Wanda Batton-Smythe, head of the Women’s Institute of Nether Monkslip, liked to say she was not one to mince words. She might add that she was always one to call a spade a spade, and that what more people needed was simply to pull their socks up and get on with it. She was saying these things now—calling on all the resources in her cliché lineup, in fact—to a captive audience of approximately thirty-five women who, to a woman, were wishing themselves elsewhere than in the Village Hall, sitting on orange molded-plastic seats that might have been rejects from an ergonomics study, on an otherwise peaceful Saturday night in September.
Reports of members present and apologies for absence received (Miss Pitchford had a head cold) had already been swiftly recorded. The women had stood to sing the traditional “Jerusalem,” if at a somewhat faster tempo than was customary. Still, they had reached this night a deep, throaty trill on “Bring me my chariot of fire!”—for so many, a favorite line, unifying the straying or hesitant warblers into a mighty whole—before the effort collapsed again at “I will not cease from mental fight.”
Finally, reports from the Flower Show and Guy Fawkes committees had been rushed through in unseemly haste, lest they detract from the main event: Wanda Batton-Smythe’s address to the troops.
The men of the village, upholding a time-honored tradition in the division of labor, were of course safely ensconced amongst the gleaming brass and cheery glow of the nearby Hidden Fox pub.
“I am, as you know, not one to mince words, and you can always count on me to call a spade a spade,” Wanda reminded them, her voice filling the room like a sonic gun. “The preparations for the annual Harvest Fayre are in an absolute shambles. We have all got to start pulling our socks up.”
Calling on her knowledge of public speaking, newly refreshed by a rereading of the 1983 classic Grabbing Your Audience by the Throat: Tips and Tricks for the Successful Orator, Wanda paused, her unblinking gaze panning the crowd, gathering eyeballs like so many marbles into her rhetorical basket.
“A shambles,” she repeated, a doomsday prophetess. “It’s an absolute disgrace.”
Lily Iverson, rightly assuming part of this condemnation to be aimed starkly at her small head, began a stuttering apology, but in such a small voice as to be easily drowned out by Wanda’s stentorian tones. It was a bullying technique nicely honed during Wanda’s time in the trenches of the parish council meetings, where skirmishes over the proposed redesign of the coat of arms had become the stuff of legend. The name Wanda Batton-Smythe indeed was often invoked by young parents in warnings aimed at keeping their offspring in line, for she had become for many an embodiment of fear, a veritable bogeywoman.
Wanda now stood before the group, marshaling her resources for further onslaught, her broad, still-handsome face framed by a starchy collar over a dark summer wool dress that Cotton Mather would have approved. Her hair was a helmet of hardened curls, like rows of teeny brown snakes highlighted and poised to strike, living testament to the efficacy of Final Net, and her bosom was tightly bound in some unmoving modern wonder fabric that rendered her body rigid and unbowing, much like her mind. The gray eyes again scanned her audience like an advance scout awaiting the approach of enemy forces. Altogether she looked, as always, more like a woman gearing up for battle than the leader of a group of well-intentioned if somewhat loopy volunteers. Much of her life with her husband the Major, as well as her own service in the Women’s Royal Army Corps, had rubbed off.
“Wanda, I don’t think—” began Suzanna Winship, the willowy blond sister of the local doctor, coming to the defense of Lily, whose lower lip had begun to tremble around her adult braces. Wrapped in a fluffy white mohair dress of her own design (Lily owned a local yarn and knitting business), her hair clipped short around protuberant ears, she resembled a Chihuahua puppy abandoned in a snowdrift.
“You have not asked to be recognized, nor have you been given permission to speak.”
“Permission to speak?” Suzanna spluttered, looking round her: Did anyone else find Wanda ridiculous? They did, but no one had the courage to indicate so by word or deed, at least not to Wanda’s face. Suzanna was new to the village. She’d learn.
Elka Garth, a grandmotherly woman in her fifties who owned the village bakery-slash-tearoom, did exhale a soft little sigh, adjusting her thick glasses and wishing the Reverend Max Tudor would hurry up and marry so his wife might take on the role traditionally allotted to those in her position. A palace coup, as it were, was called for. But the Vicar remained unwed—despite being a rakishly handsome man whose arrival in the village three years ago had had much the impact of a Hugh Grant exiting the elevator as Aretha Franklin sang “What you want, baby, I got” (Elka was a movie buff). His advent having utterly galvanized the female population, he remained, it was felt, stubbornly unattached despite the concerted best efforts of every woman in Nether Monkslip to corral him for either themselves or a relative. Over time, he tended to be thought of as “more in the mold of Tom Hanks,” which only leant more to his appeal, and to the frustration of what came to be called, with linguistic inaccuracy, the Anglican Yenta Corps.
Only slightly daunted, Suzanna now stood up in her sexy, slip-on heels, her hair artfully tousled, a cruel if unintentional contrast to Wanda’s battened-down façade. Aware that most women hated her on sight, or at least regarded her with deep suspicion as having the potential to quickly develop, without careful monitoring, into the village hussy, Suzanna had cultivated in self-defense a genuinely warm and disarming persona. The others watched in awed silence as they realized she was going to engage. It was like watching a sacrificial virgin preparing to fling herself into the mouth of an active volcano.
“It is not Lily’s fault that the vendor let us down,” Suzanna said loudly, anticipating Wanda’s air-raid siren shout-down. When roused, Suzanna could give as good as she got, and in defense of someone already as downtrodden as Lily, Suzanna could be formidable indeed. Besides, she knew there lingered among the members of the Women’s Institute some unresolved feeling, however unwarranted, from the debacle that was the “All about Mixing Cocktails!” program of earlier in the year. Suzanna, who had suggested the scheme, and felt some ground had been lost in the sound-judgment department, was anxious to shine here.
“The Fayre this year apparently has been a cock-up all round compared with previous years, but perhaps we could focus efforts on what we should be doing to be ready anyway in one week’s time.”
Wanda, who had drawn a deep, shocked breath on the word “cock-up,” had not otherwise disturbed the loaded silence of the room. Mme Cuthbert, who operated La Maison Bleue wine and cheese shop with a polished élan, allowed herself a small moue of approval in Suzanna’s direction. The others stared straight ahead, like zombies in a bad sci-fi movie.
Finally, Awena Owen, the village’s self-proclaimed New-Agey Neopagan, for want of a better description, was emboldened to speak, pushing back her thick dark hair, striking because of its single streak of white over one brow. She stood, feet solidly planted, a vital, comely, and charismatic figure who, although essentially otherworldly, managed to operate her New Age gift shop on a large profit margin. She was well liked and respected by the villagers, who called her the Great White Oprah.
“I have a few extra chairs in my shop,” Awena said now, “cluttering up the back room. One needs mending, is all. I’d bet the rest of us could have a look in our attics and find something there too. Save us money, anyway, and this is all for charity.”
Wanda Batton-Smythe found her voice at last.
“I Know It’s For Charity,” she bit out, her tone now apocalyptic. She looked like a bishop about to consign the Maid of Orléans to the flames. “We’ll have a hodgepodge of furniture in the tea tent that won’t match.” Her mouth, which she had barely peeled open for speech, now snapped shut in a thin line of distaste, as if Awena had suggested they all ride naked in the fete’s pony ride.
“So?” said Awena, not unreasonably.
“Then that’s settled,” yelled Suzanna, in triumph this time. She began rootling in her handbag for pencil and paper. “If everyone would put down their name and the number of chairs they think they can provide. We’ll need tables, too, of course. Now, as to the Bring and Buy…”
Lily swiveled a brief, grateful glance in her direction, but overall Lily’s round brown eyes remained fixed on Wanda’s face. It was a sight not without fascination as outrage, frustration, and murderous impulse struggled for supremacy. Wanda seemed to telegraph an unambiguous Fuck you in Suzanna’s direction, but when she spoke she had evidently decided to “Rise Above It.” Cutting across the Bring and Buy chatter, she said, “As we seem to have no choice in the matter, due to the incompetence of the person in charge” (here she pointed a quivering, outraged finger in Lily’s direction, in case anyone remained in doubt about who was to blame), “this poor stopgap measure will have to do.” She sighed heavily, dissatisfaction puckering her lips. “As I am in charge of the Bring and Buy, there is no need for further discussion. That will come off like clockwork.” The or else was implied, and hung in the air like sulfur following a visit from Beelzebub himself. “Now, tonight we have refreshments, provided by Elka Garth, so if there is no further business…” She brought down the gavel before anyone could speak.
Nonetheless, Elka had a small contribution to make.
“I’ve brought two kinds of biscuits—chocolate this time. As usual, one made with peanuts and one without.”
Wanda nodded her approval. She was allergic to peanuts and appreciated that Elka always made concessions in this regard. There was a headlong rush toward the food-and-drinks table followed by more than a little genteel elbowing, for Elka was a superb baker.
Pigs to the trough, thought Wanda. Aloud she said, with a regal nod, in public recognition of a good and faithful servant, “Thank you sooo much, Elka.”
Lead by example, that was the ticket. Never let it be said that Wanda Batton-Smythe was not the embodiment of gracious behavior at all times. She folded her glasses into her handbag—a handbag ever present, like the Queen’s—and snapped it shut.
Copyright © 2011 by G. M. Malliet