SOMEONE HAD TOLD Dex that the queen lived in Victoria. So did he, but she had a palace and he had one room in a street off Warwick Way. Still he liked the idea that she was his neighbour. He liked quite a lot about the new life he had been living for the past few months. He had this job with Dr. Jefferson that meant he could work in a garden three mornings a week, and Dr. Jefferson had said he would speak to the lady next door about doing a morning for her. While he was drawing his incapacity benefit, he had been told he shouldn’t get any wages, but Dr. Jefferson never asked, and maybe the lady called Mrs. Neville-Smith wouldn’t either.
Jimmy, who drove Dr. Jefferson to work at the hospital every day, had asked Dex round to the pub that evening. The pub, on the corner of Hexam Place and Sloane Gardens, was called the Dugong, a funny name that Dex had never before heard. There was going to be a meeting there for all the people who worked in Hexam Place. Dex had never been to a meeting of any sort and didn’t know if he would like it, but Jimmy had promised to buy him a Guinness, which was his favourite drink. He would have drunk a Guinness every evening with his tea if he could have afforded it. He was halfway along the Pimlico Road when he got out his mobile and looked to see if there was a message or a text from Peach. There sometimes was and it always made him feel happy. Usually the message called him by his name and said he had been so good that Peach was giving him ten free calls or something like that. There was nothing this time, but he knew there would be again or that Peach might even speak to him. Peach was his God. He knew that because when the lady upstairs saw him smiling at his mobile and making a message come back over and over, she said, “Peach is your God, Dex.”
He needed a God to protect him from the evil spirits. It was quite a while since he had seen any of them, and he knew this was because Peach was protecting him, just as he knew that if one was near him he should look out for, Peach would warn him. He trusted Peach as he had never trusted any human being.
He stopped outside the Dugong, which he knew well because it was next door to Dr. Jefferson’s house. Not joined on to but next door, for Dr. Jefferson’s was big and standing alone and with a large garden for him to look after. The pub sign was some kind of big fish with half its body sticking out of blue, wavy water. He knew it was a fish because it was in the sea. He pushed the door open and there was Jimmy, waving to him in a friendly way. The other people round the big table all looked at him, but he could tell at once that none of them were evil spirits.
“I AM NOT a servant.” Thea helped herself to a handful of mixed nuts. “You may be but I’m not.”
“What are you then?” said Beacon.
“I don’t know. I just do little jobs for Damian and Roland. You want to remember I’ve got a degree.”
“Blessed is she who sitteth not in the seat of the scornful.” Beacon moved the bowl out of Thea’s reach. “If you’re going to eat from the common nuts, you ought not to put your hand in among them when it’s been in your mouth.”
“Don’t quarrel, children,” said June. “Let’s be nice. If you’re not a servant, Thea, you won’t be eligible to join the St. Zita Society.”
It was August and the day had been sunny and warm. The full complement of those who would compose the society couldn’t be there. Rabia, being a Moslem and a nanny, never went out in the evening, let alone to a pub; Zinnia, cleaner for the Princess and the Stills and Dr. Jefferson, didn’t live in; and Richard was cooking dinner for Lady Studley’s guests while Sondra, his wife, waited at table. Montserrat, the Stills’ au pair, said she might come, but she had a mysterious task to perform later; and the newly arrived Dex, gardener to Dr. Jefferson, never opened his mouth except to say “Cheers.” But Henry was still expected, and as June was complaining about the Dugong’s nuts being unsalted and therefore tasteless, he walked in.
With his extreme height and marked resemblance to Michelangelo’s David, he would in days gone by have been footman material. Indeed, in 1882 his great-great-great-grandfather had been footman to a duke. Henry was the youngest of the group after Montserrat, and although he looked like a Hollywood star of the thirties, he was in reality driver and sometime gardener and handyman to Lord Studley, performing the tasks that Richard couldn’t or wouldn’t do. His employer referred to him with a jovial laugh as his “general factotum.” He was never called Harry or Hal.
Beacon said it was his round and what was Henry going to have. “The house white, please.”
“That’s not for men. That’s lady juice.”
“I’m not a man, I’m a boy. And I’m not drinking beer or spirits till next week when I’m twenty-five. Did you see there’s been another boy stabbed? Down on the Embankment. That makes three this week.”
“We don’t have to talk about it, Henry,” said June.
One who plainly didn’t want to talk about it was Dex, who drank the last of his Guinness, got up, and left, saying nothing. June watched him go and said, “No manners, but what can you expect? Now we have to talk about the society. How do you set up a society, anyway?”
Jimmy said in a ponderous tone, “You pick a chairman, only you mustn’t call him a chairman because he may be a lady. You call him a chair.”
“I’m not calling any bloke a piece of furniture.” Thea reached for the nuts bowl. “Why can’t we make Jimmy the chairperson and June the secretary and the rest of us just members. Then we’re away. This can be the inception meeting of the St. Zita Society.”
Henry was sending a text on his iPhone. “Who’s St. Zita?”
June had found the title for the society. “She’s the patron saint of domestic servants, and she gave her food and clothes to the poor. If you see a picture of her, she’ll be holding a bag and a bunch of keys.”
“This boy that was stabbed,” said Henry, “his mum was on the TV and she said he was down to get three A-levels and he’d do anything for anyone. Everybody loved him.”
Jimmy shook his head. “Funny, isn’t it? All these kids that get murdered and whatever, you never hear anyone say they were slimeballs and a menace to the neighbourhood.”
“Well, they wouldn’t when they’d died, would they?” Henry’s iPhone tinkled to tell him a text had come. It was the one he wanted, and he grinned a little at Huguette’s message. “What’s the society for, anyway?”
“Solidarity,” said Jimmy, “supporting each other. And we can have outings and go to shows.”
“We can do that anyway. We don’t have to have a servants’ society to go and see Les Miz.”
“I’m not a servant,” said Thea.
“Then you can be an honorary member,” said June. “Well, that’s my lot. It’s got quite dark and the Princess will start fretting.”
Montserrat didn’t come and no one knew what the “mysterious task” was. Jimmy and Thea talked about the society for an hour or so, what was it for and could it restrain employers from keeping their drivers up till all hours and forced to drink Coke while they awaited their employer’s call. Not that he included Dr. Jefferson, who was an example to the rest of them. Henry wanted to know who that funny little guy with the bushy hair was, Dex or something, he’d never seen him before.
“He does our garden.” Jimmy had got into the habit of referring to Simon Jefferson’s property as if it belonged equally to the paediatrician and himself. “Dr. Jefferson took him on out of the kindness of his heart.” Jimmy finished his lager, said dramatically, “He sees evil spirits.”
“He what?” Henry gaped as Jimmy had intended him to.
“Well, he used to. He tried to kill his mother and they put him inside—well, a place for the criminally insane. There was a psychiatrist saw to him and he was a pal of Dr. Jefferson, and when the psychiatrist had cured him, they let him out because they said he’d never do it again and Dr. Jefferson gave him that job with us.”
Thea looked uneasy. “D’you think that’s why he left when he did without saying good-bye? Talking about stabbing was too near home? D’you think that’s what it was?”
“Dr. Jefferson,” said Jimmy, “says he’s cured. He’ll never do it again. His friend swore blind he wouldn’t.”
Henry left last because he fancied another glass of lady juice. The others had all gone in the same direction. Their employers’ homes were all in Hexam Place, a street of white-painted stucco or golden brickwork houses known to estate agents as Georgian, though none had been built before 1860. Number six, on the opposite side to the Dugong, was the property of Her Serene Highness, the Princess Susan Hapsburg, a title incorrect in every respect except her Christian name. The Princess, as she was known to the members of the St. Zita Society among others, was eighty-two years old and had lived in this house for nearly sixty years, and June, four years younger, had been there with her for the same length of time.
Steps ran down into the area and June’s door, but when she came home after having been out in the evenings, she entered by the front door even though this meant climbing up eight stairs instead of walking down twelve. Some evenings June’s polymyalgia rheumatica made climbing up a trial, but she did it so that passing pedestrians and other residents of Hexam Place might know she was more of a friend to the Princess than a paid employee. Zinnia had bathed Gussie that day and brought in a new kind of air freshener so that the doggy smell was less pronounced. It was warm. Mean in most respects, the Princess was lavish with the central heating and kept it on all summer, opening windows when it got too hot.
June could hear the Princess had Holby City on but marched in just the same. “Now, what can I get you, madam? A nice vodka and tonic or a freshly squeezed orange juice?”
“I don’t want anything, dear. I’ve had my vodka.” The Princess didn’t turn round. “Are you drunk?” She always asked that question when she knew June had been to the pub.
“Of course not, madam,” June answered as always.
“Well, don’t talk any more, dear. I want to know if this chap has got psoriasis or a malignant melanoma. You’d better go to bed.”
It was a command, and friend or no friend, after sixty years June knew it was wiser to obey. The young ones in St. Zita’s might be pals with their employers, Montserrat even called Mrs. Still “Lucy,” but when you were eighty-two and seventy-eight, things were different, the rules had not relaxed much since the days when Susan Borrington was running away with that awful Italian boy and June was going with her to his home in Florence. June went off to bed and was falling asleep when the internal phone rang.
“Did you put Gussie to bed, dear?”
“I forgot,” June murmured, barely conscious.
“Well, do it now, will you?”
THE AREAS OF these houses were all different, some with cupboards under the stairs, others with cupboards in the wall dividing this area from next door’s, all with plants in pots, tree ferns, choisyas, avocados grown from stones, even a mimosa, the occasional piece of statuary. All had some kind of lighting, usually a wall light, globular or cuboid. Number seven, home of the Stills and next door but three to the Dugong, was one of those with a cupboard in the wall and no pot plants. The hanging bulb over the basement door had not been switched on, but enough pale light from a streetlamp showed Henry a figure standing just inside the wall cupboard. Henry stopped and peered over the railings. The figure, a man’s, retreated as far as it could go into the shallow recesses of the cupboard.
Possibly a burglar. There had been a lot of crime round here recently. Only last week, Montserrat had told him, someone had just walked through the window of number five, home of the Neville-Smiths, taken the television, a briefcase full of money, and the keys to a BMW and walked out the front door to drive away in the car. What could you expect if you had no window locks and you had actually left a downstairs window open two inches? This man was obviously up to no good, a phrase Henry had heard his employer use and which he liked. Lord Studley would tell him to call the police on his mobile, but he didn’t always do what Lord Studley recommended and was in fact off to do something of which he would have deeply disapproved.
Henry was turning away when the basement door opened and Montserrat appeared. She waved to Henry, said hi, and beckoned the man out of the cupboard. Must be her boyfriend. Henry expected them to kiss but they didn’t. The man went inside and the door closed. Fifteen minutes later, having forgotten about the burglar or boyfriend, he was in Chelsea, in the Honourable Huguette Studley’s flat. These days the pattern of Henry’s visits followed the same plan: bed first, then arguing. Henry would have preferred to forgo the arguing and spend twice as long in bed, but this was seldom allowed. Huguette (named for her French grandmother) was a pretty girl of nineteen with a large red mouth and large blue eyes and hair her grandmother would have called frizzy but others recognised as the big, curly bush made fashionable by Julia Roberts in Charlie Wilson’s War. The argument was always begun by Huguette.
“Don’t you see, Henry, that if you lived here with me, we could stay in bed all the time? There wouldn’t be any arguing because we’d have nothing to argue about.”
“And don’t you see that your dad would sack me? On two counts,” said Henry, who had picked up a certain amount of parliamentary language from his employer, “to be absolutely clear, like not living at number eleven and like shagging his daughter.”
“You could get another job.”
“How? It took me a year to get this one. Your dad’d give me a reference, would he? I should coco.”
“We could get married.”
If Henry ever thought of marriage, it would be when he was about fifty and to someone with money of her own and a big house in the suburbs. “No one gets married anymore, and anyway, I’m outta here. You want to remember I have to be outside number eleven at seven a.m. in the Beemer waiting for your dad when he chooses to come, which may not be till nine, right?”
“Text me,” said Huguette.
Henry walked back. An urban fox emerged from the area of number five, gave him an unpleasant look, and crossed the road to plunder Miss Grieves’s dustbin. Upstairs at number eleven a light was still on in Lord and Lady Studley’s bedroom. Henry stood for a while, looking up, hoping their curtains might part and Lady Studley look down, preferably in her black lace nightgown, bestow on him a fond smile, and purse her lips in a kiss. But nothing happened. The light went out and Henry let himself in by the area door.
INSTEAD OF OPENING the door to her bedsit with en suite bathroom (called a studio flat by her employers), Montserrat had led the caller up the basement stairs to the ground floor and then the next flight, which swept round in a half circle to the gallery. The house was silent apart from the soft patter of Rabia’s slippered feet on the nursery floor above. Montserrat tapped on the third door on the right, then opened it and said, “Rad’s here, Lucy.” She left them to it, as she put it to Rabia five minutes later. “If they’re all asleep, why don’t you come down for a bit. I’ve got a half bottle of vodka.”
“You know I don’t drink, Montsy.”
“You can have the orange juice I got to go with the vodka.”
“I wouldn’t hear Thomas if he cries. He’s teething.”
“He’s been teething for weeks, if not months,” said Montserrat. “If he belonged to me, I’d drown him.”
Rabia said she shouldn’t talk like that, it was wicked, so Montserrat started telling the nanny about Lucy and Rad Sothern. Rabia put her fingers in her ears. She went back to the children, Hero and Matilda fast asleep in the bedroom they shared, baby Thomas restive but silent in his cot in the nursery. Rabia puzzled sometimes about calling a bedroom a nursery because as far as she knew—her father worked in one—a nursery was a place for growing plants. She never asked, she didn’t want to look foolish.
Montserrat had called out good-bye and left. Time passed slowly. It was getting late now and Rabia thought seriously of going to bed in her bedroom at the back. But what if Mr. Still came up here when he got home? He sometimes did. Thomas began to cry, then to scream. Rabia picked him up and began walking him up and down, the sovereign remedy. The nursery overlooked the street, and from the window she saw Montserrat letting the man called Rad out by way of the area steps. Rabia shook her head, not at all excited or amused as Montserrat had expected her to be, but profoundly shocked.
Thomas was quiet now but began grizzling again when laid down in his cot. Rabia had great reserves of patience and loved him dearly. She was a widow, both of whose children had died young. This, according to one of the doctors, was due to her having married her first cousin. But Nazir himself hadn’t lived long either, and now she was alone. Rabia sat in the chair beside the cot, talking to Thomas softly. When he began to cry again, she picked him up and carried him to the table where the kettle was and the little fridge in the corner and began making him a warm milky drink. She was too far from the window to see or hear the car, and the first she knew of Preston Still’s arrival was the sound of his rather heavy feet on the stairs. Instead of stopping on the floor below where his wife lay sleeping, they carried on up. As she had expected. Like the duck in Jemima Puddle-Duck—a book Rabia sometimes read to the children and which, they said, sounded funny in her accent—Preston was an anxious parent. Quite a contrast to his wife, Rabia often thought. He came in, looking tired and harassed. He had been at a conference in Brighton, she knew, because Lucy had told her.
“Is he all right?” Preston picked up Thomas and squeezed him too hard for the child’s comfort. His playing with Thomas or even talking to him was a rare occurrence. His care was concentrated in concern for Thomas’s health. “There’s nothing wrong, is there? If there’s the slightest thing, we should call Dr. Jefferson. He’s a good friend, I know he’d come like a shot.”
“He’s very all right, Mr. Still.” The use of given names to Rabia’s employer did not extend to the master of the house. “He doesn’t want to sleep, that’s all.”
“How peculiar,” Preston said dismally. The idea of anyone not wanting to sleep, especially someone of his own blood, was alien to him. “And the girls? I thought Matilda had a bit of a cough when I saw her yesterday.”
Rabia said that Matilda and Hero were sound asleep in the adjoining room. Nothing was wrong with any of the children, and if Mr. Still would just lay Thomas down gently, he would certainly settle. Knowing what would please Preston, get rid of him, and let her go back to her own bed, she said, “He was just missing his daddy, and now you are here, he will be fine.”
No paediatrician then, no more disturbance. She could go to bed. She could sleep for maybe five hours. What she had said to Mr. Still about Thomas’s missing his daddy wasn’t true. It was a lie told to please him. Secretly, Rabia believed that none of the children would miss either of their parents for a moment. They seldom saw them. She put her lips to Thomas’s cheek and whispered, “My sweetheart.”
The St. Zita Society
This captivating novel about residents and servants on one block of a posh London street is a “sex comedy and a social satire, of the ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ variety, with a few murders mixed in for our added delight” (The Washington Post Book World).
Life on Hexam Place appears orderly on the outside: drivers take their employers to and from work, dogs are walked, flowers are planted in gardens. But beneath this tranquil veneer, this quintessentially London world of servants and their masters is set to combust. Henry, the handsome valet to Lord Studley, is sleeping with both the Lord’s wife and his university-age daughter. Montserrat, the Still family’s lazy au pair, assists Mrs. Still in keeping secret her illicit affair with a television actor—in exchange for pocket cash. June, the haughty housekeeper to a princess of dubious origin, tries to enlist her fellow house-helpers into a “society” to address complaints about their employers. Meanwhile, Dex, the disturbed gardener to several families on the block, thinks a voice on his cell phone is giving him godlike instructions—commands that could imperil the lives of all those in Hexam Place.
- Scribner |
- 272 pages |
- ISBN 9781451666694 |
- August 2013