I had 10 minutes to spare before the interview was due to take place, and there is nothing I hate more than to be too early for anything. Hoping desperately that there were no security cameras and guards with tazers ready and waiting, I wandered around the grounds of Finchley Towers taking in as much of the scenery as I could. In the muddy sunshine, the pictures on the internet still did it no justice as a piece of scenery - the flowers, bushes and trees seemed painted onto the earth and the buildings themselves may as well have been constructed yesterday and painted this morning.
I wandered along a pathway leading towards the stables and the scent of hay and something organic that showed the horses were healthy attacked my nose. I could hear some contented whinneying and grunting that I hoped were from the animals themselves, not a stablehand, and decided I would try to steer clear of this part of the grounds wherever possible. Animals seem to understand that I dislike them, and show this by licking me indiscriminately.
The path led round to the back of the manor-house, where I could see a smaller cottage and the arboretum, not to mention a covered pool. I went back to the front of the main building, lifted the giant door-knocker and rapped it sharply on the bronze behind. Footsteps hit the ground at a brisk pace, and the doors both swung open as though they were on ball-bearings and weighed nothing. The lady of the manor smiled broadly before she set eyes on me.
"Who are you?" she demanded. "I hope you aren't a salesperson or a trader."
I remembered what I had been told on the phone about Lady Sutherham - she would only accept me as an employee if I was properly snobby and upper-class. I pulled in my chin, tried to look a little constipated, and said in a plummy tone: "My apologies, my lady - I am here to be interviewed for the butler's position - I believe your husband is expecting me. The name is Bill Travers, I hope I am not too early."
She looked at me in the same way that a doctor would if you advise them of a rash in an awkward place. I felt uncomfortable, and stood rigidly to attention, my hands behind my back, and she did not speak for, I think, a couple of ice-ages.
"As a rule, you really should have gone to the servant's entrance. That is meant to be the protocol - even our paperboy knew that one," she huffed.
"My apologies for the breach, Milady, but I honestly could not find it," I lied with a smile on my face.
"I think you had better come in, after you wipe your shoes on the mat. Try not to touch anything on your way to the study," was the reply.
* * *
I sat in a plush leather chair, shuffling and squeaking while Sutherham prepared for the interview. He summoned me unconventionally by opening the door, peering out and saying: "Let's see what you're made of - come on in."
I shook his hand and sat down in a rickety wooden garden chair in front of his cluttered desk. The man clearly knew what organisation was, and wanted to make sure he kept as far away from it as possible. I liked him immediately.
"Bill, you just got past my wife. She didn't send you away on some random error or slam the door. How the hell did you manage that?" he asked earnestly.
"I-I just stood to attention and pretended like I was posh, and calling her Milady might have helped," I stammered.
"Well, tell me about your experience - you told me you had a lot of jobs in the past, what makes you think we'll keep you for more than a week?" he asked. All of a sudden, I felt like this was a real interview and I had to think carefully.
"I have had jobs in the past - jobs I could do, and forget about after I clocked off for the day. This is a proper career, a vocation, something that I can be proud of." As I said this, he seemed to be unimpressed and more than a little skeptical. "Anyway, if I'm going to be living in the grounds, quitting wouldn't make an awful lot of sense, would it?"
The pause seemed to last for an awkward length of time, and then his face cracked into a broad grin. "You're honest, and that's a very important quality as far as I'm concerned. Tell me you don't have a criminal record, and you'll be more than suitable."
"Well, I have nothing on my record, but I acted out a lot as a kid. There are a few houses in my home town that had to be repainted because of the damage we did to them with spray-cans and toilet paper. I'm not proud of it, if it helps."
"Sounds normal, and probably better than most of the boys who are at school with my daughters. I'll need to do a CRB check on you, but I want to see how you interact with them before I can consider giving you the job." He put on a very serious face and shuffled some papers to show how much this needed to be considered, and then gestured for me to go through a paneled side-door which I hadn't really noticed before.
"Your third challenge awaits, Bill. Don't mess it up with the girls - their opinion counts to me a lot more than anyone else's."