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By Sarah Hapgood

The New Era didn't get off to the most auspicious of starts. Throughout January the town seemed to be endlessly blanketed in fog. When the rare clear, sunlit day did occur it went to everyone's heads like neat alcohol. On one such day Adam took Lonts and the under-30s (minus Bardin, who wanted to work on his boat) out shopping. After weeks of being cooped up in a fog-bound house the younger ones were decidedly lively, and at one point Adam ordered all of them, apart from Toppy who got jeered at for his troubles, out of the greengrocers for being too disorderly.

Back at the Town House they wrecked more mayhem in the living-room, with Lonts adding a deafening musical accompaniment on the piano.

"They can't help it, Jules", said Adam, as Julian appeared furiously on the stairs "They've had to live so quietly these past few weeks".

"We need to send them off on a good long hike", said Julian "About 200 miles should do it, with plenty of hardship thrown in. And tell that little darling of yours to stop hammering on the piano with his hairy great mitts!"

"Lo-Lo, that's enough", said Adam.

Lonts rolled his eyes and slammed down the piano lid.

Julian trailed Adam into the kitchen, which by contrast was an oasis of peace. Ransey was doing Hillyard's accounts at the table, with Hillyard sitting close by eating from a jar of pickled onions. Mieps was fiddling with something in the pantry.

"Where are Pats and Joby?" said Adam "Still in bed I suppose, the lazy little baskets".

"No, they went out for a walk", said Hillyard.

"You shouldn't eat pickled onions at such a rate, Hilly", said Adam "You'll get terrible indigestion".

"No I won't", said Hillyard, stoutly "My stomach's like a bottomless pit".

"A bit like your finances I hope", said Julian.

"You'll have to ask Ransey about that", said Hillyard "I'm probably broke after his buying spree in Krindei".

"For the last time, we are not broke", said Ransey, indignantly "Very VERY far from it".

"So why do you keep moaning about how much we're spending in this house?" said Hillyard.

"Our overheads are needlessly high", said Ransey.

"There are 13 of us living here, old love", Adam pointed out.

"That pantry is bursting with food and drink at all times!" said Ransey.

"Yes, and not a single scrap of it goes to waste", said Adam "What we don't eat, the goats and the horses have. I refuse to economise on food these days. I remember how for far too long we had to live off the goodwill of neighbours and unwanted scraps from the butchers. As well as numerous other times when we've come close to starvation".

"It's not just food", said Ransey "Hillyard orders far too much in the way of fuel and lighting. The coal bunker is overflowing, we couldn't get anymore in it if we tried!"

"I'm supporting local trade and industry", said Hillyard, unabashed "That's what the rich are supposed to do, isn't it?"

"If Hillyard isn't in imminent danger of bankruptcy, I don't see what the problem is", said Adam, irritably "I hate discussing money. It was depressing to talk about when we didn't have any, and it's boring to talk about now we have!"

Ransey looked outraged by such sacrilege, but was forestalled from answering by Kieran and Joby coming in through the back door.

"Dragged yourselve home have you?" said Adam "Is it safe to strike a match in your presence?!"

"We haven't been in a single bar or had a single drink actually", said Joby.

"All shut were they?" said Julian, caustically "Perhaps it's World Abstinence Day and no one's told us!"

"We did think about going into the 'Mermaid' for elevenses", said Kieran.

"But there was a bloke standing in the doorway who looked just like my brother", said Joby "Put me right off".

"Well that should have saved us a little bit", said Adam, sarcastically "Ransey will be pleased! He thinks we shouldn't indulge in any little luxuries at all".

"I never said that!" said Ransey.

"I see", said Joby "So it's bread and water for lunch is it?"

"Bread and cheese actually", said Adam "And beer for you lot. I trust that isn't too extravagent for you, Ransey?"

"If there was a charge for sarcasm you'd have been bankrupt years ago!" said Ransey.

The ingredients for lunch were loaded onto a trolley and taken into the living-room. Finia had appeared in there by now. Like a high-class courtesan, he generally liked to spend his mornings alone in his room. Bardin was also there, sitting on the sofa, reading a script that Hawkefish had sent round for his comments on. Bengo, Tamaz and Toppy were sitting in a row on the hard armless couch under the window. All of them looked pensive in their own different ways. Bengo looked wretchedly miserable, Tamaz was boiling over with indignant outrage, and Toppy looked acutely nervous.

"I told them they were all making too much noise", Lonts boomed "So I told them to sit quietly or I'd give them all a thrashing".

"Was it absolutely necessary to use the word 'thrashing'?" said Adam "It does sound rather severe, old love".

"We weren't making nearly as much noise as him!" Tamaz squawked.

"Come and sit here, Freaky", said Julian, indicating the space of carpet by his chair.

"I was keeping order", said Lonts.

"And doing it rather effectively", said Adam.

As they ate a leisurely lunch the river-fog rolled into town once more, and the foghorns began their doleful wail.

"Oh dear, it's going dismal again", said Adam.

There was a firm rat-tat-tat at the front door.

"Oh who's this?" said Joby, irritably "Can't we just ignore 'em?"

"Go and see who it is, Hillyard", said Adam "You're nearest to the hall".

"Yeah, but it's Bardin's job", said Hillyard "He's the doorkeeper round here".

Bardin groaned and dropped the script onto the floor on his way out of the room.

"You are a great, lazy, fat old walrus, Hilly", said Adam.

"Love you too, gorgeous!" said Hillyard, giving Adam a firm slap across the posterior. Julian guffawed with laughter.

"Who was it, Bardin?" said Adam.

"Not sure, they didn't hang around", said Bardin, who was carrying in a parcel wrapped in newspaper "They just left this on the doorstep".

Unwrapped the unexpected gift turned out to be a brace of pheasents. Mieps examined them and pronounced them to be in a fine condition.

"I expect you'll find they're from Hawkefish", said Bardin "As a bribe. In the script he's sent me there's a hermaphroditic nightclub-singer. It wouldn't surprise me if he wanted Mieps to play it".

"Why can't I play it?" said Tamaz "I'm younger than him, and better-looking".

"You can't sing", said Joby "When you try to sing you sound like an asthmatic duck!"

"You wouldn't like it anyway", said Bardin "The character has to appear in a very stylised way, one side dressed as a woman, the other as a man".

"But we're not split down the middle like that!" said Mieps.

"I know, but that's probably the only way the audience can get their heads round it", said Bardin "Or at least that's how this naff scriptwriter thinks anyway".

"How would you do it then, old love?" said Adam.

"I wouldn't", said Bardin "I'm not the right person to ask. I don't see hermaphrodites as erotic, not with living with two of them day-in day-out. I've seen everything there is to see about them".

"Ah but Mieps still has a certain mystery", said Adam "Don't you think?"

Bardin looked at Mieps nervously. Mieps was leaning casually against the back of a chair, eating a crust of bread.

"I-I'm not sure", said Bardin.

"Come up to my room later and I'll show you everything you want to know!" said Mieps, lustily.

The others screamed with laughter. Bardin, not normally one to be easily embarrassed, actually blushed.

"Aagh! I'm blind, I'm blind, I can't see!" said Tamaz, backing away from the basin in one of the bathrooms.

"Then dry your eyes on the towel you silly boy ... girl ... whatever", said Adam, having just finished washing Tamaz's hair.

Tamaz rubbed his hair and eyes with the towel.

"Sit down on the edge of the bath so that I can cut your toe-nails", said Adam.

"I hate this", said Tamaz, crossly, but sitting down and putting out a foot nonetheless "I feel like an animal in a zoo being de-clawed".

"A fairly accurate description", said Adam, snipping away.

"You should take that job Simone offered you", said Tamaz "The one as a 'Mother' at the Adult Baby creche, except I don't know if you'd have to cut their toe-nails".

"I sincerely hope not!" said Adam.

"Lonts was telling me he might be able to stop wearing a nappy soon, is that true?" said Tamaz.

"We're going to give it a go", said Adam "As a little experiment. He hasn't had any unfortunate accidents for some time now, and he wants it so much. I want it for him too, and not just for the obvious reason, that I won't have to wash any ever again!"

"I hope he'll be alright", said Tamaz "Don't look so shocked, I mean it. He said he'd kill anyone who tried to harm me, and he proved it with that old Ghoomer hag".

"Lo-Lo always means what he says", said Adam "I'm pretty certain he'd have killed any FFF's who got to you too. The evil bastards".

"They're no different to the Ministry", said Tamaz "After I'd had the lumps, I overheard one of the Ministry men say that they could get another 2 or 3 litters out of me before I was passed it. They just wanted to keep breeding from me until I was used up and worn out. Not that any of you lot cared".

"At the time we didn't know they were treating you so callously", said Adam, sitting down next to him on the edge of the bath "If Patsy had still been at the Ministry he'd have taken a lot closer eye on your welfare".

"But he wasn't was he?" Tamaz snapped "Think how different everything would have been if he'd stayed as President, if you had all lived at the H.Q when I was there. But instead he was having nervous breakdowns and trying to starve himself to death!"

"Every one of us in this house has been through dark phases, long black nights of the soul", said Adam "Patsy had it bad, very bad. I know it's hard to believe as we're so used to his usual, wonderful pragmatic self, but Joby and I very much feared for his sanity in those days. So did he. I remember at one point he was begging us, however bad he got, not to have him committed. Not that we would have done anyway. We learnt with Lo-Lo not to look on hospitalisation as the answer".

Tamaz made a sound that Adam took to signify his reluctant agreement.

"I want to be sterilised", said Tamaz "I've been asking for it for ages, but Kieran keeps fobbing me off, and Joby won't go against him. But I want it, Adam, I really do. Nutters like Noah won't be able to use me if I'm not fertile. I don't understand why Kieran's so against it. Think how much less worry you'd have if I was done".

"I suspect it's Patsy's religion that's stalling him, although he'd deny it", said Adam "Is this what you really want?"

"Yes!" said Tamaz, in exasperation "How many more times!"

"The reason I'm cautious is because I know how much your female side means to you", said Adam "You're not like Mieps, who's happily suppressed his".

"I don't need a swollen belly to pander to my female side!" said Tamaz, firmly "If I was human everyone would be saying that 4 was plenty, but because I'm half-Ghoomer I've got to have a couple of dozen instead!"

"Not at all", said Adam "Jules wouldn't be at all pleased if that happened! If this is what you really want, I'll take you along to the cottage hospital and arrange it".

"You will?" Tamaz looked so pathetically elated, that if Adam harboured any lingering doubts they were effectively banished.

"Yes, but I think we're going to have to bypass Patsy as much as possible on this", said Adam "He won't outwardly stop you ..."

"He won't go off me will he?" said Tamaz.

"Good heavens, no!" said Adam "He may have some Catholic hang-ups, but he would never stop loving you".

"But he won't be too pleased at you helping me", said Tamaz.

"Oh I can sort him out!" said Adam.

"Bread, that's good, ham, that's good, coffee, that's good", said Hillyard, assembling the breakfast ingredients on the kitchen table a couple of mornings later "Eggs, fruit, even maple syrup for pancakes. But of course if you have any objection, I'm sure I can find you a couple of dry crackers in the pantry!"

"The only objection I have is this", said Ransey "Why are you on bloody cookhouse duty?! Where's Adam and Joby?"

"They went out early", said Hillyard, cracking a couple of eggs into a bowl "To take Tamaz to the hospital".

"Why?" said Ransey, blinking rapidly behind his spectacles "What's the matter with him?"

"Nothing, he's just being done that's all", said Hillyard "Steralised. He's wanted it for a long time. He's booked in for this morning".

"Why the great secrecy?" said Ransey, indignantly "I haven't heard it mentioned before".

"Julian only told me late last night", said Hillyard "We couldn't risk Kieran finding out in case he went on. With any luck Tamaz'll be home again at lunchtime. I'm going to get something special in for him".

"O.K, but you're not cooking breakfast", said Ransey, elbowing him out of the way "I'll do it instead!"

Joby wheeled Tamaz through the narrow, makeshift corridors of the cottage hospital, pushing him in an archaic wooden wheelchair that would have had trouble accommodating anyone of a normal, healthy size. Adam followed on behind, respectfully holding his hat in his hands as though he was in a church or a funeral parlour.

"Why do I have to be pushed along?" said Tamaz, picking fretfully at the hem of his hospital gown.

"It's standard", said Joby "They always wheel people about who are about to be operated on".

"Why?" said Tamaz, sharply "Are they going to break both my legs when I get in there or something?!"

"That could be arranged", said Joby.

They reached the doctor's room that they had been directed to.

"Here he is", said Adam, introducing Tamaz as though he was the star-turn at a surprise birthday party.

"This doesn't look like the operating-room", said Tamaz.

"He wants to ask you a few questions first, Freaky", said Adam "Now do try and be co-operative".

"Behave or else!" said Joby, rather more bluntly.

"Standard procedure", said the doctor, in the tone of voice that implied he'd rather do absolutely anything on earth than be a doctor "I understand you've already had children?"

"Everyone in the world knows that!" Tamaz spat "So now you can get on with it".

"I have to ask these questions, it's procedure", said the doctor, in the same irritated world-weary tone "Have you given some thought as to how you would feel if your children were killed in a fatal accident?"

Tamaz held up his hands as if to say "What's that got to do with me?"

"Many women never consider that fact when they ask for sterilisation", the doctor continued, thoroughly programmed.

"I never wanted bloody children in the first place!" Tamaz squawked "I just want to be done".

"Freaky, if you don't stop sounding like such an obnoxious spoilt brat you'll go over my knee", said Adam "You're not at home now!"

"Well if he doesn't stop pissing about", said Tamaz "The little blonde guy might turn up and disrupt everything!"

"Little blonde guy?" said the doctor.

"Kieran", said Adam.

"You're heard of him I take it?!" said Tamaz.

"Kieran's not happy with this arrangement?" said the doctor.

"It's got nothing to do with him!" said Tamaz, starting to cry with frustration.

Adam consoled him, but Tamaz was now weeping desperately.

"Oh c'mon let's get on with it", said Joby "Or we'll be here all night!"

"They've made us some coffee", said Adam, carrying a tray holding two chipped china mugs into the small waiting-room "That was rather decent of them wasn't it?"

"Yeah, I don't spose everyone gets this treatment", said Joby, taking one of the mugs.

"You might as well sit down, old love", said Adam "We're going to have a fair wait. Even when they've finished, we'll have to wait until he comes round from the anaesthetic. There's no need to be nervous, it's a very routine thing".

"That's what they said to my Uncle when they cut him up to look at his liver", said Joby, darkly.

"Don't tell me", said Adam "He died!"

"On the operating-table", said Joby, with gloomy relish.

"I'm glad you weren't with me when Lo-Lo had his operation", said Adam, waspishly "You're like some dark spectre of doom. I'm surprised you don't haunt hospital wards predicting dire fates for everyon!"

There was an almighty crash from out in the corridor as someone dropped a tray of surgical instruments, followed by an aggressive Irish voice.

"Oh terrific", said Joby "That's all we need!"

"There you are, you twicing couple of underhand fockers!" said Kieran, appearing in the doorway.

"Patsy, try and remember you're in a hospital", Adam sighed.

"Hospital?" said Kieran "This isn't a hospital, it's a den of iniquity!"

"Now you listen to me!" said Joby, springing to his feet "For years now I've had you ramming your religion down my throat, going on as though it was the best thing ever invented, trying to convert me, praying for me whether I wanted you to or not! Well I've already got my own religion, it's called doing what's best for those I care about!"

"This has got nothing to do with my religion", Kieran protested.

"Be honest, Patsy", said Adam "It's got everything to do with your religion".

"It's to do with Tamaz's age", said Kieran "He's too young to have an operation like this".

"Bollocks!" said Joby "He is never gonna want kids again. Not in 5 years, not in 10 years, so there!"

They both sat down and glared into space sulkily.

"I wish there was a fag machine in here", said Kieran "I'd have one just to irritate the bejaysus out of you!"

"You don't have to smoke to do that", said Joby "Just exist!"

"Pack it in, both of you", said Adam "I feel like I'm back in the cell at Henang listening to you both carrying on. How on earth I survived 2 months of you continuously, without a break, and no one else around, I will never know!"

Adam picked up a magazine from the table and tossed it at Kieran. He selected the next one on the pile for himself, and let out an exclamation of horror.

"What now?" Joby groaned.

"This is a porn mag, I don't believe it!" said Adam "A porn mag in a hospital waiting-room! Children could see it! Listen to this, 'Fetish Of The Week', 'My partner likes sitting naked on cream cakes'. Well really!"

"Not our local baker is it?" said Joby "I noticed his cream slices were looking a bit squashed the other day! I don't think we'll be using him again!"

Adam tore the magazine into shreds.

"Hey that's hospital property that is", said Joby "They won't take too kindly to you doing that!"

"See if I care!" said Adam.

"Dear Justin", said Kieran, reading from his magazine "'My partner is a Taurus, I'm a Gemini. I think we'll make a good pair as he will ground me, but I want to know if you think we'll be happy'".

"Not a hope!" said Joby.

A middle-aged man sidled into the room, smitten with a bad attack of catarrh. He coughed and spluttered his way to a chair.

"I expect they can hear me in the foyer", he said, triumphantly.

"I expect they can hear you down the street!" said Joby.

A while later someone came in and said that Tamaz was coming round from his anaesthetic. They found him sitting on a couch in a curtained cubicle, his beautiful, extraordinary face emphasised by the cotton surgical cap concealing his hair.

"That jerk's just told me the op's not completely infallible", said Tamaz, jerking his thumb at the man who'd performed the operation.

"They explained all that before you went in", said Adam, tirelessly "He said they couldn't promise you 100 per cent safety, but the chances of you getting pregnant again are very remote".

"Not remote enough!" said Tamaz, then he caught sight of Kieran "Oh. He's here".

"Patsy's promised to behave", said Adam.

Fortunately Tamaz was still sufficiently drowsy from the anaesthetic to cause a scene. His brief spot of indignation had worn him out.

"Did you bring a teapot with you?" he suddenly asked, much to their astonishment "They say if I stay in overnight I have to have my own teapot, and milk and jam. The hospital can't run to such things apparently".

"That won't be necessary", said Adam "You're coming home with us".

"Good", said Tamaz, sleepily "Because I don't think they know whether to put me in the men's ward or the women's!"

They took him home in a rickshaw, and were greeted in the hallway back at the Town House by Julian.

"Lonts has been a nervous wreck all morning", he said "And he's very nearly made me one too! He keeps playing Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No.2 over and over again on the gramophone".

"But that's a lovely piece, Jules", said Adam "Think of Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard".

"I used to like it too", said Julian, dryly "But it's obviously not the thing to play to lovestruck Eskimos when they're worried! You'll have to go and calm him down before he starts chewing the furniture! Freaky, you look bushed. You'd better go straight up to bed".

"I'd like a cup of tea", said Tamaz, obviously fatigued.

"I'll make it", said Kieran "Joby, take him upstairs".

"Did he behave himself?" said Julian "Or are all the hospital staff on tranquillisers now?"

"He could have been a lot worse", said Adam.

"Well it's all done now and that's the main thing", said Julian "Bardin will soon be ready to take his boat out, and I don't want to have to worry about the dim-witted under-30s remembering to be careful in the heat of passion whilst they're away from our careful supervision!"

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