As ever, this story is set in England and employs British place names, British-English expressions and spelling throughout.
Note: ‘Marks and Sparks’ is the pet name for Marks and Spencer, a popular British retail outlet, at one time much beloved by the public as a source of well-made and relatively inexpensive clothing, amongst other things, although sadly now in decline, perhaps.
My cottage sits in approximately a quarter-acre on the edge of the village of Middle Hambledon. The British Isles contains several Hambledons, some of which can be dated back to mediaeval times, but as far as I am aware, Middle Hambledon is unique, but don’t quote me on that. The name suggests that at one time there may even have been an Upper- and a Lower Hambledon, or some variation on the theme, but a geographical search of modern-day Northamptonshire will uncover no such nomenclature. The cottage is also an indirect result of a reasonably successful movie I took part in five years ago; the ill-gotten-gains of which initially bought me a house in my native North London, the recent sale of which supplied the funds for my current domicile.
I somewhat regret that I am part of the movement which is responsible for driving up the price of properties in supposedly ‘desirable’ rural locations, to the detriment of locals in the area who can no longer afford to buy them. However, pushing my guilt aside, I had the means and as soon as the opportunity arose I seized it with both clammy hands. As an unattached man of some means and thirty-three summers, I didn’t need a mansion and so the cottage with its sitting room, kitchen, bathroom and two and a half bedrooms suited my immediate needs. Definite bonuses were the convenient road and rail links to London, plus the fact that the only thing that overlooked the cottage was the church tower at the other end of the village. This last consideration brings me to the introduction of this tale.
When you work in the theatre things such as privacy and modesty are usually luxuries usually reserved for the crème de la crème of the profession, which is actually very few of us, and which is why on one of the infrequent sunny days in Britain that merit the name summer, I was in the secluded confines of my property’s garden, taking full advantage of the weather, sans clothing, when the characteristic tone on my iPhone announced that there was a caller at the front door. At times such as this I was grateful that I’d splashed out and bought a door bell ringer with a built in camera and as a visitor to naturist centres in the past I was able to reach for my handy towel, which I soon wrapped around my waist before going to the front door. I knew in advance that my callers were two women but they initially seemed more shocked than I was when I opened the door to them:
“Oh, I’m so sorry—were you bathing?” the older looking of the pair enquired, before offering me her hand to shake. “Connie Appleby, and this is Camille Askwith—Cam, to her friends and acquaintances. I suppose I ought to explain, Mr Carmichael, my husband is the vicar of St. Barts,” she gestured in the general direction as she spoke, “Our village is a small, close-knit community so it didn’t take long for the rumour mill to inform us that we now had a bona fide celebrity living in our midst. This is a dual-purpose visit: first to officially welcome you to Middle Hambledon, and second—well, to pick your brains in your professional capacity, but if this is an inconvenient time—” I smiled.
“Please call me Gavin, Connie, and you, too, ‘Cam’. Never fear,” I continued, “I have plenty of time, as long as you don’t mind my informal attire; I was making the most of this beautiful weather. Would you care to join me in the garden, Ladies; I can offer you tea or coffee, soft drinks or something stronger, if you prefer?”
“That’s very kind of you, Gavin—personally, I think coffee would hit the spot,” the vicar’s wife replied. I looked at Camille who nodded, somewhat coyly.
“Very well; coffee it is. If you ladies would like to go through, I’ll only be a few minutes.” I contemplated putting on some more clothing, but my guests seemed not at all bothered so I just concentrated on the job in hand.
The cottage’s previous owners had kindly bequeathed me a gift of a set of nearly new garden furniture, including a rustic wooden table complete with opposite-facing benches along the longest sides, and in addition some tubular-framed reclining loungers. One of these was already set up for my use, but I retrieved two more from storage before fetching the refreshments. By the time that the ladies’ coffee was made and I’d got myself a cold drink from the refrigerator, the extra chairs had been set up and by guests were seated and awaiting my arrival.
“Here you are, ladies,” I said, distributing the drinks, “Now, tell me how you think that I can help you?” The two extra chairs had been placed facing mine and their occupants began—or rather the more forthright Vicar’s wife began, with her accomplice left to follow the conversation. Although her husband may have been Middle Hambledon’s titular spiritual leader, it would be fair to say that his wife was it’s metaphorical beating heart, such was her influence over its daily goings on.
“Well, it’s like this, Gavin, every year for the past few years and usually in the late autumn, we have put on a little amateur theatrical production, the proceeds of which go towards helping out some worthy local causes. In particular, some of the seniors remaining in the village get a few extra treats at Christmas and our little village school can always use a financial helping hand.” I nodded my approval.
“Cam, here, teaches at the school and she is the one who organises the performances, writing and directing and even taking part, if necessary. Of course we are not sure what your professional commitments are for the coming months, but we were hoping that you could help her out in some way: I’m sure that just the knowledge that Gavin Carmichael is involved will hopefully generate some interest and put a few more bums on seats!” I took a few slow sips of my drink while I appeared to consider this.
By now the sun was high in the sky and I reckon that the temperature must have been in the low thirties Celsius, which for Brits is pretty warm. I was longing to let the air get to my family jewels once more and I could see that the ladies were also feeling the heat.
“Okay, you have my attention, but before we begin can I make a suggestion? I can’t help feeling that you two ladies are feeling this heat. Now please don’t take this the wrong way, but as we are now well on the way towards friendship, I have to say that I wouldn’t mind in the least if you both stripped down to your undies; I would also really like to get rid of this towel!” Connie looked at Camille who in turn looked uncomfortable.
“Well, I have no objections, Gavin. How about you, Cam; after all we are all God’s creatures under the skin!” Camille still looked perturbed.
“It’s, er, actually the skin part that I’m worried about! It was so warm this morning that I didn’t—you know, bother—” Connie Appleby looked at her younger friend and smiled fondly.
“Is that all! It’s like Gavin said: it’s all friends together, so I will if you will!” And with that she stood up next to her seat and unbuttoned the front of her conservative-looking sundress, and as each button opened more of her not unattractive, underwear-clad body was revealed. As you might imagine, being the middle-aged wife of a clergyman, her underwear was more Marks and Sparks than Victoria’s Secret, but her briefs were still fairly brief and her bra was only barely doing its intended job of containing a pair of ample breasts.
Her frock now fully open from neck to hem, Connie removed it and draped it over one of the nearby benches, whereupon she soon also liberated those generous breasts, which then hung and swung hypnotically on her chest.
“Come on, Cam; time to bite the bullet, girl!” Camille sighed and shrugged her shoulders in resignation. She was wearing a pair of loose-fitting shorts with legs that terminated mid-thigh and an equally loose-fitting blouse over a tank top. She chose to remain seated as she methodically unbuttoned her shirt, which she casually tossed to Connie, who placed it with her own clothes. Pulling the tank top over her head exposed another nice pair of boobs, which may not have been as big as her friend’s, but which suited her slimmer body. Still seated, Camille undid the button on her shorts and lowered the zip, before raising her hips off of the lounger and slowly pushing the shorts down and off. I tried not to appear to ogle her overmuch, but the younger woman’s total lack of pubic hair differentiated her from the older lady, whose own luxuriant thatch of straw-blonde pubes matched the colour of the rest of the hair on her body; while Camille had been stripping off, the vicar’s good lady had removed the last of her coverings.
“Splendid, Camille! I must say that this does feel jolly liberating! I wonder if I can talk Peter into having a go?”
There was still a certain sense of expectancy, I felt, which I soon relieved by casually pulling my towel away and placing it on my seat. Now I don’t claim to be anything other then averagely endowed in the gentlemen’s parts division, but I think it’s safe to say that I am at the larger end of average. I seemed to produce a faint smile from both of my guests, anyway.
Camille started off a little guardedly, keeping one arm resting in her lap and the other draped strategically across her chest, but as she relaxed physically, so did her vigilance; especially as she was one of those people that gesticulated liberally with her arms and hands as she spoke. Connie, on the other hand, sat down unselfconsciously, legs akimbo and unashamed, remaining seated with a sturdy thigh placed either side of the lounger. My next duty as host was to hand the ladies the tube of sunblock that I had used earlier, which they used judiciously, especially on those places that never usually saw the sun. This, I confess, was a sight that I found especially enjoyable and which caused a twitch and a tremor or three in my own downstairs equipment. That task completed, we finally got a chance to sit down and talk more seriously.
“Is this year’s play a new one or one that you are reviving? If the former, is it written yet?” I asked the school teacher.
“Yes, it’s just about written. It’s just a fairly common-or-garden comedy: you know, lots of comical coincidences and misunderstandings. It’s what the audiences seem to enjoy most, so give them what they want I say!” I nodded.
“I agree. Given the context of the shows, that’s the sensible thing to do. Can I see a copy?”
“Oh, I hadn’t thought of that; just coming to see you today was a bit of an impromptu decision. I suppose that I can go over the first draft this evening, while Frances is away, and if tomorrow is okay with you I can bring it round then.”
“Is Francis your husband or partner?” I asked, trying to keep any emotion out of my tone of voice. Camille just smiled.
“It’s Frances with an ‘e’ not an ‘i’ and she’s my daughter; she’s staying with my parents for a couple of weeks, as they live near the coast. I miss her like crazy, but it does mean that I can work on the play without distractions.”
“So, no Mr Askwith?”
“Nope, never was one! Fran is the result of an all too brief but tempestuous fling I had with another teacher at a conference nearly six years ago. He was married, I subsequently found out, so I never even told him that I was pregnant. Besides, he was an okay lover but not, I think, really daddy material. I don’t even have a photo to show Fran when she eventually asks about her father, but that hasn’t happened yet,” she said, candidly.
“Okay, I look forward to seeing your draft tomorrow. Will you be coming with her, Connie?” She looked at me and smiled in a knowing way.
“I’m not sure, Gavin. I have to admit that I’m very tempted—especially if tomorrow turns out to be like today, but I will have to see.” She looked at her watch and exclaimed: “Goodness, look at the time! I told Peter that I wouldn’t be long. You can stay if you like, Cam, but I have to fly!”
“No, I really have to go, too. Until tomorrow, Gavin—” I watched both women quickly dress, although Connie just put on her dress which was just opaque enough so that no one would guess that she wore nothing beneath it. I shook hands with both women as I saw them out of the front door and watched them both wave as they walked in the direction of the village church.
The next day definitely promised to be as nice as the one before. In the morning I made my daily pilgrimage the short distance into the heart of the village, which comprised only a handful of small independent shops, the pub, and a slightly larger convenience store that was allied to one of the big supermarket chains. For the first time since moving to Middle Hambledon I paid closer attention to the buildings around me. Perhaps the first thing that I looked at was the church: St. Bartholomew’s, or St. Bart’s as it was more familiarly known. It was old, although how old I couldn’t tell, and stood surrounded by the final resting place of generations of former village residents. A short distance from the church itself there was a possibly Victorian building which I identified as the vicarage. My eyes sought out Connie Appleby, but I could detect no signs of life.
It was too early in the day for much to be going on, so I turned my attention to the one place that I was sure would be open: the small family owned and run shop where I could buy a copy of the Guardian newspaper and any of those countless items that one either ran out of unexpectedly or overlooked when shopping at one of the larger retail outlets that are situated on the outskirts of the towns and villages. This one was usually manned by either or both Keith and Molly McKenzie; both of whom could be relied upon to welcome their customers with a ready smile and a friendly greeting.
“Good day, Mr Carmichael. Keeping well and enjoying this fine weather I hope!”
“Very well, thank you, Keith! Tell me, how long does a person have to live here before you begin to call them by their first name?” He looked at me and smiled.
“Now that’s a funny thing—Gavin: there are some old gaffers and women living here that I’ve known since I was a lad who I still address as Mister This and Missus That, and others who I always use their first name; you just kind of get a feel for what’s right after a while. And of course it pays never to assume anything; you being somewhat of a celebrity up from London and all—” I nodded and smiled.
“—But for me one of the nicest things about moving here was leaving all that kind of thing behind, Keith. Acting is a job just like any other; although I admit that it can pay much better than most!”
Our conversation continued in this fashion for several more minutes until I made my purchase and wandered back in the direction of home; exchanging brief greetings with the smattering of people that I saw on the way.
Back at the cottage I breakfasted before checking my phone for messages, and all that other terribly important stuff that we do as a matter of habit, now. There was nothing of much import to deal with, so I turned my attention back to the garden, at the same time wondering if yesterday’s visitors would make a reappearance. On the off-chance that one or both of them would, I set out the same three loungers that I had used yesterday, found fresh towels which I laid out on the seats, made sure that the kettle was filled with water as was the coffee maker, and even sorted out a novel to read as I waited. All of that done, I went up to my bedroom where I removed my clothes and slathered some more high-factor sunblock over my body. I had barely finished the last of these tasks and returned downstairs again, when my phone app once again alerted me that someone had rung the doorbell. A quick look at the phone’s screen showed two familiar faces waiting at the door.
Unlike yesterday, I didn’t bother covering up before I went to let them in. Both women looked at me and smiled as we exchanged pleasantries. Connie and Camille were wearing similar style button through summer dresses, they wore sunglasses perched on their noses and carried tote bags on their shoulders: they reminded me of a strange mix between Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Blues Brothers—yes, I know, I watch too many movies!
“Hi, come on through! Same choices of refreshments as yesterday.” As expected it was Connie who spoke first:
“I think that I’d prefer something cold today, if you don’t mind, Gavin.” In the kitchen I pointed to the refrigerator. Connie made her selection, as did Camille, and I followed suit. We then all made our way out to the patio, where without any preamble, both women began to unbutton their dresses. I wasn’t surprised that neither of them wore anything underneath, but what did catch my attention was that the vicar’s wife had lost all of her lower hair covering. Neither had had much time yesterday to get much of a tan on their nether regions, but Connie’s white patch was particularly conspicuous. She noticed my attention.
“After seeing Cam yesterday I thought I’d give it a go! Of course I told Peter where I’d been and what I’d been doing. He was fascinated and said that he wished that he could try it, too, but that he wasn’t sure what his Bishop and his parishioners would think if they found out. He did quite like this, though,” she said pointing to her lower body and uncharacteristically, I thought, I seemed to detect a slight flush to her face and neck.
“I brought the draft,” Camille added, reaching into her tote bag and pulling out a sheaf of unbound A4 paper which she handed to me. “If you are going to look at it now, Connie and I thought that we’d just get some sun.” I nodded: “Help yourselves, ladies; you know where the drinks are if you need them.”
I leaned back in my seat and prepared to read as my guests once again applied sun protection to their bodies: I was somewhat distracted as Connie applied some to that hitherto unprotected area, south of her navel.
A script such as the one that Camille had written generally doesn’t take that long to read, but I foresaw at least sixty minutes work ahead of me. What I found was pretty much as she had outlined it: a fairly straight-forward five-hander in three short acts. The dialogue was admittedly quite predictable, but I’d been offered lots of work of a similar nature by writers who did it for a living, and all-in-all I was suitably impressed.
I could already see in my mind how it would work in practice, given a fairly competent cast, but that was always the biggest unknown variable, given that presumably it would be performed by untutored amateurs.
“Gavin, do you mind if Camille and I have a walk around your lovely garden? Your predecessors here, Tom and Millie Pettigrew, were both keen gardeners, but it looks like you’ve kept up their good work.”
“No, of course not, Connie! I’m no gardener myself, but I’ve paid one of your neighbours, George Meadows, to keep an eye on it for me.” Connie nodded: “Yes, George is a good man—I hope that I’m still that active when I get to his age; he’s into his eighties, you know!”
“What do you think of the play, Gavin?” Camille added, expectantly.
“Not half bad, actually! You two go and explore and we’ll discuss it later. Do you both need to hurry off today?” The two women exchanged looks.
“Not today; Peter knows were I am,” Connie replied. “Me, neither,” Camille confirmed.
Although I was wearing sunglasses, my eyes tracked my guests as they skirted the lawns, stopping every now and then in front of some plant that I didn’t know the name of. I’ve seen my fair share of naked women and apart from a handful of former girlfriends and other actors, most of those were strangers on clothing optional beaches or in naturist resorts. However, it still seemed quite surreal to see these two who I’d only known for such a short time, happily wandering around my garden, their breasts moving to the natural rhythms of their bodies and occasionally bending and affording me an almost unobstructed view of that part of their body that is generally considered most private by the society we lived in. It was actually taking a lot of self-control on my part to stop myself reaching for my manhood as I watched them. The garden tour finished and the two returned to their seats.
“If you don’t have to get away, why don’t I fix us all some lunch?”
“I’ve got a better idea,” Connie said, “Why don’t I rustle us up something while you two go over the play together?” I nodded.
“Okay, if you don’t mind. You’ll find some cold meat and cheeses that I bought this morning in the fridge, as well as the usual salad stuff.” Connie smiled: “Perfect! Would you both like another drink while I’m at it?” Camille and I both stated our preferences and Connie headed inside. Camille moved her lounger closer to mine but still facing me: she waited for me to speak.
“You’ve done a good job, Cam, there’s nothing obvious that I would change, although things might evolve once you start to rehearse. When will you begin assembling your cast and crew?” She smiled.
“Thank you! I’ll start contacting the regulars to see who’s interested and available, but because it’s summer some of them might already to away or getting ready to go, so it might take a while.”
“Do you usually do try-outs before you cast the roles?”
“Mmm, yes, well, I have people in mind as I’m writing, but the numbers of people interested in performing can be quite small, so it’s sometimes a case of using whoever is available. Fortunately, though, everyone tends to know everyone else, so there are no rivalries, or anything like that, and everyone usually gets into the spirit of the thing.” She looked at me, somewhat hesitantly. “Gavin, I, er, don’t suppose—”
“—I won’t commit myself at this time, if you don’t mind; but that’s not a refusal. I think, though, that it might be best if you give your ‘regulars’ the chance, first; plus there’s always the possibility that my agent might come up with something for me—you know how it is; I wouldn’t want to agree and then have to let you down, Camille.”
“No, of course not. I hope, though, that you’ll still take an interest in case I need a consultant.” I smiled: “That I can promise!”
We sat outside at the table to eat. Whether it was contrived or not, Camille sat on the bench next to me with Connie opposite. There didn’t seem anything unusual about us all sitting there in the buff, and I admit that it was nice to have Camille’s soft skin touching mine in places as we ate lunch.
Before the other two left we all exchanged phone numbers. Now that the main business of the day had been concluded, they didn’t know when they would be back that week, but expressed a desire to do so, if possible.
“Look, how about I give one of you my spare key in case I get called away, or something?”
“Give it to Cam,” Connie said. This time both women kissed my cheek, just before they dressed to leave; and of course other parts of our bodies touched as they leant in to do so. Camille was last.
“Gavin, Fran is due back from my parents this coming weekend. Do you mind if I bring her along to meet you: I’m afraid it’s back to being a single mum again!”
“No, of course not! But maybe a bit of a prior warning, just in case, you know—”
For the next few days I returned to my solitude, except for my morning exercise walking to the village. The weather remained dry, but the temperatures fluctuated somewhat, but it was still warm enough to sit outside for a good few hours every day.
I didn’t really expect to see Camille at the weekend, but I received a text message mid-morning Sunday: ‘We’ll be round in about an hour if that’s okay.’ I quickly went inside and sorted out a pair of shorts which I pulled on, although I didn’t bother with a shirt. I didn’t even bother to check my phone app when the doorbell rang.
Upon opening the door I saw Camille with her familiar pleasant smile. Clutching her hand and looking up at me, somewhat shyly, was a girl of about five years old, I guessed; facially similar enough for me to see a resemblance.
“Hello, Camille, and this must be Frances. Hello, how are you?”
The small girl peeked out from the safety of her mother’s skirt and looked at me carefully before she replied: “Okay, fank you!”
“Good girl! Would you and your mummy like to come in; I’ve got some nice cold drinks in the refrigerator if you’d like one.”
They followed me into the house, the kitchen being now familiar to Camille, where I opened the fridge door and let the girl pick something out for herself, which she did by pointing. I poured our drinks into glasses, which we carried out into the garden.
Camille was wearing one of those loose skirts that came down to her ankles and wrapped around her waist. Her top half was covered by a tank top under which she was clearly braless. Frances had on a similar top and a pair of pink shorts. The older Askwith released the simple fastener on her skirt, revealing that she was once again knickerless underneath, she then pulled the top over her head and off. Frances stood by impassively as she did so. Camille then helped her daughter undress, folding her clothes as she discarded them, she then applied a generous amount of sunblock to the girl’s already partially tanned body; I noted that her lower torso retained the tell-tale whiteness. The observant school teacher noted my expression:
“I’m raising my daughter not to be self-conscious about the human body, but unfortunately my parents aren’t quite as enlightened and wanted her to at least wear something on her lower half when in public. Isn’t that right, Honey?” The little girl nodded her head.
“That’s a very healthy attitude that you’ve got, Cam, but I think that, for the moment at least, I’ll keep my shorts on!” Camille smiled: “I really don’t mind if you don’t, but whatever you’re comfortable with!”
Frances was mostly just looking around at everything with a child’s curiosity.
“Are you in your mummy’s class at school, Frances?” She shook her head: “No, Mummy teaches the older children. I am only year one.”
“That’s good! And what do you like most about school?”
“Oh, lots, really. Miss Douglas, that’s my teacher, let’s us paint and we are doing numbers, and in the afternoon she reads to us—I can read some things myself, but it’s nice when Miss Douglas reads the words. Mummy reads to me at home.”
“Great! Do you have a favourite book or story, Fran?” She thought about this then nodded: “The one about Aslan and Narnia.”
“Oh, you mean The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe?” She smiled and nodded: “Yes, that one.”
“You know, Fran, that was one of my favourites, too; I think I’ve still got a copy; would you like me to read some of it to you?” Her smile told me her answer: “Yes, please, Mr Michael!” I didn’t correct her: it’s not an easy name for a child to manage.
“Cam, why don’t you take Fran inside and see if you can find it; it’s in the bookcase in the sitting room; I’d say probably on the far right.” Cam smiled at me and then she took her daughter’s hand again and they went into the cottage. I sat back in my seat and soaked up the sun while I waited. They weren’t gone long, and when they returned the girl was clutching the relatively elderly hardback volume tightly in both hands.
“Would you like to sit on my lap while I read?” I smiled to myself when both mother and daughter nodded their head. “Er, maybe another time, Cam!” She feigned a pout and then laid back in her seat, pulling her sunglasses down off of the top of her head and onto her nose. Meanwhile Fran climbed up onto my thighs and settled herself into my chest and onto my shoulder as I placed one arm around her and I held the book open with both hands.
“From the beginning?” Fran nodded. “Okay—’Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy—’
I lost track of time as I read the words on the page that I hadn’t read for, oh, nearly twenty-five years, I suppose, as once again I got caught up in the fantastical drama that C. S. Lewis created, which first came to the attention of children like me almost twice as many decades prior to my discovery of the novel. I looked down several times at the small child nestled in my arms, but it was only when Camille told me that I could stop reading that I realised that Fran was sleeping.
“How long?” Camille smiled: “Twenty, maybe twenty-five minutes. She does that to me sometimes. I would have stopped you earlier, but you both looked so—” I smiled: “I understand.”
“Should I wake her now?” Cam asked. I shook my head: “No. I’m fine!” Cam grinned at me: “Yes, I think so, too!”
I put the book down carefully and continued to hold Fran in my arms: this was a new sensation for me, but one that I found that I was quite enjoying.
“How’s it going with the play?”
“Still early days, I’m afraid. I’ve been able to contact a few of my regulars, but some are currently unavailable, as I suspected. That’s the problem with British summers: we have to fit everything around the school holidays, and the people who this affects tend to book theirs early to get the best deals later. One of my colleagues is a keen regular, so I can almost certainly pencil her name in for one of the female parts, and there’s a guy who is almost certainly a banker for one of the male roles, but that still leaves three cast spots open and all the ancillary helpers, of course. I’m not complaining, though, the final outcome usually justifies a few bumps in the road along the way.” I smiled: “I find your attitude very commendable, Miss Askwith!” She smiled: “Why, thank you, Mr Carmichael! We do our best!”
I saw quite a lot of my three female visitors over the course of the summer; and I mean that in every sense of the word. There were a few occasions when I was contacted by my agent, with firm offers of work, but nothing that took me away from home for more than a few days at a time. In this day and age the kudos may still derive from working on stage or in films and television, but the reality is that few actors will turn down the money available from advertising and voice-over work, for which they are rarely ever seen, only heard. ‘Keep your profile in the public eye’—or in this case, ear—as my agent says, ‘and you’ll never be short of work’. Sometimes I feel like a bit of a fraud for taking the easy way out, but, hey, a man’s got to eat, hasn’t he!
The weather became ever more variable as the summer months passed into autumn, so more often than not even when it was warm enough to sit outside we did so clothed, or at least partially so. I strongly suspect, however, that even the vicar’s wife may have been undie-less under her outer clothing, ‘just in case’ the weather decided to co-operate. I even met her husband; a very nice man, I thought, who clearly didn’t wish to live up to the popular stereotype of a starchy old country cleric.
Whenever Camille came around to my cottage of course Fran did too, and while her mother was there to consult on the progress of the upcoming theatrical production, I often found my time divided between that and reading to her daughter and generally hanging out. She would smile and take my hand as soon as she arrived and rarely let it go again until she departed again. It was becoming such a frequent event that I began to look forward to her next arrival as much as I did that of her attractive mother, and I realised how much I was going to miss them both when the new school year began and their visits diminished.
The play, which was currently proceeding under the working title of ‘High Jinks at the Manor House’, was now fully cast and rehearsals were finally underway. Since the actual production was planned to take place the end of October/beginning of November, it was still very much at the preliminary stage. The cast was as follows:
Mrs Mabel Wendover — Elizabeth McNulty
Mr Simeon Wendover — Patrick Haverlock
Miss Cynthia Wendover — Camille Askwith
Johnny Fortesque — Brian Mulroney
Polly Barton (the Wendover’s maid) — Nichola Watson
A brief synopsis:
The Wendover’s were the rather pompous and pretentious owners of Camberley Manor. Despite their snooty manner and high-flown aspirations, they were actually originally what the country gentry set liked to call ‘trades people’.
They have a daughter, Cynthia, who is a sweet if somewhat naïve girl, who remembers nothing of her parents humble origins. Johnny Fortesque is from an old local land-owning family who are the actual gentry; the sort of people that the Wendover’s aspire to emulate, so they are delighted when the dashing Johnny takes a fancy to young Cynthia.
Polly Barton is a pretty local girl who is about the same age as Cynthia. Although of apparently lowly social status, of course Polly is naturally possessed of a keen mind and a sharp wit.
Bearing in mind the likely audience for the production: that is, the local inhabitants of Middle Hambledon and possibly those of the other nearby rural communities, the main focus of the play is its use of humour to highlight the inherent shortcomings and inanities of the inhabitants of the Manor House in particular, and the class that they purport to represent in general, while demonstrating how easy it is for the staunchly working class Polly to continually get the better of them.
However, love must prevail, and we see how Cynthia and Johnny’s relationship manages to flourish despite her parents social inadequacies.
Elizabeth McNulty, who Camille cast as Mabel Wendover, was in real life a woman very much in the mould of Connie Appleby, who although nothing like her character, nevertheless portrayed her very well. She was one of the few ‘go to’ players that Camille had featured in all of her previous productions.
Patrick Haverlock, chosen to play Simeon Wendover, was another aspiring thespian in his youth, however his actual acting talents never quite lived up to his dreams and he was now entrenched in a middle-management role. When the first tentative idea had been mooted, regarding the possible seasonal entertainment, Patrick, an active parish councillor, had quickly added his name to the list of volunteers, and so in his own humble way he had been able to fulfil one of his youthful aspirations.
Nichola Watson, the production’s heroine, Polly Barton, was in real life Camille’s friend and colleague from the village school. If Camille Askwith was notable for her writing abilities, Nichola was the leading light when it came to actual performing. She had even studied drama while at school and university, but her first love was teaching, at which she also excelled. In fact, Nichola could have played either her own or Camille’s roles just as well, but the part of Polly, which as Camille intended had more meat on its bones, was unequivocally the one for which she was best suited. Camille in fact never considered herself to be an actress, so she was happy to fill in wherever there might be a female character that couldn’t be filled by someone else.
Johnny Fortesque was down to be portrayed by a local farmer, Brian Mulroney, who was Cynthia’s love interest in the play. Brian was the one person in the cast who it could be argued was most conspicuously miscast; however, he was both available and relatively enthusiastic; no doubt in some not so small part due to the presence of Miss Askwith, who the bachelor Brian had secretly admired ever since she arrived in Middle Hambledon.
Camille’s assessment of her co-player has not been recorded, but unofficially she mentioned to Connie that he was all they had so they would have to jolly well make the best of it! Brian was probably the antithesis of the Johnny character that Camille had envisaged him to be: Brian stood at five-feet-nine in his stocking feet, but due to a lifetime spent on his family’s farm he had the physique of a navvy, together with the rough hands and weather-worn complexion that one would imagine someone in his profession would have.
Compare this to someone like the fictitious Johnny Fortesque, a young man in his early twenties, who had never been required to do an honest days manual work in his life, and who was admired by the young ladies of his acquaintance, and no-doubt their mothers as well, because of his boyish good looks, his impeccable manners, and let’s not forget of course, his favourable position as heir to his father’s estate.
No, even while Camille was writing her latest oeuvre, she knew that the part of Cynthia’s beau would be almost impossible to fill from the available talent of Middle Hambledon. That was why she was so excited when she found out who the newest resident to village was. Admittedly Gavin Carmichael was at least a decade older than Johnny, but he was a real actor and so that would be no impediment. She was therefore also disappointed, of course, when Gavin had not been able to take the role as she’d hoped—not that she thought that he really ever would—but by way of being some compensation, he had become a friend, as well as which her daughter adored him; that being a thing that she could easily understand. However, Brian Mulroney was what she had to work with so, as the saying goes: the show must go on!
I attended most of the read-throughs and rehearsals whenever I was available, for dual reasons: the first to offer whatever assistance I could in my consultative capacity; which in fact was a glorified way of saying that I offered my opinion when asked and I was looked on as the final arbiter when it came to settling differences of opinion, although most of the time I tended to agree with whatever the director said.
My second function was to act as unofficial babysitter for Miss Frances Askwith, rather than her mother having to find and possibly pay someone to do the job instead.
We were in the church hall and I was watching yet another full run through. Despite the compactness of the village, it was still not always possible to get all of the cast there at the same time; Brian Mulroney, being a farmer, often had to put his work before his leisure. On this occasion, however, he had made it more or less on time. I knew the performance’s strengths and weaknesses as well as the rest of the people there, and there was a kind of unspoken agreement not to express them out loud, but sometimes it was excruciatingly embarrassing to watch. Fran usually sat on my lap and she was apparently the only one who was disinterested and unconcerned about what the adults were doing up on the stage. They had reached the point near the end of the play where Johnny has to declare his undying love for Cynthia and then kiss her.