Sunday, April 21, 2013

Chapter 18


Amblewick Church - the Witch of Endor and her mate

Before we can get down to serious planning of the ‘Car-Boot Sale’, Sunday
intervenes – and Sunday involves ‘Church’. Tradition demands that we at the
Castle attend, and are seen to be present in the ‘Family Pew’. Parsons parks a
little behind us, and has despatched Julian to join the other boys in the choir
- which could be interesting bearing in mind the apparently somewhat secular
nature of the young man’s outlook.

“I believe it will be wise, Milord, to avoid any obvious connection being
observed between Julian and ourselves prior to the successful conclusion of
our first car-boot sale – local politics, Milord…..”

Corrie’s got similar duties over at Pangleton, so I’m alone in the Arbuthnot

“Dearly beloved brethren, the Scripture moveth us in sundry places to
acknowledge and confess our manifold sins and wickedness……” and so on,
and on……..

Such is my blend of conditioned belief and good-natured and slightly
irreverent unbelief that, rather predictably, I yawn at this point, and reach
instinctively for the pipe.

I am reminded of my childhood understanding of this rubric. Amazing how my
rather sketchy command of vocabulary had so mightily relieved the crashing
boredom of the Church of England’s ponderous treatment of the ‘Office of
Mattyns’. The brief mention of ‘manifold’ was for me, invariably, a milestone in
the interminable service.

Manifolds! Now to those I could relate. They meant ‘cars’ – as in Bentley and
the old ’37 Frazer-Nash Beemer! With this one word the service came alive
for me – all that was missing was the throaty roar of the actual car snarling
up the drive with me at its wheel – under the somewhat bibulous supervision
of a certain Uncle Algie from my mother’s side of the family (described by
my proudly puritanical Great-Aunt Kike, as ‘a rotter’ – an appellation which I
construed as a major positive).

Why is it that children are so readily attracted to the dissolute? Where there
is adult disapproval of another adult there is a sort of anarchistic fascination,
I suppose. One longs to be present when the ‘Wicked Uncle’ defies things
like ‘manners’, which Nanny so consistently insists upon in the nursery.
When’s he going to belch, or fart, in front of the entire family and stick his
tongue out when they tell him off? The naughty grown-up is a perfect template
for how we think we want to be – bomb-proof.

In my day we were kept fairly well-to-heel. School was the vehicle for this –
one could say the driving and ever-present force. Contravention of the social
niceties was very quickly rendered temporary by a threat to ‘write to your
Headmaster.’ This was no idle threat either. When such letters were written,
swift and painful retribution was guaranteed within minutes of returning to that
august emporium!

Today, I find myself smiling a seraphic smile as the Rector winds up his
marathon performance.

‘May the Love of God and the meditations of all our hearts, etc….’

There is lightness in my step as I totter to my feet and head for the church
doors to greet the Rector and enter into brief and painless chit-chat with him
and such tenants and neighbours as have successfully withstood the Matinée
performance alongside me.

“Jolly good show, Rector – splendid sermon. When are we going to see you up
at the house for a tincture or two?

My reference to ‘the sermon’ is, of course, merely a common courtesy – one’s
mind had been coasting about in Frazers-Nash as that homily was being
delivered. But a dash of civility ‘never hurt anyone’ – as Nanny had always
insisted. My reference to ‘a tincture’ is a tactful reference to the Rector’s gentle
and civilised affection for Gin and – not Dubonnet like Her Majesty – but ‘Vino
Sacro’, which, smilingly, he refers to as ‘Gin and Altar’. His visits to the Castle
are infrequent, but always much looked forward to by all of us – Parsons
included…… Some of his clerical anecdotes are memorable.

One of my favourites is the tale of the funeral of a fellow parson conducted by
an overly Anglo-Catholic colleague. During the course of the obsequies round
the grave, and in an attempt to toss a little earth onto the coffin, a seriously
aged and infirm fellow cleric slipped and fell into the grave, as well. Removing
his biretta, and lifting his eyes heavenwards, the officiant stage-whispered
to our Rector, “Hardly seems worthwhile pulling the old boy out, does it,

To be fair to him the Rector has never once told the same story twice – even
after two, or even three, ‘Gins and Altar’.

But I digress – now where were we? Ah yes, we’ve survived the rubric and
are heading back to the house. Julian’s escaped the vestry and ‘wheelied’ on

Birds a-twitter in the hedgerows – Celandine a-bloom, and so on. Lovely
Amblewick early afternoon - one’s heart is light indeed. Something strangely
calming about the ‘after-church’ moment – almost transcendental, really.
Something to do with the wonderful familiarity of the ‘Book of Common
Prayer’ – so much more comforting than the horrendous travesty of ‘modern’
English employed by so many churches today in an attempt to establish
their ‘relevance’ to the contemporary world, don’t you know?

It’s as I emerge from the tunnel leading from the drive into the gardens that
Julian hurtles back on stage.

“’Ere, Guv!”

He bears tidings – but not by any standards, ‘tidings of great joy’.

“That Mrs Thingummy-Wotzername’s turned up!”

The old heart sinks – the Celandine wilts and the birds go silent. This woman
is Hell on steroids – vinegar on the edge of a knife - all things distasteful
and sour – absolutely not the visitation I require to sustain my post-ecclesial
moment of great joy. The World has turned to ashes.

“And she’s got her ol’ man wiv ‘er, an’ all!”

A small, but merciful relief, The presence of old Archie should at least be the
ghost of a shield against the old bat’s venom – if a very small ‘ghost’…..

“What’s the old girl up to, Jules?”

“Orderin’ Mr P about and swigging from that bottle in her scrag-bag…..”

“Is it my imagination, or has the sun gone in?

I almost whisper, as though we’re already overheard.

“Any idea what she wants, Jules?”

“Gassin’ on about furnytcher – didn’t ‘ang abaht to listen, Guv’. She’s come in
a bleedin’ ‘erse this time, an’all.”

“An ‘erse? What’s an ‘erse, old thing?”

“You know, Guv’ – a bone wagon - fewnral car – bloody great thing, black as
yer ‘at.”

“Ah, I see, a hearse. Hope we’re not on her pick-up list, old chap, what?”

I endeavour to make light of the invasion, but the mind is churning fretfully. An
invasion by Cousin Marguerite Huntington-Smythe is never a mere social call
– the old reptile’s after something, and this time it’s not control of the Diamond
Jubilee bank account. Vanquished her last time, thanks to Parsons largely, but
who knows what sort of revenge she’s planned for the return match.

We are met at the North Courtyard entrance by an impassive, but slightly
twitchy, Parsons.

“Mrs Huntington-Smythe is in the drawing-room with her husband, Mr
Archibald, Milord. At present she appears to be in quiescent mode, but the
direction of her conversation renders it essential that I take certain steps to
protect our immediate interests. With your permission, Milord, I will hasten to
the gardens and confer with Mr Richardson……”

Before I can enquire further as to the toxicity of the conversation in the
drawing-room, Parsons has evaporated.

Julian also decamps – urgent appointment with the ‘telly’…..

I am left alone to beard the virus on its petri dish. Stuffing the old pipe in me
pocket to avoid immediate censure, I take the bull between my teeth, as it
were, and teeter, I trust purposefully, in the drawing-room direction.

As I open the doors I am met by a rank blast of stale Virginian tobacco smoke
and hear Archie’s rather plaintive voice.

“I entreat you, my dear, do try to be tactful with Biffo….”

And the reply…

“Don’t lecture me, you old fool – more than capable of managing my cousin.
Horace will do as he is told….”

Forewarned is forearmed

I take a deep breath and surge into the snake-pit.

“Archie, old chap, lovely to see you – snifter, what? Could do with an after-
church tooth-full meself – Scotch and water isn’t it? Good Heavens! – Cousin
Marguerite! What a surprise! Snootful? Ah no, I see you come self-empowered
by the estimable Mr Booth…..”

The old pestilence sloshes a hefty slug of the yellow beverage into a tumbler
and lights a further Capstan Full Strength with a blast from her famous flame-

“Disgustingly fat, as usual, I see, Horace – further debauchery no doubt.”

She snarls through dragon smoke.

“As for you, Archibald, don’t let this imbecile lead you astray – you will be
driving me upon our return to Market Harborough, when once we have loaded
up the furniture and any smaller items I may choose from storage in the coach-

I become all too vividly aware of the way the cookie is going to crumble.

“Furniture, my dear?” I splutter into my Gordon’s.

“Your Father, my Great-Uncle Perceval, assured me before he died that I might
take my pick of the furniture and other items in the coach-house. Pointed out
that they were all surplus to his requirements but wanted them in the right
hands – for old time’s sake…. I have his letter with me – so I trust there will be
no dithering from you in that direction?”

The question mark lingers menacingly in the air in front of me.

“None whatsoever, me dear – if that’s what the Pater wanted, what?”

But my guts are curdling. How the heck am I going to stall the old reptile? She
clearly reckons she’s got me by the ‘Hockey pucks’, so to speak – and will
brook no shilly-shallying. Time - we need time – Parsons needs time. ‘Should
be able to gain us an hour at least - with a dash of careful management’ - I
ruminate querulously.

“Can’t do anything till I’ve had a spot of luncheon – you must both be starved
as well, what?”

“We have no need of any luncheon. Archibald eats too much - getting almost
as fat as you are - and I don’t eat it – ever…..”

We’re on familiar territory here. The old vulture is in bulldozer mode. I head for
the drinks table with my own and Archie’s hastily emptied glasses.

“Don’t mind if I do, old chap - hot day, what?” says Archie.

He appears ready to brave the witch’s curse for the chance of a further tooth-
full and a crack at the terrine.

“Tch!” and the gurgle of her bottle, from Marguerite.

I know from my experiences during her last visit - from which, thanks to
Parsons, I had emerged victorious despite the odds – that one has to be rock-
solid firm with this abrasive and tiresome woman.

“Cheers, Arch, old sport – Bungers, what?"

“Toodle-ooh, old boy.” Archie vacuums up a healthy slug.

I follow suit. Begin to feel a lot stronger as the G&T’s take hold. I come to a
critical decision. If she wants to rifle my coach-house, she’ll do so when I’m
good and ready. Archie and I have lots to catch up on – and several further
glugs to take on board. The two of us, fuelled with the old ‘turps’ and standing
loyally together, should be a whole lot more daunting than just one of us
impaled like a prawn on the business end of her hat-pin. Blast the old harridan
– she’ll simply have to wait!

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