Mrs. P, our cook, is in hospital. You may recall, at the end of my last diary entry (15 June 2011) that we found her on the floor, in the doorway of the kitchen, where she had collapsed. When Arthur, her grandson, and I spotted her there, we thought she was dead, her skin looked so pale and her expression so lifeless.
The paramedics arrived very speedily, considering we live so far away from the nearest town. They looked after her very efficiently, and we were all there to lend a hand to ensure they were able to lift her into the ambulance.
The household staff have been given extra leave of absence days to go and see her, and we have all been into her ward with flowers from the garden, homemade biscuits, fruit from the orchard and a “Get well soon” card we all signed.
Her Ladyship said we all had to pitch in together, to make do until Mrs.P was fit and able to return to her duties. Her heart condition is quite severe, and it turns out she needs to rest.
One does not mean to sound mischievous at a time like this, but ever since I began my employment here, over a decade ago, Mrs.P has hardly moved from her kitchen chair. She needs a rest? No, stop me, I mustn’t continue.
Anyway, His Lordship was very kind to me and said that, as I had already booked my annual leave many months ago, at the end of last year, to be precise, I was perfectly entitled to take my holiday as I had planned.
“Don’t worry B!” he said with his customary matter-a-fact expedience. “We will cope. Everything will be fine, there are no guests due to stay anyway. You go off and have yourself a good time.”
“Thank-you my Lord” I replied, knowing full well that, in my absence all manner of trouble would be brewing. So often I have to appear anodine and inscrutable, whilst inside the wheels of angst turn their frenzied coils. Arthur would, of course, use this opportunity to try to oust me from my position, by fair means or fowl, hatching Machiavellian plots and plans to ensure that, upon my return, the other servants regarded him as a mentor, or as a figure of seniority.
He seemed all unassuming on the exterior, but I did not trust him at all. With this in mind I wrote list upon list of the chores that needed doing in my absence, to ensure that everyone was kept busy while I was gone.A busy pair of hands is one that does not stray. There would be no time to plot or create divisions in the kitchen, because the kitchen would become a hive of activity.
The plates and pots had to be removed from the kitchen dresser and everything had to be washed and replaced. All the kitchen knives needed sharpening, the silver cleaning, the pantry shelves dusting and the scullery sink scrubbing. All the wooden floors in the servants’ quarters needed sweeping, washing and polishing.
The kitchen and dining room curtains needed to go to the dry-cleaners in town, and the windows and sills scrubbed, dried and polished. The back boiler rooms all needed to be cleaned, the log baskets re-filled and stocked for the winter and lists made of the schedule of works for the new staff that are due to join us in the new cafe tea room that is due to open in the grounds when the builders have left. There. List after list, each member of staff, from maid to housekeeper, from Arthur to the young lad who works here part-time as footman, everyone had more work to do than they could possibly contemplate in several weeks, let alone a few days.
In addition, there remained the issue that all the shopping and preparations for all the family meals would now be shared between the housekeeper and the two maids.
And so I packed my suitcase and off I went on my holiday. I went to stay with my sister and her family, on their farm on the Welsh marshes. We went fishing and walking, we ate roast lamb with mint sauce, picnicked on scones with homemade jam and clotted cream, we visited Museums, galleries and Welsh woollen mills. The change of scene did me a world of good. Working as a butler in a large stately home has many priviliges and benefits but there is no doubt that it has its downsides.
Mrs.P has been the main downside, and the dreadful food we have to endure. In addition, I live in a tiny room in the basement of the house, and with all the comings and goings there is scarcely a moment to myself. Privacy is out of the question.
As His Lordship and Her Ladyship also reside in another house in London for part of the year, the burden of responsibility on my shoulders is sometimes quite exhausting.
Still, I must not grumble. There are many that would happily fill my shoes. When I look at how hard my sister’s husband works, as a sheep farmer, and how very little he is paid, then my position seems positively fabulous. I have a very good wage, a good pension, no living costs, wonderful grounds to enjoy and every Christmas his Lordship gives me a very nice envelope as a way of saying “thank-you” for my hard work during the year. To complain would be churlish.
I therefore approached my holiday with cheeriness and gladness, ensuring I did not waste a single moment of its enjoyment.
Upon my return to the house, I realised that things had changed as soon as I entered. There was a very strange feeling, in the corridors, in the kitchen and in the pantry. I left my suitcase by the back corridor and went for a quick walk round to see who was there.
“Oh hello, MR.B!” said the Housekeeper. “Did you have a nice time?” she asked me, as she sat in her study writing her weekly shopping list.
“I did, very nice, thank-you” I replied. I still could not fathom what was different. It was something in the air, something I was not used to. Everything seemed in order, there was no untidiness or evidence of slackness.
“We’ve all been doing the jobs on the lists, Mr.B” continued the housekeeper. “But I am afraid that we’ve not all finished. Arthur, in particular, has had his mind on one or two other things….” She explained, rather enigmatically.
I wondered what those other things were, and I rather hoped they were not girls. His Lordship did not approve of this sort of thing within his household, so I was steeling myself for the talk I would have to have with the young boy that evening.
As we walked back into the kitchen to put the hot water on for a cup of tea, Arthur appeared from the back porch, from where he had been collecting the meat delivery from the butcher’s van. He placed a big cardboard box filled with sausages, a chicken, some pork pies, a loin of pork and some stewing steak on the kitchen table.
“Mr. B, I am sorry to tell you I have not quite finished…” he started telling me, but as his sentence trailed in mid-air my eyes were diverted.
I suddenly realised what it was that felt so different about my homecoming. It was the smell. There was the most wonderful smell of food, really nice food. I could smell something baking, and as Arthur opened the Rayburn to take out a loaf of bread the penny dropped.
On the Rayburn stove were two pots, one containing the most delicious looking fish stew I had ever seen, and the second one contained a tomato soup that was being reduced. On a wooden board at the side I could see the chopped remains and seeds from our very own garden tomatoes, the ones we sell to visitors at the weekends.
Arthur was busying himself, wooden spoon in one hand, stirring the sauce, oven glove in the other, shaking the pot like a chef.
“At least you’ll have a good dinner tonight Mr.B. After your long journey, we all thought you could do with a nice meal.”
The young boy who had been to catering college, but had abandoned his dreams of being a chef because his grandmother had tried to deviate his attentions to becoming a butler instead, had seized this opportunity to do what he really wanted: to cook.
The reason why he had not finished the list of chores I had instructed him to do, the housekeeper told me, was because Arthur had spent the entire time I had been away to prepare the family meals. Without His Lordship, or Mrs.P being any the wiser, Arthur had replaced his grandmother.
And as the servants and I finished our dinner duties that same evening, and sat down to eat our own staff supper, I uncorked a bottle of really good red wine I had been saving from my last Christmas bonus. We all toasted Mrs.P’s health, her (hopefully not too) speedy recovery, and the talents of this surprisingly industrious young man.
Though long of tooth and grey of hair, even this old man can be pleasantly surprised every now and then.