in grateful homage to the immortal Richmal Crompton,
by her devoted admirer Robin Gordon
Robin Gordon, 1995/2004
Copyright in "William" belongs to the estate of Richmal Crompton
William walked slowly up the drive of the Hall. It was, in general, he thought, pleasant to stay with his wife's parents for Christmas while Robert and Ethel stayed at the Brown's house with their respective spouses and broods, but it did have its drawbacks. It was pleasant to see his old friends again, Ginger and Henry and Douglas, but being all together again in the village did have its drawbacks - one drawback in particular. He could hear her voice as he paused on the doorstep: Violet Elizabeth.
As mistress of the Hall, or at least as prospective mistress, Violet Elizabeth had taken it upon herself to organize a Christmas party. It was to be for the children, of course, but also an occasion for the young adults to meet again and talk over the old times. She had prevailed upon her father to play Father Christmas.
"Well I'm not sure as 'ow I could, you know, Pet," he had demurred, but Violet Elizabeth swept aside his objections. She still had her iron will, unaltered since the age of nine, she still had her lisp, carefully preserved to add piquancy to her conversation, and she still had that trick of letting her bright blue eyes fill with tears. No man could resist it. It wasn't that men found it irresistibly attractive, as she fondly believed; what they gave way to was the impulse to put an end to the embarrassment. Her husband gave way to her whenever she used her secret weapon, and her poor old father stood no chance against her wiles.
"Orl right," he sighed.
"Oh Botty, you'll make a splendid Father Christmas," his wife assured him. She smiled fondly on Violet Elizabeth, seeing still the waif-like little figure with its halo of carefully crimped curls - though in reality Violet Elizabeth was already showing signs of the excessive stoutness which afflicted both her parents. She had never quite recovered her figure after the twins - and she had retained her childish weakness for cream cakes and chocolates.
She turned towards the door as William entered.
"Where have you been, William darling?" she asked sharply. "We've been waiting for ageth."
"Mr Moss didn't have any more tinsel," he replied. "I had to drive over to Hadleigh."
"Well, I thuppothe you did what you thought was betht," Violet Elizabeth snorted, "but we've been waiting ageth for you to put up the Chrithmath tree. Ginger can't do it all by himthelf you know. Daddy could have gone to Hadleigh."
"Sorry," said William.
He went through into the other room. Ginger, Douglas and Henry were staring gloomily at the tree. They exchanged sympathetic glances and William found a glass in his hand.
"Punch!" he ejaculated scornfully, curling his lip after the manner of Rudolph of the Red Hand.
"It's too big," murmured Douglas, indicating the recumbent tree. "It's top'll go right through the ceiling."
Ginger produced a hip flask and handed it round. They each took a good swig.
William looked at the tree.
"Measure it," he said.
"Us," said William. "Henry, you lie down with your feet at the bottom of the tree. Douglas you lie with you feet on Henry's head ..."
"Thank you very much," said the aggrieved Henry. "I like that. Just put your feet on Henry's head. He won't mind. Good old Henry never minds."
"Not on your head, you ass," said William, "just touching your head. It won't do your head any harm."
"More likely get hair-oil all over my shoes," said Douglas. "Then Violet Elizabeth will get in a fury when I leave oily footprints on the carpet."
"You can take your shoes off, can't you?" said William.
"Oh, yes," grumbled Douglas, "an' walk around all day in my stockinged feet and get pneumonia I shouldn't wonder, just to save Violet Elizabeth's carpets from Henry's hair-oil."
"I mean," said William with the patient air of a saintly martyr, "you can take your shoes off before you put your feet against Henry's head. Then you can put them on again after we've done the measuring. Then you won't have to get pneumonia."
"Only hair-oil all over my socks," muttered Douglas.
"I'm not exactly wild about having his smelly feet on my perfectly groomed locks," said Henry.
"Have you men put up the tree yet?" came Violet Elizabeth's impatient voice.
"Not quite," called William. "Just give us a moment."
"Really they're quite hopeleth," said Violet Elizabeth.
It was decided that Douglas's stockinged feet should be wrapped in an antimacassar before being placed against Henry's head. Ginger's lower extremities were similarly bandaged before his feet were placed against Douglas's head. William walked to the top of the recumbent tree and surveyed it critically.
"One Henry, one Douglas and half a Ginger," he announced. "That makes it about fifteen feet. Now we've gotta measure the height of the ceiling."
Ginger's hip flask circulated once more. Under the influence of its warming contents and William's inspired leadership the general air of gloom was lifting.
"How do we measure the room?" Ginger asked.
"Pyramid," said William. "Human pyramid. Bags I top."
Henry and Douglas took up their stance against the wall. William made a stirrup and heaved Ginger upwards. He took his stance on their shoulders. William stood back and surveyed them.
"That's no good," he said. "Ginger should be on Henry an' Douglas's heads."
"I'd slide off," Ginger protested. "All that grease. It's like the Cresta Run. I'd hurtle down it and halfway across the room and demolish the sideboard. Why don't you just deduct their heads."
"Let's measure the tree again," William commanded.
This time William ordered Douglas to put his wrapped feet against Henry's shoulders, Douglas complained that Henry's hair-oil would be smeared all over his new trousers, Ginger examined the legs of his own trousers and claimed to have found oil-stains, and Henry objected violently that his hair was held by non-staining gel and that if they were so worried about their old trousers why didn't they take them off. William sighed. Had they been eleven, twelve, thirteen or even fourteen, and in their own natural element, they could have brought matters to a satisfactory conclusion through mortal combat until they all rolled happily into the nearest ditch.
Violet Elizabeth's voice called them to order. "How ith the tree looking?"
"Quite nice," William called.
"Shall I come and thee?"
"No," said William hastily. "We want it to be a surprise for you."
"Aren't you thweet?" Violet Elizabeth trilled.
The measuring of the tree was somehow accomplished. All the antimacassars were taken from the couch and chairs. Henry's head was bound up. Douglas's feet and legs were swathed, and so were Ginger's. William surveyed the result.
"One Henry-without-a-head, one Douglas-without-a-head, and one Ginger-to-the-arm-pit," he said judiciously.
Ginger's flask circulated once more, then it was time to measure the height of the ceiling.
"If you say one more word about my hair oil ..." threatened Henry.
All William's powers of organization were needed, but eventually all their objections were overcome. The pyramid was attempted with Henry and Douglas as the base, and Ginger the second stage, but it collapsed when William essayed an ascent.
William blamed Ginger for wobbling, and Ginger said it was Henry's fault for being taller than Douglas. The flask circulated. It was emptied. The sideboard yielded a bottle whose contents were sufficiently similar to the original to be acceptable. The bottle circulated. Then Ginger and Douglas formed the base of the pyramid, Henry stood on their shoulders, and William essayed the perilous ascent once more.
There was space he found for one Douglas-without-a-head, one Henry-without-a-head and almost half a William. While he crouched on Henry's shoulders with his back hard against the ceiling and they debated whether a Douglas, a Henry and almost half a William was greater or smaller than a Henry a Douglas and three-quarters of a Ginger, disaster struck.
Violet Elizabeth had called again, but her call had gone unheard and unanswered.
"Men!" she snapped. "They're hopeleth. What they're doing in there I do not know."
Then she flung open the door and stormed in, followed by Mr and Mrs Bott. The human pyramid collapsed. Recriminations were, as its members later recognised, of no relevance. Every single member of that unstable edifice had jumped in alarm at the entrance of Violet Elizabeth. The whole structure came tumbling to the ground depositing its component parts inelegantly upon the carpet, their long legs waving from the tangle of heaving bodies.
It might not have been so bad if they had not been long, bare legs. As William attempted to explain, taking off their trousers to measure the height of the room was entirely logical given his followers' concern about the effects of hair-oil on their attire. Gymnasts don't wear long trousers when they build human pyramids, and anyway it proved far too difficult to keep the antimacassars in place when climbing up the unsteady edifice.
Mrs Bott took one long look, then she screamed and turned her head away.
"Take me away, Botty," she cried, clinging to her fat little husband. "Take me away from this orggy." There were some words of whose pronunciation Mrs Bott had never been quite sure.
"There, there, old love," said Mr Bott, soothingly and helplessly.
"Oh, oh lor!" cried Mrs Bott. "The sight of them young men half naked will stay with me forever." - And to make quite sure that it did she had another long, shocked look, before allowing Mr Bott to lead her to her bedroom.
Violet Elizabeth surveyed the ruins of the human pyramid, the screwed-up antimacassars lying on the floor, and the open bottle on the sideboard. The last, she decided, was the cause of the débacle. She scurried over to pick it up.
"You've had more than enough of thith," she snapped. "Now put on your trouthers and put up the tree! You haven't even thtarted."
"We had to measure ..." began William, but Violet Elizabeth flounced out and slammed the door.
William sighed again. There were definite drawbacks to Christmas in his home village, and the way Violet Elizabeth insisted on taking charge of everything was by far the biggest. It wasn't just her own husband she ordered about. She regarded all the Outlaws as her slaves. They were all of them even more in thrall to her than they had been as boys. William couldn't stand it, but he was helpless. Then, although she was a hindrance, an encumbrance and a nuisance, she had at least seemed to admire William and the Outlaws, and her determination to enter their world was the devotion of an inferior, a girl whom they could secretly despise even when she was at her most annoying. Now she made no secret of her scorn for her husband and his friends.
William then had never thought that girls would ever form an important element in his life, but, like his brother Robert before him, on reaching young manhood, he had found himself unstinting in his admiration for the fairer sex. Like Robert he gave his heart freely and without reservation to every pair of sparkling eyes that chanced to smile in his direction. He pledged his troth with that total sincerity of purpose that has marked the ardent lover through the ages. As he picked up the pieces of his shattered heart he shrugged off each rejection as a lucky escape from a mere infatuation, and rushed once more where angels have neither need nor desire to tread, to offer his heart to the new object of his affection.
Robert and Ethel, happily married and cooing over the first fruits of their respective unions, looked with amusement on their younger sibling's quest.
"Really, Mother," said Ethel, "William is making himself ridiculous with these constant infatuations of his. The sweetest girl I ever saw ... this time it's the real thing ... Oh, I shall never get over it - until the next time."
"Yes, dear," said Mrs Brown placidly as she concentrated on a tricky bit of her knitting pattern - it was a little jersey for Ethel's baby - "It's only a phase. It's all part of growing up. You all went through it you know."
"I didn't " said Robert grandly. "I was much too busy with my studies to think of girls. Why, I don't believe I ever looked at a girl before I met Miriam."
"No dear, I don't suppose you did," said Mrs Brown. Mr Brown, hidden behind The Times merely snorted.
"I beg your pardon," said Robert. "Did you speak, Father?"
"No. No, no, no. I merely had to clear my throat," replied Mr Brown. "When you get to my age, Robert, you will understand."
Despite the disapproval of Robert and Ethel, William's undignified helter-skelter of a love life continued unabated for several years. One moment he was on the heights of infatuation, the next plunged into the slough of abandonment and despair. Blue eyes and brown eyes came and went, hazel eyes, grey eyes and green eyes. Their smiles elevated him to the clouds, their frowns pitched him, like Lucifer in his Fall, from the highest heavens to the infernal depths. Blonde curls and brown curls haunted his dreams, fair hair and dark, curly or straight, the girls came and went.
But throughout all these comings and goings two curly heads remained constant, one fair, one dark; and two pairs of eyes, one blue pair, ever ready to brim with tears, and one brown and full of laughter, always smiled on him. Two rivals from early childhood made it clear to everyone, except William himself, that if he should ever make an offer, it would be instantly accepted, and accepted forever. These two were Joan and Violet Elizabeth.
As for William, he had never thought of either of them as girlfriends. They were just Joan, his childhood companion when the Outlaws were away, and Violet Elizabeth, the pest. But life is always unpredictable, and fate moves in mysterious ways.
He jerked his mind back to the present problem. Perhaps Violet Elizabeth had not been entirely wrong about the bottle. His head did feel slightly peculiar, and in the old days an Outlaw pyramid would not have collapsed so easily, even with Jumble jumping up to reach his master at its peak.
"Let's get the tree sorted out," he said. "Its Henry plus Douglas without their heads and most of Ginger without his, while the room is Ginger-'n-Douglas plus Henry an' a bit of me but not much, all without or heads ..."
"Or our trousers," said Douglas gloomily.
"Shut up and let me calculate," said William. "I think that means it's about half a Ginger too long."
"Which half," muttered Douglas.
"It doesn't matter which half," said William. "Halves are equal, aren't they. Leastways it's news to me if they aren't. Lie down beside the tree, Ginger."
Ginger lay down with his head at the top of the tree. William stood by Ginger's waist. He leaned over and grasped the tree.
"We need to cut it about here," he said. "Anyone got a saw?"
They looked helplessly about the room. Not surprisingly no saw was to be seen.
"Let's break it," said William. He was tired of the whole thing, he was tired of the tree, of the party, of Violet Elizabeth, even of the outlaws. "Let's just break it, and stick it up and finish."
The others agreed. The tree was mauled and wrestled until it's top bent over. It refused to break.
"That'll do," said William.
They fastened the stand to the lower end of the trunk and heaved the tree into an upright position. Its top grazed the ceiling and brought down a few flakes of plaster, but it fitted and it stood, with a magnificently hangdog air, its lower branches spreading generously, and its bent and broken top stooped to one side.
They tried to shift it towards the position in front of the window that Violet Elizabeth had decreed for it, but its top was wedged hard against the ceiling and it would not move.
"Let's leave the rotten thing," muttered Henry.
"There'll be trouble," said Douglas with the certainty of an Old Testament prophet.
William took up an armful of tinsel and threw it at the tree. Some fell to the floor, but quite a lot caught on the branches. He took another armful and moved to the other side. Again he cast his pearls upon the tree, and again some stuck.
"It looks awful," said Ginger, almost in tears.
"It'll do," said William savagely. "She said put up the tree an' the tree's up. We've done all she said."
"There'll be trouble," Douglas prophesied again.
"There's always trouble," said Ginger.
William led the way into the main hall. Joan had just arrived with little John holding her hand. He broke away from her and scampered over to the Outlaws. He showed Henry his new toy and let William pick him up.
Joan went over to Violet Elizabeth. "How are things going?" she asked. "I hope you don't mind if I take my husband away, but we do have such a lot to get through."
Violet Elizabeth glared at her. She disliked Joan. They had been rivals far too long for her ever to forget that dislike, but as mistress, or prospective mistress, of the Hall she knew she must retain her dignity. After all, this woman was the wife of her husband's oldest and closest friend. Whatever her own feelings for Joan, she knew that William and Ginger could not easily be parted. Would cold hauteur be correct for the occasion, she wondered, or perhaps she could afford the gracious airs of the grande dame? She totted up the balance sheet: William, the Hall, the relative social cachet of the names Flowerdew and Brown. She decided to be coldly gracious.
"Everything'th going thplendidly, thank you," she said. "The men have put up the Chrithmath tree. I think we can manage now, thank you."
"I'm so glad," said Joan sweetly. "Little Johnny is so looking forward to the party. I understand Mr Bott is going to be Father Christmas. Well, I mustn't keep you talking. Goodbye."
"We must be going too," said Henry quickly. "Our wives are expecting us, aren't they Douglas?"
Douglas nodded gloomily. It was too much to be expected that Violet Elizabeth would let them all go.
He was wrong. Violet Elizabeth was enjoying her grande dame pose. "Tho kind of you all to help with the Chrithmath tree," she said effusively. "I hope you'll all come to the party."
Goodbyes all round. William and Ginger nodded to each other. Henry and Douglas were already at the door. The ladies were more formal.
"Goodbye Mrs Flowerdew."
"Goodbye Mithis Brown."
William walked down the drive with Joan, carrying little John on his back.
"Poor old Ginger" he thought. "No wonder he drinks. There'll be trouble all right. I suppose we ought to have found a saw and cut the tree at the bottom. Oh well, at least we put it up, and that's what she told us to do."
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