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Once upon a time, I was the chauffeur of a lady of the British upper classes. It didn’t go well.
The Saddler’s Club, Lady Bedford informed me, held their Annual Members’ Dinner every year for members. She had to make her way from her residence in Upper Slaughter in Gloucestershire down to the London flat, in order to squeeze the event into her busy social calendar. In 54 years she had not once missed the dinner, but since her beloved husband Wimburn had recently died, this year she was taking as her honoured guest, one Roderick Wenby.
And me, her live-in carer.
“Roderick Wenby,” she said as she brushed her wispy white hair in the mirror with the pearl-handled brush. “Wodwick Wemby,” she repeated, fixing her dentures. “Roderick Wenby, oh don’t let me forget will you?” She fastened diamonds to her neck and wrists and lacquered her head with Chanel No 19.
“Oh,” I said, “Have you got a date?”
She looked at me firmly. “I never go on dates.” She pushed aside the box of foundation on the dressing table, opened the talcum powder and applied it liberally to her cheeks. I helped her into her wheelchair and cramped her swollen foot into a solitary shoe. The other one was amputated after a hospital battle with golden staph.
“Anyway, I only invited Rodney—”
“Roderick,” I corrected.
“That’s what I said! I invited him because no-one takes him anywhere anymore, since he had the operation on his neck last year; it’s just awful—you can’t make out a word he says and his head juts out and he can’t wear his false teeth so he’s a bit of a sight. Poor man. He was so excited when I asked him, it was absolutely pathetic,” she said, drawing out the vowels. Paatheeeetic.
I closed up the guest bedrooms one by one and triple-bolt the heavy wooden front doors. Slaughter House had already endured three break-ins and now Lady Bedford was forced to keep her extensive collection of diamonds and pearls in a walk-in safe that even she never entered.
“Hello, hello? Where are you?” I wandered through the maze of corridors, up and down the grand staircase lined with portraits of the Bedford family ancestors and finally discovered her in the vast kitchen where she was busily transferring the contents of a bottle of whisky through a funnel into a plastic water bottle.
“Have you locked the swimming pool and the tennis courts?”
“The gardeners will take care of that.”
She squawked, “They’re not even real gardeners! I only hired them because they were unemployed. They are so lucky to have me in control—”
And a trickle of whisky snaked down her remaining leg and lapped at the open wound she got from running her wheelchair into a wall the day before. She knocked the control of the chair with her elbow and it lurched forward, jamming her foot into the table leg.
“Blast!” she cried. “Things just fall apart when I’m not here. I mean, one of the gardeners has dislepsia and the other one always forgets to turn off the door.”
Lady Bedford steadfastly refused to open, instead blowing him exaggerated kisses from the safe side of the glass and hissing to me “Go! Get us out of here!” through gritted teeth.
Three hours later, we were in London and Lady Bedford was safely delivered at the Saddler’s Club. The bottle of whisky lay empty on the floor of the van.
“There he is!” She pointed at the elderly man shuffling towards us, grinning toothlessly. His head appeared to be fastened to his left shoulder.
“Ronald! Darling!” She unfurled one hand magnificently towards him and turning to me she proclaimed, for every member of the Saddler’s Club to hear, “Poor man. They say his cancer has returned and he won’t last another year.” She leaned on the control and Roderick Wenby’s foot vanished under the wheel of her chair with an audible crunch.
When I arrived to pick her up at 10pm, the dinner was still in progress and Lady Bedford was driving at high speed in circles round and around the guests seated at the table. In one hand, she was holding a bottle of wine and in the other she clutched a whisky. The front of her dress was sodden with red wine stains.
“Oh you are here.” She ground to a halt before me.
“I seem to be early, did you want to stay for dessert?”
“No,” She said firmly. “We’ve had enough.”
Roderick scuffed along behind her. “Oh here he is.” She said and rolled her eyes. “Roderick is quite ready to go home, aren’t you. He drank everything in sight.”
We made our way to the van, the wheelchair veering left and right, ploughing into a wall here, colliding with a table there. The guests cleared a path and I darted forward as she tipped to one side of the ramp and threatened to tumble right off, front wheel spinning furiously in the air.
“Lady Bedford, are you locked in?” I asked once safely inside the van. “Is your chair secure?”
“Yes, yes,” she said impatiently. “Ronnie, get in the back won’t you. Now hurry up please.” He clambered obediently into the back of the van.
“Where is your car?” I called out but Roderick’s whispered reply was overruled by the shouts emanating from Lady Bedford.
“I just can’t get it out of him!” she cried. “It’s no good! I’ve tried and tried, you see what you can do with him. I give up.”
Her guest giggled nervously and I strained my ears to catch his directions. “Turn left,” he chortled into his shoulder.
“Don’t turn left! Turn right!” Lady Bedford bellowed.
“Left or right?” I halted mid-turn, occupying both lanes and behind me, an angry horn sounds.
“Left,” came from the back.
“Right!” screeched from the front and as I turned right, she wailed in frustration. “Where are you going? I said right!” and she jabbed at the air with her left hand.
“Left?” I followed her finger with my eyes.
I breathed in and hit the accelerator. There was an ear-wrenching screech as the side mirrors of the van scraped along the brick walls.
“Where is your car, Roderick? Turn right! Here, here! No back there!”
“Left or right?” I asked in confusion.
“Left,” Roderick said and I turned left into a side alley. There was no car in sight, only a meagre light from a flickering lamppost. Roderick got up to leave.
Lady Bedford hollered. “For heaven’s sake, your car isn’t here!”
He mumbled, “I can walk from here.”
“Get back in the van! We want to drop you at your car! Now tell us where it is? Go forward!” The van pitched forward and the wheelchair rocked from side to side.
“Are you sure the chair is locked in?” I asked.
Lady Bedford sighed and her hand flew to her forehead. She didn’t know why the poor man was being so difficult, she lamented loudly. “It’s one thing to have cancer, it is quite another to expect everyone to bend over backwards for you.”
With the other hand she gripped onto the rail above the window in order to stop her chair from rolling right into Roderick’s lap. The van roared up a hill.
“Please,” I begged. “Don’t you see none of us can go home until we have dropped you at your car?”
But Roderick Wenby plunged headlong into a terribly-timed anecdote about his brother’s death during the war.
“Oh God,” Lady Bedford groaned. Her eyes searched desperately through the London streets beside her. “Turn left! Turn right! Keep going, don’t stop!” Her voice was shrill and high and the chair was bobbing like a rowing boat adrift in stormy waters as I attempted to negotiate the city traffic.
Again Roderick’s instructions took us to a dead-end where his car wasn’t. “Why are you listening to him? Listen to me!” Lady B cried in dismay.
“No honestly, I can walk…” he mustered all his strength to pull back the door with both hands.
“Oh, I give up!” She threw up her hands in despair. “Reginald, just get out and leave us alone, would you!”
Roderick stopped mid-clamber to lean through the crack between the chair and the window, pursing his lips and aiming for her cheek. “Yes, yes, goodbye then and get on with it,” she leaned away, offering him her hand. “He’ll never make it,” she whispered out of one corner of her mouth. “He’s so drunk he can barely stand.”
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Roderick was toppling forwards from the door, his head buried into his shoulder and his podgy legs buckling in the effort to keep him upright. He reached solid ground and tapped on the window in a futile attempt to prolong his farewell. Lady Bedford steadfastly refused to open, instead blowing him exaggerated kisses from the safe side of the glass and hissing to me “Go! Get us out of here!” through gritted teeth.
Roderick’s head was in danger of making its way back through the open door as he launched into another re-telling of his brother’s death. “Go, for the love of god!” Lady Bedford roared in my ear.
“The door is still open.” I protested.
“Never mind the door!”
I throttled the engine and sought out the only available exit, a narrow alley wending its way up a steep incline to the right. I paused; “I think the van is too wide.”
“Keep going! Oh please do go on!” Behind us, Roderick waved forlornly by the pavement, stranded in a dark London back alley. I breathed in and hit the accelerator as both Lady Bedford’s hands left the rail to point out in front of her. There was an ear-wrenching screech as the side mirrors of the van scraped along the brick walls.
I pushed my foot down and a second shriek was heard, this time from my passenger. In the rearview mirror I saw a single leg fly upwards.
Her shoe flung from its owner and bounced off the back window, thudding onto the floor of the van. I hit the brakes, bottlenecked between the ever-narrowing walls. The wheelchair was tipped on its back and Lady Bedford’s head was twisted on the floor beside her shoe. Her foot dangled precariously in mid-air.
“Are you okay? Are you alright? Lady Bedford?” I climbed over the driver’s seat and into the back of the van, trying to pull her chair upright.
She opened her eyes weakly and with one shaking hand, she clawed at her hair, tugging at the white strands falling over her eyes. Her face was deathly pale but that could have been the talcum powder still speckling her cheeks. Her hair, painstakingly washed, set, blow-dried and sprayed into a perfectly rounded coiffeur in a two-hour ordeal at the salon this morning, now hung limply and the pink of her scalp was visible.
“Oh no,” she wailed and a shiver ran through me. “Oh dear, this is terrible,” she moaned. “My hair is absolutely ruined!”