It was Wednesday morning; the day that Olive and Mary were due to visit the Whinging brothers. The girls, having sneaked out of their houses several hours before they usually would have done (Mary had had to climb out of her window and down a drainpipe so that her grandmother could not stop her and make her go to that boring wedding of her aunt’s), arrived on the Whingings’ street just before 9 o’clock. They both leant against either side of the door frame. Olive was examining Frederick’s letter, which now had little pencilled hearts drawn all over it, but Mary was just standing there, staring across the road at a frail-looking old man who sat on a porch in front of an old and battered looking house. The man just sat, rocking backwards and forwards whilst twitching his face in an anxious kind of way, peering back at Mary. He looked immensely depressed, as though he had been traumatised for life by some sort of bad news. Mary couldn’t help staring at him.
“Right! Nine o’clock on the dot!” Olive squeaked promptly, and she immediately rapped on the Whingings’ front door.
There was a relatively long pause. Olive and Mary listened closely to the sounds they could hear behind the front door: a number of voices, some familiar and some unfamiliar, shouting to one another about someone being at the door; a noise like somebody very large accidentally falling down a flight of stairs; a rattle like china in a cabinet, as though a big-boned person was leaning on one to pull themselves to their feet; and finally a few heavy, pounding footsteps getting closer. Eventually, a plump, tall, dumpy woman stood in a wonderfully musty (which Olive was not used to) hallway, brushing dust off her apron. Her large face was smiley and red, with a definite look of Frederick’s cheerfulness about her.
“Hello, dear!” she said brightly, gazing down at Olive. “You must be the boys’ friend. They’ve been very anxious to see you, Deary; it’s been such a long time since you were all evacuated together. I always wondered why the boys never invited round any of their friends they’d met. I hoped that you might all get a chance to meet up without being under the control of that woman who was taking care of you…what was her name…Mrs. Baker?”
“Baxter,” Olive corrected.
“Ah, yes…” Mrs. Whinging said thoughtfully. “Terribly nice, I hear, but seemed a little neurotic to me. Have you come all on your own?”
“No!” Mary yelped, before Olive could say ‘yes’ and force her to hide in a bush for the whole time or something. “I’m here too.”
“Good, good,” said Mrs. Whinging cheerfully, but she looked uninterested in Mary. “Anyway, the boys are up in their room…”
But before Mrs. Whinging could finish, the three boys came rushing down the stairs at the end of the hallway, almost falling over one another in the process (Olive would soon find out that a tendency to fall down stairs ran in the Whinging family), with broad grins on their faces. Olive was very pleased to see that they all seemed to have grown considerably taller and a little more handsome than they were when she had seen them last. Particularly Frederick.
“Oh, hello there, Fred!” Olive simpered in an especially squeaky voice, waggling her fingers at Frederick.
“Sorry?” Frederick asked brightly, coming a little closer. The girls saw that he was inevitably carrying a large, bulging album, and the two other Whingings had their arms brimming with more of them.
“Errr…hello, Frederick,” Olive said, going bright red. “How nice it is to see you again…”
“Oh, right! Hello, Olive!” Frederick said cheerily. He held up the large album. “We’ve been so looking forward to your visit! (Olive blushed even more) We’ve got our first few basic albums here to show you a few of our more interesting stamps. The really valuable ones are still upstairs, and so are our notebooks of mortar and grass measurements and things. There are also some more records of the time it takes different types of paint to dry, and just wait until you see some of our coronation ermine research…”
Mary could see, from the glazed look on Olive’s face, that she was not paying the slightest bit of attention to what Frederick was saying. She was too busy gazing with adoration into his eyes. Meanwhile, Mrs. Whinging spoke again:
“Oh, it is nice that the boys have got some friends who share in their interests! Most children aren’t interested in that kind of thing; gosh, they don’t know what they’re missing…Good day, Mr. Lunaticson!” she added to the strange man rocking backwards and forwards across the road, before she closed the door with an unintentional slam and scuttled back into the living room.
Five minutes later, the five teenagers were up in a small room belonging to the three Whinging boys, the room having a sign made from an old piece of paper saying ‘Frederick, Augustus and Adolphus’s collections’ taped to the door. It was quite pokey, with a low ceiling, and there were carefully-framed illustrations of dotted fur, grass and stamps all around the walls. In the middle of the room was a bare, rectangular table with three wooden chairs around it. And all around the sides of the room were cupboards and cabinets, some of which had miniature displays on top of them. There was one tiny window, hung with limp grey curtains, which looked out onto row upon row of narrow, miserable, uniform back gardens with people’s laundry twitching in the breeze, and the sight of factory chimneys belching out black smoke in the distance.
“These are our blades of grass that we kept from the countryside all those years ago,” Frederick was explaining to the two girls, showing them a glass case containing three long, brown, limp blades of grass. “We keep them in this special drawer here, as a memento. Just next to them you’ll see the chamber pot that we got from our room at the Baxters’ after it was cleaned out. These stamps kept by Grandad from when Queen Victoria was on the throne may also interest you, and we have stamps also from the reigns of Edward VII, George V and George VI. Oh, and the present queen, of course! Augustus, would you pass me the big stamp album from the cupboard?”
The name ‘big stamp album from the cupboard’ clearly commanded a certain respect, because an odd hush fell over the room. Augustus nodded and darted excitedly over to a cabinet. Adolphus followed and handed him a pair of spotless gloves, which Augustus put on before carefully sliding open a drawer and taking out an enormous clothbound book, which he placed on the table in the middle of the room, where Frederick was sitting with Olive and Mary facing him.
“Just pop a couple more of those gloves on, and feel free to take a look, only do be careful,” Frederick said anxiously. His politeness wavered for a moment; he looked defensive and almost aggressive as he scrutinised the girls’ movements whilst handling the album.
Olive opened the book and pretended to look interested as she gazed at rows and rows of stamps.
“How interesting,” Mary lied quickly; the awed silence which always gripped the boys when the album was brought out was a little awkward. She suddenly pointed to a random stamp after barely looking at it. “I especially like this one.”
“Ah! One of my personal favourites!” Frederick squealed. “That’s a stamp from the West Indies…”
“I was going to say that I liked that one as well,” Olive interrupted immediately, glaring quickly at Mary. “I’m sure that Mary’s just being polite, Fred.”
“Oh…well, alright,” Frederick said, blinking. “Good choice, anyway, Olive.”
“…And I’d just really like to express how completely interested I am in all of this,” Olive continued. “It really is just incredibly fascinating, Fred. I’d say that you’re probably one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met. I think that one day you’ll be one of the best professional stamp-collectors in the world.”
“Oh! Thanks very much,” Frederick mumbled, blushing bright red. “You really think I’m that good?”
“Oh, absolutely!” Olive said, leaning forward and resting her chin on her hand. “You’ll be brilliant when you’re grown up, Fred, you’ll see. I only hope that you’ll ever spare a thought for me, little Olive Whackitt, who’ll always be so anxious to see you…”
Frederick went even redder. Augustus and Adolphus stared at one another, looking mildly confused. Adolphus whispered something in Augustus’s ear.
“So,” Olive continued, leaning forward even more. “When can we next meet up? I mean, after today? Obviously you’ve got lots more things to show us, but, you know, seeing as our friendship was always so strong back in the countryside, it would be a terrible waste to let it die out, don’t you think, boys?”
“Oh! Well…,” Frederick said. He felt a bit uncomfortable with Olive gazing at him like that, so he whipped out his pocket diary and pretended to consult it, although he was perfectly sure that he was not planning to meet up with any other friends. “Well…any time’s good for us, really, isn’t it?”
Augustus and Adolphus both nodded, peering knowingly from Frederick to Olive, and occasionally glancing in Mary’s direction.
“Brilliant,” Olive murmured, beaming. “We’ll be over a lot, don’t you fret! I’ve got a feeling that we’re going to be very good friends in the future, Fred…”
“Ooh, good!” Frederick said, misunderstanding Olive’s enthusiasm. “I’m glad you’re so interested in all this stuff, Olive! Oh, but come on! We need to start making our way over to Chelsea now, or we won’t have enough time for us to show you that wall we found with the really thick mortar.”
“Sounds great!” Olive said, leaping enthusiastically to her feet. As the three boys started to file out of the room, she darted forwards suddenly and put her arm through Frederick’s. “I’ll go anywhere you go, Fred!”
Mary rolled her eyes, and silently followed the four others out of the door.
Olive and Mary arrived home at seven o’clock that evening after a full afternoon of walking several miles to a Chelsea train station, examining the mortar between the bricks for about half an hour, and then walking back again. It would have been one of the most fantastically boring days of Olive’s life is she hadn’t been so focused on getting Frederick to realise what a wonderful, kind and interesting person she was. Mary, meanwhile, had tagged along behind, occasionally commenting to Augustus or Adolphus about something, and telling them about how things were with the two Rowlings siblings nowadays. Olive had said a rather dramatic goodbye to Frederick at the door to his house, lingering for a while as though she hoped that he’d offer to walk her home or something, and then the two girls had walked home together, and Olive had barely stopped talking about Frederick.
“He’s so handsome,” Olive sighed, gazing up towards the sky. “So dashing. So brilliant.”
“Yes, I suppose he is,” Mary murmured.
“And I can tell he likes me,” was the oblivious reply. “He looked positively delighted the whole time we were chatting.”
“Looked more embarrassed to me,” muttered Mary.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Olive said, glaring at her friend. Sometimes she wondered about Mary’s loyalty to her. “Really, Mary, do you call yourself a supportive best friend? If I didn’t know any better I’d think that you didn’t want me to impress Fred.”
“Hmmm,” said Mary, shrugging. “Nothing to do with me, of course.”
“You’re right; it is nothing to do with you,” Olive growled. “And frankly, Mary, I think that you might want to do something a little more useful with your time than making silly comments. Get a job, maybe, seeing as you insisted on leaving school at sixteen.”
“Actually you made me,” Mary reminded her, remembering with regret how her passionate love of mathematics continued to be wasted to this day. “You said that I should leave school to help you with your plans. Anyway, you didn’t stay at school.”
“That’s different; I’ve got more useful things to do than waste time at that old dump,” Olive explained, speaking as though she was saying something very reasonable. “But I definitely think that you need to do something with your life, Mary.”
“Hmmm,” said Mary again. “Maybe. I’ll think about it. But only if there is actually anyone who needs a machine gun look-afterer. You do remember me telling you that that’s what I want to do, don’t you, Olive?”
“Don’t be stupid!” said Olive. “Who wants a ridiculous gun obsessive like you? No; you’ll be a factory worker or a shop assistant or a cleaner or something. We’ll get you something useful to do; don’t worry. Anyway, I need to think about some things. If you want someone to complain to, talk to your grandfather.”
“Maybe I will,” Mary muttered.
The girls had indeed arrived back home, and Mary ran into the shop below her own home without saying goodbye to Olive, intent on having a good moan about the unfairness of a teenage girl’s life to her grandfather. Olive smirked and stalked up to her own flat, being as quiet as possible so as to not alert her mother that she was home. Though she didn’t suppose that her mother would notice her coming in, anyway; tonight was the night that she did a thorough wash-down of the sink and its surroundings.
But Olive seriously did need to think of something for Mary to do. For all she knew, Mary might indeed be getting terribly jealous of her, and who wouldn’t, anyway? And she just couldn’t risk Mary doing something to sabotage her efforts. Mary had to do something else. Something useful. Something that wouldn’t make her seem high-up in the world to anybody. Something that would make her seem completely uninteresting and, if possible, something so boring that Mary would fall asleep on the spot, so she couldn’t think of anything to do about it…
Next week, Olive and Mary were standing in front of the grimiest police station in London. Olive knew that this was the perfect idea. She had toyed with the idea of making Mary into some sort of stamp collector because that certainly seemed boring enough, but then she realised that that would make the Whinging brothers more interested in Mary, and Olive could not have that. This was the next best thing, and, judging from the dirtiness of her surroundings, Olive could see that there’d be a lot to do. Mary hated cleaning. Also, she’d be so exhausted that she wouldn’t have any time to think about anything else!
“Olive, I still don’t see why this is necessary,” Mary whispered as they walked towards the entrance. “I’ve never liked cleaning. You know that.”
“Mary, you know that I care about you, and I just think that it would be a good idea for you to make a bit of spare money,” Olive snapped as kindly as she could. “Plus, it won’t half be helpful for any big schemes we decide to cook up in the future, you know. I can’t be a cleaner, you know that! I’m Olive Whackitt! Anyway, I think if I have to sit in any more rooms smelling of cleaning fluid for hours on end I might lose my sense of smell. You know what my mum’s like. Seriously, do this one thing and then you’ll have a whole career going!”
“What, in mopping the floors of police stations?” Mary said tiredly.
“Exactly,” Olive said, like a teacher praising a pupil who has just understood something they previously found very difficult. “Don’t shun the cleaning trade, Mary. It’s a very noble profession.”
The two girls had meanwhile walked up the steps to the station and were currently standing in front of the big desk. Mary glanced at Olive. Olive nodded sternly. Mary sighed loudly, before sadly turning back to the man at the desk. “I’d like to apply to be a cleaning lady, please,” she said miserably.
The man at the desk peered at Mary for a moment, and then nodded almost grimly. He pulled out a piece of paper from somewhere under his desk, as though to begin writing something down.
“Oh, I’m sorry for that,” said the man, as though he understood her complete misery. “That is a shame. We get so many people applying to be cleaning ladies nowadays. We’re in such need of a machine gun look-afterer. Or someone to simply sit and admire the guns all day long. And not to mention testing them! I simply have no idea when we’ll find someone with the unique sort of personality which would render them able to do that sort of thing. I guess you just don’t get many gun-obsessives these days…”
The delighted look on Mary’s face was indescribable. Her smile actually seemed to touch her ears, and Olive could see her hands quivering. Olive, for once, had nothing to say. She merely made one single angry noise in her throat, turned on her heel, and marched out of the door. Honestly, what sort of mad world was she living in? Who would have known that Mary’s childish passion for machine guns would ever get her a job?
“So Mary’s having a nice time cleaning the police station, then?” Frederick asked Olive cheerily later that week, when Olive was round again for what, she had decided, was now to become her weekly lesson in the importance of stamps.
“Oh, yes,” Olive said eagerly. “It seems that stamp-collecting never was Mary’s forte, and I don’t think she was really very interested in you three, anyway. Mary likes boring things like cleaning fluid and sponges and buckets of dirty water. Not the sort of thing you’d be interested in.”
“Oh, no,” Frederick said, much to Olive’s delight. “No, Augustus and Adolphus and I studied the different brands of cleaning fluid once a few years ago, but we didn’t find it very interesting at all, I’m afraid. As for buckets of dirty water, you just can’t find enough variety.”
“I do sympathise with you,” Olive said wisely. “Mary loves her new job, though.”
But when Olive got home that evening, it seemed that her plan hadn’t been as cunning as she’d hoped. Mary was standing on the doorstep of the shop below her flat when Olive arrived.
“You told them I’m working as a cleaner, didn’t you?” she demanded furiously. “You told them I’m working as a cleaner to make me seem boring. Oh, and I’ll bet you said something about me hating stamps, too!”
“I didn’t say that you hated stamps,” Olive said, deciding to ignore Mary’s immature jealousy. It was definitely time to change the subject. “Anyway, how was your day? Did you have a nice time staring at long metal tubes?”
Mary’s face broke into an enormous smile. “Oh, it was brilliant!” she beamed. “One of the best days of my life, I’d say! Gosh, you should have seen this one machine gun! It was huge; I didn’t know you could get them that massive! First I polished it with this special machine gun polish, and then I just had to sit on a chair next to the table that the gun was lying on, and I got to stare at it all day long, making sure no one stole it or anything! It was incredible! And, do you know, Mr. Bayonet said that one day, if I continue my unwavering and loyal service, he’ll show me how to use it! Can you believe that? Oh, but he won’t put bullets in it or anything. Shame. No, I suppose I’ll have to wait a few years for that. But Olive, I can’t help thinking that you only tried to get me a job so that you’d be the one to impress Fred…”
“Great to hear you had a nice time in your new job, Mary,” Olive said loudly. “And I trust that we’ll be splitting your wages equally, of course.”
Mary’s head snapped up. “Why?” she demanded.
“Well, Mary, it was my idea to get you a job in the first place. You wouldn’t be in your job if it weren’t for me.”
“I’d have found it sooner or later! Anyway, you were going to make me into a boring old cleaner! Technically, the police inspector told me about that machine gun look-afterer job, and I chose to take it! So it was I who found my own job!”
“Don’t be so immature, Mary. We’ve been best friends all our lives. We have no secrets. And that means no secret money.”
“It’s not secret. You know about it.”
“Be quiet, Mary. Anyway, we don’t keep money from one another. We all have a common purpose.”
“Yes, we do! Anyway, I’m bored of this stupid conversation now. Go to bed, Mary; you’ve had a tiring day. Now you’re getting all moody, and I don’t want you taking it out on me.”
Mary huffed and puffed a little at this, but eventually she saw fit to march into her own flat, having completely forgotten to finish confronting Olive as to why she had been encouraged to take up her new job.
The same routine continued, amazingly, for the next several years. Every morning, Mary leapt out of bed, as happy as a gun obsessive who had been given a job staring at machine guns, and would bounce downstairs, usually even forgetting to eat breakfast before skipping all the way to the police station. She would then spend the day polishing barrels and triggers and things before being allowed to sit in a secure room, just gazing at some particularly important weapon to make sure that no one stole it. Sometimes the cleaner, a thin, red-headed girl named Eliza with a face like a horse’s, would come in to mop the floor for a few minutes, and it had been difficult for the police officers to convince her, after she’d seen Mary gazing at the guns with a euphoric expression on her face, that the new machine gun look-afterer was not mentally subnormal. After eight hours of this (Mary often had to be prized away to eat her lunch), Mary would walk all the way home and go to bed, dreaming all night about machine guns.
Olive’s routine was quite different. She had been happy to leave Mary alone to her work. Although it hadn’t been her original plan, at least Mary seemed so wrapped up in it that she didn’t have much time to care about anything else. Olive, having no particular occupation of her own, on every day except Wednesday lay in bed until at least eleven o’clock in the morning, sleeping through her mother’s morning sweep through the flat, and then would get up. Lazily, over the course of the morning, she would eat some form of breakfast and perhaps lean out of her window to gaze dreamily at passing young men on the street, and thinking about how she could make Frederick look more like them. After lunch, she would rifle through a large pile of papers on her desk until she found the relevant piece of paper in order to continue working on whichever detailed plan she was compiling. There had been hundreds of them: the attempt to break into Buckingham Palace to steal one of George V’s old stamp albums and be able to impress Frederick; the one where she dangled a watch of her mother’s in front of Frederick’s eyes in the hopes of hypnotising him; the one where she tried to bribe Augustus and Adolphus with photographs of royal ermine from around the world so that they’d tell Frederick how amazing she was. It was true that not many of these plans (Olive was still convinced that they were brilliant plots) had actually worked, but she never stopped being hopeful. Also, Frederick appeared to be becoming fonder of her with every passing day. That was the best part. Olive always counted down the days, the hours and even the minutes until nine o’clock every Wednesday when she went round to the Whingings in order to learn about stamps and ermine and mortar.
As the years passed, the girls each became more fulfilled. Mary learnt all sorts of things about her very favourite weapons; one day she came round to Olive’s with a large specially-taken photograph of a large gun before proudly announcing some long, complicated name consisting of lots of numbers and random letters that Olive could barely keep up with, and by this time Mary had a pretty good idea of how to handle it as well. Olive and Frederick actually started meeting up more often, and sometimes they’d do things like going to the cinema and walking along rivers so that Olive could figure out at precisely which angle she’d be best able to push in a particularly annoying young boy named Anthony James as he walked past.
And, as unlikely as it seemed, the years were passing by very quickly. The five young people entered their twenties, continuing in a similar way as they been in their late teens, and, in what seemed like a relatively short time later, they were entering their thirties.
But what was most interesting, perhaps, about this time was that Olive was forgetting about her original plans for seducing Frederick. She became accustomed to him; there was a point where he only became about as valuable to her as someone like Mary or Augustus or Adolphus. Actually, Olive’s memories of Albert and Priscilla Rowlings did not even fade away. Once, when Olive was about twenty-five, she even managed to get herself invited to Rowlings Manor for dinner, after blackmailing Albert a little more with the business of his having played the third shepherd in the Christmas play in the country (he had ended up being so distressed that he’d forgotten about Olive’s promise not to bring it up again, and luckily, as Perkins, the only witness who had been within earshot, had long since been fired for allegedly allowing Priscilla’s poodle to urinate on the wheel of Albert’s third-favourite Rolls Royce, there was no one there to remind him). Indeed, the effects of the dinner weren’t exactly brilliant. Olive almost got another life-long ban from Rowlings Manor before she once again reminded Albert of what she knew, but the Rowlings remained casual acquaintances. But what is of most interest now is the nature of a conversation which took place one July day, between Olive and Frederick when they were about thirty-four and thirty-five. I can safely say that neither of them had really changed very much during the last decade or so. On this particular evening, they were sitting blankly side-by-side watching Frederick’s brand-new television. It was true that the screen was rather small (Olive had been envisioning a screen as big as the one at the cinema), but they were both enjoying the ability to watch television in Frederick’s own home, where Frederick could eat several bags of crisps in a row without worrying that people were staring at him and thinking that he was greedy in some way. Augustus and Adolphus were upstairs with the big stamp album from the cupboard (it may at this point be necessary to mention that the three Whinging brothers had actually been successful in their ambition to become professional stamp collectors, although Olive didn’t think much of their pay), and Mary was conveniently out of the way because she had eagerly volunteered to work an all-night shift at the police station, minding a hoard of revolvers discovered in the attic of one of the town’s most well-known criminals.
At this precise moment in time, the advert break arrived on Frederick’s television. He was presently munching his way through his third bag of crisps, when he suddenly remembered something fairly trivial he’d been meaning to ask Olive. He’d put it off enough already, and decided that now was the time. Augustus had handed him a specially-prepared speech the other day, shortly after Frederick had first announced his plans, but Frederick couldn’t remember where it was, so he decided to speak from the heart:
“Olive, I’ve been doing some thinking,” he said. Frederick spoke slowly, and one might suppose he was saying this carefully and with conviction, but in actual fact he was having trouble just tearing his eyes away from the shampoo advert on the television. “You and I have, you know, known one another for a great many years…oh, gosh, that crisp cut the roof of my mouth…yes, we’ve known one another for a long time, I think it’s been thirty years…goodness, I could swear that one was just a slice of raw potato…anyway, I thought we’d known each other long enough, and Augustus and Adolphus and I thought I should start settling down, and I figured Mary was too busy doing her cleaning to care much about me, so I thought you might consider…oh, my! You know, I might actually complain to the crisp company; that one almost choked me! So, friend to friend, as it were, you know, I thought I’d just ask; how do you feel about getting married?”
At this moment, Frederick discovered with anguish that he had actually finished his crisps, and he moodily flicked the bag to the ground and reached into the sideboard for another, all the while seeming to forget all that he had just said. And it was at this time, whilst Frederick was leaning over and cursing about the inadequate amount left, that Olive uttered the sentence that would potentially add a new, fresh chapter to the Olive chronicles, and maybe, casual as this proposal was, decide her future position in life:
“All right, if we must,” Olive Whackitt said, before entering into a lengthy complaint about how the milk in the Cornflakes advert was poured in such slow motion that it looked like white goo.
“Great,” Frederick said, his mouth full once again. He had forgotten about the ring that still lay waiting in his pocket, but it didn’t matter.
And with that, the engaged couple forgot what had just happened and continued to watch the television as the news came back on (something boring about man having landed on the moon) without a word, until after about an hour and a half, Olive ended the conversation by shrieking: “Oh my Goodness, did you just propose?” and running out of the room to go down to the police station and tell Mary.