The New Star

Chapter 1: The Start

There was a new star in the sky; a star so bright that it could even be seen in broad daylight, looking almost as if there were a gigantic, reflecting vessel, larger and higher even than a barrage balloon, hovering above the Earth.  Lydia, who was rather proud of having come up with this whimsical piece of imagery, decided to make it public, hoping against hope that it might provoke her husband, Captain Noel Merton, into removing his attention from his breakfast and having a conversation with her, even if it was only to rebuke her for allowing her fancy to stray too freely or to recommend that she should increase the dosage of her calming medicine. But, as it was, she was, as seemed always to be the case when she tried this kind of thing, doomed to disappointment, for his sole response was to grunt “That’s nice, dear.  Busy” without once removing his eyes from the copy of the Morning Post which had engaged his full attention since he had emerged from his bed-chamber this morning.   Lydia sighed at this failure of her plan and reflected on the changes a few short years had wrought in her marriage.  Time was when Noel had enjoyed listening to her conversation and positively encouraged her in her flights of fancy.  In those happy times, a subject such as the new star could have been the foundation stone on which a whole edifice of cheerful banter could have been built.  But now Noel preferred to use his mouth to macerate his eggs and toast; he had pronounced a whole four words and the topic was dead, like the conversation and, she feared, the marriage.  For what else could she say of its state when she and Noel inhabited separate beds (which was bad enough: she knew, for so her governess had told her, she was just meant to lie back, think of England and feel terribly glad that, having spawned number one heir and a back-up, she would never have to do those filthy things again, but actually she had discovered, once given the opportunity to find out for herself instead of relying on hearsay, that she rather enjoyed doing those filthy things, and that lying back and thinking of England was the last thing she was inclined to do while they were going on, and so it was a source of some pain that Noel apparently believed that she was a traditional County Wife who didn’t like to do that sort of thing any more than was strictly necessary for dynastic reasons, and a source of even greater pain that he had apparently never thought of asking her for her opinion on the subject) and increasingly  separate lives.  Of course, Lydia understood that Noel’s work for the Army was terribly, terribly secret (for had he not told her so himself?) and that she mustn’t ask him anything about his extra-mural activities, because one careless question on her part could result in that beastly Hitler Sieg-Heiling all over Barsetshire, and she could quite see why that would be a bad thing.  But on the other hand, though she trusted her Noel implicitly, she would dearly love to know exactly how it helped the Allied cause for him to tumble back home at all hours with alcohol on his breath and what looked suspiciously like lipstick on his shirt collar.  If she hadn’t known that he was engaged in top secret work in the back room of the Dog and Duck, she might have thought he was seeing another woman, presumably because, he had lusts which needed to be slaked, and couldn’t slake them with Lydia, because she was a conventional County Wife, and it was a well-known fact that conventional County Wives didn’t go in for lust slaking, being positively Romish in that regard.  And anyway, even if his hush-hush job did involve his having to go off and kiss strange women for victory, surely he it wasn’t unreasonable of her to wish that he might keep some time free for kissing his wife and tending to her needs, or even taking the trouble to ask her if she had some lusts that she wouldn’t mind slaking every now and then?  Lydia, at least, thought not.  She reasoned that perhaps, what with his having to, as she had hypothesised on one long evening when she was left alone with nothing to do but knit mufflers for our boys, an activity very conducive to flights of fancy, spend every day teaching Free French tarts how to undermine the moral fibre of the Wehrmacht by doing the sort of thing that she wasn’t meant to want to do, because she was a County Wife, Noel had, being sated with female company, lost sight of the fact that she was not just another County Wife, but his own, outrageous, sexy Lydia.  So she had, one evening, by way of reminding him, outfitted herself in a diaphanous negligee which had always been a favourite of Noel’s, at least judging from the enthusiasm with which he had removed her from it in their early days together, and then lain languorously in wait on the sofa, something no County Wife would do.  And that, of course, just had to be the evening that he brought his CO home from the pub for dinner. Lydia didn’t know where to look, which was embarrassing; Noel showed no interest in looking, which was heart-breaking, the CO clearly did know where to look, and enjoyed it enormously, which was simultaneously embarrassing and a bit uplifting.  Worst of all, the next day the County, naturally, knew everything.  Lydia definitely overheard that odious Miss Bunting telling her flat-chested charge Anne Fielding “And whatever you do, don’t expose yourself like that brazen hussy; men don’t like that sort of thing.”  Lydia had contemplated pointing out that (a) Anne Fielding had nothing to expose, so there was no fear of anybody being unduly put out, even if she were to parade stark naked down Barchester High Street,  (b) Noel did like that kind of thing, thank you very much, or at least he had used to, before he started to value the opinion of people like Miss Bunting more than his wife’s charms, (c) judging from the tone of the letter she had received from him the next morning, Noel’s CO had liked it so very much that he was anxious to arrange for repeat viewing, preferably in private, and (d) given Miss Bunting was only too prone to point out at the slightest provocation that she was a virgin, how would she know what men liked?  But nothing short of a thousand pound bomb would suffice to penetrate the carapace of Miss Bunting’s self-satisfaction, so Lydia just ground her teeth together and walked on.  If only Noel still were still his old loving self, she wouldn’t care about Miss Bunting, but as it was now he was more annoyed with his wife than ever, because if there was one thing he cared about, apart from his job and the Morning Post, it was the County.  So this morning, Lydia sat miserably, toying with her egg as well as the idea of ripping her clothes off and yelling “I’m your wife, damn it; why don’t you love me any more?”, while knowing that if she did Noel’s sole reaction would be to chide her for disturbing the servants.  So instead she continued wearing down her teeth, and eventually ventured once more into the conversational arena, saying “Isn’t it unusual for there to be a new star?”  Noel didn’t even bother to reply to this one.  He just pushed his plate away and said “Got to go to work; home late”, making to get up.

At this point the maid entered.  This was not in itself unusual; she knew from long-established tradition, that there was a ritual conversational exchange between the love-birds at this point in the day, and her presence was required to smooth over any little unpleasantness that might arise if the Master actually went so far as to listen to some of the things that the Mistress said.  What happened was that Noel, thinking that this proved that he was still a caring husband, would ask his wife if there was anything he could do for her, or anything she wanted, assuming that she would, being a good, repressed Englishwoman, say “No”, and leave him happy in the knowledge of having done his marital duty well.  What actually happened was sometimes rather different.  It might be that Noel would say “Anything you’d like from town?” and Lydia would reply “Poison,” and so the maid would add “Yes, the rats in the wood-shed are really getting above themselves; they had a dinner-dance out there last night.”  Or it might be that Noel would say “Anything you want?” and Lydia would reply “Death,” and so the maid would quickly add “. . . in the shrubbery.  It’s a new thriller.”  Today Noel said “Anything I can do for you?” and Lydia replied, in thrilling tones as she started to unbutton her blouse, “Take me!  Take me now!”  But the maid, for once, did not render this into Noelish by explaining that Lydia had meant to say that she wanted to be taken into the village, so she could visit the Mothers’ Union’s exhibition of potatoes resembling Mr Churchill, for she had a burden of news of her very own to impart.  So, positioning herself so as to try to keep Noel’s attention away from the ongoing striptease, she said “You aren’t going anywhere, mister.”  Now, this mode of expression was unconventional in the context of a domestic addressing her master, and as such of a nature generally sufficient to result in a stern rebuke, or even being given notice without references, but the domestic in question had a well-established habit of taking direct action when upset (Noel would never forget the time when Lady Glencora Palliser had thrown up all over him at dinner on being informed that the ‘Souris en Fourrure’ she had enjoyed so much was, in fact, deep-fried mouse, and all just because he had objected to the maid offering to put poison in his tea if Lydia wanted to be rid of him) and so Noel refrained from taking her to task, saying merely “Oh and why not?” while simultaneously trying to recover his right hand from his wife, who was now more or less inhaling its fingers while growling deep in her throat and rubbing herself up against him in a most disturbing way.  “Because,” said the Maid, “These foreign soldiers has turned up with a letter from your boss, and it says as you’re to escort them round while they do some stuff.”  Noel boggled: his CO was an eccentric man, as shown by his very vocal approval of Lydia’s peep-show, but surely even he wouldn’t give quite such a vague order?  This must, he surmised, be a maidenly paraphrase, so he said, carefully modulating his manner so as give minimal opportunity for taking offence, “Are you quite sure that’s what he said?”  The maid, nevertheless, did take offence, saying “Ho, you don’t believe me, do you?  Can’t even keep your own wife satisfied and you don’t believe me.  Makes me glad I’m a lesbian, it does,” which made no sense to Noel as he had always thought the girl was from Hogglestock.  “Here,” she continued, brandishing a letter, “You read it then, seeing as how you don’t trust me.”

Noel took the letter in the hand which was not fighting off Lydia, who was, for some mysterious reason or other, trying to undo his fly buttons (what down there could possibly be of any interest to her?) and read: “Dear Mr Noel, Hi there!  This is your Commanding Officer speaking, so listen up and listen good.  You must drop everything and provide escort for the three guys and dolls who brought this, and help them do their stuff, by Jingo!  Thanks a million; love and kisses, The Man.”  It certainly read peculiarly.  Very peculiarly. In fact, Noel wasn’t entirely sure what some of the idioms meant.  But he was able to deduce that the maid had been quite right: he had been commanded to escort three people and help them do some … stuff.  And it must be from his CO; after all, it said it was, and what kind of world would this be if people were to go around pretending to be someone else?  That would be so terribly un-English that it was quite unthinkable, about as unthinkable as the idea that a County Wife like Lydia might actually enjoy her, er, marital duties, and that she might be mounting a determined effort to storm his crotch because she was prepared to do for free those things that Flossie the barmaid would only do in return for hard cash up front, so Noel didn’t think it.  Instead he pulled himself together, in the process dislodging Lydia, and said “So where are these, ahem, people then?”  The maid replied “Oh, they’re in the hall; shall I call them in?”  Noel said, “Yes, please,” then he realised that the current situation was not one he wished to share with others, being almost as embarrassing as what had happened the other night, and quickly said “No!  Not yet.  What about my wife?”  “Oh, I’ll handle her,” said the maid, and then she bent down to where Lydia lay wracked with tears at her Noel’s rejection (the forty-seventh this week alone) and pawing ineffectually at his feet, and whispered urgently “Listen toots, the leader’s a real hottie; spruce yourself up and you’re in with a chance,” which had the necessary effect.  Lydia uttered a low cry and rushed off to her chamber in search of a comb, make-up, extra-strong foundation garments and her best party frock, while the maid went to the other door, opened it and called out “Hey, you lot, you can come in now.”

Three, for want of a better word, people sidled into the room.  They were all in uniform, though not one that Noel had ever seen, so he immediately concluded that they must be with one of the Allied armies that were so regrettably stationed around Britain in these trying times.  That would certainly explain why it was that one of the three was small, of a greenish cast of complexion, had no nose and, apparently by way of compensation for this lack, Noel couldn’t help but notice, considerably more than the usual number of fingers on each hand.  Obviously these people, wherever they were from, went in for inbreeding in a big way, Noel thought, but then anything was possible with foreigners.  Looking at the other two, Noel found his prejudices confirmed: one he immediately categorised, based on the prominent oil stains covering his uniform and the soldering iron sticking out of his jacket pocket, as being an engineer.  And the other was, goodness gracious, a woman, wearing her uniform as if she had a right to it, and with insignia that made it look as if she was an officer of some kind, which Noel simply refused to believe, no matter how foreign she might be.  Why, even Americans couldn’t be so brash as to have a woman officer.  Presumably she was a typist who’d been brought along as a treat, or she was the commander’s girl-friend or something like that.  And Noel had no trouble identifying who that commander was: it must be the small green person, so Noel went up to him, grasped his hand and said “Good morning, Commander, if I may call you that, I am terribly happy to place myself at the service of you and your, ahem, men.”  Oddly enough, this didn’t get the response Noel had expected. Instead of coming out with polite thanks, a suggestion they pop off down to the Dog and Duck for a quick snifter while Lydia entertained the woman, the small green person stared at Noel as if he had just made a vulgar bodily noise and started laughing and the engineer said “Please, please, let me kill him, please Ma’am, they won’t miss a retard like this, please?” And as if their treating a polite greeting as an apparently capital offence was not sufficient to upset Noel’s mental equilibrium, the reply came from … the woman, who replied to the Engineer, “Now remember what I said: no killing the natives.  Not unless they’re really annoying.  And as for you,” she added, turning on the small green person, “You should be ashamed of yourself, laughing at him.  Is it his fault he’s a barbarian?”  And then the fell truth of just how foreign these foreigners were in their ways, that was just beginning to make its unwelcome presence felt in Noel’s mind, was confirmed when the small green person replied “Sorry, Ma’am” and the woman said “Fine, now don’t do it again” and, shifting her attention to Noel, took his unresisting hand and said “I’m terribly sorry, Captain Merton is it, but the men are terribly protective, and perhaps I didn’t brief them sufficiently about how primitive your culture is.”

Noel didn’t know what to say, or, to be more precise, he didn’t know what to say that wouldn’t reveal him as a male chauvinist pig, but as he didn’t think that was a bad thing to be, he just charged straight ahead and said, incredulous, “You’re their leader?” as if such a thing could not be (which it could, of course, not as far as he was aware).  The woman’s tone became marginally less friendly and she said “Well, if we’re being formal, technically speaking it’s Fleet Admiral, but as we’re all friends here, I said,we’re all friends here,” this latter being apparently said for the benefit of the Engineer who was aiming a strange-looking pointy device in Noel’s direction, for all the world as if it were a toy gun, “You can call me Admiral and I’ll call you Stinker.  Is that okay, Stinker?”  Noel, who was finding this pretty hard to take in, women officers being so very far outside his conceptual scheme, let alone women admirals who called him ‘Stinker’, was unable to think of a tactful response, so he continued to exercise his inner porcine, saying “But how can you be an Admiral?  I mean, a joke’s a joke, but…”  The woman stared at him sadly, dropped his hand like a day-old dead fish, turned to the Engineer and said “You know, I’m beginning to think you were right after all; he really is very annoying.”  The Engineer got very excited and produced the pointy device again, saying “You mean I can kill him after all?” and when she nodded he proceeded to aim the pointy device, which was now starting to hum, at Noel, who didn’t know whether to scream and dive under the table (for the way the ‘Admiral’ had retreated to the far end of the room with her hands over her ears and the very nervous way the Engineer was handling the pointy device suggested that they both thought something pretty compelling was about to happen), to laugh at their antics (how could they hurt him with a humming pointy thing?), or to ring the local lunatic asylum to see if they’d had any escapes recently (the ‘Admiral’ and the Engineer were clearly both insane, and as for the small green person, well, enough said).  Fortunately for his peace of mind (for sudden loss of life can often offend, especially if the life-removing implement is wielded by somebody who isn’t entirely sure they know how to make it work) the small green person intervened just before the Engineer’s trembling finger made contact, saying “But Ma’am, we can’t kill him; remember: we need him.”  “So we do”, said the ‘Admiral’, rather sourly, “Oh well, put it away, old chap.  After all,” she added, brightening, “We can always kill him later, can’t we?”  With which happy thought she turned her attention back to Noel and said, returning to face him, emphasising her observations by forcible prods with her forefinger, “Now listen, Stinker,” (prod)  “I am in charge of this lot;” (prod) “We have a mission to fulfil,” (prod)  “And your CO ordered you to help us fulfil it” (a succession of prods). “So let’s cut out the unevolved male posturing and just work on the basis that I outrank you, Okay?” (an exceptionally sharp prod, which left Noel tottering)  “Good.  Let’s get started, then.”

Noel wasn’t at all sure that this was okay, and he was still having trouble with the concept of such a cheerfully blood-thirsty woman being in a position of command.  Of course, being cheerfully blood-thirsty was something he expected of commanding officers, that was why you sent your sons off to public school after all, so they could learn the joy of pain, particularly inflicting it, but cheerfully blood-thirsty women?  Weren’t women meant to be submissive, timorous baby machines who offered one tea and cake?  And, to make it worse, cheerfully blood-thirsty women admirals?  He was aware, dimly, that women were allowed to vote nowadays, which seemed rash enough as concessions went, but thank goodness nobody was, as far as he knew, suggesting that the natural order be so far subverted that they should be allowed to be officers, and give orders and things like that.  And yet here was an indubitable woman, very much so, calling herself an admiral and giving orders as if to the manor born, and two men letting her get away with it.  There was something not quite right about this whole situation, but Noel’s CO had ordered him to help the ‘Admiral’ and her crew, and, as stupidity was just as much a characteristic of the English County Male as sadomasochism, it would never occurred to him question his orders, even if they were barking mad.  Thus the spirit of the Light Brigade lived on.  However, the orders, though quite clear in stating that he should help these madmen, had been woefully vague in many other respects, in particular what he should help them to do, so he said “Well, of course, I’ll do whatever I can to help you, er, Admiral, but what exactly is it you want me for?”  The ‘Admiral’ looked appalled; “Me?  Want you?  Are you out of your mind?” she said, which seemed rather unfair to Noel, for if anyone was out of their mind it was not him, as well as being utterly incomprehensible, so he tried again. “What I mean,” he replied, trying to stay calm in the face of madness of a sort the he had imagined only his Lydia could create, “Is my orders say to help you, so you must want me for something, so what is it?”  The ‘Admiral’ looked even more appalled, but before things could get even more tangled the small green person interposed himself, tugging on her arm and saying “I think he wants to know the mission parameters, Ma’am.”  Hearing this, she relaxed and said “Oh, the mission parameters.  Why didn’t he say so?  I thought he was propositioning me,” saying which she shuddered violently, and then, calmed a little, she returned her attention to Noel and said “Well, Stinker, we want to visit somebody called Adams, and we have reason to believe that you can make it happen.  Is that right?”  Noel heaved a sigh of relief; at last something he could understand.  But, though this woman and her subordinates were apparently mad, he felt the need to give them some useful advice, for fear they be disappointed when they reached their goal.  “Well, I do know Mr Adams,” he said, “But I’m not sure he’s the sort of person you’d want to meet.  He’s not quite the thing, you know.”  The woman didn’t know. “Not quite the thing?” she said, “What’s that mean?”  The Engineer thought he knew, and panicked: “He’s onto us; he’s saying Adams isn’t the one.  We’ve got to leave right now!” but the Green person was more relaxed, “I think it’s an idiom, Ma’am, meaning that this individual considers Adams his inferior in some way.”  The ‘Admiral’ brooded for a moment on this, as she obviously found it hard to imagine anyone inferior to Noel, then said “Oh.  Right.  Oh do be quiet” (this to the still panicking Engineer) “Okay, now, Stinker, do try to understand this, because if I have to repeat it I might get irritable, and you wouldn’t like that:  I don’t care if you think you’re better than Adams or not; I want to see him, and I want you to take me to see him, and I don’t want you…”

She broke off her litany with a kind of gulp, staring raptly over Noel’s shoulder.  Turning to see what had so gripped her, Noel saw that his Lydia had re-entered the room.  But this was not the tear-stained, faintly shabby young matron of just a few minutes ago; this Lydia was wearing a long, shimmering, backless and nearly frontless evening gown which Noel had thought very alluring and arousing back in the days when she was Lydia Keith, and he had not yet married her and consequently lost all further interest in her as an object of desire.  Now, of course, it shocked him immeasurably, for she was Lydia Merton, and his wife, she wasn’t meant to go around being an alluring and arousing object of desire any more; she was meant to fulfil his dynastic imperative and ensure that meals and cups of tea were readily available whenever he felt like having them.  Being alluring and arousing objects of desire was what other women, to whom he was not married, were meant to do.  So, seeing his wife doing these things, Noel was vexed, and he was working on expressing his vexation in the form of a formal matrimonial rebuke, when the Admiral broke her reverie by saying, in awe-struck tones, “Wow.  Check out the curves on that baby”, then, addressing the small green person rather the world at large, “Science officer, am I dreaming, or did a hot babe just walk through that door?”  The small green person replied “Well, Ma’am, what with all humans appearing equally hideous to me, I cannot answer for whether the person in question is a ‘hot babe’, but it is indubitable that a female of your species is standing over there.”  The Admiral wiped her brow, said “A simple ‘yes’ would have done, you know”, then returned to contemplating Lydia, rather in the manner of a gourmet inspecting a perfectly cooked tournedos Rossini, and said “Wow” again.  Noel was about to have another go at rebuking his wife when the Admiral once more pre-empted him, this time switching from speech to action, surging across to Lydia and saying “Well hello, darling.  I’m in charge of that crew,” (waving vaguely at the Engineer and the small green person) “but you can call me Admiral.  Now, let me rock your world,” whereupon, without waiting for permission she took Lydia in her arms and delivered a kiss which was a good deal more lingering that was generally considered good form in a welcoming peck between well-bred County Ladies.  While Noel looked on aghast, the small green person and the Engineer respectively rolled his eyes and said “She’s at it again” and the Maid uttered a sharp bark of laughter.

When Lydia, who very noticeably had not  struggled anything like as much as Noel thought a proper County Wife ought to when passionately kissed by, well, anyone (in fact, after an initial “Mmf!” of surprise, she seemed, if anything, to have been aiding and abetting the Admiral in making the kiss as long and as impassioned as possible), and the Admiral broke free from their embrace, Lydia though, naturally, a little flustered, was clearly heard to say “Well, she wasn’t lying, that’s for sure” (which puzzled Noel absolutely, for he had felt no earthquake) and didn’t seem anything like as shocked or disgusted as Noel thought she ought to have been.  In fact, she seemed positively invigorated, with bright eyes and an uncharacteristic appearance of joie de vivre which gave Noel considerable cause for concern; what with the transparent négligée episode and now this, it was regrettably clear that his wife must be going out of her mind, and the medical authorities should be alerted at once so they could take whatever steps were required to properly crush her spirit.  He therefore sidled out to the hallway with the intention of asking Doctor Ford to come and see Lydia as a matter of some urgency, while the Admiral, who seemed equally invigorated by her experience, was saying “Okay men, change of plan.  What we’ll do is, you two go off with Stinker to find this Adams guy and do your stuff, and I’ll stay here to make sure no harm comes to the doll.”  While Lydia seemed delighted at the prospect, the men and the maid clearly did not buy this as an explanation for a moment.  The Engineer said “Come off it, we all know you just want to get her out of that dress and put her through her paces while we have to do all the work” (which clearly got Lydia all excited, given that she asked “Should I take it off now, then?” and started to fiddle with her shoulder-straps), the small green person said “I shall never understand sexual reproduction” and the maid confronted the Admiral, saying with some vigour “And what’s wrong with me, that’s what I want to know?  I’ve got a better figure than her, and I know what to do with it.  All she’s ever done is baby-making.”  The Admiral winced at this graphic reference to heterosexuality and (while the Engineer tried to explain to the wholly incredulous small green person that strictly speaking what the Admiral wanted to do with Lydia was not sexual reproduction) replied, “Well don’t you think she needs somebody to show her something better, then?  And anyway, you’re not my type” before switching attention to Lydia, saying “Okay doll, keep the dress on for now; ready for seconds?” and sticking her tongue down her throat before the poor woman had a chance to say more than “Oh y…”, resulting in the scene which greeted Noel on his return from arranging that Dr Ford would come round in about an hour: his Lydia and the Admiral locked in a passionate embrace (again), the maid trying to interpose herself between them (not, as he thought, out of loyalty to her master, but because she wanted a go at the Admiral herself), and the Engineer continuing his thankless task of trying to explain the difference between sex and reproduction to a small green person who had clearly decided that he didn’t believe a word of it.  Noel didn’t know where to look, and he didn’t know what to say when the Engineer appealed to him, asking “Can you please tell this idiot that when two women fuck neither of them has a baby?  He won’t believe me.”  First there was the bad word, a bad word uttered in the company of, er, ladies no less (not that any of them seemed to have noticed, being far too taken up with their own affairs), which was shocking enough, but then there was the whole concept of women doing  … that … with one another, on which his attitude was that if Queen Victoria didn’t believe it was possible then that was good enough for him.  But then again, his Lydia and the Admiral (if she really was one) certainly looked very … impassioned, so he didn’t know what to think.

For Noel, not knowing what to think was, of course, not a hindrance, as thinking was not encouraged in the English officer class.  Instead, drawing on ancient prejudices, passed down from his australopithecine ancestors, Noel reacted: he strode over to the clinched couple and said, in the most commanding voice he could summon up, “Madam, unhand my wife”, realising as he spoke that there was something subtly wrong about this utterance, as admonitions went.  “Yes,” cried the maid, “don’t do her, take me!” and though Noel didn’t understand what this meant, he was at least able to glean the impression that in his desire to separate his wife from this terrible woman, at least long enough for Doctor Ford to give Lydia something soothing and sedative, he had an ally in the form of the maid.  Suitably encouraged, he carried on “I demand that you cease forcing your attentions on my wife.  She is a decent English matron, and decent English matrons only kiss one another fleetingly on the cheek, if at all, so I don’t care what you Americans do …” at which point the Admiral separated herself from Lydia long enough to say “Well, she seems to like it; and I’m not American.”  Noel riposted (rather cleverly, he thought), “I don’t care if you’re American or Canadian or from New Zealand, my wife is a very sick woman and you should not take advantage of her in this her hour of …” but the Admiral interrupted him saying, “Nothing wrong with her that a bit of attention and a good shag won’t cure; anyway you’re getting annoying, Stinker: why don’t you just take those two idiots and introduce them to Adams, like I told you?”  When Noel, who completely failed to understand what diving birds, good or otherwise, had to do with anything, showed signs of continuing his admonition, she added “Go on, get on with it; or would you rather I kill you?” removing one hand from the depths of Lydia’s bodice in order to pull a pointy thing, just like the one the Engineer had waved at him earlier, from a pocket in her uniform, which she waggled about threateningly.  He decided (again, rather cleverly, he thought) to call her bluff (for something so small, with no obvious barrel or blade, couldn’t possibly hurt anyone seriously), saying “I’m not scared of you” to which she replied, “Well you bloody well ought to be”, and, to show him why, she pointed the thing at the Maid, who promptly vanished, leaving only a cloud of grey dust, which began to settle on the ground where she had been standing.

There was a stunned silence, or at least there should have been.  In fact, though Noel was stunned and silent, Lydia was too taken up with experiencing and providing outspoken commentary upon the bliss induced by what the Admiral’s other hand was doing (“Oh my, that’s good.  Why can’t Noel do this to me?  Please don’t stop,” and so on and so forth) to pay any attention to anything so mundane as the fact that she was going to have to find a replacement domestic (no easy task in this time of trouble), and the Engineer and the small green person were still arguing about human sexuality, so there was quite a lot of background noise when the Admiral turned to the white-faced Noel, gestured with the pointy thing and said “Now bugger off, or you’re next.”

Chapter 2: The Middle, with Noel

A good while later, Noel, the Engineer and the small green person arrived at the residence of Samuel Adams.  They had taken longer than Noel had expected because the Engineer had taken one look at his car and said “I don’t care if you’re suicidal; you’re not getting me in that thing,” and so walking had been the order of the day.  And if the state of Noel’s bunions was not sufficient to have soured his mood even more than the sight of his wife making out with another woman, his attempt at making light conversation by replying “Oh, so don’t you have machines yet where you come from?” had merely resulted in the Engineer saying “Why you cheeky…” and then getting out his pointy thing again.  It was clear that his initial intention was to use it on Noel, but, thanks to the small green person, that did not come to pass.  He leaped into action, grappling with the Engineer for control of the pointy thing’s direction of aim, simultaneously shouting “Idiot!  How will we find Adams without him?” The Engineer, having accidentally dematerialised a passing goat and the postman, fought to get the device back under his control and replied “I don’t care”, sending off a shot which took out Noel’s car, thus rendering the question of its use moot, to which the small green person, regaining the initiative and causing three cows to seek pastures new, replied, “And what about her highness?  What will she say if we fail because you’re a trigger-happy moron?”, which made the Engineer say “Oh lor,” and drop the pointy thing, which promptly exploded, while simultaneously puzzling Noel no end, for he was not aware that any members of the Royal Family were in the vicinity.  After which excitement, the Engineer beguiled the walk to chez Adams with a lengthy and, to Noel at least, entirely incomprehensible lecture, in which he got very agitated about some things called ‘carcinogens’ and ‘ozone’, which apparently explained his aversion to riding in a car, though, thought Noel, in as far as he could think rationally, what with the fact that his systemic disability in that direction caused by  being an English County male was on this occasional considerably potentiated by the fear induced by being in company with, as far as he could tell, a pair of homicidal maniacs, they hardly justified making a perfectly good car go the way of his maid.

But that was the way it was, and so it was with sore feet and a confused mind that Noel was ushered, with his companions, into Mr Adams’ drawing room, where they came upon none other than the object of their search: Samuel Adams in person, together with, by way of an unanticipated bonus, his fiancée Lucy Marling, his daughter (by his first marriage, one should hasten to add, for Lucy Marling was not the sort of girl to go around doing naughty things like having children out of wedlock, being, in almost every respect, save that of having agreed to marry a rank outsider like Mr Adams, the kind of proper County Maiden that Noel rather wished he had married) Heather, and her peculiar friend Clarissa Graham, peculiar because, despite being of impeccable county stock, she had, of all things, insisted on going, not off to finishing school, to learn how to please her future husband, but off to Cambridge, to learn about mathematics.  And what good that would be to her future husband, who at the moment was slated to be young Charles Belton, a proper County Male, Noel had no idea whatever; he could only assume that Charles had been led astray, in a moment of passion, by a figure which made Flossie’s (she of the Dog and Duck) seem quite flat by comparison, and hence hitched himself to a woman who promised to be even less suited to being a County Wife than was Lydia.

Despite the surprise natural to one who finds a tête-à-tête with his affianced interrupted by the sudden appearance of one to whom, in private, he was known to refer as “that snobby bastard with the hot wife”, not to mention a man with singed eyebrows and a soldering-iron in his pocket, and a small green person, Mr Adams showed himself a perfect host, being quick to welcome his guests with the offer of a seat and a snifter.  And this, just when Noel was beginning to hope that things might settle down into some semblance of normalcy, as he accepted his whisky-and-soda and settled down to rest his aching feet, was where things started getting strange again.  First off, the small green person rejected the offered drink, explaining “My species absorbs moisture directly from the atmosphere, so I have no need to drink.”  And then, when the awkward, puzzled silence following that bizarre statement was broken by Lucy Marling asking, cautiously, “Is that why you Americans had prohibition, then?  Because you don’t need to drink?” and the small green person replied, in a rather tired tone, “Do I look like I’m American?” to which Lucy responded, with admirable honesty, “I wouldn’t know; I’ve never met one”, which was quite bad enough, as Noel was only too well aware that the nationality issue was one that these strange people were rather touchy about, the Engineer, who had been examining his drink carefully, peering at it through a pocket magnifier, dipping strips of coloured paper into it, sniffing it suspiciously, and generally treating it as if it were a chemical sample rather than a refreshment, finally got round to taking a cautious sip.  His reaction was sufficiently violent as to completely pre-empt Lucy’s planned next question (“Well are you Welsh, then?  I hear they don’t drink there”): he spat out his sip of whisky-and-soda, threw his glass into the fire and cried “Ethanol?  Are you mad?  What are you doing drinking ethanol?  You’ll kill us all, you psychopath” and he was off again, lecturing the unfortunate Mr Adams, Noel (who had been there before) and Lucy on the evils of ethyl alcohol, and the many terrible things it could do to the human body in health and (particularly) in sickness.

As this went on, the rant turning from a monologue into a duet when Mr Adams, who disliked having his hospitality spurned, not to mention a natural objection to getting a face-full of mixed whisky, soda and spit, let alone seeing one of his best crystal tumblers bite, as it were, the dust, started to upbraid his guest, which only made things worse, for there was nothing the Engineer liked better than a chance to have a good row about one of his hobby horses, Clarissa Graham decided to take pity on the (as she thought) poor, lonely small green person, who was (as she thought) looking so pathetic and lost with nobody was speaking to him.  Of course, he was actually looking pathetic and lost because he had thought they were there to size up Mr Adams as a possible candidate for their services, not to reprimand him for his attitude to issues of human health (a subject that had never been of very great interest to the small green person, who found humans, on the whole, pretty boring), but Clarissa wasn’t to know that, so tapping him gently on the arm, she said “I’m sorry, we weren’t introduced properly Mr, er, well actually I don’t know your name.”  “That,” replied the small green person, “Is because I don’t have one.  Members of my species don’t need names, you see because…” but Clarissa interrupted, saying “Gosh, I had no idea things were so different in Wales.  So what can I call you, then?”  The small green person wasn’t sure what to say: most people called him ‘Science officer’, apart from the Admiral, and what she called him (‘Wankstain’) wasn’t really something he wished to share, so he just sat there with his mouth opening and closing, trying to think of something plausible, until Clarissa got bored and said “Well, anyway, Heather” (indicating the other young woman) “and I were just talking about the new star; weren’t we Heather?”

Heather concurred and then Clarissa was off again: “It’s so beautiful, isn’t it, the way it hangs up there in the sky, hovering over us like a great glowing light.”  Of course, she was being poetic, but the small green person wasn’t to know that (for he was a Science Officer, and he didn’t do poetry), so he said “But that’s nonsense” and while Clarissa drew in a shocked breath and gazed at him in awe (for she was not used to men paying sufficient attention to her to actually condemn what she said as being nonsense; usually they just laughed and ignored her or told her she’d grow out of that kind of thing once she’d got a husband and some children) he continued “Anybody who knows anything about celestial mechanics, and who doesn’t, ought to know that a star can only appear to be fixed above a point on the planetary surface if it’s above one of the rotational poles, and I can assure you, Madam, that we are not at one of them.”  Clarissa didn’t know what to say: she was still marvelling at the amazing experience of being taken seriously, but Heather Adams, who was not conflicted by strange emotions, felt able to stick her oar in and say “What about the Star of Bethlehem, then?”  Clarissa recovered nicely, and, apparently purely be chance, allowing one of her hands to come to rest on the strangely polydactyloid hand of the small green person, wittered “Yes, indeed, I was thinking how lovely it was that we have this new star of ours now, and can experience for ourselves what it was like back in those ancient times.”  The small green person was now deeply confused, as well as disturbed by the uncalled for physical contact.  As he said, “I have a perfect memory, and I don’t remember any star called Bethlehem.  There’s Betelgeuse, and Beta Draconis, but no Bethlehem.  So which star is this you are speaking of?”  Now it was Clarissa’s turn to be deeply confused, for as she put it “But surely you know the Nativity story?” it being inconceivable to her that, even in Wales, people could be so astoundingly ignorant as to not have had the whole thing drummed into them at Sunday School.  However, the small green person was adamant.  “There are four billion people on this planet of yours,” he said, “and you can scarcely expect me to know the life history of all of them.  It’s quite bad enough” he added, “when her ladyship insists on sharing the latest birth memories her shrink has recovered for her, without being expected to know about any more.”

Now, Clarissa had no idea what the last bit meant, except possibly that Lady Glencora Palliser had a more outré lifestyle than she had previously thought, which was an exciting piece of gossip to salt away for future use, but not very salient to the current conversation, the key point of which being the small green person’s admission that he knew naught of the Nativity.  So obviously, there was only one path open to her: she told him, staring deep into his yellowish eyes while she did so.  And almost immediately she ran into problems because he had difficulty with the whole concept of ‘Our Lord’, insisting that there wasn’t anybody of that description within six light-years (whatever they were) and did she mean the Admiral?  When she tried to explain that no, Our Lord was greater than any Admiral, and had power over all mankind, the power to punish sin and forgive penitents, the whole discussion just got more involved because the small green person insisted that that was precisely what the Admiral did, so that must be who she meant, and if so, when had she met her?  Clarissa, feeling her sanity beginning to wobble on its pedestal, decided to just jump to the story proper, going through the whole thing with the annunciation (“There, I told you it was the Admiral,” said the small green person, “She really goes for the young, innocent type”), the trip to Bethlehem (“But I told you, there’s no such place”), the manger, the shepherds and “the great star which brought Magi, wise men from abroad to the bed-side of our Saviour” as she triumphantly rounded the whole thing off.

Of course, from the perspective of the small green person, hearing Clarissa talk about wise people coming from far away in a star, there was one very obvious interpretation to place on her tale.  It was not the one Clarissa would have chosen, not even one she would have thought possible, but then she was not a small green person and a Science Officer to boot, and so she didn’t understand why her (as she thought) tale of Christmas joy and God’s love for mankind should make him (the small green person, that is, not God) so very nervous that he might even be said to be on the verge of panic.  She was about to enquire as to what might be the matter, when the small green person leaped from his seat, turned to the Engineer and cried out “We’re in trouble; they’re onto us; we’ve got to get out of here!”  Unfortunately for the small green person, the Engineer was giving Mr Adams a graphic description of what cirrhosis did to the liver and was far too busy to pay attention to his colleague.  Unfortunate for the small green person, but fortunate for Clarissa, for on hearing this nice man threaten to leave when they were only just beginning to get acquainted she had felt all miserable inside.  As it is, she rose and, daringly, took the opportunity to stand almost touching the small green person, saying “Oh dear, what’s the matter, did I upset you?”  He, opting for damage control, given that instant flight was clearly not an option, said “These wise men; you know who they were, don’t you?” and she said “Of course, they came to see the one who was sent to us from above.”  This, of course, made the small green person even more convinced that Clarissa knew more that she ought: if she knew that people came from above then he needed to neutralise this risk to the mission as quickly as possible.  The time for pretence was past. “So you see,” he said, “that means it wasn’t a star at all; it must have been the ship they came in.”  Clarissa laughed happily: so that was why he was confused.  “Don’t be silly,” she said, “everybody knows they came on camels.”  “Well, maybe it was a Camel Class ship”, said the small green person, “but that doesn’t change the fact that what you call a star was their ship.”  “But,” said Clarissa, who was getting pretty confused by this herself now, “they couldn’t have come in a ship, because they were in the middle of the desert.  And anyway, ships float in the sea, not in the air.  Oh, wait a minute,” she added, a sudden brainwave hitting her, “do you mean an airship?”  That wasn’t quite what the small green person had meant, but he felt that it would do as, at least, a first approximation to the truth he was trying to impart, so he nodded and said “Yes, that’s it, an airship.  And if you think about it, as we’re on a rotating ball, a star couldn’t keep up with one place, could it?  It would have to be a ship in orbit?  You know, like the Moon?  You understand that, don’t you?”

Clarissa was struck dumb.  Not only had this amazing small green person taken her seriously, but now he was actually asking her to use her intellect. This had never happened to her before; men assumed that because she was young and female she was just a mindless potential baby-making machine, and they were more likely to be concerned about her pedigree, as if she were a stock beast they were haggling over at the cattle market, than her mind or anything else which truly identified her as an individual and not just something produced out of a mould.  Even her fiancée, though she told herself she loved him dearly, treated her as if she were somehow generic, and, if he had to refer to it at all, treated her going to Cambridge and her mathematical studies there as a bit of a joke, something she would have to grow out of before settling down to the serious business of managing his house and bearing his heirs.  But this small green person, though rather odd in that most of the people she had met before had somewhat fewer fingers, and more in the way of a nose, and a pinkish rather than a greenish complexion, wanted to reason with her; he did not treat her intellect as something somehow distasteful, but was demanding that she use it.  She was positively smitten, and began to wish she had chosen to wear something a bit more revealing when getting dressed this morning.  Her functional blouse, long skirt and flat, sensible shoes seemed, suddenly, quite inappropriate for the occasion.  However, necessity was the mother of invention, and so, surreptitiously undoing a couple of buttons, she took in a deep breath, leaned towards the small green person to make sure he got a good view of what was thereby revealed, and said, breathily, “But how could it stay still?  The Moon goes round and round, like we go round the Sun.”  He was disconcerted at having these heaving (and, to him, hideous) mounds of flesh revealed unto him, but, being a scientist, was able to focus on the key point, which was that she was finally showing some sign of understanding, albeit flawed, so he said “Oh I’m sure you can calculate for yourself the parameters needed for an orbital period to match a planet’s rotational period.”

That did it; Clarissa was in love.  Screw Charles Belton.  Had he ever expressed confidence in her ability to solve complex equations?  No, he had just laughed at her for going to Cambridge and made cruel jokes about it with his dim-witted friends.  Had he ever thought of talking to her as if she were his intellectual equal, or, more likely, superior?  No, he had just made it quite clear that there was something not quite nice about her being ‘brainy’.  Had he ever turned pale (how was she to know it was with loathing?) at the mere touch of her flesh and sight of her womanly glories?  No, he’d completely ignored her, at least in her opinion, rather good figure, and even had the nerve to point out that flat-chested freak Anne Fielding as a ‘pretty girl’.  In fact, now she came to think about it, Clarissa realised that before today, the only person who had ever reacted positively to her appearance was Lydia Merton’s maid, and though what they had done together that special afternoon, while Lydia was downstairs writing poetry about suicide as was her wont, had been very pleasant, it was nothing, repeat nothing, compared to the pure bliss that filled Clarissa now, as she realised that finally she had found the one.  Yes: she had to be with this small green person, no matter what it took.  And that meant she had to prove herself to him, to show that she was worthy of his love.  So, grasping a piece of paper and a pencil (and in the process taking the opportunity to undo all her remaining buttons), she leaped to work and, after mere minutes produced an equation of such crystalline beauty that even the small green person, when she shyly proffered him the paper bearing it, found it in himself to smile, despite being unable to avoid seeing more of her female, human anatomy than had been brought to his attention since the time that the Admiral had ordained it to be ‘dress down Friday’ and turned up on the bridge in the nude (and he had been carried out, in a faint, mere seconds later, so clearly Clarissa was growing on him, after all).  “Well done,” he said, “you may have some merit after all, despite your unfortunate species.”

This was music to Clarissa’s ears (apart from the bit about the unfortunate species, which she simply didn’t understand, apart from possibly being an assertion, with which she now fully agreed, that people like Noel Merton and Charles Belton were a blot on the face of humanity), but there was something she had to know: was this to be her one and only meeting with her new love?  Were they to be forever separated after this brief encounter?  Was she to be left to pine and try to make do with one of the various County Males of her acquaintance, with nothing to brighten her life save the occasional tumble with Lydia Merton’s maid, and joining Lydia in writing lugubrious poetry?  Or was this only the beginning of a new and glorious phase of her existence in which she could find true happiness and fulfilment?  She had to know, so she asked the obvious question: “When can I see you again?” and then stood, waiting on his answer with glittering eye, parted lips and bared bosom, a vision of beauty to all save the one person she currently cared most about.  “Well,” replied the small green person, “We really aren’t planning to stay very long” and even he, with his limited understanding of human physiognomy could tell that something was wrong, for Clarissa’s face fell as she filled with woe surpassing all bounds, so he continued “But it’s nothing for you to be unhappy about.  You see we’re looking for somebody, and we haven’t found them yet.  We thought it would be Mr Adams, but,” he glanced across to where Mr Adams was threatening to give the Engineer a good thumping and the Engineer was asking if he’d like to see what it felt like to be separated into his component molecules very, very slowly, while Noel Merton sat collapsed in a chair making friends with a whisky bottle, “I don’t, somehow think it’s him we want, after all.  So we’ll have to stay until we find whoever it is.”  This, of course, cheered up Clarissa no end: maybe her small green person was leaving, but it wasn’t immediate.  Indeed, she saw the possibility for a cunning scheme, so she asked “Oh, is there anything I can do to help you find them?” her idea being that (a) this would mean they would have to spend lots of time together, and (b) she could misdirect them as much as possible to put off the fearful day long enough for the small green person to acknowledge his fate and agree to make himself hers.  This was, of course, unknown to the small green person, who merely saw it as further evidence that Clarissa was nowhere near so irritating as most of her species, so he smiled again and said “Well yes, perhaps you could.  We’re looking for somebody particularly intelligent, with a powerful mathematical brain, who has some kind of connection to Mr Adams and …” he tailed off, for as he had been speaking the penny had suddenly dropped that the person they were looking for was standing right before him.  Mentally shaking himself for being so slow, he looked into Clarissa’s beautiful, emotion-racked face and said “I don’t suppose you’d like to come along with us would you?”  Clarissa was overjoyed; this was more than she could possibly have hoped for, and so, without, even for a moment, thinking that properly she should say something along the lines of “You must ask papa and mama”, she flung her arms around him with such force that, what with him being small and her being somewhat Junoesque, they ended up on the floor together (which he didn’t enjoy much), kissed him (which he didn’t enjoy much either) and said “Oh yes, please, take me away from these people, my darling.”  And it was at this point, before any of the other people in the room had time to more than register these strange events, that the maid entered and announced “Mr Charles Belton.”

Charles was indubitably shocked to see his fiancée showing her corsetry together with an unseemly amount of what it constrained, with her skirt hooked up indecently round her knees, straddling a small green person whom she was kissing with an enthusiasm she had never brought to their chaste embraces.  And, being an English County Male, he never for one moment thought that perhaps the reason said embraces had always seemed rather, well, dull was because he hadn’t encouraged her to remove her blouse, pull up her skirt and straddle him while covering him with burning kisses, and that possibly if he had their relationship might be in a better state of health.  Of course not, for no English County Male could possible conceive that behind the facade of a Decent County Maiden there might be a woman who wanted a good time.  Clearly his Clarissa had been corrupted, and Charles knew just whom he should blame: it was all down to this unseemly friendship of hers with that terrible nouveau riche Adams chap.  And so, rather than pulling Clarissa to her feet and showing her that he could do whatever the small green person could and then some, Charles turned on Mr Adams and said “Sir, explain yourself!” which caused no end of consternation.  The Engineer and Mr Adams, who had been in the final stages of planning a duel (cosh versus molecular disruptor) were caught on the hop and, as is generally the way, sensing somebody intent on interfering with their quarrel, immediately formed an offensive alliance against the intruder.  “Explain what, may I ask?” said Mr Adams, and the Engineer added “Yeah, who do you think you are, asking for explanations?”  Charles was undaunted; he knew he was better than these people: his Norman blood told him so (and one can’t exactly expect intelligence of somebody who thinks with his blood-stream, after all).  So, he stood firm and said “What, Sir, have you done thus to corrupt my betrothed?” pointing at the Clarissa / small green person imbroglio (Clarissa had by now lost her skirt and was moaning “Take me!” over and over while dry-humping the rather disoriented small green person, who replied “Yes, of course, but we’ve got to find her ladyship first”, confusing Clarissa no end, as she wasn’t aware of having proposed a threesome, and she wasn’t sure she liked Lady Glencora that much anyway).  Mr Adams, however, knew that solid worth outweighed Norman blood, so he said “I don’t really see it as anything to do with me, what the young lady wants to do.”  The Engineer agreed, “It looks to me,” he said, “As if she’s just found somebody she likes more than you.  Shame really, given he’s not exactly equipped to satisfy her” he added, meditatively.

Charles made no effort to understand this mysterious statement; instead he turned on Noel: “And you, Merton,” he said, “I wouldn’t expect anything better of these oiks,” gesturing grandly at Mr Adams and the Engineer, “But a gentleman like you should have known better than to let this happen.  What were you thinking of?”  Unfortunately, Noel’s relationship with the bottle had been more effectively consummated than was being Clarissa’s with the small green person, so he just looked owlishly at Charles, said “Oh hello, Belton, cheers!” and fell asleep.  Charles had nobody left to blame, given he was loathe to admit that his Clarissa was a woman capable of taking responsibility for her own actions.  He was about to try blaming Lucy Marling (she was obviously a wrong ‘un for agreeing to marry Adams, after all) but Clarissa, realising that she wasn’t going to get satisfaction from her man (at least, that’s what she thought he was) just yet, and, with the slight reduction of ardour that realisation brought about, concluding that it might perhaps be better if their love were consummated somewhere more private than Mr Adams’ drawing room, had decided to take an interest in events beyond her immediate desires.  Thus, just as Charles was about to open his mouth in remonstrance, she said “Charles, if you want to blame somebody, try yourself.”  Charles quivered; he quivered primarily at the spectacle that forced itself on his unwilling eye: in her corset and stockings, with hands on hips and bosom held proudly aloft, Clarissa looked, for all the world, save for her lack of a cigarette and high heels, like a German cabaret artiste or an American film star, and he wasn’t sure he was too happy about being engaged to a girl who looked like a German cabaret artiste or an American film star; secondarily he quivered in intellectual shock, for he had never thought of blaming himself: it just didn’t seem reasonable.  “You see,” Clarissa continued, “You just don’t understand me.  You don’t take me seriously as a person, and you don’t take me seriously as a woman either.  So I’m leaving; I’m going away with this gentleman to…” she tailed off, and the small green person helpfully interjected “Barnard’s star”, whereupon she continued, “Thank you; to Barnard’s star, where people will really appreciate me.  So there.”  “Well, the Admiral will appreciate you, that’s for sure,” said the Engineer, eyeing her liberally displayed figure, and then, to the small green person, “Is she the one, then?”  As the small green person nodded, Charles began to protest, that of course he took Clarissa seriously, but she had to realise that he was wiser than her and more mature than her and, well, well, a man, so obviously he knew better than her what was right for her, it only stood to reason, but Clarissa was no longer prepared to be a good County Maiden, and she silenced him by saying “You just don’t get it, do you?  You’ve always treated me like a toy.  So basically, Charles, what I’m trying to say is: fuck you and fuck that bloody horse you probably rode here on.  You love it more than you would ever love me.”  And then, after a pause to let this masterly summary of the situation sink in, she filled the stunned silence by asking “Can we go now?” to which the small green person, replied “Sure”, taking a strange device from his pocket and fiddling with it for a second or two, whereupon, as their audience watched amazed (apart from Noel, of course), Clarissa and the two visitors vanished into thin air.

Chapter 3: The Middle, with Lydia

True to the Engineer’s prediction, it hadn’t taken the Admiral very long after Noel and the others had left the house to get Lydia out of her dress and into bed, and now, a good while later, with Lydia’s horizons considerably extended, the two lay together in a comfortable after-glow.  And when, as it inevitably does in such circumstances, conversation came to the fore, the Admiral discovered that her horizons were being broadened too, and not in a way that was particularly enjoyable (which seemed rather unfair, given that Lydia had found her intellectual enlargement profoundly so): she was discovering, at first hand, the collection of neuroses, inhibitions, prejudices and plain, simple hang-ups that together went to make up the mind of a County Wife.  Of course, Lydia wasn’t a particularly good one, but enough had worn off on her, in the course of her desperate attempts to salvage her relationship with Noel, for her to display all the major signs and symptoms.  And that was the problem, because the Admiral’s thinking was very much predicated on the assumption that Lydia’s relationship with Noel was at an end.  She may, if she so wished, see him one last time to say good-bye or heave an old boot at him, whichever she preferred, but apart from that, the Admiral had been led to believe, by the way that Lydia had responded to her love-making, that her loyalties had been, as it were, rearranged, and Noel was now no more to her that the rather distasteful memory of a transient faux-pas.  And, being a woman of few inhibitions, the Admiral had said as much.  And this was where the trouble started.

“But I can’t leave Noel,” Lydia wailed, which made no sense at all to the Admiral.  “Why on Earth would you want to stay with Stinker,” she said, “when you can have me?  Do I need to remind you what you were saying a few minutes ago?  I do seem to recall it was something along the lines of ‘Oh, oh, oh my God, this is the best thing that’s ever happened to me; please don’t stop’.  And, I might add, I wasn’t on my best form.    So, am I right in thinking you’re saying you’d sooner pass up the chance to have that happen to you every night for the next couple of hundred years, and stick with Stinker, who clearly wouldn’t know what an orgasm was if you showed him an illustrated diagram?”  The question was pointed, and apt, but Lydia was distracted from it by a side issue: “Couple of hundred years?” she said, “What do you mean, couple of hundred years?”  “Well,” said the Admiral, “I like you and all, but I don’t suppose the relationship’s going to last more than a century or two; we’ve got to be realistic, you know.”  “But, but,” said Lydia, “How can it last a century or two?  I’ll be dead in much less than that?”  The Admiral smote her brow and said “Good Lord, I keep forgetting just how backward you lot really are.  Look, honey, we’ve got drugs’ll make you live as long as you like.  Take them and you’ll look as young and sexy as I do when you’re five-hundred, which, I might add, I’m not going to be for a few years yet.” Lydia was overwhelmed: she had thought the Admiral was about her age, certainly she was incredibly athletic and, well, well-preserved, so she said, timidly “So you’re saying that you’re, er, hundreds of years old?”  “Yeah, that’s right,” said the Admiral, and then a light, as it were, went off in her head, “So that means you’ve gotta do what I say: people in your society obey their elders don’t they?”  She put on an extra-deep voice and waggled her hands in a quasi-significant manner, saying “Thus sayeth the oldster: leave that piece of shit you’re married to and shack up with me.”

Which took things back to where they had started, with Lydia saying “But what would the County think?” and the Admiral sighing deeply, groaning a little to herself while she did it.  “The County?” she said, a little tetchily, “Why the hell would the County think anything?  Are you people so primitive you still personify geographical abstractions?”  This meant nothing to Lydia, containing as it did, at least three words she didn’t understand, so she continued “The County would talk.”  “My God,” said the Admiral, “What have I done?  I’ve fallen for a woman who thinks local administrative units talk to her.  How.  Do.  I.  Find.  Them?” this last being punctuated by a thump of her head against the mattress between each word. This still meant nothing to Lydia, who blithely continued, “And I hate to think what people would say about me if I left my husband for a woman.”  Light finally dawned: “Oh, you mean the pillars of society do you?  The nobs?  Why didn’t you say so?” said the Admiral, “Who cares what they say?  What matters” she added, caressing Lydia’s breasts just to remind her of what she’d be missing out on if she stayed with Noel, “Is that you’d be with me instead of Stinker.”  “But I do care,” said Lydia, “I can just imagine what Miss Bunting would say,” she added, a new tone of horrified fear entering her voice, at the thought of the ultimate in County Wife degradation: being talked about. “She’d make some terribly cutting remark about me running away with an American, and how she’d always known that I wasn’t quite nice, and then compare me with that awful Fielding girl, and I don’t think I could bear it.”  She hid her face, overwrought.  The Admiral, seeing both the flaw in her argument and a chance to get in a spot of persuasion of the physical kind, took Lydia in her arms, kissed her, and extended the range of her fondling, saying “There, there; it doesn’t matter.  Because, first off, I’m not an American, in fact I don’t even know what an American is.  And second, if you come away with me, it won’t matter what a bunch of joyless old women who’ve never had a decent orgasm in their lives say, because you won’t be there to hear them, will you?”  Lydia looked up and said “Oh, I never thought of that.”  Then she paused; the fear of being talked about was so deeply ingrained that even being talked about without being there to hear it happen was terrible to her: in fact it was the worst of all social disasters, for then she would always have that nagging fear that behind their ostensibly friendly faces, her friends and acquaintances (and Miss Bunting) knew.  She tried to explain:  “But I’d know they were saying it, which would be just as bad.”  “Aha,” said the Admiral, applying an extra squeeze, “But you’d also know that you had me to look forward to every night, plus not having to put up with Stinker any more, plus a, how shall I put it, slightly more exciting lifestyle.  Of course,” she began to ramble, “we’d have to find something you’re good at, apart from fucking, given that ‘Admiral’s Girlfriend’ isn’t a job description the fleet recognises as such, but that’s something for the future.  And anyway,” she added, back on track at last, in a cheerful tone, as if somehow this made everything all right (which, of course, it did in her way of thinking) “If you’ll just point this Miss Bunting out to me, I can always kill her, if that’ll help” which left Lydia aghast, both with shock at the cheerful bloodthirstiness of this woman of her dreams and horror at the fact that her first impulse had been to give Miss Bunting’s address and ask if she could come and watch, plus could they do Anne Fielding at the same time.  Instead, she moderated herself, not giving in to her impulses, just like a proper County Wife, and said “But that wouldn’t be proper, would it?”  “No,” replied the Admiral, “but it’d be fun.”  “But murder’s wrong” said Lydia, this being something of which, even in her current confused state, what with the conversation and the fondling and the residual wonderful, yet sinful, bliss from earlier, she was certain.  “Ah yes,” said the Admiral, “but it wouldn’t be murder if I did it.  Think of it more as improving the species by thinning out defective individuals.  So anyway,” she said, returning to her original theme, “You can’t seriously mean that this Bunting female is more important to you than getting more of this?” which she underlined with an expert tweak which caused Lydia to cry out “Oh God, no, of course not, please don’t stop; I don’t care about anything so long as you don’t stop.”   “Ha,” said the Admiral rather smugly, “I thought so.  So, I assume this means you are coming with me when I leave, then?”

But Lydia was destined not to answer, because at this point the door-bell rang.  “Blast,” said the Admiral, but Lydia was more sanguine, saying “Don’t worry, the maid will get it; well probably she will, anyway, just don’t stop, whatever you do.”  But this reminded the Admiral that now there was no maid to answer the door, so she said contritely, “Er, well, actually I kind of disposed of her earlier, so she won’t.  Sorry.  But don’t worry, I’ll go see who it is” and before Lydia could tell her of this society’s rather strong nudity taboo she was off the bed and down the stairs to answer the door.  It was the least she could do.

Doctor Ford (for it was he who had rung the door-bell) was surprised when the Mertons’ door opened and he was greeted by a naked young woman who said “And who the hell are you?”  It wasn’t so much the brusqueness of the welcome that surprised him, indeed compared to some of the greetings he had received from the hired help when visiting the Mertons this was actually quite polite; no, it was definitely the nakedness that came as a bit of a shock: in all his experience to date of the Mertons’ maid, her eccentricity, though great, had not yet extended to answering the door in the nude.  But this appeared to be a new young woman, so perhaps poor Lydia had been forced to scrape even closer to the bottom of the barrel and ended up with a nudist, or an exhibitionist, or a vegetarian or some such oddity.  And anyway, he was a doctor, and here he was in a situation which most doctors encountered only in their day-dreams: face-to-face with an attractive young woman with no need to invent specious excuses to get her to take her clothes off.  It was more or less the holy grail of County Doctoring.  Admittedly, she wasn’t his patient, but he was sure he would be able to think of some excuse for giving her a thorough examination; he could tell, already, just by looking at it, that her bosom needed urgent medical attention.  So, doing his best to be charming, he said “Why I’m Doctor Ford, my dear.  I assume you’re the new maid, so don’t worry, you’ll get to know me very well” which point he underlined with a friendly pat on the bottom.

The young woman did not respond as anticipated.  Usually, when confronted with a twinkly, avuncular, bottom-patting authority figure, female domestics got all giggly and simpered “Or you are a one” or something similar, and were entirely accepting of his little (and, progressively, not so little) liberties.  The only exception had been the Mertons’ previous maid, who had always refused to undergo examination, holding out for (of all things) a lady doctor and, when she was told that such a thing was contrary to nature, saying “So is that thing between your legs, if you ask me.” This one only continued the trend, being, if anything, an even tougher nut, given that her reaction to the pat and its follow-up in the form of a gentle caress applied to her right buttock was to give Doctor Ford a distinctly severe look and say “Get that thing” referring presumably to his hand, “off my butt right now, or I’ll have your arm off and make you eat it.  The only man who gets to touch me is my personal physician, and then only with written permission signed in triplicate, and you sure aren’t him anyway” and then, when Doctor Ford failed to follow orders immediately, for this was surely mere maidenly persiflage, instead saying “Oh come, my dear” and enhancing his fondling to incorporate the left buttock within its scope, she said “Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you” and, seconds later, he was looking up at her from the floor, where he had taken up painful and involuntary residence, though he was not entirely sure how or why.  “What did I do?” he asked weakly, to which she replied “It would take too long, and you’re too unevolved to understand anyway.  So just tell me what you want.”  Then she put a hand to her face and said “What am I saying?  As if I don’t know what your primitive monkey brain wants,” she turned her attention back to the quailing Doctor Ford and said, in a tone which made his flesh creep, “Look, buster, just tell me why you’re here, and no funny stuff, or else.  Understood?”  He nodded immediately, eager to avoid discovering what might come under the heading of ‘or else’ and said “Er, right, I’m, er, Mrs Merton’s doctor.  Her husband said she was having one of her turns.  So I’m here to, er help.”  The woman continued to stare at him with that unnerving aura of ill-defined menace that she did so well, but her response, viz “Who the hell’s Mrs Merton?” was at least not immediately threatening.  Instead it was deeply puzzling: what kind of maid wandered around stark naked and didn’t even know her employers’ name?    But he had a further surprise to come, when she said, “Oh, you mean Lydia do you?  Why didn’t you say?” for what kind of maid wandered around stark naked, beat up visiting professionals and referred to her employer’s wife by her Christian name?  And the surprises just kept on coming, because now this very strange servant shouted “Hey lover, the quack’s here to see you, better get out of bed” before turning her attention back to Doctor Ford (who was still on the floor), and saying “Here, I suppose you might as well come in”, giving him a good kick in the crotch to stir him to action.

Once he had managed to get upright and staggered into the drawing room, Doctor Ford found therein a rather flustered Lydia Merton, her clothes in a state of disarray, for all the world as if she had just dressed in a great hurry, which was not at all the kind of thing a County Wife did:  Proper County Wives always looked perfect.  Then again, Proper County Wives didn’t have strange, naked maids who treated them with, Doctor Ford felt, excessive affection, given that she greeted Lydia by saying “Well, darling, here’s the quack.  Shame it’s a man, otherwise we could have had a threesome.  Oh well, better go find my clothes.” And Proper County Wives most certainly did not have highly attractive, naked maids who followed up undue familiarity by embracing them with a degree of enthusiasm which startled Doctor Ford only slightly less than the enthusiasm with which the embrace was reciprocated.  It was clear, Doctor Ford thought to himself as the mystery nude left him alone with his patient, that Lydia had fallen from her pedestal and only massive medical intervention could help re-establish her thereupon.  But, though the Doctor was eager to get down to business, for Lydia was by far his most attractive patient, on this one occasion he felt the need to gather a little information before starting work.  Not, that is to say, that he was going to do anything so demeaning as to actually ask a woman patient what was wrong with her; obviously no doctor worth his salt would do that, knowing as he did that the complaint was always some form of hysteria, or else the always useful catch-all of ‘women’s problems’.  No, what Doctor Ford wanted to know was, at least approximately, what had just happened to him, and why, so he asked Lydia, who was still panting somewhat as she recovered from the Admiral’s kiss, “Pardon me for asking, but who was that?”  Lydia gulped and blushed as she realised that, yes, she had just wrapped tongues with the Admiral while her general practitioner looked on, and said, hesitantly, “Er, she’s a … friend … of mine,” which left Doctor Ford, if anything, even more confused than before.  He was not unfamiliar with that particular intonation of the word ‘friend’ when uttered by a County Wife or County Maiden.  Indeed, he’d heard it applied to himself on at least one occasion.  The source of the confusion, however, lay in the fact that it was almost uniformly the case that the appropriately intoned ‘friend’ in question was of the opposite gender to the intoner.  So, Lady Glencora Palliser was ‘friends’ with her father’s second under-footman and Lucy Marling was ‘friends’ with the man who did the pigs and cows.  The only exception to this general rule was Anne Fielding, whose ‘friend’ was an invisible rabbit called Mister Bunny Tumpkins, but then, given the poor girl’s physique, he was probably the only friend she was ever going to have, so this didn’t really count.  Among normally shaped women the rule held good.  But now here was Lydia claiming a woman, indubitably a woman, as Doctor Ford had seen in all too graphic detail, as her ‘friend’.  Given that, like Noel and Queen Victoria, Doctor Ford discounted entirely the possibility of loving relations between women, he merely took this as further evidence that he had come to attend on Lydia in the nick of time, for she was clearly even more hysterical than usual: what could be more hysterical than for a neglected County Wife to claim to have taken a woman as her lover?  A man, yes, they did that all the time, but a woman?  If she seriously believed that, then Lydia must be more than just hysterical: she had passed beyond mere hysteria and entered into the dark realm of delusion; if he didn’t save her immediately she might start believing that she had a right to some of her husband’s attention, and then where would they be? And so, given all this and fearing what might happen if she were reintroduced to reality too quickly, he humoured her, saying “That’s nice, my dear.  Now, I just need to examine you, if you don’t mind.  You know what to do.”

Lydia did indeed know what to do, and so it was that when the Admiral returned a few minutes later, her outspoken shape merely emphasised by her uniform, she came upon Lydia standing in the middle of the room, her blouse, brassiere, camisole and neck-scarf cast to its four corners, and Doctor Ford subjecting her cleavage to what appeared to be an exceptionally thorough examination.  The Admiral, from a standing start, immediately leaped to a conclusion, viz that Lydia was not, in fact, the woman of her dreams, but was just a cheap tart who would do it with anybody, men included.  From here it was but the work of a moment for the Admiral to strike Doctor Ford with a blow so hard that he flew from Lydia’s cleavage to the other side of the room, where he lay among the remnants of an occasional table, looking peaceful.  Which was just as well for him, as the ensuing jealous scene would, had he witnessed it, have probably made his mind implode, so far did it lie outside his conceptual scheme.  Thus, the Admiral, turning her wrath from the Doctor to her lover, shook Lydia hard, shouting as she shook “What are you doing, you, you, you bimbo!”  Lydia was, as was so often the case in her conversations with the Admiral, a little fogged (not to mention being more than a little startled, what with her rude translation from the solemn peace of a medical examination to a state of violent pertubation): “I was just letting him …” she began, but the Admiral interrupted, too angry to let the woman she had thought she loved admit to her horrid promiscuities, saying “I could see what you were letting him do.  How could you?”  Lydia wasn’t sure how to answer that, which was all to the good, for the question was rhetorical, and the Admiral continued without letting up, “Only minutes ago we were making love and you were acting as if it was the best thing that ever happened to you, and then the moment I leave you to yourself you’re getting ready to play hide the salami with a man.  And I thought you loved me” she added bitterly, letting go of Lydia and putting her hands over her face, then spitting out, as an envenomed epilogue, “Well, I’ll know better next time, you whore.”

There was a lot to unpack in this speech, and Lydia wasn’t entirely sure where to start.  Apart from anything else, the shaking had gone on for so long that she was quite, quite dizzy, and, bereft of the support that the Admiral had been giving her, she collapsed to the floor, utterly disoriented.  And this was not a good state in which to try to decode the Admiral’s sayings.  Apart from anything else, she thought a salami was a kind of German sausage, and she was a good patriotic English-woman, and wouldn’t have German food in the house, not while there was a war on.  No sir.  So ‘hide the salami’ meant nothing to her at all; she couldn’t imagine what the Admiral was accusing her of, except possibly hoarding food, which was also unpatriotic, and something she would never, ever do, though she could quite see why the Admiral would be shocked at the thought of her doing it.  But then there was the other part of the speech, which seemed to be about, well, them, and their relationship, and had nothing at all to do with off-ration food-stuffs, and Lydia really didn’t understand how the two connected in the Admiral’s mind.  However, despite all this confusion and the dizziness, Lydia was able to deduce that (a) the Admiral was a bit unhappy with her, (b) she seemed to perceive some kind of connection between Lydia’s long-standing diagnostic relationship with Doctor Ford and her brand new, terribly immoral but also terribly exciting relationship with herself, and (c) she had called Lydia by a derogatory name.  Lydia felt that somehow she had to defend herself, clearing herself of the charge of being a whore, though it wasn’t entirely clear to her why it was she was being accused of being one, which didn’t help.  But she was an Englishwoman, and brave, noble and pure (in heart, even if not, since meeting the Admiral, in body), so she rose to the challenge and her feet and, after an initial wobble, said “What we did was the best thing that has ever happened to me; a thousand times better than anything with Noel.  I don’t know if I love you” she added, at which the Admiral cried “Ha!” but Lydia continued, with growing conviction, “because I’ve only just met you, but I know you’re something very special to me.  And I’m not a whore: after my husband you’re only the second person I’ve done … that … with.  I became a loose woman for you: that shows how much you mean to me” which almost convinced the Admiral, even if she didn’t fully comprehend the significance of Lydia’s admission, being unaware of how major, in County Wife terms, the act of taking a lover actually was.  Instead of marvelling at the sacrifice of womanly virtue that Lydia had made for love of her, the Admiral was more concerned with the basic facts of the situation, which explains why she responded by saying, in a tone of some awe, “You mean that when we … practically a virgin … wow,” her incoherence reflecting her astonishment as she contemplated just what kind of a bombshell Lydia might turn into given half a chance and a bit more experience.  And the ‘almost convinced’ turned to ‘absolutely convinced’ when Lydia, concluding that words were not sufficient to express her feelings for the Admiral, took her in her arms and passionately kissed her.  Indeed, so impassioned was the kiss that the pair of them might well have proceeded to initiate a second bout of love-making there and then if Doctor Ford had not, most inconveniently, chosen this moment to come around and, seeing two women locked in a close clinch, passionately kissing and saying things like “My God, I love you” to one another, said “Oh hell, I must have caught her delusions.”

Lydia uttered a sharp squeak and leaped away from the Admiral, who swayed for a moment disoriented before she realised what had happened and then said to herself, in resignation more than anger, “I knew it, Doctor Feel-you-Up is back,” then to Doctor Ford, “Couldn’t you have stayed unconscious another five minutes, you inconsiderate bastard?” and then finally to Lydia, “Shall I kill him, my love?”  Lydia was quite definite, “No!” she shouted, then in a more normal tone, “I mean no, don’t kill him; he hasn’t done any harm.”  Doctor Ford was in absolute agreement and nodded vigorously, but it was clear that the Admiral wasn’t impressed by this argument.  “If he’s done no harm,” she said, “What’s with the,” she gestured vaguely at Lydia’s uncovered bosom, “you know: topless look?”  “Oh, he was examining me, that’s all,” said Lydia, and Doctor Ford echoed her: “Just a normal examination.”  “Oh yeah?” said the Admiral, “Well, my doctor just takes my pulse and ask me how I am and things like that.  None of this in-your-tits stuff.”  “Oh well,” said Lydia happily, “Doctor Ford is very modern, you see.  I take off my top, close my eyes and then do deep breathing exercises while he examines me.”  “And what good does that do?” asked the Admiral, who clearly was sceptical of the efficacy of this practice as a diagnostic tool.  Doctor Ford answered that question, perhaps without due consideration, but then, he was talking to a woman after all, which meant there was no need for due consideration; so, rather than explaining in detail the mechanism whereby viewing the rise and fall of Lydia’s breasts would help him to understand the psychiatric problems that plagued the woman within, he showed that he had learned precisely nothing in his short acquaintance with the Admiral by choosing to respond with a rather crass frivolity, saying “Well, it makes me feel a lot better for a start.”

The Admiral simply gaped; even with her ready tongue she didn’t know how to respond.  Had the man really just admitted to using Lydia, and by extension all his female, and, for all she knew, male, patients, for his own sexual gratification?  Were these people really that primitive?  She didn’t know whether to kill him or take him back home to be put on display in a museum, but when he followed up by getting to his feet and saying, rather tetchily, “And I’d ask you not to interfere with my examination.  Who knows what harm could come to Mrs Merton if she is not treated properly?  So if you could leave the room, please?” she regained control over her vocal chords, and, gasping at his sheer effrontery, said “What kind of Doctor are you, anyway?” to which he replied “One who needs to examine his patient; Lydia, if you could just close your eyes again?”  The Admiral could see the way things were going, and she certainly wasn’t going to countenance any more bosom inspection unless it was her doing the inspecting, so, turning to Lydia, she said “No, darling, you just put your top back on like a good girl, while I deal with this predator,” then, turning back to the Doctor, she said “If you were even half-way competent you’d know that all that was wrong with the poor woman was that she needed a good shag and some affection.  And she’s had both of those this morning, with the promise of more to come, so be off with you before I really lose my temper.”  Doctor Ford was outraged: unqualified people, women even, telling him, one of the lords of creation no less, a County Doctor, what was wrong with one of his patients?  Never!  He laughed, in a way which he no doubt thought was jolly, but which merely came across as patronising, and said, “Oh come now; I think I know better than you what Mrs Merton needs, and right now that’s me looking at her bosom, just to make sure it’s the right shape”, then, with some urgency, for Lydia was already brassiered and camisoled and was hunting about for the next layer of clothing,  “Lydia, don’t put your blouse back on, please, it’ll just waste time”  “Don’t listen to him!” snapped the Admiral, before replying to the Doctor, “I know perfectly well why you want to look at Lydia’s tits, you pervert, and it’s not to help her, now is it?  So are you going to get out of here, or am I going to have to make you?”  Well, Doctor Ford was having none of that.  Told to leave by a part-time nudist maid in a funny uniform?  Without even getting to feel Lydia’s breasts?  Or collect his fee?  He wasn’t going to tolerate that, and he said as much: “I’d like to see you try and stop me treating my patient” he sneered, and it was the last thing he did, for the Admiral said, “Fine, don’t say you didn’t ask for it”, pulled a strange pointy device from her pocket and pointed it at him.  And in a flash there was another cloud of grey dust settling on the floor.

Lydia had been busy knotting her scarf in front of a mirror at the actual moment of dissolution, and so, looking round and seeing the Admiral but no Doctor, she naturally, given he had been in the room only seconds before, asked “Where did Doctor Ford go?”  The Admiral, choosing her words carefully, said “Oh, he’s gone off with your Maid,” but this did not satisfy Lydia, for as she said “But they never got on with one another, and anyway, he was here just now.  And what’s that dust?  That wasn’t there when I last looked.”  “Well, if you insist on seeing through my attempt to break the news gently” the Admiral said, pointing, “that’s him, there, that pile of dust.  I was sick and tired of the smarmy bugger, so I decided to off him, and that’s what’s left of him.”  Lydia didn’t know what to make of this: in her experience people didn’t just vanish or turn into small piles of grey dust, so she got down on her hands and knees to take a good look at the erstwhile Doctor.  Seeing nothing she recognised, she tried talking to the pile of dust instead, hoping it might be able to explain to her what was going on, asking “Doctor Ford?  Are you all right in there?” at which the Admiral groaned to herself “Why did I have to fall for an airhead?  Why? Why?” but before she could extend her line of thought any further a sudden tinny ringing noise, as of a very small telephone, filled the air and she said “Oh blast,” to herself, and then “Sorry darling; I’ve got to talk to somebody.” She pulled another device from her pocket, putting it to her ear and said, rather sharply “Yeah, what?”

So while Lydia continued her séance with what was left of Doctor Ford, the Admiral listened intently to the device, making occasional disjointed comments: “A woman, eh?  … A riot?  On my bridge? … Broke his arm?  How do we get out of this hell-hole without a navigator?  … Oh, she did, did she?  What?  Well, you obviously got the right one, didn’t you? … Tell me again about the dress? … Wow; tell her not to change out of it until I get a chance to have a look … Right, see you in a couple of minutes.”  She put the device away and turned her attention to Lydia, who had given up keening over the remains and had been listening to all this talk of riots and broken arms with growing concern.  Seeing that the Admiral was now free again, she timidly asked “Is anything wrong?” and the Admiral replied expansively, “No, nothing at all.  It looks as if Stinker and those two idiots managed to carry out their mission after all.  Frankly I’m amazed.”  Lydia thought of bridling a bit at this apparent slur on Noel’s character, but decided, on reflection, that one of the nice things about being an adulteress was that she no longer had to lie to herself about her husband, so instead she just said “Well, that’s good, isn’t it?”  “Good isn’t the word, or so I gather,” said the Admiral.  Do you know somebody called, what was it, oh yes, Clarissa Graham?”  “Oh yes,” replied Lydia, “but we don’t, I mean Noel doesn’t approve of her,” she corrected herself, once again drawing on the wages of sin: “but I like her a lot.”  “Good thing,” said the Admiral, “considering.  It turns out young Clarissa was what we were looking for; in fact she’s more than we expected.  She’s agreed to join up with my crew, and apparently when she got to the ship, the first thing she did was to reprogram the computer that drives the tailoring machine, because she didn’t like the uniform it gave her.  Then she caused a riot when she sashayed onto my bridge wearing what she’d made it produce.  Then she ended the riot by breaking my navigator’s arm when he tried to get fresh with her.  And then, to top it all off, she took over at his desk and laid in a course for getting us away from this benighted dump that was about three times better than the one he’d come up with.  So maybe she needs to tone down her dress-sense, but I’m happy to have her on board.  Hey,” she said, suddenly struck by a bright idea, “She sounds pretty hot.  Means we could probably get a threesome together, after all.” She pulled the small device out of her pocket, put it to her ear and said sharply, “Hey, me again.  Change of plan.  Tell our young hotshot to take herself and her lewd dress to my cabin and wait there for me and Mrs Merton.”

Lydia, who had been listening to this recital with concern, amazement and not a little envy at the obvious insouciance with which Clarissa had adjusted to this strange world of which the Admiral spoke, with things called computers and machines that made clothes and navigators and a ship (but they were miles from the sea, so how had they got there so soon?) found that this last question brought her up short.  She didn’t know what a threesome was, but it seemed to be something that required her and Clarissa and the Admiral all to be in the same place, which must, given Clarissa’s new home, be this ‘the ship’.  And how else was she to interpret that last comment about ‘wait for me and Mrs Merton’ other than as saying that the Admiral was assuming that Lydia’s future and hers were now entwined?  Thus she was once again faced by the question she had been trying to avoid answering since the Admiral had asked it: whether the fact that she acknowledged she felt far more for the Admiral than she could feel for Noel outweighed her County Wife conditioning.  Could she bring herself to risk the censure of the Miss Buntings of this world, by giving in to happiness, or should she just be terribly, terribly respectable and live out her days knowing what she had thrown away?  She had hoped to have had longer to work this out for herself, solving the conflict between desire and convention, but now she found herself placed on the spot, for the Admiral turned her attention back to Lydia, saying “Right, I’m done here then.  No need to wait for Stinker to get back.  Shall we go?”

Chapter 4: The Ending

4A : Lydia takes things far too seriously

Round about lunch-time, Noel staggered back to his home.  Not only were his feet now distinctly painful after two long walks, but he had had experiences strange and unpleasant enough to make any man stagger.  First there had been the strange visitors, then he had been forced to tolerate the society of that dreadful nouveau riche Adams, and then, then, to make things worse, there was his visitors’ strange disappearance, taking that flighty Graham girl with them.  And that had only exposed him to the wrath of Charles Belton who, rather unfairly Noel thought, had put the blame for his fiancée’s disappearance squarely on Noel’s shoulders.  It was not surprising that Noel was feeling rather battered and in considerable need of female sympathy as he let himself into the house (having had to remind himself, to fresh shudders of reminiscence, that he no longer had a maid) and called out “Lydia, where are you?”

There was no reply; in fact the house seemed to Noel as he made his way to the drawing room, to be empty.  For the absence of the ‘Admiral’ Noel was nothing but grateful, for he wasn’t sure he could survive any more of the random mix of eccentricity and violence that seemed to characterise her and her men, and he was grateful that she had obviously lost interest in keeping Lydia company and left.  However, that was not to say that Lydia should have gone out too.  What were things coming to when a County Husband, coming home unexpectedly in search of uxorial solicitude, discovered that his wife was elsewhere?  Why, if his feet hadn’t hurt so badly and the car hadn’t been blasted into nothingness, Noel would have had a good mind to go down to The Dog And Duck to see if he could persuade Flossie to take a break from her duties at the bar for half an hour or so: whether the womanly solicitude he sought was sincere or financially induced mattered not, after all.

But his feet did hurt, and the car had been blasted into nothingness, so Noel was forced to wait for Lydia to return from wherever she had gone (being a true County Husband, Noel, of course, had no interest in or knowledge of his wife’s interests and habits, so he had no way of telling where she might be or how long it might take).  Looking round the drawing room he saw clear evidence of violence of some kind: fragments of a former occasional table lying against the wall and, more menacing by far, a small pile of greyish dust on the floor near by where it had stood.  This brought true fear to Noel: did it mean that the mad woman had done it again?  And if so, who had she done it to?  Was this Lydia, he asked himself, with a rush of emotion that almost might make one feel some sympathy for the man, until it was realised that rather than consisting of feeling for her, the emotion was entirely related to how Noel would manage without a wife to do tedious things like hire domestics and bear heirs and the like.  But, the ‘Admiral’ had seemed to like Lydia, so, that meant that she had done something far worse than to murder the wife of his bosom, his one true love: she had killed somebody else, and he didn’t know who, and what would the County think if people got murdered when visiting his house?

Noel needed more information and, in the absence of Lydia or the maid, there was only one way he could think of to get it: Doctor Ford should have visited earlier in the morning.  Perhaps he could fill Noel in on whether the mad woman was still there when he visited, and whether he had noticed anybody disappearing to be replaced by a small heap of grey dust.  Noel rushed to the phone and, hands shaking in anxiety, dialled the Doctor’s number.  After a few rings, the Doctor’s housekeeper rang and Noel said, trying to keep his voice calm, “Oh hello there, this is Captain Merton; I was wondering if I could have a word with Doctor Ford.”  “I’m sorry, but you can’t,” said the housekeeper, “I haven’t seen him all morning, and he’s missed any number of appointments, which isn’t like him at all.  In fact, I believe he was going out to visit your wife when I last saw him.”  Noel thanked the receptionist and then put down the phone, his face ashen.  He now had a pretty good idea who the heap of grey dust in the living room must have been, and the thought of having to explain to the County that one of its more popular medical practitioners had met his end in Noel’s house at the hands of one of his guests was not a pleasant one.  He realised that there was only one thing to do: he had to search the house, in case there were even more of the sad little grey piles, over and above those which represented the last Earthly remains of the maid and Doctor Ford.

After a quick drink, to steady his nerves, Noel started his grim search.  The drawing room and breakfast rooms revealed only the two piles he already knew about, though he was shocked to see that clearly Lydia had made no effort to clear away the debris from breakfast.  She may be a County Wife, and so used to having domestics to do stuff for her, but there was no excuse for leaving a congealed kipper on the breakfast table for all to see.  Clearly she needed another reminder of the duties which were entailed on her as a result of her holding the privileged position of Mrs Captain Merton.  However, before he could do that, Noel must complete his search.  Moving upstairs he became aware of a strange odour, almost of burning, which he was sure he ought to recognise, but could not, for now quite trace.  No fresh signs of random murder found, he eventually came to Lydia’s bedroom and, to his great disgust, found her lying, apparently asleep, curled up on her bed.  This was really too bad; maybe she couldn’t be expected to control the mad ‘Admiral’, but that was no excuse for Lydia to, having got rid of the woman, go upstairs for a nap, making no effort to tidy up, or indulge in a spot of crisis management.  To think, here was he, her lord and master, terrified out of his wits by the discovery that his residence had apparently become a kind of charnel house, and she was up here, calmly snoozing.  “Lydia” he said, not gently.  She showed no response, so he tried again, even less gently: “Lydia.”  Still there was no response, so Noel cast restraint aside and shook her by the shoulder.  Lydia flopped onto her back, revealing why there had been no response: Noel’s revolver was in her mouth and she had one hand on the trigger; the smell was cordite, and the pillow, which had been wrapped round her head, was caked with blood.  She was dead.

Noel’s immediate reaction did not show him at his best, that is to say, he felt that, though perhaps she had over-reacted in killing herself, at least Lydia had finally shown some understanding of County Society in choosing to kill herself rather than face the opprobrium natural to one who had (however unwittingly) unleashed those madmen on the world.  His next reaction did not show him at his best, either: outrage that she had left him alone to deal with the mess.  However, having calmed down from his symphony of self-righteousness, he noticed that the other hand held a piece of paper covered with Lydia’s writing: a suicide note.  He took it, and started to read.

“Dear Noel,” the note read, “When you read this, I will be dead.  Knowing you, you will be worrying about what Miss Bunting will say when she hears about it, and upsetting yourself about what the County will think about you that your wife killed herself.  There was a time when I might actually have cared about those things myself.  In fact, I did care about them right up to a few minutes ago, and caring about them led me to take the most stupid action of my life: yes, even more stupid than agreeing to marry you and then spending all those miserable years alone, unloved and uncared for while you had your fun with that tart at The Dog and Duck, and never for a moment thinking that I could aspire to anything better.  For you see, Noel, I didn’t.  I tried, oh so hard, to be a proper County Wife for you, but I did so very much want to be loved, and it was so hard to realise that you had ceased to love me the moment I said ‘I do’.  Oh, I am sure you think you loved me, but when did you last feel any real concern for me, as opposed to about me?

“Enough of that.  I realise now that you are too stupid and self-absorbed to even begin to understand why I was so miserable in our marriage; and even if you did, you would probably say that was my fault for having ridiculous romantic notions of love and passion.  The terrible thing is that until today I had more or less convinced myself that you were right, and that I had no right to expect more, and that the misery was my own fault for not crushing my childish romantic yearnings.  And then I discovered that you were wrong, that I could experience loving and being loved, that I could enjoy the raptures of passion, not as the tool for somebody else’s pleasure, but as part of a shared felicity.  I found that it was possible for somebody to care for me, and to want me, and to want me to be happy, and even though I found many of her ways incomprehensible, I so longed to be with her, and to do as she suggested, to go away with her, leaving you to rot in the festering hell you call the County.  But I didn’t; I was a fool and I thought of you, and Miss Bunting, and the County, and I rejected her offer.  I decided that my joy, my pleasure were insignificant compared to the desires of the County; that I must stick with you, for what would the County think if I ran off with another woman, how would you suffer?  That’s what I thought, and now, when I contemplate what I have given up, and I realise just how foolish I was, I see that there is nothing left for me.  I have thrown away the happy future that I glimpsed, and that glimpse means I cannot bear to spend the rest of my years with you in our empty so-called marriage.  And I realise that I no longer care that people will talk about you behind your back, saying ‘there must be something funny about him, his wife killed herself’.  Maybe if you had ever cared for me, I might.  Goodbye.  Your Lydia.”

Noel was naturally incensed at the sheer self-centredness which Lydia showed in this letter.  How dare she expose him to calumny just because she was a bit upset about something or other?  What was her happiness, compared to his position in the County?  Really, he thought to himself, as he walked downstairs, if she was capable of such selfishness then he was glad she was dead.  Now, all he needed was to go and see Flossie for a pick-me-up, and he was sure he would be able to sort things out so nobody talked.  He immediately made for the door and strode out, intent on making it to The Dog and Duck in double-quick time; as he walked, he happened to look up at the sky.  The new star was gone.

4B: Lydia loses her mind

Round about lunch-time, Noel staggered back to his home.  Not only were his feet now distinctly painful after two long walks, but he had had experiences strange and unpleasant enough to make any man stagger.  First there had been the strange visitors, then he had been forced to tolerate the society of that dreadful nouveau riche Adams, and then, then, to make things worse, there was his visitors’ strange disappearance, taking that flighty Graham girl with them.  And that had only exposed him to the wrath of Charles Belton who, rather unfairly Noel thought, had put the blame for his fiancée’s disappearance squarely on Noel’s shoulders.  It was not surprising that Noel was feeling rather battered and in considerable need of female sympathy as he let himself into the house (having had to remind himself, to fresh shudders of reminiscence, that he no longer had a maid) and called out “Lydia, where are you?”

“Here I am, my d-d-darling” she fluted from somewhere inside the house, sounding, Noel thought, more cheerful and more like what a wife ought to sound like than she had for some time.  He was used to being greeted with a kind of muted despair, coupled with a definite suggestion that he was doing something terribly, terribly wrong, so this came as a pleasant surprise.  The pleasant surprise was increased only when Lydia emerged from the drawing room dressed not in her indecently seductive evening gown but, as a proper County Wife should be, in a decent modest blouse and skirt, with sensible shoes and a scarf knotted around her neck.  And things just kept on getting better for Noel, when, on taking a look at her husband, Lydia said, “But you poor thing; whatever happened to make you so sad and muddy?”  Noel appreciated the concern (for the old Lydia would have been more likely to respond to complaints about having sore feet by saying something like “My life is a dark void and you expect me to care about feet?”), but he didn’t appreciate being reminded of the events of the last few hours, so he just said “I had to walk all the way to Adams’ house and back, and I fell in a ditch, and my feet hurt” and, lo, Lydia did not say “My life is a dark void and you expect me to care about feet?”; instead she said, “Oh, my l-l-l-love; you poor thing.  Come on into the drawing room and sit down and take your shoes off and soon you’ll be right as rain,” leading Noel into the drawing room as she spoke.

Noel was grateful for a chance to sit down and have a nice grouch in comfort, but he could not help but notice, on entering the drawing room, that the curtains which had, only that morning, graced its windows, were now distributed around the room, cut into small squares.  He turned to Lydia, hoping for some explanation of this mysterious transformation, only to see that not only was she smiling in a slightly unhinged way, but she was wielding a sizeable pair of scissors in one hand.  Now, Noel was not intelligent (for intelligence was not required of an English Gentleman) but even he was aware that it was not wise to be too forceful when upbraiding a slightly unhinged person who has access to sharp implements, so, stepping gingerly through the mosaic of curtain squares to his chair, and putting it between himself and Lydia, he said, with utmost caution, “Er, Lydia, why did you cut up the curtains?”  She smiled brightly and said “Well, they were talking about me.  They were saying that I didn’t really l-l-l-l-love you.  And I couldn’t have that.  I know I l-l-love you, my d-d-d-darling.  So I stopped them.  I stopped them talking about me for good.”  Noel wasn’t quite sure what to say.  He had doubted Lydia’s sanity many times, but this was not her usual moaning about how her life was dark and empty, and yearning for death and complaining because when he made love to her it never lasted longer than two minutes and forty-five seconds.  This was more, well, frightening, so a delicate approach was required.  “I see,” he said, “and why did the curtains think you didn’t love me?”  Lydia responded immediately, saying in a strange, rather toneless voice, “Because of what I did this morning.  When you had gone, that woman did the strangest things with me; things I had never imagined possible.  Of course, it was nothing like when you and I make l-l-l-l-love,” she continued, which please Noel considerably, for he was glad to hear his quarterly two minutes and forty-five seconds subject to such high praise, “It was very different.  And she asked me to go away with her, and I said no, because I l-l-l-love you, my d-dear.  I must do; after all, you’re my husband.  And when she had left, the curtains started saying that I l-l-loved her, not you, and I should have gone away with her.  So I killed them.”

Now none of this made much sense to Noel, largely because, as has been noted before, the concept of one woman loving another was not one he was mentally equipped to handle.  He could tell, however, that the strange ‘Admiral’ had obviously upset his wife a great deal, given that she was having delusions about the curtains questioning her marital loyalties, so he blustered “That woman was a devil!  What did she do to you?” and wasn’t reassured when Lydia said, rather distantly, “Oh wonderful, wonderful things.”  “Well, anyway,” said Noel, “We need to get Doctor Ford to see you as soon as possible, to deal with this delusion; I’ll go and call him.”  And he was about to sally forth into the hall when Lydia, coming back to a more normal form of speech said, “Don’t be silly, d-d-darling, you can’t call Doctor Ford; he’s already here.”  “What?  Already here?  Where?” said Noel, looking around him wildly for the Doctor.  “There, silly” said Lydia, pointing at a small pile of grey dust in one corner of the room.  Noel gulped, for he knew all too well what a small pile of grey dust signified.  “Do you mean,” he said, “that Doctor Ford came here?”  Lydia smiled happily and nodded, “And then that woman turned him into, er, that?” pointing at the pile of dust.  Lydia smiled even more happily and said “That’s right, d-d-darling.  He’s dead too.  Isn’t it wonderful?”  This was not how Noel would have described things, for he was a conventional man, and thus averse to finding a dead doctor, not to mention dead curtains, in his drawing room.  But Lydia continued, “Just think; we can sweep Doctor Ford up and put him in the bin, and tell everybody he never arrived.  Then we can get some new curtains which aren’t so chatty, and then we can carry on living together, just you and I, my d-d-darling, h-happy like we used to be before I got all miserable.  And just think, it took those funny people, and that woman wanting to take me away with her to make me realise how much I l-l-l-love you.  Ha ha.  Ha ha ha.  Ha ha ha ha.”

Any normally intelligent person would have felt their blood freeze at this curiously mechanical laughter, but Noel was not a normally intelligent person.  Instead he was rather taken by this speech.  They could indeed deny all knowledge of the doctor, for what with their maid having been similarly transformed, there was no witness to his presence here save Lydia.  And certainly Lydia seemed to have abruptly cast off the pall of depression that she had worn for the past few years.  She was referring to him as ‘darling’ and ‘dear’ as if she meant it, which hadn’t happened for ages, and behaving like a proper County Wife, which hadn’t happened at all, to the best of his knowledge.  He just had to hope that this sudden improvement in Lydia’s behaviour lasted.  To test the water, Noel asked “So does this mean we won’t get any more of you doing things like wearing that negligee?”  Lydia blushed and said, “Oh dear no, I can’t imagine that I would do anything so immodest.  No, my l-l-love, from now on it’s proper modest flannel for me, and that stays inside the bedroom.”  Noel was delighted; it seemed as if magically, Lydia was cured of all her little eccentricities after all, as she further proved when she continued “I’m so embarrassed, my d-dear, at the harm I might have done your reputation by acting in that way.  I should have known better.  In future, my l-l-love, I won’t make any demands of you in that way: I’ll be there if you want me, and if you don’t want me, I’ll not make a fuss.  And to think I used to be frustrated.  Ha ha.  Ha ha ha.  Ha ha ha ha.”

So, it seemed to Noel as if all of a sudden all his problems with his wife were cured.  It looked as if finally she could become an asset to him in County Society, the way his wife should be for a man, charming important people, but not being too charming, and certainly not being in any way alluring, even in private.  He did not realise that the happy ending which he was envisaging came only at the expense of sacrificing all that made Lydia a unique woman in order to make her a carbon-copy perfect County Wife.  But then, he didn’t realise that it was a sacrifice.  And as final proof that Lydia had taken upon herself the mantle of the County Wife, she said “I know what we should do.  We should go and call on the Fieldings; I hear poor Anne is sick, and she must be terribly lonely, what with having no friends to keep her company.  I’ll go and get my hat.”  Noel wasn’t pleased at the idea of more walking, but having Lydia suggestion was a brilliant idea: the Fieldings were County to the core, so any sign of befriending their lonely daughter would surely work wonders for his position in County Society.  And, of course, getting in with Anne Fielding meant getting in with Miss Bunting, the sole and final arbiter of what was and what was not acceptable to the County.  So all in all, Noel was prepared to put up with the pain in his feet, so when Lydia came back downstairs, suitably modestly apparelled for walking, he was happy to join her in making his way through the hall and door.

Just as they had left the house, Lydia took both of Noel’s hands and, turning so they faced each other, said “Oh Noel, I’m so happy now things are back to normal.  I really do l-l-love you so much.”  Then something changed in her face; her loving smile was replaced by the deranged one from earlier and she said, in that curious distant tone, “I can hear it again; something saying I really l-love that woman not you.  Wait here.”  With which she pulled away from Noel, grasped an axe that the gardener must have  forgotten to clear away and started to attack a large rose-bush which grew near the front door, shouting “How dare you remind me of what I threw away?” as she did so.  Noel had no idea what to do; he had no desire to get too close to his wife while she was wielding the axe so ferociously, but something had to be done to stop her: what if somebody from the County came by and saw his wife sobbing hysterically as she hacked away at the roses?  The consequences would be incalculable.  Noel looked around, seeking anything that might help or give him any clues as to what he should do next; as he did so, he happened to look up at the sky.  The new star was gone.

4C: Lydia lives happily ever after

Round about lunch-time, Noel staggered back to his home.  Not only were his feet now distinctly painful after two long walks, but he had had experiences strange and unpleasant enough to make any man stagger.  First there had been the strange visitors, then he had been forced to tolerate the society of that dreadful nouveau riche Adams, and then, then, to make things worse, there was his visitors’ strange disappearance, taking that flighty Graham girl with them.  And that had only exposed him to the wrath of Charles Belton who, rather unfairly Noel thought, had put the blame for his fiancée’s disappearance squarely on Noel’s shoulders.  It was not surprising that Noel was feeling rather battered and in considerable need of female sympathy as he let himself into the house (having had to remind himself, to fresh shudders of reminiscence, that he no longer had a maid) and called out “Lydia, where are you?”

There was no answer as such, but Noel distinctly heard a happy laugh, almost a giggle coming from somewhere within, and though it had been a very long time since Lydia had responded to his conversational sallies with anything other than the deepest of dolour, and so he had not heard her laugh, other than hollowly, for some years, he distinctly thought that it was her voice, for, apart from anything else, whose else could it be?  Noel had not intended to be funny when he said “Lydia, where are you?” but, being an English County Male, he had an innate tendency to over-estimate his own intentional humorousness, and so he saw nothing unnatural in Lydia’s finding it worth laughing at.  In fact he felt rather pleased, because she had seldom before shown any sign of appreciating what a witty fellow he was.  So it was a preening Noel who stood in the hall-way, attempting to determine where the laugh had come from.  But then his blood froze, and all the well being that he had, oh so briefly felt, turned to anxiety, for there was another laugh, almost a giggle, but this time in a distinctly deeper voice, a voice that he had last heard telling him to bugger off or else.  He had hoped, prayed even, that by the time he got home the ‘Admiral’ would have vanished like her men, and that he would not have to undergo another encounter with her dangerously labile temper.  But it seemed she was still here, and it seemed that she had become unduly friendly with Lydia (that is, if one didn’t count the passionate embraces he had already seen pass between them as being unduly friendly) during his absence.  And it also seemed that they were both finding something very funny, and he feared that it was him (it never occurring him, not even for one moment, that the coincidence of his speech and their laughs might be just that).

Noel was far from happy that he still had the ‘Admiral’ under his roof, but he was an Englishman and so, by definition, fearless, and he still wanted to have a good whinge about how miserably humiliated he felt and how much his feet hurt, and, in the absence of Flossie, who was a mile away in the wrong direction, Lydia was the only available repository for such whinging, so he bravely set about seeking her out, even if it did mean meeting that woman again.  First he tried the breakfast room; he found the un-tidied-away relics of breakfast, he shuddered at the sad little grey heap which constituted his former domestic help, but neither of these really counted as being unexpected; what was totally unanticipated was his discovery of Lydia’s backless evening gown lying sadly crumpled on the floor, almost as if its wearer had wished to get out of it in a hurry.  What could be going on?  Noel could quite see why Lydia would want to change out of the evening gown, for it was entirely inappropriate for this time of day (and for a County Wife), but why do so down here, when she had a perfectly good dressing room upstairs?  And then, as he tried to force his inflexible mind to accommodate these strangely complex facts, Noel heard another low laugh: that was definitely Lydia, and it sounded to be coming from the drawing room.

Noel immediately strode out into the hall intent on confronting his wife with how far she had fallen from the ideals of County housekeeping (for no County wife should, no matter how provoking the circumstances, so mismanage her house as to leave loose clothing and disintegrated domestics lying around the house for all and sundry to find and comment on) but was held up in a dead stop on the threshold of the drawing room by what he saw: a blouse, he was almost certain it was one of Lydia’s, lying abandoned.  The clothing theme continued: just beyond the blouse he saw a brassiere desolate in its deflated solitude, and though Noel had no idea what kind of underwear Lydia habitually wore, he was willing to guess it was hers.  So what was Lydia doing?  That she should have changed out of the evening gown Noel understood, but why, having then, apparently, changed into something more suitable, did she shed that clothing also?  And why in the drawing room?  And did that mean, the idea suddenly struck him with the force of a thousand pound bomb, that she was in there, right now, only partially clad, together with that woman?  The thought was too terrible to contemplate: perhaps Queen Victoria had been wrong after all, in which case, what kind of monstrous…  There was nothing for it; he stepped into the drawing room and was transfixed with horror.

Lydia and the Admiral were kneeling facing one another on the sofa, each holding the other in her arms, kissing one another as they embraced.  Not the grandiose passionate kisses that Noel had seen this morning, but a series of short, intimate kisses, between which they gazed lovingly into one another’s eyes.  As Noel looked on, too amazed (and, though he dared not admit it to himself, aroused too) to move or speak, the Admiral whispered something in Lydia’s ear and Lydia kissed her and whispered something back, at which the Admiral said out loud, “Why you dirty-minded sex-fiend.  How’d you learn so quickly?” to which Lydia replied, batting her eyelashes, “I had a good teacher” and then they both laughed again.  This was almost too much for Noel.  To discover that his wife was a pervert was bad enough, to discover that this fact excited him in some vague and disquietingly indefinable way was worse, but the discovery, when he tried to drag his eyes away from the spectacle on the sofa, of another small sad pile of grey dust lying in the wreckage of what had once been an occasional table was just too much.  He broke down and let out a small shriek, which at least had the effect of breaking off the love-scene on the sofa.  Lydia and the Admiral jerked apart, Lydia producing a squeak of her own, and the Admiral saying “What, what, what’s that?  Who’s there?  Oh bloody hell, it’s Stinker again.  Trust him to spoil the fun.”

Noel was shocked enough already, but he was even more shocked by what happened next.  His gloomy, doom-laden Lydia spoke, and she did not say that her life was a deep pit and she was at the bottom; no, she said “Really Noel, I do think it’s a bit much you interfering like this.  The Admiral and I were just having an intimate moment before we leave, and you have to go and ruin it.  Typical.”  Noel just didn’t know what to say to this, but he focussed in on what was probably the most significant part of the speech and blurted “Leave?”  “Yes, that’s it, Stinker, Leave” said the Admiral.  “Young Lydia here’s decided to give you the old heave-ho and shack up with me instead.”  Noel tried to get his head around this, and, showing his English County Male prejudices to the full, said “But what can you give her compared to a husband and a place in society?”  “Oh, I don’t know,” said the Admiral, counting off on her fingers, “love, an interesting life, lots of good sex, things like that.”  Of course, none of that made any sense to Noel, as County Wives didn’t expect to be loved, were meant to be reconciled to having no function in life other than bearing offspring and passing sandwiches, and were accustomed to lying back and thinking of England, so he just gawped, looking so puzzled that Lydia took pity on him and said “You see Noel, I finally realised when I met the Admiral that I don’t love you any more, and I doubt if I ever really did.  And I want to do interesting things and see other worlds, and have orgasms, and the Admiral can give me all of those.  Plus I think I do love her anyway” and then, after some thought, she added the coup de grace, “And even if I don’t, she’s a damn sight more interesting than you are.”

None of this really sank in; Noel was still concentrated on the key facts: his wife was talking about leaving him for another woman; what would the County say?  The thought was so terrible that it forbore contemplation; surely Lydia would understand that she just couldn’t do something so unfair as to make that unthinkable fact come to pass, so he made an appeal which, or so he thought, she would be unable to resist, namely “But what about me, Lydia?”  This did not get the response he expected; Lydia seemed to be positively angry and said “What about you?  What about me all these years, when you were ignoring me and my needs and having your fun with that tart at the Dog and Duck.  Yes, I did know,” she said in response to Noel’s astonishment at seeing his deep secret laid bare, “Only a fool wouldn’t, and I am not, whatever you may have thought, a fool.  Oh,” she said, dismissing him with a wave of her hand, “I’ve no time for you any more.”  “But what about the County?” said Noel, at which Lydia finally erupted, “What about the County?  What about the County?” she shrieked, “I don’t give a flying fuck about the County.  Are you saying I should give up on my life, my happiness because of that Bunting woman?  Who the hell do you think you are, you, you… here,” this being said to the Admiral, “give me your vanishing thing; I want to get rid of the bastard.”  Noel quailed, anticipating immediate dust-hood, but at this point the Admiral stepped in, taking Lydia in her arms and saying, calmingly, “Now, now, darling, there’s no need to bother about Stinker; he can’t hurt you any more.  Let’s just get out of here and leave him to explain all this to that ‘County’ thing of yours; that’s a far greater punishment than death.”  Lydia initially looked doubtful, as if she still hankered after more violent measures, but after a moment she laughed unpleasantly and said “Nice.  Okay, let’s go then.  Good-bye Noel.  Give my love to the County.”  The Admiral pulled a small device from her pocket, fiddled with it for a second or two, and then, as Noel looked on, unable to comprehend what was happening before him, they vanished, leaving only an echoing “Bye-bye Stinker” behind.

Noel was stunned; staring into the emptiness before him, he mumbled “But she can’t leave me” because denying the obvious was easier than having to acknowledge the events he had just witnessed.  He continued in this way for a moment, but then it occurred to him that obviously when Lydia and the Admiral had appeared to vanish they had not in fact done so; they must have just left the room too quickly for him to see them go, which meant they must be somewhere outside, so he could still catch them and impose his Male Authority on Lydia to force her to return to her proper place.  Invigorated by this thought, he rushed out of the house, to try and catch them, but there was nobody there.  He looked around wildly and, as he did so, happened to look up at the sky.  The new star was gone.



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