Friday, December 24, 2010

70 The Cotswolds

As we drove home I looked at my little Helen-Melon, my blued-eyed, fair-haired, baby girl and wondered how, barely thirty, she had become this beautiful, sophisticated, successful young woman holding an executive position with Daimler Chrysler!

I spent two days with her before she drove me over to the Cotswolds to stay with my sister, Maureen. It was a four hour round trip, which I thought was pretty valiant of Helen after a hard days work. And what was Maureen doing in the Cotswolds? Well, I must explain at this point that after George, Maureen’s second husband, had died in Stellenbosch, she had moved from South Africa to the U.K. to work as a carer or companion. She found employment as a housekeeper, secretary, companion and chauffer to a very wealthy woman, hereinafter called The Patient, who lived in the Cotswolds. Also employed in the house was a cook, a one day a week cleaner (totally inadequate), a part time gardener, a doggie walker and a fulltime, live-in nurse. So, properly run and with everyone doing their work conscientiously, it should have been a very nice post. The house was a beautiful 17th century mansion in a village in the Cotswold, set in massive grounds with a tennis court and overlooking farm land as far as the eye could see. There were at least eight bedrooms, servants’ quarters and goodness knows how many other rooms. The property was larger than that of the Marquis of Reading. The problem was that the day after Maureen moved in, The Husband moved out to go and live with his girlfriend in an adjoining village. So, now there was no-one at the top and, as the new girl in the house, Maureen could not start issuing orders.

On hearing that Maureen’s sister was visiting from South Africa, The Patient had very kindly invited me to stay with them. My guest bedroom had a magnificent view and a huge en-suite bathroom. The Emperor size bed was fitted with hand embroidered pure Irish linen sheets and virgin wool blankets, covered overall with a silk eiderdown. There were priceless ornaments and pictures everywhere. For the first two mornings Maureen brought me a cup of tea, followed by a breakfast tray laid with the very best china. This could not be allowed to continue because Maureen was working very long hours and looked utterly exhausted.

It was clear that Maureen had been “conned”, or mislead to say the least, because she neither worked the hours agreed, nor did she perform only the duties specified. Sometimes she would be the only person on duty and had to attend to all The Patient’s needs, including lifting this very large, dead weight woman on and off the commode. I noticed that the commode would always be required as soon as the cook, a strapping healthy country woman, had gone off duty. The live-in nurse worked from 9.00 a.m. to 5.00 p.m., was allowed two days off per week and any other time she could sneak out to join her friends in the local. Maureen worked from 7.00 a.m. (letting the dogs out) until The Patient went to bed after 9.00 p.m. When The Patient visited friends for lunch, Maureen had to push her to the car in a wheelchair, get her on board, fold up and lift the wheelchair into the boot, and repeat the procedure three more times. Sometimes she would be offered a sandwich in the hostess’s kitchen while she waited for the lunch party and the game of bridge to finish.

Maureen did not know that the house had already been sold, to a very famous person – my lips are sealed – and another property had been purchased for The Patient to live in, also in the Cotswolds. Moving would be a mammoth task. The Husband would want everything he could get, household stuff would have to be divided, pictures and valuable furniture would be auctioned, while The Patient sat immobile in her chair. In spite of all this, I was made to feel very welcome and I spent a great deal of time talking to her and she seemed to enjoy my company. I helped sort out and pack some of her books ready for the move, but there would still be the massive library for me to deal with when I returned, for I had promised to do so after a visit I had planned to Scotland.

The Husband was most extraordinary. Mr. Charming, in artificial chunks, and the cook and cleaner positively swooned when he was around. Although he had officially moved out, he still called almost daily, sometimes eating lunch with The Patient and buying her cheap bottles of wine, while taking the best from the cellar away with him. One lunchtime The Patient fancied a particular vintage wine, so Maureen was told where to find this bottle, and was then instructed to soak the label off the bottle so that it would not be seen in the refrigerator. Considering the money in the family belonged to The Patient and the wine was paid for by her, this subterfuge seemed silly. The Husband would often bring friends to play tennis and would tell Maureen that there was to be no washing on the line when they arrived! The washing line was about half a mile away from the tennis court!

We went to see the house into which they would be moving in October. It was awful. Instead of the magnificent views The Patient had enjoyed for years, her new living room and bedroom overlooked a wooden fence. The small, long garden could not be seen from the house, the windows were small, the house dark and there was hardly any wardrobe space. The Patient had cupboards and drawers full of clothes, some even from the time when she was presented at court, and Italian handbags and shoes by the dozen. Just before the move a skip was delivered and all those beautiful things were dumped. How I wished I could wear size 4 shoes. The room alloted to Maureen was miserable. The house was a series of converted cow sheds with no architectural design or character whatever, one can convert anything in the Cotswolds and it will sell for millions. The single garage was situated some way from the house, and the driveways were covered in gravel, over which it would be very difficult to push a wheelchair containing a very heavy weight. An added irritation was the fact that The Patient wanted to keep the cook, who lived at least a half hour drive away, and Maureen would be expected to collect and return her six days a week, including her own day off, an extra two hours driving a day, winter and summer, down country roads. The work load was getting heavier all the time. Not only was Maureen doing the shopping, banking, driving, packing and cooking on cook’s days off, she was doing administrative work for the household as well.

Probably because much of the furniture, paintings etc., were going to be auctioned at Christies, The Patient wanted to check her jewellery against the insurers’ inventory. There was a large folder containing coloured pictures of all the valuables in the house, including the jewellery, so Maureen brought the jewels down from the safe to be checked. The diamonds, and there were many of them, did not sparkle at all, probably because they had not been worn for years and needed cleaning. There were brooches, ear rings, bracelets and pendants like I have never seen, not even in a jeweller’s window, and the Insurance value was astronomical. It seemed to me there were pieces missing; we could not match everything up with the catalogue. After about an hour, The Patient became tired of playing diamonds so we packed them all away in the safe. There was not one piece I coveted. I considered myself to be richer by far that this sick, rich, abandoned woman who had little control over her life or happiness in it.

It requires a certain kind of attitude to work for people of The Patient’s social standing and wealth. While not being over familiar, one must accept they are paying the piper and, although The Patient insisted that we be on first name terms, I was on my best behaviour. I can wear many hats, perhaps that was due to my acting experience. Maureen, on the other hand, is quite incapable of insincerity and finds it very difficult to show respect for people she dislikes. She disliked The Patient and The Husband, with good reason. The staff took advantage of The Patient, lazing around and eating any delicacies that friends brought her. I would have thought that cleaning out the deep freeze was the responsibility of the cook but, when I found I could barely open the door, I decided to defrost it. I was reminded of the deep freeze at the B & B in Hampstead. Almost everything had to be thrown away, including a whole fresh salmon. I cannot imagine how that place got cleared out prior to the move. Given three strong workers, and the authority, Maureen and I could have done it, but they must have left a load of rubbish behind. I would like to ask Maureen about the move, but she has closed the door on that part of her life and does not want to talk about it.

After four days in the Cotswolds, I said goodbye to the Patient with the promise that I would return after my trip to Scotland. Helen collected me and drove me to Luton Airport, from whence I would fly to Edinburgh. Why to Edinburgh? Read on.

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