The Talk of the Steamie, Apparently
I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but having domestic help these days can be a mixed blessing. Now I am aware that many of you are running a home without such luxuries as a refrigerator or a top loading washing machine, let alone a food mixer or a daily woman (what does but not a lot) and I can already hear you saying “well it is all right for her”.
I do have a social conscience you know, but let me assure you that having staff is a circumstance not without the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”. You will have heard, since it is I believe “the talk of the steamie,” that I have to quote Lady Pentland-Firth, “lorst”, my German vuman vat did zee heavy vork. I cannot go into details, as it is as Mrs Travers would say “subterranean” but it seems Hilda was not all she seemed and has disappeared. Her whereabouts is a mystery and the subject of an ongoing investigation by the police and those who work in the shadows.
“The Shettleston Shine”
This is very inconvenient as at this time of year as there is a great deal of heavy work to be done, what with bed springs to be dusted and the copper pans to be cleaned with lemon juice and sand. This in case you are wondering produces a dull shine suitable for the kitchens of the discerning, it’s what my Grandmamma would have called an “Edinburgh finish”, dull but reliable with that all important hint of economy so beloved by the residents of our capital city. Jasper prefers the copper and brass to have more of a “Glasgow finish”, that is to say more brassy, so that one can see one’s face in it, or what I call “a Shettleston shine.”
Sometimes I have to remember that despite the tweed finish, poor Jasper is really rather common. I think of myself as a missionary. I am, I suppose, the David Livingstone of the soft furnishings world, the woman who has brought to the darkness the light of the chiffon pleated lampshade and the fully fringed standard lamp, with integrated wine table.
Which reminds me, I must order some British Museum dressing, for my inlaid tooled leather furniture or it will dry out and resemble a bog man or Mrs Travers after she has been exposed to too much sunlight on Blackpool Pleasure Beach.
The Employer of Choice
Mind you unless I can reappoint soon, I will be lucky to get the stair carpet turned before Ne’er Day. It’s my own fault really. I have advertised in The Glasgow Herald of course and have a mountain of applicants, (my reputation as the employer of choice proceeding me), but have lacked the vigour to apply myself. I think it has something to do with the onset of winter and the primitive desire to retire to the cave for the duration.
I know what you are thinking. If Muriel had a cave it would be like the 8th wonder of the world, a bit like one of Carlo Ferrario’s designs for the opera Fosca by Carlos Gomes only with sofa tables and some washed out peony lose covers and fringed lampshades. It is also always such a thought having to break in someone new and I know I have my little ways, like my paper fans for unlit fires and lavender water on my bolster covers.
Harmony at Home
Right at this moment there is also an unusual harmony in the household as Mrs Travers and Hairy Mary, the Nurse from Inveraray, are in the kitchen entertaining Gayle, our ward, with Jasper, my husband, making jam tarts. Although separated by many years, both Jasper and Gayle seem quite happy in the playpen and it would be hard to say who is covered in the most jam or who has eaten the most left over twists of pastry and raspberry jam.
Hopefully they will do nicely for afternoon tea, but in the meantime it is rather nice to be sitting with one’s feet up, although rest assured I am doing my routine of nice toes, naughty toes. I wouldn’t want you to think I have been idling away my morning in carpet slippers, curlers and candlewick dressing gown like some Labour voter.
Improving on Perfection?
No; despite being fatigued by a busy week I never miss the opportunity to improve myself (not that there is too much to do) by reading and of course I have my obligations to my many correspondents.
I have been reading Justine a new novel by Lawrence Durrell. The narrator is an impoverished writer rather like Jasper and the central figure a beautiful, rich, mysterious woman like someone not a million miles from where we are sitting. Indeed she also keeps a diary. Although perhaps – the real star is the city of Alexandria. Now I don’t mean the town on the River Leven near Dumbarton famous for its printing, textiles and the Argyll Motor Car Works; no, I mean the Egyptian port famous for its lighthouse, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. In Justine we see a picture of a place that is both elegant and cosmopolitan in its buildings and also full of poverty. I feel the Egyptian town is rather like Glasgow, except without the rain.
Ever the Source of Inspiration
Talking of rain I had a letter from Benjamin Britten this morning. Not the rabbit you are thinking of Beatrix Potter; none other than the composer of some rather good pieces, at least to my mind, and asking if I had any suggestions for something that might appeal to children. Well I was at the time watching Gayle transfixed by the rain battering on the conservatory roof and Mrs Travers came in and said it looked like Noah’s Flood. So I thought now there’s an idea and have quickly replied to him suggesting a piece based on the event.
Jasper said this was a good idea as he knew what Mr Noah felt like being mocked by Mrs Noah, his argumentative wife, and her gossips for building an ark. He felt the same when he had demonstrated his Battle of Cambrai diorama made out of papier mâché to Lottie Macaulay and Cynthia Savage when they were here earlier in the week to pick me up for the Christmas Fayre.
Commemoration with the Hysterical Society
At least it was only 40 days and 40 nights for Mrs Noah; I suspect I am going to be treated to Jasper’s diorama until Armistice Day next year. It will, he tells me, be the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Armistice and he plans something special for the Hysterical Society. As yet this has not been revealed. Let us hope it will not be a mock up of that train in the woods in Compiegne. I refuse to put railway lines across my herbaceous borders which are based on Vita Sackville-West’s at Sissinghurst; only with more colour.
Jasper says I am a bit carnapcious this week; perhaps it has something to do with the phases of the moon; I do think the moon affects one. After all if it can move water in and out twice a day on the coast, it is capable of a great deal. There have been a couple of rather terrible events which have been praying on my mind. First there was a flying-boat crash on the Isle of White last month which killed 45 people and I have just been reading about the Lewisham Rail Crash in London which has killed 90 and injured 173. So sad for so many people for whom Christmas will never be the same. It is never easy to comprehend loss on such a large scale, either at the festive season or indeed at any other time.
Taken, Out of Kindness
Talking of which I was at the funeral of a lady this week, who died without any family around her, for she had none but many good friends who came to her tea. This is the season of “the winter clear out” in this part of the world when it is said that out of kindness those who might be best spared another winter are “taken” out of kindness.
Nothing is ever straightforward in the country (or perhaps it is) and the funeral purvey was held in the Pentland Firth Arms with the traditional “going under” menu of soup and sandwiches followed by tray bakes and tea and coffee. Not to mention a wee dram to keep out the chill. The Speed Bonnie Boat Function Room (used by the Masons on Tuesdays and Rotary on the first Thursday of the month) was eschewed in favour of the main Bonnie Prince Charlie Dining Room “with sprung floor”.
Jasper Sets the Record Straight
Actually according to Jasper and his Hystericals, the Jacobites merely passed through the rural bolt hole or to be frank passed about 8 miles away, looking for a doctor. Also this area actually preferred King George but Jacobites are a better tourist opportunity than Hanoverians. They were not only on the losing side they also had better songs, symbols and images than the Georgians who have never looked great on shortbread tins or indeed any tins.
The reality of course was different but then in Scotland myth is everything. We never let the truth get in the way of a good story. Which reminds me – my Flora MacDonald wallpaper with the emblematic and deeply engaging white roses (part of my Stuart range) will be discounted in the January “Chez Nous” sale. Order now while stocks last to avoid disappointment.
Indoor Bagpipes and Bride’s Slice
The only trouble with having a funeral wake in the middle of normal business is that it does somewhat confuse casual visitors out for morning coffee or a light luncheon, not certain as to why they have become involved with so many people they do not know and the recipients of several rather good left over tray bakes, including the inappropriate but very tasty “Bride’s Slice”. Two earnest cyclists with beards and canvas rucksacks, who were clearly socialists, (I could tell they had cycle clips, drips on the ends of their noses and one was reading the New Statesman and talking with his mouth full, always a sign) nearly jumped out of their corduroys when the pipes started to play a selection of the deceased’s favourites during the cock-a-leekie seconds. Indoor bagpipes can be a bit of a shock to the uninitiated.
The Beginnings of the Festive Season
Not all has been doom and gloaming! Everywhere the marks of the festive season are upon us. Of course Christmas was banned in Scotland in 1640 along with most fun and entertainment and while officially neither Christmas Day or Boxing Day are public holidays here in 1957, there has always been some marking of the event since Victorian times and as the pages of the newspapers show, our shops are eager to sell Christmas presents even although it is really the New Year that we celebrate. This year I have designed an Advent Calendar for little Gayle which is keeping her and Jasper amused.
The village where we have our bolthole has been busy with Christmas Fayres selling all manner of goods knitted, crocheted, baked and painted or made on the loom or potter’s wheel, for ours is a place where people still value the homemade and the well considered. In most cases there is an opportunity for tea and cake and the profits going to one good cause or another. The Rural had a most successful weekend just past raising a considerable sum for The Home For Fallen Women which is currently bulging at the seams. I ran my usual gifts’ masterclass with paper lantern decorations for the children and my famous decorated soap for a guest bedroom as well as my special austerity Christmas wrapping section featuring old music and flowers made from Mrs Travers old support hose.
Tea time – Later that day
“I must say Muriel those stocking flowers of yours are very clever, I am sure they will appeal to someone who cannot afford the gift wrapping service at Daly’s,” said Lottie looking at a selection of Muriel’s handmade present trimmings on a tray in the drawing room.
“You are too kind Lottie. I take it you don’t want to purchase any?” asked Muriel. “It’s for a good cause”.
“Oh Muriel, I don’t see how the Home for Fallen Women affects little old me” gushed Lottie.
“No, but it certainly affects Mr Macaulay” muttered Mrs Travers struggling in with a large tray of tea and homemade jam tarts. “By the way Mrs Wylie there’s a woman in the hall come about the assistant housekeeper post, I have already tried to put her off saying the last woman got a bit trapped in the job.”
“Well that is not exactly true is it Mrs T she just made it look as if she did. You cannot object to them all you know; you need the help what with you being a martyr to your veins and hypertension as you outlined in a recent letter to me, the word hypertension being the only one spelt correctly. Anyway I asked for application by letter.”
“Well I suppose so Mrs W. Anyway this one’s a bit different seems quite friendly says she came from the agency.”
“Show her in.”
In to the drawing room stepped a shy smiling lady with a smart white blouse and a colourful skirt with appliquéd pineapples, she was a lady from the Caribbean.
“Good afternoon Mrs Wylie”
“Good afternoon Miss..?”
“Grace… Grace Cambell ma’am, Mrs Grace Cambell. Sorry to barge in but I got your details from the agency. My husband and I have just moved north. Mr Cambell has a position as a chimney sweep.”
Mrs Travers plonked the tray down and snorted in disbelief at the idea of a West Indian chimney sweep, her mind running ahead of her with all sorts of strange images and things she knew she shouldn’t say.
Mrs Lottie Macaulay who always has difficulty with the unknown and unfamiliar widened her eyes, sucked in her cheeks, took a sharp intake of breath and leaned forward to Muriel whispering in disapproval that was so loud all could hear. “Oh Muriel, that’ll be the day, I don’t think so do you, there are so many more to interview, look at the pile of applications on your desk, they all look more suitable.”
“How clever of you to be able to judge people from a pile of paper rather than someone standing before you” said Muriel looking distinctly frostily at Mrs Macaulay, “on the contrary I think this is indeed the day for us and for you Mrs Cambell. I feel instinctively we are going to get on. Now tell me where did you get that skirt?”