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Oh ye of little faith! The second half passed faultlessly. Even Hoowie getting over-excited in the dressing-room and jumping around like a Whirling Dervish hadn’t managed to sabotage anything.
Bardin was in such a state of nervous mental and physical exhaustion by the end of the evening though, that he wasn’t aware of what a great success they had been until he read a review in the local paper in bed the next morning. The highest plaudits had been reserved for Bengo and Bardin’s routines.
“’They prove a theory I’ve long held’”, Bardin read aloud “’Which is that domestic disharmony is at the root of all good slapstick comedy’”.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” said Bengo “Does he think we carry on at home like we do on stage!”
“We often do”, said Bardin, folding up the newspaper “Take this across to Rumble and Farnol and let them see it”.
“I’d better not”, said Bengo “Rumble said last night that he’d shoot himself if he saw another newspaper”.
“He’s going to have a very precarious existence from now on then isn’t he!” said Bardin.
“When are we going home, Bardy?” said Bengo.
“How many more times!” said Bardin “We’re having a couple of days here first. We’ve been on the go solidly for 48 hours, and we need a break before we face that journey. You can suffer this for two more days can’t you? It’s not as if we’re living in terrible conditions is it?”
“I guess not”, said Bengo.
They went down to the dining-room, where everyone else was gathered, except Brinslee, who had popped along to the kitchen to give the day’s orders to the cook. Bengo ran round the table embracing everyone in turn.
“What did Brinslee think of the show?” asked Bardin, walking round rather more sedately.
“He adored it, old love”, said Adam.
“I still think it would have been easier if I’d given him a cheque”, said Hillyard.
“Didn’t you enjoy it then?” said Bardin.
“Yeah I did”, said Hillyard “I was thinking more of all the hard work you had to put into it”.
“Take no notice of Bardy”, said Bengo, sitting down between Lonts and Adam “He’s just tired is all”.
“Oh you’ve noticed then!” Bardin snapped.
“Somebody give him a smack or he’ll be like this all day”, Bengo sighed ”Anyone would think we’d had stinker reviews the way he’s carrying on”.
Julian willingly upended Bardin over his lap and smacked his behind.
“I think we should keep you like this all day”, said Julian, stroking Bardin’s arse, taut and satiny-smooth as it was in the tight brightly-coloured acrobat’s trousers he had put on upstairs.
“Like a pet”, said Adam, feeding the horizontal Bardin a sugar-lump.
“Better not”, said Joby “Or you’ll give Brinslee a heart-attack when he comes in!”
After breakfast Brinslee took Hillyard, Kieran and Joby out to the stables to show them a new fleet of horses he had recently acquired. He deemed himself to be too old and fat to ride them himself, he had bought them mainly just for the sheer pleasure of it. He was quite excited by Kieran and Hillyard’s idea of riding them into the forest that bordered on the northern part of the grounds, and hovered around as they tacked up.
Bengo had been doing graceful somersaults and cartwheels around the lawn when he saw them ride out from behind the house. Kieran was on the smaller horse. In spite of his rather puny size Kieran had a great presence, and being on a horse only exemplified it. He looked like some primeval pagan prince, a tribal warrior, short and skinny from a berry-fed diet, and athletic through constant exercise.
“Let’s take him with us”, said Hillyard, as Bengo watched them approach.
“Alright, but Joby had better carry him”, said Kieran “You know what Bardin would be like if he saw you carrying him off”.
Joby found the idea of abducting Bengo on horseback rather exciting, and brusquely called him over. Somehow Bengo climbed up in front of Joby, and hung onto the horse’s mane, sitting side-saddle, as they rode towards the forest.
Tamaz had tried wandering around the house but became dispirited by how the staff were reacting to him. One of the young stewards, encountering him in a dark back corridor, fancied he could almost hear the snakes’ heads hissing. The trouble was, that to them, everything about Tamaz was monstrous. Half-man half-woman, spawn of the Gorgon, with her ability to turn living beings into stone, and murderer of a president. His fame didn’t need to create dark legends about him, there were already plenty to go on.
He went outside and sat on the edge of the terrace, wearing a big sun-hat and feeling moody. Bardin found him there a few minutes later.
“If you’re looking for Bengo, Joby’s taken him into the woods”, said Tamaz “I don’t think you keep enough control of him. He’s allowed to do exactly as he wants”.
Bardin kicked the stone wall restlessly.
“Let’s at least you and me go in the house”, he said “It’s too hot to sit comfortably out here at the moment”.
They went into the hall where Rumble and Farnol were jokingly boxing each other. Mieps, passing through, got caught up in the midst of them and hissed with annoyance.
“I think he wishes we were out working again”, said Farnol “He got us out of the way then”.
They followed Mieps into the living-room. Mieps flopped down on the sofa, and Tamaz crouched down on the floor beside him, stroking his hair. The clowns sat down, feeling uncomfortable, as though they were trying to relax in an old dusty museum that was rarely visited.
“You lot have no nous about you”, Mieps suddenly said.
“What brought that on, you old viper?” said Bardin.
“This house is full of secrets and mysteries”, said Mieps “But you won’t look for them”.
“It’s not easy exploring round here”, said Tamaz “The staff keep watching us”.
“Perhaps we should wait until sunset”, said Farnol, in spectral tones “When they go home and we are alone once more!”
“It‘ll be too dark to see properly then”, said Mieps, getting up off the sofa “Come with me”.
Bemused, the clowns and Tamaz followed him to the back of the house. The under-steward could be heard in the pantry whining at Toppy about Tamaz. After breakfast Toppy had collected up the clowns’ costumes and taken them into the pantry, so that he could sponge them clean and brush them.
“Tamaz wouldn’t harm any of us”, said Toppy, who sounded bored with the under-steward.
“Nice to know he’s loyal behind our backs”, said Bardin “I sometimes wonder about him, he’s such a little gasbag on the quiet”.
“At least he’ll keep the poncey under-steward occupied for a few minutes”, said Rumble.
Mieps led them into a windowless storage room, and in the harsh glare of a naked electric bulb pointed at a trapdoor in the floor.
“You can hear the sea through that”, he said.
“Bullshit”, said Bardin “The sea’s hundreds of feet below us. We’re on a headland up here”.
“Perhaps the acoustics are funny in this house”, said Rumble.
Mieps prised open the trapdoor and everyone sat down beside it, peering into the dank gloom below. It was unmistakeable, they could hear the ocean in the far distance.
“I think there’s a tunnel down there which takes you right down to the shore”, said Mieps.
“Like an old smuggler’s route?” said Bardin “Did you find this earlier? I’m surprised you didn’t hare off exploring it yourself”.
“On my own?” said Mieps “That wouldn’t be very sensible when nobody would know where I was. We Ghoomers have a strong survival instinct”.
“Hm, that must be why you’ve all been wiped out!” said Bardin “Apart from you of course!”
They collected torches from a shelf nearby and went down the wooden steps which led from the trapdoor to the dark cavern below. A tunnel did indeed appear nearby, but it was on the other side of a deep chasm cut in the floor, from which an icy blast drifted up. The chasm could be crossed by a makeshift rope and plank bridge, which looked as though it hadn’t been used in many years.
“It’ll hold us”, said Mieps “If we go one at a time. It’s only a couple of steps across it and then you’re there”.
The inky depths of the chasm filled Bardin with terror, but like the others his curiosity about the tunnel over-rode everything else. They all did manage to cross it, although it was a nerve-wracking experience, for a couple of seconds being suspended above what seemed to be a bottomless pit.
The tunnel led downwards sharply for nearly a mile, but the tedious slogging along in the darkness was rewarded at the bottom when they came out into a small sandy cove, cut into the bottom of the sheer cliff-face, and with the full swell of the ocean splashing at the rocks around them. Of Aspiriola, its harbour, and its busy maritime traffic, nothing could be seen or heard.
Bardinn stood on the sand as the others jumped about in the surf getting their shoes and cotton trousers soaked in the spray. Bardin was hungry for Bengo’s presence to share in this mini-adventure. It wasn’t quite so much fun as it would have been with him there.
“Bengo would love this”, he said, mournfully, as though Bengo had died.
“We’ll bring the little fella down here later”, said Rumble “And the others”.
“We’ve been gone ages”, said Bardin “It must be nearly lunchtime, they’ll be wondering where we are. Let’s go and tell them what we’ve found. Perhaps Brinslee’ll know something about it”.
“I really think you should calm down a bit before you go and talk to them, Jules”, said Adam, standing by the chest of drawers in Julian’s bedroom “If you go down as you are you’ll sound like an angry old man”.
“I AM an angry old man!” said Julian, pulling the horsewhip out of a drawer.
“I do understand how you feel”, said Adam.
Peering over the edge of the chasm in the cellar had made him feel queasy, and the rope bridge looked as though it had been hanging by a thread for decades, if not centuries. Then Brinslee had told them that Aspiriola had suffered no less than three mini-earthquakes since the Port West disaster.
“I can’t understand Bardin being so impetuous”, said Adam “He’s normally very sensible”.
“He was goaded on by that outrageous old baggage I married that’s why”, said Julian “Mieps would have kept on and on until Bardin if he’d refused would have felt about two inches tall! At times like that Mieps makes Freaky look like an amateur!”
Ransey burst in without knocking.
“I’ve herded them all into the Governor’s old study”, he said “Are you going to go down and talk at them now?”
“Do you get the distinct impression we’re in the shit where Julian’s concerned?” said Rumble, as they lounged in the small book-lined room at the back of the house, waiting for Julian to appear “Let alone what Bengo’s gonna say when he gets back”.
“You leave me to handle Bengo!” Bardin snapped.
“Gladly”, said Rumble “Considering the temper he’s gonna be in!”
Julian strode briskly into the room. The others stood up instinctively. Bardin may be Captain these days, but Julian was still the eldest and the acknowledged father of the group.
“Contrary to what you all may be thinking, I am not about to throw a rage”, he said “In spite of what I have said from time to time none of you are lacking in intelligence or imagination. You must be aware of the risks you took today, so as far as I’m concerned, you can spend the rest of the day thinking about plummeting into a bottomless chasm!”
He ordered the three clowns out of the room. Tamaz, fearing the worst, flung his arms round Julian’s waist.
“Save that for Joby when he gets back”, said Julian. He walked round the desk towards Mieps, who was leaning against the window. Mieps watched him warily.
“Are you going to banish me?” he said.
“Banish you?” said Julian “Have you not noticed, you addle-pated old crone, that you are living amongst humans these days, not a pack of Ghoomers! I despair of you! No one has ever exasperated me to the extent that you have, NOBODY, not even this little demon!” he pointed at Tamaz “I strongly suspect that there is nothing I can do about you, but I have no intention of banishing you. The thought of you roaming around out there with no one to keep an eye on you doesn’t bear thinking about!”
Tamaz watched awestruck as Julian left the room.
“You got away with it”, he said to Mieps “WE got away with it. He didn’t hit either of us, not once. That’s amazing!”
Bardin paced up and down the first-floor landing, with Hoowie leaping around behind him. Downstairs he knew the others, newly back from the forest, would be inspecting the cellar. At any moment Bengo would probably have to come upstairs and be placated. Getting fed up with Hoowie’s maniacal shadowing, he went to the top of the back stairs and shouted down for Toppy.
“Hoowie’s wandering around the house by himself”, Bardin shouted “Keep an eye on him. I’ve got more than enough on my plate as it is!”
Joby passed him on his way to the bathroom. Bardin noticed that he looked tense and followed him there.
“Alright alright I’m not gonna go on”, said Joby, stripping off his sweaty clothes and washing in the basin “I’m just glad none of you fell down that bloody thing”.
“I can’t hope that Bengo’s gonna be so reasonable”, said Bardin.
“He did look a bit vexed”, said Joby “You should be an old hand at sorting him out by now though”.
“It was easier when we were kids”, said Bardin “If I’d upset him all I had to do was buy him a couple of comics and he’d be alright again”.
“You could probably get away with that now!” said Joby “I can’t imagine he’s changed much since then”.
Bardin went along to his own room, where he found Bengo jumping about on the bed in great agitation, seemingly having a pillow-fight all by himself.
“Bengo, sit down”, said Bardin “Look, please sit down. If you hadn’t gone off with the others I wouldn’t have gone poking around in the cellar without you”.
“I might have known you’d find a way of putting the blame on me!” Bengo squawked, standing over him.
“No, no, I was just saying!” said Bardin “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Please stop wrecking the bed. At least none of us fell down the bloody thing, chasm, whatever it was”.
Slightly mollified by Bardin’s words (or rather Joby’s), Bengo sat down on the edge of the bed.
“W-would you like me to take you into town after lunch?” said Bardin “I could buy you something”.
“There’s nothing I want”, snapped Bengo.
The dinner-gong was thumped below.
“You’ll feel better after we’ve eaten”, said Bardin, patting Bengo’s hand, whilst Bengo continued to scowl at him.
Bengo was ominously quiet as they went downstairs and into the dining-room, where everyone else had already gathered.
“I thought you were going upstairs to have a wash”, said Julian, as Bengo took the chair next to him.
“I didn’t have time in the end”, said Bengo.
Lonts looked at him with annoyance. Adam had made him wash his hands and comb his hair before coming down to lunch. On sitting down heavily on his chair Lonts shattered it like matchwood.
“Gawd, strewth! It’s like living with a bloody gorilla!” said Joby.
Lonts tossed the remains of the chair disdainfully into the fireplace and pulled another chair away from the wall. Adam was in the throes of apologising to Brinslee, who in turn was desperately trying to think of a way of getting the Indigo-ites to stay for a bit longer, when another earth tremor struck. A mild one, but enough to make a few pictures fall off the wall.
Brinslee took to his bed a very short time after this, offering incoherent apologies to the others. Adam took him up a concoction of milk, honey and brandy.
“This might make you feel a little better”, he said.
Brinslee gathered his bath-robe around him, like an accident victim being visited in hospital by a head of state.
“I hope you don’t mind, old love”, said Adam “But I’ve given the staff the rest of the day off. They were all a bit upset, you see. I’m sure we can manage by ourselves”.
“Their nerves are shattered”, said Brinslee “Like mine. Adam, do you all have to go home soon?”
“Well to be brutally honest old love, yes we do”, said Adam “We do have things to keep an eye on back there. You’re welcome to come with us, as long as you can cope with the journey in the truck”.
“When will you be going?” said Brinslee.
“That’s entirely up to our little captain”, said Adam.
Bardin had taken the horsewhip out of Julian’s room and was cracking it in his bedroom in total frustration, convinced Bengo was going to give him a hard time for some while to come. He was very surprised therefore when Bengo sidled into the room behind him.
“You were told to come and see me I suppose”, Bardin snapped.
Bengo smiled sheepishly.
“Julian threatened me with the strap if I didn’t come up and see you”, he said.
“Oh I’m glad you came up willingly then!” said Bardin.
Bengo gave a yelp and ran across the room to him, miraculously managing to avoid all the furniture as he did so. They clasped each other for a moment in their arms.
“There’s a storm coming”, said Bardin, looking out at the sky which was darkening towards the west “It must be approaching over the sea”.
“Julian says I’m enough to make him feel old”, said Bengo “He says he’s had to keep shouting at me constantly on this strip, which isn’t true! I heard him saying to Hillyard just now that he dreads to think what he’d look like if he was his real age”.
“I don’t think any of us would be spring chickens anymore if we were our real age”, said Bardin “Time seems to have become irrelevant for us, real time I mean. We don’t think about the passing of it anymore, we judge it all by when the next supply-run is due, or when it’s storm season”.
“Will we live forever?” said Bengo.
“I don’t know”, said Bardin “At the moment we just live, I don’t think about it too much. It’s all simply part of Kieran’s magic”.
Kieran found Joby washing out their underpants in the basin in their room.
“This place grows on you doesn’t it?” said Kieran “This room could be like our own little flat, just you and me”.
“You’re weird”, said Joby.
“Wouldn’t you like to live along with me?” said Kieran.
“Yeah, as long as you promise not to go raving mad again like you did last time!” said Joby.
“The others all seem to have gone for a lie-down, the thunder’s getting to them, making ‘em drowsy”, said Kieran, now leaning against the mantelpiece and doing ballet-style exercises.
“Except you, who seems to be getting more excited”, said Joby.
“Let’s go down to the cellar”, said Kieran, in an urgent whisper “I want another look at the place, without everyone else around yapping. Will you come with me?”
“Do I have a choice?” said Joby “What if there’s another earth tremor?”
“We’ll stay well clear of the edge”, said Kieran “Come on, if we sneak down now, the others need know nothing about it”.
“I hate this part of the house”, said Joby, when they got to the bottom of the back stairs “It’s so dark here. And the bulb’s gone in the passage too”.
“It still works in here”, said Kieran, going into the store-room and activating the light-switch.
They took torches off the shelves and opened up the hatch. Immediately a bodily-mass tried to push its way up through the aperture. ‘A bodily-mass’ was the only way to describe it, shapeless yet somehow solid though it was. Joby kicked it back down through the hole and slammed down the trap-door, bolting it securely into place. He then sat on it whilst Kieran dragged over a heavy tea-chest.
“Hurry up”, said Joby “I can hear it pounding on the door, whatever the fuck it is!”
They screwed the crate into place over the door, and then both of them sat on it for good measure. Eventually they migrated to the kitchen, locking the store-room door behind them. Joby opened the refrigerator and stood absorbing the cold blast. When Kieran approached him, Joby jokingly tried to bundle him inside the fridge.
“You and your brilliant ideas!” said Joby, getting out two bottles of cold beer “’Let’s go and look in the cellar’ indeed! Do you have any idea what it was?”
“Not really”, said Kieran “The most likely explanation would be a Reptile Man. They tend to like hiding down places like that”.
Joby sat down at the table and rubbed his face with his hands.
“This house is giving me the creeps”, he said “And the storm’s making it feel even worse”.
“It is a gloomy old pile”, said Kieran.
“There’s a bar up the side street from here”, said Joby “Let’s go out and have a drink. If we take the key with us, the others won’t be able to get into the store-room”.
“We haven’t got any money”, said Kieran.
“I’ve got some”, said Hillyard, standing in the doorway “What’s up?”
“I think there’s a Reptile Man in the cellar”, said Kieran “It came out of the hatch at us. Joby managed to push it back down”.
“What were you doing in there?” said Hillyard.
“What we’re normally doing”, said Joby “Poking around in places where we don’t belong!”
The three of them left a note on the kitchen table and went out of the grounds of the old Governor’s House, and up a completely deserted side street to the nearest bar. The thunder rumbled overhead, but so far no rain had fallen out of the dark clouds. The bar was almost as dark and empty as the street. They bought three beers and sat in the windowseat, with Kieran in the middle. All was peaceful until Ransey burst in on them.
“How many times have I told you not to sit in a window overlooking a public street?” he roared at Kieran.
“But there’s no one in the focking street!” said Kieran.
“No one that you can see”, said Ransey.
“Eh?” said Joby.
“There could be someone in the house over the street with a gun trained on this window”, said Ransey.
“Sure!” said Kieran “He’s been sitting over there for years just waiting on the offchance that I’d walk into this very bar!”
“And why would they just shoot Kieran?” said Hillyard “Why not me or Joby?”
“There would be no kudos in shooting either of you two”, said Ransey.
“Why not?” said Joby “Me, Vanquisher of Evil’s evil consort! Hillyard, one of the world’s richest men. Great kudos I would’ve thought”.
“If he got the three of us he might get a bonus prize!” said Hillyard “Go on you old misery”, he pushed a few coins across the table towards Ransey “Get yourself a beer”.
“Has he always been mad?” said Hillyard “Or did he go that way sometime and we didn’t notice?”
“Ach, we all have our little foibles”, said Kieran.
“Yeah, and his must be paranoia!” said Hillyard.
“This place is worse than being back at the house”, said Joby, after they had drank in near silence for a couple of minutes “I never feel comfortable when we’re the only customers in a place”.
“Let’s go up to the main square then and see what’s going on up there”, said Hillyard “Is that alright with you, Ranz?”
“Why ask me?” said Ransey “Whatever I say will make no difference whatsoever!”
The four of them went out into the street and were hit anew by the heavy silence everywhere, as though the whole town had been mysteriously evacuated. It was thus all the more spooky when they heard a repetitive squeaking noise coming from a short distance away.
“It’s coming from the direction of the house”, said Joby, his breathing getting rapid with panic.
They went back towards the house, and found Lonts standing just inside one of the back iron gates, silently watching them approach. Bengo was on the other gate, using his right leg to propel himself backwards and forwards. This was the source of the squeaking noise.
“You little bastard, I wondered what the fuck that was!” said Joby.
They turned to leave again.
“Where are you going?” said Lonts.
“Up to the main square for a drink”, said Joby “And don’t ask if you can come ‘cos you can’t!”
On looking back when they were halfway up the street though they found Bengo and Lonts a few paces behind them, Bengo not even reaching Lonts’s shoulder. The other four reluctantly let them join them. When they reached the main square they found it completely devoid of human life. There was no one about at all. Normally, apart from a couple of hours in the middle of the night, it was a hive of activity.
“This is too fucking eerie”, said Joby.
“I think we should go back to the house”, said Ransey.
He pulled Bengo off one of the rickshaws on the abandoned rank nearby, and they retraced their steps down the side street to the house. They locked the main gates behind them when they reached it.
Joby was appalled to find the door of the store-room standing open. He ran inside, where Adam and Toppy were collecting supplies for preparing supper.
“Don’t you ever think about anything other than preparing meals?” Joby shouted at Adam.
“I would dearly like to, old love!” said Adam “But you’d soon complain if you couldn’t feed your miserable little face at regular intervals”.
“How did you get in here anyway?” said Joby “We took the key with us”.
“Why?” Adam barked.
“I knew there was a spare key hanging up in the pantry”, said Toppy.
Joby gave a roar and made as if to throttle Topy.
“That’ll be quite enough of that, thank you very much!” said Adam.
“There’s a fucking Reptile Man under the trap-door, Adam!” said Joby “Me and Kieran nearly got attacked by it earlier. That’s why we piled all that stuff on top of it”.
“What were you doing trying to get down there?” said Adam “Oh never mind. I should know better than to ask really shouldn’t I!”
He ushered them out of the room and double-locked the door.
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