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By Sarah Hapgood

Bengo and Joby had been horsing around and bantering with each other in the kitchen all morning. Adam watched them with amusement. Joby would never have admitted how much he had missed Bengo’s presence, but he regarded the little clown in much the same way as he regarded Lonts, as an intensely annoying younger brother whom he was deeply fond of. They had been teasing each other almost non-stop since Bengo’s return to the fold, and Bengo found this a welcome relief after Bardin’s intense preoccupied moodiness lately.

“You haven’t done any work today”, Joby was now mock-grumbling “The most energetic thing you’ve done is to put your canvas pinny on. Since then you’ve just been sitting there on the table eating bits of the food”.

Bengo blew kisses in reply and went back to gnawing on a raw carrot.

“Ad”, Hillyard stood at the back door “Can I borrow Joby for a minute? I need someone to hold Matilda’s bridle whilst I scrape out her hooves”.

“Well can’t Patsy do that?” said Adam “It’s the sort of little job he can do”.

“And there aren’t many so you should make the most of ‘em when they crop up!” said Joby.

“Nah, he’s disappeared”, said Hillyard “I’d ask Lonts but you do insist that his afternoon naps be sacred”.

“Alright don’t go on”, said Adam, reluctantly releasing Joby from culinary serfdom for a few minutes.

“I’d really like to have asked Bengo, but you know what Bardin’s like about all that”, said Hillyard, when he and Joby entered the stables.

“Well you’ll have to make do with me won’t you!” said Joby “Won’t do you any harm”.

“I’ll always have a place in my heart for you, Beautiful”, said Hillyard.

He scraped away at the mare’s feet, whilst she occasionally tried to resist him, and he remarked that she was “even feistier than Mieps”.

“Bardin seems to have been really preoccupied since coming home”, he said, when he had finished “I told him not to worry, as what happened on the sloop was probably only Angel pillocking about, but he’s still been slumped in gloom”.

“I think he’s already getting worked up about the next supply-run and that’s two month’s away!” said Joby “At this rate I suggest we go instead, and that lot stay here and mind the house. ‘Cept God knows what they’ll do to it whilst our backs are turned!”

“The younger generation obviously aren’t as tough as we were!” said Hillyard.

Joby returned to the kitchen, where he found Rumble all alone, chopping lettuce.

“What are you doing in here?” said Joby “And where are the others?”

“Lonts woke up so Adam’s gone to see to him”, said Rumble “And Bengo’s gone into the dining-room to have a chat with Kieran”.

“That means they’re up to something”, Joby grunted “As usual!”

“I’d give them a few minutes in case Bengo’s confessing his sins”, said Rumble.

“In that case I’d better give ‘em a few hours!” said Joby.

Contrary to popular opinion, Bengo hadn’t gone to Kieran to let off steam about his fears over Bardin’s madness. In fact he wanted to reassure Kieran that Bardin’s mood would pass.

“He’s just got a bit of a bug up his arse about what happened on the supply-trip”, said Bengo “He’ll snap out of it, eventually. Am I squashing you, sitting on you like this? I feel so fat next to you”.

“If Joby’s to be believed the washing-line would feel fat next to me!” said Kieran, who had Bengo sitting on his lap.

He found cuddling Bengo as enjoyable as hugging a particularly soft, squashy pillow. Kieran was also touched that Bengo had thought it important to seek him out and reassure him about Bardin’s moodiness. Although after all these years of living with Joby, Kieran knew all about riding out someone else’s moods. He was just grateful that their kind of moodiness didn’t result in them trying to starve themselves, as his own moods had done. He also couldn’t resist Bengo being grave and serious, it only made him even more adorable.

“I had to come in”, said Joby, coming in “Only Bardin’s at the back door. He wants to know if you’re coming out to play!”

“I’d better go and see what he wants”, said Bengo, scrambling off Kieran. He practically bobbed a curtsey at Joby as he scurried out of the room.

“You’ve got that wee fella on the run haven’t you, you old shrew?” said Kieran, tilting back in his chair and squinting in amusement at his friend.

“A bit of firmness doesn’t do him any harm”, said Joby.

Ransey came in and swiped Joby across the backside with one of a pile of books he was carrying.

“Clear out of here”, he said “I want to talk to Kieran about pigs”.

“I’m to be assistant swineherd didn’t you know?” said Kieran.

“You?” said Joby.

“As long as I don’t have to take part in the massacre”, said Kieran.

“That’s a long way off”, said Ransey.

Joby returned to the kitchen, at the same time as Adam came through from the ground-floor bedroom with Lonts. Adam was cross to hear that Bengo had gone AWOL.

“He can talk to Bardin at any time!” he said.

“Apart from the eighteen hours a day you keep him working in here!” said Rumble.

“Working?” said Joby “Bengo? Likely story an’ all!”

Lonts was muttering in a fractious way at the table.

“I’ll get you a cold drink, Lo-Lo”, said Adam.

“I’ve put some beers on to chill”, said Rumble, indicating some bottled beer (from Aspiriola) standing in a bucket of cold water.

“Rumble, how thoughtful of you”, Adam purred “You’re always so efficient”.

Joby looked Rumble up and down in disgust.

“I’m gonna go and collect the eggs”, he said, snatching a bowl and stamping outside. He fumbled around the chicken-coop grumbling that Adam was a “poncey old tart”, and that he (Joby) would like to have seen how Rumble would have coped at the Winter Palace or up at Father Gabriel’s place at Mundaba Heights.

“And you lot had better pull your finger out and all”, he said to the chickens, after finding a meagre scattering of eggs at the back of the hen-house “If you don’t start coughing up a bit more productively, you’ll find yourselves on the dinner-table!”

He sighed, replaced the roof panel on the hut and turned round. Something caught his eye on the ground on the other side of the wire.

“Fucking hell”, he said, kneeling down to inspect the large claw-marks that were scraped into the earth “Whatever that was”, he said to the chickens “You’d have had your lot if it’d got in! Fucking hell!”

Bengo and Bardin ambled over from the maze. Bardin had taken his partner in there simply in order to have a few minutes alone with him.

“Bardin, come over here!” Joby shouted “Take a butchers at this. There’s some big-as-shit animal trying to get at our chickens. What do you suggest we do about it? Or are you too busy having another mood-swing?!”

“No I leave those to you”, said Bardin.

“Surely the hens are safe at night in their little house?” said Bengo.

“We need to know what this animal is”, said Joby “Just in case the bastard isn’t entirely nocturnal, and he decides to come round when they’re not indoors!”

“Alright, alright, now then”, said Bardin “You’re right, we have to find out what it is. A gang us will spend the night in the garden, in the tepee. If anything comes round we’ll see it”.

“Look at them”, said Julian, standing at the library window at dusk “They’re like a bunch of kids who’ve been given permission to spend the night in the garden!”

Most of the others were helping Bengo and Bardin to erect the tepee on the back lawn. Kieran and Joby were joining Bengo and Bardin in the animal-vigil. Tamaz was miffed because he hadn’t been invited to join in, but Joby had pointed out that they wanted to get a good look at the beast, not scare it off before it had got into view!

Adam suspected Tamaz wasn’t the only one to be feeling sidelined.

“I’m sure if you ask them nicely they’ll let you join in, Jules”, he said.

“I’m in no hurry to sleep in that thing again, not unless I absolutely have to at any rate”, said Julian “I don’t know what’s possessed them to let Bengo join in. I would have thought Toppy might be more use. At least he knows how to handle a gun”.

“All thanks to me”, said Ransey, appearing on the path outside the window with a rifle slung over his shoulder “I was the one who insisted on teaching him. If it had been up to you he would never have learnt”.

“Silly old turd”, said Julian, as Ransey strode across the lawn towards the tepee “I swear he just lies in wait, ready to pounce and score points off me, when he can”.

“You’re the only one with any commonsense”, said Ransey, presenting the rifle to Bardin “So you keep charge of this. Only fire it if you absolutely have to, and then make sure you’ve got the beast in full view. Otherwise you could shoot one of us by mistake, coming out to see you”.

Bengo gave an anguished whimper at this terrible thought and dived into the tepee. Ransey went in after him.

“You’re far too excitable and impulsive to be joining in with all this”, he said “I’ve a good mind to take you back to the house with me”.

“No you can’t do that!” said Bengo, like a small child being threatened with removal from a party by a strict parent “I’ll be fine out here. Bardy insist on me being out here. You treat me as thought I haven’t got a brain!”

“It’s self-discipline you lack, not a brain”, said Ransey “I should’ve kept more of an eye on you when you first joined us on the old Indigo, not left you to be indulged and mollycoddled by Hillyard and Julian”.

Bengo had to suppress a smile at the idea of being mollycoddled by Julian, who wasn’t exactly renowned for such treatment!

“I-I was just thinking of Julian”, he said, when he realised Ransey was staring at him suspiciously.

Ransey gave him a light clout around the ear and left the tepee.

“What have you said?” Bardin demanded to know, walking in with the gun cocked “Why did he give you a clip round the ear?”

“I think it was done out of fondness”, said Bengo.

“He can be a funny old cove”, said Bardin.

“I know”, said Bengo “Sometimes he reminds me of you!”

Kieran came in carrying a bundle of night-time supplies, such as bottles of water and biscuits.

“Where’s Joby?” said Bardin.

“His favourite place”, said Kieran “The khazi”.

“He was in there for a quarter-of-an-hour yesterday afternoon”, said Bengo “Adam had to go in and see if he was alright. Joby said he’d been thinking”.

“Well it’s the best way of getting the air to his brain!” said Kieran.

“I heard that!” said Joby, arriving in the tepee.

Bardin lit the lantern hanging from a hook on the central pole, and the others sorted out their bedding.

“This is great, we should do this more often”, said Bengo.

“It’s more roomy in here with just the four of us”, said Joby “I’m not always stepping on someone”.

Bardin decreed that he would take first watch just inside the tent entrance. After Bengo and Kieran had dozed off, Joby shuffled over to join him, for which Bardin was grateful, as the castle grounds were spooky by moonlight. They conducted their conversation in whispers, which at frist simply revolved around speculation as to what the Beast could be. Both agreed that the prints were too big to be those of a fox. After a few minutes of this Joby confessed that he could never sit close to Bardin without getting a mad urge to kiss him on the mouth.

“MY mouth?” said Bardin, tracing the outline of his crooked lip with his fingers.

“Yeah well perhaps I have a taste for the freaky”, Joby joked.

“Sade did too”, said Bardin “He was fascinated by my mouth”.

“He was a Frenchman, nothing surprises me”, said Joby.

“I wish you’d been at his place too”, said Bardin “I think, in fact I know, Kieran would have liked to have you there, let alone Tamaz”.

“It was bloody hard being here, not knowing what was happening”, said Joby “Mind you, it was a full-time job keeping Lonts calmed down”.

“Not at all easy that!” said Bardin “I sometimes think Lonts isn’t a man as much as a phenomenon, an incredible force of Nature!”

“Adam always says ‘Lo-Lo is unique’”, said Joby “And I always think I bloody well hope so! The world couldn’t cope with too many around like him!”

There wasn’t a sound for a while other than Kieran’s heavy breathing as he slept.

“When you were a kid”, said Bardin “Did you ever think you’d end up partnering someone like him?”

“How could I have imagined that!” said Joby “I had no ambitions at all as a kid. I never thought I’d get anywhere. What about you? You must’ve had loads”.

“No, not really”, said Bardin “Except to be better than those other deadbeat clowns we worked with. I suppose that is pretty ambitious really. As I got older I wished I could get to play a really serious role, just to prove that I could do it. That I could do more than just fall on my arse. But I’ve heard really great serious actors wishing they could do comedy, just for a change, so I suppose it’s all horses for courses”.

“You ever miss the stage at all?” said Joby “It was your whole life, right from when you was seven”.

“Yeah, but I’d had enough for that very reason”, said Bardin “When Bengo left me I had a taste of what it was like to run on empty, to have to perform when there’s nothing inside you. And it scared me a bit. I’d seen performers go that way”.

“But what about now, now you’re back together?” said Joby “You could be Bengo and Bardin back in the spotlight again”.

“I’m enjoying us being Bengo and Bardin out of the spotlight!” said Bardin “You’ve got to remember that when we was kids we were totally committed to the stage, we got hardly any time off, let alone holidays. Birthdays, Yule-tide, we had to perform. And when we weren’t performing we were rehearsing or doing publicity. It was crazy, looking back on it. You never got a moment to stop and look at what you’d achieved or where it was all going. You have to keep running on the spot just to stay on top of the treadmill. Shit-scared all the time that one day the punters won’t want to see you anymore, and that drives you. We had years of that! No, I don’t miss it anymore”.

Joby kissed him so lingeringly on the mouth that neither of them noticed Kieran getting up and moving over to them.

“What a useless pair of nightwatchmen you two are!” he said “Go and lie down and I’ll keep watch”.

“I’ll wake Bengo up”, said Bardin “He can keep you company”.

Joby stumbled across the tent, after Kieran had given him a hefty smack on the rump.

“Bengo, wake up”, Bardin nudged him gently with his foot “You can do a watch with Kieran”.

“I hope we can do this again tomorrow night”, said Bengo.

“You have some bizarre ways of enjoying yourself!” said Joby.

“Huh, we won’t go into how you like to enjoy yourself, particularly the minute my back’s turned”, said Kieran.

“Oh leave it out, Kieran”, said Joby, getting into his bed-roll “You can’t threaten me with the Assizes anymore you know”.

“More’s the pity”, said Kieran.

“You aren’t really upset about Bardy and Joby kissing are you, Kieran?” said Bengo, once the others had fallen asleep, and he had been apprised of the situation. He and Kieran were sharing out biscuits just inside the entrance to the tepee.

“No, not at all”, said Kieran “But I enjoy having an excuse to tell Joby off occasionally. It keeps him on his toes”.

Joby puffed and sighed about their whispering whilst he was trying to sleep, so Kieran and Bengo fell silent. They might have fallen asleep themselves if they hadn’t been shaken by somebody whistling shrilly from deep into the forest, as though summoning an animal. It was a long drawn-out piercing noise, which tailed off slowly, only to start up again.

“It was from the north of here I think”, said Bengo, when it seemed to have stopped again.

“Yes, quite a way into the forest”, said Kieran “Up beyond the house where we found the mummified Ghoomer”.

“We haven’t explored much up there”, said Bengo.

“Somebody has though”, said Kieran.

Things were silent for the rest of the night. Bengo eventually dozed off on Kieran’s shoulder. When he woke up the sky was streaked red with the dawn.

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