I caught one or two curious looks from them, but they were too seriously occupied to take up their inquisition again at the moment. I wondered how to fend them off later, and it occurred to me that if only I had a book or a magazine I might be able to bury myself effectively, if not very politely, in it.
When the attendants returned I asked the badgered one if she could let me have something to read. The effect of such a simple request was astonishing, the two who were removing my tray all but dropped it. The one beside me gaped for an amazed moment before she collected her wits. She looked at me, first with suspicion, and then with concern.
"Not feeling quite yourself yet, dear?" she suggested. "But I am," I protested. "I'm quite all right now."
The look of concern persisted, however. "If I were you I'd try to sleep again," she advised.
"But I don't want to. I'd just like to read quietly," I objected. She patted my shoulder, a little uncertainly.
"I'm afraid you've had an exhausting time, Mother. Never mind, I'm sure it'll pass quite soon."
I felt impatient.
"What's wrong with wanting to read?" I demanded.
She smiled a smug, professional-nurse smile.
"There, there, dear. Just you try to rest a little more. Why, would a Mother want with knowing how to read?"
With that she tidied my coverlet, and bustled away, leaving me to the wide-eyed stares of my five companions. Hazel gave a kind of contemptuous snigger, otherwise there was no audible comment for several minutes.
I had reached a stage where the persistence of the hallucination was beginning to wear away my detachment. I could feel that under a little more pressure I should be losing my confidence and starting to doubt its unreality. I did not at all care for its calm continuity. Inconsequent exaggerations and jumps, foolish perspectives, indeed any of the usual dream characteristics would have been reassuring, but, instead, it continued to present obvious nonsense, with an alarming air of conviction and consequence. Effects, for instance, were unmistakably following causes. I began to have an uncomfortable feeling that were one to dig deep enough one might begin to find logical causes for the absurdities, too. The integration was far too good for mental comfort -- even the fact that I had enjoyed my meal as if I were fully awake, and was consciously feeling the better for it, encouraged the disturbing quality of reality.
"Read!" Hazel said suddenly, with a scornful laugh. "And write, too, I suppose?"
"Well, why not?" I retorted.
They all gazed at me more attentively than ever, and then exchanged meaning glances among themselves. Two of them smiled at one another. I demanded irritably.
"What on earth's wrong with that? Am I supposed not to be able to read or write, or something?"
One said kindly, soothingly.
"Orchis, dear. Don't you think it would be better if you were to ask to see the doctor? -- Just for a check-up ?"
"No," I told her flatly. "There's nothing wrong with me. I'm just trying to understand. I simply ask for a book, and you all look at me as if I were mad.
After an awkward pause the same one said humouringly, and almost in the words of the little attendant.
"Orchis, dear, do try to pull yourself together. What sort of good would reading and writing be to a Mother. How could they help her to have better babies?"
"There are other things in life besides having babies," I said, shortly.
If they had been surprised before, they were thunderstruck now. Even Hazel seemed bereft of suitable comment. Their idiotic astonishment exasperated me and made me suddenly sick of the whole nonsensical business. Temporarily, I did forget to be the detached observer of a dream.
"Damn it," I broke out. "What is all this rubbish? Orchis! Mother Orchis! -- for God's sake! Where am I? Is this some kind of lunatic asylum?"
I stared at them, angrily, loathing the sight of them, wondering if they were all in some spiteful complicity against me. Somehow I was quite convinced in my own mind that whoever, or whatever I was, I was not a mother. I said so, forcibly, and then, to my annoyance, burst into tears.
For lack of anything else to use, I dabbed at my eyes with my sleeve. When I could see clearly again I found that four of them were looking at me with kindly concern. Hazel, however, was not.
"I said there was something queer about her," she told the others, triumphantly.
"She's mad, that's what it is."
The one who had been most kindly disposed before, tried again.
"But, Orchis, of course you are a Mother. You're a Class One Mother -- with three births registered. Twelve fine Grade One babies, dear. You can't have forgotten that!"
For some reason I wept again. I had a feeling that something was trying to break through the blankness in my mind, but I did not know what it was, only that it made me feel intensely miserable.
"Oh, this is cruel, cruel! Why can't I stop it? Why won't it go away and leave me?" I pleaded.
"There's a horrible cruel mockery here -- but I don't understand it. What's wrong with me? I'm not obsessional -- I'm not -- I -- oh, can't somebody help me ... ?"
I kept my eyes tight shut for a time, willing with all my mind that the whole hallucination should fade and disappear.
But it did not. When I looked again they were still there, their silly, pretty faces gaping stupidly at me across the revolting mounds of pink satin.
"I'm going to get out of this," I said. It was a tremendous effort to raise myself to a sitting position. I was aware of the rest watching me, wide-eyed, while I made it. I struggled to get my feet round and over the side of the bed, but they were all tangled in the satin coverlet and I could not reach to free them. It was the true, desperate frustration of a dream. I heard my voice pleading. "Help me! Oh, Donald, darling, please help me. . . ."
And suddenly, as if the word 'Donald' had released a spring, something seemed to click in my head. The shutter in my mind opened, not entirely, but enough to let me know who I was. I understood, suddenly, where the cruelty had lain.
I looked at the others again. They were still staring half-bewildered, half-alarmed. I gave up the attempt to move, and lay back on my pillow again.
"You can't fool me any more," I told them. "I know who I am now."
"But, Mother Orchis" one began. "Stop that," I snapped at her. I seemed to have swung suddenly out of self-pity into a kind of masochistic callousness. "I am not a mother," I said harshly. "I am just a woman who, for a short time, had a husband, and who hoped -- but only hoped -- that she would have babies by him."
A pause followed that, a rather odd pause, where there should have been at least a murmur. What I had said did not seem to have registered. The faces showed no understanding, they were as uncomprehending as dolls. Presently, the most friendly one seemed to feel an obligation to break up the silence. With a little vertical crease between her brows.
"What," she inquired tentatively, "what is a husband?"
I looked hard from one face to another. There was no trace of guile in any of them, nothing but puzzled speculation such as one sometimes sees in a child's eyes. I felt close to hysteria for a moment, then I took a grip of myself. Very well, then, since the hallucination would not leave me alone, I would play it at its own game, and see what came of that. I began to explain with a kind of deadpan, simple-word seriousness.
"A husband is a man whom a woman takes. . . ." Evidently, from their expressions I was not very enlightening. However, they let me go on for three or four sentences without interruption. Then, when I paused for breath, the kindly one chipped in with a point which she evidently felt needed clearing up.
"But what," she asked, in evident perplexity, "what is a man?"
A cool silence hung over the room after my exposition. I had an impression I had been sent to Coventry, or semi-Coventry, by them, but I did not bother to test it. I was too much occupied trying to force the door of my memory further open, and finding that beyond a certain point it would not budge.
I knew now that I was Jane. I had been Jane Summers, and had become Jane Waterleigh when I had married Donald. I was -- had been -- twenty-four when we were married, just twenty-five when Donald was killed, six months later. And there it stopped. It seemed like yesterday, but I couldn't tell....
Before that, everything was perfectly clear. My parents and friends, my home, my school, my training, my job, as Dr Summers, at the Wraychester Hospital. I could remember my first sight of Donald when they brought him in one evening with a broken leg -- and all that followed....
I could remember now the face that I ought to see in a looking-glass -- and it was certainly nothing like that I had seen in the corridor outside -- it should be more oval, with a complexion looking faintly sun-tanned, with a smaller, neater mouth, surrounded by chestnut hair that curled naturally, with brown eyes rather wide apart and perhaps a little grave as a rule.
I knew, too, how the rest of me should look -- slender, long- legged, with small, firm breasts -- a nice body, but one that I had simply taken for granted until Donald gave me pride in it by loving it....
I looked down at the repulsive mound of pink satin, and shuddered. A sense of outrage came welling up. I longed for Donald to comfort and pet me and love me and tell me it would be all right, that I wasn't as I was seeing myself at all, and that it really was a dream. At the same time I was stricken with horror at the thought that he should ever see me gross and obese like this. And then I remembered that Donald would never see me again at all -- never any more -- and I was wretched and miserable, and the tears trickled down my cheeks again.
The five others just went on looking at me, wide-eyed and wondering. . . Half an hour passed, still in silence, then the door opened to admit a whole troop of the little women, all in white suits. I saw Hazel look at me, and then at the leader. She seemed about to speak, and then to change her mind. The little women split up, two to a couch. Standing one on each other, they stripped away the coverlet, rolled up their sleeves, and set to work at massage.
At first it was not unpleasant, and quite soothing. One lay back and relaxed. Presently, however, I liked it less, soon I found it offensive.
"Stop that!" I told the one on the right, sharply. She paused, smiled at me amiably, though a trifle uncertainly, and then continued.
"I said stop it," I told her, pushing her away.
Her eyes met mine. They were troubled and hurt, although a professional smile still curved her mouth.
"I mean it," I added, curtly. She continued to hesitate, and glanced across at her partner on the further side of the bed.
"You, too," I told the other. "That'll do."
She did not even pause in her rhythm. The one on the right plucked a decision and returned. She re-started just what I had stopped. I reached out and pushed her, harder this time. There must have been a lot more muscle in that bolster of an arm than one would have supposed. The shove carried her half across the room, and she tripped and fell.
All movement in the room suddenly ceased. Everybody stared, first at her, and then at me. The pause was brief. They all set to work again. I pushed away the girl on the left, too, though more gently. The other one picked herself up. She was crying and she looked frightened, but she set her jaw doggedly and started to come back.
"You keep away from me, you little horrors," I told them threateningly.
That checked them. They stood off, and looked miserably at one another. The one with the badge of seniority fussed up.
"What's the trouble, Mother Orchis?" she inquired. I told her. She looked puzzled.
"But that's quite right," she expostulated.
"Not for me. I don't like it, and I won't have it," I replied.
She stood awkwardly, at a loss. Hazel's voice came from the other side of the room.
"Orchis is off her head. She's been telling us the most disgusting things. She's quite mad."
The little woman turned to regard her, and then looked inquiringly at one of the others. When the girl confirmed with a nod and an expression of distaste she turned, back to me, giving me a searching inspection.
"You two go and report," she told my discomfited masseuses. They were both crying now, and they went wretchedly down the room together. The one in charge gave me another long thoughtful look, and then followed them. A few minutes later all the rest had packed-up and gone. The six of us were alone again. Lt was Hazel who broke the ensuing silence.
"That was a bitchy piece of work. The poor little devils were only doing their job," she observed.
"If that's their job, I don't like it," I told her.
"So you just get them a beating, poor things. But I suppose that's the lost memory again. You wouldn't remember that a Servitor who upsets a Mother is beaten, would you?" she added sarcastically.
"Beaten?" I repeated, uneasily.
"Yes, beaten," she mirnicked. "But you don't care what becomes of them, do you? I don't know what's happened to you while you were away, but whatever it was it seems to have produced a thoroughly nasty result. I never did care for you, Orchis, though the others thought I was wrong. Well, now we all know."
None of the rest offered any comment. The feeling that they shared her opinion was strong, but luckily I was spared confirmation by the opening of the door.
The senior attendant re-entered with half a dozen small myrmidons, but this time the group was dominated by a handsome woman of about thirty. Her appearance gave me immense relief. She was neither little, nor Amazonian, nor was she huge. Her present company made her look a little over-tall, perhaps, but I judged her at about five-foot-ten, a normal, pleasant-featured young woman with brown hair, cut somewhat short, and a pleated black skirt showing beneath a white overall. The senior attendant was almost trotting to keep up with her longer steps, and was saying something about delusions and "only back from the Centre today, Doctor".
The woman stopped beside my couch while the smaller women huddled together, looking at me with some misgiving. She thrust a thermometer into my mouth and held my wrist. Satisfied on both these counts, she inquired.
"Headache? Any other aches or pains?"
"No," I told her. She regarded me carefully. I looked back at her.
"What?" she began.
"She's mad," Hazel put in from the other side of the room.
"She says she's lost her memory and doesn't know us."
"She"s been talking about horrid, disgusting things," added one of the others.
"She's got delusions. She thinks she can read and write," Hazel supplemented.
The doctor smiled at that.
"Do you?" she asked me.
"I don't see why not -- but it should be easy enough to prove," I replied, brusquely.
She looked startled, a little taken aback, then she recovered her tolerant half-smile.
"All right," she said, humouring me. She pulled a small note-pad out of her pocket and offered it to me, with a pencil. The pencil felt a little odd in my hand, the fingers did not fall into place readily on it, nevertheless I wrote.
"I'm only too well aware that I have delusions and that you are part of them."
Hazel tittered as I handed the pad back. The doctor's jaw did not actually drop, but her smile came right off. She looked at me very hard indeed. The rest of the room, seeing her expression, went quiet, as though I had performed some startling feat of magic. The doctor turned towards Hazel.
"What sort of things has she been telling you?" she inquired. Hazel hesitated, then she blurted out, "Horrible things. She's been talking about two human sexes -- just as if we were like the animals. It was disgusting!"
The doctor considered a moment, then she told the senior attendant.
"Better get her along to the sick-bay. I'll examine her there." As she walked off there was a rush of little women to fetch a low trolley from the corner to the side of my couch. A dozen hands assisted me on to it, and then wheeled me briskly away.
"Now," said the doctor grimly, "let's get down to it. Who told you all this stuff about two human sexes? I want her name."
We were alone in a small room with a gold-dotted pink wallpaper. The attendants, after transferring me from the trolley to a couch again, had taken themselves off. The doctor was sitting with a pad on her knee and a pencil at the ready. Her manner was that of an unbluffable inquisitor. I was not feeling tactful. I told her not to be a fool. She looked staggered, flushed with anger for a moment, and then took a hold on herself. She went on.
"After you left the Clinic you had your holiday, of course. Now, where did they send you?"
"I don"t know," I replied. "All I can tell you is what I told the others - that this hallucination, or delusion, or whatever it is, started in that hospital place you call the Centre."
With resolute patience she said. "Look here, Orchis. You were perfectly normal when you left here six weeks ago. You went to the Clinic and had your babies in the ordinary way. But between then and now somebody has been filling your head with all this rubbish --and teaching you to read and write, as well. Now you are going to tell me who that somebody was. I warn you, you won't get away with this loss of memory nonsense with me. If you are able to remember this nauseating stuff you told the others, then you're able to remember where you got it from."
"Oh, for heaven"s sake talk sense," I told her. She flushed again.
"I can find out from the Clinic where they sent you, and I can find out from the Rest Home who were your chief associates while you were there, but I don't want to waste time following up all your contacts, so I'm asking you to save trouble by telling me now. You might just as well. We don't want to have to make you talk," she concluded, ominously.
I shook my head.
"You"re on the wrong track. As far as I am concerned this whole hallucination, including my connection with this Orchis, began somehow at the Centre -- how it happened I can't tell you, and what happened to her before that just isn't there to be remembered."
She frowned, obviously disturbed.
"What hallucination?" she inquired, carefully.
"Why, this fantastic set-up -- and you, too." I waved my hand to include it "all."
"This revolting great body, all those little women, everything. Obviously it is all some projection of the subconscious -- and the state of my subconscious is worrying me, for it's certainly no wish-fulfilment."
She went on staring at me, more worried now.
"Who on earth has been telling you about the subconscious and wish-fulfilments?" she asked, uncertainly.
"I don't see why, even in an hallucination, I am expected to be an illiterate moron," I replied.
"But a Mother doesn't know anything about such things. She doesn't need to."
"Listen," I said. "I've told you, as I've told those poor grotesques in the other room, that I am not a Mother. What I am is just an unfortunate M.B. who is having some kind of nightmare."
"M.B.?" she inquired, vaguely.
"Bachelor of Medicine. I practise medicine," I told her.
She went on looking at me curiously. Her eyes wandered over my mountainous form, uncertainly.
"You are claiming to be a doctor?" she said, in an odd voice.
"Colloquially -- yes," I agreed.
There was indignation mixed with bewilderment as she protested.
"But this is sheer nonsense! You were brought up and developed to be a Mother.
You are a Mother. Just look at you I"
"Yes," I said, bitterly. "Just look at me I" There was a pause.
"It seems to me," I suggested at last, "that, hallucination or not, we shan't get much further simply by going on accusing one another of talking nonsense. Suppose you explain to me what this place is, and who you think I am. It might jog my memory."
She countered that.
"Suppose," she said, "that first you tell me what you can remember. It would give me more idea of what is puzzling you."
"Very well," I agreed, and launched upon a potted history of myself as far as I could recollect it -- up to the time, that is to say, when Donald's aircraft crashed.
It was foolish of me to fall for that one. Of course, she had no intention of telling me anything. When she had listened to all I had to say, she went away, leaving me impotently furious. I waited until the place quietened down. The music had been switched off. An attendant had looked in to inquire, with an air of polishing off the day's duties, whether there was anything I wanted, and presently there was nothing to be heard.
I let a margin of half an hour elapse, and then struggled to get up - taking it by very easy stages this time. The greatest part of the effort was to get on to my feet from a sitting position, but I managed it at the cost of heavy breathing. Presently I crossed to the door, and found it unfastened. I held it a little open, listening. There was no sound of movement in the corridor, so I pulled it wide open, and set out to discover what I could about the place. All the doors of the rooms were shut. Putting my ear close to them I could hear regular, heavy breathing behind some, but there were no other sounds in the stillness. I kept on, turning several corners, until I recognised the front door ahead of me. I tried the latch, and found that it was neither barred nor bolted. I paused again, listening for some moments, and then pulled it open and stepped outside.
The park-like garden stretched out before me, sharp-shadowed in the moonlight. Through the trees to the right was a glint of water, to the left was a house similar to the one behind me, with not a light showing in any of its windows. I wondered what to do next. Trapped in this huge carcass, all but helpless in it, there was very little I could do, but I decided to go on and at least find out what I could while I had the chance. I went forward to the edge of the steps that I had earlier climbed from the ambulance, and started down them cautiously, holding on to the balustrade.
"Mother," said a sharp, incisive voice behind me. "What are you doing?"
I turned and saw one of the little women, her white suit gleaming in the moonlight. She was alone. I made no reply, but took another step down. I could have wept at the outrage of the heavy, ungainly body, and the caution it imposed on me.
"Come back. Come back at once," she told me. I took no notice. She came pattering down after me and laid hold of my draperies.
"Mother," she said again. "You must come back. You'll catch cold out here." I started to take another step, and she pulled at the draperies to hold me back. I leant forward against the pull. There was a sharp tearing sound as the material gave. I swung round, and lost my balance. The last thing I saw was the rest of the flight of steps coming up to meet me....
As I opened my eyes a voice said.
"That's better, but it was very naughty of you, Mother Orchis. And lucky it wasn't a lot worse. Such a silly thing to do. I'm ashamed of you -- really I am."
My head was aching, and I was exasperated to find that the whole stupid business was still going on, altogether, I was in no mood for reproachful drip. I told her to go to hell. Her small face goggled at me for a moment, and then became icily prim. She applied a piece of lint and plaster to the left side of my forehead, in silence, and then departed, stiffly.
Reluctantly, I had to admit to myself that she was perfectly right. What on earth had I been expecting to do -- what on earth could I do, encumbered by this horrible mass of flesh? A great surge of loathing for it and a feeling of helpless frustration brought me to the verge of tears again. I longed for my own nice, slim body that pleased me and did what I asked of it. I remembered how. Donald had once pointed to a young tree swaying in the wind, and introduced it to me as my twin sister. And only a day or two ago....
Then, suddenly, I made a discovery which brought me struggling to sit up. The blank part of my mind had filled up. I could remember everything.... The effort made my head throb, so I relaxed and lay back once more, recalling it all, right up to the point where the needle was withdrawn and someone swabbed my arm ....
But what had happened after that? Dreams and hallucinations I had expected ... but not the sharp-focused, detailed sense of reality ... not this state which was like a nightmare made solid ....
What, what in heaven's name, had they done to me. . . ?
I must have fallen asleep again, for when I opened my eyes there was daylight outside, and a covey of little women had arrived to attend to my toilet. They spread their sheets dexterously and rolled me this way and that with expert technique as they cleaned me up. I suffered their industry patiently, feeling the fresher for it, and glad to discover that the headache had all but gone.
When we were almost at the end of our ablutions there came a peremptory knock, and without invitation two figures, dressed in black uniforms with silver buttons, entered. They were the Amazon type, tall, broad, well set-up, and handsome. The little women dropped everything and fled with squeaks of dismay into the far corner of the room where they cowered in a huddle. The two gave me the familiar salute. With an odd mixture of decision and deference one of them inquired.
"You are Orchis -- Mother Orchis?"
"That's what they're calling me," I admitted.
The girl hesitated, then, in a tone rather more pleading than ordering, she said.
"I have orders for your arrest, Mother. You will please come with us."