The Best Hallowe’en Ever
When the cottagers and those and such as those looked back in the years which were to come it, as generally agreed that October 31st 1957 had been the best Hallowe’en ever.
Men – the Cause of All Our Problems
There had not been such a devilish atmosphere since the last witch trials which had been a high point of local history and were, at the time, a pleasant diversion from economic ills. It has as they say “aye bin the same” and from our modern perspective the demonization of men is probably serving the same function, only this time to distract us “Brexit”, which if not folly is at the very least mind numbingly boring. In all probability, it was men who caused “Brexit”, just as they cause everything else, apart from spring cleaning and raffle tickets, so perhaps a little demonization is called for.
When Men Could Whistle and Be Proud of It
In November 1957 men were held in much higher regard and were consequently more optimistic. Not only had the chief man, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, told them and their wives they had “never had it so good”, there were many things to be proud of – a new news programme Today on the Home Service; the Jodrell Bank Observatory had become operational; there was a new British vaccine against the Asian flu and the release of David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai allowed men to whistle a lot and relive another time when they were happier – the last Unpleasantness.
People were even happy enough to think about trying to get into the E.E.C.. This, and staying there, has been a very long prequel to “Brexit”. Perhaps we shouldn’t have bothered in the first place; we have never been very good at being members of clubs where we did not control the committee or at least have a wife who did.
“Wraiths and Warnings!”
For those with eyes to see there was some writing on the wall in 1957 – a successful Russian sputnik in space which made the Americans very nervous mainly because it was launched in a rocket so powerful it was capable of carrying other more malevolent objects over huge distances. There was a fire at the Windscale nuclear reactor, in the north of England the previous month which released large amounts of radioactive contamination into the area and worse the government unveiled plans to allow women to join the House of Lords for the first time. This would put chaps into some very awkward situations.
For the literary minded, an edgier, more uncertain future was perhaps being foretold in the many new publications like John Braine’s Room at the Top, John Wyndham’s novel The Midwich Cuckoos and Stevie Smith’s poem “Not Waving, but Drowning”. Still there was always the comfort of Agatha Christie’s new Miss Marple novel 4.50 from Paddington.
Best to Stay Put
Fortunately, there were still parts of the post war world where these weighty matters were of less concern than really major issues such as church heating systems, dahlia competitions, the ingredients of a fruit loaf and the availability of a three hole mousetrap, the latter being quite useful at this time of year as it gets colder.
Such is the nature of vast parts of rural Scotland outside the central belt, which is somewhere one goes only if one has to, which is not very often, as everything is to be had i what with even small villages having a butcher, baker and candlestick maker and one can buy everything from a “screw nail” to a length of pulley rope.
As to going to “that London”, well who but the unhinged would do such a thing. “Tam, the man” went once, “aye you ken Tam, he was a driver for Dolly’s Buses, wis never the same again; took his wife twa days tae clean his cuffs and collars. Folk said after that, he drove like a demon and Dolly was forced to put him on the late shift as they drunks on “the vomit comet”, didn’ae notice his mad eyes and wild cornering. Aye Tam, jis had wan glimpse o’ that London and he wis dun frae. Aye, ended his days as an ambulance driver, they folk didn’ae mind either.”
Dancing, Teas, Going Under and a Race!
The bright city lights are not needed for entertainment either, just as they have everything they need from well fired morning rolls to the necessities for ginger wine, so too do they have an endless supply of activities particularly in the winter, when there is barely a night without dancing or a Saturday afternoon without a tea in aid of something or other.
As the winter clearout begins to save the old folk the worry of another hard winter when “I jis want tae be awa”, there is always the possibility of a big going under to brighten up a short November day. This is the opportunity for a heat in the church, a bit of a sing, a nice cup of tea and hopefully a plate of warming soup and a sausage roll at someone else’s expense.
Rare dry sunny days are an opportunity for the men folk to engage in bogie or bed races or the much looked forward to raft races. This is where they fearlessly sale down river to the town in a homemade vessel of fanciful and hopefully seaworthy construction. This is an activity so dangerous that the army refuses to take part, but we are talking here of a different breed of men, they are the sort who regard being run over by a tractor as an occupational hazard, sorted by a wee dram and a cow dung poultice. The finding of an unexploded bomb in a newly ploughed field does not require the attendance of a specialist military unit; one just reburies it somewhere else. After all, “nae use in bothering folk”.
When the Veil is Lifted Things Can Go Awry
As one might expect for those who live in the glens, the old ways and traditions have a compelling attraction. The cold and the lack of light draws them to old festivals like Hallowe’en with its Celtic connections and the temporary lifting of the veil between this and the world beyond.
They are naturally drawn to fire and Bonfire Night is another attractive option above and beyond associations with religious division, and anyway there is always a nice Shepherd’s pie or sausage and mash. Of course things can go wrong, bonfires get out of control and Catherine wheels have a mind of their own, one lad even being chased through his house by one.
In the little part of rural Scotland popular with the Wylies and their chums “The Night when the Dead Walk” in 1957, coincided with the Historical Society Meeting where chaired by Jasper, Lady Pentland-Firth gave the Mrs Blenheim Crawford Memorial Lecture, or at least she tried to.
Despite Jasper’s usual planning, the meeting went spectacularly wrong when Muriel who had gone to check that all was well with the sausage suppa had discovered that Hilda, the German voman who did all the heavy vork to save Mrs Travers, the daily woman who did not really do enough, was dead in a mantrap in the adjacent Woodlanders Museum, a mutual society whose premises the History Society were renting due to a 40 watt bulb requirement in the village hall. We catch up with events the next day.
The Interrogation of Mrs T
“Mrs Esme Travers”, said Inspector Wild. “I am arresting you on suspicion of the murder of Frau Hilda what’s her name, a German lady who does zee heavy vork for your employers, the Wylies. Due to the nature of the allegation you will be held pending the completion of a great deal of paper work and the arrival of Sheriff “Guilty” Gordon, who has been located sleeping on a bench in “The Masons Arms”, or was a mason’s arms, I forget? Anyway he was dressed as his favourite hanging judge, Jeffries, for the Lodge’s Hallowe’en party where he won first prize. I incidentally came third for my Sherlock Holmes, I have my own deerstalker. Have you anything to say?” “Apart from the fact there are a tray of sausages going to waste in the oven of the Woodlanders Hall, I am innocent. You are just picking on me because I am originally from Warrington which is half way between Liverpool and Manchester and my inability to do the Postie’s Jig at Country Dancing which has been compromised by bunions and restricting support stockings, I am a political prisoner and I throw myself on the mercy of the people.”
Murder is No Excuse for Bad Manners
“Mrs Travers you are nothing of the sort. You are possibly a dangerous serial killer with an interest in ancient poaching bygones. What is more you have a son with a criminal record, a husband once associated with Busty Betty’s down by the canal and according to Mrs Wylie your damp dusting is not what it was, not that it ever was much. Take her to the cells, Constable.”“Will that be bread and water for her, Sir?” asked the nervous young constable.“No sonny, I mean constable; it’s time for our ten o’clocks. Let us remember our manners – Mrs Travers would you care for a fried egg roll?” “Well I couldn’t eat a thing Inspector, so that will do nicely.” “You do know Mrs Travers this might mean the death penalty.” “Not if you buy eggs from The Co-op, Inspector.”
Murder Can Be So Inconvenient
Meanwhile at the scene of the crime it is now the following day – All Saints Day – and the members of the History Society have had a long night, as they have not been allowed to leave until they interviewed and statements taken. They are fractious, tired and hungry despite having made their way through a pile of cold sausages and mashed potato, finished off with a slice of fly cemetery and some custard died pink to suggest blood which, given the circumstances, was a bit off putting but they ate it anyway.
Jasper Wylie, as Chairman of the History Society, is understandably peeved that his evening has been spoiled and wondering if the Georgian mantrap has been irreparably damaged, they are after all quite rare. Muriel Wylie, who is supposed to be having coffee in Glasgow at Dalys at 11, followed by a shampoo and set is worried about missing the train and her appointments. She is also wondering what effect being associated with a murder victim and a possible murderess might have on business at her interior design shop “Chez Nous”, after all mud sticks. However, it might increase the footfall of the curious which would be very handy in the run up to Christmas, perhaps it might be an idea to consider a range of merchandise linked with Mrs Travers such as the Travers tray-cloth or toast racks in the style of miniature man traps. It’s funny what tiredness and boredom does to the mind.
Patience is a Virtue – in Some Circumstances
Lady Pentland-Firth is also easily bored and so has passed the night entertaining some of the more genteel ladies of the Society with tales of her life in inter-war Cabaret. The ladies, clutching lace hankies, feign horror at the thought of such sleaziness but secretly wish they too had a past in underground beer cellars in Berlin and cafés in Montmartre. “Oh it’s too much” said Clarice Caithness, “how could you Patience?” “Well quite simple really – all you need is some rouge, a dressing gown cord and bath brush.” “Oh no!” exclaimed Tricia Tantallion, “I think I am going to faint.” “Then” said Lady Pentland-Firth “you would miss all the fun.” “Oh Patience you really are too much” they cried in unison. “Do tell us more.”
Murder is Not Always Fatal
“Well Jasper, I see Patience is enjoying herself” said Muriel.
“Oh when will it be possible to go home?” moaned Jasper.
“Here comes the Inspector now with Professor T. Bone-Stake, the Head of Forensic Pathology or something at the good varsity in Glasgow. Good day, Inspector is Mrs T all right?”
“I am afraid we have detained her Mrs Wylie following witness reports of an argument between Mrs Travers and the German vuman vat used to do zee heavy vork. And now that the Professor is here we can examine the body and once that is done you can all go home. I am afraid we do not have the expertise here in the country. If you would be so kind, as to follow me Professor.”
“I wonder how long this will take Jasper. I am not going to get back up to Glasgow this morning. I hope they don’t charge me for that shampoo and set.”
The learned Professor, wearing a white coat and gloves, came back into the room with an ashen faced Inspector.
“I am afraid” said the Inspector, “Mr and Mrs Wylie, there has been a dreadful mistake. That is not a German woman at all. It is a bundle of clothing, a sort of female “Guy Fawkes” if you will, dressed to look like one of the characters from a Black Forest cuckoo clock with a remarkably life-like mask that would fool anyone into believing it was a real body.”
“What?” cried out Lady Pentland-Firth “you mean to tell me that we have been here all night under house arrest for a cuckoo clock woman, there must be more to this than meets my eyeliner?”
“There may well be” said the Inspector “for in the pocket of the dirndl dress is a note which says ‘Free Laika’, whatever that means?”
“Oh I know what that means” said Jasper, “Laika is the name of the dog the Soviets have put into space now orbiting the earth. It has been reported in The Herald, but what has it got to do with Hilda I mean the Guy and if that isn’t Hilda, in the Man trap where is she?”
“Good question Mr Wylie, but we have arrested a woman who, despite not doing a lot on the damp dusting front, has not committed a murder.”
“Well she might have” said Lady Pentland-Firth, “she looks capable of pretty much anything if you ask me.”
“Well” said the Inspector, who was by now looking rather flushed “it is rather difficult to have a murder without a body.”
“And she was quite a body” said Lady Pentland-Firth.
“Well” said the Professor “as they say in the Kelvinside Gilbert and Sullivan Society, I shall be playing The Mikado if anyone would like tickets, here’s a pretty how de do.”
“I think we must make hast to the cop shop and release the one who does not do a lot” said the Inspector now considerably flushed, “I am not sure how I am going to explain this at the Lodge. I was in line to be a Grand Wizard you know.”
“Perhaps I might accompany?” you said a voice from the back of the hall.
“And, you are sir?”
“They call me The Stranger, well the Handsome Stranger actually.”
“Home Office, Sir ?”
“Close, Inspector, here is my card.”
“Perhaps I should introduce you to the committee of the Historical”.
“No need Inspector, Mrs Wylie and I go back a long way. Shall we go? I have a couple of cars standing by.”
The members of the History Society leave the hall. Muriel and Patience Pentland-Firth walk slowly together, Patience putting her notes into a capacious handbag and saying,
“What a mess Muriel, is it just me or are these cock-ups all the doings of men?”
“You could be right Patience, sometimes I think it is a mistake to let them out of the playpen, perhaps things will improve, just think we will soon be sitting in the House of Lords.”
“More likely polishing it Muriel!”
“Have you ever polished anything Patience?”
“No. Have you, Muriel?”
“ Not much, but I know a woman who can, if she puts her mind to it and we need to get her out of jail.”
“I bet you a pound to a penny that dog’s a woman.”