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The horse was still in the out-house, although he had kicked down the wooden partitions of his stall. He was soothed by Hillyard, who blew on his nose and stroked his ears in order to pacify him. Later that day they harnessed him to the trap, and the usual scouting-party of Hillyard, Ransey, Kieran and Joby, set off armed to the teeth to see if there was any life left in the village.
Thetislog was deserted. The villagers had fled in the aftermath of the Blast, convinced that the ground was about to split right under them. Houses stood windowless and confused in the darkness. Curtains flapped in a lacklustre way in the jagged apertures. Kieran wanted to weep.
"It's true what the old song said", he whispered, mournfully "You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone".
"Let's try and stay as practical as possible", said Ransey "Get some supplies and get out of here".
"What's the rush?" said Hillyard.
"It's too bloody eerie to hang around", said Joby "And we don't know who's gonna turn up now the wind's stopped. Let's get what we can and head home".
They collected armfuls of furs and blankets from the houses, in the sure and certain knowledge that as many as possible would be needed at the Castle over the dark weeks ahead. Damp logs were also pilfered from outside the houses, where they had been stacked under tarpaulin throughout the summer in readiness for the winter. The shop was divested of its tins, packets, matches, candles and oil. And the pub yielded plenty of brandy, chocolate and a cornucopia of wine.
"Almost better than sex this is", said Hillyard, adding more supplies to the cart.
"Glad you think so", said Ransey "'Cos at this rate you'll be walking home, there's gonna be no room for passengers".
"Who cares?" said Hillyard "It's all in a good cause".
"A few more logs I think", said Kieran, and added extra to the small mountain already in the middle of the cart.
For good measure Ransey hastily tried all the wireless sets, and handsets in the village. Not one of them yielded so much as a limp signal. To all appearances they were completely alone.
Adam had lit the kitchen fire with some of the kindling they kept by the stove at all times. When it was blazing at full throttle he sat Finia in the wheelback chair next to it, and swaddled him in blankets. The ticking clock on the mantelpiece claimed that it was twenty-past six, although whether this was morning or evening was anybody's guess.
"Of course normally in July it wouldn't be dark at either time", said Adam.
"It wouldn't be snowing either", said Finia, his cold-ridden voice sounding like a that of a little girl.
"I'm just glad we're out of that cellar", said Adam "For your sake".
"And yours", said Finia "The others have been unpacking in the atrium for ages".
"Good. It's reassuring to know we've got supplies. So all we have to do is keep warm and sit it out".
Adam went into the walk-in airing-cupboard and retrieved a long pair of white fleecy socks.
"Now these are a pair of Hillyard's outdoor socks", he said "It could be worse, they could be his indoor ones, but I don't think he ever changes them! These should keep your tootsies warm".
Finia held out a small brown foot for cosseting.
"My Grandma, what tiny feet you've got", said Adam.
"I've never been fussed over like this before", said Finia, more as a statement of bald fact than a note of martyrdom "You're one of the coolest men I've ever met".
"I think you must be getting brain-fever on top of everything else", said Adam "Because unfortunately I can think of plenty of occasions when I have been a pig to you".
"It took you a long time to forgive what I did to Joby", said Finia "I don't blame you for that. At the time I didn't realise how close you all were. I hadn't had much experience of men being friends".
"You had a pretty wretched time of it in your early life didn't you? Makes my childhood pale into insignificance by comparison".
"Yes you did, that's quite some achievement. You must be as indestructible as Lonts".
"Julian does care about him you know", said Finia "I heard what he said earlier. I don't know why he says such things. I think he just finds it easier to be bitchy than nice, although he never does it to me".
"He values you too much", said Adam "And to be honest, you must know him even better than I do".
"He's a decent guy at heart", said Finia "He's never been cruel to me, and I'll never forget the way he got me out of the whorehouse when he saw me being flogged in there one day. He wouldn't have done that if he was as big a sadist as he likes to make out. He's more vulnerable than he looks. But I know there is a dark side to him, which is where the bullying comes in, and things like I overheard him say to Hillyard's freak the other night".
"Trying it on with him was he?" said Adam "Shame Tamaz didn't take him up on it. I'd love to have seen Julian's face when he unravelled his little box of surprises!"
"I'm glad he didn't. I think with the wrong person Julian probably wouldn't know where to stop".
"Yes you're right. Many times I've felt he needs protecting from himself".
"Something I learned in the whorehouse was that some people should never come together".
"They bring out the worst in each other you mean?" said Adam.
"We had an incident once, almost got us closed down", said Finia "A punter beat up one of the other eunuchs so badly that he later died in hospital in Lixix. There was a trial, but the bastard got off. Everyone who knew him swore to his good character, even though the authorities had him on file as a sexual deviant. What helped him was the testimony of the eunuch he lived with, who said he'd always been nothing but gentle to him, and he wished more men were like him! He wasn't lying either".
"I see what you mean", said Adam.
"The eunuch that died specialised in rough sex. He was used to getting beaten up for a living, he enjoyed it in fact, which was why he was so wanted by the punters. He was one of the star exhibits. I don't think even he could have enjoyed what happened that time though. Anyway, that punter spotted him what he was, a professional masochist, and that was it. Full speed ahead".
"No holding back. Julian's very child-like in that sense. He needs to know exactly how far he can go", said Adam "He doesn't pick on you because he knows he'd lose you. He daren't go too far with Lonts because he knows he'd lose me ..."
"But if someone else was to remove all the barriers ..."
"Oh I know, Finia. I let him walk all over me in our younger days and he put me through Hell. As soon as we met up again in this time and he found I wasn't going to eat out of his hand, he actually began to treat me with respect".
"Julian's always loved you", said Finia "I know when he's speaking from the heart, and he told me that. He knows he was a moron the first time round, and that's why he'll never treat you badly again. Not like that".
"He'd better not".
"There's something he made me promise never to tell you", said Finia "But I'm going to now. After you left our house at Husgalonghi that time he talked of killing himself. And it was no idle threat. He had it all planned out. The barbiturates all arranged in a neat little pattern on the dining-room table. The whisky decanter nearby. It wasn't an act either. He told me in advance because he wanted me to sort out his business affairs afterwards. He said I'd be the richest eunuch in the land. I'd get everything he had. He'd bribed the local authorities into letting me keep the house, even though eunuchs weren't allowed to own property in those days. Mind you, the Husgalonghi authorities were so bent they'd probably have still taken it from me after he'd gone!"
"You stopped him?"
"It took me all night, but I talked him out of it in the end", said Finia "He wasn't the only one who couldn't cope with loneliness. If he'd gone I'd have been completely alone, and I couldn't stand the thought of it. He's been kind to me, and in many ways perhaps he is the Daddy I've always wanted. He had me scared that night. He couldn't stand the thought of going back to a life without you. He was convinced he'd never see you again, and that his life was worthless. That's why I was such a pain to you during the circus days, keep rounding you up all the time. I thought he'll never cope with you disappearing yet again, so I was determined to make sure you didn't".
"I wish you'd told me all this years ago", said Adam, feeling shell-shocked.
"I couldn't", said Finia "You know how proud he is. And for his sake don't let on I've told you now".
Over the next few days Finia's condition drastically worsened, until he finally developed full-blown pneumonia. This was deeply worrying. A fire was lit in his bedroom and kept banked up at all times, the shutters on his window were firmly closed against the elements, and Hillyard stuffed endless hot-water bottles into his bed. A superstitious aura seemed to attach itself to Finia, no one wanted to leave him alone for a moment, terrified that if they did he would immediately curl up and die.
Elsewhere in the Castle rooms were made habitable again, from Ransey boarding up the broken windows to Lonts shovelling up the dog-turds in the dining-room. Outside the darkness still reigned supreme, and one day things were livened up considerably by the sight of four huge woollen mammoths with forbidding-looking tusks, roaming through what had been Joby's rose-garden.
Never had the saying "comparisons are odious" been more apt. No one wanted to remember what this ice-bound wilderness had once been like. In a matter of a couple of weeks their world had been altered beyond recognition.
"It's almost as if we've been put back to the beginning of time", said Julian, standing at his bedroom window with Adam "The world has gone full-circle".
"Perhaps that's true", said Adam "In which case we're not meant to be here. The human race should be as extinct as the dodo".
"Don't talk like that", Julian snapped "It's bad enough that I have Finia at death's door, without you throwing in the towel as well".
"I'm sorry Jules, I know how worried you are".
"He didn't recognise me this morning", Julian mumbled "He was delirious, Adam".
"But that might be a good sign", Adam protested "It means the fever's breaking. He'll come through".
"He's so tiny".
"You need to get some rest", Adam squeezed his arm.
"Where's the bloody logic that says the youngest dies first?" Julian raged.
"You should try to sleep", said Adam.
"I can't sleep, I'm too pent-up. I won't be able to sleep until he's out of the woods".
"I do know what you're going through".
"Yes I know", said Julian, quietly "I couldn't get through this without you".
"Oh I'm only returning the favour".
"Once Finia's alright again, I want to be alone with you for a while".
"I'm sure it can be arranged", Adam smiled "What are you going to do now?"
"I think I'll go for a walk around the house, try and release some of this negative energy".
He wandered the Castle in the gloom, which was enlivened only by the lit fires, the candles and the occasional burning brazier which caused blackened patches to appear on the filthy wallpaper behind them. There was the sound of hammering coming from one of the store-rooms near the kitchen, and Julian headed towards it. Inside he found Hillyard and Ransey engaged in building what appeared to be a large packing-case. They both stopped guiltily when Julian walked in.
"What the hell is this supposed to be?" he barked.
"No need to get uptight, Julian", said Hillyard.
"We only want the best for him", said Ransey, who was getting quite emotional behind his spectacles.
"The best for him?" Julian exclaimed "Finia doesn't need a fucking coffin, what's the matter with you? You're both a pair of ghouls!"
"That's not fair, Julian", said Hillyard.
"It is completely fair", Julian sent a box of nails flying across the room, and the candles trembled in his presence "He's lying up there ill. How do you think he must feel hearing you two building his bloody coffin!"
"He can't possibly hear us from the front of the house", said Ransey.
"If you don't stop this morbid operation", said Julian, picking up one of the candles threateningly "I'll set fire to your little masterpiece".
"Don't you dare", said Ransey, swinging his hammer in a menacing fashion "If you don't get out of here now I'll beat the shit out of you, and then you'll be needing a coffin".
"You're both being bloody ridiculous", said Hillyard "Like a couple of kids".
The door was suddenly flung open and Joby appeared.
"It's Finia", he exclaimed "He's sitting up, asking for some porridge!"
Julian placed the candle back on the table with exaggerated care, and gave Ransey a look of withering contempt.
"Don't let me stop you doing your work", he said, snidely "Model aircraft isn't it?"
He followed Joby into the corridor.
"Don't whatever you do sneeze in their hearing, Joby", he said "Or they'll be building your coffin before you've had a chance to get your hankie out!"
Julian spent the next few hours sitting by Finia's bed, alternately spooning porridge into him and stoking the fire in the grate.
"You'd better get used to this room, Finia", he said "Because I'm not letting you out of it until the sun reappears".
"Whenever that may be", Finia croaked "I've never been so tired as I have been lately, and I keep having these weird dreams about lightbulbs appearing in all the rooms".
"I wish they would. This continual gloom is extremely depressing. I'm fed up with seeing dark shadows in all the corners".
"Has there been any news from outside?"
"Not in the slightest", Julian sighed "To all appearances we really do seem to be the last ones on earth".
"That can't be true, can it?"
"I don't know, and I'm fed up with fearing the worst all the time".
"You should get some rest", said Finia.
"Oh I think I might just have some R&R, rest and relaxation", said Julian, suggestively.
"Got any ear-plugs then?" said Finia "Considering the racket you make when you're going at it".
"You cheeky little sod".
He removed one of Finia's pillows and helped him to settle in the hollow of his bed. He dimmed the oil-lamp and sent out onto the landing. Adam was sitting on the settle a few feet away.
"He'll sleep properly now", said Julian "I'm quite glad to see you here. You haven't been hijacked by your demented Eskimo".
"He's with Patsy, tidying up the library", said Adam "And I won't be hijacked by anyone but you at the moment. Can't you see the hunger in my eyes?"
Julian grabbed him by his sleeve and pulled him into his room.
Adam was both terrified and excited at the same time. Julian was so full of pent-up pressure that it came out in a raging torrent. At times like this he let his physical side take over completely. It was awesome.
Julian tugged at Adam's clothes like a starving man tearing strips off a joint of mutton. Then, without any preliminaries whatsoever, he pushed him across the bed and rogered him fiercely. The pain was excruciating, and yet at the same time Adam didn't want it to stop. It was as though he was on a high-speed fairground ride. Scared shitless, and yet not wanting it to grind to a halt too soon either.
When he had come Julian climbed off him, slapped his rump and then paced over to the fireplace, spunk dripping off his penis. He grabbed the mantelpiece and stared down into the flames.
"Can you stay in here tonight?" he said, eventually "I'd like you to. Hillyard can look after Lonts for one night. It won't hurt him".
"I'm not sure I want to", said Adam, sitting up stiffly.
"What's the matter?" said Julian, looking perplexed "I thought it was what you wanted as well".
"Was it me you were screwing?" said Adam, quietly "Or that boy, Tamaz?"
"Don't be such a fool!" Julian bellowed "When I'm with you I forget anyone else exists".
"You always did have a flowery way of speaking when it suits you".
Adam reached for his clothes, but Julian snatched them away again. The firelight illuminated his skin like a ripe peach.
"Don't you know me yet?" Julian whispered "It's only ever been you. Even when I'm half-demented like I was then, it's you in my thoughts entirely".
"Of course, I'm sorry", Adam mumbled, awkwardly "I still get so insecure around you sometimes. Crazy isn't it?"
"Completely absurd at your age and after all this time".
"It would only be natural for you to occasionally fantasise you were with someone else".
"Is that what you do is it?" said Julian "In your mind's eye do I get turned into Lonts or Kieran?"
"No, Jules. What would be the point? I can be with them anytime, but you ..."
"I'm the poor pathetic old soddo who doesn't have that option, right?"
"Jules", Adam reached up and pulled his friend closer so that their lips could brush "I'm sorry".
"Do you mean it?" Julian smiled.
"I'll show you".
Lonts was able to prove his usefulness as the dark days continued. Out of all of them he was the one most experienced to cope with the cold and the dark. He even began to build sledges so that they could toboggan round the grounds, and he helped to repair the furs which were beginning to show their age in many places.
"This'll be another notch in your belt, Lonts", said Julian, as he took the boy out to chop firewood from one of the fallen trees "Adam will be bursting with pride over you".
"I didn't think you'd be any good at this", said Lonts, when they were loading the logs onto a sledge.
"Well you don't normally do much work", said Lonts nervously, aware that he may have offended him "Joby says your family were so rich they didn't have to do anything for themselves, they got peasants like me and him to do it".
"Joby lives in a fantasy world", said Julian "He probably thought we tied our estate-workers to the church bells as a punishment".
"No!" Julian exclaimed "I'll have you know that on one occasion my grandfather was working in a part of his garden, when an American tourist mistook him for an estate-worker, and asked him if his Lordship was at home!"
"What's an American tourist?"
"Oh never mind. It'd take too long to explain. Suffice it to say don't believe everything Joby tells you. He has a highly romantic view of life sometimes".
They finished loading the logs onto the sledge and pulled it back through the gloom to the house. Adam was standing at the library window, waiting for them. He let them and the sledge in through the French windows as they approached.
"Julian says an American tourist mistook his grandfather for an estate-worker once", said Lonts, as Adam helped him peel off his outdoor clothes in front of the fire "What does all that mean, Adam?"
"That one of Julian's Elders was constantly getting in the way of men doing their honest toil", said Adam "He was a pain in the backside to the people who worked for him. Constantly saying things like 'don't mind me, I'm only here to help', and then being a confounded nuisance".
"He spoke quite highly of you", said Julian, with an injured air.
"Rubbish", said Adam "I remember once, during the school-holidays, him asking me what I wanted to be when I was older. When I said an artist, he asked me what bloody use was that to anyone! The man was a complete ignoramus".
"Didn't he know how talented you were?" said Lonts.
"It wouldn't have mattered to him if I was van Gogh in person, I'd have still been a waste of space", said Adam.
"I can't imagine anyone not liking you", said Lonts.
"He did like Adam", said Julian "He thought he was hilarious. When we were still small boys I took Adam home for the Christmas hols, and Adam announced to everyone that when we were grown-up he and I would live together and perhaps even get married!"
"And he didn't mind that?" said Adam.
"Nonsense, he thought it was a scream", said Julian "Anything that upset the old biddies was alright by him. If he could see us now he'd be inviting us over to stay the weekend, just to upset everyone else".
"Would I be allowed to come?" said Lonts.
"He'd find you priceless", said Julian "You'd be essential".
"How on earth you turned out to be such a snob Jules, I'll never know", said Adam.
"I'm not a snob", Julian protested "I just get exasperated when some people insist on being more common than they need to be. It's a sign of gross mental laziness I think, an unwillingness to aspire, and also I like to see things being done ..."
"Properly, yes I know", said Adam.
"Well look at Finia", said Julian, lolling in an armchair and holding out his feet for Adam to remove his damp socks "That poor child had the roughest of upbringings, used and abused relentlessly in a bloody brothel of all places! And yet he has an unerring instinct for the correct way to do things. It illustrates my point. Anyone can appear well-bred if they simply give everything their full potential".
"Not everybody places so much importance on appearances", said Adam "Some of us think it's what goes on underneath, in your heart, that matters".
"I promised I'd comb Finia's wigs for him today", said Lonts "But do you want me to put the logs in the basket first Adam?"
"No you run along, I'll do it", said Adam, and Lonts left the room.
"Oh there's nothing to beat a roaring log fire", said Julian, sliding down the chair and warming his feet on the fender "Particularly when there's a nuclear winter going on outside!"
"I saw Finia up on the landing earlier", said Adam, pulling the sledge nearer and unloading the logs into the basket "I thought we all agreed he had to rest completely until the Big Freeze was over? So what was he doing out of bed? I hope you haven't been making him work, Jules".
"What on earth do you think I am, an insensitive monster?" Julian exclaimed.
Adam looked at him pointedly.
"It was only this morning actually that I was impressing on him the need to stay wrapped up in bed", said Julian "Unfortunately then I found I'd mislaid something, so I had to get him up to help me look for it. But he's back in bed now!"
"Your audacity takes my breath away sometimes Jules".
"More likely it's those rotten lungs of yours that does that", said Julian, tapping his friend's bottom with the copper shovel.
"Don't start getting carried away", said Adam, straightening up "I'm cooking the dinner tonight. Did you know we're having jugged hare?"
"Good grief, has Hillyard found one to shoot?" said Julian.
"No, there were a couple hanging up at the back of the larder", said Adam "They were given to us as a present by one of the local farmers just before the Blast. I'd forgotten we had them. It was a very pleasant surprise. I just hope they're still alright".
"Of course they are", said Julian "In fact the longer you leave them to hang the better. It's years since I had jugged hare. Don't mess it up will you?"
"If you keep that attitude up Jules, I'll make sure you get small rations".
Adam unhooked the hares from the back of the larder and gazed at them lovingly. Ransey was standing next to him in the cool, dimly-lit room, and looked equally appreciative.
"I'm glad Hillyard's offered to skin them though", said Adam "I can't bear the sound of fur being torn away from flesh. I expect Patsy's sitting in another part of the house with ear-muffs on!"
"Will he be having any?" said Ransey.
"No, I'll give him extra of the tinned veggies instead", said Adam "I've never forgotten the torment he went through when he had to eat a bit of that water-cow that time, I couldn't put him through it again".
"You're so kind, do you know that?" Ransey grabbed Adam's arm. Adam was so taken aback that he accidentally kicked one of the numerous buckets of snow that were sitting around on the flagstone floor, slowly turning into water.
"I'd better get on, these things require a lot of preparation", said Adam, making to leave.
"A-Adam", said Ransey, nervously "Will you come to my room later?"
"No I won't", said Adam, trying not to sound sharp, and failing "That isn't what you really want Ransey, and it's not fair of you to keep doing this to me. It makes me feel bad".
"But that isn't what I want at all", said Ransey, in dismay "I want you to feel good. I don't get this, Adam. If any of the others had asked you to meet them you'd have gone like a shot".
"Not when I've got a dinner to cook I wouldn't", Adam hissed.
"I'm trying real hard to give you what you need".
"Then don't bother. I don't need it from you, Ransey".
"I've been reading some books I found in the library here", said Ransey, quietly "More of that erotica stuff. I feel I've read enough now to know exactly how to give maximum satisfaction".
"Ransey, those books aren't computer manuals to be taken word-for-word", said Adam "They're for enhancement of one's sex life, or simply just to entertain. You can't just read them and think 'now I can be a great lover', it's more subtle than that".
"Am I really such unpromising material?" Ransey sniffed "I mean, you seemed to manage alright with Lonts, and then there's Joby. I mean, he threw himself at you in Husgalonghi and you went along with it. Am I really so much less desirable than him?"
"It was different with Joby".
"I fancied Joby", said Adam, helplessly "I'm sorry old love, but you did want to know".
"Why can't you bring yourself to fancy me?" said Ransey, stiffly.
"Because ..." Adam felt like banging his head against the wall in frustration "Because you're just not physical enough for me".
"Oh I see, it has to be rough stuff does it?"
"Don't be puerile", Adam snapped "It's nothing of the kind. Bloody rough stuff indeed! Who the hell do you think I am? Vanod! When I say physical I mean loving, affectionate, earthy, energetic, taking immense pleasure in each other's bodies. And that wouldn't happen with you, not when you're such a damn cold fish. I'm sorry Ransey, but you drove me to say that, and I don't want to follow this conversation anymore".
"None of this affects how I feel about you, Adam", said Ransey, and he left the room abruptly.
The conversation had been deeply disturbing, and Adam tried to relieve some of his negative feelings by watching Hillyard skin the hares.
"It's his problem, Adam", said Hillyard "You've just got to let him get on with it. Let him live in cloud cuckoo land if he wants. He's an intelligent bloke, he'll eventually get the message".
"I wish I was as certain as you", said Adam "Ransey's the sort of man who once he gets the bit between his teeth stalks you for years. I can see him sending me wistful Valentine cards when I'm ninety! And don't ask me what a Valentine card is, I'm not in the mood".
Ransey didn't join them for dinner. Instead he took a tray up to Finia's room and ate there. The others meanwhile congregated round the kitchen table to eat the jugged hare.
"Isn't it nice without Ransey's baleful presence here?" said Julian "Sometimes I find that man quite deadening".
"He'll keep himself out of the way for a while", said Hillyard "He'll be too embarrassed after propositioning Adam to show his face".
"Hillyard, I could wring your fat neck", Adam hissed "I told you that in confidence".
"You told Hillyard something in confidence?" Joby exclaimed "That's like telling the 'National Enquirer'!"
"He never said it was in confidence", Hillyard protested "He stood there whingeing on, and not once did he say it was in confidence".
"We know about Ransey's feelings for you anyway, Addy", said Kieran "So it's hardly news".
"Yea", said Joby "I don't know what you're getting worked up about".
"The sheer embarrassment of being propositioned by Ransey I would've thought", Julian smirked.
"I glad you think it's a laughing matter", Adam snarled.
"Why on earth shouldn't I?" said Julian "When Ransey's about the only person in this house I don't have to worry about you bedding!"
Lonts meanwhile had been feeding scraps of meat to the dogs.
"Lonts, that's a filthy habit", Adam yelled.
"They're hungry, Adam", said Lonts.
"No they're not, their food's in the passage", said Adam "Don't let me catch you doing that again".
"So make sure you don't get caught next time, Lonts!" said Kieran.
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