Shoeshine Boy

Politician|Short Story

Short story beginning…

Ted Barker was one of those members of Parliament who never sought high office. He’d had what was described by his fellow officers as a “good war”—in which he was awarded the Military Cross and reached the rank of major. After being demobilized in November 1945, he was happy to return to his wife, Hazel, and their home in Suffolk.

The family engineering business had also had a good war, under the diligent management of Ted’s older brother, Ken. As soon as he arrived home, Ted was offered his old place on the board, which he happily accepted. But as the weeks passed by, the distinguished warrior became first bored and then disenchanted. There was no job for him at the factory that even remotely resembled active service.

It was around this time that he was approached by Ethel Thompson, the shop steward and—more important for the advancement of this tale—chairman of the Wedmore branch of the North Suffolk Conservative Association. The incumbent MP, Sir Dingle Lightfoot, known in the constituency as “Tiptoe,” had made it clear that once the war was over they must look for someone to replace him.

“We don’t want some clever clogs from London coming up here and telling us how to run this division,” pronounced Mrs. Thompson. “We need someone who knows the district and understands the problems of the local people.”

Ted, she suggested, might be just right. Ted confessed that he had never given such an idea a moment’s thought, but promised Mrs. Thompson that he would take her proposal seriously, only asking for a week in which to consider his decision. He discussed the suggestion with his wife, and, having received her enthusiastic support, he paid a visit to Mrs. Thompson at her home the following Sunday afternoon. She was delighted to hear that Mr. Barker would be pleased to allow his name to go forward for consideration as the prospective parliamentary candidate for the division of North Suffolk.

The final shortlist included two “clever clogs” from London— one of whom later served in a Macmillan cabinet—and the local boy, Ted Barker. When the chairman announced the committee’s decision to the local press, he said that it would be improper to reveal the number of votes each candidate had polled. In fact, Ted had comfortably outscored his two rivals put together.

Elaction Time|Short Story

Six months later the prime minister called a general election, and after a lively three-week campaign, Ted was elected as the Member of Parliament for North Suffolk with a majority of more than seven thousand. He quickly became respected and popular with colleagues on both sides of the House, though he never pretended to be anything other than, in his own words, “an amateur politician.”

As the years passed, Ted’s popularity with his constituents grew, and he increased his majority with each succeeding general election. After fourteen years of diligent service to the party nationally and locally, the prime minister of the day, Harold Macmillan, recommended to the Queen that Ted should receive a knighthood.

By the end of the 1960s, Sir Ted (he was never known as Sir Edward) felt that the time was fast approaching when the division should start looking for a younger candidate, and he made it clear to the local chairman that he did not intend to run in the next election. He and Hazel quietly prepared for a peaceful retirement in their beloved East Anglia.

Shortly after the election, Ted was surprised to receive a call from 10 Downing Street: “The prime minister would like to see Sir Ted at 11:30 tomorrow morning.”

Ted couldn’t imagine why Edward Heath should want to see him. Although he had of course visited Number 10 on several occasions when he was a member of Parliament, those visits had only been for cocktail parties, receptions, and the occasional dinner for a visiting head of state. He admitted to Hazel that he was a little nervous.

Ted presented himself at the front door of Number 10 at 11:17 the next day. The duty clerk accompanied him down the long corridor on the ground floor and asked him to take a seat in the small waiting area that adjoins the Cabinet Room. By now Ted’s nervousness was turning to apprehension. He felt like an errant schoolboy about to come face to face with his headmaster.

After a few minutes, a private secretary appeared. “Good morning, Sir Ted. The prime minister will see you now.” He accompanied Ted into the Cabinet Room, where Mr. Heath stood to greet him. “How kind of you to come at such short notice, Ted.” Ted had to suppress a smile because he knew the prime minister knew that it would have taken the scurvy or a local hurricane to stop him from answering such a summons.

“I’m hoping you can help me with a delicate matter, Ted,” continued the prime minister, a man not known for wasting time on Smalltalk. “I’m about to appoint the next governor of St. George’s, and I can’t think of anyone better qualified for the job than you,”

Ted recalled the day when Mrs. Thompson had asked him to think about running for Parliament. But on this occasion, he didn’t require a week to consider his reply—even if he couldn’t quite bring himself to admit that although he’d heard of St. George’s, he certainly couldn’t have located it on a map. Once he’d caught his breath, he simply said, “Thank you, Prime Minister. I’d be honored.”

During the weeks that followed Sir Ted paid several visits to the Foreign and Colonial Offices to receive briefings on various aspects of his appointment. Thereafter he assiduously read every book, pamphlet, and government paper the mandarins supplied.

After a few weeks of boning up on his new subject, the governor-in-waiting had discovered that St. George’s was a tiny group of islands in the middle of the North Atlantic. It had been colonized by the British in 1643, and thereafter had a long history of imperial rule, the islanders having scorned every offer of independence. They were one of Her Majesty’s sovereign colonies, and that was how they wished to remain.

Even before he set out on his adventure, Ted had become used to being addressed as “Your Excellency.” But after being fitted up by Alan Bennett of Savile Row with two different full-dress uniforms, Ted feared that he looked—what was that modern expression? —“over the top.” In winter he was expected to wear an outfit of dark blue doeskin with scarlet collar and cuffs embroidered with silver oak leaves, while in the summer he was to be adorned in the white cotton drill with a gold-embroidered collar and gold shoulder cords. The sight of him in either uniform caused Hazel to laugh out loud.

Ted didn’t laugh when the tailors sent him the bill, especially after he learned that he would be unlikely to wear either uniform more than twice a year. “Still, think what a hit you’ll be at fancy dress parties once you’ve retired,” was Hazel’s only comment.

The newly appointed governor and commander in chief of St. George’s and his lady flew out to take up their post on January 12, 1971. They were greeted by the prime minister, as the colony’s first citizen, and the chief justice, as the legal representative of the queen. After the new governor had taken the salute from six off-duty policemen standing vaguely to attention, the town band gave a rendering of the national anthem. The Union Jack was raised on the roof of the airport terminal, and a light smattering of applause broke out among the assembled gathering of twenty or thirty local dignitaries.

Sir Ted and Lady Barker were then driven to the official residence in a spacious but aging Rover that had already served the two previous governors. When they reached Government House, the driver brought the car to a halt and leaped out to open the gates. As they continued up the drive, Ted and Hazel saw their new home for the first time.

The colonial mansion was magnificent by any standards. Obviously built at the height of the British Empire, it was vastly out of proportion to either the importance of the island or Britain’s current position in the real world. But size, as the governor and his wife, were quick to discover, didn’t necessarily equate with efficiency or comfort.

The air-conditioning didn’t work, the plumbing was unreliable, Mrs. Rogers, the daily maid, was regularly out sick, and the only thing Ted’s predecessor had left behind was an elderly black Labrador. Worse, the Foreign Office had no funds available to deal with any of these problems, and whenever Ted mentioned them in dispatches, he was met only with suggestions for cutbacks.

After a few weeks, Ted and Hazel began to think of St. George’s as being rather like a great big parliamentary constituency, split into several islands, the two largest being Suffolk and Edward Islands. This heartened Ted, who even wondered if that was what had given the prime minister the idea of offering him the post in the first place.

The governor’s duties could hardly have been described as onerous: He and Hazel spent most of their time visiting hospitals, delivering speeches at school prize-givings, and judging flower shows. The highlight of the year was undoubtedly the queen’s official birthday in June when the governor held a garden party for local dignitaries at Government House and Suffolk played Edward Island at cricket—an opportunity for most of the colony’s citizens to spend two days getting thoroughly drunk.

Ted and Hazel accepted the local realpolitik and settled down for five years of relaxed diplomacy among delightful people in a heavenly climate, seeing no cloud on the horizon that could disturb their blissful existence. Until the phone call came.

It was a Thursday morning, and the governor was in his study with that Monday’s Times. He was putting off reading a long article on the summit meeting taking place in Washington until he had finished the crossword, and was just about to fill in the answer to 12 across—“Erring herd twists to create this diversion (3,7)”— when his private secretary, Charles Roberts, came rushing into his office without knocking.

Ted realized it had to be something important, because he had never known Charles to rush anywhere, and certainly he had never known him to enter the study without the courtesy of a knock.

“It’s Mountbatten on the line,” Charles blurted out. He could hardly have looked more anxious had he been reporting that the Germans were about to land on the north shore of the island. The governor raised an eyebrow. “Admiral of the Fleet Earl Mountbatten of Burma,” said Charles, as if Ted hadn’t understood,

“Then put him through,” said Ted quietly, folding up his copy of The Times and placing it on the desk in front of him. He had met Mountbatten three times over the past twenty years but doubted if the great man would recall any of these encounters. Indeed, on the third occasion, Ted had found it necessary to slip out of the function the admiral was addressing, as he was feeling a little queasy. He couldn’t imagine what Mountbatten would want to speak to him about, and he had no time to consider the problem, as the phone on his desk was already ringing.

As Ted picked up the receiver he was still wondering whether to call Mountbatten “My Lord,” since he was an earl, “Commander in Chief,” since he was a former chief of the Defense Staff, or “Admiral,” since Admiral of the Fleet is a life appointment. He settled for “Good morning, sir.”

“Good morning, Your Excellency. I hope I find you well?”

“Yes, thank you, sir,” replied Ted.

“Because if I remember correctly, when we last met you were suffering from a tummy bug.”

“That’s right, sir,” said the surprised governor. He was reasonably confident that the purpose of Mountbatten’s call wasn’t to inquire about his health after all these years.

“Governor, you must be curious to know why I am calling.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I am presently in Washington attending the summit, and I had originally planned to return to London tomorrow morning.”

“I understand, sir,” said Ted, not understanding at all.

“But I thought I might make a slight detour and drop in to see you. I do enjoy visiting our colonies whenever I get the chance. It gives me the opportunity to brief Her Majesty on what’s happening. I hope that such a visit would not be inconvenient.”

“Not at all, sir,” said Ted. “We would be delighted to welcome you.”

“Good,” said Mountbatten. “Then I would be obliged if you could warn the airport authorities to expect my aircraft around four tomorrow afternoon. I would like to stay overnight, but if I’m to keep to my schedule I will need to leave you fairly early the following morning.”

“Of course, sir. Nothing could be easier. My wife and I will be at the airport to welcome you at four o’clock tomorrow afternoon.”

“That’s kind of you, Governor. By the way, I’d rather things were left fairly informal. Please don’t put yourself to any trouble.” The line went dead.

Once he had replaced the receiver, it was Ted’s turn to run for the first time in several months. He found Charles striding down the long corridor toward him, having obviously listened in on the extension.

“Find my wife and get yourself a notepad—and then both of you join me in my office immediately. Immediately,” Ted repeated as he scuttled back into his study.

Hazel arrived a few minutes later, clutching a bunch of dahlias, followed by the breathless private secretary.

“Why the rush, Ted? What’s the panic?”

“Mountbatten’s coming.”

“When?” Hazel asked quietly.

“Tomorrow afternoon. Four o’clock.”

“That is a good reason to panic,” Hazel admitted. She dumped the flowers in a vase on the windowsill and took a seat opposite her husband on the other side of his desk. “Perhaps this isn’t the best time to let you know that Mrs. Rogers is out sick.”

“You have to admire her timing,” said Ted. “Right, we’ll just have to bluff it.”

“What do you mean, ‘bluff it’?” asked Hazel.

“Well, let’s not forget that Mountbatten’s a member of the royal family, a former chief of the Defense Staff, and an Admiral of the Fleet. The last colonial post he held was Viceroy of India, with three regiments under his command and a personal staff of over a thousand. So I can’t imagine what he’ll expect to find when he turns up here.”

“Then let’s begin by making a list of things that will have to be done,” said Hazel briskly.

Charles |Short story

Charles removed a pen from his inside pocket, turned over the cover of his pad, and waited to write down his master’s instructions.

“If he’s arriving at the airport, the first thing he will expect is a red carpet,” said Hazel.

“But we don’t have a red carpet,” said Ted.

“Yes, we do. There’s the one that leads from the dining room to the drawing-room. We’ll have to use that, and I hope we can get it back in place before he visits that part of the house. Charles, you will have to roll it up and take it to the airport—” she paused “— and then bring it back.”

Charles scowled, but began writing furiously.

“And Charles, can you also see that it’s cleaned by tomorrow?” interjected the governor. “I hadn’t even realized it was red. Now, what about an honor guard?”

“We haven’t got an honor guard,” said Hazel. “If you remember, when we arrived on the island we were met by the prime minister, the chief justice, and six off-duty policemen.”

“True,” said Ted. “Then we’ll just have to rely on the Territorial Army.”

“You mean Colonel Hodges and his band of hopeful warriors? They don’t even all have matching uniforms. And as for their rifles …”

“Hodges will just have to get them into some sort of shape by four o’clock tomorrow afternoon. Leave that one to me,” said Ted, making a note on his pad. “I’ll phone him later this morning. Now, what about a band?”

“Well there’s the town band,” said Charles. “And, of course, the police band.”

“On this occasion they’ll have to combine,” said Hazel, “so we don’t offend either of them.”

“But they only know three tunes between them,” said Ted.

“They only need to know one,” said Hazel. “The national anthem.”

“Right,” said the governor. “Since there are sure to be a lot of musical feathers that will need unruffling, I’ll leave you to deal with them, Hazel. Our next problem is how we transport him from the airport to Government House.”

“Certainly not in the old Rover,” said Hazel. “It’s broken down three times in the last month, and it smells like a kennel.”

“Henry Bendall has a Rolls-Royce,” said Ted. “We’ll just have to commandeer that.”

“As long as no one tells Mountbatten that it’s owned by the local undertaker, and what it was used for the morning before he arrived.”

“Mick Flaherty also has an old Rolls,” piped up Charles. “A Silver Shadow, if I remember correctly.”

“But he loathes the British,” said Hazel.

“Agreed,” said Ted, “but he’ll still want to have dinner at Government House when he discovers the guest of honor is a member of the royal family.”

“Dinner?” said Hazel, her voice rising in horror.

“Of course we will have to give a dinner in his honor,” said Ted. “And, worse, everyone who is anyone will expect to be invited. How many can the dining room hold?” He and Hazel turned to the private secretary.

“Sixty, if pushed,” replied Charles, looking up from his notes.

“We’re pushed,” said Ted.

“We certainly are,” said Hazel. “Because we don’t have sixty plates, let alone sixty coffee cups, sixty teaspoons, sixty …”

“We still have that Royal Worcester service presented by the late king after his visit in 1947,” said Ted. “How many pieces of that are fit for use?”

“Enough for about fourteen settings, at the last count,” said Hazel.

“Right, then that’s dealt with how many people will be at the top table.”

“What about the menu?” asked Charles.

“And, more importantly, who is going to cook it?” added Ted.

“We’ll have to ask Dotty Cuthbert if she can spare Mrs. Travis for the evening,” said Hazel. “No one on the island is a better cook.”

“And we’ll also need her butler, not to mention the rest of her staff,” added Ted.

By now Charles was on his third page.

“You’d better deal with Lady Cuthbert, my dear,” said Ted. “I’ll try to square Mick Flaherty.”

“Our next problem will be the drinks,” said Hazel. “Don’t forget, the last governor emptied the cellar a few days before he left.”

“And the Foreign Office refuses to restock it,” Ted reminded her. “Jonathan Fletcher has the best cellar on the island …”

“And, God bless him, he won’t expect to be at the top table,” said Hazel.

“If we’re limited to fourteen places, the top table’s looking awfully crowded already,” said Ted.

“Dotty Cuthbert, the Bendalls, the Flahertys, the Hodgeses,” said Hazel, writing down the names. “Not to mention the prime minister, the chief justice, the mayor, the chief of police, plus their wives—let’s hope that some of them are indisposed or abroad.” She was beginning to sound desperate.

“Where’s he going to sleep?” asked Charles innocently.

“God, I hadn’t thought of him sleeping,” said Ted.

“He’ll have to take our bedroom. It’s the only one with a bed that doesn’t sink in the middle,” said Hazel.

“We’ll move into the Nelson Room for the night, and suffer those dreadful wood wormed beds and their ancient horsehair mattresses.”

“Agreed,” said Hazel. “I’ll make sure all our things are out of the Queen Victoria Room by this evening.”

“And Charles,” said the governor, “phone the Foreign Office, would you, and find out Mountbatten’s likes and dislikes. Food, drink, eccentric habits—anything you can discover. They’re sure to have a file on him, and this is one gentleman I don’t want to catch me making a mistake.”

The private secretary turned over yet another page of his pad and continued scribbling.

For the next hour, the three of them went over any and every problem that might arise during the visit, and after a sandwich lunch, departed in their different directions to spend the afternoon making begging calls all around the island.

Evening News|Short story

It was Charles’s idea that the governor should appear on the local television station’s early-evening news, to let the citizens know that a member of the royal family would be visiting the island the following day. Sir Ted ended his broadcast by saying that he hoped as many people as possible would be at the airport to welcome “the great war leader” when his plane touched down at four the following afternoon.

While Hazel spent the evening cleaning every room the great war leader might conceivably enter, Charles, with the aid of a flashlight, tended to the flower beds that lined the driveway, and Ted supervised the shuttling of plates, cutlery, food, and wine from different parts of the island to Government House.

“Now, what have we forgotten?” said Ted, as he climbed into bed at two o’clock that morning.

“Heaven only knows,” Hazel said wearily before turning out the light. “But whatever it is, let’s hope Mountbatten never finds out.”

The governor, dressed in his summer uniform, with gold piping down the sides of his white trousers, decorations and campaign medals across his chest, and an old-fashioned Wolseley helmet with a plume of red-over-white swan’s feathers on his head, walked out onto the landing to join his wife. Hazel was wearing the green summer frock she had bought for the governor’s garden party two years earlier, and was checking the flowers in the entrance hall.

“Too late for that,” said Ted, as she rearranged a sprig that had strayed half an inch. “It’s time we left for the airport.”

They descended the steps of Government House to find two Rolls-Royces, one black, one white, and their old Rover standing in line. Charles followed closely behind them, carrying the red carpet, which he dropped into the trunk of the Rover as his master stepped into the back of the leading Rolls-Royce.

The first thing the governor needed to check was the chauffeur’s name.

“Bill Simmons,” he was informed.

“All you have to remember, Bill, is to look as if you’ve been doing this job all your life.”

“Right, Guv.”

“No,” said Ted firmly. “In front of the admiral, you must address me as ‘Your Excellency,’ and Lord Mountbatten as ‘My Lord.’ If in any doubt, say nothing.”

“Right, Guv, Your Excellency.”

Bill started the car and drove toward the gates at what he evidently considered was a stately pace, before turning right and taking the road to the airport. When they reached the terminal fifteen minutes later a policeman ushered the tiny motorcade out onto the tarmac, where the combined bands were playing a medley from West Side Story—at least, that was what Ted charitably thought it might be.

As he stepped out of the car Ted came face to face with three ranks of soldiers from the Territorial Army standing at ease, sixty-one of them, aged from seventeen to seventy. Ted had to admit that, although they weren’t the Grenadier Guards, they weren’t like something from TV’s “Dad’s Army” either. And they had two advantages: a real-live colonel in full-dress uniform, and a genuine sergeant-major, with a voice to match.

Charles had already begun rolling out the red carpet when the governor turned his attention to the hastily erected barriers, behind which he was delighted to see a larger crowd than he had ever witnessed on the island, even at the annual football derby between Suffolk and Edward Islands.

Many of the islanders were waving Union Jacks, and some were holding up pictures of the queen. Ted smiled and checked his watch. The plane was due in seventeen minutes.

The prime minister, the local mayor, the chief justice, the commissioner of police, and their wives were lining up at the end of the red carpet. The sun beat down from a cloudless sky. As Ted turned in a slow circle to take in the scene, he could see for himself that everyone had made a special effort.

Suddenly the sound of engines could be heard, and the crowd began to cheer. Ted looked up, shielded his eyes, and saw an Andover of the Queen’s Flight descending toward the airport. It touched down on the far end of the runway at three minutes before the hour and taxied up to the red carpet as four chimes struck on the clock above the flight control tower.

The door of the plane opened, and there stood Admiral of the Fleet the Earl Mountbatten of Burma, KG, PC, GCB, OM, GCSI, GCIE, GCVO, DSO, FRS, DCL (Hon.), LL.D. (Hon.), attired in the full dress uniform of an Admiral of the Fleet (summer wear).

“If that’s what he means by ‘fairly informal,’ I suppose we should be thankful that he didn’t ask us to lay on an official visit,” murmured Hazel as she and Ted walked to the bottom of the steps that had been quickly wheeled into place.

As Mountbatten slowly descended the stairway, the crowd cheered even louder. Once he stepped onto the red carpet the governor took a pace forward, removed his plumed hat, and bowed. The admiral saluted, and at that moment the combined bands of town and police struck up the national anthem. The crowd sang “God Save the Queen” so lustily that the occasional uncertain note was smothered by their exuberance.

When the anthem came to an end, the governor said, “Welcome to St. George’s, sir.”

“Thank you, Governor,” replied Mountbatten.

“May I present my wife, Hazel.” The governor’s wife took a pace forward, did a full curtsey, and shook hands with the admiral.

“How good to see you again, Lady Barker. This is indeed a pleasure.”

The governor guided his guest to the end of the red carpet and introduced him to the prime minister and his wife, Sheila; the local mayor and his wife, Caroline; the chief justice and his wife, Janet; and the commissioner of police and his latest wife, whose name he couldn’t remember.

“Perhaps you’d care to inspect the honor guard before we leave for Government House,” suggested Ted, steering Mountbatten in the direction of Colonel Hodges and his men.

“Absolutely delighted,” said the admiral, waving to the crowd as the two of them proceeded across the tarmac toward the waiting guard. When they still had some twenty yards to go, the colonel sprang to attention, took three paces forward, saluted, and said crisply, “Honor guard ready for inspection, sir.”

Mountbatten came to a halt and returned a naval salute, which was a sign for the sergeant major, standing at attention six paces behind his colonel, to bellow out the words: “Commanding officer on parade! General salute, present arms!”

The front row, in possession of the unit’s entire supply of weapons, presented arms, while the second and third rows came rigidly to attention.

Mountbatten marched dutifully up and down the ranks, as gravely as if he were inspecting a full brigade of Life Guards. When he had passed the last soldier in the back row, the colonel came to attention and saluted once again. Mountbatten returned the salute and said, “Thank you, Colonel. First-class effort. Well done.”

Mountbatten Move Back|Short story

The governor then guided Mountbatten toward the white Rolls-Royce, where Bill was standing at what he imagined was attention, while at the same time holding open the back door. Mountbatten stepped in as the governor hurried round to the other side, opened the door for himself, and joined his guest on the back seat. Hazel and the admiral’s ADC took their places in the black Rolls-Royce, while Charles and the admiral’s secretary had to make do with the Rover. The governor only hoped that Mountbatten hadn’t seen two members of the airport staff rolling up the red carpet and placing it in the Rover’s trunk. Hazel was only praying that they had enough sheets left over for the bed in the Green Room. If not, the ADC would be wondering about their sleeping habits.

The island’s two police motorcycles, with white-uniformed outriders, preceded the three cars as they made their way towards the exit. The crowd waved and cheered lustily as the motorcade began its short journey to Government House. So successful had Ted’s television appearance the previous evening been that the Tenmile route was lined with well-wishers.

As they approached the open gates two policemen sprang to attention and saluted as the leading car passed through. In the distance, Ted could see a butler, two under-butlers, and several maids, all smartly clad, standing on the steps awaiting their arrival. “Damn it,” he almost said aloud as the car came to a halt at the bottom of the steps. “I don’t know the butler’s name.”

The car door was smartly opened by one of the under-butlers while the second supervised the unloading of the luggage from the boot.

The butler took a pace forward as Mountbatten stepped out of the car. “Carruthers, M’lord,” he said, bowing. “Welcome to the residence. If you would be kind enough to follow me, I will direct you to your quarters.” The admiral, accompanied by the governor and Lady Barker, climbed the steps into Government House and followed Carruthers up the main staircase.

“Magnificent, these old government residences,” said Mountbatten as they reached the top of the stairs. Carruthers opened the door to the Queen Victoria Room and stood to one side as if he had done so a thousand times before.

“How charming,” said the admiral, taking in the governor’s private suite. He walked over to the window and looked out onto the newly mowed lawn. “How very pleasant. It reminds me of Broadlands, my home in Hampshire.”

Lady Barker smiled at the compliment but didn’t allow herself to relax.

“Is there anything you require, M’lord?” asked Carruthers, as an under-butler began to supervise the unpacking of the cases.

Hazel held her breath.

“No, I don’t think so,” said Mountbatten. “Everything looks just perfect.”

“Perhaps you’d care to join Hazel and me for tea in the drawing-room when you’re ready, sir,” suggested Ted.

“How thoughtful of you,” said the admiral. “I’ll be down in about thirty minutes, if I may.”

The governor and his wife left the room, closing the door quietly behind them.

“I think he suspects something,” whispered Hazel as they tiptoed down the staircase.

“You may be right,” said Ted, placing his plumed hat on the stand in the hall, “but that’s all the more reason to check we haven’t forgotten anything. I’ll start with the dining room. You ought to go and see how Mrs. Travis is getting on in the kitchen.”

When Hazel entered the kitchen she found Mrs. Travis preparing the vegetables, and one of the maids peeling a mound of potatoes. She thanked Mrs. Travis for taking over at such short notice and admitted she had never seen the kitchen so full of exotic foods, or the surfaces so immaculately clean. Even the floor was spotless. Realizing that her presence was superfluous, Hazel joined her husband in the dining room, where she found him admiring the expertise of the second under-butler, who was laying out the place settings for that evening, as a maid folded napkins to look like swans.

“So far, so good,” said Hazel. They left the dining room and entered the drawing-room, where Ted paced up and down, trying to think if there was anything he had forgotten while they waited for the great man to join them for tea.

A few minutes later, Mountbatten walked in. He was no longer dressed in his admiral’s uniform but had changed into a dark gray double-breasted suit.

“Damn it,” thought Ted, immediately aware of what he’d forgotten to do.

Hazel rose to greet her guest and guided him to a large, comfortable chair.

“I must say, Lady Barker, your butler is a splendid chap,” said Mountbatten. “He even knew the brand of whiskey I prefer. How long have you had him?”

“Not very long,” admitted Hazel.

“Well, if he ever wants a job in England, don’t hesitate to let me know—though I’m bound to say you’d be a fool to part with him,” he added, as a maid came in carrying a beautiful Wedgwood tea service Hazel had never set eyes on before.

“Earl Grey, if I remember correctly,” said Hazel.

“What a memory you have, Lady Barker,” said the admiral, as the maid began to pour.

“Thank God for the Foreign Office briefing,” Hazel thought, as she accepted the compliment with a smile.

“And how did the conference go, sir?’ asked Ted, as he dropped a lump of sugar—the one thing he felt might be their own—into his cup of tea.

“For the British, quite well,” said Mountbatten. “But it would have gone better if the French hadn’t been up to their usual tricks. Giscard seems to regard himself as a cross between Charlemagne and Joan of Arc.” His hosts laughed politely. “No, the real problem we’re facing at the moment, Ted is quite simply …”

By the time Mountbatten had dealt with the outcome of the summit, given his undiluted views of James Callaghan and Ted Heath, covered the problem of finding a wife for Prince Charles and mulled over the long-term repercussions of Watergate, it was almost time for him to change.

“Are we dressing for dinner?”

“Yes, sir—if that meets with your approval.”

“Full decorations?” Mountbatten asked, sounding hopeful.

“I thought that would be appropriate, sir,” replied Ted, remembering the Foreign Office’s advice about the Admiral’s liking for dressing up at the slightest opportunity.

Mountbatten smiled as Carruthers appeared silently at the door. Ted raised an eyebrow.

“I have laid out the full dress uniform, M’lord. I took the liberty of pressing the trousers. The bedroom maid is drawing a bath for you.”

Mountbatten smiled. “Thank you,” he said as he rose from his chair. “Such a splendid tea,” he added turning to face his hostess. “And such wonderful staff. Hazel, I don’t know how you do it.”

“Thank you, sir,” said Hazel, trying not to blush.

“What time would you like me to come down for dinner, Ted?” Mountbatten asked.

“The first guests should be arriving for drinks at about 7:30, sir. We were hoping to serve dinner at eight, if that’s convenient for you.”

“Couldn’t be better,” declared Mountbatten. “How many are you expecting?”

“Around sixty, sir. You’ll find a guest list on your bedside table. Perhaps Hazel and I could come and fetch you at 7:50?”

“You run a tight ship, Ted,” said Mountbatten with approval. “You’ll find me ready the moment you appear,” he added as he followed Carruthers out of the room.

Once the door was closed behind him, Hazel said to the maid, “Molly, can you clear away the tea-things, please?” She hesitated for a moment. “It is Molly, isn’t it?”

“Yes, ma’am,” said the girl.

“I think he knows,” said Ted, looking a little anxious.

“Maybe, but we haven’t time to worry about that now,” said Hazel, already on her way to carry out a further inspection of the kitchen.

The mound of potatoes had diminished to a peeled heap. Mrs. Travis, who was preparing the sauces, was calling for more pepper and for some spices to be fetched from a shop in town. Aware once again that she wasn’t needed in the kitchen, Hazel moved on to the dining room, where she found Ted. The top table was now fully laid with the King’s dinner service, three sets of wine glasses, crested linen napkins, and a glorious centerpiece of a silver pheasant, which gave added sparkle.

“Who lent us that?” she asked.

“I have no idea,” replied Ted. “But one thing’s for certain—it will have flown home by the morning.”

“If we keep the lighting low enough,” whispered Hazel, “he might not notice that the other tables all have different cutlery.”

“Heavens, just look at the time,” said Ted.

They left the dining room and walked quickly up the stairs. Ted nearly barged straight into Mountbatten’s room but remembered just in time.

Governer Admiring in mirror

The governor rather liked his dark blue doeskin uniform with the scarlet collar and cuffs. He was admiring the ensemble in the mirror when Hazel entered the room in a pink Hardy Amies outfit, which she had originally thought a waste of money because she never expected it to be given a proper outing.

“Men are so vain,” she remarked as her husband continued to inspect himself in the mirror. “You do realize you’re only meant to wear that in winter.”

“I am well aware of that,” said Ted peevishly, “but it’s the only other uniform I’ve got. In any case, I bet Mountbatten will outdo us both.” He flicked a piece of fluff from his trousers, which he had just finished pressing.

The governor and his wife left the Nelson Room and walked down the main staircase just before 7:20, to find yet another under butler stationed by the front door, and two more maids standing opposite him carrying silver trays laden with glasses of champagne. Hazel introduced herself to the three of them and again checked the flowers in the entrance hall.

As 7:30 struck on the long-case clock in the lobby the first guest walked in.

“Henry,” said the governor. “Lovely to see you. Thank you so much for the use of the Rolls. And Bill, come to that,” he added in a stage whisper.

“My pleasure, Your Excellency,” Henry Bendall replied. “I must say, I like the uniform.”

Lady Cuthbert came bustling through the front door. “Can’t stop,” she said. “Ignore me. Just pretend I’m not here.”

“Dotty, I simply don’t know what we would have done without you,” Hazel said, chasing after her across the hall.

“Delighted to lend a hand,” said Lady Cuthbert. “I thought I’d come bang on time, so I could spend a few minutes in the kitchen with Mrs. Travis. By the way, Benson is standing out in the drive, ready to rush home if you find you’re still short of anything.”

“You are a saint, Dotty. I’ll take you through …”

“No, don’t worry,” said Lady Cuthbert. “I know my way around. You just carry on greeting your guests.”

“Good evening, Mr. Mayor,” said Ted, as Lady Cuthbert disappeared in the direction of the kitchen. “Good evening, Your Excellency. How kind of you to invite us to such an auspicious occasion.”

“And what a lovely dress, Mrs. Janson,” said the governor.

“Thank you, Your Excellency,” said the mayor’s wife.

“Would you care for a glass of champagne?” said Hazel as she arrived back at her husband’s side.

By 7:45 most of the guests had arrived, and Ted was chatting to Mick Flaherty when Hazel touched him on the elbow. He glanced toward her.

“I think we should go and fetch him now,” she whispered.

Ted nodded and asked the chief justice to take over the welcoming of the guests. They wove a path through the chattering throng and climbed the great staircase. When they reached the door of the Queen Victoria Room, they paused and looked at each other. Ted checked his watch—7:50. He leaned forward and gave a gentle tap. Carruthers immediately opened the door to reveal Mountbatten attired in his third outfit of the day: the full ceremonial uniform of an Admiral of the Fleet, three stars, gold and blue sash, and eight rows of campaign decorations.

“Good evening, Your Excellency,” said Mountbatten.

“Good evening, sir,” said the governor, star struck.

The Admiral took three paces forward and came to a halt at the top of the staircase. He stood to attention. Ted and Hazel waited on either side of him. As he didn’t move, they didn’t.

Carruthers proceeded slowly down the stairs in front of them, stopping on the third step. He cleared his throat and waited for the assembled guests to fall silent.

“Your Excellency, Prime Minister, Mr. Mayor, ladies, and gentlemen,” he announced. “The Right Honorable the Earl Mountbatten of Burma.”

Mountbatten descended the stairs slowly as the waiting guests applauded politely. As he passed Carruthers, the butler gave a deep bow. The governor, with Hazel on his arm, followed two paces behind. “He must know,” whispered Hazel. “You may be right. But does he know we know?” said Ted. Mountbatten moved deftly around the room, as Ted introduced him to each of the guests in turn. They bowed and curtsied, listening attentively to the few words the admiral had to say to them. The one exception was Mick Flaherty, who didn’t stop talking and remained more upright than Ted had ever seen him before.

At eight o’clock one of the under-butlers banged a gong, which until then neither the governor nor his wife had even realized existed. As the sound died away, Carruthers announced, “My Lord, Your Excellency, Prime Minister, Mr. Mayor, ladies and gentlemen, dinner is served.”

If there was a better cook on St. George’s than Mrs. Travis, no one at the top table had ever been fed by her, and that evening she had excelled herself.

Mountbatten chatted and smiled, making no secret of how much he was enjoying himself. He spent a long time talking to Lady Cuthbert, whose husband had served under him at Portsmouth, and to Mick Flaherty, to whom he listened with polite interest.

Each course surpassed the one before: soufflé, followed by lamb cutlets, and an apricot hazelnut meringue to complete the feast. Mountbatten remarked on every one of the wines and even called for a second glass of port.

After dinner, he joined the guests for coffee in the drawing-room and managed to have a word with everyone, even though Colonel Hodges tried to buttonhole him about defense cuts.

The guests began to leave a few minutes before midnight, and Ted was amused to see that when Mick Flaherty bade farewell to the Admiral, he bowed low and said, “Good night, My Lord. It has been an honor to meet you.”

Dotty was among the last to depart, and she curtsied low to the guest of honor. “You’ve helped to make this such a pleasant evening, Lady Cuthbert,” Mountbatten told her.

“If you only knew just how much,” thought Hazel.

After the under-butler had closed the door on the last guest, Mountbatten turned to his hostess and said, “Hazel, I must thank you for a truly memorable occasion. The head chef at the Savoy

couldn’t have produced a finer banquet. Perfect in every part.”

“You are very kind, sir. I will pass your thanks on to the staff.” She just stopped herself from saying “my staff.” “Is there anything else we can do for you before you retire?”

“No, thank you,” Mountbatten replied. “It has been a long day, and with your permission, I’ll turn in now.”

“And at what time would you like breakfast, sir?” asked the governor.

“Would 7:30 be convenient?” Mountbatten asked. “That will give me time to fly out at nine.”

“Certainly,” said Ted. “I’ll see that Carruthers brings a light breakfast up to your room at 7:30—unless you’d like something cooked.”

“A light breakfast will be just the thing,” Mountbatten said. “A perfect evening. Your staff could not have done more, Hazel. Good night, and thank you, my dear.”

The Governor bowed and his lady curtsied as the great man ascended the staircase two paces behind Carruthers. When the butler closed the door of the Queen Victoria Room, Ted put his arm around his wife and said, “He knows we know.”

“You may be right,” said Hazel. “But does he know we know he knows?”

“I’ll have to think about that,” said Ted.

Kitchen|Short story

Arm in arm, they returned to the kitchen, where they found Mrs. Travis packing dishes into a crate under the supervision of Lady Cuthbert, the long lace sleeves of whose evening dress was now firmly rolled up.

“How did you get back in, Dotty?” asked Hazel.

“Just walked round to the back yard and came in the servants’ entrance,” replied Lady Cuthbert.

“Did you spot anything that went badly wrong?” Hazel asked anxiously.

“I don’t think so,” replied Lady Cuthbert. “Not unless you count Mick Flaherty failing to get a fourth glass of Muscat de Venise.”

“Mrs. Travis,” said Ted, “the head chef at the Savoy couldn’t have produced a finer banquet. Perfect in every part. I do no more than repeat Lord Mountbatten’s exact words.”

“Thank you, Your Excellency,” said Mrs. Travis. “He’s got a big appetite, hasn’t he?” she added with a smile.

A moment later, Carruthers entered the kitchen. He checked around the room, which was spotless once again, then turned to Ted and said, “With your permission, sir, we will take our leave.”

“Of course,” said the governor. “And may I thank you, Carruthers, for the role you and your amazing team have played. You all did a superb job. Lord Mountbatten never stopped remarking on it.”

“His Lordship is most kind, sir. At what time would you like us to return in the morning to prepare and serve his breakfast?”

“Well, he asked for a light breakfast in his room at 7:30.”

“Then we will be back by 6:30,” said Carruthers.

Hazel opened the kitchen door to let them all out, and they humped crates full of crockery and baskets full of food to the waiting cars. The last person to leave was Dotty, who was clutching the silver pheasant. Hazel kissed her on both cheeks as she departed.

“I don’t know how you feel, but I’m exhausted,” said Ted, bolting the kitchen door.

Hazel checked her watch. It was seventeen minutes past one.

“Shattered,” she admitted. “So, let’s try and grab some sleep because we’ll also have to be up by seven to make sure everything is ready before he leaves for the airport.”

Ted put his arm back around his wife’s waist. “A personal triumph for you, my dear.”

They strolled into the hall and wearily began to climb the stairs, but didn’t utter another word, for fear of disturbing their guest’s repose. When they reached the landing, they came to an abrupt halt and stared down in horror at the sight that greeted them. Three pairs of black leather shoes had been placed neatly in line outside the Queen Victoria Room.

“Now I’m certain he knows,” said Hazel.

Ted nodded and, turning to his wife, whispered, “You or me?”

Hazel pointed a finger firmly at her husband. “Definitely you, my dear,” she said sweetly, before disappearing in the direction of the Nelson Room.

Ted shrugged his shoulders, picked up the admiral’s shoes, and returned downstairs to the kitchen.

His excellency the governor and commander in chief of St. George’s spent considerable time polishing those three pairs of shoes, as he realized that not only must they pass inspection by an Admiral of the Fleet, but they must look as if the job had been carried out by Carruthers.

When Mountbatten returned to the Admiralty in Whitehall the following Monday, he made a full written report on his visit to St George’s. Copies were sent to the queen and the foreign secretary.

The Admiral told the story of his visit at a family gathering that Saturday evening at Windsor Castle, and once the laughter had died down, the queen asked him, “When did you first become suspicious?”

“It was Carruthers who gave it away. He knew everything about Sir Ted, except which regiment he had served in. That’s just not possible for an old soldier.”

The queen had one further question: “Do you think the governor knew you knew?”

“I can’t be certain, Lillibet,” replied Mountbatten after some thought. “But I intend to leave him in no doubt that I did.”

The Foreign Secretary laughed uproariously when he read Mountbatten’s report, and appended a note to the last sheet asking for clarification on two points:

a. How can you be certain that the staff who served dinner were not part of the governor’s entourage?

b. Do you think Sir Ted knew that you knew? The admiral replied by return:

a. After dinner, one of the maids asked Lady Barker if she took sugar in her coffee, but a moment later she gave Lady Cuthbert two lumps, without needing to ask.

b. Possibly not. But he certainly will on Christmas Day.

Sir Ted was pleased to receive a Christmas card from Lord Mountbatten, signed, “Best wishes, Dickie. Thank you for a memorable stay.” It was accompanied by a gift.

Hazel unwrapped the little parcel to discover a tin of Cherry Blossom shoe polish (black). Her only comment was, “So now we know he knew.”

“Agreed,” said Ted with a grin. “But did he know we knew he knew? That’s what I’d like to know.”

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