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Chapter 12

Melsham woke up late the following morning to an empty bed and the feeling that all was not as it should be. His back was stiff, his imprisoned arm had pins and needles and, as for his … well, he shuddered to think how that was. That it was, in fact, still there was indisputable: the raw throb that shot through his nether quarters whenever he moved made it painfully obvious. Quite what had possessed Slipper to be so heavy handed with his removal of the sticking plaster the previous night Melsham really couldn’t think. “Talk about lovers’ balls” he groaned, “they should have a dose of this lot.” He inched himself out of bed and waddled to the en-suite to run a bath. The sooner he soaked off the plaster couldn’t be too soon for him.

In the North Wing, Slipper also was sleeping late: sleeping the sleep of the just. From being the down-trodden servant that he had been only 36 hours ago, he now felt he was holding the whip hand - so to speak - and rested content in the knowledge that Melsham’ s downfall was almost cut-and-dried. The denouement was the thing. How to finish it. That would need the right circumstances, with the maximum effect. It was a problem that was still taxing Slipper but not one that interfered with his rest.

What did interfere with it, however, was the earth-shattering scream from the family quarters that made itself heard even in the North Wing:

Melsham had just lowered his body into the piping hot bath, quite forgetting about the layer of scrotal epidermis adhering obscenely to the sticking plaster gusset that Lady Sylvia had cut off so distastefully last night.

Slipper shot out of bed almost as quickly as Melsham shot out of the bath. Slipper clutched his heart: Melsham clutched his groin. Slipper stood rooted to the spot: Melsham hopped up and down, swearing, until the pain subsided. By that time Slipper had made his way to the source of the noise, meeting Lady Sylvia on the way.

They hurried upstairs and burst into the bathroom to be met by a terrifying snarl as Melsham raised his face from the doubled-up position he occupied. “Yes, you might fucking well stare. Look what the both of you have done. My balls are on fire!”

Lady Melsham snorted, “Really Archibald, there’s no need for such disgusting language, and in front of the servants too.”

“No need?” screamed Melsham. “No fucking need? I’ve got balls like boiled goose eggs and you say there’s no need to swear …”

Lady Melsham recoiled in disgust. “Slipper,” she said in embarrassment. That will be all. The Master is not feeling himself.”

“No! And nor is any other bugger either!Not with balls like these.” Melsham limped painfully away into the bedroom, drawing a towel across his lobstered flesh as best he could with his one good arm. “For Christ’s sake come and cut this bloody plaster off woman. And be careful this time!”

Slipper withdrew from the bedroom smirking, while Melsham flopped onto the bed and Lady Melsham approached him tentatively with a pair of nail scissors. The smirk became an unashamed grin when Melsham squealed in pain again as the plaster peeled slowly from his body.

Breakfast was a subdued affair. Neither Lord nor Lady Melsham were speaking and Carmen was glowering into her kedgeree in a sulk. All in all, Slipper thought, an admirable state of affairs.

Melsham broke his silence. “You moved out yet, Slipper? Don’t forget I’ve got the builders coming round this morning.”

“Yes, milord. The Gate House is empty now. I fear, however, that Harris is discommoded. He was seeing to the removals when he put out his back.”

Melsham shuddered. “I know that, man. It was that bloody doctor who looked at him who put me in this state. Where did you get her from, for God’s sake?” he fired at Carmen.

“Don’t blame me,” pouted Carmen. “It was you who goosed the woman.”

At the mention of geese, Melsham shifted uncomfortably on his rubber comfort ring. “Pure accident that. It was this bloody arm. The woman’s a psychopath. She should be struck off.” Melsham favoured his arm, testing it gingerly for its recently acquired propensity for elevation, but the good doctor’s unorthodox treatment seemed to have done the trick and it stayed where it was put.

Lady Melsham sniffed, pointedly, the action levelling scathing condemnation at her husband better than any Judge’s verdict, black cap and all. Melsham reddened, and shrank a litlie inside his collar but was saved any further embarrassment as a battered pick-up truck clanked through into the court-yard outside.

“About bloody time,” Melsham muttered drawing himself painfully erect, and waddled off to meet the Fullerton half of ‘Baines and Fullerton: no job too small’.

“Mornin, milord.” Harold Fullerton doffed his cap, tucking a still burning cigarette behind his left ear, a habit which had left him with a patch of permanently yellowed hair and engendered an insane feeling amongst his customers that his head was about to go up in flames at any moment. It never had, but their consequent disorientation had let him walk away with many a contract that, in their less distracted moments, prospective clients might have had second thoughts about.

Any such hopes that Harold might have harboured about Lord Melsham’s gullibility were soon dispelled, however. “Where I come from Fullerton, a day’s work means a day’s work,” Melsham snapped. “I hope this job cracks on at a damn better pace than you’ve made today. You only got it because you’re cheap but don’t you think you can pass me off with shoddy work, or I’ll be on you like a ton of bricks.” With this not entirely unwarranted diatribe, Melsham hobbled off to the Gate House, leaving a dumbfounded Fullerton to follow.

An hour later, Fullerton had been left with a full list of requirements and deadlines, no doubts at all about his firm’s status in Melsham’s opinion, but serious and vehement misgivings as to the Earl’s parentage. He left with the feeling that here was a man whom it would pay not to annoy, and a burning ambition to thrust a yard of concrete where it would do most damage.

Melsham watched him reel to his truck with some satisfaction. Playing ping-pong with sensibilities always made him feel good, and he made up his mind, there and then, to visit his Head Office back in Brandsley for a few weeks, while Fullerton got on with the job. They needed a bloody good shake-up - and he was in just the right frame of mind to do it.

From the dining-room window, Slipper watched the pair emerge from the Gate House. The look on his face was, at the same time, both pathetic and frightening.

The look that Helga shot at Lil was resentful, more than anything. She had finally emerged from a sullen sulk, to mope about the house like a lovesick water buffalo.

“Oh, Helga, do pull yourself together!” cried Lil in exasperation. “Whatever is the matter?”

Helga raised calf eyes at her employer and sighed. “Iss no gut.” “Mein heart, Miss Lilian, she iss broke. Meine liebling haff gone und…”

“What do you mean, ‘mein liebling’? You don’t know anybody here yet.”

Lil knew this to be true, for Helga rarely set foot outside the establishment- she was still self-conscious about her thick accent.

Helga dropped her head and mumbled, stumbling over the words.

“Iss not …prof-ess-ion-al Iss my client.”

Lil gaped. “What? You don’t mean … ?”

“Ja. Mein noddy liddle boy. I loff him.”

“Oh, Helga, you can’tl”

“Ja!” Helga looked suddenly fiercely possessive. “He touch me like nozzing haff touch me before! Und now he haff gone und I not see him again.” She broke down and wailed.

Lil looked on dumbfounded. How anyone could possibly fall in love with that loathsome toad that Helga had all but squashed the other night was quite beyond her. Apart from which, Helga was right - it was unprofessional. She couldn’t have her staff making liaisons with clients.

“Well really, Helga, I thought better of you than that”

“Iss not mein fault,” Helga raised her head again. “I am only wooman und mein noddy liddle boy iss so …noddy …und like so much to chase. He excite me.”

Lil remained nonplussed. The concept of Melsham exciting anything but disgust was inconceivable but then, there was no accounting for taste, and Helga’s S.S. upbringing was probably a bit of a handicap to her in the pursuit of true happiness. Let’s be charitable, she thought. “But he’s only a man, Helga. You could have your pick of any number.” Lil glanced at the shuddering hulk hunched over the reception desk and suddenly looked doubtful at the last statement but Helga noticed nothing.

“I not vant any ozzer! I only vant mein noddy liddle boy!” and Helga hunched over again in a renewed bout of misery.

Lil shrugged. “Well I really don’t know what you expect me to do about it, but you’re not a lot of use to the business the way you …” She broke off with a sudden gleam in her eyes and felt for the note that Mr. Slipper had given her.

“Helga? How would you like a little holiday?” she said.

The sky was a Wagnerian shade of purple as Helga stood, case in hand, outside the gates of Staddon Hall a few days later. As a consequence of a bout of heavy-handed sledge-hammer wielding at the Hall, the phone was temporarily out of action and Lil, remembering Slipper’s remarks about the unreliability of the local post and the lack of reception for any mobile link because of the surrounding hills, had felt constrained to send Helga on spec. Besides, the German girl’s lassitude was beginning to affect the rest of her staff and Lil reasoned that if Helga was quartered cheek by jowl with the objectionable Melsham for a few weeks, her malaise would soon be cured. A short, sharp shock was what she wanted, Lil thought in her scatty way and, consequently, she had not acquainted Helga with the identity of her new, temporary, employer.

The taxi that Lil had so thoughtfully provided sped away over the brow of the hill, its driver thankful to be free of the hulking misery that had all but filled the back seat of his vehicle since his pick-up at the massage parlour. Almost prophetically, the weather had gradually changed during the drive across the moors until the electricity charged atmosphere outside was almost as brooding as that within the passenger compartment of the vehicle. He had let Helga out with relief and made his escape, leaving the poor inmates of the ancient pile to what he imagined to be their fate.

Helga sighed a rumbling sigh. The weather exactly matched her mood: black, oppressive…and likely at any moment to flood with dark and heavy tears. Helga was deeply unhappy. She pushed open the gates and trudged heavily across the cobbled courtyard, clutching Lil’s letter in her massive hand. The heavy knocker was dwarfed as she raised it and rapped once, loudly, the echoes reverberating down the hallway like the crack of doom.

Now that Melsham had taken himself off to belabour his Northern business empire, Slipper was glad of the time to consider his next move. It was giving him some problems. He had the information on Melsham’s peccadilloes. He had a broad outline in his mind of how they might be brought to bear against him. Shortly, given Lil’s assitance, he hoped to have the instruments with which to pursue it. As to how it might all gell together into a foolproof plan that would have Melsham eating the very cement with which he shortly expected to engulf the Hall he did not, as yet, have an inkling.

Busily cleaning the silver in his pantry and ruminating on the problem, Slipper heard the knock with surprise. The Hall had few unexpected visitors. He stripped off his soiled, green pinafore and hurried off to answer the call. As he opened the door, lightning flickered as though a switch had been thrown, framing the looming figure and turning it into a silhouetted ziggurat. It raised an arm. “I haff letter for Mr. Slipper,” it announced as a rumble of thunder carried the words away to bounce across the moors.

Slipper recoiled. The light, the apparition and the atmospheric sound effects all combined to produce a vision of Hell unbridled …and then, he recognised the voice. Although he had not met Helga face to face, her stature and accent made it impossible to misplace. Automatically, he took the proffered letter, rewarded by a Teutonic, but lacklustre, click of heels and staccato bow. Then, the rain, which had held off its threat for so long during the afternoon, slashed down in sheets, drawing skeins of water across the courtyard. Slipper hurriedly motioned Helga in and, stiffly, she entered. Her dejection, Slipper noted, had not abated since he had last seen her trailing her whip down the corridor at Miss Lilian’s. If anything it had intensified, and the figure she presented in the half-light of the hall put Slipper in mind of a dying elephant. He motioned her again and she followed him down the hallway and into his pantry.

Slipper perched on his stool, looking uncomfortably down at Helga who sat to attention, with drooping shoulders, on the battered settee. He slit open the envelope in his hand and scanned the contents of the letter quickly. “Dear Reginald,” it began, and he coloured slightly at the familiarity, ”Thinking on what we were speaking about earlier, you would be doing me a very great favour in taking Helga off my hands for the time being. Her mind isn’t on her job and I have my reputation to think about. Besides, it would be killing two birds with one stone …” The letter went on to explain Helga’s infatuation with Melsham, of how Lil thought that closer contact with Slipper’s obnoxious master would either kill or cure the malaise and how Helga’s masquerading as a parlour-maid would both help Slipper in his plans and Lil in her aims to introduce a new element into the services she provided for her clients.

Helga had been sent on the pretext of learning the art of chamber maiding. She was unaware, Lil said in the letter, that the object of her affections was her new master and that Slipper should break the news to her gently (if he thought it best) in case she should flip her Germanic little mind and how he should take no nonsense from Helga but treat her as one of the staff except for any special purposes he might have in mind unless that is …Slipper stopped reading, his mind in a whirl. Lil wrote in the same way that she spoke, words cascading over each other in their haste to escape her cluttered mind.

Helga cleared her throat. “Miss Lillian say iss all right. Mr. Slipper, he vill look after Helga.”

Slipper looked at Helga. In her double- breasted trench coat and french beret, she looked far from the warring valkyrie she had seemed the other afternoon. The revolting memory jolted Slipper’s thoughts and, in a sudden flash of inspiration, a picture of his iron-bound chest exploded into his mind. Suddenly, Melsham’s fate was decided.

“Helga!” cried Slipper, advancing on her with outstretched hand. “Mr. Slipper will look after you. Mr. Slipper certainly will.”

Having briefly introduced Helga to her Ladyship, who had again confined herself to bed suffering the after-effects of another ‘migraine’, Slipper showed the new chamber-maid through to the servants’ quarters and instructed the cook, Mrs. Catchett, to make her feel at home. He left the kitchen to the sound of motherly clucking and guttural cries of bewilderment as Helga battled with the ripe Dimpset accent of the old cook, soon stilled as Mrs. Catchett plied her with plates of sandwiches.

Grabbing a hurried sandwich himself, Slipper made haste back to his quarters, unpacked the iron chest and laid the contents out on the floor. Then, he clanked heavily down to the locked and long disused cellars with armful after armful of what had been the cause of Harris’ misfortune.

When he had finished, in the early hours, the cellars looked not so much the storehouse they had become over the years, but more what they once had been in the times of the 1st Earl and his immediate successors. The dim light and accumulated dust added an air of authenticity, and Slipper relaxed from his labours with a self -satisfaction that was almost tangible. Staddon Hall was again the proud possessor of a dungeon and its concomitant accoutrements such as might once have gladdened the heart of the country’s Chief Executioner…and sent Madame Thussaud screaming for the smelling salts. He picked up a pair of evil-looking tongs and found himself idly wondering to what good use Helga might be able to put them.

He took one last look around, rubbed his hands, and double-locked the doors behind him as he walked off, almost jauntily, to bed.

Helga settled in nicely, over the next few days. The mood in which she had arrived gradually dispersed as she was taken under Mrs. Catchett’ s wing. Slipper himself surprised the rest of the household staff by the amount of solicitude he extended towards the German girl.

What with the new Lord Melsham “bringin’ in all they new¬fangled ideas and Mr. Slipper almost skippin’ about the place … well, it were a wonder anyone knew whether they’m comin’ or goin’,” as Brandybutt had complained. But then, Brandybutt himself was almost skipping about lately. Crippled by sciatica for years he had long resigned himself to hobbling around on a stick until one evening, shortly after her arrival, Helga had introduced her skills as a masseuse during the course of a halting conversation, and laid about Brandybutt’s leg with her nutcracker hands. Brandybutt had been too surprised to resist on that first evening, and impatient to begin on the evenings that followed, until he had been persuaded to throw away his stick and took on a new lease of life. Helga’s stock went up in leaps and bounds and she soon had a private consultancy service amongst the servants.

Carmen also, once she had learned of the German girl’s expertise, had requisitioned her and applied her with gusto to Harris’s back. Harris made a remarkable recovery, due almost entirely to Helga’s recognition of malingerers when she saw them and a certain heavy-handedness which tended to creep into her ministrations in such circumstances. Carmen’s gratitude was unbridled, Harris’s slightly less so, and all was beginning to be right with Helga’s little world.

Slipper looked in at the kitchen door, seeing Helga sitting alone by the fire. She looked at peace with the world and herself and he wondered whether the time was yet ripe to forewarn her of Melsham’ s impending return. He had taken a liking to the girl and he had no wish to disturb her newly acquired equanimity. But then again the sight of Melsham’ s face and Helga’s reaction at their unexpected reunion was almost too good to spoil. And, of course, there was the newly acquired ‘dungeon’ to pull into the equation now. Slipper locked himself in his pantry, put on his green pinafore and started to polish the silver again. He found his mind worked better that way.

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