Friday, 29 June 2012

September: The Vanishing Soubrette

 

During the marketing hour in Tilling that morning, there was naturally no news worth discussing other than the welcome reappearance upon the gem of the Sussex Riviera of Major Benjamin Mapp-Flint (Indian Army, Retired).

On the pavement outside the premises of Mr Hopkins the fishmonger and part-time artist's model, the Padre likened it to the "return of the Prodigal Son. Och aye, 'tis true for, he who was lost to us is nae returned - if ye will pardon the expression - to our nurturing communal bosom. I shall preach on the symbolism in mae sermon next Sunday, tha' noos."
 

"Can hardly wait," replied Diva Plaistow, with the expression usually reserved by her close friend Elizabeth Mapp-Flint for that scintilla of time between biting into one of Diva’s sardine tartlets and sharing with  anyone in earshot her views upon its “questionable” freshness.
 

Diva  found the idea of the errant Major returning to any bosom, even a nurturing communal one, less than appealing. She expunged the distasteful image from her mind and continued briskly, "Has any one seen either of the Mapp-Flints recently?"
 

"Well, said Lucia, "My Inspector kindly saw the Major from the Railway Station back to 'Grebe.' Withers let him in the front door. It closed and that was that. The curtains have remained drawn ever since."
 

"In short, despite having 'Your own Inspector,' you don't actually know any more than the rest of us, Worship?" sniped Diva, who in the absence of Elizabeth Mapp-Flint, usually assumed the mantle of "She who endeavours to keep the chatelaine of 'Mallards House' in her place."
 

"I'm not sure I would quite put it like that, Diva dear," said Lucia, affecting a slightly wounded air, "But basically, ‘yes.’"
 

In the absence of any real information as to the events following Benjy's return, the gossips around the town rushed in to fill the vacuum, which they, like Nature, so deplored. It is not reported whether angels feared to tread where they now foregathered in a positive frenzy of hobnailed speculation.
 

The lower orders - primarily those in the public bar of the town - envisaged an apocalyptic confrontation when the returning spouse ventured within the portals of the darkened room in which his distraught wife languished grief-stricken on her chaise longue, like an over-inflated Elizabeth Barrett-Browning.
 

It was suggested that, given their universally-known predisposition towards bellicosity, the pair soon exchanged harsh words, leading to the use of sundry handy and inexpensive items as missiles.  These included the vial of eau de cologne hitherto used to dab Elizabeth's fevered temples and an already-cracked Spode chamber pot, which did not find a purchaser at Elizabeth’s most recent jumble sale – held exclusively in aid of “her” Tilling Club rather than “Worship’s Tilling Girl Guides” or “Susan’s Tilling Hospital”.
 

More genteel and romantic prognostications emerged over bridge at Mrs Plaistow's tea rooms, but the general consensus was that, though it was now only mellow September, this year at "Grebe" cruel winter frostiness was certain to have come early. 


 
Later that afternoon, the conjecture resumed when a convivial foursome came together for tea and bridge at “Wasters.”


Any table made up of the Mayor of Tilling, her dapper spouse the eternal jeune premiere of the town, the ever-courtly Algernon Wyse of the Wyses of Whitchurch and his good lady Susan, decorated in recognition of her good works by the King himself, merited personal service from the proprietor. 


In any event, Diva Plaistow would not have dreamed of missing out on any of the intelligence likely to be shared over the cards and dainties. 


For the avoidance of doubt, it should be appreciated that, though the mental capacity of those present was not in doubt, the intelligence in question took the form of “news” or more accurately “gossip,” rather than cerebral capacity or erudition.
 


Once it had been clearly established that neither of the householders had yet crossed the threshold of “Grebe”, been seen about the town or felt able to accept or answer any telephoned inquiries as to their health, conversation moved on to other matters.
 


In response to an inquiry from Lucia, Susan Wyse confirmed that her brother and sister in law, Count Cecco and Amelia di Faraglione were indeed in good health. She had in fact received a letter from Amelia only that morning, “They are so missing the Morrisons and their delightful children!” she explained.
 


“Ah,” said Lucia, somewhat vaguely, since her extensive social and charitable interests did not extend to children, other than her own Girl Guides, in whose welfare as District Commissioner she took a benevolent though distant supervisory role.


“And what of Irene and Lucy?” asked Georgie, hastening to gloss over the uncaring impression created by the shortfall in his wife’s maternal feelings. 


“Well, it seems our Miss Coles has engineered yet another personal triumph whilst in Capri. As you know, it had been arranged for the King to sit for his portrait, whilst holidaying there.”



“Indeed, we do,” said Lucia. 


“It is reported that the sittings went well and that His Majesty was delighted with the finished portrait. He has accepted the work and has graciously consented for it to go on display here in Tilling and then in London, before returning for permanent exhibition in Rome.”


“Such an honour!” enthused Georgie, "I wonder if Irene's portrait will end up on all their postage stamps. Just imagine! And when will our celebrated Irene be returning with her paintings?” 


“In a day or two I believe,” replied Algernon, bowing in the general direction of Capri, as if it were Mecca.  “Susan and I are simply gratified that our brother-in-law Count Cecco was able to 'oil the wheels' for Miss Coles, if you will pardon the colloquialism.  Simple noblesse oblige, you know. It is the way of the Faragliones since time immemorial,” he purred.


“And of the Wyses of Whitchurch, of course, my dear” added Susan, ingratiatingly, even by her own oleaginous standards, prompting a positive maelstrom of meaningful looks between all others present.


“Why thank you my dear” responded Algernon, with the courtliest of bows to his life’s partner, “How gracious of you.  But enough now of the glories of noble lineage; let us turn to present concerns.  Miss Coles’ paintings are in transit as we speak and our resident genius and Lucy are returning to Tilling by rail,” he continued, with yet another stately bow towards the benefactress of Tilling, “The Main Gallery in the Emmeline Pillson Wing in the Institute has been reserved for the exhibition of the works undertaken during Irene’s recent tour of the Continent, before moving on to Cork Street.”
 

“How thrilling!” exclaimed Georgie, “I can hardly wait to see all her new work.” 


“Hopefully,  it will be better received here in Tilling than Irene’s last effort,” remarked Lucia, adding mischievously, “Maybe curiosity will entice the ‘Recluses of ‘Grebe’’ out into the daylight from their self-imposed purdah? We shall just have to see.  Now, whose deal is it?”

As the cards were dealt, Diva Plaistow entered the room and pinned a poster onto the notice board provided for the benefit of her patrons showing forthcoming events ranging from bring-and- buy sales to cinema programmes.

"Just met the most charming young man. Asked me to put up a poster. Could hardly say 'No.'"

"And what is it advertising?" asked Susan Wyse.

"A touring review – singing, dancing and comedy," replied Diva, "It says they're 'direct from Milan', but I would swear his accent was Yorkshire."

"It doesn't sound quite so impressive to say, 'Direct from Rotherham,'" quipped Georgie, "Three no trumps, please."

 
 

"So, despite apparently being called' Il Teatro di Buoni Compagni, you formed the impression that the company does not in fact hail from Italy, Diva dear?" asked Lucia, whilst exchanging a meaningful glance with Georgie, who shared her unspoken concerns."

Since their lack of fluency in la bella lingua had so very nearly been made public during the visit to Tilling of Contessa Amelia, the Pillsons had been ever vigilant to ensure that no competent Italian speaker should expose their linguistic shortcomings.

"Absolutely not, Worship," replied Diva, matter 'o factly, "I haven’t met that many Italians, but hardly any that I've met said ‘Hey up, lass’ or ‘Ecky thump,’ let alone 'I'll sithee!'"
 
"I suppose it might be post-modernist satire?" suggested Susan, who quite liked the idea of a cutting-edge Italian futurist ensemble visiting Tilling. 

"No, Susan. We are talking 'homely and end of the pier' here, not 'sophisticated or avant garde. Anyway, in return he kindly gave me complementary tickets for myself and Janet for the opening night. So you must all await my review," asserted Diva.
 
"It sounds charming!" lied Lucia, whose main emotion was one of relief that it now appeared unlikely that her inadequacies in the tongue of Dante were again at risk of being exposed.  Accordingly, it would neither be necessary to feign influenza or any more serious contagion or again to send Georgie away to an hotel in Eastbourne or  even Frinton.
 
Appreciating the position, Georgie remarked "What fun! I haven't seen a seaside review with song, comedians and dance with Pierrot and Columbine for simply years. Do let's all go. It should be such an amusing evening!"
 

"I don't see why not, Georgie dear," responded Lucia, "Given how you all work me, I would certainly appreciate an evening freed from the pressures of office. I don’t see why I shouldn’t attend; in my private capacity of course, not as Mayor of Tilling. I would relish an opportunity to relax privately out of the public gaze: relieved from the burdens of power, so to speak."

Everyone present knew that had Elizabeth Mapp-Flint been present, she could not have resisted the opportunity to let fly an entertaining barb of sarcasm to prick Lucia’s bubble of pomposity – to the effect that the Civic Mace was burdensome and space-consuming on such occasions or of the dangers of the Mayoral tricorn hat and plumes obscuring the view of the stage. In her absence there was a depressed silence: Lucia simply smiled; she was unassailable and unassailed.

 
Eventually, Algernon Wyse intervened and enthused, "We shall all have an abundance of good things to which to look forward!" tactfully ignoring the display of what some might regard as a mayoral-megalomania, "The glamorous variety theatre comes to Tilling, followed shortly by a delicious exhibition by our own internationally acclaimed artist, Miss Irene Coles, and our circle will hopefully soon again be completed by the return of our much-loved Mapp-Flints!"
 

"Yes, I suppose so," said Lucia, with a weak smile.
 

"Two out of three good things isn't too bad, is it?" giggled Georgie, behind his hand, "Time for one more rubber, don't you think? Mrs Plaistow, might we have some more tea?"  And so, they played on.



Before long, the opened windows of “Taormina” and sight of eiderdowns and bolsters hung airing over the windowsills in the continental fashion, signalled that Miss Irene Coles R.A. had returned safely from her extended tour.

As her companion and former maid Lucy unpacked cases and dusted, Quaint Irene strode purposefully down the High Street with her largest shopping basket in one hand and an impressive meerschaum pipe in the other.
 

Today the returning Quaint One thought it apt to dress in the fashion of one of Garibaldi’s supporters and sported dashing knee breeches, a blazing red shirt and revolutionary woollen cap.
 

“Ben arrivato!” ventured Algernon Wyse cordially, as Irene approached, “Welcome home. We are glad to see you safely returned amongst us after your dramatic villeggiatura. You are quite well, I trust?”
 

“Quite well, grazie, comrade!” replied Irene cheerfully.
 

Somewhat non-plussed to be thus addressed for the first time in his life, Algernon thought it safer to move on to matters of mutual interest, “I do hope you enjoyed your visit to my sister and brother-in-law in Capri. The Palazzo Faraglione is charming is it not?”
 

“Very,” replied Irene, who, if truth were known, was mightily embarrassed to have to admit that she had just spent such an enjoyable time in the gilded surroundings of a marble palace in the company of counts and kings, or to be precise, one of each.
 

A master of the art of irony, Irene knew her highly aristocratic tour did not fit well with her new image as a red-shirted revolutionary and woman of the people.

 
As was her habit, however, Irene would simply brazen it out and allow anyone detecting the contradictions that some might describe as "hypocrisy" to ascribe it to her much-loved “quaintness.”
 

In some ways, this explained why, despite her chequered life, Irene Coles always returned to Tilling; the town invariably found room for its eccentrics of every kind and might even be described as "a haven of tolerance."

“I hear your Grand Tour was highly productive, Miss Coles?” ventured Mr Wyse.

“Absolutely,  Signor Sapienti!” Irene replied airily, “I’m just on my way to the Institute to supervise the unpacking and hanging now. You should be receiving your invitation to the opening shortly. I’ve asked our noble Mayor to host a Grand Opening for the exhibition in aid of her Girl Guides.” 

“And Worship graciously accepted?” suggested Algernon.
 

“Yes, indeed she has. Always such an angel,” enthused Irene, “Now, I you’ll excuse me, I’d better go and supervise the hanging. Several walls will require repainting and I don’t want any ghastly ferns or aspidistra’s near any of my work. The Grundy’s of Tilling are capable of anything.”
 

Choosing not to reply, Algernon Wyse smiled and raised his deerstalker in the general direction of the redshirt rapidly disappearing in the direction of Tilling Institute.
 
 

Some days  later at “Ye Olde Tea Shoppe,” Janet began to clear the cups and plates as Susan and Algernon Wyse and Emmeline and Georgie Pillson rose, replete from their one and eight penny teas and adjourned to the card room.
 

On entering, the two couples found another table, already in progress. The Padre and Mrs Bartlett were contesting a keenly fought rubber with Quaint Irene and the proprietor herself, Diva Plaistow.
 
As seats were taken and the usual formalities of greetings, bows, cutting and dealing proceeded, the opportunity was taken to enquire ‘Any  news?’ between tables.

Everyone was eager to hear Diva’s impression of the review which had opened at the Kings Arms the previous evening.

Relishing the fact that, for once, she was the centre of attention and the first to bring news to Tilling, Diva needed little persuading to express her view on last evening’s entertainment. “I have to say I enjoyed it thoroughly ,” she began, "Considering the setting in the function room of a public house.”

“Not exactly the London Palladium,” observed Georgie.

“Quite, Mr Georgie,” said Diva resuming the floor and resolving not to be again usurped until she had said all she wanted to say, “The Rinky Dinky Do’s were really quite charming and gave a performance suited to all the family. There was song and dance – all very jolly and well performed. There was a comedian who told jokes and several very droll sketches.”

“What kind of sketches?” asked Susan Wyse.

“Well, there was a very funny one where they took off some ham Shakespearean actors. How we all roared. In fact you might find it particularly amusing Mrs Pillson.” Diva concluded.

“And why might that be, Diva dear?” asked Lucia, sensing something untoward was afoot.

“Well, it was awfully funny. The older actress in the company did this hilarious version of the sleepwalking scene from 'Macbeth.' We just  roared. She had this grotesque pale make-up and just lit her face with an upturned torch. The trouble was it kept going out and she kept bumping into the furniture and misreading her lines. I remarked to Janet how it reminded me of when you did the same thing in your Shakespeare talk at the Institute. Oh, how we both laughed.”

“I am so pleased that both you and your servant found so much to enjoy, Diva dear,” commented Lucia icily,” I am not really sure that the sublime words  of the greatest dramatist the world has ever – or indeed will ever see -  really lend themselves to knockabout or slapstick, but no doubt you and the groundlings found it amusing. If that is all that the company has to offer, Georgie and I may find something better to do with our time and may pass on our tickets to our servants.”

Recognising that the Mayor of Tilling was considerably vexed by her critique, Diva hastened to try to redress the balance by heaping praise on other aspects of the performance, “Of course, we were utterly charmed by the principals. The tenor and soprano performed duets from “La Boheme” and “Madame Butterfly” that were superb.”

“That sounds most promising,” observed Georgie who, unlike his good lady wife, was eager to see the show, “Anything else, Diva?”

“ There were also several charming arias by the leading soubrette,” Diva replied, “Such a pretty young thing with jet black hair, the deepest opal eyes and lips like Clara Bow. A vision if ever there was one. She was called 'Jemima Lafleur' - French , I think. In any event, she held the audience in the palm of her hand. Amazing for one so young.”

“Perhaps that's why Major Benjy goes every night?” joked Georgie and, hoping he had now deflected his wife's antipathy  towards the production,  deftly moved on, “Now tell us Irene, how are preparations for your exhibition progressing?” 

Irene Coles duly report on the progress of the arrangements for the opening, listing walls repainted, staff dismissed and flora destroyed as her whim had prescribed. 

Lucia enquired if those present had received their invitations and was promptly reassured that fervent acceptances were in the post at that very moment and might be immediately expected at ‘Mallards House’.
 
Naturally before long the subject again arose of whereabouts and health of the Mapp-Flints, close friends of virtually everyone present.

By way of resume, it was agreed that the Major had been seen by the Wyse’s butler Boon in conversation with Inspector Morrison in the First Class buffet in the railway station in Tilling immediately following his arrival from Seaport. 

The Padre remarked that he had heard that the Major and later undertaken the ruinous expense of the taxi out to ‘Grebe’ is but had not been seen until spotted several times at the King’s Arms. 

A consensus rapidly emerged to Elizabeth Mapp Flint had not been seen in public since her husband’s return from his mysterious trip to the Continent. 

The only sightings of Major Benjy had been in the public bar of the King’s Arms. On consecutive evenings he had been spotted sitting alone nursing his usual stiff whiskeys and sodas close to the piano around which were gathered many of the cast of the Rinky-Dinky Do’s review rehearsing songs for their current production.  The Major was also seen to have attended each  and every performance of the review in the function room.

 
 

‘It is strange that he should have seen the show so many times,” commented Georgie.
 

“And even stranger that he attended alone, without Elizabeth," added Diva  “Something’s afoot – you mark my words,”   she telegraphed, with a knowing nod to no-one in particular.
 

As was normal in such circumstances in Tilling, in the absence of direct access to the master or mistress of the house, ruthless use was also made of servants to obtain all available further intelligence.
 

Diva had instructed Janet to call upon the Mapp-Flint’s house-maid Withers to find out what had transpired.
 

The Pillsen’s Foljambe had similarly needed little persuading to make polite enquiries amongst the servants at “Grebe” as to the well-being of their employers.
 

Ernest though these enquiries were, it appeared that they had been largely fruitless. All that emerged was that the Major had been seen alone at the King’s Arms on several occasions and that is wife had not been seen to set foot over the threshold of “Grebe” since his return.
 

Georgie added, “Foljambe bumped into the Mapp-Flint's under parlour maid in Twistevants yesterday.”

‘And?” chorused everyone. 

‘Well, the Major, is back in residence, but – if you’ll pardon the indelicacy – is sleeping on a put–me–up… or is it put–you–up?’

“We dinnae care. Gerron with it, man! “ urged the Padre, with a less than clerical grace.

“In his dressing room,” added Georgie, with what in his somewhat limited experience amounted to a knowing smile. 

Anxious to ensure that the conversation did not descend to an even lower level, Lucia thought it appropriate to end the speculation and adopted the tone she usually employed on the Bench as Chairman in summarising the views of Tilling Magistrates, “In conclusion, I do not believe that our dear intimes, the Mapp-Flints have been seen together outside ‘Grebe’ "remarked Lucia. “ I am pleased to say however that I have received a brief note from Elizabeth this morning confirming – and I quote - that 'We will be charmed to attend the opening of our dear Irene’s  Exhibition at the Institute’.” 

‘An interesting choice of words from her I must say,’ added Irene testily, ‘Quite appropriate really!’  

‘Why is that?” asked Georgie.
 
“You’ve heard of snakes being charmed haven’t you, Georgie-Porgy? Apt if you ask me ; I’ve always thought Mapp was a snake, in or out of the grass, if ever I saw one.”
 

“Now, now, Irene dear,” remarked Lucia soothingly, “Poor Elizabeth has been under very considerable strain recently. I do think we all owe it to her to take a charitable view of her manifold shortcomings during what has been clearly a difficult period for her.”
 

“Oh, Lucia you dear sweet darling, you are quite marvellous!"  trilled Irene, her eyes aflame, “However, sour and vile that old witch has been, you always rise above it all and show us the truly noble and generous way forward. No wonder we all love and admire you so much!”
 
“Thank you, Irene,” replied Lucia, somewhat uncomfortably, “ Let us hope that cordial relations have been resumed between our dear friends, Elizabeth and Benjy and that we will all be able to enjoy the opening of your magnifico expositione together. 

On this note of magnanimity, both foursomes resumed their games and the vicious internecine warfare that constituted bridge in Tilling proceeded.




After days of hectic preparation, the morning arrived of the Grand Civic Opening of the "Exhibition of Paintings Undertaken by Miss Irene Coles R.A. During Her Recent Extensive European Tour.”  The discerning aesthetes of Tilling could hardly wait.
 

The libertarian and artistic aspects of Lucia’s soul had made it difficult for her to accept what she perceived to be the philistinic reception of what she considered to be Irene’s masterwork depicting her own martyrdom.
 

Lucia felt it appropriate to enable a penitent Tilling to make due amends for its lack of artistic appreciation and fully intended to use every resource at her disposal – and indeed those of the Borough of Tilling – to set the record straight.
 

Accordingly, the streets of the ancient town were lined with bunting, swept and beautified as though an inspection by the judges of the Best Boroughs of Beautiful Britain was imminent.
 

Meanwhile, in the Town Hall, Lucia had retired to the Mayor’s official robing room (being the ladies’ lavatory in the Mayor’s Parlour) and was admiring herself in the mirror decked  in mayoral red trimmed with ermine surmounted by the mayoral  tricorn hat with its jaunty white plumes.
 

For a finishing touch Lucia donned the new mayoral kidskin gloves recently so painstakingly embroidered in the finest vivid silks by her husband Georgie. Each hand now proudly displayed with the official arms of the Borough and a charming representation of the frontage of “Mallards House.”
 

As Lucia had hoped, a loud intake of breath went about the vestibule of the Town Hall as the Mayor excited her Parlour and joined the rest of the Corporation dutifully awaiting her for the procession to Tilling Institute and the opening of the exhibition.
 

Looking about her, Lucia smiled to her colleagues and fellow councillors, “No sign of Mrs Mapp-Flint as yet? Given her acceptance of the invitation to the opening I had assumed that as my Mayoress and a Councillor, she would join me with the rest of the Corporation in processing to the Institute. Perhaps she has been detained? I do hope she is not unwell.”
 

“Perhaps yon Mayoress is planning to await ye at yon Institute, than noos, Your Worship?” suggested the Padre in full clerical garb as behove official chaplain to the Mayor  cheerfully anticipating a full morning's temporal honorarium for his spiritual exertions.
 

“You’re probably right, Padre,” replied Lucia,“Perhaps we shall see our friends there when we arrive. Pray let us proceed with the delightful business of the day!”

Then, very much the embodiment of Good Queen Bess, whom she had so brilliantly represented all those years ago in the celebrated pageant in Riseholme in the Midlands, Lucia launched herself into the bright blue September morning:  the most stately of Drake's galleons in full sail, off  to rout the scurvy Spanish foe.
 

Seagulls wheeled and soared above the red tiled roofs of Tilling as the Mayor and Corporation processed through the cobbled streets. The civic mace glittered prettily in the Sussex sunshine.  As her Corporation enjoyed the cheers of assembled townsfolk and sundry tourists, turning this way and that to wave, Lucia beamed and doffed her tricorn headgear to acknowledge and stimulate the tumult of approbation.

 

On arrival at the steps of Tilling Institute, the Mayor and her retinue were greeted by a phalanx of girl guides forming a guard of honour on each side from the entrance, saluting whilst performing a heartfelt rendition of “Land of Hope and Glory.”

The Mayor’s arrival was rendered even more theatrical and reached virtually biblical crescendo upon the reappearance of four uniformed buglers.  The quartet in question were members of the Tilling silver band and constituted its brass section and had made their debut as ceremonial trumpeters during Lucia’s memorable inaugural banquet as Mayor.


 

Now seasoned by regular celebration of their Mayor, the ensemble proceeded to perform a loud fanfare in welcome as Lucia and her entire Corporation, save for her Mayoress, ascended the steps of the Emmeline Pillson Wing of the Tilling Institute.


Once inside the Institute (or “under your Wing, Lucia” as Georgie sarcastically put it) the distinguished company foregathered for the Mayor’s speech of welcome and the official opening.


It had been decided that the cutting of a ribbon would be too clichéd but that it would give the event a theatrical edge for velvet curtains concealing the principal exhibit to be opened by the pulling of a tasselled rope by the Mayor's own hand.


Georgie was particularly pleased that at this moment the focus of le tout Tilling would be exclusively fixed upon his exquisite work in petit point upon at least one of the ceremonial Mayoral gauntlets. Over breakfast, he had asked Lucia to consider using both hands so as to display his handiwork to fullest advantage, but his request was declined, “It’s not a sack of coal, Georgie dear. I’m sure that one hand will be quite sufficient.”


As the thrilling moment approached, Lucia took the opportunity to greet various of her closest intimes, clad in their finest Hitum.
 

 “Welcome Susan and Algernon. So pleased you could come. How smart you both look and how lovely to see your Order - yet again, Susan dear! So kind of you to wear it to such a low-key, provincial gathering as this!”


“Our pleasure entirely, Your Worship,” replied Algernon as he performed his courtliest of bows, “I am sure I can presume to speak for my dear lady wife in suggesting that we are both confident that in doing her the honour to present this distinguished order in well-deserved recognition of Susan’s many and varied charitable services to Tilling Hospital, His Majesty specifically intended that it should be displayed as often as possible amongst the common folk of Tilling. Thus even you – or should I say, ‘they’ - will be fortunate enough to share for a brief moment a manifestation of the contact with the greatest in the land which we have been fortunate enough to enjoy.”


“Absolutely, Algernon dear,” added Susan, tenderly fingering the ribbon of her insignia and clutching her unseasonably heavy sables even more closely around her ample embonpoint.


“Quite,” replied Lucia abruptly. Like everyone else in Tilling, its Mayor clung to the view that Susan had only been awarded “the lowliest of gongs”  for very occasionally lending her car to the hospital.  She moved rapidly on.


With some relief,  Lucia exchanged the company of the  Wyses for Diva Plaistow.  

Pithy as ever, Diva greeted the Mayor with a terse, "No sign of the Mapp-Flints. He was seen at the last night of the review. Been there every night. On his own. Mooning over that young thing. No sign of Elizabeth. Curtains still drawn. Talk about the 'Recluse of Grebe.' Couldn't make it up!"
Grateful for the intelligence, Lucia decided thaton this occasion  she should not be hypocritical enough to chide Diva for being uncharitable. Instead she replied, "Oh dear, Diva, how worrying. Perhaps, since so many of us are here Elizabeth's friends might get together after the opening and your delicious buffet to agree what we can best do to help?"

"I agree, Worship," Diva responded, "I hope you and your fellow Councillors will be happy with my catering for today. This is the first external contract for Ye Olde Tea Shoppe. Janet and I have worked so  hard and made  an extra special effort."

"I'm sure it will be delightful," replied Lucia reassuringly.
"Hope so, Worship.  Shame I didn't know Elizabeth wouldn't be here. If I had known, I would have served my special sardine tartlets. She's always so dreadfully rude about them, I leave them off the menu  whenever she's there. It really is  very damaging when she keeps asking whether they're 'Quite the thing.' So annoying."
"Pray do not concern yourself, Diva. Let us just enjoy the occasion,"
Lucia then clapped her hands and to a ripple of polite applause, mounted the dias. Silence fell and the Mayor began her address standing in front of neatly pleated red velvet curtains which concealed Irene's new portrait of the King of Italy.



After welcoming her “distinguished guests” and “a very distinguished artist, namely Tilling’s very own, Miss Irene Coles R.A.,” Lucia proceeded with her peroration.

Pained looks were exchanged amongst various of the speaker’s dearest intimes as she  explained the purpose of the occasion and that it would be apt for her to put the exhibition in its proper context by outlining as briefly as she might, "the development of the visual arts in Western Europe from certain cave paintings in Iberia, through the Dark Ages, the glories of the Renaissance up to and including the Enlightenment and Sir Joshua Reynolds, when some might argue that the figurative painting reached its zenith.”

“And it’s been downhill ever since, I suppose” mused Georgie Pillson and indeed several others present.

“It’s on occasions such as this that we really do miss Elizabeth. She would never have put up with this,” pondered Diva, beginning to worry how long a delay in the warmth of the Institute before her crab puffs and other seafood delicacies in the buffet might constitute a health hazard.

Within fifteen minutes, before her discourse had even addressed Raphael, the Mayor had wholly “lost” her audience, whose minds had wandered to topics varying from their afternoon’s schedules to plans for Christmas shopping.

Mrs Plaistow’s anxiety regarding the threat to health presented by her slowly incubating collation also escalated with each passing second.

Eventually, to universal relief, the exhibition was graciously declared open.

One heavily embroidered kid gloved hand pulled gently on the tasselled rope to reveal Quaint Irene’s portrait of the current occupant of the Italian throne to a tumult  of applause. 

At this point, Irene stepped forward bowed and raised her hands above her head  rather in the manner of a victorious  prize fighter.

Everyone present was invited to view “the visual delights before you  prior to indulging in a delicious fork and finger buffet provided by Mrs Diva Plaistow, whose reputation goes before her. ”  A slightly satirical and knowing murmur passed through the assembly upon these words.

Clutching their catalogues, the attendees then assiduously viewed each exhibit, standing back to take in the entirety and passing considered judgement. Conservative to the core, the most oft repeated critique was  “very nice.”

It was generally agreed that the new portrait of King Victor Emmanuel III would be spectacularly successful upon Italian postage stamps.


Herbert and Bunty Morrison stood alone before Irene’s recent portrait of Herbert set against the magnificent backdrop of Mount Etna in Sicily.

Beneath the painting was a small typed notice: “Kindly loaned to the exhibition from the private collection of Mr & Mrs H Morrison of Tilling.”

“It looks very impressive, Herbert, dear,” remarked Bunty, “I didn’t even know we had a ‘ private collection’.”


“It’s very small,” replied Herbert, smiling, “Just one painting.”


“At least it’s a start, love,” added Bunty, moving on to the series of paintings featuring other well-known local figures in foreign locations.


 “I wanted to make a point about the familiar and the exotic,” drawled Irene  expansively to a circle of avid listeners, including the Pillsons, Bartlett’s and Wyses.

A frisson of anticipation went around the group, since past experience had shown that when Quaint Irene was in this relaxed laconic mode, ill-considered and indiscreet remarks were most likely to be made.  And so it proved, "So you have our delightful Mayor and her Mayoress and their respective husbands enjoying the tango on fortifications – not unlike our own Martello Towers – in the shadow of the mystical Es Vedra  on the magical Isla Blanca.   The grace of human perfectibility is contrasted with baser instincts.”






 




None the wiser, mystified exchanges took place between Irene’s audience as the artist continued “Similarly, we have our blessed Mayor invoking the elements of Grace and Wisdom from another tower overlooking the Mediterranean Sea."

 



Before anyone could comment, Irene continued,"And in this next portrait Lucia soothes a tormented world of philistines and barbarians by invoking high Art in a holiday setting – in the form of her exquisite rendition of the slow movement of the “Moonlight Sonata.”



At this point, Lucia effectively accepted the encomium being heaped upon her by nodding gently and lowering her eyes momentarily, consciously aiming for the affecting manner of a Madonna by Raphael. Whilst Lucia’s contrived a demure smile, all other jaws in earshot dropped. 

Irene’s luciaphilic eulogy progressed to full blown panegyric as she stood before her picture of what appeared to be Lucia and Elizabeth adrift at sea on an upturned table beneath the old town in Ibiza.




 Eyes ablaze, Irene reached a crescendo, “And to bring into sharpest focus the myriad perils facing the world today, we have the embodiment of the eternal struggle between Good and Evil, Reason and Ignorance and Forgiveness and Malice. Call it what you will, here we have figures so familiar to us all, the Light and the Dark,  cast adrift and placed in extremis in the open sea.  I trust that in the current fragile and dangerous political climate, the message of my work is clear and apparent to you all.”
 
The eyebrows of Irene’s audience performed veritable gymnastics in reaction to the designation of their Mayor and Mayoress as the very personification of Good and Evil and their occasional tiffs as the embodiment of conflict upon the world stage.

Reluctant to be the first to comment publicly upon Irene’s latest projection of yet another massive stone of iconoclasm into the mill pool of social relations in Tilling, the group spontaneously dissolved, wholly absorbed in their catalogues.

In the meantime, Mr Meriton of the "Hastings Chronicle," quite Lucia's favourite representative of the Fourth Estate,  filled yet another page of his reporter's notebook with a verbatim account of Irene's sensational outpourings. 
 
As Mr Meriton checked his shorthand, several couples then viewed the rest of the exhibition a deux and used the relative privacy to dissect Irene’s remarks and to agree upon any required public response. 
Through gimlet eyes Lucia observed that Mr Meriton had taken full note of what she considered Irene's well-informed but injudicious remarks which would almost certainly lead to proceedings in slander, if published.

Lucia sighed and resolved to ensure the  tactful silence of his journal in return for an exclusive interview detailing a day in the civic life of the Mayor of Tilling - with photographs. "Oh, how they all work me! " she thought.

As the crowd ebbed away, Lucia was left with her praetorian guard of intimes standing around the buffet table. 
Naturally, conversation turned to the conspicuously absent Mayoress.

“No sign of Elizabeth, then? “ suggested Diva Plaistow with typical directness and a flair for the obvious. 
“I’m afraid not, Diva dear, “replied Lucia, “Most unlike her to miss a civic engagement such as this.” 

“Especially after first accepting and without sending her apologies in advance," added Algernon Wyse, ever mindful of etiquette and the formal niceties entailed in public life. 

“Most  worrying. Has anyone seen either of them?" added  Susan Wyse, intent on demonstrating her concern for welfare as behove one rewarded by the King himself for such benevolent preoccupations. 

“According to my Janet and Mr Georgie’s Foljambe, Elizabeth hasn’t set foot outside ‘Grebe’ since the Major disappeared and then came back last week.”
 
“And what about the Major?” asked Georgie.
 

“Well,” began Diva, warming to her task as the fount of all intelligence upon the householders of  “Grebe,”  “Janet tells me he’s started to sleep in his dressing room and takes all his meals out – mainly in liquid form at the King’s Arms.”
 

“And they have definitely not been seen together? “ queried Georgie, fascinated.
 

“Not since their big argument, when he first came back,” replied Diva,  “Many things were said, apparently… and thrown!”
 

“No!” gasped everyone in unison in time-honoured Tilling fashion.
 

“And since then the Major has been seen nursing his whiskey and soda in the public bar of the King’s Arms, watching the actors rehearse. Janet says he’s seen every performance every night.” 
“Strange,” said Georgie, “I never really thought of Major Benjy as a lover of the theatre.” 

“Other than the chorus girls, perhaps, Mr Georgie?”  added Diva, “Major Benjy never made a secret of the fact that he had an eye for the ladies.” 

“Oh yes, ‘Sporting Benjy’ and the ‘Pride of Poona’ and all that saloon bar ribaldry,” added Georgie with a degree of distaste, adding meaningfully, “I don’t suppose?”  

“Don’t know. He was seen talking to that pretty young French actress from the company a few times. Early twenties with jet black hair and the most beautiful eyes. Sang  and danced a lot in the review.  I think they called her a ‘soubrette’ in the Programme. Janet said Benjy never took his eyes off her. Bought her  quite a few ports and lemons. Nothing more.”

“I really don’t think it helps to descend to gossip and conjecture about such imaginings,” remarked Lucia sternly, “I’m surprised at you both, I really am.”
 Diva and Georgie looked down at their empty teacups sheepishly, as Lucia continued, “Now let us turn to a kinder and more constructive course. Let us concentrate on deciding how best we may help.” 
“If you will pardon my presumption Worship. I would suggest that we need to gain access to Mrs Mapp- Flint and discover from her direct what we can best do to render assistance. Naturally, I am sure I can speak to Susan and myself to vouchsafe that we will be ready, willing and able to render all possible assistance," declaimed Algernon Wyse. 

“Thank you, Mr Wyse. I would have expected no less from you,” responded Lucia, with a graciousness that would have done credit to Queen Mary, “I agree entirely that we need to hear how we can help direct from Elizabeth herself’.” 
“Straight from the horse’s mouth? “ suggested Georgie. 

“I wouldn’t have put it quite like that, Georgino mio, but basically, yes," said Lucia, “Now, who should go?” 

“I’m sure any one of us will be prepared to go,” said Georgie, “But we know Elizabeth is very upset and when she is in this mood, she can be very tarsome. The point is, who would Elizabeth actually be prepared to admit? " 

“Precisely Georgie, “said Lucia,” I fear that in her current, shall we say, ‘delicate’ frame of mind, Elizabeth is unlikely to allow admission to anyone but one of her very oldest friends to speak of such sensitive issues.” 


“Even when some of us have been rewarded by the King himself for our charitable activities and benevolent insights?”  asked Susan Wyse, bridling at her very obvious early elimination from the selection process. 


“I’m afraid so, Susan dear,” replied Lucia soothingly, adding swiftly, “And I would exclude Georgie and myself for precisely the same reason.  Despite our devotion to Elizabeth, we are in her terms ‘relative  newcomers’ to Tilling and her undoubted affections. There is really only one viable candidate for the role of emissary of Elizabeth’s intimes  – and that is her oldest friend in Tilling, our dear Diva.” 


“Hear, hear!” murmured Algernon Wyse, bowing in turn to all present, concluding with a long and lingering obeisance to the newly-appointed plenipotentiary.
 
Thrilled to be so chosen and eager to accede to these unanimous imprecations, Diva responded, “Well, I must admit I have known, Elizabeth, longer than any of you. If  you all really think I am most qualified to help, I will do my very best.”
 
“Thank you, Diva. The words of a true friend.” replied Lucia, "Naturally, we have every confidence in you. If you will permit, I will put my motor car at your disposal to  take you out to ‘Grebe’ and bring you home. May I instruct Cadman to call at ‘Wasters’ at 2 o’clock?"
Diva nodded and it was settled.

 

As instructed by the Mayor, her long-serving chauffeur, Cadman drew up her highly polished Rolls-Royce outside “Wasters” shortly before  2 pm.

Inside, attended by her faithful Janet, Diva Plaistow, was completing her toilette.

Normally, Tilling’s tripartite dress code prescribed that an afternoon courtesy- call to an old friend would normally merit only Scrub or at most Titum.

Today, however, Diva felt that the high-profile nature of her mission called for the highest echelon of dress, namely Hitum.

Given her relatively modest means – notwithstanding a successful summer season in Ye Olde Tea Shoppe, which had flourished in the sitting room of “Wasters” – Diva did not possess many garments fitting the designation "Hitum.”

Possible candidates included her oft-dyed  tea gown, created to a design prescribed by Mrs Titus W. Trout and a striking day dress in brightest crimson with a matching hat.

Although she would have preferred to don her tea gown, Diva reluctantly discounted it. She and Elizabeth had fought a bitter campaign over the right to wear this costume in several hues, starting with kingfisher blue transmogrifying to crimson lake.  Diva appreciated that it would  not be tactful to remind Elizabeth of the former controversy whilst on her mission of mercy.

Janet agreed with Diva that the red day dress and hat was the only Hitum option, even though both knew that the dress had become notable about Tilling for its uncanny resemblance to a letterbox and lacked only the Royal cipher and a small white plaque denoting collection times.

Making the most of the situation, Diva sat in pillar box red in the rear of the Rolls-Royce and allowed Cadman to arrange the plaid travel rug about her knees. 


Janet stood on the doorstep of “Wasters” and waved enthusiastically as the limousine bearing her mistress drove off.

Diva found the journey thoroughly enjoyable. She was pleased to be able to wave at Mr and Mrs Wyse outside Twistevants in the High Street. Given the unfortunate paucity of acquaintances out and about, she also resorted to waving to some imagined friends before and after passing through the Landgate.
 
The harbour and coastal road passed by all too soon and after barely ten minutes the Rolls-Royce drew smoothly to a halt outside "Grebe."
 
On that September afternoon all was still. Gulls soared overhead as usual but nothing stirred within the hornbeam hedge and not a soul was seen.
 
The curtains remained drawn as though the householders were away on holiday or there had been a  bereavement in the family.
 
Cadman, efficient and solicitous as ever, opened the passenger door and raised his peaked cap to his passenger. The red silk cylinder that was Diva Plaistow that afternoon scurried  down the cinder path to the front door -  a flash of crimson as though Cardinal Wolsey were late for an appointment with Henry VIII with unwelcome news from Rome.  

After several blows upon the cast-iron knocker, Diva was greeted by Elizabeth’s  long serving maid, Withers.

A few words were exchanged between the telegraphic Diva and the terse  Withers and the door was abruptly closed.

Diva considered it had been slammed and made a mental note to raise this with Withers’ mistress when the opportunity arose.
 
Such brusque treatment was not common in Tilling but, given her quasi-civic mission Diva was left with no choice but to wait patiently whilst counting to ten several times  and pretending that she was neither furious nor mortally offended. 

After what Diva considered to be unseemly and indeed most inhospitable delay, the door at last re-opened.


Withers admitted her (more casually than Diva liked) and led the visitor through the gloomy vestibule and along a dim corridor.  Withers resembled a threatening housekeeper in a Victorian novel. She opened the door to the drawing room and "Jane Eyre”  became  “Great Expectations”.

The interior was dark and stuffy with curtains drawn. The only light came from a small coal fire in the grate. Its glowing embers cast stark shadows about the room, lined with sepia photos of scenes from the Raj. There were also dusty stuffed heads of  game shot long ago and very far away which contrasted with embroidered samplers produced by generations of  Mapps of Maidstone in their maidenhood.

 
Diva  advanced  slowly as her eyes  grew accustomed to the gloom, “Hello, Elizabeth. How are you dear? So lovely to see you.  I haven’t seen you for ages.”
 
"Oh, Diva, it’s you," replied Elizabeth absently. How nice of you to come. It seems a long time. Any news?”
 
“I was rather hoping you might have news for me," replied Diva.


“I suppose dear Lulu sent you?” said Elizabeth, walking over to the window and edging back the curtain to reveal the Rolls-Royce parked just beyond the  hornbeam hedge, “ I can see Cadman is waiting for you. Reading his ‘Daily Mirror’, I think.  My husband reads the ‘Daily Mirror’ too.  I must say, I prefer the ‘Telegraph...”
As her friend's voice trailed off with uncharacteristic vagueness, Diva continued,  “We have all  been genuinely concerned about you actually Elizabeth. We haven’t seen you for such a long time and when you didn’t turn up this morning…”

 “What?" bridled Elizabeth, “Can’t a person just choose to stay at home from time to time? Do we all have to accept every invitation – or should I say ‘command’ – issued by that woman?”

 “No, of course not," replied Diva in the attempt to pacify her. Even in the Stygian gloom of the drawing room, she could discern the vein adjoining Elizabeth's right temple bulging alarmingly in a woman of her years, “It’s just so unlike you to miss a civic event. You didn’t even send your regrets.”

“Must have slipped my mind," countered  Elizabeth,  “Now, where are my manners? Would you like some tea?"

The mistress of “Grebe” rang the bell summoning Withers, who appeared with a tray of tea. The drawing room remained dark with curtains drawn.

 “Would it help tell me about what has been going on Elizabeth? You know: a  trouble shared and all that…”


“A trouble shared, perhaps, but not a trouble broadcast all over Tilling by the Town Crier!” she replied bitterly.  
  

“Only trying to help, Elizabeth; now,  what on earth is going on?"

Elizabeth put down her teacup and sat forward in her armchair. For the first time in her life, Elizabeth Mapp, grande dame of Tilling, looked defeated.


Diva placed a solicitous hand on her shoulder and whispered, “Tell me Elizabeth. You’ll feel better if you do..."

“I don’t know where to begin really I don't. I know you and the whole of Tilling, speculated about what went on, when Benjy last disappeared. He went off without so much as a word to me and I didn’t hear from him for over a week."


“Go on Elizabeth.”

“Whilst he was away, every shop girl and servant in Tilling thought they knew where he had gone. They said my Benjy and that dressage woman had taken refuge in some Bavarian castle overlooking the Rhine or any number of sordid love nests around Europe. Didn’t they?”


When no denial  was forthcoming from her friend, Elizabeth continued. "When all this squalid conjecture was going on, I just had to take it all and smile sweetly, the typical ‘deserted little woman.’ And then he deigns to come back and tells me that he has been trying to find his son’s grave in France.”


This was the first Diva had heard of any son or grave in France and she remained untypically silent, “Of course, we learn from Inspector Morrison that his so-called ‘lover’, that blousy dressage instructress, has just been visiting an old school-friend in the Midlands, so nothing untoward had been taking place at all.”


Again, this came as news to Diva whose powers of constructive reasoning were working overtime to order this avalanche of new intelligence.


Whilst the cogs and gears of Diva’s rational processes ground on, so did Elizabeth, “Until then, the whole of Tilling was more than  happy to believe that my husband had deserted me for that woman, yet I’m just expected to take it on the chin and carry on. ‘Elizabeth Mapp Flint’, they said, ‘She’s a tough old boot. She can take it. The point is Diva, I really couldn’t.”


Although Diva now felt the time was ripe – indeed over-ripe - to respond in sympathetic vein, Elizabeth did not pause. The outpouring continued – not unlike that over the dyke outside “Grebe” on Boxing Day all those years before, “ Over the last few years I’ve lost a lot. I lost my savings – such as they were - over those useless Siriami shares and then my beloved ‘Mallard’s.’ I lost them all to that woman. She took my home and my place in Tilling, what with being the Mayor and the centre of life here. The only thing I had that she did not was a husband. Sure enough, she followed my lead and marries. She always trumps my aces - every single one.”


There was not a great deal Diva could usefully add to rebut this assertion and so she remained silent, as Elizabeth ploughed on, "Although I know few women would dream to suggest that Mr Georgie with all his embroidery and watercolours was ever a match for my manly Major Benjy. But at least Georgie Pillson stayed at home. My Benjy disappeared and, all of a sudden, I find myself the wronged woman.”


“No fault of yours Elizabeth” suggested Diva, eager to demonstrate some sympathy at last.


“Doesn’t matter one jot, Diva!” she replied, “What can be worse than to be the ageing little woman left at home? I was pitied in every servant’s hall and saloon bar in Tilling, as the poor plain, wronged wife whose husband has disappeared at the first available opportunity with a glamorous figure from his past."
“Surely no one thought that?” suggested Diva.


“Of course they did. So, I hid away from all their spiteful stories about my Benjy in love nests on the Rhine or in Spanish castles, until he suddenly reappears. Then I am expected to take him back, as if nothing had happened. I  couldn't do it; I just felt numb.”

 “You could have spoken to your friends, Elizabeth. We would have done what we could to help. At least we would have listened.”

Ignoring this, Elizabeth continued, “Even when I heard that he had travelled to France alone to try to find the grave of his son who was killed in the war. Even when I  knew that his dressage-teaching floozy from years ago had been visiting an old school chum, instead of committing adultery in a picturesque schloss, it didn’t really matter. I had endured too much humiliation and just needed it all to stop.”

“I do understand how you felt Elizabeth. I really do. I was married once, remember.”

“I know I should have tried to speak to Benjy and to understand, but I had had enough. I needed Benjy to try to work out what I have been feeling – without being told for once. Some hope!”

“That is understandable. You had reached the end of your tether.”

“Yes, that’s right, but I now know the truth: Benjy was too shell-shocked to consider my feelings and I was too worn out to try to decipher his. The result was that we just didn’t speak. I stayed here in the drawing room with the curtains drawn and he withdrew to his dressing room  and then to the saloon bar of the Kings Arms.”

“An impasse, rather like the Front in the War with both sides just firing shells at each other,” commented Diva with uncharacteristic acuity.

Still ignoring her friend, Elizabeth continued, “I gather from Janet that he saw this young French actress where I’d driven him to take refuge, in the Kings Arms . I fear that is where he became infatuated with her. He just stopped coming home to me and I don’t know where here is any more. Really, Diva, what should I do?’


Before Diva could reply, Withers had appeared around the door, “I’m sorry to interrupt, Mrs Mapp-Flint, but you have another visitor.”


“Can’t you tell whoever it is, I’m engaged, Withers?” she replied.


“Not really, Ma’am. I’m afraid it’s the police. Inspector Morrison has asked to see you. I couldn’t really send him away.”


 
“No, of course not, Withers. You had better show him in, but please open the curtains first.”



“Elizabeth, I can make myself scarce if you want some privacy with the Inspector,” said Diva, as Withers busied herself.



“No, it’s all right, Diva,” I think I would like you to stay. It might be bad news. I hardly think the Inspector has come out from Tilling, to report upon those responsible for scrumping my delicious apples from the garden. Some more tea, please, Withers.”


In the daylight, Diva could see that her friend was far from her usual self. Though never exactly a fashion-plate, in the light of that September afternoon Elizabeth Mapp- Flint verged upon the unkempt, clad in homely dressing gown and slippers with her hair un-brushed.

“Good afternoon, ladies,” said Inspector Morrison, as he was shown into the drawing room, “I’m sorry to call upon you unannounced, but sometimes needs must. I will try not to detain you too long.”

“You have your duty to do, Inspector” remarked Elizabeth, "May I offer you some tea? Pray continue regardless of Mrs Plaistow. She is here at my request, if that is in order?”

“Yes, of course, ladies.”

“Very well. Now, what I can I do for you? Not bad news, I hope?’”

“I’m afraid I’m enquiring about a missing person,” he explained.

“My Benjy – already?” asked Elizabeth, startled.

“No, Mrs Mapp-Flint, a visitor to Tilling has been reported as missing without trace. A young actress from the touring company, which has just appeared at the King’s Arms.”

“You mean that pretty young French soubrette?” interrupted Diva.

“Precisely, Mrs Plaistow,” answered Herbert, “A  Miss  or should I say ‘Mademoiselle’ Jemima Lafleur, aged 21, a singer and dancer from the touring company called ’The Rinky-Dinky Do’s.' Her employers have reported her as missing. They are concerned about her welfare.”

“And what on earth makes you think I might be able to assist you Inspector?” asked Elizabeth with such dignified exasperation as she could muster, dressed as she was in her venerable dressing gown and slippers.

“Well, Mrs Mapp-Flint, numerous witnesses of confirm specifically that Major Mapp Flint has been seen in the company of the missing young woman in the saloon bar of the Kings Arms on a daily basis during the last week. They have also been seen together on a bench in the Belvedere Gardens, apparently deep in conversation.”

“I wasn’t aware that to hold a conversation – however ‘deep’ - was yet a criminal offence in this country, Inspector?”  commented Elizabeth, in the tone of an offended dowager.

“Indeed you are correct, Mrs Mapp-Flint. It’s just that your husband appears to be the last person in Tilling known to have seen Miss Lafleur. We need to speak to him to see if he can assist us in locating her.”

“I’m afraid I can’t help you, Inspector. As I was just telling Mrs Plaistow, my husband did not return home last night. I’ve not seen him today and have no idea whatsoever, where he might be.”

“Oh, I see,” he replied.

“In fact, Inspector, today I should probably be coming to see you at the police station in Tilling to report him missing. However, there doesn’t really seem to be much point. If you remember, I tried to do that before, when he last disappeared. You said he was 'an adult free to come and go as he pleases.' That, if you’ll pardon the colloquialism, was that.”

“Yes, I remember it well and that the Major came back of his own free will a day or two later,”   replied Herbert, hoping to reassure, but without success.

At this point, Withers appeared, yet again, "There is a telephone call from the Police Station for Inspector Morrison, Ma’am. His Sergeant  would like a word with the Inspector. He says it’s urgent.”

Inspector Morrison excused himself and left the drawing room to take the call. Left alone, Elizabeth and Diva remained silent. They exchanged a single pointed glance, sighed and looked ahead, each absorbed in a maelstrom of her own thoughts.

Shortly afterwards, Herbert returned with profuse apologies for the delay. 

As Elizabeth and Diva looked on expectantly, he continued, "Well ladies, I have just received some intelligence from colleagues at Seaport. It seems that’s a Major Mapp-Flint and Mselle Lafleur travelled on the late channel ferry to Calais last night.”

“Travelled ‘together’ Inspector?” asked Elizabeth.

“It would appear so, Mrs Mapp-Flint,”

“And is there anything you can do to assist, Inspector?” asked Diva, trying to do what little she could to help her friend.

Elizabeth was now silent and staring out of the window over the front garden and hornbeam hedge to the waves lapping on the dyke beyond.  
   

“As I’ve discussed with Mrs Mapp-Flint before, I’m afraid there is not a lot we can do. This is a free country. Both the Major and the young lady are over twenty-one. No crime seems to have been committed and no-one’s health or well-being appears to be in danger.”



“I see,” said Diva, sadly as she moved over to sit next to Elizabeth on the sofa and took her hand.



“Naturally, I will arrange for a watch to be kept on our ports and I will notify you immediately I have anything to report. Will you be alright, Mrs Mapp-Flint?”



Elizabeth smiled a weak uncontrived smile and continued to look out of her window in silence.


“Thank you, Inspector. I will stay here with Mrs Mapp-Flint as long as she wishes,” replied Diva, “If that is all, perhaps I might ask Withers to show you out?”


As Inspector Morrison strode down the cinder path to the front gate of “Grebe”, Elizabeth Mapp-Flint stood at the window watching him. With her back still turned to Diva,  she said, “Thank you for coming, Diva dear. I do appreciate it, but I’ll be alright now, thank you. Poor Cadman has been sitting there all this time. He’ll be wanting his supper. Foljambe will be worrying.”


“You are very welcome to come back with me to 'Wasters,’ if you like, rather than be on your own. Or, I can stay here with you, if you wish?” suggested, Diva, earnestly.


“No, it’s quite all right. I’m sure I’ll be fine. I would like to be here if Benjy does come back.”


“If you’re quite sure,” said Diva, adding awkwardly, as she edged out of the drawing room, “ I do hope to see you soon, dear. Try not to worry. I’m sure everything will turn out alright. Chin up now.”


Without turning round, Elizabeth began to close the curtains, saying, “Thank you, dear. See you soon.”

Only when Diva closed  the drawing room door behind her, did Elizabeth turn around to resume her place in the armchair by the fire.

 
What were hitherto always the driest eyes in Tilling, even when dabbed  theatrically with one of dear Aunt Caroline’s lace-edged handkerchiefs,  were now puffy and reddened with the tears that coursed down both cheeks and fell upon the dowdy dressing gown below.


In Tilling, it was common practice and virtually a way of life, to enjoy the discomfiture of one’s neighbours with relish. Though our German cousins grandly call this “Schadenfreude,” the doughty sons and daughters of Sussex preferred to regard the practice as simply “appreciating natural justice when wrongdoers received their due comeuppance.”

It might well have been expected when the Pillson’s Rolls-Royce drew up outside “Wasters” and deposited Diva Plaistow, that mirth might ensue at the expense of the chatelaine of “Grebe.” Nothing could have been further from the truth.

Diva returned to “Wasters” and gave the barest details of what transpired to the awaiting Janet. It sufficed for her to report that  her dear friend Elizabeth was in poor spirits and awaiting her husband’s return.

Diva pointedly declined to throw any petrol on the bonfire of conjecture, whose embers always glowed in Tilling.

That evening, Diva retired to bed after a simple tray and ignored the ringing of her telephone three or four times, which she correctly gauged came from intimes intent on learning what had transpired out that “Grebe.”

Having considered the matter long and hard overnight, Diva awoke clear in her mind that the current  state in which Elizabeth was languishing should not be the subject of gossip during that morning’s marketing hour in the High Street in Tilling.

Instead, she wrote three pithy notes in the same terms, which Janet delivered by hand to the Pillsons, Wyses and Bartletts:

I met with Elizabeth yesterday and suggest her friends meet over elevenses at ‘Wasters’  this morning. Janet will bear your reply.”
 

Shortly after 11 a.m. Janet showed the last of Diva’s visitors into the card room at the rear of the sitting room at “Wasters.”  A “closed” sign hung on the door and the public were not admitted to Ye Olde Tea Shoppe that morning.

Janet poured tea for three couples and her mistress and then discreetly withdrew.

“Thank you so much for visiting dear Elizabeth on behalf us all, so to speak, Diva,” began Lucia, “I’m sure I speak for everyone when I say we have all been on tenterhooks to hear your news.” 

“ I would asked to be associated with Mrs Pillson’s remarks,”  added Algernon Wyse, bowing first of the Mayor and then to his hostess.

“Thank you, how very kind,” replied Diva, “I suggested we meet  here in private because I was quite shocked what I found out there at 'Grebe.'  It did not seem right or fair to chat about it in the street as though we were gossiping delivery boys or housemaids.”

“Aye, 'tis the Christian way, tha' noos”,  remarked the Padre.

“And thou shall speak no evil!”  intoned Susan, who wished to make some contribution to the discussion, however opaque.

“And what is actually going on then?” asked Georgie.

“ I’ll cut to the chase, if you’ll pardon the expression,” said Diva, “Basically, Major Benjy and that French actress from the King’s Arms have gone off together overnight ferry to Calais.”

“No!” replied all, aghast.

“Yes!” said Diva, “Inspector Morrison confirmed it officially. And there’s nothing Elizabeth can do about it. They’re both over twenty one.”

“By a long way in the Major's case,” added Georgie, unnecessarily in the opinion of most present.

“And how is poor Elizabeth?”  asked Lucia, “Devastated, I suppose?”

“Absolutely,” confirmed Diva, “Sitting with the curtains drawn in her ratty old dressing gown and slippers with no makeup and her hair all over the place. Quite the Miss Haversham from ‘Great Expectations.’”

“I think Miss Haversham wore her wedding dress, not a dressing gown and slippers, didn’t she?” asked Georgie.

“Whatever she is wearing doesn’t really matter, Georgie,” said Lucia briskly, “All that should concern us is that we what we can do to help. Don’t you think, Diva?”

“I agree entirely, Lucia, but I think it might be quite difficult to get her to accept our help. I’ve never seen her quite so upset.”

“I was wondering whether it would be too intrusive to tell Dr Dobbie how you found Elizabeth and to ask him to visit her?" suggested Susan.

“A very good idea, Susan,” replied Lucia, “He has been her physician for many years. The most Elizabeth can do is to send him away. Would you be prepared to call on Dr Dobbie for this purpose, Diva? Since you actually saw her last, you are best able to answer any questions he might have.”

“Of course, I will, if that’s what everyone wants,” replied Diva, “Once the doctor has seen her, Elizabeth might be prepared to see one of us again. Does anyone want any more tea?”
 

  
Over the succeeding days it appeared to superficial inspection that a degree of normality had returned to Tilling.


At the request of Diva, Dr Dobbie made a “courtesy call” unannounced upon Elizabeth Mapp-Flint. He suggested that his patient was “run-down” and prescribed a  tonic as a pick-me-up and some “ iron tablets.”


Of course, the prescribee was not too run-down to recognise that these were in fact mild sedatives.


After the consultation, Dr Dobbie left with honour satisfied on both sides.


Boosted by her medicaments and touched to have been thought of by her friends, Elizabeth set about “pulling herself together.” Daylight was allowed to enter her drawing room. Her dressing gown  and slippers were discarded for normal  day wear and her errant hair attended to. Elizabeth's slightly improved spirits were even reflected in some lightly-applied maquillage.


After a day or so, Withers was instructed to reply to telephone inquiries that her mistress was “feeling much better now” and even to invite her closest intimes to afternoon tea out at “Grebe.”


Elizabeth did not however yet feel up to a tiring foray into the seething metropolis that was Tilling in the marketing hour.


Although civilised restraint was the general rule within Elizabeth Mapp-Flint’s closest circle, this did not apply amongst the proletariat about the town.


Several  public bars were ablaze with speculation.

Unlike the Major’s last widely-discussed disappearance to the Continent, this time the gossiping classes had clear and specific confirmation from no less an authority than Tilling’s senior police officer that the Major and the twenty-one year old French actress had boarded the ferry to Calais together.

Few attempts were made to present this in anything but the worst – or, depending upon your point of view, best – light possible. The Major had run away with the pretty young actress and what they intended to do was only too clear.

While shock at Major Benjy’s unfaithfulness abounded, sympathy for his poor deserted wife proliferated, universal save for the odd remark from those with whom Elizabeth had crossed swords in the past that “she had brought it on herself with her domineering ways.”

As her reputation as the “Wronged Wife of ‘Grebe” grew, it was fortunate that the wronged one did not venture into Tilling to witness the various ribald views of her errant spouse’s actions.
 
If truth were known in certain elements in the saloon bars of the town,  horror expressed at the scandal barely masked a not particularly covert admiration or even envy. 


As each September day passed following the departure of the infamous scarlet couple, social life in Tilling stagnated.

Friends called at “Grebe,” as though visiting an invalid in her sickroom. The patient did not yet feel able to return any calls or to venture into Tilling.

In the circumstances, her circle felt it would have amounted to bad taste or a want of sympathy to enjoy their usual social round. Thus, whilst the Major was “missing, feared lost,” no luncheons, bridge teas or dinner parties were held.

During this impasse, not even an intimate po di mu was held in the Garden Room at “Mallards House.”  A dreary new puritan age had arrived in gay cavalier Tilling.
 

Exactly a week after her husband had boarded the ferry for Calais, Elizabeth Mapp-Flint sat at breakfast in the dining room at “Grebe.”

Withers entered, “Inspector Morrison at the door, Ma’am. He apologises for disturbing you so early, but he would like a word.”

“Show him in please, Withers.” Elizabeth rose and walked over to the fireplace as Herbert entered. “Good morning, Inspector Morrison. You have some news for me?”

“Indeed I do, Mrs Mapp-Flint. I have received a report that your husband has just disembarked at Seaport this morning. As we speak, he is aboard the train heading for Tilling.”

‘Is he alone, Inspector?” asked Elizabeth, tentatively.

I’m afraid I have no further details, Mrs Mapp-Flint.”

“Oh, I see.”

“It’s just that last time the Major return from abroad, I met him and we had a quiet chat at the railway station. I was wondering if on this occasion it might be helpful if you were there to meet him.”

“Thank you for giving me the opportunity, Inspector, most thoughtful of you,” she replied, “I now think I understand that some of the blame for what happened before must lie with me for not being prepared to listen. I think I should at least try to bring myself to speak to him - for good or ill.”
 
“I was hoping you would say that, Mrs Mapp-Flint. My car is outside. I can drive you to the railway station now, if you would like.”



By the time Inspector Morrison’s black Riley had drawn up outside Tilling railway station, the train from Seaport had already arrived. Its passengers had dispersed. The station concourse was deserted and the platforms were empty.

“I think I know where the Major may be,” commented Herbert, “Might I suggest that you look in the First Class Buffet on platform two?”

Following this suggestion, Elizabeth Mapp-Flint walked on alone and pushed open the half-glazed door.

Entering, she looked about the smoky interior, beyond the mahogany counter with its tea urn and glass case displaying buns and sandwiches.

In the far corner, sitting at a table alone was a portly man well into middle age nursing a glass of amber liquid.

‘Enjoying your whiskey, Benjamin? Elizabeth asked, “Mind if I join you?” 
   
“By Jove, it’s you!”

“And ‘Hello’ to you Benjy dear.”

“I’m sorry. You caught me off guard. Last person I expected to see.”

“Obviously...”

“Last time I was sitting here, that Morrison fellow came and sat with me. Nice chap for a policemen, though he wouldn’t have a drink with me.”

“On duty, I suppose,” said Elizabeth, “I’m not on duty of course.”

“Oh yes, rude of me. What would you like?”

“If we were in that little pension in Monte Carlo the night we won all that money at the Casino, I might have said, “Je voudrais une absinthe.”

“I don’t think they stock absinthe here in the buffet on Tilling station, Elizabeth.”

“How unfortunate, I wonder if they have such a thing as a port and lemon?”

“Very well, I shall find out.”

Benjy duly returned with a large port and lemon and an even larger whiskey and soda  in readiness for what he anticipated would be his ordeal.

“Your good health, Elizabeth.”

“And yours, Benjy.”

“Go on then, I’m waiting – ready for my punishment.”

“I’m not sure what you mean really Benjy. I came here today fully intending to do  a lot of listening, which I think you’ll agree, I didn’t do last time you came back from the Continent.”

“Fair enough, Liz old girl. Then tell me what you want to hear.”

“Just tell me what’s been going on. Where have you been? Who was that woman?”

“Not an unreasonable query, I suppose. Trouble is, it’s complicated. It’s difficult to know where to start.”

“Clichéd though it may be, why not start at the beginning, Benjy?”

“Well, you know as well as I, how it went when I came back last time. I went to France to find my son’s grave and you didn’t really want to know. You were so bitter and hurt by all that gossip and scandal. I was so angry that you did not understand how I felt. So we argued. You threw things. I moved into my dressing room and took my meals at the Kings Arms.”

Suppressing all her natural inclinations, Elizabeth responded, “I can’t disagree with that Benjy. A perfectly accurate summation. Then what?”

“Well, I sat in the Kings Arms with my drink and my supper. They do a jolly good steak and ale pie, by the way. Minding my own business, I watched the performers from  the review rehearsing their acts for their show in Tilling.”

“And she was amongst them?”

“If you mean Jemima, yes she was. Prettiest and most talented young thing you ever saw: jet black hair and a sweet face. Her eyes like were just like limpid pools and her lips like Clara Bow’s.  She could have been a film star.”

“Oh, yes.”

“Absolutely. She was French. Surname ‘Lafleur’: apt really. Only twenty-one, but so gifted. Sang and danced like an angel. I saw her first night in Tilling and afterwards complimented her on her performance.”

“As you would...”

“I’m sure you would have agreed with me, Elizabeth: a remarkable talent.  Any way, after the show, I sent her a drink and she came over to talk to me.

“As she would...”

“She sat down and we talked. It turned out that she had deliberately signed up to the show so as to come to Tilling.”

“Whatever  for?”

“Difficult though it may be to believe, I learned from Jemima that her mother Yvette had told her of an old soldier from the Indian Army who stayed overnight at her pension  in Neuve Chapelle during his search of the war cemeteries for the grave of the son he had never met and of whom he had only recently heard.  Her mother told her that once the man had found his son’s grave and paid his respects, he returned home to Tilling.”


“And that old soldier was you, Benjy?”


“Yes, it was.”


“And?”


“Jemima told me that as a young girl her mother had fallen deeply in love with a handsome young subaltern from the Indian Army. He was billeted nearby during the first weeks of the War before he was sent to the front. Once posted, she never heard from him again. Their few nights together resulted in a daughter.”


“Oh, Benjy..”

"The only memento Yvette had of him was this." Benjy handed Elizabeth a creased sepia photograph of a man in his early twenties, handsome in evening dress.

 
“Despite many inquiries, Jemima’s mother was never able to find him or even confirm that he had been killed.  It was only when I came looking for my son’s grave that some of the pieces of the jigsaw came together.”

“So, your son was the father of this girl and she never knew him?” asked Elizabeth.

“Yes, he was. He fell in love with Yvette Lafleur over three days in her little hotel and never saw her again. His daughter grew up to become Jemima. Unknown to his sweetheart and daughter, he only came back to be buried nearby.”

“So, the 'scarlet woman' with whom you absconded, about whom all Tilling has been gossiping, is your granddaughter, Benjy?”

“Yes, she is Elizabeth.” said Benjy taking Elizabeth’s hand. She came looking for me. I took her back to show her the grave she had never seen of the father she had never known. I did what any grandfather would have done, didn’t I?

“You did Benjy, you did.”

 

THE END

All rights reserved in all appropriate territories   Deryck Solomon 2015









 











1 comment:

  1. Although where things were headed seemed pretty clear, the denouement is so deftly and delicately written that it brought little tears to my eyes.
    Lots of fun scenes too! I delighted in the image of the "an inflated Elizabeth Barrett-Browning", and I now covet my own pair of such beautifully stitched kid gloves. Chapeau!

    ReplyDelete