Short Day’s Journey into Night
It has been a beautiful spring day in the Rural Bolthole.
The rustics have had a joyful day with the warmth of the sun on their backs after months of cold and damp and the never ending darkness of a Scottish winter. By nature they are of course stoics and with a heads down and best foot forward attitude they have coped with nights that seem to begin about 2.30 in the afternoon, following a day which begins about 10.00 in the morning.
Of course the process has been helped by a good supply of fire wood, vats of nourishing soup, endless knitting and dancing and of course the odd medicinal dram to keep the cold at bay. Social intercourse has taken place in a variety of warm surroundings including the church, The Pentland Firth Arms, the village shop or at the doctors. Favoured subjects include various medical conditions or ailments, which are highly competitive in nature, the more chronic the better. The past is always popular for conversation as it is always a much better place.
New residents are much discussed too as for example the city incomer who is being castigated behind her back at the cold meats’ counter as a “floozy” for hanging out washing on a Sunday. The price of a gigot chop in the Pentland Firth Arms is compared with the price of lambs at the market, farmers it seems have “never had it so bad”. There is excitement about an upcoming Beetle Drive “in aid of our missionary partners in somewhere or other” where it’s hot and they make the most wonderful baskets, which are just the ticket for that morning visit to the shop as they comfortably take The Glasgow Herald, half a dozen potato scones, and a bottle of “Scotch” in a brown paper bag.
Everyone is Moved
The sudden appearance of the sun does tend to send everyone a little “doolally”. There is a sudden rush to wipe window sills, sweep paths and wash blankets . Indeed there is so much to do it is almost dizzying. Such is the pressure of conformity in a rural community that even those with the most disabling of conditions such as being “pure dead bone idle” are moved to leave their firesides and begin the vinegar and newspaper onslaught on grimy windows.
The alternative is to be at the receiving end of chilling stares, tightly folded arms and impossibly dramatic eye rolling from the villages M.A.D.S. (Most Advanced Domestic Specialists) These women with mean thin lips, threatening bosoms and years of experience of cupboard bottoming, blanket trammelling and pest control have the power to make or break a local reputation. They strike fear into the newlywed or the plain useless and one can sense them coming before they are seen in that they are preceded by a strong odour of bleach, naphtha and self righteousness. They are, however, the glue that binds the community together. Understandably there are many that greet the late afternoons “clouding over from the west” with relief as it might happily mean an April shower and a respite from such activities as putting “Cardinal Red Polish” on the front step.
Changeable Weather- Irritable Reactions
This very thing has happened in the village where Muriel and Jasper Wylie, along with many of Glasgow’s middle class, have their weekend homes. Jasper is delighted to have his lawn raking interrupted by a shower of rain and a sudden temperature drop.
Muriel who had been enjoying a cup of tea (clad in tweeds, naturally for the time of year) picks up her note book and calls to Mrs Travers, her daily woman what does but oh so very little, to come and help clear away the tea things, before she collects the washing on the line.
They are having fish pie this evening. Jasper hates fish pie or indeed as he says anything that “smells like a harbour”, but Muriel has discovered his betting slips relating to activity at the Cheltenham Races. The punishment must fit the crime. Muriel does not approve of gambling anymore than she approves of sloppy speech, eating in the street, the Labour Party or women in slacks. The latter she has been known to describe as “targets for harpoon practice” and any with an elasticated waistband as requiring an “Askit pooder” and a Dubonnet chaser.
Change of Plans
It is “kitchen suppa” tonight, that is to say suppa with the minimum of formality and place mats and the napkin kept in the silver ring, rather than a tablecloth and fresh linen at the Georgian mahogany dining table which had belonged to Muriel’s grandmother. Despite being in the bad books, Jasper decides to push his luck and produces half a bottle of white wine as he says he can’t get fish pie over his delicate thrapple without “a wee swally”. Muriel ignores this and anyway has her coup de grâce already planned with a tin of
fruit cocktail and some Carnation milk rather than the treacle tart and custard which as far as Jasper is concerned was the only light at the end of the harbour wall.
The lack of formality is typical of suppa during the week for those who are simply marvellous, as they have many social and charitable activities to fill their evenings. Muriel is due to be at Lady Pentland-Firth’s for a discussion about the next Country House Concert while Jasper is off to the monthly meeting of “the Hysterical”, as Muriel calls his History Society, where the treat is an illustrated lecture on the History of Pulpit Falls with Dr Timothy Twist, lecturer in contemporary embroidery from the Art School.
“The best laid schemes”, however, as Burns said can go wrong. When Muriel arrives at the Pentland-Firth pile she is told that her ladyship has cancelled due to an emergency involving an in depth interview with a Russian percussionist. With similar bad fortune Jasper has arrived at the village hall to be told that Dr Twist has taken a queer turn at Central Station and cancelled. Apparently his secretary was very apologetic and said he had been overdoing things with a new reel of purple embroidery thread and would reschedule the meeting for the autumn.
Everyone Thinks They Are Home Alone
Jasper arrives home first and has gone into the dining room where he is working on an article for the Parish Magazine on the History of Dry Stane Dykes in the Glen, which the editor said will amaze many of the readers, with his forensic dissection of construction
methods and materials.
Muriel meanwhile drives home feeling she has been somewhat used, having seen a light on in Patience Pentland-Firth’s boudoir with two shadows in close proximity behind the toile de jouy blind over the window. She is not best pleased and after changing into her housecoat and fluffy mules, pours herself a wee crème du menthe and sits down in the drawing room to write a lecture on this Spring’s fashion news which is “The return of the Cape”, for an afternoon presentation at Dalys.
At the Back of the House
In the kitchen Mrs Travers is unaware that her employers, having come through the front door, are home. Had she known she would have cancelled the evening’s activity which is a séance, exactly the sort of thing of which Mrs Wylie disapproves. To some extent Mrs Travers has been persuaded to host the evening against her better judgement by Bunty Haystack, prolific author of rural murder mysteries such as “Turnip Terror”, “Revenge of the Three Little Pigs” and “One Man Went to Mow and Didn’t Return”. Bunty, however, is one of these modern women who always gets their way and Mrs Travers is fond of “a reading” herself.
So it is with some excitement that she answers the chap at the door to find Bunty waiting with her acolytes – Polly Wanton, part-time barmaid at the Pentland Firth Arms, Vera Veil, bridal ware specialist and Crystal Clear, secretary to the owner of a local glaziers. “Good evening Mrs Travers, what a dreich night” said Bunty shaking her umbrella and removing her headscarf. The acolytes follow and do the same. They are enthralled by their famous friend and copy her every move as well as reading her books, where they are sure they recognise themselves. They also feel an author in the village is good for business.
In Great Spirits
While Mrs Travers fills the kettle the visitors busy themselves preparing the room by placing the round kitchen table in the centre of the room, dimming the lighting and turning off the radio. From her basket, Bunty produces a brass candlestick, a bunch of artificial white roses and a vase as “the spirits are drawn to the flickering light and to white flowers”. Being drawn to warmth, they also like food and so Bunty is delighted when Mrs Travers stokes the Rayburn and then from the warming oven produces plates of sausage rolls, fruit scones and a border tart. Apart from anything else Bunty did not have time for suppa as she was putting the finishing touches to a particularly grizzly body in a barrel story, so Mrs T’s fare is most welcome.
There is another knock at the door announcing the arrival of the famous medium Madame Claire Voyant be-turbaned and dressed in a cape which when removed reveals a mass of shawls and fringes, bangles and beads – she looks as if she has just walked out of a silent picture starring Rudolph Valentino.
“One has arrived” she announces dramatically handing Mrs Travers her umbrella and Gladstone bag. “The night is well disposed to communication with the other side; and you” she says looking at Mrs Travers through a lorgnette retrieved from the jumble of amber beads resting on her chest “have an aura, I can see it from here. You are a woman who has suffered pains and agonies, pains and agonies, torment and tumult. I see support stockings; I see a man, a slow boat to China and a knocking shop down by the canal.” “Would you like Earl Grey or Assam Madame?” asked Mrs T hoisting up her elasticated knee supports. “Assam, if you please; my spirit guide is Indian. I can feel him coming, coming, coming….
but a scone and jam would be rather nice first.”
Madame Sees All
After refreshments, Mrs T removes the cups and saucers and crumb filled plates and the assembled company gather at the table. Madame produces a “speaking trumpet” from her bag which she places on the table. “Sometimes” she announces sonorously, “they like to come through the trumpet, especially if they are hard of hearing.” Polly Wanton gives a little giggle and receives an icy stare. “Now this is good; our number is divisible by three” she says “and we can begin. I want you to visualise a white light surrounding this perfect country kitchen. The spirits already know you are here. I want you to take a deep breath with me.” The assembled group take a deep breath as one and as they exhale the full force of a lunchtime pickled onion is released by Mrs Travers. Vera and Crystal look disapproving and Mrs T just shrugs her shoulders and whispers “better out than in”.
Madame is, by this point, oblivious as she announces she is “raising my consciousness to the alpha state and reaching down into the molecular level”. The assembled company realise that they are obviously in the presence of a great scientist as well as a medium. Suddenly they all feel a rush of cold air and a tinkling sound. Each think they can smell something. Is it perfume, cigars or possibly pickled onions?
The Spirits Move Them
Madame lurches violently to the left and then to the right and then she begins to incant, “Oh beloved Mr Patel, we bring you gifts from life unto death – perfume, cigars, sausage rolls and indeed pickled onions; commune with us Mr Patel and move among us.” There is nothing, but Madame repeats her lines, adding, “Spirit we are waiting for a response”. Suddenly the table begins to shake and to levitate, seeming to hover above the tiled floor before resting one of its legs on Mrs Travers bunion, but she stifles a cry.
There is a rap on the table and Madame says “Can we ask you a question? One rap for yes; two for no. A single rap follows. “Sprit do you have a message for anyone here?” A rap is followed by a strange sound which appears to come from the trumpet, it is like barking. “Does anyone know Bouncer?” asks Madame. “Bouncer was my spaniel”, replies Bunty Haystack, “he was a champion ratter, he went under the wheels of W.R.V.S. tea van during the Blitz. Is he well?” “He is quite well and wants you to know he does not hold you responsible for letting him off the lead.” Once again Madame begins to sway and then says, “Crystal it is mother here, I want you to know I am all right, but you must be careful of someone whose name begins with Mac in management. ” “Goodness me” exclaims Crystal, “that’s Mr Macauley, the millionaire bungalow builder, who has a 25% interest in “See Through Glaziers”, and far too much interest in my stocktaking in the stationary cupboard! Ooh I have come over all peculiar. Mother what other advice have you? I rather fancy Mr Sill in framing, but he never notices me.” “I have to go my child but try a touch of Blue Grass behind the knees.”
Spirit of the Sea
“Is there anyone else who wants to come through from the other side? Are you there spirits?” asks an anguished Madame who begins to cough. There is the sound of violins and as Madame begins to sway backwards moving her turbaned head in a circular motion she asks “Is it you Mozart who is trying to come through?” There is the sound of a fog horn and a sailor’s hornpipe to which she says “perhaps it is you Lord Nelson? I can smell the sea”, at which point seaweed seems to float about the table. There is another bang and she asks once again who is trying to come through.
An Unexpected Guest
“I am trying to come through” announces Muriel, “what on earth is going on here? Mrs Travers is this what I think it is?” At which point Madame lets out a howl and says “I have a message for the simply marvellous one, it is me Salty Pentland-Firth, I cannot cross over….” “Be quick spirit” says Madame, “the veil is lifting.” “I was killed by my own wife; she poisoned me. Patience Charity Pentland-Firth is a murderess.”
….to be continued.