This story was written by my partner John.
A typical major civil engineering project, such as a large dam, is usually designed in the office of a firm of consulting engineers under the supervision of a senior partner. Construction on the site is normally carried out by civil engineering contractors under the supervision of a Resident Engineer, almost always appointed by the consultants and assisted by staff often including young graduate engineers.
In the case of my story, which takes place in the fifties, the project in question was a large earthfill dam in southern Scotland, designed by a London firm of consulting engineers and commissioned by a water authority which was promoting the project. In addition to acquiring the land, the authority had obtained possession of a large one-time shooting lodge for the purpose of housing the Resident Engineer’s staff, which comprised:
Ø The Resident Engineer, aged about 70, known as “The Colonel”, using an honorary rank bestowed upon him in World War I when he worked as a civil engineer on various projects for the Army;
Ø Grace, his wife;
Ø Maud, Grace’s widowed sister;
Ø Miss Whistle, the Resident Engineer’s Secretary, a spinster in her 50’s;
Ø Engineering graduates such as myself, of which there would be several;
Ø A Polish couple, household staff, with the wife as cook and housekeeper and the husband as gardener and general factotum.
The Colonel would say to new arrivals that he liked to regard the lodge as a “kind of officers’ mess with all contributing equally to running costs”, though the fact that in a real officers’ mess the contribution to the budget would have been divided pro rata to income seemed to have been ignored.
The household was managed by his wife Grace with occasional advice from Maud. All three had spent most of their adult lives together in Malaya when it was still under British colonial rule and this was clearly evident from their social attitudes and everyday conversation, which was in some degree of contrast to us junior engineers whose average age was in our mid twenties, with recent university careers and in some cases a short period of conscripted National Service behind us.
As erstwhile secretary to Kurt Hahn, the famous founder and headmaster of Gordonstoun, one of the most prestigious and famous Scottish public schools which was attended by various members of the Royal Family, socially Miss Whistle fell somewhere between the two groups. She would take coffee after dinner with the Colonel, Grace and Maud in their own private lounge, and then join the young engineers after coffee in their common room.
During dinner food would be deposited by the cook at a serving table at one end of the dining room, where Grace would dole out the helpings and the junior engineers would distribute the plates. At the end of each course they would collect the plates and pile them up on the serving table from whence the cook would carry them away.
Conversation tended to be very much Malaya-orientated, full of oft repeated anecdotes of the early days of the Colonel, Grace and Maud. Grace loved to trot out the old jokes of her colonial youth, no matter how hackneyed; and the punch line would be delivered fortissimo and accompanied by a compulsive pounding of the table with the palm of her hand, shaking the tumblers round the table.
There would be occasional breaks in the flow of conversation when Maud’s little Scots terrier Mack trotted in to be greeted by his mistress with adoring cries of “Macky-wacky darling!” and other superlative endearments, accompanied by titbits from Maud’s plate. Phrases such as “KL” (Kuala Lumpur), “Kampong” (Malayan village), “Bukit Tima” and other place names punctuated every anecdote – the colonial atmosphere saturated the dining room air from soup to savoury, with little to break the tedium.
In the common room one evening, while Miss Whistle was still at her coffee with the 'upper classes', one of the young engineers recalled a game they played at his school when a well-known and notoriously boring preacher was known to be speaking at the Sunday morning service. A couple of boys would make two lists of the visitor’s known mannerisms ; one list represented the runs in an imaginary game of cricket, the other representing wickets. He and a friend would then attend to the sermon with intense interest as they competed in an imaginary cricket match by counting the mannerisms. This idea was too good to waste, so my colleague Tony and I decided to try it out. If the trial went well, we would have a five day test match.
The A Team – Tony (captain) and Grace;
The B Team – myself (captain) and Maud.
Umpire - Peter
Start - the first innings with Team A would commence when the first plate of the main course touched the table and end when the plates were cleared away.
Second innings with Team B Commenced when the first of the sweet dishes touched down, and end in the same way.
Between the first and second innings the captains of each team and the umpire – Tony, myself and Peter – would meet at the serving table to whisper our review of the score, which was worked out as follows – in ascending value:
Any mention of the word “Malaya” - a single run: the umpire would scratch his ear once;
An anecdote heard before – two runs: the umpire would scratch his ear twice;
Use of the word “Darling”, “KL”, “Kampong” and “Bukit Tima” – three runs: the umpire would twitch his eyebrows;
“Macky-Wacky” – a four: the umpire would scratch his nose;
“Macky-Wacky darling” – a wicket or a six: the umpire would scratch his ear and his nose at the same time;
Grace pounding on the table with laughter – a wicket or a six: as above
No ball – the umpire would fiddle with his tie.
The rules allowed the captains to lead their players in a “profitable” direction, for example mentioning overseas travel at the right time might induce either player to score a Malaya, a KL or even a Bukit Tima – any of these being signalled by Peter with a slight twitch of the eyebrows. However if you as captain actually mentioned these phrases yourself, it would be signalled by Peter as being a no-ball (fiddling with his tie) or the batsman would be out hit-wicket.
The rules were carefully debated and memorised before Miss Whistle returned to the Common Room. The trial match duly started the following evening as the first main course plate touched the table. Grace played carefully at first but after a while somebody told a story which made her laugh and slap the table, hitting a couple of sixes; then in came Mack the terrier and took two wickets with successive balls as Maud drooled over him.
When the first course plates had been returned to the serving table it was agreed in our whispered consultation that Tony (Grace) had managed just thirty-four runs for five wickets. With the start of the sweet course and the second innings Maud went in to bat for me after Mack had unfortunately left the room, but when Maud suddenly remembered a good friend of hers whom she last saw in Kuala Lumpur, my innings began to take shape, though Tony craftily told a genuinely funny joke on which Grace managed a thumping stumping.
However, there was a wholly unforeseen interruption of play. As Grace took a second wicket with another slap of the table, the umpire suddenly began to choke, his shoulders shaking violently as a falsetto giggle burst forth through fists desperately clenched in front of his mouth, and his eyes took on a very bright look.
Grace looked most concerned “Peter, are you alright?” she said leaning forward in alarm. Tony and I exchanged worried looks and with studied hypocrisy murmured our sympathy.
“I’m sorry”, squeaked Peter in a helpless soprano pitch, “I’ve just thought of something funny”. There followed an embarrassed silence before Miss Whistle tactfully introduced a new topic for conversation. Meanwhile, by common consent, rain stopped play.
After her coffee, Miss Whistle returned to the Common Room, guessing that we all shared a secret joke. She cleared her throat in the way that only those who have served a world-famous headmaster can manage. “Now, will someone please tell me just what is going on?”
Tony as the senior of us felt obliged to spill the beans as honestly as he could. Miss Whistle seemed to understand the need for some light-hearted interplay, but when Tony told her of the forthcoming test match she pleaded with us to spare her the agony of knowing what we were doing for five successive dinners.
It is perhaps a tribute to the gallantry of young civil engineers that we took pity on the poor soul and agreed that the test match had to be called off.
So the First Test was rained off, we decided.
And that was that.
from Lonicera's digital archive
A visit to Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire
Check out the name on the sign.
The building is a former pub and the estate agents retained it.