"You look very smart," said Terry's mum, straightening my tie and flicking at some invisible speck of dust on my lapels. I was wearing my only suit, the one I'd last worn to a funeral, and it seemed rather more strained than smart to me, as it had clearly shrunk while hanging in the wardrobe. Terry, stood next me so that we formed an abbreviated police line-up, was also wearing a suit, but his looked as though it fit, and was very definitely smart. His expression suggested he'd rather be upstairs looking after the exchange student manacled to the bedroom wall however.
"Thank-you again for coming with me," said Terry's mum, "it's very good of you boys to give up an evening to chaperone me." Her eyes twinkled mischievously, and she turned in a swirl of silk and taffeta and picked her sequined handbag up from the kitchen table, and led the way out to the car.
"Do you think mum's overdone it a bit?" asked Terry in a low voice. "A bit of a... well, a painted jezebel?"
I dug him in the ribs and heard the fabric on my suit stretch warningly. "No, Terry," I whispered back. "And let her have her fun, it's a society ball. How often do we get invites to things like this?"
"Mum gets them all the time," he said, still sotto voce. "Normally she just sends something inappropriate back, like a Get Well Soon card."
I shrugged, and hurried forwards to hold the car door open for his mother.
The society ball was being held at Foxworth Hall, 'a stately pile' as Terry's mum described it, not far from Richmond. Terry was driving, and being chivvied on by his mum who felt that he wasn't being aggressive enough on the road. I'd found it funny until she'd grabbed the steering wheel to swerve the car close enough to a cyclist to force them off the road and into a ditch. She turned round in her seat to look at me, and said,
"One of those bastards nearly ran me down during the war!"
"That's a long time to hold a grudge, Mrs. M," I replied.
Terry drew up the gravelled drive too fast, with sprays of gravel flying out from under the wheels and onto the manicured lawns, and had to execute a hand-brake turn in the turning circle at the end of the drive. Gravel spattered against stained glass windows and antique brickwork, and Terry's mum giggled girlishly. A slightly startled looking footman in brick-red livery with gold and silver frogging approached the car cautiously, his hand held protectively in front of his face, and opened the door for Mrs. M. She got out, somehow contrived to take his arm, and marched him back up to the Hall and the grand entrance. Terry and I followed, a valet appearing from out of nowhere to take the keys and park the car somewhere out of sight.
The ball appeared to be in full swing when we entered; the room was full of elderly gentlemen and ladies of a certain demeanour. The tall, saturnine gentlemen at the doors announced us as "Mrs. Mossbrook and gigolos" which made me double over with laughter and Terry's jaw drop as far as his knees, and then we were in and expected to be socialising.
I worked my way slowly around the room; at the far end was a seven-piece band at the side of an inlaid dance-floor (to distinguish it from the expensive parquet of the main floor). A few couples were dancing slowly to a rhumba. Just far away enough from the band to be tempting but still out of reach were the long buffet tables laden with appetisers, and amuse-bouche. A couple of ice-sculptures slowly melted, and a couple of butter sculptures melted faster in the middle of the dishes. I laid some vol-au-vents and cocktail sausages on a small bone-china plate and used this an excuse to refuse to dance with anyone. After the buffet table was the bar, with a couple of red-liveried barmen mixing cocktails to order, and on the other side of the room were some small tables and high-backed chairs, mostly filled by the most elderly of the guests.
Terry appeared at my elbow, looking a little dishevelled.
"Have you seen mum anywhere?" he said.
I frowned, and scanned the room. I couldn't see her anywhere. "She was talking to the bloke with the walrus moustache," I said, and then pointed. "But he's over there now. And before that she was with a tall bloke with black trousers--"
Terry sighed, as most of the men there were wearing black trousers, and only a handful were noticeably short.
"Every time I see her," he said, "she's leaving the room with another bloke on her arm. I don't know what she's up to."
I almost asked him if it mattered, and then I realised that it might just, especially if we had to leave in a hurry.
"You look a bit scruffier than when you arrived," I said instead. Terry looked harried all of a sudden.
"Yes," he said. "This ghastly woman keeps pursuing me and trying to show me the guest bedrooms. Apparantly they're just through that door over there." He pointed, just as the door opened and Terry's mum came in, with a short, military man limping behind her.
"Good grief," said Terry.
"Quite!" I said. "Isn't that Viscount Finchley?"
"Oh dear gods, what is she up to?"
"I don't know," I said, watching as she abandoned the luckless Viscount and swept up another man, this one wearing a sparkling white jacket, "but unless I'm seeing things, she's just managed to pick up Lord Fullhame."
The crowd moved and swirled like smoke in a gentle breeze and Terry's mum and the Lord disappeared from our view again. Terry suddenly looked panicked and managed to disappear himself, and a tall woman that made me think of a Great Dane strode past me with a determined set to her jaw. I smiled to myself, and wandered back to the bar for another Pink Lady.
"Nobody is to leave this room!" announced a stentorian voice suddenly, and a Rottweiler the size of a sheep pushed past me and raced to the buffet table. At the entrance to the hall stood a tall man wearing a police uniform, with a shorter, attractive woman at his side.
"Miss Flava will be taking your details from you, and no-one will be leaving until they have spoken to her."
The man was clearly Inspector Playfair, but what on earth was he doing here?
The room erupted into motion, with ladies screaming genteely and fainting wherever they could be sure of being caught. Some of the men were clearly more worried about the presence of the police, and so more than a couple of the ladies ended up on the floor, their saviours having already headed for the bedrooms and the toilets to lose the incriminating evidence.
"There's a bear at the buffet table," brayed a young man with Oscar Wilde hair, pointing at the Rottweiler.
"A bear? Where?" yelled an older man with a silver goatee and a slight shake that made me think he had Parkinson's. "Fetch me my gun, there's ladies in the room!"
"Anyone who shoots Calamity will be answering to me!" shouted Playfair, but only the people closest to him could hear him over the noise. Meanwhile, silver goatee had found a couple of kebab skewers and a toasting fork on the buffet table and was arming himself ready to tackle the dog.
Miss Flava stalked across the parquet floor, her three-inch stiletto heels stabbing down into the wood leaving expensive holes, and seized silver goatee by his neck and pinned him against an ice sculpture.
"Time to go, dear," said Terry's mum at my elbow. "There's a back way out, through the butler's pantry."
We hustled through, Terry's mum in front of me, pushing Terry along, having found him somehow as we crossed the ballroom, and found ourselves in the gravelled car park at the back of the hall.
"What the hell?" I managed as we piled into the car, and Terry started it.
"Oh, it's like that every year," said Terry's mum happily. "But I think I've had my fill of Heirs and Graces now."
Terry drove off, and I pretended I couldn't see the tears in his eyes.