Extracts from a diary:
On the Rebound
by Simon Barber
Allworthy (neé Amelia Bourne-Phipps) & her friends
(educated adventuresses all, and warrior priestesses, some)
encounter the world after Songmark Academy.
Having arrived and experienced England,
they may have to rethink their strategies & tactics.
Continuing from September 1937.
On the Rebound
by Simon Barber
the twenty-ninth part of Amelia’s Diaries. Having
tried the direct
approach to reclaiming her new ancestral estates and
Industries, Amelia falls back from a direct assault
to think again…)
Wednesday 2nd September, 1937
Dear Diary: if at first you don’t succeed, try again, as they always taught us at my old school of Saint Winifred’s. And my Father often quoted the military maxim; ‘time spent in reconnaissance is never wasted.’ I have had a first attempt at getting to Barrow-in-Furryness, and rather than writing it off as a failure I can now call that a reconnaissance trip by a scouting party. Which sounds a lot better, I admit. That folk were seriously out to stop me getting there, I knew since the day we left our aircraft on the South Coast and ran into that trap in Brighton. But the opposition hiring a couple of racecourse thugs and dope fiends off the street to set on me for a few pounds is one thing – being able to field an armed and skilled force willing to advance under heavy fire even after taking casualties, is quite a different kettle of fish. As Helen says, in Summer fish stinks ‘real quick'; and as she added, so does this situation. No argument from me about that.
So, having seen Miss Millwright safely onto her Spontoon-bound aircraft last night, we found a small hotel in the back streets near the airport, and got the maps out for two hours of planning. There are nine addresses on the list of introductions Miss Jenks kindly gave us scattered around the country, and to whom she has telephoned to let them know we would be traveling. Considering times and places, we need to fall back and ‘re-group’ before returning to the problem of the Allworthy estates and their untrustworthy Trustees. The Storm Bird should be ready soon – but its repair shop in Shoreham is sure to be watched, as will the London house. Once we get the Storm Bird in the air it should be a different matter; we can come in from any direction, pick our time and circumstances to taxi up to the docks at Barrow. But there will need to be a reliable force of more than three of us, and prepared for trouble, at our side and watching our backs the day we decide to do that.
At least we all survived the first attempt in one piece, which is more than we can say for some of the opposition. And for the time being I hope we have shaken off the pursuit – although we now have another problem. Driving in gamebird hunting season through the woods and moorland with the punt gun ‘cleared for action’ is one thing, but the local constabulary of urban, industrial Manchester might have things to say about it. It is well wrapped up in oilskin covers against the weather, but strapped to the outside of the car it remains a little conspicuous for folk who know about such things and what to look for.
This is not a part of the world I know well; travels with Father tended to be around the South, and most of my local knowledge I picked up from Prudence whose family fortune comes from nearby cotton spinning and wool twiddling mills. She may have been exaggerating a little, being both homesick and knowing she might never see here again (I can just imagine her turning up at one of these dour mill-owner’s mansions with her Spontoonie bride Tahni on her arm and announcing they are legally married. I can imagine their likely reception, too.) True, we did see local delicacies such as tripe and black pudding on the hotel menu last night – but those are standard in Yorkshire as well, both being part of a more general Northern cuisine. Prudence once claimed that not everyone in Lancashire ate tripe – apparently there were three reported cases in the law courts in 1915, but they were revealed and promptly shot as foreign spies under the Defence of the Realm Act. Not everyone in London lives on jellied eels, for that matter, there being foreign Embassies which have their own sovereign territory where their homeland rules and traditions apply. If there was a Spontoon Embassy in London that would probably be the only place anyone would be eating Poi right now around here.
Having waved farewell to Christiana yesterday (bound for her own first encounter with taro cuisine – we have warned her), we now have to face losing Maria. In fact, we decided to head South to hopefully pick up the Storm Bird, though not by the most direct route. There is the issue of the Bentley being rather conspicuous, now the opposition has spotted us driving it – not many of these were built, especially the ‘blower’ version which is conspicuous by having the supercharger sticking out of the front of the engine as if bolted on. It looks a little inelegant; the Lewes garage furs told Helen that it is a semi-official modification; many of the Bentley engine designers being sniffy about the idea and claiming it is not part of their engineering ethos. Whatever the history, it is not too suited to hiding in urban traffic where a ‘Baby Austin” would be far less obvious. And much easier to park.
We have all heard Ever Schiller’s proud boasts about the ‘Autobahns’ her Government has planned to connect her nation’s cities with a grand National scheme of ultra-fast, straight roads. I cannot see it happening here, while we have a rail network linking almost every town and village of more than a couple of hundred people. More so; since the railways were built by fiercely competing companies with no central plan, many places even have alternative routes, which covers breakdowns and accidents. I recall reading in school of how every company wanted their own line to Scotland for business and to the “Cornish Riviera” for the lucrative holiday crowds. That gave me an idea; there are far less obvious ways of getting the Bentley back down to the South Coast than driving it by road through heavily populated areas full of curious watchers who may or may not be friendly. Rather than the roads, we can put it on the rails.
Maria snorted and pointed out the axles of the Bentley are the wrong size to fit British railway gauge even if we took the tires off, and besides, she doubts the signal-furs and timetable folk would approve of us on their tracks dodging the express trains (not that we or the trains could dodge; that is the problem. As Helen often says, ‘that’s no way to run a railroad,’). I know there are armoured cars that actually are built with that in mind (and she was probably thinking on those lines; the Italian army has them) but that is not my idea. Railways have flat freight cars, which carry all sorts of loads including vehicles around the country, and it would be a very minor ‘halt’ that was lacking a goods siding and a loading ramp where we can get it back on the road somewhere unexpected. Of course, we will need to find a suitable freight depot to arrange that from; we can hardly just ask the next passenger train to Brighton if they can couple an extra flat car on the back next to the guard’s van to be dropped off at Plympton ‘to be called for’.
Today we continued heading away from Barrow-in-Furriness, which might confuse our pursuers as long as they are still expecting us to be working a way there through the hills. Urban, industrial Northern England is a very different setting after three years in the Pacific with beaches and palm trees. There is a lot of poverty, with miles of streets of back-to-back houses crammed in at maximum density, the air heavily scented of coal smoke and the buildings’ century old bricks stained dark with soot. Yet all these mills are the industrial might of the nation and the Empire; the Indian or African raw cotton being spun and woven here is clothing the backs of millions all over the globe. And poor furs have pride; even the smallest houses may have freshly scrubbed stone doorsteps, even if there is no feast on the kitchen tables inside. “Bread and scrape” is a common item of diet according to the newspapers, the ‘scrape’ being cheap margarine. One could indeed do worse than poi, which even its worst critic (Madeline X springs to mind) had to admit was at least nutritious.
Mind you, I can spot the fact that some things have not moved on much in the past century – the brick-built ‘privvies’ are outside still in the back alleys between the houses and obviously shared between several families, and traditionally bath-nights are said to be once a week in a tub in front of the kitchen fire. Barrrow-in-Furiness is likely to be no better (probably worse, after years of neglect) and that is something I will be responsible for putting right – if I ever get there alive. I may have the key to the theoretically swish London Town House, but technically I own a lot more front doors than that. Rather draughty, unpainted Allworthy-owned doors, no doubt. It is a good thing Liberty Morgenstern is not here; she would have a field day sneering at me as a bourgeois parasite on the workers. My real problem is, having now got an idea of the real conditions, on this particular issue she just might be right.
On the outside of the towns things look a little better; there are new roads by-passing the cramped centres, and we kept to those at higher speed in cleaner air. The Depression mostly hit the older industries in the town centres, and new factories of electrical goods, aircraft parts and such are lighter, healthier structures of glass and rot-proof asbestos rather than the old bricks and slates. We drove past some nice factory buildings in Art Deco style with curved glass windows and white tiled walls, not unlike the lidos we saw on the South Coast.
We were passing the outskirts of Liverpool when Miss Cabot, who was co-pilot, spotted a fur hitch-hiking. There had been several we had passed, not really having much room with Maria in the back seat, but Miss Cabot tapped Helen to pull over.
I took a close look at the hitch-hiker – a feline girl, British Shorthair like myself, but with fur of a rather darker shade. About my height but very skinny; one could hardly imagine her trotting around the sand dunes of Spontoon with a pack full of wet sand. She was wearing a very plain, Woolworths’ issue blue cotton dress, rather worn brown shoes, and had no pack or valise at all. She scrambled after us where we had pulled up (an interesting phrase, now I think of it; it works better for riding horses with reins rather than cars with brakes) and asked where we were headed. Shropshire, I told her, having the nearest of Miss Jenks’ friends on the list. At which she shrugged and said Shropshire would do as well as anywhere.
As we rearranged ourselves, Maria moving to the driver’s seat to make more room in the back, I made introductions. Miss Una, is the name our new traveling companion gave, though she hesitated a little first. I did not pry as to why she was heading to an unknown destination without as much as a handbag or an umbrella. Certainly she would have got very wet at that roadside if the rains came down, as they threatened to. Her accent was very broad Liverpool, and even I had some trouble working it out. Then, some people have an urgent need to get away, rather than towards anywhere in particular.
An hour of driving South-West took us over the Cheshire plain, pleasant leafy countryside in full end-summer greenery. Many of the older houses were black and white timber framed, much like the ‘mock Tudor’ we saw in the London suburbs, except that these were the original articles from the 1500’s and 1600’s. Some were leaning noticeably, but still standing – though we passed a few newer brick-built ones that were severely cracked and repaired, plus one that had collapsed completely.
Maria looked puzzled, saying she had never heard England was prone to damaging earthquakes. She has seen a lot of those in Southern Italy, she says, and the effects look familiar. But I could answer her that one, our Geography Mistress at school having a tradition of fascinating end-of-term lectures on the dangers of Geography. Deep under this fertile plain are great deposits of rock salt, which have been mined for centuries. At first the mining was like coal mining, hacking the dry salt out by muscle power and bagging it. But in recent years it is cheaper to just dig two boreholes, pump water down one and pump up the brine from the other, sometimes used directly in the chemical industries. There is no guarantee that the geology will give a straight cavern dissolved between well A and well B; basically the whole plain has a labyrinth of forgotten and unknown tunnels under it, and it is anyone’s guess as to where, when and how much the ground will collapse. The old timber-framed buildings survive a little distortion far better than brittle brickwork.
We stopped near mid-day in a woodland just outside a small country town, and Helen went off for a short walk with the entrenching tool. While the rest of us stretched our legs and I got the next map out, suddenly I realised Una was no longer there – and neither were the binoculars that had been on the seat next to her! I spotted a tail vanishing into bushes up a footpath, and with a warning shout, gave chase.
Una might have had twenty yards start on us and be running with the energy of desperation, but a Songmark graduate is well nourished and practiced at ‘track and field’ sports – plus interception, which is not something they have as an Olympic event. In half a minute I had caught and rugby-tackled her, bringing her down sprawling. Miss Cabot retrieved the binoculars unharmed, and I frog-marched Una back to the car, her arm twisted behind her back while I mentioned lightly all the ways a fur’s arm can get accidentally broken.
Well, we could have secured her with ten yards of towing rope and handed the light-fingered lady over to the nearest village policeman, but that would have tied us down too, while the mills of Justice went to work. Not what we want, being in some ways ‘on the run’ ourselves. Or we could have confiscated her shoes and abandoned her in the middle of the wood, miles from anywhere she knows. But every criminal deserves a fair trial, and if the local Constabulary are not getting the job we had to do it ourselves.
Helen growled in Spontoonie <“Self acts stern law-guardian, thou act kindly law-guardian?”> and I nodded assent, forcibly sitting Una in the back seat of the Bentley with us standing outside surrounding her, while Miss Cabot conversationally reminded her that we can run faster than she can, and we know all the tricks. Helen followed by reminding us what they do to sneak-thieves in oil-field towns.
Maria put back some of the Italian accent she has lost in three years, and suggested we do what they do to sneak-thieves in Sicily, expounding with a few very descriptive gestures. Miss Cabot said we should just let her go. Helen reluctantly agreed, but added we should take all her clothes as recompense. I just sat on the running board and suggested Una tell us her story.
Though she certainly missed out a lot of details, Una has good reason not to be heading home – those scars and bruises she showed us were not all recent, and one can almost count her ribs under her fur. She shrugged, and said the binoculars she hoped to sell somewhere to get money for food – as if she would just walk into a country village as a stranger carrying valuables and get handed a bundle of pound notes for it just like that. A poor girl and a poor planner besides.
Looking at her in detail, I spotted what I believe Miss Cabot had at first sight. She is an inch shorter than me and much thinner (but shoes and the right clothing could hide that.) Her fur, especially her head-fur, could be made to match mine near enough with a few hours’ work by a good grooming parlour. For fooling furs who do not know me and are working from photographs, that might be quite good enough, as long as she keeps her mouth shut.
After a rapid exchange in Spontoonie with my pals, I made the offer – we leave her here, with her clothes but minus her shoes – or she can come along with us. Lady Allworthy can use another maid, and Miss Cabot has a spare outfit that could fit with a little alteration. But that would not be her main job – there might be times when light fingers and a good (by most furs’ standards) turn of speed would be of use to the party, and on occasion she can act as my double. I did point out it was liable to be a dangerous job. On the other paw, she will have the same roof over her head and meals as the rest of us, something she is lacking. She can leave at any time by arrangement, but if she just tries to run off again – she knows we are faster than her.
Una thought about it for a minute then shrugged; as to the danger she said “I could’a got run owwer by a tram termorrer.” So our Kangaroo Court became a hiring fair, a much better outcome for all concerned. We even have legal precedent; courts used to give some prisoners the choice of prison or joining the Army, and that is one way of signing up a new recruit who can put their skills in Assault and Battery to more sanctioned use. Una does not take up much room in the back seat, anyway. Since she likes those binoculars so much, we tasked her with spotting any aircraft and letting us know – especially any autogiros.
That settled, we got back on the road and began heading South and West, into rolling green countryside. Late afternoon saw us passing through the county town of Shrewsbury, somewhere I spotted a large freight depot and mentally noted it for further use. There were vehicles being loaded onto flat-cars and covered with tarpaulins against the weather; the Bentley could join them nicely inconspicuously while we travel another route. A quick telephone call from a public box to the first of Miss Jenks’ friends confirmed they are at home and will be pleased to put us up for the night, so onwards.
An hour later our wheels were crunching the gravel drive of Bellington Hall, almost on the Welsh border. The hall is one I vaguely remember from the papers; it has a sombre double grove of dark cypress trees by the tennis courts. Something about a local vicar with unfortunate tendencies being murdered there in an innovative way that drew the acclaim of local landowners, as I recall.
Anyway, soon I was shaking paws with Sophie Bellingham, a thoroughbred mare and Miss Jenks’ second cousin or similar. She was pleased to see us; this time of year is rather quiet, with many folk abroad at the Casinos, or out on the distant fells stalking game. She spotted the wrapped shape of the punt-gun right away, saying her Grandfather had one quite like it.
We were shown through into the East Wing, where three rooms had been aired and made ready. Miss Bellingham (‘The right hon. Miss Bellington’ to be precise, denoting she is in a titled family even if she may never get the title herself) showed us on the way through the house the innovations she has put in since inheriting. Carpet tiles are very modern, and a great saving in heavily used areas such as the library and the drawing-room. I asked about the vicar in the cypress grove, and she smiled wistfully as she explained it was something her late Father learned from White Russian partisans in 1920 when over there lending a paw in their Civil War. An old folk tradition, usually involving a condemned traitor and two tied-down birch trees.
Helen went pale around the nose as she tends to, and was reassured the Season does not start till October. I can see she still needs a little more acclimatising to polite society. But I recall an old poem we learned in school; some of which went like:
“For England is a garden, and gardens are not made
By crying ‘oh how beautiful!’ and sitting in the shade…”
Certainly, a good deal of weeding and pruning is needed in any garden if it is not to revert to ‘natural’ wilderness, at which point it stops being a productive garden. Helen growled in Spontoonie that Eva Schiller says very similar things about her Chancellor and his plans, especially for expansion. Helen can be rather full of sour grapes at times. I refrained from mentioning her own nation’s famous ‘Manifest Destiny’ but it was rather a strain.
An hour later we were all bathed, dressed respectably and sitting down to dine (Miss Cabot and Una in the servants’ quarters; she is dressed as my maid and learning the role – secretaries and Companions get to eat at the main table, but Maria and Helen have bagged those posts officially). Rather a fine dish of gammon and fresh vegetables, and far better than the ‘blind scouse’ Una had mentioned was her usual fare at home! *
*(Editor’s note; ‘Scouse’ being the Liverpool traditional dish of cheap cuts of meat stewed with potato, carrot and onions. ‘Blind Scouse’ being the same – for folk who can’t see a way to buy any meat for it.)