Fifteen of them stood in a line in the muddy light of the drawing room. Fifteen desolate specimens of humanity clad in grimy, beige sweatshirts and stained jogging bottoms. Fifteen of them with their hands bound together with rope. Fifteen with their heads bowed and their eyes fixed firmly on the floor.
‘Grim looking rabble that, Birdwhistle,’ muttered Boggart, his eyes fixed hungrily upon the line.
‘To be fair, Boggers, they usually are,’ piped up Lord Flight, who was sprawled across a sofa with a cigarette hanging lazily between his fingers. ‘We’re hardly likely to see someone who’s ever troubled the pages of Tatler in one of these lineups now, are we?’
Boggart rose slowly from the Chesterfield armchair, leaving behind a greasy imprint upon the leather.
‘It wasn’t meant as a criticism,’ he muttered, flapping his enormous, sirloin steak hand imperiously at Flight.
He moved slowly along the line, carefully inspecting each wretched specimen.
A chubby middle aged man with mottled skin and a matted red beard. A wraith-thin, hollow cheeked old woman with trembling, claw-like hands. A pale young man with a shaven head and scabs across his ghostly white face.
Lord Boggart stopped as he reached a tall, charcoal-skinned black man. He was powerfully built but his posture was broken and his expression docile.
‘Now this one looks a likely sort,’ he exclaimed, grabbing the man’s jaw and inspecting his vacant face. ‘I’ll be interested to see if anyone’s brave enough to bet on this big dumb bugger going down.’
He continued to move along, silently surveying the line of gaunt, haunted faces until he reached the end of the line.
‘Pity about this one,’ he said, snatching the jaw of an emaciated, sunken-eyed woman in his flabby grip. ‘She’d probably have been quite a looker if she hadn’t spent the last ten years pumping herself full of junk.’
He examined her pock marked, bony face carefully before looking her slowly up and down.
‘Remarkable,’ he exclaimed, turning to the others. ‘I bet she’s at least ten years younger than she looks.’
Lord Flight sat up and leaned forwards for a better look.
‘ Yes, there is certainly a distant, vestigial glint of youthful energy in those eyes, Boggers,’ he smirked insincerely. ‘In this light one can almost imagine an unsullied, innocent beauty that has long since slipped away, never to return.’
Boggart snorted in amusement.
‘Nonsense, the perky udders are the giveaway, Flight, as well you know,’ he scoffed, ‘If she was half as old as she looks those things would be keeping her knees warm, I guarantee you.’
‘They’re probably how she pays for her habit,’ chimed in Lady Flight, casually exhaling cigarette smoke. ‘Ten quid a pop, paper bag to throw over the head not included.’
The other Lords and Ladies erupted in howls and yelps of laughter.
‘You know nuffin about me ya ‘orrible sweaty fat bastard,’ snarled the contender, shaking loose of Boggart’s grip.
He took a step back and slowly removed his bow tie, holding the dead-eyed woman in a poisonous glare as he did so.
‘Ya fink you can just say fings like that about me to my face just cos yous are all fancy an’…’
Before she could finish spitting out her sentence, Boggart delivered a back handed slap so sudden and ferocious to the side of her head that she was sent sprawling across the floor like a rag doll and into the sharp corner of a solid oak writing desk.
She was immediately hauled to her feet by two downstairsers and dragged back into the line.
A doughy young man with a wispy beard and ponytail at the far end of the line stifled a sob as Boggart approached the woman once again.
‘You do not address the Lords and Ladies in this house unless first spoken to,’ he erupted, drawing his fleshy, ham hock face inches from hers. ‘Those, you scrawny, pox riddled bitch, are the rules. Do you understand?’
The woman, struck dumb by Boggart’s savage blow, could only nod.
‘Well you’d better,’ he said, lowering his voice menacingly and sweeping his eyes down the line. ‘All you contenders better understand or I swear in the name of the divine mother of Maahes that I’ll thrash some understanding into your cretinuous skulls before the night is through.’
The wispy-bearded contender stifled another horrified yelp. Boggart turned to him, his eyes boiling with contempt.
‘And what in the name of raw buggery is wrong with you?’
The contender stood quivering, tears streaming down his cheeks.
‘Speak,’ roared Boggart, ‘You are being spoken to, contender, so speak up, man.’
‘N…nothing, sir,’ whimpered the contender, flinching slightly.
‘What do you mean, nothing? You are weeping and mewling like a little bitch. You’re supposed to be a contender, man. This is unacceptable on a monumental scale.’
Boggart began pacing feverishly around the room, hissing and roaring incoherently as he ran his hands violently through his sweaty, crimson hair.
He swept up his pint glass and smashed it against an ornate drum table beside his armchair.
In a flash, he was back in the weeping contender’s face, holding a shard of glass milimetres from his right eye.
‘You’ll be crying blood if you don’t stop all this pissing and whining,’ he rumbled, lowering his voice ominously. ‘You will cry blood, you pigeon livered bastard. You will cry blood and the blood will please Sekhmet, the Eye of Ra, the mistress of dread, she who mauls.’
‘Erm…Perhaps we should move things along, Boggers,’ chirped Lord Flight, casually swirling a large glug of brandy around in a bulbous glass. ‘You’ll frighten the poor bastards to death at this rate.’
His words had no effect. Boggart’s face burned crimson with an all-consuming rage. His entire world at that moment was his intractable anger, the face of the terrified contender and the ragged remains of his pint glass. The subject of his ire was tensed up and trembling, his eyes clamped tightly shut.
‘Oh, come on now Boggers old chap,’ continued Lord Flight, breezily. ‘I’m not trying to spoil your fun but even if one of them dies of fright tonight it’ll ruin tomorrow’s sport for everyone.’
Boggart took a few deep breaths. The tension slowly ebbed from his limbs. He nodded reluctantly at Flight and casually tossed the remains of his glass on the floor.
‘Clean that up, Thresher,’ he muttered, stomping back to his armchair.
‘Very good, sir,’ came the butler’s grim reply from somewhere in the murk beyond the single table lamp illuminating the centre of the vast room.
Flight tossed a brandy glass over his shoulder. Lady Birdwhistle flung her wine glass against the wall. His Lordship lobbed his brandy glass onto a table laden with porcelain animal figurines. Lady Flight picked up a silver candlestick and gleefully smashed a large Chinese vase to smithereens.
Thresher was ordered to clean it all up, much to the clamorous amusement of the guests.
Eventually, the Lords and Ladies grew tired of this distraction and settled down to more important business. Boggart rose from his armchair once again.
‘By the power invested in me by our ancient order and all its appendant bodies,’ he announced, reverently. ‘I declare the contender selection ceremony for the seven hundred and forty seventh Weekend Games of the Knights of Leontopolis to be underway. Hail Sekhmet. And since I’m the senior member here I get first pick and I’m having that big Nubian specimen for the croquet group.’
* * *
In turn, the Lords and Ladies made their picks for the next day’s sporting activities.
Three contenders were selected for the croquet group and another three for cricket.
Lord and Lady Birdwhistle were agonising over the final pick for tennis.
‘My heart is telling me to pick the ten pound crack whore for tennis but my head is telling me she’s too lightweight and wispy for it,’ wailed Lady Birdwhistle, her clenching her fists. ‘Oh what am I to do, darling?’
‘You do whatever you think is best,’ cooed his Lordship, stroking her shoulder. ‘As always, I have complete faith in your judgement, dear.’
Lady Birdwhistle was paralysed by indecision, her eyes darting wildly between the contenders.
‘No, damn it, no,’ she declared, suddenly sitting up straight and sweeping her perspiration-drenched fringe from her forehead. ‘Give me the fat one with the lazy eye for tennis, the hooker isn’t suitable for it at all, that was just a silly thought.’
‘Confirm that the fat one with the lazy eye is your final pick, please, Lady Birdwhistle,’
growled Boggart from the depths of the armchair.
‘Yes, that is our final pick. Absolutely definitely.’
‘Right then,’ said Boggart. ‘That’s the big Nubian, baldy scarface and the toothless old hag for croquet; ginger bigfoot, birthmark Joe and trembling Theresa for cricket and Romanian orphanage boy, meths-for-breakfast and the fat one with the lazy eye for tennis, all correct?’
All nodded in agreement.
‘Good. Then that leaves the ten bob crack whore, beardy cry baby and pikey Pete for the hunt. May Sekhmet, the Eye of Ra, bless all of them tomorrow.’
‘Pro ludo et lusus solus,’ roared Boggart.
‘Pro ludo et lusus solus,’ echoed the others, raising their glasses.
The butler motioned to the downstairsers and the fifteen sad specimens were led slowly across the drawing room. They filed pitifully through a side door and the Lords and Ladies breathed a collective sigh.
‘Not a bad selection of contenders that, Birdwhistle,’ grunted Boggart. ‘I’ve high hopes for that big black.’
Lord and Lady Flight nodded enthusiastically.
‘That was the right call with the fat lazy eye chap, Bel,’ said Lady Flight. ‘Always choose fat when it comes to tennis.’
‘And I’m so glad you decided to leave the ten bob crack whore for the hunt,’ said Lord Birdwhistle, gazing lovingly upon his wife. ‘It was an inspired decision.’
‘I’m glad that you’re glad, darling,’ she replied, gushingly.
Lord Birdwhistle took his wife’s hand and kissed it gently.
‘Sorry to interrupt but I just wanted to double check,’ piped up Lady Flight, abruptly. ‘Are we still doing the usual keys in the bowl thing tonight, given that Lady Boggart has left us…erm…lop-sided?’
The guests froze and eyed each other gingerly for a few moments.
‘Count me out,’ sighed Boggart, wearily. ‘I don’t want either. I inhaled enough of Lucia’s rancid herring pheromones in that oven of a car on way over here to last me a lifetime. I’ve had six pints and I’ve only just managed to rinse the last of it off the roof of my mouth.’
He paused to messily guzzle down the remainder of his bitter, most of which splashed down his chin onto his shirt. He dragged his sleeve across his mouth, let out a satisfied gasp and continued.
‘And as for you, Belinda, you’ve the delicate, unspoiled gait of a woman quite evidently unaccustomed to a man who goes to the tup with the sort of ardour I do.’
He hauled himself slowly up from the armchair and dragged the palms of his hands down his soggy shirt front.
‘I fear, madam, that I’d be handing back what’s left of you in a couple of bin bags after I’d finished with you.’
He dragged his corpulent, perspiring mass wearily across the drawing room to the double doors, grabbing the remaining two cans of bitter from the downstairser’s tray as he went.
‘Don’t you lot hold back on my account, though,’ he said, pausing in the doorway. ‘I’m a heavy sleeper. All four of you could spend the night thrusting up and down the corridor outside my room in a naked conga line and wind up rutting away on the Persian rug at the bottom of my bed in a writhing heap of flesh and I wouldn’t even stir.’
He shot them a lascivious grin, winked and disappeared into the gloom. The room fell silent.
Lord Birdwhistle felt perspiration pooling on his forehead. Lady Flight was staring at him with an I-dare-you smirk on her face.
Lord Flight, now fully stretched out on the sofa, was openly admiring Belinda. It was the sort of admiration one may find upon the face of lion peering at an unsuspecting antelope.
His Lordship turned his gaze upon Lucia. She was heavier set than his own wife and a good ten years older, but he had knocked back the best part of two bottles of wine and she had the sort of wicked glint in her eye that could lure sailors to their deaths.
His heart quickened.
Lord and Lady Flight persisted with their expectant, quizzical stares. What on earth is supposed to happen now? thought his Lordship. Do we just quietly disappear off to opposite ends of the house, do what is necessary and meet back up in the drawing room in half an hour? Or is the done thing to make it a group activity, something akin to teaming up with the other chap’s wife at contract bridge? Is the Persian rug thing compulsory? It sounds terribly hard on the knees.
He genuinely had no idea. He was lost.
A grandfather clock struck eleven ponderous chimes from somewhere in the depths of the house. His Lordship’s brow furrowed as he cast around desperately in his mind for the correct words with which to break the increasingly oppressive silence.
It was his party. He simply had to say something. He had to prove he was a good host.
Lord and Lady Flight leaned forward to listen as their host finally cleared his throat to speak.
‘The rug,’ he croaked. It was the first thing that had sprung to mind.
His guests furrowed their brows, quizzically.
‘It might be a bit…’ continued Lord Birdwhistle, unsteadily. ‘Look…if you’re heart is really set on the Persian rug that’s fine, but I’ll need to put a cushion dow…’
He stopped abruptly as a sharp elbow jabbed him angrily between the ribs.
Belinda was staring at him, a look of wild-eyed bemusement on her face.
‘I think we’ll just turn in too,’ she announced, curtly. ‘It’s been a long, long day for us.’
She turned to his Lordship and narrowed her powder blue eyes.
‘Don’t you agree, darling?’
Lord Birdwhistle glanced around sheepishly and nodded.
‘Erm…yes. Actually, we’re both terribly tired. Best we just get a good night’s rest.’
Lady Flight rolled her eyes, flopped back in her chair and folded her arms.
‘Well in that case, be careful you don’t get lost and accidentally wander into Boggart’s room on the way up,’ said Lord Flight, grinning mischievously. ‘I don’t know if we’ve got enough bin bags to hold both of you.’
* * *
Lady Birdwhistle turned the key to the bedroom door and rattled it hard until she was certain it was locked.
‘The Persian rug at the bottom of his bed,’ she tutted. ‘Handing me back to you in bin bags. I’ve never heard anything so ridiculous in all my life.’
His Lordship, spreadeagled on the bed, hummed back at her in vague agreement.
‘And I really don’t think Lucia is the sort of lady to have any downstairs personal hygiene issues either,’ she added, pouting disapprovingly.
His Lordship decided it best to remain silent upon that issue and continued to stare at the ceiling through half shut lids.
Lady Birdwhistle clicked off the dim bedside lamp and hopped on top of the sheets beside her husband. The windows were open but the room was stuffy and airless.
They lay side by side in their clammy underwear, reluctant to move a muscle in the leaden humidity. Lord Flight began to drift off, the evening’s cocktail of champagne, wine and brandy luring him into sleep.
‘Darling?’ said Belinda, suddenly jolting him back into consciousness.
‘Does Lord Boggart speak in such a terribly vile way to people at work?’
‘I’ve no idea,’ mumbled his Lordship. ‘All I know is that his office is on the top floor. I’ve never actually laid eyes on him at work. I know as much about him as you do.’
‘Gosh, I didn’t realise he was that high up…I mean, he must be a grade sevener at least in that case.’
‘At least,’ yawned his Lordship. ‘But you know fine well the decrees dictate that all shop talk is…’
‘…Off limits until the Weekend Games are officially concluded, I know.’
She turned restlessly over onto her belly.
‘We’ll be well on track for promotion if tomorrow goes well,’ she sighed, sweetly. ‘Oh darling, won’t it be wonderful when we’re on the top floor too?’
She received no reply but for a prolonged, wet, guttural snore.
A squeal of laughter resounded from some distant corner of Pyewacket Hall. It was followed by the crash and clank of furniture being violently disturbed.
Not far behind the commotion, Lord Boggart’s distinctive roar echoed through the corridors.
‘Ha haaaa! A pair of little sleepwalkers sleepety-sleepwalking into daddy’s bedchamber, eh?’ it thundered through the house. ‘Ride a cock horse!’
© DH 2020
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file