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By Sarah Hapgood

Over the next few days Bardin went to a great deal of trouble to make sure everyone was comfortable and in good spirits. Joby grumbled to Bengo that it might be nice if Bardin would sit quietly for a while, but he enjoyed this more thoughtful, belligerent Bardin.

After dinner each evening Bardin inspected the bedrooms to make sure everyone had a hot water bottles in their beds (even though Toppy was always very diligent about tasks like this). He made sure the fires were kept well-stoked in the ground floor rooms, and he ordered Adam to stop being so miserly in the kitchen. Adam was flabbergasted by the cheek of this.

“When we first arrived here”, he protested, indignantly “Ransey told me it was vitally important that we CONSERVE our supplies, so that is what I have been doing!”

“Conserving is one thing”, said Bardin “Hoarding obsessively so that you cut off your nose to spite your face is quite another!”

Adam felt like resigning at this bare-faced cheek, but he knew he wouldn’t be able to stay away from the kitchen if he did. Instead he let out his frustration by slamming handfuls of cutlery around on the draining-board.

Toppy had left a jug of hot water in Julian’s room, and before lunch, on the day before Christmas Eve, Julian went up to try and have a thorough wash. Keeping fresh and clean in the house wasn’t easy, with the bathroom out of bounds. They had already decided that one of the best ways to celebrate Christmas would be to set the hip-bath up in the kitchen or the living-room, and let everyone take it in turns to have a good soak.

In the meantime Julian contented himself with stripping off his shirt (taking off every stitch of clothing in these temperatures was a daunting prospect) and running a flannel around himself. Whilst he was thus engrossed, he heard the door which led out onto the landing creak softly open. Thinking it was Hoowie, he turned to greet him.

“Jesus, who are you?” he said.

Standing just inside the door was an old lady. She wore a long back satiny frock. Her hair (which owed more to the dye bottle than Nature) was a startling coppery colour, and was scraped back from a wizened little face with dark, beady eyes.

Instinctively Julian turned to find a towel. He was turned away for only a second, but when he looked back the old lady was gone, and the door was firmly shut.

The reaction from the others when they heard about this latest spectral visitor was varied. Adam irritated Julian by asking if she had had two eyes, as he thought she might have been the “one-eyed bitch” of cellar wall fame. Joby said “this is what you get when you go around doing séances, now we’ll have ghosts coming out of the walls all around us”. Bengo provided food for thought by saying that she sounded a bit like the ghostly old lady in black who had occasionally been sighted on the galleon, when they were sailing across that bleak stretch of ocean slightly to the south of them.

Whoever she was, Hoowie begged Kieran to do a blessing in his room. Kieran did so, watched by Joby. After he had finished blessing Julian and Hoowie’s bed with a sprinkling of holy water, Kieran got a fit of the giggles.

“I feel like I’m doing one of those old-fashioned bedding ceremonies”, he said “When they’d send the priest in first to bless the marital bed and make it fruitful”.

“Hoowie ent exactly my idea of a blushing bride!” said Joby.

At bedtime that night Hoowie asked Bardin if they could leave the door open, which connected their two bedrooms.

“Oh for God’s sake, Hoowie”, said Bardin “You’ll be wanting me to tuck you in next, and read you a bedtime story!”

“Safety in numbers, that’s what I was thinking”, said Hoowie “The sound of us al nearby can comfort each other”.

“More likely I’ll have to listen to you and Julian humping all night!” said Bardin “And if that doesn’t keep the ghostly old lady away I don’t know what will!”

“It won’t do any harm, Bardin”, said Julian, from the doorway.

“You’re just pandering to him”, said Bardin.

“If Bengo had asked this favour, you’d go along with it”, said Julian.

“I’d tell him to pull himself together”, sand Bardin “And stop being so pathetic!”

“More than likely”, Bengo groaned.

“And then you’d leave the door open”, said Julian.

“Alright!” said Bardin, impatiently “But keep Hoowie in your room. I don’t want him as our communal pet!”

“No that’s me”, said Bengo “I’m the cutest one!”

Bengo awoke in the middle of the night to hear a strange sound in the room. He described it afterwards as being like somebody shuffling a deck of cards and then slapping them out on the table, as though setting out a game of solitaire. It only lasted a brief while, but it was enough for him to stuff his head under his pillow for the rest of the dark hours.

“All this … supernatural phenomena does seem to have markedly increased since we did the séance”, said Bardin, when Bengo told him what he had heard.

“It’s not gonna be much of a Christmas if we keep getting ghosts bothering us every 5 minutes”, said Bengo.

“There must be ways to combat it”, said Bardin “Kieran can do some more blessings for instance”.

“It worked in our room”, said Hoowie, breezing through the door “You got the ghostly noises and we didn’t!”

This was intolerable. So Bardin did the only thing he thought was appropriate in the circumstances. He pulled down Hoowie’s pants and spanked his bottom. Hard.

“There’s a really horrible smell around here”, said Joby, down in the kitchen “Sort of musty”.

“You’re bound to get odd things like that in an old house like this”, said Adam.

“I’ve never noticed it down here before”, said Joby, stubbornly.

“Oh well it’s probably another ghostly manifestation”, said Adam “Now stop brooding on it and help me think up what we could do for Christmas dinner tomorrow. Something to make it special”.

“I wanna forget it’s Christmas”, said Joby.

“For heaven’s sake, why?”

“Well it’s not gonna be the same without a tree, or presents …”

“We rarely do give each other presents”, said Adam.

“Or a turkey”, Joby persisted.

“You hate turkey!” said Adam “You’ve moaned your head off whenever we’ve done it in the past!”

“It’s still part of Christmas”, said Joby.

He rubbed his arms.

“I’m going all goose-pimply”, he said “Is there someone standing outside the window?” “Not that I can see”, said Adam.

“It’s just that it feels like there is”, said Joby.

“We’re going to have a hard job keeping a lid on everyone’s imaginations this Christmas, that I can see!” said Adam.

Bardin bustled into the room waving a piece of paper. He was hotly pursued by Bengo, who looked like a man trying to retrieve a hat that was being blown down hill.

“Here it is!” said Bardin “The Christmas menu”.

“I beg your pardon?” said Adam, with what Bengo (with a very sinking feeling) could only recognise as a dangerous edge to this voice.

“Bardy ..” Bengo tried to protest.

“Ssh!” said Bardin “Food is a very important part of the festivities, and I’ve given a lot of thought this morning to planning out a reasonable menu for Christmas, considering what we’ve got in store …”

“Bardin, I’ve warned you before about interfering in my work”, said Adam “I don’t need you to organise Christmas menu’s for me”.

He snatched the piece of paper from Bardin’s hand and tore it up into little pieces. Bardin watched the pieces flutter to the flagstone floor in dismay.

“Now”, said Adam “You have the whole of the rest of the house to be Captain in, but in here, and in the larder and the dairy, I hold sway”.

Having said his piece, he then picked Bardin up and transported him to the kitchen passage. After he had set him on his feet he firmly closed the door on him.

“That boy”, said Adam “He never learns!”

“I did try to stop him”, said Bengo “I told him you wouldn’t like it, but Bardy just steams ahead”.

“Like a bulldozer”, said Joby, who had found the whole incident quite comical “Mind you, we shouldn’t have torn his menu up - considering we are completely bereft of ideas”.

“Even if we are reduced to serving up tinned stew again”, said Adam “I will not demean myself by giving him an ounce of sway in my domain!”

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