The Knowledge: Dames' Delight
[This is story 11 from my second book of Jimmy Emmett stories, called The Knowledge. It is not yet published, but here is a foretaste of the continuing fun and charm to be had with the Jimmy Emmett stories]
I did of course realise that Rebecca missed her family. Three months, she had once said, was a long time without seeing one’s nearest and dearest. This was true. But then the old Ford motor car was not very reliable for long distance trips, and fuel cost quite lot. There was also much to do, she said, before her exams. She had been on a dig in Italy, and then gone straight, and early, to Oxford.
When I say she missed her family, that means she missed her parents. As for me, she could manage quite well without me. I had this way of interfering and causing problems for her, which made her see me as a little brat, even though of course deep down I knew by now that she actually did love me. Item: every postcard I sent her with cheeky drawings and silly remarks was routinely and patiently replied to. She knew that, as Lucy so acutely put it, I didn’t intend to be a brat, I just couldn’t help it. I think she missed Tim, too, although he had visited for a weekend around half-term.
Returning to St Theresa’s after her lecture one day in June, she was looking forward to a quiet evening. She was intending to invite her Malaysian friend, Bamini, for tea in her rooms, which would be followed by reading The Aeneid, Book IV, for an hour or so, and then dinner in hall, followed by work on her essay, a mug of cocoa and a quick phone call to Tim before turning in. Rebecca’s days were busy yet quite uneventful.
She stopped by at the bakery to buy cupcakes for tea. She then turned into the quad, making her way past the library to her staircase, at the top of which was her room, with an ivy-framed gable window and a rather lumpy settee.
It was when she was on the point of ascending the staircase that I jumped out from behind it and shouted, “Boo!”
I was the last person she expected to see, but as she quickly knew, it was undoubtedly her little brother leaping from under the staircase to frighten her to death.
“Hello, sis! Did I scare you?”
“Not at all, James,” said Rebecca, juggling with her bags of books and purchases, “it is quite normal around here to be parted from one’s skin by loud and unexpected noises. But what are you doing here, you little monster?”
“Mum and Dad are just parking the car. It’s a surprise visit. I thought you’d be pleased. I just came ahead to warn you.” As usual, this escapade had been my idea.
“Some warning, you little brat! Anyway, come here for a hug. I was just thinking how much I missed everybody. Everybody except you, that is.” (See what I mean?)
Releasing me from her grip, Rebecca searched in her bag for some coins. “Now, you can do something useful for a change,” she said, handing me the coins, “and go round to the bakery, out of the porter’s lodge, turn left, and get three more cupcakes for tea.”
“And before you go, tell me how you got past the porter.”
“Easy as cupcakes, sis. I just pretended to be with a batch of American tourists who were being shown round.”
I pocketed the change and ran off towards the lodge, as Rebecca mounted the stairs to her room to get tea ready for Mum and Dad’s arrival.
It was clear that Bamini was much taken with me, as I sat next to her on the lumpy settee.
“Your brother’s so cute, Rebecca, I want to spoil him”, she gushed. She was a comfortably plump and pretty young woman with large dark eyes framed by large dark spectacles, and wearing a colourful blouse and slacks. She held my face, cupped between her plump fingers. It was quite nice, I thought, to be spoiled by an attentive and pretty young woman.
“Well don’t, he’s too much spoiled as it is,” said Rebecca.
“Too right, he is”, chimed in Mum. “Doesn’t know he’s born, our Jimmy”.
“I suggest”, ruled Dad, firmly interrupting the proceedings of the Jimmy Emmett Demolition Society, “that we all go for a nice walk along the river, followed by dinner on me at the Taj Mahal. Bamini, please join us. It would be such a pleasure.”
“That will be just lovely, Mr Emmett. Thanks.”
The family was soon, with Bamini, walking along the edge of the River Cherwell, enjoying a warm mid-September late afternoon. Rebecca was updating her parents on her life in Oxford, while Bamini was explaining her work to me.
“You mean you work with worms? Ugh, that sounds nasty. Why do you do that?”
“Well, Jimmy, we need to know all about the digestive system of worms, because it makes a big difference to the soil, and that in turn makes a big difference to agriculture, which in turn makes a big difference to the quality and quantity of the food we eat.”
“But does it make a big difference to being able to eat your dinner afterwards? It would if it were me”, I said.
“No, I eat pretty well.” Bamini’s laugh tinkled.
I told Bamini about Lucy, and she was astonished to learn that I had a girlfriend. That would be impossible, she said, in her country, at our age at least.
I ran on ahead, exploring the reeds at the river’s edge. After a few minutes I came running back, full of excitement.
“Hey, come and see! I found a huge shoal of little fishes! You have got to see this!”
They made their way towards the area where I was now pointing into the water. Rebecca trod carefully across a few small hillocks of grass amid the marshy river’s edge to where I was crouched intently over a patch of water.
As she reached within a few feet of where I was, she raised her head towards the river. A look for horror and dismay spread over her face. In a split second she took in the extraordinary scene laid out at a distance of twenty yards or so from where we stood, and her gasp of dismay caused me too to look up and witness the same scene.
About a dozen elderly ladies were cavorting in the water as stark naked as the day they were born. Wading, splashing, swimming. Large folds of ancient, wrinkled flesh hung from ancient frames. Breasts sagged downward. Thighs drooped inward. Wet grey hair was plastered on wrinkled necks and shoulders. They were enjoying themselves in the water on this warm afternoon. But it was not a sight for sore eyes, and I think it was not indeed - rather obviously, given its location - intended to be any kind of a sight for any eyes.
At the brief sight of the girl and the young boy several of the old ladies screamed and all made various rather futile attempts to cover themselves, by crossing their arms over various parts of them, diving into the water, or grabbing a towel. It was pandemonium. One lady of especially ample proportions, with large pearly breasts, simply lowered her sun hat over her face.
Rebecca grabbed me by the hand. “Scram! … Now!”
She dragged me back towards the path through the thick reeds. Reaching the path and now out of breath, Rebecca’s face had become pink with embarrassment and annoyance. She turned angrily on me.
“It’s all your fault, you little bugger! You probably don’t realise it, but those old ladies are the very people who can make or break the rest of my life! They are the dons of St Theresa’s College!”
I covered my mouth with the embarrassment and the disgrace of it.
“Dad”, she continued, “you know what just happened? We have stumbled on Dames’ Delight. It’s a place where everybody understands that the female dons can bathe naked in the river without consequences. And that is exactly where we’ve finished up. It’s a disaster. Do you know who is the main one we saw in the nude? It was Lady Stephanie Ledbury. She’s the Principal of my college, for heaven’s sake!”
It was unusual to see Rebecca in what Mum called a bit of a tizz, but she appeared to really think she had blundered into a disaster in the making. I was just dumbfounded.
We made our way slowly back to St Theresa’s. Bamini walked with me as I tried to make sense of what had happened.
“But it isn’t our fault, is it, Bamini, that we just found that place by accident? I mean, it must have happened before, surely?”
“Well, actually I had no idea about this custom, and I have no idea whether the old ladies will be upset. I imagine they might well not be pleased, though, especially as a young male person was involved. I think it will probably have been deeply shameful and embarrassing for them to be seen naked like that.”
“Oh dear, I was just thrilled to see the shoal of little fishes. But, Bamini, do you know anything about Lady Stephanie? Is she a nice, forgiving person or not?”
“Well, she has a pretty fearsome reputation, and she is our Principal, so she cracks the whip sometimes. As far as I know she is quite nice when you get to know her, and she does have a sense of humour, to judge by what I have seen of her.”
“OK, then let’s hope she sees the funny side of what just happened, eh?”
“We can only hope, Jimmy.” Bamini smiled and told me not to worry about it.
After a splendid dinner at the Taj Mahal, a dinner splendid enough, Dad had thought, to placate Rebecca, we all returned to her room. It was still only 9pm, but Dad indicated we would need to get on the road soon, as we had quite a long way to go to get back to Warburton.
I had now gone missing, and Rebecca said I had just gone to the toilet, which was located in the next quad. That was what I had told her, anyway.
In fact, I had headed in the opposite direction, and was soon mounting the steps to the Principal’s Residence, a sign for which I had spotted earlier on.
Reaching the Residence, which I found open, I went cautiously inside. On my left I saw a study, and a portly, elderly lady reading by the light of a bridge-lamp. I knocked softly at the partially open door and Lady Stephanie looked up.
“Yes?” she said, “what do you want?”
“I’m sorry to disturb you, Y’ladyship.”
“You don’t look like a student. Are you lost?”
“No, Y’ladyship. My name is Jimmy Emmett and my sister is one of your students.”
“Oh … yes … Rebecca, isn’t it? So you are her brother? And … what is it I can do for you, young Jimmy?”
“Well, it’s about what happened this afternoon.”
“Oh that! Don’t tell me you are the boy who was with Rebecca when … ah, well you must have been. I suppose it was a shock to see a gaggle of old ladies in the altogether.”
“Yes, in the nude, dear boy”.
“Well, it was rather. But I came to apologise to you and the other ladies. You see I was just watching the fish. I had no idea, until Rebecca …”
“I quite understand. Indeed I think it is I who should apologise to you, Jimmy. It is not for boys of your age to have to look upon the wrinkled bodies of old ladies. You have probably never even seen a woman naked before, I imagine.”
“Well, only in the magazines at Mr Jopley’s newspaper stall … I mean, when he is not looking.”
“Ah, I see. Well, I hope you understand that ladies of a certain age, so to speak, are not exactly as good as magazine models to look at, and I hope you will not be unduly put off for the remainder of your life. That would be awful.”
“Oh, no, I wouldn’t say that, Y’ladyship. I am sure you are all very er …”
“Very what?”, pressed Lady Stephanie, smiling sweetly and clearly sensing an embarrassing joke in the making.
Realising this was no less than a terrible faux pas that I was about to make, and that I might be easily misunderstood, I decided to continue on a different tack.
“What I mean is, well, I didn’t actually see anything. But it must have been embarrassing to you and the other ladies. And I am very sorry, and I hope you will not punish Rebecca, because it isn’t her fault, really, it’s mine.”
“Well, alright, Jimmy”, Lady Stephanie was starting to laugh, and had to put her glass of port down on a side table. “I suppose it is all part of life’s … hahaha” - by now she was almost consumed with mirth.
Recovering somewhat, as I shifted awkwardly from one foot to the other, she continued.
“Well, I must say, this event has been quite the funniest thing that has happened this year. Now, Jimmy, please tell Rebecca not to worry, I am not at all offended, and indeed if anyone has the right to be offended it is probably her.”
“Well, thank you very much, Y’ladyship, she will be highly relieved, I am sure. She was pretty upset earlier on. But I was wondering if I could just ask you two more things?”
“Well, I suppose you can, yes.”
“Could I request you please not to mention that I spoke to you? I mean, to Rebecca. She will be really mad at me – I mean even madder than she already is - if she gets to know.”
Lady Stephanie had by now recovered her composure.
“Yes, of course Jimmy, I will maintain complete ‘radio silence’ on that score, be assured. And what was the other thing you wanted to ask?”
“Well, I wanted to ask you why you pulled your hat over your face.”
Blushing from head to toe at what, I realised, I had just said, I put my hand to my mouth in embarrassment.
“Ah, so you did see more than you are letting on, didn’t you?”
Lady Stephanie raised an eyebrow and examined my very red face closely.
“Well, the answer is obvious, Jimmy, if you think about it. I can’t speak for anybody else, I suppose, but as far as I am aware, people normally recognise me by my face, not by any, er, other parts of my anatomy. Unfortunately, in the circumstances, I was obviously a second too slow.”
With that Lady Stephanie dissolved into uncontrollable laughter, and was able only to wave at me to leave, presumably due to an acute danger of her suffering apoplexy, all attempts at speech proving quite impossible.
I backed out of the doorway, and, as Lady Stephanie’s guffaws continued unabated, exited the building at speed.
“Well, I don’t know where our Jimmy has got to”, said Mum, “but I do hope he is alright”.
“Don’t worry, Mrs Emmett”, said Bamini, “I will go and find him. He probably got lost. The college can be quite a labyrinth if you don’t know it well.”
“Thank you, dear Bamini. I hope you find him, because we really need to leave now.”
As Bamini reached the bottom of the staircase and was about to leave the building, I ran smack into her at full tilt. Winded by the collision, Bamini gasped, “Oh there you are, Jimmy! You better get upstairs. They are waiting for you.”
“Where have you been? Did you get lost?”
“Yes, I got terribly lost and finished up in the rose garden.”
“Really? I wasn’t aware there was a rose garden here”.
“Oh, well, perhaps they weren’t roses, I didn’t really notice.”
I ran up the stairs two at a time, meeting Mum and Dad as they left Rebecca’s room.
“So glad you could make it, old son,” said Dad, “we were about to send the yaks out to find you. Now let’s hop in the motor and get on our way, shall we? It’s getting late.”
Bamini was said goodbye to, and Rebecca was hugged by all of us, although I had my ear twisted in the process. Bamini kissed me wetly on the cheek, and we waved at the two girls as we turned into the porter’s lodge.
Four days later, Bamini was talking to Lady Stephanie at a sherry party in the college’s senior common room. The incident at Dames’ Delight had somehow become common knowledge. In fact it can confidently asserted that there was virtually nobody in Oxford who had not heard about it.
Lady Stephanie had asked Bamini how she was settling in, and the subject turned to her friends. Rebecca came into the conversation, and Lady Stephanie said what a nice girl she was, if a little reserved for somebody of her age.
“Her little brother, on the hand, is quite something … very uninhibited and outgoing. In fact, quite a riot.” The sherry might have assisted, but she began to giggle at the thought of her conversation with me.
“Oh, yes, I have met Jimmy too, but I wasn’t aware you had also met him, Principal?”
“Yes, we had a most amusing conversation. In fact, I haven’t stopped laughing about it even til now.”
“Now let me get a refill”, said Lady Stephanie, suspending the conversation as she summoned a waitress with a tray of drinks.
Bamini thought for a moment, said “Hah!”, to herself, and never afterwards mentioned to anyone that Lady Stephanie and I had met.
When Rebecca spoke with Lady Stephanie a few moments later, the Principal was wreathed in smiles and said not a word about Dames’ Delight. Rebecca was instantly relieved. And so, thankfully, matters rested.
Back in Warburton, I told Lucy what had happened.
“Jimmy, you just attract trouble, don’t you? I wonder when you will get me into trouble.”
“Just as soon as you agree for us to sort of try things out, Luce.” I winked at her.
“Not that kind of trouble, idiot.”
Lucy aimed a slap at my arm but I was too quick for her.
“Anyway, what did you see? Just a lot of old ladies in the flesh, I suppose.”
“Yes, pretty disappointing, really, considering how much trouble was caused. It would have been nice to see something a bit more kind of … luscious and girly.”
This time the slap fully met its target, and after a few seconds a right red mark appeared on my face.
“Fair enough, Luce. I deserved that.” I smiled sweetly and held her by the hand.
“Jimmy, I really hate you”.
“No, you don’t”.