The Affirmation Shuffle
Lord Foolish Requires Outreach
“Helena’s not returning my calls,” he’d said on the phone. I was perplexed. IT gofer, amanuensis, I can go along with those… but in what universe did Lord Foolish imagine I’d qualify as a relationship counsellor?
That was the real puzzle. Not What is Lady Handbasket upset about, nor What has Dippy done to upset her. The answer to either question could be anything or nothing. Why me?
Over tiffin in the Morning Room of the West Tower (I’d arrived early), I asked him. He appeared surprised by the very question. “I’m surprised by the very question,” he exclaimed (sometimes I can read him like a book). “I thought you could read me like a book.” As he spoke, he was playing with a toy water-pistol, the kind you get from a Christmas cracker. I wanted to ask why, but first I needed to know exactly what he wanted.
“Dippy,” I said, “tell me true, what’s the tale ’twixt her and you?” He raised an eyebrow. “Sorry,” I explained, “Folk-Rap Crossover playlist.” It’s a long journey to Caridaweigh Castle. I have to listen to something.
His features drew closer together in dissatisfaction. “Sometimes, young James,” he said with a long sigh, “I believe you and I don’t speak the same language.” He reached for another piece of toast. “Which is why I consulted you.” He pointed the slice at my chest. “You know Colonials.” A blob of butter melted and began to run down the toast, threatening to drip into his Darjeeling. “Specifically, she-Colonials.”
So I’m acquainted with a few American females. It’s not a crime, is it? Although in today’s Brexit Britain, as in the 18th century that Lord Foolish often seems to inhabit… I grasped at this straw, double-somersaulted from it and jumped to a conclusion. “Lady Helena is American?” Ta-dah!
“No!” he cried. The drop of butter landed in his tea and began to disperse. “Her grandmother was. Nabbing a nob was all the rage among New Money in the ‘20s, you recall.”
Indeed, this was something I’d read about. “Like Clementine Churchill?” I poured myself another cup of Earl Grey, and grasped the straw again to stir it. “How did her family make their New Money?”
“You know squirt guns?” he asked, tossing the water-pistol to me.
“These things?” I caught it, and observed him over the Wedgwood (the Waterloo Jubilee set from 1840). “Of course I do. Everyone knows them. They leak water on your hand and up your arm, while you fire a jet of liquid that doesn’t reach its target.” It was already leaking on me. “You don’t mean to tell me her ancestors made a fortune out of water-pistols?”
“No,” he said, “I don’t mean to tell you that. I’ve just told you that, and now you know it, if you were paying attention.” Ever the pedant. “Apparently it was a goldmine in the late 1800s, after the gold ran out.”
“Lady Helena told you this?” Somehow, I knew, she was key to the puzzle.
“Yes, I was showing her round the castle museum and — Oh, I’ve been such a fool!” He smashed the heel of his hand against his forehead, knocking himself out. He fell to the hard stone floor, his fall cushioned by the thick rug (Persian, 17th Century) on top of the other thick rug (Chinese, Shim Dynasty). His face was instantly suffused with a beatific smile; I took out my phone and snapped a picture with which to annoy him later.
Seeing that my host was otherwise occupied, I helped myself to the last sliver of shirmal. His Cook’s talent is erratic, but at his (or her) best he (or she, it’s hard to tell. I don’t think Dippy would dare ask) is superb. Having finished it, I brushed off the crumbs and sprayed the water-pistol at him.
He woke up, spluttering, and pointed at the pistol. “That’s what’s wrong! That thing! We used to play with it when we were children. I suggested that we put it in the Caridaweigh Museum, merge our collections, so to speak. And she objects!” He was grinning like a man possessed, convinced he had the answer.
I wasn’t convinced, either by his conclusion or by the idea that he and Lady Helena had ever been children. “Are you sure she heard what you said?” I asked. “The way you meant it?” Dippy and Lady Helena have been an item for years, and she’s not known for her patience or good temper. “She might have taken merge to mean — ”
“Of course she knew what I meant, Helena’s not stupid!” He rang the bell for someone to clear the tiffin-table, and clapped me on the shoulder. “Fancy a drive?”
Ah. I knew what he meant: I’m not stupid either. IT gofer, amanuensis, relationship counsellor, now add chauffeur. “To Handbasket Hall?”
“Don’t spare the horses,” he confirmed. He held out his hand, looking keenly at the water-pistol. “And give me that, I’ve a use for it.”