MDwM #5: Finally, at Helvstead and It’s a Bit of a Letdown

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Ohio Edit is pleased and privileged to be publishing Gilmore Tamny’s novel, My Days with Millicent, in serial form.

So, I stood, for the first time in so many years, gazing out the window of the south parlor, engulfed by Helvstead’s vacuum-like silence, the impermeable sort that takes up residence in uninhabited houses and would take several generations of families of ten to dissipate. I‘d expected to be given a tour, and meet the staff, but neither had taken place, and our arrival had been unheralded. Millicent dashed upstairs to change, calling for me to make her a cocktail. With a prick of uneasiness, I wondered where Lucy the alleged housekeeper might be, and if her absence indicated some new and unwelcome role for myself. I smoothed my hair, and catching my reflection, thought of the Clive portraits that used to hang in the east wing, spanning centuries: Clive’s with expressions of doleful Christian serenity or aristocratic hauteur, some pale-lipped, white-skinned and with high egg-shaped foreheads (like myself) others dark and quite beautiful (rather like Millicent). I actually had been glad these had been burned in the fire.

Millicent breezed in, wearing a crisp riding outfit and taking the drink.

“Christ!” She clapped down the glass. “We’re going to have to teach you to make a decent cocktail, Ramona.”

“Sorry, I—”

“Never mind,” Millicent joined me by the window. “Now that’s a picture of unaesthetic decrepitude. Just remnants of the fence left. Army got rid of it for mysterious reasons of their own. Have to watch it riding, nearly lost Cyclamen—poor brute stepped on a stone the size of a teapot. Fast on his feet though, and I had the whip, so it was all right.”

“I don’t remember very much about the grounds,” I said, sensing she was about to take her leave. “Could you…possibly…”

“All right. Don’t have much time though, Ramona. So. The rudimentaries.” She pointed to an ancient oak in lacey silhouette. “There, on the right, is where the garden used to be.”

“Oh, yes, I remem—“

“Beyond that is the graveyard for the servants—a clumsy bunch, by the sheer number of them—and beyond that the Clive mausoleums, the family, stillborns, you know. Oh, and the little pond—yes, the one I knocked you into—and a few other sepulchers, all wretchedly ugly. Beyond that our neighbors—Bainbridge Tarris, we grew up together—did you meet him? I still see him occasionally, tiresome old toad that. Lives in London, but when he’s here, he pops round, mostly to sneak a bottle of whiskey from the cellars. One of Molly’s favorites, fawns over him, it’s sickening. To the west are the Dials—he’s a Peer—both simply mad for Afghans. Westminster’s the Holy Grail to hear them talk. They do get out—the Afghans, I mean—from time to time, I should warn you. Unbelievably stupid, but harmless. I board Cyclamen at their stables. You’ve not become one for horses are you?”

Alarmed, I said:  “Oh, no, I—”

“Didn’t think so. Look, rain’s stopped. Now, where are my ciggies? Ah. So. During the year the horse fiends of our set barrel through each other’s properties. Except for Salbury’s shooting weekend. The most hideous people and a hundred grouse flopping around half-dead on the east field. One dragged itself into the kitchen. I think Molly gave it a whack and served it for dinner. Let’s see, go past the woods, there’s a view of dear little village of Clive Cross, vile and gossipy as ever. There’s the creek, deer capering about, and if Salisbury doesn’t prod his gamekeeper into doing something, I’ll shoot them myself. Do you know Ramona, rumor has it from time to time that some of the famed Helvstead peacocks are alive and well in the woods? I know—perfectly incredible.  I’ve never seen one. Like the Loch Ness Monster. One never knows, I suppose. Well, then. There’s the lay of the land. Now. Lucy, our journeyman housekeeper appears to be marginally competent. Molly tolerates her, which is saying something. Tell Lucy what you want—meals, times, the like. Fair warning, when Molly’s better you can guarantee she’ll descend from time to time. You best be on your mark—don’t let her bully you.” Her eyes sought mine as I made some ineffectual murmur. “She will trample all over you, Ramona, if don’t put a foot down. You can be sure of it.”

“I was frightened of her as a child,” I said, attempting a light tone.

“Any sensible person is. And age has only made her…well, all the more Molly.”

I felt awkward, and, as often happened, it was as if a button had been pushed and a pleasantry emerged, stiff, inane, and transparently ingratiating: “She must be so very fond of you to have continued—”

“Ha! Mmm. Well. More part and parcel of her worship of the English aristocracy. Oh? Didn’t you know? Practically crosses herself every time she hears young Lizzie on the wireless. Turns purple if Mrs. Simpson is mentioned. Considers you practically a product of miscengation.”

I gave a start. “Me—?”

“Yes.” She added, impatient with my shock. “Your father.”

“Why—I think that most unfair. Father came from a perfectly respectable family of—”

“School teachers? Might as well be the ‘lower races’ compared to the Clives. Not that she liked your mother.”

“Well, I must say that’s—”

“Oh, that’s just the beginning of her opinions. Fair warning, Ramona: don’t mention France, unless are prepared for a forty-five minute harangue on the Frogs. Not to mention the West Indians. Or Catholics. Or the blacks—good god, don’t get her started on the blacks. Or the Turks. Or the Germans.”

“Ah,” I said. “All right.”

“But you mustn’t kowtow to her, Ramona. She’ll bully you something dreadful. She simply needs managing.”

“Oh, dear. How awkward,” I said, trying for a cheerful tone.

“Now you’re mocking me,” she said flatly.

“No, I’m not,” I said surprised, “it seems that—”

“Oh yes, do explain it.”

I was silenced, bewildered by the sudden coldness of her voice. “I do understand. I haven’t lived with servants for some time. Yes, of course. A firm hand. I’ll be a regular Tartar. With Lucy—and Molly,” I added, over Millicent’s snort of disbelief.

“Well, can’t say I didn’t warn you, Ramona. Now: must go. Get yourself settled, and listen—I simply won’t be able to bear if you’re creeping around looking grateful.”

I opened my mouth and closed it.

“Go on, say it,” she said. “Spit it out.”

“It really is going to be difficult for me not to express any appreciation, Millicent.”

“Perhaps,” she said, lighting another cigarette with gleaming silver lighter, flame several inches high. “Perhaps not.” She flicked it shut, one-handed. “All right. Yes, yes, you’re grateful—but it’s in my interest to have you here, too, you know.”

“Of course,” I said.

“Don’t grovel. Around me, while you’re living here: that I couldn’t bear. Anyway, we’re the last, aren’t we? So you needn’t bother with the sackcloth and ashes routine.”

“None of that gives me any sort of claim, Millicent,” I said, tired of navigating my way around Millicent’s moods for the day, and thinking of the mean allowance my uncle had allotted my mother. Millicent seemed about to make a snappish retort but dropped to sit on the divan.

“I suppose I’m being horrid. God—my head’s throbbing! Look, Ramona, get me some aspirin, could you.” Her fingertips kneaded her forehead. “It’s in the lav—front hall.”

I pulled a crystal glass out of the dining room cabinet, a towering ornate affair, probably three hundred years old and quavering at the slightest touch. I found the tablets, rinsed and filled the glass, and wound my way to the sitting room.

“Thank you,” she swallowed the tablets. “Perhaps now I won’t be such a beast.”

The phone rang.  “Shall I get that?” I asked.

Millicent shook her head, plucking up the receiver.

“Yes, yes, all right. I’m leaving now.” She turned to the mirror and took out her lipstick. “So much for the homecoming. Not that you’re sentimental about this place, are you? I can’t imagine how. Mummy and Daddy were always so horrid. Well: long past, eh? Now, I’m out riding, then one of Esme’s interminable parties—don’t wait up. I instructed Lucy to stock the larder, so you shan’t be able to whinge about starving. She’s erranding—didn’t I tell you? Well, yes. After that you’re on your own.” She gave herself a final pat. “That’s it, then. Ta. Be good.”

The front door clicked shut, followed by the sound of a retreating engine. I picked up Millicent’s glass, admiring the intricate pattern that pulled the light to make a prismed network in my palm. I rubbed Millicent’s lipstick stain off the rim with a handkerchief, and placed it in the cupboard, perhaps not to be touched in fifty years.

 

Gilmore Tamny is a writer and musician who lives in Somerville, MA. She has a tumblr of line drawings here: http://linesdotscircles.tumblr.com