“Well it was very brave of you to go out there, Hoowie”, said Adam, chucking a towel at him so that he could dry himself off “And in these terrible conditions too”.
“Yeah, all the way across the back yard to the stables”, Joby snorted in derision.
“It’s easy for you to sneer”, said Hoowie, stripping off his outdoor gear and dumping it unceremoniously on the kitchen floor “But it’s diabolical conditions out there, and you know how I hate crossing that courtyard on my own, ever since that unknown thing pushed me that time”.
Bengo (who had heard the anecdote of the unknown assailant too many times) tutted and rolled his eyes.
“You get to stay in here in the snug and warm”, Hoowie went on.
“Yes OK dear, we get the message”, said Adam “You can have extra tinned potatoes at dinner”.
“That’ll be a little treat in store for you”, said Joby, lugubriously.
“Anyway, we do show concern for you”, said Adam “In our own way. That’s why I asked you to take the scraps across to the animals BEFORE it went dark”.
“Those fucking weather conditions means it makes no odds whether it’s dark or light!” said Hoowie “And I heard something whilst I was out there. In the far distance. Sounded like it could have been an air-buggy”.
“That would be quite an event if it was!” said Adam.
“I only said it SOUNDED like an air-buggy”, said Hoowie “I didn’t say it was one”.
“In this wind it could’ve been anything”, said Joby.
The wind howled around the house all through dinner, sending the most disturbing noises down the chimney whilst they ate.
“I spose it’s a good job we haven’t got any electricity”, said Joby, with a grim sort of satisfaction “Or it’d only go off”.
“That’s one way of looking at it, old love”, said Adam.
“That’s our Joby’s idea of being positive!” said Hillyard.
“It’s the kind of night to hold a séance”, said Kieran, mischievously.
“It is not!” said Julian “We’re not having any of that rubbish here”.
“Frightened of what it might unleash?” said Kieran.
“Patsy”, said Adam, in a warning voice.
“I think it’s a good idea”, said Hoowie.
“All the more reason not to try it then!” said Joby.
“We could try and discover what really happened here”, said Hoowie.
“Sometimes I think I’d rather not know”, said Adam.
“It’s a bloody stupid idea”, said Julian, irritably “As well as grossly irresponsible. We’ve got enough to deal with here at the moment, without encouraging any more weirdness!”
“Julian got really cross at the séance suggestion didn’t he, Bardy?” said Bengo, when the two of them had reached their room at the front of the house later that evening.
“I can’t say I blame him”, said Bardin, putting down his candle on the dressing-table “Things are unnerving enough round here at the moment. A séance would just feel like we were inviting spirits and things to come in and meddle with us as well”.
“Oh it’s just the weather making everything feel spooky”, said Bengo “That’s all. It makes everybody hear odd noises all the time”.
“And that fool Hoowie doesn’t help matters”, said Bardin, struggling into his nightshirt “Being such a big drama queen about such a simple matter of crossing the yard!”
“Well to be fair, Bardy”, said Bengo “He WAS attacked by that unknown thing out there once”.
“Alright!” said Bardin “Next time I’ll walk across with him if it’ll shut the bastard up! You wouldn’t think he’d sailed all around the world, or lived in an empty city would you,, not when he gets so terrified of the back yard!”
“Are you coming to bed or not?” Hillyard demanded to know.
“Yes”, said Ransey “It’s just that this house is impossible to secure properly. Too many doors and windows, and I keep hearing a shutter banging somewhere”.
“You worry too much”, said Hillyard, who, by contrast, was looking the very picture of relaxation, reclining against his pillows, quaffing port “Anyone breaking into this house would get more than they bargained for!”
“It all reminds me of that grim comet winter we spent up at Wolf Castle”, said Ransey, finally getting into bed and taking his share of the port.
“We’ve been through some strange times haven’t we”, said Hillyard “I bet there’s been many a time when you’ve wished you’d stayed working for the Ministry!”
“Never”, said Ransey “Never ever. Not even when Kieran’s been at his most reckless, or Julian’s been at his most insufferable”.
“You must have been damn lonely in those days”, said Hillyard “What did you used to do with yourself when you weren’t at work?”
“Existed”, said Ransey “And fantasised”.
“Oh yeah?” Hillyard leered.
“Not that kind of fantasising!” said Ransey.
“What other kind is there?” said Hillyard.
“I used to imagine how I could embezzle all the money out of the Ministry Treasury”, said Ransey “I had as foolproof a plan as you can possible get all worked out”.
“Why didn’t you then?” said Hillyard.
“There didn’t seem much point”, said Ransey “I would just run off with it and be lonely somewhere else. Money can’t buy you happiness. At it’s very best all it does is make you more comfortable”.
“And you don’t need a lot of money to be comfortable”, said Hillyard “Although a softer mattress might help!”
There had been another fresh fall of snow overnight, and this, combined with the high winds, meant that it became banked up high against the house. Instead of a dawn chorus, there was instead the sound of shovels scraping and clanging, as Bardin marshalled the clowns around in a snow-clearing party.
The main bathroom was out of bounds, as the pipes were frozen, in spite of Bardin regularly trying to defrost the outside drain with a steaming kettle. So Hillyard smashed the ice that had formed on the top of his jug of shaving water in his room, and then found that his razor needed sharpening.
“I might have known you’d have the strop in here”, he said, finding Julian shaving alone in his room.
“I haven’t had cause to use it for some time”, said Julian “Unless you give me cause”.
“You’re a sadistic old bastard, Julian”, Hillyard chuckled “I don’t know why we put up with you”.
“Because you need a sadistic old bastard I suppose!” said Julian “How is life sharing a room with the school geek?”
“Nice and relaxing”, said Hillyard, elbowing him out of the way so that he could stand in front of the shaving-mirror “I might as well use your brush and cream now I’m here”.
“I see he’s been teaching you to be bolshy”, said Julian.
“You’ve just never been able to stand it because he’s never been impressed by you”, said Hillyard.
“Oh occasionally he’s shown his approval”, said Julian, standing sideways to look at himself in the full-length mirror in the corner of the room “I seem to be losing a heck of a lot of weight at the moment Must be all that inedible muck Adam keeps serving up”.
“It’s nice and filling”, said Hillyard “What we need”.
“It’s pure stodge and nothing else”, said Julian “God knows how I’m losing weight eating it!”
“You must be burning off a lot of calories keeping Hoowie subservient, that’s all”, said Hillyard.
“An ice palace”, said Joby, staring out at the snow banked up to the sill of the living-room window “That’s what this is, an ice palace”.
“Could you play a bit louder, Hillyard?” said Adam “To try and drown out the voice of doom if you can”.
One of Hillyard’s abilities was that he could play the piano “by ear”, he only had to hear a few bars of a tune to be able to replicate it perfectly on the keyboard. So Adam had sung a few bars of a Chopin melody, and Hillyard was playing it as well as that dilapidated old piano would let him.
By the fireplace Bardin was toasting slices of bread over the flames, whilst the other clowns waited impatiently for each slice.
“Oh cheer up, Joby”, Hillyard shouted “Pretend it’s Summer. Put your bikini on and go and roll around outside in the snow!”
“Or have a dance”, said Bengo, and he broke off from the Oliver Twist-style line of toast claimers to career recklessly around the room.
“Bengo, be careful”, Bardin shouted over his shoulder “Or your trousers’ll probably fall down!”
“You’ve got a touch of cabin fever that’s all, my boy”, said Julian to Joby “You need some fresh air”.
“He can shovel the snow if he wants”, said Hoowie, sulkily “That’ll give him all the fresh air he needs”.
“Be quiet, Hoowie“, said Julian, in a very matter-of-fact but effective way.
“Joby, why don’t you go and give the sew a stir?” said Adam.
“I don’t know how you can get cabin-fever in this kitchen”, said Kieran, who had accompanied Joby to the other end of the house “It’s too big for that!”
“I don’t get it in here so much”, said Joby, appreciatively sniffing at the stew “But being holed up in the living-room with the clowns is enough to give anyone cabin-fever, and I can do without that hairy gonk saying I need to go outside and do the shovelling!”
“Ach, take no notice of Hoowie”, said Kieran “He’s just aggrieved because Bardin makes him do some work. He thinks as Julian’s pet that he should be allowed to lie around all day”.
“Hm”, said Joby “I tell you what does get to me in this part of the house, a feeling of being watched all the time. That’s why I hate being alone in here”.
“We know nothing about the previous inhabitants that’s why”, said Kieran.
Joby could see exactly where this was all going.
“We’re not having a séance, Kiel”, he said, firmly “That’s been vetoed, so get over it”.
Kieran shrugged, but as far as he was concerned, the matter was far from closed.
Joby thought he had a dream that night in which somebody outside was yelling “They’ve got me! They’ve got me!” But when he woke up the house was shaking, which left him feeling that he wasn’t quite sure what was real and what was not.
“Wha …?” he came out of sleep slowly and groggily “What is it? Earth tremor?”
“Think so”, said Kieran, who was staggering about in a drunkenly fashion, trying to put his dressing-gown on “It feels like somebody’s stamping around heavily outside. Some giant creature I mean”.
Joby remembered the huge monster (the behemoth Kieran had called it) standing on the shore once. “Oh God, that’s all we need”, he said.
“S’alright”, said Kieran “That’s just an analogy, I think it’s an earth tremor”.
He waited whilst Joby put his dressing-gown on too, and then they went out into the dark, cold corridor. The dogs were barking frantically at the bottom of the stairs, and Bardin was yelling down to them from the landing.
“Something’s out there!” Digby shouted from a nearby room “Going to do unspeakable things to us!”
“He’s a real comfort to have around in a crisis he is!” said Joby.
“Digby, calm down”, said Umbert, taking another swig from the whisky-bottle on his bedside table “You’re getting too excited!”
“Well I think this is something to get excited about, Umbert”, said Digby, with a rare show of spirit.
There was an anguished cry from Bengo in his room.
“Bengo!” Lonts boomed out, from his room next door “What’s happening, Bengo? Are you alright?”
“Something was looking in the window at me!” Bengo yelled, with an unmistakeable note of panic in his voice.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Bengo”, said Bardin, as Kieran and Joby rounded the corner onto the landing “We’re on the second floor”.
“I tell you, something looked in at me!” said Bengo, who was crouching in the middle of the bed, wild-eyed with terror.
A cry went up from the room next door.
“Hoowie’s seen it too!” yelled Bengo, and he leapt off the bed and through the door that connected their room to Julian and Hoowie’s.
“It’s going up round the side of the house”, exclaimed Tamaz, and he ran down the corridor that led past the bathroom to the disused bedrooms that were situated over the kitchen and dairy.
“Tamaz!” Joby cried in alarm, concerned that Tamaz’s fired-up Ghoomer blood would lead him to do something reckless.
He caught up with him in the furthest room. By this time whatever-it-was had stamped off away from the house, and gradually the loud shaking and vibrating ceased.
“Definitely not an earth tremor then”, said Joby.
Understandably this had been a very nerve-wracking experience. A council of war was held in the kitchen a short while later. It was still dark outside, and this added to the intensity of the atmosphere. The conclusion they all came to was that a behemoth (for want of a better way of describing it) had walked all around the outside of the house.
“Did anyone get a good look at it?” asked Adam.
“I saw these big flaming eyes”, said Bengo.
“Let’s keep the dramatics out of it”, said Bardin. “Fuck you, Bardy!” Bengo exploded “That is what I saw!”
“Alright, cool it, you two”, said Julian “We saw the eyes too, Bardin, so that’s a fact”.
“It’s a behemoth”, said Kieran “It’s as simple as that”.
“We should go and hunt it”, said Tamaz.
“Oh yeah?” said Joby “And what do we do when we find it? Lasso it and bring it home to roast over an open fire? It’s as big as a fucking house!”
Tamaz looked as though he was about to cry, and Joby had to stroke his arm to make it up to him.
“Freaky’s suggestion wasn’t entirely daft”, said Adam “It might be a good idea to try and trace this creature. Well what else can we do? There is nowhere else to go!”
“And the weather’s hardly conducive to going off on a sailing trip I suppose”, said Bardin.
“It’s not conducive to going off on a hunting-trip either!” said Bengo, who was still rattled at his partner.
It appeared that discussions had reached an impasse, and Adam decided that the best thing to do to calm everyone down would be to make some porridge.
After breakfast, Bengo went upstairs to his room to have a wash, shave and get dressed. By now it was fully daylight. Hoowie joined him, and sat coiled up in an armchair nearby.
“I don’t like cooking in a nightshirt”, said Bengo, pulling it off over his head “I keep thinking I’m gonna set fire to it. I think I’d better abandon the idea of shaving too, my hand’s still shaking”.
“Do you want me to do it for you?” said Hoowie.
“I don’t think yours is gonna be any better is it!” Bengo joked.
“I don’t think we should stay in this house any longer”, said Hoowie “I don’t think I’m ever gonna feel safe here ever again”.
“And yet the odd thing is”, said Bengo, whose courage had been fuelled by the brandy that had accompanied their porridge “The creature didn’t threaten us in any way. It just … well it … just walked round the house. It must know we’re in here by now, and yet it didn’t seem bothered”.
“It was sussing us out that’s why”, said Hoowie “And what if it comes back tonight?”
“I don’t know”, Bengo sighed.
They heard Bardin’s voice on the main staircase. Hoowie leapt out of the chair.
“I’d better get out of here”, he said “I’ve heard enough of his sarcasm already today”.
“Go through the other door”, said Bengo, indicating the door that connected their two rooms.
Too late. Bardin had flung open the door that led out onto the landing.
“OUT!” he said, imperiously pointing at Hoowie to leave.
Hoowie ran past him. Bardin smacked his behind as he did so, and Hoowie hollered “OW! Jeezus!”
“I didn’t smack him that hard”, said Bardin, when he and Bengo were alone.
“You should know by now that Hoowie’s arse is always permanently sore”, said Bengo “Thanks to Julian”.
“That’s a cheering thought at least”, said Bardin, and he looked out of the window at the bleak, wintry coastline beyond.
“Oh God”, he said “We really are on the edge of nowhere”.
Adam went into the dining-room at 10 o’clock that night to clear the table, and found Bardin sitting alone at the head of it, absent-mindedly picking up stray crumbs and putting them into his mouth.
“Didn’t we give you enough to eat, old love?” said Adam.
“What?” said Bardin, looking up “Oh I didn’t realise I was doing it”.
“It’s a bit stressful with the night ahead of us isn’t it?” said Adam, sympathetically.
“I’ve had some emergency flares brought up from the ship”, said Bardin.
“Oh I wondered what all that cloak-and-dagger nonsense was about earlier”, said Adam.
He had known that Ransey and Hillyard had gone down to the ship in a state of great secrecy. There were some emergency flares stored on the ship, although it was a joke amongst them all that on our most of their travels it was highly doubtful anybody would be near enough to be able to see them to come and rescue them.
“It had to be done in secret”, said Bardin “The plan is that if that creature comes back and it menaces us,, we let off a couple of flares to scare it off”.
“I still don’t understand where all the secrecy comes in”, said Adam.
“Kieran”, said Bardin, simply.
“Oh lor”, said Adam “Is Patsy being tiresome about it?”
“Sometimes”, said Bardin, gripping the edge of the table angrily “He gets like bloody Codlik! What does he think we should do? Open up negotiations with it?! If it attacks us, we attack it back, that’s pretty simple to me!”
“Take no notice”, said Adam “He’s done plenty of attacking himself in his time!”
There was a bustle in the hallway, as Ransey and Hillyard put their outdoor gear on, preparatory to doing a final check on the horses for the night.
“Can’t say I’m looking forward to this”, Hillyard was saying “I think we should knock down a wall somewhere and have an inner door leading to the stables. Then we wouldn’t have to go outside and cross the yard”.
“I’d rather you didn’t do it at this time of night!” Adam called out.
“It’s all a bloody great lie isn’t it!” said Joby, angrily chucking cutlery on the draining-board in the kitchen “All this ’I’m Kieran, I need to be kept firmly in hand, I need a firm hand’ rubbish”.
“It’s not rubbish at all”, said Kieran, who was sitting on the edge of the table.
Bengo was nearby, trying to balance a wooden spoon on the end of his nose.
“Yes it is”, said Joby “’Cos you ALWAYS end up getting your own way!!!”
“They bought the focking flares up from the ship this afternoon!” Kieran protested “So how is that getting me own way?!”
“Oh you’ve always got an answer haven’t you?” said Joby “You should have been a fucking lawyer!”
An anguished cry went up from the yard, causing Bengo to drop the wooden spoon.
“Hillyard?” Joby ran out into the corridor and opened the back door.
Ransey and Hillyard stumbled into the house, covered in snow. Hillyard was looking shaken.
“Here, you’ve had a fright”, said Joby “I’ll get some of the cooking brandy for you”.
“So what did you see?” said Bengo, when Hillyard was seated by the stove with a mug of cooking brandy in his hand.
“This claw”, said Hillyard “Bloody great claw, reaching round the side of a tree. Massive it was. Oh I know, look at me all disbelieving, but I tell you I saw it”.
“After what happened last night I can believe anything round here”, said Joby.
“Sounds like it could have been a bear”, said Kieran.
“Oh God, don’t tell Lonts that”, said Joby “He’ll want us to give it a home!”
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