The first guest to arrive is Mr Baxter, accompanied by the smell of cigarette smoke and a puddle of rainwater shaken from his umbrella which gathers on the marble floor below his feet. He yanks off his coat, spraying more rainwater across the floor, and thrusts it with his umbrella towards me. Although the invitation specified formal attire, his trousers do not match the limp jacket he is wearing, and the buttons of his yellowing shirt look as though they may pop over the strain of his stomach. Ms DeWitt had described Mr Baxter’s appearance to me in gleefully repugnant detail in the past, but I was not prepared for the presence of this whale-like man standing before me in the soft gold light of the foyer. I try my best to smile.
He looks me up and down several times, allowing his eyes to rest on select body parts. I use the dripping coat to shield myself. “Welcome, Sir. May I show you to the drawing room for a pre-dinner drink?”
He replies, slurring slightly: “Sure why not? Gotta squeeze all I can out of this evening, ain’t I?”
After hanging the coat and umbrella in the cloakroom, I gesture to him to follow me back through the foyer and into the drawing room in which the maid is already mixing a batch of martinis, conscious of his eyes burning into my back the whole time we are walking. He plops down on the nearest sofa and looks around at the opulent paintings and artefacts displayed around the room as though he is about to devour them. As his head turns, the jowls on his neck quiver.
“Mr Baxter, can I offer you a martini?”
“Nah,” he says with a sneer, “got any Guinness?”
I widen my eyes at the maid, who is already turning to leave the room, and the doorbell rings. Excusing myself, I hurry back through the foyer.
It’s Ms DeWitt’s two children, Shelby and Miles. I have met them a handful of times, but both of them look me over with indifference as if they have never seen me before. The rain is still coming down in thick sheets and Miles holds a large golf umbrella over their heads, even though the porch is sheltered. I welcome them inside.
“Let’s get this over with, then, shall we?” says Miles, as though he expects me to hand over a bag of money so they can both leave as quickly as they arrived.
“Ignore him,” says Shelby, holding out her hand and feigning friendliness, “Shelby DeWitt. Are you new here?”
I shake her hand, which is cold and slightly damp, and smile lightly. “No, I am – was – Ms DeWitt’s personal assistant for quite a few years, now.”
“Oh. Sorry.” She steps back and unravels the cashmere scarf from her neck. Miles is inspecting the books in one of the glass cabinets lining the foyer. “It’s all been a whirlwind, you know?”
“Yes, Miss. I am so sorry for your loss.”
She waves a hand and there is a flash of amusement in her face. “Don’t be.”
When we go into the drawing room Mr Baxter is already on his second Guinness, and the kids greet him with minor confusion as he grins up at them from his place on the sofa. “Dad,” says Miles, leaning down to shake his father’s monstrous hand, “what are you doing here?”
“You tell me,” replies Mr Baxter. “She ‘ad a wicked sense a humour, didn’t she, the old bat?”
Shelby takes a seat as far away from her father as she can and welcomes the martini brought over to her by the maid. “My guess is, Mum had one last message she wanted to give you. In person.”
He snorts, wheezing with laughter and rocking back and forth so that the Guinness sloshes onto the pink upholstery. “In person? She’s fuckin’ dead.”
“Dad,” Miles interjects sternly, walking over to sit near Shelby on the opposite side of the room. “Be nice.”
“Wha? Its true, ain’t it?” He looks at me and narrows his eyes. “Maybe the maid knows somethin’ about what we’re all doin’ here, why she’d invite ‘er ex-husband round to ‘er house? She certainly won’t be leavin’ me anythin’ in the will!”
At that moment the doorbell rings again and I hurry away from Mr Baxter before he has a chance to grill me further.
Ms DeWitt’s agent, Marie Sanders, is standing in the doorway. We have met many times – in the final years of her life Ms Sanders was the only person Ms DeWitt ever had over to the house, apart from her staff – and she greets me with warm familiarity. “Isabella, so nice to see you,” she says, stepping in and peeling off her leather jacket. Her motorcycle helmet is already dangling from her arm. “How are things? So ghastly about Pru. But at least she’s out of pain, now, and hey, you can move on with your life. It must have been gruelling taking care of her these past six months.”
I had managed to keep my emotions under control all day, but Ms Sanders’ comment causes a tide of pain to swell through my chest and catch in my throat. Unable to respond, I simply nod, taking Ms Sanders’ things and hanging them up. “Follow me, please,” I manage to croak on my way back through the foyer.
A heated discussion concerning Mr Baxter’s second marriage to Millie Swanson is underway in the drawing room, and Ms Sanders recoils a little as she enters, standing frozen near one of Ms DeWitt’s many antique writing bureaus. Shelby hisses something to Miles and nods in the direction of Ms Sanders, and the conversation peters out. Mr Baxter lets out a low burp.
“Everyone, please welcome Ms Sanders of Sanders & Shaw Literary Agency.”
They all stare at her blankly a moment, then Miles stands, crossing the room to shake hands with Ms Sanders. Shelby follows after a second or two. The doorbell trills again.
The final guest to arrive is Cecilia Fairfield, Ms DeWitt’s older sister. She is dressed in an expensive-looking herringbone suit under a tan trench coat which she has already unbelted before I have opened the door. Her cleavage is bronzed and pushed up and out as far as it can physically go; I have to make a concentrated effort not to stare at it. She regards me with mild disdain.
“Hello, yes, I’m here for the…festivities. I’ve been extremely busy today and as my sister insisted on living in the middle of nowhere, the journey took a while, which is why I’m a bit late.” She reels off this information like she is reading from a script. “Is everyone else here?”
I take her coat and large crocodile handbag which looks like it cost more than the house I grew up in and all the furniture contained within it, and hang them with the other guests’ things. “Yes, ma’am. They are gathered in the drawing room. Please follow me.”
Cecilia looks agape at the crystal chandeliers and grand oak staircase as we walk through the foyer, although she tries to hide her surprise. Never in the five or so years of my employment at Ms DeWitt’s residence has her sister visited, and I imagine she expected to arrive at a dilapidated shack in the woods. Despite Ms DeWitt’s international renown as a bestselling author of crime fiction, her family never took her writing career seriously. Cecilia was always the favourite, with her high-powered job in pharmaceuticals and stable marriage to a wealthy financier. As we are nearing the entrance to the drawing room the flash of a memory comes back to me, of Ms DeWitt coldly recounting the story of her mother telling her that her own conception had been an accident but that she had found out about the pregnancy too late to get an abortion.
“Mrs Cecilia Fairfield has arrived,” I announce in the doorway, standing to one side so she can make her entrance. Mr Baxter’s eyes fix on her cleavage and stay there, drool practically spilling from his mouth as the foamy glass in his hand tilts to one side. Shelby and Miles do not stand up, offering only half-smiles across the room as their aunt marches over to one of the armchairs and sits down. Ms Sanders looks grimly into her martini glass as though wishing she could be anywhere else.
“Montrachet?” Cecilia is saying to the maid, rejecting the offer of a martini. The maid scurries away to the drinks cart, clinking glasses and bottles as she searches the lower shelf. A low whistle escapes Mr Baxter’s mouth, to which Miles responds with a look of suppressed fury.
“People might call me a misanthrope,” Ms DeWitt had drawled one night from her favourite chair in the library at the rear of the house, “but I’m really a rather soft sort of person. Wouldn’t you agree, Issy?”
I had been lounging on a raft of pillows and blankets in front of the fire, one of my own favourite spots to lie and listen to Ms DeWitt as she read to me in her dreamy way. “Of course, miss. Inside, I believe you to be of the most kind and sensitive people I have ever known.”
“Oh, Issy, you are too sweet,” she chuckled, her cheeks reddening in the way they always did when I flattered her. “But let me ask you this. Do you think a kind, sensitive person is capable of atrocity?”
“Yes. An act of cruelty, of wickedness?” She paused, thinking a moment as she sipped from the snifter of cognac in her hand, its dark amber colour electrified by the light from the fire. “Well…wicked in the eyes of other people.”
“I don’t know, miss. I suppose we are all capable of wickedness. Just as we are all capable of kindness.”
She pondered this, rolling the cognac glass around and around in her hand and staring deep into the flames. “I want to believe you are right. But ever since I was a child, people have only seen the wickedness in me.”
“That can’t be true. What about your millions of fans? Your readers love you, love the stories you tell.”
“That is a false love, and it always will be. They love my brand. And a brand is nothing more than a marketing campaign cooked up by greedy literary agents. It has nothing to do with me.”
“What about your children?”
She scoffed, turning back from the fire with a look of displeasure. “They wouldn’t care if I was dead. In fact, they would be thrilled, because it might mean they could squeeze some more money out of my rotting corpse.”
“Oh, miss. I don’t know what to say to appease you. Of course I understand your malaise…it’s to be expected after all the struggles you have been through with your parents, with your marriage.”
“Yes,” she replied with sadness, “over sixty years of failed relationships, and now I’m just a lonely old lady in a big empty house. Perhaps I really am wicked? Why else would people hate me?”
Disentangling myself from the pillows and blanket arranged beneath my supine body, I made it onto my knees and crawled towards Ms DeWitt with my hands outstretched. She placed her glass on the side-table and took hold of me with great tenderness. I lay my head in her lap and she stroked my hair. “I don’t hate you, Ms DeWitt,” I whispered into the velvet folds of her robe. “Quite the opposite.”
The finest bone china and crystal glassware has been laid out on the dining table by the maid earlier in the day, surrounding an elegant floral centrepiece made up of lilies and pink roses. The guests file in through the double doors, some of them expressing confusion at the presence of another guest already seated at the head of the large mahogany table. Instead of a place setting, on the table in front of the extra guest is a manila folder. He addresses each member of the dinner party with a nod as they take their seats.
Leaving the maid to serve the wine, I slip out of the room and hurry across the hallway to the kitchen, in which Eduardo is busy ladling soup into bowls. He glances up nervously as I swing the door shut behind me, and we exchange an affirmatory look. The kitchen smells strongly of garlic. I pick up two of the bowls and carry them back through to the dining room.
An argument is taking place between Mr Baxter, who is now drunk, and Shelby, who is brandishing a butter knife in one hand and a bread roll in the other. I set the bowls down in front of Ms Sanders and Mrs Fairfield.
“You took it, Dad. I remember. You told me I was too big to be playing with dolls, and you took my Cindy and threw her in the wheelie bin.”
“You little liar,” he slurs across the table, “I did everythin’ for you kids, sacrificed my life, my livelihood, and for what? For you to grow up to be an ungrateful bitch, just like yer mum.”
Shelby looks as though she is about to stand up but the extra guest clears his throat loudly, and she stops and looks at him with surprise. Everyone else turns and waits for the man to talk, palpable relief filling the silence. He opens the manila folder and takes out a single sheet of paper.
“Hello, and welcome to you all. My name is Mr Wellington, and I am a solicitor at Bayfield & Moore Associates.” He pauses, looking over the rim of his glasses to make sure all the guests are listening, before continuing. “I have, here, the last will and testament of Ms Prudence Henrietta DeWitt. At her request, I will be reading the will along with personalised messages to each guest in attendance here tonight, in sections corresponding with the courses being served.”
“Wait a minute,” Mr Baxter is shouting, “wha’ the fuck is that old shrew up to? She espects us to sit ‘ere all night listenin’ to some suit read a letter? And for what?”
“Be quiet, Steven.” A steely voice cuts through the noise, and Mr Baxter is silenced. It came from Mrs Fairfield, seated at the opposite end of the table. She nods to Mr Wellington to continue as the maid brings the rest of the bowls from the kitchen and sets them down.
“Please, begin,” Mr Wellington says, his eyes on the paper, “Course one is a fragrant tomato and rosemary soup with a balsamic glaze. I dedicate this to my first-born, Miles. So hungry for life, and for wealth, you always impressed me with your tenaciousness and the ability to disregard the feelings of others for the pursuit and attainment of your own goals. Bravo, son. May your life be long and filled with all the fortune you can get your hands on.”
The guests are fixated on Mr Wellington as he speaks, several of them holding their spoons in mid-air until he is finished speaking. Miles’ face has paled, and Shelby wears a look of vague suspicion. When he is done, they all tuck in to the soup, Miles being the last to start. He is deep in thought, apparently trying to decode Ms DeWitt’s message to him. His gormlessness stirs a feeling of hostility in me even though I barely know him; I reason that Ms DeWitt must be communicating with me in some kind of spiritual form, imagining her having a good laugh at her son as he slurps his spoon like a toddler, oblivious.
Standing in the corner of the room, watching the guests fill their faces, I am beginning to feel overwhelmed. The anxiety I had managed to keep at bay throughout Ms DeWitt’s sickness, her hospital visit, the moments right after her death as I clutched her slim hand on the bed and wished I could be the one to take her place, is rushing into me now through an invisible portal in the ground and I can do nothing to prevent myself being sucked into it. I know this fear will be the end of me; I am not strong enough to fight it without Ms DeWitt here.
I have to leave the room before I faint. Passing the maid at the door, and indicating with a slight nod that I am okay, I run into the hallway and try to slow my breathing.
Although her room looks the same, the bed made and all the furniture and trinkets arranged exactly as before, it couldn’t feel more different. I walk around, touching various items on the shelves and dressing table; a porcelain figurine; leather-bound books; her spare reading glasses. Everything is cold and lifeless. I curl up on the bed, hoping to smell her on the pillow, but the sheets have been washed. It is dark in the room. I feel as cold and lifeless as the porcelain. I want so desperately to cry, but the tears refuse to come out.
I wake with a start, thinking I can hear Ms DeWitt saying my name. It takes a few seconds for my mind to adjust to reality, for the memories of the preceding weeks to re-focus. I try to cling to the blissful state of unknowing but it has already slipped away. Rubbing my eyes, I uncurl from the bed and stand up.
Faintly from downstairs I hear pots and pans clanging in the kitchen and realise I have left Eduardo alone. How could I let my silly anxieties take over like this, after I had promised Ms DeWitt I would assist in carrying out her final wishes to the best of my abilities? I fly down the staircase and fling open the door to the kitchen.
Eduardo has his back to me as I enter, and turns with a jump when he hears the door close. He holds a knife in one hand. “Isabella!” he cries, “please be careful when entering!”
“Sorry, Eduardo,” I reply, hovering near the door. “Is everything going to plan?”
“Yes, yes, no problems.”
“And the guests? Have they made any…complaints?”
Turning back to resume his work, he says: “No complaints. I am skilled in my art, señora. You have nothing to worry about.”
“Thank you, Eduardo.”
He nods. “Now get back to the guests. We are nearing the end, and I must be leaving soon.”
By the final course, the guests are growing sluggish. The maid and I bring out pots of coffee and glasses of cognac for those who want them, as Mr Wellington continues to read in his dry monotone.
“…you have always been there for me, Marie,” he is saying, “lifting my career to great heights, discouraging me from pursuing less profitable endeavours in my writing. Where would I be without you, without the six-figure publishing deals, the utter commercialism of every aspect of my art? I certainly wouldn’t be living in this big, cold, empty mansion.”
Mr Baxter downs his cognac in one gulp and slumps in his chair, mumbling to himself: “the old witch, wha’ did she ever do to help me, I shoulda never even…” his words trail into a snore.
“Oh, for goodness sake,” Shelby pipes up, her face pink from all the alcohol and rich food, “could we move things along? When are you going to get to the part about Mum’s estate, her assets? We’ve heard all she had to say about us, and I think this practical joke has gone on long enough.”
Mrs Fairfield looks like she might be sick.
“I revoke all prior wills, codicils and testamentary dispositions made by me and declare this to be my Last Will and Testament.” The guests around the table perk up as Mr Wellington gets to this last part. Even Mr Baxter is stirred from his drunken slumber.
“I appoint Miss Isabella Martínez to be the only Executor and Trustee of my Will. To my solicitor, Mr Wellington of Bayfield & Moore Associates, I leave a handsome fee plus an extra ten thousand pounds for carrying out the demented demands of a decrepit old fruit like myself.”
The guests’ attention is held as Mr Wellington pauses for a sip of coffee. “I leave 50 million pounds to my dearest Isabella, the only person who has ever looked beyond my wickedness. I only hope you can forgive me for all that I have done.”
Shelby and Miles look over at me standing near the fireplace as if they have both been shocked by the same current of electricity.
“As my sole Executor and Trustee, Miss Martínez may sell all or any of the assets in my Estate as she considers appropriate. Please ensure my other staff members are fairly compensated for their hard work and dedication.”
“What the fuck,” Shelby stands up with ferocity, pointing at me, “she’s leaving everything to this…maid? Was she insane when she wrote this?”
“Please sit down, Miss DeWitt. I am not finished.”
Shelby does as she is told, folding her arms across her chest and glaring at Mr Wellington to continue.
“To my chef, Mr Eduardo Sanz, I leave 50 million pounds in gratitude, for assisting me in carrying out my final wish…”
“Final wish?” Shelby mutters, frowning. Miles hisses at her to be quiet.
“…to have the remains of my physical being served to you all, tonight, in the form of this splendiferous meal. I hope this money grants him and his family the freedom to live in abundance and splendour, as they so deserve. And I hope I tasted delicious.”
It takes a few moments for the words to sink in.
“Signed by the above-named in the presence of…”
Mrs Fairfield has turned green. Ms Sanders is getting up to leave, clutching a hand over her mouth, eyes filled with horror. Mr Baxter has fallen off his chair and is making gurgling sounds from the floor.
Shelby and Miles are looking aghast at each other, whilst Mr Wellington is replacing the paper in his manila folder and gathering his briefcase.
I remember being terrified of Ms DeWitt on my first day at the residence. It was the middle of winter and the roads had been terribly icy, making my journey through the vast frozen fields of the countryside treacherous. As a result, I had arrived half an hour late. Matilda, the head maid at the time, had sent me straight to Ms DeWitt’s writing study and I felt like a child summoned to see the headmistress. She sat behind a huge oak desk piled with papers and open books. The study was layered with many shadows and smelled musty, like old leather. She instructed me to bring a chair over from the corner and sit in front of the desk; I had to drag that big old armchair across the room using every ounce of strength I had as she watched me in silence.
“There is nothing to be afraid of,” she said in a matter-of-fact tone as soon as I was seated and sweating before her. “I am just a busy woman who needs some help organising her personal affairs. Of course, I expect you to be punctual and professional when you are working for me.”
“Yes, ma’am. I’m so sorry about being late, the roads were very bad…”
She raised a hand to stop me. “Firstly, please don’t call me ma’am, it makes me feel like I’m a hundred years old. Secondly, please don’t apologise to me, I have no time for dealing with other people’s guilt, especially in my own home. Are we clear?”
I gulped, trying my best to hold her gaze. “Yes.”
“Thank you. Now, I only have one rule if you are to be living and working here. Trust. I need you to trust me, and I need to be able to trust you. OK?”
“Of course, miss.”
Although she was semi-veiled in shadow, I could make out an ambiguous smile on Ms DeWitt’s face. “You give your trust so easily. Good. We’ll go over the particulars later.”
She put on her reading glasses and went back to her papers. I stood up shakily and left the study.
The rest of that day went by in a blur. I was shown to my quarters, and given a tour of the estate by Matilda, and introduced to the complex system of files and records I would be overseeing. When the day was almost over, I took a walk across the frosty front lawns of the property, my boots crunching on the grass. The orange sun was setting behind the trees. I could already see the stars. It was beautiful, and I decided then that I was never going to leave.
Jade is a Bristol-based writer specializing in fiction, film criticism and screenwriting, and is currently working on her second novel. She believes in the transcendent power of writing to open us up to other worlds and experiences; her protagonists are usually fierce women smashing the patriarchy one story at a time.
Jade’s Blog: http://narrator-blog.com/
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