While Carmen slept the sleep of the almost sated, and Harris had finally collapsed - Ovaltineless - onto his bed, Freddy Lappit propped open his eyes looking vainly for somewhere to stay the night. He had turned off the motorway some time ago, in a bid to shake off his pursuers. The events of the past twenty-four hours were beginning to catch up with him, and an overwhelming lassitude was about to descend. In the darkness he had taken a wrong turn, somewhere, and was hopelessly lost. At least, that had one redeeming feature: the Kwans were now not likely to find him. What bothered him was how they had got on to him at all. As far as he could remember, he had never mentioned cousin Archie to either Sally or Lisa. It was an irritating mystery.
He had quickly become aware of another: why was it that Dimpset lanes had nowhere to pull off safely at the side of the road? High banks and hedges towered closely on both sides as Freddy nosed the Porsche around twisting lanes that seemed to go on forever, with no sign of settlement that looked as though it might possess even an Inn, let alone a Hotel.
He rounded a bend in the road and all but passed a narrow cart track leading off at a tangent. Thankfully he pulled off onto the rutted track. Sod’s law would have a tractor turn up at any moment, wanting immediate access to the fields for night spraying, or whatever it was that farmers did, but he desperately needed to bed down somewhere. He cut the engine and doused the lights. The silence and darkness that fell was absolute. “It’s like being dead,” Freddy thought, with awe and an uncomfortable precognition of the condition in which the Kwans, in their present frame of mind, would undoubtedly leave him.
Unborn would, perhaps, have been a better simile: cocooned against an unfriendly world in a womb of steel and leather, Freddy curled into foetal position across the seat, and fell instantly asleep.
He need not have worried. The pursuit had been pure bad luck. A chance sighting by Lee Kwan himself, returning from the wholesalers, had established Freddy speeding southwards on the M6 while Kwan was stuck in a tail-back on the opposite side of a contra-flow system. A quick mobile call later, and a network of uncles, brothers-in-law and cut-throat cousins the length and breadth of Lancashire and the Midlands had kept intermittent tabs on the Porsche’s progress in its headlong flight south, such as to enable Kwan’s avenging angels to follow far behind. The web had failed them at Bristol, however. Tony Kwan and his crew were on their own after that and, spitting feathers, it was not long after their mad dash from the Service Area that Tony realised his bird had flown the coop after almost being in the net.
With the whole of the south-west spread before him, he realised that to find Lappit now would be like looking for a weevil in a sack of rice. Cursing his excitable second-cousin from Bristol, who had earlier failed to report position from his chosen vantage point on a foot-bridge high across the motorway thus causing them first to lose sight of Lappit, Tony pounded the steering wheel of the limousine in frustration. The fact that said cousin was, at present, languishing in a police-cell (the consequence of forcible restraint by an overzealous policeman who had seen enough potential suicides from the Clifton Suspension Bridge in his time to recognise a suspicious case of loitering with intent if ever he saw one) would have failed to make any impression on Tony at that moment. He pulled off the motorway and booked his party in at the Motel located just off the junction.
Ying, on his precipitate way home to Rossiter for a change of underwear, passed by unknowingly shortly afterwards. For the twentieth time that night he damned to perdition the participants in the recent encounter; to double-perdition Freddy as the instrument of that encounter, and to double-double-perdition the tea-time curry which, with all the other added factors, had led to his present predicament. He would have a few words to say to Cherry Lin about that in the morning.
Back in Brandsley, Sally and Lisa Kwan had a few words to say to each other about Freddy, all urgent, as they fought on their knees for possession of the toilet bowl. Ying’s opinion was as nothing compared to the imprecations ringing hollowly from the sides of the porcelain bowl, in between bouts of vomiting, in sisterly harmony.
The cause of all this heart-searching, himself, lay sleeping like a babe, lost in the depths of Dimpset. And Slipper, following a long and heated conversation with Doris, sat up through the night hatching a plot that would have made the 1st Earl’s schemings seem judicious by comparison. All was, if not well with his world, at least getting better.
In the morning, Slipper’s plans were beginning to take shape, and Melsham was surprised at the sudden change of heart that seemed to have come over the Steward. At a solitary breakfast, Carmen having failed to appear and her Ladyship indulging in a fit of the sulks, Melsham again broached the subject of Slipper’s removal to the North Wing.
“Everything is in order, milord” was Slipper’s cool reply. “The North Wing is not, if I may make so bold, the standard of accommodation to which the Stewards of Melsham have long been accustomed but, if that is milord’s wish, then so it must be. I shall move my belongings as soon as possible.”
Astonished at the amenable tone, Melsham didn’t quite know what to say. “Yes, well, err, good” was the best he could manage.
“If I might crave your Lordships’s indulgence” Slipper continued, silkily, “two day’s leave of absence would speed the process.”
“Yes, I suppose so” said Melsham, grudgingly. But mind you’re out by Monday.”
“Just so, milord.” Slipper turned his back to collect a tray from the sideboard, leering in triumph as he did so. “And if I may make a suggestion, milord?”
Melsham paused irritably in forking a load of kidneys into his mouth, waiting for Slipper to speak.
“It is simply that, with the additional work-load for the household staff that the banqueting project is going to occasion, milord is going to have to consider taking on some more domestic staff. Milord has obviously had this in mind.”
Milord had had in mind no such thing, but now that Slipper mentioned it, he had to concede the likelihood. And anyway, the prospect of a few extra parlour maids held a certain attraction.
“Well, of course Slipper” he said scornfully, “I’m assuming that you’re taking care of that. What do you think I’m paying you for, man?”
“Quite, milord. I needed your clarification. If milord will leave it entirely in my hands.”
“Mmmmm,” Melsham grunted. “No young flighty young bits, though. I want someone who knows what they’re about. Like that -what’s ’er name - Doris.”
“Just so, sir. I have the very staff in mind.” Bowing politely, Slipper withdrew, his usually impassive face suffused with a look of satisfaction.
Freddy would cheerfully have murdered for even one grilled kidney. His breakfast had consisted of a single, lint-covered boiled sweet dredged from the depths of the glove compartment, and a lingering glance at an advertisement for French croissants on the back of a crumpled magazine he had found in there. The Porsche had failed to start.
In his exhaustion the previous night, he realised, he must somehow have switched the headlights on, unnoticed, and the car battery was completely run down. The motor turned over sluggishly just once, and then died with a hideous ‘thud’ that sank to the bottom of his stomach like a broken piston.
He climbed stiffly from the car and kicked the door shut. Could he but see it, the rolling Dimpset countryside stretched all around. As it was, the towering hedges hemmed him in, blocking off any view at all. It made him feel, he reflected, like a rat in a maze.
The track, he found, as he explored in the hope of finding a break in the hedge to get his bearings, was more of an unsurfaced lane leading God knew where. He was about to turn back and try the metalled road when a bend in the path revealed a rusty wrought-iron gate and, to his surprise, a large cottage at the end of a further stretch of track in even worse condition than the one he was on.
The early morning light reflected in a pink glow from the scabrous walls of the old cob cottage. Although it showed the ravages of time, it looked reasonably well cared-for and, despite the earliness of the hour, there was a curl of smoke drifting lazily from the bulbous chimney. He caught the whiff of frying bacon swirling through the air and his mouth watered.
He fumbled for the latch on the gate. Then, behind him, an impatient blaring of horns sounded. The tractor had come! A little late, but the tractor had definitely come, as the throbbing of an idling diesel engine testified.
Hurrying back to his car, he discovered that the driver of the ancient tractor was no mere farmer. The headband and long hair identified him as an aging hippie, dressed in an old and ragged, armless, denim suit, and sporting a fierce-looking Pancho Villa moustache. When he spoke, a cultured voice quite belied his appearance. He raised a brawny arm to Freddy in greeting. “Morning,” he said. “If I back up can you let me through, please?”
Freddy explained his predicament, and the driver immediately produced a length of rope from the back of the cab and hitched it up to the towing points of Freddy’s car and dragged it back to the metalled lane. Reversing the process, he gestured to Freddy to join him in the cab and once again ploughed down the cart track with Freddy’s car in tow. “You’d better come up to the house,” he said. “Eat, and we’ll see about getting you recharged.”
Freddy perched uncomfortably in the cab of the bucking tractor as it racketed down the track, conversation impossible above the roar of the engine and the need to maintain a secure footing. As they once more approached the gate, a young woman emerged from the cottage. If she had seen them, she took no notice. Had she been clothed, Freddy would also have pigeon-holed her as a hippie. As it was, the only feature which identified her as such was her calf-length black hair held by a head band, and ankle bracelets.
Freddy had never been a voyeur, but the vision kept him entranced, as much as his precarious position allowed. Still taking no notice of them, she then began a series of energetic calisthenics on the scrubby lawn in front of the cottage that turned Freddy’s legs to jelly and set his temples throbbing.
The driver gave a toot on the horn. The girl stopped her gyrations and glanced back at the sound. She gave a gay wave and trotted over to open the gate, smiling openly at Freddy with no sign of inhibition. When the tractor had safely negotiated the entrance, she jumped onto the footplate with Freddy, clinging to his shoulder with a polite “Excuse me” and chattering with an innocent animation to the driver.
The tractor drew up in front of the cottage and the engine died away in a snarl. The driver chided the girl. “Purging again, Petal? This early in the morning?” By way of explanation he turned to a perspiring Freddy. “This is Petal, one of our newest Sisters.” He turned again to the girl, with mock severity. “She still finds need to purge herself more often than she should.”
The girl looked suitably abashed, but the driver ruffled her hair fondly. “Never mind, Sister, we ’ll soon have you as pure as a new-born lamb.”
Freddy wondered what he had walked into. The driver of the tractor smiled at his perplexed expression and explained. “We’re a religious commune” he said. “We call ourselves ‘Children of Eternal Love’. Come inside. Let’s eat.”
As the trio disembarked, others appeared from inside the cottage, both men and women. All wore the same sort of headband but were otherwise simply dressed. Petal scampered off and reappeared a moment later clad in a loose robe of some rough, home-woven material.
Over the meal Hal - the tractor driver and obvious leader, introduced the other members. Petal, Freddy had already met. The rest of the names went by in a blur.
The instructions that Tony Kwan had received had been rather more clearly defined, following a telephone conversation with his father which hadn’t been a pleasant one. “We stay,” he told his brothers who had just come into the bedroom.He crossed to the window and perched on the sill, looking out at the traffic speeding by on the motorway, as the morning rush built up. “We stay until we find Lappit.”
His brothers looked uneasily at one another. The fact that they were on some other family’s patch made them anxious. The Kwan name was a legend amongst the Chinese population in the North and Midlands. All facets of life in the oriental community were touched in one way or another by the Kwan family. Here, in the south, it was entirely a different matter. There was little love lost on the Lins, the local top-dogs, although on a matter of family honour, there could well be some common ground. That was a diplomatic point that Tony Kwan would have to explore if he was to enlist any local help in tracing Lappit’s whereabouts. He left his brothers to make long-term arrangements for their accommodation whilst he sought out Old Father Lin to present his greetings and put the Kwan’s case. He returned some time later with, surprisingly, a qualified agreement of co-operation, although Lin did not hold out much hope of success. To all intents and purposes, Freddy may just as well have dropped off the face of the earth.