Keeping Up Appearances: DickiebyNigel Debonnaire©
"Hello, Papa. Escape Mummy's supervision for a few moments at last?"
"Hello, Sheridan. Yes, she's gone down to the Church Hall with Elizabeth to heckle the poor Vicar about the Communion vessels; she thinks they should use something more elegant for Holy Eucharist at our parish. I've managed to convince her I have a migraine today, so I was excused from chauffeur duty."
"Well done, Papa. You use that excuse very judiciously; Mummy hasn't figured out you're shamming when you tell her that. Now what kind of mischief do you want me to assist you with? It's been ages since YOU'VE called me."
I took a deep breath. "I think it's time your Mummy came down for an extended visit with her only beloved son. She's had a tough time lately, especially since we had to sell that place in the country she forced me to buy, and I'd like to cheer her up a bit."
"Commendable, Father dear. Tarquin's gone on a holiday with a biker gang, I'm on my own, and some time with Mummy would be a laugh."
"Agreed then. How soon can you take her?"
"Now, now, I sense some urgency in your tone. This sounds like one of your old MI 5 operations. You must tell me what's in it for you, aside from some freedom from Mummy's little schemes."
"How could you think a thing like that? Believe it or not, I'm very happy with your Mother. For all her trouble, Hyacinth is almost everything I could hope for in a wife: she cooks wonderful meals, keeps the house immaculate, and organizes my time completely. It's like being in the Army; I don't have a worry in the world, and I rarely have to do my own thinking."
"You've done some original thinking here. So why do I have to sit her for two weeks?"
I looked out the window of my house at the garden. The girls were back from their errand with the Vicar, and the woman of my life, Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced Bouquet) was running her mouth at full speed. She was chatting over the fence with our neighbor, Elizabeth Warden, while her brother Emmitt Hawthorne practiced the piano inside. Emmitt was casting furtive glances over his shoulder, pounding the keys in an effort to be as busy as possible lest Hyacinth have a chance to "sing at him", as he put it. Elizabeth was working very hard to have a normal conversation with someone who obviously wasn't listening to her, her eyes darting about while her hands were clasping her elbows hard. She caught me in a sidelong glance, and a hint of a smile crossed her face as she noticed me on the phone.
Shaking my head, I answered: "Our neighbor Emmitt is leaving on a cruise tomorrow; he's working as a cocktail pianist to make some money. He'll be gone for two weeks. . ."
". . .And you want to keep Elizabeth company while he's gone. How much am I getting out of this? You don't let Mummy send me anything beyond the basics, and I feel so embarrassed around Tarquin. . ."
The manipulative twerp! I had the answer for him: "I have a few pictures of you and Tarquin that will probably make your beloved Mummy go spare if she ever saw them. You don't need to know how I got them or where they're being kept."
A gasp came over the line. "But I've told Mummy I'm gay, over and over and over again."
"And has she ever listened to you?" There was a long silence. "I thought not. Your Mummy still has dreams of marrying you into a prominent family someday, either a royal, a member of the nobility, or an industrialist after you finish University. Seeing evidence of your obvious disinterest would break her heart and we both know that. You'll be in the same category as your Uncle Onslow and Aunt Daisy: you'll be lucky if she ever mentions your name again."
"Point taken. All right, she can come down anytime, but I do need some help, Papa. You know how expensive entertaining Mummy is, and I can't use Tarquin's money."
"All right, Sheridan, all right. I'll wire you two thousand pounds right after I send her off. That should keep you busy, and anything you don't spend on her you can keep."
A grim chuckle traveled down the wire. "Wow, thanks for the bankroll."
"Leave the sardonicism out of it. Do as you're told, and I may be more generous in future."
"Point taken again. I'll call her in a few minutes and we'll set this up."
"Fine. Just as long as she's on the train two days from now, I'll be happy."
"Two days? You're waiting that long?'
"You know it'll take her that long to get packed and have my time organized before she can go."
"Right. All right, Papa. It's a deal."
"Thank you, son."
I rang off and sighed. The hard work was done; the rest would be easy once Hyacinth set her sights on visiting the dearest man in her life. My absence would be tolerated once I presented my excuse, which was reasonable and would convince her of my noble character and unselfish service to Queen and country. From here on it should set up itself without much effort on my part.
Most people don't understand why I put up with Hyacinth. Trust me, after ten years doing espionage behind the Iron Curtain and having to look over my shoulder every waking moment, living with her has been what I've always craved. My life undercover had enough excitement and thrills for three or four lifetimes: James Bond was a slacker as far as I'm concerned. These days I never have to worry about what's in my food and drink, if anything dangerous is in the house, or which hidden enemy may be lurking around the corner. Hyacinth is superb at drawing attention to herself and away from me, and I rarely have to wonder if there's anything behind her little schemes other than vain attempts to climb the social ladder. There is only one thing lacking in my life, something she thinks undignified for people our age to do, so from time to time I use my creativity to make up the difference.
Hyacinth was leading Elizabeth bodily through the front door to have coffee, so I slipped quickly out the back, fetching my gardening apron en route, to dig around in the flowers. It was a perfect day in England, a bright morning without a cloud in the sky, just the right temperature for outdoor work. Emmitt saw the ladies go in, and came out to talk with me over the fence. "Hi, Richard. Lovely day. How goes it?"
"Splendidly, Emmitt, splendidly. And you?"
"Not bad. Looking forward to some time off, and playing show tunes for an appreciate audience. Who knows, maybe I'll find some rich widow in search of an in house pianist."
"Who knows? Just be careful of walking down the aisle again."
Emmitt crossed his arms and rolled his eyes. "No fear of that; once bitten, as they say. Although Richard, you are the most remarkable man I have ever known. How on earth do you live with that woman? I just can't imagine putting up with. . .that for any length of time."
"Oh, I'm an easy man to please, and Hyacinth is really sweet person beneath her exterior."
"If you say so. She must be a wild woman under the sheets." His eye took on an odd gleam, and he gave me a quirky grin.
I shook my head and smiled. "When you get older, Emmitt, some things aren't as important as when you're young. A peck on the cheek, a hot cup of tea and a warm smile are enough when you get to be our age."
He snorted, shook his head in disbelief and looked away. "Well, I hope Elizabeth doesn't get bored while I'm gone." I barely suppressed a snort, and he didn't move until I recovered my stoic manner. "By the way, Emmitt, Elizabeth never talks about her husband. I've always wondered why is that."
He shrugged his shoulders. "Oh, they've just drifted apart. No big calamity, no big argument, just ships sailing in different directions. He's passed up opportunities to visit home regularly for over a decade, and Elizabeth's content with that. She gets a nice cheque every month, so she's not going to divorce him."
"I see. Well, if she's content with that."
"Rather. It's kind of funny when you think of it: my marriage ended with a bang and hers ended with a whimper. She never says anything about him, even when she talks with her daughter, there's no pictures of him around the house, and I'm sure she only wears her wedding ring to fend off the riff raff." He looked through my house window and moved around, trying to find Hyacinth before starting to move away from me. "I'd better move along, in case she comes out the door and sees me. I can't bear to hear that warble this early in the day."
"Have a safe voyage, Emmitt. Stay in touch." I shook his hand and gave him a friendly nod, which he returned.
"Cheerio." He glanced at my front door again and darted around the corner down the street. A couple of people walked past my drive and threw cautious glances as they passed, trying to see if the coast was clear. Passers by were always cautious around my house. It's a privacy generally unknown in this suburb.
The phone rang inside, and I knew the plot was underway. I turned my attention to hoeing, calmed myself, and prepared for the next act. Not two minutes afterward, Hyacinth burst through the door and shuttled across the lawn to me, waving her hand and calling: "Richard, Richard. Wonderful news!"
I leaned on my garden tool and looked at her blandly. "Oh? What wonderful news would this be, Hyacinth?"
"Our dear son Sheridan has invited his Mummy and Daddy to come visit him at University. There's an exhibition of his work at the local town hall, and we have to see it. We leave in two days."
I dropped my hoe and threw up my hands in practiced exasperation. "Oh dear, what rotten luck. I'm so sorry, Hyacinth, but I have some bad news. While you were outside a few moments ago, a messenger dropped by from the Council: they need to me to cover for an important absence."
She wrung her hands and looked at me desperately with sad, puppy dog eyes. "But why does it have to be you, Richard? You've given them so many good years, the prime of your life, and you deserve to enjoy your retirement without them calling you to bail them out again and again. Tell them no."
"I wish I could, Hyacinth, but they insisted. It's difficult to plan out heart attacks, and I'm the only one who can do that job until they find a more permanent solution. A key job, someone has to do it, and unfortunately, it has to be me. The Viscount Hawthorne himself sent the telegram to beg me to return temporarily."
Her eyes brightened and huge smile creased her face. "But my dear Richard, of course you have to go back if Viscount Hawthorne calls. Has he said anything about his wife and her Gardening Circle recently?"
"No, he hasn't mentioned it. As an old Army man, you don't turn down a call to serve Queen and Country." I took her hand and held it gingerly. "But you need to take up Sheridan's invitation, Hyacinth my dear, it will mean the world to him to have his Mother present in his moment of triumph. You can't let him down; he needs to have one parent there at least."
She looked down shyly and almost blushed. "Yes, a Mother does have to make sacrifices for her children, especially such a talented son who's doing so well at University." Looking up at the heavens, she took a dramatic breath silhouetted against the sky. "Very well, I shall sojourn alone to be with my son in his hour of triumph."
"And don't worry about me, Hyacinth," I said, picking up my hoe. "I can fend for myself while you're gone. I went through greater privations in Korea."
She patted me on the shoulder purposefully. "Nonsense, Richard my dear, I shall see to everything. Leave it to me. It's a wife's duty."
She bustled back into the house at high speed, and I went back to working the soil. One of Hyacinth's most endearing qualities is she's predictable. A few moments later, the phone rang again, and Elizabeth emerged as if Hyacinth pushed her, lovely in her floral print dress and sweater, a broad grin breaking over her face after she recovered her balance. "This is your best one yet, Dickie," she murmured as she drew close. "It's been so long I thought I'd have to take out a new lease on my virginity."
"Careful, Liz," I murmured back, then switched to a louder tone. "Good morning, Elizabeth. Glorious this morning, isn't it?"
Her eyes were sparkling. "I don't think we've seen a nicer one for days. So I hear you're going back to work soon."
"Yes, they've asked me to fill in. Darn bad timing, since Hyacinth has to see Sheridan at University. Guess it will be frozen dinners and nights alone in front of the Telly while she's gone."
"Hyacinth's asked me to cook for you and keep you company while she's gone. She would be ashamed if you had to eat anything that wasn't home cooked in her absence, and she's in dire dread you would eat nothing but Pub food with Onslow, who would finally corrupt you beyond recovery. So concerned about your well being, she is."
I smiled broadly and winked. "Yes, I know. I'm so grateful for your help, Elizabeth." She chatted innocently a couple of moments about her brother's upcoming trip, the adventures her daughter Gail was having juggling University studies and new motherhood, and Hyacinth's insistence in pushing her out the door in the midst of a conversation with Violet, the sister Hyacinth envies, just a few moments before. We exchanged subtle winks and smiles as we chatted; she seemed to float through her front door when we were done.
The next day was a blur as I helped Hyacinth pack for her trip. Making the travel arrangements took an eternity, talking with the agent on the phone while Hyacinth hovered nearby instructing me exactly what to ask for, and having me badger several poor clerks to implement her wishes. At last we had a compartment on a mid-morning train booked, and a limo to pick her up from the house to deliver her to the station. She believed me when I said I had to report for work early departure day after only five tries. The rest of the day was spent fussing with the luggage, and I got leave to go to the Pub while she ordered Elizabeth over to help keep things organized while she packed.
My brother in law Onslow was standing at the bar when I came in, his eyes glued to the races on the overhead telly. He spotted me and beckoned me over: "Hi, Dickie, old chum. 'Ave a pint."
"Don't mind if I do. I need your help the next couple of weeks."
"Yes, tomorrow Hyacinth's going to visit Sheridan at University, and I'm stuck here."
"Oh, that's a cyin' shame, that is," he commented, a broad friendly grin on his face.
"I'm going to need something to do during the days, and I wondered if you could give me some advice on the races."
"No problem, Dickie. I'm plannin' on making enough the next coupla weeks to cover the budget for the next three years. Great time to take a flutter." We sat down with the Racing Form and he filled me in on the races for the next day. He even went as far as offering to come with me to the track, but I told him it would be better if he kept to his normal routine of staying in bed until noon with Daisy. If she or her sister Rose suspected we were out together every day, she might casually tell her sister Hyacinth that I wasn't at work, and my cover story would be blown. And I needed an untraceable source of income to provide the bonus my "return" to work would give as well as Sheridan's entertainment bankroll.
A quick visit to my old place of employment and a conversation with my old receptionist guaranteed that if Hyacinth called I would be hopelessly stuck in a meeting. My old receptionist was an old classmate of Hyacinth, and sympathetic to my cause. I came home to a superlative evening meal and bright smile from my loving wife. Hyacinth almost had a orgasm reveling in the expectation of seeing her son the next day.
Departure morning dawned bright and cheerful. Hyacinth had eight cases sitting in the entryway in anticipation of her departure. I knew she would probably purchase several more outfits to wear while out and about with Sheridan, so I was comfortable knowing she would actually be gone for two weeks. As usual, she had breakfast on the table when I came down in my black business suit, and I ate it calmly while she talked about the day. I picked up my briefcase and went to the car, as was my habit when I worked, and she saw me out to the door of the car. "Now Richard," she said, "don't let them develop the expectation that this will be a permanent position for you. You are retired and helping them out of the goodness of your heart, don't let them forget that."
"And mind the road, traffic can be so dangerous this time of year."
"And do make sure Elizabeth takes good care of you. I know her cooking isn't up to my high standards, you'll just have to live with that, but don't settle for anything. If she tries to give you something out of a box, you'll need to politely to tell her that at your age and standing you deserve the best, and she shouldn't take shortcuts, like she probably does with Emmitt."
"Hyacinth, please don't worry about me at all. I'm sure Elizabeth's cooking and company will please me and you'll find me here as plump and well fed as I always am."
Her brow furrowed a little. "You could stand to lose a few pounds, Richard, if only you'd do a little exercise, a little extra walking in the morning. Anyway, have a good day at work, dear, and as a reward, you may kiss both my cheeks."
I dutifully touched my lips to her proffered cheeks, got into the car and left. As I went down the street, I saw her waving in the rearview mirror and waved back. Taking a deep breath, I turned my thoughts to the day at the races, and after.
The day at the track was a moderate success, thanks to Onslow's always excellent advice, and it was just before tea time when I returned to my house. The phone rang just after I entered the door. "Dickie, I can hardly wait," came a husky voice at the other end.
"Patience, Liz. I'll be over at my usual teatime, must keep up appearances. Besides, Hyacinth might call any moment and see how I'm doing if she's gotten to the hotel. Should let her think everything's normal here."
"Holy shit, you're probably right. Check, I'll try to be patient." A long sigh caressed my ear, and I thought I heard her fingers tapping her phone.
"It's going to be much better than a blowjob through the fence at midnight, I promise."
A soft purr traveled down the wire. "I'll keep that in mind. Soon, luv."
"Bye," I said, ringing off. Sure enough, Hyacinth rang within a minute to share the story of her trip and the minor indignities she had to endure en route. Sheridan had been happy to see her, meeting her promptly on her arrival, and they were going to a quaint bistro he frequented for supper. I reassured her my co-workers were pleased to see me back, and I apologized for missing her call due to an important meeting to organize the Queen's Birthday celebration. After a long monologue describing all the important things she had seen already and the important people Sheridan was going to introduce her to, I wished her a good evening, a pleasant day for the next day, told her I missed her dreadfully and rang off one moment before she stopped talking. I knew she'd be confused, but would barrel ahead from that point forward without remembering it.
Night was falling as I went over to Elizabeth's house. The door opened before I knocked and she stood there, lovely and radiant in her floral print dress, her eyes shining in expectation. "I don't know why we have to keep up this pretense. You know the neighbors won't tell Hyacinth anything, even if we shagged naked in broad daylight on your front lawn."
"They might tell Emmitt, who doesn't need to know I'm sleeping with his sister even if he would understand, and in a rare moment of clarity Hyacinth might hear a whisper. I also have a great respect for your reputation as a faithful married woman on your own, and if that slipped you might attract the serious attentions of Mr. Barnes or Mr. Sedwick from down the road."