By Sarah Hapgood

“This is an old photographer’s trick isn’t it?” said Bengo, leaning back on the library windowseat “Get someone to pose in front of a window, so that you can see their body through their clothes!”

“It wouldn’t work so well for me”, said Adam, who was sitting on a high stool in the middle of the room “Considering that I’m sketching you in charcoal, not photographing you. And anyway, ff1 wanted to see your body I doubt I’d have to go through such a tortuous method of deceit to do it! You look like a young boy like that, as though you were no older than 12. What a little poppet you must have been”. “I’ll show you a dance I used to do when I was a kid”, said Bengo, getting off the windowseat “This was when I was really little. It was the only solo spot I ever did”. He executed a charming if energetic little polka around the library, narrowly missing the furniture. It didn’t take Adam much effort of imagination to envisage Bengo as a little boy, all tumbling brown curls and vivacious smile, performing this routine. Some of the worst elements of the all-male audience must have needed lashing to their chairs.

“You must have been absolutely enchanting”, said Adam.

“More like this I would’ve thought”, said Bengo, sticking his fingers in his mouth and miming being sick.

“Nonsense”, said Adam.

“Bardy’s a much better dancer than me”, said Bengo “I doubt I’d have been given that solo spot if I hadn’t had dimples!”

“Did he get jealous when you performed that one alone?” said Adam, who had a strong feeling that the dimples remark had originally come from Bardin.

“No not really”, said Bengo “He was more worried about some of the audience. He used to watch from the wings in case any of them tried anything”.

“Poor Bardin, he had to grow up very fast didn’t he?” Adam sighed.

It was obvious to the older Indigo-ites that since their return from their adventures at the Chateau de Sade, that the younger ones had evolved into a family unit of their own. Not that they showed the remotest urge to split off and live separately from the others, but there was an even more definite sub-group there now, which was as it should be. Bardin and Rumble were very clearly the parents to the others. This was a matter of upset to Hoowie, who had got resentful that they had gone off and had their adventures in Lacoste without him. During their absence he had repeatedly gone off for long, moody rambles on his own, Lonts-style, and on return irritably went on about how everyone thought of him as a hopeless loser. Now Farnol tried to snap him out of it by pointing out that it had hardly been their decision to leave him behind, but Hoowie was still being very sensitive about it all.

Whilst Adam was sketching Bengo, Bardin was outside, round the end of the house, repainting the skiff that had been brought down from the sloop. He was assisted by Toppy, who in spite of the fact that he had been working on this job for nearly two hours, still wore an immaculate white vest. Bardin wished he could say the same for himself. His vest was so old and well-used there were yellow patches of old sweat under the anus, and a gaping hole had been plugged by a large unsightly safety-pin. “You’re not human, you can’t be”, said Bardin, wiping the sweat from his eyes, and then putting the handkerchief back under his leather cap.

“I’m sweating though”, said Toppy, who was instead glistening all over like a well- oiled conker.

“Yeah, it’s nearly noon”, said Bardin, glancing up at the sky “We’d better go in for a while”.

They walked round to the front of the house, carrying the brushes. Bengo met them in the porch. His canine qualities were well to the fore. He was like a little lapdog who had been waiting anxiously for his master to come home. Most them treated Bengo this way. It wasn’t unusual for some of them to scoop him up like a little dog and sit him on their lap when they entered the house.

Bardin, with his hands full, made do with a chaste kiss on his mouth. Bengo followed him and Toppy into the laundry-room, where they set to work cleaning the brushes in the big stone sink under the window.

“How did the portrait session go?” asked Bardin.

“Fine”, said Bengo “I also showed Adam that little dance I used to do when we were kids. You know, my solo spot”.

“You’re such a child”, said Toppy.

“Well it’s better than being an old woman like you!” said Bengo.

“Can you leave off the boat-painting this afternoon?” said Rumble, coming into the room “It’s surfing time!”

He and Farnol had been in one of the outhouses most of the time since returning from the dreamscape, both of them working on making surfboards.

“We should catch the waves now”, he continued “Hoowie says they’re getting to be a good size”.

“Hoowie’s spoken has he?” said Bardin “I never thought I’d be pleased to hear that!” “Don’t you want to paint them first?” said Toppy.

“No time for that, kiddo”, said Rumble “The ocean calls!”

Lonts was sitting at the kitchen table, reading a paperback romance, one of a batch Glynis had sent in the last parceldrop. Adam had been quite bemused by this gift. He wondered who she thought was going to read them, certainly not Mieps and Tamaz! As it turned out Lonts had commandeered them, and had been engrossed in them ever since.

“Are you enjoying the story, Lo-Lo?” said Adam, who was now preparing lunch with Joby.

“It’s very tender”, said Lonts, gruffly, holding the slim volume in his great paw. “I hope to God it’s got a happy ending”, said Joby “Or he’ll be bawling his head off all night!”

He went to put a large saucepan of mashed potato onto the table and nearly dropped it on the floor instead. He seized his back and cried out.

“Adam! Adam!” Lonts yelled out in alarm “Joby’s in pain!”

“It’s me back”, Joby grimaced “I think I’ve pulled something”.

“O.K, don’t panic”, said Adam, quietly but firmly “I’ll call Hillyard in. He used to do a lot of osteopathic stuff when he worked at the bath-house”.

He shouted out of the kitchen door at Hillyard, who was drinking coffee on the terrace with Julian. Hillyard came in. closely followed by Kieran.

“Take him into the room behind the pantry”, said Adam.

Hillyard hauled Joby over his shoulder and took him into the said bedroom. Kieran knelt on the bed, and between them they lay Joby down and removed his pinny. “It’s not a slipped disc is it?” Joby groaned, as Hillyard got to work kneading his back “My Grandad had one of them. He was laid up in bed for six weeks”.

“That’s just daft”, said Kieran “Lying in bed does no good to back trouble”. “No, it’ll just seize up even more if you don’t use it”, said Hillyard “Gentle exercise is the thing, so no surfing for you this afternoon”.

“I wasn’t gonna go anyway”, said Joby “I knew I’d be bound to fall off”. “A bath would be the thing”, said Kieran “After lunch I’ll fill up the big bath upstairs, and then give you a bit of hydrotherapy. Hillyard must be an expert on that”. “He’s an expert at pulling me to pieces”, said Joby.

“Stop complaining or I’ll get Julian onto you”, said Hillyard.

“Muscle ease cream”, Finia announced, bearing a glass pot into the room “I’ve just been rooting through the medicine chest. This is just the thing”.

“That stuff stinks”, said Joby “I’ll reek of it for hours”.

“Well it’ll be an improvement on chip fat”, said Kieran “Which is what you normally stink of!”

“Oh cheers thanks!” said Joby.

“Somehow I might have known you’d be a bad patient”, said Hillyard “Thank God you’re not ill very often!”

“Don’t knock it”, said Kieran, stroking Joby’s hair “Whilst he’s complaining we know he’s still alive!”

“Ow! Aagh!” Joby screamed as Hillyard practically knelt in the small of his back “Shit! Hillyard, what are you trying to do to me?”

“Cure you”, said Hillyard.

“He needs proper medical care”, said Ransey, standing in the doorway “Not the attentions of a witch-doctor. We need to take him to Toondor Lanpin”.

“Do me a favour, it takes us a fortnight to get there”, Joby winced.

“Alright, Aspiriola then”, said Ransey “That takes three days. I’ll get a stretcher rigged up, and the clowns can carry you up to the sloop”.

“No!” said Joby “I’m not going through all that just for a bad back! What is the fucking point of us being in retreat here if we run off to the nearest town if one of us gets so much as a bleedin’ headache! I’ve pulled a muscle that’s all. I’m not going”. “If there’s no improvement in your condition by tomorrow morning you won’t have any choice”, said Ransey, and he walked out, slamming the door shut behind him.

“Who does he think he is?” said Hilyard “Calling me a witch-doctor!” “Our witch-doctor in Husgalonghi was a good man”, said Finia.

“With the storm season due at any moment, it’ll have to be Toondor Lanpin”. said Kieran “Being tossed about on the high seas in gale-force winds won’t do you any good”.

“Kieran!” said Joby “I don’t need a friggin’ hospital! People always come out of those places worse than they went in anyway. I had an uncle died on the operating- table”.

“We get that story everytime anyone mentions the word 'hospital’!” said Kieran “People do occasionally come out cured you know. Look at Adam”.

“Adam had lung cancer”, said Joby “Much more straightforward that was. They know what to remove there. Whereas with my back ...“

“Medical science hasn’t caught up his back yet”, said Hillyard, causing Kieran and Finia to laugh.

“I’m glad you find the thought of me in pain amusing”, said Joby.

“You won’t be in pain for long if you just do as you’re told”, said Kieran. “That’s the problem with being ill”, said Joby, darkly “Everybody else has a say in your life, which is no longer your own”.

After lunch the younger ones took the makeshift boards down to the beach as they’d originally planned. It was a blisteringly hot day, only the bigger waves gave any indication that the hurricane season could arrive at any day now. Whilst it lasted the whole beach area would be out of bounds completely, and they would be confined to the sheltered hollow of Midnight Castle. the river, and the immediate surrounding forest.

They paddled the boards out beyond the surf, and then lay on them face-down, chatting as though they were at a cocktail party. Hoowie hung back from the others, and Bengo joined him on the fringes of the group.

“I came down here a lot whilst you were missing”, said Hoowie “Spent hours just sitting in the surf, thinking”.

“What about?” said Bengo.

“You lot you jerk!” said Hoowie “I remembered that the others all think I’m stooped”.

“They all think I’m stupid as well”, said Bengo. as though offering consolation. “Yeah, but at least you were a success at something”, said 1-loowie “I was a freakin’ melon-seller!”

“I couldn’t have been a success on my own”, said Bengo “It was all down to Bardy. If I’d been a solo performer I’d have got a bad reputation. One of the sort no one else wants to work with, ‘cos they’re too unreliable and temperamental. That would have been me. I’d have finished up being blackballed by theatres and other players. I would have lost my way”.

Hoowie thought Bengo was being too hard on himself, but Bengo knew better. It was always Bardin, both in childhood and at the Little Theatre as adults, who made sure they got rehearsed properly, who got them ready on time, who calmed Bengo’s stagefright and his tantrums. Bengo was a tool in the hands of a maestro, and as such they wouldn’t have been much use without one another.

Bengo recalled the Christmas show that Rumble had told Kieran about at the Chateau de Sade. It wasn’t the content of the show for once that had made Bengo go into “spazz”, but it was simply that the excitement of everything had all got too much for him. He was only 10-years-old, it was Christmas, and he and Bardin were getting star billing for the first time. Ully had told them that they were the youngest performers to have ever topped the bill at the Cabaret. It was all very heady stuff, particularly for someone as naturally excitable as Bengo.

With only minutes to go before they were due to go on, he had thrown a tantrum and locked himself in the dressing-room. Bardin, who had lain awake the night before plotting their glorious future, had gone wide-eyed with panic that his unpredictable partner was about to louse it all up. He almost froze with shock.

Rumble had come to the rescue. He and Farnol had only minor parts in the show, but they felt no jealousy of Bengo and Bardin. Even as children they were professional enough to recognise true genius when they saw it. Rumble had always had a lot of respect for Bardin, and he knew what a hard time he got from the other clowns. He also didn’t envy him having such an unstable partner as Bengo, who was a handful by anyone’s standards. Rumble had ordered Bengo to let him into the dressing-gown, and hadn’t wasted any time in trying to appease him. He had put him over his knee and spanked him. Bengo had screamed and fought back, but he then went out and did the show afterwards.

Back in their room at the lodging-house later that night, Bengo and Bardin had changed into their white nightshirts. Bengo had got into bed, whilst Bardin had opened the shutters and made sure the mosquito screen had been bolted into place.

He had then come back to the bed and climbed in next to him, as he did every night of the year.

“B-Bardy”, Bengo had whispered in the nocturnal gloom “I bet you wish Rumble was your partner”.

“There would be no point in that”, Bardin had replied “We’re too much alike. There’d be no contrast”.

“You shouldn’t have let him smack me”, said Bengo.

“You shouldn’t have played up, Brat!” said Bardin.

Bengo sighed and put his thumb in his mouth. Bardin thought that that was something else he would have to take in hand soon, Bengo shouldn’t still be sucking his thumb at the age of 10. He’d only just got him used to tying his shoelaces! “Do you forgive me, Bardy?” he said, taking his thumb out of his mouth “Only it’s Christmas tomorrow, today almost, and I’d like us to be friends”.

“I’ll always forgive you”, said Bardin, candidly “We only have each other, Bengo. We’re all we’ve got in the world. I’ll never leave you, not ever”.

“Oh!” Bengo gave an anguished cry and nearly fell off his surfboard.

“Are you o.k?” asked Hoowie.

“Bardy loves me, he always has”, Bengo sobbed.

“You are real slow on the uptake sometimes ent yer!” said Hoowie “Well you’ve made me feel better for sure. I’m finally reassured that there’s someone in the world even more stooped than me!”

“Bloody marvellous innit”, said Joby, standing up to his chest in bathwater “Now I know I’m old. The kids go out surfing, and I have hydrotherapy for a bad back!”

“For the umpteenth time you are not old”, said Kieran, who was gently soaping Joby’s back.

“I may not look it on the outside”, said Joby “But it’s the inner workings that count”. “Most people’d be quite happy with just looking young on the outside”, said Kieran. “Guess so”, said Joby, sombrely.

“You’re still mobile so stop complaining”, said Hillyard, the third man in the bath “You’re not bent double, unable to move like some I’ve seen”.

“And your mouth’s still working”, said Kieran.

“Ho ho ho!” said Joby.

A few minutes later the three of them left the bathroom, not bothering with clothes, and emerged into the coolness of the upstairs corridor. There were sounds of roughhousing coming from Kieran’s Vestry nearby, as though a fight was in progress, and the furniture was getting a bashing as a result.

They peered through the doorway to find Mieps and Tamaz, both rolling around naked on the floor. Mieps had his head thrown back, and an expression on his face as though he was about to sneeze violently. Mieps had ambushed Tamaz immediately on his return from the beach, and spirited him upstairs. Tamaz’s clothes (what there was of them) had got mislaid en-route.

Tamaz tried to hang onto his orgasm for as long as he could, and then looked up to see the other three watching them. He ran across the room, embraced Joby, and then ran into the bathroom, yodelling merrily as he went.

“Will you look at the state of my room!” said Kieran.

Mieps grudgingly put a chair back on its legs, which was obviously going to be the extent of his housework. Down the other end of the corridor Ransey could be heard yelling at the cockeral, who had found his way into the house and up the main staircase. Having chased it back down again, he then returned to lecture the gathering in the corridor, convinced one of them was at fault.

“It can’t be helped”, said Joby “The only way we can make sure none of the animals get in is by keeping all the doors and windows shut, and you wouldn’t like that one bit!”

Ransey didn’t prolong the argument. He had his pyjamas on and felt at a disadvantage, being the only one who was clothed.

“He’s being a real old nag at the moment”, said Joby, once Ransey had gone. “Oh he’ll improve”, said Hillyard “He got himself in such a state whilst Kieran and the others were missing, it’s taking him a while to shake it off. I expect he’s frightened it’ll happen again. We’ve just got to bear with him until he relaxes”.

Joby thought this might take some time. He was sitting in one of the armchairs in the library that evening, staring at the unlit grate, when Ransey started on about his back again. Joby threatened violence if he didn’t stop harping on about it. So Ransey turned to Lonts, who was sitting in the other armchair, drawing on his pipe contemplatively.

“That chimney will have to be swept tomorrow”, said Ransey “I shall expect you to help me”.

“O.K”, Lonts sighed, heavily.

Ransey left for the kitchen. Adam, also sitting on the sofa, watched him go and then went back to brushing Bengo’s hair. Bengo was sitting on the floor between Adam’s legs.

“Is this the library at Midnight Castle or the chorus girls’ dressing-room at the Little Theatre?” said Julian, coming in from the hall and sitting down next to Adam. He was smoking a cigar, and sat with an ashtray balanced on the palm of his hand. “What’s eating you, you old trout?” said Adam.

“Why is Rumble walking around with his hair in plaits?” said Julian. “Convenience”, said Adam “It kept it all under control when he was surfing. I rather like it, makes him look like a native American Indian”.

“Makes him look like a big girl!” said Julian.

“Well your hair’s getting pretty long these days, Jules”, said Adam, teasing the ends of Julian’s blonde hair which flopped over his shoulders.

“At least I don’t wear it in braids!” said Julian “Have we ever known Bengo’s hair to be tidy, ever? It would be easier to cut it all off.

“Don’t be silly”, said Adam “I can’t imagine Bengo without his hair. He’s always had so much of it”.

“There’d be a lot more room in the bed if you did”, said Joby “I wouldn’t wake up choking on mouthfuls of it. You could hack off Hoowie’s too whilst you were at it!” “I’m not hacking off anyone’s hair”, said Adam “I like wild hair, it’s a sign of vigour and healthiness. I always associate lack of hair with serious illness, chemotherapy patients and such like”.

“Then why do you keep combing mine?” said Lonts, indignantly.

“Oh that’s easy”, said Adam “Because I like the feel of it! It’s so soft and silky”. “We’ll be discussing face creams next!” said Julian, tartly.

Bengo climbed up onto the sofa, sitting between them, and stretched out his shapely legs across Adam’s lap. Meanwhile, Bardin and Rumble were discussing him in the kitchen. Between them they were knocking up omelettes for everyone, whisking the mixture in jugs and pouring it into three large pans, to be cut up into separate portions when fried.

“I don’t think he’ll ever be entirely right again”, said Bardin, as they both stood over the stove “I mean, he’s never really got over that illness last Christmas, and then we had all those weird happenings all across the summer. Me taking him to Sade’s room can’t have helped”.

“I overheard him saying to Adam earlier that he doesn’t want anything dramatic to happen to us again, ever”, said Rumble.

“But it won’t work like that”, Bardin sighed “It never does. Life always throws a spanner in the works at some point, usually just when you think you’re coasting along nicely too”.

“Look, Bengo’ll be o.k”, said Rumble “He relies on you to do his thinking for him anyway, and you’re happy with that, so there’s no problem. We’ll just look out for him as though he was a kid again”.

“Did we ever stop?” said Bardin, wryly “I’m just glad that when he left me that time he fell in with the others, and no one else. I dread to think how he might have ended up otherwise”.

Farnol came in from shutting up the hens for the night. It was raining, and he had draped a bit of sacking over his head for protection. He felt a bit peeved at seeing them both hunched over the stove, discussing Bengo, yet again. Farnol wasn’t a man to get churlish easily, and Bengo had worried him a lot too during the past year, but just occasionally he felt a little bit annoyed at all the attention the Cute Doe-Eyed One was getting lately.

“Is it raining then?” said Rumble, glancing round at him.

“Yes, has been for about half-an-hour”, said Farnol, shaking out the sacking. “Good job I put the skiff in the outhouse before we went off to the beach”, said Bardin “Can you go and set up the table, Farnol?”

Farnol sighed and said something which neither of the others caught. “Is he afright7’ said Bardin, once Famol had gone into the dining-room. “Wants his share of the attention, I think”, said Rumble, with his usual astuteness “I’ll go and have a word with him in a minute”.

“Go now”, said Bardin, taking the other wooden spatula off him “Go on”. Rumble went into the unlit dining-room, where Farnol was standing at the window, watching the rain bouncing off the river. He put his hand on Farnol’s shoulder and squeezed it.

“Now I know it’s not your birthday so I can’t have forgotten it”, said Rumble, alluding to a private joke of theirs. Farnol had once thought Rumble had forgotten his birthday and had gone into a week-long sulk about it beforehand. Whereas Rumble had just been teasing him until the last minute.

“You two discuss Bengo as though he was your child prodigy or something!” said Farnol.

“Yeah well unfortunately he takes a lot of worrying about”, said Rumble “You don’t, I’m glad to say! Bardin needs someone to discuss it with occasionally that’s all”.

“He’s got all the others”, said Famol.

“I know, but I think sometimes he finds it helps that I knew Bengo as a kid you see”, said Rumble “It’s just one of those things”.

“He was an attention-grabbing little bastard then an’ all!” said Famol. “He’s highly-strung”, said Rumble.

“Yes, sometimes I think he should be”, said Famol “From the nearest tree!”

It continued to rain heavily all through dinner.

“The end of summer”, said Ransey, with grim satisfaction.

“And the end of our lotus-eater lifestyle”, said Julian “It will be nothing but hard work from now on”.

“For the rest of us you mean”, said Joby “You’ll still carry on doing nothing, as usual”.

Adam noticed that Kieran was nodding off over his omelette.

“Try and eat something before you fall asleep, Patsy”, he said.

Kieran obliged with a few mouthfuls, and Joby then took him up to bed, tucking him into the four-poster in the main bedroom.

“Will you hark at that rain!” said Kieran “It’s like being back in Ireland!” Joby took off his clothes and waked round to the other side of the bed. “I overheard Bengo earlier”, said Kieran “Saying he hoped that nothing dramatic would ever happen to us again”.

“Fat chance”, said Joby, climbing into bed.

“It would be nice though if the rest of the world forgot about us wouldn’t it?” said Kieran.

“They might not have any choice for the next few weeks”, said Joby “It’s gonna be hard for anyone to get here. The sea’ll be rough, and it’s hard for anyone to land an air-buggy here, with all the trees around. They could try it in the fields of course, but it’ll be an hassle taking off again”.

“And overland would be a helluva trek too”, said Kieran.

Joby glanced at Kieran suspiciously. Kieran seemed to be trying to reassure himself of their seclusion. An impression reinforced when Kieran started because of a high- pitched noise outside.

“It’s an animal in the forest”, said Joby “A fox or a wild-cat. Might even be a wolf at this time of year. We’d better keep an eye out for them from now on”.

“I can cope with wolves”, said Kieran, quietly.

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