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MRS. PORT SAT AT the open window of the narrow little room that was costing her husband twenty guineas a week. Her thin grey hands pleated and repleated a fold in her kimono. 'But I don't see why you should want to manage a pageant, Edgar: knights on horses and a girl in a tower—what's it all about? I don't understand.' She gave a little sigh and then said apologetically: 'But there are so many things I don't understand.'
'It's just to keep me amused and busy, dear, till you can leave this place ...'
'Shall we go back to Malaya, Edgar, when I'm able to leave here?'
Mr. Port's round face grew suddenly haggard: there was the same grey look about him as there was about the restless hands. 'There isn't very much left to go back to, my dear. Everything that we knew has gone. The Japanese ...'
'I don't remember any of it,' she said vaguely, troubled and apologetic again.
He pulled himself together. 'Well, don't try, dear. Don't worry about it. It'll all come back.' But there were some things that would be so much better hidden away in the cobwebs of her mind for ever! The Japanese ... He shut his own mind to it all; and said with his own old bouncing cheerfulness: 'Meanwhile you must get well and perhaps you'll be able to come and see my pageant!'
'What happens to the girl in the tower?'
'Well, the girl in the tower—that's Isabel Drew, you know ...'
'I don't remember any Isabel Drew,' she said.
'Not back in Malaya—you met her here in London, soon after we came Home ... She was a friend of Johnny's.'
'Of Johnny's?' she said.
'Don't you remember Johnny?' he said, sadly.
She shook her poor grey head. 'I don't remember anything, Edgar, dear.'
He pulled himself up again. 'Well, never mind. It'll all come back one day soon. Anyway, this girl Isabel Drew knows all the other promoters of the Exhibition, and when she knew that there was to be a pageant, she—she persuaded us all that I ought to play the part of pageant master; just for the fun of it, you know.'
'But do you understand about pageants, Edgar? Are you used to that kind of thing?'
'Anyone can manage a pageant!' said Mr. Port, with the more bluff heartiness because he was not at all sure that this was so. 'And Isabel convinced them all in a couple of words that there right in their midst they had just the man they were looking for. It's hard work but—well, it'll keep me occupied,' he finished rather lamely: and as her face took on that old hurt look of querulous uncertainty he added, with an almost desperate pleading: 'Don't question me any more: don't bother about it all any more ... I only mentioned it because I thought it might amuse you. It's all nothing: all just a bit of nonsense, but I—I have my reasons ...'
Susan Betchley, meeting them in the park that afternoon, would have said that Mr. Port had only one reason for associating himself with Isabel Drew's pageant—and that reason was Isabel Drew. She titupped along beside him on her high-heeled shoes, a little round, honey-coloured creature, softly and warmly curved as a whipped cream walnut. He dropped her hand rather furtively, Susan Betchley thought; his arms hung short and stiff on either side of his bow-windowed tummy, small plump hands twitching self-consciously. It was too late to retire gracefully: she waved her stumpy umbrella at them and advanced purposefully across the forbidden grass—a little like a stumpy umbrella herself with her stocky figure and well-carved head, and dull, but neatly-fitting silk dress. 'Hallo, Miss Drew! Fancy meeting you!'
'Oh, lor' here's that awful Betchley woman,' said Isabel petulantly to Mr. Port. She assumed an unconvincing smile. 'Hallo, Miss Bitchley: fancy meeting you too! You and Edgar know each other, don't you?'
Mr. Port and Miss Betchley disclaimed; he touched her firm brown hand briefly with his pudgy one, pink and moist in the hot July sunshine. 'First time I've had the pleasure ...'
'How peculiar!' said Isabel. 'I thought you both came from Malay or wherever it was?'
Mr. Port and Miss Betchley began with one voice to protest that Malaya was the noun and Malay the adjective: that one might as well say that they both came from the French ... 'Well, I mean you're Anglo-Indians or whatever it is, then,' said Isabel, not impressed. 'You both knew Johnny Wise, anyway.'
Their eyes met, shifted a little, and they each looked away again: was it only that Isabel could talk so lightly of Johnny? But Johnny had been dead more than seven years ... Mr. Port explained: 'Johnny Wise wrote home and told all his friends so much about England: when we finally got home, we looked up Miss Drew. He—he thought so much of her!' He smiled indulgently upon Miss Drew.
'Miss Drew must be quite fed up with all Johnny's friends,' said Miss Betchley with a little apologetic grimace. 'I'm afraid I presumed on my friendship with Johnny Wise in the old days, to do just the same thing.' She added to Isabel: 'I'm still looking for a job! Not very easy to find, with no qualification whatsoever, and being a "new girl" in everything at my great age! But we poor middle-ageing spinsters ...' She grimaced again and gave a small, rather snorting, self-deprecatory laugh.
Isabel, who was also a spinster and several years nearer middle-age than Miss Betchley, responded with a pitying smile. Mr. Port said abruptly: 'Perhaps we could find Miss Betchley something in the pageant, Isabel?'
'There's no room for any more women,' said Isabel briefly.
He persisted. 'What about—what about wardrobe—mistress, eh?'
'There isn't a wardrobe, Edgar: nothing but my dress and a dozen suits of armour.'
'Well, I'm sure she could make herself useful in lots of ways,' insisted Mr. Port, with unparalleled firmness, where Isabel was concerned. He looked at the swarthy, somehow rather wistful face, and said buoyantly: 'Would that suit you, eh? It would only last a few weeks, but it might just fill in time ...'
And Brian Two-Times also got a job in Isabel's pageant. Brian Two-Times was sweet. Brian Bryan, his name was actually, and he was Dutch, or his mother had been Dutch or something—Isabel was never quite sure: anyway he came from the Malay. Well, all right, Sumatra then, wherever that might be ...
'Sumatra iss an island, quite separate from Malaya ...'
'How you people do fuss!' said Isabel. She sat curled up on the off-white sofa in her cosy, slightly grubby little off-white flat. 'Now, Brian, look—about getting you a job ...'
'I don't want a job so much,' said Brian laughing.
'Well, darling, you can't just moodle about doing absolutely nothing: now, I know this isn't much of a job, but thousands of awfully nice people are quite keen to do it, and it's only for a few weeks while the exhibition lasts ...' Isabel was not finding it too easy to find a dozen knights to ride round her tower in the pageant. 'For instance, Earl Anderson's doing it: well now, he's quite a well known actor, at least not exactly well known, but lots of people have heard of him, only he happens to be resting at the moment—such an idiotic word, I always think, because the last thing they ever do is rest, but rush round like lunatics sucking up to everybody and trying to get auditions ...'
Brian Bryan was thirty-nine or forty: short with broad shoulders, a rather square, smiling face, and astonishingly blue, blue eyes. He habitually wore a long mackintosh which flapped as he walked; and he was radiant with vitality and a sort of impatient charm. He did not appear much interested in Earl Anderson's efforts while resting, but said, indifferently: 'I seem to know the name.'
'Well, actually, I expect you know it because of Perpetua. She's been living with him, or anyway running round with him, which I suppose comes to the same thing—ever since Johnny Wise did himself in.' She looked at him alertly, curled up, soft and round and golden on her shabby sofa. 'I suppose you think it's odd of Perpetua, Brian?'
Brian shrugged his shoulders. 'I don't think about it at all.' His English was quite good, though he spoke with a strong foreign accent. He changed the subject to one more immediately concerning himself. 'What does this Anderson in the show, that is therefore suitable for me to do?'
'Well, he's in the pageant, darling,' said Isabel, brightening. 'Riding round on a horse, it's too ridiculous, but after all it's four pounds a week for ten minutes' work, twice a day. And they're only old circus ponies trained to go round and round in a ring and do the Grand Chain or some such nonsense. You needn't be able to ride a bit. Earl can't, not for toffee.'
Brian Two-Times had spent perhaps two-thirds of his working life in the saddle. He gave her a little mocking bow whose irony was completely lost on her. 'That iss a great relief.'
'Well, I'll tell Sugar Daddy that he must fix you up as one of the knights. You know old Edgar Port's the pageant master? I can't think why he wants to do it, because he seems to have pots of money.'
'All for the luff of a lady?' suggested Brian, laughing.
'I wouldn't be surprised,' said Isabel, laughing too. 'Anyway, I introduced him to the manager of the whole show, who's an old job of mine, and they fixed it up between them: heaven knows what Edgar knows about running pageants, but I suppose he used to get up the fire-walking stunts or whatever they are, back home in the Malay.'
'Malaya,' said Brian Two-Times automatically. 'And I assure you that Edgar Port did not get up the fire-walking stunts there. He was a great man in Malaya: very pompious indeed!' He blew out his cheeks and stuck out his tummy in a startlingly life-like impression of Mr. Port at his most pompious.
'Oh, well, I always forget that you knew him there.'
'I did not know him there. How many times I have to tell you that my home is in Sumatra? As it happens, I knew Johnny Wise, yes: but Mr. Port I never set eyes on till you introduced us. He lived in British Malaya: I in Dutch Sumatra.'
'Oh, well, you were all good old Anglo-Indians together!' said Isabel impatiently. She got up off the sofa, stretched herself with a great display of bosom and thigh, and, since Brian Two-Times remained impassive, suggested without resentment that they go down to Elysian Hall and see what was doing in the way of preparation for the Homes for Heroes Exhibition. 'Charity Exmouth will be there, doing the decor or whatever they call it for the pageant, and I can show you what it's all about. Besides, she owes me twenty pounds commission for getting her the job and I want to squeeze some of it out of her ...'
The enormous shell of the Elysian Hall was in process of conversion into a small township of model homes suitable for the Heroes of England—(who meanwhile crowded in with reluctant relatives, and by day tramped the streets pleading with agents and officials that anything would do, the wife wasn't particular, not any more ...) Pseudo-Tudo cottages jostled staring white plastic, tortured into a series of Chinese boxes moulded from a single sheet: all-electric flatlets—a single cell, as it were, detached from the parent hive—sparkled with chastely camouflaged efficiency. There were whole rows of bathrooms complete with fittings, whole rows of fittings divorced from their bathrooms, whole rows and rows of baths alone, standing like disconsolate white poodles left out in the rain. In the galleries young women in tight, short skirts and with complicated hair-dos, learned off by heart a set patter about goods they had never previously heard of, and now that they knew something about them, would certainly never dream of buying for themselves. Agitated exhibitors leaped up and down crying in anguish, 'Not sleeping nets, dear, Slumber nets, I told you agen and agen ...' and the young ladies took the plums out of their mouths for a moment to exclaim crossly: 'Oh, wot the 'ell does it matter, Mr. Engelbaum?' Elderly gentlemen who had seen better days, ceaselessly passed a raw boiling fowl in at one end of a complicated mass of machinery and produced it, roasted to a turn, at the other end. Gardeners were planting out the Clock of Flowers with drooping pansies and sturdy Batchelors' Buttons, a locust swarm of chattering little women, uniformly grey, swept up the dust of the aisles into clouds and waited for it to settle again. In the centre of the main hall, Charity Exmouth stood wrapt in admiration before the pageant tower, with her hobbledehoy son prancing sycophantically at her side. 'We call him Motherdear,' said Isabel, as she and Brian Bryan approached the little group. 'You'll soon know why. And why will she wear three-cornered hats?'
'She wants to look like a woman M.P.,' suggested Brian.
'Nobody can possibly want to look like a woman M.P.,' said Isabel. She advanced buoyantly. 'Hallo, Charity. Hallo, George. Oh, hallo, Edgar, my pet.'
Charity Exmouth permitted a rush of teeth to the front of her mouth and hurriedly retracted them. Mr. Port bounded with pleasure at the sight of his beloved, his little feet almost leaving the ground in the excess of his joy. The hobbledehoy looked loweringly at Isabel's remorseless charms, and thought that if only his mother had not kept him so desperately 'young' he would long ago have learned to gaze upon such bournes of bliss and remain undisturbed. Not that he ... For after all he was in love with Perpetua Kirk ... But Perpetua was straight and narrow and uncushioned as a reed and he could not keep his eyes from Isabel's curves. He relapsed into a dream of angry adolescent resentment: a slim, dark, nervous boy in the throes of his first great love.
A stage was built out into the vast hall: semicircular, cut off from the great room behind—the Assembly room it was called—by a flimsy wooden 'castellated' wall. In the centre of this wall was a tower, a mere empty tube, standing on one end: and through the tower had been driven a high arch, leading from the Assembly room to the stage in front. Above the arch was a narrow window, tall enough to give access to a tiny balcony looking out over the hall. A rickety flight of steps inside the tower led to the rickety platform within this window. Isabel Drew, whose nightly task it would be to ascend these steps, hang about on the inside platform, and finally appear dramatically in a blaze of sudden flood-lights on the balcony outside the window, had insured her rounded limbs severally and together, for the duration of the job: and, so devout was her passion for good hard cash, could almost find it in her heart to wish that—right at the end of the run, when she had squeezed all she could possibly get out of Sugar-Daddy Port and the Homes for Heroes Exhibition—the ladder might give way and break just one teeny, weeny, terribly painless little bone ...
Mr. Port on the other hand was in an agony lest anything might happen to darling Isabel. 'Are you sure, Mrs. Exmouth that the ladder is safe? And that balcony? It looks terribly gimcrack.'
'The whole thing's as solid as it can be,' said Charity crossly: and added, glancing at Isabel's delectable bulges: 'That is for anybody of normal weight.' Charity herself was of the meagre quality, too often associated with her name. She gestured at the tin ivy, of an arsenic greenery, that coiled itself up the tower and about the little balcony. 'Life-like, don't you think? George positively thought it was the real thing: didn't you, George?'
'I said that the real thing often looked just as phoney,' mumbled George.
'But do I want all this frightful ivy?' said Isabel, clinging with pretty petulance to Mr. Port's arm.
Edgar explained tenderly. It was all the fault of that naughty little, soft little, cooing little voice of hers. They simply must have it stronger than it had come up at the original run-through of her speech: microphones and things had had to be hidden up on the tower quite near her, but then the trouble was that they would magnify a lot of other sounds—he didn't quite understand the mechanics of it all ...
'The whole thing's arranged and fixed up now, so we must have the ivy and that's the end of it,' said Charity, settling the tricorne hat with determination upon her head, and preparing to give battle. 'There's a switch hidden in the ivy up on the right-hand side of the arch, as you face the stage, and one of the knights will have to just reach up and switch it on when Isabel appears ...'
Excerpted from Death of Jezebel by Christianna Brand. Copyright © 1948 Christianna Brand. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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