from a diary:
A TALE OF TWO LIDOS
by Simon Barber
Amelia, Lady Allworthy (neé Amelia Bourne-Phipps) & her friends
(educated adventuresses all, and warrior priestesses, some)
fly from Newfoundland across the Atlantic to Europe - August 1937.
A Tale of Two Lidos
by Simon Barber
Friday August 20th, 1937
A momentous day. I am writing this in a fairly grand hotel with a sea view, looking out over the twin amusement piers of Brighton. An early start had us in the air by seven (the days are certainly drawing in, quite noticeable when our rising at 4 a.m. is now before sunrise). As before, once at cruise height we shut down the centre engine, and kept a very close watch on the instruments of the other two.
From the Humber estuary we took our course down the East coast, and after the Lincolnshire Wolds had flat land all the way down. From the great sand and marsh dent of The Wash, we cut inland over East Anglia, Miss Cabot navigating with an eye to workable landing sites should one of the remaining engines give up on us. But although noticeably rough sounding, the two Alfa Romeos kept turning steadily and with a sigh of relief we crossed the traffic-crowded Thames estuary at ten thousand feet, seeing the smoky sprawl of London under our starboard wingtip.
Miss Jenks had phoned last night to her people on the South Coast, and we were all expected. A tense half hour of “feet dry” with no working watery havens across the hills of Kent and Sussex, and the white cliffs and shingle beaches of the South Coast came into view. Turning West along the coast, Brighton was easy to spot, the only resort with two piers – then we were descending onto what is nearly a lagoon, the mile-long strip of water that is Shoreham Harbour, cut off from the sea by a thin spit of land mostly planted with holiday villas.
Well! As we taxied up onto the slipways of the seaplane port, I confess to feeling a distinct lump in my throat. After carrying us faithfully all this way from the Pacific, for the time being the Storm Bird has come to rest on the nest – the large hoarding advertising “Alfa Romeo Aero engine agents and distributors” showed we had found the right place.
As we stepped down onto the concrete ramp with our passports in paw and spotted two Customs officials heading towards us with curious looks at the Storm Bird’s Spontoon registration and markings, it rather struck home that a very new phase in our adventures is starting. Though we stopped at Scapa and Brough, here is where we are officially entering the country and stop being passing travellers like sailors on a tour-boat who can get away without much paperwork.
Fortunately, despite our aircraft’s exotic registration, everything seemed to be in order and the officials did not want to tear the floats and fuel tanks apart searching for catnip oil or Nootnops Blue concentrate. The Allworthy passport held up well to scrutiny, as did even Miss Cabot’s. Helen’s unusual Spontoonie one puzzled them a bit, but everything was duly stamped and we were free to wander off into the distance should we choose to.
Actually, by the time we cleared Customs Miss Jenks was waving at us from outside the hangars as two large touring cars had tuned up complete with uniformed chauffeurs. Looking at the detailed map on the wall, I revised my scale of the neighbourhood – we are only eight miles West of her family home near Saltdean, not twenty. All this cross-ocean work has quite changed my sense of distances.
It took an hour to arrange everything at the Alfa Romeo agents, and to get the Storm Bird and the Dragon Rapide booked in for service. Five engines to dismount and dismantle completely; this will not be a quick (or cheap) job. The engine specialist was looking rather discouraged at the sight of our brave craft – he explained that the type is in Italian military production, which means their Reggia Aeronautica get first pick of all spare parts, and getting anything out of them can take weeks. Maria grinned at that and told him just who she was – and promised that as soon as she got to a telegraph office and “reported for duty” to her Uncle, her second telegram that direction would mention the problem.
Although I hate to agree with our former classmate Beryl, in this case it really is “not what you know but who you know.”
By that time, we had unpacked the aircraft and loaded our cases into the larger of the touring cars – leaving nothing in the aircraft but our toolkit, which is hardly going to be wanted elsewhere. It was only eleven o’clock, of a bright and cheerful day – no doubt the weather is saving its storms up for the Bank Holiday Monday at the end of the month (as I explained to Helen, it is a tradition here to pour with rain on all the days working furs have given to them to go and play in the theoretical sunshine. How the weather knows is a strange thing, but apparently it does.)
So; we waved our aircraft farewell with many a thought of ‘get well soon’ – and headed into Brighton. Miss Jenks apologised that she had urgent business in London, but should be free in a few days. We have her telephone number and address, and could use a few days to settle in ourselves. Luncheon was at a fine café on the sea front, looking down at the beach (what there was of it; the tide was right in, and the waves crashing up against the West Pier.) It is the peak of the holiday season, and without prior reservations, we will be hard pushed to find anywhere at any price.
Although Miss Jenks recommended the famous Bedford Hotel on King’s Road as ‘simply THE place to see and be seen,” I am not too eager to be seen yet until I have taken the lie of the land, so to speak. I left England straight from school, and of little consequence to the world at large – now things are rather different. As my Father told me, in some situations sticking one’s head up above the parapet is a very bad move – best use a periscope first (or even better, have someone else use one. The sudden appearance of periscopes usually attracted trench-mortar bombs, by Father’s accounts.) When she and her brothers left us, I had noticed in one of the back streets an accommodation bureau – and carrying my passport as Amelia Bourne-Phipps rather than Lady Allworthy, I decided to chance my luck there leaving Helen, Maria and Miss Cabot to enjoy jam and cream scones for dessert.
We happened to be in great luck – or so it seemed. The bureau was tucked away about a hundred yards from the esplanade, with an equine gentleman at the counter. As I approached I could see he was about to apologetically say he had nothing available – when he looked at me, and his expression changed in something like shock and recognition. He glanced down to something under the counter, and suddenly was very helpful. There had just been a cancellation, he informed me, and rooms for a week for four were available.
Considering I had not mentioned how many of us wanted accommodation, I felt my tail twitch a trifle uneasily. It just might have been a coincidence. Even if I have been recognised, there could be innocent reasons for that. Just because yesterday’s Daily Tabloid had no picture of me, does not mean today’s edition or another paper the agent might have been reading under the counter, will not. But, not wanting to look a gift horse in the mouth so to speak, I made further enquiries – certainly, up in the Eastern side of Brighton (old Kemp Town) a guest house conveniently has rooms. I put a deposit down on the spot, booking for the week, and he picked up the telephone right away to contact the hotel. Having booked, as I left he was right on the telephone again before I was out of the door.
Back to the sea-front café to spread the good news – and a quick conference as to how we should go about things. As in Macao, if I am the main player Maria will play the secretary (she has the portable typewriter after all), Miss Cabot the maid and Helen the chauffeur – after three years on Spontoon, she has no problems with driving on the correct side of the road. Besides, we already have the suitable outfits. Still, I am not planning to appear as Lady Allworthy just yet – so we hailed a passing cab for the luggage and took a short ride through the crowded streets up towards Kemp Town. I pointed out the splendidly exotic Indian style domes of the Royal Pavilion; the brainchild of the stout but amiable stag who was Prince Regent a hundred and twenty years ago (the fashion leader of all the Regency Bucks), and who practically invented the notion of going to the seaside for fun.
There are maybe half a dozen very similar streets in Kemp Town, leading down the hill to the seafront, all tall, narrow houses with classical proportions and elegant stucco frontages – a legacy of the old Brighton of genteel “carriage trade” before the railway came from London and acres of red-brick came to town in its wake. Our destination was the “Belvia Guest House”, a rather thin looking building five storeys tall (counting the sunken “area” with its walk-in basement under street level). Nothing to distinguish it from any other on the street – and even with a sea view, if one stands in one of the bay windows and cranes one’s neck to look around the corner.
The main feature of these houses seems to be stairs – five storeys of fairly narrow switchback staircase, the very solid polished wooden stairs uncarpeted and worn with a century of use. Our two rooms were the top floor ones – I went in with Helen, while Maria and Miss Cabot were across the hall. There hardly is a hall in the regular sense, just a landing with the rooms opening off it. Unlike the grand hotels of Spontoon, (and the grand ones here on the sea-front) there is no lift, and we did the usual seaside thing of paying the taxi driver to haul our cases up. I could see Helen rather bristling at this, but we are trying to stay inconspicuous and furs might notice a party of young ladies who could run upstairs with our cases without even panting hard. At least from the top floor we get a view; a sea view (sort of) in my case, and Maria had to be content with a seagull-covered roof-scape facing the other direction.
So: mid-afternoon and we were settled in, unpacking and relaxing somewhat as we changed into our “respectable” clothes. Definitely not a place to stroll around in flying kit, even if we had not left that back in Shoreham with the aircraft. Outside the streets were fairly busy; we are between the coast road and the “High-street” of Kemp town, the classically built area like North-South rungs of a ladder running parallel to the coast.
After settling in, we tossed a coin as to who got to use the hotel’s bathroom first, and I drew last go. Still, it gave me time to sort out maps and such before Miss Cabot knocked and called the room was free.
The bathroom was on the fourth floor, clearly an ex-bedroom and a fairly modern conversion, little older than me – when the house was built a century ago there was no upstairs plumbing and guests would have washed in their rooms using basins, with hot water brought up by the servants. It faces back from the street, into a narrow well-like paved courtyard just big enough to hold a coal-house, the original privy and the dustbins. The smooth, classically proportioned street frontage is very different from the rather random array of kitchens, wash-houses and service buildings crammed in around the backs. Still, one hardly needs to see a postcard quality vista from the bath, and front bedrooms with views command a premium.
The room was pleasant enough with a linoleum floor, the usual layout of basin, bath and toilet and frosted glass windows to deter onlookers (and in-lookers). I had just filled and settled into the deep cast-iron bath, relaxing, when suddenly a heavy blow struck the door. Not the sound of someone accidentally hitting it with a loaded steamer trunk coming down the stairs, either. There came a second blow, and the cheap door bolt began to tear out of the woodwork.
I found myself suddenly remembering what our self-defence tutors, Mr. and Mrs. Fairburn-Sykes, told us about this – when in danger, seize the initiative. I was out of the bath in a second, wetting the towel – the only swing-able item in reach – and just then a third blow burst the door right open, and a wild-looking ferret charged in, his eyes wide and a straight razor in his paw. I stepped back and swung the towel full power – catching him right over the eyes, something he had definitely not been expecting.
As he winced back from the blow, I looked down and in the alcove under the bath saw something more promising – a big cardboard tube of Vim *, with the usual perforated metal shaker top. As my assailant blinked and came at me again snarling, I grabbed the tube and ripped the top off – and let him have the contents full in the face. He screamed and lashed at me wildly with the razor, giving me the chance as he charged to grab his arm and use his charge in a Jude-Jitsu throw – right through the glass, out of the window.
Out in the corridor there was a second crash, and a figure flew past to land head-first on the landing. Maria was down straight after, jumping on what turned out to be a rather scruffy terrier, pinning his hands behind his back then sitting on his chest quite decisively – in fact too decisively for him to do much breathing. After a half a minute taster of that, she pulled off and demanded that he talk – unfortunately it seemed on their first encounter upstairs (when he had the ill-manners to pull out a blackjack and try to threaten her – little he knew) as he was not behaving as I had described an English Gentleman should, Maria had broken his jaw rather comprehensively with an elbow strike before throwing him downstairs. So his powers of conversation were not at their best.
While Miss Cabot telephoned downstairs for the police, I looked out of the window – the ferret with the razor would not be doing any talking either. Four storeys down to a flagstone courtyard had seen to that. Oddly, there seemed to be fumes rising from his body.
While awaiting the police, we did a quick check of the rest of the building – nobody else seemed to be at home; the aged porcine couple who had let us in were absent from their post in the front room, and nobody replied from the other six rooms when we knocked. Of course on such a fine day they might be all out sunbathing or riding the tourist attractions at the pier, or they might not. We seemed to be quite alone in the house.
For a minute I looked at the scene, imagining how it would look to the Police. There was a bar of soap only wet on one side – I thought of making a slick of that on the floor, to make it look more as if the assassin had slipped on that and fallen more accidentally. But honesty is the best policy – and besides, they would be sure to check for soap traces on his footwear. So I dressed and in another minute Miss Cabot in her maid role was opening the door to a constable.
The next two hours were rather busy. The constable took one look and blew his whistle, and soon another two appeared, and more senior policemen were soon on the scene. It seemed a good time to use my Lady Allworthy passport – and explaining we had been trying to stay incognito awhile.
By eight o’clock I was being interviewed by a Detective-Inspector Barneson, a rather dapper collie hound in a neatly cut tweed suit. He explained that they had identified the two attackers – the ferret who had taken the high-dive was “Zincy” Jones, a well-known small crook and one of the “race-course mob”. (Detective-Inspector Barneston said the nickname was due to him having reputedly drowned a rival in a galvanised iron bathtub, though nothing was ever proved in court) and the terrier “Slick” Jackson, a known subordinate of his. Apparently the fumes I had seen rising from “Zincy” were from a smashed bottle of vitriol he had carried in his pocket - something apparently the local crooks carry as backup, guns being extremely rare in the local crime scene.
Fortunately for us, our story checks out completely, down to our names in the register downstairs and the guest-house owner still being conveniently away. Very strangely for this time of year, though the other rooms are all in theory booked according to the register, there is nobody else staying here tonight. Evidently someone has gone to an enormous amount of trouble setting a trap for us, with either amazingly fast or comprehensive planning. This was no long-planned and publicised visit of ours to Brighton; we might have pushed down the coast to Eastbourne, after all. One could expect this kind of thing in Vostok if the local Secret Police forces take an unhealthy interest in you, but hardly in England.
I explained to the Detective-Inspector that I had expected to ruffle some fur and feathers arriving to take over the Allworthy inheritance, but not that it would be so extreme or so soon. He nodded thoughtfully, and mentioned that as soon as my name had been mentioned in the main Police station, telephones had started ringing – one call being from a Major Hawkins, who I last met on Spontoon and knows my ‘case’ rather well. He then asked where we would be going next. Rather a poser.
If in doubt, keep it simple. We have paid for these rooms, and for the next few days we are resolved to stay in them. One downside is it looks as if someone knows where we are – but that ‘someone’ spotted us very rapidly as it was, and moving to another guest house (assuming we can find one) might not help. Besides, we are forewarned about this now and are on our watch. Having rooms in an otherwise empty building four storeys up above street level reached by a creaking staircase is no bad defensive spot.
The Detective-Inspector took my point – but asked that we keep in touch, and gave me his office telephone number. He does not seem too concerned about exactly how “Zincy” went out of the window – the broken bathroom door and suchlike have been examined dutifully, and with the character of the two assailants, the attitude seems to be that we have done the Municipality of Brighton a service. Apparently Major Hawkins has hinted that four Songmark girls can be expected to look after themselves, and not to start any trouble (as opposed to finishing it.)
So – by nine o’clock tonight we have a constable patrolling the street outside, the crowd of onlookers has dispersed, and we have secured the rooms as well as can be. Not the way I expected to spend my first night in a relaxing holiday resort!