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Authors: Susanna Johnston

Muriel Pulls It Off

BOOK: Muriel Pulls It Off
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‘Light, gossipy, upbeat, based on a well-heeled, well-connected circle of friends and relations … good, stout-hearted stuff, in aid of a good cause’ ANNE CHISHOLM,
Spectator

 

‘A cheerily indomitable lot these Late Youths. Where did the old codgers go? Ain’t nobody here but us chickens’ PETER LEWIS,
Daily Mail

 

‘Pearls of wisdom from celebrities who have passed their half-century milestone’
Daily Express

 

‘Some hard-won wisdom, the stoniest of it from Peregrine Worsthorne, who writes that yes, people his age “are lucky to be still alive, but only in the same way as a lifer in prison is lucky to have escaped hanging”’ BLAKE MORRISON,
Guardian

 

‘Celebrities, all wrinkly and proud of it, give their view of what life is like once you’ve passed the 50-year milestone. Upbeat and often tongue-in-cheek as the authors write about what keeps them young … a wonderfully reassuring charity book’
Good Book Guide

 

‘An absolutely delightful miscellany – always good to shoot a paean for age and from such distinguished guns, too’ MAVIS CHEEK

Susanna Johnston

Muriel
Pulls It Off

An Unofficial Guide
to Country House Manners

 

To Maureen Freely,
with love and gratitude

M
uriel Cottle idled the afternoon at her friend’s antique shop, a
half-hearted
affair that operated within a curve connecting the New King’s Road to the World’s End. Throwing excursive glances towards the
glass-plated
door that opened onto the street and through which she saw shoppers whisk by, whilst she hoped that none would enter, she lit a cigarette, cracked each of her knuckles separately and fumbled in the drawer of her desk for chocolate.

Muriel’s attitude towards the opening of doors had changed since her youth when, weekend after weekend, she had lain in spare beds belonging to the parents of her friends; had watched and listened, after dark, for the turn of a handle and a ‘corridor creeper’ to lay claim. It had been exciting and not always had she been correct in her surmises as to who might take the liberty to enter. Sometimes these forays had led to chaos, but for the most part her group lived in a rush, and they were usually ready to escape the consequences by a Sunday afternoon.

A form darkened the glass. The handle turned and a dapper fellow entered the shop. He walked in mincing steps towards an Empire table that stood in the window, the clawed feet of which gave Muriel the creeps. In silence he ran his hand across the marble top, his expression showing it to be in need of dusting. Then he bent to finger every inch of its legs.

Neither spoke but the man’s interest in the table did not endure for he left it and walked, past the desk at which Muriel sat, to the back of the shop where he reached towards an oriental lamp that stood, green and mapped in crackleware, upon a shelf. He turned towards her enquiringly, and she winced as the telephone rang.

A strong and unfamiliar voice belted out, ‘Tracked you down at last. My name is Delilah. I’m the rector’s wife at Bradstow and I’ve been asked to have a word with you concerning your uncle.’

Muriel did not have an uncle and, lately allergic to intrusion, did not want one.

What was more, other than in the Bible or in a sickly song that went ‘Why? Oh Why Delilah?’ she had never heard of anyone answering to that name. Nor had she heard of any place called Bradstow. She did know from Lizzie, owner of the shop, and from Ellen, her part-time daily cleaner, that an unknown woman had been trying to get hold of her but had left no name.

The neat man pursed his mouth in impatience to be served and Muriel, speaking into the telephone, said, ‘I’m awfully sorry. Wrong number. I mean wrong person. I’ve never had an uncle of any description. Awfully sorry,’ and rang off. Whoever this Delilah might be, she was barking up the wrong tree.

She faced the man who held up the crackleware lamp and awkwardly asked for a discount. She negotiated a sale and agreed to wrap the object in bubbly sheeting as the telephone rang again and the neat man fidgeted. This time it was HRH Princess Matilda, youngest sister of the Queen, born the same year as Muriel and some seven years after Princess Margaret. Muriel said, ‘Sorry Mambles,’ - ‘Mambles’ was what Princess Matilda’s few friends were encouraged to call her - ‘I’ve got something to wrap. I’ll call you back.’

‘Don’t be a doormat Muriel. Tell whoever it is to wait. Tell them it’s me.’

‘I can’t. I’ll ring you back.’

She regretted having to use the same words twice but Mambles was dreadfully demanding.

‘I’ll be with you in a jiffy,’Muriel told the man. She loved the word ‘jiffy’.

There was a walk-in cupboard combined with a closet at the back of the shop and there she searched without success. The shelf where plastic padding and tissue paper normally lay was bare and she flinched as she heard the customer clear his throat and scuffle his feet. In the corner of the closet there was a large wooden chest. In that, with luck, she might find something with which to wrap the lamp.

On opening the lid she saw that the chest was full of old newspapers and guessed that they would have to do. Bending down she saw a photograph of herself in faded colour newsprint, although it might as well
have been in black and white considering the paleness of her face and the charcoal blackness of the Chanel suit lent by Lizzie for the memorable occasion. The newspaper was two years old and the headline that accompanied her likeness ran ‘Revenge of Cheated Wife’.

In less than a second her energy had dribbled almost entirely away. Her fingers, although not strictly clammy, stuck to each other in prickly dryness and her eyes watered. Ramrod stiff, she stared into the chest and raged against Lizzie. It was monstrous of her to have stored reminders of dire days. Monstrous, vulgar and disloyal. Lizzie did not pay Muriel to work in her shop, but regarded the dreary hours she spent there as a form of therapy, announcing, when Muriel was grumpy, ‘Seriously, Muriel, it does you good.’

And this was the second time that the flipping shop had brought upon her a bout of startling grief.

The customer called to her in a foreign voice as the telephone rang once more. Hoping to hide her stiffness Muriel marched back to the front of the shop to see the man dump the lamp upon the table of his earlier interest and mince his way out into the street. Although tempted, in her hatred of the shop, to hurl the lamp to the floor she picked up the telephone and yearned to be sousing herself in a huge, hot bath.

‘Has he gone?’ It was Mambles again in commanding mood. ‘Don’t forget you’ve promised me Saturday night. It’s only Thursday today so I’ve got a beastly wait. I’ve been having a horrid time with the nephews’ wives, and frankly, Muriel, you haven’t been much help.’

It had never been in Muriel’s scheme of things to find herself pursued, especially by the sister of the reigning Monarch. No more had it been in her scheme of things to hit the headlines. The Mambles business was an inheritance from her parents. Both now dead. They had been friends of King George VI; had, when he and his wife were Duke and Duchess of York, remained close during the abdication crisis and had each been appointed godparents to the royal couple’s afterthought when she came along. Muriel’s association with Princess Matilda was a pre-arranged and well-seasoned one.

‘It may be hard,’ Muriel considered, ‘to get into Mamble’s good books but it’s nothing short of impossible to get out of them again.’

In her time she had been downright rude to Princess Matilda; had once hung up on her when her demands became incessant. On that
occasion she had been windy for a while. Laise majesté? Either through loneliness, loyalty or thick skin Mambles had continued to persecute her. Marco, Muriel’s son, once said to his mother, ‘Me and Flavia think she’s in love with you. It’s the only explanation.’

Oddly enough this suggestion had set up in Muriel a sense of agitated well-being in spite of which, since childhood, she had dedicated much energy to the avoidance of being swallowed up by royal demands.

The headline business had been Hugh’s fault although, she had to admit, she had not handled the affair with common sense.

‘I’m sorry Mambles. Of course I’m coming on Saturday. It’s all been hopeless. A peculiar woman keeps ringing to say she’s married to a vicar and that I’ve got an uncle. I just fob her off.’

‘Why?’

‘Why? Well, I don’t know exactly.’

‘It might be exciting. If she rings again make sure to find out what she’s after. Don’t be wet.’

‘I suppose one should try not to be wet but, Mambles, the papers. The awful ones when Hugh had that affair and I flipped. Lizzie kept them all. They’re in a box at the back of the shop. I tumbled into them. I do think it was mean of her to hoard them away like that.’

She was livid with Lizzie; hated her, even, for the loan of the Chanel suit. Hated everyone who had played any part, mean or generous, in that horrifying episode. Lizzie deserved to be strangled with bare hands for squirreling the press cuttings.

‘Take them home and rip them to pieces. What do you think me and my family go through with the press? What about the abdication? It’s over Muriel. Over and done with.’

Of course Mambles was right but the grievance had returned too suddenly and was too heavy to discard without rehearsal.

As she returned the lamp to its original position on the shelf, closed the shop and walked the short distance to her small white-painted house in a nearby street, lists of old betrayals and little snubs pierced their way into the present and brought tears to the surface.

There had been the business of the bra. Her buttoned-up mother had not thought fit to send her back to school with one, although during a long summer holiday her bust had developed and wobbled with her every step. Nor did she have the wherewithal to buy one for herself. She
wouldn’t have known where to begin. After weeks of mortification on the netball court, she ripped up a pillowcase, and with lengths of elastic and a packet of safety pins, cobbled one together. The following term she swallowed her pride and, with pocket money, bought an old one from a fat friend who had outgrown it. That had lasted until she was given an allowance. Insults and injuries pursued her, and on arriving at her front door she decided not to go in but to carry on walking. She lived alone now; alone with a dog she didn’t love.

Her husband, Hugh, a radio journalist, had departed a year since for Johannesburg and continued to broadcast there. Jaw. Jaw. Jaw. Muriel, he had said, could accompany him but by no means had he been on bended knee; had in fact discouraged her, and she was having none of it. Of all places. He had, she decided, been fairly hopeless anyway, but perhaps one day he would miss her and return. Sometimes she missed him.

In earlier days Lizzie had indulged in brittle prattle on the topic of Hugh.

‘I have to say, Muriel, although I chose to live alone, I do envy you your husband.’ Muriel suspected that Lizzie had slept with him once or twice. Hugh had always been employable and extraordinarily handsome, but his looks, his back view in particular, showed conceit and determined right-mindedness. On holidays, particularly in Italy where they often travelled, he sought to display manly strength; to rootle out tiny forest fires and to extinguish them, single-handed, with improvised hosepipes. He would rescue underweight kittens from sewers and feed them with drips ingeniously constructed from corks and uncooked macaroni, while he spoke in authoritatively faulty Italian. As far as she remembered the kittens got left behind. Clearing his throat, Hugh often brought the car to a halt, however great the rush, to remove a wisp of paper from the road and to bag and bin it.

He slept with the wives of other men, overlooking the pain he caused his own, but was always conscientious with his condom.

Hugh had not always been a radio journalist. For most of their married life he had been a Member of Parliament, working for a constituency that bordered on Central London and which he was able to nurse from their small Chelsea house. They had been married for twenty years before he started to stray in earnest. Once he started he was unable to stop which tied in poorly with his goody-goody image, and there were
times when he drove Muriel nearly insane - so many lies did he tell. Yet she believed herself and Hugh, in spite of his absurdities which bordered on bogusness, to be indissolubly united. There was no good reason why they should not totter on together for, up to a point, she loved him and they were both devoted to their only son, although Hugh took more notice of whichever dog happened to be in residence. This was not a feature to unite the couple for Muriel had no patience with dogs.

A year before the hurricane blew, Peter, Hugh’s brother, a published poet and a bachelor, moved to a house three doors away from Hugh and Muriel. It was Muriel who had tipped off her brother-in-law when first she saw a notice on a board as she posted a letter. It was instantly obvious that Hugh was not inclined to spend time with Peter; propinquity or not.

‘Shouldn’t we invite him to supper?’ Muriel had asked.

‘No need. He’s always been a loner. Come to think of it, I can’t imagine what induced him to move in up the road. I always assumed he was up to no good in that dingy flat of his. Now I gather I was wrong and all he does is write bilge and smoke.’

At the start they saw only an average amount of their new neighbour, by occasional invitation or the odd chance meeting. Peter, although friendly, kept himself to himself and passed most of most days sitting at a window at the back of his house; writing, reading, smoking and fiddling with indistinguishable knobs on an unnervingly modern machine.

However, as Hugh spent less time with his wife, she took to popping in for chats with Peter, finding the arrangement comfortable, for the brothers, in outward aspect, resembled each other, and contact with Peter took her mind off the lack of it with Hugh.

During one night, without satisfactory explanation either at the time or at any later date, Peter lost his eyesight. Muriel remembered the event with curious clarity. Hugh had swallowed a handful of vitamin pills, swilling them down with a wholesome expression on his face, before leaving the house one working weekday. A Wednesday.

Ellen stood on tiptoe with a can of spray polish in one hand and a scrunched-up duster in the other when there came a loud banging upon the front door, causing both Ellen and Muriel to rush towards it.

Tessie, Peter’s Filipino helper, stood there, her face full of fear and drained of colour.

‘Mr. Cottle. My Mr. Cottle. Not your Mr. Cottle, Mum. He can’t see, Mum.’

Although fearful of interfering, Muriel offered help; cried for Peter’s loss and did all she could to assuage it; bringing Turkish cigarettes which he enjoyed and which were hard to come by. The involvement took her attention from her husband’s wandering ways. When the crunch came, it was from the blue.

On that summer evening as she walked along the Fulham Road after closing the shop, the pain of the episode pricked and the memory of her own wild acts filled her with fresh horror.

It had been plain to her, one winter evening as Hugh returned and greeted his dog, Monopoly, in strained accents in the hall, that calamity was about to strike.

It was not Hugh’s height or his gait or his features that had altered; it was his manner that was worrying. ‘I say, old girl,’ he said, as he made to kiss her cheek, ‘I was just wondering. Do you…er…suffer from cramp? You seem to be walking rather stiffly. It worries me.’

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