adam got up to his room he found Lonts curled up on the bed. The boy was a lot quieter but still sobbing relentlessly.
"Come on Lo-Lo", Adam stroked Lonts's bare leg soothingly "You'll make yourself ill".
"I don't care", Lonts spat.
"I do!" said Adam "Oh come along Lonts, let's forget it all now shall we?"
"No, I don't find it that easy", said Lonts, angrily "Julian came in here just now and said if I didn't shut up he was going to take the shaving-strap to me. How can you let him speak to me like that?"
"I wasn't here!" Adam protested.
"You were here when he smacked me, and why does he have to do that in front of everybody?"
"I don't know, I think he sees it as part of the punishment", said Adam "Make you so embarrassed you won't risk it again. Forlorn hope. I'll have a word with him about it. Now let's go downstairs and have some supper".
"I'm not hungry", said Lonts, stubbornly.
"Fine", said Adam, standing up to leave "You do what you want, I'm not going to argue with you. I want something to eat even if you don't. I'll see you later".
The others had already congregated in the dining-room by the time Adam got there. Hillyard was staggering in through the other door with heavily-laden trays.
"What have we got?" said Julian.
"Egg and chips", said Hillyard.
"Really? It'll be interesting to see how you can mess that up".
"Just be grateful I didn't stick to my original plan", said Hillyard "I was gonna give you spicy vegetable casserole".
"That sounds uncomfortably like your infamous carrot stew", said Adam.
"Could have done with some bacon with this", said Ransey, stabbing at his egg aggressively.
"You can pop down to the village and get some then", said Hillyard "Isn't the baby coming down Adam?"
"He's decided he's not hungry", said Adam.
"That must be a unique event", said Julian.
"He's gotta eat something", said Hillyard.
"There's bread and cheese in the kitchen if he emerges from his sulk later", said Adam.
"Joby's the only one round here who knows how to cook bacon properly", Ransey went on "The rest of you leave it all fatty, and look at the white on this egg, burnt to a cinder, it's all out of shape".
"Do you know something?" said Adam "We are all turning into a lot of fussy quarrelsome old bachelors".
"Speak for yourself", said Julian.
"And as for you, you were always that way", said Adam.
"Just because I believe in standards".
"Oh let's not have that speech again".
Adam was glad when the meal was over, and even volunteered to do the washing-up. It saved having to talk to Julian or Lonts, who were now both fed up with him. He propped the kitchen door open so that he could listen to the rain pattering down, and eagerly set to work on the plates. He was rudely jolted out of his reverie a few minutes later by Hillyard banging on the kitchen window.
"Hillyard what the bloody hell are you playing at? You scared me to death", said Adam "And what are you doing out in the rain anyway?"
"It's the baby, he's bolted", said Hillyard "Just seen him running across the fields down to towards Kieran's place".
"Marvellous", said Adam, hurling the tea-towel across the room "Get the pony and trap out, we'll go down through the woods and collect him. If we've got the trap we can tie him up and throw him in the back of it if he gives us any trouble".
"I don't know why he has to keep running off", said Hillyard "Bolting's his answer to everything".
"It did save his life once I suppose", said Adam "Bolting from the fire in Kiskev I mean. It's his instinct to do that if he's unhappy".
Kieran and Joby had decided to have an early night, not an unusual occurrence, particularly when the weather was bad. They had both fallen asleep in the old hay-loft when Lonts hammered on their door. When Joby opened the door to him he ran in hysterically, his bare legs splattered with mud.
"Kieran, I want to stay with you here", a sobbing Lonts hurled himself at Kieran who buckled under his weight "They don't like me up there. They think I'm nothing but trouble. Let me stay with you".
"No you can't", Joby roared "Tell him Kieran! He's not staying here".
"Lonts, have you run away?" said Kieran, breathlessly "Does Adam know you're here?"
"No, and it serves him right", said Lonts, petulantly "He doesn't care what happens to me. He doesn't care at all".
"He's not staying here", said Joby, pulling on his trousers "I'm walking him back up to the house".
"I'm not going", Lonts proceeded to fling himself around the cottage like a trapped whirlwind. Kieran pursued him, making soothing noises, but they weren't having much effect. Joby was relieved when he heard the pony and trap pull up outside.
"You weren't in bed were you?" said Hillyard, when he noticed Kieran's state of undress.
"Yes we were", said Joby "Now take that lunatic away".
"Alright Joby, there's no need to be so harsh", said Adam.
"Well I'm sick of it", said Joby "Unless we're all adoring him every minute of the day he thinks we hate him. It gets me so wild".
"He's got a bit overwrought today that's all", said Adam.
"We should get the doctor up to look at him in that case", said Joby "Perhaps give him something".
"Joby", Adam hissed "You should know better than to suggest things like that".
"I'm fine now", said Lonts, suddenly calm "I'm sorry Adam".
"What?" Joby exclaimed "Just like that? You're calm now?"
"Yes", said Lonts "I'm tired".
"Aren't we all?" Joby snapped.
"I'm very sorry Joby. I got tired and didn't think".
"Say goodnight Gracie", said Adam, putting his arm round Lonts's shoulders.
"I'll make it up to you tomorrow Joby", said Lonts.
"I can't wait", Joby snarled, hurling himself up the ladder to the hay-loft.
"Put Lonts in the cart, Hillyard", said Adam.
"Yea", Joby yelled, from above "And then take him to the knacker's yard!"
Once they were alone Adam kissed Kieran and then reluctantly let him go.
"Bit of a case is our Lonts isn't he?" Kieran whispered "Go and tuck him into bed Addy. He needs you".
"The little baggage", Adam smiled fondly "Perhaps the comet's making him go peculiar".
"You never know", said Kieran "Better watch out he doesn't start howling at it".
Joby heard the cart rumble away and then Kieran was beside him once more.
"If he'd stayed here a moment longer I'd have wrung his whiny Kiskevian neck", said Joby.
"Bless him, he's still so insecure", said Kieran "I think he always will be. Ever since he found love he's been terrified he's going to lose it again. I suppose we all get like that from time to time".
"I suppose so", Joby grunted, half asleep.
Kieran lay down and stared out through the circular window above their mattress. From there he had a good view of the comet, which was blazing dramatically across the night-sky. Not wishing to look at it any longer Kieran turned away from it.
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