The subject of this quip flashed Lord Buckingham a look that may have indicated the onset of inner passion or may have simply been the main course repeating on her. "I have another story," she said, abruptly, and her eyes took on the hue and hardness of prison-house bluestone as outside, beyond the heavy curtains, a storm announced its arrival with a crash of thunder and a primitive dance through the normally genteel willows that Lord Buckingham had had planted in honour of his dead marmot, Phillip.
"My dear," said Lord Buckingham, holding Miss Hathaway's gaze with his own, "we should be delighted to hear more."
"I must warn you that it may be considered inappropriate by our present company." Miss Hathaway looked at each of her dinner companions in turn, before returning her stare to Lord Buckingham, who smiled thinly and said:
"We are all adults here, Miss Hathaway, and I dare say that those of us who served in the Transvaal would have witnessed worse atrocities on our morning visits to the latrine than could issue from the mouth of one as lovely and innocent as yourself."
"Very well," said Miss Hathaway, her voice trilling with restrained emotion. "I will tell all, and d---- the consequences!" The candles guttered, as they often do in Jamesian framing devices like this, and Miss Hathaway raised herself in her chair, cleared her throat, and proceeded to speak:
Five years ago, although it feels a good deal longer, I ran away from home. It was a foolish thing to do, but I was a foolish girl at the time, and I had my reasons, however misguided. Cut off from my family's support, I attained work as a salesgirl at a suburban pet store. It was hard, back-breaking work, and my employer, a Mr Berns, was a bitter, damaged man, with eyes only for his profits. The other staff were variously unpleasant, although one young man, Tom was his name, exhibited a kindness and warmth - not to mention a corset-wettening sense of humour - that set him apart from the others. We became firm friends, a relationship that was cut tragically short when he was arrested for impersonating the Prime Minister's tailor.
Every day degradation piled upon degradation, yet still I persisted in turning up for work, so certain was I that my chosen path was correct, although I concede it may have been pride that drove me on. Mr Berns was not unkind, as such, but certainly uncaring, and in the course of my duties I was forced into many unpleasant situations, most of them involving dried pig ears. I mourned constantly for Tom, who had been sentenced to twenty years hard labour at Movie World on the Goldcoast. Finally, something happened that caused me to leave Mr Berns's employ and return to my family, cap in hand, on my knees, with my lips pre-puckered in anticipation of a lengthy episode of arse-kissing.
It was a Tuesday, and I had just finished my usual morning task of removing the accumulated lumps of dried kangaroo meat from the floor of the back room. A customer entered and I went into the shop proper to run once more through the routine of serving. Most customers come and go without impressing themselves at all upon one's mind, but some one will remember, I am sure, until the day one dies. This particular customer falls into the latter category, and the reasons why I shall remember him thus it is now my intention to relate.
For one thing, this young man - whose hairy, unkempt visage reminded one of the heathen barbarians one learned about in school, Attila and so on - this young man was stoned out of his mind. No, Captain Paisley, I do not mean he had some kind of basalt formation in place of his brain, but that he had been smoking "the green stuff", and not only that but inhaling it as well. This is virtually unknown in England, of course, but in Australia it is quite common amongst the lower classes, most of whom are direct descendents of either convicts or Jamaican dub musicians, and in a few unfortunate cases both. The drug caused him to be slow-witted and not a little irritating, but it was not this that I took exception to: rather, it was his dog.
Ah yes, his dog. It was an Australian Bulldog, akin to an English Bulldog but with an insatiable appetite for bad lager and bunyip meat. This particular specimen was large enough and ugly enough to have sent any of its English cousins crying for Queen Victoria. I approached it warily and it sniffed me with equal caution, before apparently declaring me fit to live and getting on with the business of trying to shoplift as much edible and semi-edible stock as possible.
Ever the professional, I asked the customer in what way I could be of assistance. He replied that his dog, which laboured under the sobriquet "Francesca", was leaking. I told him it was natural for bulldogs to salivate excessively, but this wasn't at all what he meant.
"Nah," he said, his blood-shot eyes almost inverting to stare deep into his empty skull as he spoke, "nah, she's got fuckin' blood and shit comin' out of her cunt!"
You must pardon my language, which I use only for the purposes of narrative verisimilitude. My first inclination, as you might imagine, was to ask this young man to leave. However, Mr Berns would not look kindly upon such an action as it would deprive him of the profits, present and future, of this particular customer. So I was forced to carry on as though I shared my customer's easy familiarity with the f-, s- and c-words.
I asked him to clarify his statement, and he, pausing to rest his over-heated brain every few seconds, invited me to examine the creature's nether regions myself. Warily, I moved to the rear of the dog, and saw that the beast's swollen pudenda were indeed emitting certain viscid fluids, mostly on to that area of the shop's floor where I had just mopped that morning. Luckily, I had an easy answer.
"Sir," I said, "as unlikely as it sounds we do happen to have in stock a range of sanitary undergarments for menstruating dogs. Each undergarment comes with a specially-designed insert or "pad" that can be replaced when its work is done. I believe our new range of pads have a core of sphagnum for extra absorption and come in a range of colours to suit your dog's individual personality."
The customer reflected upon this for a moment, scratched his beard, then his testicles, before replying:
"Ah, yeah...like, but what about...uh...the thing is...can you fit her for them? The, ah, the pants I mean."
Well, what could one do? With Mr Berns making himself conspicuous and other customers beginning to take an interest in the bleeding animal, I had to oblige his request. I removed a pair of sanitary undergarments from the shelf (we were normally obliged to attempt to up-sell canine corsets and brassieres to customers of this particular product, but I could not face fitting more than one item of intimate canine apparel), and approached the dog.
"I'll pat her, um, head while you deal with the other end," offered the customer, scratching his own other end with nicotine-stained fingers. I grunted assent (most unladylike, I know, but justified under the circumstances) and moved towards the beast's hind-quarters.
I own that what confronted me there was nothing more nor less than my worst nightmare become real. I have never been comfortable with my own private parts, let alone those of other species, and although I felt some sort of empathy for this suffering female, I struggled to keep my bile from rising.
(Incidentally, I dread to think what would have happened had my co-worker, Gilda, encountered this customer instead of myself. Gilda is a member of a strict religious sect that proscribes, amongst other things, the eating of stone fruit on Thursdays, the performance of fellatio on men named Trevor after two p.m., and the fitting of canine sanitary equipment at any time without the written permission of an ordained minister.)
In fairness, Francesca was as well-behaved as any sentient creature that is not only suffering the curse but is having to put up with a stranger rummaging around its privates can possibly be expected to be. The process of fitting the sanitary undergarment was long and involved, and required one to put one's hand - indeed one's face - where one's hand - and indeed one's face - should really never go. Eventually I got the device strapped on, and with the insert or "pad" busy soaking up Francesca's discarded ovum I returned my attention to the customer.
"It's, ah...it's good," he said, squeezing his eyes closed and shaking his head. "The only thing is, right, I haven't got any...ah...you know...uh?"
"Money?" My heart sank as I uttered the word.
"Yeah! That's it dude - money!" He licked his lips in a most ungentlemanly fashion. "I haven't got any. Money."
"So," I said, getting to my feet, away from the nuzzling dog, "you won't actually be purchasing the sanitary undergarments I have just spent a particularly uncomfortable half an hour fitting, and that are as we speak being soiled with the menstrual blood of your ill-bred mutt, meaning that if you don't purchase them now they will have to be discarded and the shortfall - that is, the wholesale price of the item - will be deducted from my salary, thus leaving me short for the week and unable to feed myself?"
"Then may I suggest that you, sir, get the--"
Of course I cannot go on. What I said that day was unbecoming for a lady, and oughtn't be repeated amongst such distinguished company. But on that very day I handed my notice to Mr Berns, who made a great show of capitalist martyrdom by complaining for several hours about my leaving him in the lurch, before returning to my family, and thence to the world of society of which you, my friends, are yourselves the crowning members.
Outside the thunder continued its ineffectual atmospheric bullying, and the rain hammered into the croquet lawn, but inside there was only silence as the dinner guests absorbed Miss Hathaway's tale between mouthfuls of graham pudding. Only Mrs Kirkby, who was ninety-seven and deaf, remained unaffected, and sat smiling as though the story just related had been a harmless children's tale rather than one of unremitting horror. Finally, apparently feeling it his duty as host, Lord Buckingham spoke.
"Miss Hathaway, I suspect I speak for everybody present when I say that that was truly a disgusting story. True, yes, I don't doubt it. Well-told, certainly, and I don't begrudge you your skill with narrative. But disgusting also, and in this aspect overwhelming of all others, and therefore precisely what I desire from a dinner guest."
Miss Hathaway executed a small seated bow, and smiled at the peer.
"I hadn't expected such a reaction," she said. "In fact, I rather thought I would be endangering my future in this country by telling it."
"Nonsense," said Lord Buckingham. "If there is nothing else we British enjoy it is a good animal-menstruation story. Why General Rigid here has a dozen of the things, don't you Ridgy? Of course you do! Now, let's all regurgitate dinner and then we fellows will remove to the drawing room for cigars. I've got an excellent tale about a lactating squirrel I'm just dying to tell!"
And so the evening, rather than ending, was actually just beginning, and Kate Hathaway found that she could relax for the first time since arriving in England, knowing that her popularity was assured for ever more.
For Kate, who has been there, done that.