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Hillyard paced up and down the ground floor corridor, his hands thrust deep into his pockets. It was about 2 o’clock in the morning, the coldest, darkest part of the night. Bardin had done what he usually did in a time of peril and had ordered a night-watch, to keep vigil over the safety of the house. Ransey and Hillyard had volunteered for the first one.
“It’s normally me who’s the tense one”, said Ransey, coming out of the living-room with a glass of port in his hand “This must be what they mean by role reversal”.
“Well why are you so damn relaxed?” said Hillyard, pausing in his pacing to stare at him.
“Because we’re doing all we can”, said Ransey “The house and the stables are barricaded to the hilt, we’ve brought the emergency flares up from the ship …”
“Much to Kieran’s disgust”, Hillyard chuckled.
“What the hell would Kieran know about self-protection?” said Ransey “It’s not exactly something he’s terribly good at himself! I’m not normally a violent man, but I hope Joby gives him plenty of good hidings and keeps him out of our hair!”
Joby emerged from the kitchen passage carrying an oil-lamp with a glass chimney. Hunger had driven him downstairs to grab a nocturnal snack of an oat biscuit.
“Did you hear all that?” said Hillyard.
“You don’t have to worry about Kieran”, said Joby “At least not for tonight anyway. I put enough whisky in his cocoa to knock out a shire horse. He’ll sleep like a baby all night”.
He then took himself upstairs with an almost imperial stateliness.
“I love that bloke!” Hillyard laughed.
He and Ransey went into the living-room, where Bardin was sitting curled up in one of the fireside chairs, wrapped in a blanket.
“When we finally get away from this accursed land”, he said “We’ll put into port somewhere like The Village Of Stairs, and all go completely bloody mental for a few days!”
“I shall look forward to that”, said Hillyard, with feeling.
Bardin went to bed at about 4 o’clock. He found Bengo was awake, although very tired.
“I thought you were never coming”, he grumbled.
“It wouldn’t look very good if I organised a night-watch and then pissed straight off to bed would it!” said Bardin, digging out his nightclothes.
“Oh don’t be silly, Bardy”, said Bengo “I can’t imagine they need you there, probably get on better without you”.
“Thanks!” said Bardin.
“What I mean is it’s me up here all alone you should have been worried about”, said Bengo “If you hadn’t come in soon I would have gone next door with Julian and Hoowie. See how you like that!”
“Don’t be such a big girl’s blouse”, said Bardin, getting in next to him.
“Well it’s alright for you down there with Ransey and Hillyard”, said Bengo “I kept hearing footsteps out in the corridor”.
“It was probably one of the others going to the loo”, said Bardin “Either that or the floorboards relaxing. You know how noisy old houses can get at night”.
“I hope that’s all it was”, said Bengo.
“I’ve been having ideas”, said Bardin, after a short pause “About plans for the future”.
“Haven’t we got enough to be going on with in the here and now?” Bengo, exclaimed, crossly.
“I was wondering about returning to the Big House one day”, said Bardin “You know, that place Hillyard inherited from whats-his-name Woll. Codlik and Glynis lived there for a while as well”.
“What the fuck do we wanna go back there for?” said Bengo.
“To clear up the mysteries”, said Bardin “We never did you see”.
“That’s because if I remember rightly there was some lunatic running around hacking people’s heads off!” said Bengo “Not to mention the demons in the wainscotting, and giant spiders, and god knows what else. We’ve given it a wide berth ever since for all those reasons!” “But plenty of time has passed since then”, said Bardin.
“And as far as I’m concerned plenty more time can pass as well”, said Bengo, and he turned onto his side in a resolute fashion “Goodnight!”
“I’ve had another idea”, said Bardin, after a few minutes silence.
“Bardin!” snapped Bengo “I’ve got to be up in a couple of hours to do breakfast …”
“No listen this is a good one”, said Bardin “What if the creatures around here are mutants?”
“Then you must be one of them!” said Bengo.
“They might have been human!” said Bardin “But something has gone wrong to mutate them. Remember what Umbert said about people in The City getting huge tumours on their faces?”
“Well so what if it is”, said Bengo “There’s nothing we can do about it at this time of night, and I’m so bloody knackered that it hurts just to think at the moment!”
“You have always been useless at forward planning, Bengo”, said Bardin.
“Tell you what”, said Bengo “You lie there - IN SILENCE - and do all the forward planning for me whilst I sleep. How’s that?”
“I’m starting to fantasise about warm weather”, said Joby, standing in the kitchen and looking out at the merciless pitch darkness of early morning “You know beach barbecues and swimming cozzies, that sort of thing”.
“Sunlight on the lawn”, said Adam “A green lawn that is, not a white one”.
Bengo drifted into the kitchen, looking like death warmed up.
“I haven’t had a wink of sleep all night long”, he said.
“Bardin uncontrollable at the moment is he?” Joby joked.
“If you mean he can’t stop bloody talking, then yes!” said Bengo “He keeps coming up with plans for the future, as if we haven’t got enough to think about at the moment! He’s driving me mad!”
“That’s not really fair on you, old love”, said Adam “You need your sleep, you have work to do”.
“I’m gonna come and sleep on your floor tonight if he keeps this up, Adam”, said Bengo “I won’t be any trouble, you won’t know I’m there”.
“Put a good dollop of whisky in his night-time cocoa”, said Joby “It worked like a charm on Kieran!”
“I suppose that’s what one gets living with a genius”, Adam pondered “They were never meant to be easy people to cope with”.
“The only thing Bardy’s a genius at is being a pain in the arse!” said Bengo, sourly.
“Now Bengo, this really won’t do”, said Adam “You’re here to be our little ray of sunshine”.
“I need some sleep to be that!” said Bengo.
Joby and Bengo worked up some heat after breakfast by chasing a rat around the dairy, finally succeeding in cornering it in a bucket.
“We’d better chuck it outside”, Joby sighed.
“Won’t it try and come back in if we do that?” said Bengo.
“It might”, said Joby “But the last thing I need at the moment is Kieran having another go at me about summat!”
A soft, droning noise came from out in the kitchen passage.
“That sounds like Kieran”, said Bengo “What’s he up to?”
“One of his blessings”, said Joby “He was on about it earlier. You know how it’s his answer for everything”.
There was a sudden blast of cold air as the door leading into the yard was flung open, and Kieran went from soft droning to loud yelling. Still clutching the rat bucket Joby ran through the kitchen and into the corridor, where Kieran was shouting at Hillyard.
“Can you see what he’s doing?” he said to Joby.
Hillyard had unearthed some rusty old man-traps from one of the out-buildings and was dumping them in the courtyard.
“He’s going to try and maim that creature!” said Kieran.
Hillyard steamed across the courtyard. For (possibly) the first time in his entire life he came close to losing his temper with Kieran.
“Now you listen up, you skinny little maggot!” he exclaimed “That Thing, whatever it is, could be after our animals. Have you thought about that? It might be after live meat. I’m not putting some hulking great monstrosity over our animals. Sometimes I think you’re turning into Codlik!”
He went back outside, slamming the door shut behind him. Kieran slumped back against the wall, clutching his Bible to his chest. Bengo stood in the kitchen doorway, looking a bit shell-shocked. Joby was philosophical.
“Yeah well that was fun”, he said “Now I’d better go and dispose of the rat. Humanely. I’ll set him free. But if the little sod strolls into one of those traps I’m not being held personally responsible!”
“We haven’t got this again?” said Tamaz, watching in dismay as Joby ladled out the tinned stew onto plates “We had it last night”.
“And you’re having it again tonight”, said Joby “And if you don’t behave yourself you’ll have it again tomorrow night!”
“Funny how we never seem to run out of tinned stew isn’t it?” said Hoowie, shovelling it down himself anyway.
“Listen”, said Joby “By the end of this god awful Winter you’ll be grateful for it, ‘cos it’ll probably save you from extreme hunger”.
“I wasn’t complaining”, said Hoowie “Just saying as to how it was funny we never run out of it”.
“Bloody marvellous, how your brain works sometimes”, said Joby, finishing the doleing out and sitting down with a grateful sigh.
The others filed into the dining-room and took their places as well. There was a curiously subdued atmosphere tonight. Hillyard’s uncharacteristic blowing-up at Kieran had left everyone feeling jangled.
“All this fuss”, Fabulous muttered, seated awkwardly at a corner of the table “There’s no need for these man-traps, or the emergency flares come to that. We’ve got our very best weapon right here”.
“Joby’s stew?” said Hillyard, which at least sent a ripple of easy laughter round the table.
“Hah bloody hah”, said Joby.
“No”, said Fabulous, impatiently “Tamaz!”
“Of course”, said Adam “I keep forgetting about Freaky’s little gift”.
“So it seems did everyone else”, said Fabulous.
“Yeah alright”, said Joby “Don’t ruin the first bright idea you’ve had in ages!”
Later that night Joby was soaking his feet in a bowl of warm water in his room, when Hillyard popped his head round the door.
“Alright if I come in?” he said.
“Yeah as long as you don’t expect me to stand up”, said Joby “Working in the kitchen don’t half take it out on my feet sometimes”.
“Talking to Adam”.
“Oh”, said Hillyard, helping himself to a glass of brandy from the bottle on the hearth “I came in to apologise to him really, for what happened earlier”.
“Don’t”, said Joby “Kieran loses the plot a bit sometimes. It does him no harm to be brought back down to Planet Earth”.
“Yeah I know”, said Hillyard “But I shouldn’t have called him a scrawny little maggot”.
“Well he can look like one sometimes”, said Joby “Particularly when he’s got no clothes on! Don’t worry about that. Kieran don’t take offence at name-calling, and anyway, it’s no worse than he gets from me sometimes. Let alone from Julian!”
“Julian can be an obnoxious old sod at times”, said Hillyard “Do you know what he said to me earlier? That my plan with the man-traps was ‘worthy of a buffoon’. I mean, what a way to speak to one of your oldest and dearest friends!”
“We let him get away with far too much really”, said Joby “Mind you, he’s a bit of an unstoppable force. I don’t know how we could sort him out”.
“Credit where it’s due though”, said Hillyard “He does do a brilliant job at keeping Hoowie in order”.
“Not that I’ve noticed”, said Joby “Hoowie’s still the same gobby little bastard that he was. And he always looks like he’s crawled out of the undergrowth. Amazing when you think how fastidious Julian usually is”.
“Ah but he’s always liked a bit of rough”, said Hillyard “You and me should know that by now”.
Kieran came into the room, looking like a wispy ghost.
“Have you come in to improve my character again, Hillyard?” he said.
“Well God knows it needs improving!” said Joby.
“I didn’t want to end the day on a bad note”, said Hillyard.
“Ach, I lost me head a bit earlier that’s all”, said Kieran, wiping out a tooth-mug with his handkerchief, prior to pouring himself some brandy.
There was a loud prolonged screeching noise from the far distance outside.
“Owl?” said Hillyard, hopefully.
“Let’s hope so”, said Joby.
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