Life and Death in Eaton Square
by Owen Traylor
“Will that be all, sir?” asked Harold Evans, attentive as always to Sir Reginald’s needs.
“Yes, Evans, that will be all, thank you. Goodnight,” replied Harold’s octogenarian employer.
Harold had served as butler to Sir Reginald for forty years, ever since Sir Reginald had inherited his father’s title, his estate in Berkshire, and this house in Eaton Square. The previous butler had taken the opportunity of the generational change to retire, and Harold, a Londoner in his mid-twenties at the time, had applied for the position, and never left.
Having secured the front door and checked the basement kitchen and each of the rooms on the ground floor, Harold switched off the lights and trudged slowly up the second staircase, leading to his rooms in the attic. Though modest, the accommodation suited him well. He had few possessions, and never received visitors, so had no need of larger quarters.
Harold sat in his armchair and pondered the forthcoming weekend. One of the advantages of being butler to a London home was that the family usually spent the weekends in the country.
In Sir Reginald’s case, his routine was to leave London every Friday morning and be driven up to his estate. This was where his second wife, Lady Pamela, lived permanently; she made no secret of her loathing for the house in Eaton Square. Sir Reginald would return late on Sunday evening or even Monday morning, which meant that Harold had the weekends free.
* * *
“It’s really quite a good life, Rose, and I’m quite content,” he would tell his sister, who had never approved of his choice of career. Over the years she had tried first to cajole him, then to tempt him out of service. In the early years she had tried introducing him to some of her girlfriends in the forlorn hope of matchmaking.
When their parents died within a few months of each other the previous year, Rose had returned to live in the modest family home in southeast London. And since then she had suggested several times that he should retire and go back to the family home to live with her. She was recently widowed, her children had emigrated to Australia and Canada, and he imagined she was lonely.
“Look, Rose, I have everything I need where I am. Free board and lodging and a decent salary, which has let me invest in a pension for later. And I get to live in the heart of London! What could be better?”
“Yes, but you’re not free to do as you please in that great house of his, are you, Harold? I can’t even come and visit you there!”
Harold had to restrain himself from adding that to the list of advantages of his situation. He and Rose had never really got on. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but there was something about her that made him uneasy, and he could imagine nothing worse than living under the same roof again after all these years.
“No, but I can come and visit you at weekends, when Sir Reginald is away in the country,” he replied.
“Fine, but what happens when Sir Reginald dies, or that Lady Pamela finally spends the last of his money and he can’t afford to keep you? What then?”
Harold sighed. He knew Rose had a point. Sir Reginald was not in the best of health, and Lady Pamela’s spendthrift ways might either bankrupt him or kill him with stress. In any case Harold knew he could not go on working forever. Another five years perhaps, maybe even ten, but eventually his strength would fail him. Being up before five o’clock every morning and ready for a 12-hour day was not easy at the age of 66, let alone 76.
“Well, I’ve got some savings. I expect I’ll sign myself into a nice retirement home and let myself be waited on for a change!” he chuckled.
It was his one and only joke. Levity did not become a butler, in Harold’s view. But he knew his old friends in Peckham found his choice of occupation rather strange and mocked his reserved ways.
“You need to loosen up, Harry! Your trouble is, you’ve forgotten where you’re from! You spend all your time waiting on those toffs in their big house, and you end up thinking you’re one of them!” said his old friend Jim Daley, who had lived in the same street as Harold when they were boys. He still lived there.
Over the years Harold had given up trying to assure his old mates that he was still one of them. Indeed he wasn’t that sure anymore, so perhaps Jim wasn’t so wrong after all. Harold had lessened the frequency of his visits down to Peckham, and in the year since his parents died he had come only a couple of times. So Rose had probably not expected him to react positively to her latest invitation.
“It’ll just be a small affair, Harold. Nothing fancy, not like Eaton Square! Just some good honest English cooking for the neighbours and some of our old friends. I’ll do steak and ale pie, your favourite. How about it?”
Harold had asked for some time to think, with the initial intention of declining gracefully. But on further reflection he decided to accept. After all, these were his people, and when he eventually retired it was to their ranks that he would return. Moreover, his sister was an excellent cook, and he was especially partial to her pastry. He phoned Rose back the following evening and said he would come.
“Oh, that’s wonderful Harold! Everyone will be so pleased to see you, it’ll be just like old times!” had been Rose’s reaction.
Harold wasn’t sure which “old times” Rose had in mind; he couldn’t recall his parents ever inviting someone in for a cup of tea, let alone for a cooked lunch. But he decided against challenging Rose’s rewriting of family history.
* * *
As usual, Harold took care to check the house in Eaton Square before locking it up for the day. He walked briskly down Belgrave Road to Victoria Station, and caught the train to Peckham Rye station. Within fifteen minutes he was in a different world, less familiar to him now, though as a boy he had known every alley and every patch of grass to play football on.
Rose greeted him with a big smile and open arms at the door of the family home, wiping her hands on her apron before putting her hands on his cheeks and kissing him. Harold found the affection rather off-putting, but he tried hard not to grimace and pull away.
“Harold, it’s so good to see you. When was it last? Must be six months ago! Anyway, come on in and take the weight off your feet. How about a cuppa?” asked Rose, beckoning him into the front room.
Harold had hardly sat down on the sofa before Rose had poured him a cup of tea and brought it to him. He was just taking his first sip when the phone rang. Rose answered, and after a few moments said,
“Just a moment, I’ll get him for you,” before summoning Harold to the phone in the hallway.
“Harold, it’s a lady for you. And I mean a lady!” She pushed the tip of her nose up with her finger to indicate the snootiness of the lady in question.
Harold looked quizzically at his sister, then took the receiver from her. “Hello, this is Harold.”
“Evans, Lady Pamela here. I’m afraid I have bad news. Sir Reginald was taken ill yesterday evening and died in the early hours here at the estate.”
Harold felt as if the breath had been knocked out of him. He didn’t think to wonder how Lady Pamela had known where to reach him; only later did he realize she must have found the list of numbers he had given to Sir Reginald in case he needed to reach him at the weekend. Harold did not have a cell phone, and had no intention of getting one.
“My condolences, Lady Pamela. I am so sorry to hear of your bereavement. Sir Reginald—”
“Yes, yes, well, thank you, Evans,” she interrupted. “I’m phoning because I’ll be coming down to Eaton Square tomorrow morning, ready for some business meetings on Monday. So you’ll need to get the house ready for my arrival.”
“Yes, of course, Lady Pamela,” he replied. He marvelled at her lack of emotion, but then on the few occasions she had come to Eaton Square in recent years he had noticed her coolness towards Sir Reginald. He guessed she was unlikely to mourn him for long.
“Good, Evans, then I’ll see you tomorrow. Oh, and please have lunch ready for me.” With that she rang off.
Harold was left stunned. His employer of forty years was dead. This predatory widow was no doubt already making plans to sell off Eaton Square. He was probably just days away from being sacked. Yet his sense of duty seized him, and he turned his thoughts to preparing lunch for Lady Pamela.
He explained his predicament to Rose. “You see, Mrs. Marshall, the cook, doesn’t work weekends, what with Sir Reginald always being in the country. All I have to do is set out some cold meats for his supper on Sunday. I can’t possibly cook lunch for Lady Pamela.”
“And I can’t possibly understand why you’re worrying about that rich cow, and not about yourself!” exclaimed Rose.
Harold had expected this reaction from his sister. But her next comment was quite unexpected. “Tell you what, Harold, I’ll come and cook the lunch for Her Ladyship. Not doing it for her, mind you, even though she has just been widowed. I’m doing it for you, my big brother. What do you say?”
Harold hesitated. The last thing he wanted was for his sister to gain a foothold in Eaton Square. But then, it probably wouldn’t be his home much longer, and he didn’t want to give Lady Pamela an excuse for sacking him any earlier than she would otherwise.
“That’s really kind of you, Rose. Yes, that would take the weight off my mind. Maybe I’ll still be able to enjoy your luncheon party today despite the news about Sir Reginald!”
And so it proved. In fact, Harold was the life and soul of the party, chatting amiably with the neighbours and swapping stories with his old friends about youthful indiscretions. Somehow a weight had indeed lifted from his mind.
But as he sat on the train rocking side to side on its way back to Victoria, he began to suspect that his lightness of being stemmed not from Rose’s offer, but from something far more significant, deep within his soul: he felt free.
Rose arrived at Eaton Square early the following morning. Harold greeted her at the front door in his best butler’s uniform.
“My, you do look smart, Harold,” she said, allowing him to take her coat and the bag of groceries she had bought on the way.
“Thank you, Rose. I just want to thank you again for doing this for me. Now, the kitchen is this way, in the basement.”
He led her down the stairs, then left her to it. She busied herself immediately, singing away tunelessly.
Lady Pamela arrived shortly after noon, brought to the door in a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce. Dressed in black but with generous make-up and copious amounts of jewellery, she was the very model of a merry widow.
“Ah Evans,” she said as he opened the door to her, “I do hope lunch is ready, I’m absolutely starving!”
Harold wondered how dear old Sir Reginald had ever thought to marry this impossible woman.
“Yes indeed, Lady Pamela. The cook has prepared what I understand to be one of your favourite dishes: salmon baked in puff pastry with truffles.”
“Oh, how do you know that?”
“I took the liberty of telephoning the cook at the estate in Berkshire to ascertain your preferences, Lady Pamela,” he replied.
“Well that’s clever of you, Evans. I’m impressed. But I’m afraid that won’t change what I’m about to tell you. I’m putting Eaton Square up for sale, so I’ll be dispensing with your services. I’d be happy to provide a reference if you need one, but I assume at your age you’ll be retiring, won’t you? Anyway, I’ll give you a month’s severance pay, but there’ll be no need for you to serve out your notice.”
While Harold was not entirely surprised by this decision, he was taken aback by the sheer callousness with which Lady Pamela had delivered the message. But he responded with a dignity she didn’t deserve. “Very good, milady. And when would you require me to vacate my lodging?”
“Tomorrow, Evans, once you have arranged for my things to be packed and sent off to Berkshire. The house will be sold with the furniture and the rest of the contents.”
Harold was momentarily stunned, but in the corner of his eye he caught sight of Rose at the top of the basement stairs, and as if on automatic pilot he replied, “Understood, Lady Pamela. Lunch is ready to be served in the dining room, if that would suit you.”
Lady Pamela nodded, took her Blackberry out of her handbag, and strode towards the dining room. Harold went down to the kitchen, where Rose was serving lunch onto a tray for him to carry upstairs.
“Were you listening?” he whispered.
“Heard every word. That woman’s a disgrace! But then, you’ve always known that, haven’t you?”
“Keep your voice down, she might hear you!” Harold warned.
“So what if she does? You’re finished here anyway!” came her barbed rejoinder.
Harold tutted and glared at Rose, but took the tray from her without further comment.
“I hope she chokes on it,” hissed Rose as Harold started up the stairs.
Harold entered the dining room to find Lady Pamela sitting at an angle to the table, her feet on the chair next to her, and busily tapping on her Blackberry in her lap. He managed to restrain the sudden and unexpected urge to kick her legs off the chair and tell her to sit up straight at the table. He lifted the plate from the tray and set it down in front of her. “Will that be all, milady?” he asked quietly.
“Yes, you can leave me in peace now, Evans. I have some important emails to attend to,” she rasped back at him.
Harold withdrew to his customary station in the hall. He turned his mind to his immediate future. He supposed Rose would try to persuade him to return to live at home, at least in the short term. But he was inclined to take a holiday, he hadn’t had one for years. Maybe a week or two in the Lake District.
His thoughts were interrupted by a loud gurgling sound coming from the dining room.
“Lady Pamela, are you all right?” he called. No reply.
He ran into the dining room to see Lady Pamela leaning back in her chair clutching at her throat. Her face was turning blue, and before Harold could reach her she slumped forward, her face landing in the baked salmon. He lifted her slim wrist to feel for a pulse, but there was none.
Harold turned to see Rose at the door.
“Must be something I do with the sauce,” she chuckled.
Harold was speechless, and stood gaping at his sister.
“Don’t worry Harold, nothing showed up in my Norman’s post mortem. God, I was sick and tired of him by the end. So anyway, don’t worry, nothing’s going to show up in this post mortem either!”
Harold had never quite known why his sister gave him the creeps. Now he did.
Copyright © 2013 by Owen Traylor