Freddy also sat up in bed. The Chinese woman had finally stopped hitting him over the head with the machete, but only because the tractor had driven away and she couldn’t reach him anyway, floating as he was three inches below the ceiling. He opened his eyes and someone immediately bored a gimlet into his head. He shut them again, hurriedly, and then tried them one at a time, slowly.
That was better, but not very helpful because the view that swam into sight was dis-familiar. It could not have been unfamiliar, because that would have implied there must first have been something remotely recognisable to be unfamiliar about. Not that Freddy’s thought processes could have made sense of anything so abstruse or, indeed, anything at all.
A chest of drawers drifted into vision and said “Look, he’s come round.” A wardrobe replied “Quick, go and get Hal,” but nothing moved to go and get anything so Freddy thought they weren’t going to bother until he noticed that it wasn’t the furniture that was speaking but two people sitting by his bedside. Nice people with lovely faces and long, long hair. He rolled his head loosely from one to the other. “Hello,” he drooled, “Who are you?”
The lovely face on the left bent over him. “Quiet, now” it said, softly, “Don’t tire yourself. You’ve been out for a few days.”
“Ohh,” Freddy said “Have I? I don’t remember it.” Have I been anywhere nice?
The lovely face looked at the other lovely face and shook its lovely head “He hasn’ t come round, you know.” That puzzled Freddy because it had said he had come round before. Whatever round was. It sounded nice, anyway, and Freddy tried to make himself round, to be obliging, even if he had to try to think what round looked like. But that hurt his head, so he gave up, rolled over, and went to sleep again.
Hal had spent a few sleepless nights since Freddy’s accident wondering whether he should have got him to a hospital or not. But hospitals meant questions, and there was that little unreso1ved matter with the vice-squad to think about. On balance, Hal had decided, it was probably better to keep Freddy here until he either came round, or got worse, in which case he had always fancied spreading the Word in the Outer Hebrides. At least the latter possibility now looked a non-starter and Hal had breathed a sigh of relief when Petal came downstairs to say that Freddy had shown some signs of life…if retarded. “It sounds as if he doesn’t know where he is,” she said.
Hal was relieved. If Freddy had lost his memory it could remove the prospect of overcoming any legal consequences and thereby revealing Hal’s presence to the Authorities.
“It’s such a pity,” Petal said “He seems such a nice guy too.”
The compliment was pronounced with a wistful air and a sigh that drew a baleful glance from Hal. He had seen the way that the women had lingered over putting Freddy to bed the other day, and the increase in purging by the womenfolk since his arrival had been quite remarkable. Not only that, the sight of so many of them indulging in energetic group calisthenics was beginning to have a disturbing knock-on effect on the men. Productivity was down by half and, from the way that the sheep now avoided Zip, Hal strongly suspected that the shepherd was applying more than his zeal to his job.
Hal, himself, never purged. He was a firm believer in leading by authority, rather than example. And, anyway, the prospect of revealing his body to all and sundry appalled him. Not for the fact, but for the knowledge that if the measure of a man were the visible evidence, then Hal’s stature within the community would have been lower than the shrivelled earthworm with which perverse nature ad endowed him. Or, as Lady Sylvia might have put it, Hal’s ‘doings’ didn’t. Not very often, anyway, and never very successfully, making the need for purging quite superfluous: what the body never experienced, it never missed. Which was the basis on which Hal’s group philosophy was founded. If he couldn’t get any himself, he saw no reason why anyone else should either.
Sheila came downstairs then. “He’s asleep now” she said. “Resting like a baby.” And she said it with a catch in her voice.
Hal railed. “Come on! He’s only had a bang on the head.”
He’s been spark out for two days – it shouldn’t take two of you to look after him!”
“What should we do, then, Hal? Leave him to look after himself? There’s no telling what he might do if he wakes up in a strange room not knowing where he is or what’s happened to him?” The defence was a little too heated for Hal’s liking, despite the fact that, as a former failed nurse, Sheila was the only one of them qualified to express an opinion on medical matters.
“There’s no telling what he might do if he wakes up in a strange room with the two of you sitting on his bed! That’s all I’m saying. Remember your creed, Sisters.”
The two girls dropped their heads, murmuring the required response. Mollified, Hal stood and placed his hands on their bowed heads. “Sisters. See me privately. Let me help you purge your souls.” With this injunction he left the kitchen, leaving them to think about their indiscretions.
When Freddy did awake it was to a room-full of lovely, lovely faces, each vying for best position at the foot of the bed, all squabbling for the priviledge of giving him a bed bath…whatever that was.
When Lady Sylvia awoke it was to a banshee wail that reminded her of the castration shed at Archie’s pig farm and drained the blood from her face. While Sylvia clutched the sheets to her bosom in consternation, Lappit clutched his genitals and hopped around the Study, cursing. “I’ll swing for that doctor. So bloody help me!”
Slipper looked on mildly, and with immense satisfaction. “I find that the direct approach to a difficult sticking plaster is always best, milord.” Through a stream of tears and clenched teeth Melsham expressed his opinion of Slipper’s direct approach. “Get me a coat, or something” he demanded “I’m going to bed. I’ll soak this lot off in the morning.”
Melsham limped gingerly upstairs reviling the world in general, while Slipper watched him with a calcul ting gaze. “Lappit, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet” he thought, lapsing into the vernacular, and made his own way to bed.
Melsham hobbled into the bedroom, leaning against the door as it closed behind him.
“Oh! You’ve finally come home, then!” Sylvia’s voice was heavy with irony.
“Shut up” Lappit groaned. “I’ve had enough to put up with tonight without you starting.” He dropped the coat on the floor and revealed his swaddled body with the swinging gusset where Slipper had wrenched it free. He held it out to Sylvia with his good hand. “Here, cut this off, and be bloody careful.” Sylvia took hold of the loose plaster with distaste.
“What have you been up to now,” she asked.
“Just cut it off, woman. I’m in no mood for arguing. I don’t want the bloody thing sticking all over everywhere. See that there? That’s skin that is. You know where that came from?”
It was hideously obvious where it had come from, Sylvia discovered. “You should get something on that” she said, wrinkling her nose in distaste.
“I’ve bloody had something on it” Melsham snapped, “That’s why it’s like it is now. I’ll tell you something. That Doctor bloody Farmer is finished. Dildoed. Kaput.” The unconscious choice of expression brought on a further attack of bile as memories of Helga in full war cry came flooding back and Melsham shuddered as he threw himself on the bed and drew the bedclothes across him with his one hand in a gesture of finality.
Beside him Sylvia looked sourly on, turned her back and switched off the light.
For Freddy, the light was slowly dawning on his befuddled mind. He found that he rather liked bed baths. The girls clustered around the foot of his bed with radiant faces, taking turn and turn about to alternately sponge and dry his body. Petal rested his bandaged head on her lap whilst Sheila stroked his temples with soft, insistent fingers and Freddy gave himself over to the attentions of the rest of the women with a passive submission that would have earned a Trappist Monk brownie points.
Freddy’s identity was not the only thing he had lost: his libido was somewhere out there in the wilderness as well. From the rampant roué he had been when he first arrived, he had now turned into the original innocent. Sensuality was a word no longer in his vocabulary and Hal had nothing to worry about. Rather the opposite because, for as long as Freddy chose to remain at the commune, Hal would be assured of an abundant stream of recondite acolytes requiring personal absolution for unnecessary carnal thoughts, and whilst it might not do much for his own physical shortcomings, it would swell his ego no end.
Taking the jaundiced view, however, Hal adopted a more totalitarian approach. “Sisters!” he cried, bursting into the bedroom “Enough. Our guest has need of rest. Away!” One by one the girls edged out of the bedroom and down the stairs. “And do what you now must!” Hal called after them.
Soon the air was redolent with the sound of purging limbs and the breathless gasp of spent bodies as the girls competed in the rite of absolute repentance …and Zip disappeared in the direction of the sheep pens with a haunted expression on his face.
Hal looked down with undisguised venom at Freddy’s naked body. “Brother,” he said “We do not reveal ourselves except as an act of contrition!”
Freddy smiled an idiot grin. “Who are you? And where’s the Chinese girl? She fell off the tractor, you know,” he said with an air of concern. “I like bed baths,” he added.
It was Hal’s turn to look blank. “Chinese? We have no Chinese in this Community.”
“Oh yes,” said Freddy earnestly, “She had this big chopper.”
Hal shuddered. Chinese were one thing. Chinese with big choppers were quite another. Chinese women with big choppers was not only unthinkable, it was downright unfair.
“She was hitting me over the head with it,” offered Freddy, brightly, adding insult to injury.
“Enough!” Repent, Sinner.” Hal drew himself up to his full height. “Repent!”
Freddy drew his knees up in alarm, pulling the sheets over his body in unconscious reaction. The act had a calming influence on Hal.
“Forgive me, brother. I forget that you are injured. You should rest now. In the morning we shall talk.”
Obediently, Freddy turned on his side and closed his eyes. Hal left him sleeping and went downstairs to supervise the act of mass contrition being perpetrated below …and Zip staggered back from the sheep pens, cross-eyed.
In his bed Slipper was far from asleep. He lay with his head crooked in his hands mulling over the events of the past forty-eight hours. A Yorkshire Butcher’s Boy was no match for Reginald Slipper at his most conniving, that much was certain. The bigger they come the more mess was apt to get spread around when they were eventually tumbled, and Lappit was going to get splattered all over the place before Slipper was finished with him.
It was an incredibly self-satisfied Slipper who eventually drifted off to an exhausted sleep.