A LITTLE LATER IN THE ESTATE OFFICE
The scene which meets His Lordship as he enters the Estate Office meeting-room
“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
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
“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,
a 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
“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…..