Tight as a Boiled Owl
Nathanial Naseby III was on his way home.
He was also late.
As the hackney carriage rattled its way through the darkened streets of the capital, he smiled to himself. It was what some people would call a fool’s grin. Nathanial could not help it, and he damn sure well didn’t care, so smile he did. His long-suffering wife – her words, not his – Nellie Naseby often referred to her husband as a gigglemug1, but that only served to make the problem worse. The very utterance of that word sent the corners of Nathanial’s mouth a’twitching, and before you knew it, he was smiling like a Cheshire cat.
A Cheshire cat that had gotten into the gin again.
He positively reeked of it. The cab driver very nearly refused the fare, but Nathanial and his excursions were well-known in those parts. Truth be told, the cabbies all loved him. Always with a smile and a generous tip, and he was never, ever sick in their cabs.
He reserved that for the decorative flowerpot just outside the front door of stately Naseby Manor, which the carriage was fast approaching. As it rumbled towards the impressive set of double wrought iron gates, Nathanial tapped on the ceiling of the carriage’s interior.
‘That’ll be all, driver,’ he said, ever so slightly slurring his words. The driver, a steadfast man by the name of Bill Cherryblossom, knew the drill. Mister Naseby never had the carriages drop him right at his front door. He reasoned to them, at length, whether they wanted to hear it or not, that the walk from the gates to the front door was enough to sober him up to avoid too harsh a tongue-lashing from Mrs Naseby.
In theory, at least.
Bill pulled on the reins and bade his horse stop. The carriage halted, the doors were thrown open to the night air, and its contents spilled clumsily on to the pavement.
‘Thanking you,’ said Nathanial, as his fished inside his topcoat for his billfold. ‘I’ve had you before?’
‘Yes, sir,’ said Bill, touching the peak of his cap. ‘Bill Cherryblossom, sir.’
‘Ah yes,’ he said, beaming. ‘Bill! Splendid!’ Nathanial reached up and crushed a note into the driver’s hand that would have paid for the journey, and probably the horse. ‘Something for your trouble.’
Bill took the note and pocketed it quickly. It was widely known amongst the cabbie community that if you were fortunate enough to pick up Nathanial Naseby of a night-time you were good for the week. If it was a particularly thirsty night, the month.
‘Thank you, sir,’ said Bill, once again touching the peak of his cap.
‘You married, Bill?’ said Nathanial, conversationally.
‘Good, don’t start,’ said Nathanial, smiling impishly. ‘Buy your horse something nice.’
‘Now, Bill, kindly piss off so’s I can go and get my breeches off. I’ve a bladder like a sponge, I’ll have you know, and it needs a thorough wringing!’
Nathanial watched as Bill geed his horse into motion and trundled off down the street. He stood there for a moment, as if he were watching an old friend go off on his travels. Once the back end of Bill’s carriage had disappeared around the corner, Nathanial turned to face his home.
Right, he thought. Time to greet the wife.
Nathanial looked about him for a moment and slipped into his front garden through the gates. The immaculate gravel of his expansive drive crunched underfoot, the occasional misstep gouging a groove in the perfect little stones. Popkin the gardener wouldn’t be too happy about that, thought Nathanial as he marched ever onward. Can’t see why. The man was the bloody gardener! What business of his was it if the gravel path got a bit kicked up every now and then? Nathanial smiled as he remembered that while he would doubtless fall foul of dear Nellie the moment he stepped through the front door, Popkin hadn’t been up to dick2 of late, so was taking a bit of time off.
In what seemed like both an eternity and no time at all, Nathanial had reached his front door. He took a long gulp of crisp night air and steadied himself on his trusty house. Good old house, he thought. Always there lending a wall when he needed it. Not feeling sick tonight, the flowerpot got a reprieve. Nathanial fumbled in his pocket for his house key and, on the third attempt, was able to unlock the door. The sound of another door, somewhere off in the distance, could be heard closing as Nathanial opened the front door.
He stepped inside his home.
And almost instantly regretted it.
‘And what time do you call this?’
‘Good evening, my queen.’
‘Don’t you “my queen” me!’ said Nellie Naseby, as she stood in the hall in her dressing gown and slippers. The look of annoyance on her face could have melted steel. ‘Not a single word, and come home stinking of the gin, again! I tell you; I was this close to calling Constable Honeyflower to go out looking for you.’
‘But you didn’t,’ said Nathanial, still smiling.
‘No, I didn’t,’ said Nellie. ‘I’m poked up3 enough about your wretched drinking as it is. I don’t need the whole city knowing about it!’
‘You’re sweet to think of me, though, you old jack-sauce,’ said Nathanial, determined to keep things positive.
‘I wasn’t thinking of you, you infernal gigglemug…will you stop smiling at me like that? I was thinking of our poor family name that you seem determined to drag through the mud every chance you get.’
Nathanial took his pocket watch out of his waistcoat and checked it before looking back up at the tiny smouldering volcano that was his good lady wife. Seemingly satisfied, he continued to cross blades with Nellie. It was all in good fun, in his opinion – it kept the wits sharp, he reasoned – even though he freely admitted that he was armed with a metaphorical penknife compared to Nellie’s double-handed broadsword, but the cut and thrust of healthy banter was what kept things interesting.
He hoped to the gods that Nellie felt the same way, because the way that she was looking at him was making him start to doubt the rock-sure footing that he felt he had.
Perhaps a peace offering was what was needed. He took another deep breath (was he making that smell?) and fixed Nellie with an imploring look.
‘Tell you what, my dear, have Aggie bitch the pot4 for us and we can sit down by the fire and you can tell me all about what an utter scoundrel I am. Yes?’
Nellie’s mouth had become a very thin line.
‘Aggie’s asleep,’ she said through partially clenched teeth. ‘It’s past midnight.’
‘is it?’ said Nathanial, making a pantomime of taking out his pocket watch again. ‘Well, we had better be off to bed then.’
Nellie’s frown intensified.
Nathanial looked his wife up and down and an altogether different smile played across his face. It did not go unnoticed by Nellie.
‘Don’t you look at me like that, you ruffian. If you think we’re sharing a bed tonight you’re sadly mistaken.’
Nathanial made a play of looking downcast.
‘Don’t give me the morbs5, Nellie my sweet. To tell you the truth, seeing you there in your bedclothes has made me come over all randy.’
‘You watch that sauce-box6 of yours!’ said Nellie, as she gathered her dressing gown about her throat to protect her modesty. The modesty of her throat, at any rate.
Nathanial risked a peek over his wife’s shoulder before looking back at her with a most lascivious gaze.
‘Oh, come on, my fine young filly. Let me have at the Cupid’s kettle drums7.’ He advanced with his hands outstretched in a gesture that left no illusion as to his intent.
He stopped. Nathanial looked at his hands as if he was seeing them for the first time. He placed them stoically behind his back and looked decidedly hangdog. When he spoke again it was in a far less confident manner.
‘You’re right, my dear. I apologise. That was shameful of me.’ He dropped his head to his chest.
That was the signal.
At the other end of the hall, a door that had been open a crack was pushed, very gently, to admit a young woman. Holding her shoes in one hand, she crept noiselessly, if not a little unsteadily, towards the stairs. Her hair was flyaway, and her cheeks flush. One of the shoulders of her frock had slipped down and her bare shoulder bobbed brazenly for all the world to see. Her tongue protruding slightly in abject concentration, she made her way, slowly but surely, towards the stairs and began to climb them, one by one. Nathanial and Nellie were thankfully still engaged in their conversation, so the young woman went unnoticed.
Until she reached the top of the stairs.
‘And a good evening to you, too, Nora,’ said Nellie, without bothering to turn around.
Both Nathanial and Nora locked eyes. Their faces masks of surprise. Nellie remained looking impassive.
‘I assume you’re as tight as a boiled owl8, just like your father,’ she said, over her shoulder. ‘Well, I’ll deal with you both in the morning. I’m going to bed.’
Nellie turned on her heel and ascended the stairs, pausing to kiss her daughter on the cheek and say that she was glad she was home.
‘Oh, and do invite me out with you next time, dear,’ said Nellie to her wayward daughter. ‘I think you will find me much more respectable company than your urchin of a father.’
Nora looked at her bare feet, shamefaced.
‘And besides, the places I can take you to offer a much higher quality of gin.’
Nora looked up to see her mother smiling. It was a knowing smile. Nora didn’t know whether to return it, lest it be a trap. But, Nellie’s parting words to her slightly sozzled daughter answered that question for her.
‘And besides, dear, I can drink your father under the table any day.’
Without another word, Nellie Naseby retired to bed.
Nathanial and Nora remained motionless, looking at one another from opposite ends of the stairs. Nathanial had heard what Nellie had said.
Father and daughter looked at one another.
They both smiled.
A right pair of gigglemugs.
Tight as boiled owls.
* * *
4 Put the kettle on
5 Temporarily depressed