Chronicles of Halden, I
Alarms and Excursions
- Auksford, 2004 -
Copyright Robin Gordon, 2004
Next day Minnie awoke bright and early as usual, dispatched Andy schoolward with a good breakfast under his belt, sped smoothly through her household tasks and went to buy provisions. At her local corner shop the gossip turned to the rape case.
"Mrs Hodges's husband is a teacher at the school," someone said, and Mrs Hodges was expected to provide a wealth of inside information. How could such a thing have happened? How many boys were involved? Who were they? Surely she must know more than she was letting on, or if she didn't, didn't it just prove how secretive the school authorities were?
Andy's dinner was ready for him at the end of the morning. Neither he nor Minnie mentioned the rape, and each was glad of the respite from questions and speculation. Andy hurried off at his usual time, hoping not to be recognised by any fellow passengers on his regular bus, and Minnie followed soon after, bound for the big shops in the centre of town.
Lady Margaret was looking in the window of "Clara's", admiring a greyish-brownish tweedy outfit which seemed to have a hint of green or blue about it.
"The whole town seems to be seething with rape," she said, "Nobody can talk of anything else. I was going to suggest coffee in the Danish Room but here comes Mrs Lambert. Ciao, my dear."
"Wasn't that Lady Margaret?" asked Mrs Lambert. "What a pity she didn't see me. I did so want to talk to her about this awful rape business. We're both on the school governors, you know."
Minnie did know. She couldn't think of an excuse when Mrs Lambert suggested coffee at the Danish Room, and she spent a miserable quarter of an hour explaining that even though her husband taught at the school neither he nor she had any extra information, agreeing that there was a strong feeling in the town that discipline was lax and needed tightening and admitting that she had no idea at all how that might be achieved. Mrs Lambert seemed to be dropping hints and fishing for reactions, but Minnie, who had no liking at the best of times for having her opinion canvassed by politicians, found these sprats so obscure that even the most avid of mackerels might have missed them. In addition, Mrs Lambert's cigarette smoke, with which she was at great pains to fumigate both her own and Minnie's cream cakes, made Minnie's head ache and completely took away what appetite she might have had for coffee, cakes and conversation. She forced herself to consume the last tainted crumbs and to swallow the last lukewarm mouthful of coffee, told Mrs Lambert she was late for the hairdressers, said how much she had enjoyed their little chat, and sped away with a vague feeling of gratitude to whatever fate prompted the young man in the Humphrey Bogart mackintosh, who was sitting at the next table, to address some remark or other to Mrs Lambert even as she was gathering her hand- and shopping-bags to follow.
"I am extremely disturbed by what I hear, Mouse," said Canon Tollgate.
"Um _ oh ..., er, you mean this question of the ... er goings-on at the school," answered his curate, Victor Mouse.
"I mean," rumbled the Rector, "the 'goings-on' at the Young People's Fellowship - your Young People's Fellowship, Mouse."
"Discipline, Mouse!" said Canon Tollgate. That's the main thing."
"Er ... yes, Canon."
"You sound very doubtful, Mouse," grumbled the Rector, "I hope that it is merely your own capacity to maintain discipline that you doubt, and not its desirability, indeed necessity."
"Oh _, yes, er ... indubitably, Canon."
"I have had several complaints about the noise emanating from the Church Hall on YPF nights," observed the Canon. "I had understood that the purpose of a Young People's Fellowship was to promote the contemplation of the mercy of Our Lord and to strengthen the souls of our youthful parishioners by joint participation in prayer and spiritual communion with Christ Jesus."
"Well, yes, Canon, that is its main purpose, but we've got to attract the youngsters in _ er..., I thought we agreed on that, ... so we've got to... to give them things to do .., table tennis, and darts, and music ..."
"Is it not true, Mouse, that groups of youths and girls were pursuing each other round the outside of the hall, screaming?"
"Well, you know, when girls get excited they do tend to scream a bit ... they weren't making much noise_"
"Enough to disturb certain elderly parishioners who live in the vicinity - I will not say who, but my informants had the impression that a bacchanalian orgy was in progress."
"Oh no, I assure you, Rector, nothing like that," protested the curate, shocked at this misunderstanding of youthful high spirits.
"Perhaps," murmured the Canon, "it would be as well if you were to tell me exactly what did happen."
"Well ... nothing really," said Mouse.
"Mouse, do not prevaricate!"
"Well, it was just a sort of a chase. I mean it started as an argument over the table-tennis tables. You know there isn't much space there, so we all agreed that it was table-tennis until half past eight and then the tables were to be cleared away for dancing... I know you don't like the idea of dancing at a Church YPF, Canon, but its popular, at least among the girls, and quite harmless. They just like music. Mostly the girls dance together. The chaps just look on."
"Mouse, we agreed about dancing. I do not disapprove. Please come to the point."
"Well, at half-past eight there were boys at both tables and the girls wanted to dance and an argument started. The tennis players said that the agreement was for the dancers to wait until the end of any game that had already started, but the girls all claimed the boys had deliberately started a game just before half-past and that that was unfair, and neither side would give way. Then somebody snatched one of the bats and ran away with it, and the ping-pong players chased her, and a lot of other chaps joined in, and some other chaps and chapesses started dismantling the tables, and one of the tennis players snatched some records and ran off with them, and all the girls chased him, and that's when it all spilled out into the street with everybody chasing everybody else, though by this time a lot of it was just high spirits ..."
"You may think of it as merely youthful high spirits, Mouse," observed the Rector, "but there are those who must take a more serious view. You are probably too young to remember the last time the episcopal court was convened. It was a most unfortunate case concerning the then curate of Geddonthwaite and a number of boys from his scout troop. That too started off as youthful high spirits. It ended, I am sorry to say, in unfrocking, prosecution and imprisonment. I suggest, Mouse, that you spend the remainder of this afternoon in earnest prayer and supplication, asking God to strengthen you for the task in hand. We must all pull together, Mouse, to halt the decline in moral standards, and your first small task will be to restore the Young People's Fellowship to sobriety and a remembrance of their duty to themselves, their parents, and the Lord."
Mouse earnestly besought the Lord to grant him strength.
It had not taken Mrs Lambert more than a few seconds to recognise in the Bogart-mackintoshed young man a representative of the press, and less than a minute and a half had passed before she had contrived a departure which left him with no information but firmly convinced that here was a local politician with the interests of her electors truly at heart, and, moreover one who was not only sincerely devoted to the interests of the Press but recognised in her interlocutor one of the most fervid protagonists of truth and justice. Mrs Hodges had, however, totally disappeared by the time Mrs Lambert had reached the street. Silently condemning the whole confraternity of journalists to the blackest pit of Hell, Mrs Lambert made her way towards Milton's department store, smiling brightly at a number of acquaintances and near-acquaintances. She too had disappeared by the time Winston Greatbatch issued from the Danish Room.
Turning up the collar of his mackintosh he stalked in keen-eyed readiness in the direction of the new Civic Centre, thinking that to complete his new image of the journalist as private investigator a broad-brimmed fedora was an urgent necessity.
He turned aside to scrutinise the windows of a gentleman's outfitters, saw nothing quite to his liking, or for that matter within his immediate purchasing power, and was about to resume his course when his attention was attracted by the sudden animation of a group of hitherto listless youths congregated around the plinth of Mayor Garner's statue in the centre of the Town Hall Square. Wolf-whistles and raucous guffaws startled the scurrying shoppers, and Winston slipped swiftly into the tailor's, despite the inadequacy of its display of headgear, to avoid recognition and public greeting from his cousin. The warm glow which Mrs Lambert had imparted to the cockles of his heart was gone, banished by an icy coldness which spread its freezing grip outward from his stomach.
Lulu Greatbatch exulted in the warm sunshine, in the smart clicking of her high heels on the pavement, in the smooth and full, swelling breasts that raised her tautened sweater, and in the shortness of her thigh-revealing mini-skirt, the most daring length she had ever worn, covering her full, round bum, but little more. Her eyes glinted sideways at the men she passed, registering their rapid head-turns and relishing their swift appraising glances. Lulu looked good, and she knew it; Lulu looked attractive and she liked it; Lulu looked sexy, and she gloried in it. She saw the group of young men lounging around Mayor Garner's statue, and slowed her pace as she came within range, exerting every ounce of oomph she possessed. She was rewarded by their concupiscent leers, and the muttered words they exchanged, which she was not quite close enough to hear, as they surveyed her from head to toe, lingering on her protuberant bosom, ogling her nylon-clad thighs_ Lulu ran her eyes over the five young men, sizing up their shoulders and chests, their waists and hips, caressing with her gaze their jean-clad lower limbs, and pouting her approval in unmistakable invitation. Wolf-whistles rent the air, and cries of "Cor!", as the Town Hall Square talent spotters took in at close quarters the divine presence of the last of the great sex-goddesses. She moved slowly past, and as she did five heads in unison moved downwards and forwards, scanning from the exuberance of her breasts to the glow of her thighs, which paraded now scarce six inches from their noses, and from five throats in unison came a long-drawn, breathy "Aaaaaah!"
Lulu, oblivious of the mockery pervading this pantomime of ill-restrained lubricity, flashed her gorgeous eyes in a come-hither wink. One youth sprang forward, howling like a coyote, and his companions made a great show of holding him back as he strained towards Lulu, with sex-hungry tongue exposed in canine panting, while her fleshy buttocks and flashing thighs wiggled and swayed across the square to disappear amongst the shoppers. The youths laughed uproariously, and made sport of her in intentionally loud voices for some minutes, gradually tailing off into private sniggers, and eventually lapsing into their old glum apathy.
Canon Tollgate, who had witnessed the scene with distaste, strode grimly towards the Cathedral, looking neither to right nor to left, and failing even to acknowledge the salute of Minnie Hodges.
"Oh dear," she thought, "poor Canon Tollgate. He must be convinced that Halden and Swarrell are the new cities of the plain, what with the rape case, and what that strange Mr Thurston said about it, and his odd philosophy in its entirety, and now some people are complaining about rowdiness at the Young People's Fellowship. What a pity it's one of Hugh Greatbatch's dressing up days."
She paused outside a tailor's window and admired a brown tweed jacket that she thought she might just be able to persuade Andy to wear instead of the comfortably shabby, leather-elbowed, ink-and-chalk-encrusted garment which normally hung lopsidedly about his tubby person, with pockets distended to two or three times their original capacity, then she turned away still musing on the probable effect on Canon Tollgate's digestive tract of his encounter with Hugh Greatbatch in the full flower of his transvestite femininity.
"The Greatbatches were always such a quiet and sober family," she thought, "None of the others have any tendency towards exhibitionism - they don't even go in for politics."
She abruptly revised her opinion of the Greatbatch family when out of the very shop whose display she had been scanning there emerged a slouching figure in a long, white raincoat, its wide collar turned up to meet the broad brim of a dark brown fedora pulled low over its eyes. It glanced furtively to right and left, and, realising the street was clear of strange relatives, relaxed slightly and allowed its face to emerge from obscurity just enough for her to recognise Winston Greatbatch.
"Why, Mrs Hodges!" he exclaimed, rapidly smoothing down his collar and transforming himself from lurking sleuth into friendly reporter - Perhaps the fedora had been a mistake, the Tyrolean hat with the feather had a more jaunty and ingratiating air, but Mrs Hodges did not seem to mind, and so he pressed on - "I haven't seen you for some time, or Mr Hodges. He's still teaching at the comprehensive?"
Minnie smiled her affirmation.
"Such an unfortunate business this matter of the alleged er ... rape," murmured Winston, "I'm so terribly afraid that my colleagues on the Paper may blow it up out of all proportion. I wouldn't want anything to happen that would harm the old school. Of course, if I had the full story myself, I'd be able to make sure there was no _ you know... mudslinging."
"I'm afraid I don't know much about it," said Minnie, "and I've got an appointment at the hairdressers. Is that the time? I must fly."
"Nnnnng, MINNIE."' honked a nasal klaxon in her ear, and the nose of Rupert Todd homed in on her face, followed by the Deputy University Librarian's acrobatically contorted frame. He seemed to cartwheel into her consciousness.
"Oh, um ..., good afternoon, Mr Todd."
"Nnnnngh! Nnnnngh! Call me Rupert!" sniggered the Deputy Librarian, "After all we're old friends now, you know, Minnie. Actually, I'm looking for a boutique that sells early Renaissance table lamps. I was talking to the Gilchrist and Rundle Professor and he absolutely agrees that the History and Social Sciences Reading Room is in need of redecoration, and after consultation with the University Surveyor we decided on an Early Renaissance colour scheme with trompe-l'oeil panels around the top of the cornice in the gallery, and I thought it would improve the aesthetic image of the library if I could find some table lamps in the form of Early Renaissance brass candelabra. I was told that there were some in a boutique in one of the lanes leading off the Town Hall Square, but so far I've not been able to discover any trace of it. Perhaps I ought to have brought Rudyard Carver with me, cheee-heee-heee-heee... hee-hee-hee-hee. Mnnnngh, he knows his way around Halden like a native. Whchheee- heee-heee-heee-heee... khheee-hheee-hheee-hheee."
"This is Winston Greatbatch," put in Minnie Hodges. "He's a journalist on the Halden Courier."
"Mmnnghnnngh," honked Rupert Todd, addressing himself for the first time to Winston, "I'm delighted to meet you. I'm Rupert Todd, Deputy Librarian at the University. Ngh-nnngh, tell me, Winston, are you interested in the aesthetic aspects of interior decoration? I really must show you the new crystal chandeliers I've had installed in the entrance hall to the Department of Geography. They're genuine reproductions of chandeliers in the Deuxième Empire style, and of course, since the Department of Geography was built in the 1850's I felt it was most unaesthetic that it should be illuminated by light fitments of a later period, and of course the increase in elegance has brought about an immense improvement in the appearance of the entrance hall, though of course we shall have to replace the clock over the main entrance with one in a more fitting style, remodel the entrance doors themselves and rebuild the porter's lodge in order to get the full effect. The President of the Institut Vorochilov in Dijon has told me about the demolition of a chateau which might have suitable doors and panelling. The Surveyor and I are flying out there next week."
Winston nodded, smiled and murmured agreement, and Todd radiated satisfaction. Neither of them noticed that Minnie had slipped quietly away with an unheard quiet apology.
"There's a great deal going on at the University," continued Todd, "and that's one of the reasons why I'm specially glad to have had the opportunity of this meeting with you, Winston. You see, eünnnggh, I've always been very conscious of the importance of the media in putting important new developments on the maps and I think we could be of mutual benefit to each other. What I would really like to see - and I know it's been tried very successfully in other university towns - is a special page of news from the University. I think it's extremely fortunate that we should have met like this. I really do need a contact inside the world of journalism if we're to get anywhere with this idea, and I'm sure you're just the very person to know the best way of getting it set up!"
If the political genius of Mrs Lambert had caused the cockles of Winston's heart to glow, imagine the conflagration of delight that blazed in his breast at being made privy to the innermost secrets of so powerful and influential a man as Rupert Todd. "Our special University correspondent, Winston Greatbatch," he daydreamed, or perhaps "Our University Editor". Already the innermost workings of the policy-makers of the University of Halden were being spread out before him, and it delighted him to hear the mellifluously confidential tones of Todd now emphasising the importance of these intellectual giants by giving them their full titles, and then bringing them into his circle of intimates by the use of their Christian names. He felt he was now a bosom friend of assistant registrar Rudyard St.John Carver and the favoured confidant of Professor Beasley. The Vice-Chancellor himself seemed to lay bare his very soul and submit his every action, indeed his every thought, for Winston's approval or disapproval. Winston bathed and wallowed in the warming stream of flattery, leaving it to the lesser lights of his profession to investigate such minor events as the rape at the school. A trifling provincial scandal is a seven-days wonder. A journalist whose by-line makes page three of the nationals for a day or two over such a story, can easily slip back into obscurity. Careers are built on contacts, especially contacts with such well-placed and influential people as Rupert Todd.
Winston settled down to listen with pleasure to the Deputy Librarian's projects for reorganising the University Library on more aesthetic lines, reflecting that all that was really needed now to polish off the rape affair was the names of the rapists. Winston suspected they were the sons of influential citizens - and Colin had promised to get him those names by four o'clock.
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Chapter 7: Greatbatch cousins
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