It had been several weeks since I had visited my Uncle Bertie and as I walked down the driveway towards the substantial gothic edifice which loomed out from behind the fir trees bordering the front of the house I wondered, not for the first time, how the old fellow could live all alone in such a gruesome dwelling. All alone, that is, except for the live-in housekeeper, Mrs Trout, who put food on the table but seemingly did little else about the house which had steadfastly remained immune to any noticeable cleaning for the last five years. A gardener, Quint, lived off the estate and to judge by the copious amount of weeds that sprouted through the stones in the driveway had made little or no effort in that direction.
I strode up the stone steps to the front door and grabbed the antiquated knob marked “PULL” that protruded from the wall. From the depths of the house I could hear a bell echoing down the corridors. From experience I knew I would have to wait a couple of minutes before Mrs Trout waddled her way to the front door and, indeed, this time was no exception. I turned and viewed the estate from the front step. The greyness of the sky and the dank atmosphere gave the surroundings a distinctly melancholic air that perfectly reflected the end of days to which Bertie, apparently, had become inured. The sound of an antiquated key being rattled in the lock brought my attention back to the door and on its opening I saw the increasingly rotund face of Mrs Trout peering through the small gap which she allowed between herself and the jamb.
“Oh, it’s you Master Roger.” A barely concealed irritation inflected her greeting. “Here to see your uncle I suppose?”
My instinct was to append a sarcastic reply such as ‘No, here to share your sparkling repartee and wit’ but a simple affirmative got the door opened wide enough for me to enter the wood-panelled hallway.
“You’ll find him in the library. As usual.” And with a taciturn nod towards the door on my left she turned and sloped off to the back of the house and disappeared through the door I knew led to the kitchens. Doffing my hat, scarf and gaberdine I left them on the hall stand and headed for the library door. Before I turned the brass handle I could hear my uncle’s voice raised in anger.
“You daft bint, shut up! Shut up! Give me strength. Do you never listen to the answers?”
I quickly checked my watch. Ten minutes after noon. Ah, I thought, I can guess what this is all about. Turning the handle and opening the door I found, as expected, not an altercation between my uncle and a lady friend – the women in his life had rarely found any necessity to stay within the confines of Flashington Hall for longer than a few hours – but the sound coming from a black and white Bush television flickering in the corner and my uncle in the act of lobbing a slipper at the screen.
“Bloody chisel-faced bint! Keep yer trap shut!” The slipper landed squarely on the screen and dislodged the portable aerial that sat on its Bakelite covering causing it to drop behind the television and simultaneously turn the screen into a blizzard of interference.
“Hello, nunc. Having your usual mid-day shout at the fragrant Ms Coburn I see.” The sound of my voice gave him a start and he turned round to see who had interrupted his rant.
“Oh, Roger, it’s you. Good to see you, old boy.” He waved his hand at the television which was gamely trying to reconfigure some kind of reception through the dangling aerial. “Bloody Coburn woman. Can’t stand her.”
“My advice, nunc, if I may, is to not get yourself in a bate about things you cannot change and the one immoveable object against which one is prone to waste way too much time and energy is the Leftist political myopia of the BBC wallahs.” I retrieved the slipper from the carpet in front of the television and handed it back to my uncle. “And anyway, you’re old enough not to be paying the licence fee any more so at least you’re not funding the bastards.”
“Never bloody did anyway. The last money-grabbing thief that came to the door trying to collect the licence fee was dealt with by Trout. Trout by name, trout by nature eh? I suspect the memory of being seduced by that harridan and her 44 inch bosom gave the poor fellow nightmares for the rest of his life. Never returned.” He lifted himself out of his chair and grabbed the walking stick that leant by the side of the large fireplace. “Now you’re here and it’s gone noon I call for a snifter. Joining me?”
“Just a small one, nunc. A couple of fingers of whiskey is enough at this time of day.”
Uncle Bertie hobbled over to the drinks cabinet and ran his finger along an impressive array of bottles, hesitating over a number before finally laying his hand on one that was already half empty. “Ah, yes this’ll do. Single malt. Craigellachie”. Pouring a solid quantity into one glass and an even large amount into another he handed me the smaller of the two. “Got absolutely stinko on this last week”, he hesitated for a moment looking quizzically into the amber nectar that swirled in his glass, “or was it last month?” He shook his head. “Never mind, eh? Piece of fruit cake as well?” He pointed at a half devoured monolith of cake that reseted by the side of the chair. “Trout may be the last thing you want to see when poking the fire but at least she can make a half-decent fruit cake”.
He broke off a corner and popped it straight into his mouth. Unwisely he tried to wash it down with a slug of whiskey which, not surprisingly, brought on a coughing fit of a magnitude that startled not only me but also the ageing and mostly bald parrot, Soubrey, housed in its cage in the far corner of the room.
“Fuck!” The parrot’s mimic of my uncle’s voice in extremis was uncanny. “Fuck! Fuck!” Its head swayed back and forth in a maniacal jig.
Swiftly stepping over to my uncle’s side I gave him a sharp thwack between the shoulder blades. Whatever piece of cake had lodged in his throat came free and with a final cough was expelled in a trajectory that the finest human cannonball would have been proud of as it sailed upwards, its journey only halted by the portrait of my uncle’s late wife that hung above the fireplace. There it settled, hesitatingly and cannily recreating the wart on my late aunt’s chin which the artist had seen fit to airbrush out at the final sitting, before sliding down into an ample décolletage hoisted into a semblance of attractiveness that was rarely, in my memory, present in real life.
“Fuck! Drink! Drink!” The parrot concluded its vocal gymnastics with a bash of its bell and a squirt from its rapidly depilating arse that partly escaped the confines of the cage and bespattered the curtain that hung behind – an occurrence that, to judge by the crusty layers bedecking the once fine fabric, was regular and copious.
Bertie had regained some semblance of composure by now and took a tentative sip of the whiskey before concluding that, for now, he wasn’t going to die. Peering at me over the top of his spectacles and with a pair of bloodshot eyes that I guessed were more or less permanent these days he waved his glass in my direction.
“Good job you were here, Roger, otherwise heaven knows where I might be by now.” He nodded towards the portrait of his wife. “Probably on the one way train to hell I suspect to meet an old friend.” He sniggered at his own joke before taking another slug of whiskey and settling back into the armchair. “Anyway, why are you here old boy? Always good to see you. Tell me about those chums of yours. Whatdya call ‘em? The Pustalliers? The Pussytailers? Hahaha, I’ve tailed a few pussies in my time.” A reverie broke into his questioning and a smile flitted across his face.
“The Going Postallers, nunc, Going Postallers. Get it right.”
From the far corner the parrot Soubrey bashed its bell once again and let out a piercing shriek that sounded distinctly like “shit ‘em”.
More from Roger here.
Buy ‘A Coin for the Hangman’, Ralph Spurrier (Roger Ackroyd)