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The Saddler’s Club, Lady Bedford informs me, holds their Annual Members Dinner every year for members. She has to make her way from her residence at the Slaughters in Gloucestershire up to the London flat, in order to squeeze the event into her busy social calendar. In 54 years she has not once missed the dinner; but since her beloved husband Wimburn has recently died, this year she is taking as her honoured guest one Roderick Wenby. And me, her live-in carer.
“Roderick Wenby,” she says as she brushes her wispy white hair in the mirror with the pearl-handled brush. “Wodwick Wemby,” she repeats, fixing her dentures. “Roderick Wenby, oh don’t let me forget will you?” She fastens diamonds to her neck and wrists and lacquers her head with Chanel No 19.
“Oh,” I say, “Have you got a date?”
She looks at me firmly. “I NEVER go on dates.” She pushes aside the box of foundation on the dressing table, opens the talcum powder and applies it liberally to her cheeks. I help her into her wheelchair and cramp 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 correct.
“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 says, drawing out the vowels. Paatheeeetic.
I close up the guest bedrooms one by one and triple-bolt the heavy wooden front doors. Slaughter House has already endured three break-ins and now Lady Bedford is forced to keep her extensive collection of diamonds and pearls in a walk-in safe.
“Hello, hello? Where are you?” I wander through the maze of corridors, up and down the grand staircase lined with portraits of the Bedford family ancestors and finally discover her in the vast kitchen where she is 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 squawks, “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 snakes down her remaining leg and laps at the open wound she got from running her wheelchair into a wall last week. She knocks the control of the chair with her elbow and it lurches forward, jamming her foot into the table leg.
“Blast!” She cries. “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.”
Three hours later we are in London and Lady Bedford is safely delivered at the Saddler’s Club. The bottle of whisky lies empty on the floor of the disabled van.
“There he is!” She points at the elderly man shuffling towards us, grinning toothlessly. His head appears to be fastened to his left shoulder.
“Ronald! Darling!” She unfurls one hand magnificently towards him and turning to me she proclaims, 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 leans on the control and Roderick Wenby’s foot vanishes under the wheel of her chair with an audible crunch.
When I arrive to pick her up at ten, the dinner is still in progress and Lady Bedford is driving at high speed in circles round and around the guests seated at the table. In one hand she holds a bottle of wine and in the other she clutches a whisky. The front of her dress is sodden with red wine stains.
“Oh you are here.” She grinds to a halt before me.
“I seem to be early, did you want to stay for dessert?”
“No,” She says firmly. “We’ve had enough.”
Roderick scuffs along behind her. “Oh here he is.” She says and rolls her eyes. “Roderick is quite ready to go home, aren’t you. He drank everything in sight.”
We make our way to the van, the wheelchair veering left and right, ploughing into a wall here, colliding with a table there. The guests clear a path and I dart forward as she tips to one side of the ramp and threatens to tumble right off, front wheel spinning furiously in the air.
“Lady Bedford, are you locked in?” I ask once safely inside the van. “Is your chair secure?”
“Yes, yes,” she says impatiently. “Ronnie, get in the back won’t you. Now hurry up please.” He clambers obediently into the back of the van.
“Where is your car?” I call out but Roderick’s whispered reply is overruled by the shouts emanating from Lady Bedford.
“I just can’t get it out of him!” she cries. “It’s no good! I’ve tried and tried, you see what you can do with him. I give up.”
Her guest giggles nervously and I strain my ears to catch his directions. “Turn left,” he chortles into his shoulder.
“Don’t turn left! Turn right!” Lady Bedford bellows.
“Left or right?” I halt mid-turn, occupying both lanes and behind me an angry horn sounds.
“Left” comes from the back.
“Right!” screeches from the front and as I turn right, she wails in frustration. “Where are you going? I said right.” and she jabs at the air with her left hand.
“Left?” I follow her finger with my eyes.
“Where is your car, Roderick? Turn right! Here, here! No back there!”
“Left or right?” I ask in confusion.
“Left,” Roderick said and I turn left into a side alley. There is no car in sight, only a meagre light from a flickering lamppost. Roderick gets up to leave.
Lady Bedford hollers. “For heaven’s sake, your car isn’t here!”
He mumbles, “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 pitches forward and the wheelchair rocks from side to side.
“Are you sure the chair is locked in?” I ask.
Lady Bedford sighs and her hand flies to her forehead. She doesn’t know why the poor man is being so difficult. 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 grips onto the rail above the window in order to stop her chair from rolling right into Roderick’s lap. The van roars up a hill.
“Please,” I beg, “Don’t you see none of us can go home until we have dropped you at your car?”
But Roderick Wenby plunges headlong into an utterly inappropriate anecdote about his brother’s death during the war.
“Oh God,” Lady Bedford groans. Her eyes search desperately through the London streets beside her. “Turn left! Turn right! Keep going, don’t stop!” Her voice is shrill and high and the chair is bobbing like a rowing boat adrift in stormy waters as I attempt to negotiate the city traffic.
Again Roderick’s instructions take us to a dead-end where his car isn’t. “Why are you listening to him? Listen to me!” Lady B cries in dismay. “No honestly, I can walk…” he musters all his strength to pull back the door with both hands.
“Oh, I give up!” She throws up her hands in despair. “Reginald, just get out and leave us alone, would you!”
Roderick stops 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 leans away, offering him her hand. “He’ll never make it,” she whispers out of one corner of her mouth. “He’s so drunk he can barely stand.”
Roderick is toppling forwards from the door, his head buried into his shoulder and his podgy legs buckling in the effort to keep him upright. He reaches solid ground and taps on the window in a futile attempt to prolong his farewell. Lady Bedford steadfastly refuses to open, instead blowing him exaggerated kisses from the safe side of the glass and hissing “Go! Get us out of here.” through gritted teeth.
Roderick’s head is in danger of making its way back through the open door as he launches into another re-telling of his brother’s death. “Go, for the love of god!” Lady Bedford roars in my ear.
“The door is still open.” I protest.
“NEVER MIND THE DOOR!”
I throttle the engine and seek out the only available exit, a narrow alley wending its way up a steep incline to the right. I pause; “I think the van is too wide.”
“Keep going! Oh please do go on!” Behind us, Roderick waves forlornly by the pavement, stranded in a dark London back alley. I breathe in and hit the accelerator as both Lady Bedford’s hands leave the rail to point out in front of her. There is an ear-wrenching screech as the side mirrors of the van scrape along the brick walls. “Don’t stop!”
I push my foot down and a second shriek is heard, this time from my passenger. In the rear view mirror I see a single leg fly upwards.
Her shoe flings from its owner and bounces off the back window, thudding onto the floor of the van. I hit the brakes, bottlenecked between the ever-narrowing walls. The wheelchair is tipped on its back and Lady Bedford’s head is twisted on the floor beside her shoe. Her foot dangles precariously in mid-air.
“Are you okay? Are you alright? Lady Bedford?” I climb over the driver’s seat and into the back of the van, trying to pull her chair upright.
She opens her eyes weakly and with one shaking hand, she claws at her hair, tugs at the white strands falling over her eyes. Her face is deathly pale but that could be 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 hangs limply and the pink of her scalp is visible.
“Oh no,” she wails and a shiver runs through me. “Oh dear. This is terrible.” she moans. “My hair is absolutely ruined.”