You can find the previous chapters as Day 1 etc. under Literature. Can’t wait. Get Someone Tell Me What Is Going On,’ free to read on Kindle Unlimited, or just £0.99 as e-book.
If you would rather read on, then just know that Millie and Sid are best friends and employed by Lady Vera Ashington at her stately home. Millie is her paid companion and Sid, a waitress in the café.
Day 7. Keeping quiet.
I’ve got myself in a corner of my own making. Should I go to the House as though nothing had happened? Was I expected there on a Sunday? Should I go to the café? It was another beautiful day. There would be enough work, but maybe Sid and I had burned our bridges there, too. Should I stay in bed and say, ‘Sod the lot of them?’
Then I had a genial idea. Go to church!
I hadn’t been to church since being chucked out of Brownies for swearing, and when Brown Owl chastised me, I blasphemed, which was obviously much worse than the F-word. I knew enough about Vera’s habits to know she always went to church when she was ‘at home’.
I imagined asking Sid.
‘Is it tactically better to be early or late for church?’
‘You never go to church. What’s got into you? But late is better.’
‘It’s an opportunity to meet Vera on neutral ground and find out if I have a job, and just as importantly, if you do.’
‘Why give a damn? Why do you want to live your life through their eyes, pandering to their sensitivities?’
‘I give a damn because I need the job, just as you do. That bags behind the grizzlies wasn’t our finest moment, Sid.’
‘OK. Go to church and suck up if you have to, but wear something provocative, so she knows you are not grovelling.’
‘But I am grovelling, Sid.’
I went back over the conversation in my mind and left the last sentence off. I’m grovelling all right. I’d curtsey to keep my job. How can Sid be so brave?
I couldn’t know how wide of the mark my imaginary speech was, and I was about to find out.
But Sid is right. A bit of protest can’t hurt, so I pulled a rude T-shirt on – the one with, ‘Sorry I’m late – I didn’t want to cum, anyway,’ on it and set off when the first bells could be heard. The expression on my mother’s face as I reached the front door, made the effort worthwhile.
‘She must be in love with the vicar’s lad,’ she offered as an explanation. Sonya gave the right answer. She paused over her cornflakes and put out her tongue with a loud retching noise, which earned a playful cuff on the ear from my father. As I opened the door, I was surprised to find Wilf on the step, his hand ready to work the knocker. Our family use the back door via the kitchen for a Sunday morning call. This must be formal, and I felt the foreboding.
‘Where’s the rest of the money?’
‘I gave you all there was.’
Before either of us could continue, my father intervened.
‘You get off to church now, Millie. I’ll talk to Wilf.’
I was gone like the shot out of a gun. Saved by the church! Who would have thought? Wilf was scared of my father – possibly the only person he feared – ever since, while Mum and Dad were courting, Wilf made the mistake of letting his bad temper out on my mum and gran. The men settled it on the lawn and the contest had become the stuff of village lore, to be handed down from generation to generation, and Wilf is reminded of the outcome every morning when he takes his teeth from the glass on his bedside table.
The congregation was inside the church when I arrived, which was a nuisance. It meant that I’d have to sit through the whole service, in order to see if Vera was talking to me. I knew it shouldn’t matter to me one way or the other what happened next between Vera and me, and yet, we had been friends in a way, and one is always sad to lose a friend.
I sat in a back pew and tried to withdraw my current read from my bag. I succeeded in getting my book out, but accidentally nudged the hymn book on the narrow ledge in front. It fell with a clatter, just as the church fell silent and before the organ piped the vicar, wardens and vergers in. Everyone looked round, including Vera. I couldn’t help myself. My eyes wandered to where she was sitting. She scowled at me, and then a flicker of a smile came over her face, which seemed to say, ‘We’ll get this right between us.’
I smiled back. I knew she had meant well with her hunt invitation, and our stunt of dumping the clothes behind the grizzly bears, had been shabby. I also knew that Sid had a point. It had been wrong of Vera to try to make us one of her county set. How to make this clear to Vera perplexed me. I was beginning to learn, that if one lives in a world of privilege, one doesn’t expect to follow the rules invented for others. She thinks she is beyond criticism. Was that the reason why she hired me – to see how the other half live?
At the first opportunity, I sneaked out the church and found a quiet seat in the sun. I then remembered she had said she was Jewish. So why was she a regular worshiper at the local C of E?
A long while later – I think I fell asleep – I heard bells, the congregation leaving the church and Vera take her place on the seat beside me. I jerked from my half-sleep and went, quiet unnecessarily, on the offensive.
‘Vera, even if you have sacked me, for which I wouldn’t blame you, I need some money for the last week. The café won’t pay me.’
She interrupted with a gentle finger to lip sign, to encourage me to stop.
‘I’ll pay you, and you still have a job. You just have to explain why you didn’t tell me to my face that the hunt invitation had been declined. I was so hurt.’
She waited for my apology. I had to disappoint her.
‘I don’t understand the tactic, Vera. When you dump an unwanted person out of your circle by leaving their belongings behind the grizzly bear, it is acceptable behaviour. If we dump an unwanted idea behind the bears, then it’s inconsiderate of us. It is an odd world you live in, Vera. Yes, we should have told you, but you weren’t home. Sid found your offer of the hunt and ball unkind and patronising. She was in tears. She interpreted your invitation as you telling her, ‘You are a nobody, but I’ll let you play at the big table just once’.’
‘You know that wasn’t how it was meant.’
‘Which was why I went along with the offer, collected the clothes and so on, until Sid made her decision.’
Vera should have called ‘Sultan.’ I had just lied to her for the second time in our friendship. Of course, I had been taken in by her offer, was flattered by the opportunity to play at the big table, had found her logic, that one shouldn’t turn an experience down without having tried it, convincing and conscience calming. So, I kept quiet about my unprincipled slide into ‘Vera’s Way’ and continued.
‘Sid put me right. What we want and need is not a seat at the posh table. It’s a job with proper living wage that allows us a functioning family life, without overtime, but with children-time instead. Do you know that Mrs Gormley-Stuart cancelled an order for a thousand lobelia – worth perhaps two hundred quid – and it is a big deal for my father? That can’t be the world we want to live in.’
‘I know. She told us, last coffee morning.’
‘She told you what?’ I shrieked. ‘Why would my father’s nursery business be of interest to you or your ladies, at a snobby bun-fight?’
‘Never mind that. You don’t want to know. Tell your father to send all the trays up to our visitor shop. Four pound a tray, a fiver for two – sale or return.’
‘He won’t want charity.’
‘It’s business deal. They will go like hotcakes. Now, let’s talk payment. You looked after me with the plumbing. Here is a thousand for last week and next week. But I have to warn you that the week after will look less rosy, when we have worked out the tax due.’
‘I’m still below the tax threshold.’
‘Really? How does that work?’
Vera’s face indicated that she didn’t know anyone in that position. Then she changed the subject.
‘When was the last time you visited Sidonie’s home?’
‘I’ve never been there – not as long as I’ve known her. It’s an unwritten rule of our friendship. I know her family life is a disaster and she is the only one functioning. Why do you ask?’
‘Last evening, I went to your house and spoke to your father. I then went to her cottage. We have to do something.’
‘It’s not up to us to interfere. She’s intelligent and will know what she’s doing.’
‘She doesn’t dare confront the situation. Her father was too drunk to talk to me and, as far as I could make out, her mother was unconscious, on the sofa. Sidonie was trying to feed her smallest sibling, which was on an arm as she opened the door to me.’
‘You just don’t know when to leave things be, do you?’
‘I asked if I could come in and help her.’
‘You did what?’
‘She didn’t answer me but left the door open, so I went in. She was also trying to help an older one with some school project on the village church, as well as cook something for the morning. The place was a mess and the smell intolerable. She was clearly out of her depth. No! That’s not true. She could manage, but was exhausted. She needed help.’
Had I been using Sid’s aloofness as an excuse not to help her – my best friend? Vera was a fool, but a kind one and she had rushed in, where I had feared to tread. I was too choked up to ask Vera what happened next. She told me anyway.
‘I tried to help as best I can. As you know I’m not exactly a domestic goddess, but we got everyone fed and the worst of the dirty washing in the machine. I was surprised she didn’t switch it on. You know – I don’t think the electricity is switched on. The house is so dark with all the trees around it, but there were no lights on. Why would that be?’
‘They haven’t paid the bill nor told anyone why not. If you don’t ask for help, you don’t get any.’
‘Which is why we are going to help!’
‘How do you know she wants our help? What right do you have to interfere?’
Vera’s handbrake could not be pulled. She was a locomotive under full steam, on a downward gradient and I was a sulky brat throwing beams across the line. The crash was inevitable.
‘Listen, Millicent. I know you think me to be the stuck-up, obtuse, aristocratic bitch, who has no understanding of rural poverty, but you are wrong. There are a few things you don’t get. Firstly, as you know, Sidonie’s family live in a tied cottage, so they are occupying my property and doing no work. Mr Walker hasn’t turned up for work for eight months nor paid any rent, but we kept paying him. I have an interest here. That can’t go on forever. Secondly, there is a moral imperative. I see it as my duty to support my tenants and employees. Anyone can see that Sidonie isn’t coping and, sooner or later, this will make itself apparent in her work in the coffee shop. That’s why Sidonie and her two siblings will be moving into the spare stable apartment next door to Charles.’
Maybe I brought it up in order to be provocative. Perhaps it was my bad conscience. I can’t explain my next reaction. Sometimes one wants to justify an unacceptable reality, so was it an attempt to protect our poverty? Sid’s and my poverty that is. I’ve often noticed that people, who have very little, use the only power that is left to them – the power to say no, even if it is the most ridiculous thing to do. They use that tiny bit of power to protect their comfort zone – being poor. Being proud of being poor! There is no pride possible in poverty, but I slipped into that mode and attacked Vera for her kindness.
‘There must be an angle in this, Vera. A caring countess is about as unlikely as a whore with a heart.’
I never saw it coming. Never expected such an honest reaction from Her Ladyship, and that’s why it stung especially. The surprise followed by the pain, as I realised my face had been slapped – not just slapped, but slapped very hard. Because we were sitting next to each other, in the shelter of the churchyard wall, facing the point where the flint nave and transept of the church meet, she could only use her left hand, but it came round from a long sweep and had plenty of time and distance to gather real speed. The clatch sound echoed off the gothic surfaces.
I gasped in disbelief and held my cheek. Vera’s gasp was muffled as she covered her mouth with both hands, the guilty one held firmly by the innocent. I noticed the guilty hand wore a huge ring. That would explain the pain and probably had left a mark on my face that would be difficult to hide.
Then she grabbed me in a motherly hug, so tight that I could hardly breathe.
‘Oh my God, child! I’m so sorry. I had no right. Please forgive me.’
I knew that on one level I had earned the slap, but it wasn’t acceptable behaviour and I wasn’t about to forgive her. I sat there like a morose teenager, staring at the high windows on the transept end.
‘What now?’ she asked, wiping a last stubborn tear from her cheek.
I’m guessing she expected me to tell her I’d call the police, but I needed was to calm down and to do that, an adroit change of subject was best tactic.
‘When is Sid supposed to be moving to the stables?’
My voice was breaking up and tears were welling. Vera couldn’t hide her surprise. Her face asked if the slap were already history.
‘Today, three o’ clock,’ she answered, ‘I’ll have to be there. I promised her.’
‘We’d better get going. She’ll need some time to prepare things and I can look after Tom and Sandra while she’s doing it.’
‘Oh, right.’ She blustered in her surprise. ‘Now I know their names. Thank you.’
I said nothing. Another slap on the face would have finished things forever, but I thought, ‘I’ve never met them, but know their names. You’ve been round the house and fed and cleaned them, but never bothered to find out. That’s the piece of evidence that tells us where the problem lies. To me they are people to be cared for, to you they are a project, a problem to be solved and filed away.’
Honesty prevailed. I couldn’t deny that I had failed miserably in my duty of care for my best friend and her siblings, names or no names!
I stood up and looked up the lane for Vera’s car. I spotted it by the pond, under a huge willow. Involuntarily I said to myself, ‘trust her to bags the spot in the shade.’
How small-minded could I be? There was no shortage of parking in the village and most of the worshipers who came by car, would find shade to park in, but I couldn’t stop myself thinking, it was all to do with the privilege that Vera enjoyed. I started walking towards her car, but heard her behind me, crunching the gravel on the church path as we made our way to the gate.
‘Sultan, Millicent. You have to tell me what you are thinking, after what has happened.’
It was said in a quiet, almost pleading voice. I couldn’t keep up my show of defiance. It was hurting her more than my cheek was hurting me. I turned, took her hand and looked her directly in the face.
‘I can’t tell you, Vera. What I’m thinking and feeling is not worthy of me and I am too ashamed of my thoughts to be able to talk of them.’
‘But the feelings are there, just the same, spoken or unspoken.’
‘Yes, and best kept secret. One thing – no matter how cruel or unworthy the things we say to each other may be, we must never hit each other. Promise?
‘If you only knew how much I would like to undo that moment? I pray no one witnessed it.’
I squeezed her hand.
‘It was very secluded there. Only we know, so it didn’t happen. OK?
We walked on in silence, until it was broken by a change of subject.
‘Can I buy you lunch in the pub?’
‘That’s a lovely idea Vera, but I suspect I may have a hand-shaped welt on my cheek and if the skin caught by your ring turns blue, our secret is out. We’d better go straight to Sid’s place and hope our tummies don’t rumble.’
There was another sharp intake of air, as Vera considered the consequences of her action. She inspected my face. My fears were confirmed by her worried look.
‘But if Sidonie notices, then what?’ she asked me.
‘We tell her the truth and to keep her trap shut.’
‘She’ll do that for me?’
‘Couldn’t say, Vera, but she’ll do it for me.’
We drove in silence the leafy way to Sid’s cottage. How odd life is? Sid was the girl I’d called a friend since we were eleven, and I was about to visit her house for the first time. I should have asked her questions earlier, but that might have ruined more than it solved. Perhaps her flee into butch dress was to prevent any lads getting the idea to call on her. The recent kiss on the lips, the offer to sleep with Vera, the claimed knowledge that Vera was lesbian? Could it all be to maintain her defences and keep people from her private sphere? Then again, she may be trying to come out to me. I figured I could solve some of the riddle by asking Vera.
‘Do you bat for both sides, Vera?’
My timing was awful. We were following the old road, which was a tiny, single tree-lined track, through the outskirts of the village. We arrived at the cottage seconds after I spoke and Vera ignored my question.
‘Well, do you?’ I tried again as she swung from the car.
‘What are you talking about? Women’s cricket hasn’t reached Lower Butts yet.’
‘Feigned obtuseness answers the question, too, Vera!’
‘Can we talk about this another time?’
She nodded towards the cottage front door. Sid was standing there, looking totally drained. Vera went straight for the jugular.
‘We are moving you out today, Sidonie, with Tom and Sandra. I have a flat at the stables.’
Sid ignored Vera.
‘Can you lend me some money, Millie? Dad found my hiding place. I’ve nothing for the week now.’
Saturday was yesterday and was payday at the café. The old man had blown a week’s wages already?
‘Yes, of course,’ I replied. Vera drew breath to intervene and offer help, but I laid my hand on her arm, and squeezed gently. She exhaled again and said nothing to Sid, but turned to me.
‘Run back to the filling station. Get enough in, to get them through tomorrow. I’ll pick you up in half an hour.’ She turned to Sid.
‘I really need Millicent here, but she can’t be in two places at once, so you will have to help me. You see, Sidonie, I have neither the skills to get your shopping in nor the knowledge to help you pack the most necessary things for you three. You will help me, won’t you?’
I watched them go in the house. Vera was learning fast. Her manoeuvre had prevented me witnessing the carnage called ‘family’ that Sid had kept from me for almost ten years and yet she hadn’t disempowered Sid, by removing the responsibility for her family. Nice one, Vera! She hadn’t considered if I had any money on me to pay the filling-station supermarket.
One can’t have everything in one day, can one?
Vera’s activity caused, as always in such cases, as many problems as it solved. Who would look after Sid’s parents? Were they to be left in the cottage to drink themselves to death, assuming they didn’t die of hunger first? Who would look after the children until Sid finished work? Her mother had, hitherto, just about managed that task, or so we all thought. Could they stay in the tied cottage if Cedric didn’t turn up to work on the estate? Would my friendship with Sid survive the fact that I now knew of the squalor in which she and her siblings had lived? It had always been an unwritten law that I never encroached on that area of her life. Not only did I now know, but I carried the guilt of having been inactive in resolving Sid’s problems. Worst of all, a local aristocrat, hated by Sid, had taken the matter in hand and made decisions that may have saved her family.
I took these thoughts with me as I carried the essential provisions from the filling station to the stable apartment. Getting the provisions, without betraying Sid’s secret had been a work of art. I was buying things to equip an empty apartment. I worked with the long-trusted principle that less is safer, even when it says more. I hear Vera shout ‘Karl’, after that sentence, and she would be right. Nice dialectic, Millie. Whatever? Taciturn is the defence I decided to use at the shop.
‘You moving out then, our Millie?’ asked Georgie the cashier in the filling station.
‘So, what you doing with all this stuff then. Looks like you’ve run out of everything at once. Your mum came in already and bought some salt and milk.’
‘Yeh! So, you can’t need it twice on a Sunday, can you?’
‘What you doing with it?’
‘The shopping you dope!’
‘How much does it come to?’ I handed a twenty over. She fell for it and changed the object of her nosiness.
‘Just got paid, have you?’
‘Why do you ask?’
‘Nice new twenty like that, I mean, who has a new one on a Sunday.’
‘I don’t know. Who does?’
I took my change and left. I could imagine the ensuing conversation as the door closed behind me.
‘I have no idea how that Millie Backhouse got such good A-levels. She’s a complete fool, if you ask me. Etc. etc. blah, blah. Can’t answer the simplest question properly, and her going to Oxford.’
Oh, what fun village life can be! I have no idea who put the Oxford rumour into circulation – wait a minute – now I think about it – sounds like my gran’s handiwork.
Vera and I had set everything up in the stables as best we could. Vera slipped me some large notes, and left the apartment. I found Sid in the kitchen and put them in her hand.
‘Pay me back sometime,’ I said, ‘when your Tom graduates will be early enough.’
She laughed for the first time that day.
‘He’s only six you dope.’
‘Who else knows?’
‘About you moving out from the cottage, or me having a huge blue shiner on my right cheek?’
‘Oh that. It is a beauty. I assume your Uncle Wilf caught up with you.’
‘Something like that,’ I lied.
‘No. I meant, who else knows we were living in a cottage with shit on the walls and sleeping on mattresses sodden with Sandra’s pee?’
‘Only Vera and me, and until you told me, it was only Vera.’
‘She didn’t tell you?’
‘Not a word.’
She gasped in surprise. I continued to build Vera’s reputation as a complete sweetie.
‘And I’ll pick Sandra up tomorrow on my way to the House and look after her for the day, and I’ll collect Tom from school.’
‘No need. My aunt takes care of all that already. You didn’t think Mum and Dad were able? You have a lot to learn about living with an alcoholic and a junkie. Let’s hope you never have to.’
‘How have you coped?’
‘I haven’t. That was obvious to Vera. I let her into my life because I was finished. Now I have to get her back out again, but look how dependent I’ve become. The Walkers are back at the mercy of the gentry.’
‘I’d like to say that I will help, but I have been useless. You’ll just have to take the help where you can get it for the moment. Another thing. Tom is six. Sandra two. How were your parents six or seven years ago?’
‘You mean at conception? I don’t know. I was only twelve or thirteen. The social worker assigned to me has organised tests and they seem OK. It’s another contradictions. It doesn’t matter how off your face on booze and coke you are, your bloke can still get a hard on and his woman is still fertile. You’d think nature would look after its own, Darwin and all that, but before Darwin kicks in, there is an anti-Darwin moment, and the species has one last go at saving itself.’
‘What about you, Sid? Where is your youth and happiness?’
I got no answer. Hours later, after I finally made it to my bed, a text message came through. I was glad as it meant two things. Firstly, Sid had her mobile phone running again. She had let it lapse. The text was excited. Charley had come round and knocked on his new neighbour’s door. Could he do anything? She had given him a tenner and asked him to get a top-up from the filling station.
And, secondly, the SMS had revealed that Sid could cope with me knowing how down-and-out she was – about the squalor at the cottage.
Her message finished, ‘Thanks for everything today. My happiness, you asked after. I will be content if I can find a childless older woman, who wants to bring Tom and Sandra up with me. That’s the strategy. That’s why I try to create the impression I’m lesbian. Should make things easier. I’ll not find a feller to take them on, will I? And even I need a cuddle sometimes.’
Of course, I’m none the wiser for this revelation. Is she lesbian and covering it by claiming it is convenient at the moment? Is she trying to come out in a rather left-footed way? Can I ask Vera for an interpretation? Best just let things develop, I think.
Will there be any more walks home after work? Probably not, but what would be the point? I thought we were telling each other everything. Ha!