“Christmas time, mistletoe and wine…” warbled the radio. Lady Agnes allowed herself a small smile as she bustled about the kitchen. No-one in their right mind would put the mistletoe and wine together, she thought. Mistletoe’s berries were rather poisonous, and dipping them into wine, which would leach the poison out and into itself, would be murderous. And she disliked people who accused her of being murderous. She counted the coffee cups and found that she was still two short. She sighed, and looked around, wondering which cupboard Hettie usually kept the crockery in. It was a great shame that she’d had to rush off like that to tend to her sick Aunt in a small cottage in the middle of the countryside, but one had to let the help have the occasional day off or they’d leave and not come back. She opened the nearest cupboard door and found a sack of flour inside. That was nice, she supposed, though she wasn’t sure what it might be used for. Perhaps Hettie used it instead of make-up. Was that why the theatre folk she knew referred to it always as pancake?
Three more cupboards located a box of tinsel, what looked like a wartime stockpile of napkins, and finally the crockery. There were two whole shelves of cups, many of them even matching. Lady Agnes frowned at this, wondering where they’d all come from. She had three cups of tea a day, and even allowing for Hettie only doing the washing up at the end of the week there were too many cups here.
As she added them to the tray and wondered which of the many white plugged-in boxes was the fridge, she had a sudden recollection of the tea-parties that her mother used to host. There would be tiny sandwiches cut into finger widths and carefully spread with just enough paste to remind the tastebuds of what they were missing out on, petit fours that were really only petit threes, an acre of cucumber garnish and a blanket of parsley, and then all the cups. They would be set out on trolleys next to the tea urns, in which a box of teabags would be stewing, and then people would be invited it to partake of the bounty. Ah, so that was where the cups had come from. Left over from entertaining the hoi polloi.
Finding the fridge took another three attempts, and then she wondered at the number of cartons of milk that she found there all with different colour tops. Disregarding anything that had a picture on the outside that wasn’t a cow she went with green top and hoped that it was actually some form of milk and not egg-white or reconstituted anything. Then she carried the tray to the sitting room.
“Please excuse the delay,” she said brightly, setting the tray down on an occasional table near the four chairs that clustered around a tiny coffee table set with an empty cake stand. “Hettie’s relation is apparently very sick and she’d rushed off urgently to tend to her.”
“Oh, quite,” said the Vicar, sitting back down again. He’d bounded to his feet when Lady Agnes came into the room, though his politeness hadn’t extended to taking the tray from her. “What relation, pray?”
“Toboggan,” said Lady Agnes firmly. She hadn’t listened to a word Hettie had said beyond hearing that she wanted a couple of days off.
“Ah, uh, really?” said the Vicar. He went to the tray and lifted the teapot. “Shall I be mother?”
“Yes,” said Lady Agnes economically. The Vicar poured, not quite staunching his wince when he saw how orange the stream of tea was. He poured a generous cup for Lady Agnes, and mixed his own with two-thirds of a cup of milk. Even then, when he sipped it, he felt briefly as though he might be a builder or other manual labourer. Then he felt bad for succumbing to stereotyping and promised himself that he’d say three Hail Mary’s when he returned home.
“Is she perhaps Scottish?” he asked. “Only I was under the impression that a toboggan was actually an item of transport. For use in the snow.” His voice, gentle and refined, sounded a little like an educated horse might.
“She’s common,” said Lady Agnes. “I didn’t get involved after that. My mother always used to say that the help were the help, and if you needed to help them then they weren’t doing their job properly.”
“Ah yes,” said the Vicar. He sat back in his chair, his china cup caught in the steeple of his fingers and seemed to be deep in thought. “Your mother. You know that that’s why I’m here, of course?”
“No,” said Lady Agnes. “She is dead, Vicar. You’re rather too late to have caught her at home.”
“Heheh,” said the Vicar politely. “No, Lady Agnes, I was referring to the fact that the police wish to exhume her body. Again.”
“Let them,” said Lady Agnes, waving her hand. The Vicar frowned, not sure if she’d flipped in the bird in that gesture. “Mother was buried clean, and there’s been three diggings up so far. If she’s really hiding anything down there the police don’t seem able to find it.”
“Well,” said the Vicar. “I’d really rather not have the graveyard disturbed like this all the time. Have you considered having your mother’s remains cremated? These problems might go away then.”
“Looks suspicious,” said Lady Agnes. “If it were up to me Vicar, I’d have her left in a body bag in their freezers so that they can violate her bones whenever they feel like it.”
“Have you suggested that to them?”
“Yes. They looked outraged and started talking for a an hour.”
“What did they say?”
“I didn’t listen.”
The Vicar fell silent. After a few minutes he looked at Lady Agnes.
“What did you mean, she was buried clean?” he asked. Lady Agnes grinned.
“Don’t ask questions you wouldn’t like the answers to, Vicar,” she said.
After the Vicar had left, muttering imprecations under his breath, Lady Agnes took the cups down the kitchen and wondered if she had a dishwasher. The radio was still playing, and the song she’d heard earlier came on again.
“…children sing in Christian rhyme…” it warbled. Lady Agnes snorted. Christian rhyme might well have its place, but when you needed things done cleanly you needed far older languages than that….