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By Sarah Hapgood

The onset of Advent saw an upturn in fortunes for Hal and his restaurant. The putting up of the Christmas tree in the centre of the village seemed to spur people into a festive mood, and bookings began to look more healthy. This couldn’t have come at a better time for Hal. Shag’s departure to the Castle had struck him a blow, emotionally, even though they had parted amicably. The Cabaret Clowns had been a close, tight little unit all their lives. One of them departing was like having a limb severed.

Meanwhile, Aleister Crowley had taken up residence in the municipal graveyard. It couldn’t exactly be said that the appearance of the graveyard had improved as a result. The Mayor excused it on the grounds that it was now Winter, the snows had arrived, daylight was very scarce, and so it was hardly the time for doing extensive work out of doors. Instead Crowley seemed to spend his time standing at the window of his little cottage, staring out glumly at passers-by, which could be quite an unnerving experience for them. It became known that he was sending most of his wages to support Sasha and the rest of his commune further down the mountain.

“Though as his wages aren’t exactly huge to start with”, said Adam “I don’t know what on earth he’s living on”.

“Best not to ask!” said Joby.

At the beginning of December great excitement was caused at the Castle by the arrival of a letter for Toppy from a t.v company in Krindei, offering him a job on a regular spot on a daytime show, advising people on etiquette and fine living. The idea of Toppy alone in a city was disturbing. He had been cloistered with the Indigo-ites since he had been a mere lad of 13, and the thought of leaving that womb-like atmosphere was unthinkable to him. Lonts became quite distraught at the thought of it all, and predicted terrible things if Toppy went up there.

“Let alone what’s happening in Krindei at the moment”, Joby remarked “The curfew’s still in place apparently”.

Toppy asked Adam to draft a letter for him giving his excuses. (It seemed Lord Toppy’s Rules of Etiquette didn’t cover turning down jobs for t.v shows). With astounding speed (which Bardin regarded as highly suspicious), the t.v company wrote back offering to come to the village, and allow Toppy to film a series of 10-minute segments there, ultimately to be shown daily over a couple of weeks.

“I despair!” said Bardin “To think of all those years we spent knocking ourselves out to put on shows, and the punters would have been just as happy watching somebody folding napkins!”

“Twas ever thus I’m afraid, old love”, said Adam “Don’t take it to heart”.

“Oh he will!” said Joby.

“All it is”, said Adam “Is that they think this will be suitable in the run-up to Christmas. Lord Toppy’s Guide To the best way to set a table for Christmas dinner, that sort of thing”.

“Who the hell wants to watch that?” Bardin squawked, looking on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

“Now don’t say that in his hearing”, said Adam “It would sound horribly mean-spirited”.

“I’d give Bardy a good smack if I were you!” aid Bengo, was who feeling very mean-spirited himself at not having been given permission to go Christmas shopping yet.

At that point Farnol and Hillyard came in, both togged up for going outside. To add to Bengo’s misery they were going shopping.

“Can’t you let him come just once, man?” said Farnol to Bardin.

“He’s always been like this”, said Bengo, despondently “When we were little he used to only allow us to open our presents at a set time”.

“That was for your own good!” said Bardin.

Joby let out an ironic guffaw.

“I often think you would have made an excellent Victorian schoolmaster, Bardin”, said Adam.

“Or the head of a workhouse”, said Joby.

“He used to get too excited about everything”, said Bardin “Ooh it’s Christmas, ooh it’s Christmas, and I was always worried he’d just get disappointed when it turned out yet again to just mean more bloody work!”

“Yeah, but it’s not like that now is it?” said Hillyard.

“Oh Bardin, I wouldn’t normally do this”, said Adam “But I’m over-ruling you. Let Bengo go down to the village”. Bengo jumped up with excitement.

“You never know, Bardy”, he said “I might find you a new nightie!”

Down in the village Bengo split off the others to go hunting down Bardin’s new night attire. Having had it all parcelled up in the ladies’ lingerie shop, he emerged to find Hal standing in the doorway of his restaurant, with his hands in his pockets. As it was the pre-lunch quiet time he invited Bengo in for a drink.

“How’s Shag?” Hal asked, as Mutton Broth swept the floor around them “Isn’t he with you today?”

“No he’s got a cold”, said Bengo “He went back to bed after breakfast”.

It was clear Hal was missing Shag. Since his friend had gone to live at the Castle it sometimes felt as though Shag had been swallowed into a black hole.

“He’s alright though”, Bengo hastened to reassure him.

“Is Bardin alright?” asked Hal.

“Yes”, said Bengo, suspiciously “Why shouldn’t he be?”

“Just that he always looks grumpy whenever I see him”, said Hal.

“Oh that’s just Bardy!” said Bengo “I swear he thinks it would be bad for public image if he smiled. He likes to play the angry clown”.

“We’re having a do in here on Christmas Eve”, said Hal “I was wondering if perhaps he’d come, with you of course”.

Bengo knew that Hal couldn’t care less if he, Bengo, came or not, and was starting to feel somewhat impatient with the whole conversation. Mutton Broth had clearly also picked up on the strained atmosphere and was agitatedly thumping his broom against the floor. The situation was saved by Hillyard tapping on the window, to alert Bengo that it was almost time to go home.

“And not a moment before time”, said Hillyard, when Bengo got outside “Tamaz has been glaring at Crowley through the cemetery gates. Crowley’s run back into his cottage. I swear he’s cacking himself!”

“Kieran won’t be too pleased if he hears about this”, said Bengo.

Back at the Castle, Bengo met Lonts in the foyer and pressed the parcel from the lingerie shop onto him.

“Could you hide this under Kieran’s bed?” he said “If I hide it in my room Bardy’s bound to find it. He goes through my things like a burglar sometimes!”

“O.K, c’mon dogs”, Lonts whooped, and led the charge up the main stairs.

The manic barking of the hounds brought Bardin out of the library.

“What was all that about?” he asked.

“I’ve asked Lonts to hide your Christmas present”, said Bengo, removing his duffel-coat “And don’t you go looking for it either!”

“It was you who used to do that!” said Bardin, following him through the atrium to the back of the Castle “Have you been drinking? I can smell whisky”.

“I had one at Hal’s place”, said Bengo “He called me in. I thought as it was nearly Christmas I should try and be neighbourly. Wish I hadn’t bothered now”.

Bardin pounced like a gambler suddenly producing his trump card.

“I could have told you that!” he said “You can’t be neighbourly with the likes of him, Christmas or no Christmas. What did he say?”

“Oh just harped on that you never look happy”, said Bengo “I knew what he was getting at, even I’m not that dense. Perhaps you should walk around the village shouting how happy you are to be married to me … no that’s no good. Everyone’d just think you were drunk!”

“Perhaps you’ll have more sense next time”, said Bardin.

“Bardy, if you go on about this anymore”, said Bengo “I’ll put you across my knee and smack your bum really REALLY hard!”

Joby could be heard giving a cheer in the kitchen. Bengo went in and slammed the door in Bardin’s face.

“There”, said Bengo, triumphantly “I got the last say”.

“Only ‘cos you slammed the door on him!” said Joby.

“It still counts”, said Bengo.

There was a commotion outside the back door, and Tamaz came in crying and wailing, dragging his fur coat across the floor, pursued by Kieran.

“Hey hey hey!” said Joby “What’s all this about?”

“It’s snot fair, Joby”, Tamaz blubbed “He’s been inside my head again. He’s got an unfair advantage over me”.

“I know”, said Joby “I swear he’s always in mine. He always seems to have an uncanny knack of knowing what I’ve done”.

“And you just go and tell him what you’ve done!” Kieran thundered at Tamaz.

Joby spent some time trying to calm Tamaz down (the biscuit tin helped there), and then took Kieran into Adam’s sitting-room next door for Words.

“Of course I ent happy about him going anywhere near Crowley”, said Joby “And he’ll be grounded unless he promises not to. But he’s right, you shouldn’t be poking around in his head. That’s just another form of trespass that is”.

Kieran, in exasperation, shook Joby by the elbows. Joby pushed him back onto the sofa, and they wrestled each other onto the floor, knocking over the coffee-table in the process. Adam burst into the room, clutching the cheese-board, with which he proceeded to belabour them at random.

“You two obviously have too much surplus energy”, said Adam “Well the snow-chains have been put on the car, so you can come out with me tomorrow”.

“Where to?” said Joby.

“To choose a Christmas tree from the forest”, said Adam “And then Hillyard and Lo-Lo can go out and chop it down”.

“And Lonts can bring it home under his arm I expect!” said Kieran.

When Joby went into his room late that evening, he found Kieran cutting his toe-nails in bed.

“Do you have to do that in here?” Joby grumbled “You’re sposed to do that in the bathroom. I don’t spose you’ve put a hot-water bottle in?”

“Yes I have”, said Kieran “My foot’s on it”.

“Which means my side of the bed is stone-cold I expect”, said Joby.

“Is there anything else you’d like to grumble about whilst you’re at it?” said Kieran, turning down the lamp.

“It’ll keep til daylight”, said Joby.

“I’ll look forward to that!”

Kieran tossed and turned for a while.

“Are you gonna keep this up all night?” said Joby.

“You wanted me to look out for Tamaz”, said Kieran “And then you complain when I do!”

“Yeah alright, don’t go on”, said Joby.

“I can go on for the rest of eternity if you like”, said Kieran “Seeing as we’re never going to die”.

Joby sat bolt upright in bed and looked down at him.

“You heard what I said”, said Kieran.

“How long have you known this?” said Joby.

“Not been too sure until recently”, said Kieran “Don’t go trying to throw yourself under a train to prove it though! And no big announcements either. I’ll tell everyone as and when”.

As Adam was preparing to go out of the front door the next morning Ransey came out of the library and handed him a hip-flask.

“Yes I shall probably need that”, said Adam.

He went outside to find Kieran and Joby standing by the car, both looking suspiciously well-behaved. Adam went to get behind the steering-wheel, and they both went to sit in the back seat.

“Er … no”, he said, halting them in their tracks “I don’t want you both in the back whilst I’m driving. Joby, you can get in the passenger seat”.

“Why does he get to go there?” said Kieran “And I have to sit in the back like the surplus luggage!”

“Oh be quiet, Patsy”, said Adam.

They set off gingerly down the snow-covered lanes that led to the forest. Joby had voiced dire prognostications all morning about Adam driving through the snow, but he had to silently concede that he was driving skilfully today.

“I should hope so”, said Adam “I’ve been driving since I was 13”.

“How could you have been driving since you was 13?” said Joby, indignantly “Did you go nicking or summat?”

“Certainly not!” said Adam.

“Well you can never be too sure with you public-school lot”, said Joby.

“I learnt to drive on my mother’s family’s estate”, said Adam “I used to get sent there during the school holidays as I got older because my father couldn’t stand the sight of me. I just borrowed one of the old Land Rovers and played with it round the grounds”.

Joby was too disgruntled to reply. They got to the edge of the forest, where Adam singled out a tree.

“Kieran’s got summat to say to you”, said Joby.

“Oh lor”, said Adam “What now?”

“It’s alright”, said Joby “He’s not pregnant!”

“This is good news”, said Kieran “When we get home you can tell the other oldies, Julian and Ransey, but I’d like to tell Bardin meself”.

“I’d love to see his little face when you do!” said Adam, when he had been told himself.

“This should be kept within ourselves”, said Julian, as he, Adam and Ransey drank tea in his room a short while later.

“I think people might start noticing when we’ve been around some while!” said Adam.

“They already have”, said Ransey “And that we haven’t aged. Fortunately, we currently live in a fairly tolerant time. But we have no idea what the future may bring, and at some point we may even have another Dark Age. If that happens, for our own safety, we may have to remove ourselves from public gaze”.

“Yes, think of what happened to the Knights Templar, Ada”, said Julian.

“I’m not entirely sure what did happen to them”, said Adam “But it’s not as if we’re not used to travelling around is it? I mean, at some point we might even be able to go back to the Bay”.

“With all Tinkerbell’s monks there?” said Julian, dubiously.

“I was thinking perhaps”, said Ransey “Kieran could use some of his more obscure powers. We know he can move himself onto another plane, he’s done it sometimes when he’s gone looking for Angel, and he’s taken Tamaz with him. My idea, in the event of a future worst-case scenario, is that he would remove the lot of us to somewhere like that”.

“How unusually metaphysical of you, old love!” said Adam. Kieran didn’t get an opportunity to speak to Bardin during daylight hours. The tree had been cut and brought into the atrium, and getting it into a solid standing position was a mammoth operation involving lengths of rope. Bardin strutted around barking orders as though he was issuing a set of highly complicated stage directions. In the end Farnol and Rumble, who were handling the top end from the balcony, began yelling down remarks to the effect that he could boil his head. Bengo did what he had once done during a routine, and put him over his shoulder, before exiting stage left, or more accurately, into the Smoking Room.

In the there he dropped him onto the sofa and then clambered on top of him. Bardin had just undone Bengo’s trousers, when Bengo gave a shout of alarm.

“Bengo, what is it?” Bardin cried.

“It’s Hoowie”, Bengo gulped “Standing at the window”.

“For fuck’s sake”, said Bardin “I thought you were having a heart-attack!”

“Suddenly seeing his ugly mug’s enough to give anyone a heart-attack!” said Bengo “He’s got some kind of wild animal with him”.

Hoowie was cradling a young wild boar, complete with tusks, in his arms.

“Put that thing back exactly where you found it!” said Bardin, opening the window to talk to him. Bengo stood nearby, clutching his trousers.

“You can’t turn him lose in the forest”, said Hoowie “He’s only a little thing”.

“He’ll grow up into a bloody great big thing!” said Bardin “I am not having that beast in the house”.

“Beast?” said Hoowie, giving his chronic indigestion look “How would you like it if people talked about you like that?”

“Knowing you, they probably do!” said Bardin “Take it back to the forest”.

Instead Hoowie walked stubbornly round the corner of the house towards the front door.

“Oh for God’s sake Bardy, shut the window”, said Bengo “You’re letting all the freezing cold air in”.

As he leant forward to do it himself his trousers fell down. Bardin could barely repress a smile.

“Are you laughing at my new winter drawers?” said Bengo.

“No … on the contrary”, said Bardin, with quiet excitement “I think they’re … um … rather good”.

“I’ve got them in all different colours, and all have very strong knicker elastic”, said Bengo, throwing himself onto Bardin’s lap and kissing him “You won’t know what to expect next”.

Bardin returned the kissing with equal enthusiasm, but they were interrupted by the squealing of the baby wild boar coming from the atrium, and the sound of assorted men’s voices raised in varying degrees of consternation.

“I don’t believe it”, said Bardin “He’s let the damn thing loose in the hall. The sooner he gets sent to a really brutal military school the better!”

“They wouldn’t have him!” said Bengo “Oh just ignore him, Bardy”.

“I’m sorry, Bengo, but I can’t”, said Bardin “I have to sort this out”.

Unfortunately Bardin was put under pressure from Lonts to let the animal stay overnight in the Castle, and a bed had to be hastily set up for it in the junk room by the back door. This put Bardin into such an ill-temper that Bengo sought a nightcap with the other clowns in their room.

“I’d better turn in now”, he said, after his third glass of whisky “He’ll be back from the bathroom by now, and wondering where I am”.

Farnol did a gesture with his hand and made a squeaking noise, to signify that Bengo was under the thumb.

“Oh you know I am”, said Bengo “He’s been bossing me around since I was 6, why should it come as any surprise that he wears the trousers!”

“When he’s not wearing a nightie!” said Rumble.

Bardin was wearing his pink nightdress when Bengo got to the Red Bedroom. Not only that but the tumbler of whisky he was clutching on the sofa by the fire certainly didn’t appear to be his first either.

“There you are!” he said “I was wondering if you were ever going to come in”.

“I was having a nightcap with the other clowns”, said Bengo “It still looks like I’ve got some work to do to catch up with you!”

Bardin held up his tumbler.

“Pour me one as well as your own”, he directed “And then sit here, I’ve got something to say to you”.

“Oh no, that sounds like I’ve done something wrong”, Bengo groaned.

“No you haven’t”, said Bardin “This is good news, about the best there is”.

When Bengo joined him on the sofa Bardin told him what Kieran had told him in the bathroom a short while earlier.

“Oh Bardy”, Bengo gasped “Oh I can’t believe it”.

“It does take a bit of absorbing”, said Bardin.

Bengo threw himself onto Bardin and succeeded in knocking his whisky over him.

“Great”, said Bardin “Now I smell like a distillery!”

Bengo laughed maniacally and poured his own whisky down the top of Bardin’s nightdress, where his cleavage should have been.

“Bengo!” Bardin exclaimed.

Bengo climbed on top of him and pulled up his nightie. Bardin flopped back further into the cushions, and succumbed.

“You are so lovely”, he said, when they were tucked up in the four-poster afterwards, both with replenished whisky glasses “I’ll never forget that expression you had on your face the very first time I saw you”.

“One of pure terror I expect!” said Bengo.

“No it was one of your bewildered looks”, said Bardin.

“Oh I’m quite good at those”, said Bengo.

“Ully was a cunning old bastard though”, said Bardin “He must have known I’d end up liking you in the end, even though I tried very hard not to”.

“If only he could have seen how things have turned out!” said Bengo “Who’d have thought it!”

Joby found Bengo still in a state of carnal intoxication the next morning, and very exasperating it was. Joby was planning to go Christmas shopping with Hillyard, and was trying to give him instructions as to what needed to be done in the kitchen whilst he was gone.

“I wish you’d try and pay attention”, he grumbled “I’m not saying all this just for the good of me health you know! Do you think you could manage to take some coffee into the library for Ransey?”

As he was carrying the tray across the lobby Bengo found Bardin and Hillyard putting on their outdoor gear.

“Are you going too, Bardy?” said Bengo, in dismay, putting the tray down on a side-table “I thought we could try and meet up this afternoon”.

“I’m not going to be long”, said Bardin, and he indicated his cheek for Bengo to kiss it. Bengo whispered something rather saucy in his ear instead. Bardin blushed and looked quite uncomfortable.

“Haven’t you done that yet?” Joby barked at Bengo, coming into the lobby with his overcoat on “As soon as my back’s turned you take a holiday!”

“No I haven’t”, said Bengo, crossly, picking up the tray again “I was just about to do it”.

Piers astonished Adam by coming over to see him, stone-cold sober. Adam was completely flabbergasted by this astonishing turn of events. He made a pot of coffee and entertained Piers in the Smoking Room.

“I must say old love, you do look well”, said Adam “A vast improvement, no doubt about that”.

“Madame’s helped me a lot”, said Piers, blushing bashfully and looking down at his feet “She’s been an absolute brick”.

“And what does her delightful husband say about that?” said Adam.

“Fortunately he only insults me in French”, said Piers “So I can’t actually understand what he’s saying”.

“That is an advantage”, said Adam “And to think at school they used to tell us we wouldn’t get anywhere without languages! But no, it’s quite like having the old Piers back again”.

“I-I daresay I’ve been a complete pig at times”, said Piers “It was the booze you know”.

“You don’t have to tell me about it”, said Adam “I’ve been there myself. I did some terrible thing when I was under the influence, or recovering from it. I once bashed poor Patsy up something terrible. Not many people would have forgiven me for that, but he did”.

“You’re jolly proud of him aren’t you?” said Piers.

“Very much so”, said Adam “One of the great truisms of life that power corrupts, but it’s never done that to him. Not many people would have stayed so delightful after all the adulation he’s had over the years”.

“Yes I expect it would have gone to my head”, said Piers “Not that I can imagine what it’s like to be adored. My family barely tolerated me, and I only had one girl interested in me in my entire life”.

“Who was that?” said Adam.

“Oh it doesn’t matter much now”, said Piers “It turned out eventually that she was only using me to get to know Julian”.

“Good grief”, said Adam “But surely she must have known about him?”

“It doesn’t matter much to that type of woman, Adam”, said Piers “I swear they think they can convert him. I’m pretty certain that was what was going through her mind”.

“Oh Piers, how awful for you”, said Adam.

“I never could measure up to Julian”, Piers sighed “He had everything, looks, height, charisma, intelligence. I was distinctly the runt of the litter you see”.

“I’m sure Madame de Sade doesn’t think so!” said Adam.

“I hope not”, Piers blushed.

“And you can rest assured that SHE won’t prefer Jules”, said Adam “I think she’s had quite enough of high-handed little bastards!”

The Christmas shopping was purchased with the minimum of fuss and locked up in the car. Then they pursued more important matters, and set off for the village inn, “The Wild Man”, which was packed full of Christmas revellers. Joby, Hillyard and Bardin secured the last remaining empty table, and Hillyard went up to the bar. Whilst waiting for their order to be prepared, he warmed his behind over the fire, and chatted to a party of two well-dressed couples, who were plainly strangers to the area.

“Is that more comfortable?” Joby said to Bardin, once they had sat down “You’ve been walking round like you’ve got a poker rammed up your arse!” “It’s bloody Bengo”, said Bardin, in exasperation “He’s so bloody excitable he just … he just keeps getting me aroused all the time, and he knows it too. Oh go on, laugh. I don’t blame you, it is funny”.

“Sorry, mate”, Joby laughed “But you’ve gotta admit, it’s not a bad complaint to have!”

“It is when I get an almighty boner just as I’m going out the door!” Bardin whispered “I’ve been in agony! Sometimes I think he needs bromide. That’s why he … you know, premature ejaculates a lot, because he’s so bloody excitable all the time!”

“It is a problem with him”, said Joby “He can’t seem to rein it in. You poor old sod. I’d suggest giving him a good hiding when we get home, but that’d only make him worse!”

“Too right it would!” said Bardin.

“Perhaps he needs reinforced knicker elastic”, said Joby.

“Oh don’t mention knicker elastic!” Bardin groaned.

“Why, you got a thing about it?” Hillyard chuckled, placing a tray of cream brandies on the table “I’ve asked the landlord to replace these every time he sees us getting low”.

“Who are the crowd by the fire?” said Joby.

“Down from Krindei actually”, said Hillyard “Have come down to get away from the curfews and what have you. Can’t get much idea what’s going on up there though. They said they’ve come to spend Christmas with a friend here. He’s got a big house in the district apparently”.

“The only big house in the district is ours”, said Joby.

“No, they’re not staying with us”, said Hillyard.

“I didn’t mean that, you turnip!” said Joby “I meant who else around here has got a big house?”

“He must live further out in the countryside”, said Bardin “Whoever it is. Deeper in the forest perhaps”.

“Quite sweet lot really”, said Hillyard “The little blonde girl kept calling me ’father’”.

“Not another of your long-lost kids, Hillyard?” said Joby.

“Now who’s being a turnip!” said Hillyard “Father, as like Father Levka, monastic sort of father”.

“Hillyard as a filthy old friar in a monastery!” said Joby “Like a kid in a sweetshop!”

Bardin laughed, and then found he couldn’t stop.

“You’re worse than Kieran you are”, said Joby “A couple of drinks and you’re anybody’s!”

“Ah leave him alone”, said Hillyard, slapping Bardin’s shoulder in a hearty fashion “It’s nice to see him relaxing for a change. Anyway, get another one down you. We’d better not leave it too long, the sun’s going down”.

“Hey, I wanna drive us home”, said Joby “I haven’t had a chance to drive that car yet”.

“In your condition?” said Hillyard.

“Oh yeah, and you’re a picture of sobriety you are ent you!” said Joby.

“It doesn’t matter”, said Bardin “Most of the drive shome ish on our own roadsh. Anyone we meet would be a tresphasher”.

“A what?” said Joby.

“Oh I can’t be bothered to shay it again”, said Bardin.

The party by the fireplace stood up and began the laborious process of donning all their outdoor gear.

“I hope it’s not too far”, said Hillyard “Your friend’s house I mean”.

“It’s quite some way down the mountain”, said an elegantly-dressed young man with jet-black hair “Bu don’t worry we’re all very experienced with this sort of terrain, and he has arranged for a carriage to take us there”.

“Even so”, said Joby “I wouldn’t wanna be setting off through the forest right now. I hope you’re loaded, got weapons I mean, just in case”. (Joby himself was packing a revolver, tucked inside his waistcoat, out of sight).

“I think you should put it off til the morning”, said Hillyard “The snow’s started again as well. We can put you up at the Castle if you like”.

“That’s very kind”, said the older of the two women, stiffly “But we are expected this evening”.

“Will Kieran be there?” the blonde girl gushed.

“He usually is”, said Joby.

But this didn’t cut much ice with her three companions.

“Now look”, Bardin struggled to his feet, and began to fumble inside his shirt “Take this, go on, take this”.

He had undone the clasp of a little silver crucifix which had once been a gift from Kieran. He handed it to the older woman, who looked rigid with embarrassment.

“There’s really no need …” she stammered.

“Take it”, said Bardin, gruffly.

Joby felt that the whole thing was becoming too much like a scene out of “Dracula” for comfort. He curtly signalled that it was high time they all departed.

“Daft wankers”, he said, as he drove home “They must be completely potty if they wanna go into the woods at this time of day”.

“There was no stopping ‘em”, Hillyard sighed “You’ve got to accept that they’re all grown-ups, and that’s all there is to it”.

“I can hear the wolves”, said Bardin, from the back seat.

“Daft wankers”, Joby muttered again, even more crossly.

The sun had set completely by the time they pulled up in front of the main door of the Castle. Adam, Ransey and Kieran came out to meet them.

“There you are”, said Adam, who was carrying a hurricane lamp “I was beginning to wonder if you were planning to spend the night down there!”

“You don’t mean to tell me you drove home in that condition!” said Kieran.

“Don’t you start!” said Joby, stumbling into the lobby “I’ve had to put you to bed enough times when you’ve been rat-arsed!”

“Yeah, but I normally have ore sense than to try and drive like that!” said Kieran.

“Oh for crissake, where’s your rolling-pin?!” said Joby “Sorry Kiel, didn’t mean to bite your head off. It’s just that summat weird happened in the pub”.

“Tell me about it upstairs”, said Kieran “You’d best have a lie-down before supper”.

“I won’t be long, you said”, said Bengo, accusingly, as Bardin struggled to take his coat off on the way upstairs.

“I thought I wasn’t going to be long”, said Bardin.

Upstairs in the atrium gallery he leaned dangerously over the banisters.

“And the tree isn’t finished yet!” he exclaimed, pointing down dramatically at the half-dressed tree “Do I have to do everything around here myshelf!”

Bengo booted his behind into the Red Bedroom. Bardin fell over onto the carpet and got himself caught up in his coat. Menawhile, Bengo filled the bowl on the wash-stand with water, and then deftly got Bardin in a half-Nelson and ducked his head in it.

“Fool!” said Bardin “You can kill someone doing things like that to them!”

“Not you I can’t, not anymore”, said Bengo, squaring up to him “So now I can do what I want”.

“Well two can play at that game”, said Bengo “Take your trousers off”.

Bengo did so without demur, and Bardin grabbed the hairbrush.

“How are you feeling, old love?” said Adam, dabbing Bardin with a wet flannel a couple of hours later.

“W-what time is it?” said Bardin, turning his head to the window groggily.

“Nearly 10 o’clock”, said Adam.

“At night?” said Bardin.

“Yes, that’s why it’s dark”, said Adam “We’ve put back supper a couple of hours. I think you should try and come down and eat something, or you will feel even worse in a few hours time”.

“I couldn’t feel worse”, Bardin peeped below the bedclothes and yelped “Where are my shorts?”

“I expect Bengo removed them”, Adam smiled.

“Oh yes so he did”, said Bardin “He gave me one helluva blow-job, I’m surprised I didn’t tear the pillow to pieces!”

He had a pleasant memory of Bengo efficiently putting him to bed, after Bardin had administered a thorough spanking on him. Bardin gave a gurgle of contentment. But he then felt his bare chest.

“I gave my little crucifix away”, he wailed “The one that was a present from Kieran”.

“Don’t worry, I don’t expect Patsy will mind”, said Adam “He’ll probably buy you a new one”.

“Those daft people in the pub”, said Bardin “Going down through the forest”.

“I wish them the best of luck”, said Adam “It’s snowed again quite substantially this evening”.

“What bloody house could they have been going to?” said Bardin “Can you remember a big house down there, from when you were here before?”

“These forest are huge, Bardin”, said Adam “They cover enormous distances, particularly to the west, there might be numerous houses there we don’t know about. Ransey’s been studying some local maps. He thinks there may even be a big lake down in that direction. They could be heading that way. Goodness knows when they’ll get there. We might be talking a journey of days”.

“No, the older woman said they were expected this evening”, said Bardin, and then continued like an inquisitive child “Why is the pub in the village called ‘The Wild Man’?”

“I have no idea”, said Adam “I can’t even remember there being a pub down there when we were here before, although I suppose there must have been. I’ll check with Hillyard, he got beaten up coming home from the village once. It must have been after an evening in the pub”.

“No don’t remind him of that”, said Bardin.

“I’ll go and get Bengo to help you get ready for supper”, said Adam.

The dining-room looked like a candlelit, firelit cavern when Bardin, newly-combed and bath-robed, came down into it. The others were all seated round the table and had already started on the cold meat and pickles. The curtains billowed gently in the blizzardy air, and huge shadows danced on the walls. The dogs lay on the carpet in front of the long windows.

“I’d like to know what you’d have to say if I got rat-arsed like that”, said Hoowie, when Bardin sat down in the seat next to him, the only spare seat going.

“I don’t think you’d really want to know that”, said Bengo, coming round the table with a jar of pickled onions “Do you want one, Bardy?”

“Ugh, take it away!” said Bardin, queasily.

“I’ll have one”, said Hoowie, and he methodically forked several onto his plate.

“Are you sure you’ve got enough?” said Bengo, sarcastically “You’ll turn into a giant pickled onion one of these days”.

“That would be vast improvement!” Bardin snapped.

“I hope this isn’t going to be a new routine”, said Ranseyh, waspishly “Waiting until gone 10 o’clock for supper”.

“Oh I rather like it”, said Adam “It’s quite romantic”.

“How can it be romantic when there’s 18 of us?” said Joby “I mean you don’t ever hear of a romantic supper for 18 do you!”

“Men!” said Adam “No imagination whatsoever sometimes”.

“Hark at that snow”, said Hillyard, listening to the snow splattering hard against the windows.

“We had a man in Kiskev who was completely insane”, said Lonts.

“Blimey, now there’s a surprise!” said Joby, causing Kieran to laugh so much that he developed a violent splutter.

“He used to get the seasons mixed up”, Lonts continued “He’d think it was winter when it was summer, and summer when it was winter. He’d take his sledge out when the roads were all dusty in the summertime”.

“Is there a point to this story, Lonts?” said Joby.

“No, not really”, said Lonts “It’s just Hillyard mentioning the snow reminded me of him”.

He got up and crossed over to the windows.

“The wolves sound different tonight”, he said “They sound afraid”.

“How can wolves be afraid of anything?” said Farnol.

“They can, Farnol”, said Lonts “They’re big dogs, don’t forget, and dogs get afraid when they’re confused. That’s when their howling gets different”.

Bardin was spooked by Lonts’s comment, and after supper he went down the side passage next to the still-room, to check that the side-door was locked and bolted, as he felt that it was too easy to overlook this one. When he had checked it to his satisfaction, he heard a grunting sound coming from a store-room nearby. He opened the door and shone his candle in on the baby wild boar, who was scrabbling around in an improvised crib. The bed had pale blue ribbons entwined round its wooden frame, and Bardin impatiently came to the conclusion that this was Toppy’s handiwork.

“Hoowie!” he yelled “HOOWIE!”

Hoowie emerged from the dining-room, where he had been helping some of the others to clear the table.

“That animal’s still here!” Bardin squawked.

“You can’t chuck him out at this time of night”, Hoowie protested “You heard what Lonts said. Even the wolves are afraid, so what chance does a little squirt like him have?”

“Was there any need for you and Toppy to decorate his crib with poncey blue ribbons though?” said Bardin.

“Well you like pretty things”, said Hoowie “So why shouldn’t he?”

“I despair!” Bardin cried, storming through the atrium “I DESPAIR!”

“Let me put you to bed again, Bardy”, said Bengo, soothingly.

“Is that Bardin I can hear shouting again?” said Joby, lying on his bed as Kieran removed his shoes and trousers for him “Wouldn’t it be nice if his mouth ran out of batteries occasionally!”

“You’re going to be feeling really rough in a few hours time”, said Kieran.

“There’s no need to sound so damn pleased about it!” said Joby.

A gust of wind in the chimney blew one of the coals out of the fire. Kieran returned it to the grate and then put up the fireguard.

“Gawd, hark at it”, said Joby “The House of Usher!”

“Not quite, we’re not crumbling to pieces”, said Kieran “If we’re not snowed in tomorrow, I’m going to walk down to the village”.

“What for?” said Joby, suspiciously.

“A bit of Christmas shopping of me own”, said Kieran “And no you can’t come, as it’s your present I’m going to be getting”.

“A tin of Alka Seltzer?” said Joby, hopefully.

Kieran was telling the truth when he told Joby that he was going Christmas shopping, but he was also being a tad economical with his honesty. Beforehand he went for a prowl round the snow-drenched graveyard. Crowley watched him uneasily from the window of his cottage. He felt as nervous as if he was watching a vampire gradually working its way towards him.

“Not my doing”, he said, when Kieran reached the door of his cottage. He was referring to a grave at the north end of the cemetery, which appeared to have had its headstone ripped clean from its hinges “I haven’t got that kind of strength”.

“This is an unhealthy place to live”, said Kieran, following him into the room “Spiritually I mean. Graveyards, lunatic asylums, and rubbish dumps are not good for the old karma”.

He sat down in a chair by the wood-burning stove and hanged his hat on his knee, he then proceeded to remove his gloves. Crowley watched him with some fascination, before rousing himself to make a pot of tea.

“I hope you’re not up to the necromancy again, Aleister?” said Kieran.

“It never worked”, said Crowley, bluntly “It required a dedication I simply didn’t have, but then you already know all that don’t you? You already know what a failure I am at achieving true spirituality. And yet I’ve done all that you have done, and more. I always believed that to attain true spirituality a person must plumb the depths of complete humiliation, a total abnegation of the Ego and Self”.

“And you know why it didn’t work for you, don’t you Aleister?” said Kieran, sipping the tea, which came bitter and black “Because you’re a sadist. You could force humiliation on your followers, but not on yourself. Oh you enjoyed putting it on them, there was real pleasure to be had there. You thrashed your followers, your lovers, and the native bearers who accompanied you on your travels, but it certainly wasn’t a two-way street”.

“These were adult people we are talking about”, said Crowley “Quite old enough to fend for themselves”.

“Is that why so many ended up in the madhouse?” said Kieran “Or died horribly like poor old Victor?”

He put his cup down on a side-table and reached for an object wrapped in a silk scarf lying nearby. He carefully unwrapped it to reveal an ornate silver-edged mirror.

“A shaving-mirror”, said Crowley, rather unconvincingly.

“Shaving-mirror my arse Aleister!” said Kieran “It’s a scrying-mirror, used in rituals to contact demons and foretell the future”.

“Maybe”, said Crowley, impatiently “But I’ve had very little success with it”.

Kieran stared into the oval glass. The cloudy surface of it slowly cleared to reveal Angel lying on a hard, wooden bench, looking bloated and revoltingly satiated.

“Got you, you bastard!” Kieran whispered.

“It worked for you?” said Crowley, grabbing the mirror, but finding no reflection other than his own charming features “What did you see?”

“Nothing you need be interested in”, said Kieran, rising to his feet, and gathering up his hat and gloves.

“The Lord of Flies?” Crowley muttered, awed.

“Don’t try summoning him, Aleister”, said Kieran “He’ll tear you to pieces”.

“Are you cut from the same cloth?” said Crowley, as Kieran went out the door.

“There are two sorts of angel, Aleister”, was all Kieran said, as he left the cemetery.

He had an eventful walk back to the Castle. Once he had done his shopping, he passed Hal’s restaurant, where he found Hegley (who had put on a considerable amount of weight during his new, softer lifestyle) delivering a consignment of dead livestock. He looked embarrassed by Kieran’s presence, and curtly doffed his hat to him.

Once through the Castle gates, and onto the drive, Kieran was suddenly halted in his tracks by Angel appearing abruptly in front of him. Angel looked revolting, his appearance not exactly enhanced by a missing ear, the one that Kieran had bitten off during their fight at the house in the mountains. He seemed weighted down with his own evil, wrapped in a stinking fug of it.

Kieran felt almost unbearably saddened by his presence. Angel gave an inhuman cry and pelted across the snow-covered lawn, vanishing as he neared the forest, leaving only his footprints behind. Kieran walked towards the Castle, and prayed for the depression to lift from him.

When he got into the lobby he saw Bengo, through the open library door, taking a tray of coffee into Ransey.

“If this gets any later”, Ransey grumbled “I’ll be having it as a night-cap!”

“Oh you are an old sweetie”, said Bengo, planting kisses on Ransey’s hair, and nearly knocking his glasses off in the process.

Kieran removed his outdoor clothing, and then wandered towards the back stairs, where a lot of excited “shushing” seemed to be going on. He found Hoowie, Toppy and Tamaz in the process of taking the crib and the wild boar upstairs.

“Sheesh!” said Hoowie, when he saw Kieran “You gave me a turn, we thought you was Bardin”.

“What are you up to?” said Kieran.

“Taking the little pig up to the top floor”, said Hoowie.

“Old Flat-Cap hardly ever goes up there”, Tamaz explained.

“And for good reason too”, said Kieran “It’s not safe. The animal can’t stay in the house much longer you know”.

“Oh Kieran”, said Toppy, with great sadness “We thought you of all people might understand”.

“He’ll get too big to stay here”, said Kieran “And by then it won’t be safe to turn him out, as he’ll have become sort of institutionalised. Come on, you know it makes sense”.

“Well can’t he at least stay in here for the rest of today and tonight?” said Hoowie.

“Yes”, said Kieran, remembering that Angel might still be at large in the vicinity “Where’s Bardin anyhow?”

“He went out for a walk in the grounds”, said Topy “He shouldn’t be long”.

Kieran went to the ground-floor rooms on the west side of the house, to keep a look-out for Bardin. He was alone in Finia’s sewing-room when he saw Bardin come running across the lawn, with his rifle clutched in his hands. Kieran opened the window and helped him in.

“You’ve seen Angel”, said Kieran, noting his highly-distressed state.

“I heard this yelling and crying from in the woods”, said Bardin, as Kieran helped him off with his outdoor clothing “It sounded terrible. When I went over to it I saw him lying under one of the trees. He was thrashing about in the snow like a man in a fit. He sounded mad with some sort of grief”.

Kieran got him onto the sofa and then held him in his arms.

“Is there nothing we can do for him?” Bardin sobbed.

“Nothing”, said Kieran, softly “Angel’s immersed himself in so much filth over the years he’s beyond any kind of help. Think of the amount of Evil he’s committed, it beggars belief. Now listen, one of us had better go and tell Ransey what’s going on. I’m not sure what to do about going public about this. If we go around saying ‘watch out watch out the Devil’s about’ we could cause a panic”.

“I’ll go and speak to him”. said Bardin.

Meanwhile, Kieran went to Adam’s sitting-room at the back of the house, so he could be near the sounds of normality coming from the kitchen. He poked the fire back into life, and then in a fit of exasperation, threw the poker onto the hearth with a horrendous clatter.

“What’s going on?” said Joby, coming into the room a few minutes later “There’s Bardin walking around looking like his pet hamster’s just died, and there’s you chucking pokers about!”

“Angel’s been here”, said Kieran.

“What, in this house?” said Joby.

“No, out in the grounds and on the edge of the forest”, said Kieran “I’ve seen him, and so’ Bardin”.

“I wondered what the conflab in the library was all about”, said Joby “What’s brought him here?”

“My fault”, said Kieran “I may have accidentally summoned him”.


“I looked through Aleister’s scrying-mirror and I saw him”.

“Hang about”, said Joby “I thought you was only going Christmas shopping …!”

“I was”, said Kieran “I mean, that was my intention, but then I thought it wouldn’t do any harm to look in at the graveyard, make it clear to Aleister that we’re keeping an eye on him, and well, one thing led to another, as they say”.

“And you had the brass nerve to have a go at Tamaz!” Joby exclaimed.

“Perhaps we should go to the library and see how the council of war’s getting on”, said Kieran “You can call me a hypocritical old swine when we go to bed”.

“I’ll smack your arse when we go to bed!” said Joby.

“You and whose army?” Kieran smiled.

“I don’t need an army!” said Joby.

“I suppose us lot have got nothing to worry about from him anymore”, said Hillyard, uneasily “If he tears us limb from limb I take it you can sew us back together again?”

“He hasn’t got the power to get that far with us”, said Kieran “I doubt he ever did really. We have our very own ring of protection”.

“So how do we warn the public without causing panic?” said Ransey.

“Beware, Satan’s about, but no cause for alarm, just carry on as normal?” said Joby, facetiously “I don’t think we need to warn ‘em. They’re already pretty clued up about the forest and all its dangers. The wolves do a good job of keeping ‘em out at this time of year, particularly after dark. And there’s no point saying lock and bolt your doors and windows. We know only too well he can appear inside locked rooms”.

“I’m going to have a word with Adam”, said Ransey “Somebody around here must have some idea!”

He left the room in a fit of exasperation.

“But there must be a some way we can reach him”, said Bardin, who had barely noticed the previous conversation “I-I know what I might have become if I had never known love …”

“You wouldn’t have become like him”, said Kieran, firmly “You were more likely to hurt yourself than anyone else. Hillyard, does Julian still keep any of his cigars in here?”

“Yeah, much to Ransey’s disgust”, said Hillyard, reaching for a wooden box.

“And you can stop looking like that”, Kieran said to Joby, as he tore all the wrappings from a cigar “You’ve been misbehaving yourself enough lately!”

“At least I can find a jumper that fits me!” said Joby “I wouldn’t have thought it was possible for you to get one too small, it must have been knitted for a midget!”

Kieran’s pale blue jumper came barely down to his belly-button, and his shirt-tails hung beneath it in glorious abandon.

“I think it makes me look ’with it’”, he said, optimistically.

“Without it more like!” said Joby.

“I like it”, said Kieran “It matches me eyes”.

“We must be able to help him”, Bardin persisted, as though stuck in a groove.

“Oh blimey”, said Joby “We’ll have to get out the smelling-salts and loosen his corsets at this rate!”

“We’ve got to get him away from this idea”, said Hillyard “Or he’ll be wanting to go into the forest and play Angel at cricket or something!”

“I’ll think of something to distract him”, said Kieran.

“Isn’t that Bengo’s job?” said Hillyard.

“No, I’ve got something special in mind”, said Kieran, enigmatically.

Bardin was sleepless for most of the night. He lay listening to Bengo’s gentle snoring, and was painfully aware of the forest nearby, and Angel’s possible presence there. Towards dawn he fell asleep out of sheer exhaustion. Bengo had got up and washed and shaved, before deciding to gently wake his partner.

“Bardy, it’s morning”, he said, as Bardin struggled to consciousness from the depths of his pillows “It’s snowed a lot more in the night, I think we may be snowed up here”.

He swept Bardin’s hair from his face, and then said “Wait a minute”, before going over to the wash-stand.

“W-what?” said Bardin.

“I want you to look at yourself”, said Bengo, holding the shaving-mirror in front of him.

“I dreamt about Kieran last night”, said Bardin, half-an-hour later, sitting on the sofa in the Red Bedroom “At least I thought I dreamt about him, I’m not so sure now. He came into the room and kissed me on the mouth, it was so beautiful”.

“Here y’are”, said Joby, putting a breakfast tray down in front of him “It must have given you a bit of a turn”.

“A very nice one”, said Bardin “It was a bloody awful thing to have. There was no way of hiding it you see. Even an eye-blemish I could have covered up with an eye-patch, but THAT, there was no way of concealing it, except when we wore full slap on stage”.

“Are you gonna eat that?” said Joby, indicating the bowl of porridge “Cold porridge ent very nice you know”.

“I’m too in a whirl to eat”, said Bardin.

Joby wasn’t having that. He grabbed Bardin’s nose, forcing him to open his mouth, and rammed a spoonful of porridge in it. There was a soft tap on the door.

“Yes?” Joby yelled, impatiently.

“It’s me”, said Bengo, looking round the door “Can I come in?”

“It’s your room!” said Joby “Here, you can come and take over here. Adam won’t be too pleased if we’re both out of the kitchen at once”.

“Where’s Kieran?” said Bardin, when Joby had gone “Have you seen him yet?”

“Only heard his voice in the passage-way”, said Bengo “He’s gone out with Hillyard to check on the horses. We could be snowbound all Christmas, isn’t that great?”

“Yes”, said Bardin, through a mouthful of porridge “Has Hoowie got rid of that damn pig yet?”

A ceremony was going on at the side door as he spoke. The wild boar was being evicted in an atmosphere of glum resignation.

“It don’t seem right”, Hoowie complained “Anyone can see he doesn’t really wanna go”.

“Just get on with it!” Joby directed.

He then went through the still-room into the dining-room, where Adam was setting out hot breakfast dishes on the sideboard.

“God help us if Angel gets his greasy mitts on it”, said Joby “We’ll never hear the end of it!”

“It had to be put out though”, said Adam.

“Too right it did”, said Joby “I was starting to wonder if we were gonna find him rogering it one day!”

“Nonsense!” said Adam “I know Hoowie has his little moments of peculiarity, but bestiality isn’t one of them”.

“Damn well hope not”, said Joby “The thought of it makes me feel ill!”

“Do you know what Hillyard’s new idea is?” said Adam, who felt he should divert the conversation away from the unsavoury turn it was taking.

“What new idea?” said Joby, warily.

“Well apparently the station here isn’t making much money”.

“Not surprising, we hardly get any trains coming through”.

“Exactly”, said Adam “So the company who owns it are threatening to close it down. Well Hillyard has suggested that we buy it”.

“What for?” said Joby.

“Oh Joby, you are quite spectacularly obtuse at times”, said Adam “To ensure we keep a station here. He thinks that when the spring comes visitors will flock up here to see Patsy”. “Yeah, and I know what kind of visitors”, said Joby “Religious nutcases like Father Levka! We can do without more of his sort around, thank you very much!”

“Ransey thought it would be a good idea”, said Adam.

“Of course he did”, said Joby “He and Hillyard probably wanna play trains don’t they! What the hell do we know about running a railway station?”

“We didn’t know anything about running a bar before we moved to Zilligot Bay”, Adam retorted, rattled “But we still did a good job”.

“Only ‘cos most of the time we out-numbered the customers!” said Joby “Running a station’s a bit different, Ad, it can be dangerous for one thing”.

“Oh who’s a silly boy”, said Adam, pinching Joby’s cheeks “Scared of a little eensy-weensy bit of danger!”

Fortunately, in Joby’s mind that is, the next few days were filled with preparations for Christmas, and the station idea was shunted into that vague category of “things-that’ll-probably-happen-next-year”. During a brief respite in the wintry weather Ransey and Hillyard took the truck down to the village to pick up supplies and to collect the mail from the post office.

The mail-bag contained a missive from the t.v company, to the effect that they deeply regretted not being able to come as planned, as martial law had been imposed in Krindei. Rather disturbingly, a great deal of the letter had been blacked out, which meant that outgoing post was being censored. This only led to a further consternation as to what on earth was happening in this former rich man’s fleshpot of the north.

The Indigo-ites had enough problems in their own vicinity to worry about though. The severe weather meant that the 5 in-laws could no longer live above the stables and had to be brought into the main house. Julian laid down strict guidelines that Adam’s sitting-room and Finia’s sewing-room, which had been turned over to them for the duration, should adequately suffice for their needs and there was no reason for them to be seen ANYWHERE ELSE in the Castle. Of course this proved somewhat unrealistic. Hegley was often to be found in the kitchen, helping out with the extra work-load, and Madame de Sade was constantly fluttering around, although she did try to do a quick vanishing-act whenever she saw Julian in the distance.

The clowns, meanwhile, had harboured a brief hope that Bardin’s new look would mean a new, more gentle, more altogether fragrant and delightful Bardin, one who only opened his mouth to let slip kind words and poetic poesies. Even that the ubiquitous whistle would disappear for good.

On the morning of Christmas Eve they were in for a rude awakening though. Bardin was annoyed that the tree was still only half-decorated, and he rounded up Farnol, Rumble, Hoowie and Topy (Bengo was particularly sacred to the kitchen at this time of year) in the atrium for a stern pep-talk.

“We seem to be one short”, he said “Where’s Shag?”

“He went back to bed after breakfast”, said Farnol “Said he was overcome”.

“What with?” said Bardin “The exertion of getting up?! I’ll go up and see what’s the matter with him, and whilst I’m gone I want to see some progress made here!”

Shag was lying in Dobley’s old bed, clutching a very old and moth-eaten shapeless cuddly toy, which looked like an armadillo with big ears. His guitar was propped reverently nearby, so that he could gaze on it lovingly whilst he lay there.

“No, I’m not ill”, he said, in answer to Bardin’s query “It’s just well I guess life’s a bit rich at the moment. All these miracles, the immortality thing, and then you getting cured … I just got a bit zonked out with it all”.

“Do you want to leave us?” said Bardin, pulling up a nearby chair.

“God, no!” said Shag “But you have to give me a bit of time to adjust, I haven’t had years of it like you have”.

“Aren’t you a bit old to be taking cuddly toys to bed?” said Bardin, picking it up and examining it.

“Well you’ve got Bengo!” said Shag “I need something to comfort me in the night, and he’s my oldest friend. It’s so damn quiet and dark round here at night-time”.

“You do realise that sometimes we sleep in a communal bed?” said Bardin “Like on the boat and at Midnight Castle. How would you feel about that?”

“It don’t bother me”, said Shag “I used to have to share a bed with Mutton Broth when we was kids. Anything’s an improvement on that!”

“Oh I don’t know”, said Bardin “I can think of worse, Hal for instance”.

“Fortunately he was so fat he had to have a bed to himself!” said Shag.

“I can’t hear much sound of activity from down below, said Bardin “I’d better go and check on them. When you’ve recovered from your swoon perhaps you could help us?”

Leaning over the balcony, Bardin saw Toppy up a ladder putting some baubles on the upper reaches of the tree. Farnol, Rumble and Hoowie, meanwhile, were sprawled on the sofas nearby, drinking cups of tea that were being dispensed by Bengo. Bardin blew his whistle.

“How can you even think of having a tea-break when you haven’t done any work yet?” he shouted, when he got downstairs “It was always the bloody same. God knows how we ever managed to get any shows together. Every 5 minutes somebody would be shouting for a tea-break!”

“Having his mouth fixed hasn’t improved what comes out of it”, Rumble muttered.

“I’m sorry, Bardy”, said Bengo, helplessly “But I thought it would be a nice gesture”.

“Hey, don’t have a go at the kid”, said Farnol “He meant well”.

“Yes, don’t have a go at me”, said Bengo “I meant well. Bardy, could you turn round a minute?”

Bardin unwittingly did so. Bengo kicked him neatly in the pants and then marched off back to the kitchen.

“You should have seen that one coming!” Farnol laughed “And you an old pro as well!”

“Old warhorse more like!” said Rumble.

In the library that afternoon Ransey was working on the everlasting accounts. Kieran was sitting at a table near to him, dividing his time between sharpening pencils and playing patience. Ransey was pleasantly surprised by this docile turn, although he did wonder what had brought it on.

It had all happened the evening before. Adam had noticed, after dark, the glowing embers of a fire on the edge of the forest in the far distance. He had no idea if this was Angel, or someone almost as unpleasant. Kieran had noticed it too, and Adam was concerned that he might get it into his head to go and investigate. At bedtime, whilst Lonts was having a bath, Adam called Joby into his room for a chat.

“Angel, or whatever it is, could keep this up all Christmas”, said Adam “Just to unnerve us. We are really not going to have time to watch Patsy like a hawk every minute of the day. You’re going to have to lay the law down to him”.

“And a fat lot of good that’ll do!” said Joby “Whenever I have a go at him he just stares at me as though it’s all really amusing, and then says ‘Joby, you’re getting yourself all worked up now’. A complete waste of bleedin’ time!”

“Well then we’ll have to send him into see Julian”, said Adam.

“No!” Joby exclaimed “Not like last time. He was covered in marks”.

“But it’s the only thing that gets through to him!” said Adam, desperately “I’m sorry, but it’s true. You know it’s true. Perhaps you could do it”.

“Thrash him all around the room?” said Joby, appalled “No I ent. It’s going too far. A bit of spanking’s one thing, but that’s summat else entirely. I notice you ent offering to do it!”

“I can’t beat him like that either”, Adam confessed “Lo-Lo would be very distressed to hear us talking like this”.

“He ent the only one! I’m pretty distressed we’re talking like this!” said Joby.

He slammed out of the room.

“I’ll see you in the morning then”, Adam shouted after him.

“More ‘en likely!” Joby shouted back.

In his own room he found Kieran standing on a stool and peering out of the window into the snowy night. Joby grabbed him by the back of his nightshirt and pulled him away.

“Will you stop shaking me about like an old duster!” said Kieran.

Joby pulled up the back of his nightshirt and dealt him several blows on his bare behind. He eventually became aware that Kieran was sobbing. Not the pleas-for-sympathy type of sobs that Tamaz used on such occasions, but genuine sobs of distress. Joby realised he had left welts on Kieran’s behind.

“I-I’ve got a bottle of port in the china cabinet”, he said, softly, as helped Kieran into bed “I hid it in there ’cos otherwise the others would keep coming in and taking crafty swigs of it and then before you know it we’d have none left. It’s good stuff”.

He realised he was gabbling nervously, so he poured out the drinks. Kieran took hi without a word.

“I suppose you’re feeling very pleased with yourself now”, he said, after a while.

“Hardly!” said Joby, sitting down next to him on the bed “Adam said I had to get firm you see”.

“Oh so you wo crafty English poofters cooked this up between yous!” said Kieran “Let’s tame the eejit Irish boy, put him in his place, was that it?”

“I’ll wallop you again if you start on all that!” said Joby “If I could rely on you to listen to reason once in a while there’d be no need for al that rough-stuff. But you don’t take it seriously. It was either that or we sent you into Julian, and I didn’t want that again!”

Kieran said nothing, but drained his glass instead.

“Do you want some cream putting on you?” said Joby.

“No”, said Kieran, and he rolled over onto his side.

Joby got undressed down to his underwear, turned out the lamp and got into bed. He muttered a somewhat terse “g’night”, and then prepared to sleep. Kieran wriggled about for a while.

“I think I will have that cream after all”, he said.

“I’ve just put the lamp out!” Joby protested “You could be a bleedin’ woman you could, you’re so bleedin’ awkward!”

And so it came to pass that it was that now, on Christmas Eve, Kieran was unnerving Ransey with his docility. Joby came into the room bearing a tray and some tea-cups.

“How can you see what you’re doing in here?” he said “It’s so dark”.

“I was about to put the other lamp on”, said Ransey “Joby, why don’t you have my tea? I’ve got to pin Hillyard down and get him to sign some of this paperwork”.

“I think I’m disturbing him”, said Kieran, once he was settled by the fire and Ransey had gone “He can’t get over how well-behaved I eam”.

“Tell him not to worry”, Joby smiled, joining him on the sofa “It’s bound not to last! Blimey, I can do with a tea-break and all”.

“I thought things might be a wee bit easier for you with Hegley helping out”, said Kieran.

“Do me a favour!” said Joby “All he does is get in the way, and come up with revolting ideas for recipes”.

“I know some of them can be a bit outlandish”, said Kieran “But that mushroom thing we had at Magnolia Cove was alright”.

“Try this one for size then”, said Joby “Broccoli and oyster soup”.

“Ugh!” said Kieran “Where’s he going to get the oysters from up here at this time of year?”

“That was pointed out to him”, said Joby, dourly.

There was a frantic hammering on the front door. Joby jumped out of his skin.

“Who the fuck can that be in this weather?” he exclaimed “You wait here”.

He got one of Ransey’s pistols out of the desk drawer. Kieran disobeyed orders and followed him out into the lobby. Joby operated the intricate brass lock mechanism, and Father Levka nearly fell into his arms.

“Don’t! Don’t please!” Levka pleaded, when he saw the gun. His meagre bits of luggage were lying on the snowy forecourt “I’ve been thrown out of my digs. Please, it’s only me!”

Joby had to grudgingly let him in, or risk getting frostbite.

“What have you been up to?” he demanded to know.

“N-nothing”, said Levka “I’ve run out of money, I couldn’t pay my bill. What kind of person is it who throws a man out into the snow on Christmas Eve?!”

“Someone who wants their bill paid I expect!” said Joby.

“Well it’s not a very Christian attitude to take”, said Levka “There is too much materialism in this world, too much obsession with making money”.

“Well some people have to be concerned about it”, said Joby “To make up for all the ones who are too pious and saintly to honour their debts!”

“O.K Joby, I’ll sort this out”, said Kieran, who was rather enjoying Joby’s ripostes “I’d better find somewhere for him to doss down”.

“Don’t put him in our room!” said Joby.

“A little corner somewhere out of the way would suffice for me”, said Levka.

“Yeah don’t worry”, said Joby “A little corner’s all you’re gonna get and all!”

Joby escaped from the problems of their expanding collection of house-guests by taking Tamaz into his room and giving him his Christmas present.

“As soon as I saw it in the shop window I thought ‘that’s for Tamaz’”, he said, as Tamaz turned the jet and emerald choker around in his hands “It suits someone of your colouring. I’m getting an eye for these things you know. What’s the matter? Don’t you like it?”

“It’s very beautiful”, said Tamaz, putting it back in its box “But I can’t take it”.

Joby was completely poleaxed. It was then that he realised something wasn’t right with Tamaz. He had been slightly withdrawn since they had moved back into the Castle, and Joby had been concerned about what the effect of returning to this particular old haunt would have on him.

“Spending too much time alone with Toppy, that’s your trouble, enough to depress anybody that is!” he said “You’re gonna sleep in here over Christmas with us”.

“But he’s scared of sleeping alone”, Tamaz protested.

“He won’t have to”, said Joby “He can move in with the clowns, and if he refuses, they can move in with him!”

Tamaz got dressed up for the Christmas Eve dinner, putting on a black velvet gown that had arrived in a clothing order a few weeks before. The jet and emerald choker went with it well.

“Freaky, you look splendid, old love”, said Adam “You will add some much-needed glamour to the evening!”

All through the meal Shag gazed on Tamaz with rapt adoration. Bardin got concerned about this, and once the meal was over, and the port had been served, he took him into the corridor that ran down to the back door for a chat under the hot-water pipes.

“I was watching you at dinner”, he said “Your jaw was practically hitting the table”.

“So what?” said Shag “I ent another Dobley you know, I know how to behave”.

“I know you’re not another Dobley”, Bardin snapped “If I thought there was the slightest chance you were I’d have never let you move in. But perhaps you need to spend a bit more time in the outside world”.

“I’m sick of the outside world”, said Shag, nursing his glass of port to his chest “You’re always trying to get rid of me, and it ent fair. I came up here because I missed being part of a tight nit community. It was what we had in the theatre. Oh I know there was a lot of bitching and backbiting, but it was still us lot against the world, and I wanna get back to that. That’s if I get a chance, with you keep trying to get rid of me!”

“I am not trying to get rid of you!” said Bardin “I just … oh I don’t know what I’m trying to do. But sex-wise you’ve never lived”.

“Is it a rule of the house then?” said Shag “Only non-virgins allowed? Funny sort of religious order that is!”

“We never claimed to be conventional”, said Bardin “But don’t go admiring Tamaz too much, because he’ll have you for dinner. He can spot victims a mile off. I guess that’s all I’m saying”.

“This probably isn’t a good time to tell you”, said Bengo, when he and Bardin were getting ready for bed “But I think Hal and Mutton Broth might follow him up here eventually”.

“Haven’t they got a restaurant to run?” Bardin sighed.

“You know their hearts aren’t in it”, said Bengo “They’re only doing it to earn money, and not have to go back to clowning. But I think they’ve had enough of the outside world, and want to join us”.

“We’re going to have to call this the bloody Donkey Sanctuary at this rate!” said Bardin “I always knew I’d end up running a rest-home for clapped-out old clowns!”

“Actually that’s not a bad idea”, said Bengo “I was seriously wondering if perhaps Hillyard would fund a sort of clowns’ retirement home”.

“What HERE?!” Bardin exclaimed, in horror.

“Not here at the Castle as such”, said Bengo “But perhaps buy up a house in the village, or over at Stoat’s Hollow”.

“Oh yes”, said Bardin, sceptically “And the locals are really going to want a houseful of geriatric clowns on their doorstep aren’t they!”

“They won’t be any trouble”, said Bengo.

“Says you”, said Bardin “What are they going to do with themselves all day?”

“Do what we do I expect”, said Bengo “Bore the arse off each other with old showbiz anecdotes!”

There was a racket out in the corridor. Bardin went out to find Rumble and Hoowie dragging a mattress along, followed by Toppy.

“This is my bedding”, he said, imposingly “It’s being moved into the clowns’ room, much against my will, and I’ll have that known”.

“That should have been done hours ago”, said Bardin.

“It would have been done hours ago”, said Hoowie “But you had us decorating the friggin’ tree instead!”

In spite of his caustic remarks, Bardin wasn’t averse to Bengo’s idea for a retirement home. He didn’t need Bengo to point out that they had been a lot luckier than most.

“You saw some of the ones at the Festival of Clowning, Bardy”, said Bengo, when they were talking in bed, late into the night “You know they’re virtually unemployable now”.

“As far as I’m concerned some of them always were!” said Bardin.

“I think they should have their own bar”, said Bengo “They could name it after us. The Bengo and Bardin Bar”.

Such pleasant plans meant that sleep was elusive for quite some while. Bengo was in a deep slumber at dawn, and was rudely awaken by Joby slapping him on his rump and telling him to get himself in a presentable state forthwith.

Bengo dragged himself along to the bathroom, where he was dismayed to find Mieps lounging in the bath-tub.

“What do you need to bath in here for?” Bengo squawked “You’ve got your own in Julian’s room”.

“Hillyard’s in it”, said Mieps “There’s no room for me as well”.

In annoyance Bengo splashed her with her own bath-water. Mieps retaliated by pulling Bengo headlong into the bath. Bengo managed to claw his way out.

“Thank God for under-floor heating!” he snapped, pulling off his sodden nightshirt and drawers “Or I’d have caught my death by now!”

He wrapped a towel round his hair like a bandana.

“This room isn’t a circus you know!” said Ransey, when he came in and saw the mess.

“Don’t have a go at me”, said Bengo “Tell her!”

Mieps began to soap her breasts in a leisurely fashion, watched by a mesmerised Ransey.

“Blatant it was, blatant”, said Bengo, now getting dressed in the Red Bedroom “The brazen old cow!”

“Ransey’s always had a thing about her”, said Bardin, sitting up in bed and resting his elbows on his knees “There used to be some very steamy sailing-lessons on the Indigo, when he was teaching her to steer up on the poop-deck”.

“And what does Finia feel about it all?” Bengo pouted.

“It doesn’t bother him”, said Bardin “He just wants Ransey as a father-protector that’s all. Look, don’t go taking on Mieps again, you always lose, it never fails”.

“We’ll see about that”, said Bengo “Anyway I didn’t lose when I booted her in the backside at Toondor Lanpin that time”.

“She got you back for it later at the Little Theatre”, Bardin warned.

The grand present-opening was held in the atrium after breakfast. Bengo was none too pleased to be given a joke present by the other clowns of a pair of old women’s bloomers, done out in red polka-dots and lace trim.

“Nothing’ll stop him flaunting himself in his winter drawers”, Farnol explained “So we thought we’d find him a really lurid pair”.

Bengo jammed them on Farnol’s head, and he sat there looking like a polka-dotted court jester.

“Did you buy those at the ladies’ lingerie shop in the village?” said Adam “I find it extraordinary that some old women would wear them for real!”

“You’ve got a lot to learn about women, Ad”, said Joby.

“Evidently!” said Adam.

The kitchen-staff had to cut short their own present-opening to get back to the dinner preparations. As he was leaving the atrium Bengo caught Mieps glowering at him. Bengo retaliated by imitating Mieps soaping her breasts.

“What’s that all about?” said Julian.

“That old baggage carrying on at Ransey earlier”, said Bengo.

“Stop tittle-tattling!” said an amused Julian, and he gave Bengo a slap on the behind which caused him to skid along the corridor.

Madame de Sade gasped at this rough handling of her “little pet”, and went to rescue him. Bengo had made a grab at the newel-post at the bottom of the back stairs.

“He is an arrogant oaf!” Madame exclaimed, dusting Bengo down “There were people like him in my time, too many of them! That is why my country had a terrible revolution. He and Donatien are two of a kind”.

“Oh Julian’s alright, he’s not as bad …” Bengo halted, s he had been about to say ’he’s not as bad as your husband’, instead he continued “You don’t have to worry about me. I’m not bone-china you know, and I’ve been thrown around more roughly than that in my time!”

To his alarm Madame de Sade sat down next to him on the stairs and began to cry. Bengo wished Bardin would suddenly appear and take control of the situation, he knew how to handle histrionics. He was just as pleased though when Kieran strolled into view.

“What’s up?” he asked.

Bengo shrugged and looked helpless.

“Oh Kieran”, Madame grabbed his hands and kissed them “You poor man, to be treated so harshly by such an arrogant man”.

“Ach Joby’s not arrogant”, said Kieran, completely getting the wrong end of the stick “He’s just got a firm hand sometimes that’s all. I do get me own back occasionally”.

“Joby has beaten you as well?” Madame exclaimed.

“I think she was referring to Julian”, Bengo whispered, apologetically.

“He is a rough man”, said Madame, referring to Joby this time “I always said so. The men on the revolutionary council were as harsh and unforgiving as him”.

“They couldn’t win in your country could they!” said Bengo.

Kieran laughed.

“You don’t have to worry about me, Renee”, he said.

“But why do you keep getting beaten?” said Madame.

“Ah now that’s a very good question”, said Kieran, jokingly “There must be something about me that brings out the sadist in people!”

To their alarm Madame de Sade began to cry again. Kieran tried to calm her down by stroking her hair, and felt that he was hopelessly out of touch when it came to dealing with women. Madame grabbed his hands and burbled at him in French.

“You’re going to have to speak English, Renee”, said Kieran “I can’t understand you”.

“Promise me”, said Madame “Promise me you won’t let them beat you again”.

“I can’t promise you that”, said Kieran.

“What’s going on here?” said Bardin.

Bengo gave a gasp of relief and clapped his hands.

“It’s Christmas Renee, why are you crying?” said Bardin “Has your old man been at you again?”

“I want to leave him!” Renee wept.

“It could be difficult going anywhere at the moment!” said Bardin, referring to the weather “In the meantime you can have Finia’s sewing-room for your own exclusive use, and I’ll make it a rule of the house that Sade can’t go in there”.

Kieran went to the Smoking Room, and was in the process of pouring himself a sneaky tumbler of whisky when Julian came in.

“Jayz, you made me jump!” said Kieran.

“Caught you red-handed!” said Julian “Pour me one as well whilst you’re about it. I hear that mad old French woman’s been screaming at you”.

“That was a wee bit upsetting”, said Kieran, going over to the window-seat “I don’t like disappointing people, but she tried to get me to make a promise I didn’t want to keep”.

“Such as?” said Julian.

“That I wouldn’t allow myself to be thrashed in future”, said Kieran.

“You deserve it, you little sod!” said Julian.

“It’s not easy when people put an image on you and won’t accept the real thing”, said Kieran.

“Oh well you see she can’t have her sweet saintly Kieran having human sexual foibles just like everyone else”, said Julian “That’s her trouble. She adores you, wants to bask in your radiant orbit. And if she wants to stay in it she’s going to have to accept you. That’s entirely her problem though, nothing you can do about it. Would you like to come and see me soon? Or haven’t you recovered from Joby’s attentions yet?”

“It does take a while to recover from that”, said Kieran, ruefully.

“I’ve had Adam ramming it down my throat for the past couple of days about how awesomely masterful Joby is at the moment”, said Julian “I’ve come to loathe the little wretch! How HE didn’t need to resort to razor-strops and all that jazz”.

“I don’t like upsetting Joby”, said Kieran “It pains me to make him angry”.

“Whereas it doesn’t bother you with me one jot?” said Julian.

Kieran laughed, and went to leave the room. On opening the door Toppy nearly fell onto him. Toppy looked abashed, and went back to hastily smoothing out discarded wrapping-paper.

“Where have you sent him now?” said Joby, referring to Hegley.

“Down to the cellar”, said Adam, in the midst of all the lunch preparations in the kitchen “To select some wine for the table”.

“A brief respite then”, Joby grunted “If I have to listen to anymore of his shooting stories I’ll turn vegetarian like Kieran. The way he told us about stag-shooting was really disturbing”.

“Let alone the details on ripping its guts out on the spot”, said Bengo.

“Yes alright, let’s talk about something else shall we?” said Adam “Or I won’t be able to baste the meat at this rate!”

“You’re quiet ent yer?” said Joby to Finia, who, disgruntled at being denied his sewing-room for the sake of Madame de Sade, had taken root next to the stove “That must be a riveting book, you haven’t spoken since you came in here”.

“I’m reading all about you in fact”, said Finia.

“Eh?” said Joby.

“It’s one of his astrology books”, Adam explained.

“As a Cancerian you are a true carer”, said Finia.

“Oh I thought that just meant he was rather crabby!” said Adam.

“Very funny!” said Joby.

“You and Kieran are ideally matched”, Finia went on.

“After all these years I should bloody well hope so!” said Joby.

“As a Piscean he needs someone to care for him”, said Finia “He is dreamy and in a world of his own, he needs you to keep a firm eye on him”.

“Have you bribed him to say all this?” Joby snapped at Adam.

“Certainly not!” said Adam “But what he is saying is very sensible. You have to admit that Patsy has been very placid and content these past couple of days”.

“Don’t be fooled”, said Joby, darkly “I think the little bugger’s just biding his time until his bum’s fully recovered, and then he’ll be up to mischief again!”

“I don’t agree”, said Adam “For many years I told you you had to be more forceful with him. Think of when we were here before, when you and Patsy lived in the woods. A bit of firmness then might have stopped him going bonkers”.

“Oh so it’s my fault he got ill then?” said Joby, on the point of tears.

“I didn’t say that at all, my poor boy”, said Adam, grabbing him in his arms “That’s the very least thing I would say. You know what I mean”.

There was a clanking of bottles from out in the corridor.

“That’ll be Hegley coming back”, said Adam “Bengo, head him off whilst we sort Joby out”. Bengo did this by saying “that’s not enough, we need more than that”, to Hegley.

Fortunately Joby wasn’t deeply upset. Part of his emotional turn had been because he knew Adam was right in what he had said. His upbringing had left him painfully lacking in self-confidence and a belief in his own abilities. It also had simply never occurred to him that it was he, Scrag-End Joby (as he sometimes thought of himself) who had the capability to keep such an extraordinary creature as Kieran on the right track.

By the time lunch was served he had achieved a state of complete calmness, and he sat through the meal in a mellow mood, whilst all the usual hilarity went on around him. Once it was over he was free from all chores for the rest of the day, as Ransey and Rumble were going to be in charge of the buffet supper. First of all he went up to his room with a jug of hot water to have a more relaxing wash, and to stoke up the fire.

“Kiel!” he said, in delighted surprise, when Kieran came into the room “Are you staying in here, or are you gonna go and see Julian?”

“Adam’s in with him”, said Kieran “Whilst wee Lonts is having a nap, and Tamaz is playing cards with the clowns”.

“I hope they know what they’re letting ’emselves in for then”, said Joby “He’s a right little card-sharp on the quiet!”

They got fully undressed and into bed. Under the fur bedcover Kieran masturbated Joby, which made him feel, at orgasm, as though he was being carried up into space. It took him a little while to stop shuddering afterwards.

“You’re wonderful”, he said, kissing Kieran “I’m really sorry about what happened the other night. I felt a complete bastard after it”.

“Don’t”, said Kieran “You tamed me, it’s what I’ve always wanted”.

“Could’ve fooled me!” Joby laughed “Whenever I tried to when we was younger you’d give me a right hard time”.

“Well I couldn’t go making it easy for you now could I!” said Kieran “That wouldn’t be the Irish way of things!”

“O.K, but don’t’ think I’m ever gonna thrash you like Julian did, ’cos I won’t”, said Joby.

“I wouldn’t expect you to”, said Kieran “I wouldn’t want you to do anything that’d upset you. It’s different for him, he hasn’t’ got much of a conscience”.

“You can say that again!” said Joby.

“All you have to do is to spank me regularly”, said Kieran “Whether I deserve it or not, it never does me any harm”.

“I don’t’ think praps that’s what your mum had in mind when she asked me to take care of you!” Joby joked.

“When did she say that?” asked Kieran.

“We was talking at the reception desk one afternoon”, said Joby, referring to the B&B in Killarney “I think you’d gone out to the shops for summat. She said she’d got so worried about you going away, thought you might come back too English, which I thought was bleedin’ charming weren’t it! And she said, oh it’d be so easy for you to get into trouble, and could I make sure I always kept an eye on yer. I must admit, I never expected anyone to ask me to be a nursemaid!”

“I never knew you two had that conversation”, said Kieran.

“Well I wouldn’t say it was a conversation as such”, said Joby “She did most of the talking, I just grunted now and again”.

“She could tell you were someone I could rely on I expect”, said Kieran.

“I hope so”, said Joby.

“That’s not to say you’re going to get everything your own way from now on”, said Kieran “There are going to be plenty of times when I’ll need to apply some firm discipline to you as well”.

Joby smiled.

Later that afternoon he went down to the dining-room to check up on the card-school. Going by the various states of undress around the table, there looked like there was going to be no clear winner in the strip-poker session. Even Tamaz was down to his coffee-coloured lace teddy. Bengo though at least still had his shirt on.

“Don’t tell me you’re winning!” Joby exclaimed, in astonishment.

“No”, said Bengo “This is all I’ve got on, look”.

He pulled up his shirt.

“Will you behave yourself!” said Joby “We’ve got guests in the Castle you know!”

“Tell me about it”, said Bardin, with a heavy sigh.

Joby went from there into the ktichen, where Rumble was carving up a joint of breaded ham, Ransey was making up a salad dressing, and Hegley, brick-red in the face, looked as though he had been overdoing the cooking-sherry.

“I love animals”, he was going on, well-launched by the sound of things “I have nothing but total respect for all living creatures”.

“How can you have total respect for something that you’re just about to blast the guts out of?” said Rumble, with uncharacteristic argumentativeness.

“I am not a monster!” Hegley cried.

“Yeah look, calm down, mate”, said Joby “We’ve still got the whole evening to get through you know. I think you should go and have a lie-down”.

“I’ll take him”, said Rumble, and he helped Hegley from the room.

“Have we got any cooking-sherry left at all?” said Joby, pointedly “What the blue blazes was that all about?”

“He’d got himself in a state about Kieran being a vegetarian”, said Ransey, taking over the carving of the meat whilst Joby put a kettle on the stove.

“Kieran hasn’t said anything to him has he?” said Joby.

“I guess he doesn’t have to”, said Rnasey “One look from those blue eyes is enough. Anyway, I’ve got more important concerns. Hillyard and I have been talking, and we want to have a meeting with Kieran later. Bardin had better come in on it as well”.

“A meeting?” said Joby “On Christmas Day?”

“As I’ve said, this is important”, said Ransey “I think we’ll have to move from here”.

“But we’ve only been here 5 minutes!” Joby protested “Just had the swanky new bathroom put in and all!” “I don’t mean in the next few days!” said Ransey “Next year sometime. After we’ve got the railway station sorted out, and the clowns’ guest-house. We need to move somewhere much more remote”.

“OK, but why?” said Joby.

“I don’t like the way things are going in Krindei”, said Ransey.

“But we know chuff all about what’s going on in Krindei!” said Joby “And anyway it’s miles away from here. And if Evil really is breaking out there, then Kieran won’t want to disappear”.

“He may not have any choice”, said Ransey “From what he’s said to me recently it would appear that all this miracle-working that’s gone on lately, our immortality, Bardin’s mouth, has taken a lot out of him”.

“Yeah, that would make sense”, Joby conceded.

“It’s no good having a Vanquisher of Evil who is not up to any vanquishing”, said Ransey “This may be for quite some while”.

“Suits me”, Joby shrugged “And where is this new place gonna be?”

“That’s what the meeting will be about”, said Ransey.

“Only you, Four-Eyes”, said Julian “Could call a meeting on Christmas Night”.

“You don’t look as though you’re being terribly inconvenienced by it!” said Ransey, noting that Julian was sitting comfortably by the fire in the Smoking Room, with a cigar in one hand and a glass of brandy in the other.

Bardin crept into the room buttoning up his shirt. Then he realised he had buttoned it up the wrong way, and had to do it again. He sat down on the sofa, blushing.

“Is Adam going to appear at all?” Ransey sighed.

“Don’t know”, said Kieran, perched on the arm of Joby’s chair “He’s up with wee Lonts”.

“And then he complains if we don’t tell him things!” said Ransey.

“Adam always was a law unto himself”, said Julian.

Hillyard strode importantly over to the fireplace, and propped a large map on the mantelpiece.

“Right now”, he said “This is a map”.

“Blimey, is it?!” said Joby.

“It’s of the forest region”, Hillyard went on, glaring at Joby “As much as is known of it anyway. The area we’re going to be interested in is the big lake there”.

“Sorry I’m late, old loves”, said Adam, bustling into the room. He perched himself on the sofa next to Bardin, and tried to look alert.

Ransey, bad-temperedly, gave him the story so far.

“On the lake is some sort of castle”, he concluded.

“Oh like the lighthouse on the lake near Zilligot Bay?” said Adam.

“Considerably bigger than that I hope”, said Ransey.

“What if someone already lives there?” said Joby.

“They don’t”, said Ransey “That entire area has been abandoned for many years, possibly centuries”.

“Why?” said Joby, suspiciously.

“It doesn’t matter”, said Kieran “Whatever the reason we can sort it out”.

“I thought you was sposed to be going there for a rest!” said Joby “Anyway, how do we get across the lake?”

Hillyard gave a dismayed sigh at Joby’s obtuseness.

“We take a boat down with us”, he said “Transport it somehow”.

“But what happens to this place, here?” said Bardin “It’s too good to simply abandon”.

“Ah we’ve thought of that”, said Ransey, triumphantly “Your retired clowns can have it”.

“It’s far too good for them!” said Bardin, with the distinct implication that a dog-kennel would be far too good for them.

“Just think how delighted Bengo will be, old love”, said Adam.

“’Ooh Bardy, it’s wonderful, wonderful!’” Bardin imitated his old friend, and put in some camp hand-clapping for good measure.

On Boxing Day morning Bardin directed the other clowns outside with jugs of boiling water, to try and defrost some of the external pipework. Adam shouted at him from the side door not to be too long about it, when it was this cold, at which Bardin shouted back, bristlingly, that It Had To Be Done.

Adam went back inside and found Joby standing outside the kitchen door, morosely, with his hands tucked in the bib of his pinny.

“I tell yer”, he said “There ent room for both me and him in the same kitchen!”

“I take it you mean Hegley?” Adam sighed “Just bear with it, old love. When the thaw comes he’ll go back to spending most of the day outside hunting”.

“In the meantime why do we have to have him in the kitchen?” said Joby.

“He needs something to do”, said Adam “He’ll get cabin-fever otherwise”.

“I’ll get cabin-fever as well!” said Joby “Your trouble, Ad, is that you’re turning into a bleedin’ do-gooder you are!”

“I’m not having that”, said Adam “You’re coming upstairs with me, right now!”

Kierna hadn’t appeared at breakfast, as he was still asleep, so whilst Adam and Joby were otherwise occupied, Bengo took a breakfast tray up to him. He set it on the side-table, and pulled back the curtains.

“Bengo”, said Kieran, groggily “What time is it?”

“I’m not sure”, said Bengo, plumping up his pillows for him.

“You missed your vocation”, said Kieran “You should have been a nurse. I’ll throttle Joby for not waking me up”.

“I expect he felt you needed a rest”, said Bengo, putting the breakfast-tray on Kieran’s knees “Anyway, it gives me a chance to look after you. I wish I’d known you when you were President. I could have worked in your suite, an assistant-valet to Hillyard perhaps”.

“Bardin would have had a fit with you working so closely with Hillyard!” said Kieran “He would have been boring holes in the wall to spy on you!”

“I bet you would have been really authoritative”, said Bengo.

“Are you turned on by power, Bengo?” said Kieran “Other people’s I mean”.

“I don’t know”, said Bengo “I hope not, that would make me a pretty sad case wouldn’t it! I’d just love to have seen you all firm and bossy”.

“Don’t you get enough of that from Bardin?” Kieran smiled “Anyway, I couldn’t have been too firm and bossy with you, not when you’re so cute and cuddly!”

“I suppose not”, said Bengo, despondently.

“Your sofa’s looking in a bit of a state, Ad”, said Joby, who was getting dressed again in Adam’s bedroom.

“I know, Lo-Lo lets the dogs jump all over it”, said Adam, putting more logs on the fire “Anyway, you still think I’m a bleedin’ do-gooder?!”

“Forget I said that”, said Joby.

“Gladly”, said Adam “I can do without insults like that, I get enough of them from Julian”.

“But can’t we find somewhere else for Hegley to work though?” said Joby “The still-room perhaps?”

“He can’t go in there”, said Adam “Toppy sees it as his own personal domain”.

“It’s just it hasn’t been the same in the kitchen with him in there”, said Joby “I swear he wants to take over”.

“And you seriously think I’ll let him?” said Adam.

“Spose not”, said Joby.

He went out into the gallery, where he saw Bengo walking away from him, carrying the remains of Kieran’s breakfast tray. Joby went into his room and found Kieran poised like a ballet-dancer on the edge of the hearth. He was wearing a black tee-shirt, cotton underpants, and black thermal socks. He was also smoking a cigarette, which he guiltily chucked into the fire when Joby came in.

“Heck why did I do that?” he exclaimed “We don’t have to worry about all that anymore!”

“You wanna go through the whole of eternity wheezing do you?” said Joby “Anyway, so much for you being tamed. You’re still as gobby as ever!”

Kieran tried to adopt a meek, submissive posture.

“You think I’m fooled by that?!” said Joby “I won’t half give Bengo a thick ear when I get hold of him. I take it he brought them up on your breakfast tray?”

“Ah now don’t tell him off”, said Kieran “He was saying to me that he wishes I’d be all presidential with him. Aloof and firm”.

“He wants to adore you”, said Joby, collecting together the rest of Kieran’s clothes “Just lie back and enjoy it”.

“It’d turn me into a monster“, said Kieran, unconvincingly.

“Yeah right!” said Joby “Anyway, you’ve got me as the antidote. Look, what you’ve done for us all is mind-blowing. If Bengo wants to adore you then let him. I dunno why you feel you have to be given a hard time constantly. I know you’re a Catholic, but it can’t just be that, surely?”

“The knowledge that my father would be ashamed of me perhaps?” said Kieran, completely unexpectedly.

“But how do you know what he’d feel?” said Joby “You’ve never even seen a photo of him, let alone know what he thinks!”

“One of his old drinking-pals used to own a shop just down the road from us”, said Kieran “What little I do know abut me dad is that he was one of the lads when he was younger. This fella used to make it clear he despised me. One day, when I was in me teens, I had to go in there, and he said to me ’good job your dad didn’t hang around to see how you turned out’”.

“What did he mean by that?” Joby exclaimed.

“That I clearly had a touch of the pansy about me”, said Kieran “Joby, with those sort you were a pansy if you washed your hair!”

“Sounds like Josh”, Joby grunted “I dunno what they would have made of Toppy then! And you’ve been worrying about what the old tosser said ever since?”

“It’s a terrible thing to be rejected by your own father”, said Kieran, quietly.

“But that wasn’t your fault!” said Joby “You were only a little baby. Quite frankly, he’s never sounded to me worth bothering about, and I feel it even more now. Ask yourself this, what if he had stayed around, and turned out to be like Adam’s dad, eh? He used to beat the crap out of him for being a poofter! All the world adores you for what you are and what you’ve done, and you worry about an old arsehole like that!”

“All I want is for you to love me”, said Kieran.

“That goes without saying”, said Joby “Now let me help you get dressed”. When Joby next saw Josh, on his way down to the kitchen, he punched him, sending him flying back into Adam’s sitting-room. Madame de Sade screamed, and Josh sent up an almighty wail of alarm because blood was coming out of his nose. It was quite a morning really, what with one thing and another. Bengo later asked if that was where Boxing Day had got its name from, because everybody got into fights straight after Christmas.

“I didn’t send for you”, said Julian “I sent for Joby”.

“Well you can’t have him”, said Adam “You’ve just been waiting for an excuse to thrash the living daylights out of him these past few days. Anyway, I won’t allow him to be punished for thumping Josh. The last time those two had a fight Joby got pulverised. I’m quite pleased he’s managed to have his revenge”.

“Is there anything he can’t do at the moment?!” Julian snapped, going over to the drinks table and pouring out two brandies “Joby the magnificent, Joby the valiant, Joby the bloody toxic avenger!”

“Oh Jules, you are a scream sometimes!” Adam laughed.

“Well I’m glad I still manage to do something around here!” said Julian “Perhaps I should buy a red nose and take Bengo’s place!”

“You have to accept that the plates have shifted somewhat”, said Adam “Patsy won’t be coming in here so much now. And I’m afraid I can’t apologise for that either. Right from the very earliest days I knew that life would be a lot easier if Joby just got stricter, and now finally, FINALLY, he’s managed it. Bardin needs to change a bit too. In the meeting yesterday he was still too timid around us oldies. He’s been Captain long enough now to stop that. He’s still too awed by you”.

“What do you suggest I do then?” said Julian “Sit in a corner quietly with my knitting?!”

“Oh come along, old love”, said Adam “It’s not that bad. You’ve still got me”.

“When you can fit me in around all your other commitments!” said Julian, fiercely.

“Five minutes ago you were telling me to go away!” Adam retorted, just as fiercely.

“I say, that was quite like old times wasn’t it!” said Julian.

“What do you want to go drinking all that brandy for in one go?” said Hillyard, a few hours later, mixing up Julian a stomach-powder “Now wonder you’re feeling rough! You clap out for a couple of hours and then wake up feeling like you’ve been hit by a bus! I dunno what gets into you two when you get together sometimes, you both go flamin’ demented!”

“Where is Adam?” said Julian.

“Went to his own room”, said Hillyard “For a lie-down. Joby won’t be pleased”.

“That’s the best news I’ve heard all day!” said Julian “And don’t keep nagging. You’ll have to take up journalism like Toppy, Lord Hillyard’s Guide To Virtuous Living!”

There was a timid knock at the door.

“Yes, who is it? Sod off!” Julian shouted.

Bengo came in.

“I’ve brought you up a cup of strong black coffee”, he said, apologetically.

“That should finish him off!” said Hillyard.

“HELLO JULIAN!” Kieran shouted, also breezing in “HOW’S THE HANGOVER?”

“Don’t push your luck”, said Julian “Has the magnificent Joby given you permission to be in here?”

“Someone sounds a wee bit jealous to me”, said Kieran.

“Jealous?” said Julian “Of that little guttersn …?”

“Ah ah!” said Kieran, holding up his hand in protest “You betray yourself with every word you speak!”

He sat down behind Bengo on the bed and cuddled him, much o Bengo’s delight.

“Shouldn’t you be getting down to the kitchen?” said Julian “Mustn’t make Joby unhappy must we!”

“Oh he’s alright at the moment”, said Bengo “He’s just thrown Hegley out”.

“What, out into the snow?” said Hillyard.

“Joby can be a hard man sometimes”, Kieran shook his head in amusement.

“No just out of the kitchen”, said Bengo “Said he can’t stand the sight of his face any longer. And if Adam says anything he’ll say something to him about being out of action on Boxing Day”.

“Oh lor, I expect he will as well”, said Adam, coming in and looking rather dilapidated “Thanks for warning me, Bengo. I’d better go down and see him now”.

“Take him a message from me”, Julian barked.

“Not if it’s rude I won’t!” said Adam.

“Not rude at all”, said Julian “Tell him I’m going to leave a gift for him in his room later. Don’t all look at me like that, I’m being serious”.

“Yes, that’s what we’re worried about!” said Adam.

He went along the corridor and found Tamaz dragging his bag towards the clowns’ room.

“Freaky, what are you doing?”

“I’m moving in with Farnol and the others”, said Tamaz “I’m not spending another night in Kieran’s bed. There isn’t room and it’s not comfortable. If he wants to sleep on a bed of nails he can, but I won’t. Joby’s got to stop this happening”.

“I’m sure things will be different down at the Retreat house”, said Adam, who wasn’t sure at all.

He went on down the back stairs. Hegley could be heard sounding rather emotional in the little sitting-room. Madame de Sade was making some rather Gallic-sounding noises of sympathy. In the kitchen Joby was stirring a large pot on the stove.

“So you’ve finally done it?” said Adam.

“And not before time!” said Joby “Do you know what he did today? He came in here with a hat on”.

“Well that’s hardly a criminal offence, old love!” said Adam.

“A white chef’s hat”, said Joby, darkly.

“Where on earth did he get that from up here?” said Adam.

“He must’ve had it in his luggage all the time”, said Joby.

“From one of his many short-lived restaurant jobs no doubt”, said Adam.

“It’s the thin end of the wedge, Ad”, said Joby “He wants to take over, sure as fate”.

“Oh roll on the thaw!” Adam sighed “By the way, Julian says he’s going to leave a little present for you in your room later”.

“It’d better not be anything that I have to clean up!” said Joby.

“Oh ye of little faith”, said Adam “I think he’s being sincere for once. Julian’s moods can turn on a sixpence. A typical Gemini, as no doubt Finia would say”.

Even so, Joby was still not in any hurry to find out what Julian’s present could be. After supper he went and had a bath, and when he returned to his room he went straight to the window and looked out. The fire was there again on the edge of the woods. Joby had no idea what perverse pleasure Angel gained from these night-time vigils, but he, Joby, was certain that if he was trying to provoke Kieran into leaving the house, it wasn’t going to work. Things certainly had changed, and so simply too.

Joby closed the curtains and went over to the shoebox which was sitting in the middle of the bed. He unfolded the note on top.


Inside the box was a mauve leather paddle, complete with gold chain for hanging from the waist, rather like a bunch of housekeeper’s keys.

“Blimey!” said Joby.


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