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Peers and Privvy Counsellors

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Sean, newly employed in the household of the US Ambassador, waited until the door swung shut on the bustling black skirts of the nanny before turning to the other staff sitting in the staff kitchen. They were all watching him with bright-eyed glee, clearly anticipating his reaction. “What – and I say this with the greatest of respect – the everloving fuck is going on there?!”

(Sean wouldn’t normally swear on the first day of the job, but he had two things going for him: his sister had been employed there for some time already so he felt comfortable that his ability to make a good first impression was fairly well doomed; and the household staff were, unlike the Ambassadorial staff, all British, so there was immediate “we-all-locals-here” solidarity.)

The staff were relaxing at the end of the day. The ambassador’s family had all retired their rooms, the household tasks were all done, and most of the six or seven staff were gathered in the staff kitchen for a drink after dinner before heading off – whether to their own apartments in the Ambassadorial house, or off home in London.

Emma sniggered into her G&T and elbowed her brother. “I told you there was some of the staff were weird!”

“Yeah, I thought you meant the Americans. Not goth Mary Poppins-“

“Nanny Ashtoreth-“

“-and the gardener from that book about the girl and the kid in a wheelchair-“

“Brother Francis, and you mean The Secret Garden, I didn’t think you’d have read that-“

“I saw the movie! Bits of it. Ages ago. I’ve never seen people like them in real life before.”

Michael, butler and in charge of the household staff, cleared his throat disapprovingly to interrupt the sibling banter, but had a mischievous glint in his eye. “Well, if you want the whole story…”

“Yes!”

“Only fair, after all,” said Albert, the elderly…Sean wasn’t actually sure what Albert did, but it seemed to involve a lot of pottering around with the brandy and cigar supplies. “You can’t be in the pot if you don’t have a full set of the facts.”

“What’s the pot for?”

Ash (plumbing, electrics, security, everything useful; Sean kind of wanted to be him when he grew up) waved a cigarette illustratively. “Are they, aren’t they; will they, won’t they, is Ashtoreth her first name or surname, etcetera etcetera.”

Michael cleared his throat and waited for their attention. “So, about when Warlock-“ (“Americans!” tutted Albert in an undertone. “You’re American!” hissed Ash.) “-turned five, the Dowlings hired a new nanny. First one was American, but this time around I think they fancied something properly English. Supernanny, a Norland graduate, someone like that. Ashtoreth turned up the very day the ad was placed, and they hired her right off. I guess they liked the weird…Mary Poppins vibe.

“Now, Danny had been the gardener but he always had his eye on bigger and better, and right about the same time he got wind of a job doing boutique window boxes-“ Ash snorted. Michael glared and continued. “Next day, Brother Francis was on the doorstep.”

Sean helped himself to a handful of nuts, and sat back. “So what was the story? Did they already know each other, if they arrived at the same time?”

“That’s the weird thing!” said Emma. “We still don’t know. They’ve been here for two years and it’s still a bit of a mystery.”

“Even Albert can’t get the story out of them,” said Michael. “And he can get anything out of anyone.”

“You remember Stacie, used to be in charge of the household accounts, she came over a few times?” Emma asked. Sean nodded. No-one forgot Stacie. “She turned the full charm onto Brother Francis. He wasn’t even flustered! Just smiled and nodded and they had a lovely conversation about the birds and the bees. And that’s not a euphemism. He’s very enthusiastic about bees.” Sean was impressed. He’d been the subject of a Stacie Interrogation, and it had definitely made an impression.

Ash picked up the story. “Well, they work in different parts of the house, right? She’s in the nursery, part of the family staff. He’s in the garden. So it took us a while before anyone noticed that they were…antagonistic.”

“No, no, they didn’t fight,” said Albert. “More, courteously adversarial. Absolutely never talked – had no reason to, really – but when Nanny took little Warlock for a walk in the garden you could see them sizing each other up. Following each other from the corners of their eyes. Little nods.”

“So they must have known each other,” said Sean. “Worked at the same place before, or something.”

Michael shook his head. “Not according to their resumes. And when Stacey asked Ashtoreth outright once, she denied it.”

“After about, oh, six or eight months we noticed that they would disappear at the same time,” said Michael. “They both live here – Nanny has rooms up by the family, and Francis has a little cottage at the back of the garden, by the way. So of course, we assumed-“

Danny assumed,” said Ash. “Mind in the gutter, that one.”

“Now, Stacie agreed,” said Michael. “And she was usually pretty sharp about that kind of thing. We assumed that, appearances to the contrary, they must have something going on. Started trying to see if we could catch them in the act.”

Sean tried to imagine them in the act. Imagination gave it a good try, quailed, and decided that it needed a refill on his beer.

“Nothing!” said Emma. “I’m all over the house, all day and into the evening, and never saw them together.”

“Ditto,” said Ash. “Nothing in the house, garden, utility sheds that I could see. Or on the security cameras.”

“Do they socialise with the rest of us at all?” asked Sean.

“Oh yes,” said Albert. “In a way. Ashtoreth is properly part of the ambassadorial staff for the family, but since she’s English she’ll wander down this way once or twice after Warlock’s asleep, rather than hang out with the bodyguards or under-secretaries. And Francis is the nicest man you’ll ever meet, always happy for a good natter, but after he’s done you realise that he didn’t really say anything about himself at all.”

“Okay, but you said they were…” Sean waved a hand. “Wary of each other. So, what about the…”

“Raw sexual tension?” said Emma bluntly.

“Oh, is that what we’re calling it these days?” said Albert.

“I did hear them arguing once,” said Ash. The others sat up, interested.

“You never said!” Emma chided.

“Just after they both arrived, about gardening,” continued Ash. “Not that you ever really see Brother Francis doing a lot of it, but he must be good because the garden’s absolutely flourishing. Flowers all over the place, bees everywhere, birds building nests in front of my cameras. Ashtoreth was telling him off for being too nice to the plants! She seemed to have very strong opinions about needing to be stern with growing things, keep them under your thumb to get the best out of them.”

Everyone took a moment to think about what this said about her child-rearing techniques, and there was a small collective shudder. Then they remembered that Warlock had been, until now, rather spoiled and had a tendency to bully, and decided that maybe a little firmness might be for the best.

Emma refilled Ash’s glass. “Ta. So, they were having a right old go at it. I actually heard Brother Francis raise his voice, which I had never before. They were right up in each other’s faces, Ashtoreth had him backed up against the gardening shed.”

“What happened next?” asked Sean.

“Warlock ran around the corner, and they dropped it like it never happened. Went off their own ways. Next time I saw Brother Francis I asked about it, and he just chortled – you know how he is – and changed the subject.”

“But tonight they were here together,” said Sean. “Is that unusual?”

“Over the last year or so I think they relaxed a little,” explained Michael. “They never used to pop in on the same night, or always one after the other left. Then they started overlapping a little. Only exchanged pleasantries, but staying a little longer at the same time.”

“Then they started leaving together. Little touches here and there,” said Albert. “Of course we thought…”

“Danny followed them,” said Emma. “He could be surprisingly sneaky. But they always seemed to lose him, and if they were holed up together it wasn’t anywhere any of us could see.”

Sean frowned. “So, you’ve worked with them for, what, two years? And you’re betting on if they were lovers, are currently, will be, or nothing at all? And despite what would seem to be evidence of certain…chemistry, you have no actual proof one way or another?”

“Yup,” said Emma, popping the ‘p’.

Sean sat back in his chair, balancing on the back legs. Emma wasn’t going to tell him which way to lean; sibling solidarity had its limits. This was serious, and deserved thought.

Sean recalled the scene earlier that evening: Sean had followed Ash into the staff kitchen for dinner, joining Michael, Albert and Emma at the table. Ashtoreth (surname…surely?) and Brother Francis had entered the kitchen at the same time from opposite doors, nodding stiffly at each other. The only spare seats were together at Sean’s end of the table, so they sat together but proceeded to ignore each other. Brother Francis had happily greeted Sean and started a conversation about the fine weather, while Nanny Ashtoreth poured herself a tall glass of red wine, pulled out a smartphone and started poking at the screen in lieu of actually talking to anyone. She didn’t take off her sunglasses, even thought it was nearly 9pm, and the sun long since set.

The household chef finished putting the staff’s dishes on the table before leaving to take dessert up to the ambassador. “Ta, Eddie,” Michael said offhandedly to his departing back, and everyone started handing plates and dishes across the table. Sean, starving from an exhausting day following Ash, was happily absorbed in a chicken and vegetable casserole and fresh, warm bread when he heard Brother Francis make a pleased sound and saw him wriggle in delight after his first mouthful. Nanny Ashtoreth had actually looked up at this, raising one eyebrow in silent enquiry. Everyone else was eating and chatting noisily, but Sean watched from the corner of his eye as the gardener leaned slightly towards the nanny. “You simply must try the chicken,” he said. “It’s just like that dish from the little bistro, you know, the one that used to be just down the block from the bookshop.”

Sean was confused for a moment: surely Brother Francis had a broader accent? But that minor confusion was forgotten when the previously uptight nanny (still with only wine in front of her) audibly sighed and slumped towards Francis. Sean could barely hear her mutter, “The one that closed after the food poisoning incident…”

“Oh, hush! You know that was the next chef. And probably your doing anyway. Here, try.” And then Brother Francis took a forkful of chicken and fed it to Nanny Ashtoreth. And Nanny Ashtoreth leaned forward to eat it as if it weren’t anything unusual. Sean may have only been there for one day, but it was enough to know that Brother Francis was not the kind of person who would feed other people from his own fork, and that Nanny Ashtoreth was not the kind of person to be fed.

Ashtoreth had made a small agreeable “mm”, sat back, resumed her wine, and Brother Francis had applied himself with gusto to his plate. Just like that, like it wasn’t anything unusual. The rest of dinner passed without incident, until everyone finished scraping their plates. Without a word, Nanny Ashtoreth had risen, glass of wine still in hand, waited for Brother Francis to tidy away his plate and offer friendly “good evenings” to the others, then put a hand in the small of his back to guide Francis out of the room. At which point the existing staff turned to watch Sean’s reaction.

Decision made, Sean’s chair thumped down, and he pulled a fiver from his pocket, sliding it across to Albert, who pulled out a small notebook. “None of the above,” said Sean. “Five pounds on married.”

 


 

 

(Four years later, the funds in the pot were used to buy a couple of bottles of booze when both Nanny Ashtoreth and Brother Francis left the household’s employ shortly before Warlock’s eleventh birthday. It was decided that the question hadn’t been answered – unless they had run away together – but that the staff deserved a good stiff drink anyway. It was just weird.)

(Three years after that Sean, now working in London after the Dowlings returned to the US, stopped into a second-hand bookshop in Soho to look for a gift for Albert’s birthday. The proprietor stepped out from behind a shelf when the bell over the door rang, calling out a greeting which stopped mid-word. “Oh my word, Sean! Hello!”

“I’m…I’m sorry, do I know you?” asked Sean. He definitely hadn’t been in here before. The bookseller didn’t look familiar, but…was there something about the voice?

The bookseller beamed at him. “I do apologise, I must be mistaken. Now, were you looking for something in particular…?”

Leaving the shop, book in hand (and not appreciating how extraordinarily rare it was for the bookseller to allow someone to leave the shop having actually made a purchase), Sean stood for a moment on the step, parsing what happened. How was the bookseller who knew his name mistaken…?

Walking off still in thought, Sean bumped into a lanky man dressed in black heading into the bookshop. Something about the glasses and dark red hair caught his attention and he turned around for a second look, only see the man looking back at him, a look of surprised recognition on his face. As Sean frowned, trying to place the sense of familiarity, the man stuck a hand in his pocket and pulled out a fiver, reaching forward to tuck it into Sean’s shirt pocket and gave it a pat.  “Meant to give you that,” the man said. “You won, after all.” The man nodded and gave him a small grin as he jogged up the shop steps.

What the everloving fuck.)