Primrose Hill Revisited – the complete book online - chapter two

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chapter two

Glorious Dorset. Slumbering hills awake. A breeze flits through the valley, rousing green limbs to stretch in the sunshine. Abandoned by the night, enchanted rivers of mist curl and vanish into the warming air. In this sweet, sedated land, parcelled long centuries since by low dry-stone walls and deep-rooted hedgerows, disharmony is inconceivable. Sheep graze and cattle munch without troubling to look up at the sky.

Yet, revolution is in the air. It crackles through the ether from offshore pirate outposts. A sea-fret damp with discontent rises out in the Channel, pushing north to obscure the sun. Still, no stout yeomen will arise to mount the watch in our south coast towers and sea-girted forts; no sans-culottes will disembark to scale the crumbling cliffs of Durdle Door and tramp across these green, cow-plopped pastures. Barricades can be hurled up against invasion by an army, but no wall can withstand an idea. The plague of revolution is already virulent within the Englishman’s castle. Sedition stirs in an upstairs bedroom under the unflinching gaze of Che Guevara where a girl lies, legs spread, the brass four-poster vibrating to Radio Luxembourg Fabulous 208, reading one of those books you hold with one hand, the book you shouldn’t leave laying about lest your servants stumble upon it.

Rebellion festers, too, in that dilapidated red-brick semi-detached with the weed-grown garden where a bedsheet hangs from the guttering bearing a red, painted message: ‘Property is Obscenity’. The scent of incense and hash escapes through the gaps in the boarded-up windows to tickle the noses of passers-by and drifts aloft on the tuneless clamour of the Rolling Stones, an incorporeal haze of intellectual pollution spreading on the wings of a perfect English morning.

A leafy lane leads to the gravelled drive of a substantial Georgian house. From the height of the clouds now building over the downs, the forecourt gleams with the multi-coloured metallic shimmer of an expensive Matchbox set — sedate Rovers and snappy Austin Healeys, MGs and Triumphs, crouching Jaguars, an aloof Aston Martin, and resting apart from the others, by the compost heap, a well-loved, scratched and dented Morris Minor. It knows its place.

A large white marquee occupies the walled side garden. Catering staff bustle to and fro. The opposite wing of the gracious, ivy-clad house shelters a cosy private church of sun-warmed stone. In the ground floor of its miniature tower a scowling rural misanthrope tugs a rope, and the church bell a few metres above his head rings out joyously on the bright morning.

Within the sanctuary of the tiny nave the flock of wedding guests is arrayed in the latest fancies of fashion. The men wear their hair long, the women short. The men wear colourful frilled shirts, generously cut, the women stark geometric designs, abbreviated. What’s this? The bride already here, and standing in a rank within the groom’s party? No, it’s a parody of a bride, dressed all in white, a tiny skirt cut half-way up her thighs, a transparent blouse covered by a long, floating tunic, a band of white carnations fastened like a tiara in her dark hair. Her lashes are thick with mascara and her eyes are blackened hollows — Dracula’s virgin bride. This is Belinda. She is twenty-one and might be handsome if she didn’t try so hard to look so scary.

Across from her, on the bride’s side, stands, or rather gangles, Russell, a man in his mid-40s with a distant air. There are tears in his eyes as he removes his spectacles. The earpiece is bound with Sellotape. He has to rub his eyes with the hand holding the spectacles because Hope clutches his other hand with the grip of a lost soul slipping beneath the waves. She is a sunny twelve-year-old, but her jaw is slack and her mouth hangs open. She wears a frilly party dress that is much too young for her. From beneath her other elbow peeps the grinning clown face of a large punch-bag toy.

Also on the bride’s side of the aisle, down in front, is Daphne Boot, a sturdy woman on the wrong side of forty with a mocking light in her eyes. These are now fixed on the groom standing by the altar rail in formal wedding dress. This is Stephen, a smooth-featured, urbane man in his fifties. He still has a luxuriant head of hair, greying fetchingly at the temples.

The church bell has laboured too long. It falters and fails. In the bell tower the bell-ringer rubs the swollen knuckles of his gnarled hands. Within the nave a low murmur arises. The crowd fidgets. With a benign smile, the vicar bows his tonsure to the worshippers, a signal beseeching them to accept the delay as an opportunity for humble mortification. Belinda smirks. Russell sheds another tear. His spectacles now have only one earpiece. Hope remains open-mouthed. Daphne arches an eyebrow. The groom, Stephen, displays only the merest touch of anxiety, revolving an inch or two the top hat he holds by the brim in his hands.

Within the bell tower, the bell-ringer takes a lusty swig from a thermos, wipes his mouth with a grimy handkerchief, and bends his weight once more to the rope. The bell tumbles in its tower, pealing its merry message. But delay has darkened the sky. Heavy clouds threaten and a wind frisks about.

An open-top robin’s-egg-blue Rolls-Royce driven by a uniformed chauffeur pulls into the forecourt. In the rear seat is Claudia, thirty-something and then some, and ravishing in her stunning white gown. But her face reflects no radiance. Clutching her bouquet, she stares stony-faced, not seeing anything around her. Beside her, in full formal dress, sits Roy, a golden-haired cherub in his mid-twenties. The chauffeur opens the door for them. A doddering old crone leaning on a cane at the church door hobbles excitedly inside. She shakes her cane aloft. The organist above crashes out the wedding march. The crowd heaves a collective sigh and relaxes, smiling and expectant.

For a few long minutes, nothing happens. Some of the crowd grow restive again. Heads revolve towards the church entrance. The old crone reappears in the doorway. She aims her cane at Stephen. He moves calmly up the aisle, sending reassuring twinkles and smiles to the guests, who smile back with sympathy and understanding. The formidable matron, Daphne, looks troubled, while a mischievous light dawns in the sooted eyes of the vampire bride, Belinda. The organ music stops.

Outside, the wind gusts, twisting the heads of the white roses massed around the forecourt. Claudia remains seated in the open car, in an apparent catatonic state. Roy stands by the open car door, his arms extended in theatric supplication. The chauffeur occupies himself polishing imaginary flecks off the bonnet of the car.

Stephen appears in the doorway of the church. Roy casts an apprehensive glance in his direction and literally tugs the bride out of the car. She stands awkwardly, swaying slightly, clutching her bouquet — another lost soul, like Hope, about to slip beneath the waves. Stephen crunches across the gravel to greet her, smiling as if to a child. Roy backs away. As Stephen approaches, life flickers in Claudia’s eyes. His top hat is an encumbrance now, so Stephen perches it on his head.

Wedding guests appear on the church steps, jostling politely for a vantage point. Belinda, Daphne, Russell and Hope are among them. A sleazy photographer stands a little apart, unfolding his ancient Speed Graphic. The church bell stops ringing, and as if on cue, Stephen extends both arms towards his vagrant bride. Claudia opens a hand, letting something slip from her grasp. A large envelope flutters to the gravel. Then, with a mighty roundhouse swing, she smashes Stephen full in the face with her bouquet. A flashbulb flares. Stephen is obliterated by a shower of blossom, his head spins and his top hat tumbles off. Along with his toupee.

Hope bursts out laughing and claps her hands with glee. The photographer scurries off hastily with his camera. The wedding guests remain where they stand; curiosity is a powerful adhesive. Within the church tower the horny-handed bellringer refills his thermos from a small whisky bottle, spits on his hands and relaunches himself at the rope. The church bell stutters into peal again.

Raindrops spatter. In the swirling wind Claudia flings herself towards the Morris Minor. Her wedding hat flies off. The matron Daphne sprints after her, followed awkwardly by Russell, towing Hope who hugs her unwieldy toy clown under one arm and holds down her fancy hat with her other hand. She drops her clown, wails, and Russell has to wheel them about to retrieve it.

Stephen stands dazed and alone in the forecourt. Belinda runs up and throws her arms around him. She alone is smiling.

A crack of thunder. The heavens open and the guests, unglued, dash for their cars. The wind captures Claudia’s bridal bonnet, tossing it aloft. The large envelope, too, ascends from the forecourt into the raging skies and disappears into the tempest. Viewed through the streaked downpour from the height of the tormented clouds, a convoy of toy cars streams out of the drive to file down the country lane. The dented Morris Minor leads the way.

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