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The Nutcombe Tales


An Unfortunate Habit

Denis Foster awoke in the morning sunlight. He turned and regarded the tousled blonde head on the pillow beside him. He had been lucky to have found so pleasant a companion for the night on his first day in Nutchester. She - what was her name? Ah, Astrid, that was it - Astrid had been working on the very next stand to his in the exhibition hall. By the end of the afternoon they had been in flirtatious conversation, and when the hall closed for the day they had left together.

After an evening's dining and dancing he had driven her back to the hostel a few miles out of town where she was staying with some other Dutch girls. Following her directions, he had parked in a lay-by next to a pair of high iron gates. She had taken him by the hand and led him through the darkness into the building and up to her room.

He recalled her waking him in the early hours and suggesting that it was time for him to leave. Not yet, he had replied, and pulled her to him. After a while they had both fallen asleep again.

He rose, pulled on his underpants, and went to the window. Opening the curtains, he looked up at the sky and stretched contentedly. Then his glance travelled downwards, and he found himself looking at a walled courtyard, full of people passing to and fro. They were all nuns.

*****

He shook Astrid rudely awake. Good God! Are you still here? she cried. Why didn't you wake me earlier? Now we're for it! She leapt from the bed and started hurriedly to dress.

What's going on? Denis asked. The place is full of nuns!

Of course it is, stupid! It's a convent, Nutcombe Priory.

A convent? You said it was a hostel!

It is. The nuns run a hostel for young catholic ladies from abroad.

Christ! How am I going to get out?

It's too late to sneak out unseen. Nuns will be working in the grounds all day. A man would stick out like a - well, never mind what like. For the time being you'll have to hide. Mother Superior will be on her rounds any second, and if she sees you here . . . Quick, you'd better hide in the wardrobe. Denis gathered up his clothes and squeezed into the wardrobe. He was no sooner hidden than the Mother Superior arrived.

What are you doing there, my girl? she asked, seeing Astrid at the window.

I was just fastening the window, Reverend Mother.

Well, leave it now, and come along. I haven't any time to spare.

The Mother Superior glanced around the room, found everything to her satisfaction, and left. Astrid joined the crocodile of girls behind her.

*****

When all was quiet, Denis emerged from the wardrobe and considered his position. He had come to Nutchester to supervise the finishing touches to the stand of Spence & Company of Cranbury, manufacturers of games and toys, at the County Show and Trade Fair. Mr Spence, the owner of the company and also Denis's father-in law - how else do you get to be Sales Director at the age of twenty-five? - had consented to his staying at a hotel in Nutchester for the duration of the fair, Denis having insisted that it would be necessary for him to work all hours to ensure the success of their display. He had been looking forward to the opportunities that would be offered by a few nights 'off the leash,' as he regarded it. Upon meeting Astrid, he had asked his assistant, Keith Brooks, to take his suitcase to the Imperial Hotel and tell them that he would check in later.

Luckily the opening of the exhibition was not until eleven o'clock. There was still plenty of time to get there. He would get ready and wait for Astrid to return. With any luck she would have come up with a plan to get him out, and he could be on his way with time to spare. He found a razor on the vanity unit, and washed and shaved. When he went to finish dressing, however, he could not find his trousers. He put the rest of his clothes on, sat on the bed, and waited, feeling peculiarly vulnerable without his trousers.

*****

Thirty minutes later Astrid returned, carrying a bundle.

I can't find my trousers, Denis complained. Where are they?

You dropped them on the floor. Reverend Mother nearly saw them. Luckily I spotted them just in time, and got rid of them.

Thank goodness. Where did you put them?

I threw them out of the window.

You did what? What on earth were you thinking of? Now what am I going to do?

I didn't have any choice, did I? You would have been caught if I hadn't.

And what do you think is going to happen when the nuns find them?

They already have, but it's all right. I saw a nun give them to Sister Constance. She collects unwanted clothing to give to down and outs. She's terribly careless - always leaving bits lying around. The nuns just thought the trousers were some of her stuff.

Well, all right, but how am I to get out without any trousers?

I've thought of that. I've brought a large size nun's habit. With this over your clothes, you should be able to walk out without attracting attention.

Astrid helped Denis to put on the nun's habit in the right order over his own clothes. When she had finished he looked every inch a nun, albeit a rather large and portly one. She took him down to a door and let him out. Following her instructions he walked slowly and demurely across the courtyard, head bowed, and along the path to the front gates. Passing through the gates he could see his own car a few yards down the road where he had parked it. He gave a sigh of relief and turned towards it. As he did so, a firm hand took hold of his elbow, and a voice said Now then, where do you think you are going?

*****

He turned to face his captor, and found a nun gazing on him benignly. This is the way, Sister, she said, and drew him towards the convent minibus and up the step to a seat inside. He sat and looked out of the window morosely. He was still trapped among the nuns, but now in a mobile prison, destination unknown.

When the bus was under way, Sister Agatha distributed collecting tins and issued instructions. He found that they were going to solicit funds on the streets of Nutchester, and was cheered somewhat to learn that at least he was heading in the right direction. In the town the minibus stopped at various points to allow the nuns to alight singly or in groups of two or three. He fingered the beads around his neck nervously and prayed that he would be let off on his own. His prayer was answered, and he found himself alone on a busy shopping street.

*****

At last he was free from the nuns. True, he was still wearing a nun's habit, but he had his own clothes on underneath, except for trousers. Were it not for that lack, he could doff the habit and take a taxi to the exhibition hall. He started to walk, looking for a tailor's. As he went, passers-by put coins in his collecting tin. He could not refuse them without attracting attention, so he accepted the donations with a grateful smile. He spotted a gents' outfitters with trousers in the window, and entered hopefully.

The shop assistant was unaccustomed to serving any female customer, let alone a nun. What can I do for you, Sister? he asked.

In as high a falsetto as he could trust, Denis replied, I'd like to see what you have in men's trousers.

The assistant thought, You shouldn't have become a nun then. Aloud he asked, What size and colour, Sister?

30 inch waist, 31 inside leg. Navy blue. Seeing the assistant's surprise at his familiarity with masculine measurements, Denis added, They are for the gardener.

The assistant selected a pair of trousers and laid them on the counter. Will these do, Sister? Or we have them also with a button fly.

Oh no, I prefer a zip, it saves so much time, Denis replied.

Seeing the look on the assistant's face, he hastily added, I mean, so the gardener says. These will do fine. I'll take them.

He reached instinctively for his wallet in his hip pocket and realised for the first time that it was not only his trousers that Sister Constance had, but also his wallet, his money, his driving licence, and his car keys.

Denis had no intention of relinquishing the trousers now that he had them literally in his hand. This was no time for the faint-hearted. Looking the assistant straight in the eye, he said firmly, Put them on our account.

Do you have an account with us, Sister?

The convent does.

The assistant found it hard to believe that a nunnery would have an account with a gentlemen's outfitters, but he hesitated to challenge the veracity of a nun. Seeing him waver, Denis added, If you don't believe me, ask the manager.

Anxious to be relieved of responsibility in the matter, the assistant went into the office at the back of the shop. As soon as he was gone, Denis quickly bundled the trousers up under his voluminous skirt until they were held in place by the girdle around his waist and strode rapidly out of the door.

*****

As he emerged onto the street he was greeted by Sister Agatha's strident voice. Ah, there you are, Sister. I was wondering where you'd got to. Come along, I have another street for you to do.

Is there no escape from these pesky nuns? Denis wondered as he was led rapidly along. At a crossroads they were halted by the traffic until the lights changed. Subtlety was not an option. When they started to cross the road, Denis nimbly turned back and went the other way. Caught up in the flow of pedestrians, Sister Agatha had perforce to continue on her way.

*****

Denis assessed his position. He was once again free of the nuns, and now had a pair of trousers. If he could find somewhere to change into them, he could ditch the nun costume. His only remaining problem would then be recovering his wallet and car keys.

Wondering where he might change, he walked along, absent-mindedly fingering the rosary around his neck. He looked up to see the front awning of the Imperial Hotel before him. Good Lord! These beads really work! he thought. I'm home and dry! With a light heart he entered the hotel and went to the desk.

Would you tell me the room number of Mr Denis Foster, please? he asked the clerk.

I'm sorry Sister, but Mr Foster didn't check in last night and we had to let his room go.

Denis involuntarily uttered an expression which caused the clerk's eyebrows to collide with his hair line.

We kept it as long as we could, said the clerk apologetically, badly shaken.

What about his luggage? Is that here?

Again, I'm sorry, Sister. We asked the YMCA if they could accommodate Mr Foster should he turn up late and fortunately they said yes, so we sent his suitcase there.

Uttering a few more execrations seldom heard among cloistered communities, Denis asked directions to the YMCA. Crossing himself furiously, the clerk provided them.

*****

Denis walked back into the street cursing his rotten luck, to be so near, yet so far. He should now be changing into his own clothes in the comfort of a hotel room, but instead had acquired the additional problem of errant luggage, requiring yet another mission. Following the hotel clerk's directions, he found the YMCA and approached the desk.

May I have Mr Foster's case, please? he asked.

The clerk eyed him suspiciously. Females were not allowed on the premises, but he was not sure whether nuns counted as females or not. Not unless you have some authority, he said at last.

I have Mr Foster's authority to collect it.

I can't accept that Sister. Even if you were Mr Foster himself - the clerk smile at so ridiculous a supposition - I'd have to ask you for some form of identification. Now please leave. This is a male establishment and you should not be in here.

But I must have that suitcase! Denis cried in exasperation. Damn well give it to me!

I think you'd better go before I call the police, said the clerk, pressing a bell concealed under the counter.

Out of the corner of his eye Denis saw other staff advancing. Discretion became the better part of valour. Good God! Have you no respect for the cloth? he cried as he fled.

*****

Panic was beginning to set in as he ran away down the street. He was still in nun's clothing, and without access to either his money or his luggage. He did have a pair of trousers, but nowhere to change into them. He looked at his watch. Ten forty! He had only twenty minutes to rid himself of the nun's habit and get to the official opening of the Fair by the Mayor.

Turning a corner he saw the canopy above the entrance to the Railway Hotel and made his way swiftly there. If he could change in the hotel, with a bit of luck he could still make it in time. He entered the hotel and followed the signs to the toilets. It was then that a problem struck him. In which loo should he change?

If he entered the ladies' he would leave dressed as a man, while if he wished to come out of the gents', he would have to enter as a nun. He soon concluded that the gents' was the obvious choice, for while he could not be certain who might be around as he left, he could keep watch to ensure the coast was clear before he entered. He counted those going in and coming out, and when he was confident that it was unoccupied he moved towards the door of the men's room.

Sister! The hotel porter gripped his arm. That is the gentlemen's wash-room! Here is the ladies'.

Let go, you fool! hissed Denis, struggling to free himself from the man's grip. Salvation was but a door away and no-one was going to stop him now. Let go, I say!

But Sister! the attendant persisted, tugging him towards the other door.

Denis cracked. He could not face another set-back. Are you going to let go, or do I have to belt you?

The porter did not relax his grip, so Denis delivered a right hook to the unfortunate man's stomach, leaving him gasping on the floor.

His were not the only gasps, however. As Denis looked around he saw that he had an astonished and horrified audience, leaving him no other option but to flee. He dashed along the corridor, brushing guests aside, and into the street, where there were taxis standing in a rank. He jumped into the first one and cried, The Exhibition Hall, and fast!

*****

The taxi made its way to the Fair and drew up at the entrance.

That'll be seven and six, said the cabbie.

Denis automatically felt for his wallet before remembering that he still had no money. Fumbling to reach his non-existent hip pocket had caused the coins in the collecting tin to rattle.

Have you got a knife? he asked.

The cabbie passed him one and watched as Denis cut around the tape securing the lid of the tin and took out the coins to pay him. As Denis entered the hall, the cabbie wrestled with a moral dilemma. He wanted his fare, but doubted that it was right for it to come from a charity collecting tin. On the other hand, it hardly seemed proper to suspect a nun of wrongdoing.

Denis strode thankfully into the hall. He was still in nun's clothing, and still without his money and luggage, but he was now on home territory and could call upon the assistance of Keith. The Mayor had just finished his welcoming address, and exhibitors and buyers were slowly dispersing towards the various stands. Denis looked towards his own display and saw Keith talking to a man whose face Denis could not see. He approached and whispered, Keith, may I have a word with you, please. It's urgent. At the sound of Denis's voice the stranger turned, and Denis froze as he came face to face with his father-in-law.

*****

Denis and Michael Spence stood looking at each other in mutual astonishment.

Denis? said his father-in-law, peering at him incredulously. Denis? Is that you?

Hello, sir, said Denis. I didn't expect to see you here. Have you come to see how the Exhibition's going?

Spence refused to be side-stepped. Denis, what on earth are you doing in that ridiculous costume?

Denis thought furiously. He couldn't tell the truth - It all began with my being unfaithful to your daughter, Mr Spence, on my first night away from home. All his native cunning sprang to the fore as he answered, It's a gimmick, sir. Inventing a story as he spoke, he claimed that the costume was a device to attract buyers' attention, to differentiate their stand from those of their rivals. He had, he said, thought of various ways to exploit the costume in his presentations - Even a novice will enjoy . . . None of your convent-ional games . . . You'll get into the habit . . . Your mother will enjoy our superior games . . . and so on.

Spence was not wholly convinced of either the effectiveness or the propriety of this novel approach, but as it was too late to alter it, he held his peace and moved away to inspect the other stands.

*****

Denis cursed his luck as he took his place on the stand. Because of his father-in-law's unexpected arrival, he was now committed to staying in the nun's habit all day. He was still separated from his wallet and his luggage, but these problems, he thought, he could now delegate.

To his surprise, his extemporised sales gimmick, with which he was now compelled to persist, did in fact attract favourable attention, and he was kept busy delivering his pun-laden presentation, but in time there was a lull, and he button-holed Keith. He instructed his assistant to book him a room at any hotel in town other than the Imperial or the Railway, and to collect his luggage from the YMCA and take it to that hotel. He gave him a note of authorisation for the YMCA, and impressed upon him that the hotel was to be instructed to retain the room until he appeared.

That left only the recovery of his money and car keys, and that he expected Astrid to accomplish. She had been taken aback to see him arrive at the exhibition hall still dressed as a nun, and had observed incredulously as he performed his presentations in that garb. He intended to speak to her as soon as the exhibition closed for the day, and get her to retrieve his trousers, or at least the wallet and car keys from them.

*****

As Michael Spence toured the exhibition hall examining his rivals' products, he gave a lot of thought to his son-in-law. He had never really taken to Denis, but his daughter Judy doted upon him, and so for her sake he had suppressed his doubts and given the lad rapid advancement. The previous evening Judy had told her parents that she was pregnant, and it was in his mind to take the opportunity to retire and hand the reins over to Denis. He had come to Nutchester to see Denis in action one more time before making a final decision and, if satisfied, to break the good news to him. His initial reaction on seeing Denis in nun's attire, and hearing his scheme to base his presentation upon it, was to abandon all thought of giving him control of the company. As the day went on though, and he saw the favourable attention his stand was receiving from the buyers and the media, he warmed towards his son-in-law.

Towards the end of the afternoon he approached Denis and with one arm around his shoulders drew him to a quiet section of the stand.

Now, Denis, you and I must have a chat about the future. Let's have dinner together at the Imperial and we can talk. Shall we say eight o'clock?

Yes, of course, sir, answered Denis.

You'd better drop this 'sir' business and call me Michael from now on.

Denis was astonished, since it had been Spence himself who had insisted on a formal mode of address from the very beginning, and he began to sense the plans which his father-in-law wished to discuss.

Did you phone Judy last night? Spence continued.

No, I didn't get a chance, Michael. As you could see, I've been too busy here today. I'll phone her tonight.

Best leave it until after we have had our chat, advised Spence, then you'll have some news for her. See you this evening then, Denis, about eight.

*****

When Spence left, Denis smiled in anticipation. If he had read the signs correctly, the old boy was going to retire and give him control of the company. As he stood congratulating himself, Keith returned and told him that he had booked him in at the Belvedere Hotel and transferred his luggage there from the YMCA. Denis felt a weight lift from his shoulders. After the alarums and excursions of the morning, things were returning to normal. He had only to recover his wallet and all would be well again.

As soon as the exhibition closed for the day, he went across to Astrid on the next stand and asked her to get his wallet and car keys back and bring them to him at the Belvedere. To his utter astonishment, she refused point blank. In reply to his protestations she pointed out that the only period during which the nuns would be preoccupied was vespers. This would not allow enough time for her to travel into town and return unseen. Furthermore, the girls were not allowed in the administrative area of the convent, so that the slightest glimpse of her there would be fatal. Clinching her argument, she reminded him that his car was still at the convent. She insisted that the only way he could regain his possessions would be to return to the convent during vespers still dressed as a nun, change into his trousers, and depart leaving the nun's habit behind. The most she was prepared to do was to meet him at the side gate and point him towards the convent offices.

With many dark thoughts about the selfishness of the female sex, Denis reluctantly agreed.

*****

Inspector Grove of the Nutchester police sat at his desk with three slim files in front of him. The first file, marked 'Missing Person,' contained a report from the Mother Superior of Nutcombe Priory that they had lost a nun. A busload of them had come into Nutchester that morning to collect money, and one of them had failed to return. The second file, marked 'Complaints,' contained several reports from hotel staff, shop staff, and a taxi driver of a nun committing various outlandish acts that morning in various parts of Nutchester. The third file, marked 'Found Property,' told of a wallet and car keys found in an item of clothing donated to Nutcombe Priory. In addition to money, the wallet contained a driving licence in the name of Denis Foster. Enquiries at his home address had elicited the information that he was working at the Trade Fair in Nutchester. A constable had gone to the exhibition hall, found that he had already left, and learnt that he had spent the day there in the garb of a nun. Mr Foster was not to be found at the hotels suggested as his place of residence.

The inspector tapped his fingers pensively on the files. He was not a man to believe in coincidences. He pulled the telephone towards him and dialled the number of the Nutcombe police office.

*****

At the appointed time Denis took a taxi to the convent. Astrid met him at the side gate as arranged and showed him the way to the offices, assuring him that the nuns were all at prayers. After trying a few doors, he eventually found a storeroom where there were piles of clothing on trestle tables. One table, he could see, was devoted to trousers. His should be among them. Hastily he got out of the nun's habit, fumbling with the unaccustomed garments, and went across to the table. As he rummaged through the trousers , the office door opened, and a stern male voice asked, Are these what you're looking for, sir? He looked up to see Police Constable John Banks in the doorway, holding his trousers. Behind him stood the Mother Superior and Sister Agatha.

*****

At Nutchester Police Station he was placed under arrest and formally charged on eight counts, including breaking and entering, theft, and assault. His own trousers had been retained as evidence and he had been provided with a pair of prison trousers in their place. He asked to see a solicitor, and the firm of Flint, Flint, & Flint sent their Mr Flint (the middle one) to advise him. Upon seeing the charge list and hearing Denis' account of the events, he declined to represent Denis, and advised him to plead guilty and throw himself upon the mercy of the court.

*****

Michael Spence waited for Denis in the hotel restaurant until half past eight and then asked the desk to phone his room. The clerk told him that Mr Foster had not checked in to confirm his reservation, and his luggage had been sent to the YMCA. Spence phoned the YMCA and was told that the suitcase had been collected that very afternoon by a Mr Keith Brooks. He then phoned Keith who told him that Denis now had a room reserved at the Belvedere. He phoned the Belvedere who told him that Mr Foster had booked a room but had not checked in. He rang the Belvedere several times that evening, only to be told that Denis had still not appeared. At half past ten he phoned his wife who told him that Judy was in tears. Denis had not phoned her since leaving home the previous morning, and the police had called, asking where he was. Michael Spence returned to Cranbury a troubled man.

*****

The next morning Denis was taken from his cell and escorted to the Magistrates Court to appear before Mr Middleton, the Stipendiary Magistrate. Inspector Groves led the prosecution for the police. He went through the charges against the accused: breaking and entering the convent, theft of a nun's habit, impersonating a nun in holy orders, obtaining money by false pretences, namely posing as a nun in order to collect money from passers-by, theft of a pair of trousers from a gentlemen's outfitters, offensive words and behaviour at the Imperial Hotel, assault on a porter at the Railway Hotel, and theft of money from the collecting tin. In support of his case he called a stream of witnesses, the hotel staff, the cabbies, the shop assistant and the nuns. When the inspector concluded this litany of crime, Mr Middleton looked sharply at Denis.

Well, young man, what have you got to say for yourself?

It was fortunate for Denis that all Englishmen have an inherent sense of humour. As he spun his tale of events conspiring against him, the funnier aspects were not lost upon the magistrate. In time the corners of that worthy's mouth twitched and curled upwards involuntarily, the smile being removed physically but surreptitiously by a pass of the magistrate's hand. But Denis was a practised raconteur and knew from experience when he held an audience's attention. He sensed the changing atmosphere, and warming to his task, with an exaggeration here, a gloss there, here an embellishment, there a deletion, he spun out his story, punctuating it with pauses and gestures as the tale demanded. In time Mr Middleton gave up the pretence of concealing his smiles and soon permitted himself an occasional chuckle. As if absolved by this magisterial precedent, the ushers, the witnesses and the police soon joined in. Denis sailed on gloriously and triumphantly, and when he had finished, though he did not receive or expect applause, he knew that no-one in the Courtroom was against him.

The magistrate's summing up was favourable. He dismissed the breaking and entering charge on the grounds that Denis had entered the convent at the invitation of a resident. He dismissed the charge of theft relating to the nun's habit as there was no intent permanently to deprive the nuns thereof. Denis had merely borrowed the garments - true, without consent, but then the nuns had his trousers without his consent, and exchange was no robbery. He dismissed the charge of impersonation on the grounds that Denis had not at any time claimed to be a nun. He dismissed the charge of obtaining money by false pretences on the grounds that the passers-by had deceived themselves. There was no evidence that Denis had asked them for money. He dismissed the charge of stealing the trousers from the shop, on the grounds that it was imperfectly formed. The charge should have been 'obtaining by deceit,' inasmuch as Denis had claimed that the convent had an account. Even that charge might have failed, Mr Middleton observed, as the prosecution had not bothered to present any evidence that the convent did not have an account at the gents' outfitters. He dismissed the charges of offensive words and behaviour on the grounds that the complainants were only offended because they mistakenly thought that Denis was a nun. He dismissed the assault charge on the grounds that the attendant himself had assaulted Denis by gripping his arm and not releasing it when requested, behaviour which in itself might amount to false imprisonment. With regard to the theft of the money from the collecting tin, the magistrate observed that the prosecution had not shown who the money had been stolen from. It could not have been stolen from the nuns, as the prosecution had been at pains to point out that Denis was not collecting for them. Nor could it have been stolen from those who had put it in the tin, as they had voluntarily abandoned possession of it. At worst it might constitute stealing by finding, but the charge had not been formed in those terms, and so must fail.

However, Mr Foster, the magistrate concluded, I do not wish you to think that the decision of this Court is an indication of a general leniency, or a disregard of the need to protect the rights and persons of our citizens. You have behaved foolishly and irresponsibly, leaving a trail of mayhem in your wake. I am therefore binding you over to keep the peace for six months. Any repetition of this sort of behaviour in that period will constitute a breach of my order and will be punishable by imprisonment.

He rapped the Bench with his gavel and the Court rose. Denis left the court thanking his lucky stars. But his luck ran out the moment he got back home to Cranbury.

*****


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