Sunday, 3 October 2010

An Unexpected Glimpse Of Plunging Assets

This is not like me at all, but I have to confess; I am feeling somewhat fragile.

Dear Mrs Backfatt – my neighbour Gerda, from The Thieving Cow – arrived quite unannounced this morning for a visit that rather exceeded my stamina. The worst of it was, you see, that Ellis was not here. Henry has required him as a chauffeur this whole week long, which has tried the patience of all of us but couldn’t be helped.

Early last Thursday morning Henry drove himself to the railway station – or started to – but never actually arrived there because he had a little accident. Anybody could see at once that it was not at all Henry’s fault, and I fail to understand why the constable had to be quite so patronizing about it. Now that autumn is with us, on the days the Autumn Rains are not Clothing the Fields in Blessing (I am quoting from the Psalms) they are busy obscuring the lanes with mist; and so it was on Thursday.

Normally of course that is of no importance, had Henry not been reading his book about the Bates method of improving eyesight that (apart from drinking quantities of cider vinegar which is vile with or without the mother still in it) recommends dispensing with eyeglasses before any visual enhancement has actually taken place. Naturally this presents enormous challenges to any driver negotiating the Sussex lanes in heavy mist and intermittent precipitation, but Henry will not be dictated to, one can only watch and pray – or in Henry's particular case, just pray.

Quite apart from the mist and the absence of spectacles, I know from past experience how extraordinarily a bull’s head can resemble a grizzled old tree stump. Not until the creature moves does one's brain compute that this bulky object is, in the mammalian sense, alive – and then my goodness does it not give one a shock! Dear me!

The bull, the mist and the Bates method between them totalled the car: hence on Thursday morning when Mrs Backfatt called unexpectedly to introduce her dear friend Bathilde Gumbutts (at least that was how she said it though I suppose it could conceivably be rendered Gummbutz) visiting from the Rhein Valley, Ellis was somewhere completely else.

D’you know, I do wish people would check in the mirror before setting forth from their homes – I am forever having to remind Sybil of this – it would save so much unpleasantness if they would bother.

There are (too many) young ladies nowadays, we know, who wear their underwear as outerwear as a matter of course: it started with Grandad Vests in the 1970s and gained momentum in the extraordinary brassieres that Madonna identified as suitable attire in which to perform a concert (I still find that hard to believe), and now one is treated to vistas of adjustable strapping on every street corner. Why, even in church last Sunday, when a Christening party attended, underwear was ubiquitous in its most declarational manifestation. Christianity is defined as a revealed religion, and never has this been more evidently so than last Sunday morning two pews in front of mine. What puzzled me – and still does – is why a lady of considerable personal advantage, having arrived at worship in leggings and an entirely diaphanous blouse, beneath which very little is concealed from view or left to anybody’s imagination, should occupy herself throughout every hymn with obsessively tugging at her hemline to ensure that it has not ridden up the extra half inch that would lift it above the southern slopes of her buttocks. I tried to keep my mind on the Old Hundredth, but I must admit the view was too arresting to permit easy distraction. This irritated me a little, because I had intended to utilise my time at church worshipping God, not gazing in fascination at the depth to which elastic can sink within subcutaneous fat. My only consolation was the certain knowledge that under the reliable ministry of Coleshaw Grimm no Christening party has been known to make it back to the church for a second visit. But I digress.

My point was that Gerda can often be slovenly in just this department. Her neckline is often woefully décolleté, and the support mechanisms of her foundation garments frankly far from ornamental. But Bathilde Gumbbutz did not strike me as that kind of lady at all; on the contrary, I would judge it to have been her intention to dress with all modesty.

Ellis being absent, I had to call upon Mrs Swann to provide coffee, which she graciously did; and while we were waiting I drew the attention of our visitors to the vista of the lovely autumn colours through the drawing room French windows. And I have to admit I was baffled when Ponty, who for reasons of his own was still mooching about the house, remarked to me in a penetrating whisper laden with meaning: ‘Stock markets have fallen!’

How often and how ardently I have wished that Ponty might apply closer attention to the financial realities of life – but something told me this long-awaited evidence that fiscal awareness had finally dawned now might not be quite what it seemed at first – because why would anyone feel the need to whisper with regard to the stock market? We were not in church!

I looked at him blankly. With a curious twitch of the eyebrow and an incomprehensible jerk of his head, Ponty muttered through the side of his mouth: ‘Footsie One Hundred’s right down!’

At Château Mont-Choisi where I studied as a girl, my teachers reinforced what my dear Mama had always taught us: a lady must strive to feign interest in the conversation of her menfolk, addressing her attention respectfully to their pronouncements on the worlds of business, finance, sport, alcoholic beverages, war, cars and any other assortment of machinery, violence or personal achievement. This is now so ingrained a habit that for the moment I neglected my guests, directing a courteous smile in Ponty’s direction, with what I hoped passed for intelligent application to his remarks on the national economy. He appeared exasperated.

For a moment it crossed my mind to wonder if he might not have developed Tourette’s syndrome while I had remained completely unaware. After all, I have been very busy of late, taking notes at dictation in every available spare moment of Aunt Myrtle’s memoirs on providing wedding cake for her offspring in the Second World War. The principle ingredients seem to have been rhubarb and cardboard, which I found unexpected and evidence of significant levels of patriotic ingenuity. Talk about ‘Keep Calm And Carry On’! With multiple sideways jerkings of the head coupled with convulsive rapid-fire movements of his eyebrows, accomplished while alternately catching my eye and casting his gaze towards the floor, Ponty asserted: ‘Investments are plummeting on the emerging markets!!’

How I finally bethought me to catch his meaning I cannot account for now: I followed his glance and saw that, even as she gazed enraptured at the lovely reds and golds of our trees in the park, Mrs Gummbutts’ knickers had fallen down and lay in champagne silk folds around her ankles on the parquet. And she hadn’t even noticed.


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