Monday, June 24, 2013

Chapter 27


           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?”

          Discreet cough.

          “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

Chapter 26


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.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Chapter 25


The appalling meeting lurches on.

          The honourable representative of the National Society for the Protection of 
Public Morals (NSPPM) is next on the agenda, and takes the conch to harangue 
the assembled multitude in a socialist, somewhat hectoring manner on the 
subject of family and other abuses in their various forms - with which she 
appears to be fairly well-acquainted. Had Biffo’s routine not been being buggered 
about he might well have cocked an ear in the hope of improving his grasp of 
the unspeakable world beyond his demesne. As it is, however, his juices 
are starting to react negatively to the enforced captivity of his carcass in this 
incredibly dreary room. He glances at the ancient Rolex and sees that the period 
in Purgatory estimated by Parsons has nigh-on passed. 

          “The time has come, the Walrus said…..,” 

          Biffo warbles softly into his butler’s shell-like - which, we can reasonably 
assume, is already quivering in anticipation of his words.

          “With respect, Milord, it might be wise to permit this person to conclude 
her peroration, in order to avoid bad feeling. I will thereafter be in a reasonable 
position to express Julian to the kitchens, thereby alerting the staff who will 
commence the festivities. The young man has been well-briefed, and the merest 
twitch of my left eyebrow will send him on his way.”

          “Good show, what? How long do you think we’ll have to wait?”

          “Milord, I am not intimately conversant, even in theory, with any of the 
peculiarities the young woman is enumerating. However, I think we may safely 
assume that she is running out of possibilities. Might I hazard a guess at, shall we
say, three minutes.”

          “Longest three minutes a man will ever have to endure, I daresay.”  

          Biffo heaves on his Cohiba and is rewarded by one of those scented highs 
that can only come through the good offices of a seriously expensive cigar. 

          “For God’s sake don’t give that louse from the planning department a 
chance to get on his feet; he’ll have me over a barrel about the new greenhouse 
at the Lodge!”

          “You are quite correct, Milord. It was always your late lamented father’s 
view, that people with a mission should be disabled with good fare before they 
began to air their views - on the principle that, thereafter, they would not be in any 
mood to expound their more tiresome messages with any serious conviction.”

          “Good old Pater, not as daft as he was cabbage-looking, what?”

          “Precisely, Milord. And now, if your Lordship will excuse me, I must 
position myself where the good Julian will be able to observe my left eyebrow.”

          It is at this most propitious moment that Biffo’s sister, Corrie, blows in with 
a brace of champion wolfhounds lunging at their leashes. Biffo’s spirits soar. If 
a man can have spirits in the plural, he is that man. Taking a leaf from Parsons’ 
book, so to speak, he greets Corrie’s ranging gaze with the raising of both his 
eyebrows in welcome.

          “Thank God you could make it, old girl!” He enthuses. “We’re having a 
perfectly preposterous bloody time here. Old prune’s going to town on every 
possible front. Just look at that perch-full of ravening vultures, what?”

          “Does seem a bit excessive, I must admit. Can’t stand that NSPPM woman, 
what’s she talking about? Sex?

          “It would seem so, but I have been fully occupied in negotiating a few light 
refreshments with the good Parsons, who mercifully appears to have forestalled 
me, as usual.” 

          Biffo sneezes comfortably on his cigar.    

          Corrie brushes back her rebellious hair.

          “Splendid – and essential under the circumstances. It really is a bit ‘de 

trop’, all this bureaucratic twaddle. What does Marguerite think she’s doing?”

          “Endeavouring to control the staff by a process of humiliation and 

excessive official blandishment,” Biffo is genuinely distressed. “Insufferable 
behaviour! I’m in high hopes that the staff will make their feelings known when 
the refreshments materialize - and that, if I am not mistaken, is the starting pistol 
in the person of young Julian heading for the commissariat.” 

          Cousin Marguerite introduces the Chairman of the Joint Planning 
Committee, a certain Major Reerash, a gentleman of Asian origin and the Indian 
Army, known affectionately at Amblewick, as “Major Sheer-Trash”. This epithet 
has been coined, not on account of his origins, but to express good-natured 
disapproval of his use of the lowest field rank in private life. Before that worthy 
can gain the rostrum a gong sounds hollowly in the kitchen doorway. An 
impressive parade of retainers, the majority of whom have not been on Mrs 
Huntington-Smythe’s list of ‘relevant’ members of staff, emerges from every 
secret orifice in the Estate Office. That building has many orifices; from the 
kitchens, cubby-holes, vesting-rooms, through lavatory (toylot) areas, to the large 
double barn-doors behind Biffo and Corrie (ınstalled in the mid-seventeenth 
century to provide stabling for Royalist cavalry). Through each and every one of 
these orifices the retainers pour as though marching to a hidden drum. Barrels 
are carried to avoid disturbing the beer. They are tabled and tapped, as helpers 
shift the school-room desks and replace them with trestles. These are covered in 
a trice with crisp white tablecloths. Trays of tankards and glasses are laid upon 
them. Plates and eating-irons; chargers laden with joints and hams, and plate 
after plate of cakes and pastries follow with all the splendour of a Royal Opera 
House Final Act triumphal banquet.

          Marguerite has sprung lithely to her feet at the striking of the gong, plainly 
to call the company to order. Her beady eyes blaze and her entire being quivers 
with rage and fury. The interesting thing is that no one notices except Biffo, who 
relishes from afar. 

          “Bloody old fool,” he muses, “Talk about teaching your grandmother 
to suck eggs? To think she really thought we’d lost the knack of entertaining 
people. Two-Luv, I think,” he murmurs to Corrie by his side.

          “Yes, well,” said Corrie, “let’s hope she gets the message. The only 
problem is that that type very rarely does.”

          Parsons emerges from nowhere and re-focuses the situation.

          “Milord, Lady Constance, ladies and gentlemen, His Lordship has asked 
me to thank you all for your constancy, your generosity, your loyalty to our Estate 
and, above all, for your personal kindness at all times both to himself and his 
family. He has asked me to assure you of his loyalty and friendship towards each 
and every one of you - and to say that, in a moment or two, as we come together
amongst the refreshments, we will all mingle and chat as Amblewick folk have 
always done. He has asked me to tell you that no stranger will ever come between 
himself, as the custodian of all we hold special, and your much-loved selves who 
are the heart of Amblewick Castle and co-owners of its Marquessate.” 

          There is total calm. Parsons continues. 

          “And now let us join together, as so often before - as friends rejoicing.”

          “My God,” whispers Biffo to Corrie, “Bloody old liar, can’t let him off the 
leash for a second - didn’t say a word of it.”

          He gives Corrie a nudge.

          “But, by golly, I wish I had!”    

          Corrie smiles an ancient smile and whispers back…. 

          “Maybe you didn’t say it, but, you meant every word of it - and that’s why 
he said it for you.” 

          Marguerite stalks towards them from her place near the blackboard. 

          “You’re a bastard, Horace, from your boots up! Tell that incestuous 
brat, Julian, to bring my bike and my bags to the Estate office, immediately. I 
shall relieve you of my company, forthwith. Peak will deal with the formalities 
regarding the account. I wash my hands of the Amblewick Jubilee.” 

          She ferrets in her bag and produces the bottle of Booth’s from which she 
takes a dignified slug. 

          “You are proving a more determined adversary than I had anticipated - and 
that I admire, God damn your rotten socks. I depart to lick my wounds, as they 
say, but rest assured you have not heard the last of me. That is no threat. It is a 

          She blows a rank blast of Capstan smoke in Biffo’s face and turns upon 
that famous heel. She roosts, fuming, on a beech log near the Estate Yard 

          Parsons has heard the essentials of this tirade and despatches Julian to do as he has been instructed during the course of it. One happy ‘brat’ is Jules. Not many guys his age get to ride a 1938 Ariel “Square-Four” MotorCycle Combination. But then, one person’s discomfiture is sometimes another chap’s fun-time. The story of Julian’s adventure will have to be a tale for another day; maybe a short story in some motoring magazine. For the purposes of our history all we need to know is that he arrives, flushed, and in one piece – and that according to reports from Owen at the “Neptune”, and various informants, Mrs Wotzernaim and her Ariel “Square-Four” Combination will last be seen travelling at speed, and in a cloud of dragon-smoke, to somewhere in the direction of, well, Market Harborough?  

          Corrie’s only comment, when the last reports come in, is succinct and prophetic.

“God help Market Harborough - and God help us all when she gathers herself together!”

          Biffo is rather flattered. He’s never been called ‘a bastard’ before. That accolade was normally bestowed on the sharper, more dynamic boys, at school!


Monday, June 3, 2013

Chaper 24


The scene which meets His Lordship as he enters the Estate Office meeting-room 
appeals him. 

           “Bloody Victorian Charity Schoolroom!” he snorts.

          The staff is assembled in rows behind wooden tables and sitting on forms. 
All headgear has been removed and the owner’s cap sits before him on his table. 
Each staff member has a piece of paper and a pencil in front of him. They are 
facing a rostrum dominated by a tall lecture desk - behind, and slightly to the left 
of which stands a tatty old blackboard on its easel - a piece of equipment which 
Biffo recognises with a shiver as having been imported from the old schoolroom 
at the castle. That room holds bleak memories of summer days wasted on holiday 
tutorials inflicted on him in an attempt by his parents to improve his performance 
in Mathematics. 

          Marguerite is not, as yet, in evidence. The meeting-room is heavy with 
a brooding silence. Harry Richardson, the Head gardener, is looking weedy - 
Judd, his slightly sinister assistant, seems divorced from the proceedings and 
immersed in darkling thought; Mrs Fenner is playing with her wedding-ring in 
a manner which bodes ill for her husband Joe, the Estate Bailiff, who sits next 
to her with a rebellious look in his eye. Julian, as the youngest and least invited 
guest, if indeed invited at all, is the only person in the room who seems involved 
in the proceedings. Maybe his interest is engaged because he’s never before 
been part of such an assemblage (novelty is stimulating to the young). He also 
looks anticipatory - a veritable greyhound in the slips. 

           However, Biffo is in no mood to concern himself with whether the boy is in 
gaze-hound mode, or not. 

          “My God, got to sort this out. Have a ruddy mutiny on me hands, what?” 

          With great relief he sees Parsons sitting, expressionless, in the back row.    

          “Good old Parsons, splendid man; not about to let the old viper abuse the 
men without sharing their humiliation. Come to think of it, think I’ll join him. Blast 
the bitch! That should sort her out.”  

          Suiting action to the words, he ambles down the narrow central aisle 
between the rows of desks and parks himself on a form next to his butler. Not a 
word is spoken, but a tangible relief spreads throughout the room.  

          As Biffo remembered it later. 

          “Fingers were run through hair, and fidgets were felt: the odd coughs, farts 
and belches, don’t you know? Sort of cosy, shared anticipation. Richardson put 
on his cap, without which he’s lost. McCormack Judd began to peruse his seed 
catalogue. People returned to normality, as it were.” 

          His face would light up at the memory. 

          Furthermore, he fully intends to do as he vowed he would at breakfasttime. 
Beware of him who has nothing to lose! Reaching into the depths of his  old 
corduroy jacket he produces a leather case from which he extracts the large Cohiba 
cigar he has determined to ignite after luncheon. He removes the cigar band and 
presents the bare tube to Parsons who, professional to the last, produces his 
trimmer - apparently from nowhere - and having deftly cut the business end, returns
the cigar to its owner. A lighted match of singular length is presented to his Lordship 
who, in his father’s manner, holds the cigar in his left hand, palm uppermost, and 
gently massages its tıp from beneath, with the flame of the match in his right. He turns 
the Cohiba gently above the flame until the cigar is evenly lit in its own sweet time. 

           His insertion of the aromatic wonder into his mouth is the signal for a barrage 
of crinkly-crankly tin and packet-opening, puffing, scratching, pipeknocking sounds 
from the assembled company. Within seconds the entire building is swathed in clouds 
of scented weed-smoke. His Lordship leans a little closer to his butler’s shell-like ear 
and murmurs, 

          “Is there anything to drink in this god-forsaken hole?”      

          Parsons stares straight ahead, and from the corner of his motionless mouth, 
replies more or less as follows…. 

          “I had anticipated Your Lordship’s requirements in that regard, and took the 
liberty, last evening, of loading three firkins of Mr Owen’s Worthington, a variety of 
sherries, some gin, some tonic, a cool box for the ice cubes - and the customary 
‘Babychams’ - for the ladies - into the Estate van. I have observed that 
Mr Richardson is present in the front row and therefore have every reason to 
believe that Your Lordship’s requirements now repose in the kitchens of this 
building, awaiting your attention. Oh, and Milord, one other thing, the ladies will be 
serving cold joints of lamb and beef, and a splendid Suffolk ham which has been 
donated by the WI. All the salads and cakes have been prepared, baked, and 
contributed by the staff and tenants themselves. There was a general feeling that 
the Jubilee effort should be suitably inaugurated.”

          “Damned good show, spiffing prog, what? When do we get to sample the 
fruits, as they say, of all your labours’?”

          “It has occurred to me, Milord, that there will be a ‘coffee’ break at 
approximately 11.30. With your permission, I will instruct those responsible for food 
and beverages to make our reserves available at that time.”  

           “Glasses, and all that?”

           Parsons adopts his most superior demeanour as he replies. 

          “Your Lordship can rest assured that all such matters have been attended to.”

          “Then, carry on, Parsons, what? Bring on the motley, as they say.” 

           It is at this point that ‘She, Who must be obeyed’ makes her entrance. Biffo registers that she has been very busy indeed - rallying the support, or as Biffo prefers to think of it, the interference, of just about every busybody in the neighbourhood and beyond. She is escorted by cohorts of official-looking coves from areas such as the Ministry of Health, the Police Force, the County Planning Office, the National Society for the Protection of Public Morals - NSPPM - and needless to say, Mr Peak from the Bank.  

          The last mentioned - the local representative of Hoare’s – is branch manager 
also of the Tellingham Barclay’s (Gurney’s and Their Hundred Grey Attorneys) 
Bank to which the Amblewick account is thus, by proxy entrusted.

          The poor man looks fairly well-to-heel and somewhat distraught. Biffo feels his heart leap in sympathy for him. He is, after all, a decent little chap who has much endeared himself to the Castle and its account by his policy of being forthcoming with the folding when there appears little immediate chance of its repayment.

          ‘The Bank has an awful lot of money, and I really don’t see why you 
shouldn’t have the use of some of it,’ was one of Mr Peak’s more memorable 
comments. Yes, Biffo approves of Mr Peak.

          Marguerite is looking particularly sour, he observes. She is clutching her 
Capstan in a manic grasp. Her feral nose is twitching with disapproval at the cloud 
of other people’s smoke and the general joie-de-vivre which has greeted herself and 
her entourage. She aims a disapproving glare at Biffo and Parsons in the back row, 
and storks to the rostrum. Her protocol people scatter to various hard-arse chairs 
arranged in a semi-circle behind the lectern and on either side of the blackboard. 

          “I have summoned you all here today, for two reasons. The first is to make 
efficient plans for the celebration of Her Majesty’s Diamond Jubilee at Amblewick. 
The second, to remind you that you are the inheritors of a proud line of faithful 
retainers whose traditional loyalty, respect, and hard work will be essential at this 
time, if the Amblewick Estate is to be worthy of survival for future generations.“

          At this juncture, she sniffs the air like a pointing pterodactyl and brushes 
away the encroaching weed-smoke with a dismissive gesture of her claw.

          Biffo feels decidedly sick.

          “Let me remind you that, as of now, you are all under notice that slacking 
and sloppiness will not be tolerated. You owe your existence to this estate, and you 
will cease to exist if my experts see any signs of backtracking or Bolshevism. 
I trust that my words will be marked, learned, and inwardly digested by all of you 
and your dependants.” 

          She takes a rasping drag at her gasper and continues. 

          “We will begin our meeting with a statement from the Bank Manager, 
Mr Peak. We believe in total transparency in our dealings, and expect nothing short 
of total dedication from your good-selves in return.”

          Mr Peak arrives on the rostrum in the manner of a schoolboy late for school and unwilling to be there in the first place. He shoots a pleading look in Biffo’s direction  and opens a slim folder with a nervous revulsion which suggests that none of this is any of his doing. Biffo notes this with compassion. Peak is, after all, only a very vulnerable branch manager.

          “Good morning, My Lord, Ladies and Gentlemen.” 

            He clears his throat, looking limp as a wet lettuce. Biffo’s heart bleeds for him. 

          “Hrem! My – er - function is to inform you of the current state of the 
Amblewick Jubilee Account which was opened early this morning. The account, 
deposit account, was opened with an amount in the sum of Thirty Thousand 
Pounds. These funds had, initially, been deposited by the trustees of the 
Amblewick Estate, to Lord Amblewick’s current account, for the purpose of funding 
the Amblewick celebration of Her Majesty’s Jubilee. They have, today, been 
transferred, by Lord Amblewick’s instruction, to a new deposit account, where they 
will accrue interest at the current rate pending their dispersal in due course as 
preparations for the Jubilee are set in train. Lord Amblewick has requested me.....” 

          The poor chap is looking seriously deranged by this time and Biffo 
wonders if he will survive to see the interval. 

          “Lord Amblewick has requested me to place this sum under the sole 
signature of Mrs Huntington-Smythe, to whom he has given power of attorney to 
manage the Jubilee account.” 

          He indicates the Lady in question with a sickly grimace, and a decidedly 
limp wrist. 

          “Well, er, that - hrem - concludes my duties at your meeting, I am happy 
to say (a risky comment with the old albatross so close). Thank you for your 

          He staggers backwards over the stage and returns to his hard-arse, where 
he slumps - head in hands.

          The Witch of Endor’s Mum is clearly much gratified by the way things are 
proceeding. She stubs out the remains of her cigarette on the sole of her liberal 
left sandal - in a manner that suggests disapproval at the lack of proper facilities 
and stares around her in a manner reminiscent of Hannibal having crossed the Alps. 
Her plans appear to be coming to fruition and that absurd Horace is behaving with 
all the sluggish weakness she has anticipated. With a bit of luck she will shake the 
Estate into some semblance of order in the course of her brief sojourn - a sojourn 
which she intends should pave the way for change; change which will further her 
aims to inject a clear and effective heir into the scheme of things. She is aware that 
her plans depend entirely on the imminent demise of the current incumbent; but 
regards that as a fairly short-term delay as the imbecile is well on the road to perdition 
without any pressure from herself. Yes, things are looking most promising.

          Biffo’s views are rather different. He isn’t remotely concerned with any 
schemes the old reptile may harbour. A peaceful soul, on the whole, he takes no 
pleasure from power or influence; merely requires his meals and beverages on time 
and in sufficient quantity and quality. Family politics concern him not. 

          “Bugger politics! And bugger the old scorpion!” he essays to himself. 

          His is a simple routine harming no third party - but this morning his 
modest routine has been scuttled by this woman’s posturings - and up with that he 
simply will not put…..