Thursday, 6 October 2011

Best Blessings of Existence 19

in which Emma B. treats of women past their bloom, and food.

Her first wedding anniversary passed without incident; coinciding with the anniversary of her first year at Oaks Haven. However, wedding anniversaries were not subject to scrutiny by examination or review and it was extremely difficult to assess performance. Sex was satisfactory – although in decline from its zenith – when 24 hours were insufficient to encompass secondary concerns like food and work.

This was understandable. She had neither the resources nor the wardrobe of Fiona Richmond - and put in double time at weekends.

Paul had looks and wit and both went some way to compensate for Chudleigh, Eric, Donald and Gillian, the Truscotts, the Chases and living round the corner from Nicola and the kiddies.

Some way……..

Marriages, like books, could not be judged by their covers.

Meanwhile, others were exchanging the single state for a bicycle made for two, including her Dorlich MA tutor and Percy the law lecturer. Lionel Kerridge was proof positive that still waters run deep. He had taken a senior lectureship at Dorlich in her final undergraduate year, following tenure as a Research Fellow at his old Cambridge College. Dr Kerridge swiftly established a formidable reputation. He had published a highly acclaimed edition of The Pearl and numerous erudite essays in the periodic journal Middle English Notes and Queries. His forthcoming edition of Sidney was eagerly anticipated in academic circles and would enhance the reputation of the Dorlich School of English. In person he was slight, with black hair, a handlebar moustache and John Lennon spectacles. He was not gregarious and was possessed of a biting and acid tongue which he used to upbraid underperforming students – such as Jane Daventry whom he succeeded in dismissing from the course.

The prospect of one to one tutorials with Dr Kerridge was forbidding – and she devoted many hours to preparation in the library, in a desperate attempt to avert the Daventry fate.

The result was a First in the Middle English paper; the Cressey-Lake prize for an essay on Piers Plowman and a place on the postgraduate MA course. A side benefit was a friendship with Lionel Kerridge, which extended to include her new husband.

Paul was impressed by academia and astounded that anyone who had lectured at Cambridge could esteem the intellect of his wife.

Lionel became a name to drop to the Oxbridge set and a guest at the dinner table where he met law lecturer Percy – formerly Sir Galahad in the little matter of Latin translation for the MA extended essay…. Once she realised that Percy was not going to mention the Latin, she welcomed the development. Lionel and Percy were her friends, unlike the Truscotts, the Chases and even Betty and David, for whom she would always be Paul’s second wife.

At first sight, the two men were antithetical. Lionel’s ascetic appearance contrasted with that of Percy, who was quite simply Epicureanism made flesh. He had lectured at Dorlich for many years; unencumbered by the burden of research, and was as familiar a figure in The Bear; The Falcon and The Trade Winds wine bar as he was in the Law Department.

She and Lynne had met him at a party in Adelaide Grove at the end of their first year and had quickly joined the group of female undergraduates whom he wined, dined and introduced to his elderly mother at her elegant residence on the outskirts of the city.

Aged fifty; lacking most of his hair, some of his teeth and topping the scales at eighteen stones, he was sensible enough to recognise himself as more Falstaff than Romeo. The obligatory pass would meet its inevitable rebuff, and be accepted with good grace. Friendships would then continue to the benefit of all concerned.

There had been a couple of hiatuses – such as the first time he had taken Lynne to dinner at the new and achingly trendy fish restaurant, The Compleat Snapper in the most exclusive quarter of Dorlich. The price of a starter was equivalent to a shop assistant’s weekly wage and therefore beyond the reach of penurious students. Lynne had been unbearable – gloating for days and parading in the entire contents of her wardrobe before settling upon a 1930s black satin dress with matching cloche hat and cream net gloves. She had drenched herself in perfume samples and swept off in the passenger seat of Percy’s red TR7 sports car.

Four hours later, she swept back and was unreachable until 5pm the next day. Thirty years later, mention of The Compleat Snapper produced a quick change of subject.

Percy had dressed for the occasion in his inimitable style; straw boater, pink cravat, khaki shorts and black brogues with three quarter length white socks. The ensemble was set off by a black and pink striped jacket and a pink carnation. This was to be expected, and Lynne did expect it, so was untroubled as they were greeted at the door by owner Marcel and ushered to a table in the very middle of the dining room.

Before she could savour being on display in the most expensive restaurant in Dorlich the evening took an irrevocable and indelible turn for the worse. The occupants of 14a, Wellington Parade walked into The Compleat Snapper and sat down – at the adjoining table. This in itself was bad enough.

Lucinda Prynne, Natalie Strich, Robbie De Lay and Hamish Underhill; the beautiful and the damned, trailed their silks; flicked their hair and smoked their drugs during term, whilst riding to hounds in vacation. They did not speak to Lynne – but would certainly speak about her and her eccentric companion – to anyone who cared to listen - at the next convenient opportunity. But when they were joined by Jocasta Sharp and Ben Bex-Oliver, The Compleat Snapper became The Inferno.

Ben Bex-Oliver had been Lynne’s amour de l’objet since his arrival in the midst of a First Year Ovid class in trademark jeans, Texan boots, Disraeli ringlets and fox fur coat. He came with neither text nor apology – but produced such an exquisite translation of The Birth of Bacchus (Metamorphoses: Theban Cycle) that an eventual Starred First was a foregone conclusion. Oh – Hi Maisey! he trilled in Lynne’s direction and a year in the stocks at the mercy of rotting vegetables would have been preferable to the ensuing four hours in The Compleat Snapper.

Oysters and beluga caviar were followed by Dover sole with creamed spinach and a side dish of truffles, accompanied by crème de menthe cocktails and Taittinger champagne. It was perfection incarnate – and the most horrible meal that Lynne had ever tasted, resulting in a subsequent unswerving detestation of champagne and fish of any description. Percy’s attire was grotesque but his behaviour was worse; diving into the kitchen to congratulate the chef at every opportunity; belching after the sole and removing his front plate to administer a toothpick, leaving a gaping hole offset by fangs. Lynne was aware of a gentle titter from the adjoining table and heard the word Dracula.

She had hoped that the sole would conclude the meal, but had been forced to watch Percy ( minus front plate) wolfing a mound of the most disgusting Eton mess with extra cream followed by coffee, petits fours and several large glasses of Armagnac.

When he plucked a rose from the table vase, stuck it at the side of her hat and sang

If you were the only girl in the world

she made her exit, pleading an early tutorial.

Many years later, Lynne encountered the eminent anthropologist, Ben Bex-Oliver at the Attenborough Award ceremony – and was discomfited when he addressed her as Maisey……..

By the time Percy had become a fixture at the Conyham Crescent table, his mother had died, Lynne was in London and his girlfriends were older.

Frances Hunt made her debut at the anniversary party.

Paul had insisted upon salad and quiche ‘at home’ to mark this marital milestone, instead of her preferred treat of a champagne lunch in London. But the Bursar at Chudleigh was re-vamping the wine cellar and Paul had acquired several cases of old stock at a knock-down price.

Makes perfect sense and you love cooking don’t you?

Not especially, but dissent was pointless and she steeled herself to cater for the usual crew; the Truscotts; Betty and David; Marc, Denny and Kay from the BBC; Malcolm the potter; the Chases; Lionel and Percy plus guest.

Contrary to expectations, it was quite a success; the weather was fine; the wine excellent; and the Chases cried off.

She got tipsy with Betty and they discussed Frances Hunt – who was an improvement upon her predecessor, art student Tabitha, who had plundered Percy’s wallet with fixity of purpose before decamping to Hull with his grandmother’s pearl choker.

She was older for a start – forty-three to be precise – and did not require Percy’s largesse as she had money of her own. Quite a lot of it. She had obtained an amicable divorce from her fourth husband, a Circuit Judge, and presided as chatelaine of a converted chapel in Staveley Forest, in the bosom of the Oakshire valley.

Unencumbered by children or gainful employment, she was assiduous on the social scene, playing escort for her ex husband when required. This was the case at the biannual Dorlich Law Society dinner.

Over chateaubriand in a Madeira jus accompanied by Portobello mushrooms and a full bodied Medoc, it transpired that Percy and Judge Desmond had been alumni of the Oxford Coxless Fours, circa 1951. The subsequent pairing of Percy and Frances was therefore eminently fitting, and it seemed that at last he might be preparing to exchange the hurly burly of the chaise longue for the deep, deep peace of the double bed.

Frances was a Princess Margaret manqué with hair styled in a French pleat, sling-back stilettos and a tortoise shell cigarette holder. She was a presence rather than a conversationalist but from her infrequent utterances it emerged that she was part of a country artistic set encompassing Aiden Cleghorn, author of an acclaimed Wednesday Play.

Billy Leaves Home was a breakthrough drama ; rooted in the kitchen sink tradition, yet breaking new ground in its depiction of a serious social issue. It had made stars of its unknown cast – and had hauled the victims of drug addiction out of the shadows, resulting in a dedicated Government strategy and the establishment of the world famous Fix It charity.

Frances also displayed an unpleasant sense of entitlement and had filched the last piece of prawn quiche; outraging the sensitivities of Philippa and Betty, who had been forced to make do with the less favoured ham and leek.

With the departure of the last guests (the Truscotts as usual), she prepared to discuss the evening with Paul – particularly keen to hear his opinion of Frances Hunt.

He did not appear to have one – but was consumed with the discovery that Aiden Cleghorn was almost a neighbour and had been living within thirty miles of Chudleigh unbeknownst to anybody.

How utterly amazing – I wonder if he could be persuaded to address the Oxbridge set?

She neither knew nor cared. Billy Leaves Home had its merits – quite a lot of them - but what else had Cleghorn written in the last fifteen years? The answer was not a lot.

There had been the sequel – a widely hyped companion piece about the prevalence of incest in rural communities – but it had received poor reviews, as had his published short stories: An Oval Stone.

This collection had as its theme the sexual peccadilloes of a commune in Essaouira. Cleghorn had relied for inspiration upon the fabled exploits of Jimi Hendrix to produce a work both turgid and prurient. It enjoyed a revival thirty years later as the acknowledged literary precursor of His Infinite Variety by Dorian Chase – but it was difficult, not to say impossible, to find anyone who had managed to progress beyond the fourth story. But it was late; she was tired and tomorrow was a work day.

The perfections of Aiden Cleghorn could wait.

The next few weeks progressed in unexceptionable fashion; school examinations came and went as did Wimbledon.

And then with the post, came an invitation to the wedding of Dr Lionel Kerridge and Araminta Bellwether, who would be tying the knot at a private ceremony followed by a reception at the Henry Mercer College, Cambridge. Dress informal.

Thursday at Oaks Haven followed its normal course; double period with Year 7 followed by a free period; Year 10 third CSE set - hard work; lunch; Upper Sixth, Chaucer.


As she discussed the unfortunate marriage contract in The Franklin’s Tale, she could not suppress thoughts of the forthcoming nuptials in Cambridge. Lionel was a brilliant and forensic Chaucerian scholar. His analyses of the flawed and disastrous unions of Dorigen and Arveragus; Januarie and May and Troilus and Criseyde should have armed him against the charms of Araminta Bellwether and a union less propitious than any of the above.

But love - or desperation – proved blind.

Appearances were also deceptive.

Lionel’s physique, manner and intellect suggested that he would encounter a bride in the bowels of the Bodleian rather than the bar at Bunters – but this assumption and its corollary, that he was uninterested in sex, was flawed. Lionel liked women with busts and bottoms and heels and lipstick; the fact that they rarely liked him was irrelevant and did not to deter him from following his instincts. That these had now led him to the embraces of Araminta Bellwether was certainly to be deplored but perhaps, like Troilus, he was fated to pursue The blynde lust the which that may not laste......

Araminta Bellwether was nearer forty than thirty and had lost her bloom. In the course of time the depletions of nature had been replaced by Chanel and Dior, and a permanent flush came courtesy of Sauvignon Blanc.

With regard to the latter she was at least honest, answering all enquiries about the secret of her enviably slender figure with an unflinching

Have you ever met a fat alcoholic?

Araminta did not work, although she was known to reminisce about modelling in Chelsea and assisting Barbara Hulanicki in the Biba rooftop shop during a misspent youth in the sixties. At a certain stage in the evening she would mention her former fiancés: one a permanent resident in the psychiatric unit at The Royal Dorlich Hospital and the other an equally permanent resident in Highgate Cemetery, having gassed himself a week before their wedding.

But then again, she had informed Percy that her Army Officer father had lost his arms and legs in the War and Percy had been forced to respond that he had seen her father only last week, with all of his arms and legs.

So, who could say?

She considered the possibilities as she prepared to meet Paul after his regular game of squash with Roy Truscott. He was sitting in the Falcon with the Truscotts, Frances Hunt and Percy – and initially they failed to see her because they were talking about the wedding. The Truscotts had not been invited and Philppa was peeved; entirely without justification. She had met Lionel once at Conyham Crescent and had completely ignored him whilst fawning over Paul.

Percy had agreed to be Best Man.

He and Frances had arranged to accompany the bridal pair to an eve of wedding supper and he would give the key speech at the reception. Frances gave a vaguely unkind half smirk at the prospect of Percy on a podium in the Mercer Baronial Hall addressing the likes of Mr Proudie, Dr Kelleher Greene and Professor Agnes Newbolt…..

Wearing – what?

It was quite unthinkable, but it would have to be thought about because it was less than three weeks away and she had no idea what to wear herself.

She put the question to Paul at home, whilst eating cottage pie with a green salad.

He did not appear to have heard; rummaged amongst his books and fished out a copy of An Oval Stone. Do you think, he said, that Aiden Cleghorn might be going?

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