They say that an email message sent to the house next door will circumnavigate the globe, visiting Hong Kong perhaps, and San Francisco, bouncing off a few satellites on the way, and still arrive on your neighbours computer screen faster than you could nip over the garden wall and holler through the letterbox. That’s technology for you! And if it gets any faster it might one day catch up with the Torver Telegraph, an ancient, ‘whisper’ based communication system which can convey a juicy piece of salacious gossip from Little Arrow to Bank End via Sunnybank, in the blink of an eye or the quiver of a lip. It was high summer and the Torver Telegraph was buzzing like a bush full of bees.
Mrs A. felt no need to introduce the subject when she met Mrs B at the bus stop. Both ladies glanced knowingly towards the Headmaster’s house, both mouths contracted to approximate shape of a cat’s bottom, and it could be safely assumed that the Mrs’ X, Y and Z all over the village were similarly engaged in attitudes of high moral censure. “What do you think of that, then?” “It’s disgraceful!” “That poor woman.” “Do you think she knows?” “Oh, the wife’s always the last to find out.” “I would never have thought it of Harold Tate.” “Filthy beast!” “They’re all the same.” “Men!” “Anything in a skirt” “Call that a skirt – wouldn’t make a table napkin.” “Disgraceful!”
The dear ladies hadn’t enjoyed themselves so much since that day the village lads stole Mrs H.’s weekend scanties from her washing line and hung them from the weather vane on St Luke’s tower. They had all agreed that Mrs H. was a little old for black lace and suspenders, but this latest scandal was of a different magnitude altogether. The Headmaster had been seen visiting. Not just visiting, but… ‘Visiting!’ And the person he was ‘visiting’ was all those things that a retired headmaster was not supposed to visit, at least, not furtively, late in the evening, and after glancing right and left to ensure that he had not been seen. She was young, attractive, a single mother and a barmaid – all the dubious qualities that any decent woman could be expected to disapprove of. And they disapproved in spades!
Comment was muted in the Kirk’us Inn, a favourite haunt of the Headmaster and the weekend workplace of the suspect barmaid, Maisy Jones. Surreptitious glances between the locals told the tale and the sudden silences when the Headmaster walked in were just a little obvious, but no-one was crass enough to engage in open comment in the presence of the sinners. It was noted that the Headmaster seldom dallied at the bar and kept his conversations with Maisy strictly to matters of business – pint and payment. Nor was the Headmaster shunned or treated differently. “Evening, Harry!” “Evening all!” as though… well, as though…!
Not that the matter avoided all discussion. On a quiet weekday evening in the bar, when Maisy was not working and the Headmaster was at home, quiet conversations took place in quiet corners. Sides were taken, usually with the men on one side and the women on the other. “Good luck to ‘im, I say,” was the normal male response. “But what about his poor wife?” was the female. “Don’t know what she sees in ‘im.” “Oh, I dunno. He’s still got his hair which is more than you ‘ave!” “Yeah, but he’s old enough to be ‘er father.” “Grand-father, more like.” “Typical men. I feel sorry for your wives.” And so it went on night after night – judgements made and admiration expressed in equal measure as the days passed into weeks and the scandal endured.
It was not until the night of the Ladies League dinner that matters came to a head. The Ladies were seldom to be seen in the Kirk’us, they being more at home in the pews of St Luke’s or in their monthly meetings in the Village Hall next door. It was Saturday night, three weeks since the scandal broke on the Telegraph, and the League was assembled in the Lounge Bar for its annual bun-fight. Mrs A. and Mrs B. were there along with formidable army of Mrs’s encompassing most of the alphabet. It was a fearsome gathering of fearless women, the backbone of the village and the bane of impropriety. The regulars kept to the Torver Bar and kept their heads well down.
Maisy was serving at the bar when the Headmaster entered by the front door. “Hello, Maisy. Pint of Castle if you please, my dear.” She poured the pint and brought Harry his change, but he remained at the bar and several dozen pairs of ears strained to catch a word or two of their conversation. Through the archway in the Lounge Bar an eerie silence fell as more ears were cocked and primed in readiness for some juicy morsel to add to the file on the ‘Headmaster and the Barmaid’. Faces in both bars were alight with eager anticipation, almost glowing in the electric atmosphere. It is surely remarkable how a little wickedness can add so much to the sum of human happiness.
“So when’s it to be, Maisy?” He spoke so quietly that the whole pub heard every word.
“Thursday, Mr Tate.” Mental notes were made.
“Good. I’m looking forward to it. Shall I pick you up?” A tremor of excitement went right round the pub and it was astonishing that the happy couple did not seem to notice the unusual silence.
“Yes please, Mr Tate. About seven. No need to dress up.”
“Best suit, Maisy. Only the best for you. Are you nervous?”
“It’ll be fine. Don’t worry. Pick you up at seven.”
“Thank you, Mr Tate.”
“And for goodness sake, call me Harry.”
‘Call me Harry’, indeed. Silly old fool!
The headmaster closed his hand over Maisy’s for a brief moment and squeezed, and the barmaid smiled back.
It was as the Headmaster left the bar that Maisy suddenly noticed the silence. Looking up she met a room full of eyes which quickly looked away as a dozen lapsed conversations resumed in an abrupt hubbub of noise. Glancing through the archway into the Lounge Bar she encountered yet more eyes turning away and heard more voices suddenly raised in conversation, and she blushed down to the roots of her hair. At that moment Angela Tate, the Headmaster’s wife, walked into the Torver bar and crossed to join her husband at his corner table. Heads turned and turned back, and Maisy Jones’ face turned to a deeper red as her eyes began to fill with tears. She stood very still behind the bar, struggling to control her emotions, and the embarrassment slowly turned to a simmering anger. Seizing a glass she poured a measure of gin from the optic above the bar and de-capped a bottle of tonic with her other hand. “Mrs Tate!” she called across the bar. “Your G & T. It’s on me.” Angela Tate caught her eye and frowned slightly upon seeing the tears on Maisy’s cheeks, but she said nothing.
Maisy sniffed and quickly wiped her eyes with a tissue before turning to face the crowded bar. “Ladies and gentlemen,” she said, bringing the room to silence. “Would you all be so kind as to come through to the Lounge. I would like to make an announcement.”
Faces stared at faces as chairs began to scrape back and the whole bar gradually decanted into the corridor. Maisy went straight through and was calling the Ladies League to attention as the local regulars filed in looking nervously at each other as they came. With the two bars crowded into one, she tapped a wine glass with the edge of a knife to call the company to silence.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to announce that my little girl, Annie, who attends Coniston Primary, recently came second in a competition for writing short stories.” A look of astonishment mixed with confusion spread through the company, but the silence remained. “The head teacher decided to invite the mothers of all the children who took part to come to the school next Thursday evening to read their children’s stories out loud.” A murmur spread around the bar and was quickly silenced as Maisy resumed her little speech. “Mr Tate has been helping me to learn my Annie’s story by heart because…” Maisy Jones stopped speaking and the tears returned to her eyes to be brushed away with the sodden tissue. “…because I can’t read and write. I asked him not to tell anyone and… and…” Pressing the tissue to her eyes, Maisy backed away through the archway into the privacy of the now deserted Torver bar.
All through the standing ranks of regulars and the laid tables of the Ladies League, not a pair of eyes met any other. Several mouths gaped open and an occasional lip trembled, but there was not a cat’s bottom to be seen. The Headmaster stepped forward to take up the announcement. “And you are all invited to come along and hear Annie’s story and those of the other children next Thursday. Oh, and I’m sure Maisy won’t mind me saying that her reading lessons are progressing well. I don’t think I ever had a better pupil.
Torver Tales >