IT had been a particularly joyless summer day at Pyewacket Hall.
A feverish, boiling heat had beaten down relentlessly upon its ancient, moss-flecked granite walls. Pristine lawns had been turned to yellow scrub and vivid flowerbeds reduced to a sorry collection of bare brown stems drooping miserably in the dust.
A blanket of sticky, leaden air and stagnant heat shimmer hung heavy over the house. A listless, opium den torpor spread through every room.
All day the grounds had lain deserted as all retreated to the deepest, darkest recesses of the sprawling residence to lie suffering in their own perspiration and whisper desperate prayers for a clap of thunder overhead.
Even when evening limped along and the sun dipped below the tree line, there was still to be no true escape. The heat of the day now seemed to radiate from every great block of stone, buttress and paving slab. It seeped from the pores of every gargoyle, statue and ornamental flower pot.
A murmuration of starlings wheeled sluggishly against a cloudless, neon pink sky. A fox meandered wearily across the far end of the lawn and stopped to half-heartedly scratch itself before disappearing into the dense forest at its edge.
All was perfectly still but for a faint crunch in the distance. The crunch was that of tyre upon gravel.
Lord Birdwhistle stood by an open window in the drawing room. He was perspiring heavily in his dinner suit, rocking on his heels and staring warily at the driveway.
‘Do you hear that?’
Lady Birdwhistle appeared at his side instantaneously, her eyes wide and anxious.
She stood in rigid silence for a few moments, her head cocked.
‘Yes. Someone…someone’s definitely coming,’ she whispered, trembling slightly.
‘Thresher,’ barked Lord Birdwhistle.
The echo of slow, deliberate footsteps cut through the silence.
Moments later the butler, resplendent in his full livery, appeared in the cavernous double doorway and bowed his head almost imperceptibly.
‘Yes sir? You called, sir?’
‘Thresher, Lady Birdwhistle and I think we can hear someone coming up the driveway.’
Thresher joined him at the window and listened disinterestedly for a few moments.
‘Yes sir. That would appear to be the case, sir. Will that be all, sir?’
‘But it’s only a quarter to eight, Thresher. I thought we’d all agreed on eight o’clock?’
‘Something’s not right,’ hissed Lady Birdwhistle. She had pulled a halberd from the grip of a nearby suit of armour whilst the men had been talking.
‘Oh, for crying out loud. Do put that thing down at once, Belinda,’ snapped his Lordship, fretfully. ‘Our guests are about to arrive and you’re standing here waving that thing around. What sort of welcome would that be? What sort of message do you think that sends out?’
A large bead of perspiration ran from Lady Birdwhistle’s hairline and dripped off the end of her delicate, upturned nose. It made a dainty little splash as it hit the oak floor. She tightened her grip on the halberd and stared defiantly back at her husband.
He sighed and rolled his eyes.
‘Darling, you’ve spent the best part of four hours getting yourself ready for tonight,’ he groaned. ‘You’re in that beautiful gown and your grandmother’s pearls. You’ve exfoliated, brushed, plucked and God knows what else but unless you calm down it’s all going to be for nothing because all anyone is going to remember is that piece of medieval weaponry you’re brandishing at them.’
‘Alright darling,’ she spat back at him, loosening her grip on the halberd. ‘But our guests are due to arrive at eight o’clock. The laws of fashionable lateness dictate that they should not be here until half past eight at the earliest.’
Thresher coughed almost imperceptibly. ‘If I may sir, m’lady,’ he said, nodding at both in turn. ‘But I believe the transport on this occasion has been arranged by Lord Boggart. He is not a man who cares much for the laws of fashionable lateness, or any sort of conventional laws at all for that matter.’
The crunch of gravel grew louder. The silhouette of a large vehicle began to slowly expand on the driveway at the edge of the forest.
‘Our guests have arrived, sir,’ announced Thresher. ‘I’ll go to the door to greet them. I’ll ask a couple of the more presentable downstairsers to bring up the Champagne and canapés in a few minutes.’
‘Jolly good, Thresher, jolly good,’ crowed his Lordship, rubbing his hands gleefully. ‘Now, Belinda, put that bloody spear away and start projecting a bit of good old fashioned sweetness and light, would you?
* * *
The imposing double doors swung slowly open.
‘Lord Boggart, sir, m’lady’ announced Thresher, with a theatrical sweep of the arm.
Lord Boggart planted a pair of enormous clenched fists on his hips and cast his eye over the room. Like so many other drawing rooms, it was the usual disorderly tangle of dark wood panelling, faded ancestral portraits, monolithic sideboards and dainty occasional tables stacked high with porcelain trinkets.
He stood nodding dispassionately at his surroundings before finally acknowledging the existence of Lord and Lady Birdwhistle.
They strode towards him eagerly, all teeth and wide eyes.
‘Wonderful to see you again, Lord Boggart,’ came the smarm offensive. ‘So thrilled you could make it along for the occasion.’
‘Wouldn’t miss it for the world,’ he grunted, delivering a punitively firm handshake to his Lordship and planting an oily, lingering kiss on the cheek of her Ladyship.
Lord Boggart was by no means a tall man, but nonetheless he was an imposing figure. He had somehow squeezed his broad fleshy chest, giant redwood log limbs and gelatinous gut into a dinner suit that looked like it may at any moment tear itself apart under the strain.
Lord Birdwhistle briefly pondered the age of his guest, but the man was such a confusing mishmash of extreme corpulence and bull-like strength that anywhere between thirty five and sixty five would have been a fair guess.
He also cared little for small talk.
‘Where’s the booze then, Birdwhistle?’
His lordship clicked his fingers and a nervous-looking downstairser in baggy footman’s livery shambled up, a silver tray of champagne saucers shaking in his hands.
‘Good grief Birdwhistle, Champagne?’
It was a rhetorical question.
‘Won’t touch any of that French muck, Birdwhistle,’ he roared. ‘That there is the bitter taste of centuries of surrender and failure. Drink enough of that and before long you’ll be waving the white flag in the direction of Germany, taking a mange-riddled stray dog as a mistress and pissing in the street.’
‘Perhaps some wine then, Lord Boggart? We have a lovely Italian Pinot Gri….’
‘I’m going to stop you right there so you don’t embarrass yourself any further,’ growled Boggart, collapsing untidily into a Chesterfield armchair and mopping his brow with a handkerchief. ‘I don’t want any of your frog surrender juice or wop cat piss. What I want is a pint of bitter. I’m a bitter man, always have been.’
Lady Birdwhistle snapped her fingers and a downstairser scuttled off through a side door.
Boggart spread out slowly across the armchair, throwing a great barrel leg over one of the arms.
‘Any way of making it a bit cooler in here Birdwhistle? I’m sweating like a whore in the Sistine Chapel.’
Lord Birdwhistle began stuttering away unconvincingly about mislaid window keys and poor ventilation whilst Boggart glowered balefully at him from under his unkempt mop of sweat-soaked red hair.
Thresher came to his rescue.
‘Lord and Lady Flight, Sir, M’lady,’ boomed the butler from the doors.
Lord and Lady Flight swished into the room in an elegant explosion of cigarette holders, silk scarves, feather boas and white gloves.
‘Birdy old chap, how delightful to see you again,’ brayed Lord Flight. ‘And Belinda, don’t you just look positively edible?’
Lady Birdwhistle giggled and blushed as the dashing Lord Flight kissed her gloved hand, raising his eyebrow suggestively as he released it and stepped back.
Lady Flight, two parts eyeliner and three parts icy detachment, exhaled an acrid plume of cigarette smoke and shot Lord Birdwhistle an expectant look. He eventually took the hint.
‘Oh and Lucia, don’t you just look…’ he had always been wary of complimenting other women in front of his wife. He chose his words carefully, perhaps too carefully.
She raised an eyebrow and curled her lip.
‘Why thank you Lord Birdwhistle,’ she said, pursing her lips. ‘Thank you so much for that. In turn, I must say you’re looking exceptionally…acceptable this evening.’
She held him in a cold, unblinking feline glare. An oppressive silence descended. Feet started shuffling awkwardly. Lady Birdwhistle made an inane remark about the weather. His Lordship mumbled in agreement. With pleading eyes, he tried unsuccessfully to prompt Lord Flight to contribute more than a disinterested nod to the discussion.
The tick of a grandfather clock in some far flung corridor of the house echoed ever louder as the moment dragged on.
Lady Flight suddenly let out a girlish giggle and her face relapsed into a sardonic smirk.
‘Oh, do lighten up chaps. I’m only playing with you.’
‘Be warned – my wife can be a cruel woman when she wants to be,’ chuckled Lord Flight.
‘That, husband, is nothing short of beastly slander. I am an exceptionally cruel woman, positively barbaric when I need to be.’ she replied, sticking her nose in the air. ‘Come on Bel, give me a tour of the facilities whilst the men indulge in the besmirchment of my reputation.’
She forcibly thrust her arm through Lady Birdwhistle’s and whisked her away through the drawing room doors, scooping two glasses of champagne from a downstairser’s tray as she went.
‘Jolly nice place by the way,’ murmured Flight to his Lordship. ‘Boggart had his doubts but at first glance it looks ideal. I trust everything has been…taken care of?’
Lord Birdwhistle took a large gulp of champagne and nodded nervously.
‘Don’t bother going through the formalities of introducing me to that grey haired streak of piss and his oinking sow of a wife, Birdwhistle,’ bawled Boggart from his armchair at the far side of the room. ‘We’re already well enough acquainted, thank you very much.’
Flight raised his glass and grinned sarcastically across the room at Boggart. His pint of bitter had arrived and he was attacking it like a bull mastiff greedily lapping up a bowl of gravy.
Lord Birdwhistle observed this grim spectacle for a few seconds before turning back to Lord Flight and lowering his voice.
‘Is Lady Boggart still upstairs getting ready?’
‘Ah, well. The thing is that there isn’t a Lady Boggart any more, old chap,’ he purred, pretending to examine a silver candlestick. ‘He binned her after what happened at the last one. Turns out she doesn’t have the stomach for it, you see.’
‘Hmm,’ murmured his Lordship, gazing off into the middle distance. ‘I do recall there being some…issues.’
‘Well, he can’t say he wasn’t warned about marrying outside the order and plunging the poor woman straight into the fray. Bringing people into this from the outside is like asking a cat to live in a nest or a fish to live in a beehive, or something. There’s a good reason why initiation usually takes place over several years.’
He idly swung the silver candlestick as if it were a golf club before placing back on the sideboard.
‘Anyway, you need to seriously brush up on your hosting skills old boy,’ he said, striding across the room in the direction of Boggart. ‘We should really be keeping the lonesome old tart company while the ladies are upstairs braiding each other’s hair and talking about curtains or whatever it is they do when our backs are turned.’
Through the yawning double doors, through a dingy, faded entrance hall, up a broad, threadbare staircase, through a gauntlet of austere portraits, along a dark and seemingly unending corridor and through the thirteenth door on the right, Lady Flight sat in a dusty bedroom gazing at into her own dark eyes in a dressing table mirror as Lady Birdwhistle braided her hair.
‘Oh do come on now Bel, don’t be a tease. You can at least give me a teensy little clue.’
Lady Birdwhistle, smiled knowingly and shook her head.
‘Please, Bel. Just something to stave off the anticipation until after dinner. It gives me knots in my stomach when we’re this close to the selection ceremony.’
‘You can surely wait another couple of hours, Lucia.’
Lady Flight stared at her wide eyed in the mirror.
Lady Birdwhistle’s face gave nothing away.
Lady Flight’s eyes lit up and her mouth curled into a devilish smile.
‘Any mental defectives? Amputees? Cerebral Palsies? Midgets? I love it when there’s something a bit different in the game. It gives things real spice. Please tell me there’s at least one wild card in the mix, Bel.’
Lady Birdwhistle continued to methodically braid Lady Flight’s raven black hair without comment.
‘Gosh Bel you really can be a pitiless woman when you want to be. And after I served you up all the gory details about the former Lady Boggart and the bin bags. It’s all take, take, take with you isn’t it?’
The faint chime of the dinner gong reverberated through the warm, stale air of Pyewacket Hall.
‘We really should be getting back to the men, Lucia.’
‘I suppose so,’ sighed Lady Flight, rising slowly from her chair. ‘Golly, the curtains in here are absolutely beautiful aren’t they?’
* * *
‘What the blazes do you mean, Thresher, by haricots sur toast?’
Boggart was sweating like a ham hock under the dim light of the dining room chandelier.
‘Looks like a few baked beans on a slice of white toast to me,’ he growled, ominously.
‘That is correct, sir,’ replied Thresher, emotionlessly.
‘So why are you saying it in French, Thresher?’
It was another rhetorical question.
‘The French didn’t invent beans, Thresher, nor toast for that matter. If the French had invented beans on toast they’d probably have replaced the toast with choux pastry and the beans would probably be live snails smothered in cream and garlic. The filthy, degenerate bastards wouldn’t be able to help themselves.’
‘Very good, sir.’
‘No, Thresher, it is not very good. You’re giving the frogs credit where it isn’t due and that won’t do at all. That’s not the butler’s job.’
‘It was the name the chef assigned to the dish, sir.’
‘Well tell him to snap out of his Gallic fantasy world before I assign my boot to his arse and my fist to his jugular.’
‘Very good, sir.’
‘Oh, come on now Boggers, let’s not create an atmosphere,’ chimed Lord Flight, tucking a napkin into his collar. ‘This is supposed to be a happy occasion…Lord and Lady Birdwhistle’s hosting debut. Let’s not let semantics get in the way of a jolly weekend.’
Lord Boggart had already lost interest in the matter and was wolfing down his food like a hyena at the rotting carcass of a wildebeest.
The Lords and Ladies dined in silence, save for the odd clink of cutlery and Boggart’s obnoxious, snout-in-the-trough mastication.
Downstairsers occasionally darted out from against the faded green and gold wallpaper at the dingy edges of the room to refill wine glasses. One held a silver platter bearing a block of eight cans of bitter.
The chandelier flickered above the guests as they finished their meal. Their dinner suits, gowns and hair now clung to them in the stifling, airless confines of the dining room.
Boggart, who had planted himself at the head of the table, cleared his throat.
He rose and tapped his pint glass with a dessert spoon. However, he lacked the deft touch required for the occasion and the glass broke in half.
‘Damn and blast,’ he exploded, violently sweeping the broken glass from the table onto the oak floor with his arm.
‘Thresher, clean that up,’ he demanded.
The butler stood motionless in his shadowy corner of the long, dimly-lit room and raised an insolent eyebrow.
Boggart, still half standing, glowered malevolently at the butler through the murk.
‘You know the rules, Thresher. The butler is responsible for cleaning up. And I am telling you to clean that up. The rules, Thresher. The rules. Must stick to the rules or she will be displeased.’
Thresher closed his eyes as if willing himself to disappear before crossing the room to a sideboard from which he produced a dustpan and brush.
‘Very good, sir,’ he said, crouching to sweep up the broken glass.
Lord Flight leaned back in his chair with an air of detached amusement.
‘Thresher hates being the butler,’ he whispered to Lord Birdwhistle. ‘Thinks it’s below him. Nothing worse than a chap who refuses to accept his place in the grand scheme, don’t you think? Poor sportsmanship.’
Boggart shot him an irritable glance and continued.
‘Before I was so rudely interrupted,’ he snarled, ‘I was, as the most senior member of the order present here this evening, preparing to make the opening ritual address.’
He gazed down briefly at Thresher, who had almost finished sweeping the last of the glass up.
‘So let us waste no more time…By the power invested in me by our ancient order and all its appendant bodies,’ he said, picking up an empty wine glass, ‘I do formally declare the seven hundred and forty seventh Weekend Games of the Knights of Leontopolis underway.’
He tossed the wine glass over his shoulder and barked at Thresher to clean it up before it even hit the wall.
‘Lord and Lady Birdwhistle,’ he continued, idly weighing a side plate in his shovel-like right hand. ‘You are our hosts. May Sekhmet, the Eye of Ra, be at your side this weekend.’
He threw the side plate, Frisbee-like, against the wall to his right, narrowly missing a cowering downstairser.
‘Thresher, you know what to do.’
The butler gritted his teeth and scowled amid the broken glass at his feet and managed to mutter another very good, sir.
Boggart chuckled darkly and continued.
‘Merriment, Blood and Chaos,’ he thundered, slapping the table with the palm of his hand. ‘The ancient decrees are now in effect, ladies and gentlemen. Sekhmet commands.’
He gazed upon his fellow Lords and Ladies with zealous eyes and raised a tin of bitter in his bear paw fist.
‘Pro ludo et lusus solus,’ he boomed, reverently.
‘Pro ludo et lusus solus,’ echoed the others, raising their glasses.
Thresher, having swept up the broken wine glass, now traipsed wearily across the room to deal with the remains of the side plate.
Lord Flight frisbee’d his own side plate across the room, narrowly missing Thresher’s head. It shattered against the wall.
‘Clean it up, Thresher,’ he chuckled, and inhaled a mighty draft of red wine.
A wine glass fizzed past the butler’s left ear and shards of glass zipped across the floor.
‘Deal with it Thresher,’ giggled Lady Flight.
Another side plate crashed against the wall.
‘Thresher, you’re up old chap,’ crowed Lord Birdwhistle.
A side plate thudded sickeningly against the back of Thresher’s neck, knocking him forwards across the glass-strewn floor. An expectant silence descended as the butler clambered slowly to his feet and turned to face them.
A trickle of blood slowly ran from his forehead down his craggy, austere face as he stared helplessly at the guests. A small shard of glass protruded visibly from above his right eyebrow.
Lady Birdwhistle, who had thrown the plate, surveyed him dispassionately for a few moments, took a dainty sip from her glass and spoke.
‘Clean yourself up, Thresher. You’re a disgrace to the art of butlering.’
The room erupted with hoots of laughter and whooping as Thresher stood motionless, humiliated, bleeding.
‘For once the soppy little bitch is right about something, Thresher,’ cackled Boggart, rising from his chair. ‘Butlering’s not for you at all you feckless old twat.’
He stomped towards the dining room doors, shoulder charging the stricken Thresher out of his way as he went.
‘Dinner’s over,’ he cried excitedly, clapping his hands above his head. ‘Thresher, as soon as you’re finished cleaning up in here I want you to bring up the contenders for the selection ceremony.’
‘V….very good sir,’ hissed the butler, his shirt sopping wet with perspiration and his hands shaking with rage.
The others filed out obediently after Boggart. Lady Flight blew cigarette smoke into Thresher’s face as she passed by. The dining room doors shut with a dull thud and a gaggle of downstairsers immediately scuttled out of the shadows and into the stale miasma of perspiration, cigarette smoke and burnt toast hanging beneath the chandelier.
‘Gosh, what fun,’ chimed Lady Flight’s voice faintly from beyond the doors. ‘We should really start doing the plate smashing thing at the end of every opening dinner.’
Dinner was over. The decrees were in effect. The seven hundred and forty seventh Weekend Games of the Knights of Leontopolis was underway.
© DH 2020
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file