September 2004 [cont.]
Serena rushed from the crowded room.
There was a long, shuffling pause as everyone tried to resume small talk. Eventually she returned with one guest who was visibly shaken. Nobody asked what was the matter. Most of our guests knew not to. As most, indeed, had known not to wander about the Vicarage.
Most. But unfortunately not quite all...
We had learnt, with Bink, to expect anything. Many of our friends had, too
We ourselves weren’t at all surprised when Serena herded us into a room and told us not to move. We’d lived with this for some time now, and knew exactly what it meant.
It meant Bink needed the loo.
There was an upstairs loo, yes. It was a long time before I knew why Bink couldn’t use it. It was because she could touch the walls of any loo, so the room had to be a certain size. She fretted for weeks before a long haul flight to her uncle’s wedding in Pakistan: she couldn’t use any aeroplane loo. So because the upstairs loo was a normal size, she could only use the large ground floor loo in the Vicarage. It was a while, too, before I knew why we had to stay confined in a room.
Nevertheless we were well-used to the routine of not being allowed out for a while.
Indeed, sometimes Bink would send us all out of the way, use the loo, go back upstairs and then forget to tell us she’d finished... We could be stuck for quite a long time, believing we couldn’t answer the doorbell which some poor parishioner had been leaning on for several minutes; or attend to the telephone which was ringing its head off in the hall; or leave the room for a book we’d forgotten; or even use the loo ourselves.
We got used to calling out, if we’d been locked away for half an hour or more, to see whether she was still needing a clear run. Though we wouldn’t have done that at a party, obviously. On account of wanting to maintain some tiny shred of pretence at normality.
Serena is exceptionally competent. She would have no more difficulty taking charge of a milling chatter of humans than managing a flock of recalcitrant sheep or corralling naughty ponies. Thus, half the guests had been instructed to remain in the kitchen and dining room, at the back of the house. And the other half was in the drawing room, at the front. Serena posted Alex to guard one consignment, she herself oversaw the other, she made sure they all knew to stay where they were and then gave Bink the All Clear.
The only thing she hadn’t done was a head count.
The guests went on drinking, eating and enjoying one another’s company, and another challenge in Bink’s daily routine seemed successfully met...
Until the night was pierced, as if by a shriek owl at Hallowe’en whose toe has been trodden on by a warlock on a diet of doughnuts.
Moses (not his real name) was a quiet, conservative Christian from Nigeria. He had of come from a country where Christian behaviour differs far more radically from the cultural norm than perhaps it does in the UK. In many parts of – particularly AIDS-torn – Africa it was much more crucial to ensure that Christians lived differently. Western teenage Christians behave, in many ways, like their non-Christian friends. Young African Christians, far less so.
There were other adjustments he was coping with. He found himself in a house which was old, large, rambling and fascinating. He didn’t realise the rest of the guests had been shut away for a while. And he decided to take a little tour.
Jane Eyre got a shock when she discovered Mrs Rochester in the attic... though she eventually recovered. Moses, too, was traumatised when he wandered along the corridor of a Christian minister’s home, to encounter the minister’s eighteen year old blonde daughter, sporting – though we didn’t realise this, because she spent most of her teenage years in baggy men’s sweatshirts and oversized tracksuit trousers – an unfairly curvaceous body, with a tiny feminine waist whilst being extraordinarily buxom elsewhere.
The good news was that she was not completely naked. She had shoes and socks on. And one, just the one, very bright blue, top-of-the-range Marigold glove.
And she was screaming.
I suspect that was when I discovered why we were always shut in a room. None of Bink’s clothes could touch anything in a bathroom. So she always had to take them off before coming downstairs.
An unconventional thing to do, perhaps, in a Vicarage when all the congregation knew the front door was left unlocked and people were always letting themselves in and out.
But there we are.
Some time later I asked one of the guests whether he remembered the party. He not only remembered it, but gave me such a detailed description that I could see, and particularly hear, it all again as if it were five minutes ago. Moses was gently ushered back into the room by Serena, as pale as it was possible for him to be.
A long time later Bink also returned, hidden in a hoodie from which she didn’t emerge all evening.
And no one in that group of friends ever saw or heard from poor Moses again.