Thursday’s Tickler is an excerpt from the murder mystery spoof, The Doyenne of Didsbrook.

© 2020 Tessa Barrie

George Fowler opens the front door. A broad smile ripples across his face under his Chevron moustache, revealing a perfect set of glistening incisors. Surprising for a man of his age with a passion for Cuban cigars.

‘Lucy! Good evening, how lovely to see you,’ and I know he is sincere because, if it hadn’t been for me, he might have ended his days very differently.

‘Hello, George,’ I respond warmly. ‘It’s good to see you too.’  I make sure all traces of grime on the soles of my shoes are left on the substantial coir matting doormat in the porch, before stepping over the threshold onto the New Zealand wool carpet. The memory of Tom tramping dog poo onto its Axminster predecessor is still fresh in everybody’s minds.

The grandfather clock chimes. I have arrived at precisely 7.00 p.m. George’s wife, Edna, likes us to come at 6.50 p.m. She is always there to open the door so that we can start promptly at 7.00 p.m. Time governs our lives. It is continually driving us forward. We can’t go back and change things, however much we would like to.

‘I’m a little bit late, I’m afraid. All trains were delayed in and out of Waterloo, there’s maintenance on the line somewhere around East Croydon. I’ve come straight from the station.’ George chuckles as he helps me take off my coat, and a whiff of cigars disappears up my nose.

‘There’s no need to apologise, Lucy dear. It’s par for the course when one works in the city. The others have only just sat down.’  George is always so upbeat on a Thursday. I imagine it is because he can enjoy a few hours of alone time, drinking a glass, or two, of his favourite scotch while puffing on a Cohiba cigar.  Even more so, these days. I can see a decanter, a cut-glass tumbler, and a giant ashtray, perched on a pedestal table next to his red leather chair in the snug. I wonder what goes through his mind during his periods of alone time? Does he dwell, or has he moved on? It’s not easy to read what goes on beneath the constant bonhomie.

‘Go on through.’ He extends his arm in the direction of the dining room, and I walk in and shut the door behind me.  Edna, at the head of the table, is leaning forward. She lifts her ample bosom with her right forearm before resting the pendulous orbs on the edge of the rosewood dining room table as she pulls in her chair.

‘I’m so sorry I’m late, Edna. Good evening, everybody.’

‘Ah, Lucy, dear, there you are. Don’t worry. My spies told me there had been a few disruptions on the Waterloo line today.’ The others look up mouthing words of welcome as I look around the table, smiling. We are like family now. Bound together by an invisible thread, our stories intricately woven together, ad infinitum.  I know everything there is to know about each of them. I found out secrets from their past that I know they would have wanted to let lie. It doesn’t make them bad people. The sins of their past only make them human. We all make mistakes, and, I believe, the truth has set them free.

‘Sit, sit!’ Edna pats the upholstered Rococo dining chair next to hers and, obediently, I sit down. Despite everything, our age gap and her unwavering self-belief that she is about to join the ranks of world-renown authors, I am very fond of her. Every inch of her reminds me, so much of Patricia Routledge’s Hyacinth Bucket.

‘Now everybody, let’s get started. What have you all brought along to read to us today?  Tom, let’s start with you. Are we going to hear more about your father’s World War II exploits?’  She shoots the question at him, and I imagine her as a WWII ace, wearing goggles and a white silk scarf sitting in the cockpit of a spitfire.  A degree of venom still lingers in Edna’s voice. She might have erased Barbara’s Himalayan Monkey tea spillage from her mind, but eradicating the memory of the Axminster fouling will take a little longer.  Tom nods his response, as Edna continues her round the table interrogation.

‘And you, Basil.  What have you bought to read to us today?’

‘I thought I would read a few paragraphs from my book about the beautiful Coccinellidae.’  Mutters Basil.

‘Ladybirds?  Okay, good.’ The disinterested chill in Edna’s response reminds us that last week, poor unassuming Basil also blotted his copybook.  He committed the deadliest crime a writer’s group member could ever commit.  Basil dropped off while Edna was reading an extract from the fifteenth rewrite of Dulcie Darling and the Wizard’s Caldron.  He could have been listening intently with his eyes closed, but when he started to snore, his crime was exposed.  I may be the youngest here, by far, but I am feeling pretty tired tonight, so let’s hope I don’t do a Basil and drop off.

Every time I come to a meeting of the Didsbrook Authors and Writers Group; I can’t help but think of you.  I wish you were still hosting our meetings and radiating your inspirational light on the rest of us less talented writing mortals.

Throughout our lives, we make assumptions about the people around us, and so often, our perspective is blurred.  But, maybe as writers, our illusions should be kept for our fictional characters, because I read you so wrong. You captivated everybody you met with your enthusiastic wit and wisdom, but my teenage perception of you was stratospherically flawed. The unassailable Doyenne of Didsbrook was the illusion you so successfully created, but none of us knew the real you.  The side you kept so well hidden. A vulnerable fragility that belonged to your other life. Or should I say lives?