My name is Mr. B, and for forty five years I have been a Butler. When I started my career, back in the Summer of 1966, the stately home that appointed me then as footman had nine members of staff indoors, and four full-time gardeners outdoors, as well as a whole host of part-time and seasonal employees during the shooting season, hunting season, summer season and harvest. Now, as most of the estate has been sold off to pay death duties and the ever-increasing cost of maintenance, food and fuel bills, there are a mere three members of staff working there overall.
In my career I have only ever worked for two families, and my current employers, with whom I have been in service for just over a decade, are a most charming and compassionate family. His Lordship’s family seat is a large, but comfortable stately home, where many generations have added to the interior decoration and exterior landscape around them. The main living quarters of the family are located in a spacious apartment on the first floor, facing southwards towards a topiary parterre and a deer park. Most of the house is open to the public for most of the year, and there is only myself, a head housekeeper, two maids and a young factotum lad to preside over the preparation and running of the entire house. His Lordship has a private secretary to assist him in the running of his affairs, and Her Ladyship also has a personal assistant, as she is Patron of many charities and artistic institutions, whereby she is frequently required to stay up in London, at the family’s other residence.
Everybody works extremely hard, and our life here is delightful, interesting and enviable in all respects, but one. There is one person, below stairs, who spoils the whole smooth running of the menagerie, and she is the Cook, Mrs. P.
Mrs. P, who is loathed and feared by everyone, other than her employers, is a stocky, foul-mouthed Northern Lady of a certain age, with wiry grey hair that sits in a messy bun on top of her wrinkly head, to match the wrinkly tights that surround her corpulent legs, a faint odour of moth balls permeating her tight fitting, polyester clothes. She has worked for the family since she was 15 years old, and as a result of entering service so young, and having been here so long, she assumes she is head of the household and can command each member of staff, including myself, to do her bidding.
She cannot cook, and many a time she has produced such awful, disastrous meals, that guests have resorted to quietly driving into town after lunch, for sandwiches, Scotch eggs and a proper cup of tea, not wishing to be rude to their hosts by intimating that they could not eat the inedible ordure set before them. Whole plates of food are frequently returned untouched, the cooked breakfasts sit simmering, brown, flat and encrusted under polished silver domes and rock hard scones and bread rolls are used as cricket balls by the children. I have never had a good staff meal in the last decade. We all hate Mrs. P vehemently, while quietly and subversively plotting her deserved and untimely demise.
His Lordship, however, will not hear any complaints whatsoever. Any attempts to undermine or criticise Mrs. P’s laziness, lack of interest and knowledge of cooking is brushed aside. The rest of the servants and I have come to the conclusion that, somewhere along the unblemished history of this family, she must have spied something, or know of someone, that could potentially create a scandal, and as a result, her position, her accommodation and furthermore, her not inconsiderable, and frequently bragged about pension, are safe. She behaves as if she were truly, and inexplicably, untouchable.
A few weeks ago some very important dignitaries came to stay for the weekend; minor European royalty and some great, noble friends of the family who have been to stay on many an occasion, and, therefore, have learned to bring their own food in Tupperware containers. Mrs. P decided she would make a venison casserole with dumplings, and she ordered one of the maids, a young girl with virtually no kitchen training whatsoever, to peel, chop and prepare all the ingredients, while she sat in front of the open Rayburn reading “OK Magazine”, smoking and moaning at how over-worked she was. She then stood peering menacingly over the girl’s shoulder, with the ash from her cigarette leaning dangerously towards the chopping board, barking that all the pieces were far too small, and large chunks are what made a stew appetising. Mrs. P then proceeded to do what she normally does; she threw everything into one pot, poured far too much cold water into it, failed to season with salt and pepper, but insisted on adding an entire packet of old, dried herbs and sachet of a well-known brand of unmentionable supermarket “ready casserole mix”.
Despite the fact that the walled kitchen garden staff sell entire wooden trays full of fresh herb pots to the paying visitors every year, she will not contemplate venturing the few steps outside the back kitchen door to collect them and use them in our meals. She will not hear of fresh, raw ingredients, believing that, like laundry, all food must be thoroughly boiled to within a millimetre of its life, after which, the dinner must be left interminably in the hot Belling warming oven, steaming and festering quietly, until everyone has sat down. The malodorous manifestations of this woman’s ineptitude and idleness are foisted upon innocent, unsuspecting, hungry guests, while His Lordship, pale, balding and etiolated, remarks how clever Mrs. P is to feed such vast, hungry hoards with so much comfort food. There is as much comfort in Mrs. P’s food as a First World War Somme trench, but he is not to know since he has never eaten a decent meal in his entire life, having been a mere babe when Mrs.P first took up her appointment here.
Mrs. P has one day and one afternoon off a week. The rest of the household staff and I decided that enough was enough. On one such day we would hold a secret staff meeting in my room, which is at the very end of the kitchen corridor, in the basement, near the boot and boiler room, in a private area where no one else is allowed to enter without the keys. Therein we would hatch a plan on how we would rid ourselves of this wretched woman, write an advertisement in The Lady Magazine and find ourselves a new cook. We would then present the filled application letters to Her Ladyship, and upon seeing the veritable array of talented, experienced and skilful cooks that were able to replace Mrs. P at a moment’s notice, she would have no choice but to interview at least a couple, or more. The cheery, willing and enthusiastic applicants would be so impressed with the large, vaulted kitchen, scrubbed (by me) pine tables, unused bread ovens, capacious and empty dairy rooms and Babylonian kitchen garden overflowing with God’s own bounty, they would leap at the opportunity to be the new “Head Cook”, which we would write with a capital “H” and a capital “C”, and quite possibly underline (if there were no extra cost).
I closed my eyes and already imagined warm, colourful and fragrant plates of tenderly cooked Mediterranean vegetables, drizzled with fruity olive oil or crisp, meaty beef steaks, fried in butter and oozing rich, garnet red juices. I could see cake stands filled with piles of soft, golden meringues, fresh summer strawberries and clotted Devon cream, glossy chocolate eclairs, tiered sponge cakes and glazed fruit pastries. Lovingly prepared, well cooked and beautifully presented food would soon be within our hungry grasp. We all had to work together, secretly and silently, to ensure the dispatch of the invidious Mrs. P.
To be continued shortly.