Sunday, May 28, 2006

Upon the Feast of St. Lucian

The exquisite, almost perfect serenity of the moment was cruelly shattered by a sudden and frantic knocking at the front door that nearly caused me to jump out of my trousers. I paused and closed my eyes, breathing deeply, waiting for it to stop, the shaft of the axe gripped tightly in both hands above my head, but the insistent racket continued regardless with an apparently unshakable determination bordering on frenzied desperation. I sighed with profound resignation, my anger, tempered by curiosity, swiftly cooling, and went to answer it.

The dark eyes of the young goat tethered across the makeshift altar in front of the fireplace followed my movements with an expression of universal, primitive terror overlaid, I fancied, with a delicate veneer of smug relief. I stroked wistfully the soft white fur on her neck and bid her a fond au revoir.

It was a cold Saturday evening back in January and I had planned my usual private celebration of the feast of St. Lucian of Antioch, but this year Fate apparently had other ideas, and I opened the front door smartly to behold a young woman standing like a statue on the step with one hand poised motionlessly in the air before her as though grasping an invisible knocker. She was dressed informally but expensively and although she looked very familiar, I couldn’t quite place her in the present context. Her face was a mask of primitive terror overlaid, I fancied, with a delicate veneer of smug . . . no, hang on, that was the goat, wasn’t it? Let me think. Oh yes, that’s right, the woman had a pleading, haunted look about her, as though she had travelled far through many a sleepless night, having exhausted along the way even the faintest possibility of redemption; and here she was now on my doorstep, as if finally and absolutely having reached the point of last resort.

“Yes?” I said coldly, no soft touch at the best of times for your average damsel in distress, and at that moment impatiently thinking only of what awaited me before the warm hearth in the drawing room. She placed her hands together, a supplicant at prayer, and bowed her head, looking up at me through long lashes and a windswept fringe like a helpless, orphaned fawn, lost and all alone in a cruel and beastly world, and a tear ran slowly down each cheek and fell softly to the ground. I sniffed, wiping my eyes on the back of my hand and invited her in.

She extended a warm, strong, sensibly manicured hand and introduced herself as Miranda Pitt-Tinny yes, of course niece of the famous Sir Leslie, MP, OBE, erstwhile chairman of the Clapham Ambulance, and she explained that she had called to see me upon the recommendation of a certain Mr. Nobby Harris because of my close association with the Clapham Lunatic Asylum, where her uncle had been incarcerated ever since the tragic events of last autumn, and from whom no one had heard a word since that fateful day. She was wondering if I might be able to find out how he was, and what was happening to him, and so forth, maybe even get her in to see him, because the stern-faced nuns there were adamant that he was to receive no visitors without the express written permission of the head psychiatrist, Dr. Aristotle Necropolis, who has answered neither letter nor telephone for several years, though it's rumoured a dim light illuminates his window on occasion.

“But of course,” I replied. “I’ll do everything I posssibly can. First thing tomorrow I'll speak to

“What was that noise?” She interrupted me with a well-bred gesture of apology, all her senses becoming suddenly alert as we passed the door of the drawing room, her whole being curiously animated, and all her grave concern for her poor uncle’s plight seeming to fall from her in an instant. She grinned excitedly. “It sounded like like a sheep! Or even but no!” She emitted involuntarily a delightful combination of squeal and gasp and covered her mouth with both hands, her eyes sparkling with the unadulterated pleasure of mischievous accusation, the big question hanging unspoken in the air between us.

I laughed a little too readily, a little too loudly, and shrugged, but could not trust myself to speak, so I ushered her hurriedly along the passageway towards the kitchen. I put the kettle on the gas to boil, fiddled with the teapot, found a spoon in a drawer, took some cups from the shelf and when I felt sufficiently composed, turned to face her.

“May I offer you a goat?” I was hopelessly flustered and fumbled a saucer. There seemed to be some quality about her that made a man tongue-tied and clumsy, prone to dropping crockery and blurting out indiscretions concerning goats.

“Oh, rather!" I thought for a moment she was going to ask if I happened to have a brace of Bagots going begging. "No, no,” she continued. “I mean, what? Sorry? What did you ? A goat? Ha ha! I thought” This flustering business was proving to be contagious and she blushed deliciously, her cheeks the colour of a ripe Crimson Bramley.

“May I take your coat?” Her obvious discomfiture had somehow lent me an air of quick-thinking suavity and manly assurance.

“Oh, I see, I’m sorry, I thought you ha ha thank you, yes, that would be Oh, well, no actually. No, I really can’t stop, I’m afraid. Today’s the feast of St. Lucian, you see, yes, of Antioch, and I have . . . um . . . well, sort of plans. You know how it is.”

“Let’s take this through to the drawing room,” I suggested, picking up the tray. “It’ll be nice and warm in there.”