Trio of Vignettes
The Gal One
The Gal Two (A Case of Broughton Black Rock)
By Simon Marshland
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While walking the dog one morning it occurred to me how much he resembled my late Uncle Silas. They shared the same eyes, the same coloured beard, and more extraordinary still, both of them dribbled when turning their head to the right. In my Uncle’s case this unfortunate lapse of good manners was an ill fated by product of a crippling stroke. Yet Ferret, as my wife insisted on calling the hapless animal in aversion to living fur, seemed a picture of good health at the time. Though for a moment I confess to contemplating a visit to the vet to make sure.
Strange, this unreasoned antithapy by so many of the fairer sex when confronted by the hairier creatures of the world. I recall attending a Retreat some years ago where I came across a voluble monk, who despite vows of the strictest silence proved distinctly loquacious on the subject. His beliefs were sufficiently bizarre to remain indelibly imprinted on my memory to this day.Brother Sagacious was convinced it was Lucifer himself who had brought about this state of affairs by brutally raping the Virgin Eve in the guise of a horned and hairy goat. According to Brother Sagacious, the Dark One committed this act of defilement long before returning to the Garden of Eden to perform his more famous encore in the role of serpent. And it was this same violation that instilled in Eve’s descendants their subconscious distaste for hairy quadrupeds, a distaste which in extreme cases manifests in flaunting their dead skins and sometimes even heads for bodily adornment.
When not fulfilling his more important holy duties, brother Sagacious held the position of keeper of the Abbey Apiary, a post that gave stewardship over not only the bees and their renowned lavender honey, but the entire production of the Abbey’s justly famed Extra strong Mead as well. It was this latter obligation that many of his fellow brethren held accountable for some the more unusual and bizarre credos that plagued the mind of Brother sagacious from time to time. Even so, I am obliged to acknowledge that my own dear wife derives considerable pleasure from parading herself in a somewhat mangy mink on every suitable occasion. A coat that in healthier times graced the more lithesome figure of her Aunt Lucretia, while at the same time never bestowing the slightest act of graciousness on poor Ferret.
But whatever the cause, I admit to an ever growing sense of guilt at her behaviour. And though like most of his tribe, Ferret displays no outward signs of ill will, there are times when I am sure I detect a momentary flicker of disappointment in the depths of those liquid brown eyes. For some while the thought of wounding the susceptibilities of such a gentle creature caused me considerable concern and I wracked my mind in hopes of finding a political solution which would assuage the hurt feelings of one party without giving cause for any unnecessary outrage in the other. Then, as so often happens in such dilemmas, the problem solved itself. While casually discarding the core of a Cox’s Orange Pippin, I discovered to my considerable surprise that ferret was a closet vegetarian,
My wife shared an equal delight where apples were concerned, usually consuming a good pound a day from the large selection available from the orchard. She was also a gardener of noteworthy enthusiasm, though singularly lacking in application. To let her delicate administrations loose on an herbaceous border for the merest minutes, was to invite a carnage of indescribable desolation. Finally persuaded to accept the role of distant admirer she soon lost interest in the practical technicalities, content to sit back and appreciate the labours of others as one would a fine painting of piece of sculpture.
With her mind now committed to higher levels it proved an easy task to convince her that the humble apple core had recently been proven to have lethal properties for slugs and other assorted garden pests. An inborn desire to help swiftly overcame a fastidious nature and in no time she was hurling apple cores in every direction she suspected such vermin might lurk. Meanwhile the ever present Ferret marked the fall of each delicacy with commendable restraint, waiting patiently until his unknowing benefactress had returned to the house before claiming his rewards.
In happier days before his stroke, Uncle Silas had been an eminent High Court Judge, noted for the novel methods he employed when faced with finding difficult solutions for cases of a particular sensitive nature. Observing Ferret munching on a freshly retrieved apple core, his eyes half closed in heavenly ecstasy, I like to think he would have approved.
The house was in turmoil, the air filled with an overpowering odour of furniture polish and the deafening roar of threatening hoovers. Vases of fresh cut flowers bloomed miraculously in bay windows, while a general feeling of nervous anticipation pervaded every room. Great Aunt Lucritia had cabled to inform us she was descending for the weekend. I suppose there must have been a time when the Gal, as she was irreverently called behind her back, must have waited to be asked like anyone else. But for the twenty odd years I had known her she ignored such mundane conventions, preferring to dispatch directive telegrams to her unsuspecting hosts instead. Not that she over stayed. Welcome or not, she invariable arrived shortly before lunch on Saturday and departed shortly after the same repast the following day. Even so, each visit proved a tour de force guaranteed to test the stamina of the most seasoned Swiss hotelier.
In the early days she travelled by train. My wife and I would drive to the station to collect her, allowing sufficient time to make the obligatory financial adjustments with the two local porters without condemning ourselves to a longer wait than necessary. London expresses would arrive and depart until just as we were about to give up hope and return to the car, one of the wheezing little branch trains of which she was so fond would finally creep along the platform and hiss to a halt in a cloud of steam. The wretched machine was never on time, but then after stopping at every and giving way to all the more important trains along the line,the delay was scarcely surprising. The Gal would take her time to gather a multitudinous collection of hand baggage, before finally descending from one of the few first class compartments to greet us with an affectionate if regal graciousness. All this took quite some while, but there was little cause for concern that the train might leave before she was ready, for it took the two hot and struggling porters a great deal longer to unload her heavy oak chest from the guards van.
Just why The Gal was unable to travel with suitcases like everyone else I never dared enquire. I had once been foolish enough to ask why she was so insistent on avoiding expresses, pointing out how much faster and more comfortable they were in comparison to the local feeders she patronised. For what has always seemed one of the longest moment of my life, she eyed me pityingly through her pinz ney. Then annunciating each word slowly and clearly, as though addressing a retarded child she replied. "The reason I prefer the slow trains my dear, is they are so much easier to catch." And with a sad shake of the head she had patted me gently on the cheek before turning her attention to more important matters elsewhere. I have no doubt her reasons for travelling with an oak chest would have been equally valid.
Separate first class compartments have long since disappeared as have the feeder trains, and now on the rare occasions The Gal decides to grace us with her presence she travels by car. Though perhaps not a vehicle most might choose, for Great Aunt Lucretia the car could have been custom built in heaven. A Daimler of ancient vintage, made in the days when it was mandatory for the roof above the back seat to be high enough to accommodate a tall man wearing a top hat, it was a car born of an era when the rear of all great motors ended in the glorious S shaped sweep of a well endowed opera singer. Guided by the shaky hand of Jessop, who until the need for a chauffeur arose had served The Gal for many years in the capacity of gardener and driven nothing more complicated than a bicycle, the majestic machine purred with an almost feline grace through the streets of London. Perhaps due to a lack of familiarity with four wheels, or perhaps because all three had reached an age when speed had long lost its allure, Jessop seldom demanded more than thirty five miles per hour from his charge. A pace suitably symbolic for graceful retirement.
But with the passage of time disaster finally struck. The old car developed a tendency to leak in wet weather, a trend that swiftly turned to a cascade. Repair was a task the experts deemed impossible, the options they opined were simple but stark. A new roof or a new car. The Gal dismissed both possibilities as irrelevant. Irritated though otherwise unmoved by the proposed inconvenience, she swiftly brought her own particular brand of pragmatism to bear on the problem, solving it at a stroke. Taking advantage of the unusual height above the back seat she took to opening her parasol on rainy days.
THE GAL TWO
A Case of Broughton Black Rock
Great Aunt Lucretia was the last surviving member of her generation. Sister to my wife's grandmother she had never married, though family gossip suggests that even in those less permissive times she was seldom lonely in her younger days, and even then recognised as the oddest member of a decidedly eccentric breed. My wife for example is often considered mad as a hatter, but seems almost boringly orthodox when compared to her Great Aunt.
One of the more wearisome idiosyncrasies of this family doyen, was her unshakable addiction to Broughton's Black Rock Mineral Water. Not that I begrudge a taste for healthful refreshment, we drink liberal quantities of mineral water ourselves. No, it was the particular brand she had so typically selected that irritated me. In the first place it was virtually unobtainable. None of the local super markets stocked Broughton Black Rock Mineral Water, indeed not even a single major London store including Harrods had ever heard of it. The only suppliers of this, to my taste brackish Adam's ale, was Aluishious Clovis & Sons of Camden Passage.
On exploratory visits to freshly discovered country houses, The Gal would bring her own supply of the wretched brew. But after a couple of weekends and much singing of the products praise, she would pointedly leave the address and telephone number of the suppliers prominently displayed on her departure, secure in the expectation that her host of the day would feel obliged to provide the offensive elixir in future.
Despite the skilfully crafted label depicting an over sized buzzard soaring above a village, presumably Broughton, nestling in a sun splashed facsimile of the Yorkshire Dales. I have always mistrusted the origins of the concoction. Picturing instead a hoard of miserable young Clovi splashing about a sodden basement beneath the evil aqueous eye of Aluishious himself, as they toiled from dawn to dusk in the Herculean task of filling a never ending procession of bottles from rows of gushing taps connected to the mains.
Despite such fantasies, the moment I heard of The Gal's imminent arrival, I at once telephoned Clovis & Sons to order a case of Broughtons Black Rock to be dispatched without delay. Unfortunately it was the lunch hour and the usual efficient staff had temporarily deserted their posts. But since it was a matter of some urgency I persevered with the cretinous substitute left on duty and after several minutes of patient explanation was beginning to feel confident that I my order had finally been understood, when the voice shrilled in my ear. "Then you'll be wanting the twenty four, right?" "Yes, yes." I replied, partially deafened. "That's correct, twenty four."
Returning from the village the following afternoon I found my wife close to hysterics. Almost speechless she pointed at a menacing wall of Broughton's Black Rock Mineral Water that effectively blocked all access to the front door. Since it was Tea Time on Friday afternoon, there was no hope of recalling the delivery van to remove the twenty four offending cases. So while my wife staggered off to the kitchen with one case, I began the back breaking task of conveying the remainder to the garage, composing rude and vengeful limericks at The Gal's expense along the way to ease my creaking spine.
Saturday dawned, and on the stroke of noon the old Daimler hissed to a halt on the gravel sweep. Jessop slowly lowered himself arthritically from the running board and after allowing time to catch his breath, fished a sheet of thick vellum note paper from his breast pocket and adjusting his glasses turned to address us.
"Madam sends her apologies." He announced in quavering tones." But she has been overcome by ill health and regrets she must postpone the weekend to a future date. She has instructed me to present you with this gift as a token of her affection and to ease your disappointment."
Carefully replacing the notepaper he removed his glasses and with an attempted flourish, opened the rear door of the Daimler to reveal two cases of Broughtons Black Rock Mineral Water resting regally on the back seat.
"Shall I take them through to the kitchen for you Sir?" He enquired.
"No thank you." I could feel hysteria rising." I rather think the kitchen's quite well stocked at the moment. You might try the garage though, they should bump into a few friends there."
For a moment Jessop eyed me with concern, then bent to his task and slowly lowered the first of the cases to the gravel. As he paused to catch his breath before attacking the second I was swept with shame. "That will do Jessop, thank you very much, that will do just fine." I opened the driver's door and helped the old man into the car. "Please give our best regards to Aunt Lucretia and tell her how sad we are to have missed her. Thank her for the mineral water and tell her we look forward to seeing her as soon as she is feeling better." I smiled, lying through my teeth.
I watched the old Daimler trundle down the drive then with a sigh bent to the first case. At least we won't go thirsty I thought, groaning softly as I heaved myself erect. Staring up at the sky I took the first unsteady pace forward. It looked like rain.