Friday, 29 June 2012

April: The Four Feathers



It was always like this after dramatic events.  Tilling resounded with the news of the discovery of the identity of the Tilling Slasher and there was no other topic of conversation. This hubbub continued for several days but eventually waned as the story exhausted itself.

The process was assisted by the sensible decision by Quaint Irene to take a late winter holiday with her maid Lucy on the Continent. 

Before her departure, Irene oversaw the dismal procession of workmen removing the slashed remnants of her masterwork the Stoning of St Emmeline from its place of honour in the Tilling Institute.

Upon the return of her magnum opus to her studio, Irene was surprisingly practical and unsentimental. She simply removed the shredded canvas and deposited it unceremoniously in the dustbin, whilst dismantling the huge frame and placing the component parts in her store room for future use.

Without a glance over their respective shoulders or leaving a forwarding address, Irene and Lucy boarded the train for Seaport and the ferry. This being Tilling, however, the arrival of the taxicab at "Taormina" and the setting down of passengers at the station was noted and duly reported upon by the servants of Irene’s closest friends and her departure was rapidly widely known.



The consensus of opinion in the town was that “it was sensible of poor Irene to get away and enjoy a break after all the stress involved in the public unveiling of her latest picture.” It was generally hoped that dear Quaint Irene would benefit from a break and no doubt find fresh and hopefully less controversial subject matters upon her travels in Europe.
 
As the winter on the Sussex coast drew towards its close, the thoughts of Lucia as Mayor turned to the significant events of recent months. At the time of the sad death of Mrs Brace, the wife of young Dr Brace, Lucia had remarked upon the divisions still prevalent in society in Tilling despite it being 1936.
 
Although many of her friends considered Lucia the ultimate snob,  she felt that she deplored snobbishness. As befitted a benevolent dictator rather than a Bolshevik, her daydreams did however tend to feature her as Catherine the Great of Russia cunningly disguised, moving incognita amongst her devoted subjects rather than Rosa Luxemburg orating upon a soap box. 

Lucia had wondered to what extent the exclusion of poor Dolly Brace had contributed to her sad demise at the hands of her mother-in-law and whether as Mayor she should try to open the upper echelons of what constituted “society” in Tilling.
 
She pondered whether what was effectively “her” circle might include a wider group of locals from more diverse backgrounds.  Might it not include businessmen and professional people prominent in the locality such as solicitors, doctors, bank managers and successful tradesmen?

Lucia smiled at the idea of overcoming the resistance of her Mayoress and her husband whom she could already imagine deploring “the presence of ‘other ranks’ in the Officers’ Mess.”

Breaking off from this analysis, Lucia looked up  and greeted Georgie as he entered the Garden Room, “ I’ve been thinking how I might best open up our ‘society’ in Tilling, Georgie,” Lucia explained, “I still haven’t forgotten what happened to poor Mrs Brace a few months ago and wonder whether if we had involved the Braces more closely in our social activities in Tilling – drawn them into the centre of things -  the whole unfortunate business might have been avoided.”

“I’m sure you have the very best of motives Lucia,” remarked Georgie, “But I have two major issues with you. First I don’t really see the connection between what happened to poor Dolly and the guest list of our musical evenings or bridge teas. Secondly, I don’t really know what could be usefully done to change things anyway.”
 
“I really do think that it might be worth trying to open things up a little here in Tilling,” responded Lucia, bridging her fingers and adopting what Georgie thought of as her “Oxford voice,” “We must not be narrow Georgie.  I do wonder if it would not benefit our society - as it surely did in Athens during the age of Pericles - if we were to expand and diversify the range of those with whom we spend our leisure time: to open the doors to new ideas and different faces from varied backgrounds.”

“And had how you propose to do that?” asked Georgie, successfully resisting the temptation to  suggest a jumble sale.

I think it might be safer and less intimidating for everyone concerned if we began the process on neutral ground,” added Lucia, “Certainly not ‘Mallards House.’  I suspect that newcomers might feel it daunting to be entertained at the home of the Mayor,” she explained, “Therefore, I thought it would be a constructive idea to institute a new forum in which our circle in Tilling might be expanded and diversified.”

“Again, Lucia, if you don’t mind me asking: how are you going to achieve that?”
 
“I had the idea of establishing the Tilling Ladies Luncheon Club,” she explained, “Initially, I thought I would call it 'The Mayor of Tilling’s Luncheon Club,' but, on consideration, thought it smacked too much of delivering hot meals to the needy in the slums down by the railway station and had second thoughts. What do you think?”

“’TLC at the TLLC’; not a bad motto that,” joked Georgie, “I still doubt whether it will achieve your desired effect and expand social circles in Tilling, but it might be amusing to enjoy a pleasant lunch and chat or two. Where would you propose to hold these new luncheons?”
 
“I thought Diva’s tea rooms would be an ideal location. Don’t you agree, Georgie?” 

“Good idea,” he replied “I’m sure Diva would appreciate the business and could be relied upon to provide a good spread. Now tell me, who were you thinking of inviting to your inaugural luncheon? I don’t suppose I qualify?”
 
"No dear, I’m afraid not,” answered Lucia, who already planned to compensate her spouse by arranging for half a bottle of champagne and his favourite lobster a la Riseholme to be served for his solitary luncheon on the appointed day, “The candidates from the old guard more or less choose themselves, don’t you think?” she continued.

“Let me guess,” replied Georgie “Elizabeth Mapp -Flint, Susan Wyse, Evie Bartlett and yourself.”

“I would have invited Diva, but I think she will be much too busy hosting the event.”

“Absolutely and you won’t be including Quaint Irene, for obvious reasons?” asked Georgie.

“Indeed, dear,” replied Lucia, “And in any event I doubt she will have returned with Lucy from  abroad by then.”

“Apart from anything else, hardly any of the others attending are on speaking terms with her after the scandal of her picture of your stoning.”

“Yes, I shall miss Irene, but suppose that is part of the heavy cost of martyrdom,” smiled Lucia.

"And the other guests at the luncheon?”

“I wanted to create an interesting melange of backgrounds and age,” began Lucia.

“Sounds dangerous to me.”

“I thought that the older and professional element could be represented by Dr Dobbie's wife, Vera and Joan Causton, my solicitor's wife.”


"And the younger element?” asked Georgie.


“Inspector Morrison’s wife,  Bunty is pleasant and well thought of in the town and knows most of the young wives. Of course, Florence Twistevant will be a good choice to represent the business community and local affairs”.


“That would seem to be a remarkably sensible and non-contentious guest list, if you don’t mind me saying ,” remarked Georgie.


“Why, thank you, Georgie, I had taken great pains to ensure that the mix of personalities and backgrounds would work to create a pleasant occasion”. 


“Despite all that, you do appreciate that Elizabeth in particular will try to use the issue to create unpleasantness and  present your idea in the worst possible light?” asked Georgie.


"That goes without saying,” replied Lucia, “First, I will have a private word with Diva to enquire whether I may use her premises and whether she is willing and able to cater the affair. Then I shall prepare the ground with Susan and Evie and last of all with Elizabeth.”


‘Very sensible,” commented Georgie, “You mean to present her with a fait accompli?”


“If I can – absolument!” laughed Lucia, “And now, after all that thought of others, let us steal a few delicious moments of enjoyment for ourselves. A little divino  Mozartino?”

“Charmed,  I’m sure,” said Georgie, taking off his rings in readiness.


“Now, uno, due, TRE!....



During the following week, the Mayor of Tilling went about her business in her usual methodical way.

Diva Plaistow was delighted to accommodate the TLLC between 12.30 pm and 2.45 pm on the first Wednesday of each month.  A range of possible menus was suggested for consideration and of course Diva understood entirely that she would be far too busy with her duties as hostess in supervising the catering to participate fully. She hoped however to be able to join the group for coffee, should time permit.

Both Susan Wyse and Evie Bartlett agreed entirely with Lucia that their circle might benefit from what Susan termed "a breath of fresh air" and Evie "an injection of fresh blood."

Those to be invited to be so respired and transfused were also pleased to be  invited and looked forward to the occasion.

Now that the fait was very much accompli, Lucia felt it was now safe to extend an invitation to her Mayoress.

Lucia was well aware that Elizabeth was more than capable of declining the invitation "with much regret" if she suspected that her absence might impact adversely upon the occasion or indeed if time permitted her to canvass the other invitees to absent themselves and effectively strangle the infant TLLC at birth.

No such destructive tactic was possible once Lucia had taken the wise precaution of securing the acceptance of all the other guests in advance.  The Tilling Ladies Luncheon Club would proceed whether or not graced by the presence of her Mayoress.

It was with a feeling of quiet satisfaction therefore that Lucia dictated her final invitation to her "carassima sindaca" and once typed and signed bestowed to her chauffeur Cadman for delivery by hand to "Grebe."

As Cadman drove off from “Mallard’s House” bearing the Mayor’s invitation to her Mayoress to the inaugural luncheon of the TLLC, much activity was taking place at his destination.


The carrier’s men grumbled as they left through the kitchen door and crunched disenchanted down the cinder path and through the gate in the hornbeam hedge. Each complained at the measly tip just given to them to share by Major Benjy after they had deposited their heavy cargo in the centre of the drawing room floor.

The master of “Grebe” had fumbled in his waistcoat and trouser pockets and then, with a closed fist, discreetly handed three coins to the senior delivery man with a hearty, “Thank you chaps. Have a drink on me!”


Thinking the coins were three half crowns, the foreman had replied “Why thank you, Sir. That’s very generous of you,” and doffed his cap.


Their mutterings of discontent began immediately they discovered that the tip amounted to three pence and did not abate until several miles had been covered on the road away from Tilling.


Pleased to have saved himself the princely sum of seven shillings and three pence by this oft-practised leger de main, Major Benjy entered the drawing room and discovered his wife opening the letter which accompanied the large steamer trunk which stood on the floor before her.


The letter came from the solicitor administering the estate of the late-lamented Maharani of Maharashtra, young Mr Farnon.  It confirmed that the item before them was the portmanteau which had been retrieved from the hotel room of the late Maharani in Seaport several months before.


Now that Probate of the Will had been obtained, “it is possible to release the trunk to the duly entitled beneficiary under the will, whose signed receipt for the same would be an absolute discharge to the Executors.”


Elizabeth Mapp-Flint unlocked the trunk, using a small key enclosed with the letter. Tentatively, she opened the lid of the portmanteau with its brass bound corners and fittings and leather straps. It was covered by a myriad of faded circles, squares and triangles, paper labels that recorded the passage of a life as vividly as any biographer. The stickers documented first class passages on liners long-since consigned to the breakers yard and Grand Hotels in far-flung outposts of the Empire.



As the trunk opened, a thin cloud of dust escaped and with it the distinctive aroma of old clothes,  books and camphor.

Major Benjy joined his wife in gingerly removing the sheets of aged tissue paper that covered the topmost contents . Elizabeth first lifted out a heavy and voluminous sable coat which had been mentioned by Mr Farnon when they met at his office in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.



“Good Lord, Liz old girl!” exclaimed the Major “That’s a beauty and no mistake!”

Elizabeth Mapp-Flint raised the soft and scented sable to her face, breathed deeply  and luxuriated within it, "Oh Benjy, it’s exquisite. I never thought I would wear a fur as beautiful as this. Susan Wyse will be green with envy  - and as for the Lucia! I can't wait!”


"Why don’t you try it on, dear?” said Benjy," I am encouraged to have the temerity to believe that Madame would be very well-suited by her sables, don’t you know,” he added, bowing to the left or to the right and finally to his wife in what he considered to be an amusing parody of Algernon Wyse, the custodian of Chesterfield manners in Tilling.

"Oh, if you insist, I will,” replied Elizabeth with  fluttering eyelashes and exaggerated girlishness, that  she took to be a satire upon the demeanour of Susan Wyse, continuing, as she skipped around clutching her sables about her in an attempted coquettish fashion, "But I must remember to leave room amidst my ample décolletage for the insignia of my little Order. My MBE was awarded to me personally by His Majesty the King, you know. His wife Her Majesty the Queen, was there too 'Call me Mary,' she said, 'I'm thrilled to bits for you, dear.'”


"Steady on, old girl. It’s one thing to send up the Wyses of Whitchurch, but we have to draw the line at the King and Queen – God bless 'em both."

"Silly me. You’re quite right,” replied Elizabeth, “Your girly's just getting over-excited, Benjy boy. Now let’s see what else is in here.”


Still draped in her new sables, Elizabeth knelt down and looked into the trunk. She took out several mahogany framed photographs, each tinted in sepia in the old-fashioned way. The first showed an attractive woman in a sari sitting in palatial surroundings.


“That’s the Maharani in the drawing room of the Maharajah’s palace in Poona." explained Benjy. " I remember going there for cocktails  after polo against the Maharaja’s team before the War. Never forget that day. Scored three goals in the fourth chukka.  That's a photograph of the Maharaja on the wall behind her."

"Then we must put this up in place of honour in our drawing room, don’t you think Benjy?” she asked.


"Very fitting Elizabeth dear,” Benjy replied. "Now what else have we got?”


As he spoke, Elizabeth extracted from the trunk several more items. These included a large jewellery box containing an array of sparkling, but sadly fake jewellery, albeit of good quality. This highly decorative collection included suites of matching necklace, bracelet and tiara and numerous orders and sashes of  exotic foreign orders.


Picking up a large brooch containing a substantial green stone surrounded by smaller but highly iridescent white gems, Benjy commented, "By Jove, I remember this. It must be a copy of the Poona Emerald. The original was  famous in its day. The old Maharaja, the father of the last one,  had the original flawless emerald made up into a massive jewel encrusted with diamonds and sapphires and gave it to his mistress in Paris after winning the Arc in 1904. The entente was very cordiale that year, in more ways than one.”


"Benjy, really!" protested Elizabeth, shielding faux doe's eyes behind a swathe of top-quality sable, "I would love to wear that brooch out and about in Tilling, with my new sables - just once," commented Elizabeth, "Without telling anyone that the gems aren’t real. It would  be worth it just to see the look on Susan and Lucia’s faces. Serve them right - both of them!"  
       
" I don’t see why you shouldn’t do that,” commented Benjy, "After all, what harm would it do? Just a little bit of fun."

"Now let’s see what else we have," continued Elizabeth, removing several more items from the trunk. These included silver framed photographs, photo and stamp albums in Morocco leather, bundles of letters and clothes including a silk turban, fringed in gold filigree.


“Oh Benjy, I haven’t had so much fun in years,” cried Elizabeth, "It reminds me of when I was a  girl and we visited ma chere Tante Caroline at 'Mallard’s' for the summer holidays. We used to be allowed to play with the contents of Auntie's dressing-up box. I would try on all her lovely old dresses and hats and totter around the garden room in her high-heeled shoes.”


"A charming picture dear,” commented Benjy, who, in reality, found it difficult to imagine that his good lady wife was ever an artless young girl in a pinafore dress sweetly playing with the contents of her aunt's dressing up box.

If truth were known (which fortunately for Benjy it was not)  the vision of female loveliness currently plaguing his imagination was actually the late Maharani in her previous glamorous incarnation of the Pride of Poona and not his beloved spouse in her bespectacled, pig-tailed and somewhat lumpen girlhood.

As Benjy struggled with these conflicting visions, Withers entered, bearing a silver tray on which rested  a stiff vellum envelope, which Elizabeth immediately recognised was from her dear friend Lucia.

"Thank you, Withers, that will be all," said Elizabeth as she took a paper knife and slit open the envelope containing her missive, "Let's see what dear Lulu has in store for us now. 
It seems Worship considers that the ladies of Tilling are in need of a good hot meal in these straightened times," said Elizabeth, as she began to re-read her invitation.

"Whatever  now?" asked Benjy.


"The inaugural meeting of the Tilling Ladies Luncheon Club next week," she explained, "At Diva's. I shall be having a word with her about that. She obviously knew all about it when I saw her yesterday. Call herself a friend? Really, I wouldn't have thought it of her."

"Perhaps she thought she was bound by the confidentiality which binds the caterer and her customer?" suggested Benjy tentatively.

"Tosh dear" replied Elizabeth, "There's no such thing and, even if there was, it was Diva's duty as my oldest friend to let me know. Lucia must have made it worth her while to keep quiet about it. It must have killed her not to tell me; she's normally such a gossip."


Resisting the temptation to mention the pots and kettles of similar tints, Benjy made a non-committal grunt, which was ignored as his wife continued, "Anyway it's my own fault. I saw Lucia holding court with Susan and Evie outside the stationers in the High Street yesterday. I should have known they were up to something when they all clammed up as soon as I approached. Did they really think I would imagine they were really discussing 'the ruinous price of  Christmas cards' - in April?"

"I should think not," added Benjy "So, are you going to go?"

"Of course I am!" blustered Elizabeth, "It would clearly go on with or without me. It's always dangerous to ignore gatherings like that. I will have plenty of time to get my own back.  They may have all conspired to set up their little club behind my back, but I will just have to be bigger and rise above their petty subterfuge. It will also give me a chance to let them see my new sables. I'll write an acceptance this afternoon and pop it into "Mallards "when I go into Tilling. Now, shall we finish sorting out the trunk?"

 

The Mapp-Flints reverted to their knees and  leaned over the portmanteau, removing the few objects remaining.  After some delightful saris in silk  and brocade, the final item was a hallmarked silver frame of highest quality bearing the stamp of Aprey's of London, wrapped in a velvet cloth. It contained a studio portrait of a young, dark-haired man in evening dress.

Elizabeth looked at the photograph quizzically and passed it to Benjy, "I don't know who this is, Benjy. I don't think it's the Maharaja - too young. Do you have any idea who it might be?"


Benjy took the frame in one hand and touched it gently with the other  in silence.
 

"Did you hear me Benjy?" asked Elizabeth, "I asked you if you knew who this might be."
 

"Yes, dear," Benjy replied quietly, "I actually think, I do."
 

"Well?"
 

"I think it may well be my son, the son I never met."

 




Inspector Morrison edged the black Riley slowly out of his drive. His passenger, Bunty confirmed there was nothing coming on her side and he accelerated into the road and off towards Tilling.

"You look very smart, love," he remarked as he changed gear.



"Thanks, Herbert. I wanted to look my best today.  I wish I didn't feel so nervous. "

"What have you got to be nervous about? You'll  know everyone there. You've met the Mayor, Mrs Mapp-Flint and Mrs Twistevant  at civic do's. You know  Evie Bartlett from Church. We see the Caustons and Dobbies at Rotary and you do your hospital visiting with Mrs Wyse. And we have tea at Mrs Plaistow's most weeks."



"That's true.  But a lot of them move in the same circle. They're always in and out of each other's houses having dinner and bridge  - and musical evenings."

"Just relax and enjoy it," advised Herbert as he drove through the Landgate, "Above all, be yourself and you'll be fine."



As the Riley drew up outside Ye Olde Tea Shoppe,  Bunty spotted Florence Twistevant walking down the High Street. "Oh good. There's Florence. We can go in together. I'll be alright now. Thanks for bringing me, Herbert."

Inspector Morrison leaned over and kissed his wife as she got out of the car and greeted Florence Twistevant, "Have a nice time," he called out of the window," See you later."  





As Bunty and Florence Twistevant entered Diva's parlour, they were greeted by Lucia who had chosen to wear her Mayoral chain to give the occasion a touch of civic grandeur but had refrained from wearing her tricorn hat.  By her side stood Diva's Janet in her little black dress, white apron and cap bearing a tray of canapés and assorted cordials.
Lucia extended a warm welcome to the newcomers, "So good of you both to come Ladies," she intoned, demurely extending a gloved hand, "I think you know everyone?"

"Yes thank you Mrs Pillson," Bunty replied,  balancing a crab puff in one hand and glass of fruit cup in the other, “We're not late are we?"


"Not a bit, my dear," answered Lucia, "We're still waiting for Susan and my Mayoress. I'm sure they will be along in a moment. Do have another canapé. Oh yes, here’s Susan’s Royce coming down the High Street now."


“Much quicker to walk here from 'Starling Cottage,' if you ask me,” commented Florence Twistevant, eying her cordial and a miniature sardine tartlet with suspicion.


As Bunty and Florence greeted their fellow attendees, Susan Wyse entered grandly,  swathed as ever in sables and displaying her MBE in her ample embonpoint.


"I didn't think decorations were to be worn at a ladies’ lunch," muttered Florence Twistevant spraying her neighbour with crumbs from her partially masticated amuse bouche, adding, "If I’d known I would have worn my Bronze Life Saving medal and borrowed our Rita’s Ovaltiney’s Badge.  I really could do with a gin and French instead of this lime cordial. I hope there's some wine with our dinner."


"I don't think Mrs Plaistow has a licence to serve intoxicating liquors, so I wouldn't bet on it, Florence," Bunty replied, suppressing a giggle.


"I hardly think this group of mature ladies will run amok around the streets of Tilling if they were allowed a small sherry, do you?"


Resisting the temptation to respond, Bunty merely sipped her cordial and smiled at the approaching bulky figure of Susan Wyse.


"Won't you take off your lovely sables, Mrs Wyse? You must be warm" asked Mrs Twistevant.


"Oh no, I always keep my sables with me," replied Susan, "I find it’s still a tad wintry today, don't you think?"


Bunty and Florence were relieved of the burden of responding by the tardy  arrival of the final lunch guest,  Elizabeth Mapp-Flint.

At this time of year, the ladies of Tilling were used to seeing their oldest friend in her best winter coat which had already given many seasons of regular wear on top of a venerable green skirt, trimmed from time to time in whatever came to hand, such as scraps of  tiger skin or appliqué flowers cut from redundant curtains.
Today however a new Elizabeth Mapp-Flint met their gaze as she strode into the room. For what seemed an age after her entry, silence fell upon Diva’s parlour as every eye took in the spectacular transformation.

Pleased to have made such a dramatic entrance,  Elizabeth Mapp-Flint stood before them smiling graciously,  resplendent in her newly-inherited sables. Her ensemble was completed by the silk turban also recently languishing in the Maharani's portmanteau in her dismal hotel room in Seaport.
In the centre of the turban was pinned the startling replica of the Poona Emerald. The substantial faux jewel glittered impressively in such weak late winter light as managed to enter Diva's parlour that early Sussex afternoon.
As the group took in this transformed  creature,  the newly exotic chatelaine of "Grebe" broke the silence, "Lulu sweet one! I am the last? Please forgive me. Mea culpa! How lovely to see you all!"

"Not at all, Lib-lib dear" replied Lucia acidly, for she detested "Lulu" nearly as much as she knew her Mayoress abhorred her own diminutive, "Would you care for a canapé Elizabeth, sindaca mea?" she asked, summoning  Janet and her virtually empty tray.
Viewing the crumb-laden salver suspiciously,  Elizabeth paused. Denuded of the popular crab puffs, the late-comer was left to choose between one diminutive sardine tartlet and a solitary cheese straw.

"Fresh today?" asked the Mayoress of Tilling, pushing the crumbling cheesy savoury with her forefinger and took Janet's nod as affirmation, "And the other?"

"Sardine tartlet, Mrs Mapp-Flint, bite-size," explained Janet defiantly, awaiting the inevitable insult that was the invariable reaction of the best friend of her mistress to this particular venerable piscine savoury.

"There's enough trouble in the world, don't you think dear? "asked Elizabeth sweetly, "Much safer to forego the sardine today, I think; discretion, the  better part of valour and all that. I'll just finish off the other - the last straw!"

Laughing weakly at this feeble pun, Lucia cleared her  throat and addressed the gathering, "Now Ladies, since we all seem to be here, perhaps we shall go into luncheon? Avanti!"

Diva Plaistow, entering from the kitchen where preparations were well in hand, nodded to the Mayor and opened the door to the adjoining room usually used for cards, but in which today a table was laid for lunch.

Thanking her hostess Lucia, led the Tilling Ladies' Luncheon Club to table for its inaugural meal. 

Fate decreed that Elizabeth Mapp Flint, should be seated next to Susan Wyse.  From behind - and, if truth were known, when viewed from any angle – the two ladies of larger than average frame sitting side-by-side with their  substantial sables draped about them resembled a pair of grizzly bears hibernating through the worst of the  Canadian winter.

Arguably, the tone and temper demonstrated by these neighbours  was rather more aggressive and irritable than that normally exhibited by their ursine cousins beyond the Great Lakes.

As the group settled itself, Susan Wyse, attempted to break the Arctic ice, “Lovely furs, Elizabeth,” she suggested pleasantly “I don’t think I have seen you wearing them before, have I? Are they new? “

“Oh, just something I had in the wardrobe, you know,” lied Elizabeth casually, “It felt a little cool this morning. I don’t like to wear them too often. After all, there’s nothing worse than being ‘over-dressed’ is there?  But today I thought it would make a nice change to give my sables an airing.”

“Yes, indeed, Elizabeth,” bridled Susan “A very good idea. Camphor or mothballs, isn’t it? The odour does linger so, don’t you find?”

“I don’t know what you mean!” sniffed Elizabeth, whilst mentally making a note to try to remove all traces of chemical deterrents for moths and omnivorous insects immediately upon her return to “Grebe.”

Bringing this preliminary skirmish to a close, Emmeline Pillson rose to her feet and began her introductory remarks, “First ladies, it gives me great pleasure to welcome you all to the inaugural meeting of our new Tilling Ladies Luncheon Club.”

This was greeted by hesitant applause. Lucia continued, “I am so pleased that you all found time to attend today. I wanted to outline briefly to you the simple purpose of our little group. This will be to bring together ladies reflecting various sectors of life in our beloved Tilling. I hope that over a convivial meal each month we will have the opportunity to make new friendships, to strengthen existing ones and to learn about each other’s lives and thus to promote a greater understanding.”

“Just like the League of Nations was supposed to do?” asked Elizabeth Mapp-Flint.

“Rather more successfully, I trust,” parried Lucia, continuing “I’m not suggesting that our new club would have succeeded in preventing what the newspapers call any ‘barbarous  practices’ such as Mr Mussolini using mustard gas in Abyssinia this week, but after all, ‘great oak trees from little acorns grow’, don’t you think?”

“Not to mention Diva’s sardine tartlets!” remarked Elizabeth Mapp-Flint, “Heaven knows, they're pretty barbaric and dear Diva could do with the practice. I often wondered if her tartlets complied fully with the Geneva Convention.”

“Now, now Elizabeth,” interrupted Lucia, “I know you’re only speaking in jest, but Mrs Plaistow is being kind enough to host us today, so we really mustn’t be rude. Now where was I ? Oh yes. The aim of the club is 'to oil the wheels of social intercourse in Tilling.' After what I hope will be an enjoyable meal with lots of pleasant conversation, each meeting will feature a speaker either from our own number or brought in from outside to address us upon a matter of current interest. For today however I thought we should concentrate on appointing officers and discussing our  future activities. Next time, to set the ball rolling,  I thought I might give a brief discourse upon my experiences as the first female Mayor of Tilling.”

“Won’t that be nice? 'Social intercourse' sounds like the barmaid at the Traders Arms!" whispered Florence Twistevant to her neighbour, rather more loudly than the occasion demanded, whilst surreptitiously pouring some whiskey from a small hip flask into her cordial and shiftily slipping it back into the handbag on her lap. She then exclaimed, even more loudly, "How exciting, Mrs Pillson. That will be lovely.”
 
“Thank you, Mrs Twistevant” said the Mayoress, “Now, without further ado, let us enjoy our luncheon.”
After more polite applause, Diva and Janet served a first course of home-made minestrone soup and four of five conversations broke out around the lunch table, the threads of which were as diverse as the ladies present.

As the soup plates were cleared, it was universally agreed that the new film "The Shape of Things to Come," currently showing at the Bijou  Cinema, was well worth seeing.
Florence Twistevant even went so far as to suggest that the performance of its star Raymond Massey alone justified the price of her ticket, concluding, " He's lovely.  He could top my bill any day."
This observation produced a high-pitched squeak from Evie Bartlett, which her neighbours could not quite decide indicated shock or enthusiastic concurrence.
 
There followed an intense debate upon the respective merits of Mr Massie and other stars, including Ronald Coleman, Jack Buchanan and the up-and-coming, Laurence Olivier.
During this exchange, the Mayor intrigued her companions by disclosing that her intimes in London some years ago had included the cinema artist, Marcel Periscope. "Ah, dear, dear Marcel," she sighed in a manner entirely intended to give a completely misleading impression of what had transpired.  Naturally, nothing whatsoever had come anywhere near transpiring, conspiring or expiring.

In the tense lull that followed the Mayor's misleading wistfulness,  Evie Bartlett remarked sadly that the last film she had seen was,  "At the old kinema in Tilling at Christmas-time in 1930. I remember it involved tadpoles," she confirmed gravely, "Shockingly frank for the time - and jolly interesting it was too."

Talk of films led discussion on to the Ideal Home Exhibition sponsored by the "Daily Mail." which was  taking place in Olympia in Kensington. Bunty said she understood that the film was featured in displays and that the cast, including the estimable Mr Massey, would be appearing and signing autographs.
Susan Wyse added that she had read that the homes of many famous film stars  were to be recreated in Olympia.    
Even the most serious-minded members of the group, such the Mayor and her Mayoress, agreed it would be most diverting to visit the exhibition.

Over their lamb cutlets and what Diva grandly declared was "a panaché of seasonal vegetables," conversation moved on to the newly-launched Cunard liner, the Queen Mary which was shortly due to pass Tilling on its way from Glasgow to Southampton. The newspapers that morning had called it "Britain's masterpiece."

"I read that the Queen Mary is due to sail to Cherbourg before making its maiden Atlantic crossing to New York," said Lucia.

"Yes, indeed," commented Elizabeth Mapp-Flint, " My Benjy boy and I were toying with  the idea of making the crossing. We thought it would make a nice change"
"And cost a fortune too!" interjected Mrs Twistevant, who had by now drained her hip flask and whose joie de vivre had mounted as its contents had diminished.

During this exchange, looks were silently swapped between Lucia and Susan at table and Diva standing by the door monitoring proceedings. The new prosperity suggested by Elizabeth's luxurious, if camphorated,  sables and her exotic bejewelled turban had been confirmed by this casual reference to travel upon Cunard's, and indeed the nation's, proud new  flagship.
Circumstances rendered it awkward to pursue the issue further over lunch, but several present made a mental note and  - as Elizabeth had with her sables -  vowed to air the issue fully at the earliest opportunity.

Over dessert of apple pie and custard, conversation turned to worthy topics from current affairs.  Asked if she wanted some crème anglaise,  Florence Twistevant replied, "No thank you, Diva dear  -  poison to me,  I'll just have some custard, thank you."
During the following earnest debate on the recent Italian invasion of Ethiopia, Mrs Twistevant's major contribution was to remark, "That's what  my Harold tells me when he goes off to the Trader's Arms!"

"And what was that ?"asked Lucia, breaking off from a detailed explanation of the intricacies of the Gold Standard, but pleased and not a little surprised to involve the newcomer in discussion of this worthy but opaque  topic."
"I'm off now, Flossie - Abyssinia later!" she laughed, "We heard that at the music hall in Hastings. You've got to laugh, haven't you?"

"Oh, yes, Mrs Twistevant, most amusing," replied Lucia insincerely, wholly  unimpressed and a little irritated to be impeded in her expert exposition upon economic theory and foreign affairs. Gathering her thoughts swiftly, she returned to the business of the day, "Now Ladies, as Mrs Plaistow and Janet serve our coffee, perhaps we might turn to a few matters of administration?"

Within a remarkably short time, the officers of the Club were proposed and elected. As was only natural, the Mayor was appointed to the Chair with the Mayoress as her Deputy. Mrs Wyse became Treasurer and Bunty Morrison Social Secretary.

Any other business discussed over a  second cup of coffee included possible day trips to be undertaken by the Club. It was unanimously agreed that early inquiries should be made about a trip to the Ideal Home Exhibition in London.

"If you don't mind me interrupting, Mrs Pillson," said  Diva Plaistow after the table had been cleared, "My brother Leofric runs Leofric's Charabancs from Brinton. I'm sure he would give your  Club a very good rate for the day."

All agreed that this would be a very good idea and that their inaugural luncheon had been a great success.


The next few days were busy for the new Social Secretary of the Tilling Ladies Luncheon Club. Bunty exerted great energy in obtaining details of the chosen destination of the first outing and considerable time and – as her husband repeatedly pointed out to her, money - on ruinously expensive trunk calls in making the necessary arrangements.

Herbert walked into the kitchen where Bunty pored for the umpteenth time over a list of names, addresses and sums of money received. She sighed as she ticked off what appeared to be the last name and receipt upon the list.

“What are you up to now?” asked Herbert.

“Well, I think I’ve finished. I’ve balanced off the names, tickets and payments and after three attempts they seem to match at last.”

“Well done love. I know it’s been a hard job. So you’ve booked all the tickets and a charabanc for the great day? I know the twins are looking forward to it. They talk of nothing else.”

“Yes, I don’t want to tempt fate, but I think it’s all done and paid for. A party of thirty ladies and children from Tilling will be going to the Ideal Home Exhibition at Olympia next week by Leofric’s Charabancs of Brinton and stopping off on the way back for high tea at the Fisherman’s Catch High Class Tea Rooms, just outside Royal Tonbridge Wells. I must admit, I’m looking forward to it too now. The twins are too.”

“It sounds as though you have it all arranged beautifully dear,” Herbert remarked in an effort to encourage his wife in her first endeavours as Social Secretary.

“I hope so,” Bunty replied, “I have to go and report to Mrs Pillson at “Mallards House” this afternoon and I would like to think I’ve done a good job and dotted the i’s and crossed all the t’s.”

“I’m sure you have.  The Mayor’s not that bad,” commented Herbert, “She appreciates when someone has tried to do a thorough job and always gives praise where it’s due.”

“True, I’m glad it’s Mrs Pillson and not her Mayoress anyway. She can normally find fault with anything. Funny thing is, after reserving a place on the trip, Mrs Mapp-Flint has just cancelled. She says 'Something urgent has cropped up in town that day.'"

"Wonder what 'town' she means?" asked Herbert, "Maidstone? Frinton? I suppose she means London. She could have come with you on the charabanc and saved on the train fare!"

"Now now Herbert, I'm surprised at you,"  joked Bunty, "The one thing you don't mention to her after her little problem with the Tilling and District Railway Company is train fares! Anyway, that's what I'm doing this afternoon. Enough about me. What about you?”

“I’m mixing in lofty circles too, love,” Herbert replied, as he dusted off the peak of his cap and began to put on his uniform jacket, “Off to see his Lordship over at Ardingly. There have been a lot of thefts from cottages on the estate and there have been reports of some suspicious looking sorts in the area. May well be the gipsies again. When the Lord Lieutenant picks up the phone, yours truly comes running.”

“If he’s got any sense!”

“Absolutely,” replied Herbert kissing his wife and walking out of the kitchen door, “Please give my best to the Mayor when you see her.”

 
On the morning of the  trip of the Tilling Ladies' Luncheon Club to the Ideal Homes Exhibition at Olympia in London a small crowd was waiting outside the Traders Arms as the large open-topped touring  charabanc pulled up.

Wearing a voluminous white overcoat dating from before the War,  Leofric the proprietor of Leofric's Charabancs of Brinton  jumped out of the driver's compartment, removed his driving goggles and chivalrously doffed his cap to the waiting ladies.

"Leofric's Charabancs ready, present and correct, at your service, Ma'am,"  he greeted Lucia standing next to  Bunty and the twins.

"How do you do?" replied the Mayor coolly, "I think you know our Social Secretary?"

"Indeed Your Worship, Mrs Morrison has  been most meticulous with all the arrangements. I do hope you will be happy with our service today."

"I hope so too. I must admit, I was expecting our transport at least to have a roof. Hopefully the weather will be clement."

"I believe no rain is forecast," suggested Bunty, looking dubiously at the coach,  also taken aback by the absence of a roof.
"Don't worry, Ladies," Leofric replied cheerfully,  "It won't rain today and in the event of precipitation the expanding canvass canopy will be put in place in a trice. Leofric's Charabancs have never had a damp passenger yet, and I don't propose to start  today."

"Let's hope so, Mr Leofric," said Lucia, "Shall we board now?"

Within a short space of time the Ladies had boarded and the trip to Kensington commenced.
The ladies of Tilling's Luncheon Club settled into their seats and chatted animatedly as the charabanc drove off. Georgie Pillson waved cheerfully, whilst Algernon Wyse raised his boater and bowed repeatedly as it disappeared from view.

In the front seat, immediately behind the driver, sat Lucia with Diva Plaistow who had been only too happy to take up the ticket belatedly relinquished by Elizabeth Mapp-Flint on being mysteriously "called by urgent business to town."
Conversation between the ladies naturally focussed upon the reason behind the sudden absence of their old friend. Each agreed that the new sables, bejewelled turban and casual contemplation of cruising upon the Queen Mary suggested new affluence,  but neither had acquired any new or specific intelligence upon the issue.
The other front seat was occupied by Bunty Morrison with her excited and loquacious twins, who had never been on a charabanc before and found points of interest at every stage along their journey north.

As the white gables and red roofs of Tiling  disappeared and names like Peasmarsh, Sandhurst and Highgate flew by, the charabanc sped along the hedged country lanes of Sussex and then its arterial roads leading to London.

At the front of the coach, Lucia sought to educate her travelling companions upon the issues of daily concern to a modern Mayor. Her discourse ranged from housing and planning policy to the adverse consequences of ribbon development so evident in the neat brick villas now lining either side of the highways radiating from the capital.

At the rear of the vehicle, the back seat had been occupied by Florence Twistevant and her sister Nellie, who were concerned with less lofty matters than civic governance.

Each came armed with a new autograph book specially purchased for the occasion from the stationers in Tilling.  Nellie read out loud from that morning's "Daily Mail" that  "each day no less than eighteen stars of the silver screen will be present at Olympia in person and available to sign autographs." Both siblings planned to obtain the signature of "that lovely Raymond Massey, however long it takes."

As she had at the inaugural luncheon, Florence availed herself of the occasional discreet swig from the hip flask kept tucked away in its convenient  pocket in her handbag.

"Don't you think it's a little early for that, Floss?" asked Nellie

"Of course not, Nellie, "she replied in her patented stage whisper, "It's  our day out; we must please ourselves. Anyway, we don't want to catch a cold in this open chara'. It's  just a wise precaution - for the good of our health. You wouldn't want to get a chill now, would you?"
"Oh, that's alright then; pass it over!" laughed Nellie.
By now the charabanc had long since left Sussex by the sea and had navigated though Royal Tonbridge Wells and Seven Oaks to Bromley in the garden county of Kent.

As they sped on through the suburbia of Greater London, Bunty handed out to each passenger a programme and guide to the exhibition. The brochures were reviewed thoroughly as the party planned its progress through the exhibition. As Tulse Hill and Catford gave way to West Kensington, the pitch of anticipation grew positively fevered.





When the last member of the party had disembarked from the charabanc, Lucia gathered the group around her in a semicircle, as if conducting a choir. She was sure that her ladies would disport themselves about the exhibition "as befitted members of the Tilling Ladies’ Luncheon Club" and reminded them that they should "all return to the front entrance of Olympia by 4 o’clock prompt" and concluded with the hope that "everyone has a most enjoyable day."
The ladies and children of Tilling joined many hundreds of others entering the exhibition. Like most visitors, the party first headed to the centrepiece of the show in the Grand Hall, "the city of beautiful night", which recreated a cloudless summer night. Everyone from the Mayor to the Morrison twins craned their necks looking at that an immense canopy of velvet some eighty feet above inlaid with twinkling lights to recreate the night sky.
“Oooh,  isn’t it lovely!” cried the twins in unison.
In the centre of the hall was an arch supporting a bandstand made of hollow glass bricks on top of a tall and slender glass tower. The whole edifice glowed  green and merged gloriously with the sparkling artificial stars far above.
Whilst most visitors took in such visions of the future and marvelled at the many modern show homes on display, Florence Twistevant and her sister Nellie had other, largely cinematic, priorities. With autograph books firmly in hand and determined expressions they made a beeline for the display of homes of the film stars where the favourite rooms of current artistes were recreated out for their inspection and delight.
Both particularly wanted to view the dining rooms of their beloved Raymond Massey and his most recent co-star Margareta Scott.
The sisters were excited by the pink and blue nursery of American child star Shirley Temple and thrilled to see Merle Oberon’s bedroom, direct from Malibu. 
The sight of Mae West’s boudoir later prompted Evie Bartlett to wonder out loud somewhat surprisingly whether her husband the Padre might enjoy the addition of many more mirrors and satin sheets in their own more austere marital chamber at home in Church Square.
Rushing onwards, the siblings soon found their main destination for the day in the autograph court. Hardly any queuing would have been necessary to obtain the signatures of stars of yesteryear such as Chile Gorci, whose films  predated the talkies and George Robie, once called "the Prime Minister of Mirth," whom Nellie thought had trodden the boards in the music hall when Gladstone occupied 10 Downing Street.
The sisters eagerly by-passed these attractions and happily joined the longest queue before the booth in which was caged a bored Raymond Massey.
Whilst other members of the Luncheon Club filed through  the latest in mock Tudor villas or the myriad other delights laid out over what the “Daily Mail” called “twelve acres of enchantment,” Florence and Nellie  gazed at their heart-throb in the distance at the head of the long queue.
They passed the time by taking periodic swigs from Florence’s hip flask and debating exactly what they would say to “dearest Raymond” when their turn came. 
After waiting for more than an hour,  Florence was able to advise her hero of the extent to which she had “loved you in ‘The Shape of Things to Come.” For this compliment and her payment of sixpence for the Cinematograph Trade Benevolent Fund, she was rewarded with a silent watery smile and spidery signature.
Unfortunately for Nellie, the excitement of the moment and several nips from her sister’s flask proved too much. Speechless, she merely waved her autograph book in the star’s general direction prior to collapsing into floods of tears and being led away.
As well as houses of the future, visitors were treated to displays of futuristic furniture of all kinds and watched demonstrations of labour saving devices.
The Morrison twins were fascinated by prototypes of the transport of the future with tiny gyrocopters, fast cars, airships and bridges in the sky, “just like in the pictures.”
Everyone particularly enjoyed the opportunity to rest their tired feet whilst looking at a fashion display in the form of a beauty pageant set on the beach of a French seaside resort, featuring creations of all the latest designers.
The show included an amusing parade of human cocktails. Florence and Nellie found this element quite inspirational. They were prompted to seek refreshment in an adjacent café offering the latest fashionable and exotic cocktails for the delectation of visitors.

Florence enjoyed several Cloverleaves, which her weekly magazine led her to believe was currently a favourite of the King, whilst Nellie toyed with several Singapore Slings, which she found "quite refreshing" and imagined were “full of healthy vitamins just  like a fruit cup.”
Many attending were fascinated by the multitude of gadgets and household devices powered by electricity being demonstrated. The ladies marvelled at the new technology and the array of refrigerators, irons and toasting machines now available.
Evie Bartlett squeaked with excitement at the prospect of persuading her husband to purchase an electrical vacuum cleaner, but Susan Wyse “doubted that either Boon or Figgis could be persuaded to utilise such new-fangled apparatus.”
As well as homes of the future, the ladies enjoyed the opportunity to look into re-creations of various rarely-seen habitats including a lighthouse, submarine and undergraduate study bedrooms.
By mid-afternoon, the visitors were both exhilarated and footsore in equal measure and ready to re-board the charabanc for the return to their homes by the sea.
As Lucia strolled out of Olympia with Diva Plaistow, she paused at a news stand and bought the early afternoon edition of the "Evening Gazette" remarking, “ It will be quite like old times to read Hermione's 'Five O Clock Chit Chat' on our way home. I used to be quite friendly with its author you know. Hermione is actually an intime of mine, Stephen Merriall..."
Before Diva could reply, Lucia's monologue trailed off into silence. Speechless, both stared at the front page.

There, beneath the headline "World record price for stamp" was a photograph of Benjamin and Elizabeth Mapp-Flint on the steps of the leading London auction house, Christoby's.


Lucia and Diva agreed that it was definitely their old friends in the photograph. Elizabeth wore her new sables and turban and Benjy a suit of an unpleasantly loud check.

"Looks just like a bookie's runner taking his elderly mother out for a day at the races," remarked Diva with characteristic accuracy and acidity, "What does it say?"

It says, replied Lucia, "A world record price of Twenty thousand pounds was paid by an anonymous bidder today for an un-franked irregular 1903 Cape Verde triangular, known as the world's rarest postage stamp. The only other recorded example was in the private collection of his Majesty, the late King.  The newly-discovered stamp formerly belonged to the late Maharani of Maharashtra and was recently inherited by Major Benjamin Matt-Frump of Tilling in Sussex."
"Elizabeth certainly won't like that," observed Diva.

"Well, she now has a small fortune to help her get over her irritation,” replied Lucia, "Ah, here is your brother with our charabanc. Pray, let us all embark and be on our way."   
When the party had obediently boarded the charabanc, Bunty quickly counted heads. As she had feared, there was a shortfall of two - predictably, Florence Twistevant and her sister Nellie. 

Lucia decreed that they should wait for ten minutes and then send out a search party. In the meantime, she proposed to read her "Evening Gazette."

Reading and re-reading the front page story concerning her Mayoress, Lucia considered the likely implications of her windfall.

Whilst Benjy would obviously fritter the money away on golf clubs, new suits and pre-war whiskey, Elizabeth would undoubtedly want to try to buy back her preeminent position in Tilling. 

Lucia suspected that Elizabeth would be temperamentally incapable of giving away much of the fortune for charitable purposes.

If unsuited to being a benefactress, she would at least want to return to being the leading hostess in her circle and would seek to impress at every turn.

Lucia was confident that she could deal with such competition. What really troubled her however was the issue of whether Elizabeth would now seriously aspire to return to "Mallards House" and to what she might be prepared to stoop to achieve this end.

As Lucia's eyes became gimlets, with the steeliest resolve, she muttered to herself, "Not whilst I draw breath - never!"

As Lucia recoiled from contemplation of grim prospect of moneyed Mapp-Flints, Bunty interrupted her meditation by suggesting that it was time to locate the dawdling stragglers.

Being reasonable judges of human nature, the search party of two headed directly for the cocktail bar where Florence and Nellie were now thoroughly well-settled  and comfortably enjoying their fourth Cloverleaf and Singapore Sling respectively.

As Lucia and Bunty walked in, the sisters were  leading an energetic sing-song of "The Lambeth Walk" shortly to be further popularised by Lupino Lane at the Victoria Palace.

Cries of disappointment arose from their new drinking companions as Florence and Nellie were led out to re-join their party from Tilling. This developed into a rather noisy conga through the exit of Olympia and into the coach park.

As Nellie bade adieu to her many new friends, Florence leaped aboard with surprising agility. Feeling no need to apologise, she greeted the ladies of the Luncheon Club with a cheery wave and addressed the driver,  waiting in his  cab behind the wheel, "Leofric, my good man. Prithee, make haste, Sir, to Royal Tonbridge Wells, where our high teas await. Pray do not spare the horses! And now, I may take a short nap before supper.  G'night to one and all!"

With that, Florence Twistevant reached the back seat of the charabanc, sat down and promptly fell sound asleep. Her sister then did likewise.

As she and Bunty took their seats, Lucia nodded to the driver and the charabanc belatedly  joined the rush hour traffic of West Kensington.
 
As their charabanc made its way through the early evening traffic, the passengers reviewed their day. Everyone other than the slumbering sisters on the back seat, agreed it had been great fun and a wonderful experience.

Other than the joys of the Ideal Home Show, the main topic of conversation on the way to their supper, was naturally the good fortune of the occupants of "Grebe."

Views as to what the Mapp-Flints should buy with their new riches were diverse.  Mention was often made of the more obviously shabby areas of their lifestyle. "I only hope it means we shall never have to see that horrible old green skirt of hers again," remarked Diva Plaistow, "Or the  moth-eaten tiger fur trimming, moulting everywhere. A positive health hazard!"

"Or eat those heavy chocolate cakes she always serves at bridge," said Susan Wyse.

"She thinks we don't realise why she always serves them!" added Diva," To fill us up cheaply. And she has the nerve to criticise my tartlets! Old friend she may be, but no-one could deny that Elizabeth has always been mean!"

"It would be nice to see Benjy wearing something that doesn't reek of  mothballs"

"Or cheap scotch!"

"I don't suppose the poor of our parish will see much of it," ventured Evie daringly, "Given her good fortune, it would be nice to think that she will contribute  in some  way to good causes in Tilling as Mrs Pillson had done."

All present waited expectantly to hear if Lucia would look out from behind her "Evening Gazette" and contribute to the discussion.  Eventually,  she lowered her paper and smiled the smile she reserved for when she wished to appear other-worldly yet profoundly wise, that most of her acquaintances found profoundly irritating.

"Ladies, we must congratulate our friends upon  their inheritance and remember them in our prayers," Lucia drawled disingenuously, "To coin a phrase, wealth brings with it heavy burdens. Let us pray that Elizabeth finds the strength and wisdom to shoulder them." Once the Oracle had spoken, she again lifted up her newspaper and returned to Hermione's "Five O Clock Chit Chat."

Now that their leader had effectively said the last word upon Elizabeth Mapp-Flint's windfall - as she had upon her infamous "wind-egg" - the coach party turned to other subjects, including the behaviour of the occupants of the backseat of the charabanc, whose unladylike snores were reverberating down the aisle.

Florence and Nellie recovered consciousness just as the charabanc arrived at  the Fisherman's Catch and disgorged its occupants, who were all looking forward to their supper. 

Learning from earlier events, Bunty and Lucia shepherded Florence and Nellie to their end of the table to ensure that they did not consume any further intoxicating liquor with their ham salad followed by peaches and cream.

The resourceful Florence was however able to supplement their coffee after supper from her useful hip flask, which maintained spirits at their previously high level throughout the rest of the journey.

By the time the charabanc drew up outside the Town Hall in Tilling, the Morrison twins had both fallen asleep leaning against their mother, one on each side. The children were so tired after their long and exhausting day  that they managed to sleep through a rousing sing-song led from the back seat which started with "Roll Out the Barrel" and reached  its climax with "Keep the Home Fires Burning."

A welcoming crowd of family and friends awaited the trippers on the steps of the Town Hall. Whilst the life and soul of the party, Florence and Nellie walked unsteadily towards the Traders Arms arm in arm, Bunty and the twins were greeted by Herbert Morrison and were soon in the Riley heading out towards "Braemar".
 

An exhausted Susan Wyse  sank into the back of the Royce in readiness for the drive of nearly one hundred yards to "Starling Cottage."

Emmeline Pillson braved the slightly longer walk to "Mallards House" with her husband Georgie. The Mayor's simple response to her consort's initial inquiry of "Any news?"was to shudder with the words, " Oil and water dear, oil and water. Never again! " and to hand to him her folded "Evening Gazette."

"Good grief!" exclaimed Georgie, quickly scanning the report of the auction, "We shall never hear the end of  it."

"Indeed, Georgino mio: multo difficile! What a day! I need some strong tea and plenty of it and then perhaps un po di musica to restore my sanity!"

As the key turned in the front door of  “Braemar” the telephone on its stand in the hall started to ring.

Picking up the receiver as Bunty led the sleepy twins upstairs, Herbert heard the agitated voice of Algernon Wyse, “Inspector, Inspector, I’m so glad you're back. Please forgive me for troubling you at home, but we have had a burglary. Susan is distraught, quite distraught!”

“Calm down, Mr Wyse. I’m sure we can sort it out. Now tell me, what has happened?”

“When we returned to "Starling Cottage "this evening, we found our drawing room had been ransacked. Several of our treasures including a signed photograph of my brother in law,  Cecco di Faraglione – he’s an Italian count, you know,  a very ancient lineage, from Capri, delightful chap...”

“Yes, Mr Wyse, I’m aware of your family, but might we return to the missing items?"

“Oh, yes, Inspector, pray forgive me. The portrait was in a solid silver frame. We have also lost some valuable silver and worst of all, the insignia of my dear wife’s Order of Member of the British Empire. It was graciously given to her by the late King himself you know. Her Majesty the Queen did Susan the honour of saying said she was “So pleased’.

“I can see why you are so concerned" replied Herbert sympathetically.

“Doesn’t that make the offence treason? Purloining an official  award which has passed through the monarch's very own hands?” asked Algernon,"And that’s not the worst of it,” he added.
"Was something else stolen?”
“Possibly, Inspector, but even worse:  the intrusion has a very macabre twist.”

“What was that?” asked the Inspector, “No violence was involved, I trust?”

“No, happily not, but in some ways even more troubling. There is evidence of the supernatural”
“Surely not, Mr Wyse, not here in Tilling?” suggested Inspector Morrison
“I’m afraid so. Scattered about our drawing room were several bright yellow feathers, as though from a parakeet or canary!”
 
“No!” replied Inspector Morrison, for once allowing his Tillingite nature to override his professionalism, but rapidly regaining control with, “Are you sure these items were left by the burglar?"
“Yes indeed Inspector. The room was cleaned only this morning before Susan and I went our separate ways out for the day. We gave our staff the afternoon off and only the intruder could have been responsible. There is also the question of what, if you will forgive me,  I am forced to call an ‘odour.’

"What odour, Mr Wyse?”

“Not unlike oriental joss sticks and curry powder. Not unpleasant but unmistakable. The nearest way I can describe it, is that it resembled the distinctive scent of an Indian restaurant.”

“How strange,”  remarked Inspector Morrison conversationally. Then,  resuming a more business-like tone, he continued, “Now Mr Wyse, if you will bear with me, I will call the station and will be with you with my men as soon as possible. In the meantime, please be sure to touch nothing. We will need to examine all the evidence.”

"Please hurry, Inspector. I must go and comfort poor Susan. Although the feathers are yellow,  she is convinced that we have experienced some sort of visitation from Beyond by  her beloved late Blue Birdie. My good lady wife is quite beside herself. And I thought we had weathered the worst of her grief over his tragic loss. So many bitter memories are flooding back. We await you at your very earliest convenience Inspector. Kindly enter and do not trouble to knock.”

As he replaced the receiver, the Inspector exchanged a resigned look with Bunty who had put the children to bed and had been listening to the conversation sitting at the top of the stairs, “Burglary at the Wyses this afternoon. I had better get into the station. Don’t wait up , it looks like it may be a long night."
By the time Inspector Morrison walked into Tilling Police Station, reports had been received of three further break–ins. Burglaries had been reported at “Grebe”, the Vicarage and “Wasters.” In each case the householders had been out for the day and the premises were unattended. Small valuable items in silver such as photograph frames and dinnerware were missing and a calling card left of bright yellow canary plumage and the exotic scent of incense and spices.
By the next morning the front desk of the Police Station in Tilling was quite congested. The gleaming Royce of Algernon Wyse parked full square across the entrance as he strode in.
Opening the door, Algernon saw Diva Plaistow was already at the desk, giving the duty Sergeant a detailed description of her dear mother’s silver salver and cake forks. Her servant Janet stood squarely behind her, ready to give any corroboration required.
In an interview room, the Padre and his wife Evie were listing the items they were missing, which included a fine pair of Georgian candlesticks, “Tis nae the monae, mae guid man, tis thur sentimental value tae mae family. ‘Tis true they’ve belonged to mae kinfolk fae many a yair past, aye!”
“Thank you, Mr Bartlett,” responded the constable charged with deciphering the Padre’s archaic utterances which today had an even more Scots twang than his actual roots in the suburbs of Birmingham justified.
Outside in the main office, Algernon Wyse had now come to the head of the queue and asked, “Well Sergeant, have you come any closer to apprehending the villain responsible for perpetrating this foul crime? I do hope you have. My poor wife is convinced her beloved Blue Birdie has returned to her from the Other Side.  She has brought out the little shrine we used for séances and keeps opening and closing the curtains in case he has re-materialised."
“All I can confirm is that our inquiries are well advanced and that we are hopeful of resolving the matter shortly, Sir,” the Sergeant replied.
“If you don’t mind me saying that seems a little, shall say, indefinite and even indecisive” suggested Algernon Wyse with uncharacteristic directness, verging upon the brusque, “And may I ask, where is your Inspector when all this is going on?  Surely he’s hard at work on the case?”
“Actually Sir, I believe that Inspector Morrison is calling on Lord Ardingly this morning,” disclosed the Sergeant, with possibly ill-considered frankness.
As an irritated Algernon Wyse was about to complain further about such a blatant dereliction of duty, the front door of the station opened and in walked the Inspector accompanied by Lord Ardingly and two men carrying what appeared to be cardboard boxes of valuables.
“Good morning, Mr Wyse and Mrs Plaistow, thank you for calling in. If you would care to ask the Padre and Mrs Bartlett to join us in my office, I think I have some positive news for you all.”
As the civilian visitors and his Sergeant assembled in his office, Inspector Morrison stood before them and announced, “In recent days we have received reports of several thefts of property from houses on and around his Lordship’s estate. We have been investigating reports of burglaries shortly after a gipsy caravan was seen in the vicinity. We have reason to believe that the thefts on the day of the trip to Olympia were also perpetrated by the same person.”
 
“Ah!” was the general muttered response.

“After a thorough search of the area, we located the caravan in question and detained and questioned the owner.”

“And was he the thief? Did the gipsy carry out the burglaries?” asked Mrs Plaistow.

“Yes and no, Mrs Plaistow,” Herbert replied, “The burglar was not a male gipsy, but a  female travelling in a gipsy caravan.”

“And was this woman the culprit?” asked Algernon Wyse.

“The woman,’ to whom you refer, did take your property, I’m afraid Mr Wyse,” interrupted Lord Ardingly, “The ‘woman of whom you speak is, in fact, a ‘lady’ – my sister-in-law Leticia.”

“Good heavens!” exclaimed Diva, “How could this happen?”


My sister –in –law has always been, shall we say, ‘a little eccentric’. After the tragic early death of my brother, the baronet, she found it difficult to keep a grasp of reality and grew more isolated and stranger in her habits. For some years she disappeared abroad to the middle east and when she came back had changed her religion and even become a vegetarian. She wears a burnous at all times and prays to the east several times a day.”

“How very difficult for the family,” sympathised Algernon Wyse, who was happy that he could not recall such a trial confronting the Wyses of Whitchurch.

“Poor Letty became a recluse and built up menageries of animals and birds. At one stage, she had forty seven canaries and two gipsy caravans. She returned to Sussex some time back and rented a house called “Grebe” out on the marshes for the summer. She had fond memories of this area where she first learned to ride a tricycle and took it into her head to return just now with her one caravan and remaining twenty canaries.
“Hence the yellow feathers accidentally left at the scene of each of her thefts?” suggested Algernon Wyse.
“Indeed Mr Wyse,” replied Inspector Morrison, resuming control of the proceedings, “It seems that the lady’s mental condition deteriorated and she became subject to sudden impulses to steal precious shiny objects – particularly of silver.”
“Just like a magpie!” suggested Diva.
“Yes, Madam, mad as a box of frogs,” remarked Lord Ardingly in an attempt to be helpful.
Unable to think what to say in response to his Lordship, Diva continued, “And have you been able to recover our property, Inspector?”
“I believe so. My men are tallying items found in the caravan with your descriptions and I hope you will be able to return home this morning with your  belongings.”
“And your sister-in-law,  Lord Ardingly?” asked Algernon Wyse solicitously.
“Entirely a matter for the doctors and the authorities, I believe. Leticia will be examined and, if found fit to plead, will face the due process of law, will she not Inspector?”  replied Lord Ardingly.
“You are correct, Sir,” replied Herbert, "But, in this more enlightened day and age, I would hope that due account will be taken of her mental health. In the meantime, Lady Leticia has been bailed into His Lordship's custody."
“Well, thank you Inspector for clearing up this sad business so efficiently. Mrs Wyse will be most relieved to learn that her Blue Birdie still rests on the Other Side undisturbed and that our possessions have been restored.”
“Aye 'tis true, we are all most grateful. A guid job, Inspector,” added the Padre, whilst Evie made what all assumed was an affirmative squeak.

Finally, Diva Plaistow expressed her own thanks and added, “I’m surprised that the Mapp- Flints haven’t been here this morning. They were burgled too, weren’t they?”
“Indeed, Mrs Plaistow,” Inspector Morrison replied, but before he could finish speaking, a discordant and repeated honking of car horns could be heard accompanied by raised voices from what was obviously a heated argument.
Fearing a breach of the peace, Inspector Morrison opened the door of the police station to reveal just outside a strong exchange of words between the uniformed chauffeur of Algernon Wyse and Benjamin Mapp-Flint, still in his loud check suit, last worn in London.

The protagonists were arguing vociferously over who should park where and whether the Royce should move on to make way for the newly arrived vehicle. This was a spectacularly large and expensive-looking, chrome-laden roadster in brightest pink driven by Elizabeth Mapp-Flint swathed in her sables and wearing her silk turban with its massive emerald. 
"Interesting times ahead!" thought Inspector Morrison as he walked down the steps to attempt to resolve the dispute. 
 
                                                                          THE END
 Copyright reserved in all appropriate territories  Deryck Solomon 2013
 







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