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Although most of us dread socially awkward standoffs in the asymmetrical shadow of modernist Anglican cathedrals deep in the loveliest parts of suburban Sussex - except, of course, for those of you who don't - it was one such event which'd brought Frederick Toady, Trudy Carlisle, Marlak, Grimmnha, Bisree (nee Lakh), Croupf, and Lililili (along with their varying degrees of various familiar qualities including, but not limited to, dread) to their current locale - standing crowded round the desk of Robert Stephens, the Bishop of Barington...
Seated in front of them, unfortunately, were the volcanically livid Felicia Fripp and her vicar, Victor Vickers, who was then (not unlike the Bishop himself) having trouble following the conversation, so keenly was he considering early retirement. So strong were the feelings of Mrs. Fripp and Vicar Vickers, in fact, that they even showed upon their backs, a happenstance not unfamiliar to Mr. Toady and Mrs. Carlisle - they being English, and therefore accustomed to such lavish displays of passive-aggressive opprobrium - but one which had previously been known to the aliens only via the entirely theoretical England contained within the pages of the Encyclopedia Earthica. Seeing it now face to back, needless to say, thrilled them to their very electrons.
‘What seems to be the problem again?’ the Bishop asked for the fourth (or was it the fifth?) time, right after the third (or was it the fourth?) time they’d tried to explain the relatively straightforward situation to him and succeeded only in failing.
‘We require your permission to bury Gary Carlisle with the full rites accorded to an Andromedan Emperor in the catacombs beneath Barington Cathedral,’ offered Frederick Toady with such lucidity it would have made him the laughingstock of the Foreign Office, whereat his job now clung by the slenderest thread based entirely upon the even slenderer possibility of his current assignment's successfulness.
‘I see,’ said the Bishop, who once again didn’t. ‘And who is he again?’
‘My husband,’ offered Trudy Carlisle, unhelpfully.
‘Our friend,’ offered Marlak, on behalf of the others, who nodded in agreement, although his offer also provided little or no help.
‘A police constable who died while on duty in this town,’ offered Frederick Toady, which entirely helpful input unintentionally threw the Bishop for a loop (or was it two?).
Still, at this news, he only nodded; of course, it was a better reaction than he’d given to anything else that had been said so far, which was a hopeful sign for all concerned. ‘And where is this Gary Carlisle now?’ he enquired yet again.
At which point came a shrill scream and sickening thump from his outer office, wherewithout his secretary had - intending to clean up the pile of towels left there earlier by what she perceived were a crowd of entirely slovenly aliens - discovered it to contain an entirely dead, if beautifully scented, corpse. She then shrieked as previously elucidated before doing what she least wanted to do in the world and fainted right on top of its cadaverous lumpenality. ‘He’s out there,’ offered Marlak, somewhat needlessly if entirely helpfully, as Lililili and Croupf went to Miss Reed’s aid and/or comfort.
‘Well, I see no reason - ’ the Bishop started to say when he was interrupted by Felicia Fripp.
‘If you see no reason then I most certainly do,’ she said, reflexively clutching Vickers’ hand before realizing what she’d done (not to mention where she’d done it, although - after the afternoon they'd passed - grateful it was only his hand she’d clutched) and releasing it.
‘Mrs Fripp,’ the Bishop turned to her intending to sound avuncular and soothing (as per the terribly useful self-help book The Idiot’s Guide to Being A Bishop resting well-thumbedly upon an Ottoman, that is to say, a hassock, in his study at home - fat lot of good it did him there) but instead sounding strident and patronising (something he must have picked up at a Tory party conference in the Eighties). ‘When you are Bishop of Barington you may make the decisions regarding this see. In the meantime, I think we’ll leave them to me, hm?’
He looked at her some more, as did the entire group, at which attention she rather unusually slunk down in her chair and held her mouth closed by covering it with her hand. Satisfied that this particular member of his flock was finally ready to leave her flocking mouth shut at last, the Bishop tried to resume his former line of questioning. ‘Now, you say he died in the line of duty?’
‘Well...’ said Trudy Carlisle, with a wince and a shrug.
It took an act of patience worthy of Job not to shout at her, but looking across the desk at the lushness of her form and the pinkness of her skin (each of which made her so unlike the salty pillar his wife had become) ensured that where she was concerned patience was one virtue he was only too willing to demonstrate in exchange for the one vice she inspired in him in spades. All of which roiling emotions and hormonal disturbance he perfectly encapsulated with a sweet grin and a benign turn of phrase: ‘Well what, Mrs Carlisle?’
Still shrugging, she sheepishly said, ‘It was technically during his tea break.’
‘I see. And what was it he was doing again when he died?’ Here the memory of it evoked a greater sense of embarrassment than grief in her, and she blushed. ‘Mrs Carlisle, I understand what you’re going through but you’re among - ’ He cut himself off before he could say ‘friends’, especially given the dirty looks being thrown at her through him by Mrs Fripp and the vicar, despite their backs being turned. ‘Ah, it’s all right to tell me.’
‘He was performing the Andromedan national anthem,’ she said, letting all the words at last tumble out of her like commuters off a Tube train, and at the utterance of which the aliens all seemed to puff up with pride, but which rather sort of embarrassed her - as it did them, since nothing shamed an Andromedan like pride - or indeed made them swell with pride like being deflated with shame.
‘I see. And is such a thing normally as hazardous as, say, removing an ASBO from a red zone?’
‘Well, I’m sure I wouldn’t know about that, Your Bishopness, since Barington has none of either,’ she said. ‘Besides which I’m not a police officer, my husband is. Was. But just the sound of him performing it did make me quite nauseous, so who knows what actually performing it might have done to him.’
‘Mm-hm.’ At this the Bishop took a discreet sip of his drink in order to work up the courage to look at Marlak. When he finally did, he asked, ‘Perhaps if you five could, uh, favour us with a few bars?’
The alien sat stock still and Stephens thought he saw a glimmer of consternation there - although that could have been the Scotch, which hadn't been offered around - and when he finally nodded his fellows followed suit, and with alarmingly similar nods too. In fact what he’d seen was pride, which to an Andromedan is the same thing as consternation, as well as embarassment, shame. In fact, the Andromedans' greatest expression of pride was not unlike the kind of shivering revulsion that accompanies the memory of a really incomprehensible drunk-dial about three days after the fact.
Here Trudy Carlisle couldn’t help but speak up. ‘It might be better if they went in the other room and we stayed in here and listened through the door.’
‘Alright then, erm, Marlak... Will you take your... Uh, your compatriots outside and sing - ’ here Trudy Carlisle made what might have been a maddeningly indeterminate gesture but one which was nevertheless perfectly clear to the Bishop ‘ - uh, perform us a bit of your national anthem.’
With a discreet nod from each of them, the aliens each in their own inimitable way rose and turned fluidly and/or jerkily and left the Bishop’s office, so honoured stroke ashamed were they to be performing their national anthem in such a holy place as this.
Meanwhile Felicia and the vicar remained seated, their faces rather like carved masks of skepticism, as the Bishop rose and crossed the room with Trudy Carlisle, and Frederick Toady. Here he closed his office door, then called out for them to begin; Trudy covered her ears, and motioned to Toady and the Bishop to do the same...
At once the outer (and indeed the inner) office was filled by what sounded like a calliope underwater, or a dozen bagpipers drowning in a car wash - perhaps, even more grotesquely than that, Lady Thatcher singing a medley of Girls Aloud hits in the shower - followed almost immediately by the horrifying shriek which was as much a part of her as her lank hair and her heavy thighs, accompanied by the most awful - even Dickensian - retching sounds which, the way his luck was going today, also belonged to the suddenly hapless Miss Reed.
The performing stopped and the bishop flang the door to his outer office to discover his secretary once again passed out, her hair and clothing utterly disarranged and her body in a kind of position every yoga instructor and Pilates teacher in Knightsbridge would have given their well-developed abdominal muscles to achieve, a vast pool of fresh vomit gradually seeping into the old, if not exactly antique, wall-to-wall carpeting on the floor of the waiting room beneath her.
‘You’ve got a deal,’ said the bishop, who returned to his desk to ring 999 while the aliens, Trudy, and Toady rejoiced at the news and Felicia and the vicar stormed angrily out, potential imprecations seeming to rise in cartoon-like wisps of steam from their heads...
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