A hungover Tristan Denny wakes to find that he's not alone...
St Clare's House Characters:
Minor character(s), Nell Wilson
Tea and Militancy
08 Jun 2012 Updated:
22 Jul 2014
Abi and Finn had this idea pretty much simultaneously. We thought it would be fun to inflict this sort of horror on poor old Tristan.
It's written with characters from the T&M universe, because we couldn't manage without Susie and Matty. For anyone who doesn't read T&M, Susie Smith is a character created by Finn to be Marjorie Durrant's replacement as junior mistress in the term following Jo Of. Matty Smith is her brother. They are both good friends of the Dennys and get up to all sorts of scrapes together.
This is just another in their series of adventures! However, what happens in it does not necessarily happen within T&M itself...
1. Chapter 1 by Finn
2. Chapter 2 by Finn
3. Chapter 3 by Finn
4. Chapter 4 by Abi
5. Chapter 5 by Finn
6. Chapter 6 by Finn
7. Chapter 7 by Finn
8. Chapter 8 by Abi
9. Chapter 9 by Finn
10. Chapter 10 by Finn
The room was very dark. Tristan Denny lay still for a while and stared at where the wall should be.
After a while, he realised that his head was throbbing gently. It was ringing, too, with an odd, jazzy rhythm, exactly the sort of thing he hated. How very peculiar.
He felt strangely warm in his bed. Very warm indeed. Perhaps he had a fever?
It occurred to him that the reason he couldn’t see anything was because his eyes were shut. He prised them open slowly.
A ray of light slammed into his eyeballs and instantly he clapped his hands over his face, shading them from the violent sun. The throbbing in his head swelled in a crescendo of pain and he uttered a faint, miserable groan.
After some time, once most of the red hot rods had been withdrawn from his skull, he peered through his fingers.
Well! How long had he been asleep? The sun was high in the sky, casting its warm rays over his face. He must have forgotten to draw the curtains.
He frowned. He always drew his curtains. He really must be ill. And that dreadful ringing was going on and on. If it hadn’t been so jazzy he might have called it a tune. But of course his brain wouldn’t invent a tune like that. And the sort of music he heard in his head shouldn't sound quite so exactly like the piano in Matty Smith's Paris flat...
A horrible suspicion crept over him. He sat up, a little too fast, and the bottom of his brain went through his skull, or so it felt. He paused for a moment, clutching the top of his head, allowing himself a moment to recover before he went and attacked that lunatic Matty Smith who, he was now certain, was deliberately torturing him in his fevered state with that abominable noise he liked to call music.
There was a yellow top hat lying neatly beside him, atop his burgundy blanket.
He picked it up, gingerly, between finger and thumb. It was a very fetching hat. Canary yellow, with a black bow and a long plume of feathers and, although he did not know much about hats or fabrics, quite probably made of silk. Really very attractive. But somehow he could not imagine wearing it himself.
He frowned again. This must be another devilish trick of Matty’s. The fellow must have been absolutely – what was that idiotic slang term? – inko? motto? spotto? Drunk, anyhow. Tristan made up his mind. He grasped the outlandish headgear firmly by its elegant brim and turned to swing his legs out of bed.
He froze again.
Top hats were one thing.
Naked women were quite another.
White hot terror seared through his brain, rendering him briefly incapable of thought. After a moment the terror retreated far enough to leave his mind filled with one horrible thought. What was he wearing? More to the point, was he wearing anything at all? He gulped, then took the plunge and peered down at himself.
He sighed and clutched in frantic relief at what had once been a crisp white shirt, now horribly crumpled. Further investigation revealed the presence of his reassuringly stout underwear. Tristan relaxed. Then he remembered that there was a naked woman in his bed. A naked woman. In his bed.
What did one do in situations like this? As so often in life, he suspected there was a rule book – but no-one had told him.
For a brief, mad moment, he thought about asking Susie. After all, this was something she must be quite familiar with – she would know what to do. Hoping vaguely to see her, he glanced around the room, but there was no-one else within. He was on his own – or, more precisely, they were on their own. Reluctantly, he looked back down at the woman sprawled beside him beneath the blankets.
Maybe it was a dancing girl of some sort, whom Matty had persuaded to play a trick on him? It was the sort of thing that young man would do. And the yellow top hat would suggest that! Yes, that must be the truth. He would go now and give the young journalist a piece of his mind! If only he could get past the woman...
Carefully he slid from beneath the blanket and began to edge past her slumbering form and, as he did so, he found himself in a position to take a closer look at the woman. He did so.
Icy white horror burned through him once more.
He leant back until his head hit the wall and covered his face with the hat, uttering a deep, heartfelt groan.
It couldn’t be. He must have been mistaken. He slid the hat a few inches to the side and peered around it.
He had not been mistaken.
He groaned again, into the silken depths of the hat.
Then he jumped and uttered a high-pitched squeal as the hat was snatched rudely from his grasp.
The piano music from the next room came to an abrupt halt.
“I think,” said Nell Wilson, leaning forward and planting the hat firmly onto his head, “you’re supposed to wear it like this.”
Thank you for the comments! I have to point out that Abi wrote most of the last update, and jolly well she did it too!
He was in bed with Miss Wilson.
She fell back against the pillow and sighed happily. Her eyes were half-closed and she was regarding him with a beatific smile.
“Beautiful, darling. It suits you.”
He could find no words to respond to this unexpected compliment. He stared hollowly at the woman, the top hat wobbling as it perched on his head. This was impossible! Not only was Miss Wilson in his bed, quite possibly completely naked, but she was acting like she was supposed to be there!
She raised a hand and waved unsteadily at him.
“Come here, Bella, darling.”
He gaped, his mind blank but for one salient fact.
“But…I am not Bella!”
“Not Bella?” Miss Wilson sat up, the blanket dropping away from her bare torso, and he shut his eyes rather than look at her. “But why are you wearing her hat?”
He opened his eyes slightly, willing himself to look only at her face. She leaned in closer, then her eyes widened in unspoken horror.
“Oh, my God!”
Miss Wilson snatched up the blanket and pulled away from him, scrabbling backwards, clutching the covers against her naked breasts and tugging the blanket away from him. In doing so, she exposed his bare legs and his underpants, and he made a wild grab for the tail end of the blanket and sought frantically to cover himself once again. Unfortunately, Miss Wilson appeared to think that he was trying to remove the blanket from her and pulled harder, squeaking in a way that pierced his very skull; he battled against her, desperate to retain some dignity.
They tussled for a moment until suddenly Miss Wilson stopped, arms wrapped tightly across the blanket that was clutched to her chest, and stared into his eyes, grim sobriety descending upon her features. There was a brief moment of silence, during which the hat toppled from Tristan’s head, rolled across the rumpled blanket, and landed on the bedroom floor.
“This actually can’t get any worse,” said Miss Wilson.
Tearing her gaze from his, and with her right hand still clutching the bedclothes to her, she reached out with her left hand and groped about to find some item of clothing with which to cover herself.
“This is what happens when I trust Susie!” she was muttering. “‘It’s alright, Nell,’ she says. ‘I’ll look after you and make sure you don’t drink too much. You don’t have to worry!’ And then she lets me do this! Where are we, anyway?”
Tristan tried to speak but his voice shriveled in his throat. He cleared it and tried again.
“Matty’s flat. His…” He squeaked. “Bedroom.”
“God, he isn’t here, is he?” Nell glanced about the room, as if expecting to see Matty Smith rising from the floorboards with a cheery grin and a wave.
“No. I believe he is playing the…the jazz.”
Tristan waved a hand towards the wall, through which the jaunty strains of a jolly piano rag were defying his abject horror. Nell snorted and resumed her search for clothing.
“You might look away!” she snapped.
Tristan had been watching her rather blankly, but he tore his gaze from her at this curt remark. Then immediately he looked back again, for his attention had been caught by something gold that glinted in the vicinity of her left hand.
She jerked her head up to look at him.
“What?” she said sharply, and he pointed with quivering finger at her hand. She stared at him, uncomprehending, then lowered her gaze to her left ring finger.
Her eyes widened, and for the second time that morning the blanket dropped from her grasp as her right arm fell weakly onto the bedclothes. Her shoulders sagged with the shock.
“Oh God, no,” she gasped.
But there was no denying it. Upon her left ring finger there was a slender band of gold, where yesterday there had been none.
They stared at it, horror swimming in their very hearts, then in curious synchrony they raised their heads until they were looking once more into each other’s eyes.
“What have we done?”
Thank you for the comments!
This one is Abi's.
“It is a joke,” said Tristan at last, his overwhelming horror betrayed only by his chalk-white face, staring eyes, shaking hands and the uncontrollable tremble in his voice. He put one of the quivering hands to his head as the piano in the next room began another jaunty tune.
Miss Wilson slid the ring from her finger and inspected it closely.
“Well, it’s an expensive joke, then,” she said. “This thing’s made of gold - look, there's the hallmark. Anyone who uses an actual gold ring for a joke must be a nutcase. And a lot richer than Matty Smith.” She paused. “Hello? Am I talking to myself?"'
She prodded him in the shoulder and Tristan, who had closed his eyes in the hope that the whole situation might simply disappear, jumped violently and, opening his eyes once more, found himself staring straight at her bare breasts. He yelped and clapped a hand over his eyes again.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” said Miss Wilson irritably, hitching the blankets back up to her armpits. “Haven’t you ever seen a woman’s breasts before?”
Tristan cautiously looked at her and relaxed slightly when he found that she was once more decently covered.
“Indeed I have,” he admitted. “But it is not at all the same when –”
“You have?” After a pause during which Tristan tried, with a complete lack of success, to read the expression on her face, Miss Wilson went on. “Oh well. The point is, what on earth made you marry me?”
“What?” The exclamation left Tristan’s lips before he had time to censor it. “I mean – I beg your pardon, but you cannot think that – that I –”
“Well, who else?” said Miss Wilson reasonably.
“But I –"
“You’re the one in bed with me, aren’t you?”
“But – I do not – why would I do such a thing?”
Miss Wilson snatched the ring from her finger again.
“This is lunacy,” she announced. “I want a divorce.”
Tristan made a bleating sound that could have been indicative of assent or dissent, or neither. Miss Wilson narrowed her eyes at him.
“What do you mean?” she demanded. “Are you refusing to give me a divorce? Oh, I’ll drag you through the courts, Tristan Denny! I don’t care about the scandal; I’ll have you know I haven’t the smallest intention of spending the rest of my life – or even the rest of the morning – with you. I can’t think of anything less likely to –”
“Wait!” But Miss Wilson gave no sign of having heard him, and went on to denounce him roundly as a thorough scoundrel. “Please, Miss Wilson!” he said more loudly and this time, in the middle of accusing him of being a consciousless seducer of innocent women, she fell silent, glowering at him. “Please listen to me, dear lady. I would not dream of – of presenting any obstacle to a divorce. I was merely wondering whether it was necessary.”
“Necessary?” Miss Wilson stared at him suspiciously. “What do you mean? Of course it’s bloody necessary!”
“But,” persisted Tristan, only desperate hope carrying him through. “If we were, in fact, not married?”
Miss Wilson’s mouth flapped open.
“Oh,” she said blankly. She considered for a moment. “But we must be. I mean, there’s the ring. And we’re in bed together, so we must have –”
Tristan stared at his bride.
“No,” he said hoarsely.
“Are you sure?” Miss Wilson appeared to cheer up slightly at the sight of his discomfort. “I mean, here we are in bed. Me with nothing on, and you with a yellow silk top hat. It must mean something.”
Tristan swallowed lumpily.
“But surely we could not have – I mean – how –?”
“How? Really, Mr Denny, I hope you don’t expect me to explain the birds and the bees to you just now.”
“No! No, I meant –” He came to a halt, wondering what, in fact, he had meant. The truth was that his whole mind revolted against the possibility that he could have – no, he could not even think it. Not with Miss Wilson! At last he said, feebly, “But surely we would – remember!”
“Do you mean you don’t?”
His eyes widened.
“Do – you –?”
Miss Wilson sighed and gave up the joke.
“No. But considering where we woke up, I think it’s quite likely. Don’t you remember anything at all?”
Tristan forced his aching, reluctant mind to cast itself back.
“We and Susie and Matty ate in a restaurant.”
“Yes. And drank, too.”
“And then – I am certain that we left the restaurant.”
“I should have thought that was obvious. Where did we go?”
“I fear that I do not remember.”
“Fat lot of use you are,” said Miss Wilson irritably and unfairly. “Well, I suppose we’d better at least find out whether we really are married. Grab my clothes for me, will you? They’re over there.”
Tristan clung to the safety of his blanket.
“But – I am unclothed!”
“Oh well,” said Miss Wilson. “If you’d rather I did it myself –”
She made as though to drop the blanket and Tristan hastily scrambled out of the bed, taking care to avoid any contact with her. Miss Wilson relaxed against the pillow, chuckling, while Tristan, having handed her her clothes and, in the process, having taken the opportunity to don his trousers, stared fixedly out of the window. The piano’s continuous tinkle was suddenly joined by Matty’s shaky tenor, rising in joyful morning song. Tristan’s brow contracted.
“I cannot imagine how we will inform Matty and Susie of this,” he said. There was a thud. Tristan almost forgot not to turn round, but restrained himself in time. “Are you injured?”
“No! I just fell over wondering whether you’d gone mad. Matty and Susie aren’t going to know a thing about this.”
“But how can it be avoided?” said Tristan. “We must leave the room at some point.”
“I’m decent,” said Miss Wilson. As he turned round, she fixed him with a basilisk glare. “And you can leave the room through the window.”
“Oh,” murmured Tristan. “Of course.”
He turned again and gazed down at the distant pavement, bitter thoughts running through his mind. How had he come to be wed to Miss Wilson, of all people? He was still a little inclined to think – or perhaps hope – that it was some convoluted scheme of Matty’s. And what, oh what, had possessed Matty to rent a flat on the second floor? How in the world was he to reach the ground intact?
He wondered whether it was possible for his life to become any worse.
Thank you for the comments! And this one is Finn's.
Five minutes later, clinging to the windowsill by his elbows while his feet scrabbled for a purchase against the brickwork, he realised that it could indeed get quite a lot worse.
He was not much given to thinking ill of people, least of all members of the fair sex, but when he recalled the glint in Miss Wilson's eye when she had suggested this course of action, he came close to being indignant with her.
"To think that a young maiden could be so unkind," he thought.
Then he remembered that Miss Wilson could well no longer be a maid, and that she blamed him entirely for this, and he found himself wondering what fresh hells she could conjure up for him.
"Though could anything be worse than being married to her?" he wondered, then rebuked himself sharply for his lack of charity.
Still, came the thought from one rebellious part of his brain, he rather wished he could remember something of last night. After all, given the way she had spoken this morning, it was not likely that it would happen again, even if they remained married.
The rest of his brain caught up with this runaway thought, and immediately went into meltdown.
When the horror had subsided, he turned his thoughts firmly and deliberately to his escape.
There was some ivy growing up the wall just a few feet to the left. It was thick enough to take his weight - if he could only reach it…
He kicked out with his left foot. It tangled briefly with the ivy, then swung loose. His body lurched and his distressingly tender stomach flipped up through his ribs into his throat. He swallowed hard and gripped the windowsill with clammy hands.
Don’t look down.
His next attempt to reach the ivy was successful, and soon he had both feet firmly entangled in its creepers. The next trick was to detach his hands from their frantic grip on the windowsill and transfer them to the ivy. He was about to shift his left hand from the sill when he made the mistake of looking down.
The pavement swam before his eyes. He shut them quickly and moaned.
The strong scent of tobacco drifted from somewhere above him. He opened his eyes again and beheld Nell Wilson, leaning out of the window inches away from him, smoking a cigarette and watching his progress with interest.
“Don’t look down,” she said.
“Thank you, yes,” he snapped testily, hitching his arm more firmly round the sill. “Most helpful of you. What do you want?”
“I forgot my bag,” she said. “Then I fancied a cigarette. Besides, I wanted to see how you were doing. Trying for the ivy, I see?”
Irritation surged in his heart at his bride's flippancy.
"You could show a little concern."
"Over what? Oh, don't worry. If you fall I'll wear my widow's weeds with pride."
“Callous wench! Leave me be, pray! Go and find your amusement elsewhere.”
“Alright. I was going to offer you a hand, but since you don’t care for it…”
She made to withdraw and he bleated desperately.
“No - wait! A hand would be…gratefully received.”
She grinned devilishly.
“Thought it might. Hang on, then.”
With one hand in her firm grasp, it was much simpler to swing his other hand to grasp hold of a creeper. Finally he was clinging to the ivy with both hands and feet, feeling marginally more stable, and was able to stammer out some gracious thanks.
“Don’t mention it,” said Nell. “I’m going to close the window now. See you shortly.”
His protest against her shutting off his only escape route died on his lips as she hammered the window down quite firmly. He clung to the ivy, arms trembling, and suddenly realised that she had managed to make him thank her most humbly for helping him in the arduous task which she herself had set him.
“The brazen hussy!” he exclaimed, indignation almost overpowering his resolve not to speak ill of the woman.
Below him in the street, a small and ragged collection of street children gathered, pointing up at him, and their excited chatter rose to his ears. Resolutely he ignored them and set himself to the task of scrambling down the ivy, which turned out to be rather more awkward than he had expected. The stems themselves were thick enough to bear him, but the smaller tendrils tended to come away in his hands, and the whole thing was twisted and tangled so that it was difficult to get a purchase with his slippery town shoes. Perhaps he should have attempted it in his socks? Too late now. He was very glad that he had been able to find his shoes, however - it would have been most awkward to walk into the flat in only socks. How might one explain that away? Could one lose one's shoes on a night out in Paris?
Irrelevant, Tristan! Concentrate, man.
Suddenly, he became aware of a face. It was a woman’s face, pale, surrounded by curling dark hair, and poking out of the wall to the right of him. He froze, horror-struck, and for a brief moment wondered madly how Nell Wilson had managed it, before it dawned on him that it was not her face but the face of Matty’s downstairs neighbour, Mme Moreau.
Tristan knew her quite well from previous visits, and he knew his manners, so he nodded politely and managed a smile. He even had the presence of mind to doff his hat, before recollecting, as his hand groped at nothing, that he was not wearing a hat.
Mme Moreau, however, did not seem to notice the missing apparel. Her eyes were wide, her expression astonished, and then her head vanished through what Tristan finally realised was the open window of her own bedroom, to reappear moments later in the company of her lugubriously-moustached husband.
"Good morning," said Tristan, in as polite a tone as he could manage whilst halfway down a wall.
M Moreau stared at him much as his wife had done, before glancing at her and shrugging.
"Les anglais - je t'ai dit - ils sont tous fous."
Tristan felt the urgent need to explain his presence in the ivy outside their window. He could not have them running away with the idea that he was quite mad!
"I...I felt the need for some air," he extemporised wildly. "It really is excellent, up here above the level of the streets, do you not agree?"
M Moreau stared at him a little while longer, then he started to wheeze. Tristan wondered whether he might be about to collapse - had the shock of a man appearing in the ivy outside his window been too much for the old man? But then M Moreau slapped the windowsill and Tristan realised the fellow was laughing.
"Ah! Bien sur, this is excellent! You go for a little promenade in the ivy to take the air, yes? Non, non, mais non, mon ami! I know what this is. You do it for the bribe, yes?"
Blackmail, in point of fact, thought a treacherous part of Tristan's mind as the rest seized upon this new idea.
"A bet! Yes! Of course - that is what it is."
M Moreau slapped the windowsill again and chortled with laughter.
"Excellent, excellent! This M Smith, he is an ape, is he not?"
"An ape? Oh, a monkey. Yes, indeed! Haha. And so I am in the ivy."
"You young men! Such high spirits. But come, M Denny, come in through our window now, for surely you will fall and break your neck! Come, give me your hand. We will see you safe."
Five minutes later, Tristan rapped on the door of Matty's flat and was admitted by the man himself.
"Where on earth have you been?"
"I decided to have a walk before breakfast," replied Tristan blithely, having prepared his story on the way upstairs.
"You are disgusting," said Matty. "How do you manage it? You could barely walk yesterday!"
"I eat a lot of mushrooms," said Tristan irrelevantly. It was the first thing to come to his head but it seemed to satisfy Matty, because he murmured something about trying it himself and sloped off to the piano.
Tristan glanced around the room. Susie sat on the sofa, clutching a mug of tea. Miss Wilson stood by the mantlepiece and, as their eyes met, gave him a sort of gloomy nod, as though she had half hoped he might drop off the side of the building and thus cease to trouble her. She moved away and joined Matty at the piano.
Susie drifted over as her brother struck up another piece and gave Tristan a calculating up-and-down glance, taking in the rumpled shirt and untidy hair.
"Where have you really been?" she asked. He gaped at her, unwilling to believe that his carefully planned story had failed to convince her.
"As I said..."
"Oh, rubbish! I know as well as you do you haven't been out for a walk! I've been wide awake on this sofa since half past six this morning and you never came past. And besides, you'd never go out looking like that. My dear, it's as if you'd climbed through a hedge!"
"Well, in a manner of speaking..."
He fiddled with a strand of his hair while Susie subjected him to another searching look.
"Well? Go on - you've got to tell me! Who were you with that kept you out all night?"
The word escaped before he had a chance to think about it, and when Susie's eyes widened with surprise and her lips curled in amusement, he felt quite distinctly that he'd said the wrong thing.
"Well! I thought the two of you were getting on very nicely last night. But I'd keep it from Matty if I were you ."
With which cryptic remark she wandered over to join the others. Tristan followed, for want of anything else to do, but for once his mind was not on music; it was turning over and over one desperate question:
"Who the hell is Bella?"
Golly! Isn't it a long time since we updated this? Abi and I have worked together on this latest update, though it is mostly her work, and we have also established a plot! Yes, there was one all along! Hope you enjoy...
Tristan, although he had intended to make some show of normality, had found himself sadly unequal to conversation, let alone breakfast, and was hunched in the depths of a large chair, breathing in the fumes of a cup of coffee and trying to force his brain back to last night. Who was Bella? What had he and Miss Wilson - for it was impossible to think of her by any other name - done? And why? She had never shown the slightest bit of interest in him previously - what would suddenly induce her to marry him, and in such a way that neither of them remembered it?
A burst of laughter came from the group by the piano, where Miss Wilson was finishing her breakfast, and Matty struck a few jarring chords, apparently by way of concluding some tale. Tristan eyed them all balefully, then realised that Miss Wilson was staring at him and - no! He must still be hungover, or perhaps he had simply mistaken what he had seen. Even so unpredictable a woman as Miss Wilson could not have taken it into her head to start winking at him, not at such a time. Shaking his head at his own foolishness, he returned to his contemplation of the bottom of his cup.
"Are you sure you don't want any breakfast, Tristan?" called Susie a moment later, and he raised his head again.
"I thank you - no. I have - I am not hungry in the slightest."
"Alright," said Susie. “I can see you’re feeling a bit delicate. Only - do tell me if you need a bucket, won’t you? Wouldn’t do to mess up the rug.”
He scowled at her and she gave him her prettiest smile. As she turned to go back to the kitchen, Tristan caught sight of Miss Wilson over her shoulder, this time making an unmistakable gesture. At least, the fact that she was making a gesture was unmistakeable, as was the fact that she was making it at him. Its meaning, however, eluded him. He frowned at her, trying to indicate by his expression that he needed clarification. Unfortunately Susie reappeared at that moment and glimpsed his facial contortions.
"Tristan! Is something wrong?" She laughed merrily. “Shall I fetch the bucket?”
"Wh - ?" he blinked. "No - don’t be ridiculous. I was merely - merely -"
"I expect he's still drunk," drawled Nell, who was perched on a little table beside the piano. "Some folk have no self-restraint."
The impertinence of the woman! He drew himself up slightly in his chair, intending to express his opinion strongly. Before he could speak, however, Miss Wilson beckoned so extravagantly that even he could not mistake the meaning of the gesture. He contemplated ignoring her, but somehow the fact that she might be his wife lent her command some weight and, reluctantly, he rose and crossed the room, contemplating gloomily that the “obey” of the marriage ceremony was usually supposed to be on the wife’s part, not the husband’s.
"Matty's desk," she muttered when he came close enough, jerking her head towards the table on which Matty’s typewriter and other paraphernalia stood, in the corner of the room opposite the piano. Tristan glanced at it, then looked back at his erstwhile bedfellow in some confusion. Miss Wilson rolled her eyes.
"On his desk," she whispered.
"What?" said Tristan.
Tristan glanced at Sarah and Susie, who were engrossed in their own conversation at the other side of the piano and taking no notice whatsoever of himself and Miss Wilson.
"What?" he said again, then, with dignity, tried a command of his own. “Explain yourself.”
“Don’t you take that tone with me,” his wife muttered sharply, then jerked her head again. "It’s on Matty's desk!" she hissed. "The - you know! We have to get it."
"The what?" he whispered, infected by her urgency despite himself. For a moment she looked as though she was grinding her teeth at him, then she murmured, so quietly he could barely hear her,
"The marriage certificate, you ninny."
Tristan spluttered in horror, and Miss Wilson banged him on the back, hissing instructions into his ear under the cover of her thudding hand.
"Look, you distract Matty, then nip over and get the certificate. I'm going to sit Susie down and winkle a bit of information out of her, see if I can make out what actually happened last night. Okay?"
She stopped hitting him, much to his relief, but her efforts had rendered him unable to do anything but nod feebly. Apparently satisfied with this reaction, Miss Wilson slid off the small table and made for Susie. Tristan, recovering himself, stared after her.
Truly, the woman was a devil. But perhaps he had better do as she said, otherwise she might come and hit him again. Or, if not that, she could quite easily make his life a misery in some other way. He had no doubts as to her inventiveness, nor of her invective, at least as far as he was concerned. And besides, he had to know. Was he shackled to this demoness for life? Was he to be forever under her thumb, obeying her whimsical commands for the sake of a little peace? The only way to find out for certain was to do as she said.
He glanced towards the desk, then at Matty, who was getting up from the piano.
Damn! If only Matty had kept on playing for a little longer, he could have nipped over while his back was turned and taken the thing without any trouble. And - oh, good heavens, Matty was drifting towards his desk. What in the world was he going there for? He could not possibly wish to work with his flat full of people and the sort of hangover he deserved to have! Leaping into action, Tristan waved a hand at the young man.
The young man turned and raised his eyebrows in enquiry. Tristan opened his mouth to speak, but whether due to shock or his hangover, could think of nothing to say. He gaped for a few moments, a small part of him astounded at how his mouth could hang open as it was doing, and him with no power to stop it. Matty's eyebrows went back down and, as he started to turn away again, Tristan realised he had wasted too much brain power in irrelevant thoughts and had let his opportunity slip.
"No - wait!" he yelped in a panic. Matty turned back round.
"What is it?"
"I - there is something I wish - I need - " Once again, Tristan floundered helplessly, but this time Matty came towards him, looking rather amused.
"Well? What's up?"
For a moment, Tristan's mind was empty of everything but a wild, blazing panic. Then the spectre of Miss Wilson, aged sixty, sitting and making sarcastic comments at him across the fireplace loomed large and terrible, jerking him into action.
"There is something I wish you to observe," he said. "Over here. Through - through this window."
But this was no good; Matty merely glanced out of the window, then back at Tristan, looking mildly puzzled. Tristan looked about the room desperately, for there must be some cunning, subtle way of distracting - hah! His eye fell on Sarah draining her cup of coffee.
"Coffee!" he cried, afire with inspiration. Matty put his head on one side and observed his friend in silence. Tristan perceived that he had not conveyed his meaning with sufficient clarity. "That is, I would very much appreciate a cup of coffee. Please. If it is not too much trouble."
"Help yourself," said Matty, waving his hand towards the pot and beginning to move towards his desk again. But Tristan, having taken his first steps on the path of deception, was not to be thwarted. Casting a hand across his brow, he sank into a chair.
"Of course," he said in a faint voice. "I will rest here for one moment, and then -"
"No, no." Matty had stopped again and was looking at him with slight concern, although Tristan wasn't certain whether this was for his feigned weakness or for his unexpectedly erratic behaviour. Still, it did not really matter, he told himself as Matty crossed the room to where the women were now sitting, the coffee pot on the table between them.
Tristan was rather startled by the success of his plan, and sat frozen in the chair for a few moments, savouring his victory. Then, realising that he probably had very little time and, with a sudden flash of insight, that his deceptive powers were probably not up to another attempt to distract his friend, he leapt up, darted across to the desk, seized the rolled up certificate and tucked it inside his jacket.
Triumph! he thought delightedly, his heart beating a fast fandango beneath the incriminating document. His first piece of subterfuge, and it had worked! He ran trembling fingers over his jacket, and felt elated. Then, suddenly, his blood ran cold as he felt someone standing just behind him.
“I thought you were feeling faint,” said a girlish voice. He turned, slowly, and found Susie was standing very close to him, his cup of coffee in her hand and a peculiar smile on her face.
If he had feigned his faintness before he did not need to do so now, for all the blood had rushed to his head in his mad panic and he was forced to prop himself against the table to remain standing. He hoped desperately that the certificate would stay where it was and not slide out from under his jacket. If he remained very still…
“Are you sure you’re alright?” she asked him.
“Quite alright, thank you.”
“Only I spotted you and Nell having confabs earlier.”
His eyes widened in alarm.
“We have been doing nothing of the sort!” he said, horrified. Hopefully, anyway. No, Miss Wilson had been fairly sure they had not done anything like that together!
“Oh? Are you sure? You’re not hatching something?”
“Oh, God, I do hope not,” he said, rather more to himself. A child would be the last thing they needed!
Susie was watching him amusedly.
“Tristan, do you know what confabs means?” she asked him sweetly, her eyes teasing. He drew himself up straighter.
“I pride myself on being above such vulgar slang,” he said, adding quickly, in fear that she might take it upon herself to explain, “but I can hazard a guess.”
She smirked at him, and suddenly he realised that the certificate was no longer where it had been. Trembling as he was, he felt that if he removed a hand from the table he would surely fall; and besides, to pat his jacket would only look suspicious. But where was it? He did not dare to move any further, and so he stood there while she bit her lip and tried not to snigger at him, wishing heartily that she would go away and leave him alone!
As if in answer to his prayers, Susie grinned and thrust the cup towards his face.
“Your coffee, sir.”
He forced one hand away from the table, so as to accept the cup she was proffering him. It trembled violently, so much that the coffee slopped over the sides and into the saucer. Susie laughed outright at his incapacity.
“My, you are all of a dither today,” she said.
Tristan had just felt the rolled paper inside his jacket slide a little further down, so was rendered temporarily incapable of speech. Fortunately for him, Miss Wilson was heard to call Susie over to speak with her, and she went off, not without casting him one final, amused glance. He waited until she was safely on the other side of the room, before turning his back to the room, slapping his coffee cup down on the table and catching the certificate just before it slid out from under his jacket completely. Shaking with relief, he tucked it into his trousers, hoping fervently that it did not decide to slip down one leg of them, then picked up what remained of his coffee and, crossing the room as if he did not have a care in the world, let alone a wife, he sank down into his chair, hoping his trials to be over for the time being, at least. He sighed gustily, then took up the cup and, his fingers all of a muddle, found himself tipping the rest of his coffee down the front of his shirt.
Another update? But it's only a month or so since we posted the last one!
An hour and a half later, Tristan Denny could be found in the Place de Tertre, peering round the door of a cafe. He was feeling a little shaken, and not just because of his unexpected matrimonials. The Place was the workplace of dozens of artists, scattered among the trees and before the cafes, and Tristan had just had an unfortunate encounter with an easel, resulting in a paint-covered sleeve, a bruised shin, and very nearly a boxed ear from an artist enraged by the fact that his Great Work was now upside-down and covered in flecks of grit and leaf mould. Retreating in the face of violence, Tristan fled to the welcome arms of sarcasm and hastened to seek out his wife.
The voice was unmistakeable, even over the hubbub of the cafe. Tristan turned in the direction of the call and espied his fair beloved sitting in a corner at a rickety wooden table, a half-empty coffee cup before her.
“Where have you been?” demanded Miss Wilson as he approached. “You’re nearly ten minutes late.”
“You said the cafe with the red awning,” said Tristan, sitting down gingerly, for the marriage certificate was still wedged underneath his belt and made folding in the middle rather difficult.
“Have you counted the number of cafes in the Place with red awnings? I have been into seven, at the very least!”
“If you’d listened,” said Miss Wilson with a sigh, “you’d have heard me say ‘the cafe with the red awning between the two cafes with green awnings.”
“If you’d spoken more clearly,” said Tristan, bristling, “then perhaps that would have been clear.”
“I thought you musicians were supposed to have a very good ear,” Miss Wilson hissed. Tristan opened his mouth to point out the absurdity of all musicians in the world sharing just the one ear, but Miss Wilson’s eyes had narrowed in such a way that Tristan began to feel it would be safer if he did not continue to argue with her, so he leaned back, rather sulkily, and folded his arms.
“A splendid married couple we shall be,” said Miss Wilson, suddenly cheerful in the face of his frustration. “We don’t seem to have stopped quarreling since we woke up this morning.”
Tristan forbore to comment that Miss Wilson could maintain an argument with a brick wall.
“Garçon!” he called instead. “Café, s’il vous plait.”
“Deux cafés,” called Miss Wilson to the waiter, adding, “and you’re paying.”
“Naturally,” sighed Tristan. “What’s mine is yours, after all.”
The party had decided to go out. Susie had declared that their hangovers would be blown away by the fresh morning breezes, though it was clear to all that her real motivation was that she wanted to go shopping; but in addition, Matty had declared he had some business to attend to and so the rest of them had disappeared out into the sunshine while he went to take care of it. Tristan, the marriage certificate wedged into his trousers, was not feeling at his most comfortable and, with unusual perspicacity, he could tell that Miss Wilson was also not happy. She spent most of their walk keeping as far away from him as possible, walking with Susie while Tristan tried to keep up an ordinary sort of conversation with his sister. However, when Susie stopped at a shop window to point out a particularly attractive hat to Sarah, Miss Wilson contrived to appear at his elbow just when he was not expecting it.
“Pipe down,” she said in response to his yelp of surprise. Then she leaned in close, much to her apparent distaste, and murmured some instructions into his ear - instructions which he had apparently misheard, as it turned out.
“Place de Tertre, the cafe with the red awning between the two with green awnings, ten minutes.”
Then she had disappeared round the corner, leaving him to translate her instructions and attempt to leave surreptitiously - a difficult matter, with both his sister and Susie paying such very close attention to him. He could not understand how, but they seemed to have noticed that something was wrong with him, and the ten minutes allotted him were almost up before he could distract them, by the simple ruse of pointing out a dress to Susie and then declining to go into the shop with them so she could try it, and make his escape. Now, sitting opposite Nell Wilson, with her black brows knitted close together and her sharp tongue poised to snap at him, he began to wonder why he had obeyed.
“Have you looked at it?” she demanded.
“Saints preserve us,” said Miss Wilson, in tones of absolute despair. “The marriage certificate, you brainless wreck!”
“I have not,” said Tristan with dignity. “When has there been opportunity? Besides, I thought we would look at it together.”
Though perhaps, he reflected as Miss Wilson simmered and gave an appearance of being about to boil over, it would have been safer simply to hand the thing over, retreat to a safe distance and return only when the aftershocks of the explosion had died down. If it were bad news she was not likely to take it well, and despite all his gallantry in the War he did not feel brave enough to be present when she came face to face with incontrovertible proof of their unfortunate and much regretted union.
But that was no way to go about things! he told himself firmly. Summoning all his courage, he reached under his jacket for the marriage certificate, and he was about to bring it out when they were interrupted by a waif of a man, with the pallid skin and burning eyes of a poet. He was bristling with the paraphernalia of Art and his face had a fixed intensity that Tristan recognised as an eagerness bordering on desperation.
“Excuse me,” he said. “You’re English, yes?”
“Yes,” said Tristan, to whom the question was addressed, though he was not at all sure where it was leading.
“Ah, good!” said the man. “So am I, you see. I came to Paris in October last year. I’m an artist, you see. Well, I’m sure you can see that! Ha! Ha!”
“Ha,” agreed Tristan, bemused.
“Ha!” repeated the man, his teeth bared in a nervous grin that made his gaunt face look two steps from death. “Yes. An artist. I’ve been painting ever since I got here. It was a devilish cold winter, let me tell you! My garret…well, I shan’t speak of it. But it’s dashed unpleasant, you see. Well! How exciting to meet other English people here!”
“Excuse me,” said Nell, leaning over and also baring her teeth, but in a much less friendly sort of way than the self-professed artist, “but do you want something?”
“Ah! Ha!” The man bit his finger anxiously and showed his teeth in another grin. “Yes. Well. As I said, it’s been a dashed hard winter, you see, and I…well, I…did I mention that I’m an artist?”
“Several times,” growled Nell.
“You see,” said the man, his face becoming strained, “I’m down to my last francs. So, if, perhaps, you wanted a…a nice picture of the happy couple?”
“God, does everyone in Paris know we’re married?” demanded Nell of Tristan in an undertone, then turned her gimlet gaze on the unfortunate artist. “No,” she said, with a smile that was far more polite than Tristan was expecting. “We want no record of this meeting at all, thank you. Now, we have matters to discuss, so…”
“Ah. Right.” The starving artist hovered briefly, then deflated. “Alright,” he said. “Sorry to have troubled you.”
“That’s quite alright,” smiled Nell sweetly, then she turned back to Tristan and her eyes hardened.
“Go on, then,” she said. “Get it out.”
He removed the marriage certificate from under his belt and laid it on the table before her.
“There,” he said.
Miss Wilson was staring at it as though it were a stick of dynamite with the fuse running down. He looked at it, then at her, perceived that her hand was trembling slightly, and was struck with an uncanny flash of insight.
She’s frightened of it! he thought. She’s worried about what she might find!
A small sense of triumph overwhelmed him. He sat up straighter, puffed out his chest and, with a slight manly pride in the lack of tremor in his own hand, reached out and picked it up.
“Shall I open it?” he asked. She did not speak, only nodded. He slid a finger under the thick paper and suddenly realised that he was no less frightened than she was.
Still, there is always divorce, he thought, and prepared to unroll it. What was he about to see? Was his nightmare to be confirmed as reality? This was his moment of discovery…
“I’m really very reasonable, you know.”
The artist was back.
“Very reasonable indeed. You see, I’ve not sold a painting in…well, I’ve not sold a painting, actually. But think what a source of pride it would be to be the owners of the first Reginald Spottiswood ever to have been sold - and at a jolly decent price, all told! I don’t need long to do a sketch, and you can see how you like it and, if it’s good, we can arrange a sitting. What d’you say?”
“No!” said Nell, her anger with the certificate focused and directed at the artist. She regained a little self-control and smiled at him. “We really are very busy,” she said. “We have an important matter to discuss. If you wouldn’t mind leaving us alone?”
“Right-o,” said the artist, retiring dejected.
But his intervention had altered matters. Whereas before Tristan had been the calm one and Nell had trembled, she seemed to have derived strength from her irritation with the artist and now it was she that reached out with a strong and steady hand to unroll the marriage certificate, while Tristan shrank into the recesses of his chair, anxious and tense and unable to bring himself to peer over her shoulder as she lowered her eyes and read.
“You ape. You dunderhead. You absolute and utter moron.”
“I beg your pardon?” Tristan sat up, startled at this fresh outbreak of abuse.
“I should bloody hope you do! I said to fetch the marriage certificate, you clot, not the…the…bloody deeds to a house, or whatever these things are!”
“What?!” Tristan seized the documents from her and stared at them in anguish. All that pantomime, and he had stolen the wrong document!
Miss Wilson continued roundly to curse him, though after about a minute even her grand facility with abusive language began to dry up and he even heard her repeat herself a few times before eventually she gave it up.
“Useless haddock,” was her final shot, and she fell silent.
Tristan, though relieved that the tirade had ceased, was more interested in the deeds that lay before them on the sticky table.
“I did not know that Matty was purchasing a house,” he said, tapping the document with his finger. For there was no mistaking it, even with his faulty French - these were the title deeds to a house in the Rue Berthe, and they were in Matty’s name. Miss Wilson gave a very un-English shrug of the shoulders.
“Well? Why shouldn’t he?”
“Because journalism is not exactly a well-paid profession,” said Tristan, “and he has no private income from which to live. How can he afford it? And besides, what does he want with a house? His flat is basic but pleasant enough, and I thought he was contemplating a return to London before very long.”
“It’s vulgar to talk about money,” said Nell in idle fashion.
“Maybe with strangers, but not before one’s wife,” returned Tristan, and the dart struck home, for Miss Wilson’s eye caught his in a moment of union between them. It lasted barely seconds, but it was the first flash of sympathy that Tristan had felt from her, and he wondered if suddenly they were on the same side.
“You don’t mind if I sketch you, sir?”
It was the artist again. He raised a sketchpad and pencil hopefully.
“You don’t mind if I sketch you, do you?” he repeated. “Just for myself, you understand, not for anything else. You’ve an excellent face for sketching, you see - such marvellous hair! - and I hate to let an opportunity pass me by.”
“Right. No, no - go ahead,” said Tristan, his mind distracted.
“Oh, thank you, sir, thank you!” The artist beamed, his death’s head coming alive as grateful colour touched his wan cheeks. “It’s so kind of you, I really am delighted - you won’t regret it!”
“No, indeed,” said Tristan, waving the man away. Nell Wilson was chuckling over her coffee.
“Marvellous hair!” she snortled, and he scowled.
“What did Susie say?” he asked, hoping to change the subject.
“Not much,” said Nell, sobering up and straightening her face. “She definitely knows something, though.”
“I don’t know what.”
Tristan tried a little haughtiness of his own.
“Well, that is not very useful,” he said.
“More useful than the bloody deeds of a house!” exclaimed Miss Wilson, and he was forced to concede the point. “I can’t believe you picked up the wrong thing, you big-nosed, long-haired, dim-witted chump.”
“Well,” declared Tristan, suddenly stung to anger, “this looks set to be the messiest divorce in history. We have not been married a day and already you hurl such abuse at me as no man should be called upon to bear. Well, I have names for you, as well, you…you strumpet, you Xanthippe, you baggage, you harpy, you…”
“Look, sir, see how I have caught your likeness…”
“And you can piss off, too!” shouted Tristan at the artist, who had crept back to the table once again. The young man cowered and Nell, astonished, snorted coffee through her nostrils. She choked, wiped her mouth with her napkin, then rose and patted the artist on the shoulder.
“What my husband means is, would you kindly get stuffed,” she said, then added, in friendly fashion, “Maybe if you gave up art and concentrated on a meaningful, practical sort of a career, you might find you have some money in your pockets and shoes on your feet. Like teaching,” she said, with a sly look at Tristan. “There’s many a Great Artist who sold his soul and took up that career.”
“That career may well be keeping you in shoes and clothes yourself for some years to come,” snapped Tristan, scowling at his wife. “Come along.” And he turned to leave the cafe.
“Where are we going?” said Nell, hastening after him as the artist, broken-hearted, slumped into her vacated chair and began to contemplate with renewed vigour the career in merchant banking he had left behind to come out to Paris and pursue his Art.
“To the address on those deeds,” said Tristan.
“We might find something out there,” he said. “Why, have you a better idea?”
“Go back to the flat and find that damned marriage certificate,” said Nell.
Tristan stopped and contemplated this.
“We shall go to the house first,” he said decisively. “It is almost on the way to the flat.”
“Who put you in charge?” grumbled Nell, following him as he marched off again.
“You did, yesterday, when you said “I do”,” he observed, and strode out of the cafe and straight into another easel.
Forgot to add this yesterday, sorry!
They arrived in the Rue Berthe still arguing. Tristan had lost his advantage when he lost his footing but was determined not to go down without a fight, despite Miss Wilson’s determination to win the interminable argument.
“There’s absolutely no point,” she was saying as they turned the corner. “All we’ll do is look at a house and –”
“Hush!” said Tristan imperiously.
“What do you mean, hush? I’m not going to be a domestic sl –”
“This is the house,” said Tristan, shaking her arm in an attempt to make her desist. “We must go carefully.”
“Oh.” Miss Wilson considered this and was annoyed to find it reasonable.
“What exactly are you planning?” she asked in lower tones.
“I do not know. To watch for people going in or out, perhaps.”
“I’ve a better idea.”
“You surprise me,” mumbled Tristan, just quietly enough for the words to be inaudible.
“We should look in through the windows. We might recognise something or see someone that will give us a clue as to what Matty’s up to.”
“Oh.” It was Tristan’s turn to consider and find the plan unobjectionable. “Very well. But we must be discreet.”
“Obviously,” said Miss Wilson. “Come along.”
Casting suspicious looks all around them, they crept up to the house and peered in at the windows, but no one was visible. Disappointed, they looked at one another.
“We might wait and see whether someone arrives soon,” suggested Tristan.
“We can’t hang around here all afternoon. Anyhow, the most important thing is that we find that marriage certificate. This is just being nosy. Come along.”
Tristan sighed and wondered whether he would spend all his life being told to come along, when his wife grabbed him by the arm and pulled him to the ground.
“What are you doing?” he objected, and found her hand firmly clamped over his mouth.
“Shhh, fool!” she hissed. “Didn’t you see? There was a woman in there!”
“No, I did not.” Tristan turned, with the intention of looking through the window to see for himself, but was distracted by the sight of an official figure across the road, staring at himself and Miss Wilson.
“Well, there was. Why on earth is he buying houses for women? That makes no sense at all.”
“Miss Wilson!” said Tristan, cutting through her musings.
“I think we must move.”
“What for? Things are just getting interesting. We can wait and –”
“There is a gendarme, and he is –”
But now Miss Wilson had seen him too.
“Quick!” she gasped. “Run!”
But he had no choice – she had grabbed his hand and was turning to vacate the scene. At the same moment the front door to the house they were studying was flung open and Matty Smith loped out, fortunately turning in the opposite direction to Tristan and his spouse. With one accord they clutched one another’s hands and fled in the other direction.
“Hé!” shouted the gendarme. Tristan gave one glance behind.
“He is pursuing us!” he gasped, and almost fell over as Miss Wilson accelerated and dragged him round a corner.
“Hurry, you ninny!” she cried, galloping on at a pace that he could barely match, let along compete with. Indeed, he was barely able to think for some ten minutes as he was pulled round more corners, down alleyways and narrow streets until, finally, Miss Wilson yanked him round one last corner and came to a halt, breathing heavily, against a blue painted wall. Tristan bent double, trying to regain his breath.
“Have – we – eluded – him?” he wheezed.
“I think so. Better stay here for a couple of minutes, though.”
By the time she deemed it safe to move, Tristan had regained his breath and discovered that they were very close to Matty’s flat, a fact which filled him with secret relief.
“Wait!” he said as they approached it. “How will we enter? Neither of us possesses a key.”
Miss Wilson beamed at him.
“How very gentlemanly of you to offer,” she said.
“I – do not understand.” “Well, you climbed out this morning, so I suppose you can quite easily climb back in again.”
Tristan stared at her, his face paling.
“I do not think that would be wise.”
“Are you saying you can’t do it?”
“Of course not! I am mere questioning the –”
“Good chap. Off you go then. I’ll keep a lookout for you.”
Tristan opened his mouth to object but found that he was speaking to Miss Wilson’s back. For a moment he considered simply sneaking off while she wasn’t looking, but on reflection decided against this course of action. She would never forgive him for so ungentlemanly an act. No, he would simply have to grin and bear it. Gritting his teeth, he began his upward journey.
Finally we've got round to adding a new chapter of this! Thank you to all the people who have asked us for more - hope you enjoy this.
In later years, Tristan tried to repress the memory of his ascent, although sometimes it would return in his dreams. That slippery but painful ivy which would not allow his shoes to get a grip, and yet tore at his hands. The way it came away from the wall at unexpected moments, causing him to emit little shrieks of terror. Once, a little way up, he lost his grip entirely and came sliding down the wall to land at Miss Wilson’s – could she be his wife? – feet. She hauled him into a standing position and gave him a leg up, uttering not a word in the process.
It took him a long, long time, but eventually he reached the window and pushed the sash open, although there was a stomach-churning moment when his left foot slipped and his right foot followed, and he thought for certain that he would fall. But somehow he managed to cling on and scrambled through the window, falling onto the bed in which he had awoken under such terrible circumstances only a few hours before.
He paused and looked around the room. The yellow silk top hat lay on the floor, sole witness to his entry. Tristan picked it up and stared at it for a moment. Then he shook himself. This was not the time for standing around and dreaming. This was the time for Action. He strode across the room and into the little hall. There he unfastened the door and swung it open.
“Hurry,” he whispered. “Matty or the others could return at any moment, and it would appear highly unusual if –“
“Yes, I’m well aware of the peculiarity of our situation,” said Miss Wilson crisply. She pushed past him and entered the hall. “Come along, man.”
Tristan sighed, reflecting that seconds ago it had been he telling her to hurry, and already she had managed to turn the tables on him. Must he spend his entire life in this way? But no, he would obtain a divorce come hell or high water. He would not exist in such misery.
“I’ll search the bedroom,” Miss Wilson was saying briskly. “You take this room. Get going.”
Tristan hastened into the front room, eager to remove himself from his wife. For a moment he stood in the centre of the room, frowning and twirling the hat in his hand absently. Then he moved reluctantly towards the desk. That, after all, was the most likely place to find the marriage certificate - or, indeed, anything else useful.
It felt wrong to be searching Matty’s desk. Tristan shuffled the papers vaguely, ill-at-ease. Then, almost to his relief, he heard footsteps, distinctly feminine and unmistakeably high-heeled. They came down the hall and into the room.
“Hello,” said a clear voice.
Tristan swung round and found himself facing a tall, ravishingly made-up woman, dressed in the height of fashion. His mouth fell open and so did the hand holding the hat, which fell to the floor.
“I -” he said huskily. “That is, I mean to say -”
“It’s all right,” said the vision. “I just came for the house deeds.”
“The - the house -?”
“Oh. Ah. I believe - here.” He fumbled in his jacket and produced the deeds, which he handed over to the woman.
“Thanks, darling.” She turned on her heel, then paused and turned back. She picked up the yellow silk top hat and placed it carefully upon Tristan’s head, then surveyed him critically. “It looked better with what you were wearing last night,” she observed, then departed down the hall.
Tristan stared after her, and was quite taken by surprise when his wife appeared before him, a simmering kind of expression on her face.
“What was that?” she hissed, in a sort of shrieking whisper from which Tristan recoiled, eyes wide.
“Why,” he said nervously. “It was the – the deeds – to the house.”
“And you just give them away!”
Tristan held his hands out helplessly.
“But should I have withheld them?”
Miss Wilson looked as though she would quite like to slap him, Tristan thought – although surely she had too much dignity for such an action. It had been he who had lost all his dignity today, not her.
“Of course you should, you useless, wet fish of a man.”
“But –“ he could not help but express his confusion. “But why? My dear,” he added in conciliatory tones.
“I’m not your dear,” she said angrily. “As for why, well, why do you think? What do we need in this situation?”
“A stiff drink,” mumbled Tristan. Miss Wilson glared at him.
“Information, bird-brain. That woman might have been able to tell us exactly what went on last night. And now you’ve lost us our best opportunity!”
“Oh,” said Tristan, considering this. He supposed, grudgingly, that it was reasonable. If only he were a quicker thinker! He might then have satisfied this testy woman to whom he had found himself tied.
“Oh!” she shouted, not letting him get a word in edgewise. “Is that all you can say? And just so you know, you look ridiculous in that hat!”
Tristan, who had forgotten all about the hat that the woman had placed upon his head, snatched it off and held it behind his back.
“It is not a great calamity, surely?” he protested. “We can ask Matty – or Susie.”
“Yes, and we want them laughing their heads off at us,” grumbled Miss Wilson. “You really are the most worthless giraffe of a man I’ve ever come across. I suppose we’ll have to ask the others what happened. Well, it’s clearly your fault, so you can do it.”
“My fault!” squeaked the maligned Tristan. “But how can it be my fault?”
“It’s always the man who does the proposing,” said Miss Wilson calmly. “And the putting of the ring onto the finger. Women are just passive pawns in a man’s world.”
Tristan gaped at this injustice.
“I - I have never colluded in the oppression of any woman,” he protested feebly. “My sister would not have allowed it.”
Miss Wilson stared at him for nearly a full minute, and Tristan felt his knees begin to wobble. Then she gave a snort and strode across to the window.
“I imagine that’s probably true,” she said. “You can still do the asking, though.”
Tristan heaved a sigh.
“Very well,” he said helplessly. “I will do the asking.”
Miss Wilson stared out of the window. Then she stared a little harder.
“Come here!” she said, and he came. Miss Wilson pointed. “That woman - is she the one who took the deeds?”
“Yes,” said Tristan, for the woman was unmistakeable, even from behind and at a distance.
“But - good god!” said Miss Wilson faintly. “That’s Bella!”
‘What have you brought that with you for?’ demanded Nell Wilson.
Tristan looked down at the yellow top hat, still clutched in his right hand.
‘I…’ he said, but despite this promising start, he found himself unable to finish the sentence. He shrugged, and hailed a cab instead.
‘Take us to the…’ He paused, and turned to Nell. ‘Where is this – establishment?’
Nell sighed and pushed him out of the way.
‘The Pink Pussycat Club,’ she said to the cab driver, and pushed Tristan into the cab before scrambling in next to him.
Once he had recovered his balance, Tristan turned to Nell with a frown.
‘The what?’ he demanded.
‘You said that last night,’ said Nell. ‘It was Matty’s idea.’
‘Hm. That figures.’
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
Belatedly, Tristan remembered that Miss Wilson didn’t know Matty’s – um – preferences.
‘Um, er,’ he said by way of explanation, and when that did not suffice, added vaguely, ‘I believe he is fond of lobster.’
Briefly his attention was diverted into wondering whether this worked as a euphemism. Lobster did like to wrestle with each other, certainly – but those big pincers would be rather painful if they were employed in…ooh, no!
‘Ahem!’ said his wife, and he realised that while he had been indulging in this peculiar and somewhat unsettling visualisation, she had been speaking. To make up for his lack of attention, he blushed as violently as…well, as a lobster.
‘As I was saying,’ said Nell, not deigning to ask, ‘if we can only find Bella, we can get this whole thing sorted out.’
‘But why should we find her at this Pink Lobst…Pussycat place?’
‘Oh, honestly,’ Nell growled in a tone with which he was growing distressingly familiar. ‘If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you…well, once, I suppose, but I was hoping you might have been listening at the time. Bella is a nightclub singer, and this Pink Pussycat club is her regular gig. She’s bound to be there at some point today – I’m sure she said she’d have to go easy on the champagne because she needed to rehearse today.’
Champagne. Celebration stuff. Tristan looked at Nell and saw the fear in his heart reflected in her eyes. What had they been celebrating? Despite all evidence to the contrary, he was determined to believe that it was not his wedding…
‘Anyway,’ said Nell, hurrying away from the topic, ‘she’ll be there, and she must know something about it all. After all, it’s her hat – and apparently her house deeds. She’s all over this like a rash.’
‘It’s certainly making my skin itch,’ said Tristan absently, and he lapsed into gloomy speculation until the cab pulled up at the club.
The light was fading and the outside of the building, lit by yellow lamplight, was not auspicious. The façade was grey stone, the name emblazoned upon a peeling wooden sign, and the black front door, when they tried it, was firmly barred.
‘Ah,’ said Tristan. ‘Well. This rather puts a…where have you gone?’
For Nell had disappeared. After a brief search he found her in an alleyway that ran down the side of the building, tugging at a dustbin.
‘Er?’ he asked, and she turned to him.
‘We’ve got to get in somehow!’ she said. ‘There’s a window open on the second floor. If I can get this bin over here, you can…’
But at last, after a day of bullying, provocation and being pushed into situations that were not so much disagreeable as downright dangerous, Tristan had finally reached his limit.
‘Oh, no,’ he said. ‘No. I am not climbing another thing today. If you wish to get in via the window, you can damned well do it yourself.’
Nell straightened up and set her shoulders and lifted her head in a manner that was most intimidating – but he had faced down German patrols, surely he could tackle this solitary woman?
‘I mean it,’ he said, and even as his knees wobbled he managed to keep the tremor from his voice. ‘Climb up there yourself. I have had quite enough of you.’
Frost settled on the silence, but he stood firm in spite of his unsteady legs, and eventually Nell nodded.
‘Very well,’ she said. ‘But if I break my neck climbing up I shall sue you for damages.’
‘You do that,’ he said, and turned his back on her and went round to the front of the building, and then stopped, his heart suddenly beating quite wildly as he realised, in faint astonishment, that he had finally won! He reached out for the wall and was standing there, fingertips against the grey stone to hold himself upright in his shock, when a smartly suited man opened the front door to the Pink Pussycat Club and stuck his head out.
‘Coming in?’ he said, and Tristan jerked upright, blinked, and nodded.
‘Yes,’ he said, vaguely. ‘Yes – indeed I am, if I may.’
‘Come on then,’ said the man. ‘It’s a bit early, but you look like you could do with a drink.’
‘A drink!’ The relief must have showed on his face, for the man laughed.
‘Park yourself at the bar,’ he said, waving him through. ‘Pierre will make you whatever you like. On the house.’
Two trebles later, Tristan was feeling more relaxed than he had all day. It wasn’t until Nell Wilson appeared, clothing dishevelled and her long hair coming down out of its tidy arrangement, that he remembered what had brought him here in the first place.
‘So’, said like that, in the angry voice of a forgotten wife, had an almost primordial effect, not just upon Tristan, but upon the smartly suited club owner, the doorman, and Pierre the barman. All four shrank visibly, though Tristan, who was more practised with Nell than any of the others, had the presence of mind to gesticulate in the direction of the whisky bottle. Pierre, with trembling hands, pushed it towards him, and Tristan pushed it towards Nell.
‘Havver drink, m’dear,’ he said, carefully not slurring any of his words, and Nell surged forward upon a wave of hot anger.
‘I am not your dear!’ she shrieked, and this time she actually raised her open hand. Tristan flinched, but at the last minute she changed her mind and seized the bottle instead. Tristan, Pierre, the club owner and the doorman all watched, fascinated, as she downed the rest of its contents in one gulp, then slammed the bottle down onto the bar and hauled Tristan to his feet.
‘Right, you layabout,’ she said. ‘You and I have work to do! Now then – which way to the dressing rooms?’
Oh my actual goodness we finished this thing...
Five minutes later, Nell was rummaging through underwear while Tristan did his best not to watch.
‘Are you going to help me or not?’
‘I don’t think so,’ he said, with dignity. ‘I think I shall…what’s that?’
For heading in their direction was the sound of multiple pairs of feet. Nell turned from the drawers to flee, while Tristan darted away from the door, and somehow they found themselves clutching each other in the centre of the room. Unable to detach themselves due to the force of the collision, they were still swaying in a tight embrace when Susie and Matty walked into the room.
‘Hullo-ullo,’ said Matty, eyebrows raised. ‘Are we interrupting something?’
‘We can come back later?’ Susie offered, her eyes gleaming a little too cheerfully for Tristan’s liking.
‘No,’ said Nell, managing to disentangle herself and giving her friend a severe look. ‘What are you doing here?’
‘Well, that’s charming,’ said Susie. ‘I could ask you two the same thing. Where have you been all day? Reclining in Love’s embrace?’
‘Not in the slightest,’ said Nell, raising her voice over the sound of Tristan’s frantic coughing. ‘We’ve been…’
But for once, Nell’s inventiveness failed her, and she looked up at Tristan, eyes appealing to him to rise to the challenge and rescue their reputations. He cleared his throat, prepared to do his best.
‘We have been making a tour of local organs.’
The violence of Nell’s glare made him realise his mistake, and Susie’s snort of laughter showed that she had grasped the wrong end…that she had not understood correctly. He hastened to correct her misapprehension.
‘A tour of church organs, I mean, not any…not anything you are…I mean, there are many fine examples hereabouts. One had five manuals and a very interesting octave swell to great coupler…’
Susie’s face, which had gone through various shades of red and was now deepening to an interesting purple, told Tristan that he was not improving matters. He opened his mouth to try to further clarify his meaning, but no sooner had he drawn breath than Nell had seized him by the hair, pulled him backwards and clamped the other hand across his mouth.
‘Oh, do stop being childish,’ she snapped at Susie, who was leaning against the wall and gasping for breath.
‘Swell to great!’ she wheezed, and then, ‘I bet it did!’
That set her off again, and Nell gave up on her and turned to Matty instead.
‘Maybe you’d like to explain everything?’ she asked. Tristan tried to protest at such directness, but soon discovered that ‘Mmph!’ – all he could manage with Nell’s hand still over his mouth – was not a very effective argument.
Matty was looking somewhat nonplussed.
‘Everything?’ he asked. ‘Well, I suppose it depends on your source. If you’re a believer, then you tend to go with the old, ‘In the beginning there was the Word,’ and creation taking six days and one day off for good behaviour, but if you’re more inclined towards rationalism, then I suppose you’d say we’re here because…’
‘That is NOT what I meant,’ growled Nell, and Matty awoke to the danger; Tristan, his hair still firmly in Nell’s grip, had been growing increasingly alert to it all the time that the young journalist had been speaking, and was now beginning to wonder whether, when his wife finally let him go, she would be taking a scalp along with her.
‘Just tell her!’ he said, but Matty’s expression told him that his diction was not quite clear enough for him to be intelligible. He contemplated biting Nell’s hand, but decided upon reflection that a line had to be drawn somewhere and that, while hair-pulling was clearly still permitted, biting was probably on the far side of it.
It was all developing into an interesting little stand-off; Matty backing slowly away from the advancing Nell, who was dragging Tristan along with her like a sacrificial victim, whilst from the floor the small shaking heap that was Susie emitted an occasional high-pitched squeak – and where it might have ended, nobody knew, except that at that moment, the door opened and Bella walked in.
‘Hullo, you lot,’ she said. ‘What are you all doing in my dressing room? Nell, why are you trying to kill Tristan?’
Nell let go of Tristan so abruptly that he staggered, fell forward and collapsed with his face pressed against Bella’s shoes. Horrified, he scrambled up and away from her amused face as quickly as he could, staggered again, and then the six whiskies that he had drunk came to his rescue and tipped him over backwards into a potted plant.
He lay still amongst the wreckage, ignoring the foliage that was stabbing him in the neck, and stared up at the ceiling, which was a delightful shade of dark blue and speckled with silver dots, just like the stars of heaven. Everything today had happened so quickly, and he was so tired – and finally he was feeling some small sense of peace. If only he could stay here forever…
The peace was broken by the angry face of his wife, which interposed itself between him and the starry ceiling.
‘Get up,’ she hissed, and reluctantly he sat up, taking some plant life with him. Susie, who had just about managed to sit up and control her breathing, took one look at the decorative covering of leaves and earth which now adorned him, let out a long wheeze that sounded like, ‘Bhheeeeegh!’ and folded over again. Bella glanced down, evidently concerned.
‘Are you alright down there, Susie?’ she asked, but an assenting sort of squeak and a wave of the hand apparently reassured her, because she patted the girl on the shoulder, then turned and, to the astonishment of both Nell and Tristan, threw her arms around Matty and gave him a kiss on the cheek.
‘Well, husband mine,’ she said, ‘and how has your day been?’
‘What?’ Nell stared from one to the other, then at Tristan, who was gaping in similar fashion.
‘You too?’ he said, and Matty and Bella turned to look at him. ‘Was it some sort of mass ceremony?’
‘What?’ The couple exchanged glances, turned back to Tristan, frowned. ‘What are you talking about?’ asked Matty.
Nell glanced at Tristan, then sighed and held out her left hand. The wedding ring stood out gold against her pale hand, and Bella leapt forward with an exclamation of delight.
‘My ring! Oh, I’ve been so worried about it. I knew I’d done something stupid with it last night, but I’d entirely forgotten WHAT. Oh, Nell, thank you so much for keeping it safe for me!’
She slipped it onto her finger and beamed at the astonished young science mistress.
‘I…you’re…welcome?’ said Nell, throwing a look of utter bafflement at Tristan, who was beginning to think that even the fortifying whisky he had imbibed wasn’t going to hold him up for much longer. Surely Bella couldn’t be saying…couldn’t be saying that they…
‘You thought you were married?’
Susie had risen halfway off the floor and was kneeling, swaying, clinging onto the dressing table for support. She was waving a finger unsteadily in the direction of Tristan and Nell, and her face was convulsing into another smile.
‘You two?’ she yelped. ‘Married? Oh, my sides! Oh, my…my sides, my mouth…it’s just…you…oh goodness! Hold me up, someone!’
Nobody did, and she collapsed again, her hysterics taking on a keening wail, but she received very little attention - least of all from the unmarried couple, who were staring at each other in sheer, blissful amazement.
‘You mean we’re not…we’re not…?’
‘Oh, thank GOD!’ yelled Nell, and she flung herself onto Tristan, hugging him and laughing with sheer relief. Her arms were painful but he didn’t mind, because he was hugging her back – and then they both remembered everything that had happened that day and stopped abruptly.
‘Yes, well,’ said Nell, backing away.
‘Quite so,’ said Tristan, doing likewise.
‘But…’ Nell turned to Matty, eyes bright with wonder and astonishment. ‘But you can’t be married! You’re…you’re…’
So she did know! Tristan looked from Nell to Matty, amazed at her perspicacity, but he almost fell over backwards again when Nell added, turning to Bella, ‘And so are YOU!’
‘Of course I am,’ she said. ‘But people were starting to get wind of it, which is very much not good for business, and when I told Matty about it he suggested the obvious solution - marrying him! It’s perfect - throws off suspicion and, even though I’m married, I am at least married to a man who has absolutely no interest in me.’
‘Well, I do have some interest,’ protested Matty, but Bella patted his arm.
‘Oh, yes, in me as a person, but you won’t want to climb aboard any time soon,’ she said, and watched in amusement as her husband - and Tristan too, for that matter - turned a ripe and interesting shade of plum.
‘Well, now,’ said Bella, ‘I think that’s an end to it. The house is all ready, by the way, my love,’ she added to Matty. ‘I went round to your flat and picked up the deeds from Tristan earlier today.’
Tristan gave Nell a triumphant look, and she had the grace to appear a little abashed.
‘One moment, though,’ Nell said, suddenly. ‘If we’re not married, then how come I woke up in bed with…’
She turned to Tristan, who gulped in horror, and couldn’t quite bring himself to look at the faces of Matty and his wife.
‘Well,’ said Bella, who sounded distinctly entertained, ‘I’m not sure that I know the answer to that particular question. Maybe you just…’
The cry came in unison. Nell took a deep breath and then turned on Tristan.
‘I KNEW it was you!’ she snarled. ‘Trying to hide behind all that shyness and politeness - you, you, you seducer, you charmer, you Svengali - tricking innocent women into…’
She was advancing on him and he was stuck, because a chaise-longue had crept up behind him and cut off his retreat. Before she could begin a physical assault, however, a little choking cough interrupted them.
‘Ah - I think you’ll find that…that that was me.’
They all turned to look at Susie.
‘Sorry,’ Susie said, not sounding in the least sorry. ‘It was a bet with Nell, you see. She was saying she’d never do the same as Bella, because she finds men so utterly repellant, and I was teasing her, trying to talk her round, and…well, it all sort of ended up in a bet about whether she could spend the night in bed with a man. Matty was out of the question, but Tristan was there, and already asleep, and…’ She turned beseeching eyes upon her friend. ‘Sorry, Nell,’ she said, ‘but you were so determined to do it…’
Now everyone was looking at Nell, and to Tristan’s amazement, she actually blushed.
‘Oh, yes! Mind you,’ Susie added, ‘we were both a little worse for wear by then. I think maybe you thought it was Bella. He was wearing her hat, after all.’
Tristan looked down at the yellow top hat, which in spite of his acrobatics still remained clutched between his fingers, and then looked across at Nell.
Nell was uncharacteristically lost for words. She looked up at Tristan, a blank mixture of mortification and pleading in her eyes and, despite the day’s worth of abuse at her hands, he decided to be magnanimous, and held out a hand for her to shake.
‘It has been an adventure,’ he said, ‘but…I am glad that it is over.’
‘Yes!’ said Nell, with rather more enthusiasm than was strictly necessary. She tempered her relief slightly as she added, ‘I have to say, you have been jolly decent about it all - but I’m damned glad that we aren’t married.’
‘No, indeed,’ said Tristan. ‘I honestly cannot think of anything worse. If it is all the same to you, I think that next time I shall take considerably more care when it comes to meeting Mrs Denny…’
Thank you all for waiting for so long to read it!
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters and settings are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. No money is being made from this work. No copyright infringement is intended.