During C-19 lockdown, I decided to post chapters of my 5* novel Someone Tell Me What Is Going On, as a free read. I’ve now re-posted the first 9 chapters so that they are in the correct order. If you are interested in the whole novel, go to Clive La Pensée on Amazon or click here. It is also available through Kindle Unlimited.
US readers, please try this link. Whatever – enjoy your read.
Day 1. Vera.
‘Millicent! I need to talk to you.’
I wouldn’t have noticed Vera as she sat down, because of my terrible eyesight. The name was mine. It had to be me she was calling. But from where?
I searched the café. This meant peering across the space between, through powerful lenses. Vera wasn’t a regular visitor, even though it was her café. Most café owners would breakfast in their restaurant every morning, but not Vera and I certainly don’t eat here. It isn’t my café. I’m just a worker from the village, who tries to earn a few quid as a waitress, so when I finally spotted her over by the long trestles, used by coach parties, she was waving me over.
My heart skipped a beat as I imagined the conversation to come.
‘Millicent, we have too many staff on and being casual, I’m afraid I’ll have to let you go. I’ll have your last wages ready at midday.’
This wasn’t panic. She was on the other side of the room and had made an effort to call me. And how did she know my name? She’d had to learn it to sack me! A disaster! One always needs the money.
I walked over and tried not to curtsey. How daft is that? Just because she is Lady Vera, doesn’t call for a bended knee in the twenty-first century, but, if I’m honest, I would have curtseyed to keep my job.
And there was the next problem! What to call her. Vera? Impossible – even though she was technically a work colleague. Your Ladyship? No idea if that is even correct. I decided to treat her like any other customer, even though her husband owns the remarkable eighteenth-century hall and gardens and most of the villages around it, including the one in which my extended family live. The café is part of a tourist attraction, which provides most of the jobs in the area. It is nationally famous for its astounding home-made cakes, so Vera is a powerful woman and not one to irritate unnecessarily!
I arrived at the table with no decision made and tried to play safe.
‘What can I do for you, madam?’
It sounded all wrong. She thought so, too.
‘Sit down, Millicent.’
That was another surprise. I wasn’t mistaken. She did know my name. Nearly my name, I suppose. To this day, she is the only person who occasionally calls me Millicent instead of Millie.
And ‘Sit down’? Was my hearing playing tricks?
She is in her late forties, tall for a woman, stunningly elegant with her rich wavy slightly copper hair which is now gently greying. Her voice is beautiful, even though a little old-fashioned, almost an affectation nowadays with a twang of over-correct Oxford English. It’s so different to our Suffolk brogue that I assumed she hadn’t really meant for me to sit at her table and looked for some other opportunity that required me to be seated.
‘Oh, do sit down, girl!’ She barked at my moment of hesitation, but there was still a friendly intonation in her voice. That was a clue. I wasn’t about to get the sack, but still couldn’t imagine why else she had called me over. I gently and nervously dropped down opposite her.
‘Had breakfast yet?’
‘I’m not due a break until eleven Miss er madam. Sorry.’ I was flustering like a ten-year-old. She rescued me.
‘Call me Vera, for goodness sake.’
‘Thanks,’ I mumbled.
Why was I thanking her? Why was I mumbling?
An imperious call to my colleague and oldest school friend, who also waited tables, confounded the riddle.
‘Bring Millicent a full English breakfast Sidonie and put it on my tab.’
Sid blanched. She couldn’t abide Sidonie. No one used it.
‘Yes, madam,’ she replied in a tone barely respectful.
‘Millicent, while you are waiting, read that.’
She turned the copy of Country Lives she had been reading, on its head and pushed it across the table, scattering her breakfast crockery and nearly tipping the milk jug over. I rescued the milk and then studied the open pages for some time. I couldn’t concentrate. What was I supposed to be reading?
‘You’ve lost me. It’s mainly ads for high-class plant nurseries, horse tackle and nanny agencies.’
‘Try again. You are looking for the odd one out.’
I can’t abide the cat and mouse stuff. Life isn’t just a game, even if Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. Why can’t she just tell me?
I scanned the page again, but still it felt like an exam I hadn’t learned for. I could read the words without comprehending a thing. She ran out of patience, much to my relief.
‘Well? What do you think?’
That put me on the spot.
‘Sorry Miss, Vera. What am I supposed to be looking at?’
‘The ad I put in. What else? You’ll have to be sharper than this,’ she retorted, but still friendly.
A long and beautiful finger glided across the table, across the paper, and settled on a small, advert in the ‘Vacancies’ column. I read the ad and then read it again.
Lady seeks smart cultivated young female companion for the summer months in the first instance. Apply in writing by 10th inst. to Lady Vera Ashington, Ashington Hall, Suffolk.
‘What do you think?’
‘I’m confused. Are you asking me to apply for the post?’
‘The tenth was last week. Do pay attention! Applications are closed. I got two hundred, all rubbish, from funny sounding women after a summer meal ticket or bimbos with dodgy boyfriends, for whom they were supposed to case the joint, no doubt.’
‘Not many young working women with honest intent have time to include Country Living in their regular reading.’
‘I’m sure you are right. Silly of me I know. Ad cost a fucking fortune too. That’s why I’m short circuiting the process. I want you to take the job. I’ve checked up. A-levels in music and English literature are just what I need. Apparently, you dance beautifully too. How is your art?’
Did she just use the F-word? I was too stunned to answer. I swear myself plenty when it’s called for, but Lady Vera Ashington complaining about the fucking cost. Wow! What my young brain must still learn about the fucking aristocracy. I composed myself for the nth time since sitting down with her.
‘Art knowledge is not notable,’ I replied with humble honesty.
‘No matter, you can swot up. And here is your breakfast. Eat up!’
Sid clattered the plate onto the table from an impolite height.
‘Want any sauces, Millicent?’ Her voice was a mixture of irony, sarcasm and mockery. I decided to play it safe. I could jeopardise things by not taking Vera seriously.
‘No thanks, Sid,’ I quietly replied and started eating. She had spilled the tea into the saucer – surely an attempt to make it difficult to drink in front of Her Ladyship. Vera noticed too.
‘Get Millicent a fresh cup of tea!’
Sid stalked off, nose in the air and sniffing a bit too ostentatiously for comfort.
‘While you are eating, I’ll tell you a story. It was written by a German Jew in the twenties or thirties – I can’t quite remember. Joseph Roth, he was called. Don’t confuse him with that dreadful American anti-Semite Jew Philip Roth. Did you know I’m Jewish?’
‘I had no idea and why would that be important?’
Oh dear. That came over too abruptly, so I added for further discomfort, ‘I’m rather fond of Philip Roth novels.’
I searched my memory for a title. My little pretence could backfire if she realised how clueless I was.
‘I find they tells it how it is.’
There! That did it. It was a risk bragging about an author I’d never heard of, but I felt the need to do a bit of protest after my earlier simpering performance. On reflection I thought I’d probably manoeuvred myself back to the dole queue. Wrong again.
‘I suppose you are right. A girl has to gain an insight into male masturbation somehow.’
Fortunately, I wasn’t drinking my tea as she said it. I swear I’d have sprayed her ladyship as I choked.
‘But that was a good answer. I like it. That’s the point of the story. Be honest with those with power over you. The pressure is always on, to keep the influential happy. You don’t want to annoy someone who has the say over life and death. I could sack you on the spot, but you didn’t try weasel words with me. Well done.’
I didn’t continue my honesty by revealing how little I understood her. I thought I had been unnecessarily rude and there she was – thrilled by my integrity and not a mention of a dismissal. From which job would that have been?
The way she drew breath I knew I’d have plenty of time to concentrate on my eggs, before another answer was required.
‘Joseph Roth wrote a story about a powerful Sultan, who really had the power of life and death over others. It was called the ‘Thousand and Second Story’ I think. The Sultan’s problem was that no one told him the truth if the truth would upset him. No one wanted to risk his wrath by annoying him with bad news. He could never find out if his wife loved him, if his chancellor understood economics, his farmers agriculture or the captain of his yacht, navigation. If I remember, they got into a terrible storm, because the captain didn’t want to admit bad weather was on the way.
‘The Sultan became bored, because if you only ever hear good news, where is the titillation in life? So, he went on holiday to Vienna, and there the Sultan fell for a beautiful Baroness. The Austrian courtiers and diplomats didn’t want to displease him, and couldn’t tell him the Baroness was off limits, so they fixed him up with a prostitute who looked a bit like her and convinced him that the whore was the woman of his lust. You have probably guessed, he fell in love with the prostitute and began treating her like an aristocratic mistress. Huge and embarrassing gifts and so on. There was a terrible confusion. The prostitute and her madam got the blame for the chaos and went to prison, I think.’
I nodded and pretended to be interested while trying not to let the fried egg yolk slide off my fork. Getting a whole egg yolk in your mouth in one go is tricky enough without trying to hit a moving target, so I stopped nodding as soon as was polite and shovelled the yolk in. Delicious! My favourite way to eat egg. I looked up at Vera. Her mouth had fallen open in horror. She quickly regained her composure.
‘Interesting manners, Millicent. Have you heard a word I’ve said about the parable of the Sultan?’
Her voice cut through the air, but her tone was full of humour. I felt a giggle coming on. Suppress it girl. I couldn’t. The yolk escaped the corners of my mouth and Sid hadn’t left a serviette. Vera reached a beautiful white, folded, delicate, lace-edged lady’s handkerchief across the table. I wanted to protest that I couldn’t wipe egg off my chin with such a work of art, but if I’d opened my mouth the contents would have landed on the tablecloth. I wiped my chin instead, finished my mouthful, calmed my breathing and said, ‘Sozz but it’s the only way to eat fried egg, and why are you surprised the innocent whore and her boss got the blame? Sounds about typical to me – I’ll wash and iron the handkerchief.’
She reached across the table and took the lacy egg-stained article from me.
‘Don’t be daft. First use it’s ever had. You can’t blow your nose on it. Snot goes through the lacy bits.’
I was ready to wet myself. It wasn’t so much what she said as the dry delivery in her posh accent. I was reduced to sniggered snorts. She grinned, too. She was having a ball. Let’s keep it going. I looked over to the counter, where Sid was preparing a tea tray.
‘Sid,’ I sang, in order to mellow giving a mate an order. ‘Can you bring Vera two very runny fried eggs?’
I cleared the crockery from Vera’s side of the table, and had finished my own breakfast, just as Sid arrived with the eggs. Vera looked on mystified. She still hadn’t cottoned on, to what we were up to.
‘Can I stay and watch?’
Vera looked at Sid.
‘I think Millie has plans for those eggs. Cut the white off, slide the yolk onto your fork and then in it goes, whole. We always do it that way. It gives a different edge to the word ‘yokel’.’
Vera was baffled. Sid offered further explanation.
‘Saves on washing up as well.’
Vera looked at me and then the plate and then at Sid, standing by her shoulder.
‘Go for it,’ I said. ‘It’s not better than sex but comes near and is definitely safer.’
Vera looked at the eggs again and started removing the white. She then pursued the yolks round the plate a while, not having the courage to hoist them onto the fork, but endangering the delicate membrane that was struggling to retain the bulging yellow mass. I moved my chair to the side of the table adjacent to her, took my fork, scooped the first yolk onto it and headed toward her mouth. She sat there, tight lipped. Just as I thought the yolk would be wrecked somewhere between chin and nose, her mouth opened and in it went. Her eyes widened as she wallowed then swallowed.
‘Wow!’ she exclaimed.
‘Next one,’ I said, as I scooped at the second yolk.
This time her mouth was already open in greedy anticipation. Her eyes shut in desire and she swallowed again, this time very slowly. Was she aware how full of lust her face was?
I looked at Sid, who had a huge grin across her face. She turned and swaggered back to her post at the counter.
Vera opened her eyes.
‘You’ve got the job! You will take it, won’t you? Twice your rate here.’
Will I take the job? Do cats crap in our seed beds?
‘Sure. What are my duties?’
‘Talk to me!’
‘That’s it? Where does the Sultan come in?’
‘Talk to me honestly. No flummery. You’ll be sacked for holding back the truth, not for telling it. I’m bored out my mind. My husband is away on business for weeks at a time, my own children have flown the baronial nest. I need an old-fashioned companion. Do you have a suitcase?’
I couldn’t admit that, as a family, we never went anywhere, because, if we had, we wouldn’t have had any money to do anything when we got there. And that assumes that the old banger we called a car, which was a van, would have got us there. So why would I own a suitcase? She sensed my embarrassment.
‘Every time you hide something from me, I’ll say ‘Sultan,’ and then you have to tell me. Deal?’
‘Deal,’ I said. This woman was a bit special, I decided. ‘And the same goes for you.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘I mean the Sultan rule applies to you, too.’
She paused, seemed about to tell me not to get above myself, but checked herself, and in a friendly voice said, ‘That’s OK. If we are to be friends, that is how it will have to work. And about the suitcase, I’ll send one over to your house. You are in the Church Cottages, aren’t you?’
She knew the answer already.
I was back into mumbling mode.
‘You’ll need at least three outfits. Smart, like you are now, smart casual for walking, and rough for the garden or stables.’ I continued studying the floor. The silence between us was deafening. She broke it.
‘Don’t worry Millicent. I’ll find something for you out of our wardrobes. See you tomorrow, eight sharp, use the main entrance.’
I stood up, unsure how to make my exit. She took my hand tenderly but firmly.
‘Don’t worry girl. You’ll do fine,’ and she left.
That evening, after work, I was obliged to relay the bits of conversation that Sid had been unable to eavesdrop. It wasn’t much.
‘What’s it all about? You must have an opinion.’
Sid was always quick with opinions, even when not asked for one.
‘Strictly speaking, your honesty and pride as a villager should debar you from hanging out with her,’ she began. ‘On the other hand, the café is a converted orangery and we know how unbearable it can be to work in there if we hit a spell of good weather. So, take the job. What’s the money like? It must be more than waitressing.’
”All she said was, ‘it will be better,’ but as she doesn’t know what we make in tips, how can she be sure she’s offering more? But the issue is, why me?’
‘Why she offered it to you?’
I looked to her for help although after years of friendship, I already knew she usually finished things with a raunchy or lascivious punchline.
‘She’s lesbian and fancies you,’ she concluded, and strolled off chuckling and congratulating herself for causing embarrassment.
Sid had no idea how profound her analysis was, but it didn’t turn out to be me Vera fancied.