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
Sunday 29th August, 1937
Dear Diary; it is a small world! The agents of the untrustworthy ‘Trustees’ may not have spotted us, but someone else managed it. Last night we headed out at seven to explore the less than top-drawer side of London, and indeed it lived up – or down – to its reputation.
Soho is a rather tangled web of narrow streets mostly supporting the Bohemian element. And quite possibly the Moravians too; I had never heard so many foreign accents in an English street before. It will never catch on.
Maria insisted Bohemians were really Czechoslovaks these days, a nation ably led by their President Hasek and protected by the baffling and enigmatic Field-Marshal Schweik. Anyway, we started at Fenton’s, a coffee-shop that was till recently Bialstein’s reading-rooms, to judge from the old shop signs in the process of being covered over. Probably the previous owner was repatriated to re-join Ioseph Starling, take the chilly sea voyage to New Haven or the longer but warmer one to New South Zion, depending on their exact politics and religious preferences. From what my brother told me, many folk are being sent polite notices from the Home Office requesting they settle up affairs and depart inside three months. And many do; the second letter is by repute rather less polite and rather more urgent.
Anyway, Helen and Maria agreed the coffee was excellent (I took one sniff and left them to it, ordering and getting perfectly good Earl Grey tea.) Looking out at the crowded streets, one could hardly credit that London empties itself in August. Not the central part, it seems. And yet we have seen Brighton and Eastbourne packed out, and no doubt the other coastal resorts are doing a roaring trade.
Something they seem to have inherited from the previous management is an array of interesting foreign newspapers, one of which Marie seized avidly and bought – one she has heard of but never found a copy. It is “Arriverderci!” an Italian language popular sheet that is printed outside Italy, but Maria says is smuggled in and widely read despite official discouragement. Apart from many items of common interest such as food and drink articles, it looks hard at the Italian Government – something Maria does a lot of herself. She was quite absorbed in it for half an hour, by the end of which she was looking rather puzzled.
She explained that she had expected something like Liberty Morgenstern’s broadsheets that stiff-necked canine still imports by the bundle from New Haven and hands round to whoever wants them (not realising, or not acknowledging the, shall we say, sanitary uses the soft, handy-sized paper is generally put to.) Il Puce is controversial enough and a big target for all sorts of sniping, and to judge from the headlines that is just what the magazine is all about. And yet, she says in her Editorial voice, there is something that to her nose does not smell quite right. She took us through one of the headline stories in some detail – an expose of Fascist corruption on one of the big expansion programs on the railway, involving switching from single to double tracks, with “short cut” new tunnels and cuttings that were not affordable when the cash-strapped railways were built sixty years ago. The project should be a real boon to the economy when it is finished.
Helen frowned, and asked what was so surprising – some senior local party figures had been found guilty of lining their pockets on contracts, given public trials, fined and exiled to Italian East Africa to work on the roads for five years. They had been old ‘squadratti’, some of Il Puce’s earliest supporters after the war, and Il Puce’s irate comment that they have let the Party down is no more than one might expect.
Like her Uncle, Maria has put a lot of work in knowing how to make an Editorial say one thing but whisper quite another. She points out a few things the article had skimmed over in its finger-pointing at guilty parties – the large public works project, the fact that even the most ‘protected’ and influential party members can now be found guilty and punished – and unlike in Ioseph Starling’s regime they did not end up shot at dawn, but are now working for the Public Good while they consider their misdeeds. And the monies the court found them guilty of pocketing, have been given back to the project so next year trains to Brindisi will zip past each other rather than waiting half an hour on passing loops for a goods train to inch past.
She also points out the comics section – where a sharp, very modern-looking urbanite tries to correct “Farmer Guiseppe”, a plain ursine who keeps, inexplicably, being immune to all the reasons the sharp weasel reformer presses on him to change Party, ‘because he’s too stupid.” That is what the weasel says, anyway. The fact that the farmer has a crucifix on one wall and a standard portrait of Il Puce in equal status on the other is pointed out to him, but he always replies with the line “render to Caesar’s that which is Caesar’s…”
Maria does point out a few of the articles are definite fun-poking at some modern trends, such as the Futurist style – which she has said often goes rather too far. A Futurist Sandwich has the bread on the inside and buttered meat on the outside (expensive, indigestible and very messy on the paws) and other culinary radicals have pressed for Italians to ban eating pasta altogether, “because it’s too traditional.” * Presumably, as ‘you are what you eat’ radical recipes will make for radical diners.
As Maria has often said, her nation’s slogan these days is ‘Nothing against the Party. Nothing outside the Party. Everything within the Party.’ This looks as if it is now including the opposition – if the magazine is what she suspects, a secretly official publication printed outside Italy looking ‘samizdat’ as any Government publication would be disbelieved by its target audience. Banning something gives it an instant ‘cachet’ – just look at what happened in American Prohibition; some furs who never touched alcohol before took up the habit.
Well, it makes a change from reading the American pulp magazines. We have seen few of those in England, as indeed titles such as ‘Very Short Stories From Wing-Walking School’ and ‘Three-Fisted Mutant Detective Tales!’ are a trifle lurid for our market.
Coffee and such finished, we took a stroll through the streets and squares of Soho. London has some surprising places; just after we looked at tangled sprawls of ‘jerry-built’ tenements up one side-street, we came out onto elegant early nineteenth-century squares surrounding residents-only gardens, neatly maintained square parks behind tall iron railings offering a view of the skies between the chimney-pots. As the sun got lower we stopped in Soho Square, one of the few that are accessible to the public, while Maria looked over her purchase in greater detail. After all, she will be home soon, and needs to get up to speed with the current situation, what is being said and more importantly, not said. It was a warm evening for London, and several folk had their coats off. There was a cinema at the corner of the street showing the latest Stan Loris and Oliver Hartebeest comedy, a courtroom farce titled ‘The Trial of the Lonesome Pine.’ Had the last show of the evening not already started, I would have been tempted to suggest we watch it. It is a long time since I sat in a cinema and watched a regular film! Some of the ones they filmed in Spontoon such as Prudence Akroyd's favourite, ‘Jungle Queen’s White Bride’ I doubt we will see on (public) show in England.
Helen is looking morose, a rare thing for her when we are not running into ‘unfortunate’ adventures. Then, as she says, Maria is going home, and Lady Allworthy is home already – even Miss Cabot has one awaiting her in Boston, not four days away by a crack ocean liner. But Helen is a long way from her husband and South Island longhouse, with no prospect of returning in the near future. I had thought she would like England better, but many of the things I have telling her about for three years she had ascribed to our sense of humour, and had rather a shock discovering them to be real. I remember the expression on her face when she spotted the commemorative plaque on the wall a few streets from here showing a house once inhabited by ‘Sir Benedict Arnold, loyalist, patriot and hero.’ One fur’s freedom-fighter is another fur’s criminal and visa-versa – I rather doubt Liberty Morgenstern will ever get to admit her New Haven Revolution was a bad idea, and the same applies elsewhere.
Looking at the date, I realised Speed Week will be in full swing back in Spontoon right now – I never did get to properly see that, always being urgently needed elsewhere at the time. In October there was their Pumpkin Festival with Pumpkin Battle, that we never got to either. Not that I much wanted to – by all accounts the politics and supposed Spontoon history were distinctly bogus, if good enough to put in front of credulous tour-boat tourists in July. (Main problem with that – in July, no pumpkins ready! As that old nursery rhyme had it, ‘Here we go gathering nuts in May.’) At the date of the recycled Boston Tea-Party the Pumpkin festival supposedly references against a villainous ‘King George’, there were no Euros even settled on Spontoon, let alone oppressing any Natives. Not that there were many Spontoonies either in the 18th C, after their Great Ritual had gone so horribly wrong. Our history recalls "Farmer George" as a moderate and well-loved monarch. Even if he did go somewhat unstable in later life.
Action is always a cure for low spirits, so I roused Helen and Maria and with Miss Cabot in tow we went searching for somewhere to dine. After passing a few small places which looked packed out already, we agreed on ‘Kandinski’s Grill Room’ – supposedly run by the former head chef at the Carlton grill to judge by the placard on the door. We followed our noses to the dining area where other furs were tucking into some delicious looking meals, while there was a long and well-stocked bar on the other end of the restaurant. Closing time is ten thirty on Saturday, of course.
An excellent mixed grill quite set us up for the evening, and only when we were finishing did I look up to see what else was happening. And I received quite a surprise. At the bar was a group of well-dressed business furs of various species, one of whom was talking to a pair of identical, and identically dressed mice ladies. Mice are common enough in Europe being one of the core species, but there was something rather familiar about these two – even though I was sure I had never met them before.
Helen followed my gaze, and her ears went right up. She gestured for me to follow, and we took seats at the bar while ordering four iced Dandelion and Burdock drinks, and keeping our ears wide open. Maria says Dandelion and Burdock is a poor substitute for Nootnops Blue but then, that has 'active ingredients' one would not buy over here.
One of the business-suited furs, a tall greyhound, was offering to buy out what seemed to be the twins’ family business which has just passed to them, a thriving brazil-nut plantation in British Guyana. They were protesting that they were not interested in selling at any price – it being their late father’s lifelong work, and he had always meant for it to stay in the family. The greyhound kept offering higher prices, ‘only because of their situation.” He was getting somewhat obnoxious about it. I would have stepped in – until l thought hard about the setup.
There was a group of wealthy-looking furs, standing together and listening intently a little way off. The greyhound was dressed like them, spoke like them but was not one of their group. There were two innocent-looking muridae maids, aged about eighteen, who are apparently able to sell a profitable plantation they have never seen – probably at a knock-down price. Heiresses ripe for the defrauding, quantity two. All of which would seem plausible except to a fur who had taken the classes in World Trade we did in Songmark – and learned what is so unusual about brazil nuts. They are entirely a wild harvested product from the jungle – there are no brazil-nut plantations, anywhere!
Helen nodded towards the greyhound and in Spontoonie whispered ‘third-man scam.’ This is something we read about in Molly’s copies of ‘Criminal World’ – a technique like hiring someone to bid for what you want to sell at auction, to drive up the price. The higher the bid, even if the seller refuses outright to sell at the end of it, the more the general public thinks the item is worth. Part Two comprises a genuine purchaser, reassured by the first one's apparent faith in the deal being genuine.
So – we have a pair of mice, twins of a certain age, and using a technique they do not teach at most Ladies’ Colleges. But there is one school I know of that does, and we know one of their graduates only too well. We also know she has a pair of sisters who went there, presumably graduated and are due in Songmark in two weeks or so. A comfortably long way from any irate investors waving bogus nut farm share certificates. Looking at the two supposedly harassed ‘heiresses’, I could see a definite family resemblance to our old comrade Beryl Parkesson, and not just in technique.
The greyhound eventually gave up, with a parting line of ‘you’ll be glad to sell to me at half the price by Michaelmas rent day!’ and stalked off, with the group of potential shareholders following him curiously, evidently eager to hear more. This left the pair of stricken-looking misses standing at the bar – and I noticed them discreetly clink glasses as if in anticipation of a coup.
Helen had noticed it too – she unobtrusively approached them, without looking directly at them, and murmured “The Misses Parkesson, I presume?”
I must say, they were good. They hardly flinched; just one tail-tip (Coral or Pearl, as I recall Beryl mentioning them) twitched slightly. The other one smiled sweetly and said we must be mistaken – they are the Misses Bellingham, new in London from the countryside. Helen just grinned nastily (a tigress is good at that, when she chooses) and conversationally asked how the market in second-hand bridges was these days, as she was sure the so-called ‘Misses Bellingham’ could find one to sell her. Regardless of who currently owns it.
Though looking not a whisker’s worth intimidated, the pair evidently realised the game was up, as far as we were concerned. They smiled with the air of good sportswoman fairly losing a hard-fought tennis match, and one of them did a curious thing. She closed her eyes and I could see her eyes twitch under the lids, almost like a camera shutter – then opened them and identified all four of us by name – or rather five of us, as she knew me as both Miss Bourne-Phipps and Lady Allworthy. It was some relief she did not mention KimAhn Soosay as well, though I doubt even Beryl knew about her. With Beryl though, one never knows.
Of course, Beryl knew I was heading this direction and might have told her sisters, but it is impressive they recognised us from whatever dossier of Spontoonie snapshots she might have sent. It is more than the newspapers have done so far, which is a great comfort.
Coral (or Pearl) looked at me searchingly and said brightly that they had been following our progress in the newspapers; she hoped the Storm Bird would be back in the air soon. And that we should check it for any ‘modifications’ the good folk at the Shoreham repair shop had not made, before flying it.
Helen just growled and asked if they thought we’d fail to check for sabotage – given our circumstances. There seemed little point in hiding our situation, so I invited them back to our table and we made formal introductions to Maria and to Miss Cabot.
One of the twins pulled out a red handkerchief to just protrude from her pocket and declared herself to be Pearl, her twin did the same with a green one and named herself as Coral. If they do not have one of each colour available to do a quick swap, I will be surprised. Studying them closely, they really are identical down to a slight scar on the left ear. Back in our first year at Songmark there were the identical twins Ethyl and Methyl in the senior year (their father was a chemist, not surprisingly) but they at least had very different characters to distinguish them. Even Beryl said of her sisters that one was as bad as the other, if not worse. ‘Mischievous’ was the word she used, but we are ‘calibrated’ to how she sees the world. To our cost.
I must say, they were (for which read, could appear to be when it suited them) a most charming and engaging pair. They admitted they were heading out on a flight to Marseilles in two days’ time, and will be heading East to Spontoon from there via the Empire air route to Humapore. I asked them if they would be selling their fellow travellers a pyramid or two as they passed Egypt, but they just smiled innocently. They had many sharp questions to ask about Songmark life – such as, do the Tutors really know everything a Songmark girl does, and if so, how? I could answer the first one – that is, it is never safe to assume otherwise. How they do it – I have heard a score of theories, but if anyone ever found hard evidence they kept it to themselves.
Maria glumly confirmed the beds really are as hard as reported, and any senior years telling new arrivals ‘but when you get to the next year you’re in for a surprise!’ are joking. Unless the surprise is that it never gets better. That surprised us! She also confirmed how large the local poi looms in the weekly diet – and for anyone not liking it, the only advice is to try and persuade themselves they actually do. Looking at the... impressive physiques of some of the more native dressed Spontoonie gentlemen who are all brought up eating the stuff may provide some extra incentive.
Coral flashed a grin and reminded Maria they had just survived seven years at an English boarding school, and were no strangers to bad food and worse conditions. Which is the only thing they said all evening that I could believe without question. She assures us they will combine rigorous training with generously sized gourmet meals in the days before they walk through that Songmark gate.
By this time it was fully dark outside, and Pearl suggested she and her sister could show us some of the night-life of London. Many of their favourite places, she hinted, we would not find by just walking down the street. I asked if they would be open much longer by the time we got there; it is already past nine and it will be 'last orders' in little more than an hour. The twins just exchanged meaningful smiles and assured us that would not be a problem.
So – it was an interesting reversal of things, four Songmark graduates (well, ex-Third-years, anyway) and seasoned Adventuresses being escorted around exotic parts by a pair of pre-schoolers. In the Songmark sense, that is.
The twins led us a few hundred yards along the main street then into a tangle of alleyways and ‘courts’, small courtyards hemmed in by four and five storeys of century-and-a-half old buildings blotting out the stars. They were quite crowded with a rather loud and rough-looking citizenry – but the Parkessons moved with easy familiarity through it all, hardly seeming to turn a whisker. Eventually we went down some steps in what looked like a warehouse, and Coral announced as her sister knocked on the door, that we had arrived at The Nighthawk. A shutter opened and a whispered conversation ensued, before the door opened.
Miss Cabot said it felt very familiar. She has all Molly’s memories of growing up in Prohibition era cities, with as many speakeasies per street as an honest English high street has pubs. Still, it might have happened here - I recall in the Great War her President Woodrow Wilson was threatening to stop sending food across to Britain if we "wasted" it making alcohol. (he evidently had not looked at the figures; a pound of grain made into beer loses very few calories overall, considering the beer is drunk and the 'spent mash' is all used for animal fodder, which we were importing anyway.)
'The Nighthawk' is not the kind of place I have seen much - it reminded me of Spontoon's The Devil's Reef, that lowlife place near the Old China Dock. (Their sales slogan being 'get wrecked for three Shells!'). Certainly many of the clientelle were much the worse for wear; others looked exceedingly sharp and predatory. There was a scattering of furs in full evening dress, evidently 'slumming'. We were introduced by the twins to famous actors, Adventurers, 'import/export' merchants of no public trade, and various 'odd job operators'. Some of the jobs they will undertake for the right price are reputed to be exceedingly odd, Coral whispered. The Parkesson girls seem to be well recognised and accepted, although the looks folk gave them were rather wary. Probably furs round here are very aware of their family reputation, and may have suffered deals with them before.
We found a table by the door, for (hopefully) swift exit if needed, with our backs to the wall. Helen murmured in Spontoonie that this would be the sort of place one could find someone willing to run down Lady Allworthy with a stolen car for a suitable fee, or use her for target practice with a tonne of municipal planter. At least there would be someone here who knew a fur who knew a fur who could. I quite agreed, and reminded her that things go both ways; if the opposition can hire such talent, so can we. We might even buy information as to who and how we are being 'tailed' by. It is certainly something to think about.
A rather overpriced white wine was quite nice, though I made a point of switching glasses with Pearl before trying any. She just winked, and commended me for my precautions. Then, they are Saint T's graduates, and will probably be well known in The Devil's Reef before they are much older, and probably that Temple of Continual Reward as well.
Actually, it was a fairly uneventful evening in that nobody got into any fights, the Police did not break the door down and nobody made any offers for our virtue. Well, at least Helen is quite virtuous still, being a respectably married lady. Then, anyone being introduced by Coral and Pearl might be assumed to be cut from similar cloth. If we were 'marks' the twins would probably not be showing us around to the competition, but taking advantage of us themselves. True, they had a lot of questions about Spontoon and Songmark, but then anyone in their situation would be expected to ask, having found someone with the answers. Coral says they hope to have a productive three years, and quoted her elder sister's saying about the world being their oyster; 'you get nothing out of an oyster without a firm grip and a sharp knife.'
The only sharp knives in play at the tables actually were being used on oysters and steaks, and it was well after Midnight when we left. Licensing laws seem not to apply there. The street lights were mostly out, and I noticed distant Police patrols. The Police patrol in pairs around here, which is unusual in England. Though in Rural Barsetshire where I grew up, there is a joke that they go in pairs otherwise they would have nobody to talk to all day, there being so little crime! I doubt that is the reason around Soho.
The twins said goodnight at the first well lit street, and thanked us for the information before vanishing back into the dark alleyways. Helen muttered as they went that it was a relief they did not follow us back to our Hotel; even if we are leaving tomorrow, the fewer who know our location the better. We returned without further incident, checked our rooms thoroughly and managed a good seven hours' sleep, none the worse for our evening out.
Today, a full breakfast at eight, a thorough check on the Bentley and on with the countryside tweed suits, then off we went! Heading out of London on the Sunday morning with surprisingly little traffic (most holidaymakers heading out for Bank Holiday take the train, and there is no commercial traffic, so no steamlorries to dodge.) In an hour we were on the Great North Road, the Bentley eating up the miles as we stuck to the speed limit despite Maria's preferences. Occasional patrol furs of the Royal Automobile Club spotted the membership badge on the front grille and saluted us; I explained the tradition was, if there was a Police speed trap ahead, they would Not salute a club member. The Police complain about this, but it keeps going to court and being proven not illegal. Lawyers love this kind of thing.
A fine 'run' of seven hours got us halfway to our target in Yorkshire; the sun was out and our fur blowing in the slipstream made for a cheerful ride. Though the Storm Bird is an excellent aircraft, one misses the open cockpits of the Tiger Moths we trained in. (Not indeed when landing in a December rain squall, but a day like this is a delight.) The open topped Bentley is similar, perhaps not having half the speed, but being at such low 'altitude'; it feels not dissimilar.
On my suggestion we stopped for the night at Grantham, a market town in pleasant rolling countryside. Much further North and we get into the coalmining and industrial areas around Worksop, and things are not so scenic.
So, another old coaching inn (the town has the main London train line running through, but it was the coach route for centuries before that), a stroll around town and a rather less decadent evening than the night before! Tomorrow, we hope to meet this Christiana Millwright, and we shall see what comes of that.
* (Editor’s note: Yes indeed, these are two of the radical recipes proposed by Italian Futurists. They never really caught on as the answer to Future cuisine … but with Futurism, the more important thing was make sure someone at least was bold enough to ask the question.)