The Good Butler
So mum, do you think this is really Nicole?
Hmm, I’m not sure.
Or is it someone made up to look like her?
Or is it her made up to look like someone made up to look like her.
Caroline is the mum and Daisy is the daughter. Caroline has terminal cancer, and she’s got about six months to live. Perhaps a year, they say. She reads a lot of magazines. Daisy is showing her an advertisement where a glamorous woman in a deep red satin dress is stiffly posed on what could be a bed in a motel, staring into the camera half crossly, with a half smile and half sneer, as if she is thinking – get on with it you idiot. Or does she look a bit scared? It’s hard to tell really. She certainly looks uncomfortable, whoever she is. She has long blondish movie-star hair, groomed and falling over her shoulders. Long arms and hands, knobbly knuckles. Probably a wedding ring. High-high heeled shoes, coffee-coloured, lie carelessly on the carpet in the foreground . One leg dangling over the edge of the bed, stockings containing her toes in a little silken sack. And the shadow of her foot points to a message.
Look at what is says, mum. This is hilarious. It’s an ad for Etihad airlines. You don’t just travel First Class, you travel in a thing called ‘The Residence’.
‘Three room retreat. Separate living room. Ensuite shower room. Double bedroom. Personal butler. Flying Reimagined.’
Caroline took the magazine from Daisy and read what it said. Her only comment was: No hyphens. I wonder why they don’t do the hyphens.
‘My God, this wouldn’t just cost an arm and a leg, they would have to take your heart and your liver as well. Kidneys too, said Daisy.
But Caroline had fallen asleep.
Daisy closed the magazine, added it to the pile of others on the broad table beside the bed, smoothed her mother’s rug, patted the pillows, patted her hands, kissed her lightly and left the room, taking the tray on which the tea had gone cold in the silver teapot, and where the delicate cress sandwiches lay almost untouched on the delicate green plate.
She sat in the nearby sunroom, looking out across the tops of two old apple trees that were busy with white blossom. She knew there were bees. Caroline would never see another spring. Daisy had a pot of hot coffee and a croissant. Her iphone was charging on the table in front of her. Whenever Caroline needed her she would send her a text. When she was a child with chicken pox she used to have a little brass bell from India beside her bed, and she could summon her mother or her father to her bedside. Her brother Dan got jealous and hid the bell in the garden where it turned up years later none the worse for wear.
She opened the newspaper and read:
‘Flight attendant union calls for UN women’s ambassador Nicole Kidman to stop endorsing Etihad Airways over claims its practices are discriminatory toward female staff.’
So it was Nicole in the picture. That cleared that up.
But the main news story was about the Germanwings A320. The picture on the front page showed a crumpled fragment of the plane. The jagged fragment bore a clear print of the German flag, bold bright black, red and yellow stripes. The whole thing resembled a battered cigarette packet, lying on a harsh grey slope. Dust.
‘The pilot at the controls of a Germanwings jet that crashed in the French Alps accelerated the plane into the mountainside, killing all 150 people on board, according to French investigators.’ She read.
Caroline was only dozing, drifting in and out of thought and memory and daydream. She had heard what Daisy said about selling your body to pay for The Residence. It would be more apt to sell you house. Then you could reside in the little air-borne house in the clouds. With the butler. The butler? Was that a title and a euphemism? Would he attend to you every need? Did sexual preferences apply? Or perhaps he could procure for you from a wardrobe or refrigerator of gorgeous men, women, trans-sexuals and pets. All tastes catered for, all things re-imagined. The butler did it. The butler made up to look like someone made up to look like the butler.
Her mind had become strangely fertile in recent weeks. It operated with a startling clarity, but moved into realms before unknown, or untapped. As her body faded, her imagination flourished. She had moved beyond fear into a weirdly manageable world of relentless fantasy. She even realized that this was ‘a stage’ of ‘the process’, and she made a decision to stay in the stage. They told her ‘life is a journey’, but in her private conversation with them, the conversation they never heard, she said ‘death is a journey’. And there were staging posts. She was going to remain forever in the stage of brilliantly-lit imagination. It was strange that Etihad spoke of ‘re-imagining’ even though they couldn’t quite get the hyphen. Caroline had always loved punctuation. The name ‘Etihad’ sounded like some sort of medication. Ten milligrams of Etihad with food.
She opened another magazine. There was the Nicole figure again. The interior of The Residence seemed to resemble a somewhat dreary motel in Sydney. Of course the butler would make a big difference. She turned a few pages and found a story about a house in New York that had been sold for sixty-hundred million American dollars. Was she reading straight? Yes, sixty-hundred million. Good grief! Now if you sold that you could fly round in The Residence for quite a while. Not that she knew how much The Residence would really cost.
Caroline owned her house – her husband had died some years before. She imagined selling the house which was probably worth about one million Australian dollars and taking off in the flying motel that was The Residence. With Jeeves, a lady’s gentleman. Of course. They talked about a ‘bucket list’. She had said she didn’t have one. Maybe she did. Maybe she could sell the house and go for a ride in The Residence. Then she really did fall asleep.
When she woke up, Daisy took her out into the sitting-room where they watched ‘The Antiques Roadshow’.
‘Look that teapot is almost exactly like mine,’ Caroline said.
And indeed it was.
‘Eight hundred pounds!’
Then they watched the News, and the leading story was about the airbus near Seyne-les-Alpes. An image taken from a helicopter – a leaden grey ravine in the base of which lay a fragment of the aircraft resembling a crumpled dark red handbag.
‘Imagine if that had been the Nicole Kidman plane, instead of a cheap German one,’ Caroline said.
‘Well it wouldn’t have made any difference.’
‘No, of course not. I just meant that the person in The Residence, and their butler, with all their Mouton Rothschild Pauillac 1982 could easily end up as a squish of DNA in the French Alps.’
And that is how the idea took hold. Caroline had always had bit of the gambler in her nature. A punctuator and a gambler. Other things besides of course, but they are probably irrelevant here.
In her bright imagination stage, she would lie in bed devising simple, oh it was so simple, plans to sell the house and buy a flight in The Residence on the chance that the pilot would fly into a mountain. The End. Did she spare a thought for the other passengers who would be unlikely to be intent on death by suicide-pilot? Actually, after the first excitement of the plan, she did.
Naturally she wasn’t silly enough to put any of this to Daisy – Daisy and her brother were supposed to be inheriting the house. How could she be so unkind as to deprive them? She seemed able to brush this thought aside. And gradually the second plan took hold of her. Not a gamble on having a suicide pilot. It was this: She would sell the house, pack her bags, take The Residence to somewhere and quickly make her way to Switzerland or Mexico or wherever she could find a good service from Doctor Death. Or perhaps, even better, perhaps the butler was in fact the answer. A good butler, yes, a good butler will do whatever you ask. Oh this was a bucket list and a half. She smiled a lot, and sometimes laughed aloud at the delicious fruits of her imagination. She recalled the old TV advertisements about AIDS – the Grim Reaper comes forward out of a swirl of eerie clouds, he cuts the family down. All fall down. Horrible. But the Good Butler. He comes with the goblet of Mouton, and there is quiet chamber music and Sevres crystal and he has the best cocktail ever and you lie back on the Residential motel blanket – dark red dress, long long blonde hair fresh from a blow dry blow dry sip and kiss and sip and you sip and you sip and you drift and I sip and I drift and the apple blossom clouds drift by and by and bye-bye bye-bye.