Thresher sullenly pushed a broom across the dining room floor, broken crockery and shards of glass clinking as he shuffled along.
Tiny fragments and splinters littered every nook and cranny, glinting and winking under cabinets and chairs as the morning sun streamed in through a tall bay window.
Breakfast had been another riotous orgy of flying tableware, exploding glasses and rambunctious laughter at the butler’s expense. The guests had hardly touched the food he had served them, instead opting to pelt him with it as he tried in vain to clean up the debris. They had jostled, barged and insulted him as they barrelled out of the dining room, delirious with excitement for the day ahead.
Now he was alone, spattered in jam and milk, cereal in his hair. There was no use in complaining. He knew this was the butler’s lot.
Besides, they could hardly be blamed for being in high spirits. This was a big day for the house. The Games would soon be underway.
He felt an instinctive knot of excitement twist in his gut. It was followed by a searing rush of anguish and frustration.
There would be no Games for Thresher, not in the way he pined for. He was only the butler, and the butler’s job was to clean up.
Boggart’s unmistakable roar rung through the cavernous corridors of Pyewacket Hall.
‘Thresher,’ came the sonorous foghorn blast. ‘Get your idle backside out here this minute, you bootless worm.’
The butler took a deep breath and laid down the broom. He followed the sound of Boggart’s continuing tirade through the dining room doors. The stream of unhinged insults led him across the shadowy, wood-panelled grand entrance foyer, through the front door and into the blinding sunlight beyond. He emerged, squinting, on the broad, pillared portico overlooking the gardens.
The grounds before him seethed with activity.
A dozen or so downstairsers in grey boiler suits were milling around on the expanse of yellowing grass beyond the gravel drive, measuring out a wicket with a trundle wheel. Others weaved around each other carrying armfuls of croquet mallets and tennis rackets. Tables and chairs were being whisked off in every direction. Heavy canvas bags and long hosepipes scraped along gravel paths among the flowerbeds.
Further afield, a small marquee had been erected next to the entrance to the walled garden.
An untidy commotion of wine coolers, glasses and ice buckets were being arranged upon a long table within.
To the right, golf umbrellas were being held aloft over the heads of Lords and Ladies Birdwhistle and Flight. All four were laughing and gesticulating wildly as they watched a sylph-like female downstairser struggle terribly to push a heavy iron roller across the croquet lawn.
Gone were the dinner suits and lavish gowns of the previous night’s revelry.
The Lords wore plain white linen blouses and matching belted kilts. The Ladies wore loose ankle length sheath dresses cut from the same rough, drab material.
It had only just gone nine o’clock but the sun beat down mercilessly. It would be another sluggish, sweltering day.
‘Oh, here he is, the incredible invisible special needs butler,’ snarled Boggart, his eyes gleaming hungrily as he surveyed the ongoing preparations.
Along with a blouse and kilt, Lord Boggart was wearing his ceremonial headdress, fashioned from a tired-looking taxidermy lion head mount. A faded blue stone amulet hung around his neck on a thick gold chain. It was a crude carving of a bare chested woman with the head of a lion.
‘Yes, sir? You called, sir?’
‘No outsider issues, I trust?’
‘The lookouts reported no movement overnight and nothing so far this morning, sir.’
‘And the fallen tree?’
‘No sir, no traffic on the road at all, sir.’
‘Well keep ‘em lively and vigilant, Thresher. We’ve never been here before. The last thing we want is an unanticipated bunch of meddling old anorak-wearing bastards from the rambler’s association taking a shortcut through the grounds and wandering into the middle of all this.’
‘Yes sir, I’ll make sure of it, sir. Will that be all, sir?’
Boggart looked the butler up and down contemptuously.
‘Yes, for now, Thresher. But be warned – if you come down to the opening ceremony with your face still covered in jam and your hair all full of cornflakes I promise you you’ll be cleaning up your own intestines.’
‘Very good, sir.’
* * *
A long table had been placed on a sun-scorched lawn at the centre of the walled garden. It had been covered with a red cloth and scattered with sheaths of corn and apples. A red candle burned at each end and a wooden bowl filled with stones lay at its centre.
Lord Boggart loomed over it, clutching his amulet. He was flanked by two downstairsers beating a slow, ominous rhythm on a pair of kettle drums. Their faces had been untidily smeared with red paint.
Around them the red brick walls of the garden shimmered in the rising heat of late morning. Ivy leaves hung scorched and limp. Flowers lay flaccid and sunburnt in their neat rows and geometric patterns.
‘She changes everything she touches,’ boomed Boggart, raising his amulet to the sun. ‘And everything she touches changes.’
The Lords and Ladies stood in a circle before him, their hands joined and their heads turned to the cloudless sky.
‘Let the drums beat,’ they called, in unison.
‘Let the words be spoken,’ cried Boggart. ‘Hail, Sekhmet, I bid you to come, join us now and lend us your blessing.’
‘Hail Sekhmet, we bid you welcome,’ echoed the Lords and Ladies.
‘The circle is open but not unbroken,’ called out Boggart, his voice now verging on operatic. ‘Merriment, Blood and Chaos. The ancient decrees are in effect…Sekhmet commands.’
The drumming grew faster.
‘Pro ludo et lusus solus,’ screamed Boggart, raising his tree-trunk arms to the sun.
‘Pro ludo et lusus solus,’ yelled the others.
The drumming stopped abruptly. Boggart lowered his arms, took a deep breath and spoke slowly.
‘By the power invested in me by our ancient order and all its appendant bodies, I give the command to bring out the first contenders. Let us have our games! Let us honour the One Before Whom Evil Trembles!’
The Lords and Ladies let out a joyous cheer and the downstairsers started beating out a frenzied rhythm.
Boggart stomped off from behind the table immediately, a feverish zeal burning in his eyes.
‘Come,’ he yelled, waving his arms. ‘Come all ye Lords and Ladies. Follow me, it is croquet time.’
* * *
The big Nubian, baldy scarface and the toothless old hag trudged solemnly towards the croquet lawn, flanked by half a dozen downstairsers. They still wore the vile, unwashed sweatshirts and jogging bottoms of the previous evening.
They gazed warily at the Lords and Ladies as they approached. The hulking figure of Lord Boggart, resplendent in his lion headdress, stood front and centre. Thresher, now sporting a white hooded boiler suit, loomed ominously in the background, watching intently. On his signal, the drummers resumed their slow beat as the contenders were lined up.
‘Contenders,’ proclaimed Boggart, dramatically. ‘You three have been selected by the Knights of Leontopolis to honour Sekhmet, the Eye of Ra, by taking part in her Games.’
The contenders stood rigid, dumbstruck by the scene confronting them.
‘The rules of croquet are very simple,’ continued Boggart. ‘So simple that even sorry, blighted creatures like yourselves should be able to grasp the rudiments quite swiftly.’
He raised a meaty forefinger and continued.
‘You will each be led to your designated corners of the croquet lawn,’ he droned. ‘Once there, you will be fitted with the blindfolds provided. These blindfolds must not be removed whilst the game is in progress, understood?’
The contenders nodded dumbly, wide-eyed and jittery.
‘Then, on my command…and my command only…you shall leave your corners and proceed towards the centre of the croquet lawn,’ continued Boggart. ‘Once there, you will swing the mallets provided, the ultimate aim of croquet being to eliminate the other contenders. The last contender standing will be named champion and thus reap a champion’s reward. Any questions?’
Baldy scarface sputtered and spoke up.
‘Is…this, like, for real?’ he trembled, his eyes darting desperately from Lord to Lady to butler to downstairser.
The Lords and Ladies nodded back at him in unison, beaming from ear to ear. A look of panic spread quickly across his face.
‘Look, right…I was told we was just, like, actors in some murder mystery swingers’ weekend thing,’ he remonstrated. ‘I never signed up for none of this weird mallet fightin’ shit.’
Boggart was in his face in a flash.
‘You signed a contract with the Knights of Leontopolis, you verminous little stain on society,’ he bawled, gripping baldy scarface’s throat. ‘You will participate. Sekhmet, the Lady of Slaughter, demands blood.’
The big Nubian and the toothless old hag flinched and stared down at the manicured lawn, their breathing quick and their limbs tense.
Lord Flight eventually sidled over and put his arm around baldy scarface, who was fighting for breath in Boggart’s vice-like grip.
‘Listen up old chap,’ he smarmed. ‘Let me spell out the reality of the situation in a language that is perhaps more understandable to you. If you refuse to participate, Lord Boggart here will stove your skull in with a mallet. If you participate, you’ll probably get your skull caved in with a mallet but you’ve at least a slim fighting chance of walking away. What do you say, old sport?’
Baldy scarface’s eyes bulged from their emaciated sockets as Boggart glowered at him murderously from the depths of the lion’s mouth.
He tried to speak but could only manage a wet gurgle with Boggart’s thumb clamped on his windpipe. He began to nod wildly.
Flight slapped him hard on the back.
‘Jolly good show, old chap,’ he chirped, casually strolling back under the shade of an umbrella and slipping his arm around his wife’s waist. ‘You can put him down Boggers, he’s positively raring to go now.’
The big Nubian and the toothless old hag were slowly walked to their corners of the croquet lawn as if in a trance, their eyes alive with confusion and terror.
Baldy scarface was the first to be blindfolded. He started gibbering incoherently to himself as the hood was tightened.
‘Telly camera’s gonna show up any minute now,’ he whimpered to himself. ‘Sick candid camera bastards. Gone too far this time. This ain’t entertainment. Sick, sick bastards. I’ll sue ‘em, for this.’
Each contender was handed a croquet mallet by a downstairser and the drummers began pounding out a slow, mournful beat.
‘Pro ludo et lusus solus,’ cried Boggart, holding aloft his amulet. ‘In the name of Sekhmet, the Eye of Ra, let the croquet commence!’
The big Nubian immediately let out an anguished, bloodcurdling scream, sprinted a few paces into the centre of the lawn and began windmilling his mallet around in a frenzy.
The others tiptoed nervously from their corners. The Lords and Ladies roared and cheered from the side lines.
‘Gosh, how exciting,’ squealed Belinda, jumping up and down on the spot. ‘I do so love croquet.’
Thresher signalled to a downstairser in the toothless old hag’s corner. She was promptly shoved further towards the centre of the lawn.
‘That’s it granny,’ crowed Lord Flight. ‘Just a few more steps and you’ve got him.’
‘Participate,’ bawled Boggart, shaking his fists. ‘Get involved. Forwards, you pudding-hearted cringelings.’
Downstairsers milled around the Lords and Ladies with trays laden with drinks and cigarettes. Others swayed back and forth with umbrellas as they struggled to keep them shaded amid the excitement.
Baldy scarface blundered into the orbit of the Big Nubian’s mallet head and caught a glancing blow to the shoulder, causing his own weapon to spin out of his grip.
‘That’s more like it,’ came the cries from the side lines. ‘Jolly good shot, excellent croquet.’
He began desperately flailing around on the parched, discoloured grass in a bid to retrieve the mallet. The big Nubian, now on his trail, stumbled upon his prey’s ankle with an excruciating crunch. He brought his mallet down a few inches from baldy scarface’s head as he squirmed beneath him, screeching for mercy.
‘It looks like our man might get his murder mystery weekend after all,’ guffawed Lord Birdwhistle, sipping from a champagne glass.
‘This is not murder, Birdwhistle,’ muttered Boggart, leering ravenously as the big Nubian swung again, missing by just a whisker. ‘This is a worthy and noble sacrifice.’
‘Just a few inches to your right, big Nubian,’ screeched Lady Flight, her eyes filled with bloodlust. ‘Do it!’
His mallet swished through the air once more. There was a sharp splintering sound. Baldy scarface lay motionless in the centre of the croquet lawn, a dark red pool billowing slowly from his head across the dry, yellowing grass.
The Lords and Ladies erupted in gleeful whoops and cheers as the drummers quickened their beat.
‘Got to love the croquet,’ chuckled Lord Flight, plucking a cigarette from a passing downstairser’s tray. ‘As noble and as civilised a game as you’re ever likely to witness.’
‘Isn’t this lovely, darling?’ gushed Lady Birdwhistle, clasping her husband’s arm. ‘And such a beautiful day for it too.’
‘Yes, my sweet Belinda, simply splendid.’
Meanwhile, the toothless old hag managed to blunder into the back of the Big Nubian. She swung her mallet half-heartedly and struck her opponent on the hip.
He instinctively spun around and caught her at full force. The mallet’s handle snapped and the head was left embedded in the centre of the old woman’s face. She staggered around the croquet lawn, her arms twitching and convulsing uncontrollably for a few sickening moments before she keeled over, face down, with a gut wrenching squelch.
There was further wild cheering, whooping and whistling from the spectators.
‘Unmask!’ howled Boggart, maniacally. ‘Take off your blindfold, man. Spit on the bodies of your vanquished enemies, rejoice!’
The big Nubian ripped off his blindfold and stared at the grim scene before him. The croquet lawn was stained red. The sun-withered grass was strewn with skull fragments and slivers of brain tissue. Two bodies lay face down and motionless before him. His grubby, stinking clothes were now spattered with their blood. He tossed the splintered remains of his mallet handle away and gazed open-mouthed upon the annihilation he had wrought.
He looked up to see the Lords and Ladies clapping and grinning at him in delight. Lord and Lady Flight gripped each other and began kissing passionately.
‘Bravo!’ crowed Lord Birdwhistle, applauding heartily. ‘Exquisite mallet work, my man. Well played.’
The contender looked from the horrors of the croquet lawn to the adoring faces and back again, trying desperately to comprehend what had just taken place. He slowly lifted his trembling, gore-flecked hands to his face. Instantaneously, he bent double and vomited heartily.
Thresher silently rolled his eyes and curled his lip.
‘Lords and Ladies, we have a champion,’ cried Boggart, barely unable to contain his emotion, ‘Come hither, big Nubian, come hither.’
The contender heaved himself upright and hesitated. He approached Boggart apprehensively, stepping gingerly over the limp corpse of baldy scarface as he went.
Boggart clamped his colossal hands upon the Big Nubian’s shoulders, stared into his panicked eyes and spoke.
‘Contender, your prowess in the field of croquet has honoured Sekhmet, the Mistress of Dread,’ he announced, reverently. ‘Behold, these rays of sunlight, contender. She smiles upon us. You have pleased her.’
He closed his eyes and heaved a satisfied sigh.
‘Make for the winner’s enclosure, worthy champion,’ he said, affectionately patting the Big Nubian’s vomit-stained cheek. ‘You shall choose your reward when the Games are concluded.’
He signalled to a downstairser and the croquet champion was led quickly away by the arm, dazed and bewildered.
‘She changes everything she touches,’ cried Boggart, raising his amulet to the sun once more. ‘And everything she touches changes.’
He gazed upon the bloody carnage on the croquet lawn and smiled, beatifically.
‘Lords and Ladies,’ he said, clapping his vast bear paw hands together. ‘Let us go and slake our thirst in the shade of the drinks tent before the next event gets underway.’
‘Oh goody, cocktails,’ squealed Lady Birdwhistle. ‘How jolly.’
They began meandering arm-in-arm up a thin gravel path towards the walled garden. Several downstairsers fussed around in their orbit with umbrellas to protect them from the searing heat.
‘That was all very impressive,’ said Lady Flight, ‘but I must admit that I prefer my croquet matches to go on a bit longer.’
‘Yes, Lucia, there is something terribly invigorating and romantic about it when they go at it like Roman Gladiators,’ sighed Lady Birdwhistle, dreamily. ‘Sometimes one just can’t bear for it to come to an end.’
‘Exactly, Bel. Like the last time when they were bashing away at each other for twenty minutes or so. It gives a Lady a chance to enjoy her wine, light a cigarette and really savour the moment.’
‘Gosh yes, that was a jolly lovely day,’ enthused Lord Flight. ‘Absolutely top notch. Got him right through in the eye with her broken handle in the end, didn’t she? What are the chances of that?’
‘Yes, and we all had lashings of that delightful planter’s punch afterwards.’
‘And those adorable little cucumber sandwiches cut into triangles and arranged on the plate in the shape of a lion.’
‘Ah, yes, I remember those. That really was a thoroughly smashing day, no doubt about it.’
Boggart paused suddenly, turned and took one last look behind him. He waved his huge, meaty arm at Thresher, who appeared to be lost in contemplation at the edge of the croquet lawn.
‘Almost forgot…Clean that up, Thresher,’ he yelled, letting out a wicked cackle.
‘Very good, sir,’ muttered Thresher, sombrely surveying the tangle of blood, bone and corpses left strewn across the grass before him.
© DH 2020
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file