It’s great fun putting my 5* novel up for people to read during lockdown. I will keep posting <Someone Tell Me What Is Going On!> after Lockdown. You can also read for free on Kindle Unlimited.
So far – Millie is offered a job as a lady’s companion, but things end in a myriad of misunderstandings.
Click here to go to the beginning, if you want to learn how 18-year-old school-leaver Millie Backhouse became chums with the elegant Lady Vera Ashington.
Or read on to get the low-down on days 5 & 6 of their new friendship.
Day 5. Talking dirty.
I had never discussed a work contract with Vera. Day one had been a Monday, which hadn’t really been a working day. Tuesday I’d moonlighted in the café so maybe Vera wouldn’t pay me for that either. And I don’t know if I am working weekends or not. She said I would be paid monthly and that would be a nightmare.
As I walked up the wide gravel path to the huge oak door, I decided I would have to talk dirty with Vera – at least she would consider talking about money to be talking dirty, but it had to be done. I would have to ask Vera for a sub.
I found her in her apartment, with her head in the cupboard under the newly fitted sink. She was whispering something to herself and it ended with a ladylike ‘drat’. Did she only swear to impress me?
‘Anything the matter, Vera?’
She jerked her head upwards and caught it on the sink with a mighty crack, slumped back on her buttocks, holding her head.
‘Sorry, Vera. I didn’t mean to startle you.’
‘That’s the least of my problems. I realised that sinks need wastepipes and they are bigger in diameter than the little copper things David was getting so excited about. Take a look.’
She pointed me at the cupboard. I stuck my head inside and waited for the gloom to subside.
‘Oh drat indeed,’ I exclaimed once my eyes had adjusted. A huge, ragged hole surrounded the plastic waste-pipe and, as Uncle Wilf hadn’t bothered to use compression fittings under the sink, the listed wallpaper was scorched around every soldered joint.
‘What can we do, Vera? I’m so sorry.’
‘Do, Millicent? Do? We’ll glue the ruddy doors up when English Heritage come to inspect.’
Her face was covered in a mischievous grin.
‘It’s not just E H is it? Wilf shouldn’t have been such an arsehole!’
‘Can you tell me why he did it? Is he really that stupid? Before you answer that, remember, he was your recommendation.’
‘The fact that he used non-soldered compression fittings next door where there is no grade 1 listed wallpaper, and drilled very neat holes through the wall as well, tells you he is not stupid and knows what he should have done under the sink. Why he didn’t do it? You can probably answer that one Vera.’
She sighed deeply.
‘He’s cross I have so much when he has so little, payback-time for all the jobs he didn’t get because he is so unreliable? You choose.’
‘All of those and some more, and he doesn’t realise what a big deal it is for you to look after unique and precious 18th century Chinese wallpaper. That’s hardly an excuse though, is it? If you already knew what he was like, why did you let me give him the job?’
‘He’s family, Millicent. I’ve done similar things in order to help feckless family members out. One always regrets it, but I appreciate why you tried. What did he say when you gave him the three hundred?’
‘Hasn’t happened yet. I had a date last night.’
‘Quite so, Millicent, and I have to say, you can do better than Charles.’
‘How do you know about that, Vera?’
She laughed at no one in particular and studied the stucco on the ceiling for a moment.
‘Come with me,’ she ordered in her no-nonsense voice.
She led me to the most westerly end of her apartment and through a door, more modern than any of the others I’d seen. We entered a hidden steep circular wooden staircase, which the creaked as we ascended. Light came through small slits set at an angle. One couldn’t see the window. Despite the daylight, Vera operated a large lever switch, which turned on a trail of harsh bulbs strung along the white painted bricks.
‘Don’t touch the walls,’ she warned. ‘The whitewash brushes onto your clothes.’
The stairs and wall looked like Victorian mock-gothic. After a long and silent climb, we emerged into sunlight at the top of a turret, overlooking the twirls of the leaded roof and of course, the surrounding countryside. The formal gardens and maze first caught my attention. In the distance, beyond them, I could make out the block of converted stables, which house Charley’s tiny one-room apartment. No way could she have recognised Charley and me from this distance – unless?
‘Did you use binoculars to spy on me?’
‘Not directly. I hadn’t expected to see you walk hand in hand with Charles to his apartment. That was a chance observation. But it did stir my curiosity. And you stayed three hours, which was too long for a cup of tea and chat about the Suffolk Village League cricket scores.’
‘How often do you come up here to spy on the serfs?’
‘Most evenings if the weather is nice.’
‘Why was this tower built? It’s obviously much later than the rest of the house.’
‘Well spotted, Millicent. Mid-19th century – third duke – wanted to see who was slacking in the outlying fields.’
I gasped in disbelief.
‘You mean spying on the serfs has a history.’
‘Never mind the serfs. Why are you screwing Charles?’
‘We didn’t screw.’
‘Nothing to do with you Vera. Absolutely nothing so MYOFB.’
‘Sultan, Millicent, Sultan. Now you have to tell me.’
‘The Sultan rule is not for situations like this, Vera, not to pry into my private life.’
She clenched the railing so hard that her hands whitened.
‘I know, Millicent. I know. You are so right, but don’t you see? These are the things I so want to know about my serfs – as you call them. I am searching for a different life, a carefree life, not free of conventions, but certainly outside them.’
‘Voyeur, Vera! It was not nice of you, even if you now claim it was all part of a massive yelhux.’
‘I am a voyeur and not ashamed of it, Millicent! If I find a path that prevents alcoholism or insanity, I’ll put my hand up to snooping. But we’re friends. You will tell me one day about you and Charles, so you may as well tell me now – tell me tell me tell me, now.’
She was pleading like a little girl. Time to bargain.
‘What’s it worth?’
‘I’m sure you can think of something.’
I lost the battle yesterday, but now I could sell a story from my sex life to win the war.
‘Sid gets to ride a horse.’
Again, that sudden breath in. Had I gone too far?
‘OK. You win, you little scrubber. Lord knows how I’ll explain Sidonie to the Gormley-Stuarts. Now dish the goods about last evening.’
I’d struck a hard bargain so the tale of yesterday evening spent with Charley had to be good. The truth was an irrelevancy. I just had to be sure I wouldn’t blush. That would spoil the effect. Steely resolve was called for.
‘We didn’t have intimate discourse, because the idiot hadn’t bothered to get some condoms before soliciting my favours. You may or may not know or realise Vera that villagers in villages with no entertainment value, must make their own. In Lower Butts, we screw. Young people, old people, everyone is at it. So, if one person gets an STD, we’ll all have it, unless someone breaks the chain. I do that. I’m like the rest of the village except, no condom or no recent STD clinic visit – no sex.’
‘What did you do for three hours?’
I stopped and thought. I wanted to make this as titillating as possible. Poor Vera. She needed something to be horrified by. It makes the world go round and it would serve her right if she got a real shock.
‘Curiosity killed the cat, Vera! We sat either end of the bed and watched each other masturbate.’
The gasp was awesome. I thought it had to be followed by a heart attack.
‘You never!’ She paused and let my story sink into the folds of her aristocratic brain. ‘You naughty little tinkers.’
I noticed she had gone as red as a beetroot and was holding her chest bone with one hand, as if fighting a severe indigestion bout. With the other she was steadying herself on the railing at the top of the staircase. ‘I’ll teach her’ I thought. ‘She’ll need more than a Rennies before bedtime’.
‘Yep, three times. The first he built up such a head it hit me on the left tit.’
She ran too quickly for safety, down the spiral stairs. I stayed and admired the view.
Sid had to sit down at the bus shelter on the way home. She was convulsed, with tears streaming down her face.
‘You never told her that!’
‘To get my old chum Sid a ride on a horse? Of course I did – no problem.’
‘Did you and Charley really – you know – do it?’
‘You canny tart. Never mind. I’ll wheedle it out of Charley. Changing the subject – when will it happen – the horse-riding thing?’
‘No idea. Knowing Vera, she will send you a gilded invitation card.’
‘Tell her, if she doesn’t take the piss out of me, I’ll sleep with her.’
Now it was my turn to look as if I were having a heartburn attack.
‘Are you really lesbian, Sid?’
‘And how do you know she wants to sleep with you?’ I squeaked.
‘It’s not me who’s the canny tart. Never mind. I’ll wheedle it out of Vera.’
That earned me a dead arm – the first I’d had off Sid for many years.
We walked on from the bus stop in silence, each considering what the events, lies and unanswered questions of this day would mean to us long-term. Someone would blab about some aspect of what had happened and the whole village would gossip at our expense. What had happened? Nothing really, apart from me spending time with Charley, Sid having a bout of equestrianism and Vera coming out over her hobby as a peeper. If someone, other than Vera, noticed my nocturnal visit, or when Vera tells her stable staff that Sid will be riding out, the gossip mill will begin to turn for sure. Truth wouldn’t really play a major role. My gran would be the first to hear some version or other, probably at the village stores and post office, and she never spoilt a good yarn for the sake of a few white lies. On the gossip mill, Sid, or would it be me, were as good as in bed with Vera. Why did my gran think we are all lusting after lesbian relationships? Does it say more about her than me?
Note to me: tackle Gran over her obsession with fictional lesbian relationships. I must sneak a look at what she is reading these days.
At my house Sid just kept walking, no goodbye, no kiss – in a daydream.
As she walked into the distance, with her slight waddle, I said to myself, ‘She’s in love.’
Bedtime – still haven’t seen the house or paid Uncle Wilf.
I wonder if one can be sacked for lewd acts in an aristocratic let?
Day 6. New lines are drawn.
Vera’s unpleasant reaction to Sid wanting to ride left Friday with an incongruous end and made me forget to ask her for a sub. More immediately important – was I was supposed to work Saturdays and Sundays. I had forgotten to clarify that as well. I’m as bad as the rest of the village. Give me a bit of gossip to chew on and I forget the world beyond Lower Butts. We are so parochial!
There was no other option, but at 7.43, to drag my lazy butt down the garden path and head for the House. I didn’t get further than the gate, for there was Sid with tears streaming down her face, quivering bottom lip, looking imploringly at me. I took her arm and started walking her towards the church yard. At least that would rule out a lover’s tiff if we were seen arm in arm, for there were sure to be nosey neighbours peering between net curtains. I’d have to face my gran asking me if I wasn’t ‘one of them funny women,’ and I knew, that no matter what I answered, ‘yes or no’, I’d be told not to worry as it would be just a phase I’ll grow out of. No wonder I’m promiscuous. At least the under 25s in the village won’t believe their grandmas when they hear about ‘Millie’s growing pains’.
And Sid crying? Never been known, and certainly not over a denied trot on some tatty nag. With hindsight I realise the tears had nothing to do with riding or not riding. In the ten years we’d been chums, she had never shed a tear over horse or hormone so how could an intelligent girl like me have missed the signs?
We found a gravestone, so weathered that no one knew to whom it belonged and thus, I reasoned, no family could object to us sitting on the horizontal slab at its base and sorting out Sid’s problem. Before I had chance to ask a question, she produced an envelope with neat Vera writing on it, addressed to Sidonie Watkins and delivered by palm. My heart sank. From the envelope, Sid withdrew a piece of gilded card, now totally crumpled from having been so ferociously scrunched in a sweaty hand. My tummy groaned as my heart fell far enough to hit it.
Lady Vera Ashington requests the company of Miss Sidonie Watkins and partner for the Butts Hunt. Dress – men scarlet and ladies in black hunting.
And for the Hunt Ball. Start 8pm, Ashington Hall Ballroom.
Sid regained her composure enough to release a string of invective.
‘How could she do this to me? She knows I’ll be a laughing-stock for the whole evening. All I wanted was to walk round the paddock on one of her woofty fucking horses for a quarter of an hour, not join the bloody hunt. She hasn’t even bothered to get my name right!’
I tried to calm her by stroking her arm, but she burst into tears again.
‘This isn’t like Vera. We must be missing something,’ I tried to reason.
This isn’t like Sid either. What is going down?
‘It is like Lady Ashington, though. They are all the same, screaming ‘Mine mine!’ all the time. They couldn’t share a turd with one of us in case we got something out of it. Just a simple ride round the paddock Millie. She’s humiliating me now and will embarrass me next week. She’s loving this. Keep the serfs in their place.’
I read the card again, but this time I spotted the handwritten PTO in the bottom right hand corner. On the other side was a barely decipherable message from Vera, now so smudged from a mixture of crumpling, sweat and tears, that it took me a while to work it out.
See you a week today.
Charles will have a docile pony for you to practice on every day after work. Liaise with him.
‘You see, she’s just trying to be nice.’
‘Don’t patronise me, Millie. You are supposed to be my friend or are you trying to become one of them? They know I have no ‘black hunting’ or a ball gown or a partner come to that and a few circuits of the paddock on a knackered pony is hardly going to prepare me for two miles of rough country with hedges and ditches.’
I needed to ask Sid why this horse thing was so important, but instead I said, ‘I’ll talk to Vera – promise.’
All of which left me walking to the house in a most distracted manner. Why was my best friend suddenly worried about Vera’s horse, or rather, too much horse! I could see her point. Taking part in the East Suffolk hunt was a step too far for an oik from the cottages. Hormones didn’t explain it either. All through puberty I’d been close to her and there had never been a hint of a moan about a period pain or a mood swing. Sid’s behaviour reminded me of a distant aunt in Ipswich, just before she cracked up. Sid and cracking up didn’t stack up. I dismissed it from my mind.
By the time I reached the House, it was clear that it would be another nice day and the tour guides were lined up in front of the grizzly bears, getting a pep talk from Vera. She peered at me enquiringly over her glasses and then smiled. I deduced that she wasn’t expecting me.
I went up to her tea kitchen and started cleaning it. She wasn’t expecting her apartment to be serviced before Monday and despite her excitement at being able to make her own tea, she hadn’t worked out that she could clean away the evidence of Wilf’s plumbing, herself. When she finally caught me up, she was all smiles and charm.
‘Oh, Millicent. How good of you to come. I didn’t think we’d arranged the weekend rota.’
I turned to look at her.
‘Your face is thunder, girl. Have seen Sidonie already, or at least phoned her.’
‘So, you know you have behaved impossibly, slapping her in the face like that.’
‘Don’t be so sensitive the pair of you. She wanted to ride, and you want to be my equal. You have both got your wish. It’ll cost me plenty by the time the malice and gossip are over.’
‘Equal to you, I am already. I just don’t want what you have – neither does she. All she wants is a little ride on a horse. Couldn’t you give her that without the need to prove that she isn’t up to scratch? You must know she can’t do a hunting outfit or ball gown, or stay in the saddle over hedges and ditches.’
‘Of course, I know that, but you two have to learn the meaning of, ‘noblesse oblige’. It’s not a one-way process. You must accept that we have our cross to bear. I can’t make horse riding on the Ashington Estate as simple as hiring a donkey for five minutes on Lowestoft beach. It doesn’t work like that. It costs me a fortune to keep my donkey and several families’ income depend on me running a stable. You wouldn’t expect to turn up at a Formula 1 pit and say ‘Let’s have a go,’ and Lewis would budge up a bit for you. Or maybe you say to the engineer in an atomic power station, ‘Got a wheel I can turn, or a button I can press’?’
‘I don’t think it’s that complicated, Vera. She’s an employee in your café, a friend of a friend. It isn’t such a big deal.’
‘It is a big deal, Millicent. If she wants to play with the big boys, she has to take the knocks the big boys give out. They will cut her, patronise her, insult her and belittle her. Let her take it and still be standing. She’ll be a better and wiser person for it. Every experience, good or bad, improves you.’
She was pumping adrenaline now and stormed into her next argument before I’d had chance to draw breath and respond to the last one.
‘I was born into this life. She has chosen to sample it. There is no easy way. It’s the hunt or nothing. I’ll lend her an outfit and a ball gown. You can go as her partner, except we’ll call you her escort. Don’t worry about the hunt. If she just keeps to the back, out of everyone’s way during the chase, they will all expect her to arrive last if it’s her first time. And if she has fallen a couple of times, but still gets to the end, she will get a round of sincere applause. What more do you want?’
I was stunned into silence, so Vera took up her case again.
‘Where I come from, it’s a great honour to be invited to the hunt and ball. I’m actually offering the most valuable thing I possess, the thing that gives my life meaning – to belong to my social elite. Be there, smile sweetly and don’t be afraid to show off what you have achieved by being there. You may even enjoy yourselves. Above all, do it for me. I want to show people that there has been a change in my life and that you two are my new friends.
‘And now I think it is time to give my new tea-kitchen its maiden voyage. The way I make scrambled eggs, it may be more like losing its virginity.’
That told me.
Sid is also her friend? When did that happen? Shouldn’t she clear this with Sid?
I realised, on her own initiative, she had upgraded her tea kitchen to include a two-plate hob and next to it, a small oven. She was beginning to cook meals. Respect!
We spent the afternoon sorting out a couple of riding habits. I learnt that what is worn nowadays are called jodhpurs. The boots were awesome and would have made kinky bedroom attire. During the afternoon we had to go to a friend’s house. I was driven by Vera to the next village in her BMW. Vera’s friend had two daughters and hence a collection of ball-gowns. The girls were away at boarding school, so would not be needing gowns.
By the time I met Sid for our walk home, I was fully equipped – mentally and physically – for the execution of Vera’s scheme. The physical bit I would like to have saved myself. The bag with riding outfits, including boots, and the two ball-gowns were more than I could carry, so I was pleased to palm the gowns off on Sid.
She looked mistrustfully at the packet and then asked, ‘What actually is in this bin-liner?’
‘Two ball-gowns. We are going to do it.’
‘We are so not going to go to either the hunt or ball! And you can’t go on your own, because I’m the one with the invitation.’
I ran her through Vera’s arguments, about it being an opportunity to broaden one’s experience and how she couldn’t be expected to lend random horses to random employees, who fancied a ride. She was running a business after all, and one from which we all profited. And, of course, we shouldn’t prejudge the county set or aristocracy.
Sid dropped her bin liner in the dust and sat down in the bus shelter.
‘You, Millicent Backhouse, are talking shit! I am not going to be the token pleb for the entertainment of Lady Ashington’s’ plum-mouthed, weak-chinned, degenerate, dawky, bloodsucking leeches, who exploit us, every day of the year, while they fart around on their fucking nags, chasing a fox for fun, or worrying about the scratch on their Off-Road gas-guzzler, that has never been off road, and was actually scratched when they last reversed past their scarlet climber. You can tell Lady Vera to shove her ball-gowns and jodhpurs up her arse. She and you are so full of crap, of course, that nothing else will fit up there. I know that!’
I was left trying to suppress a fit of the giggles, but managed to maintain a straight face for long enough to say, ‘Don’t let me put words in your mouth, Miss Sidonie Walker, but I think that was a ‘no’ wasn’t it?’
We both collapsed in a heap, hugging each other, tears of laughter streaming down our faces, bags of gowns and jodhpurs in the dust under our feet. We failed to notice the black Beamer, windows down, cruise silently by.
When our mirth had subsided, I took Sid to task.
‘You have certainly dealt with my middle-class desire to fraternise with the enemy, but may I remind you, that you were prepared to sleep with Vera if the terms were right.’
There was no reply so I added. ‘So you said.’
‘Everyone is entitled to their moment of weakness,’ she replied, ‘and she is a very elegant woman. We all have our desires and are likely to weaken when confronted with a better existence than we have. I work in her café, don’t I? I, as the only regularly waged person in our household, also grovel for my share of the crumbs from her table. Weren’t our class once as the running dogs of capitalism?’
‘I take your point. I take hers, too. She, too, is the victim of her circumstances.’
‘She copes better than me, because of all the hundred-pound notes that have been stuffed in her mouth since birth. If she suffers so much, it is far easier for her to do something about it than for me to change my circumstances.’
‘You’ll have to send an official thank you, but no thank you letter.’
‘I don’t have to do anything. She’ll know the answer when she finds those bloody bags behind her grizzly bears. Let’s do it now.’
I glanced up the road towards the visitors’ entrance to the house. Just a few hundred yards separated us from the grizzlies. At that moment in time, Sid’s idea made sense. Sometimes ideas have the capacity to sweep you away on a wave of excited action. Twelve hours later you awake and cringe at what had seemed such an obvious path to take the day before. This was to be such a situation, and I underestimated its cruelty and gravity that evening, sitting at the bus stop.
As we walked through the gate, we met Charley coming the other way.
‘Hi, Millie! I was just looking for you two. I was told you were coming for riding lessons this evening.’
‘It’s cancelled. Can we get through to the grizzly bears without being spotted?’
‘We need to leave the bags behind them.’
Charley looked concerned, like a man who had everything to lose and nothing to gain. Finally, he answered.
‘I’d better do it.’
He took the bags.
‘Thanks, Charley. And the horse thing is off for the rest of the week. For ever.’
‘Drat. And I thought I had some overtime.’
He disappeared through the brick arch. I turned to Sid.
‘You see? There is always a loser in this life. You could have done the paddock-trotting and he’d have five hours overtime.’
I watched Sid put on her earnest face – the one that doesn’t reveal if she is sincere or making a mockery.
‘Oh, Millie. You are such a dreamer. His overtime would have been at flat rate. This way, we’ve struck a blow for the working classes, by preventing him accepting the exploitation.’
‘Oh, Sidonie. You must go into politics one day. No one can turn an argument or take the piss like you.’
Bedtime. Finally remembered to put Wilf’s money in an envelope and take it round to his house. He wasn’t in and I had no reason not to give it to my Aunty Gladys. I warned her it wasn’t as much as he expected, but she took it, wrapped a scarf round her unkempt hair and immediately went through the village settling various bills and accounts. Wilf will be beside himself. I must remember to keep a low profile in the coming days.
Then disaster struck. I was taking a walk in our garden, admiring what seemed like acres of the most beautiful young lobelias that my father had sowed at the request of Mrs Gormley-Stuart, when I heard a car coming down the lane. Was it a premonition? Did I assume it was Uncle Wilf’s plumber’s van? Instinctively, I chose my childhood hidey-hole and slipped into the tiny gap behind the privet hedge and under the mulberry tree.
The car stopped. It had been too quiet for Wilf’s clapped out van. I was baffled who the visitor could be at this time of the evening until I spied Vera, with a face of thunder, storming up our path. I couldn’t hear what she said to Dad, but I heard him reply, ‘Sorry, Vera. I don’t know where she is. She shouldn’t have upset you like that. Most ungrateful. I’ll have a word.’
Now, dear Diary, since when has my dad been on first name terms with Lady Ashington? I bet he’s been giving her one. Cunning old fox! That would explain her ‘research into my background knowledge’, as she calls it.
As soon as Vera left, I emerged and ran over to where Dad was picking some soft fruit.
He looked at me.
‘What did Vera want?’ I accentuated the ‘Vera’.
‘You know already. I said you’d annoy her and you have. Bit cruel of you, but nothing more than she deserves. I told her I’d have a word with you – tell you off etc. So consider yourself told off. She intimated that Sid would be sacked, which is serious for her, so maybe you two need to stop fooling around where you don’t belong. They will always be stronger than you. Stop fighting battles you can’t win.’
He offered the bowl of redcurrants to me. I devoured a slack handful and changed the subject.
‘Lobelias look strong.’
‘Don’t mention it. You know Mrs G ordered a thousand. She wanted the long bed next to the drive all in blue. I took them round, stacked all those trays in the van, out the van, in her shed, and she sent a message that it’s not to be blue this year after all.’
I gasped. Had that woman any idea how many hours go into preparing a thousand plants, twelve to a tray, eighty odd trays, the seed cost, compost, time?
I put my arm round the old man.
‘I’ll ask around.’
The sack for Sid. A disaster. What about me?
I still haven’t seen the House. Probably never will now.
I still haven’t asked Vera for a sub or asked my dad why he is so chummy with her. If he did once have a fling behind the haystack, it shoots my theory about her sexuality down in flames. Plenty of material there to speculate on. Who cares about the accuracy?
I do, as it happens.