The door opened into a room that may have been used originally to hold formal functions, meetings, and possibly battle-plans. The roof was well beyond touching distance for me, and the large bay-windows gave enough light to see the large, well-organised selections of toys, books and games that seemed to cover half the room.
Lord Sutherham had edged away so that he could watch me with the girls. I was a little uncertain of how to start talking to them; they were sitting in opposite corners of the room playing with various gadgets and toys with no real interest. I saw a fresh deck of cards on a shelf above an ornate fireplace, pulled out the pack and made a loud snap noise with them as I riffled the deck. It seemed to awaken them both and they turned around.
"I'm Bill - your father asked me to meet you both. Anyone know any good card games?" I asked with a disarming smile. The girls scrutinised me with steely looks, but the cards had caught their attention. I dealt out 3 sets of 5 cards face-down, and another set face-up in the middle.
"This one is called... well I can't tell you the name because I can't pronounce it, but it's kind of like poker. You swap a card from the middle, or if you want, all five of them at once, and try to get the best hand. If one person says "stick", the others have to take another turn and we show our cards. Anyone feel like playing?" I asked.
The smaller girl advanced, took a tiny seat at the tiny table, and picked up her cards. I crouched down so I was at the right level and her sister grabbed the third hand. "Okay, help me out - I don't know your names yet, but if you could go first..."
"Annabelle," said the younger girl with a smile.
"Annabelle, and remember you put down a card before you pick up another, that's how I was taught to do it."
"So I'd put down all my cards first if I wanted to pick up the lot?" she asked.
"If you wanted, but only if you think it's better than what you have in front of you," I told her, because the cards in the middle weren't much good. She dropped her cards into the middle, and I saw she had a pair of eights, which would have given her a straight if she picked up either.
"I'm glad I'm not playing you girls for money, but I think I'll pick up all your cards now," and I dropped my cards on the table. She growled, then giggled at me. I hoped that meant I had one seal of approval, but her sister had been completely silent until now.
"Stick," she said without ceremony. I motioned to Annabelle to take another card, and she gave herself a high pair. I picked up a 3 to give me two-pair, which beat her hand. "Okay, we both took our turns. Let's show our cards."
I put mine on the table, Anna groaned and threw in her cards the way a world-weary Texan would in a high-stakes poker tournament. After a very long pause, the older girl flipped over her hand to show a flush. "Luck of the draw, I guess. Want to play for money next time?" she asked with a slight smirk.
"Why didn't you tell me your sister was a card sharp?" I whispered to Anna loudly enough for everyone to hear. "I think it would be a good idea if I took a look around this house. I bet you girls know all about it, better than anyone else... all the hiding places, the secret passages, the treasure... why don't you show me around?"
The girl who had just hammered me at poker shrugged her shoulders and got up from her chair. "If it's okay with Daddy. I'm Shareen, by the way."
The girls motioned for me to walk with them out to the garden, and Sutherham put a hand on my shoulder. "Shar never talks to anyone unless she thinks she likes them. You may just get through this interview in one piece. Pretty cheeky to teach them B******d Poker in front of their Dad though."
I was blushing all the way to the garden, where the girls showed me their horses. I still didn't enjoy being around massive creatures with metal feet that licked me whenever I let down my guard, but the love Annabelle and Shareen showed these animals was infectious (like whatever diseases lay in horse saliva, I think). We returned to the main house after a few minutes and the current butler was waiting there with an expectant look on his face.
"You've survived the first few minutes, they showed you the horses, and 'er Ladyship seems to think you're not some rotten little oik," he said in his normal Cockney tones. "Don't cock this up in the next few minutes, and I'll be able to retire at long last."
"I'll do my best - no-one can promise more, right?" I said with a half-smile. The old man seemed to be relying on me heavily; I didn't want to be a let-down.
Back at the house, I thought there would be more interviews and tests to perform, just to make sure I was worthy of taking care of this man's house and family. He sat me down at the kitchen table and looked at me long and hard for what seemed an eternity.
"The only reason I'm not going to hire you right now is that I don't have a full criminal records check on you. Will there be any skeletons hiding in your past that you don't want me to find out about?" he asked.
"Truthfully, I've led a quiet sort of life. You might not be able to get a great reference for me - I wandered around a lot and always did the best job I could - but you won't find anything I haven't already admitted."
"That's what I thought. I can't offer you the job yet - my wife would probably kill me - but I would like you to take some money from me, hand in notice at your current job and use the two items in this folder," he replied, and slid a manila-coloured file across the well-worn tabletop. I opened it and found a cashier's cheque and the business card for a butler's school.
"How long does the course last?" I asked, seeing the large number on the cheque. I was worried I would run out of money to cover myself during the lengthy course.
"It takes as long as required for you to become competent with all the skills of the job - bright lad like you could finish in a weekend, which means you'll probably have a few days to yourself. Call it a paid holiday."
He made a faint grunt as we both stood, me holding the folder tightly in both hands. I was still incredulous about the possibility of getting a job without having to answer dumb questions, give countless references, fill out a thousand forms and all the other red tape that irritated me in every other new job. "Are you sure you want to get me trained? What if I fail?"
"I hadn't considered that you would. Sylvia has a very high success rate, and I have seen no-one better since I started interviews 6 long months ago." He shook my hand and took me to the rear of the house.
"She will be expecting you on Friday night - bring several suits, some casual gear, an overnight bag and whatever else you need to survive in an unfamiliar place. Make sure you see your predecessor before you leave - he'll have some advice, I'm sure."