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By Sarah Hapgood

Tamaz was sitting on the hall-table eating from a large packet of potato crisps. Around him Bardin was hard at work sweeping the floor. As soon as his back was turned Tamaz scrunched up a handful of crisps and scattered them on the floor.

"Don't think I can't tell what you're up to!" Bardin barked.

"S'only a bit of fun", Tamaz shrugged.

Bardin threw a wet floor-cloth at him, hitting him on the back of the head.

"S'only a bit of fun", said Bardin, when Tamaz shrieked.

"Cheer up, Tamaz", said Hillyard, emering from the back regions of the house "I have a little surprise for you. You shall go to the ball. You're coming with me tonight as my escort".

"Me?" Tamaz exclaimed "I didn't think I had a hope in hell of being invited!"

"Ah well I want a beautiful woman with me, you see, and you fit the closest to that round here", said Hillyard "Julian and Finia are going to make up the foursome. You'd better go upstairs and get your dress sorted out".

Without another word Tamaz jumped off the table and ran up the stairs.

"Are you sure you know what you're doing?" said Bardin.

"Yeah", said Hillyard "I wanted to take Julian, and he had the idea that we go as a straight foursome, with Finia and Tamaz as the girls. They'll certainly add a bit of glamour to it in their party frocks. It also stops the rest of you arguing as to who gets invited and who doesn't".

Hillyard was right. Finia and Tamaz did add some much-needed glamour to the proceedings, standing out markedly amongst the rather humdrum costumes of the other women, who all had a regrettable preference for plain black dresses. Finia looked ravishing in his favourite gold satin gown and black feather boa. Tamaz had on his orange and black ballgown, which he had again secretly ordered Toppy to lace as tightly as possible. Unfortunately he had put on a little weight over Christmas, and realised too late that it would leave red welts on his ribs when he removed his stays later. If Kieran saw them he would probably incinerate the dress in the kitchen stove!

The tables were laid out like the school dining-hall and Hillyard found they had been granted the spot closest to the window. All the gathering looked depressingly middle-aged and respectable.

"So this is what Toondor Lanpin has come to", said Julian, looking round him disdainfully.

"I think these have always been here", said Hillyard, in a low voice "But when we lived on the waterfront we didn't notice 'em, mainly because they wouldn't have anything to do with us then!"

"Makes you wish they'd go back to ignoring us", said Julian.

"After this evening I expect they will", said Finia, sitting down on the chair Hillyard had pulled out for him.

Julian did the same for Tamaz, carefully holding up the back of his dress for him.

"You've got stockings on", said Julian.

"So?" said Tamaz, defensively.

"Does Joby know?" said Julian.

"Of course he does!" said Tamaz "He was with me when I bought them, in fact he insisted I got silk ones, so there!"

"Don't panic, sweet child", said Julian, leaning down to kiss Tamaz's neck "I was only teasing you".

They were joined at their end of the table by one of the local shopkeepers, an elderly man with a smug self-satisfied outlook on life. His wife was an attractive, but timid woman, who gave the disquieting impression that she was simply living for the day when her miserly husband would have a fatal cardiac-arrest, and leave her to have a blissful few years spending all his accumulated money. Anyone who spent more than a couple of minutes in her husband's company could well sympathise with this ambition!

By the time the first course was over the shopkeeper had already told them his own secret of a contented existence (40 years of hard work, paying all one's debts on time, and absolutely no money spent on frivolities or luxury items), that the death penalty should be brought back immediately (the odd "mistake" was worth it if it meant people had more consideration for one another) ...

"How is Kieran these days?" the shopkeeper's wife asked Hillyard, cutting across her husband's monologue like a dinghy steering its perilous way through a tempest "We haven't seen him around much of late".

"He's fine", said Hillyard "They're all at the Little Theatre this evening".

"Oh yes", the shopkeeper's wife giggled "That rather risque revue I've heard about".

"The Happy Nude Year Revue", said Hillyard "Bardin told me it was all old hat, and had been done before, it was just an excuse to get the entire cast to take their clothes off. I wish I was seeing it!"

Unfortunately this launched the shopkeeper into his very favourite subject of all: The Decline In Moral Values, a subject that was as timeless as the weather, and just as bloody boring.

"The women in this town don't seem to know the meaning of the word restraint", he boomed.

"Been throwing themselves at you again have they?!" said Julian, pointedly taking his fob-watch out of his waistcoat pocket and examining it to see how much of the interminable evening was left.

"They go on constantly that contraception should be reduced in price", the shopkeeper went on "But I feel the only contraception they need is to say the word 'no'!"

"What if they don't want to say no?" said Hillyard.

"Self-control", said the shopkeeper, darkly "It's what is sorely lacking amongst people today, and do you know what would restore it?"

"Death?" Finia ventured.

They had to wait for the shopkeeper's solution as the main course was dished up. This was the sort of meal that chefs like to proclaim as an "exciting alternative", although an exciting alternative to what is never entirely certain, watching paint dry possibly. It was bland fish stuffed with a bland anonymous green vegetable.

"Anyway, I was saying", said the shopkeeper "The solution would be to bring back corporal punishment in schools".

"We've had this discussion before, dear", said his wife "And I absolutely refuse to condone the idea of beating small children".

"I agree", said Julian "Corporal punishment should be solely between consenting adults".

"Or non-consenting!" Tamaz rasped "I'm surprised I'm not permanently purple after what you lot have done to me at times!"

"Just think of what Adam did to Julian the other day", Hillyard chuckled.

"Not that it's had any effect", said Finia "He's still as bumptious as ever".

"It was good for a laugh though", said Hillyard "He should do it more often. One of the funniest things I ever saw was when Adam took a hairbrush to him that time!"

"I'm glad I've spread a little sunshine along my weary way through this vale of tears", said Julian, caustically.

"Is the meal to your liking?" the chef appeared, a short stout man who looked like a malevolent dwarf, and had the voice of one to match.

"It's alright", said Julian, giving him the kind of look that implied he had a brass nerve for even daring to ask such a ridiculous question.

The chef, who had the massive ego normally associated with men of his profession, looked taken aback by this and moved away.

"He's the damn cook!" said Julian "He should be in the kitchen, not out here hectoring us! He looks like Rumpelstiltskin!"

The shopkeeper's wife gave a terrified scream.

"What's wrong?" said Finia.

"There's a face at the window!" the shopkeeper's wife shrieked.

"But we're on the first floor", said Hillyard.

"There's a fire-escape outside", said Julian, wearily "It's ballast-brained Bengo".

"He looks like a mad person!" said the shopkeeper's wife.

"Not far off the mark at all", said Julian.

Hillyard pulled up the sash window. Outside, Bengo was crouched on the fire-escape in the pouring rain.

"You can't come in", said Tamaz, imperiously "You're too common".

"Aw come off it, Freak-Face", said Bengo "They can't be that classy if they've left you in!"

"We're going to have to let him in, Julian", said Hillyard "It's chucking it down out there. He'll be alright if he tries to be unobtrusive".

"He'd need a brain implant first!" said Julian "What do you suggest we do, stick him under the table and chuck scraps to him?!"

"Get him in", said Finia "He's letting the rain in".

Bengo was hauled in and the window slammed shut.

"He's got my dress on!" said Finia, indignantly.

"It was a dare", said Bengo, looking down wretchedly at the red and white polka dot frock he was wearing "The others got a bet going, and whoever drew the short straw had to put on a dress and gatecrash this do".

"You crazy clown!" said Finia "You've torn the zip!"

"You're lucky it wasn't Lonts who got the short straw!" said Bengo "Oh please don't make me leave. I tried to get in through the main entrance, but the doorman's got a really bad attitude. I think Codlik should hear about some of the things he said to me, he would't find them very caring! Please don't send me down there, he's said he'll kill me if he ever sees me again!"

He buried his face in Julian's chest.

"Ahem", said Hillyard "I think this might be a good time to announce my resignation!"

"Good", said Julian "Get on with it, then we can leave".

He grabbed a handful of Bengo's long, sodden hair and prepared to escort him from the room.

"Well you've lasted in politics exactly one year", said Julian, standing in the foyer of the Little Theatre. He peeled off his jacket, cravat and cufflinks, and handed them to Hillyard as he spoke "Exactly one year ago tonight you announced your plans to become Governor".

"I know", said Hillyard "A whole year out of my life! What was I thinking of?!"

"You've been the best politician they could've hoped for", said Finia, having just been set down by Hillyard, having been carried through the mud and rain in the streets "You've hardly been here!"

Bengo had carried Tamaz. Before setting him down though he turned him upside down and exposed his legs and thighs to the handful of punters in the foyer.

"Idiot!" Tamaz spat, indignantly.

"No it was brilliant", said Bengo, setting him back up the right way "We should work that into our act".

"You are a crazy bunch", said Julian, warmly "The sooner you're removed from public display the better!"

In the auditorium a parade of nude bathing beauties, of both sexes, was in progress. The hot favourite was a man with an enormous dick, whose desperate plea on being questioned by the compere that he was of a sensitive disposition, was being drowned out by catcalls from the audience to "fetch a ruler, fetch a ruler!"

"Oh Jules", Adam giggled, madly "We should put you up there!"

"Have you been drinking?" said Julian, sharply.

"No I have not!" said Adam "Back me up, Jonner".

"He's been on orange juice all evening", Jonner wisped "But we've been smoking a bit of hash".

"Are you sure?" said Julian "The way you're having hysterics I expect it's something stronger!"

"Nonsense", said Adam "I have never in my life taken anything stronger and I'm too old to start now!"

"Have you been with Jonner all evening?" said Julian, accusingly.

"Yes Officer", said Adam "I am not guilty of whatever it is you're accusing me of. Ah Bengo!"

The little clown had been sashaying through the crowd carrying a bowl of bar-top snacks, which he almost dropped guiltily when Adam called him.

"You must be frozen in your flimsy little dress", Adam purred "Oh how gorgeous you look. To think I stood by and let Jules and Hillyard have you, when I could have had you myself".

"Anytime", said Bengo, hoarse with awe.

"Adam!" Lonts bellowed, stamping towards them with Snowy under his arm "This show is rubbish. It's like one of those stupid films Joby likes. No story and just people taking their clothes off".

"Mary Whitehouse reincarnated!" said Julian.

"We're going home", said Lonts, sternly "Come along".

"Bloody marvellous innit!" said Joby, trudging along the street with his hands thrust deep in his pockets for warmth "Everyone else buggers off home and forgets about us".

"Slow down", said Kieran, weighted down by various bottles stuck in his waistcoat pockets "Visibility is poor out here".

"The amount you've had to drink I'm surprised you can see at all!" said Joby "Oh what are you stopping for now?"

"Joby", Kieran gasped "I've lost me hat! I'm very attached to that hat. I wanted to take it into exile with me".

"It's on yer head", said Joby "You Irish pillock!"

"Now that's a terrible thing to say", said Kieran "If Codlik was here ..."

"He's not", said Joby "Life is sweet after all".

They got to their house, from where various sounds of merriment were coming from inside, but the front door was shut and bolted.

"Open up!" Joby hammered on it "Open up you cretins, we wanna come in!"

Hillyard opened it, wearing one of the padded bras the chorus-girls had discarded.

"And you need it!" said Joby.

"You want to stay out in the rain do you?" said Hillyard "Get in Kieran, you can't sit out there".

In the living-room Adam was lying on the sofa wearing only his underpants, his nipple-rings glistening in the misty glare from the oil-lamps. Jonner was sat slumped in a haze in one of the armchairs, vaguely aware that he was the main cause of Lonts's displeasure. Julian was playing Beethoven's 'Fur Elise' on the piano. Bengo sidled in past Kieran and Joby.

"How many tries do you think it'd take us to get his frock off him?" said Kieran.

Bengo stood nervously whilst Kieran tore at the sodden material.

"You've completely wrecked it now", said Joby "Finia'll have 40 fits!"

"I'll buy him a new one", said Kieran, grabbing at handfuls of wet red and white material.

He glimpsed Tamaz standing in the doorway. He'd removed his fur stole, showing that his breasts were jacked up to extraordinary levels.

"You're laced in too tight aren't yer?!" Kieran roared "I'm gonna have that instrument of torture off you once and for all!"

Tamaz shrieked with terror and galloped upstairs, pursued by Kieran. On the first floor landing Mieps opened his bedroom door and beckoned him in playfully. Once inside Mieps's small, narrow room Tamaz shut himself in the wardrobe.

"You can't destroy that dress", said Finia to Kieran "It would be a shocking waste of material".

"It leaves red marks all over him", said Kieran.

"Then I'll take it", said Finia "Tamaz, hand it to me".

Tamaz emerged tentatively from the wardrobe and allowed Mieps to unlace him. Mieps handed the dress through the door to Finia, who carried it off to his own room.

"Are you coming out, Freaky?" said Kieran.

"No!" said Tamaz, looking down anxiously at the red marks on his ribs.

"He'll be alright with me", said Mieps.

"Has he gone?" said Tamaz, a minute later.

Mieps nodded and pulled back the bedclothes.

"Come here" he said, patting the pillow "What better way to see in the New Year, than to spend a whole night with you. Look at the moonlight, Tamaz. Think of hunting out in that. Chasing animals through the undergrowth".

Tamaz sat down on a hardbacked chair, directly in the path of the moonlight. Mieps looked him over approvingly, relishing his extraordinary beauty. His fiery giaconda eyes, his supple, androgynous figure with the perfect, pert breasts, and the tantalising way the lace of his drawers encroached on the tops of his silk stockings.

"I began to hate the moonlight when I was in the cage", said Tamaz, quietly "It used to make me feel so lonely. I would be out in that, whilst the others were all on the Indigo, and I could hear them. I'd want to go and join them so badly, but I couldn't".

"I know about loneliness", said Mieps, lying back on his bed "I had years of it, acute loneliness. When you turned up you were like a gift falling out of the sky. I was desperate to hang onto you. And I will follow you to the ends of the Earth if I have to".

"You don't mention much that other Ghoomer you were mixed up with", said Tamaz "The dark woman. Why not?"

"Because I don't want you to know about her evil", said Mieps.

"I'm not innocent", Tamaz mumbled "I've committed evil myself".

"Not like her", said Mieps "Come into bed. You'll get cold".

Tamaz stood up and undid the buttons between his crotch.

"Just getting ready", he smiled.

"It's all your fault", said Joby, lying in bed a short while later "I spend a fortune buying silk stockings for him, and Mieps gets all the benefit!"

"Ach he'll be in in a wee while", said Kieran, climbing in next to him "Those two are like Bengo and Bardin, they can't spend 5 minutes together without arguing".

"Bit like you and me you mean", said Joby.

"We wouldn't argue at all if you weren't so awkward", said Kieran.

"Me?" Joby exclaimed.

"See! You're doing it now", said Kieran "And after all these years you still can't tell when I'm taking the piss!"

"Happy New Year", said Joby "And go to sleep".

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