As the cards were dealt, Diva Plaistow entered the room and pinned a poster onto the notice board provided for the benefit of her patrons showing forthcoming events ranging from bring-and- buy sales to cinema programmes.
"Just met the most charming young man. Asked me to put up a poster. Could hardly say 'No.'"
"And what is it advertising?" asked Susan Wyse.
"A touring review – singing, dancing and comedy," replied Diva, "It says they're 'direct from Milan', but I would swear his accent was Yorkshire."
"It doesn't sound quite so impressive to say, 'Direct from Rotherham,'" quipped Georgie, "Three no trumps, please."
Appreciating the position, Georgie remarked "What fun! I haven't seen a seaside review with song, comedians and dance with Pierrot and Columbine for simply years. Do let's all go. It should be such an amusing evening!"
With some relief, Lucia exchanged the company of the Wyses for Diva Plaistow.
"I agree, Worship," Diva responded, "I hope you and your fellow Councillors will be happy with my catering for today. This is the first external contract for Ye Olde Tea Shoppe. Janet and I have worked so hard and made an extra special effort."
Beneath the painting was a small typed notice: “Kindly loaned to the exhibition from the private collection of Mr & Mrs H Morrison of Tilling.”
“I wanted to make a point about the familiar and the exotic,” drawled Irene expansively to a circle of avid listeners, including the Pillsons, Bartlett’s and Wyses.
None the wiser, mystified exchanges took place between Irene’s audience as the artist continued “Similarly, we have our blessed Mayor invoking the elements of Grace and Wisdom from another tower overlooking the Mediterranean Sea."
Reluctant to be the first to comment publicly upon Irene’s latest projection of yet another massive stone of iconoclasm into the mill pool of social relations in Tilling, the group spontaneously dissolved, wholly absorbed in their catalogues.
In the meantime, Mr Meriton of the "Hastings Chronicle," quite Lucia's favourite representative of the Fourth Estate, filled yet another page of his reporter's notebook with a verbatim account of Irene's sensational outpourings.
Through gimlet eyes Lucia observed that Mr Meriton had taken full note of what she considered Irene's well-informed but injudicious remarks which would almost certainly lead to proceedings in slander, if published.
Lucia sighed and resolved to ensure the tactful silence of his journal in return for an exclusive interview detailing a day in the civic life of the Mayor of Tilling - with photographs. "Oh, how they all work me! " she thought.
As the crowd ebbed away, Lucia was left with her praetorian guard of intimes standing around the buffet table.
“Well,” began Diva, warming to her task as the fount of all intelligence upon the householders of “Grebe,” “Janet tells me he’s started to sleep in his dressing room and takes all his meals out – mainly in liquid form at the King’s Arms.”
“And they have definitely not been seen together? “ queried Georgie, fascinated.
“Not since their big argument, when he first came back,” replied Diva, “Many things were said, apparently… and thrown!”
“No!” gasped everyone in unison in time-honoured Tilling fashion.
“And since then the Major has been seen nursing his whiskey and soda in the public bar of the King’s Arms, watching the actors rehearse. Janet says he’s seen every performance every night.”
Diva and Georgie looked down at their empty teacups sheepishly, as Lucia continued, “Now let us turn to a kinder and more constructive course. Let us concentrate on deciding how best we may help.”
“Thank you, Mr Wyse. I would have expected no less from you,” responded Lucia, with a graciousness that would have done credit to Queen Mary, “I agree entirely that we need to hear how we can help direct from Elizabeth herself’.”
“I’m afraid so, Susan dear,” replied Lucia soothingly, adding swiftly, “And I would exclude Georgie and myself for precisely the same reason. Despite our devotion to Elizabeth, we are in her terms ‘relative newcomers’ to Tilling and her undoubted affections. There is really only one viable candidate for the role of emissary of Elizabeth’s intimes – and that is her oldest friend in Tilling, our dear Diva.”
“I suppose dear Lulu sent you?” said Elizabeth, walking over to the window and edging back the curtain to reveal the Rolls-Royce parked just beyond the hornbeam hedge, “ I can see Cadman is waiting for you. Reading his ‘Daily Mirror’, I think. My husband reads the ‘Daily Mirror’ too. I must say, I prefer the ‘Telegraph...”
“What?" bridled Elizabeth, “Can’t a person just choose to stay at home from time to time? Do we all have to accept every invitation – or should I say ‘command’ – issued by that woman?”
“No, of course not," replied Diva in the attempt to pacify her. Even in the Stygian gloom of the drawing room, she could discern the vein adjoining Elizabeth's right temple bulging alarmingly in a woman of her years, “It’s just so unlike you to miss a civic event. You didn’t even send your regrets.”
“Would it help tell me about what has been going on Elizabeth? You know: a trouble shared and all that…”
“A trouble shared, perhaps, but not a trouble broadcast all over Tilling by the Town Crier!” she replied bitterly.
“Only trying to help, Elizabeth; now, what on earth is going on?"
Diva placed a solicitous hand on her shoulder and whispered, “Tell me Elizabeth. You’ll feel better if you do..."
“I don’t know where to begin really I don't. I know you and the whole of Tilling, speculated about what went on, when Benjy last disappeared. He went off without so much as a word to me and I didn’t hear from him for over a week."
Whilst the cogs and gears of Diva’s rational processes ground on, so did Elizabeth, “Until then, the whole of Tilling was more than happy to believe that my husband had deserted me for that woman, yet I’m just expected to take it on the chin and carry on. ‘Elizabeth Mapp Flint’, they said, ‘She’s a tough old boot. She can take it. The point is Diva, I really couldn’t.”
Still ignoring her friend, Elizabeth continued, “I gather from Janet that he saw this young French actress where I’d driven him to take refuge, in the Kings Arms . I fear that is where he became infatuated with her. He just stopped coming home to me and I don’t know where here is any more. Really, Diva, what should I do?’
Before Diva could reply, Withers had appeared around the door, “I’m sorry to interrupt, Mrs Mapp-Flint, but you have another visitor.”
“Can’t you tell whoever it is, I’m engaged, Withers?” she replied.
“Not really, Ma’am. I’m afraid it’s the police. Inspector Morrison has asked to see you. I couldn’t really send him away.”
“No, of course not, Withers. You had better show him in, but please open the curtains first.”
In the daylight, Diva could see that her friend was far from her usual self. Though never exactly a fashion-plate, in the light of that September afternoon Elizabeth Mapp- Flint verged upon the unkempt, clad in homely dressing gown and slippers with her hair un-brushed.
Elizabeth was now silent and staring out of the window over the front garden and hornbeam hedge to the waves lapping on the dyke beyond.
“As I’ve discussed with Mrs Mapp-Flint before, I’m afraid there is not a lot we can do. This is a free country. Both the Major and the young lady are over twenty-one. No crime seems to have been committed and no-one’s health or well-being appears to be in danger.”
In Tilling, it was common practice and virtually a way of life, to enjoy the discomfiture of one’s neighbours with relish. Though our German cousins grandly call this “Schadenfreude,” the doughty sons and daughters of Sussex preferred to regard the practice as simply “appreciating natural justice when wrongdoers received their due comeuppance.”
Over the succeeding days it appeared to superficial inspection that a degree of normality had returned to Tilling.
“By Jove, it’s you!”
“Difficult though it may be to believe, I learned from Jemima that her mother Yvette had told her of an old soldier from the Indian Army who stayed overnight at her pension in Neuve Chapelle during his search of the war cemeteries for the grave of the son he had never met and of whom he had only recently heard. Her mother told her that once the man had found his son’s grave and paid his respects, he returned home to Tilling.”
"The only memento Yvette had of him was this." Benjy handed Elizabeth a creased sepia photograph of a man in his early twenties, handsome in evening dress.
All rights reserved in all appropriate territories Deryck Solomon 2015