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
A day of risks and ruses. Yesterday we brought back the valises we started with, but the bathing costumes were left at Miss Jenks’ house, Fourends Hall. Instead, the contents were a pair of forty-foot ropes we had borrowed from her – and we put them to good use.
First, a little scene-setting was in order. We had taken the rooms for a week, and today would be our last night anyway – but I asked the old couple if they had bookings till the weekend. They seemed a little flustered at that – one would think at this time of year everything would be booked up solidly – but agreed. I was careful to say I could only confirm when we returned that night. Something we have no intention of doing.
An excellent Full English Breakfast; grilled sausage, egg, bacon, baked beans, fried bread and mushrooms, washed down with plenty of tea (Helen will just have to get used to it). A jolly fine tradition, even though most folk only eat it on holiday – it is far more a staple of hotels than home kitchens in these busy days. Certainly, we cherished the nearest thing we got to it at Songmark, the ‘flight breakfast’ of bacon and eggs that was always rather overshadowed by knowing we were certainly due for some extreme challenges that day.
Then – the stage was set. Mentioning that we would not be back till late evening, I sent Miss Cabot out to ostensibly buy a newspaper, making sure the proprietors heard. What she really did was to leave by the front door, walk around the corner of the road and come in through the back door to the cramped courtyard, while the owners were still discussing the weekend accommodation with me. Helen and Maria retired upstairs to our rooms – where swiftly they tied the ropes around our cases (a ‘barrel hitch’ knot works best) and silently lowered them out of the back window to Miss Cabot waiting below, who promptly carried them out onto the pavement of the street behind, out of sight of anyone in the kitchen. In two minutes it was done, and with the stoic policeman at the back watching the cases, Miss Cabot went up to Saint James’ road to flag down a taxi.
So: at Start + 4 minutes, we left by the front door, with our rooms emptied behind us and a taxi piling the luggage up in the street behind, ready to take it to Miss Jenks’ home. All we carried from the Guest house were our room keys, and we can post them back tomorrow.
Farewell to the Belvia Guest House! We left by the front door, hoping any watchers will concentrate on me. Miss Cabot has all Molly’s underworld experience, and will not be taking an obvious route East. She may change onto trains or other taxis, and see us later today.
On the face of it, along with her secretary and companion, Lady Allworthy headed out into Brighton intent on a little light shopping. As ever, we put ourselves in the opposition’s place – imagining how we would track a party like ours.
Not far from the sea front I had spotted a milliners’ shop, with a collection of highly priced hats in the window – not that I need any right now, but it also has a back door onto the street behind. We were through there before the shop assistant had time to protest, and dodging traffic on the sea front before stepping onto an unlikely ‘getaway vehicle’ – the little electric railway running along the beach!
The good thing with shaking a ‘tail’ using buses or trains is it becomes a simple either/or proposition – a pursuer is either on it with you or not, and with open-topped carriages there is no room for anyone to stow away having grabbed onto the guard’s van out of sight. ‘Volk’s Electric Railway’ is a mile or so of tourist railway running just above high-water mark, delighting kittens, foals and pups for three generations now. It also pulls out at a respectable fifteen miles an hour – too fast for anyone on foot to follow us, especially running along the beach shingle. We jumped off at the second-to-last stop, joining a cheerful crowd heading back up to the coast road and onto another East-going bus – making sure we were the last ones on it.
As we had agreed last night, just walking up to Fourends Hall from the main road again is out of the question – we should not have done it yesterday, but then we were not planning to stay there. As with the car, it is an ‘ace in the hole’, or rather a bolthole we will do our best to cover our tracks to for as long as possible.
At the port of Newhaven we changed buses again and headed into the ferry port – to make enquiries about the sailing schedules to France. Not that we are going there, but anyone following us properly will have to split their forces to cover that chance, hopefully watching the port for days. Then onto a much smaller bus, up the valley to Lewes, some six miles or so inland through winding country lanes with the pleasant river bank off to our right. A quiet road, nobody in sight behind us, and at least for a few minutes we could relax and read our magazines like any other holidaymakers.
Helen was shaking her head in dismay at what she was reading in her copy of ‘Film Frolics’ – she passed it over to me, open at the latest interview with Little Shirley Shrine about her current musical, ‘Captain February’. She has a big dance number with the ageing black-furred actor and dancer, “Beau” Jingles (apparently, a reference to his being a great dandy and popular actor, at the start of the century). *
We have talked to some furs in the Spontoon filming business who have actually worked with her, but never more than once (apparently once is a lifetime’s ration for any sane film-maker.) They say one of her is quite enough, and usually add ‘one too many’. Helen says that Miss Shrine is a real tonic, or at least some sort of medicine. I recall those gourds that grew on Main Island the Spontoonies called ‘belly-fruit’; a definitely violent purgative.
By this time the bus was pulling into Lewes, and we jumped off before crossing the river. Just by the bridge was the big brewery whose ales Helen and Maria sampled on Tuesday, and the whole town smelled of malt and hops. A fine scent; there could be far less fragrant factories in town. Up the steep hill Westwards towards the oldest part of town, and we called in at Smethwick’s and Sons to see about that strange punt-gun that was the only survivor of the Allworthy collection.
Well! Old Mr. Smethwick certainly has been busy. As he told Miss Cabot on Tuesday, there is something very strange about what he thought was a sporting gun from the 1890’s when such things were in fashion. Despite it having the right kind of woodwork, or ‘furniture’ as he calls it, it is nothing of the sort – and with the help of some trade journals and telephone calls to colleagues, he has worked out the story.
At the end of the Great War, the arms factories naturally were full of all sorts of weaponry, at all stages of production – the orders for which were cancelled at a stroke at the Armistice, leaving the manufacturers with full assembly lines of suddenly unwanted items; they were scratching their head-fur wondering what to do with them all. There was an experimental batch of ‘trench cannon’ – large calibre infantry pieces meant to shoot through enemy snipers’ steel shields and the like – that had not yet had their barrels rifled. The manufacturer saw a chance to put them on the sporting market, finished them as smooth-bores to match existing punt-guns and sold at least one. Probably not many more. Mr. Smethwick pointed out the recoil system, the screw attachment for a muzzle brake and the semi-automatic breech, which were something of a giveaway to their military origin.
When I asked him about ammunition, his face fell. There is none on the market, he explained – it being designed for a full brass-cased military cartridge, not just an oversized cardboard cased shotgun round. This may explain why it was still in the town house when everything else had gone. It is anyone’s guess how Leon Allworthy got any, or even if he ever did. Something between an elephant gun and a white elephant, perhaps. On the other paw, Mister Smethwick noted that the calibre is exactly right for some of the older marine signal flare guns, the brass cases for which are still in production. He has checked the whole weapon over thoroughly, and it has passed with a clean bill of health. So, whoever sabotaged the car left this alone.
I put an order in for a hundred rounds of large-calibre shot, then I think I shocked the old gent – by asking for another fifty solid rounds, in one-inch calibre. But he took a deep breath and took the order – evidently he has had eccentric aristocratic customers before. He promises to phone for the cases right away, and hopes to have at least part of the order ready in a few days, enough for testing.
When we left the shop, Helen asked if I had been spending too long with Molly – who would have dearly loved this project, perfectly true, Still, I either get some ammunition or throw it away, and it might come in handy. I reminded her that although we cannot carry revolvers or similar around here without a license, the country policemen on Tuesday were smiling and waving through traffic an obvious shooting party complete with tweed outfits, traditional wicker picnic hamper on the back and six feet of major artillery strapped conspicuously to the outside of the Bentley. Some combinations of equipment “fit the bill” – and confer instant respectability, just as a carful of shady-looking characters in zoot-suits with violin cases would not get a mile.
Our next port of call was the garage, where the mechanics have done a nice job on properly repairing the distributor. We all checked it; a piece of work that would have got a grudging nod from our Songmark tutors. Nobody gets better than that. The Bentley is now overhauled thoroughly, and ready for hard service. Still, we decided to keep it garaged here until needed – no joy-riding around the country, seeing and being seen.
One of the useful things with Lewes being the county town is it (unlike Brighton) supports the local countryside with clothing and equipment shops for farmers and sportsmen rather than day-tripping tourists. So the next stop was some suitable outdoor clothes for Helen and Miss Cabot – we know each others dress sizes pretty thoroughly by now so can buy them for her ‘off the peg’ – and in an hour there was the strange sight of Helen wearing a Norfolk tweed jacket and skirt, looking at herself in the outfitter’s mirrors in surprise. All good disguise, as I told her, very unlike the Helen anyone is familiar with. A long way from oiled fur and grass skirts, certainly! We might as well match, If I am wearing the Allworthy tweeds in a rather public open-topped car.
Maria was looking on in some amusement; she will be gone all too soon, and will not be shocking the fascist fashionistas of Rome with English country wear. Thorn-proof tweed is all very well in damp foggy climates, if we are to spend an Autumn grubbing around the hedgerows and brambles of Allworthy estates, she says. She hinted that desert outfits are more likely to feature in her own future; apparently her Uncle has made a great success of a colonial scheme she had researched and planned from Spontoon. All that coded telegraphing Italy has quite paid off, it seems, and indeed the sight of Maria sitting up late in our dorms working with telegraph blanks and a ‘one-time pad’ from her embassy was a common one.
So: we were expected at Miss Jenks’ for luncheon, but taking a taxi direct to her door would be far too risky – assuming we have not shaken our ‘tail’ yet, who only needs to note the taxi number, wait till he returns to the taxi rank and ‘interview’ the driver with a paw-full of banknotes to get our new address. I purchased an up-to-date Ordinance Survey map, which at an inch to the mile shows all the byways and footpaths. Looking at it, an idea sprang to mind. Down to the railway station and ten minutes later we were on the next coast-bound train steaming into the station bound back Southwards for Newhaven, but stopping everywhere.
Lewes station is quite busy, and if we get off at a similarly busy one it will be hard to spot if anyone is taking an interest in us – thirty folk got on board with us. But ten minutes later we were getting off at a very minor halt, Southease – where there is absolutely nothing there, except that it serves the farms and scattered houses around. Nobody else got off, which greatly simplified things. We waited till the train disappeared from sight round the bend before heading West, over the river via a footbridge and in half a mile we were heading up the chalk slopes towards Fourends Hall following the route Miss Jenks had suggested yesterday. At the edge of the wood Maria got her binoculars out and scanned our trail back; nobody was hurrying over the footbridge a half mile away, which may only mean they are particularly good at tracking. The countryside is a patchwork of small woods, fields and tall hedges, which in some ways is easy to follow someone through – but in others, hard to keep track of folk who could vanish into a wood and take a sharp left or right unseen. The ground is dry, and we are leaving little trace on the hard paths.
A few hundred yards from the village we passed a cottage where a familiar figure was hoeing his vegetable garden while inconspicuously keeping a ‘weather eye’ on the surroundings; apparently Alceston the butler has a day off. He nodded almost imperceptibly as we passed, and his eyes flicked past us along the track we had arrived on. If anyone is following us, he will know about it.
It was quite a relief to finally get to Fourends Hall, and spot Miss Cabot in the garden along with our hostess. Evidently everything had arrived – our bags are in our rooms, Miss Jenks says, and nobody suspicious has been reported by her neighbours. So, it might be we have shaken off our pursuers for the time being. How long that will last is anyone’s guess.
After luncheon and unpacking our bags (our rooms are up on the first floor, with a nice view out along the valley) we held a ‘council of war’ with Miss Jenks in the parlour. There are things I really need to do in the next week, and others I would really like to. Meeting my Brother again if possible, stopping in Barsetshire to see Uncle Bill and catch up with the family are useful extras. Finding out more about the Allworthy story, as well as the current state of things – the country mansion is up in the Lake District, at the far end of the country. Also, I would really like to meet that new Songmark girl Christiana in Yorkshire, before she heads out to Spontoon – something she might do perhaps in less than a week. I took over two weeks to make the trip in 1934, but that was the scenic route by boat and the Canadian trans-pacific railway.
Looking at the map, Maria pointed out that Yorkshire is pretty much on the way from here, and we now have our own transport, the Bentley. There is no news from the Shoreham works about the Storm Bird; evidently the parts have not arrived.
The trouble with our ‘dropping off the map’ is it is very hard for folk to get back to us – I can send this Christiana Millwright a postcard, but there is the matter of a return address – that doesn’t lead our pursuers back to us. We have our tele-box addresses we can access from any post offices, but telegrams are pricey and I hate to oblige folk to spend money like that.
Miss Jenks pulled out a newspaper, and pointed out that quite a few furs want to know where I am – on Page Two was a by-line “Where IS the Allworthy Heiress?” as the journalist points out that I am in the country but have not showed up at Westminster yet. That is a matter of public record; they might have asked my lawyer, but lawyers are famously close-mouthed about their clients. The Brighton Police are not saying anything either, it seems.
Maria said that sooner or later I am going to have to talk to the Press, and I may as well find a friendly journalist rather than be tracked down by one who wonders what I have to hide. Which is quite a bit actually, but it is a matter of controlling just what gets out, and when. She suggested some ‘misdirection’ here – as we have vanished from Brighton and quietly headed East, any public appearance should point our assailants to look in some other direction.
A capital idea! Further, as we have been officially spotted entering the country at Shoreham, there is nothing to lose by being seen returning there; we have to check on the Storm Bird anyway. Half an hour’s discussion put a plan together. Miss Jenks knows the local papers, and suggests the Shoreham Daily Gazette would dearly love a ‘scoop’ – and might be fairly pliable as to what I want them to print.
As it was still only two o’clock, there was time enough to start the plan right away. First, the matter of getting well away from Fourends unseen. Miss Jenks’ family has a small covered van they use for household supplies, bringing in gardening and building materials and such – there are no seats in the back but that is no great hardship for us. More importantly, there are no windows for folk to see us either. So her grizzled terrier chauffeur Mr. Glynde was summoned, brought the van round to the courtyard and the four of us scrambled into the back, putting a travel rug down first to save our Respectable outfits. Checking the train timetable, we worked out our route and made arrangements to be picked up at a different station this evening.
Half an hour’s jolting along country lanes brought us to a suitable railway station, and waving Mr. Glynde farewell we were soon on a train heading to Brighton and West to Shoreham. Smart work, as Helen said.
Shoreham is the only real harbour on that piece of coast after Newhaven, fifteen miles or so to the East – the rest of the coast being chalk cliffs or steep shingle beaches that can take nothing but a hauled-up fishing boat. So its harbour gets all the holiday traffic for the area, and today it is in full holiday season. Plenty of crowds, and good cover. First we called at the seaplane slips – waving at the Storm Bird and the Dragon Rapide, which seems to be almost ready. Helen cautioned us against asking about Miss Jenks’ aircraft – we want as few furs as possible to know about our links with her.
The spare parts for the Storm Bird have arrived in Customs, thanks to Maria, and tomorrow the mechanics start tearing down the engines ready to fit them! Good news on that front. So far so good.
Asking a passing policeman, we were directed to the offices of the Shoreham Daily Gazette and I introduced myself. To judge by the speed their Chief Reporter came out with a Dictaphone and notebook, I must be more of a ‘hot potato’ in journalist circles than I thought – an office was hastily found for us to sit down and the keen border collie ‘journo’ prepared himself for the scoop of the year. It is strange, how that breed of canine ends up in particular jobs – I recall fondly that handsome and ever-keen young Customs official, back in the Gilbert and Sullivan Islands.
The first part was easy – it is a matter of record that I have returned from Songmark as Lady Allworthy – I rather played up the aspects of adventure and romance in the South Sea Islands (The little fact that Spontoon is about as far North as Spain, was something the reporter did not pick up on.) I did not mention the romance was not with Leon Allworthy. The present was straightforward as well – being here for aircraft maintenance, and having been staying in Brighton nearby, handy for both Shoreham and London.
When asked about my future plans, I had thought hard about what to say. It is entirely true that I look forward to showing my friends around my family home in Barsetshire – and that the Allworthy townhouse will need a lot of work and organising before I can move in there. I can say that with all honesty, and did so. Let our assailants ‘stake out’ those sites all they like, as they are a long way down my priorities! I also mentioned that I was looking forward to meeting my friend Kim-Anh Soosay, who is expected to arrive shortly. Let that be another spanner in the works; establishing that half Siamese in print as a separate person will make it easier if Lady Allworthy has to vanish for a while and an exotic Eurasian girl appear in her party.
Having provided half a page of copy, we were respectfully ushered out while cries of ‘Stop the presses!’ rang through the building. Tomorrow should provide some interesting reading, and I expect the National papers will pick the story up.
Half an hour later we were sitting in a Lyons corner house for afternoon tea, having posted back the keys to the Belvia Guest-house. Second class post; we are in no hurry for folk to start looking elsewhere for us. Buttered teacakes and tea; most civilised.
As ever, there is a rack of all the major newspapers, and we shared them out and avidly scanned them. Five minutes later Helen’s ears went right down and her tail bottled out like a chimney-sweep’s brush. She wordlessly pointed to a small paragraph in the ‘Foreign News’ section, where random paragraphs appeared about earthquakes in Peru and famines in China. And the story read:
“The Marie Celeste Mine!
Reuters, Copenhagen – A strange report has arrived of the complete disappearance of the staff of an isolated mine in Danish Greenland, with no indications of any struggle or foul play. A Danish mail plane made a scheduled delivery on August 16th, and reported nothing amiss. On the 17th, a diverted exploratory party from the Disko Island base arrived to make emergency repairs to their seaplane – and found the mine complex deserted. There is no sign of any vessels having landed, and the nearest coastal settlement is 90 miles across the glacier – the fate of the mining team is currently a mystery. Danish authorities are investigating.”
Oh my. Just two days after we left Mr. Akesson and his team settling in for a long winter of steady work mining Cryolite, something happened to them while we were in Iceland. We all remembered the village of Three Claws in Canada – but in that case whatever happened was right on our route and a day early, not two days late. At the time I had a strange idea of someone across the world aiming some strange Paris Cannon at us, checking flight times and trajectories – even though we had no idea in advance exactly where our route would take us, let alone telling anyone about it!
Three Claws just might have been a coincidence, Helen said flatly – this is not. Someone is aiming at us – and we had better not be at Fourends, let alone in the middle of crowded London, when they fire again.
Nobody argued with that. And yet it is hardly the same style as the Brighton attacks aiming motor-cars and flower pots at us. Not the same people at all, Maria mused, and added when I had told Miss Jenks we might be dangerous guests, we did not know the half of it.
It was a subdued party that paid up at the Lyons house and got back on the train. As arranged, we got off at the halt of Plumpton, just at the foot of the downs a few miles from Lewes – nobody else left it apart from a stridently dressed porcine bookmaker, who immediately hailed a cab awaiting him and headed off towards the racecourse. (Plumpton being a rural racecourse and not much else, traffic is an all-or-nothing thing, thousands or handfuls depending on the racing schedule.)
We waited till the train and the cab had vanished out of sight before rejoining our own ride, Mr. Glynde having parked the van just around the corner by the church. We checked for any observers before we climbed in, and half an hour later were back at Fourends, where we had much to tell Miss Jenks and her just-arrived brothers!
*(Editor’s note: stapled into Amelia’s shorthand diary is the torn-out magazine page she refers to, with the adorable-seeming poodle puppy playing up to the cameras in her usual style. “Mista Beau Jingles?” She asks, blinking her big eyes winningly – “How come I make more money than you?” The grizzled veteran just chuckles and shakes his head, explaining. “Lawdy, Missy Shrine – I’s just an ol’ black-furred hoofer. If de Studio dey wants a film with twenty like me, dey kin git ’em any day. But there just ain’t another like you.” One gets the impression he was practically spitting teeth at this point, despite surviving fifty years in show business…)