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On Christmas Eve Kieran woke up from a dream in which he was being chased through some dark tunnels in Hell. He ran up one corridor and emerged through the door leading into the Red Salon at the Big House.
He woke up tense and agitated in the bedroom above the bar. Joby was snoring next to him. Kieran rolled over and held him.
Bardin walked into the kitchen behind the bar to find Bengo and Hoowie having a soda-siphon fight. He yelled at them to stop and Bengo sprayed him from head to foot with his own soda-siphon. Hoowie made a fortuitous exit into the back yard.
“I’m sorry, Bardy”, said Bengo “I couldn’t resist it. For old time’s sake, don’t you know”.
“I’ve got my best clothes on!” Bardin shrieked.
“Well I’ll soon get you dry”, Bengo began to dab him down with a tea-towel.
“Moron! Stupid clown!” said Bardin, snatching the tea-towel from him and going to sit by the stove “So much for dressing up for the Christmas party!”
Bengo sat on his knee.
“You’ll squash all the life out of me”, Bardin grumbled.
“O.K, you sit on my knee then”, said Bengo.
“No, this’ll do”, said Bardin “Look, you’ve made my tie go all floppy”.
“Oh don’t worry, it’ll soon perk up again!” Bengo giggled.
He kissed Bardin very firmly.
“I like to get you all helpless”, said Bengo, eventually “Do you remember when we were kids and you went and gambled away all our pocket money? It was the very first time I ever dared to shout at you, not without running away immediately afterwards anyway!”
“You didn’t just shout at me from what I recall”, said Bardin “You pushed me on the bed and hit me! Mind you, that was irresponsible of me. I got caught up in that stupid card-game in the street. Even at that age I should’ve known better than that! We all knew it was a con”.
“I felt really bad after I’d thumped you though”, said Bengo “Particularly when we had to turn up on stage for roll-call the next morning, and the other clowns were all laughing at your bruise”.
“I thought you was going to thump them as well!” said Bardin “Not that I’d have been exactly sorry if you had!”
“Are we interrupting anything, I hope?” said Joby, coming into the room, followed by Kieran.
The clowns jumped to their feet.
“Strewth, what happened to you?” said Joby, looking them up and down “You had an accident or summat? You’re all wet!”
“Soda-siphon fight”, said Bengo “We’ll soon dry off”.
“Put your tie on now, Bengo”, said Bardin.
“What’s Hoowie doing at the bottom of the garden?” said Kierna, standing at the back door.
“Best place for him!” said Joby.
“Staying out of Bardy’s way I expect”, said Bengo, putting on his tie at the small, spotted kitchen mirror by the pump.
“Hey”, he suddenly said “Bardy, let’s put our gold waistcoats on, the ones Hillyard gave us for our birthdays last year”.
“We’ll look like the Christmas decorations!” said Bardin.
“Oh come along”, Bengo grabbed his hand and dragged him out of the building.
Joby finished fixing his own cravat and then said Kieran had to be tidied up too.
“You know I can’t bear wearing a tie”, said Kieran.
“You’ll be alright, Skinny-Ribs”, said Joby, tucking Kieran’s shirt into his trousers “Gawd, we’ve been through a few Christmasses together haven’t we?”
“Ach, the odd one or two”, said Kieran, suffering himself to be smartened up.
“And one year we might even be able to enjoy one without Codlik breathing down our necks!” said Joby.
“We have to feel a wee bit sorry for him”, said Kieran.
“Why?” said Joby “I feel more sorry for us, and anyone else who has to put up with him!”
“He’s a man not at ease with himself”, said Kieran “He hasn’t been for a very long time. Most of the time he must be on the outside of himself looking in, wondering what he’s really supposed to feel and how best to act it. There is a genuine soul there, but it’s got long-buried under self-righteousness, arrogance and red carpet fever”.
“Red carpet fever?” said Joby.
“It’s what used to be said about anyone high up in public life, who gets carried away by all the trappings, all the comforts, all the glitz”, said Kieran “And that happened to Codlik a long time ago, but he would never admit it to himself. He still sees himself as a paragon of integrity and principle”.
“No one could ever say it about a scruff-bag like you could they!” said Joby.
“I can be materialistic when I want to be”, said Kieran “I understand the allure of Mammon”.
“Only if it comes out of a bottle!” said Joby.
Hoowie sidled past them, throwing his hand across his eyes, as though shielding his face from the Gorgon’s gaze.
“Me tie must be dazzling him in all its splendour!” said Kieran.
“I wish he’d always walk around like that, it hides his face!” said Joby.
“Like an Aladdin’s cave”, said the oldest customer, who had just arrived in the bedecked bar.
“Have you heard of Aladdin then, old love?” said Adam.
“All you need now is some dancing-girls, eh? Eh?” said the old man, nudging Julian.
“Don’t be ridiculous”, said Julian “That’d be no bloody good for you at your age at all!”
Rumble (now looking quite distinguished with his new shorter hair) carried Mieps into the room, and set him down as though on a throne of state on one of the red velvet banquettes. Finia looked quite miffed at all this regal attention being bestowed on Mieps, as did Tamaz, who was standing nearby with his fur-stole slung casually over one shoulder.
“Now don’t go getting all frisky, just because we’ve turned you loose out of your stall for the evening”, said Julian to Mieps “No hopping around the room belly-dancing. Some of our clientele are quite excitable enough already!”
“I thought Mieps might have had to have his foot cut off”, said Lonts, who was still fascinated by Mieps’s bandaged foot, and could often be found standing over it, as though he expected it to have a life of its own.
“The Voice of Doom again”, said Joby, coming through from the kitchen with Kieran and Hoowie “Don’t ever take up hospital visiting, Lonts. The suicide rate’d rocket!”
“Now hear ye! Now hear ye!” Hillyard appeared, carrying two dead geese, both trussed at the feet “All ready for plucking and stuffing”.
He tossed one at Adam and one at Joby, who both promptly handed them to Hoowie and Brother Iggy, and told them to go into the kitchen and get plucking.
“They don’t look very impressive to me”, said Julian “We’d be better of roasting Freaky’s fur-stole!”
“Well you don’t have to have any of it then do you!” said Hillyard “You can make do with a plate of sprouts like Kieran”.
“Is that all I’m getting?” said Kieran “Can’t I have a couple of carrots as well?”
“We’ve brought over Rumble’s banjo!” Bengo whooped from the doorway.
“Good lord”, said Julian, and he turned to their eldest customer “And you wanted something as old hat as dancing-girls! Tch!”
“How on earth did that happen?” said Adam, picking up a glass of old beer in which several party-hooters and streamers had been stuffed.
“How all good parties should end!” said Joby.
He and Adam were clearing up behind the bar after the last customers had drifted away at the end of the evening.
“Why are we doing all this?” said Joby “As if we don’t work hard enough as it is! I think we should just chuck all the others out and call this Adam and Joby’s Bar. We might as well!”
“Don’t give me that!” said Hillyard, who was seated at the far end of the counter “Trying to come it that you two are the only ones who do any work. Who gets the bulk of the supplies in? Me. Who brings up the heavy stuff from the cellars? Me. Who unblocked the drains the other day? Me”.
“Yes alright”, said Adam “We do appreciate all your sterling efforts, Hilly”.
“Joby doesn’t”, said Hillyard.
“There’s not much that Joby does appreciate I’m afraid”, Adam sighed.
“That’s nice innit”, Joby grunted.
“Would you carry Finia over to the sloop, Hillyard?” said Adam “The poor little thing’s flaked out”.
Hillyard gently picked up Finia, who had been sleeping peacefully one of the banquettes.
“I wish you was all as light as him to carry!” said Hillyard.
Adam stuck his tongue out at him.
On the other side of the room, seated under the big window, were Bengo, Bardin, Farnol and Brother Iggy. Bengo and Farnol were half-asleep, Bardin looked as though he’d been hypnotised, and Brother Iggy was feeling sentimental.
“This is where we should have a little sing-song”, he said “To celebrate friendship”.
Bardin stared at him as though he’d like to throttle him.
“I suppose you used to do that sort of thing with the monks?” he growled.
“Sometimes”, said Brother Iggy “It would be a nice thing to do, wouldn’t it?”
“What NOW?” Bardin barked.
“I haven’t got the energy, man”, said Farnol.
“Bengo, I think you should get off to bed”, said Adam “We have a very busy day ahead of us tomorrow”.
“Every day’s a busy day for us”, said Joby.
“You need to be up early”, Adam continued.
“I can help you over to the sloop if you like”, said Rumble.
“I’ll manage”, said Bengo, and promptly gave a lurch over the table.
Rumble picked him up under his arm, but Bengo kicked and thumped until he was set down again.
“If you want to carry someone over there”, said Bengo, straightening his gold waistcoat “Carry Mieps”.
“I haven’t finished my drink yet”, said Mieps, who had been sitting very grandly on the red velvet banquette all evening.
“We can’t leave you there all night with the balloons, old love”, said Adam, batting a stray purple balloon over tohim.
Brother Iggy began strumming on Rumble’s banjo, and singing a song about the eternity of friendship. The song showed every sign of going on almost as long as eternity. Bardin, who had got up to follow Bengo out of the bar, turned to look at the little monk with an expression of absolute horror on his face.
“Is that going to go on all night?” he exclaimed.
Farnol gently took the banjo off Brother Iggy, and patted his head.
“You know, I did think for a while of hiring an air-buggy and going to have it out with Codlik on my own”, said Bardin, a short while later, now sitting wrapped in blankets in a deckchair on the poop-deck with Joby.
“And what would have happened to Bengo whilst you were away?” said Joby “You couldn’t put him in the kennels you know, he’d have been really unhappy!”
“Moping, all doggy-eyed!” Bardin laughed “I can just imagine it! It’s funny how people are either dog-like or cat-like isn’t it? I think I’m more cat”.
“I’m a longsuffering much abused but loyal old mongrel”, said Joby “Kieran’s a cat, even though he tries to be a dog. Tamaz and Mieps are cats. Lonts is a bleedin’ great wolfhound!”
“Adam’s a cat”, said Bardin “But Julian’s a dog”.
They both looked down below them where Julian was in a deckchair on the forward deck. Adam had come up to get him.
“Why have you got your shades on at this time of night, old love?” Adam asked “Has your hangover come on early?”
“I didn’t realise I’d fallen asleep”, said Julian, pulling himself up out of the deckchair “I seemed to have some bloody awful dream about Piers”.
“Oh dear, what happened to him?” said Adam.
“Nothing in particular”, said Julian “It was just about Piers. Anyway it might not have been a dream, in my condition I don’t trust my own judgement. For all I know he might have been calling me for real. In which case I’ll have to seek counselling from Joby about what it’s like to be haunted by one’s own brother!”
Bardin’s Christmas Day began badly. He had got the idea in his head that he usually suffered the worst hangovers out of all of them, and today was no exception. He had been the last to get up and complained bitterly about this to Rumble, who had brought in fresh shaving-water for him.
“Well there’s no need for you to be up and around”, Rumble infuriated him by saying “All the rest of us have got things to do, but all you do is ponce around as Captain, and you can do that anytime!”
Bardin responded to this outrageous comment by aggressively sharpening the cut-throat razor on the leather strop. Once he felt sufficiently presentable he went over the road to the tavern, where he found Bengo in the kitchen being jokingly tipped upside-down into the sink by Joby. Adam was out the back collecting the eggs from the chickens.
“Hello Bardin”, said Joby, setting Bengo back on his feet again “Would you like a nice, greasy bacon sandwich?”
“I’ve already had that joke twice, TWICE!” said Bardin “I’m going into the bar for a black coffee”.
“You’d better go and calm him down”, said Joby to Bengo “Or he’ll be sulking all the way through Christmas lunch”.
Rumble had now gravitated to behind the bar, much to Bardin’s annoyance, and had served him his black coffee with ill-concealed mirth.
“You should eat something, Bardy”, said Bengo “You should have something in your stomach”.
“It wouldn’t stay in there for very long would it!” Bardin snapped.
Bengo and Rumble both sniggered.
“I’m sorry, Bardy”, said Bengo “But you’re really funny”.
“Oh well as long as I’m here to keep you amused!” said Bardin “I should obviously have never stopped being a clown!”
“I didn’t know you had ever stopped being a clown!” Bengo retaliated, and stamped back into the kitchen.
“At least I wasn’t just the Fuckable Object!” Bardin shouted through the kitchen door.
Bengo chucked a load of raw potatoes at him, one of which clouted Tamaz who was walking past the door at the time.
“Moron!” shouted Tamaz at Bengo “That could have knocked me out!”
Ransey yelled at them to clear up the spuds, and Bengo scuttled out of the kitchen, collected them, and then scuttled back again. Tamaz went and stood haughtily behind the bar. Bardin pulled his cap down over his eyes and went back to his coffee.
“You wouldn’t get any of this mayhem if I was in charge of the kitchen”, said Ransey, joining Julian, Kieran and Hillyard in the corner. Kieran and Hillyard were playing chess.
“If you were in charge of the kitchen we’d be lucky to get anything!” said Hillyard.
“I can’t abide waste that’s all”, said Ransey.
“Don’t go upsetting Adam today of all days”, said Julian “We don’t want him calling out his troops on strike at the 11th hour”.
“He doesn’t keep discipline in there very well”, said Ransey “Take Joby for instance. He’s been much more amenable when he’s worked with me”.
“I often say if I could have total control of Joby for a couple of days, with no other interference”, said Julian “I’d bring him back completely changed”.
“I don’t want him completely changed!” said Kieran “Anyway, I don’t think it’s true. He’d just come back all sulky and spitting feathers at the rest of us”.
“Not much different to normal really!” said Hillyard, and then he said to Julian and Ransey “You old fogeys don’t half talk a load of cobblers sometimes”.
“You’re an old fogey as well”, said Julian.
“Not like you I aint!” said Hillyard “You think everything can be sorted out by applying the rod. Most blokes I’ve met who were birched as kids saw it as a badge of honour, something else they’d managed to survive. It certainly didn’t humble ‘em as you seem to think it does”.
“You’re all going to have to move”, said Toppy “I want to rearrange the tables for lunch”.
“We want to finish our game first”, said Hillyard “Start at the other end of the bar and work up to us”.
“I can’t be expected to work in these conditions”, said Toppy, in the kitchen a few minutes later.
“You can’t seriously expect the bar to be evacuated every time you want to do something in it, old love”, said Adam, who was basting the geese “Now go back and set the table up, it would be a great help to us if you did”.
Toppy stamped his foot and went back into the bar.
“I sometimes think we should’ve left him in the swamp!” said Joby.
“That was no good for him”, said Adam “It would have driven him mad in the long-term”.
“He’s gone mad anyway!” said Joby.
Bardin was driven into the kitchen by the earsplitting racket of Toppy dragging the tables across the stone floor in the bar.
“Could I have something to eat to be going on with?” he asked.
“No you’ve left it too late now”, said Bengo “If you eat something now you won’t eat the Christmas lunch”.
“Sometimes I hate Christmas!” Bardin shouted before thumping out into the back garden.
“I know what he means”, said Joby “It’s a lot of work for nothing if you ask me. It’s not even as if we have any presents to open”.
“I can just imagine the amount of complaining you would do if you had to go out and buy 16 presents and wrap them all up!” said Adam.
“And what could we buy each other in this town?” said Bengo “Apart from melons and lobsters that is!”
“It wouldn’t be any good even if we had the whole of Harrods at our disposal, Bengo”, said Adam “We’d still end up buying each other socks, underpants and shirts. And we all end up wearing each other’s anyway! The only one who’s easy to buy presents for is Freaky”.
“Yeah, but it’d be nice to have summat to tear the wrapping off”, said Joby “It wouldn’t matter what was inside, it’s the excitement of opening it that counts, and seeing it beforehand all wrapped up under the tree”.
“We haven’t got a tree this year”, said Bengo “And when we had one at the Town House you complained about how long it took to decorate it!”
“That wasn’t me, that was Ransey!” said Joby “I’m sure it was. It can’t have been me. I was hardly ever let out of the kitchen to see it!”
Adam chose to ignore this remark, and gave Bengo a couple of pieces of raw carrot to take out to Bardin to tide him over. Bengo found Bardin sitting on the makeshift swing, looking rather glum.
“Are you gonna change and put your posh clothes back on, Bardy?” said Bengo, handing him the pieces of carrot “You don’t wanna sit down to Christmas lunch in your vest”.
“I don’t see why not”, Bardin snapped “When I got dressed up yesterday you sprayed me from head to foot with soda-water!”
“Bardy!” said Bengo “Show some gratitude for how we are. If we weren’t here with Kieran and the others, enjoying long-lost youth, we’d be washed-up ageing has-beens performing to a shrinking audience, like poor old Godle was. Now go and get changed and get a bit more spiritual about Christmas!”
Bardin stuffed some raw carrot into his mouth and shuffled back to the sloop to get changed.
“Can I come in?” said Adam, peering round the door of what was now known by all as The Landlord’s Bedroom.
Kieran and Joby were lying in bed, ill-lit by lamplight. It was late afternoon on Christmas Day.
“Lo-Lo’s playing Snakes And Ladders with Freaky”, said Adam, bringing a bottle of Tequila and three glasses into the room “Just in case you’re wondering where Freaky’s got to. I don’t think he’ll be up in a hurry, so you’ll have to make do with me instead”.
“You’ll have to make do with us more like”, said Kieran “The poor substitute for Lonts!”
“Kieran’s being silly, Ad”, said Joby “I’d smack his bum if I was you”.
“I’ve got rather used to Patsy’s teasing by now”, said Adam, undressing and climbing into the middle of them “Now isn’t this cosy? We should’ve done this when we were in Henang together”.
“You say that every time us three get together!” said Joby.
Adam poured out neat Tequila for the three of them. There were gasps as they took their first sips.
“This’ll make my heart stop beating”, said Joby.
“No it won’t”, said Kieran “You’re the baby of us three so you can’t die first. None us should die, not ever”.
“Joby’s the baby, isn’t that a sweet thought!” said Adam “With his little lugubrious face! We’ll have to turn him over and talcum-powder him!”
Kieran cackled with laughter.
“We should have a worm in this shouldn’t we?” said Joby “Isn’t that Tequila, or am I thinking of summat else?”
“Go and dig one up out of the garden”, said Kieran.
“Brother Iggy wants to organise a football match”, said Adam.
“What, now?” Joby exclaimed “He’s stark raving mad he is!”
“I must admit I am rapidly coming to that conclusion myself!” said Adam “Bardin was very subdued at dinner wasn’t he?”
“I think wee Bengo had told him off”, said Kieran “About not getting properly into the Christmas spirit”.
“A bit hard to do when you’ve got an evil hangover”, said Joby.
“Drink doesn’t seem to agree with Bardin”, said Adam “He always suffers with it. But it’s adorable having him around isn’t it?”
“Oh Joby it is!” said Adam “I always get quite emotional when I think of him and Bengo all alone in the world as children, like the Babes in the Wood”.
“Bollocks”, said Joby “I get quite envious of ‘em, no Josh, no my Mum”.
“Just working all the time, and the other clowns to put up with”, Adam retorted.
“Was it any harder than you being beaten up your dad and sent off to school at a nuthouse when you were only 7?” said Joby “Don’t get me wrong, I get upset too when I think of ‘em being at the mercy of that pervy landlord of theirs. But we all had it bad in our own ways”.
In spite of his words, Joby got quite tearful at the thought of Bengo and Bardin being preyed upon by a filthy old man, and had to dab at his eyes with the bed-sheet. The afternoon proceeded in this more melancholy way, and when Lonts came upstairs after dark he found the 3 of them fast asleep. He leaned over Joby and shook Adam awake roughly.
“For crying out loud, Lonts”, said Joby, finding himself falling out of bed “I wish to Christ we could have you exterminated!”
“I’m going to ignore that remark, Joby”, said Lonts “Adam, you must come downstairs, there’s a strange man in the bar”.
“Yeah, it’s called a customer!” said Joby.
“What on earth is strange about him, Lo-Lo?” said Adam “What’s he doing?”
“He’s sitting in the corner by himself, having a drink”, said Lonts.
“Oh that’s really strange behaviour that is!” said Joby “Real suspect”.
“But we’ve never seen him before”, Lonts protested “Toppy says he’s never seen him around the town”.
“I expect he’s from up in the hills somewhere”, said Adam, getting dressed “And he felt like some company on Christmas night”.
“Toppy says he thinks he’s a vampire”, said Lonts.
“And since when have you started taking any notice of what Toppy says?” said Adam.
“Particularly as he’s raving mad”, said Joby.
“Why does Toppy think he’s a vampire, Lonts?” said Kieran, who was more quietly amused than alarmed by this turn of events.
“Well he sort of looks a bit strange”, said Lonts “Sort of all haggard, and he’s wearing a black hat”.
“So what?” said Joby “Bardin wear a black hat sometimes, that doesn’t make him a bleedin’ vampire!”
“You come down and see for yourselves”, Lonts insisted “And then you’ll know what I’m talking about”.
“I doubt it!” said Joby “We never have yet!”
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