It was a beautiful July morning. I took my normal route to the café, alongside a stream full of watercress and tall grasses and late-spring scents. It followed the route of an avenue of fine old sycamores and chestnuts, went past the visitor car park and then through an entrance arch. The café was a glass and wood structure, leaning against the wall to the left of the arch. It could have been a regular morning going to work, but for being two hours early. I kept walking, leaving the yard, greenhouses and the stable building behind me, taking the path that ran beneath fine rare hardwoods, in full hue of light and dark greens.
It seemed odd not to turn into the restaurant and begin unpacking the tessellated chairs and tables, ready for the first thirsty visitors. Instead, a sense of adventure gripped me. Something new! How many employees get that dumped in their lap?
I heard the stable clock strike eight as I turned onto the gravel path across the wide closely-cut lawns with their tablecloth stripes, which took me to the front entrance of the house. The clock was drowned out by a vehicle approaching from behind. I stepped aside, onto the immaculate grass to let it pass. Instead it stopped next to me, sending a shower of gravel onto the grass. A young man, about my age, whom I recognised as one of the gardening staff, wound the window down. His face was so familiar, but his name evaded me. It dawned on me that he’d been in my primary school, but a few years ahead of me.
‘Get in, will you,’ he called through the wound down window.
I was confused. It was just a few steps to a massive fuchsia hedge and once round it, the house would be in full view.
‘Not worth it,’ I called. ‘I can walk those few steps.’
‘No way! I’ll catch hell. Yer Lady Ashington will know I was late to pick you up.’
I shrugged and opened the door.
‘Why were you to pick me up?’
‘She found me mucking out last evening and told me to collect you – on the dot at eight. More, I know not. I can guess though.’
‘Er Ladyship’s friends don’t walk to the house, especially not if they are pulling a suitcase.’
‘She said nothing to me. Just told me to use the front entrance.’
‘Yeh. And if you use the front entrance you don’t walk. You should have waited for me to arrive to pick you up.’
‘I know nothing of this arrangement, so it seems you were late,’ I retorted with a sniff. I admit that I felt I was coming over a bit arrogant. Bad style, Millie. I may have the job as Lady Ashington’s companion, but I belong drinking my tea with the ground staff. He put me right about punctuality.
‘This is your actual aristocracy, Millie. Everyone’s late. Whatever posh school they went to, they never learned to tell the time or tie their shoes.’
I climbed in.
He crashed the aging Land Rover into gear and set off for the main entrance. It was as filthy inside as out, stank of manure and dog-farts and I was struggling to protect my new tights from nondescript metal bits poking from the seat upholstery.
‘Anyway, Millie, how did you end up Lady Vera’s buddy?’
We rounded the fuchsias and the house came into splendid view. There was a figure standing under the fine bay windows which lunged out over the grand portico doorway.
‘Crikey. That’s ‘er. Don’t tell her I missed you, and let me carry your case.’
‘You are joking!’
‘Never more serious.’
We stopped in front of the door. I tried to step down from the wagon. I’d chosen a tight business skirt for my first morning and getting out proved more taxing than getting in. I felt the firm hands of the gardener lift me at the same moment as I felt my brand-new tights hang on a bit of seat spring. I now had dusty handprints on my white blouse, but worse would be my backside, held in place by a tight, black, power skirt, which I assumed was now covered in a mixture of farm and builder’s dust. He put me down on the gravel and disappeared round the side of the house with my suitcase. This felt all wrong. If I’d had time to consider things, I might have laughed about it, but I was fuming. No! Fuming doesn’t begin to cover it!
‘I’m so sorry, Millicent. You shouldn’t have had to come here in that dreadful Land Rover.’
‘Honestly?’ she echoed.
‘A girl can walk you know. That with the Land Rover was bollocks.’
I walked by her and into the cool dark house, past an enormous pair of stuffed bears either side of the door to the portrait gallery. I heard her steps behind me. She must be able to see the gape in my hose. She had chosen a wide gardening skirt and sensible brogues and caught me up in seconds, panting in her need to offer an explanation.
‘A girl can walk, but a Lady’s Companion cannot. If any of my friends found out, they wouldn’t give you the time of day thereafter. And please don’t swear in the house. We have standards you know.’
I looked to see if she was serious – after her performance yesterday one could take it either way! Not a hint of a smile!
‘I was still outside the hallowed hall, Vera. And don’t patronise me. I’ve a good education, good manners, so I’ll not embarrass you, but my family are dirt poor. I can’t afford new tights and a dry-cleaning bill every time you decide it’s too infra dig for a girl to walk. Am I here to be the person I am – Sultan! Remember? – or to act the little rich girl I’m not?’
I turned to look her in the eyes. I tried to stay calm, but I couldn’t. I really hit a crescendo with the F-word. I knew it shouldn’t happen, but there you are – it did.
‘If it’s the former, I’ll walk. If it’s the rich girl, then send a decent fucking motor!’
There was a pained pause, then she admitted, ‘Oh – I suppose you are right in a way.’
In a way? In a way! How divorced from life is the cow?
Vera led me through to a sun-filled gallery with comfy armchairs invitingly pushed into convenient alcoves. She pointed at one for me to sit in. I remained standing, next to a variety of late nineteenth century soft-porn statues of loving couples, just about decently draped round the saucy bits. At the end of the hallway was a collection of Steinway pianos – grands and uprights. I was about to put on my most vitriolic voice and ask why she needed six pianos, when a sign caught my eye, indicating that it was a sales pitch from a local music store. Vera pulled my attention back to the matter at hand.
‘We have got off to a bad start, haven’t we? What exactly have I done wrong Millicent, apart from sending the Land Rover?’
‘Either let me walk or send a decent car.’
‘There was no other car or driver available. It’s a busy time of year as you know.’
‘You have a car and driving licence. If you are too busy tomorrow, then I walk and take the servants’ entrance.’
I was so cross, I couldn’t keep the tears back. Crying on your first morning. How pathetic is that?
She went as white as a sheet and slumped into an armchair. Her gaze rested on some faraway spot on the side lawns, which I would discover was a habit she had whenever things were in danger of coming unglued.
I became worried. Had I overstepped the mark? She had insisted on honesty and humiliated me. She had to be told. That was to be the deal or so I thought, but my dad had warned me that this job would come to no good. ‘They are all a cup short of a tea-set, when it comes to snobbish protocol,’ he had informed me over supper last night. I dried my eyes on my blouse sleeve, and managed a conciliatory tone, mainly because she was white as a sheet and I feared a coronary was on its way.
‘What is it?’ I asked. ‘Are you ill?’
‘No. Just shocked at myself.’
Her reply was barely audible. I sat beside her and took her hand.
‘I’m sorry I shouted. I didn’t want to. Please explain.’
‘I promised honesty. Now you must reciprocate. Sultan – remember?’
‘I remember. And you are right. But please withdraw your Sultan. It’s too embarrassing. Leave me time.’
‘You never said anything about being allowed to withdraw a Sultan. Too late to change the rules. Tell me! What on earth has turned you white as a sheet with icy trembling hands?’
There was an embarrassingly long pause, but I knew I had to face her out. For her arrangement to work, we had to be friends and that can only be based on a fine line of honesty. Finally, she started to explain.
‘Millicent. You mustn’t walk out on me if I tell you. We will be proper friends, now we have the Sultan agreement.’
‘Yeh, sure – whatever.’ I decided to defer tackling the Millicent business until another day. She must have noticed that my real friends call me Millie. I felt she was trying to provoke me, so I wasn’t provoked. Never do what the enemy wants, even if they do claim friendship. They are the worst sort. If she called Sid ‘Sidonie’ one more time she may get to wear her fried egg, waitress job or no waitress job. Sid is more a hands-on person than me.
Finally, Vera drew breath and continued.
‘You see, it was, and to a certain extent still is, inconceivable to have a girl from the village share my car with me. So, it never crossed my mind. But you are right! We will go out together in the car.’
I laughed and used my hankie to wipe the tears from her and my cheek.
‘I can’t imagine you sitting in our old banger either Vera, especially after the dog became travel-sick last weekend. I used a whole carton of Febreez and it still stinks.’
‘So, you are not angry at my blatant snobbishness?’
‘Na,’ I drawled. ‘That would assume I wanted to sit in your woofty motor in the first place. Like I said, I’d rather walk.’
‘I see. That’s put me in my place.’
I took a moment to consider what she really wanted. Was I here to teach her a few realities that had passed her by because she had been born with such an enormous silver spoon lodged in her mouth? I thought so. Why else? I went for the kill.
‘Vera, you are very privileged, and I believe you know it. You have many things, too many to count, I’m sure, that I will never own. That doesn’t mean that I want what you have. If I had your money, I would invest it in a village in Africa and help make their life sustainable. I wouldn’t buy a bloody Beamer no one is allowed to sit in.’
There. I had said it. Would she sack me or tell me to go dig the garden while she composed her injured dignity?
‘I see. I really do see. You are proud of where you come from and don’t envy me. You are right, of course. My tribe are all in danger of suffocating on too much cake. It doesn’t make them happy. On the contrary, most need therapy.’
‘There are a few people down Church Cottages need therapy, too, just they can’t afford it. And I think I now understand why I am here. Quick on the uptake, aren’t I? I am to teach you to live without cake.’
‘Nearly right, Millicent. I don’t need to live without cake and my tribe wouldn’t let me, if I wanted to. I want to be able to think of other things, not just about how much cake I have. If you can reveal that alternative viewpoint, I’ll be able to experience a whole new world, maybe your world or perhaps my own world, but differently.’
I stopped to think on what she had said. Did I really understand her? There was an enormous gulf between us, made up of age difference, money and of course, social class. How could I deliver her from a surfeit of cake?
‘I need a cup of tea, Vera. Here or the café?’
‘Here, I think. I’ll ring for some.’
‘No! We’ll go make it ourselves.’
‘Can’t. Our kitchens aren’t like that.’
‘You can’t make tea for yourself?’
‘Why would I want to?’
‘Vera! It’s almost a perfect dialectic.’
‘It is? Explain!’
‘You have complete power over your servants and yet are powerless to make your own tea. Thesis – antithesis’
‘And what pray, should the synthesis be?
‘Build your own tea kitchen!’
‘That’s only going to be needed if the servants go on strike.’
‘Empowerment, Vera. Take control. You need to be able to make tea if you want to. Where can I find a kettle and some cups?’
‘There’s nothing up here.’
‘There’s nothing up here,’ I echoed. I was staggered. ‘Let’s go look through your apartment and see where we can build in your very own tea kitchen. First act of emancipation. But first I’m going to write our rules down.’
I took a notepad from the window-ledge and spoke as I wrote:
1. Sultan rule. Call ‘Sultan’ if one of us is about to hide the truth from the other.
2. Emancipation rule. Call ‘Brave New World,’ Every time we create a bit more freedom and self-empowerment.
Vera interrupted. ‘Let’s shorten ‘Brave New World’ – bit of a mouthful. Just shout Huxley.’ She was grinning from ear to ear. ‘But of course, we are not striving for Huxley’s BNW. We want the reverse of his hell.’
I stopped and considered her point. She was someone who liked games with accurate rules. That’ll be the boarding school. I made a note to myself – must get her talking about her schooldays.
‘It’s OK to use Brave New World,’ I expostulated. ‘It will remind us of Huxley’s desire or ambition, to have economics serve society instead of society being the handmaiden of economic models, which is what we have at the moment.’
‘Did you think that up for yourself?’
‘Honestly? It was part of the vicar’s speech at our leavers’ assembly. It’s good though. I thought I’ll remember that. It’ll come in handy.’
I put my impish grin on and continued.
‘What you should strive for, Vera, is to let your wealth and privilege create beauty in your life. I get the impression that you are a slave to it.’
Vera bristled. She was not happy at this analysis.
‘Slave to it? How do you come to that conclusion?’
‘You have a problem with me walking to the house if I use the main entrance, because your snooty chums would find it odd. No one minds if I walk up the back path and use the tradesmen’s entrance, except, I can’t then be your friend. What a pickle? Why give a shit what your snooty chums think? If they are really your chums, they will get over it. If they don’t get over it, then it is their problem.’
‘Yes, Yes. I get the picture. Stop there or we’ll be back to the Land Rover scenario. And I was intimate friends with a servant once and that really backfired.’
She paused, but didn’t take her eyes from me. She continued, without explaining what went down between her and the butler.
‘Huxley is the rule we shout if I become a slave to my title. Is that what you want? What do we get if we reverse ‘Huxley’’?
‘Not good, yelxuh! Unpronounceable! But if we take the x out and swap it or move it?’
‘Swop the x and h. We must get ‘yelhux’. Excellent!’
‘Excellent indeed,’ I shouted. How did she do that one in her head? ‘Now,’ I told her, ‘charming builders’ tea at the café and then we’ll design a tea parlour with kettle etc. Right here, in the house.’
‘But before we do that, I think we need another rule.’
I took up my pencil and waited in anticipation.
‘Rule 3,’ she continued, ‘the dialectic. Of course, I’m a slave to convention. We all are, even the tramp looking for a hedge to sleep under. He, too, must consider the feelings of his homeless brothers in case he usurps their spot. More importantly – another dialectic – the very act of rejecting convention, which is what you tell me I should do, makes you a slave to it.’
She finished with a self-satisfied smirk. I was dumbfounded. When I had recovered, I asked the inevitable question.
‘Where did you learn about Kant, Marx, Hegel and the dialectic? It wasn’t at girls’ boarding school, I’ll be bound.’
She rose from the sofa, took a beautiful woollen cape against the wind and marched purposefully toward the café, using the more direct tradesman’s entrance, and ignored my question. She called back in a leisurely way, ‘Rule 3. Write it down. Dialectic rule. Shout ‘Karl’ if one of us uses an argument that has an antithesis or actually proves the opposite. And where did you learn your Marxist theory.’
‘I’m still at the stage of learning useful phrases,’ I admitted with a grin, ‘and discovering where they can be effective.’
‘That was honest…’
The rest of her sentence was lost to me as the door closed between us. I wanted to remind her that according to the ancient Greeks, all arguments and debates have a thesis and antithesis, but she was already celebrating her victory. Smug, doesn’t begin to describe her expression, but she had earned it.
I was determined to have the last word on the matter so I caught her up and called, ‘Rule 4 Vera. Consequences. Or maybe it should be game, set and match. This is the rule we apply, when the solution to the contradiction is to guillotine the aristocracy and their lackeys.’
She turned in the doorway and laughed.
‘Well done, Millicent. I’ll give you a fifty-quid bonus if you ever manage to use it. Don’t forget you have become a lackey. Could be painful.’
Tea took long. Sid dithered, quite deliberately, to point out that they were very busy and short-handed, because a key member of the team was licking the arse or less metaphorically, crawling around in the crumbs from the master’s table. I ignored Sid and added rules 3 and 4 to the list. Once done, Vera used the time to get me acquainted with some of her plans, which, I suspect, were only just beginning to crystallise in her mind.
‘Millicent, I want you to minute our talks and give it to me at the end of your employment. Do them in the first person. It will help me analyse your side of the argument.’
‘Good idea. And we should both make a list of things to discuss and activities to do. We can compare notes tomorrow. ‘
‘Take the rest of the morning off to get on with it. Keep the receipts for new tights and dry cleaning and let me have them. Meet me at eight tomorrow and we’ll talk tea kitchens, while I show you the house.’
She finished her tea, gave me a tender smile, waved at Sid and left the café.
I stayed on and finished the shift in the café. The sun was gaining in strength as it rose in the cloudless sky. The ancient trees scattered around the grounds were a zillion dots as the powerful breezes sent their leaves in a chaotic dance of a million greens, juxtaposed against the blue backdrop of a cloudless sky. Summer can be breath-taking.
I suppose I’m trying to say I don’t belong upstairs with Vera – downstairs is more comfortable, so long as I have a view like the one from the café! Does that make Millie a village traitor? Probably. At the moment I’m only dancing with the enemy. So long as I don’t end up sleeping with them.
Visitors were pouring in and I realised it would be a good tip day. Furthermore, Vera had spoken openly about remuneration, but hadn’t put a figure to it. ‘Never trust a rich bitch,’ my grandfather would have told me, so a shift in the café allowed me to hedge my bets a little.
We knocked off around four-thirty. Sid and I found ourselves wandering, arm in arm, back to Church Cottages. She was bursting with curiosity, annoyed that the busy lunchtime and afternoon, had made it impossible for her to catch up on the morning’s events at the house.
I filled her in on the major issues and some of the impending rows Vera and I narrowly avoided.
‘But you parted best of buddies,’ was her summary of the day. ‘I’d have slapped the stuck-up cow, that’s for sure. And when are you going to address this Millicent nonsense? No one has ever, in the history of anywhen, called you Millicent. I nearly spat in her tea yesterday, when she kept calling me Sidonie. I made the mistake of mentioning it at home, now they are all doing it.’
I had to laugh. Mirth subsided. ‘No one will ever know about Vera calling me Millicent,’ I promised. ‘And I can’t be too hard on her. I really put her through the wringer over her stuck-up conventions and she parried the argument using a torpedo, with dialectic – none too sure what that is – painted on the side.’
‘Wow!’ was all Sid could manage. ‘Respect.’
Sid gave me a big hug at the gate to our cottage and walked on, past the church, to her house. To be honest, it was a bit of a hovel in a dell with huge mature oaks and sycamore robbing the windows of daylight. Her family were dysfunctional, rarely spoke to each other and Sid couldn’t wait to leave home. I doubted anyone ribbed her over being called Sidonie. That would have meant a communication.
I watched her male walk in baggy but fashionable dungarees, disappear behind the church fence. Her clothes, gait, the use of a boy’s name, were all part of her affectation not to be a girl. She was a tad overweight, but certainly didn’t have a boy’s figure – rather the opposite, although she never revealed her curves. And she knew she was stuck at home for the foreseeable future. Her first task was to get her younger sibling through school and keep her off drugs and alcohol, for they were the vices that took most young villagers, who didn’t have functioning parents. There were plenty. Sometimes I think rural poverty is worse than being poor in the towns.
Her sexual orientation remained a mystery even to me, her best friend, perhaps her only friend. The other teenagers and twenty-somethings in the village had her down as a raving lesbian. I was only spared the same accusation due to my lascivious lifestyle, which made me something of a celebrity among the lads. Sid always took my arm, hugged me and kissed me lingeringly on the cheek when she got the chance, but she never overstepped the mark and embarrassed me. One day I will discuss things with her and find her a boyfriend, which I think, is what she really wants. But having driven herself into the ‘butch dyke’ corner by playing the butch dyke for the last decade, the lads were understandably a bit reluctant.
I took out the notepad Vera had given me, which from now on I’ll call ‘Vera’s notepad,’ and wrote in it, ‘Discuss Sid’s problem with Vera!’