Monday, May 27, 2013

Chapter 23


          The following morning dawns fine and not dissimilar to the first paragraph 
of the story - ducks, kingfisher, etc. The only blot on the landscape is the brooding 
presence of the blighted Marguerite, to Biffo’s left at the breakfast table.

          She has not, she informs him acidly, ‘had a wink of sleep’. The reason for this 
has been the brooding silence of the countryside, broken by the fabled Amblewick 
screech owls. These avians have chosen, maybe with foresight, to nest in the 
chimney of the Red Chamber where their human counterpart has, fortuitously, been 
roosting. The resultant, and inevitable, abusive monologue is somewhat ameliorated 
by the comforting presence of Parsons, once more shimmering about in his 
customary collected manner. 

          He returned on the milk train - arriving in Ipswich at an early hour with a rich 
cargo of stores from Fortnum’s. By prior arrangement he was met at the station 
by Harry Richardson in the estate van. His presence at the breakfast table gives 
considerable comfort to Biffo who has been finding the Huntington-Smythe invasion 
rather too much to handle on his own.

          Biffo is saddened, but, he has to admit to himself, rather relieved, that his 
customary “Pick-Me-Up”, and its attendant Lanson, are absent from the table this 

          “At least I don’t have to run that gauntlet at such an uncivilised hour” he 
breathes to himself, “Praise the Lord for Parsons!” 

          Biffo raises his eyes to the ceiling, not with any expectation of divine 
intervention - rather more in line with the view that the Heavens are ‘up’ rather 
than ‘down’. It is as he settles himself into his place, and is lifting the lid of his 
chafing dish to inspect its contents, that he observes from the corner of his eye that 
Parsons is making a smooth exit through the double doors into the Hall. Biffo is not 
normally an observant man but, on this particular morning, he needs to keep his 
essential factotum well within his sights. No sooner has Parsons shimmered from 
view, and as Biffo is ladling his Kedgeree from chafing dish to Meissen, than Cousin 
Marguerite rivets him with her glittering, gimlet eye, and snaps. 

          “Not only do I have a sleepless night behind me, but also the prospect of your 
bloated company for the best part of the day. You look like the Wrath of God. I trust 
you will pull yourself together and endeavour to apply yourself to essential matters 
pertaining to Her Majesty’s Jubilee.” 

          She is pecking viciously at a meanly-buttered piece of toast.

          “We shall meet in the Estate Office at ten precisely. I have instructed the 
agent, Anderson, and all relevant staff to attend. Do I have a clear undertaking that 
you will be present, in good order - although, I have good reason for skepticism in 
that regard - and on time?” 

          Her voice, when raised, and raised it now is, has, Biffo concludes, something 
of the timbre of a slate blackboard in contact with a ripped sticking-plaster tin.

          He shrinks under the barrage. The kedgeree turns to ashes before him. He 
glances hopefully in the direction of the Hall, but manages to croak the required 

          “Absolutely, old thing, everything tickety-boo, what? Ten, on the dot.”

         “I’ve instructed that little runt at the bank - what’s his name? – also to be 
present. Got to make sure they know where they stand, these usurer Johnnies - as 
well as just who’s in charge. I trust that the money has been placed on deposit prior 
to expenditure?”

          Biffo, who has a very clear understanding of exactly who is in charge, is also 
aware that the Jubilee funds are still in his current account. He therefore replies 
with a non-committal, “Hrumph”, which deteriorates halfway through into a wheezy 

          “Listen to you, you buffoon. Health down the drain. Damned stinking cigars. 
Beginning to wonder if you’ll even live to see the Jubilee.” 

          She reaches for a Capstan and ignites it with the by now familiar belch of 

          “Blithering idiot!”

          Biffo, who has resisted the cigar for some years, makes a mental note to light 
up a Cohiba upon the completion of luncheon - and sneezes into his silk hanky to 
gain time. It is at this low point in the proceedings that Parsons floats back in his 
Guardian Angel role and stage-whispers into his employer’s ear. 

          “Lady Constance is on the telephone, Milord.”

          “Gosh! I say. Problem, what?”

          “Her Ladyship did not elaborate, Milord, but I was able to ascertain during 
the course of our brief altercation, that the matter was of some immediacy.”

          “Lead on, Parsons!”

          Biffo grinds back the Chippendale and scrambles to his feet. 

         “Be back in a trice, my dear,” he tosses in Marguerite’s direction. “Duty calls, 
if you know what one means, what?”

          He leaves that lady in the grip of her next spiteful regurgitation, and exits 
smartly into the Hall, followed by the good Parsons who closes the doors with the 
discreet, but familiar, Rolls-Royce click.

          The old woman’s nostrils are assailed by the scent of mildly-curried Haddock 
emanating from Biffo’s plate. 

         “Damned, colonial pap!” she squawks.


          Once in the Hall, His Lordship whispers feverishly to his retainer. 

         “I say, Parsons, damned poor show, what? Old buzzard jumped the gun, don’t 
you know? Sitting on the South lawn having a ‘zizzz’, and there she was, surging in 
fangs to the fore; all guns blazing. Damned old trout!”

          “Milord, I was made aware of Mrs Huntington-Smythe’s advent into our 
midst by the good offices of Mr Owen at the Neptune Hotel, who observed, by mere 
chance, the somewhat violent passage of a 1938 Ariel “Square-Four” motor-bicycle 
combination piloted by the said lady and heading in the direction of the Castle 
grounds. Mr Owen has always been a man of singular integrity in matters which 
concern us all at the Castle. He has my London number, and telephoned my sister, 
who referred him to Fortnum’s where I was in conference regarding your Lordship’s 
asparagus and certain other pertinent matters, with my friend Mr Henderson, in his 
private office adjacent to the Food Hall.”

          “Jolly good show, what?”  

          Biffo’s brain is firing on even fewer cylinders than usual. 

         “But how did Owen know it was our old bat on that motorcycle thingy?”

          “Some years ago, Milord, when the esteemed Mrs Huntington-Smythe was 
at the peak of her fitness, Mr Owen was the recipient of a black-eye from that lady. 
This was the result of his determined, possibly vociferous, youthful defence of 
Worthington “E” from the Wood: a defence which he admits had been much to the 
detriment of a certain northern brew, the name of which Mr Owen withheld, but 
which he assures me was the preferred beverage of Mrs Huntington-Smythe.”


          “Mr Owen assured me that receipt of a ‘shiner’ from any individual, let alone 
a female of the species, ensures accurate mental recall of the face whose fists 
administered it. He also assured me that the reason for his call to me at Messrs 
Fortnums, was a deep regard for your Lordship’s family and a fear that harm might 
come, either to yourself, or other family members, if he did not transmit knowledge 
of the Lady’s transit towards the Castle to a responsible resident.”

          “Good for Owen, what?” Biffo is always glad of allies in times of stress. 
“Allies few and far between these days, eh, Parsons?” 

          “Precisely, Milord”. Parsons is impassive.

          Biffo drags his mind back to Corrie and her call. 

          “Good Heavens – completely forgot about her! Corrie on the telephone, 
you said?”

          “Her Ladyship has not, in fact, telephoned this morning, Milord. I felt obliged 
to resort to a certain persiflage, if not indeed subterfuge,” his face is 
expressionless, “in order to facilitate your Lordship’s, dare we say, escape, from 
the dining-room, so that matters might be restored, in so far as that was possible 
under the prevailing circumstances, to their normal elegant sufficiency. I have 
taken the liberty of providing your Lordship’s customary breakfast refreshment 
here, in the Hall, rather than under the gaze of a person who might read into it 
other than its true function.”

          “What the Devil are you talking about Parsons, old thing? Bit obtuse these 
days, what?”

          “Your morning’s prescription will be found on the telephone table, Milord. 
          And now, if your Lordship will excuse me, I have to discuss the luncheon and 
dinner menus with Mrs Fenner a little early this morning, in order punctually to be 
attendant at Mrs Huntington-Smythe’s Jubilee Meeting in the Estate Office - at 
ten o’clock precisely.” 

          Biffo may well be ‘seeing things’, but he has the distinct impression of a smile 
curling, momentarily, about his butler’s normally inscrutable lips as he flits towards 
the green baize door and disappears from view. 

         “But not from mind,” he muses thankfully. 

          The ancient patrician eye espies a silver salver on the indicated table - a salver 
bearing a ‘Perkins Pick-Me-Up’ and his accustomed half bottle of Lanson. A little 
chafing dish beside the beverages reveals two glistening devilled kidneys on toast, 
and a tiny silver knife and fork with which to administer them. 

         “Good old Parsons. Capital chap, what?” his Lordship ruminates.

          Things are sometimes so much better than they seem. He subsides onto the 
strategically placed carver next the table and proceeds to right the morning’s wrongs 
with a slurp and an accompanying deep sigh of appreciation. 

         Subtly restored, Biffo positively sails back into the dining-room, ready to face 
any reptilian broadside which may be spewed in his direction. 

          “Any further instructions, old girl? Got to potter up to the gardens before 
McCormack Judd roots the whole place up.”

          “You sound, and look, as though you’ve just come home from a four-ale bar.” 

          The dart is shrewd, but the Lanson holds up well. 

         “Feeling pretty active this morning on the whole. Nothing else of import, was 
there? I’ll tootle off, then. Should be asparagus for dinner this evening. Amazing 
what can happen if you keep your pecker up, don’t you know, what?”

          Marguerite regards him sourly. 

        “Just be on time at the office, you miserable discredit to the Arbuthnot name.”

        “Absolutely, old girl. ‘À bientôt’, as they say in foreign parts. Fret thou not, the 
meeting shall proceed as thou hast planned,” Biffo blows her a sprightly kiss, “till 
then, au-revoir!” 

         He is out the windows, across the moat and up the steps to the gardens before 
she can dredge up something pithy with which to deflate him.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Chapter 22


Fortunately, Mrs Fenner has anticipated everything and has prepared a fine 

selection of sandwiches, and so on. She has left them ready in the fridge. All that 
remains is to brew the tea. Julian looks longingly at the packet of Tetley Tea Bags, 
but, obedient young chap as he is - on the whole - avoids temptation and heads 
for the still-room to gather up the upstairs tea things. He selects the Derby service 
because he likes the “flahz” - and the embossed George IV silver – his favourite. He 
likes it because it is, well, “a bit of all right.” 

          There is a row of red and green tea caddies in the glass-fronted cupboard 

opposite the ‘Aga’ cooking range. He studies the labels carefully, and selects two; 
one containing ‘Ceylon’, the other, ‘Darjeeling’. It is only a matter of minutes before 
the kettle boils and he can brew the tea. He can hear Auntie Fenner’s voice. 

          ‘First, warm the pot, then one caddy-spoon per person and one for the pot.’

          This presents a bit of a problem as His Lordship and that Mrs

‘ThingummyWotzernaim’ are two - he makes three - but perhaps he doesn’t count.  
In the end he decides to brew for five, to be on the safe side. He loads the tea things 
onto a trolley and wheelsit round the flag-stoned terrace to the South front. 
The conservatory is an extensive regency adjunct to the main house, and glitters in 
the late afternoon sun. It faces the lake, the great Blue Cedar, and the now lonely
deck chair where we have recently been observing a distraught Biffo and the perilous 
Mrs “ThingummyWotzernaim” in conference.

          All thoughts of re-adjusting the accounts fled His Lordship’s mind, or what 

was left of it, with the advent of the blighted Cousin. Her cavalier disposal of his 
Craigallen into the cedar needles boded ill for the post tea-time, pre prandial. 

          “Old buzzard’s got a serious bat in her belfry this time alright. Need to take 

evasive action” he muses, as he follows said buzzard into the conservatory. “Iron 
rations a priority, what? Probably get away with one tooth-full before dinner - need a
plan to enable ‘top-ups’. 

          Biffo is feeling rather depressed - slitting of wrists, hemlock and what-not. 

          “Damn it all, own bloody house, what? Ruddy one-sided Temperance 
Society take-over! Presumably she’ll have to go upstairs at some point to powder 
that proboscis of a nose and slip into something loose. That should give me time 
to secrete a few snorts around the place; behind curtains; in bureau drawers; 
flowerpots, etc. All matched glasses - discreet meander round the room when glass 
is empty, and hopefully Bob’ll be my Uncle.”

          He begins to see glimmers of hope on his horizon.

          “What are you plotting now, you old fool?” 

           The woman’s eyes are bright with suspicion.

          “Not a lot, old girl, I mean Cousin Marguerite, not a lot. Just reflecting on the 
old Jubilee, don’t you know? Lot to organise, what? Invitations - security staff - nosh 
and so on. Music, maybe? Like a lot of noise these days, the ‘óı πoλλoı’.”

          “I have made plans to ensure that the Jubilee celebrations pass off without 

outrage. Economy is essential, so we shall not provide the common people with 
crab, for example; merely mashed crabsticks - an admirable substitute readily 
available in bulk at the ’Cash and Carry’ - a practical little subterfuge and one of 
which the lower orders will, of course, be unaware.”

          Biffo doubts this, as at least five of the local ‘common’ families are fisher-folk 

who have been purveying crabs to the gourmet world for at least four generations - 
and reserving the finest for themselves and their nearest and dearest! He keeps his 
own counsel, however.

          “How much money did you wheedle out of the Trustees for this occasion?” 
She regards him with mistrust. ”I require the truth!”

          Biffo hesitates, but knows that prevarication is useless. The old harridan will 

prowl the accounts like a rattlesnake on heat, and then submit a blow by blow report 
on expenditure to his trustee overseers. 

          “Thirty thousand,” he admits, hands in pockets - essaying truculence.

          “I shall expect to be given access to the Jubilee Account at the bank, and to 

be authorised as sole signatory for cheques and all expenditure. We may then have 
some hope that our ancestors’ money will not be squandered.”

          It is probably just as well that, at this moment, Julian bumps open the garden 

doors and wheels in his trolley.

          “At last! Thought you’d been growing the tea leaves. What have you been 

doing, boy?” 

          “Just makin’ the tea, Mum.”

          Julian wheels the trolley towards Biffo, who indicates that its proper destination is Mrs ‘Wotzernaim’.

          “I am not your ‘Mum’. You will address me as Madam, and refer to me, 
in your private moments, if you are fortunate enough to have any, which you certainly don’t deserve, as Mrs Huntington-Smythe.”

          “Yes, Mum.”

          The fact that Julian’s trolley encounters an obstacle, in the form of a dried 

dog ‘do’ of unrecorded provenance, as he negotiates the gap between His Lordship 
and his guest - and thereby nearly comes to grief - may well account for the fact that 
Mrs ‘Wotzernaim’ refrains, at this time, from further comment. 

           “Do you require tea, Horace, or are your pickled innards not up to it?” 

           She rivets him with her basilisk stare.

          “Yes, yes, I could manage a cup.” Biffo is away with the birds.

          She hoists the George IV teapot high and aims for a cup.

          “Milk first, please.”  

          “Am I hearing you correctly, Horace?” 

          She is, for this once in her life, genuinely shocked.

          One of those wild moments of devil-may-care has taken hold of Biffo – a sort 

of near-hysterical, ‘What the Hell!’ 

          “You heard me quite correctly, Cousin Marguerite. I require the milk to be 

inserted into the cup before the tea.”

          “Clearly standards have not merely dropped, but have totally disintegrated 

in this house. Since when has an Arbuthnot taken ‘milk first’ in his tea? Gutter 

          Biffo actually does like to drink his tea, in so far as he can abide the beverage, 

with its milk in first. It reminds him of his father’s tales of the Raj; and of ‘Tchay’ 
served creamy and super-sweet in the hills of ‘Poonah’. 

          “Blast the woman! Who the devil does she think she is?” he opines 
to himself, but adds quietly, “Sorry, just the way it is, what? Milk in first.” 

          This last is enunciated with such smiling finality that it simply cannot be 


          It is with an unsteady hand that Mrs Wotzernaim pours; first milk, and then 

Ceylon-Darjeeling, into his cup.

           “And five lumps of sugar, if you would be so kind, old girl, don’t you know, 


          Biffo smiles his most seraphic smile. 

          “One-Luv” he whispers contentedly into the ear of Tessa “The Nose”.

          Having heard the chink of tea-cups, she has shassied in from the library for 
her daily saucer of ‘Tchay’.

          The tea episode appears to have scarred the old bird somewhat, and having 

instructed the hapless Julian to cart her bags upstairs, she retires to her bedroom in 
poor order, with what she describes as a “raging, bloody skull-ache!” To Biffo’s relief 
she also announces that she will not be down for dinner and requires nothing taken 
up to her.

          “Game and set!” He breathes 

          His Lordship is thus fancy-free as to how to spend his evening. He kicks off 
his old brogues, pours a generous slug of the old Craigallen, commands the ‘Telly’ to 
give him the Newmarket racing report and settles comfortably into his favourite wing 
chair - feet up on the obliging Tessa. Racing news over, he moves to ‘Eastenders’ 
and finally switches to his fail-safe “nothing else to watch” programme - a toothsome 
Italian channel by the name of ‘Alice’ (Aleechey), which shows an endless parade of 
all his favourite comfort foods - and the wines to best accompany them. The result is 
fairly predictable. He begins to feel unbearably peckish. It is the work of seconds to 
potter over to the bell-pull beside the fireplace and summon someone. The inevitable 
result of the summons is the gallant Julian. 

          The young chap presents himself fairly promptly for one as yet untrained in 
the ways of Amblewick. 

          “Yes, Guv?”  

          “Feeling a bit peckish, young man. Anything in the larder, what?”

          “Few bits and bobs for sarnies, Auntie Fenner said, what wiv no one ‘ere to 

cook tonight.”

          “Sounds acceptable enough. Totter off and rustle up a tray, if you’d be so kind. 

          And, oh Julian,” he calls after the departing boy, “better ferret out a dash of wine, don’t you think? Should be a decanter of that claret we had at dinner last night; on the sideboard in the dining-room if my memory serves me correctly.”

          Parsons’ trainee evaporates with a nod - and Biffo re-charges his beaker with a 

further, substantial tooth-full of the Craigallen. 

          In remarkably short order Julian reappears with a burgeoning trolley-load of 

comestibles. He has discovered a broad selection of Biffo’s favourite nibbles in the 
fridge. There is a chilled Vichyssoise to start with, and loads of little tins of this and 
that, including one of ‘foie-gras’, which Julian pronounces, ‘Fowey-Grass’.

          “Got something tucked away for yourself downstairs, have you, me boy?”

          “Don’t know really, ‘spect so - brought everything upstairs here, mostly.” 

          “Can’t have you starving yourself to death, can we? Bring up a chair, 
old chap, and let’s get stuck in.”

          Julian doesn’t bat an eyelid at the invitation. It is the most natural suggestion 

he has so far encountered at Amblewick. He parks himself smartly on the other side 
of the laden trolley, opposite the ‘Guvnor’. The two of them spend a happy hour 
sampling everything; slapping their favourite items between slabs of richly buttered, 
fresh, wholemeal bread, or ‘Bath Oliver’ biscuits. Biffo hasn’t enjoyed himself so 
much in moons - the years peel away like onion-skin – shades of midnight feasts in 
days of yore……. 

          Julian’s ‘pièce de résistance’ is on the lower shelf of the trolley. It is one of Mrs 

F’s golden rice puddings in a large oval oven dish. 

          “I say, old chap, you really have excelled yourself this time. Hot or cold is it?”

          “Cold - cold as a witch’s tit.”

          “Good-oh! Got to be cold, rice puddings. Well, come on then, dig in, what?”

          There aren’t any plates, so they polish it off out of the dish with a couple of 

spoons - and wipe up the last with their fingers. Biffo lies back replete. Julian stacks 
up the detritus prior to beating a retreat to the Butler’s Pantry - to catch the ‘Totty 

          “I say, jolly well done indeed, my boy.” 

          But Biffo is feeling a dash apprehensive. 

          “I say, old thing, probably better not to inform the noble Parsons 
of our picnic, what? Might not approve, don’t you know?”

          “Approve? ‘Streuth! He’d have my guts for garters!”

          “Jolly good show! Mum’s the word, what?”

          “That’s about the size of it, Guv’nor - Mum’s the bleedin’ word.” 

          With which the trolley and its wheeler disappear from view. The only remaining 

sign of their presence is a piece of discarded chewing gum stuck to the arm of the 
chair Julian has so recently vacated.

          “Cheeky little sod!” 

          Biffo chortles happily into his post-prandial 1876 brandy. Life is definitely 

worth the living – sanity has been restored……

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Chapter 21


Difficult act to follow, Cousin Marguerite Huntington-Smythe – in fact so difficult is
she, and is her act, that one feels the reader needs opportunity further to study her
form. I am inclined to believe that such further study will establish the fact that this
woman is, indeed, no act – but a rare and infuriating fact of life.

We alluded, in one of our recent chapters – those leading up to the ‘Stately Car-boot
Sale’ – to the previous occasion when that lady had visited Amblewick, to poisonous
effect, some weeks previous to Her Majesty’s Diamond Jubilee. It was a never-to be-
forgotten event, and one which may not go unrecorded in the Annals of Amblewick
if the determined lavatory reader is to form a comprehensive picture of our reality
at the Castle, and of the sort of insufferable nonsense up with which we sometimes
have to put in our pursuit of sanity and contented peace of mind.


Amblewick on a summer afternoon is lazy heaven - cotton clouds, bees a-bumbling,
butterflies a-flitting and the distant low-key burble of ducks a-quacking on the moat
- fragrant with mint and mild decay. Roach and pike are basking lazily, and will
forever snoozle in the shallows and doze in the deep. And as they do - sporadic blue
and scarlet lightning-flicker - the kingfisher dives with his tiniest of tiny plops. The
evening mist alone will change this timeless fantasy to velvet night, and bats, and
moths - strident, tragic owls. For the moment time stands still, the world is English
Glory - Amblewick.

As far as Biffo is aware - on just such a silly, summer afternoon - neither church nor
stable clocks stand fossilised at ten to Mr Brooke’s eternal hour in Granchester. His
Lordship is peacefully reclining on his deck chair under the great blue Cedar on the
South Lawn, a-mumbling a stem of grass. An ancient panama hat shades his face
from sun and humming midges misting from the moat-bound waterweed to gorge
themselves on any piece of him which shows. A folding table stands beside him,
and on it lies a silver salver with – predictably perhaps - a soda water syphon next a
crystal whisky tumbler covered with a lacey mat. His and Corrie’s childhood rug lies
cedar-needle-jumbled at his feet.

It is towards the crystal that Biffo’s left hand extends in a smooth and
economical embrace. A brief up-tilting of the Panama; a minor forward inclination
of the head; and with a gentle slurp and deep ensuing sigh of happiness, Lord
Amblewick takes wine - Scottish wine.

The casual passer-by might well imagine that the old boy is simply dozing the
hours away - which at his age would seem a pleasant thing to do. Not so indeed!
He is musing fruitfully on ways to re-distribute, to his own advantage, at least a few
of the thirty thousand crispies he has so deftly winkled from his astringent family

Trustees at a recent meeting in Babingford – the County Town of Partridgeshire.

Biffo is not a mendacious man, but holds a firm belief that money winkled
for the benefit of his estates should also yield a little ‘tea and cakes’ for him – a
modest dividend. Parsons will no doubt fill in details of the Castle’s current needs
upon his return from Messrs Fortnum – meantime, no harm in focussing the mind on
pleasures still a morsel undefined.

Biffo’s second-cousin Marguerite – a primordial and virulent disease – is
slated to descend like the Plague at any moment to supervise expenditure for the
forthcoming Amblewick Jubilee thrash. He knows full-well that once she is in res,
her scrutiny of accounts and bank statements will be too thorough to permit the
liberation of funds for any other purpose than that for which they have, in truth, been
winkled. There is some urgency involved, therefore.

But there is no mouth like the horse’s own from which to hear the tale and
truly sense that urgency.

“Cover is the order of the day, got to find cover. God, feel like a bloody cock
pheasant at the end of the close season!”

He pauses in his soliloquy to re-embrace his tumbler and effect an agitated
slug. He knows he cannot escape the visitation – is well and truly trapped.

“The blighted female relative is definitely no pushover, no indeed!”

A shudder passes through his ample frame and he wonders for a moment if
the weather is on the turn. He cocks a jaundiced eye towards the weather-vane on
the Stables roof. All is still, but the shudder returns to haunt him.

“Never at me best with domineering women. Don’t seem able to quell them as
they should be quelled - seem to lose that natural, manly firmness. All of a quiver
when they heave over the horizon, so to speak. Shocking business, really, but they
get me shuffling my feet like a schoolboy in front of the School Matron.”

Biffo realizes he is talking to himself, and knows that will not answer. He
fumbles in his trousers pocket and retrieves the stub of a pencil he keeps for writing
reminder-post-its to himself. He rips off a strip of paper from the “Pink’un”, licks his
pencil and tries extremely hard to concentrate.

He notes that his personal wardrobe could be incremented under cover
of ‘Staff Uniforms’; the Castle ‘booze’ reserves under ‘Sundry Staff Beverages’;
Corries’s LKA expenses could be diverted from the ‘Amblewick Pooch Show ‘Doggie
Titbits’ Allowance’. Maybe, also, although he is less than sanguine on this score,
a modest mooch round Europe might just be firkled from ‘Essential Travel

As he ponders, a dreadful vision blights the corner of his eye. Striding across
the lawn under full sail, one hand savagely clawing at a large straw hat, the other
clutching a voluminous handbag, is Marguerite Huntington-Smythe, the Wrath of God
in person, the Witch of Endor’s mum, no less! Burnham Wood has come, indeed, to

“What ho! Horace!” the apparition shrieks.

“What ho!

The noble Lord replies in what he hopes will be a fulsome tone, but which
sticks in his throat like a gob-stopper and permits but a strangled squeal. The
shudder is with him again and he feels his whole self shrink to prep school size.

“Now what the Devil am I going to do?” He pleads to an indifferent, and clearly
absent, guardian angel.

“My God, Horace, you’ve got disgustingly fat since last I saw you. When was
it? Not more than six months, I shouldn’t think. Pongo’s funeral, probably. What the
devil have you been doing to yourself?”

“Nothing much, old girl. Just Anno Domini, I suppose, don’t you know, what?”

“Anno my arse! Alcoholic abuse more like. I see that I shall have to take you in
hand, and pretty quick sharp, too. Now get off your fat backside and let me sit down
before I pass out in this heat.”

Biffo staggers to his feet and stands shuffling his feet as he predicted that
he would. The ancient but, he observes with regret, still agile crone, subsides into
his deckchair like a cuckoo onto a thrush’s nest and proceeds to extract a near full
bottle of Booth’s Gin from her voluminous handbag.

“Might as well start as we intend to continue…...” she snarls.

Emptying Biffo’s glass of Craigallen onto the cedar needles she rinses the
empty beaker with a deft, and economically calculated, splash of Booth’s, and refills
the receptacle with a substantial dose of gin.

“Right then, that’s that dealt with!”

She extracts a Capstan Full Strength from its packet, licks it briefly, and lights
it with a lethal-looking pocket flame-thrower. She inhales, coughs, exhales, and then
vacuums a swift but sturdy slug of the yellowish tincture between her thin lips, and
draws it over her nıcotine-encrusted fangs before dumping it down her scrawny
throat. She speaks again.

“Now then, where’s that man of yours? Whatsizname?”

“Parsons is in Town for the day, visiting the sister, don’t you know?” Biffo
knows that any mention of Messrs Fortnum will be suicide.

“No, I don’t know. Don’t seem to have any control over your people at all, do
you? Stop shuffling your feet! Sit down, for Pete’s sake! There!”

Her skeletal claw indicates the old rug lying on the cedar needles. Obediently,
but with difficulty, he manages to lower himself to the deck, and finds himself gazing
up into the feral features of this appalling old predator, whom only a sadistic fate
could have appointed as his cousin.

“That’s better, now I can see you.”

Biffo anticipates a further broadside about his corpulence and prepares to
duck, mentally, as he always had physically when dodging wooden blackboard
dusters hurled by maniacal pedagogues at school.

The slug of Booth’s appears to have veered her somewhat from her course -
she speaks of other things.

“Came on my bike - the old ’38 Ariel ‘Square Four’ Combo. Not a bad old ride
on the whole - if you ignore the girder suspension. Damned fool of a policeman
stopped me in Peterborough - said I was exceeding some bloody speed limit. Told
him to bugger off - seemed to get the message.”

“Dreadful dump, Peterborough.” Biffo’s response is heartfelt.

“Stop agreeing with everything I say. No one’s got any guts these days. What’s
the time?”

Biffo glances helplessly at his loyal old Rolex – bought moons before, for five
bob, out of a bucket at Tessiers by his formidable Great-Aunt Kike.

“Half four-ish, I think.” he mutters

“What do you mean, you think? It’s either half-past-four, or it isn’t. If it is,
then it’s time for tea. Where do we take it? Do they bring it, or what? Conservatory?
Where’s that damned butler, for Heaven’s sake?”

“Look, old girl, tried to explain, Parsons is absent, what?”

“Got a wife, hasn’t he?”

Biffo has no energy for the defining of Mrs Fenner’s precise relationship to

“Day off, don’t you know? Even old Parsons has to have a bit of time to
himself. Not expecting you quite so promptly, if you know what one means, old

“In your father’s day there would have been tea at four-thirty sharp, come
what might. Every damned thing’s gone to the dogs, if you ask me. What happens
these days? Get it yourself, I suppose. And don’t address me as ‘old thing’ - Cousin
Marguerite, to you!”

“You really have caught us a bit on the proverbial hop, as they say, but Julian
is doing the honours for today, I believe.”

“Who the devil’s Julian, for the love of all that’s sacred?”

“Apprentice page-boy, sort of thing - from the East End. Nephew of Mrs
Fenner’s – down from Town for the hols – bit of a working holiday. Parsons is
teaching him the ropes of the house – might take him on in a couple of years when
he leaves school.”

“Sounds pretty unsuitable to me, but we shall see what we shall see. Where is
this juvenile refugee?”

“Might be wise to ferret him out of the kitchens. Bit addicted to the television -
might need a bit of a nudge. Parsons has high hopes but needs time to bring him up
to speed, so to speak.”

“It all sounds thoroughly disreputable, to me. However, as we have no choice
you might as well lead on.”

With which, she erupts horizontally from the deck chair, thrusts her Gin bottle
into the gaping handbag, zips it, and turns smartly on her heel in the direction of the

“Meddlesome old wıtch - vinegar on the edge of a knife!” Biffo murmurs, but
follows like an old hound weary of the hunt.

As the hurricane approaches, our Julian is ensconced in Mr Parsons’s chair in
the Butler’s Pantry - feet on the sacred bureau and flipping through a back number of
“The Beano”.

“What are you doing, boy?”

The ancient baritone incises his liver and various other departments of which,
heretofore, he has been only marginally aware.

“Nothin’, Miss, just chillin’ aht.”

The gimlet eyes bore into him and their owner observes drily,

“His Lordship requires tea. I’m given to understand that you have been
delegated to serve it to him?

“Yeah, well, Miss, that’s abaht the size of it.”

“Then, get off your backside and produce it, this instant! We shall be in the

Having delivered this broadside, Mrs Huntington-Smythe exits the pantry with
a snort.

"Fuckin' ol' cow!" Julian observes with some pith ~ his mastery of 'species 
identification' is clearly a little sketchy........

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Chapter 20


As I struggle into a tweed suit in preparation for “Sale-day” in the Park –
and the playing of my allotted role thereat – I indulge in a rare moment of
introspection. It is a brief detour, and a dangerous one. It takes the form of a
modest Q & A soliloquy conducted as I double-knot the old brogues.

Q: “When did you last clean a pair of shoes, eh, Biffo?”

A: “When I was thirteen, at Eton, sixty years ago…..”

Q: “And why the devil should you of all people be permitted to live the life of
Riley while the world implodes around you?”

A: “Humph……”

Mercifully Corrie breezes in from the bathroom and the question is shelved -
but I really do need some sort of answer to it.

Me: “Why us, Corrie?”

Corrie: “Why us what, old boy?”

Me: “Well, why should we have all this – and most of the world has damn all?”

The old girl ponders for a moment or two before replying - thus……

Corrie: “Are you happy, Biffers?”

Me: “Blissfully.”

Corrie: “Me, too…. Parsons? Richardson? Mrs Fenner? Our Jules?”

Me: “Same, I think. Amblewick’s a magical place – you just have to be happy

Corrie: “I wonder how that can be…….?”

Me: “Not the faintest idea….. Sort of how it is, I suppose……”

Corrie: “Do you think it would all be just as happy if the government owned
Amblewick, or some corporation, or a Russian oligarch?”

Me: “Well, I wouldn’t, that’s for sure….”

Corrie: “Nor me, nor Parsons , nor any of us – the heart would have gone out
of the place – and ours with it. Stretch your old brain just a little further and I
think you’ll find you have the answer to your question.

I am slowly emerging from my ‘mea culpa’ mini-spasm.

“Do I have to wear this bloody suit, today?”

“Wear what you jolly well please – wear what makes you happy and
comfortable. If you’ve got the grumps, how can the rest of us be happy?”

“I think, perhaps, that ‘happiness’ is the answer – I’m going to wear me old
cords – be meself, and bugger it!”

“Good-oh! If you get a move on we can snatch a G&T before the off.”


By the time Parsons sails into the conservatory to get us on parade I am in
ebullient mood – positively Queen Elizabeth at Tilbury. Corrie’s right – the
secret to life is happiness and contentment, and they come - like rain - from
above - and land where they will….


The Park is aflame with colour and awash with good cheer – the cars and vans
and trailers are myriad.

I approach the mighty throng of revelers and dickie-dealers with joy in my
heart. Here I can mingle with the world without being mingled – just another
old bloke in a sea of other people like himself.

Parsons has been absolutely brilliant – everything laid on. The Neptune has
taken on the catering – their beer tent overflows with cheerful folk. Mrs Fenner
is rushed off her feet and radiant – her pies and sandwiches a hit. I run our
Jules to earth, haggling over the price of bric-a-brac with a dodgy dealer from
Tellingham – chap makes a bomb selling rubbish to the trendy middle classes.

I catch a dash of Jules’s ‘spiel’, en passant, so to speak – note that old Blarney
Grail is snoozling contentedly behind him – to my intense relief!

“Tell yer what, mate, I’ll take a Pony – last word, take it or leave it. Worth a ton
of anybody’s money.”

The items in question are a collection of rusty shop and advertising signs.

The dealer parries deftly.

“Tell you what - sling you an Ayrton for the lot – chance bein’ robbed.”

“Sorry chap, can’t do it – tell yer what I’ll do - if they ain’t sold by the end of the
day I’ll knock’em out to you for fifteen – can’t be fairer than that, now can I?
Don’t reckon they’ll be here, mind you – lot of interest…….”

The dealer clearly reckons the same

“OK, you win - a score in your hand – not another word, orlright?”

“Cor, you drives an ‘ard bargain, mate…” scratching of the head. “Go on then,
twist me arm. You takin’ ‘em, or want us to deliver? Delivery’s next week, and a
taxi on top.”

The dealer hands over the ‘sausage and mash’ without a murmur - the full
twenty-five of it. As his victim wanders off into the crowd smiling the smile of
the satisfied Jules offers me a triumphant ‘thumbs-up’ and a huge grin.

“Happy ‘Stately car-boot’, Guv!” he yells…….

I wander off towards the beer tent in a cloud of peace and warm content. I
observe the car boots as I meander along – some less ‘stately’ than others…
Pick up a jolly nice amber cigarette holder for a fiver. Don’t use the gaspers
meself, but Corrie does – nice little prezzie for her, I muse.

Most of the people are total strangers to me. I am anonymous - free to wander
and browse as though I too am just a visitor. When I do bump into any of our
folk, we smile and gesture and pass on – each of us off-duty and at ease.

Once happily propped against the bar in the tent, I see Corrie chatting to old
Charles Peyneer and his dogs. I teeter over in their direction.

“What ho, Biffo!” the old boy bellows, “jolly good thrash you’ve laid on,

“Greetings, Charles – all down to Parsons, don’t you know? Ruddy miracle,
that man.”

“Ah, yes, our greatest loss – young footman he was when he was with us at
Llantony. Shame, all that, what?”

I feel begative nostalgia creeping up on us and rapidly change gear.

“What brings you here from the dreaded Milton Keynes, old thing?”

“Bug-hutch days are over, me dear - Pervis be praised – closed the door on
that hell-hole – putting up with the old cousin in Cadogan Gardens for a spell -
pending the trickling of ‘royalties’, don’t you know? Snoot-full?”

“Why not indeed? Any news of Freeda?


"Cheers, old chap!”

“Freeda’s taken up with old Anne Thrax, recently - sounds pretty dodgy to me.
Know the Thraxes, do you?”

I extract the beak and nod.

“Uumh, used to bump into them now and again – place in Hove, wasn’t it?
Dodgy’s the word - very.”

Corrie emerges from a heaving pile of dogs.

“Witch in every generation, the Thraxes. They say Anne’s the one in hers - give
you a boil on your bum as soon as look at you – Cheers!”

I observe the County Planning Officer from the corner of my eye and beat a
hasty retreat – don’t even hesitate. The man’s a plague - never off-duty and
shockingly keen. Head back to Jules’s ‘Tranny’ and its awning. Mercifully
Parsons is ‘in situ’ checking a list of figures with Peak, from the bank.

“Sheer-Trash loping about, Parsons, old dear, what?”

“Sheer-Trash, Milord?”

“Planning pest, you know – what’s he want?”

“Ah yes, Major Reerash – the gentleman of sub-continental background,
Milord. He appears to be taking notes……”

“You bet he is, old thing – plotting outrage in the planning permission
department, no doubt….”

“Conceivably, Milord. He has a reputation for great thoroughness in the
exercise of his duties…..”

Parsons seems totally unmoved by the threat - changes the subject, in fact.

“The auguries are very favourable for us today, Milord. At close of play we
should show a healthy balance after all expenses have been disbursed.”

Haven’t seen much sign of it – apart from Julian’s sharp little move in the rusty
signs department. I must be looking a dash doubtful. Parsons clears the haze
for me.

“Julian has ‘cleaned up’, as he puts it, very nicely, Milord. Receipts from his
stall should exceed fifteen hundred ‘smackers’ on the day - a figure which will
cover erection of our refreshment marquee, the six portable lavatories, Milord,
and advertising. Most satisfying, if I may say so.”

Doesn’t seem much of a ‘clean-up’ to me, dash it. What’s the use of covering
expenses when we’ve got huge bills pending for the flood-damage repairs?

“Not quite with you, old thing – need a damn site more than that, don’t we?
What about the repairs, for Heaven’s sake?”

“Matters, Milord, are so very rarely as they seem, are they? I was sorting
through the items remaining on Julian’s stall, and generally observing his
progress, just at the moment when he was negotiating the sale of a plate,

“A plate?”

“Indeed, Milord, a plate. I was able to rescue that plate before it could
be ‘knocked out for a fiver."

Completely lost and can’t understand where the old chap’s coming from, at all.
Goggle at him a bit – after all every ‘fiver’ helps, so to speak…….

Parsons gets my drift, and clarifies.

“The plate in question, Milord, is a decorated plate – easily mistaken, because
of its rarity, for a 1930’s transfer item – worth, at best, a ‘fiver’.”

“And so……”

“In the event, Milord, a little bird, as they say, twittered urgently in my ear – as
occasionally she does with racehorses…….”

What the Devil is the old boy talking about?

“The ears prick, Milord, when they hear that twittering. It is invariably a
harbinger of ‘Lady Luck.”

Parsons appears to me to be losing it, but I hold myself firmly in check.

“All beyond me, old thing – don’t see what Lady Luck has to do with a
wretched plate, what?

“The painting on the plate is where the luck becomes manifest, Milord – far
from being, as we originally supposed, a transfer souvenir piece, it is the
original work of a certain George Stubbs. He was, Milord, quite the foremost
English sporting painter of the mid-to-late 18th Century.”

On occasion Parsons has been known to teach his grandmother to suck eggs
– but I let it pass….

“Worth a bob or two, what?”

“Rather more than a mere crust, Milord. Amongst what Julian refers to as ‘the
punters’, I was fortunate enough to recognize a certain Mr Bumleigh, Milord.
The gentleman is a representative of Messrs Sotheby’s – the larger auction
houses make a habit of despatching ‘scouts’ to assess the merchandise at
country sales, Milord – especially when such sales are located at places such
as Amblewick, where there is possibility of pecuniary profit from ‘leakage’ of
valuables from the main house…..”

“Nicked stuff, Guv’.” Julian translates smoothly.

“Whatever his motives and instructions, Milord, on this occasion Mr Bumleigh
has proven himself to be the answer to our ‘maiden’s prayer’, if you will. One
glance at our plate, Milord, and he positively paled. He was honest enough
immediately to make the Stubbs attribution, and to submit a cash offer of three
thousand pounds, on his own account, Milord.”

”You accepted, of course, old thing?”

“Dead right he did, Guv’- bit ‘is flippin ‘and orf, didn’t yer, Mr P?” Jules is
clearly much impressed.

“I took the liberty of so doing, on your behalf, Milord.”

And that’s not the end of it, the old devil has been busy as a bee.

“Along the rear wall of the main coach-house, Milord, I had observed that there
were a number of unframed oil-canvases. Clearly these were in no state to be
sold without preparation, and in any event required expert opinion to ascertain
their provenance.”

“Little bird again?”

I am hopeful. Unlike me, Parsons is extremely cautious - but very decisive
when once he becomes convinced that serious opportunity is knocking.

“I took advantage of Mr Bumleigh’s presence, Milord, to slicit his opinion with
regard to those canvases – most enlightening, Milord.”

I am goggling again – but Parsons cruises on.

“There are various copies of well-known works, Milord, but also a few notable
originals. Amongst them, two Reinagle dog portraits, a Munnings Newmarket
scene and a substantial Landseer of greyhounds coursing in the Highlands.
Mr Bumleigh expects them to fetch in the region of twenty thousand pounds
when they come under the hammer at Sotheby’s next month.”


I am agape – lost for other words.

“What? Flogged them, have you?” I gasp.

“No, Milord, I have instructed Mr Bumleigh to arrange for their entry into the
sale to which I alluded a moment ago. Their ownership will be ‘anonymous’ in
the catalogue – thereby avoiding any interference either from Your Lordship’s
trustees – or from the eagle-eye of the perilous Mrs Huntington-Smythe.”

“Should cover the repairs, what?”

”Amply, Milord, and with a healthy balance sufficient for the re-establishment
of our reputation at Messrs Fortnum – as you are aware, my most pressing
concern, Milord. Young George has given me a most favourable quotation
for the restoration work and insists that the Transit van is at Your Lordship’s
disposal – with his compliments – whenever it may be needed. All-in-all,
Milord, it has been a most salutary afternoon.”

A shadow still looms on my horizon, however.

“What about the blighted Sheer-Trash, Parsons, old solver of the insoluble?
Could be an almighty fuss about the planning, what? Humungous fine on the
cards, don’t you think?”

“I believe not, Milord. I have already spoken with the gentleman and conveyed
to him Your Lordship’s deep regret for the failure of the Post Office to deliver
your planning application in time for it to be processed before the event -
citing last Monday’s Bank Holiday for the regrettable delay.”

“Swallowed it, did he? No fool, old Sheer-Trash, you know?”

“Took to it like a lamb to the teat, Milord – especially when I presented him
with a small token of Your Lordship’s good faith and of the high esteem in
which we, at Amblewick, hold the sterling work his department undertakes on
our behalf.”

“Bribed the bugger, did you?”

“Certainly not, Milord. Amongst the various pictures in the coach-house,
I chanced upon a lithograph, of no great pecuniary value, which I took the
liberty of presenting to the Planning Office on Your Lordship’s behalf – by way
of apology for our inadvertent delay and as a gesture of appreciation for their
departmental patience and understanding.”

“What was the picture, old thing?”

“The lithograph was a somewhat lurid depiction of a Bengal tiger savaging
a group of peasants, Miiord. I am given to understand that Major Reerash
originates from Bengal and is a great admirer of that rare and magnificent
creature and its life-style.”

Footnote: As Corrie and I headed back to the house on that memorable
evening, I was as happy as I have ever been – as happy as is Everyman when
he has a bob or two extra in his pocket. I even whistled as we went – ‘Teddy
Bears’ Picnic’ – if my memory serves me correctly.……. Oh yes, and I gather
Blarney Grail has promised the ‘galloping Major’ a brace of my pheasant when
once the closed season is over. Anyway, such it all is…….. Ancient snoozling
hounds, and poachers, are not necessarily asleep!