Corrie and I aren’t at all sure what sort of crowd will turn up for this evening’s high-jinks. Mention it to Parsons – after all one has to have some idea of numbers, I suppose – catering and so on…..
“Milord, I have consulted your guest list with regard to the issuance of invitations…..”
“Guest list – what guest list, old thing – didn’t know we had one….”
“It occurred to me, Milord, that such might well be the case - and so, in order to save you any discomfiture in that regard, I have taken the liberty of compiling one.”
“What, like the accounts, you mean - sort of fait-accompli, kind of thing?”
“How on earth did you work it all out, Parsons, dear?” Corrie enquires – fascinated as always by Parsons and his systems.
“Unlike many households today, Lady Constance, Amblewick has Visitors’ Books going back well into the middle of the nineteenth century. These contain comments by individual guests with regard to their stay at the Castle. A brief analysis of such comment - and my own memories of the same, of course, rendered it possible to assemble a suitable guest list for the Jubilee evening.”
“Must be a good number of folk from before your time, old thing, mustn’t there?””
Parsons offers one of those infinitely patient and long-suffering pauses before proceeding with his discourse.
“Clearly, Milord, individuals who visited the house before my employment herein could be dismissed from any list with reasonable confidence due to their advanced age – as could those once known to me and currently deceased.”
“How on Earth have you worked out who’s alive and who‘s sort of cashed in his chips, so to speak?”
Again that pause.
“Your Lordship will be aware that there are numerous volumes of Debrett, Burke and the Almanac de Gotha both in the Library and in my Pantry below-stairs. Relevant births, deaths and marriages can readily be located within their pages. Although, Milord – Lady Constance – my personal recall of such people and events renders such research for the most part mere luxury….”
He inserts a paw into his breast-pocket and extracts several pages of immaculate typescript.
“Your guest list for this evening, Milord – Lady Constance….”
“With regard to the practical arrangements for the evening in terms of refreshments, menus, and so forth, these are well in-hand – as is the training of volunteer helpers, footmen, attendants and so on. Masters Julian and Anthony, Milord, are now well-trained for the service of refreshments to those of your personal guests who will attend the initial reception in the Long Gallery – their Highland Dress and effective management of beverage trays will be seen to be impressive on the one hand, and exemplary on the other.”
A small matter is puzzling me.
“What I can’t quite ınderstand, Parsons, old dear, is how on earth Mrs Huntington-Smythe got onto the Jubilee Guest List – bearing in mind the rigid sort of criteria you must have employed, if you get my drift?”
“There are bound to be exceptions to every rule, Milord. The Lady in question – whilst on the surface somewhat questionable - comes into a small group of such exceptions – in this case, political necessity, Milord. To excise the Lady from the guest list would have caused the raising of many eyebrows, Milord – including those of Your Lordship’s formidable trustees. I considered the risk too great, Milord, bearing in mind the influence which those individuals can exercise over our affairs at Amblewick.”
A moment’s consideration and I realize that the old blighter is right – as always.
“Point taken, old thing. Jolly good show, what?”
“And now, Milord – Lady Constance – with your permission I will retire to establish the precise timing of the various events with Mrs Fenner and the Staff”.
Corrie and I retire to the Library for a tooth-full!
The rest of the afternoon passes like lightning and the evening is upon us before we’ve even blinked. I am fully aware of events – but somehow floating about above it all – grinning inanely, no doubt.I do note that one of Mrs Fenner’s offerings at dinner is her famous “Rook Pie” – and that Cousin Marguerite pounces upon it with all her hideous Pterodactyl voracity. No sign of the Booth’s bottle just now - knocking back the old fruit cup fairly heftily - and apparently with no deleterious effect. Unusual that….
Old Charles Peyneer has arrived in his double-decker bus – Freda Prizners in tow, and his five hounds. My old sparring-partner Valint Balassa – in full heroic dress - blows in from Hungary bearing copies of his “Wild Cats of Piran” and various ‘prezzies’ for us all - only managed a couple of words with him, so far – heck of a crush.I think one of the reasons I feel so disoriented is that everyone has arrived in ‘Costume for the Ball’, and whilst, like most people today, they want to be recognized - unlike the Masked Balls of yesteryear the effort to do so is handicapped by the kaleidoscopic jumble of colours, periods and metaphor – quite surreal. Equally bizarre is the actuality of the people inside the disguises and their various slots in the jigsaw scheme of ‘real life’.
Old Blarney Grail dressed as the Lincolnshire Poacher clashing with Major Sheer-Trash, as the Maharajah of Cooch-Behar, and being ignored by Marguerite dressed as the Tzarina Elizabeth and looking like Cruella De Ville – Ronnie Hyde in Hunting Pink - Berk, the lawyer trustee, as Scrooge – rather appropriately – so many different moods and periods. Old Charles materialises rather endearingly as Mr Micawber – plus surely irrelevant hounds to heel. Freda excels as Titania in yards and yards of Mary Talbot hand-printed chiffons. For our own part, Corrie and I have plumped for Nancy and Fagin – she found the old red dress that Augustus immortalised in “The Cellist” while she was firkling about in the attics with the boys. I wear my somewhat dog-chewed old dressing gown The two lads seem to be everywhere at once, kilts flickering and silver trays held high. The only person who remains lighthouse-like and a beacon of sanity – immaculate and his normal impassive self - is Parsons – thank God.
The entire evening is passing in the pleasant haze one sometimes experiences in “cheese-inspired“ dreams – the sort from which one hopes never to be awoken and which can never quite be re-captured, for all their delicious clarity. At one point Corrie and I escape to the Minstrel’s Gallery above the ballroom – to thank the Jazz band for its intoxicating racket. Imagine my delight – they turn out to be my favourite “Harry Walton and his Dixieland Jazzmen” from my miss-spent youth at the Gore Hotel in Kensington. Harry, well into his nineties, is still bashing out the boogie like nobody’s business. Nods at me happily and shouts,
“Built, we were in the old days, Biffers – not just thrown together!”
There is much more to come. Beneath us in the ballroom, a seething mass of jitterbugging couples – hysterical – but somehow harmonious – at one with the thumping beat and no longer aware of anything but the serious business of having fun.
And yet more….
From behind me, Harry yells with a whoop, “Hey! Dig this, Biffers!”
The band swoops into an intoxicating heel-flicking Charleston.Suddenly the dance-floor clears and Marguerite clatters centre-stage from her place preening her plumage behind a pillar. Revelation! The old buzzard is transformed – my God how she swings – terrific and, well, bloody brilliant, she is – electrifying and yet strangely majestic – stunning and magnetic.
Old Ronnie Hyde slicks back his moustaches and joins her – shouting “Tally-Ho!, old girl, what?”
It is a curiously moving experience - bearing past less heart-warming experiences in mind.
“No idea the old girl had it in her, Corrie - I say! Cor! What?”
“Yes, Cor!” agrees Corrie, nearly falling over the gallery-rail in her excitement.
As the performance hurtles to a close there is a standing ovation and the old girl shrieks, “Whacko! My God, I need a dash of freshers - haven’t danced like that in years!”. Gathering her Tzarist skirts about her she sweeps out through the terrace windows to grab that gasp of air.
Don’t really know what to do, but reckon I should join the old thing outside - in case she throws a fatal wobbly after all that unaccustomed exercise – common courtesy, sort of thing.
Locate the old girl perched upon the terrace wall – sobbing into her handkerchief.
“Everything all right, me dear?”
I really don’t know where to put myself…...Finally she shakes her head and gazes up towards the moon - which is at its fullest-full. Silhouetted in the silvery moonbeams, her profile shows me, at last, the beautiful woman she has been….
“I’ve been a total bitch, Biffo…” she says quietly.
“Used to pull my hair a bit, in the nursery, old thing – but not to worry, what?”
“Come on, old chap, I’ve been the most frightful bully ever since. I think I was jealous of you right from the moment you were born – being the heir – and I was just your second cousin – nobody at all, really. Trouble is, the older one gets the bitchier one can become – and the more gin one needs to fuel the bitching………”
“Know the feeling, old girl, what?”
I extend the hand….
“Never mind – new start, eh? Just water under the draw-bridge, don’t you know?”
This time she really smiles.
“Yes please, you old devil, yes please……..”
I give her a quick peck on the cheek – to my surprise it’s soft and cool – no reptile there at all…..
“What the hell was in that so-called ‘fruit cup’ – haven’t been so tight in years – or so daft.”
I also wonder.
“Fairly well-oiled meself – release from tension, I daresay.”
As to the rest of the night – very little – vague memory of PC Southgate and a colleague escorting the revelers – somewhat hyperlubricated – back to their various domiciles with blue lights flashing jauntily – and of Parsons and the boys assisting Marguerite and the trustees to their roosts upstairs.
“Left right, left right – right wheel – by the left - quick march. What a spiffing hoot, eh?” is old Ronnie’s contribution to the exercise – and a great relief to me.
The Berk is tagging on behind, smiling glassily, but happily enough for one so inured to misery and seriousness.
Last I see of Marguerite, she’s leaning on Tone’s young shoulder and crooning that favourite old song –
“Yams and clams and human hands and vintage coconut wine – the taste of which was filthy, the after-effects divine…..”
The morning after.
It’s only this morning - once the guests have taken off in their various conveyances – still slightly tight and giggly is my impression – that we will learn the secret of the evening’s hilarity and mirth.
The two boys are still cock-a-hoop after last night’s monumental thrash.
“Cripes, Guv,’ yer should’ve seen that Mrs Wotzernaim!”
“Oh, but indeed I did, Tone – magnificent performance, what?”
“Yea, and all them costumes – and everyone tiddly and gigglin’ – an’ the flippin crowds – like a ‘Totty’ match….” Jules is over the moon.
“Coo-er”, he adds.
“Thought the booze was goin’ ter run out, we did - and that was after abaht ten minutes!”
“It was the Guvnor’s old mate what saved the day – geezer from – where’d he say he come from, Tone?”
“’Ungry, I fink – wherever that may be when it’s at’ome…..”
“’Hungary’, might be the word you’re looking for, Tone?” I prompt.
“Rather a beautiful Eastern European country, so they say….”
“Yea, well it were ‘im what sorted out the drinks problem – brought five bottles of what ‘e called ‘pop’, as a present for you and Corrie, Guv’.”
“Did he indeed? ‘Pop’, you say?” I begin to feel a dash pensive.
“Yea, well, anyway when the booze bowls was gettin’ empty we tossed them bottles into the mix – five bottles, wannit, Jules?
“Fink so - could’ve been six, innit?”
“Yea, an’ then we tossed in a squirt of that soda water stuff and a slug or two of Brandy – just to make it taste, like – looked a bit watery, it did, with just ‘pop’.”
“You didn’t taste it then?” I wonder nervously.
“Nah. Don’t drink, me an’ Tone – stash of coke under the table, innit?”
“Thank God for small mercies…” I whisper to meself.
“Did the trick, though, dinnit – our ‘fruit cup’? Cripes, it got’em goin’!”
“Yea,” added Jules, “and Mrs Wotzernaim was still swingin’ this mornin, innit? What she say when she got into the Land Rover, Tone?”
“She said, ‘you two young buggers deserve a serious kick up the arse – but what a smashing knees-up, eh?…’ Says what she thinks that one, innit?”
“My cousin is renowned for her frankness, Tone.” I smile rather weakly.
At this point Parsons joins the discourse.
“Now that all potential accident has become the stuff of History, Milord, I sense that you would like to know precisely why the cocktail created by our ‘ghillies’ was such a notable success…..”
Actually, I’m gasping to know.
Parsons is unusually blunt.
“The ‘pop’ donated to Your Lordship by Mr Valint was, in fact, a blend of Russian pure white spirit, Milord – 100% proof, Milord – and renowned for its purity - and ‘kick’, I believe is the word.”
He returns to his organization of the chaos on my desk.
I gaze at the ‘ghillies’ thoughtfully.
“Are you sure you didn’t know what the ‘pop’ really was, you two?”
“Nah, course not, Guv’ – can’t read Russky, can we, eh?”
Parsons lays my nightmarish imagination mercifully to rest.
“Milord, whilst the beverage would be highly toxic if imbibed in large volume by a single individual – I feel sure that, shared as it was by a multitude of experienced consumers, the danger was non-existent – merely somewhat stimulating, as confirmed so happily by the nearmiraculous experience of Mrs Huntington-Smythe, Milord……”
“May well have saved our bacon here at Amblewick, as well.” I add.
“Do you think we might just slip the chaps a ‘fiver’, Parsons, old renderer of harmony from chaos?”
“Your accounts permit, Milord, and Inflation perhaps demands, that we slip them each a ‘tenner’.