Welcome to our featured author for April,
Mary Lou Pearce
FOR A BRIEF TIME IN LONDON
Rachel's first trip to England didn't go as planned. It was bad enough that her alarm didn’t go off and she almost missed her flight. They had to hold the plane while she ran out to get aboard. The other passengers were not happy to say the least if their faces were anything to go by.
Then, when she arrived at Gatwick, Security tossed her luggage, purse, and briefcase! After that, she’d had to answer endless questions. Finally, she trundled her baggage on a cart out to the taxi stand.
No cabs, not a one! Rachel perched on the rack and sighed. Maybe this was what you got for acting on a whim for the first time ever in her entire life!
She reached into her coat pocket and pulled out an item torn from the newspaper. It was much folded and handled, but she read it aloud to herself for the umpteenth time.
“Wanted: Young woman between the ages of twenty and thirty. Said person must have exceptional English skills and be able to take rapid dictation. Candidate should be willing to be called upon at any hour of the day, six days a week. Reasonable return travel expenses will be paid in advance. Resumes to The London Times, Box 777.”
This intriguing ad was why she’d come. What were a few minor glitches compared to the adventure hinted at in this ad? She wanted, even needed that!
Rachel thought back to how it had all started. She was bored senseless with her job. The lowest guppy in a secretarial pool full of sharks, she could do the assigned work in her sleep and had been for five years since completing her course at Bond College of Business.
One day as she yawned through another lunch break, she’d decided to see if she could find a new job. It had to be something more interesting, she’d decided, which would use some of her other skills. Perhaps even a job abroad, she’d mused as she flicked open her copy of the Toronto Star to the help section.
While doing a rapid skim of the ads, she’d almost missed it, but something made her stop and read this one. Rachel had read the item four times, becoming more intrigued each time. So, quickly, life became a whirlwind and she was caught in the eye of a storm of her own making.
She had sent her resume and several reference letters, expecting to wait at least a month for a reply. To her amazement, three days later, she had received a letter with a bank draught enclosed.
The letter had said little more than the want ad did. It was written on heavy stationary topped with a hotel letterhead. When she had looked at it more closely, the mystery and her interest had deepened.
The Dorchester Hotel, one of the most historic luxury hotels in London! Wow, she had thought, I wonder what that means? It seemed an elaborate place for a simple interview.
Rachel had speculated that the person who wanted to interview her was an older woman, judging by the handwriting. It was a precise copperplate, done with a fountain pen and showed evidence of a slight shakiness.
“Definitely old school” she’d murmured aloud.
After that, things went from merely crazy to insane. She had scrambled to get a work visa, check to see about shots and pick up new travel outfits with suitcases to put them in. By the time she was ready to go, her bank balance and her energy were exhausted.
Yet, here she was. In the exciting city of London and stuck waiting for a cab at the airport! She sighed.
“Ms. Rachel Borgen?” said a clipped male voice.
Rachel looked up to see a man in a chauffer’s uniform standing in front of her.
“Yes?” she answered warily.
The man took off his hat and handed her a note.
She opened it and read: “This is my manservant Thompson. If you require proof of this, ask to see his license. He will bring you to my suite. Remind him we have traffic laws as he has a heavy foot. MEG”
Hiding a smile, she looked up at the middle-aged man with the handlebar mustache and Van Dyke beard.
“May I see your license, please? A woman alone can’t be too careful.”
The man nodded and pulled out a card. She took it and compared it to the man in front of her. Satisfied, she handed it back.
“Is this all, madam?” the chauffeur asked in a tone of surprise as he indicated the luggage rack she was sitting on.
Smiling, Rachel said: “I hope to do some shopping while I’m here, so I didn’t want to pay excess baggage fees until I had to!”
The manservant cracked a smile and picked up her bags as if they weighed nothing. Rachel followed his ‘this way, Madam’ to a car that made her gasp aloud.
A Rolls Royce Silver Cloud! Her dream car! As Thompson stowed the luggage, Rachel just stared.
The chauffeur helped her into the car, then moved to the driver’s side and climbed in. He started up the car, the engine moving from a roar to a purr as he did so.
“By the way, Thompson I understand you have the need for speed. As long as I’m the one in the passenger seat and you don’t get any tickets, go for it!”
This time, Thompson actually grinned and with a smart ‘Yes, madam’ pulled out of the parking spot with a squeal of the tires.
They literally flew to the Dorchester. Rachel saw little of the scenery but didn’t care. Thompson was a skilled driver and she enjoyed it better than any midway ride. As they slowed to enter the underground parking, she caught a glimpse of Hyde Park.
“Is it safe to walk in Hyde Park?” she asked Thompson.
“It is, for the most part, madam. But Lady Gray would certainly insist I accompany you should you wish to.” Thompson replied.
Lady Mary Elizabeth Gray. Rachel had looked her up in Who’s Who and had been astonished to learn she had worked for years as a foreign correspondent for the London Times, in spite of being married to an earl and bearing six children! More and more, Rachel wondered what kind of work she’d be doing.
Thompson tossed his keys to the valet, helped Rachel from the car and escorted her to an elevator. As they rose silently, Rachel tried to pump Thompson about his employer. But he deflected any questions by telling her Mrs. Gray would answer them all if she hired her.
This gave Rachel pause. He was right, just because she was being interviewed, didn’t mean she had the job. She subsided into silence. Opening an ornate door with a keycard, he led Rachel into a sumptuous suite that left her mouth agape.
It was like they’d stepped back into the 1930’s Art Deco period. Everywhere she looked was pieces she could easily covet. But chances were they were period and authentic and way out of her price range.
“Lady Gray has asked that you meet her in her study after you freshen up. That’s just off the end of the sitting room and the only door on the far left wall. ” Thompson told her as he led her down a short corridor to a door.
“You should find everything you need” he continued as he opened the door, ushered Rachel in and deposited her luggage on racks in the room.
“If there’s anything I can do for you, madam, please let me know” Thompson concluded. When she shook her head no, he left, closing the door behind him.
Rachel was so exhausted she dropped like a rock onto the nearest sofa and fell asleep. By the time she woke up, it was dark outside the tall windows. She took a quick shower and dressed in her new business suit.
Following Thompson’s imprecise directions took some doing, but at last she stood before a white door with a gilded stylized G on it. Taking a deep breath, Rachel tapped on it.
A cultured voice with an accent bade her enter. When she did, Rachel was shocked. The woman that sat behind the French provincial desk was nothing like she expected.
Tall and slender, she was an incredible sight from the top of her bobbed silver head to her fashionably smart pant suit. With smooth peaches and cream skin, she exuded an air of timelessness.
“Ah, you must be Miss Rachel Borgen. You’ll pardon me if I refuse to use that horrible designation people use today. In my day, you were Miss or Mrs. never Ms. If you like, I will address you as Rachel and you may call me Mary.”
“Please sit down, Rachel. Tea or coffee?” she asked indicating the silver service on the table near the chair Rachel sat in.
“I hope you will forgive me if I ask you to serve yourself and prepare a tea with lemon for me. I have severe osteoarthritis and cannot move without pain. So, you may be asked to do minor services for me, if that’s agreeable.”
“Is there nothing they can do?” asked Rachel solicitously.
The older woman smiled. “Unfortunately, it is too far advanced.”
“You must be most anxious for this interview to be over, so I’ll get on with it. I have decided to write my memoirs. My hands are far from steady and some of the events I wish to write about are fading from my mind.”
“So I would like the person I hire to take down my musings in shorthand exactly as I say them and as speedily. Later, I’d like them to clean up the grammar and such, as necessary and otherwise put them to rights with proper English if you please.”
“I would expect a clean printed copy of the work from the day before by the next morning. Since I sleep very little, I may call upon you at any hour if I think of something I want to include.
"Room and board will be provided, of course and the successful candidate will have from Saturday at noon until Sunday noon as time off. I propose to offer the following salary..."
When Lady Gray threw out a number, Rachel thought she was joking. But she could see she wasn't from her face and Rachel was very pleased. In fact, she decided her dream of writing a novel just might be possible after all!
"Do you have any questions?" queried Lady Gray.
"How long is the position expected to last? Rachel asked anxiously.
"Anywhere from one month to five. I intend to have it to my publisher by the six month mark."
Rachel sat back. Enough time to save a nest egg so she could put off looking for work after she got back to Toronto and start writing that novel she’d always dreamed of.
"I have one other candidate to meet and interview, so perhaps a light luncheon in the morning room is in order. It’s the third door on your right. I hope you enjoy the view of Hyde Park, Miss Borgen" added Lady Gray cordially as Rachel left.
Rachel found a table set for one overlooking a stunning panorama of the city's great park. As she ate she wondered if she'd gotten the job. She didn't have long to wait.
Thompson entered silently and began to clear the dishes from the table.
"Lady Gray requests that you join her in her retiring room in one hour. She is scheduled for her daily treatments at this time every day. Would you like to see the paper or a magazine?" the manservant inquired.
At her nod, Thompson pulled several papers and magazines from under his arm and presented them to her with a flourish that made her grin. Still smiling, she skimmed the London Times and the Daily Tattler. The grandmother clock startled her by chiming the hour.
She hurried out. The sound of harps and flutes led her to her hostess. After being bade to enter, Rachel saw Lady Gray dressed in a loose caftan reclining on a fainting couch, looking exhausted.
"Miss Borgen, Rachel...the job is yours if you want it. If possible, I would like to begin immediately. Do you agree?" the older woman said in a weak voice.
"Are you sure you're up to it, Mary?" Rachel asked softly, concern in every word.
"Don't trouble yourself, my child. It will pass, it always does. You'll find pencils and pads in the center drawer of the china hutch on the far wall."
Rachel got what she needed and sat comfortably on a small chair near Her Ladyship’s head. She looked right into the woman's faded denim eyes and waited with surprising patience.
"How old would you say I was?" was Lady Gray's first utterance.
Rachel studied the woman's face more closely.
"Hmmm...60?" Rachel hazarded.
Lady Mary's laughter belied her wan face.
"You flatter me, my dear. I was born Miriam ben Noah on December 25th 1433."
Rachel did a rapid calculation, only to gasp in disbelief. She stared at Lady Mary incredulously. Lady Mary sighed and reached under the pillow she'd been resting her head on. She silently handed her a brittle piece of paper.
The young woman carefully read and examined what turned out to be a birth record. Handing it back, Rachel was at a loss for words. When she found them again, she was bursting with questions.
Lady Mary held up a thin, ringless hand and Rachel subsided.
"I know it seems impossible, but I assure you it's true. Some of the leading lights in longevity including Aubrey de Grey, have studied me for years and assure me it's true. This year I will be 579 years old on my birthday."
"But how is that possible? Who lives to such a great age, let alone looks as youthful as you? Are you sure that paper is legitimate?" Rachel asked skeptically.
"When I first married, I decided to trace my family tree in order to add it to the records of lineage as others had done before me. I was astounded to find I was related to Noah through his eldest son. What do you know about Noah, Rachel?"
The enthralled younger woman wrinkled her brows.
"Little more than his role in the Great Flood, why?" she asked.
"Because Noah's grandfather was Methuselah..."
As she was about to declare her amazement at this fact, Rachel saw that the older woman had fallen asleep; so she quietly departed, both puzzled and intrigued. Back in her room, she booted up her laptop and began researching both Lady Mary Elizabeth Gray and Methuselah. What she found told her so little of what she wanted to know, that she had to abandon the search in favor of transcribing today's notes and trying to make sense of it all.
The next day, Rachel had barely returned from her walk when Lady Gray asked for her. Transcript in hand, she joined her Ladyship in the same room they had worked in before. From then on, her days followed much the same pattern.
Rachel took verbatim notes about everything from her single days as a foreign correspondent for The London Times ("fodder for a book in itself") to meeting and marrying her beloved husband, Charles Gray, second Earl Grey who lent his name, at her insistence, to a tea of the same name.("He was thirty-five and I was sixty but looked 21. I certainly robbed the cradle, but I miss him to this day!")
It was absolutely fascinating, especially when she talked about life as the Prime Minister's wife between the years of 1830-1834.
"You realize this is all heavily censored. If England knew the truth about those years, there would be scandal, even today!" Lady Mary maintained.
Three months passed in this way, until one night Thompson excitedly shook her awake.
"Hurry Miss, her Ladyship requires your presence in her bed chamber at once!" he stage-whispered.
Alarmed, Rachel threw on her dressing gown and followed him. Lady Mary was restlessly pacing the floor, dressed to the nines in a rich velvet ball gown, matching hose, shoes and bag. She glittered with rubies and diamonds. As the pair rushed in, all she said was: "It's time."
Rachel watched Thompson go so pale she feared he would faint.
"Mary, what's the matter? What are you talking about?" the young woman asked, rushing to my side.
"I can't do it anymore. I'm sick of living, it’s lasted way too long. Remembering my past has just made me long to go even more!" she cried.
"Thompson, you promised you'd help when I wanted to do this; you said you would!" she pled, turning to her loyal manservant.
Rachel watched as the man moved to the drinks table. With trembling hands he poured a hefty measure of red wine. Reaching into his vest pocket, he pulled out a paper packet. He shook a pink powder into the glass.
"Rachel, I have recorded tapes with the rest of the memoirs on them. Please finish it and send it to this name and address. Thank you, dear and goodbye."
"The powder in this wine is a potent mixture of my own devising and will end my empty life. Thompson?"
The poor servant set down the glass with a sharp cry and ran from the room sobbing. Lady Mary turned anguished eyes on Rachel.
"Help me!" she whispered.
Nodding, Rachel moved to the table and picked up the glass. Fearing her Ladyship would move and not get the full dose she would need to die swiftly; Rachel grabbed Lady Mary gently by her hair and pulled her head back in order to force her mouth open so she could pour the poison easily down Lady Mary’s throat. Throwing the glass down, she stroked Mary’s throat to help her swallow the dosed wine.
She eased her Ladyship down onto the nearby sofa and left. Taking only her purse, laptop and the all important memoir tapes, she raced for the Metro and a flight home. Incredibly, it had happened again!
For Lady Mary Elizabeth Gray wasn't the only one with an interesting family tree. Rachel Borgen was a distant descendent of Lucretia Borgia.
I was born in North Bay, but my family and I have lived in Englehart as well. Married for over 30 years to a military firefighter who is now retired, I have seen most of Canada and a bit of Europe. Although we are childless, we are happily loved by many nieces and nephews as well as a few greats.
Being a crafter, as well as a writer, has made me see things beyond the obvious. My favorite type of crafting is repurposing, of course.