Dinner time was a heavy number. It was when the whole household gathered together. The only time. Martin would have spent the day wandering around the echoing empty manor house, poking his nose in here, fiddling about with this or that; roller skating in the cobweb-festooned ballroom among the shattered shards of a once magnificent chandelier, or pulling faces at himself in the long mirrors. Or when he wasn't doing that he would have been in the gallery, doodling on all the old masters. There were hundreds of paintings in there, stacked against the walls, lurking under dusty sheets, piled high against the windows, blocking out the blue October sunshine. Someone here had once been quite the collector. They were worthless now. Fit only for doodles.
Occasionally he would zoom by the study, which The Colonel habituated seemingly at all hours of the day and night - when he wasn't at dinner, that is. He would be hunkered down into a cracked and stained leather armchair, steadily steeping himself in brandy and port and vintage sherries, of which he seemed to have an unending supply. Martin had never found out where it was hidden. The routine was always the same: Martin would fly past the open doorway on his skates, down the long oak-blocked hallway, and shout "Ullo Colonel!" The Colonel would respond "What there, boy!" long after he was gone.
And then there was Mrs Cowling. Martin didn't know where she spent her time. There must have been some dark, private corner of the manor that Martin had yet to discover. Somewhere that Mrs Cowling could while away the empty hours trying on dresses, for whenever the three of them gathered for dinner she always had something new to wear.
So here they were, all three present at seven o'clock sharp, just as they had been every evening for as long as Martin could remember, with the Colonel taking his rightful place at the head of the table. Strict etiquette had to be observed. The Colonel insisted upon it. Formal attire had to be worn, insofar as that was possible, although only Mrs Cowling seemed to have the means to achieve this. Martin wore the same dirty shirt and tattered jeans that he always wore. The only clothes he owned. Rags really - the fraying gashes at the knees testament to many a skating misadventure.
The Colonel himself wore the same dinner jacket day and night. Martin knew it was the same dinner jacket because it had the same dinner on it - splashes of gravy about the left sleeve, a smudge of mashed potato around the hem and the ghostly imprint of a broccoli floret above the breast pocket. The Colonel, it seemed, collected mementos of his various meals with the same assiduity as a squirrel gathers nuts for the winter.
"What is it tonight then, Colonel?" Martin asked hungrily as he eyed the silver-plated tureen that demanded everyone's attention in the centre of the table. The Colonel reached forward and lifted the lid with a palpable theatrical fervour, like he was a circus huckster unveiling his latest curiosity to a hushed and expectant crowd.
"Stew," he said. Mrs Cowling actually applauded. It had been stew for the last three weeks. "Ah yes," The Colonel breathed, taking in the hot steam that rose from the dish. "I always said that Cook makes a wonderful strew."
As was the custom, The Colonel took it upon himself to serve, ladling the thin, anaemic fluid into the outstretched dishes of his fellow diners with a delicate accuracy of delivery that, if his bespattered jacket was anything to go by, did not come naturally to him. "Although," he went on, as he played mother, "I fear that this shall be the last of it." And in a timely confirmation of his prediction, they heard the ominous chime of the ladle scraping along the bottom as The Colonel chased the last few drops around the tureen.
Mrs Cowling's countenance grew dark and troubled, an expression which The Colonel noted immediately, for he promptly moved to placate the lady's fears. "Oh worry not," he said. "We are creatures born to survive. The larder may be empty but, mark my words, something will turn up. Once we dined like kings, you remember, and one day we shall do so once more. Why, I recall when this table was heaving with - "
"This table?" Martin interjected.
"Well, no, not this table, but one very much like it," The Colonel replied. "Before I was here. At the other place. Please don't interrupt, boy, when I am reminiscing about food. You know it is my favourite subject."
Martin apologised and settled down to work on his stew, and to listen to The Colonel's stories. He had heard these tales of 'the other place' a thousand times before, but he never tired of revisiting them. He didn't know where 'the other place' was, but that didn't matter. Wherever it lay, The Colonel seemed to have lived a charmed life there.
"Roast beef! Roast chicken! Roast parsnip!" Each item rolled deliciously off The Colonel's tongue as he listed them.
"Parsnip's a vegetable!" Martin exclaimed. He'd seen a picture of one once.
"Didn't matter," said The Colonel. "Everything got roasted in those days. There were great big hunks of meat carved straight off the bone. And mounds of potatoes - boiled, steamed, fried and, yes, roasted. We would eat until we could eat no more, and then we would eat some more. And the wines! Let me tell you about the wines."
The sound of a terrific explosion outside punctured The Colonel's recollections. It was powerful enough for the table to jump slightly and for the ladle to clatter in the empty tureen.
"That was closer than last night," Martin said after a pause to allow the ringing in their ears to desist.
"No, surely not, lad," said The Colonel, but as he looked across at Mrs Cowling, her anxious pop-eyed glare seemed to support Martin's estimation.
"I thought I heard sirens earlier today," Martin said.
"Never," The Colonel objected. "Why, there haven't been any police around here for over a year. They retreated south."
"Well," Martin continued, "I know what I heard. This morning I saw smoke coming from the cathedral. Maybe someone got hold of a fire engine?"
"Good luck to them! It's about time someone showed some public spirit," The Colonel declared. "Maybe this is the turning point? Maybe soon the riots will be over?"
"Sirens didn't last long," Martin added. "They sort of... died away. Maybe they set fire to the fire engine?"
Mrs Cowling shook her head sorrowfully, gazed across at The Colonel and frowned. "I know, I know," The Colonel said, reading her thoughts. "How did we get to all this, hum? People can fend for themselves, we said. Seems so long ago now. We have spent so long cosseting, nannying and providing for their welfare. Time had come to set them free. Time for the disadvantaged, the poor, the sick, the homeless and the hungry to stand upon their own two feet. To realise their potential, we said."
Martin sat bolt upright. "Listen!" he hissed.
They listened. "I can hear nothing," The Colonel said at length.
"The mob," Martin said. "They're getting closer."
They strained to hear and caught the soft, almost melodic ripple of noise that, at a distance, rolled in like the gentle swelling of a far off ocean, rather than the angry crashing, foaming and bursting that they would have heard at closer quarters. Even so, they knew what they were listening to: a fearsome tide rushing inland, crashing and crushing everything in its path; uprooting and tearing, and leaving in its wake nothing but smashed and burnt flotsam.
"And this is what they have done with their freedom," The Colonel said, his voice breaking above the encroaching tempest. "This is what they have done with their independence. They have turned upon their liberators. We, who sold off their hospitals, their public spaces and their libraries that they might be free of such burdens. We, who pulled back the smothering blanket of the welfare state and dragged them blinking into the light of self-reliance. This is how they thank us for their sovereignty."
Three chimes rang out; metallic clanks, rending iron and the explosive splintering of wood. "That was the main gate," Martin commentated.
"Don't worry, they can't get in," The Colonel assured them briskly in response to Mrs Cowling's suddenly pale and wan appearance. "This place used to be a fortress in old times. Well, not this place. The other place. It stood up to Cromwell and shall not fail to defend us against these rogues." He was getting confused now. "No, we are securely barricaded. Please, Mrs Cowling, relax and enjoy your stew. It really is most excellent."
"It must have been the high life indeed, back at the other place," Martin observed, not wishing The Colonel to desist in his nostalgic wanderings, and hoping he might encourage him to return to the path. "Were there many servants?"
"Many servants," The Colonel said. "There were pastry chefs, and boot boys, and butlers."
"Like Mr Hargreaves, who used to do our butling here?" Martin asked.
"Yes, just like Mr Hargreaves," The Colonel affirmed. "And more besides. There were under-butlers, and master-butlers, and butlers that I cannot recall the names for. All gone now."
"Just like Mr Hargreaves has gone," Martin reminded him.
"Yes, just like Hargreaves, lad," said The Colonel. "And there were scullery maids, and parlour maids, and footmen, and stable lads. All gone."
"Just like Gwen. She was our scullery maid here, wasn't she?" said Martin.
"Aye something of the sort."
"And what about the errand boy?" Martin quizzed him. "Was there an errand boy, like John, the errand boy we had here?"
"Oh yes," The Colonel remembered fondly. "There were teams of errand boys who used to fetch and carry, and bring in groceries from the farms and the villages."
"Gone now," Martin completed for him. "Just like John has gone. And what shall we do now that he cannot bring us provisions, and the last of the stew is gone? Shall one of us have to go outside?"
A crash of cascading broken glass reached them from somewhere at the rear of the manor. The shouts and cries were suddenly louder, more distinct. They were in the house. Mrs Cowling, in her alarm, dropped her spoon into her dish and splashed her dinner up the front of her latest new dress.
"Best not," The Colonel said. "Best wait for it all to blow over before we venture out."
Mrs Cowling paused briefly in dabbing her outfit with a handkerchief and gave one of her now familiar startled looks. It should be observed that Mrs Cowling had looked consistently startled for a period of not less than six months, but The Colonel had become sensitive to the distinctions between the peaks of her most extreme agitation and the troughs that reached the baseline of her general background panic.
"Don't you worry, Mrs Cowling, dear" he reassured her. "Blow over it most assuredly will. Take it from me, most riots tend to peter out once they get into their tenth year. I've seen them all before: the hunt saboteurs, the benefit scroungers, the strikes and the pickets. Granted, nothing on quite the size of our current troubles, but things are bound to die down just as soon as people realise how silly they're being."
The frenetic shouts and sounds of destruction were drawing nearer. Martin heard people trampling through the gallery, fracturing frames and slashing the canvasses of his artfully amended masterpieces. Mrs Cowling could also detect the unmistakable tearing of fabric, in this case coming from her hitherto hidden corner of their retreat, and she hung her head in dismay. Even The Colonel could not fail to register the smashing of a bottle of French brandy in his study. Indeed, it was almost as if he could determine its vintage from the tinkling of the shards, and had anybody been keen enough to notice it they would have seen a single tear run down his cheek.
"As I say," The Colonel repeated, in spite of his private grief, "nothing to worry about." Notwithstanding this earnest prophesy, he asked Martin to drag the sideboard against the door to 'block out the draught'. "But enough of all this talk of high politics and social complications," he continued brightly. "We are not gathered here to set the world to rights. Our responsibilities are only to sit and be at peace and enjoy this wonderful stew."
To emphasise this he raised a spoonful to his mouth, dealt with it lovingly and let out a satisfied 'aaaahhhh!' It was as if all thoughts of the approaching mob had been driven from his mind; as if the fact that they could be here in a heartbeat had no relevance to him. He did not even flinch when a brutal crack on the dining room door signalled their arrival. Martin and Mrs Cowling both twirled round in their seats, but The Colonel kept on lapping his stew as if this was an evening just like any other. Behaving, in fact, as if he was back in that other place, long ago, surrounded by his rich and influential friends, and his many and varied maids, butlers and footmen.
"The time will come again, companions of mine, when our lives will be enriched by all the fine things that we could desire. My cellar shall be stocked with all the best wines and liqueurs. You, Mrs Cowling, shall have the latest fashions, direct from Paris, or wherever it is that the latest fashions come from these days. And you, boy - you shall have whatever it is that young boys want. Whatever that may be."
Neither Martin nor Mrs Cowling heard him. They were both preoccupied with dragging more furniture across the room to pile it before the door, the panels of which were beginning to sag before a hurricane of blows.
"We shall spend our days in idle retreat, just like the old times," The Colonel continued in between slurps of stew. "Hunting, shooting and fishing. We shall have not a care."
The top half of the door burst inwards under pressure of the mob. Heads, arms and shoulders reached through. Mrs Cowling was grabbed by grasping hands and hauled over the barricade, swallowed up by the mob as completely as an alligator gulping down a defenceless rodent. Martin jumped back out of reach, his back pressed against the edge of the table as the door was forced inexorably open.
"Sit down lad!" The Colonel barked. "Eat your dinner. Don't worry about them - they'll never get in, that sideboard is solid mahogany. This trouble will blow over very soon, and then we can all go back to the other place."
"But Mrs Cowling!" Martin protested.
"Well yes, it seems Mrs Cowling will not be joining us," The Colonel admitted. "Gone, like the rest of them. Like the butler, the errand boy and the maid."
"We have to do something!" Martin insisted. "The barricade won't stop them."
"Do something?" The Colonel quizzed him. "What's to do, boy? Nothing we can do, apart from sit and enjoy this delicious stew. He scraped his spoon along the bottom of the bowl and lifted out the final piece of moist gristle, which he had been saving until last. He chewed thoughtfully. "Yes, they're all gone: Mrs Cowling and the errand boy and the rest."
The mob erupted into the room, tumbling over themselves to get at Martin. There was nowhere he could go; nothing he could do. He was grabbed by a hundred different hands and they tore into him. The Colonel paid no regard as they came for him next. He was chewing on something hard - a bone, perhaps - which he spat out into the dish. It was a wedding ring.
"Ah yes," he said wistfully as he was engulfed. "Now even Cook has gone. I always said she made an excellent stew."
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