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By Sarah Hapgood

Bardin sat at the desk in the main cabin on the sloop, and stared out at the thick river-mist which blanketed them as effectively as if they’d been draped in a thick, gauze veil. They were moving at a snail’s pace, and if it wasn’t for the fact that they had the waterway to themselves they would probably have had to stop completely.

Bengo carried a tray into the room, on which was a teapot and several mugs. He set it down on the desk.

“You really look the part sitting there, Bardy”, he said, pouring tea into one of the mugs “You look as if you’ve been playing the Captain for years”.

“I’m not PLAYING it, I AM the Captain you chump!” said Bardin, with wry amusement “Are all the others still up on deck?”

“Yeah, but I’ll leave the tea in here and they can get it themselves”, said Bengo “I’m not gonna try carrying it up on deck in this”.

“It’s something else this fog …” Bardin was interrupted by Julian dragging a sobbing Tamaz into the room. Julian was the angriest they had seen him in some time. He grabbed the cane, and Tamaz gave a terrified shriek and scuttled behind the armchair, like a crab.

“Julian, stop a minute”, Bardin rushed over and stopped Julian’s hand “Can’t you see how scared he is?”

Tamaz was crouched on his haunches behind the chair, like a frightened animal.

“He’ll be a lot more scared before I’ve finished with him!” said Julian.

“You don’t mean that”, said Bardin, getting the cane off him “Now tell me, what’s he done?”

“He was sitting out on the bowspit”, said Julian “Have you any idea how dangerous that is?”

“He often sits on it”, said Bardin.

“He’s often fallen in too”, said Bengo “And he’s always survived to tell the tale”.

“But not in this bloody fog!” said Julian “We can’t see anything in it, and we can’t hear much either, it muffles sound. If he had fallen in this time, we might not have noticed until it was too late!”

Julian’s anger was subsiding though, and he collapsed back onto the communal bed. Bardin silently indicated for Bengo to go and help Tamaz, so Bengo joined Tamaz behind the chair. Julian gave an irritable sigh and left the room.

A short while later Joby found him in the hold, vigorously running a dandy-brush over one of the horses.

“Alright don’t look so startled”, Julian snapped “You’ve seen me doing this loads of times, so there’s no need for any sneering Trotsky-ite jokes!”

“Are you alright?” said Joby “You seem a bit iffy”.

“Why can’t that freak of yours ever behave?” Julian exclaimed, tossing the brush into the hay.

Joby had already heard all about Tamaz’s escapade from Bardin.

“Calm down, you’ll frighten the horses”, he said, patting the flanks of the one Julian had been grooming “Tamaz didn’t know he was doing anything wrong. He’s sat out there loads of times and no one’s said anything”.

“He can see it’s bloody foggy can’t he!” said Julian.

“Yeah, but he gets over-confident”, said Joby “You know what these Ghoomers are like”.

Julian went into the little hay-store in the next compartment. Joby followed him.

“Are you after something?” Julian barked, staring at him in his most intimidating fashion.

“Oh up yours!” Joby turned to leave, but Julian stopped him.

“No hang around, dear boy”, Julian grabbed his arm and pulled him back “It takes me a while sometimes to figure out what you’re after”.

“Why?” said Joby “You always think you’re God’s gift to sex, so you must’ve realised I was after it!”

“Ah but you’re spoilt in that way you see”, said Julian, stroking Joby’s face “You can get to stick you cock up Kieran’s arse anytime you choose!”

“He is summat else, there’s no mistake about that!” said Joby.

“I don’t like you discussing other men when you’re with me”, said Julian, with mock-sternness.

“You started it!” said Joby.

“Now do exactly as I say”, said Julian, unbuttoning his flies.

Adam had been up on deck to look at the fog, and came back down into the galley to find Julian pouring out a cup of tea.

“I walked in here and there was no one in sight”, said Julian “Complete dereliction of duty”.

“Well perhaps if you didn’t go poaching my staff away from me for your own dubious ends”, said Adam, taking off his waterproof tunic.

“Joby’s been up there bragging to you has he?” said Julian “Can’t say I’m surprised!”

“I do wish you wouldn’t home in on him, Jules”, said Adam “You’ve got plenty of others to keep you amused, you don’t really need to letch after Joby as well. He always comes back very rebellious and wilful after a session with you. I can’t do anything with him”.

“His conscience is prodding him that’s why”, said Julian “He can’t square it with the great working-class hero image of himself that he has, when he recalls how much he enjoyed sucking my dick!”

Adam gave a heartfelt sigh.

“If he gets too mouthy just send him back to me”, said Julian “I’ll give him a sound spanking”.

“You’re the one who needs that!” said Adam, slapping Julian’s rump very firmly.

“Oh yeah?” Julian sneered.

“Yeah!” said Adam.

They flicked tea-towels at each other in a rather fey fashion.

“That’s the problem with you public-school eejits”, said Kieran, coming down the wooden steps “You never stop being schoolboys!”

“Is that a fact?” Julian picked up Kieran in his arms and bore him protesting out of the room.

“Is that Kieran I can hear shouting?” said Joby, when he and Bengo also came down from above.

“Jules has abducted him”, said Adam, drinking Julian’s cup of tea.

“God, he’s insatiable that bloke”, said Joby.

Adam thumped Joby round the ear and ordered him to get on with some work. Bengo sniggered.

“What’s so bleedin’ funny?” Joby snapped, giving Bengo a shove.

“You know what the problem with you Irish is?” said Julian, carrying Kieran into the now–deserted cabin “You’re too staid”.

“Staid?!” said Kieran “That’s something we haven’t been accused of too often!”

“At least we ‘public-school eejits’ can enjoy ourselves without immediately feeling guilty about it”, said Julian, setting Kieran onto his feet.

“You have no bleedin’ conscience that’s why!” said Kieran.

“Quite so”, said Julian “It was trained out of us at an early age”.

Julian lit the stub of a cigar and then, keeping it clenched between his teeth, bent Kieran over his lap and belaboured his buttocks several times with the paddle. Kieran laughed and shouted at him to behave, but he was enjoying it too much to make him stop. They were only halted by Mieps coming into the room, looking like an angel of death in his black hooded cloak, and hissing at them somewhat jealously.

“I think the fog’s thinning out a bit”, said Kieran, as he and Joby leaned on the bulwark a couple of hours later “What are you looking at me like that for?”

“You should be really ashamed of yourself”, said Joby.

“If you mean because of Julian, then you’re a fine one to talk!” said Kieran “You were down on your knees in the hay sucking him off earlier! And you’ve been walloped by him in the past, and don’t try and make out you didn’t enjoy it either ‘cos I’ll know that’s a lie!”

“Yeah, but you a proud Irishman, being beaten by a poncey upper-class Englishman!” said Joby “Think of all the Irishmen who’d be ashamed of you”.

“Stop trying to wind me up!” said Kieran “If it’d upset me father it would’ve been worth doing for that reason alone! Anyway you know me, I’ve never been able to resist a bit of bottom-spanking! I don’t get all this from you when Adam does it”.

“Adam’s different”, said Joby.

“No he’s not”, said Kieran “He’s even more aristocratic than Julian. His family were so high up the social scale they were all bonkers!”

“Yeah, but he don’t rub your nose in it like Julian does”, said Joby.

“I’ve just been hearing about you, Patsy”, said Adam, coming over to them “Upsetting Mieps on his honeymoon. Really, you should be spanked!”

“I was, that’s what was upsetting him!” said Kieran “You should’ve seen the look on Mieps’s face, it was a picture! Jaysus, it gives me a thrill to be a bad boy occasionally! And now I’ve had Joby trying to make me feel guilty too, claiming I’m a traitor to me own race. He can talk!”

“You’re both as bad as each other actually”, said Adam “Although I really don’t see how getting frisky with Julian makes one a traitor, I really don’t”.

“He’s upper-class”, Joby grunted.

“But not as upper-class as you”, said Kieran.

“I’m surprised you can bear to live with us in that case”, said Adam “It must be absolutely awful for you, what a comedown in the world!”

“Now don’t take offence”, said Kieran.

“Why not? You’re being prejudiced”, said Adam.

“It was Joby who started all this, not me”, said Kieran “You should give him a thick ear”.

“I frequently do!” said Adam.

“This fog gives me the hump”, said Joby “It scares me actually”.

“It’s river-fog!” said Adam “What’s there to be scared of? We used to get it all the time on the waterfront at Toondor Lanpin”.

“Yeah, but it’s like having a foretaste of the spookiness that’s waiting for us up at the Big House”, said Joby.

“I know, but we can’t leave Glynis in the lurch”, said Adam “It sounds absolutely horrendous up there at the moment”.

“And we’ll be alright, we’ve got each other”, said Kieran, who was even more convinced of this than ever after his fun and games with Julian.

“Hello old love”, said Adam, as Mieps approached out of the fog “This isn’t very nice honeymoon weather for you is it?”

“Oh I dunno”, said Joby “You’d think it’d be perfect for him! All we need is wolves howling and chains rattling to make him really feel at home!”

“I hope you’re not too aggrieved about Patsy’s antics earlier”, said Adam.

“Hey!” said Kieran “What about your antics then?”

“Yeah, I can’t believe you’re gonna put your flannel drawers in mothballs from now on”, said Joby.

“It’s only right that Julian should be the disciplinarian”, said Mieps, stiffly “Everyone needs it round here”.

“Oho, he chose well with you didn’t he!” said Joby “Bride of Fu Manchu! You wait til it’s your turn. I’ll laugh my ruddy head off!”

“You should’ve seen Bardin just now”, said Julian, who was lying precariously with Adam on a camp-bed in the hold, both eating from a packet of candied fruits “I thought he’d gone off his chump! Started yelling at me and cracking the horse-whip around the cabin!”

“Now you know what we’ve been having to put up with from you all these years!” said Adam “What have you done to upset him?”

“Freaky’s been snivelling at him. Nobody loves him, he’s treated like a worm, you know the sort of thing”, said Julian “Apparently Mieps has told him that there will be even more discipline from now on, and that he, Freaky that is, will be kept on a very short chain indeed. All laudable sentiments and I fully support them, but Bardin started swearing that he was the one in charge and no one else, and he would be making the decisions and giving the orders. Bloody cheek!”

“Well I’m very glad to hear it”, said Adam “Mieps does seem to be getting a bit carried away at the moment, Jules. He keeps marching around here like a headmistress. It’s really not on. He scares Freaky quite enough as it is”.

“You agreed with me that it would be good to have a sort of mature female figure in authority”, said Julian.

“Yes, but I wasn’t meaning Rosa bloody Klebb!” said Adam “Do you know what Joby started calling him? Bride of Fu Manchu!”

“Mieps’ll calm down”, said Julian “It’s just that I’d rather have him like this when we get to Nightmare Hall, than as he was before, some weird creature who hung about in the background!”

After finishing the candied fruits, they left the hold and split up. Adam went to the galley to direct the cocoa-making, and Julian to the cabin. Tamaz had been getting emotional in the armchair, and Bardin had been trying to sternly cajole him out of it.

“I don’t want to go back up to that awful place”, said Tamaz.

“You won’t have much time to think about it over the next few days”, said Bardin “Bengo wants to put on a show for the estate-workers, and he’ll want you in rehearsals with us”.

“A show? For THEM?” said Tamaz, witheringly “They won’t be much of an audience!”

“They don’t have to be”, said Bardin “As long as they don’t chuck broken bottles at us it doesn’t matter what they’re like!”

“You’re not still snivelling, Freaky”, said Julian, now coming into the room “I didn’t realise you were such a wimp, being so terrified of Mieps”.

“I’m not still getting upset about him!” said Tamaz, indignantly.

“Which particular upset are we on now then?” said Julian.

“I don’t want to go to that house”, said Tamaz “You should’ve left me behind at Midnight Castle”.

“To roam the forest on your own, just as your dear old mother did at Marlsblad?” said Julian.

Tamaz leapt out of the chair and threw himself at Julian, trying to punch him with his little fists.

“Oi!” Joby bellowed, bringing in a tray of cocoa “I wish you’d calm down! This whole place is like being in a pressure-cooker at the moment”.

“All hatchways to be kept shut tonight”, said Ransey, coming into the room.

Joby muttered something under his breath and walked out, clutching the tray.

“I shall go to bed”, Tamaz announced.

Julian knew that Tamaz had a babylike enjoyment sometimes of lying in bed whilst listening to the others talking in the background.

“Now you wouldn’t be able to enjoy that if you were alone at Midnight Castle”, said Julian.

“What do you keep pulling at yourself like that for?” said Adam, in the galley.

“My goolies are really itchy that’s why”, said Joby, vigorously scratching his groin “It must be the heat in here”.

“Well don’t keep yanking at yourself like that”, said Adam “You might pull something away!”

“Can you have a look at it, Ad?” said Joby “Just in case there’s summat wrong”.

“First Aid is Finia’s department”, said Adam.

“I know, but he hasn’t’ got anything of his own down there, so I don’t feel right in asking”, said Joby “Oh go on! You’ve done it for the clowns in the past, and Hillyard”.

“Oh very well, take your pinny off and drop your trousers”, said Adam.

Bengo sniggered, but was silenced by a look from Joby. Adam got a torch out of a drawer and got down on his knees to inspect Joby’s privates.

“You look perfectly alright to me”, said Adam “Stop twitting about”.

“I can’t, I’m ticklish”, said Joby.

“There’s nothing there that shouldn’t be there”, said Adam “Pull your pants back up”.

Joby had barely done so, when they were shaken by what felt like a moderate earth tremor. The three of them clung onto each other whilst it lasted. A glass rolled onto the floor and smashed, and the horses could be heard getting agitated in the hold.

“Will it happen again?” said Bengo, nervously.

“How should we know?” Joby barked.

“That seems to be it”, said Adam “For now”.

“Everyone alright in here?” said Ransey, looking in “Good. We’re checking for damage”.

“I’ll go and check on Lo-Lo”, said Adam, leaving after Ransey “You two get this glass cleaned up before anyone else comes in”.

Joby and Bengo worked together in silence.

“There’s that awful quiet you sometimes get after a tremor”, said Bengo.

“We’re alright, the others are around”, said Joby.

“But it feels as though it’s just us two here”, said Bengo.

“You wouldn’t half have to watch it if we was”, said Joby “You’d really have to behave yourself then!”

The sloop was free of damage, and so they spent a relatively peaceful night, at least assured that they were going to stay afloat. The morning brought a rather tinny sunshine, which was more than welcome after the oppressiveness of the fog. Adam designated Lonts, Toppy and Rumble for galley duty and left Joby and Bengo have a lie-in.

“Swoosh swoosh swoosh”, said Joby, slapping Bengo’s buttocks to the rhythm of the engine as the sloop purred its course down river.

“Hadn’t you better go and find Kieran?” Bengo laughed.

“Hadn’t you better go and find Bardin?” Joby retorted.

Bengo got dressed and almost bounced along the corridor to the galley. He met Ransey on the way, coming out of the hold, and electrified him by hugging him. He did the same to Hillyard in the hold, and Adam, Lonts, Rumble and even Toppy in the galley.

“He used to do that occasionally when we were kids”, said Bardin, when he heard about it on deck “If we had a big show where there was somebody special in the audience, like a talent scout or a visiting governor, and everybody was nervous, he’d run around all the dressing-rooms backstage hugging everyone to wish them luck”.

“It’s amazing what a bit of sunshine can do isn’t it?” said Kieran.

“Even so, I’ll be glad to get away from this desolate marshland”, said Bardin “I keep expecting to see another one of those tall figures!”

They arrived in Toondor Lanpin a couple of days later. The day was overcast, and the harbour looked like an old Dutch painting with its bustle, but muted colours. Adam and Lonts went across the river to ask Jonner if he would mind the sloop and the animals fro them during their absence. Jonner agreed, but a tense scene nearly ensued when he expressed a wish to do a naked study of Lonts. Adam and Lonts argued about this all the way home again, with Lonts accusing Adam of getting too jealous. Back on the sloop again, Lonts stormed below, nearly steamrollering over Toppy was swabbing the deck.

“You’d better go and calm him down before he starts hurling the furniture about”, said Julian “And then meet me in Persephone’s in ten minutes. You don’t see Mieps and I carrying on like this do you!”

“Oh go to hell, Jules!” said Adam.

Farnol and Rumble were sent to the telegraph office to tell Ransey to add another message to Glynis, telling her that, thanks to Jonner’s help, they could set off for the Big House at any time. Adam and Lonts, now in a state of armed truce, went over to Persephone’s bar, where Julian was surrounded by Mieps, Finia and Tamaz.

“You could have at least changed your shirt before coming over”, said Julian, indicating Adam’s ragged paint-soaked effort.

“Julian, I swear I shall spank you before this day is over!” said Adam, causing Tamaz to yodel merrily.

“Have I got a surprise for everyone!” said Hillyard, appearing like a belated Father Christmas with an armful of squashy brown paper parcels.

“Presents!” said Tamaz, making a lunge at one of them.

“If you can call it that!” said Finia, holding up a thick white woollen jumper that looked as though it had been knitted out of chicken wire “Are they all the same?”

“Well you’re gonna need winter clothes where we’re going”, said Hillyard “No getting away with just waterproofs up there you know. You’ll be glad of these then”.

“Did they fall off the back of a lorry?” said Julian, caustically “They all seem to be the same size”.

“I thought if they fit me then they’ll fit anyone”, said Hillyard, and then added defensively “Well I didn’t have everyone’s exact measurements with me did I!”

“This comes down to my knees”, said Finia, disdainfully.

“Kieran’ll be able to use his as a sleeping-bag!” said Julian.

“Look, at least I’ve made an effort to get us sorted out for up there”, said Hillyard.

“Oh Hilly, Hilly, please let’s not have one of your emotional speeches”, said Adam, wearily “None of us want reminding that we’re going up to that bloody house”.

“Neither do I”, said Hillyard “If I had amy way, and I didn’t have to consider anyone else, I’d pull the whole lot down, every brick and stone of it!”

“You’ve been chortling over that magazine for the past few minutes”, said Adam, coming out of the food-hold on the sloop an hour later “I could do with a laugh, so please share it with me”.

“There’s a piece on a bloke in here”, said Joby, sitting at the table in the galley “Who’s got two phobias. One is spiders, and the other’s clowns. Clowns! Can you believe it!”

“How silly”, said Adam “Can you imagine anyone getting a phobia about little Bengo for instance?”

“Yeah very easily, now I come to think about it!” said Joby, dryly.

“I suppose clowns can seem sinister”, said Adam, reflectively “It’s the mask-like make-up they tend to wear. People don’t know what’s behind it. And it’s all pretence. Right, let’s take this tea down to the cabin, it should have brewed long enough by now”.

Lonts was sitting in a brooding fashion in the armchair in the cabin. He was still annoyed with Adam for getting jealous because of Jonner. He thought it was wrong of Adam to have doubted his love so easily.

“Stop sulking”, said Joby, handing a mug of tea to him “Or I’ll flush Snowy down the toilet!”

“You wouldn’t dare!” said Lonts, fiercely “You’re always trying to push me around, Joby”.

“Push YOU around?” said Joby “I’d need a fucking JCB!”

Tamaz tried on one of the jumpers, and waved the arms about like the flapping sleeves of a straitjacket, which fortunately made Lonts laugh.

“Stand by your beds”, said Ransey, bursting into the room “A reply from Glynis. She’s sending an air-buggy for us early this evening. We’ve got two hours to get ready”.

“We’re flying tonight?” said Hillyard, in dismay “In the dark?”

“Farnol, Hoowie, run over the river and tell Jonner we’re leaving earlier than expected”, said Bardin.

“B-but we’ll be landing in the snow, in the dark”, said Hillyard.

“Is she that desperate for our services?” said Adam “Just how bad is it up there?!” “Even worse than we bargained for, obviously”, said Ransey.

“Kieran”, said Julian “You’d better make sure your crucifix is polished!”

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