CHARLOTTE BINGHAM -           Novelist and Playwright


                                    ‘A DIP BEFORE BREAKFAST’
                                                a comedy by
                                       CHARLOTTE BINGHAM

                                   This book is set a few years ago …..

The Spa That Came In From the Cold
     It was winter, cold, dark and wet.  Biddy knew this without even looking out of the window because her tights seemed to be on fire, due to the heat from the blower she kept under the reception desk, while the tip of her nose was definitely evincing symptoms of frost bite.  It was an unhealthy situation, but little could be done.  Hartley House needed a receptionist, she was the self-appointed receptionist, and everyone knew that a receptionist had to sit behind a desk, no matter what the temperature inside.  Nevertheless she could not help envying her nephew Tom whom she knew was sitting with his feet against the lower oven of the Aga reading an ancient Elizabethan recipe book, all of whose recipes seem to begin with ‘for the poffet take one dozen of hennes eggs’ Boris, Hartley House’s handyman/butler too was seated, not in the cosy kitchen, but on a chair in front of Biddy’s desk, hoodie up, mittens on hands. He had just placed Biddy’s off-season dread, her worst of all worsts, the staff suggestion box, in front of her.
    “I don’t think I will open it now, thank you, Boris,’ Biddy announced, over-brightly, because since taking charge of Hartley on Tom’s behalf she had developed an almost permanently bright manner which seemed to cope with most of their emergencies better than her normal more measured manner.
     “Dah, open it,” Boris commanded, from inside his nylon-fur lined hood, and he pointed a mitten at the offending box.
     “Later no good, time is present when Hartley House is closed, time for re-definitions, organic suggestives, green plans for future.  Time when guests are not present, time to do and say.” 
      Boris tapped the suggestion box in front of Biddy in such an authoritative manner he might as well have been hammering the parliamentary mace against the door of the House of Commons.
     Biddy sighed, and the sigh might well have passed as a groan, nevertheless she picked up the staff suggestion box, which was actually a plastic cow, removed the cow’s udder, and started to pluck out small rolled up pieces of paper on which the staff had written their suggestions.
     The first, in nephew Tom’s writing was quite explicit.
     ‘Get a gardener for God’s sake, Boris is hopeless!’
     Biddy quickly screwed this up and for security reasons, put it in her handbag. She really did not want Boris seeing that.
     The next said in carefully pencilled writing.
     ‘PLEASE start using recycled vests to coddle the boiler,Mrs Checkendon, they can be purchased at the local charity shop, Mind The Gap,  in Moreton High Street. PLEASE leave crushed up egg shells overnight in loos for ideal cleansing. PLEASE add chopped dandelion leaves to outside drains to encourage endorphins in baby frogs! This is VITAL.  The Moreton Frog Society is militant.’
      No guessing that these suggestions were from Hartley House’s new housekeeper, Mrs Cropper, who was, to say the least, exhaustingly green.  Not so much a cleaner as an ever green warden, always watchful in case Hartley House was adding to global warming, or enlarging its carbon footprint, etc. Thank heavens the dear lady was currently on what she insisted on calling ‘leave’ – a remnant obviously from her military upbringing - which meant that everyone could relax for a little while, until she returned, at which point the eggshells by the back door of the kitchen would once again become a speaking testament to Hartley House’s commitment to ever green issues.
Another piece of paper was emerging from the cow’s udder, this time in Boris’s hand, written in capitals as commanding as his finger.
      ‘POOL AND SAWNAH!!!!!!!!’
      Biddy felt Boris staring at her intently as Biddy perused his suggestion before putting it aside without comment. 
      She took out another suggestion from the cow. It was Tom again, on the same theme.
      This last was also put in her handbag, before Biddy looked across at Boris, immediately deciding to seize the bull by the horns, or in the case of the now thankfully empty Staff Suggestion Box, the cow by its udder, and address his concerns.
      ‘We can’t afford a swimming pool or a sauna, yet, Boris.  We still have to pay off the repairs to the roof that were so necessary.’
       Boris stood up, pushed back his chair, and shrugged his shoulders with such a dreadful finality that it made his hoodie seem somehow even more threatening.
      ‘No pool, no sawnah, no visitors.’  He waved the same fearful finger at Biddy. ‘All visitors want spahs.’  He spat the last word out so hard that Biddy found herself putting her hands to the side combs in her hair and tightening them, for want of something better to do.
       ‘Never say so, Boris, surely?’
        Boris leaned forward and taking the plastic cow from Biddy’s desk, with a dreadful air of finality, he screwed the plastic button back into the cow’s udder.
        ‘Old Polish saying, milk only come from cow which is fed,’ he said in an even more sinister tone, and this time it was his turn to sigh.
         Biddy cleared her throat once again. What a doom, not just the weather outside the window, not just the bills in the desk drawer, but also Boris in battle order.
          ‘I take the point, Boris, really I do.  But the bottom line is that if you can’t afford the cow in the first place, there is not much point in talking about milk, or even butter and cream.’
          For a few very brief seconds, Biddy felt really rather proud of her riposte, but Boris was not yet done with her.  From the pocket of his fake fur lined nylon coat - bought at Mrs Cropper’s urging from the charity shop in Morton - he took out a sheaf of brochures, and in the manner of a card player who has just been dealt a clutch of aces, he laid each of the brochures one after another in front of Biddy, but instead of saying ‘ace, ace, ace’ he said ‘spa, spa, spa!’ Except the way Boris said it the word had somehow acquired an aitch.  So he seemed to be saying ‘spah, spah, spah!
          Biddy picked up each of the brochures one by one and started to look through them.  There was no doubt that Boris was right. Each of the brochures contained pictures of handsome men and women with impeccable tans seated on wooden benches clutching immaculate white towels around their bronzed bodies, or perched on the edge of deeply blue swimming pools sporting bikinis and shorts, and colourful smiles to match.
          ‘Swimming pools are not easy to maintain, even if you can afford them,’ Biddy murmured.
          ‘Pool pay for itself, once visitors come, pool attract visitors like wasps to dung.’
          To avoid thinking about Boris’s analogy Biddy stared at the telephone on her reception desk.  It was hardly a week since New Year’s day, and the truth was that they were emptier of bookings than the Hartley House Fighting Fund was empty of cash.
          ‘I suppose I could go to see Mr Peters at the bank in Milborne? But things are not what they were at banks since the Yentse turned turtle.’
          For once Boris seemed to understand.
          ‘Dah, Yentse sunk again. On telly this morning.  Right down. And falling more and more.’
          He leaned forward.
          ‘Breakfast telly man, Mister Moneybags, dah? He say copper has gone crazy. Tom has copper, plenty of copper, turn into swim pool!’
          Biddy frowned.  She knew Tom had collected plastic toys which he had kept in perfect boxes for many years. He had treasured them since he was hardly out of nursery, and their sale had certainly gone to help do up Hartley House before they opened to visitors - but copper?  How much copper in or out of perfect boxes had Tom managed to store?
          ‘Copper pans, copper coal scuttle, copper shovel, big run on copper, now mines closed for a hundred years – copper bottomless!’
          ‘I don’t think we should sell Tom’s copper, Boris, truly I don’t.’ Biddy stood up, if only to get away from the sauna under the table, not to mention the talk of one.
         She headed for the kitchen to warm the rest of her. She would not mention Tom’s copper to him. Poor Tom had made quite enough sacrifices what with selling off his Tinky Tank toys, all boxed and in perfect condition, to help with the mending of the roof, and so on, but she would get in touch with Mr Peters at the Milborne branch of her trusty old bank.  After all you never knew, did you?  Mr Peters might think a pool and a sauna was a good investment for Hartley House.
          Later that day she managed to speak to Mr Peters on the telephone.
‘Oh no, Mrs Checkendon, no, no, we will visit you.  Please.  That is our policy.  We visit you.’
          When Biddy told Tom this, he rolled his eyes.
          ‘He’s coming to see if the roof is still on, and whether or not we are worth investing in, Aunt Biddy.’
          ‘Oh what a doom, Tom, do you really think so?’
          Tom said nothing for a few seconds as he chopped some basil with his new mini Blade Runner blender.
          ‘Mum used to say that bank managers only want to give you money if you don’t need it,’ he returned at last, once he had reduced both the basil and Biddy’s hearing to a fraction of its former state.
          With these less than re-assuring words to boost her confidence Biddy went to the telephone to cancel Mr Peters’ visit, but the manager was adamant. He had not visited Hartley House for some years, he would come next week.
          ‘No need to light a fire or put on the coffee, I’m not an estate agent, Mrs Checkendon,’ he joked.
          Biddy’s heart sank to the bottom of her still over-heated tights. That was probably exactly what he was going to do, force them to put the old place on the market, and by doing so put everyone out of a job. Although, not Biddy herself, now she came to think of it, because she had actually retired, officially, as it were.  She sighed thinking of what she had imagined were going to be blissful days spent gathering wild flowers before pressing them into pictures to sell for charity; or making fairy light sponges to take to friends newly arrived in the vicinity. So far she had achieved none of those ambitions, instead her conscience had dictated that she go to the rescue of nephew Tom and Hartley House, although only until both were up and running in such a way that she could stop worrying about them, something which had not yet happened.
Still, there was no doubt about it winter in the English countryside could give you a bit of a bashing, what with the Wuthering Height-style winds whistling through the old conservatory, and Boris’s boots clanking about on the old floor boards, and Tom trying to make ends meet by cooking what he called ‘mangle worzle broth’ on any day that had an ‘r’ in it, and some of the others too.
          ‘We’ll have to get smartened up for Mr Peters’ visit,’ Biddy announced to Boris the following week.  ‘It’s this afternoon, you know.’
          She looked at Boris, and then mentally closed her eyes.  His ex-Army jacket was missing some buttons on the sleeve, and his ex-Army boots were now pointing skywards on account of the fact that he would insist on gardening in them. Clay did that to shoes, it made them dip in the middle and then point upwards.  Too late to do anything about the boots, except give them a fresh polish, but the jacket could be helped.
          ‘Can I sew you on a button or two, Boris, before Mr Peters comes?’
          Boris looked affronted.
          ‘Nah.’ He shook his head. ‘Nah.  Jacket must keep wartime look.’
          Biddy thought differently.  She went to her sewing box, found some old brass buttons, and returned to Boris who was poking some damp logs in the drawing room fireplace with a ferociousness that brought to mind hand to hand fighting in what used to be known as the Balkans.
          ‘Jacket please, Boris – no, not shirt, just jacket.’
          Too late, Boris had removed both. Well, to give him his due, both jacket and shirt had come away as one. Biddy wished they hadn’t, not even the smell of Big Boy, Boris’s favourite after shave, could help the atmosphere now he was standing before her in only his old vest. She realised she should have sewed on the buttons as he stood there, actually in the jacket.  Nevertheless, determined not to be put off, she started threading her needle.  The only thing that she could say about Boris’s vest was that Mrs Cropper would heartily approve of it in every way because it was quite definitely green.
          ‘Aertex vest from 1966, aeration definitely good for body, purchased charity shop in Moreton,’ Boris told Biddy, as she quickly sewed the brass buttons on to his sleeve. 
          This task finished Biddy hurried off to make the coffee.  As she busied herself she glanced at the kitchen clock.  Tom was out for the afternoon. There was only Boris and herself to receive their visitor who was even now knocking at the door.  She placed the coffee pot carefully on the tray.  Everything was as it should be. The house was now filled with the smell of the logs, for all that they were hissing really rather loudly, and the coffee was at the ready. In fact, to Biddy’s immense relief, everything was just as it should be, and just in time, even as Boris was preparing to open the door to the newly arriving Mr Peters.
          Except Boris was doing no such thing.  He was standing in the hall  pointing at Biddy’s handiwork.
          ‘Buttons not Army!  My Major he have Boris shotNaval buttons on regimental jacket! Boris shot at dawn, Major would say!  Too good for shooting even!’
          Biddy could see that Mr Peters could see Biddy and Boris through the half glassed doors, and pretty soon he would not be just seeing Boris, he would be enjoying Boris’ unique odour of Big Boy.
          ‘Bring the tray from the kitchen, Boris,’ Biddy commanded. 
          But Boris was still apoplectic, pointing at his jacket sleeves. 
          ‘Anchors and rope!  Like pub sign!’
          Biddy’s mouth tightened, but she knew once Boris started to become indignant, there was no stopping him.
          ‘One, two, three, into the kitchen, and I will open the door to Mr Peters.  While you – you can snip off the wretched buttons, and bring in the tray, when you’re dressed again.’
          Boris did as commanded, but even as he closed the kitchen door, and Biddy opened the front door to the bank manager it seemed to Biddy that she, and Mr Peters too, could hear the sounds of his Polish moans escaping from the kitchen.
          ‘Your er chap – ’ Mr Peters nodded towards the kitchen sounds.
          ‘That’s Boris, our handyman. He used to be a batman.’
          Mr Peters smiled.
          ‘Very good, now where’s Robin?’
          Mr Peters seemed to be enjoying his own joke so much, that Biddy hardly dared to carry on explaining that Boris was an ex-Army batman
          ‘And, greeter.  Boris also greets people in the summer, shows them to their rooms, generally makes them feel at home, helps out in the dining room, he is really rather part of the fabric of Hartley House now, and the visitors, all our many visitors, love him.’
          Mr Peters had walked ahead of her into the drawing room, Biddy following, which she didn’t much like, but new manners were like that, Biddy had found, everything upside down. Men first women last, no one standing up when you went into the room. It was all due to women’s liberation which meant that men now behaved like women used to, and women behaved like men used to, and everyone else behaved like people on television, which sometimes wasn’t very nice.
          Biddy left Mr Peters, and went into kitchen for the coffee tray, but Boris, once more jacketed, but with the offending naval buttons left in a sorry row on the kitchen table, was now firmly in charge of the tray.
          ‘Boris duty take tray in.  Boris does trays, Mrs Checkie does talking.’ He lowered his head a little, putting the tray up close to his head so that the cafetiere was on a level with his face.  ‘Mrs Checkie not forget swim pool and sauna for spah! Plenty of dips before breakfast for guests?’
          Biddy walked ahead of Boris into the drawing room where the room was gradually filling with smoke. 
          ‘Oh dear, and the chimney has only just been swept.’
          Mr Peters smiled.
          ‘Ours does that,’ he told her in a kindly voice.  ‘So,’ he turned to Boris.  ‘So this is Batman?’
          It seemed Mr Peters couldn’t leave his wretched joke alone.  Perhaps it was the only one he’d ever made?
          Boris straightened up from placing the coffee tray on the table between the sofas.
          ‘Boris,’ he announced to Mr Peters. ‘Batman to Major Arkenshaw. Very brave man.’  He looked momentarily reverent as his thoughts strayed to Major Arkenshaw and his military record, before giving Mr Peters the kind of look that must have made his enemies either lay down their arms and flee, or faint.
          ‘Much decorated was he, this Major Arkenshaw?’ Mr Peters asked seating himself.
          ‘Dah, very brave man.  Gone to Pee Wee country now, roads are not crowded; people stand up on buses, like England before.’
          Boris exited. 
          ‘He means Kiwi,’ Biddy told Mr Peters. ‘Actually Boris was decorated too, but he would never say, he’s far too modest.’
          ‘My wife is a Kiwi,’ Mr Peters announced as Biddy, for want of something better to do seized the coffee pot and poured.  ‘No milk, no sugar, please, thank you, Mrs Checkendon, kindly meant, I’m sure.’
          In her confusion Biddy had given him both milk and sugar.  She kept the cup for herself and handed him a single black coffee in a very pretty gold cup.  Smoke was still gradually filling the room, but Biddy decided to ignore it.  No doubt about it, Hartley House was at its worst that afternoon, and drawing attention to it would do no good at all.
          ‘So. Perhaps you would like to show me your Visitors Book, Mrs Checkendon, show me the kind of people who come to Hartley House for rest and recuperation, or R and R, as the Americanos call it?’
          Biddy, heart sinking, went into the hall.  Most unfortunately there were some comments in the Visitors Book that you wouldn’t want a bank manager to see. 
         One or two of Tom’s friends had put things like ‘a great stop off, just get the bathwater flowing Tom!’ 
         And a certain grey pound visitor had put ‘came for a holidaytook away a great egg in the person of your housekeeperThank you Hartley House!’ 
         And then there were the drawings that the Russian party had left which were a bit, well, overt, really.
          ‘You have certainly been busy since you opened,’ Mr Peters opined, coughing slightly on account of the smoke from the fire as he thumbed through the Visitors Book.  ‘Yes, I can see you have had a really quite good clutch of visitors for a first season.  Yes, quite a good clutch.’
          ‘We have been very lucky,’ Biddy agreed. 
          ‘No undue incidents?  Sometimes these places can attract the wrong types.’
          ‘No, not really,’ Biddy stated, mentally crossing her fingers as she remembered several very undue incidents involving vicars and older ladies, and Armstrong the painter; oh, and all those Russians, of course. ‘No, we have been really very lucky.’
          ‘So, it is a swimming pool that you lack, is it, Mrs Checkendon?’
          ‘I understand that a spa attraction can add considerably to business.’
          At that moment the door opened and Boris stood to attention by it.
          ‘Visitors!  Three visitors!’ he boomed from the doorway.
          Biddy turned round.
          Hartley House was not meant to be open to visitors at that time of year.  There were no beds made up.  There was no food in the larder.  Everything uncooked until tonight when there would only be enough for the three of them, and even then rations would be meagre and possibly in the modern manner, perhaps a small piece of chicken balancing on two piece of asparagus, and a sauce swirled about it on the edge of the plate ending in a sort of pattern.
          Biddy stood up, for once at a loss, completely stumped as to what to say or do. 
          ‘Not now, Boris,’ she finally murmured.  ‘Really.  Mr Peters and I are in a meeting.’
          But it was too late the ‘visitors’ had pushed by Boris.
          Biddy stared at them.  Oh, cry murder!  Someone come to her help!  The ‘visitors’ were two of Tom’s friends from the village pub. Tom, obviously with the best intentions, must have dragooned them into pretending to be winter guests to impress Mr Peters.
          ‘We are a trifle early, I’m afraid,’ Tom said, in a voice that was not his own at all.  ‘But don’t let it worry you.’
          ‘No, of course not.  And you are?’
          Boris gave Biddy the kind of look that must have made armed guards blench and surrender their weapons.
          ‘These are Mr and Mrs Chivers, from the US of A,’ he announced in the manner of a major domo, and his gaze switched to Mr Peters who, despite the stench of moth balls, looked impressed.
          ‘Please, don’t trouble yourself; your butler here can take care of us.’
The speaker was June from the pub. Quite apart from the perfectly dreadful American accent she was attempting, she was wearing what she obviously imagined were smart clothes, and they might indeed have been smart if they had not smelt so dreadfully of moth balls, and looked as if they had spent the last century in someone’s trunk.
         ‘We are so pleased to meet you, Mr Peters,’ June drawled from under her 1940’s veiled hat. 
         ‘Nice, people,’ Mr Peters said, nodding approvingly as they turned to go.
         ‘They are going to dining room now, Mrs Checkie.’
          Boris leaned forward and addressed Mr Peters as the ‘visitors’ left the room.
          ‘Hartley House busy place,’ he boomed at Mr Peters prodding him with his bony finger.  ‘VERY busy.  All year round, busy, busy, busy.’
          His Army boots thundered on the wooden floor as he left the room.
          Biddy and Mr Peters sat down again both feeling relieved, albeit in very different ways.
          There was a small silence.
          Mr Peters smiled across what seemed to Biddy to be an ever widening gap, but was actually only the width of the coffee table.
          ‘I thought you were closed in January, Mrs Checkendon?’
          Biddy felt she was floating above herself, somewhere around the ceiling rose in the middle of the room. Everything around her, her whole life seemed to be turning into one of those dreams where you put out your foot and it lands in a plate of porridge.
          How on earth had all this happened? 
          Of course!  The staff suggestion box, Boris making her think that they had to have a spa, so he must have set his horrible brain to work to create an impression of trillions of visitors, even in January so Mr Peters would lend them some wampum.
          For no reason at all Biddy found herself removing a handkerchief from her handbag, and then putting it back, because she didn’t want to blow her nose, she just wanted Mr Peters to go.  Panic had induced in her the idea that waving a hankie at Mr Peters might make him leave.  Oh dear, everything at Hartley House that afternoon had become not just cold, and filled with smoke from the fire, but too tiring for words.  What with Tom’s friends dressing up and stinking of moth balls, and Boris being intransigent about his buttons.  In the basement the newly installed pump, installed against all flooding emergencies, suddenly sprang into noisy life as, thankfully, so did Mr Peters.
          ‘Well, you must be doing well, if you even have visitors at this time of year.’ He put his hands together, briefly, in a praying position and lowered his nose on to them. ‘So. Yes. Good idea to put in a swimming pool, and sauna, and make a spa, Mrs Checkendon, a very good idea.  Put the figures in front of me and I will consider a loan.  Must hurry off.  Please thank Batman, and tell him only sorry not to have met Robin.’
          He went off to his car, his shoulders still shaking with laughter at his own joke.
          Biddy watched him driving away before turning back to the house.  She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, to be happy or unhappy that Mr Peters might give them a loan for.  What she did know was that at the earliest opportunity she was going to get hold of Boris and Tom and box their ears.
          ‘Mrs Checkie crossy?’
          Boris had his fur lined hood up once more.
          ‘You can say that again –’
          ‘Mrs Checkie crossy.’
          ‘No, Boris, not like that – ’
          ‘How to say then?’
           ‘Oh, never mind.’
           Biddy sank down behind her reception desk once more.  The fire in the drawing room had stopped smoking for a very good reason, it had gone out.  She switched her desk heater back on, the hot air turning her feet, almost at once, into small balls of fire.  Her telephone rang.  She picked it up slowly, expecting not just bad news, but something really calamitous like Mr Peters’ car had broken down in the drive and he would need to stay to tea while he waited for the AA.
          ‘Hallo?  Hartley House?’
          ‘Hallo?  Yes, I saw your advertisement in SUS magazine, and was wondering if you could tell me a little more about it?’
          ‘Certainly, how can I help?’
          A feeling of blessed relief ran through Biddy as she realised that it was not Mr Peters, and he had not broken down.
          ‘What I was wondering was, do you have any spa facilities, swimming pool, sauna, hot stone massages, that sort of thing?’
           Biddy stared ahead of her.  Boris was once more seated in front of her desk, he was watching her intently, one of his Army boots tapping incessantly on the floor. It stopped tapping as Biddy thought for a moment.  She could not, would not say the ‘spa’ word in front of Boris. It would give him too much authority. 
          ‘No, I am afraid not.’
          ‘Oh well, thank you.’
          Biddy replaced the telephone as the phone the other end went dead.
Boris’ foot immediately stopped its tapping.
          ‘Visitor not interested?  Visitor wanted spah perhaps?’
Biddy could not lie.  It was not in her nature.  She stared out of the window before replying. 
          ‘Well, yes.’
          Boris stood up, and then wandered off, humming happily.
          Biddy stared out of the window into the garden.  It was raining again, and it was freezing cold, except in the area of her tights. She would now have to telephone round for estimates for pools and saunas and doubtless power showers, changing room facilities, and hot stones, whatever they were.  She took a peppermint out of the bowl left over from the summer - understandably it was very old. She heaved a vast edition of the Yellow Pages on to the desk in front of her and started to look up ‘sauna’ and then ‘swimming pool’. 
          ‘Hallo, Party Pools?  Hallo, Hartley House calling.’
          Why did she say that?  If her lower regions hadn’t been so hot, Biddy would have kicked herself.  ‘Hartley House calling’ made the place sound like a space ship.
          ‘Yes, this is Hartley House,’ Biddy went on. ‘We are seeking estimates for putting in a spa, a sauna, a swimming pool, and so on.  I wonder if you might like to come and advise us.’
           The gentleman concerned would, indeed he sounded so enthusiastic Biddy was sure that when he finally turned up his tan would be so bright, his hand shake so firm,  and his teeth so white she would have to wear dark glasses.
           She was not wrong.

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