Saturday, 18 August 2018

A Meal of Biblical Proportions

By Dawn Knox

Brandy


Sundays are busy days for vicars. And the Sunday following the Mothers’ Union outing to Bognor was particularly demanding. After morning service, everyone who’d been on the trip wanted to give Reverend Wilbur Forbes-Snell their personal report on the day. Everyone, except Wilbur’s sister, Hettie, who’d been remarkably quiet on the subject. It wasn’t until tea time that Wilbur noticed he hadn’t seen Hettie all day. And the more he thought about it, the more he realised he hadn’t seen her since she’d left with the MU ladies the previous morning. 

With any luck, she was in the kitchen making sandwiches for tea although Mrs McSquirtle had obviously been baking as he could smell shortbread cooking and his mouth watered. He’d go and see if tea was ready. And he must remember to remind Hettie to put out some pickled onions – something that however many times he reminded her, she always seemed to forget. There wasn’t a meal he could think of that wasn’t improved by the addition of a pickled onion – or two. 

Mrs McSquirtle was sitting at the kitchen table, her head resting on her arms and a glass of brandy by her elbow.

“Mrs McSquirtle! I’ve asked you not to start on the brandy until five o’clock. It’s not seemly.” He tapped his watch, “It’s only four o’clock.”

“Whssshht!” she said, her voice slurred, “I didn’t open thish until after five o’clock yesterday.” She indicated the empty brandy bottle, “and remember, it’sh for medicinal purposes.”

Wilbur sniffed. 

“I believe your shortbread is beginning to burn, Mrs McSquirtle. Where’s Hettie?”

“Hettie who?”

“My sister, Hettie!”

“How should I know?”

“Really, Mrs McSquirtle! Such rudeness! I’m going to have to rethink the brandy arrangements if I don’t have some cooperation from you.”

Mrs McSquirtle sat up, snatched the bottle and held it to her chest, then blinked rapidly as she tried to focus on the vicar, “You have my full corrororpation… corropercation…coorrorpation—”

“Where’s Hettie?” Wilbur cut in.

“Dunno.”

“When did you last see her?” 

Mrs McSquirtle’s left eye looked up at the fluorescent fitting on the ceiling. Her right eye swivelled in its socket and then gazed longingly at the cupboard beneath the sink where she’d hidden several bottles of brandy.

“Um…”

“Did you see her this morning before service?” Wilbur asked.

“Oh yesh,” she said with as much certainty as she could muster. She couldn’t remember anything that had happened earlier that day but it was fairly safe to assume that Hettie had been at morning service. Where else would she be?

“Was she at lunch?”

Mrs McSquirtle couldn’t remember having had lunch.

“Ummm…”

“Come, come, Mrs McSquirtle, you must remember if Hettie was here at lunch time.”

The housekeeper’s eyes narrowed, “Beggin’ yer pardon, Reverend, but don’t you remember seeing her at lunch?”

“I would have remembered if I’d been home but as I told you this morning, I was invited to lunch with Mrs Myers. Now, did you or didn’t you see Hettie?”

“No,” said Mrs McSquirtle. She was on safe ground now. The vicar hadn’t been here, so he couldn’t say what she might or might not have seen.

“I suggest you get the shortbread out of the oven before it burns,” Wilbur said as he swept out of the kitchen. 

“Yesh,” she said, laying her head back on her arms.

***

On Monday, Wilbur called the police, and Constable John arrived several hours later. A brief search of Hettie’s bedroom revealed a letter on her bedside table which clearly showed that she had left of her own free will.
Dear Wilbur,
I’m leaving.
Regards,
Hettie
There was some doubt about the date of her departure because the coach driver said that Hettie had not boarded the coach back to Basilwade on Saturday afternoon and several of the MU ladies had corroborated that. So far, the only person to claim to have seen Hettie on Sunday, had been Mrs McSquirtle but the constable was disinclined to believe her since during her interview, she claimed to have seen bright lights in the garden and small people wearing silver space suits who had led Hettie away. The housekeeper had then fallen asleep and he’d been unable to rouse her sufficiently to check any more facts. 

“In conclusion, Reverend,” said Constable John, tucking his notebook back in his pocket, “Miss Forbes-Snell appears to have left of her own free will, so I’m afraid this isn’t a matter for the police.”

By the following Saturday, Wilbur was in a very dark mood. So was Mrs McSquirtle who was about to hand in her notice when she realised her brandy supply would almost certainly dry up – and another employer, assuming she could find one – would probably not be as lenient as the vicar. No, she was duty-bound to stay and look after him. Even if he had turned into a bad-tempered and unreasonable man. She silently cursed Hettie. There had been no word from her other than one postcard from Paris saying she was fine. Well, good for Hettie, Mrs McSquirtle thought crossly because she certainly wasn’t fine. The Reverend had become more demanding since his sister had gone, expecting breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner at regular intervals and to make matters worse, he’d found her hidden supply of brandy and was rationing her. She’d explained that the brandy was medicinal but it had fallen on deaf ears. Wilbur had offered to pray for her medical condition but had not been any more generous with his brandy allowance. And to make matters worse, the Bishop and two churchwardens were coming for dinner on Saturday. A dinner she was expected to cook.
And Wilbur was unusually agitated. Actually, snappy, might be a better description. 

“Dinner,” he said, “has to be perfect. Nothing less will do.”

She’d pointed out that the stress was upsetting her medical condition and that a large brandy would ensure the success of the dinner on Saturday. Wilbur had been rather harsh, quoting chunks of the Bible which featured fire and brimstone. And now Mrs McSquirtle was angry – stressed and angry. And an angry, stressed Mrs McSquirtle was not a rational being. Her integrity and her fitness as a housekeeper had been called into question. 

It was too much.

It was war.

And Mrs McSquirtle had no intention of losing. 

On Saturday evening, Wilbur hovered by the front door ready to receive the Bishop and churchwardens while Mrs McSquirtle finished the preparations for the dinner she had dubbed her ‘Religious Experience’. 

Wilbur had been too flustered to question the housekeeper more closely and moaned yet again that Hettie was being selfish and ought to come home. 

In the kitchen, Mrs McSquirtle placed two pickled onions in each bowl and covered them with tinned tomato soup. Reverend always said that there wasn’t a meal that couldn’t be improved by adding pickled onions, so let’s see how he likes this, she thought. 

“Samson Soup,” she announced proudly, as she placed bowls in front of Wilbur, the Bishop, Mrs Myers and Mr Chubb.

“Samson Soup?” asked the Bishop.

“It’s very biblical,” said Mrs McSquirtle, “my inspiration is from the Book of Judges,”

“Ah, Samson – the man who was tricked into cutting his hair by Delilah.”

Mrs McSquirtle nodded. 

“Well, I hope the soup doesn’t have hair in it,” the Bishop said and laughed heartily at his own joke.
“Oh, ho, ho! Very good my lord,” said Mrs Myers. 

The Bishop beamed at Wilbur. Wilbur looked uncertainly at the housekeeper.

 “I’ve done my best to re-create the part where the Philistines gouged out Samson’s eyeballs,” Mrs McSquirtle said.

Mrs Myers had been scrutinising the pickled onion she’d fished out of the soup when she heard the word “eyeballs”. She screamed and dropped the spoon and onion back into the soup bowl with a splash. The Bishop, who’d already swallowed some of the soup, gagged, and Mr Chubb who was well-known for laughing at inappropriate times, giggled hysterically. Wilbur looked as though he’d sat on a pole. His eyes bulged and he emitted a high-pitched squeak. 

“Not to everyone’s taste, then,” Mrs McSquirtle said, gathering up the bowls and placing them on her tray, “never mind. I’ll bring in the next course.”

“Wh…what is the next course?” asked the Bishop gripping his serviette nervously.

“Salome’s Surprise,” said Mrs McSquirtle over her shoulder as she left the dining room. She reappeared several minutes later with a large silver platter, on which was a domed cover. 

The Bishop gasped, “When you said Salome, did you mean the Salome who demanded the head of John the Baptist on a platter?”

“The very same,” said Mrs McSquirtle with a satisfied smile. She reached for the handle on top of the cover to raise it.

“Stop!” screeched Wilbur. He leaped up, grabbed her by the shoulders and propelled her into the kitchen. By the time he got back to the dining room, the Bishop, Mrs Myers and Mr Chubb had gone, although he could hear the sound of giggling wafting on the breeze. Wilbur was at a loss. If only Hettie were here to deal with this. What should he do? Well, obviously the dratted housekeeper must be fired and he certainly wouldn’t give her a reference. Yes, he would do it tomorrow. 

 ***

Mrs McSquirtle put the Egyptian Trifle back in the fridge. It was her tribute to the Ten Plagues of Egypt. She’d always said the good thing about trifle is that you could make it out of pretty much anything and to this one, she’d added a few pickled onions just for fun. The other thing she knew about trifle is that it doesn’t matter how carefully it’s served, everything gets mixed up and it always looks a mess. She’d planned to have fun pointing out pieces of kiwi which could easily be mistaken for frogs – and currants which could pass for flies or lice depending on size. Oh well, she thought, Wilbur can have the trifle tomorrow. She would still be employed tomorrow. She knew that. Despite the fact that he was – even now – planning to fire her. 

But he wouldn’t. 

She had taken the precaution of hiding his supply of pickled onions in the cellar along with his stamp collection and the girlie magazines that he’d hidden in his wardrobe. She’d left one of the magazines, on his bed. When he returned it to its hiding place, he’d discover the others were missing and know that she knew about them. The cellar was the one place that Wilbur feared to tread since he had a phobia about spiders – especially the extremely long-legged, fat-bodied ones which thrived in the vicarage cellar. Now that Hettie had gone, who would dare to brave those terrible arachnids? Only trusty, dependable Mrs McSquirtle. If he sacked her, he’d have to persuade one of his parishioners to go into the cellar to retrieve his pickled onions and stamps which were on the bench right next to his girlie magazines. 

Mrs McSquirtle climbed the stairs to bed. The washing up could wait until tomorrow when Wilbur could do it. She had won the war and things were going to be very different around here from now on. Pouring herself a double brandy, she placed it on the bedside table and climbed into bed. Just for devilment, she’d put a dead long-legged, fat-bodied spider in Wilbur’s bed and he should discover it in about… she checked her watch… five minutes time when he went to bed. The scream would probably break every window in the neighbourhood and send the dogs in a five-mile radius into a frenzy. Smiling, she rammed her ear plugs home, finished the brandy and pulled the bedclothes over her head.  

 About the autkor 

Dawn’s third book ‘Extraordinary’ was published by Chapeltown in October 2017. She has had three other books published as well as stories in various anthologies, including horror and speculative fiction, and romances in women's magazines. Dawn has written a play to commemorate World War One, which has been performed in England, Germany and France. www.dawnknox.com

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