Something Under the Table

Nigel Gordon

With acknowledgement to Kazuo Ishiguro for the inspiration

Rashi let off a string of invectives in Hindustani, casting some serious doubts on both my parentage and humanity. I chose to ignore them. To react would have been to let the household staff know that I understood Hindustani, whereas I have always found it most useful to allow them to assume the opposite.

As to my acquisition of that language, the truth is that I had, in my younger days as a footman, become attached to the person of his Lordship’s Amah— An Indian woman who had come with him to England when his parents sent him to live with his grandfather, for whom I worked at that time. Looking back on it the whole thing was a most unsuitable relationship, and I must thank Mr Graham, the then butler to his Lordship’s grandfather, for pointing it out to me. However, before that event took place I had managed to acquire a reasonable understanding of the language, something which I have found most useful since coming out to India with his Lordship.

It must also be admitted that I felt some sympathy for Rashi. To be told, on what everybody had expected to be a quiet day, that one had to prepare a dinner for 12 for that evening would always be a bit disconcerting. To be told less than three hours before the meal was due to be served would be most upsetting for any cook of any professional competence. Although Rashi and myself have long had our differences, one thing on which I cannot fault him is his professional standing as a cook. He is, without doubt, one of the best in India.

The situation had arisen as a result of illness. His Lordship and Lady Ann had that morning departed in the Rolls to spend the weekend at the Matby plantation— this being a long standing arrangement for the first weekend of the season in Simla. There they would join the house party, which, according to all accounts, was a fairly free and easy affair. In keeping with the new tradition at such informal house parties only personal body servants were taken along. His Lordship, as usual, elected to take his Tamil servant, Gungi, who had also accompanied him back to England when he was a child. Lady Ann, of course, had taken her French maid with her.

The routine of his Lordship and Lady Ann going off to the Matby plantation was, from my point of view, very useful. It gave me the chance to really check the estate house over before the season got into full swing. That is one of the problems of coming up country during the heat of the summer. Things are never quite as they should be. Do not get me wrong. I give here no criticism of the native servants. They are all very good and do a very good job. In fact, given the conditions and the fact that, to be honest, the house is frankly undermanned, they do a remarkable job. It is simply a fact that there are always those little things that need to be sorted out before a house starts to run really smoothly. The real professionals of the household — those who can deal with such little things — all arrive with his Lordship.

This is, of course, very different from the situation back in England, where the housekeeper and myself will go to the country house a day or so ahead of his Lordship to ensure that all is ready for his arrival. He, of course, would take the opportunity to call in on a couple of friends en route. Here in India, one day we are down in Delhi, the next all embarked on the same train for the hill country and Simla. With a bit of luck his Lordship may decide to call at the Club before coming out to the estate, or Lady Ann might want to do some shopping. That will give me a couple of hours to spot any calamitous problem. It would also give Mamaga, the housekeeper, time to check all the beds were correctly aired and ready, but as she would say, “Mr Edmunstone, how can I be expected to check the household in such a time?”

She always did, though, and by the time Lady Ann and his Lordship arrived everything would be ready for them. Not perfect, but ready. After serving them afternoon tea on the terrace Mamaga and myself would retire to her parlour and discuss what needed to be done when we got to the Weekend. For we knew they would be at the Matby plantation and we could go around the house and put right all those little things that prevented it being perfect. Little things that, no doubt, Lady Ann and his Lordship failed to notice, but which both of us knew if left could spell disaster for the smooth running of the house, especially with the parties of the Simla season ahead of us. By time the weekend had come, we had worked out between ourselves a list of jobs to be undertaken and had agreed with Ali Sayed, the Mussulman steward of the estate, who was to be responsible for what.

Ali Sayed had come with the estate as a houseboy when his Lordship’s father had purchased it forty years earlier. He had been steward for the past twenty, with responsibility for not only the house, but the tea plantation and hunting paradise as well. I doubt if any bailiff in England had half as much responsibility as Ali Sayed, or for that matter could have done the job half as well. However, he was steward of the estate, not of the house, so it was only natural that the house did not get quite the level of detailed attention that either Mamaga or myself would give it. Naturally, we were very careful to present our list of jobs to Ali Sayed as suggestions, which he graciously approved as ‘overlooked trivia that need attention’, and to which he assigned estate staff for the weekend.

The three of us, Ali Sayed, Mamaga and myself, were sitting on the veranda, partaking of lemon sherbets that Rashi had made, when Tumil, the gatekeeper’s boy rode into courtyard with the news that his Lordship’s Rolls was on the Valley Road coming towards the estate. He also imparted the information that four other cars were following, two of them flying pennants! While Ali Sayed fled through the house gathering estate workers and removing signs of activity, Mamaga and myself collected the household staff and bustled them into formal uniform. We just managed to get everybody ready and lined up to receive the cars as his Lordship’s Rolls drew into the courtyard.

“Ah Edmunstone,” his Lordship commented as he descended from the Rolls, “fever at the Matby’s, Dr Graham has put the whole plantation under quarantine. Nobody could get through. Found this lot stuck on the Jumla Road, so suggested we move the whole shebang back here for the weekend. Fix us a light lunch and then we will get off playing tennis.”

A quick message to Ali Sayed got the courts swept and netted whilst the party were having lunch. At the same time Rashi sent runners down to the village to get supplies for dinner, and I reviewed arrangements.

The estate had never really been intended for entertaining on a large scale. His Lordship’s father had acquired it mostly for hunting, so there were usually no more than two or three guests. Ten, plus their appropriate household staff, was well beyond the capacity of the house. We would have to make use of the guest bungalows, and even then these would have to be shared. All of this presented problems.

By time his Lordship and his guests had finished their lunch, the courts were ready and the party went out for some games. This gave us time to move staff around and get rooms ready. We were short of staff, having given most of the Delhi staff the weekend off to go into Simla for the shopping, another tradition of the first weekend on the estate. To cover, Mamaga and I both had to draw upon the estate staff and the services of Ali Sayed. We did, however, manage to get everything into some semblance of acceptability by time I took a flagon of lemonade down to the courts.

His Lordship was playing doubles: he and the Maharani of Madrapour against Lady Ann and the Maharaja of Madrapour. Sir George, who it appeared had forgotten his spectacles, was trying to umpire. Lady Mitchell, his wife, was flirting in a most unacceptable manner with Jodpour, which made me suspect that Sir George’s lack of spectacles might be more diplomatic than absentminded. As usual the Maharani of Jodpour was absent from the gathering, maintaining Purdha in the Indian tradition. Though word amongst the staff was that the Maharani’s confinement in Purdha had less to do with the Maharaja’s traditional outlook (he had been educated at Winchester and Oxford) and more to do with her total social incompetence, which he found totally embarrassing. Anyway he always had an eye for the women, and having the Maharani in tow would no doubt cramp his style a bit.

Lady Ann requested that tea be served in the drawing room at four. I had anticipated such a request and had already sent staff to ensure that the room was up to the required standard. I enquired of her Ladyship as to when the party would like dinner, timings being a bit more flexible up in the hills. His Lordship indicated that they were considering a night hunt, so an early dinner would be required. Her Ladyship suggested seven, and commented that a light dinner would be sufficient but a good supper would be needed for the men when they returned from the hunt. I made my way back up to the house to impart the news to Rashi, certain that it would upset him even more.

Mamaga took on responsibility for the serving of afternoon tea and I made arrangements for dinner — specifically, sorting out the dining room. It had not been used for some months, so whilst the household staff got busy polishing the table, I opened its wide doors onto the veranda to let in some fresh air. Since the afternoon rains were expected shortly, I hoped to also cool the room down a bit. Having mollified Rashi to an extent, I agreed with him that a simple four course meal would be appropriate for the situation. That would be light enough for the Gentlemen to go out on their night hunt, but sufficient to allow the ladies to enjoy the evening until supper was served, which no doubt would be quite late. Given that such a meal could only be classed as informal, I set the table accordingly, and then departed to cover my duties in the rest of the house.

As so often happens when his Lordship is playing tennis, he and the guests were somewhat overdue by the time they returned to the house for tea. As a result they were still in the drawing room when the flowers arrived for the table decoration. Although one did not have to pass through the drawing room to get to the dining room from the scullery, there was a need to go down the corridor that passed the drawing room. Normally the task of taking the flowers to the dining room would have been undertaken by one of the footmen. I would have had no qualms whatsoever giving such a duty to any of my staff of footmen, for even if they overheard conversation from the drawing room (a highly likely scenario given that the walls in this house are relatively thin, being built for the summer heat) I could be certain that they would not repeat such words outside of my pantry, which is a totally respectable place for such repetition. However, all my footmen were down in Simla, so I only had estate staff to call upon, and they could not be assumed to have the discretion that comes from being a member of the household staff. Therefore, I decided to take the flowers to the dining room myself.

I set the arrangement down on the sideboard outside the dining room in order to open the door, and realised immediately that arrangements were not as they should be. There, lying in repose under the dining table was an animal. Now, let me make it quite clear that his Lordship is not like some of his ancestors who happily allowed dogs to roam around the house. In fact his Lordship was not particularly keen on dogs, or any other pets, and only kept the minimum required for his hunting. In any case the animal under the dining room table was not a dog.

I shut the dining room door quietly, then made my way to the drawing room. The party there was in animated conversation about the activities of Mr Ghandi. Jodpour expressed the opinion that a unified independent India would not be possible: the only future for India was as a federation of independent states under the protection of the British Empire. I was not sure that his Lordship was in agreement with this position; I had noticed that in the previous couple of years his Lordship had disposed of quite a few of his Indian interests, preferring to invest his funds in Australia and Canada. The conversation was, however, something in which he was highly interested. Thus, it happened that when I was able to attract his attention and advise him that a situation had developed, he told me to deal with it as I felt fit.

This put me in a slightly difficult position and I thought I had best draw his Lordship’s attention to the details of the situation — something which proved to be somewhat difficult. I did manage to inform him that the situation was such that I would require access to the gun cupboard, a piece of information that I thought would cause his enquiry as to the nature of the situation. However, at that point Sir George raised the issue of the King’s proposed visit, leading to His Lordship’s dismissing me with a comment of ‘whatever’. I, therefore, proceeded to deal with matters in my own way.

Ali Sayed quickly arranged for a couple of the estate’s gun bearers to be called up from the barracks and advised me on what measures to take. It should be realised that I am not a natural shot, though I have been privileged to be invited on a couple of private shoots on his Lordship’s Yorkshire moors. His Lordship, when in England, has a couple of shoots each year for his senior staff, a custom begun by his grandfather. It was, therefore, only natural that I was far more at home with a shotgun than with a rifle. As a result, and on the advice of Ali Sayed, I selected a pair of 12 bore from the gun cabinet and Dasha, his Lordship’s principal gun bearer, loaded a number of cartridges with heavy shot. Whilst this was being done I advised Mamaga to get the household staff into the kitchen and close the doors; there was no telling what the animal might do.

The four of us — the two gun bearers, Ali Sayed and myself — proceeded along the corridor to the dining room. The two bearers both took up positions that would enable them to act if the animal came out of the dining room and into the corridor. Ali Sayed stationed himself by the drawing room door to make certain that nothing could get through to the party within.

I carefully released the catch to the door, then pushed it open, gun ready at my shoulder. The animal, a fully-grown male Bengal tiger, was still lying under the dining table... He turned his head to look at me, eyes bright and alert. I let off the right barrel, the sound thundering around the room. As the beast convulsed up and towards me, I released the left barrel. That knocked the tiger back and it fell at the end of the table.

Dasha ran into the room, placed the end of his rifle against the beast’s head and fired a final shot.

I handed the shotgun to Dasha and went to the drawing room. His Lordship looked at me questioningly. I informed him that the situation had been dealt with, but that dinner would be delayed by half an hour as certain arrangements had to be made.

Having given instructions to the staff about cleaning up the dining room I retreated to the kitchen, shaking somewhat as a result of the whole experience.

Mamaga called me into her scullery where she insisted I had a cup of tea. “Mr Edmunstone, I hope you do not mind me observing, but I think you are rather old to be undertaking the type of activities you have today.”

I had to admit that I was, deciding that the immediately preceding events had taken more out of me than I would have liked.

“Maybe, Mr Edmunstone, it is time for you to think about handing over to one of the younger generation; I myself have been thinking along such lines.”

I acknowledged Mamaga’s comments. I must admit that in my quiet moments such thoughts had occurred to me.

“Neither of us is as young as we were when we first meet, when you where the young footman and I his Lordship’s Amah.”

“No, Mamaga, though sometimes I wish we were.” I reached out and placed my hand on top of hers.

“Oh no, Mr Edmunstone, if we were we might do things which were totally unsuitable, but if we were to retire from our positions maybe they might now be suitable. I have saved for many years and have thought of a small boarding house in Scarborough. Her Ladyship has indicated that the estate would look favourably upon us taking the lease of one of the Scarborough properties.”

I just nodded and squeezed Mamaga’s hand.

Note: This story came from an idea generated by an episode in Kazuo Ishiguro’s 1989 novel, The Remains of the Day, in which Stevens, the butler, tells of an incident where a butler found a tiger under the dining table. I was intrigued as to how the butler would handle the situation.

Copyright © 2014 Nigel Gordon

My thanks to Alien Son for his efforts in editing.