Saturday, 1 January 2011

The Travelling Circus

“Saturday mornings don’t get much better than this,” thought Herbert Morrison as he puffed on his pipe, leaning on the garden fence of “Braemar” at Undercliff Villas, just outside the seaside town of Tilling.

He had just mown his lawns front and back and his twin offspring, James and Doris were now practising cartwheels along the new green stripes.  He wiped a few beads of perspiration from his brow and relaxed, enjoying the invigorating air laced with sweet new-mown grass.

In one direction he saw the golf links and the sea, sparkling beneath a cloudless sky and in the other the bright red roofs of Tilling on its ancient hill. This morning the new plantation of almond trees between the new road and mellow stone walls of the town was a blaze of pink and white blossom and looked particularly fine. 

The onshore breeze gently blew away the aromatic smoke from his briar and with it all the tension brought by his week as Tilling’s senior police officer. To be honest, he had to admit that his job had not proved unduly arduous recently. With just one speeding bicycle, a report of juvenile scrumping of apples from Mrs Mapp-Flint’s garden out at Grebe and a case involving a drunk and disorderly labourer from one of Mr Twistevant’s slums down by the station, Tilling was not, by any measure, a hotbed of crime. Little did he know that his peace would be shattered all too soon.

“Herbert, dear! Children! Time for lunch” shouted Bunty Morrison over the gate that led into the back garden. Herbert shepherded the twins to the white Belfast sink where they washed their hands and sat down together around the large kitchen table for their Saturday lunch-time ritual of the twin’s favourite – assuming they had been good that week and this week they had. This was bangers and mash served with peas grown in the garden and lashings of Bunty’s special onion gravy. All agreed it was as good as ever and, within a remarkably short time, the twins asked to be excused and resumed their cartwheels on the lawn. 

“I’m glad to have a moment’s peace”, said Bunty as the noise from the children transferred outside. “I wanted to mention, I bumped into Mrs Pillson yesterday when I was in Worthington’s, the butchers, buying the sausages; she was in front of me in the queue and said she wanted to ‘Bespeak two brace of partridges,’ since she was ‘having some intimes to dine’- at least I think it was ‘intimes’ she said. I didn’t think that it was worth ‘bespeaking’ our sausages and, since you and the twins don’t really qualify as ‘intimes’, I just ‘ordered’ them - with some chops for Sunday lunch”.

“Quite right too, my dear” Herbert replied and then continued, with tongue firmly in cheek, “You know; I’m beginning to wonder whether we could do with some more ‘intimes’. Can a man in my position – ‘an Inspector with prospects’ - ever have quite enough of them? One thing, I do know though; our friends, Georgie and Per are both ‘intimes’

Intrigued, Bunty replied “Why’s that?”

“Because Georgie is in Tilling’s football team and Per is in the cricket team!” he said laughing, “That pun’s good enough for a Christmas cracker. If we want some better class ‘intimes’ we may have to advertise.”

Noting what she normally called his “silly jokes and sarcastic nonsense”, but without pausing or losing the thread of her narrative, Bunty continued, “Anyway, she was pleasant enough and asked me if I ‘had a moment to pop in to have a cup of tea with her at Mallards House this afternoon. I’ve got to finish off some shopping later and I said I’d ‘pop in’ at 3 o clock? I wonder what it can be about?”

“No idea, love” replied Herbert, “You had better go and find out. Whatever happens, it’s not everyone that gets invited to ‘pop in’ to the Mayor’s house for tea whilst they’re out shopping, is it? Do you think her Worship will wear her chain? If decorations are to be worn, there’s always your badge for sewing from the Girl Guides or you can borrow my bronze one for life-saving.”

“That’s quite enough of that, Herbert Morrison” she replied laughing “I do believe you’ve done nothing but send me up today. Now get into that garden and weed those borders, while I clear up this mess”. 

That sunny afternoon Tilling was crowded. The throng comprised the usual high season mixture of tourists clutching guide books and cameras. There were also many sketchers and painters, armed with their paraphernalia, intending the capture one of the myriad ‘quaintnesses’ on offer. These ranged from the charming crooked chimney to half- timbered cottages to the numerous elegant red-brick frontages of the time of good Queen Anne.

Various locals also busied themselves with their weekend marketing and the exchange of news, which was always the lifeblood of the town.

This Saturday there also seemed to be an extra special buzz of anticipation, over and above the usual hive of activity.

The clue to the special atmosphere lay in the colourful posters covering every spare wall and telegraph pole, as well as appearing in the windows of many of the shops in the High Street. They proclaimed in the brightest primary colours that Bertie Barrett’s Travelling Circus would pitch its big top on the recreation ground beneath the walls of the town that very day and thrill Tilling with twice-daily performances for a limited engagement of one week.

The posters proclaimed that delights on offer would include a menagerie of exotic animals including Indian elephants and the wildest of lions, death defying trapeze artists, oriental jugglers, agile acrobats on horseback, a mysterious fakir and magician and a troop of hilarious clowns plus thrills and spills for all the family far too numerous to mention.

Eagle-eyed as ever, the twins spotted the array of posters even before their father had stopped and parked the Riley in his usual reserved space, just outside the police station.

Jimmy and his sister jumped up and down reading out loud every scintillating word and absorbing the thrilling drawings of roaring lions, elephants with trunks held high, the ringmaster in his bright red tail coat and top hat, the fakir doing the Indian rope trick and Biffo the clown, with his bright red nose and huge shoes.

“Look dad,” they enthused “The circus has come straight from performing to the crowned heads of Europe. There’s going to be a parade at today. Can we see it?  Please! Go on dad, please!”

 “Very good of them to single out our little Tilling after all those crowned heads, don’t you think children?” teased Herbert with a smile.

“Can we go, dad, can we, can we?” chanted the twins in unison.

“We’ll have to see won’t we,” he replied, “But first let’s get your mother to her important meeting with the Mayor and then we’ll find ourselves a good position for the parade. We can decide if we want to buy some tickets, when we’ve seen what’s on offer – assuming you two behave, of course.”

After completing various purchases at Twistevants, the Morrisons arrived at the front door of Mallards House just as the clock in the tower of the Norman church struck three. Herbert and the twins left Bunty with waves and cries of “See you later mum. Don’t be late for the parade,” as they disappeared, still chattering about the circus, to explore the nearby belvedere and its view of the surrounding countryside.

Taking a deep breath, Bunty rang the bell and the door was opened by the parlour-maid Grosvenor, who smiled and said “Good afternoon Mrs Morrison. Mrs Pillson is expecting you” and showed her into the garden room.

Crossing the threshold, they heard what Bunty recognised as the final few notes of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata and glimpsed the aquiline profile of Mrs Pillson sitting at her grand piano.

As the reverberation of the final note died away, no-one spoke. Mrs Pillson then sighed; Bunty thought it only polite to sigh and even Grosvenor sighed, before leaving the room. A lengthy sigh had become the established custom at this point in Tilling, after the many public and private occasions upon which Mrs Pillson had given her interpretation of her “signature piece which, as had so often been reported in the “Hampshire Argus, she considered was “Another key to Beethoven’s soul”.

Gently closing the lid of her piano, Mrs Pillson sighed a final time by way of underlining what had passed before and stood to greet Bunty. “Oh, Mrs Morrison, how prompt you are. You caught me trying to fit in some relaxation in my busy day. I hope you weren’t kept waiting too long or too bored at my amateur effort. If I don’t at least try to find the time to practice, my fingers grow so rusty and I can’t even begin to do justice to the great composers. And then my husband, who is a far more accomplished pianist, will scold me. Do you play?”

“No, I’m afraid not” admitted Bunty, “But our twins James and Doris have just started lessons with Miss Terling and seem to be doing very well.”

“Oh yes, Miss Terling, a fine teacher of the young and quite a demon bridge player, I believe,” responded Mrs Pillson, carefully making no mention of her recent notoriety in bridge circles in Tilling after a particularly spectacular double revocation, “Such a marvellous facility, Mrs Morrison” she continued, “I’m sure your twins will be grateful to you in later life for bringing them the joy of music. I don’t know what Mr Pillson and I would do without our daily ‘po di musica. Pray sit down Mrs Morrison. May I pour some tea?”

After an exchange of the usual pleasantries regarding the weather and the health of their respective spouses, a pregnant pause occurred in the conversation, engineered and then filled by Mrs Pillson, “Mrs Morrison, I’m sure you wondered why I asked you to pop in today. The truth is I had hoped that you might be in a position to help me”

“Yes, of course, Mrs Pillson. If I possibly can” replied Bunty pleasantly, “What can I do for you?”

“Well, my dear,” continued the Mayor, “You may know that in recent months, since assuming the heavy burdens of office, I have found it increasingly necessary to call upon the help of Mrs Simpson as my secretary. Oh, how Tilling works me!”

Bunty signified assent by nodding and her hostess continued, “She has been an absolute godsend to me, organising my papers, arranging my diary and preparing correspondence and the numerous documents and reports that the Mayor must produce. She managed to deal with a substantial workload in only three mornings a week and I found her invaluable.”

“Yes, I think I know her,” responded Bunty, “American lady, isn’t she: a little older than me, short dark hair and Marcel wave, quite stylish?”

“That is she, Mrs Morrison,” said the Mayor, “For someone born outside these shores, her grammar and syntax have been admirable and her work of the highest quality. She is also discreet, an essential quality given the confidential nature of so much that passes over my desk.”

Heading remorselessly toward her point, the Mayor continued, “Unfortunately, it appears that I am the victim of my secretary’s exceptional competence and her reputation has spread. Sadly for me it, has reached Ardingly Park and the ears of Lord Ardingly. In short, I have lost my paragon who has moved on to pastures new. Her new pastures are landscaped by Capability Brown and her new employer will be Lord Ardingly himself.”

As understanding dawned, Bunty’s brow un-furrowed and she replied with a drawn out, noncommittal, “Oh… I see.”

Without pausing, Mrs Pillson carried on “Not that one can blame her, I suppose. Her husband Ernest is engaged in business in London quite often and there are no children. It’s only understandable that she should seek a more full-time occupation. In addition, life at Ardingly might, at first, appear more glamorous than our quiet and homely Tilling, even at the epicentre of affairs, here at Mallards House.

“There, I gather, she will often – and pray forgive me if I quote directly, ‘be arranging Fridays-to-Mondays for the highest in the land.’” Pausing for effect, she continued “You may know I have had the pleasure of entertaining a duchess here in this very garden room, but, as yet, my secretary has not yet had to work out table placements involving the Prince of Wales, whom I gather is a regular guest of His Lordship. Whether in the obscure backwaters of Ardingly she will ever enjoy such close involvement in such weighty and momentous matters as cross the desk of the Mayor of Tilling, each and every day is entirely another matter. For her sake I trust she will not regret her decision.”

Sitting back, as was her manner when pronouncing a verdict on the Bench of Magistrates, the Mayor reached her conclusion, “So there you have it. To be fair I can’t accuse her of abdicating her responsibilities towards me or indeed Tilling, but I’ve lost my treasure and badly need another. I just don’t see how I can carry out my duties as I would like to do without the help and support of a competent secretary.”

With a meaningful look, she continued, “This leads me to you Mrs Morrison.   I understand that before your marriage you worked as personal secretary for the General Manager of the Tilling Building Society. I wondered if you might come to my rescue, say, three mornings a week?”

Wearing an expression that contrived to be simultaneously pointed and quizzical, the Mayor poured more tea. Bunty took this as her cue to respond as to whether she wished to succeed as ‘Mayoral treasure’, “Well your Worship, I’m sure I’m very honoured to have been asked to carry out such important work, but it is several years since I took shorthand or typed and I do now have a husband and children. Much as I would like to help you, my family must come first.  I do hope you understand, but I don’t think I should resume my career just yet. I might be able to help out on a few mornings next week, just until you’re able to make a permanent appointment, if it would assist.”

“That’s very kind of you, Mrs Morrison,” replied the Mayor, “I shall continue my search for a full-time appointee, but bear in mind your generous offer ‘in extremis’, so to speak. Given my most recent experience, I did want to appoint a local lady to the post. I did wonder if Mrs Brace, the young doctor’s wife might have a suitable background. Do you have any idea?”

“I’m afraid not, Your Worship,” replied Bunty. This was somewhat disingenuous since, having been to school with Dolores Brace (nee Tubbs), she knew that literacy, reliability, punctuality and any number of the qualities imperative in a Mayoral secretary, were not high on the list of Dolly’s attributes. Frequent attendance at the cinema had prompted her to dabble in a short, undistinguished and undemanding career as an usherette at Tilling’s picture palace, before securing the prize of marriage to a professional man, to the surprise of many.

“I have received the odd offer of help,” continued Mrs Pillson, “On hearing of my loss, Miss Coles very kindly offered to ‘become my devoted amanuensis, Eric Fenby to my Frederick Delius,’ as she quaintly put it, whatever that may infer.”

Bunty did not comment, but nodded sympathetically, since it was widely known in Tilling that Irene Coles still harboured an endearingly devoted and puppy-like schwarm for its Mayor. Bunty recognised that any choice between Dolly Brace and Irene Coles amounted to steering a dangerous course between the Scylla of incompetence and Charybdis of infatuation and thus the less said the better.

 “Dear Irene meant well of course, but with her somewhat volatile and artistic temperament, she might not be entirely suited either to the prosaic or the more sensitive aspects of the position,” commented Mrs Pillson, adding “I suppose I shall have to insert an advertisement in the situations vacant section of “The Lady” magazine.

At this point the clock on the church tower began to strike. “Oh, Mrs Pillson, I hadn’t realised it was so late,” said Bunty “I promised the children I would be back with them in time to watch the circus parade. If you’ll excuse me, I must fly. Thank you for tea. Now do let me know if you need some temporary help and I’ll do what I can”

“Thank you, Mrs Morrison,” she replied, ringing a small bell to summon her parlour maid, “You had better hurry or you’ll miss all the fun. Do give my kind regards to the Inspector; ‘my Inspector’, I suppose. Enjoy the parade.”

Grosvenor closed the front door of Mallards House and Bunty walked briskly off towards the steps of the Town Hall where she could see Herbert and the twins waiting.

“Back again, children, just in time,” said Bunty as she reached them.

“How did it go?” said Herbert, “What was it Mrs Pillson wanted?”

“Nothing important, dear,” she replied, “I’ll tell you when we get home.”

At this point, the marching band turned the corner from the High Street and hove into view playing the jauntyEntry of the Gladiators”. The musicians were dressed in red uniforms with peaked caps decorated with gold braid that glinted in the sunshine.

There followed a lumbering line of elephants, each ridden by a mahout in a jewelled turban, gently holding the tail of the one in front. Unfortunately, just as the slow-moving pachyderms turned the narrow corner past Mallards House into West Street, the large and equally ponderous Royce bearing Algernon and Susan Wyse made the right turn from Porpoise Street, which was an awkward manoeuvre at the best of times.

Elizabeth Mapp-Flint, who had a particularly vicious dislike of what she called “poor Susan’s terribly ostentatious motor” watched with her husband from outside her former home.

She took particular delight as the Royce repeatedly edged forward and then back in an unsuccessful effort to return to whence it came and allow the elephants to pass.

There developed a general consensus amongst those watching – along the traditional lines of the dictum “sail before steam” - that elephants enjoyed priority over motor cars. Indeed Major Flint was able to confirm this from first-hand knowledge and practical experience gained during his many years bravely serving the King in the Raj.

Fortunately, the elephants were remarkably good-natured and tame, but gradually surrounded the vehicle, each still clutching the tail of the other until an elephantine ring was completed.

This encirclement proved too much for Mrs Wyse, who suffered from claustrophobia and who was overheated in her heavy sables in a confined space on such a warm afternoon.

Edging the window open an inch or two, she cried “Somebody help us please”, which prompted only an unsympathetic “Perhaps that will teach her not to take that monstrosity through the tiny streets of our sweet and ancient Tilling” from the deposed chatelaine of Mallards.

After a few more minutes, the chauffeur succeeded in reversing back to a safe spot outside his employers’ Starling Cottage. Sobbing, Susan Wyse was gallantly helped indoors by her concerned spouse and the congestion eased.

After the unfortunate interruption, the procession continued.  The elephants reverted from a circular to linear formation and continued their stately progress along West Street.

Next there followed a large cage on wheels drawn by jet black horses with two fierce lions looking at the crowd from side to side, pawing the air irritably and growling with surprising volume.

Capering about was a troop of acrobats, climbing on each other’s shoulders, doing somersaults and juggling brightly coloured balls. As they tumbled hither and thither, they handed out flyers to the applauding bystanders.

Walking proudly in the centre of the parade were the trapeze artists in white leotards trimmed with more gold, wearing dashing blue cloaks. An Indian fakir in turban and bejewelled tunic and his assistant salaamed to the crowd and the moustachioed ringmaster in shiny black boots, white breeches and red tailcoat, doffed his top hat.

Recording the scene for the benefit of posterity, Quaint Irene wandered unselfconsciously in and out of the procession, with a sketch pad in the crook of one arm, trying to capture the essence of each performer with swift, deft strokes of charcoal.

There followed snowy Lipizzaners, ridden by fairy-like young girls in tutus and with tinsel in their hair, waving and blowing kisses this way and that. Clowns brought up the rear, tripping each other up whilst handing yet more flyers and throwing sweets to the onlookers.

Doris and James thought their first parade unutterably exciting and implored their parents to take them to the circus. Their father had secretly been quite impressed by the display and, after only a little more prompting, agreed that he would book tickets for next Wednesday evening’s performance.

As the parade headed off down Porpoise Street, the Morrisons turned towards their parked car. Mr Morrison paused to raise his trilby to the Mayor and Mr Pillson who had also stepped out to enjoy the event. They were accompanied by Mr Pillson’s sisters, the Misses Hermione and Ursula Pillson, who were visiting Tilling for the first time since the unpleasantness involving a sardine tartlet at Miss Plaistow’s tea house. On this occasion they were on their way back from a hearty cycling holiday around the Downs. As ever, they were accompanied by their friendly but unruly Irish terrier, Tiptree.

“Wonderful spectacle Mr Morrison!” said the Mayor to Herbert as the two parties passed outside the Town Hall, “So colourful! You know my husband and his sisters, of course?”

“Yes, indeed Your Worship,” he replied “Good afternoon, Mr Pillson. How do you do, ladies? I trust you are enjoying your visit?”

“Oh, yes, Inspector” they chorused “Tilling never fails to thrill. Now that our appetite is whetted, we hope to see a performance of the circus whilst we are here. Tiptree does so like a show,” at which, as though on cue, Tiptree barked and dragged them both off at the end of his lead as he bounded towards his old friend and fellow Irish terrier, Paddy, who stood with his mistress, Diva Plaistow outside Hopkins,’ the fishmongers. Bemused, Herbert raised his hat towards the rapidly disappearing trio and he and Bunty bade farewell to Tilling’s first couple.

As the Morrisons walked on towards the police station, they passed Mr and Mrs Mapp-Flint. The usual pleasantries were again exchanged and the gentlemen raised their respective hats.

In a show of bonhomie, Major Flint tousled the hair of James with a hearty “How de do, me fellow me lad” and went on to say “Your Doris grows more like her mother every day; a real stunner. Since you’ve both been so good, I’m going to give you each a shiny new sixpence.” He then made a great fuss of searching all available pockets in his jacket, waistcoat and trousers before theatrically throwing his hands in the air and concluding “Sorry children; I seem to have run out of change. Better luck next time, eh?”

The twins remembered the disappointment of their previous encounter with Major Flint when the “shiny new shiling” he promised each of them turned out to be only a half-penny. They exchanged a silent glance that said more than a thousand forced thank you letters to aged uncles and, rising elegantly above his ploy, turned to Bunty saying, “Can we go and sit on the cannon in the belvedere, mum?” On receiving her nodded assent, they ran off laughing.

Left alone, the adults turned to the events of the day. Elizabeth had noticed Bunty leaving Mallards House and longed to know her business there.

Bunty knew precisely what Elizabeth wished to know, as did both husbands, and nothing on earth would have made her divulge the purpose of her invitation, or what had transpired.

In her opening salvo, Elizabeth hoped that Bunty had “enjoyed her visit to my precious Mallards,” and, “trusted our dear Worship was entirely well”.

Returning fire, albeit tentatively, Bunty had, “no reason to believe Mrs Pillson was not in the best of health,” and adroitly changed the subject to the circus, “We hope to take our twins to the performance on Wednesday evening, Mrs Mapp-Flint. Will you be seeing the show?”

Realising that her prospects of finding out the purpose of Bunty’s visit to her own, “beloved home of yester-year” were slim, Elizabeth made a vengeful mental note of the insubordination for future reference and smiled her most saccharine smile.

Drawing back her lips to the fullest extent to reveal her formidable array of teeth, she drawled “Yes, I believe so, Mrs Morrison. I gather our dear and generous Worship has booked and paid-for an entire block of seats at the Wednesday evening performance at the circus. I’m sure we must all be very grateful and now remember to call it the ‘Mayoral Gala’. I believe I will be invited to be in attendance as Mayoress.”

Elizabeth continued, “Our beloved Worship told me only yesterday that she intended to allocate the tickets to a party of 'her' Girl Guides and the Padre’s Boy Scouts, plus some of the poorer children from what she called ‘Mr Twistevant’s slums down by the railway station’ - although I personally prefer to regard them as ‘charming and picturesque cottages that give our precious Tilling its unique character’. I expect these will be some of the same children as recently stripped the apple trees bare at Grebe. By the way, I don’t suppose you have succeeded in apprehending any of the young culprits as yet, Inspector?” 

Herbert cleared his throat and responded that he “had no news of any developments on the case as yet, but would look into the matter.” Thinking - erroneously as it turned out - that he was steering towards calmer waters, he went on to express the wish that “all the children would have a very enjoyable evening” and to comment that “it was most generous of the Mayor.”

Bridling visibly, Elizabeth replied, “Yes, Inspector, I’m sure that is true, although there has been some comment in the town to the effect that this largesse is deliberately intended to erase the memory of the unfortunate incident after Worship’s installation as Mayor. You may remember when celebratory hot pennies were thrown down amongst the children from the balcony of the Kings Arms. Sadly, the Mayor’s Sergeant at Arms appeared to have been somewhat overzealous in the heating of the coins and it is unfortunately alleged that more than one of the scrabbling urchins suffered minor burns. Loathe though I am to gossip, there has even been some talk of legal proceedings.”

With both Morrisons startled into silence, Mrs Mapp-Flint continued, “Of course none of this was reported in the “Hampshire Argus”, which, as usual, concentrated its attention upon the Mayor’s ‘sensitive performance of the ‘Moonlight Sonata’ at her inaugural dinner.’ The distribution of the odd train set, dolls house and circus ticket appears to have ensured that and all was forgotten. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose, if you know what I mean,” she concluded archly.

An embarrassing silence ensued whilst Herbert and Bunty wondered what to say next and Mrs Mapp-Flint savoured the impact of her extended bout of character assassination.

During these exchanges, Major Flint stood to attention, apparently taking an interest in the conversation, but actually wondering if he could devise a means of separating himself from his good lady for a few minutes. This would enable him to call into the club for a whisky and soda or two before completing the route march back out to Grebe, which was increasingly lacking in intoxicants nowadays.

“Well, it was good to catch up with all your news” said Herbert, raising his trilby, “We really must go and collect the children from the belvedere before they get up to any mischief. We hope to see you at the circus on Wednesday.”

With this, they hastened off to collect the twins, install them in the Riley and return to “Braemar”. At times like this both Herbert and Bunty understood that there were some advantages in living a little way outside the hot bed that was Tilling.

After supper when the children had been put to bed, Bunty updated Herbert upon her polite rejection of the Mayor’s job offer. “I think you were right dear,” commented Herbert, “It’s not just that you don’t have the time; I’m not sure it’s fitting for the senior officer’s wife to go out to work. I mean, folk might assume we need the money. You know what people are like, especially in Tilling. That would never do.”

“I thought you would say that, dear” Bunty replied, “but it was flattering to be asked.”

After an eventful Saturday, the family Morrison spent the Sabbath quietly at Braemar. All too soon, Monday morning came and Inspector Morrison took his place behind his desk in Tilling police station. Before the new week was an hour old, the telephone started to ring and citizens of Tilling queued to report a series of burglaries over the weekend.

Mrs Plaistow telephoned in her usual staccato bursts to report that her entire takings for the last two days at Ye Olde Tea House had been stolen and demanded briskly that a “competent detective attend immediately.”

Algernon and Susan Wyse stood at the front desk of the police station in person to advise of the theft overnight not only of a valuable solid silver photograph frame containing a signed portrait of brother-in-law Count Cecco di Faraglione but, worst of all, the velvet-lined case containing the beribboned insignia of Member of the Order of the British Empire, recently graciously bestowed upon Mrs Wyse personally by His Majesty the King.

 “Oh, I remember it so well,” wailed Mrs Wyse, “The King shook me by the hand and the Queen smiled at me and said ‘So pleased.’ Such charm, such simple, simple words, but to me they meant the world!”

Comforting his wife, Algernon Wyse insisted that “this infamous crime must receive the most urgent attention,” and wondered whether, “the unlawful appropriation of what was, after all, a personal gift from our Sovereign, did not fall under a particular subsection of the offence of High Treason and carry with it the most stringent of penalties.”

Courteous as ever, however, even in adversity, he assured the desk Sergeant that he had “every confidence that the Tilling Constabulary would do its onerous duty.”

Soon other Tillingites took their turn to report to the overworked constabulary a positive epidemic of missing cash, silver and jewellery.

As the outbreak of lawlessness continued, on Tuesday morning an extremely agitated Georgie Pillson stood before the duty officer to report that a break-in had occurred overnight at Mallards House.

The extent of his anxiety was evidenced by an uncharacteristically, unstylish deer stalker hat pulled carelessly on as he rushed out of the house. Given his shocking discovery that morning, he had not had time to complete the normally lengthy and delicate task of fitting and adjusting his toupet.

Georgie reported that a window of the garden room had been forced open and the case containing his beloved bibelots “most roughly rifled.”

Various valuables including a rats tail spoon, some Worcester china and a pretty enamelled cigarette case had been filched together with “most tarsomely of all” his most prized possession, the original manuscript of the opera “Lucretia” signed by its composer Cortese, which had been personally given to him by his good friend, the prima donna, Olga Bracely. Georgie concluded, “The manuscript is utterly priceless. It is of national, or even international, importance and simply must be found.”

By Wednesday, it was certain that Tilling was in the grip of a concerted crime wave. Other prominent victims by then included Dr Dobbie (a silver salver and tankard) and Kenneth and Evie Bartlett (tea spoons – electroplated, but of great sentimental value).

Confronted by what for genteel Tilling constituted “an onslaught of criminality”, Inspector Morrison and his officers worked steadily and patiently. Crime scenes were visited and thoroughly inspected and detailed accounts of what had been stolen and all surrounding circumstances obtained from the owners concerned. The modus operandi of the criminal or criminals involved was gradually built up and every other police force within a large radius (inland of course) was consulted in an effort to deduce whom the guilty party might be.

With such pressure of work, Bunty Morrison had seen little of her husband since the preceding weekend and was surprised to see him walk through the back door of “Braemar” late on Wednesday afternoon. “Hello dear, this is a pleasant surprise. I wasn’t really expecting to see you so early. With all the trouble this week, I thought you would be held up at the station until late again tonight.”

“No Bunty, love, I promised the children I would take them to the circus and I see no reason to break my word. Is everyone ready?”

“Yes we are” the twins replied and dashed off to put on their overcoats and climb into the back seat of the Riley.

As they drove up into Tilling, half the population seemed to be heading towards the recreation ground on the reclaimed land below the old town. At the centre of the field was erected the huge big top with “Bertie Barrett’s Travelling Circus” emblazoned in large letters on a banner hung between its two central supporting poles. To one side of the large tent was a fun fair with a helter-skelter, dodgems, food stalls and many side shows, whilst to the other stood the caravans of the circus artistes, encircled as in the old Wild West.

As night fell, the bright lights and deafening music of the fair combined with the expectant hum of the audience, cheerfully gathering for the circus show to create a thrilling atmosphere.

Walking towards the big top, Herbert and Bunty saw many familiar faces. The Padre in his scout leader’s uniform and dog collar led an orderly column of Boy Scouts, whilst his mouse-like wife Evie followed with a demure group of Girl Guides. Their curate was left to do his best to control an over-excited group of the children of Mr Twistevant’s tenants.

The Royce of Mr and Mrs Wyse hove into view, seeking to park as close as possible to the circus tent. This proved somewhat unwise as its rear wheels began to spin on the damp grass and the Wyses thought it prudent to leave their chauffeur to extricate the vehicle whilst they picked their way across the grass towards the circus.

Seeing this, Elizabeth Mapp-Flint, wearing her insignia as Mayoress was able to shake her head and comment upon both “the sheer foolishness of trying to drive that great van across a field,” and, “the inadvisability of poor vain Susan wearing that ridiculously heavy sable coat on such a warm evening.”

Completing the official party for the Mayor’s Gala, there followed Mrs Emmeline Pillson wearing her chain of office with her husband Georgie, his sisters Ursula and Hermione and their terrier, Tiptree. Given the dog’s record of spectacular disobedience whilst in Tilling, Georgie had insisted that Tiptree be kept on a lead and his sisters had reluctantly acceded to his wish.

The Mayoral party took their seats in the front row in the big top with an uninterrupted view of the main ring. As she entered, Mrs Pillson nodded to her Mayoress and acknowledged many other friends and acquaintances, including the Morrisons. Most reciprocated with a smile whilst, to assert her “closer connection”, Mrs Mapp-Flint ostentatiously waved, blew several kisses and positively beamed. 

Before long, the lights dimmed. The performance began with the brave lion-tamer confronting the roaring kings of the jungle, armed only with a chair, bull whip and a dashing smile.

The troop of elephants walked in formation holding tails and made intricate patterns, threw large balls with their trunks, sat on enormous tubs like milk-maids on stools and trumpeted in unison upon command. All onlookers were amazed and touched by these gentle giants – with the possible exception of Susan Wyse.

The children were held spellbound by the trickery of the Indian fakir who charmed dangerous snakes and then lay on a bed of nails whilst Major Mapp-Flint was persuaded to leave his seat and stand on his chest. The Major loudly explained that “this was only right” since he had “performed the same service in Benares many years before”. The act concluded with the famous rope trick, when the fakir climbed a rope suspended in mid-air and disappeared completely upon reaching the top.

The acrobats on horseback amazed with their agility, as did the courageous trapeze artistes whose performance culminated in a death-defying triple somersault, which forced the entire audience to hold its collective breath.

The young guests of the Mayor roared their approval throughout the evening, laughing at the clowns, marvelling at each daring display and responding with thunderous applause.

The performance reached its zenith at the Finale with a parade of all the artists in full costume. Into the centre of the ring walked elephants and horses whilst around the edge stood each of the performers taking a bow in the spotlight in turn. This went uneventfully until the Indian fakir was announced and stepped forward.

Although he had until now reclined quietly at the feet of his mistresses, Tiptree sprang forward barking and, before he could be restrained, leapt up repeatedly, pulling at the beard of the shocked and surprised fakir.

Both Hermione and Ursula stood with cries of “Stop it Tipsipoozie, down boy,” but by now it was too late. The fakir’s turban rolled across the ring and what appeared to be a false beard lay in the sawdust. In the meantime Tiptree stood over the recumbent artiste licking his face with his tail wagging violently.

“Oh, my Lord” the sisters cried in unison, “It’s the curry cook: the one from the Calcutta Restaurant in Bedford Street. Tiptree must have recognised him. You remember Georgie, 'the holy man of utmost sanctity from Benares;' he fooled you all into thinking he was your Guru and pretended to teach half the village yoga years ago back in Riseholme. He then scarpered with all your swag. Still missing today!  What a laugh. Well done Tipsipoozie old boy. He never forgets a face!"  
Recovering the power of speech and stepping down from the seat on which he had taken temporary refuge, Georgie gave expression to the pain that had lain dormant within him since that terrible day when the Guru had disappeared with his most precious possessions, “You beastly man. Where are my bibelots?” At this, a buzz of interested conversation ran through the audience as many inquired what a “bibelot” actually was.

At this point, a look was exchanged between Mrs Pillson and her Inspector and he stepped forward with hands raised. He called in his Sergeant who had been standing near the exit and in moments the multi-talented fakir, Guru and curry cook was under arrest.

“Your Worship and ladies and gentlemen, if I might have your attention. By way of explanation,  I wanted to let you know that we have just apprehended the criminal responsible for the series of burglaries which have taken place in Tilling over the last few days.”

“Although the circus was advertised as having just come from Europe it has in fact,” he explained, “been completing a tour along our south coast. Inquiry of the police forces in Folkestone, Hastings and Seaport, which the circus has just visited, has disclosed a spate of identical thefts in each.”

“Tonight,” he continued “my officers monitored each of the artists throughout the evening and witnessed the fakir here slip away between his performance earlier in the show and the finale. During this time he walked up into Tilling broke into Twemlows, the grocers and stole the day’s takings. If those of you who have suffered burglaries would care to form an orderly queue outside his caravan, hopefully some of your property can be restored to you. In the meantime, Sergeant take that man away.” 

At this point the Padre stood and clapped his hands to quell the hubbub, which had grown to a crescendo as the drama unfolded. As sometimes happened when circumstances had taken a startling turn, he spoke not in his usual Scots or Irish dialect or even Old English, but with the softly rounded patois of suburban Birmingham from whence her sprang, “Ladies and gentlemen, children, I’m sure we are much obliged to Inspector Morrison and his wonderful officers for their all good work in apprehending this daring criminal tonight.”

“I’m also certain,” he continued, “That we are most grateful to our generous Mayor for her munificence in paying for so many boys and girls to attend the circus this evening. I know you’ve all had a marvellous time. May I call upon you to express your thanks with a song?”

On this cue, the Boy Scouts, Girl Guides and children of Mr Twistevant’s tenants joined together in a very loud, spirited and well-rehearsed rendition of “For they are jolly good fellows,” during which the Mayor waved to all and her Inspector smiled modestly.

Immediately afterwards in a fit of enthusiasm, yet again demonstrating the extent of his failure to appreciate the indifference with which his good lady wife was at best regarded by the youth of Tilling, Major Flint leapt to his feet with the cry “Now children, three cheers for the Mayoress. Hip, hip!”

The ensuing humiliating silence, when time truly appeared to stand still, rendered any further “Hip” or indeed “Hips” out of the question. The Major resumed his seat sheepishly and received a glare of cold fury from his spouse that did not augur well for their lengthy walk back to Grebe, a deux.

After arranging for Bunty and the twins to be driven home, Inspector Morrison supervised the pleasant exercise of returning the stolen property to rightful owners.

Diva Plaistow and Mr Twemlow were delighted to receive their takings, as were Dr Dobbie and the Bartletts when their silver and electro-plate were restored. Susan Wyse was overcome when reunited with her Order and proudly pinned it to her bosom to celebrate its return.

Most thrilled of all however was Georgie Pillson, who not only enjoyed the return of his objets from Mallards House and the precious manuscript from “Lucretia” but also several of his most precious bibelots stolen from his former home in Riseholme. These included his Louis XVI snuff box and miniature by Karl Huth. With more than a suspicion of tears in his blue eyes, Georgie said simply “Thank you so much Inspector. Foljambe will be so pleased. We have both missed them so.” and walked off, as though on air.

After charging the fakir with numerous offences and placing him in the cells overnight, Inspector Morrison drove back to “Braemar”. By now the children were in bed and he did not want to disturb them. Bunty asked what he wanted for supper after such an eventful evening. As was his habit, he joked in reply, “Anything, but curry, please dear.”

Sitting at the kitchen table later, Herbert and Bunty talked over the last few days and the various strong personalities, so evident in their community. As they switched off the kitchen light and started walking upstairs, Bunty said “By the way, can you explain something that’s always puzzled me? Although I call her ‘Mrs Pillson’ or ‘Your Worship’, I gather her close friends – all those ‘intimes’ of hers – call her ‘Lucia’.  I know it’s Italian and comes from her first marriage and her being ‘the wife of Lucas’. But now that she’s Mrs Pillson, shouldn’t she be called ‘Pillsia’ or some thing like that?”

“I suppose you’re right” responded Herbert, “There again, in that case, her Mayoress would have to be called ‘Flintia’. Somehow, I don’t see it catching on!”

THE END

Copyright 2011 Deryck Solomon. All rights reserved in appropriate territories



7 comments:

Jill Charlotte Stanford said...

Too, too wonderful to find this! Thrilling. I am a molto grande fan of Mapp and Lucia.

Jill Charlotte Stanford said...

Too too delicious! Although i find leaving you a message a bit tarsome.

Deryck Solomon said...

Thank you for your kind comments, which are very much appreciated. With no response on the stories, I wasn't sure anyone had read them, let alone found them enjoyable! I am now preparing a new set of cases for the Inspector to be entitled "Another Year in Tilling." The first story is "Inspector Morrison and the Mysterious Maharani". I will put a link on this site and the Mapp and Lucia Glossary when it's ready. Au reservoir and Happy New Year.

Jill Charlotte Stanford said...

I will wait breathlessly for this. Meanwhile, I watch an episode each evening of Mapp and Lucia via Netflix. Each time I see it I see or hear something new and now I can go to your dictionary to find out even more. Last night I heard the term 'Eue de Nile" and was thrilled -- it was my mothers favorite color.
Au resevoir to you.

Maxwell Turnbull said...

Imagine my delight at discovering the existence of such a comprehensive collection of information concerning upon the
" interweb ". ( or whatever it should properly be called )

It is a welcome further enhancement of my meagre experience of the works of E.F.Benson, which extends only to repeated viewings of the Channel 4' series on DVD.
I derive satisfaction from these viewing mainly because of the wonderfully painterly manner in which almost all of the scenes were filmed-a fitting tribute to the wonderfully powerful prose that E.F. employed in the writing of these stories.
Thank You.

beach1e said...

i think your story has become a bit jumbled"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

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 h"
regards
Robin

Deryck Solomon said...

Thank you for noticing and letting me know, Robin. Somehow about 20 paragraphs - without which the story made much less sense - had somehow been "lost" from the text and, thanks to you, have now been reinstated. I am much obliged!