One

Rompshire

Archie Bing-Chumply, the personal assistant to Major Flounder at the Institute,  hasn’t slept well, and it shows. His tweed jacket is extra rumpled.

He’s heard that business has dropped off ever since Mad Maude took over the Dainty Doily in Nitwittington-on-Thames. So that makes it an ideal place for a private meeting.

The Dainty Doily bell tinkles softely as he walks through the door. He sits down in the empty tea room with his back to the wall and surveys the lace curtains, the floral teapots on the shelf, and the thick neatly folded napkins.

A few minutes later, Maude appears from behind the counter and glares at Archie.

“What do you want?” She bellows.

“I’d like to see the menu.”

“Why?”

“This is a tea room, isn’t it?”

“It might be!” she says.

Archie keeps his cool. “I’m a customer and I would like…”

Maude gives him a withering look.

“Customer!” she says with disdain.

Both servers quit soon after Maude bought The Dainty Doily from the Philips Sisters when they moved to Upper Wallop.  Even the dishwasher couldn’t stand her moodiness so here she is in charge of herself, and not as she imagined taking tea rather than serving it. But she likes the pristine circa 1920s serving outfit, size large. In her opinion, the only downside to owning the Dainty Doily Tea Room is the customers.

Archie relaxes his voice, and in the warmest tone he can muster replies, “I’d like tea and cakes, please.”

“Cakes are off the menu!”

“Really?”

“They leave crumbs! I hate crumbs!”

“But aren’t crumbs an occupational hazard?”

” I’ve cleaned up all morning. I’ve no time to clean up again.”

“You can get treatment for crumb aversion up at the Institute.”

“Don’t want to.” Maude now pouts.

“How about scones with cream and jam?” asks Archie.

“Too messy. Scones are off.”

They eye each other for a long moment in silence.

“Tea?”

“Yes I can make a pot of tea,” she says reluctantly.

“And one more thing, “They’ll be three of us, today.”

“WHAT! That’s a lot more work!”

She stomps off behind the counter muttering to herself.

Two

Paige Notfound and Marion Gladly are only a few minutes late. Archie helps Paige off with her coat. Marion keeps her’s on.

Maude is back with the tea. Much of it is splattered on her apron. “Your tea!” She slams the teapot on the table and staggers back into the kitchen.

“We’ll be quite alone here,” says Archie.

The sound of breaking plates and cursing from the kitchen.

“Why did you ask us to meet you here?” asks Paige.

Archie says, “I didn’t want you both to come up to Crumpetworthy Hall just now. At least not before we’ve talked in private.”

“Why?” says Paige.

“It’s Amanda. She’s missing!” says Archie.

“Not again! How long this time?” asks Marion.

“Three days.”

“That’s not good,” says Marion.

“I’ve asked  Major Flounder and Dr Lenteur where she is, but they are both evasive. I think they know something they’re not telling me,” says Archie.

“I would hate to have a boss like the Major,” says Marion.

“He’s not so bad, spends most of the day in the bathtub,” says Archie. “And that makes things easier on me. But he did tell me Amanda was helping Dr Lenteur in his Extreme Ergonomics laboratory.”

“What is she doing there? She’s secretary to the Institute,” says Paige.

“That’s what I want you to find out,” says Archie.

“Why didn’t they call the police?” says Paige.

“The Major was clear that I shouldn’t involve the Dampford Police, not with the annual Board of Little Effort meeting about to take place.

“So this is hush-hush,” says Paige.”

“Paige, you did such a good job of finding Tiddles for Matilda Abundant.”

Marion looks miffed.

“And you, Marion,” says Archie. “I’m sure you helped, too.”

“That’s right!” says Marion.

“Paige has a gift,” says Archie. “Not everyone can communicate with cats the way Paige can.”

“That’s true,” concedes Marion.

“Perhaps you can use your psychic-organic-holistic approach to find Amanda, and do so before the meeting?” says Archie.

“We need a plan. I’m sure we can come up with something,” says Paige.

“I thought you would,” says Archie, and he gets that dreamy look in his eye.

“If Amanda was working for Dr Lenteur and she’s gone missing, that means…”

“A vacancy,” says Marion.

“Exactly. If we get inside the Institute we could find out more.”

“Brilliant idea,” says Archie. “I’ll tell the Major I’ll find a replacement. You know that Amanda is talented. She graduated from Ms Thistlebottom’s Secretarial School. Are either of you able to type 15 words a minute?”

The two women look at each other in dismay until Marion has an idea.

“Clarissa! She could help,” says Marion

“Who?”

“Clarissa is the Ms Thistlebottom of Ms Thistlebottom’s Secretarial School.”

“Oh, quite strict, I hear.”

“Yes, she’s a stickler for punctuation but a good heart. I got her out of a jam once,” says Marion.

“Really! Do tell.”

“Not in front of Archie,” she whispers. “I won’t go into the details. After all, Clarissa is a fine woman, despite her occasional lapses.”

“Go on, tell me!” says Paige.

“No, the point here is that I’m sure I can persuade her to write you a reference.”

“But I’ve never been to Ms Thistlebottom’s Secretarial School.”

“Can you definitely remember not going to her school?”

“No.”

Paige has these lapses of memory. She shakes her head.

“There you are! Don’t worry; according to the reference letter, you’ll be more than qualified to take Amanda’s place,” says Marion.

Archie stares after them. And for an instant, he imagines himself alone with Paige, and she’s wearing, well, not much…

“Pay now!” Glowering Maude stands, hands on her hips. Archie fumbles for his wallet.

Three

Crumpetworthy Park Picture
Crumpetworthy Park

When Major Flounder (Retired) came to live at The Hall in Crumpetworthy Park, he imagined languid days of sunshine, saunas, hot tubs, and relaxing evenings by the fire puffing away on his favourite Greenleaf Mixture.

He wasn’t thinking clearly when he said yes to becoming head of administration at the International Institute of Not Doing Much. No one else on the committee wanted to do it. So, here he is in his book-lined office on the third floor with a magnificent view across the lawns.

The Major twiddles his monumental waxed moustache as he paces the room in anticipation of his visitor.

He’s only spent an hour in the tub this morning. He thinks to himself: What a palaver! All this getting dressed just for an interview. I don’t see why we couldn’t have done it in the tub.

He’s proud of his oversized Japanese bath in the next room. His working bath he calls it.

A knock on the door.

The Major sits down behind his desk. He barks, “Come!” and the door opens.

She stands on the threshold in a pillbox hat, black cashmere sweater, a pencil skirt, and flats.

“I’m here about the job. Is this the right place?” asks Paige.

“Indeed, it is.” The Major straightens his tie. “Please have a seat.”

Paige sits, smooths her skirt, and sits up straight.

We want someone who knows how to do it.”

“Yes!”

“And apparently, you do.”

“Yes!”

“That sounds satisfactory.  Ah! Now then, there will only be the three-hours for lunch and two one-hour tea breaks.”

“Slow-food union rules?” she says.

“Quite so. Let me see, this will be the one-day work week; Thursdays.”

“Thursdays?”

“Oh yes, we can’t go overdoing it.”

“But…”

The Major interrupts, “The job here categorically states that the job is for Thursdays.”

“The regalia room isn’t in use on Thursdays; that’s why it’s your day.”

“My day?”

“Yes. Now that’s perfectly clear…”

“Why do you think I am here, Major?”

“You’re here to cover for Elsie?”

“Who?”

“Elsie Arbuthnot. She’s gone to Upper Wallop, you know.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“Yes. I thought you knew. I thought everyone knew.”

“Upper Wallop! What’s going on there?” asks Paige.

“Nothing, she’s gone to stay with her auntie.”

“Why?”

“Why what!”

“Why did Elsie Arbuthnot go to see her auntie?”

“Her auntie had an attack of rushaholism and put her back out.”

“You ask a lot of questions,” he says.

Paige thinks she might be overdoing her sleuthing.

The Major shuffles papers on his desk.

“Ha! Here it is 10:30 AM Tuesday, interview Vera Pottinger temporary regalia custodian. What do you have to say to that?”

“It’s Wednesday today,” she says.

“Is it? It’s not Tuesday?”

“No.”

“Blast it! I must have drifted off in the bath and forgotten which day it is.  There you are surrounded by steaming water, all hot and relaxed, and you just nod off.”

“I’m not Vera Pottinger.”

“Are you sure?” asks Major Flounder.

“I ought to know who I am,” says Paige. Although she reflects for a moment on the nature of personal identity.

“Quite so.”

“I’m Amanda Gladly’s replacement.”

“Good Lord! Yes, of course. Now it all makes sense! You’re the secretary replacement!”

“Yes.”

“And you’re not dressed to clean the regalia.”

“No.”

“Elsie wears overalls. I should have noticed that. Bad form!”

“Can I have the job?”

“Oh, er. I suppose so. Yes, Ms, Ms..”

“Notfound, Paige Notfound.”

“You should go and talk to Dr Lenteur in Extreme Ergonomics. It all very straightforward. I’ll explain how to get there…”

Four

After many a wrong turn, and a surprise encounter with Tom Hitchins the groundskeeper, Paige finds the Extreme Ergonomics building and opens the thick wooden door of Dr Lenteur’s office. There’s a portrait of the doctor above the fireplace. Awards and certificates of authority cover the back wall. The doctor gets up from his desk.

“Welcome, Mademoiselle, please sit,” says Dr Lenteur.

The sofa lets out a sigh as Paige sinks into it.

“What a pleasingly comfortable sofa,” she says.

The sofa purrs.

Mademoiselle likes the model? It is the latest in our SnuggleBliss™ line of vibratory comfort.”

“Please call me Paige.”

“How very modern!” Dr Lenteur frowns at her informality.

“I expect it makes you nervous being in the presence of such a famous and gorgeous person like myself!” says Dr Lenteur.

“Oh, yes! Yes of course,” says Paige. Without understanding why she just said that.

Mademoiselle, ah, that is to say, Paige, the letter, please?”

She hands him the letter of recommendation. Dr Lenteur stands by the window, reads it slowly, and then turns to Paige.

“I am gratified by the deliciousness of Madame Thistlebottom’s letter. If Madame says you are ‘in the top of the drawers’ as she writes, then, you must be adequately lovely, if that is the right word. Now then, you are aware the position is confidential?”

“Yes, why is that?” Paige feels the sofa lulling her.

“I will explain, but first you will sign this,” he says, handing her a copy of the Rompshire Secrets Act.

“What’s this?” she says pointing to Paragraph 6.” I promise not to tell nobody nothing about the goings on at the International Institue of Not Doing Much.”

“Yes?”

“That’s appalling!”

“No, everyone has to sign to work here.”

“But look at the grammar! If you tell nobody nothing, then you are telling someone something.”

“Really?”

“It’s a double negative! In English that makes a positive. It’s like, er, ‘not difficult’ means it’s easy.”

“Hmmm.” The doctor strokes his beard with a manicured hand.

“I think what you mean is; I promise not to tell anyone about the goings on at the Institute.”

“Yes, that is what I mean.”

“It is true. Please make the change and sign.”

“And do I really need to recite the slow manifesto?”

“While standing on one leg, yes, we all do, Institue’s rules.”

Paige wobbles as she reads.

“Thank you. Now I can tell you more. First, do you know that the Board of Little Effort is meeting next Friday?”

“I have heard as much,” says Paige.

“Oh! You are knowing this!” He paces the room in front of the fire. “What else do you know?”

“Only that they are having an annual meeting and Lady Frump…”

“That name! A magnificent woman!”

“Lady Fr…”

“Such hips and so healthy!” Dr Lenteur’s eyes sparkle for an instant, then he collapses into his office SnuggleBliss™ chair. “Ah! But it is so sad, she is not appreciative of our slow work here.”

“She isn’t?”

“Not at all. But  I apologise a tiny bit for the interruption. Forgive me, and please continue.”

“That’s all I know,” says Paige.

“Good. I am relaxed and warm that you do not know more. I want the Board to award me the Not Much.”

“What’s it for?”

“Contribution to slowness and the comfort of humanity. And a big hat.”

“A hat?”

“A big one! The prestige of wearing it shall be intoxicating! And there is more; the holder of such an honour can get ten per cent off in any slow-food restaurant in Rompshire, providing it is on a Monday.”

“Ten per cent!”

“It is true. And you will help me.”

“I will?”

He examines her signature on the Rompshire Secrets Act.

“My previous assistant, Amanda Gladly, was helping me test a SnuggleBliss Levitator Chair.” He hesitates.

“Please go on,” says Paige.

“The chair went missing and Amanda, too.”

“Did you call the police?”

“No. We can’t have any publicity now, not with the Board meeting so soon.”

[Working on the next bit]