Freshening up

16 01 2011

Toughening up the ol' arteries is the key to long life

WordPress informs me that this blog was viewed somewhere in the neighborhood of 3,800 times last year.  While a decent chunk of that probably has to do with my Komodo Dragon obsession, I’d like to think that at least some of the nine 747s worth of you that checked out the old Robsteak Blogbake last year will stick around for another.

To start off 2011, I’ve finally wrapped up that short story I’d been working on for a while.  While I’m not certain about whether I’m forfeiting any copyright to the work by posting it here, I’m going to share it with you anyhow.  (Sorry, Professor Hirsen, for not remembering the specifics of blog content ownership.)

Warning:  It’s long and still rough.  My writing group graciously went over this with me for the last I-don’t-know-how-many-months, and gave me quite a few wonderful suggestions, many of which I’ve still to implement.  All told, I’m not wholly disgusted with the result.  Diverting or not, I do hope you have the patience for it.

The Dragon of Westerly Windings

I’ve been nipping around this earth for a fair amount of years now, and if there’s one thing I’ve always been willing to stake my reputation on, one thing I’m absolutely rock-solid about, it’s this:  Don’t depend upon Charlie Broxton’s trousers.  I understand that you may be hesitant to take me at my word first thing and all, but let me explain a bit about Charlie.  He’s not the sort of man you just feel fraternally bound to upon first hello, if you know what I mean.  Put another way, he’s not the sort of man you just saunter up to on a weeknight and ask if he wants to help you steal a lawn fixture.  Oh sure, he might join in if you and the boys are all set to go from the outset, but he’ll find his way to getting entrusted with guard duty, and at the first sign of a rifle sticking out the window he’ll leg it faster than Jimmy Cullen from a church vestibule on Sunday at 12:01, hanging you out to dry on the off-chance that he’ll accrue a stain on that perfect record of his with Cassleton’s finest.  And while you’re at the police station being remonstrated by Sergeant Folk while trying to exchange pleasantries with the desk clerks, Charlie’s at home sipping his caffeine-free soda and folding socks in his room with a clean conscience. (Although I’ve no idea how one could really dirty it, as I’ve no evidence that it exists.)  Put simply, Charlie is one who finds contentment in stagnation and repugnance in the exhilarating.  Not the sort of man whose name you find on too many a last will & testament, if you get my meaning.

However, you know what they say about old school ties, and as he is still under the impression that our friendship is a thrice-woven cord, I had no real reason to sever the knot until last Wednesday.  For that, as you’ll presently understand, was when he destroyed my best and brightest hope for happiness in this sorry world.

* * *

“Westerly, you blighter,” I hollered, “put down the watch before Mr. Bungleton finds out what you’re up to and chews your leg off.  The poor dog’s been through enough for one day.”  Phillip Westerly simply tossed a patronizing grin at me and continued to hold the shiny trinket aloft, provoking poor Bungles into another fit of frantic scratching at the cabinet hosting the offending light from its reflection.

“It’s good for him,” he said. “How do you expect him to take a bite out of the morning postman if he’s not kept in shape?”  I tried to explain to Phippy that that one simply doesn’t torture one’s dog into shape these days, but he became tone-deaf as soon as I started with one of my famous “Phippy, old man” parts.  Lately I’ve noticed many of my friends encountering similar hearing difficulties in such instances, and quite frankly it’s getting to be less than tolerable.  I bypassed the usual roundabout and got to the point.

“It’s no good, Phippy.  I’ve just received a note from Laurie, and her words are dark.”  This brought the lanky fellow ‘round.  We’d been looking ahead to this evening ever since the Cassleton Bridge Club called the police on Phippy’s birthday party last month.  To think that there are still people in this world who cannot hold with a good-natured gathering of humanity. Well, it deals the ever-optimistic Tiffin heart a blow, I can tell you.  One minute you’re in the throes of jubilation, breaking Jimmy Cullen’s record for Apex Reached by a Thrown Lawn Fixture, and the next you’re bolting haphazardly out of Ms. Garrouche’s garden, hotly pursued by a pack of middle-aged cardsharpers.  To be true, it’s almost more than the heart can bear.  But ever since Laurie Swellings had given word of her annual St. George festival, our spirits had began climbing steadily.  If you’ve ever been to a Swellings St. George party, little more need be said.  If you haven’t however, just be careful not to mention this failure in the higher circles, or you’ll find yourself being regaled with the tales of blindfolded rectors and loose tigers for hours on end.  Three years ago, I believe it was, Bobby Cronstile made a bit of a splash when he proceeded to scale the greater portion of the library wall before falling into a gardenia bush below.  I’d say he had a bit of the stuff, but the fact is he woke up the next morning, walked home in his shirtsleeves and still refuses to say a word about the event, so speculation is all the history books have as to the precise state of his mental lubrication.

With that in mind, to hear what I had only just been told was nothing short of devastating, and I could hardly fathom the effect it would have on poor Phippy.

“What?  Speak up man, what’s she say?  It’s not canceled?”  I looked at him somberly.

“Phippy, her family has invited the bishop to lunch that Sunday, and he’s to stay for the feast.”

Phippy just stared through me, barely able to speak.  He finally managed to gasp, in a mournful sort of way:

“But good Heavens, Roger, this is Laurie’s St. George Festival.  It’s no place for a man of the church.”

“I know.”

“He’ll keel over in fervent and apologetic prayer before dessert’s been served.”

“Quite likely.”

“Not to mention that Caroline Gregson is going to be there.”

“Too right.”

“How am I to make eyes at her with His Eminence there peering over any shoulder he can find?”

“I’m afraid it’s set in stone, Phippy.  Apparently Laurie’s Aunt Gladys met him back in Tankerville last week, and simply drowned him with simpering pleas until he consented to come.”

Phippy snorted.

“I should have done the same thing in his situation.  The woman’s got the persuasive powers of Attila when she has you cornered.”

I thought about asking Phillip if he was recalling the summer when he found himself driving Laurie’s Aunt around the countryside every Saturday as she recorded the number of wheat fields in the southern county for her Grand History of the Land, but thought better of it.  As I recall, his assenting to be her chauffeur came shortly on the heels of the incident with the old woman’s dog and the barbershop quartet, so there was really very little investigation left to do in the matter.

“I’m afraid there’s more, Phippy,” I noted, steeling myself against the words I had only just absorbed myself.  “There’s to be no cocktails at all.”

“No cocktails?!  But how are we to honor our good man George without cocktails?  You’re quite sure, Roger?”

“Laurie made that point most evident.  No cocktails at all.  Apparently the bishop finds them a repugnant representation of the decline in today’s society or some such twaddle.”

“Well that’s jolly good.  A festival without cocktails and his Holiness freezing each grin miles before its crescendo.”  Phippy disgustedly aimed the biscuit he’d been saving at Mr. Bungles, who was only too happy to collect his reward after absorbing the hit.  “If you see something swaying from the library rafters, Roger, don’t be alarmed.  It will only be my corpse saluting this earth after having my life extracted by want of cocktails.”

I felt little need to alert him to the drool marking his pant legs as he got up to leave.

* * *

I was strolling through town on Tuesday morning having just gotten a fresh haircut and was beginning to feel a bit less downhearted about the upcoming frivolities when I heard a “What ho, Reggie!” and turned to see Charles Broxton bearing down upon me.  It’s situations like these that often aid one’s memory of imminent appointments and obligations, but my dejection had all but quashed my improvisational talents for the day.

“What what, Charlie,” I replied none too vigorously.

“Good morning, Roger,” Charlie piped.  The fellow clearly hadn’t quite found his bit of conversational impromptu yet either, so I stayed in the vein.

“Hello, Bronto.”  I felt this summed things up nicely, and prepared to continue on my way, when his eyes slowly lit up and he grabbed my shoulder.”

“I say, Reggie, you aren’t going to Laurie’s tomorrow?”

It was as I had feared.  The Tiffin atmosphere is widely known for its exuberant effects upon all surroundings, and the usually well-oiled attendees of the St. George fest were sure to experience the vivid pangs of excitement that came with being shown the real nature of a Proper Wednesday Night.  Charlie, however, saw himself leading the charge alongside Yours Truly to stake his place among the good names in the town.  Today, however, I had hardly the strength to keep my head from collapsing upon the barber’s razor as it brushed my jugular, so meeting with the full force of Charlie’s personality before lunch was a bit more than I could handle at the time.  I saw only one route: the polite dismissal.

“As a matter of fact, Charles, I don’t know that I can find my way to it.  I’ve simply so much to do — you know how things go towards the end of the spring — and I’m afraid it’s going to be rather a dull affair on all sides.  I hate to say it, but I fancy you’ll be finding yourself among livelier circles tomorrow night.  My condolences, old man.”

And such would usually have done the trick, but I found Charlie barely acknowledging that I had spoken.  He had come pre-loaded with questions for the first unfortunate soul he chanced to meet, and my name had come up on the register.

“Oh, that’s too bad Reggie.  But I’m sure it’ll be quite the affair even without you.  I’ve heard the Bishop is going to make an appearance, and you know how well I’ve memorized my minor prophets.  I’m sure to make a killing with the Gregson Bird when the subject of prophet memorization comes up.”

I started.  Now here was a pitfall if I’d ever recognized one.  Broxton had apparently found himself enamored with the same girl that Phippy had all but slain himself for already.  But when one’s friends are involved, a modicum of respect for reality has to come into play.  Here was Bronto, a stout but oblivious young scholar with glasses thicker than the beard he had been working on for months, unknowingly going up against Phippy, the captain of the squash team who had gained something of a reputation for striking other players’ ankles at their most vulnerable times.  Surely there was only one thing to say to Bronto.

“That’s a man, Bronto, Found yourself a girl, have you?  Quite right.  Well, you know the standard op. procedure, then.  Play it slow and steady and keep your distance until she’s driven mad with affection and throws herself into your arms in a few months’ time.”

“Oh Reggie, I can see you’ve never met the girl.  If you’d only looked into her eyes one time, surely you’d be tossing your cares aside tomorrow night and throwing yourself at her feet alongside me.”

It occurred to me that Bronto might well find himself splayed out tomorrow, but not of his own will.  I employed another tack.

“Look here, Charlie, are you sure she’s really the girl for you?  After all, I’d think you’d want a girl with more muscle, someone who could really match your vitality in all aspects of life.  From what I’ve heard of this Gregson, she’s absolutely ethereal with every breath she takes.”  Hopefully Phippy wouldn’t mind my stealing the third line of the sonnet he had been working on in his journal.  After all, he’d certainly have locked it better if he’d meant to keep it from the public eye.

“Oh, ethereal is just the word.  She simply floats about, stealing your soul before your very eyes.  I tell you Reggie, I’d climb the library wall even with a hundred gardenias awaiting my descent if it would incline her head towards me for only an instant.”

My efforts seemed to have only thrown fuel on Cupid’s inferno.  Like that one famous general said, there’s always a time to fall back upon the something and try again upon the morrow.  I bid Charlie a resigned good morning as he muttered something about epics, and headed off toward Chesapeake Hall.  As I turned down the lane, a distant gunshot and a following epithet told me Uncle Jerry was still as healthy as 78 years ever made a man.


I knocked out of courtesy for the household, but I treated Sallins with the same familiarity as ever, patting him on the shoulder and brushing by after acknowledging his “good afternoon, sir” with an impatient nod.   Uncle Gerald’s idea of casual sport was more fascinating than most people’s vision of the apocalypse, and I wasn’t going to miss more than I had to for Sallins or anyone.

Upon reaching the den, I stopped and admired the soft afternoon sunlight streaming through the new skylight my uncle’s Remington had just installed in the roof.  “Hello, my boy,” he said with a wan smile.  “What brings you up to Chesapeake this dreadfully boring day?”

As reassuring as it is to know that my uncle still finds boring what my departed mother would have found criminal, even I had to satisfy my curiosity at risk of offending his sense of normalcy.

“It’s good to see you, uncle.  Sporting for your spring fowl indoors this season, eh?”

Uncle rebuffed me right off.  “Now Roger, don’t give me any of that.  I know perfectly well you’ve come to ask a favor, and until your mouth went off I just might have granted it.  As it is, however, your hopes are likely to meet with the same fate of my recently remodeled roof.  Curse that starling’s nimble wings!  I’ll get him yet.”

Had he not tossed the rifle my way with the same geniality he initially expressed, I would have found myself downhearted.  As it was, I took aim about ten feet right of the original porthole, and began to let loose at the faint sound of chirping as he gleefully pointed out the targets to me to the best of his aged hearing’s ability.

“It’s like this, Uncle,” I began amid the falling splinters of the roof, and I proceeded to lay out the details of the pickle before we’d completely turned the house into a convertible.

“Here’s what I don’t—RIGHT THERE! BLAST HIM REGGIE!…understand,” shouted Uncle Jerry above the crashing of the chandelier.  “You’ve always despised this fellow Broxton, and yet you shy away from watching him meet with Lord Comeuppance himself in the guise of Phillip Westerly.  What’s preventing you from seeing this as a glorious bit of fortune to liven up the droll affair?”

“It’s not the excitement I’m dreading, Uncle,” I hastened, “It’s the risk of the thing.  If Caroline sees Phippy lay out the eternally helpless Bronto, her feminine sympathies are sure to align themselves with the mortally wounded rather than Phippy.  And goodness knows I’ve never seen another woman who could cow Phillip Westerly.”

“Well, so long as you’re not putting yourself on the line purely for the Broxton, I –OH BLOW HIM TO KINGDOME COME, MY BOY, JUST TO THE RIGHT! AGAIN, AGAIN!…suppose I could offer you some wisdom,” Uncle conceded.  “It’s just that he’s been railing against the liquor vendors in Forte Alley at City Council meetings lately, and I couldn’t abide my favorite living nephew’s sticking his neck out for the blighter.”

Having frequented the named alley myself on more than the odd occasion, the news of Bronto’s crusade only further soured me towards the subject.  While I’d spare his body for the sake of Phippy’s heart, I’d do no more than that if I could at all help it.  I consented, and Uncle proceeded to lay out his view of the thing.

“The way I see it, Roger, you have three potent resources at your disposal.  The Bishop, this Gregson girl, and your engaging way of speech.  All you have to do is find a way of using the first to get the attention of the second, and not-so-subtly point her in the way she needs to go.  As I’ve heard, she’s rather devout when it comes to religious authorities, and a bit of amiability from His Eminence would give you some credibility with the bird, what?  From there, you’ve only to say a few words about Phippy’s bright future and nothing about his past, and the bird’s in his arms by sunset and you’re home in time for port in the library with your favorite uncle.”

The plan had merit, I couldn’t doubt that.  However, I saw a rather tenuous facet of the plot that Uncle seemed to be taking in stride.

“And Phippy’s Aunt Gladys?  Am I just to tear the bishop from her  groveling with a wink and a glass of sherry?  The woman is sure to be violently possessive of the most notable man in the county the night through, and getting on Laurie’s Aunt’s bad side means getting on Laurie’s bad side, which means participation in the Grand Challenge of St. George at the hostess’s behest.  From there, you can hardly imagine the fate that awaits my person, but I’ve not doubt it involves gardenia bushes and a hospital bed.”

“Roger W. Tiffin, if I didn’t have so much sunlight illuminating your features, I’d swear it was your niece in here, bemoaning the lack of cranberry sauce at her third birthday par—YOU MISSED AGAIN, YOU FOOL!  GIVE ME THAT!  You don’t really think Laurie Swellings is going to risk putting you under the figurative, and perhaps literal, knife for her own amusement?  As the woman’s practically proposed to you on three separate occasions, I hardly think there’s much risk of her putting you in any bodily danger whatsoever, no matter what her aunt declares.”

Now, I can take some well-meant humor as well as any man, and we Tiffins are especially notable for our thick skin.  And if Uncle Jerry wanted to propose a plan for preserving my friend’s well-being, that was one thing – but defaming my noble and platonic relationship with Miss Swellings was another entirely, no matter how many people felt compelled to whisper about our “never-ending courtship” and whatnot.  We had a mutual respect for each other on completely respectable terms, and allowing that to be dragged through the mud was too much to allow even my favorite living uncle.

“I thank you for your advice, Uncle,” I said, stiffly. “I’m sorry that you place yourself alongside the vulgar populace of this town who see nothing more entertaining to be had than disgusting banter about two upstanding individuals and their friendship.”

“Oh ho!  I hardly think you’ll be able to stand up for much of the night – goodness knows you wilt under her gaze like a tulip in July.  Now, you’ve had the better part of my marksmanship training to glean some wisdom from your elders, but I can hardly be blamed if you choose to maintain your headstrong ways, Roger.  I’ve laid it out for you clear as my newly-illuminated living room, but I’m sure you’ll erupt in some foolhardy scheme of your own just to impress your future Mrs. Reggie before the cocktails are even served.”

“There will not be any cocktails, my dear uncle.  Good day.”

* * *

As I walked home, I began contemplating my impending fate.  At times like these, one is naturally bound to think back to those who went before him, and I found myself pondering the noble Tiffin men who had navigated their portion of trial throughout the years.  I can remember Uncle Jerry telling me about old Grandpa Ira, who managed to dissuade a mob of irate citizens from burning down his shop with him still occupying it.  The issue had centered on some cologne he had sold with an unfortunate side effect of causing severe nausea an hour or two after application, which was hardly ideal for men who applied the stuff before a night on the town. Even the most lighthearted man finds little amusement in impressing the flora and fauna of Cassleton by publicly retching himself near death on a Saturday night.  Fortunately, my good old ancestor had clarified his position on the product with a word on the liquid’s fantastic possibilities as an insecticide, and the crowd dispersed peacefully.  It’s worth noting that Cassleton has been remarkably avoided by the creeping things ever since.  These days, a picnicker is more likely to lose his sandwich to Jimmy Cullen’s quick grab than a pack of ants.

However, the mess I was covered in demanded more ingenuity than usual.  If I was to hitch up Caroline Gregson to Phippy and spare Charlie’s ample frame from complete decimation in the process, there was only one thing to do.  Yes, in times like these, there’s nothing for it but to reach deep into the recesses of one’s mind and pull out the best scheme available.  In this case, with excruciating effort and the aid of three Gin and T’s from the Speckled Swan, I managed to exhume just the ghost of an idea:  I would somehow have to get Caroline’s attention long enough to briefly demonstrate goodwill between The Honorable Bish and old Phippy.  Anything less was sure to fail, and any extended interaction between the two men was sure to cause something of an unplanned adventure, and even we Tiffins find adventure something to be sought rather than be sought by. Of course, there was the matter of Aunt Gladys, but I’m sure a few words to my noble friend Laurie could alleviate that problem without a hitch.  The convenient thing about friendship is the reliability of help when called for, and Laurie was as steady a friend as one could ask for.

* * *

Arriving slightly tardily to the party, I was greeted by the more well-known part of Laurie’s personality.

“Reggie, you’re a brute.  A vicious, heartless brute who deserves more lambasting than I’m capable of at the moment.  I’ve been cleaning the house, confirming attendance, buying food and drinks (not cocktails), and shopping all day!  Then, when I finally stop by your home to ask for your help as you’d so sincerely promised, I learn that you’re drowning whatever sorrows pitiful aristocrats such as yourself are capable of having these days down at that dreadful drinking establishment!  And now, you have the nerve to show up here empty-handed as usual!”

Laurie’s tone seemed markedly less than conversational upon my arrival that evening, and with my bloodline’s especially acute powers of perception, I determined the cause of the trouble right away, and set about laying the subtle lines of suggestion amid placid and sympathetic overtones.

“Why, old thing, that’s terrible.  Has your dreadful aunt gone and mucked up the preparations?  I suppose it’s time we put her up in the Rondson Home for Advanced Citizens as I’ve suggested.  Well, I’ll go pull the car around and we’ll load her up, waning sentience and all.”

Laurie looked at me, quivering, as her mouth opened and closed without mustering speech. (A rarity indeed.)  I offered a sympathetic arm, but found myself rebuffed as her vocal chords marked themselves present once again.

“Roger Tiffin, if you set foot on my doorstep again, I’ll have dogs, police, and even Auntie Gladys after you for the rest of your days.  Why, to suggest…well, it’s simply astounding!”

“Now, now Laurels, I was only pointing out the shortfalls I’ve had the pain to witness in my own family.  Why, you of all people know how beset old Uncle Jerry is by drifting focus and loss of reason.  It’s a curse of advanced years, and I was simply offering my best effort to spare you the same ordeal.  Of course I have all the respect in the world for your aunt, and always will.”

She said nothing at first, then her features softened as I finished my sentence, and a rather demure smile took the place of fresh rage and indignation.  If you don’t know much about women, then allow me to tell you that this is a cause for concern.

“Well, that’s simply refreshing, Reggie darling.  To hear that you’re willing to step in and be the savior of my precipitous evening is just marvelous!  I can’t wait to tell Auntie of your participation.  Oh, she’ll be simply thrilled to hear that one of Cassleton’s own will be braving the Grand Challenge for everyone to enjoy.”

“Now, er, Laurie dear, you know how much I relish these challenge deals and so forth, but you know, I nearly tore my arms off last week assisting Phippy in something of a rescue mission, and I’m hardly fit to impress the good members of your guest list with anything near their due dessert.”

Unfortunately, even the rephrasing of my impressive exit from City Hall last Tuesday evening failed to dissuade Laurie, which was fortunate in a way, as I preferred not to elaborate upon my extraction of Phippy’s numerous parking tickets from the traffic commissioner’s office any more than necessary.

“Oh, Roger, you are a sporting fellow, and everyone knows it.  Now you’d best grab a drink before the challenge starts, and put a brave face on for our good people!  I know that’s never difficult for you, so long as I avoid resting my head upon your shoulder in public.  How you are particular with your preferences, but what is a girl to do about her faithful man’s idiosyncrasies.  I’ll see you at the head table in sixty minutes sharp.”

I was about to object in every manner I knew of to everything she had said, when the mindless woman must have seen something upon my face, and brushed my hair away lightly before applying what must have been a medicinal peck to my clean-shaven cheek, and walked swiftly off.

Well, after all, what harm could a simple challenge be to the most robust Tiffin in Cassleton?

* * *

After managing to excuse myself from running lemonade out to the tables for the greater part of the future,  I made my quick exit from the house (pockets well-stocked with the finest Swellings Cigars you can find) and nearly bowled over the girl holding the salad.

“Oh, do forgive me, Caroline.  I say, always one for the humble servitudes, what?  Much obliged, I’m sure.”

Receiving nothing but a blank look that was rapidly approaching stern reproach, I hastened on.

“Well, I’d best be off to help Phippy and co. keep the crowds amused.  Alas, it’s a blasted full-time job keeping people entertained until the bishop arrives, wouldn’t you say?”

The girl finally showed some signs of life at the mention of His Preeminence.  “Ah, yes, I expect he’ll be here before long.  I’m sure the guests will appreciate a man of good taste and fine morals among them for once,” she said with a meaningful nod towards the window, where Phippy was busily demonstrating his aptitude for balancing empty lemonade glasses on top of each other.  “It can be so tiresome at times here, with nothing but brutish men and lightheaded girls running after one another.”

“Well, that’s surely the scourge of the county, Caroline.  Absolutely.  Of course, I’m sure you’re excluding the excellent Mr. Westerly from your estimations with that comment, aren’t you?”

The girl nearly doubled over into the salad as she tried to contain her laughter.

“You mean that child, Phillip?  Ha!  It’s all he can do to keep Mr. Broxton from outwitting him at every turn!  Why, just this morning Charlie was explaining to me the origins of the Septuagint.  Did you know about the Septuagint, Roger?”

I confessed only passing knowledge with the subject, doing my best to communicate my distaste for Bronto’s more extensive familiarity on the topic though accentuated syllables and grunts.  In this, sadly, I was unsuccessful.

“Well, you simply don’t know what you’re missing, Roger.  Just like Phillip, actually, who proceeded to make an ass of himself when he tried to send Mr. Broxton away from us just so he could brag about his football injuries.  I mean, honestly, Roger, I’m not so empty-headed as that.  Vital historical knowledge simply stands quite more than heads and tails above football injuries seven a week, wouldn’t you say?”

I admitted my lack of authority on both subjects, but tried a final appeal for Phippy’s heart’s sake (and Bronto’s health).

“Well surely Phippy was merely stumbling over his words.  After all, I hardly think one of the bishop’s closest friends would be anything but completely mad about the Septuagint, Caroline.”

She eyed me unevenly.  “Surely you can’t mean Phillip Westerly?  The man’s never read a Bible in his life.”

“Now, Caroline, you mustn’t rush to judgment on Phippy.  The man’s got nothing but untamed admiration for the old Bish, and you’ll be of the same mind once he arrives.”

“Roger, I do think I would suspect you of having had too many somethings right now if we weren’t completely pure of the evil spirits for today.  Honestly, I just can’t picture it.”

“Well, you just wait and see, Caroline.  Phippy’s a true-blue churchman when it comes down to it, and I’m sure you’ll find the same to be true come two hours from now.”

The salad and its mule stubbornly continued on their way without responding, but you can’t say I wasn’t putting myself out there for old Phippy.  All he had to do now was act half-decent for a few minutes within shouting distance of the bishop, and Caroline would be loving, honoring and obeying him before you could spell Septuagint.

* * *

As the the crowds began to assemble themselves in the festivities, my memory did likewise with past challenges.  The thing about the challenges is that I’ve always been fortunate to appreciate their grandeur from more of an observer’s perspective rather than a participatory one.  Which isn’t to say that the spectacle (as it was sure to be) wouldn’t be grand either way, but simply that I wasn’t necessarily prepared to appreciate it from a first-person sort of view.  After all, that’s the thing about anything of a Grand Nature, really – you’re much more likely to find grand things to be so when given the opportunity to see their effect upon others prior to personal application.

Particularly when Laurie was involved.  Which is certainly meant more as a complement to her creative capabilities than a criticism regarding the hospital visits that frequently follow.  And Jimmy Cullen’s legs had certainly never been known for their resilience, although you can hardly expect even the sturdiest of limbs to withstand the impact of an nearly-ripe grapefruit propelled by a cricket bat, particularly if said bat is being wielded by a rather above-average player, if I do say so myself.  And of course, Jimmyl being rather the stand-up chap, he hadn’t held a thing against me for the whole matter, owing only in part (I’m sure) to his rather minimal knowledge of my arguably minor role in the incident.  Looking back, I’m having trouble seeing just what logistical purpose Jimmy’s blindfold had been employed for, but when Laurie sets forth a challenge, one simply rises to meet it. And in Jimmy’s case, one apparently may also collapse in debilitating pain to meet it.  Laurie’s challenges are quite mobile, I’ve noticed.

However, now was not the time to quiver under memories of impending injury to life and limb.  (Later, perhaps – indeed, most likely later – but not now.) I had a duty, and while my cocktail-less mind was having trouble remembering the details, I managed to extract something from the old bank regarding sparing Bronto from imminent destruction or something of the sort.  As I took in the scene before me, I quickly gathered what was needed to avoid rather general destruction, as Phippy’s sleeves were being rolled up by a steely-eyed devil of a man who found little amusement in Bronto’s continued banter with Caroline Gregson.  The lack of cocktails was as decidedly detrimental to Phippy’s temper as it was my memory.   While I had originally intended to pick an opportunely delicate moment for extracting the Bishop from Aunt Gladys, I realized opportunities of any sort were quickly diminishing as far as Charlie Broxton’s general health was concerned, not to mention the various bystanders and whatnot.  I dashed over to Aunt Gladys & Co. and began the operation with a flourishing bit of Tiffin riposte:

“My good woman…why it’s Gladys isn’t it?  You’re looking simply wonderful as always.  And your magnificence, I am certainly honored to be enjoying your presence so immensely.  I do hope –”

“Reggie, please do us the courtesy of curtailing your mindless prattle for one evening a year.  Did you have something to say or are your vocal chords simply vibrating of their own volition?”

“Well, I’m glad you brought up vocal chords, dearest Gladys.  Because it just so happens that Charlie Broxton here has been simply dying to perform his smashing musical recitation of the names and livelihoods of the twelve apostles.  Charlie, please regale us if you’d be so kind.  It seems fitting, given the occasion.”

It’s hard to put into words the various contortions the human face is capable of achieving, but Bronto’s complexion rendered confusion, anger and fear simultaneously.  There was some unbridled cowardice just below the surface as well, but a bit of pride seemed to be taming that for the moment.

In uncharacteristic fashion, Aunt Gladys nearly rescued him from the situation, but the Bishop Himself actually spoke up just as she was about to censure my suggestion with rather less eloquence and more forcefulness than I had used.  I noticed what was almost a gleam in his eye as the Bishop agreed:

“Actually, my boy, that sounds like a splendid idea.  Why, I’ve not heard that rhyme since my earliest school days!  To hear it done justice by a grown man would be nostalgia itself.”

Now, to be clear, I hadn’t actually intended anyone to approve of the suggestion – it had merely been a distraction to draw Bronto from the Gregson girl for a moment.  Now, however, I had no idea where we were.  As everyone waited for Charlie to step forward, I sincerely hoped he remembered the song better than I did.  I vaguely recalled something about a fisherman and his brother and a doubtful chap who slept a lot in gardens, but as for the tune or any names, I’m sure I couldn’t get much beyond Peter and Judas in D Minor, and somehow the latter just seemed like a down note for a St. George Festival.

However, to Charlie’s credit, he steadied himself (as best one can without aqueous assistance), and started right up to the front of the yard.  One the one hand, his apparent confidence could have been due to his rather off-putting diligence at memorization when he was a schoolboy—perhaps he had managed to add the rhyme to his repertoire without our realizing it!

Unfortunately for Bronto, the first few seconds and following quickly laid bare the fact that his memory of the particulars was lacking even more than my own.  I was already on my way to the back in search of a drink at least sparkling if not quite stiff when Laurie’s voice stopped me cold, quite a feat given Bronto’s rather less than dulcet tonality (I believe he was currently on apostle four, a newly-christened Matthew the Methodist).

“I’m so glad to see you here, really Reggie.  The challenge is really a most enjoyable bit of work, and I know you’ll be simply splendid.  The costume is in the kitchen; make sure you’re out here soon – I can’t see Charlie manufacturing too many more apostles than five or six more minutes’ worth.

I said nothing, but doom itself seemed to be enveloping me even more forcefully than the newly-composed ballad of Jonas the Jubilant (No. 7).  As I gazed upon the crowd that would make up my last memory of life on this earth, I was startled to see the Bishop pleasantly staring off into the distance.  Despite my suspicious regarding Charlie’s somewhat apocryphal ditty, the bish seemed to be enjoying himself quite a bit.  It’s wonderful what respite from Aunt Gladys can do for one’s spirits.  My own spirits (themselves quite weakened due to lack of their homonymous brethren) were headed quite the other direction as I entered the kitchen.  It’s not uncommon for a dragon to weaken a hero’s resolve – it’s decidedly less common for the donning of a dragon costume to have a similar effect.

The thing about Laurie’s festival, however, was that its name had come from somewhere.  And the thing about Somewheres is that they’re quite often less-than-ideally located.  In this instance, the downsides involved Aunt Gladys’s priory school performing the heralded slaying of the dragon by the festival’s namesake.  In previous years, the part of the dragon had been played by an unfortunate but inanimate construction of wood and paper.  However, it was clear from the evidence before me that this year’s Grand Challenge was to be the performance of the soon-to-be-slain dragon against an army of St. Georges wielding even deadlier swords that George himself could possibly had.  While wooden swords are generally thought of as non-lethal alternatives to their steel counterparts, I’d seen firsthand the mortal blows dealt to the dragons of years past, and knew that my time on this earth was hastily becoming a historical tale in its own right, albeit a much less victorious one than George had engendered.  After all, dragons have rarely come out of battles intact, as evidenced by their notably scarce presence in modern times (excluding the crowd at the Cackling Crow on Saturday evenings, that is).

It appeared I was to join their ranks in rarity upon the earth –which may have actually made me the envy of Charlie’s audience at the time, as it sounded like No. 11 St. Andrew the Crusader was being rather ill-treated by his brother’s wife on the Sabbath from what I could gather) – and, once I had donned the loose-fitting and ill-armored costume, I was to await Laurie’s signal to emerge from the back of the Kitchen, instantly to be set upon and hacked to bits by the bloodthirsty boys that priory schools have continued to produce in droves for the past 100 years.  From what I could see, any punishment Phippy rendered upon Charlie for his misappropriations would surely pale in comparison to my assuredly gruesome demise upon our fair soil.

But no sooner had I peeled down to the bare minimums in order to don the sweltering lizard than the sliding door burst open with a rather mentally-trussed-up Charlie Broxton’s hand propelling it.

“Reggie, I think she’s on to me,” blithered Bronto.  I attempted to communicate my indifference to the quickly fading troubles of the mortal world, but Charlie mistook the sigh for an encouragement and elaborated.

“I started stalling after reciting the verse about Silent Silas the Subsequent, and she was giving me such a look…it was only in mercy’s miraculous name that your blasted aunt commanded that everyone take their seats for the festival.  And with all that, the blighter Westerly is ready to make permanent alterations to my facial structure simply because the Gregson girl complimented me on my Scripture recitation in front of the Bishop!”

Now there are many terms for the situation I suddenly found myself in, but I believe Serendipity is the one I’m looking for.  I was ready to tread carefully, and I set forth without a moment’s hesitation.

“Bronto, I’d love to assist here but I’ve got to get into this outfit and play with the children before they get anxious.  I s’pose you’ll just have to find yourself an adequate hideout for the time being.”

The Coliseum itself couldn’t have wished for solider groundwork than what I’d just laid, and Bronto didn’t break character, though the lights didn’t quite come on as quickly as I’d hoped.  I was almost all the way into the dragon before Charlie blurted out.

“Oh Reggie, you really wouldn’t be so kind as to let me take your place just this once?  In the dragon, I mean.”

“Why, Charlie, I’m shocked.  You know how much I love entertaining the people and instructing the little ones with the story of St. George.  I really couldn’t part with it.”

Through the kitchen window the approaching figure of Phippy seemed to hearten Bronto’s resolve.

“Reggie, do understand!  I’d be safer inside the blighted lizard than anywhere else on the earth at this moment.  Please, wouldn’t you do me the kindness of prolonging my life just a few more moments?  I’d certainly be obliged to you!”

Now, with men there is something of a code that is adhered to in these cases.  And as much as my desire to see Bronto wallow in mortal fear pushed me to hold my tongue a bit longer, my acute memories of the sixteen plus wooden swords awaiting me sealed the thing.

“Oh, Bronto, what’s a chum to do?  Hop in my friend, and may the good St. George not repeatedly slay you in vain.”

Charlie quickly prepared himself to enter the confines of the reptile, and did so not a moment too soon.  Phippy’s fist hammered on the back door just as Bronto headed out the front to welcoming cheers and screams, the most piercing of which sounded a bit like Bronto, actually, as it kept recurring every few seconds over the next ten minutes or so.

Of course, there are those who might say I was shirking my duty to Laurie, but here’s the way I see it, as I explained to Phippy when I admitted him into the temporary sanctuary of the kitchen:

“You see, Phippy, he is dually motivated within his current endeavor,” I said with a raised voice.  (The screams were certainly louder than last year.  Newly-carved swords, I expect.)  “Charlie is right now acting for his life, as he fears the imminent pummeling you’re seeking to administer upon him; and acting for Caroline, as he’s certain that she’ll later admire his retelling of his role in the children’s spiritual growth during the play, and he wants her to remember it sans incident.  I, however, would have been simply acting to end my life, which would be a great loss to many people, myself perhaps as much as anyone.”

“From the sound of it, I’d say Bronto’s getting my administration in measured and repeated doses,” said Phippy, darkly.  Suddenly, he perked up.

“I say, Reggie, those are never cigars?”

The fine Swellings Cigars had indeed fallen out of my pockets while  I’d reassembled the personal wardrobe after handing the dragon reins to Bronto.  The time seemed quite fitting to be passed with a friendly smoke, until we realized that we’d failed to retain any matches.  After patting myself down, sheepishly without finding the incendiary articles, I noticed Charlie Broxton’s trousers sitting on a chair in front of us with his tell-tale matchbox in the back pocket.  Phillip bravely extricated said matches from the odd-smelling trousers, and we began a long-overdue wind-down for the day.

With Bronto poised to make a fool of himself in front of everyone without his identity being revealed at the time (and contested after the fact, if truth be told.  I had no wish to give Laurie more motivation than necessary for doubting my involvement in the task she’d assigned to me), and Phillip and I passing the time of the day in the one place Aunt Gladys couldn’t suppress a great bit of cigar smoke, life was looking like something worth acknowledging.

“Yet another gift from the beneficent Bronto,” I said, raising my newly-lit cigar in response to Phippy’s.  Without thinking much of it, I blew out the match and tossed it upon Charlie’s trousers, hoping to land the match just around the knee for premium hole placement.  I succeeded, of course.

However, Charlie Broxton’s trousers are the most utterly undependable item on our island.  All I wanted was a safe landing spot for a smoldering match, but that was far too much to ask of anything of Bronto’s.  It could have been so many things, but today it happened to be this:  Charlie usually kept a nip of brandy about him for emergencies, and it looked like he’d used his nip today just in time for his earlier recitation.  Unfortunately, his nerves must have gotten the better of his balance at the time he was administering his medicinal dollop of courage, for his trousers still contained more than adequate traces of alcohol for the universe’s purpose.

The instant the match hit them, the trousers were done for.  The tablecloth they’d been tossed onto followed instantly, then the morning papers, leftover invitations, notes and flowers still scattered over the table continued to serve as perfect fuel in fostering the blaze.  While this all started taking place within ten seconds, you have to understand that Phippy and I had started taking our drags when the match hit, and I haven’t found anything yet that prevents a man from finishing that initial sampling of a cigar once he’s begun.  By the time we’d gotten up, we were fighting a losing battle.  We did manage to eventually extinguish the blaze, with me beating the flames with the other tablecloths we liberated from the bottom drawers while Phippy got what water he could from the kitchen and flung it about as best he could.   While it didn’t consume the entire kitchen in the whole sense of the word, the table, chairs and the walls were all scorched or blackened well beyond usable status.

After catching our breath, Phillip and I sat down on the floor, panting, each holding a singed tablecloth.

“I think the screams are dying down, Reggie.  Do you think they’re moving on out there?”

“Unfortunatley, Phippy, I rather suspect the smoke pouring out of the windows has curtailed the production.”  A quick glance out the window confirmed my surmise, as people had already started standing up and turning round to look at the kitchen, which should have been empty, leaking plumes of smoke like a railway engine.

“Reggie…I don’t suppose you’ve heard that old saying about heart’s absence and whatnot?”

“I was just thinking the same thing, Phip.”

“Would Stambilt do for a weekend, you think?”

“I’ll see your weekend, Phillip, and raise you another.  A good trip to the coast is just the thing for this time of year, I say.  Why limit it to just the few days?”

By this time, we were at the back door, ready to make a decent run for my car, when it opened before us, and we encountered who else but the honorable bishop.

“Good afternoon, gentlemen,” he greeted us.

It must have been his sang froid in the face of our decidedly pitiful appearance, but neither of us could muster a response for a moment, and he went on.

“Terrible things, these stoves.  Always going off without cause, you know.”

Still, Phippy and I stared mutely back at him.

“Well, it’s just fortunate you’ve managed to put out the fire before it spread too far.  Quite heroic, really. Now if you want a piece of advice, I’d recommend you walk over to your car slowly enough to be noticed, and I’ll explain the details of what must have happened regarding this poorly outdated stove.  I’m sure the ladies will understand your heroism without any undue mentioning on your part, wouldn’t you think?”

“Uh, quite, sir.  Yes.  Yes, sir.”  Our replies lacked their usual coherence, but I doubt we could’ve said much more even if the minds had been up to it.  Phippy glanced over at me, and I returned it.

And then we performed the most gracious exit from the premises you’ve ever seen.  I didn’t linger my glance back as our car pulled away, so it’s hard to tell, but I’m hopeful that the contorted expression on Laurie’s face was one of amusement.  As for Caroline, Phippy wasn’t favored a glance, of course, as she seemed to be busily lecturing the slain dragon on the historical inaccuracies of his many deaths.

Still, I smiled.  What’s a little smoke compared with a gardenia bush?

The end.