Dirty Aristocrat

By: Georgia Le Carre

Two point five million pounds, actually.

I could still remember that day like it happened yesterday. It was my eighteenth birthday. The weather was bad and we had decided to stay in. Just the two of us. In those days he was still well enough to come downstairs so we sat in the blue drawing room by the big fire. Him in his big armchair and me curled up at his feet on the carpet.

Oh, we had so much to talk about then. He had so much knowledge and I was like a sponge. Soaking everything up. I was his Eliza Dolittle. I arrived at this house a teenager bringing with me all my trailer trash talk. Patiently, slowly, day by day, he had polished away all the rough edges.

On that day he had leaned back in his chair and watched me with indulgent eyes as if I was a particularly exuberant puppy.

‘Oh my little Tawny, if only you had come into my life sooner,’ he whispered.

‘I’m here now,’ I told him.

That was when he pulled the box out of his dressing gown pocket. I started crying with joy and sadness. Even then we already knew his time was short. Then he cried and, later, when we were both drunk on champagne vodkas, he insisted I must wear it at his funeral.

With a sigh I fixed the necklace around my neck. The metal was cold. I turned around and looked at the mirror. Against the pallor of my skin it glowed like blue fire. I stared at my reflection and heard his raspy voice again.

‘It’s going to be all old money, so venerable, so impeccable, so I want you to blow their silly socks off. Don’t hold a dreary wake for me. Throw a party. Serve the most expensive champagne. Hire musicians, dancers and fire-eaters. Make an inappropriate toast to me. Celebrate. But whatever you do don’t try to please those painted peacocks. They’ll despise you for it.’ His eyes twinkled. ‘You will be richer than most of them. Let them bloody well try to please you.’

‘Won’t they just hate me all the more?’ I asked.

‘So be it,’ he said cryptically.

I frowned, confused. ‘Why? Why make them hate me more?’

His eyes gleamed with unholy light and I got a glimpse of the cutthroat businessman he must have been before he became sick and weak.

‘Because a greater prize than my money waits for you, my darling.’

No matter how much I asked he would not explain what he meant. ‘Trust this old man,’ he said.

As I stood in front of the mirror, the memory of that night was so clear I could almost smell the burning logs, see the wicked gleam that shone in his cunning eyes, and hear the rich timbre of his voice. I touched my hat and his voice filled my head.

‘A good hat is a thing of beauty, but worn at the right angle it is a work of art.’

Of their own accord my hands moved to tilt the hat to a rakish angle.

I smiled at the effect. ‘You were right, Robert. A small tilt makes all the difference.’

Without warning, pain like a stone wedged in my chest. Oh, Robert. I will never see your kind, clever face again. Suddenly the cocoon of protective numbness was ripped from around me and I felt as if my world was spinning out of control. Oh my God! All those people waiting for me and every single one of them bearing hostility and envy in their hearts. I felt as nervous as a long-tail cat in a room full of rocking chairs. I placed my palm on my midriff and took deep breaths.

You need to be one hundred percent, Tawny. It’s an elite club you’ve wandered into. You can’t let our side down.

I looked into the mirror, my eyes were wide and panicked. No, this won’t do. I forced myself to think of my mother.

‘Oh, Mama. I’m afraid,’ I whispered.

The last thing she told me before she died floated into my head. ‘Ain’t nothing to be afraid of, honey. Take a deep breath and count to what you are. A ten.’

I started to count. There was a discreet knock on the door and I whirled around and walked quickly into my bedroom. ‘Come in,’ I called.

The housekeeper stood holding the door handle. ‘The car is here. Are you ready, Mam?’ she asked.

Oh, how I miss being back in warmth of the Southern states again. Everyone here was just so damn polite and so hidden. There were layers and layers of mannerisms to trip on and show yourself up as the foreigner, the person who did not belong.

‘Yes,’ I told her nervously.

‘Good. It’s getting late and the car is waiting downstairs.’

‘Thank you, Mary.’

She nodded and closed the door softly.

I went to the dresser and picked up a framed photograph of Robert and me. My arms were thrown around him. The sun was shining and we were both laughing. It was taken during my first summer in Barrington Manor. I didn’t know he was ill then. He did though. My heart felt like it was in a vise. I put the photograph down, slipped into a thick woolen coat, and pulled on my black gloves. Deep breath, I told myself and went down the curving stairs and out through the great doors.

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