These chapters stand alone as short stories, but click here for Days 1 and 2 and enjoy the build up.
Day 1. Vera offers Millie a job as a Lady’s companion.
Day 2. The Lady and her companion get off on the wrong foot, but manage a truce.
Day 3. The House.
Sometime in the night, a cold, intense drizzle began to blow across the fens. My bedroom window is covered in a fine mist. Where did that change in the weather come from? Yesterday was glorious.
That meant that few visitors would turn out, so they wouldn’t want me in the café – no big deal if Vera paid me – but Sid would be in desperate straits if they sent her home without working a shift. She was, as far as I knew, the only earner in the family.
Now was the time to regret my outburst yesterday, when I more or less told Vera she should stuff the rotten Land Rover where the sun don’t shine. As my Granddad would tell me, should I bump into him, a second-class ride is better than a first class walk, especially in such weather.
I found my screwed-up rain gear in the bottom of the wardrobe, under my muddy boots, so I was guaranteed to look a sight. I could only hope it would rain hard enough to wash the mud off. There was worse to come. My umbrella broke last time out and I had neither thrown it, fixed it nor replaced it. ‘Morgen, Morgen , nur nicht heute, sagen alle faulen Leute,’ was our German teacher’s favourite saying if one asked for a homework deadline extension. How smug the wise can be? Now I would be covered in mud and have to use a brolly with bits of wire pointing at the heavens. In short, it was going to be a scarecrow-day. But I did have a go at translating her rhyming couplet under the shower. ‘Tomorrow, tomorrow, just not today – that’s what all lazy people say.’ Not bad! Rhymes too!
I was heading toward the front door, when I heard a car horn. I opened the door, and there was Vera, in her Beamer, waving at me to hurry and get in. I gave myself a moment, hidden behind the half-opened door, to slide my muddy rain gear and broken umbrella into my rucksack and only then start off down the front path. I half-expected to hear Vera shout ‘Sultan!’ but she hadn’t spotted the surreptitious rucksack trick. Instead I heard my dad grumble, as he stood in amazement, looking through the parlour window, ‘She’s never taken it out in the rain before. You are honoured!’
I ran down the long garden path and climbed in the car. Before I had chance to even greet her, she set the car in motion as she set the agenda.
‘We need to talk about money.’
‘Why did you do a shift at the café yesterday?’
‘They were short staffed, and we haven’t agreed terms and remuneration. I have to be careful.’
‘Don’t you trust me?’
I stopped and thought. Then I turned to look at her. She had a fantastic profile. Nose was a tad too large, but that is better than having a visage like an upside-down wall-socket, and her lips, very pronounced and full of expression, but her complexion, in a forty something, was enviable, even for a girl my age.
‘I do, Vera. I was being over-cautious. Sorry I offended you.’
‘Apology accepted. I gave you the day off to do some work for me and you moonlighted.’
‘I’ve written everything up so far and made a list of activities. I worked at it yesterday evening.’
‘Good. Just so you know, I you put on the staff at the house. I need your bank details, because the café pays you cash I assume. From now on, you’ll be paid at the end of the month, each month that is, assuming we want to keep the arrangement.’
‘Thank you,’ was all I could manage. I wanted to scream ‘How much, Vera?’ but I had a feeling that people like Vera don’t talk about money. ‘Twice my daily rate,’ she had said. Any waitress will tell you that you can’t feed a sparrow on the daily rate. My tips usually exceeded my daily rate, so I could end up out of pocket.
I changed the subject.
‘What happened to my suitcase yesterday?’
‘Good question. It’s probably behind the grizzly bear.’
I didn’t bother to ask why my suitcase would be behind one of the grizzly bears. Obviously, I was supposed to know! The house had a huge reception area, where all the hunting trophies are mounted around the walls. In the far corners are the bears I noticed yesterday. Were they grizzlies? How would I know? If they were grizzlies, then behind one of them, was my suitcase. I decided to retrieve it and not mention the odd location. Vera noticed my hesitation and tried to clarify things.
‘I’ll have it taken up to your room.’
What did that mean? Why did I need a room? Should I have packed some pyjamas? The whole situation was going from bizarre to uncomfortable.
‘Vera, how did you know my case will be behind one of the grizzly bears and why did you have it put there and why do I need a room?’
‘Good lord, girl! Which first?’
She paused and then took them one by one. ‘How did I know? That’s where the servants put cases when I forget to tell them which room. Why? Well, poor souls, they don’t know if I have forgotten to tell them which room or if the visitor isn’t meant to stay overnight and is taking liberties. In which case, said visitor can leave discreetly and take his belongings with a minimum of embarrassment – from behind the grizzly bear. And some distant great uncle – I think he was called Rodney – shot the damn things and had them stuffed and erected, so I searched for a use for them. Clever, don’t you think?’
‘Why do I need a room?’
‘That’s obvious. You need your own space. If I’m tired or busy, you don’t want to hang around like a dog at a wedding. You’ll have somewhere comfortable to go. Sometimes it may get late and you won’t want to walk home. Don’t think the personal pick-up service of today will become a regular feature. I didn’t want you arriving soaked and then dripping all over the carpets.’
She tried to suppress a grin. I wasn’t fooled by her subterfuge.
‘Liar, Liar, Vera’s bum’s on fire. You wanted to prove you are not too snobby to share your car with a spotty tart from the village. The rain was the perfect excuse.’
She turned and looked at me, taking her eyes completely off the road. We were on the front drive by then, so it was her road and she could expect other users to mind out the way. She peered intently at me, school-mistress style, over the tops of her spectacles.
‘You have perfect skin, my dear, and when I was researching, no one mentioned any tart-like behaviour. You’ll have to spill the beans on that one.’
‘What do you mean – researching?’
We drew up to the magnificent front door.
‘I have my secrets too. You tell me your tarty bits and I’ll tell what I found when researching. Sounds like we have decided several discussion topics for future afternoons. Out we get.’
Vera walked at the door as though she were going to walk through it. Solid oak, stood four-hundred years – there could be only one victor, but the door swung open just in time, propelled by the youth who had driven yesterday’s muddy Land Rover. He pulled a serious but disinterested face as Vera swept through the door, but split into an ear to ear grin when I entered.
‘Hi, Millie. Suitcase is behind the grizzly bear,’ he whispered.
‘She knows where the suitcase is,’ Vera boomed, without breaking her stride or looking back. ‘In the blue bedroom if you please Charles.’
That jolted my memory. Charley Starmer. Two years above me. Never anyone called him anything but Charley. What is it with that woman and names?
He snapped to attention like a spanked schoolboy. Why do we fear and revere these people? What have they ever done to earn our respect? And how come she is so short staffed that a worker from the garden must double as the butler?
Vera led me into the first of many reception rooms She pointed at a bucket in the corner, full of plastic overshoes. I pulled two on, looked at the carpet and wondered what the fuss was.
‘It’s a carpet, Vera, just like the BMW is a car.’
‘Rubbish, Millicent.’ Eighteen thirties. Coat of arms weaved into the pattern. No dyestuff – just natural colours of different sheep. Irreplaceable.’
It was hideous. It would be a mercy if it did wear out. I didn’t say it though.
Vera huffed me.
‘Sultan, Millicent. Your face revealed some naughty thoughts going through your brain. You have to tell me them!’
She’s the boss. Not my fault if I get the sack. Here goes.
‘It’s hideous, Vera. It would be a mercy if it did wear out.’
I waited for the fall-out. I was disappointed.
‘Quite so, Millicent. Of course it’s hideous. Whole place is hideous. Just look at those grizzly bears through there. Who in their right mind needs two stuffed bears, each ten-foot-high, apart from hiding the luggage of unwelcome guests? But it’s what sets us, our tribe if you like, apart. If we didn’t fight for it there would be no point to us being here would there?’
‘Karl, Vera. You’ve just proved the opposite. The very act of having to justify the existence of your tribe has proved there is no point in you being here. Dinosaurs, the lot of you!’
‘You wicked girl!’ Much to my relief she laughed. ‘How dare you finish the British aristocracy with one sweep of your philosopher’s axe? Let’s design this tea kitchen before I sack you.’
We spent the morning looking for a suitable corner for her new tea-kitchen, and then we looked for the furniture.
‘Harrods is always the easiest way to get quality stuff,’ she announced.
‘Do Harrods sell kitchen furniture?’
Was I dumb? Who cares what Harrods sell? I’ve just talked my way out of a trip to town and see how the other half live. She would have to throw lunch in, too.
‘Good point, Millicent. Where would you search for a kitchen?’
‘IKEA, or B&Q.’
‘Oh goody!’ she squealed. Never been to either, but everyone talks about them. Fix it up for this afternoon.’
‘But that leaves us with the assembly problem. They say flat-pack-furniture is the last great frontier, Vera.’
‘You will look after me. You know how to do it – don’t you?’
Later that day she was studying the comic-style instructions like a kid with a new toy.
I handed her an electric screwdriver with a thousand drive bits that I’d picked up at the DIY. We assembled the first two pieces of the pull-out table.
‘Oooo Millie. That screwing thingy has magical properties doesn’t it? Why do I know nothing of these delights?’
I heard nothing from her for the rest of the day, apart from the whirring of the motor. Then came a panicky shriek.
‘What is it?’ I rushed through into her apartment expecting her to be standing in a pool of blood or worse. Instead, I found her holding the screwdriver like a spear.
‘The screw thingy stopped. Just like that!’
‘You’ll have to put it on charge.’
‘Why? Oh! Silly me! How long will that take?’
On our walk home, Sid came to the point.
‘So, she’d never used an electric screwdriver set before?’
‘Not any screwdriver set apparently.’
‘I suppose the screwdriver was as exciting and novel to her as riding one of her horses would be for me.’
‘Do you want to ride one of her horses?’
‘I’ll ask her for you.’
She squealed with delight and kissed me on the lips. Steady, Sid!
I felt it was all a pose. Something was wrong. Why would the village Marxist want to ride one of her Ladyship’s horses? I felt my eyes searching her face for clues. My stare lingered much longer than necessary, and she couldn’t withstand the gaze. Her eyes slid off to look at the fen stretching away behind the church.
‘Are you alright, Sid?’
There were tears in her eyes by the time they returned from the flat reed beds.
‘Sure! Just hormones.’
I told her the story of the grizzly bears as suitcase repositories for unwanted guests. That got a smile from her.
‘She’s got style, I’ll give her that.’
She wiped an unruly rivulet of tears from her cheek, turned and walked away toward the shady damp dell she called home.
I’m still trying to remember if there was any tongue in that kiss. Girls can dwell on the sordid.
And Vera still hasn’t shown me the house.
I borrowed some money for new tights and dry cleaning from Mum, but I knew, once the replacements were bought and my skirt cleaned, I wouldn’t have the nerve to give the receipts to Vera. Why? What might she do that I’m so scared of? Why do these people exert such control, even when they do nothing?
Later that evening I remembered a random quote from a homework exercise from yesteryear. Had it something to do with my tights quandary? I went upstairs to my bedroom and found, deep in a rubbish drawer, a homework notebook from way back. There was the exercise I sought, written in a neat and childish hand and dated five years ago. Wow! Was I just fourteen?
I read what we had copied. I read again.
‘Yet these were the people with money, and to them rather than to others was given the management of the world.’
The second sentence scared me more.
‘Put among them someone more vital, who cared for life or for beauty, and what an agony, what a waste would they inflict on him if he tried to share with them and not to scourge.’
My note at the bottom indicated we had to say what the passage from Virginia Woolf meant and find the meaning of ‘scourge,’ in that context. Such a pity I no longer had my original answer to the exercise.
Was I that more vital person and Vera had deliberately put me among them?
I found my dictionary and looked up ‘scourge’. I only knew the punishment meaning.
There it was. ‘A person who causes great trouble.’
Questions, but no answers.
Were those two carefully chosen sentences a warning to the village children living in the shadow of the aristocracy? Was our teacher trying to tell us back then who the enemy was? Or perhaps I haven’t to this day a clue what Woolf wanted to say? Did she know, or did she merely like the sound of the thought? One never knows with Woolf. She was closer to Vera in social class and opportunity, born with the dreaded silver spoon firmly entrenched from day one – and bipolar from her teenage years on. That was a dreadful curse. Happiness was not easy for her to achieve. Bereavements and sexual abuse ruined her youth. I felt there were parallels with Vera’s past, but had no evidence.
The truth – anyone can get money. Happiness is a much finer art, and was what I was born to. We hadn’t two pennies to rub together compared to Vera or Virginia Woolf, but perhaps our life was a breeze of contentment compared to theirs. Why would I understand her meaning? Yet sometimes certainties can revert to randomness in the twinkling of an eye. Our wealth of happiness could be taken from us by an accident, a poor harvest, a storm at just the wrong moment, a vindictive decision by our bank, or a hundred other adversities that we couldn’t plan for.
It felt good to have a wealthy patron – just in case.
Day 4 – DIY & disappointing discussions.
Vera was into her DIY big-time. The rain front from yesterday hadn’t cleared East Anglia. There was no BMW waiting at the end of the garden so I walked to the House in horizontal rain, couldn’t have kept a new umbrella up in the wind, never mind my scarecrow number. I was soaked as I came through the magnificent oak front door, and left a dripping trail past the grizzly bears and across the carpet with the coat of arms every ten inches. I heard someone whistling ‘Walking in the rain.’ Charley was more than amused.
‘Oh, Millie! How the mighty are fallen? All it took was a bit of flat-pack and you are history.’
‘Piss off, you smart arse. What stopped you picking me up? I assume she has assembled the units and is now wondering what to do next.’
He grinned even wider. ‘You’re to join her upstairs, in the grey room.’
I looked baffled. All our rooms at home look grey.
‘Top of the stairs and head eastwards. You’ll come to her private apartment.’
‘You are enjoying this, you toad. There is no sun today. How should I decide which is east?’
Now it was his turn to pretend to be baffled.
‘Sozz, Millie,’ he started in his male piss-take voice. ‘I was bottom-set. We didn’t do navigation. You were always top-set. You’ll work it out.’
I climbed the wide cantilever 18th century stairs, leaving a previous Lordship, clearly on a horse, but entitled ‘At Horse,’ in enormous oils, by a little-known painter, on a stair-landing. I wondered what affectation or incorrect preposition they would use when describing matrimonial consummations. At bed? I took out Vera’s notepad to write a reminder to ask, but instead dripped over the pad and the pencil didn’t leave a mark.
I looked out the window from the landing and saw the parish church and river that flows past it.
‘Altar at the East End. River flows eastwards to the sea. Let’s go down here,’ I mumbled to myself. From the bottom of the stairs I heard an appreciative ‘Well done.’ I turned to look down the stairs and stuck my exceptionally long tongue out. Charley’s wickedly charming, ear-to-ear grin stopped me in my tracks and I hesitated, before grinning back.
I walked the long, wood-panelled corridor, covered in pictures of previous lords or dukes or whatever they are, and into Vera’s private apartment. I didn’t realise the office door was also her front door and entered without knocking. From the office another door led into her private apartment.
Her body language betrayed she’d heard me, but she didn’t look up at me and continued standing in front of the assembled table, chair and dresser. Behind her, on the floor, was the sink, leaning on the cupboard arrangement designed to hold it. I broke her reverie.
‘Felicitations, Vera! You can add flat-pack furniture to your list of accomplishments.’
‘Wish I’d learned it earlier in life,’ she snorted, ‘more use than riding a bloody horse and I still can’t saddle those things without help. But I am stumped by the sink. Where should the water get in?’
‘Plumber, Vera. You’ll need a plumber. I took the liberty of ordering my Uncle Wilf for eleven o’ clock.’
‘Is he a plumber?’
‘No, Vera. He’s a lay preacher. He’ll help us pray for a connection.’
She ignored my sarcasm. That woman has admirable self-control.
‘Whatever. So long as he understands his trade. You know my accountant will want to see three quotes and an explanation of the one we accepted, if it’s not the cheapest.’
‘This house is a business Millicent, not a domicile or a hobby. ‘Best value’ is stamped across every sheet we write on.’
‘I don’t think my Uncle Wilf does quotes, Vera, unless you ask him about the odds for the 2.30 at Haydock Park. He’s more a cash-in-hand man. He can quote Mellors in his hut, chatting up Lady Chatterley, but he probably thinks the hut was in Arabia. Shall I cancel him and we’ll get someone more skilled in quotes?’
She came over and gave me a big hug. I was dumbfounded.
‘You are such a breath of fresh air, Millicent. Promise me you’ll stay this witty for the next two months and I may survive the summer without recourse to booze, drugs or suicide.’
‘That bad, eh?’
‘Oh, yes! It’s that bad.’
I didn’t cancel Uncle Wilf. If only I’d cancelled Uncle Wilf? Sometimes the alternatives jangle through one’s mind for days, imagining how much easier life would have been had one taken another route. Never involve family in business, even if you only want to do a relation a favour.
We left Uncle Wilf with the task, while we went for tea in the café. We couldn’t walk in the garden until the rain cleared and the house remained inaccessible due to guided visitor tours. Huge house, huge garden, stacks of money and you still have to retreat to a coffee-shop.
Wilf was quick and efficient but he’ll never get another recommendation out of me. I wish I’d let the site manager organise three quotes from companies with a historic maintenance certificate. It would have taken a year, but saved the hysterical outburst when the site manager saw Uncle Wilf’s best effort.
‘He’s run hot and cold through from the bathroom next door,’ he gasped in disbelief, ‘and he’s put Rawlplugs in the wall to hold the units.’
He paused and waited for us to castigate Uncle Wilf, who stood at the back, clearing his tools away.
Vera looked mildly disconcerted. She’d heard this speech before.
‘What is it this time, David?’ she enquired in her best imperious tone.
‘The wallpaper, Your Ladyship, the wallpaper. Early 18th century Chinese pattern, grade one listed.’
‘Oh dear. I suppose it is. Never mind. We have to live here.’
‘You tell that to English Heritage when they next inspect.’
He droned on. I lost track of his argument, but it seemed that he was more interested in covering his own backside than protecting an 18th century wallpaper. I was more captured by the fact that he called Vera by her title, but I was allowed to use her first name. I quickly forgot my privileged position when I caught sight of Uncle Wilf, in the doorway, turning red. I knew how irascible he could become if customers criticised his workmanship. It was one of the reasons why, in a time of full employment, he was an unemployed plumber and I had the need to put the work his way.
He drew breath, but I was faster and had him out the door and down the stairs before anyone noticed the impending storm.
‘Just scribble how much you want here, Uncle Wilf,’ I said and handed him the soggy notebook. ‘I’ll collect your money for you.’
I pointed him at the stairs and said goodbye. When he was gone I looked at the number he had written. I was thunderstruck. He surely had the shakes and skidded an extra nought in by mistake. The three historical restoration companies wouldn’t have charged more if they had each put an independent bill in and we’d added them together.
Dave, the site manager, stalked past me as I re-entered Vera’s apartment. His face was of thunder. Vera was inspecting Uncle Wilf’s craftsmanship. She didn’t mention the holes in the Chinese paper.
‘Nice job he’s done, Millicent. How much does he want?’
She had a bundle of notes in her hands and was preparing to start counting.
I divided Will’s number by ten.
‘Three-hundred, Vera.’ I winced. That was still a hundred an hour. She counted the money out and gave it to me.
‘What was that for?’ I asked.
‘It’s the first time I’ve not allowed that disgusting site manager to bully and intimidate me. That’s an emancipation, I think.’
‘Yelhux!’ I shouted. ‘I’ll have to tell my uncle what a cheat and swindler he is and how he’ll have to settle for one tenth of his original demand. That will be a first, too. He’ll probably slap my face, come home drunk and punch my aunt, but it will be worth it.’
Vera looked worried.
‘Your Aunt may see things differently. And you know what? I’d have probably paid him whatever he asked. I wasn’t brought up to haggle. Then your aunt would have been happy instead of abused and maybe have got a new frock from the deal.’
‘Believe me, Vera – it’s better this way. The only people to have profited from three thousand would have been the bookie and publican.’
‘Quite so,’ she sighed.
I think Vera knew a few aristocratic versions of Uncle Wilf.
The notepad was in a disgusting state. I carefully opened it and separated the sheets, before laying it on a draughty window ledge to dry.
In the afternoon there was bright sunshine and warmth again. I was still damp, my hair frizzed like the prongs of my brolly, and I begged Vera for a walk in the sun to warm up again. We sat on the steps of the rockery overlooking the formal garden. Vera promised me that part of the garden would warm quickest. I opened the conversation.
‘What’s this ‘at horse’ bit on the brass plate beneath the oil of the Fourth Duke on the landing?’
That was a hell of a sentence and of the type I am always being criticised for at home. I expected a vacant look from Vera.
‘How would I know?’ she responded immediately, but with a measured amount of poison in her voice.
I was beginning to learn which questions would press Vera’s guilt button. Her body-language revealed it was a topic she didn’t care to discuss with me, a girl from the village, so I pressed home my advantage.
‘Sultan ,Vera, and I promise not to tell anyone in the village.’
‘That means you think you already know the answer.’
‘Possibly,’ I replied. ‘On his horse would imply he may only have one horse. ‘At horse,’ leaves it open and implies he has many. Snobbery, isn’t it.’
‘He and everyone else knew that he had more than one horse, so, ‘at horse,’ is simply stating the obvious. ‘On his horse’, would have been false modesty, something for which my class are not noted. And you can tell who you like in the village. I’m not going to apologise for having more than one horse.’
‘Talking of horses, Sid would like to go riding with you.’
I heard a sharp intake of breath. I pressed on even though I sensed the ice was getting thin.
‘She’s never been riding and always wanted to. You know – girly dreams and all that.’
Vera waited until I had finished speaking, which in view of her response, surprised me.
‘It’s not going to happen and don’t mention it again!’ she snapped.
This was degenerating into a bad day. I decided to lighten things up.
‘So, what does a Duke say to himself if he decides tonight’s the night? He can’t say ‘at Vera,’ because that would imply more than one Vera. Up or on Vera is a bit blunt. ‘The missus is getting a seeing to when I get home’, is rather common.’
‘You silly girl. Common is erotic. Didn’t you know? We always let the servants hear us when we are at it.’
That told me.
On the way home I told Sid of my attempt on her behalf and the response I got.
‘What? She forgave your uncle trying to sting her for three grand for three hours work, but she can’t forgive me asking if I can ride one of her horses.’
‘I suppose, trying to cheat the aristocracy of three thousand pounds, is what she expects a working man to do. Riding out with her is not what she thinks a working girl should expect or even dream of doing. All about stereotypes, I think.’
Despite her huge effort not to show it, Sid looked seriously hurt. In a matter-of-fact way she said, ‘Makes sense, and I’m glad in a way.’
‘Because it means I can continue hating her and her class with unabated ferocity.’
I didn’t get a farewell that evening, or a kiss on the cheek. I was sad and embarrassed to say, my lips felt lonely. I opened Vera’s notebook as I watched Sid wander proudly off, and stood at our gate, thumbing through the pages to see if there were any outstanding jobs. My eye was drawn to a simple message, written in a childish hand. Once deciphered I realised it wasn’t written by a child. Far from it! The message simply said, ‘fancy a shag?’ It was signed ‘Charley,’ and then there was a mobile number.
I thought a minute or two and considered the evening that awaited me with Uncle Wilf, when he came round to collect his money. I sent the number a text. ‘Right now, please. Where?’
Bedtime – still haven’t seen the House. Wilf not paid – forgot to leave the money with my mum.
Forgot to ask Vera about Sid’s sexuality. Boarding school girls know about such things – don’t they? Vera must have had some lesbian experience at school. Surely some stereotypes actually fit. Perhaps Vera still bats for the other side. That’s why her husband is never around.
Life is never dull where the toffs abound.