It is quite difficult to know just how to start off. There will be seasoned followers of mine who've drifted here from my accounts on Youtube, Twitter, Facebook or Tumblr, wondering what the devil I'm doing faffing about within the hallowed space of the written word (or at least an incarnation of the written word that exceeds 140 characters). 'Wooster! You imbecilic ass,' you shall declare, 'we expect musical performances, comedic anecdotes, links to frothy Buzzfeed articles, and cheeky gif sets of Oscar Isaac from the likes of you. Wherefore this sudden interest in self-gratifying autobiographing?' For you fellows, I concede that the surprise is quite well warranted. I'm the sort of chap who boasts very meagre brainpower, despite my penchant for rambling. Sharing what waffling, insubstantial thoughts I happen to have in blog format is perhaps not the most advantageous use of bandwidth. And, though I'm sure this makes me seem an utter brat of a millennial, I have often considered blogging to be a rather sad, out-of-touch corner of social media: a space best left to middle-aged aunts into cat fancying and cake recipes who wish to embrace modernity, but who are perfectly perplexed by apps such as Snapchat.
And then, of course, there will be other poor sods who've stumbled upon this humble blog from god-knows-where, currently scratching their heads, or possibly throwing their arms up in exasperation. For you, I shall try to provide some form of introduction, or at least an explanation as to why I am making such a laughable bid for your attention. Well, as the great and ever incandescent Julie Andrews has often advised, let's start at the very beginning, as it is, she vows, a very good place to start.
Who is Bertie Wooster? Well, I could direct your attention to my long-established vlog, currently 100K followers strong. The videos therein should provide a much more succinct answer than anything I can offer here. I strongly recommend my rendition of 'I've Got A Dream' from 'Tangled', in which I accompany myself on piano, accordion and kazoo, playing all the vikings, Flynn Rider and Rapunzel as well. Some have described it as most amusing. Or perhaps the even more succinct bants I share on Twitter with @DroneBingo @DroneCatsmeat @DroneGussie @DroneTuppy @DroneBiffy et al may provide an insight into who I am as a friend, socialite, and occasional raconteur.
However, it must now be grimly conceded, there is a media platform that my name has recently been plastered upon which garners more notoriety than all the above combined - at least in the short term. You would have to be living under a rock to be unaware of the incident to which I allude.
In the unlikely event that any members of the tabloid media happen to be reading this now, I implore you to leave Ginger alone. What has transpired is not a matter for your concern. The decision was mutually reached, to boot. There is no scandal. Also, no, he has not gone 'back in the closet'. Ginger was always upfront with me about his bisexuality, and that in itself was never a problem in our relationship. Magnolia is a delightful girl and I wish the two of them all the best. Truth be told, Ginger and I had been growing distant for years - he spent so much time travelling and training for matches that I barely saw him a week out of every three months. It only makes sense that he should have formed a stronger bond with his PA, who has stood by his side as a constant helpmeet throughout his career.
Yet, truth be told, I still feel as if my heart has been ripped out of my chest and stomped on with football boots bearing the Chelsea FC crest. Ginger has new dreams he's building upon, and I'm still hurting.
I moved the last of my things out of the penthouse we shared exactly two months, one week, and three days ago. Currently, I am holed up in my old bedroom at Brinkley Court, my Aunt Dahlia's old pile out in Richmond. Most days I've been abed til well into the afternoon, hoovering up Bakewells and Hobnobs while binge-watching 'Friends' and 'True Blood'. Augustus, Aunt Dahlia's affable grey persian, has been clearing any errant crumbs from the duvet and acting as my faithful hot water bottle. I suppose I can't really talk about sad, out of touch cat fanciers with their own blog now, what?
Cousin Angela, the dear cherub, managed to drag me out of my self-pitying hermitage last night for my birthday (a whole year closer to thirty - heaven forfend!), persuading me to down a staggering number of margaritas with her at G-A-Y. We hung back in a dimly lit corner, watching the drag show that was flouncing away on stage, while commiserating each other on our man troubles. (I have known her fiance Tuppy since I was in knee-socks, and suffice it to say I have much sympathy for the poor girl. That blighter is a piece of work if ever there was one. He once pulled a prank which saw me drop into the swimming pool at the Kensington Leisure Centre in full dinner dress - ever since this night, I give off a waft of chlorine whenever I don my dinner jacket.) For my troubles, I am now nursing a moderate hangover, an unwelcome redoubling of my post-breakup malaise, and the lyrics to 'Alejandro' on perpetual loop in my pounding head.
So, who is Bertie Wooster? Forgive the histrionics, but perhaps I am not very well-equipped to answer that question at the moment. Much of what has filled my life until now has lost its gloss, seeming to be all sound and fury, signifying bugger all. Long hours spent with my fellow drones, haunting pubs and cafes while making a loitering nuisance of ourselves, feels far less appealing now. Noodling about on my keyboard, performing everything from Irving Berlin to Lin Manuel-Miranda to 'Weird Al' Yankovic, is nary but a waste of calories. Alas, gentle audience, even sharing my musings and music with you all through the magic of streaming video seems far too much hassle. I regret that I would not be terribly entertaining in my current state anyway, unless you desired an immovable, weepy object that you could lob dinner rolls at.
Perhaps making this blog is in fact an attempt at reinvention - an older, wiser, more thoughtful Bertie Wooster, such as he would be. A gentleman given to loftier thoughts and deeper considerations - at least deeper than sharing memes and arguing about whether Idina or Rachel made the better Elphaba. Surely that can't be too much of a challenge - even for a heartbroken slob currently on his second packet of Jaffa cakes for the day?
I must cease this communique and bid adieu for now. The dramatic chops of Mr Neil Patrick Harris and his torment of the Baudelaire children are calling. Netflix says it's highly recommended.
The Drones Club, for those of you not in the know, is an institution with a long and proud history. Established during the Autumn of 2006 by a ragtag crew of geeky Etonians (as well as a few of the more spirited lasses from St George's), we pride ourselves on our oath to buzz about our community without committing any honest toil nor dutiful drudgery. No nectar-gatherers we - the Drones live for pleasure, debauchery, and drunken nights of Mario Kart and Cards Against Humanity. We may not be as conscientious as our peers shooting up the ranks of corporate management in the city, nor as stylish as our popular former classmates who cut a dash in the latest fashions at Sloane Square and Notting Hill, but by George, do we know how to have a good time.
I was at a typical gathering of my fellow ne'er-do-wells just last Friday. Aunt Dahlia had dropped a few subtle hints that she would appreciate my absence from the house for the day - the grinding of her teeth and the death glares she launched at me over the kitchen table sort of tipped me off. On this particular morning, the searing anguish of my Ginger-less existence had just begun to dull to more of a nagging twinge of woe. Between facing the the empty world again and being at the mercy of my sweet auntie's wrath, the former seemed a much more felicitous prospect. I suspect she planned to douse my bedroom in antibacterial agents, so as to completely eradicate the odour of stale junk food, sweaty bedsheets and heartache that I had so carefully cultivated.
Making a hasty escape, Angela and I skittered onto the tube into town, ascertaining via text that our chums were currently melting into the shabby chic lounges of one of our preferred coffee houses in Chelsea.
'What ho, Bertie!' came the chorus of familiar voices, as I savoured the first life-restoring sip of my sweetened latte. I plopped myself down upon the overstuffed chintz sofa, forcing Bingo and Tuppy to budge up.
'How have you been doing?' Bingo's tone was sickeningly delicate, as if he were speaking to a shivering kitten with a terminal illness.
'Oh, the poor lamb is heartbroken,' Angela announced enthusiastically. 'Mopes about day and night, a shadow of himself. He keeps scrolling through all his old photos of Ginger.'
'You little sneak!' I exclaimed, quite affronted. 'How did you know about- I mean, I do not!'
'Oh please. When you finally went to shower, Mum made me collect all the dirty mugs and dishes from your room. You'd left your phone on your bed.'
'Et tu, Angela?' I grumbled.
'It's not healthy, Bertie!' She protested. 'We were even talking about an intervention!'
'He's not worth it, no bloke is,' Catsmeat chimed in from his splay across a distressed leather wing chair. 'What we need to do is tart you up and haul you along to Admiral Duncan.'
'It's always about Admiral Duncan with you, isn't it, Catsmeat?' Bingo rejoindered with a masterful eye-roll.
'But every time I bring someone there, they always end up taking some cutie home for a right good shag! The place is charmed, I tell you!'
'I do not need to be tarted up and pimped out,' I announced with finality. 'I am still recovering from this, and have absolutely no desire to be slobbered over by some hulking pack of randy idiots - not at Admiral Duncan, nor anywhere else.'
'Oh look,' Tuppy piped up from the other end of the sofa, hunched over his tablet. 'Ginger and Magnolia just posted their honeymoon photos. Ibiza looks smashing.'
I took a long sip of latte, and tried to ignore the thorny silence that came blundering through the atmosphere. Mercifully, Angela ripped a handful of pages from an obliging Time Out magazine, wadded them up tightly, and a moment later they beaned Tuppy right in his gormless face.
'What ho, all,' came the lugubrious sigh of Boko Fittleworth, and we were glad for the shift in attention. As Tuppy stormed off, Boko took his seat at the end of the sofa, draining half of his chai latte in one impressive gulp.
'What ho, Boko, how's tricks?' I greeted perkily, sensing that this was a soul under duress, and I was thankful for the chance to divert focus off of my own troubles.
'Not good, Bertie,' he answered, fiddling absently with the frayed cuff of his charity shop bomber jacket. 'You know my upcoming jaunt out to the States?'
'Of course, you ninny, it's all you've been talking about for the past eon,' Catsmeat remarked.
I should explain here that Boko, quite atypical of our group, is a productive member of society. Being something of a sensitive soul, he penned a semi-autobiographical novel during our final year at Oxford. No doubt you've heard of 'The Perks of The Fault in Our Travelling Pants'? Marvelous read. Self-published at first, but soon topped best seller lists around the world. Boko says he's already sold the movie rights to some Hollywood bigwigs, hence his need to head across the pond. I can't remember much about the plot, it's been a few years since Boko asked me to go over the final draft (the Drones were his unofficial focus group), but as I recall, it had something to do with coming of age and not fitting in and a manic pixie dream whatsit who dies at the end.
'Well,' Boko continued, 'I've been scouring my contacts list for someone who can house-sit for me while I'm away. It seems all the halfway trustworthy and responsible people I know have better things to do than collect my mail, water my plants and feed my fish every day for six months. And I can hardly trust some stranger to do it. What if they don't clean the tank filter? What if they don't look after Andromeda? She could die of thirst!' (Andromeda is Boko's prized flowering cactus.) 'This trip could make my career, but I'm at my wit's end here.'
'Why not just sell up?' Catsmeat suggested. 'Make the most of being out there. Get a nice studio apartment in Beverly Hills. If all goes well, you'll be rolling in it by the time you come back and you can live anywhere you choose. Besides, it's not as if Fulham's that great.'
'I like Fulham,' Boko sniffed, drawing himself up. 'It's green and tranquil and oozing with heritage, the perfect space for an introspective artist such as myself to practise his craft. No,' he affirmed, 'I simply cannot part with my dear flat. Thus my tragic impasse.' With this, he slumped down on the sofa again, looking like an old plush toy missing its stuffing.
It was then I felt Angela giving me an ominous side-eye.
'Bertie,' she intoned, in an unsettlingly accurate impression of her mother, 'why don't you house-sit for Boko?'
Bingo gave his enthusiastic assent. 'Indeed! What a brilliant idea!'
Boko made a face as if he had consumed a platter of dodgy oysters. 'I don't know about that... I remember the state of your rooms at Oxford.'
'Oh, he's grown up since then,' Angela insisted. 'He's an older, wiser, more thoughtful Bertie Wooster now. A gentleman given to loftier thoughts and deeper considerations. He's started a blog!'
Boko's features brightened. 'Really, Bertie? Well, bully for you, my fellow wordsmith! Perhaps you new foray into the art of prose is a sign of a greater man emerging,' he mused. 'Tell you what, if you let me teach you how to look after my diamond tetras and my African violets, I'll let you use my flat as your own personal writer's retreat.'
'Now wait just a minute!' I cried. 'Don't I get a say in this?' While I could see the cruelty of Boko's predicament, and I was always up for helping a fellow Drone in distress, the whole 'agreement' seemed to be chugging along at an alarming pace. Boko was to be gone for at least six months - that felt like an awfully long age to be holed up alone in a leafy suburb, sprinkling fish food flakes and high-phosphorus fertiliser about the place. Besides, I had never before lived on my own, much less been responsible for the upkeep of a household - what if I attempted to mop the floor and inadvertently set fire to the building?
'You need this, Bertie,' Angela urged, once again sounding far too much like my beloved Wagnerian aunt. 'You can't go on pining for Ginger in your old room, living on sweets and on-demand tv. You're driving Mum mental. You'll end up a corpulent shut-in, like some second-string Matt Lucas character.' Here she jabbed my stomach with a dagger-like finger. ( Well, I mean to say. Maybe I had gained a pound or two, what of it? I was still far more svelte than Angela's own pie-gorging paramour.) 'Now be a man, and go learn how to perform basic housekeeping duties!'
I had to admit she had a point. And yet, as a man of iron will, I naturally felt most reluctant to be browbeaten into this tedious obligation. Yes, I know I have invited the fates to begin crafting me into a more worldly and disciplined incarnation of myself, but I had hoped they would have started off with a simpler challenge. Like perhaps getting a haircut. I left the coffee house feeling defiant, deciding to ankle along the bank of the Thames. Perhaps that would help shift some of the extra padding I had accumulated, at least. Little did I know the fates had only just begun their assault upon my callow naiveté.
As I reached the statue of Sir Thomas More, my ringtone split the chilly Spring air.
'Bertie,' came the imperious bellow at the other end of the line. 'I wish to see you this evening. You shall come to my place at six o'clock sharp.'
I had been summoned to the den of my Aunt Agatha.
Deep in the darkest heart of Belgravia, there stands a lofty townhouse, where the chimney billows black smoke and the heavy curtains are almost always drawn against the London daylight (such as it is). Within this desolate lair there dwells a beast of such formidable terror, that the mere utterance of her name strikes fear into even the bravest hearts. Once in an age, this beast shall issue forth her dreaded call, summoning doomed nieces and nephews to face her. These poor souls have returned from their quests but empty husks, all their courage and energy sucked from their being like marrow from bone. Woe betide anyone who sets foot in this dismal sanctum.
If you think I am being needlessly unkind, clearly you have never met my Aunt Agatha. Every family has that one toxic member who wields power over the others like Vlad the Impaler brandishing a spike, seemingly enjoying the suffering and tragedy that they rain down upon their own kinsfolk. Aunt Agatha eats people like this for breakfast. Besides, she is something of a zealous Luddite - her household is, technologically speaking, always about twenty years behind the rest of the world. (Her world view, however, is set back by approximately four hundred years.) Her mindset is so extreme that she has her housekeeper pat down her visitors for any contraband digital devices - I actually had to head back home and drop off the very smartphone she called me on before I would be allowed into her den. Therefore, there is absolutely no danger of her ever perusing these words - her preferred written periodicals are The Spectator magazine, The Daily Mail and The Malleus Maleficarum. (I'm joking, of course - she considers The Mail far too frivolous in subject matter.)
After the customary frisking by the ever-loyal Benson, I was shown to the parlour where my esteemed aunt was looming.
'Good evening, Aunt Agatha,' I hailed her, stooping to kiss her cheek.
'You reek of chlorine,' she muttered, turning from me and feeding a bonbon to McIntosh, the fluffy terrier in her lap.
Conscientiously reaffixing my smile, I sat before her. 'So, how are things with you at the mo?'
'Don't think I shall allow you to stay for dinner, your asinine ramblings set my teeth on edge,' she snapped. 'Bertie, in two weeks time I shall be commencing a tour of the churches of Eastern Europe.'
I nodded approvingly. 'Sounds stimulating, dearest Aunt. Get out of the metrop and fill your lungs with some crisp Balkan air, eh?'
'Don't be absurd!' I flinched in my seat, and she continued. 'I have far more important ends to fulfill on this sojourn. As you know, it has been a long-held dream of mine to behold the sacred architecture of the Byzantine, Orthodox, and Coptic traditions. Although I concede that such handiwork is rife with vulgar continental ornamentation, the sum of its parts is still a marvel of artisanry that one cannot help but venerate.'
I gave up trying to comment at this point, opting instead for non-verbal assent. 'Mm!' I grunted, still nodding like a bobble-head toy.
'You shall come with me on this trip,' she announced.
'Wait, what? Steady on, Aunt Agatha!-'
'I SHALL BROKER NO ARGUMENT!' Exclaimed she, and I shrank back into my chair, willing for it to swallow me up.
'Dahlia told me that that meat-headed footballer broke off his engagement with you, to elope with some trollop of a secretary. Now is the perfect time to abandon this ridiculous... homosexual caprice of yours,' (she handled the word like a thumbtack in her mouth) 'and finally choose a suitable wife.'
Oh, so she'd decided to pummel this deceased equine again. I'd never really had a coming out moment growing up, most of my relatives simply took my orientation as a given. Within about six months of my first date with another boy, Aunt Dahlia had climbed up the ranks of the West London chapter of Stonewall Allies to become the events co-ordinator, even organising a float for that year's Pride celebrations. Aunt Agatha, of course, was another story.
I dragged my hands down the length of my face, rasping out a long breath, willing my temper to stay settled. 'We've been over this, Aunt Agatha. I'm gay. It's permanent. I am never going to marry a woman.'
'Nonsense. You shall accompany me on this tour and we shall find you a pretty Lithuanian or Polish girl - one with good genes, strong teeth and a desperation for UK citizenship.'
'But I thought you were pro-Brexit, Aunt.'
'I am. However, we seem to have exhausted the supply of half-respectable English girls. None of them want to marry you.'
'That's because they know I'm gay!'
'Well, the language barrier shall take care of that little quibble.'
'Aunt Agatha. You must drop this ridiculous crusade. The rest of the family has accepted my orientation quite willingly. Whom I choose to date, sleep with, or marry shall never be a decision you hold any influence over. We live in a constitutional monarchy that has honoured my right to love my own gender since you were but a lass fawning over Cliff Richard. Even our Queen has declared her emphatic support of these rights. I care for you and respect your exalted place in our family, but I am a grown man with the agency to make my own life decisions. There's an end to it.'
She blinked once, then twice. Took a breath, then lasered into me with her best bird-of-prey glare.
For those of a sensitive temperament, I shall decline to recount the ear-splitting verbal seige that directly followed. Things were thrown, eardrums were ruptured. McIntosh scurried for the nearest hiding place, his little nails clacking frantically across the parquet. Suffice it to say, once her full assault had been unleashed, she had reduced me to whimpering a plaintive 'Yes Aunt Agatha, I shall pack my suitcase and book the flight tonight.' I limped back to the tube station, tail firmly between legs.
Returning to the light and warmth of Brinkley Court, a bittersweet respite glooped its way through me. At least for tonight, I could hold the overeager fates at bay, forgetting my own hovering troubles by instead being regaled with those of the luckless Baudelaire children. As I crossed the entrance hall, thoughts roving to the half-empty bag of Maltesers that I knew were stashed behind the breadbox, I heard a sound that made the blood freeze in my veins.
'...Well, you know what he's like, Aggie. He'd probably run out on you in Budapest, off to attend a Romani jazz festival or something... Yes... Yes, I know Aggie. I know... I think this is a much better use of his time. He'll be made to stay in one place and learn some essential life skills. It's just the sort of grounding the boy needs... Yes, Aggie, I know... Well, I'm glad to hear it. Yes. Your holiday will be so much more peaceful this way. Everybody wins... well, I've got a joint of lamb in the oven that I really must check on. You know how my Tom whinges when the meat is overcooked. Talk soon, Aggie. Toodle-pip.'
I made a mad dash for my room, completely unwilling to bear any more auntly onslaught that evening. My foot creaked upon the second stair when the reckoning came: strident, iron-gilded, loud enough to peel the paint from the walls:
I slowly turned around, every muscle in my body as stiff as nine-day-old brioche. The manic smile on Aunt Dahlia's face would not have looked out of place on Jack Nicholson.
'Bertie. Poppet. Darling child. My dear sweet favourite nephew. Precious son of my sainted brother.' With each endearment, her coffee-coloured leather mules stalked their way closer and closer. Aunt Dahlia is on the short side, but she is a stout and robust old girl who reminds one rather of a fun-sized Amazon warrioress - in her gentler moods. Right now, she was veritably demonic.
'Guess what I spent half the day doing, lambkin. After washing your filthy bedsheets, airing out the unholy stench that was seeping out of your room and contaminating the hallway, vacuuming up enough dust and debris to necessitate emptying the Dyson twice, AND clearing away all your revolting piles of rubbish and mouldering junk food packets, I had the privilege of discovering the wonders hiding beneath your bed. There, I found - among other treasures - two dozen empty microwave ready-meal cartons, still with lovely little crusts of burnt cheese clinging to them. Several festering apple cores and banana peels. A scattering of soiled facial tissues, fused to the carpet by a rather... suspicious looking substance. And to top it all off, one happy little family of very well-fed looking cockroaches.'
Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. I'm a bit messy even when in top form - a doleful and lovesick Wooster is hopeless with so much as a dustpan. I rummaged through my fright-riddled brain to find a suitably apologetic response.
'There's a can of bug spray under the sink-'
My helpful advice was cut short by a gaudy flower vase torpedoing its way toward my head. I ducked in time, and it hit the wall with a terrific crash.
'You're cleaning that up, Wooster.'
'That seems fair,' I agreed.
She took a deep, centering breath, and pushed on. 'Earlier this afternoon, I had a rather interesting conversation with Angela. And just now, as you no doubt heard, I had a positively fascinating conversation with Agatha. It seems she wanted you to tag along on this church tour of hers, to find some desperate would-be migrant girl willing to play your beard. I, being the kindly and ever-supportive auntie that I am, managed to tactfully talk her out of it.'
'Oh, thank you Aunt Dahl-'
'Boko Fittleworth's mother is Lady Davina Fittleworth, The 23rd Baroness Ashcroft. Lady Davina is a bleeding-heart philanthropist, always looking to throw money at one in-vogue cause or another. As events co-ordinator for Stonewall West London AND a board member of Market Snodsbury Grammar School, you know I am a busy woman, always on the lookout for new benefactors. Any favours our family can do for hers will be looked upon most favourably.'
Her grin had become so wide and wolfish that I could see her molars.
'I did not take you in and raise you to be a slovenly pig, Bertram Wilberforce Wooster. To win Lady Fittleworth's favour, to do right by your dear departed father, and to keep you from ruining my beloved yet misguided sister's holiday, by hell, you are going to house-sit for your little friend. AND you are going to keep that place spick-and-span. If I hear about so much as a splotch on the kitchen floor or a single wilting ficus plant... heaven help me, I shan't be held responsible for my actions.'
Having acquiesced to my aged relative's ultimatum, I have so far avoided any further slings or projectiles flung by outrageous aunts. I sit here tonight with my bags once again packed, my head full of applied lessons in horticulture and ornamental fish care, and a heart bursting with trepidation. Tomorrow the Drones shall bid Boko bon voyage at Heathrow, and I shall repair to the lonely cavern that is his flat. Mine to care for and maintain for the better part of half a year.
I recall a night spent home alone during my fourteenth Summer - Aunt Dahlia and Uncle Tom were away visiting friends in Worcestershire, while Angela was off at a slumber party. A storm brewed over London, and to the sound of beating rains and howling winds, I was made to lock the doors and switch off the lights one by one. Heart hammering, I zoomed up to my room, slammed the door and cocooned myself beneath my duvet, petrified in wakefulness until the first weak rays of daylight peered through my window. Henceforth, I will have to live through that ritual every single night. Not to mention cook, clean, and have the presence of mind to keep debt collectors from beating their ham-like fists against the front door. It humbles me to admit just how scared I am to be attempting this step out into bonafide independence.
However, the Wooster spirit is not easily broken. I think of my brave ancestors who fought at Agincourt, and I take heart. I have friends and loved ones depending on me, and I mean to do them proud. Mark my words - a day will soon come that will see Bertram Wilberforce Wooster become a bonhomous patriarch, master of his domain, treating his honoured guests to wine and sweetmeats before a blazing hearth in a spankingly clean kitchen. When this loose behaviour I throw off, I'll pay the debt I never promised.
Right now however, I'm sneaking downstairs to scoff the last of the Jammie Dodgers.
I wonder, dear readers, how many of you have ever attempted to single-handedly apply a fitted sheet to a Queen sized bed?
If you have, you will understand me when I assert that it is an activity which offers all the fun of walking a stubborn, aging mastiff with a leash made of unpredictable elastic. One does not end up covered in dog slobber, but instead goes breathlessly tumbling to the floor, caked in sweat and cocooned in a chaotic mass of linen. Not exactly a grand way to end one's evening. The bruise on my thigh from hitting the corner of the bedside table is still gargantuan, purple-grey and rather resembles a map of Burkina Faso.
This battle scar has been the first of many, earned by my daring exploits in the upkeep of Boko's flat. I dropped my bags in the hall on that first night, feeling brave and bursting with enthusiasm, fancying myself lord of the manor. The days following have been a humbling baptism that I shall not soon forget.
As a lad, I had never been trusted with household tasks any more perfunctory than clearing up my own toys. Even this proved a difficult feat - I recall the ear-splitting reprimand and box about the ears I received when Aunt Agatha once tripped on my Action Man. At Eton and Oxford, we'd had housekeepers to tidy the worst of our messes. And my old home (that is to say, Ginger's penthouse) was serviced twice weekly by an affable old Filipina lady with whom I struck up something of an acquaintance - she was always up for a friendly chinwag as she swept and scrubbed.
I am quite sure the majority of you will be balking in outrage at the obscenity of my lax, soft-shelled upbringing, and you are quite justified. As I grew older, it slowly began to dawn on me that those who waited on me - female relatives and hired staff, mostly - were not only saddled with the disorder that lay in my wake, but also responsible for cleaning up after both themselves and many others. By late adolescence I began to experience vague pangs of guilt whenever some careworn hand plucked the refuse from my rooms and laundered my sheets, but was at a total loss about how to remedy it. It's never been de rigeur for boys of the aristocracy to question these sorts of things, even in today's broad-minded society.
So, sallying forth into the uncharted territory of domestic duty has proved a minefield. The morning after my brawl with the bedspread, I burned my baked beans and had to negotiate with a hypersensitive smoke detector. The next day, the light in the bathroom went out, and I learned the hard way about the importance of switching the damned thing off before changing it. I was lucky I didn't hit my head - or anything vital, for that matter - on the tiles below. Over the weekend, I thought I had done an okay job with my first load of laundry, until all my clothes came out of the dryer looking about two sizes smaller than before. Also, for those who do not know, I am here to tell you that Fairy brand dishwashing liquid is NOT for use in dishwashers, despite what the name of the product may suggest. As I attempted to clean the wreckage from this particular debacle, I slipped on the kitchen floor and earned myself another ripe bruise on my forearm.
At least the fishes and houseplants are no worse for wear.
Yesterday, I popped out on a shopping trip to Oxford Street, keen to replace my old shrunken clothes with some jaunty new togs. I forgot my troubles for the afternoon as I amassed a fabulous stockpile of spring fashions, courtesy of messrs. H&M, Topman, Forever 21 and the Disney Store (I've a new canary yellow t-shirt sporting Timon & Pumbaa which I can't wait to show to Angela). You know, perhaps it is a shame that I have taken this vlogging sabbatical - the last one of those trite shopping haul videos I uploaded has received 230,000 hits and a sponsorship offer from Primark. Don't worry, I didn't take them up on it - one must draw the line somewhere, of course.
After catching up with Bingo over a shrink-wrapped sandwich, I was on the tube back to Fulham, jostling my quarry about among the evening commuters. When I returned, I was greeted by a rather putrid odour emanating throughout the flat. I discovered its source when cutting the price-tag off my new galaxy print skinny jeans - the kitchen bin was full to bursting with the overripe remnants of ready meals and take-away. Ah, one more quest for the intrepid young steward to undertake. Surely I couldn't botch this up.
Tying the bag in a knot worthy of any boy scout, I exercised every ounce of brainpower I had to recall Boko's words on this matter: the red bin is garbage. Yellow is recycling. Do remember to put them out on Thursdays. Well, it was Monday, so no misstep there. I closed the bin lid with a satisfying bang and dusted my hands, thoughts roving to the newly uploaded episodes of 'Golden Girls' that awaited my perusal inside.
I went to reach for my front door key, dismayed to find my pockets quite empty.
I must ask again, readers, If you have ever had the pleasure of such a situation? Of the sensation of your gut dropping down to the region of your ankles, the hammering heart, the frantic querying of how easily a grown man may be able to shimmy up a drainpipe? I hadn't possessed the forethought to keep my phone with me, nor did I have enough confidence in the workings of gravity to attempt any gymnastic stunts (I'd had quite enough of those this week, thank you very much). It appeared that the ground floor window was my only realistic option, but the thought of Aunt Dahlia's reaction at hearing of busted locks and broken windowpanes was more than enough to let 'I dare not' wait upon 'I would'.
I stood at the front door for some moments, blinking and hyperventilating, the frigid evening breeze seeping into my bones. Then, from somewhere in the gloaming, came drifting a grave, sympathetic voice:
'Are you alright, sir?'
I turned to behold a kind of darkish, sort of respectful Johnnie at the threshold of the neighbouring flat. He looked as poised and sensible as I felt frantic and upended - a crisp pressed suit and the accoutrements of a briefcase, umbrella and bowler hat signified that he was a legitimate Adult. And yet, rather than aggravating my agitation, like so many steel-eyed authority figures are wont to do, his presence had rather the opposite effect, akin to a healing zephyr.
'Ah... what ho, I mean good evening,' I spluttered. 'It seems I've sort of locked myself out, don't you know. Of my flat. Well, it's not my flat, actually, rather it's Boko's flat and I promised him I'd take good care of it. Which I've done, since I just successfully took out the rubbish. But the kitchen beckons, as there's a cereal bowl in the sink that I thoughtlessly failed to wash up this morning. Rather hard to wash up when standing about on the porch without a key, eh?'
A withering laugh hissed its way out of me, and I clutched at the back of my neck. No doubt this kind of babbling would win me no favours with someone so clearly level-headed.
'A most understandable predicament, sir, and one all too common,' the gentleman responded, his deep voice effusing civility. 'Mr Fittleworth did notify me that one of his friends would be staying here in his stead during his visit to America.'
'Ah yes, that's me! Bertie. Bertie Wooster.'
I extended my hand, and he shook it with a pleasingly confident grip. 'Reginald Jeeves. Delighted to make your acquaintance.' His generous mouth quirked upwards about a quarter of an inch, which I suppose constituted a smile. 'You know, Mr Wooster, we share the same landlady. I could contact Mrs Rozycki and explain your predicament to her.'
Well, talk of visiting angels. 'Would you? Oh, that would - I mean to say, thank you ever so much!'
'Not at all.'
Here he reached for his phone, discreetly turning away. I could hear the grizzled groans of old Mrs Rozycki over the connection. She had grudgingly accepted the references I supplied from Aunt Dahlia and Catsmeat (the official line is that Catsmeat and I lived together in a flatshare for three years in Islington - utter cow-dung, of course), but she did not seem altogether happy allowing me to lodge in her tenant's domicile. When she learned that I was locked out, her furious exclamation over the phone made me almost jump out my skin. Mr Reginald Jeeves, solid chap, didn't so much as flinch.
With soothing and dulcet tones, he assured her that this was but an anomaly - my usual fastidiousness was certain to prevent such a thing from recurring, and that the flat was being kept spotless under my care. By the time Mr Reginald Jeeves had woven his magic, her voice had settled into honeyed cooing. I'm pretty sure I caught a 'dear boy' and a 'bless you' before she hung up.
'Mrs Rozycki shall be here in about twenty minutes,' my saviour informed me. 'While we wait, may I suggest a cup of tea?'
Night had fallen and was nipping at my extremities. A spot of the bracing seemed just the thing. 'Marvellous. Lead on, Mr Jeeves.'
The flat I was invited into was structurally quite similar to Boko's, but where my fellow Drone had cluttered his space with motley bohemian fancies, this bright, clean home was dazzlingly neat. One could almost have described it as Spartan, were it not for a certain understated coziness about the place. A tasteful runner in navy and silver cushioned the dark hardwood, and the walls were adorned with an orderly arrangement of family photographs - some quite ancient, if their sepia colour gave anything away. As I ambled past them, I espied a number of dark-skinned ladies and gentleman posed in elegant beaded gowns and turbans, alongside photos of typically pale, dour Englishmen and women. Where Boko's many jumbles of houseplants stood in mismatched pots, crowding every room, this fellow had opted for a single bromeliad perched in a corner beneath the front window. And, as I was led into the open kitchen/dining area down the hall, a layered, aromatic, positively scrumptious fragrance greeted my nose.
'You have a lovely home,' I declared, mouth watering at the delectable smell.
'Thank you, Mr Wooster. It is small, but I find it suits me quite well. Please have a seat.' He gestured to the onyx-topped kitchen island, where I plopped myself down upon a cushioned stool. 'So, who's Reginald Jeeves when he's not at home, then?' I asked, enjoying his graceful movements as he removed his coat and set about preparing our refreshment.
'I am a solicitor. I work in a number of specialities, though the bulk of my experience is in property and family law,' he told me, deftly spooning a measured batch of Darjeeling into a teapot inlaid with an intricate floral pattern.
'A-ha, I knew you had to be something unequivocally smart. Certainly not in PR or politics, eh?'
'Not in the strictest sense, Mr Wooster,' His lips quirked again, with something of a cheeky audacity. 'However, the need for both showmanship and diplomacy presents itself often in the course of my duties.'
'And I'll bet you've smoothed your share of ruffled feathers in your time, too,' I said, taking a sugared biscuit from a cordially offered plate. 'Your sweet-talking to Mrs Rozycki was a marvel to behold.'
'You are most kind. Things done well, and with a care, exempt themselves from fear.'
'I say, that's Henry V, isn't it?' I mused through a mouthful of crumbs.
'I believe that quote was from Act I of Henry VIII.'
'Ah. One of the Henrys, at any rate. I remember chewing the scenery as Prince Hal onstage at the Farrer, way back when. In fact, Boko made a rather entertaining Hotspur, as I recall.'
'I can imagine it would have been most riveting. Do you still perform?'
'In a sense,' I shrugged. 'I've a vlog, mostly centred around music and assorted light-hearted commentaries on daily life. I earn a bit of dosh from it, though my family doesn't seem to consider it a real job.'
'Such is the lot of many an artist. The modalities may shift, but the essence of your vocation is still an illustrious one. Witty conversation and songcraft have been the enterprise of troubadors, geisha, and cabaret chanteurs alike.'
He fixed me with his dark, softly gleaming eyes. His words bolstered something in me that had too often been deflated by the suggestions of aunts and uncles to go and find an intern position in the something-or-other industry.
'Well, I rather like your take on it,' I responded, 'though sometimes I do wonder if perhaps I should take up more serious pursuits. This whole house-sitting wheeze has been spear-headed by my Aunt Dahlia, who believes I am in desperate need of some grounding.'
'And do you feel the experience has proved successful in that respect?'
'Why, absolutely! Apart from this one minor accident, things have been going swimmingly!' I lied. An impulse had suddenly raised its head, I wanted to impress this urbane gentleman with everything I had.
His noble brow crinkled ever so slightly. 'Indeed, Mr Wooster?'
'Oh yes. Perhaps I may have overcooked a breakfast here or there, set the washing machine temperature a tad high, but otherwise, smooth as silk. Which, I learned, must never be bleached.'
Something told me he wasn't buying it. My hand found the back of my neck again, and I saw his gaze drift to the impressive, multi-coloured bruise on my arm.
'Household upkeep is largely just an excersise in time management, don't you find?' I blithered, clinging onto my air of proficiency.
'Yes, it is.'
'I mean, take your own home, Mr Jeeves - it's so ordered and spotless. Borne of a skill set that any self-reliant adult should-'
Here we were interrupted by a pounding at the door. Mrs Rozycki's sturdy red fist clutched a ring of keys, and I thanked her profusely.
'This better be the only time I have to do this, Wooster,' she grumbled. 'I'm adding another fifty quid to the rent for this month.'
As she trundled off in her little Dacia hatchback, I turned to bid my new friend goodnight.
'Well, you do make a spiffing pot of tea, on top of everything else, but I'm afraid I must dash - dinner won't prepare itself.'
'You cook, Mr Wooster?' His eyebrow raised only a tenth of an inch, he was clearly trying to hold back his incredulity.
'I can boil a can of soup, if that's what you mean,' I answered lamely.
His eyes took on that appealing glow again, and he gestured in the direction of his front door. 'I've had a home-made rogan josh in my slow cooker all afternoon,' he informed me, 'and it's far too much for one. Would you care to partake?'
Ah, so that's what that tantalising aroma had been. My can of Campbell's suddenly felt far less appealing. 'Golden Girls', too, would keep.
A large helping of basmati rice bubbled away on the stove, and soon we were nestled at the kitchen island once more, sharing our feast. The tender, deeply flavoursome curry was life-restoring.
'Heavenly...' I drawled through a mouthful of juicy lamb. 'How did you do this?'
'The fundamentals of cookery are not difficult, Mr Wooster. Once a person has developed a number of simple but essential backfield skills, almost any recipe can be competently replicated.'
'I remember our food science lessons back at Eton,' I rambled. 'When the teacher saw the noxious mess that was my attempt at sweet and sour pork, she banished me from the labs permanently. I had to take French to fill my electives.
'Did those lessons agree with you any better?'
'Oui, Je peux maintenant lire Arthur Rimbaud et 'Tintin'!'
The glittering in his eyes was like full-bodied laughter.
'Perhaps a noisy classroom with a high-strung teacher was not a conducive environment for learning properly,' he suggested. 'If you wish, I could teach you a few of the basic principles this weekend.'
The prospect of spending more time with this charming neighbour, ending my dependence on preservative-laden bachelor chow, was most welcome. My stomach, full of rogan josh though it was, gave a flip of delight.
'What a corking idea! I the eager student, you the sagacious mentor. It's a date, Reggie!'
His lips formed a moue at this trial nickname.
'No good?' I frowned. 'And I suppose 'Reginald' is the name your parents use when they're being draconic...'
'How about just "Jeeves", then? I mean, I know it's a little bit public school and all, but...'
'I like it. "Jeeves" is a most succinct sobriquet, Mr Wooster.'
'Then carry on, Jeeves!'
Right then. Before I continue with my chronicles, I feel there really is a need to address some of the comments left by friends and followers on my previous blog post. May I remind my readers that the narrative herein is a true to life account of my comings and goings. This is no fantastical piece of fiction - any resemblance to persons living or dead is not coincidental. Therefore, I found the unseemly innuendo dealt out by you lot to be deeply offensive. No, I am not 'thirsting' for Jeeves. No, I will not be 'pulling' him. And frankly, the suggestion that such a respectable member of London's legal community 'sounds like a white hot stud muffin' is simply beyond the pale. Should he ever happen upon this humble corner of the web, I cannot imagine the humiliation he would feel at such a grotesque display of cyber cat-calling. I have only just cultivated his friendship and have no intention of it being dashed thanks to your insinuations.
Yes, maybe I was somewhat liberal in my descriptions of his good looks and natural grace, but the duty of the writer is to illuminate his subject matter through the art of language. If Jeeves happened to make a positive impression on me, what of it? Does it really imply that we must hie us hence to Gretna Green, sending our relatives a registry list of his and his homewares? Even if he were into blokes, he could do far better than I. Anyway, since the whole broken engagement debacle, the whole concept of romance has left a rotten taste in the Wooster mouth. The last day or so has done nothing but intensify that disgust. In the words of the lately sainted Mr Geils, love stinks.
As it happens, Jeeves made good on his promise to impart to me the basics of cookery. We spent a delightful Easter Sunday going over the fundamentals of the humble egg - boiling, scrambling, poaching etc etc. After feasting on our endeavours, accompanied by buttery toast and buckets of tea, we took a leisurely stroll through Bishop's Park, and I regaled his patient ears with tales of my fellow Drones. If he found the anecdotes excruciatingly boring (as is typical for most of the non-Drones I know), he did a jolly good job of hiding it. I spent most of the evening perusing videos of Delia, Julia and Nigella, and dreamed that night of great gooey pools of yellow and white.
The next morning saw a visit from my Aunt Dahlia. This was her weekly spot check, an inspection of the flat to see that I hadn't (yet) reduced it to tatters. I had informed Jeeves of this, and he had graciously offered to bring over some kedgeree for brunch. I was a little worried about what she would think of my helpmeet - would she insist that I somehow teach myself these culinary expertise? (Personable though she may be, Nigella is sadly unable to remind me not to leave tea towels close to burning hot-plates.) - However, my fears were allayed almost instantly. Formidable though she may be, my favourite Auntie has a definite sunny side, and a well-cooked kedgeree has always been an avenue straight to her heart. Within minutes, she and Jeeves were chewing the fat (and the smoked haddock) like old chums.
'Stellar nosh, pet,' she told him, beaming like a punter who'd cleaned up on a 100-1 dark horse. 'Haven't had kedgeree this good since old Nanny Brompton packed it in.'
'Was she the one who gave you and Father those vinyl records for Christmas? All the first run pressings of ABBA?' I asked
'Shhh, don't date me, young blister,' she hissed.
'Thank you, Mrs Travers,' Jeeves responded, 'this is an old family recipe. Mr Wooster assisted me yesterday in boiling the eggs.'
'Next week, we're starting on pasta!' I declared proudly.
My aged relative considered me for a minute. 'Kitchen's a bit haphazard, but the living room is tidy enough. Looks as if you vacuumed. Plants are still green and unwilted. And is that air freshener I smell?'
'The scent is supposed to be ocean breeze, but it puts me in mind of that hot summer day when Angela put your bath salts into her super soaker.'
'I'm impressed, young blot. I only hope you can keep this up. Help me clear the table and show Auntie how efficiently you can stack the dishwasher. Please excuse us, Jeeves.'
Here she yanked me into the kitchen, balancing the crockery in her other hand. She then rounded on me, a slightly crusaderish glint in her eye. Her manicured fingers clutched at my shoulders and I braced myself.
'I. Love. Him.'
I blinked. 'Come again, aged a.?'
'He's just what the doctor ordered! Well-mannered, gorgeous, and SUCH an influence on you! When are you going to ask him out?'
If it wasn't one aunt threatening to pair me off with some unsuspecting victim, it was another. I am beginning to suspect it is a contractual obligation for them. I wrestled out of her grip, casting all of my energy into rinsing out the bowls and teacups.
'Oh honestly. Can't you find some other nephew to meddle with? I hear Claude and Eustace have been issued with their second formal disciplinary warning for the semester.' I scoured a piece of desiccated parsley into submission.
'But Bertie, he's perfect for you! Nab him while you can! You won't be a winsome blonde twink forever, you know.'
I dropped the sponge into the sink and faced her, hands squarely on hips. 'Even if Jeeves were remotely attainable, I am quite happy in my gay bachelorhood for the nonce, thank you. After having my heart julienned by Ginger, I'd rather just stick with dating myself for a good long while. Must I join a monastery before you'll let this go?'
'At least you'd be meeting plenty of single men,' she mumbled.
To my great relief the doorbell chimed. While most of the flat had been faring alright under my watchful eye, I had noticed a recent change in Hadrian, one of Boko's more vivid pet fish. The poor thing had become listless and sluggish, barely bothered by my daily sprinkling of food flakes. While his tank-mates had darted up to the surface of the water to gorge, this little blighter had remained secluded in the ceramic castle, blooping slow, maudlin bubbles. Given that I had but little experience in the finer points of aquatic animal care, I had enlisted the help of the prime chap to call on in times of piscine peril: my fellow Drone and lover of all things wet and slimy, Gussie Fink-Nottle.
'What ho, Bertie,' Gussie wheezed, loping in and dropping his London Amphibian Fanciers Society backpack to the floor. The old fruit lives out in Greenford with his mother, and the two separate buses he'd had to catch to get here had clearly taken a toll on his spirits. True, Gussie is never a live wire at the best of times, but even so, his outlook clearly needed a nudge toward the buoyant.
'Let me pour you a good strong coffee, old thing. Once you've got the spring back in your step we can take a look at the tank.'
Gussie looked positively scandalised, glaring at me through his thick lenses. 'Caffiene? I think not, Bertie! Haven't you got any chammomile tea?'
'Will orange juice do?' I offered feebly.
He sighed, and trudged after me into the kitchen.
Standing back a respectful distance, I let Gussie do his thing. For some long moments he squatted before the tank, gazing languidly in at the drooping invalid as he flopped his fins. The occasional sip of orange juice was the only movement. Aunt Dahlia and Jeeves stood beside me, watching the master at work.
'So what do you think?' Aunt Dahlia urged.
'Don't rush him, Auntie, he's thinking. I've seen him do this dozens of times, with everything from huffy hermit crabs to apopleptic axolotls. He's the aquarium whisperer.'
Without any warning, Gussie let rip with a heart-stopping wail of agony, which sent most of the tetras and swordtails darting for cover behind the nearest water fern. I nearly dropped my second cup of coffee.
'Oh, why do the gods torment me so?' He cried. 'Why must this spectre haunt me wherever I go!?' I was half-convinced he was about to either burst into song or rend his clothes.
'Good God man, whatever's the matter?' I demanded.
He fixed me with that hangdog bespectacled mug, and sadly announced: 'What plagues little Hadrian is the same ailment that has beleaguered myself. He is languishing in love!'
Hadrian is a gourami, and the only one of his kind in Boko's tank. Hardier than an angelfish and friendlier than an anglerfish, he tends to be avoided by the smaller members of the shoal. While gourami can as a rule be a little testy, the impression I had gotten of Hadrian was that of a perfect gentlefish who wouldn't hurt a guppy. When Gussie pointed out his isolation to me, my heart lurched. I shot off a quick email to Boko outlining Gussie's suggestion: a lady gourami might be the ticket to cure the old boy's malaise. As much as I hated to admit it, maybe this was one case in which matchmaking was the answer.
We repaired to the kitchen once more, and I graciously poured Gussie a second orange juice.
'So, dear chum, give us the particulars. How did cupid manage to ruffle your feathers so?'
'Oh...' Gussie pined, 'she's even more beautiful now than she was at school. A veritable moorish idol swimming with common platies. Gentler than a white cloud minnow, more delicate than a damselfish. And yet, how could she ever possibly notice THIS frog-faced fool?'
'You don't have a face like a frog!' I asserted. I decided against telling Gussie that he more resembles a halibut instead.
'Who is this lass? You didn't watch 'The Little Mermaid' and get carried away, did you?' Aunt Dahlia prompted.
Gussie sniffled. 'Madeline Bassett.'
I almost choked on my coffee. 'THE Madeline Bassett? The same girl who says good morning to the flowers and once asked me if I didn't fancy the song of the nightingale to be Mother Nature's lullaby?'
'She has such a poetic soul.'
Oh, do I know little Madeline Bassett. Old alumnus of St George's and one of Angela's closest friends. Blonde, blue eyed and five foot nothing, Madeline is a very sweet girl. Very, very sweet. The last time I spoke with her, I ended up with three huge cavities. Still, credit where credit's due, the syrupy little thing volunteers at Battersea Dogs & Cats Home. (However, Angela tells me that the inmates often tire quickly of Madeline's attentions, scrambling to get away from her cloying embrace. Ah, good intentions.)
'I bumped into her the other day at Gunnersbury Park,' Gussie continued. 'Her little pomeranian was trying to pick a fight with one of the beefier swans, so I chased the damned thing away by waving my anorak at it. Unfortunately, the bloody bird took it as a challenge, and charged at me. It took forever to fend it off, look at what it did to my leg!' Here he lifted up his jeans, showing a swathe of vicious bite marks covering the pasty appendage.
'I was so embarrassed, I didn't dare to look her in the face. Instead I slunk back home and spent the rest of the day updating my newts' instagram accounts. Oh, she must think I'm such a loser!'
In response, I delivered my honest appraisal of Madeline's character to him, hoping that I could ease his heartache by taking some of the shine off the apple of his e. However, he merely narrowed his eyes at me, as if I were a house fly that he intended to swat and feed to his newts. And possibly Instagram the whole grisly thing.
It was then that we heard the sound of Jeeves clearing his throat - a delicate lilt that put me in mind of a singularly polite chamois coughing on a mouthful of Pyreneesian dandelions.
'May I suggest a solution, sirs and madam?'
'Suggest away, Jeeves!' I bid him. Given his expertise in delicate personal matters, I felt confident he had a corker up his sleeve.
'Given that Mr Wooster has mentioned his familiarity with the young lady, it occurs to me that he would be the perfect advocate to sing Mr Fink-Nottle's praises. Is there any particular interest she has that could be addressed favourably?'
'Apart from collecting Hello Kitty paraphenalia and squealing over assorted pop idols with Angela, she's terribly fond of animals,' I advised.
'Then we have a superlative subject,' Jeeves announced. 'Assuming Ms Bassett enjoys sentimental love stories, it would be wise to play up the elements of Hadrian's dilemma pertaining to coupling the animal with a romantic partner.'
'Bertie,' Aunt Dahlia decreed, 'Angela's going out for afternoon tea with her old school chums tomorrow. Why not invite yourself along and talk up your little friend? He looks like he could use a date.'
Gussie made to defend himself from this rather blunt criticism, then slumped down into his orange juice once more. 'I really could, you know.'
Even given my foul track record with the tender pash, Gussie's downheartedness had struck a chivalrous chord in me. A friend in need is an f. i., and all that. I would bravely bear talk of hearts and roses, fluffy bunnies and Justin Bieber - for the sake of the Wooster honour. 'Gussie,' I asserted, 'you can count on me. I'll see Madeline Bassett clinging to you like wet silk before the week is out!'
I have looked true sadness in the face, and it comes in the form of macrobiotic kale.
As it happens, when Bobbie Wickham loosened the lid to the salt shaker, it resulted in something of a blessing in disguise. The mountain of pink Himalayan crystals that ended up on my plate spared me from having to ingest the gluten-free veggie fritters that I had been dreading. While my ego took a licking, my imagination was free to rove to visions of double bacon cheeseburgers.
Bobbie let out a howl of laughter that caught the attention of the surrounding tables, and Stiffy Byng provided the back-up vocals. 'Honestly, Bertie,' she guffawed with streaming eyes, 'you're hopeless! You wouldn't have lasted two seconds at St George's!'
'Good thing I'm not a girl, then,' I muttered.
'Well, I wouldn't say that,' Bobbie retorted.
Florence's gaze snapped up from her cup of fair-trade kombucha. 'Bobbie! Is that a micro-aggression towards Bertie's sexuality? Easy mark or not, that does not give you the right to conflate men-who-love-men with notions of diminished masculinity!'
'Oh Flo, he knows I'm only joshing,' Bobbie reassured her, giving my shoulder a rough nudge (by the by, Bobbie happens to be a five-time finalist in ladies' amateur singles tournaments - the business end of her racquet arm is a fearsome weapon indeed).
The cafe we were patronising was one of those hipster joints in Shoreditch, and one of Florence's natural habitats. Upon hearing of the extensive vegan menu, Madeline had been most keen to visit.
'This quinoa and spinach salad is scrumptious,' she announced. 'We should all come here regularly!'
'And bring extra sick bags,' Angela grumbled in my ear as she pushed some feeble-looking sprouts around her plate. It seemed unanimous - a munitious trip to Mickey D's would be in order later that evening.
'So, Madeline, what's up with you then, old thing?' I asked her, sipping at my thankfully decent earl grey. 'Anything exciting happening at Battersea?'
She batted her baby blues at me. 'Oh, we had the most darling litter of ragdolls come in last week. One little angel became quite attached to me - he nuzzled me with his dear little nose and cried so despondently when I left.'
This made much more sense to me when Angela explained that ragdolls were in fact a cat breed. For a moment, I was worried that little Maddie had suffered some brand of Toy Story-esque delirium.
'Indeed! Well, speaking of yearning animals,' I segued, 'I myself had a little trouble with one of Boko's fishes yesterday.'
Madeline put a hand to her heart. 'Oh, no! Please don't tell me the poor thing went to fishie heaven!'
'No, no, no, nothing so morbid,' I assured her, 'little Hadrian the gourami is just feeling a bit lonely. None of the other fishes will let him join in any fishie games, you see.'
'Just like The Ugly Duckling,' Madeline sighed. Far be it for me to correct a lady on her knowledge of make-believe animals. Besides, Florence would probably chide me for man-splaining.
'Oh yes, most tragic. But all is not lost. What Hadrian is lacking is the sweet rapture of romance. I was advised to play matchmaker and find a lady fish for him to lavish his affections on.'
Madeline's face lit up as Florence mumbled something about enforced heteronormativity.
'How exciting, Bertie! Will you let me come along to help you pick out his sweetheart?'
'Of course I shall, dear girl. Let's make a day of it! Say, I hope you don't mind - but the fellow who advised me on Hadrian's welfare will be joining us to dispense his expert advice. I really cannot do without him - after all, if it weren't for his prowess in tending to aquatic creatures, poor Hadrian would be doomed to suffer. I hope you don't mind?'
Madeline was right where I wanted her - positively suffused with admiration. 'Oh, please do Bertie, he sounds absolutely splendid. I would love to meet him! Who is he?'
I let it drop. 'D'you know of my chum Gussie Fink-Nottle?'
Given Gussie's embarrassing encounter with the swan, I would not have been surprised if Madeline had deflated with a touch of dismay, as if to suggest: 'that nincompoop!?' What I didn't expect was for her round, cherubic face to falter, then completely fall, a Hello Kitty embroidered hanky to meet her eyes, and a high-pitched whimper of a sob to escape the poor girl. After a long and awkward moment, she excused herself to the ladies' room, crying all the way. Angela shot me an Aunt-Dahlia-worthy death glare, then leapt up from her seat and ran to Madeline's aid. The other ladies at the table also seemed to agree that this reaction was my fault, and I am still surprised that I did not implode under the pressure of their collective outrage.
I don't care what any Casanova thinks - all I can say is love stinks!
On the train home from the cafe, I sent a fittingly grovelling text to Angela, apologising for upsetting Madeline and asking if there was anything I could do. While it was clear that Gussie was the inspiration behind the poor girl's outburst, the only response Angela could wring out of her was a series of whimpers, squeaks and general blubbering. Well, so much for Cupid. As I tucked myself into bed that night, I decided to cut my losses and break the news to Gussie. Of course, a ready supply of pizza, orange juice and chummy consolations would need to be at the ready for the dreaded moment when I tore his hopes asunder.
Given the alleged 'delicate temperaments' of the old boy's newts, Gussie seldom took kindly to fellow Drones popping by his (mother's) place. I invited him once again to the flat, ostensibly to check up on Hadrian and perhaps share a game or two on the old Wii U I'd schlepped (nicked) from Brinkley Court. After scrutinising Hadrian's continued ennui, I allowed him to thrash me soundly at Smash Bros - only fair, considering what shape the poor sod's heart was in not fifteen minutes later. When I reluctantly informed him of Madeline's response to his name, even the pot plants began to wilt under the weight of his misery. From his lonely corner in the fish tank, Hadrian blooped a few sympathetic bubbles.
'Think about it this way, old thing,' I ventured, resting a hand on Gussie's drooping shoulder. 'The wretched pain of rejection will pass, and at length forge you into a stronger, more resilient Gussie Fink-Nottle. Why, just look at my situation. Mere months ago I was given the bum's rush, my engagement ring sinking into the mud at the bottom of the Thames. And now look at me!'
'Alone, at loose ends, living vicariously through others and blogging about housework,' Gussie sniffled bitterly.
'Well... yes, but I'm independent! Accepting new challenges!'
'You've also gained at least five pounds.'
I contemplated adding a good splash of vodka to my orange juice.
Calling in the cavalry didn't seem to offer any greater comfort. As soon as our fellow Drones arrived and parked themselves on the sofa, the conversation directly launched into all manner of relationship woes. Tuppy harped on about his latest fight with Angela - something about her new poncho resembling a sad pancake. Bingo obliviously waxed poetic on his infatuation de l'heure, yet another Australian barmaid from his local. And Stinker Pinker, bless him, confessed to me his misgivings about his beloved Stiffy's latest scheme.
'She wants me to increase my social media presence, Bertie,' Stinker confessed. 'Said that the parishioners of today must be won over by God's love via clever tweets and topical hashtags. You know how hopeless I am at this stuff! I mean, granted, St. Grenville's has got its own Facebook page now, but the website hasn't been updated since 2007.' (Like Boko, Stinker is an anomalous working Drone who is a pillar of the community - namely as the new vicar of St Grenville's in Chiswick.)
'She insists that half of the drawcard for people to attend my sermons is my youth - the next youngest vicar in the area is expecting his second grandchild in August. But I wouldn't know what to do with an online platform, even if it came up and shook me by the hand.'
'Stinker, my man, you have come to the right place,' I announced. 'I am quite happy to show you the ropes when it comes to the wonderful world of the interwebs. I can help you spruce up your accounts and give you pointers on your content. We can showcase all the best St. Grenville's has to offer, and win you followers like stray lambs joining the flock - you shall be the media-savvy shepherd leading them beside the still waters. Or streaming video, as it were. It'll be fun!'
Before I could even introduce Stinker to the wonders of a basic RSS feed, the doorbell chimed. The lads all perked up, no doubt the gargantuan stack of pizzas had arrived (I myself had ordered a small spinach and ricotta calzone with a side salad). After collecting shares of cash from each hungry Drone, I made my way to the door - perhaps hauling the pile of boxes in would assist in building my muscle tone. However, instead of a delivery boy groaning under a mountain of carbohydrates, standing on the porch was none other than the dainty form of one Madeline Bassett.
'Oh Bertie, I hope I'm not interrupting anything,' she squeaked, 'but I really wanted to speak with you in person. I'm ever so sorry for my silly display the other day.' The dear girl rested her tiny hand on my wrist, and her sugary perfume suddenly saturated my sinuses. 'But you see, there is a sweet and piercing agony that even now torments my very soul. I did not have the presence of mind to explain myself at the cafe, but Bertie, you are such a kind boy - I feel I can trust you with one of my most painful secrets.'
I would have insisted she come sit down while I made her a bracing cup of Darjeeling, however I was certain her presence would have caused no little anguish amongst my lonely hearts club. I had to make do with plopping her down on the wooden stool in the front hall, beseeching her to tell all in my gentlest tones.
'I'm afraid that what I'm about to tell you will make me seem like the most loutish brute that ever trod upon English soil,' she began, clutching a fist to her chest, 'but confessing my sin will hopefully pave the way for my redemption.' She sighed, centering herself. Her long, mascaraed lashes swept down against her cheeks.
'Earlier this week, I was out walking Piglet in Gunnersbury Park - she does love frolicking with all the darling little squirrels so. When we came to the Round Pond, Piglet crossed paths with a swan. She started bouncing and yipping, excited to make a new friend, but I think her gesture was misinterpreted - the swan was quite grumpy and he began to snap at my poor little darling. I tried to rescue her, but the swan then began charging at me, flapping his wings and making the most terrible noise.'
'My dear Madeline!' I ejaculated, 'what a horrid fright you must have gotten!'
'Oh yes,' she quivered, her eyes huge and glassy, 'but then HE showed up!'
'Oh,' she cried, her voice ascending into a register that Mariah Carey could only aspire to, 'you should have seen him, Bertie! He came bounding up to us, brandishing his anorak about him like a matador's cape, leading the beast away from Piglet and myself. For his trouble, he was roundly assaulted, his trousers ripped into by a sharp and merciless beak. In the end he was tripped up and went plummeting into the pond with a great splash!'
I'm afraid to say I could no longer contain my laughter. The image Madeline had evoked of Gussie's lumbering, gangly form being chased and molested by irate waterfowl was the funniest thing since the fusion of cat photos and poorly spelled captions. I shrieked with glee, my shoulders shaking and my stomach aching. 'What a poop!' I declared.
'BERTIE!' Madeline suddenly barked, her little features turning dark and severe. 'I am so cross with you! How dare you ridicule your brave and chivalrous friend!'
Here she burst into tears, her Hello Kitty hanky making a reappearance. 'It was all my fault. I was so ashamed that I ran off without even stopping to thank him or pull him out of the water. He was my gallant knight in shining armour, and I couldn't do anything to make it up to him! I can only imagine what he must think of me, ingrate that I am!'
The waterworks escalated to full force, and I knelt before the poor snivelling creature to offer a penitent hug.
'Bertie, what on earth is going on out here? Where's the pizz-'
Gussie stood in the doorway to the hall.
Upon encountering our embrace, his jaw proceeded to bungee jump down to his chest, and his face took on a hue not dissimilar to the pallid ecru of the wall behind him. His bespectacled eyes bore into me.
'Wooster,' he rumbled dangerously, 'a word outside.'
I had lighted but one foot upon the porch when Gussie launched into an impassioned onslaught. He startled a passing group of schoolgirls and one rather jittery magpie.
'I see how it is! Swooping in on the girl I love after she rejects me to take her for yourself! You're a snake, Bertie Wooster!'
'Gussie, old boy, you've got it all wrong. It was just a friendly hug,' I insisted, as I kept him safely at arm's length. 'Madeline's a sweet girl, but not my type at all. Not tall, dark or handsome enough, for one thing.'
'Oh, as if THAT matters!' He exclaimed, a gob of spittle landing on my new Timon & Pumbaa t-shirt. 'Ginger left YOU for a woman!'
At this point, Madeline and the Drones were drawn out to the doorway to observe the carnage. I could have sworn I saw a few of the lads placing bets.
'Ginger's bisexual, Gussie. I'm much further up the Kinsey scale than he ever was. I wouldn't even know how to compromise Madeline's honour.'
'How about I compromise your head by smashing it against Boko's ornamental trellis!?'
'Gussie Fink-Nottle, look here!' I intoned, evoking the gravitas of my forbears at Agincourt. 'You want proof of my disinterest in Madeline?'
I grabbed Catsmeat (who had been leaning against the front windowsill with a look of bloodlust in his eyes), wrapped my arm about his waist and dipped him into a fiery kiss, as if I had just come home from the war. The Drones made a racket of cat-calls. I was sure it would take a while to live this one down, but at least it would cement my innocent intentions towards Madeline. Thank goodness we live in such an enlightened age - had I kissed someone like that a hundred years ago, I probably would've ended up engaged to them or something.
'Sorry about that, Catsmeat, old fruit,' I apologised as I let him up. 'Had to prove a point.'
To be honest, he didn't look that put out. 'Any time, Bertie!' He purred, giving me a smack on the bum for good measure.
Gussie's rampage had fizzled out in response to this display, his usual hangdog expression back in place. 'Alright, point made,' he grumbled.
I felt Madeline brush past my shoulder, approaching Gussie with timid steps.
'Thank you, Mr Fink-Nottle, for trying to defend my honour,' she said, batting her mascara at him, 'but there really was no need. Bertie's just a friend. After all, I do hate to put you out after all of that... that...'
Here, her tinkly sylph's tones were droned out by the roars and sputters of a worn-out Anglia pulling up to the kerb. A commotion went up as the long awaited delivery boy clomped up to the flat, our greasy repast in his clutches. Madeline quickly stole away, the nerve she'd collected to acclaim her noble protector gone up in smoke. Well, gone up in the exhaust fumes that wheezed their way out of the delivery boy's car, actually.
The salt of Gussie's tears seasoned his double pepperoni, and I ached for him.
The offices of Seppings & Jeeves Solicitors are nestled in within a quaint, tidy lane just off Fleet St, handy to Blackfriars station and commanding a pleasing glimpse of the river (just behind the alleyway it mostly looks out over). It was to this respectable establishment I wended my way, arriving just on 1pm. The Fink-Nottle affair had sunk to a depth that I was unable to salvage it from, and I had asked Jeeves whether I may bend his ear during a free hour that day. The good man was quite happy to slot me in over lunch - but only in the role of a supportive chum, mind you. I would never clog up his precious workload, nor the lower courts, with a matter such as this. It was only his keen wisdom on the psychology of the individual that I craved.
'What ho,' I hailed breezily to the receptionist. 'Reginald Jeeves in, by any chance?'
She examined me, her eyes raking over my brightly coloured backpack and graphic print hoodie. She had a distinct air of aunt about her. 'Do you have an appointment, young man?' I could hear that she was making an honest attempt to keep the sarcasm out of her tone.
'Oh no, not me. I'm just a pal, meeting him for lunch. Bertie Wooster.' I flashed her my most debonair grin.
'Mr Jeeves is currently in a meeting with a group of very important clients,' she monotoned at me, unimpressed. 'He'll be out once he's finalised proceedings with them.'
'Oh, no bother, happy to wait.'
I flopped onto one of the chic armchairs nearby, and at length settled into a few rounds of Angry Birds. In my peripheral vision, I caught the receptionist's occasional you-are-trying-my-patience-you-young-blister glare. Perhaps I may not have been of the same calibre as her usual visitors, but couldn't she have saved her energy to glower at her own nephews?
About twenty minutes later, one of the panelled office doors clicked its way open. Out stampeded a pack of gruff, paunchy businessmen, dressed in boxy suits that looked nigh-identical, right down to the yellow-gold cufflinks. They performed a round of handshakes and spirited back thumps, before one fellow suggested lunch at Coq D'Argent. The receptionist farewelled them politely and was entirely ignored.
Then emerged from the same office a most delightful and familiar voice:
'I'm out for lunch this afternoon, Bea. If anyone calls for me please tell them to wait for my return. I'd rather not be disturbed.'
'Bit too late for that, Reg,' she replied, pointing over to me.
He turned, and his mouth was tugged up a whole inch at my déclassé demeanour.
'Good afternoon Mr Wooster,' he greeted, shaking my hand firmly. 'Would you care to join me for a meal at the Panther & Parakeet? They do a marvellous penne arrabiata which I would love for us to replicate this weekend.'
As he ushered me out, the receptionist gave a wide, enigmatic smirk.
'...So you can understand my predicament, Jeeves. Two lonely hearts are positively yearning for each other, but neither one of them has the chutzpah to get their act together. Gussie is Madeline's green light on the dock, and she is likewise his, while I'm the sorry gondolier trying to bridge the blasted gap. I'm at a total loss here.'
Jeeves took an unhurried sip of his Cabernet Sauvignon before considering me with mellow dark eyes.
'It seems to me, Mr Wooster, that the problem is a lack of confidence on the part of Mr Fink-Nottle and Ms Bassett both.'
'It certainly is. I've never seen two individuals more tongue-tied since the time my cousins Claude and Eustace were thrown before the wrath of my Aunt Agatha, for slipping their chemistry professor a roofie. But what on earth to do about these silly lovebirds?' I crunched on a contemplative crudité.
'I believe it was the poet Maya Angelou who advised us that accomplishment comes when one does the thing they love so well, that others are unable to take their eyes off them.'
This fanciful tangent gave me reason for pause. I frowned at Jeeves, holding a sliver of celery midway to my gob. 'Come now? What is this talk of the poet Maya Angelou?'
'Merely a means of illustrating my suggestion, Mr Wooster. It may behove you to engineer a situation in which Mr Fink-Nottle is immersed in an activity with which he feels self-assured. If the young gentleman is in his element, as it were, not only will his courage be bolstered, but his competence will cast him in a more glamourous light, which will further entice Ms Bassett to him.'
'I say!' I I-sayed, getting the drift of his scheme. 'You mean I should find a way to boost old Gussie, making him appear masterful and dazzling and such, and little Madeline will fall all over herself in smitten adoration for him. That's brilliant, Jeeves!' I raised my glass to the fellow's genius.
'You did mention the need to acquire a second gourami for Mr Fittleworth's aquarium?' Jeeves suggested.
'Damn it, old Boko has not yet replied to my request,' I mumbled with an eyeroll. 'I suppose the man's been busy trying to stop those Hollywood producers from turning his soft-spoken protagonist from Shropshire into a chiselled Californian demigod.'
'That is a most unsettling prospect, Mr Wooster,' Jeeves condoled me.
I stared into my salad for one brooding moment, and mercifully, an idea soon floated down from on high. 'Actually, Gussie did mention he would be at London Zoo this Saturday to see the new Chinese giant salamander exhibit. Maybe I could ask Madeline along, and arrange to accidentally "bump into" Gussie while we're there. Madeline's a soft touch, especially when it comes to all creatures great and small. If she hears him expounding upon the virtues of those remarkable beasts, she'll be all heart eyes and blushing cheeks, veritable putty in his arms.'
'A most adroit game plan, Mr Wooster. I should be gratified to hear a report on the outcome. Perhaps you may update me while we're preparing the arrabiata sauce on Sunday?'
'Very good, Jeeves!'
Gleefully, I clinked my glass with his.
Crowds of families and tourists pressed against us as we ambled up to the reptile house at London Zoo. It was a glorious day, all blue sky, birdsong and soft candyfloss clouds - it was as if Ma Nature had known I would be orchestrating a love match and obliged me to set the scene accordingly. I had asked Angela along too, filling her in on the details of my plan, also using her as something of a buffer - if Gussie were to encounter only Madeline and myself together on the outing, his paranoia about my 'designs' on his beloved may have raised its slimy head. This way, as a party of three, all was innocent fun - just two gals and their gay pal out to see some lions, tigers and amphibians.
What to say about Chinese giant salamanders? Well, they're giant salamanders which hail, I am told, from the mountain streams of China. The pair that were on display were absolutely whopping, at least five feet long if they were an inch, with beady eyes and wide gaping mouths. Apart from their considerable size, however, there didn't appear to be much to them. Lacking the majesty of big game or the entertainment value of the inmates of the monkey house, they appeared quite content to laze about in their luxurious new enclosure, staring blankly out at their audience and making the occasional sluggish swish of their tails.
'Oh, Bertie, aren't they simply marvellous?' Madeline declared. 'Such enormous, curious creatures!'
'They remind me of Daddy lounging on his chair after dinner when he's in the depths of a food coma,' Angela asided to me.
'When he's listening to his podcasts? Yes, actually, put a relaxed-fit polo shirt and a pair of loafers on that animal and it could well be Uncle Tom!' I agreed.
I tried to draw out our time in front of the display as long as possible, hoping that Gussie might approach at some point. Minutes passed without any luck. Perhaps he had chosen to postpone his visit? Surely not - rare specimens of Urodela are to Gussie Fink-Nottle the same as what chickens are to the Great Gonzo (though he has named his own favourite Zelda, not Camilla). At length, even Madeline began insisting upon moving along to the otter enclosure. With my last futile hope, I dawdled about behind my cohorts, craning my neck for a hopeful glimpse of any gangly four-eyed boffin in the vicinity. Alas, it was not to be, and I had to concede defeat, leaving the reptile house and blinking my way back into the daylight.
'Look at the photos I got of them, Angela! So much more easy to capture than the hummingbirds.' Madeline was busy scrolling through her phone, picking out her favourite snaps of the day. The aromas from the nearby kiosk caught my nose. I had abstained from refined grains and processed junk for a whole seventy-two hours, and I reasoned that it was high time I rewarded myself with a nice savoury pasty. After taking the first gratifying bite into my treat, I turned to behold something that almost caused me to drop it to the asphalt beneath.
Kneeling before an astonished Madeline, Gussie's large, spindly hands were clutching her fuschia coloured phone, hovering mere inches from the rough ground. I'd no clue where he'd stumbled out from, but the effusive thank-you Madeline was babbling at him suggested that he had once again leapt to her rescue, this time preventing the gadget from meeting its demise due to her cherubic butterfingers. Both of them were red as beets.
Gussie caught sight of the photo on her screen. 'Extraordinary animals, aren't they? Did you know they start out life only three centimetres in length?' He blurted. Not exactly a stellar pick-up line.
'Oh, how precious!' Madeline squealed. 'How I would love to see a dear little baby salamander!'
'I've successfully bred two generations of Japanese fire-bellied newts myself. Nothing is more rewarding than seeing a wee little eft - that is, a juvenile newt - take their first frisky paddle in the water.'
'How big do they grow?'
'Oh, nowhere near as large as those salamanders, but my Zelda is almost fourteen centimetres!'
I exhaled, and indulged in another large, leisurely mouthful of pasty. While the topic of newts wasn't exactly my own cup of Twining's, it seemed to weave the remarkable magic of transforming an awkward poop such as Fink-Nottle into a debonair guru, mesmerising soppy girls with a love for animals hither and yon. My silent benediction of thanks was made to the forces of nature that had given rise to all slimy, slithering beasties.
And then, from within a clump of nearby pond weeds, came an ominous hissing and flapping.
The swan stuck his oversized head out of the greenery, not two feet away from Madeline's face, and even at a distance I could see the malice glinting in his eyes. She screamed, and Gussie instinctively shielded her, bracing himself for another dignity-robbing rumble. However it seemed that the evil avian had no interest in the couple - the moment he zeroed in on me, I could feel the hairs on my neck stand on end (I suppose one could say I had swanbumps? Okay, awful I know). He flapped his way out onto the footpath, frightening the nearby families, and began waddling towards me like a bumbling velociraptor. I wondered what I might have done that could possibly have slighted this foul monster, before I realised - he wanted my pasty.
Well, I wasn't about to face my swan song for the sake of a snack food - I frantically lobbed what was left of the treat at my aggressor. Unfortunately this only served to enrage him further. It beaned him right between the eyes, and within seconds I was on the receiving end of a vicious assault from a giant hissing waterbird splattered with gravy.
I think I caught Madeline make an earnest apology to Gussie about his own ornithological ordeal, and then Gussie may have asserted that he would face a thousand swans for the sake of her happiness, but I couldn't be sure - I was being pecked and bitten and otherwise maimed. Let no man or woman alive call any soul who puts the mettle of their pasture up against these feathered demons a coward. Swan bites hurt.
In the past few weeks, no doubt, all of you will have seen That Picture. Furthermore, many of you will have seen the swarm of obnoxious captions, manipulations, and macros that have spawned from it. Well, I can tell you that I have no desire to post any of that blasted rubbish here. However, the chips have now f., the dust has now s., and I feel I am finally able to describe the fallout from its calamitous presence on the web. Perhaps, with time, Gussie may even be able to make his Twitter and Instagram public again (once a new meme comes along to divert everyone's attention, anyway). One can only hope - those newts of his seem to hunger for an audience.
I suppose it all started the day after his tête-à-tête with Madeline at the zoo. Despite my battle scars from Cygnus Horribilis, I was delighted to observe those two hapless fools finally canoodling like the leads in a rom-com. My good deeds for that weekend were not quite done, however - Stinker Pinker was to be giving a sermon at St. Grenville's the next morning. It was the duty of this Wooster to document the best of his waxing ecclesiastical and then edit it all into zesty little snippets for the church's new social media profiles. And document I did: fuelled by caffeine and the will to aid a fellow Drone, I eagerly took video clips of his most charismatic moments at the pulpit, snapped selfies with willing parishoners (including one charming old granny with a fondness for the Shaka Brah gesture), and even summarised the lesson into a spiffy little post for Facebook. Stinker's energetic but light-hearted blitherings seemed to be made just for social media. Even the video of him stumbling up the altar steps was riveting. And you know, Bible verses are just so utterly tweetable.
'It's a triumph all round, Jeeves,' I boasted as I finished off the last forkful of home-made penne arrabiata that afternoon. 'The comments and re-tweets are simply flooding in! St. Grenville's is currently the hottest church in all of West London. Winchester Cathedral wishes it could get P. R. this good.'
'I am gratified to hear it Mr Wooster,' said Jeeves as he effortlessly scrubbed the remnants of the first batch of penne from an ill-treated cookpot (I confess this was my doing - the initial attempt at boiling the pasta resulted in a rather mushy, overcooked mess). 'I presume that Reverend Pinker is happy with the feedback?'
'I didn't get a chance to bend his ear this morning, but he did send me a most encouraging collection of emojis about an hour ago.'
'Ah. To paraphrase Hans Christian Andersen: Where words fail, emojis speak.'
'Right you are, Jeeves!' I hopped up from the table and joined him in washing the dishes.
Speaking of social media, over the next few days my phone went veritably berserk with a litany of notification pings and buzzes. St. Grenville's wasn't the only one showing off its attributes - Madeline was feeding a constant spam of photos, videos, group texts and sparkling gif edits to her followers, all in the name of flaunting her new boyfriend. Fond of Gussie though I may be, my interest in seeing him sporting flower crowns and cradling Madeline's pomeranian is precisely zero. I mean, I was rightly chuffed for the beauty and her bespectacled bae, but I had to put all notifications on silent just to prevent myself developing a nervous tic.
Otherwise, the next week or so continued in a happy haze of housework and harmony. The glowing commentary kept flowing in for St. Grenville's, Gussie and Madeline wallowed in amatory bliss (if Madeline's constant posts of pet names and love song playlists were anything to go by), Jeeves took me out shopping for dryer sheets and fabric softener, even poor Hadrian seemed a little less green around the gills. I was in the middle of planning my coverage of Stinker's next sermon when I was summoned by his girlfriend Stiffy. She bid me meet her at the Drones' favoured coffee house in Chelsea for a friendly chat.
What ho-ing me from a cozy corner table, she kindly shouted me a large latte and requested my sympathetic ear.
'Bertie, dearest, I need to address the issue of your little... contributions to St. Grenville's.'
'Oh yes, aren't they just corking, though?' I raptured. 'I'm particularly proud of the photo I managed to snap of Stinker dropping the hymnal on his foot.'
My chuckle died as I took in the doleful, patient frown on Stiffy's face. 'Oh Bertie. Dear sweet simple Bertie. I'm afraid this just won't do.'
She considered me for a moment. 'Your rather charming videos and blog posts are all well and good, but they're just a tad...' here she hissed an inhale of breath, 'frivolous. Aren't they, darling?'
I had to concede to that. 'You could say they're light-hearted,' I shrugged.
A tight, brief smile. 'Well. That sort of tone is fine for novelty content, but I have to say that Harold's public image carries a bit more gravitas than yours. If he hopes to become a bishop one day, we can hardly afford to have him become a laughingstock to his own parish.'
I could see where she was going, and I could feel my heart deflate a little. 'But doesn't it say in Genesis that God has made laughter for me?' (Just a side note, I won a school prize for scripture knowledge as a rugrat - I require no vicar to edify me on bible verses.)
Stiffy crossed her arms. 'That may be, but I can't afford to have you jeopardise Harold's future by making a record of his pratfalls. I've hired a consulting group to revamp the church's social media platforms. Your services will no longer be required.'
I tried to put up a protest, but to no avail. Though a charming and elegant lass, Stiffy Byng is also a woman of iron will, unassailable by pleas, overtures, or oh-come-nows. The finality of her verdict was like a punch to the gut. I'd had an absolute blast of a time crafting St. Grenville's new public image, and Stinker himself seemed to have been pleased with my handiwork. To have this project snatched out from under me was a disappointment to say the least, but in all fairness, Stiffy's assessment was a valid one. In hindsight, I have to say that a chap responsible for a video entitled 'Singing "Fascinatin' Rhythm" On Helium' probably shouldn't be trusted to recount a lesson on The Book of Job.
Now, I want to make one thing positively crystal clear with all of you. Stiffy was most certainly NOT the source of That Picture. Yes, she was one of many who retweeted it after its release - one must forgive one's chums these things - but the anonymous source whereof it sprung a few days after this is still a dashed mystery. Stiffy's bark is far worse than her bite, and when it comes down to it, she's really just a fluffy bunny of a pippin of a dear little thing.
And furthermore, if anyone dares to reiterate that hideous, libelous rumour that she coerced me into quitting my St. Grenville's gig by threatening to release That Picture... well, I have half a mind to hog-tie any such blighter and leave him out as prey for my Aunt Agatha. Honestly - to bandy a good woman's name about in such a fashion is the very whatsit of villainy. Anyway, That Picture was uploaded regardless - to what possible benefit of Stiffy's? The nerve of some people. I am starting to see what they mean about the trolls that plague the internet.
The dreaded morning of That Picture's release saw me hunched over Jeeves' kitchen island, phone in hand, half-asleep over my cup of Darjeeling. Scrolling through my feed on auto-pilot, only half reading the various frivolities and ramblings of my fellow Drones, I was quite ill-prepared for the shock. Upon my first sighting of the cursed image, I sprayed a geyser of sugary tea all over my pineapple-patterned tank top.
'Are you quite alright, Mr Wooster?' Jeeves asked, reaching for the kitchen towels. Still spluttering, I showed him my phone.
For those of you living under rocks, yet to have seen it, you shall have to make do with a written description: An over-exposed photograph of Gussie Fink-Nottle, spectacles skewiff and face baboon-bottom red, reaching his ungainly hand right up Bobbie Wickham's skirt.
'Good heavens,' was my friend's evaluation, his noble brow raised a whole one-and-a-half inches.
I nodded in stunned assent.
'I would not have taken Mr Fink-Nottle as the kind of man prone to such lecherous behaviour,' Jeeves remarked sadly.
'He isn't. You recall that this chap shook in his boots at the prospect of approaching Madeline - the veritable human embodiment of fluffiness.' I cast my eye over the hideous photo once more. 'Poor Maddie's going to be heartbroken.'
'How do you suppose such a compromising situation may have come about?' Jeeves' tone here was a little more inquisitive than rhetorical. If I listened very closely, I could almost hear those gears in his marvellous head begin to grind.
I scoured my memory for any plausible data. I had to go quite far back, even to my pre-breakup days. When I stumbled upon old visions of Ginger escorting me to various Drones parties and outings, his solid hand upon the small of my back, I allowed myself a morsel of sorrow before pushing onward.
'Ah,' I piped up finally, the proverbial light-bulb pinging on. 'Gussie's 25th birthday last year. We planned a surprise party at his Mum's place in Greenford. While he appreciated the sentiment, the old boy was less than pleased at the execution. Apparently one of his newts still has PTSD from the whole thing. You see, Jeeves, it was this event that made him pass the ultimatum not to have gatherings there anymore. I think a few of the little buggers even escaped their tanks to get away from the noise.'
'Oh, indeed. Gussie has often told me of the the penchant that his Japanese fire-bellies have for being mini Steve McQueens.'
Jeeves took a long, ponderous sip of tea, then fixed me with his keen dark eyes.
'Do you suppose, Mr Wooster, that the animals may have scurried to the first apparently safe hiding places they could find? Such as behind furniture? Or underneath an obliging length of cloth?...'
It dawned on me what he was getting at. Perhaps Bobbie Wickham's unsuspecting leg had seemed like a sheltering perch to a panicked newt.
'I say! What a turn of events! But what malicious cad would dare to photograph such a compromising moment, and then capitalise on it out of context? I mean, I can recall many such mortifying incidents from my own past, most of which having been mercifully undocumented. I can only imagine the dank hole to which I would wish to retreat were they to be shared with the world.'
'The person responsible is most certainly unprincipled, Mr Wooster,' Jeeves agreed gravely.
'Well, no matter about that now,' I declared, my courage mounting with occasion. 'We much vouch for Gussie's innocence somehow. Too much blood, sweat and tears were spent in coaxing those two timid lovebirds together. I don't suppose you might help me cook something up?'
'I am at your service. However, you may wish to consider changing out of that... soiled garment first.'
I considered my sodden tank top, the cheerful fuchsia pineapples now stained brownish. A cursory scrub with a dishcloth did no good. 'Out, damned spot! I think I read somewhere that vinegar does the trick.'
He held out a plastic bag, awaiting my doffing of the damp shirt with what seemed like impatience.
'In the mean time, I would suggest changing into your fitted Burberry button-up with the blue herringbone tick. It brings out the colour in your eyes far better.'
'Oh, very well, Jeeves.'
As a key player in the Bassett-Fink-Nottle affair, as well as a veteran of the jilted lovers club, I was charged by Angela to come to Madeline's aid with supplies of Häagen-Dazs and sympathy. Knowing their restorative properties for a wounded heart, I threw in a packet of Jaffa cakes to boot. I did try to gently suggest that perhaps the whole thing had been an innocent misunderstanding, for which I was bombarded by a blitzkrieg of shrill female reproach. And after seeing the things Angela had posted about Bobbie Wickham's honour (or lack thereof), I dared not raise the issue again. Three Disney films and four pots of tea later, we left Madeline's place, my shoulder smeared with runny mascara and my mind addled by turmoil. Gussie and Madeline, two of nature's greatest drips, were surely made for one another. For them not to be together seemed the worst sort of abomination, like springtime without Wordsworth's beloved daffodils or Take That sans Robbie. But how on earth to untangle such a terrible mess?
The next Sunday was thankfully bright and cheery - and resplendent with daffodils. Basking in a sun-drenched kitchen, Jeeves and I prepared a crisp selection of salads together. Aunt Dahlia would be taking ourselves and Angela to visit one of her friends that afternoon, and she was keen to show off her new and improved Nephew 2.0. At Jeeves' behest I had assembled a respectable smart-casual ensemble, pairing navy jeans with a slim fit cardigan. Not my usual style - I felt like I was but one hipster moustache short of resembling the head of a trendy health foods startup.
'Step lively, lads,' Aunt Dahlia commanded, helping us pack a number of full-to-bursting tupperware containers into cooler bags. 'I don't want to be too fashionably late. Lydia's considering throwing some dosh into the pot for Market Snodsbury. The Headmistress is most keen to get those shoddy graffitied science textbooks replaced. About time, too - I hear some of them still list Pluto as a planet.'
'Would that be Mrs Lydia Fink-Nottle of the Greenford Fink-Nottles, Mrs Travers?' Jeeves inquired.
'That's the baby,' my aunt confirmed. 'She also mentioned that she's rather worried for that son of hers. Hasn't left the house in over a week, she says. No wonder little Maddie broke it off with him so quickly. Hopefully seeing how well Bertie's doing now might shake him out of it. You'll give him a good pep talk, won't you poppet?'
'You bet I will!' I exclaimed. I'd not realised we were to visit Maison Newt, and I was determined not to waste the opportunity to try and sort things out. I gave Jeeves a Look before we set off in Aunt Dahlia's Mercedes-Benz.
However, one thing did puzzle me. In the backseat, I turned to my beloved coz.
'Why on earth are you coming along to visit the Fink-Nottles? I would've thought you'd recoil at the very thought of it, out of loyalty to Madeline.'
Angela slipped me a sly grin. 'Oh,' she responded, 'I just felt like visiting, is all.'
Knowing the dear girl as I do, a repugnant shiver rattled its way up my spine. Crossing Angela Travers is like wiggling one's fingers in the face of an overtired spider monkey with indigestion. Her reputation for pranks at St George's is still the stuff of legend amongst its faculty today. I suddenly found myself fearing for Gussie's safety.
I kept a watchful eye on her, and for the first hour, everything appeared to go smoothly. We assisted Mrs Fink-Nottle in setting out the luncheon, Jeeves displaying a preternatural knack for locating cutlery and flatware in an unfamiliar kitchen. Gussie was hauled out of his lair as we sat down to eat. In his newly degraded state he bore a passing resemblance to the Modern Prometheus, all shambling limbs and sunken eyes, and I was rather put off my feed. Mrs Fink-Nottle made a brutal fuss over me, and lectured Gussie on my many apparent virtues that he ought to adopt. I wonder if she would have praised me so roundly had she seen the state I was in back in March. Or even the state I had been in the previous Thursday, plastered on bourbon and belting out 'Seasons of Love' atop Bingo Little's kitchen table.
After the dishes had been cleared and coffee had been served, Angela dragged me into the front hall where her knapsack was sitting.
'You know that dodgy off-licence at the end of our street? This morning I dug through their freezer and found all the expired boxes of lemon meringue pies.' With a whatsit-eating grin, she pulled out a cooler bag and proudly showed me her stockpile. 'I did the same thing once to Cora Pirbright after she snogged Tuppy on Bonfire Night.'
I was a bit lost. 'You fed her expired pies?'
'No, pea-brain, I hid them in foot of her bed!'
After doing the sums in my head, I realised what she had in store for poor Gussie.
'Oh Angela, have some mercy. The poor chap is heartbroken.'
'Like hell he is! He should have appreciated Maddie instead of feeling up that slut Bobbie!'
'Isn't Bobbie your friend?'
'Maddie was my friend first. She lent me her crayolas in kindergarten.'
The decibel level was getting dangerously high, and I was a little concerned that we would be sprung. Lo and behold, I saw Jeeves standing in the doorway with an omniscient twinkle in his eye.
Feeling guilt grinding heavy on my conscience, I tried to explain myself to him. 'Oh Jeeves, I promise you that-'
'Forgive me for being presumptuous, Ms Travers, but perhaps you may require an accomplice in your venture? If it is amenable, I offer my assistance as your lookout.'
'Jeeves! You?' I squawked. Of all the angels to fall so far.
'Indeed, Mr Wooster. Back at school I assisted many an underdog in their quest for retribution against their bullies. Most notably was the time that Rupert Steggles stole a Game Boy off little Eustace Oates--'
'Never mind all this talk of Game Boys!' Angela barked. 'Jeeves, come along with me,' here she grabbed him by the forearm, 'and Bertie, you go and distract Newt Boy.' With her free hand she shoved me down the hallway towards the dining room, where the others sat chinwagging, none the wiser that someting was rotten in the realm of the Fink-Nottles.
A churning unease roiled at the base of my gut as I let my coffee go untouched. Til now, Jeeves had been the very paradigm of honour and ethics in my baby blues, a benchmark by which to measure the conduct of all lowly mortals. With visions of him committing cruel and unusual school pranks dancing in my head, I sadly supposed I would have to topple him from the pedestal that I had so lovingly built for him in my mind. I tried to distract myself by attempting small talk with Gussie, but he boasted all the charm and felicity of a mollusc.
Without warning, an horrendous crash came from upstairs, and Angela cried out in clear distress. With my heartbeat throbbing in my throat, I raced upstairs alongside Dahlia, Gussie and his mother, dreading what new bedlam I would discover.
At the open door to Gussie's room we came upon a tableau worthy of Otto Dix: One of the newt tanks had been upended, water seeping into the rug and all over Angela's dress. Jeeves was already scooping the scattered rocks and twigs back into the offending enclosure, but half a dozen squirming black newts were racing in all directions across the floor. A particularly robust specimen was making a beeline for the doorway where we stood, agape.
'ZELDA!' Gussie screamed.
Dropping gracelessly to his knees, he scrambled after his little darling, frantic to capture her before she made it to the hallway. She must not have recognised the loving concern of her Daddy, as she dodged every clumsy grasp of his hands.
Before anyone could stop her, she got purchase of one of Aunt Dahlia's ankle boots and started scaling her stout leg. Without stopping to even think about the consequences, Gussie's fingers made firm contact with my Auntie's thigh, finally capturing the blasted creature. For his trouble, he got a magnificent whack on the back of the head from a sturdy Amazonian hand.
Jeeves had proceeded to retrieve the other newts, plucking them out from under furniture with calm dexterity. While he was depositing them in the restored tank, I noticed Angela, frozen to the spot, still splattered with newt-water.
'Mission failure?' I asked, endeavouring not to be smug.
'The image of Gussie Fink-Nottle with his hand... up Mum's skirt... will never be bleached from my memory,' she shuddered.
'Yes,' I responded, casting an eye over the unruffled Jeeves, 'I think something similar to this happened last year at Gussie's 25th.'
This seemed to act as a tonic on Angela, as cognizance finally stole upon her face.
'Oh my God, Bertie! That photo! Bobbie was right!'
'What do you mean, "Bobbie was right?"
'She told me that Gussie was only trying to retrieve one of his bloody newts which had crawled up her leg. I didn't believe her. Oh, the things I said to her, Bertie!'
I could see the poor thing was contrite. 'Fear not, dear child. I'm sure a heartfelt apology is all that's needed. You may find yourself bearing the brunt of a few pranks in the immediate future, but once Bobbie's had a good laugh at your expense I'm sure all will be forgiven.' Angela is a robust girl and a veteran of Bobbie's shennanigans back at St George's. It's all in good fun, really.
'I've got to tell Madeline!' In a show of penitence, she began helping Gussie and Jeeves clean up the mess.
'I must apologise, Mr Fink-Nottle,' Jeeves said, as he pressed kitchen towels into the sodden carpet. 'I had heard of your impressive collection of animals from Mr Wooster and merely wished to see them. I am afraid I was most clumsy.'
'Well, no visible harm was done,' Gussie huffed, 'but I'm worried that Luigi may have had a setback in his CBT treatment.'
'If it is appropriate, I shall remunerate you for any losses,' Jeeves offered.
Gussie's face seemed to brighten at this. 'Ten quid for emotional anguish?'
'Consider it a deal.'
'Oh, Angela dear!' Came Aunt Dahlia's voice from behind us. 'I don't think you realise that these lemon meringue pies expired four months ago. Nice of you to bring dessert, darling, but perhaps we'll settle for some custard creams instead?'
'There you go, little fellow,' Gussie sing-songed, as he released the newest member of Boko's aquarium out of its plastic bag and into the cool crystal water.
'Oh, Gussie,' Madeline squeaked, her wee hands clutched to her chest in admiration. 'You are just like Dr Doolittle.'
Gussie's sallow cheeks were tinged with rose, and the two of them drifted into the kitchen to share a well-earned orange juice.
'I think we can donate that batch of red velvet cupcakes we made this morning to Gussie in thanks,' I suggested, watching the little gourami take in the splendours of its new home. 'What do you say, Jeeves?'
'A very kind gesture, Mr Wooster.'
Boko had finally replied to the email I'd sent, enthusiastically consenting to Gussie's suggestion of a new friend for Hadrian. The reunited lovebirds had taken Jeeves and I to meet a suitably boffiny fish breeder out in Hertfordshire, where Gussie carefully scanned the many shoals of gouramis before confidently choosing the perfect partner for our little friend. Madeline spent the entire trip swooning over him and taking videos of his selection process on her phone.
Hadrian emerged out of a sheaf of water plants, laying his fishie eyes on the new gourami. The two swished coyly around one another for a few apprehensive moments. And then to my surprise, the two fish came together in a firm kiss, their pouty piscine lips suddenly locked together. It looked like jolly good fun.
'I say! I've heard of love at first sight, but I never knew that fish in the privacy of tanks do it,' I declared. 'What do you suppose we should name her?'
'I beg your pardon, Mr Wooster?'
'Well, Hadrian's little woman must have a fitting name. Juliet? Guinevere? Rose Dawson? That one's suitably nautical, what?'
Jeeves offered me one of his half-smirks. 'I would suggest naming him Antinous,' he told me knowingly.
'Indeed. The gourami who habitually kiss one another are always both male.'
As I type these words, Hadrian and Antinous are still quite happily snogging, serenaded by the gentle bubbling of the aquarium filter.
Blogger's Note: The following entry contains spoilers for the plot of 'Brideshead Revisited', that most marvellous tale of Charles Ryder's memories, both scared and profane, by Evelyn Waugh. I recommend that you should jolly well read the damned thing before I can ruin the ending for you.
Like any fellow with an online presence of some consequence, there has been the odd piece of invective or catty castigation to endure. Yet, to waste one's energy on this strain of feedback seems to me the very height of foolishness - I prefer to walk on the sunny side of the s. Therefore, I should like to take a moment to thank all of you who have sent me missives of love and encouragement. Your kindness and effusive praise are always my favourite thing to scroll through over my morning Darjeeling - be sure that I return your felicitations heartily. In particular, I should love to hear back from that Canadian lass who drew inspiration from my video performance of 'Green Finch and Linnet Bird'. (FYI, she affirmed that if a tenor such as myself could sing a G5, there was hope for her own rendition of the song.) How did your audition go, old thing? I'd love to know if you landed the role of Johanna.
On that note (not a G5, you understand, I mean to say 'note' as in 'thought'), to those folks who have been worried that my recent lack of video uploads implies that I have abandoned the performing arts altogether, do rest assured that I am most definitely still a Broadway Baby (or West End Wooster, as the case may be). My trusty Roland has remained loyally by my side, bearing the mournful strains of Eponine, Fosca and Aida earlier in the year, and lately the more joyful ditties of Messrs. Gershwin, Coleman and Shaiman. (My interpretation of Motormouth Maybelle has to be seen to be believed - as soon as I feel like vlogging once more, you're all in store for a corker of a treat!)
Case in point, a few weekends ago I put on something of a concert with my more theatrically-inclined chums. They had asked if they could stop by the flat for dinner, and I made them offerings of both my newfound talents in the kitchen (with help from Jeeves, of course), as well as my most merry melodies. After we banqueted on bruschetta and braised beef, I perched at my keyboard and sang a round of buoyant duets with fellow vocalist and sultry songstress, Marion Wardour.
An honorary Drone, I did not meet Marion until after my Oxford days were over. You see, she hails from the sunny climes of Narraweena, Australia, and the warmth and ferocity of that sunburnt country is writ into the very dipthongs of her charm and her quaint vulgarity. Like so many antipodean thespians, she came to the motherland with aspirations of studying at Mountview to take the West End by storm. Unfortunately, most casting directors turned a blind eye to her talent, deeming her far too voluptuous to play any lead roles. It's all terribly unfair - Marion has a smashing voice and can act circles around any skinny kickline girl. Perhaps she's a tad too well-fed to be a convincing Fantine, but surely Elphaba would have binged on the carbs whilst cramming for tests at old Shiz U, what?
Thankfully, Marion has lately found something of a niche in the motley scene of fringe theatre, giving her the artistic freedom to participate in some truly exciting projects - even trying her hand at directing and production. Last year, her cyberpunk reinvention of 'HMS Pinafore' was a triumph. She also played the role of Little Buttercup, and I've never seen such an incandescent take on the character, half-cyborg escort or not.
We finished off our little recital with a boisterous performance of 'Schadenfreude', yours truly singing the part of Nicky, while Marion belted out Gary Coleman's lines. Catsmeat applauded wildly, though something told me that Jeeves had preferred the Rogers & Hammerstein numbers we had sung earlier. The tightness around his eyes and the stiff way he clapped, I suppose.
'Bravo. Very... colourful, Mr Wooster. Ms Wardour.'
I turned to Marion. 'Catsmeat tells me that you've got another show happening towards the end of July? Some period piece?'
'Not just any period piece, Bertie,' Marion announced nasally, 'but a whole new adaption of one of the classic English novels of our time!'
I gasped. 'You're doing "A Very Potter Musical"?'
For this I got a clip across the ear. 'No, ya bloody great nong. Catsmeat?'
Here, Catsmeat leapt up from the armchair he'd been slouched across, and with a grand splay of jazz-hands in the air, he boomed out: 'BRIIIIIDESHEEEAAAD!'
It dawned on me. 'You mean with all the wretched excess and Catholicism and whatnot?'
Marion looked ready to burst with glee. 'It's from a brilliant up-and-coming composer. The music evokes everything from Tin Pan Alley to Ralph Vaughn Williams. I'm directing, of course, and playing Julia. Catsmeat's playing Anthony Blanche.'
'It's the p-p-part I was born to p-p-play!' Catsmeat preened. No disagreement from this corner.
'It sounds like a very promising production, Ms Wardour,' Jeeves remarked. 'I am a great admirer of Evelyn Waugh's books and should be most keen to attend. Who, may I ask, shall be playing the lead roles?'
Marion's spirits sagged. 'I wish I knew. Johnny was supposed be playing Sebastian Flyte. But, well, he flew.'
For those unacquainted with the fringe musical scene here in London, you are at a marked disadvantage to never have beheld the dramatic chops of one Johnny Sang. At first glance, Johnny seems to be an unassuming sort of cove, all gangling limbs and forgettable features. Put him on a stage, however, and this odd Peking duck transforms into a blazing star. His flawless, velvety tenor is only outshone by his incredible theatrical versatility: he has mopped the stage as Raoul, Roger and Ralph Rackstraw, wooing audiences and wowing critics. I have laughed for him in 'The Producers', cried for him in 'West Side Story', and been tempted to slip him my number after a particularly impassioned performance in 'Rocky Horror'. Like Marion, he has been unofficially barred from lead roles on the West End, on the equally unjust basis of his race. Their loss, our gain, I say! And while the punters have lost their hearts to him time and time again, his own heart has been the sole property of Marion for the last five years. Therefore, the news that he would abandon a pet project of his beloved girlfriend's was baffling, indeed.
'But why on earth would he leave you in the lurch like that, dear child?' I quizzed Marion.
She crossed her solid tanned arms. 'His uncle works for 'The Independent', and got him a gig as a columnist for the theatre & dance section. He says he's too busy and the pay's too good.'
'And what was he getting paid on this show, if I may ask?'
'Starbucks gift cards. Oh, don't look at me like that, Bertie. What do you expect? It's not like we're the Really Useful Group! For 'HMS Pinafore', I had to print out all the programs at W.H. Smith! Now, we're seven weeks out from opening night, and we've got no bloody Sebastian Flyte!'
In her distress, she had fallen into verse, and I could only imagine the plaintive melody that would have accompanied her lament. 'What a shame. Is there any way I can help?' I offered, absently noodling about a B flat minor chord.
At this moment, Marion's eyes met Catsmeat's, and an ominous, almost choreographed smile crawled up both of their faces. My hands progressed to a suspenseful E diminished chord. Catsmeat then prowled towards me, and extracted from behind his back a cuddly vintage teddy bear.
'Say hello to Aloysius!'
'Oh... Catsmeat, I really don't know...' I winced, shrinking away from the offered toy, its shiny button eyes boring into mine. 'I haven't done any plays since I was at school.'
'And you were fabulous!' Catsmeat insisted. 'A bit hokey and ostentatious, but fabulous!'
'We NEED hokey and ostentatious for Sebastian,' Marion insisted.
'You're a born performer, Bertie. This is your natural habitat.' Catsmeat thrust Aloysius at my midsection.
I continued wrestling with the proposition, dreading the prospect of tripping over the set pieces, falling into the orchestra pit, or being pelted with produce by an irate audience. Regardless of my artistic assets, I think I have made it clear on this blog how frequently I am cursed by convoys of mishaps and blunders. Not something a precariously-funded theatre production can really afford to take on, if you ask me.
I ummed and ahhed a little more before turning my conundrum over to a greater power. 'Jeeves, what do you think?'
His mouth quirked a little as he considered me. 'Sebastian Flyte is a character who possesses a boyish sweetness and cheerfulness belied by private melancholy. He is whimsical and sensitive, and any actor who plays him would require both charm and authenticity in his performance. In short, Mr Wooster, you are perfect, and I would personally very much like to see you in the role.'
Well, such glowing acclaim can only inspire one to rise to a challenge. I was about to declare my assent, when Marion nudged Catsmeat: 'Show him the bloke who's playing Charles Ryder.'
Catsmeat reached into his pocket and unfolded a black and white headshot.
'Honestly Marion, there's no need to stoop to such measures,' I insisted. 'I'm not some sort of drooling imbecile who can be induced by mere... oh MY!'
Yes, he had me channelling George Takei - the chap in the photo was that good looking. The audience were all in serious danger of liquefying into one gigantic puddle of hormones - I can't imagine how Marion could manage to direct him and not constantly pass out at his peerless manly beauty.
'Esmond Haddock,' Catsmeat informed me. 'I was in 'The History Boys' with him a few years ago. He started out as an underwear model, don't you know.'
'That jawline!' I gawped. 'Those intense eyes! Those teeth, so... white and straight!'
'Unfortunately, darling, so is he,' Catsmeat intoned, 'he only agreed to do this show because he's dating my sister Cora, and she insisted. But, all the same, you still get to snog him in the first act.'
Oh, the ways in which we must suffer for our art.
'Marion, Catsmeat,' I announced, 'Say hello to Lord Sebastian Flyte.' With this I tucked Aloysius under my arm and flashed a blithe, boyish grin.
Later that week, I popped down to St. Grenville's Church Hall, finding the place already abuzz when I arrived. The cast had clumped into little groups of four or so - some of them were stretching out their quads, others were engaging in vocal warm ups, though most had diffused themselves across the plastic folding chairs that faced the small stage, sipping at cups of coffee and chin-wagging. The whole tableau took me right back to my days performing at the Farrer Theatre and the Oxford Playhouse, and a warm surge of nostalgia bubbled away in my tummy. I surmised that I had definitely made the right decision in granting Marion this boon, and savoured the new yet comfortingly familiar challenges that awaited me.
'What ho, Bertie,' came the voice of Stinker Pinker as he sauntered in from the churchyard, casually stubbing his toe on the door. 'I hear tell you're going to be Marion's new Sebastian Flyte.'
'Indeed I am,' I announced proudly. 'I say, old boy, it doesn't trouble you that we're rehearsing a play all about adulterous Catholics and homoeroticism in a place of God, does it?'
Stinker rolled his eyes at this. 'Oh Bertie, you know my church isn't like that. The thing that really irks me is the bloody cast leaving empty coffee cups and half eaten gingernuts around the place. It attracts bugs at this time of year!'
'I'll ask Marion to have a word with them,' I assured him.
'Thank you. Awful shame about Johnny Sang, wouldn't you say? He and Marion were such a lovely couple, and the chap was so perfect as Sebastian. I heard him practicing the songs from the vicarage. Voice of an angel, that one. Anyway, must dash, my sermon won't write itself. Break a leg, Bertie!'
I bumped into a rather harried-looking Marion, her directorial berserk currently in full force. I should take a moment to mention that as an Australian, Marion's language can get rather zesty when she's in this frame of mind, so for the sake of my more delicate readers I shall censor where I can.
'...Why the everloving f— was page 46 missed off the copies of the Protestant marriage quartet?? That's two dozen f—ing measures of sectarian drama that four main characters need to have word perfect by bump in! Either someone goes down to Ryman to copy that missing page or I rip everybody's b—s off! Whose a— do I have to light a fire under to get things DONE!?'
'Um, Marion?' I ventured, tapping her lightly on the shoulder. 'Stinker was wondering if you could ask the cast to clean up their-'
'I've already screamed at them about that five dozen motherf—ing times. Here,' and she dropped a bulky script and score into my arms. 'You'll be learning your songs with the MD today.' She curtly pointed over to the piano, where a frizzy-haired lady in a long dress sat, smiling at me weakly.
'Hello, young man, you must be Bertie.' Quite un-auntly, she had the air of home-made bran muffins and wind chimes about her, as well as a faint perfume of tea tree oil.
'That's me, happy to be on board.'
'I'm Mrs Rosso, the musical director. But please, dear, call me Faith. Let's begin with your opening number on page 7.'
Faith's soporific, reassuring voice was a balm after Marion's drill-sergeant shtick, and I found myself liking her instantly. I fumbled my way to page 7 of the 'Brideshead!' score and found my place. 'Champagne: Music and lyrics by Faith Rosso'
'I say! You're the composer, Faith?'
She smiled again. 'I took some time off from my teaching job to complete it. The score had been sitting in my drawer since I'd started my career as a supply teacher. I figured it was about time.'
We launched into the song, and gave Sebastian's other solo numbers a quick run-through for good measure. 'Champagne' was a tinkling light jazz number, as frothy and pert as one would expect. 'Sent Down' had a darker tone, a minor key sedition with a nod to the blues, and finally the heartbreaking 'Prodigal Son', a ballad I had to push through without getting misty-eyed, as Sebastian lamented his troubled relationship to Lady Marchmain. All in all, a spiffing crop of numbers that I was quite looking forward to wailing out for the audience.
'You've a very pretty voice, dear,' Faith assured me, ' oh, but you should have heard Johnny Sang sing these songs. Gave me goosebumps every time. When he hit that high note in "Prodigal Son", I tell you, there wasn't a dry eye in the house. Even Esmond looked a bit choked up. Speaking of which... Esmond?'
She waved daintily to someone behind me. I span round, and there he was, as if he'd swaggered straight out of a Diet Coke commerical. I had to grab the piano behind me to regain my balance. The balmy June air suddenly felt infernal. It should be an act of high treason to let blighters like Esmond Haddock walk around with their shirtsleeves rolled up and their top buttons loose.
'Let's go over Charles and Sebastian's duet, shall we? "Always Summer", page 27.'
'This is Johnny's replacement?' Esmond asked in a far-too-deep-and-rugged voice. 'You've got some big shoes to fill, mate.'
Faith patted my arm like a child who'd come last in a running race. 'Oh, I'm sure Bertie will do just fine. Claude tells me he once played Prince Hal back at the Farrer!'
Esmond smirked, and we began the duet.
Once we were a few measures in, and Esmond was crooning away in that baritone of his and looking at me like I was the light of his l., it became remarkably easy to get into the spirit of the thing. This was one of the big romantic moments of the show, Charles being enamoured of the cherubic heathen Sebastian, and the sweeping melody and dreamy lyrics illustrated their intrigue beautifully. The final few notes hung in the air, and I took the opportunity to keep on staring at Esmond.
'Of course,' Faith interjected, 'this is the moment in the show when the two of you will kiss. No need to do that right now, mind you.'
I laughed far too loud, my face feeling like a giant chili pepper. 'Oh, of course NOT! Not that I'd want to do THAT, ha-hah!'
Esmond punched my shoulder. 'It's alright mate, you can pretend I'm a page 3 girl when we do it, eh? That's how Johnny and I got through it.'
Suddenly he was way less attractive. Ah, beauty is but a vain and doubtful whatsit.
Soon after, Marion herded all of us together with a sharp whistle. 'Oi, listen up, you lot! Since Bertie's graciously stepped in after Johnny... left, we'll be running the lunch scene at Oxford first. Everyone in it, I want you up on stage pronto. The rest of you go and memorise your bloody choreo. Step lively!' She clapped her hands at us, and we obediently dispersed into our assigned groups.
'So, how's it all going?' Catsmeat asked me, pressing a friendly hand to my shoulder.
'I wish everyone would stop talking about Johnny bloody Sang,' I grumbled. 'It's not helping my confidence any.'
'Well, he was the darling of the production,' Catsmeat replied. 'Not only was he incredibly talented, but he always offered to lead the warmups, put out the chairs, and help the ensemble members with the trickier harmonies. And oh, Bertie, that high note of his in "Prodigal Son"!'
'Alright, alright!' I snapped. 'My ego is puny enough as it is!'
The scene we were rehearsing began with Charles coming up to Sebastian's rooms, having been invited for lunch with his hedonistic chums. I was sat at the table, purportedly peeling plover's eggs. The props were not quite finished yet, so I had to make do with mime. I must have looked as if I was picking at my own hangnails.
'Action!' Marion hollered.
The first line was mine, a beast of a mini-monologue about scoffing the leftover eggs and whinging about my scout being horrid to Aloysius. The script sat reassuringly before me on the table. I heard Esmond's footsteps to the side of me as he came onstage, fully in-character as the insquisitive yet cagey Charles. I stayed silent, and kept peeling imaginary eggs.
'It's your line, Bertie,' Marion hissed.
I felt her eyes lasering two holes into the crown of my lowered head.
'"I've just counted them, there are five each and two over..."' She prompted.
The hall sounded eerily silent, save for the director's agitated whispers.
You know that feeling when you can sense other's eyes upon you? It slowly dawned on me that the entire cast was watching the scene, scrutinising the stagecraft of Johnny Sang's replacement. The severe expectations of a hall full of people suddenly came crashing down upon me, and my ability to recall what I was supposed to be doing dwindled to naught. Months and months of their hard work was all of a sudden hanging on this chump whose last proper acting role had been half a decade ago, and they were not liking what they were seeing.
'SAY THE F—ING LINE, BERTIE!'
I could feel Esmond Haddock stalk up to me, arms crossed, waiting for me to deliver the goods.
I turned to face him and, stomach roiling, chundered up my breakfast onto his chorus shoes.
'Right stage direction, wrong f—ing scene,' I could hear Marion decry from below.
After depleting St. Grenville's kitchen towel supplies in extirpating my little disgrace, I apologised to Esmond profusely and promised him an open charge account at Freed of London. He grumbled something at me bearishly before joining the rest of the cast out in the church yard, where they were running through the big ship scene in Act Two.
Left to haul sopping, soiled towels off to the bins and air out the tang of springtime-lemon-and-puke, I stewed in my shame like a boozer at the confessional. Before I could sink too comfortably into my self-pity, Marion swooped down upon me and hauled me into the empty Sunday School room, whipping out two copies of the script. Given the flinty look in those shrewd bush-ranger eyes of hers, I wisely followed along like a docile jumbuck.
Reading straight off the script, without the scrutiny of my fellow cast-mates, I was able to mumble out the lines with accuracy, if nothing else. We went over one scene twice, before Marion ripped the precious book from my hands and bid me recite from memory.
'Uhm... Queer fellow, my brother. He nearly became a... Jezebel-'
'Jesuit. Right ho. Nearly became a Jesuit, don't you know and... oh, drat it...'
'Mummy....' I clicked my tongue, straining for the line to blossom in my memory. 'Mummy never told me...?' I finished lamely.
Marion brandished Aloysius out of nowhere and thrashed me soundly with him.
'Bertie Wooster, I didn't spend every weekend of my adolescence rehearsing at the Dame Nellie Melba Performing Arts Centre to have my production go arse-up thanks to you pissfarting around. You're gonna get these lines word f—ing perfect by opening night. No ifs, buts or maybes. Now pull your bloody finger out and get to memorising!' She tossed the script at my head and stormed out like a tropical cyclone.
It was an odd sort of deflated chagrin which sat on my shoulders as I trudged home that afternoon. If you've ever been proven a novice in something which you were once hailed as a maven, you'll know the damned feeling all too well. I was at a loss as to why my theatrical prowess had abandoned me so completely. True, I was bound to be a little rusty after so many years, but to go from bellowing out the Bard's Greatest Hits with perfect diction and exuberance to barely recalling a syllable of my blasted lines was a saddening shock to the system. The mortification was second only to the panic-inducing knowledge that the entire production hinged on me memorising Sebastian's many flowery descants. Not to mention attempting to do so with even a fraction of Johnny Sang's much-mourned flair. Oh, the devotion to something afar from the thingummy of our sorrow.
Not wanting to spend the evening alone with my miserable thoughts - nor allow myself to binge on 'Brooklyn Nine Nine' and the large bag of Cheezy Wotsits I'd bought the previous morning - in my desperation, I made for Jeeves' doorstep.
Seeing the gentle concern upon my friend's elegant features was better than sinking into a warm bath. He ushered me in and imposed Earl Grey and triangle sandwiches upon me, clearly intuiting the tale of woe I had ready for his patient ears. There are chums whose presence you tolerate for the sake of solidarity or shared history, and then, most distinctly, there is Jeeves.
As he poured my tea, I observed that he had turned his kitchen island into a workspace - his laptop, compendium, and a great many documents were sprawled fully across its surface.
'I say, I've not interrupted your work, have I?' I asked sheepishly, feeling selfish.
'Indeed you have, Mr Wooster, and I am most relieved for it. I am in the middle of a vexing case regarding the intellectual property of a government diplomat. The conundrum is overwhelming me and I am desperately in need of a break. Your company is an agreeable respite.
Leaving the mess in the kitchen, we lighted upon his sleek black sofa with our repast. I collected my thoughts as I munched away at my Marmite-and-cheese.
'Jeeves, would you say I'm a shrinking violet at all?'
'No, Mr Wooster - at every moment you impress upon me youth in the bloom of confidence and gregarious cheer.'
'So you wouldn't say I'm a man of few words, then?'
'I think we have ample evidence to the contrary.'
'Mm. Well. It is my sad duty to report that, during rehearsal for 'Brideshead!' today, the feline most definitely grasped my Gene Simmons firmly in its paws.'
'The lines, Jeeves. Sebastian Flyte's lines, to be exact. I couldn't remember a dashed one. The moment the script was not propped up under my nose, a truly monstrous amount of stage fright overcame me and I was but a plank of wood.'
'I am most sorry to hear that. Have you any suspicion as to why you were so dumbstruck?' Here his sable eyes narrowed. 'Did it have anything to do with that Esmond Haddock individual?'
'I suppose. Him and the rest of the cast, really. The moment we began practicing, I felt all eyes searing into me, scrutinising my form and just waiting for me to come up short. Not even Mrs Irving, my drama teacher back at Eton, was ever so exacting. In the end, I could do naught but let Marion hit me with Aloysius.'
Jeeves gave a slow, judicious nod. 'I see. The cast and their formidable director demanded a finished and inspired performance from you, on your first day of rehearsal, indifferent that you have been out of practice for some years.'
I could feel a small smile eke its way onto my face.
'Mr Wooster, you clearly possess the innate ability and disposition of a proficient actor. Your mastery of this role is just a matter of confidence and practice. If you wish, I can assist by reading through the script with you this evening. I am sure a pressure-free environment will do much to bolster you.'
I goggled at the man's generosity. 'Truly, Jeeves? After poring over that nasty diplomat case of yours?'
His lips inched into his subtle Jeevesian smirk. 'As aforementioned, a distraction is welcome. And the lush prose of Evelyn Waugh will suit me nicely.'
Nestling further into the cushions, we leant our heads together over the shared script - I reading out Sebastian's lines, while Jeeves obligingly filled in as Charles, Julia, Cordelia, and even stuttering away as Anthony when required. The way he shifted his sonorous bass up and down the register for each different character amused me greatly, and it encouraged me to lilt away in a voice that embodied Sebastian's airy sensuality. Unlike Marion's drill earlier that day, there was a playfulness in our recitation, and I could feel my nerves all loosening one by one. Before I knew it, we had come to my final scene, the poignant exchange between Charles and Sebastian at the hospital in Morocco. I had not yet learnt this one, but with Jeeves, the words flowed like, well, champagne.
'Would you like to try performing a few lines from memory now?' Jeeves suggested serenely. 'I am happy to prompt you.'
We flipped our way back to Act One, settling upon the scene directly after the 'Always Summer' number.
'Oh dear,' I bewailed, bringing a wilting hand to my forehead, 'it's very difficult being a Catholic.'
'Does it make much difference to you?' Jeeves recited dutifully, his gaze scanning me for any impending brain-fart.
'Of course, all the time!' I insisted.
'Well, I can't say I've noticed it. You don't seem much more virtuous than me.'
Enjoying a deviant smirk, I rejoindered: 'I'm very, very much wickeder. Who was it that used to pray "O God, make me good, but not yet"?'
Jeeves didn't miss one iota. 'You, I should think.'
Whatever je ne sais quoi that had been missing from the onerous rehearsal, Jeeves had compensated for its lack in spades. Every synapse of the woolly Wooster brain that had malfunctioned was now firing away beautifully, and the dialogue was finally lodging itself into my memory. It was with a great deal of passion and esprit that I declared the line:
'I'm not going to have you get mixed up with my family. They're so madly charming. All my life they've been taking things away from me. If they once got hold of you with their charm, they'd make you their friend and not mine, and I won't let them.' I was deeply pleased with my own brattishness. I daresay that if Sebastian had had Jeeves as a playmate in place of Charles, he would have gone to herculean lengths to fulfil this declaration, and he'd have graduated Oxford with a double first to become one of Britain's foremost theologians (and Aloysius would have been up to his fuzzy ears in the finest artisinal honey).
Time went cruelly swift - I finally noticed it was fully dark outside, and realised we'd been at it for three and a half hours.
'Well,' I piped up with authority, 'I think I'm well and truly galvanised. If there's anything I can do to return the favour, Jeeves, please don't be shy.'
'Of course, Mr Wooster - if you would be so kind, I should love to hear you sing Sebastian's "Champagne" number. I have skimmed through the sheet music and I imagine it suits your voice very well.'
'Ah, that's something I can do without any instruction!' I leapt out of my seat, priming myself in my singer's stance, though I made sure to grab the score, just in case.
I warbled out the thing brightly, completely at home in my comfort zone of bubbly, jazzy showtunes, Johnny Sang be damned. Jeeves leant a hand upon his cheek, seemingly as rapt as an Attenborough observing some species of lurid, exotic parakeet.
As I slowly decrescendoed on the final cheerful note, no applause came. Instead, Jeeves remained in his reclining position, his lips turned up a full inch, his eyes veritably gleaming with inner warmth.
'That,' he pronounced reverently, 'was beautiful, Mr Wooster. Thank you.'
Fire spread across my cheeks and the rest of my face rapidly, and I bumbled out a quivering de rien.
Later that night, as I washed my face and prepared for bed, I caught myself singing the song again. As I crooned out the bridge, in which Sebastian compares a number of wines to pearls and unicorns and swans and other such poetic dreck, I overheard Jeeves on the other side of the wall, his steady footsteps growing nearer as he went to brush his teeth or shave or whatever it is that great mental paragons such as he go about in the still of the night. I raised my voice just a touch louder.
I'm not too proud to admit that later on, as I turned down my duvet and snuggled up, I pressed the palm of my hand against the wall and wondered if Jeeves was likewise settling in to his own bed. It was much more comforting to think of this than picturing him still slaving over his laptop, ensnared in the tangles of that diplomat's legal quandary. Boko's flat had often felt eerily lonely at night, the aquatic canoodling of Hadrian and Antinous & co offering little in the way of company. On this night, it dawned on me that I had a cherished friend here, much more close by than I had reckoned. Unashamed, I wished Jeeves a heartfelt goodnight as I laid me down to sleep.
'It's like this, Marion,' I began. 'You well know that I made a right mess of my performance the other day. Total non-starter. However, I practised my lines with Jeeves that evening, and, well, it was miraculous. I went from Dory to Rain Man, just like that. I reckon that it's osmosis or something - just being near Jeeves makes me more intelligent by proxy. "Intelligence" is Jeeves' middle name, don't you know.'
'Actually, Mr Wooster, my middle name is Mandeep.'
'Yes, alright. So anyway, I figure if he sits in during rehearsal, I'm bound to get it right this time. It's a foolproof plan, old thing.'
Marion's eyes shifted dubiously between the two of us.
'So... what, then? You're gonna make Jeeves stand in the wings at every performance during the run? Should I start paying him in Starbucks gift cards, too?'
'Oh no, no, no, nothing like that.' I waved my hand blithely. 'Anyway, I tried giving my own gift cards to him, but you're more of a Pret-A-Manger man, aren't you, Jeeves?'
He valiantly veered the conversation back on topic. 'I believe that if I attend the next few rehearsals to prompt Mr Wooster, it will boost his confidence in learning the lines. By opening night, I have every confidence that he will no longer require such measures.'
'I bloody well hope not,' Marion menaced, but then acquiesced with a wearied sigh. 'Alright, if you're happy to do it, Jeeves, I won't stop you. Might be nice to have a proper adult around here for a while.'
'Thank you, Ms Wardour. I shall be as unobtrusive as possible.'
Well, wouldn't you know it - from then on, our rehearsals put clockwork, silk, and infants' derrieres to shame. Not only was I acting out my lines by heart, but I bounced off Esmond's delicate characterisation of Charles to inflect Sebastian with a perfect childlike charm and naive intemperance. Even the other cast members started upping their game. All Jeeves had to do was sit there, a script nearby, often to the side of a massive pile of law books and his trusty laptop as he split his attention between the two. He seemed to act as a sort of lucky charm - run-throughs went smoothly, tempers went unruffled, even the errant coffee cups and biscuits stopped popping up around the place. Yet again, I was in his debt, and my only problem now was finding a way to properly thank him.
It did not surprise me in the least that the first session sans Jeeves went awry, all thanks to damned Esmond. Our lucky charm had been called away for his diplomat case, begging a crucial and lengthy meeting at his client's offices in Vauxhall. Meanwhile, Marion planned to do a full run of the 'Always Summer' scene from head to toe, dialogue and stage directions included - one of which was Charles' and Sebastian's feted snog. I was despatched to fetch Esmond from the rose garden in the churchyard. There I found him, sucking face with his girlfriend Cora, her petite form draped all over his own (as far as a woman that small can drape herself over a strapping six-footer, at least). What made it doubly off-putting was the fact that Cora, a keen thespian like her brother Catsmeat, was playing Cordelia - her short stature gave her the license to get away with a juvenile character. I starched my upper lip and pushed forward.
'Sorry, dear children, ever so sorry... Esmond, Marion's asking for you. We're to practise... a scene.'
'No problem, Bertie,' Cora chirped at me, her lips swollen and hair mussed. She dismounted from Esmond and flounced off to chinwag with the ensemble.
I tried to fill in the awkward walk back inside with a magnificent clearing of my throat, only then realising I should save my voice for the singing.
To be honest, the ordeal wasn't that awful. The ensemble was still off on their tea break, and I was able to suspend my disbelief long enough to blot out the image of Cora and Esmond slobbering all over each other. We harmonised together through the romantic strains of 'Always Summer', and I was gradually coaxed into a somewhat dreamier frame of mind. However, when the duet swelled to its finale, and the time for the big lip-lock was upon us, Esmond's expression went from one of soppy infatuation to abject horror, and the carefully tended atmosphere came crashing down around us like so much fine crockery. In the end, the best he could manage was a brief peck on the cheek.
Aloysius was hurled at the back of Esmond's head. 'For f—'s sake, Haddock, he's not your nanna,' Marion exclaimed. 'I need a good wet pash.'
He gave it another go, and gingerly brushed my lips with his for a fraction of a second, flinching as if I were an amorous talking frog.
Marion's exasperated groan was like a Volkswagen breaking down. 'Of all the musical theatre roles to cast a straight boy in...' She pinched the bridge of her nose with her fingers. 'I need a tea break. You boys better get that kiss right, or I'll lock you in together until you start shagging out of sheer desperation.' You would think she was joking, but Marion is an ardent apologist for method acting. With this threat left looming over us, she stalked off to get her Twinings.
After watching her slam the door to the kitchen, I about-faced back to Esmond. 'Well, old thing, looks like we've got work to do.'
'Yep.' He muttered, most economical.
'It seems to me that the problem is largely psychological,' I pondered. 'Your prodigious acting skill is being hampered by a perceived threat to your masculinity. There, my dear Haddock, is where you make your blunder. There is no shame in smooching another bloke, especially in the pursuit of art, truth, beauty and whatnot. Even given your sexual orientation, I firmly believe that you have the capacity to overcome any misgivi—mmphh!'
Well, I mean to say. The smacker that Esmond suddenly planted on me was like being beaned in the face by a rogue football, and it left me just as dazed and churned up. As his thorough inspection of my mouth drew out, his strong arms drew me down in a Mills-and-Boon worthy dip, and I allowed my sense of gravity to diffuse a little as I oozed and drooped.
And yet, beneath the fiery motions, there was still an unsettling tension in the way he held himself. Esmond Haddock's oscular acumen may have been impressive, but the kiss was still missing a certain je ne sais quoi.
At length, he let me up. 'I... oh... good lord... I mean... well... by Jove, old thing! Why didn't you pull that off in front of Marion!? She'd have wept tears of joy!' I blustered.
Esmond offered an uneasy grin. 'I guess it's easier when no-one's looking, eh?' he joshed.
'Really? I wouldn't have guessed a chap like you was prone to performance anxiety.'
'Nah,' Esmond countered loquaciously, 'but you worry what people would think, don't ya?'
Ah. Reflexively, the Wooster hackles perked up. 'And what would they think, Esmond?' I grilled him, well pleased with how dangerous I sounded.
The great oaf missed the hint like a foul ball. 'Y'know,' he chortled, 'That you're a bit... like that. Like you hang around Old Compton Street and enjoy Barbara Streisand,' he affected this quip with a most insulting lisp, flicking his wrist.
I lasered my best aunt-inspired glare at Esmond, but he continued picking up steam. 'Instead of paying us with gift cards, Marion might start giving us sequinned thongs and high heel—'
'Alright, that's enough!' I erupted, my blood searing. 'I'm a proud man, Haddock, and I won't stand here and suffer through any more of this crude homophobic rot! Go and inflict your machismo onto some other poor ass!' I felt every inch the exemplar of my ancestors at Agincourt - supposing that they had fought at the battle of Stonewall instead.
Esmond looked rightfully cowed. 'Aw come off it, Bertie, I don't mean nothing by it. Anyway, what's it to you, it ain't like you're a queer...?'
Given the abashed realisation that slowly began to crawl across his face, I could see my indomitable preux chevalier demeanour was working.
'I am what I am,' I belted, 'and what I am needs no excuses.'
I don't know what I anticipated from the muscle-bound lump, but crumpling before me and bursting into tears was certainly not at the forefront of my mind.
'Oh... Bertie...' he snivelled, 'I'm so sorry!' He clutched at my wrist desperately.
'Er... there there, old boy... all is forgiven. Chin up, eh?'
'But you don't know what it's LIKE, Bertie, it's so hard sometimes...' He wiped his runny nose against a meaty hand. 'They said when I got the Diet Coke contract that I'd have to play it straight, give the target demographic the right impression, let 'em think I was into birds. I even got meself a girlfriend, little Cora's such a love. But sometimes... I just get so tired...!'
You could have knocked me down with an f. 'By George! Esmond... you're not actually the bloke on the Diet Coke adverts?'
'My agent told me to play up the whole heterosexual thing. She said girls wouldn't buy the product if they didn't think I was "man" enough. Whenever I feel the act begin to slip, I just go into a panic and start blasting out all that homophobic stuff. I don't mean it, I really don't! It's just... the payslips, Bertie, the payslips!' And the waterworks resumed.
'Surely you can negotiate something with your agent?' I suggested. 'You can't stay in the closet forever. I mean, what if you found a boyfriend?'
Here his impressive shoulders dropped. 'Oh Bertie,' he rhapsodised, and I felt a ghastly chill shudder down my spine. Based on past experience, whenever a chum has 'Oh, Bertie'd at me in that particular spellbound tone, I have been roped into playing the agony aunt, wingman, or worst of all, Cupid.
My instincts proved to be dead on.
'Bertie, he's so beautiful! Like a little shy gazelle, like a flute by the water, like the last unicorn!'
I suddenly found myself curious to know who could have won the heart of an Adonis like Esmond Haddock. 'And just who is this lucky gent?'
'I've been gone on him ever since we was in "History Boys" together. Oh, he made the cutest little Posner ever.'
It had proven to be a most trying afternoon. The revelation that the brawny demigod Esmond Haddock, lately swapping saliva with little Cora Pirbright, was a fellow Friend of Dorothy, was one thing. To then learn that he was mooning over her brother like a schoolboy made one come over all faint, with an urgent need for a sit down and a milky cup of tea.
'Catsmeat?' I asked him, agog. Esmond's reply was a gratuitously schmoopy smile.
'Catsmeat?' I repeated. 'The chap who looks like Julian Clary's campier little brother?'
'Don't you just love the way his little moustache twitches when he gets to talking?' Esmond simpered.
'Not really.' I valiantly bit back the urge to tell Esmond what I really thought. I mean, fair's fair, Catsmeat's a good egg and a great chum to go out on the town with, but the mental image of these two souls together put me in mind of Filet Mignon drenched with Babycham.
Before Esmond could expound any further on the showy charms of his beloved, Marion whirled back in, riding a fresh caffeine high. 'Alright. Haddock, Catsmeat, you're up. We're running the scene at the bar between Charles and Anthony.'
Esmond exchanged with me a helpless, blushing glance of despair before surging into battle.
Roly-Poly Pudding Productions Presents:
'Brideshead!' The Musical. Music and lyrics by Faith Rosso, book by Percy Gorringe, based on the novel by Evelyn Waugh.
Playing at the Blandings Performing Arts Centre, Bethnal Green, E2 6JW, from Fri 21st of July to Sat 5th Aug.
Performances 7.30pm, Sunday Matinees 2.30pm.
Starring Esmond Haddock, Bertie Wooster and Marion Wardour.
Directed by Marion Wardor.
Tickets selling fast - Book now!
Four weeks you rehearse and rehearse... another op'nin', another financial sinkhole. It was getting to crunch time. We were bumping into our performance venue (a charming little theatre in Bethnal Green boasting a cafeteria and a community conference hall), and our costumes were just beginning to take on the funk of one too many dress rehearsals under the glare of the spotlights. It was the time in the production when both our creative energies and nervous tension were hitting their respective peaks. Opening night was looming over us all like a disapproving aunt, and the sitch was made no easier by all the romantic maladies that seemed to surround me on every side. Not only was I under pressure to sing, act and dance in tandem, but at every moment I was ankling upon eggshells, trying my hardest not to say the wrong thing to the wrong person.
On one particularly tedious evening at the flat, after drilling my lines for the umpeenth time, I put aside my heavily annotated script and commenced a little side project. With the help of some vivid felt-tip pens and a fresh cup of tea, I went about making a colour-coded list. (As a young Etonian, black biro had always seemed to me a poor substitute for my crayolas - there is something about colourful writing implements that acts as a fabulous aid to memory.)
1) MARION WARDOUR
Currently putting Pele the volcano goddess to shame. Stressed mood most certainly exacerbated by memories of ex-boyfriend Johnny Sang (she perused an article of Johnny's in latest edition of Independent, and threw a stale muffin at self's head). Tread lightly. Remember lines and blocking. DO NOT mention Johnny's name in her presence UNDER PAIN OF TORTURE. Avoid line of fire when she is in proximity of hard-edged projectiles.
2) ESMOND HADDOCK
Languishing for unrequited love of Catsmeat. Suspect he is picturing said chap when snogging both self and girlfriend Cora. Must tolerate his lamentations and serve as patient shoulder to blubber on. Code of the Woosters demands it.
3) CORA PIRBRIGHT
Blissfully unaware that boyfriend is not only gay but in love with her brother. Sunbathing scene particulary cringey to endure. Zip self's lip, DO NOT mention anything remotely linked to Haddock's pining in her presence. Try and distract her when both blokes are in same room. Woman's intuition will probably pick up on vibe - only hope is to delay inevitable until after final show.
4) CLAUDE 'CATSMEAT' PIRBRIGHT
Also blissfully unaware of aforementioned Haddockian pining. Likewise, zip self's lip. If he catches on, warn him of potential to break beloved baby sister's heart. Try to distract him with talk of latest Drones' exploits and assist him in polishing his Anthony Blanche stutter.
When done, I read aloud this lengthy list, and cursed the names of each these lovelorn hams. How keen I yearned for days at Eton past, when all I had to learn were styled iambs.
I was distracted from these ruminations by the doorbell, and was rewarded for my studies by a sight for sore peepers.
'Ah! Jeeves,' I greeted, feeling my calcified innards begin to soften again, particularly due to the toothsome-smelling oven dish he was carrying. 'I hope the diplomat case fares well. I've your ticket for opening night here, front row centre.' I waved about an envelope that had been sitting on the hall table.
'Thank you, Mr Wooster. I was wondering if you would care to have some vegetable lasange with me. I am aware that you are conscious of calorie intake due to the show, so I have baked this using low-fat ricotta and wholemeal noodles.'
'Bless you, good man!' I ushered him in with a thankful heart and a growling stomach.
Over our comforting repast, I couldn't help but notice that Jeeves was a little less bushy-tailed than usual. I reflected that the diplomat's affairs must have been wearing on the poor fellow, so I endeavoured to push aside my own troubles and keep the chatter light.
'By the by, our costume designer doffed her hat to your advice re: my linen suit. It turns out that a blue necktie did work far better than a yellow one. I don't look quite so jaundiced now. Pity though, I do so love yellow. Well, one can't help it if one is a spring and not an autumn, eh what?'
'Indeed.' Jeeves fixed me with one of his Looks.
In the time I have known him, I have been introduced to a great catalogue of Jeevesian Looks. What other men require entire paragraphs to say, Jeeves can manage to convey with but an elegant flick of his dark brows. These looks range in colour from 'I know exactly how to untangle this troublesome problem' to 'Wooster, you blithering numbskull' and even the occasional 'I am giddy with quasi-repressed delight'. This particular look imparted to me: 'You're holding back, Wooster, and the effort to spare my feelings is an insult to my intelligence. Spill your guts, damn it.'
I pushed a forkful of eggplant around my plate. 'The production's gotten quite hectic leading up to opening night, I tell you what,' I said hesitantly.
'Indeed?' He sounded a tad like a fairy-tale wolf on the verge of devouring a plumptious waif. Fish gotta swim, I suppose.
I thought for a moment about how to phrase my dilemma, and then remembered the list I had written. 'One moment,' I told him, and dashed upstairs to retrieve it.
Jeeves scanned the document leisurely, and I was impressed at how the man absorbed each scandal with such aplomb. After digesting its contents, he placed it aside and was silent for a long moment, gazing intensely into his lasange. I was excited to hear what ingenious solution he would come up with.
At length: 'I would not trouble yourself about this, Mr Wooster.'
'It appears that the only outcome possible is this: Mr Haddock's affections will certainly reveal themselves at some imminent juncture. Mr Pirbright will feel conflicted about responding to these overtures, given his love for his younger sister. Ms Pirbright may discover the truth before the production is over, but as her character ultimately pities Mr Haddock's character, I don't feel it will affect her performance negatively. Furthermore, I understand that Ms Pirbright is a sanguine young lady who is not yet given to the throes of grand passions, therefore I doubt the damage will be substantial. Ms Wardour, on the other hand, is an excitable individual, and her directorial style would be much the same were her relationship with Mr Sang still intact. You have enough to concern yourself with perfecting your performance - there is no need for you to shoulder these additional burdens.'
'Really Jeeves?' I spluttered. 'That's your suggestion? I can't just leave them to their respective dooms, they're my friends!'
'Sometimes, the best thing a friend can do is let people make their own mistakes and offer a sympathetic ear once they have learnt their lesson,' he insisted.
I was most aggreieved. 'Oh, what complete rot. Particularly regarding poor Cora.' Feeling venomous, I intoned: 'You've clearly never felt the sting of a lover leaving you for someone else.'
At this, Jeeves' gaze instantly softened. 'I apologise, Mr Wooster. I neglected to consider your past experiences with such a conundrum.'
'"Conundrum" is one word for it,' I scoffed.
With a sudden heat that took me by surprise: 'Mr Winship deserves nothing but misery for the beastly way he treated you.'
I slumped in my chair and sighed. 'Oh, I don't know about that. I mean, he was right in saying that we'd grown apart. That we just didn't fit with each other anymore. He seems happy with Magnolia.' I choked down my regret with a large mouthful of ricotta.
'How did he break up with you?' Jeeves asked me gently.
I recalled the moment with a weird kind of nostalgia. 'He was back in town after a demonstration game and publicity event in Brussels. He bid me meet him at Fortnum & Mason for lunch. Halfway through the starter, he broke the news that he'd proposed to Magnolia. I let him say his piece, then walked out. My feet carried me down to Westminster Bridge, and I tossed two thousand quid worth of titanium and inlaid diamond into the Thames. The next day, I packed my things and had them shipped back to my old room at Aunt Dahlia's place. The paps spent a good month or so hunting me, so I hid away and passed the time on Netflix.' I smiled wanly. 'We'd been together since our first year at Oxford.'
'I am truly sorry,' Jeeves responded softly.
'Oh, don't be, old thing. It's not like it was your fault.' I did a competent job of brightening again. 'Anyway, at least Cora and Esmond aren't engaged. In fact, the major problem lies in how to get them to end their relationship cordially, with no hurt feelings or broken hearts.' I frowned, pondering my own words. 'I say, you don't suppose we could get Cora to fall for some other bloke? One who's unequivocally straight?'
Jeeves' brows knitted. Another Look. 'I couldn't advise such a hare-brained scheme, Wooster,' his brows remarked.
'Please do try to concentrate on your role as Sebastian, Mr Wooster. If you wish for the production to go well, it is the best that thing you can do.'
'Oh, I am quite sure that I will have that well in hand,' I responded heartily. 'My lucky charm will be in the audience on opening night. If at any time I feel my nerves start to get the better of me, all I need do is simply look out into the crowd and find your calm, clever countenance, and I shall know that all will be well.'
I could have sworn I saw a hint of pink tinge the his dusky cheek. 'I am gratified to be of assistance.'
The winged beasties in my tummy fluttered into a frenzy on our opening night. It was barely five when I got to the theatre. I had arrived early to commandeer a good spot at the dressing room mirror and go over my lines once more before the curtain rose. I enunciated at my own reflection as I did my pretty face, and repeated the monologue in which I - or, rather, Sebastian - plans to ditch Bridey's fox-hunt as I donned my costume.
'Dipsomaniac, dipsomaniac,' I chanted as I knotted my tie in a sloppy half-windsor.
Catsmeat chose that moment to pop in and quip: 'I know you are, but w-w-what am I?'
'What ho,' I greeted, 'is that stage fright, or just you warming up?'
'Bit of both. Mind if I borrow your script? Just want to double-check a few lines in my Blue Grotto speech.'
'Go for it,' I mumbled, deeply absorbed in tousling my golden curls to strike the perfect balance between angelic and depraved.
We enjoyed a few tranquil moments as I half-listened to Catsmeat rambling through his dialogue. And then, I almost blinded myself with a sharp burst of hairspray when the blighter exclaimed 'W-w-w-WHAT IN THE N-N-N-NAME OF GOD!?...'
'You know, old thing, you've really gotten that stutter down to a fine art.'
I mused that I couldn't recall such a violent outburst in the Blue Grotto scene, but then the sight I caught in the mirror made the blood freeze in my veins. Catsmeat had discovered my colourful written list of the cast's secrets and sorrows. Damn it, dash it, blast it, I had carelessly left it sandwiched between the pages of my script!
'B-B-Bertie... is this some kind of j-j-joke!?' His hands were trembling as he held the paper aloft.
'Ah... would you believe me if I said yes?' I offered pathetically.
'Esmond!... C-C-Cora!' He swung from one extreme of his well-honed histrionics to the next, as I watched the implications of my little bombshell sink into his mind.
I could not help but feel fervent remorse. 'I'm ever so sorry to have sprung this on you tonight, my child. Is there anything I can do to-'
'This is g-g-going to affect my p-p-performance!' He cried, as shaky as a tower of matchsticks.
'I'll keep you away from the caffeine tonight, for starters,' I noted.
I beat a hasty escape from my poor jittering victim, just as the rest of cast and crew began swarming backstage. After taking a few deep breaths, I assured myself that all would be well. If Catsmeat's only reaction to discovering Esmond's unrequited love was a case of the shakes, then at least he would not have to work for his stutter tonight. After all, my lucky charm was to be in the audience. Not even a shattered chandelier could keep the show from succeeding now.
To settle my nerves, I fired off a quick text to Jeeves:
Just got dolled up in my Sebastian togs now. Blue necktie is bringing out my eyes. Hope you enjoy the show tonight.
I eagerly awaited his response. Over the next hour or so, during silly group warm-ups, one too many gingernuts, and countless 'chookas' cooed at me by my cast-mates, nary a buzz nor ping was forthcoming from my phone. I worried that perhaps the audacious use of an emoji may have offended his sensibilities. Unease began to creep through my system.
Just as the orchestra were taking their seats, I finally got a response from the man. I whipped my phone out, desperate for Jeeves' comforting words:
Good evening Mr Wooster. It is with deep regret that I must tell you I am detained at my offices. The matter concerning my diplomat client has come to a head tonight, and I am unable to leave until a settlement has been reached. I am very sad to miss your debut performance, but I am certain you shall do wonderfully. I shall be sure to attend the second show tomorrow night. Break a leg.
One could have pelted me with black cats and broken every damned mirror in the joint whilst hollering the word 'Macbeth' over and over. It still wouldn't have soured my luck anywhere near as much. My hard-won mastery of my lines began to falter with every thump of my racing pulse.
You know that tale by Alexandre Dumas about the lass with the unfortunate case of TB, who hides her tragic condition by being the belle of the ball? And she's in love with some bourgeois fellow who runs out on her at the climax of the narrative? I seem to remember there was much in this story about drinking, and there was possibly a viscount or a duke or something. I can't remember if the leading lady was played by Greta Garbo or Nicole Kidman. At any rate, this unfortunate dame was a perfect mirror for my grim situation that evening. As the overture thundered away, I stood in the wings behind all the ensemble, my mind a desolate fog. I tried summoning the words of my first line, drawing a complete and utter Tabula Rasa. The knowledge that Jeeves was not to be watching my debut had abruptly broken the spell that he had weaved during our rehearsal together. Without his guiding light, I was back to being the same old scatter-brained Wooster wastrel that I had always been. I doubted that I would survive the night. After bombing onstage, I was certain that Marion would impale me on a bassoon or something.
However, as Mrs Darbus once so wisely said, the theatre waits for no-one. Inside my heart was breaking, my make-up slightly flaking, but the show must go on.
In my very first scene, I was supposed to upchuck into Charles' window - that, at least, I could manage. (Rest assured that it was only a recipe of water mixed with milk and a few croutons - stage magic, don't you know.) The real time of reckoning came but one scene later, where I was sat at a table, peeling plover's eggs. A terrible sense of déjà vu overcame me, as I listened to Esmond's footsteps tread closer and closer across the boards.
A soft, distant cough emanated up from the audience, and for one bittersweet moment, I was reminded of Jeeves.
'...The f—ing LINE, Bertie...' I could hear Marion whisper furiously from the wings.
It is not often that one is visited by serendipitous bouts of brilliance, and I find it always happens once two conditions are met: 1) subject is under levels of pressure so great that even quantum physicists are impressed; and 2) aforementioned subj. is flustered to the point of utter distraction, so unfocused that the stroke of genius is a total surprise. But once the eureka has struck, one just tends to run with it.
I opened my mouth, and instead of spoken dialogue, out came the melody of a popular Disney showtune:
'I've just counted them. There were five each and two over, so I'm having the two. I'm unaccountably hungry todaaayyy,' I warbled.
Esmond took a moment to process what was happening, eyeing me suspiciously. However, like a true professional, he soldiered on. Faith, clever woman that she is, picked up on my scheme much faster. On my next line, she conjured a gentle drone from the woodwinds and the harp that served as a backup to my singing, wielding her baton with admirable delicacy.
I continued on like this, and the temporarily forgotten lines veritably poured out of me. I set Sebastian's fanciful notions to Charles to sentimental Gershwin standards. The catty remarks to his sisters took on the melody of a Frank Loesser ditty, and Sebastian's hostile accusations against his mother were shaped around the oeuvre of Mr Sondheim. I missed not a beat, delivering every sung line with clarity, conviction and charisma.
'If it's any comfort to you Chaaaarles, I detest myse-elf!' I serenaded Esmond sorrowfully (to the slightly tweaked melody of 'I Dreamed A Dream'), before launching into 'Sent Down', the big, bad, bluesy finale of Act One. The applause came thick, deafening and gooey, and I soaked in it.
Once the curtains were closed for intermission, some of the cast fixed me with quizzical stares. I cared not, feeling especially happy with myself. Just as I made my way along one of the dimmer backstage corridors, I was suddenly yanked into a corner.
A bejewelled hand with long painted nails clutched my lapel like a vice.
'Out in the audience,' Marion rasped, 'there are critics from at least half a dozen A&E rags, and a good number of theatrical websites. They have just spent the last hour-and-fifteen-minutes watching you act like a total d—head, while planning how to best ridicule the show I have put gallons of my own blood, sweat and tears into.' She appeared oddly calm. 'When I get through with you, Bertie Wooster, there won't be enough left of you for them to bury.'
With this, she released me, and I stumbled on down the corridor.
After a moment or two of unbalanced terror, I reached the stage door out back and gulped a few soothing breaths of evening air. Once again, I righted myself by evoking images of my Agincourt ancestors, and the kindly spirit of reason was able to make itself heard. The audience seemed to have loved what I was doing, if their energised cheers had been anything to go on. There was no need for me to take on the frazzled mindset of poor, overworked Marion. I reassured myself that once she saw the positive response from her adoring public, she would be her usual boisterous self once more. All she needed was reassurance that her efforts had paid off, irrespective of my improvisational whims.
The sound of two voices grew in the rising dark, and the reek of nicotine betrayed the sneaky cigarette break that two of the punters were indulging in. From behind the corner of the building, I heard one of them ask:
'So, what did you think of Act One?'
Well, it was a small w. after all. I would have known that silken tenor anywhere - it unmistakably belonged to Mr Johnny Sang, new columnist for the theatre & dance section of The Independent. No wonder Marion was so churned up tonight - if Ginger had been an arts critic sent to evaluate my hard work, I would surely have been prone to homicidal threats myself. I crouched behind the stage door, raring for a spot of eavesdropping.
'Oh, it was brill,' raptured the second smoker - a deep female voice that sounded oddly familiar, yet I couldn't quite place it. 'Most entertaining and adventurous thing I've seen for ages. Cast is great, music's great - and I love the twist of having Sebastian sing all of his lines. It really works for him, somehow.'
'Yes,' Johnny concurred, his voice ponderous. 'I can see what you're saying... it certainly took me by surprise. Hm... the artistic device of having Sebastian deliver all his lines as recitatives beautifully illustrates how quixotic and operatic his character is, how he lives in an overly romanticised world of his own. Inspired!'
'Just what I was gonna say,' his female companion muttered.
I snuck back inside, and bumped into Catsmeat.
'How goes it?' I asked sympathetically. 'Everything alright?'
'Yes, at least I'm not singing all of my bloody lines.'
'Oh, don't worry about that. I just overheard Johnny Sang speaking with a friend - they think what I've done is inspired.' I puffed up a little.
'Well, bully for you, Miss Daae,' he snarked. 'Do you know I haven't been able to look either Esmond or Cora in the face all night? Every time I delivered my lines to them, I had to stare at a spot over their shoulders to stop myself from having an onstage anxiety attack! Now everyone thinks that Anthony Blanche has acute long-sightedness as well as a stutter!'
'Look, Catsmeat, old thing... after tonight, I'll put your problem to Jeeves and get him to have a word with-'
'Oh, buzz off, Wooster,' he grumbled, and bashed my shoulder before stalking off.
My slightly wilted mood was easily channelled into Sebastian's tragic malaise in Act Two. And wouldn't you know it, when I hit that high note in 'Prodigal Son', there wasn't a dry eye in the house.
'Mummy killed at a touch...' I bewailed, feeding off the crowd's sniffles and sobs.
Eventually the narrative wended its way to the second act finale. The soldiers worshipped at the chapel, the curtains fell, and the standing ovation washed over us like so much manna from heaven.
I changed back into my civvies quickly, keen to receive the accolades of my public and avoid any more awkward conversations about my last-minute creative licence. As I flounced my way out into the foyer, I was hailed with light applause and a breezy round of compliments on my performance. On my way to the bar, I found Johnny - he was all smiles, clutching a beer and still chatting with his smoking partner: I realised that she was none other than Bea, Jeeves' stalwart receptionist.
'What ho, Johnny. I had no idea that you two were pals!'
'Oh, only very new pals,' he told me. 'We just happened to be seated together in the front row. Been having a great time raving about you lot!'
Bea smiled. 'When Reg got held back at work, he very kindly gave me the ticket and told me to enjoy the show,' She winked at me sharply. 'I've been telling everyone just how brilliant I thought it was.'
The nuance was not lost on me, and I felt the invisible handwork of the master.
'Loved it, absolutely loved it. Couldn't've had a better replacement for Sebastian Flyte!' Johnny thumped me on the back. 'I'm going to give this show a glowing five-star review.'
We turned to see Marion standing by the entrance to backstage, looking ravishing in a cocktail dress, her eyes riveted on Johnny.
'Teddy-bear!' Johnny mewled.
She barrelled into his arms, the last of his beer making contact with my turquoise tie dye t-shirt.
'I'm so sorry, Teddy-bear. You must know I always had faith in your artistic vision.'
'Duckie, you are absolutely gorgeous!'
After a suitably maudlin embrace, Marion noticed my soggy state, and instantly reached for some paper napkins. 'Sorry, Bertie, love.' As she towelled me dry in a rather maternal fashion, she said: 'I hope my spac-attack didn't rattle you too much. You know how it gets. Turns out your instincts were spot-on, though. I've been getting all sorts of praise over Twitter and Facebook for Sebastian being made a sung-through role. Well done, pet.'
The love-in was interrupted by a cheesy looking bloke with gelled hair in a flashy Westwood suit. 'How do you do, Ms Wardour, Mr Wooster. My name is Lucius Pim, the head of marketing and promotions for Adam & Стёпа Group.' He treated us to a large, bleached grin, shaking our hands with ferocity.
'You mean the vodka brand?' I inquired.
'Got it in one, Mr Wooster. We've been on the hunt for a suitable poster boy for our new 'Love Wins' campaign, which will express our continued support for the Elle-Gee-Bee-Tee-Queue-I-Ay-Plus community. We value our diverse and colourful customer base and have sponsored many campaigns for equality. I came to see your show at the behest of our CEO, and I think it's safe to say we have found the perfect star to represent the Adam & Стёпа brand.'
I came over in goose-pimples, all aflutter, images already blooming in my head of photo shoots with oiled muscular hunks and glitzy launch parties. 'Oh, well, thank you ever so much. But before I sign anything I am sure I will have to consult with my solicitor-'
'Not you, ya nong! He means Esmond!' Marion admonished. Well, easy come, easy go. A chap can dream, can't he?
'Have either of you seen Mr Haddock around? I would be most obliged to have a word with him,' Lucius Pim continued, undeterred.
'I think he's still lingering backstage. Let me go fetch him for you,' I offered.
I bounded back to the dressing room, high on the series of most fortuitous events that had lifted the atmos. from hideously tense to boomps-a-daisy. If Esmond was to become the mascot for an out-and-proud brand like Adam & Стёпа, then he could kiss the oppressive closet of Diet Coke das vi danya.
Speaking of kissing in the closet, when I rounded the doorway of the dressing room, the display I saw between Catsmeat and Esmond caused me to instantly back out and shut the door again firmly. I felt my face go all jalapeno on me - whatever confessions the two had recently shared were obviously a resounding success. I only hoped they had protection on hand.
Returning to the foyer, I provided Lucius Pim with Esmond's contact details and sincere apologies.
This latest turn of events left but one single loose strand of the web, and it was not a happy one to contemplate. I was reluctant to break the news to little Cora, but I surmised it was best not to leave the sword of Damocles dangling for too long.
I found her sipping on wine with a group of girls in the cafeteria. Oh, how quickly that rosy smile was to be wiped from her face.
'Bertie!' she greeted! 'How is our little songbird?'
'Quite well,' I sighed. 'May I bend your ear for a moment, old fruit?'
I drew her aside to a quiet spot, and bid her sit down.
'Cora... there's something I recently discovered about Esmond, and I think it best that you hear it from a friend. My child... I am so sorry to tell you, but Esmond's-'
'Gay? Oh, I know that,' she chittered, waving a dismissive hand. 'He needed a beard, and I happened to be in his proximity. Don't get me wrong, I'll be happy for him when he finally summons the nerve to come out one day, but in the mean time, I get to kiss that face of his. Who'd pass THAT chance up?' she wiggled her willow-leaf eyebrows at me.
'Ah... about that...'
'What? Oh, don't tell me!' She gasped. 'Did you and Esmond get a little bit TOO in-character? Did Charles Ryder ride you, Bertie?' She nudged me in the ribs. Well, I never!
'I beg your pardon? No! It wasn't ME!'
Cora shrugged. 'Oh well. Whoever he's getting the beefcake from, all the more power to him. Meanwhile, Gertrude Winkworth and her friends have invited me to the She Lounge in Soho for late night cocktails.'
The gaggle of ladies noisily sashayed out, and Cora wished me goodnight.
Ordering myself a generous b. and s. at the bar, I composed another text to Jeeves:
You were right. Light touch and wide berth allowed chums to sort out romantic affairs for themselves. Marion w/Johnny, Esmond w/Catsmeat, and Cora happily w/Gertrude and friends. In other news, Bea played the part of enthusiastic claque to a T. Yours truly got standing ovation as Sebastian Flyte, recalled all my lines perfectly thanks to own personal muses. Have re-booked your ticket for Saturday. Spoiler alert: your eyes will not be dry. Hope the settlement was success.
After downing my drink, enduring further kudos from the lingering crowd and beginning to feel pleasantly floaty, a response buzzed from my pocket:
Hello, Mr Wooster. I am happy to report that my client's affairs were tidily sorted, and I earned him a generous settlement. I am currently at home with my feet up, enjoying a celebratory brandy and soda. Bea has also texted me in the interim. Even without my instruction, she was eager to laud your performance. She described you as tender, passionate and beautiful, and I am impatient to see the artist that earned such acclaim. Please think of me as you cast your magic on the stage tomorrow. Goodnight, dear songbird, goodnight.
I would like to thank all my readers who had the magnanimity to make it to the Blandings Performing Arts Centre for 'Brideshead!' The final show this past Saturday was a particularly jolly affair. We were veritably awash in high spirits, tears and goodwill, and the cast party that followed left me out of commission for the whole of Sunday. After about 2am, and my fifth-or-sixth Brandy Alexander, my memory started to peter out a bit.
On Monday, having regained my gross motor skills, I was desperate to clear my head and dispense the Starbucks gift cards that I'd been saddled with by Marion. I invited my fellow Drones out for a round of cinnamon rolls and sugary novelty lattes. There were but a meagre dozen or so Starbucks establishments within the vicinity, so we just picked one at random and hied us hence.
Having taken over a large table up the back, we listened indulgently as Tuppy Glossop held court.
'I'm telling you chaps, this app is going to be the next big innovation in gaming! Best get in on it now before the share prices in the company go up. They're looking to publish in the first quarter of next year. With the money I've invested, I expect I shall be able to put a down payment on that Porsche I've been eyeing by... say... next April.'
I, for one, was not sold. 'Tuppy, I still don't understand the consumer appeal of this... this...'
'"Cruise Play", it's called,' Tuppy announced importantly. 'What could be better than having a video game played and won for you automatically?'
'Doesn't that sort of take all the fun out of it? Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't the whole point of a game to play it yourself?'
'Oho, and what of all those times Bowser and Ganon defeated you? All those 1-UP mushrooms squandered? I seem to recall you getting quite disgruntled over your wasted efforts. Thanks to Cruise Play, boss-battle-induced gamer rage shall soon be a thing of the past.'
'What about a game like "The Sims"? I can't imagine what good it would do for that,' Gussie pointed out.
Tuppy uneasily adjusted his fedora. 'Granted, there are still a few bugs to work out... When the developers play-tested that game, all the app did was open the cheat window and enter the word "motherlode" repeatedly. But give them time!'
'If it's all the same to you, Tuppy, I think I'll hold onto my dosh. Then again,' I shrugged, 'some people have made preposterous amounts of money from livestreams where they just play video games while they babble nonsense. To each his own, eh what?'
'This coming from the bloke with the vlog full of Disney songs,' Tuppy sneered.
I made ready to fire off a comeback, when a rather tardy Bingo Little floated into our midst. 'What ho, all,' he greeted dreamily.
'What ho, Bingo. Care for a venti-mocha-mudslide-crush?' I offered, pulling out another gift card.
'Gracious no!' He waved the brightly coloured piece of plastic away. 'I have resolved to no longer pollute my body with processed, blood-sugar-spiking swill.' He plopped down beside us and pulled out a mason jar filled with a swampy, greenish-brown fluid that reminded me of my intent to learn how to unclog a backed-up drain.
'I've been gluten, meat, dairy and sugar free for five whole days now!' He told us proudly, and I spotted a leaf of some kind wedged between his front teeth.
'Bingo, what IS that stuff?' Gussie enquired.
'Cabbage and broccoli juice, home-made of course. You simply must try a cleanse on this stuff, it's so... cleansing!' Here I noticed the others clutch defensively at their sweetened drinks. 'There's a joint in Kensington that does a great one, all organic, with a dash of macca powder and spirulina. I'm heading there tonight to see an indie-folk-rock gig. Would you lads like to come?'
'Alright, Bingo,' I said with certitude, just now registering the designer blazer, chinos and boat shoes that had usurped his usual t-shirt and jeans. 'Who is it this time?'
'Don't say "this time" as if it were just some shallow dalliance that can be replaced! My love for Adriana burns with the heat of a thousand suns and will endure forever!'
My old pal Bingo Little is a solid chap and a sweet-tempered soul, but there is something you need to understand about him: I have often suspected that they invented the term 'serial monogamist' to give a name to his apparent life calling. His romantic pursuits are like sparklers, by which I mean they are bright, dynamic and sizzling, and usually last for all of three minutes. He has been this way as long as I have known him. Back in our halcyon days, most of our little gang focused our energies on video games, collecting toys, and throwing things at other things. Bingo, on the other hand, was busy composing romantic sonnets (well, okay, romantic limericks) and creating playlists for his sweetie of the week. The pattern is fairly well-established - he will choose some poor soul to fixate on based upon a real or imagined virtue (this could be anything from prowess at rugby to the pleasing way they toss their hair when they laugh). Bingo will then build a whole new persona to court them, learning all he can about his beloved and cultivating a sudden interest in all their hobbies. The moment any scrap of difficulty pops up, his interest falls away like so much dead foliage. From there, it seldom takes long for him to spot another cutie and the vicious cycle begins again.
We've gotten quite efficient at coaxing him through the stages, listening to his raptures during the first blush of infatuation, then consoling him for the few nanoseconds of heartache before he's off once more. Why his parents have never opted for psychotherapy, I'll never know. Whole PhDs could be earned from making a case study out of him.
'Oh Bertie,' came the old refrain, 'she's a walking dream, a nymph, a tender goddess!' So was the checkout girl from Chigwell that he'd courted through the whole of July.
'Wait a minute,' Gussie interjected. 'Adriana, you said? Not Adriana Rosings-Rowsthorne from that dreadful "Born In Belgravia" show?'
'I wouldn't have thought you'd go in for that sort of viewing, Gussie,' Tuppy commented.
'I don't. Madeline has forced me to watch several episodes of it.' His tone revealed a deep and gruesome torment. 'One of her old school chums once had a guest stint on it.'
'But isn't Adriana one of those socialites who hangs out with A-list celebrities?' I inquired. 'I remember seeing her hobnobbing with the footballers' wives at the Chelsea FC dos that Ginger used to drag me to.'
'She's brunched with the Midddletons!' Bingo boasted. 'My angel flies high in the heavens with the finest society.'
'Health nut too, I take it,' I murmured, examining the mason jar of glorified pond scum. 'Don't take this the wrong way, old boy, but perhaps you've set your sights a tad too high. Sloaneys like this girl used to chew you up and spit you out back at Oxford. Need I remind you of the Penelope Darlington-Smythe incident? With the chihuahua and the lacrosse team?'
Bingo faltered a little at this, but persisted. 'This time will be different. I've got an ace up my sleeve.'
He leveled a wide grin at me. 'You.'
Every muscle in my body slumped as one. Oh, why must it always be Bertram?
Tuppy thrust a thumb in my general direction. 'What possible use could you have for this mentally deficient drama geek?'
'Well, that's just it, Tuppy. Everyone who's anyone is still raving about "Brideshead!" With Bertie tagging along, I've got a surefire drawcard for all the trendiest folk in town. Perhaps it's not quite as impressive as being pals with Esmond Haddock or Johnny Sang-'
'Hey! I'll have you know that Johnny Sang described my performance as "incandescent"!' I shot back.
'So you'll come with me to the gig tonight, then?'
Cornered, I considered my options. Refusing would no doubt spark resentment against me, as well as Bingo possibly considering more drastic wooing measures, such as the aforementioned limericks or even a boombox held aloft outside the girl's window. Delegating was no good - Tuppy and Gussie would make even poorer wingmen with this fashionable crowd than I. While I still believed a good therapist would have been the best way to help my starry-eyed friend, I had to stop him from being a danger to himself and to others.
'I'll come, as long as I don't have to drink any of that green stuff,' I answered.
Even with my coiffed curls and my best polo shirt, setting foot into Nouveau of Kensington made me feel a tad like a mange-ridden mongrel at Crufts - one who was dressed in a Trekkie costume and lived with his mother, to boot. The place was all expensive art and uncomfortably trendy barstools, boasting more posh rahs than a cheer squad at the Cartier Queen's Cup. Within the first few minutes, I had recognised the faces of about half a dozen former classmates who had either bullied, ignored, or pitied me, including a few whom I'm fairly sure had once been photographed partying with Prince Harry. Given that my only claim to notoriety was being dumped by a footballer, my usual impulse to mingle was hampered quite a bit. Bingo, on the other hand, was rather single-minded.
'I don't see Adriana yet. How very chic of her to be fashionably late.'
'What does she look like? Perhaps I can help you spot her,' I offered.
'Tall and thin, long blonde hair, and impeccably dressed,' he sighed.
I slowly scanned all the young women in the crowd and frowned. 'You may have to narrow it down.'
'Her eyes glisten like a dewy meadow on a spring morning, and her laugh is like an angelic choir-'
'Yes, yes, alright. Perhaps we should get a drink while we wait?'
I ordered the most innocuous looking brew on the menu, while Bingo indulged in another helping of his vegetable sludge. Soon the crowd hushed as the band took to the stage. Between the quartet I could spot a mandolin, a loud pashmina scarf, a cello, and a white chap with dreadlocks. I braced myself.
All things considered, the music wasn't too bad. I mean, their reliance on the cellist for the rhythm was perhaps a little unorthodox, and the female vocalist seemed to be doing some strange impersonation of a heavily sedated Carol Channing. But all in all, I was entertained by the lyrically dense spectacle of mellow sentimentality.
After a lengthy mandolin solo, the band finished up their first set, and my mind turned to freshening my drink. As Bingo and I oiled up to the counter, we bumped into a familiar figure.
'Bertie, poppet! How have you been?' Florence Craye grabbed me by the forearms and air-kissed both of my cheeks.
'What ho, Florence, I'm here dipping my toes into the indie folk-rock millieu for the first time. I take it you're a fan?'
'Oh, this lot's okay, but they're no Noah & The Whale. I could recommend some albums to you if you like.'
'Oh, no, no need for that. I'm sure you're a busy woman.' I hid in a long sip of my drink.
'Anyway, I simply have to tell you how riveting you were as Sebastian Flyte! I saw "Brideshead!" with the girls. We all agreed that you had the most whimsical take on the character we'd ever seen! Actually...' Here she turned back to her table. 'Girls! Come, come!'
I saw Bingo's eyes light up like high-beams as Florence beckoned to a clique of painted young ladies. The group included Bobbie Wickham, as well as a few blondes in pearls and pastels that matched Bingo's description of Adriana. One of them was bound to be her.
'Tink, Georgie, Mellie-poo, Addy-pants, this is Bertie Wooster. He played Sebastian in "Brideshead!" Bobbie, you know Bertie, of course.' Bobbie and I gave a casual nod to one another.
One of the blondes shrieked, and clutched at my hand with her french tips.
'Oh, but you were incandescent, darling! I was in literal tears by the end. Can you sign my napkin?'
'But of course, my dear. I also have a Youtube, you know. I should make it out to...?'
'Adriana Rosings-Rowsthorne. Or Addy-pants, if you like.' Florence obligingly leant me a biro from her Falabella clutch purse.
All this ego-stroking was most fortifying. However, I rallied round to my original purpose. 'We have really been enjoying the music tonight. Bingo here is a regular at this place, are you not, old boy?'
I patted him on the shoulder blades, pushing him ever so slightly towards Adriana.
'I drink cabbage and broccoli juice!' He blurted.
A cringe threatened to take over from Adriana's wide smile, but endeavouring to be polite, she bravely fought it off.
'Oh... good for you, darling. It is rather scrummy, isn't it?'
Bingo nodded, utterly chuffed with himself.
'I say, Florence,' I said, 'was Honoria planning to pop in tonight at some point? I recall that she's quite fond of venues with live music and artisanal free-range snack foods.'
I could tell I'd come a cropper the moment Bobbie flinched in terror and Florence's face scrunched up like a pug stuffed inside a biscuit barrel.
'I'm SURE I don't know to WHOM you are referring.'
Well. No sense pressing that rather obvious sore point. 'Oh well, no matter...' I laughed nervously. 'Got anything planned for the weekend, then?'
'Oh yes, Florence and I are attending our yoga class on Saturday,' Adriana helped. 'We've booked in the earliest slot at 8am. It's incredible how few people are willing to show up at that time! Our instructor's amazing, but she's had such trouble trying to fill the session.'
Bingo leapt in. 'Well, Bertie and I would love to join you!' He grasped my shoulder, and I felt his nails digging very subtly into my flesh.
'Uhm... Indeed,' I bleated. Sacrificing the odd lie-in is, sadly, part and parcel of the Code of the Woosters. My ancestors at Agincourt would no doubt have been up and ready to go unto the breach at daybreak.
'Oh, that's brill,' Adriana responded, sparing Bingo the briefest of looks. 'Bertie, give me your contact details and I'll pass them onto Yogi Cordelia.'
Later, after the folk band had resumed and was droning through a particularly dozy ballad, I pulled Bobbie aside.
'What's the sitch with Florence and Honoria, then? Surely just a lovers' tiff. Did they have a disagreement about what brand of shampoo was the most eco-friendly again?'
Bobbie shook her head sadly. 'Splitsville. They've been broken up since before Gussie and Madeline got together.'
This was disheartening news, indeed. Honoria Glossop had been Sappho to Florence's Aphrodite since they both joined the Oxford Feminist Society. I fondly recall the two of them adorning Lady Margaret Hall with pink streamers during the final week of Michaelmas, and thoroughly terrorising any cad they saw harassing the female students.
'What on earth happened?'
'Honoria got into Camille Paglia. Became quite an apologist for her.'
I didn't follow. Was Camille Paglia some sort of continental pop idol? 'And?'
'Florence despises Camille Paglia, as do all sensible feminists!' Bobbie exclaimed. 'The two of them got into a vicious argument and, well, that was that.'
'I take it you've sided with Florence, since the two of you are still knocking around together?'
'It's... complicated. Honoria's my mixed doubles partner. Plus she's got a membership at The Hurlingham.'
I commiserated. 'Divorce is always hardest on the children.'
After hitting the snooze button thrice, a frigid shower, and about two dozen gallons of strong coffee, I was somewhere close to conscious. It was 7am, on a Saturday morning, and this Wooster was not curled up in bed with sweet dreams of pleasant streams. After filling my water bottle, and throwing on some old shorts and a t-shirt of Tigger that I decided passed for activewear, I zombie-marched out the door.
Jeeves, of course, was already up and alert, just heading out himself. The blighter looked positively frisky.
'Good morning, Mr Wooster. Are you headed to the tube station?'
I managed a grunt in the affirmative.
'I am going into work, myself. I would be happy to accompany you.'
There were few other commuters at this time of day, and we had no trouble scoring a seat. Given the respite of sitting down, I was able to make conversation.
'Bingo owes me big time,' I groaned. 'I've agreed to attend an early morning yoga class with him.'
'That is very encouraging. What form of yoga will you be studying?'
My semi-functioning brain could not quite process this question. Sensing my distress, Jeeves clarified.
'There are many different styles of yoga, all with varying objectives and techniques. Hatha yoga is the most prevalent form in the west, however there are specialised branches such as Anusara and the vigourous Vinyasa style. I myself prefer Kundalini yoga, as I find it quite dynamic and invigorating.'
'Oh... well, I was told this is a beginner's class, so I'm just hoping that there are no poses that require me to fold my legs behind my head.'
Jeeves' lips turned upward, his eyes shining merrily.
'But what of yourself? Surely you don't spend every Saturday morning in the office?' I asked.
'No, it is not usual. However, I've quite a lot of paperwork to sift through for my latest case, and I wish to complete it as soon as possible.'
'Just a divorce. A contentious one, unfortunately, and both parties have quite a few assets and foreign investments. The pay I earn from this will be substantial, but it is most tedious to plough through it all and also have to mediate between two very embittered people.'
'Godspeed. Tell Bea I said hello, too.'
I stumbled off at my stop, still dumbstruck by the diligent patience of my friend. Here I was grousing about one early morning, while he was off playing Athena to half of London's elite.
Well, if Jeeves could balance the scales of justice, then perhaps there was hope for me to balance my chakras. It would be a nice spillover perk of helping Bingo move through this latest silly infatuation of his. I squared my shoulders and strode into Queen's Gate Yoga Studio.
'Namaste,' cooed Yogi Cordelia, a masterwork of spandex and lean muscle tissue. She addressed the class of half-a-dozen with a tranquil smile and soothing tones. 'We shall begin in mountain pose, and perform a simple sun salutation.'
From my borrowed yoga mat in the back row, I eyed Bingo, who had staked out a position right behind Adriana. His eyes were out on stalks, marvelling at her slender form, squeezed into a skintight magenta croptop-and-leggings ensemble. Really, he could have been more subtle about it.
During the back bend, I am quite sure I felt a few vertebrae crack. The forward fold was alright, but once we moved into the lunges I could feel myself getting shaky, and one of my kneecaps made a light but distinct popping sound. I may as well have been a bowl of Rice Krispies.
Florence and the girls seemed to be sailing through the poses with ease, but Bingo's face was already a deep crimson, his sweat-logged hair plastered to his head. I caught his eye and offered him a sympathetic smile.
My hamstrings cried out in protest at warrior pose, and my deltoids burned at being held up for so long. Soon, though, one torturous contortion of my body seemed to meld into the next, and I started to ride the waves of pain like a resigned piece of flotsam.
Just as we were all attempting a rather ambitious half-moon pose, a truly thunderous fart resounded throughout the room. Yogi Cordelia, being an obvious veteran, was wholly unaffected. However, I perceived Adriana and Florence flinching slightly. Bingo's expression was one of undiluted pain and degradation.
It happened again in the middle of downward-facing dog. At this point Adriana collapsed to the floor in a coughing fit. When she scrambled back up, her eyes were watering.
At long last we collapsed into savasana, but even then, another coy little toot managed to rumble its way out from underneath Bingo. Well, I suppose a steady diet of cabbage and broccoli juice will do that to a man. Poor Adriana curled into a foetal position, struggling for air.
At the end of the lesson, the girls fled into a far corner, and Yogi Cordelia flung open all the windows.
'Great session today, eh ladies?' Bingo chirped, after catching up with the girls in their frantic escape from the contaminated studio.
'Yes, quite piquant,' Florence sneered, and the others giggled, before turning their backs to him.
'I, um... Bertie and I were wondering if you might want to have some brunch with us.' It was clear that Bingo was determined to go down swinging.
'Um, sorry Bongo,' Adriana mumbled. 'We've been invited to dine at The Arts Club with my boyfriend Christophe.'
There came the killing blow. Bingo's face crumbled.
'You know Christophe Fortescue-Swanson, of course,' Florence added, 'He used to give you and Bertie Chinese burns and steal your canteen money.'
The ladies swanned off down the road. Time to rally round. I flung an arm around Bingo's shoulders.
'What say we ditch the green juice and go get some cheesecake?'
I took Bingo to a cafe that I knew featured a very attractive waitstaff. As I sipped my tea, I discreetly pointed out the various toned pectorals and curvaceous hips that were on display, but it all fell on deaf ears. It was doubtful Bingo even tasted the large slice of chocolate caramel cheesecake that he was mechanically piling into his gob. Hopefully this funk would clear up by the evening. Sometimes, it would take a while for Bingo to shake the whole thing off, but he'd usually be back to his old whimsical self without taking on any long-term damage. This time, however, there was something off about his aura that had me worried. It was as if he'd had a chunk taken out of him.
I decided to invite him over for dinner, too concerned to leave him on his lonesome. We came upon Jeeves as he returned home from the office, laden with Waitrose bags. He and I had planned on fixing some kadai chicken together that evening, and I quietly begged him to allow Bingo to join us. Jeeves' expression flickered for the briefest moment, but being a man of a generous disposition, he agreed to accommodate.
While Bingo sat heaped over the kitchen island, glumly watching 'Born in Belgravia' on his tablet, Jeeves and I moved together with seamless synchri-whatsit: I chopped tomatoes and green bell peppers as he carefully tended to some juicy chicken thighs and drumsticks, shallow-frying them in a large, well seasoned pot. The kitchen smelled positively delectable.
'Kadai chicken is one of my favourite comfort foods,' Jeeves informed us, placidly poking at the bird meat. 'My mother used to prepare it if I or one of my siblings had endured a difficult school day, and it never failed to restore our equanimity.'
'Much like your Rogan Josh?' I asked, scrutinising my measurement of garam masala.
'In a sense. However, Rogan Josh is a Kashmiri dish, not Punjabi. All the same, my entire family is of an accord in regards to its many virtues.'
'Ah, understood,' I murmured, almost dropping a jar of cumin. 'I seem to remember Yogi Cordelia saying that yoga is mostly a Hindu wheeze, so I suppose that's a similar sort of fancy?'
Jeeves began carefully lifting the browned chicken out of the oil. 'Indeed, Mr Wooster. However, you will still find a wealth of yoga studios in cities throughout the Punjab region.'
'I suppose it's the same as an Englishman like me enjoying Cornish pasties and Guinness,' I mused, and Jeeves' face glowed as he half-smiled at me.
'I'm never attempting yoga again,' Bingo moaned from his perch at the kitchen island.
'I would not feel too discouraged about today, Mr Little,' Jeeves consoled him. 'Yoga is not a pursuit designed for impressing young ladies, in fact it is a deep and meditative spiritual practice. With patience, one can find it profoundly relaxing and restorative.'
'Jeeves studies Kumbaya yoga,' I boasted.
'Kundalini yoga, Mr Wooster,' he corrected me gently. 'I developed a taste for it during my gap year, when I lived with my Great Aunt Geeta in Amritsar.'
Bingo's attention seemed to have fallen away from his tablet, helplessly drawn to Jeeves' wonderful repartee. 'Were you born in India, Jeeves?'
'My mother was,' he replied, 'she came here to London with her parents as a child. My father, Edward Jeeves, is originally from Twickenham.'
'Oh! How did her family take her marriage to an Englishman?' Bingo's eyes were wide with ardor. Jeeves does tend to have that effect on most folks.
'My grandmother took a while to come round to it. She had wished for her daughter to have a traditional Sikh wedding with a respectable Punjabi boy. My grandfather, however, has always been something of a hopeless romantic, and encouraged my mother to marry for love.'
'He sounds like a sweetheart!' Bingo remarked meltingly.
'Yes, I have always been exceedingly fond of my Dadaa.'
'Oh, Jeeves,' I piped up, staying his hand as he moved to add the spices to the hot oil, 'do go easy on the chili powder. I'm sure you and I can take the heat, but old Bingo is more of a makhani man.'
'As you wish, Mr Wooster. I shall also be sure to add plenty of yoghurt before we plate up.'
By the time we tucked in, tearing up toasty hot naan and stripping tender meat from the bone, Bingo's disposition had taken a definite upswing. His cheeks were pinkened by the curry, his eyes were merry as Jeeves regaled us with stories of his Aunt Geeta, and the misery of the morning seemed to be wholly forgotten.
They say one shouldn't dwell on what-ifs, but sitting there in that warm, fragrant kitchen, feeling sated and soothed, I was struck by the notion that I was phenomenally lucky to have locked myself out of the flat on that chilly April evening. Had I remembered my keys, what would have become of me? I would still be the same hopeless man-child I'd always been, sullying Boko's possessions and burning my ready-meals - there but for the grace of Jeeves go I. Tallying all the recent accomplishments under my belt: tending to sick fish, starring in a critically acclaimed fringe musical, mastering the basics of gastronomy, and not to mention being a steadfast rock for my chums and their many maladies, I observed that they were all due to the advocacy and ingenuity of the inimitable Jeeves. I have found myself in his debt time and time again, and yet for all his trouble, all he has asked for in return is my company. And I can't imagine that it's much recompense for a serious-minded fellow such as he. I've perused the colossal floor-to-ceiling bookshelf in his living room, and it is crammed with tomes with titles like 'Leviathan', 'Ethics', 'Crime and Punishment' and 'Murder on the Orient Express'. (Frankly, I found even 'Mockingjay' to be considerably heavy-going - I'm not sure I could handle such weighty missives as those.)
'Is anything the matter, Mr Wooster?' The man gazed at me with that courteous sympathy of his. True to form, he had picked up on my ponderings with something that sat between intuition and clairvoyance.
'Actually, Jeeves,' I told him with deep surety, 'all is most definitely well.'
'I am gratified to hear it. Would you care for more naan?'
Last saved: 13/08/17 03:47am
Oh damn it. Oh dash it. Buggering damning sodding piddling crapping morris-dancing HELL. God, Jesus, Buddha, Guru Nanak, Ziggy Stardust, whoever is there PLEASE HELP ME. I've made a startling, horrendous, irreversible realisation tonight, one that, if it is ever made public knowledge, will be my apple in Eden, my Pandora's Box, my Ides of March, my Ludicrous Speed. It will upend me and reduce the new life I have been building to tatters.
I'm even afraid to type it out, lest the text on my screen bestow a power upon the revelation to wreak even more havoc in my life than it already inevitably will. I will most likely be abandoned, laughed at, left to sink back down into a swamp of self-pity and squalour. I will be revealed to the world as the worst of hypocrites, and the saddest of spineless leeches.
I'm in love with Jeeves.
Quite passionately, as it happens.
I've spent the last ten minutes staring at the above words, letting the horror and the crushing reality of this sink in. It's something that has been prowling around in the murk of my subconscious mind for some time now, its belly low to the ground, waiting to pounce. I curse my own blonde bloody brain for not having caught this early enough to nip it in the bud. What would have started as simple infatuation has escalated into bosom-friendship, inter-dependent, conducting-an-entire-conversation-without-words territory. I have not felt so ardently for someone since my days with Ginger at Oxford. How am I going to reign in this ridiculous affection???
I have broken the cardinal rule for all gay men: NEVER fall in love with a straight bloke. Is Jeeves straight? He seems so untouchable and reserved that he may well be asexual, for all I know. At any rate, I cannot even imagine what he would think if he knew how I felt about him. What I've thought about him. The THOUGHTS I've had about his firm, toned
OKAY get a grip Wooster. Maybe you're overreacting. Maybe you're just shallow and merely lusting after him like a buffoon. Maybe picturing Jeeves looking like Sid James would help. Concentrate on THAT mental image. Sid James, saving me from being locked out of the flat and sharing Rogan Josh with me. Sid James, coaching me to be an ad hoc couples counselor. Sid James, giving me cooking lessons, prompting me in Brideshead rehearsals, listening patiently to my
DASH IT ALL. Not only am I definitely in love with my brilliant, unattainable friend, but I think I've also just picked up a crush on Sid James for my troubles. I can never watch a 'Carry On' film ever again.
After all the lecturing I've levelled at my fellow Drones about the insanity of romance - I can't believe how smug I was. You're a cad, Wooster. You shall bear their I-told-you-so's and you will deserve it. After all my big talk about being a strong independent twink, one who needs a boyfriend like a faun needs a tricycle or some such... crack eggs, apply to face.
Oh but it can't be helped. He is wonderful. More perceptive, generous, chivalrous, thoughtful than any man I've ever met. His eloquence and poise and nobility belong in some other more enchanted age. He is a prince and a scholar and a shaman. And bloody hell those sexy dark hooded eyes of his. With their long lashes and elegant brows and
I spent a sleepless night sitting up in bed, a newfound anxiety being fuelled by successive cups of tea. The reality of my gargantuan debt to Jeeves gnawed at me like a singularly determined Pekingese. I had known him but a handful of months, and this kind-hearted gentleman had done me more favours than some of my oldest childhood pals. And how had I shown my gratitude? Brainless chatter and a couple of lingering scorch marks on his cookware.
The question of how to repay him left me utterly stymied. He is one of the most self-sufficient chaps I know - any act I could perform for him, he could probably do it with ten times the efficiency and adequacy that I could manage, even in my best moments. Dwelling on his dazzling calibre, I felt quite melancholy: where he was a soaring eagle, I was but a lowly and particularly clueless earwig. Following this thought, I began to wonder why he even tolerated me to begin with. His attention and sympathy are fine gifts, fit only for the worthiest of good eggs. Wherefore their bestowment upon this blockhead?
At daybreak, I gave up Morpheus as a bad job, and struggled my way downstairs. Over yet another cup of tea, I received a text from Florence, summoning me for brunch at her favourite vegan cafe in Shoreditch. Sleep-deprived as I was, my turgid thoughts were wearing thin on my nerves - the prospect of getting out of the flat and finding distraction was jolly well tempting. Even if it came in the form of avolattes and an abundance of hipster beards. Anyway, I was concerned for the lass - I had known her in both her pre-Honoria and intra-Honoria state, and the latter had been a marked improvement. Some of her more serrated edges had softened, and she'd developed a certain twinkle in her eye. While bringing up the subject outright would be a suicide mission, I was hopeful there would be a way to nudge her into seeing just how snugly she fit with Honoria, like two amazons in a pod.
As it happens, I was able to get nary a syllable in. The moment we found a table and sat down, Florence launched herself into what was clearly a well-planned agenda.
'Well, Bertie, this new leaf of yours is a most pleasant surprise, I must say,' she declared. 'I can only guess at what has inspired it. All the same, you are becoming a whole new man before my eyes.'
I forced a smile. 'Really?'
'The Bertie Wooster of last year would never have been able to look after a household, not to mention practice yoga and cultivate an interest in contemporary folk music. I daresay that soon we'll see you cast off the sugary chain restaurant lattes and cartoon character t-shirts as well.'
I could feel the cortisol and epinephrine begin to surge through my system - I was right in Florence's crossfire with no way of escape.
'I'm sure this new cultural tableau seems overwhelming, but fear not. I am more that happy to help mould your tastes. I was thinking we could go on a little shopping trip this afternoon. There's a fabulous record store near here where we could pick up some music for you to listen to. Did Boko leave his record player at the flat?'
As I sipped my Earl Grey, it suddenly dawned on me that Florence's slightly overzealous coaching may be just the ticket. What I could give Jeeves was my company, and what better gift could there for an urbane fellow like him than erudite conversation about art and culture? Florence's sudden bout of Professor Higgins-itis was obviously a way of channelling the pent-up energy of her Honoria-less existence. But if we both stood to benefit, then so be it. Besides, if Florence considered taking me more seriously, perhaps she would be more likely to listen to my relationship advice.
'Lead on, good lady,' I prompted her.
Our sojourn to the record store was actually quite enjoyable. Florence plucked out a healthy selection of albums from the shelves, including Bob Dylan, Noah & The Whale and Ani DiFranco. I've had a listen of each in the time since, and I must say they each bear their own unique merits. The bloke at the counter looked like a reject from The Sex Pistols, but it turned out he harboured a passion for nineties neo-swing, and we struck up a rather merry conversation about the many virtues of Messr. Brian Setzer.
It was the trip to the bookstore that followed which rattled my nerves. I would have been quite happy to linger over the young adult section, the Tintin display and the music bios - Florence would have none of that. She yanked me into a murky corner at the back, where the labels on the shelves read 'Philosophy', 'Sociology', 'Politics'. Along with the spoils of the record shop, she added a tower of dense, ponderous looking tomes, ones that made even my old Oxford textbooks seem like Roal Dahl novels. One of them I recognised as being from Jeeves' collection: 'Ethics' by Baruch Spinoza. I steeled myself at the prospect of opening this one. Faint heart never recompensed fair bosom-chum.
'You will be coming to yoga again next Saturday?' Florence asked, just before we parted ways at the bus stop.
I thought of the look on Jeeves' face at seeing me effortlessly move from the crane pose into a perfectly executed king pigeon.
'I'll be there with bells on!'
On the way home, I still felt a bit daunted by Spinoza's masterwork, so instead I broke out a cheeky little book entitled 'The History of Sexuality' by Michel Foucault. It was nowhere near as audacious as I had expected, but at the very least I could understand the gist of the whole 'Other Victorians' wheeze. I idly wondered what Jeeves would have to say on theories about repression.
And then, as I approached the flat, my somewhat-lofty thoughts went tumbling to the earth. I was assaulted by a spectacle of such crude amorous zeal that even Foucault would have been rendered speechless:
Bingo was on the porch of Jeeves' flat, a lurid bouquet of multi-coloured roses in his clutches. The man himself stood in the open doorway, staring at him in utter bewilderment.
As I came upon the two, I discerned what the shameless jackass was spewing forth:
'...absolute ideal of masculine beauty. I haven't been able to get you out of my mind! Oh, Jeeves, I know I'm just a lowly simpleton, not a patch on your intellect and grace, but won't you consider me? I would do whatever it took to make you the happiest man in the world!'
It took Jeeves a few moments to garner a response. My heart pulsing somewhere around my tonsils, I keenly awaited what would no doubt be a perfectly crafted brush-off. I wager that Jeeves probably knows how to kill a man from blood-loss without leaving so much as a scar.
'Mr Little...' he began, and I clenched my fists around the canvas shopping bags I was holding. 'May I say that I am very flattered by your declaration, and it quite took me by surprise. However...'
He eyed me over Bingo's shoulder, and his sharp glare stated 'This is none of your damned beeswax, Wooster.'
'Perhaps you should come inside, where we can discuss this matter in private.'
The door shut behind the two of them, and I suddenly felt all the organs in my body turn to granite.
Could you ever picture a fairy-tale prince dating an uncouth gnome? A wise-man hooking up with the village idiot? Jennifer Lawrence cozying up to Jon Lovitz? Take the horror and disgust that such images invoke from your psyche, multiply them by a six-figure number, and then maybe you shall start to get an idea of how it felt to see Bingo come around the next evening to pick up Jeeves for a dinner date, cramming a much-too-lengthy kiss upon his lips. It inspired a sudden desire in me to slam my head repeatedly against the wall.
On top of the strictly moral outrage that such an ill-matched pairing inspired, it left me at a complete loss as to how to honour Jeeves' many kindnesses to me. I had previously gotten the impression that Jeeves would appreciate sophisticated company and intellectual rapport. When picturing his romantic ideal, I had formed vague notions of some intimidatingly witty soul, all poise and self-assurance, with an exquisite bearing to match Jeeves' own.
Perhaps, I supposed, Jeeves opted to date a clod like Bingo to accentuate his own virtues, the way one might place a beautiful flower in a crude earthenware vase. Could Jeeves really be that vain?
Incidentally, Florence also dragged me out that evening to see some performance art at the Tate Modern. The woman with the mohawk smashing empty jam jars and screaming passages of Sylvia Plath poetry really spoke to me. I began to feel a little less inclined to patch up Florence's relationship with Honoria, instead agreeing to get plastered with her on craft beer.
'Oh Bertie,' Bingo Oh-Bertie'd at me the next morning, as I clung desperately to my chain restaurant latte. 'Don't you think he looks like some gorgeous Bollywood idol? Those eyes! Those lips! That rakishly crooked nose! I could kiss his deep caramel skin all day!'
'You know, if you really want me to vomit, you could just spike my coffee with ipecac,' I sniped.
'Sounds like someone's got a case of sour grapes,' Gussie remarked helpfully. 'Still hung up on Ginger, are we?'
'Bertie just hasn't experienced the bliss of true romance,' Bingo announced loftily. 'Not like you and I, Gussie. Oh, when I hold Reginald in my arms, when I feel his heartbeat next to mine, I swear I am left completely breathless!'
That was about as much as I could take. 'Oh shut up, Bingo, for godsake! I have a rather unpleasant hangover, and the last thing I need is to be subjected to your stomach-churning sexual escapades!'
'Shut up yourself, you nitwit! Anyway, Reginald is a perfect gentleman, we've not taken that step yet. I've only gotten to first base.'
'Well, thank heaven for small mercies,' I groaned, pinching my brow.
'But when we finally do make love, I intend to touch him with such tenderness and devotion that he'll know I'm the only man who he could ever lo-'
I attest that my latte had gone quite lukewarm while I endured Bingo's revolting raptures. That's why I felt absolutely no misgivings about dumping it over his stupid fat head.
I dedicated the next few days to poring over my new books, slowly working my way through Foucault, Simone De Beauvoir and Bertrand Russell. The substance of their arguments was like catching butterflies. With some effort I could grasp them, but they were a slippery sort of whatsit and escaped me just as quickly as I had managed to get a hold of them.
At last, I pulled out the biggie. 'Ethics', the book boomed at me in a remarkably humourless typeface. Steaming cup of tea in hand, I took a deep breath and plunged onto the first page.
I. By that which is self-caused, I mean that of which the essence involves existence, or that of which the nature is only conceivable as existent.'
The doorbell rang, and I thanked my lucky stars for the interruption.
'Jeeves!' I yelped. 'What are you doing here?' Bit passive-aggressive, I know, but I was not feeling terribly kindly towards the chap.
'Good evening, Mr Wooster. I wish to have a quick word with you, if I may.'
'Speak,' I commanded tersely, setting hand on hip.
'Richard told me about the altercation between you and he at the cafe the other day, and I admit I was most upset to hear of it.' (Good Lord. Richard?)
'Come to defend your boyfriend's honour, have you?'
I could see a spark of annoyance flare in his eyes. 'Mr Wooster. Please try to understand. I have no desire to come between you and your friend. It distressed me very much to hear that my relationship with Richard was the cause ot your rift. I come here to implore you to make peace with him.'
'Why him, Jeeves?' I ejaculated. 'You could do so much better! How can you possibly justify dating someone so inferior to you!?'
At this, there was a touch of warmth about Jeeves' expression again, and he seemed to relax a tad. 'I thought you would have realised why I am humouring him, Mr Wooster. You have made it very clear to me that Richard is a fickle person, whose romances are chronically short-lived. Rather than let him pine away for me in misery, I thought it kinder to indulge his infatuation, and allow him to grow tired of me. You are right in saying that we are not well-suited to a long term relationship, and I warrant that the tryst will fizzle out soon.'
I could see what he was getting at, but there was still a rumbling, ruthless part of me that was not satisfied.
'And yet, you're on a first name basis with him,' I griped.
Jeeves frowned. 'Well, it would be rather inappropriate to refer to the man I am currently kissing as "Mr Little". Besides,' he added with a little mischief, 'Richard is not unattractive. Being intimate with him is no hardship.'
I sighed heavily, wishing to be elsewhere. 'Alright, point made. Now, if you'll kindly leave me to my reading.' I still held 'Ethics' in my hand, my thumb marking my place on the first page.
Jeeves peered at the cover. 'Forgive me, Mr Wooster, is that Spinoza's "Ethics"?'
'Florence recommended it to broaden my mind.' I flickered a brief glance at him, daring him to take issue.
The great busybody remained in the doorway, leveling me with one of his Looks, his eyebrows crinkling just so.
'At the risk of being invasive, I could not recommend such a dry piece of philosophical literature. You may find the concepts set down in that book will elude you.'
It was enough to have to tolerate Jeeves flaunting this sham of a love affair in my face, but this insult was simply beyond the pale. The foul mood that had been simmering within me for the past few days boiled over.
'And I suppose "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Dutch Philosophers" is more my speed? or perhaps something with lift-up flaps? You've already traded me in for a newer model of moronic sidekick, so I don't need your condescension, thank you very much! Go and boil your smug, over-sized head!'
I slammed the door in his face with all the resentment I could muster.
I like to think of myself as an open-minded, expansive soul. One who judges not and is eager to try all manner of new things, from offbeat punk bands to fried grasshoppers. I even went rock jumping during my last trip down to Cornwall. But never in a trillion years did I ever suppose that people would choose to attend academic lectures - simply for the 'fun' of it.
The folk music and yoga recommended to me by Florence had proven to be most enjoyable. On my second visit to Yogi Cordelia's studio, I found myself able to tough out the strains of warrior pose and various back bends with just a tad more ease. Even the vegan cafe was becoming a regular haunt - in addition to their superlative teas, they did a rather innocuous series of veggie wraps (I recommend the falafel and hommous), and the people-watching there was rather entertaining.
However, after one of these leisurely lunches, with Bobbie Wickham in tow, Florence dragged me along to the RA. We filed into a lecture theatre alongside all manner of bohemian types - tweed jackets, berets, unicorn-dyed waterfall braids, and kaleidoscopic tattoos were all proudly on show. I resigned myself to another afternoon of performance art, merely hoping that no bodily fluids were to be involved.
What I was in fact subjected to was a dusty grey professor who could have given Ben Stein a run for his money, droning on about Marcel Duchamp and John Cage. Now don't get me wrong, I am no philistine - I did read music at Oxford, you know, and I can tell my Gregorian chant from my twelve-tone Philip Glass. But had you been in that cavernous hall, enduring the reedy monotone of this stuffed shirt, you too would have wished for the old coot to cram his theorising and simply give us a live performance of Cage's '4'33"'.
When I nodded off, Florence was horrified. She was at least gracious enough to wait until we were back out in the front courtyard before giving me an earful.
'Really, Bertie!' She squawked. 'To be so disrespectful of Doctor Cavendish! I could have died of embarrassment!'
'If you'd bothered to stay awake, you would have heard his brilliant comparisons between Dadaism and the prepared piano,' Bobbie pitched in.
'Well, it was rather warm in there,' was my measly rebuttal.
I was sent home with strict instructions to study my Spinoza.
Trawling through 'Ethics' had been an arduous quest indeed. Even gearing myself up to bear Baruch's many Props, Proofs and Things took a full half-hour each day, and even then I could barely endure half a chapter per sitting. To be honest, I would have cast the book down and dawdled off to listen to my Bob Dylan album again, were it not for Jeeves' rather catty declaration that the material was beyond someone of my limited mental substance. Self-improvement be damned, there is nothing quite like spite to motivate a chap.
After an unmeasured ream of time crawled past, I found myself getting sleepy once again, my forehead threatening to drop heavily onto the accursed tome. My poor beleaguered brain desperately needed fresh air, and I determined that a brisk trot around the neighbourhood would do me a world of good.
As I ankled about Bishop's Park, I ruminated over Florence's resolve to craft me into her own personal highbrow sidekick. I had agreed to the project, I admit, mostly for my own benefit. While some of the pastimes had indeed proved a successful fit, it was dawning on me that both mentor and student were in over their heads. Clearly, Florence's expected end result was an avant-garde, dignified character with art critiques, philosophical discourse, and fair-trade free-range whatsit coming out of their ears. She was trying to force a Wooster sized peg through an Honoria-shaped hole - almost the dictionary definition of futility. It was clear that she needed to swallow her considerable pride and win back her lady love.
I was at a total loss in imagining how to accomplish this. And the one person I would be able to consult had all but disappeared from my life. Apart from an awkward moment last Sunday when I had bumped into Jeeves at the front door (he was taking Bingo out God knows where), I had not seen hide nor h. of my once cherished pal.
With a sigh that intermingled regret, bitterness and a dash of something unnameable, I turned around and made for home.
When I got back, I nearly tripped over a small parcel sitting at the front door. Baffled, I leant down to pick it up. Upon its plain paper packaging was written: 'To Mr Wooster', in the clean, elegant cursive of one Reginald Jeeves.
Once I had gotten my breath back, I hurried inside and tore the thing open. Inside were two books: 'The Consolations of Philosophy' and 'À la Recherche du Temps Perdu', as well as a small note, also handwritten:
I am deeply sorry for our unfortunate exchange last week. Remorse has been gnawing at me ever since. My words were careless and it was cruel of me to be so insulting towards such a dear friend as yourself.
I do not beseech your forgiveness, however I hope this small gesture will help to recompense. You are no dullard, Mr Wooster - in fact I believe that you underestimate your own mental faculties. I am glad you wish to expand your mind, but I insist that 'Ethics' is an unsuitable starting point. It is a very challenging work that I myself find difficult to read. However, the writings of Alain De Botton and Marcel Proust are both enlightening and enjoyable, and far more relevant to daily human life than Spinoza. I have provided the first volume of Proust's 'In Search Of Lost Time' in the original French. As a scholar of the language, I suspect that you might enjoy the experience of reading this.
I wish you all the best in your literary pursuits.
Oh. I suddenly had the sensation of being made entirely out of warm butter, just on the verge of liquefying. My dearest Jeeves. Solid, noble Jeeves. A mewling part of me was raring to dash next door and hug the man - thankfully I had enough self-control to reign this in.
I was torn from my bout of sentiment by a text notification. It was from Florence:
Despite your mortifying display this afternoon, I have been in contact with Doctor Cavendish. He has graciously agreed to a one-on-one tutorial with you on 20th century conceptual art, at expense. You will meet me at the RA at 7.30am on Tuesday. I expect you to take notes this time.
Well, now. Herself was starting to bring out the big guns. Despite her assumptions, this Wooster has his limits. I texted her back:
Awfully sorry, old thing, but I've already promised Jeeves that I would attend a talk on French literature that morning. It promises to be most edifying. Toodle-pip. Say What Ho to Cavendish for me.
I repaired to the kitchen to for a round of tea and sandwiches. In the following minutes, a mad bombardment of text notifications and ringing spewed forth from my phone. Once I'd prepared my meal, I turned the damned thing off and settled on the sofa, turning to the first page of 'À La Recherche du Temps Perdu'.
I was on the receiving end of some nasty stink-eyes from Florence during the next yoga class, ones that put Bingo's flatulence to shame. After the lesson concluded, she commenced her full onslaught.
'Ghosting me, Bertie! Of all the nerve! Do you know how put out Doctor Cavendish was that I had to cancel on him!?'
'Florence, dear child. I will make myself clear. I am afraid that conceptual art simply isn't my cup of Twinings. Nor is Spinoza, for that matter. I thank you for your assistance in spreading my cultural wings, but I feel I do have a right to choose my own topics of interest. Now, if you don't mind, I am heading home to bake some madeleines, in tribute to Monsieur Marcel Proust.'
As Florence stood there gawping, I span on my heel and marched out, feeling decidedly iron-willed.
As soon as I was finished dusting my dainty batch of madelienes with icing sugar, as per Nigella's direction, I popped them on a plate and headed for Jeeves' door. The moment I set foot outside, however, I was met by a sight that should not have been quite as startling as it was.
'...Well, um, Reginald... you see, I just feel as if we've grown apart... and, er, I just don't think I can be the man you expect me to me. It's not you, it's me, and all that rot. Um, I hope you understand?...'
Bingo was backing away from Jeeves with spry accelarando, his pupils contracted to tiny specks. The man stood by the door, clearly untroubled by Bingo's declarations.
'I am sorry to see you go, Richard,' he said, quite placid, and not at all facetious.
'Oh well, you know. All the best. Take care, Reginald.'
Here he turned to me, delivered a sheepish 'What ho, Bertie,' and then scuttled off.
Jeeves' eyes met mine, and I raised an enquiring eyebrow.
'I suggested that we watch "Der Himmel über Berlin" together. I suspect he was growing tired of subtitles.'
'Ah.' I nodded, then held up the plate of madeleines. 'In search of lost friendship?' I offered feebly.
I was rewarded with a particularly lustrous half-smile. 'Please do come in, Mr Wooster.'
Over tea and madeleines, Jeeves regaled me with his tactics for making Bingo tire of him. 'On our first date, we attended a production of 'Don Giovanni' at the Royal Opera. It did not take long for him to start fidgeting.'
'That's the one with the cad in the mask, isn't it? Not really a tenor-heavy opera, but I do like that "Come To The Window" ditty,' I mused.
'Such a shame that Mr Little does not share your proclivities. Still, he did patiently tolerate a steady dose of similar entertainment before giving up on me.'
'About a fortnight, was it not?' I asked. 'You should be flattered, Jeeves. Back at Eton, when Bingo fell in love with me, he could stick me for barely three days before he went trailing after our twenty-something history teacher.'
For some reason, Jeeves was taken aback at this. 'I daresay you are charming enough to warrant much more than only three days of affection, Mr Wooster.'
This hit me with force. I hid my face in my teacup, hoping helplessly that my cheeks did not look as fiery as they felt.
'Jeeves...' I ventured, rallying the courage to meet his gaze, 'do you intend to one day find a real romantic partner? A long-term one, I mean?'
An expression crossed the man's features that I had never seen before. It was as if something tight had loosened, and a raw longing, peppered by both fear and hope, was revealed in his eyes.
My phone pealed out its blasted ringtone, and the spell was broken. Jeeves instantly began clearing away the empty plates.
'Bertie,' came Florence's voice, clipped but not aggressive. 'I must say I was surprised at your show of nerve this morning.'
'Well, we Woosters were at-'
'Agincourt, yes, yes, I know. Look, I'm still less than pleased at the heavy-handed way you dropped it on me, but I am willing to be the bigger person here. What say we do something tomorrow afternoon? And - in my graciousness - I am willing to let you pick the venue.'
'Oh, well. That's terribly kind of you, old fruit. Uh... how about...'
Without missing a beat, Jeeves held a quickly-written note up before my eyes: Battersea Park.
'Battersea Park,' I recited, my trust in the man absolute.
'Oh! What a nice idea,' came Florence's response, her delight sounding insultingly surprised. 'Perhaps we can visit the Pump House Gallery.'
'Can Jeeves come with us?' I looked at him with beseeching eyes, and his silent response was amenable.
'I don't see why not. If he's a friend of yours, he could likely use an education as well.' The temptation to cackle madly at this notion was curbed. 'I shall see you at the Rosery Gate at twelve o'clock sharp,' she commanded, and hung up.
'Part of me wishes to ask about your reasoning, Jeeves, but I think I'd prefer to be surprised,' I remarked. 'I assume Battersea Park will play a part in satiating Florence's need to mould me?'
'Indeed, Mr Wooster,' he replied with a cryptic smirk.
When we met up the next day, Florence looked quite amazed by the sight of Jeeves standing next to me.
'Hello. You are Bertie's friend?' She asked, as if expecting someone to tell her there was a hidden camera nearby.
'Nice to meet you, Lady Florence. Reginald Jeeves.' He shook her hand. Her bafflement stayed in place. Jeeves' keen intelligence tends to radiate from him like a perfume. She was well acquainted with my fellow Drones, not to mention their propensity for roughhousing and remarkably mindless banter, so I couldn't really blame her for her reaction.
'Before we visit the Pump House,' Jeeves suggested, 'I am keen to stretch my legs for a while. Might we take a stroll up towards the bandstand?'
'Lead on!' I assented cheerily.
The afternoon was clement, and there were plenty of folks who were likewise sauntering along the wide, maple-lined avenues. Distant clacks and hollers reached us from the cricket pitch, and the gurgles of birdsong and children in the playground were softened on the mild breeze. Jeeves and I made idle small talk, and all the while I tried to grasp what exactly his agenda in this outing could be. Florence half-listened to us, most probably lost in her own lofty thoughts.
And then, coming at us from behind, we heard it.
As an unapologetic feminist, I am proud to say that I have many friends and loved ones that could easily be described as strong women. The power and resilience of female will is quite inspiring and often daunting. There have been many moments during my life when I have been both buoyed and assailed by this force. As a music fan, it vexes me that 'Ride of the Valkyries' has been hijacked by imagery of the Luftwaffe and their despicable ilk, because I believe it is the perfect piece to encapsulate womanhood in all its majesty. And never in my life had I ever experienced a moment so perfectly valkyrie-esque as what follows.
Like a looming thunderhead, the rumbling of whooshing wheels and womanly whooping stalked us, growing louder by the second. Before we could escape the pathway, the three of us were beset by a team of about a dozen young ladies on roller skates, zooming along at breakneck speed. Instead of crashing into us, they deftly wove around us, as agile as sparrows riding the wind. They all wore matching electric yellow vests, emblazoned with a lightning-shaped logo which read: 'BATTERSEA BOLTS'. As they passed, I had to stop dead in my tracks from the sheer shock of their charge.
And wouldn't you know it - their captain, circling around the nearby bandstand and twirling in daring leaps through the air, was none other than Ms Honoria Glossop. Honoria is a strapping girl, all sinew and long brown legs, and her athleticism and obvious core strength were on full display here. One particularly impressive triple spin earned a smattering of applause from the bystanders. I absently wondered how many stomach crunches and squats one would have to do each day to achieve such an impressive standard.
I turned to see the reactions of my companions. Florence's eyes were trained tightly on Honoria, her mouth hanging open. I'm pretty sure she didn't even blink. One could almost see the pink cartoon love hearts wafting above her head.
I was about to ask Jeeves how he had known Honoria would be here channelling Brunhilde, when one of the girls zoomed up to him and used his midsection as her own personal air bag. She wrapped her arms about him in a fierce bear hug.
'Hi, Reg! What are you doing here?'
'Hello, Scarlett. I am here with some friends to see the Pump House Gallery.' His voice was soaked with warmth and gentleness, moreso than usual.
'What ho,' I greeted, not wanting to be left out of the conversation.
'Darling, this is Bertie Wooster. Mr Wooster, may I introduce my younger sister Scarlett.'
Scarlett was short, stocky and notably animated, with long, bouncy black pigtails. Never in an age would I have guessed she came from the same gene pool as my statuesque chum.
'Alright, Bertie?' She looked me up and down appraisingly before punching her brother in the shoulder. 'Nice one, Reg! About bloody time! Mum was starting to worry you'd never find a nice bloke to settle down with. He's a looker, too! Shame he's not Punjabi, but you can't have everything, can you?' I suppose the Jeevesian facility for tact did not extend to all family members.
Jeeves chose to simply ignore her remarks. 'I gather you have an upcoming match to train for?'
'Against the Birmingham Bombshells,' Scarlett confirmed. 'Given our defeat last time we played against them, Honoria's determined to wipe the floor with them this time.'
'Scarlett is a member of one of London's premiere roller derby teams,' Jeeves told me.
'Oho! And Honoria is your leader? What's she like to train with?'
'Works us real hard, but she's great. Shouted us all two rounds at the pub after our last victory. And smart as a whip. She'd probably get along famously with Reg, they could chinwag about literature and history and stuff.' Scarlett turned and shouted with an impressive pair of lungs, 'Hey, HONORIA!'
She and Florence were nowhere to be seen. Scanning the horizon, I eventually spotted the two of them strolling down the avenue towards the Pump House. Honoria's skates were hung jauntily over her shoulder, her ropey arm snaked about Florence's waist.
'Looks like she's distracted,' I stated, chuffed. 'Might want to continue your training without her.'
Scarlett shrugged, and turned back to her team-mates. It turns out she was also a formidable lieutenant. 'Alright ladies, off we go! BACK INTO FORMATION!'
The Bolts swooped off, leaving Jeeves and I alone by the bandstand. Scarlett's abrupt commentary hung in the air between us, and I found myself unable to look him in the face. Allowing myself a deep breath, I murmured 'Thank you, Jeeves.'
'Not at all, Mr Wooster. There is a pleasant cafe over on the other side of the boating lake, would you care to share lunch with me?'
Before Jeeves and I even finished our lunch by the boating lake, I received a call from Aunt Dahlia, demanding my presence at Brinkley Court. Upon my arrival later that afternoon, I found her absorbed in the packing of her suitcase. The telltale scurrying of McIntosh, Aunt Agatha's lapdog, bounced off the floorboards as he chased after Augustus the grey persian.
'Your uncle and I are off to Cromer for a week, young blister,' Aunt Dahlia told me. 'The tourists start thinning out around this time. Last chance to take in some sun for the year. Mrs Emsworth next door has agreed to put out food and water for Augustus each day, but McIntosh will require more attention. You're up to it, I'm sure.'
No space for protest was allowed, and I headed back to the flat with an armful of dog.
It occurred to me that being charged with Aunt Agatha's precious pooch was a sign of just how far Aunt Dahlia had seen me come. A responsibility of this magnitude was almost the Holy Grail of solemn duties. Before, I had never been trusted to so much as cut my steak without heavy supervision from a Proper Adult. But this gesture, it seemed, indicated that I had rather gotten the hang of all that imitating the sun business, like Prince Hal just before he hops over to France to stick it to the baddies at Agincourt.
Luckily, McIntosh does not share in his mistress' caustic disposition, and he is in fact the perfect house guest: cleaner than Tuppy Glossop, less clumsy than Stinker Pinker, and less inclined to hump anyone's leg than Bingo Little. As long as he got his daily biscuits and chicken neck he remained in perky spirits, sharing pleasant jaunts with me around the park while sniffing many another dog's bottom. The only drawback to having him around was his unfortunate propensity for yapping, particularly when I launched into song at my keyboard. (For some reason, he got particularly excited whenever I would play tunes by Adele.)
One evening, I was invited out to the Theatre Bar in Soho with my fellow Drones, and I left McIntosh to fend for himself (given that he was curled up on the bed with a belly full of giblets, this was no heart-wrenching exercise). Catsmeat texted me with the intimation that he had some rather stellar news to share.
'A part on "Dunstan Priory"!' I exclaimed. Well, bully for you, old boy!'
'It's a recurring guest role, guaranteed to span at least three episodes,' Catsmeat informed us. Lounging with Esmond draped possessively over him, boasting a large Tom Collins and a smug smile, he really did look like the feline who'd procured the dairy product. 'I'm to play some cad of a baronet, down at Dunstan for a house party. I get a few good scenes with Lord Garland, where he chews me out for my indiscretions. We start shooting next week.'
'I say, Gussie, that show is filmed at Madeline's father's old pile out in Gloucestershire!' Angela remarked.
Gussie finally tore his eyes away from the depths of his orange juice and gave a lethargic shrug. For a man apparently in the throes of romantic bliss, he certainly seemed rather gloomy. Not wishing to dampen the mood of our little party, I decided against poking the newt and let it be.
'Dunstan Priory' is filmed on location at Totleigh Towers, better known as The Most Filmed House In Britain. Over the years, it and its imposing, ornate chambers have played the role of Thornfield Hall, the d'Urbervilles' estate, Rosings Park, and on one occasion, Wayne Manor. When Madeline's family aren't spending their winters there, they earn a killing by renting it to film studios or allowing guided tours.
I'd visited the place once for a party. Despite the dripping atmosphere and sumptuous surrounds, the experience had been memorable for all the wrong reasons. I firmly believe that cheeky young colts in high spirits must be forgiven their minor peccadilloes. However, when the Lord of the Manor- one Sir Watkyn Basset CBE to be precise- is a magistrate, such mercy is seldom the theme of the night.
'You folks are aware that Totleigh Towers is where I got pinched for stealing a policeman's helmet??' I announced.
'Say on, Bertie!' Bingo declared, leaning forward over his rum and coke.
'Not much to say, really. It was that do on Boat Race Night held by the Bassets to celebrate Oxford trouncing Cambridge by a good twenty yards. Old Sippy Sipperley and I hung about in the garden room getting sozzled on alcopops. He bet me that I couldn't make out with the coxswain, then I bet him that he couldn't get all the guests to dance along to 'Gangnam Style', and then he bet me that I couldn't nick the helmet off a copper on the beat. There was a constable from the village chaperoning the bacchanal and... well... it seemed like a good idea at the time. The next thing I know, Madeline's father springs me in the act, and has me thrown in the drunk tank at the local police station. Insult to injury, the blighter hauled me up in court the next day and fined me two-hundred quid.'
'Scandalous!' Catsmeat declared. 'You're just like the libertine I'll be playing, minus the monocle and spats.'
'Yes, well, after that little incident, I never care to set foot in Totleigh Towers for the rest of my life,' I huffed, crossing my arms. 'I shall have to make do with admiring it from afar when the new season of Dunstan Priory premieres.'
The day came when little McIntosh had to return home, collected by a more relaxed, noticeably browner Aunt Dahlia.
'I hope the little fellow wasn't any trouble?' She asked, collecting his toys that were currently strewn upon the sofa.
'Not at all. It was nice to spend some quality time with him sans his mistress. I assume Aunt Agatha is due back from her tour soon?'
'In a week or so. I believe she's wrapping it up at a spa in Romania.'
'Ah. Soaking in the blood of virgins, is she?' For this little quip, I got beaned in the face with a squeaky rubber hamburger.
'Oh, by the way,' she said as she knelt to affix McIntosh's leash, 'I need you to steal a Dalek.'
I tried to make sense of this, wondering if my beloved Auntie had gotten sunstroke. 'A Dalek?'
'I did not stutter. I need you to go to Totleigh Towers and steal a Dalek from Sir Watkyn Basset's collection. Silver plated. About six inches tall. Remarkably hideous.'
The pieces started falling into place. 'You mean like those toys that Uncle Tom collects?'
Aunt Dahlia nodded solemnly. 'This one's a rarity, apparently. Lights up and shouts "EXTERMINATE" when you press a button on its back. Flashing laser on its little gun and everything. Valued at at least two thousand pounds, if you can believe it. One showed up on eBay, and it was all your uncle could talk about for the better part of a fortnight. He outbid every other "Doctor Who" nerd in the galaxy, and then that wretched old Basset came and sniped him in the very last second of the auction! I tell you, such a blatant daylight robbery would never be allowed to happen at Sotheby's.'
I shook my head. 'Poor Uncle Tom.' Knowing what an avid Whovian my Uncle has always been, I was keenly aware how a crime such as this would crush him even worse than when Donna's memory was erased.
'Indeed. Which brings us back to the pressing matter of you, the Dalek, and the rightful re-procurement thereof.'
In the wake of my impressive bout of dog-sitting, I was primed to resist this auntly mandate. I could use the practice, given that Aunt Agatha was soon to storm back into town.
'Correct me if I'm wrong, aunt-of-my-bosom, but isn't that larceny?' I demanded. 'Besides, I hear that old Sir Watkyn is clearing out to let them film "Dunstan Priory" next week. What place have I in such a milieu?'
'Oh, pish-tosh,' Aunt Dahlia dismissed, and McIntosh, the traitor, snuffled in sycophantic assent. 'Madeline has invited Angela and that Spink-Bottle boy out to Gloucestershire to watch the filming. Sir Watkyn got them all VIP behind-the-scenes access. I've procured an invitation for you as well. There's a nice little boutique hotel just down the road that you'll be staying at. Now, the first day the production crew are there, they'll be removing all the mod cons from the house, including Sir Watkyn's garish collection of "Doctor Who" memorabilia. There's a parlour on the south side of the house he keeps it in. While the crew are running about, setting up lights and cameras and whatnot, you'll have ample opportunity to pocket the thing without anybody being the wiser. There's a good chap.'
I was not moved. 'This cunning plan of yours seems to rely on a great deal of variables lining up at the right time. What if they don't let me in the house? What if I can't find the thing? What if I'm sprung and end up getting arrested?'
Aunt Dahlia scoffed. 'Your boyfriend's a solicitor, isn't he?' I'm sure Jeeves can rescue you, should you screw it up in some hopelessly daft way.'
This gave me pause. Perhaps my aunt was right. Not about Jeeves being my boyfriend, you understand - the two of us are merely merry bachelors who share an affection for each other. However, no matter my level of peril, Jeeves had not yet failed to boost me with his strategies and sage advice whenever the c.s were down.
I shrugged. 'I guess... but what do I get out of it?'
She raised an eyebrow, looking like a card shark with a royal flush.
'The next time Agatha throws a prospective bride at you, I'll bail you out.'
'Well, dearest A., that's settled then. What time does my train leave?'
To say that the trip down to Gloucestershire was awkward is akin to saying that strawberries are red, blackberries are invasive, and Mary Berry is a national treasure. Angela and I did attempt some small talk, but the uneasy vibe that wafted off Gussie and Madeline soon cowed us into burying ourselves in the comfort of our phones.
Gussie leant a hand upon his slackened face, staring out of the window and occasionally muttering to himself - I caught snippets such as 'tasteless', 'inhumane' and 'bacon'. Meanwhile, Madeline doted upon the pomeranian Piglet, who sat in her lap, occupying herself with a shiny chew toy in the shape of a great white shark.
When we changed trains at Swindon, I felt a mite peckish, and bought a sad, shrink wrapped chicken sandwich from the food stand there. As soon as I took the first bite, I noticed Gussie staring at me like a lion staring at a freshly killed impala. I offered him half of the limp, soggy fare, but a steely look from Madeline quickly shot my gesture down.
'No thank you, Bertie,' Gussie sighed, like a wretch being led to the gallows.
I had difficulty fathoming the reason for this strange, tense behaviour between the lovers I had so painstakingly brought together. Once we arrived at the hotel, I cornered Gussie in his room and demanded an explanation. The one I got was heartbreaking:
'Veganism!? Oh, Gussie, you poor lamb!'
'Please, Bertie, for the love of God, don't mention lamb,' he rightfully grumbled back at me.
As we made our way downstairs for dinner, he explained further.
'Madeline's determined that I shan't eat animal products ever again. She herself hasn't touched meat since she was at St George's. Says she was inspired by the example set by Percy Shelley and Paul McCartney.'
'You can't even have milk for your tea?' I gaped.
'Bertie... have you ever been acquainted with the many uses of soy?' Gussie said heatedly, with as much venom as he could muster.
I shook my head heavily, filled to the brim with compassion.
'I don't know where she gets off, anyway,' he continued, 'that little furball Piglet gets all the mince she can eat-'
'-That's because Piglet is only an innocent little dog!'
The girl and her hound stood in the lobby, both of them glaring at us dangerously. Angela stood behind them with an impish smirk on her face.
'If I must buy free-range organic meat for my little darling's welfare, then it's a necessary sacrifice. You, Augustus Fink-Nottle, have a choice in the matter, and there is no need for you to ingest the flesh of a helpless animal slain in anger! I already made sure that the hotel bistro carries a vegan option for dinner, and you will be having it tonight!'
She then stomped outside with Piglet, presumably to go fertilise the flowerbeds.
'A choice in the matter,' Gussie repeated, as he slumped miserably onto a nearby sofa. 'Like hell I have one!'
'Looks like you've been read the riot act, Gussie,' Angela remarked, sitting down beside him. 'You know that Maddie's a stickler for animal rights.'
'Oh, chin up Gussie. Surely there must be some way to work out a happy compromise,' I suggested. 'If only Jeeves were here. He'd put that marvellous brain of his to-'
'Good evening Mr Wooster, Ms Travers, Mr Fink-Nottle.'
Will happy flukes never cease! - Jeeves stood by the reception desk in all his crisp, sober splendour, sporting a room key.
'Oh! Jeeves!' Angela clapped her hands in delight. 'Now that you're here, you can help Bertie out with Daddy's Dalek!' Angela made a very good point - the daunting task before me suddenly seemed much less herculean. I fed Jeeves a bright, beseeching smile.
'If you are referring to the issue of the "Doctor Who" figurine that was sniped from Mr Travers, I regret that I cannot be of any help.'
'But why?' Angela demanded.
'Morally, I sympathise with your father, Ms Travers. It was not an honourable method of procuring the item. However, I am here in the service of Sir Watkyn. He is my client, and I shall be collaborating with the location manager for "Dunstan Priory" to ensure that Totleigh Towers is looked after during the filming - as per the contract agreed upon between Sir Watkyn and the production company. Alas, Mr Wooster, it is my professional duty to act only in Sir Watkyn's best interests, and therefore I am unable to assist you.'
'Oh. Well, I suppose that's not your fault, Jeeves,' I responded, cursing inwardly. Of all the magistrates in all the world, Jeeves had to work for old man Basset!
'Please accept my apologies, Mr Wooster. However, I would be happy to share dinner with you, if that is agreeable?'
I perked up. 'Let's all order the vegan option for solidarity's sake, eh? Courage, now, how bad could it be?'
The next morning, we hied us hence not to Totleigh Towers, but to the shanty town of trailers, tents and trucks that had been set up in the neighbouring field. Catsmeat had invited us to check out the makeshift backlot before heading over to the local pub in Totleigh-on-the-wold, the nearby town. The fellow was in for weeks of early starts and long hours, and it sounded like he was keen to get in one last hurrah with the Drones before shooting officially commenced.
As we were waved through the entrance by the security guards, I noticed a small gaggle of teenaged girls rubbernecking by the temporary chain link fencing. Perhaps some mischievous soul had told them that a Harry Styles music video was being shot here?
We came upon Catsmeat sitting at the door of his trailer, coffee in hand, a plush, fluffy bathrobe wrapped about him.
'What ho, darlings,' he chirped. 'Is this swank or what?'
He waxed lyrical on the treatment he'd been receiving, as the production crew bustled about, bearing lights, cameras, and all kinds of action.
'The AD is an absolute peach. Made sure I was settled in nice and cozy - this trailer has a mini fridge, a little flatscreen, even a Japanese loo with a heated seat! It certainly beats the hard plastic chairs and instant coffee I had to endure back when I was an extra. Say, speaking of which, how would you lot like to be extras? Lord Garland is supposed to be holding a big house party at Dunstan - they need bodies on the floor.'
I gladly assented. Not only for the glitzy prospect of rubbing shoulders with the Dowager Countess, but also for an excuse to achieve closer proximity to the house and the Dalek therein.
'I don't know...' Gussie pondered. 'Would I be made to wear a necktie?'
And then, from out of the mad fluster of sound engineers and make-up artists, emerged a most welcome figure.
'I say! That isn't little Bertie Wooster, is it? And Fink-Nottle too? How long has it been!?'
My face split into a huge, toothy smile. 'What ho, Barbie! I haven't seen you for ages, old thing!'
I pulled Barbie into a hug, clapping his back. 'Off across the pond playing superheroes, I take it?'
'Indeed. Got a part in Boko's flick too, I played the clueless lecturer with the lisp. Now I'm back here, eager to sink my teeth into some BAFTA-bait.'
'Yes, didn't I tell you chaps?' Catsmeat said. 'Barbie's playing the part of a detective who comes to Dunstan to investigate a murder.'
Barbie was my upperclassman at Eton. I fagged for him during the first two years of my schooling, playing Ariel to his Prospero (figuratively and literally - our student production of 'The Tempest' earned rave reviews). He proved a kind and patient mentor, and we quickly formed a brotherly bond. He helped me with everything from my Latin to sneaking contraband sweets into my dorm. And when my parents died, he was one of the good eggs who helped me keep it together until the end of semester.
Of course, the name 'Barbie' would be meaningless to you, dear reader, outside of a connection to a certain reticulated fashion doll. If I mention Barbie's full name - Barnabas Carrowthatch, CBE -no doubt a multitude of images streams into your head like a slick reel of celluloid. Darling of the British stage and screen, the Olivier of our time, the thinking woman's crumpet. And yes, his cheekbones really are like that.
I am loathe to use my affiliation with Barbie for any selfish gain. There have been loads of parasites from Eton who have tried that, wrangling testimonials and charitable donations from him left and right - despite having said barely two words to him back when we were wearing the black tailcoat together. And of course, he's such a sweet-natured blighter that he often agrees to their demands, graciously playing the part of show pony, with no benefit to himself. My heart aches - the poor fellow has enough to deal with already, given the paps, the squealing and swooning of the 'Carrowthots' (the presence of the besotted girls at the gate was suddenly made clear to me), and... well... that whole 'Eyepatch Carrowthatch' thing. But the less said about that, the better.
The combined influence of Barbie and Catsmeat (okay, mostly Barbie) worked its magic with the AD, and my chums and I were escorted to the ginormous costume shed to be fitted up in period togs. And, once again, we bumped into Jeeves.
'All going well on the legal front then, I take it?'
'Yes, Mr Wooster. I am happy to say that the production team are following Sir Watkyn's stipulations regarding use of Totleigh Towers to the letter. And what about yourself?'
A sudden urge of mischief took me. 'Feel like playing dress-ups, Jeeves?'
'I beg your pardon?'
At that moment, I was fetched by one of the wardrobe assistants, and I yanked Jeeves along with me.
We were brought to a tent crammed with racks upon racks of period-accurate tailored menswear. I swear I could see Jeeves salivate a little - he's always been something of a clotheshorse.
The assistant scrutinised us. 'You're going to be a party guest, some manner of lesser aristocrat, all loud jazz-age fashion,' she informed me. Then she turned to Jeeves. 'And mister tall-dark-and-handsome here will be your valet.'
'Oh, what fun! I shall quite enjoy bossing you about, Jeeves!'
His sardonic eyebrow raised a twentieth of an inch. 'Indeed, sir.'
We stood side-by-side as the wardrobe assistant fitted self up for soup and fish, plus fours, and a rather natty checkered waistcoat. Jeeves was adorned in a starchy black penguin get-up and a size fourteen bowler hat, much like the one he wears to work.
'By the way, Mr Wooster,' he asided as the seams on his coat were adjusted, 'Although I am here under Sir Watkyn's employ, I am not barred from engaging in casual conversation with you. I was speaking with one of the set dressers earlier, and she mentioned that all the modern items in the house were cleared away yesterday. She will leave the crates of said items here at the backlot for the rest of the evening, and then they shall be taken to a storage unit in Gloucester tomorrow. This industry is most fascinating, is it not?'
I nodded thoughtfully, fixing him with a meaningful eye. 'Oh yes. Very fascinating.'
We changed back into our civvies, our costumes tagged and stored for the morrow. The others soon began to trickle off, visions of pub grub dancing in their heads (no doubt they would be impeded by the mob of Carrowthots demanding autographs and happy snaps). As for me, it was clear that my time to strike had arrived. Casually slipping into the crowd of flustered crew members, I wended my way towards what I guessed was the holding area for props, equipment and other miscellany.
It was surprisingly easy to find, like a nerd motherload in a haystack. The Tom Baker-style scarf hanging over the side of the large plastic bin tipped me off. I plunged in to inspect the hoard, sifting through action figures of everyone from Davros to Captain Jack Harkness, several dozen iterations of the sonic screwdriver, a weeping angel statuette, and even an errant scale model of Starbug.
Glinting out at me from the bottom of the crate, there it lay: the silver Dalek, my precious. Or, actually, Uncle Tom's precious.
'Come to Bertie,' I cooed sweetly. It answered me with a shrill 'EXTERMINATE!'
'Stop right there,' came a rumbling from behind me, like a Rottweiler with a sore head.
The man - or reasonable facsimile thereof - I turned around to behold was about eight foot ten and twice as wide as he was tall. He had a neck like the gnarled trunk of a redwood, fists like two hefty slabs of concrete and a face like a pug reacting to lemon juice. I would have laughed at the spectacle of this creature being trussed in the confines of a tailored suit, were he not currently bearing down on me as if I'd just encroached upon his den mid-hibernation.
'You must be Travers' nephew,' he snarled. 'Sir Watkyn told me about you. Reedy little degenerate with a penchant for kleptomania, he said. I can attest that you live up to the sordid description he gave of you. Also told me you might try to nab this,' and with but an effortless sweep of his paw, he ripped the silver Dalek from my clutches.
'I shall report to Sir Watkyn that Travers sent you to do his nefarious bidding. And this Dalek shall spend the remainder of the production in my personal care, to safeguard it against any further attempted theft.'
I tried to utter a protest, and found that my jaw was most definitely fixed to the ground.
'Should I find out that you have made any more efforts to so much as breathe on any of Sir Watkyn's possessions, I shall hunt you down and beat you to a jelly. And if the Dalek should mysteriously disappear from my safe-hold, I shall know who to blame, and I shall still hunt you down and beat you to a jelly. Do I make myself clear?'
With some effort, I managed an unsteady nod in the affirmative. 'Crystal,' I squeaked.
He huffed, his bushy moustache fanning out across his upper lip. 'I am Roderick Spode. You would do well to remember my name.' With that, he lumbered off, several old-growth yew trees quivering in his wake.
A fitful night I passed, rife with nightmares of Silver Daleks, Roderick Spode and shiny shark-shaped chew toys, all hunting me down to rend the flesh from my bones. Listlessly did I droop over my eggs and b. the next morning, and it turned to ashes in my mouth. I would have given it to the ravenous Gussie, if Madeline were not plying him with cornflakes steeped in soy milk.
'Jeeves', I addressed the man as he sat down next to me with his toast and coffee, 'Know you of a certain Roderick Spode? Bears a passing resemblance to Bigfoot with a Chevron moustache.'
The slight dip in Jeeves' brow and the tightening of his mouth told it all. 'Sir Roderick is Sir Watkyn's protege, and acts as his barrister. The two are long-time friends, and Sir Roderick is a regular visitor to Totleigh Towers.'
'He's an member of UKIP as well,' Angela scowled over her Shreddies. 'One of their most feisty orators. Haven't you ever seen those ridiculous speeches he gives about making the country completely self-sufficient?'
This did not surprise me in the least. 'Yes, well, the great baboon cornered me yesterday, and ripped Uncle Tom's Dalek right out of my hands.'
Angela's shoulders sagged, and she levelled me with a soul-deep tchah. 'I knew you'd find some way to botch the whole thing. Oh Jeeves, you HAVE to help him!'
'I am very sorry, Ms Travers. As I mentioned before I am bound to serve Sir Watkyn, and Sir Roderick is also part of his entourage.' Here he fixed me with a gimlet eye. 'The Dalek is currently up in his hotel room, and while it is in his care, he shall make it impossible for Mr Wooster to come anywhere near it. I strongly advise that you wait for another opportunity in the future, when it is no longer under such close watch.'
'Well, that's all well and good, Jeeves, but what am I to do when I return to London empty-handed? Aunt Dahlia is expecting me to deliver the goods! She promised that if I succeed, she'll fend off Aunt Agatha the next time she comes at me wielding a potential wife.'
Jeeves sipped at his tea, his look retaining its intensity. 'If it comes to that, Mr Wooster, I would be most willing to fend off your aunt myself.' The good man is nothing if not chivalrous.
'Come to think of it, Jeeves, does Sir Watkyn know you've been signed up as an extra for the production? Is that still kosher for the role of a solicitor?'
Jeeves nodded. 'I dicussed the matter with him last night, and in fact he was strongly in favour. Even with Sir Roderick's presence, he said he would prefer his legal team to keep as close an eye on the proceedings as possible. And, to be frank, I feel I will be a much better judge of conduct than Sir Roderick will.'
I grinned, feeling buoyed that Jeeves appeared to share in my dislike. 'No love lost there, then?'
'He was my classmate at Cambridge. Suffice it to say that we have never been on particularly cordial terms. You can imagine his disposition towards mixed-race gay men.'
Angela piped up. 'Not to mention refugees, the working classes, AND modern liberated women! The great bloody oaf seems to have lifted his entire world view from The Daily Mail!'
'Marvellous publication that, marvellous,' boomed Spode as he thundered into the bistro, then stopped dead in his tracks when he caught sight of me. 'Wooster,' he growled icily.
'Spode,' I returned soupily, watching Angela glare daggers at the back of his great fat head.
The stand-off was abruptly ended when a chirpy 'Good morning, Roderick' peeped its way out of Madeline, as she fussed with Piglet in her lap.
I'm quite a fan of nature documentaries. There are many noteworthy elements to them, such as the ruthless power of a predator taking down prey, or the breathtaking beauty of parrot's plumage. But the moments that really take the cake are when something completely unexpected happens: octopuses changing colour, mother birds fighting off snakes, that sort of thing. Witnessing Spode revert from a snarling, looming monster into a doe-eyed, timid milksop... well, it surpassed them all. It made me ponder about the anonymous caveman who saw a full-grown wolf and must have thought 'you know, I could fashion a poodle out of that.'
'Good morning, Madeline,' Spode simpered. 'Did you sleep well?'
'Oh yes, Roderick, thank you for asking. You know, I spoke to Daddy on the phone this morning, and he says that you've been doing a brilliant job keeping watch over the house. He suggested giving you the day off, should you wish to go into town or put up your feet. Jeeves will be here to keep an eye out. You should go and enjoy yourself.'
He veritably gleamed at her. 'How very kind. Then perhaps you and I could take a walk out to the common? We could bring along your little doggie-'
Here Spode reached for Piglet. It turned out that the wee beast is a good judge of character, as she proceeded to snap at his meaty hand with all the ferocity in her little fluffy body. The enormous figure jumped back, and all the drinkware on the nearby tables tremored.
'Naughty Piglet, very naughty!' She waggled a small finger at her. 'Forgive her, Roderick, she must have thought you were going for her shark chew-toy. She does love it so.'
'Oh, no trouble, dear Madeline. I suppose I'll leave you to it then?' He giggled nervously, backing away, his terrified eyes still trained on Piglet.
'There now,' Madeline announced with a satisfied squeak, 'at least for today, Bertie, you won't be bothered by Roderick.'
I had to say I was most impressed, in a number of ways. For one thing, the detailed character study of Spode over our morning meal had given me much to think about.
We arrived at the backlot, and were kitted up in our period gear. I was most surprised to find that while Madeline was given a dreamy floral number to rival Daisy Buchanan, Angela was dressed in the tell-tale frills of a house maid. She did not seem pleased about this.
The line producer herded us up for the shoot, and we milled around in Totleigh Towers' grand entrance hall. Catsmeat spotted Jeeves and I and what-ho'd us.
'Wait til you see the director for this season,' he tantalised.
'Who? Branagh? Scorsese? Baz Lurhman?'
Catsmeat scoffed. 'Not exactly.'
His cryptic intimations were answered in the next moment, as the crew took up their posts, and the director's chair was filled by the bottom of a brassy little American chap. I have no desire to bandy about the term 'oompa-loompa', but if you can picture Ricky Gervais sporting a Jersey accent, a Cheesy-Wotsit fake tan and enough bling to fund a small nation's military, you will have your man.
He clapped his be-blinged hands loudly. 'Alright dudes and dudettes, let's get this show on the road.'
Jeeves looked a little ill. I moved to stand beside him lest his knees started to buckle.
One of the ADs strategically arranged us in the back of the shot, the party guests standing on one side of the grand staircase and the servants on the other. My stomach gave a little swoop of delight as I recognised Freddy Flowerdew, the actor behind the magnanimous Lord Garland, and - oh gracious - Dame Martha Smythe, aka the Dowager Countess. Presently, she was chinwagging with Freddy while sipping tea from a styrofoam cup.
It was a scene in which Lord Garland receives the detective inspector to Dunstan Priory, the morning after the body has been discovered. From what Barbie had told me the day previous, this detective chap was quite the tragic figure, battling a drug addiction and a club foot. Just the sort of juicy stuff that a classically trained actor loves to sink their teeth into.
Action was called, and the principal players leapt into it. They were all in top form - Barbie let off a rapid fire deduction about Catsmeat's gambling habit based on a stain on his shoe, to which the Dowager Countess threw some truly spiffing shade. He then examined the bannister of the staircase for evidence, but was felled by the munitious boot of Lord Garland's ne'er-do-well nephew. This, of course, was clearly the moment where we are introduced to the poignant fallibility of Barbie's detective hero. It was nothing short of a privilege to see these dramatic masters at work.
'CUT!' The director yelled. Barbie, from his awkward splay against the bottom steps, gave a muted whimper. Oh, how we suffer for our art.
'Hey, Eyepatch,' the director summoned. 'I'm thinkin' we put a different spin on your little stumble there.'
'Yes? How, exactly?'
'Ya know, the whole heroic cripple thing is so overdone in these costume dramas, nothin' we ain't seen a hundred times on "Masterpiece Theatre". I reckon we cut through the schmaltz with a bit of slapstick. We'll do another take, and this time, try to make it more of a pratfall.'
A palpable ripple of unease made its way across the set, to which the American was either unheeding or uncaring.
'Who is this bloke?' I whispered to Catsmeat.
'His name is Lance Klein. His directorial pedigree almost entirely consists of three-camera sitcoms with laugh tracks.'
'Whose brilliant idea was it to hire him for a show of this calibre!?'
Catsmeat shrugged. 'I can't account for the rationale of the higher-ups at Auntie Beeb.'
Though reluctant, Barbie bravely soldiered on. A second take was done, this time with the detective launching into an exaggerated nosedive, letting out a Goofy-esque wail as he went down. Klein was most pleased with this, but insisted on trying the whole thing again, this time with Barbie affecting a ridiculous quasi-Continental accent, and Lord Garland's nephew quipping: 'I hope your trip here was satisfactory, detective!'. I could almost hear the canned laughter.
'Great stuff, Eyepatch!' Klein thumped Barbie on the back, and the poor man forced a smile. 'I knew you'd be a natural at all that Clouseau crap!'
These cringe-inducing creative choices continued over the course of the morning. After Barbie was put through a humiliating spate of spills, sight gags, and the accidental groping of Lady Garland's bosom, we were finally released for a lunch break.
As I mulled over my surprisingly good coffee at the craft services table, I beheld the woebegone husk that was Barbie. He slumped in his chair, his meticulously annotated script hanging loosely in one hand. The funk of weariness and defeat streaming off of him recommended itself to the likes of Sisyphus and Prometheus.
I sat down beside him, trying to catch his eye with a sympathetic smile. 'Courage, my friend. Even if this role proves to be a stinker, I'm sure the studios are still lining up to offer you manna much worthier of your talent.'
His head slumped back as he let out a withering sigh. 'That's just it, Bertie. After all that "Eyepatch Carrowthatch" business, all the lead roles with any substance have dried up. The best parts I've managed to get are comic-relief professors and corny American super-heroes. Those sort of projects do not a BAFTA earn. Do you know that I've been nominated twelve times without a win!? Just once, I'd like to know what it feels like not to skulk about at the after party empty-handed!'
Angela joined us, and she sat down on Barbie's other side, sweetly patting his trenchcoated shoulder. 'Poor dear.'
As he piled his plate with goodies from the table, Gussie inquired 'What is all this "Eyepatch" business about, anyway?'
My dear cousin let out an aggravated groan which made Barbie flinch. Unbeknownst to Gussie, he had just released the Furies.
'Honestly, Gussie, keep up!' She cried. 'Didn't you watch the latest season of "BBC Raffles"?'
Unless you've been living under a rock for the past decade, then you will know that the modern-day TV adaption of the A. J. Raffles adventures was Barbie's big breakout role. And frankly, I don't know where the TV critics get off lambasting poor Barbie for the lackluster quality of its most recent episodes. It's not like he wrote the blasted things.
'It was a travesty to make a trained thespian like Barbie act out that dreck!' Angela exclaimed. 'They introduced Raffles' long-lost evil twin brother in the finale, with no other precedent than some nonsense about him "blowing in on the West Wind"! They made Barbie wear an eyepatch and cavort about the place, behaving like the lovechild of Hannibal Lecter and Cesar Romero! I ask you, what hope is there for the dramatic arts when THIS is what passes for compelling storytelling!?'
'Thank you, Angela,' I responded sternly. While her assessment was an apt one, it was hardly preux chevalier to wax vitriolic on the subject in front of Barbie.
'Well, that being said, your performance was still the best thing about it,' she insisted, clutching his fingers.
He managed a brief flicker of a smile. 'Thank you, child. But from here, all I can see is a bleak future of middling rom-coms and sidekick roles. I thought that a part on "Dunstan" was going to be my life-raft... but I suppose three years at RADA count for nothing against one's ability to slip on banana peels and pull silly faces.'
'I thought your work today was good,' Gussie remarked, plopping down with a mountain of food. 'I particularly liked the bit when you mistook the cocaine powder for sugar.'
I peered at the stockpile on his plate. 'Does Madeline know that you're lunching on steak and kidney pie?'
'Madeline can go boil her head.' With that, he tore into layers of pastry and gravy.
I once heard a wise man (or possibly a wise aunt) say that crises expose the things and people which are most precious to us. That evening, I sat with Jeeves in the hotel's garden, watching Madeline rambling about with Piglet. I found it noteworthy and a little unsettling how disinterested Gussie was, turned away from the girl with his face buried in his tablet (Madeline need not know that he was perusing food blogs for photos of barbecue ribs and beef stroganoff). Meanwhile, Spode was attempting to approach Madeline, but every time he got within a yard of her, Piglet would launch herself at his feet with her little fangs bared. Eventually, he gave up, forlornly gazing after her by the fountain. Were I in Gussie's position, and some hulking brute was trying to make nice with my sweetheart, I am not too proud to say that I would be positively frothing with jealously - regardless of whether they had a miniature furball of a bodyguard. After all I had done for that amphibian-loving ingrate!
Spode's pitiful lot, however, was equally intriguing. It was arresting to know that even a bigoted blockhead such as he had hidden romantic tendencies, not to mention a deep-seated fear of pomeranians. It certainly cast UKIP's most feisty orator in a different light to know that underneath his bluster and bulk was a soft, vulnerable underbelly.
'Jeeves,' I announced suddenly, 'I am going to steal that Dalek.'
'Oh, Mr Wooster, surely-'
'My mind is made up, old thing. After seeing the many facets of Spode's despicable personality, I warrant there must be a way to utilise his weaknesses. I have a good feeling about this.'
'How can you be sure that you can nullify the threat he has issued?'
Jeeves' concern was touching, but ultimately unnecessary.
'Fear not,' I said, puffing my chest out. 'I'll think of something.'
Waiting up until the dead of night, fuelling myself on fun-sized Milky Ways, I listened to the sounds in the hall, ticking off the rounds of the hotel staff. At a time bang smack in between their routine patrol, I sprung into action.
I was lucky that the charming Victorian-style boutique hotel we were staying at did things the old-fashioned way. Had the room doors used keycards, my task would have been much more difficult. As it happens, the talent I had honed in boyhood of jimmying locked doors open with hair pins was once more put to use. (I only ever did it to pilfer gingernuts or find an empty classroom to snog other schoolboys in - nothing truly heinous, I swear!)
The lock gave way with a satisfying click, and I plunged into the murk of the beast's den.
What I saw then turned my stomach.
You know the part in those potboiler crime dramas where the detective stumbles into the murderer's lair, and finds themselves surrounded by the paraphernalia of the baddie's atrocities? Stuff such as severed hands kept as trophies, blood-caked murder weapons, or crazed and disturbing memoirs? That was the feeling I got as I took in the clutter of Spode's personal effects. Body parts and bloody daggers there were none, but I feel as if that would have been far less shocking than what actually confronted me: a great hoard of Winnie The Pooh merchandise.
A mint green backpack with a Hundred-Acre-Wood pattern rested on a chair. Hung up on the clothes rail, a bath towel featuring a print of Eeyore. On the night table was a coffee mug boasting Christopher Robin's smiling face, a plastic alarm clock in the shape of Tigger, and a bookmarked copy of 'The House at Pooh Corner'.
And there, in the centre of the bed, the great man-mountain that was Spode lay snoring, dressed in a finely detailed Pooh Bear onesie. In his paws, he clutched a soft toy of the silly old bear himself. For the second time in forty-eight hours, Spode had made my jaw drop for all the wrongest of reasons.
Shaking the fluff out of my head, I whipped my phone out and used it as a makeshift torch, peering around the room for any sign of the Dalek. Spode proved to be a novice at concealment - the damned thing was sitting conspicuously atop the dresser, next to his Kanga-and-Roo toiletries bag. I crept across the carpeted floor, my bated breath masked by Spode's impressive snores.
My hands closed about the figurine, its weight satisfying in my grasp. All seemed to be prevailing in my favour - until I tripped on a suitcase bedecked in Pooh Bear decals. I went down like a ton of honey pots, the Dalek flying out of my clutches before bouncing off the armchair and shrieking 'EXTERMINATE!'.
I scrambled away from the bed in blind panic, as my foe sat bolt upright, blinking away the haze of sleep. As his faculties returned, his beady eyes came to rest on me, and with his teddy still in his clutches, his face blotted an astonishing shade of mauve.
His tirade was cut off by the crisp click of a camera phone.
'One more move, Spode, and this photo goes viral,' I declared.
The sudden terror in his face gave me a piquant but not unwelcome feeling of dominance. 'Beat me to a jelly, will you, Roderick? I'm sure UKIP would not appreciate their token pitbull being reduced to a tubby little cubby all stuffed with fluff now, would they? Little Madeline would hardly find you the dashing and hunky man of her dreams if she knew of your little... proclivity.'
Spode was uncharacteristically speechless, the mauve in his face changing to a ghostly white pallor.
'How about I take the Dalek back to Uncle Tom, you and I go our separate ways, and we never speak of this again? And may I insist there is no point in trying to steal my phone. It will take me seconds to share this photo to my cloud storage, not to mention save it as a draft to my Instagram, Snapchat and Tumblr accounts. Password-protected, of course.'
As I picked up the Dalek and headed for the door, not a peep of protest was heard. 'There's a chap,' I commended him, and made my exeunt.
Safe in my own room, I stashed the Dalek in a cozy hiding place and then settled back into bed with my phone. After a brief moment's pondering, I brought up the photo of Spode the Pooh and deleted it.
It would be enough for Spode to think that I had evidence against him. Truth be told, having that hideous image sitting on my device made me feel uneasy, like Poe's chap with the heart. After all, having such a tool of potential ruination flew in the face of the Wooster Code. Even a cretin like Spode should be shown some lenience.
I went to sleep with the hope that I would not regret this small gesture of mercy.
The next few days slogged along with all the joie de vivre of a stay in solitary confinement. From dawn to dusk, we plodded our way through the filming, the extras performing the tedious task of being human scenery. It's amazing how tired one can get simply from slouching around in costume for hours on end.
Klein continued to subject Barbie to a startling array of humiliations, convinced that his especially tasteful and sophisticated brand of lewd slapstick would work well for the drawing-room mystery in the script. The most horrid scenario involved Barbie's detective drinking out of a chamberpot. The reasoning behind this was never made clear. Barbie, of course, soldiered on, apparently having made peace with his lot. I swear I saw him skimming through a Farrelly brothers' script during his lunch break.
Thankfully, we found an evening to make time for the cozy pub in Totleigh-on-the-Wold, famous for its cheese and ale pie. Alas, Jeeves was holed up in his hotel room on a conference call with Sir Watkyn and his various associates, but I was able to share the meal with my fellow Drones. They even accommodated wee Piglet, tossing her a (free-range and organic) beef bone to gnaw on.
After my third or fourth slice, I decided to stretch my legs and take a stroll around the charming little town in the cool evening air. As I came upon the common, I spied a teeny weeny figure barrelling through the shrubbery. Piglet was enjoying a romp, her pink tongue lolling out of her mouth. For most of the day, the poor thing had been confined to her pet carrier - where, incidentally, I had stashed the Dalek. Piglet's affinity for shiny silver toys (not to mention the pilfered sausage I had bribed her with) served me well. I trusted she would ward off Spode's groping mitts with the gnashing of her teeth. She trotted up to me with a hearty snuffle and I scratched her ears, regrettably unable to ply her with any more treats.
I then caught sight of her mistress, perched on a bench in the distance, somewhat distracted by her phone. Plopped next to her, with his short stubby arm draped across the back of the bench, was the squat form of Lance Klein.
'The Cotswolds, huh? You limeys have such cute little names for stuff, ya know. But I'll never understand the way you guys spell. I mean, "Gloucestershire", what's that about?'
'Quite,' Madeline murmured, one eye trained on Piglet's gambols.
'Cute dog. I could talk to my line producer and let you bring it to the filming if you like.'
She perked up at this. 'Really Mr Klein? That's ever so kind.'
'Hey, I like pleasing pretty girls like you.' A grin crawled its way up his face. 'I'd be happy to do you all kinds of special favours. I'm a powerful man.'
He leaned into her personal space, and I felt my blood begin to seethe a tad. 'You, ah, like powerful men?'
'Uh, I don't quite follow-'
'I bet your kisses taste like English toffee.'
'Mr Klein!' She squeaked, and I suddenly realised that I was audibly grinding my teeth.
'Come on baby, just one little taste, huh?' His fat orange hand landed on her thigh.
'Madeline!' I shouted.
I needn't have intervened. Piglet suddenly tore up to Klein, snarling and yapping with a frenzy that only loyal lapdogs are capable of. Between this and my accusing glare, the little creep was easily shooed off.
'Woah, woah, hey!' He cried in feeble protest. 'I can take a hint, hands off the merchandise!'
'We shall see you tomorrow, Klein.' My voice was pure steel, if I do say so myself.
Now, as previously mentioned, many of my female friends and loved ones tend toward the spitfire-esque, and would have been able to annihilate Klein without so much as breaking a sweat. Madeline, however, is the outlier to this trend, and is much more the delicate flower sort. I rushed to her as she broke down in tears, gently placing a reassuring arm around her shoulders as Piglet eagerly licked her face.
'Oh Bertie,' she wailed, 'it was horrible!'
'My poor dear girl, I saw the whole thing. I'll be damned if I let that bounder touch a single hair on your noggin.'
'Thank you, Bertie. You are a true friend.' She extracted her Hello Kitty hanky from her bag and blew into it with a great honking raspberry. 'How will I ever explain this to Gussie?'
I sighed. 'What Gussie thinks should be the least of your concerns, dear child. I think it's high time I had a word with Jeeves about this Klein character.'
I walked Madeline and her pup back to the pub, ensuring she was calm and collected and in Angela's care. I was determined to report Klein's vile behaviour at once. However, since Jeeves was nowhere to be found, I was left with a far inferior alternative.
Spode was hunched over a corner table, nursing a warm beer and perusing The Daily Mail. Ensuring my heart was properly stout, I marched over and pulled up a chair before him.
'What do you want?' He barked.
'I know we're not on great terms, Spode, but I feel it is my duty to report a ghastly episode of misconduct that happened just now.'
'Steal another policeman's helmet, did you?' He snarked.
I pushed on. 'I just saw Lance Klein harrass Madeline. Quite indecently. I believe Sir Watkyn should be advised of this as soon as possible. I don't believe he would tolerate the director mistreating his daughter like that.'
This news did affect Spode. He glanced over at Madeline, who was presently being consoled by the stalwart Angela. For a brief moment, a certain tenderness seeped into his eyes. He then shifted his attention back to me, examining my expression.
'You're telling me this. Why haven't you run off to tattle to Jeeves? Why should I believe that you weren't the one propositioning her?'
The indignation I had felt earlier bubbled up within me again. I was really starting to get sick of straight men projecting their own desires onto me. 'For God's sake, Spode, I'm trying to-'
'Isn't that Eyepatch friend of yours being humiliated on set by Klein? You certainly have the motive to want to discredit him. And you felt the only way to do this was to molest poor Madeline!'
Spode's full barrister mode was a juggernaut of a thing, and my attempts to reason wth the great lout were promptly shot down.
He grabbed my shirt front, bringing me uncomfortably close to his monstrous scowl. 'Listen here, you pathetic worm. I have loved that sweet little woman for an age. Should I see anyone doing her harm, I am quite willing to trample their spine, break both of their legs, and use their head to practice my golf swing. And if I catch wind of you so much as laying a finger on her, you will be begging for death by the time I am done with you. You could possess an entire hard drive of compromising photos, and I wouldn't care. I will be watching you very closely, Wooster.'
With my fight-or-flight impulse tearing through my system, all thoughts of valour obliterated, I staggered back to the relative safety of my hotel room.
Our next filming session promised a reprieve of sorts, as we were scheduled to do a 'location shoot'. Truth be told, we weren't going far - a garden-party scene was to be filmed, and the crew set themselves up by the lake on the estate grounds. All the same, the fresh air and late summer sunshine was a welcome change from the austere hallways of Totleigh Towers.
Regrettably, Spode was making good on his promise to shadow me. While I was spared the up-close-and-personal proximity of the previous evening, he stalked me with a tenacity worthy of a pitbull, remaining constantly in my peripheral vision and shooting me the occasional evil eye.
Jeeves informed me that he had tried to reason with the great lump, to no avail. 'He is determined to believe the worst of you, I am afraid. His apalling lack of intuition is a embarrassment to the legal profession.' Strong words indeed.
'What I'd really like, Jeeves, is for that noxious creep Klein to get his comeuppance.' I had treated him to an impassioned account of Madeline's ordeal over breakfast.
A particularly enigmatic quarter-smirk misted its way onto my friend's face. 'I suspect, Mr Wooster, that Mr Klein may just receive what is due to him some time very soon.'
'Well!' I ejaculated. 'You can't possibly remain mum after dropping a tip like that Jeeves! I demand that you spill!'
He straightened the lapels on my linen suit, acting every part the dutiful valet that he was dressed as. 'Unfortunately, I do not yet have the authority to disclose the agreement reached between Sir Watkyn and the producers. Time will tell all, Mr Wooster.'
There is a folly on the Totleigh estate, standing right on the banks of the lake. Built centuries ago by some mad peer or another, made to resemble a Greek temple. It's rather a pretty old thing, framed by the spreading boughs of sycamore trees, and a feature of the grounds that film crews have put to good use over the years. When I turned to gaze upon it this morning, I was not expecting to see several young actresses twined artfully about its arches, naked as the day they were born. Each one had contrived a pouty, heavy-lidded sex-face, but to be honest it mostly had the effect of making them look bored.
'Yeah, that's nice,' I heard Klein drawl, that ugly grin stretched wide across his face as he ogled the flesh on display. 'Get the redhead to show a little more leg,' he ordered one of the ADs, who rushed up to advise the girl on her affected (and rather uncomfortable-looking) pose.
'Klein! What is this lurid exhibit?' Dame Martha Smythe pushed past me in full Dowager Countess gear, dwarfing Klein as she loomed over him.
'Gorgeous, am I right? We figured that if this is a twenties summertime bash, we could get some modern liberated women to provide a nice backdrop. Give the viewers something to keep watching for. Bathing beauties, ya know what I mean?'
Dame Martha looked so pipped, I thought I saw steam coming from her ears. 'Dustan Priory is a respectable family establishment! It would never play host to such vulgarity!'
'Yeah, whatever.' Here he turned to the AD again. 'We're missing a centerpiece, Steve. We need a cute blonde, I see her leaning on the front of the central column... and y'know, I think I know just the one!
I turned to Jeeves with knitted brows, and he quirked his lips, raising his eyebrow a good half inch.
Steve-the-AD fetched Madeline, whose quizzical expression quickly turned to utter horror as she took in the Hefner-esque tableau before her. Without thinking twice, I moved to march up to Klein and give the cad a piece of my mind, but I was hauled back by Jeeves' strong hands. 'Patience, Mr Wooster,' he whispered softly.
'Am I to... to...???' The poor girl couldn't even get the words out.
'C'mon baby, no need to be so stuck up,' Klein cooed in a sickly saccharin voice, pressing his mitts onto Madeline's trembling shoulders. 'You like having your little mutt with you on set, don't ya? Now it's time to return the favour. Let's just get that pretty dress off-'
'THAT'S ENOUGH!' Dame Martha bellowed, striking the bottom of her cane against the gravel. Like some magical schoolmistress, her voice rendered every last member of the cast and crew silent and speechless. All heads turned in her direction, awaiting the inevitable strife.
'I have stood by and watched you turn our years-long project into a feeble parody of itself,' she exclaimed. 'You have done insult to our staff writers by mangling their storytelling with those infantile whims that you call "comedy". You have de-railed carefully honed character development by paying no heed to the previous work of our talented cast. You have turned a potentially dazzling comeback role for Barnabas into an abject humiliation. But now, without showing a whit of remorse, you choose to bring this... sexual depravity into Lord Garland's realm, by objectifying these women, including an unpaid extra who clearly has not given consent! You are a disgrace, and you have no place in the world of Dunstan Priory. If you are to remain in the director's chair, then you will have to film the rest of this season without me.'
I felt like applauding.
'If Marty is walking off the set, then so am I,' came the declaration of Cora Bellinger, the actress who plays Lord Garland's suffragette daughter.
'Me too!' Ella, the head housemaid.
'Me too!' Mrs Craven, Lord Garland's busybody sister.
'HELL YEAH!' Briony, the clapper-board girl with the mohawk and the safety pin in her nose.
Within less than a minute, every single female cast and crew member had dropped what they were doing and joined the mutiny. Even the nude women had re-donned their dressing gowns and were glaring at Klein with their arms crossed. Who needed upstairs-downstairs melodrama when one got front-row seats to an uprising like this?
'Nice one, ladies!' I heard Barbie remark.
'Aw, c'mon, not you too, Eyepatch!' The rather bedevilled Klein whimpered. 'I thought the two of us were making comedy gold together! Don't you?'
Barbie spared a brief look at the disconcerted Madeline, and turned back to Klein, his eyes imbued with a clean, hot anger that I had seldom seen in them before.
'You want an eyepatch, you misogynistic philistine? Here's your bloody eyepatch!'
He planted an admirable shiner on Klein, and a whoop of cheering went up from the set.
As the crowd began to chatter and writhe, a large town car pulled up on the lengthy drive. Meanwhile, Klein struggled his way back up off the dirt.
'I'll make sure none of you limey bastards ever gets work in Hollywood again!' He screeched. 'I am Lance Klein and I am a powerful man! If I want naked chicks on my set, then that's what I'll get!' Here he jabbed a be-blinged finger towards Madeline. 'And as long as this stuck-up bimbo is in MY production, I can do whatever I want to her...'
Behind him, Spode had gone to open the door of the town car. As Klein had made his way through this little diatribe, the hunched form of Sir Watkyn Bassett, Master of Totleigh Towers, had been prowling up behind him.
'Do not insult my daughter, Klein.' Sir Watkyn rumbled. Madeline ran over to him, huddling into her father's protective embrace.
Never have I seen a human figure whip round and hunch over so very swiftly. 'Y... YOUR daughter, Sir Watkyn?' He grovelled. 'Oh! And, uh, a very lovely daughter she is too, sir-'
'What shall we do with this blackguard, Roddy?' Sir Watkyn asked, looking to Spode.
The giant man cracked his knuckles and sneered. I felt a temporary bloom of admiration for him. 'Hmm. Oh, I know, Uncle Watty. How about-'
'Are you going to beat him to a jelly, Spode?' I blurted enthusiastically.
'Better than that, Wooster. What say we put him in the dock for sexual harrassment? I'll be prosecutor, of course.'
'Capital idea, Roddy,' Sir Watkyn replied, and then turned his attention to his daughter. 'There there, Maddie. Daddy spoke with the producers last night, and we decided to kick that reptile off the production. No need for tears. Anything I can get for you, poppet?'
'Oh, Daddy...' she sniffled. 'All I want is some puppy kisses from dear little Piglet.'
'Mr Klein's lack of respect and artistic vision was quickly reported to the producers,' Jeeves informed me. 'It turns out that his placement on "Dunstan Priory" was a blatant act of nepotism - one of the head writers for "Doctor Who" is his uncle. The move to fire him was unanimous.'
'But what shall they do for a director, Jeeves?'
'I myself suggested an ideal candidate. A bright up-and-coming figure on the London theatre scene, I managed to lure her away from directing a production of "Kiss Me Kate" at Regent's Park.'
Sir Watkyn called for silence, and addressed the 'Dustan Priory' team. 'Due to creative differences, among other things, Mr Klein has been relieved of his role as director.' At this moment, security guards were hauling the filthy orange pustule down the gravel drive, off to the local constabulary. 'After intense negotiations with the studio, the producers are happy to say they have hired a far superior replacement.'
From the other side of the car, the buxom physique of Ms Marion Wardour emerged. 'G'day, Dunstan!'
'Marion!' I cried, giving her a sprightly hug. 'What a sight for sore eyes you are, old fruit!'
'Good God, Bertie, I'm still pinching myself. To think that a simple girl from Narraweena would one day be at the helm of a hit show like this-'
Barbie popped over, obviously eager to get on the new director's good side. 'Excuse me, Ms Wardour, you were the one who directed the "Brideshead!" musical, weren't you? You know, my wife Rhiannon was there opening night, and she hasn't stopped raving about how brilliant it was!'
Marion's pupils had dilated to the size of dinner plates, and she'd gone redder than an overcooked prawn. After a peal of manic girlish giggling, she squeaked 'H-hi, Barnabas...!'
No need to worry about the revised depiction of Barbie's character, then. If I didn't know that her beloved Johnny was an equally fervent Carrowthot, I would have been scandalised.
It had been a morn full of nerve-wracking events. I supposed that the agenda was to pack up and toddle off to the backlot, take a spot of lunch and let Marion strategise. Before a single camera could be packed away, an excited bout of high-pitched yaps echoed across the grounds, followed by a shriek of 'Piglet!' and the strangled holler of Sir Watkyn's voice. One could see the ripple of the crowd as a little pomeranian barged through it, and soon Piglet was revealed to my eyes - carrying the silver Dalek, its laser cannon clamped between her jaws. She must have thought it was quite the jolly game, having Madeline, Spode, Sir Watkyn, and now myself, all barrelling after her.
'Someone get m'Dalek! I paid three grand for it!' (Actually, Sir Watkyn had paid three thousand and one pounds.)
With my long legs, I was easily able to overtake the Bassetts to run neck-and-neck with Spode, without looking quite so red-faced. Even if we had briefly bonded over a mutual loathing for Klein, I was damned if I was going to let him win this battle. We Woosters have our honour, and the thought of my dearest aunt and uncle put an extra bit of juice into my sprint.
Piglet came to a stop by the foot of the folly, looking back at us and wiggling her plush tail, coaxing us to keep chasing her. Both Spode and I made a dive for her. At the last moment, she bounced out of the way behind the folly, leaving my rival and I to savour a mouthful of turf.
Just as we had scrambled to our feet, a distressed whine pealed out from behind the folly. My heart dropped into my period-accurate brogues. Then came a vicious, disembodied hiss.
Piglet came bounding back out from behind the grand structure, and following her was the biggest, nastiest, most frightful swan I had ever seen in all of my years. I found mysef suddenly wondering what all the fuss over dobermans and rottweilers was about, when this beast clearly outshone them in the scary guard-dog (or rather guard-waterfowl) department. It rose its mighty wings above its head, stalking towards the terrified dog as if she had just insulted its mother. Piglet, still holding tight to the Dalek, cringed and cowered, her tail suddenly tucked beneath her legs.
The beast pecked at the button on the Dalek's back, producing the old 'EXTERMINATE!' from its voice box. Piglet dropped it in shock, and the swan went in for the kill.
'NO!' Madeline bawled.
Remember the adage imparted by a wise aunt, that crises reveal what we truly value? Well, I have seen this empirically proven to be true, at least when it comes to hulking man-gorillas. Like some vigilante hero, Spode swooped in, braving not only the onslaught of the swan's teeth, but Piglet's own snarling and snapping maw. In spite of the swan getting a few good pecks at his mighty legs, and in spite of Piglet clamping down on his thumb with a good deal of fury, he ripped the little dog off the ground, and gave the swan a kick in the ribs. He then rushed up to Madeline, depositing the little puffball safely in her waiting arms.
'Oh... Roderick, thank you!' She declared tearfully. 'I don't know what I would have done if my baby were hurt!' She kissed the pooch's fluffy forehead.
'Anything for you, little Madeline,' Spode responded wetly. I could not be certain whether the redness in his eyes was due to the heightened emotions or the pattern of vicious nicks and cuts on his legs and hands. 'Anyway... it was nothing. Nothing that any other hopeless idiot wouldn't do for your happiness.' Here he sucked at a rather nasty bite-mark on his pinky finger.
Madeline flashed a sweet little smile up at him. 'Do you remember when Daddy would read "Winnie the Pooh" to us during Christmas holidays?'
'I most certainly do, little Madeline.'
She rested a tiny hand on his mighty forearm. 'Then, Roderick, promise me you'll always remember: you're braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we're apart...'
They finished the quotation in perfect unison. '...I'll always be with you.'
I don't care what Jeeves tells you - I only had a speck of dirt in my eye, and that is the sole reason I was wiping tears away.
The mawkish moment was killed by Sir Watkyn once again giving a horrified shout.
The swan, with mien of lord or lady, perched above the folly door - perched upon a bust of Baachus just above the folly door, with the Dalek in its beak! I was shaken to the core!
It was the work of but a moment to begin scaling the overhanging sycamore branches beside the folly. Once I was within reach of the monster, I stretched myself out to the folly roof and made a swipe to grab the Dalek. It flapped and swung its head at me, the figurine proving a useful bludgeon. It whacked me in the leg with malevolent force, but I retained my purchase on the roof and lunged forward again.
I'm afraid the next few moments were something of a blur. All I recall is the heart-stopping moment that I felt the bloody animal trip me up, and my centre of gravity being upended like an overloaded trolley on rough terrain. As I fell, I heard a honk, a splash, several astonished cries, and I found enough time to muse that death-by-swan would be a rather news-worthy way to go. Then, my descent came to an abrupt halt...
Instead of my body shattering in a novel contortion on the ground below, I found myself seized in the steady brace of Jeeves' arms.
His eyes were wider and more alarmed than I had ever seen them before. 'Oh... thank God!' He panted.
Once I had got my bearings, I reflected on the chaos of the preceding moments. 'I say, Jeeves... did you just save my life?'
'So it would seem, Mr Wooster.'
'Right. Well, carry on, Jeeves.'
'Never mind the klepto!' Came Sir Watkyn's curt remonstrance, 'Me bloody Dalek fell in the lake!'
Jeeves was on a roll. Wasting no time, he gallantly set me down, tore off his woollen valet's jacket, and with unsurprising grace and athleticism, dove into the lake's murky waters. Without thinking I rushed to the shoreline, anxious to see him come up again.
A cruel half-minute marched by, with nary a bubble meeting the surface of the lake. I felt my heart begin to beat out a flamenco against my ribcage. 'Jeeves!'
At last, at last, he emerged like a Venus encircled by lily-pads, ribbons of water sheeting off his broad shoulders and silky hair. Yes, yes, alright, perhaps it is a little indelicate to say so, but the sight of the man in a wet shirt, with his collar loosened, is not for the faint of heart. And yes, I may have accidentally called him Mr Darcy, but I swear that even Spode and Sir Watkyn went a bit goggle-eyed at the exquisite vision before them.
'I regret to say, Sir Watkyn, that this figurine is quite battered and waterlogged. Between your daughter's dog, the swan, and its immersion in water, the value of the object is significantly decreased, well below what you paid for it.'
He pressed the button on its back, and the measly, gurgling 'exterminate' that issued forth was a piteous sound indeed.
Sir Watkyn sighed heavily, giving a nod of his head. 'Shame, that,' he surmised, 'but I suppose it could have been worse.' He wrapped a gentle arm about Madeline's shoulders. 'Dispose of that thing for me, will you, Jeeves?'
Later, after he had dried off at the backlot, Jeeves approached me. When no-one was looking, he flashed a cheeky three-quarter smirk and pressed the Dalek into my hands.
'My cousin Manisha is the best kept secret in all of Southall,' he whispered to me. 'She is an avid collector like your uncle and Sir Watkyn, and she boasts a particular genius for the repair and restoration of memorabilia such as this. I shall be sure that you are charged the family rate.'
I was eventually able to process the words that had issued from his lips, though it took me a good while. I don't see why the blighter had to stand so close to me without a shirt on.
'What ho,' came the mumble of Gussie as he sauntered up to us.
'Where have you BEEN!?' I screeched. 'Didn't you see everything that happened on set today!? Your poor Madeline was put through the proverbial ringer!'
'Was she? Oh,' the bespectacled blockhead responded with a limp shrug of his shoulders. 'I wandered off to the other side of the lake and found the most marvellous little family of northen crested newts paddling about amongst the reeds...'
Boko took a long draught of his soy chai latte and smacked his lips. 'There was one producer, Ms Stoker, who really went to bat for me. She was able to shoot down most of the exceptonally moronic changes that the others wanted to make to the screenplay. Like bringing my heroine back to life after her scorpion bite. Or worse, casting a Deschanel to play her.'
It was the first properly chilly day of autumn. A party of my fellow Drones and I were huddled around a corner table at the hipster cafe, staring out at the drizzle and comparing notes on the past few months. Boko had been back for a few days, finally over his jetlag, and reinstalled in his cozy flat alongside Hadrian, Antinous, Andromeda the cactus, et al. As for myself, I had been decanted back into the loving arms of my family at Brinkley Court, and had so far kept my old room fastidiously clean.
'You know, we recently went to the set of "Dunstan Priory",' Angela said. 'Catsmeat and Barbie had featured roles, and we got to be extras.'
'I know! I read Bertie's blog. How did Marion end up settling in?'
'Quite well,' Catsmeat responded. 'After talking things over with the production team, they worked out some clever editing, and we didn't have to re-shoot much. I wrapped up all of my stuff just last week. Once Esmond's finished filming the new Adam & Стёпа TV spots, he's taking me to Saint-Tropez.'
Here Boko turned to me. 'Speaking of which, Bertie, you really need to sort things out with Jeeves. You're obviously crazy about him.'
Angela did a mild double-take. 'But... aren't you two already dating?'
I was taken aback, not having expected the inquisition. I stared down at my vegetable panini, as if it would prompt a fitting answer to my friends' intrustive stares.
I managed a flustered 'Um...' before Boko cut in again.
'Oh come on, man! I thought you had your Code of the Woosters to live up to! How hard can it be to ask him out?'
'You were never this shy back at Eton,' Catsmeat chimed in. 'Do you remember that French exchange student in year 11?'
'Oh yes, Jean-Baptiste!' Boko exclaimed. 'I hear tell that Bertie gave him a goodbye that throughly dispelled the frigid Englishman stereotype-'
'Jeeves is too good for me!' I blurted, unintentionally knocking over the Himalayan salt crystals.
Despite my table-thumping petulance, I did speak the truth. In every way possible, Jeeves shines where I merely flicker, and even my own feeble light has been fed substantially by his brilliance. Six months ago, I had kicked up such a stink about autonomy and doing everything for myself. Quite troubling, then, to reflect on just how desperately I had come to count on the man. But oh, what I wouldn't do to retain his friendship.
'I... if I tried to ask him, it would ruin everything between us. And he's the best thing to cross my path for a long time.' I felt my stomach turn to granite at the thought. If you've ever contemplated skydiving, public speaking, or disobeying an aunt, you'll know the dratted feeling.
'Oh, Bertie,' Angela rested her hand on mine. 'You musn't sell yourself short like that. Anyway, you should see the way Jeeves looks at you.'
'Spare me the rom-com cliches,' I muttered.
'Just talk to him,' she commanded, an edge of Dahlia-esque steel in her voice. 'I promise you that you'll be pleasantly surprised.'
I was given pause, and again I gazed down at the layers of tomato and spinach on my plate. While Angela is known for her pranks, she is a sensitive enough soul to not mislead her loved ones on delicate issues such as this. At times, she can even be something of a sage. (While we were in Gloucestershire, she did earnestly talk Madeline out of wearing a cardigan that was an hideously unflattering shade of tangerine.)
'It's true,' Catsmeat affirmed, 'you've sort of become Jeeves' pet, seeing the way he dotes on you.'
'I've never actually seen him be so affectionate, myself,' Boko remarked. 'He's polite, but normally he seems quite stand-offish to me.'
My confidence was being slowly tugged out from under its shell, and the possibility of Jeeves responding to my blithering overtures favourably was doing something very funny to my insides. It was as if the granite of my stomach was suddenly replaced with a litter of bouncy pomeranians.
'Well...' I mumbled at length, 'I guess... I could perhaps suggest the possibility to him.'
'Splendid!' Angela cried, looking ready to help us pick out a ring.
'One other thing I must know,' Boko inquired, 'that whole.... Pooh bear thing... Bertie, was that true?'
'Well, I deleted the photo, so I no longer have the evidence, but I am sorry to say that I did indeed have to live through that ordeal.'
'How ghastly,' Boko shuddered into his chai. 'Do you think Spode might ever come after you about it?'
I shrugged. 'Jeeves reckons I'm safe for now. Spode came to realise that I was trying to protect Madeline from that Klein character, so he'd probably cut me a sliver of slack if it came down to it.'
'I should think so,' Angela declared, pointing her finger to the other side of the cafe.
We turned as one to witness the sight of Roderick Spode, crammed onto one of the cafe's whimsically bantam-weight chairs, devouring a buddha bowl full of tofu and broccoli. His attention was split between this and a dog-eared paperback of 'Marley & Me'.
While the Roland, my laptop, and other necessities had come with me back to Brinkley Court, a few errant items were left huddled in a corner of Boko's hallway. The old boy insisted I come collect them at the earliest possible chance, and both he and Angela now conspired that it would be the perfect opportunity for me to spill my tender, quivering guts to Jeeves. On the day of this trial, my sweet cousin dressed me in a natty slim-fit indigo shirt that Jeeves had once complimented me on, and coiffed my curls to perfection. I was unkindly refused any hard liquor.
'Take heart, Bertie. You're going to ask him out,' she commanded, straightening my collar. 'He's going to accept you, and it's going to be wonderful. Now spit out that gum at once, it's quite boorish.'
I jiggled my foot so frantically on the tube, that a kindly old Jamaican grandmother offered me a paper bag to breathe into. Angela and Boko had somehow turned a blind eye to my usual awkwardness, and were convinced that everything would go so clinically smooth, lke some kind of mutually beneficial business merger.
Here's the thing: I can vividly describe Jeeves' charm, his good looks, his patience, his kindness, not to mention his marvellous mind. I can call him a paragon, a genius, a wonder. But you truly need to be in his presence to understand why he is a man that you cannot just partially fall in love with. A man that you cannot breezily offer your heart to as if it were a half-eaten packet of Jammie Dodgers. If you fall for Reginald Jeeves at all, you fall for him completely, and it changes you, in the deepest way possible. He's like some chemical that permanently transforms anything it touches. Had I paid attention in science class, I suppose I would have a cogent metaphor for this, but alas.
If he turned me down, it would not leave me the same Wooster as before. And I was not liking the prospect of 2017 becoming the year my heart was shredded twice.
(Addendum: the above does not happen to apply if you are Bingo Little. But then, so few people are.)
Once I got to Fulham, I bore Boko's gruesome performance as a one-man pep rally, and turned a blind eye to the truly gratuitous display that Hadrian and Antinous were giving in the fish tank. (Really, couldn't they have snogged in the privacy of their fibreglass castle?) After taking my time with a fortifying cup of tea, I slowly gathered up the little pile of my knick-knacks in the hall, spared a thought for Agincourt, and trudged my way up to Jeeves' door.
He was devastating enough in his rolled-up shirt sleeves, did he really have to half-smile at me like that?
'Good afternoon, Mr Wooster. I take it that you have returned to your aunt's home in Richmond.'
'For the nonce, yes. Though I'm sure she'll be at me to find a house-share with one of my friends soon. I'm just collecting the last of my things now.'
'I see. Though I am happy for Mr Fittleworth to be back in his own home, I must confess that I am sad to see you leave. I very much enjoyed being your neighbour.'
'Me too.' I dug a trainer into the porch tiles. 'Um...' I was relieved that my voice did not crack.
His gentle gaze bid me finish my thought.
'You know Jeeves... I feel we've become such terrific chums over the past few months, and, well... I'd hate our assocation to end here. Seems a bit of a lemon of a sitch, you know.'
'I quite agree.'
'And... and... dash it. It's a struggle to bring this up. I mean, you say I'm no dullard, but let's be real. I'm a dissolute child of the internet with more trust fund than brain, and... you've been the one steady influence I've drawn strength from in I don't know how long.'
His eyes did not move from my face, which was currently doing its bit to expedite global warming. Even my eyelashes felt as if they were burning.
'I mean to say, Jeeves, that... oh hell.'
We shared a nervous giggle, which dissipated quickly, and I was left to confront the precipice again.
'You... wouldn't consider taking me on as a client, would you? To handle my assets and whatnot?'
Something in Jeeves' expression quickly shut down, and I was left on the porch with a conscientious solicitor. 'I do not think that advisable, Mr Wooster.'
You know that clamping heaviness that fills your chest when you know something truly valuable and unique has been lost? I can't say I hadn't expected it, but it flummoxed me all the same. At least I had not said anything truly foolish, e. g. that I was in love with him.
'Oh, no bother, then, I understand you're a busy chap.' I attempted the nervous giggling again, which didn't seem to do any good. 'Well... maybe Bea needs a bit of help around the office. I could come in a few times a week to file things and answer phones and do coffee runs. Do paralegals need dogsbodies? I think I should quite like being legally blonde, eh what?'
His brow crinkled ever so slightly. Examining me now, his eyes started to mellow, and he looked truly sad. 'Mr Wooster, I should make it clear that it is against my principles to work with you in any professional capacity.'
There it was. The undeniable gap in our stations: he an accomplished man of the world, I a ridiculous posh slacker. It was time to accept that pitiful lot and let him get back to his vocation. What right had I to demand any of his time, when there were so many people more worthy of it?
I couldn't look him in the face again. All I could do was trudge down his garden path and rid myself from his presence.
'I understand, Jeeves. I'm sorry to presume upon you like that. I'm sure you have important things to be getting on with.'
'No, but... Mr Wooster!...'
He sounded almost frustrated with me. I could take no more of this. I turned and ran, pretty certain that I dropped something in my flight, but uncaring.
An hour later, I found myself leaning on the side of Westminster Bridge, staring listlessly out over the Thames as a yet another drizzly evening descended upon London. If I admit that I lingered there in the cold as commuters weaved around me, heaving embarrassing sobs against the railing and rubbing at my streaming eyes with the sleeve of my coat, I don't think your opinion of me would likely sink lower than it already probably is.
Behind me, Big Ben bonged seven. Emerging from my stupor of self-pity, I suddenly realised that I was standing in the exact same spot, doing the exact same thing as I had done, just after Ginger had dumped me. I tchah-ed to myself, annoyed that my vow not to get ensared by man trouble again had been broken. Was I doomed to repeat the same romantic misadventure ad infinitum? Perhaps the next thing on my agenda was to find a good therapist.
My phone rang, and I supposed that Aunt Dahlia was fretting, eager to tear into me for being late for dinner. However, the caller was an unknown number.
The very blood in my veins stilled at once.
'It's Ginger. I need to talk to you. As soon as possible, face to face, if we can. Are you free for dinner tonight?'
Ginger all but begged me to meet him at the Wolseley, so it was just as well Angela had dolled me up earlier that day. Chilled through, I felt as though I was constructed of all the heavier elements on the periodic table (damn my inattention in science class!), and I was looking forward to the meeting with the same enthusiasm as a dip in the rolling Thames beneath my feet.
Still as handsome as ever, Ginger grasped me in a hug that was a bit too friendly for a happily married man. Taking my coat, pulling out my chair and passing me an exeedingly rich-looking menu, he flashed his old roguish smile my way as I endeavoured to select a meal that wouldn't worsen my nausea.
Over our sparkling mineral water and breadsticks, he grew somber, bracing himself to announce whatever he had been planning.
'I'll be frank, Bertie,' he said. 'Things have taken an unexpectedly sour turn between Magnolia and myself. I've had a rather nasty shock this morning, one which has made me rethink a lot of things.'
I leaned forward. 'Really? Well then, old thing, say on.'
'What I did to you back in January was absolutely monstrous. I have regretted breaking your heart like that every single day since. To think that you have languished alone, without a soul to rescue you, while I nicked off to Ibiza to go clubbing and down cocktails. After you had given me the best years of your life. I can only say how deeply sorry I am.'
I managed a genuine smile. 'Thank you, Ginger, I appreciate that.'
He responded by looking at me with a pained, pitying grimace. 'You are no desperado, built to withstand the torments of life by yourself. You, Bertie Wooster, are a delicate sweet thing that needs to be cared for. Damnit, every time I look at you I see that innocent little orphan boy who I met at Oxford, the one with the mismatched socks and the Powerpuff Girls knapsack. And I can't help the urge to protect that boy.'
Before I could pull away, he grabbed my wrist, and crashed through my personal space like a bumper car. I could smell pork scratchings on his breath.
'I can make up for it all, poppet. I'll divorce Magnolia. You'll come back to live with me and I'll make sure you want for nothing. It'll be like Oxford again. Parties, clubbing, making love under the stars. Just say the word and I will be at your command.'
I tilted my head. 'Does this have anything to do with that post Magnolia put on Facebook this morning? Of herself brunching with the directors of Norwich City FC? Because I'm pretty sure that was just a social thing. Her cousin's fiance is on the board, after all. She hasn't renounced her allegiance to Chelsea, you know.'
He pulled back from me, looking thoroughly gobsmacked.
'My dear Ginger, let's put some things into perspective here. Magnolia loves you. She has been the great helpmeet in your career for a good number of years now. Correct me if I'm wrong, but it's certain that you and she exchange more meaningful conversations in a single month than you and I did during our entire three-year-long engagement. On the plus side, I did develop something of a friendship with your Filipina housekeeper, as she and I were the only people to regularly occupy your penthouse. And I say your penthouse quite rightly, as it was never truly ours. Magnolia is your true partner and equal in this mortal c. Some piddly little squabble about one meaningless brunch is not going to change the way she feels about you.'
Slowly, Ginger's horrified expression was calming, changing into something quite astonished.
'Take it from someone who knows first-hand. It does not do to simply run from your commitments. Not if they're the ones that help you become a better person. You are free to return to Magnolia tonight, give her a heartfelt apology, and get on with your life as a loving husband. You'll look back on this in the future and be grateful that you did.'
He stared down at his half-mauled breadstick for a good minute or so, then let out a deep breath. 'When did you get so good at understanding the psychology of the individual?'
A tight smile. 'I've been learning from one of the masters.'
He offered to pay for my dinner all the same, but I politely declined, opting instead for fish and chips in the corner of one of Richmond's quieter pubs.
Aunt Agatha eyed her dish of curry suspiciously, burying it in a huge pile of rice. 'Foreign food,' she mumbled.
The family were sitting around the dining table at Brinkley Court, partaking in an ostensible welcoming back of my austere aunt from her tour. We had spent the apertifs and starter enduring her descriptons of ecclesiastical architecture of the continent, as well as the services enacted therein. If you asked me about the buttresses and arches of the cathedrals in regional Hungary, I am quite confident that I could answer absolutely none of your queries.
'The summer dishes and pastries of Poland were quite palatable, but I'm afraid I cannot trust a curry that was not made to an English recipe.'
'But Bertie made this from scratch, Aggie,' Dahlia responded. 'He's become quite a whiz around the house. He's even doing the vacuuming for me now.'
I hid behind a large mouthful of rogan josh, hoping the subject would be dropped there.
No such luck. 'But vacuuming is a task best left to a wife. What does Bertie need to know of it? Here, I managed to acquire several names and telephone numbers of young ladies eager to emigrate to London. Some of them even speak a passable level of English.' Agatha thrust at me a small, well-worn address book. 'Best you get on with contacting them instead of bothering with your little housekeeper game.'
It was time to artfully diffuse this bomb.
'That's terribly kind of you, Aunt Agatha, but I'm afraid I will be very busy in the next few weeks - what with my new job and Bingo and I going flat-hunting-'
'This is not a request!' She bellowed. 'You shall not exploit your aunt's good nature one moment more! If you have not chosen a bride by the end of the year, then I shall arrange a match for you myself!'
'Aggie. Please try to understand,' Dahlia assuaged, with a seldom-used gentle voice. 'Simply marrying Bertie off will do us no good. He's come so far in the past few months and he really needs to exert his independence-'
'By co-habiting with his oafish friends and cooking spicy slop with brown people? I think not! It is time you stopped indulging the boy in his degenerate bohemianism - he must marry!'
Both aunts were now standing, at opposite ends of the table to one another. Angela, Uncle Tom and I were all slowly moulding ourselves into the backs of our chairs. I have witnessed but a few auntly stand-offs in my time, and they are phenomena that are in line with animal maulings, hurricanes, and the worse sort of bar-room punch-ups. If you can picture the aforementioned with lipstick and low-heeled pumps, that is.
Dahlia took a sharp breath and eyed her older sister. 'Agatha. You are my family, and despite your political views I will always love you. Be that as it may, you have no right to come into my home and say these things about our beloved nephew, who has made such an effort to improve himself of late. I am immensely proud of him. And if he does choose to marry one day, regardless of whether his groom is a dark-skinned gentleman or as pale as death, you shall be invited to the wedding, and you shall congratulate him - whether you like it or not.'
'Congratulate him?' Agatha gargled, choking on the notion as if it were the foreignest of foreign foods. 'For bringing shame on our family with this behaviour that you celebrate? If his father knew of his disgusting carryings on with other boys, he would have him disowned!'
Aunt Agatha owns the market in homophobic remarks, but this was a new blow. And I will say here now - it stung.
Dahlia's eyes almost looked reptilian. 'Angela, fetch your auntie's coat. I believe she will be heading home now.'
Normally, an angry aunt Dahlia would be doing her best impression of an alpha wolf, with all the snarling and gnashing of fangs that that implies. Paint usually peels from the walls due to the decibel levels. This was the first time I had ever witnessed rage rendering her quieter.
Later that evening, after the dishes were washed, dried and stacked away, Aunt Dahlia found me hunched over my laptop. In her hands she clutched a dusty photo album. Wordlessly, she bid me budge up along my bed and sat down beside me, opening the tome to a page of yellowed photographs. In a few of them, the telltale rainbow streak of a pride flag caught my eye.
She thrust a stout finger at one of the pictures of my mother and father, dressed in colourful summer gear, careless smiles plastered on their faces.
'Your parents at Pride London back in the early nineties, cheering on a uni friend of theirs who was on a float that year. I was the one who took this photo. Look, there's your Uncle Tom in the back, flirting with that drag queen.'
I looked up at her, quite surprised to see tears pricking her eyes.
'Don't you dare listen to Agatha for a second.' I felt her take my hand. 'I know, without a doubt, that both your mother and father would be so, so proud of you.'
As mentioned previously, I had stumbled upon a regular job of sorts, one that came up quite by surprise. Faith Rosso, the MD for 'Brideshead!', had a chum of a chum who knew a bloke who owned a sleek little piano bar at Canary Wharf. Their usual pianist for the Sunday to Wednesday slot had been nabbed by a jazz quartet, and they were in the market for a charming chanteur with a knowledge of the great standards, everything from 'Puttin On The Ritz' to 'Rolling In The Deep'. Despite the often indifferent crowd of city professionals, it's a nice little gig with a good hourly rate, generous tippers, and easy access to booze, so I have no complaints. Often I will noodle out my old school favourites like 'Minnie The Moocher' and 'Forty-Seven Ginger Headed Sailors', until I get a slurred request for 'Uptown Girl' or other such slop. Every worn-out pop standard I perform makes me feel that much more grown-up about the whole wheeze.
In the still of the night
As I gaze from my window
At the moon in its flight
My thoughts all stray to you
In the still of the night
While the world is in slumber
All the times without number
Darling when I say to you
Do you love me, as I love you?
Are you my life to be, my dream come true?
Or will this dream of mine fade out of sight?
Like the moon growing dim, on the rim of the hill
In the chill, still, of the night
This past Sunday night, the moon peeked out from behind the monotonous cloud cover, rendering me a tad melancholy. The few patrons at the bar paid no heed to the ballad I sang, so I felt quite at ease throwing all the emotion I had into the thing. It was impossible not to think of Jeeves.
I hopped down for a quick, well-earned break, confident that no-one would miss me. My favourite barmaid was on, and the old girl poured me a particularly generous brandy.
'Thank you, Machie,' I saluted her.
'You sip that slowly, Bertie,' was the auntly response.
I settled in quite happily to nurse my drink, scrolling absently through the feed on my phone. Angela and Tuppy were having another fight, Madeline had posted photos of some of the new inmates at Battersea, and Yogi Cordelia would be running us through a new kind of sun salutation next week. Nothing terribly exciting. My thoughts began to turn to the next set of pieces I should play, and I mused upon whether Burt Bacharach or Elton John would suit the evening better-
'Good evening, Mr Wooster.'
I only regained full lucidity after I had spilled a full finger of brandy into my lap.
'Friend of yours, is he?' Machie asked.
'...' I repsonded.
'I wondered if I may have a quick word with your pianist, madam?' Jeeves requested.
'As long as you come back and buy a drink,' Machie told him with a wink.
He drew me over to an intimate table by the floor-to ceiling window, the pilot lights of London's skyline twinkling behind him.
'Fancy seeing you here, old thing,' I blithered.
'Not at all. I was looking for you, in fact, partially to return this.' He produced a book from his coat pocket: my copy of 'À la recherche du temps perdu'.
'You dropped it when you left my front door,' he told me simply.
'Ah. Thank you.' I stared down at the book cover, not quite sure of what else to say.
'I am afraid I must once again apologise to you, Mr Wooster, for the way we left things. I had no intent of upsetting you.'
I waved a hand at this. 'Oh no no, dear fellow, no harm done. It's your practice, you can engage whomever you like.'
He quarter-smirked, the tiny crease in his noble brow betraying an issue he had yet to settle. 'About that... I believe there was a misunderstanding.'
'Oh?' I suddenly felt a little afraid of the answer.
'Yes.' Jeeves paused here, tenting his hands and huffing. 'Please hear me out... I did not properly explain to you why I cannot take you on.'
Pure poison began to pool at the base of my gut. 'No Jeeves, I don't need to hear this,' I said heatedly, standing up. 'I know I'm an idiot and a spoiled millennial and that I don't meet the standards of-'
'Are you in love with me?'
I couldn't say anything. I could have bolted if it weren't for the sudden look in Jeeves' eyes: more unguarded, frail, and dare I say pleading, than I had ever seen.
'Come again?' Was the best that I could squeak out.
Taking a shaky breath, Jeeves pushed on. 'In regards to both my clients and my co-workers, while a modicum of compassion does aid in my service to them, it is not in my best interests to form any manner of strong emotional bias towards them lest it sully the work I need to do on their behalf.' A pause, as he rallied himself again. 'With you, Mr Wooster, I would be quite unable to maintain that professional distance. Your pull on my emotions is singularly potent.'
Saying nothing, I sat back down.
'On that April evening,' he continued, 'I saw a stranger contemplating a possible break-in to my absent neighbour's flat. As a man of the law, my rational response would be a careful line of questioning to properly ascertain the legitimacy of their claims, and to contact the relevant authorities to either corroborate the story or punish their wrongdoing. While it is true I put in a call to the landlady... all that was on my mind was assisting the lovely and earnest creature who had so quickly and effortlessly charmed me. Even from that first moment you have constantly had a monopoly on my feelings. I have fiercely hoped with every fibre of strength in my body that you are in love with me, as...' He stopped, his deep voice having grown thick with emotion. 'As every single day of our association has seen me fall more and more deeply in love with you.'
I almost said something here, and no doubt it would have been ludicrously sentimental, but Jeeves took my hand in his. That seemed to short out most of my higher brain functions. At the very least, I could still sit upright and respire.
'It pains me so, so deeply to hear you talk about yourself in such a way. These claims of your so-called idiocy have never played out, as far as I have observed. Do you get flustered under pressure? Yes. Is your knowledge of certain fields limited? Yes. These are no crimes. What I have seen is an optimistic, resilient young man who has repeatedly gone to great lengths to help his friends. A cheerful, open-minded young man happy to learn new things and try new experiences. Your zest for life, your graciousness towards your fellow human beings, your god-given musical talent... those precious things can simply not be taught.'
He bowed his head, presumably to corral his surging emotions, the ones that I had elicited. He looked up again, and we locked eyes, and even breathing became a hardship.
'If you'll have me, Bertram... beautiful Bertram...' A whisper of long fingers against my cheek. By God, I was utterly gone.
I could describe the experience of kissing Reginald Jeeves in great and glorious detail. The primal surge of delight and pleasure of mouthing at his plush lips, grasping at his broad shoulders, stroking his thick black hair, inhaling the spice of his cologne. The heady euphoria, the reeling joy of knowing that such an extraordinary man desires and cherishes you. It's not a patch on experiencing it yourself. Unfortunately, I am fixed in my viewpoint that this Wooster is the only person who shall have the privelege of kissing Reginald Jeeves. You'll all just have to take my word for it.
'Um, Bertie? Any day now,' came Machie's voice. 'Someone just requested "Say A Little Prayer". You can devour your honey on your own time.'
The Code Of The Woosters always wins out. Thankfully, this time, the duty was a happy one.
Let me drop the Wooster voice (and the suspended disbelief) for a little afterword. To anyone who commented, bookmarked, kudos-ed or otherwise: YOU GUYS ARE ONE OF THE MAIN THINGS THAT MAKES WRITING THIS STUFF WORTHWILE. THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU <<<<3333
Also, I have gotten quite attached to my Modern!AU Jeeves-verse, and I am most certainly not done with these chaps yet. I would love to introduce Jeeves' Punjabi/Sikh family, involve some of the other characters from the Wodehouse canon (Chuffy, Uncle George, even Dr Roderick Glossop), and I feel a bit of a long term character arc regarding old Spode. Such fun!
I am also over at ladykeane.tumblr.com , where you are most welcome to contact me :)
Pip pip for the nonce, old fruits.