Two well-dressed, after work women having a drink together is not an unusual sight in the summer pubs of London. And these two women, Lady Perry-Turner and Janet Miller, were perfect for the part, sitting in the sun bright window, attracting the eyes of more than a few passersby. They were old schoolgirl friends and laughingly, happy about it. And even though they’d gone their own way and hadn’t seen each other since – My God, has it been four years? – it didn’t matter. They had been so close, so young and had shared so many tender, awkward years that it was as if they’d never been apart.
“I left him. I just had enough, Magpie. I’ve been married for two and a half years, and he’s cheated on me three and a half times. I had to do something or there’s me in five years, trapped in some Legoland suburb, somewhere, up the duff every eighteen months.”
“Three and a half?”
“I caught him at the point of entry. Last week in my sitting room. With Hannah Willard’s sister, no less.”
“Stephanie?” Emily looked surprised.
“She showed up a couple of weeks ago. She’s down looking for work — or so she said. So I offered the guest room. I should have known. I was on my way to work and came back for my umbrella, and there they were — both of them — bums to the breeze on the settee. I wasn’t out the door ten minutes. But wait, here’s the best bit. Jimmy’s standing there with his Jolly Roger hitting him in the nose and he says, ‘C’mon, Janey! It’s not what it looks like!’ Imagine!” Janet laughed, “He actually said that. Can you believe it? Well, it looked like divorce to me. So I packed a bag and left. And I haven’t been back.”
“Oh, Jans! I’m so sorry.” But Emily wasn’t. In fact, she was overjoyed. And she tucked her head down slightly so the sun wouldn’t twinkle in her eyes.
Janet lifted her wine glass. “Don’t be. I’m fine. I’m free. Stephanie can pay his bills. If she lasts that long. But, enough: I don’t have any problems. I was so sorry to hear.” Janet’s voice softened in sympathy. “This is such a horrible time for poor you. You must have a ton on your plate.”
Emily gave a slight laugh. “You haven’t heard the half. Daddy wasn’t even cold and mother called in the lawyers.”
Janet looked blank.
“I’m not old enough. Apparently, because I have a uterus …” Emily put her index finger in the air, “An unmarried uterus, I can’t inherit without mother’s permission.”
“No. Her lawyers dug it up. The King James edition – 1612 or something. The title’s mine. I’m the Duchess of Weldon. I don’t need a man for that, but for everything else, until I’m twenty-five, I have to have a husband in tow or a note from mummy.
“You’re going to fight it?”
Emily smiled. “Fortunately, I don’t have to. The final accounting came out last month. Mother’s lawyers took one look and advised her to run. She signed the papers, and I drove her to the airport the next day. She’s back in Florida, waiting for the annuity cheque. I’ve a good mind to cut her off”
“You know she loves you?”
“Yes, I know. And I love her, too, dearly — but I’m more than a bit miffed that she was willing to drag me through the courts when she thought there was a fortune to be had.”
“All’s well and all that, though?”
“Not so much.” Emily reached down into her bag and pulled out a file folder. She opened it, took the top sheet of paper, turned it and pushed it across to her friend. She reached a little further and tapped the bottom of the page with her fingernail.
Janet picked up the page and scanned through the numbers. Her eyes widened and she set it down.
“Exactly. And I’ve got two more just like it.” Emily pointed to the open folder, “Death Duties and daddy’s personal debts. They’re just as bad.”
“Oh, God, Magpie! What are you going to do?”
Emily lifted one shoulder and exhaled. “The bank has given me 90 days to restructure and the name of an estate agent if I don’t. Vultures!”
Emily took a drink. “But I have an idea. That’s why I called you.”
“You’re going to sell up and come to London? We could get a flat together?” Janet liked the idea.
“No, a better idea.” Emily took another nervous sip. “You come home. Come home and work for me.”
There was a pause.
“Generous offer, Milady,” Janet bobbed her head, “And I hate to be a cow about it, but,” she pointed the paper in front of her, “you can’t afford another upstairs maid.”
“No, come home and be the estate manager.”
“What?” Janet tilted her head back, opened her mouth and stared at the ceiling. She exhaled, shook her head and brought her eyes back down to look at her friend. The two women stared at each other seriously.
“You’ve completely lost the plot. You know that?”
But before Emily could say anything, there was a dark loom over the table and a man spoke.
“Excuse me. My friends and I …” The loom gestured back to a couple of other men at the bar, “Have a wager that you girls are from …”
Without hesitation, Janet snapped her head around.
“Fuck off! We’re lesbians,” she said through her teeth — with just enough loud to be embarrassing.
The loom straightened abruptly, stammered some sounds, a few sorrys and retreated.
“They always have such impeccable timing,” Janet said, sarcastically.
“And that, Janet Dunford …” Emily raised her wine glass, “Is why I want you to manage Pyaridge Hall.”
Janet raised her glass and touched it to Emily’s. “Miller. I’m keeping the name just to take the piss. But seriously, you can’t be serious? Me manage Pyaridge Hall?”
“I am serious, Jans. More than serious. I need you. I’m not going to let a bunch of Boy’s Club bankers steal my home. I’m not. But, I’m not sure I can do it by myself. But I know we could.”
“You and I? The grey suits are going to tell us to go back to our paper dolls.” Janet picked up the page in front of her. “You owe them millions of pounds! And you look like their granddaughter, their great- granddaughter. And I’m a charter member of the Never-Finished-Uni-Because-She-Got-Married Society. Aren’t we a pair? According to them, we’re not qualified to make their tea. Believe me, you’ve never had to put up with it, but I’m in that world every day.”
Janet sat back, a little uncomfortable about being so blunt.
“And here’s your chance to get out. We can do this. You know we can. Just …” Emily shuffled through the papers in her folder, “I’m going to go get us another glass of wine. Just read this, alright? And tell me what you think.”
Emily handed Janet a couple of pages and got up to get the drinks. She knew if she could get one idea in, one that caught Janet’s interest, then she could get two, and if she got two ….
Back at the table, she wasn’t sure until Janet asked.
“You’re going to make brandy?”
“The pear trees are already there. And we can convert the old stables …”
“And you’re certain about the EU money?”
“In Paris, I shared a flat with one of the Fund Managers’ daughters. We all holidayed together. I’ve already got an appointment, and he’s as much as said yes.”
“These labour costs are way out of line.”
“We’ve got three months to wiggle them, but we don’t have money to buy equipment, so it has to be all hands to the mast.”
Janet didn’t notice the “we.”
“And unemployment is so bad at home we won’t have any problem finding people, local people with a vested interest in making it work,” Emily added and pushed her hair out of her face.
“And if we pay them right, they’ll love us for it,” Janet said without thinking — and she was hooked.
And the two women talked the sun out of the evening sky. And when evening became night, they went to dinner and their talk turned to plans, and their plans needed another bottle of wine. And somewhere around midnight, Lady Perry-Turner and the recently separated Janet Miller, two old friends, had kicked off their heels and were sitting on a low stone wall, swinging their legs and singing bits and pieces of the Spice Girls’ Greatest Hits. And they were ready to take on the world.
You can read more about Emily and Janet in the original, “Christmas at Pyaridge Hall” here
Or, find Dreyfus and the Duchess here