THE OLD MAN ON THE PLANE
We were at the airport. It was winter and there was Mom fussing over all three of us, seeing whether we had our pullovers, our gloves, and checking again and again, as to whether we had taken all the warm clothing we needed. I said, impatient to go on, “Aw Mom… its not that we are going to Alaska… we are going to Dad and in Philadelphia. I’m sure if we’ve missed out on anything, Dad will see to it…” For a moment Mom’s eyes moistened over with tears. Then she bustled about. I felt guilty. I had hurt her. But that was unintentional. I knew how she wanted to show Dad that her children were well cared for, and that she was not a sloppy mother and that her children had everything they needed. But then Mom was an anxious one. Had been, ever since she and Dad had been divorced two years ago, and she had custody over us, while Dad had visiting rights. Since he was not in the same city, the lawyers decided, with Mom’s consent that we would visit him in Philly, where he lived with his new wife, for a month in summer, and over the New Year weekend, soon after Christmas. This way we pleased both parents, halving our Xmas holidays in two, and having a double treat, especially at Dad’s, for then we would be taken to all the after-Xmas sales and come home to Mom loaded with goodies, at which she would look with much contempt.
Dad was very well off. He gave Mom a tidy sum as alimony. It was more than enough to take care of us. He also loved us very much. I think he liked Joanie the best. She was little, with golden brown eyes, a dimpled smile and lisped a great deal which only made her all the more endearing. There she was, all five years old anxiously holding too many things in her hands, her teddy bear, from whom she never would part at nights, her puzzle book, her bag of sweets, and over her shoulders, a bundly cape. Jeannie was the next. Jeannie was a prim and proper girl. In fact quite brainy for a girl of ten. But I think our parents’ divorce puzzled and sorrowed her a great deal. For she was quiet and thoughtful, most of the time. A thin pale girl with glasses slipping off her nose, she was trying to reassure Mom that we had everything, and that she would keep an eye on Joanie, take her to the bathroom at nights, see that she washed behind her ears and all that. Secretly, I think she was uneasy with Dad’s new wife, Cynthia, cherishing the suspicion that she, Cynthia was to blame for the divorce.
Now I was nearing seventeen. I think I am more worldly-wise than most kids my age. At first, the divorce was an uncomfortable thing, especially with my friends and the neighbours. The friends were over enthusiastic about cheering me on, and on being solicitous. The neighbours would cluck cluck among themselves and whisper “Poor dears”. After some time this died down, and now it seemed it was the sophisticated thing to have divorced parents. As for us we got to fly twice a year during the summer and winter holidays to that great city, and be completely spoiled by Dad and Cynthia. For she, poor dear, did all she could to make us comfortable and happy, as if she was atoning for some sin against us. She was a mousy little thing, but then she was Dad’s shadow, and that was what he needed. Dad I must admit was a little bit overbearing in a hearty sort of way, and always thought he was right. Cynthia agreed with him all the time, unlike Mom, and that pleased him.
We were sitting with everything we were carrying on board piled up around us, at the terminal gate. The airport was a hustle and bustle at this time of the year, with families going in and out for the holidays. The public address system was being punctuated, with arrivals and departures, said in a sing song voice. Suddenly, Mom put up a hand and said, “That’s about our flight.” We all listened except Joanie, who had practically gone to sleep with her thumb in her mouth. “Flight 2336 to Philadelphia has been delayed. Please stand by for further information.” I scoffed, “bad weather I’m sure… its winter and as usual traffic gets jammed.” So we sat around. Joanie woke up and wanted a drink, I went up to the food counter. As I was fishing in my pocket for change, a mild voice said, “Allow me”, and slid the change around the counter. I looked in the direction of the voice. I was astonished. I had never seen such a peculiarly dressed old gentleman. He was practically bald except for a silver fringe all around his pate, and a small silver pointed goatee. His eyes were rimmed with glasses of very thick frames, you could almost see your face in them. He was very small and wizened looking, his hand were long with well manicured nails. His shirt was mauve, his trousers a dark green and his waist coat had more patterned yellow trees on it, than could be packed in a thick forest. He carried a very expensive looking crimson coat on his arm. I’m sure others also looked at him like I did, but were too polite to gawk and turned away. Not me. The first thing I did was to clap my hand to my mouth, to hide my amusement and suppress a laugh. I even forgot to thank him. He smiled back pleasantly, “It’s Okay… Many people have the same reaction when they see me, in my outlandish gear. But this is a free country. Now if a youngster with nose rings and earring and multicoloured hair were to wear such clothes, it would be tolerated, but an old man like me… no.. no.. Come young man, tell me where are you off to.” “Philadelphia”, I said monosyllabically. “Good, that’s where I’m going to.” And to add to his peculiarity, he walked forward with a horrible jerk and a limp. He turned around with a smile again, “Yes,.. you see, not only am I peculiarly dressed, but I also have a peculiar gait!”
Soon he was sitting with us, and without much ado was chatting away to the family. Mom was bewildered, Jeanie was too. It was hardly the custom of the day that fellow travellers would get so chummy at the first instance. But he talked mostly with me and somewhat with Joanie, who was spell-bound by his colourful regatta. We found out that his name was Simpson, that he lived in Los Angeles, that he had no living close relative, and that his hobby was travelling by air to outlandish places for, of all things, “good fishing”, as he said. He was to spend some time in Philadelphia for financial meetings and drive up to the Adirondacks. “Are you father Christman?” asked Joanie. “No”, he answered. “Then why do you dress up like him?” she asked. “Because, ..”, he said, and they went off into a long question and answer dialogue, with Joanie nodding earnestly, her eyes growing wider and wider.
Mother had lapsed into brooding silence… thinking of a lonely house, no doubt while we were away. It was a long wait. Mr Simpson was still talking with Joanie… she nuzzled up to him, and I eavesdropped, thinking now and again of my girlfriend, Celine, whom I would not see till the next term, as she had gone to Frankfurt with her parents for the vacation to visit her grandparents. I was still in fantasy land, when I heard our flight number called. With a start we got together our things quickly. Because we were children, we got to go first. Mr Simpson also got to go with us because of his limp and jerky leg. We were surprised, at least I was, because all this while we did not notice how pronounced it was. It was only when he walked the long way to the corridor of the plane, and we were behind him, that the limp was very marked. But then this drew us all the more to being intrigued with him, especially Joanie.
We waved goodbye to a weepy mom at the departure gate. I felt a twinge of conscience. I began to think of all the things I should not have done. Maybe I should not have been so sharp with her this morning or at the airport. I sighed. Well, I now had to take her place in looking after the two little ones till we reached Philadelphia and I handed them safely over to our Dad. That was a big responsibility for a youngster like me, but then, with Dad not around the last two years, I seemed to have gotten into the role of a male caretaker fairly easily. We were soon settled into our seats, the stewardess being extra nice since we were “children”, and no one could have resisted Joanie’s sweet smile and her immediate spontaneous request “could I have a jelly bean now, please?” While we were buckling up, I turned around to look for Mr Simpson, but he was nowhere to be seen. Well, may be when we were airborne, and we could unbuckle our seat belts, I could stroll along the aisle and look for him. Above the drone of the engines, we heard the captain speak, and the instruction video came on. Jeanie sat upright and fixed her eyes on the screen, in her prim way. Joanie said, “Is that a pwicture?”, and those around turned and smiled indulgently at her.
It was when the stewardess came to the vacant seat across the aisle that I noticed Mr Simpson behind her. “Thought you were going to get rid of me, did you?”, he said with a twinkle behind his horn rimmed glasses. “Not so easy my lad, I left that stuff old lonely seat in the first class and asked to be seated with you. You don’t mind, do you?” “Not at all”, I said politely wishing we could change classes. Soon we swapped seats, so that he was sitting between Joanie and I. Jeanie of course only looked at him with a purse of her mouth as if to say, “Oh, not you again”, and dutifully read the instruction leaflet in the seat pocket from cover to cover.
The flight was a non stop one, and so we got to have a high tea. Mr Simpson kept chatting away, nineteen to the dozen, answering Joanie’s questions, telling her stories, till her eyes got rounder and rounder. He helped her wipe biscuit crumbs around her mouth, and held the drink to her lips. She gurgled and clapped, and her merry laughter reached the neighbouring seats, and again, they turn around with pleasant smiles. It was an hour after we were in flight, that Joanie began to get drowsy. Soon she was sleeping with her head against Mr Simpson’s shoulder, while he held her around her shoulders protectively. I was as usual day dreaming about Celine, and trying to compose my first letter to her. There was quietness all around. Mr Simpson was also dozing with his mouth open. Jeanie who had the window seat was trying to peer down and around.
Suddenly there was a big jerk and a thump, and the plane dropped quite a way down. It must have been only for five seconds, but it was so sudden that every one was startled and alarmed, as they hovered in the air, with the uncomfortable feeling of no solid surface beneath their feet, as the plane descended alarmingly. As suddenly the plane righted itself. There was some uneasiness for a while, till the Captain’s voice came over the intercom, assuring everybody that it was only a “mild” turbulence.
Joanie was wide awaken, and in her usual childlike way asked, “have we come to Piphelia now?” People pressed buttons for the stewardess, as if asking for reassurance even if for a drink of water. Others unbuckled themselves and walked around nonchalantly. Still others were unperturbed. One business looking gentleman just looked at us and shrugged his shoulders with a smile and went on working with his laptop, as if he had lived all his life in air turbulence. Again the captain’s voice requested us to return to our seats and buckle ourselves. Then began the nightmare. Even before he finished speaking, the plane tilted sideways horribly. The overhead baggage bins flew open, luggage spilled over people’s heads. Mr Simpson instinctively held Joanie close to him and covered her with his head. Passengers who had not got to their seats on time slipped and slithered. There were loud sounds of crashing of glass and crockery in the two pantries. The stewardesses found themselves tottering, holding onto the backs of seats, several passengers were spewing. The plane shuddered violently from time to time. Now there was complete pandemonium. Jeanie nudged me across Mr Simpson. She moaned in an awful whisper, “The plane’s going to crash.” Joanie heard it and asked Mr Simpson pleadingly, “are we all going to die now?” “No fear”, said Mr Simpson gruffly, still protecting her. A piece of luggage came spinning onto his head, his glasses broke, and there was a wide gash of blood running down his nose. Voices were heard screaming, shouting and praying and asking questions irrationally of each other. The plane righted, the captain’s voice again came over the intercom, “Ladies and gentlemen, please remain calm… this has been a little spin, but it should be alright.”
Alright it was not, again a nose dive. This time we were hanging over the front passengers. I could hear both Jeanie and Joanie screaming, as the plane righted and nose dived again. The stewardesses could not get to passengers. They were lying in the aisle, over luggage, smashed crockery, and more passengers. One of them near me screamed, “put your heads down between your knees.” Again the stormy forward dive, and I saw Jeanie’s head wedged in between the two seats in front, Joanie was still held close by Mr Simpson who without his specs had blood streaming down the bridge of his nose. In panic, I tried to pull Jeanie out by grabbing her shoulders, but it was difficult. My right knee had doubled up under, and I felt a wrenching pain down my shin. Mr Simpson turned his blood stained face to me, and gasped, “I’ll get her”, and leaned over sideways and under and grabbed Jeanie by the waist. Her arm was lying limply by her side. She said to me in a whisper, “My arm. I can’t move, and my leg hurts.” It was twisted under her. I could hardly hear her. I felt a warm trickle on the back of my neck, and my right eye was closing under a gash. Oh God I said to myself, Jeanie’s hurt, and I am loosing blood fast.
The plane was now screeching like a banshee wailing. Everything was pell mell as it rocked dangerously from side to side. I thought, “God this is the end.” I will never see Mom and Dad. Why was it happening to us? I held onto the front passenger’s coat. She was trying to get out of my grasp, and hitting me in the face. I twisted my neck around and to my horror, saw Mr Simpson with eyes closed, lying straight across Joanie’s little body. All I could see were her large blue eyes with tears streaming down. On top of Mr Simpson was a huge overnight bag that had spilt its contents open, and a heavy camera had crashed onto his head. It seemed to split open and was oozing blood. The nightmare must have lasted a full five minutes, but it was like an eternity. The plane shivered, screeched and straightened. Again it strained and rocked and again straightened. Now it was bumping along. Huge bumps, but at least it was not upside down and falling. The plane staggered along in this fashion for about full ten minutes. Suddenly it was running easily. The captain’s’ voice again, apologetic and reassuring. Gosh, how I hated that voice then. But in retrospect, I realised that he, poor captain had to bear the brunt of the passengers’ wrath. He was helpless in the face of a huge spiralling wind tunnel, or so we were told later on when we were on terracotta, firm.
Shaken and pale, the passengers gathered themselves together. The stewardesses and the pursers were running around giving first aid, wherever possible. They were called in all directions. The captain appeared in the gangway, took the mike to his lips, and spoke, trying to calm us down. But the passengers were so disoriented. Those who were in shock, just kept staring numbly as if they could not believe that they were still alive. Others who were well, began to help the crew with their ministerings. “Joanie”, I cried, “Joanie where are you?” “Under Mr Simpson”, she said tremulously. Jeanie had righted herself, and she and I tried to get Joanie from under Mr Simpson’s lifeless body. “Is he badly hurt?” asked Jeanie with tears down her eyes. “He is such a nice man”, I had no time to even look at her in surprise. She had seemed not to care for him, was even scornful before.
Soon the steward was helping us gently move Mr Simpson. Jeanie, thank God, was alright, except for her arm and her ankle. Two others came to carry Mr Simpson to the forward hatch.
In silence we landed. There was a general air of stupor and shaken relief. A few passengers were badly hurt but there were luckily no causalities, except…, except where was Mr Simpson? I tugged a stewardess’s arm as she walked passed. “Where is the gentleman who was sitting with us here?” “He’s alright”, she smiled wanly, but I could see her smile had not reached her eyes.
We were on the tarmac. The plan came to a halt, and slowly we disembarked with whatever hand luggage we could assemble. Visitors were lined up against the barrier with anxious faces. I saw Dad’s and Cynthia’s worried faces hovering in between. It was such a relief to rush up to them, Joanie and I, Jeanie was behind us being pushed in a wheel chair much too big. She looked like a little huddled doll; except now she had two make shift bandages, one on her ankle and one on her arm. Joanie who had clutched my hand firmly all the while, while she waddled along on her little legs, tightly clutching her teddy bear, smiled between tears, when she saw Dad, “Look Dad”, she said loudly, “This lwady says”, she turned to the stewardess who patted her on the back. “This lawdy says I am a little lwady hero, and Bryce, pointing to me, “is a wounded soldier, his head is all bandaged up.” Jeanie looked her usual stoic self, but her lips had trembled. I guess inside her she really was soft, but did not want to show it.
We were engulfed in warm loving arms. The stewardess said something to dad about hospital and proper bandaging and Xrays. We did not go straight home. It was a long wait at the hospital. As we sat in the corridor, waiting to go into the emergency room, a trolley was turning around the corner, with a covered body on it. One hand was slightly uncovered. It was horrible! It was Mr Simpson. I recognised his signet ring. He had held it up to Joanie, and had told her a story about in the plane, how he had got the stone, from an Egyptian princess. Tears filled my eyes. It seemed such a short time ago that his merry eyes twinkled behind his thick glasses, his beard waggling, and his infectious laughter ringing heartily. We dared not tell Joanie. She had gottten so fond of him. Once during our wait she said, “Whale’s Mr Swimpson. Why is he not sitting next to us. He did so in the plane, I know, he’s swick”, she said, shaking her head like a wise old owl. Jeanie just turned to her and said, “would you like a drink Joanie?” “Yes, pwlease”, she nodded and seemed to have forgotten about Mr Simpson. Jeanie caught my eye. She also had seen what I had. We dared not tell Joanie, the poor little mite had already too much. Jeanie’s eyes filled with tears. She dipped into her pocket with her good hand, and put a hard thing into my palm and closed it. “He said to give it to you when we landed as a memento. He thought you would refuse it, if he gave it to you in the plane and wanted me to give it to you when he was gone. “Now he’s really gone”, she whispered with a sob.
I opened my palm. I could hardly see through the blur of tears. There, shining and in cheerful contrast to the sombre hospital, nestled a gold Ethiopian coin, with the face of the queen of Sheba, inscribed on one side. I remember him taking out coins and spinning them for Joanie’s delight. He had caught my eye also looking at them wonderously. At that time he smiled and said nothing.
Now, it’s over fifteen years. I am in a wheel chair, recuperating in a hospital from a shelling at the Croatian border in one of the encounters that we had had. Outside, it was spring, such as one gets in Washington when the cherry blossoms are out. Joanie is in high school. Jeanie is still sombre and sober, but we have a closer relationship now. She is coming to see me today, as it’s the weekend and she is off from her studies at Washington University. Guess what? She is studying aeronautics! She wants to be an aviation engineer. Dad and Mom have never got together, but we have learned to adjust. There is no more custody visiting, except for little Joanie, who wants to be in theatre when she grows up. She loves acting even when the situation does not warrant it. As little children do, she had forgotten Mr Simpson, together with the trauma of the dangerous flight from Ohio to Philadelphia. I have gotten over Celina, and there were several others after that. I yet have no a steady girlfriend, but intend to make up for it during my leave. Life is too precious to waste. That is what the civil wars in Bosnia had taught me.
I slipped my hand into my coat pocket, and took out the coin, which I have kept as my amulet all during the war. It has never let me down. I think of that old eccentric but lovable Mr Simpson, and his last moments with us. He was rich, very rich. We read it in the newspapers the next day, he had no kith or kin and all his fortune went to children’s’ hospitals. In those brief hours on the plane with Joanie, it was so evident that he loved children. It was almost as if he gave up his life for Joanie in protecting her. You could tell that he had loved children all his life! I mused over the past, and thought such kind souls are so misunderstood and yet in their own quiet way, leave their kindness for the benefit of others.
THE PRIM PRUDISH PARSON
Mr Tallboy unfortunately was not what his name implied. On the contrary he was short. Usually, with tallness one associated thinness. But again that was not what Mr Tallboy was. In fact he was rotund and cherubic, very much like a loaf of bread put into a whimsical oven to bake, which came out, rising in the wrong places. Surprisingly, he had long thin hands, very much like a musician’s. His glassy beady eyes were framed by an old fashioned steel-rimmed pair of spectacles. Together with the over-tight pastor’s attire he wore, he was really a comical looking figure, unlike the kind one usually associates with a towering sombre looking pastor, who would look sternly from the pulpit, and bring down the wrath of God, on his cowering congregation. Added to all this, Mr Tallboy was single, and going on forty. Not a pleasing attraction for the young single spinsters who came to his Sunday service regularly, and looked at him with myopic eyes while he went about the service.
But just as unsuitable as his name and his physical appearance was the fact that he was unusually stern and forbidding of countenance. Frequently one thinks that round and cherubic looking bespectacled people have a jolly temper. But Mr Tallboy was a morose morbid creature. If one went to him with a problem, there was little enlightenment. One usually came away feeling more confused and sinful about even having a problem. That was the effect Mr Tallboy had on people who sought him out as a representative of God, a counsellor and a guide. He would talk to them in a solemn voice, punctuated by ahems…ahas. I see, in a tone that caused one to cringe and wonder why at all they had come to him for solace. It was almost as if he were chastising them for transgression, violation of laws of sanctimony, and requiring the curse of damnation upon them.
The result was that very few troubled people approached him. Instead they sought the advice of his assistant pastor, Mr Beesbody, who was gracious, charming, witty, and made them feel that problems were all in a day’s work and would and could be sorted out eventually. Such advises came out light hearted and smiling. Mr Tallboy watched these proceedings grimly and became more grimmer. Consequently, in time he grew to be resentful and suspicious of Mr Beesbody.
Mr Beesbody could care less. When he was not attending to the church work, which he did in a desultory manner much to the annoyance of Mr Tallboy, he was busy seeking out the company of comely young women of the parish, married or otherwise. His was an interest without malice and intent. He simply enjoyed being with them, on church committees, picnics, fund raising and fete events, as if he missed the company of a family atmosphere. Indeed when he visited the homes of young matrons, he would romp and play with the children of the household in a winningly boyish manner.
Mr Beesbody had been in Mr Tallboy’s parish only two months, since the previous one had left in disgust, with Mr Tallboy’s rigid ways. He had asked for a transfer which he thankfully got. Mr Beesbody had heard of Mr Tallboy’s ways, but it did not bother him. He told a close friend, “His behaviour is just like water off a duck’s back. I listen with one ear and let it out with another,” with the laconic comment, “He’ s a stiff.”
In the usually calm town where, more often than not, things happened in a routine manner, where everybody went about their work in an orderly and lawful fashion, a most surprising thing took place one day. It was all over town, the newspapers made headlines of it, and people were talking about it excitedly in shops, on the streets, in the market place, and anywhere. It was even more than a nine day wonder. It was reported that Mr Tallboy had proposed and was accepted by the town’s most talked about woman, Miss Gertrude Angler.
Gertrude was no ordinary woman. She was the most popular barmaid in town. And by popular, we mean, sought after and very generous with her attention to the opposite sex. She was in short a vivacious flirt. She was never seen without her make up, and highly painted on at that. Her cheeks were always blushed, her lips a pillar box red, and her lashes much too long to be natural. Besides that she wore short tight dresses, which made the spinsters of the town turn up their noses, purse their lips, and look sternly away from her, when passing her up and down the streets. To annoy them further, she, in turn, would swing her hips, deliberately and look saucily at them with a smirk on her face, as much as to say, “Now unlike you, I have something to show!”
Mrs Pelmer sat across the teatable, and looked firmly at Mr Beesbody, “Really Mr Beesbody, really you should have some inkling as to how this has happened,” she paused expectantly. Mr Beesbody shook his head nonplussed, “Really I don’t know,” he began. “Stuff and nonsense,” said Mrs Pelmer even more firmly, “After all you are the closest to Mr Tallboy, what with your work and all that. Surely, you would have noticed something.” “Well,” said Mr Beesbody rather reluctantly, “he did come with a few of us blokes to the pub on some of the Saturdays, but there was nothing extraordinary to notice. He was always his usual taciturn self, looking around to see if soemeone was drinking excessively, and then going up to their table to have a ‘chat’, you know what that means. He highly disapproved of excessive public behaviour. Always so proper about that. He hardly touched more than a drink. He said that it was essential to observe his congregation in all situations so he could get a feel of the extent of immoral behaviour going around. Of course, we couldn’t oust him out of the pub, but we avoided him as much as possible, not I, I must say. It would be highly unseemly if the assistant pastor avoided his pastor in public, don’t you think?” he went into this long monologue, with a twinkle in his eye. “There you go again making light of it,” said Mrs Pelmer petulantly. Mrs Pelmer was the chairperson of the apex committee, so she felt that she was duty bound to know the public movement of those who represented the church of which she was its staunchest member. “I wonder how the bishop is taking it. He will be shocked no doubt?” “Now, come Mrs Pelmer, don’t you think there is the other side to it? Don’t you think that Mr Tallboy feels it is his duty to make an honest woman of her?” “Honest,” she retorted, “that woman hasn’t an honest bone in her body, what with her goings on, she is really the devil incarnate.” “Now, now, Mrs Pelmer, as a good Christian this is really shocking. Remember what the Lord said?” “Yes, Yes, I know, but this woman is not in the Lord’s category.”
Mr Beesbody sighed and got up. “I really think I must be going. Will you excuse me, now that the meeting’s over. I really have other errands to do.” “Yes, of course,” she said embarrassed, “I should be going too. Well, don’t you think,” she cut her sentence short and hurried away. “Don’t you think, don’t you think,” mimicked Mr Beesbody behind her disappearing back, “Such a shrew, anyway what business is it of hers, who the old boy marries, really a gossip monger. But,” he rubbed his chin thoughtfully, “I really wonder.. why her? But on the other hand why would she accept him, the old codger. Wonder how he got around to asking her, and more curious how did he ever get up the nerve to change his attitude towards women. He used to tell me in confidence, ‘That’s an apt saying, frailty, thy name is woman, that’s how the evil in Eden started.’ He would say ‘woman’s the beginning and end of evil.’ I wonder what has brought about this change in the old prude. Never disorganised, everything in his place and punctual sniffs up in the air when anything is out of order. Curiouser! This happy go lucky Gertrude, what does she see in him?”
What did she indeed? Gossip had it that she had enticed him with a drink in which there was a love potion, or that because she ogled him as she did naturally with other men, Mr Tallboy thought it was a “come on look,” and mistakenly thought that she was really interested in him, and so carried it on from there. Still others said, that Mr Tallboy, being the kind of personality he was – taciturn, prim and proper – for so long, took one look at her vivacity and youth and fell into unredeemable temptation, and committed Adam’s one unforgivable sin, of being taken in by a woman. Others, but very few, were more charitable, and said that marriages were made in heaven, and that these two different personalities would get along very well, not being of the same temperament, and that it was time Mr Tallboy settled down, that she would change and become a virtuous wife of a pastor, that she should be given a chance.
And the fact of the matter was that Miss Angler, the barmaid, did behave as if she was really in love. At the tavern, she became coy, and blushed when she was congratulated. Now, whenever any of the men at the counter made advances (for she was still the barmaid) and tried to slap her on her behind or pinch her cheeks, she would withdraw and say virtuously, “Mind your manners, I would have you know that I am an engaged person now, don’t you dare, its a sin for you to try and engage, what you might call the parson’s fiancee, in ungodly ways.” The transformation was astonishing as it was weird. It seemed that she was assiduously cultivating the ways of the ladies on the church committees. She still wore her unusual make up, but her clothes were discreetly less loud and less obvious. Her skirts were longer, and her bosom less invitingly revealed.
The parson, on the other hand, seemed to have changed his whole demeanour. His otherwise severe face would break into (what he thought were) engaging smiles, which because of his facial contours looked more like an owl grimacing. He accepted the congratulations, with a bow and a flourish, and looked more like Malvolio from Twelfth Night, because he also took to wearing foppish clothes, and drove the clothier crazy, at the only store, with his innumerable and changing demands. “No, no, not this one, that one. Do you think it suits me?” (at which the clerk smiled his frozen smile, for it obviously didn’t. It made him look ghoulish). But Mr Tallboy would pirouette this way and that, and all who saw him in this outlandish attire would gasp with amazement.
It was Mr Pelmer, who took the bull by the horns (for Mr Beesbody refused to do so) and asked the parson outright, while he stood outside the door, after the Sunday service, while he was greeting the members of the congregation. Mr Pelmer took him aside, and asked him in a loud whisper, “Well Mr Tallboy, we are pleased that you are about to embark upon the sacred road of matrimony. It is interesting how you met Miss Angler, and how you made up your mind to get married.” Now, Mr Pelmer could dare to ask such an outright question, since he was the chairman of the church committee, and felt it was his Christian duty to find out. “We are so happy that you are to get married, but we are so intrigued,” he coughed delicately. Ordinarily, no one, no one would have dared to ask Mr Tallboy such a question, any question for the matter of that about his behaviour. Usually, it was he who was the severe questioner, but this time he only beamed and blushed and said, “It was really a sign from heaven Mr Pelmer. When I saw Gertrude, I thought to myself, we were made for each other. It took me many visits and a lot of courage, to get up the nerve to propose to her. I cannot tell you how delighted I am that she has designed to accept my offer of marriage.” “Oh,” said Mr Pelmer, adopting an expression so much like the one which was previously a part of Mr Tallboy’s person, “So this is a vision from heaven.” Added Mr Tallboy, gushingly “Not only that,” he turned red as he said it, “we are so much in love, that is to say”, he waved his hands in the air deprecatingly, “what could she see in a dour middled aged parson otherwise than it was love?” Mr Pelmer raised his eyebrows and repeated, “Love, did you say!”, and turned away muttering, “Love makes fools of us all, and you dear parson are high on that list.”
But everyone, including the almost deaf, wrinkled and doddering old Mrs Hansley, who was the congregation’s oldest and most haughty old maid who swept in with her fur coat and diamonds to service, and swept out into her chauffeured Rolls Royce, even she, could not believe the change that love had wrought in Mr Tallboy. She had seen his stern self, as had the others, in his sermons. Now his sermons were full of tenderness for other human beings, of forgiveness, of turning the other cheek, of loving one another, considering other’s needs and so on. He had become a complete reincarnation, and whereas he ordinarily spoke in monosyllables with his members, he now indulged in witty repartee and ordinary routine talk, as if he were not standing on judgement on them, as was his earlier habit.
Apparently, he had convinced the Bishop, that he was doing the right thing. After all, was it not the responsibility of the clergy to save lost souls, to bring the prodigal back, and if they both had made up their minds to consummate their attraction for each other by the holy bond of matrimony, it would be a lesson for the others in the congregation to know that even parsons could do sacrificial acts, besides preaching about them!
The days rolled by. Mr Tallboy took to the pattern of visiting the pub every night, as his beloved Gertrude was on the night shift. He would sit in a corner, sipping a soda (it would not do for a parson to drink, that is openly), beaming at all and sundry, and watch Gertrude from a distance with love sick eyes. As if by a tacit understanding, the rest of the rough and rowdy men who sat at the bar on stools would quietly slink off to sit in a subdued manner at tables, with their mates. For Mr Tallboy brought the parsonage air with him, inspite of his love sick airs. From time to time, Gertrude would look in his direction and blow kisses to him. He would go red and only beam owlishy through his thick glasses.
During the day, while Mr Tallboy was not attending to the parish duties which he did in a dream like fashion, leaving practically all the major decisions to Mr Beesbody ( much to Mr Beesbody’s amusement), he would moon around, and scribble hasty notes on a pad which he carried around, and discussed with Gertrude when she came in during the day. This was the great plan. Gertrude was determined to give a new and modern look to the parish. She ordered silks and satins, and modern Danish furniture, and picked out all the colours in the rainbow for each room, choosing blood red for the visitor’s parlour, because as she said, “It must look high class for those what me nots” (meaning the parish committee members). “I was gone and told my mum, wot I would do ‘ere now,” she said, “I must make this place look like wot you read in the magazines about those high class snorty dames.” Mr Tallboy winced at the outlandish suggestions and what he previously called outrageous language. But not any more now. Once in the earlier days of their engagement, he had disagreed mildly. Her reaction was astonishing. She threw down her bag, stomped her feet, shrilly talking nineteen to the dozen, and sobbed in an artificially pathetic way, till it melted Mr Tallboy down. He gave her his handkerchief, while she sobbed and petulantly dabbed at her eyes, careful not spread the mascara. “I told you once and I told you thousand times.. I want it this way.. if you’re not going to let me, I shall walk out from here and never step in again. Look here, are you going to let me or not?” Quick came the answer, “My dearest, yes of course, anything, anything.” He was so dreadfully afraid, she would leave him, this dainty little thing.
And from then on, anything it was for the dainty little thing. Mr Tallboy looked perturbed from time to time when she was not engaged in instructing him. He had managed to save some money, but not much in the earlier years when his needs were few, for after all a parson’s salary did not go a long way. But in his careful calculations in his notebook, he found the costs escalating. Sometimes, he thought to himself, “Dear Lord, she wants to turn this place into a mansion. After all it’s not mine, some day I’m bound to be transferred, then what shall we do, and if we want to start a family, we’ll have to save instead of squandering what I have.” But reason flew to the winds when Gertrude was around. Big tears would roll down her checks even if he so much as begin to protest. Then out would come his handkerchief, her tears would be dabbed, her blood red lips would be repaired with a thicker smudge, and things would be right for her. Once, when he timidly broached the subject of children, she stormed, “What .. children… why ..what should I do with them? I can’t spend my time with nappies and babies crying, I don’t like them. I shall have no time with tea parties and things, just as in the Woman’s Daily, they say. Besides,” she looked at him coyly, “Don’t you want me to keep my figure the way it is. You do like me this way don’t you,” and she would snuggle up to him. All he wanted to do was to take her in his arms and keep kissing her, but she would evade him successfully, and say, “We have plenty of time for all these doo doas, Percival, after the marriage. Oh, I want the marriage to be photographed and put in the Sunday News, and we must have lots of bigwigs to the reception, don’t you think. And have you called up the tailors and asked, whether the wedding dress has come from London, for the trial. These people are so dull and dumb, don’t have class, I say that’s for sure.” And she would give him a peck on his cheek as a favour.
Mr Beesbody was a careful onlooker. At first he was amused, and then concerned. At times, he was really concerned, but then he would shrug his shoulders, and say to himself, “That’s none of my business.” He noticed that Gertrude was behaving like a real tart. Sometimes, he couldn’t avoid being a party to her tantrums. For, now she would flare up at the object lovesick Mr Tallboy, even at the rectory. Her poutings, her belligerence often lapsed into cockney language, would hurt the normally insensitive Mr Beesbody. He brewed over the situation, till suddenly one day, a brilliant thought struck him. With one manipulation of the situation, he could kill two birds with one stone. He would change the situation for the two lovebirds, and also benefit himself. He set about seriously and carefully planning his steps. He was getting to be a bit worried about his future. With this plan he would be nicely ensconced in the parsonage. For, Mr Beesbody liked this easy job, of getting around visiting people, hobnobbing with them, and behaving more like a friend than an assistant parson. Besides the congregation was a friendly lot and he got along well with them.
The first step was to sow the seed of aggravation to the hidden tension between the two. One day he said in a seemingly casual manner to Mr Tallboy, “Mr Tallboy, I really don’t want to interfere, but investing so much money in the parsonage when someday you may be transferred, or be given a higher position, then the money you would have spent would all go to nought.” Mr Tallboy who was staring into the distance in a somewhat ridiculous fashion, came to the present with a start, chewed his lower lip for a while thoughtfully and said, “How did you guess Mr Beesbody? Yes, I must say this has set me into quite a worry, but Gertrude will have it no other way.” “Well, I guess you would like to do what pleases her,” said Mr Beesbody, and left it at that. But the seed was sprouting in Mr Tallboy’s head. Mr Beesbody let it germinate for a while. Next he tackled Gertrude. One evening just before Mr Tallboy went for his usual visit to the tavern, Mr Beesbody dropped in, again casually, and said just as casually to Gertrude, “Hell, Miss Angler, how’s the work going today?” “Oh, I just love working here.. it suits me fine,” she sighed. “One day I will just have to sit in that old parsonage, and find something to talk about with them fuddy duddys, at rotten old tea parties. I shall be bored to death,” she sighed again, “I hate to give this up, wot with meeting all kinds of people and joking and laughing and all that.” Mr Beesbody carefully skirted the “all that”, and commented, “I guess for a young person like you, when you love young company.. its going to be a bit dreary.” “Yeah, just like dressing up for a dance, and nowhere to go,” she said wistfully with her elbow on the counter resting her chin on her hand. Tears began to well up in her red eyes, “Oh, now Miss Angler, don’t cry, its not so bad you know. You could help Mr Tallboy a great deal with his sermons, with the committees, and visiting old people to cheer them up.” “Rubbish.. that’s wot I’d hate, I’d go crazy with doing all that stuff.” “Well, I think that you’d just have to make up your mind as to what being a parson’s wife is,” commented Mr Beesbody, again casually. “Well, I never gave it much thought, but do you really think, I’d make a good go at it.” “Why, Miss Angler” said Mr Beesbody amiably, “you just might.., you just might if you made up your mind about it.” “That’s just it,” she leaned over the counter and said in a confidential whisper, “I don’t know after all that splash and grand wedding and grand house.. wot I’d do with my time. Now Mr Tallboy, he’s all so fuzzy, and nice and fatherly, but then,” she looked at him and grimaced, “so is a lovely pet… he is a pet you know,” she said almost defiantly, and then, “Well, I dunno”, in a perplexed manner. So Mr Beesbody had sowed another seed of discontent. Only this time it was in the mind of Gertrude. He consoled himself that he had not violated any of the religious commandments, again the tactful Mr Beesbody let it germinate.
The date for the wedding was chosen by Gertrude. It was to be the middle of April, when the sun and roses would shine, and everything would look fine for Gertrude. Also, the plans for remodelling the parsonage had to begun and it was to end then, so that she could live in a house she had fantasised about. She would set her place in the society of “those women who looked down upon me,” she said to Mr Beesbody, who seemed to be her confidante these days. Mr Tallboy, on the other hand, continued to look more and more nervous with the prospect of shelling out so much money for the renovations.
Then one day the fireworks began in real earnest. Mr Tallboy was protesting at the expense of the wedding cake. It was to be six feet tall with lots of tiers, and tassels, and the marquee was far too luxurious. These would cost the earth. Gertrude gave one of her fine displays of tantrums. But this time, it did not end with tears and coddling up to him. She gave it to him straight and crude, “Fine person you’re. Look at you.. and then look at me. It’s alright for you living in this crap of a house, you suit it. But me I’m young and want more out of life than wot this dull house will give me. I want fun and laughter and jokes like wot I’m used to at the pub. There the people admire me, here the fussy old maids will only criticise me”. “But dearest,” protested the flustered Mr Tallboy, “I thought you wanted to be the parson’s wife, I thought you loved me.” “Oh, you’re OK, you are a dear old podgy pet, but I certainly want to be myself too.” “But Gertrude my darling, you’re to become a parson’s wife.. there are certain duties.” “Duties, I hate them.. now give me lights and music and laughter. I’m so young that’s what I’m made for.” For once a sense of reason began to grow in Mr Tallboy’s lovesick mind. He said slowly, and a little more firmly, “That’s how its going to be when all this fuss and finery is over.” “Oh, not for me, you can bet your last penny.” She shook her head firmly, “You’d better think about it Perceival.” she said also firmly and grimly, and walked out of the house.
The situation had reached a crisis. Mr Tallboy sent for Mr Beesbody. He had no one to turn to, no one to confide in. With Mr Beesbody it would be alright. He was a clergyman and was morally bound to keep the confidence of others. And so it transpired that Mr Tallboy poured out his heart, in a way that was very humiliating for him. He said he could not give up Gertrude. She meant everything in the world to him. Yet he could not pour his life savings down the drain, with no financial security in the future. What was he to do? Mr Beesbody looked very thoughtful, and serious when he said “It’s too important a matter, I shall have to give it serious thought as to what advice I should give you, give me some time to think about it.”
That very evening Gertrude came to Mr Beesbody’s house and asked for him. He came into the common parlour and sat with her talking with her in real earnest for a long time. When he went into the kitchen to get her a cup of tea, the landlady looked at him with a question in her eyes. He said cheerfully, “Just giving her a quick pre-marital counselling, can’t very well take it from the parson, can she? She is going to be his wife,” and he gave her a knowing wink.
But what really transpired was some soul searching by Gertrude. She was scared. She was scared of what the parson’s wife’s duties entailed, and whether she’d measure up to it or make a fool of herself. As it was, she said, the females of the town made her feel as if she was something the cat dragged home: and she did not want to give them a chance to smudge her again, and so she teether-tottered in her talk with Mr Beesbody.
Mr Beesbody nodded his head thoughtfully using words that Mr Tallboy would have liked, “ahems, ahas, I see”, and looking grim very much like the erstwhile Mr Tallboy. He said he’d think about it. As she left, still tearful, Mr Beesbody patted her on the back and said reassuringly, “Give me some time to find a solution, to tell you what my advice to you could be. In the meantime go home and have a good sleep and don’t worry your pretty little head about it.” Gertrude went away feeling very relieved. After all she had sought the counsel of a clergyman, hadn’t she?
It was about six months later, that saw Mr Beesbody installed as the parson. Mr Tallboy had to choose between losing Gertrude or losing his prudently accumulated savings. The latter he was sure of, at the way Gertrude had been going on wildly about buying this and that for a house that was really not theirs. In the decision making, Mr Beesbody had played an important but discreet part. It was he who suggested to Mr Tallboy, who was still dealing with a petulant and stubborn Gertrude, that they should have a counselling session together. “Not that I am competent, seeing that you are my superior, Mr Tallboy,” he said with a humility that was new to those who knew him. “But being of the clergy” (he took care to stress the word “clergy”), “and as I’m the only one around that know both you and Gertrude fairly well, perhaps it would be good if you and she had a chat with me as an arbitrator” (he ahemed politely). We might be able to find a solution where you may not be in danger of losing Gertrude and she might be in a situation which will make her content and happy. “Yes, yes, anything to keep Gertrude happy, but the way she wants it will only cause disillusionment for her in the end, Don’t you think?” “Rightly so,” said Mr Beesbody shaking his head wisely. “What do you say.. shall we make it a pleasant afternoon by the riverside with a picnic basket?” Mr Tallboy did not feel either like a picnic or a river bank, but he at once agreed, with a satisfied gleam in his button brown eyes. Here was somebody who was willing to help him sort out this mess and help him keep his precious Gertrude. Now the deft Mr Beesbody had to tackle Gertrude. When he made the suggestion to her, she at once clapped her hands and said, “How romantic.. I always wanted to go for a picnic to the riverside.”
And so one lazy afternoon, sitting by the sunny bank, the arbitration took place. Gertrude was all complacent. She had thought over the prospect of having to be single and not get out of her class to a higher one, as she had always dreamed. The boys at the bar only made a play for her, but none of them was ever serious. They had only one thing on their minds, she learned much to her chagrin after a few dates. Now Percival was a dear sweet man, she could boss over him, and sometimes she felt he was more like a father than a husband to be. She felt safe and sound, not having had a father, as her father had run away when he heard that the girl (her mother) was to have a baby by him. That also hurt, being an illegitimate child. So she desperately needed a safe company. “What would you like to do, most after your marriage, Gertrude,” He asked in a clergyman’s measured tone. “Oh! Like wot am working at the ere pub”, she said, her eyes gleaming excitedly. “It makes me come alive Mr Beesbody… you know everybody talking and so much happening.. I get to hear the gossip around the town, and it tickles me pink.” Mr Beesbody sat up quickly, as he lounged on the rug by the riverbank. “I have an idea, Mr tallboy. What do you think of this! Well if you cannot live at the parsonage the way Gertrude would like to.. and since she’s scared of living up to a parson’s wife’s expected behaviour, why don’t you think of some other place where she’d be happy? “Where wot” asked Gertrude impatiently” Why instead of spending all that money on a house that’s not your own why don’t you get a place that’s your own, and do it the way you want it to be. After all it will be your place forever.” When Mr Beesbody told them what the better alternative could be, they both looked at him speechless, and then all three burst out laughing Of course that was the right solution!
And for several weekends , after Sunday service, they would pile up in Mr Tallboy’s beat up old car, and go away to places, returning late at night. Everyone was kept guessing at these secret drive- aways. But then the two pastors were really going nutty. Talking and discussing sometimes by themselves, and sometimes with an excited Gertrude.
Soon the time had come to disclose their plans. Now both Mr Tallboy and Gertrude looked happy and content. They made a special trip to the Bishop, and came away looking very pleased after the formal interview. Mr Tallboy had resigned from the clergy! He had given up the cloth! Again there was a buzz of gossip .Mrs Pelmer stared at Mr Tallboy open mouthed when this was disclosed to the congregation by none other than Mr Tallboy himself. He beamed on the congregation, and said ” I most humbly wish to thank you for your cordiality and cooperation, and it is with regret I have to tell you that I am leaving not only the town, but also the clergy” Aghast, the congregation hardly listened to whatever else he had to say. Mr Beesbody smiled to himself, as he sat in the front pew listening to the awed gasps and hushed undertones that buzzed around.
Outside the church door, Mrs Pelmer at once accosted Mr Tallboy, “Why Mr Tallboy .. you have kept this a great secret. What are you going to do? Why are you leaving us? What’s happening to your marriage? We were looking forward to it. It was to be the talk of the town.” Yes it was the talk of the town. Mr Tallboy and Gertrude were getting married, no not in this town but in her own home town. “Now that’s really old-fashioned, I must admit, never thought she’d have it in her,” said Mrs Heasley grudgingly, as she shook hands with Mr Tallboy, and swirled away in her Rollsroyce. Gertrude was standing by Mr Tallboy’s side, and she said coyly to Mrs Pelmer” Well I do believe it will be good to have it at my own home, that way I can have my friends and people with whom I’ve grown up with” Mrs Pelmer winced and turned away in a hurry.
Mr Beesbody was the next best alternative to heading the parsonage, and the congregation was as delighted as he. As for the Tallboys, yes they were married, at Gertrude’s mom’s place. They are now the proud owners of a respectable looking tavern in the heart of the city. Mr Tallboy sits at the registers directs, organises, and conducts the business. It gives him a sense of satisfaction to see his bank balance grow. It also gives him a strange delight to mix with the many types of customers who would come and go, unlike the same old dull faces at the congregation in his previous parsonage. As for Gertrude, she is as happy as a lark. She is the supervisor of the team of waitresses and barmaids, and does a fine job, dressed all lady-like in a severe black expensive dress with pearls around her slim neck and beneath her still heavily made up face. But she is quite the lady over them. She fusses around saying things like “now Jill that’s not the way to talk with a customer, you must be lady-like… ‘Yes, madame what is your pleasure’… that’s wot you do it as.” They all take it good naturedly for the Tallboys are kind to them. TheTallboys’ world revolves around the tavern, which is quite popular. It’s still there on the main street of the inner cityways. It’s called ‘Gertrude’s Tall Haven!’.
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