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 LidosTuesday August 24th, 1937
by Simon Barber
Back to London! My brother Clive having telephoned last night, we have a luncheon date. Last time I saw him was the week before leaving for Songmark, in August 1934… it seems a lifetime ago. Father is still out of the country, advising the Norwegians of the best anti-tank defences for their strategic outpost on Jan Mayen island.
So, another bright-and-early start for the 7:45 train, this time jumping on a convenient bus that was heading along the seafront when we got there. Never go and return by the same route and method, we have been taught – and we know for a fact furs are watching us with unfriendly intent. On a street lined with guest-houses full of tourists in August, it is almost impossible to spot anyone ‘suspicious’ – there are always folk with cameras and binoculars, usually trained on exotic seabirds on the shore (and bathing belles likewise. Some of the modern two-piece costumes are getting quite daring.)
The weather continues fine, and the green slope of the Downs looks inviting indeed, as we steamed away from them heading Northwards across the plain away from the coast. Branch lines and tiny halts flashed past us constantly; there is very little of this country more than three miles from a train line or five miles from a station, except for the wilds of Wales and Scotland. Long may it stay that way!
Helen wants to take another look at that Bentley touring car in the Allworthy garage; from what Mr. Clumber says it had broken down, been towed in and abandoned before any mechanics had time to take a look at it, in the general panic and confusion of its owners’ flight overseas. So we might have a chance to get it running again without needing to purchase spare parts or have it towed to a repair garage. We agreed it was certainly worth trying.
Having purchased a London street map yesterday and spent an hour studying it last night, once at Victoria station I had a better idea of which bus to take. Quite possibly there is a booby-trapped taxi awaiting us in the taxi rank; they are in for a disappointment today. In a way, not knowing the perfect route to take is an advantage; rather than a predictable direct line A to B, we arrived at the town house after walking a few streets from the nearest stop on that bus route to Golders Green. If we do not know exactly which way we will be coming from, it will make us much harder to ambush. There is the downside that the Belvia Guest House and the Allworthy town house are fixed targets, of course.
Anyway, by nine we were ringing the bell of the town house again, and this time when Mr. Clumber let us in I requested a set of keys. Front, back, cellar “area” door, and the garages as well. Now one can really say Lady Allworthy has taken possession. It gave me quite a shiver.
Miss Cabot asked if I was planning to live here – something that made me pause for thought. A house like this is not a modern convenient family home where a housewife can just run the vacuum cleaner over the carpets for an hour on Sunday mornings. Old-fashioned places like this are not set up to run without a staff of at least half a dozen, and probably more – there are eight open coal fires to keep cleaned and tended, to start with. A long way from a Spontoonie longhouse, where I could cook on the fire-pit and sleep securely with the door open. Plus, the place has not been lived in for years – despite Mr. Clumber’s caretaking efforts, it would take a fully-equipped team a few days to get the place really clean enough, especially the kitchens. Running a century-old town-house is a full-time occupation for a professional team just for day-to-day living, let alone hosting dinner parties for a dozen guests as the size of the dining-room table suggests. When this place was built there were not even gas lights, let alone electricity. Fortunately now it has both, and the utilities companies have not yet cut us off for unpaid bills.
So, I could definitely reply to Miss Cabot – “not yet.” Or in the foreseeable future. Having the keys, we took another look in the garages – happily the extensive toolkit is intact, probably deemed not saleable enough unlike the kitchen silver. There were two sets of mechanic’s overalls hanging up behind the door, which Helen promptly grabbed for inspection. They fitted her and Miss Cabot best, being too long for me and too slender for Maria.
Looking at the manuals I found in the toolbox, my ears went right up as I realised just what I now own – a 4-and-a-half litre “Blower” Bentley tourer, with supercharger! A ton and a half of canvas-topped tourer, with four seats and a small boot at the back supplemented by a sort of shelf by the spare wheel that is designed for a big hamper for picnics and suchlike. Maria found the hamper in the storeroom next to the garage; a traditional-looking wickerwork affair with a waterproof aluminium lining. The Bentley is ten years old, but there is very little wear and tear evident and it has not set wheel on the road for the past seven years. The tyres need air of course but are otherwise good as new.
We found sealed cans of oil and petrol, distilled water and battery acid in the storeroom as well; everything needed. Helen shooed Maria and me out while she and Miss Cabot worked; there are only two sets of overalls and hardly room for four people to work on the engine with the car inside the garage.
That gave Maria and me the job of taking a closer look around the house. We decided to work through it top to bottom – literally, starting with the attics. Ten small rooms, each just big enough for a single bed, wash-stand and room for a trunk. All cleared; evidently the servants had time to pack their valises when things became clear the Master and Mistress would not be coming home, and there would be no more wages. Little things remained, like a vase of dead, dust-dry flowers on a window-ledge.
I winced somewhat at the idea of investigating Leon and Susan’s state bedrooms – but someone has to do it. The Police have already been through the house seven years ago and presumably removed any ‘incriminating evidence’ of anything blatantly nasty. Everything will need to be disposed of one way or another; that couple are buried side by side in a prison yard in the Gilbert and Sullivan Islands, and will not be wanting their wardrobes any more.
Just as I recall how Father told me of how the Engineers search through a village abandoned by the enemy, I wanted to check there was nothing lying in wait with the equivalent of tripwires or time fuses primed – physical or otherwise. While Maria waited outside, I calmed myself and ran through some of the rituals Saimmi taught us as part of our Warrior Priestess training. I explained to Maria, it is not quite as if the contents of one particular drawer started glowing to my vision – it is more like getting a second, separate sense of smell, and hunting down the source of the stink with it.
The drawer had been locked, but the lock was forced when I examined it – possibly by the police investigation. Inside was a ledger, titled the “Cosmopole Theatrical Agency.” Or at least, part of a ledger – the only used pages had all been ripped out, leaving just the innocently blank ones. I held it for a minute, considering things. If I was still getting a reading from a book with no obvious information, the information originally in there must have been… extreme. And the Police would have taken the whole thing had it been intact and full of incriminating material when they arrived; tearing up evidence is not their style at all. It feels more like the kind of thing its owner might do at the last moment, not wanting to be loaded down with a hefty leather-bound volume while fleeing.
I will definitely have to investigate this harmless-sounding Theatrical Agency.
Returning the book with a shudder, I looked through Lady Susan’s room. The wardrobe was half empty, but still held a dozen dresses in the style of seven or eight years ago – long out of fashion and not in my size anyway. But at one end of the rail was a selection of fine quality Harris tweed shooting jackets and a choice of skirt and trousers in the same material. These hardly ‘age’ in style and are generously cut to go over the top of whatever warm clothing the weather demands, so are not tailored too precisely. I have seen photographs of formidable Victorian and Edwardian era ladies standing on mountain peaks and crags wearing similarly formidable tweeds. Maria examined the fabric and says she has seen bulletproof vests that feel similar. That is something I might have a need for.
Naturally, I was not going to even try wearing anything owned by Lady Susan Allworthy without taking a very good look at it first, in more ways than one. There is no physical scent (except moth-balls) after seven years, and a few minutes of purifying ritual hopefully dispelled anything less obvious. I will certainly need something like it to wear in the open-topped car, should we get that working. With a final check of the garment, I took a deep breath and put it on. In the mirror I looked surprisingly… fitted to the part, much as I recall the well-dressed ladies attending Father’s shooting parties on the high moorland when I was a kitten. Not quite town-house style, but I hardly plan to make a base in London anyway.
It took another two hours to sort through the rooms, making two piles – that which is useful or needs further investigation, and that which can go. I doubt any legitimate heir to the Estate will really want to wear Lord Allworthy’s singlet or waistcoats; when living here he was evidently not as fat as he later became, but still a definitely bulky wolf.
Just then my ears perked up at a sound from the back of the house – a large engine turning over. There is constant traffic in the street at the front of course, but this sounded different. Investigating, we returned to the garage to find Helen wiping her paws on a rag with a triumphant expression, while Miss Cabot sat behind the wheel with the engine ticking over with a throaty purr. We have heard many engines in various states of health at Songmark, and as Helen says, this one “sounds real sweet.”
Well! Helen says that for whatever reason the car had been deliberately sabotaged – the electrical leads in the distributor had been not just cut but some of the wiring removed. Helen has replaced them, an improvised job working enough to prove the engine works otherwise. A proper repair with the official spare parts should be about half an hour’s work, she says.
Excellent news, and timed nicely for luncheon. While Helen and Miss Cabot put the tools away and cleaned their fur, I locked up the rest of the house and made ready to depart. The tweed outfit I stowed in the hamper we found; in an open-topped vehicle we are liable to need it, so it should go along with the car.
It struck me that I really need to find out more about the last days of the Allworthies in England, now that I am stuck with picking up the pieces. Who sabotaged the car, and why? Where is Leon Allworthy’s only known child, the half-ovine girl? I have only heard what people such as Miss Jenks remember from the newspapers at the time (and a long time ago! Back then, I was a humble third-form kitten at Saint Winifreds, with my main worries in life the next hockey and lacrosse matches. Golly.) I have no real idea of who was involved, and how much I can trust their version of events should I manage to find them to ask.
Talking it over with Helen, Maria and Miss Cabot, Helen says that I need about three trustworthy teams to get to the bottom of it all. A household team to keep a base secure (as she puts it), an accounting team to look very hard at all the ledgers these Trustees presumably have, and a bodyguard team to watch my back while I work. A daunting prospect, in terms of investing time and money. Worthwhile, if I was planning to stay as Lady Allworthy rather than return to Spontoon next year as Mrs. Hoele’toemi. After various matters are resolved, of course.
Still, that is for the future. We locked up and left by the back way, into the mews (built along with the house for the stables and carriage-house) and were soon back on the London pavement keeping our eyes wide for danger. None appeared except the usual traffic, which even outside rush hour is quite hazardous enough.
Back to the Army and Navy club – the concierge had another note from my brother saying he is already there; he was sent for, and turned up a minute later. Clive is four years older than me – he had joined the Army the year before I left for Songmark, and he has his commission as a Lieutenant in the Tank Corps. Not for him the staid Engineers; I recall him being fast and furious on a bicycle, then a motor bicycle, and now his “Mk. VI Light” has an even bigger and noisier engine. Plus, no chance of getting a puncture.
Quite a meeting – he first signed us in as Guests, and the concierge bowed saying it would be an honour – with a shock I realised I have become (in theory) Respectable – for anyone who had never heard of (or has forgotten) the original Allworthy family.
Clive is a shorthair like myself * , and indeed in his military fur-trimming his head-fur is very short indeed. He has definitely filled out as well – as he joked, it is all that bump-starting the tank on cold mornings. For all the jokes about Army food, there certainly seems to be enough of it. (I could almost hear that Liberty Morgenstern from Red Dorm sneering "IF you’re an Officer.”) I have often written to Clive of course, and he knows the basics of my situation… if not quite the details, such as my status on Kuo Han. I skimmed over that for now, and concentrated on the present – such as the various attempts to render the Allworthy line entirely extinct.
Clive did not seem as shocked as I expected – he admitted that when he heard I had become Mrs. Allworthy, he had asked around, and friends had asked their friends and vicars – Society has quite a ‘bush telegraph’ and replies came back putting him in touch with people who knew the story. Luckily I had written to Clive and to Father the facts of my “Marriage” – Clive agreed that the world was better off without Leon Allworthy and his sister, and knows I am no gold-digger to have gone anywhere near them for the money.
Luncheon in the club is very civilised, and not the “Bully beef and Navy beans” Helen whispered she had half expected. All the troops get quite enough of that on exercises, no doubt. Nor is there any Maconichie, even in the field these days – instead there is what Clive calls tinned “M and V” as in Meat and Vegetables. No doubt very different from Maconochie, which was… also Meat and Vegetables, now I think of it.
My brother joked that unlike some of his tank squadron, he still has a full set of teeth to eat it with. He explained that the Mk. VI Light is a very tall vehicle, and has what on a car one would call a short-ish ‘wheelbase’ – so when moving at speed over rough country, any fur standing in the turret is going to get pitched back and forth pretty violently, despite having something like handlebars to hold onto. Some commanders have got the edge of the hatch in their teeth, and a few been thrown out of the vehicle completely. But having a tall tank gives him a fine view and field of fire, which apparently on a Light is the whole idea. Feline balance and reflexes have stood Clive in good stead and kept him in one piece.
Maria had quite a lot to ask him about current events. She had been looking around London the past two days with a rather puzzled expression, I had noticed. As Britain is currently ruled by the New Party as founded by the late Baronet Moseley, she had been looking around for giant posters, parades, reassuring bands of black-shirted furs on every corner ready to tackle trouble… and is a little baffled that there are no such things to be seen. What sort of Fascist government is that, she asked plaintively.
Clive laughed and assured her that is not the way we do things. We have seen the newsreels of massed crowds marching and saluting in Italy and Germany – but the British work differently. Rather than grabbing the nearest shotgun, forming ‘squadrati’ or ‘Freikorps’ and running out into the street waving banners when they have an issue to address, one neighbour chats with another over the garden fence, talks it over with his friends in the pub of an evening, and quietly decides to get things done. No fuss, no broken windows, no burning anything down. Clive says that like many folk he has a neat black ‘direct action’ uniform in the wardrobe at home, decorated with the lightning-bolt and forward arrow symbol and everything, but now unworn for three years. Like those silly wide trousers ‘Oxford bags’ that were all the rage ten years ago, they are quite out of style.
Maria just shook her head; I had told her much the same, but like any good journalist she always wants a second source for any hard-to-swallow story. The same sort of thing happened in the 1920’s when we had a left-wing government but it never threatened to be a full-scale Revolution with Red Terror and blood in the streets. The King and Parliament carried on, enacting the policies furs had voted for.
Similarly, Clive says, unlike Italy and Germany we have no need of massively re-arming to go and carve out an Empire – as we already have one. What the Government is doing is putting the effort into making the Empire into less of a collection of countries ruled very indirectly from the Colonial Office, and more like counties of Britain. Exotic ones to be sure. Air travel and radio is making this idea more realistic all the time – the old system was fine when Africa and India were weeks of sea travel away, and Governors had to act pretty much on their own. Of course, things go both ways – the first Indian nobles are already sitting in the House of Lords (or would be if Parliament was in session), and other loyal Empire chiefs will follow. As will Members of Parliament for Gibraltar, Bermuda, Pitcairn Island and all the rest.
Maria scratched her head-fur and opined that is a funny way to run a Revolution. But then, that is exactly the kind of thing the New Party is avoiding. Over the years quite a few furs who no longer feel at home with their ideas have packed up and left, but the climate of New South Sion (the Australian one, not that unlikely religious atoll we helped settle) is much sunnier. Even if we do miss out on getting the exiled German Sprocket Scientists. And quite a few militant Reds have, at the cost of their passports, been given free ‘Assisted Passages’ to New Haven or Ioseph Starling’s ‘worker’s paradise’ – and good luck to them. If things over there are not quite as advertised, they can try their luck telling Starling or the Council of Nine what they are doing wrong.
Clive had to get back to his duties, but it was jolly good luck we met up with him. He says if we go through Barsetshire, although Father is away “Uncle” Bill Bridges now lives next door and will be very happy to see us. I explained to Helen and Maria that he was Father’s adjutant all through the Great War, survived hazardous duties without a scratch and seemed destined for high rank when in 1928 he was severely injured in an accident with an automatic lawn-mower; he was invalided out of the Army retiring with only the rank of Captain. This gave him a rather sour opinion of the whole popular gardening cult, and now he spends his time writing decidedly stinging ‘alternative’ books on the subject, under the pen-name of Captain Pontoon. Seeing that I went to Spontoon that is rather a coincidence, even if he did spend a lot of time in the Engineers bridging rivers with pontoons!
Clive had a word with the Club Secretary about our ‘tactical situation’ and with his permission we left by the building’s kitchen door, and jumped on a bus for half a mile before walking into the Allworthy townhouse – also from the back.
An idea struck me – we now have working transport! I trust Helen’s quick repairs will last to get us back to Brighton, and as we are taking the toolkit we can surely fix anything that comes loose en route. So we filled the fuel tanks (there is a two-gallon emergency one) loaded the back seat with whatever we thought looked useful from the house and got the Bentley out into the mews. Then the little matter of who is to drive.
We are all equally qualified to fly anything with wings, but the only motor vehicles I have driven are staid lorries around Spontoon’s Eastern Island, and those Vostok-built utility vehicles on the empty crushed coral roads of Main Island. Nothing like London traffic! Helen has driven down a lot of dirt roads in the Texan backwoods, but again, that is nothing like a big city approaching rush-hour. Maria has driven Bugattis around Rome, and says after that she has no fear of anything British motorists can do.
Three years ago, it would probably have been safer to take our chances with the assassins than to let Maria drive. But she has calmed down considerably – so I took the front passenger seat (almost calling it the co-pilot’s seat, by long habit), Helen and Miss Cabot piled into the back, and off we went!
Fortunately it was not rush-hour; all the furs who will be heading out to the suburbs in their Morris and Jowett saloon cars were still slaving away over desks and shop counters for another hour. So we made good time over London Bridge, past the cheery old Elephant and Castle pub, then took the southern roads, looking for signs to Brighton. With only a basic map of the country in the back of my London guide we could hardly find the fastest route straight away – more of a pinball-like bounce between suburbs and country towns starting to get buried in suburban spread like an old tree strangled by ivy. A very different matter than aerial navigation – and at five thousand feet one never has to worry about oncoming steam-rollers on blind corners!
Even so, by five we were in sight of the South Downs, and signs read ten miles to Brighton. Our route took us through the county town of Lewes – which was the big county market town centuries ago when Brighton was a few fisher-furs’ huts by a beach, and nobody had heard of bathing for fun. As the Bentley made light of the steep hill up from the river to the old town centre with its castle and genuine (not mock) Tudor buildings, I had an idea. The car is a definite asset, but if we park it in front of the Belvia Guest House the opposition will know straight away – and we will be forever checking it for newly installed wiring and mercury tilt-switches every morning before we can use it.
Helen agreed to the plan – keep this ace in the hole as long as we can. So we negotiated a week’s garage parking, and Helen pointed out to the mechanic the work needing to be done on the distributor, whenever we are not using it.
There was the little matter of what to do with forty pounds of punt-gun, the seven foot length of which we had strapped to the outside of the Bentley. Not the kind of thing to commute into Brighton with; someone might notice. The garage owner suggested a traditional gunsmiths’ shop on the High Street, barely a hundred yards away. A capital idea – for one thing, we have no ammunition yet, and if we had, I want that young cannon checking over professionally before trying to fire it. It might not be just the Bentley that was sabotaged, and the cartridges are the size of a hand grenade.
Actually, the sight of a tweed-clad pedigree girl lugging a large sporting gun accompanied by her maid, attracted surprisingly little attention in the county town. ‘Smethwicks and Sons’ was still open, and displayed a large range of hunting shotguns in the window – all the famous makes the Allworthy gun-room once had on the walls. A very grey-furred squirrel wearing pince-nez spectacles was behind the counter and welcomed us; he had the ‘closed’ sign in his paws ready to put up so we were only just in time.
Mister Smethwick (senior, I presumed) hardly batted an eyelid when I dropped the two-bore on his shop counter and explained what I wanted. Although he did say he had not seen one like it for several years. I left it with him and let Miss Cabot handle the details while I went out to take a look around.
The town of Lewes is on a steep inland spur of the South Downs, running East-West about eight miles inland. It has all the old buildings Brighton has not, and the ancient castle, courthouse and such have been here many centuries. In fact, Lewes Jail is where two of our assailants are currently held. The steep hill we came up (three hundred feet of about 1 in 5) from the river is lined with fine houses from the 17th and 18th centuries, quite a bustling place though not with the seaside holiday crowd of Brighton. The tones of the traditional cockney couple “ ‘Arry an’ ‘Arriet” are not so loud in the street; most furs still speak with the soft Sussex country accents.
Miss Cabot joined me after five minutes; as expected, the gunsmith was a lot more communicative to a pretty maid than to Lady Allworthy. It seems punt guns are definitely out of style – far from being a sporting gun, these days they are reckoned exceedingly unsporting. Not amazing that Leon Allworthy had one, or that nobody stole it when he was exiled. With a weapon that can slaughter half a flock of wildfowl in one blast, I can quite see why. But this is something special; Mr. Smethwick had seemed puzzled, and promised to look it up in his trade journals – it is much newer than he first thought, and has design features he did not expect.
Like the car, for now that is left in good hands – and joining Maria and Helen outside the garage, we made our plans for the evening. Brighton is getting decidedly ‘hot’ for us, but the Belvia Guest house is at least handy, and the local constabulary are watching it. Although we have our suspicions about the old couple running it – they are not the ones liable to suddenly reveal secret Dacoit or Thuggee training and take us on in paw-to-paw combat. So, Brighton stays as our base for the next few days – but the more we stay ‘moving targets’ with unpredictable directions and times, the better.
All that fresh air (and in Maria’s case, wrestling with the wheel of a ton and a half of car on winding roads) definitely gave us an appetite. There is a fine old coaching inn just at the top of the hill, and from the scents emerging from the kitchen, joints of meat roasting within.
A capital supper! Roast beef and roast potatoes, sausage-meat stuffing and the vegetables served in the authentic style I recall so well from Saint Winifreds. Helen groused somewhat about us boiling everything to a pulp. Then, on Spontoon she was a great admirer of how they serve the vegetables in Bow Thai; done fast and hot in a bowl shaped Chinese-style frying pan. At least here the cabbage can be poured properly!
As she is not driving any further tonight, Maria decided to try a local beer – we had passed the brewery just down the hill a few hundred yards away, next to the river. Helen joined her though she looked sceptical; she had heard dire things about warm English beer, and expected it to be tepid. Which to her surprise it was not; as I explained, (having heard Father tell various foreign liaison officers) it is not artificially chilled to the point of tastelessness but kept at natural cellar temperature, about 7 degrees C. These old inns have deep, well-built cellars that hardly change temperature all year around. A nice white wine suited me, and Miss Cabot soberly stuck to ginger ale.
I really miss Molly. True, she was rather hard work at times, but there was never a dull moment. We had seen posters in London for Little Shirley Shrine’s latest film “Captain February” – although I doubt any pub would serve her film crew’s unofficial drink, named after her. A devastating mix of over-proof absinthe and tequila (The Spontoon version uses bootleg pineapple brandy) held in a napkin soaked in rapidly evaporating ‘trike’ dry-cleaning fluid, mixed with ether. A drink designed by mentally scarred film crews who no longer care if they live or die – and in the meantime desperately want to forget. Molly loved the stuff. Then, it is wildly inflammable.
Having dined well, it was scarcely five minutes down the hill to the station, where fifteen minutes train ride through the cool evening brought us back to Brighton, over the high brick viaduct that towers above the valley a mile North of Old Steine. Quite a crowd as ever – by this time the late-working commuters from London are arriving, and hordes of furs were hurrying homewards intent on their suppers.
It is handy having Spontoonie to privately converse in between each other, even if it draws some strange looks from passers-by. Helen agreed that keeping the car in Lewes was a good plan, and to any watchers in Brighton, we have been to London and back today by train. Our plain-clothed police-fur was pleased to see us, having probably waited around trying to be inconspicuous all afternoon.
Back at the Belvia Guest House a surprise awaited us – and a pleasant one for a change. I had telephoned Miss Jenks as soon as we took these rooms – a letter was awaiting from her saying she has finished the business that took her away, and is now back in her family home where she invited us to stay.
A quick discussion with all four of us, and I phoned her right away. Her butler answered; definitely it seems the Jenks family is one of those who really can ‘get the staff’ as everyone says is so hard these days. Five minutes chat with Miss Jenks had it all arranged; over there for tomorrow luncheon, where we will make further arrangements.
One of the ‘arrangements’ will have to be to tell Inspector Barneson when we are changing addresses – or some poor plain-clothes police fur will be waiting for us to come home for an awfully long time!
(Editor’s note: Amelia’s exact feline breed seems to be pedigree British Shorthair. To nobody’s great surprise.)