THAT FIRST RICE PUDDING
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
“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.”
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.
“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
“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……