Saturday, 1 January 2011

The Bicycle Picnic

Sunday evening at “Braemar”, 9, Undercliff Villas, a quarter of a mile outside the historic sea-side town of Tilling, was a quiet time. After supper, respectable owner-occupiers, Herbert and Bunty Morrison washed-up, as their twins James and Doris slept upstairs.

“That’s agreed then,” said Herbert as he dried the last plate, “We’ll get the twins new bikes in time for their birthday next week. I can get away from the station and will meet you at 1 o’ clock tomorrow at Mr O’Day’s shop in  Market Road.”

“Good,” Bunty replied, “That will give me time to pop into Twemlows first for a few things for tea. Jimmy and Dot will be so excited to have their first grown-up bikes, without those tiny wheels at the back”

“Ssshhh, you’d better be careful what you say, dear,” laughed Herbert, “Walls have little ears where such important news is concerned.”

Bunty nodded and smiled, “Time for bed, I think”. 

The new week began uneventfully in Tilling. High season meant an influx of visitors disgorged en masse mid–morning from train and charabanc. The throng milled around the cobbled streets with guide books in hand, pointing at ancient buildings and attendant quaintnesses. They took photographs, ate ice creams and disappeared almost as soon as they had arrived. Tilling had been “done,” requisite boxes ticked and the next historic Cinque Port on the itinerary could now claim their undivided attention before lunch.

For local residents however, high summer meant long sunny days, cooled by a pleasant sea breeze and exchanging news whilst marketing clad in cotton frocks and straw sun hats or blazers and boaters.

At this idyllic time of year, the wheels of social intercourse, upon which the permanent residents of the ancient town thrived, were oiled by inexpensive and plentiful strawberries to be savoured at many a convivial lunch, garden party or bridge tea. For true Tillingites the post-vernal months, preceding those of mellow fruitfulness, were to be thoroughly enjoyed.

Most years, this seasonal predisposition towards the sybaritic was amplified by a fad or enthusiasm of the moment, which might justify or encourage social gatherings. Such activities supplemented perennial favourites such as bridge, exhibiting paintings in watercolours and oils and the presentation of impromptu tableaux from history or the arts.  Over the years, temporary enthusiasms which became “all the rage” included hatha yoga and rhythmic callisthenics – with or without Indian clubs - croquet, ouija and planchette and currently bicycling.

As Mayor of Tilling, its leading citizen and chatelaine of its finest residence, the exquisite “Mallards House”, Emmeline Pillson, known to her closest friends – or “intimes” as she called them - as “Lucia”, usually took the lead in determining the chief diversion of the season.

The less charitable among her friends passed comment upon the awaited announcement of “Worship’s summer’s stunt”, which was usually an impressive party of some kind, linked to the preoccupation of the moment. Some even dared to satirise the edict communicating this year’s “must-do” as “a Mayoral Bull” to be ritually proclaimed by three puffs of white smoke from Tilling’s landmark crooked chimney. Thus were diversions announced to occupy and amuse the populace, which might otherwise grow restive:  “habemus panem et circenses.”

Fortunately, such cynicism, insubordination or perhaps clear-sightedness (depending upon one’s viewpoint) was not general; indeed, it tended to be confined largely to the tea or bridge table of Elizabeth Mapp–Flint at “Grebe” which, strictly speaking, was out-with the walls of Tilling.

Lucia’s pre-eminence in civic affairs and in determining the social programme to be followed by her circle was very occasionally, and rarely entirely successfully, threatened by the  formidable Mrs Mapp-Flint, her Mayoress and predecessor as owner of “Mallards”. Both protagonists were married, but their spouses, though each worthy and devoted in their own very different ways, were as the American, Mr Eliot put it “but attendant Lords” and need not detain us here.

The Morrisons were not affected by the petty rivalries and occasional struggles for power that marked daily life amongst the highest echelon of Tilling society. As senior police officer in the town, Inspector Morrison did however represent the acme of respectability and achievement, albeit from humble origins in one of Mr Twistevant’s slums down by the railway station.

His professional progress was matched by a secure and happy family life with his pretty young wife Bunty and their healthy eight year old twins. Such success, relatively early in life, occasionally elicited a degree of what those other than well-disposed might regard as “smugness”, but it fell to Bunty to prick the bubble of pomposity whenever it appeared: an infrequent task, which she relished and accomplished effectively.

As arranged, the Morrisons met punctually at 1 ‘o clock outside Mr O’Day’s cycle shop. Propped up outside were a wide range of ladies and gents touring and racing bicycles, freshly painted with shiny chrome handlebars and wheel rims sparkling in the sunshine.

After admiring the display, they entered the shop with a rattle of the door and loud tinkle from its brass bell. The interior was cool after the summer heat of  Market Street and the shop smelt of polished wood, linoleum and oil.

Herbert and Bunty greeted Mr O’Day as he swished through the dangling bead curtain, which separated his workshop and stockroom from the shop.

“Good afternoon, Mr O’Day,” said Herbert, leaning forward with a proffered handshake, “We’ve come to look at some new children’s bikes.”

Mr O‘Day wiped his hands on the oily rag hanging from the pocket of his brown overalls and shook Herbert’s hand. He grinned and nodded at Bunty as he was introduced to her. “Nice to meet you both,” he said, “I’m sure we will be able to find something suitable. Now how old are they?”

The Morrisons explained their requirements and, before long, had selected two fine new junior cycles, one with a crossbar and leather tool bag behind the saddle and the other, a ladies’ model with a woven basket in front of the handle bars.

Handing over a cheque in return for a receipted invoice, Herbert agreed that the new cycles could be delivered to “Braemar” next day, whilst the twins would be guaranteed to be out at their Boys and Girls Brigade meetings.

At this point, the shop door opened and the bell again jangled loudly. “Tarsome thing,” said Georgie Pillson, who appeared to have been surprised and somewhat unnerved by the cacophony. He stepped daintily to one side to allow his wife Lucia to enter the shop first, as befitted a lady and Tilling’s first citizen.

“Good afternoon, Mr O’Day,” said the Mayor whilst her consort raised his straw boater to each person present. Herbert reciprocated with his trilby and Mr O’Day again wiped his hands upon his oily rag, which he found comforting in times of stress.

“Inspector, Mrs Morrison, how nice to see you. I wasn’t expecting to meet you here.”

“Indeed, Your worship” said Herbert, putting on what Bunty called his “official voice,” which was normally reserved for trunk calls, giving evidence in court and speaking to the Mayor. “We have just been purchasing new bicycles for our twins, James and Doris,” he continued, “They will be their birthday surprise when they are nine next Sunday.”

“How lovely,” Lucia replied, “I was wondering, if you have nothing planned…would you all like to join us in our little cycling excursion the following week?”

“What a good idea, Lucia,” interjected Georgie, “Do come Mr and Mrs Morrison. It will be such fun for the children.”

The Morrisons exchanged glances as the Mayor continued, “Last summer I was honoured to become the President of the Tilling Wheelers Cycle Club and am celebrating my first full year in office with a bicycle picnic. It should be a pleasant outing with just a few intimes and members of the Club Committee.”

Bunty looked down and avoided Herbert’s eyes at the mention of the word “intimes,” since it was rather a running joke between them and tended to induce what she called “the giggles”, which would never do in front of the Mayor.

Blithely overlooking what academics might call “this subtext”, her Worship continued, “Inspector, I think you know Per and his brother Georgie, foreman of the gas works and the Town Surveyor and both amongst my town councillors?”                 

“Yes indeed, Your Worship,” replied Herbert, “Both sound chaps. I was at school with them and know them from Tilling Football Club.”

“And the Cricket Club too, no doubt,” interjected Lucia, who as President of both august bodies, was well aware that Georgie and Per played almost as active role as she in the civic and social life of Tilling. “I hope it will be a pleasant outing for quite a broad group of my friends and colleagues in the town. Please say you will join us.”

Herbert looked at Bunty who smiled and nodded. Having thus consulted his spouse, he replied, “Thank you very much Mrs Pillson. We would be very pleased to come. The week’s cycling practice will be very useful.  Our only worry would be whether the twins are old enough to be able to manage such a long ride on their new bicycles.”

“That will be easily solvable,” Lucia replied reassuringly, “My chauffeur Cadman and his wife will be meeting us with our picnic lunch half way around our route. If the children are tired by then, they can return to Tilling in comfort, with their cycles in the boot and await your return under their supervision. Mr and Mrs Wyse are also making their Royce and staff available to transport, lay out and serve our luncheon and we hope to cover all eventualities.”

“Excellent arrangements, Your Worship,” Herbert replied, “We shall all look forward to it. We shall take our leave of you now: until Sunday week then”.

With yet more sonorous tintinnabulations, the Morrisons departed.  The Pillsons were left with Mr O’Day to arrange the hire of ladies’ bicycles for Georgie’s sisters, the Misses Hermione and Ursula, who would be arriving in Tilling the following week and were also invited to the picnic – with their incorrigible Irish terrier Tiptree, without whom no outing was entirely complete.

With the reliability that typified the tradesmen of Tilling, Mr O’Day duly delivered both bicycles at the appointed hour, whilst their impending owners were engaged with their respective Brigades. At Bunty’s request, both purchases were placed discreetly in the dark recesses of Herbert’s holy of holies, his garden shed. 

When Mr O’Day had left, after a cup of tea and several digestive biscuits at the kitchen table, Bunty returned to the shed. She polished the handle bars, saddles and tubular frames of both cycles and set about wrapping each, as best she could, in swathes of brown paper, assiduously saved in a kitchen drawer for eventualities such as this.

To differentiate between each amorphous parcel, she added a blue bow to one and a pink one to the other. Then, once the shed door had been secured with its stout padlock, all was set for the great day.

The twins’ birthday dawned at the same time as any other summer morning. This one was however different in that the twins were out of bed, dressed and ready to greet it before its first rays had reached the manicured front lawn of “Braemar”.

As they had done on Christmas morning, the twins felt justifiably frustrated that their parents languished lazily in bed as ridiculously late as . How they could do this on such an important day was quite beyond them.

After sitting patiently on the edge of their beds for what seemed an eternity until 5.45, they decided it was their duty to check that all was well. They were somewhat surprised when, after politely knocking on their bedroom door and solicitously inquiring if Mum and Dad “were going to stay in bed for much longer” that their father threw a pillow at them and suggested in no uncertain terms that they go back to bed till eight.

Realising they had made a tactical error on what was, after all, an important and potentially rewarding day, the twins meekly obeyed.

At the second time of asking, the twins’ special day didn’t get off to a much better start. After breakfast, James and Doris sat expectantly at the large kitchen table. Bunty handed an envelope and small gift-wrapped parcel to each of them saying “Happy Birthday, both of you.”

They excitedly tore open their parcels, but their faces soon fell as each disclosed a pair of new socks, one in grey and the other in white.

“Thanks, mum and dad,” they said disconsolately, whilst exchanging looks of gloomy resignation.

“That’s alright, dears,” replied Bunty airily.

Herbert added teasingly, “Glad you like them. Can’t have too many socks, you know. Don’t you want to open your birthday cards?”

Silently, they opened the white envelopes containing the brightly coloured cards congratulating them upon achieving the fine old age of nine years. As they looked at the verse and birthday wishes “with lots of love from Mum and Dad” and a row of “x”s they noticed a postscript which said:

P.S. Now your gifts of socks are open
       And your birthday cards are read,
       Don’t just sit there, sad and mopin’-
       Go look in Dad’s garden shed!

With a shout of glee the twins ran out into the back garden and looked through the small window of their father’s shed, trying to make out what was in the dark interior. Walking extremely slowly up the path, Herbert made a play of lighting his pipe several times and languorously taking a few puffs before taking an age to find his key ring in his trouser pocket.

“Please Dad, please. Do hurry up and open the door” cried the twins in unison, as their father elaborately found the key ring, decided which of the many keys fitted the padlock and unlocked it.” 

James and Doris rushed to the far end of the shed where they soon found the large parcels, cocooned in brown paper. Herbert picked up both and carried them out onto the lawn and the twins were soon tearing off the wrapping with abandon.

Wide-eyed and open-mouthed, the children were thrilled with their gifts and after many excited thanks, asked to be allowed to ride them. Herbert soon adjusted the saddles as necessary and helped each twin with their first wobbly trip along the garden path.

Within the hour both James and Doris were riding unsupported up and down the front drive of “Braemar” and around the lawn. That afternoon they ventured onto the quiet road on which Undercliff Villas stood and rode in single file down to the golf links with Herbert in front and Bunty bringing up the rear.

On the way back they all waved cheerily at the steam tram full of passengers which ran parallel to the road. This test showed that the twins should be able to manage the bicycle picnic the following week.

The practice of enjoying picnic parties in the countryside around Tilling grew from simple, homely beginnings into quite extravagant events. They started as relatively spontaneous trips taken, on the spur of the moment, to points of interest within easy reach. After enjoyable rides, sandwiches were eaten and tea drunk from thermos flasks in the precincts of usually picturesque destinations, before pleasant dawdles back to Tilling.

Such outings were no longer undertaken quite so casually; the “ad hoc” was not a prominent feature of Lucia’s regime. Now, picnics were used to mark special events, such as the successful completion of Her Worship, the Mayor’s first year in office as President of the Tilling Wheelers. Accordingly, guest lists were carefully drawn up, invitations issued, itineraries compiled and delicious menus devised, employing the finest ingredients with silver service from specially deployed staff.

There were only two true constants from the inception of the cycling craze in Tilling: one was the enthusiasm for the pastime of the most elevated section of society; the other was the very staunchest opposition to it of Mrs Mapp-Flint. Such was the vehemence of her disapproval that personal pride prevented her from ever being seen to set foot on a pedal. Neither could she allow her husband to do so, nor join her friends in any convivial outings en velo.

As the acknowledged “queen of the open road”, however, Lucia managed to cope admirably with the absence of her Mayoress from this key element of the social calendar of the town. 

A few days before the social event of the season, Cadman, the Mayor’s chauffeur, delivered to “Braemar” a card with the printed heading, “From the President of the Tilling Wheelers.”

It confirmed details of the “Bicycle Picnic to be held to mark the first year in the office of President of Mrs Emmeline Pillson” and enclosed an itinerary for the afternoon and a map showing the proposed route. Guests were suggested to aim to arrive at a specified rendezvous “in time for an al fresco fork luncheon at 1.00 for 1.30”.

Dress was specified as “Touring Wear,” which was taken to permit the most casual of holiday garb, even including shorts and plimsolls, but normally involved flannels and open-necked shirts for gentlemen and summer dresses and sunhats for the ladies.

To ensure that most of the party should arrive at the half-way point to enjoy luncheon together pretty much in unison, the commencement of the ride was to be staggered throughout the morning.

Herbert and Bunty started earliest, with the twins excitedly making their maiden voyages on their shiny new bicycles. Mr O’Day made a special point of standing by the Landgate to give the twins a special wave with his oily rag as they started their adventure.

Next there followed Susan Wyse upon her stylish tricycle. Mrs Wyse was followed at a respectful distance by her butler Figgis, steering his bicycle with one hand, sweating profusely and wobbling occasionally as he struggled to carry his employer’s heavy sable coat in the other – “in case the afternoon should grow chilly.” With the thermometer approaching 80 degrees, however, this appeared unlikely

Diva Plaistow then began, accompanied by her unruly Irish terrier Paddy, who rushed from side to side of the road taking the trouble to sniff every lamp-post and investigate each item of interest – which meant most things along the route.

Diva also kept company with Evie Bartlett, wife of the vicar. Evie’s mouse-like shrieks of laughter could be heard every few yards or so, until they attained a pitch inaudible to all but Paddy and the bats in the bell-tower of the nearby Norman church.

Five minutes later, Quaint Irene Coles started out, clad very practically in white knee-length football shorts and a striped rugby jersey. Her racing cycle boasted a manly cross bar, drop-handle bars and panniers on either side of the back wheel in which were drawing materials with which she hoped to record the day.

There came next a contingent from the Committee of the Tilling Wheelers, each clad in a bright yellow peaked cap with a red hanging tassel and matching lemon blazers with red piping and a badge on the breast pocket. It bore the club crest of the arms of the borough symbolically superimposed upon the spokes of a bicycle wheel. At their head proudly rode their joint Club Captains, Georgie and Per on the club’s state-of–the–art touring tandem.

At the rear of the contingent from the club followed a select grouping of Georgie Pillson with his visiting sisters, Hermione and Ursula, followed by their lively terrier Tiptree, who darted joyously between the cycles barking. This caused particular anxiety to Georgie who repeatedly urged his siblings, “Girls, please control that tarsome dog of yours. I knew we should have left him at ‘Mallards House.’”

“Relax, Georgie old thing,” they responded laughing, “It’s just his way. Tipsipoozie loves a good day out, just like the rest of us,” and continued, blithely disregarding their older brother’s complaints, as did their canine subject himself.

Keeping pace with the Pillsons, was Algernon Wyse, dressed in his best cycling costume comprising knickerbockers and Norfolk jacket in a lightweight pale green tweed with matching deerstalker hat. Although he and Georgie had at times been known to vie for sartorial supremacy amongst the gentlemen of Tilling, no clash had occurred today, since details of their intended outfits had been shared during morning marketing the previous day. In consequence, Georgie had opted for flannels and a fetching lightweight barathea in cream with a straw boater to complete his ensemble.

As was his habit, Mr Wyse cycled with one hand, whilst using the other to raise his hat politely to friends and acquaintances assembled by the Landgate to see the party off.

The onlookers included Elizabeth Mapp-Flint and her husband, to whom Mr Wyse made a particular point of doffing his deerstalker and waving it in a celebratory circular motion, calculated to convey cordial greetings. Whilst the Major reciprocated with somewhat less animation, Elizabeth coyly blew a kiss from her gloved hand.

As Algernon Wyse rode off, Elizabeth returned to type and snapped, tight-lipped, “That’s quite enough of that. You would think it was Good Queen Bess setting off on a Royal Progress around the county. Really, who does that woman think she is: Catherine the Great?”

Warming to her rather wide-ranging historical theme, she continued “I mean, when this cycling fad began it was so much more modest and in keeping with the discreet ways of our dear Tilling. Sandwiches and a flask of tea are one thing, but now it’s positively ostentatious:  I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s al fresco roast swan and lark tongues in aspic, served by liveried footmen in periwigs. Downright vulgar, that’s what I call it. Come on dear, let’s get back to “Grebe before the Queen of Sheba arrives on her bicycle attended by Nubian slaves and we all have to prostrate ourselves to her by the roadside.”

With this conclusive imperative, Major Flint sighed and walked off, a pace behind his life’s partner. As so often happened nowadays, no opportunity had arisen to express his own point of view and Tilling was again obliged to conclude that his opinion, if any, upon the issue corresponded with that of his dear wife.

As the Mapp-Flints departed the scene, the final members of the party hove into view and passed through the Landgate. The two late-comers normally vied for the reputation as the fastest rider in their circle, namely the Padre, Kenneth Bartlett and Mayor and hostess of the outing, Lucia Pillson.

Having their reputations to protect, both wished to have the kudos which went with setting off last off all. In fact, they had both left it so late that neither could now afford to indulge in a gentle and leisurely ride or to take in points of interest along the by-ways. This fervent spirit of competition ensured that, after starting later than was advisable, they both arrived unfashionably late and hotter and more tired than was necessary.

As the great, good and speedy commenced their respective Odysseys, the Morrisons pottered happily along the pre-ordained route which first took them through the ancient walls of Tilling and down past the town's salts and recreation grounds, towards the old harbour.

They enjoyed looking at the pleasure boats and commercial craft, tied to the piers, and followed the harbour walls around to sea defences and the first of many old fortified Martello towers that had dotted this stretch of the coast from Napoleonic times.  During the first of several stops for a short breather and drink on a hot afternoon, they dismounted and walked around the tower and Herbert explained the origins and purpose of the fortifications.

They continued in single file along the military canal, past more boats and a picturesque windmill. The reclaimed land over which they rode was full of interesting flora and fauna and, more than once, bright butterflies and dragon flies flew across the bridleway in front of them.

Bunty pointed out the variety of colourful plants and insects that flourished along the coast. They saw damsel flies and skimmers and heard the chirruping of grasshoppers as the day grew warmer. Amongst the white mass of sea kale flowers there were purple sea pea and bittersweet, pink sea heath and thrift, yellow bird’s-foot trefoil and the large blue spikes of viper’s bugloss.

From boyhood, Herbert had been a keen birdwatcher and he was able to point out to the twins Black-headed Gulls, Oyster-catchers, some Ringed Plovers and a Redshank.

The children were fascinated to stand quietly and watch the wading birds looking for food in the muddy shallows, including Whimbrel and Sandpipers. Amongst a variety of wild fowl, Herbert identified some Teal, Mallard and Shovelers and explained that he had sometimes seen rarer birds in this very spot, such as Terns, Harriers and even a Golden Oriole.     

The scent on the air that summer afternoon was what Herbert called “vintage Chateau Tilling”, a heady combination of ozone, sea salt and the slight decay of marshland with a sweeter top-note from new-mown grass and the honeysuckle growing in the hedgerows. Herbert took deep breaths of the heady mixture as they rode on past the point where, according to local cycling legend, the Mayor of Tilling had collided twice with a roadside tar pot on the same afternoon at the heavy cost of half a crown on each occasion.

As they left the flatter ground, there were more inclines up which to labour and coast down until the battlements of Guestling Castle rose up before them.

The children adored the castle, which their mother informed them “dated back to 1539 in the time of Henry VIII”, a fact of local history she had been taught at school and, for some reason, had not forgotten. This impressed Herbert as much as his knowledge of Golden Orioles had discreetly impressed his wife.

As Herbert and Bunty sat in the shade of the ramparts, the children ran around the castle laughing and pretending to be knights and damsels in distress. Herbert playfully put a chain made from newly-bloomed bee orchids, buttercups and daisies around Bunty’s neck. After twenty minutes or so, he looked at his watch and suggested that they re-mount and carry on, to stand a chance of being at the picnic spot in time for lunch.

As they rode away from the castle, the ground rose even higher and gave a magnificent view back towards the red roofs of Tilling on its hill with the river and harbour below. The panorama included the broad sweep of sand dunes and beach with marshes and waterways inland.

As they rode onwards and upwards through cool and shady broadleaf woodland, they passed pretty Norman churches and several thatched pubs. At the high point of the upwards climb, they at last came upon the picnic site. There before them in a clearing in the wood stood the impressive Rolls Royces owned by the Pillsons and the Wyses.

Neatly arranged in front of each limousine was a range of canvas chairs and picnic tables with several tartan rugs spread out upon the grass. To each side stood trestles loaded with delicious picnic fare. Dishes were piled with sliced turkey, chicken and ham, a whole salmon freshly poached with salads, cheeses and breads of every description. On another table were chafing plates on spirit burners with hot dishes, including the famous Lobster a la Riseholme, which Lucia now tended to serve only on those few occasions when Elizabeth Mapp-Flint was not present.

There were also a variety of desserts, including mountains of Tilling’s summer favourite strawberries and clotted cream with nougat chocolates, especially for Diva Plaistow.

Staff from the Wyse and Pillson households stood ready at each table to serve guests. The Pillson’s Foljambe and Grosvenor helped guests to food, whilst the Wyse’s Boon served drinks, including his famous redcurrant fool, another seasonal favourite of near legendary reputation in Tilling.

Although the spectacularly refreshing beverage was made according to an old Poppit family recipe, it was widely known to include considerable quantities of the finest champagne and very old brandy. Knowing of its reputed potency and conscious of his responsibilities, Herbert declined the redcurrant fool and confined himself to ice cold lemonade.

With their cycles propped up against a nearby tree, the Morrisons soon took their plates and glasses and sat together on a picnic rug on the grass. As they relaxed and enjoyed their lunch, other guests began to arrive.

The contingent from the Tilling Wheelers, led by the ever-cheerful Georgie and Per on their tandem, was followed shortly by Diva Plaistow and Evie Bartlett. Immediately on arrival, Paddy again disgraced himself by attempting a full frontal attack upon the buffet table, but was very effectively rebuffed by the formidable Foljambe, who declared that she was “More than a match for that mangy hound any day!”

This prompted a relatively muted protest from Mrs Plaistow that “My Paddy hasn’t had mange for some years, actually”. She did however take the precaution of tying his lead to her bicycle, where he lay quite happily making inroads into a mound of turkey which had been conciliatorily provided by Foljambe - whose bark and bite were pretty much equally massively daunting and effective.  

The peak time for arrivals took place at about 1.30, when Quaint Irene appeared. Without hesitation or formal introduction, she gregariously joined the convivial group of Tilling Wheelers by now making inroads into the foaming wooden barrel of Boon’s redcurrant fool. Irene preferred a pint of bitter and much refreshed, wandered around making lightening sketches of fellow guests.

At about this time the tricycle of Susan Wyse entered the clearing with much waving of gloved hands and greetings to all.

Struggling behind and still clutching the heavy sable coat of his mistress was her butler Figgis, purple with effort, panting heavily with his normally immaculate dark jacket and pin striped trousers soaked in sweat. As his bicycle ground to a halt, he literally fell off, but his collapse was fortunately cushioned by the hitherto burdensome sables. As he lay there exhausted, Susan Wyse cried out, “Do be careful of my sables, won’t you Figgis. And don’t just lie there, kindly get up and help Boon serve our guests their luncheon.”

Rendered speechless by these remarks, Figgis summoned what dignity he could in the circumstances. Without a word, he gingerly stood up, dusted himself off and walked stiffly over to join his colleague serving behind the trestle table.

The slight tension in the air created by this event was dissipated by the tumultuous arrival of Georgie Pillson and his sisters. A cordial round of greetings was immediately overtaken by a cacophony of snarls and barking as the inevitable confrontation took place between Tiptree and Paddy, when the former predictably sought to commandeer the sliced turkey, hitherto enjoyed by the latter.

Hermy and Ursy dismounted and, with many shouts and much laughter, manhandled Tiptree by the collar and dragged him away from the melee, whilst Diva gamely did the same. “You naughty thing, Tipsipoozie,” shouted Ursula above the din, “Stop it at once. You shall have your own luncheon in a moment.”

“Terribly sorry, old thing,” added Hermione in the general direction of a more than irritated Diva Plaistow, whose ire was increased by being referred to as a “thing” and made even worse by the adjective “old”. “The trouble is our dear Tipsipops does so adore turkey and it’s more than he can bear that any other dog should have any. He’ll settle down when he’s fed, you’ll see.”

“I can only hope so, Miss Hermione” said Diva somewhat frostily. Turning to their brother she added acidly “I do wish you would control your unruly visitors sometimes, Mr Georgie,” and stumped off to replenish Paddy’s repast. It was unclear whether Diva was referring to the errant terrier or its owners. 

“Really girls, you are the limit sometimes,” said Georgie peevishly to his sisters, “It’s very tarsome that Tiptree always chooses to misbehave so badly. Every time he comes to Tilling, he makes a public spectacle of himself and us. It really is too bad”

“There, there old bean,” replied Hermy and Ursy together, trying but failing to inject some seriousness and an air of contrition into their words, “We really are sorry, but you must admit the sight of another pooch tucking into freshly sliced turkey is more than any healthy terrier could be expected to bear. He’s only human you know. Well, not exactly, but you know what we mean.”

Abandoning this attempt at apology, the Pillson girls dissolved into laughter, as was their wont, and considering the subject closed, made their way over to the lunch table.

As the party settled down yet again, the picnickers began to wonder when their hostess and spiritual leader would arrive.

The assembled Tilling Wheelers, having imbibed deeply of what they had come to call “Boon’s topping redcurrant fizz” had opened a book upon the winner of the race between the Mayor and Padre to reach the picnic place.

At that moment Lucia was 4 to 1 against and the Padre 2 to 1 on, although some punters, looking for value in a restricted market, had wagered upon a dead heat at the attractive odds of 33 to I. Per, something of a betting man, knowledgeably informed Quaint Irene that these odds were called “double carpet” by the bookie’s tic-tac men at the races at Goodwood, some eighty or so miles to the west.

As all bets had been placed, two blurred figures appeared in the distance down the tree-lined hill. It was apparent that the Padre was in the lead and that both cyclists were picking up speed. As their peddles revolved faster and faster, Lucia was still behind. Choosing her moment, she moved up a gear. With one Herculean effort and actually rising from the saddle, the Mayor of Tilling moved out from the slipstream of its Vicar and flew past him to victory, just as the pair entered the picnic site.

The yellow caps of several Wheelers, with red tassels revolving, flew into the air in celebration and the glade resonated with applause and cheers – mainly from those who had been confident enough to wager money upon their President at favourable odds. 

Beaming, Lucia greeted her guests. Although a little flushed, she showed no undue effect from her exertions. On the other hand, the Padre whose face had turned ashen, gasped so heavily that he had to be helped from his bicycle by Evie with cries of “Oh, Kenneth dear, are you alright?”

“Dinnae fuss ye sel, wee wifey,” he responded breathlessly, “Och aye, t’was a bonnie guid contest with yon Mayor, but I just lost it on yon line, all fair and square. Fortunately I did’nae wager a baubee on it, sae aw’s weell.  Dinnae be a feared, lassie; just go an ask guid Boon if he happens to have a wee drappie of highland malt amongst his refreshments to restore me and to quench ma thirst.”

As the late-comers joined their spouses for lunch, events began to take a somewhat unruly turn. It first became apparent that something untoward was going on when Georgie and Per announced that they were going to fly their “magic touring tandem” back to Tilling, since “it would take far too long to return along the lanes and bridle paths.”

The other picnickers stood back as the Wheeler’s Captains mounted and took off down the hill at breakneck speed.

At this point the Club Secretary, Mr Timmins declared that this was “unfair”. He knew it to be the case, “since the oak trees have told me so and they never, ever lie.” He cycled off in the other direction, singing at the top of his voice, “I talk to the trees, but they don’t listen to me”. This surprised most present since the Secretary, a chartered accountant and lay preacher, was normally the most reserved of men.

The strange behaviour escalated during the rest of the afternoon with some singing and dancing whilst others stared into space, commenting strangely upon “the beautiful colours, the fragile leaves and blueness of a sky that cries out to be touched.”

Becoming increasingly concerned at these peculiar goings-on, Bunty suggested to the Mayor that it might be best if she accepted her kind invitation to take the twins back to Tilling in her motor car and that she and the Inspector “would follow when things had settled down”. Lucia thought this would be a very sensible idea and gave instructions to Cadman, Foljambe and Grosvenor accordingly.

As the Mayor’s car passed along the road back to Tilling, its occupants witnessed a spectacular launch into the void of Georgie and Per on their tandem off the largest of the piers on the military canal next to its prettiest windmill.

As their back wheel left dry land Georgie – or Per, or perhaps both – shouted euphorically, “See, we can fly!” Sadly, experience proved they could not, as demonstrated by submersion and rapid sinking when they hit the water virtually immediately.

Those in the returning Rolls Royce were also intrigued to see the Wheeler’s Treasurer, who in ordinary life was a bank manager of impeccable repute and unquestioned sobriety. Mr Collins was observed chasing an agitated group of visiting Belgian nuns around the Norman church next to the bridleway near Clayton Farm shouting “Shoo, Shoo, Go away you nasty giant penguins! Shoo!” Although encumbered with heavy habits and voluminous wimples, the sisters evaded their pursuer with surprising agility and creditable celerity.

Back at the picnic site, a seething Algernon Wyse looked sternly at his servant Boon, wrung his hands and exclaimed, for once forgetting his usually refined Chesterfield terms, “Oh, Boon, Boon, you chump. What have you done? All the Committee of the Tilling Wheelers are blind drunk and positively dangerous. How much brandy did you put in the redcurrant fool today?”

Bewildered, Boon tried to open his mouth to protest his innocence, but neither Algernon nor Susan Wyse would listen to a word. In disgrace, he was instructed to pack up the picnic things and return to Tilling immediately.

Following his lead, the remainder of the picnic party gathered up their belongings, mounted their bicycles and set off on the weary journey back to Tilling in a bedraggled procession that resembled the retreat of Napoleon from Moscow.

The next day dawned with an air of expectancy. News of the strange events all over the countryside outside Tilling had spread like wildfire. By the time Elizabeth Mapp-Flint had completed her morning marketing in the High Street, she was fully armed with details of what had gone on during what she called “the Mayor’s extravagant and wild bicycle picnic” and was rather glad that she had a long-standing invitation to a bridge tea to be hosted by Mr and Mrs Wyse that afternoon.

With the distaff side still savouring the prospect of dissecting the sordid events of the previous day with so many of those present during, if not actually responsible for, the outrage to public decency, Mrs and Mrs  Mapp-Flint  knocked on the door of “Starling Cottage” in Porpoise Street just before the appointed hour of 3pm.

To be strictly accurate, Major Benjamin was more concerned to enjoy a jolly good tea and a rubber of two of hotly-contested bridge with perhaps a surreptitious whisky and soda, if he could avoid the eye of his abstemious wife. “Given the head of steam the old girl has built up over the picnic business,” he thought, his prospects of being served any intoxicant at “Grebe” were singularly slim and “slim pickings on the home-front made it imperative to seize all opportunities to down a chota peg or two elsewhere.”

The door was opened by Figgis, the lugubrious butler to the Wyse household, who appeared recovered from his exertions of the day before. In accordance with his usual practice, on seeing the Mapp-Flints he referred to his guest list on a piece of lined paper, saw they were on it and crumpled the paper up and threw it into the fire. This signified to experienced guests that they were expected and moreover, the last to arrive. 

Figgis morosely showed the Mapp-Flints into the drawing room where guests with their hosts sufficient for two tables of bridge were assembled, namely Lucia and Georgie Pillson and Kenneth and Evie Bartlett.

As the latest guests were announced, the hum of conversation in the room stopped and a pregnant paused ensued. Taking the initiative, Elizabeth first hastened to Lucia’s side and, grasping her hand, said “Oh my dear Lucia, I’m so, so sorry to hear about the shameful scandal yesterday. You must be simply mortified that such disgraceful behaviour took place at your party, but fear not, we will all try our very hardest not to believe all the dreadful things people are saying about you and to stand by you, dearest Lulu… however bad it looks.”

Taken aback by this, Lucia’s mouth dropped open and she had not even time to become irritated by Elizabeth’s use of the detestable pet-name she loathed above all others.

Ruthlessly seizing upon the weakness manifested in Lucia’s untypical failure to leap in and correct her at the earliest opportunity when she paused for breath, Elizabeth ploughed on, “And fear not, dearest Worship, however many complaints may be issued or calls made for you to stand down as our Mayor on account of this drunken orgy, I for one will never support it.”

By now Lucia had recovered her composure and smiled, “How very considerate of you, Lib Lib dear,” she replied, “But I’m not entirely sure what ‘scandal’, as you put it, took place. As I understand it, the delicious redcurrant fool kindly provided by Mr and Mrs Wyse accidentally contained too much brandy: an honest mistake, accidentally made. The fool was consumed in good faith by several of my guests with unforeseen results, but there was certainly no ill-motive or recklessness on the part of any party concerned, simply an unfortunate sequence of events.”

“Indeed, Mrs Pillson,” interjected Algernon Wyse, “I can only confirm the Mayor’s account of what transpired. It appears our normally reliable servant, Boon was foolishly, nay culpably, heavy-handed with the brandy and champagne with disastrous consequences. Naturally Susan and I have been deeply troubled by what transpired and, in consequence, Boon has been given notice.”

As silence again descended upon the drawing room, the door opened and Figgis showed in Inspector Morrison, “Good afternoon Your Worship, ladies and gentlemen,” said Herbert, “I apologise for interrupting your bridge, but I felt certain issues arising from yesterday’s events needed to be clarified. If I might crave your indulgence for a few minutes, Mr and Mrs Wyse?”

“Yes, of course Inspector,” replied Algernon “What is it you wanted to say?”

“Thank you,” Herbert replied, “First, I understand Mr Boon has been given notice of dismissal following the excesses on the picnic yesterday?”

“Indeed he has, Inspector,” Susan replied, “Boon will be leaving us in two weeks, without a reference. We could hardly be expected to continue to employ or recommend staff capable of acting so irresponsibly. Someone might have been injured or even killed, you know. Let alone the shock caused to those poor innocent nuns. They hardly came all the way from Belgium to be chased around like of flock of itinerant penguins – assuming penguins have “flocks”, that is.”

“I take your point, Mrs Wyse,” said Herbert, “But I do believe you are blaming the wrong person here. Might Mr Boon join us for a few minutes, please?”

Figgis was instructed to bring Boon into the drawing room and both stood expectantly in front of the Inspector.

“Now Mr Boon, can you tell me how you make the redcurrant fool which you served at the picnic?” Herbert asked, “Did you make it with its usual ingredients?”

“Yes, indeed, Sir; I’ve been making it exactly like that for twenty years. I’m very proud of my redcurrant fool and always stick to the letter of the recipe. It came from Mrs Wyse’s first mother-in-law, Mrs Poppit, ” Boon replied “It has quite a lot of champagne and old brandy, but never so much as to produce the effect we saw yesterday. I’m completely flummoxed at what went on and now I’m going to lose my job and my home. It just isn’t right.”

“Don’t be concerned, Mr Boon,” responded Herbert, “If you did nothing wrong, you will have nothing to be afraid of. Just trust me.”

Walking over to the mantelpiece, the Inspector took a sheaf of sheets of typed paper from his inside pocket. Turning to face the room, he cleared his throat. “Ladies and gentlemen, I can tell you that last evening I took a sample from the redcurrant fool to be analysed in our police laboratories. I have just received their report and it makes interesting reading.”

As the tension mounted, Evie Bartlett could not help herself and uttered a high pitched bat squeak of excitement.

“The report shows,” he continued, “That no exceptional levels of alcohol whatsoever were present in the redcurrant fool. There was no excess of champagne or brandy.”

“Well, how do you account for the subsequent drunkenness then, Inspector?” inquired Algernon Wyse “Was there, if you will forgive such a vulgar expression, some other ‘hanky panky’?”

“Yes, Mr Wyse, it seems there was,” Herbert replied, “The police laboratory has identified quite another ingredient in the fool. In view of this, I wonder if Mr Figgis might clarify what went on yesterday afternoon?”

“Oh all right then,” said Figgis, “I was going to tell anyway. I never knew Boon here would get sacked because of what I did, but none of you ever looks at things from my point of view.”

“Please continue Mr Figgis, I’m sure it will be for the best” Herbert replied

“Well, none of you ever stops to think what its like to stand in my shoes. There am I ‘butler to Mr Algernon Wyse of the Wyses of Whitchurch’, a good family, however you look at it. They rise even higher when his sister Amelia marries that Italian count that owns half of Capri. I’m butler and head of the house and all the other servants look up to me. Then he goes and gets married and it all changes.”

A general comment of,“Oh I see,” crossed the lips of several in the room, whilst Susan Wyse clung, worried to Algernon’s arm.

“Pray continue, Figgis,” said Lucia, and so he did.

“Don’t get me wrong, she’s a nice enough woman, very respectable. You don’t get a medal from the King for nothing, but the ‘Poppits of Tilling’ are not the ‘Wyses of Whitchurch’, not by a long way.”

Since no-one intervened, Figgis went on, “Under the new arrangements, I’m still called ‘butler’, but I’m just a dogsbody really. You’ve all seen me pushing Mrs Wyse’s tricycle and extracting her bloomin’ sables when they get trapped in the chain. It’s not what a respectable butler should be doing.”

Seeing he still had his listeners’ undivided attention, he continued, “And the last straw comes yesterday, when I had to cycle miles and miles after the Mistress in eighty degrees in my suit and collar and tie with one hand to steer and the other to hold onto that blinkin’ heavy fur coat. And to top it all, when I falls off, all she can say is, ‘Take care not to damage my sables, my good man,’ or some such. Really it’s more than a chap can bear. That’s not being a butler, it’s slavery.”

“Thank you for being so honest about your feelings, Mr Figgis,” said Herbert, “But now, it’s time to tell us what you actually did.”

“Well, it was quite simple really,” said Figgis, warming to his task, “I was feeling pretty sore after I’d fallen off my bike and my chance came immediately afterwards. When those two terriers had that great set-to over the turkey in the centre of the glade, I just slipped something into the redcurrant fool, when Boon here wasn’t looking. I was so angry and just didn’t care any more. I thought ‘This should make it a bit more interesting for you lot. Just try this!’”

“For the record, what exactly did you add?” asked Herbert.

“Well, as you may know, before going into service, I spent several years as a steward on the Blue Star Cruises. It was a good way for a young chap to see the world and learn a bit about life”

“Yes, Mr Figgis, very interesting, I’m sure,” interjected the Inspector, “But perhaps we could get to the point?”

“Sorry Inspector,” Figgis replied, “Anyway, we spent a lot of time cruising the Caribbean and down the coast of Mexico. I had many a run ashore there, I can tell you.”

Seeing he was about to be interrupted again, Figgis went on, “To cut a long story short,  I saw some amazing things in those Indian villages in the wilds of Mexico…magic and shamen and things you wouldn’t credit.  Some of the magic they did used plants or special mushrooms or bits of cactus. I remember the cacti; they called one ‘San Pedro’. The other was ‘Peyote’ which contained something called ‘mescaline’, I think.  They did things to people’s minds, like you wouldn’t believe.”

“Yes, Mr Figgis, but what has this got to do with you?” asked the Inspector.

“Don’t you see?” asked Figgis, who by now was becoming a little irritated that his audience was so slow on the uptake, “ I tucked some of that Peyote away in my souvenirs for old times sake and kept it all these years. That’s what I put in Boon’s redcurrant fool. I just wanted to teach somebody a lesson, but I didn’t want to get him the sack or for anyone to get hurt.”

“Thank you Mr Figgis – for being so frank,” said Herbert, “Perhaps you and Mr Boon would leave us now and we can decide what’s to be done.”

As Figgis and Boon left the drawing room, a hubbub of conversation arose with, “Well, who’d have thought it,” and, “A sad business,” featuring prominently and Evie Bartlett’s rodent squeaks providing a kind of lofty descant to the generally lower-pitched exchanges.

Predictably, Elizabeth Mapp-Flint was particularly shocked, “Frankly, I’m appalled that we should live to see the day when narcotic hallucinogens should wreak such havoc in the countryside around our sweet innocent Tilling, particularly under your auspices as Mayor, Lucia dear”.

Then, opportunistically even by her standards, she continued, “Of course, if in the light of this dreadful, dreadful scandal, you should find your position untenable, I would as Mayoress be prepared to put aside my personal feelings and assume the position of Mayor and seek to restore to the office some of its former good name.”

“Thank you, Elizabeth. How very kind of you to offer - and so typical of you,” replied Lucia coolly, “But I hardly think the Mayor can be held responsible for the actions of the servants of another.”

At this, Algernon and Susan Wyse remained uncomfortably silent. Lucia continued, “Perhaps our good Inspector Morrison will comment further as to what should now be done for the best?” 

“Thank you, your Worship” Herbert replied, “I have to say that this may be a case of ‘less is more,’ as my old father used to say. My main concern today was to stop poor Mr Boon being dismissed for something he didn’t do.”

“Yes of course, Inspector” interjected Algernon Wyse, “Boon shall be reinstated at once. We shall also apologise for doubting him.”

“Very good, Mr Wyse” Herbert replied. “This now brings us to Mr Figgis. I saw Georgie and Per this morning. Other than a slight headache, they have no ill-effects from their dunking in the canal. They tell me that their fellow Tilling Wheelers, Mr Collins and Mr Timmins are also quite well, but have no recollection whatsoever of what happened yesterday afternoon. In short no-one is willing, or indeed able, to press any charges.”

“But what about your report from the Police Laboratory?” interjected Elizabeth Mapp-Flint, who still remained keen that someone should suffer punishment.

“To be honest, Madam,” Herbert replied, “There isn’t any such report. Our chemists are getting very clever nowadays, but they can’t identify small traces of organic compounds like Mr Figgis’s peyote. I made it up to jog his memory.  In any event there wasn’t any redcurrant fool left to analyse - the Tilling Wheelers drank all the evidence.”

“Thank you, Inspector, most ingenious,” said Algernon Wyse, “So the whole sad matter seems close to being resolved. Boon shall be reinstated and there is insufficient evidence or will to prosecute Figgis. Susan and I must decide if Figgis should remain in our service. What is your opinion Susan dear?”

“Considering all that has happened and much of what has been said,” Susan replied, looking squarely at Elizabeth Mapp-Flint, “I think there has been quite enough unpleasantness. In my view Figgis may have had a fair point and has not been treated with due consideration. I think we should let the matter rest. We shall reflect upon all that has happened and suggest that he does the same.”

“Thank you, my dear,” Algernon responded, “As always, you have arrived at the humane and sagacious view which one has come to expect from a Member of the Order of the British Empire,” at which Susan Wyse visibly blushed and fluttered her eye lashes disconcertingly.

“Having reviewed the potential injured parties, I think that only leaves us with the Belgian nuns,” commented Inspector Morrison.

“I believe that should be relatively easily solved,” remarked Lucia, “I shall write to the mother superior as Mayor to express regrets on behalf of the town and enclose a donation to benefit the convent – and perhaps send a new table tennis table. I understand the sisters enjoy their table tennis. It will be challenging to compose a suitable letter in Walloon. How you all work me!”


Copyright 2011 Deryck Solomon. All rights reserved in appropriate territories

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