the meretricia letters
Dear Management,

We (the household and I, but I'm writing this letter by myself, honestly!) would like to seek asylum in Wymsey. You see, last week, besuited johnnies and noxious tax people swept through Highodor Manor, claiming things and taking things and just having their way with our things until there was nothing left but dust rabbits and some chipped 18th century crockery with birds on it I think the maids used. Some woman with dyed black hair and a retrousse nose - Crimson or Scarlet or some other made-up name - took my best draperies to make a green velvet ball dress, in July, mind you. I hope the little ravelings stick to her sweaty skin forever, horrid cheap woman.

I would like to know if you have lodging available for myself, my useless brother Donald, my sweet kitty Parameter, my parrot Diogenes I got from my grandmother, and some jewelry I hid in my, ahem, while the government claim officers were doing their claiming. There are various maids and things but Brahms, the butler, keeps those details from me, I often wonder why they come and go so often and so badly dressed, falling out of their clothes half of them and others tattooed like Maoris. Not one of them can do my hair, they all want me to razor and gel it, whatever that means. They laugh at my pin curls, but they get the job done do they not?

Anyway, the maids sniggeringly said they could kick in 50 Wyms a week. I also have some chickens and a goat that kept the back garden trimmed back when I had a back garden. I suspect I'll be living in a back garden now, in a shed or other outhouse. Although a greenhouse wouldn't be too bad, I do like orchids and things. I have been compared to a tender flower, most recently by the tax man who bunged me onto the street. He said "Good luck, Miss Hothouse Rose, don't let the door hit your ass on the way out." He was smiling when he said it. I always thought statements like that were made with a leer, or a sour twist of the lower lip, but he was grinning like an ape.

Where was I? Lodging. Needful. Soon. Anything. I throw myself on Wymsey because it's a lot closer than Switzerland and I only have seven quid and some little silver coin things left. Also one of the maids said Management there had a soft spot for ladies in distress, which would be me all over.

Yours very sincerely,
Meretricia, Lady Hauwke-Coughy
Formerly of Highodor Manor
Currently sleeping rough near a cyber cafe in Wales, I think.


not Donald To the Management,

Thank you so much for the lovely cab ride. We were able to get the goat and chickens in, although two of the larger maids opted to ride the next bus. Donald went with them, smiling for the first time in days. He's always loved public transportation. The Ernest Stuffe Institute is quite comfortable, and very quiet this time of year. We are all terribly grateful they could take us in and at such a reasonable price. I've never seen student housing with linenfold panelling and Adam fireplaces before. The maids have already found the café and are trying on the aprons and hats and posing rather lasciviously, I wish they wouldn't lark so much. I don't remember maids having crown-cork flipping contests when I was little. Or wearing tight knit camisole tops and platform sandals. And that was less than fifteen years ago. Hard to believe I only reached my majority last year. Yes, I am twenty-two. I feel about a hundred, trying to keep things together. It's like herding cats most days. Donald is no help at all. Yesterday I had to show him how to fill out a form. He was overly concerned that the pharmacist would not want his name and address in green ink. I assured him that it being used by the public on a daily basis they'd probably dealt with worse than a Waterman fountain pen with green ink. He just looked at me, unsure if I was joking. He used to be cheeky, now he is befuddled. His hair used to stand up in the back, now it's all lank and lorn and needs trimming but I am damned if I'll let the maids get at him, I could not live with Donald with a shaved head. He'd look like prisoner of war, what with his skinny white arms and knobby knees. Horrid. He's passable fully clothes and appropriately shorn.

Where was I? Oh. The ESI wants to put us to work, the steward said we're eating them out of house and home. I don't know what that means, but she is American so I just smiled and nodded. The maids are already assigned to a study of Female Gender Roles in the Sex Industry, which sounds really dangerous and semi-legal but all they do is fill out questionnaires and snigger a lot so I suppose it's all right. Donald has a semi-retired professor who wants to analyse him, something about having found a natural devotee of all the deepest meanings of Vagueness. Donald is damned vague, maybe the professor has something there. I am glad to have them both go off together, talking in monotones about nothing. Leaves me free to rinse my jewelry off and go through a box or two I managed to ship to myself before the Taxman Inundation reached my personal aerie on the third floor. What odd things I saved! My mother's fichu; a brass monkey; three years of Chef magazine and an eyelash curler I used once, discovered it broke them off at the roots and never used again; a packet of marigold seeds I was using as a bookmark; a Faberge egg; a bag of kitty treats, well that was useful anyway, I can tease out Parameter.

Parameter, my sweet kitty, has been hiding under my single bed since we arrived. There are so many sunny windows here, it's a shame she won't come out. Highodor Manor was on the darkish side of gloomy. Lousy with history though, if the walls could talk they would have to be executed for exposing state secrets. Just as well all they do is creak a bit. Even that will stop when the besuited johnnies make it over into posh offices for child prodigies with computer companies. It just doesn't seem fair. I know the place was only built in 1855 for a hosiery magnate. It's not all that important historically although it had several heydays. It was home and I miss it, faux Gothic excresences and all. I don't know why my tax payments weren't made. Brahms said he mailed them faithfully and I believe him. Why would he stay if he had all that cash in his pocket. I wish he wouldn't look at my legs so much. He keeps saying things like "You're a fine young lady now my lady" and "You should do something with those looks of yours my lady." Well, I would, but after being unfavourably compared to the girl on a box of cleaning powder I can't imagine what I would promote except perhaps a cheaper brand of powder. But I should try, shouldn't I? Hauwke-Coughy Cleaning Powder, the Stuff With the Stuff That Really Cleans Really Well. I can see it now. I am saying that very sarcastically. I am dripping with sarcasm. And some little despair.

You see, all I've ever wanted or stood for is in a half dozen mildewing boxes. My brother will soon wander off to be a window display in a psychiatric boutique, Brahms wants me to do something I suspect will either embarrass or impregnate me, and the maids, well who knows why the maids stay. Maybe they like being associated with former glory, a post-modern employment statement they can put on their CVs, next to ill-shod and trampy.

I need a cup of tea. If I can find my shoes I will go downstairs and look for some. Meanwhile, I have letters to write to distant relatives, begging for help or at least to take a couple maids off my hands. Useless things. Wish I was inviting said relatives to my wedding instead, but at this rate I doubt there will be suitors, let alone grooms. Washed up at twenty-two. If I'd known, I would have skipped Miss Leslie's School and taken typing instead.

Sincerely, Meretricia H-C


not Donald Day 3

Oh my. In a fit of boredom I let the maids razor and gel me. The resultant sartorial effect is that of Diogenes after a particularly bad moult. With many small hugs and assurances it would grow out, the maids then went on to give the mess a wash of glitter and added a few tawdry rhinestone pins to buck me up, I 'spose, or cover the bald bits. I feel very decorative now, in a Texas Christmas sort of way. I drew the line at tattoos, but after slipping brandy into my cup of tea they placed a rosebud on the tip of my shoulder blade. I almost had a fainting fit but was assured the vivid flower could be removed with baby oil. "Baby oil? What is baby oil?" Again I had to be supported, until informed baby oil is safe for babies, not composed of them. There the faux flower sits, under my powder blue twin set. Only I know that one square inch of me is dyed like a gypsy shawl. I keep expecting people to guess it is there, but no one has said anything except that nice Management, who asked if I had injured my shoulder, since I kept twitching. I said no, no, just an itch, probably loose hairs from the trim I had just received. To which he replied he hadn't like to say anything but he had wondered if I was going to a fancy dress ball. As a meteorite.

I promptly burst into tears. Management offered a clean hanky and a broad shoulder. What a tower of strength is he! He apologised for the remark, which was made in all sincerity and instantly forgiven, I do look as if I'd re-entered the atmosphere without benefit of ceramic heat shielding. I assured him my days of fancy dress were over, unless it was a slumming party in which case I could go as I was anytime. He assured me I was lovely and said my twin set complemented my eyes. He ran a finger, tentatively, up one arm, blinked and sighed, "Cashmere." "It was a gift from my great-aunt Cecilia," I replied, "not something I'd choose for myself ordinarily." (Usually I wear thick woolly jumpers, Highodor Manor's heating was, um, inconsistent at best.) And then he had to apologise again for some reason, stammering a bit and stroking my sleeve as if to smooth something he'd ruffled. Management takes his role very seriously! All the maids are half in love with him, several have proposed to take him "around the world" which seems awfully extravagant for a working girl. I can see Ibiza or something, but around the world, really.

Anyway, we shared some non-brandied tea, I recovered my composure and he left, very gracefully, considering he had glitter gel all over his shirtfront. My useless brother Donald shuffled in, looked in the teapot, sniffled, and said "Bugger me!" very loudly when my new head caught his eye. "Bugger me!" he repeated, and dropped the lid to the pot on the carpet. "You better not let Diogenes see you, you might lay an egg when he was done with you!" He then laughed freely in a very non-Donald way.

I did not deign to reply, just picked up the lid and tried to swab up the drops of tea staining the Institute's Aubusson carpet.

"It's even worse from above," he said, "you look like an early attempt at aerial defoliation."

I threw a napkin at him and left the room. Donald will have to work a little harder than usual to get back in my good graces. After homelessness, I hate sibling snarking the most. After a long look in the mirror in the bath I decided that the new hairdo was not completely awful, it just had awful elements. I rather like the glittery hair. It distracts the eye from my pallor of distress and accompanying facial shadows and hollows. And as the maids said, with dropped haitches and cheerful nonchalance, it'll grow back. Eventually.


not Donald Day Whatever

Its really quite shocking what is withheld from one when one attends the better schools. I was always busy and happy at school. I was captain of the B Natural Choir and greetings officer of the French Club two years running. Despite some rather rambunctious reading, such as D.H. Lawrence, it never crossed my mind that the maids Brahms maintains with such careful attention are having sex for money. I know, it's shocking! Shocking shocking. I am shocked. I can't get over it. Can’t get past it. Here I am, broke, twenty-two, filled with doubts about my place in this world, and I find out that the maids do a lot more than dust and break figurines. I spend hours everyday wondering how to feed and house all these women and find out they make more in a week than I do in toto at any time ever. Yet they’ve stayed all these years, loyal in a base, hypocritical way but loyal nonetheless, and even taking an occasional turn with the Hoover. Amazing. And appalling in every way!

Yes – that is the mot precis, appalled, I am appalled. Highodor Manor was a house of ill repute, a red-light district! A wh- a who- a whor-. I can't say it, I won’t say it! The place that sheltered me all those years was a repository for women of loose reputation. Here I was, saving myself for marriage or something like it, and all the time these ladies of the evening are shaking down the milkman, postman and various repairmen for favours! I always wondered why the per-hour charges never matched the amount of time the filthy vans were parked on the side drive. I always thought they weren't charging for their lunch hour. I feel such a dupe.

I’d never have known, either, but some woman named Nell came up to me at the post office and asked if she could join my "merry band". I said I didn’t have a merry band, I didn’t even have a radio. She looked disgusted and stumped off. Then this woman wearing a miniskirt and a nun’s veil came up and told me that if the maids didn’t come to Jesus she was going to put pins in voodoo dolls for all of them! She said I’d be in for some perdition, too, if I kept making eyes at some gentleman named Surf. I don’t know who she was speaking of, and told her so, using my mother's ‘the queen in a snit’ voice, the one with the pear-shaped tones and extreme upper-class nasality. The tight-skirted nun finally buggered off, leaving me confused and harassed.

I turned to a kind-looking gentleman in wellies hanging by the door sucking a cough drop. He scratched himself thoughtfully and said, "Well, missus, those maids of yours are making some money on the side, like, trading a simulacrum of affection for cold hard cash." I don’t know what surprised me more, a pig farmer using ‘simulacrum’ or finding out the maids were pursuing the Oldest Profession right under my nose. Mr. Smith, for it was he, helped me to a bench and provided the needful – in this case, a clean hanky and a shot of brandy, handily warmed from its proximity to his armpit in the pocket of his woolly jacket. I have to admit his jacket might always carry its badge of honor in the form of my mascara smudges. It had many other similar stains. But it was nice to lean on someone who seemed more interested in the truth than in cornering a maid and getting a handful for free. Mr Smith referred me to Management, whom he seemed to think had a handle on both the legalities and practicalities of sorting out the maids.

I would have lingered a while, it was very pleasant sitting in the sunny window of the post office with Mr Smith rumbling on about the vagaries of maids of all kinds, but a fresh-faced, rather chubby woman came up just then, and Mr Smith leaped to his feet as if scalded. He introduced me to Maragold Babie, who took in the situation at a glance, laughed, and asked me if she could borrow a maid for actual house-cleaning a couple days a week. I referred her to Brahms, and added she’d best move quickly, he’d probably be incarcerated shortly for pandering. She just smiled and said never mind, she was sure the girls knew one end of a broom from the other without his help. She was just teasing, she added, ‘Trying to lighten things up a bit.

‘Well I’m not in the mood,’ I replied sadly, and she got all red-faced and apologized and asked me to luncheon. I accepted, mostly because by now there were about thirty Wymsonians gathered and I did not want to seem ungracious. Feeling a bit used up and maungy (not to mention overheated by the brandy), I struggled out through the crowd, followed by a solicitous Babie and a strangely silent Smith, who always managed to be at Maragold’s elbow, his face, behind the gingery moustache, a study in…. words fail. Wasn’t lust and wasn’t anything remotely nasty, the only thing I can compare it to is what I imagine the look was in Adam’s eye the first time he saw Eve. Very nice really. My, Wymsey has such deep currents and desires. It looks so sleepy and nondescript from the motorway!

© Mara Gold, 2001

Useful Connections:

Ernest Stuffe, the man
Ernest Stuffe Seminar Programme
Ernest Stuffe Summer School

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