Saturday, August 10, 2013
MOMENTS OF PARENTHESIS FROM THE AMBLEWICK FIRESIDE
Having recovered somewhat from the excesses of the Jubilee Thrash, and in particular from Cousin Marguerite’s extraordinary return from Hell to the ranks of the blessed, the time has come to address the latter and various other pertinent matters with regard to Amblewick and its affairs.
Marguerite’s re-conversion – or shall we say reversion – to our kind of sanity may or may not be a permanent affair, of course. Parsons is very much of the opinion that it is.
“Mrs Huntington-Smythe is a woman of considerable determination, Milord, and it is my understanding that such a change of attitude is the culmination of months of communion with herself. I think that Your Lordship will agree with me that she is not one to ask for advice or to listen to the arguments of other people. She trusts herself and herself alone. I believe we can therefore reasonably deduce that her recent change of heart may well be long-lasting. After all, Milord, for her to admit to herself that her outburst on the Terrace was mere sentimentality occasioned by temporary intoxication would be, in my view, entirely out of character and destructive to her opinion of herself – an unthinkable state of affairs. People who are always right, find it impossible, Milord, to submit to outside pressure or persuasion. Their decisions have to be their own – that is the law. For these reasons, I believe we can assume that the change of direction will be reasonably long-term.”
“Come to think of it, old thing, if that’s the case, the old girl could be quite a useful ally in the future – if we find ourselves in need of one….”
“Indeed, Milord, a most valuable secret weapon – if used with discretion, and infrequently. Such fire-power must never be overemployed. The fear factor must never be permitted to fade.”
“One other thing’s been puzzling me, Parsons, old scout. Why did you insist upon ‘Micawber’ as title for the Amblewick publicity outlet? Micawber? Why Micawber? ”
“During my somewhat extensive career, Milord, I have long-since come to the conclusion that honesty is invariably the best policy.”
With which mysterious reply he flits from the presence, so to speak.To my surprise his answer would re-occur to me throughout the day. Eventually it would give rise to extended reverie. The dogs and I have been warming our paws – to mingle the species a dash – before the library fire at Amblewick. Can’t answer for the canines, but I’ve been musing a trifle on the why’s and wherefore’s of ‘Micawber’ as a ‘nom de whatever-it-is’ – rather than, say, ‘Lancelot’ or ‘Quixote’, or some other worthy, or perhaps indeed unworthy.
One shares nothing at all with Sir Lancelot du Lac. Apart from anything else, he was a knight in shining armour which we most definitely are not. There’s also that slightly squalid and rather modernistic affair he undertook with his employer’s wife - for which reason his relevance to ‘Happy Isle’ affairs has been excised by Charles Peyneer from his ‘The Hysterical History of England’. We are both agreed that delivery of such a judgement would render it in extremely poor taste to take in vain his name to furnish the title of a mere ‘blog’ (dreadful word).
As for the estimable Don Quixote, the problem lies far more with Sancho Panza than with the Don himself. We would have been obliged to create an entirely different Sancho Panza in order to render the Don a suitable candidate for ‘blogmeistership’ in our cause.
Our Sancho would have to have been far more in the likeness of an amiable bank manager of the old school – such as the modest but heroic Mr Peak of Amblewick Saga fame. The worthy Mr Peak works in a most principled manner always to ensure that ‘problems are soluble immediately – impossibilities taking a little longer’. He is also famous in the Castle annals for the following perceptive remark.
‘The bank has the most frightful lot of money, and I can see no reason why you, Lord Amblewick, should not have access to some of it.”
Mr Peak’s somewhat cavalier attitude with regard to fiscal liquidity has enabled us to manage our affairs a great deal more effectively than would otherwise have been possible in these days of post-Bolshevik taxation and egalitarianism wherein the bank manager, as a friend and counselor, no longer exists - having been replaced by a myriad of characterless ‘experts” and ‘specialists’ who take one glance at one’s so-called ‘credit-rating’ and proceed to abuse and inconvenience one before dismissing one in favour of someone further down in the queue whose ‘track-record’ seems more worthy of their valuable time. One’s brief interview with such people is invariably interrupted several times by private and extensive calls, on their ‘mobiles’ - to their friends and relations – as well as to more ‘valued’ customers.
No, the classical Sancho Panza would have been lost in his attempts to find solution to problems so foreign to his nature and awareness as ours. The trains of thought to which he would have been exposed at Amblewick would have been the harbingers of extreme mental and emotional distress in an individual of such modest aspiration and experience - whole thing a non-starter for a mere ‘Esquire’ - and mortal.
While we have been perusing the higher philosophical realms, Amblewick affairs have been proceeding more or less in their normal humdrum and rather predictable manner.
Julian appears to be glued, as has become his habit since our evening readings tooled-off, to “The Mouse and the Gang Saga”. He‘s sprawled on the floor a dash across the room - near the gilded pineapple (or was it a pomegranate), which as yet he has not “sussed”, as far as we can ascertain.
Tessa “The Nose” keeps him company – paw on knee, tongue in ear, as it were. We have previously introduced a few of you to “Tessa” in the first volume of the “Amblewick Saga”. She is, however, blissfully unaware of the existence of such a document. Her primary concerns have always been ‘Bendicks Bittermints’, tea at four-thirty – with milk and two lumps of sugar - and considerably more comfort than is vouchsafed to us, her devoted friends and servitors.
Parsons (I gather from Julian - a mine of insider information) is in his pantry sampling a modest and well-deserved beak-full of ‘the Talisker’ and checking the field for the Ascot meeting. Jolly good show, what? One has to keep abreast of cultural essentials, don’t you know?.
But where were we?
Ah yes – Micawber. Pretty sympathetic character, Mr M - staring ruin in the face and yet still quite certain that ‘something will turn up!’ Apart from being one of Mr Dickens’ most well-drawn characters – he is familiar to all of us in ‘real’ life. We have all met him as he totters across our mental screens in his various disguises. Many of us have also experienced ‘close-shaves’ such as his on various recurrent occasions……..
And that, me dears, is the whole nub (knub?) of the matter. Fully aware that we at Amblewick are all a dash different in our priorities, backgrounds and expectations – but every darned one of us insists on ‘survival come what blasted well may!’
Where there is hope there is possibility. When hope has fled – well – that’s the end of the conversation, really, isn’t it? – bugger that for a game of soldiers!
Never, never, never give up!” (Winston Spencer Churchill) - bless his stubborn great heart!
While we’re at it, bugger the balls-up the world’s various politicians are making on our behalves – and at our expense……. I mean to say, just look at the Middle-East! Look, indeed, at the entire World…..
Bugger also – to coin a phrase employed by His Late Majesty, King George V with reference to the Bishop (the precise Bishopric eludes one for the moment) – but yes, bugger….. What on Earth were we going to bugger next?
Ah, yes indeed, the tides of memory surge back.
Bugger any footling conviction that we cannot change the way things are.
The only fate there is, is the one we had foisted on us when we were very young by people who had probably had the same demoralizing rubbish foisted on them!
Or were they not so foisted, but part of a distinct and privileged super-group charged – like poor dear Marguerite - with the censuring of those less perfect than themselves?
“The Nose”, I believe, is nodding – but then she would, wouldn’t she – knowing what all great hounds know of the human race and negative re-enforcement? Try the noble Gelert for size!
At which point in my cogitation Julian’s voice - that of a cheerful juvenile chainsaw – intrudes, chirpily enough one has to admit, upon one’s philosophical peregrination.
“Yes, old thing…..?”
“I reckon I’ve found ‘me’ in the ‘Saga’.
“Good for you, old chap – and who might ‘me’ be?”
“Cor! That’d be telling, now wouldn’t it?
“It would, indeed, old sport…….”
And now, I confess to it, I believe I am asleep……..
Yes, that seems to be the way it is.……..
I say, have any of you guys ever taken off when you’re asleep – and then accelerated like a rocket?
Coo-er! Cor! Try it sometime – it’s wicked………!
Sunday, July 28, 2013
Corrie and I aren’t at all sure what sort of crowd will turn up for this evening’s high-jinks. Mention it to Parsons – after all one has to have some idea of numbers, I suppose – catering and so on…..
“Milord, I have consulted your guest list with regard to the issuance of invitations…..”
“Guest list – what guest list, old thing – didn’t know we had one….”
“It occurred to me, Milord, that such might well be the case - and so, in order to save you any discomfiture in that regard, I have taken the liberty of compiling one.”
“What, like the accounts, you mean - sort of fait-accompli, kind of thing?”
“How on earth did you work it all out, Parsons, dear?” Corrie enquires – fascinated as always by Parsons and his systems.
“Unlike many households today, Lady Constance, Amblewick has Visitors’ Books going back well into the middle of the nineteenth century. These contain comments by individual guests with regard to their stay at the Castle. A brief analysis of such comment - and my own memories of the same, of course, rendered it possible to assemble a suitable guest list for the Jubilee evening.”
“Must be a good number of folk from before your time, old thing, mustn’t there?””
Parsons offers one of those infinitely patient and long-suffering pauses before proceeding with his discourse.
“Clearly, Milord, individuals who visited the house before my employment herein could be dismissed from any list with reasonable confidence due to their advanced age – as could those once known to me and currently deceased.”
“How on Earth have you worked out who’s alive and who‘s sort of cashed in his chips, so to speak?”
Again that pause.
“Your Lordship will be aware that there are numerous volumes of Debrett, Burke and the Almanac de Gotha both in the Library and in my Pantry below-stairs. Relevant births, deaths and marriages can readily be located within their pages. Although, Milord – Lady Constance – my personal recall of such people and events renders such research for the most part mere luxury….”
He inserts a paw into his breast-pocket and extracts several pages of immaculate typescript.
“Your guest list for this evening, Milord – Lady Constance….”
“With regard to the practical arrangements for the evening in terms of refreshments, menus, and so forth, these are well in-hand – as is the training of volunteer helpers, footmen, attendants and so on. Masters Julian and Anthony, Milord, are now well-trained for the service of refreshments to those of your personal guests who will attend the initial reception in the Long Gallery – their Highland Dress and effective management of beverage trays will be seen to be impressive on the one hand, and exemplary on the other.”
A small matter is puzzling me.
“What I can’t quite ınderstand, Parsons, old dear, is how on earth Mrs Huntington-Smythe got onto the Jubilee Guest List – bearing in mind the rigid sort of criteria you must have employed, if you get my drift?”
“There are bound to be exceptions to every rule, Milord. The Lady in question – whilst on the surface somewhat questionable - comes into a small group of such exceptions – in this case, political necessity, Milord. To excise the Lady from the guest list would have caused the raising of many eyebrows, Milord – including those of Your Lordship’s formidable trustees. I considered the risk too great, Milord, bearing in mind the influence which those individuals can exercise over our affairs at Amblewick.”
A moment’s consideration and I realize that the old blighter is right – as always.
“Point taken, old thing. Jolly good show, what?”
“And now, Milord – Lady Constance – with your permission I will retire to establish the precise timing of the various events with Mrs Fenner and the Staff”.
Corrie and I retire to the Library for a tooth-full!
The rest of the afternoon passes like lightning and the evening is upon us before we’ve even blinked. I am fully aware of events – but somehow floating about above it all – grinning inanely, no doubt.I do note that one of Mrs Fenner’s offerings at dinner is her famous “Rook Pie” – and that Cousin Marguerite pounces upon it with all her hideous Pterodactyl voracity. No sign of the Booth’s bottle just now - knocking back the old fruit cup fairly heftily - and apparently with no deleterious effect. Unusual that….
Old Charles Peyneer has arrived in his double-decker bus – Freda Prizners in tow, and his five hounds. My old sparring-partner Valint Balassa – in full heroic dress - blows in from Hungary bearing copies of his “Wild Cats of Piran” and various ‘prezzies’ for us all - only managed a couple of words with him, so far – heck of a crush.I think one of the reasons I feel so disoriented is that everyone has arrived in ‘Costume for the Ball’, and whilst, like most people today, they want to be recognized - unlike the Masked Balls of yesteryear the effort to do so is handicapped by the kaleidoscopic jumble of colours, periods and metaphor – quite surreal. Equally bizarre is the actuality of the people inside the disguises and their various slots in the jigsaw scheme of ‘real life’.
Old Blarney Grail dressed as the Lincolnshire Poacher clashing with Major Sheer-Trash, as the Maharajah of Cooch-Behar, and being ignored by Marguerite dressed as the Tzarina Elizabeth and looking like Cruella De Ville – Ronnie Hyde in Hunting Pink - Berk, the lawyer trustee, as Scrooge – rather appropriately – so many different moods and periods. Old Charles materialises rather endearingly as Mr Micawber – plus surely irrelevant hounds to heel. Freda excels as Titania in yards and yards of Mary Talbot hand-printed chiffons. For our own part, Corrie and I have plumped for Nancy and Fagin – she found the old red dress that Augustus immortalised in “The Cellist” while she was firkling about in the attics with the boys. I wear my somewhat dog-chewed old dressing gown The two lads seem to be everywhere at once, kilts flickering and silver trays held high. The only person who remains lighthouse-like and a beacon of sanity – immaculate and his normal impassive self - is Parsons – thank God.
The entire evening is passing in the pleasant haze one sometimes experiences in “cheese-inspired“ dreams – the sort from which one hopes never to be awoken and which can never quite be re-captured, for all their delicious clarity. At one point Corrie and I escape to the Minstrel’s Gallery above the ballroom – to thank the Jazz band for its intoxicating racket. Imagine my delight – they turn out to be my favourite “Harry Walton and his Dixieland Jazzmen” from my miss-spent youth at the Gore Hotel in Kensington. Harry, well into his nineties, is still bashing out the boogie like nobody’s business. Nods at me happily and shouts,
“Built, we were in the old days, Biffers – not just thrown together!”
There is much more to come. Beneath us in the ballroom, a seething mass of jitterbugging couples – hysterical – but somehow harmonious – at one with the thumping beat and no longer aware of anything but the serious business of having fun.
And yet more….
From behind me, Harry yells with a whoop, “Hey! Dig this, Biffers!”
The band swoops into an intoxicating heel-flicking Charleston.Suddenly the dance-floor clears and Marguerite clatters centre-stage from her place preening her plumage behind a pillar. Revelation! The old buzzard is transformed – my God how she swings – terrific and, well, bloody brilliant, she is – electrifying and yet strangely majestic – stunning and magnetic.
Old Ronnie Hyde slicks back his moustaches and joins her – shouting “Tally-Ho!, old girl, what?”
It is a curiously moving experience - bearing past less heart-warming experiences in mind.
“No idea the old girl had it in her, Corrie - I say! Cor! What?”
“Yes, Cor!” agrees Corrie, nearly falling over the gallery-rail in her excitement.
As the performance hurtles to a close there is a standing ovation and the old girl shrieks, “Whacko! My God, I need a dash of freshers - haven’t danced like that in years!”. Gathering her Tzarist skirts about her she sweeps out through the terrace windows to grab that gasp of air.
Don’t really know what to do, but reckon I should join the old thing outside - in case she throws a fatal wobbly after all that unaccustomed exercise – common courtesy, sort of thing.
Locate the old girl perched upon the terrace wall – sobbing into her handkerchief.
“Everything all right, me dear?”
I really don’t know where to put myself…...Finally she shakes her head and gazes up towards the moon - which is at its fullest-full. Silhouetted in the silvery moonbeams, her profile shows me, at last, the beautiful woman she has been….
“I’ve been a total bitch, Biffo…” she says quietly.
“Used to pull my hair a bit, in the nursery, old thing – but not to worry, what?”
“Come on, old chap, I’ve been the most frightful bully ever since. I think I was jealous of you right from the moment you were born – being the heir – and I was just your second cousin – nobody at all, really. Trouble is, the older one gets the bitchier one can become – and the more gin one needs to fuel the bitching………”
“Know the feeling, old girl, what?”
I extend the hand….
“Never mind – new start, eh? Just water under the draw-bridge, don’t you know?”
This time she really smiles.
“Yes please, you old devil, yes please……..”
I give her a quick peck on the cheek – to my surprise it’s soft and cool – no reptile there at all…..
“What the hell was in that so-called ‘fruit cup’ – haven’t been so tight in years – or so daft.”
I also wonder.
“Fairly well-oiled meself – release from tension, I daresay.”
As to the rest of the night – very little – vague memory of PC Southgate and a colleague escorting the revelers – somewhat hyperlubricated – back to their various domiciles with blue lights flashing jauntily – and of Parsons and the boys assisting Marguerite and the trustees to their roosts upstairs.
“Left right, left right – right wheel – by the left - quick march. What a spiffing hoot, eh?” is old Ronnie’s contribution to the exercise – and a great relief to me.
The Berk is tagging on behind, smiling glassily, but happily enough for one so inured to misery and seriousness.
Last I see of Marguerite, she’s leaning on Tone’s young shoulder and crooning that favourite old song –
“Yams and clams and human hands and vintage coconut wine – the taste of which was filthy, the after-effects divine…..”
The morning after.
It’s only this morning - once the guests have taken off in their various conveyances – still slightly tight and giggly is my impression – that we will learn the secret of the evening’s hilarity and mirth.
The two boys are still cock-a-hoop after last night’s monumental thrash.
“Cripes, Guv,’ yer should’ve seen that Mrs Wotzernaim!”
“Oh, but indeed I did, Tone – magnificent performance, what?”
“Yea, and all them costumes – and everyone tiddly and gigglin’ – an’ the flippin crowds – like a ‘Totty’ match….” Jules is over the moon.
“Coo-er”, he adds.
“Thought the booze was goin’ ter run out, we did - and that was after abaht ten minutes!”
“It was the Guvnor’s old mate what saved the day – geezer from – where’d he say he come from, Tone?”
“’Ungry, I fink – wherever that may be when it’s at’ome…..”
“’Hungary’, might be the word you’re looking for, Tone?” I prompt.
“Rather a beautiful Eastern European country, so they say….”
“Yea, well it were ‘im what sorted out the drinks problem – brought five bottles of what ‘e called ‘pop’, as a present for you and Corrie, Guv’.”
“Did he indeed? ‘Pop’, you say?” I begin to feel a dash pensive.
“Yea, well, anyway when the booze bowls was gettin’ empty we tossed them bottles into the mix – five bottles, wannit, Jules?
“Fink so - could’ve been six, innit?”
“Yea, an’ then we tossed in a squirt of that soda water stuff and a slug or two of Brandy – just to make it taste, like – looked a bit watery, it did, with just ‘pop’.”
“You didn’t taste it then?” I wonder nervously.
“Nah. Don’t drink, me an’ Tone – stash of coke under the table, innit?”
“Thank God for small mercies…” I whisper to meself.
“Did the trick, though, dinnit – our ‘fruit cup’? Cripes, it got’em goin’!”
“Yea,” added Jules, “and Mrs Wotzernaim was still swingin’ this mornin, innit? What she say when she got into the Land Rover, Tone?”
“She said, ‘you two young buggers deserve a serious kick up the arse – but what a smashing knees-up, eh?…’ Says what she thinks that one, innit?”
“My cousin is renowned for her frankness, Tone.” I smile rather weakly.
At this point Parsons joins the discourse.
“Now that all potential accident has become the stuff of History, Milord, I sense that you would like to know precisely why the cocktail created by our ‘ghillies’ was such a notable success…..”
Actually, I’m gasping to know.
Parsons is unusually blunt.
“The ‘pop’ donated to Your Lordship by Mr Valint was, in fact, a blend of Russian pure white spirit, Milord – 100% proof, Milord – and renowned for its purity - and ‘kick’, I believe is the word.”
He returns to his organization of the chaos on my desk.
I gaze at the ‘ghillies’ thoughtfully.
“Are you sure you didn’t know what the ‘pop’ really was, you two?”
“Nah, course not, Guv’ – can’t read Russky, can we, eh?”
Parsons lays my nightmarish imagination mercifully to rest.
“Milord, whilst the beverage would be highly toxic if imbibed in large volume by a single individual – I feel sure that, shared as it was by a multitude of experienced consumers, the danger was non-existent – merely somewhat stimulating, as confirmed so happily by the nearmiraculous experience of Mrs Huntington-Smythe, Milord……”
“May well have saved our bacon here at Amblewick, as well.” I add.
“Do you think we might just slip the chaps a ‘fiver’, Parsons, old renderer of harmony from chaos?”
“Your accounts permit, Milord, and Inflation perhaps demands, that we slip them each a ‘tenner’.
Monday, July 22, 2013
The last week has been a fair old nightmare – getting things ship-shape before the Jubilee Thrash and the dreaded arrival of Marguerite and the Trustees.
We’ve decided to stage the festivities in the house itself, rather than going to the expense of all those Marquees – apart from anything else we feel that Her Majesty’s Jubilee demands rather more than does a ‘Stately’ car-boot sale – sort of been there, done that, if you know what one means.
The last time the whole house was opened up for action was for the Queen’s Coronation on June 2nd 1953 when I was twelve and Corrie a feisty ten - first time we’d ever seen a ‘Telly’. The Pater hired a set – black and white, of course, so that we kids could watch him and the Mater in the Abbey - feel a real part of things.
Anyway, back to the practicalities. Parsons has insisted that we provide lavatory (“toylot”) facilities in the stable yard as he has no desire to find himself knee-deep in questionable detritus come the morning after.
“’Sharing’, Milord, is an admirable concept – but there have to be limits……”
It’s been rather exciting for Corrie and me as the dust-covers come off all over the house and the old place shakes itself and expands into fairyland history and childhood memory.
It’s wonderful to see Parsons in his element again - the whole house at his beck and call – amazing how the village has rallied round for the occasion and supplied staff for him to train and bring up to scratch.
Corrie and the boys crashed around in the attics all day yesterday and found a goodly selection of the old staff uniforms we both remember so vividly – as well as a couple of my old kilts and highland gear from the summer hols on the Caithness estate. These last proved a hit with the lads, who have determined to wear them for the Jubilee evening festivities.
“Cor! Classy, them kilts…” Julian gurgles enthusiastically.
“Yea, and not sissy either – what with them daggers, innit?” Tone agrees, fingering the blades with a dreamy look in his eye.
“Not sissy at all, old chap,” I assure him. “By the way, the big one’s called a ‘dirk’, and the little one you wear in your stocking is called a ‘Scian dhu’.
“Cool, Guv’, what are we supposed to do wiv ‘em? Murder Mrs Thingummy-Wotzernaim?“ Jules is looking hopeful.
“No, old chap,” I hasten to explain, “they’re for ceremonial use only, these days – sort of show that you’re someone who’s, well, someone, if you know what I mean?”
“What, a toff – like you, Guv’?”
“Why is it,” I muse to meself, “that I find this kind of conversation so unsettling?”
Aloud, I say, “To show that you’re someone who belongs at Amblewick, which both of you most definitely do – and apart from anything else you need something smart to wear this evening – everyone will be tarted up to the nines and we can’t have you two feeling out of place, now can we?”
Richardson’s been down to the station to gather up the invading forces, and with a shudder I hear the clatter of the Land Rover as it grinds its way under the Gatehouse arch and lumbers into the Courtyard.
I panic a dash.
“Now look you chaps – just bugger off upstairs, will you – sort of get changed, and then join Parsons and Mrs F - make yourselves useful. This is all rather tiresome and I need to gather myself together, so to speak.”
Off they potter chirping happily enough, taking the main staircase five at a time amidst shrieks of mirth. I steady myself for the coming assault on my sanity. I glance longingly at the ‘drinkies’ table as I enter the library, but realise immediately that such is hardly the way to prepare for what threatens to be an ugly twelve hours or so.
I hear a trundling on the stairs as the guests head for their rooms to “freshen-up” after the journey, as the Americans put it. I gaze about me looking for ‘trip-wires’, so to speak – but Parsons has removed all signs of serious dissipation – even my copy of the “Pink’un” and the betting slips. I grin to myself.
“No worries with old Parsons on the case, what?” I murmur. “Just got to try and be civil – and welcoming. Now pull yourself together, Biffo – this too shall pass, what?”
“Ballz to the lot of ’em!” I add rebelliously, and feel a whole lot better
– more master of my ship, don’t you know?
The main landing doors whisper open and the enemy is within.
“Brigadier Hyde, Mr Berk, and Mrs Huntington-Smythe, Milord. With your Lordship’s permission, tea will be served in the conservatory in a few minutes. Lady Constance has asked me to say that she is busy with the flowers in the Banqueting Hall, Milord, and may be a little late in greeting her guests - for which she apologises.”
“All a bit frantic what?”
“Indeed, Milord, but I trust, also under control……
He inclines the old head and departs.
“Well, well, well – welcome to Amblewick, what?” I say expansively, and for lack of anything more profound with which to kick orf.
“Shall we?” I indicate the doors into the conservatory.
Amidst a few monosyllabic and ill-at-ease affirmative grunts we head in the direction of ‘tea’.
As we settle into the odd deck chair, Marguerite mans the samovar, and I am free to study the newcomers at my leisure. It’s been a few years since I’ve seen the two Trustees close-up and on my own turf. Old Ronnie Hyde - a sort of first-cousin-once-removed Trustee seems to have weathered pretty well for an old’un – still ramrodstraight and looking reasonably benign from what I can see through his moustaches – still pretty stiff, though. Berk, the lawyer of the party, looks as lawyers always do out of the office – out-of-place but omni-present in the hope of pickings – a sudden death, perhaps.
As for Marguerite – no change – looking particularly vicious and disapproving and disguising it with a hideous fixed smile – tea-pot held high, and so on. Something tells me that she’s slightly tight.
I wonder how she’s managed that in the company of the Trustees - some kind of intravenous drip, perhaps - certainly no sign of the Booth’s bottle for the nonce.
Everyone’s pretty subdued. The English, when face to face with people of whom they disapprove, simply aren’t into small talk about ‘the weather’ or the state of the wheat – seem to be waiting frostily for someone else to put their foot in it and give direction to a re-union with people for whom they don’t much care……
“So, what’s the order of play for the evening, so to speak?” Ronnie takes the bull between his teeth.
“Basically, reception for guests, tenants and staff in the Long Gallery - Fruit cup, and so on – dinner in the Banqueting Hall followed by a Fancy-dress Ball in the Ballroom, and finally, a grand fire-work display over the lake – viewed from the Georgian Terrace. All got your geography of the old place sorted, have you?” I wonder.
“Years since I was here,” Ronnie remarks honestly enough – “but I daresay it’ll all come back. Forgotten how huge the place was, rather.”
Parsons shimmers in.
I raise the old eyebrows interrogatively.
“Milord, it occurs to me that Messrs Julian and Anthony might begin their service this evening by giving our guests a tour of the evening’s various venues – to refresh both their own minds and those of your good-selves, Lady and Gentlemen – as to the various directions. They have worked extremely hard to acquaint themselves with our way of doing things here at the Castle and it occurs to me that such a tour would be a good opportunity for them to put these skills into practice.”
“Jolly good show, what?” I am a dash concerned – doesn’t sound quite our young hellions’ forté, really – but Parsons usually knows best.
Enter the duo - resplendent in the old tartan, bristling with armament and grinning rather goofily.
The trustees get the message and stand up willingly enough.
I don’t think we’ve been introduced, have we?” says old Ronnie.
“Jolly smart you both look, I must say….” He advances on the duo, hand outstretched. “Hyde’s the name, by the way.”
Paws are shaken and names exchanged – ice seems to be breaking fairly painlessly – Berk follows suit, and a murmur of small-talk ensues – all pretty satisfactory.
There is a savage hiss from amongst the tea things behind me. Ah yes, of course, I have forgotten Marguerite – I brace for the storm.
“What are you doing with that native boy in the house? My God! The London guttersnipe was disgrace enough – and now what have you done? Disgraceful!”
‘Paleface squaw speaks with poisoned tongue.’ I muse.
It’s just as well she’s hissing rather than squawking. There seems to be no change in the chit-chat at the other end of the room, so I’m in hopes that her objection has gone un-noted by the others.
I therefore hiss in reply.
“What on Earth are you talking about, old girl – the ‘native’, as you refer to him, is Anthony – chum of old Jules – down from town for a few days, what?”
She grinds the teeth and resumes the viperous onslaught.
“That wretched boy is black – black!” the spittle sizzles into my lughole from behind the samovar. Suddenly the Devil calls as, very occasionally, he does.
In turn, I hiss.
“And you, you venomous old reptile, are an unpleasant shade of grey – but I don’t harp on about it……”
The silence is thunderous – clearly this evening will not pass entirely without event………
Sunday, July 14, 2013
The household should be congregating in the conservatory at any moment. I’ve decided that a pre-invasion meeting this morning is essential, bearing in mind that no one apart from Corrie and I have ever met the Amblewick Trustees before. Our Tone hasn’t even met Cousin Marguerite and might find that experience a dash too much without a briefing as to her various and exasperating proclivities. I am in high hopes that Jules will fill him in on the old bat’s more outrageous moments once we have set the scene. The trustees actually “in res” at Amblewick threatens to be a new and disquieting experience for us all. But, as Corrie said, yesterday, ‘We shall see what we shall see.’ I’m a bit concerned about old Parsons, though – been a little too distant and vague since the telegram arrived – can only hope he comes up with a “clever plan” in the end – we need one…….
Ah! Just think about the Oracle and he materialises!
“What ho! Parsons, old dear, ready for the fray, what?”
“I was unaware, Milord, of any imminent fracas – merely of the arrival of unfamiliar and apparently uninvited guests under the aegis of Mrs Huntington-Smythe – a disturbing combination, Milord, and one by which I have been finding myself unusually overwhelmed. However, the young people, Mrs Fenner, and the other members of staff will be with us shortly…..”
He occupies himself somewhat distantly in the destruction of an invasive wasp.
‘The Nose’ shassies in and parks next to Corrie - harbinger of the rest of the staff and the juvenile duo.
There is a subdued and bleakly expectant atmosphere. For the first time in my life I find myself alone, and in charge – terrifying!
Mercifully, Corrie starts the ball rolling.
“Look, old friends, we’re expecting some visitors – rather difficult visitors, I’m afraid – and we all need to know a bit about them so that we don’t get our knickers in a twist. The first area of concern is Mrs Huntington-Smythe with whom some of you are already familiar.”
“Oh, Gawd – not her again! She’s a right old pest, Tone, Cor! - pain in the arse!”
That is our Jules, of course, who has as we all know been on the cutting edge of Marguerite’s tongue on two previous occasions.
“Yes, dear,” Corrie agrees, “but the other two guests are a bit more of an unknown quantity as far as you all are concerned. His Lordship and I find ourselves similarly in the dark, never having encountered these people socially since we were all in our prams.– these days they seem to regard us as little more than a balance sheet at their offices in London – and with that they are all too familiar.”
Everyone’s looking a bit lost, so I blunder in to clarify.
“Larger estates such as ours often have Trustees to make sure the money and movables don’t get lost or squandered. Family members usually, and chosen for their steadiness and good judgement in financial matters. My trustees are people of the highest moral fibre – so high, in fact that I feel about twelve when they heave over the horizon……”
“What, yer mean they can order you about, Guv’ – sorta like teachers?”
“’Fraid so, Tone – and send you to bed with no jam for tea if you don’t do as you’re told – permanently if they feel like it……”
“Ain’t nothin’ yer can do, then?
“Not a lot, really – except keep them happy, somehow.”
Corrie is looking thoughtful.
“What’s the state of the jubilee account, Biffers?”
“Same as it was when Marguerite buggered off after her infamous meeting – haven’t dared winkle a bean of it. Going to have to, though, what with “The Thrash” expenses and so on.”
“Do we have any household accounts, old chap?”
At this point Parsons butts in.
“I have long been aware, Lady Constance, that whilst his Lordship has many gallant and admirable qualities, columns of figures and account-keeping are not among them. I have, therefore, made it my business to keep my own record of all financial transactions pertaining to household and estate expenditure – having feared that otherwise we might find ourselves in an embarrassing situation should Your Lordship’s trustees demand a detailed accounting of the same…..”
I am appalled.
“My God, Parsons, old thing – that means we’re in deep shit, for Heaven’s sake – all our little trips to Fortnum’s and so on – not exactly Tesco’s fish fingers, what?”
“No, indeed, Milord. It is because of just such anomalies that I have seen fit to develop my own code for the household records. I will not trouble your Lordship with the details but, for example, ‘diesel fuel’ and ‘liquid paraffin’ (for cleaning purposes) can readily be stretched to indicate various forms of more palatable beverage, Milord.”
“Screwing the books, what?”
I find myself grinning like a Cheshire.
“By no means, Milord – everything will be found to be in perfect order under the most microscopic examination….”
“But receipts, and so on – have to have receipts, what?”
“Everything in order, Milord, and prepared under the careful scrutiny of Mr Pritchard of Pritchard, Pritchard and Pritchard, Your Lordship’s personal accountants in Babingworth. His fees are covered by his inclusion as a guest shot for the coming pheasant season, Milord - Amblewick has a great number of assets the profits from which need only minimally to appear in the public arena – being cash transactions, Milord, and received ‘no questions asked’ from Your Lordship’s and Lady Constance’s personal friends and selected acquaintances.”
“Have I really got accountants, old thing? Well I’m damned! No idea things were so complicated, what? – ah well, such it all is, I suppose. But what are we going to do about the Jubilee account? Can’t afford to louse up your system at the last minute, now can we?”
“Permit me to put Your Lordship’s mind at rest on that score, Milord. Mr Peak at the bank is giving the matter his careful consideration on an entirely voluntary basis. Careful manipulation of the account has already resulted in a rewarding increase to the original £30,000 deposit. This, and the profits from Your Lordship’s Asparagus – purchased as “sundry casual produce” by my friend Mr Henderson at Messrs Fortnum and Mason - will enable us to facilitate what Your Lordship always refers to as “winkle-room” for the immediate future. Mr Peak is a great admirer of Your Lordship and has gone to considerable pains to improve our future outlook.”
“Jolly good show, what? We should do something for him, shouldn’t we? I like old Peak – capital chap.”
“He, also, will be shooting with us next season, Milord – and riding to hounds, should he manage successfully to conclude an understanding with Mr Kidd, of our Romany community, with regard to a hunter mare the latter has in his possession – a matter of stabling and pasture, I understand……”
“Easily settled then - offer him one of our loose-boxes and the ten acre meadow behind the carpentry shops to the North of the house, what? On a sort of grace and favour basis, don’t you know?”
“Thank you, Milord, I was sure that you would see things as I have been privileged to see them. And now, if Your Lordship will permit me, I shall retire to my pantry to retrieve certified copies of your accounts so that you and Lady Constance can be fore-armed in the face of any amateur assault from your trustees, Milord…..”
He shimmers - more or less as of yore – and we all stare at each other, ‘gob-smacked’, as Julian will describe it later.
“Streuth!” That’s Master Tone….
“Coo-er!” That’s Jules
Corrie joins in.
“Makes accountancy sound rather fun, doesn’t he – good old Parsons!”
“Wonder what he’s got sorted for the invasion menus?” I muse aloud.
Within moments, and with the Parsonian glide, our Tower of Strength returns bearing a large envelope, a tray of chilled glasses and a Magnum of Lanson.
“The accounts, Milord - Lady Constance – and Mrs Fenner has asked me to assure Your Lordship that the menus during the visitation will include no processed foods, and that her recipe for fish-cakes will pleasure you as much as do her devilled kidneys and her kedgeree….”
“Thank God for Mrs F….” breathes Corrie. “What brings on the bubbly, though, Parsons, old dear?”
“It occurred to me, Lady Constance, that a small preliminary celebration might be in order – and that His Lordship might like to sample a glass or two of “Anti-freeze” - under which soubriquet his Lanson is logged in the certified accounts……..”
Monday, July 8, 2013
Well, young Anthony, or ‘Tone’ as he calls himself, has been delivered – seems a jolly soul and likely to brighten things up at Amblewick. Parsons was dead right about the shared ‘turn of phrase’ department; first thing the young blighter said when he jumped out of the Land Rover and looked around him was, “Good ‘ere, innit!” Anyway, the two of them are messing about on the moat at the moment, so peace prevails.
Corrie’s popped over from Pangleton, and we’re planning the dreaded Jubilee Thrash – rather hoped it would just go away once we’d got rid of the Cousin Marguerite plague, but no peace for the wicked and we’re up to our ears in plans for the ‘great day’, and with all sorts of people who have to be involved – blast them!
"What are we going to do about Margot de Barry and the Netherwick connection, Biffers? We’ve got to involve them somehow.”
Corrie sounds as reluctant as I am to address this threat.
“Well, I’m going to do as little as possible about her – short of being downright rude – pesky old trout – never stops talking, does she?”
“All the bable of a brook and little of the charm – only advantage is that one doesn’t have to say anything much oneself, except the occasional ‘Really?’ and ‘Good Heavens!’”
I’m not reassured at all and even less so when Parsons glides in and drops the old bombshell.
“Milord, a telegram has been delivered.”
He slides the small buff envelope from salver to the table beside me – unopened. My heart sinks. Hate telegrams – invariably rotten news.
“Can’t you read it, Parsons, old dear?”
“Had the missive been addressed to me, Milord, I would already have done so – however, it is addressed to Your Lordship, and my professıonal code forbids me from opening it. The protection of one’s employer’s privacy must always be his servant’s first concern, Milord.”
With which unequivocal confession of faith, and a brief inclination of the bonce, the old sod retires.
I have a nasty feeling about this telegram – seems to be sneering at me from its place to my left. I am about to curse when Corrie sensibly intervenes…..
“Snoot-full, old chap?"
“An extremely large Gin might save the day.”
“In a glass, or à la Marguerite?”
I cringe at mention of the name.
“Glass” I croak.
We slurp peaceably and some of the darkness begins to brighten. Corrie removes the weight from my spirit.
“Come on, old chap – let me open the damned thing.”
I toss the missive over to her with a shudder. She opens same and peruses. I can hardly bear the tension as she lingers over its contents. Finally, she seems to have absorbed the contents, and
replaces the message in its envelope and briskly and rather finally tosses the two of them into the fireplace.
“Not the sort of communication which inspires one with any confidence for the immediate future…..” she says, coolly reinserting her beak into the juniper.
By this time my nerves are in shreds – wringing of the hands, so to speak.
“Come on, old girl- put me out of the wretched agony, what?”
“I think we’re going to need another tooth-full old chap – the news, I fear, is dire indeed.”
She totters over to the drinks’ table and begins feverishly to pour. I note that she is gripping the Stately Car Boot amber cig holder vice-like between her teeth.
Now Corrie is not the feverish type and neither does she totter. She returns with the drinkies and I stare at her speechless – à la goldfish a-goggle and mouth devoid of words – few weedy bubbles I blow…..
“Take a severe glug, old boy, and brace for the worst….”
I do as I am told.
I nod somewhat jerkily.
“The trustees are going to attend the Amblewick Jubilee Festivities – in the company of Cousin Marguerite Huntington-Smythe…..”
Her voice trails away and she subsides onto the sofa with a tragic sigh.
Now I think we should all be very clear about one’s attitude towards the Amblewick trustees. One’s antipathy is not personal – merely that they feel bound, in the name of ‘duty, to interfere at a financial level with one’s affairs at Amblewick. Letters and various secondhand communications from them and their minions are received with a degree of dread and with a suppressed fury reserved only for them.
Normally when confronted by infuriating documents threatening one’s appetite and peace of mind, one can depend upon old Parsons to restore one’s spirits with one of his brilliant prescriptions. When it comes to the trustees he is at grave disadvantage, not having met either of them, nor having observed them as guests at the Castle. He is also disadvantaged by the fact that they invariably punch low in the housekeeping stakes, thus striking firmly at his Achilles heel.
‘You must spend less on food’, is one of their weapons of choice.’
‘Cut down on staff.’ Is another favourite…..
Now bearing in mind that Parsons and Mrs Fenner already do the work of what used to be a veritable army, and that the Castle menus are his and Mrs F’s pride – dare I say ‘raison d’être’, not to put too fine a point on it all? It will be seen that he is much handicapped when dealing with such an adversary – damn it all, the old boy’s in his nineties, for heaven’s sake!
However, he is our only hope, and raising the eyebrows at Corrie, I yank the old service bell and retire into my beverage, broodily. Moments, and the merest whisper of well-oiled locks later, the
Amblewick Oracle is at my side.
“You rang, Milord?”
“I did, indeed, old thing – Crisis looms…..”
I indicate the fireplace. Parsons, never obtuse, espies the telegram and retrieves it. Clearly, its opened condition absolves him from his ethical concerns. He peruses the missive briefly.
“It would appear, Milord, that we will have to open three further bed-chambers. I have taken the liberty of accommodating Young Julian and his friend in the Red Chamber and feel that it would be
unreasonable to alter that arrangement in order to satisfy the needs of casual, and to my knowledge, uninvited guests, Milord.”
His face is more po-faced than ever I have seen it before. No sign of comfort emanating therefrom.
“Absolutely, old thing – my sentiments entirely. Damned bad form inflicting themselves without notice, what?”
“If Your Lordship and Lady Constance have no further immediate need of my services I shall now retire to confer with Mrs Fenner. I fear that certain adjustments will have to be made to the menus
over the Jubilee period in order to ensure that Amblewick does not exceed the bounds of trustee-orial frugality. I fear that Mrs Fenner will be keenly disappointed by this turn of events, Milord.”
With which almost censorious statement, and an abrupt nod of the head, he retires.
Corrie and I are left gawping at each other.
Corrie is the first to speak.
“As seems always to be the case when Marguerite is involved in our affairs disharmony prevails – and I care not for the look of dear Parsons – difficult to read, but I get the impression that he has been caught off-guard by this invasion.”
“Once again,” I observe, “Birnham Wood can be descried leeching its way over our peaceful horizon – blast it!”
“Yes, and Parsons seems bereft of ideas, this time……. We shall have to wait, as you so often say, and see what we shall see…..”
“And hope that during the course of that vision, Parsons will find an answer - don’t fancy ‘fish fingers’ as an extended diet, do you?”
Monday, July 1, 2013
THE GATHERING OF CLANS
Amblewick is notorious for its cool with regard to all sorts of stuff that is, apparently, all the rage beyond the borders of the estate. Must seem a bit of a time capsule to those who’ve never experienced its subtle workings
I mention this because Parsons has just popped in with a somewhat unusual request…..
“Milord, we may have an unfamiliar situation on our hands…..”
I raise the eyebrows encouragingly.
“In a few words, Milord, young Julian has a school friend in London and he would very much like to invite him to Amblewick for a day or two. I understand that the young man has never been to the country before – his family being resident abroad, Milord, and living as he does with an elderly aunt and uncle who are not wealthy…….”
“Foreign Office types, the parents, what? Should be all right for folding, shouldn’t they? But anyway, invite away, Can’t see the problem. Much more fun for our Jules to have someone from his own neck of the woods about the place - must get fed up surrounded by us old frights for company…….”
I tamp down the Meerschaum with a teaspoon, and re-ignite……..
Parsons, for his part, is looking a dash pensive – clearly something bleeping on his scanner.
“Milord, I fear that perhaps I have failed to make matters altogether clear. The young man’s parents are not, as you have so reasonably assumed, in the Diplomatic Service. Somewhat of a far cry, I fear. He has, however, resided in London since he was very young. He hails, Milord, from a somewhat unsettled part of the world and his parents have entrusted him to the care of their relations here for his own safety and to ensure that he receives an education…….”
“Sort of refugee, what? Do with a bit of support, I dare say. Where’s he from then?”
“He hails, Milord, from Somalia……”
“Umh, had quite a few British Somaliland stamps when I was a young chap. Remember my stamp collection, do you, old thing?”
Parsons has that special non-committal look about him – the one he always adopts when I’m being particularly dense. He answers me patiently.
“How could I fail to remember Your Lordship’s dalliance with philately, Milord? My most vivid memory from that period is the plethora of discarded stamp hinges which appeared to infest the entire house. However, Milord, if I might return us to the topic of this morning’s conversation – I have spoken briefly with the young man, whose name is Anthony. I’m sure your Lordship will be relieved to hear that he shares the same somewhat picturesque turn of phrase as does young Julian, Milord.”
“Sort of, down-to-earth, what?”
Parsons still has that long-suffering look. As far as I can see everything’s perfectly normal – course the young chap will have the same sort of turn of phrase – school chums always do, don’t they?
We always did. Some words were ‘in’, and some were stale news and were ‘out’, so to speak. Seems to me it’s Parsons who’s being a bit dense. However, to avoid any further misunderstandings, I follow through with the practicalities.
“So, old man, when’s this literary acrobat destined to join us here at Amblewick?”
Seems a sensible approach, and Parsons comes down to earth immediately – as he always does when he realises that one’s foot is firmly down, as it were…….
“With your permission, Milord, he could arrive as early as tomorrow evening. There are trains from Liverpool Street, stopping at Babingworth, at regular intervals every day. I can arrange for Mr Richardson and Julian to meet him at the station in the Land Rover, Milord.”
“All sounds fairly tickety-boo, then, what?”
Parsons begins to take his leave, but pauses at the door.
“Milord, I do hope that we have fully understood each other in this matter. I would hate there to be any misunderstanding which might, shall we say, cause initial friction or awkwardness.……”
Whole thing seems perfectly clear to me, can’t imagine what’s got into Parsons – unusually stumped for words……
“As I believe we have already established, Milord, the United Kingdom is now a multi-cultural society and its citizens are representative of all parts of the Empire and beyond. Would it be too intrusive of me to enquire if your Lordship has ever met any Somalian citizens?"
"Can’t say I have, old thing, but I had a school chum from Nigeria – same form at prep school – black as the ace of spades – brilliant all-round sportsman – capital chap – used to call him ‘Canno’ – he called me ‘Honk’ – lot of laughs we had over the years. I wonder what happened to him…..”
My mind is off with the birds – funny how memories suddenly flood back, isn’t it? But I’m jolted back to the present by a discreet clearing of the Parsonian throat. The old chap is looking pretty chuffed for someone so inscrutable……
“I feel I should admit that I have, on this occasion, considerably underestimated Your Lordship’s educational and worldly experience. Please accept my sincere apologies, Milord.”
There is a slight but unmistakable catch in the old boy’s voice as he hands me this handsome accolade. Brushes away a tear, if I’m not mistaken….
“Most touched, old thing – not another word, what? Can’t wait to make the young chap’s acquaintance – important ‘first’ for Amblewick – not before time, what?”
“True, Milord – most refreshing, and as you say, timely.”
Parsons looks almost jaunty as he swipes his napkin at a dash of pipe-ash on my lapel.
“And now, Milord, with your permission, I will retire to set matters in train with regard to tomorrow’s visitor.”
He shimmers from the room and I am left with my thoughts and to my own devices. The latter guide my steps towards the drinks table – and a gentle snort. Largish gin, couple of chunks of ice and the merest threat of tonic seems best to fit the bill. I muse to meself as I prepare the prescription.
“World’s changed a lot really, hasn’t it. Twenty years and a whole world between us, Parsons and I. When I first went to school in ’48, the Empire was winding down – more hope than glory, don’t you know? Mind you, most of the world was still red on the atlases - but India had gone.
S’pose I’m really a sort of post-empire war-baby, and Parsons stems from the thing itself – pre-war so to speak, and built to last. I think a lot of our attitudes and way of seeing things were born because of how things were when we were young and subject to all-knowing grown-ups whose opinions we regarded as superior to the Oracle of Delphi because they were English and therefore right about everything. The values for which they stood were instilled and indeed beaten into us so effectively that they have stuck like superglue.”
I tinkle the chunks and take a modest and exploratory drizzle of the tincture. As the restorative winkles its way through the tubes, I am reminded once more of old “Canno” at school, and of one of our favourite ditties – something along these lines if my memory serves – Noël at his playful best.
‘Yams and clams and human hands and vintage coconut wine – the taste of which was filthy, the after-effects divine…..’
“Hmm….. Pure Empire, and laughing at itself – missionaries and so on. Have to trill it to Parsons - when the time seems right, of course…..”
Monday, June 24, 2013
PARSONS TO THE RESCUE AGAIN
When Biffo and Julian enter the pantry Parsons is busy buffing up a Cellini flagon - leather positively flickering along – and simultaneously perusing a column of numbers in what Biffo assumes is the financial publication to which Julian has alluded. Parsons appears able to do two things at once - a capability foreign to his employer who always finds it taxing to complete even a single task with any degree of competence.
“Jolly good show, Parsons, old thing.” Biffo enthuses. “Richardson said you wanted to see me.... Something about the asparagus, what?”
“Milord, yes indeed, though far be it from me to summon Your Lordship.”
“Come, come, never mind the protocol, Parsons, old darling. Richardson tells me you may have a remedy for the garden prawn catastrophe – asparagus genocide, and so on.”
The butler cringes at his employer’s familiar style, but appreciates that strain is taking its toll and, as always, makes allowances.
“Milord, I understand that we are at risk of losing the asparagus crop this season.”
“Yes, that’s about the size of it. Damned garden prawns on the rampage.”
“I confess to having been unfamiliar with the invertebrates in question, Milord, but was persuaded to engage myself fully in their affairs as soon as I was made aware that our asparagus was under threat from their presence in the gardens.”
“Good show, Parsons. Jolly good show.”
Biffo awaits his butler’s findings eagerly.
“Milord, three evenings ago I encountered a young man in the village who exhibited a certain keenness to dispose of some several gross of jam jars manufactured for Messrs Wilkin and Sons Ltd - the firm which prepares ‘Tiptree’ jams and preserves.”
“I say, Parsons, old man! What the devil have jam jars - albeit ‘Tiptree’ jam jars - got to do with my asparagus? Damn it all, make our own jams, don’t we?”
“Milord, we appear to be faced with a critical situation with regard to this year’s crop. It struck me, Milord, that we have little time to spare and must move with despatch if we are to wrest virtue from necessity, and thereby turn misfortune into profit - as Mr Dickens, I imagine, might well have phrased it.”
“Maybe a bit dense, but can’t quite catch your drift, old man.”
“Forgive me, Milord, I appear to have approached the subject from an inappropriate angle. Permit me to re-phrase. It occurred to me as I observed the imperilled asparagus shoots during a brief free moment during the breakfast washing-up period on Wednesday morning, that, quite feasibly, Your Lordship could convert adversity into pecuniary advantage.”
“Parsons, old man, never at me best this time of the morning, you’ve lost me altogether.”
“Milord, whilst I was replenishing our larders at Messrs Fortnum’s on the Monday afternoon of last week, I observed that there appears to be a ‘fashion’, shall we say, for diminutive, even stunted specimens, of various vegetables of the more exotic varieties. Such of these ‘légumes’ as I observed in the Food Hall, Milord, had clearly been preserved by some means and stored in what appeared to be standard jam jars decorated with an attractive label indicating their provenance.”
“What have diminutive vegetable varieties to do with my asparagus, may I venture to ask?”
Biffo is completely at sea and beginning to glow about the forehead - as is his wont in times of stress.
“Milord, if you will grant me the benefit of your attention for just one further minute, I believe your Lordship may see the connection between the jars and your asparagus. I observed that the bottled vegetables were being ‘snapped up’, I believe is the expression, by members of the public dressed in new, but distressed, overalls, dark glasses, Barbour jackets, and green Wellington boots. I enquired of the chief buyer, my friend Mr Henderson, as to the identity of these people. He assured me that they are the ‘upwardly mobile’ of our time – often referred to as ‘Sloane Rangers’. Mr Henderson further assured me, Milord, that such people stand possessed of extensive funds not necessarily accompanied by any noteworthy degree of discrimination. Such individuals purchase and consume anything new, or peculiar, which comes onto the market. I understood from Mr Henderson that dwarf varieties of vegetable are much in demand, as are certain salad substitutes - in particular, various relatives of the dandelion family. It occurred to me that your Lordship might be able to turn a handsome profit if we supplied Messrs Fortnum with asparagus - dwarf asparagus spears in jars with an impressive label. Mr Henderson undertakes, he has assured me on the telephone, to purchase all we can supply.”
Parsons awaits his employer’s reaction with quiet satisfaction – as his toothbrush probes a cupid’s ear.
“I say, old man, but that would be trade, wouldn’t it? Can’t have that, can we - muddy the waters, what? Anyway, what about me? I want to eat my asparagus myself!”
“Milord, I was not suggesting that your Lordship should personally preserve the spears, or insert them into the jars - merely that you should extend your blessing to a project which Mrs Fenner has agreed to supervise. Your Lordship’s name would be mentioned only as the proprietor of the gardens from which the asparagus dwarves originate. A species of ‘by Appointment’ sign, as it were.”
“Sorry old boy, doesn’t answer the question of me wanting to eat my own asparagus! Sorry about that, but, well, there it is, don’t you know?”
Parsons is unfazed.
“Milord, I have taken the liberty of communicating in that regard with Mr Frimley, Lady De Barry’s butler at Netherwick Hall. Your Lordship will doubtless remember how well her Ladyship enjoyed our asparagus last April when she dined at Amblewick on the occasion of Your Lordship’s 72nd birthday.”
“Damned old trout! Never stops talking, can’t get a word in edgeways while she’s surging around the place. Female Stürmbanführer, what?”
Pictures of a uniformed McCormack-Judd flicker across His Lordship’s mental screen.
“Her Ladyship certainly has her ways, Milord, but I must bow to your Lordship’s intimate knowledge of her political peccadillos, if indeed she has any. However, with reference to my conversation with the esteemed Mr Frimley, I was able to remind him, “en passant” I believe might be the expression, Milord, that your Lordship had gifted a generous consignment of quorms from your asparagus beds to Lady De Barry.
“Had to get rid of the old bat, somehow!”
Parsons refuses to be thrown off course and continues.
“It would appear, Milord, that Her Ladyship’s beds have produced what I understand is referred to as a ‘bumper crop’ this season.”
“Don’t rub salt into the gaping, Parsons old man, dash it!”
“During the course of my conversation with Mr Frimley, Milord, I was given to understand that her Ladyship has been staying in Monte-Carlo this spring in the company of her Ladyship’s sister-inlaw, the Dowager Duchess of Weedon - and is proposing to spend the remainder of the summer in Rome, at her customary hotel near the Corso. She left Monaco for Italy yesterday morning according to Mr Frimley’s latest information.”
“How the devil do these women do it?”
Biffo is genuinely, if somewhat irrelevantly disturbed.
“Damned Weedon woman snapped up “Pooky” ffoulkes as soon as our backs were turned, don’t you know!”
Parsons pauses momentarily in deference to his master’s voice.
“Indeed, Milord? Your Lordship’s knowledge of such matters far exceeds my own. However, if I may venture to return to the matter in hand - the asparagus dilemma.......”
He clears his throat deferentially and continues.
“I am sure your Lordship will be aware that by the time her Ladyship returns from foreign parts, in September, Milord, the asparagus season will be over and the crop will have gone to seed.”
“But Parsons, that’s intolerable! Perish the thought, what?”
“Precisely, my Lord. However, Mr Frimley assures me that should agents of ours chance to pass by Netherwick during the season he will be delighted to instruct the head Gardener, Mr Smithers, to supply all Your Lordship's needs in the matter of asparagus."
Biffo thinks he can discern a slight shimmering of gold at the end of his tunnel.
“Well, there does indeed seem to be a faint ray on the horizon - but wouldn’t it be a bit dubious - raping the old bird's asparagus beds when she's not in res?”
“The ethics of the matter, Milord, are in your Lordship’s demesne and not for me to assess. However, if I might venture to set your Lordship’s mind at rest.....”
The pause is trifling.
“The tips in Her Ladyship's beds are, after all, grist of your mill, fruit of your own quorms - originating as they did as a gift from your Lordship’s estates to that of Netherwick. For your Lordship to find himself obliged passively to witness this excellent produce going to waste through sheer negligence would seem to be nothing short of profligate. Furthermore, for your Lordship to be deprived of his greatest joy merely on account of a trivial pestilential assault - the pain of which might so easily have been assuaged - would be no less than criminal.”
There is a momentary pause as Parsons probes a further Cellini ‘putto’ with his leather. Biffo, in turn, gazes upon a bleak landscape where gone-to-seed asparagus teeters Heavenwards - roasted by the summer sun.
“After careful deliberation, Milord, I have come to the conclusion that my little stratagem will nip your problem ‘in the bud’, as it were.”
The good butler further applies himself to the Cellini patina.
Biffo focusses a little nervously on the possibility of salvation.
“Sorely tempted, have to admit. So, how would it all go, what?”
“Milord, Mr Richardson and Mr Judd.......”
“McCormack-Judd,” corrects Biffo with an uneasy glance over his shoulder.
“Yes, Milord, permit me to re-shape that last essay. The garden staff, Milord, will neatly cull all the dwarf spears in your beds. They will be delivered in baskets to our kitchens here at the Castle, where Mrs Fenner has undertaken to prepare them for bottling. There will, of course, be plenty for your Lordship’s immediate needs.”
Visions of baby asparagus shoots on the Crown Derby – swimming in Jersey butter shimmer before him - but give him his due Biffo’s concern is for the future.
“What about the quorms?” he quavers.
“Richardson has assured me, Milord, that all healthy stock will be looked after in the appropriate manner to ensure that this season’s disaster will remain as a mere ‘blip’ on the screen of your Lordship’s gardening memory.”
“Jolly good show. We appear to have considered all the relevant angles, what?”
“We have endeavoured so to do, Milord.”
Biffo is nearly, but not yet entirely, convinced.
“But you said something about bottles? Suppose you’ll have to get them in from your chap in the village; and then there are the labels to organise - lot of work, what?”
“I had anticipated your Lordship’s affirmative decision in the matter and have already purchased the jars at a much reduced figure - bearing in mind that the young man in whose possession they were until yesterday was recently apprehended whilst poaching out of season pheasant in the park. Promise of a word on his behalf to Constable Southgate and the jars were immediately delivered to the stables - where they await your Lordship’s inspection.”
“And the labels?”
“Milord, I further took the liberty of having them designed and set. The proofs arrived by courier this morning. They await your Lordship’s approval in a large buff envelope on the library desk. And now, Milord, if you will excuse me, I must re-visit the gardens to set matters in train.”
Parsons backs smoothly from the presence and Biffo mops his brow.
“No doubt about it, man’s a gem. What on earth would I do without him?”
It is with a distinct lightness of step that he and Tessa head for the stables to reverse his father’s stately 1938 Wolseley 25/30 into the stable-yard.
“Pangleton and smoked salmon canapés here we come!” Biffo twinkles to himself, “Damned stiff gin and tonic or three as well, thank Heavens.”
The old car positively purrs along. Biffo fumbles in the glove compartment for a Bendicks Bittermint – Tessa’s favourite treat. The voles are in the hedgerows, the lark is in the sky, so to speak. God is in His heaven, and everything is absolutely spiffing in His Lordship’s world.
Sunday, June 16, 2013
HIS LORDSHIP'S ASPARAGUS UNDER THREAT
Recent brief mention of Biffo’s favourite vegetable renders failure to recount the story of ‘Parsons and His Lordship’s Asparagus’ unthinkable. For us at Amblewick it is a tale as fresh today as it was when first we became aware of it. It is perhaps the sturdiest record of how the formidable relationship of a gent with his man has blossomed so luxuriantly during the course of more than sixty years.
It is also interesting because it recalls the very first time that Biffo and Julian interact – rather than having a vague awareness of each other’s presence – as in two pieces of Estate Furniture. We give it to you as it came to us……
Biffo rises from a leisurely breakfast in the Morning Room, lights his pipe and dawdles contentedly out of the French windows and into the rose garden. The day is unfolding as days should and the prospect of lunch with Corrie at Pangleton lies tantalisingly ahead.
He and Tessa ‘The Nose’ potter towards the main gardens beyond the lake. He loves that first view of the smooth green Long Avenue sweeping upwards two hundred yards to the maze. In high summer, on either side of the avenue, banks of stately Dahlias, Delphiniums and Red-hot Poker soar; backed by Lilac and Magnolia and softened by Love-in-the-Mist and spreading carpets of Aubretia – hither and thither, butterfies, wild Forget-me-not and Pheasant’s eye - on this spring day, a mass of daffodil, crocus, tulip, narcissus, and lush new green. For her part, Tessa, untroubled by seasons, pays surgical attention to the silvery sorrel; nibbling at the freshest shoots amongst the flowers. This kaleidoscope of ever-changing colour never fails to magic Biffo – sheer Amblewick Heaven. Moments later his greatest joy - baby asparagus spears peeping cheakily from long, raised beds concealed behind the flowers. He gazes at them fondly, and shortly is relieved to be joined by Harry Richardson, his head gardener - rather than by the dreaded McCormack-Judd - new to the job and chock-full of scientific theories of modern gardening which leave his employer cold. Biffo is all respect for the man’s talent with asparagus and other vegetable varieties - it is the fellow’s attitude which rankles.
Biffo loves asparagus. Even after his liberal breakfast the image of those neat green spears nestling in melted, salt, farm butter affect him to the depths of his being. He’s been away in town for a week, so their progress has been considerable.
“Beautiful, aren’t they, Harry? Not long, now, eh?”
But Harry seems preoccupied, not quite his normal gardencentred self - champing at the bit, somehow – wanting to be off. Biffo takes the hint and with a last fond gaze at the luscious shoots he accompanies his loyal retainer across the avenue, past the wishing-well and into the potting sheds where the men gather daily for ‘elevenses’. The atmosphere is fraught – heavy somehow – none of the usual banter and good cheer.
McCormack-Judd has his nose in a selective weed-killer catalogue; his lank blond hair plastered in its customary slick across the forehead.
“An Aryan,” reflects his employer, “dodgy little squirt when you observe him in repose. But, there again,” Biffo is an even-handed man, “the asparagus really does do him credit.”
Harry hands his employer a chipped breakfast cup and saucer brimming with that strong, milky, over-sweetened tea without which gardens the world over would run to seed. Biffo accepts the beverage, and places it on an upturned Spalding seed-box next to the half beer-barrel upon which he normally parks on these occasions. He notes contentedly that the scentless potted purplevariegated carnation - a variety he deplores - is still within easy pouring distance.
This daily garden-gathering is a rite which has its origin in his father’s time. When the old chap turned his toes up Biffo continuedit because, well, because it was one of those landmarks in the day which punctuated life - indicated order – an attribute with which hehad been only meanly gifted when talents and virtues were being handed out!
Harry is the first to speak - hesitantly.
“Your Lordship, since you was away all last week we weren’t able to speak to you about this ‘ere before.” He pauses, and Biffo senses distress. “Them garden prawns, Your Lordship, is getting to be a proper blight. Every forkful of loam you turns over, up the blighters comes.”
His Lordship observes his head gardener mildly over his reading glasses - perched forgotten on the end of his nose. He is relieved.
“Thank God that’s all it is” he thinks - but knows he has to be seen to have his wits about him when it comes to pests. “Jolly poor show, what?” he ejaculates with what he hopes will pass for intelligent concern.
“Just so, Milord,” Harry is now confident of his employer’s attention. “McCormack-Judd has a plan to use a new genetic pest formula what he do have found!”
“Do he indeed?” Biffo’s command of grammar is fragile and easily disturbed.
The said McCormack-Judd is apparently still absorbed in his catalogue - but a faint pinking round the ears indicates his awareness of the direction in which matters are proceeding.
“Jolly good show.”
Biffo does his best to sound positive; but nuzzles Tessa’s black velvet ears to mask his failure.
“Better toddle on with the old pest-control, what?” he supposes.
“Only one problem, Milord…..”
Harry is looking a bit weedy notes his employer - and weediness is foreign to Harry’s nature. He is one of those 40-year-old brown and sinewy men with the constitution of a Clydesdale in its prime.
“Problems normally overcome immediately, what?” Biffo is confident.
“Milord, McCormack-Judd tells me that the problem stems from one particular bit of the garden and that if we don’t fork it over pretty smartish, and treat it, the whole darned place will be infested.”
“Jolly good show, fork away then!”
Biffo is drifting off into a Pangleton world of smoked salmon canapés, ice cubes and tinkling glasses. He imagines that his visit to the gardens can now be terminated. Feinting in the direction of the greenhouse doors to his left he empties his tea cup deftly into the variegated carnation on his right.
“Very good then chaps, carry on, what?” he announces, rising to his feet.
McCormack-Judd has removed his nose from the catalogue and is clearing his throat in a predatory manner.
“I think your Lordship should be aware that the problem outlined by Mr Richardson concerns Your Lordship, personally.”
He speaks in that cold and soulless tone employed by tax officials and the frostier kind of Anglican clergyman Biffo notes with a slight but pertinent shudder.
“Yes, Milord,” Harry is wringing his hands. “The beds involved are very close to your Lordship’s heart.”
“Not the Dahlias?” Biffo blenches.
“No, Milord, not the Dahlias. ....”
“Well, then, I’m sure you’ll have the matter under control in no time, what?”
McCormack-Judd permits the wisp of a sickly smile to creep from the corners of his thin lips - and die.
“The asparagus beds, Milord,” he leers. There is an unpleasant glint in his pale grey eyes.
“Eyes with no linings……”
Biffo shivers involuntarily. He then registers the full import of the under-gardener’s words with horror.
“I say, not the asparagus! That’s not on at all!” He is visibly shaken. “I mean, I say, we can’t mess about with the asparagus, now can we? Jolly perky they looked to me just now and, well, given a week or so we’ll have them on the table, what?”
“Leave those prawns for one more week, Milord, and they’ll be all over the place - chrysalis, adult Maybugs, new lot hatching out, and then you’ve got real problems. Unfortunately, Your Lordship, the asparagus will have to go.”
McCormack-Judd blows his sharp little nose on a surprisingly crisp-looking handkerchief which he folds meticulously into the resultant mucous.
“If we do not take immediate action,” he adds darkly, “the entire garden will be at risk - including the green-houses.” Judd’s eyes glow with relish at the effect these words are having upon his employer.
“A genius with the plants and greenery this young man may be,” Biffo broods sourly, “but doubtless he is also a devotee of a brand of socialism the principle feature of which is unvarnished envy. The blighter is,” the peer observes shrewdly, “savouring my discomforture.”
Biffo has indeed been moved to near-terminal distress.
“I say, Harry, can nothing be done? I mean to say, the asparagus, what? If we lose those beds it’ll be at least three years before any more will come!”
He subsides onto his half-barrel as if slow-punctured.
Richardson canters to the rescue, offering a little strand of hope.
“I took the liberty, Milord, of mentioning the matter to Mr Parsons when I took the nectarines to the kitchens a few mornings ago. He gave me to understand there just might be a solution to the problem, Milord.”
Biffo pounces upon the proffered straw.
“Good old Parsons! What was the plan of campaign, then?”
“Mr Parsons did not divulge, Milord - said he’d have to think it over - but he did say he was what he called, ‘confident of a favourable outcome in the matter.”
A faint glimmer of light becomes discernable to Biffo’s watery eyes. With Parsons in the lists the auguries might well be changing for the better.
“Well, well, I suppose I should toddle off and consult the oracle, Harry, don’t you know?”
He almost beams.
“I reckon that might be the best thing, Milord.”
Harry, in turn, is looking more his old self - less weedy - more brown and sinewy.
“Yes, well, jolly good show. I’ll potter along then. No other business, was there?”
“No Milord, I think that just about sorts everything, for today at least.”
He doffs his cap, giving a quick scratch to the widow’s peak which once defined his hairline.
Biffo and Tessa navigate towards the castle, the green baize door, and the butler’s pantry. Over the years the good Parsons has grown to be his foremost strategist and councellor. The man has a natural flair for the sorting out of things – for benign order - and he shares Biffo’s distaste for the Trustees. He doesn’t care for it at all when the Castle commissariat is threatened. When funds are on the short side the admirable Parsons is inconvenienced. He does not care for His Lordship’s Trustees, no, not at all – and this shared dislike has forged an even greater bond of trust between them!
“Capital chap, Parsons.” his Lordship muses.
He very nearly trips over Mrs Fenner’s nephew, Julian – up from London for a working summer holiday - and who is playing marbles on the top step of the staff staircase.
“Sorry, Guv,” the boy blurts, “thought you was Mr P.”
“Never mind, dear boy, but can you locate the estimable Parsons for me?”
“I reckon he’ll be in his pantry - leastways, that’s where he parks most mornings. Likes to read the Financial Times after we’ve cleared the morning room. Can’t think what he sees in it - all lists of figures and stuff seems to me.”
“Absolutely, old chap, splendid assessment, but be so kind as to escort me to the wizard, immediately, there’s a good chap.”
”An eager child, if somewhat pert........”
Biffo ponders vaguely as they descend into the unfamiliar subterranean service regions of his house.