Rompshire Morning

2:00 AM: Dampford

Dampford Town Hall clock strikes the hour as young Nick Flake stumbles downstairs from Moya Blair’s bedroom at Number 12 Upper Brook Street. He’s careful not to wake her parents. Yet Nick has a plan. If he does wake them, he’ll say that they were revising for their A-levels; he’s lucky this time. As he slips out of the house, he feels relief, and then indescribable joy at having spent his first whole night with Moya. He doesn’t feel the cold night. He is in love.

2:45 AM: Dampford Railway Station.

Ivor Edwards, the station master, steps on to the empty platform. The fog is so thick he can’t see the other side of the track. He checks his pocket watch. But it’s as if time has stopped. The 2:15 mail train from London should have arrived by now. He goes back inside the small green waiting room where three postal workers snore in front of a stove.

Ivor wipes condensation from the waiting-room window and sees a train standing at the station. But it is not the mail train from London. He goes out to find a colossal steam engine attached to a long line of empty carriages. He doesn’t know why, but he climbs aboard, and the train departs.

4:12 AM: Ms. Pettigrew’s School of Manners and Common Sense

With bodice-ripping intensity, Ms. Pettigrew dreams. She rolls over in her soft pillowiness and breaths a deep sigh. Now in her dreamy-dreamland, she is cantering sidesaddle across open country to where Brandon Manly, in riding jacket and extraordinarily tight breeches, stands beneath a vast oak tree, his strong hand gripping the reins of his still-panting black stallion.

5:00 AM: Horrible Hill

The wind wails on the heath. The villagers rarely venture up there—especially during darkness. Three stone cottages huddle in a ring on Horrible Hill. Six gnarled stumpy trees provide scant shelter. The Weird Sisters have been up all night in rampant activity at The Cauldron. They’re all hubbled and bubbled out.  Now, each one is tucked up in their little beds. They must rest before starting work at the Seven Deadly Sins Pharmacy down in the village of Lower Snoring.

5:32 AM: The International Institute of Not Doing Much

An owl hoots behind the gardener’s hut. Mr. Doggy Doofus, on some nighttime mission of his own, stops sniffing the ground and howls in return. Dog and owl have much to say to each other in the dark.   

The residents are asleep up at The Hall with its dark labyrinthine corridors. The only sounds, the hiss of the steam pipes from the beast, a gargantuan early-Victorian boiler deep underground. Even the steaming tiled bathtubbery with its exotic plants is silent. But outside, beyond the trees, and down Crumpetworthy Park’s long driveway, there is a light on in the gatekeeper’s lodge.

Inside, old Ken Hopkins, resplendent in his hand-made nightcap and gown, puts the kettle on for his first cup of tea and lets the cat in. He lights a fire and settles down in front of it to make a list of all things he won’t do today.

6:45 AM: Little Dingle

Above the wool shop, Maxine Watson rises before dawn to do her exercises. Her flat is small. But there’s just enough room for a zero-gravity chair in which she now reclines and concentrates on the slow path to not much. She is making progress.

7:55 AM: Nitwittington-on-Thames

The golf club secretary, Julian Makepeace, finishes off the last of his toast and marmalade and considers what he should say at the memorial service for Arthur Sprocket later today. Another fatality in such a short time, he thinks. Major Blister died after being lost for nine days in the wood on the 14th. Muriel Robinson died of boredom, waiting for her husband to tee off on the 8th. And now Arnold Sprocket, struck by lightning in mid-swing. The golf club’s cemetery is getting full.

10:30 AM: Tea break at the Groundskeepers’ Lodge, Crumpetworthy Park

As usual, Ted Brinkley has spent the morning talking to his cauliflower in the greenhouse. He now puts the kettle on for tea as the rest of the crew arrives. After all, they deserve a break after working for more than an hour and a half.  

Fred, who must be 85, has spent his working morning removing a stone from his boot. Still, he’ll be ready to get mobile directly after tea-break or after lunch at the latest — probably. With monotonous regularity, Fred recounts the same joke he told yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that.

He sips his tea and then shouts with glee: “Guess what!” He raises his bushy eyebrows. His blue eyes twinkle.

“I‘ve been left some money!”

“Really!” obliges Stanley, an undergardener’s assistant.

 “Yes, it’s left me. It’s gone!” Fred tells the crew.

And they giggle dutifully.

Cautiously Stanley examines his lunchbox for a mid-morning snack. Relief! Audrey has made him a cheese and pickle sandwich, something he recognizes. Audrey knows what Stanley likes to eat. But she can’t help herself. Her inner culinary artist is clamoring to get out. All those Friday nights at The Cauldron excite her passions.

11:00 AM: Ms. Pettigrew’s School of Common Sense and Manners

Ms. Pettigrew, 42, now fully awake, is simply dressed in a black Jaeger pleated drape dress. She addresses the girls in the lecture hall. She dispenses advice on the dangers of hurrying and the importance of deportment. Ms. Pettigrew will not tolerate poor posture in her school nor the barnyard cackle of a shrill group of untutored girls. Relaxing properly, she tells them, will allow them to discover their own mellow vocal tones. They must avoid all nervous strain and practice minimal effort in speech, thought, and posture.

The girls whisper to each other. The rumor is, Ms. Heather Braithwaite, chief relaxologist at the Institute, will visit the school that afternoon.  All the girls have read her book The Pleasure of Slow Relaxing. It’s required reading. None of the other girls know that Katie Pimm keeps a picture of Ms. B under her pillow.

11:45 AM: The Tearoom in Warmsley

Upstairs from the Holistic Employment Agency, the place is all dark wood, heavy curtains, and thick Turkish carpets. The stained-glass windows are remarkably similar to those in the Church of Lassitude.

Emma Lately and Clarissa Binky sit in the far corner of the tearoom. They order a pot of Weird Sister Tea from an elegant graduate of Ms. Pettigrew’s. Other young women shimmer across the room, serving tea and light snacks to customers, mostly well-dressed middle-aged ladies.

Clarissa tells Emma of the disappearance of Ivor Edwards last night at Dampford Station. Emma looks over at the grandfather clock in the corner and sees it’s noon.

And so goes this morning in Rompshire.