What on earth are they feeding these babies?
Another ruddy-cheeked mother passed her enormous child to Henry. He balanced it on his hip, smiling politely as he jiggled it up and down.
“What a lovely boy!”
Puppies, kittens, foals, lambs, calves and piglets were more Henry Fitzwalter’s style, the daily business of a countryside vet. He was at ease around them. But not human babies—they were strange and alien beasts indeed. The infant reached out its pudgy hand and tugged Henry on the nose, yanked Henry’s neatly trimmed sideburn then grabbed a length of his hair and pulled.
Henry winced. “Certainly a strong ’un!”
“Daniel, you bad boy!” His mother at least had the grace to be contrite regarding her infant’s outrageous thuggery, and wrestled the unfeasibly large child from Longley Parva’s vet.
Nestled in the South Downs, Longley Parva had been the home of Henry’s family for generations. And today, on this sunny Sunday afternoon, Longley Parva was closed for a street party to raise funds for the roof of the village hall.
Daniel was swapped for another child, who came accompanied by the odor of milk. Henry bounced the baby and it cooed at him. It appeared to be a little girl, judging by how frilly its outfit was, and although it was almost entirely bald, it was wearing a sequined Alice band.
A car tooted, an engine revved. A nearby shout of, “The road’s closed for the party—what’s the bloody matter with people?”
Women’s Institute stalwart Mrs. Fortescue tutted. “Mind your language in front of the babies!”
Henry, ignoring the baby’s grip on his knitted tie, stared from his vantage point at the top of the village’s High Street toward the other end, where barriers and stalls were being shifted as a car approached.
A classic car in British racing green nosed its way toward him. He knew it, because it had been tootling around the village for Henry’s whole life and for decades before that too. Everyone in England knew it, because this was the soft-top Jaguar of Captain George Standish-Brookes. This was the soft-top Jaguar that had transported its driver and his popular histories straight into the nation’s hearts.
Henry clenched his jaw. That bloody man.
Cries of “It’s Captain George!” filled the street, the Longley Parvans nudging one another and grinning, some even waving as the car wound its way along the crowded road. The final of the Bonny Baby Competition was forgotten.
George drove into the center of the village like the returning hero he was, classic Wayfarers hiding his eyes, the car horn blaring merrily and a crowd following as though the Red Sea had just parted.
George—Henry’s childhood friend through thick and thin, until the day the Longley Parva Cup disappeared. George—the television historian with the knowing wink and dazzling smile. George, who sailed through life without a care in the world, waving now at the locals as he drove toward the podium with one hand on the steering wheel.
The handsome bastard.
Of course the road closure didn’t apply to George, even though the vicar on his bicycle had been turned away and told to come back on foot. Rules never applied to Captain George Standish-Brookes. Not at school, not in his Bohemian home, and now, not at the village fête.
George made his own rules.
Unable to raise a hand in polite though grudging welcome without dropping the baby, Henry gave George a terse nod.
“Fitz!” George turned off the ignition and the car, somehow, came to rest at just the right angle for a classic car shoot. He pushed open the door and hopped out onto the green, a vision of easy, casual confidence in cricket sweater and chinos, his dark hair tousled just so, the sun glinting from the face of his watch.
Who still wears a watch these days, anyway?
Captain George did, because then he could wear a regimental watch strap too.
“What a welcome.” George laughed, pushing the Wayfarers up into his hair. He looked around at the bunting and sausage rolls, the orange squash and bonny babies. “Have I crashed a party?”
Henry clenched his jaw. “I suppose those sunglasses prevented you from being able to read the sign at the top of the road, Captain George? ‘Street party—strictly no entrance’. You nearly mowed down half the village, you fool!”
He had forgotten that he was standing in front of a microphone. After a blast of feedback, his sarcastic reprimand echoed down the bustling street.
“Shut up, vet’n’ry!” someone shouted from the crowd.
“Yeah, you shut up! It’s Captain George!” someone else chimed in. Within moments, the street was full of jeers aimed at Henry. Even the baby joined in, yanking Henry’s tie so hard he nearly headbutted the microphone. George stepped up, his hands held in front of him in a call for calm. Naturally, he knew how to use a microphone, there was no wail of aggressive feedback to deafen him.
“Hello, Longley Parvans!” A chorus of greeting went up. “Sorry for nearly mowing you down—blame my enthusiasm to see this marvelous village once more. Some things, I notice”—he cast a long, comical look at Henry—“never change!”
Henry glared at the car and glared at George. “No, they don’t, do they?”
The baby started to grizzle, its face turning tomato red. Henry bounced it more energetically on his hip, just as a hiccupping noise started up in its throat. He looked over his shoulder, wondering where its mother had got to. A reporter from the local paper had slipped in between the locals and had clambered onto the podium. “Give us a smile, Captain George! Can we get a few words for The Bugle?”
“I’ve just been around the world for my Secret History of Magellan, which you can watch this Christmas on the Beeb!” He winked, a twinkle in his eye that made at least one of the girls from the riding school fan her face. “And I still haven’t found anywhere as beautiful as good old Longley Parva!”
Applause rippled through the crowd, along with enthusiastic nods. And—for heaven’s sake, was it really necessary?—a cheer began.
“Hip-hip-hooray! Hip-hip-hooray! Hip-hip-hooray for Captain George!”
Mrs. Fortescue’s shoes banged loudly across the podium as she approached their returning hero. “Captain, could I possibly ask you to assist with the Bonny Baby Competition?”
“The divine Mrs. F.!” George kissed her on both cheeks. “It would be a pleasure!”
Henry knew better than to cross Mrs. Fortescue. She took the frilly child from his arms and deposited it in George’s embrace. Laughter echoed through the crowd, and the child’s mother now appeared, beaming up at George. Henry could do nothing more than stand there as George bounced the baby more and more, the hiccupping noise now a rumble.
The baby opened its little mouth and ejected a vast stream of curdled milk.
All over the shoulder of Henry’s tweed jacket.
“Brilliant!” The photographer tipped his head back, laughing. “What a great photo!”
“You can’t print that!” Henry stared in horror from the mess on his shoulder into the hungry lens of the camera. He dug in his pocket to retrieve a handkerchief and began to mop at the sour-smelling deposit. If it wasn’t enough that Longley Parva’s animal population voided their bodily fluids over him on a near-daily basis, now the human residents had joined in as well.
“You’re a poppet, aren’t you?” George bounced the now empty baby, who gurgled happily at him. Then the mother, who was even more thrilled by the celebrity in their midst, slipped her arm through George’s and grinned for the photographer.
“Would you mind just sort of utching up a bit?” The photographer gestured Henry to step to his right. “I need you out of frame, mate!”
Henry closed his lips in a tight line and nodded. “Of course. The local vet isn’t as exciting as a bona fide TV historian, after all.”
“And war hero,” the photographer reminded him saucily.
Henry manfully resisted the urge to roll his eyes. Still dabbing at his jacket, he walked past Mrs. Fortescue, only delivering a tight smile of acknowledgment, and hopped down from the podium. Henry was supposed to be judging the jam-making competition in fifteen minutes, but he wondered if he would be ousted from that gig too.
At least jam couldn’t vomit on your shoulder, though, there was that.
“God,” the stable girl told her equally flushed friend as Henry passed, “he’s even more gorgeous in the flesh than on the telly!”
Then she glanced at the sick-stained vet and touched her hair self-consciously. With a grimace, she murmured, “You missed some puke, Mr. Fitzwalter.”
Henry indicated over his shoulder with a jab of his thumb. “Will you tell Miss Watson on the jam stall that I’m going home? I can’t judge jam like this.” Once more, he pressed his lips into a thin, disapproving line. “But I’m certain that our resident celebrity will relish doing the honors.”
Somewhat proud of his pun, Henry went on his way. Longley Parva Manor was but a short walk from the main road and Henry would go home, sit in the bath with a whiskey and hope George left again soon.
“Fitz!” George’s voice again, full of laughter and carefree bonhomie, smooth and easy as hot chocolate, as one of his adoring Sunday newspaper critics once said. “I say, Fitz!”
Henry skidded to a halt on the gravel at the bottom of his driveway and turned to watch George approach. Behind him trailed a long line of smiling faces, the ladies who adored him and children who wanted to be him and men who wanted to buy him a pint. George the handsome, tan Pied Piper leading his faithful.
“What do you, of all people, want with me?”
“Mrs. F. tells me you’re on jam duty.” He slapped his hand down against Henry’s clean shoulder. “When I was stung by a ray, did I let it put me off finishing my secret shipwrecks filming? No. When I broke my wrist wielding a war hammer, did I give up my location work for Secrets of the Vikings? I did not! Come on, Fitz, are you going to let a bit of baby sick defeat you?”
“Defeat me? I smell of vomit, Captain bloody George. I can’t taste the jam with the tang of baby sick in my nostrils!”
“It’s a jacket, Fitz.” George laughed, a long, loud bray. “Take it off, man!”