Hard Cheese

Anne Dorrian

For a moment, he considers the painting showing a basket of playful kittens. Then he grips his champagne flute and shudders.

“The man is a barbarian,” he says, turning to his companions and checking his watch, “and he's late.” Lord Beauford is a stocky man who outgrew his tweed suit a few years ago, and so the buttons of his waistcoat are left to fight a losing battle. He surveys the reception, the wood-paneled hall crawling with gentry like the inside of a beehive.

“I’ll tell you what else is barbaric,” Aubrey Vercors-Sassenage says, his beaky nose wrinkled as if sniffing something rancid. “The reporting in The Times today. It's filled with sentimental nonsense and pictures of flowers piling up outside Buckingham Palace on every page. It looks like a funeral parlor!” He shakes his head and rocks his thin frame back and forth lightly.

“Quite,” agrees Lord Beaufort, “It’s the histrionics, the sentimentality of it all. People in Diana t-shirts, weeping into cameras. The public displays of grief over that woman. It's nauseating.”

Constance Duddleswell chimes in. “You have to ask what was she thinking? A car chase in Paris. An accident in a tunnel. So needlessly dramatic.” Constance Duddleswell sighs. “You have to feel for her boys, though. Alexander says they’re in pieces.” Her thin fingers twist a pearl ring absent-mindedly. Constance Duddleswell is a nervy woman with a razor-sharp bob.

“Is Alexander at Eton with them now?” Aubrey Vercors-Sassenage asks.

“Of course,” she says.

Lord Beaufort grunts approval. “Went there myself. Best education there is.”

Constance Duddleswell sips champagne and nods to the buffet. “Our elusive host has put on quite the display.”

All eyes go to the table. There is a silver bowl filled with ice, in the middle of which sits a tin of caviar the size of a dinner plate. Behind it is a quietly dripping ice sculpture. Arranged in circles are oysters and lobster tails. There are tiny canapés, some of which are cleverly constructed to look like flowers or butterflies or tiny, jewel-encrusted crowns. Mini-eclairs and petit-fours are covered in pink and lilacs and gold icing. Flowers surround the table, arranged to blend with the food on display.

“You'd think the new master of Halsbury Castle was trying to buy his way into polite society,” says Constance Duddleswell.

Honi soit qui mal y pense,” Aubrey Vercors-Sassenage replies.

“I’m afraid my Latin’s a bit rusty these days,” Lord Beaufort says.

“He must be here any minute,” says Aubrey Vercors-Sassenage. “I hear Mr. Novikov is a bit of a celebrity in Moscow. Not the vulgar kind, hopefully.”

“Is there any other?” Constance Duddleswell counters. Everyone titters.

“His wife's lovely,” Lord Beaufort says. “And English. Said she used to work for a fellow called String in London, though for the life of me, I can’t work out who that is.”

“Oh, Monty,” Constance Duddleswell says, giggling. “You really should get a hearing aid.”

Aubrey Vercors-Sassenage is suppressing laughter. Constance Duddleswell continues, “She used to be an exotic dancer at Stringfellow's in London. Everyone knows that!”

Aubrey Vercors-Sassenage is still chuckling. “Stringfellow's is a gentlemen’s club, Monty. Where the girls take their clothes off.”

Beaufort’s face turns crimson. “I say. I suppose she would be with legs like that.” He drains his champagne glass.

Constance Duddleswell studies him. “You've met them then, have you?”

Beaufort gives a furtive nod before turning to take another glass from a passing waiter. “Do you know what they’ve done with the Halsbury horses?”

“They sold them,” Aubrey Vercors-Sassenage says, stony-faced. “Middle East, apparently. Dubai and such. And the rest,” he pauses for effect, “were sent to the great paddock in the sky.”

Constance Duddleswell blanches in horror. “Not the horses!”

“Here's Ferdinand Fontina now. And his brother,” says Lord Beaufort, nodding toward the door.

A pink-faced young man enters the room, rubbing his hands. He is followed by another who looks exactly the same.

“Hullo! Hullo!” Aubrey Vercors-Sassenage motions for the boys to come over.

“Is Lady Leicester coming?” asks Lord Beaufort.

Aubrey Vercors-Sassenage points at the door. “Here she is now. Oh look,” he sniggers, “she’s brought The Tutor!”

Constance Duddleswell looks on disapprovingly as a thick-set woman heaves into sight, breathing heavily. She is followed by a young, broad-shouldered man carrying her handbag.

“I wish she wouldn’t,” Constance Duddleswell mutters through gritted teeth.

Lord Beaufort's face wrinkles in amusement. “Oh, Constance,” he says, his eyes glinting. “You could have had him yourself if you hadn't sent Alexander to boarding school.” He laughs. Aubrey Vercors-Sassenage laughs, too, though it sounds more like bleating.

“Oh, Monty, stop it now!” Constance Duddleswell says.

Aubrey Vercors-Sassenage catches himself. “Boys,” he says to the two identical young men, “can one of you please explain to me what an Oligarch is? I’ve been told that’s what this Novikov chap is, but I'm damned if I know. Something like a banker, is it?”

Ferdinand Fontina clears his throat. “Well, uncle Aubrey, the word Oligarch derives from the ancient Greek oligarkhia, meaning the rule of the few.” Aubrey Vercors-Sassaneage's eyes glaze over while Ferdinand continues. “These Russian Oligarchs are businessmen emerging as the Soviet Union transitions from communism to a market-based economy. They're buying the USSR's assets at favorable rates and making the most of it, so to speak. Think of it as a sort of abattoir for the Soviet Union. The USSR's assets are being parcelled off. All to be sold on and run at a profit by a lucky few. Like Mr. Novikov.”

“I see.”

“Look, here he is now!” Constance Duddleswell sounds more excited than she herself would approve of. Beaufort notes that she is craning her neck. They watch as Viktor Novikov saunters in, broad-faced and in loud pinstripe. He is trailed by his very blonde wife, slender and with the unmistakable turmeric hue of the sunbed-kissed. He greets Lady Leicester and shakes the tutor’s hand. After a polite exchange, the Novikovs make their way over to Lord Beaufort’s group. There is a noticeable straightening of spines, though none would have admitted it.

“Hello, Beaufort!” Novikov says, his voice like the rumble of a truck in a quarry. He squeezes Lord Beaufort's hand and exposes two rows of tea-stained teeth.

The old Lord winces. He quickly introduces Constance Duddleswell, Aubrey Vercors-Sassenage, and the two pink-faced boys. Everyone professes to being terribly pleased.

“It’s Tammy, is it?” Constance Duddleswell turns to Novikov's wife.

“It used to be,” she says. “I had it changed to Tamié when I stopped working as a dancer. I think Tamié sounds classy.” She has a warm smile. The heavy makeup makes her look older, but her eyes still exude the wonder of a child at a masquerade.

“Very classy,” Constance Duddleswell says, emphasizing the word as if removing a stray hair. Her smile is toothy and rigid.

“Yes,” Tamié says. “I work with children now. After we had our little boy, Viktor set up a charity for poor children in Moscow. It was important to me. You see, I grew up poor, and I want to give back. I've come a long way.” She looks proud but is met with blank faces. “My father was a miner before—." She breaks off. “Nevermind,” she says, her words disappearing soundlessly into the awkward chasm between them.

Constance Duddleswell fiddles with her tennis bracelet.

“And what is it you do?” Tamié asks Aubrey Vercors-Sassenage in a vague attempt at small talk.

“I’m not quite sure I understand.”

“Your profession. What you do for a living.”

“Oh, I see. I’m afraid my great-grandfather saw to all that.” He chuckles politely.

Tamié looks confused.

Constance Duddleswell takes over. “It's commendable,” she says, “for a lady such as yourself to engage in charity.”

“Oh, yes!” says Tamié, grasping at the common ground, “Just like Princess Di! She's such an inspiration. Was, I should say. She did so much charity work, didn't she? When I heard about her death the other day on the TV, I cried so hard. Didn’t I, Victor? I was in a right state. Cried like a baby. It's horrible. And what a loss. She was so pretty and so kind. She was everything that's great and good about the British monarchy.” She touches her husband’s arm lightly. Viktor grunts. There is a sad shaking of heads all around, but Constance Duddleswell exchanges a sly look with Aubrey Vercors-Sassenage.

“I have to tell you!” Viktor says to break the silence. “We have to tell them, honey!” He smiles at his wife. “I had to get my wife’s permission first, but you’ll never guess what we’re having installed!”

“Oh, do tell!” Constance Duddleswell says, her rigid smile reinstated.

“We're going to put a gun range in the wine cellar!”

There is a sharp intake of breath from someone. Then everyone quickly mutters what a jolly good idea this is.

“I think so! It's a great idea. And we’re turning this ballroom into a home cinema. With comfortable seats and a popcorn machine imported from the USA. All state-of-the-art. You should come over for movies.”

Lord Beaufort coughs.

“Don’t you think it’s a great idea?”

“Wonderful," Lord Beaufort says limply.

“Do you have a gun range, Aubrey?” Viktor asks.

“I don't,” Aubrey Vercors-Sassenage says. “I prefer to shoot grouse.”

“You’re at Hevert Hall, aren’t you? That’s a very big place. A lot of upkeep for a place like that.”

“Ah, yes. The house. Absolutely. Lots of upkeep. But, you see, I've moved into the former groundskeeper's cottage. It's much more comfortable. The house—” he pauses to take a deep breath before continuing. “Hevert Hall is in the hands of the National Trust now. Open to visitors and such. The upkeep…you understand.”

Viktor nods. He understands about upkeep. Everyone else is studying their shoes. A silence creeps in imperceptibly, like dusk.

“Have you tried the caviar?” asks Viktor, one thumb pointing at the buffet. “You should. It's great.”

“A home cinema,” Ferdinand Fontina says. “Sounds fun.”

“Oh yes,” Novikov says. “We have plans. Big plans. And you know what?” He turns to Beaufort. “You are going to love what we are doing with your place.”

Beaufort looks like he is about to faint.

“I’m sorry,” Aubrey Vercors-Sassenage interjects. “I'm not sure I follow. Lord Beaufort’s place?”

“Oh yes. Didn’t you know?” Novikov says. “We bought that too. We want to turn it into a burger restaurant. American fast food in a castle. Fast but Fancy. A world first. What do you say?” Novikov’s accent makes him pronounce “fancy” as “fun-see.”

The blood drains from Aubrey Vercors-Sassenage's face. He catches sight of Constance Duddleswell, who is staring, slack-jawed, at Novikov. There's no hint of a smile on her face now. Novikov continues. “Just imagine! People will go crazy for it. American food is the future! The line for the drive-thru will go all the way down to the castle gates. I like the name Burger King's, but it's already taken. Maybe we’ll call it “Baron Burger” or “Cheeseburger Castle.”

“Coronets and Coronary?” Ferdinand Fontina offers. “Lord of the Fries?”

“Ha Ha,” laughs Novikov. “Something intellectual. Very good! What do you think, honey?” He puts an arm around Tamié. “She is not convinced.”

“Burgers?” Aubrey Vercors-Sassenage says, incredulous. “Really?” His eyes go from Novikov’s eager face to Lord Beaufort, who looks away.

“Yes! A fun-see McDonald's.” Viktor is beaming. “A great plan. When the first McDonald's opened in Moscow, over 2000 people lined up.”

“Yes, but—” Constance Duddleswell says before Viktor cuts her off.

“What, you think the English are not like this? Trust me, people everywhere want to eat the same junk. When you put it in a fun-see package, put a bow on it, or a crown, they will love it.” He runs a hand over his suit jacket and smiles, satisfied with his own logic.

Aubrey Vercors-Sassenage stares. Constance Duddleswell looks to Beaufort. The old Lord looks like he is choking on something, his face engorged, his neck straining against the collar. Even his eyes are red.

“We will leave you with that thought.” Viktor Novikov is scanning the room. “We must see if the Bishop has arrived.” With Tamié in tow, he saunters off.

The group is left as if a hurricane had torn through it. The old Lord's face is still flushed. He is chewing on his lip.

“Burgers,” Aubrey Vercors-Sassenage says, his voice flat. There is a sagginess about his long frame now, like a lily after rain. “How utterly—”

“Oh, don't rub it in,” Constance Duddleswell says.

Only now does Lord Beaufort lift his eyes. He looks at her gratefully. “I think I should go. Looks like the beano’s over.”

The pink-faced boys mutter something about excusing themselves.

Only Aubrey Vercors-Sassenage's eyes are still on Beaufort. “Yes,” he says suddenly. “Yes, quite. I should go, too.” He checks his watch. “Is that the time already?”

The men take their leave of Constance Duddleswell.

On the stairs down, Aubrey Vercors-Sassenage turns to Beaufort. “Monty, I am sorry. I had no idea things were so tight.”

“It's alright,” Lord Beaufort says, but his eyes are glistening.

Halfway down the stairs, a small hand appears on Lord Beaufort's shoulder. It lands as lightly as a snowflake.

“Do you have a moment, Lord Beaufort?” It’s Tamié.

“Of course.”

“I'm very sorry Viktor embarrassed you,” she says. “He is just different in some ways. Money matters to him more than—” she breaks off in search of a word.

“More than sentimental guff?” offers Lord Beaufort.

“More than meaning,” she says.

The old Lord nods. “It's alright.”

“I don’t want a fast food place either,” she says. “It's such a lovely place. I'd much rather turn it into something useful. A school maybe, or a children’s home.” She pauses for a second. Lord Beaufort bows a little as if approving of her idea. She continues, “I'm going to work on Viktor. Convince him. I think it's important to give back. It could be…a good thing.”

“It could indeed. As are you, Mrs. Novikov.” Lord Beaufort smiles at her. “Goodbye for now.”

The men descend the stairs.

“Very decent of her,” says Aubrey Vercors-Sassenage.

“Hm,” says Lord Beaufort and nods.

“Are you going to be alright, Monty? Will you move into a cottage on the grounds?”

“Oh, you know me. I’ll just keep buggering on. It’s just hard cheese.” He sighs. “No cottage for me, though.”

“No?”

“No. I'm moving to London. Now that I have the funds. I'll go to the theatre and whatnot. And I’m going to see about that Stringfellow’s place.”

The old Lord skips the last step and lands on the chequerboard marble. He is unusually light on his feet.


About the Author

Anne Dorrian is a writer who grew up in Oxford, England, and now lives in Germany. She has published a number of short stories inter alia with Fairlight Books and in The Pigeon Review. She has a story coming out in the October issue of Pithead Chapel and is currently working on her first novel.