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Authors: Jonathan Gash

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BOOK: The Grace in Older Women
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'We have a responsibility, Lovejoy,' Battishall began, glancing at
his recumbent lady. ‘We have invested heavily, in . . .'

'Preservation,' she sighed.

Preservation!' he agreed with pride. 'We have run short of
capital, Lovejoy,' he went on portentously. 'This is the most significant
project on earth. Once known, the world will be agog!'

Oh, aye, I thought. The lady drifted out of her decline to join
the general hilarity, exclaiming feebly, 'The world will be a place of peace
and love. True civilization restored, the glory of yesteryear! '

Straight out of Mrs. Gaskell, whose writing I like, but you can't
really say her stuff aloud and expect to be taken seriously. Except Roberta
Battishall was gorgeous. If she had access to some antique valuable enough to
gut her home and hearth for, then I could at least listen.

'And now we need funds to continue our onward march!' Good old
Ashley, recovering rank. 'Our righteous duty, Lovejoy!'

Righteous duty snuffs out more lives than somewhat, so I'm not
strong on those. But an antique is an antique is an antique -sometimes.

'Funds from where?' As if I didn't know.

'From a particular antique, Lovejoy. Our last one, which we need
to sell for the highest possible sum.'

'You have it?' I stooped to grovel, eager as a hound. Yet I hadn't
felt a single chime since entering the place, so there wasn't one within a
crook's reach. 'Here?'

'Not yet, Lovejoy. But we shall. It's a horse, Whistlejack.'

Who now cared? Not me. His horse could have sired a million Derby
winners and I still wouldn't give it time of day. Horse racing's the dullest
sport known to man. I once was invited to Epsom for the Derby, when involved
for a short time with a wealthy lady who had a string of thoroughbreds. It was
yawnsome. I'd sooner watch a hen sit . . . Hang on, Whistlejack?

'Stubbs painted a lifesizer called
Whistlejack
.'

'Correct. It will be ours. You will sell it.'

'How do you want it sold?' As if I didn't know.

'What sort of help?' A.I.I.D.K.

'Well, ah . . .' For the first time a little uncertainty crept in.
'Not what you might call
direct
help,
Lovejoy. Kind of. . .'

'Bent help?' I said kindly. Criminals hate words like crime,
fraud, deception. They prefer slang, especially upright bastions of the law
like Ashley Battishall and their lovely if ageing ladies that are keen to
restore civilization to its former grandeur.

He brightened. 'Exactly, Lovejoy! Capital description! But stay
mum. Right, dearest?'

'Yes, Ashley.' She was almost inaudible.

'Can't you give me a clue, just so's I could get things, er,
bending?'

'Afraid not, old chap.' Old chap now I was on his side. 'You'll be
informed the instant it arrives.'

Arrives? On its way, then? He wrung my hand to seal the bargain.

'One thing. What precisely do I get out of this?'

Roberta hid her face in her frail hands, sobbed at the outrageous
mention of such base stuff as monetary profit.

'You, Lovejoy, stay out of gaol.' He stooped to apologize to
Roberta, the sordid world entering her drawing room.

'Gaol? What have I done?'

'Your central magistry file is a foot thick, Lovejoy.' He didn't
need to bawl this bit. 'I have compiled a summary on your criminal past. You
will not survive a week if I choose to act. One word, and the police will be
investigating you for the next seventy years.'

Roberta was peeping from her phoney lace handkerchief. I swear she
was gloating, thrilled at threats, at her Ashley crushing my opposition.

I nodded, know defeat.

'That's my man!'

Was it? Was I? J looked at them both. Triumphant, sure, but a serf
is a serf. Only very rarely does servitude become loyalty. They'd made a
mistake, and mistakes have to be paid for sooner or later. You'd think people
in their position would know that. People in my position do.

'We welcome you to our cause, Lovejoy,' Roberta said. She extended
her hand. This time I went to take it, for the sake of appearances. I felt a
distinct pressure of her fingers on mine. In fact, if she hadn't looked so
delicate I'd have said it was just this side of a clutch. 'You will move in, two
days from now,' she added.

'Move in where?'

'Here. On my husband's orders.'

He managed to look unsurprised, but it was close. First he'd heard
of it.

'Sorry, love,' I said quickly. 'I've antiques to suss - '

'Mrs.. Beth Pardoe can wait, Lovejoy,' Battishall said.

Which made me gulp. 'Right. Two days, then.'

They let me go. I was told to wait at the servants' entrance, for
a radio taxi to come and take me to Sudbury railway station. As I left the
room, a maid arrived pushing a tea trolley. It was laden with enough grub to
feed a regiment. Sandwiches, a huge trifle, cakes, tarts. I drew breath to beg,
but the maid frowned me on my way. However close to death's dark door, the
lovely Roberta was quelling any lingering anorexia. I went to stand outside and
wait, thinking about Whistlejack.

Now, the horse called Whistlejack trod the springy turf about
1762, and pegged out soon after. Two legit honest genuine canvases of this nag
exist by the great Stubbs, one a lifesize painting of epic proportions, the
other a small rather mundane thing showing a groom with Whistlejack and two
stallions. Neither oil belonged to Battishall. Or was somebody stealing the
lifesizer for him this very minute? He'd said its arrival was imminent. But it
couldn't be thieved, not the huge portrait. So somebody was going to work the
shuff, were they? (Tell you about this marvellous trick when I get a minute.)
Which raised the question of who was a faker good enough to duplicate
Whistlejack's loving portrait. Two, in these parts, Packo Orange, in gaol. The
other was me.

The taxi took its time. I was late for Addie, and the determined
Juliana Witherspoon. I wish now I had been too late.

 

6

There's a thing called morale. Elusive, but there when it is, if
you follow. It's the stuff that makes banks obey you, and women place their
implicit trust in your every word.

But:

Its absence is misery plus everything worse. Without morale, you
might as well stay at home. My own tactic, seeing I lack morale most of the
time, is to give in. If my opponent's a man, I might brave it out. If it's a
woman, I chuck the towel in straight off. Instant surrender. The reason? It's a
woman's world. They say it's not, just so they can get the upper hand quicker,
but they know and we know. Life is their game. Women have the referee's
whistle. You might say I'd given Juliana W. the sailor's elbow, but that wasn't
true. I'd only rejected her scheme of funds for her parish church's wonky
spire. I'd not really spurned her
qua
her. And believe me, a crone is never a crone. There's a grace in older women
that is missing from younger ones. I'd even go so far as to say that older
women are preferable. Comedians joke that they're more grateful, but it isn't
that. It's the older woman's sense of looking, saying something worth listening
to, their friendliness even. And their understanding, which goes a long way
with rubbish blokes like me because it can lead to something so precious that
it cools your soul like sweet rain. That something is called mercy. Show me a
dolly bird who has any. But an older woman, just occasionally, has a depth of
mercy to sanctify a saint . . .

‘Piss off aht of it, Lovejoy,' the girl said. 'You make me
frigging sick, you gormless festering pillock.'

It had come on to drizzle, the railway lights reflecting in the platform.
I sighed. Back in the real world.

'Well, I'm broke.' I tried cadging off her, but nobody cadged off
Inge and lived unscathed. She's a real Valkyrie, Brunhilde, whatever the term
is for a five-ten blonde that could make three of me sideways. 'I've got to get
to the library for six.' Or was it the priory at seven? Or the castle?

‘Tough tit, prat.' She's from one of those ladies' colleges in
Cambridge University, has to keep down with the Joneses. She spits, belches,
drinks pints. Can't see the point of her behaviour myself. Going for the
vulgarity stakes might be tolerable when you're gorgeous, but she has weirdness
as Tinker has wrinkles.

The train came in. I had a quick think. 'If you see Jox, tell him
sorry but I tried.' And trudged off, or started to.

Her telescopic arm yanked me into the compartment. 'Jox? The way
you spoke I thought some whore -'

'Elegantly guessed, Ing.'

'Ing- errr, you poxy frigging moron. I'll pay your fare.'

We conversed, each in our own way, all the way home. The point
being that she's demented over Jox. He can't stand the sight of her. It's a
shame. They'd make a smashing pair.

'Look, Lovejoy,' she said, worried she'd only reached third gear
in her invective and we were already pulling in. 'Can I come with you? Meet
Jox?'

'Look, Ing.' Women always worry you. Lovelorn women are the pits,
worse even than weepers. 'It's only another of Jox's penny scams. You know what
he's like.'

'Please, Lovejoy.' Tears started her sniffing. 'If you'd only put
a word in for me, I'm sure he'd see me as I am.'

'Bus fare?' I bargained. I was already late for whoever it was.

'Yes!' She rummaged eagerly in her shoulder bag, and we made the
ten furlongs to the castle as the town lights came on.

Jox was holding his awards ceremony on the ramparts. A small
gathering of tourists stood observing Jox's lunatic goings-on, taking
photographs. I was clemmed, so had to go through with Jox's craziness for grub
money.

'Lovejoy! Nick of time!' Jox advanced, grinning. He wore a velvet
jerkin and leggings, tall thigh boots and a cavalier hat with plumes. Inge
groaned with lust. He shoved her aside. She looked thrilled.

'What're you doing tonight, Jox?' Me, asking for orders.

'Knighthood, Lovejoy. Plus a deputy lordship. Garb up, over
there.'

Under the wooden drawbridge before the castle doorway lay a heap
of mediaeval serfs clothing. Glumly I donned it, piled my own damp clothes, and
stepped into the drizzle.

The castle is down to its keep nowadays, but was once a major
structure. Spotlit at nightfall by our stingy town council - two glims of
faltering candlepower - the castle would look splendid except for its grim
disrepair. It stands in our town park by the war memorial. Here, two knights
withstood seige for King Charles I during the Great Civil War, and when
Cromwell's lads took the town stood to be shot to death on the greensward.
Lovers use the place for snogging, and bands for parping their Sunday umpahs.
There are pretty flower gardens, but that's it. Except for Jox's schemes.

By the time I joined him he was already reading out some citation
from a parchment from a heap of old stones. He had a phoney sword. A stout
Scandinavian stood humbly before him, head bowed. I wore a cloak that stank of
mothballs, leggings, black slippers and a beret, and stumbled across to join
them feeling a right prat. A lass weaved adoringly with a video camera.

‘. . . be it known for ever and appurtenances hitherto,' Jox was
intoning, 'that Sven Stromberg Hassellblad be henceforward and hitherto
aforementioned as Sir Gallant Kingscouncil of Coggeshall in this noble and
loyal county by authority and investiture pursuivant . . .' et fakedom cetera.

On his signal I stepped forward with the cushion, part of my set.
On it was a mock-up Order of the Garter, done by Sheer's cousin in Norfolk.
They're only resin-cast bronze, from the modellers in Charlotte Street.

He knighted Mr. Hassellblad with a flourish that almost took the
bloke's ear off. A sash, the dud insignia of the Garter, and it was 'Arise, Sir
Sven!' to a scatter of applause. Inge watched the phoney ceremony in tears of
admiration, loving every minute. She'd have given Jox an Oscar for his
performance, if not more.

After that we hurriedly changed back, thank God. And I became the
Superintendent of the Olympic Games. We walked briskly to the rear of the
castle, where the spotlights barely reached. Two lamps trailed wires from a
generator that coughed and wheezed nearby. The camera girl followed us. Jox was
now in a smart suit, tall and imposing. A midget flagpole stood by. Jox
whispered me instructions about the ceremony. Luckily it was one we'd done
before.

Slicer, mournful as an undertaker in bowler hat and winged collar,
was on hand with the Stars and Stripes. He had a battery-operated ghetto
blaster. Jox ascended the old mounting stone. I had the medal. An elderly lady,
dumpy, singularly old-fashioned and with puffy ankles, stood proudly before the
flagpole.

Jox nodded. Loud music made me leap a mile, Aaron Copland's
Common Man
blaring. I swear the gardens
wilted. Jox wafted it to silence. Another parchment.

'Be it known that Hilda Fratrina Benshawk of North Carolina today
won the Olympic freestyle fifteen hundred metres and is champion of the world
from heretofore. The United States of America!'

BOOK: The Grace in Older Women
4.03Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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