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By Sarah Hapgood

“At least in this weather, you haven’t all got to load yourselves down with coats and things”, said Adam, standing outside the galley door the next morning, and watching the shore-party getting ready to depart.

“Are you gonna be alright with me and Bengo gone for a couple of hours?” said Joby.

“Oh no”, said Adam, sarcastically “I shall probably have total hysterics and fall to pieces!”

“That wouldn’t surprise me”, said Joby.

“Cheeky little bastard”, said Adam.

“Bardin, I thought you might like this”, said Kieran, handing out a small cushion to Bardin “You might find it useful in the skiff”.

“Won’t you need it instead?” Bardin spat.

“Ach no, I’m hard-core”, said Kieran “I can take it”.

“I can take it too!” Bardin exclaimed, indignantly.

“Kieran!” said Joby “Stop winding him up, and get upstairs, you leetle divill!”

He slapped Kieran’s arse and ushered him up the steps.

Bardin went to follow and Hoowie slapped his behind like an enthusiastic seal.

“Stop that!” said Bardin “Anymore of that and you stay here!”

“He means it, Hoowie”, said Bengo, pulling Hoowie back “Don’t be such a plan, you don’t help yourself sometimes”.

“Well everybody else gets to smack his bum except me!” Hoowie complained “It should be open-season on it round here!”

It was a beautiful row across the lake. The worst of the heat hadn’t come on yet, and the morning had a gloriously fresh, milky glow to it. The lake surface reflected everything like sheet-glass. The only disturbance to it was from the gentle ripples created by the movement of the skiff. As they neared the far side of the lake though it became clear that there was a different atmosphere on the other side. A more gloomy, oppressive feel.

“I think we’ve got the better side”, said Joby, summoning up how the others felt.

They all jumped into the water and hauled the skiff up onto the grey slither of a shingle beach.

“Right, I think two of you should stay here and mind it, whilst the rest of us have a look round”, said Bardin “We don’t know what’s here, and we can’t afford to have it damaged in any way”.

“I can hang around here if you like”, said Hillyard.

“Who do you want to stay with you?” said Bardin “And don’t suggest Ransey, I’d like him with us”.

“Joby”, said Hillyard.

Bardin wasn’t sure about this. Hillyard couldn’t keep his hands off Joby at the best of times.

“Who’s going to keep Kieran in line then?” said Bardin.

“I will”, said Julian, forbiddingly.

“Don’t wind Bardin up”, Joby whispered to Kieran “Or you won’t half cop it when I get you home!”

“Is that an incentive?” said Kieran.

“No!” said Joby “It’s a warning!”

The ground around the entrance to the “black hole” (as it had become known) was spongey and marsh-like. They sank in it up to their ankles, but it led through onto a firmer patch, which wound through a field of dead wheat. It had clearly been planted a long time ago, and left to rot. It now grew more than head-high, which meant they couldn’t see over it.

“The path’s still clear though”, said Ransey, leading them in single-file along the path “Somebody must still be using it regularly”.

“How long do we keep walking along here?” asked Hoowie, from further back in the line.

“As long as I say so”, Bardin replied.

Julian, who was walking behind Hoowie, at the very end of the line, swiped him on the behind as a warning to shut up.

“If everybody could TRY and keep quiet”, said Ransey “We might get some chance of hearing if there’s anybody else around”.

Everybody dutifully obliged for a short distance. Suddenly Ransey stopped, causing the others to pile up behind him like dominoes.

“Listen!” he ordered.

In the distance music could be heard, tinny and artificial.

“Sounds like a gramophone record”, said Bardin.

“Alright, let’s move on a bit further”, said Ransey “But more steady now”.

Soon the track veered off sharply to the left. When they turned the corner they found themselves on the edge of a sharp ridge. The track continued to run on down the hill. At the bottom was a hollowed out valley. In it stood a sizeable house, surrounded by a well-tended expanse of lawn. It should have been a beautiful scene, but something about the house was forbidding and evil. It was built out of heavy, dark granite, with windows like hooded eyes. And even though the garden was sunlit, there seemed to be something wholly Not Right about it. It was as if a sinister drawing had come to life.

The gramophone music seemed to be coming from a part of the garden that was out of view to them, obscured by the house.

“Crouch down”, Bardin hissed, and they all ducked down, so that they were concealed by the undergrowth on the edge of the ridge.

As they watched, a figure came out of one of the side doors, and walked around the house, towards the direction of the music. The figure stayed in shade all the time, and it was difficult to determine any particular features about it, even as to what age or gender it was.

“Bloody weird”, whispered Bardin.

Joby and Hillyard were sunbathing on a patch of wild grass next to the shingle beach.

“I hope they’re not much longer”, said Joby.

“I wish you’d relax”, said Hillyard “Just lie here and admire the galleon”.

It did look exceptionally beautiful, mirrored in the water of the lake.

Voices could suddenly be heard approaching behind them.

“Thank God for that”, said Hillyard, as he and Joby got to their feet “This one here’s been a right old woman whilst you’ve been gone”.

“No I ent”, said Joby “Did you find anything?”

“Oh yes”, said Bardin, and he gave them a quick resume of the house and its surroundings.

“So we’re not alone then?” said Joby, disappointedly.

“Whoever-it-was hasn’t bothered us so far”, said Hillyard “And they don’t seem to have a boat. Or it’d be moored around here”.

“Unless they’ve got a canoe they carry down when they want to”, said Bengo.

“Let’s save speculations for over lunch”, said Bardin “And get back to our side of the lake”.

They did indeed “speculate” over lunch, and dinner, and breakfast the next morning, but even so there really wasn’t much to say, other than that there were people living in a big house on the other side of the lake. The facts remained though that they had been completely inconspicuous for all the months they had been there, and that - as Hillyard had said - there was no sign of any boats belonging to them.

“I hope they stay over there and leave us alone”, said Lonts, summoning up how they all felt.

“Well then”, said Adam “We’d better stay over here and leave THEM alone too”.

“And you really felt nothing at all about the place?” Bardin quizzed Kieran in the corridor between the galley and the dining-room “Your psychic radar picked up nothing at all?!”

“We weren’t there long enough”, said Kieran.

“How long do you need?” said Bardin, in exasperation “You’ve picked things up INSTANTLY sometimes before”.

“Well I didn’t this time”, said Kieran.

“Bardy!” shouted Bengo, from the doorway of the galley “Stop winding up Kieran!”

“No problems, Bengo”, said Kieran, cheerily “I’m enjoying winding up old Bossy Britches as much as he’s enjoying winding me up”.

“Don’t try and out-bitch me, Kieran”, said Bardin, turning to walk away “I was raised in the theatre!”

Kieran pinched Bardin’s bottom savagely. Bardin let out a roar of “ow!” that could be heard all over the ship. Bengo nearly collapsed with satisfied laughter.

Ransey announced that the weather might soon be about to change.

“I know you’ve all moaned about this hot spell”, he said “But I’d make the most of what’s left of it if I was you. I can feel a distinct change in the air”.

So that afternoon they all went skinny-dipping in the lake. The months of hot weather had warmed the normally chilly waters, and everyone unanimously agreed that it had been “heaven”.

As Hoowie scrambled ashore though he caught a glint of something out of the corner of his eye. Sunlight reflecting off glass.

“Someone’s watching us!” he said.

In the far distance, up on one of the hills that bordered the lake, someone appeared to be standing there, with a small hand-telescope trained on them.

“Cheeky bastards”, said Hoowie “Spying on us!”

“Well we were spying on them yesterday”, said Kieran.

“Don’t you dare start any of that tedious Let’s Be Fair rubbish, Gandhi”, said Julian “Or I’ll break my word to Joby, and take the strap to you!”

“I was going to say”, said Kieran “Why don’t we train a telescope on them in return?”

“I don’t like being spied on in the nude”, Hoowie grumbled.

“Are you for real?” said Bengo “Says the man who was always taking his clothes off in public!”

“Hoowie”, said Bardin “Whoever it is must’ve got a helluva shock when they saw your lanky, hairy donkey-body scampering about!”

“Well why were they looking at me then?” Hoowie sneered.

“Sheer appalled fascination I expect!” said Bardin.

Whilst this bickering session had been going on, Umbert had put on his dressing-gown (some residue of his time as a monk made him uncomfortable with being telescoped in the nude by a complete stranger), and fetched their own hand-telescope from the deck.

By the time he returned with it, and handed it to Bardin though, the watcher was beating a hasty retreat. All they could see was a tall, fairly stocky figure disappearing out of view.

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