There was a burst of applause within the Kirk and then, with a skirl of bagpipes, the Pilgrims filed out led by a lone piper, young Jock Hazeldean, who slowly paced along the path towards the gate, then paused and glanced – as though for instruction – at Aggie who, showing her exemplum as a Mistress of Ceremonies, to say nothing of her broad smile, quietly dragooned them into threes and, almost as if this power of hers was something of a newelty, nodded her approval, raised a whistle to her lips and blew a mighty blast, and they were off, marching briskly up to the St Boswells-Selkirk road, where the column wheeled left and set course for old Saint Boisil's Toun, and Teri noticed that an elderly, but spry, woman wearing a red riding-cloak and hood, had joined in near the end of the procession, walking with the two Moslem women, and closely followed by Cristo, Daphne and Maude, bringing up the rear and deep in some private conversation.
"You know, Teri," said Aggie, giving me one of her illicit cigarettes, "Slavi, Xmas, Yule-Tide, Hogmanay, Auld Lang Syne, the old year giving way to the new, as the Old World was changed by the birth of a baby, has more significance in an agrarian, peasant community than would ever be the case in a city, or an industrial region – we are exposed to the elements every day and in greater need of some kind of ombrifuge: you have an umbrella sticking out of your back-pack, I've got a cagoule in mine, and Madame Oyzell Zegan has her red riding hood, which to my mind seems to indicate that she may have decided to return to the world, it's hardly a cloak of invisibility, is it?"
"How do you spell her surname?" I asked and Aggie laughed: "not the way you pronounce it, Teri, i's O Y Z E L L but that's her given name, her family name was Glickstein, married is Zegan," and I burst out: "she's married?" but Aggie corrected me: "was, you must remember old Mod Zegan, had a bespoke tailors beside the Corn Exchange, that was her husband, but he died, oh 25 years ago, come now, you're not so young you won't remember Mod!" and I conceded that yes, "I do remember the old Jewish tailor who's nimble stitches dressed generations of Melrosians, but I never noticed his wife, was she very morigerous?" at which Aggie snorted: "no, Teri, absolutely not! that lollapalooza was the coryphée o the Young Moderns School of Archaeologists, who wanted to awaken people to the real lives of their forebears, they were the Social Archaeologists whose discoveries and interpretations brought the past to life – she didn't hang around Old Mod's back shop and pass him his chalk and pins, they were devoted to each other, but each had their own work and he was delighted to tell customers of her latest finds and all the permutations and implications of strata and cross-stratum distinctions," and I had to ask: "did they have any children?" and Aggie nodded: "two girls, fine strong lasses too, like their mother," then she was silent, so I said: "and?" and she shook herself and I felt the goosebumps rise on my skin: "they were with her at a site in Wester Ross, when a plague pit was opened, and they were both infected and died, it was a tragic accident, but Oyzell blamed herself, said the girls should never have been there, it was all her fault – she went into a flat spin and disappeared, I don't think even Mod knew where she was for weeks and months, and when she came back she was changed, she'd lost her drive, her confidence and her passion; I think that was when she started to erase herself and when Mod died, she seemed to become a shadow, and she moved house a lot, oh, she still spoke if you met her in the street, or sat beside her at a concert, but she never gave anything away, it was as if she was just another anonymous, unknown resident of an old settlement, whose objects still exist after several thousand years or more, but whose names and identities have been lost – a bit like the negatives of Pompeii, yes?" and I understood.
I looked round quickly, just in time to see the figure of a woman wearing a red cloak with a hood pulled down over her head, walking briskly round the corner of the Kirk: "who was that?" I called to Aggie, who was smoking a cigarette by the land-rover: "that? oh, it was Madame Oiselle," and I gasped: "do you know her?" and she laughed: "well, as much as anyone can," she replied: "she's a very private person, doesn't let anyone get close to her," and I was gaping: "where does she live?" I asked stupidly, but Aggie shook her head: "no-one's quite sure." she confessed, "some say she's in Darnick, or Gattonside, or even Newstead, but I did hear she has rooms in one of those big houses off High Cross Avenue, the other end from you and your aunts, although it might be up Dingleton Hill," she admitted lamely; so I explained: "she's someone I've never knowingly met, though I keep hearing that she was at the same concert, or meeting of the Historical Society, Literary Society or Burns Supper or Ceilidh as me – what's her story?" and this time Aggie hesitated: "well, and this is only shorthand," she predicated, "her family were German Jews and they got her out in '39 on one of the Kinder Transports, she was passed along after arriving in England – I think she had a brother and sister, but don't know where they went – and through a distant cousin, she landed with the Melrose Rabbi at the time, you won't remember Rabbi Rawicz? a bit before your time, I suppose," and she shook her head understandingly, as I asked: "so she must be eighty or so?" and Aggie nodded: "she was just a baby when she arrived, so yes, eighty-two maybe, now I don't know how kosher the story is," daring me to call it mendacious, as if I would, "but she's certainly one lollapalooza – specialises in Bronze Age fewtrils, has something of an eye for them, nothing so meretricious as those people with metal detectors you see around Trimontium or on the Eildons, she studied Archaeology and History at St Andrews, was involved in digs on the Northern Isles and the Hebrides, your aunts are bound to know her, haven't you asked them?" and I admitted that I hadn't, because it seemed such a foolish interest I didn't want to confess it: "is she a Pilgrim?" I asked, but Aggie shook her head: "not officially, she won't be with the group, but she'll only be about a mile away, she really is someone who needs to keep her own space and distance," and I said: "like Greta Garbo?" and Aggie nodded, quite serious, which made me mentally kick myself for being so crass.
I admit that it's one of my foibles,
To build castles in the air, not of moibles,
But a lollapalooza,
Perjinking to Sousa,
Would see me as old Madame Oiselle!
The beard and whiskers, I decided at once, were a foofaraw, an attempt at cosmeticization intended to disguise the true identity of the Franklin and without giving any further thought, I pushed my way towards him, cried "Sir Felix, Sir Felix, is it really you?" and flung my arms around him, took firm hold of his hairy appendages and yanked with all my might, suddenly wondering if – if he had used some form of superglue – this might tear skin from his face, but that was not enough to prevent me from using maximum force: he screamed, like a banshee or a cat accidentally sat upon in a normally empty armchair! the resultant tumult was, well, tumultuous; I was instantly grappled to the floor by several large lady members of Bowden Women's Rugby Club and found myself no longer an integral member of the Pilgrims' heterotopia, being roundly abused physically and verbally for my unwarranted assault on the new – and quite naturally endowed – Minister, the Reverend Indigo Jollifant, which I only fully appreciated once I had been carried, struggling and bawling, outside by the scrum and deposited on the outside of the Kirkyaird wall: "that'll teach ye tae attack Maister Jollifant, ye whippersnapper," grunted one of them, built, in common with her male counterparts, like a brick shithoose, adding: "an dinna fer ane second think yer gettin aff lightly – we ken wha ye ur, an whaur ye bide, yer caird's merked!" and shoulder to shoulder they waddled back into the Kirk, leaving me with a horrified Aggie.
Now, you might dismiss it as ballyhoo, but I was there, at that Pilgrim's Brunch in Bowden Kirk and I saw it all: Peter Boo – as was – now the Serjeant at Law, glancing around the faces as if he was trying to spot someone he didn't know and fixing on the stout Wife of Bath, shaking his head, his eyes moving on and then returning, as if he thought she might have been someone he'd glimpsed through a window but really couldn't be sure, because he hadn't been paying enough attention and then his mind was overwhelmed by a bird being blown out of the sky by a bazooka! oh, the strange things that cross people's minds at the calends – because I noticed that the Wife of Bath – my Uncle Norman in drag – was also scanning the assembly, but then, he should already know everyone here, I thought, and then realised that I had no idea who was Oswald the Reeve or Hubert the Friar, let alone the Squire, the Manciple, the Merchant or the Canon Yeoman; well, the Romans thought that all things redux, that everything doubles back, that History repeats itself and, anyway, the Sibyl has already foretold what's going to happen, so no surprises there, then, but I'm not prepared to dismiss it as ballyhoo, not yet onyhoo; then, when I saw that Norman's eyes had fixed on a tall man, well-built and stocky, and wearing the outfit of the Franklin, I began to pay him closer attention: he had that aristocratic bearing that is bred over generations and difficult to fake, and with a flowing white beard and hair beneath a kind of Glengarry, he had the foppish, vanity of a coxcomb, which should have made him easily identifiable, but he didn't look like any of the local gentry at all, and I began to wonder . . . . .
And grand as it was, old Uncle Tom Cobley – in the guise of a Jack Tar – nevertheless complained that it lacked that certain je ne sais quoi which in the fullness of time would have made it a ripsnorter of a shindig, by which, of course, he meant a jar or two or three of amber bummock to get the juices flowing and who knows what else?
The Kirk was finely decorated for the Season, and the brunch was a humdinger, with turkey burgers, chipped parsnips, kilted sausages and lots of plum-duff and custard for dessert and Uncle Tom Cobley commented on the many wesley-bobs hanging from the Tree, while as if to establish that he was endowed with hyperthymesia, he began telling one of the ladies who were serving about his very first Christmas: "course, oi wis but a bobbin, born at Midsummer 'n still 'adn't learned all proper names o wot oi saw 'n 'eard loik, but oi do member moi foist soight 'n touch o the woite stuff, floatin down like puffs o cotton woo', oh-ho. . . . ." and the poor woman quite bewildered, especially as he was playing his sea-dog part as well, to the extent that she over-poured the penultimate cup from her teapot, flooding it's saucer and forcing her to scurry back to the kitchen for some extra water to ensure that the last Pilgrim received his or her cuppa.
By the time they reached Bowden, the stragglers had caught up and they were more like gallivanters or gangaboots than marchers, with quite a few of the villagers standing outside their homes to applaud or cheer and as they neared Mother Kelly's, Pete wrapped a kerchief across his lower face and tried to look nonchalant, although his eyes were constantly scanning the skies for signs of birds or bazookas; it was just a short stroll down the lane which took therm to the old brig and then the Kirk was in sight, with Aggie sitting in the land-rover, waiting for them: "succour is inside," she said, pointing to a sign which stated Pilgrim's Brunch @ Bowden Kirk and added that the at sign was none of her doing, "makes it seem like an online-vendor, but we're in the generous hands of the Church Committee, so I wasn't going to object," and Pete chipped in: "so, as with amaxophobia, you don't suffer from allodoxaphobia," and Aggie stoutly replied: "certainly not, young Pete, and I trust you never have occasion to be on the receiving end of my tongue," then laughed and took his arm: "let's get inside while it's all still hot," and the rest of the Pilgrims surged in behind them.
"Well," thought Pete laddie to himself as he swung out his legs alongside Algie at the head of the procession, "at least I'm impervious to these strange neuroses, amaxophobia, nomophobia, coulrophobia, ombrophobia – unlucky if you're lumbered wi that ane in Scotland where any day's weather forecast has to include a forthcoming shower or three," and then he said to Algie: "lead on, MacDuff," and Algie grinned back at him: "you know of course that Shakespeare wrote 'lay on, MacDuff,' and that used to be the Clan motto, but about 100 years ago the then Chief, Buff MacDuff, changed it to 'lead on,' because he was fed up with people asking him if 'lay on' was a reference to the time several guards lay on the moss and fell asleep and woke to find all the cattle, sheep and stores gone, or alternatively did it refer to an ancestor's gambling addiction which caused him to lay bets on every horse in a race and lose not only the family silver, but the copper, brass, tin and pottery as well!"
The Pilgrims were a noisy bunch, milling about in their costumes and loading their overnight bags onto an old land rover which Aggie was to drive to their first stop – not suffering from Algie's amaxophobia and having a reputation for the golden touch when it came to internal combustion engines; Algie himself was full of punctilio, checking everything off on one of his lists and like a halcyon in his promises of fine weather ahead: Roxy Davidova was dressed as Madame Eglantine the Prioress, much to Maude's chagrin, with two, rather tall Muslim women in full Burkha, with only their brooding eyes showing, as a pair of Nuns and Leslie Howard cutting a fine figure as the Knight, while little, moon-faced Peter Lorre was dressed as the Pardoner; Daphne and Maude being the Miller and the Cook, while the gnome-like Uncle Tom Cobley looked every inch the weather-beaten Shipman; once everyone was confirmed as ready for the off, Algie – in the role of Geoffrey Chaucer himself – declared that it was time to start, blew an old railway whistle he always carried, and marched confidently up the hill, at a steady but comfortable pace, and the rest began to follow him; Uncle Norman, or Ulla Ulp, or however he saw himself, was well padded and decked out as the Wife of Bath and in company with Hyman Kaplan, in the guise of the Clerk of Oxford, walked somewhere in the middle of the throng, just ahead of Wild Bill playing the part of the Physician, with Grigori Rasputin alongside him having chosen to be the Parson: "type casting," as Bill commented, noticing that his companion was carrying an old Orthodox Bible in one hand and a Russian crucifix in the other
Though it probably takes the gilt off the gingerbread, at least it removes the guilt of keeping a secret from my shoulders, I must reveal that Ulla Ulp – played to Norwegian perfection – was in fact Norman Noggs, my uncle, put up to it by his old chum, Hyman Kaplan and, while Daphne had rejected their request for clothes with which to effect the disguise, Norman had in fact found ample – in every sense – among the bags in the loft which contained items his sister, my auntie May was intending to donate to the Chest, Heart and Stroke Boutique at the bottom of the High Street; and because the infiltration from Bowden was now known to Norman to be twiforked – both MacFarlane and Doubleday involved – they decided that their counter should be the classic whipsaw, with Norman as Alison, the Wife of Bath and Hyman either the Clerk of Oxford or the Serjeant at Law: "maybe the Clerk will be the nearest I ever get to Oxford, and I've been on the wrong end of the Law enough in my life, it's time to turn the tables," but all of that was for the morning, and now that his several days of spying on MacFarlane and Doubleday were concluded till then, Norman schlumped on his bed in Burt's and knocked back a glass of Highland Park, which was just when his idiosyncratic shave and a haircut, two bits tapped on the door told Norman that Hyman had arrived, for they wanted to assist each other in the morning and go across early to Talbot House, and explain everything to Algie before the mass of Pilgrims was due to be there.
"I will be the Wife of Bath," said with a chuckle; it was Ulla Ulp conferring on the telephone with a confederate and sounding rather gaminesque, clearly enjoying the game, almost as a new addition to the rest of the Kris Kringle festivities which, despite the absence of any hint of a White Christmas, seemed to have taken the evergreen Melrose by the shoulders, compelling them to rise and fall in a manner distinctly reminiscent of Ted Heath as portrayed on BBC television for many years by Mike Yarwood; there was a spit take, easily recognised despite not being seen, then a splutter as the person at the other end blew his nose, at which point Ulla said: "g'night then, Hymie, I'll call you in the morning," and cut the call, before stepping into the steaming bath with a great sense of relief.
But the two sneaky spies had been seen – from Scott's Place, where Ulla Ulp, redoubtable, party-spirited, and equally devious, was snapping them with the Night Vision App on her phone as they were silhouetted against the luminaria-glow of the dim Toc H Aladdin's lamp in the window of Talbot House – for who and what they were, no oryzivorous cyberpunks, but black-hearted villains intent on dirty misdeeds, and Ulla wa a good enough lip-reader, even under such adverse conditions, to know exactly what their nefarious scheme was, which enabled her to quickly come up with a counter-scheme of her own, which she would put into operation in the morning: "and a very Merry Christmas to you too, Sir Parlane MacFarlane," she thought to herself as she emerged at the top of East Port and turned down towards Market Square, passing the other end of the Lane and making for Burt's Hotel where, as part of her cover-story, she had been staying since her return from the fruitless visit to Mother Kelly's in Bowden, and now everything was falling into place, "how very convenient! it almost makes me believe that there is a Santa Claus," and she laughed an unexpectedly bass laugh which caused a passing moggie to squeal and scurry for the deep, dark, shadows of Nutwood Lane!
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