"She's an absolute workaholic" Denzil said reverently.
"That's as maybe" said Mrs Milsom "but she's using the Home telephone number and it's got to be stopped. Selina on the switchboard is weary of coping."
Perhaps Selina was. On the other hand, it was something else to talk about, instead of Pansy's hankies and Madge's incontinence and whether Veronica Cragg was better on decaff. For Leonora Foster, who had hitherto believed her premier talent to be immaculate crochet, had recently discovered a unexpected flair for smutty phonecalls.
One Sunday in Spring, a mild but rather dismal day, Leonora had picked up the phone to hear a lascivious distant voice ask "What colour knickers are you wearing?"
Leonora was startled. In her world knickers did not have a colour. They were neutral, like fingernails or washing-up water. She toyed with porridge-coloured or pale plaster-bandage, but yearned for a more stimulating offering.
"What sort?" urged her interlocutor impatiently. "French knickers? Thongs?"
"Silk" said Leonora firmly. "apricot silk, with deep matching lace and narrow ribbons."
"Big bloomers?" hazarded the voice, but Leonora was lost now in her own fantasy. "They are scented faintly with jardiniere, mingling with my own, essentially feminine, aromas. The ribbons are satin and a darker peach in tone, threaded across my thighs. Look, I'll show you."
The voice at the other end gasped and then gurgled.
"Higher" it begged "lift a little higher"
Leonora made a breathy trilling noise, rather like the one she used to use to entertain her budgerigar. Then she said "That's enough for now"
"Can I call back" begged the voice humbly.
"You may" Leonora conceded "but if you wish to speak to me again you will have to ask for my extension. It was a mere quirk of fate that I lifted my receiver. You might have got Mrs Milsom, and her knickers are of sterner stuff."
Leonora repeated the number and rang off. She sat in her magnolia-painted room overlooking the long lawn and smiled for a long time.
By the next call Leonora had prepared the topic of her preparations on retiring, and she created a sumptuous nightgown with an interesting cutaway design at the bosom, lingering for some time on the application of lotions to the delicate skin areas.
Leonora enjoyed the call so much that she contemplated ringing men at random in order to describe lingerie to them but decided the increased phone bill would quickly be noticed by Mrs Milsom. Incoming phone calls were a different matter. No-one could object to that, surely. It would certainly add more interest to the long hours than crocheting - though in fact during her more extended salacious phone calls Leonora found she could continue to ply her hook while talking, and the work grew apace.
Her little enterprise, as Leonora called it, did not pass unnoticed for long. Mrs Milsom's first move was to summon Leonora's nephew, he who sorted her paperwork and took her out on occasional weekends. Neil arrived with his fiancée for the conference.
The problem was explained with appropriate delicacy. Neil was logical.
"Auntie, you get no income from this. You havent negotiated with any telephone company. That is the prerequisite of a dirty...er, an answering service of any specialist kind."
Leonora was undeterred.
"I see this as a social service" she said in her well-modulated tones. "Like the Samaritans."
Neil and Mrs Milsom shared severe and piquant glances.
"Look at it this way" said Leonora crisply "If a man is confiding his lust down the telephone to me, he is not prowling the streets and molesting young gels."
"But suppose when he puts the phone down he is excited to such a pitch that this is exactly what he does? Not a nice thought to have on your conscience, Auntie."
"That is where my special flair comes in" said Leonora smugly. "I make sure my callers feel no such need. They are replete". Neil's fiancée, who had been silently scrutinising her fingernails, at this point rather mysteriously nodded.
Neil finished his macaroon, shrugged, and left. He hazarded a parting opinion to Mrs Milsom that his aunt was one radish short of a mixed salad, but there was little he could do.
"She pays up, doesn't she?" he reasoned as he got back into the Volvo, followed by the quiet fiancée.
"What a nice girl" said Denzil brightly as Leonora watched them from the window.
"She makes a very good impression" Leonora agreed gloomily. Personally I prefer rather more flamboyance. Namibian women are very striking. Leonora had been spending much of her time in the library recently, researching various costumes and customs. She had also set up a spreadsheet on her small computer and now spent her time between phone callsi in logging the themes of these exchanges.
"I have refined my work" she explained to Denzil, as they peered together at the small monitor. "I have several performance pieces which are highly polished. They are sensual and erotic but never vulgar. It would spoil the effect to repeat a theme to the same client. Hence the need for a computerised record for my work. Do you see?"
Denzil did, but the new nurse was doubtful. "I can see it helps to pass the time but it's not really work, is it dear." she said.
"It is work" insisted Leonora "- of a voluntary nature, admittedly. But I am utterly professional. I make myself available at all times, I prepare thoroughly. It is tiring, but I find it stimulating."
The new nurse pursed her lips but Denzil was convinced. "Shes an absolute workaholic" he reported admiringly.
I don't know how they all get hold of the number" muttered Mrs Milsom.
"Word of mouth?" hazarded Denzil, but Selina said she didn't think perverts did swap numbers, not on a large scale. "I think she's gone and written it in the public loos down the Esplanade she said.
Denzil was even more impressed. "She'd have to have gone in the Gents, then. She's got bottle, I'll say that for the old bird."
"Mrs Foster is bringing the Home into disrepute" said Matron sharply, and everyone knew now it was serious.
"But we can't stop our old ladies from having calls, even if they are a bit quirky" said Denzil feebly. Matron waved her fingers in the air as if flicking treacle at passing flies. "I have her nephew's assent to treat her for an imbalance of the mind" she said. Denzil looked out of the window at the long lawn without replying. One radish was the cutting edge of assent, it appeared. The new nurse listened to Mrs Milsom's instructions about medication, and nodded.
Neil was due to visit his aunt with his new bride when the weather was warmer but July was nearly over now. Daisies spattered the long lawn; the ladies sat in a circle.
"I've often wondered what it's like to be a stoat" Veronica Cragg was saying, in between noisy sips of tea.
"Don't bite your hanky dear," said the nurse to Pansy. "Put it in your pocket. That's better." But cunning Pansy slipped her handkerchief under a fold of her frock and whipped it out a in a moment for another nibble.
"A stoat or a weasel," continued Veronica undeterred. "or an eagle."
"They're not the same, dear." explained the nurse "One's a bird."
"They are unified in their diversity" shouted Veronica, splashing tea from her saucer.
"Predator and prey. Both part of the eternal reciprocity of suffering. Hapless victims all, all of us."
"I see dear" said the nurse, noting that the decaff made very little difference. Recalcitrant Pansy furtively chewed. Leonora moaned in her doze. Madge smiled damply and the sun shone on.