Whither and Why: Black Tie Snuff Fest (A Bonfire Night Spectacular)
Remember, remember, the fifth of November, gunpowder, treason and plot… certainly, after this year’s events, it is a date that, for the Honk family, will never be forgot. It began, as the momentous shiftings in my otherwise trivial day-to-day existence often do, with a word from my friend, the rocket of recklessness and Catherine Wheel of companionship, Sir Hilary Harrison-Nairn.
In fact, on this occasion, it was four words that escaped his mouth, while visiting my study, that changed my perception perceptibly. Those four words were the following.
“BLACK TIE SNUFF FEST.”
“I beg your pardon, HH?”
“Black Tie Snuff Fest! Bonfire Night, our place. It’s going to be spectacular, Honksby, old sport.”
“HH… what on earth is a black tie snuff fest?”
“Well, since the wedding, Samantha has tried to instil a bit of responsibility into my social life, as you may have noticed” – and this I was indeed aware of, as it had been muttered across the county that the number of incidences relating to my friend’s various misdemeanours had diminished significantly – “and that means fewer parties, Honk. It is For My Own Good.
But, after much persuasion and the promise of a starring role at the next village revue (I still have some local influence, don’t you know), she has allowed me to celebrate the fifth of November with one of my famous Fests.”
“Your famous Fests?”
“My famous Fests, yes.”
“And will there be… fireworks at this Fest of yours?” Nairn and incendiaries were rarely a recommended combination.
“Oh, heavens, no, I’m not allowed near fireworks. Spouse’s orders. And besides, can you imagine what Bismarck would do with live ammunition? No, there will certainly be no fireworks present,” and here my friend winked conspicuously, igniting in me a suspicion that HH might have a Gunpowder Plot of his own in store.
After several more winks (though not quite forty) to ensure I got the hint, he continued, “so you’ll attend?”
“HH… you have yet to explain to me what exactly a Black Tie Snuff Fest is.”
“Ah! Yes. Well. Sam said I could theme the soiree around two themes of my choosing, so naturally I chose black tie,”
“Naturally,” I responded. I could see my well-worn tuxedo had a chance of its first outing since the Incident at the Duck Pond.
“And I rather thought snuff would be a lark. I just got a new order last week. Miscalculated and now I’ve got barrels of the stuff in the cellar. Just snuff down there, of course. Nothing more… explosive.” And he made a noise almost exactly like a firework, scattering several of my ferrets, who were busy napping on the bookshelves, and arousing my suspicions once again.
“Hence, Black Tie Snuff Fest,” HH concluded.
“HH, much as I would love to attend, you see… you see, we have Christopher visiting this week, and…”
“Your brother! Terrific! Bring him along!”
“You know how Christopher is, HH…” Christopher was a timorous soul who had hitherto been rarely seen outside his college at Oxford.
“Nonsense! He’ll have a marvellous time, a fine time. We’ll all have a fine time. Leave it to Nairn. And he can’t miss the display!”
“What display exactly, my friend!”
The day before the Fest swiftly rolled around – our calendar was circular and operated rather like a vintage telephone – and my concerns concerning HH’s fireworking intentions had my wife Lillian in uproar over breakfast.
“I must tell Samantha! Imagine her reputation!”
“But I thought you and Samantha didn’t get on, my dear.”
“I get on with Hilary rather less!” she retorted, and stormed to the study to dictate a strongly worded twenty-first century Monteagle letter.
I listened for some time before realising that she was dictating with the expectation that I would be typing her words alongside her. Swiftly, I bade farewell to my crumpets and rushed to the study too.
Christopher, who had said nothing at all during this exchange, looked up from his research papers.
“Good morning,” he said, slightly too late for it to have been directed at anyone in particular.
After ensuring all the ferrets were safely locked away so as to minimise any fright from fireworks, Lillian, Christopher and I made our way towards the beacon bonfire lit in the grounds of Nairn House.
“Friends!” HH exclaimed as he answered the door, resplendent in a top hat and tails. “Introductory snuff?”
“Hello,” said Christopher, before trying to sidle away to the safety of the nearest corner.
“Chris, my man! You won’t have some?”
Too polite to refuse, my brother partook, and, several Vesuvian sneezes later, was admitted to the party, where he promptly disappeared from view. Even wearing my spare wedding-suit, Christopher was able to invoke near-unnoticeability until his fateful reappearance later in the evening (more on which later). Lillian and I also partook of my friend’s snuff starters, she with reluctance and I with relish, and in to the party we went.
Passing Samantha, regaling a snuff-guzzling audience with anecdotes of fringe theatre gossip, we spotted the evening’s piece de resistance.
“Ah,” said HH, “you’ve spotted the evening’s piece de resistance.” And he went on to describe the intricate scale model of James I’s Houses of Parliament, constructed entirely out of sweeties.
“Here’s the main chamber – gingerbread, of course – and jelly babies for each MP who would have been present on that day in 1605 – and James himself, made as an installation of Skittles – he is the King, after all, and that’s the argument I made to Samantha, would you believe she was dead set against my using those delicious fruity circles? – and underneath, look, the gunpowder barrels are actually filled with sherbet – I wanted to complement it with an ‘after’ scene, with red liquorice bits for Fawkes’ hanging, drawing and you know the rest, but Sam considered it a tad grotesque, so I ate that part.”
“It is stunning, HH,” I offered. “You really can do wonders with sweets.”
“They do wonders with me!” he replied. “Snuff?”
We each partook again while Lillian, rolling her eyes, left in search of “more sensible conversation” (her words).
“Penny for the guy!” came the unmistakeable call of the Nairns’ housekeeper, Mrs Clutterbutt. “Penny for the guy!” She entered, holding an optimistically-sized collection bucket, followed by my friend’s gargantuan hound, Bismarck, who carried the guy on his back… although this ‘guy’ was in fact a ‘gal’.
“HH?” I asked nervously, though I already knew the answer, “… have you… have you modelled the guy on Mother Nairn?”
“And it is a terrible likeness. Really, Hilary. Must do better.”
Somehow, without my noticing, without the usual chill I felt to warn of her immediate presence, Mother Nairn was standing directly behind me.
“It’s… it’s very flattering, I suppose,” I offered, spluttering until Lillian thankfully came to my rescue, calling Mother Nairn by her name and announcing that she and Samantha HH-HN had something they wished to share with her. With a swift swish of her charcoal evening gown, Mother Nairn was gone.
“Well!” my friend exclaimed. “That could have been awkward. At least the wives are getting on like a House of Parliament on fire.”
“HH,” I answered, “they’re telling her about your fireworks.”
“Say what, old boy?”
“We’re all very concerned you’re going to do something irresponsible with the fireworks you have covertly collected and are keeping in the cellar with all the snuff.”
“What fireworks? No, this is a Black Tie Snuff Fest, Honk, one of my best, and nothing more! Would you care for another sniff?”
We partook of the snuff once again as HH moved to mingle, but before its flavour could be fully appreciated, my enjoyment was interrupted by a curdling scream from one of the Fest’s guests.
“This must be another part of the Fest,” I considered to myself, joining the crowd that had gathered around the candied construction of early Jacobean government.
“James I has been murdered!”
And so the historical plotters’ aims, at least in one sense, had been achieved. The model king sculpted out of Skittles had vanished, presumably devoured. But by whom?
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” were the approximate sounds emanating from HH’s mouth, which appeared to be full of chewy, colourful, sugary joy.
“Hilly!” appeared the voice of my friend’s wife. “Have you been tasting the rainbow? You promised me His Majesty would remain intact!”
“I’m sorry, Sam, I – I – ”
“One week of nothing but Rolos for you!”
“A deserved punishment, my love.”
“More treason! More treason!”
“Who keeps shouting these things?” I wondered to myself as we gathered round again.
“The gunpowder is gone!”
And gone it had. The sherbet-filled miniature barrels had vanished from the chamber underneath Parliament, leaving Guy Fawkes and his All Sorts hat to look rather baffled.
“This was not me! I can assure everyone here present, I did not eat that gunpowder!” cried HH. A mystery was afoot.
I decided, as the astonishingly well-dressed crowd dispersed, that I should really attempt to ascertain the whereabouts of my brother, and, pinching some more snuff from a passing waiter, I set off to search the hidden nooks (and, if I had time, crannies) of Nairn manor. But before I could do so, HH took me by the arm.
“The piece de resistance,” he whispered slyly, “was not the piece de resistance. It’s a decoy! The actual piece is…”
“It’s going to be fireworks, isn’t it, HH.”
“How the devil did you figure that out, Honk? Remarkable! But that’s by-the-by. The plan is thus: I will silently creep to the cellar on the pretence of bringing another barrel of snuff upstairs – would you like some, incidentally? – but what I’ll actually be doing is setting up a firework display in the garden unlike any you’ll have seen before!”
“Do you really think that’s wise, HH? There’s an organised display on at – ”
“I understand your reservations, Honk, but trust me, this is the only way to suitably end a Black Tie Snuff Fest!”
And with that, he launched himself into the partygoers, heading towards the cellar entrance. Unfortunately for my friend, during our dialogue I had seen Lillian, Samantha and mother Nairn nod knowingly to each other, and Samantha consequently move off in the very same direction her husband was now heading! HH had barely reached the open cellar door when Samantha emerged at the top of the stairs, a rocket in each hand. The confrontation was brief and decisive.
“What,” she asked, “are these?”
HH thought for a moment.
“They,” he said slowly, “contain… novelty snuff. Since… this is… the fifth of November, I thought… it would fit… the theme… to put snuff in containers that looked like fireworks. Yes. You see, I’ll demonstrate…”
My friend then began to do something entirely irresponsible, and disassembled one of the fireworks in order to find the powder within. He was going to maintain the illusion it was snuff! Luckily, he was not able to achieve anything, as he was stopped by the most unlikely of guests.
Christopher, his face smeared with snuff and sherbet (so that was where the ‘barrels’ had ended up!), launched himself across the room and into HH, knocking the firework out of his hand and both of them into a nearby beanbag.
An hour later, all was calm. Snuff, Skittles and sherbet had served to bond HH and my brother together, and they were both sat happily dismantling the model of James I’s Parliament piece by piece.
The main bonfire in the garden was lit with the guy placed upon it (“good riddance,” said Mother Nairn, “it truly is a terrible likeness”) and Samantha had conceded that in this instance, sparklers would be permissible.
Donning our gloves, Lillian and I had tremendous fun with the sparklers before dunking them in water and warming ourselves by the fire. Bismarck was safely locked away in his suite, with Mrs Clutterbutt to keep him company. And as for HH… I later learned that Christopher, now fully out of his sheltered former existence, had invited my friend to his college at Oxford to give a guest lecture.
The subject: ‘Confectionary Architecture of Historical Monuments 1603-1642’.
Indeed, I know of no reason why our gunpowder treason will ever be forgot. Black Tie Snuff Fest 2014 is already marked on the calendar.
HH and Honk wish to inform you that fireworks should ALWAYS be handled safely and preferably by trained personnel. Check your local listings for your nearest public display, and make sure your pets are protected from loud noises, and your bonfire is free of hedgehogs and other small creatures!
They would also like to let you know that Samantha attended the first meeting for the village revue, but left shortly after due to creative differences.