The process was assisted by the sensible decision by Quaint Irene to take a late winter holiday with her maid Lucy on the Continent.
Before her departure, Irene oversaw the dismal procession of workmen removing the slashed remnants of her masterwork the Stoning of St Emmeline from its place of honour in the Tilling Institute.
Upon the return of her magnum opus to her studio, Irene was surprisingly practical and unsentimental. She simply removed the shredded canvas and deposited it unceremoniously in the dustbin, whilst dismantling the huge frame and placing the component parts in her store room for future use.
Without a glance over their respective shoulders or leaving a forwarding address, Irene and Lucy boarded the train for Seaport and the ferry. This being Tilling, however, the arrival of the taxicab at "Taormina" and the setting down of passengers at the station was noted and duly reported upon by the servants of Irene’s closest friends and her departure was rapidly widely known.
Although many of her friends considered Lucia the ultimate snob, she felt that she deplored snobbishness. As befitted a benevolent dictator rather than a Bolshevik, her daydreams did however tend to feature her as Catherine the Great of Russia cunningly disguised, moving incognita amongst her devoted subjects rather than Rosa Luxemburg orating upon a soap box.
Breaking off from this analysis, Lucia looked up and greeted Georgie as he entered the Garden Room, “ I’ve been thinking how I might best open up our ‘society’ in Tilling, Georgie,” Lucia explained, “I still haven’t forgotten what happened to poor Mrs Brace a few months ago and wonder whether if we had involved the Braces more closely in our social activities in Tilling – drawn them into the centre of things - the whole unfortunate business might have been avoided.”
“I really do think that it might be worth trying to open things up a little here in Tilling,” responded Lucia, bridging her fingers and adopting what Georgie thought of as her “Oxford voice,” “We must not be narrow Georgie. I do wonder if it would not benefit our society - as it surely did in Athens during the age of Pericles - if we were to expand and diversify the range of those with whom we spend our leisure time: to open the doors to new ideas and different faces from varied backgrounds.”
I think it might be safer and less intimidating for everyone concerned if we began the process on neutral ground,” added Lucia, “Certainly not ‘Mallards House.’ I suspect that newcomers might feel it daunting to be entertained at the home of the Mayor,” she explained, “Therefore, I thought it would be a constructive idea to institute a new forum in which our circle in Tilling might be expanded and diversified.”
“I had the idea of establishing the Tilling Ladies Luncheon Club,” she explained, “Initially, I thought I would call it 'The Mayor of Tilling’s Luncheon Club,' but, on consideration, thought it smacked too much of delivering hot meals to the needy in the slums down by the railway station and had second thoughts. What do you think?”
“I thought Diva’s tea rooms would be an ideal location. Don’t you agree, Georgie?”
"No dear, I’m afraid not,” answered Lucia, who already planned to compensate her spouse by arranging for half a bottle of champagne and his favourite lobster a la Riseholme to be served for his solitary luncheon on the appointed day, “The candidates from the old guard more or less choose themselves, don’t you think?” she continued.
"And the younger element?” asked Georgie.
“Inspector Morrison’s wife, Bunty is pleasant and well thought of in the town and knows most of the young wives. Of course, Florence Twistevant will be a good choice to represent the business community and local affairs”.
“That would seem to be a remarkably sensible and non-contentious guest list, if you don’t mind me saying ,” remarked Georgie.
“Why, thank you, Georgie, I had taken great pains to ensure that the mix of personalities and backgrounds would work to create a pleasant occasion”.
“Despite all that, you do appreciate that Elizabeth in particular will try to use the issue to create unpleasantness and present your idea in the worst possible light?” asked Georgie.
"That goes without saying,” replied Lucia, “First, I will have a private word with Diva to enquire whether I may use her premises and whether she is willing and able to cater the affair. Then I shall prepare the ground with Susan and Evie and last of all with Elizabeth.”
‘Very sensible,” commented Georgie, “You mean to present her with a fait accompli?”
“If I can – absolument!” laughed Lucia, “And now, after all that thought of others, let us steal a few delicious moments of enjoyment for ourselves. A little divino Mozartino?”
“Now, uno, due, TRE!....
During the following week, the Mayor of Tilling went about her business in her usual methodical way.
As Cadman drove off from “Mallard’s House” bearing the Mayor’s invitation to her Mayoress to the inaugural luncheon of the TLLC, much activity was taking place at his destination.
The master of “Grebe” had fumbled in his waistcoat and trouser pockets and then, with a closed fist, discreetly handed three coins to the senior delivery man with a hearty, “Thank you chaps. Have a drink on me!”
Thinking the coins were three half crowns, the foreman had replied “Why thank you, Sir. That’s very generous of you,” and doffed his cap.
Their mutterings of discontent began immediately they discovered that the tip amounted to three pence and did not abate until several miles had been covered on the road away from Tilling.
Pleased to have saved himself the princely sum of seven shillings and three pence by this oft-practised leger de main, Major Benjy entered the drawing room and discovered his wife opening the letter which accompanied the large steamer trunk which stood on the floor before her.
The letter came from the solicitor administering the estate of the late-lamented Maharani of Maharashtra, young Mr Farnon. It confirmed that the item before them was the portmanteau which had been retrieved from the hotel room of the late Maharani in Seaport several months before.
Now that Probate of the Will had been obtained, “it is possible to release the trunk to the duly entitled beneficiary under the will, whose signed receipt for the same would be an absolute discharge to the Executors.”
Elizabeth Mapp-Flint unlocked the trunk, using a small key enclosed with the letter. Tentatively, she opened the lid of the portmanteau with its brass bound corners and fittings and leather straps. It was covered by a myriad of faded circles, squares and triangles, paper labels that recorded the passage of a life as vividly as any biographer. The stickers documented first class passages on liners long-since consigned to the breakers yard and Grand Hotels in far-flung outposts of the Empire.
Major Benjy joined his wife in gingerly removing the sheets of aged tissue paper that covered the topmost contents . Elizabeth first lifted out a heavy and voluminous sable coat which had been mentioned by Mr Farnon when they met at his office in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.
Elizabeth Mapp-Flint raised the soft and scented sable to her face, breathed deeply and luxuriated within it, "Oh Benjy, it’s exquisite. I never thought I would wear a fur as beautiful as this. Susan Wyse will be green with envy - and as for the Lucia! I can't wait!”
"Oh, if you insist, I will,” replied Elizabeth with fluttering eyelashes and exaggerated girlishness, that she took to be a satire upon the demeanour of Susan Wyse, continuing, as she skipped around clutching her sables about her in an attempted coquettish fashion, "But I must remember to leave room amidst my ample décolletage for the insignia of my little Order. My MBE was awarded to me personally by His Majesty the King, you know. His wife Her Majesty the Queen, was there too 'Call me Mary,' she said, 'I'm thrilled to bits for you, dear.'”
"Steady on, old girl. It’s one thing to send up the Wyses of Whitchurch, but we have to draw the line at the King and Queen – God bless 'em both."
"Silly me. You’re quite right,” replied Elizabeth, “Your girly's just getting over-excited, Benjy boy. Now let’s see what else is in here.”
Still draped in her new sables, Elizabeth knelt down and looked into the trunk. She took out several mahogany framed photographs, each tinted in sepia in the old-fashioned way. The first showed an attractive woman in a sari sitting in palatial surroundings.
“That’s the Maharani in the drawing room of the Maharajah’s palace in Poona." explained Benjy. " I remember going there for cocktails after polo against the Maharaja’s team before the War. Never forget that day. Scored three goals in the fourth chukka. That's a photograph of the Maharaja on the wall behind her."
"Then we must put this up in place of honour in our drawing room, don’t you think Benjy?” she asked.
"Very fitting Elizabeth dear,” Benjy replied. "Now what else have we got?”
As he spoke, Elizabeth extracted from the trunk several more items. These included a large jewellery box containing an array of sparkling, but sadly fake jewellery, albeit of good quality. This highly decorative collection included suites of matching necklace, bracelet and tiara and numerous orders and sashes of exotic foreign orders.
Picking up a large brooch containing a substantial green stone surrounded by smaller but highly iridescent white gems, Benjy commented, "By Jove, I remember this. It must be a copy of the Poona Emerald. The original was famous in its day. The old Maharaja, the father of the last one, had the original flawless emerald made up into a massive jewel encrusted with diamonds and sapphires and gave it to his mistress in Paris after winning the Arc in 1904. The entente was very cordiale that year, in more ways than one.”
"Benjy, really!" protested Elizabeth, shielding faux doe's eyes behind a swathe of top-quality sable, "I would love to wear that brooch out and about in Tilling, with my new sables - just once," commented Elizabeth, "Without telling anyone that the gems aren’t real. It would be worth it just to see the look on Susan and Lucia’s faces. Serve them right - both of them!"
" I don’t see why you shouldn’t do that,” commented Benjy, "After all, what harm would it do? Just a little bit of fun."
"Now let’s see what else we have," continued Elizabeth, removing several more items from the trunk. These included silver framed photographs, photo and stamp albums in Morocco leather, bundles of letters and clothes including a silk turban, fringed in gold filigree.
“Oh Benjy, I haven’t had so much fun in years,” cried Elizabeth, "It reminds me of when I was a girl and we visited ma chere Tante Caroline at 'Mallard’s' for the summer holidays. We used to be allowed to play with the contents of Auntie's dressing-up box. I would try on all her lovely old dresses and hats and totter around the garden room in her high-heeled shoes.”
"A charming picture dear,” commented Benjy, who, in reality, found it difficult to imagine that his good lady wife was ever an artless young girl in a pinafore dress sweetly playing with the contents of her aunt's dressing up box.
As Benjy struggled with these conflicting visions, Withers entered, bearing a silver tray on which rested a stiff vellum envelope, which Elizabeth immediately recognised was from her dear friend Lucia.
"Thank you, Withers, that will be all," said Elizabeth as she took a paper knife and slit open the envelope containing her missive, "Let's see what dear Lulu has in store for us now. It seems Worship considers that the ladies of Tilling are in need of a good hot meal in these straightened times," said Elizabeth, as she began to re-read her invitation.
"Whatever now?" asked Benjy.
"The inaugural meeting of the Tilling Ladies Luncheon Club next week," she explained, "At Diva's. I shall be having a word with her about that. She obviously knew all about it when I saw her yesterday. Call herself a friend? Really, I wouldn't have thought it of her."
"Perhaps she thought she was bound by the confidentiality which binds the caterer and her customer?" suggested Benjy tentatively.
"Tosh dear" replied Elizabeth, "There's no such thing and, even if there was, it was Diva's duty as my oldest friend to let me know. Lucia must have made it worth her while to keep quiet about it. It must have killed her not to tell me; she's normally such a gossip."
Benjy took the frame in one hand and touched it gently with the other in silence.
"You look very smart, love," he remarked as he changed gear.
"What have you got to be nervous about? You'll know everyone there. You've met the Mayor, Mrs Mapp-Flint and Mrs Twistevant at civic do's. You know Evie Bartlett from Church. We see the Caustons and Dobbies at Rotary and you do your hospital visiting with Mrs Wyse. And we have tea at Mrs Plaistow's most weeks."
"Just relax and enjoy it," advised Herbert as he drove through the Landgate, "Above all, be yourself and you'll be fine."
Inspector Morrison leaned over and kissed his wife as she got out of the car and greeted Florence Twistevant, "Have a nice time," he called out of the window," See you later."
"Yes thank you Mrs Pillson," Bunty replied, balancing a crab puff in one hand and glass of fruit cup in the other, “We're not late are we?"
"Not a bit, my dear," answered Lucia, "We're still waiting for Susan and my Mayoress. I'm sure they will be along in a moment. Do have another canapé. Oh yes, here’s Susan’s Royce coming down the High Street now."
“Much quicker to walk here from 'Starling Cottage,' if you ask me,” commented Florence Twistevant, eying her cordial and a miniature sardine tartlet with suspicion.
As Bunty and Florence greeted their fellow attendees, Susan Wyse entered grandly, swathed as ever in sables and displaying her MBE in her ample embonpoint.
"I didn't think decorations were to be worn at a ladies’ lunch," muttered Florence Twistevant spraying her neighbour with crumbs from her partially masticated amuse bouche, adding, "If I’d known I would have worn my Bronze Life Saving medal and borrowed our Rita’s Ovaltiney’s Badge. I really could do with a gin and French instead of this lime cordial. I hope there's some wine with our dinner."
"I don't think Mrs Plaistow has a licence to serve intoxicating liquors, so I wouldn't bet on it, Florence," Bunty replied, suppressing a giggle.
"I hardly think this group of mature ladies will run amok around the streets of Tilling if they were allowed a small sherry, do you?"
Resisting the temptation to respond, Bunty merely sipped her cordial and smiled at the approaching bulky figure of Susan Wyse.
"Won't you take off your lovely sables, Mrs Wyse? You must be warm" asked Mrs Twistevant.
"Oh no, I always keep my sables with me," replied Susan, "I find it’s still a tad wintry today, don't you think?"
Bunty and Florence were relieved of the burden of responding by the tardy arrival of the final lunch guest, Elizabeth Mapp-Flint.
"Fresh today?" asked the Mayoress of Tilling, pushing the crumbling cheesy savoury with her forefinger and took Janet's nod as affirmation, "And the other?"
"There's enough trouble in the world, don't you think dear? "asked Elizabeth sweetly, "Much safer to forego the sardine today, I think; discretion, the better part of valour and all that. I'll just finish off the other - the last straw!"
Diva Plaistow, entering from the kitchen where preparations were well in hand, nodded to the Mayor and opened the door to the adjoining room usually used for cards, but in which today a table was laid for lunch.
“Thank you, Mrs Twistevant” said the Mayoress, “Now, without further ado, let us enjoy our luncheon.”
There followed an intense debate upon the respective merits of Mr Massie and other stars, including Ronald Coleman, Jack Buchanan and the up-and-coming, Laurence Olivier.
In the tense lull that followed the Mayor's misleading wistfulness, Evie Bartlett remarked sadly that the last film she had seen was, "At the old kinema in Tilling at Christmas-time in 1930. I remember it involved tadpoles," she confirmed gravely, "Shockingly frank for the time - and jolly interesting it was too."
"I read that the Queen Mary is due to sail to Cherbourg before making its maiden Atlantic crossing to New York," said Lucia.
"Yes, indeed," commented Elizabeth Mapp-Flint, " My Benjy boy and I were toying with the idea of making the crossing. We thought it would make a nice change"
Within a remarkably short time, the officers of the Club were proposed and elected. As was only natural, the Mayor was appointed to the Chair with the Mayoress as her Deputy. Mrs Wyse became Treasurer and Bunty Morrison Social Secretary.
“I hope so,” Bunty replied, “I have to go and report to Mrs Pillson at “Mallards House” this afternoon and I would like to think I’ve done a good job and dotted the i’s and crossed all the t’s.”
“I’m sure you have. The Mayor’s not that bad,” commented Herbert, “She appreciates when someone has tried to do a thorough job and always gives praise where it’s due.”
"Wonder what 'town' she means?" asked Herbert, "Maidstone? Frinton? I suppose she means London. She could have come with you on the charabanc and saved on the train fare!"
"Now now Herbert, I'm surprised at you," joked Bunty, "The one thing you don't mention to her after her little problem with the Tilling and District Railway Company is train fares! Anyway, that's what I'm doing this afternoon. Enough about me. What about you?”
“I’m mixing in lofty circles too, love,” Herbert replied, as he dusted off the peak of his cap and began to put on his uniform jacket, “Off to see his Lordship over at Ardingly. There have been a lot of thefts from cottages on the estate and there have been reports of some suspicious looking sorts in the area. May well be the gipsies again. When the Lord Lieutenant picks up the phone, yours truly comes running.”
The ladies of Tilling's
Luncheon Club settled into their seats and chatted animatedly as the charabanc drove
off. Georgie Pillson waved cheerfully, whilst Algernon Wyse raised his boater
and bowed repeatedly as it disappeared from view.
At the front of the coach, Lucia sought to educate her travelling companions upon the issues of daily concern to a modern Mayor. Her discourse ranged from housing and planning policy to the adverse consequences of ribbon development so evident in the neat brick villas now lining either side of the highways radiating from the capital.
By now the charabanc had long since left Sussex by the sea and had navigated though Royal Tonbridge Wells and Seven Oaks to Bromley in the garden county of Kent.
As they sped on through the suburbia of Greater London, Bunty handed out to each passenger a programme and guide to the exhibition. The brochures were reviewed thoroughly as the party planned its progress through the exhibition. As Tulse Hill and Catford gave way to West Kensington, the pitch of anticipation grew positively fevered.
Florence enjoyed several Cloverleaves, which her weekly magazine led her to believe was currently a favourite of the King, whilst Nellie toyed with several Singapore Slings, which she found "quite refreshing" and imagined were “full of healthy vitamins just like a fruit cup.”
Lucia and Diva agreed that it was definitely their old friends in the photograph. Elizabeth wore her new sables and turban and Benjy a suit of an unpleasantly loud check.
Lucia decreed that they should wait for ten minutes and then send out a search party. In the meantime, she proposed to read her "Evening Gazette."
Lucia was confident that she could deal with such competition. What really troubled her however was the issue of whether Elizabeth would now seriously aspire to return to "Mallards House" and to what she might be prepared to stoop to achieve this end.
As Lucia recoiled from contemplation of grim prospect of moneyed Mapp-Flints, Bunty interrupted her meditation by suggesting that it was time to locate the dawdling stragglers.
As Lucia and Bunty walked in, the sisters were leading an energetic sing-song of "The Lambeth Walk" shortly to be further popularised by Lupino Lane at the Victoria Palace.
Picking up the receiver as Bunty led the sleepy twins upstairs, Herbert heard the agitated voice of Algernon Wyse, “Inspector, Inspector, I’m so glad you're back. Please forgive me for troubling you at home, but we have had a burglary. Susan is distraught, quite distraught!”
“Calm down, Mr Wyse. I’m sure we can sort it out. Now tell me, what has happened?”
“When we returned to "Starling Cottage "this evening, we found our drawing room had been ransacked. Several of our treasures including a signed photograph of my brother in law, Cecco di Faraglione – he’s an Italian count, you know, a very ancient lineage, from Capri, delightful chap...”
“Yes, Mr Wyse, I’m aware of your family, but might we return to the missing items?"
“Oh, yes, Inspector, pray forgive me. The portrait was in a solid silver frame. We have also lost some valuable silver and worst of all, the insignia of my dear wife’s Order of Member of the British Empire. It was graciously given to her by the late King himself you know. Her Majesty the Queen did Susan the honour of saying said she was “So pleased’.
“I can see why you are so concerned" replied Herbert sympathetically.
“Doesn’t that make the offence treason? Purloining an official award which has passed through the monarch's very own hands?” asked Algernon,"And that’s not the worst of it,” he added.
"What odour, Mr Wyse?”
“Not unlike oriental joss sticks and curry powder. Not unpleasant but unmistakable. The nearest way I can describe it, is that it resembled the distinctive scent of an Indian restaurant.”
“How strange,” remarked Inspector Morrison conversationally. Then, resuming a more business-like tone, he continued, “Now Mr Wyse, if you will bear with me, I will call the station and will be with you with my men as soon as possible. In the meantime, please be sure to touch nothing. We will need to examine all the evidence.”
"Please hurry, Inspector. I must go and comfort poor Susan. Although the feathers are yellow, she is convinced that we have experienced some sort of visitation from Beyond by her beloved late Blue Birdie. My good lady wife is quite beside herself. And I thought we had weathered the worst of her grief over his tragic loss. So many bitter memories are flooding back. We await you at your very earliest convenience Inspector. Kindly enter and do not trouble to knock.”
As he replaced the receiver, the Inspector exchanged a resigned look with Bunty who had put the children to bed and had been listening to the conversation sitting at the top of the stairs, “Burglary at the Wyses this afternoon. I had better get into the station. Don’t wait up , it looks like it may be a long night."
“Good heavens!” exclaimed Diva, “How could this happen?”
Finally, Diva Plaistow expressed her own thanks and added, “I’m surprised that the Mapp- Flints haven’t been here this morning. They were burgled too, weren’t they?”
The protagonists were arguing vociferously over who should park where and whether the Royce should move on to make way for the newly arrived vehicle. This was a spectacularly large and expensive-looking, chrome-laden roadster in brightest pink driven by Elizabeth Mapp-Flint swathed in her sables and wearing her silk turban with its massive emerald.
Copyright reserved in all appropriate territories Deryck Solomon 2013