tagExhibitionist & VoyeurThe Feast of St Cilla

The Feast of St Cilla


About a year after leaving university, I started writing a novel. But then life got in the way. So, for something like 16 or 17 years, the partly-written novel sat in a drawer. From time to time, I'd take it out, read bits of it, convince myself that it had possibilities and that I really should find the time to finish it off, but that's about as far as I got. And then Global-Euro approached me with an offer for the wine business that I had been building up.

At first I thought that it must have been some kind of joke. But then Neil -- my accountant -- said: 'No. It makes a lot of sense. It would give them another eight well-performing retail units in London. Of course, they could make a total hash of it. But let's assume that they don't. If they could keep all eight units humming along for at least another three or four years; maybe grow them a bit; use Global-Euro's buying power to trim a few costs; that would give them some very useful cashflow.'

'So you think it's a real offer?' I said.

Neil tapped some numbers into a calculator. 'It's a cheeky offer,' he said. 'But if you're interested, we should perhaps talk to them.'

'Well ... to be honest, I don't really want to be a wine merchant for the rest of my life,' I said. 'I'd like to have a crack at being a writer.'

Neil raised an eyebrow, but then he said: 'OK. Do you want me to work up a bit of a counter proposal?'

Three months later, the deal was done. I also had a chain-free offer on my Notting Hill house.

'So ... what now?' Neil said, as we toasted the deal with a couple of glasses of Ch Lynch-Bages.

'I think a small flat in town and somewhere quiet in the country. And then I should give myself two years to see if I can write.'

'Two years? Will that be enough?'

'It should be long enough to work out whether it's worth continuing,' I said.

I started out by thinking that 'somewhere quiet in the country' might be somewhere quiet in The Cotswolds. But the more I looked, the more I realised that nowhere in The Cotswolds is really that quiet anymore. And that's how I ended up buying Number 1, St Cilla's Cottages, Harpwell.

'Harpwell?' Neil said. 'Where the hell is Harpwell?'

'In the middle of nowhere. But still only about two-and-a-quarter hours from central London.'

In fact, Harpwell is not quite in the middle of nowhere. If you look at an Ordinance Map, Harpwell has three small towns within 15 or 20 minutes' drive. But, these days, Harpwell itself consists of two cottages and the remains of an ancient wood. Everything else has been swallowed up by a couple of giant agri-business farmers.

St Cilla's Cottages are tucked away down a shared driveway off a narrow B-road. According to the title deeds, there used to be four cottages. But a sharp-eyed developer knocked four rather small farm workers' cottages into two of more generous proportions.

'Tell me about the neighbours,' I said to the estate agent.

'Well, I understand that Mrs Stoddart is an artist, a painter,' he said. 'And her husband is something to do with films. Or is it TV? It's one of those. I think.'

For the first couple of weeks that I lived at Number 1, my neighbours were not at home. And then one afternoon, about four o'clock, there was a knock on the door.

When I opened the door, an attractive woman in her late forties, maybe early fifties, was standing there holding a bottle of wine. 'Hello,' she said. 'I'm Sarah Stoddart. I'm your neighbour.'

'Oh. Right. Nice to meet you. I'm Mike. Mike Clarke. Come on in.'

'I've been down in France,' Sarah said. 'We have a little place in the Dordogne.'

'You and your husband?'

She shook her head. 'No husband, I'm afraid. I own the Dordogne place with George, an old friend from school. Oh, and I brought you some wine. A little welcome gift. I don't know if you ....'

I glanced at my watch. 'Thank you,' I said. 'And, yes, not only do I enjoy a glass of the grape from time to time, but I notice that it's just gone wine o'clock. Let me find some glasses.'

'Oh, I wasn't meaning ....'

'Oh? Do you need to be somewhere else?' I said.


'Good. Settled then.' I grabbed a couple of glasses and a corkscrew. 'I gather you're an artist, a painter.'

Sarah frowned. 'A painter? Well, I did go to some evening classes,' she said. 'But, no, I wouldn't say that I was a painter.'

'A small misunderstanding,' I said, handing her a glass of wine. 'The ... umm ... estate agent.'

'Ah, yes. Well, they tell you what they think you want to hear, don't they?'

'So it would seem,' I said. 'Not that there's anything wrong with not being a painter you understand. And not that there's anything wrong with not having a husband who works in TV.' Sarah gave me a slightly strange look. 'Oh ... and cheers.'

'Yes, cheers. And welcome. The husband in TV ... I suppose that's the estate agent again?'

'Afraid so,' I said.

Sarah nodded and took a sip of her wine. 'I gather that you're from London.'

'Notting Hill. Yes.'

'And have you had a chance to look around yet?' she said, making a sweeping gesture with her free hand. 'Get your bearings?'

'I've managed to find the supermarket. And what I assume is the nearest petrol station. Oh, and a couple of pubs.'

'The Green Man?'

'The Green Man, yes. And the ... umm ... The Crown.'

'The Crown. Right. I prefer The Green Man myself. Still, it's nice to have a choice. So many places don't these days, do they?' Sarah took a sip of her wine, and then she said: 'And have you had a chance to inspect St Cilla's Wood.'

'No, not yet,' I said. 'Although I gather that we jointly own it. Is that right?'

'We do. But as I'm sure your solicitor would have told you, it's protected -- so we can't turn it into a housing development or anything like that.'

'Fair enough,' I said. 'St Cilla? Now she's the patron saint of music. Or am I getting confused?'

Sarah smiled. 'I think you'll find that's St Celia.'

'Oh, yes, of course. So what's St Cilla's cause?'

'St Cilla's cause? Perhaps you should visit the wood.'

'Oh? You think that will explain all?'

'It might,' Sarah said.

'OK. Maybe that's something I could do tomorrow. Any hints in the meantime?'

'Probably more fun if you discover for yourself,' she said.

As it happened, it was cold and wet and windy for the next couple of days and, apart from a quick trip to bring in some more firewood, I didn't leave the house. And then I had to head back to London for a couple of days to finalise the purchase of my new 'city bolthole', a one-bedroom flat on the edge of Bloomsbury. Despite its diminutive proportions, the flat cost me about the same as my three-bedroom Notting Hill house had cost ten years earlier. Just as well the Notting Hill house had more than tripled in value. When they say that London property prices have gone crazy, boy, they're not kidding.

When I got back to Harpwell, the bad weather had moved on and it was suddenly mild and spring-like -- a perfect day to visit the woods I thought.

As I said, St Cilla's Wood was the 'remains' of an ancient wood. Apparently, the wood had once covered about 50 acres. Now, the bit over which my neighbour and I held custodianship was just over five acres. Still, it was better than having no wood at all. It definitely added a bit of character to the landscape.

Around the edge of the wood there was what was left of a protective bank and, on top of that, a hawthorn hedge. Someone -- long ago -- would have built the bank and planted the hedge to keep out grazing animals. Now the surrounding farmland was used for cropping, so the protection was largely redundant.

On the edge of the wood nearest to the cottages, there was a break in the hedge and an old iron gate. I pushed open the gate and paused to reflect on the fact that there had been a wood on this patch of land since before Shakespeare's time.

From the gate, there was a woodland path that first went off at an angle to the left and then appeared to curve back to the right. I followed the path, doing my best to avoid the remaining muddy puddles. And then, maybe 200 yards into the trees, I noticed a man-made structure, a little like a small garden shed or a sentry box. I guessed that it would have been built as a shelter for the woodsman -- or woodsmen -- who would have coppiced the wood in years gone by. I went to take a closer look, and that's when I saw her.

'Sitting' in the shelter was a life-sized carved stone figure of a woman, naked save for a floral garland on her thrown-back head. And she was masturbating. Her stout stone legs were spread wide and her stone fingers were hard at work on her spread stone vulva. Or was I misreading the situation? For a few moments, I tried to think what else she could have been doing. But, in the end I concluded that, no, there really was only one explanation: she was masturbating. An incised legend on the front edge of the stone bench on which she was sitting identified the masturbatress as St Cilla.

'Did I see you heading off to the woods this morning?' Sarah asked, as we shared an end-of-the-day glass of Côtes du Rhône.

'You did,' I said. 'And, as you might expect, I met St Cilla.'

'Oh, good. And how was she?'

'Busy,' I said. 'Especially her fingers.'

Sarah smiled and nodded.

'The statue,' I said, 'is it real? Is it old?' It certainly looked old. But I figured that Sarah was the expert. (I had since discovered that my painter neighbour was actually an archaeologist.)

'Depends on your idea of old. I'd say late seventeenth century -- 1685, something like that. Although I don't think she has been in the woods for more than about 60 or 70 years. I'd say she's probably spent most of her life indoors.'

'Interesting,' I said.

'What's also interesting is that on older maps, the wood is shown as Scylla's Wood.'

'Of Scylla and Charybdis fame?'

'Possibly,' Sarah said.

'Suggesting that the wood was renamed after the statue?'

'Again, it's a possibility.'

For a moment or two, we sipped in silence. And then I asked Sarah if Cilla (as opposed to Scylla) had any causes other than the one suggested by her statue.

Sarah laughed. 'Not that I'm aware of. Interestingly, the museum has a couple of painted wooden panels -- also probably late 17th century. They're not on display. They're tucked away in a store room. But both are clearly marked St Cilla. And both depict ... hmm ... well ... busy fingers. Apart from that though, Cilla's a bit of a mystery girl. Of course, she could be an elaborate bawdy joke. Perhaps a local one. The Bard himself was known to enjoy a good bawdy joke -- you know ... country matters and all that.'

I don't know why, but I quite liked the idea of St Cilla being an elaborate bawdy joke. It was an idea that made me smile.

As May turned into June, I woke up one morning to the realisation the writing, even when one is doing it from the peace and quiet of a cottage in the country, is hard work.

My initial method of working only when my muse was at my elbow was a total disaster. She turned up all too infrequently. And, even when she was on hand, we were both easily distracted. After six weeks of writing in fits and starts, I had managed to produce slightly fewer than 15,000 words -- and, unfortunately, their connection to the 20,000 words from 17 years earlier was, at best, tenuous.

That was when I decided that I needed to be at my desk at 8:00 am each and every morning -- and that I needed to stay there until I had produced a thousand words worth reading. It's a job like any other, I told myself. Treat it as a job, Mike. Stop mucking about!

On the morning that I finally admitted that writing was hard work, it suddenly seemed to get easier. By midday, I had produced and polished just over 1200 words. And they seemed to make sense. I decided to reward myself by making a cup of double-shot coffee and taking it out into the garden.

It was one of those June days that you hope for but never really expect. There were just a few wisps of fine-weather cloud out on the horizon; there was virtually no breeze; and the sun was not just warm, it was hot. As I strolled out onto the lawn behind the cottages, coffee in hand, feeling at ease with the entire universe, I suddenly noticed something out of the corner of my eye. It was Sarah. She was lying out on a sun lounger. And she was naked. Totally naked. I mean ... totally, totally naked.

'Oh, sorry,' I said. 'I didn't realise ....'

'That's all right,' Sarah said. 'I wasn't asleep or anything. I just had my eyes closed. Isn't it a brilliant day?'

'Umm ... yes. Yes, it is,' I said. 'Yes.'

'Taking a break?' Sarah said.

'Just rewarding myself with a cup of coffee,' I said, trying to be as nonchalant as she seemed to be. 'Would you like one?'

'Oh, yes. That would be very nice. Thank you.'

'I'll just go and ....' I hurried back to the kitchen. Making the coffee took less than a minute. But then I waited for another couple of minutes -- just to give Sarah a chance to find some clothes. But she didn't. When I returned to the garden, she was sitting rather than reclining. However, she was still very naked.

'Thank you,' she said, taking the coffee. 'I just love it when the sun finally returns, don't you?'

'Umm ... yes. Yes, I suppose so. I think you probably ... umm ... notice it more in the country, don't you?'

'Well, I guess there's more ...' she made a little gesture with her hand that caused her right breast to bobble, 'more nature. Yes, more nature. In fact I'm sure there is.'

She had a point. I certainly couldn't imagine my London neighbour stripping off and laying out on her handkerchief-sized patio at the first sign of summer sun.

'There's another chair in the garden shed,' Sarah said, 'you know ... if you want to sit for a moment or two.'

'No, no,' I said. 'Thank you, but I really should be getting back to work.'

'Are you sure?'

'Yes, I think so.'

'Well ... if you insist,' she said. 'Oh, and I'm thinking of making risotto later. Chicken and asparagus. If you feel like coming over. Say 6:30? Something like that?'

'Thank you. I'll bring the wine,' I said.

Later, as Sarah stood at the hob, gently stirring the risotto, she said: 'I suppose I should have asked you.'

'Asked me?'

'Well, you might not have been comfortable with me sun bathing out in the garden today. I mean ... I'm not as young as I once was. Gravity has more influence than it once did. I sometimes forget that. It must be the sun.'

'Oh, no problem,' I said. 'And you're ... umm ... you know. Not that I .... Well, you know.'

'If you'd rather I didn't ....'

'No, no, no. I'm perfectly fine,' I said. 'Well, I mean you're perfectly fine. Perfectly. You know. Well, we're both perfectly fine.'

Sarah smiled and gave me a little kiss. 'Good,' she said. 'I'm so glad that we had that little chat.'

'I'll ... umm ... open the wine,' I said.

That night, as I lay in my bed, playing over the events of the day in my mind, I had flashes of Sarah's naked body. And, almost without thinking, I slipped into masturbation mode.

The fine weather continued all week. But Sarah had to go off on an archaeological 'dig' so, for the moment anyway, that was the end of the nude sun bathing. At least that was the end of Sarah's nude sun bathing. I must confess, however, that I did try a couple of little sessions of my own. And, yes, I could certainly see what Sarah found so satisfying about it.

I heard Sarah returning home late on the Friday night and, on Saturday morning after I had produced my daily quota of words, I knocked on her door and invited her over for a cup of coffee.

'Oh, lovely,' she said. 'Because I have something that I want to talk to you about. I've had an idea.'

I went back to my place and got the coffee started. Ten minutes later, Sarah arrived.

'St Cilla,' she said. 'I think we need to celebrate her feast day.'

'Her feast day? So she really is a saint?'

'Who knows?' Sarah said. 'If she is, she is; if she isn't, she should be.'

'But, regardless, we know her feast day?'

'Yes, it's Monday week -- whatever day that is.'

'And how do we know this?'

'Well, it can't be this Monday,' Sarah said. 'I need to be in Norwich this Monday. But it has to be a Monday because The Green Man is closed on Mondays, and I think we need Margret and Jack involved. I think we also need George and Harry -- and Monday probably works for them because the garden centre is never very busy on a Monday. Oh, and Louise and Trevor. Given that they are both retired, I suspect that pretty much any day works for them.'

I nodded. Sarah had clearly given the matter considerable thought. 'By the way, who are George and Harry?' I asked.

'George, Georgina, my old school friend. And Harry, her latest husband. '

'I presume that you also have a plan as to how this feast day might be celebrated.'

'With a lunch in the garden. I'm sure that's what St Cilla would want. Lots of wine.'

'Not in the wood?'

'No. I think she would like us to be in the sunshine. I would certainly like us to be in the sunshine. And if the long-range forecast is half right, it should be a nice day.'

'You're probably right,' I said. 'On both counts.'

On the Sunday before the Feast of St Cilla, I put in a double shift at my keyboard so that I would be free to help Sarah with the preparations the following morning.

'Give me a job,' I said, arriving at Sarah's door bearing half a dozen bottles of Provençal rosé.

'You want something to do? Make me one of your coffees,' Sarah said. 'Seventeenth century breakfast. We may as well start following the script. And then you can give me an opinion on the sauces. I'm following a sort of Tudor model, so we'll start with the more complicated meat and fish dishes; then we'll move on to some simpler meat dishes with bread; and finally fruits and cheeses. Apart from cucumbers, and later potatoes and tomatoes, the Tudors didn't seem to be big on vegetables.

'Oh ... and thank you for the wine. Margret and Jack are bringing a cask of ale. But I suspect that we will be leaning more towards wine.'

'Was wine a 17th century thing?' I asked.

'For the wealthier people. And, today, we are pretending to be wealthy. The main thing was to avoid drinking the water. It couldn't be trusted.'

'Fair enough,' I said.

I made a couple of coffees; tasted the sauces (unusual, but absolutely delicious); and helped Sarah to set up the table in the garden. And then, almost before we knew it, midday was upon us.

'Right. I just need to finish off a few things,' Sarah said. 'You are in charge of meeting and greeting.'


'Oh ... and take your clothes off.'

'Take my clothes off?' I said. 'Are you serious?'

'Yes. I've told everyone that it's to be a naked lunch.'

'And they were OK with that?'

'One hundred percent,' Sarah assured me. 'One hundred percent.'

Oh, well ....

Jack and Margaret were the first to arrive. They arrived clothed. But no sooner had they parked their aged Volvo estate than they began to strip off.

In some ways, Margaret was a stereotypical country barmaid. She was cheerful, outgoing, and she had a touch of the maternal about her -- which may have had something to do with her conspicuously ample breasts. Until the Feast of St Cilla, I had, of course, only ever seen her breasts encased in her work attire. Without her work attire -- well, without any attire at all -- her breasts were even bigger than they appeared to be when clothed. And they were curiously lop-sided. Her left breast was a good cup size -- maybe more -- larger than her right breast.

Below her breasts, her torso was unexpectedly slim. Yes she had a bit of a tummy, but no more than you would expect from a woman of her age. Below her tummy she had a pronounced and totally bald mons pubis; and, below that, an equally pronounced slot-shaped vulva. (I took all this in in one quick glance.)

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