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"Bog off Lonts, I'm busy", Joby snapped, and went back to spraying the greenfly in his new rose-garden "And I had more than enough of you last night".
"But that's what I want to apologise for, Joby", said Lonts, twisting his hat in his hands, as he always did when anxious.
"Adam sent you down to me did he?"
"No, I wanted to come. Please Joby, I know I shouldn't have disturbed you last night, but everyone at home seemed so fed up with me".
"You shouldn't have got up on the roof then should you?" Joby exclaimed.
"I know, but I was getting really worried about the comet", said Lonts "Everyone's saying it could destroy us all".
"Maybe, but I don't see how you getting up on the roof is going to change anything".
"I-I didn't think. Please Joby, I've been punished already", said Lonts "By Julian. It was awful. He's not like Adam. He's not kind to me afterwards. He just carries on shouting".
Lonts sounded so pathetic that Joby was quite moved. He squeezed the boy's arm, as a silent signal that he accepted his apology.
"Would you like me to kiss you?" said Lonts.
"Go on then", said Joby "I could do with being kissed this morning. Kieran's gone off on another of his rambles. He'll probably be gone all day".
"Adam says Kieran's becoming a ... what did he call it? ... a contemplative".
"That's one word for it", Joby grunted.
Lonts stooped down and kissed Joby on the lips. Joby enjoyed it so much that he became quite disturbed.
"When you next see Adam", he said, when they had finished "Tell him I'm getting starved for affection".
Kieran walked feverishly around for most of the day, like a man with too much energy and nowhere to direct it. Instead of doing his usual trick of going into the fields and drifting into meditation, he simply walked, seemingly oblivious to where he was or what was going on around him. Everyone in the surrounding area was used to seeing their former president out and about, and largely took no notice. So he stalked past the men working in the fields, the men working in the forest, and the men washing wool in the mountain stream.
He only really began to notice his surroundings when he reached Thetislog village. The strange, heavy, anticipatory feeling was so strong there that it was almost palpable. One of the relatively new order of monks (founded by Kieran himself) had appeared on the street corner. He was wearing a large bamboo hat as protection against the July sun, and occasionally clicked the miniature cymbals on his fingers, but otherwise he was in a state of deep prayer. It didn't need three guesses to gauge what he was praying about.
The comet wasn't entirely bad news for everyone. Both the shop-keeper and the bar-owner were doing better than usual business, as men stocked up on non-perishable food, and then went across the street to drown their sorrows. Kieran scanned the newspapers in the rack outside the shop. All the front pages were talking about the comet. The articles attempted a sombre air, but ended up sounding facetious instead, as though implying "oh yea? tell us another one!" One headline said simply "COULD THIS REALLY BE THE END?"
"No it couldn't, I refuse to believe that!" Kieran roared and tore the newspaper into shreds. The shop-keeper noticed all this from the cool dark interior of his emporium, and merely added the cost of the paper to Wolf Castle's monthly bill.
Kieran left the village and dived back into the woods, out of the fierce glare of the sun. Would they really not be able to see it in a week's time? Would the debris from the impact of the comet really have blocked out its rays and reduced them all to endless night? Kieran continued to rage as he walked, until suddenly he was shaken out of his reverie by a feeling of indescribable panic. It came upon him so suddenly that it was like walking into a fog-bank. Nothing around him had changed. On the surface at least. All he knew was that he was suddenly very afraid indeed. The whole area of mountain and forest seemed to have come alive in a threatening, electrically-charged way. It was as if Nature itself had formed into one huge tangible mass and was going to consume him. Kieran began to run.
The Castle was a hive of activity. Ransey was getting obsessive about his "comet precautions", and had now roped in Hillyard, Finia and Lonts to help him stock the cellar with newly-delivered supplies. On this hot July morning it all felt slightly absurd. With the countryside around them languorously baking in the sunshine, the end of the world had never felt so far off.
Adam walked into the kitchen to find Julian washing his clothes at the sink. The sight was so improbable that he burst out laughing.
"Oh dear oh dear", Adam chuckled "How the mighty have fallen! It's like catching Marie Antoinette working as a laundress!"
"I'm so glad it amuses you", said Julian, venomously.
"Is Finia still down in the cellar then?"
"Finia is not performing his duties. And it's all the fault of Ransey and his bloody comet".
"I don't think it's exclusively Ransey's comet old love", said Adam "You've put too much soap powder in there. It'll take you hours to rinse it out".
"Oh an expert are we?"
"I should be, after all these years of washing nappies", Adam began to make coffee "Give it a rest for a few minutes and join me in a cup. I want to have a word with you".
"What about?" Julian sat down at the table and dried his hands on a tea-towel.
"I think I'll go back to the washing", Julian rose to his feet again, but Adam stopped him.
"It isn't a criticism of you", he said, pushing him gently back into his chair "Only Lonts gets a bit distressed that you chastise him in front of the others. I always take him somewhere private to do it".
"Yes well it's different for you isn't it?"
"How do you mean?"
"Don't be dim-witted Adam", Julian sighed "Lonts is an attractive boy. I wouldn't be so foolish as to throw myself on him, simply because I know you'd never speak to me again if I did. But as I said, he is attractive and I can do without temptation being thrown in my path. I'm at a funny age".
"You always were", Adam smiled "I didn't think of that, I'm sorry".
"By doing it in public it stays solely as a punishment", said Julian "But if I started taking him into a closed room and spanking him, I'd be tearing his pants down in no time at all. Sometimes I really don't know how you managed in the old days, before you became lovers".
"Neither do I now, in retrospect", said Adam "I just loved him I suppose, and I thought by becoming his lover I'd end up hurting him. My track-record for relationships isn't brilliant".
"It looks pretty good to me. Two beauties like Lonts and Kieran to your credit isn't bad going. And both of them adoring you so completely as well".
"If it's difficult for you, with Lonts", said Adam "Then you don't have to do anything. I'll understand".
"Sometimes when he plays up, like he did yesterday, and worries you so much I'd have a job restraining myself", said Julian "I'll be alright as long as we stay in public. But there are times when I'd give anything to be in your shoes. How often have you finished up making love to him afterwards?"
"It has been known", Adam smiled, coyly.
"Hmm", said Julian "As I've said before, a lot like you in many ways isn't he?"
"That's why I understand him so well".
Adam poured out the coffee and placed a cup in front of Julian, who leaned back in his chair and gazed through the kitchen door, which was propped open to reveal the sun-soaked garden beyond.
"That bloody comet's going to hit us you know", said Julian, quietly "Everything has such an end of epoch feeling to it. It's like the summer of 1914, hot and idyllic, with no one aware of the horrors lurking just round the corner".
"Even you're not old enough to remember 1914, Jules", said Adam, testily "And for all we know the summer of 1913 may have been hot and idyllic too, but nobody places any significance on that. I can't believe we're all just going to suddenly cease to exist".
"Why not? The dinosaurs did".
"The dinosaurs aren't famed for their intelligence and resourcefulness. They didn't have the sense to protect themselves. What killed them was largely starvation afterwards, because the blast of the comet had destroyed all their food sources. They couldn't exactly stock up on tins and packets as we have".
"Who knows how many decades it took before the earth was capable of producing food again?" said Julian "And we haven't got any future generations to get things up and running again. Why shouldn't we all go with a bloody great bang, if you'll forgive the expression. After all, there's no point in us hanging around is there?"
"There's every point. We love life", Adam snapped "And it's not our fault that a load of stupid suspicious bastards a century ago decided to annihilate women".
"It took sixty-five million years for Mankind to evolve after the death of the dinosaurs", said Julian "Who's to say that in another sixty-five million years from now an entirely new life-form might develop to dominate the earth. And they'll be sitting around tutting over how incredibly pea-brained the human race had been, and with some justification too!"
"Perhaps you're right. Perhaps we've had our span and it's time for the earth to move on", said Adam "But that doesn't mean I'm going to go out there in three day's time and lie down and wait for it to hit me. Unlike the dinosaurs we've got the wit to survive for a little bit longer".
Kieran reached the bottom of the lawn sweeping up to the Castle and paused to get his breath. He felt as though he had been running all afternoon. It seemed an age since he had left the village, so much so that it all began to be like some hideous dream in which he just ran round and round on the same spot for all eternity, like the hooded men in Escher's "Ascending and Descending".
With the save haven of the Castle in sight he collected himself and began to walk across the lawn. A strange rattling sound in the distance caught his attention. It was coming from the iron gates at the bottom of the drive. Kieran hardly dared look, but his attention was drawn inexorably to it.
The hideous skeletal creature from Albatross Island was clinging to the bars of the gate. Its lunatic grinning skull-face leered at Kieran like a psychopath. Its tattered black robes made it look like a shabby garment that someone had left impaled on the bars. There was no mistaking the triumph on its screaming face.
"No-o-o!" Kieran yelled, and spat at it.
The creature gave a parting scream and vanished.
"You're not seriously going to go out in that tie?" said Joby "In public? In daylight?"
"What's the matter with it?" said Hillyard, who was standing in front of the mirror in the atrium knotting the offending article.
"It makes you look like you're about to be throttled by a King Cobra", said Joby "Don't go chatting up anyone of a nervous disposition tonight will you?"
"I sometimes think the tie has got to be the most pointless item of clothing ever invented", said Adam, who was sitting on the sofa with Julian, going through all the newspapers "I wonder which moron was responsible".
"Beau Brummell wasn't it?" said Julian "He perfected the art of cravat-wearing and the tie took over from there".
"Didn't he go insane because he could never get his cravat tied to his exact standards?" said Adam "Either that or spending too much time with the Prince Regent".
"I don't know why I bothered coming up here this evening to look at the papers", said Joby, hurling another heap of newsprint on the floor "Nothing but the comet in each and everyone. Isn't there anything else going on in the world? I'm starting to wonder what they wrote about before the comet appeared".
"Us", said Hillyard "And that was almost as boring. Particularly when blokes I'd never heard of claimed to have had sex with me, usually in places where I'd never been".
Lonts came downstairs in a lilac-coloured shirt. Adam looked scandalised when he saw it.
"What on earth have you got on?" he said.
"It's Hillyard's", said Lonts.
"That figures", said Joby.
"He doesn't want it anymore, says it's too small for him", said Lonts.
"It looks dreadful", said Adam "Lurid colours aren't your thing at all Lonts".
"He liked it, Adam", said Hillyard.
"You don't like anything I do at the moment", Lonts exclaimed, petulantly "You're always criticising me Adam. It's not fair".
"I'm not always criticising you", said Adam "Quite the reverse in fact. You're always criticising me".
Lonts tore at the buttons on the shirt and pulled it off, hurling the garment towards the far corner of the room where it came to rest on the statue of a bird with its wings outstretched.
"Dearie me", said Julian "Is he finally starting to go through adolescence do you think? Will we have to stop calling him The Baby, and start calling him The Teenager instead!"
"I wouldn't be a teenager again for anything", said Joby.
"I'd quite like the body I had then", said Julian "But not the brain".
"The Devil!" Kieran came running into the room like a tornado "The Devil is at the gates!"
"He's really flipped this time", said Julian.
"What do you mean?" said Joby "He's like this always".
"Please listen to me", Kieran stepped onto the hearth-rug in the middle of them "He's out there at the gates, mocking us".
"Good luck to him", Joby mumbled, from behind another newspaper "I don't believe it! There's a bloke in here who's just won the City Lottery for the third time in a year! I always suspected the whole thing was one bloody great fiddle".
"That's why I stopped playing", said Julian.
"I hope he gets a chance to spend his winnings", said Adam.
"He knows he's going to triumph over us in the end", Kieran wept "He just knows it. He knows I can't do anything about a comet".
"Sit down Patsy, you're getting overwrought", said Adam.
Kieran sat down on the sofa in a numbed fashion. Joby rubbed his back soothingly.
"He was there", Kieran whispered.
"Do you want me to take you home?" said Joby, softly.
"I'll walk up the drive with you", said Adam "Prove to you there's nothing out there".
Hillyard walked ahead of them up the drive, opened the gates and passed through triumphantly, as though he was going through a force-field. Adam closed the gates after him.
"There can't be anyone left in Thetislog he hasn't screwed", said Joby, watching Hillyard amble on down the mountain road.
"He was there", Kieran sobbed "Just like we saw him on Albatross Island".
"It could have been anything", said Adam "The heat for a start, and we're all under a lot of pressure with everyone keeping on about the bloody comet".
"I suppose you both think I'm going mad?" said Kieran.
Adam and Joby didn't reply, instead they just glanced at each other significantly.
"I'm glad you didn't insult my intelligence by disagreeing with me", said Kieran "I feel I don't know myself anymore, so why should either of you?"
"You'll always be Patsy to us, no matter what happens", said Adam.
"If I do get really bad", said Kieran "You won't have me committed will you? Like we did with Lonts, because we thought it was for the best at the time".
"Yea but we know better than that now", said Joby "I'm not gonna have you put in some crumby hospital, so don't sweat about it".
"I want my mind back", said Kieran "I feel like I don't have any control over it anymore. I can't just sit and think my own thoughts, it thinks them for me. Telling me what I should think. It doesn't give me any peace".
"It will all pass, Patsy", said Adam "It's a traumatic time. Nothing is what it seems. But it will pass, and you will always be with us. We promise you that".
"Come on", Joby took Kieran's hand "Let's get back to the cottage".
"Adam, will you take the dogs indoors tonight?" said Kieran "I don't think they should be left outside. I have a bad feeling about things".
"As I keep saying to Lonts, they're not indoor animals", said Adam.
"Please, I wouldn't ask if I didn't think it was important", said Kieran.
"Alright", said Adam "Lonts will go delirious with joy. So perhaps that'll make up for my unfortunate remarks about his shirt".
Although it was still officially three days before impact nobody believed it was that far off anymore. The atmosphere that evening was so heavy and emotionally-charged that the comet could have struck at any moment and no one would have been surprised. Never had the phrase 'poised on the brink of an abyss' been so poignant. No one tried to pretend anything was normal. The usual activities had been suspended and no one knew when, if ever, they would be resumed.
At the cottage Kieran sat at the table with his Bible open in front of him, and a set of black rosary beads in his hand. Joby watched him anxiously all the while, more concerned for his friend's sanity than impending global doom.
Up at the Castle Adam walked into his bedroom to find that several of the dogs were sprawled over the bed. Lonts sat in the midst of them, sucking his thumb and smiling at them indulgently.
"Lonts!" Adam exclaimed "Be reasonable now, they can't sleep in here".
"But they want to, Adam. Anyway, why can't they?"
"Because there's no room for me that's why. And I don't want the room smelling all doggy, particularly in this heat. I remember how disgusting Trixie's quarters used to get, with those mutts of his around all the time".
Adam shooed the dogs out onto the landing, where Julian promptly fell over them.
"Bloody beasts!" he roared, angrily "They shouldn't be indoors. They should be chained up in the yard".
"Julian should be chained up in the yard", Adam muttered, much to Lonts's amusement.
Julian went downstairs to the library to retrieve some books, in the sure and certain knowledge that he wouldn't be able to sleep in such heat. As he was emerging back into the lobby the front door scraped open and Hillyard walked in. He was followed by a young boy, aged about seventeen, who was as thin as a rail and in some lights could have looked as attractive as Lonts. A shock of brown hair fell over one doe-like eye, and he certainly had a screwable body. What destroyed the illusion was his mouth. He had very full, almost rubbery, lips, which looked more as though they belonged on some debauched Roman emperor, or a pampered eighteenth-century fop. The mouth spoke of petulance, of grim determination, of self-righteousness, or ruthlessness for his own ends. It was not an attractive feature, and served to make him seem quite repellent. Obviously Hillyard didn't think so though.
"You're back early", said Julian, running a critical eye over the boy.
"Didn't want to stay down there any longer than necessary", said Hillyard "There's a strange atmosphere in the village tonight. I can't describe it any better than that. And the moon's red".
"It's a harvest moon", said Julian.
"Yea I know, but it looks as though it's bleeding", said Hillyard "Quite appropriate really".
"Who's the trade?" said Julian, bluntly.
"Tamaz is homeless", said Hillyard "He came to Thetislog looking for work, but no one's interested in hiring at the moment".
"Really", said Julian, harbouring the private opinion that the said Tamaz hadn't soiled his hands doing straightforward work ever. He also didn't dispute that he was technically homeless, but he doubted the boy ever had much trouble getting shelter for the night.
"We'll be going up then", said Hillyard, suddenly feeling as gauche as a fifteen-year-old.
"Yes of course", said Julian "Don't let me keep you".
Tamaz went into the atrium and stood there, gazing around him with an appraising eye. He seldom spoke unless it was to communicate something essential, and anything remotely connected with money was only too essential.
"Big place you've got here", he said, eventually.
"It's not all mine", said Hillyard "There are six of us here, plus two more in the grounds. One of whom was the last President".
"I gathered he was here somewhere", said Tamaz, making it obvious that he wasn't interested in talking about Kieran "Decor sucks though. It needs re-decorating. Can't you afford it?"
"Never thought about it", said Hillyard "As long as we're comfortable we don't mind. Once you've lived in a wagon anything else is a palace".
Tamaz walked around touching items of furniture, as though he was a prospective buyer. Lonts's shirt was still festooned over the bird statue, and Tamaz raised an eyebrow at it. Hillyard suddenly felt very tired. He had invited the boy home largely because he felt sorry for him, than any great lust for his body, which after all could have been sampled round the back of the pub. He was already regretting his decision. What was the point of offering a homeless kid a bed for the night if he turned his nose up at your decor?
"Would you like something to eat?" said Hillyard "I don't suppose you've had much today".
Tamaz showed his first signs of vulnerability. Hunger was something it was very hard to disguise, no matter how naturally arrogant your demeanour was.
"I'll nip down to the kitchen and fix you something", said Hillyard "Make yourself comfortable in here. I won't be long".
After Hillyard had disappeared into the back regions of the house, Tamaz settled onto one of the frayed but well-upholstered chairs. He almost leaped up again immediately when Julian walked in.
"Who are you?" the boy exclaimed "Are you a friend of Hillyard's?"
"I live here", said Julian "I think I have more right to ask who you really are. I have a feeling I've seen you before somewhere".
"I'm Tamaz", the boy mumbled.
"Yes, and what do you do in return for a bed for the night?" said Julian, snidely.
"Three guesses", said Tamaz, sarcastically "And I'm out of your price range. Just how much would you be willing to pay anyway?"
The boy was horrified when Julian suddenly grabbed him round the neck and slammed him against the faded wallpaper.
"I find you particularly revolting", Julian hissed, breathing into his face "You're loathsome. You bring out all my very worst attributes".
"Is that why you're so excited to be near me?" Tamaz croaked.
"God, I could inflict some pain on you, and it would give me the greatest pleasure to do so".
"I'm not into all that".
"Who said I cared whether you were 'into it' or not? Ghoomer!"
"What's going on?" said Hillyard, re-appearing with a tray of food.
"I'm admiring this masterpiece", said Julian "A thick-lipped jewel of petulance, just crying out to be abused. He is a perfect gem, Hillyard. You could treat him as abominably as you wished, and not entertain the slightest guilt about it. Quite wonderful".
"You know nothing about him", Hillyard protested.
"Oh I've got him pigeon-holed precisely", said Julian "Have a fun night".
Hillyard and Tamaz sat in silence until Julian had disappeared upstairs.
"Sorry about that", said Hillyard "He can get a bit peculiar sometimes. Once you know how to handle him you're alright".
"Don't leave me alone with him again", said Tamaz.
"No worries", said Hillyard "By the time he gets up tomorrow you'll be out of here. Eat up!"
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