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Tinlow Industries

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Edmund Blackadder did not have friends. If he had, he would have been sitting with them on a rainy spring Sunday morning, instead of sitting with George St Barleigh and a filthy servant known as S. Baldrick on a rainy spring Sunday morning. This might not have been so unpleasant a situation, for if one cannot not have friends, one might at least be a happy supervillain surrounded by minions. But while Blackadder was certainly capable of being a supervillain (although he was slightly put off the requisite tights and panties), Baldrick and George were too stupid even to be minions.

Blackadder was rather depressed at the moment, and not only because of the fact that he was sitting with George and Baldrick on a rainy spring Sunday morning. This was the fault of one Kevin Darling, a downtrodden, wimpy young man with whom he had made a bet—and lost spectacularly. Usually, when love and money were both at stake, the party in question got to keep at least one, but Blackadder had no such luck. Such was the case when Professor Flashheart was involved.

It had all started out innocently enough; Blackadder had been strolling along with his girlfriend Kate Parkhurst, who had a thing for cross-dressing and liked to be called Bob, and because she was good in the sack, Blackadder didn’t mind. In fact, he actually liked this about her. He and Kate had been strolling along when they had happened to come upon Darling sitting alone under a tree, pretending to read a book (the mathematics text in question had been shut tightly until Darling became aware of Blackadder and Kate’s approach, whereupon he had seized it, opened it to a random page and covered, or rather smothered, his face with it, in the desperate hope that the couple wouldn’t see him, which they had, of course, already done).

Upon seeing Darling desperately trying not to be noticed, Blackadder had decided to take a moment to impress Kate by engaging in one of his favourite pastimes: tormenting the walking, or rather, sitting, showcase of social awkwardness.

‘Hello, Darling,’ he said in a cool, cavalier tone. ‘Trying to pass your A-levels through osmosis?’

‘Well—I’ve certainly done more revision than you,’ Darling replied weakly. Blackadder rolled his eyes at Kate.

‘Yes, Darling, quite. There is such a thing, Darling, as a girl, something that for all your revision I would not expect you to have any knowledge of, scientific or otherwise.’ From what little Blackadder could see of Darling’s face, he was flushing bright red. Blackadder gave Kate a satisfied smile and offered her his arm. ‘Shall we go then, darling?’

‘Well I hardly understand what you mean by that—oh,’ Darling broke off as he saw Blackadder smirking and Kate giggling. Wishing he could just drop off the face of the planet, Darling slumped against the tree trunk.

‘Oh, Edmund, that was a little mean, wasn’t it?’ Kate asked, shaking her head at Darling. ‘He’s just a poor slob, you know.’

‘Yes, I know, Bob,’ replied Blackadder, an evil grin spreading across his face. ‘Think how lucky you are to have me instead. Darling here has his lips permanently pressed to a book, while I use mine for a higher purpose … like this.’ Blackadder pulled Kate to him and kissed her, gleefully aware of how uncomfortable they were making Darling.

It was then that Darling had called out something that had irreparably changed Blackadder’s life for the worse. ‘You may be smug now, Blackadder, but you’ll get yours—Professor Flashheart is back in town!’

Blackadder immediately broke off his smooch with Kate and spun around to face Darling again. ‘I hardly think he’ll have any effect on me. You on the other hand, Darling—’

Darling flushed red again. ‘I wasn’t thinking of you or me!’ he screeched. ‘I meant–I meant your girl, Bob or whatever her name is—you won’t be laughing soon enough!’

Blackadder’s sarcastic manner turned to ice. Professor Flashheart was known for his lechery. He ought to have been in prison after the last time he had taught at their school, when he had been sacked by the Headmaster, but then the Head had died and his daughter Queenie had become Headmistress. Since Queenie was widely rumoured to have been one of Professor Flashheart’s many dimwitted flames, Blackadder was none too surprised that the oversexed felon had been invited back. But if Darling was implying what Blackadder thought he was implying, he was not at all amused.

‘If you mean to say that I’ll soon be every bit as lonely and pathetic as you are on account of Professor Flashheart stealing my girlfriend, then I’ll have you know that he deals in the seduction of half-baked hussies like our esteemed Headmistress. Kate is a girl who wears men’s trousers and tunics and likes to be called Bob, and aside from that she is dating me. Professor Flashheart will have no effect on either of us.’

‘Really,’ Darling answered sceptically. He lowered his book, more confident now. ‘Would you like to bet on that?’

Blackadder smiled. ‘How much?’

It was Darling’s turn to smirk. ‘How much is she worth to you?’

Kate turned to Blackadder with an expectant look on her face, but he was spared answering that question when a foul stench filled the air. A nearby sewer grate had opened, and Baldrick’s head was peeking out of it. Blackadder, Darling and Kate were frozen in shock for a moment as the stink hit them full force, but Blackadder recovered himself first and turned to glare at Baldrick, who turned to Darling and said in a dreamy voice, ‘Oh, she’s worth at least two turnips.’

‘Who … or what’—Darling coughed—‘is that?’

‘What are you doing now, Baldrick?’ Blackadder asked, disgusted and exasperated.

‘Nothing bad, sir, I’m just rescuing my pet rat, Davey, from all this smelly water down here, sir,’ Baldrick replied earnestly.

Blackadder threw up his hands in revulsion. Darling, who was slowly recovering from the situation enough to find it funny, cracked a smile. Blackadder advanced on Baldrick. ‘Baldrick, don’t you realise that compared to you that smelly water is pristine? If you want to rescue Davey, leave him in peace.’

‘I already got him out, sir. He’s over there about to bite your friend on the leg, sir. Now I just need to help myself.’

Blackadder grinned. ‘Well in that case, let me help you.’ Blackadder gave Baldrick a good hard kick, and the latter fell screaming back into the sewer. Blackadder walked back over to where Kate was standing. ‘All right, now that that’s taken care of … how much do you want to bet, Darling?’

That was when Davey made his move. Darling shrieked and grabbed for his leg as the rat scampered away with pride in its steps. ‘Two–hundred–and fifty–pounds,’ Darling choked out, frantically trying to stop the bleeding.

Blackadder was taken aback. Despite his aristocratic appearance, he did not have two hundred and fifty pounds to spare, and he was fairly certain that Darling didn’t, either. If Kate did fall for Professor Flashheart’s ‘charms’—no, that was impossible. It had to be impossible. Blackadder was not the sort of bloke who fell in love, but he had—for a split second that he was still for the most part refusing to acknowledge as it was such a far cry from his usual nature—honestly thought Kate might be the one. After all, she was so unlike the other girls he knew … how many girls dressed up in men’s clothes, asked to be called Bob and still looked fetching? Not many, that was for sure … in fact, Kate was the only one Blackadder could name off the top of his head. The question of why he found this so attractive was another thought that had crossed his mind momentarily, only to buried instantly in the darkest, dodgiest corner of his brain in a file drawer marked ‘Danger, do not open, ever.’

Blackadder swallowed and looked Darling straight in the eye. ‘OK,’ he said, expertly masking his nerves. One word, two letters … two syllables had been Blackadder’s downfall.

He still couldn’t believe how quickly and how soundly he had lost. The following school day, Queenie had called an assembly to welcome Professor Flashheart back. Blackadder and Kate had been seated in the front row. The memory of it upset his stomach even more than Baldrick’s cooking, and that was a rare feat.

Queenie’s opening remarks had been bad enough: ‘Quiet, everyone! As you know, you are here to welcome back the great, the wonderful, the oh-so-sexy Professor Flashheart … now don’t any of you girls let him get you pregnant because I might just want to marry him.’

Then the man himself had appeared, and Blackadder would have lost his faith in humanity in that moment had he not lost it years ago when he realised that the only company consistently available to him consisted of George and Baldrick.

‘That’s right, it’s me! Professor Flashheart, open and ready to give all you randy girls the best sexual education you’ll ever get … starting with you! Woof! Woof!’

To Blackadder’s horror, Flashheart had been pointing at Kate, who had leapt out of her seat and was running towards him, eyes completely glazed over.

‘No, Bob!’ Blackadder had yelled. ‘Don’t fall for it! He’s nothing but a randy old prick who would be serving gaol time if our Headmistress weren’t a randy young flake with a brain the size of a pigeon’s!’

It was too late. Flashheart was already groping Kate, and she was making no move to stop him.

‘All right, fine,’ Blackadder had screamed. ‘You’ve cost me two hundred and fifty pounds I don’t have and probably never will have, you mini-brained whore! I hope your children look like Baldrick and you never receive a cent of alimony!’

Blackadder had been seconds from grieving the fact that he had just lost the only woman he had ever thought it might be remotely possible he could love when someone tapped him on the shoulder. Blackadder whirled around and saw Darling, a wide, satisfied smile stretching across his face.

‘Did I just hear you say,’ Darling asked, hardly able to contain his glee, ‘that you do not in fact have two hundred and fifty pounds?’

Blackadder decided to shrug it off. ‘Well, I don’t have anything to give to a pathetic cretin who was probably born writing notes,’ he said, slipping into his usual sarcastic persona.

Darling winced, but ignored the insult. ‘We had a bet, Blackadder, and you lost. You won’t escape without paying up.’

Blackadder rolled his eyes. ‘No?’

Darling shook his head. ‘Not a chance, Blackadder. You should have thought of this before you took the bet.’

Blackadder glared at his rival. ‘Mind if I ask just how in Hell’s name you can force me to keep my end of this? If you’re thinking about clucking in my ear like the chicken you are until I’m finally so annoyed that I give in and pay, that won’t work.’

To Blackadder’s surprise, Darling laughed. ‘I work for Anthony Melchett,’ he responded, eyes gleaming in triumph. ‘He’ll back me on this matter. There’s no way out for you, Blackadder. Not this time.’

Blackadder seethed with rage. He knew he was cornered. Melchett was a wealthy man; although Blackadder was not sure whom he worked for, he had a lot of power and prestige in local matters, and his influence over politicians and legal matters was ridiculous. If Darling complained to Melchett, Blackadder would be in far worse trouble.

And that was how Blackadder came to be sitting, feeling rather depressed, with Baldrick and George on a rainy spring Sunday morning.

‘Come now, Edmund, it can’t be as bad as all that,’ George said, beaming. ‘Just the other day I heard you telling Queenie how wealthy you are. Just pay Darling his two hundred and fifty pounds, find yourself another girl and move on.’

‘When I was talking to Queenie, George, I was lying. Because you and she have about the same lack of brain capacity, I am not surprised that you didn’t realise it. I don’t have two hundred and fifty pounds; I can’t pay Darling; and Kate is the only girl I’ll probably ever know who dons men’s clothing and likes to be called Bob. I’m in the stickiest situation since Sticky the Stick Insect got stuck on a sticky bun.’

‘I have a cunning plan to get you out of this,’ Baldrick piped up, smiling eagerly.

Blackadder groaned. ‘My expectations are about as high as Thumbelina’s little finger, but all right, let’s hear it.’

Baldrick pulled something out of his pocket. It looked like an unwashed bit of turnip tied to a dirty string. ‘What is that?’ Blackadder asked, spitting out the words in disgust.

‘It’s a pendant, sir, meant to hypnotise people, sir. You take it, and you swing it in front of the subject’s face, and you say, “You are getting sleepy,” and he says, “I am getting sleepy,” and you stop it, and you tell him things, and he believes you ’cause you put him in a trance, sir.’ Baldrick attempted to demonstrate this by swinging his ‘pendant’ inches from Blackadder’s face.

Blackadder nearly choked. He punched Baldrick in the face, sending the pungent servant sprawling. ‘I suppose your “cunning” plan is for me to hold that disgusting thing in Darling’s face, inform him that he is getting sleepy and explain to him that we never made a bet, or even better that he was the one who lost and therefore owes me two hundred and fifty pounds?’

‘Why, yes, sir,’ Baldrick answered, dusting himself off. ‘How did you guess, sir?’

‘Baldrick, it’s disgusting and pathetic, and even if I had a real pendant it wouldn’t work because Darling, loathsome though he is, is not as stupid as you are.’ Blackadder sighed. ‘There just isn’t a way out. I could steal the money, but neither one of you has two hundred and fifty pounds and you are the only ones stupid enough to leave that kind of sum up for grabs. I don’t know how in the world I’m going to pay him back.’

‘Uh, Edmund?’ asked George. ‘May I make a suggestion?’

‘Oh, go ahead. I’ve got time on my hands now, haven’t I, now that Kate’s gone.’ There was a bitter edge to Blackadder’s voice. ‘My only escape from the strangely unpleasant company of you two.’

‘Well,’ George began, ignoring the insult because he was too thick to understand it, ‘my family work for a prominent local business … Tinlow Industries, have you heard of it? Anyway, they have a huge bulk tent sale for three weeks each year, and I always step in to help out there, and it pays rather well, so … why don’t you apply for a job there? I’ll tell my dad who you are and he’ll get you on the payroll in no time. By the end of the sale you should make enough money to repay Darling, and if it’s women you’re worried about, there’ll be plenty of them you can meet at the sale. So, what do you say? Shall I get you a job at the Tinlow tent?’

Blackadder paused, thinking. It appeared that for once George was the one using his family brain cell. Blackadder thought he must be going mad, because it seemed like one of George’s ideas might just work. ‘Ah, George?’

‘Yes?’

‘What exactly would I have to do?’

‘To get the job? Nothing, just fill out a couple of papers, name, address, preferred hours, etcetera.’

Blackadder tensed in annoyance. ‘No,’ he said, putting extra emphasis on each word, ‘not to get the job. What would I have to do on the job?’

‘Oh, not much. They’ll probably make you a clerk or something. Maybe you’ll have to stock items once in a while. It’s mindless work, really.’

‘No wonder your family is so successful, then,’ Blackadder mused. ‘All right, I’ll take it. I’ll take any hours I can get if it means I’ll be out of debt sooner.’

‘George, sir?’ asked Baldrick hesitantly. ‘Do you think you could get me a job there, too, sir? I could use some extra money to buy more turnips.’

‘Of course, Baldrick,’ George said, nodding. Then his face lit up. ‘I know! Edmund here can be a cashier, and you can be his bagger! It’s perfect! I’ll let Dad know straight away!’

Blackadder buried his face in hands. ‘Oh, God,’ he moaned, resisting the urge to run out into the rain in a futile attempt to drown himself.

Chapter Text

Blackadder wasn’t sure what he ought to have expected from Tinlow Industries, but when he arrived for the pre-sale training, he received three unsavoury shocks. He nearly kicked himself for having thought, even for a second, that one of George’s ideas might actually be good.

It was bad enough that he was working with Baldrick, but Blackadder had already known about that and had managed to come to terms with it. These other three causes of misery had been entirely unexpected.

Loath though he was to admit it, Blackadder knew that the first was partly his fault for having failed to ask George what exactly it was that Tinlow sold. He had figured that it would be something idiotic and useless, like cheap end table knickknacks or some such things—items that, while contemptible, were at least stomach-able. He had not imagined that even George’s family would derive their livelihood from cake decorating.

Apparently, however, they did, and now he, Edmund Blackadder, was committed to doing so as well for the next three weeks in a futile attempt to pay off a cursed bet. His first thought had been to hope against hope that Darling never found out where he had earned the money, a hope that had been dashed immediately when he turned around and saw Darling standing at the register next to his.

For a moment they simply stared at each other. Darling looked just as unhappy to see Blackadder as Blackadder was to see him. Then, all of a sudden, realisation dawned on Blackadder, and he rounded on Darling, furious.

‘You said you worked for Anthony Melchett!’ he nearly shrieked, shaking with rage. ‘And now I come here to avoid having my pockets turned out, bruised, twisted and tied into every possible kind of knot by the old walrus-face, only to discover that you in fact sell icing to a bunch of homemaking crones! Well, I’m almost glad I was tricked into coming here, because now I know that I’m free to leave!’

Darling was biting his lip, looking, if possible, even more uncomfortable than he usually did. He opened and closed his mouth a few times, found himself unable to form any words and pointed lamely in front of him.

Against his better judgement, Blackadder turned around, and there stood Melchett himself. Fortunately, Melchett did not seem to have heard Blackadder’s angry speech, because he was making a huge show of clapping George on the shoulders.

‘George, my boy! Returned to us, I see! Wonderful, wonderful, always good to see a loyal Tinlow employee, very good, very good … and how’s life been treating you then, George?’

‘I … er … sir, it’s been lovely, sir, really, I’m having a swell time, dead chuffed to be back, sir. Oh, and I’ve brought some friends this time, sir … Edmund? Baldrick? Come on over here and meet Mr Melchett! I know you’ll all get along swimmingly! Oh, this year’s going to be so much fun, isn’t it, Edmund?’

‘Oh yes, of course it will,’ Blackadder responded, his painted-on smile doing little to conceal the sarcasm that would have offended its audience had any of them understood it, which of course they did not.

‘Welcome to Tinlow, Blackadder,’ Melchett said genially, extending a hand. ‘I daresay you’ll be proud to be a part of the team! And what’—Melchett abruptly stopped smiling—‘is that?’

‘Oh, that’s Baldrick, sir,’ bubbled George, ‘he’s a friend of ours, sir, really good at following orders, you know, sir …’

Blackadder could tell that Melchett was ready to toss Baldrick headfirst out of the tent, and he couldn’t blame him, but then, when George butted in, Melchett swallowed, and his demeanour seemed to change. That was decidedly odd. Blackadder watched Melchett’s expression closely as the latter turned to look at George.

‘Very well, then, George, very well … just … er … keep him away from the icing. All right then, team, here we are …’

Blackadder and Baldrick returned to their register as Melchett ordered a sullen-looking Darling to come bag for George. That was also strange, for as much Blackadder loathed Darling, he knew full well that George, with a brain only marginally larger than a pebble, should have been bagging for him.

Blackadder hardly listened to the instructions, as George had been right in his assertion that employment at Tinlow was mindless work. Instead he observed the way Melchett seemed to glance in George’s direction every few seconds. When Melchett had the cashiers scan a sample item, Blackadder was not at all surprised that he immediately seized upon the opportunity to point and shout loudly, ‘That’s right! Everyone, look over there, George’s got it!’

Of course George had done it right. The task had been to run a spoon under a scanner. Even Baldrick could do that. If I didn’t know better, Blackadder thought, I’d say old Walrus-Face Melchett fancies George! He would never have guessed it in a million years, but then again, he would never have believed that the one of the richest men in town was in fact the executive manager of Tinlow Industries.

Blackadder did some quick arithmetic. George was eighteen, so it wasn’t illegal now for Melchett to bugger him, but how long had he had this crush? Blackadder began watching George instead, wondering if he could pick up any hints that this unbelievable attraction was mutual. Whenever Melchett praised him, George blushed like a schoolgirl. That wasn’t incontrovertible proof, but it was something. It was possible fodder for a plan so cunning Blackadder wouldn’t have minded going to bed with it, as it was certainly more cunning than Kate. The fact that Melchett had been ignoring Darling completely was also a good sign.

Blackadder was interrupted in his plotting by a tap on his shoulder. Annoyed, he turned around to see a bitter-looking Darling. ‘What?’ he spat, attempting to appear tough.

‘I suppose you’ve noticed it, too?’

‘Noticed what?’ Blackadder continued to make his voice sound irritable, but he secretly hoped Darling would keep talking. Though it wouldn’t bode well for his cunning plan if they were on the same page, Blackadder had a feeling it was best if he knew what his enemy was thinking.

‘Never mind,’ said Darling, and unless Blackadder was very much mistaken, there was a twinge of disappointment in the way he said it.

Blackadder wondered what that could be about, but Darling was now staring straight ahead. Chalking it up simply to Darling’s awkwardness, Blackadder turned his attention back to his plotting and continued not listening to Melchett’s glorification of the menial tasks that were to be his intense pain for a fortnight and a half.

*

 

On his first day of employment at Tinlow, Blackadder decided that he hated the customers at least as much as he hated his colleagues. George, however, was his chief nemesis for the time being, mostly because his incompetence meant more customers for Blackadder.

There were several rows of registers on long, grimy tables. Each row consisted of three tables. George and Darling had the best register, the one farthest from the sun, which coincidentally was also the worst because in exchange for escaping without sunburn, whoever was running that register got the most customers, or so it should have been. Melchett had placed George and Darling at it based on his erroneous conviction that George was his best cashier. This being the furthest thing from true, the excess of customers that should have George’s moved down one table to Blackadder’s register instead.

The customers were a nightmare. Blackadder now knew what George had meant when he’d said there would be plenty of women he could meet at the sale: There were hundreds of women of all ages, and even a disproportionate number of men, swooping in on the Tinlow tent from all over Britain to buy the most ridiculous homemaking gadgets, baking tools, cake decorating materials, cake decorating books and other sorts of loathsome items. Even worse, many of them found that, once they had found the perfect item that would fit their needs, they had to buy it not only in every single variety, but also, if it was absolutely perfect, in triplicate.

On top of everything else, Blackadder’s feet hurt. He would have thought it wouldn’t be so hard for Tinlow to provide stools at the registers, as there was plenty of room for them, but when he casually suggested it to Melchett during a break from the disgustingly sweet homemakers, the executive manager seemed almost offended at the idea.

‘Stools, Blackadder? Stools? What in God’s name do we need those for?’

‘Well sir, if you don’t mind my saying so, it is rather a strain on the feet to—’

‘A strain on the feet, Blackadder? Well, perhaps for a weakling like Darling here’—Darling winced—‘but hardy young boys like you and George and I should have no problem—’

‘Actually, sir,’—George broke in—‘now that Edmund here mentions it, my feet are rather sore as well, sir.’

Melchett softened instantly. ‘Oh, George, wouldn’t want your feet to be troubling you, not at all, my boy. Why don’t you take a ten-minute break?’

‘Ah, thank you, sir, but I’ve just had one, sir.’

Darling stared at the ground. ‘I’ve not had one, sir.’

‘Oh, shut up, Darling,’ Melchett answered irritably. ‘Go on, George, take a rest. I wouldn’t ever want you to hurt yourself on our account.’

‘I suppose not, sir,’ George said, blushing, and left his post. Melchett started to follow George, but then, to Blackadder’s surprise, stopped and turned to Baldrick.

‘Why don’t you take a ten-minute break, too, er—’

Blackadder swallowed his surprise. If Melchett was favouring Baldrick, then the man was decidedly mental. But when Blackadder saw Melchett’s expression, he recognised it as one of sinister plotting sparked by intense dislike. He knew it well because it was the one that he himself usually wore.

Baldrick looked bemused, but left. Blackadder heard him call for Davey, and half-heartedly hoped the rat would bite Melchett, Darling, George or all three.

Melchett started to follow Baldrick, calling over his shoulder, ‘Darling, why don’t you come bag for Blackadder?’

Blackadder smiled evilly, and Darling seemed to wilt a little as he walked over to Blackadder’s register. Blackadder gave him an annoyed look. ‘All right, so you do work for Walrus-Face, but I can’t see where you have any influence over him that you could somehow parlay into convincing him to force me to keep my end of our bet. He’s known me for less than a day and he’s already favouring me over you, and even if you did convince him, George would butt in and that would be the end of your argument.’

Darling stuttered a bit, but managed to say, ‘Planning to quit, then, are you?’

Blackadder laughed. ‘Is there anything you can do to stop me? Darling, I have just checked through a delightful minibrained woman buying ninety different trivets, three each of all thirty kinds this bloody place sells! Ninety trivets, Darling! What does one do with ninety trivets? I can just see her showing them off to all of her minibrained friends, who will then come back here to buy ninety more trivets they don’t need, thus extending the agony I endure just by being here into absolute torture! Of course I’m quitting, you bloody idiot! You can finally achieve your lifelong ambition of being promoted to cashier in this sodding place, because I’m getting out!’

To Blackadder’s immense surprise, Darling smiled. ‘Blackadder, what you fail to realise is that there is one other thing Melchett fancies, besides George, and that is holding grudges.’

Blackadder’s smile faded. ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

Darling looked positively happy. ‘If you quit, Blackadder, then Melchett will, as you put it, turn out, bruise, twist and tie your pockets into every possible kind of knot. If George objects, Melchett will slap an arm around his shoulder and give him a pseudo-fatherly lecture. It’s a win-win situation for him, don’t you see?’

Blackadder felt rage begin to boil inside him. He wished he could find a way around Darling’s logic, but based on what little he knew of Melchett’s character, it made perfect sense. ‘And if I stay …’

‘If you stay, Melchett won’t lift a finger to help me extract money from you, but I’ll be able to enjoy watching you suffer as you check through more minibrained women buying cake dyes in every fathomable colour. Did you know that there is a difference between red, red with no taste and Christmas red, and that our customers absolutely must have one of each?’

‘I can’t say that I did, and I also couldn’t have said until now that you have a red dye fetish—’

Darling seemed to turn purple at that. ‘There is nothing fruity about it!’

Now that was interesting. ‘Why, Darling, I never implied that there was. I knew you were sensitive, but I thought even you knew that there exists in this world something I like to call a joke. I never suspected it even from you, pathetic cretin though you are, but you like working here, don’t you? You actually enjoy standing around with your feet hurting looking at the world’s largest supply of utter crap!’

Before Darling could reply, another customer came along. This one was a middle-aged woman with two carts loaded with nothing but picture frames. For a moment, Blackadder simply gaped at her.

‘I suppose you want me to check you through?’ Blackadder asked, giving her an appraising look.

The woman nodded, and Blackadder smiled. ‘Good. I’m not going to.’

‘Oh dear, Queenie’ll be terribly disappointed,’ the woman muttered. ‘I remember when she was a little baby, she—’

Blackadder interrupted her. ‘I’m sorry, did you say Queenie?’

‘Why, yes, I did, I—’

‘You, woman, what is your name?’

‘Well, my real name is’—the woman lowered her voice, slightly embarrassed—‘Bernard, but you can call me Nursie.’

‘Then the rumours are true!’ Darling gasped. ‘Queenie does still live with her old Nursie!’

Blackadder turned to him, snorting derisively. ‘Oh, Darling, did you honestly think they weren’t? This is Queenie we’re talking about, the Flashheart-fancying woman-child with the mental agility of a mouse missing half of its brain!’ Blackadder turned back to Nursie. ‘I suppose she’s collecting portraits of Professor Flashheart, then?’

‘Oh no, dear, these are for all the portraits of herself that she’s going to send to Professor Flashheart. It’s very naughty. If she weren’t quite so big it would be time for Mr and Mrs Spank to take a short sharp trip to Bottie-land.’

‘That’s lovely, Nursie. Now I’ve already said that I refuse to handle two carts full of picture frames, so … will you move along? You’re holding up the line.’

Nursie did not argue, probably because she was too stupid to know how, and Blackadder turned his attention to his next customer, a man who, just as Darling had prophesied, was buying tiny bottles of dye in every shade of every colour.

Blackadder glared at the man’s enormous collection of miniscule items, which were difficult to scan due to their lack of size. He had been about to make a snide remark when his hand brushed Darling’s, which proved much more of a distraction than he would have thought.

‘Sorry,’ Darling said hurriedly, jerking his hand away. Blackadder did not reply, mostly because he had just felt a sensation he had never imagined he could feel. When he raised his eyes to Darling’s face, the latter was flushing bright red.

Blackadder swallowed hard, forced a snide expression and said, ‘Hands to yourself, Darling.’

Blackadder and Darling managed to check through four more customers before George returned. Baldrick remained missing in action. Darling tried to walk behind Blackadder to return to George’s register and bumped into him. Blackadder, who by this time was beyond irate, whirled around, leaned forwards towards a terrified Darling and discovered that their faces were barely inches apart.

Blackadder couldn’t believe it. What was that thought that had just crossed his mind? Kiss Darling? No. He was not … he was not that sort. He had been happy with Kate. He had all but fallen in love with Kate. He did not fancy boys, and he certainly did not fancy Darling. That was for sure. That was fact. It had to be fact.

Darling, apart from seeming frightened at the prospect of a murderous-looking Blackadder looming over him, was also blushing. He was turning a shade of scarlet so deep that Blackadder thought he might have drowned in it if Melchett hadn’t chosen that moment to reappear.

‘Lunchtime!’ he called, looking giddy. ‘George, why don’t you come eat with me? Darling, what are you doing? I said to bag for Blackadder. George here doesn’t need any help. He’s our best cashier, you know! Well, anyway, I’ve been told by our new kitchen staff that the food is ready! Come along, then, George!’

Darling ducked out and ran towards the exit. Melchett had thrown an arm around George, who was quickly turning pink. They were also heading for the exit, but at a much more leisurely pace. Blackadder cleared his throat, brushed himself off and turned around. ‘Sod off,’ he said to the customer, who was buying every conceivable flavour of icing, and with that he left the tent.

When he reached the lunch stand, Blackadder received yet another unsavoury shock. The mystery of where Melchett had sent Baldrick on his much-more-than-ten-minute break was solved when his stinking servant’s dirty face appeared at the window. ‘And what would you like, sir?’

Blackadder inhaled deeply, seething as he exhaled. ‘Melchett put you on food detail?’ he cried, unable to comprehend it.

Baldrick nodded. ‘Said he couldn’t have me getting too close to the icing; I might get it dirty.’

Blackadder was struck with an overpowering desire to hit Melchett, which was not an option, so he hit Baldrick instead. ‘The icing is stored in sealed tubes, and even if it weren’t, this tent is grimy enough to where it would hardly matter if you touched it! Look at my fingers! See how much dirt I’ve accumulated just by running that bloody register? But no, Melchett is so concerned with his sodding icing that he thinks it will be safer for the walking ball of dung to cook our food! Bloody hell! His logic is less logical than a logic-challenged ant wearing a sign that says, “I have no logic!” You know something, Baldrick? You know what? He and George deserve each other!’

‘Don’t you want something to eat, sir?’ Baldrick called after Blackadder as he stalked away, fuming. ‘No? All right, more turnip pie for me then.’

The rest of his day passed miserably but largely without incident. He could have sworn, though, that Darling was peering in his direction more often than he would have liked … and he had the sickening feeling that part of him didn’t object. To clear his head, Blackadder tried to make a list of everything that had attracted him to Kate, who was, as he screamed to himself in his head, a woman. Disturbingly, Blackadder could remember only one thing: She had a thing for cross-dressing and liked to be called Bob. When his hand brushed Darling’s a second time, Blackadder was, for the first time in his life, too nervous to retort.

It couldn’t be. Even if he did fancy boys, he would not fancy Darling. That was … impossible.

But with each day at Tinlow, it seemed more and more likely. And he thought, the way their hands continued to brush despite Blackadder’s efforts to prevent it, that Darling wasn’t uninterested. In fact, the phrase ‘desperately attracted’ was what came to mind instead.

One day, when Blackadder had been suffering for about a week, Melchett caught sight of Baldrick’s rat, Davey. The next thing any of them knew, Davey had narrowly escaped being ravaged by a mad dog. Blackadder heard Melchett say something that sounded suspiciously like, ‘For the icing, Fluffy!’

‘Not our food, of course,’ Blackadder muttered, ready to poison the open bag of candy melts that Melchett was constantly eating from while forbidding anyone else except George to do the same.

Blackadder and Darling brushed hands again, and Blackadder again declined Baldrick’s proffered lunchtime delicacies, but by this time he was almost used to having his stomach twisted and turned all day long.

The next day Melchett nearly ran over Davey with his car. The rat somehow managed to escape unscathed, and Blackadder watched with distaste as Baldrick cupped the rat in his hands, and noted with amusement that when Melchett apologised, it was to George.

For the next few days Davey stayed out of sight, leaving Blackadder no distractions from Darling, Baldrick’s cuisine, his throbbing feet and the hundreds of fools buying trivets, dyes, picture frames, cake decorating books, Disney pans, candy melts and every flavour of every brand of icing.

One day Darling seemed especially tense, even for Darling. Blackadder got the feeling his downtrodden bagger was steeling up the nerve to do something. He was proven correct when Darling walked behind him again, pretending he needed to replenish the supply of bags. Blackadder tersely sent a customer laden with sixty different kinds of birthday candles off with a death glare and turned to Darling.

But at that moment, Davey reappeared. Blackadder remembered that the rat had once interrupted a conversation between him and Darling by biting the latter. This time he interrupted them by biting George, whose scream had the whole tent turning in his direction.

A furious Melchett raced to one of the filing drawers in the back of the tent, pulled out a pistol and shot at Davey. Blackadder would have wondered why Melchett kept a pistol at the Tinlow tent, but as he thought about it, he really couldn’t blame him. After all, he himself had been ready to shoot half of its regular inhabitants for most of the time he had been there. Melchett raced to George’s side, and the latter slumped over into his arms.

Melchett, flustered and shouting, carried George away for first aid. Baldrick, who had come rushing in at the sound of the gunshot, knelt and for a moment appeared devastated by his loss. ‘Davey’s … gone ….’ he said quietly. ‘Ah well … at least I’ve still got Jimmy the toad …’

Neither Blackadder nor Darling took in the commotion around them. Blackadder had turned around to face Darling and was lost to the outside world due to the internal battle this had caused. He did not want to kiss Darling; he did not want to kiss Darling; he did not want to kiss Darling …

Finally he looked Darling straight in the eye and said, ‘You know as well as I do that the reason you are standing inches apart from me has nothing to do with bags. I want to talk to you, but I don’t want to do it here. As Melchett will likely be gone for the rest of the day tending to his boy-toy, I suggest we both take our first ten-minute breaks of the year. Will you walk with me, Darling?’

Darling looked up at Blackadder. He appeared to both scared and eager. ‘All right, Blackadder, I’ll walk with you.’

Remorselessly abandoning their next customer and fifteen different pans, Blackadder and Darling left their post. Blackadder was amused to notice that Darling kept looking at him, then looking down whenever he noticed it.

Blackadder led Darling past the lunch stand and out into the parking lot. He did not stop walking until he had found a tree not unlike the one under which he had found Darling sitting when they had originally made their bet.

‘Sit down,’ Blackadder said curtly, and Darling did so. Blackadder sat down next to him, and said softly, ‘I’d prefer if you didn’t lower your eyes every time I look at you.’

‘That—that can—that can be arranged,’ Darling sputtered, but he still didn’t look up. Blackadder sighed and continued talking.

‘How long have you wanted me, Darling?’

Darling turned bright red—Blackadder mentally kicked himself for almost referring to it as ‘red with no taste’—and whispered something unintelligible.

‘Darling, while I know that the fact that I converse with Baldrick and George on a daily basis may have confused you, I do not in fact understand Neanderthal. If you want this to go anywhere, you’re going to have to be a bit more lucid.’

Darling sighed. ‘Since before we made that bet. And since you were dating a transvestite who went by the name of Bob, I thought it was … I thought it might be … possible …’

‘You thought that perhaps I was interested in boys and didn’t know it, and that when I came to this revelation I would jump out of Kate’s bed and into yours?’

‘My fantasy is—a bit like that, yes,’ Darling said, his eyes sinking further and further from Blackadder’s gaze.

Blackadder sighed, cupped Darling’s face and pulled it upwards to be level with his own. ‘There are three things you should know about me. The first is that I am a complete and utter bastard. The second is that when push comes to shove, I will always be concerned with myself and my own interests first. The third is that I want to see you tonight.’

Darling’s face broke into a smile. ‘Do you mean that?’

Blackadder grinned evilly. ‘Every last word of it. Oh, and there’s something else: I’m on top.’ He leaned in then and kissed Darling, who responded immediately. When they broke apart for air, Blackadder sighed. ‘I suppose we should go back. As much as I hate this place I’m enjoying the pay, of which I will not be giving you a single penny.’

Darling laughed. ‘That’s all right; I’m … quite content.’ Blackadder offered Darling his arm, and the two began to walk back towards the Tinlow tent. As they passed the lunch tables, they saw George sitting on Melchett’s lap, gazing adoringly into his eyes.

‘That rat of yours was quite the matchmaker, Baldrick,’ Blackadder said when they returned to their register. ‘Of course, that does not change the fact that your next sewer pet will be shot on sight.’

‘Oh, Davey’s not dead, sir. I gave him a bit of turnip, and then he woke up, sir! It was like magic, sir!’

Blackadder snorted. ‘You don’t suppose that had anything to do with the fact that Melchett is awful shot and no bullet in fact entered his body, do you, Baldrick?’

‘No, sir, that had not in fact crossed my mind, sir,’ Baldrick replied, still holding Davey.

Blackadder turned to Darling. ‘There’s one more thing, I’m afraid. You’ll have to put up with Baldrick, because for some reason I’ll never understand, all of my ancestors have done it.’

‘That’s … all right,’ said Darling, holding his nose.