Saturday, 1 January 2011

The Sardine Tartlet Poisoner





Peace prevailed that Sunday morning at “Braemar”, number 9 Undercliff Villas, the semi-detached residence belonging to Herbert and Bunty Morrison, subject only to a small mortgage in favour of the Tilling Building Society.

In just twelve years “Braemar” would be all theirs to do with what they would and ultimately to leave to their twins, James and Doris.

The Morrisons had hoped to devise a charming combination of their forenames to christen their new home, but neither “Herbybunt” nor “Bunbert” appealed or, for that matter, charmed. After toying with “Truncheons” to reflect Mr Morrison’s post as senior officer in the Tilling Constabulary, they finally settled on “Braemar”. This evoked, not
Scotland, but the guest-house in Eastbourne where they had honeymooned a decade before.

The row of neat new homes in which “Braemar” stood was located just outside the seaside town of
Tilling on the road leading to the golf links. Its peace was disturbed only by the occasional bell of a passing tram and the odd motor car.

Strictly speaking, Undercliff Villas was an example of the “ribbon development” recently harshly criticised by the town’s new Mayor, Mrs. Emmeline Pillson in a lengthy interview in the "Hastings Chronicle".

Although christened “Emmeline”, the Mayor was known to her “intimes”, as she put it, as “Lucia,” on account of being the wife of Philip Lucas, until widowed. Since moving to Tilling from the
Midlands, she had married her fellow "incomer," Georgie Pillson.

Needless to say, the Morrisons were not of a status to rank among the “intimes” of the Mayor of Tilling. Although invariably respectful, they were inclined to disregard the views of someone who, despite her elevated station and much-publicised largesse, was “after all 'new to the town.'” All they knew was that their shiny new semi, with indoor plumbing and fitted kitchen, was a massive step up from a crumbling terrace near the station, which they had rented from Mr Twistevant, Tilling's greengrocer, town councillor and slum landlord.

As their little Jimmy and Dot played on the manicured lawn in the well-tended garden, Herbert sat at the kitchen table and puffed ruminatively on his pipe. He liked this table with its stout legs, solid top and deep boarding running around beneath. He had been very lucky to get it for such a bargain price when Mrs Pillson moved from "Grebe" out near the sea defences to "Mallards" in the town. “Strange that she was so keen to get shot of it,” he thought.

As Bunty placed the tray on the table and poured his tea, he reached into his jacket and removed a white envelope, which he handed to his wife, “Happy birthday, dear” he said.

Bunty opened the envelope as he placed on the table a large parcel wrapped in brown paper, which had been secreted in the cupboard under the stairs.

By now they had been joined by the twins, eager to see what was going on, “Go on then, open it, dear. Happy birthday from us all,” he said.

“Yes, mum, open it,” clamoured the twins excitedly.

With a shy smile, Bunty wiped her hands down the front of her floral pinafore and set about the package, fastidiously untying the knotted string and undoing the paper, so it could be used again. Before long, all was revealed: the shining, deeply polished walnut grain of a brand new wireless, resplendent with ivory knobs and the names of exotic far-away stations on its glass dial – from Athlone to Zebrugge.

“Oooh, Herbert, how beautiful!” she exclaimed. Herbert smiled. The children thought it “marvellous” and wanted to know how it worked and when they could begin “listening-in.”

“I don’t see any reason why we can’t test it right now,” he replied. He plugged it in and gingerly turned a large ivory knob. It responded with a very satisfying clunk, a steady hum and a smell of warming glass and metal, as the valves heated-up. On turning the other knob, squeaks and crackles emanated from the woven panel in front and, all of a sudden, as though by magic, there emerged a catchy dance tune which made the children squeal with delight.

“That’s all the way from the
Savoy – a posh hotel in London, children,” said Herbert.

“It’s wonderful, Dad,” they responded in unison and tried to quickstep around the kitchen, which made a pleasing sound on the bright new linoleum.

Bunty exclaimed, “What a lovely present, Herbert. As long as you think we can afford it.”

“Now I’m senior officer, we can; we have a position to maintain, Bunty love,” he replied, adding “In some ways we can’t really afford to be seen not to have one. Anyway that’s not all. I thought to celebrate your birthday properly we would have tea at Mrs. Plaistow’s in Tilling.”

“Thank you, dear," Bunty replied, “That will be a treat. She calls it ‘Ye Olde Tea Shoppe’, although it’s still her front parlour, but in fairness I do hear she serves a very good tea. A nice enough person -very hard working - but I never really did understand how she came to be "Mrs". She lives on her own and you never hear of any husband or children. Funny that. ”

Herbert laughed and wagged his finger: "Mrs Plaistow is widowed, not that it's anything to do with us dear. I just hope we get a decent tea. As it’s your special day, we shall spare no expense and lash out on the one and eight penny’s all round. How about that?”

“Oooh Herbert,” she replied “Whatever next?”

By early afternoon, the Morrisons, dressed in their Sunday best, climbed aboard the black Riley and started their outing, en famille.

As was his practice, Herbert had planned his route thoroughly in advance. The Riley headed down the coast road with its sweeping views of marshes, sand dunes and the sparkling late summer sea and headed towards the neighbouring town of
Seaport.

On arrival, they parked close to the Marine Hotel and walked around the harbour side in the sunshine, taking time to watch the comings and goings of all sizes of boats and to enjoy a stick of famous Seaport rock.

Returning to their car, they drove inland through country lanes with views of rolling wooded hills and tranquil valleys and completed the loop until the hill of Tilling hove into view.

With his usual efficiency, Herbert ensured that there was enough time to park and walk through the cobbled streets of Tilling, so as to arrive at “Ye Olde Tea Shoppe” just before four o’ clock.

Greeted by the proprietor, Mr Morrison responded “Good afternoon, Mrs. Plaistow. What a lovely day. We have a table booked for four at four, so to speak. You know my wife Bunty of course and our James and Doris. Say ‘How do you do’ to Mrs Plaistow children.”

The twins shyly muttered the required greeting in the conventional sing-song way of eight year olds. Mrs. Plaistow, who was not really at ease the young, smiled wanly and scanned that part of the room nearest their allocated table for anything that might be broken or damaged should any “childish-ness” ensue.

This Sunday was particularly busy and Diva was assisted by her servant, Janet and Mrs Gashly, who had worked as cook for Captain Puffin before his tragic death. Without employment since her time with the late Captain, Mrs Gashly, a widow, valued the extra income from her stints at “Ye Olde Tea Shoppe.”

Diva, in turn, ensured that she obtained full benefit of Mrs Gashly’s services and made sure she was fully occupied behind the scenes making her famous jam puffs and sardine tartlets and front of house serving teas to customers.

Today “Ye Olde Tea Shoppe” - otherwise known as "the front parlour of ‘Wasters'" - was fully booked. It boasted the cream of Tilling society assembled for tea, conversation and a very competitive rubber or two of bridge.

One four comprised Major Benjamin and Mrs Mapp-Flint with the Vicar or Padre, Kenneth Bartlett and his diminutive wife, Evie. “Greetings to ye Inspector Morrison. I’m pleased to see ye with yon wifie and the wee bairns,” he boomed in an archaic Scots, implausible for one whose origins lay in the less salubrious parts of industrial
Birmingham. For some reason, this greeting prompted prolonged mirth and squeaks of merriment from the mouse-like Evie.

Major Benjy made a good deal of fuss of the twins, patting both on the head and declaring that he would give “each a shiny new shilling” for being on their “best behaviour”. It was only on their return to their seats that they were disappointed to find he had pressed into each small and expectant fist only a penny. By then the Major was engrossed in conversation and it would have been rude to interrupt him to rectify his “mistake.”

Nearby, sat the Wyses with daughter Isabel Poppit and local artist Irene Coles. Algernon Wyse, as was his courteous habit, stood up, upon Bunty Morrison’s entrance, greeted “la bella famiglia Morrison” warmly and made a bow so courtly it verged upon obeisance.

Algernon’s display of chivalry prompted the remark “Steady on old chap, we don’t want to lose our teas,” from Irene in her usual satirical manner, which went some way to explain her title of “Quaint” to all who knew her in Tilling.

Throughout this protracted entrance, Isabel continued to nibble at a plate of mixed dandelion leaves and nuts. She had taken the precaution of bringing these supplies from her isolated and unplumbed shack amidst the dunes as a healthier alternative to what she considered to be “the deadly and unnatural sugary confections peddled by Diva Plaistow”. Her mother Susan, swathed in sables, despite the warmth of the late summer afternoon, made up for her daughter’s abstemiousness by steadily consuming enough to constitute two one and eight penny teas.

The best table in the room was adjacent to the window, overlooking the pretty cobbled street opposite the King's Arms and the greengrocery of the Morrison's former landlord, Mr Twistevant. It was occupied by The Mayor of Tilling and her husband, Georgie Pillson.

Mr and Mrs Pillson were accompanied by their guests, the Misses Hermione and Ursula Pillson, the sisters of Georgie, who were visiting for the weekend. Since she was present in her private capacity, the Mayor wore no insignia, other than an understated enamel brooch featuring the Borough Arms.

On seeing the Mayor, who also chaired the Magistrates and local Watch Committee, Herbert stood to attention in rather a Germanic fashion and bowed from the neck, as though at court (that of His Majesty the King in London, rather than that of the Tilling Magistrates). Taking this as her due, Mrs Pillson remained seated, but reciprocated with a nod of measured slowness and graciously bestowed upon him a benign smile as he introduced his wife and offspring.

Diva Plaistow was relieved when the round of greetings and introductions was completed and she could take the orders from the seated Morrisons.

Not only was the room packed, but the congestion was worsened by the fact that the rather loud and boisterous Pillson sisters were accompanied by their lean and unruly Irish terrier Tiptree, whom they kept more or less under control under the table with surreptitious offerings of bread and jam. “Old Tipsipoozie adores his jam; he simply lives for it,” they chorused, broadcasting fragments of jam puffs with every word.

Over the years, Diva Plaistow had suffered much embarrassment over the mayhem caused by her own dog, Paddy, to whom she was nevertheless discreetly devoted. His list of offences ranged from the theft of rabbits from shopping baskets to the appropriation and destruction of riding crops. Paddy was always forgiven by his mistress for these transgressions, but not by his victim, which more often than not seemed fated to be Elizabeth Mapp-Flint.

Diva’s head span as she tried to take orders, monitor restless children, supervise Janet and Mrs Gashly and prevent any coming together of the naughtiest and most high-spirited dogs in Tilling.  

   
Eventually, despite Diva’s best efforts, the inevitable took place. Unable to resist the temptation of playing with Tiptree, the Morrison twins crawled under the table and fed him some slightly fermented marrow jam.

Realising food was on offer and disliking this favouritism on what was, after all, his territory, Paddy intervened and gobbled up half a jam puff that Tiptree considered rightly his.

Growls led to barks interlaced with the odd snarl and escalated remarkably quickly into a full-scale canine confrontation.

Being stronger than Diva's Paddy, Tiptree fared better in the ensuing cacophonous brawl. He soon pushed him backwards to where the Mapp-Flints and
Bartletts were seated. Knocking the table with considerable force, the teapot and jug of hot water were overturned, the cake stand went flying and Mrs Mapp-Flint’s plate containing her jam puff and sardine tartlet fell smashing to the floor.

Chaos ensued as both couples jumped up (surprisingly quickly considering their age and sedentary lifestyles) to avoid scalding with tea, soaking with milk and spattering with jam, cream and assorted dainty pastries.

Taking advantage of the melee, Tiptree swallowed the jam puff whole and Paddy, with uncharacteristic delicacy, sniffed and took one bite from the sardine tartlet.

Diva bustled about asking “Is everyone alright?” and wailing “Oh, my beautiful plates, my tea pot, my carpet,” whilst restoring fallen chairs and collecting broken crockery and the remnants of several teas from the floor.

With typical chivalry, Algernon Wyse gallantly offered his chair to Mrs Mapp-Flint, whilst her husband flapped his napkin to cool her – like a punkah wallah on the banks of the
Jumna – bellowing, “Stay calm Liz old girl. Your Benjy-boy is here.”

Hermy and Ursy eventually recaptured their miscreant hound with cries of “Naughty Tipsipoozie. We really can’t take you anywhere.”

In the meantime Georgie stood on his chair, where he had taken refuge in the height of battle to avoid any spillages on his new mustard-coloured linen suit in the latest safari style.

Only Lucia remained quietly seated, taking an intelligent interest in the scene before her. Her chin rested serenely upon her hand in the mode usually reserved in Tilling for listening to her own rendition of the slow movement of Beethoven’s immortal “Moonlight Sonata." As Mayor, Lucia was conscious of her duty to set those around her "a fine example of calm under pressure", but that Sunday afternoon was perhaps too serene in adversity and risked her "tranquillity" being confused with "tranquilisation."

As some semblance of order returned, Doris Morrison cried: “Look mum, what’s wrong with Mrs. Plaistow’s dog?”

Everyone looked down to see Paddy lying stretched out on the floor with slight frothing around his open mouth. Bending over the body, Janet touched his breathless flank and said to Diva: “Gawd help us mum, our Paddy’s dead.”

Then suddenly, Paddy's still corpse twitched once and then again and there followed the shallowest of breaths. Whining gently, the dog lifted his head above the carpet and coughed in the guttural way that only dogs cough. Across the room there flew, in an impressive arc, the partially-masticated, barely-identifiable remains of a fragment of sardine tartlet.

This unappealingly damp object landed in the ample décolletage of Susan Wyse, who screamed, "Get that nasty thing off of me. Algernon help me!" whereupon Mr Wyse dutifully went about the delicate task of extricating the regurgitated, half-eaten savoury.

A gasp went around the room and Elizabeth Mapp-Flint screamed in breathless staccato bursts, “That dog just eat my sardine tartlet and he nearly died. He’s been poisoned. It could have been me. Someone has just tried to kill me!”

At this point The Mayor of Tilling looked over the room at Inspector Morrison and raised an eyebrow quizzically – or rather the overall effect was such, if a brow alone "per se" is deemed incapable of such sentiment.

The Inspector stood up and strode to the centre of the room. Lifting his hands in front of him, he quelled the hubbub and spoke: “Ladies and gentlemen, if I might have your attention. Given the sad event we have just seen, I think it best if the service of teas ceased for today."

“Do you need me and my staff?” ventured Miss Plaistow, “We have lots of clearing up to do and I shall be paying Mrs Gashly double-time already, you know”. This elicited a look of disgust from Janet, who was paid at her ordinary rate for work on Sunday. "I also need to take care of Paddy."

“Yes, please stay, Mrs. Plaistow. Perhaps you would all take a seat.”

“What larks!” chirruped the Misses Pillson, “Perhaps we shall see Sherlock Morrison solve the case before our very eyes.”

“Oh, do shut up Ursy and Hermy!” responded Georgie irritably, “If you had controlled your blessed dog or left him at 'Mallards House' as I asked, none of this would have happened.” It was unlike Georgie to express himself so vehemently, but he had just noticed that his new linen jacket had been badly stained by flying marrow jam. “Even Foljambe won’t be able to get those marks out,” he thought morosely. “How very tarsome.”

After contacting his Sergeant and making arrangements for a taxi to take Bunty and the children back to "Braemar", Inspector Morrison began to speak,” Ladies and gentlemen. You have all seen what happened here today. It is clear that some kind of 'toxic substance' was administered to Mrs. Plaistow’s dog 'by person or persons unknown'."

“Poison!” said Hermy to Ursy in a loud stage whisper, prompting Georgie to say “Ssshhh girls. Don’t interrupt Mr Morrison.”

The Mayor intervened – somewhat magisterially – “Pray continue, Inspector.”

“Yes, Your Worship,” he replied “The unfortunate dog was, in fact, very nearly killed by the last thing he ate this afternoon, namely a stolen mouthful of a sardine tartlet served here at ‘Ye Olde Tea Shoppe’ to, and intended to be consumed by, Mrs Mapp-Flint.”

“I hope you’re not suggesting that I used one of my tartlets to poison my own much-loved dog or one of my dearest friends, Inspector,” responded a startled Diva Plaistow. “It’s my second most popular line and contains only ingredients of the highest quality. Poisoned dogs or, for that matter, poisoned customers, are hardly the best advertisement, you know.”

“No, certainly not, Madam” he replied, “I am satisfied that the tartlet was its usual wholesome self, but was tampered with. My purpose this afternoon is to establish who added the poison and tried to administer the lethal savoury to Mrs Mapp-Flint. We are talking of attempted murder here.”

Another (possibly different) gasp ran around the room and the hubbub of anxious conversation resumed. Elizabeth Mapp-Flint appeared to faint and was again fanned by her husband who called for “a large glass of brandy to calm the nerves of the lady”. When it arrived, he was so distracted that he absent-mindedly drank it himself and called for another.

Warming to his theme, Inspector Morrison continued, “As you may be aware, detection of the crime of attempted murder requires the establishment of both ‘motive’ and ‘opportunity’. I propose to review with you which person present here this afternoon satisfies both criteria”.

A general murmur of approval greeted this suggestion, since after bridge, gossip and currently bicycling, "inductive reasoning" was by far the most popular pastime of this circle in Tilling. Great skill was employed in martialling evidence to establish who did what, to whom, with whom, when and why; it was the very air that Tilling breathed.

The Inspector went on, “Let me start with the person nearest and dearest to the potential victim – Major Flint”

“I say old man,” ejaculated the Major as he swiftly finished the second medicinal glass of brandy, “I’ve never been so insulted. How dare you accuse an officer and a gentleman of such a thing. Never heard anything like it in my life.” During this interlude Elizabeth Mapp-Flint remained unusually silent and stared at her husband with cold suspicion and the driest of eyes.

“No Major, if you’ll let me continue. There’s no denying you had the opportunity to tamper with your good lady’s tartlet. Although you sat on next table, your back was to me and I could not see your hands.”

At this Major Benjy blustered “Upon my word, Sir. If you weren’t an officer of the law, I swear I'd take you outside and horsewhip you,” whilst his spouse, by now comforted by the Padre’s wife, wailed and dabbed her still-dry eyes with the corner of her handkerchief.

“Don’t excite yourself, Major” the Inspector responded “I’m in no way impugning your integrity. If you would let me continue to ‘motive’, you clearly have none.”

A murmur of surprise greeted this latest twist. “If you don’t mind me saying” Inspector Morrison remarked, in an almost conversational tone,” it is widely known about the town that, following her deliverance after being carried out to sea, the then Miss Mapp excluded you from her will on account of your - shall we say – ‘forwardness’ in accessing your inheritance under the terms of her previous will. Unfortunate though gossip is – it is a fact of life in Tilling – and it is widely understood that under her new will following your marriage, your good lady wife has left you only a life interest in her estate upon certain conditions as to ‘sobriety’ and ‘a more decorous way of life’.

At this point, the eyes of Elizabeth Mapp-Flint came to resemble the narrowest of gimlets and glared viciously across the room, boring into the very soul of Diva Plaistow. For Elizabeth knew she had only told Diva of this variation of her testamentary arrangements in strictest confidence and now this was now common knowledge in Tilling, her betrayer was only too plain. Diva had obviously told her Janet who in turn passed it onto every servant girl in Tilling. "Some friend she turned out be,"
Elizabeth thought. Some feet away across her parlour, Diva knew Elizabeth knew and smiled weakly, trying to look at anyone but her "dearest friend."

Simultaneously, the Major’s mouth, with its fringe of walrus moustache, opened and closed like that of a goldfish, but no sound emerged. Taking advantage of this want of interruption, the Inspector ploughed gamely on. “Given your known preference for shall we say, ‘the better things of life,’ it hardly seems likely that you would think yourself better-off following your wife’s sad demise. In short Major, you had no motive.”

“I call that impertinent, Sir” replied the Major with all the irritation that only the knowledge of being confronted by an undeniable truth can bring. Deciding that the only prudent course was to be seen to rise above such calumny, he busied himself in fanning and otherwise comforting his sobbing, but still curiously dry-eyed, spouse.

“Go on Inspector” cried Ursy and Hermy, thoroughly enjoying an afternoon out that they had anticipated would be “simply deathly dull.”

“Thank you, Ladies,” replied the Inspector. “Duty now compels me to turn to the other occupants of that table, the Vicar and Mrs Bartlett.”

Shocked by this turn of events, Evie squeaked like a mouse stamped on with great force and at a pitch growing so high it would have been audible only to Tiptree or -when in his normal robust health - Paddy.

“What do yow mean, yow cheeky jumped-up, young copper?” cried the Padre, before realising he had slipped from archaic Scots to the patois of the gutters of Brummagem from whence he sprang. At this point, knowing looks were exchanged between his most of his friends present and mental notes made for future reference.

“Now, now Mr and Mrs Bartlett, please remain calm. Duty obliges me to review all possibilities, however remote. Again, it is well known in the town that several ladies in your circle were gracious enough to offer their services as Mayoress on the election of Mrs Pillson to office.”

At this the Inspector again bowed at the neck, in somewhat Teutonic fashion, towards the Mayor, who reciprocated with the merest hint of a nod and a smile described by some as “soignée” and by others, including Elizabeth Mapp-Flint, as “supercilious.” Some even scandalously suggested that the imperturbably calm, almost regal composure of the Mayor resembled "intoxication" or "medication"; this was only true to the extent that Lucia was intoxicated by sheer enjoyment of office.

Inspector Morrison continued, “Although Mrs Bartlett’s services were offered, they were, I understand, reluctantly declined by Mrs Pillson, who instead invited Mrs Mapp-Flint to undertake the role of Mayoress of Tilling. I am also led to believe that Mrs Wyse and Mrs. Plaistow too were disappointed, after signifying their willingness to shoulder the burdens entailed in this onerous civic post.”

As the tumult grew from each lady added to the burgeoning list of potential suspects, the Inspector reassured them. “To be frank, I do not for one single moment consider that the disappointment at failure to secure this appointment engendered resentment against the successful candidate, sufficient to constitute motive for murder."

Everyone present knew the Inspector was correct in this assertion, for if the high feelings arising after every revocation at bridge, clashing frock, or petty social rivalry in Tilling constituted motive for murder, its cobbled streets would have been piled high with corpses.

“It is clear ladies and gentlemen,” he concluded, “that the Vicar and Mrs Bartlett, Mr and Mrs Wyse and Mrs. Plaistow had no motive and, in any event, were all in my plain view throughout the entire period and had no opportunity to commit the crime.”

“Thank you, Inspector,” said Elizabeth Mapp-Flint icily and with more than a hint of sarcasm, “But if neither my dear husband nor my sweet friends have just tried to poison me, who exactly did?”

“Yes please, Inspector, do tell!” cried Hermy and Ursy excitedly.

Retaking the floor, Inspector Morrison resumed, “Well now, who here today had both motive and opportunity? I think you will find that the only person fitting the bill completely is Mrs Gashly there! She had her own very particular grudge against Mrs Mapp-Flint and every opportunity to commit this terrible crime.”

Crossing the room, the Inspector looked her directly in the face and said, “Come on now, Mrs Gashly the game’s up. It’s time to tell the truth. Why did you do it?”

A deadly hush descended on Diva Plaistow’s parlour. Jaws dropped, breaths were held and shocked looks exchanged, as Mrs Gashly slowly stood up, wringing her hands in her white apron.

“All right then, Inspector it was me what did it,” she admitted. “I knew she was coming today and I took my chance. One sprinkle of rat poison in her tartlet and ‘Bob’s yer uncle', it was done.”

Looking around the room, she added, “But I had good reason; that woman ruined my life with her high-fallutin’ ways and interferin’. I was quite happy with dear old Captain Puffin. He liked his game of golf and grog of an evening, but he always found satisfaction with my work. We was quite happy together. When he was in his prime, he used to call her 'Old Mappy', you know. He was his own man and didn't care what anyone thought."

Pleased that she still had her listeners' undivided attention, she carried on, "In fact, I'm not ashamed to say I was very fond of the Captain and I hoped one day he would come to feel the same way about me. There was never any sign of that, but I had my hopes and now they're all gone - thanks to her."

Glaring at a by-now catatonic Elizabeth Mapp-Flint, Mrs Gashly continued defiantly, "Life’s not easy for a widow woman of my age. Even though he didn't know how I felt about him, I was well settled with the Captain. I had my kitchen and a nice warm room and managed perfectly. Then she comes along and goes and spoils it all: what with rows in the street late at night accusing my Captain of being drunk and bending that old windbag Major Flint around her little finger. She made a proud old sailor apologise, just to be permitted to play golf with her lap dog. It broke him. He was never the same after that.”

“And to top it all,” she continued, “when he’s ailing and feeling worse for wear, she issues her orders and stops her Major from sitting with the Captain of an evening and cheering him up. He sinks lower and lower – so low in fact he falls flat on his face and drowns in his bowl of my oxtail soup. In one go, because of that woman’s selfish, dictatorial ways I lose my job, my home and my reputation.”

Like an accomplished orator Mrs Gashly climaxed her peroration, “What chance has an old widow woman got of getting a position as a cook if her last employer drowned himself in her oxtail soup? Ever since that terrible day, I’ve been a laughing stock. You don’t know what it's like to walk into the snug of the ‘Traders Arms’ and suddenly it goes all quiet. I’ve heard all the jokes and remarks at my expense, saying I should be charged with ‘assault with a deadly potage’. Well you can get on with it now and charge me with ‘assault with a deadly sardine tartlet,’ if you like. I’m glad I did it; though I’m sorry I nearly killed your dog, Mrs. Plaistow. I didn't mean to harm Paddy. I’m only sorry she didn’t eat it and I’d do the same thing again.”

As Mrs Gashly paused to draw breath, seemingly for the first time, Inspector Morrison nodded to his Sergeant and instructed, “Take her away. I’ll see to the charging back at the station.”

Dumbstruck, the assembled group tried to absorb what had just transpired, until the uneasy silence was shattered, predictably by Hermione, “Well, Georgie old chap, you’re a dark horse and no mistake. You never let on that sleepy old Tilling was such a hot-bed of rancour and unrequited love. If we’d have known, we’d have visited you ever so much sooner."

"Yes, terribly good value!" added the more prosaic Ursula. "Anyway, we had better take Tiptree out for his walk, before he wrecks the place again. Thanks awfully for a thrilling tea. ‘Thrilling Tilling’ or what? Such larks. Toodle pip!”

Georgie smiled his thinnest smile and replied” Yes girls, I think it’s time we returned home. Don’t you agree Lucia?”

The Mayor nodded in agreement and rose from the table. Stopping first before her Inspector she said, with mayoral gravitas, “Thank you Inspector Morrison for carrying out your duty so capably. Tilling is most grateful.”

After settling the bill with Mrs. Plaistow, bestowing smiles around the room and blowing a kiss to the gently weeping, but persistently dry-eyed, Elizabeth Mapp-Flint, Lucia swept out of the front door of “Ye Olde Tea Shoppe."

The Mayor took Georgie’s arm as they walked the few paces to “Mallards House” in silence, each absorbed in their own thoughts.

Lucia felt that the day had been “a disaster for poor Elizabeth”. The roll call of those closest to her with grudges against her had seemed "interminable." More than this, however, the behaviour of Lucia's circle, those she had hitherto considered to be the cream of Tilling society, had not borne close scrutiny. “Tilling has emerged with little credit,” she thought.

She remembered the time that “dear misguided Elizabeth” had admitted she virtually forced herself to speak to Doctor Brace’s wife when trying to obtain details of poor Captain Puffin’s demise, despite the fact that “she was not strictly in society” and "poor deluded Elizabeth" declared she “would not normally consort with her."

“Such a snob,” thought Lucia. “I really must try to discourage such distinctions” and made a mental note “to instruct her secretary Mrs Simpson to invite Mrs Brace and Mrs Morrison to tea at “Mallards House” the earliest opportunity.”

Whilst his wife pondered such sociological issues, Georgie was still preoccupied with mourning the “tarsome stain” on his brand new mustard-coloured linen suit. His mood improved to one of optimism as they passed Miss Greele’s shop, which prompted him to decide he should send it to her to be dyed a dashing British racing green, previously unseen in Tilling, particularly on gentlemen.

As the Pillsons made their short walk to “Mallards House”, the Mapp-Flints began a comparative route march to “Grebe” outside the town. They had hoped that Susan Wyse would offer to lend them the Royce, particularly after such a trying afternoon, but “offer came there none.”

Unusually, Elizabeth Mapp-Flint remained silent for a good part of the journey. This was largely to the relief of her spouse, who considered he himself “had suffered as much as a chap could be expected to bear in one afternoon.”

All of a sudden, the dam broke and an avalanche of shrill vituperation flew from Elizabeth’s lips, “I really don’t know. Who can ever have had to endure an afternoon like that? First Diva and those wretched Pillson girls fail to control their dogs, who engage in a savage fight very nearly on top of me, throwing scalding tea and hot water and shattered crockery everywhere. Next a demented old cook tries to kill me by tampering with one of dear Diva’s extremely questionable sardine tartlets. As a result a poor doggie collapses and nearly dies, positively frothing at the mouth – which could have been me.”

“Then,” she continued, “Inspector Morrison demonstrates in front of all and sundry that at least half of Tilling bears me sufficient ill-will to be suspected of my murder – including my dear husband.”

Remorselessly the barrage went on, “My loyal spouse is only absolved from suspicion because it is common knowledge - entirely due to a betrayal of a sacred confidence by my so-called 'dearest friend' - that his life interest under my new will does not make poisoning me worthwhile any more!"

As a small vein in her temple throbbed visibly, she exclaimed with gesticulations calculated to demonstrate her utter dismay, "And all this goes on whilst that woman - our dear, dear Mayor - looks on in a most condescending fashion, thoroughly enjoying the whole humiliating spectacle. How very, very kind! "

"Accordingly and in the circumstances, mon cherie," she concluded with a degree of chilling irony, "you may think it appropriate to sleep in your dressing room tonight".

Major Flint considered trying to stem this flow and assuage the torrent of his wife's injured pride and anger. But he knew, from past experience, that unless he found another target upon whom to divert her wrath, the effort would be pointless.

If even Lucia was insufficient to attract her fire, there was no advantage to be gained in intruding upon her fury and silence was the best course.

As they trudged on out towards “Grebe”, Elizabeth's raging monologue continued and Major Benjy retreated into his own private thoughts. He dejectedly considered the implications of “a life interest conditional upon continued sobriety”. Depressed by this prospect, he looked back on his days India and wondered whether, in retrospect, he might have been wiser to make an honest woman of his beloved Pride of Poona and forge a new life with her over there in the Raj. “At least,” he thought, “she wouldn’t have minded if a chap enjoyed a few tumblers of whisky of an evening.”

Meanwhile back in “Ye Olde Tea Shoppe”, Mrs. Plaistow and Janet had completed the grim business of the day. Fragments of broken crockery and fancy pastries had been cleared from the carpet in her parlour and the unappealing regurgitated sardine tartlet, so delicately rescued from the bosom of Mrs Wyse, had been "officially removed" for what Inspector Morrison called “forensic tests”. Paddy, for once, lay quietly at the feet of his mistress and made the canine equivalent of a mental note that "it would perhaps be best in future to avoid sardine tartlets."

“What a day,” thought Diva as she tidied the last chair and folded the final table cloth “You can go now Janet, thank you.”

Alone with Paddy in her now-quiet parlour, Diva counted the takings and remembered that, in all the confusion, she had forgotten to charge the Mapp-Flints for those two large brandies. She reminded herself to add it to their next bill. She also wondered if it would be necessary to pay Mrs Gashly her double time “Probably not,” she thought, as she closed the lid of her cash box, locked it and patted Paddy, “Every cloud.”

After completing all the necessary formalities at the Police Station, Inspector Morrison drove his Riley up the drive of “Braemar” after eight that evening. Entering the kitchen, he greeted his wife, “Hello, dear, some birthday that was, eh? Sorry about that. Are the children in bed?”

“Yes,” replied Bunty, “But you’ve got time to pop up and read them a story, if you want. Would you like some supper? I could do you something on toast. What do you fancy?”

“Anything, but sardines,” he replied, as he went up the stairs.

THE END


Copyright 2011 Deryck Solomon. All rights reserved in appropriate territories

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