Chapter One: Ragoo
‘’Twould be hugely voguish to have an enormous looking glass on the mantel. Very French and à la mode.’ With a sweep of her chubby hand, Lady Anastasia Ashby de la Zouche, Countess of Clapham, Baroness Penge, etcetera, twirled round to address Alpiew, her writing partner and erstwhile maid.‘Surely not, madam.’ Alpiew was trying to keep her temper. They had acquired this money through hard and dangerous work and she wanted it spent instead on improving their living conditions. ‘If we are to spend our well-earned money upon renovating the house, ’twould be better utilised in repairing the roof and the upper chambers, which are currently fit only for pigeons, rather than ornamenting this already comfortable room.’‘Nonsense!’ The Countess span round in the other direction, arms extended. ‘This is the showpiece. It might as well be our advertisement. It shows the world how successful we are become.’As she swung back to face Alpiew she swayed sideways and almost knocked Godfrey, her decrepit manservant, to the floor.
In a vain attempt to break his fall Godfrey grabbed at the air and staggered forward, arms outstretched, lunging towards Alpiew.
‘Hands off those, you filthy old cur!’ yelped Alpiew as, with a wily jab, Godfrey’s knobbly fingers came to rest upon her ample bosom. She shoved him back in the direction whence he came. Projected backwards from Alpiew’s push, Godfrey landed with a loud crack on a chair, which immediately disintegrated beneath him.
‘If you won’t consider the upper chambers,’ snapped Alpiew, ‘perhaps the money would be better spent obtaining some solid furniture.’
‘Nonsense, Alpiew, we have more than enough furniture!’ The Countess sank down on to an easy chair, which made a strange creaking noise, causing her to edge herself slowly back to a standing position. ‘A mirror on the mantel is the latest thing. Remember the saying: “One might as well be out of the world as out of fashion.”’
‘In that case, madam –’ Alpiew surveyed the Countess’s mantua, of high quality certainly but, despite recent alterations, still noticeably of an earlier era – ‘let us get the roof done and buy some new dresses.’
‘I don’t want new dresses,’ grumbled Godfrey from the floor. ‘What would I look like in a dress! I’m not a sodomite, you know.’
‘The plasterer will be here any moment, Godfrey. He is going to make good the fireplace so that the looking glass will “sit plumb”, as the glazier called it.’ The Countess moved out of the room. ‘And, I thank you both, but there will be no more discussion on the subject.’
Alpiew followed her out into the hall. She looked up the staircase with a sigh. All those unused rooms upstairs could do with a new skim of plaster, and the roof with a new set of tiles, and here was her mistress deciding instead to redecorate the only decently appointed room in the house.
The Countess was already swinging a kettle on to a hook over the fire when Alpiew reached the kitchen.
‘If we spent the money carefully, milady, we wouldn’t have to live in the kitchen.’ Alpiew surveyed the mess of papers, books, beds and tables and realised that if the upstairs rooms were made habitable they could at last each have a bedroom of their own and she would not be kept awake by the midnight rumblings, snores, groans and other unthinkable noises emitting from Godfrey’s bed.
‘Nothing wrong with living in the kitchen.’ The Countess gave the room a cursory glance. ‘At least it’s nice and warm.’
‘I think we should spend the money on a holiday,’ said Godfrey from the door. ‘We could travel abroad and see all those awful disgusting French women.’ He lurched over to the table and hacked a couple of slices of bread from the loaf. ‘I’ve heard they get up to all sorts of bawdy amorous tricks. Revolting.’
‘Thank you very much, Godfrey, but there’s quite enough to revolt me here at home.’ The Countess turned round to make a further announcement but was interrupted by a heavy thudding on the front door. ‘Please answer that, Godfrey.’
‘But I’m makin’ me toast.’