Margaret was dying, she knew that. She did not need to be told so by Dr West, though he had done. The particular reason was the cancer which riddled her body. It was far too widespread to have been operable. The underlying reason was simply old age. She had lived her allotted span and now it was time to go. She felt no fear at the thought. She was happy with her life here on Earth and was a devout believer that she would enter another, better, world when she had passed.

Her only real regret was that her husband had been taken so young when he died, taken from her very soon after they were married by the war that took so many young men from their loved ones. He had been taken too soon for them to have any children of their own to care for. She had not remarried, choosing instead to throw herself wholeheartedly into her work. This was a mixture of being an enthusiastic missionary and a carer of children at a variety of places around the globe. She had worked wherever the charity she was employed by had sent her, which included South America, Africa, and several of the far Eastern countries, though she had enjoyed her times in the Philippines the most and had been fluent in Tagalog, the local language, though she had not used it now for many years. She had had several marriage proposals in her younger years, but had turned them all down, strongly believing that she would rejoin her husband eventually to live out the life that had been snatched from them on Earth.

When her mother had died, she had returned to the UK for her funeral and to put her affairs in order. She had found that as the sole beneficiary of the will that her mother had left, she had inherited the cottage she was now in the main bedroom of, and that she herself had been born in. She had arranged through the same solicitor as had looked after her mother’s affairs for the cottage to be let out. Most of the income she had received from that she had used to help run the orphanages she worked at, as she did with most of her salary. She had set a little aside to top up the state pension she now drew and when old age had finally forced her to retire had returned to the cottage to do so. Her wants and needs were small so the pension and money she had put aside and allowed her to live comfortably. Now she was just waiting to join her husband. It could sometimes be an uncomfortable wait. The cancer could be very painful at times.

The medication left by the doctor kept the worst of the pain away. Indeed, too much of the stuff would take it away permanently. She would not though — suicide was a sin no matter what the reason. She left her medication for others to administer, so as not to even accidentally get it wrong. The times of each tablet given were carefully recorded on the little pad that the bottle stood on, so that whoever gave one would know when Margaret had last had one.

She was visited every morning and evening by a nurse who gave her the medication and made sure she ate something, no matter how little, and saw to any other needs she might have. Every afternoon she was visited by her friend Polly, usually for an hour but once a week longer. Polly was a good deal younger than she was, by nearly 20 years, but they had both been born in the village, the only ones remaining now that had been. Margaret had still lived here when Polly had been born. In fact had even been Polly’s babysitter on a few occasions.

When she had first retired here, she had formed a close friendship with Polly, and they spent many of Polly’s afternoons off together. Usually it would be spent at the cottage, but if they were feeling extravagant they would take a walk down to the village pub or even take a taxi into town where they could eat at their favourite tearoom and take a walk around the shops there. When Margaret had become ill, Polly had changed her work pattern up at the Manor so that she could visit every day, and attend to any needs that might have come up since the nurse’s visit each morning. Margaret had left the cottage to Polly, both as a gesture of friendship and to thank her for her kindness since Margaret had become ill. It would be going too far to say that Margaret had no relatives, but she had none who visited her, or that she felt close to. She could of course have left the cottage to the charity she had worked for, which was still going strong, or to the church that she had visited at least once a week before she became ill. She felt though that her many years of devoted service to the charity was sufficient, and that the church had more than enough money already.

She knew, too, that Polly had no home to go to if she ever had to leave the Manor. From what she had heard of Lord Allenby, that seemed a distinct possibility. She had never met the man, in all the years she had lived here, though she had seen him flash past in a smart looking car a few times. She liked to gossip though and had had many conversations about him with the other villagers when she could still get around. Very few of them had actually met him either, so most of what they had had to say was second or third hand or mere speculation.

She had tried to tell Polly about the bequest, not through any need or want to be thanked for her generosity but so that it would be one less thing for her friend to worry about. She didn’t think Polly had heard though. Polly would claim to be a Christian, probably even believed that she was, but she had nowhere near the faith that Margaret had that this life, once left, would be replaced by something far better. Polly didn’t like to talk about Margaret dying and would change the subject if ever it was mentioned. Indeed, Polly was probably more concerned by Margaret’s imminent death than she was herself.

She looked at her friend, now dozing in the armchair that faced the bed Margaret was lying in.

“Isn’t it time you were heading back to work?” Margaret’s voice, once hale and piercing, was now quiet and croaky, almost a whisper. It was enough though to wake Polly from the light sleep she had slipped into. Polly opened her eyes and gazed around the room for a few seconds to get her bearings.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “I must’ve dozed off. This chair is soooo comfortable, and I’m being run ragged up at the Manor.” She rose slowly from the seat. It was a long way up for her tired body to drag itself. “Is there anything else you need before I go?” she asked when she had completed the movement.

“I wouldn’t mind another painkiller, if that’s all right,” said Margaret, “it seems particularly bad today.”

Polly looked at the nearly empty jug of orange squash beside the pill bottle.

“I’ll make some fresh squash to wash it down with,” she said. She took the jug and the pill bottle down to the kitchen, returning just a couple of minutes later with a jug now refilled with the orange liquid and the top removed from the pill bottle. She poured a glassful of the refreshing drink and offered it to Margaret while holding the pill bottle out with her other hand. She tapped one pill into Margaret’s hand when it was stretched out to take one. She re-fixed the bottle’s lid and before setting it down wrote down the time on the pad, glancing at her watch as she did so.

“Goodness,” she exclaimed, “is that really the time? I’m going to have to hurry. You’re nearly out of pills by the way,” she added. “Be sure to ask the doctor for another prescription when he calls round later.”

Margaret replied that she would, but found she was talking to Polly’s back as she left the room. She settled back into her bed. Once the pill took effect she might even be able to get a few hours sleep before the nurse came.

Polly had not gone back to the Manor but had instead climbed into a taxi awaiting her arrival at its usual place, around a bend out of sight of Margaret cottage. It wasn’t from the local firm but one from the town she had headed to. It was a regular arrangement. No-one, except the people at the Manor of course, knew that Polly had three afternoons off, not the two that she told people if they enquired. All of the Davis family knew of course, but they had been sworn to secrecy. As far as they knew she visited a church once a week and wanted this fact kept secret because it was of a denomination that would not sit comfortably with Lord Allenby nor with the local people if they ever found out. It was a white lie that hurt no-one and had, so far at least, ensured that the family kept the secret. Indeed it had worked so well that she had used the same tale to Lady Valerie, as she now referred to her after her proper title of Lady Allenby had passed to the new Lord Allenby’s wife, when she had asked that this detail of her employment be kept private.

During her journey into town she had slipped off the simple and rather straight-laced coat she had been wearing and put on a much more lavish looking fur one which she had pulled from the large bag she had been carrying. She had replaced it with the coat she had taken off. She had then drawn a small slim handbag from the larger bag and taken from that a pearl necklace which she had draped around her neck, snapping the clasp shut once she was happy that it had fallen correctly. Neither the fur coat nor the necklace were real, of course, but they looked the part to any casual observer. She had checked her appearance in a small compact mirror she had drawn from the handbag and, being happy with what she had seen, returned to the same place. The process had not taken very long, but when completed made quite a change. To say you wouldn’t recognise her would be an overstatement. You would, if you knew her quite well and were close up. She had alighted from the taxi round the corner from the casino she had been heading for, leaving the large bag and its contents in the taxi driver’s safe keeping. He would be back at the usual time to collect her. Both had repeated the same procedure every week for many years.

Now she was stood in front of one of the casino’s several roulette tables, hoping desperately that the number that the little white plastic ball finally came to rest on would be an odd one. It wasn’t, and she watched her £20 chip raked into the pile of losing bets.

Polly Jenkins had not started out as a gambler. In fact she had come rather late to it. She had first gone to a casino as a guest of one of her friends in the village. It was a company do that her friend’s husband couldn’t make because of his own commitments, so Polly had been roped in to replace him. They had not used real money that night but chips supplied by the company. It had not been a real casino either, just a venue made out as one. Polly had enjoyed her time there immensely, especially that spent at the roulette table which was somewhat easier on the brain than sitting at a blackjack table and trying to remember which cards had already been dealt. Shortly after this first experience she had inherited quite a lot money from an uncle. She decided to visit a real casino to see how much more thrilling winning real money would be. She had lost a great deal of cash that afternoon. She had returned as soon as she could with more money from her inheritance, which she had lost in the same way. She hoped to recover her losses from the last of the inherited funds. She had had some luck at first but then that turned against her and she again left a loser.

Having lost all of her inheritance, she started to use the savings she had built up over the years. It wasn’t a great deal of money, though to her it was everything. Her retirement fund, her deposit on a nice flat when it was needed and her way of paying for everything she had promised herself when she had finally finished working for Lord Allenby.

Now each week nearly all her wages went at the casino. She set enough aside to pay for the taxi there and back and to cover any personal needs that she expected to have before she got paid again but all the rest was turned into chips and, generally, lost at the roulette table. Although she had won quite large amounts sometimes, she had never left the casino with more money than she had gone in with, gambling and losing any winnings in the hope of luck favouring her enough to bring even more good fortune.

She glanced at her dwindling pile of chips then at the elegant but inexpensive watch strapped by black leather to her wrist. It was another half an hour before the taxi was due to pick her up. She would have to slow down or place smaller bets if she was to make her remaining chips last until it did. She only had enough cash left in her purse for the journey home, so couldn’t get any more if she ran out. She slid a £10 chip onto the ‘odd’ rectangle. She didn’t physically cross her fingers when the croupier called ‘no more bets’ but did so inside her head. She waited as the white ball whizzed around the outside of the wheel then slowed and fell towards its centre. It’s bounced in an out of the pockets next to each number before finally stopping on number 7. The croupier used his long handled rake to pull the losing bets to him, then carefully pushed another £10 chip next to hers. She leaned forward, unsure whether to collect her winnings and try something else or to let it ride. She decided to let it ride, picking up the new £10 chip and putting it on top of her own. The process was repeated. This time the ball came to rest on the number 23. The croupier cleared the losing bets and pushed a £20 chip next to her two £10s. She put the £20 chip and one of the £10s on ‘even’ this time, and the other £10 chip on the number 26. The ball finished moving on the number 26. She had won over £400. By the time she had left again to keep her appointment with the taxi, she had lost it again, together with the small stack of chips she had had earlier.

As she relaxed in the back of the cab taking her back to the Manor she kept looking in her purse, as if the one remaining note there would somehow multiply between looks. She was disappointed to have lost again but there was always next week. She had seen a small advert in one of the papers Lady Valerie had finished with for a book on a new system that was a sure-fire winner. She had not asked herself why the author would give away such a lucrative secret if it was true but had immediately sent off for it, along with her cheque for £19.99. With luck it would arrive in time for her to read and absorb its contents before her next weekly visit, so that she could put it into practice and start to recoup the money she had lost. If you added in her inheritance and savings, as well as what she had lost each week since, it mounted up to many thousands of pounds. By the time the taxi had dropped her at the foot of the long driveway to the Manor, she had changed back into her straight-laced coat, pearls, slim handbag and fur coat all safely put back in the large bag she carried.

The meat was nearly cooked when she returned to the kitchen, a large joint of beef that she had prepared before leaving. She still had the Aga to cook on, though it was an acquired skill, but always used the large combination microwave and convection oven that she had persuaded Lord Allenby to buy, when the old microwave had finally given up and died, on her afternoons off. She had taken the trouble to read the accompanying instruction manual so that she could make use of its programmable timer. This way she could start the evening meal cooking without needing to be there. The microwave had a big ‘DO NOT TOUCH’ label on it, written on a Post-It note and faded now after prolonged use. The vegetables too she had prepared before leaving, so that she only now had to cook them. She slipped off her coat and hung it on one of the pegs on the wall, over her large bag, before coating a large tray of boiled potatoes in oil and sliding the completed affair into one of the Aga’s two ovens. She put large pots of carrots, cabbage and runner beans onto the Aga’s hotplate for the water to heat up before lifting her coat and bag back off the peg to take to her room.

* * *

Margaret had died the evening that Polly had left her to visit the casino. The doctor had telephoned to let Polly know as soon as he had heard himself, knowing that she visited every lunchtime and not wanting her to just find out for herself when she arrived that day.

Polly was sad to lose her friend but in a way relieved. Although Margaret did not complain about it very much she had obviously been in a lot of pain in the last few days before she had died. Now at least she had been released from that.

Margaret had no close family so Polly had made all of the arrangements for her funeral. They had discussed it once or twice during her visits, though it hadn’t been something Polly had liked to dwell on. Margaret had even had the money ready to pay for everything, in an envelope in a drawer of her bedside cabinet. One of her nurses had cashed a cheque for her at the town’s only remaining bank. The funeral had taken place two days later at the village church and was attended by all of her friends and neighbours, most of whom also came to the reception afterwards at the village pub. There were far too many attendees to fit into Margaret’s house. The body though hadn’t been buried in the church’s graveyard but had been taken to be laid beside her husband’s in a graveyard many miles away. Margaret had reserved and played for the plot as soon as he had been buried there, against the day that she would join him. Polly hadn’t travelled up for the actual burial but would visit later once things had settled back to normal.

Polly had taken no extra time off of her duties at the Manor, though she had made some of the arrangements over the phone when she should have been working. She had even made sure that the funeral took place on an afternoon that she was due to be off anyway. When Lady Valerie asked why this was and why Polly had not requested any extra breaks, Polly had said that she preferred to keep working and that doing so helped her not to dwell on the loss of her friend.

She was serving a dinner alone that evening as it was Peter’s night off. The fact that there was only Lord and Lady Allenby eating did not really reduce her workload by much. She still had to cook the same dishes regardless and it made little difference how many vegetables or puddings that involved. It didn’t even mean fewer trips between the kitchen and the dining room, as she brought in each course on a trolley. The fact that Lady Valerie was spending her weekly night at a restaurant with Mr Philip and that Miss Frobisher had returned for one of her increasingly rare trips back to her own home made very little difference at all.

When she returned to deliver the main course to the dining room and to collect the soup bowls that had contained their starter she paused outside. She didn’t usually listen at doors but there was something about the conversation between Lord and Lady Allenby that made her do so. Both were seated at their usual places at either end of the long thin dining table so their conversation was necessarily allowed.

“… I know that she has had extra difficulties over the last few days,” Lord Allenby was saying, “what with her friend dying and all that, and no doubt that has been playing on her mind and distracting her from her work …”

“Well that kind of thing does affect one,” interrupted Lady Hazel, “you can’t expect it not to.”

“I know,” said Lord Allenby, “but I’m talking about before that. She keeps forgetting to do things she’s supposed to.” He paused, then added “and she’s struggling physically. Turning the mattresses for example. Don’t forget she should have retired quite a long time ago.”

A silence came over the room when Lord Allenby had finished this last sentence, as if both he and his wife were deep in thought about what he had said.

“I know Valerie won’t like it,” Lord Allenby continued, “but I really think that it’s time to let her go and bring some new blood into the house.”

Another longer silence.

“But she hasn’t anywhere else to go,” protested Lady Hazel at last.

“Not our problem, Hazel dear,” replied Lord Allenby. “Besides, she must have enough put by to take somewhere. She has little enough to spend the wages I pay her every week on. And I’ll give her a few bob, as a retirement gift.”

There was another short pause until Hazel suggested:

“Perhaps we could keep her on part-time, let her carry on living here and bring in someone else to do the heavy work. Perhaps keep her as the cook and take on a maid to do those duties?”

“More expense that I’ll be expected to pay for!” retorted Lord Allenby. “Anyway, we don’t have to decide right away, let’s get my party out of the way, then we can give it some more thought.”

The conversation turned to other topics and Polly waited a short while before rattling the trolley she was pushing loudly to let them know she was coming.

She cleared away the soup bowl in front of Lady Allenby and replaced it with a dinner plate, pulling the trolley a little closer so that Lady Allenby could serve herself from it. When Lady Allenby had finished she pushed the trolley down to Lord Allenby for the exercise to be repeated.

A silence accompanied her task. Almost a guilty one. It was as if the Allenbys knew, or guessed, that she had overheard their conversation. She was pleased that Lady Allenby was pleading her case, and knew that Lady Valerie would too when she heard about these plans. She thought too that Mr Julian, if he was here, would be on her side as well. She had always got on very well with him, sneaking him extra snacks when he had returned home from one of his expeditions in the grounds as a young boy, and now discussing his latest trips while he sat at the kitchen’s table as she busied herself with whatever needed doing that day. She rather liked Lady Hazel’s suggestion that she concentrate on cooking while someone else took over the maid’s duties. They were far and away the more arduous tasks that she had to admit were becoming difficult for her to manage alone.

She knew too though that the final decision was Lord Allenby’s, and that his opinion carried considerable weight. She also knew from many years of experience that he usually got his way in the end. She left them and pushed the trolley back to the kitchen, to wash the soup bowls and some of the pots she had left to soak after using them, then to set out the puddings ready to wheel into them when they had finished the main course.

As she scoured away the remains of a boiled potato that had stuck to one of the pots she thought about what she had overheard. She liked working at the Manor and had more or less convinced herself that she would be there right in the end if her break didn’t come at the casino and provide her with the funds she would need to retire comfortably on. This was something else she had convinced herself of — the fact that these two convictions didn’t support each other never occurred to her.

After she had collected the pudding plates and washed up the remaining saucepans she retired to bed. Lord Allenby had guests coming for breakfast the following day so she would need to be up even earlier than usual.

* * *

Preparing the food didn’t take very long. She cooked most of the dishes in advance and stored them in the kitchen’s large, almost commercial, fridge and heated them up in the microwave as they were needed. This not only saved her time but also made it easier to accommodate his Lordship’s, and Mr Julian’s when he was home, many allergies. She could ensure that the pans and utensils used for the bacon were kept separate from those used for the sausages – always beef, never pork – and the kidneys. She preferred to use lambs’ kidneys when she could get them, which was most of the time. On the odd occasion that she couldn’t, she would use beef, though these were usually too big to be cooked and served whole as she liked to do with the lambs’ kidneys, so had to be chopped up first. Again, she always avoided the pork which both brothers were allergic to. She had even successfully developed a way of cooking the tomatoes and the toast in advance, so that these too could be prepared beforehand and heated up as needed. Only the eggs required preparing at the time, and as the brothers were allergic to them anyway and Lady Hazel not partial to them, she didn’t usually have to cook very many.

What did take a long time was getting the serving dishes ready. They were cleaned thoroughly before being put away of course, but their use was infrequent, requiring them to be dusted and polished before they were put out again. Her labours went smoothly and she finished them sooner than she had expected. She looked in the light brown coloured chicken shaped bowl that housed the eggs and saw that she still had a good supply. They really needed to be used up soon. She would make fried, poached and scrambled eggs. It would please Lord Allenby to have such an array for his guests even if he couldn’t enjoy them himself. She doubted that it would give him second thoughts about what she had overheard the previous evening but anything that reflected favourably on her might help tip the balance in her favour. She was midway through cooking them when Lady Valerie popped her head around the kitchen door to let her know Mr Philip would also be joining them for breakfast. That was good. He was very fond of eggs and would be sure to take at least one each of the poached and fried ones and a serving of the scrambled. His Lordship’s guests were due at 7:45 a.m. so she would take the food through for them before setting another place for Mr Philip. She glanced at her watch. It was only a few minutes before they were due to arrive. Time to take the food through. She transferred the dishes from the top of the Aga, where they had been keeping hot since being heated up in the microwave, and put the now ready eggs into dishes too then onto the trolley.

What did take a long time was getting the serving dishes ready. They were cleaned thoroughly before being put away of course, but their use was infrequent, requiring them to be dusted and polished before they were put out again. Her labours went smoothly and she finished them sooner than she had expected. She looked in the light brown coloured chicken shaped bowl that housed the eggs and saw that she still had a good supply. They really needed to be used up soon. She would make fried, poached and scrambled eggs. It would please Lord Allenby to have such an array for his guests even if he couldn’t enjoy them himself. She doubted that it would give him second thoughts about what she had overheard the previous evening but anything that reflected favourably on her might help tip the balance in her favour. She was midway through cooking them when Lady Valerie popped her head through the kitchen door to let her know Mr Philip would also be joining them for breakfast. That was good. He was very fond of eggs and would be sure to take at least one each of the poached and fried ones and a serving of the scrambled. His Lordship’s guests were due at 7:45 a.m. so she would take the food through for them before setting another place for Mr Philip. She glanced at her watch. It was only a few minutes before they were due to arrive. Time to take the food through. She transferred the dishes from the top of the Aga, where they had been keeping hot since being heated up in the microwave, onto the trolley and put the now ready eggs into dishes beside them.

She had just finished laying them out on the dining room’s sideboard when Lord Allenby entered, along with his two guests. Lord Allenby wished her a ‘good morning’ as it was the first time he had seen her that day and the other two gentlemen did likewise. She knew Mr Mark as he was a frequent visitor to the house, though he didn’t normally come for breakfast. She also knew Mr Robert too. His visits were far fewer but he had been making them for many years so she had seen him several times before. She left the men to serve themselves but backed away from the door to let Lady Allenby and her sister into the room. She had not heard Miss Frobisher arrive so guessed she must have returned late the previous evening after Polly had retired. Both of the ladies wished her a good morning as she passed, and she smiled and nodded to them.

She had time to wash the pans and pots she had used for the eggs and did so before returning to the dining room to set a place next to Lady Valerie’s for when Mr Philip arrived. When she did return there Lady Valerie was already sat at the table with the two other ladies. In the hallway the doorbell rang.

As she was laying out Mr Phillips setting, Lady Valerie asked how preparations for the party were going.

“Well to be honest, Lady Valerie, they’re not really,” replied Polly. “What with his Lordship’s and Mr Julian’s allergies it’s difficult to work out what I could serve everyone and still avoid the things the two gentlemen mustn’t have.”

“Oh,” said Lady Valerie, “yes, I can see how that would be a problem.” She contemplated it for some time before saying “oh … I’ve got rather a good idea.”

As she was speaking, Peter entered the room and announced that Mr Philip had arrived. Lady Valerie broke off her conversation to greet her guest and speak with him. Polly moved to the sideboard to check that there were still sufficient quantities left of each dish for Mr Philip to select from and for everyone else should they want to return for more. She decided that there was. Both the jugs of orange and apple juice could do with topping up though.

She picked up a heavy silver pot full of hot tea and took it over to Mr Philip to pour him a cup. As she did so, Lady Valerie continued the conversation she had started earlier.

“Anyway, as I was saying before Philip arrived, why don’t you cook James’s and Julian’s food separately and provide them with a plate each?”

Polly thought about this suggestion as she finished pouring the tea and returned the pot to its silver tray on the sideboard.

“That way,” continued Lady Valerie, “the rest of the guests can choose from normal foods from the buffet.” Lady Valerie expanded in this thought, adding that it could be extended to the birthday cake too. Polly waited while the suggestion was discussed around the table.

“That’s agreed then,” said Lady Hazel, “alright with you, Polly?”

Polly said that it was. What she thought was that this would actually cause her more work rather than less, though it would widen the choices of foods she could offer the other guests.

She contemplated the suggestion as she returned to the kitchen to fetch more jugs of juice. The idea could work if the foods for the other guests were bought in. The kinds of thing she envisaged, typical finger buffet foods, would be easily obtainable. That would leave her free to concentrate properly on what she was preparing for the two brothers. She would ask Peter later if he thought this might be possible.

It would, at least, be one less thing for her to worry about, now that her mind was preoccupied with trying to decide what to do about Lord Allenby’s plan to let her go.

Peter seemed quite happy with the idea when she raised it with him that evening, saying that he would check with Lady Hazel but that he didn’t think it would be a problem to find the extra money that buying in would cost.

She spent much of that evening cooking foods to replace those used at breakfast earlier that day. She did so alone as Peter had disappeared soon after their conversation. There were no callers or late-night requests from the house’s residents though, so she was able to work undisturbed.

She thought about her options while she worked. Not that she had many. Either Lord Allenby would relent and let her stay on, or she would have to take whatever room she could afford on her state pension. Now that Margaret was no longer around she couldn’t even impose on her to take one of the empty bedrooms at her cottage. Margaret had spoken once about leaving her the cottage but she hadn’t really listened. Besides, Margaret was too fond of her charities and her church to miss an opportunity to donate to them. No doubt the full details would be revealed the following week when Margaret’s will was read formerly at her solicitors. She was, as far as she knew, the only person to be invited to hear it. Certainly she had had a positive response when she had asked if it could be delayed for a few days as she expected to be very busy over the next few days preparing for the party.

The following week she spent mainly in the ballroom when she wasn’t cooking or attending to other duties that could not be put off. It was one of those rooms which wasn’t used very often so consequently not maintained as well as the ones that were. She polished the tables and then washed the linen cloths that would cover them, making her previous task somewhat pointless. She laid the ironed tablecloths in one of the unused bedrooms rather than folding them, so that they wouldn’t crease. She dusted all of the surfaces, using a long handled brush to reach the high corners and ceiling that she could not get to otherwise and used the same brush to remove the cobwebs and most of the dust that she found on the room’s two chandeliers. The worst job was scrubbing and polishing the floor, which had to be done by hand, though she had asked several times for a machine that would do this task. She spent many hours on all fours and it was backbreaking work, made just a little easier by the foam pad she knelt on to carry it out. When her labours were finished on the Wednesday she enlisted Peter’s help to move the room’s tables into one corner, to create an area for the food to go and leave the rest of the space for the guests to circulate and perhaps even dance. It left the Thursday and Friday free for cooking, though she did plan to give the ballroom another quick dusting before laying out the tablecloths.

She had decided to bake three kinds of cake for the party, chocolate, orange and strawberry. Fred, the gardener, had promised her fresh strawberries for the event so she would use those to make the cakes that Lord Allenby and Mr Julian were to have. That batch had to be made with all non-dairy produce to avoid the brothers’ allergies, and a special flour which was difficult to get hold of and expensive when you did. She had made sure she had plenty of it in the kitchen cupboard, not just for the party’s cakes but also to make a fruitcake for Mr Julian to celebrate with. It was always important to remember that it was his birthday too, though each celebrated on a different day because of when they were actually born. Baking these cakes would take most of the Thursday as she planned to make 36 of each, which would mean using the Aga’s 2 ovens twice.

She had not long finished the strawberry and orange cakes, covering each in a layer of icing and garnishing them with a small strawberry or piece of glazed orange, when Julian came in. She picked up the large fruitcake she had made for his own birthday which was cooling on the kitchen table before being iced and pushed it into a cupboard, hoping that he hadn’t seen it. He sat at the kitchen table and watched as she stirred the chocolate icing that would cover the last batch of cakes for the party.

“I’ve decided to stay here at the Manor for my birthday,” he informed her. “No need to go to any trouble though. Hopefully there will be food left over from the party we can use up. If not, a normal meal will be fine.” He looked at the silver mesh trays the completed strawberry and orange cakes were sitting on. “Which ones are James’s and mine?” he asked.

She pointed at the two strawberry cakes nearest her with the spoon she was holding. She had cut these in half and taken out a portion of sponge with a teaspoon, replacing it with extra icing. She hadn’t done the same for any of the other cakes, it would take far too long to do them all that way.

Julian drew two candles from his pocket which made up the number ’60’. He blew on them to be sure they hadn’t picked up any fluff before placing them on one of the cakes, either side of the strawberry, saying as he did so that now it was a proper birthday cake. She smiled at this. There was much about Mr Julian that still reminded her of the child he once was. He left shortly afterwards and she began to spoon the icing onto the chocolate cakes. There would be enough time left to finish these, to ice the fruitcake, and to prepare most of the ingredients for the savoury snacks she would cook for the brothers the following morning.

Friday wasn’t quite as busy as she had feared it would be. She had planned her tasks fairly well and after spending the morning cooking, used the afternoon to complete smaller tasks as she spotted they needed doing. Not being so busy had disadvantages too though. She had plenty of time to dwell on thoughts of her own demise which now the day of the party had arrived might be imminent. Lord Allenby had, as she had overheard, put off his decision until after the party.

She had just taken her place behind the table Peter had laid out to serve drinks from, ready to carry out the function until he himself relieved her, when the front door bell rang to let them know the first of the guests had arrived.