Sunday, May 12, 2013

Chapter 21


Difficult act to follow, Cousin Marguerite Huntington-Smythe – in fact so difficult is
she, and is her act, that one feels the reader needs opportunity further to study her
form. I am inclined to believe that such further study will establish the fact that this
woman is, indeed, no act – but a rare and infuriating fact of life.

We alluded, in one of our recent chapters – those leading up to the ‘Stately Car-boot
Sale’ – to the previous occasion when that lady had visited Amblewick, to poisonous
effect, some weeks previous to Her Majesty’s Diamond Jubilee. It was a never-to be-
forgotten event, and one which may not go unrecorded in the Annals of Amblewick
if the determined lavatory reader is to form a comprehensive picture of our reality
at the Castle, and of the sort of insufferable nonsense up with which we sometimes
have to put in our pursuit of sanity and contented peace of mind.


Amblewick on a summer afternoon is lazy heaven - cotton clouds, bees a-bumbling,
butterflies a-flitting and the distant low-key burble of ducks a-quacking on the moat
- fragrant with mint and mild decay. Roach and pike are basking lazily, and will
forever snoozle in the shallows and doze in the deep. And as they do - sporadic blue
and scarlet lightning-flicker - the kingfisher dives with his tiniest of tiny plops. The
evening mist alone will change this timeless fantasy to velvet night, and bats, and
moths - strident, tragic owls. For the moment time stands still, the world is English
Glory - Amblewick.

As far as Biffo is aware - on just such a silly, summer afternoon - neither church nor
stable clocks stand fossilised at ten to Mr Brooke’s eternal hour in Granchester. His
Lordship is peacefully reclining on his deck chair under the great blue Cedar on the
South Lawn, a-mumbling a stem of grass. An ancient panama hat shades his face
from sun and humming midges misting from the moat-bound waterweed to gorge
themselves on any piece of him which shows. A folding table stands beside him,
and on it lies a silver salver with – predictably perhaps - a soda water syphon next a
crystal whisky tumbler covered with a lacey mat. His and Corrie’s childhood rug lies
cedar-needle-jumbled at his feet.

It is towards the crystal that Biffo’s left hand extends in a smooth and
economical embrace. A brief up-tilting of the Panama; a minor forward inclination
of the head; and with a gentle slurp and deep ensuing sigh of happiness, Lord
Amblewick takes wine - Scottish wine.

The casual passer-by might well imagine that the old boy is simply dozing the
hours away - which at his age would seem a pleasant thing to do. Not so indeed!
He is musing fruitfully on ways to re-distribute, to his own advantage, at least a few
of the thirty thousand crispies he has so deftly winkled from his astringent family

Trustees at a recent meeting in Babingford – the County Town of Partridgeshire.

Biffo is not a mendacious man, but holds a firm belief that money winkled
for the benefit of his estates should also yield a little ‘tea and cakes’ for him – a
modest dividend. Parsons will no doubt fill in details of the Castle’s current needs
upon his return from Messrs Fortnum – meantime, no harm in focussing the mind on
pleasures still a morsel undefined.

Biffo’s second-cousin Marguerite – a primordial and virulent disease – is
slated to descend like the Plague at any moment to supervise expenditure for the
forthcoming Amblewick Jubilee thrash. He knows full-well that once she is in res,
her scrutiny of accounts and bank statements will be too thorough to permit the
liberation of funds for any other purpose than that for which they have, in truth, been
winkled. There is some urgency involved, therefore.

But there is no mouth like the horse’s own from which to hear the tale and
truly sense that urgency.

“Cover is the order of the day, got to find cover. God, feel like a bloody cock
pheasant at the end of the close season!”

He pauses in his soliloquy to re-embrace his tumbler and effect an agitated
slug. He knows he cannot escape the visitation – is well and truly trapped.

“The blighted female relative is definitely no pushover, no indeed!”

A shudder passes through his ample frame and he wonders for a moment if
the weather is on the turn. He cocks a jaundiced eye towards the weather-vane on
the Stables roof. All is still, but the shudder returns to haunt him.

“Never at me best with domineering women. Don’t seem able to quell them as
they should be quelled - seem to lose that natural, manly firmness. All of a quiver
when they heave over the horizon, so to speak. Shocking business, really, but they
get me shuffling my feet like a schoolboy in front of the School Matron.”

Biffo realizes he is talking to himself, and knows that will not answer. He
fumbles in his trousers pocket and retrieves the stub of a pencil he keeps for writing
reminder-post-its to himself. He rips off a strip of paper from the “Pink’un”, licks his
pencil and tries extremely hard to concentrate.

He notes that his personal wardrobe could be incremented under cover
of ‘Staff Uniforms’; the Castle ‘booze’ reserves under ‘Sundry Staff Beverages’;
Corries’s LKA expenses could be diverted from the ‘Amblewick Pooch Show ‘Doggie
Titbits’ Allowance’. Maybe, also, although he is less than sanguine on this score,
a modest mooch round Europe might just be firkled from ‘Essential Travel

As he ponders, a dreadful vision blights the corner of his eye. Striding across
the lawn under full sail, one hand savagely clawing at a large straw hat, the other
clutching a voluminous handbag, is Marguerite Huntington-Smythe, the Wrath of God
in person, the Witch of Endor’s mum, no less! Burnham Wood has come, indeed, to

“What ho! Horace!” the apparition shrieks.

“What ho!

The noble Lord replies in what he hopes will be a fulsome tone, but which
sticks in his throat like a gob-stopper and permits but a strangled squeal. The
shudder is with him again and he feels his whole self shrink to prep school size.

“Now what the Devil am I going to do?” He pleads to an indifferent, and clearly
absent, guardian angel.

“My God, Horace, you’ve got disgustingly fat since last I saw you. When was
it? Not more than six months, I shouldn’t think. Pongo’s funeral, probably. What the
devil have you been doing to yourself?”

“Nothing much, old girl. Just Anno Domini, I suppose, don’t you know, what?”

“Anno my arse! Alcoholic abuse more like. I see that I shall have to take you in
hand, and pretty quick sharp, too. Now get off your fat backside and let me sit down
before I pass out in this heat.”

Biffo staggers to his feet and stands shuffling his feet as he predicted that
he would. The ancient but, he observes with regret, still agile crone, subsides into
his deckchair like a cuckoo onto a thrush’s nest and proceeds to extract a near full
bottle of Booth’s Gin from her voluminous handbag.

“Might as well start as we intend to continue…...” she snarls.

Emptying Biffo’s glass of Craigallen onto the cedar needles she rinses the
empty beaker with a deft, and economically calculated, splash of Booth’s, and refills
the receptacle with a substantial dose of gin.

“Right then, that’s that dealt with!”

She extracts a Capstan Full Strength from its packet, licks it briefly, and lights
it with a lethal-looking pocket flame-thrower. She inhales, coughs, exhales, and then
vacuums a swift but sturdy slug of the yellowish tincture between her thin lips, and
draws it over her nıcotine-encrusted fangs before dumping it down her scrawny
throat. She speaks again.

“Now then, where’s that man of yours? Whatsizname?”

“Parsons is in Town for the day, visiting the sister, don’t you know?” Biffo
knows that any mention of Messrs Fortnum will be suicide.

“No, I don’t know. Don’t seem to have any control over your people at all, do
you? Stop shuffling your feet! Sit down, for Pete’s sake! There!”

Her skeletal claw indicates the old rug lying on the cedar needles. Obediently,
but with difficulty, he manages to lower himself to the deck, and finds himself gazing
up into the feral features of this appalling old predator, whom only a sadistic fate
could have appointed as his cousin.

“That’s better, now I can see you.”

Biffo anticipates a further broadside about his corpulence and prepares to
duck, mentally, as he always had physically when dodging wooden blackboard
dusters hurled by maniacal pedagogues at school.

The slug of Booth’s appears to have veered her somewhat from her course -
she speaks of other things.

“Came on my bike - the old ’38 Ariel ‘Square Four’ Combo. Not a bad old ride
on the whole - if you ignore the girder suspension. Damned fool of a policeman
stopped me in Peterborough - said I was exceeding some bloody speed limit. Told
him to bugger off - seemed to get the message.”

“Dreadful dump, Peterborough.” Biffo’s response is heartfelt.

“Stop agreeing with everything I say. No one’s got any guts these days. What’s
the time?”

Biffo glances helplessly at his loyal old Rolex – bought moons before, for five
bob, out of a bucket at Tessiers by his formidable Great-Aunt Kike.

“Half four-ish, I think.” he mutters

“What do you mean, you think? It’s either half-past-four, or it isn’t. If it is,
then it’s time for tea. Where do we take it? Do they bring it, or what? Conservatory?
Where’s that damned butler, for Heaven’s sake?”

“Look, old girl, tried to explain, Parsons is absent, what?”

“Got a wife, hasn’t he?”

Biffo has no energy for the defining of Mrs Fenner’s precise relationship to

“Day off, don’t you know? Even old Parsons has to have a bit of time to
himself. Not expecting you quite so promptly, if you know what one means, old

“In your father’s day there would have been tea at four-thirty sharp, come
what might. Every damned thing’s gone to the dogs, if you ask me. What happens
these days? Get it yourself, I suppose. And don’t address me as ‘old thing’ - Cousin
Marguerite, to you!”

“You really have caught us a bit on the proverbial hop, as they say, but Julian
is doing the honours for today, I believe.”

“Who the devil’s Julian, for the love of all that’s sacred?”

“Apprentice page-boy, sort of thing - from the East End. Nephew of Mrs
Fenner’s – down from Town for the hols – bit of a working holiday. Parsons is
teaching him the ropes of the house – might take him on in a couple of years when
he leaves school.”

“Sounds pretty unsuitable to me, but we shall see what we shall see. Where is
this juvenile refugee?”

“Might be wise to ferret him out of the kitchens. Bit addicted to the television -
might need a bit of a nudge. Parsons has high hopes but needs time to bring him up
to speed, so to speak.”

“It all sounds thoroughly disreputable, to me. However, as we have no choice
you might as well lead on.”

With which, she erupts horizontally from the deck chair, thrusts her Gin bottle
into the gaping handbag, zips it, and turns smartly on her heel in the direction of the

“Meddlesome old wıtch - vinegar on the edge of a knife!” Biffo murmurs, but
follows like an old hound weary of the hunt.

As the hurricane approaches, our Julian is ensconced in Mr Parsons’s chair in
the Butler’s Pantry - feet on the sacred bureau and flipping through a back number of
“The Beano”.

“What are you doing, boy?”

The ancient baritone incises his liver and various other departments of which,
heretofore, he has been only marginally aware.

“Nothin’, Miss, just chillin’ aht.”

The gimlet eyes bore into him and their owner observes drily,

“His Lordship requires tea. I’m given to understand that you have been
delegated to serve it to him?

“Yeah, well, Miss, that’s abaht the size of it.”

“Then, get off your backside and produce it, this instant! We shall be in the

Having delivered this broadside, Mrs Huntington-Smythe exits the pantry with
a snort.

"Fuckin' ol' cow!" Julian observes with some pith ~ his mastery of 'species 
identification' is clearly a little sketchy........

No comments:

Post a Comment