The household should be congregating in the conservatory at any moment. I’ve decided that a pre-invasion meeting this morning is essential, bearing in mind that no one apart from Corrie and I have ever met the Amblewick Trustees before. Our Tone hasn’t even met Cousin Marguerite and might find that experience a dash too much without a briefing as to her various and exasperating proclivities. I am in high hopes that Jules will fill him in on the old bat’s more outrageous moments once we have set the scene. The trustees actually “in res” at Amblewick threatens to be a new and disquieting experience for us all. But, as Corrie said, yesterday, ‘We shall see what we shall see.’ I’m a bit concerned about old Parsons, though – been a little too distant and vague since the telegram arrived – can only hope he comes up with a “clever plan” in the end – we need one…….
Ah! Just think about the Oracle and he materialises!
“What ho! Parsons, old dear, ready for the fray, what?”
“I was unaware, Milord, of any imminent fracas – merely of the arrival of unfamiliar and apparently uninvited guests under the aegis of Mrs Huntington-Smythe – a disturbing combination, Milord, and one by which I have been finding myself unusually overwhelmed. However, the young people, Mrs Fenner, and the other members of staff will be with us shortly…..”
He occupies himself somewhat distantly in the destruction of an invasive wasp.
‘The Nose’ shassies in and parks next to Corrie - harbinger of the rest of the staff and the juvenile duo.
There is a subdued and bleakly expectant atmosphere. For the first time in my life I find myself alone, and in charge – terrifying!
Mercifully, Corrie starts the ball rolling.
“Look, old friends, we’re expecting some visitors – rather difficult visitors, I’m afraid – and we all need to know a bit about them so that we don’t get our knickers in a twist. The first area of concern is Mrs Huntington-Smythe with whom some of you are already familiar.”
“Oh, Gawd – not her again! She’s a right old pest, Tone, Cor! - pain in the arse!”
That is our Jules, of course, who has as we all know been on the cutting edge of Marguerite’s tongue on two previous occasions.
“Yes, dear,” Corrie agrees, “but the other two guests are a bit more of an unknown quantity as far as you all are concerned. His Lordship and I find ourselves similarly in the dark, never having encountered these people socially since we were all in our prams.– these days they seem to regard us as little more than a balance sheet at their offices in London – and with that they are all too familiar.”
Everyone’s looking a bit lost, so I blunder in to clarify.
“Larger estates such as ours often have Trustees to make sure the money and movables don’t get lost or squandered. Family members usually, and chosen for their steadiness and good judgement in financial matters. My trustees are people of the highest moral fibre – so high, in fact that I feel about twelve when they heave over the horizon……”
“What, yer mean they can order you about, Guv’ – sorta like teachers?”
“’Fraid so, Tone – and send you to bed with no jam for tea if you don’t do as you’re told – permanently if they feel like it……”
“Ain’t nothin’ yer can do, then?
“Not a lot, really – except keep them happy, somehow.”
Corrie is looking thoughtful.
“What’s the state of the jubilee account, Biffers?”
“Same as it was when Marguerite buggered off after her infamous meeting – haven’t dared winkle a bean of it. Going to have to, though, what with “The Thrash” expenses and so on.”
“Do we have any household accounts, old chap?”
At this point Parsons butts in.
“I have long been aware, Lady Constance, that whilst his Lordship has many gallant and admirable qualities, columns of figures and account-keeping are not among them. I have, therefore, made it my business to keep my own record of all financial transactions pertaining to household and estate expenditure – having feared that otherwise we might find ourselves in an embarrassing situation should Your Lordship’s trustees demand a detailed accounting of the same…..”
I am appalled.
“My God, Parsons, old thing – that means we’re in deep shit, for Heaven’s sake – all our little trips to Fortnum’s and so on – not exactly Tesco’s fish fingers, what?”
“No, indeed, Milord. It is because of just such anomalies that I have seen fit to develop my own code for the household records. I will not trouble your Lordship with the details but, for example, ‘diesel fuel’ and ‘liquid paraffin’ (for cleaning purposes) can readily be stretched to indicate various forms of more palatable beverage, Milord.”
“Screwing the books, what?”
I find myself grinning like a Cheshire.
“By no means, Milord – everything will be found to be in perfect order under the most microscopic examination….”
“But receipts, and so on – have to have receipts, what?”
“Everything in order, Milord, and prepared under the careful scrutiny of Mr Pritchard of Pritchard, Pritchard and Pritchard, Your Lordship’s personal accountants in Babingworth. His fees are covered by his inclusion as a guest shot for the coming pheasant season, Milord - Amblewick has a great number of assets the profits from which need only minimally to appear in the public arena – being cash transactions, Milord, and received ‘no questions asked’ from Your Lordship’s and Lady Constance’s personal friends and selected acquaintances.”
“Have I really got accountants, old thing? Well I’m damned! No idea things were so complicated, what? – ah well, such it all is, I suppose. But what are we going to do about the Jubilee account? Can’t afford to louse up your system at the last minute, now can we?”
“Permit me to put Your Lordship’s mind at rest on that score, Milord. Mr Peak at the bank is giving the matter his careful consideration on an entirely voluntary basis. Careful manipulation of the account has already resulted in a rewarding increase to the original £30,000 deposit. This, and the profits from Your Lordship’s Asparagus – purchased as “sundry casual produce” by my friend Mr Henderson at Messrs Fortnum and Mason - will enable us to facilitate what Your Lordship always refers to as “winkle-room” for the immediate future. Mr Peak is a great admirer of Your Lordship and has gone to considerable pains to improve our future outlook.”
“Jolly good show, what? We should do something for him, shouldn’t we? I like old Peak – capital chap.”
“He, also, will be shooting with us next season, Milord – and riding to hounds, should he manage successfully to conclude an understanding with Mr Kidd, of our Romany community, with regard to a hunter mare the latter has in his possession – a matter of stabling and pasture, I understand……”
“Easily settled then - offer him one of our loose-boxes and the ten acre meadow behind the carpentry shops to the North of the house, what? On a sort of grace and favour basis, don’t you know?”
“Thank you, Milord, I was sure that you would see things as I have been privileged to see them. And now, if Your Lordship will permit me, I shall retire to my pantry to retrieve certified copies of your accounts so that you and Lady Constance can be fore-armed in the face of any amateur assault from your trustees, Milord…..”
He shimmers - more or less as of yore – and we all stare at each other, ‘gob-smacked’, as Julian will describe it later.
“Streuth!” That’s Master Tone….
“Coo-er!” That’s Jules
Corrie joins in.
“Makes accountancy sound rather fun, doesn’t he – good old Parsons!”
“Wonder what he’s got sorted for the invasion menus?” I muse aloud.
Within moments, and with the Parsonian glide, our Tower of Strength returns bearing a large envelope, a tray of chilled glasses and a Magnum of Lanson.
“The accounts, Milord - Lady Constance – and Mrs Fenner has asked me to assure Your Lordship that the menus during the visitation will include no processed foods, and that her recipe for fish-cakes will pleasure you as much as do her devilled kidneys and her kedgeree….”
“Thank God for Mrs F….” breathes Corrie. “What brings on the bubbly, though, Parsons, old dear?”
“It occurred to me, Lady Constance, that a small preliminary celebration might be in order – and that His Lordship might like to sample a glass or two of “Anti-freeze” - under which soubriquet his Lanson is logged in the certified accounts……..”