SOMETHING IN THE LEAN-TO
We were slow to identify the source of those small inexplicable disturbances in the shrubbery, the miniature nibbling of discarded crackers, the mournful whistling down the pipes at night. The Fab’s cat was in a permanent state of outrage for several months. Stanley the Dog fretted that his old bones did not permit a more assertive pursuit of the somethings in the shrubbery. The otherwise silent parrot came to scream “They’re behind you…” as if our lives were now under Panto Rules.
One aspect of our Paradisic existence is that it is to be expected that temptation lurked among the Rhododendrons and malign presences might seek to get their way by night. Generally the commonplace shades and spirits that we inherited, were more confused in behaviour than deliberate, more in trepidation at our activities than the reverse. It was part of the charm of the place that, even during typhoons and landslips, the disturbances were uniformly stately. We relied on it being thus , for, how else was it possible to get the work done that was expected of us?
Imagine, say, a week ending in a catastrophe, imagine being ejected from the House by events, by unforseen circumstances. Imagine but not to experience.
They were not to happen. We constituted a troika holding firmly to the reins while the chariot made its inexorable passage along the Old Track on our way to Contentment.
Had this been a feature film, the ambient sound would have changed to a low orchestral throb, and we would each be allowed an anxious POV to left, to right, and then to each other.
“We are not alone.”
This was a statement of the blindingly obvious once we had listed and then eliminated the sentient beings around us. Gulls. Moles. Hawk Moths. The tree squirrels were harmless but constantly broke wind. Flamingoes in the pasture had taken a wrong turning after Easter, and now could only be seen across a chasm. The elephant foot umbrella-stand in the Hall we watched askance for a whole weekend . It was inert. It was so.... contained.
We had assumed that the disturbance in the Walled Garden on the day of its discovery had been a sighting of a thing of some scale; heavy feet, damp scaly skin, tense muscles at the flank. Under dream conditions it snarled, to bare its molars in fear.
” Another frigging pangolin? “
But that Tuesday morning in May, I think it was. Leaning together from an upstairs window sill, facing the dawn, we saw something long and sinuous winding its way through the silky grass. Whatever it was, it was the length of a python and kept itself to itself. “It can’t be a travelling zephyr.” The grass stopped shimmering as the sinuosity seemed to find its bearings and headed for the Lean-to at the back of the garage. “Do you get the feeling it is listening for something…? Probably us.”
After breakfast we determined that this uncertainty couldn’t go on, and we would at last investigate the Lean-to. It was the very nature of the Residence that, not for one moment, did we suspect a presence there that threatened us. “Not a case of Volenti Non Fit Injuria” , I said, to a certain bemusement. “The only bit of Law I can remember”, I explained.
Changing the subject as I floundered, I proposed wearing our thickest Wellington boots, each carrying a length of rope and a croquet mallet. We always had the option of instant, uncontrolled and terrified flight. “In different directions, so one might be sacrificed for the other two.”
The Lean-to was much more than that. It was twenty seven feet long to a depth of ten feet. Peering in through the single window, we saw a cluster of cupboards in which bundles of newspapers had been stuffed. Elderly onions hung in bunches and a damaged mobile slowly turned in the draft through the door. A Bakelite radio stood on a wrought iron table and an old porcelain sink held pots of dry geraniums.
The Fab knocked with a knuckle on the glass. Yes, the straw in the corner actually moved, shuddered. We looked at each other. On an upturned tea chest, a Party Susan was slowly revolving. Gherkins. Crisps. Pineapple cubes. A seven inch pewter cylinder at the centre , a sort of a Rapunzel Tower with minute casements. The mechanism stopped. And it was plain something had been at the Cashews. The top window slowly opened. There emerged a pink hairless face the size of a fingernail The voice was tiny, raucous and angry. “Stop that. Stop that now” A companion must have dragged him back. The Party Susan shuddered into motion. Now we had to act.
I flicked the light switch. Three bars of dingy neon flickered into a semblance of illuminations. Groups of tiny shamefaced monkeys emerged from the straw. Some waved. Some hid behind cotton reels. There was even creche of little ones in a Kentish trug.
Their Ape leader was about the size of a tin soldier. She hid a cashew behind her back. “Sorry about Barry. He’s…. overwrought We’ve been looking forward to meeting you three. Forgive our tardiness. “ She appeared to affect a Southern drawl, before curtsying, motioning the others to do the same. “Gherkin? Crisp?” she motioned, not without a certain guilt because they had been, as we discovered, stolen from our pantry. “Welcome The Fab. Welcome the Scrutineer. And you too, Storyteller …….. Please take a seat. We need to talk. ” A phalanx of worker apes sprang forward with a dais upon which the Leader reclined. This is her tale.
There had originally been four Rockeries, “at the four points of the compass” with associative loam, minerals and botanical specimens. Small cyclic rills of faintly blue water irrigated the roots, rippling over crystal beds. At night, solar pulses illuminated pockets of encrustations, even after closing time. They were, from North to West in clockwise motion;
They had been so successful among visitors and residents that a fifth was added, The Rock of Gibraltar”. The profile was characteristic. The watercourses geologically exact. No attempt was made to simulate the clusters of dwellings. Instead a cork faced doll’s house and fairground was constructed on a cantilevered shelf, and here it was that a colony of Apes went about its business, to the evident delight of the observers.
“I forget the number of times that our audience applauded. They were dissuaded from throwing coins, because of the little ones…”, a specimen was held up for our scrutiny.
In those days before animatronics, it was possible to buy a job lot of Tiny Rock Apes, without which, it was claimed, the Rockery would slide into the sea. “We are directly descended from those very animals sent by Churchill to replenish dwindling stocks in 1944. Except that we had been engineered for domestic display in the intervening period.”
Nowadays it would be unthinkable to pack over 150 living beings in cardboard cases, packed tuft to toe in bubble wrap, rendered inert with dusting powder. In those days, you simply tipped them out of the packaging into a washing up bowl, adding water until they were moist. Rock Apes of Telford Ltd. cornered the market by introducing costumes. Milk maids, Gay Hussars. Bell Boys. Furthermore they were, according to the copy, adept at “high jinks, callisthenics, with mock jousting on mouseback. “ Later models (and this was the generation we had acquired) could talk with perfect diction, each with up to three languages, familiar with Shakespeare’s plays, the Holy Bible and the Koran. To illustrate a philosophic conceit, one in seven could sit at a typewriter in the hope of writing a new offering in the style of the Bard.
It was explained to us that as the then house occupants tired of the upkeep and the lack of simian personal hygiene, neglected their their entertaining charges. It would have been a blessed relief, said the Estate Agents, had they left the Rock and the gravel, watercourses and rich soil sold off.
The Leader confessed to a subsequent dramatic decline in morale. After a certain point the apes simply gave up juggling, performing, in favour of unlimited fornication to pass the time. The birth rate rose, supplies ran out. Uniforms were never cleaned. Braid lacked lustre.
They simply advanced in groups into the garden where they were forbidden to be, scuttling to cover on our approach. Odd that they flatly denied they were ever the source of the scuffling on the dayof our discovery of the Walled Garden, although they had their suspicions as to the identity of the interloper. More of this in due course.
The three of us agreed to hear petitions from the Ape Praesidium on May 11th on the Upper Lawn. Their procession from the Lean-to in military muster proved they had mended their ways, with a new sense of purpose. Now they could come into the open, they were magnificent. Men apes wearing bum freezers with scarves, women apes in gingham frocks, apelets in waistcoats with fob watches. They presented several petitions which we studied in detail. After a month’s negotiations I was able to announce that they were to be re-located to a theme park in France, taken by dedicated vessel from the Pierhead at the end of our Garden to Port-en-Bassin, where Georges Seurat once took his holidays. Several of them were in fact proficient painters of landscape.
The Scrutineer’s camera recorded their departure in true Pathe style. Only later, with enhancement , did we see Barry’s obscene gesture from the prow of the boat, waving a cashew in triumph.