The unwritten rule was no Pyaridge business until after breakfast, and normally Janet Miller, the estate manager, cut it as close as possible, coming in with the second carafe of coffee, a coil notebook in one hand and her own cup and saucer in the other. But Janet had stayed away the first day. She’d sent breakfast up, and it had been a total disaster with unbalanced trays and Emily (slightly stoned on painkillers) tipping, spilling, arguing with the fuss and finally just shouting everybody out of her room. The next day, with no notebook, no coffee and an anxious look, Janet had danced around Emily’s questions until, overcome with frustration, Emily had demanded things return to normal or (and the threat was real) she’d go back to London and they could all fend for themselves. Today was going to be that normal day, and Emily (God, she just wanted to go back to bed!) was determined — even though the thought of trudging through council minutes, potholes, tenant requests and purchase orders almost made her sick. She smeared jam on her last piece of toast, holding it down with a clumsy thumb, and right on cue . . . .
Janet Miller paused briefly at the door in the one concession she made to the formality that should have existed between the two women. Actually, they’d grown up together– whenever Emily hadn’t been parcelled off to boarding school or America or the wicked aunts of Cheltenham. They had been close as girls and had gotten to know each other better as adults. Now, after some difficult years, they had a “We’re in this together, alone” camaraderie that sometimes develops between women who find themselves in a world where they’re too young, too professional and too female. Mainly it worked, but sometimes their “Aux barricades!” attitude got in the way.
Emily looked up. Janet had her concerned face on, which was actually a relief from all the worried faces Emily had seen over the last three days. “This can work,” she thought and took a breath.
“Good morning, Miller. And how are you this fine, frozen morning?”
Janet Miller sat down, looking sceptical.
“It’s cold up there.” Emily gestured with her good hand. “I’m not getting naked at 40 below zero. Take it or leave it. Now, what do we have today?
“I thought we’d settle the Christmas schedule and tie up some loose ends — if that’s alright?”
“Okay, let’s see.” Janet opened her notebook.
“Right. No lights again this year, I’m afraid. But the tree is going up today. It’s not a large as last year, but it’s local. Less expensive. The children from the primary are coming tomorrow to decorate. The school has arranged transportation, and I’ve enlisted some of the staff to supervise. But they’ll expect an appearance?”
It was a question.
“I’ll need some help,” Emily said seriously, lifting the lapel of her work shirt.
Janet nodded. “And lunch. I’ve already spoken to Mrs. Tisdale.”
“So no riding tomorrow, then?” Emily said.
“I should think you won’t be riding for a while.”
Emily made a schoolgirl face. Janet ignored it. (On a different day, she would have probably stuck out her tongue.)
“The Christmas Market’s on the 19th. Again, an appearance?”
“You’ll need to bring money. We’re thinking of Beecham’s jam and perhaps something from the Crystal Shop. I’ll leave you the details. And we going to have two nights of carollers.”
“The 21st and the 23rd. It seems there’s been a rebellion in the Weldon Choral Society. There was a falling out over the program. Unfortunately, the Rebel Alliance called us first and nobody twigged. Now we’re stuck It will be two night for you, but the rest is taken care of. We’ll just split the menu. Little meat pies, our brandy, coffee, tea, and the local shortbread. Let’s see. Church on Christmas Eve this year. Apparently, a special service. Two hundred years, I believe. They’ll need a donation. We’re at the end of our Charity budget, and there’s still Boxing Day to do, but anything less than a thousand pounds and there will be talk. I was thinking . . . .”
Emily quit listening for a few seconds. The pressure in her hand was starting to throb, and it all seemed so endless — even the baby Jesus wanted a piece of the pie. She closed her eyes tight, exhaled and started over.
“. . . and the pagans want to use Stride Hill again for their Solstice bonfire.”
“An appearance?” Emily said sarcastically.
“Certainly not. But we did have some trouble with them last year. They left a bit of a mess. So I’m thinking . . . .”
“Who’s the Grand Poobah these days?”
“One of the Clifton boys. Ronald I believe. He was behind us in school.”
“Leave me his information, and I’ll put the fear of God into him.”
The two women made eye contact and smirked at the unintended joke.
“How are you holding up?”
“Just a couple more, I think.” Emily said, and closed her eyes.
“Alright, then, Christmas dinner is very much set up. It will arrive in a van on the 24th and we don’t have to do anything except the tables.” Janet pointed. “We can do those in advance. And, of course, accommodations for the catering staff. They do cleanup and then leave on Boxing Day. It’s a lot more expensive, but it’s better than the mess we used to go through with Epiphany. We do have two empty seats at your table, though. The Claypools are going to see their new granddaughter, so they’ll be gone until after the New Year. I was thinking of adding the Witherspoons. They’ve had a poor year, and lately they’ve been losing chickens.”
“Three nights in a row. It’s a badger. Last night he killed one and left two half dead in the enclosure. We’ll need to apply for a permit and that’s going to take forever. Remember the fine we got for the fox last . . . .”
The telephone rang, and both women looked up in shock. “Morning prayers” (as they called it) were sacred, and everyone on the estate knew that. Janet went over to the sideboard and answered.
“Yes?” It was an accusation.
“There’s a man on the telephone looking for her ladyship. He’s been quite persistent, and now he’s threatening to go to the police and report she’s been kidnapped.”
“What? Is he still there? Put him through.”
“Hello? Yes. Who am I speaking to?” It was Janet’s you’re-in-deep-trouble voice. “Well, Mr. Sinclair . . . .”
“Sinclair!” Emily turned in her chair and motioned for the telephone.
Janet put her hand over the receiver. Emily motioned again, and Janet reached the telephone over to her. Emily fumbled with her bandaged fingers, juggled and finally held the receiver up to the wrong ear with the wrong hand.
“Hi. How are you?”
“I’m fine. Well, no, not so much, but. Why are you calling me on the estate telephone?”
“There was no answer at the number I have, so I had Sydney find you on doodle.”
“Google,” Emily corrected. “Sydney, of course. How is Sydney? I never got to give him a proper thank you.”
“He’s alright. Making a nuisance of himself, trying to look busy.”
“Busy? You’re not working?”
“No, they close the office for Christmas. Sydney isn’t sure what he’s supposed to do when I don’t call. He’s trying to make . . . .”
“You’re not working?”
“No, I said that. Are you alright?”
“Yes, yes – um – uh” And Emily suddenly decided, “What are you doing for Christmas?”
There was a pause.
“I hadn’t really thought about it.”
Emily could see the Sinclair shrug.
“Come here,” she said. “You can come here. We’d love to have you. Really.”
“What? Wait a minute. I just phoned to see how you were doing. I have your clothes. And I didn’t know . . . .”
“Bring them with you. Bring Sydney. It’ll be fun. We’ll go riding and roast chestnuts and drink hot brandy and …. C’mon, we’ll have a great time.”
“I don’t think Sydney’s ever even seen a horse.”
“I’ll find him a girlfriend, then. Really. You’re not doing anything. Why not?”
This was a serious Sinclair pause. Emily kind of held her breath.
“Alright. Sounds good. When should I arrive?”
“Right now – uh,” Emily looked down at her work shirt. “No – uh — tomorrow. You can help me decorate the tree. We’ll pick you up at the station.”
“I’ll let you know. Answer your phone.”
“I will. Yes. Okay, see you tomorrow.”
“Is there anything you want me to bring?
Emily looked back at Janet and smiled for the first time in three days.
“Do you know anything about badgers?”
Tuesday – Part 3