‘Pull those ropes tighter, damn your eyes,’ raved Boggart, stalking feverishly up and down in front of the contenders, ‘I want this net to be as taut as a camel’s arse in a sandstorm.’
A grotesque chain of flesh and rope snaked out across the centre of the dilapidated tennis court. Wrists were tethered to rusting net pillars, ankles were tethered to ankles and necks tethered to necks.
Romanian orphanage boy, meths-for-breakfast and the fat one with the lazy eye thrashed around like wooden puppets as the ropes were wrenched ever tighter. Their mouths had been stuffed with balls of newspaper and rags.
Downstairsers heaved away at either end of the chain, wringing out every last millimetre of slack as Boggart stood ranting and berating, hopping maniacally on the spot and imploring them to pull the ropes tighter.
The Lords and Ladies paid the panicked, muffled screams and muted sobs no heed as they lounged in their wicker chairs and sipped their cocktails.
Grey boiler suit-clad Downstairsers clutching trays, fans and umbrellas buzzed around them like a swarm of gnats. The painted drummers stood motionless on the opposite side of the court, staring vacantly into space.
Behind them loomed Thresher, his red-streaked white overalls glowing in the blinding sunlight.
‘Careful now, Boggers,’ chimed in Lord Flight. ‘If either one of those shoulders pops out of its socket the net will go slack.’
Boggart took a step back and straightened up his lion headdress. He let out a long low growl, placed his fists on his hips and surveyed the net.
‘Oh to hell with it,’ he spat, eventually. ‘It’s not quite dead centre but it’ll do. I suppose.’
He plucked a pint of bitter from a downstairser’s silver platter, threw half of it down his gullet and blouse front and stood scowling at the net.
‘Do you know what I think it is?’ drawled Lady Flight, gazing dispassionately at the squirming, bulging-eyed line of contenders. ‘I think Romanian orphanage boy’s left arm is abnormally long, that’s what I think it is.’
Lord Birdwhistle sidled over to where Boggart stood fulminating in order to get a better view of the situation.
‘I think Lady Flight may be correct,’ he said, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. ‘The man has arms like a chimpanzee.’
‘What a bloody freak,’ grunted Boggart, from the depths of the lion’s mouth. ‘Can’t be helped, I suppose, but it does rather bollocks up the symmetry of the thing.’
The contenders continued to struggle frantically in front of them against the rough nylon rope, their necks and wrists chafed and raw, their grimy clothing stained with salty perspiration.
‘I think chimpanzees are adorable,’ gushed Lady Birdwhistle, gulping down the remainder of her mimosa. ‘Darling, if he wins can we pretend he’s a chimpanzee and keep him as a pet?’
* * *
‘Pro ludo et lusus solus,’ wailed Lord Boggart, holding his amulet aloft to the sun.
He had clambered up a rickety wooden stepladder brought out in the absence of an umpire’s chair and, by some miraculous means, managed to stuff his blubbery, distended backside into the top step.
Before him were the decaying remnants of Pyewacket Hall’s tennis court. A shimmering heat haze danced lazily above the crumbling tarmac surface, now pitted with cavernous potholes and cracks. What had once been a mesh fence was now little more than a crumbling veil of rust. Patches of flaking paint indicated where lines had been marked out in decades past. An old net lay rolled up and rotting in a corner surrounded by a patch of dead, sun scorched weeds.
Lords and Ladies Birdwhistle and Flight stood either side of the squirming net of contenders, their arms raised to the sun as Boggart bellowed out the incantations.
Each of them grasped a large frying pan.
‘Let the tennis commence,’ came the cry from atop the umpire’s stepladder. ‘Lord and Lady Birdwhistle will serve first. May Sekhmet bless you.’
The drummers began beating out an ominous rhythm at the edge of the court.
‘You go first, dearest,’ said his Lordship, handing his wife a red snooker ball and kissing her on the cheek.
‘Oh, you are such a darling,’ simpered Belinda, fluttering her eyelashes. ‘Such a perfect gentleman.’
She narrowed her eyes and surveyed Lord and Lady Flight. They crouched on the other side of the net, pans at the ready in anticipation of her serve. Her serve.
Just look at me, she thought. Little Bel Birdwhistle, centre stage at the Weekend Games of the Knights of Leontopolis. A capable hostess. A willing participant.
She closed her eyes and drank in the moment. She pictured herself and his Lordship on the top floor, hoovering up the perks, throwing their weight around and retiring to a farmhouse in Provence before they hit fifty five. All that, she thought, all that and more could come from this weekend.
‘Sometime today, you wooden-headed little tart,’ came the umpire’s canorous call. ‘I’m sweating like a glassblower’s arse crack up here.’
Belinda took a deep breath. She steadied herself, tossed the snooker ball into the air and swung the frying pan with both arms.
The ferocious force of the serve sent her spinning across the sticky tarmac. She let out a high pitched grunt as the ball pinged off the centre of the iron pan with a low, metallic thud. It followed a low, ponderous trajectory across the court and slammed into the back meths-for-breakfast’s shaven head with a meaty crunch.
The contender tensed up and began thrashing and bucking, his primal shrieking muffled by the newspaper and rags in his mouth.
The Lords and Ladies let out a gleeful hurrah.
‘Ooft! What a smashing shot Bel,’ cried Lady Flight, ‘Well done you.’
Belinda smiled bashfully and shrugged her shoulders. Meths-for-breakfast began to convulse violently, rattling the net and sending the other contenders into a jerky dance.
‘Gosh, what a dent that made,’ said his Lordship, peering closely at the back of meths-for-breakfast’s head. ‘Do you know what that reminds me of, dear? That time in Lombardy when that hail storm made a right old mess of the hire car.’
‘Oh, golly yes, you’re quite right. And we had to shelter in that darling little restaurant just outside Bellagio.’
‘Yes, we’ve had some super holidays, haven’t we darling?’
A downstairser retrieved the snooker ball from beneath meths-for-breakfast’s twitching heels and scuttled to the far side of the court.
‘I make that fifteen love to Birdwhistle,’ thundered Boggart from the stepladder. ‘Flight, you’re next. And make it snappy, it’s hotter than two rats rutting in a woollen sock up here.’
* * *
The three contenders dangled like blood-soaked blankets on the ropes lashed across the tennis court. Only one still drew breath, aware only of the searing heat of the afternoon and the stinging bite of coarse nylon digging into his neck and wrists. The drummers beat out a short, sharp, violent rhythm.
A low, tinny clunk rang out followed almost immediately by sharp pop.
The fat one with the lazy eye let out a swaddled yelp. He twitched and groaned for a few seconds before heaving a final, rattling breath. A red-spattered white snooker ball lay at his feet.
The Lords and Ladies began hooting and ballyhooing.
‘Splendid shot, Lucia,’ said his Lordship. ‘Sublime bit of tennis, that.’
Lady Flight cheered and punched the air.
‘Gosh, what a relief,’ she gasped. ‘I was having such a rotten game, missing everything by a bloody mile and then thwack! Game, set and match.’
‘Form is temporary, class is permanent, darling’ laughed Lord Flight, squeezing her waist.
Under Thresher’s close supervision, the downstairsers immediately began to untie the ropes. The contenders’ bodies thumped untidily one by one onto the baking tarmac.
Resignedly, the butler threw one end of the rope over his shoulder and began slowly dragging the tangle of cadavers off the court.
‘Was there any champagne left in the drinks tent?’ said Lady Birdwhistle. ‘I do so fancy a glass of champagne after that.’
‘Get them to bring the drinks to us,’ yelled Boggart, leaping down from the stepladder with a resounding clunk. ‘We must begin the hunt whilst the sun is still high. The mistress of dread demands it.’
He spun is bloated mass around, searching for the butler.
‘Thresher,’ he screamed. ‘Bring out the quarry.’
* * *
The ten bob crack whore peered fearfully out from her hiding place within a sprawling rhododendron bush.
It’s just a theme weekend for some kinky poshos, they’d said. Like being an extra in a film. Easy money, cash in hand.
But nobody had mentioned anything about having to play hide and seek with a bunch of fancy dress kooks and a fat psycho in a lion hat. Knights of Leontopolis? Half expected it to be a bunch of queers with a name like that.
Cowering in a bush in this heat, in these stinking old clothes while those pissed-up toffs prance about in their skirts playing their stupid games.
She just wanted the two hundred pounds she’d been promised and a lift back to the city. There was no way of cutting her losses and making a break for it. Too many of those creeps in the grey boiler suits around to slip away unnoticed. She would just have to sit it out until the half hour was up. Then she would be a winner like the fat man had promised. Perhaps that meant more money. Perhaps it would be worth it in the end.
She heard footsteps crunching on the gravel path and recoiled into the tangled bowels of the rhododendron.
It was the tall one. Birdwinter, or something. But what the hell was he doing with that crossbow?
He stopped abruptly and gazed at the bush. He narrowed his eyes and cocked his head as if looking for movement within the confusion of branches and leaves. The ten bob crack whore stood rigid, her heart thumping like a blacksmith’s hammer.
He took a couple of steps towards the rhododendron and peered harder, but he spun around, startled by another set of footsteps.
It was the dark haired one with the pretty eyes and the fat legs. In one hand she held a dripping machete. In the other she carried a human head.
‘What ho, Birdy,’ she chirped, merrily holding up the head by its hair, ‘Look what I’ve got!’
‘Oh, jolly good show Lucia, you managed to bag beardy cry baby, good for you.’
‘I found him trying to bury himself in the compost heap on the far side of the walled garden.’
‘Well, fancy that.’
The ten bob crack whore stifled a horrified gasp, gripped a pair of branches and retched silently within the rhododendron.
Just like a game of hide and seek, the fat one had said.
‘I must say it’s nice to see a man take the time to stop and admire a nice bush,’ said Lucia.
‘Well…erm…, I thought it looked like a potential hiding place.’
‘Yes, it does look like a wonderful little hidey hole, doesn’t it, Birdy? We could go in and look together. How long have we got left to go?’
‘About…fifteen minutes…I think.’
The ten bob crack whore’s eyes darted deliriously around the hollow beneath the branches of the bush. It was at the edge of a formal garden, with only an expanse of lawn to flee to. She would be able to outrun the chubby one, but not a crossbow bolt.
There were now more footsteps on the gravel. That silly little blonde thing with the squeaky voice skipped around the corner holding some kind of spear about twice her height.
‘Oh, there you are darling. Hello Lucia,’ she said, breathlessly. ‘Just to let you know, Lord Boggart just managed to bag Pikey Pete.’
‘Oh how super, any details?’
‘Well, it was a team effort really. He was hiding up a tree and wouldn’t come down, so Lord Boggart got me to prod him with my halberd until he fell off his branch and then he cut his head off with a hatchet. It was terribly exciting.’
‘I got beardy cry baby,’ bragged Lucia, holding aloft her trophy.
‘Oh, good work Lucia darling. So that means we’re just looking for the ugly prostitute now, and we needn’t worry about that because Lord Boggart told me he can track her down by scent. He said Sekhmet blesses him with the magnificent nose of a lion during the hunt.’
There was uproarious laughter.
‘Come on, let’s grab another drink before we look for the crack whore. The downstairsers have brought out some pineapple chunks and a bowl of punch for us.’
The ten bob crack whore exhaled a long sigh of relief as they merrily bounced away on the gravel path between the wilted flowerbeds. But now she knew they were wise to the bushes. She would be discovered if she stayed where she was and they would…well, it was barely worth thinking about. She cast about frantically for a new hiding place. The formal garden was nothing but miniature hedges and neat flowerbeds.
To the left, she would have to cross three hundred yards of open lawn and vault a fence into a field full of high grass. A suicidal gamble.
If she broke out to the right, she would pass by the front of the house. Even if she wasn’t spotted, only the walled garden lay beyond.
And behind? She turned around.
She recoiled as two dull glass eyes peered back at her in the gloom. They belonged to a gruesome taxidermy lion’s head. From its mouth stared the ruddy, contorted face of Lord Boggart.
‘The magnificent nose of a lion,’ he whispered. ‘That is her gift to me.’
He brought the sharp end point of his hatchet up to her chin.
‘And you, dear, are my gift to her.’
* * *
‘She changes everything she touches,’ cried Boggart, raising his amulet to the sun. ‘And everything she touches changes.’
The Lords and Ladies had gathered once more before the long table at the centre of the walled garden. The heat of the day had gathered within its confines and now swirled lazily about the dusty flowerbeds and withering vines. The drummers once more beat out a slow, mournful rhythm as Boggart bawled out the incantations.
Alongside the sheaths of corn and apples on the table lay the heads of the ten bob crack whore, pikey Pete and beardy cry baby.
The Lords and Ladies stood in a circle, their hands joined and their heads upturned.
‘Let the drums beat,’ they called, in unison.
‘Let the words be spoken,’ cried Boggart. ‘Hail, Sekhmet, thank you for your presence this day.’
‘Hail Sekhmet, we thank you,’ echoed the Lords and Ladies.
‘The circle is open but not unbroken,’ said Boggart, his voice rising to a crescendo. ‘Merriment, Blood and Ch…’
‘What the bloody hell do you lot think you’re doing?’
A dumpy middle aged woman marched angrily up the narrow path between the ornamental flowerbeds and stared incredulously from Boggart in his lion headdress, to the altar, to the Lords and Ladies, to the downstairsers and to the painted drummers.
‘What the hell is going on here?’
Lord Flight approached her. He noted the oak leaf logo sewn into her green t-shirt, along with the words National Trust.
‘We’re making a film,’ he smarmed. ‘Nothing for you to worry about, dear.’
He glanced fearfully at Boggart, who was trembling like a human pressure cooker behind the table.
‘What kind of a film? Where’s your cameras and stuff?’
‘Well…actually…it’s more of an open air play. We’re in the middle of a dress rehearsal.’
The woman puffed up her chest officiously. She was not about to be fobbed off with Flight’s brand of flannel and gammon.
‘I wasn’t told nothing about this. Who’d you get permission from?’
The Lords and Ladies looked to one another, their eyes pleading for an answer, an explanation, anything.
Nothing came. Boggart appeared to be at a loss, his fleshy mouth opening and closing like that of a dying goldfish. Thresher stood motionless, glowering imperiously. The downstairsers barely acknowledged the woman and continued to orbit the Lords and Ladies with their silver platters and umbrellas.
‘No. I’m not having it,’ she snapped, wagging her finger. ‘This place has been shut since March because of all the dry rot, Mr Hetherington would never give you permission…it’d be against health and safety.’
She strode up to the altar and gazed at Boggart in bewilderment.
‘This is bloody National Trust property you’re on, lad’ she barked. ‘It’s not some playground for you new age pagan hippies to come and play with fake heads and lion outfits. Now get out and take all this rubbish before I call the police on you.’
There was a sickening rasp. The woman’s eyes widened in horror. She began grasping feebly at her chest. A scarlet Rorschach pattern spread its tentacles across her t-shirt, the tip of a steel blade glinting in the embroidered oak leaves.
She stumbled, knocking the table over and scattering the offerings across the lawn. She collapsed amongst them, gurgling and hacking on the parched, golden lawn.
Belinda stood grinning, brandishing the halberd, its blade drenched in the woman’s blood.
‘Problem solved,’ she said, matter-of-factly tossing the weapon aside. ‘Shall we have another drink?’
Boggart ripped off his headdress, flung it to the ground and roared, shaking his great mutton fists in the air.
‘Birdwhistle, you worthless, blithering son of a bastard Frenchman’s pox blighted catamite,’ he raged, jabbing his fleshy finger in Lord Birdwhistle’s face. ‘You scabrous, goat whoring cancer on humanity. Have you no control over your pestilent little harlot of a wife?’
‘But…she interrupted the closing ceremony,’ whimpered Belinda. ‘I thought I was helping.’
‘No, you vacuous little bitch, you were not helping,’ Boggart exploded, spinning to face her. ‘You were doing precisely the bloody opposite of helping.’
He began to pace, dragging his hands through his sodden red mop of hair.
‘But…we’ve spent all day…the contenders…the hunt…I don’t understand,’ stuttered Belinda, tears streaming down her little cheeks.
‘Good grief, woman,’ roared Boggart. ‘Is there anything at all to you beyond lips, tits and giggles?’
He dragged his meaty fingers over his face in exasperation.
‘It’s one thing to drag the drunks, loonies and druggies out their gutters, flop houses and hostels and turn them into contenders. Nobody even notices they’re gone,’ he hissed. ‘But that woman was a real person. When real people disappear there are questions. Investigations are launched. Police get involved. The secrecy of the order is jeopardised and the future of the games is threatened.’
‘But…if you’d let her live she might have told people…’
‘No, no, no,’ screamed Boggart. ‘There are protocols. We follow protocols. We’d have held her down, poured a bottle of Scotch down her, banged her head off a tree a few times and dumped her in someone’s front garden. Who’s going to believe some blackout alky about this if she can’t even remember how she ended up falling asleep on a stranger’s patio and pissing herself?’
Boggart turned away and booted the lion headdress across the lawn and howled in frustration.
‘What a mess. What a bloody mess.’
He turned to the butler.
‘Thresher. Protocol Seven Five. I want everything cleaned up, scrubbed down, packed up and everybody out of here within the next hour.’
‘Very good, sir. And the dead civilian, sir?’
‘Pack her up too. We can hardly make that one look like she hanged herself in the woods, can we?’
Thresher clicked his fingers and an army of downstairsers in grey boiler suits scurried away towards the house like a mischief of rats.
‘And as for you Birdwhistle,’ growled Boggart. ‘Don’t be surprised if you’re the butler next time. There have to be consequences for this. The Grand Council shall be informed of this shameful debacle.’
He stomped off, ranting and cursing under his breath.
Lady Flight led Belinda, who was blubbering and wailing inconsolably, away through the gate leading out of the walled garden.
‘I was only trying to help,’ she sobbed. ‘I just wanted to be the perfect hostess.’
Lord Birdwhistle stood, his hands trembling with shock, staring at the upturned altar and the dead National Trust worker.
Lord Flight sidled over and exhaled an acrid cloud of cigarette smoke.
‘Oh, come on now Birdy, cheer up. There have been far worse foul ups than this over the years,’ he said, putting his arm around his Lordship’s shoulder. ‘There’s been no real harm done here. Boggart will come to realise that when he eventually calms down.’
His Lordship nodded, resignedly.
‘Look, I’ll do my best to smooth it over for you on Monday,’ said Flight, slapping him on the back. ‘Whisper in a few of the right ears on the top floor, see if I can persuade them it’s not a serious enough transgression to get you demoted to butler. ’
‘You’re a good friend, Flight, you really are.’
Half a dozen downstairsers descended like a plague of locusts on the lawn in front of them. The apples, corn, stones, candles and severed heads were gathered up and thrown into plastic sacks and whisked away within a matter of seconds. Another retrieved the lion headdress and sprinted back towards the house with it under his arm.
‘I do sometimes wonder why we put ourselves through all this, I really do,’ sighed Lord Birdwhistle, wearily.
‘Well, it’s like I told you all those years ago, old chap,’ replied Flight. ‘If you want to rise beyond grade four in the Foreign Office there really is no other way but to join the order.’
Thresher glided silently over the lawn, hauled the National Trust worker’s corpse over his shoulder and trudged off, misery in his every step. He paused as he passed Lords Birdwhistle and Flight.
‘Will that be all, my Lords?’
Both men nodded and the butler continued on his way.
‘Actually Thresher,’ called Flight after him. ‘Could you call the copier repair people first thing on Monday morning? The one in my office has started making that ghastly grinding noise again…oh, and we need more coffee pods for the machine in the meeting room.’
‘Very good, sir.’
© DH 2020
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file