Just for ease of reference, and now that they're up, here are links to all the other parts: two three four five six seven eight nine ten eleven. Swankily, these ones open in a new window, or at least they should...
Here goes, 'Skeletons in the Closet: Part 1' :
Tunnicliffe Manor was agreed, by all of the people who mattered, to be amongst the most grandiose and magnificent buildings in Surrey. It squatted in the middle of its copious grounds like an immense sandstone toad on a well-tended lily pad, with its tongue ensnaring any member of the community who drove by in a sufficiently expensively-furnished carriage. All kinds of people were summoned to visit the house by its inhabitants, Louisa Tunnicliffe and her two daughters Lydia and Louise; all kinds, that is, of well-off, socially desirable, upper-class people, especially those who were eligible bachelors or eventual spinsters.
Currently, afternoon tea was being served in the Tunnicliffe household. Lydia and her sister Louise sat in the conservatory, sipping at their porcelain mugs with pursed lips, little fingers pointing out into the air while their eyes mercilessly scanned the other members of the party for weaknesses . Across from them sat their mother, Louisa, also sitting primly, and wearing the full-length blue dress that she always wore between 4pm and 6pm. A small antique table lay between the three, a silver plate with dainty cakes perched upon them, brightly iced and of course untouched. On Louisa’s right sat the twin Chuffersleigh sisters Berenice and Bridget, looking proper as was their wont. Their blonde hair framed their faces attractively, an effect spoilt only by the twins’ upturned noses and general rotundity which made them look like two piglets forced into wigs and ill-fitting dresses. But no matter; their father was a very respectable man and each of them were currently courting a captain in the army (at some point, they might find out that this captain did not realise he was courting them both, although given their general disinterest in anything that did not concern hair or gossip about their neighbours, maybe that should not concern us at this time). On Louisa’s left sat the new parish priest, Reverend Maximillian Maxwell, his new dog-collar rather tight around his neck and already starting to turn grey with the Reverend’s copious perspiration. Pouring tea into his upraised cup was Crichton, the butler.
The party was going well, Louisa thought. Already the Chuffersleighs were vexed with her daughters after Lydia had pointed out that the frills on their dresses were three tenths of an inch longer than was the current fashion, and she could sense that Louise was building up a suitably cutting sentence to direct at Berenice, whom she had been staring at for ten minutes without blinking. The twins had only been invited today because the previous time their mother had spoken to Louisa she had commented that the gardener had neglected to check that the daffodils were all pointing towards the North, as was the current fashion. Louisa had, of course, been mortified, and the gardener severely reprimanded for his oversight; she had also vowed revenge on Mrs Chuffersleigh and trusted Louise and Lydia to deliver it on her behalf.
Maxwell was not so satisfied. Worse even than the frankly disconcerting predatory smile on the face of Mrs Tunnicliffe was the predatory expression on Lydia’s face whenever she looked at him, and the way she kept licking her lips. The conservatory was too hot, and the conversation non-existent; the women seemed more intent on attacking each other with snide comments than with talking to each other, and Maxwell’s one attempt to start off a conversation about the church roof had been cut short by five death-glares and a small noise of warning from Crichton. Not for the first time the Reverend wished that he could have been a doctor; he was sure that given time he would have gotten over his fear of blood.
It would be better than the bloodless violence being perpetrated over the sugar tongs in this room, that was certain. Louise had decided to make her move.
“My dear Berenice, is that a new bow you are wearing in your hair?”
Berenice nodded. “I bought it from the market in London four da-"
“I adore the way you try and keep old fashions alive, dear. I find it amusingly quaint.”
Berenice went red. Her sister surreptitiously removed the identical bow from her own hair, as both Louisa and Louise smiled wolfishly. Lydia’s attention, however, seemed to be elsewhere. Her voice slipped smoothly into sibilant seduction as she addressed Maxwell.
“It is such a pleasure to see you accept our invitation, Reverend. Do I’d be delighted if you partook of our humble confectionaries.” Here she gestured languidly towards the cakes in the centre of the room. “They are home-made, and quite delicious.”
“ Oh, erm... I couldn’t possibly, Miss Tunnicliffe, I wouldn’t want to intrude on your hospitality.” Maxwell’s mutters were barely perceptible, directed at the floor, but Lydia just smiled wider, like a shark underneath an uncertain swimmer.
“Then perhaps,” she said, leaning forward towards the reverend and, daringly, moving her leg so that a fleeting glimpse of ankle was displayed, “you desire a different treat?”
Louisa smiled as Maxwell turned the same shade of puce as Berenice, and set about turning his dog collar even greyer. It had been a good day so far; her daughters were in complete control of her evidently intimidated guests, and Louisa was content.
But Louisa’s tranquillity was soon rudely interrupted. The gardener, having finished trimming the row of privet hedges so they resembled the merlons and crenellations of Buckingham Palace, had trudged up to the conservatory window, red and sweaty with success. Grey hair framed his dirt-smeared face, which perched above his thickset neck like a scrunched-up paper ball on an upturned wastepaper basket. The inhabitants of the conservatory stared, frozen into a rictus of unbelieving horror, as, beaming, he rubbed his work-worn hands over his threadbare brown coat, humming a half-forgotten melody. His boots dug into the grass, heavy and black. Then, after a quick wipe of the hand over the nose to dispel any lingering trace of mucus, he raised one grimy knuckle and rapped hard on the window.
Uproar ensued. Only Crichton, in his stiff black butlering garb, remained impassive; this should come as no surprise, of course, as good butlers are always totally unflappable, and Crichton was a very good butler indeed. As for the rest of the inhabitants, however... well, none of them were butlers. The Chuffersleigh sisters both screamed frightfully, doing nothing to improve their porcine images; Louise and Lydia swivelled in their seats like hawks catching sight of a rabbit and glared at the muddied figure standing proudly at the window; Maxwell, who had been about to take a swig of his tea, managed to miss his mouth and pour hot liquid all over his lap (not that this should too badly curtail the social life of a vicar). For her part, Louisa was furious, and rose up from her chair like a Fury ready to rip Orestes a new orifice.
She strode over to the window, her dress playing out behind her in waves as inexorable as those of the sea. The effect was only slightly spoiled as they caught the table and knocked the cakes and platter to the flaw; but strong-minded as ever, Louisa didn’t even notice.
The window was raised, and the gardener’s smile became fixed as the rest of his face retreated rapidly.
“How dare you! How dare you come up to the house, you wretched, uncouth man! I don’t know why I ever employed you, you heathen oaf! Get out of my sight this instant!”
Exhausted from her overuse of exclamation marks, she turned again and sat back in her chair, a single strand of hair falling out of place and over her face. The gardener stood shocked for an instant, then, his smile now resembling a death mask, walked back across the pristine lawn towards the coppice of trees which lay at the back of the garden.
The drama over, normality was restored. Everyone returned to their state of expectant inertia, except for Crichton, who began to mop up a still shaken Maxwell.
“I really am most dreadfully sorry,” said the Reverend. “I can’t think what came over me...”
“No matter, sir. I am used to serving people with drinking problems.” Crichton replied, and then, impassively, resumed his vigil over the proceedings. If you looked closely, however, you might see in his eyes, beneath their empty, glassy stare, a slight hint of derision, and an even fainter hint of suspicion as he watched the gardener break into a fast trot over the grass.