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|Edwin Drood's Column
|5 May 2015
|Consulting the oracle
A memoir of my schooldays
|In which Edwin’s memories of school reach a climactic realization
as we learn more about living legends and the truths they conceal.
|“Yellow Buddhist monk is burning brightly at the zoo
You can bring a bowl of rice and then a glass of water too ...”
Anyone for Tennis, Cream
Exactly why we were so terrified of One-Eyed Mab it would be difficult to say today. We live in a world that has considerably changed in its attitudes to the marginalized. Our sense of political correctness will no longer admit to either fear of, or hatred for the weirder members of society. The worst we are prepared to feel is embarrassment when some strange and ragged soul starts muttering curses under her breath at the checkout queue in Tesco’s. But for us boys, Mab was a terrifying figure back in the 1960s, much like the old hag in Snow White. You kept expecting the cackle to rattle the casement and the poisoned apple to emerge from the voluminous sleeve. In truth, she was simply old, crippled by arthritis, half blind and cantankerous … or so I tried to think.
|Bearding the dragon
Because brave Edwin, confused by the flight of his newfound love, and pretty sure that Mab was that same “only one who really knows” referred to by Franka, decided to beard this dragon in her lair. The lair turned out to be a rather rancid-smelling cottage full of piles of newspapers and boxes bursting with faded block-printed pamphlets from all the organizations she’d been a member of before being thrown out over the course of a long and belligerent life. Her real name was Margaret Fynecot. The Fynecots had once been important people hereabouts, as I already knew, but she was keen to remind me in her thin, reedy voice. Their title to certain meadows and woodlands in the area, as well as a long-vanished manor house, could be traced back to the Domesday Book. Compared to the Fynecots, who had hobnobbed with Normans and Plantagenets, the Nortons were mere Restoration parvenus.
This Margaret Fynecot, although almost completely blind by then, was not actually the “real” One-Eyed Mab. She told me the name was first used for her great aunt, one Mabel Fynecot, who had lost an eye as a child while haymaking back in the days before mechanized farming, even before the appearance of the first steam tractor in Wiltshire. The tine of a pitchfork had gone right through one eye socket, causing extensive brain damage that affected her entire motor neurone system. Although she survived this horrendous accident, the little girl was greatly disfigured, could thereafter only walk sideways like a crab, and was moreover prone to sudden fits of rage, during which she would swear most frightfully and curse anyone who happened to be near in the vilest of language, filthy words that no one could have guessed she even knew.
|The genuine article and her successor
Mabel Fynecot, despite these handicaps, lived to a ripe old age, by which time she had probably cursed every soul in the village. From such characters are legends made. Her great-niece Margaret, having been tarred with the same brush on account of her unpalatable temperament, was thereafter dubbed with the same name, thus becoming “Mab” for generations who had never known the original. She seemed to relish her notoriety and to harbour no especial rancour at being treated like a fairground spectacle. Her rancour lay altogether elsewhere.
For certain, one thing that she had either inherited from her namesake or developed for herself was an antagonistic way of meddling in the business of others and trading in malicious gossip, to the truth of which she would swear on her not very endangered honour. This ensured that she remained in the centre of village affairs and in full command of whatever juicy titbits of information were currently going the rounds. But it was clear that Mab didn’t want to tell me
anything about Jack Tisbury’s head or his limbs, or even his torso, for those questions brought only vague nods, shakes and mumbles. However, she did let loose two nuggets of great value, followed by an outburst of invective.
“Tisbury weren’t ’is real name, nor yet Norton, since ’e rejected ’im. Tisbury was but his birth name, from the foundlings ’ome in Tisbury town where she drug herself off when her time were come! Those days yer bastards got either the mother’s name or, if she weren’t a-givin o’ none (’an she’d ’er reasons, for sure), then they give ’em the name ’o the place where the sprout were registered: ’ence Tisbury. ‘E were born there that’s all.” “And Jack?” I asked. “Well, that’s ’cause they was all Jacks, ’ceptin’ those as was Jills. But his mother now … well, she knew who she was, didn’t she? An’ she were a Fynecot like me! Rachel Feynecote was ’er name, with a couple ’o extra ‘ees’ as it were formerly writ. The family ’ad already come down a long way by then, to be a-servin’ in other folks ’ouses. But she were a comely piece at fifteen summers, was young Miss Rachel, and right comely did the squire look on ’er, too.
|A curse on the Flying Dutchman
“That curse as ’er put on the Nortons, as the little ’un surely a-tol’ you of – oh yes, I knows all about you, boy. Mab knows all about you two and your doings in the Gogs – well, t’weren’t just any
curse. That were a Fynecot curse, and we can really show ’ow it’s done! So you can tell that fancy doctor with ’is fancy piece o’ London tart, as it’ll take more’n a bit’o conjurin’ to lift a Fynecot curse. Black Jack only hunted down Norton’s people ’cause ’e weren’t permitted to hunt no Fynecot deer in ’is own forests. It’s not trickery we’ll be ’avin from Doctor Flyin’ bloody Dutchman, no, it’s justice!
“So you be on yer way now, boy, ’cause you are a boy, aren’t you? I may be a’mos blind but I smell well enough, an’ I can smell a trick when you tries to pull the wool over ol’ Mab. And ’ol Jack, ’e can smell one, too, for all ’is nostrils happen to be full ’o water.” And at this she began to laugh in a high, keening cackle, while her feet stamped at the flagstone floor like a truculent child. I couldn’t get out of there quickly enough.
So what had I learned? That Black Jack Tisbury was a “gentleman of the highway”, part of the dispossessed gentry, albeit from the wrong side of the blanket; that his Feynecote mother, so skilled in cursing was part of a noble lineage in that art, and the skill would still seem to be alive and well; that Doctor Verhoeven was in some way guilty of trying to trick either Black Jack or the latest generation of Fynecots, but how and why? – a complete puzzle – and what was all that last bit, about boys trying to fool old Mab? I wasn’t trying to trick her, was I? So what other boys had played or were still playing tricks on her? I suspected that list might be long.
In order to be able to interview Old Mab, I had needed what was called a “sortie”. This was a special permission, authorized by one’s housemaster, which allowed one to be signed out of and back into school by the duty prefect for a period not exceeding three hours on a Wednesday, five hours on a weekend and one and a half hours on a normal school day. A typical reason for a sortie would be taking tea with the headmaster or the chaplain, attending an event at the village hall, researching a local history project, going to the dentist or suchlike. We were allowed two weekend sorties per term (even if both were on the same weekend), in addition to two Wednesday sorties and three other weekday sorties. In all cases, unless you had received a very rare dispensation, you had to be in by ‘last post’, which was blown at 20:30, or 21:30 on weekends.
Thus, on any given day you might see a few lone boys sprinting or strolling with exaggerated nonchalance toward the main gate as the last notes of the plaintive bugle call echoed into the evening air. My sortie had been granted on the basis of a note from Mr Cosworth, the Deputy Head. You may remember I mentioned that he was the only staff member originally from those parts and something of a local history buff. When I told him I was interested in writing an essay for the school magazine on the legend of Black Jack Tisbury, a good enough excuse, he was naturally delighted, even though he wasn’t sure that the legend held much historical veracity. I said that was part of what I intended to find out.
Coming upon him the next day, while he was sorting periodicals in the Netherton Library, I told him how hard it had proved to get reliable information simply by interviewing one old lady. He told me that Rudyard Kipling once said the coin has not been minted that will buy the truth. Offer too much and you only get what you want to hear, too little and you only get what you can’t afford not to hear. “But I’m not paying anything!” I told him. “Then you’ll be lucky to get anything in return,” he said.
However, I knew that oracles liked to speak in riddles, and I’d figured Mab for a sort of oracle. So, without mentioning my Arcadian experiences in the Gogs, I asked Mr Cosworth if he could make any sense out of Mab’s linking of Jack Tisbury to Dr Verhoeven and the doctor to the fall of the Feynecote family. He said that as far as he knew, there could be no connection between the Manor’s current owners and the ancient family of Feynecote or even the modern Fynecots. After all, until recently they were divided from one another by the English Channel, weren’t they?
Or were they? I wondered, as a vast cosmology of deception began to coalesce within my schoolboy brain!
To be continued ...
© Edwin Drood
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