Friday, 29 June 2012

March: The Tilling Slasher

The winter since the turn of the year had been cold and dark. Tilling had joined with the rest of the country in mourning the late King, whom all agreed “would be sorely missed.” On behalf of the Corporation and Citizens of the Borough, the Mayor, Emmeline Pillson had sent a loyal address of condolence to the widowed Queen, who had so recently honoured Tilling with a private visit, which had become a “treasured memory to all.”

This melancholic sense of loss had also been magnified by the death so far from home of the visiting Maharani of Maharashtra, the close family friend of  Major Benjamin and Mrs Elizabeth Mapp-Flint, currently Mayoress.

Some light relief had been enjoyed when a particularly cold snap had seen a renaissance of winter sports on the thick ice covering the Town Salts.  This had culminated in the successful and hotly contested – to the extent that ice skating is “hotly” anything – Gala Championships of the Tilling Ice Skating Club.

Despite the undoubted pleasure had in ice skating, most in the town were relieved when the thaw at last set in and other pursuits suggested themselves as frozen February expired and mad March approached.

On a foggy morning the early train to London steamed out of Tilling Station bearing several expectant passengers, some of whom were, as the “Hampshire Argus” was apt to put it, “prominent in the locality.”

In one First Class compartment sat Herbert and Bunty Morrison with their nine year old twins, James and Doris. Inspector Morrison was immaculate in his full dress uniform, cap and medals, whilst the twins were as smart in their Sunday best. Turning to Bunty, who looked elegant in pale blue suit and hat, Herbert said, “You look very nice love. Miss Greele has done you proud.”

“Thanks dear, I didn’t want to let you down,” she laughed.

Meanwhile, in the next carriage sat Hubert Gascoyne with his wife Noreen, nervously anticipating his investiture that morning and, like the Morrisons, wondering what Buckingham Palace would be like and what he would say to the Duke of Gloucester.

“It’s sad that you don’t get to receive your medal from the new King, dear,” commented Noreen.

“Court mourning,” Hubert replied, “It goes on for months. Nothing we can do about that, but just enjoy our day.”   

“Of  course. That's exactly what we’ll do.”

Elsewhere in First Class, that busy morning, sat Major Benjamin Mapp-Flint and his wife Elizabeth, who had an appointment later at the offices of solicitors in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.

Messrs. Farnon Webbe and Potts specialised in Chancery and Probate matters and had representative offices throughout the Empire, including Bombay, Poona and Calcutta. “That’s how they came to represent the Maharani,” explained Elizabeth.

Rather than acknowledge his wife’s statement of the obvious, her addressee merely harrumphed and continue to read his “Daily Mirror” and their journey towards hoped-for riches proceeded in silence.  

Their peace was curtailed by the advent of the Ticket Inspector.

Following a cheerful, “Tickets please!” Major Benjy looked up and thought, in passing, “I’ve seen that fellow somewhere before.” Then, addressing the issue at hand, he lowered and folded his paper with a sigh combining irritability and martyrdom and made a great play of searching each pocket in his tweed jacket and plus fours.

This laborious process, accompanied by more sighs and asthmatic wheezes, took some time, during which the Inspector looked on with increasing impassivity – in so far as impassivity is capable of increase – and Elizabeth reddened and grew more vexed.

“Really Benjy. You must have them somewhere. Look again. This is most embarrassing!”

As if by magic, Benjy then happened upon the errant billets in his waistcoat pocket, which he had fruitlessly searched first some minutes before.

He slowly passed to the Inspector a pair of rather creased Second Class tickets.

Despite protesting long and loud, “It was an oversight my good man, an unfortunate oversight,” Major Benjy was obliged to pay to the Inspector the balance due for two First Class returns between Tilling and our nation’s capital and to fill in a form with details of his name and address.  

“Thank you, Sir,” said the Inspector as he slid open the carriage door, “You may be hearing more of this from the Company. Good day, Madam. Good day, Sir.”

Benjy thought to himself, “I do hope not,” but suspected he would indeed be hearing from the Tilling and District Railway Company, since he now remembered with chilling clarity where he had seen the man before. The Inspector today had been the same one who found him travelling First Class on an inferior ticket on his way to visit the Maharani in Seaport on two separate occasions all those months before. Thus a baleful fate conspired to thwart the Major and illuminate his habitual petty transgressions.   
   
“Really Benjy!” hissed Elizabeth after the Inspector had departed, “You really do show us up sometimes. I just don’t know how you do it.”

“Sorry Elizabeth. It was just a mistake,” he lied sheepishly and decided that it was not the best time to inform his wife that he had twice previously been similarly apprehended by the same official.    
   
He knew full well that his wholly premeditated intention had been to evade  payment of the full First Class fare to the Tilling and District Railway Company and that his life’s partner probably suspected as much. Still, there was no need to confirm her suspicions or to seek out trouble. Trouble was quite capable of finding its way to the door of Benjy Mapp-Flint without any further help from him. Indeed, it made quite a habit of it.
 

As the Tilling Express arrived  in London, the Morrison’s day of wonder began. Bob Roberts, Herbert’s oldest friend from Police College days at Hendon and best man at his wedding, now an Assistant Commissioner with the Metropolitan Police, had come up trumps and provided an official car and driver to collect the Morrisons and take them to their appointment at the Palace. The driver saluted Herbert as he got in after his wife and children, which added to the sense of occasion.

Shortly afterwards, as the black maria cut through the grey foggy London morning,  the twins kept up a continuous commentary, pointing out landmarks, such as Cleopatra’s Needle on the Embankment, Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament.   
    
Sweeping down the tree-lined Mall, their excitement mounted, as the Victoria Monument and frontage of Buckingham Palace hove into view. 

A police constable at the gate saluted Inspector Morrison on arrival and directed the car across the Palace forecourt under the arch into the rear courtyard.

On leaving the car,  Herbert led Dot by the hand holding his gloves in the other and Bunty held onto Jimmy. They were greeted, ticked off a list and ushered up the impressive red carpeted and mirrored staircase to the State Ballroom on the first floor, where the Investiture was due to be held.     
  
As the Inspector was directed by a uniformed usher to his seat amongst the others awaiting their honours, Bunty and the children found their places in the body of supporting friends and families. A military orchestra in the balcony above played a selection of light classical music and extracts from Gilbert and Sullivan operettas as the mesmerising pageant progressed.

Bunty and the twins were fascinated by the grand surroundings, the glittering chandeliers, the gilt, plush and velvet and the array of paintings and sculpture. Wide-eyed, the twins sat silently absorbing the glories around them.

As the tension mounted, the Duke of Gloucester and the royal party entered by  a door so discreet that none of the visitors had realised its existence. A low murmur of pleasure went around the chamber as it was noted that, although still in deep mourning, Queen Mary was honouring the occasion by her presence.  Everyone stood as the National Anthem was played and the Investiture began.

After the knighthoods and a range of higher honours, came the turn of the Orders of the British Empire.

As his name was called,  Herbert walked smartly forward. The Duke pinned the insignia to his chest and spoke a few words, congratulating him for his "splendid achievements in his work in Tilling," adding "Lovely county, Sussex." 

As the Duke presented his medal, the Queen looked on smiling. Nodding graciously, Her Majesty said, “So very pleased.”

Withdrawing, Herbert returned to his seat, as if walking on air, but finding time to exchange a smile with beaming Bunty and the twins.

Shortly afterwards, when Hubert Gascoyne received his Order, Queen Mary was seen to incline her head, smile and distinctly heard to remark, “So delighted.”
 

Both recipients knew that this would cause a sensation in Tilling, which for so many years had placed Susan Wyse MBE at its royalist pinnacle.

Now not only had its senior police Officer received the higher order of Officer, rather than lowly Member, of the Order of the British Empire, but the Queen Dowager herself had upgraded her remark “So pleased” to “So very pleased.”  
    
What is more, a leading shopkeeper of the town had also been appointed an Officer and it was plainly undeniable that “So delighted” certainly trumped “pleased” in whatever degree. To borrow a metaphor intelligible to the members of Tilling Football Club, it was as though their first division champion, Mrs Wyse had suffered the embarrassment of two relegations in successive seasons.

After the Investiture, Inspector Morrison was joined by Bunty and the children in the courtyard of the Palace for official and press photographs with the insignia of his Order. He was particularly  pleased to be interviewed by Mr Meriton of the "Hampshire Argus," who  most weeks seemed to spend most of his time reporting upon the incomer, chatelaine of "Mallards House" and Mayor of Tilling, Mrs Pillson. The twins were thrilled to hear that their photograph with mum and dad at the Palace would be appearing in the next edition of their  local paper. 

All too soon, the borrowed official car was whisking the Morrisons over the forecourt and through the gates of Buckingham Palace for the short journey to Lyons Corner House for a celebratory lunch.

As the Morrisons and Gascoynes went their separate ways in pursuit of refreshment with which to celebrate their honours, the Mapp-Flints, heedless of the ruinous expense involved, headed in their taxi cab towards whatever lay in store for them in a dusty office in Lincoln’s Inn Field.

After ten minutes in a waiting room, lined with Spy cartoons of unremarkable bewigged judges, pretending to read some ancient copies of “Punch” and “The Lady", the Mapp-Flints were ushered into the book-lined office of young Mr Farnon, an eminent Probate lawyer well into his ninth decade, who peered at them through a gap in the barrier of papers and files that formed a castellation atop his venerable partner’s desk. Like Pyramus and Thisbe, the solicitor and clients conversed through a gap in the wall that separated them.

After the usual pleasantries and inquires about their journey – with no mention made about any attempt to obtain pecuniary advantage from the Tilling and District Railway Company - Mr Farnon remarked, “ I am much obliged to you both for coming to see me this morning Mrs and Mrs Flint.”

“'Major', actually old boy,” interjected Benjy.

“And it's 'Mapp-Flint', Mr Farnon” added Elizabeth, rather more sharply than the occasion demanded.

“Of course, Major and Mrs Mapp-Flint,” replied the solicitor, shuffling his papers somewhat inconclusively, “And now...to business perhaps?”

“Yes, indeed., Mr Farnon. We were wondering what you might want to share with us this morning,” commented Elizabeth,  adding with disingenuousness remarkable even by her Olympian standards, “After our grief over the tragic loss of our dear old friend the Maharani, we do hope that you have not more sad news for us to bear,”  pointedly dabbing her very dry eye with the edge of her handkerchief.
  
“Nothing to burden you unduly, I suspect,” replied Mr Farnon with a dryness mirroring his client's eyes that verged upon the dessicated, "As you know, my firm is instructed in the administration of the estate of the late dowager Maharani, whose will was drawn up and deposited in our office in Poona.”  
   
“Yes, Mr Farnon, but we had understood that the Maharani was in much straightened circumstances in her latter years?” asked Elizabeth.  

“Penniless…on her uppers, in fact,” added Benjy bluntly.

“In cash terms, you are correct, Major, but the Maharani’s effects in the hotel in Seaport included a large steamer trunk.”  
   
“And?”

“In addition to other garments in her trunk, there was a ladies' heavy  sable coat of fine quality, certain jewels and various assorted albums”

“And….are you saying the jewels might be valuable?” asked the Mapp-Flints, leaning forward in unison.

“At first we thought they might be,” explained the solicitor, “But our valuers advised that, although decorative, the necklaces, tiara and a range of insignia of foreign orders were of paste and relatively worthless.”

Slumping back into their chairs, the Mapp-Flints' metaphorical crests plummeted, “Oh, we see,” remarked the Major dispiritedly.

“On the positive side, however, as well as photographs, the albums included the personal stamp collection of the late Maharaja.”

Suddenly alert, Elizabeth looked up, like a hound picking up a fresh scent, “And were the stamps of any value?” she asked, again leaning forward.

“Our probate investigation did include a review and valuation by an appropriately qualified expert in postage stamps,” the solicitor explained.

“And what did he report?” asked the Mapp-Flints expectantly.

“In his view, the collection is what might be expected from a well-informed amateur.”

“Oh," they replied,  disappointed.

“But…” added Mr Farnon, with a meaningful pause.

“But what?”

“The collection did include an unfranked irregular 1903 Cape Verde triangular.”

“Did it indeed?” responded the Major, none the wiser.

“It appears that there is only one other 1903 unfranked irregular Cape Verde triangular in existence – in the private collection of His Majesty, the late King.”

“God bless him!” added the Major, rather more cheerfully that Court mourning would have prescribed.

“And is this Cape Horn unusual triangle possibly of any value, Mr Farnon?” asked Elizabeth coyly, whilst covertly crossing two of her gloved fingers.

“Conservatively, a sum in the region of fifteen to twenty thousand pounds,” he replied.

“Good Lord!” exclaimed the Major.

“Naturally, it will be necessary to advertise the availability of this rare specimen and to ensure that it is offered in the most appropriate auction sale, but we are advised that the estimated value should be readily realised,” Mr Farnon explained, “May I take it that I have your instructions to proceed upon this basis?”

“Indeed you may, my good man!” replied the Major, as his spouse nodded enthusiastically and smiled with a manic energy that many would have found positively unnerving.   
  
As the Mapp-Flints left the solicitors' office thirty minutes later, they blinked in the early afternoon sunshine.

A few yards on, they came upon a bench overlooking the well-kept lawns and flowerbeds of the Inns of Court. Exchanging a silent glance, they sat down, as though in shock.  
    
For some minutes, both stared ahead in deep thought. Major Benjy’s thoughts included new steel shafted golf clubs, a motor car and quantities of pre-war whiskey.  
   
Elizabeth’s visions featured appearing in the High Street in her sables and Lucia’s expression on seeing her in the latest couture. “Perhaps even my dear sweet ‘Mallards’ might be returned to its rightful owner,” she mused, “Oh, how I’ve ached to sit in my window in the Garden Room again,  looking down on everyone: having the whole of Tilling at my feet once more….”

The thoughtful silence was abruptly invaded. “Fifteen thousand pounds, Benjy, just think of it,” said Elizabeth, “Quite takes the breath away.” 

“Yes dear,” muttered the Major, "A pretty sum. It will make quite a difference to us you know.”

“It will indeed, Benjy,” replied Elizabeth with gathering force and purpose, “We need to make some decisions now – to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself.” 

“Whatever do you mean by that?” Benjy bridled, appreciating full well what had been implied. 

“You know exactly what I mean. That terrible time when I was stranded on the Gallagher Banks for all those months...with ‘her.’ And you moved into my lovely house,  lock stock and barrel and spent all that money.”   

“Oh, that," snapped Benjy, “I thought we had agreed never to talk about it again. I don’t know, we have some good news, some really really good  news for once and you have to go and spoil it by digging up that old chestnut.” 

“That ‘old chestnut,' as you call it, concerned my family home and my good name actually. Due to your greed and extravagance I was a laughing stock in Tilling. All I am saying is ‘Never again! Jamais!'"   

Elizabeth reached into her reticule for a handkerchief and proceeded to dab her still-dry eye, whilst surreptitiously checking whether her outburst had achieved its desired effect.  

She need not have worried. Seeing the his wife was on the verge of a major upset and  in such a very public space, Benjy adopted a more pacific tone, “Yes, dear, I take your point, but what exactly are you saying?” 

“All I am saying, Benjy dearest, if you will permit me to do so,” replied Elizabeth in a slow and modulated tone, not unlike that with which one might address an idiot child, “Is that we must learn from our past, shall we say, ‘experiences’ and proceed with extreme caution. We should not presume the outcome of the sale of the stamp in auction or divulge our great expectations until the proceeds are safely in the bank. Tilling should not know of our good fortune until it is well and truly under lock and key.”  

“Good point, fairly made, Liz old girl,” Benjy replied, “’Slowly, slowly catchee monkee’ - as we used to say in the mess in Poona, eh?”    

“I suppose so, if you really want to put it like that,” responded Elisabeth wearily, adding with a fixed jaw, denoting a  determination steely even by her own standards, “I  just know, we may just have been given a chance here: a big opportunity to get back some  of what we’ve lost in recent years - those blessed Siriami shares, ‘that woman’ coming to Tilling and taking over, losing my sweet ‘Mallards’. Perhaps it’s our turn at last? We mustn’t do anything silly or let anyone spoil it. Don’t you see?”

“Of course, I see what you mean” said Benjy, wishing his latest contretemps with the Ticket Inspector had not taken place. Overcoming this anxiety and summoning up his most cheerful expression, he continued, ”I must add one thing though.” 

“What’s that?” asked Elizabeth.

“Whoever said ‘Philately never pays’?” he replied, “ Couldn’t have been more wrong, what?” 

“Oh, Benjy, really!”


In Tilling, winter dragged on into March. At "Braemar" on most days, Morrison family conversations all tended to return to their dies mirabilis in London. The twins never tired of  reliving their trip in the black maria through the  streets of the capital that foggy morning and all the sights from the grey  Houses of Parliament to the sparkling gilt and plush interior of Buckingham Palace.
After lunch, Herbert leafed through that week's "Hampshire Argus.”  Mr Meriton had reached new heights of  rhapsody in his account of the Investiture of "two of Tilling’s finest citizens and best-known sons."
His very full account of the proceedings described every detail of the day, from the outfits chosen by all present to a blow-by-blow account of the events of the Investiture to the immediate reactions of everyone concerned.
Due emphasis was placed upon “the attendance of the much loved and respected Dowager Queen, who bravely graced the proceedings with her noble presence. Despite her recent profound loss, Her Most Gracious Majesty had  placed duty above her own personal feelings and welfare as ever. ‘'Twas ever thus."
It was noted how Her Majesty had ben gracious enough to confirm that she was "So very pleased" about the award to Inspector Morrison  and subsequently was "So delighted" about that to Mr Gascoyne.
Tilling remembered well that, some years before, Her Majesty had only been heard to utter “So pleased” upon the award of an MBE to Susan Wyse and now basked in the escalating – indeed redoubled -  scale of the affection with which the venerable Cinque town was clearly regarded by the  revered mother of the highest in the land.
A copy of the newspaper was given to each twin to cut up and paste into their scrapbooks to be shown at every opportunity at school and amongst friends and relatives.

As the Morrisons  enjoyed reviewing their press cuttings in the kitchen of "Braemar," the latest edition of the "Hampshire Argus " was under similar scrutiny in the front parlour of Diva Plaistow's home “Wasters,” less that a mile away within the ancient walls of Tilling.
 
Seated at their favourite table, the Mayor, Emmeline Pillson and her husband Georgie were completing their one and eight penny teas in the company of Mayoress Elizabeth Mapp-Flint and her spouse Major Benjy.
As Diva's helper, Janet cleared the plates, Lucia complimented her, "Delicious tea, as ever thank you Diva," to which Georgie added cordially, "Hear, hear!"

Looking up from the latest edition of the "Hampshire Argus," Elizabeth smiled with her own patented combination of  pity and condescension, "Yes, thank you Diva dear. Though did you think the sardine tartlets were quite what they should have been?  I do hope so, but suppose only time will tell."
“I'm quite sure they were everything they would, should or could have been Elizabeth," replied Diva spiritedly, "Everyone else said they enjoyed them enormously. Even more tea?”

“ No thank you dear," Elizabeth replied, content to have ruffled a feather or two," More than sufficient, I think, much more."

Sniffing, Diva turned and made a dignified exit to count the day's takings thus far, a task which always lifted her spirits, even when discomforted  by she whom Diva was pleased to consider her oldest, if not dearest, friend.

"What's in  the "Argus", this week Elizabeth? "asked Benjy.

"Predictable as usual, Benjy dear," replied Elizabeth, without looking up, "It seems the 'Argus' thought it worthwhile to  send  Mr Meriton all the way to London to report on the Investitures. They certainly got their money's worth with all his usual florid prose."

"Still, it's good for the town to have two such high profile citizens honoured and to have it recorded," added Georgie. Although he was put off somewhat by what he fastidiously considered Elizabeth's "revolting habit" of absently licking her finger prior to turning each page of the paper, he had noted Elizabeth's irritability and tried to diffuse it before it contrived to sour the occasion.
"If you say so," replied Elizabeth, who took a very jaundiced view of  Mr Meriton and his newspaper, after what she dismissed as, "month after month of  his unnecessary encomia," adding pointedly, without mentioning  Lucia by name, "I suppose it makes a change from his usual focus of attention. At least he didn't call Inspector Morrison , 'the chatelaine of Tilling Police Station.'"
"Don't think a chap can be a 'chatelaine,'  Liz old girl," added Benjy,  also trying to lighten the atmosphere.
"Of course, I know that Benjy. Just my little joke, cherie. I feel so sorry for dear Susan Wyse."
"Why's that?" asked Benjy.
"Well, for all those years Susan has told us on every opportunity how the Queen....."
"God bless her" interjected Benjy, as was his invariable custom.
"Thank you dear," replied  Elizabeth frostily, not welcoming the loyal but pointless contribution of her other half, "No-one could deny how much and how often our sweet and simple Susan has enjoyed sharing with us how the Queen said 'So pleased' when she received her little medal from the King."
Elizabeth's  warning stare at Major Benjy deterred him from interjecting any further divine invocations and she continued, "Now, not only have much higher orders been awarded to what, if you'll pardon my expression, are a mere  shopkeeper and policeman, who are not even 'in society' in Tilling,  but Her Majesty, the Queen, no less, upgrades her congratulations. Everyone - even the dullest parlour-maid, knows a "So very" is better than just "So" and "Delighted" trumps them both. An "Officer" is much chic than a mere "Member," which nowadays they seem to dish out to every retiring municipal lavatory cleaner.  Poor dear Susan must be mortified."  

At the end of what all present would have agreed amounted to “an outburst,”  tense silence reigned as everyone pondered Elizabeth's comprehensive denigration of not only the Most Honourable Order of Member of the British Empire, but also  Tilling's leading antiques dealer, its senior police officer and even the wife of Algernon Wyse of the Wyses of Whitchurch, brother in law of Count Cecco di Faraglione of Capri. Elizabeth's friends knew how utterly and completely she longed for any mention - however lowly - in the Lists of Honours published to mark the turn of the year and His Majesty's birthday.  

“Any other news, sindica mia?” asked Lucia, in a further effort to lighten the proceedings by touching upon Elizabeth’s special status as her Mayoress.
“Not much, Worship,” she replied, “Just the opening of the Winter Exhibition of the Art Club.”
“Oh yes, we have that to enjoy. In your bright new wing at the Institute, Lucia,” added Georgie.
“Yes, I must try and finish a sketch or two. Set an example you know,” said Lucia, “ I do hope everyone will try and make a contribution this year? How about you Elizabeth?”
“If time permits, I will send in a pair of my watercolours of the marsh outside “Grebe” at dusk,” replied Elizabeth, hoping that conversation would now move on swiftly from the delicate subject of both the selection of submissions for exhibition and the newly constructed Emmeline Pillson Wing of the Tilling Institute.

In the pristine new extension, a portrait of  Tilling’s beloved Mayor, painted by celebrated local artist Quaint Irene Coles, rejected by the Council largely at the instigation of the Mayoress and subsequently loaned by the subject now hung prominently on permanent exhibition, “And you Mr Georgie?” asked the loyal Mayoress.
“Oh yes, I’ve nearly finished  a sort of triptych of scenes around Tilling: “The Almond Trees Ablaze with Blossom on the Slope beneath the Belvedere”, “ The Land Gate by Moonlight” and  “Jack Frost from the Garden Room.”
“Sounds charming, I must say,” Elizabeth responded with a meaningful glance at her husband, seeking to prompt a positive comment from him, “Doesn’t it, Benjy dear?”
“What does?”
“Mr Georgie’s new piccies dear..sound charming, don’t they?
“Oh, I s’pose so,” he replied reluctantly, since Major Benjy had as little time for what he termed “That Pillson fellow’s matronly daubs,” and he did his “Spinsterish sewing and never-ending fussing over his whatnots.”
As Diva entered, Lucia asked, “Will you be finding time to exhibit at our little show, Mrs Plaistow?”
“I have been working on a new still-life showing the full range of one of my one and eight penny teas, but I have been having a little trouble capturing the sardine tartlet,” said Diva.
“Not quite all it should have been, dear?” asked Elizabeth pointedly.
“Capturing the shadow dear, if you must know,” snapped Diva, rapidly losing patience with the inability of her old friend to resist any opportunity to undermine her speciality savoury, “We’re well-known for our tartlets, Elizabeth, “ she added, “I do  need to be sure that I have captured them precisely and done them justice.”
Nobly resisting the temptation to suggest that "notorious" might be more accurate than "well-known," Elizabeth responded, “If you say so Diva. I thought it might have been wiser not to draw attention to them, but it’s up to you.”
In an effort to divert from this topic, Georgie began a new thread of conversation, “And what about Miss Coles then? Will our famous artiste again be honouring Tilling with a submission?”

"Sure you really mean 'artiste' Mr Georgie?" asked Elizabeth acidly, applying the forensic linguistic analysis with which she invariably dissected the Padre's sermons each Sunday.

"Forgive me, Elizabeth.  A foolish little play on words; positively tarsome!" replied Georgie, making light of her correction, adding, "You're quite right that it's undeniable that Miss Coles is an artist 'skilled in the art of painting.' However, don't you think our unique Irene is also an artist with an 'e' - a  'public performer' and what if I'm not mistaken the dictionary calls 'an adept in a manual art?'  I believe painting qualifies as a 'manual art', doesn't it?"

Elizabeth shivered when she remembered Quaint Irene's most recent very public performance with a dinner bell, banners and a band of urchins at the time of the Council Election. She was also hardly likely to forget how Miss Coles' acclaimed rendition of the Painting of the Year proved definitively  that she was exceedingly adept in the unarguably "manual art" of painting.

Consequently, even Elizabeth Mapp-Flint in the very sourest of moods could not credibly continue to contradict Georgie. She therefore pretended not to have heard his remark and remained silent.  
“I do believe Irene will be submitting a new painting,” replied Lucia, “In fact, Irene asked me to call in on her at “Taormina” today to see her latest work. She  has promised to show her latest painting here in Tilling before it goes to the Royal Academy for the Summer Exhibition.”
“How interesting,” commented Elizabeth distantly, wondering if she and Benjy featured as prominently in the new work as they had done in Quaint Irene’s last submission to the Academy, which had been such a critical and popular success and had been named “Picture of the Year.”
“I intend to call in at her studio on leaving here and will let you know how the work is progressing,” said Lucia, “Now do you think we have time to fit in a quiet rubber or two now?”  All agreed that would be very pleasant and moved to a comfortable table in the card room and settled down to the usual hard fought contest.

Bridge that afternoon  took it's usual vigorous and combative path, as was the way in Tilling. 
Not untypically, early in the very first game, Elizabeth Mapp-Flint committed an outrageous revocation,  heinous even by her spectacularly low standards in this regard.  This had been entirely premeditated and intentional. Like the scorpion, she did it because she could: she could not help herself. 
The Mayoress knew that everyone at the table was well aware of what had occurred.
Her opponents sat back and enjoyed her discomfiture whilst her bridge and life's partner veered between frustration at the impending forfeiture, embarrassment and satisfaction that she who was invariably right would shortly be exposed to have been entirely in the wrong.
The guilty party however, rather than "wallowing in repentance," adopted a more practical approach and used the interval to mull over all possible means of escape.
Argument was pointless since, as was the way in Tilling,  her opponents had the requisite analytical and forensic skills in spades. They were adept at remorselessly reconstructing the hands that had been played with a clinical precision which would expose her  misdemeanour as surely as night followed day.
Other options included a feigned fainting fit or forceful collision with the table, engineered to send the evidence flying.  This was not her preferred action, since Elizabeth had to admit she had already adopted this approach on more than one occasion previously, so much so that  in bridge circles, the events had come to be called "one of Elizabeth's convenient little 'accidents.'"
Also, she did not wish to give rise further gossip that epilepsy or alcohol had contributed to her repeated clumsiness. She would rather admit "mea culpa" and rely despairingly on such diminishing  feminine charms as were still available to her.  Accordingly, she smiled sweetly and fluttered her eyelashes winsomely, until Benjy asked, "Got something in your eye, Liz old girl?"   
Thus rebuffed,  Elizabeth felt she had no realistic alternative for the present but to await the inevitable and in the meantime hope for some other intervention - divine or otherwise. 

At that moment,  Inspector Morrison entered the front parlour and stood smartly before the card table.

Upon the opening of Diva Plaistow's  tea shoppe, there was  some uncertainty over the legality of playing bridge for money - albeit small stakes - but happily the position was now clear and settled.  Bridge was not only both lawful and morally acceptable, it had been given the civic stamp of approval by the regular public participation of Her Worship the Mayor.   Bearing the Mayoral imprimatur, so respectable was the pastime that the Mayor often  found it convenient to be available for “her Inspector”  to call briefly  upon her with documents requiring official signature whilst engaged at cards.
Lucia actually found such interruptions  useful. They reflected her incessant workload, accessibility and human face.
On her Inspector's  entrance, she was able to look up demurely and respond to his salute with a practised nod that might only be described as "gracious” : “Pray excuse me dear friends, but personal pleasure must  take second place to duty. Always!"
“Of  course Worship . How Tilling works you!"" remarked Elizabeth  ironically and in a deliberate effort  to pre-empt Lucia in employing her favourite and indeed most oft-repeated phrase.

"What dear Tilling demands, it's hard pressed Mayor must always humbly give, Elizabeth dear.” said Lucia, fully anticipating that her latest apophthegm would  be widely repeated and admired about the town next day, “That is the lesson of public life.  No doubt you will come to appreciate the truth of this lesson as you gain more experience. Now Inspector, what have you for me to sign today?"
"Warrants from the Magistrates Court, Your Worship," replied  Herbert, as he passed to her four documents from the manila folder under his arm.
"Is that all Inspector?"  asked  Lucia, handing him the signed forms.
"There are two more warrants for signature, Mrs Pillson, but I think it might be more appropriate for me to call upon you at "Mallards House”  with them. There are likely to be points arising you may wish to discuss. Privately."
"I'm quite happy to attend to them now Inspector," replied  Lucia briskly, "I'm sure it will only take a moment."
"Very well, Your Worship," sighed Herbert,  extracting the two remaining warrants and passing them to her.
Immediately the warrants were before her,  Lucia scanned them quickly. As their import dawned upon her, she looked up at Inspector Morrison. She raised each eyebrow as discreetly as she might and pursed her lips without speaking with the most infinitesimal moue of surprise. 
After a pause best described as "pregnant," Lucia handed the warrants back and commented "I take your point, Inspector.  I do need to review certain issues arising before appending my signature. Would you be free to call upon me at say, five 'o clock this afternoon?"
"Yes, of course Ma'am," Herbert replied, “Thank you for your time. I'm so sorry to have interrupted your game for so long."
As Inspector Morrison turned and left the  card room, the game resumed and proceeded to its inevitable conclusion.

After Elizabeth had accidentally dropped her last hand and with it her assembled tricks, the requisite post mortem and reconstitution of hands played took place. The blatant  revocation of Elizabeth Mapp-Flint was laid bare and due reparation claimed.
Despite - and possibly because of  -  this bitter expose, the ensuing games  were  even more robustly contested with all present enjoying themselves enormously.
After bridge and cheerful "Au reservoirs" on the doorstep of "Wasters”, the Mapp-Flints walked off towards the Land Gate and the road out to "Grebe," whilst Georgie and Lucia Pillson began the shorter journey  to "Taormina" to call upon Quaint Irene.


As the Pillsons took the few steps from “Wasters” to “Taormina,” Georgie asked “What was all that about with the Inspector and the two last warrants, Lucia?”

“Not for the streets of Tilling, Georgie dear,” she replied in her "Oxford voice" reserved for trunk calls  and judgements pronounced from the Magistrates Bench. "I’ll tell you when we reach home. You never guess though – even with your powers of inductive reasoning.”
“How intriguing!” said Georgie, leaning forward to ring the bell
A  positive thunder of what sounded like hob-nailed boots heralded the approach of  Irene Coles’ formidable maid-of–all-work,  Lucy. Looking down on the distinguished visitors from a height of more than six feet, Lucy grunted peremptorily, “Oh it's you. I suppose you had better come in.”
Leaving the front door open and her visitors standing on the doorstep, Lucy simply turned around and walked back down the hall like a surly guardsman.
Exchanging bemused glances, Georgie and Lucia shrugged and walked in to be greeted by Lucy’s mistress, Miss Irene Coles, wiping her hands with a paint-splattered rag.
“Darling Lucia, my angel, you came! Thank you, thank you!” she gushed, rushing forward and flinging her arms around Tilling’s Mayor.
When she had demonstrated her gratitude and unbounded  affection for her visitor, Irene reluctantly unhanded Lucia and turned to Georgie, “Thanks for coming too, Georgie old bean and held out a hand prior to administering a manly handshake with a vigour that Georgie found quite disconcerting, “Good of you both to pop in.”
“Our pleasure, Irene dear,” replied Lucia, “We are both so looking forward to viewing your latest work. It’s quite an honour to be the first to see it.”
“Indeed, we are Miss Coles,” said Georgie, who always felt unnerved by Irene’s boisterous approach to life and himself in particular.
As with some animals, Irene sensed Georgie’s trepidation and it usually brought out her most mischievous side. Today was no exception, as she replied, “I’m so pleased that you found time to come with your divine spouse today, Georgino mio.”
“How kind,” said Georgie tentatively, worried about what was in store from his invariable  Nemesis.
“Darling Mr Hopkins has let me down this morning. Can’t make it to pose for me. Trouble with a consignment of haddock,  I believe.”
“Oh yes, how unfortunate,” said Georgie slowly.
“I really do need a well-formed, muscled sort of chap to model for me. I was wondering if you might stand in for Mr Hopkins today?”
Georgie’s mouth opened and closed several times, not unlike a goldfish, but no sound emerged. Taking advantage of this, Irene continued remorselessly, “Won’t take too long. Mr Hopkins usually brought along a little pair of his bathing drawers to wear, but if you haven’t got any, I won’t mind, if you don’t.  Cheeky!”
As a terrified Georgie continued mutely in goldfish mode, Irene ploughed quaintly on, “And there is a paraffin heater in my studio, so you won’t get too cold. I never think goose-pimples are becoming in a heroic figure, do you?”
Recognising that Irene had enjoyed tormenting her husband for sufficiently long, Lucia chose this moment to respond to his imploring looks and to intervene, “Now, now Irene please stop teasing Georgie this instant. We came to view your marvellous new oeuvre.  Are you ready to show it to us?”
“Of course,  my precious one. Please forgive my bit of fun. Your word is always, always my command. Follow me,” said Irene, leading her visitors towards a large canvas leaning against the far wall of the studio, covered with a voluminous white sheet.

“This is my most ambitious project so far and the biggest canvas I’ve ever worked on,” explained Irene.
“Most impressive,” enthused Georgie, “Won’t you uncover it,  so we can have a look?”
“In a moment Georgie-Porgie. First, I need to explain a few things.  You remember the travesty that evil minded old witch from out on the marsh caused over my brilliant study of you in your Mayoral robes,  sweet one?” asked Irene.
“You mean Elizabeth?” asked Georgie, who unnerved by his host, had an untypical flair for stating the obvious that afternoon.
“I could hardly forget. It’s not often that the Mayor's generous gift of a portrait by a  leading local artist is rejected out of hand by her own council,”  Lucia replied.
“The 'leading artist of her generation', if you don’t mind me saying,” added Irene, entirely seriously, "Now, where was I ? Oh yes, that spiteful rejection set me off on the most wonderful creative phase,” she explained excitedly.
“Did it indeed?” remarked Georgie, “And?”
“And, so I thought the Philistines and Grundy’s of Tilling rejected my brilliant early rendition of Venus, comparing it to that anaemic flapper by Botticelli.  They compounded the insult by failing to give due acclaim to my masterful portrait of the best Mayor Tilling, or anywhere,  has ever been privileged to have had at the head of its civic affairs, the dreary bourgeois buffoons. I thought such vain wickedness must be exposed – for the sake of all that is good and beautiful and just in this world!”
“You don’t say,” remarked Georgie mildly, still none the wiser.
“So, I looked for inspiration in the Old Masters and it came to me when I was poring over a print of a painting by Rembrandt.  He painted it when he was just 19 in 1625 –  an even younger genius than me.”
“And which one was that?” asked Lucia.
“Isn’t it obvious my dearest heroic, wronged one? The Stoning of St Stephen!” Irene declaimed, gesticulating dramatically she paced up and down before the enormous canvass, “Just as the boors of Tilling rejected my masterpiece depicting you and every deliciously special  and divine quality you possess, the blessed St Stephen was stoned outside Jerusalem by his tormentors. Even Saul of Tarsus was shown by Rembrandt holding in his lap the coats of the stoners and so in Tilling those for forsook you will be identified before the world and will face the judgment of posterity.”
 
“Posterity. That seems quite an undertaking,” commented Georgie, increasingly concerned about what he was about to see, “Aren’t you  at all worried about how those people you accuse of stoning Lucia to death will react?”
“Worried? Me? What do you think, Georgie boy?” Irene exclaimed. Leaning forward she dramatically swept away the sheet which had been covering her painting. “Voila!”
Silence permeated the high-ceilinged studio, which a moment before had echoed with Irene’s grandiose outpourings.
Irene smiled and looked expectantly at Lucia and Georgie, but received no immediate response. Instead, as they took in the astonishing scene before, them  the jaws of Tilling's civic head and its eternal jeune premier simply dropped and four eyes widened in surprise.
Eventually, as Irene’s gaze turned from expectant to quizzical, Lucia found a word to utter, “Striking, dear Irene, quite striking.”
Seeking to support his wife, the hitherto speechless Georgie added, “Absolutely. That’s the word, ‘Striking!”
“Well,  what do you think, marvellous one?” asked Irene “It’s the magnum opus of my career thus far. Of course it is entirely inspired by you  and naturally, like me, is entirely dedicated to you.”
“Thank you, Irene. You really shouldn’t have,” said Lucia, as if receiving  an unwanted presentation box of bath cubes at Christmas, rather than what was obviously the outpouring of an artist’s very soul, “I can honestly say, Irene, I’ve never seen anything quite like it before.”
“Oh, do you think so? I’m so pleased,” gushed Irene, “I have to admit I was a little frightened that some – ‘less perceptive’ members of the public might consider it a little too advanced for their taste.”
“I do think it’s fair to describe it as, shall we say, ‘avant garde,’ Irene dear" added Lucia.
“What do you like about it best?” asked Irene, with typically directness.

Confronted by this challenging question, Lucia paused for a moment and stood back to take in the enormity before her. 
Lucia adopted her pensive pose and surveyed the large canvas in silence. Her right elbow rested in her left hand and her forefinger extended vertically up her left cheek.  Her eyes scanned the scene before her, but appeared to focus some distance beyond the plane of the painting.
Today Lucia appeared to be combining her own "Moonlight Sonata" face, which reflected a sensitive artistic appreciation, with Elizabeth Mapp-Flint's patented sermon demeanour, employed each Sunday in Church to reflect rapt concentration and rigorous intellectual analysis combined with a tender spirituality. Neither expression was remotely sincere, but was effective in misleading the gullible onlooker - not unknown in Tilling.
As Irene awaited the opinion of her visitors, both scanned her creation. The vista before them was undoubtedly Tilling. Its red roofs shone above the ancient walls in the sunlight as did the sparkling breakers of the sea beyond.
At the centre of the scene was the unmistakeable figure of Lucia in full Mayoral garb, having fallen gracefully from her bicycle (with its smart saddle bag bearing the Mayoral coat of arms).
Her robe fell in surprisingly neat folds around her and her tricorn hat stayed remarkably firmly in place to frame Lucia's delicate features raised heavenwards as she endured the on-going barrage.
Lucia's demeanour was not entirely unlike that of the Maid of Orleans at the stake as, from her place amidst the venerable cobbles of Tilling, she sought to deflect sundry objects thrown by an irate crowd.
The items hurled in the direction of the recumbent  Mayor appeared varied and partly symbolic in nature.
Both Lucia and Georgie were particularly disturbed to note that the pair most prominent in the stoning were unmistakably Major and Mrs Mapp-Flint, dressed in precisely the same Victorian garb as they had been in Irene's Picture of the Year.
On this occasion, both figures appeared irate and perhaps not a little inebriated. Major Benjy was shown throwing an empty bottle of whiskey - of the pre-war vintage,  whilst Elizabeth seemed to be about to hurl a ceramic pottery Pig of Tilling money box.
Elsewhere in the circle of tormentors, Harold Twistevant in full Councillor's rig, threw a tin of corned beef, whilst the Town  Clerk projected a heavy volume of Halsbury's Statutes.
After a short while Georgie commented, "Oh, is that Algernon Wyse about to propel a jar of honey from Capri?"
"Yes, I think so dear," replied Lucia, "And I fear dear Susan is trying to run me over with her tricycle. What exactly is Diva Plaistow doing, do you think?"
"I believe she is about to launch a plate of sardine tartlets in your general direction," explained Georgie.
"And the Padre, if I am not very mistaken, is intent on dropping his King James' Bible more or less on top of my tricorn hat?" asked Lucia.
"Absolutely, precious one," confirmed Irene.
"A nice touch with Evie," added Georgie
"Oh good,  you noticed the mouse?" asked Irene.
"Yes, indeed" replied Georgie, pointing out to Lucia the tiny figure of a mouse  at the feet of the Padre, whose face on close inspection bore a startling resemblance to Mrs Evie Bartlett, faithful  spouse of the Vicar of Tilling.

“Well, now you have had a chance to consider it in detail, what do you think?” asked Irene.
“Large,” ventured Georgie, reaching new heights of the obvious.
“Obviously,” snapped Irene, “And the sky is blue. Now tell me what you think. Does my angel approve?”
Changing her stance from the pensive to the woman of action with her arms folded before her, Lucia completed the labyrinthine analysis that had occupied her Medicean mind for the past several minutes.
The work was most certainly not to her personal taste, but it was undoubtedly executed in dazzling form. It was certain to generate enormous controversy locally, if not nationally, and there she was at its very epicentre, flatteringly depicted, innocent and wronged.
Lucia thought back to her unspoken but nonetheless  gnawing resentment, when the Mapp-Flints had been the subject of Irene’s Picture of the Year. Idiotic though they looked, they had relished the fame attendant upon their unflattering depiction. She had so wanted to be in their position then and now the opportunity had arisen to enjoy being very much centre of the artistic stage.

Clearing her throat, Lucia decided time was ripe to express her view, “First Irene, I must congratulate you upon your skill and vision in creating such a major work - a tour de force!. Secondly, I must commend you in your courage in addressing such a contentious set of issues. Brava!”
“Oh, dearest one, you like it!” beamed Irene, “When you were silent for so long, I was frightened that you might find it a little strong - a tad de trop.”
“There’s no denying that it is a forceful piece of work, but sometimes an artist has to find the strength and be brave my dear” said Lucia encouragingly.
“The only trouble is it will upset most of Tilling” added Georgie, who had been counting up the number of prominent Tillingites depicted in the public execution of their prostrate Mayor.”
“They all deserve it, Grundy’s to a man!” remarked Irene.
“That’s all very well Miss Coles,” replied Georgie, “But look. You have graphically painted the Mapp-Flints, Wyses, Bartletts, Mrs Plaistow, Mr Twistevant and even the Town Clerk with malice in their hearts and missiles in their hands. Things could get more than a little frosty over tea and bridge at Diva’s.  And you know how she doesn’t like it when people are rude about her sardine tartlets – let alone  actually using them as a weapon!”

“Oh, do buck up Georgie old bean,” Irene replied, “It needed to be done and I’ve done it. So there.”
“It should certainly liven up the opening of the Art Exhibition at the Institute," suggested Lucia with a smile.


Georgie and Lucia strolled the short distance from "Taormina" to "Mallards House" in silence. It was plain to  both that Quaint Irene's new painting would cause a furore when unveiled at the exhibition shortly.  This prompted fevered thought.

Georgie was relieved that he was not directly involved, though secretly disappointed that Irene had not  thought him sufficiently significant for inclusion in the scene."There again," he thought, when trying to be fair, he "Could hardly be shown amongst the assailants and being an onlooker or 'attendant lord' did not really appeal. It's probably better to be out of this one and just and just watch the fun develop," he concluded.
Lucia on the other hand, was already imagining the implications of her "martyrdom"," Yes, the vitriol of the crème de Tilling would have to be endured (if crème can have vitriol: an unlikely combination), but most of that would be directed towards dear, talented Irene."
Lucia determined that she "would be stoic and supportive during the ensuing storm. I can then look forward to the transfer of the canvass to the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy." 
During the short walk, she daydreamed about staying at Claridges', which was convenient for Piccadilly and wondered whether Irene's painting would be judged Picture of the Year. Would she be interviewed and featured in the press and photographed standing next to the work that had immortalised her?
Before Lucia had decided upon this, the couple had reached home and asked Foljambe to serve tea in the Garden Room.

As Foljambe entered the Garden Room bringing tea, she announced, “Inspector Morrison has just arrived Mrs Pillson. Shall I show him in?”
“Yes, please, Foljambe” replied Lucia, “I had nearly forgotten;  I did ask him to call this afternoon. Pray bring another cup.”
“Would you like to see the Inspector on your own?” asked Georgie, ever anxious not to intrude upon Mayoral confidentialities,  but quietly hoping to be allowed to do so.
“Thank you for asking Georgino mio, but please stay with us for tea.  I was about to tell you all about it and the subject of our discussion will soon be public property. You’ll see.”
After the usual greetings and pleasantries, Inspector Morrison sat down on the sofa next to Lucia and joined her in enjoying “the cup that cheers, but not inebriates,” as Mr Meriton so often and so cloyingly put it in the “Hampshire Argus.”
“Please feel free to speak of this matter in front of Mr Pillson, Inspector,” said Lucia in full magisterial mode, “The issue under discussion will be in the public domain ere long and I see no reason why being the spouse of the Chair of Tilling’s bench should occasion discrimination: heaven knows the uxorial role already brings with it sufficient burden.”
“Thank you dear,” replied Georgie, wondering if the term applied to males as well as females...but Lucia meant well...
“I am obliged to you for your tact in not discussing these warrants at Mrs Plaistow’s premises earlier. It was only when I noted the names of the accused that shall we say, “The awkwardness of the situation dawned upon me.”
“My pleasure, Mrs Pillson,” intoned Inspector Morrison in what Bunty jokingly referred to as his “suave Ronald Coleman” voice, “It was a very unfortunate coincidence that you happened to be sharing a game of bridge with both of the persons accused. Most unfortunate.”
“Good heavens,” thought Georgie, behind his tea cup.
Lucia carefully read the warrants handed to her by Inspector Morrison. It appeared that two weeks previously Major Benjamin Mapp-Flint and Mrs Elizabeth Mapp-Flint had travelled between Tilling in Sussex and London in a First Class compartment and had only Second Class tickets.
Is there anything that can properly be done to help them Inspector?” asked Lucia earnestly.
“It seems not, your Worship,” he explained, “ I took the precaution of speaking to the manager at the Tilling and District Railway Company and unfortunately it seems this is not the first time the Major has ‘made this kind of mistake.’”
“You mean they have been caught trying to dodge their fares before?” asked Georgie.
“Well, Mr Pillson,  it seems  that on two occasions in recent months..”
“Two!” exclaimed Georgie, almost involuntarily. Receiving a pointed look from Lucia's gimlet eyes, Georgie said no more.
“Yes, I’m afraid Major Mapp-Flint was cautioned twice a few weeks ago for travelling in First Class with only a Second Class ticket on his way from Tilling to Seaport.”
“And this means that the Railway Company will be unwilling to overlook the ‘oversight’ Inspector?” asked Lucia, already fearing what his reply would be.
“I’m afraid so, Your worship. They say “It’s a matter of policy and their duty towards shareholders.’”
“I see Inspector. Thank you for looking into the matter,” Lucia replied, “ I see it is my duty to sign the warrants and that the cases must proceed in the normal course.”
“Thank you Ma’am,” said Herbert, as he placed the signed documents  back in his manila folder.
“Correct me if I am mistaken Inspector,” said Lucia, “But the proper procedure on the day of the hearing of these cases will be for me to announce from the Bench that in view of my connection with the accused - Elizabeth is my Mayoress after all - I will step down  whilst the cases are heard and relinquish the Chairmanship to my Deputy?”
“Indeed, Your worship,” agreed Herbert, “Although it will be appropriate for you to confirm this formally with your Clerk beforehand.”
“Very well, Inspector, thank you again for your time today. Much appreciated as ever. By the way, when will the Court list be published and theses cases  made public?”
“Tomorrow morning at ten , Your Worship.”  
   
Georgie Pillson made a mental note that he must pop along to the High Street to purchase a few items tomorrow morning – at ten on the dot.


Over breakfast at “Grebe,” Elizabeth Mapp-Flint looked across the table, waiting for her husband to emerge from behind his “Daily Mirror.”
Eventually, when it became plain that her spouse had no immediate intention of joining her,  she lifted the spoon with which she had just been eating her stewed prunes and brusquely poked what appeared to be the face of Miss Gertrude Lawrence attending a first night with Mr Noel Coward, “Peepo!  Isn’t my handsome Benjy boy going to speak to his lovely girly this bright morning?”

“What?” grunted the Major, who if truth were told, disliked any form of verbal communication before  noon.

“I don’t know about ‘Sporting Benjy,’ dear one,” commented Elizabeth, “’Grumpy Benjy’ more like. Yes, ‘grumpy’ - that’s the mot juste at 'Grebe' aujourd hui!”

“Really, Elizabeth, can’t a chap have a bit of peace first thing without all this forced jollity? I just wanted to read my paper and eat some toast. Is that asking too much?”

“Very well, my sweet. At least I at last  have your attention,” said Elizabeth in what she mistakenly imagined was a coquettish fashion, “Now tell your life's partner, what’s on the agenda today? A delicious round of golf perhaps?”

Before the Major could answer, Withers entered with two buff envelopes on a silver tray. She handed one to each of her employers.

“Thank you Wither’s, some more tea, I think,” said Elizabeth, as she opened the official-looking missive.

“Not the General Rates already, surely?” asked Benjy,  gruffly. As Elizabeth read on without answering, Benjy added impatiently, "Well, what is it?”

Expressionless,  Elizabeth eventually answered, “I suggest you open your letter, dear.”

Non-plussed, Major Benjy slit open the envelope with his knife. Elizabeth noted with distaste that the blade was flecked with marmalade and butter. Unfolding the sticky document, Benjy groaned, “Oh, no...” 

As bitter recrimination reigned and blame was loudly apportioned in and about many of the rooms of “Grebe” and even, at one stage, around the cinder paths of the kitchen garden, a mile or so away within the venerable walls of Tilling, the morning took its normal calmer course.


As he had planned, Georgie Pillson had called early at the picture framers in the High Street to return their latest completed commission, which had been delivered to him wrapped in brown paper. Although he was satisfied with the delicate frame, which complimented his exquisite still life of apples, pears and soft fruit admirably, he was less than happy with the newly-applied gilt lettering which read  “Autumn’s Bunty.”

The piece was therefore promptly returned with the  polite request that “Since the painting was NOT intended as a birthday gift for Inspector Morrison’s wife,  might it not  be better for all concerned if the errant spelling was corrected?”


The framer accepted that the culpability was his and promised to have the corrected picture returned to “Mallards House” later.


Georgie also took the opportunity to collect his newly frames triptych of Tilling scenes which he had agreed to show at the Art Exhibition due to open the next day and which  he could conveniently drop off at the Institute on his way home.



At the clock on Tilling church struck ten, Georgie strode out of the framers into the watery March sunlight bathing the High Street.     

“Ah, perfect!” thought Georgie as he tripped over the road and joined a group of friends, some of whom like him had framed pictures under their arms.   
"Good morning, one and all,” he said cheerfully raising his boater with his free hand and smiling and nodding to each in turn.

“Off to the Institute Mr Georgie?” said Diva Plaistow, who also carried a picture, "Snap!”
“Indeed, I am Mrs Plaistow and I see you’re on the same errand, “ he remarked, continuing in time-honoured fashion in Tilling, “Any news?”

“Not really,” she replied, “Mrs Wyse was just saying that things have been a little dull recently, you know, somewhat stale.”


“Well, I think I may be aware of some fresh news that might liven things up more than somewhat,” explained Georgie, adopting a conspiratorial tone.


As Diva and Algernon and Susan Wyse leaned  forward expectantly, Georgie succinctly divulged to them what had, since 10 am sharp that morning, been plainly visible upon the List of the Accused, soon to face the ignominy of appearance before the Bench of Tilling Magistrates.


At each stage in Georgie’s masterfully pithy exposition of the charges and the events preceding them, his audience gasped and pronounced the communal “No!” that demonstrated their  absolute fascination by and enjoyment of the shocking information being shared with them.


As the group was uttering its third tribal “No!” they were joined by the Padre and Evie Bartlett, who interrupted immediately with, “Have you heard? They’re to be dragged before the Court next week!”


“Aye, tis a sad day for Tilling tae hae its guid name dragged through the mire like this!” intoned the Padre, in his broadest Scots and then, like some Hibernian Cassandra, “And our very ain Mayoress too. The sacred office is besmirched, I tell ye, besmirched!”


“ I trust you will not consider it impertinent or forward of me to inquire, Mr Georgie,” remarked Algernon Wyse, bowing as he spoke, “But now that her good name is ruined, has Mrs Mapp-Flint ... done the right thing?”
"The right thing?” asked Georgie, whose mind had sprung immediately to thoughts of loaded pearl handled revolvers left pointedly in the library with a bottle of whiskey.

“He means ‘resigned,’” added Diva Plaistow matter of factly, “ He means  ‘’Has she stood down?' The only honourable thing in my opinion.”


“Well, I don’t know “ Georgie replied truthfully, “Only time will tell. I suppose this will teach us to appreciate it when times are a little duller or even, as you said,  ‘stale’?”


With that remark Georgie again raised his boater, turned and made his way to the Institute. Behind him, his friends competed the post-mortem of the good names of their dear intimes, the very bulwarks of Tilling society, Major Benjamin and Mrs Elizabeth Mapp-Flint.

As Georgie approached the  Institute,  he saw Irene's huge canvass being manoeuvred through the lofty rear entrance. At one end Irene and Mr Hopkins, the fishmonger and her part-time model, together struggled to hold the enormity aloft. The other end was held single-handedly  by Lucy, Irene's colossal maid, seemingly without undue effort.
By the time Georgie sauntered through the front door, Irene was directing the hanging of her magnum opus in pride of place in the main gallery of the new Emmeline Pillson Wing.  

Wearing shiny leather boots,  jodhpurs and sporting a monocle, Irene had decided to dress today in the fashion of Eric Von Stroheim the German cinema director. Her outfit was completed by a riding crop, which she slapped noisily on her boot from time to time to emphasise a point or simply because she chose to.

Irene had communicated her very strict conditions to the Art Society by means of a  written memorandum,  before she would consent to exhibit her new work.

She had insisted, inter alia, that:

·        "My painting  must not be previously viewed or approved by the Hanging Committee.
·         My work must be hung alone in the principal gallery in the new wing of the Institute.
·         All decorations and lighting must comply precisely with my verbal instructions.
·         No ferns, flowers, flim-flam or other fripperies shall be allowed in the gallery.
·        A respectful silence shall be maintained at all times that my picture is on display."
After depositing his own contributions to the exhibition, Georgie entered the main gallery where Irene's magnum opus had been hung and was shrouded in its sheet, ready for unveiling the following morning when Lucia was scheduled to open the exhibition in her official capacity as Mayor.
"It looks very impressive," commented Georgie, looking up at the billowing sheet, "It promises to be a lively morning!"    
   
"Courage mon brave, courage!" replied Irene with a wink. She slapped her boot with a mighty thwack and strutted off to "Taormina" with Lucy in close attendance.
"Only in Tilling," thought Georgie, "You really couldn't make it up!" and hurried home to dress for dinner.     

Conversation during dinner that evening  was sparse at both “Mallards House” and “Grebe,” although for very different reasons.


Eventually as Foljambe withdrew after serving coffee, Georgie broke the silence, “Actually Lucia, I have to admit, I’m more than a little worried.”


“Why might that be Georgie, dearest?” asked Lucia, with an irritatingly seraphic smile.

“Surely you agree with me that this monstrosity by Irene is going to cause huge trouble?” he asked.
“Do you think so? “ Lucia asked, more than a little disingenuously
“I certainly do,” Georgie replied, “Particularly when coupled with the imminent court appearance of the Mapp-Flints. Elizabeth will looking to distract attention from her shame. It’s the way she works,  just like when she revokes at bridge, you’ll see, she will be unbearable - worse than ever. ”
“That is difficult to imagine” said Lucia, calmly sipping her coffee.

"You must admit that virtually anyone who is anyone in Tilling is going to feel insulted about being depicted as part of a baying mob – particularly when you are depicted as saintly – literally so!”

"Yes, I have to agree they may find it difficult to accept Irene's vision, Georgie,” she admitted

“After all how would you feel if you were shown scowling and throwing your  “Life of Antonio Caporelli” at Elizabeth?” asked Georgie.
“Most unlikely dear,” replied Lucia with mock gravity, “I would more likely choose a weightier tome, such as “The Boyhood of Beethoven.” A much more effective missile.”

“You may well joke, but you really should realise that many of your friends will think you encouraged Irene to paint that picture. You may end up taking all the blame.”
“That is a risk I must face, Georgie dear,” Lucia remarked, “Art cannot be stifled or confined. It must break free and express itself,  particularly when the artist is a free spirit like Irene.”

As he listened, Georgie knew that in reality Lucia was concerned about the potential consequences of her public martyrdom,  but so wanted to be at the centre of the latest Picture of the Year that she was prepared to take the risk, “At least I tried,” he thought.
As the Pillsons considered the likely events of the following morning, the Mapp-Flints undertook much the same exercise.

Dinner had been similarly tense and silent at “Grebe.” Eventually, as  the servants withdrew for the night, Elizabeth Mapp-Flint decided it was now time to end the accusatory silence and spoke.
“Well Benjy, there’s no denying, you have really done it this time! Just when I thought things might be looking up for us, waiting for the sale of the Maharani's stamp and the possibility of some real money at last. Now this! This must be a nadir, even by your own spectacularly low standards!”
“Oh Liz, do give it a rest will you?” Benjy replied, “ If I’ve said sorry once, I’ve said it a hundred times today. I am sorry about what I did. If I could re-live that day, I would not do it again.  I really don’t know why I did it and I’m truly sorry I did. What more can I say?”
“Very well,” said Elizabeth who had concluded that it would be pointless to inflict any more suffering along these lines for the time being  and that it would be more fruitful to move on to a different form of torture, “We must consider what we do now.”
“Lie low,  I hope,” suggested Benjy, “Tilling must be buzzing with the news now. I think we should just stay out here at “Grebe” until the dust settles and its all blown over.”
Resisting the temptation to point out the contradiction implicit in dust “blowing over” and “settling” at the same time,  Elizabeth moved on “Oh, no, no, no. That would be the very worse thing to do. Hiding out here at “Grebe” would be an admission of our guilt.”
“But Liz old girl, we are guilty!” said Benjy.
“That’s hardly the point, dear boy!” asserted Elizabeth, “Perceptions are there to be managed and that’s exactly what we must do.”
“How exactly?” asked Benjy, weakly.
“We shall attend the opening of the Art Exhibition at Tilling Institute tomorrow morning and behave quite normally, as if nothing whatsoever has happened.  We shall admire everyone’s work just as normal and compliment Irene upon her delightful new painting and sail through it all.”

“I just hope you’re right,” sighed Benjy as poured himself a very large whiskey. Elizabeth noticed this, but for once did not object. It had been a very long day.   

As was to be expected, the Emmeline  Pillson Wing of the Tilling Institute was crowded for the Grand Official Opening of the Tilling Art Society Winter Exhibition next morning.
Since Lucia was opening the Exhibition in her official capacity as Mayor, it was decided that it would be appropriate - and helpful to the tourist trade, which all agreed in these straightened times was crucial to the economic well-being of the town - for the Mayor and the entire Corporation to process there.

Accordingly in formal attire Lucia led her Corporation, including her macebearer, many  Councillors,  the bewigged Town Clerk and the Padre in clerical garb as the Mayor's Chaplain from the steps of the Town  Hall to the Institute.

 The colourful parade was cheered and photographed by an enthusiastic crowd of locals and visitors. The procession was joined by Inspector Morrison in the capacity of senior police officer in Tilling and headed by the boys Brigade band under the leadership of the Padre's curate, which made up in volume and enthusiasm what it lacked in musicianship and skill in drill.
From the crowd with Bunty Morrison, twins James and Doris gave their father a special cheer as he passed by.    
  
As Georgie Pillson awaited the arrival at the Institute of his wife the Mayor, he was approached by Algernon Wyse who, after the usual lengthy bowing and sundry other Chesterfield-inspired civilities, suggested that, "If Mrs Mapp- Flint felt compelled by her proven criminality to step down from the onerous post of Mayoress,  Mrs Pillson should be reminded that his other - indeed, undoubtedly 'better' half -  whose probity and value to the community had been recognised by the award of a distinguished Order by the King himself, might possibly be persuaded to overlook her personal feelings and, entirely for the benefit of Tiling,  accept the onerous  appointment of Mayoress."   
    
Embarrassed, Georgie thanked Mr Wyse for this intimation and undertook to "vouchsafe it unto the Mayor forthwith when time permitted."      
   
For this Mr Wyse was, "very much obliged," bowed yet again and withdrew.      
   
No sooner had Mr Wyse completed his advocacy in favour of his wife Susan, than Diva Plaistow offered her own services, though in more staccato and less verbose terms: "Sorry to hear Elizabeth's let herself down so badly. Shame that. When she resigns, please tell Lucia I'm ready to stand in as Mayoress. Least I can do to offer."       
       
Georgie said he would also pass on this offer and thought to himself that the Padre was probably offering his wee wifie  Evie as Mayoress during the civic procession to the Institute. In this Georgie was not mistaken.        
  
As the Corporation processed up to the steps of the Institute, various onlookers noted the absence from the ranks of serving Councillors of Elizabeth Mapp-Flint, the Mayoress.     
     
"Understandable in the circumstances, I suppose" remarked Diva Plaistow

"Probably wise," replied Georgie.

As the Mayoral party made its way to the dais at one end of the principal gallery, a stir was heard by the entrance. Everyone turned to see what was happening and a buzz of loud whispering spread around the room.

There, framed in the doorway stood the Mapp-Flints. Unabashed, they walked smiling down the centre of the room and deposited themselves conspicuously in two empty seats in the very front row.

“I wouldn’t have believed it,” hissed Diva behind he back of her gloved hand to Georgie.
"Me neither!” responded Georgie behind his, in what for him was an unusual lapse into the vernacular.
Elizabeth turned this way and that smiling and bestowing quasi–regal waves to real or imagined acquaintances, as she had seen Queen Mary do in the newsreels.  

“Milking it a little, if you don’t mind me saying,” added Diva, to which Georgie merely nodded and raised an eyebrow in the direction of Lucia on the platform.
At that moment, Elizabeth chose to blow the Mayor and kiss and bestow a particularly ingratiating smile. Lucia responded with a civil nod of acknowledgement and began her introductory remarks.       
       
After thanking her audience for its attendance, Lucia confirmed how pleased she was to have the honour as Mayor of the ancient town of Tilling to open what had become the Annual Winter Exhibition of the flourishing Tilling Art Society. She was proud of the burgeoning reputation of Tilling as a centre of enlightenment, refinement and appreciation of the Arts in all their forms. She would shortly be honoured to declare the exhibition open.

“Hear, hear!” shouted the Major loudly, in an effort to establish his own presence at the proceedings.
“As long as we don’t have to listen to her murdering the 'Moonlight Sonata' again,” I don’t really care,” hissed Elizabeth in his ear.

Lucia continued her peroration by explaining that, “It is also my particular pleasure to be able to call upon celebrated local painter and my dear friend,  Miss Irene Coles to unveil her very latest work for the first time here in Tilling. You may remember that Miss Cole's earlier work famously featuring our beloved Tilling and was exhibited to great acclaim in the Summer Exhibition of the Royal Academy in London and pronounced “Picture of the Year.”

Polite applause broke out at the mention of this success, which Irene acknowledged somewhat in the manner of a winning prize-fighter.
“I am sure I am speaking for all of us here in Tilling,” continued Lucia, “When I say that we are very much looking forward to viewing your new painting – which is indeed on a magnificent scale – and earnestly hope that it will also be nationally successful and be named Picture of the Year.”
Lucia concluded her remarks and called upon Miss Coles to unveil her painting. Dressed again in her cream barathea suit and matching beret, which she had first worn  at Lucia’s Mayoral Banquet, Irene stepped forward and acknowledged her ovation.
 
With a flourish,  she swept aside the huge sheet hitherto concealing her canvass. As the cover fell to the tiled floor of the gallery,  silence was followed by an audible intake of breath, as if Tilling itself had made a strangled gasp.
"I’ve never seen anything like it!” croaked Diva Plaistow, ”Is that really a plate of my tartlets flying across the canvass?”
 “Abominable” remarked the usually pacific Algernon Wyse, “That jar of honey clearly has the monogram and coronet of my sister Amelia, Contessa di Faraglione. She would be mortified to see it used in this way!”
 “And I believe I’m shown about to mow our Mayor down with my tricycle, aren’t I Algernon?” wailed Susan Wyse, “And I’m such a careful rider. It’s so unkind!”
"Good Lord!" bellowed the Padre, for once lapsing from his broad Scots to betray his origins in darkest Birmingham, "I'm a man of the cloth. I can't be portrayed about to assault the Mayor with my Bible. It's a travesty!"

After this Evie, emitted what could only be described as a high-pitched squeak of support.
“Well,  how do you think I feel?” asked Elizabeth Mapp-Flint “ There I am, shown again in that ghastly Victorian shawl, bonnet and high-buttoned boots about to maim my dear friend Lucia with what is if I am not mistaken one of my own money boxes from my treasured rainbow of piggies. It really is too hurtful!”
“At least it's not insinuated that you are a drunkard, as well as a violent assassin, Elizabeth!” ranted Benjy, “If you look you will see I am launching a large and empty bottle of scotch.”
Like most in the room at this point, Georgie thought, “At least that is fairly accurate,” but left the thought unspoken. Instead, he tried to restore order by appealing to the audience for quiet, “So that perhaps Miss Coles would comment further on her work and explain some of the finer details?”
At this, Quaint Irene stood up again and said, “Thanks Georgie, but I really don’t think I will. My painting stands as it is and doesn’t need any sugary words from me to make it more palatable. “
“Stands as what exactly, might I ask” shouted Elizabeth
“It shows how you all in Tilling take for granted the best Mayor you’ve ever had, or are likely to have!” asserted Irene spiritedly, “She not only buys Mapp’s old house for a very fair price and saves her from bankruptcy, she funds the hospital, the sports clubs, new paths and shelters, adds this wing to the Institute, acts as Chief Magistrate and does lots of other good works you can’t even dream about. In return, all you can do is complain and plot behind her back. That’s what my painting is about. It's Art. You don't negotiate it:  you can all like it or lump it!”
“I, for one, will be seeking advice from my solicitor!” shouted Elizabeth Mapp-Flint.
“Well, you will be keeping him very busy this week! “ responded Irene in a not very subtle reference to the imminent Court hearing.
“Really!  I’ve never heard anything like it! ” roared Elizabeth, “Come on Benjy, it’s time we were leaving!”
“You should get out more!” shouted Irene as the Mapp-Flints stormed out of the Institute. Turning smiling to Lucia, Irene added “I thought that went well. Is it time for tea?”
 

Tilling woke up with a metaphorical hangover following the unveiling of Irene Coles' enormous painting of the Stoning of St Emmeline at the Tilling Institute the previous day.
Algernon and Susan Wyse advised their butler, the infamously bovine Boon, to inform all callers that they were "indisposed indefinitely (other than to a call from the Mayor in respect of any vacancy in the position of Mayoress.)"

The chatelaine of  "Starling Cottage" rested in her boudoir in a veritable cloud of pink satin, chiffon and crepe de chine, as her devoted spouse  cooled her with a fan of finest antique Spanish lace and dabbed her fevered brow with 4711.
The other Tillingites slandered by Quaint Irene's' masterwork were made of sterner stuff and, despite feeling bruised and not a little hurt by her excesses, made the supreme effort to be in the Principal Court at Tilling Magistrates to witness first-hand the darkest hour of one of Tilling's most prominent couples.
Diva Plaistow sat in the front row of the Visitor's Gallery with her long-serving maid, Janet.  Next to her was Georgie Pillson, whose prime concern was to demonstrate his support for Lucia, whom all agreed had been placed in a "very difficult position" by her reckless Mayoress.
Looking thunderously Calvinistic, Kenneth Bartlett seemed to be finding it difficult to extend Christian forgiveness in respect of the calumny suffered at the hand of Quaint Irene. Alongside Georgie, the Padre was accompanied by his wife, Evie, still trying to overcome her embarrassment at being represented as a rodent in Irene's painting. "At least the rest of you were human!" she squeaked repeatedly.
As they looked on, the Bench of Magistrates proceeded in its usual efficient way. Several Road Traffic Act offences, one drunk-and-disorderly and a licensing application were heard before the cases against Major Benjamin Mapp-Flint and Mrs Elizabeth Mapp-Flint  were called.
As  Benjy and Elizabeth entered the dock, Georgie thought compassionately, "Gosh, they do look old."  Both seemed weighed down by the circumstances thrust upon them. Despite all that had passed between them in a chequered history, Georgie simply felt sympathy for his friends and neighbours.
As the Clerk called the case, Lucia shuffled her papers and cleared her throat in preparation. "Ladies and gentlemen," Lucia announced, "The next case concerns Major Benjamin Mapp- Flint and Mrs Elizabeth Mapp-Flint of "Grebe" near Tilling. I feel it is proper that I should declare an interest, since both of the accused are well known to me. In fact, Mrs Mapp-Flint is currently my Mayoress in Tilling.  In the circumstances, I am advised by my learned Clerk that it will be appropriate for me to stand down from the Bench for these cases and to pass the Chairmanship to my colleague and deputy,  Mr Harold Twistevant."
With these words, Lucia promptly left the Bench and descended to sit in the body of the Court.  Assuming the Chair,  Mr  Twistevant instructed the Clerk to put the charges to the accused.

Both Benjy and Elizabeth pleaded guilty to their charge and Mr Twistevant called upon the prosecuting solicitor to set out the circumstances of the cases.
After the Court had received a full account of what transpired, Mr Twistevant asked if the defending solicitor wished to make a plea in mitigation. Mr Causton, representing the Mapp-Flints, was about to stand up to make a detailed plea, which he had prepared late into the preceding night.
As he rose, Major Benjy also stood, "I say old chap. Can we leave it? I know you've worked out what you want to say, but I think it's important for my wife and I that I try to  say what needs to be said today."
"Of course, Major Mapp-Flint, please carry on," said Mr Causton, resuming his seat.

"Right then," said Major Benjy standing ramrod-straight facing the Bench, "I'm sorry if these words aren't quite what they should be, but I really do need to stand up and speak to you today. And I think you should hear what I have to say."
"Thank you Major. Take your time," replied Harold Twistevant, with untypical consideration.
"Very well, I'll do my best, Sir," said the Major, "First and foremost, I need you to know that it's ridiculous that my wife should be here today. She may be the C.O in our home, but she had nothing to do with these tickets. I bought them and she thought they were First Class.  It really is all down to me and nothing to do with her. Elizabeth should not be standing with me in this dock."

"Oh Benjy!" cried Elizabeth and shed a genuine tear in public for the first time in her adult life.
"Next, there's me. There's not much to say really. I may have been Sporting Benjy in the my regiment in Poona. I liked polo and rough mess games and a chota peg or two and certainly had an eye for the ladies, but that's all I  amounted to really. After forty years of ups and downs in the Indian Army, I retired with only  tiny pension and a few moth-eaten tiger skins to show for it. I enjoyed a round of  golf and a few yarns and snifters with my old friend Captain Puffin, but even managed to lose him. Drowned in a bowl of  Mrs Gashly's filthy soup. Would you believe it? That's no way for an old sailor to pass-on."
As Benjy spoke, the only sound about the Court room was of Elizabeth's sobs. No-one present would ever forget.
"When I lost my old friend Puffin," he continued, "Elizabeth  came to my rescue and was willing to take me on. Even then, I nearly managed to spoil it when she was lost at sea with the Mayor.  Moved into her house I did and spent loads of cash and generally disgraced myself. After we were married, we managed to lose a lot of money on those damnable Siriami shares. Despite everything, my Elizabeth stuck by me, even when she lost her precious "Mallards,"the thing she loved above all."
Pausing and taking a deep breath, Major Benjy continued, "But now this. The only thing we really had left was our good name and I've  even managed to lose us that."
Pausing to take a sip of water, the Major carried on,"All I can say is that it wasn't my wife's fault in any way.  I'm to blame. I had my brain addled by the reappearance of my lovely Pride of  Poona from all that time ago, when I was a young subaltern and had the world at my feet.  Not only that, I learned after so many years, that I had a son - a brave officer who sacrificed his life for a King and Country he had never seen in the Great War - and I never knew him."
Benjy went on, "You must admit that all this was enough to knock a man for six and to stop him being his usual self.  I admit I did some strange things. I needed to win for once and decided I shouldn't pay full fare. I don't know why. Madness. I've never done it before and never will again."
Standing to attention and saluting the Bench, Benjy concluded, "All I know is that all this is nothing to do with my Elizabeth. So please let her go today and just do what you must with me."  
   
“I must say, I found Benjy’s words very moving,” said Diva, dabbing her eyes with the corner of her handkerchief when the Magistrates had retired with their Clerk to consider their verdict.

“Yes,” agreed Georgie, blowing his nose and clearing his throat, “With all his bluff and bluster, we never really think what it must be like to be in Major Benjy’s shoes.”
“And to have to face Elizabeth every day,” added Diva.

“Without remission or time off for good behaviour!” laughed Georgie, “Oh look , the Magistrates are coming back.”
As Mr Twistevant and the other Magistrate retook their seats, the Mapp-Flints were led back into the dock. Each stood as Mr Twistevant adjusted his rimless spectacles and spoke.

“Major and Mrs Mapp-Flint,” he intoned soberly, “I am going to deal with you together since there is really no other way of proceeding.  First, I must stress that this Court takes a very serious view of theft or dishonesty in all its forms, whether it be simple stealing or trying to gain a financial advantage at the expense of someone else. This applies to avoiding payment for a railway ticket altogether or not  paying the full fare, as much as it would to a burglary.”
Those watching on from the visitors’ gallery feared for the worst as he continued, “However, we must be just and take full account of all the circumstances. It is clear to this Bench that Mrs Mapp-Flint did not participate in the purchase of the Second Class tickets and was entirely unaware that her husband had not bought First Class returns in the usual and proper way. The mens rea or intention to commit this offence was entirely absent and unproven. Your decision to plead guilty with your husband was clearly misguided but should not be allowed to work to your detriment. The charges against you are therefore withdrawn and you are free to go from this Court with no stain upon your character.”

A murmur of approval went around the chamber as Elizabeth sniffed and responded quietly, “Thank you very much, Your Worship” and stepped out of the dock.
“As for you, Major Mapp-Flint,” pronounced Mr Twistevant gravely, “I’m afraid we have an entirely different position.”

“Yes Sir,” replied Benjy, standing rigidly with eyes fixed straight ahead, whilst in the well of the Court below Elizabeth heaved with sobs and leaned heavily upon the shoulder of Mr Causton, who did not particularly enjoy her damp proximity.
“You have today addressed the court and quite properly taken full responsibility for your actions. You have admitted that you tried to cheat the Tilling and District Railway Company out of the difference between First and Second Class fares on no less than three occasions and have expanded upon the reasons for your conduct with commendable frankness.”

“I tried my best to do that, Sir,” said Benjy, attempting to ignore the escalating wails of his distressed spouse below.
“Whilst this Bench cannot, and must not, ever be seen to condone premeditated criminality, it must not be blind to the massive strain which appears to have affected you during this time and distorted your judgement. I regret that you have not sought to avail yourself of the formal defences available to charges such as these, arising from your mental condition, but I have no doubt that if you had, you would have succeeded in being discharged.”

“Thank you, Sir,” mumbled Benjy, uncertain whether he had just been insulted.
“Unusual though it may seem, this Bench is prepared to adopt what it considers is a sensible, realistic and above-all just approach. Since you have admitted your error and clearly demonstrated the requisite remorse, we consider that there is absolutely nothing to be gained in punishing you further.  You are therefore bound over to be on good behaviour and no further penalty shall be imposed today. Be very aware though, Major Mapp-Flint, should you ever be brought before this court again for a similar transgression, you will be subject to the very maximum penalty available. You may step down.”   
  
As the Mapp-Flints left the dock they virtually staggered down the steps of Tilling Magistrates Court, blinking and in speechless shock.

 

“I really do need a cup of tea and a sit down,” Elizabeth eventually said to Diva who had joined the throng of well-wishers, who crowded around them in the street.
“Of course,” Diva replied, “Come back with me to “Wasters” and Janet will put the kettle on. After a morning like that you need to catch your breath before going home.

“That would be very kind” replied Benjy, “And then a taxi back out to 'Grebe' post haste. We don’t need a route march today, eh Liz old girl?”

“Absolutely not, Benjy,” smiled Elizabeth.

The Mapp-Flints and Mrs Plaistow were enjoying their second cup of tea and a plate of freshly-baked jumbles when they heard a commotion outside. 

Going to the front window of her parlour,  Diva looked out and said, “It’s Irene. She’s running around the road in front of the Institute waving her hands in the air and screaming.”

“What’s she saying?” asked Benjy, intrigued but after his tiring morning, lacking the energy to get up and see for himself .

“Can’t hear. Better go out and look!” shouted Diva as she slammed the front door behind her.

Diva approached Irene who was literally running around in circles outside the Institute in huge distress, “Whatever’s the matter?” she asked.

“Come in and see for yourself!” cried Irene pointing towards the door of the Institute, “You won’t believe it!  I knew I said they all were boors and Grundys in Tilling, but I never thought that they would stoop to this!”

Diva followed Irene into the main gallery together with the Mapp-Flints, Diva’s Janet and Irene’s maid Lucy. Next followed Georgie and Lucia Pillson, who came directly from the Magistrates Court with Harold Twistevant, the Padre and Evie Bartlett.  All stood shocked and silent as they stared at Irene’s huge painting, hanging in its place of honour on the gallery wall. Even Inspector Morrison gasped as he entered and took in the scene.

Instead of the bright enormity of the scene of martyrdom set against the red roofed splendour of the ancient town, created by Tilling’s finest painter, there was a slashed and desecrated abomination.

Some sharp instrument had been used, as if in a towering rage, to cut and tear the canvas from one corner to the other and from side to side. What had been Irene’s triumphant vision, hung in strips and tatters, vandalised and shredded.

“How could anyone be so cruel” wailed Irene, picking up one long ribbon of serrated canvass, I know it upset folk, but this? Who could possibly deserve this, this violation?”

Lucia hastened to Irene’s side and cradled her sobbing head. Turning to Inspector Morrison, Lucia said, “Mr Pillson and I will take Irene home to “Mallards House” immediately, whilst you begin your investigation. Will that be alright?”

“Yes, Your Worship” replied the Inspector,” I will need to interview Miss Coles in due course, but think it best to allow her time to compose herself. I will be in touch later.”
“Thank you Inspector,” said Lucia as she and Georgie between them shepherded the distraught Irene out of the gallery and on to “Mallards House.”
Inspector Morrison set to work immediately at the scene of the crime. Those present were asked to refrain from touching anything that might constitute evidence and several constables combed the room, whilst specialists took photographs and sought fingerprints.
This forensic process took many hours and it was nearly ten 'o clock that night before Inspector Morrison telephoned Lucia at “Mallards House.”
 
“I’m sorry to telephone you so late Your Worship ,” said the Inspector, “But our investigations at the Institute have taken a considerable time”

“I understand entirely Inspector,” replied Lucia, "I trust your inquiries were fruitful?”

“Only time will tell, Ma’am” said Herbert, as cautiously as was his habit, “I wanted to inquire how Miss Coles is now.”

“Sleeping in a guest bedroom,” answered Lucia.

“I thought that would be the case and had not anticipated being able to interview her this evening.”

“Thank you for your consideration," remarked Lucia, “Will you need to see her in the morning?”
“Yes, Mrs Pillson, I will,” Herbert replied, “It would be helpful to meet at say 11a.m – perhaps in Miss Coles’ studio at “Taormina”?”
“I’m sure that Miss Coles will have no objection,” commented Lucia, “Would you like me to attend?”
“Yes, indeed I would Ma’am” responded the Inspector, “I’m sure Miss Coles would appreciate your continued support.  And also if Miss Coles doesn’t mind I would like to arrange for several of the other persons concerned to be present.”
“I had a feeling you might, Inspector,” commented Lucia, perceptively, “ I suppose you will wish to speak to all the suspects and naturally, given the ferocity of their reactions to the painting, that will include everyone shown in the painting trying to kill me?”
“I’m sure you wouldn’t expect me to comment further at this point your Worship” Inspector Morrison replied, dryly.
 “No indeed Inspector, I would not,” said Lucia, “ A domani then.”
 

From dawn next day Tilling was alive with conjecture as to the identity of what rapidly came to be known locally and in the popular press as "The Tilling Slasher."

Someone – possibly Irene's London agent - notified the Central News Agency of the atrocity and by late evening several journalists from London were active around the town,  seeking exclusive coverage.
Admittedly the bulk of the hardened news hounds' work appeared to be carried out in the saloon bar of the Traders Arms, where the servants  of most of the leading figures involved and Rita Perkins, the pretty barmaid, were interviewed at length over pints of bitter and refreshing ports and lemon.

By morning,  one might almost have made a book as to which persons affronted by Irene’s picture was most likely to have been so enraged as to slash it, literally to ribbons.
As the hour of eleven drew nigh, most of the leading figures in the nascent betting market knocked at the door of “Taormina” and were admitted to Irene’s spacious studio at the rear.

As suspects entered, Georgie’s Foljambe and Irene’s Lucy handed around cups of tea and coffee and refreshments.
“Rather like a good whist drive!” remarked Evie Bartlett, biting into a sausage roll.

“Yes, dear, quite like the one’s I serve, but dare I say, the pastry is slightly less light,” commented Diva, employing her professional insight,  continuing, “Ah, here comes Inspector Morrison. Perhaps we can start now?”
Putting down his cup of tea, Inspector Morrison strode into the centre of the studio, holding a clip board with his notes, “ Ladies and gentlemen,” he began,” Thank you all for coming this morning. I recognise you are busy people and that this cannot have been convenient during your business hours.”

“Aye ‘tis true! There’s nae doot aboot that,” chimed in the Padre, who that morning had been obliged to cancel a remunerative ecclesiastical sight-seeing tour of the Cinque Ports that he was due to oversee for a group of visiting vicars  from Nebraska.
“Thank you Padre,” replied the Inspector with the patience he had learned was essential in Tilling, “I will endeavour to keep you busy people for as short a time as possible to day, but as I’m sure you appreciate, the law must be allowed to take its course”

“Hear, hear!” shouted Major Benjy because he enjoyed  doing so and because he liked to see the Padre put in his place from time to time.
“Now, perhaps we might proceed,” said the Inspector, trying to regain control of the proceedings, “It would appear that, given what might be called the 'controversial' nature of the work , the prime suspects in respect of the regrettable vandalism of Miss Coles' painting are those depicted as participating in what I think is called “the stoning”

The Inspector paused and asked, “Is that right Miss Coles?”
Yes, it is Inspector,"  said Irene, “But they didn’t confine themselves to boring old stones. I had them throwing lots of interesting things – symbols you know.”

“Yes, thank you Miss Coles,” Herbert replied. Then, like a teacher taking attendance in class, Inspector Morrison read his handwritten list of assailants and missiles of choice, upon which each person concerned held up his or her  hand. “Now let me see:

·        Major Benjy – whiskey bottle – here,

·        Mrs Mapp-flint – money box (china pig) – here

·        Mr Wyse – jar of honey (from Capri) – here

·        Mrs Wyse – tricycle (ridden not thrown) – here

·        Mrs Plaistow -  sardine tartlets (4) and plate (china) – here

·        The Padre – one large Bible (King James Version) - here

·        Mrs  Bartlett – no missile but portrayed in rodent form (i.e. a mouse) - here

·        Mr Twistevant – a tin of corned beef – here

·        The Town Clerk, Captain Dawes – a volume of Halsbury’s Statutes – here.”

“In addition and for the sake of completeness I must point out that Mrs Pillson was depicted as the target of these objects,” he added.
“Here!” cried Lucia cheerfully entering into the spirit of the occasion

“And finally, similarly for the sake of completeness, I should mention that Mr Pillson was not shown upon the painting, in case such exclusion might be argued to be a motive for such destructive excess.”
“Oh, thank you Inspector,” said Georgie, “ Here! I’m so pleased to be included as a suspect.  I was frightened I was going to be left out entirely!"

“Now do tell us, Morrison, boomed Harold Twistevant, somewhat bombastically, “What criteria are you going to use to winkle out our Slasher: motive, opportunity and evidence?  Do tell!”
Inspector Morrison was very conscious that, despite his prominence in business and on the Town Council, Harold Twistevant had been far from his biggest admirer since he arrested his youngest son for the theft of a large sum from Diva Plaistow’s Christmas Club.  This had been compounded by excessive pride in his promotion to the Chair of Magistrates whilst Lucia had to stand down, albeit pro tem, on the previous day.   

“I can, if you prefer, go through each of the names I have listed and share with you my detailed analysis of their specific possible motives and opportunity to commit the offence – the 'mens rea' and 'actus rea' in question” he added, “But I think everyone here might be relieved if I simply suggested who committed the offence.”
"Go on then,” replied Mr Twistevant, less than graciously, “Tell us who it was you think slashed the picture.”

“I don’t think,  I know, the culprit, Sir,” explained Inspector Morrison confidently.
“Then let us all in on it, Inspector!” shouted Irene, who after four strong cups of coffee was  by now beside herself with excitement.

“Very well, Miss Coles,” Herbert replied, “The Slasher was none of the people shown in your picture”

“Are you saying it was me, then Inspector?” asked Georgie, terrified.
“No  Sir, I certainly am not,” he answered.
      
“Well who?” shouted Irene, "Do put us out of our misery, please!”

“I’m sorry to have to tell you this Miss Coles, but I’m afraid that the Tilling Slasher was your maid, Lucy. Clearly Lucy was the only person with unrestricted access at the relevant times with the height, strength and reach to inflict such damage upon the canvass. I fear her motive was simple jealousy.  There was only one suspect!”

“Noooo!” screamed Irene “ Lucy, tell me it’s not true! I can’t bear it. You couldn’t do this to me. Not you above all people!”
Lucy put down her tray of tea cups and sat down, smoothing her white apron with her manly hands.
  
"I’m sorry, Irene, but he’s right,"  she explained, “It was me. I’m sorry I hurt you so much, but it all got too much for me.”

“But why? How could you do this to me?” asked Irene, "We meant so much to each other. I could have understood anyone but you doing this terrible thing. Why did you do it? Why?”
“You never ever put yourself in my position do you?” asked Lucy, addressing Irene as if she were the only person in the room, “Month after month, I have to put up with you going on and on and on about 'her'. Lucia this, Lucia that, till my head is spinning with it! You never stopped talking about her - her beauty, her kindness, her wit, you never stopped!”

“I didn't know, Lucy, I just didn’t realise," said Irene, again as though only Lucy was with her in that  crowded room.
“And then you go and produce your masterpiece, your magnum opus. I have never seen you more happy or thrilled. And who was it about? Her, her, always her. When I saw you fawning over her, the other day at the opening of the exhibition,  something in my head just snapped and when they shut for the night, I stayed behind and hid in the store room and did what I did. So now you know. I destroyed your best work. You must hate me.”

“No Lucy,” said Irene, “I’m sorry. I don't hate you.  I hate myself. Let's get out of here.”
With that, Irene took Lucy's hand and together they walked towards the door of the studio.
As the couple passed Herbert, Irene turned to him and said, “I won’t be laying any charges Inspector. Thank you.”
“I know Miss Coles, I know,” Inspector Morrison replied.
Copyright reserved in all appropriate territories  Deryck Solomon 2013


 

 

 
























 
 

 
 

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