Biddies, Whippets, Clans, and Ladders

Donald Shephard

My dear, old uncle Fred Plinge, E.P.N.S. roved the edge of Epping Forest, which thrust like a great, wooded thumb into the heart of London from the rolling, lush green hills of Essex. His usual companions in those early days shortly after World War II were a loosely knit band of young men, each with his own whippet more or less in tow. They were not ,strictly speaking, gypsies, but they travelled both on the edge of the forest "living off the land" and on the edge of society. Actually, the height of society was only at the level of the Chief of Police, which is not high enough to give many people nose bleeds. The clan would spend those tiresome hours before the pubs opened , roaming the forest and adjacent fields hunting with their whippets. Whippets, as you may well know, are the poor man's greyhound.

Those three old village gossips, the Biddy sisters, cast their opinions of the Whippet Clan on Upper-Piddlington-By-The-Roding whether it was ready for them or not.

"So, I says to her I says," said Mrs. Clara Biddy to the erstwhile Miss Dorothea Biddy, " 'Mark my words, young lady,' I says, 'you'll end up in the gutter where you belong,' just like that, straight to her face I did."

"Really?", said Dotty Biddy, "That's as it should be. What did she say to that, I wonder?"

"Not a word," said sister Clara, "she's no better than she should be."

Off waddled Dotty Biddy to tell Miss Ophelia Biddy every word she had heard.

"Clara says to me she says, 'She's no better than she should be' she says and I says to her I says, 'That's as it should be' says I." Having cheerfully dispensed venom along her path and having passed judgment on the world and the active members in it, she went home telling herself, there's nothing like a nice cup of tea and a quiet little chat.

One of the more frequent objects of these old gossips was the large number in both variety and shape, of the romances of Jane, the daughter of the village Police Chief. She was, in her own way, full of fidelity since she had perfect pitch, but she was not quite monogamous. She limited herself to a very narrow band of society within Upper-Piddlington-By-The-Roding, the Whippet Clan. She received the same reaction from those self appointed commentators, that is to say, the Biddies, said that she and the clan had "no visible means of support," meaning quite different things in each case. The Whippet Clan consisted of Will Waistcoat, Tom Tickletrout, Ken Bonewood, Harry Crow, my dear, old uncle Fred Plinge, E.P.N.S., and both last and least Gerald Meek.

Will Waistcoat had been stricken by polio as a child in those days before the Salk vaccine, which necessitated the wearing of leg braces. As he grew, he learned to hang the iron contraptions in a tree and play in the forest with the other boys without the metal hindrances. When it came time to go home he put the nuisances on again. Will Waistcoat's dog, old Sot, was a frequently dissipated bitch because of Will's habit of sharing his inordinate consumption of beer with her. The rest of her diet was rounded out with digestive biscuits supplied to her by pub patrons and the occasional delicacy of a piece of rabbit when she was sufficiently attractive to male dogs that she warranted such a tidbit.

As a man with exceptional talents among Public House clientele, Will affected a certain bravado by going shirtless, but covering his modesty with a blue waistcoat. He was well over six feet tall with a lean and gangling walk which, even on those rare occasions when he was rumored to be sober, made him move in a very jerky manner. Perhaps this is why Will never married or, then again, there could be other reasons. Sanity comes to mind. That is the sanity of the ladies in his life.

Will reminded me very much of the gnarled English Oaks of Epping Forest. They are sturdy trees with a crown of crooked, often broken, branches. The oak tree has fine grained, strong hard heartwood that has been much in demand since earliest times for boat building, furniture making, parquet flooring, and most significantly, barrel making. Its bark is rich in tannin and was formerly used much in tanneries. Will was definitely an oaken man.

Tom Tickletrout, on the other hand, had the movements of a bird with a plover's knack for merging with the farmers' fields which he visited without the benefit of an invitation. He was just as short as Plinge, but thinner and forever in motion, at least until the pubs opened, when it would be difficult to move him from his roost. Needless to say, his usual roost was the Holly Bush, where Jane occasionally worked as a barmaid. He would sit there, motionless except for his elbow and his ever darting eyes, merging with the drab brown furniture and with his dog beside him. "Poacher", his whippet, was the fastest by far in the pack, having frequently outrun buckshot from double-barrelled shotguns.

This affinity for the Holly Bush may be why I associate Will with Holly wood, please notice I did not say Hollywood. Holly is an understory tree of Epping Forest. It is found more among the beeches and oaks than among the hornbeams. Plinge and I have also found it in hedgerows to our discomfort. The pale brown wood is very dense, firm and stable making it ideal for turnings and sculpture such as bowls and chessmen. Tom was indeed firm and stable, if a little prickly on the outside.

Ken Bonewood was a clown. Not the kind of class clown that is a thorn in the side of teachers. He was in fact quite a clever student. He developed his skills as a comic later in life. He made a living as a clown for church fetes and garden parties. His dress during his off-duty hours was only slightly less incongruous. Color was not important as long as it was bright, although he was always coordinated. Patterns were significant, large and varied. His shoes were enormous but, according to Fred, an area to tiptoe around carefully as he was sensitive about them. I found him to be a tender if withdrawn individual. His whippet, "P.J.", was properly named "Pajamas" although it might also have been "Prejudice" as Fred claimed. Certainly that was the only prejudice that Ken had. He treated everyone from the Police Chief to the vicar to the smallest urchin with the same deference. Ken had a hard, handsome body, and sad brown eyes which looked directly at you. He was rarely seen without his outsized outfit except by Jane, who saw him wearing nothing at all.

In among the hedgerows of Essex there are occasional spindle trees. The wood has been used since the year dot for making spindles for spinning wool. The spindle trees provided the smoothest wood which was kindest to the fingers of the old maids, called spinsters after their occupation. Ken was also the kindest of the Whippet Clan to the spinsters, Dotty and Ophelia Biddy.

Harry Crow was a delightful man with a perpetual grin and a sunny disposition. He swaggered everywhere with no malice and certainly with no trace of forethought. He was a bat-faced, lop-eared man whose widow's peak came almost to his eyebrows, giving him a Cromagnon appearance which was not in the least deceptive. Being color blind he dressed in a discordant rainbow of hues. Harry named his racer "Help" not knowing why at the time, and not being able to make up a story about it later. In fact upon bringing her to the Holly Bush for the first time as a skinny pup he had said, "Help! I need to name my dog. What shall I call her? Help!" Someone had mimicked his plaintive drawl and the name had stuck. Every time thereafter that Jane asked for help walking home, upon completing her shift at the Holly Bush, Harry would generously give her his dog. Harry most reminds me of the elms which rise above unkempt, abandoned hedges. These trees are now decimated by the Dutch Elm disease which makes me think of the great sadness in some lives such as Harry's.

My dear, old uncle Fred Plinge, E.P.N.S. needs no introduction as he lived in infamy or at any rate in Upper-Piddlington-By-The-Roding, but his whippet, Worthington E, does. First of all, I should explain for the benefit of our American friends, that there is a beer that has such good flavor that the taste buds do not have to be frozen numb before consuming it. There are actually brews other than that weakest member of the beer family, lager. Amongst all beers, that variety known to the British as "bitter ale" or in the vernacular, "bitter", is the choice of both the working and the non-working drinking man. Worthington E was the best of all bitter ales, but unfortunately it did not travel far from its home of Burton-on-Trent, as holy a place as god ever placed on this earth. "Worthy", as Fred's whippet was commonly called, was named after this holiest of all beers and was the top dog of the whippets. Being the only male, he was invariably thin and in need of rest.

Fred can only be compared to the beech tree. The beech woods within Epping Forest were like open air cathedrals with an aura of quiet serenity and calm on a summer's day. The massive smooth trunk and the luminous-green oval leaves made it the favorite of the ladies of the village and mine too. Just as Plinge was the favorite of the Whippet Clan.

Gerald Meek was the most gypsy-like in appearance of the troupe's members, frequently sporting a red bandana around his head, probably as an inexpensive way of covering his bald spot. He was a man of exceptional height, strength and vigor above the waist, but of unfortunately small size below the waist. Let me hasten to add, that I mean his legs were mismatched with the rest of his body, giving him a small stature while walking, but a tall stature while sitting. His legs seemed too short for his torso or perhaps his body was too long for his legs. Certainly, if he had been any taller his legs would not have reached the ground, but were he any shorter his knuckles would have dragged in the dirt. In short, he was a large bodied homunculus. Because his arms hung nearly to the level of dogs' ears, he was always fondling them, making dearly loved by all the whippets, most especially his own dog, "Trog". If Trog had had any papers and if Gerald had ever made the effort to read them, he would have seen that her full name was Trogolodytes Subterraneum IV, having been the fourth of a litter born in the London Underground during the Blitz. Despite that depressing beginning or perhaps because she had spent the first months of her life devoid of sunshine she was the happiest of dogs and everyone's favorite.

Gerald reminded me of the ash tree which is last to leaf-out in spring. Often May is nearly over before there is good foliage. The wood is strong and resilient, much favored for making tool handles, oars and agricultural implements. I still think of Gerald as a strong and resilient tool, hopefully, Jane does too.

Some considerable time after the rest of the Whippet Clan had discovered Jane and her generosity as a fill-in barmaid, as it were, Gerald became involved in a close personal sort of way with her. She was young, lively and generous in places, but not a great prize in the wedding stakes of Upper-Piddlington-By-The-Roding, because she had inherited her father's pugilistic face and mannerisms. She was, as the gossips liked to say, the clans undoing. The gypsy band had an entirely different point of view. They felt that she was a gift from the gods, Bacchus and Eros. Naturally, Gerald was the last to uncover her generosity.

Gerald was not actually slow like Harry Crow. It was just that she was almost always last in line, a characteristic which may have led Jane to believe that she could master him. In the beginning of their romance the charming couple walked past the small shop windows of the butcher, the haberdasher, and the milliner, and past the several pubs of the village. Jane trudged along, and ten paces behind her, followed Gerald the pseudo-gypsy and his dog Help.

Being nominally single, Jane lived with her father, the Police Chief, in a large drafty house overlooking the village. Around the house was a once immaculate yew hedge marred by the occasional escape route of Jane's paramours. These gentlemen were forced to flee by not only of Jane's pater, but also by his fraternity of subordinates. No doubt out of jealousy, the village's finest guarded her virtues or a reasonable facsimile thereof, with a certain grim zeal. The whippets, in turn, protected there masters' interests, by hiding under the hedge and yelping at the first smell of danger.

The horticulturalists amongst you may take note here that the hedge, although a fine specimen of almost seven feet in height, was completely missing where Will Waistcoat had broken through rather than face the wrath of Jane's father. It was later perforated to a height of only three feet, in memory of the occasion when Tom Tickletrout had rushed through whilst pulling up his trousers for reasons which will be mentioned elsewhere. Ken Bonewood left a hole which rose through the center of the hedge at a very peculiar angle which rather made Jane smile whenever she passed it. The hedge is absent from a height of three feet to the top, where Harry Crow took a dive over it, there being no danger of Harry hurting anything if he landed on his head.

The topiary work was completed by Gerald Meek, although he forever after denied it, when he jumped feet-first through the yew, efficiently raising his pants as he trimmed the hedge. Prevaricators necessarily are quick thinkers. Of course, if Gerald had been an even quicker thinker he would have, shall we say, wooed Jane somewhere else entirely. My dear, old uncle Fred Plinge, E.P.N.S. apparently made no contribution to this topiary, but then he told me this story himself and one does not like to kiss and tell does one.

The house where my dear, old uncle Fred lived ,during the days of my extreme youth, was built by his dear, old uncle Mordecai William Plinge for Herbert and Myrtle, Fred's parents. Fred had lived in this isolated cottage in the woods up until the time of his world travels at His Majesty's expense. He returned from those less than luxurious tours to find that his mother had moved into a larger home. She had wanted to live in a house that had interior plumbing. Herbert had never heard such a revolting idea.

"You'll not do THAT in my house!" he had said whenever she had brought up this indelicate subject. The thought, like many others, was unthinkable to Herbert till the day he died. He may have second thoughts just before he went under, as it were. Now, how do I put this delicately so that the vicar can read it to his children at tea time? Herbert was a particularly thin man as a result, no doubt, of Myrtle's affinity for aerobic exercise at night, or any other time of day come to that. Myrtle, of course, very rarely exercised without Herbert coming along for the ride making it almost impossible for him to gain even an ounce of extra weight.

So it was that the very thin Herbert slipped while sitting late one night, and became jammed in the hole of the one holer at the end of the garden. His heroic struggles only resulted in him upsetting the outhouse and its seat. It was a full moon, in the night sky that is, which made a very peculiar sight for Myrtle as she looked out the window to see what was causing the commotion at two o'clock in the morning. Sound is quickly muffled by trees so the precise nature of Herbert's pleas was lost on his wife.

Myrtle saw her beloved mooning the moon and, unaware that this was an involuntary if not entirely unusual position for him, muttered sweet nothings and went back to sleep. It was not until nature called Myrtle at the sound of the cock that she ventured out to discover the disaster. She was just in time to stop two robins from selecting Herbert's penultimate resting place for the sight of their love nest but not in time to prevent Herbert from being hoisted on his own petard. A petard, lest we should all forget, is an explosive device formerly used to blow in a gate or door. What Herbert was doing with something that had been used for that purpose already, I cannot say.

"Serves you right," she said to the moon. She determined then and there to move to a house with more modern facilities.

Myrtle set about her house hunting in a thorough if unconventional way. She wandered from pub to pub talking in a very friendly manner to anyone with whom she could strike up a conversation. She would patiently cover the current list of polite subjects. These approved topics included the weather, politics, the Whippet Clans latest shenanigans but not necessarily in that order of importance. She would even touch upon the royal family. That is not to say that Myrtle believed that some of the Windsors were not touched, she had quite strong, if irrational, views on the subject. But I digress. It so happened that all of the people she asked about their plumbing were of the male persuasion, but that is entirely coincidental, believe me.

"Do you have an inside loo? " she would blurt out as soon as the formal subjects had been exhausted. Such diligence rarely goes unrewarded and so it was that Myrtle became enthroned, in a manner of speaking, in Will Waistcoat's father's home. Myrtle was there only as a temporary helpmate until Will's mother felt it necessary to return from her tour of the south-west counties. It was only a temporary arrangement (as it happened it lasted longer than Will's father), because Will's mother, Mrs. Waistcoat, was due any day now and she had been gone for ten years already. That was the way that Myrtle solved her inside plumbing problem as it were.

You may get the erroneous idea from what I have just said, that Myrtle was apt to rely on other people. Perhaps you think that she was a parasite. Well let me disabuse of that notion by telling you about the ladder incident.

Shortly after I first met Fred, the month of July had a total of just over eighty hours when the sun was partially or nearly visible making it a fine month. Will Waistcoat meandered over to see his father at the house where Myrtle had moved to avail herself of the interior facilities. This house was hidden in the beeches and hornbeams of Epping Forest. His beloved father was nowhere to be seen but Fred's venerable mother, Myrtle, was sitting on her front door step, behind a tall privet hedge, looking rather agitated.

"Hello, Myrtle, what's the matter?" Will asked.

"Silly me, I've locked meself out ," she smiled.

"Is there a window open?"

"Yes, the upstairs bathroom window at the back."

"Do you have a ladder, Myrtle?"

"No,, but Mr. Arbuthnot over yonder does."

Myrtle's "over yonder" meant out the garden, along the rough dirt path among the trees, down through a small paddock and across a lane to her nearest neighbor's house. Will went over yonder and found Mr. Arbuthnot only too familiar with Myrtle's plight.

"Locked herself out again, has she?"

"Er, may I...?" It seemed to be impertinent to expect this stranger to just give his twenty foot ladder to the gangling youth he perceived himself to be, but Mr. Arbuthnot sized him up quickly and said, rather too eagerly, that Will was welcome to take the ladder from beside his tool shed up the mile or so to Myrtle's house.

The junior Waistcoat was glad to have this small responsibility and little thought that Mr. Arbuthnot could have helped him had he a mind to undertake such an adventure. Will became warm on the trudge up the paddock and negotiated the turnstiles into and out of it with some difficulty. The shade of the trees was welcome as he plodded on to the rescue of the old woman, a fledgling knight in sleeveless armor. He looked up through the leaves of the beeches as was his habit and enjoyed the filtered light almost as much as he did when the spring leaves cast their most translucent magic on him. Life around those voluptuous, sweeping branches with their lace curtain of pale, green leaves always lifted his spirits.

Mr. Waistcoat senior, had other priorities than pruning his hedge and it had attained a height about equal to Will's. There he was, then, struggling to get this thirty foot hardwood ladder complete with pulley rope, over his father's wild privet hedge, which was rejecting it like a baby stubbornly spitting up strained carrots and spinach. As is often the case, the real winner was in doubt, but he finally succeeded in getting Mr. Arbuthnot's property onto Mr. Waistcoat's with only minimal damage to the ladder, his own body and the hedge.

"Never mind that," said Myrtle, "Your father is going to prune it one of these days. I'll help you get the ladder round the back."

Having survived the Great Depression sandwiched as it was between two world wars, she was not in the least reluctant to carry a recalcitrant ladder down the narrow passage between the dilapidated coal shed and the tall, windowless side of the house. To tell the truth, and, of course, Will always does, she gave more verbal encouragement than physical help, which he has since found to be an excellent stratagem for dealing with young people.

They managed to maneuver the ladder so that its foot was at the base of the house and its top was down the garden path resting nicely on the compost heap. Ladders have a limited stability. At their equilibrium they are manageable, tractable, and sensible things, but if you handle them anywhere very far from their balance point they are, at best, unkind and unpredictable. Perhaps this is why Myrtle intrinsically understood them. She guided Will through the tricky business of raising the instrument, which would allow him to defy gravity, but, which was itself only too pleased to remind him of the power of that force.

Three times the ladder won its point crashing to the ground in an apparent attempt at self destruction. On their fourth try, having convinced the wooden instrument of torture that suicide was not its forte, they succeeded in resting it at a comfortable angle against the house. Unfortunately, until the ladder was fully extended, its top rung was woefully short of the targeted upstairs bathroom window.

Oh! So carefully they pushed and pulled the ladder to an upright position. Hauling on the rope, Will raised the extension of the ladder to the height he estimated would be adequate, but the catching mechanism did not click. He tugged forcefully on the old rope once more and it snapped. The upper portion came crashing down its metal brackets plunging towards Myrtle's wiry little hands.

"Myrtle, let go!" He yelled, which she did without considering on whom it would fall. The thing bounced up an inch or two. Will grabbed it and smiled at the old lady as it settled down again. They found another piece of rope which was older than Will, but mercifully, younger than his friend, and struggled once more to make the ladder reach. Now they had a choice. It could rest on the sill below the window, or it could rest on the wall beside the window. It would not reach above the window and they prudently thought it wise not to rest it on the glass itself. Considering the antiquity of the house and the amount of delayed maintenance that it harbored, Will chose to rest the top of the ladder on the lower sill of the bathroom window. Up he went.

Some of the rungs remained locked in position as Will climbed, while others rotated viciously. As he approached the halfway mark or point of no return, the whole thing twisted so that he was sideways to the house. A family or two of spiders found this disturbance of their home unsettling and marched down to repel the monster responsible for their unrest. Two-by-two they came and two-by-two they were blown from their home to drop gossamer lines for safe landings far below in Myrtles hair. For, big as he was, Will disliked killing any small form of life unless it would become his dinner. He had held this view since stepping on a wasp as a boy and feeling that in the next life their roles may be reversed. The spiders gone, he edged upwards, out of breath from puffing on the bugs and from nervous tension.

This window in his father's house was small and fitted with a metal latch in the center of the sill. This latch was a hinged metal bar with holes which, by dropping the bar over a metal peg, allowed the housewife to regulate the amount of air she let into the bathroom. I am sure that I do not have to go on like an old windbag about this delicate subject. This metal peg caused considerable pain to small boys and burglars who tumble over it. Will was no exception. He put his right arm through the window first and followed it with his head, leaving his left hand outside clinging to the ladder for dear life. His upper body twisted slowly past the murderous latch until his hips jammed against his left arm.

There was nothing else to do but relinquish his grip on the ladder and pull his arm into the house. Finally, sweat running down his brow, through the gap in his eyebrows, along his nose and dripping into the toilet bowl below, he was suspended across the window frame with his center of gravity more in than out. His hands could not quite reach the interior window sill and his feet just off the ladder. He wiggled and squirmed, pushing back on the frame, when he realized that the metal peg of the latch was strategically placed to alter his future family's tree, and, at the same time, the window was pinching at the back of his thighs as it flopped down out of control.

Will's boyhood struggles with his polio-racked legs had given him disproportionate power in his upper torso which may have saved him in this particular predicament. Stretching mightily and pirouetting as he lunged forward, Will managed to get a hand on the edge of the bowl. He attained relative stability with his ankles trapped by the weight of the window and his head poised over its reflection which was being distorted by more beads of sweat falling into the water. He gave an excusably brief prayer of thanks for the completeness of the family jewels and asked quickly that the same courtesy be applied to his feet.

"Do be careful!" Was all the encouragement that he heard from Myrtle. "Do be careful!" Rang in his dreams for a week of nights after. Another complete turn of his body and he came tumbling down to the battered, old linoleum floor with a cloud of talcum powder amidst some ancient cut throat razors and a curious rubber bag with a small hose attached. In a matter of seconds he was on his feet, down the stairs and calling to Myrtle to come into the open front door.

She beamed up at him. Will beamed back feeling grand to be so hugely useful.

"You look a little pale," she said, mistaking talcum powder and the flush that it masked.

"There's a bit of a mess up there," he told her, another slight understatement.

"Never mind that now. I'll clean it up later. Let me help you get Mr. Arbuthnot's ladder back around the house.

They struggled warily now knowing that the beast had a mind of its own. It came down with only the slightest of crashes as it was caught carefully by Mr. Waistcoat's rambling rose and deposited with aplomb with its head once more in the compost heap squashing his rhubarb well into the muck. Ah! Sweet revenge, Will thought, before a voice in the far recesses of his brain told him to beware.

She came around the house like a clipper ship in full sail, did Myrtle, and the ladder was an inanimate object once more subordinate to their combined wills. They faced the dreaded privet hedge without a doubt in their minds that they would conquer that obstacle too. Soon Will would be headed down the forest path beneath his beloved beeches, returning the ladder to its rightful owner. He would be a hero returning home to glory.

The privet proved harder to negotiate than before because the upper twigs had become bent inwards and required a considerable force to overpower them. They had it balanced atop the hedge and, as Will went through the gate to pull it down the other side, Myrtle said, "Just a second, I'll help you take it back." Will wrenched the ladder down from the clutches of the outside of the hedge and waited for Myrtle. It was then that he heard the dreadful click of the front door.

Back to ... Fred Plinge Stories | Home page