From Stenwick Days, by R. T. Johnston
Looking out from between the two large piles of biscuit tins which made her shop window a fore-ordained also-ran in the contest to find Orkney’s best-dressed window, Mrs Janet Manson, postmistress of Stenwick, saw three figures coming down the road and recognised them as the trio of personalities who bulked largest in the parish gossip of the moment. They were Boris Corsie of Netherdung, Medusa Wishart of Mucklebruck, and Nathaniel Swanney of Drycuithe.
For six months now Boris and Nathaniel had been wooing Medusa ardently, and the question all Stenwick was asking was, “Whar will shae tak?” It was not, however, an easy question to answer, and even Medusa, the person best placed to answer it, could not do so. Medusa seemed totally unable to decide between the two, and the inability worried her, the more so as she was a girl who disliked prolonging a delicate situation indefinitely. The other night her father had drawn her aside and had told her, with a vertain curtness, “For goad’s seck, lass, mak up thee mind whar’s coortin’ thee, for a’m seek o’ seein’ yin two fellas in here for supper night efter night, an’ if thoo kinno pick wen a’ll keek the both o’ them oot.”
At times, it seemed to Medusa, Boris Corsie seemed the more desirable suitor, but just as she was on the point of informing Nathaniel that his chances were nil and that he had better direct his attention to some other girl while the blood of youth still ran hot in his veins, some hitherto unnoticed facet of Nathaniel’s personality would obtrude itself upon her and his stock would rise with a rush.
As they drew abreast of the Post Office Medusa said, “Wett for me a meenit, berns. A’m gaun in here.”
“A’ll come in wi’ thee,” said Boris Corsie.
“So will I,” said Nathaniel Swanney, giving Boris a sharp, suspicious glance.
“There’s neun o’ the two o’ thee comin’ in wi’ me,” snapped Medusa, “for a’m wantin’ tae spick tae Chenet Cutt aboot some private metters.”
“Cheust as thoo like, lass,” said Boris, “bit dinno be lang, for when thoo’re oot o’ me sight the sun stops shinin’.”
“Dis id, Boris?” asked Medusa. “Dis thoo think so an’ all, Nathaniel?”
“Weel, I kinno say a’m notteeced id,” said Nathaniel Swanney, a literally-minded individual, “for the sun is no been oot for days.”
Medusa frowned a little as she turned to enter the shop. Nathaniel was not a patch on Boris when it came to making complimentary remarks. On the other hand, Boris was, if anything, too free with his pretty speeches. At the last Harvest Home she had overheard him saying the same thing, merely substituting the starts for the sun, to Audrey Craigie.
She pushed open the door and entered the ship, to the jangling clamour of the little bell which announced the advent of a customer.
Boris Corsie leaned against the gable of the shop, lit a cigarette, and directed a pointed look at his rival.
“There’s no need tae thee tae wett, Swenney,” he said. “A’ll see Medusa home tae Mucklebruck.”
“Hid’s all right,” replied Nathaniel. “I dinno mind wettin’. A’m gaun no wey ither.”
Boris Corsie’s eyebrows drew together a little.
“Noo, luk here, boy,” he said sharply, “if I wis Medusa I wid be cheust aboot fed up wi’ thee hingin’ aboot whar thoo’re no wanted. No doot thoo’ll be hard the ould sayin’ – two’s company, an’ three’s a crowd.”
“Yaas, a’m hard id,” said Nathaniel, “an’ thir’s noathing tae hinder thee tae go home.”
Boris laughed scoffingly. “Some hopp o’ me gaun home. Boy, is id no dawn’t on thee yet that thoo hisno a chance o’ winnin’ Medusa. All thoo’re daein’ is mak’ theesel a deshed nuisance. I kinno get aheid wi’ me coortin’ as lang as thoo’re aroond. A’m sheur Medusa disno want thee.”
“All shae his tae dae is say id then,” said Nathaniel evenly. “An’ a’m no hard her sayin’ id yet.”
“Likely shae disno want tae hurt thee feelins. Bit no doot shae thinks thoo shid hiv the sense tae see that thoo’re no wanted. Desh I widno care if thoo made yeuse o’ the time thoo’re wi’ iss, but thoo niver oppen thee mooth herdly.”
“I get deshed little chance o’ oppenin’ id,” retorted Nathaniel, with some bitterness, “for thee mooth’s niver shut. It’s yap, yap, yap all the time wi’ thee. Medusa’s heid min be ferly ringin’ wi’d a mony a time.”
Boris threw his cigarette to the ground and stamped his foot on it angrily.
“Luk here, Swenney,” he said bluntly, “er thoo asked her tae mairry thee yet?”
“Er thoo?” asked Nathaniel warily.
“An’ noathing daein?”
“Weel, no yet, but id’s cheust a metter o’ time noo. I ken be the wey shae luks at me that shae’ll say yaas in a peedie while.”
“Whit wey dis shae luk at thee?”
“Hid’s diffeecult tae explain. A saft, tender kind o’ wey.”
“I ken the kind o’ wey thoo mean,” said Nathaniel, “a’m seen her lukkin’ at me the same wey.”
“Thoo’re spickin’ oot o’ the back o’ thee neck,” said Boris huffily, and the conversation lapsed.
Meanwhile, in the Post Office, Medusa had been opening her heart to Mrs Manson.
“I cheust hid tae come in here a meenit, Chenet,” she said, “tae git awey fae them. Hid’s fine in a wey tae hiv two men wantin’ tae mairry thee, bit id’s aafil herd on the nerves in a time.”
“Yaas,” agreed the postmistress, who had never been in the happy position of having two suitors, or she would never have married the one she did, “id min be kindo ackward, right enough.”
“I kin niver get awey fae them,” sighed Medusa, “they’re always watchin’ wen anither, tae mak’ sheur a’m no wi’ wen when the ither’s no there. If wen comes tae the hoose tae see me the ither’s no fer ahint, an’ if wen meets me on the road the ither’s sheur tae turn up in a peedie meenit. I dinno ken whit tae deu.”
Janet Manson made a slightly impatient gesture. She would have liked to tell Medusa that in her (Janet’s) opinion, she (Medusa) was a freck o’ dirt, but Medusa was a good customer at the shop and it would have been foolish to antagonise her.
“I ken whit I wid dae,” she said. “Tell wen o’ them that thoo’ll mairry him, an’ the ither will clear oot, if he his ony menners at all.”
“Yaas, bit whit wen?” wailed Medusa.
“Weel, thoo’ll hiv tae mak’ up thee mind aboot hid. Thoo’ll hiv tae decide wen wey or the ither, seuner or litter, for thoo kinno mairry the both o’ them, that’s wen thing certain.”
“I wish I kent whar tae tak’” said Medusa. “Id wid be aafil tae tak’ wen, an’ the find it wur the wrong wen.”
“I wance read a storry,” said Mrs Manson, somewhat inconsequentially, “aboot a lass what wis in love wi’ two men, an’ shae didno ken whar tae tak’, so she made them fight a duel, an’ that solved her diffeeculty, for wen wis killed an’ shae mairried the ither.”
Medusa pursed her lips. “I dinno think I wid like that. I widno like tae hiv onybody’s blid on me conscience. Onywey, I herdly think fighting duels is allooed nooadays.”
The postmistress did not think so either, but it had been a romantic idea.
“Weel, my mighty, Medusa,” she suggested, “if thoo kinno decide ony ither wey, cheust toss a penny, an’ if id comes doon heids mairry Corsie an’ if id comes doon tells mairry Swenney.”
“That’s aafil like gamblin,” demurred Medusa.
“Weel, whit’s mairrage bit a gamble onywey?” asked Mrs Manson cynically.
“I wur up last night till weel after twelve,” said Medusa, “makkin’ oot a list o’ thir qualifeecations as a hussband.”
She took a sheet of paper from her handbag. “Wid thoo like tae hear whit I wrott doon?”
“Tell me,” said the postmistress eagerly.
“Here id is. Boris Corsie – the best lookin’, bit wi’ bendy legs an’ gaun a peedie bit bald at the back o’ the heid. Geud company, geud at makkin’ me laugh, a grand kisser, an’ geud at payin’ me compleements. No aafil weel aff, bit chenerous wi’ his money. Gies me plenty presents an’ sweeties, an’ tak’s me tae plenty o’ dances. A geud footballer –“
“Whit his bein’ a geud footballer got tae deu wi’ bein’ a geud hussband?” broke in Janet.
“No muckle, I suppose,” admitted Medusa, “bit I cheust thowt I wid pit id doon.”
“That’s for the credit side, as thoo might say. Noo, on the debit side – he’s a peedie bit ower fond o’ home brew, he smocks a lot, an’ he his a wanderin’ eye for ither lasses at times. That’s all I hiv doon aboot Boris. Noo for Nathaniel. No aafil weel-like, bit wi’ a geud heid o’ hair, an’ all his own teeth. A grand hand wi’ a ploo, an’ a herd worker. Fock weel aff, bit carefil wi’ his money.”
“Carefil,” echoed Mrs Manson. “Doonright mean, I wid say.”
“No, I widno say he wis mean. He says this is uncertain times, an’ he disno approve o’ squanderin’ money, except he’s gaun tae git geud value for id. Disno smock. Disno drink. Geud prospects. On the debit side – peur company, herdly oppens his mooth when he’s wi’ me, an’ no very romantic tae be on a soffa wi’, wi’ the lights oot, for he’ll niver spick aboot love, bit cheust aboot the stit o’ the crops, an’ the price o’ feedin stuff. No muckle o’ a kisser, the wey his mooth is aafil weet. That’s all I hiv aboot Nathaniel. Whit dis thoo think?”
Janet stared at her. “My mercy, Medusa, I wid say thir’s no compareeson. Boris Corsie is fer aheid o’ Nathaniel Swenney.”
Medusa seemed surprised. “Lockars, dis thoo think so? I wid say thir cheust aboot equal. I wish thir wis some test I could mak’ them dae for me, cheust tae shaw hoo muckle they think o’ me, an’ I wid mairry the wen whar made the best chob o’ id.”
At this moment there entered the Post Office, Barnabas Sabiston, leader of the musical combine known as the Stenwick Hill Billies, a boisterous young man who is chiefly responsible for organising dances, concerts, and entertainments generally in Stenwick, and the deus ex machina of this story, though the probability is that if anyone called him a deus ex machina to his face he would respond with a considerable lack of cordiality.
“Ay, Medusa,” Barnabas greeted the daughter of Mucklebruck with an affable nod, “I thowt thoo wir there, for I saa thee two boy freends ootside, glowerin’ at wen anither like the very deevil. Noo, Mrs Manson, will thoo stick this bill up in the window or in the coonter, the wey fock kin see id, for id’ll be the grettest attraction o’ the ‘ear in Stenwick.”
And so saying he unrolled a large sheet of paper, handprinted in gaudy colours, and held it up for the inspection of the two ladies.
“Enormous Attraction,” the bill ran. “Grand Concert in the Parish Hall, on Friday, 16th October, by Barnabas Sabiston and his Stenwick Hill Billies. Full Variety Programme by leading West Mainland Artistes, including Check Turfus. During the Programme there will be a Grand Crooning Contest, open to All Amateur Crooners in Stenwick, for the Parish Crooning Championship. No Entry Fee. Handsome Prizes. Barnabas Sabiston invites All Comers to Have a Go. Doors open 7 p.m., commence 7.30. Admission 2s, children 1s. Roll Up in your Thousands.”
“Boy boy,” said Mrs Manson, much impressed, “id shid be a gret affair, Barnabas, an’ espeecially this croonin’ contest. Id’ll be a right pant. Is id for men an’ weemin?”
“No,” said Barnabas, “hid’s cheust for men.”
“I doot,” said the postmistress, “thoo’ll no git mony entries. The men in Stenwick is aafil faird for makkin’ gappuses o’ thirsels, an’ crooners is no thowt muckle o’ here onywey.”
“Oh if I git a couple tae enter, that’s all I need,” said Barnabas lightly. He turned to Medusa. “Why no git Boris an’ Nathaniel tae enter? Id might help thee tae pick the wen thoo’re gaun tae mairry.” And with a wave of his hand he left the shop.
In Medusa’s eyes appeared the expression of one who has seen a great light.
“Feth,” she cried, “that’s the test a’m been wantin’ tae pit. That’s cheust whit a’ll deu. A’ll mak’ them enter for the croonin’ contest, an’ tell them a’ll mairry the winner o’d.”
“Maybe neun o’ the two o’ them will win id,” objected Mrs Manson.
“If thir’s cheust the two o’ them in for id, wen o’ them’s bound tae win id,” retorted Medusa impatiently.
“Bit thoo dinno ken thir’ll cheust be the two o’ them in id.”
“Dinno tell me the Stenwick men’s gaun in for onything as daft as a croonin’ contest except thir forced tae. No, thir’ll cheust be Boris an’ Nathaniel in id.”
“H’m,” said the postmistress, “thir no in id yit.”
“They’ll be, though,” said Medusa with a jut of her jaw, “for a’ll tell them that if they’ll no dae a simple thing like enter for a croonin’ contest for me seck a’m feenished wi’ them both. An’ if wen goes an’ the ither disno, a’ll mairry the wen whar goes, an’ as fer as a’m concerned the ither kin go an’ chump in the Loch o’ Stenwick.”
“Weel, plaze theesel, Medusa,” said Mrs Manson with a shrug. “Id’s wen wey o’ pickin’ a man. Id widno be me wey. Whar wants a hussband whar kin croon?”
“Seein’ that i’s gaun tae be me hussband,” snapped Medusa, “cheust thoo let me worry aboot that.” She moved to the door, pausing to say, “an’ by the wey, Chenet, thoo’ll maybe be geud enough tae trit whit a’m said tae thee as confeedential. I dinno want me intention tae git aroond.”
She had scarecely closed the door behind her when the parish bush telegraph, of which Mrs Manson is the nerve centre, crackled into action. Less than an hour later, all Stenwick knew of the vital issues that were to hang on the crooning contest.
When Medusa joined her two suitors outside the Post Office they could tell instantly that something was brewing, by the sparkle in her eye, and the speculative glances she kept darting from one to the other. It was not, however, till they had escorted her to the gates of Mucklebruck that they were enlightened.
“Weel,” she announced, “a’m made up me mind whar a’m gaun tae mairry.”
There was what is popularly known as a pregnant silence.
Then Boris Corise took a deep breath, and asked, “Whar?”
“The wen,” said Medusa, “whar wins the croonin’ contest.”
“Whit croonin’ contest?” asked Boris.
Medusa explained, and there was another pregnant silence. Boris chewed his underlip. As for Nathaniel, he shrank visibly.
“Thoo mean,” said Nathaniel, in a hollow voice, “thoo want iss tae go up on the stage, an’ sing in front o’ fock?”
A tremor ran through Nathaniel. A shy, backward individual, mouthless even in the society of his closest friends, he found the thought of appearing in front of an audience, let alone singing to it, one that struck terror to his soul.
“In that case,” he stated flatly, “thoo kin coont me oot.”
Medusa’s lips tightened.
“Thoo’ll no deu id?”
“I couldno, no for love nor money.”
“No even for both? Thoo’ll git me if thoo win, an’ thir’s a prize o’ five pound as weel.”
Nathaniel shook his head. Medusa turned to Boris.
“Whit aboot thee?”
Boris is scarcely of so retiring a disposition as Nathaniel, and as a member of the Stenwick football team he is frequently in the public eye. Still, even he quailed at the prospect of appearing in a crooning contest. For him the footlights held no magic. Only once in his life had he appeared on the stage, and it had been an experience of which he had gruesome recollections. At the age of eight he had been cajoled into participating, at a Sunday School soiree, in an ensemble entitled “Who Killed Cock Robin?” His had not been the leading role, nor even a particularly exacting one. All he had been required to do was step forward, at a given cue, and intone the lines:
“I, said the owl,
With my little trowel,
I’ll dig the grave,”
yet, on the night of the performance he had made the most frightful botch of this simple task, and had fled in humiliation from the platform, pursued by the jeers and catcalls of the audience. Even yet the memory made his flesh creep.
“Weel, Medusa,” he replied, “I kinno say I think muckle o’ the idea. Kin thoo no think o’ a better way o’ decidin?”
The girl’s eyes flashed. “No. An’ a’m no gaun tae try. If thoo’ll fail hert on a peedie thing like this, thoo’re no muckle worth.”
Boris sighed. “Weel, a’ll mak an aafil gappus o’ mesel, bit a’ll dae id.”
“Geud on thee, boy. That settles id than, for if thoo’re gaun tae enter an’ Nathaniel Swenney is no thir’s no need –“
“Wett,” broke in Nathaniel, in a strangled voice.
“Weel?” inquired Medusa eagerly.
The agonised contortions of Swanney’s face were evidence of the struggle that was going on within him. His whole being recoiled from the prospect of singing on the stage as an Aberdeen-Angus breeder recoils from the sight of a herd of Friesians, but, shy as he is, there is a dour quality about Nathaniel Swanney that makes him resent giving in without a struggle. Ultimately he bowed his head, in the attitude of one accepting his fate, and muttered: “A’ll enter for the contest teu.”
“Weel spocken,” cried Medusa. “Noo, thoo’ll better both go right home an’ start tae practeese.”
The arrival of Friday evening saw the Parish Hall packed to its doors. Barnabas Sabiston’s concerts were always popular, but never had there been one as popular as this. It was a complete sell-out. Long before the curtain was due to rise people were standing round the sides of the hall and clinging to the window sills. The last time the Parish Hall had held such a throng had been when Persephone Garson, a bright young thing just demobbed from the Waafs, had been billed to do a fan dance, an intention which had unfortunately been nipped in the bud by the Kirk Session. The reason for the huge crowd was, of course, the appearance in the crooning contest of Boris and Nathaniel, for all Stenwick knew that the winner was to receive, in addition to the five pound prize, the hand of Medusa Wishart.
As Medusa herself had shrewdly foreseen, Boris and Nathaniel were the only competitors, so that it was clear that a decision would be reached in the marital stakes one way or other.
Boris and Nathaniel were to do their stuff, Barnabas had told them, immediately prior to the interval. Till then they had merely to wait in the dressing-room and take it easy. They were now waiting, but finding it hard to take it easy. As item followed item, and zero hour approached, both were getting into a state of nervous tension that developed with increasing rapidity. They manifested this in accordance with their respective temperaments. Boris paced up and down the room, feverishly smoking cigarette after cigarette, biting his mails, and muttering incessantly the words of ‘The Rose of Tralee’, which he had elected to render. From time to time he darted to the crack in the wall which enabled a view to be had of the audience, and he was disturbed to observe, in the front, or ringside seats, a considerable number of his colleagues of the football team. During the past few days he had had to endure no little chaff from the football team on the subject of his crooning, good-natured, it was true, but he had sensed an undertone of resentment that one of their number should let the team down by stooping so low as enter for a crooning contest.
About the quality of his crooning Boris was under no delusions. He had been practising hard at Netherdung, but he had quickly realised that he must be an exception to the adage that practice makes perfection. It might be coincidence that since he had started practising, two of his father’s employees had given notice, his sister’s canary had died and the collie had run away, but he did not think so. He could only hope that Nathaniel Swanney’s crooning was worse than his own.
As for Nathaniel, he was sitting bolt upright in a chair in the corner of the room, his fingers outspread on his knees, his eyes fixed on the opposite wall in a ghastly, unseeing stare. But for the fact that now and again his tongue flicked from his mouth to lick his dry lips he might have been taken for a corpse.
Into the dressing-room came Barnabas Sabiston, beaming more expansively than usual, for he stood to line his pockets well off this evening’s entertainment.
“Weel, boys,” he said, “hoo er thoo feelin’? Hid’ll no be lang noo. Check Turfus is cheust gaun on, an’ thoo’re efter him.”
Boris Corsie gulped a little. “Could – could thoo no pit iss litter on in the programme, boy?” he pleaded.
Barnabas frowned. “Kinno be deun, boy. The audience widno like id. Whit’s wrang wi’ thee? Thoo’re no faird o’ gaun on, er thoo?”
“I am hid,” muttered Boris.
“Thoo’ll be all right wance thoo’re oot on the stage,” said Barnabas reassuringly. “Dae thee best noo, an’ dinno let thee lass doon. Shae’s a right nice lass, Medusa. A’m cheust been spickan tae her.”
“Is shae here?”
“Of coorse she’s here. Shae kens geud singin’ when shae hears id teu. Shae wur compleementin’ me on me solo. Shae said shae hid niver hard ‘The Rose o’ Tralee’ sung better.”
Boris started. “ ‘The Rose o’ Trallee.’ Did thoo sing hid?”
“That’s whit a’m singin’ in the contest.”
“Desh that,” said Barnabas in irritation. “Kin thoo no sing something ither?”
“I dinno ken noathing ither.”
Barnabas shrugged. “Oh weel, id kinno be helped. A’ll go noo. A’ll gie thee a shout when id’s time tae thee tae go on the stage.” He cocked an ear appreciatively as, from the platform, there came the thunderous vibrations of Check Turfus’s imitation of a bull bogling. “Check’s in gret form the night. He’ll sure tae get an encore, so that means thoo hiv aboot five meenits yet.”
He moved over to Nathaniel Swanney, who had neither moved nor spoken during the conversation, and slapped him on the shoulder with a hearty, “Cheer up, boy.” Nathaniel leaped to his feet with a ringing screech, as if a hornet had stung him, pivoted twice, and dropped back into his chair in the same attitude as before. Barnabas surveyed him thoughtfully. “Geud,” he remarked, “he’s no in a fit stit tae go an’ croon. His thoo no a drem thoo kin gie him, boy?”
“He disno touch the stuff,” explained Boris.
“Weel, weel,” said Barnabas, and left the dressing-room, shrugging his shoulders. From outside came a deafening roar of applause, signifying that Check Turfus had just concluded his imitation of a bull bogling, but as Barnabas had foreseen there followed a clamour for an encore such as few artistes, and certainly not Check Turfus, could resist.
It occurred to Boris Corsie that Barnabas Sabiston’s suggestion of a dram was a good one. He had a half bottle of whisky in his pocket, and though he had intended to croon without the aid of Dutch courage, the strain on his nerves had become such that flesh and blood could resist it no longer.
He took out the bottle, uncorked it, and helped himself to a generous swig, and was about to pocket the bottle again when he noticed Nathaniel Swanney staring at it yearningly. Boris’s first thought was, “Desh him, whit wey shid I gie him ony help?” but in spite of himself he was touched by the stark misery on Swanney’s face.
“Here, boy,” he grunted, “tak’ a sook at this. Thoo luk as if thoo need id.” And he extended the bottle.
Swanney hesitated for a moment, as if reluctant to break his lifelong abstinence, then he snatched the bottle, and tilted it to his lips.
Boris watched tolerantly, expecting to see his rival break into a fit of choking after the first sip, but the bottle remained at Swanney’s mouth, and rose slowly from the horizontal to the vertical.
“That’ll deu, boy,” cried Boris in alarm, “my mercy that’ll –“
Nathaniel handed back the bottle, empty.
“My geud goad,” gasped Boris, “thoo’re feenished id.”
Nathaniel drew his hand across his mouth, “Yin wur geud,” he said.
He got to his feet, and stood there somewhat waveringly. There was a flush on his face, and a sparkle in his eye. He hiccupped violently. “I feel—hic—gret,” he announced.
Barnabas Sabiston appeared in the doorway. “Come awey boys,” he said. “Id’s time for the contest.” He noted with gratification the more animated demeanour of Swanney, drawing the obvious conclusion from the bottle in Boris’s hand.
“I thowt thoo said he niver touched id,” he commented.
“Touched id,” grunted Boris. “He’s feenished id.”
“All the better,” said Barnabas. “Noo, come awey.”
There was a deafening roar from the audience, not of applause, but of laughter, as Barnabas led Boris and Nathaniel on to the stage, for Nathaniel for some reason known only to himself, had turned his cap back to front, and had rolled up the legs of his trousers, displaying a pair of yellow socks held up by mauve and vermilion suspenders. The laughter intensified as Swannay, reaching the centre of the stage, began to cavort in small circles, in a grotesque semblance of a Highland Fling. Boris eyes this performance gloomily, thinking how ironic it was that it had been himself who had put Nathaniel into this carefree frame of mind. Already, without even having started to croon, Nathaniel was well on the way to being the hit of the show, while he, Boris Corsie, was twice as self-conscious as before.
“Ladies an’ chentlemen,” announced Barnabas, “wae noo come tae the highspot o’ the evenin’, a contest for the croonin’ championship o’ Stenwick. As thoo see, wae hiv two competeetors, both o’ them weel known, Nathaniel Swenney o’ Drycuithe –“ here Nathaniel skipped forward, swept off his cap and bowed low with a wide and fatuous grin, “—an’ Boris Corsie o’ Netherdung.” Boris looked sheepishly down at the platform, and shuffled his feet.
“This contest,” proceeded Barnabas, “will be judged be the audience, the competeetor whar gits the loodest applause tae be the winner. The winner will receive a prize o’ a five pound nott, an’ thir’ll be a conseelation prize o’ ten bob for the ither competeetor. An’ noo a’ll call on the first competeetor, Boris Corise, whar is gaun tae croon ‘The Rose o’ Tralee’.”
There was a murmur from the audience at this, which was put into words by old Godfrey Ritch, who bawled from the fifth row, “Wur hard hid already.”
“A’m pointed hid oot tae Boris,” said Barnabas, “bit id seems id’s the only wen he kens.”
Boris stepped forward, while Barnabas, who was accompanying, sat down at the piano. There was a light sweat on Boris’s face, and the massed faces of the audience seemed to swim before his eyes. He took a deep breath, and as the piano tinkled he burst into song.
The audience listened with increasing restlessness. Musical standards in Stenwick are by no means high, but when an audience has heard ‘The Rose of Tralee’ sung well, it is apt to be impatient of a second rendering by someone who sounds like a bullfrog suffering from laryngitis, which is a not inaccurate description of Boris Corsie’s voice. Thus when Boris concluded the first verse there was a stony silence, broken by a remark from Jasper Jolly, one of the vocalist’s football team-mates: “Boy, come doon fae there. Thoo’re hoppless.”
As Boris began the second verse the audience’s hostility became less passive. Old Ritch bawled, “Stoop, for goad’s seck,” and several rolled-up programmes were flung at the stage, one of which hit Boris between the eyes. Boris sang on grimly, but with ebbing hopes. In the fourth row of the audience he saw Medusa, and on her face was an expression of intense repugnance. Rolled-up programmes began to shower around him. He floundered, halted, and stammered, “A’m forgot the rest o’ the wirds.”
“Thank the Pope for hid,” yelled Jasper Jolly derisively, and Boris, head bowed, withdrew to the rear of the stage.
“An’ noo,” said Barnabas, “a’ll call on wur second competeetor, whar is gaun tae croon –“ He glanced questioningly towards Nathaniel, who retorted promptly, “Whit will we deu wi’ the Dounby Lasses.”
Nathaniel advanced with a rollicking swagger to the front of the stage, and without waiting for the piano, unbuttoned his jacket, stuck his thumbs in the armholes of his waistcoat, executed an impromptu little step dance, and launched into the well-known and slightly scandalous ditty.
“Whit will we deu wi’ the Dounby Lasses” does not altogether lend itself to crooning, and Nathaniel did not attempt to croon it. He roared it out at the top of his voice, improvising lines to replace those which escaped his memory, prancing back and forth between verses like a high-spirited foal, kicking up his heels, waving his arms, and for variety accompanying himself on an imaginary accordion. Between the quality of Nathaniel’s voice and Boris’s there was little to choose. If Boris’s resembled that of a bullfrog with laryngitis Nathaniel’s was like that of a crow with croup, but in the technique of putting a number across there was no comparison. Nathaniel left Boris standing, and when he finished it was to an ovation that nearly ripped the rafters of the hall from their sockets.
“Weel, fock,” said the grinning Barnabas Sabiston, “thir’s no doot whar’s the winner o’ this contest. I hiv gret pleasure in declarin’ Nathaniel Swenney the croonin’ champion o’ Stenwick, and in hendin’ him the five pund nott first prize.”
It was a glum-faced Boris Corsie who, ten minutes later, wandered out of the dressing-room and round to the back of the hall, to smoke a cigarette and consider his defeat. His mind was seared with the knowledge that by giving Swanney that whisky he had compassed his own downfall, but who, he asked himself forlornly, could have foreseen that the gesture would transform a stolid tongue-tied clurt into a veritable Harry Lauder. He sighed. Ah well, life was like that, and it was perhaps better to have loved and lost then never to have loved at all.
Just then he found himself joined by Nathaniel Swanney, but a Nathaniel of considerably less exuberant demeanour than when Boris had last seen him.
“Weel?” grunted Boris, “I suppose thoo’re comed tae glot ower me. Or er thoo gaun tae invite me tae the weddeen?”
“Thir’ll be no weddeen,” said Nathaniel shortly. “No as fer as a’m concerned onywey.”
Boris stared at him.
“Whit dis thoo mean? Er thoo no gaun tae mairry Medusa?”
“She’s no gaun tae mairry me. A’m cheust been spickan tae her. Shae said that efter yin exheebition shae couldno stend the thowt o’ mairryin’ ony o’ the two o’ iss.”
“My giddy geud. The deshed bizzon indeed, brakkin’ her promeese. So shae’s gaun tae mairry nobody.”
“Shae’s gaun tae mairry Barnabas Sabeeston. She telt me shae hid come tae the conclusion that him an’ her wis made for wen anither.”
“So wae cheust made geups o’ wirsels for noathing,” said Boris. His lips tightened. “That’s weemin for thee.”
“That’s weemin,” agreed Nathaniel.
There was a short silence.
“When time dis the ber at Dounby shut?” asked Nathaniel presently. “I hiv a five pund nott I wid like tae spend.”
“An’ I hiv ten bob,” said Boris. He glanced at his watch. “If wur queek wae kin hiv half an’ oor there.”
As they pedalled furiously up the road to Dounby Nathaniel remarked, in tones of satisfaction: “Thir’s wen thing I hiv tae thank Medusa for. If id hidno been for her I widno ken whit a grand tist thir is wi’ whisky.”