Sarah Bourne wanted to scream. It was a typical Monday morning and Mummy was pretending to be in charge as usual. The ghost of Abbots Bourne past seemed to have taken up residence in her mother’s bones. It was less than fifty years since Sarah’s great-grandfather Big George Bourne had built the great red-brick pile to celebrate his rise to nobility on the froth of his popular coloured raising agent. And Mummy – the current Countess of Elbourne – was infected by far grander ideas than her own background or circumstances would justify.
The great house was already peeling and cracking. What was Abbots Bourne now but a glorified private hotel? In place of grand pre-war house parties that went on for weeks, the house was full of paying guests. Originally refugees from Belgium and from zeppelin raids on London, they’d stayed on as a useful source of additional income after Armistice.
Mademoiselle Droge had arrived as a terrified sixteen-year-old without luggage from Belgium when her parents had sent her to England as the German Army advanced. With her witchy long nails and disdain for housework, she’d evolved into the children’s governess. And Mummy, or Mama as she preferred, had fled there with her widowed mother in 1917 and married the heir –excused from military service due to his extreme myopia – two years later.
It was never mentioned, but Sarah knew that the place they had escaped from was called Penge. Her mother cultivated a vague air whenever anyone asked where she’d been born. When she was cross with her mother, Sarah would mutter Penge, Penge, Penge under her breath until it was divorced of all meaning. She had no idea where Penge was, or why it should be something shaming. But she did know that Granny and Mummy (and Mummy’s deceased Daddy) had lived in a small house with no one living in before they came to Abbots Bourne.
Mummy would tell morning callers how Abbots Bourne had teemed with servants in Sarah’s great-grandfather’s day. ‘They all got so spoilt,’ she would grumble to a listening ear half-concealed by an outmoded cloche hat. ‘That ghastly war wrecked everything for people like us.’ She would try her hardest to carry on as if nothing had changed at all since Big George’s day, even though her ideas about what that had been like were as vague as she was and mostly gleaned from The Making of a Marchioness. For the former Claire Ditsworth, catching the short-sighted eye of William Bourne – only son and heir to the second Earl Elbourne – had changed everything. Which was why Monday mornings in particular made Sarah fume.
‘Sarah, darling, would you go and ring the bell? I need Cook to come up and discuss menus.’
Sarah would sigh and stamp over to the fireplace. She knew it was childish and she should practice her gliding, but stamping seemed to relieve her feelings about Mummy’s silliness.
‘Ladies don’t stamp, dear,’ said her mother automatically.
‘Cook always cooks the same things, so what is there to discuss?’
‘It’s the done thing. I must discuss menus with Cook, darling, as it is Monday. Please go and ring the bell.’
The ringing of bells was a hit and miss affair. Often no one heard, let alone responded, and if someone did come up, a huffy atmosphere blew into the room with them. Her mother seemed impervious to it, but it made Sarah’s skin crawl. These days there were just daily women from the village to keep on top of the dirt, a gardener, an odd-job man (essential for the endless leaks) and a put-upon maid or two, distinguished mostly by giving notice after a couple of weeks. No butler or footmen of course – they’d never come back from the Great War.
Built at a time when servants had servants who had servants, Abbots Bourne had once been inhabited by a large and thriving community whose sole purpose was to wait upon the tiny family perched on top like a hut on a mountain. Now the remaining staff had abandoned the enormous servants’ hall and the quality of their service had dropped off considerably, as had any sense of loyalty. While Big George Bourne was still active and Queen Victoria on the throne, the family could not get by without a French chef, butler, housekeeper, lady’s, house, parlour and chamber maids and six-foot liveried footmen who still powdered for gala occasions.
There was even a between maid and boot boy, never perceived by the family, their role being solely to look after the upper servants. Their livery was still hanging in dark basement and attic wardrobes breathing ancient sweat like ghosts of an army that had passed through and vanished. It was made discreetly clear to the paying guests that they were responsible for their own cleaning, and must bundle and box their laundry for the van that came on Thursdays. The latest kind of Hoover had been purchased, and this was parked in the upper corridor in the mornings, the idea being that the PGs would take it into their rooms and wield it vigorously. This happened only sometimes.
Then there was Cook, who – due to the absence of butler and housekeeper – was at the pinnacle of the dwindled servants’ hierarchy. A necessarily stout woman without a creative bone in her bolster-like body, Mrs Jones wore her ceremonial wedding ring with pride. She managed to overcook all the produce from the farm and the kitchen garden, and everything was served cold because the kitchen was so far from the dining room.
Sarah minded very much, although nobody else ever mentioned the food at all. It was rude to talk about eating, like mentioning where babies came from or bottoms and lavatories. In her great-grandfather’s seldom visited library, she’d tried to assuage her childhood boredom with books. Most of them weren’t very interesting – sermons, political works and geographical tracts. With no one to guide her, she read her way through everything that did catch her imagination. In social histories, old novels, diaries and memoirs, she was led outside the limits of her family home and into a realm where people ate for pleasure.
She suffered genuine stomach pangs at Pepys’ description of a hot venison pasty, wondered what Beau Brummel’s favourite capon stuffed with truffles had tasted like, swooned over dishes designed by Escoffier at the Carlton Hotel, and dined in her imagination with Oscar Wilde at the Café Royal. All far from the pale and chilly strips of translucent cabbage exuding a faint satanic whiff of sulphur, the lakes of fatty-globuled tasteless brown gravy with carrot lily pads, served every day except Friday. On Friday, in accordance with some half-forgotten religious urge, Cook boiled cod into a kind of white mattress stuffing.
Sarah had to eat so she wasn’t hungry, but she knew full well that there was a whole world of delicious food out there that did not resemble the Jones cuisine in any way at all. When and if Cook came up to the drawing room, she would stand with her large flat feet in broken-backed slippers comfortably spread, arms folded and head on one side. Claire would ask vaguely about the coming week’s meals with an air of being above all that sort of thing. ‘Yes, my lady,’ she would say. ‘Yes, the leftovers of the joint. I’ve minced it and we are having rissoles as usual.’ Sarah shuddered. These indeterminate, tasteless cylinders were granular and greasy from being boiled in much re-used oil – beige on the inside, black on the outside. She had to put up with them every Monday. Her father never seemed to notice the ruination of the vegetables cultivated by the gardener in the old walled kitchen garden.
She preferred her Daddy, who looked and smelt like and indeed was a farmer, to her Mummy with her silly airs and graces. At least he never tried to get her to call him Papa. Daddy seemed quite sufficient for him. Before she was even awake, unless it was a very sunny morning and she went too, her father was out and about supervising the milking, even taking a hand if they were a milker short. Her mother just sat on a sofa all day. He dressed indistinguishably from his men, right down to tying bits of binder twine around his trousers just below the knee to keep them out of the slurry in the byres.
When Sarah went to stay with schoolfriends, their fathers looked very different as they set off in the mornings to travel into the City. They wore bowler hats, striped trousers and black coats for jobs as stockbrokers, lawyers or physicians. They carried umbrellas and copies of The Times. At weekends, a concept unknown to Abbots Bourne, they wore smart tweed jackets and flannels. Sarah had never been close enough to judge, but she was sure they did not smell of cowpats and cigars. She wasn’t sure she didn’t prefer their neat, warm, well-run, well-lit houses on the edge of Home Counties villages to the vast and ramshackle chaos of Abbots Bourne.
Her friends’ mothers were brisk, their version of the done thing seemed a lot more practical. They were out serving on committees, playing Bridge or golf, while Sarah’s mother was marooned on a drawing-room sofa all day long: something about having four big babies so quickly Sarah had heard Nanny whispering to Cook. She didn’t understand but it sounded shocking. Everything to do with having babies provoked the grown-ups into tutting and dropping their voices.
Sarah returned from visits to schoolfriends sighing with frustration and longing for a different kind of mother. Many of them had served in Flanders as nurses behind the front line. They didn’t talk about it much, but she was inspired by her friend Alison’s mother saying the best thing had been taking a filthy, mud-plastered casualty into the ward, stripping and washing him, dressing his wounds and making him comfortable in a clean white bed.
At home, the paying guests had decidedly pre-war ideas. Like Sarah’s grandmother, many of the older ladies wore corsets and long skirts, toques perched on their curled front hair pieces, in the timeless style of their much admired Queen Mary. But Sarah wasn’t interested in the past. At seventeen she burned and ached to escape into her future.
As a child she’d liked running about with her younger brothers in the more wooded parts of the extensive neglected park, building camps and climbing trees. Now, on her solitary walks, she came upon the tumbled remains of a cemetery that she and her brothers had set up among the rhododendrons. There they had buried anything dead they came across, however small or smelly. There was a good supply of slates that had fallen off the roof, and she and Diggory, the eldest of the three boys, would write with broken bits of slate the right sort of things, such as ‘In Memoriam’ and ‘RIP’ copied from the churchyard. The two little boys would scrawl their versions of skeletons and skulls.
There had been screams of guilty pleasure when they found a possibly dead beetle (although there was a scuttling reluctance among the beetle population to being buried), whiffy skeletal bird or poor naked nestling. They would fall upon the remains with glee, knowing a long afternoon of cheerful rituals lay ahead: the making of elaborate shrouds from leaves, the collecting of flowers for wreaths and the burial, in a grave dug with a stolen spoon. This was accompanied by the funeral service as heard when they were walking past the church wall one afternoon, and subsequently looked up in the prayer book. ‘Dust to dust, ashes to ashes, bones to bones, mud to mud, earth to earth, grass to grass,’ Sarah would intone.