Olive and Frederick’s wedding had seemed almost like some kind of circus.
Even though Frederick’s wedding diet had eliminated the excess flesh clinging to his frame, unveiling a series of previously undiscovered bones, she had begun to doubt whether she was actually fond of Frederick already. For one thing, the original Whinging family had behaved like complete idiots; for them, most of the day was spent ecstatically marvelling over the fact that the elder Mrs. Whinging now had the same name as Olive.
“Isn’t it hilarious?” Frederick cried as they sat down to dinner at the reception. The Whingings were all red-faced with excitement, even though all that had happened so far was that they had been driven to the local animal rescue centre for the reception. “Isn’t it completely hilarious, Olive?”
“No,” muttered Olive stonily.
“Oh, it is!” cried Frederick’s father, Collin Whinging. “Fancy that, Beryl! Olive has the same name as you!”
“Two Mrs. Whingings! People will say, ‘Hello, Mrs. Whinging’, and no one will know who they’re talking to!” Beryl Whinging cried, and that was the cue for all five members of the original family to burst into peals of hysterical laughter.
This was the first thing that had irritated Olive. The second was the supposedly poor quality of the entertainment.
“I still don’t understand why Augustus and Adolphus had to go through that stupid juggling act,” she would huff many years later. When she said this, she was usually looking at the family photograph album (which was the only album in the house not entirely filled with stamps). The photograph in particular involved Frederick’s two identical brothers, differentiated only by the colours of the stripes on their ties, throwing four bean bags each up in the air. Their arms were merely a blur, and on their faces was a look of greater delight than they were expected to be capable of. In the background, there was a long table covered in a white cloth just in front of the wall. A number of recognisable faces, including those of Mary Maveryck, Edith James, Alice Reynolds and the parents of Mary and Olive, could be seen. But most noticeable was the face of Frederick. Frederick, dressed smartly in a white shirt which at the point of the photograph had chocolate stains all down it, looked absolutely delighted that all of his family and friends now had the chance to get an inside glimpse into the project he had recently been working on with his brothers specially for this event. However, sitting next to Frederick and, at the time, in the process of snapping at Mary Maveryck to stop laughing, Olive Whinging looked like the least amused person in the world. And, as Olive well knew, her past self would be even less amused a few seconds later when she learnt that this juggling act was meant to be her wedding present.
“They were very keen to show everyone,” Frederick would say years later, looking so hurt that Olive almost felt sorry for him. “We’d been practising it for days.”
“Yes,” Olive said icily. “It’s a shame that you were practising that load of rubbish rather than actually learning what happens at a wedding. And about just being in a church, for that matter. Lord, that vicar was so upset…”
“All I did was drink some of the holy water,” Frederick said, blinking innocently. “How was I meant to know there was something special about it? I mean, why else would they keep it in that huge goblet?”
“That was a font,” Olive snapped crossly.
“It looked like a goblet.”
“Shut up, Fred.”
This last statement of Olive’s would become almost her catchphrase for the next several years. In fact, her feelings for him seemed to have changed the moment she had said “I do”, and realised that Frederick had a stupid, irritating pair of dimples in his cheeks she’d never really noticed before. Olive had additionally noticed that Frederick had an annoying tendency to go on about things so much that she felt that punching him and then throwing him out of the house.
Speaking of which, Olive and Frederick were currently living in a tiny council house just around the corner from Olive’s mother’s flat. Annoyingly, it was necessary for Mary Maveryck to be their lodger in order for them to be able to keep the property, and Olive could never decide whether she found Frederick or Mary more annoying.
“No, Mary,” Olive snapped one evening as the trio had just sat down to dinner. Olive had made some form of pie, except that to Frederick and Mary, at least, its texture, smell, appearance and taste suggested that it was something more like a lump of coal.
“Why not?” Mary wailed in anguish, attempting to stab her fork into her piece of pie and almost blinding herself as the piece of cutlery bounced off the blackened pastry and flew at her face. “Mr. Bayonet says I’ll have my gun license within the year if I keep up my good work at the police station!”
“I don’t care what Mr. Bayonet said!” Olive growled, convinced that she’d had this conversation with Mary about seventeen times before. “You’re obsessed with this bloody job. Why on earth did you decide to work at the police station, anyway? Whose stupid idea was that?”
“Olive…” Mary started.
“Don’t interrupt, Mary,” Olive interrupted angrily. “The point is that you’re a workaholic. You can’t stop thinking about machine guns and missiles and swords and things…”
“Not swords,” Mary corrected. “Swords are so old-fashioned. Besides, how many people can you injure with a sword at one time? One! Now, take something like the nuclear bomb or some other weapon of mass destruction…”
“I don’t care!” Olive practically shrieked. “Nothing you say is going to change my mind about this, Mary! I am not having a machine gun nailed to the wall of the living room above the sofa! What would anyone who came to visit us think?”
“No one comes to visit us,” Frederick pointed out, quickly hiding his piece of pie in his napkin and pushing it into his pocket for later disposal.
“Shut up, Fred! Whose side are you on here, anyway?” Olive cried.
“But no one does come to visit us!” Mary protested. “The last people who came were Augustus and Adolphus, and you know they wouldn’t care! What does it matter if only we’d see it? I mean, I wouldn’t keep it loaded when I wasn’t in the room, so we wouldn’t have to worry about burglars using it or anything…”
“That’s not the point,” said Olive. “I’m not having a machine gun hanging on the wall of the living room, and that’s final.”
Conversations in the Whinging/Maveryck household rarely got friendlier than this. But the most significant event worth mentioning is a day about five years into Olive and Frederick’s marriage.
Olive stared quizzically and with a look of almost distaste into the crib. The baby inside, which was a girl, screamed so much that her face was purple. Her face had absolutely no character whatsoever, save an almost scornful look whenever her gaze was directed at Olive. In short, she looked like a large raspberry with arms and legs.
Olive turned to Frederick, who was standing at the other end of the room. “How about ‘Ethel’?” she suggested. “I think it rather suits her.”
“Ethel,” Frederick said, thinking. “Hmmm. I’m not sure, Olive. I always liked Frederica.”
“Don’t be silly, Fred,” Olive said, frowning. “‘Frederica’ is a stupid name. ‘Ethel’ is much prettier! And, of course, her middle name ought to be ‘Olive’. It’s only fair, really.”
“Can ‘Frederica’ be her third name?” Frederick asked excitedly.
“No!” Olive snapped. “Shut up, Fred. Leave this to me. After all, I’m her mother. You need to learn not to be so selfish.”
“I’m her father,” Frederick muttered, but he didn’t dare say this loud enough to be heard by his wife.
The reason why Ethel Whinging developed into such a spoilt child was something of a mystery to everyone.
“Fred! What the heck is this?” Olive shrieked five years later.
Olive was standing in the hallway of her new house she and Frederick had recently bought together, leaving a delighted Mary to dominate the flat. She had her hands on her hips and she was glaring at the wall opposite the staircase. Even though the hallway was still littered with half-full cardboard boxes and rolls of carpet from the move, Olive was only focused on one aspect of disarray; something which had been printed in coloured wax crayon on the wall.
Frederick bounced into the hall and peered quizzically at the thing Olive was staring at. “Ah, that,” he said, quite calmly. “That’s an exact copy of the Mona Lisa, originally painted in oil on poplar panel from around 1503 to 1506 by the artist Leonardo di Vinci, reproduced here for the first time in wax crayon on plaster, probably done about half an hour ago. It’s rather good, isn’t it, Olive…”
“Who did it?” Olive yelled. “Oh, my lovely wall! We’ve only just moved in as well!”
“Ooh, I expect it was James,” Frederick murmured absent-mindedly, examining with interest the sophisticated crayon strokes which had been used to create the Mona Lisa’s distinctive face.
“James! Get over here now!” Olive screamed into the living room.
James Whinging just about managed to disentangle himself from his older sister, who was busy drawing all over his face with their mother’s lipstick. He toddled rather anxiously into the other room, recoiling a little when he saw his mother’s furious expression.
“James,” growled Olive, staring at him and speaking very slowly. “I want you to be a good boy and tell Mummy the truth. Did you do this silly scribble on Mummy and Daddy’s new wall?”
James gazed at Olive for a few moments with his huge blue eyes. His hands were even a little waxy still, and as he stood there, he wiped them on his dungarees. Then, slowly, he nodded, biting his lip and hanging his head.
“That’s it!” Olive shouted. “Frederick, I refuse to live with this family if all we seem to be doing is rearing a household of little hooligans! And what’s this; James’s even been in my make-up bag! Bad boy, James! Go to your room this instant and think about what you’ve done, and after that you can come down and clean this mess off the wall!”
“Olive, he’s only two,” Frederick whispered gently.
“I don’t care!” Olive cried. “How can they realise what’s right and what’s wrong if they don’t get discipline? James, go upstairs this instant!”
James, who had begun to stare at the floor sadly, struggled to climb up the large steps with his stumpy little legs. Frederick made a move as though to go and pick him up, but Olive promptly stopped him by blocking the way with her arm.
“Ridiculous child,” she muttered, stalking into the living room.
She was immediately confronted with the sight of five-year-old Ethel rubbing lipstick all over her own chin.
“Ethel, no!” Olive yelled, snatching her make-up bag and the lipstick out of Ethel’s hands. “What did Mummy tell you; no playing with my make-up! Not until you’re older!”
“Make-up! Make-up! Want to wear make-up!” Ethel squealed like a child half her age, reaching up to try and grab the bag, although Olive was holding it way out of her reach.
“Ethel, I’m sick and tired of you copying your little brother’s bad behaviour!” Olive said. “Just because James gets out the make-up bag and smears lipstick all over his face doesn’t mean you have to!”
“Lipstick! Lipstick!” Ethel continued to wail, jumping up and down.
Olive just glared down at Ethel in mild disgust. Ethel spotted her expression but simply gave a hideous scowl in return. She had recently begun school, and her wimpy teacher had somehow seen it necessary to come whimpering to Olive about how Ethel had been frightening the other children with her ‘unmanageable temper and violent means of getting her own way’. Olive had originally thought that it was the school that was the problem, but now, peering down at the stamping, shrieking little girl, she wasn’t so sure.
But things weren’t destined to get any less exasperating in the coming months. Looking back, Olive would later wonder whether it was inevitable that the more annoying aspects of her past would follow her for the rest of her life. It certainly seemed that way.
One day when Olive was working in her current job (a till assistant at the local liquor store) she encountered a very odd customer: a tall, brown-haired woman in a cream-coloured raincoat who came suspiciously into the shop with dark glasses over her eyes and her hood up, even though it wasn’t raining. For some reason, Olive felt drawn to watching this woman as she padded around the shop, peering at labels on various cans of beer or bottles of wine. For several minutes, the woman walked around, slowly adding to the pile of beverages in her arms before dropping several cans of lager and deciding that she evidently needed a basket. By the time the woman had finished, she had two baskets piled high with alcohol, particularly beer, and was struggling to carry them without dragging them along the floor.
“That’s all,” said the woman in a low voice. “Oh…. By the way, I actually put in an order the other day. I requested that a private shipment should be brought in for me. I spoke to Jen about it. We have a private arrangement.”
Olive turned round and peered through the doorway into the small, pokey, smoke-filled room where the one other member of staff spent most of her time. Jen was an obese middle-aged woman whose stomach grotesquely drooped over the waistband of her trousers and who had a dark moustache on her upper lip. At present, Olive could see her through the pair of transparent red curtains (substituting a door) which hung over the doorway, where she sat on a wooden stool puffing on a cigarette and occasionally picking her nose. Olive could tell by the engrossed expression on Jen’s face that she probably wouldn’t want to be disturbed.
“I’m afraid she’s occupied at the moment,” Olive said. “If you give me your name I’ll go and see if the shipment’s in.”
The woman shifted uncomfortably, as though this was the very question she had been hoping she wouldn’t be asked. She looked suspiciously around the shop before moving her head in closer to Olive’s and hurriedly whispering her name. “It’s Waters. Henrietta Waters,” she hissed.
Olive froze. She immediately recognised the surname ‘Waters’, but couldn’t exactly place the forename. She understood that she associated the name ‘Waters’ with something terrible and disgusting in her past; something which appeared in her mind in the form of a short, red-haired, simpering little girl wearing a green dress with a menacing look in her glittering green eyes.
But Olive had been fairly certain that this beastly little girl’s name had been Lucy. That was a detail she’d be scarcely able to forget, having been haunted by the memory for a long time. So who was this? There weren’t many people with the surname ‘Waters’. Olive racked her brains, and indeed, when she thought hard enough, she was able to remember a second girl in the midst of those repressed memories of being in the countryside during the War. That rather idiotic girl who got ridiculously excited about things…
“Hetty!” Olive stuttered suddenly without thinking, even though she’d just been told the woman’s name.
Hetty’s head whipped up. The rapid movement caused her sunglasses to slip down, revealing a pair of anxious, dull green eyes, but she swiftly hitched them back up again. “Not so loud!” she hissed, glancing around the shop, although the only other person present was an elderly man wearing a hearing aid. “I don’t want anyone to think I drink beer! They’ll think I can’t afford champagne…”
“Hetty!” Olive said again.
Hetty stared back at her, looking confused. Once again, the movement caused her glasses to slip down, but she did not replace them. Olive saw an expression of abrupt realisation within them a few seconds later.
“Olive Whackitt!” she cried, looking delighted. “My good friend, Olive Whackitt! Why, you were one of my grandmother’s evacuees, weren’t you? My, that must have been, what…thirty-three years ago? Oh, but I’d never forget that face, you know! Gosh, I’ll never forget the look on that face when my sister told Grandmama that you’d dared Mary to jump into the bull field…”
“Hetty Waters,” Olive said, without a hint of happiness or delight. She just looked a bit surprised.
“…Oh, we were such good friends, weren’t we, Olive?” Hetty cried. “You and I and Mary…and Lucy, obviously.”
“Lucy,” Olive spat quietly, but she didn’t say anything else on this subject. “What are you doing here, Hetty? Don’t you still live down south?”
“Oh, no,” Hetty said. “Lucy and I moved up to London years ago. Gosh, it’s awfully fancy around here, isn’t it? So different from the countryside!”
Olive raised her eyebrows, and understood why Hetty didn’t want people to know that she couldn’t afford champagne; the Waterss had never been to the city before, and this grotty area of London was probably the only experience they’d ever had of one. They probably considered this to be posh.
“I’ve been looking around for Buckingham Palace,” Hetty continued excitedly. “Is it around here? I saw a very big building the other day; that one around the corner, you know, with the chimneys! Is that it?”
“That’s an abandoned warehouse, Hetty,” Olive explained. She was referring to a large, square, grey building in the neighbouring block, which was the bleakest structure in the whole area and was decorated only with long, drooping scraps of faded paper which were the legacy of decades of neglected advertisements.
“Oh…well, what about that big building on the edge of the city?”
“That’s an old mill.”
“Oh….well, anyway, it’s awfully nice around here even so, don’t you think? Lucy got a job illustrating tarot cards and I’m working in a pencil shop. Dull work, but the pay’s all right. But I never would have thought you’d be working in a liquor shop, Olive.”
Hetty looked almost jealous. It was at this point that Olive again noticed that Hetty had two full baskets of alcohol sitting at her feet and was expecting another shipment. Hetty noticed that Olive was looking at the baskets, which were practically overflowing with bottles and cans.
“They’re for my sister,” Hetty said, looking embarrassed. “Lucy likes a drink every now and again. Takes her mind off things, you know. Takes her mind off the excruciating loneliness in her life, makes everything better…”
“Hmm,” interrupted Olive. “Lets her escape from her miserable excuse for a life, does it?”
“Erm, yes,” said Hetty, shuffling her feet. “Yes, she, erm, likes her job, but, erm, the tarot card business can be stressful at times, you know.”
“I bet,” muttered Olive. “Anyway, what’s this shipment you came in for?”
“Oh…just a few cases of beer…Jen said that it was the only one she was expecting to come in…”
Olive almost hesitated to believe Hetty. It was hard to imagine that someone like Jen had enough recognisable words in her vocabulary to be able to convey to anyone that their shipment was the only one expected, but she decided to check anyway.
“Jen, do we have a shipment that’s come in under the name ‘Waters’?” she asked.
Jen didn’t look up or take her cigarette out of her mouth, but waved one fat arm carelessly towards a corner of the room. Olive followed this rather vague direction, and it wasn’t difficult to spot the one crate in the room. It was enormous.
With a huge degree of difficulty, Olive walked over and attempted to lift up the crate. It would not budge. Olive groaned and pushed the side of it very hard so that it moved a few centimetres across the room. Jen showed no sign that she was about to start helping.
Olive finally managed to shove the box across the room and between the curtains into the main shop, whereupon Hetty took over, dragging the box towards her along with her purchases. Hetty continued to babble on about their time in the countryside for the whole time that she was paying, and after she had paid (and carried her purchases out to her car one journey at a time), she still stood there, grinning over the counter at Olive.
“Well, nice speaking to you, Hetty,” Olive said, and continued to doodle on her arm.
When she next looked up, Hetty was still standing there, now looking mildly hurt. Olive raised her eyebrows. “What is it, Hetty?” she asked.
“Well…,” Hetty stuttered, clasping her hands together. “Olive, we were such dear, dear friends in the countryside, and it’s been such a long while since we last saw one another, and I must say that I’ve been awfully lonely recently, seeing as I live alone and I still don’t know anyone here all that well, and I’d love you to show me Buckingham Palace…”
“Don’t you live with Lucy?” Olive demanded, the name still tasting faintly revolting on her tongue.
“Oh, no,” Hetty said. “Lucy didn’t want to live with me; she said she had some secret things to do with tarot cards or crystal balls or whatever that she couldn’t let me come into contact with. But I was hoping that we’d be able to meet up sometime. I mean, do you have friends of your own?”
“Of course I do!” Olive cried, feeling offended that Hetty could ever think otherwise. “I’m married to Frederick Whinging! And Mary Maveryck I suppose is still my friend…”
“Frederick Whinging and Mary Maveryck!” Hetty cried, her eyes lighting up. “I remember them! Frederick…was he the grown-up boy who was always hanging around with that sister of his? You know, the one who was awfully into expensive things?”
“No, no!” cried Olive. “That was Albert Rowlings. Frederick was one of the Whinging brothers. Do you remember; there were three of them? He was the one who always had to eat everything he saw…”
“No!” said Hetty excitedly. “I never would have thought it! And Mary, well! We did have fun together, didn’t we? Oh, I really would love to see you all again, Olive. I really would.”
“All right,” Olive heard herself saying, and then wondered why she wasn’t making up some ingenious excuse. She didn’t particularly want Hetty around, but then again, she could always dump her with Mary, or one of her other friends. Alongside that lot, Hetty could easily blend into the background. “I’ll arrange for us to meet up. I know; I’ll bring our other friends, too! You’ll love them, Hetty. There’s Edith, who’s as dim…I mean, as nice as you, and there’s also Alice, who’s really boring and just wants to read all the time, but maybe you’ll get along with them. And Mary, of course.”
Hetty’s face lit up again. “That sounds wonderful!” she cried. “I say, you don’t fancy meeting up at the Crown, do you? It’s one of my favourite pubs. There’s a jolly nice fellow called Archibald Grease who runs it with his son Herbert, and it’s one of the most fantastic places I’ve ever been to. Dreadfully popular, as well. We can all have a drink and remember the good old times. What do you say?”
“Great, I suppose,” Olive mumbled.
“Oh, excellent!” Hetty squealed. “I’ll see you on Saturday night! Goodbye, Olive!”
“Yes, bye,” said Olive miserably as Hetty skipped out of the door, practically singing with joy.
On Saturday night, Olive, Mary, Frederick, Augustus, Adolphus, Ethel, James, Edith and Alice walked towards the doors of The Crown, which was a large pub buzzing with life.
Edith James was a small, plain, brown-haired woman from Olive’s old road who had been friends with Olive and Mary since they were children. She was relatively dim but very talkative, and had a tendency to demand what everyone was talking about whenever she didn’t understand what was happening. Alice Reynolds, a woman even shorter than Edith with neat strawberry-blonde hair and glasses, was also a friend of theirs. She was extremely knowledgeable, and, as Olive had said to Hetty, spent much of her time reading, even now, when walking along the road.
Mary was bouncing along, chatting to Edith and occasionally directing odd comments at Alice, who merely mumbled subconscious replies as she read. Frederick was carrying James and holding the hand of Ethel, who was screaming because her mother had refused to let her wear eye liner. Frederick was listening to Olive’s vague description of Hetty Waters and struggling to remember who she was. After several minutes, Olive had resorted to her usual tactic:
“Fred, if she asks you anything, just make something up. Something that I’d say,” Olive said tiredly. “Something that isn’t ridiculous.”
Frederick briefly wondered whether Olive would find it funny if he joked that everything she said was ridiculous, but after further deliberation he decided against it. “I still don’t see why I shouldn’t remember her,” he murmured.
“You’ve just got a bad memory,” said Olive helpfully.
“Hmmm,” Frederick mumbled in reply, though he had already partially forgotten what the conversation was about.
“I don’t remember Hetty that well, either,” admitted Mary, stroking her chin and wrinkling her brow as she thought very hard.
“That’s because you banged your head,” Olive said. “You lost your memory. Just be weary of her, Mary. She’s pretty thick, really.”
“Thick!” Edith James said in contempt, rolling her eyes and nudging Alice, who remained engrossed in ‘The Origin of Species’, only making a strange noise in her throat which suggested that she wanted Edith to leave her alone. “I can’t stand thick people. Is she completely thick or just a bit slow?”
“You’ll see,” Olive promised.
Edith certainly would see, because right then the party trooped into the Crown. The place inside was as busy as it had looked outside; at every table sat large groups of drunken young men and women, and the occasional silent table of moody-looking pensioners. Hetty Waters was sitting at a table in a booth by the wall, which was decorated with photographs from old boxing matches which she appeared to have been staring at in awe for the last several minutes, but every so often she looked up, and eventually spotted an unwilling-looking Olive standing with her two children and several other adults.
“Hello, Olive!” she boomed predictably, jumping up and beckoning wildly to them. Several young men looked up and stared at her, and then at Olive. A few sniggered piteously.
Olive blushed deeply and immediately marched over to Hetty’s table with the intention of clapping her hand over her mouth and hopefully coming out with some clever remark to shut her up, but on her way she abruptly fell over a stray bar stool which seemed to belong to no particularly table.
Laughter erupted amongst everyone in the pub, even Frederick, Mary, Edith, and, for a second or two, Alice. Five-year-old Ethel practically fell to the floor she was laughing so hard, and even James giggled whilst he could be sure his mother wasn’t looking at him.
Olive was so agonised both with embarrassment and a stabbing pain in her thigh that she delayed getting up for a couple of seconds so that she could gnash her teeth together and mouth swear words at the floor tiles, but eventually she stood up, trying to remain as dignified as she could. People were still laughing, but Olive ignored them and marched over to Hetty’s booth without any more catastrophes.
But when she got there, she’d completely forgotten what she had been intending to do or say, so she simply sat down opposite from Hetty and stared at her as the rest of the group sidled over and the laughter gradually died down.
As everyone sat down, Hetty greeted Mary and the Whinging brothers in a familiar way despite Frederick’s blank expression and questioning, imploring glances at his wife. Surprisingly, she paid no attention to the two children, and when she spotted Edith and Alice, whom she had never met before, she began biting her nails and peered over her fingers at them.
“This is Edith, Hetty,” Olive explained, gesturing to Edith James, who was secretly taking a bumper bag of crisps out of her bag and beginning to munch on them. Then she turned to Alice, who had finished her book and was looking very miserable. “And that’s Alice. Say hello, Edith, Alice.”
“Hello,” said Edith blankly, staring suspiciously at Hetty.
“Hello,” said Alice mournfully, picking up a nearby beer bottle and beginning to read the text on the label. “Nice to meet you, Hetty.”
“Hello,” Hetty whispered back.
“Edith, Alice, Hetty is the girl I met in the countryside when Mary and I were evacuated,” Olive explained.
“We know, Olive,” said Alice, putting the beer bottle down. “You already told us.”
“Be quiet, Alice,” Olive snapped.
“I’m Ethel Olive Whinging,” interrupted the little girl sitting on Olive’s left suddenly. “I’m five years old. I’ve got a wobbly tooth.”
“Be quiet, Ethel,” Olive snapped. “No one wants to hear a silly little girl boasting about herself.”
“Oh, Olive!” said Ethel’s more indulgent father all of a sudden. “That’s so mean! She’s really proud of her wobbly tooth!”
“Yeah, well I’m proud that I once managed to sit on the toilet for an hour and a half, but I’m not going to tell everyone about that, am I?”
Everyone looked embarrassed and glanced down at the table top, and a second later Olive blushed and audibly muttered, “Damn,” under her breath.
“What’s everybody having to drink?” Alice butted in wisely, loudly slamming her hands on the table and standing up.
“Biccardi and coke,” said Frederick, Augustus and Adolphus together.
“Pint,” ordered Hetty.
“Vodka and orange,” said Edith.
“Edith, are you sure that’s wise?”
“Of course I’m sure! Who do you think I am?”
“Fine, fine…I’ll have a small sherry,” said Alice. “Olive?”
“Gin and tonic, large.”
“Me too! Whiskey!”
“Okay, orange juice, then!”
“Good girl. Right, I’ll be back in a moment.”
Alice stepped out of the booth and trotted towards the bar, where Archibald Grease was wiping the top of the counter with a damp rag. No one spoke whilst she was there other than Ethel, whom Olive did not bother to silence for once, although Hetty did say a few words in admiration of the copy of Rembrandt’s ‘The Storm on the Sea of Galilee’ that James was producing on the back of a napkin with one of the broken coloured pencils that Herbert Grease had thoughtfully provided him with. Olive put up with it for a few moments before snappily telling Hetty to stop, and Hetty obeyed as though she was already one of Olive’s closest friends.
When Alice returned, she looked even more uncomfortably tiny than usual under the weight of six large glasses, her own small sherry and Ethel’s little cup of orange juice. No one made any kind of effort to go and help her for fear that any sort of movement would encourage a negative reaction from Olive Whinging.
“Three biccardi and cokes,” Alice wheezed, dumping the drinks not-too-carefully on the table, causing several of them to spill onto the table over the tops of the glasses. “One pint of beer, one vodka and orange, one large gin and tonic, one whiskey, one small sherry and one orange juice for Ethel.”
Everyone took their drinks. Ethel grudgingly pulled her glass of orange juice towards her and began to sip at it, although when most other people were not looking, her father sneakily gave her a few small sips of his own drink. Hetty grabbed her beer and began to pour it down her throat in a manner which suggested she was used to heavy drinking, and across the table Edith James seemed to be watching her with an expression resembling envy. As fast as she could, she raised her own glass to her lips and attempted to drink as quickly as Hetty, but found she could not manage drinking vodka so fast. As she spluttered onto the table, feeling as though her throat was on fire, Olive shook her head in exasperation as she gulped down her large gin and tonic. Mary appeared to be trying to race Edith to finish her own drink, not realising that Edith was already trying and failing to race Hetty. James meanwhile looked up from his drawing (he had completed ‘The Storm on the Sea of Galilee’ and had moved onto ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’) and stared around at everyone else drinking thirstily, and then peered down at the empty space in front of him, but he evidently chose not to say anything. Alice, thoughtfully watching everyone else around the table, stirred her sherry with a plastic stirrer.
A few minutes later, when Edith choked on her vodka for a third time and coughed all over the table, Olive began to be very annoyed.
“Edith, stop it!” she cried, standing up and throwing a couple of napkins, including the ones with James’s drawings on them, onto the sodden mess in front of Edith. James’s lip wobbled, but once again he said nothing. “Honestly! Can’t you have one little drink without getting half of it down on the table? You’re worse than James!”
“James’s a very neat drinker,” Frederick said, blinking innocently. “He never gets anything down his front. The other day even his bib was spotless because he’d thought to use a serviette all by himself.”
“Serviette?” Olive said in disbelief. Then she put on her best fruity posh accent. “Oh, serviette! Oh, la de da, Fred! Who are you now, eh? Albert Rowlings? Priscilla Rowlings? What’s wrong with good old ‘napkin’?”
Frederick blushed and glanced down into his glass. “Nothing,” he whispered.
“Good!” Olive cried. Then she turned back to one of her best friends. “Edith, you’re a disgrace. We’ll have to get you a sippy cup soon enough.”
“Olive! Shush!” Edith hissed, eyeing Hetty and looking very embarrassed.
Hetty had meanwhile progressed to her fourth pint of beer, and she suddenly looked delighted at the scene which had ensued from Edith’s sloppy drinking. “Ah, don’t bully Edith,” she slurred, meaning to point at Edith but accidentally pointing at a photograph on the wall of Muhammad Ali instead. “She can’t help it that she can’t…hic….that she can’t take a…hic….drink…”
“What?” Edith yelped, standing up abruptly. “Can’t take a drink? How dare you! Do you know who you’re talking to, Hetty Waters?”
“No,” slurred Hetty, slumping at the table and seeming unsure of whom she was meant to be addressing. Eventually she focused her gaze on Adolphus, who gazed back at her sheepishly, as though he thought he’d done something wrong.
“Well, you are talking to Edith James!” cried Edith James.
Hetty looked confused.
“Edith James! Got her First Aid level one badge in just a few weeks! Captain of the Tiddlywinks team at school! And most of all, who was once known to drink three whole pints of beer in just twenty minutes…”
Hetty suddenly burst out laughing so loudly that everyone within a ten-meter radius looked up and stared at her worriedly. “Twenty minutes?” she spluttered hysterically. “I could do it in five! I could do that in one minute! You little….you little…”
Every time Hetty seemed about to finish her sentence, she burst into a fresh peal of laughter which cut off her speech. Edith was sitting opposite, purple with fury and shaking. The reason she was so upset was that, as she had mentioned, having once drunk three pints of beer in twenty minutes was one of her three prime achievements in her life, and the one of which she was most proud. Knowing the Heimlich Maneuverer and having been captain of her school Tiddlywinks team were all well and good, she knew, but they weren’t immense sources of pride. And Olive Whinging was about to make things a whole lot worse.
“Well, it’s not really Edith’s fault,” Olive muttered inbetween sips of gin and tonic. “She’s got a pretty weak bladder and normally she has to go to the loo straight after she’s finished drinking, so that’d take up some time, I guess…”
Olive was cut off because Hetty had begun screaming with laughter again like a banshee. Edith turned to Olive and had to restrain herself from slapping her across the face. Of all of the women, it was perhaps Edith who was the most sensitive about her reputation amongst her peers. She even toppled Olive in this respect.
“Olive!” she manage to choke out in a sort of half-scream, half-whisper which was even more bizarre than it sounds. “Olive!”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Olive muttered, rolling her eyes. “But sometimes we just have to tell the truth, don’t we, Edith? And speaking of which, you haven’t been to the loo in a while. Don’t you need to go?”
Edith blushed. It was true that she was sitting in an odd sort of way, with her legs crossed tightly, but she of course was not prepared to say anything in front of Hetty. As Edith glared again at the laughing Hetty, it was as though she was witnessing the emergence of something new: a foe who was not exactly a deadly enemy but who would never be a firm friend, either. Edith, being the rather simple person that she was, liked straightforward relationships, and she wasn’t sure that she wanted this one to come into fruition. She was going to prevent it in having nothing more to do with Hetty Waters.
“I’m never talking to you again, Hetty Waters!” Edith promised, sticking her nose in the air and flouncing smartly out of The Crown…though at the last minute she changed her mind, and, doubling back, headed for the ladies’ toilets.
“Excuse me!” a miserable-looking Archibald Grease called over to her all of a sudden.
Edith turned around and glared at him, upset that the failure of her dramatic exit had been so cruelly pointed out, and angrily demanded, “What?”
“The toilets are for customers only,” Archibald said monotonously. “You can only go to the toilet if you drank in here.”
Edith stared at him, as though waiting for the punch line. “I did drink in here!” she cried indignantly, when it became evident that Archibald wasn’t going to suddenly burst out laughing and reveal his ingenious joke. “Didn’t you see me drinking all that vodka and orange over there with all those people?”
“Yes, I saw you drinking at Hetty Waters’s table,” said Archibald, pronouncing the name of his favourite and most frequent customer, which now made Edith feel faintly nauseous, with a huge degree of respect. “But you’re no longer a customer.”
“What are you talking about?” Edith cried, thinking that this man must be mad.
Archibald marched gravely over to the door of the pub and gestured to the threshold with the toe of his shoe. “You stepped over that line before doubling back,” he told Edith accusingly. “That means you’ve been in the Barmy Duck twice, and I can’t let you go now without buying something else.”
“That’s ridiculous!” Edith said, shaking her head. “I was in here, drinking, not thirty seconds ago!”
But Archibald just stood with his arms folded in front of the ladies’ toilets, his face looking as though it were made of stone. Eventually, though, Edith began to realise that she desperately needed to make her visitation to the relevant room, and crossly threw a note or two at Archibald.
“Take this, then! I don’t care!” she cried, running into the ladies’ as everyone in the pub, including those at the table she had just left, howled with laughter.
But it wouldn’t last, of course. All the women knew, although it was not a rule that was generally stated amongst them, that someone really had to become a casual friend when they had drunk alcohol together. It was Olive’s way of avoiding tales spreading of her erratic and disturbing behaviour after having had too much to drink.
Well, Edith’s feud with Hetty would continue, but never to a degree that would mean that they were permanently not on speaking terms, and never to a degree that the newly-formed team was broken up.
The group of them (currently only Olive, Mary, Hetty, Edith and Alice) had now developed into a tight-knit, if dysfunctional and often uncompromising, organisation of ambitious and ruthless comrades, and if any of them had ever had the suspicion that none of their endeavours would fit comfortably within the boundaries of universally established normality, they would have been absolutely right.