I fended off my own sleep as I watched my beloved dog Prince snoozing peacefully by the crackly embers of the fire. His customary contortions were a calming sight because they were ineluctable routines on his part of many years’ standing. And I needed such routines as my own security system. Routines had become my only happiness.
One of my other therapeutic routines was the knock on my bedroom door. The same number of beats to its unmusical rhythm. The entrance of a woman in a bustle, a woman who was as mysterious to me as I was, probably, to her. Then the routine words: “How are you tonight, Sir?”
She stroked Prince absentmindedly, whilst performing a strange frozen curtsy.
“Still a little tired, despite dozing all afternoon,” I replied.
Prince stirred as the fire burst into fitful life – a roar of flame that indicated imminent extinguishment rather than reinvigoration of its wavering warmth or faltering light. The woman winced as she straightened her stance, closely examining the palm of her hand for dog hairs.
“Well, we’ll bring in your night nibbles, shortly,” she announced. “Anything special you fancy, Sir?”
There was no point in asking me this question, with there being traditionally only one choice available. Warm ox-tongues on the bone — weltering in tomato purée. Tepid raspberry tea that bore all the signs of having once been scalding hot. Rare-cooked, but everpresent, sheep’s brain.. Heavily fruited cakes, with oozing clotted cream.
A lower grade servant from the household’s hinterland, more thin-lipped and squeeze-eyed than the first woman, would be entrusted with the task of later delivering the night nibbles. But a rigorous routine was not expected from such a downbeat servant who tended to say anything that first came into her head, although, by pure fluke, she would often repeat herself – an act of clumsiness rather than compassion.
I managed to prop myself further up in the bed. The bolsters were sometimes lumpy; they had things inside left over from my nightmares as a child. I needed these pillows smoothed and then plumped up.
My mother, in her day, had been both plump and smooth. The fumes of her kitchen were still in my nose, even now, decades later. Her large bosom leaning over to stir the steaming washing-copper. The ironed out contours of her apron. Yet the smile was gashed straight across her face, offset by her sweet dimples, dimples which were so deep, I suspected her own mother of having trained them into existence with nightly probing of a knitting-needle. And such memories of childhood were the only dreams I allowed myself.
The door opened and the trayful was planted on my lap by the careless, inexperienced, snag-toothed girl, one who did not have a smile for anybody, not even for herself.
“Thank you, my dear – it all looks too gorgeous to eat.” I hesitated, my brows creased in concentration as well as annoyance. “But you’ve forgotten the tea-strainer,” I eventually blurted out.
Heaven forbid, but I had nearly forgotten to remember that well-rehearsed tail-end complaint about the tea-strainer. The snag-toothed girl scowled, drawing her eyes together like mating sea-creatures. She knew it was the lemon-squeezer she had forgotten, not the tea-strainer.
Prince was by now fully awake, his doleful eyes mooning straight at me. The fire had become even darker than the rest of the room, despite an inner glow that was more a belief system than a fact. His tongue lolled like the contents of one of my sandwiches. No crumpets, after all. Nor those eagerly anticipated damsons and custard. There was, furthermore, only a mean pickling for the cheesy bits. And – horror! – the snag-toothed girl had left the room without saying the correct words: the almost religious or ritual response to my own recital of complaint. She had also forgotten to check the curtains. She needed a severe scolding.
I fully expected – with a sudden unexpected dread – the first woman’s return: to force down my food and, if routine could countenace the slightest hope, to lean over me with her large imitation bosom and plump up my pillows…
Prince padded closer to my bed – his tail sweeping the carpet with echoes of his body’s swaying counter-rhythms – but his dog-bark croaks could hardly articulate familiar rituals, pitifully trying, as he did, to mimic the snag-toothed girls’ high-pitched whining sneer. Nevertheless, I was comforted by this nod by him towards a retrievable routine for making things better for the bed-ridden.
When Prince pounced on me with his licking, loving tongue, surely, surely, it was a mad spontaneity that made me want to punish him for his own simple dog-fangs sadly failing to compare with the snagged teeth which I recalled poking from the servant girl’s mouth – even though, finally, he did successfully manage to make his barking croaks utter the ritual routine words that she had unforgivably forgotten to say to me:
“I’ll fetch the bloody tea-strainer and squeeze your privates through it, if you don’t look out, Mister!”
I literally wept with relief and hugged Prince to my chest.