Manservant, page 1
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Table of Contents
For Alan. The man for whom the phrase
“My other half” was invented.
To my agent, Sharon Bowers, to whom I will be eternally grateful for believing I could write a novel simply because I told her I could.
To my full-time friend and part-time mentor, Clare Cathcart, who has a brain almost as big as her heart.
And finally, a heartfelt thanks to all my past clients. The lords, ladies, dukes, and duchesses, and their esteemed guests for whom I have spent the last twenty years slaving over a hot stove. Now seems like as good a time as any to let them know that it’s not just walls that have ears—it’s cooks too.
“An Englishman’s home is his castle.”
Six words that, when strung together and spoken out loud, are guaranteed to have me jamming my fingers in my ears and humming “God Save The Queen” for all I’m worth. Of course, I know what the phrase means, and it’s certainly true that we English are a house-proud bunch, but I know firsthand about what goes on behind the thick, cold stone walls of a real-life castle, and believe me it’s not something that any right-minded person should aspire to.
From the very first time I set eyes on Castle Beadale, it occurred to me that if you were to give a pen and paper to a small child with the instructions “Draw me a castle,” it’s what they would draw. Austerely bleak and imposingly baronial with its four castellated turrets and mullioned windows, it really is your archetypal medieval castle. A little more Bram Stoker than Walt Disney perhaps, but a perfectly formed castle nonetheless. The only thing missing is an actual moat, but in its place there’s a wide natural lake fringed with bull rushes snaking around the front of the house, which from a distance gives the impression of Castle Beadale’s being situated on its very own island.
The castle is large by anyone’s standards, but almost entirely hidden from outside of the estate on which it sits by a combination of nature and clever design. You could know the surrounding area like the back of your hand and never set eyes on the building itself unless you were invited inside its high boundary walls. It occurred to me one day that in a sense Castle Beadale had been hiding from the outside world for almost five hundred years. Perhaps it’s this sense of never being observed by outsiders that lies at the heart of its problems. After all, let’s not forget it was the aristocracy who first coined the phrase “N.P.L.U.”—“Not people like us.”
The minute I set foot in Castle Beadale I was utterly seduced by life below stairs. It was the familial atmosphere between all the other servants that got me, and I was made to feel right at home from day one. In fact I remember thinking in those early days that it felt a bit like coming home.
Life behind the green baize door was a version of the domestic setting I used to fantasize about as a child: a warm and welcoming kitchen filled with the smell of home-cooked food and a mother hen who took pride in feeding her brood. The reality of my childhood was that every minute my mother spent in the kitchen was a minute lost in the pub, so her idea of a suitable meal for a growing boy was a tin of new potatoes served with salad cream, eaten alone and straight from the tin.
Castle Beadale was not my first taste of domestic life, but in my previous jobs the atmosphere had generally been one of backstabbing and rivalry. But at Beadale it really felt like the family I had never had, and that suited me very well indeed.
Those employed in domestic service with any level of success will always tell you that the secret to being a good servant is knowing exactly where the invisible dividing line between master and servant is. I always prided myself on knowing precisely where that line was and sought never to cross it, but all my problems started when it was my new employer, not I, who chose to overstep that mark.
The moment I found Martyn’s bound and gagged body facedown on the bed of the presidential suite, I saw my career prospects spiraling down the drain like dirty bath water.
I’d seen a lot of unpleasant things during my time on the eighth floor: a freshly laid turd on the Egyptian cotton sheets, used sanitary towels floating in the bath, and countless carelessly discarded condoms, but until now never a dead body. Let alone the body of someone I actually knew.
Martyn and I weren’t exactly what you would call best friends, but we got on just fine. Along with other guys from the hotel we’d spent more than our fair share of drunken nights in the fleshpots of Soho and Vauxhall, and I had always enjoyed his company. But as I stared at his lifeless body contorted into such a tawdry position, I couldn’t help but think that this was going to be a lot harder to sweep under the carpet than the usual detritus that followed a wild night at the Landseer Hotel.
Initially I thought I had the situation contained. Remembering the training I had received for just such a situation, I locked the door to the suite and calmly picked up the phone to call the hotel manager.
As I waited for him to pick up I found myself staring at Martyn’s body with a morbid curiosity that shocked me almost as much as the sight itself.
“Malcolm Henderson, how may I be of service today?”
“Mr. Henderson, it’s Anthony. We have a code orange on the eighth floor.”
The line fell silent for a few seconds before he spoke. “I see. Don’t leave the room, and stay calm. I will be up shortly to assess the situation.”
As I went to replace the receiver the room was filled with an ear-piercing scream. I swear it was so shrill it must have had half the dogs in Mayfair running for cover. I dropped the phone and spun around just in time to see Consuela, the head housekeeper, fall to her knees, clutching her crucifix and crossing herself with a ferocity seldom seen outside the Vatican.
“Oh mi dios, los santos nos protejan,” she screamed, gazing up at the ceiling.
Eventually her words trailed off into an incomprehensible ramble as she rocked back and forth like a mad woman.
I found a sheet and draped it delicately over Martyn’s body (as I’d been led to believe was the proper thing to do by Jessica Fletcher) and set about trying to calm Consuela whilst we waited for Mr. Henderson to arrive.
The following morning the Sun newspaper carried a full-page photograph of a handwritten note on the distinctive cream vellum headed notepaper reserved for the VIP suites. The note read:
Sorry about the mess.
I had long held a suspicion that much of Consuela’s image as a simple Andalucían mountain girl was something of a front, and when I saw the headlines the next day I knew I’d been right all along.
You see, when I entered the suite that note had been carefully placed on the side table. She must have spotted it immediately when she entered the room, pocketing it before screaming the place down. I imagine she flogged it to the press for the price of two EasyJet flights to Alicante before Martyn was even cold.
The papers might well have reported Martyn’s death as
“Easier than digging up roads for a living,” he used to say.
Martyn’s last client had been a Russian playboy with a taste for rough sex and diplomatic immunity, so by the time the body was discovered the gentleman in question was halfway to Moscow in a hastily chartered private jet to be reunited with his doting wife.
Mr. Henderson might have been able to gloss over the fact that Martyn had not been alone when he died, but the gutter press’s enthusiasm for a catchy headline and the hint of an untold story made a stay at the Landseer Hotel about as tempting to most of its regular clientele as a swim through nuclear waste. And whilst the manner of Martyn’s death might have brought a certain amount of interest in the hotel, it just wasn’t the kind one would hope for when trying to sell rooms for three thousand pounds per night.
Up on the VIP floor Martyn had been perfectly placed to hide in plain sight whilst he went about his business. As one of the dedicated butlers, he had always been on hand to meet the needs of our most demanding guests. Young, blond, and with no gag reflex to speak of, he had been by far one of our most popular employees.
And the ladies, to whom he so elegantly served afternoon tea, had had no idea that whilst they pounded the beat at Harrods, Harvey Nichols, and Selfridges, Martyn had been getting a pounding of a different kind from their husbands.
Our agreement had been that he slipped me twenty percent of whatever he made, and we both kept our mouths shut. Looking back it seemed so simple, but if I had thought for just one second that he would wind up dead as a result, I would have put a stop to it months ago. But hindsight is a wonderful thing, isn’t it?
I had always been confident that I could keep my half of the bargain, but sometimes Martyn had made me nervous. He had never gone so far as to blab, but more than once, after a few drinks or a sneaky line of coke, I had heard him hinting to some of the other staff about having a “little sideline.”
When he died the whole hotel was plunged into a state of shock, myself included, but there were moments when I found myself thinking that at least I no longer had to worry about him dropping me in it. Of course I felt terrible thinking that, but trust has never been one of my strong points.
Nobody would ever be able to prove that I had any involvement in Martyn’s sideline, I made quite sure of that. But as the facts of the case emerged through both the press and the inevitable hotel gossip that followed, it became increasingly difficult for the management to believe I knew nothing about the matter. The dramatic fall in bookings was all the ammunition they needed to get rid of me. Exactly one week after Martyn died I was called into Mr. Henderson’s office and told I was being made redundant. A month’s salary and no notice period. Good-bye, au revoir, see ya later! Just like that, no further explanation required. I can’t say I was entirely surprised, but I was acutely aware that without a job to pay my bills I was well and truly fucked.
That week it seemed like my phone never stopped ringing, but in between the “withheld” numbers and ones I didn’t recognize, one caller really got my attention.
Normally she’s the first on the scene, sniffing for gossip like a pig sniffs out truffles, but despite having waited almost a week she got right to the point.
“Darling,” she said in her low, heavily accented voice. “Did you do it?”
“Maria, you are terrible,” I said, laughing for the first time in days. “You know me well enough to know that if I’d done it they would have never found the body.”
Maria and I had met many years ago when we both worked at the Palace. She had been a housemaid, and I had been one of the Queen’s footmen. In those days Maria and I had been an item for a while, but that part of our relationship had ended after she found me on my knees in front of one of the Queen’s pages in the silver pantry. Despite the shock of finding her boyfriend with another man’s dick in his mouth, she recognized a kindred spirit when she saw one, so we both agreed that we would make much better friends than lovers and have remained inseparable ever since.
Whilst I stayed true to my work experience by taking a job at the Landseer, Maria had no intentions of staying a housemaid for longer than was strictly necessary. It’s no exaggeration to say that upon leaving “The Firm,” Maria emerged from behind the green baize door a changed woman. She reinvented herself as a high-flying personal assistant, and, after exploiting a few contacts she stole from an ex-boyfriend’s laptop, she landed herself a job as PA to one of the world’s wealthiest (and best connected) widows. In return for Maria’s natural ability to do a hundred things at once, her employer showered her with gifts of Prada handbags, Longines watches, free Botox injections, and envelopes stuffed full of Swiss francs.
Maria took care of every aspect of Madame Szabo’s life. From making sure the private jet was sprayed with her bespoke room fragrance before she boarded to liaising with her plastic surgeon in New York, Maria ran Madame’s life with military precision and enforced her will with an iron fist (albeit clad in a velvet glove). Many a chauffeur was “let go” because the car was parked facing the wrong way down the street or because he failed to take the hint when Maria said she didn’t like his choice of cologne. Maria was not just a PA; she was an SPA: Superhuman Personal Assistant. Her words, not mine, but it was a fairly accurate job title nonetheless.
“We need to go out and get well and truly shit-faced on cocktails, and then you tell me all about it,” she said, sucking air through her teeth as she struggled to light a cigarette. “In fact, my darling, let’s make it the Connaught, and I may choose to tell you about someone I know who is looking for a butler.”
“Maria, I just got fired. You’ll be lucky if I can afford to take you to Burger King,” I said, feeling a knot form in my stomach at the thought of being skint.
“Darling, what do you take me for?” she asked, deadpan. “It’s all taken care of, and I’ve booked a table at Scott’s for dinner later.” And with that the line went dead. Two seconds later my iPhone vibrated, signaling a message:
PS, I’m paying 4 dinner.
I arrived early at the Connaught, not really wanting to spend any more time than I had to on my own at home. A tall, Mediterranean-looking waiter appeared at my side the second I entered the bar. He stood close enough that I could smell his cologne. He tried his best to be nonchalant as he surreptitiously looked me up and down.
“May I help you?” He smiled, flashing perfect white teeth that stood out against his dark features.
“I’m joining a friend for drinks,” I said, looking around for Maria even though she’s never been early for anything in her life.
“Mr. Gowers?” he inquired without consulting a list of any kind, keeping his dark eyes locked onto mine.
“Yes, that’s right,” I said, trying to sound aloof.
“In that case, Mr. Gowers,” he said,
I followed and watched as his high, round buttocks strained against the seat of his well-cut black trousers. Moving with an ease that hinted at a dancer’s poise, he was, I imagined, waiting tables for tips before his big West End break.
When we arrived at the table, he thrust a drinks menu into my hand and left me to scrutinize it in the designer gloom. The lighting at the Connaught is such that everyone is cast in the most flattering of shadows, and even married couples of some thirty years standing look as if they are conducting a dangerous affair. Reading the menu, however, requires absolute concentration, so I got right down to it and within a few minutes I was sipping a perfectly made dirty martini.
When Maria enters a room, something in the atmosphere changes. It’s utterly intangible, but I’ve seen it happen too many times for there to be any doubt. Wherever she goes men instantly lose their train of thought, and, conversely, their female companions suddenly become very focused. If Maria has any inkling of this phenomenon, she resolutely refuses to acknowledge it. Which, of course, does nothing but add to the effect. And that’s how I knew she had arrived without even looking up.
She was, of course, fashionably late, but more than made up for it by looking her usual gorgeous self, all long limbed and tanned from a recent trip to her native Italy; her wild, unruly curls, set free for the evening after a day of being scraped into a severe chignon, fell around her bronzed shoulders. Maria wasn’t particularly tall, but the combination of big hair and permanent five-inch Louboutin heels gave her a rather authoritative air. It was an impression that served her well in life, but also made her incredibly sexy. Sometimes I flattered myself by thinking that she made an extra effort with her appearance whenever we met, but in truth she looked this damn good all the time, which made me smile.