The Dining Table (Extract)

It is September, 1929, and in the heart of the Carneddau mountains two boys training to be spies, Charlie and Baker, are about to take their seats around the dining table…

During the time I was off taking photographs Baker was with Alice in the library, learning all about rudimentary medicine, and we didn’t reunite until just before dinner.

We were once again taken to the wardrobe room where Branwell picked us out two very old looking suits. Mine had been Monty’s from when he were a boy and it was a little too long and a little too tight to fit me comfortably. I came off better than Baker, however. His suit was too large and he became lost in its folds. There was no smaller suit and he had to make do with what he was given. It was comical to watch him waddle along the hall and then down the staircase in trousers that were far too long for him, holding on to the balustrade by way of a small hand that only just poked out of its sleeve.

This was all forgotten by the time we were seated in the dining room, opposite one another, and we became immersed in what was a very grown up occasion.

Besides Monty, Alice, Baker and myself we were joined by Miss Fletcher, who was gay and full of laughter, as well as Major Vale, his wife Claudine, who said very little, and a gentleman of Miss Fletcher’s age with curvey black hair that swept down one side. I would have sworn he was wearing eye shadow if it weren’t the fact that gentlemen don’t wear such things. He failed to introduce himself but I learned during the course of the dinner that he was Franklin Millers, son of a wealthy American engineering tycoon who had come over to see about acquiring some land on the outskirts of Caernarfon. I did not take to him at all. He was snobbish and sneering and only wanted to speak to Miss Fletcher for the entire evening.

To my surprise, the colonel was not amongst the guests and when I asked why it struck up an interesting conversation.
“He’s rather peculiar when it comes to dining,” Monty told. “He only eats in daylight, for a reason best known only to himself.”
“The colonel is a lovely man but he does talk absolute nonsense sometimes,” Alice chided.
“Those blasted dyn-bewlog,” Miss Fletcher honked. “I mean what absolute rot. Whoever heard of an abominable snowman in Wales?”
“Watch your tongue Jezebel,” Monty clipped, his eyes darting towards Claudine. “They’re superstitious folk in these parts and some don’t take kindly to the rubbishing of their beliefs.”
“But honestly Monty… It’s just a tale made up to scare children into going to sleep at night!”
“Perhaps it is… But every myth and every tale must come from somewhere… Just because the dyn bewlog may not be real that doesn’t mean to say there isn’t something out there. Ask any Frodorion about the fantastical creatures in these mountains and they’ll tell you of all manner of beasts.”
“All tummy rot too I’ll bet. All based on their silly superstitions and backwards traditions.”
“The Frodorion know these mountains better than anyone else. Even the colonel, who has spent years roaming them, knows nothing compared to what they know.”
“Oh… I wouldn’t believe them,” Miss Fletcher bellowed, much to the horror of Monty and Major Vale. “They’re far too quaint and picture postcard to be believable. If I didn’t know any better I’d say they were just out for fooling gullible tourists.”
“Pardon me for asking, Miss Fletcher, but who are these Frodorion?” Millers drawled. Miss Fletcher lightly patted his hand as she answered.
“They’re a rather funny group of men who live up in the high mountains and like to think of themselves as separate to everybody else. They’re deluded if you ask my opinion…”
“Jezebel!” There was a tone of viciousness in Monty’s voice. “The Frodorion have been living the same way of life for centuries. That does not mean to say they are deluded. They should be respected and let be.”
“Have you ever met one of these Frodorion?” Baker asked.
“Oh yes… The younger ones are always hanging around Bethesda. The older lot keep to themselves, in the mountains. If they like you enough and trust you enough they may even invite you into their homes. I never have of course… Must be something about the way I look,” Major Vale told. He sounded immensely disappointed.
“Oh chin up Major Vale. At least you aren’t the colonel! I heard one group attacked him the other week… Threw rocks and chased him all the way to Beddgelert by all accounts.”
“That may be because the man is a blundering fool and wandered too close to their village once too often. He is a pleasant fellow but when it comes to respecting the Frodorion he is a complete ass.”
Mrs Klink and Miss Fry entered with our starter, cantaloupe melon drizzled in a gooseberry puree with cured ham on the side, and silence fell around the dinner table for five minutes.

“I went over to Llandudno today,” Miss Fletcher announced after that period was over. I looked from prodding my melon which I had no great liking for.
“Ghastly place,” Major Vale dashed. “All tourists and Victorian promenades and not an ounce of charm.”
“I agree Major Vale,” Alice echoed. “I find its only use is in catching the ferry to Liverpool and even then the train is much more preferable, particularly in bad weather.”
“The two of you are such dinosaurs,” Miss Fletcher crisped. “It is a lovely place… Those Victorian promenades you rubbished especially so. They’re so much cleaner and more fashionable than any of these crumbling old ruins.”
“I would like to see this Lan-Did-Nor,” Millers crowed.
“Oh, you must darling, you simply must,” Miss Fletcher opined loudly. “You can’t say you’ve seen the country unless you’ve been to Llandudno. They call it the Monte Carlo of Wales!”
“At least it’s better than being referred to as the Athens of the north… That title seems to be applied to almost everywhere with any hint of beauty,” Monty proclaimed.
“I don’t see why anywhere would want to be the Athens of the north. I mean… What is there to see in Athens besides a few Greek ruins? You can see far better ruins in Roma. And what of Istanbul I ask? Why is nowhere the Istanbul of the north?” Major Vale huffed.
“It might be Bangor if only the city council would rebuild the city along the banks of the Menai rather than have it tucked away in that valley,” Alice argued.
“Indeed… If it weren’t for the cathedral I jolly well think it would be on the banks.”
“I’ve always been of the opinion that the cathedral is no longer where it was originally founded. If you think of that period then its positioning becomes rather odd. Why would you build your site of worship on low lying ground away from view? You would want it somewhere it could be seen.”
“Like on that patch of scrubland above the university,” Alice beamed.
“I believe that was the site of a motte and bailey castle, my dear… Hardly room for a cathedral I shouldn’t wonder.”
“The motte and bailey is only twelfth century, major. As the cathedral was definitely in its present position before then it is still entirely possible that it was up there previously… But I don’t like that hill anyway. There is something strange and not quite right about it, something unusual.”
“I was always of the opinion that it was the old mythical fortress of Caer Dathyll,’ Vale chewed.

“What about Bethesda?” Claudine intruded. “That is a very strange place… I saw a woman with her jubblies hanging out yesterday.” Miss Fletcher gave a short shriek and placed her hand to her mouth. Millers looked indifferent. Monty, Alice and Major Vale remained absolutely calm.
“Why were her jubblies hanging out?” I puzzled. There was silence before Alice explained.
“Bethesda is a place not particularly suited to the eyes of children. You must understand that. Very adult things happen there… Some people would call what happens there sinful but I myself would call it human.”
“What does happen there?” Baker challenged.
“Drugs and prostitution for the most part,” Monty answered bluntly. “As Alice said… Nothing suited to the eyes of children, nor for the dinner table.”
“I’m sorry to ask this, but what is prostitution?” I enquired in all innocence. There were some shifty looks about the table but Baker saw no problem in answering me.
“A prostitute is someone who rents their jilly out to a gentleman. There are loads of ‘em around Whitechapel!”
“There are loads of them around Bethesda too,” Major Vale sneered disgustedly. I was puzzled, wondering why someone would want to rent a lady’s jilly.
“They rent them for the sole purpose of pleasure,” Monty eased.
“What? They rent a jilly just to stick their willy in?”
“That is about the gist of it.”

It was a confusing idea and I could not get my head around why anyone would want to do that. I could understand why two people in love might want to do it but not two strangers.
Then I suddenly thought of Jeremy and his hatred of women. Perhaps if he was presented with one of these prostitutes as a gift he might change his opinion. If one were presented as a gift he couldn’t well refuse her and he would have to make the most of her and that might eventually change his mind on the matter.

“Do you think I should get one of these prostitutes for Jeremy?” I asked. Monty spat pieces of melon all over the table and nearly choked.
“NO! God no Charlie! Whatever you do don’t do that! That’s the absolute worst thing you can do!”
“Who’s Jeremy?” Miss Fletcher questioned, leaning towards me.
“My best friend,” I told her. “He’s scared of women, beards and moustaches.” Miss Fletcher frowned and screwed her face up.
“What an odd set of things to be afraid of. Was he ever attacked by a bearded lady do you know?”
“He became indoctrinated by our old headmaster, Mr Carrion,” I explained.
“How utterly dreadful…”
“I think that is quite enough of that sort of talk.” Monty shot both Miss Fletcher and I a warning across the bows of the table. It humbled us both into silence and dinner continued with Monty and Major Vale discussing improvement works to the camp in Llandegai.

****

The main course was a beef wellington served with a thick and creamy mashed potato. It was so rich and so lovely that I had no room for desert, a lemon torte made from a recipe Ann once stole from Virginia Woolf. Baker gobbled up three portions and still had room left over for more. After we men had retired to the drawing room for some after-dinner port he had Branwell called for. This was all done by himself without the knowledge of either myself, Major Vale or Monty and we were quite surprised when Branwell entered the room enquiring as to why he had been called. Before anyone could say anything Baker had pushed forwards and made his request for a plate of biscuits. Branwell was left bewildered but as his purpose was to serve all in the castle he obeyed and returned with a tin of custard creams. Baker attempted to share them but he was the only one who desired to eat. I was more interested in the port anyway. It was my first taste of alcohol and I found it to be one which I could not put my finger on. It was an admirable taste, however, and I hastily asked for a second glass.

I recall enjoying myself, certainly, but I also recall being frightened of Millers. He sat in a chair near the fireplace and stared moodily into the empty, flameless grate. Occasionally I would see him look up and stare at whoever happened to be speaking. He failed to drink his port and left it on the table when he departed the castle an hour later.
Once this happened we all shuddered and commented on what a strange and horrid man he was. Miss Fletcher had apparently met him whilst in Bangor the day previously and had invited him to dinner, unbeknownst to Alice and Monty. It was the first time anybody had met him.

There was, I heard, a later dalliance with Miss Fletcher and a wedding was arranged between the two of them. However, Miss Fletcher, for a reason only known to herself, jilted him at the altar and so far as I am aware nobody has seen either of them since that day.

Shortly after Millers had departed I began to talk to Monty and Major Vale about the things I had bought in Bangor the day before. I told them all about my hat and how I looked forward to wearing it and then I showed them the ring I had bought for Violet. Major Vale referred to it as a tawdry trinket and Baker referred to me as ‘soft,’ though buying it had been his suggestion, but Monty was much kinder. He claimed to like the ring and was certain that Violet would love it also. He had one reservation and that was that I delayed giving it to her for the time being. His opinion was that I should wait for a more special occasion. I decided that this was a worthwhile idea and was all for keeping it in a drawer at home but Monty was of the opinion that Violet may come across it by mistake. To remedy this he suggested keeping it in the safety of the castle until it was required. I was initially worried that I may never see it again but following a long set of reassurances and the promise of a new gift for Violet, paid for by Monty, I relented.

****

That night I slept in a double four poster bed, lost somewhere in the midst of the castle. As soon as my head touched the pillow I sank deep into the covers and drifted into a dream of Violet and myself, alone and exploring the paradise of Cythry with one another. It was exciting, so exciting that I awoke in the morning to find that Miss Fletcher, who slept directly below, had heard me making such noises that according to her opinion I had sounded as though I were pleasuring myself in my sleep. I had no idea what she meant by ‘pleasuring myself’ but I was assured that it was nothing to worry about. Miss Fletcher did attempt to make an explanation as to what ‘pleasuring myself’ was but she was hastily shushed by claims that it was not an appropriate subject for the breakfast table. I did eventually learn what she meant from a Romani gentleman whom I met in The Saracen’s Head back in Towcester.

Following breakfast, which was brief, Baker and I said our goodbyes to Monty and Alice drove us into Bangor to meet our train, stopping briefly at a glassware shop to buy a new gift for Violet. Alice helped me pick out a glass butterfly broach, inlaid around the edges with gold. It was not, in my opinion, as pretty as the ring but it was pretty enough. With it tightly ensconced in a velvet covered box, I placed it in my trouser pocket and checked it every five minutes until I reached Towcester.


Charlie Fuller will be released on 14th May 2018. Above image is courtesy of theenglishhome.co.uk

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