17 December, in the year of our Lord 2021
Up, and to my office, where a great pile of letters, and among them three from the Board of Health: the first enquiring of me if I still have an interest in becoming a vaxernator, for my name remayns upon their roll; the second from the same source, correcting a sentence contayned within the first, which should be replaced by another; the third from the same source yet again, indicating that the Board of Health should now like to withdraw completely the previose two letters. I wondered why this papertrail of ineptitude (since only last week did I tell them by the Messenger that they could call upon me), but on reading once more the first and second found each to contayne as an Appendix every private address of those to whom they had been sent — the irony being that to become a Board of Health’s vaxernator requires of applicants a certifycate for completion of their module on Data Protecktion. Fourthly, an appoyntment for a Boustertjab — but not for nearly a month! I wondered how they still allow Mrs. Cadwallader to preside over such incompitence — a toothless crone, as I imagine her, from the Crymea, living out her senescence on a pedestal of achievements long lapsed. Amongst the rest, a letter to raise my spirits from my father, may God preserve him, indicating the results of his being again fed through the Contryvance that sees inside his chest, for which we went together by coach these ten days, and that he is very much contented, for all matters of any import are un-changed.
All work done by five a-clock, it dark very early as night pinches the days towards the shortest, passed by the premices of the Physician, whence through the windows spilled a narrow shaft of light, the brightness of a great many candles from deep within, gold against the silver of the rising moon; this together with the muffled sound of much laughter, and the hubbub of merry conversation. With the impulsive thought to advantage myself of the lack of the customery file of people in the street, I in, the jangle of the bell announcing my presence. There found the anteroom empty and the counter unstaffed, but the air warm and heavy with the scent of nutmeg, clove and roasted apple, and the fan of bright light coming from the doorway behind the counter that opens on the backroom; and visible there, and moreso audible, an assemblage of happy souls, a dozen or more a-gather round some planks upon a trestle, thereby forming a make shift table upon which were set many mis-matched glasses, with mulled wine at various levels of drinking, and plates of all sizes and dishes with all manner of confecktion — tartlets of beef in verjuice, the eggs of plovers dipped in salt and lovage, a great Parmisan and marrow bone dip, jumballs in the shape of reindeer, pottage jelly, Twiglets; and all so engrossed in their raucous jokes and rowdy persiflage that it was several minutes before my presence at the counter was noticed.
‘Hallo, Mr. Peepshow!’ cometh a shout, its origin the pipsqueek and cocksure Erchin, who raises a glass and toasts, ‘Merry Christmas! What can we do for you?’
‘Well, I can see you are all very busy,’ say I, crossly, ‘but I was hoping there might be a chance to have my Bousterjab against the new varyant of the Covey plague, since I saw none waiting in the lane for it.’
‘It pains me to say we are finished for the day,’ says Mr. Erchin, affecting a pain I feel contrived.
‘Well, I feel you provide a cheapjack service in such trying times,’ say I. ‘For I find my existing appoyntment to be not until the eleventh day of January, while the Varyant plague threatens to march across the land!’
‘You have come at an inconvenient time, Pepys! Return tomorrow!’ retorts a mouth clearly half-full, but the voice I recognise to be that of the Physician and I catch sight of him there, hot and flushed as if himself mulled, halfway through a piece of peacock pie, which he waves dismissively. But what, by surprise, takes my eye more is the slender and elegant lady in red seated at his side, certainly not specially distanced, sipping a little sherry sack from a cut glass schooner, her head topped by an offset beret, her hair falling in an impeccable cascade over her smart bodice, her legs demurely crossed and her shoes flawlessly polished; and I feel with a certain pride that I might have taken her eye in the same fashion, for she scrutinises me with an air of amused curiosity, so that my collar feels tight in the cosy warmth and I must loosen it with a finger ere I speak again. I drag my gaze back to the Physician.
‘To compound my dissatisfacktion,’ say I, crossly, ‘I find my efforts to advance myself as a vaxernator spurned not once but twice by the Board of Health, and you to be having a Christmas party!’
Whereupon the lady decorously uncrosses her slim silk-stockinged legs, brushes off some tiny invisible crumbs, climbs gracefully to her feet and, glass in hand, makes her way with studied casualness toward me. Once opposite me she spreads her arms, places her palms upon the counter and leans teasingly across it till she is close enough for me to inhale the warmth of her breath.
‘Oh, Mr. Pepys,’ says she, huskily, ‘I think we would rather call it a work meeting — ’ … at which she reaches forward with a perfect slender forefinger, and with a perfect fingernail slowly traces a perfect line up my imperfect face, from my Adams apple across my chin, from my chin across my lips, and from my upper lip along the ridge of my nose, till it comes to rest perfectly on the spot between my eyebrows, like a benediction, so that I squint and see paired images of her faintly amused smile… ‘ — wouldn’t you?’
‘If you say — ,’ babble I, finding my heart a-race and my mouth dry. ‘I mean — .’
‘But what a sad tale of thwarted promise you do tell,’ continues the soft and breathy voice, as if in all the Universe it is meant for me, and me alone. ‘It upsets me that a man of such manifest…talents should find his aspirations crushed so. I wonder what I might do to…accommodate you?’
‘Accommodate me?’ croak I, immobile in the fixity of her gaze. ‘Who are you to accommodate me?’
‘I?’ At which she leans back, and with a languid and proprietorial motion of her arm indicates the assembly behind her, and laughs like a peal of Christmas bells. ‘I am their overseer, Mr. Pepys, their authority…their mistress. I am Mrs. Cadwallader.’
Whereupon she raises one eyebrow, coyly lifts the hinged counter, turns to rejoin the fray, and with a cockettish backward glance suggestively implies I accompany her.
Now happen two events in rapid succession. The first is that as I follow this bewitching figure in red, I am so mesmerised that I fail to see a stray candle lying upon the floor. I tread on it, which causes my left foot to roll away while my right remains in mid-air. My arms flail around my body, I fail to equilibrate, and I crash face-down in the shadows behind the counter, where the floor is littered with the overspill of Christmas cracker trinkets, stray peanuts and used latterale Flough Tests. A moment later the door bell is again all a-jangle. I feel the in-rush of cold street air and hear the rapidity of footsteps upon the floorboards. Two pairs of legs from the thighs downwards are briefly visible to me from my low vantage point, one that of a man rushing ahead into the backroom and the other of a woman striding purposefully behind. The woman is the first to speak and I know I have heared that slightly lisping voice before.
‘Well, this looks like a nice little — gathering, does it not?’ says she coolly. ‘Would you call it a Gathering, Constable Arnott, or would you not say it looked suspiciosely like a Christmas party?’
I climb silently to my feet unseen, dust myself down and position myself behind the door jamb to spy as the scene unfolds.
‘Party, if you ask me, ma’am,’ confirms her weskitted loyal underling, minesweeping for drinks. ‘This glass contaynes wine of the mulled variety, this a sherry sack, and this cheap cock-ale of the nastiest kind.’ By the time he has swallowed the evidence, all glasses are empty. ‘If you ask me ma’am, there has been a flagrant infringement of Covey rules. We have no option but to make arrests.’
‘This is an outrage!’ cries the Physician. ‘We are performing a public service to the loftiest of ideals for you and your kin!’
‘Well, the tidings I bring are less than good,’ says Mrs. Coachmichael icily, ‘for what we have witnessed here, I am sorry to say, is a congregacion of persons nothing short of illegality. The law requires we intervene.’
At which point I can remain silent no longer from my vantage point by the doorway.
‘And yet — ,’ say I.
Which surprise remark causes Mrs. Coachmichael to wheel round and her toadie to freeze mid-bite. Ruffled, she does her best to collect herself. ‘Mr. Pepys! How unexpected. I did not anticipate renewing our acquaintance in such circumstances.’
‘Nor I yours,’ say I, nodding affabubbly to her subordinate. ‘But since we are discussing matters of law and legality, is that alkerhol I can smell on your breath, Constable Arnott? For I believe drinking on duty to transgress Constabulary Regulations, a matter of sufficient seriousness that it might be reported to your superiors.’ At which I fix Mrs. Coachmichael with a steely stare. ‘For we all have superiors, do we not? Even a senior…Accessory?’
The room is silent as they exchange glances.
‘Well, on this occasion it is conceivable that we might — ’ says she.
‘ — might somehow be unable to pursue retrospective charges?’ say I. ‘My lips will be sealed — ’
‘Very well.’ And so, pursed-lipped and scowling over a mission foiled, they sullenly begin their reluctant retreat to the door.
‘ — for a small price.’
They turn sharply to confront me from the threshold, glaring danger from two pairs of furious eyes. ‘And what price would that be, Mr. Pepys?’ asks she, very precisely.
‘There is the small matter of pigs at large in the environs of the house belonging to Mr. M. Jones,’ say I, returning Arnott’s menacing stare. ‘I should take my wellington boots, if I were you…Constable.’
‘Watch your step, Pepys,’ snarls he to me, but to intimidate all. ‘I know a Nibble when I see one. And those Twiglets are bitter and burned,’ he adds, as a reason to spit their remains on the floor.
‘They have never been the same since Peek Freans bequeathed them to Jacobs,’ say I, blithely. To which he hath no reply.
The door slams shut behind them, though I suspeckt not to have heard the last from them. The gathering relaxes again, fresh wine is poured, the hubbub resumes, vigour is renewed and from somewhere comes the loud squawk of a party horn.
‘Well, Mr. Pepys,’ says Mrs. Cadwallader, placing her scarlet self so seductively close that she can make herself heard with barely a murmur, ‘it seems we are indebted to you for your timely intervention. I feel bound to offer you some kind of…reward.’ I can practically hear her lick her shiny red lips as she caresses my lapel. ‘Take off your jacket — ’
My mouth dries again and anything that comes out of my voice box is high-pitched.
‘ — and roll up your sleeve.’