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By Sarah Hapgood

"Moron!" Julian yelped "That was ice-cold! I'm an old man, I can't take such shocks!"

"Oh you're having an oldie day today are you?" said Hillyard, having just tipped a bucket of cold water over Julian as he sat in his hip-bath "Other days you'd go up the wall if anyone mentioned your age!"

"Well I am old and that's all there is to it", said Julian, as Hilyard helped him out of the bath and wrapped him in a towel "And you begrudged this frail old man having a bath indoors!"

"Only because I had to drag it all the way in from the back of the cottage, all along the jetty and onto the boat", said Hillyard "If Kieran can bath outside I don't know why you can't".

"Because that suits him doesn't it?" said Julian, sitting down at his desk, pulling the cigar-box towards him and striking a match on the side of the desk "He likes to bathe in the woods, whilst watched adoringly by Bambi and Thumper no doubt!"

"What's brought on this attack of old men's blues then?" said Hillyard.

"It's my birthday next week", said Julian.

"Yeah, a few days before mine", said Hillyard.

"High time I retired", said Julian "What's so bloody amusing?"

"How are you going to retire?" Hillyard chuckled "To retire you've got to have something to retire from, and you don't do anything! Except to walk around giving the rest of us instructions".

"Seriously, have I held things together or haven't I?" said Julian.

"Yes you have", said Hillyard, towel-drying Julian's hair "I would've thought that was obvious, so I still don't understand why you want to retire".

"I think it's time I let Bardin have a free rein".

"He's a bit young for that isn't he?"

"Nonsense, he's more than old enough".

"He's got enough to do with being sub-Captain though", said Hillyard.

Adam came into the room, carrying a tray of coffee for the 3 of them.

"Ad, have you heard this?" said Hillyard.

"That would be a bit difficult, Hilly", said Adam "I've been at the other end of the boat".

"Julian wants to retire", said Hillyard.

"Oh he has these attacks occasionally", said Adam, pouring out coffee "It's simply a ruse to get us all to say how thoroughly indispensible he is. Ignore him".

"What the hell would you do if you retired?" said Hillyard "If you couldn't be the boss, you'd lose the will to live!"

"Not necessarily", said Julian "I would live quietly in the background", he raised his voice against their disbelieving titters "As I did when we lived at the Ministry H.Q. I resided quietly in my rooms at the top of the building, and discussed simple domestic matters with Finia".

"That's not how I remember it", said Hillyard.

"Nor me", said Adam "You used to yell out of the window at me when I was walking across the quadrangle, ordering me upstairs to see you. It was so embarrassing!"

"And you used to meet me in the corridors and say 'Come upstairs Hillyard, I need a good seeing-to'", said Hillyard "You treated me like some two-bit tart you'd found on the street! You couldn't be self-effacing if you tried!"

"Yes, I really wouldn't envy Bardin's job if he had to have you as a back-seat driver", said Adam "You'd be worse than Margaret Thatcher!"

"No I wouldn't, because Bardin would always have my total support at all times", said Julian "Unlike her, I wouldn't slag off my successor at every given opportunity. I would be a gentleman. Breeding counts, you know".

Adam and Hillyard both groaned, and made dismissive gestures with their hands.

"There is nothing remotely gentlemanly about you, Jules", said Adam "There never has been!"

"I would simply be there to 'advise' Bardin when he required it", said Julian "To give him advise and correction".

"Yeah, and we know what sort of correction too!" said Hillyard.

"That's exactly the problem, Jules", said Adam "You can't fade into genteel obscurity, because you are by nature a spanker, as the Victorians would have said".

"You know what spanker rhymes with don't you?!" Hillyard laughed.

"Hillyard!" said Julian, fiercely.

"Julian", Bardin came into the room "Can I have your bath-water now you've finished with it? I want to give Bengo a bath".

"Yes, he does need grooming", said Adam.

Bengo was at this moment fooling around with Farnol in the corridor just outside the door. They were wrestling each other and taking random kisses.

"Bengo!" Bardin roared "In here!"

Bengo came in, covered in grass stains and leaves.

"We shall exert enormous self-control and leave you two alone", said Julian, pulling on a pair of pyjama bottoms "That includes you, Hillyard!"

They went out into the corridor, where Farnol was looking engagingly sheepish. Meanwhile, Bardin ordered Bengo to take off his breeches. When he was clad in only his long shirt, Bardin fell to his knees and wrapped his lips around Bengo's erect cock. Bengo, overcome with excitement as usual, fell back into the bath, and lay there helplessly whilst Bardin worked on him.

Afterwards Bardin rinsed Bengo's hair, and brushed it gently, pausing every so often to kiss the top of his head. Bengo pushed his face into Bardin's chest and licked his nipples.

"You have such a sure touch, Bardy", said Bengo, huskily.

When they finally emerged from their bath-time cavortings, they found the others setting up the trestle table in the clearing for supper. The piano had been moved permanently into the stone cottage, and Adam liked to sit in there, playing rather thick-eared duets with Lonts. On the trestle table was a large glass bowl into which Joby had emptied all the jars of caviar which Glynis had included as part of their "parcel drop", determined as he was to get rid of the "fish eggs" in one sitting.

"Oh yes that's a lot better", said Adam, looking approvingly at Bengo, who approached them wearing only a clean shirt over his suntanned body "You no longer look as though you've been tied to the back of a horse and dragged through the forest".

"I thought we'd load the skiff onto the hay-cart tomorrow and go down to the river", said Julian "I fancy a boating picnic. We'll take the gramophone with us".

"He thinks he's in 'Brideshead Revisted' now!" said Joby.

"As long as we don't all start singing the Eton Boating Song I don't mind!" said Kieran.

Adam gave an exaggerated intake of breath.

"Why on earth would we want to do that?" said Julian, scandalised "They were common riff-raff, let anyone in, including members of the Royal Family. Need I say more!"

"They used to ponce down the high street in the middle of the day in their dinner suits", said Adam "Looked completely ridiculous!"

"I always thought they looked like butlers", said Julian "All they needed were white gloves and a silver tray!"

"Toppy used to wear white gloves when he worked for Pendor", said Lonts "Didn't you, Toppy?"

Toppy nodded, obediently.

"What the hell's happened to this tea-towel?" said Joby, holding up the offending article "It's all covered in brown stains. Looks like someone's wiped their arse on it!"

"Probably an old Etonian", Julian snorted, derisively.

"I'm going down to the beach to check the crab nets", said Mieps.

"But we're just about to eat", said Hillyard.

Mieps ignored him and carried on walking.

"God, it's like having a moody teenager around the place!" said Julian.

"I'll go after him", said Tamaz.

He tore the heal off a loaf of bread and dunked it liberally in the bowl of black caviar, before setting off in pursuit of Mieps.

When Tamaz got down to the beach he found Mieps wasn't sorting out the crab nets at all, but was diving in and out of the surf. Tamaz clambered over the rocks and busied himself with getting the green crab nets out of the shallow rock pool nearby.

"Many?" said Mieps, strolling over to him whilst putting his shirt back on.

"A few", said Tamaz.

"I never wanted to take it any further with Codlik", said Mieps, suddenly "I told him that too".

"Then why keep carrying on like a bitch on heat?" said Tamaz "Walking around with your tits hanging out and fondling them in front of him! Yo would have thumped me if I'd done that!"

"I was alone for many years, Tamaz", Mieps began.

"Oh don't give me all that stuff about you living alone in a tin shed!" Tamaz snapped "I know what loneliness is too! That was the worst thing about being in the cage, the loneliness. Not being able to join the others. I was the only one who enjoyed our stay at Cockroach Mansions, because then I was let out and allowed to live with everyone else. One day me, Joby and Lonts all got into bed together to keep warm, it was wonderful. And then when the thaw came, I had to go back in that damn cage again".

"And that is why now you enjoy the attention you get", said Mieps, crouching down on the rocks beside him "You like the sexual buzz it gives you. I'm the same. It's just games that's all".

"But we play games with each other, not other people", said Tamaz.

"I know, but it got out of hand", said Mieps "He kept offering himself up to me like a sacrifice. You understand what it's like when somone practically lies down on the floor and asks you to wipe your feet on them! It's irresistable. You get the same thing with Toppy".

"Toppy's one of the family", said Tamaz "And he's not married to someone else!"

"I didn't realise Glynis's feelings meant that much to you", Mieps quipped.

Tamaz gave a snort of impatience and stood up to leave, but Mieps grabbed his elbow.

"I'm only teasing you", he said "And some good's come out of all this. I've got you alone with me. Sometimes it's quite hard to get your attention. You're either with Joby or Lonts, or fooling around with the clowns and Hoowie and Toppy".

"Aren't you hungry?" said Tamaz.

"A little", said Mieps.

"Let's go and eat some caviar then", said Tamaz.

"Is Mieps back to normal again yet?" said Adam, the following day.

The skiff was moored on the river, and he and Julian were reclining against cushions on it, eating pickled olives out of a jar. They were both watching Mieps and Hillyard, who were sitting together amongst the trees on the shore, talking intently.

"He'd better be", said Julian "I was fast losing my patience with him. And all over Codlik too!"

Meanwhile, Tamaz had gone for a walk with Lonts through the trees and came upon an abandoned wooden house. A simple two-storey construction which hadn't been occupied for many years. On the top floor they found only an empty room, the walls of which were covered with photographs and postcards of naked women, all of the pictures were browned and yellowed with age. Tamaz had an uneasy feeling about the house, and this went into overdrive when they went back downstairs.

The clowns, Hoowie and Toppy had unearthed several small wooden packing-cases, which had been buried under a heap of old curtains. On prising open the lid of one of them, they found it contained heavy gold bars.

"Leave them!" Tamaz squawked "Put them back!"

"It was you who said that, Tamaz?" said Bardin, facetiously.

"It's cursed, bad", said Tamaz "I can sense it. Let's go!"

"Tamaz is upset, everybody leave", Lonts boomed.

Back outside again Tamaz inspected them all, to make sure no one had smuggled out any gold bars on their person. He was particularly distrustful of Hoowie and made him turn out the pockets in his thin cotton trousers.

"Gimme a break", said Hoowie "I couldn't hide a pebble in these trousers, let alone a gold bar!"

"I don't see why we can't take them anyway", said Bengo "No one's been near them in decades".

"What do you want gold bars for, you stupid clown?" said Tamaz "Hillyard's money makes that lot look like chicken feed! Now come on, let's get away from this accursed place".

He located Kieran by the river and spilled out all his feelings about the wooden house in the woods.

"You'd have sensed it a lot sooner", said Tamaz "I only really smelt trouble when I saw the gold. I think it was planted there, like a psychic trap. Does that make sense?"

"To me, yes", said Kieran "You did exactly the right thing".

Bengo came over carrying a hunk of pork pie, another one of the many goodies Glynis had left them. He held it out to Tamaz, who accepted it grudgingly.

"Has Tamaz told you everything, Kieran?" said Bengo, nervously, like a small child expecting to be beaten.

"Mm", said Kieran "Don't you feel we're rich enough, Bengo?"

"I didn't want it for us", Bengo wailed.

"He says that now", Tamaz snorted "And I thought I was supposed to be the greedy one!"

"It's easy to be dazzled by the sight of gold", Kieran sighed.

"I thought we could load it onto the sloop", said Bengo, pathetically "And take it back to Toondor Lanpin next time we go. Put it in the bank there, donate it to the town".

"The town does alright", said Kieran "It has trust funds set up by me and Hillyard for various things. It certainly doesn't need cursed gold".

"But how can it be cursed? I don't understand", said Bengo "I mean, unless you drop it on your foot or something I don't see what harm it can do!"

"Remind me one long evening to tell you the story of the Hope Diamond, Bengo", said Kieran, gently "And how it brought misery and tragedy to everyone who owned it. It'll make your hair curl", he ruffled Bengo's long hair lovingly "And it's wavy enough as it is".

Kieran moved away to go and talk to Joby. Bengo was excited at the thought of spending an evening alone with Kieran, and Tamaz watched with wry amusement as he finished off his slab of pork pie.

"You'd better calm down, Bengo", he said, wiping his fingers on his drawers "Old Flat Cap's coming over, and he looks peeved already. Probably annoyed 'cos I took control of the situation back there".

"Wrong actually", said Bardin "I was just thinking what a great team we make. You with your instincts, Bengo with his looks, and me with my strong presence and worldly intellect".

"Yeah, such great intellect you'd have saddled us with cursed gold!" Tamaz sneered.

"All great leaders know when to heed the advise of subordinates", said Bardin, loftily.

"Shame Tamaz doesn't know when to listen to yours", said Bengo "|If he did, we wouldn't have got arrested in Aspiriola that time".

"That was ages ago", said Tamaz.

"Entirely my fault", said Bardin "I should have hauled him out of the bar and beaten the pants off him, which I will do next time! Coming for a swim?"

Tamaz flicked his tongue in annoyance, as Bardin peeled off his clothes and ran into the river.

"Coming in, Sexy Eyes?" said Bengo, squeezing Tamaz in his arms.

Tamaz took off what few clothes he had on, and jumped into the river with him.

"I wonder what's at the end of it", said Adam, who was leaning against the stern of the skiff and gazing towards the far end of the river, which eventually vanished into a distant haze of milky mist and trees.

"Don't know", said Julian "And it must be old age, but I don't much care, not even if there are marauding dinosaurs and erupting volcanoes down there! I've had my fill of adventures. Sometimes I look back over my life and I get quite dizzy. We have to face the fact that if any of this lot want to go off on epic trips in the future, then we have to be the ones who stay behind and keep the home fires burning".

"It'd hardly be the first time", said Adam "We did that once before when the others all went to look at the Blast area with Gorth. We stayed behind at our house in the City. Anyway, we might not be the only stay-at-homes. Ransey's only a few years younger than us, don't forget".

"Oh terrific", said Julian "What a cosy little set-up that'll be. You, me and Ransey!"

"And I don't think Lo-Lo will want to go anywhere without me in the future", said Adam.

"No, particularly if you arrange to have a sudden illness at the last minute!" said Julian.

"Chances are that it'll be the younger ones, the under-30s who go off", said Adam "I think we have to resign ourselves to that".

"Why are you trying to get rid of us?" said Bengo, doggy-paddling alongside the skiff.

"Because we're fed up with you eavesdropping on us", said Adam.

"You have things too cushy", said Julian "You should all go out into the wilds and endure plenty of hardship and suffering. You'll soon lose your sunny disposition then, and become sour old crones like us instead!"

Bengo sucked up a mouthful of water and squirted it out again like a whale.

"And if you go down with typhus don't come running to me!" said Julian.

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