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[#1.]

Mary drove over to Beheading St Boniface for the morning. She had decided to consult Natty Daws, the village GP, about her night terrors. Natty believed that the growing array of diseases and disorders recognised within his profession were being daily manufactured by the National Health Service. Any patient with the temerity to complain of cancer, heart disease, arthritis or anything which had a similar standing within established medicine, would be treated to a jolly good telling off. “Why don’t you stop wasting everybody’s time?” Natty would rage. This approach largely worked – most of Natty’s patients quickly forgot about their symptoms and aspired quietly to health.

Natty’s first patient of the morning was a villager who derived pleasure from dressing as a baby. Wearing nothing but a gigantic nappy, he would roll around his living room carpet, soiling himself and gurgling nonsense at his appalled family. His wife had threatened to leave him and to take the children, and this had finally persuaded him to seek help. “Mr Parker,” Natty smiled. “The only real treatment which exists for this disorder is to be strong. There’s nothing more to it than that.”

Mr Parker blinked.

“I think you appreciate that you have a problem. You are embarrassed about this difficulty. And when you feel the compulsion to dress as a baby, you need to find a greater resistance within yourself. These things take time, of course, and it may be that the strength will come only when the time is right…”

Mr Parker nodded unhappily.

“There are inevitably all sorts of faddish therapies which you can indulge in, but the only real answer is to be strong.”

Mr Parker wandered out and Mary’s name was called.

She described the visitations. “I don’t think that anybody is breaking into the house, but throughout the experience – the hallucination, I suppose it is – I’m convinced that the visitor is real.”

“Mrs Howling, the best thing to do would be to address the deep emotional problems which are causing your night terrors.”

Mary agreed.

“But unfortunately, I can only treat your illness superficially, as it were, by merely getting rid of the symptoms.”

“Oh?”

Natty sighed wearily. “I have to close the surgery for a month. It’s a contractual obligation. I’m owed an arrears of holidays, and…” he shrugged in conclusion. “I’m going to prescribe some pills. They’re fairly cutting edge – in fact, they’re not yet available on the NHS. We obtain them from a specialist supplier in Ireland. They artificially replenish certain neurotransmitters, and so on, in effect removing any need for sleep.”

“So I won’t need to… err… sleep?”

“It won’t be necessary, or indeed possible. Take three with every meal. Do not drive or operate any machinery whilst under this medication. You may experience some brief, light hallucinations, but they won’t distress you. Remember: nothing that you see is real.”

Natty was rising in his seat, smiling. “But what will I do with all the spare time?” Mary protested.

“That’s up to you. It depends whether you want more work time or more leisure time.”

“Neither!”

“Learn to play the piano. Knit. If you have any problems, then phone me at my home. I’ll just be sitting around the house. The nurse will provide you with my number. My wife has bought me one of those televisions, and if I can’t get any sense out of it, you’ll probably find me dismantling the thing. The technology is very intriguing. I doubt that the images are produced electronically, as the packaging claims – they’re undoubtedly some variety of chemically-induced delirium.”

Mary decided to show her face at the Coach and Horses. Walking over to the pub, she found herself briefly alone in a narrow walled lane, beneath huge, restless beech trees. Here, she was unsettled for the first time by a waking fear of the visitor’s approach – the idea of him nearing unseen, perhaps behind one of the dry stone walls at her elbows. She quickly extracted the little plastic pot of pills from the pharmacy wrapping and, after she had twisted the cap this way and that, it opened with an airless crack. She shook a few of the pills into the palm of her hand. They stuck in her throat, of course, and she had to swallow them with a wrench.

She concentrated furiously on the sound of a car up on the main road, and this vague suggestion of a benevolent presence stabilised her. The odd thought then struck Mary that the burial in the Land Rover would not be so bad if she was wearing some kind of snorkel.

The Coach and Horses dated back to the sixteenth century. The pub’s ceilings were set with thick oaken beams and the rooms – however brightly and forcefully they were decorated – always remained shrunken and dank, conveying the gentle impression of poison. Mary ordered a half-pint of ale and she joined Annie Mabbutt, the village schoolmistress, and her son Reg.

“Reg! I thought that you were on jury service?”

Reg grinned. “Well, these days there’s this new innovation. When you do jury service, they now give you this electronic “tag”.” An ankle was produced from under the table and waved in indication. “It’s so the judge can spy on where you are. Hello Mr. Judge!” Reg called to the tag.

They all tittered wickedly.

“Err, Reg… If the judge will let you away for a few days, I wonder if you could help us out with our harvest?”

The mood changed abruptly. “You’ve got Gareth, haven’t you?” Reg demanded.

“Well yes, but…”

“The boy knows what he’s doing.” Reg stood and made for the bar.

Annie smiled. She leaned forward and, glancing around, she whispered intrepidly that, “he won’t work for a woman.”

The talk continued. Reg returned, with a pint for himself and a gin and tonic for his mother.

“There’s another thing…” Mary ventured hesitantly.

“Go on.”

“I wonder if you’ve heard anything from Pete?”

“Well I had a postcard, of course.”

“I had two,” Annie reported. “Although strictly speaking one was for the children at the school.”

“Oh…” Mary floundered. “I had a strange idea that he might be at your farm.”

The pair looked dumbstruck.

“It’s silly, I know,” Mary laughed weakly.

Back at the farm, Mary went into Pete’s office and she unpinned the lists of telephone numbers from the notice board. She soon recognised some of the names and she began to phone around, “on behalf” of her husband, certain that she would soon come across someone with a few days to spare for her harvest. From the window of the office, she could see Joe wobbling around the garden on a bicycle, whilst Gareth stood a little way back, occasionally prodding him steady with what appeared to be the end of a rake. By late afternoon, Mary had enlisted half a dozen assistants and she had decided upon the weekend – when they were all off school – for the harvest.

Mary usually had a brief nap before preparing dinner, but when she lay back on the sofa and turned down the television, sleep would not come. With vexation, she recalled Natty’s pills. At the stove, Mary was not sure whether she felt alert or weary. She knew that she was owed a certain amount of sleep and this irked her, regardless of whether or not she was actually tired. It then occurred to Mary that she now had eight additional hours of the day to fill. Watching potatoes bobbing merrily in the boiling water, she tried to come up with a list of chores, but all of them seemed somehow unsuitable for the night. Yet if she forewent the next course of pills, then she knew that she would be visited again. Mary moralised blandly to herself about the ingratitude of scorning Natty’s pills. Once darkness came and the night terrors returned, she would not be quite so nonchalant then! Mary elected to sit the night out with an encyclopaedia, aware that this was the sensible thing to do, but the night ahead still seemed rather like a sort of exile.

At dinner, she told Gareth that he would not be needed that night.

He was shouting and gesticulating. Half way through dinner, he stood up and began to pace furiously around the room. Joe became immediately absorbed in regimenting his peas into neat little squares and rectangles.

“I have a headache,” Mary explained. “You can sleep in the spare room. I sometimes make Pete sleep there as well,” she added diplomatically.

“I don’t understand!”

“Please stop shouting.”

I’m not shouting!” Gareth’s voice filled the room with the extraordinary volume of that of a hungry baby. “Why!? I thought that you liked me sleeping with you!”

“I do,” Mary insisted. “Look, don’t get like this…” She started to explain that she felt guilty sleeping with somebody so young – she feared that their relationship might be holding him back in life. Hot little tears zipped down Gareth’s cheeks until, rather incredibly, a small puddle had soon formed on the tablecloth beside the gravy boat. Nonetheless, despite her flutter of energy that afternoon, Mary knew that she was ultimately dependent upon Gareth for the harvest to be successful. She led him out of the dining room and up into the bedroom, and let him do… whatever it was that he was now doing to her. Joe sat by himself at the dining table, feeling humiliated. Finally, he started on the washing up.

That night, Mary read a good third of “A.” The volumes of encyclopaedia – a wedding present from a bachelor uncle – were all stacked up in Pete’s office. Dust mites crawled amongst the pages and Mary had to pick out their carcasses as she read. She stacked them in an ashtray. The boys now slept in the spare room, although Gareth had made a couple of attempts to break into her bedroom. He had been scandalised to find her still awake and dressed.

When the weekend arrived, it was raining. Mary knew that she would have to wait until the following Saturday – when her assistants were all off school again – to commence the harvest. She was equally conscious that the grain might be spoiled by this delay. By Tuesday, when she had gone for six days without sleep, she could no longer concentrate on reading and she gave up on the encyclopaedia before the end of “C.” Mary now spent the nocturnal interludes of her unending day wandering through the rooms of the house, humming to herself, tiptoeing else she wake the boys upstairs, straightening and re-straightening cushions, and crouching to pick tiny hairs and threads of dust from the polished pine floor in the utility room.

On Wednesday, Gareth – fearing that the anxiety of the approaching harvest was making his godmother unwell – suggested that they revert to “Plan B” and that he drive the Land Rover himself. This way they could harvest immediately.

“But who’s going to drive the combine?”

“That’s not a problem,” Gareth countered quickly. “It’s easy peasy. Maybe you could do it?”

“I can’t drive that thing. I can’t concentrate on anything at the moment. I can’t even make our dinner without burning everything…”

“That’s true,” Gareth conceded. “But perhaps Joe can drive the combine and then I can take the Land Rover…”

“Joe can’t even ride a fucking bicycle!!”

That night, the hallucinations started. Mary felt something on the back of her neck, and after searching, she removed a little kicking dust mite. Something as slight as talcum powder padded gently but firmly over her hair and on to her shoulders, and then she was shaking her head beneath the shower, as if to clear it. The mites were being poured on to her from above, and she shuddered as hundreds of the creatures slipped down the back of her neck and into her shirt, venturing down and down, their almost-weightless little exoskeletons brushing against her bare skin. The pyramid was rising behind her, pressing her forward. The whole, vaguely red edifice stirred with billions of little kicking legs and, suddenly giddy, Mary playfully toppled the heap over, so that it spread across the floor of Pete’s office. Whooping triumphantly, she grabbed at the vacuum cleaner and began to suck up this sea of mites. But they were still pouring on to her from above, and then a sort of clot unfolded over her head and fell over her face so that she could no longer see. Panicking, she started to brush the nozzle of the vacuum cleaner around her face.

“What‘s happening?” Gareth had been in the kitchen, searching for something to eat. He frequently found his way downstairs in the night and he had prepared a coffee mug filled with cold pasta sauce, and a glass of custard powder, to take back to bed with him. “Are you on some kind of trip?” He had noticed a small pot of pills on Pete’s desk and he quickly slipped them into the pocket of his dressing gown, or rather Pete’s dressing gown. Mary’s hallucination was receding and she was now sinking into the office chair, stilled by the unnervingly fast beating of her heart. She looked up at Gareth and half-murmured, half-cried at him, with triumphant hilarity. Startled, he backed out of the office, laughing and waving goodnight.

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