Monday, May 8, 2017

The Stool by Jane Swan

Upon retirement, a loyal butler is insulted by being accused of thievery; by Jane Swan.

William Shakespeare Pavrati placed a grey wooden stool on the verandah of his modest cottage and sat down. The sun was just going off the porch though it was still hot. He closed his eyes and listened to the cries of the market traders a street over. An occasional bicycle came past loaded with bright cloth or buckets, baskets of fruit or cages of small animals destined for someone's plate.

William sighed. His thoughts crossed the city to the leafy outskirts. Would that lazy garden boy have brought up the vegetables to the Big House or would Cook be chivvying him up as usual? Had the new butler prepared Lady Marigold's G & T just the way she liked it? Perhaps the laundry delivery had been delayed and...

He stopped, opened his eyes and looked across to the mauve hills shimmering in the heat. That life, the life he'd had for sixty years, man and boy, was as far away from him now as those foothills. And he was tired.

William looked down at his bare feet. Bare feet in the middle of the day! It still surprised him. He wiggled his toes. The hairs on them were grey too. Where had the years gone? These feet had carried him faithfully across the city to The House every dawn and back again, often well after dark. Now they had their ease, so why should they be so restless?

His wife Sunita bustled out carrying a tray with teapot and the necessities for afternoon tea. The smell of spices for their evening meal wafted through the bead curtain with her. She put the tray down on a low rattan table and glanced at her husband. Would the old fool ever stop staring? At his feet now, for Heaven's sake? Though at least that was better than off into the distance as if he were not really here?

A wave of compassion swept away her impatience.

"Penny for them, love?"

"I'm getting old, Sunita," he said. "And worse, beginning to feel it."

She patted his hand and began pouring the tea. "It comes to us all, I'm afraid. You've worked hard and now you've earned some peace."

"But that's just it," William said, pausing as a tricycle with a wooden trailer loaded with jars of dyestuffs clattered past. He picked up a teaspoon nestled on the saucer of his Royal Albert Roses teacup - there was a similar bread and butter plate sitting in the china cabinet. A matching teacup set after all those years of devoted service. Is that all he was worth?

Now Sunita sighed. She knew what was coming - William's broken record, like the ones the Family discarded. Always the same scratch in the same place.

She snorted. "You'll have to snap out of this, William. And stop that infernal tapping." She snatched the teaspoon from him, stirred his tea. "Drink!"

"Only last week," he said in a flat voice, oblivious to the rape of his beverage. "On Friday I was still employed, a man of substance, with numerous responsibilities, in charge of a staff of thirteen, respected by my employers..."

"Piffle!" Sunita almost shrieked, and sprayed tea over her embroidered tray cloth. "Respect? And how do They show it? One limp-wristed handshake from Sir Edgar and a presentation in front of that frosty cow Lady Priscilla. Not even a monetary bonus. A cup, saucer and plate. I ask you? Even those working for The Queen herself in London get that every Christmas."

William stood up and walked over to the verandah post, swung round and addressed her. "William Shakespeare Pavrati held a prominent position in a superior establishment. Give me that at least."

Sunita went to him. "I know, love. Now sit down. You were a fine butler and you kept the family fed and clothed and sent to the best schools. You were a wonderful provider.

She led him to the stool, feeling as she did how thin and frail he had become. "Now, we don't want the tea getting cold do we? That thin bone china is notorious for losing its heat."

William chuckled.

"Now, you rest and I'll feed you up and soon you will be able to enjoy everything you wanted to do with your retirement."

William smiled and took his wife's hand. "I know, Sunny. I am an old fool, but this last thing. It is a blow."

Sunita poured him another cup of tea and pushed it towards him.

"It is true, Bill, that they undervalued you. I hope the new man forgets everything you taught him, or doesn't care. Then perhaps the Foster-Pyles will realise what a treasure they had in you. I will never forget the things their children came out with. Miss Penelope used to call you the very brown man from the drawing room.

"I told her that you had a name - Mr Pavrati. The little minx just laughed. She thought it peculiar that we had the same name. It would not have occurred to her that servants might have feelings or families."

William shifted uncomfortably on the stool.

"Bill, you should have got out when I did, gone to work for the agency," Sunita said with a sharpness to her voice that reminded William of a shattered wine glass.

"No!" he shouted. "It was the job I was born to do, like my Father before me." Anger rocked him, as rare as the earthquakes that ravaged the city every generation or so. Unknowable but expected all the same. Nature, human nature in William's case, might someday erupt. What strength, what ferocity, what damage then?

William snatched a much opened envelope from his waistcoat pocket. The edges were grey and tattered where he had pawed over it. He shook the paper at his wife.

"The cowards! They hadn't even the decency to come personally. A letter from their lawyer. Is it beneath the Foster-Pyle's dignity to be seen quibbling over a humble kitchen stool?"

Sunita wanted to say, "Yes, of course, who ever heard of one of Them coming to one of Our houses?" but she kept her counsel.

William recounted again yesterday's discussion with the pot-boy.

"The new butler has noticed," Sanjeev had said shyly, standing at the door of My Pavrati's house, "has noticed while doing the inventory..."

"Yes?" Mr Pavrati patted the lad's shoulder kindly.

"Well, I am sorry to have to ask. But the kitchen stool you sat on in the pantry is missing. On enquiry he found that you had been seen carrying if from the house on your last day."

Mr Pavrati stared open-mouthed. "Yes, I did. It is my stool."

The boy shuffled his feet and looked at the ground. He mumbled. "I am sent to reclaim it."

For a moment William had been too stunned to answer, then he saw the lad's worried face.

"There must be a mistake, Sanjeev. My stool could not have been on a household inventory."

The pot-boy hopped from foot to foot as if he could not wait to finish his mission and return triumphant to the mansion beside Fotheringham Park. "I don't know, sir. It is what they say."

"A mistake, that is all it is," William soothed him. Now you pop into the kitchen. Mrs Pavrati is at home and she will give you refreshments."

The boy looked up and smiled, though uncertainty lodged in his eyes.

"I will give you a note to explain the matter. All will be well." William stepped aside to let the boy into the cool interior. "The door at the end of the corridor, Sanjeev. And what a good escape it has been for you to get out of the house for an hour and a ride on the tram to boot!"

William had thought no more of the matter. The stool, his father's in fact - had his father not made it himself at woodwork lessons at The Institute for Furthering Education of the Working Natives? Had the old man not carried it to his place of employment and sat on it? As head of the household, was he not permitted that small right, one that William had inherited? Yes. Certainly all would be well.

The old grey stool. Why, it must seventy years old if it was a day and did it not still stand firm and strong on its legs and its joints in better condition that William's own?

His explanation would end the matter.

Until the lawyer's letter: Please return forthwith the property of Sir Edgar Foster-Pyle, your former employer. The property being: one small grey wooden stool, the senior house-boy's seating in the pantry, for the use of...

Sunita waited for the recital to tail off. "That's all you get for a lifetime of working in a Big House for Little People, William - accused of thievery."

Her husband squared his shoulders. "I am sick of this business eating what life I have left out of me. I have made a decision. If you would be so kind, Mrs Pavrati..."

Sunita smiled. This was her Bill, who had commanded a tight ship and ordered a household so that it sailed under his steerage flying its colours proudly aloft. But her smile soon left her face.

"I require a cardboard box large enough to accommodate a grey wooden stool."

"But William, you can't!"

He ignored her. "Bring it to me, along with a label and a pen for addressing it, to the woodshed, where I will see to the packing."

"You fool," she said, "and your father would turn in his grave if he had one." She got up and headed for her favoured grocery stall at the market.

When Sunita came round the side of the house bearing a Tate and Lyle Golden Syrup Carton, string and a fountain pen. William was standing over what appeared to be the dismembered carcass of a small wooden stool. He was wrapping each piece carefully in newspaper.

"Thank you my dear," he said, taking possession of her load with a gracious smile. "As you see, I am following the letter of the Englishman's law."

"But Bill, to smash it! That is childish. Your father's stool."

William grinned and stepped aside. Behind him stood the old grey wooden stool, intact. He lowered himself onto it and wiped his forehead.

"On my way back from the Post Office." He grinned. "I shall call in at some furniture purveyors and see what may be had. Or better still take up woodwork myself and make one."

Sunita felt she should sit down. "What? How? William..."

"Sunita, my dear, you have forgotten the old stool that used to be in the laundry. The trial one my father made from inferior wood." He held up a severed wooden leg and showed her the inside. It was like a bone pockmarked with holes.

He pulled her onto his lap. "It is a sad fact, but alas true; many things in this life that appear wholesome are riddled with wormholes. There are more things in heaven and earth, Sunita, than are dreamed of in the Foster-Pyles' philosophy. And in Mr Pavrati's woodshed."

6 comments:

  1. A charming and powerful story, and Jane evokes the colonial setting beautifully. Well done, Jane.

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    1. Thank you Bruce for your earlier critique on this story and your comments today.

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  2. This encapsulates so many themes and is told lightly but astutely. Many thanks,
    Ceinwen

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  3. I loved this tale of dedication, trust, and justice. Shakespeare Pav's solution is satisfying and I liked the symbolism of the worm rot.

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  4. a man of principle solves his dilemma in the manner befitting. First class!
    Mike McC

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  5. A thought provoking tale and so well told! Nice work Jane.

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