About Me

Saturday, 14 March 2015

NYCMidnight Short Story Challenge

Whoop whoop.
Delighted to have got through to second round! http://nycmidnight.com/Competitions/SSC/Challenge.htm
My Round 1 challenge:
Write a story in 8 days.
Length: 2500 words.
Genre: mystery
Character: butler
Object: bank account
Here it is...

A Man For All Seasons

Flathers is horrified to find someone has been withdrawing funds from her ladyship's account.
How ever can he continue to keep her in the manner to which she has become accustomed?

Hi I’m Shelly! chatters away as she swipes. She’s a fast swiper and for that I am grateful. It is almost four o’ clock and I need to be ready for Lady Josephine’s tea in the garden.
I straighten the plastic divide between my neatly stacked tins of Cream of Chicken soup and the family-size packs of crisps belonging to the woman behind me.
This is a mother with three small children who is letting them open chocolate milk. The one near me – a boy – has a chocolate moustache and I take care to not let him near my good flannel trousers.
“Do you want your Club Points, love?” the swiper asks.
I shake my head. Her Ladyship will want her Darjeeling and rosewater biscuits before I take her to admire the azaleas. But before that, the ha ha needs mowing. I hope I remembered to mend the broken window in the ice house.
“I said, are you collecting stickers for your knife-set?”
Hi I’m Shelly! is waving a sheet of what looks like little coloured stamps at me.
“Oh no, thank you.”
If there’s one thing we don’t need it’s more knives. That’s another job that needs doing, polishing all the silver. I place the last sachet of Angel Delight into my shopping bags and turn to pay.
A tap on my arm.
“Are you wanting those? It’s just that we’re saving for the knife Royale.”
“I’m sorry?” The big clock by Costa Coffee says ten past four. My trolley is bulging with carrier bags. I have twenty minutes to pack all this in the Bentley and assume my next role.
It’s the mother, the one with the chocolatey children.
“Like what Gino del Campo has,” she says.
I have no idea what she is talking about, but nod curtly.
Eighteen minutes.
I slot Lady Josephine’s Goldcard into the paying machine.
“Enter your pin please,” sings Hi I’m Shelly!
Chocolate Moustache rubs himself against my leg and I move myself hastily to the other side of the trolley. It’s packed now with bags filled with the cans, boxes and sachets that constitute our weekly shop.
Then the thunder-bolt.
“I’m sorry love, it’s saying do you have any alternative means of payment?” Hi I’m Shelly says brightly.
My hand freezes over a bag of luncheon meat.
“I beg your pardon?”
“It’s not letting me use it to pay, love. Have you got another card I could try?”
We both stare at my bank card.
“I have one hundred and eighty three pounds seventy-seven in that bank account,” I splutter. “There must be some mistake.”
Hi I’m Shelly! shakes her head. “No mistake love.”
Of course I don’t have any funds. Not after I’ve paid off the rates and the gas bill and the man who mended the roof of the East Wing where the squirrels have been getting in and doing all sorts of untold damage.
Until the money comes through from the cottage rentals at the end of the month, that one hundred and eighty three pounds seventy-seven is all we have.
The store manager has materialised now. Behind him, the knife-collecting mother and her sticky-faced children are gaping at me in fascination.
“I’m afraid we’ll have to leave your items at Customer Services Sir. Until you come back and pay for them. If you’d like to leave your name and contact number, Sir.”
“I must have my Darjeeling. Lady Josephine must have her Darjeeling!” I am almost shrieking and the little cluster around Till 9 stares.
With trembling hands I reach into my pocket and pull out a handful of coins and other detritus: Lady Josephine’s smelling salts, a hair-pin to open the sticking lock on the side-gate, a couple of biscuits for Pipkin, the ancient labrador. I count the coins, holding my breath.
Two pounds ninety-three.
Hi I’m Sally! sighs and we begin the long process of unpacking every bag in order to find Lady Josephine’s tea.
The time is seventeen minutes past four.
I have barely enough time to pull on my Nearly Nude tights and tidy my hair when the bell jangles in the pantry.
Lady Josephine.
I arrange the rosewater shortbreads neatly in a fan on her favourite Royal Worcester tea plate and place the tea-pot onto the silver tray. Lady Josephine is already sitting by the ha ha and I pray she doesn’t see the unpruned hedging, the sprouting lawn.
Picking up the tray I hurry over the lawn.
“Ah there you are, Sylvia. What a beautiful day. Don’t you think it is a beautiful day?”
Her voice is light as larks and the late afternoon sun gleams in her hair.
“Indeed it is Madam,” I say.
As always at first, my voice comes out far too deep.
Lady Josephine laughs. “Oh Sylvia, you sound as though you have a frog in your throat! Come, pour the tea, do.”
I flush and am glad I put on an extra layer of  Crème Matte Foundation. Next time I speak, I concentrate and am relieved when my voice comes out a notch higher.
“Shortbread, Madam? Fresh baked this morning.”
“Ooh, delish, thank you, Sylvia.” She waves her arm at the lawns, the ha ha, the willow maze.
“Isn’t all of this lovely? Don’t you think it’s lovely, Sylvia?”
“Indeed, Madam. It’s very nice.”
All I’m seeing is the nineteen acres of lawns to be mown and the stables to be swept and the horses and hens fed and the kitchen garden needs weeding, the vine weevils have got into the pots again, and while I’m at it I might as well take a broom and sweep the sky.
I stare at the computer screen and tremble.
Over drawn by three pounds forty-three.
The screen doesn’t lie.
But I know, I know there were sufficient funds in this morning. In my role as Financial Advisor, I make it my business to check her Ladyship’s affairs most meticulously.
Someone has stolen one hundred and eighty-seven pounds twenty from Lady Josephine’s bank account.
The only two occupants of Wittington Hall are her Ladyship and me.
Her Ladyship doesn’t know how to turn on a computer and has never used a bank card or held money in her life. Like all her venerable family, sadly now all deceased, she has never needed to. Not when she has me to look after her needs. And my father before me, and his father before that.
It is what we Flathers do and what I will never stop doing so long as I live and breathe.
I blink at the computer screen and the figures blink back.
£3.43 DR.
There is only one person who could have withdrawn those fundings.
The Scullery Skulker.
That man last week who was crouching down by the scullery when I was laundering her Ladyship’s panty girdles; I distinctly remember his furtive manner, and the way he slunk away when I waved my soapsudded fist at him.
What if he is the mysterious thief?
He could have got valuable information from the log of receipts I keep in the study, or picked up a bank letter from the table in the hall. Have I received any suspicious telephone calls recently? Attempting to whittle out information such as account numbers and passwords? I know such things exist.
In which case the person at fault is me.
To calm myself, I pull on my Head Groom’s outfit, thinking to check on Millie and Sugardrop. Their quiet champing will allow me to clear my head.
It is as I am putting on my chaps that the pantry bell jangles.
“Yes Ma’am.” I use my Cook’s voice this time, with its soft Somerset burr.
“Ah, it’s you Jane. Just who I was after. I’m having a few friends round for dinner this evening and I wondered if you’d pull out all the stops tonight. You know, some of your wonderful Foie Gras, your fabulous Panacotta, that sort of thing.”
“I’ll do my best, Ma’am.”
My burr falters.
“Wouldn’t you just die without Prosecco?”
“Literally, darling, I would literally die.”
Lady Josephine seems to be enjoying herself and for that I am grateful.
No-one raised a comment about the ‘homemade’ Cream of Chicken Soup I rustled up with the last of the cans from the pantry.
Everyone seemed to enjoy the Game pie I made with a brace of hastily shot pheasants. Lucky for me they shot out of the bushes just as I was taking Sugardrop out to test her lame leg.
They have got through the last of the Chateauneuf-du-Pape Cuvee Speciale 2002 from the cellar and haven’t noticed that the Prosecco is Lidl’s own. I hope and pray they will be too squiffy to notice that instead of the Vanilla Panacotta Lady Josephine requested, they’re getting butterscotch Angel Delight with chocolate sprinkles.
“More wine,” drawls a man in a flashy tie.
I am topping up his glass when Lady Josephine’s best girlfriend lets out a shriek. Lady Lavinia is in her seventies but is bedecked with her finest party jewels, her long earlobes pendulous with emeralds.
“The cook. We must thank the cook,” she shrieks.
I slop Prosecco over the table-cloth.
“Flathers. Dear, dear Flathers. Would you be so kind as to bring in Jane.” Lady Josephine is leaning forward, her eyes still bright as stars in her softly lined face. She too is sparkling with jewels tonight. She doesn’t know that hers are all paste, that I’ve sold them over the years to the Pawn shop in Englefield Green, all to protect her from her withering finances and to keep her in the manner to which she is accustomed.
I swallow.
“Indeed, Madam.” I bow my head.
Jane requires extra padding.
There is no time to get the size 40 EE brassiere I found on a sales rack in the supermarket and into which I’ve carefully stitched wadding to construct Jane’s ample bosom.
There is no time to get the size 12 lady’s court shoes which she favours because they’re wide enough for her bunions. I located those in a charity shop off Portabello Road.
There is, however, the wig.
Jane’s wig is a splendid affair which I acquired from a friend in the acting profession, along with all the makeup. It is rich and red and plump with curls. Best still, those bouncy waves hide most of my face. Luckily for me, it now resides in the bread crock in the scullery, which is where I placed it when I was once caught short halfway between being Jane and Old Mills, the Gardener.
Lady Josephine didn’t seem to notice though; her flowery hat was shading her eyes as she stepped out of the sunlight that day, and besides, I fear her eye-sight is dimming, just like mine.
I have a large floral pinafore which hangs off the hook for emergencies such as this.
I dress myself, panting, and hurry through to the dining room, folding my arms over my sadly deficient bosom.
“Oh Jane, dear,” says Lady Josephine, and her smile is radiant, her eyes full of sparkle. “My guests want to say something to you. Don’t be shy, dear. Come right in.”
Jane is extremely bashful by nature. At her Ladyship’s request I shuffle forward.
“We wanted to congratulate you on your food,” smirks a voice. “Wonderful dessert, Jane. Light as air.” The voice pauses. “Almost as if it were made by…angels.”
I flush, then raise my eyes.
It is the fellow in the gawdy tie. The penguins on it wave their wings at me as he leans forward. But then I look at his face and feel ice slip into my stomach.
It is the skulker. The man in the grounds.
“Thank you for your kind comments, sir,” I manage at last.
Jane’s voice comes out a little louder than I intended and they all stare.
I can no longer keep this to myself.
It is as Flathers that I tell her.
Lady Josephine listens without interrupting and then looks very serious.
“Stolen almost two hundred pounds, you say? And you think that my bank account details were somehow intercepted by my guest who could be the mysterious man in the garden? Why Flathers, that’s terrible.”
She frowns in thought, then her face clears.
“You must arrange for me to interview each member of staff at once.”
I am eighty-three years old.
There comes a time when even a Flathers must admit defeat. This is that time.
I am sitting on the steps overlooking the rose garden when Lady Josephine comes to find me.
“Oh Flathers, Flathers, you darling man.”
She sits down beside me and places a gloved hand over mine.
“Please don’t be upset. It will all be all right, I promise.”
I look at her. “Indeed it won’t Madam. I have failed you. I have allowed your money to slip out of your account without noticing. There is worse, Madam-”
I swallow. It is time to confess to her Ladyship how I have lied and deceived her all these years, all to no avail. “You have no more money, Madam. I fear you may be forced to give up your ancestral home, I-”
“Oh I know all that,” she says breezily.
I freeze.
“I beg your pardon, Madam?”
“That we’re poor as church mice. Skint. Broke. Thoroughly in Queer Street.”
I struggle to form the words.
“You knew, Madam?”
“But of course. That’s why I invited that ghastly man to dinner. He’s a property developer who’s going to turn Wittington into darling little flats. Lavinia’s idea. Everyone’s doing it.”
Her Ladyship turns to face me and her blue eyes are bright as stars.
“It means we never have to leave here, Flathers. We’ll have the best apartment, overlooking the ha ha, and you’ll be able to look after me just as you’ve always done.”
I am speechless.
“Do you want to know what happened to that money?”
I swallow. “Indeed I would, Madam.”
“Well I know how much you like,” she gives a little cough, “dressing up.”
I stiffen.
“All your different guises. They’re simply marvellous. So I decided to arrange a little treat for you, as a way of saying thank you.” Her Ladyship squeezes my hand. “I dragged Lavinia over to the bank on the high street, Flathers, and a rather lovely young clerk helped show me how to transfer the last of the funds to pay for something rather special.”
She drops something onto my lap.
“Theatre tickets, Flathers. We have the best seats at the London Palladium.We are going to see The Mousetrap, Flathers, just you and me, and there’ll be enough left over for a pot of tea at Claridges.”
Once again I find myself unable to speak.
Lady Josephine pats my hand. “Dear, dear Flathers,” she says. And we sit together, watching the lengthening shadows sweep gently over the lawns.