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Chapter 14

From that moment on, Slipper gave over his whole attention to Melsham’s downfall, reinforced when a peremptory note arrived from the man himself instructing him to commence preparations for the Grand Opening Banquet … and the last piece of the jigsaw fell into place with an almost audible ‘click’. It was almost in a holiday mood that Slipper conducted the household over the next few weeks as Fullerton and his crew gradually transformed the old stables and the hallowed halls of Staddon rang to pick and shovel.

Given the choice, Tony Kwan would have chosen a livelier spot than Dimpset for a holiday. Scenery was all right in its place, but what Tony required was a piece of the action. The bigger the piece the better, but he would have settled for any, at the moment. Tony Kwan was bored. His brothers had long since given up the vigil and returned to Brandsley until needed again. Old Father Lin had insisted on co-ordinating the search for Freddy’s Porsche personally, leaving Tony little option, over the past few weeks, but to take his ease. What he needed to pass the time - Tony thought to himself - was a little diversion and he had been working hard to achieve it, although Cherry Lin was a tough little nut to crack. He sharpened up his tie and, slicking back his hair, set off for another attempt, shooting a final critical look in the mirror as he went.

The look that Hal had shot at Freddy that morning was not only critical but downright hostile. The girls had long ceased purging, abandoning themselves to the full-time pursuit of repressed lust, and thereby removing both the spectacle and the sense of power that had hi therto been the core of Hal’s existence. It was all the same to Freddy. The bump on the head had rendered him as innocent and naive as a new-born lamb - and there were precious few of those at the moment, given Zip’s inclination which, thankfully, had abated somewhat now that the girls had stopped their purging.

Hal glared impotently through the kitchen window at the sight of the born-again ingénue innocently hoeing the cabbages, attended by an endless procession of women. Petal sat guard by Freddy’s wheelbarrow, fending off her Sisters with thinly disguised venom. The whole fabric of the commune was falling apart, Hal recognised, and there was little he could do about it short of physically ejecting Freddy from the premises, which was likely to bring about open revolt from the womenfolk.

Yet, if he were allowed to stay, there was no knowing when temptation might prove too much for the Sisters, thus negating everything that Hal had striven for, proving his leadership useless and, more importantly, reminding him again of his own shortcomings.

Just then, an ancient Renault van rattled its way down the driveway to deliver a load of seed corn that Hal had ordered some time ago. Hal signed for the delivery in brooding silence and watched the van reverse away. He turned back to watch Freddy complete his hoeing, and inspiration struck.

“Brother Freddy!” Hal picked his way across the vegetable patch and draped an arm over Freddy’s shoulders, shooing two of the Sisters away. Petal stayed, eyes narrowed with suspicion and jealousy. “You’re working hard, Freddy. The patch has never looked better.”

Freddy beamed inanely. “Toil cleanses the spirit, Hal.“Purge the body, cleanse the soul”

“Yes, very good Freddy. But the commune is not all about labour and hardship, you know. There is another side.” He gestured around at the rows of groomed vegetables. “Regrettably we live in a world of commercialism. We do our best to do without it, but needs must.”

Freddy nodded sagely. He knew that Hal was a wise man because Hal had told him so. “What I want you to do, Freddy, is to perform a great service for the community.”

Freddy nodded hugely.

“I want you to sell your produce!”

Freddy nearly hopped from foot to foot in excitement and Hal smirked. Sending the man on a daily round of the district would successfully remove his sphere of influence and allow Hal to reassert his. Nothing could have been simpler to arrange, and he could not have guessed how efficacious a solution it would prove.

Two hours later saw Freddy proudly polishing a pick-up truck that had seen better days twenty years ago, while Zip and the other men loaded sacks of vegetables into the back. Petal pouted in the background, annoyed that Hal had not permitted her to go with Freddy on his round. Zip was to accompany him for the first few days until he was used to the area.

This arrangement suited Freddy because … well, Freddy loved Zip. Just as he loved Hal and Sheila and Petal. In fact, there was no-one in the whole wide world that Freddy didn’t love.

Zip was not so benevolently inclined and approached his appointed task with a deal of bad grace. Quite apart from playing nursemaid to a nincompoop, he was missing out on the orgy of purging that Hal was set to impose on the womenfolk as soon as Freddy drove out of the gates. He slumped indolently in the passenger seat and Freddy climbed proudly in beside him, letting in the clutch with a flourish. Hal waved as the ancient truck clattered its unsteady way along the track and out into the lane. Slowly he turned to the gathered brethren and, solemnly, pointed to the scrubby lawn. One by one, they disrobed.

The trip was not a particular success. Freddy retreated to the truck for the umpteenth time that morning wondering at the insensitivity of humankind.

“Look,” said Zip, exasperated. “Never mind trying to convert the sods, just sell the bleedin’ groceries and let’s go home.”

Freddy pursed his lips primly, “Brother Zip, I am surprised at you. The trouble is,” he continued, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel, “you are not committed. The locals already know about us at the Commune. They’ve picked up the wrong idea about us. What we need to do is to go further afield.” His eyes took on a missionary zeal. “Brother Hal has entrusted me with this job and I will repay his love a thousand-fold.”

“Oh, come on! He’s only told you to sell …” Zip groaned. Newly converted brethren were always the worst. Give them a few years of watching pussy cavorting about with not so much as a grope to look forward to and they’d soon change their tune - he really didn’t know why he’d stayed at the place so long himself. Or, rather, he did - Her Majesty’s Pleasure provided a compelling enough reason. He resigned himself to Freddy’s fervour and settled back in his seat with his feet on the dashboard as the truck clattered off in the direction of the City.

Rossiter hove into sight like a vision of Jerusalem, the Cathedral dominating the City like a bastion of all that was right and holy. As, indeed, it was. The view struck an evangelistic chord in Freddy’s flapping mind and he began bawling born-again hymns as he and Zip drove along. Zip looked askance at his companion, sour-mouthed, and pulled his woolly hat further down over his ears.

Freddy pulled up in the outskirts and parked the truck in a quiet street but their luck was no better here than in the country. Those people who bothered to answer the door at all promptly slammed it shut again when greeted with Freddy’s opening spiel of “Hallelujah, sister. Be pure of body and of mind and Providence will be yours!” whilst waving a string bag of assorted veg in their faces.

Despondent, he slumped in the driving seat of the ancient truck. Then, he suddenly struck the steering wheel with a gesture of triumph, startling Zip who had consigned the entire proceedings to perdition and gone comatose with boredom long ago. “That’s it!” Freddy exclaimed in revelation. “Why on earth didn’t I think of it before: restaurants! Restaurants is what we need, Brother Zip. Good, wholesome restaurants who need good, wholesome vegetables straight from God’s garden.” He started the vehicle with the resolution of someone assured of immediate success and set out for the town centre.

Some time later, Freddy was saddened that the good restaurateurs of Rossiter seemed no better persuaded to the glory of God’s garden than anyone else he had harangued that day. Even his campaigning zeal had temporarily deserted him.

“Let’s face it, Freddy,” said Zip rousing himself from indolence, “this whole thing is one big waste of time. The only good thing you’re going to get from any restaurant around here is something to eat. Speaking of which,” he continued “I’m starving.” He motioned Freddy over to the side of the road as a garish neon sign announced its presence and the vehicle pulled to a halt outside ‘The Spring Roll’ Chinese Take-away.

Inside, Cherry Lin and a second cousin on her father’s side, were preparing for the evening shift in the Take-away. A vat of curry had just come up to boil and mounds of rice were ready to serve the evening’s inrush of customers. Cherry was agitated. Tony Kwan had taken to hanging around and forcing his attentions on her when it was patently clear that she had no intention of reciprocating. However, scenting a possible merger of great families, with all the attendant benefits that went with it, Cherry’s father had done nothing to dissuade Kwan’s attentions. She had not yet confided in Ying, although Arthur had sensed that there was something troubling her. By great good fortune, the two men had not yet run into each other, Arthur’s shifts and Kwan’s visits had not so far co-incided but that situation could not be expected to continue and Cherry didn’t know what the outcome might be.

Arthur, had he known, would have been positive what the outcome would be, and it was all credit to Cherry that she had unknowingly guarded her man from the illogicalities of the male machismo. Bravery was all right in its place. Suicide was quite another matter.

Cherry’s cousin was a pert young thing with all the attributes of the classic oriental beauty. She was also aware of it, and could see no earthly reason why Cherry wanted to avoid Tony Kwan. Given the opportunity she would have thrown herself at him and had told Cherry so.

“You’re welcome” Cherry said, stirring the curry. “There’s something about that man I don’t like.”

“He and your father seem to get along all right.”

“Tony Kwan gets along with anyone, so long as it suits him.” Cherry gave a brief shudder of revulsion. “Have you seen the way he looks at me? I can feel him stripping my clothes off with his eyes.”

" ’Mmmmmmm” her cousin replied, rolling a petite tongue around her lips, “You wish.”

“Ohhh Louisa, you’re as bad as he is. You deserve each other.”

“Is it my fault I like men … ?”

Louisa stopped in mid-sentence and gaped as Zip and Freddy walked through the door. Now that Freddy had lost his missionary fervour, his appearance and demeanour had undergone a subtle change: he appeared more the man he had been and less the picture of the campaigning zealot that he had presented for most of the day. Consequently it was the old Freddy who stood before the two ladies, stripped of all saintliness and exuding SEX through every pore. Not that he realised it. His mind was still swathed in the swaddling clothes of Hal’s Order: a psychological eunuch. The inner man, however, didn’t show and, gazing upon this Adonis, Louisa felt her heart bounce from her shoes.

Zip ordered, while Freddy smiled benignly at the little Chinese girl behind the counter who goggled back at him with less than inscrutable eyes that faintly stirred some hidden memory buried deep at the bottom of his mind.

Cherry sensed the look being exchanged as she took Zip’s money and, if she were honest, felt a quick stirring of interest herself. There was a certain indefinable quality about the blond man staring vacantly around the take-away, which her cousin had obviously absorbed, judging from the cow-eyes she was making at him. Cherry spoke sharply to her in Cantonese. “Louisa. Stop gawping!”

The little girl snapped out of her reverie and Cherry gave her the order.

“Two chicken curries ... ”

" … and two plastic spoons, please. We’ll eat it now,” added Zip, from the counter.

The girls ladled the hot mixture into two foil containers, the pungent odour adding to the aromatic smell of cooking sesame oil that floated over from the tiled kitchen. Freddy’s nostrils twitched, and a flicker of recognition crossed his shuttered mind, gone in a second as it failed to lodge, leaving a curious sense of absence that furrowed his brow in perplexity.

Louisa claimed the privilege of serving Freddy, and his furrowed brow cleared as she approached bearing the platter of steaming food. So intent was she on gazing into Freddy’s face that she misjudged her timing as he offered his hands to take the platter and, while she clapped her hands to her mouth in consternation, the plate fell through Freddy’s fingers, caught the edge of the counter, and bounced heavily and hotly onto his thin, linen trousers.

Louisa’s cry of consternation and Freddy’s shriek of pain were simultaneous. He hopped up and down, doubled over, vainly trying to keep the steaming material away from his lobstered flesh, while Cherry, wet floorcloth in hand, rushed around the counter to offer succour and apology. Louisa followed, wringing her hands.

Cherry’s tentative sponging only had the effect of smoothing the scalding material back onto Freddy’s tender loins and, hurriedly, he loosed his belt and let his trousers fall. Cherry dropped her floorcloth and recoiled in shock while Louisa shrieked in delighted surprise.

Inured to chaste and public disrobing in the company of the opposite sex back at the Commune, Freddy thought nothing of it. Relief from the burning sensation was uppermost in his mind at the time and he kicked his trousers away with every evidence of satisfaction. Picking up the wet floorcloth he soothed his thighs, sighing.

Zip watched events unfolding with disbelief, mouth agape, and it was this tableau that greeted Tony Kwan when he walked into the Take-away, to renew his unwelcome attentions on Cherry Lin.

Tony froze, hard-eyed, while Zip switched his attention to him, aghast. From Kwan’ s restricted perception of events there could only be one explanation, an explanation which assumed even more horrifying proportions when Cherry Lin, up until then hidden from view on her knees in front of the apparent pervert occupying the corner of the shop, poked her head around his shirt-tailed legs to see the new customer. Her mouth and eyes opened in a gasp of horror.

Tony gave an animal growl, teeth clenched in restrained fury, which became a howl of unbridled anguish as Freddy turned his head at the sudden intrusion, and their eyes met.

Recognition for both parties was instantaneous. The curtain that had clouded Freddy’s mind for weeks was drawn back with a flourish and jarred him back to reality. He darted for the door as Tony darted for him. Zip darted out of the way and succeeded only in tripping Kwan up as he went past. Zip’s curry flew up in the air and plastered a newcomer just entering the Take-away as Freddy pelted helter-skelter for the door, closely followed by Zip himself, not knowing what on earth was going on, but judging that the time was now ripe for a hasty retreat.

Kwan sprawled full-length on the floor, cursing, and tangled limbs with Cherry Lin as he knocked her off her feet in passing. As Freddy and Zip ran for their vehicle, Arthur Ying flattened himself against the door frame at their hurried passage, clawing curry from his face and gazing with incredulity at a face he was never likely to forget hurrying past him. The truck pulled away from the kerb with a squeal of tyres and Ying switched his gaze to the interior of the Take-away where he saw Cherry Lin writhing, entwined with a snappily dressed character. Then, slowly and swearing, the other face engraved on his memory struggled erect from the floor, leaving Cherry Lin kicking feebly on her back.

“Bleedin’ ’ell!” Ying yelled.

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