Beyond the ancient walls of Tilling, down the hill and out over the marshes, Elizabeth Mapp-Flint sat in the dining room at "Grebe" mulling over the evening. For her, the focus of the event had been the triumphant reincarnation of her stunning tea gown in emerald green. "One in the eye for Diva Plaistow," she thought, "And everyone else. That will teach her not to filch my gown."
Elizabeth's view of the universe did not allow her to dwell too long on her own reverses or admit, let alone give credit for, her friend's successes. When this very rare event occurred, some small part deep inside of her, died a little. She was admittedly mildly irritated by "dear Lucia's incessant flouting of her soi disant gift from the Queen," but planned to begin to cast seeds of general doubt regarding its authenticity by means of a concerted campaign of carefully placed questioning observations.
Whilst his wife pondered when to set such germination in train by remarking, what and to whom, her husband, Major Benjy, thought back over a "jolly decent dinner" and discreetly swallowed a further headache tablet. "Must be the start of a chill, " he thought, disregarding the considerable volume of fine wines and liquors he had ingested. "Amusing enough evening," he thought," Rum do with Mistress Milliner Michelangelo in his bright red romper suit and flying wig. Rushing off with a napkin on his head. Don't know how I kept a straight face."
Visiting metropolitan sophisticates, Stephen Merriall and Sophie Alingsby had created a most unfortunate impression both at "Mallards House" and around Tilling beforehand. Accordingly, their names were summarily expunged from the memory of the residents of "Grebe," as though they had never existed.
Typically, Algernon and Susan Wyse were more sanguine. They were pleased to have met Lord and Lady Ardingly, and to have shared with them the history of the Wyses of Whitchurch and their aristocratic relations in Capri. They remained steadfastly oblivious to their own foibles and affectations: the Royce, the sables, Her Majesty the Queen eternally "So pleased", the bowing and cumbersome Chesterfield terms.
Of those who were not invited, Diva Plaistow was shocked in equal measure by the daring thefts and the infinitely more painful, unexpected resurrection of Elizabeth's "moribund old frock" in startling emerald green: "such a difficult colour for ladies of a certain age to carry-off and, with her muddy complexion, Elizabeth certainly failed to do so, " she thought bitterly.
Her friend's actions had, Diva considered, "unilaterally breached the truce on the issue" hitherto between them and was to be interpreted as "an aggressive act." It remained to be seen whether a state of war now existed or just the mistrustful, armed stand-off that normally prevailed.
The Bartletts were also disappointed not to have been asked, particularly since it was well-known that Lord Ardingly was an old friend of the bishop and a regular guest at the palace in the Cathedral Close. The odd favourable word in Kenneth's favour there might have assisted his preferment no end.
The Padre would also have enjoyed saying Grace in such distinguished company and his wife, the mouse-like Evie would have felt whatever her husband deemed it seemly for her to feel. Mrs Bartlett took her matrimonial vow of obedience much more literally than most wives. Her rigid adherence was greater than was strictly necessary or indeed was required by Canon Law.
Noting the expensive wines and dishes served, the Calvinistic lowland Scottish element in Kenneth Bartlett's psyche - unusual for one born in Birmingham in the Midlands - led him to reckon that the Mayor's evening must have cost both "a pretty penny," and, "Aye, without a doot, many a brau' baubee, tha' noos."
The Padre did seek, though not entirely successfully, to temper his extreme envy over the issue by trying, "to bear in mind the likelihood of a rich man entering the Kingdom of Heaven." Although he would never have admitted it, the materialistic vicar would probably have preferred to take his chances and tried to gain admission with his fortune intact and to become perhaps that unlikeliest of phenomena in Heaven, "the exception that proves the rule."
Replete with their own individual views of what had transpired, the leading lights in Tilling society went about their normal business, as life resumed its usual course and the year sped to its end. Out of the town, at "Braemar", 9 Undercliff Villas, that morning, Herbert and Bunty Morrison touched briefly upon the arrest Mr Merriall's servant the previous day.
"All the jewels were in a secret compartment in the spare wheel of that big car," Herbert explained, "Lady Ardingly was very glad to have her tiara returned, since she had hoped to wear it for the ball tonight."
"And what about Mrs Wyse and Mrs Mapp-Flint?" asked Bunty.
"Very different really, dear," replied Herbert," Mrs Wyse was overcome with tears and gazed at it fondly, saying that it had been in her family for such a long time and that she was so relieved to have it restored to her. Quite touching really."
"And Mrs Mapp-Flint?" asked Bunty.
"A little strange to be honest, love," Herbert replied, "Although she kept on and on dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief, they were completely dry. She was also rather too keen to put the piece away and out of sight. Didn't look at it once in fact."
"Almost as if she didn't want it looked at too closely?" suggested Bunty, "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" she asked.
"Yes," Herbert replied, "I did wonder if, despite the apparent tears of relief and grand name.."
"The Mapp Diadem," interjected Bunty.
"Indeed, dear," replied Herbert, continuing, "As I was saying, it crossed my mind that there might be more than a little paste involved in that diadem nowadays."
"With all their airs and graces, the Mapp-Flints have have had some hard times in recent years," commented Bunty.
"As I understand it, mostly of their own making,"remarked Herbert, less sympathetically, "What with speculating in shares, gambling at the casino on honeymoon and generally trying to compete with Mrs Pillson and usually failing."
""Well, needs must," Bunty responded knowingly, "And it was their own."
"I don't disagree, dear," Herbert replied, "And it's not for anyone else to judge what lawful use they make of their own property. With the ball going on at Ardingly, if it was an offence to wear paste jewels, half the gentry of the county would be in prison this very day! Anyway," he added, "Mrs Mapp-Flint said her diadem was going straight back into its safety deposit box at her bank. My guess is, it will never see the light of day again and so I suppose we shall never know."
"Of course dear," said Bunty, "In any event, well done for your part in catching the burglar. You must be very pleased?"
"It was good that Tilling police made the arrest after such a high profile series of robberies," he replied, "It certainly won't do the reputation of the force in Tilling any harm."
"Or yours dear?" added Bunty
"I suppose not, my love, " he replied smiling, "I suppose not."
After a thoughtful pause, Herbert continued," Let us hope we have a quieter time in the run-up to Christmas. The last few months have been very hectic and I'm sure we could all do with a little peace for the rest of the year."
The Morrisons then discussed more domestic matters, including their plans for the impending festive season and the progress of the purchase of Christmas gifts for their twins James and Doris, who would be ten on their next birthday.
Neither parent took the view that exclusively masculine or feminine items should constitute their major gifts and Bunty reported that she had already ordered a chemistry set each from Mr Dabnet's toyshop in the High Street. These would be wrapped and hidden in the attic until delivery could be undertaken by Herbert masquerading as Santa Claus on Christmas Eve.
"I suppose Jimmy and Dot are continuing their campaign for a puppy?" Herbert asked.
"If anything, it's getting worse," Bunty answered, "They think they can wear me down by asking time after time, but I keep my patience and explain that it just isn't practical as things stand now. To tell you the truth , it's wearing me down, but I suppose I shouldn't give in?" she asked.
"I'm afraid not dear," Herbert replied, "I'm sorry you have had to bear the brunt of it all. I will speak to them and get them to drop it once and for all"
As the weather grew colder and the nights started to draw in, the good folk of Tilling thought less of the dramatic events of earlier in the year -which those of a less reticent frame of mind might well have considered a crime wave surprising for a small seaside town in Sussex - and more of the festive season.
Christmas in Tilling had traditionally been a low key affair with no exchange of gifts other than within the immediate family and relatively small expenditure confined chiefly to turkey, plum pudding, a bottle of sherry and the choice of Christmas cards from the small selection on display in the stationers in the High Street. Much time was, however, spent there agonising over the messages which would be read into the purchase of cards from the threepenny, sixpenny or ruinously expensive shilling trays respectively.
Since the arrival of Emmeline Lucas and Georgie Pillson, subsequently joined in Holy Matrimony before God and Elizabeth Mapp, the profile of yuletide and matters festive had become more pronounced in Tilling. On their first Christmas, Georgie and Lucia had surprised their new friends by bestowing upon them generous gifts ranging from fine chocolates and pre-war whisky to pate de foie gras and a splendid umbrella.
Whilst never approaching the lavish festive largesse demonstrated by the newcomers, the old guard in Tilling was spurred into adopting the practice of giving gifts within their immediate circle of intimes. This led to an increase in sales in the vicinity of inexpensive handkerchiefs and neck ties and, to put it frankly, cheap bath salts. It also brought about a veritable renaissance in the handicrafts necessary to produce table mats and antimacassars, that some admired as "lace making" and those less kindly disposed, dismissed as "tatting."
With the charitable zeal which Lucia considered to be her hallmark, the impending holiday season prompted further mayoral generosity. This year's innovations included the erection in Church Square of tall and sturdy mayoral Christmas tree, all the way from Norway.
It was also announced that the Mayor would be hosting a Christmas tea party to be attended by all children under the age of twelve in the borough. This would be held in the banqueting suite at the King's Arms Hotel, the scene of Lucia's mayoral banquet earlier in the year.
When this was announced, many local residents expressed the earnest wish that, in her enthusiasm, the Mayor would not again seek to revive the ancient practice of cascading heated new pennies down upon the expectant tots and urchins of the town.
In the past this had unfortunately resulted in many injuries by way of second degree burns or bruising amongst the scrabbling throng of over-excited infants.
Though this reasonable anxiety for the welfare of their offspring was widespread, few went as far as Elizabeth Mapp-Flint in expressing her concerns regarding the "Severe risk Mrs Pillson recklessly intended to pose to the health of our young folk by obliging them to consume their dear sweet jellies, lemonade and other tea time treats in the insanitary and insalubrious annexe to a seedy four ale bar, which sadly she had been accustomed to frequent."
A sure indication of the return to normality of Tilling took place next afternoon when two tables of Tilling's leading lights were assembled for delicious one and eightpenny teas and an opportunity to converse over a rubber or two of bridge in the drawing room of Diva Plaistow's home "Wasters" in the High Street in its commercial incarnation as "Ye Olde Tea House"
Various topics had been covered already, including how busy everybody was in the hectic run up to Christmas. Much talk centred on how savings accumulated in Tilling's Christmas Club run by Diva Plaistow from her tea room would be spent. For many, their cash would make a short journey from the Olde Tea House into the tills of the butchers, wine merchant or Twistevant's, the greengrocer nearby, just down the High Street.
Pinned on the wall was a reminder to all Diva's customers that Tilling Christmas Club would pay all sums due to savers between 5 and 7 P.M. on Friday 7th. December. To make the process more convivial and advertise the high quality comestibles served at her establishment, Diva would be serving complimentary mulled wine and hot mince pies during the hours that the redemption was taking place.
Unable to resist a jibe, Elizabeth Mapp-Flint remarked loudly, " Dear Godiva, must have a few stale pies left over to be offering them gratis to all and sundry."
Overhearing this, Diva responded, "Not at all Elizabeth, dear. I pride myself on the quality of my mince pies and indeed each and every delicious item served here. As ever, they will be freshly made that day, " adding savagely, "And don't worry, the free gift will be served to all our savers, however paltry their meagre deposit might be. I feel it is incumbent upon those of us in the business community to consider the welfare of our more elderly or disadvantaged residents at this sacred time of the year."
In an attempt to gloss over this spat, which in truth owed not a little to the recent reappearance of a certain tea gown, all agreed that, "it had proved very convenient to be able to save a little exclusively for the ruinously expensive festive season."
"It's so easy to be able to make a small deposit when popping in here for tea and bridge, Diva dear," remarked Susan Wyse, "And it's such fun to receive the payment so close to Christmas, when one has so many little things to buy."
Sipping her tea, Elizabeth Mapp-Flint thought silently, as ever combining accuracy with malice, "Not that Susan really needs the money."
"Kind of you to say so, Susan, " Diva replied, adding whilst looking pointedly at Elizabeth Mapp-Flint, "It means so much when at least one person present appreciates the great effort involved and doesn't just criticise all the time. I always aim to satisfy my customers' needs."
"Especially what you call 'the elderly and disadvantaged'," remarked Mrs Mapp-Flint," Sounds just like the sardines in your clever little tartlets, Diva sweetest!"
Just as Diva opened her mouth to respond to this mortal insult, Elizabeth continued relentlessly, " Just my little joke, my angel, no offence intended, of course. I shall probably employ the bulk of my withdrawal from your wonderful little Christmas Club for my usual round of charitable donations, anonymously as ever," she added to the general disbelief of her companions. All present knew full well that the withdrawal would be exhausted on pre-war whisky and the pate of which the residents of "Grebe" were inordinately fond and that not a single penny was destined to benefit the poor of the parish.
As players on both tables cut for partners, conversation returned to Lucia's dinner party and Elizabeth Mapp-Flint inquired archly, " Lulu, precious one, have you heard recently from your newest and best friends, Lord and Lady Ardingly?"
With gimlet eyes flashing, Lucia resented both the sarcastic tone and implication of the question and the impertinence of what she had long considered the "appalling diminutive applied," "Yes, thank you Lib, Lib," she retaliated, adding spiritedly, as though addressing an aged incompetent in the workhouse, "By the way, dear Mayoress, I have often asked you not to address me in that way. I do understand that with advancing years the memory can play its little tricks, but pray do try your best to remember if you can. 'Lucia' will suffice splendidly or 'Your Worship' on official occasions. Good, now that's settled"
Before Elizabeth had an opportunity to respond, Lucia continued, " Yes, indeed, Lord Ardingly was kind enough to write to me personally to thank me for what he described as 'a splendid evening'."
"Susan and I also enjoyed it enormously and were honoured to be in the presence of the Lord Lieutenant of the county and his good lady," added Algernon Wyse, somewhat unctuously, even by his own courtly standards, continuing, "He was, of course, aware that the Wyses of Whitchurch often had the honour to hold the Lieutenancy of Hampshire."
"I would probably say the same thing, had I been invited," interjected Irene Coles mischievously with a pointed look at Lucia and Georgie Pillson. Irene was however soon distracted by a plate of Diva's newly baked jam puffs, sent over to her with Lucia's compliments.
Not wishing the issue of who had or had not featured upon her guest list to become a greater bone of contention, Lucia made an effort to move the conversation on. At this point she recollected with complete clarity a moment during the evening at which Lord Ardingly had, following discussion of the decoration proudly worn by Susan Wyse and the recent private visit by the Queen, interestingly remarked, "In consequence, Tilling might find itself further honoured."
Upon Lucia's uttered reminder of these words, the collective cosmic consciousness, so often evident amongst her circle, ground into operation and set about applying the advanced skills of inductive reasoning, honed in Tilling to the very finest of fine arts.
Lucia set the ball of analysis and debate rolling by remarking, "As you all know, I have found immense inspiration in recent years in going about my commercial, civic, artistic and charitable activities for the benefit of my fellow citizens in Tilling by following the uplifting example of Dame Catherine Winterglass, that sage benefactress whose framed portrait stands at all times on my desk."
"Must be getting pretty crowded on that desk, what with the Queen and half the royal family on there too as well as Dame Whatsit," muttered Elizabeth Mapp-Flint, in a "voce" that was not terribly "sotto."
Pretending she had not heard Elizabeth's remark, Lucia continued, " I am excited to consider that Lord Ardingly's words might be taken as a hint to his hostess that His Majesty might be considering honouring me in the same way as he honoured Dame Catherine and for many of the same reasons", she concluded.
"Rather optimistic, don't you think, Worship dear?" remarked Elizabeth Mapp-Flint sarcastically."If you don't mind me saying, you are rather a newcomer, who has resided in Tilling for an even shorter time than dear Susan here. Although His Majesty was minded to award poor Susan one of the lesser orders, I hardly think a dame hood will be under consideration for someone who might even be regarded by some - not me I hasten to add - as 'a veritable parvenu', even one who had attained high office amongst us simple folk in such a short time."
As Elizabeth spoke, Lucia's gimlets narrowed even further, making her fixed gaze resemble that of the most venomous cobra about to strike. Sensing danger, Georgie Pillson decided to intervene, commenting with a faux cheerfulness, "Well ladies, it looks as though we shall all have to agree to disagree on that one and see what the jolly old King has in mind for Tilling in his New Years Honours List."
"Well, if you don't think our admirable Mayor is deserving of a medal from the King, despite everything she has done for the town since she got here, who do you ungrateful lot think actually deserves a gong?" asked Irene testily. Despite being somewhat piqued, though not surprised, by the absence of an invitation to dine, she continued to feel a schwarm for Lucia and could still be counted amongst her stoutest loyalists.
"I thought it would have been obvious, dear sweet Quaint one," replied Elizabeth with her worst, most enormous smile,"If our Susan merited a decoration from the King for her short commitment of time and effort to Tilling Hospital, surely my foundation and decades of devotion to the Tilling Working Club speaks for itself?" she added with a defiant glare, as though daring her listeners to contradict.
"Well, I think I must contradict you, Mapp old thing," replied Irene, "As well as being well behind our brilliant Mayor as a candidate for honours, you seem to have forgotten that Tilling is also home to a recent Artist of the Year whose compelling oeuvre made such a sensation at the Summer Exhibition of the Royal Academy. In short, 'Moi'! If you will pardon me, I think you will find that Lucia and I are streets ahead of you in the pecking order for a medal," adding, in a manner that contrived to be both impish and infuriating,"The Royal Academy must trump Tilling Working Club any day of the week, don't you think, Mapp old girl?
Just as Elizabeth Mapp-Flint was about to respond to Irene, the door to "Ye Olde Tea House" opened and in strode Inspector Morrison, carrying a manila folder. Standing beside Lucia he bent over and asked quietly ,"Would it be convenient to sign these warrants now, Your Worship?"
Lucia found it both convenient and flattering to be seen so publicly to be interrupted with the call of official duty as Chief Magistrate by "her" Inspector of Police," particularly when enjoying "an all-too-brief respite from her onerous civic duties." She responded, " Oh, how you work me, Inspector! Naturally however, my burdensome duties as Magistrate must come first. Pray pass me the papers, Inspector and pray excuse me ladies and gentlemen, whilst I attend to them."
As Lucia briefly perused and signed each document, a discernible exchange of raised eyebrows and resigned sighs took place between Elizabeth Mapp-Flint and Major Benjy, whilst Quaint Irene looked on adoringly and the Wyses simply smiled benignly at all and sundry, ever the neutral Swiss to their more bellicose neighbours.
Taking advantage of the break in play and conversation, Elizabeth Mapp-Flint ventured her most unnervingly ingratiating and toothy smile at Inspector Morrison and enquired, "Oh Inspector, whilst dear Worship is signing off your expenses, might I have a brief word?"
"Of course, Mrs Mapp-Flint," Herbert responded resignedly, "What can I do for you?"
"First," intoned Mrs Mapp-Flint gravely, "Am I correct in assuming that lack of any contact from you means that you not apprehended the vicious youths responsible for the theft of all those apples from my garden at "Grebe"?"
"I'm afraid not, Ma'm" he replied,
"I thought as much," Elizabeth replied, continuing,"It seemed a forlorn hope now that the autumn picking season is so long gone. I'm sure it was those young ruffians from Harold Twistevant's hovels down by the station. Why can't you just arrest the lot of them? I'm sure after a few hours in your cells, they would confess under cross examination."
"I'm afraid we don't have enough evidence or corroboration from witnesses to take anyone into custody, Mrs Mapp-Flint" the Inspector remarked uncomfortably,"All we can do for now is be vigilant, I'm afraid."
"Unless they turn themselves in en masse" interrupted Irene, much amused, adding, "I didn't know that scrumping was an indictable offence in Sussex. Will they hang or will a mere flogging do?"
Knowing full well that she was being, as Quaint Irene would no-doubt put it, "sent-up," Elizabeth Mapp-Flint continued in as dignified tone as she could muster, "Very well, Inspector, although some of our so-called friends may find it a laughing matter, the Major and I are the victims of a planned series of thefts in consequence of which we shall not be able to enjoy our own apples over the coming winter months. We shall be forced to buy fruit at ruinous expense from Mr Twistevant in whose slums our tormentors dwell: a pretty irony indeed! I must beseech you to instruct your officers to maintain strictest vigilance in respect of this dastardly thieving during the next season."
"Subject to the availability of manpower, I will endeavour to do so, Mrs Mapp-Flint," responded Herbert, adding, somewhat tongue in cheek,"I do appreciate how galling these losses must have been for you and hope our enquiries will soon bear fruit. You said you had two issues?"
"Thank you Inspector, said Mrs Mapp-Flint, now somewhat uncertain whether the Inspector was taking her entirely seriously, but ploughing on regardless continued, "Sadly I also have to report to you that my precious Puss-cat, who moved with me from "Mallards" to "Grebe" appears to have been kidnapped. We have not seen hide nor hair of my errant pussy for over a week now. I fear she may already languish in some dreadful scientific laboratory somewhere. Kindly instruct your very best officers to carry out a thorough search of the area as a matter of urgency."
"If you would kindly care to attend at the police station and report your pet missing to my desk sergeant, the disappearance can be recorded officially and appropriate action set in train," responded the Inspector with the dead-pan expression he normally reserved for dealing with sincere but childish questions from his nine year old twins. He continued, "In the meantime Mrs Mapp-Flint, might I suggest that you put up some posters around the town reporting that your cat is missing and perhaps offering a small reward for its safe return."
"No chance of that!" muttered Irene, who took a dim view of what those best disposed towards the chatelaine of Grebe might describe as her "parsimony" and which the outspoken Irene considered to be "tight-fistedness".
Continuing to ignore her heckler, Mrs Mapp-Flint replied,"A good idea Inspector. Upon the strict understanding that you assign your best men to the search once I have reported the matter officially I will do as you suggest. As to the question of paying a reward, I would not wish to be seen to pay a ransom and will have to consider the ramifications."
"Just as I said. Don't say I didn't warn you," said Irene, to no-one in particular, "Well done Mapp old thing, it pays to advertise!"
By this time Lucia had provided the requisite signature sand handed the folder of documents back to the Inspector, who expressed his thanks and bade the company farewell.
This interruption had brought discussion of honours pending in Tilling to an end and bridge was resumed at its normal hectic pitch for the usual stakes.
Over the coming weeks, preparations for Christmas gathered pace all over Tilling. Decorations appeared in the High Street affixed to the street lights and stretching between buildings.
Festive displays appeared in each and every shop window save for the undertakers and specialists in surgical supports, neither of which appeared to lend themselves to seasonal levity.
The Mayor's Christmas tree standing proudly in Church Square was illuminated by strings of coloured electric lights at night and was the venue for regular carolling and collections in aid of local good causes.
In December as the first falls of snow lat on the ground, the streets of Tilling thronged with evening shoppers buying gifts and stopping for hot chestnuts from stalls by the roadside. Mr Twistevant's shelves groaned under seasonal provisions and his staff were kept busy each day serving customers and delivering much-needed groceries, vegetables and fruit throughout the town. They serviced private residences, including "Mallards House" and "Starling Cottage" and businesses such as the Traders Arms and "Ye Olde Tea House."
Diva Plaistow's tea rooms were inundated with customers seeking refreshment after tiring shopping from mid morning to the darkening evening. Many of her clientele participated in the Tilling Christmas Club and looked forward to withdrawing their savings on the forthcoming Friday.
Amidst these scenes of preparation, Inspector Morrison's force continued in its weighty task of protecting the good folk of Tilling. In particular, as requested by the Inspector, Mrs Mapp-Flint had duly attended at Tilling police station and made a full written statement concerning the mysterious disappearance of her pet, now officially recorded as "A large grey and white, non-pedigree feline, aged eight years, weighing approximately twenty five pounds and answering to the name of 'Puss cat,' missing from 'Grebe' near Tilling."
Despite this early report, notwithstanding the constant vigilance, if not a thorough house-to-house search of the borough by the entire force, and an extensive poster campaign, the errant Puss-cat was not found.
A few days later after bridge at "Starling Cottage," Elizabeth Mapp-Flint gave her friends an exhaustive update on the lack of progress to date in locating "poor dear missing Puss-cat, my sweetest lamb."
Georgie Pillson admitted to Susan Wyse in a hoarse whisper that "Elizabeth's constant harping on about her missing moggy had become more than a little tarsome."
This ennui alone, rather than any affection for the creature, led them to pray fervently for the recovery of the unloved cat.
Few of Elizabeth's listeners had any fond memories of her cat which, whilst it was in residence at "Mallards," secreted itself in solitary splendour under a particular bush in a border in the garden where she looked out on the rest of the world with singular disfavour.
Puss cat was not the sort of pet that played engagingly with a skein of wool or sat comfortingly upon one's lap and purred. She would never feature on a threepenny calendar or chocolate box. The very essence of irritability, she glared, hissed, spat and warded off any friendly approach with the sharpest of teeth and claws and truly appalling breath.
In her rare quiet moments, when entirely alone, Elizabeth Mapp-Flint could have admitted that she was only quite so vocal in endorsing the revolting creature and calling her plain silly things such as "My love bird" because Lucia's cat, an elegant but diffident Siamese, made her Puss-cat seem so lumpen, common and unappealing. Pure pride forbade her ever to concede the simple truth that most things about Lucia were superior. Despite Elizabeth's efforts, the fates usually conspired to prove that this was the case - from fine Queen Anne residences to feline companions.
Following the general disagreement at "Ye Olde Tea House" over which member of their circle most deserved a decoration, great expectations existed in every quarter regarding the arrival of an official brown envelope informing the recipient of "the possibility that the King was minded to award a decoration for particular services" and enquiring obliquely "if such intimation was forthcoming, whether the intended recipient might be minded to accept such an award."
As every day passed, the Mayor, Mrs Mapp-Flint and Quaint Irene awaited each visit from the postman with trepidation. Each loitered by the letter box at the time postal deliveries were due and was acutely disappointed not to receive any such communication, which it was understood would be couched in terms of strictest confidence.
The discomfiture of all concerned was compounded by anxiety as to whether any of the other self-declared potential recipients has received an official notification. Each was aware of this possibility and the extreme likelihood that on receiving "the letter" the fortunate recipient would be the soul of discretion and refrain from sharing the good news over bridge or tea and thus, in short, let them all "stew."
The tension mounted daily with little likelihood of any relief until the great day upon which the Honours List itself would be published.
Like any normal family, preparations continued at "Braemar." A modest Christmas tree, largely decorated by the twins, stood in the sitting room between the hearth and the wireless set.
Bunty Morrison continued to acquire a range of suitable, sometimes improving, presents for the children but steadfastly refused to succumb to their continued wheedling requests for a pet puppy.
As compensation, they were however each given additional pocket money with which to purchase their own small gifts. They also joined in the Mayor's party for local children and with their school choir practised for the Festival of Carols to be held around the Mayor's Christmas Tree in Church Square. Like many of her neighbours Bunty proposed to encash her small savings in the Tilling Christmas Club on Friday and to spend the proceeds on groceries from Twistevants and the butchers in the High Street. In the meantime, there were gifts to wrap and greetings cards to write and post.
On the day of the Tilling Christmas Club distribution, there was a warm and festive atmosphere in "Ye Olde Tea House." Outside, the High Street was busy with Friday afternoon shoppers crossing from the stationers to the toy shop and from the butchers to the greengrocer. Snow fell lightly whilst the smell of roasting chestnuts and candyfloss wafted in the air with the sound of the Tilling Brass Band playing carols in Church Square beneath the Mayoral Christmas tree.
Behind a trestle table in her tea room, Diva Plaistow poured steaming glasses of mulled wine for her customers, whilst her servant Janet served hot mince pies. A hum of anticipation lingered about the room as the hour of 5pm approached when the distribution was scheduled to begin.
A few minutes before the hour, several eager savers formed a small but orderly queue - in the way only the British race love to do. This being Tilling, it was only natural that Elizabeth Mapp-Flint and Major Benjy should stand at the head of the queue clutching their respective pass books.
Although Mrs Mapp-Flint would assert to her dying breath that this was "to enable us to make the earliest possible start to our usual charitable giving in Advent", most of their friends present assumed that, upon leaving the tea house, they would make a bee-line direct to the off-licence and wine merchant and thence to Mr Twistevant's luxury provisions counter.
As the expectant crowd grew, Diva Plaistow ceased serving the mulled wine and began to lay out her appurtenances as cashier of Tilling Christmas Club for the evening.
Her ledgers, note pads, pink withdrawal and receipt forms, blotters, pens and ink were laid out upon the linen-covered table. This was followed by her large cash box of reinforced steel, in which the substantial sum to be distributed to members had been stored since its collection from the bank next door earlier that afternoon.
When all was ceremoniously laid out, Diva Plaistow took her seat with great theatricality and, with a flourish, lifted the lid of the cash box. When she did so her eyes bulged and mouth dropped open, but no sound emerged.
This task was immediately undertaken by Elizabeth and Benjamin Mapp-Flint who shrieked and bellowed respectively, "It's empty! Diva what's going on? Have we been robbed?"
With a look of horror on her plump face, Diva Plaistow remained speechless for what seemed an eternity, whilst her mouth opened and closed, rather like a very chatty goldfish behind the glass of its bowl.
When Diva eventually regained the power of speech, all she could say was,"I don't know. This is terrible. I collected the cash form the Bank today, counted it and checked it twice myself and locked it away in my cash box. I just don't know what can have happened. This is terrible. What shall I do?"
Without giving Elizabeth Mapp-Flint an opportunity to assume control, appoint herself judge and jury, find Diva and Janet guilty and administer summary justice, Lucia looked at Bunty Morrison, who was waiting to redeem her savings like everybody else, "I think it would be sensible to call in your husband, the Inspector, immediately don't you think Mrs Morrison?"
"Of course, your Worship," Bunty replied, "He's with the children, listening to the brass band in front of the Christmas tree across the road. If you will bear with me, I'll go and fetch him straight away."
Within minutes, Bunty had located her husband and children nearby in Church Square and quickly explained the drama that had just unfolded at "Ye Olde Tea House." As was becoming his normal practice in such urgent situations, Herbert first suggested that his wife return home with the twins. He then muttered quick instruction to his sergeant who had been on duty in the High Street on that busy pre-Christmas evening.
As Inspector Morrison entered Diva Plaistow's premises, a hush fell. Naturally, conjecture had been rife as to what had happened and whether hard-earned savings would be seen again.
An undercurrent of worry and anger, stimulated by mulled wine of surprising potency, hung on the air in Diva's parlour.
The Inspector sensed that the situation had the potential to turn in an unpleasant direction quite quickly, particularly if Elizabeth Map-Flint continued to suggest outlandish theories as to what had happened and ferment the mounting disquiet. He needed to impose a firm grip on the situation without delay and remove all the by-standers to enable him to get on with the job unhampered.
The Inspector nodded to the Mayor to indicate that all was now under control. As he raised his hands, only Mrs Mapp-Flint continued to chatter somewhat hysterically. At that point she was suggesting loudly that "Mrs Plaistow's private quarters be thoroughly searched".
Catching her eye with one very meaningful look, the Inspector communicated to her that she had "better rein in her enthusiasm forthwith - or face the consequences." Elizabeth at last fell silent.
"Ladies and gentlemen," said the Inspector, exuding the calm authority upon which he was fast building his reputation," I gather that, most unfortunately, a substantial sum of money has gone missing here this evening. I think you will agree that it is imperative that a full enquiry is carried out tonight without further delay, so that the money can be located and returned to its rightful owners. This task will be made much easier if you will all co-operate with me and quietly leave these premises now. An early statement will be made once the facts have been clarified. Thank you for your co-operation."
A murmur of concern went about the room as the worried club members filed out into the cool December evening. Lucia and Georgie Pillson helped in the process by setting an example and being the first to exit without further comment or delay.
As the tea house cleared, above all the other voices in a kind of bilious descant, Elizabeth Mapp-Flint was heard to complain loudly, "Well, thank you very much Diva Plaistow. That's the last we shall see of our savings," continuing unconvincingly, "It really isn't the money. I'm just so sad that the poor of the parish will miss out on our generosity this year; it's they, who will suffer so."
Miserable, either at the prospect of being thwarted in his desire to donate so much money to those more deserving or to invest it in the finest pre-war whisky, Major Benjy thought it politic to maintain silence on the dreadful events. Rallying, however, he suggested "a swift chota peg in the Traders Arms in preparation for the walk out to 'Grebe.'" As ever, his life's partner did not concur and they set out on the lengthy tramp depressingly un-refreshed.
Back at "Ye Olde Tea House," Diva Plaistow seemed to have aged visibly over the preceding hour. Bemused, she sat down behind her trestle table and wrung her hands. The loyal Janet entered the room, put a cup of tea down in front of her mistress and sat beside her.
Inspector Morrison sat down opposite the pair and opened his notebook.
"Now Mrs Plaistow," said Herbert, as reassuringly as he could, for he did not for a moment think either lady was implicated in the theft, "First, don't look so worried. I'm sure we will be able to sort this out."
"Do you really think so?" asked Diva, bending forward and beginning to sob gently. Janet put a protective arm around her shoulder, as she continued, "I just don't know what happened. I was being so careful with all that money and now this happens. What will people think? Will they think I took it?"
"The important thing is to sort it all out, so they have nothing to think about," responded the Inspector, "Now let us run through what happened between your return from the bank with the money and opening your cash box shortly after five 'o clock."
For the next few minutes, between stutters, sobs and sighs, Diva Plaistow painstakingly reconstructed the events of the afternoon. After re-checking the cash, it had been locked away in her cash box, the key to which was put in the usual place in her desk. She had then joined Janet in the kitchen to complete the baking for the day, including a large batch of mince pies.
"Whatever beastly Elizabeth says, we always bake our pies freshly each day," she added, trembling and dabbing her eyes with her handkerchief.
The Inspector noted the customers who had visited during this period and asked if there had been any other callers, "Only Twistevants with the usual delivery of fresh ingredients for tomorrow morning's baking, Inspector," she replied.
"And Twistevants deliver every day, Mrs Plaistow?" asked the Inspector.
"Oh, yes, Inspector,"she replied, "They know us so well, they just come in the back way and leave the delivery on the kitchen table. Sometimes I pay them on the spot and sometimes it goes on my account when we're too busy."
"So you didn't deal personally with the chap from Twistevants this afternoon?" he asked.
"No, Inspector we were so frantically busy getting ready for the Christmas Club." Diva replied, "I just saw the delivery on the table and Mr Twistevant's son Barry leaving through the back door. It happens every day and I thought no more of it."
As Diva Plaistow spoke these words, Inspector Morrison's sergeant put his head around the front door of the tea house, spoke briefly to his superior and left.
Smiling, the Inspector turned his attention back to Diva and said, "Good news, Mrs Plaistow. The best, in fact. My sergeant tells me that Barry Twistevant has just been arrested on the platform at Tilling Railway station. He was carrying a valise containing his passport and all the missing money." As Diva held her breath and clutched even more tightly onto Janet's hand, the Inspector continued, "He was just about to board the 6.15 train to Paddington. Also, he confessed to the theft on the way back to the police station."
"Thank heavens", cried Diva, blowing her nose and trying hard to recover her composure,"Will you be able to return the money to me quickly so that I can pay it out to our savers in time for their Christmas shopping?"
"I don't see why not, Mrs Plaistow," her responded, "Apart from anything else, my wife Bunty was relying upon her withdrawal from the club to pay for our turkey and Christmas pudding! If you will bear with me, I will go back to the police station and interview young Twistevant and get him charged and, if you will pardon the expression, 'banged up for the night'."
By then, Lucia Pillson had completed her marketing for the day and enjoyed a comprehensive exchange of news with her friends. She was therefore aware that the culprit responsible for the theft had been apprehended and that payment in full would be made to all members of Tilling Christmas Club later that day. Understandably, Twistevants in the High Street was closed owing, if the notice on the door was to be believed, to "Unforeseen circumstances."
"Congratulations on a very successful outcome, Inspector," said Lucia in welcome.
"Thank you, Your Worship," he replied.
"What led you to Harold Twistevant's son?" she asked without looking up, as she reviewed and signed each document.
"A combination of good procedure and local knowledge really, Your Worship, plus logic and a little luck," he answered, adding," As a matter of best practice, as soon as I heard of the theft from Bunty, I instructed my sergeant to post men at the railway station and on the main roads out of the town. They have a pretty good idea as to who should and shouldn't be leaving Tilling at short notice"
"Oh, I see, "Lucia replied,"And what about the logic and luck?"
"Well," he replied,"In the very limited time available, the thief had to know where the cash box was kept and where the keys were hidden away. Mrs Plaistow herself said she often paid Twistevants for goods on delivery. So, in all likelihood, only someone from Twistevants had the time, opportunity and inside knowledge to carry out the crime. Then there only remained the issue of 'motive'"
"Wasn't the temptation of such a large sum enough to provide motive?" asked Lucia
"Yes Your Worship, but sometimes it's a question of degree. One can ask: is there anyone with even more motive than most? That's where a little local knowledge comes in handy too. It's well known about the town that despite his father's wealth young Barry never has two halfpennies to rub together. He's well known to drink too much in the Traders Arms and has run up large debts with that bookmaker over in Hastings. He's got a wife and child with another baby on the way. If anyone had more than enough motive, it was young Barry Twistevant. So there you are; quite straightforward really."
"Yes Inspector, a sad case. It illustrates the perils of drink, gambling and not taking care of one's dear ones: a lesson for both the son and father. Not that I imagine anyone else is that 'dear' to Harold Twistevant - even his own children. Let us hope that Mr Twistevant looks after his daughter-in-law and grandchildren, whilst his son is detained at his Majesty's pleasure," she concluded.
"We can only hope so Ma''am," replied the Inspector.
By now Lucia had finished signing the warrants and handed them back to the Inspector. She continued, "Will you be attending the carol concert beneath my Mayoral Christmas tree this evening, Inspector?"
"Yes, indeed your Worship," Herbert replied, "Our twins are performing there in the school choir. We are all looking forward to it very much."
"If it is convenient, might I ask you all to call into see Mr Pillson and myself beforehand, say at, six o clock?" Lucia asked, somewhat mysteriously.
Suspecting that it might not be fruitful to enquire further at this point, Inspector Morrison replied, " Yes of course Your Worship. We will look forward to seeing you then."
"We are so pleased you could come. Welcome," said Lucia in her most gracious "chatelaine" mode, "You may have wondered why we asked you to call here this evening?"
"I must admit, we did, Mrs Pillson," replied Bunty, unusually confidently, since she normally left such matters to her husband.
"Well, this is both an official and unofficial matter, Mr and Mrs Morrison," said Lucia earnestly,
"If we might take you into the garden, all will become clear," added Georgie.
Before long, both couples, followed by the twins, had walked to a point in the garden protected by its high walls, barely visible from the house, in which border plants overhung the lawn.
Gingerly lifting a trailing leaf or two, Georgie pointed within, "There you are!"
Beneath the border, curled up on what appeared to be some discarded sacking, was none other than Mrs Mapp-Flint's missing Puss-cat. Looking less irritable than usual, she was suckling three tiny kittens.
"Oh, I see" Herbert replied, "So Puss-cat has not been kidnapped and taken abroad. She has returned to her old stamping ground and, shall we say, 'made the acquaintance of 'your Persian cat, with this result."
"Yes, Inspector," said Lucia,"Subject to Elizabeth not alleging that my Persian forced himself upon her dearest Puss-cat, and threatening further proceedings, we seem to have a very happy outcome. Will you call off the urgent police search and advise Elizabeth officially?"
"With pleasure Your Worship, but I'm not sure how she will react to having three extra mouths to feed. I'm sure she will consider it likely to be what she would call 'ruinously expensive' and a terrible burden."
"That brings me to another reason for asking you all here this evening, Inspector,"said Lucia, "I was wondering if, subject of course, to Elizabeth's agreement, we might give a home to one each?"
"So when they are weaned, one will be at "Mallards House", one at "Grebe" and the other with you at Undercliff Villas. What do you think Inspector?" asked Georgie.
Turning to Bunty, the Inspector replied, "I think that will do very nicely, don't you, dear?"
"Of course, " Bunty replied, "Wouldn't you like that children?"
"Yes, please," they replied in unison, adding,"Which one is going to be ours?"
"Whichever one you like," Lucia responded,"Would you like to choose one now?"
Needing little persuasion, James and Doris selected a black and white female with matching white paws.
"Rather like opera gloves," remarked Georgie absently, whilst silently hoping, without great prospects of success, that he might be permitted to call their own kitten "Olga."
"And what is she called, please?" asked Doris un-self consciously.
"Well, that's up to you, but I'm sure we can think of a good name for her, if you would like. Ideally, we need a name that means something and says a little about where the kitten came from," Georgie replied.
"Yes, please do," James responded.
Pausing for a moment, Georgie continued,"How about "Bibelot"?
"That's a pretty name, but what does it mean?" asked Doris
"'Bibelot' is something beautiful and treasured from here at "Mallards House," Georgie explained.
"That will do very nicely indeed," Bunty and Herbert agreed, "Say 'thank you' children."