‘Where were you?’ she demanded, the beady little eyes in her vulture-like face narrowing with suspicion. ‘And be warned - I will brook no evasions this time!’
‘Oh, me?’ I said brightly. ‘I was at Patsy’s and stayed the night. Just came back, in fact. Don’t you remember? I told you the day before yesterday that I would stay at her place.’
Keep it simple. Don’t say anything else. Just keep it simple and for God’s sake, don’t blink.
My aunt’s glower flickered. I waited, holding my breath. I had gambled on her nature: my dear aunt was suspicious to the bone, but she also didn’t actually care tuppence about how I spent my time, as long as it didn’t threaten her social standing or the contents of her purse. If I had gotten myself killed last night she wouldn’t have cared, if I had done it in a nice, quiet manner. I saw the suspicion gradually lift from her bony face to be replaced by her usual expression of mild distaste. ‘Um… err… yes, now that you mention it I do recall something of the kind,’ she said slowly. ‘The day before yesterday, you say?’
‘Exactly,’ I confirmed, letting my smile grow even more bright and confident. ‘Where did you think I was? Did you think I spent the night in prison?’
Her mouth thinned. ‘Lillian! Don’t even joke about such a thing! It is unbecoming of a lady!’
‘Of course. I am sorry.’
Behind me, I heard Ella carefully step out of the room. She had obviously listened and knew that the danger of actual bloodshed was passed.
‘Shall we go down to breakfast?’ I suggested. ‘I am hungry after my walk.’
Nodding, and still frowning slightly, my aunt turned and led the way down the stairs. Behind her, I let out a deep breath. Thank the Lord for uncaring relatives.
Breakfast. The most important meal of the day, it is said. And, in many families under the glorious rule of Her Majesty Queen Victoria, an occasion for the entire household to gather around the table and make polite small talk about their plans for the day, while consuming luscious delicacies. I had read once, when for some reason I had peeked into a cookbook, that in the usual upper middle-class family, the following was brought to the table, for one breakfast:
• fresh sausages
• boiled eggs
• a cold ham
• porridge with fresh cream & butter
• a pheasant pie
• fresh curds and whey
• corn muffins
• fresh bread
The cookbook had also suggested that a red and white chequered tablecloth should be avoided since it could have adverse effects on the digestion.
Breakfast at my uncle’s house was slightly different. For one thing, my dear Uncle Brank only owned one tablecloth - a dark brown one, so stains would not be visible and it wouldn’t have to be washed so often. For another, the meal was not quite so opulent. And as for the polite small talk at table, that was inhibited slightly by the fact that my uncle wasn’t actually present.
Mr Brank had not come down into the dining room to take his meals for years, not since his sister and her husband had died, leaving him the task of looking after six of these strange, unpleasant little creatures commonly referred to as ‘girls’. Mr Brank was not fond of female company. He’d had to acquire a wife at some point in his life, of course, in order to produce an offspring who could someday take over the business, but at least she was a sensible, economical woman. These… ‘girls’ were another matter entirely.
Thus it was that when we arrived in the dining room that morning, the big chair at the head of the table was empty, and my aunt bore an especially sour expression on her thin face. Leadfield, our only servant, who held the position of butler, valet, scullion and shoeblack all at the same time, was waiting for us and bowed as far as his ancient back would allow.
‘Breakfast is served, Madam.’
‘Thank you, Leadfield,’ my aunt said in a cool voice, repeating the ritual that had taken place in our household for over a decade. With another bow and a sweep of his bony arm Leadfield directed us to the table.
‘Will Mr Brank be joining us at the breakfast table today, Leadfield?’ my aunt asked, continuing the ritual.
‘The master is very busy and left early for work this morning,’ Leadfield gave the expected answer. ‘I brought him his breakfast earlier, up in his study.’
I saw my aunt throw a piercing glower up at the door of Uncle Brank’s study, just visible upstairs. It had long been his inner sanctum and impenetrable fortress, where no female, not even my aunt, was allowed to enter.
When Mr Brank’s sister and her husband, my beloved mother and father, had been so inconsiderate as to die in an accident, and this horde of chattering miniature females had invaded his home, Mr Brank had wisely decided to retreat and establish a secure base in his upstairs study, where these small creatures would not dare to venture. Instead of coming down to breakfast, lunch and dinner, he preferred to have his meals brought up to him by the aged butler, or to simply eat at work. Needless to say that this did not endear us girls to his wife, who lost many an opportunity to discuss at the table with her husband such important subjects as her latest efforts in household savings and the profligacy of the neighbours.
This time, things were no different. My aunt pursed her lips as the other doors to the dining room opened and my other sisters filed in from various parts of the house, yet my uncle remained absent.
‘Are you sure he is already gone, Leadfield?’
She sniffed. ‘Well, hopefully he will join us tomorrow.’
‘Hopefully, Madam,’ Leadfield concurred.
‘You may serve the first course.’
The first and only, I thought, shaking my head.
‘Yes, Madam. Thank you, Madam.’
With all the dignity of a host of royal lackeys serving a voluptuous feast, Leadfield took the lid off the porcelain bowl in the middle of the table and poured each of us a healthy portion of porridge. To this he added some potatoes and salted herrings - the cheapest and most nourishing food that could be found on the London market. Say what you will, my uncle didn’t starve us. Over the years, I even had gotten quite a taste for salted herrings.