The bunting fluttered, the spit roast smoked, the slurry settled gently into the bowling green beneath a haze of midges and, in the McNeillie tent, Tancred Pumpherston droned on. And on. And then on.
The audience – a good, attentive Wigtown audience – did its best. Hardly anyone checked their texts, although a few turned the pages of the programme to see what they were missing. A war correspondent was speaking up at the Scottish Power tent and there was an atheist in the county buildings. But here they all were, stuck with this . . .
‘Erse,’ said Danny the sound man, as Pumpherston finished his story at last and the event chair, Hildy Macavoy, roused herself to ask another question.
‘Someone called The Last of the Reivers a modern-day-’ she began. She got no further.
‘That someone was Stuart Kelly and the word he used was “latter-day”,’ Pumpherston said. Latter-day pastiche of Walter Scott as a matter of fact, and he wasn’t about to let this slip of a girl repeat it in front of an audience. He leaned forward, close enough for his halitosis to reach Hildy’s nostrils, and patted her knee. ‘Meticulous research, you see, my dear. The mot juste. One must hit the notes square on.’
‘He couldn’t hit the ground with his bum by falling over,’ muttered Danny.
Hildy couldn’t quite smile as Pumpherston’s breath enveloped her and his hand sweat seeped through her jeans, but she managed not to recoil. One more question and then she'd throw it open to the audience, she thought. Some of them might actually care. Some of them might even have read the book. Hildy had read the blurb and the Amazon reviews, press-ganged by her mother into chairing the sessions no one else could face.
Hildy’s mother was big on duty and service and, she never tired of reminding her daughter, had paid for the Masters in English Literature that was helping Hildy blag her way through this endless hour.
‘You are a Macavoy of Wigtownshire,’ her mother often said. ‘And the Macavoys of Wigtownshire have standards to maintain. Great sacrifices have been made to give you the life you lead, Hildy.’’
So here she was, repaying some nameless sacrifice, maintaining some imaginary standard, bored stiff.
‘And now I’m sure everyone has lots to ask after that riveting account of writing history,’ she said, turning to look out at the sea of slack faces and slumped shoulders.
Silence. Outside the tent friends were chatting and children were laughing. Inside the tent the only sound was Pumpherston’s wet breath through the sound system.
Then, at last, a hand went up in the back.
‘Yes!’ Hildy said. And the volunteer scuttled over with the roving mic.
A very small white-haired woman, hands knobbled by arthritis and a slight palsy in her lower jaw, took the mic and smiled up at the stage.
‘Mr Pumpherston,’ she said, ‘where do you get your ideas?’
Pumpherston laughed so loud that the speakers shrieked, but so long that Danny had time to adjust it before the laugh was done.
‘One never ever asks that question, madam,’ Pumpherston said, wiping his eyes. ‘Never.’
‘You swine,’ Danny whispered and he motioned to the volunteer. ‘Tancred,’ he said, when he had the mic in his hand, ‘have you ever read a novel called The Proudfoots?’
Pumpherston’s smile froze and his eyes narrowed. ‘I’m not a great consumer of other’s ideas,’ he said. ‘I find original sources much more inspiring. Memoir, diaries, even oral history.’
‘So that’s a no then?’ Danny said. ‘It’s a melodrama, I guess you‘d say. Real Victorian gothic – secret marriages and bastard children. The sub-plot in Reivers reminded me-’
‘It’s a common enough tale,’ Pumpherston broke in. ‘In this case, one I heard from the horse’s mouth – visiting nursing homes is a treasure hunt for the avid researcher.’ He sat back in his chair, wriggling his bottom as he settled in for a long stint. ‘This was told to me by the grand-daughter of the unfortunate creature in question. Her ancestress was a chambermaid and it was the usual story. Son of the house. Wild oats. Only this time the son did the honourable thing. Married the maid, cared for the child, told not a soul, and died in the war. After which the estate passed to the brother and through him down the line right to the present day. And by rights it belongs to the offspring of the chambermaid. House, land, pheasants . . . the lot. A common tale, as I say.’
Hildy found herself nodding. She had read a version of it too, she rather thought. Or heard it anyway. It was a memory from long ago; adults talking over tea and Hildy under the tablecloth with her dolls, listening.
Pumpherston answered a few more questions and then at last the doors were opened and the audience set free. They surged past the bookseller in a pack and burst out into the afternoon drizzle, giddy with relief.
After one last knee-pat – this one with an added squeeze, Pumpherston turned his back on Hildy, jumped down from the stage, landing with a wallop, and pounded up the aisle to where Danny sat at the sound desk.
‘I’d like to hear more about that book,’ he said, his casual tone quite ruined by the ragged panting. ‘I’d be willing to pay handsomely for a copy if you have it.’
It sounds like a drug deal going down, Hildy thought, then she saw something that made her blink. In the back corner of the tent, her mother was sitting absolutely still at the end of a row. Her face was candle white and her hands were clasped so tightly there were rings of red and yellow around her fingers.
‘Mum?’ said Hildy.
Half an hour later, Danny was whistling as he threaded through the front rooms of the bookshop to the quiet corner where he and Pumpherston were to meet. A bit of ready cash to shut up about a book seemed a fair deal. He would take Hildy Macavoy on a night out and her mother would just have to lump it. Danny was not an approved suitor for the heiress to the Macavoy estates, but it didn’t stop him trying.
As he rounded the corner by Crime, a small figure barrelled past him, jaw trembling more than ever, gnarled hands held out in front of her as though fending off harm.
‘Are you oka-?’ Danny asked, then stopped as he took in the scene before him. Tancred Pumpherston was sitting under the shelf where the collected works of Walter Scott were housed. Crumbling brown volumes were scattered about his feet, several on his lap, one with cruel comedy open on his head like a bonnet. Another had smacked him in the face on its way down and his nose was broken. That was the second most unfortunate thing to have befallen him. The most unfortunate of all was that one had snapped his neck. There was a bulge in it there shouldn’t be and the angle of his chin was gruesomely wrong.
Danny’s stomach unhooked from its moorings and did a slow forward roll. He turned and staggered away. Could she have done it? Could that tiny woman have climbed a library ladder, stretched out one of those arthritic hands and pulled Rob Roy and all his pals down on Pumpherston’s head?
And if she had? She couldn’t have known it would kill him. She must have meant it merely to pay him back for his rudeness. Could Danny really phone the police and be the one who put that sweet little old lady in an orange jumpsuit?
It was a question which would always haunt him. Such is the burden of a conscience.
As for Hildy, she was not haunted at all. Her mother, white-faced and shaking, asked for help and Hildy gave it. Whacking that bore on the back of the neck with a book the size of a breezeblock was child’s play. Climbing a ladder and pushing another twelve volumes down to join it was fun, and squeezing onto the shelf to hide from Granny Ideas and Danny the sound guy got her blood pumping for the first time in years.
While she was in there, she started to wonder. Had he copied the other book? Or was the chambermaid’s grandchild with tales to tell real? Well, how many nursing home could there be in Galloway? And what sort of security were they likely to have?
She slipped out of the shelf, down the ladder and out of the side door. She would manage somehow. The Macavoys of Wigtownshire had standards to maintain and sacrifices must be made for the life they led, after all.
Pride & Pumpherston will be given a dramatic reading on Wigtown Radio tomorrow.