The Author Peter Maughan 

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Sir Humphrey 
of 
Batch Hall - Plus the Famous Cricket Match


















'They  stood together in the jewelled light from the east window, under a hammerbeam roof with owls and otters carved into its timbers ...



" ... Sir Humphrey, riding out onto the field to slay the Blurford dragon. Armed not with a lance, but with a single blade. A bat,” he said softly.


"...purblind and snuffling, rubbery nose questing the air." 


Sir Humphrey of Batch Hall

Phineas Cook’s suggestion to help the estate’s ailing finances is ‘a romantic evening on a punt for two’,  as it is advertised in a local newspaper. In this scene he has his first two customers - after leaving the village pub at midnight, several hours after the time he was supposed to take them out.


Chapter Twenty

Phineas led the way down to what he called the punting station, the bank astern of the paddler, where Owain’s fourteen-foot Wyre fishing punt was tied up with the Belle’s dinghy.
    He pulled the punt in, side on to the bank, and held it steady while they climbed gingerly aboard, the boat moving under them.
    “Mind the stick, m’dears,” he said, referring to the punting pole resting lengthways on it. “Don’t want that disappearing overboard.”
     The light from Adrian’s torch moved over the craft and found the seat at the bow end, padded with purple cushions with yellow piping and tassels from the Owens’ rowing skiff.
    “Park your bums,” Phineas said breezily, climbing in after them.
    “That’s it, make yourselves at home.”
    He lit the storm lantern he’d placed mid-boat, and turned the wick up, the white light flaring in the glass.
    He beamed at them over it. “What fun this is!”
    “They’re supposed to be coloured. According to the ad,” Adrian pointed out.
    Phineas muttered something about local rags and misprints, and lit the second lamp, near the stern. And watched as the glass started to blacken.
    “Perhaps it needs a new wick,” Suzanne suggested.
    “Probably just needs trimming,” Adrian said with off-hand authority, sitting back against the cushions with an arm around her.
    Phineas coughed and waved away smoke seeping from under the top of the glass.
    “No, Suzanne’s quite right – women often, if not always, are. We’ll turn it off. Don’t want to risk a fire. The hull’s got more tar on it than the MI. Well, we may have lost a lamp but we’re still afloat, that is the main thing on the river – as indeed it is in life more generally. Comfortable?”
    “Emm ...” Suzanne murmured.
    The night smelt of summer and the river. A tawny owl called again from Mawr Wood on the opposite bank, its drawn-out cry drifting across the bat-haunted air. And high above the willows a yellow moon sat, as fat as butter, in the shining dark with its face in the water, the river running with its light midstream as if it were dissolving there. Under the trees the shadows were black, deeper pools.
    “What is that?” Suzanne asked, ear cocked.
    “What, the owl?” Phineas said. “It’s an owl, Suzanne.”
    “No, no, not that. Listen ...”
    “I can’t hear anything.”
    He peered down at the floor of the punt.
    “It’s not a sort of glug-glug sound, is it? Oh, good,” he said, when told it wasn’t.
    “Well, it could be almost anything. There’s a whole night shift beavering away on the banks. It could be woodpigeons, seeing that it’s a full moon. They coo at it, thinking it’s a new day. Then the silly things have to do it all again in the morning. Or bats. Up there, look. Out after a bite of supper. I’m too old now to hear them. It is a well-known fact,” he pontificated, “that only the very young can pick up the squealing of a Baubenton’s water bat. It’s a glass slipper that fits no one much over the age of twenty,” he said, opening the cardboard box holding the wine and glasses.
     Suzanne, nearer thirty, smiled in an interested sort of way and said nothing.
    “Well, I can hear them, and I’m thirty-two,” Adrian said, but Phineas wasn’t stopping for details.
    “It’s among the other things only the very young can tune into. The sort of thing that some of us never stop hearing – or at any rate never stop listening for.”
    “Is that supposed to mean anything?” Adrian asked with a derisive laugh.
    “What, on a night like this? Certainly not!” Phineas said, popping a cork on one of the two dry whites. He could not bear to stint, and had added a second bottle out of own pocket to go with the one included in the fee.
     “Actually, Phineas,” Suzanne said, “it’s more like a whistling sound than squealing … There –there it is again.”
     “Otters,” Phineas said immediately. “Otters, Suzanne. There’s a holt, a burrow, downstream a bit, on what’s called Snails Eye Island, the home of a bitch otter and her cubs. She spends hours whistling at them, telling them to do this, and not to do that, and to come in, your tea’s ready, and wash your paws first, all that sort of thing. There’s no dog otter. The female of the species treats the male appallingly,” he went on, making his way forward with the bottle and two glasses. “She whistles the poor fellow up, lets him have his way with her, and then shows him the door. Wham, bam, thank you, Dan, as it were. A little fuel for the trip,” he said, pouring the wine. “I’ll leave the bottle.”
    “What about you?” Suzanne said.
    Phineas held up a stern hand.
     “No. It’s very thoughtful of you, my dear girl, but no. This, Suzanne, is where I hand the night over to you. It is now yours. Yours and Andy’s alone.”
    “Adrian’s” Adrian said, more to himself.
    “The memories you will make together on this river, my gift to you both.”
    “Ahhh,” Suzanne said. “That’s nice. Isn’t that nice, Adrian?”
Adrian opened his mouth to give his view on it, but Phineas wasn’t stopping.
    “I must now,” he said, sweeping off his boater, “leave the stage. I have, as it were, brought the curtain up, and must now take my place behind the scenes. A mere pusher and puller of things, unseen and unheard.”
    “Fat chance of that,” Adrian said. “Look, do you think we could actually get started? At this rate –”
    “Shhh!” Suzanne said.
    “Easy to see he’s got no competition in the area,” Adrian muttered.
    “The oarsman to those memories you will make. A steerer of dreams under the stars. A gondolier in the night.”
     Phineas took a bow to Suzanne’s applause, and clapping his boater back on, exited to his place in the stern.
    He uncoupled the mooring chain from the ring on the punting deck, and chucked it up on the bank, ready for their return. And then tossed a pair of short oars after it.
    “Shan’t need those.”
    “What are they?” Adrian asked suspiciously.
    “Paddles,” Phineas said. “For steering. How’s the wine?”
    “Super!” Suzanne said.
    “That was my verdict. I sampled a bottle earlier – on your behalf, of course. Not the most expensive wine in the shop, I grant you, but surprising good, I thought.”
    “You’ll be seeing pink elephants, the way you drink.”
    Suzanne pulled away from him. “Adrian! You’re so rude!”
    “I find life thirsty work, old man,” Phineas said equably. “And besides, what have you got against pink elephants?”
    “Yes, they’re nice cuddly things,” Suzanne said. “Not like some people I could name. Cheers, Phineas!” she cried gaily.
    “Happy days, old thing,” Phineas said, poking at the bank with the punting pole.

Chapter Twenty-One

“Well, that’s all right then,” Adrian said to her, as the boat started to bob away from the bank. “Because you’ll probably be seeing them yourself in the morning, the way you’ve been throwing it back.”
      Suzanne glared at him, and finishing her drink in one, thrust the glass at him. Adrian sighed heavily. He poured, and then filled and drained his own.
     “Now look who’s talking about throwing it back.”
     “When in Rome do as the Romans do,” he said, echoing Suzanne earlier.
    “You can be so childish! Well, quite frankly, Adrian, if you’re going to keep on like this, I don’t see any point in our being here. In fact, I don’t see any point in continuing the holiday at all. We might as well go straight back to London.”
    “Now, now, you chaps!” Phineas said, jollying them along while sinking the pole into the water before it went any further. If it came to a refund, he wasn’t sure if there was anything left to refund.
    Standing on the punting deck, he was turning the boat from the stern to face towards the opposite bank. He had to cross the river to go up it, avoiding a low, tilting overhang of alders some yards up on their side, and beyond that the wreckage of the PS Sabrina. He had also to navigate the strong midstream current, a current which was even stronger now, after the rain – as Owain had made a point of reminding him at least twice that evening. Owain seemed to have a thing about that current, chuntering on about it when giving him lessons on the right way to cross it as if he, Phineas, had never been on the river before, as if he’d never used that same current to give him a push when rowing back downriver in his dinghy. Just because he’d be doing it with a punting pole instead of oars.
    Adrian was murmuring now in the shadows, words for Suzanne’s ears only. Phineas was encouraged. Unless he was threatening her with murder, and understandably didn’t want a witness to it, he was making amends. And judging by her silence, she was perhaps willing to have amends made. The fee, it seemed, or whatever was left of it, was safe.
    Standing as close to the water as he could without falling in it, as Owain had taught him, he dropped the pole again, skimming the edge of the deck with it, and letting it fall under its own weight, sixteen foot of polished spruce, between lightly ringed fingers.
    The Cluny wasn’t a particularly deep river, suiting it to the shallow-draught vessels of the Cluny Steamboat Company, and the pole touched bottom halfway down its length.
    He lifted it clear of the water, the varnished wood dripping light.
    He dropped it again and lifted, dropped and lifted, pushing out steadily towards midstream. And doing so, if he did say so himself, with remarkably smoothness.
    Apart from the odd time at school, messing about on the Thames at Windsor, and the few lessons he’d had beforehand from Owain, he had never really punted before. But there was no getting away from it, he was a natural. This, he told himself, was punting as it was spoke.
    He felt as much connected to the river as he was to the punt, as much below the surface as he was above it, an inhabitant of some new dimension he’d found somewhere between the two.
    He glanced over at the couple in the bow. The shadows there had merged into one. That was more like it! That was what they were supposed to be doing. A boy and girl in a punt in the moonlight. That was what it was supposed to add up to.
    “You can’t beat the memories you gave me. They’re sweet those memories you gave me…” he crooned, a gondolier in the night.
    “Any more wine, Phineas?” Suzanne called then.
    “Coming up,” he said cheerily.
    He shipped the pole, hoisting it in the air with drill-like precision, before lowering it smartly on the punt, as if following an old formality.
    Adrian, watching this, said, “I’d better get it.”
    “No, no, no, you stay there, Andy. I’ll do it, wearing my wardroom steward’s hat.”
    Tra-la-la-ing away, Phineas set about pulling the cork on the second bottle of white, the punt idly drifting.
     Lightly tripping his way forward, as nimble as a gondolier, he missed a step and his foot came down hard on the side of the boat.
    “Oops! Point to starboard there, as my friend the Commander would say.”
    Adrian grabbed for the gunnel that side, the punt rocking, and Phineas laughed briefly and indulgently at the sight of a landlubber with the wind up.
    “Where are we going?” Suzanne asked lazily from the shadows, the punt moving through the water again, spreading ripples of moonlight in its wake.
    “Where would you like to go?” Phineas said. “Name it, and we’ll go there. Trailing stars.”
    And he wouldn’t be at all surprised at that. On such a night as this he felt that anything was possible, anything might happen. They scarcely intruded on its bright stillness, moving through it with so little sound and effort that he might almost have been dreaming it, the river murmuring and gurgling softly as it did many times in his sleep. A couple of feeding mallards paddled, hissing, out of their path, and a swan, its wings starched with light, glided out to see what the vulgar fuss was about, before making its stately way back to the shadows under the fronds of a weeping willow.
    And the shining pole was dropped and lifted, dropped and lifted again, breaking the water as quiet as a fish rising.
    He hardly felt he was doing any work at all –as if he had to do any work. He felt that the punt could carry on perfectly well without him, could make its own way to wherever it was going, to wherever it was taking them.
    Languor and enchantment, that was the essence, the very essence, of punting, he decided dreamily, and felt the sudden bump and pull of the midstream current as the boat met it bow on.




Sir Humphrey of Batch Hall - Plus the Famous Cricket Match