Saturday, 28 April 2007

A Deputation of Dowagers

Bill has gone away for two weeks on a fishing holiday with friends. Taking Monty with him, I’m happy to say; since, fond as I am of the dear old dog, I don’t think I could have contended with him, in addition to my own Florence, who remains in mortal fear of Monty, and cowers, whimpering, at the first sound of his approach. I have all the responsibility of Bill’s vegetable plot in his absence, too – though I have told him that I am unlikely to be any match against the advance of slugs or snails, and that if he had wanted early lettuces, he had probably much better have stayed at home. On the whole I’m glad he’s to have this little break, though. Especially since the alternative would have been his taking up one or other of the invitations he has had to go to New York, or Washington or other places world-wide, speaking about Iraq – and I don’t believe his health is quite up to that sort of thing just yet.

What he’s actually doing, I believe , is fleeing the possible onset of dowagers in our midst. And with good cause perhaps, since two did arrive here simultaneously, yesterday, just half an hour after he’d gone. I was surprised to receive what almost seemed a deputation, at eleven o’clock in the morning; in the persons of Pamela Baines, coming in all state, and accompanied on this occasion by Mrs Rose Mountjoy. They said they had just happened to be passing on a morning stroll, and thought it would be the neighbourly thing to call. But I don’t believe a word of it; for they are not in the very least the sorts of women to be idly strolling, immaculately dressed, at eleven o’clock in the morning. And in any case they had hardly been seated in my armchairs drinking my coffee for more than five minutes , before the real nature of their mission began to emerge.

Pamela it was, who first took the plunge (and did it rather inadroitly, I thought). “We are just a little worried about Frances, dear” was the way she put it. “Of course I know it’s not the first time I have expressed such an alarm, but it seems to have intensified of late, and then she has become so very secretive all at once, which is not like her at all. And although we know that David has taken to going to the manor house almost every day, with his laptop and a carrier bag over his arm ( Rose can’t help but notice it, you know, since he must pass her house each time en route), yet she quite declines to talk about it. Has become quite defensive, in fact. And then you see, she has taken to wearing flowered dresses and pretty shoes all of a sudden – quite out of character, you know: she was such a one for her paisley skirts and stout brogues… . And she has been purchasing, of late, or so Mrs Watson at the delicatessan tells me, quite inordinate quantities of fresh croissants, and expensive coffee….”

I read into this what I could, or would – which was most of all to suppose that Pamela’s alarm had less to do with anything Frances was wearing, or purchasing, than with the fact that she was perhaps setting herself up to appropriate Pamela’s own ‘dear David’ for herself! Of Rose Mountjoy’s position in the matter I was less certain. I know very little about her; save that she is the chosen intimate of the Macauleys, and that she wears the kinds of clothes – and flashes the kinds of many-ringed, perfectly manicured fingers – that make me uncomfortably aware of the dismal shortcomings of my own. I looked to her for corroboration of Pamela’s statement nonetheless, and she did not disappoint.

“I think what Pamela is trying to say” she explained; “is that we can’t help but fear a little for Frances, because she is of course so very much an innocent abroad. So unversed, you know, in the ways of the world. And especially in the ways of men… Even the very best of them, as I’m sure you’ll agree, being victims of their baser instincts whenever opportunity presents…… They simply can’t help themselves, poor things; and though we know that Mr Porteous is the perfect gentleman, of course, and a retired clergyman into the bargain… still, we can’t help wondering if he might just have received the wrong impression of all this unexpected largesse on Frances’s part… “

I thought this came somewhat nearer the truth. Rose Mountjoy is a neat, trim, well-made-up little woman, who has evidently been something of a beauty in her time. She has had three husbands to date, besides; so evidently knows what she’s talking about when she refers to the ‘baser instincts of men’. I had become a little impatient of what I thought their rather pussy-footing approach, for all that, so I came right out and asked them what offence it was they thought David Porteous, or Frances – or the pair of them colluding – might actually be committing.

“Are you suggesting that Frances might actually have started an affair with him?” I asked them. “It would surprise me greatly if you were – since by your own admissions, David Porteous is so very much a gentleman and a priest – and Frances so entirely an innocent abroad – that the idea of any 'carrying-on' between them is really quite preposterous.”

That took the wind right out of Pamela’s sails, I’m afraid. But Rose took up the gauntlet again, gamely enough.“Well yes, in a sense I suppose we are. I have only met Mr Porteous once, of course, and so am hardly in a position to judge. But from what Pamela has told me of him, I know that he has been a considerable number of years divorced; and since there can have been little possibility for him within the Church’s dictums, of extra-marital affairs , much less a remarriage – and since his record in that respect has been quite spotless, or so we're told….. Well, it would be no more than human in him, after all -no more than ordinarily like a man, at any rate - if, suddenly released from his vows and away from his parish; and presented with the kinds of opportunities which Frances might seem to him to be offering - he had fallen into the honeyed trap, so to speak……….”

Such a vision did I suddenly have, of poor little Frances’s sweet, but sadly crumpled little face; and so entirely outlandish did the notion seem of her presenting any kind of ‘honeyed trap’ – that I’m afraid I probably snapped a little, by way of a response; and in doing so, provoked a degree of umbrage in my guests. Pamela, in particular, had drawn herself up very stiff and tall – though she was at pains too, to recoup, if she could, some remnant of her usual stateliness.

“I don’t believe we meant to go quite so far as that, dear – did we Rose? I think it was more that we feared something of the sort might be in danger of happening….. If somebody didn’t step in with dear Frances, that was (there could be no question of stepping in with David, of course). Just to make perfectly sure that nothing did, or could....”

This did not seem to me to have improved matters very much. And Rose had a look which said she took a dim view indeed of this particular contribution of Pamela’s. But since her opinion of me was evidently dimmer still, she resolved to say nothing more on the subject of Frances and Mr Porteous, but talked of Lady Macauley and her present health problems, instead. She was really quite entertaining on the subject - but she shortly after that remembered that she was lunching with the Macauleys that day anyway, and really ought to be hurrying away. Pamela stayed on another ten minutes or so, doing what she could to recover her ground. But then she too took her leave, and there was a definite hint of dudgeon in her departing back.

It has to be said that my first attempt at entertaining in my own little sitting room was not altogether a success. I think it unlikely that Mrs Mountjoy, for one, will think it in her interests to call on me again any time soon. I can’t say I’m altogether sorry; she has a sharp, worldly edge to her, and I think it unlikely we will ever manage to become friends. I can’t help remembering what Bill said of her, anyway: how one brief glimpse of her on the high street the other day, was enough to reveal to him that she teetered along on heels of a dangerous vertiginousness, and was almost certainly a 'man-eater of the very worst kind’.

I mean to call on Frances at the first opportunity none the less. Just to set my own mind at rest on the question of her welfare.

Tuesday, 24 April 2007

Return of the Macauleys

Pamela phoned me at ten o’clock this morning. She has taken to phoning me every other day on one pretext or another; she seems to like to have my views on any number of different matters, not least on that of the ‘little party of welcome’ she is trying to organise for Mr Porteous. She calls him ‘dear David’ now, I notice. She wants me to know how charmingly unclerical he is; and with what an engaging candour he had entreated them, Roland and she, to call him by his Christian name. “Quite within an hour of our meeting, you know!” she exclaimed. She seemed to think it exhibited a wonderful degree of informality, in a clergyman.

“Of course he knows it isn’t quite the thing, these days, to talk about one’s Christian name," she informed me next. “He thinks it rather a pity, in what is after all still, he hopes, a Christian country. But there it is – there are just too many people out there who might conceivably be offended by it. He can’t quite see how we have arrived at such a condition – it seems to have happened virtually overnight. Still, he has always thought that when one was among friends one might relax the rules a little … You can’t think what a charming smile he had for it! Mischievous, almost, I’d have called it – were he not of course to all intents and purposes a clergyman still …….”

I have always been surprised by the solemnity (the awe, almost, I’d call it) with which women of Pamela’s sort seem to take their clergymen. I don’t yet quite subscribe to Bill’s view, that the clergy are by the very nature of their calling destined to fall into self-adulation, or worse. I have known some very good and selfless priests, in my lifetime. And I am not entirely free of the belief, born in childhood, that God is there, and is good; and that in times of severe trouble, a little palliative murmuring on a priest’s part, can sometimes help. But to attribute unqualified benificence to the clergy, as a class – to genuflect before them and, figuratively speaking at least, to touch the hems of their garments crying ‘Lord, lord’ or ‘Vicar, vicar!’ - as Pamela and her kind seem wont to do: well, that sort of blanket veneration is quite beyond my reach, I’m sorry to say.

Pamela does seem to ascribe almost equally estimable qualities to my own Bill, mind you. She somehow managed to get on to the subject of him, straight out of that of Mr Porteous. She manages that sort of thing superbly well; the transition was perfectly smooth. Hardly had she completed her enconium of ‘dear David’, than she embarked upon another one remarkably similar, with respect to Bill. She is most eager to have him at her little party, she wants me to know that. Though she quite sees that his health may not permit of anything of that sort just yet, of course. She wishes me to tell him how very much they feel for him in his present affliction, Roland and she. They miss his television reports acutely of course; she hastened to assure me of that. She said that Roland, for one, didn’t see how he could easily be replaced. Such a very large and reassuring British presence, Roland always said; especially when bombs were going off in unpredictable places; when nobody seemed to be playing by the accepted rules of war any longer - and the British reputation for fair play and good soldiery were themselves suddenly being called in question.

“A man like Bill, therefore…” Pamela went on. ( She had warmed to her theme by now; she had a kind of majesty - like a ship at full sail, I thought; even through the medium of the telephone line.) “…. A man like Bill is better than politicians, Roland always says. Better than armies even, at keeping up one’s sense of national pride. One doesn’t have to know him to understand his worth. One has only to have heard his broadcasts, and seen his courage under fire. I have even asked myself, sometimes - I asked Roland only the other day, and he quite concurred - why it is necessary to have politicians at all, when a well-spoken British journalist might do the job of running everything so very much better? We have all somehow looked to Bill in this deplorable affair, I hope you will feel able to tell him that. And of course we wish for his speedy recovery – that is of all things uppermost in our thoughts and prayers.”

It is rather a difficult thing for me, to accept fulsome tributes from stately ladies on Bill’s behalf. There is always the spectre of Bill’s private mirth, lurking somewhere in the background, disturbing the solemnity, and provoking a lapse into hilarity of my own. Bill persists in taking the ironic view of Mrs Baines, you see. Which is not quite to say that he doesn’t enjoy the accounts I give him of her conversations. On the contrary, he tells me there are few things he likes more. He fairly delights in Mrs Baines and Roland, he assures me: he could listen to tales about them all day long. He thinks them simply splendid fellows - but only from a safe distance, behind my covering fire, as it were. I think it highly unlikely he will consent to attend Pamela’s little party for all that. And my chief concern now is to try to find a kindly way of preparing her for it, in advance.

It was only in the last five minutes of her conversation this morning that Pamela suddenly remembered what it was she had actually phoned me about. She couldn’t think how it had slipped her mind – it must have been all the interest of talking about Mr Porteous, and dear Bill! What she had actually meant to let me know was that the Macauleys had returned, and that old Lady Macauley had taken promptly to her bed. “She fancies herself dying again” Pamela explained. “She has a tendency to do that, whenever she has been away for any length of time. I think it has something to do with having had to suffer a scheduled flight from Naples – and of course with the general gloominess of the house … Such a great, dismal barn of a place; impossible either to heat or inhabit. A kind of elevated rabbit warren, Rose calls it, and she should know. It’s doubtless haunted too; nothing seems more likely than that, when one considers all the conspiracies that were once enacted there! Cromwell and the two Charleses, you know – not an easy time to get through safely! The wonder is that the old lady should have consented to stay on there at all, after Sir Jack passed on. Far better to have handed it over to the National Trust at once, in my view……..”

All of this was of genuine interest to me. I remain fascinated by the idea of old Lady Macauley and her daughter Belle. I want very much to see what Theodora could possibly look like now, and was most eager to hear more. I was just on the point of trying to draw Pamela further – I knew it wouldn’t be hard – when a roar from Bill in the attic alerted me to the fact that the window cleaner had arrived. How quickly his time seemed to have come around again! And how inopportune of him to have arrived at that particular moment in time! But that’s the way with window cleaners, I find. Like bad pennies, or cats clamouring to be fed, they always turn up just when you can least be doing with them! Since somebody had to open the gate for him, however – and it most surely wasn’t going to be Bill – I was obliged to relinquish Pamela’s Macauley tidings for today, and see what the window cleaner might be disposed to tell me about them, instead.