Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Standing like a rock: Ellis, the best butler in the world

Ellis (our butler) is such a treasure. He stands between one and the rest of the world like a rock.

It generates within my bosom such a sense of smug tranquility when, the drawing room door being ajar, I hear him speaking to unwanted callers: ‘I regret to say that Lady Borealis is not at home’. It makes me feel all warm and exulting inside – they simply have to go away! A little while elapses and in he comes with their stupid card on his silver tray: or saying impassively: ‘The Jehovah’s Witnesses my lady. I declined their pamphlet’. Not even a twinkle in his eye. Ellis is impartial, impassive, immoveable. From our drawing room window you can see anyone approaching along the drive, and there is time before they are even out of their carriage to whirl along and shriek ‘Ellis! Oh, God – Ellis! Don’t let them in!’

This happened only last Thursday. I was arranging some flowers when I espied the awful Coleshaw Grimm trudging along the gravel (I heard him before I saw him, I know his tread), and was able to intercept Ellis and beseech his protection. He listened without moving: ‘Very good, my lady,’ he said, and I rushed away upstairs before Grimm had lifted the knocker.

‘Lady Borealis is not at home at present,’ I heard him say – then those ghastly fretful tones, arguing! Arguing with Ellis! Why bother?

‘Not at home? Why, her car’s in the drive. She can’t have gone far. I need to see her about her grandson’s baptism. Can’t I come in and wait?’
‘I regret, your reverence, that will not be possible,’ I could hear Ellis saying: ‘Lady Borealis expects to be out for some time’.
‘Well, when is she coming back?’ Grimm persisted, all petulant and querulous.
‘Lady Borealis did not mention her expected time of return.’ I could visualize Ellis’ fishy stare. You know, I’m sure Ellis could have run a concentration camp very successfully. There is nothing touchy-feely about Ellis. That irritating little woman Amelia Bulstrode tried to worm her way in once – I was peeking through the space at the hinge end of the drawing room door and I saw her lay her hand appealingly on Ellis’ arm and gaze up at him through her false eyelashes in that revolting coquettish manner of hers, saying ‘Oh, do tell, Ellis – isn’t she really at home?’ Now here is Ellis’s genius. A lesser butler would have glanced down at her hand resting on his arm in disgust, or even brushed her away like a fly. But Ellis is like the sentries at Buckingham Palace; he unnerves people with his immaculate impassivity. He betrays nothing.

‘I regret that Lady Borealis is not at home at present,’ he repeated – and she whipped her hand away and tossed her head and went stalking off in a rage; clack clack clack in her odious stilettos down the steps, and then crashing her gears and tearing up the gravel in her vulgar little sports car. Gone! Oh, Ellis.

Coleshaw Grimm was not so easy to shake off. He went on and on: ‘Well I can’t make anyone at the Tinsellbaums' answer the phone,’ (they have a liquid crystal display – what do you expect?) ‘or the door.’ No, Aurora can see people coming down the drive too. She won’t have a butler, or a nanny because she’s a Socialist and a Continuum Concept mother – all she has is Bertha in twice a week to clean and do the laundry (I think Aurora even does her own laundry sometimes) and a man she found in the Yellow Pages to clean the windows. I lend her Boulder on occasion for the really heavy work in the garden, but Woolsey’s parents are horticulturalists so he entertains illusions that green fingers are somewhere in his blood (if you see what I mean). Aurora always stands up for him – she says their garden is an eco-haven, and yes, it certainly is. Where was I? Oh, Grimm. When she spots him approaching, Aurora grabs Gus and claps her hand over his mouth and hides behind the sofa until she hears him trudging off.

Anyway, he went driveling on to Ellis: ‘Well, when will she be home? What about tomorrow? I have to see somebody you know. When I phone all I can get is her secretary. Isn’t she ever in? What am I supposed to do?’

They say the true art of assertiveness is repetition: Ellis has this art. He simply doesn’t engage with another point of view.

‘I regret that Lady Borealis is not at home today,’ he said again with not the slightest alteration in inflection – and the obnoxious Grimm went trailing away muttering to himself like an out-of-sorts slug. It is quite true of course, he must seek an interview: but I’m afraid Aurora will have to face up to it like a man. She can write to him and specify a time when Woolsey will be at home, then at least she won’t have to see him by herself. I do wish they’d attend worship at the Church of England – the rector is much more pleasant, positively human.

When Eustacia is at home, she sometimes answers the door herself. Aurora will too, of course, when she’s visiting (depending on who it is calling; she would draw the line at Coleshaw Grimm, socialism notwithstanding), because of her feelings about equality and politics and whatnot. Eustacia doesn’t exactly have political views, she just obeys her inner voices, and I suppose some of them say ‘Open the door, Eustacia,’ so she does.

Both of them have answered the door to the Jehovah’s Witnesses (don’t give up easily, do they?). After a brief, and on both sides incomprehensible, chat about speaking in tongues, Eustacia came floating through to find me, looking slightly amazed.

‘It’s Brenda and Marjorie, Mother,’ she breathed: ‘they want to save the world’. I do wish she’d leave them to Ellis.

When Aurora got them, she plunged into intense theological discussion. They wanted to talk about who would be in charge after the world has ended (really!) but Aurora was rather focused on liberation spirituality and God’s option for the poor, here, now, in this world, today (as she put it). They seemed to me to be holding two separate conversations running concurrently: wasn’t there a crooner who used to sing some maudlin pop-song, That’s What Happens When Two Worlds Collide? They did go eventually. I heard Brenda or Marjorie saying in rather over-awed tones, ‘We’ve never had anybody like you’; and I can imagine that may be true.

I wish Aurora would let Ellis manage these things. It’s his job.

There is a Zen-like quality to Ellis. You know those Japanese gravel gardens that the monks have to rake every morning and make sure they are all perfect? They have rocks in them, don’t they – the gardens. Apparently one doesn’t just plonk the rocks down, even nicely arranged, they have to be buried somewhat. I believe they are one-third buried, and two-thirds sticking up above the surface (or is it the other way round?). It’s this business of partly burying them that gives them their famous air of stillness and eternity. Well, that’s like Ellis: he has the same quality. In his butler’s pantry I believe he has a mug out of which he takes his cocoa at night: it is decorated with a replica of the red wartime poster bearing the image of a crown and the words KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON.

I do believe we have the very best butler in all the world.

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