Monday, July 22, 2013


Chapter 31

The last week has been a fair old nightmare – getting things ship-shape before the Jubilee Thrash and the dreaded arrival of Marguerite and the Trustees.

We’ve decided to stage the festivities in the house itself, rather than going to the expense of all those Marquees – apart from anything else we feel that Her Majesty’s Jubilee demands rather more than does a ‘Stately’ car-boot sale – sort of been there, done that, if you know what one means.

The last time the whole house was opened up for action was for the Queen’s Coronation on June 2nd 1953 when I was twelve and Corrie a feisty ten - first time we’d ever seen a ‘Telly’. The Pater hired a set – black and white, of course, so that we kids could watch him and the Mater in the Abbey - feel a real part of things.   

Anyway, back to the practicalities. Parsons has insisted that we provide lavatory (“toylot”) facilities in the stable yard as he has no desire to find himself knee-deep in questionable detritus come the morning after.

“’Sharing’, Milord, is an admirable concept – but there have to be limits……”

It’s been rather exciting for Corrie and me as the dust-covers come off all over the house and the old place shakes itself and expands into fairyland history and childhood memory. 

It’s wonderful to see Parsons in his element again - the whole house at his beck and call – amazing how the village has rallied round for the occasion and supplied staff for him to train and bring up to scratch.

Corrie and the boys crashed around in the attics all day yesterday and found a goodly selection of the old staff uniforms we both remember so vividly – as well as a couple of my old kilts and highland gear from the summer hols on the Caithness estate. These last proved a hit with the lads, who have determined to wear them for the Jubilee evening festivities.

“Cor! Classy, them kilts…” Julian gurgles enthusiastically.

“Yea, and not sissy either – what with them daggers, innit?” Tone agrees, fingering the blades with a dreamy look in his eye.

“Not sissy at all, old chap,” I assure him. “By the way, the big one’s called a ‘dirk’, and the little one you wear in your stocking is called a ‘Scian dhu’.

“Cool, Guv’, what are we supposed to do wiv ‘em? Murder Mrs Thingummy-Wotzernaim?“ Jules is looking hopeful.

“No, old chap,” I hasten to explain, “they’re for ceremonial use only, these days – sort of show that you’re someone who’s, well, someone, if you know what I mean?”

“What, a toff – like you, Guv’?”

“Why is it,” I muse to meself, “that I find this kind of conversation so unsettling?”

Aloud, I say, “To show that you’re someone who belongs at Amblewick, which both of you most definitely do – and apart from anything else you need something smart to wear this evening – everyone will be tarted up to the nines and we can’t have you two feeling out of place, now can we?”  

Richardson’s been down to the station to gather up the invading forces, and with a shudder I hear the clatter of the Land Rover as it grinds its way under the Gatehouse arch and lumbers into the Courtyard.

I panic a dash.

“Now look you chaps – just bugger off upstairs, will you – sort of get changed, and then join Parsons and Mrs F - make yourselves useful. This is all rather tiresome and I need to gather myself together, so to speak.”

Off they potter chirping happily enough, taking the main staircase five at a time amidst shrieks of mirth. I steady myself for the coming assault on my sanity. I glance longingly at the ‘drinkies’ table as I enter the library, but realise immediately that such is hardly the way to prepare for what threatens to be an ugly twelve hours or so. 

I hear a trundling on the stairs as the guests head for their rooms to “freshen-up” after the journey, as the Americans put it. I gaze about me looking for ‘trip-wires’, so to speak – but Parsons has removed all signs of serious dissipation – even my copy of the “Pink’un” and the betting slips. I grin to myself. 

“No worries with old Parsons on the case, what?” I murmur. “Just got to try and be civil – and welcoming. Now pull yourself together, Biffo – this too shall pass, what?” 

“Ballz to the lot of ’em!” I add rebelliously, and feel a whole lot better 
– more master of my ship, don’t you know?

The main landing doors whisper open and the enemy is within.

“Brigadier Hyde, Mr Berk, and Mrs Huntington-Smythe, Milord. With your Lordship’s permission, tea will be served in the conservatory in a few minutes. Lady Constance has asked me to say that she is busy with the flowers in the Banqueting Hall, Milord, and may be a little late in greeting her guests - for which she apologises.”

“All a bit frantic what?”

“Indeed, Milord, but I trust, also under control……

He inclines the old head and departs.

“Well, well, well – welcome to Amblewick, what?” I say expansively, and for lack of anything more profound with which to kick orf.

“Shall we?” I indicate the doors into the conservatory.

Amidst a few monosyllabic and ill-at-ease affirmative grunts we head in the direction of ‘tea’.

As we settle into the odd deck chair, Marguerite mans the samovar, and I am free to study the newcomers at my leisure. It’s been a few years since I’ve seen the two Trustees close-up and on my own turf. Old Ronnie Hyde - a sort of first-cousin-once-removed Trustee seems to have weathered pretty well for an old’un – still ramrodstraight and looking reasonably benign from what I can see through his moustaches – still pretty stiff, though. Berk, the lawyer of the party, looks as lawyers always do out of the office – out-of-place but omni-present in the hope of pickings – a sudden death, perhaps. 

As for Marguerite – no change – looking particularly vicious and disapproving and disguising it with a hideous fixed smile – tea-pot held high, and so on. Something tells me that she’s slightly tight. 

I wonder how she’s managed that in the company of the Trustees - some kind of intravenous drip, perhaps - certainly no sign of the Booth’s bottle for the nonce.

Everyone’s pretty subdued. The English, when face to face with people of whom they disapprove, simply aren’t into small talk about ‘the weather’ or the state of the wheat – seem to be waiting frostily for someone else to put their foot in it and give direction to a re-union with people for whom they don’t much care……

“So, what’s the order of play for the evening, so to speak?” Ronnie takes the bull between his teeth.

“Basically, reception for guests, tenants and staff in the Long Gallery - Fruit cup, and so on – dinner in the Banqueting Hall followed by a Fancy-dress Ball in the Ballroom, and finally, a grand fire-work display over the lake – viewed from the Georgian Terrace. All got your geography of the old place sorted, have you?” I wonder.

“Years since I was here,” Ronnie remarks honestly enough – “but I daresay it’ll all come back. Forgotten how huge the place was, rather.”

Parsons shimmers in.

I raise the old eyebrows interrogatively.

“Milord, it occurs to me that Messrs Julian and Anthony might begin their service this evening by giving our guests a tour of the evening’s various venues – to refresh both their own minds and those of your good-selves, Lady and Gentlemen – as to the various directions. They have worked extremely hard to acquaint themselves with our way of doing things here at the Castle and it occurs to me that such a tour would be a good opportunity for them to put these skills into practice.”

“Jolly good show, what?” I am a dash concerned – doesn’t sound quite our young hellions’ forté, really – but Parsons usually knows best.  

Enter the duo - resplendent in the old tartan, bristling with armament and grinning rather goofily.

The trustees get the message and stand up willingly enough.

I don’t think we’ve been introduced, have we?” says old Ronnie. 

“Jolly smart you both look, I must say….” He advances on the duo, hand outstretched. “Hyde’s the name, by the way.”

Paws are shaken and names exchanged – ice seems to be breaking fairly painlessly – Berk follows suit, and a murmur of small-talk ensues – all pretty satisfactory.

There is a savage hiss from amongst the tea things behind me. Ah yes, of course, I have forgotten Marguerite – I brace for the storm.

“What are you doing with that native boy in the house? My God! The London guttersnipe was disgrace enough – and now what have you done? Disgraceful!”

‘Paleface squaw speaks with poisoned tongue.’ I muse.

It’s just as well she’s hissing rather than squawking. There seems to be no change in the chit-chat at the other end of the room, so I’m in hopes that her objection has gone un-noted by the others.

I therefore hiss in reply.

“What on Earth are you talking about, old girl – the ‘native’, as you refer to him, is Anthony – chum of old Jules – down from town for a few days, what?”

She grinds the teeth and resumes the viperous onslaught.

“That wretched boy is black – black!” the spittle sizzles into my lughole from behind the samovar.  Suddenly the Devil calls as, very occasionally, he does.

In turn, I hiss.

“And you, you venomous old reptile, are an unpleasant shade of grey – but I don’t harp on about it……”

The silence is thunderous – clearly this evening will not pass entirely without event………

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