The 21st century had come late to Staddon Hall - but it came with a vengeance, and a new hand on the rudder with plans which Slipper - steward, family retainer, chief butler and, at times, wet-nurse - took both as a personal slight and a blot on the escutcheon of the family honour. In fact, Slipper looked on the new Master and his grand plans with nothing short of open hostility.
Staddon Hall had been the ragged-arsed seat of the Earls of Melsham since the Norman Conquest. Not that the fact was widely known. Nor, indeed, the existence of the Hall itself, tucked away as it was in the rolling folds of the Dimpset hills.Hidden away, it had successfully disappeared from public scrutiny for the last 80 years or so, largely due to the reclusive 15th earl, and his father and grandfather before him. A crumbling monument to a lost age, it stood isolated in its own creaking progress towards an uncertain future, hanging grimly on to the proprieties of the feudal dependence which had seen its birth.
It was ably assisted in this by the doleful ministrations of Slipper, who was as set in his ways as the foundations of Staddon Hall were set in bed-rock . “It’s never right, you know” he confided to Brandybutt, the head gardener,“and Lord Melsham not yet cold in his grave! He never would have stood for it.”
The statement bore more than a grain of truth, for the late Lord Pemberton Horrocks, 15th earl of Melsham, had stood for very little - save the National Anthem - these past 30 years, and then only with Slipper’s steadying presence on his left hand and firm grip on a bottle of claret with his right. The bottle had been Lord Melsham’s downfall ... literally. A particularly hefty session one night had left him crumpled at the foot of the grand staircase, leaving – at one and the same time - frowsty old Staddon Hall in the avaricious hands of his late cousin’s only son, the unhurried pace of the Estate in the balance, and Slipper mortally affronted by the unexpected turn of events. Whatever else he may have been, the late Lord had been an aristocrat - unlike the new earl!
“A Butcher!” Slipper intoned, speaking for the benefit of no-one in particular, Brandybutt had heard it all before and was gently nodding off by Slipper’s fireplace. “A common tradesman! The 1st earl would have had him hung, drawn and quartered!”
Slipper spoke as though he knew the 1st earl personally. In a sense, he did (albeit that the 1st earl had been in his grave these past 800 years) for the stewardship of the Melsham estate had been Slipper’s for all his working life, and his father’s before him. Consequently there was little about the family history that he did not know. The aristocratic side, at any rate – the rest wasn’t worth bothering about.
The fact that ‘the butcher’ was, in reality, a self-made man and the head of a national chain of High Street meat product merchandisers made not a scrap of difference in Slipper’s estimation. Once a tradesman, always a tradesman, and no tradesman had ever crossed the front portals of Staddon Hall in the whole of the edifice’s cloistered career. Quite a few rogues and knaves had, but they were of the nobility and, whatever the rights and wrongs of it, that was the way of the world, always was and always would be.
Brandybutt was snoring openly, an ebullient sound which rattled the teacups hanging from the shelf. His needs were simple and, as long as he had a roof over his head, food in his belly and a bed of earth in which to dig his stubby fingers, Brandybutt was a happy man. The ramifications of the changes afoot had not percolated through to him, as yet. Slipper doubted whether they would register when they did. He shook his head at his friend’s sleeping figure, sighed, and trudged outside.
From where he stood, he could see little of the surrounding Houndsmoor hills. The overgrown estate trees that crowded the parkland close to the Hall, prevented any long-distance view, but Slipper had no need to see any further than the Hall and its immediate environs anyway. His world consciously stopped at the Gate House, where he had been born and which he had made his own over the years.
He turned to look at the Hall. It had seen better days, he had to admit that, but the recent earls had been too supportive of the wine cellar to worry overmuch about restoration. The fabric of the building outside the servants’ quarters had never been the most prepossessing anyway and years of neglect had reduced it to something of a shambles now. The facade of the Hall was little better. There was an air of gentle decay, both about the building and Slipper himself as he stood in the cobbled courtyard, arms akimbo. He looked up with an almost proprietorial eye at the place which had been home to him for his whole life, and reflected on the pending upheaval.
These past few decades, it was due to Slipper that the Estate had been kept going. He ran the household and ruled what servants remained with a firm hand, his only concessions to humanity being his devotion to the late Master and, to an extent, his friendship with Brandybutt. The gardener was well into his dotage now but still kept the grounds, if not in pristine condition, at least in some semblance of order. In this, he had the grudging assistance of Harris, a callow youth from the village to whom Brandybutt had taken a liking, but whose general attitude to life at the Hall, and to Slipper’s regime, left a lot to be desired in Slipper’s opinion. He found that in a lot of things of late. More particularly in the new Master’s own attitude, both towards himself and the running of the Estate. He felt that his place in the household was being eroded slowly, and gathering pace by the minute.
“The end of an era,” he thought glumly, turning once more to the dark doorway to the Gate-House. Then, taking a firm grip on his resolve: “But not if Reginald Slipper has anything to do with it.
The object of Slipper’s disaffection was, at that moment, exercising a firm grip on something a great deal more tangible than well-intentioned resolve, but proving equally as elusive, as the twanging of knicker elastic demonstrated. Doris, the parlour maid, straightened from her fender polishing with considerably more alacrity than she had applied herself to the task. She turned to face the new earl, covering her ample rear with brassoed hands. “Milord!” she gasped, uncertain whether to be flattered or incensed - it had, after all, been some years since any man had shown the slightest inclination for dalliance. But, a peer of the realm! And with her Ladyship in the next room! “Milord!” she gasped again, with more gusto, this time.
“Now, now Doris” said Archibald Lappit, 16th earl Melsham and entirely lacking in the most rudimentary of social graces. “Don’t take on lass. Just a friendly gesture, that’s all.”
Doris groped for words. Mr. Slipper had said nothing about randy earls. Not that the present Lord Melsham was her idea of an earl. She had pictured some haughty, monocled old Etonian, not this ruddy-complexioned, over-weight bull of a man, coarse of speech and coarser of manners, with his leering eye and sausage-fingered hands even now, in her imagination, fumbling with the straining buttons on her blouse. She found her voice at last.
Hardly an improvement over her previous contribution but expressed in a tone that managed to deliver a mixture of reproach, surprise and disgust - which was entirely lost on the new earl.
He laid a meaty finger alongside his nose, sidling closer. “Mum’s the word, now, Doris. We don’t want to go upsetting her Ladyship, do we?” he asked, confidentially, adding with a hint of malice “If you get my drift, eh?” He reinforced the statement with a light slap across her rump. Doris jumped, combined it somehow with a hurried curtsey, and withdrew in a fluster of confusion and embarrassment.
Melsham’s lascivious eye watched her plump form retreat with appreciation. He imagined himself stretched out across the billiards table while Doris, clad in basque and high-heeled shoes, advanced on him in menace, feather duster at the ready. Since moving down to the rural backwaters of Dimpset he found that he missed the flesh-pots of Brandsley, and Doris had enough flesh to fill a few of the best pots Melsham had ever seen. He had a catholic taste in women - the bigger, the better. To plunge into the cavernous cleavage of an enormous bosom whilst being beaten about the bottom with a big stick was his idea of Nirvana: an unconscious yearning after the mother-figure he had always wanted, and a twisted reflection of the hair-brush wielding mother he had had.
Not that anyone could have blamed Wanda Lappit, for Archibald had been obnoxious even when a child. To his mother’s eternal regret, he had been conceived in inebriate stupor after a drunken Master Butchers’ Ball, and had thereafter got in the way of her endless pursuit of pleasure, which made it even harder for her to bestow any of the normal maternal instincts on the infant Lappit. His father - the late Lord Melsham’s distant cousin - always looked with suspicion on the lad’s paternity (with no foundation in fact, as it happened). Nevertheless as a consequence he always treated his son with a certain distant reserve. Given his parents’ disregard, the seeds of the new earl’s disenchanting personality were well sown.
From that seed also sprang young Archibald’s fierce determination to succeed and to grind everyone else into the sod on the way. He found he had a natural talent for that. When, at his majority, his parents were killed by a runaway lorry as it swerved to avoid collision with a young mother and her baby and, instead, crushed their car against the Corporation Cesspit Cleanser, Lappit junior had experienced a curious sense of release and an innate feeling of justice.
With the insurance money and the inheritance of his father’s small chain of butchers’ shops, he soon turned his talent to divesting his competitors of their livelihood and built up a small local empire. Then, when the supermarket boom hit the country in the ’60’s, he took his opportunity to elbow his way in amongst the big boys. Nowadays, Lappit had a finger in every meat pie ever bought across a supermarket counter, and he ruled the roost. And now, by courtesy of an old soak he never knew, he was Lord Melsham, 16th Earl, and incumbent of Staddon Hall: a long, long way away from his plebeian beginnings. It was owed him, he thought - and not before time. He felt vindicated.
At that moment he also felt queer. The thought of feather dusters in capable buxom hands always did things to his knees. He crossed to the dresser and poured himself a large scotch, disposing of it in a manner which would have won the approval of the lately departed 15th earl. He felt better after that and addressed himself to the purpose of his presence in the Dining Room which held the only table large enough to contain the plans of the Estate he had forcibly extracted from Slipper’s clutches.
“The man’s a pain in the bloody arse” Melsham thought to himself in sudden irritation as he smoothed the plans out on the flat expanse of table. Despite Slipper’s studied air of subservience, Melsham knew that there was little love lost between the old butler and himself: Slipper resented the earl’s proletarian beginnings, and made it plain and Melsham could never decide just how much Slipper was quietly sneering at him, so he returned the resentment in full measure.
The trouble was, Slipper was part of the place and without Slipper, Melsham wouldn’t have had a clue how to run it. Both men were astute enough to realise it, so, for very different reasons each tolerated the other: Melsham because, in spite of himself, he respected Slipper’s knowledge; Slipper because his position required him to and because – did Melsham but know it - come hell or high water, he was going to see this upstart out on his ear even if it cost him his job - or worse.
Quite how Slipper was going to bring about Melsham’s downfall, he didn’t quite know yet. But of one thing he was sure: there was going to be a sausage factory in the hallowed grounds of Staddon Hall over his dead body! He returned to the Gate-House, ignoring Brandybutt’s stentorian rumblings, and mused further on the bombshell that Lappit - he couldn’t bring himself to use the title in private - had dropped on him: the conversion of the range of stables and outbuildings into a sausage factory, and the Hall into an up-market eating and international guest house. Melsham hadn’t put it quite like that, of course, but that was how it equated in Slipper’s mind.
What the earl had actually said, in his irritating northern accent, was something to the effect of “expandin’ t’base of operations to market a noo range of exclusive cooked meat products under’t label ‘Lord Melsham’s Table’: ’ome prodooced fare from t’seat of Dimpset’s oldest haristocratic family.” The Fortnum and Mason of the south-west.
Add to that the rider that the earl would also open the Hall for pre-booked banqueting and week-end house parties for the international tourist trade, featuring the Exclusive Home Produce, and there was a proposition that the earl couldn’t resist and that Slipper abominated. The thought of tourists disporting themselves within the walls of Staddon Hall was something almost too awful to comprehend. What was worse was the thought of Lappit passing himself off as the scion of a noble English family to unsuspecting and gullible foreigners who would leave convinced that the British Aristocracy came down to dinner in tweed jackets and ate peas with a spoon! And, to compound the heresy, as Melsham’s butler and steward, Slipper was actually expected to participate in the arrangements!
The first, irretrievable, step in that direction was the release of his beloved Estate plans for the man Lappit to paw and pore over - before his team of surveyors, architects and tame officials descended in droves to disrupt the bucolic anonymity in which Staddon Hall had basked for so long
Brandybutt’s snoring finally got on Slipper’s nerves. How could he concentrate on a plan of campaign to an accompaniment of snorts and grunts that wouldn’t have been out of place in one of Lappit’ s pig farms? So, rousing the old gardener, he escorted him back to his own quarters. He missed a flummoxed Doris by seconds.
In the dining-room, Melsham had finally regained control of his knees and was studying the estate plans minutely. Comparing it with the notes from his marketing experts he now knew precisely where everything would fit within the stable complex. It would be a tight squeeze but would be in keeping with the ‘cottage industry’ presentation the marketing men envisaged.
There was only one addition that Melsham would like to make: a Hospitality/Exposition suite. And, stabbing a podgy finger decisively on the Gate House, he knew exactly where he wanted it!