Ladies Who Lunch
“‘I’m sure you know the film I mean;” Lady Burbage gestured imperiously with her fork- ” The 1950’s classic science fiction film, with Richard Carlson and Julie Adams; I told the man at the video store.” Lady Burbage was a confirmed Luddite whose idea of Home Entertainment had never passed beyond DVD, though her vocabulary and outlooknremained mired in the days of VHS. “You know the one – the fish Man film – The Creature from The Blue Lagoon.”
“I think the lagoon in question was brown, and had attracted a great many flies.” Max spoke up from the chair he was almost invisibly sitting on, only his grey ears visible over the edge of the table, and conversation faltered for a moment. Everyone knew that Max’s knowledge of films was unparalleled, a fact rendered even more surprising when it was realised that Max was a small Tabby cat. It was true that Max had sat on Mrs Riverlet’s lap during a great many films but he had, (for the most part) only pretended to be asleep.
“Well said, dear boy,” said Mr Riverbend the curate, who was still visiting from the village, having discovered that Lady Burbage’s hospitality was far more sumptuous and to his liking than the paltry comforts of the vicarage. “Dreadful film. Dreadful!”
“at least on a standard with “Spotlight” I should think.” replied Max who was evidently in no mood to bandy words with someone who, in his opinion, was rather less entitled to the pleasures of Lady Burbage’s table than he, who after all, had simply followed Mrs Riverlet in through the front door before ingratiating himself to his hostess by means of his impressive charm and redoubtable purr.
“Maxwell,” Pronounced Lady Burbage; “I do not allow rancour or ill-feeling at meals. “Mr Riverbend is a guest at my table, and is not to be subjected to disrespect, no matter your personal feelings as to his work or chosen vocation.”
“My dear Lady Burbage!” Twittered Mr Riverbend, ” I assure you, I took no offence! The film in question is a trenchant indictment of Catholicism, not the refined form of Protestant worship that I, myself hold as my spiritual foundation – and indeed in my limited time in the Church I have not seen the slightest hint of the disease that rots the core of the holy Roman church. Indeed, I have heard it said that the Holy Roman Church is much too concerned with holeys. A weakness that we in the C of E are not plagued by.” He finished primly, the faintest tint of blush colouring his sallow cheeks.
But Max was having none of it. He stood and, all four feet close together, stretched until he quivered. He then walked in a circle on the spot, his tail erect and curled into a hook on top, thereby displaying his rear gun position to any who might be interested, although none were. This performance concluded he fixed Mr Riverbend with a level stare and pronounced
“Is that so? Well perhaps you might communicate to Reverend Blenkinsop that the Sacristy garden is not quite so private as he, I fear, seems to imagine?”
Mr Riverbend sat back in his chair and crossed his legs, suddenly. He accomplished both movements simultaneously but with a certain lack of grace. Spode rattled and Mrs Wheatsheaf from the village, who sat next to him, jumped.
“Sir!” Mr Riverbend ejaculated with some heat. “I’ll thank you not to bandy unfounded insinuendos about respected clergymen, especially at table!”
“I quite agree Mr Riverbend! Max, you are behaving in a quite insufferable manner! As if accusing him of being Catholic wasn’t bad enough, now you imply some kind of probably illegal sexual failing on the part of our beloved village vicar! An honourable man who, I am sure is quite above reproach!”
“I assure you, Lady Burbage,” Max replied warmly, “I am not repeating scurrilous gossip at some second or third hand remove but simply and honestly reporting the evidence of my own eyes gathered some two weeks ago during a Thursday morning choir practice.”
“Your own eyes?” snorted Mr Riverbend.
“Exactly sir. While I had originally attended the activities of the choir because I find some of their harmonising not unlike the songs of my own people, after some time I was called away by some business that would not wait and which I decided to attend to in the Sacristy garden, rather than, as is my wont, in the dark area behind the organ.”
There was a sharp intake of breath from Mr Riverbend.
“Pray continue, Maxwell” Lady Burbage’s voice was a mixture of interest and menace.
“Delighted, mam. In any event, I walked through the choir during their attempt on a half – baked Jesus Pie,”
“Pardon, mam, an attempt at a small bon mot- I meant of course ‘Pie Jesu'”
“Not to your normal standard, cat.”
“I have to agree mam- in any event during my passage through the choir I could not help but notice that several members of the choir were wearing high heel ankle boots, and, when I looked up, these same choristers were wearing only female undergarments under their vestments. Frilly ones.”
“Quite normal attire for any choir in the land Madam. It is unfair to draw any ufair inferences based on this allegation!”
“I’m quite sure we’re capable of making our own minds up on this subject, but thank you for your opinion Mr Riverbend.” Lady Burbage’s tone carried more meaning than her choice of words.
“Sir – I can trace my lineage back to the seven matriarchs – I occupy several important positions in the feline culture in this territory- my word is above r’approach and I will not have my escutcheon called into question by a common clergyman’s assistant! Do I make myself clear?”
“My dearest sir! I meant no disrespect! Indeed in my emotional state I stumbled over my own words. I merely meant that in my two years at Saint Cuthbert’s parish I have seen no evidence whatever of such anomalous activities or deportments as you describe!”
“And how, pray tell, do you arrange your fact- finding examinations up the chorister’s cassocks?”
Mr Riverbend sat back, abashed. Mrs Wheatsheaf tittered. Mr Riverbend darted a poisonous look at her.
“Really Madam” he snapped, “If you must pick sides I rather think that you should at least ally yourself with the superior species!”
Mrs Wheatsheaf ‘s smile was quite impenetrable when she spoke. “I rather think I have, sir.”
Mrs Riverlet looked up, and smiled.
“Mr Riverbend,” Lady Burbage’s question was intended to restore the company to a state of polite equilibrium: “given you close association with the Parish of Saint Cuthbert, are you able to state whether this year’s church finances will permit the church fete cake stall to stock the same jam donuts and chocolate eclairs as last year?” One thing was undoubted, Lady Burbage had a very sweet tooth and the intervening months had dimmed memory of the unpleasant aftermath of last year’s church fete. But the question performed it’s intended function, providing Mr Riverbend with a much needed respite to collect his flustered wits.
“I-I’m really not sure Lady Burbage, my relatively low position in the structure of Saint Cuthbert’s has not seen me granted access to the minutiae of the organisation of the church fete.”
“Minutiae? Minutiae?” Lady Burbage examined Mr Riverbend’s blush closely through her pince-nez.
“The Cake stall is the very backbone of the Church Fete!” it was impossible to ignore the reverenceand menace in her voice.
“My dear lady!” Mr Riverbend tried hard not to squeak, “I simply mis-spoke! There are a very broad variety of issues in the organisation of a church fete and these issues are addressed by aa small army of dedicated volunteers and this year my responsibilities do not encompass the organisation of the Cake Stall. Instead, this year, for the first time ever, Saint Cuthbert’s Parish fete is to boast an inflatable Krazy Kastle!(c), the organisation of which is my sole responsibility;” he flexed his shoulders. His deep crimson blush showed no signs of abating. “You know, it’s for the children. To jump up and down on.”
“Quite.” Lady Burbage evidently considered that castles, crazy or not, ranked far less weightily on the scales of importance in fetes than cake stalls. Especially, it must be said, cake stalls that purveyed the chocolate eclairs of Miss Deborah Clatchitt, from the Cake Creation Emporium all the way over in in Ramsbottom Her mouth had been watering at the memory for the last eleven- and- a- half- months.
“While I am sure you anticipate giving the choir, in their vestments free tickets to your Crazy construction and then keeping a close eye on their activities; I myself am far too busy, and physically frail to make the long trip by rail to Ramsbottom and stay overnight in a town that is, without doubt either too wet or too cold, in some hostelry where the beds would be either to hard or too soft and the vittles overpriced and not to the standard of the produce of the erstwhile Mrs. Noakes.”
“Indeed madam that would be unlikely!” interjected Mr Riverbend who had a particular weakness for the sausage Lady Burbage’s cook called “bloaters.”
“thank you sir” said Lady Burbage who considered any praise of the cook to be general praise that reflected on the quality of her house and inferentially herself. And Lady Burbage too. was far from being above appreciating a good sausage. While she glowed in the praise of her cook, Riverbend took joy in the acceptance of his dedicated kow-towing.
“High praise indeed since Mr Riverbend is indeed well known as a connoisseur of sausage.” Interjected Max, sweetly.
Mr Riverbend bristled; “What do you mean by that sir? Is it another one of your limp attempts at humour?”
“Heaven forbid my good sir! merely that the contents of the garbage bins at the rear of your humble abode and intelligence gained from the village butcher, who happens to be a close personal friend of mine, point clearly at the peculiarities of your diet.”
“not to mention that a peek under the toilet cubicle walls in the vestry on Wednesday afternoons will teach any student of anthropology all they need to know about sausage appreciation.”
Mr Riverbend achieved the colour of a London bus. Lady Burbage wondered as to the strength of his heart in relation to what was clearly stratospheric blood pressure.
“sir!” Cat!” Mr Riverbend spluttered scarcely capable of intelligible speech;”You avow violating the sanctity of the vestry and the privacy of the toilet without a hint of remorse and the segue in wild allegations I avow I am too innocent and callow to understand the ramifications of-Explain yourself sir, lest I propell your furry body into the fountain with a swift kick of my right foot- I was in the first elevens at F-footer in my year at Oxford sir!”
Riverbend sat back, the worst of his rage seemingly dissipated by his outburst. He panted and if his deep flush showed no signs of abating it at least did not worsen
“So sir,” Max was unabashed; “Aside from being caught ilflagrante eldickto you have broadened the scope of yourshameful activities to tooping to threatening a innocent housecat with physical violence might I remind you that the guiding principle of the rules laid down by the Marquis of Queensbury is to only pick on people of your own size?”
“Innocent cat?I hardly think so sir unless innocence encompasses sneaking, spying and the deployment of uncorroborated allegations in a manner designed to maximise harm and embarrassment.”He breathed noisily through his nose and swallowed.
“A shameful performance.”
“And one you appear unmotivated to contradict” Max was unabashed and if he was blushing, no sign of it showed through the tabby fur on his cheeks. “So am I to take it that it was not you I found in a toilet cubicle gulping away at a German internees prize bratwurst with every evidence of bursting into the ‘sprung rhythm of religious ecstasy?”(C) Alex Rieneck 2018