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Chapter 10

Harris lay doubled up like a turkey trussed for execution, wile Melsham hurried downstairs with arm upraised as though to strike the fatal blow. On his way through the hall, he caught his hand amongst the lights of the crystal chandelier, which tinkled merrily in direct contrast to the general air of doom and despondency which prevailed. Melsham swore, and tried to disentangle his arm from the glass pendants, kicking up a racket which had Carmen, busily speaking to the Doctor on the telephone, frantically signalling for quiet. Melsham swore again and, with an angry jerk of his arm, freed it, clattering a few of the pendants across the floor.

Carmen replaced the receiver with impatience. “For goodness sake, father. Be quiet!”

“Me?” Melsham asked, “What about what’s-is-name, there. What’s up with him?”

Carmen explained, looking askance at her father’s arm.

Melsham noticed the look and forced the arm down to a near normal position.

“What’s the matter with your arm,” she asked suspiciously.

“Nothing,” he blustered. “Just a bit stiff, that’s all. I’ve been driving with the car window open,” and to avoid any further embarrassing questions, changed the subject by displaying a sudden concern for Harris’ plight. Harris hammed it up. He had suddenly seen the possibilities.

Carmen bustled off to brew a cup of tea for the invalid. While she was at it, she took one up to her mother, who was sat up in bed, recovering from her migraine and wondering what all the noise was about.

While she was gone, the Doctor arrived and Melsham answered the door.

Phyllis Farmer, M.D., a lady of the tweed variety, regularly hurrahed the local girls’ school hockey team, taught Karate to the Womens’ Group at the village hall … and regarded men as something of a superfluity. “Good evening …” she began in a booming voice that would have been at home on a barracks square, and then flinched as Melsham’s arm suddenly raised itself in a threatening manner. His body described an ungainly parabola through the air as the doctor’s survival instincts took over, leaving Carmen, just then coming downstairs, under the distinct impression that her father had finally flipped. Breath knocked out of him, Melsham lay gasping on the ground with a brogue shod foot planted firmly on his throat.

From his inverted position, Melsham viewed the world with a degree of bile that the doctor might have found surprising. The day was rapidly turning into one which he would rather have spent in a locked and shuttered room.

Carmen explained her father’s unusual affliction, saving him from further damage and the doctor hauled him to his feet again, proferring a terse and qualified apology.

“No more of this nonsense now, man!” she said, “Where’s the patient?”

“Hah! I might have known” she announced when Carmen explained how Harris had strained his back, before disappearing back upstairs to tend to her mother,

“Ask a man to do something …” She pounded his back. “That hurt? Good! Nothing to be done here. A month in bed on a board and you’ll be as right as rain.” She fumbled in her bag for a prescription. “Painkillers, I suppose?” and took Harris’ contorted writhing as affirmation as she started to write out the script.

Melsham had collapsed into an easy chair behind the Doctor, recovering his breath, whilst she ministered to a squirming Harris. He rubbed his left shoulder ruefully where the force of the fall had jarred it. He felt it coming. There was absolutely nothing he could do to stop it. The sinews in his shoulder stretched and popped with the effort but he knew it had to be. Released from the forcible restraint to which his willpower had subjected it for the last 10 minutes, his arm sprang from his side with the accuracy - and much of the latent effect - of a Cruise missile. Doctor Farmer, bending over a groaning Harris, received the full impact and shot upright with a cry of indignation. She turned a furious face on Melsham, who gestured helplessly at his arm.

“I can’t help it” he squawked “It’s got a mind of it’s own.”

“So has this!” roared the doctor, and came at Melsham , with her own arm clubbed. Melsham took the hint and scuttled away to the next room where he locked himself in, conducting a shouted conversation through the door until he finally convinced her that his arm really did need attention.

“Well,why didn’t you say so in the first place?” boomed the doctor, “Get out here man and let’s have a look at it.”

Melsham advanced cautiously and gave the doctor a version of events that afternoon that put him in a somewhat better light than the true picture might have.

The doctor sniffed. Whatever had happened, it was apparent that the man was up to no good. But then, she might have thought that of the Pope. “Strap it up. That’s what you want,” and she swept from the Hall leaving Melsham swathed in sticking plaster with his recalcitrant arm firmly taped to his side and Harris crawling on all fours to the door, bound for horne, bed and blessed relief from Carmen’s attentions for a whole, glorious month.

Slipper arrived back at the Hall on the Sunday evening with his mind a welter of confusion. His enthused urgings of “Marry me, marry me” to Lil whilst deep in the throes of his additional Bank Holiday excesses, had met with an amused “Why, Mr. Slipper, I didn’t know you cared!” The invitation was later retracted by an embarrassed Slipper who didn’t know what had come over him, which came as no surprise to Lil.

“If I’d taken all my gentlemen at their word, Mr. Slipper, I’d have been a bigamist a dozen times over. Don’t you worry your head about it.”

In truth, Slipper’s state of mind was a combination of self-assured satisfaction at the intimate information that had come back from the Brandsley numbers, and heartfelt gratitude to Lil for obtaining it. And - he acknowledged, to his chagrin - a realisation that had first dawned on him during his lunch time stroll with Lil: that Reginald Slipper was but as other men, and harboured a deeply felt need for someone with whom to share his declining years, particularly now that the Hall looked set fair not to remain much longer the centre-piece of his existence.

Although now he looked with a little more certainty on the outcome of events at the Hall, there was still the nagging question: when it was all over, whatever the outcome, what was the future for Reginald Slipper?

The immediate future was rather more clear-cut:-

Item No.1: Return Melsham’s phone. The discovery of his jacket thrown in a heap on the hall floor had made that unexpectedly easy.

Item no 2: See to his own personal comfort in the North Wing. Harris’ efforts had been remarkably proficient there. He would congratulate the lad and give him a bonus when next he saw him.

Item no 3: Prepare the way for the new parlour maids that Lil was fixing up for him.

Item No.4: See to the running of the household, after his weekend absence.

He was astonished to rate the priority on the latter. Forty-eight hours ago, it would have been foremost.

The Hall was strangely deserted when he arrived. Dinner had apparently been cancelled. Harris was missing. Lady Melsham had confined herself to her room. According to the cook, Melsham refused to come out of his study and Carmen, whom Slipper spotted crossing the Courtyard, was wandering about with a fixed and haunted expression. When he later tracked her down, she summarised the events of the previous day with vigour, mentioned with derision her father’s unusual affliction - a sentiment that Slipper could only share - and castigated Slipper himself for expecting Harris to shift that iron chest by himself, thereby removing him from all strenuous activity for at least a month. She stamped her foot at that.

Slipper had expected no such thing. To be honest, he had entirely forgotten about the chest. It had been so long since he’d packed it away and he resolved to apologise to Harris at the first opportunity. He astonished himself at that last thought, as well. Intrigue was obviously having a mellowing effect on his character.

Harris, perversely, was congratulating himself on discovering the chest. If nothing else, it had given him a respite from Carmen’s demanding attention. In point of fact, although painful if he moved too quickly, the injury was not as bad as he had led people - including the Doctor - to believe, but he was determined to milk it for all he was worth. Or as much as Slipper and Lord Melsham were worth. Meanwhile, he was content to lie back in bed and contemplate the month’s enforced rest on full pay, with whatever compensation he could squeeze out into the bargain.

Surprisingly, when Slipper had eventually tracked him down, Harris had found him unusually accommodating in that direction. He had expected argument and threats of legal action, but Slipper quite spiked his guns. Not only had he rewarded him handsomely for his toil but had settled a further largish sum on him in compensation. Harris had been too surprised to press for more but had snapped Slipper’s hand off. Bemused, Harris settled down to his holiday with every indication of relish and Slipper repaired to his new quarters intent on settling himself in.

The North Wing had been disused for many years and, although spacious, the rooms were dank and spoke eloquently of neglect. The incipient melancholia clashed strongly with Slipper’s new-found euphoria, making the rooms appear more dismal than they really were. Rubbing his hands briskly, Slipper decided that a fire might show things in a more rosy light, and began to lay it.

Melsham badly wanted to rub his hands. The f act of the matter was he had only one to rub. His left hand was strapped tightly to his body by layers of sticking plaster and the palm was itching something chronic. To add to his discomfort the doctor, whether by design or desire, had seen fit to anchor the free end of the tape to his scrotum, so that the very act of walking was accompanied by the most exquisite pain, and any notion of trying to loosen the adhesive mess to get at his hand, one to be approached with a considerable amount of circumspection. Melsham cursed. As if his weekend hadn’t been bad enough, he’d had to get landed with a liberated female doctor whose envy of the penile function seemed to have attached itself irrevocably to his genitals. He hop-stepped around the Study, alternately whimpering and swearing to God that he would see Doctor Phyllis-bloody-Farmer sued, struck off and generally screwed-down so tight she would think her seventh heaven had come.

Slipper, on his way to fetch another pail of coal, paused by the Study door. The shuffling, sobbing, sound emanating from within sounded ecstatically familiar and he felt sorry that he could not include the Doctor on his payroll. “Just another turn of the screw” Slipper thought to himself as he tapped on the panel. “Milord? May I be of any service?”

“Slipper?” Melsham stopped his pacing. “Is that you?” The key turned in the lock and the door opened ajar. “Quick, get in here man.”

The sight which met Slipper’s eyes once inside quite made up for the past two days’ hard work. Melsham crouched painfully on the carpet, his body mummified with sticking plaster, but otherwise naked, and his eyes casting about with the hunted expression of a wild animal about to be set upon by dogs. “That damn doctor took all my clothes away, and I’m buggered if I’m going to walk about the place looking like this,” he snarled. He tried to straighten up but thought better of it. “Jesus wept,” he groaned, “For Christ’s sake get this bloody plaster off my balls!”

Slipper, as ever, did his duty. The resultant scream of anguish awoke Her Ladyship and brought her sitting up in bed, white-faced and shaking.

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