When the crumhorn player fell out of the
minstrels’ gallery Bridget finally began to enjoy herself. She giggled
as the lute player and the bloke who’d been blowing up a furry animal’s
bottom dropped their chosen instruments and grabbed their colleague as he
toppled headfirst over the carved balustrade.
Whilst the assembled black-gowned guests at the long tables below the dangling musician held their collective breaths, Bridget hooted. She could see what was going to happen. The crumhorn player was hanging over the balustrade, his loose-fitting green doublet shrouding his head, whilst his desperate colleagues scrabbled for any kind of purchase on his legs and waist.
One of them got a firm hold on the musician’s red tights. He kept hold, even when the musician slowly slid out of them, mooning the dinner guests below with his skinny, spotty buttocks.
Bridget’s laughter and the man’s exposure set off the atavistic heartiness of the couple of hundred men and handful of women in evening dress assembled in the neo-gothic dining hall below. They had been downing white and red wine with abandon all evening and were even now passing the port as if it were a party game. The men laughed basso, jeering laughs and banged fists on the long waxed tables, making the cutlery leap. The women were less abandoned although some of them tapped their knives fiercely against their wine glasses.
I thought the crumhorn player had been playing off-key - though how can you tell with these medieval instruments? - but I didn’t realise he was as plastered as the rest of the room until his two saviours managed to get a grip on his bare thighs and haul him back over the balustrade. He stood there swaying and gazing round blearily until they bustled him off the balcony.
Bridget had taken against the musicians from the start. Not just because they insisted on dressing in Elizabethan gear but because they took turns to introduce each piece of music in mock-Elizabethan, with lots of prithees and forsooths. And because she was in a bad mood. Had been since we’d left London.
We’d set off late after she’d been held up at her new newspaper - we’re both journalists, though Bridget went into editing several years ago. On the M40 we got stuck behind a convoy of ancient vans and cars spluttering towards the West Country to hear the Wiltshire Messiah’s latest sermon on Silbury Hill.
Once we’d reached Oxford I’d abandoned the car in a parking space outside the Lamb and Flag and we’d hurried through the cobbled alley to my old college. Dinner had already started when we finally entered the mock-medieval dining room. We’d found our places on opposite sides of the long table. Everyone was sitting on long benches.
Bridget was dressed with her usual restraint in a figure-hugging little micro-skirted number. Getting in had proved tricky and involved her showing a great deal of thigh and a flash of her knickers to my side of the table. In particular to the banker sitting beside me, a chubby man with razor rash on his jaw and a florid complexion. He had leered at what he saw. Bridget caught him looking.
When she’d got settled she wagged a finger at him. “Know your limitations,” she said. “Stick with the blow-up doll.”
Then she leaned across the table to hiss at me:
“Have you ever seen so many mid-life crises gathered in one room? Tears before bedtime, mark my words."
The chubby banker overheard.
“Oh I think there are a number of people here who feel quite content with what they’ve achieved,” he said, sitting back in his seat.
Bridget appraised him. Uh-oh. After a moment she said:
“I wasn’t talking to you, lard-arse.” Which wasn’t up to her usual standard of repartee but seemed to do the trick.
Bridget had settled down. It was the arrival of the medieval musicians that had soured her. I could see she was restless during the first jaunty little number.
“The man playing the crumhorn is simply marvellous,” said a man wearing one of those waistcoats patterned seemingly to look as if someone has vomited down it.
“Isn’t he,” his companion, a woman with too many frills for a woman of her age, trilled.
“That guy blowing up an animal’s bum?” Bridget said.
“It’s a utriculus actually,” vomit waistcoat said, a superior smirk on his face. “An ancient bagpipe – the bag is formed from the entire head of a sheep or goat, with the chanter fitted into a wooden stock at the neck. The drones come from stocks in the forelegs. The chanter has seven holes in front and a thumbhole behind.”
“Jesus H Christ,” Bridget muttered, reaching for the port and pouring herself a generous slug. She leaned across the table towards me. “I see why you’ve turned out the way you have,” she said.
“What do you mean?” I said.
“With a poker up your bum.”
I actually started to look before she said:
When the musicians had finished Bridget busied herself with her cigar until the din died down then looked around.
“What a bunch of tossers,” she said, loud enough for those either side of us to hear.
The chubby banker put his hands flat on the table and leaned towards her, a tight smile on his face.
“Somebody had too much to drink have they?” he said.
I held my breath. My amigo Bridget Frost, the Bitch of the Broadsheets, drinks to excess, it’s true, but rarely if ever exhibits signs of it - or indeed suffers the consequences. More to the point, her verbal ripostes can be life threatening. She opened her mouth and exhaled, engulfing the banker in cigar smoke.
“This is Bridget sober, actually,” I said quickly. “You couldn’t handle her drunk.”
“Nick Madrid - my champion,” Bridget cooed, patting my hand.
“I’m damned sure I wouldn’t want to,” the banker said huffily through the wreath of smoke. Which is when Bridget stubbed her cigar out on the back of his hand.
Now Read On …