Friday, 29 June 2012

August: The Brouhaha following Major Benjy's Brief Encounter


The day after the arrest of Maurice and Rowena Bott was one of mixed discomfort and relief at "Grebe."

Most of the discomfort was suffered by Major Benjamin Mapp-Flint, who was prostrated by an epic hangover and denied the peace and quiet his condition demanded by ceaseless loud and bitter recriminations from his wife Elizabeth.

Sitting opposite him across the breakfast table, like a presiding Magistrate, his life's partner tormented him with a continuous diatribe listing his shortcomings and focussing on a variety of character flaws, ranging from irresponsibility to drunkenness to gullibility and crass stupidity.

"Alright  old  girl, peccavi, peccavi!  Now please do give it a rest.  How many more times do I have to say 'I'm sorry'? What more can I do for heaven's sake? At least they didn't cash the cheque. Remember, we haven't actually lost a penny."

"No thanks to you, you silly man," spat Elizabeth contemptuously, "Now all of Tilling knows we associated with drug smugglers and convicted fraudsters! Not only that, but I introduced them as 'our new intimes.'  How can I explain that over tea and bridge at Diva's?  Just you tell me how!"

"I don't know, Elizabeth," admitted Benjy weakly.

"And when will you eventually learn from your stupidity and mend your dissolute ways?" screeched Elizabeth, mercilessly, "How many times do you have to succumb to the demon drink and then do foolish things? How could you possibly dream of spending our money like that, without discussing it with me? Will you never learn?"

Benjy groaned, put his throbbing head in his hands and battened down the hatches for further brow-beating. His disgruntled  spouse was in no mood to brings his trials to an end that morning.


     
As Elizabeth Mapp-Flint's interrogation  continued and Major Flint was subjected to harsh and inhumane treatment falling  far outside the guidelines  in the Geneva Convention, Tilling buzzed with news of the arrest of the Botts. 

On the door of Miss Greele's dress shop, there hung a notice, "CLOSED DUE TO UNFORSEEN CIRCUMSTANCES ~ APOLOGIES FOR ANY INCONVENIENCE CAUSED."

On the pavement outside stood a small but select group of the Mapp-Flint's dearest friends.

"Arrested, both of them in the cells," reported Diva Plaistow pithily, "On the gangway boarding the Dieppe ferry in Seaport."

"And with what offences have they been charged?" asked Algernon Wyse.

"I think I can help you there," confided Lucia Pillson, "My Inspector reported to me that Mr and Mrs Bott have been charged with smuggling a range of dangerous narcotics and conspiring to do so. They also face charges of fraud,  deception and further conspiracy in relation to their attempts to obtain money dishonestly from the Mapp-Flints."

Resisting the temptation to take exception to Lucia's annexation of Tilling's Senior Police Officer as "my Inspector," Diva aimed her guns instead at more satisfying targets currently tormenting each other out on the marsh at "Grebe,"  "Met them on that cruise apparently. Only known them for a few weeks and parade them around Tilling as though they were Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. 'Intimes.. all the way  from historic Hastings,' indeed! Utter claptrap!"

"I think we should try to be as understanding as possible," suggested Algernon Wyse, taking his usual sympathetic view, "We should remember they were grossly misled. It seems that these people were hardened criminals."

"You may be right," replied Diva, "But never  underestimate her.  Just you see. Elizabeth will re-write history as usual. Something like, 'We bumped into the Botts on holiday and just couldn't shake them off.  Then they turned up in Tilling unannounced and uninvited.' Just you wait!"

No further comment was necessary upon this point, since all present knew that Elizabeth Mapp-Flint would inevitably reconfigure the circumstances giving rise to the unfortunate and embarrassing  events to present herself in the best possible light.  Conversation then moved on to points arising.

"And how is Paddy now, Mrs Plaistow?" asked Georgie Pillson.

"Much better thank you Mr Georgie," she replied, "He was very wobbly for several hours, but seems to be himself  now, though hungrier than ever."




Whilst “Grebe” reverberated with the recriminations of loved-ones and Tilling resonated with the resentment of friends, family life continued at “Braemar,”  if not blissfully, then happily enough.

James and Doris, the Morrison twins, came as close as anyone on this stretch of the Sussex coast to bliss as they played with their longed-for puppy, Felix. As each day passed, his repertoire of tricks and appealing behaviour increased exponentially and the siblings could not have been happier.

Herbert Morrison, newly decorated by the King of Italy, was utterly satisfied by his trip to Capri and delighted to have brought those responsible for the surprising recrudescence of smuggling in Tilling to justice so soon after his return to the white-cliffed shores of Albion.

In her selfless way, Bunty Morrison was simply content that her husband and children were so happy. Life  at "Braemar" was good.



Before Bunty had an opportunity to dwell upon the merits of her existence, the doorbell rang shrilly.  There on the garden path larger than life, swathed in furs with enormous pearls and a velvet bow in her bouffant hair, stood Pandora la Gueriniere, Comtesse de Baucher.

“Surprise,  surprise, darlings, c'est moi!” she exclaimed with a flourish of one gloved hand whilst the other gaily waved her tortoise-shell cigarette holder with it’s inevitable cocktail sobranie, like an understated sparkler on Bonfire Night.

On the threshold feeling like a char in her floral housecoat, Bunty was struck dumb by the sight.  Pandora continued, “Might I come in to your lovely home? I simply must have a cup of tea or I shall positively die of thirst!”

“Of course, I’m so sorry “replied Bunty, at last gathering her wits. “How rude of me. Lovely to see you, Pandora. Do come in! Herbert, we have a visitor!” 
   

Herbert and the twins joined Bunty and made an appropriate fuss of their visitor, "Auntie Pan. Come and see Felix!"  shouted the twins and led the Comtesse  de Baucher into the back garden.


After resting her cigarette holder carefully  upon the bird table,  Pandora  frolicked around the lawn with the puppy and threw the ball as enthusiastically as the twins.


Through the kitchen window, Herbert and Bunty kept an eye on events on the lawn as they put out the best china  for tea and quickly made some sandwiches. Fortunately there was a freshly made apple pie for dessert. "A  respectable spread at short notice, love," commented Herbert to reassure his worried wife.


"No notice you mean," replied Bunty, unusually acidly, "I suppose I should be grateful that   it was only a Countess and not the King  of  Italy!"


"It's been that kind of  year," observed Herbert


"At least, we can't say it's been dull!"  laughed Bunty, pouring cups of tea.


After ten fraught minutes, Pandora returned from the garden to the kitchen and fell into a chair at the well-scrubbed table. "Tea, might be a good idea,” she gasped, inserting a pastel coloured cocktail cigarette into her holder. Lighting it, she inhaled deeply and, with a satisfied sigh, exclaimed, “Oh, that’s better! So lovely to see the babies and Felix, again; I’ve quite missed them. Oh, good, tea: nothing quite like it.”


Offered a selection of sandwiches, Pandora filled her plate, in the manner which only Countesses feel relaxed enough to do. “Divine beef and horseradish Bunty, simply delicious!” she exclaimed, swallowing one whilst picking up yet another.


“Glad you like them, Pandora” said Bunty, exchanging a quietly amused glance with Herbert, “We’re glad you have ben able to pop in on us here in Tilling. We really didn’t think you would have time.”


“Not a problem, my dear,” confirmed Bunty, “I’m due to speak to the sixth form at my old School, Rodean. My alma mater is only down the coast and I simply couldn’t resist visiting you all. You did say to make sure to call in on you if I was ever in the area. I do hope you don’t mind?”


“Of course not, Pandora; we’re delighted," remarked Herbert, “It’s our pleasure. I see you haven’t brought any luggage. Where will you be staying? You will be very welcome here, if you wish.”


“No, it’s alright, thank you Herbert. You both have quite enough on your plate with your work, the house and the children. I have booked into the Traders Arms for the night and can explore the town tomorrow morning before going on to my next port of call in the afternoon.”


“I do hope you will spend this evening with us and let us show you around tomorrow morning?” asked Bunty


“That’s very kind of you. I would be delighted,” replied Pandora, “I should love to see the Tilling you have described so vividly and perhaps even meet my heroine, Mrs Mapp-Flint!”


“We will be pleased to give you a tour, but can’t guarantee who will be around,” commented Herbert, “The only thing  you can be sure of about Tillingites is that they have minds  of their own. We shall have to see!”  

   
Next morning Bunty and the twins collected Pandora from the Traders Arms and began a flying tour of Tilling.


“Thank you so much for your hospitality last night,” commented Pandora, “So wonderful to spend an evening with you all in your home. I enjoyed it enormously!”


“Our pleasure entirely. Herbert and I and the children have loved seeing you again,” replied Bunty, “But you really didn’t need to bring quite so much champagne.”


“I never think one can have too many bottles of bubbly,” suggested Pandora, “I do love a jeroboam or two.  And what is life without pink champagne? Life should have as much fizz as possible, don’t you think?”


“It’s difficult to argue against that. It was delicious,” admitted Bunty, as the approached the steps of the church tower and they all began to ascend.


At the top, they took in the fine view over the red roofs of Tilling and Bunty pointed out local landmarks from the Town Hall to the Ypres Tower and the Landgate down to the Town Salts, windmills, river and harbour. In the distance they could see a Martello Tower and one sooty coaster chugging across the horizon of Tilling Bay.


In the back garden of one red brick house nearby, the sharp eyes of the Countess picked out a female figure, “I say Bunty, isn’t that lady in a bathing costume? Striped, I think. Tres chic. She appears to be jumping up and down – or is it skipping?”


Looking to where Pandora pointed with her cigarette holder, Bunty replied, “Oh, yes. That’s the secret garden in the grounds of “Mallards House,” the home of our Mayor, Mrs Pillson. In fact, that’s her doing her morning exercises.”


“How thrilling!” enthused Pandora. She and the twins waved energetically and shouted “Cooee!” but their cries floated away on the sea breeze unheard.


“Yes, Mrs Pillson is quite well known for her love of exercise. She sometimes leads classes for ladies down at the Institute. She calls them “Callisthenics for Those No Longer Young in Tilling.”


“I wish I were here longer," joked Pandora, “I would love to join in and certainly qualify at my age!”


Bunty laughed and led the way back down the steep stairs and around the sights of Tilling, culminating in morning coffee and cakes at Mrs Plaistow’s establishment. 

 
     
On leaving Mrs Plaistow’s, Bunty and the twins accompanied Pandora back to the Traders Arms where her luggage awaited and said their goodbyes before the Morrisons set off for “Braemar” and their visitor to Tilling Railway Station.

Pandora’s arrival coincided with the departure of the 1.30 train to Seaport, bearing Elizabeth Mapp-Flint to visit her cousin Maud Mapp-Reid.

Relations between the cousins had been strained for many years after late Aunt Caroline had left “Mallards” in her will to Elizabeth exclusively, resulting in understandable and massive resentment from the excluded niece.

Since their estrangement, Maud had married a wealthy stockbroker who acceded to spouse's demand to join their surnames and  then conveniently departed this mortal coil remarkably soon after the nuptials, leaving his grieving widow very comfortably off.

Their approximate equivalence in net worth enabled the cousins to countenance a rapprochement without loss of face and they met over tea and scones twice or so a year to demonstrate that the hatchet remained well and truly buried.  The Mapp family blood coursing through their spirited veins, however, ensured that the battle axe might possibly be grubbed up and put to violent use at any point  during their periodic strained cousinly conversations.

At "Grebe", the days since the arrest of the Botts had been long and arduous.  They had also been singularly dry.  Accordingly, Major Flint needed no excuse to head straight for the station buffet on as soon as he had seen his wife’s train steam away from Platform 2.


  

Pandora was already sitting alone at a table in the crowded buffet when Major Benjy walked in and straight to the counter. He nodded to the diminutive Manageress, whom he knew well, "Good afternoon Joyce. Whiskey and soda please."


Turning around with his drink, Benjy walked over to the only table with space, "Is this chair free?" he asked.


"Yes, it is, help yourself," replied Pandora, barely looking up from her newspaper and reaching for her teacup.


As she did, a distant voice stirred in the depths of her memory. She looked up and scrutinised the red face, balding pate and luxuriant moustache before her, "It can't be. Surely not. Benjy, is it you?"


"Excuse me," replied Benjy, taken aback, "But, yes I am 'Benjy' - Benjamin Mapp-Flint. How do you know me?"


He had barely said this, before it dawned upon him, "Phyllis...Phyllis Stackpole? Can it really be you?"


"Oh, darling!" exclaimed Pandora, "I haven't been called that for decades!  I left  England more years ago than I care to remember as plain old Phyllis Stackpole and came back as Pandora La Gueriniere, Comtesse de Baucher!"


"Very well!" exclaimed Benjy standing gallantly and proffering his hand by way of manly handshake.


"Nonsense," replied Pandora, leaning forward and kissing him on both cheeks, "How lovely to see you. What on earth are you doing here?"


The minutes positively sped by over the next hour as the pair reminisced about their time in Poona when the young subaltern had been Sporting Benjy of the Regiment and Phyllis had been governess and tutor in the arcane skills of  dressage to the daughters of the old Maharajah.


The  couple  had clearly been smitten with each other in those halcyon days of polo matches and picnics by picturesque lakes. The reminisced about a giddy round of race meetings, hunting and glamorous dinners.  Both  recalled a formal world of Durbars contrasting with a louche one of assignations behind shuttered windows on hot afternoons on the burning Ghat.


Neither had forgotten moments stolen on dark verandas beneath the moon, where sweet nothings were drowned by a deafening chorus of cicadas, as dance tunes by Berlin or Porter played on gramophones within.


"So sad it had to end really," commented Benjy, "It was a magical time. Don't you think?"


"Absolutely," agreed Pandora, "But you know what happened. I sent you a message to say I was ready to run away with you. I sat there in my room until midnight, but you never came. The next day dawned and I  moved on."


"What message?" asked Benjy, "I  never got a message from you. I thought you had just gone - moved on without telling me. You broke my heart, you know. After months in the darkness without you, I emerged a different man. I had been truly hurt and from then on I didn't much care if I hurt anyone else."


"And you broke my heart too, Benjy, it took me years to get over it. I assumed it was all my fault and, from then on, always believed I was to blame for everything. Strange how we reacted so differently; after we split up, you inflicted pain and blamed others and I invariably took it all on myself."
    


"Who'd have thought it? One simple message goes missing, we both change and suffer forever and the whole of our lives goes down a different road?"



"Or down the drain! We will never know," said Pandora philosophically, "And what did you do next in Poona?"

"I just carried on. There was my duty to be done and polo and tiger hunting and mess dinners and pink gin to be drunk: all the diversions of the Raj. It was a good life for a young buck, but so different after you left. Pretty meaningless."


"In what way?"

"When I eventually plucked up the courage to see someone else, the other chaps in the regiment used to call my special lady friend, 'the Pride of Poona,' but I was grateful to her. She never judged  me but always gave and helped me  to recover from the pain of our parting. She was special and always meant so much more to me than that foolish name they gave her. I'm ashamed to say that even that was not enough. After all that had happened, I was still damaged goods and not man enough to stand up for her and what we had come to mean to each other. Eventually, I was posted back to Blighty and just...left her behind."
"What happened to her?" asked Pandora.

"Fortunately, she fell onto her feet, but no thanks to me," commented Benjy, "She went on to become the Maharani of Maharastra and never wanted for anything."



"So it ended happily for her?"

"Yes and no," replied Benjy, "Only this year, I found she had borne my son after I had left Poona. This year, she came to England especially to tell me this and passed away over here: a sad end for such a beautiful woman in a dismal seaside hotel room in the winter.  She told me that her husband, the Maharajah raised him as his own. Damned civilised man, a gentleman, in fact."



"And did you ever meet your boy?" inquired Pandora gently.


"No. I was never fortunate enough," replied Benjy distantly, "My beautiful son died gallantly leading his men over the top during the War."


"You must be very proud."


"Indeed, I am, but enough about me," said Benjy,  clearing his throat and collecting himself, "What about you?"


"Much the same really. I went on to work for other Maharajahs, princes and even kings. For a time, I was so numb, I didn't really care what I did. I fitted in to the time really. They call it the 'Jazz Age,' don't they? I was a wild, if not very bright, young thing and went to a lot of parties and grew into the role of 'Pandora, the life and soul.' I woke up in some strange places, believe me.  Eventually, I married the Comte de Baucher during a very abandoned time in Shanghai.  I call it my 'Lost Weekend'  - one of many, very many.... Our life was glamorous and so much fun. It couldn't last though and came to an end in Reno a few years later."


"But by then, my Phyllis Stackpole had long gone and you were Pandora, Comtesse de Baucher? " laughed Benjy.


"You can't blame me, can you?" said Pandora, "Now tell me, how did you end up here in Tilling? And when did you, of all people, get around to marriage?"


As Pandora asked the question, a startling fact dawned upon her, "Wait a minute. 'Mapp-Flint.' Are you related to Elizabeth, the Mayoress?"


"Why yes, Elizabeth is my wife. We decided to become double-barrelled when we married a few years ago. Or rather, Elizabeth decided.  But, how do you know that?"


"It's a long story, but on my Mediterranean cruise with the Morrisons, I heard all about your Elizabeth and her adventures - 'Mallards',  Siriami shares, Lobster a la Riseholme, kitchen tables, the  Gallagher Bank, everything!  It never for once dawned on me that the 'Flint' part of the equation was you - my dearest  Benjy. What a lark!"


As Pandora laughed,  Benjy tried to expand upon the course of his courtship of the Mayoress of Tilling, culminating in their marriage and current exile out at "Grebe."


"And how is  life now? "asked Pandora meaningfully, prompting Benjy to outline their recent philatelic windfall and his latest faux pas on being duped by the ruthless Botts, which had prompted his unforgiving spouse to torment him and then send him to Coventry, whilst she visited Seaport. Benjy tried not to describe a grim existence, but that was the sad impression conveyed. This melancholy was relieved and lightened for both old friends by shared memories of happier times in their gilded youth. 


As the afternoon progressed and Pandora missed several trains, Joyce at the buffet counter turned on the Home Service on the wireless.


Whilst  dusk descended and steam billowed around the platform, the wireless played and the smoky railway buffet was flooded with the liquid chords of Rachmaninoff's second piano concerto.


Benjy and Pandora talked until the buffet closed. 
   

Later that evening, a disgruntled Elizabeth Mapp-Flint entered the front door of “Grebe.”
There were various reasons for her irritation above and beyond her natural disposition and inclination towards what might be called, "the choleric."
Cousin Maud had, in her opinion, been intolerable throughout her visit in displaying many new and unexpected airs and graces, ranging from pride in her new position on the Bench of Seaport Magistrates to the publication of a slim but tasteful volume of devotional verse seeking to emulate, but wholly failing to replicate, the manner of Gerald Manley Hopkins. Elizabeth’s own public service on the Town Council and as Mayoress and the regular public exhibition of her watercolours were  condescendingly deemed trifling by comparison.
“High tea,”as Maud somewhat optimistically called it, had been a meagre affair and disappointingly featured the dense chocolate cake often used by Elizabeth herself to suppress the costly appetites of her own guests and reduce the ruinous cost of entertaining.
As she fell  into an armchair in the drawing room and rang the bell to summon tea, Elizabeth made a mental note to take some kruschen salts before retiring to avoid any further inconvenient impact from the cloying confectionary.
Elizabeth felt altogether out of sorts. Her return railway journey from Seaport had been rendered unpleasant by an elderly passenger in clerical garb, who insisted on smoking a large briar pipe all the way to Tilling.
The fellow appeared to be foreign and declined to make any attempt to understand her loud and repeated requests to obey the non-smoking sign "or at least to open the window."
Following her recent court appearance, Elizabeth decided that on the whole it was best to avoid any unseemly dispute with a person of the cloth whilst under the jurisdiction of the Tilling and District Railway Company.
Accordingly, she sat in in her corner seat silently glaring and fuming whilst the recipient of her death-stares also continued unconcerned and to fume in his own way and in breach of  railway by-laws.
Not only had her visit been unpleasant and her journey uncomfortable, but Elizabeth was annoyed to find on her arrival back in Tilling that her husband was not waiting as arranged to pick her up and drive her back to “Grebe." She had been obliged to go to the trouble of engaging a costly taxi cab to her home.
“Typical!” she thought, seething but secretly pleased to have yet another rod with which to beat her feckless spouse, who just now did not appear to be capable of doing anything right.
When Withers entered with her tea, the chatelaine of “Grebe” inquired with a sweetness which gave no hint of the acidity she intended shortly to direct towards her life’s partner, “Thank  you, Withers. Most welcome.  Will the Major be joining me for some tea?”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t know Madam,” Withers replied, “I haven’t seen him since you both left the house this morning.”
“You mean he hasn’t been back here at all or left me a message or anything?”
“No, Ma’am.”
“He must have been detained,” observed Elizabeth, not wishing to give her servant the impression that anything untoward was afoot, “Very well, that will be all. Please tell cook that we will not require dinner, but may call for something on a tray later.”
As Withers left the room, Elizabeth rose and made a swift tour of the house to glean any clues as to her husband’s whereabouts.
Her search disclosed no letter, note or other indication of what had transpired. She could not see that any clothes or other belongings were missing, save possibly for a small overnight bag which might or might not be in its usual place.
By now, Elizabeth’s irritation had transmuted into a gnawing anxiety and sense misgiving. Breaking with her abstemious habits,  she poured herself a small glass of whiskey from the decanter and sat in Benjy’s armchair before the fire to await his return.


Next morning was fine and warm. The Sussex sky was brightest blue with a few scudding clouds and seagulls wheeling and calling over "Grebe."

The house was still and calm as the under-parlour maid entered the drawing room to open the curtains and lay the fire.  She was shocked to find her mistress still sleeping in the armchair beside the fireplace. An empty whiskey glass stood on the occasional table next to her.


“I’m sorry Madam, I didn’t expect you would be here,” apologised the maid, turning with her basket of materials to leave the room.


“No, it’s alright, just carry on,” instructed Elizabeth, “I must have fallen asleep in front of the fire last night. So tired after my journey, you know,” suddenly aware of the unfortunate impression created by the empty glass and rapidly covering it up with a newspaper. Rising to leave the room, she added, “Tell cook there will only be one for breakfast this morning. I will be ready in half an hour.”


After checking in vain that Benjy had not returned overnight, Elizabeth bathed and changed and took a hurried breakfast before setting off for Tilling.


As casually as she could, she called in at the Golf Club and Traders Arms to determine that her husband was not there and then dejectedly made her way to Diva Plaistow’s tea rooms, hoping to share her concerns with her oldest friend in Tilling.


Elizabeth was pleased to have carried out her initial search early and before the streets we thronged with inquisitive friends, going about their marketing and in search of snippets of the latest news.


Sensing something interesting was afoot, Diva ushered Elizabeth into the card room at the rear of her premises and ordered her servant Janet to serve tea and toast for two with an instruction that they must not then be disturbed.


                           

As Janet closed the door of the card room behind her, Diva poured the tea. Between mouthfuls of hot buttered toast, Elizabeth spoke, "Thank you for this, Diva. I so needed to see a friendly face this morning. This really is most welcome."


"My pleasure Elizabeth, after all, that's what friends are for," replied Diva, adding provocatively, "But  I must admit I didn't really expect to see you so soon after that nasty business."

Why on earth do you say that?"  asked Elizabeth defiantly.
"All your friends in Tilling were most concerned to hear about your 'new intimes,' the Botts. Haven't they been charged with conspiring to smuggle dangerous drugs? Isn't there also the small matter of their trying to defraud you of a substantial sum of money?  We assumed you would wish to avoid 'respectable society' until the scandal had abated somewhat. That's all."
"You happen to be correct in your assumptions only as regards the Botts, although it is beyond me how you come to possess such detailed confidential information which, after all, isn't really any of your business, Diva dear, don't you think?"
"No, I don't think, actually," bridled Diva, adding misleadingly, "I gather that the criminal charges against  your newest and best chums are a matter of public record."
"I doubt that, my sweet," sneered Elizabeth, continuing, "And in any event, I fail to see why I should be ashamed that we entirely innocent and respectable folk have been subjected to the ruthless criminality of these crooks or indeed  should consider avoiding what you charmingly refer to as 'respectable society.'"
"Forgive me for being just a tad confused after  you recently introduced the delightful couple  to us so effusively!" commented Diva with her own patented, ruthless sarcasm.
"I hardly think we can be blamed for being innocent victims. We bumped into these people on a cruise and they latched onto us. We took pity on them, but just couldn't shake them off. And then, to make matters worse,  they descended on us in Tilling without notice or invitation."
Diva smiled inwardly that her prediction of the manner in which Elizabeth would re-write the history of her relationship with the notorious Botts had materialised precisely  as she had foreseen. There was no need to pursue this with Elizabeth just now and could be first shared and enjoyed with the rest of their joint circle who were all well primed with Diva's prescient prediction.
"Of course not, dear," commented Diva, continuing, "And what else brings you here today? Where is Major Benjy? Not unwell, I hope?"
"That's the whole point I'm afraid," replied Elizabeth,"My Benjy didn't come home last night. He's never done it before. I'm so worried!"
"What do you mean?" asked Diva, "Have you had yet another argument?"
Despite her bitter resentment at the words , "yet" and "another" and the not very subtle implication of continuous discord within the Mapp-Flint household, Elizabeth needed to share with Diva her anxieties over Benjy's disappearance.
Elizabeth replied, "No. Although I must admit I wasn't actually talking to him after he nearly gave all that money to those foul Botts. Though now, I think I may have been a little too harsh. I just wish he would come home to "Grebe" so that we could sort it all out."

In  some ways, Diva was perhaps the last person in Tilling that morning from whom Elizabeth should have sought reassurance regarding her errant significant other.
Diva took  a deep breath and did her best to reply to her friend, "Well, Elizabeth. I do have some information, but I'm not sure how helpful or welcome it might be today..."

"Go on, Diva dear. We've known each other for a long time. Just tell me what you know. I'm sure I will be able to work out what it all means," urged Elizabeth.

"Very well, but don't shoot the messenger !" Diva replied. "I think I should tell you that my Janet told me that she spoke to the Wyse's Boon today about what his sister saw."
"And?"
"Apparently, Boon said his sister saw Major Benjy in the buffet at Tilling Station yesterday afternoon."

"Oh!" said Elizabeth, "And what happened?"

"The Major walked in and bought himself a stiff whiskey"
"Hardly surprising from my Benjy," remarked Elizabeth, "And?"
"And then he sat down next to an attractive lady - of a certain age - in sables with huge pearls and a velvet  bow in her hair. Waving about a long tortoise-shell cigarette holder."
"It doesn't mean anything, sitting next to a stranger in the only available space in a crowded buffet," commented Elizabeth.
"You might be right, but do complete strangers kiss and then spend the next three hours alone in deep and intimate conversation?" asked Diva pointedly.
  
"I couldn't possibly say," said Elizabeth, more perplexed than Diva had ever seen her, "Oh, look at the time  I really must be off. I'm already late for my next appointment. Thank you so much for the  tea and toast : delicious. Au reservoir!"


With that, Mrs Mapp-Flint gathered up her sables and handbag,  but uncharacteristically contrived to leave her umbrella behind as she hurriedly exited Ye Olde Tea Shoppe.


As she cleared the table, Diva sighed a sigh which verged upon the sympathetic. "Poor Elizabeth," she thought, "Whatever next?" Diva almost felt sorry for her....  
    


For one who had often been known to feign lacrimosity ruthlessly whenever it proved convenient, it was ironic that Elizabeth Mapp-Flint was beset by genuine uninvented  tears when she left Diva's parlour.

Concerned not to be seen in this state by anyone she knew, she hastened to a bench in a quiet corner of the belvedere, "Control yourself Elizabeth," she repeated as she hurried along.  By  the time she sat down, she had overcome her distress and begun to think through her options.    
    

Sitting quietly in the empty belvedere, looking out at the view, Elizabeth felt calmer. Only a stone’s throw from her beloved “Mallards,” she yearned for the happier days when she often mulled over life’s quandaries sitting on the hot water pipe in her spiritual home, the Garden Room peering occasionally from behind the curtain to monitor all comings and goings in the street below.


Stuck out at “Grebe,” she missed her special haven and longed to return. This morning, as well as feeling like a homeless refugee in her own town, she had also  shocked herself by her emotional behaviour  at "Wasters."


Regaining some of her justly famed analytical skills with her composure, she looked for the cause of this uncharacteristic display. She struggled to recall when she last shed genuine tears. The only occasions she could remember were when clinging to that table leg on being swept out to sea on Boxing Day 1930  and when she had eventually sold her beloved "Mallards" to Lucia. "Strange," she mused, "How all my misfortunes are linked to that woman."


Other than these two examples, this was a difficult task since there were occasions far too numerous to list when, for reasons of personal advantage or to create an impression, she had appeared to be in floods,wailing and dabbing the driest of eyes theatrically with the largest of handkerchiefs.


Her husband had been the main recipient of these performances that would often have put Ellen Terry to shame, but such histrionics had been employed to her benefit amongst her friends and even upon tradesmen, when it might bring some advantage or other.


“That being the case,” thought Elizabeth, “Why is it that I should have shown such weakness today, of all days?”


In the quiet of the belvedere gardens she thought long and hard over the events of the past year.


The advent and death of the Maharani had brought unsettling information about the past of her husband. But that was a long time ago and in any event, "could one really expect such a manly specimen to have had no such amatory experiences in his youth serving Queen and Country in the farthest savage reaches of the Empire?"

If truth be known, Elizabeth quite liked the idea that her Benjy had quite such a raffish past. In all honesty, it excited her and was "such a marvellous contrast to the crochet and crayoning of dear Lulu’s husband." Elizabeth could not imagine Mr Georgie breaking hearts of young ladies all around the hill stations of the Raj.


Trying to be logical and ordered in her review, Elizabeth considered the events since their good fortune over the valuable stamp.


The "horrible incident over the train fare and court appearance", she put down to bad luck and Benjy being rather silly.


The "nasty painting by Irene Coles" of her leading the stoning of Lucia was just another of the "vindictive acts of the appalling Quaint One" and had been "quite beyond her power."


The "shocking business with those Botts" however did, she admitted, owe more than a little to her own "poor judgement."


Elizabeth Mapp-Flint prided herself in being able to see through anyone "on the make."  In fact, she considered her cynicism and "ability to see the worst in most people" one of her "very best qualities."


She had to admit that she had badly misread the Botts and must accept some of the blame for the ill-fame by association that she was now experiencing in direct consequence of  her unfortunate friendship with them.


Elizabeth knew however that she was more than capable of reordering perceptions in Tilling of  the Botts and their ill deeds. She was confident  that she would  soon emerge without any lasting stain on her reputation.


This task would undoubtedly be much harder with regard to the on-going issue concerning her missing husband who had last been seen kissing and engaged in long and intimate conversations with an exotic bejewelled beauty, swathed in sables in broad daylight in Tilling’s one and only railway station.


Elizabeth knew the workings of the grapevine in Tilling better than the most expert viticulturist. Since Benjy and that woman had been seen by Boon’s sister, the news would have passed to Boon, all the servants in the Wyse household and thence to the Wyse’s themselves. “Despite all her airs and graces, Susan Wyse is basically a common sort who is certainly not above gossiping with her servants,” Elizabeth thought.


Elizabeth already knew that Boon had spoken to Diva’s Janet who, in addition to broadcasting the news to most of the servant class and other lower orders about the town, had told her mistress.


Since both Diva and the Wyses knew, the information would be commonplace amongst the upper echelons of society no later than the completion the marketing hour that morning.


Despite her worries, Elizabeth could not help smiling when she recalled that Mr Conan Doyle had written that his hero, Sherlock Holmes had referred to such a conundrum as a "two pipe problem.” Unlike Quaint Irene, however the Mayoress of Tilling was not in the habit of smoking a pipe and would have to make do with a toffee extracted from the recesses of her handbag.


As she chewed thoughtfully, a novel idea dawned upon Elizabeth, as to why she had been so unusually upset by this recent turn of events.

Benjy had indeed been "extremely stupid in his dealings with the Botts and even more foolish in getting drunk and writing them a cheque for so much money," and yes, she had imposed severe and harsh punishment in retribution.

Given what had happened though, could it possibly be that she had "gone too far this time?" Had she "driven Benjy away and publicly into the arms of another woman?" Was she herself "actually to blame" and was Elizabeth Mapp-Flint for once shedding real tears because, for the very first time in her life, she "felt guilty?"  

“Indeed, I do!” thought Elizabeth. She looked down at her handkerchief. For the first time for years, it was wet with real tears.




After hours of confusion, Elizabeth knew exactly what she must do.  Once she had wiped her eyes, blown her nose and cleared her throat, she demonstrated a relatively recent innovation amongst the ladies of Tilling.  She took her compact from her handbag and applied some powder to her cheeks. Though maquillage was not her forte, she checked in the mirror to confirm that the desired effect had been achieved. She was gratified to note that she did in fact look slightly less alarming.

Standing, she smoothed her dress and set off for the Police Station.

Surprisingly, Elizabeth was able to negotiate the short walk from the belvedere without encountering any of her numerous friends who lived in that part of Tilling.

As she had predicted, virtually all her closest  circle were appropriately circled outside Twistevant's and exchanging information and views  upon the sighting of her now-absent other half the previous day with a mysterious femme fatale in the den of rampant iniquity that was the first class buffet of Tilling Railway Station.

Blithely unaware of the extent to which she was the subject of universal sympathy for being both wronged and deserted, Elizabeth entered the Police Station, spoke briefly to the desk sergeant who disappeared and returned to usher her into the office of Inspector Morrison.

"Thank you for seeing me so promptly, Inspector," said Elizabeth, taking a seat across the desk opposite him.

"Of course, Mrs Mapp-Flint," replied  Herbert civilly, "What can I do to help you? Would you like some tea?"

Elizabeth replied that she would be most grateful for a cup of tea and proceeded to outline the sequence of events over the last forty eight hours, up to and including the reported liaison between  her husband and the strange exotic woman in the railway buffet.

"So basically Inspector, I have come to report a missing person. My husband has disappeared completely without trace and I miss him. Is there anything you can do to help me? "

"First, Mrs Mapp-Flint, I may be able to clarify the identity of the woman lately seen with the Major."

"How on earth can you do that Inspector?," she asked, "Is she a known felon.  Does she have a criminal record?"

"Not so far as I am aware," he explained, "From your description I  am virtually certain that the lady in question was Pandora la Gueriniere, the Comtesse de Baucher."

"How do you know, Inspector?" asked Elizabeth surprised.

"Coincidence really," admitted Herbert, "Bunty and I met the Countess on the return leg of our recent cruise and she visited us briefly at home a day or so ago."

"And did she ever mention knowing my Benjy?" asked Elizabeth.

"No not at all. We spoke to her about Tilling and life here. Your name may have cropped up in the context of civic affairs."
   

"As Mayoress?" asked Elizabeth, with a degree of pride.


"Indeed, Mrs Mapp-Flint," replied Herbert, pleased to have massaged  the mayoral ego somewhat, "But she never mentioned your husband. His name never cropped up. There was no indication that she knew him and even less  that he lived in Tilling."


"So how could it be that my Benjy was seen being kissed by this woman and then engrossed in hours of intimate  chat,  if she didn't know him?" asked Elizabeth, mystified.


"Coincidences do sometimes happen," suggested the Inspector.


"I will leave you to think that," responded Elizabeth coolly, wholly unconvinced, "In my experience there is usually some practical explanation for these apparently haphazard events. Now tell me Inspector, what was the second thing you wanted to say?"


"In some ways, it is even more difficult."


"Go on Inspector."


"Well, from all the information to hand, I'm not sure that there is much  more  that the police can officially do for  you."


"Why ever not? My husband is definitely  a 'missing person'! Isn't  it  the duty  of  the police to locate  and ensure the safe return home of missing  persons?"


"The trouble is Mrs Mapp-Flint, that from what I know, it would not appear  that your husband  is actually a 'missing person' as such."


"How on earth can you say that? He hasn't been home for thirty six hours now. I'm going out of my mind with worry!"


"Of course I appreciate that, but this is a free country and your husband is perfectly entitled to come and go as he pleases, provided he has not broken the law. You said you had heated words with him after his 'involvement,' shall we say, with the Botts  - who are now awaiting trial  - and that the has voluntarily vacated your matrimonial home.   He may indeed have left Tilling with a female acquaintance. Distressing though all this may be  to you as his lawful spouse, he is legally entitled to act in this way. He has not broken any criminal law of which I  am aware and that is where my authority begins and ends. I'm so sorry."


"So you can't get him back for me?" asked Elizabeth.


"I'm afraid not. But I can make further inquiries regarding the Countess and advise other forces that your husband has been reported as missing that you have concerns for his safety and physical and mental welfare"


"I understand Inspector,  but must just ask you to do what you can. I  am very worried about him. Please let me know if you hear anything?"


"I will Mrs Mapp-Flint" confirmed Herbert, "Now let me arrange for a police car to take you back out to 'Grebe.'" 

    
The following days in Tilling were not untypical. Once the intriguing item of gossip had emerged during the daily round of marketing, it was swiftly disseminated to the fullest extent and was tested to destruction by many eminent Tillingites, who prided themselves  upon being expert in the field  of deductive reasoning, of which Tilling was an acknowledged centre of excellence.


The leading contenders for the accolade of "he" – or indeed "she" – who had correctly disentangled the “mystery” (or perhaps more accurately, “melodrama”)  of the “Disappearing Major and the Femme Fatale” otherwise known as “The Cruel Desertion of the Wronged Mayoress” were predictably Diva Plaistow, Algernon and  Susan Wyse, Kenneth and Evie Bartlett and Georgie and Emmeline Pillson.


As the allegedly “wronged” Elizabeth Mapp-Flint lay on her chaise longue in a darkened room at “Grebe” with a cold compress applied to her temples and subsisting on a diet of tepid beef tea, conjecture flew around the red roofed confines of the venerable Cinque Port, like seagulls flapping around an accidentally dropped fish supper.


It was generally believed that Major Benjy had finally snapped after many years of taunting and recrimination from his bitter wife and that he had been lured away from Tilling by either (a) a returning childhood sweetheart, or (b) a courtesan from the farthest edge of Empire skilled in shocking Oriental arts of a nature which could not possibly be touched upon in genteel society.  All agreed that in either case Benjy needed no persuading to abscond  promptly with his exotic perfumed lovely and to desert the carping and mean-spirited Elizabeth instantly.        
        

For the next five days, conjecture raged and escalated in Tilling over the whereabouts of the missing Major.


During this period, his wife continued to confine herself to her darkened room. No callers were admitted within the portals of “Grebe” nor were any inquiries as to the health of the Mayoress answered.


Like Cerberus at the Gates of Hades, the normally affable Withers simply bristled and repelled the inquisitive. The growing resemblance of the Chatelaine of Grebe to the Widow of Windsor was duly noted with more sarcasm than sympathy. In Tilling it was simply not done to exclude visits from friends and thus to impede the quest for “news,” other than in cases of extreme infirmity, madness, impending death or dangerous contagion.


Thus excluded, the friends of the Mapp-Flints made do with occupying themselves with speculation over the whereabouts of Major Benjy and what was now universally accepted as his delicious paramour.


Prevailing theories grew more outlandish with each passing day.


A bloodthirsty element amongst the servants and certain tradesmen took the view that the Major had in fact either committed suicide or been brutally murdered by person or persons unknown, which everyone knew implied his distraught wife.


The proximity of the marshes and river inclined many to the view that the body might easily have been disposed of outside the boundaries of “Grebe,” although some felt that it would be prudent to begin excavations beneath the cinder paths of the kitchen garden with all speed.


Another faction suggested that the passionate couple had fled to the Continent and were now  locked in intimate embraces in a  Ruritanian castle or had even returned to the mysterious middle east to take the throne of a mountain-locked kingdom, as though in a yarn by Ryder Haggard in the grubby comic  of a delivery boy. 


Whilst the townsfolk of Tilling grew increasingly excitable, Herbert Morrison adopted a more pragmatic approach which the admirers of Mr Doyle or Mrs Christie might have considered prosaic.


Herbert’s first step was to ask his wife, “Bunty love, did Pandora say where she was going after leaving Tilling?”


“She said she was going up to the Midlands to see an old school friend in the Vale of Vaysey. I think they were called ‘Pargeter’. It stuck in my mind because of ‘Pargeter’s Mints’. It’s the same family, you know.”


“Thanks, that’s most helpful. What’s for tea?”


After a straightforward trunk call to his colleagues in Shipston Vaysey, Herbert satisfied himself that Pandora La Geuriniere, Comtesse de Baucher (formerly Phyllis Stackpole) was lodged in the guest bedroom of the Pargeter home in the hamlet of Wibble in the picturesque Vale of Vaysey, rather than holed-up in a fairy tale castle with her run-away lover.


Another inquiry at the ferry office in Seaport revealed that a Major B. Mapp-Flint had travelled to Calais, the evening after his last sighting in the railway buffet.


Inspector Morrison arranged for a watch to be kept for this passenger’s return and simply went about his daily business.


A few days later the telephone rang with news that the Major  had just disembarked from the Calais ferry and was now  returning to Tilling by train.  
    

Inspector Morrison left his office and walked alone to the railway station. Buying a platform ticket, he made for the first class buffet and entered.


At that time in the mid-morning it was virtually empty, but at a corner table sat a heavily built man in late middle age, nursing a glass of what appeared to be whiskey and soda. His clothes were dusty and he was unshaven. A battered valise rested on the floor beside him.


“Good morning, Major,” smiled Herbert, taking off his uniform cap, “Do you mind if I join you?”


“Help yourself old man. Can I get you a drink? I thought I’d have a chota peg before setting off ...”


Benjy’s voice trailed away,  as if he wasn’t sure where he would actually be going or how to finish his sentence.


“No thanks, Major, it’s a bit early for me. How are you? You’ve been away for a few days?”


“Yes, I have. I didn’t expect to see you in here. I’m not in any more trouble am I?”


“Absolutely not, Major; I just thought you might need to talk with someone. That’s all.”


“Oh good, that’s a relief. I don’t really seem to be able to do much right nowadays, or so my good lady wife leads me to believe. The last thing I need now is to be arrested for something.”


“Do you want to tell me about your trip? I’ve got plenty of time this morning. I’d be interested to hear about it.”     
      

Relieved to be able to unburden himself, Major Benjy began to explain what had happened to him since the turn of the year.

Like everyone else in Tilling, Herbert was aware of the visit and tragic passing of the Maharani and Benjy's windfall following the discovery and sale of the rare stamp. He also knew of his extravagant spending, culminating in the Mediterranean cruise and the attempt of the Botts not only  to use the Mapp-Flint’s as a cover for their smuggling but also to defraud them of a substantial sum of money.

Unlike everyone else however, Herbert merely listened and did not judge or express an opinion, let alone criticise. After feeling under the cosh for so long,  Benjy found this a novel and liberating experience. Having been given such licence, he made the most of it and spoke from his heart.


“I’m just a plain old campaigner really, Inspector. I've  seen a lot of shikarri in my time and now just want a simple life: a comfortable home, a good dinner and a round of golf, hopefully followed by a convivial chota peg or two.”

“I can understand that, Major.”
“I can’t pretend that living with my Elizabeth has been easy. Wonderful woman and all that, but she gets these passions in her head and there’s nothing you can do about them. You know what I mean: losing ‘Mallards,’ those useless Siriami shares and, worst of all, having to play second fiddle to Mrs Pillson since she arrived here. Somewhere like Tilling can only have one queen you know?”
“Indeed.”
“The trouble is, every time Elizabeth is thwarted like that, she takes it really badly. She smiles that false smile of hers and speaks sweetly, but she’s raging inside. And she always takes it out on me. Always.”
“But you generally seem to be able to deal with these problems in your stride, Major,” suggested Herbert.
“True, I normally can – especially if there’s a bottle of pre-war scotch tucked away somewhere she doesn’t know about! But this year, it’s been different.”
“In what way?”
First, the Maharani comes back into my life. All of a sudden I find I had a son I never knew. Not only that, he was clearly the bravest and truest of men, who made the ultimate sacrifice. Unlike his father...”
“You must be very proud of him.”
“Naturally, I was and am. But don’t you see, I not only deserted his mother, I deserted him too? I will never have a chance to meet him and tell him how sorry and proud I am.”
“Of course, I understand.”
“Then Pandora appears from no-where and I find I deserted her too. I loved her more than anyone will ever know and I just abandoned her.”
“From what you told me, it sounds as though it was a genuine misunderstanding between you. Surely no-one was to blame?” suggested Herbert.
“That may be true, but poor Pandora was left alone thinking she had been simply dismissed. She spent the rest of her life believing she was to blame for all that took place. I didn’t even try to find her. I just let it happen.”
“I’m not sure that you really should be so hard on yourself, Major. Sometimes fate intervenes and is just unkind.”
“You may be right, but a chap can only take so much blame and guilt. My list was endless: my son, the Maharani, Pandora, Elizabeth; they all seemed to be queuing up to reproach me. I couldn’t bear it. I needed to make amends.”
“And so what did you decide to do” asked Herbert gently.
“I kept remembering that hymn we used to sing at school and on Church parade with the Regiment. The words kept going through my head, round and round and round.
“Who would true valour see,
Let him come hither;
One here will constant be
Come wind come weather.
There’s no discouragement
Shall make him once relent
His first avowed intent
To be a pilgrim”
“And?”
“And, I felt the only way I could make up for some of the things I had or hadn’t done by going to find my son.”
“You went on a pilgrimage?”
“Yes, I suppose I did. If you put it like that,” confirmed Benjy.
“And what did you do?”
“Quite simple really, I caught the ferry to Calais and travelled to Neuve Chapelle. It’s about twenty kilometres west of Lille. There’s a special memorial there. I remember reading about it in 1927 when it was unveiled.  All the bigwigs were there that day: Birkenhead, the Maharajah of Karputhala, Foch, Kipling, you name it.”
“And what memorial was it, Major?”
“It commemorates nearly five thousand Indian soldiers and labourers who lost their lives on the Western Front and have no known graves. It seemed a good place to start. I paid my respects to them all and then began my search for my son’s resting place.”

"And did you find it?”
“It took many days and it was probably more luck than judgment in the end, but I eventually found  him. I read that just four days after war was declared two infantry divisions and a cavalry brigade of the Indian army were ordered to  mobilise and prepare for overseas.  By late October units of the Indian Expeditionary Force were involved in heavy fighting on the Messines Ridge in Belgium. It was at Messines that an Indian born solder was awarded the Victoria Cross for gallantry and their troops were involved in some of the bloodiest battles of the war: Neuve Chapelle, Ypres, Loos and so many others. “
“I honestly hadn’t realised that their sacrifice was so great,” admitted Herbert.
“Oh yes, Inspector, the figures were prodigious. India sent 140,000 to the Western Front; 90,000 infantry and cavalry and 50,000 non-combatant labourers. Nearly 9,000 were killed and 50,000 wounded. Given those numbers, it was a miracle that I found my boy’s grave, but I did it. Day after day, I walked down countless rows of those white grave stones. There was mile upon mile of them. Each one represented the waste of a young life:  they were the very best you know and such a loss to the world. Anyway, when I found him, I was able to talk to my son after all these years. I told him how sorry I was that we had never met and that I was proud of him. I asked for his forgiveness.”
“A fitting end to your pilgrimage, Major,” commented Herbert, “Would you like me to take you back to 'Grebe' now?”
“Yes, please, I suppose I shall have to face the music some time. Perhaps one more whiskey before we leave?”


 THEIR NAME LIVETH FOR EVERMORE
THE END
All rights reserved in all appropriate territories  Deryck Solomon 2014








1 comment:

  1. This beautiful story has reminded me of a poem that I had forgotten that I copied out for myself more than thirty years ago.

    "The sweetest lives are those to duty wed,
    Whose deeds, both great and small,
    Are close knit strands of an unbroken thread
    Where love ennobles all." Elizabeth Barrett Browning

    The noble Major Benjy ... a tender and thoughtful portrait. Exquisite.

    ReplyDelete