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By Sarah Hapgood

“I couldn’t possibly do it”, said Adam “They’re like old friends. I’ve known them since they were babies. They’ve all got names!”

“You can’t afford to be sentimental”, said Joby, leaning against the wire mesh of the chicken-run “If we don’t do it we’re gonna end up having rabbit stew for Christmas dinner!”

“Well I notice that for all this big brave peasant talk of yours that it’s not you who’s volunteering to do the dreadful deed”, said Adam “You’ve put forward Hillyard to do the neck-wringing!”

“I’ve never done it before, he has”, Joby protested “I could mess it up”.

“Undoubtedly!” said Adam, striding off in the direction of the house.

“Great wuzzies”, Joby muttered.

“Peasant!” Adam shouted back.

“I only have to turn me back for five minutes and you two are fighting”, said Kieran, walking out of the forest with one of the goats on a dog-leash “What’s it all about this time?”

“You wouldn’t understand”, said Joby, lugubriously “You wouldn’t care what you got for Christmas dinner. You’d probably be happy with Hillyard’s carrot-stew”.

“Aagh!” Kieran recoiled “Don’t throw those terrible words at me!”

The goat head-butted him gently in the backside, and Kieran led him over to the pen so that he could rejoin his harem. Joby returned reluctantly to the kitchen, where he found Adam shaking a can of scouring-powder aggressively over the draining-board.

“Why don’t you make Bengo do that?” said Joby “I thought that’s why we had him around, to do all the boring jobs”.

“I sent him down to the cellar a while back”, said Adam.

“Good”, said Joby “Best place for him”.

“Put the kettle on and make some tea”, Adam ordered.

Whilst Joby was thus engaged in this, a dragging and thumping noise could be heard coming from the dining-room. Bengo emerged, hauling along a large sack of potatoes behind him. He stumbled on a loose flagstone and went sprawling, scatting potatoes as he went.

“Whoever named ‘em pratfalls had it right”, said Joby, helping Bengo to his feet.

“Are you o.k, Bengo?” said Adam “We really need to do something about that tile”.

“Yeah, the health-and-safety officer would shut us down if he saw that!” said Joby.

“When are we all going to go to the room behind the pantry for our Christmas orgy?” said Bengo “Us, the kitchen staff I mean. You two had one last year when you went to Myrtle’s”.

“I don’t think you can have an orgy with two people”, said Adam “It’s just a straightforward coupling”.

“There’ll be three of us this year”, said Bengo, eyes shining with excitement.

“Behave yourself”, said Joby “You’re supposed to be married. So am I … sort of”.

“Perhaps you need to check with Bardin first, Bengo”, said Adam.

“Oh no, he wouldn’t have a chance to get cross with me then!” said Bengo.

Joby groaned and rolled his eyes, going back to his tea-making.

“Wouldn’t you like Kieran to get cross with you?” asked Bengo.

“No”, said Joby “He just goes on and on and on, and I have to sit there and listen to it”.

He poured out the tea whilst Bengo collected the loose potatoes. Bengo then went and sat on Adam’s lap and allowed himself to be cuddled rather thoroughly. Kieran came in and took off his oilskin jacket.

“Do you want a cup of tea?” said Joby.

“I never turn down a cup of tea”, said Kieran, sitting down opposite Bengo and Adam. “You look a little piqued, Patsy”, said Adam “Surely you’re not jealous of Bengo being cuddled?”

“Of course I am!” said Kieran “No one ever goes on about how great I am to cuddle do they!”

“You’re too spindly for that”, said Joby “Always frightened bits of you are gonna break off or summat!”

Nonetheless he cuddled up to Kieran, and the four of them were engrossed in this pleasing activity when Julian and Ransey walked in, complaining vociferously about the lack of logs in the log-basket in the library.

“Then go and get some from the outhouse”, said Adam, impatiently.

“It shouldn’t happen in the first place”, said Ransey “There are enough of us here to keep a proper system going, or there would be if everybody didn’t sit around cuddling and nibbling at each other!”

“Of for goodness sake, you sound like Codlik with all your talk of systems and organisation!” said Adam “Patsy, give grumpy-guts a hug”.

Kieran went over to Ransey and embraced him. Ransey was quite taken with this and blushed.

“Joby, you can give Julian a hug”, said Adam.

“No thanks”, said Joby.

“Joby!” said Adam, in a warning voice.

Joby sighed and went over to Julian.

“Well!” said Adam, with an exclamation of satisfaction “Isn’t this nice! The true spirit of Christmas!”

Whilst the potatoes were baking in the oven, Adam went for a walk in the maze with Julian. They located the weather-worn bench that was situated in the direct centre of it and sat down.

“See how we get on with finding out way out again”, said Adam “We really must get Freaky to draw us up a plan of it sometime”.

“If we’re not out by lunchtime”, said Julian “The others can send him in after us”.

They leaned against each other drowsily, but their reverie was broken by the drone of an air-buggy going over.

“I hope that’s not Codlik being sent back to us”, said Julian.

“Surely not?” said Adam “Perhaps Glynis is sending us our Christmas hamper after all. If so, that means the chickens might get a reprieve!”

By the time they had found their way out of the maze again, the two hampers had been collected from the nearby vicinity of the forest and dragged into the kitchen. Tamaz was being teased mercilessly. The others had pushed him outside the kitchen door and bolted it against him.

“You rotten lot! Let me in!” he wailed.

He caught sight of Adam and Julian returning and foolishly announced that he would be able to get in with them. Except Julian picked him up and put him outside the door again. Inside, the table was spread with the contents of the hampers, and the others were all assembled around it.

“Please let me in!” Tamaz began to sob on the other side of the door “It’s not fair!”

Lonts scowled at everyone and let Tamaz in. Tamaz promptly elbowed his way to the front of the congregation at the table.

“Oh”, said Adam, despondently “She’s sent us a turkey”.

“Some turkey!” said Joby “More like a budgie! That’ll never go round all of us!”

“That’s why she’s sent us two”, said Hillyard, pulling out a newspaper-wrapped bundle from the other hamper “And a tin of chipolata’s”.

“What fun”, said Adam, unenthusiastically “That means no lie-in on Christmas morning. I was hoping she’d send us one of her prize hams instead”.

“She couldn’t”, said Bardin, who was reading Glynis’s enclosed letter “They’ve had an outbreak of swine-fever on the Estate. Several of the pigs have had to be destroyed”.

“It never rains but it pours”, said Joby.

“And in the New Year she wants Kieran to fly up there”, Bardin continued “Since Codlik’s returned the poltergeists have started up again. She wants Kieran to lead the monks in a blessing”.

“Even the ghosts don’t want Codlik around!” said Julian.

“That whole place is such a psychically-sensitive spot”, said Adam “I wouldn’t be surprised if it was on the node of a ley-line”.

“She says we don’t all have to come”, said Bardin “Just a few of us. We could sail to Aspiriola and she’ll send an air-buggy to meet us there”.

“She’s got it all organised hasn’t she!” said Julian “I don’t know why she doesn’t come here and take over as Captain!”

“Don’t go giving her ideas!” said Joby. “Well I’m not going without Joby”, said Kieran “And we’ll probably need Adam to keep an eye on us, so that means Lonts coming along as well”.

“And me”, said Tamaz.

“I’m sure Glynis will be absolutely thrilled to hear you’re coming!” said Julian. “Ransey will insist on going as security”, said Finia, glumly “So I’ll have to go too. And it’ll be snowing up there a this time of year as well”.

“Bardin will have to go, being Captain”, said Adam.

“So that means I go too”, said Bengo, firmly.

“As nobody seems to want me along”, said Julian, caustically “It rather looks as though I’ll be here minding the house, all alone!”

“You’ll have Mieps for company”, said Joby “Glynis won’t want him up there. Neither will she want Hoowie come to that”.

“If you lot leave me behind again I’ll walk out”, said Hoowie “I won’t be here when you get back!”

“Blimey, can we have that in writing?!” said Joby “What a welcome home present!”

“This is all nonsense”, said Adam “We’ve had enough of groups of us splintering off this year. I suggest we all go. Combine it with a supply-run”.

“And what happens to the animals?” said Joby “We can’t exactly put ‘em all in an air-buggy!”

“We hire someone to look after them whilst the sloop is docked”, said Adam “They can live on board whilst they’re doing it. Be like a little holiday … for the right person”.

“A stranger?” said Lonts, dubiously.

“And I wouldn’t trust any of that lot in Aspiriola”, said Joby “Probably come back to find the sloop’s been stripped of all it’s fixtures and fittings!”

“Then we go to Toondor Lanpin instead”, said Adam “There are plenty whom we can trust there. Perhaps Jonner would like to do it, or one of the Tearfuls’ children. It’ll just take a little longer to get there and back …”

“Let alone how long we’ll be stuck up at the Big House”, said Joby, gloomily “We’ll be lucky if we see this place again in months”.

“It shouldn’t take long to do a straightforward exorcism”, said Bardin, briskly, and then added before Joby could speak again “That’s settled then. We’ll sail in the New Year. Now if there’s no other business I suggest we wind up the meeting”.

“And clear the table”, said Adam “I want to get the potatoes out of the oven”.

“What one earth’s going on out here?” Adam yelled out of the bedroom window on the morning of Christmas Eve “I was promised a sleep-in today and I get woken up by bloody bodging builders!”

“We were hammering as quietly as we could”, said Hillyard “Weren’t we, Ranz?”

“I suppose it never occurred to you to simply not hammer at all!” said Adam, crossly.

“We were putting some of the ivy back into place”, said Hillyard, defensively “It got blown down in the gales and was looking a bit unsightly”.

“Oh and we can’t have that can we?” said Adam “The neighbours might complain. We’ll get reported to the parish council!”

“Sarky sod”, said Hillyard, as Adam slammed the window shut overhead.

“I thought you was having a lie-in”, said Joby, morosely, when Adam appeared down in the kitchen a few minutes later.

“It’s hopeless trying to rest when Ransey and Hillyard start up a bloody building-site outside”, said Adam “Are you all alone in here?”

“No I’m here”, Kieran protested, who was wresting open the lid of the tea-caddy.

“I can see that Patsy, but you hardly count as kitchen-staff”, said Adam.

“He might as well”, said Joby “He’s the only one who’s brung himself to help me this morning, apart from Toppy who gave a hand with washing-up the breakfast dishes”.

“But that’s ridiculous”, said Adam “Where’s little Bengo?”

“Dunno”, said Joby “But if I get my hands on the little scrote he’s a gonner! He hung around just long enough to stuff his face with some bread and butter, and I haven’t seen him since!”

“What about Rumble?” said Adam “He’s normally pretty good at helping out”.

“No sign of him neither”, said Joby, dourly “I think it’s a fucking clowns’ conspiracy”.

“Bardin must’ve got ‘em doing something else”, said Kieran.

“Which sounds ominous”, said Joby.

“Even so, he should have mentioned it to you first”, said Adam “This is completely unacceptable. I’ve a good mind to call us both out on strike. See how they cope with preparing the Christmas dinner without us!”

“Yeah, they’d really be in the shit then”, said Joby.

“Let’s try and keep a sense of perspective here”, said Kieran “You can’t go and call a strike just because Bengo didn’t report for duty!”

“It’s the principle of the thing, Patsy”, said Adam.

“And after all we’ve done for the ungrateful little tosser these past few weeks and all”, said Joby “And don’t give me any pious claptrap about virtue having its own reward”.

“I wouldn’t dare!” said Kieran “What do I know anyway? I can’t even get the focking lid of the tea-caddy!”

“Hello Adam”, said Lonts, carrying the milking-pail into the room “I’ve just got the milk in”.

“Took you long enough!” said Joby “You went out to do that hours ago”.

“Come in, Tamaz”, Lonts whispered through the back door in a solicitous manner.

Tamaz came in sniffing, and clutching a different bucket.

“Bardin made Tamaz clean the library windows”, said Lonts, as though Bardin had inflicted a sadistic torture on Tamaz “And he’s worried because he can’t stop them being all smeary”.

“Bardin has actually been seen recently then?” said Adam.

“Yes, he and the other clowns went off into the forest”, said Lonts “I think it was to play a game”.

“Aagh!” said Kieran, rushing to grab a bottle of red wine from the dresser “I think a quick injection of Christmas cheer is called for, just in case someone gets hurt!” he also broke off part of an unleavened loaf and handed it to Adam “You might need to mop it up, you haven’t eaten anything yet”.

“Dr Patsy’s casebook”, said Adam.

The five of them sat round the table with the wine, and got out a packet of cards for a game of gin-rummy.

“This feels wonderfully decadent doing this in my dressing-gown”, said Adam.

“I think we should definitely call this a strike”, said Joby, rearranging his cards in his hand.

“What are our terms then?” said Kieran.

“We don’t start work again until the clowns have atoned in some way”, said Adam “And we’ll have a sit-in here in the kitchen until they do, and certainly no lunch will get prepared in that case”.

“They can muck out the animals”, said Lonts.

“And clean the big bath upstairs”, said Joby.

“And cook dinner tonight, as well as wash-up afterwards”, said Adam, raising his glass “Here’s to endless punishments and filthy jobs for the all the clowns”.

“Particularly little cuddly ones with long hair who think they’re cute”, said Joby.

“What have I done then?” said Bengo, appearing by himself in the doorway.

“Oh, nice of you to show your face”, said Joby “Five sodding hours late! You knew we was gonna be short-handed this morning with Adam having a lie-in. I was counting on you, and you bleedin’ well disappears on me! Going off to have a frolic in the woods instead!”

“It’s really not acceptable, Bengo”, said Adam, sternly “I thought you were working with us these days”.

“I am, but Bardy said I was to come along with them this morning”, said Bengo “You know I have to do everything he says”.

“What did he want you for that was so important?” said Joby.

“I-I’m not supposed to say just yet”, Bengo stammered.

“Out with it!” said Joby “Or I’ll come over there and attack you with the cheese-grater!”

“We were having a rehearsal”, said Bengo “We thought that we’d put on a little show for you tomorrow night, show you some of our old routines that you haven’t seen yet. Farnol and Rumble are doing some too. It was gonna be a nice surprise, and now you’ve made me ruin it by telling you. Bardy’s gonna be so annoyed with me”.

“You were rather caught between the Devil and the deep, old love”, said Adam, softening “You would have been in trouble with us if you hadn’t said. Although I really don’t see the need for all this secrecy”.

“We didn’t think it’d cause such aggro”, said Bengo.

“Why wasn’t I asked along?” said Tamaz, waspishly “Old Flat-Cap put me on the bloody windows instead!”

“I think he wants us to do something with you this afternoon”, said Bengo.

“Oh, so you weren’t planning to work then either!” said Joby.

“I’m reporting for duty now”, said Bengo.

“We’ll have to try and remember to show our deepest gratitude for this miraculous event!” said Joby.

“Don’t look so stricken, Bengo”, said Adam “Go and sit by Joby, and we’ll deal you into the next round”.

Bengo dragged a chair across the floor with an earsplitting screech.

“You need a break from all the work you do, Adam”, said Lonts.

“Well I was rather hoping we’d go down to the beach tomorrow”, said Adam “But with everyone wanting turkey dinners, it’s beginning to seem rather unlikely”.

“Then why don’t we take a picnic and go down now?” said Lonts “Just us six”.

Tamaz yodelled merrily and instantly ran into the pantry to bring out the picnic basket.

“Six?” said Joby, pointing at Bengo “Does that mean he’s coming?”

“You can’t leave m behind”, said Bengo “I’m the party clown!”

“Bengo, would you be so kind as to run upstairs and fetch my clothes”, said Adam “My pale blue shirt and the beige trousers”.

“No, I’ll fetch them”, said Lonts, dashing across to the stairs behind the stove.

“We won’t bother with a horse and cart”, said Adam “We’ll take the sack-truck with us instead. Then we’ve got a quicker chance of getting away before any of the others notice. I don’t need to bother with a shave do I?”

“Smooth as a baby’s bottom”, said Joby, running his hand round Adam’s chin.

“Shall I do tricks or tell jokes?” said Bengo.

“Tricks!” said Joby, vehemently “Your jokes are awful!”

“I know, I’m a physical artiste not a stand-up comedian”, said Bengo, ruefully.

“You can say that again!” said Joby “That one you told the other day about the pregnant woman and the golf-clubs went on for ages. I’ve heard Kieran deliver shorter sermons than that!”

“Hah!” said Kieran, who was helping Tamaz to fill the basket.

“That was one of Farnol’s”, said Bengo “I didn’t really approve of it to be honest”.

“Oh Christ, Codlik-itus alert”, said Joby “Hello Bardin, are you coming with us? We need you to make sure our party-clown doesn’t get too politically-correct”.

“A picnic’s a great idea”, said Bardin, who had come in through the back door “Can I really come or is it kitchen-staff only?”

“Of course you can come”, said Adam “And Toppy should come too. Where is he?”

“He said he was going into the dining-room to polish our ‘silverware’”, said Kieran “All two candlesticks of it! I’ll go and fetch him”.

Bardin and Bengo ran out to the outhouse to bring in the sack-truck. Lonts returned from upstairs with Adam’s clothes. Adam shrugged off his dressing-gown to reveal his famous flannel drawers.

“If Julian sees them we’ll never get away”, said Joby “What drives him so wild about ‘em? They’re about as sensual to me as Tamaz’s winter bloomers!”

“I think that’s why”, said Adam “Sometimes it’s the simple things that turn him on the most. He’s a rather complex character like that”.

The “complex character” was at this moment on the sloop with Mieps. He was sitting in the chair at his desk and refastening his trouser buttons and his braces. Mieps came in from the heads next door, stark naked.

“You splendidly ugly creature, come here!” Julian pulled Mieps onto his knee and fondled his breasts “My very own pet monster. I want us to get married before we go up to the Big House”.

“Why?” said Mieps.

“Because I care about you”, said Julian “Surely that’s a good enough reason isn’t it?”

“But why marry me?” said Mieps “You haven’t proposed to Hillyard or Adam”.

“I don’t have to worry about them running off”, said Julian “I can wake up in the mornings and not fear that they’ve disappeared to answer the call of the wild”.

“What you’re really afraid of is that I’ll play up around Codlik”, said Mieps.

“No, not anymore”, said Julian “What I’m afraid of is that the whole situation up there might get too intense for you. Glynis in particular can be most irrational where you’re concerned”.

“So I’ll simply stay out of her way”, Mieps shrugged “That should be easy enough to do. It’s a big enough house!”

“Hide yourself away down the North Wing again, or wherever it was you used to go?” said Julian “Oh no you won’t!”

“A public wedding?” said Mieps, dubiously “Between you and me? The freak show of the year!”

“Certainly not, dear heart”, said Julian “I know how private you are, I wouldn’t subject you to that. We’ll have a quiet family wedding here. If we marry on the sloop, Bardin can do it, if you prefer at home, Kieran can do it. It’ll be a bit of fun, what do you say? I know it won’t be as technically legal as the clowns’ wedding, but that’s not what we want. And it should make things easier for you on the trip to the Big House. You won’t have to shuffle around behind the scenes like the ghost in the wainscoting. You’ll be my lady”.

“Would you have wanted to marry me if your blood family could see it?” said Mieps.

“Most certainly!” said Julian “My parents would have been appalled, and Piers would have been so terrified of you he would have hidden himself away!”

“But I’m a freak!” Mieps protested “Like Tamaz!”

“And Freaky’s my child”, said Julian “Even if that means our bathroom antics do sometimes border on the incestuous!”

“You are a very weird man”, said Mieps, giving a rare smile.

“I know”, said Julian, unrepentantly “And because of it I’ve had the most thoroughly interesting life!”

Joby lay against some rocks and idly watched Lonts, who was walking contemplatively through the surf with his trousers rolled up.

“Look at him!” said Joby, squinting against the sun “All he needs is a knotted hankie on his head!”

“He looks so deep in thought doesn’t he?” said Adam.

“Mm”, said Joby “Don’t mean to say he is though!”

The sun was strong, full of the promise to come, although you couldn’t stay out in it for long without an oilskin coat on for warmth. Lonts eventually ambled over to them and plonked himself down on the sand. Adam fussed around him with a towel, wiping his feet free of sand and helping him back on with his shoes. Lonts lolled there, sucking his thumb, as though Adam was his handmaiden.

“This is such a haven isn’t it?” said Adam.

“Yeah”, said Joby “Shame we have to keep leaving it!”

Julian had informed Hillyard of his plans after lunch. Outwardly Hillyard had taken it calmly, but when Adam got home and heard all the news, he could sense something was amiss. He found Hillyard sitting alone in the unlit dining-room, which was getting increasingly shadowy as the afternoon wore on.

“Julian isn’t always very good at explaining his motivations”, said Adam, sitting down close to him at the end of the table.

“He explained it fine”, said Hillyard “And I agree with him, it would do Mieps good. It would stabilise him. Julian says that too often he mooches around like some spinster aunt who’s not sure if he’s wanted”.

“This would bring him in from the outer rim”, said Adam “He’s the closest we’ve got to an older female figure, so he should play a more prominent role”.

Hillyard concealed a smile. As far as he and the others were concerned, Adam was the older female figure!

“So what is it that’s upsetting you?” said Adam, gently nudging Hillyard’s knee.

“I always louse it up”, said Hillyard “I start off with the possibility of being someone’s partner, and then I go and lose ‘em to someone else because I’m too vague. It happened with Lonts, Tamaz and Bengo, and now it’s happened with both Julian and Mieps in one fell swoop”.

“You haven’t lost them”, said Adam “You haven’t lost anyone! You’re not going to leave us are you? It’s very selfish of me I know but I’m afraid now that if we take you up to the Big House you’ll abandon us for Glynis. And that is appallingly selfish of me, because of course there’s the children to consider”.

“I’m not walking out”, said Hillyard “They’re all better off without me for a start, and I couldn’t leave you lot now if I tried”.

“I’m so relieved to hear it”, said Adam, softly “We all love you, and you’ve been with us almost since the beginning. It’s been an occasional fear of mine for years that you might go off to the Big House and never return. I remember worrying about it when Woll tried to get you to go there”.

“I could never do it”, said Hillyard “It’d be like cutting off me arms and legs with a blunt hacksaw!”

They were interrupted by Julian coming through from the kitchen, smoking a cigar and carrying the ashtray in the palm of his hand.

“What are you both sitting in the dark for?” he barked.

“Sometimes it’s easier to talk in the dark, Jules”, said Adam, as Julian approached them through the gloom.

“Like a Confessional I suppose?” said Julian “If Hillyard’s been feeling sorry for himself, as usual, then he has no reason to whatsoever. I thought I’d explained all about it to him”.

“I’m going upstairs to have a wash”, said Adam, standing up.

“About time”, said Julian “Is this a new habit? Washing at sundown?!”

Adam picked up the nutcrackers which had been lying on the table, and nipped Julian in the backside with them.

“You …!” Julian yelped, as Adam darted out of the room. Julian pulled down his pyjama bottoms and tried to inspect his own behind “Don’t just sit there laughing, Hillyard”, he snapped “Look at it and see if he’s left a mark!”

After using the bathroom, Adam donned a dressing-gown and roamed in a leisurely fashion through the upstairs portion of the house. He wound up in the walk-in closet of the four-poster bed room, attracted in by a lighted candle in a holder on the floor. He found Finia sitting next to it, pulling aged items of clothing out of a trunk that had been found in the attic several months earlier. It was full mainly of women’s clothing that the moths had amazingly left unscathed. Most of them weren’t exciting or colourful enough to attract Finia’s or Tamaz’s attention, so Adam was surprised to find Finia now poring over a simple purple velvet gown.

“I don’t think it’ll fit you, old love”, said Adam “It was obviously made for a much taller person”.

“It’s not for me”, said Finia “It’s for Mieps to get married in tomorrow. I thought it was time we brought out his female side”.

“I don’t think he wants it bringing out”, said Adam “He tends to be rather embarrassed by it, and I’m pretty certain he won’t want to wear a frock”.

“No one’s going to see him but us”, said Finia “He has nothing to fear, and I’ve found a white hat that he can wear with it”.

“I think you’ll find he’ll refuse”, said Adam, who couldn’t think of anything less likely than Mieps willingly wearing that get-up!

“Have you found him a handbag and shoes to go with it?” said Julian, suddenly appearing in the doorway.

“You are a philistine!” said Finia, scooping up the dress and edging past him in the doorway.

“Ooo!” said Julian, as Finia flounced away.

“There seems to be no getting away from you at the moment, Jules”, said picking up a candle and carrying it into the bedroom.

“I’m glad I found you in here”, said Julian, as Adam carefully placed the candle on the mantelpiece “I like the old custom of a couple not seeing each other the night before the nuptials, so I thought we could stay in here”.

“You want to spend the night with me?” said Adam.

“S’right”, said Julian “Mieps’ll be spending it with the others. Anyway, we’re doing it really for a bit of fun, a Christmas revel. That’s why I got annoyed with Hillyard carrying on like Ophelia downstairs!”

“It will be a lot of fun actually”, said Adam “How are we doing it all?”

“Just a little ceremony in the forest tomorrow morning whilst the turkeys are cooking”, said Julian “And then we can combine the reception with Christmas lunch. I’m glad to see Finia is entering into the spirit of it all”.

“Yes, although I really can’t see Mieps going along with Finia’s ideas”, said Adam.

“He might”, Julian stretched, tiredly “You never know with him!”

Adam woke up several hours later in a state of panic, not knowing what the time was. There was a twilight glow in the room.

“Jules, wake up”, he shook his slumbering friend “What’s the time?”

“How the blazes should I know, I’ve been asleep!” said Julian “What do you want to know for anyway? This is supposed to be a holiday, Christmas Day”.

“I have to get the turkeys in”, said Adam, sliding on his stomach to the end of the bed “You’d soon complain if your bloody dinner was late!”

He groped for Julian’s pyjamas bottoms, and fished out his fob-watch which was hanging out of one of the pockets. He tried with great difficulty to decipher where the hands on it were.

“I think it says 7:15”, Adam exclaimed.

“Tch! 7:15”, said Julian, facetiously “It shouldn’t be allowed!”

Adam threw on his dressing-gown, and then fumbled gingerly through the dark down the stairs behind the kitchen stove. When he emerged he found the turkeys scrubbed and trussed lying in the baking-tray on the table, and Joby yawning over them.

“Darling boy, you must feel horribly neglected, I’m so sorry”, Adam purred, stroking Joby’s multi-coloured dressing-gown.

“It’s not you I’m peed off about”, said Joby “It’s that little scrote, Bengo. Five hours late yesterday, and today he hasn’t turned up at all! No, he’s lying up there, all tucked up real cosy with the other clowns in the four-poster”.

“So why didn’t you get him up when you came down yourself?” said Adam.

“I didn’t think of that”, said Joby, with some annoyance.

Adam slided Joby’s dressing-gown off his shoulders, whilst murmuring “Alec, my dear fellow”.

“Oh God”, said Hillyard, coming down behind the stove and seeing Joby naked in the kitchen “I’m gonna have to stop having these dreams!”

“He’ll look ugly whatever he wears!” Tamaz shrieked, kicking at the bathroom door which Finia had shut against him, preparatory to getting Mieps ready.

Tamaz flunced back along the corridor and into the maian bedroom where the four clowns were idly chatting in the four-poster. They broke off and watched in silence as Tamaz opened his trunk and began to pull out all his clothes.

“All this fuss over that old snake”, he muttered “He’ll just look stupid in a dress”.

“What are you going as then?” said Bardin “Boy or girl?”

“I don’t know”, said Tamaz, stiffly.

“Whatever he decides five minutes later he won’t like it!” said Bengo.

Tamaz scowled at him and then asked the others coyly “What do you think I should wear?”

“Whatever’s easiest to take off you afterwards!” Farnol guffawed.

“Idiots!” said Tamaz “I shall go as a boy. It’ll be one less freak in a frock today that way!”

“Tamaz”, said Bardin, in a warning voice.

They all began to wash and dress in a leisurely fashion. Kieran and Joby wandered in whilst they were putting the finishing touches to themselves.

“Oh you are around then!” Joby snapped at Bengo.

“What have I done now?” Bengo’s eyes opened wide with astonishment “Was I supposed to turn up in the kitchen this morning as well?”

“Of course you were!” said Joby “It’s Christmas Day! It’s our busiest day!”

“But you don’t need me just to put the turkeys in”, said Bengo.

“The vegetables need doing as well”, said Joby, who looked as though smoke was going to start coming out of him at any moment.

“Let’s go downstairs before you have a nasty accident”, said Kieran, steering Joby out of the room.

Tamaz yodelled and ran after them.

“Could you two leave the room as well?” said Bardin to Farnol and Rumble.

“Oh yes, we’ll go and get ready in the corridor shall we?” said Farnol, sarcastically “Leave you two to have the star dressing-room to yourselves!”

“Please don’t shout at me as well, Bardy”, said Bengo, after the others had gone “I dread it when you do that”.

“Don’t try and make out you’re so cowed”, said Bardin “There are plenty of times you’ve shouted at me, and far worse than any way I’ve ever shouted at you”.

He was suddenly seized with an image of Bengo, as a child, standing in the doorway of their room at the lodging-house screaming “I hate you, Bardy, I really hate you!” until he was completely red in the face. On that occasion Bardin had got sufficiently exasperated with him to shove his theatrical basket out onto the landing after him, before bolting the door. When he looked out again half-an-hour later Bengo was still there.

“I can’t leave”, he had sniffed “I can’t get the basket down the stairs by myself!”

Bardin had given a deep, longsuffering sigh and helped him drag the basket back into the room.

“You have to try and remember to turn up in the kitchen”, Bardin said patiently, pulling Bengo onto his knee “Sometimes I’m amazed you’ve ever managed to turn up for anything!”

“We’ve got a wedding to go to in case you’ve forgotten”, said Rumble, coming back into the room.

“Just getting Bengo sorted out”, said Bardin.

Rumble picked Bengo up as though he was a puppy, tucked him under his arm and smacked his bottom several times. Bengo was furious but couldn’t do anything about it.

When they all got down to the kitchen, which was now a hive of activity, as men in waistcoats and fob-watches sauntered in and out, Bardin pulled Joby to one side and gave him some advice.

“When you want Bengo to do something you have to spell it out to him I’m afraid”, said Bardin “I know it’s exasperating but it’s the only way. Don’t ever assume he’s gonna do it as a matter-of-course, because that’s hopeless”.

“How did you never go mad working with him all those years?” said Joby.

“Because I wouldn’t have been much good without him!” said Bardin.

Finia appeared from behind the stove, looking an angry vision in pink taffeta.

“He won’t do it!” he cried, in frustration “He won’t put the dress on! He’s threatened to tear it if I even try to come near him with it!”

“I did try and warn you, old love”, said Adam “Anyway, he won’t look right in a frock. He’ll be much smarter dressed like us”.

“But then we’ll just look like a bunch of guys!” said Finia, standing arms akimbo “Except me”.

“You’re a guy too”, said Joby, doing a quick grab at Finia’s crotch “Even if you have lost your sausage!”

“I am a woman in a man’s body”, said Finia, haughtily.

“Let’s not go into all that now”, said Adam “It’s far too deep and complex a subject. It’s Mieps’s wedding-day, let him wear whatever he wishes. Bengo, pop along to the library and tell Julian we’ll soon be under starter’s orders”.

“Can you find your way there alright?” said Joby.

“Yes”, said Bengo, sulkily.

He went along the back corridor to the library, where Julian and Kieran were chatting over the brandy decanter.

“We’re all nearly ready”, said Bengo.

“Ah, it’s the regimental mascot!” said Julian, tipping Bengo over his knee and spanking him very firmly.

“That’s my good luck ritual for the day”, said Julian, setting Bengo back on his feet. He then gave a “tally-ho!” and imitated a hunting-horn as he left the room.

“It seems to be slap Bengo day”, said Bengo, rubbing his behind.

“I thought that was every day!” Kieran smiled.

“Joby’s the one who should get a good smacking”, said Bengo, pulling a sour face.

“Well I can usually think of about half-a-dozen reasons at any one time as to why Joby should be beaten on the backside”, said Kieran “But what’s your grievance?”

“He keeps getting at me all the time”, said Bengo “Just because I occasionally forget things”.

“Like turning up?” said Kieran “In actual fact Joby thinks quite a bit of you. He thinks you do a fine job in the kitchen”.

“He hasn’t said anything to me like that!” Bengo exclaimed.

“That’s not his way”, said Kieran, picking up his prayer-book and clouting Bengo playfully on the head with it “Come along now”.

Finia seemed as though he was fully intending to sit in the kitchen and sulk whilst the others went off to the ceremony. But Julian shouted at him so fiercely from the doorway that Finia, normally so very composed, scuttled out in a whirl of pink taffeta.

“Look at the, Bardy”, Bengo was saying, as he and his partner walked through the woods a few paces behind Farnol, Rumble and Hoowie, who were all tittering and cackling with their heads together “I bet they’re all laughing at me”.

“You’ve got a persecution complex!” said Bardin.

“Well it’s not surprising is it?” said Bengo “Ever since I can remember it’s been ‘let’s see how many pies we can chuck at Bengo’, ‘let’s see how many times we can make Bengo fall on his arse!’ Anybody would have a persecution complex after all that!”

“You’re a clown, what do you expect!” said Bardin “And what’s more, you’re a born clown. Whatever you do, people will find it funny. It’s a gift, you should be grateful. Stop fighting it all the time”.

“I feel like going up to them and giving them a piece of my mind”, said Bengo, crossly.

“Then they really will laugh!” said Bardin “Anyway I wouldn’t go doing that if I was you, you probably can’t spare it!”

Bardin made him stop so that Bengo’s outfit could be tidied up.

“And don’t scowl”, said Bardin, straightening Bengo’s cravat “It makes you look as though you’re about to be sick! Be happy and jolly, or it’ll be my turn to paddle your butt!”

“You liked it then?” said Kieran, as he and Joby walked back through the woods after the Blessing.

“Yeah, I thought you did it well”, said Joby.

“Ach, it was easy really”, said Kieran “I just tinkered with the words a little bit. It was a strange feeling when I was standing up close them, Mieps and Julian, just me and them. They both have quite a presence. Mieps’s eyes are so intense and watchful. You can’t help wondering what he’s thinking all the time”.

“It’s the same feeling everybody gets with you!” said Joby.

“You don’t”, said Kieran.

“I do sometimes”, said Joby “When you’re just staring at me”.

“Would you have liked a ceremony like that?” said Kieran “I never thought to ask, which was wrong of me. I’m sorry”.

“Don’t be”, said Joby “I had enough of ceremonies when you were President, and I had enough of everybody watching us all the time then as well!”

They came out onto the back lawn, where Tamaz, sulky at Mieps getting so much attention, was scuffing the grass aggressively with his foot.

“What about giving him a wedding?” Kieran whispered.

“No”, said Joby, firmly “He had enough of all that when he went through that debacle with Gorth. It’d only bring back bad memories for him. We’ve managed to help him bury all that lately. I was just glad that Sade never found out about Gorth’s death”.

“Oho!” said Kieran “That would have sent his fascination for Tamaz through the roof!”

“Yeah well I’m just glad it didn’t happen”, said Joby “Tamaz! Leave the grass alone will yer!”

“I feel like going and hiding in the maze!” said Tamaz, angrily.

“At least it’d give the lawn a rest!” Joby retorted.

Tamaz decided to go indoors to the pantry instead, and raid the tin of oatcakes, only Adam managed to get them away from him first.

“You won’t eat your lunch”, said Adam.

“That’s hours away!” said Tamaz “And I suppose everybody’ll have to kiss Mieps’s feet first”.

“Don’t be silly!” said Adam.

“Lady Mieps of Midnight Castle”, Tamaz spat “When are we going to cut the Christmas cake that Glynis sent?”

“After lunch”, said Adam, taking Tamaz’s arm and firmly leading him into the kitchen, where they nearly fell over Bengo, who was walking about on his hands.

“Not in here, old love”, said Adam.

“We should’ve got him a unicycle for Christmas”, said Joby “Then he could’ve brushed up his circus skills and gone back to one!”

“I know you don’t mean that”, said Bengo, sidling up to him.

“I will if you don’t do any work!” said Joby.

A while later Adam and Bengo carried two bowls of vegetables into the dining-room, and were startled by Julian standing there swishing the hook-handled cane about in a violent manner. Toppy had retreated to the other end of the table, and when he had finished putting down the knives and forks, he ran for sanctuary into the great hall, where Hillyard was thumping out Christmas carols on the piano.

“What the hell have you brought that thing in here for, Jules?” said Adam, wresting the dish of carrots from Bengo, who was clutching them nervously to his chest “You frightened poor little Bengo to death”.

“Good!” said Julian “Now I’m a married man you see, I intend to start as I mean to go on. I shall need t keep this with me at all times. It’ll help to keep Mieps under control”.

“If you go threatening Mieps with that, it’s liable to end up on the kitchen stove!” said Adam.

“No it won’t”, said Julian “He’s beholden to me now, body and soul. Total obedience at all times”.

“Nonsense”, said Adam, turning to leave.

Julian gave him a swish across the bottom with the cane. Bengo jumped as though he himself had been hit, and flattened himself back against the wall.

“If you even attempt to do that again I’ll make sure you don’t get any bloody dinner!” said Adam.

“It’s Christmas, I’m feeling frisky”, said Julian.

“Since when has that had anything to do with Christmas!” said Adam “Make yourself useful and put another log on the fire!”

Julian kept the cane out on the table all through the marathon lunch. Not that Mieps took too much notice of it, he was too busy tearing up the leg of a turkey with his bare hands.

“Well I’m glad you’ve done it”, said Ransey, sitting back in his chair and loosening the buttons on his waistcoat “Married Mieps I mean. He needs a steadying influence”.

“Some would dispute that I was a steadying influence though”, said Julian, glancing down the table at Adam, who was deep in conversation with Lonts.

“If you can manage to keep Mieps from behaving like a lunatic around Codlik in future then a lot will have been achieved”, said Ransey.

“There isn’t any earthly reason why they should need to come in contact with each other again”, said Julian “Not if I can help it anyway!”

Mieps’s answer to all this was to suck a bone completely free of all meat and then toss it with a loud clatter onto his plate.

“Lonts! For fuck’s sake, how much longer are you gonna be in there?” said Joby, hammering at the door of the downstairs loo.

“I’m having trouble going, Joby”, Lonts replied.

“Well then come out, ‘cos I’m bleedin’ desperate!” said Joby, in exasperation.

They rotated places like a lewd weather-clock.

“Don’t penises look funny when they’re not stiff?” said Lonts, contemplatively.

“Hilarious!” said Joby “God, I don’t half feel rough”.

“Kieran!” said Lonts “Joby says he feels under the weather”.

“I’m not surprised, the amount he’s been putting away!” said Kieran.

“You can talk!” said Joby, bad-temperedly yanking at the toilet chain several times.

Kieran took him into the room behind the pantry.

“I don’t think Mieps should be allowed to make anymore of that rhubarb wine”, said Joby, lying back on the bed whilst Kieran gently rubbed his chest “It’s lethal. I don’t think he knows what he’s doing. And rhubarb can be poisonous can’t it?”

“The leaves, not the stalks”, said Kieran “And it’s only the stalks he puts in”.

“I wouldn’t bank on that!”

“You’re a gardener, you should know all this”.

“Some gardener!” said Joby “I can’t make any serious plans without being dragged away from it! Why can’t Glynis sort the ghosts out herself? She’s got a whole East Wing of monks to help her for fuck’s sake!”

“Would you rather I went up there on my own?” said Kieran, anxiously.

“No!” said Joby.

“Good”, said Kieran “Because I don’t want to go anywhere without you if I can help it”.

“I couldn’t let you out of my sight again”, said Joby “I went through agonies whilst you were at Sade’s place”.

Kieran climbed onto the bed next to him and they held each other tightly.

At the other end of the house the clowns were getting ready for their evening performance by hauling one of the linen cupboards from the laundry-room into the great hall. Lonts was now asleep on the sofa in the library, and Adam hovered over him, concerned that all the dragging and scraping might wake him up.

“One wouldn’t have thought that watching a man sleeping would be so absorbing!” said Julian.

“Isn’t it time you went and consummated your marriage, Jules?” said Adam, caustically.

“Not at all, it’s only four o’clock in the afternoon”, said Julian “Mieps’ll get enough of me later”.

“More than enough I should’ve thought!” said Adam.

Julian had no intention of missing the clowns’ routine, which was performed in the great hall an hour later. Their audience lolled on cushions on the marble staircase. The routine was energetic, and involved a lot of jumping in and out of the wardrobe, and by the end of it all four of them had lost their trousers. They bowed to rapturous applause. Bengo infuriated his three colleagues by stepping out of the line to seemingly take a “curtain-call” all by himself. Rumble deftly kicked him in the behind for this, and Bengo almost tottered into the laps of the audience.

“How many times have I told you not to improvise off your own bat?” said Bardin, when he and Bengo went into the library (which was acting as a temporary Green Room) for a drink afterwards “It’s inconsiderate to the rest of us!”

“I didn’t think it mattered right at the end”, Bengo pouted.

Bardin growled with extreme annoyance and shook Bengo by the throat.

“No clown-throttling in here if you please!” said Farnol, as he and Rumble carried in their trousers “It could make a nasty mess on the sofa! You don’t see me and Rumble carrying on like this do you?”

“You haven’t got an egocentric brainless nerk for a partner!” said Bardin, snatching his trousers from him and struggling into them.

“I’m not egocentric”, Bengo protested, pulling Finia’s silk shawl off the back of the sofa and wrapping it around himself “It’s a simple fact that I’ve got the best legs. I thought the punters would enjoy me showing them off a bit more to them”.

“Maybe, but what they really enjoyed was me kicking you in the backside!” said Rumble, dryly.

Farnol and Bardin both laughed raucously at this.

“You’ve done enough to me for one day”, said Bengo, sitting down sulkily on the sofa.

“Oh put your trousers back on and stop grizzling”, said Bardin, tossing the garment to him.

“Are we going to have Tamaz in tomorrow night’s show?” said Rumble, perching on the arm of a chair.

“That’s the idea”, said Bardin “Provided I can come up with an idea that is!”

“Do ‘Love In The Laundry’ again”, said Bengo “Then someone other than me can get walloped on the backside for a change!”

“We can’t do that one again”, said Bardin “The punters have already seen it too many times. We’ll have to come up with something completely new. Rumble, you’d better help me think of some way we can use Tamaz”.

“I don’t mind what he does”, said Rumble “Provided he wears those lacey drawers with the pink satin ribbons on ‘em”.

“Well you’re a fucking great help!” said Bardin, in exasperation.

Mieps was pouring out coffee in the dining-room, and shakily managed to knock over one cup.

“Ah, the pre-wedding night nerves!” said Kieran “The agitation is showing”.

“The thought of a night alone with Julian I’m not surprised!” said Joby “You’ll have to watch him with that cane you know. He gets carried away”.

“It’s time you two went through all this”, said Mieps.

“Nah, it’s more fun watching other people do it”, said Joby.

“Are you ready?” said Adam, peering round the dining-room door.

“What for?” said Mieps, in a shaky voice.

“Time to take you upstairs and get you bedded”, said Adam.

“What now?” said Mieps, in dismay “It’s only just gone dark!”

“Now don’t give us any trouble”, said Adam “Or I’ll have to get Lo-Lo to carry you up there”.

Mieps was grandly escorted upstairs by everyone except Julian, who had disappeared, and Finia, who was waiting for them in the four-poster room.

“I don’t want him in here”, Mieps hissed.

“Now don’t be so ungrateful”, Adam admonished “Finia’s got the room ready for you”.

“He’ll try and make me wear women’s clothes”, said Mieps.

“Why?” said Tamaz “You’d look stupid!”

“Shut up, Freaky”, said Adam “Just get down to your shirt Mieps, and slip into bed. Jules will be along in a minute”.

“That sounds like a threat don’t it!” said Joby.

Mieps had just done what he was bid, when Julian strode along the corridor towards them, smoking a cigar and with the cane tucked under his arm.

“What the hell are you all doing in here?” he barked “There’s barely enough room for me! We’re not doing it publicly you know!”

“Dunno why, it’s never stopped you before”, said Joby.

“Try not to glare so much, Mieps”, Kieran whispered “You look a wee bit fierce”.

Julian got everyone out of the room, but only after expending a great deal of effort.

“That lot could turn anything into a circus”, he said, bolting the door against them. He put down the cane, then took off his waistcoat and his fob-watch in a leisurely manner. Mieps rolled over on the bed until he was almost completely wrapped in the eiderdown. Julian sprang onto the bed and thumped him on the bottom.

“I don’t think we should go to the Big House”, Mieps mumbled “Evil awaits us there”.

“Yes, but with any luck he’ll be confined to the attic so we shan’t have to see him!” said Julian “Come, let me take your mind off all that”.

Part of Julian’s great success as a lover was that he could adapt himself so well to whichever partner he was with at the time. With Adam, he mixed tenderness with discipline. With Hillyard he was brisk and businesslike. With Bengo he was the debauched Roman emperor with his own personal sex-poppet on a chain. With Joby he took total control, as otherwise Joby would never bring himself round to doing it! With Mieps he happily rutted like a stag on heat, as though he’d never had a homosexual thought in his life. It gave him a huge surge of machismo to plunge his cock into Mieps, “filling him up until I’m practically up to his tits”, as he once graphically described it to Adam.

“Don’t you worry about the Big House”, he said, lying back afterwards, with his hands stroking his rapidly-beating heart “As long as we all stick together we’ll be fine”.

“Jesus Christ!” said Joby, standing in the doorway of the dining-room early the next morning, and surveying the wreckage of the previous day’s junketing “I’m not clearing that lot up! Bengo can do it … if he ever appears. And if he don’t, I’ll go up there and chuck a bucket of cold water all over him!”

Joby went back into the kitchen and filled a kettle at the sink. It was raining heavily outside, and the noise of it drumming down meant he didn’t hear Hoowie approaching the house until he burst into the room, a tall hairy vision in rainsoaked oilskins.

“Shit!” Joby jumped, and splashed water down his technicolour dressing-gown “You’re out and about early ent yer! And in this weather too!”

“Didn’t you hear the air-buggy go over?” said Hoowie, shutting the back door agains the elements.

“No”, said Joby “Now what?”

“Just a letter this time”, said Hoowie, handing him a soggy transparent plastic envelope wrapped round a piece of paper “It was weighted down with a couple of bricks”.

Glynis’s letter was short and to the point, containing such words as “get here as soon as possible”, “don’t delay, please”, “things are getting very bad. Half the staff have left, and I’ve sent the children and Lilli to stay with a family in the village. I don’t want them in here with all this going on”.

“It does sound bad”, said Joby.

“Must be”, said Hoowie, slowly divesting himself of his oilskins “For her to go to all this trouble just to drop us a line”.

“She’s got a lot on her plate”, said Joby “A mad husband, and ghosts tap-dancing out of the woodwork!”

“That’s a bad place up there”, said Hoowie, now getting down to his vest and undershorts “All sorts of weird shit goes on. I was glad to get away”.

“Get away? You was chucked out!” said Joby, spooning tea into the big pot “They couldn’t have put up with you any longer!”

“And I weren’t at all sorry about it”, said Hoowie, reclining in a wheelback chair and stretching out his long hairy legs in front of the fender “I would never have fitted in up there. Anyway, the clowns need me around to wind ‘em up!”

Bengo came out from behind the stove, complaining that it had taken him ages to fumble his way down the steps in the dark.

“I’m just amazed you’re here at all!” said Joby, sitting on a chair on the opposite side of the stove.

“What’s that?” said Bengo, indicating the letter.

“Message from Glynis, urging us to hurry up and get up there”, said Joby “It all sounds a bit grim up at the Big House at the moment. She’ll be wanting us there to do the housework the way things are going!”

“We could put on a show for the estate, cheer people up”, said Bengo.

“Great”, said Joby, unenthusiastically “Now listen very carefully. I want the dining-room tidied up. I want it done before I finish doing the breakfast, is that understood? Now go and get on with it. And if you break anything I’ll give you a good hiding!”

“Can I have a cup of tea when the kettle’s finished boiling?” said Bengo.

“You might”, said Joby, grudgingly “You’ll have to wait and see how bighearted I’m feeling in a minute!”

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