It is late at night. The grandfather clock is ticking in the deserted hallway - tick, tock, tick - and somewhere the sound of a muffled cough can be heard (hack,hack,hack) rattling the corridors of the Manor. The muffled cough (hack) is followed by a stifled sob of emotion (eeeurggh) which then gives way to a stifled wail (eeeek) and then a full-blown and very unstifled howl á la werewolf on a fat moon. (Ahoooooooowlllllllll!!!!!)
(Apologies for the sound effects - I am running a technical rehearsal to save time because, as Andy pointed out last night, if I keep faffing around I am never going to get the Pantomime story told by Christmas Eve. And I replied something along the lines of 'You keep drawing the pictures and leave the writing to me, okay?' and he said something along the lines of 'Okay' and ate all the chocolate coins out of the Christmas bunting in a fit of pique. And I counteracted by stealing some from the bunting of 19th but don't tell him. Back to the story...)
It seems I am the only one awake, or at least, I am the only one suitably concerned about these strange noises to be bothered to go on a patrol of the Manor to make sure we aren't being burgled or invaded by martians or zombies which DO NOT exist, despite what excitable Year 8 boys might tell you.
And so I take up my lantern in one hand and the Georgian poker from the companion set by the fire in the back parlour (where I have been sitting printing programmes with my Lettraset) in the other, and I gird my lion and brace my quails and set off towards the source of the noise.
(By the way - why is it always women who investigate strange noises in the middle of the night, that's what I want to know. I thought it was a man's job to deal with these things?)
Stealthily, dressed in my Minion slippers and Jedi dressing-gown (I am disguising myself as a chap who might know some Ninja moves just in case) I follow the noise. Along the hall and up the stairs I go, the noise growing louder and louder. How is it I am the only person who can hear this racket, I think to myself. At the top of the stairs, where the landing splits one way to the West wing and one way to the East wing, I pause, and am drawn to the East. And then I think, 'Don't be such a coward,' and head back towards the West where the noise is actually coming from.
Of course, I cannot help but think the hideous wailing is the wail of the Phantomime as he haunts the gloom in frustration at having his plans thwarted by Mrs Miggins and thusly seeking ways to exact his revenge, but this thought is curtailed by the sound of the self-same Miggins saying, 'I swear, if you keep going on about this Phantomime I an going to get MORE than a little testy with you,' then dinging me round the ear with her wing.
I call out, tentatively...'Helloooo?'
And in return, 'Sniff....eeeurghhh...hack, hack...'
'Who's there?' I continue. And then I notice a light shining dimly from 'neath the laundry cupboard door.
I raise my poker and approach. My hand lifts to grasp the knob. I take a deep breath and...
...whip open the door, and there, sitting amongst the pillowcases and bolsters and that new set of gorgeous eau de Nile Egyptian cotton towels I can't quite bring myself to actually start using is...
...Tango Pete! Sobbing his little cockerel eyes out. Oh pathos and bathos! Oh porthos, athos and aramis! Poor, poor Tango Pete. For I have never seen him in such distress, not even when he got his wattle caught in the zip of his biker jacket and we had to take him to the fire station to get him unattached.
I sit beside him and take his wing. 'Good grief, Tango Pete,' I say. 'What is it? What is causing you such distress? Is it, you know, the old trouble?'
Tango Pete looks at me through eyes swimming with tears. 'Noooooo...' he wails. 'It's her...Mrs Pumphrey. She is lost to me...forever! Oh, Gloria, Gloria, Gloria In Excelsis Deo Pumphrey!' And he flings himself into the second best bathmats that these days are used for mopping up unfortunate 'puddles' left by aging house guests, if you know what I mean.
'Now, now,' I say. 'Come, come, you silly cock. She's not lost to you. A bit distracted, maybe, but not lost. Her eye has been turned by the flash of pheasant feather, that's all. Come the New Year, when all this topsy turvy malarkey is over, she'll be just as true to you as she's always been.'
Tango Pete sniffs and wipes his beak up his wing which makes me feel only very slightly nauseous. 'Do you think? Do you really think so?'
I nod. 'Of course.'
'But what about this stuff with the Phantomime?' says Tango Pete. 'She's had another letter, you know. And gifts aplenty. A dozen roses. And a chiffon scarf and a pair of lace gloves...'
'Pointless when you don't have fingers,' I say.
'...and a pair of diamanté earrings and a real fur muffin...'
'A real fur muffin...?'
'Sorry...muffler...oh, I can't think straight...I am so distraught. Poor me, poor me...'
'Oh, for goodness' sake,' I suddenly snap, because it is the middle of the night and I've had a long day. 'Man up will you? (I'd say 'Cock up,' only it sounds a bit rudely near the knuckle, so I shan't.) If you can't wait until the New Year then go and claim Mrs Pumphrey back now! Tell Ptolemy that he needs to BACK OFF with capital letters. Seek out the Phantomime and tell him what for. Only don't tell Mrs Miggins I said that. Just DO something other than sitting in a cupboard crying and complaining and keeping everyone awake at night with all the wailing. Or rather, keeping me awake with all the wailing.'
Tango Pete sniffs again and looks at me like I've just slapped him. 'Bit harsh, don't you think?' he suggests.
'No!' I shout. 'Not harsh! Inspirational!! Now GO TO IT!!!
And from the corridors of the Manor arises a collective, 'Sshhhhhh! We're trying to sleep!'
Good grief, I think. Tell me again why I bother?