Agnes chatted about her latest artworks as she drove recklessly, circumnavigating the sheep that lazed and wandered along the lanes, apparently content to commit suicide. I wished again that I’d hired a car as we lurched around another shaggy ewe, brushing the overhanging branches of a horse chestnut.
The rusty car had once been British Racing Green, but now the classy paint resembled jungle camouflage. ‘It’s a classic, don’t you know’, Agnes had responded to my look of chagrin.
Meeting me at the isolated train station, she explained that we would lunch at an authentic organic restaurant, with some ‘simply adorable’ people. The restaurant turned out to be as unusual as the artist. At the end of a farm track full of pot holes, all I could see was an old barn and a welcome sign.
Parking was easy. We slid to a halt; the bonnet wedged into a steaming pile of something smelly, next to an aging Jaguar and a black Mini.
Agnes leapt out of the car, her flowing silk scarves and crimson skirt narrowly escaping entrapment in the rusting door.
“Come along Sweetie. I’m so hungry I could eat my easel!” she called, striding energetically through the mud.
I followed, after elbowing the interior of the stuck door several times to release it. She had warned me about its schizophrenic nature but quite frankly I was becoming more concerned with hers.
Once free from the metal prison I immediately regretted wearing my new purple Jimmy Choos. My beautiful designer shoes with their satin ribbons and hand made lace bows sank with an easy sigh into the farmyard ordure.
I’d justified the £300 price tag by convincing myself that Agnes would be impressed by my exquisite and creative taste. If appointed, the investment would be nothing compared to the deferred fame and fortune that being PA to an internationally renowned artist would give.
Sighing and saying goodbye to my footwear and money, I squelched towards my fate, feigning an enthusiastic smile.
“Come on girl!” she yelled, creating a flurry of feathers and squawking as she swished through several somewhat startled chickens.
With a shake of her multi-coloured mane, she entered the barn. Following close behind, I saw four unusual looking people turn to greet us.
“Daaarlings, so glad you could make it. So gorgeous of you to come,” she enthused, air kissing the assembled group.
“Now you simply must say hello to my visitor, but please try not to scare her. Where is dearest Alonso; in the kitchen? I must find him at once.”
My fellow lunch guests regarded me with amusement, confusion, or disregard as our hostess began her search for the cook.
“You an artist then?” asked a young man petulantly, avoiding eye contact behind his curtain of hair.
“No, er, I’ve come for an interview.”
He shrugged acknowledgement and turned away, nervously fingering a sketch book.
“An interview, an interview!” parroted an elderly lady in the manner of Edith Evan’s Lady Bracknell, her eyes dancing frenetically around the restaurant.
“Hello, I’m the Major. Don’t worry about the old bird, she’s as mad as a tree on manoeuvres” quipped an older man, blessed with an ample grey handle bar moustache, stained yellow with pipe tobacco.
The remaining guests were seated and carrying on their own private conversations when Agnes returned.
“Sit girl, sit,” she waved in my direction and at once I found myself inelegantly steered into a seat by the old Major, who immediately sat beside me, smiling just a little too much.
The white haired lady was placed next to me; a faint whiff of something unpleasant surrounding her.
“Where’s my coffee?” she asked.
As I was about to reply, she continued, “I haven’t had my coffee yet.”
“Oh do be quiet Mother,” snapped Agnes before turning her cat like eyes to me “You’re not veggie are you deary, I know how you Londoners can be and I’m just not sure that Alonso could cope?”
“No, I eat anything,” I smiled, lying.
“Jolly good. Now where’s that waitress?”
“I eeez ere, modam” oozed the Eastern European waitress. She almost smiled as she passed the menu, turned her back and left.
I looked around the interior of the restaurant. Unidentifiable farm implements were conspicuously placed near tables and the red brick walls. The grey flagstone floor was swept and the walls were adorned with what appeared to be torture instruments. I surmised from the escaping steam, that the only interior door opened into the kitchen.
The conversation buzzed around and over me. I was beginning to feel invisible when the Major spoke.
“What brings a lovely city filly like you to this neck of the woods?
Ignoring his obvious sexism and ageism, and figuring he was one of Agnes’s friends, I decided to go with the flow.
“An interview as PA. I’ve always admired Agnes and her work.”
“Is my coffee here yet?” interrupted the artist’s mother as the waitress returned with a cafetiere and cups, which she plonked loudly onto the table.
“Your orders, pleez.”
The orders were taken.
Our waitress had little grasp of English and her frequent attempts at clarification simply resulted in further confusion as her thick accent stumbled over the names of the dishes.
“No, no, no. I said steak, well done, not steak wellington,” fumed an overdressed lady wearing a homemade Carmen Miranda style hat, heavily strewn with wild strawberries; complete with roots and occasionally falling nuggets of peat. Her bright, primary coloured flowery dress would have been more at home at an African celebration. Her verdant ensemble possibly explained the chickens that pecked hungrily around her feet.
“This is hopeless,” announced ‘Carmen’, as she stood up and snatched the waitresses pad. Turning to the guests she quickly clarified their orders, thrust the list into the waitresses hand and waived her way without making eye contact.
“You simply can’t get the staff these days. In my day, things were different. One mistake resulted in a day’s wages being lost. No doubt the silly girl has never even heard of Silver Service.”
I became aware that the Major had placed his hand on my knee and was squeezing it rhythmically in time with guffaws at a joke nobody had made. I fixed him with a hard stare, but before I had chance to speak, the hand was gone, pointing at Mother who had finally been poured a cup of coffee.
“Where’s the milk? I need the milk,” she repeated; the volume increasing with her desperation.
“Be patient mother! It will be here soon” called Agnes across the table. Our eyes met, “Sorry darling, I should have left her at home, but you can see how it is. She just can’t be trusted not to burn the place down...I assume you can type and do all that e-mailing and internet stuff, darling. It’s such a tedious bore.”
“Oh yes, no problem. I touch type and I set up a web....”
Agnes had turned to Carmen, oblivious to my reply.
“Darling, what do you think? Will she do? I need a PA who can make a statement.”
“I’m familiar with dealing with the press and TV, so I’m sure I could manage to represent you as you wish,” I interrupted, eagerly self publicising.
Agnes laughed, her trill warble building to an infectious waterfall which spread around the table. I smiled uncomfortably.
“An artistic statement of course, my darling girl! Oh how adorably funny you are. Are you always so witty? You do drive don’t you?”
All eyes had turned to me now, except for Mother, who was on her knees under the table searching for the milk.
“Cars, or golf balls?” I quipped back, pleased with my speedy retort.
“Cars of course, what are you talking about? Are you sure you’re alright?”
“She’s more than alright for me,” the Major smirked, winking at me as he put a flabby arm around my shoulders. Close up, I noticed flecks of saliva clinging stubbornly to his moustache. I grimaced involuntarily and pulled away.
“Oh Major, do try to keep your hands to yourself for once,” scolded Agnes before turning to the sullen young man and talking quietly to his bent head. Occasionally he looked up to glance at me with sharp blue eyes and scan the party, before once more regarding his lap.
Ignored again, I began to wonder how much I wanted this job. Admittedly, the salary was good, Agnes renowned and potentially agreeable to my writing her biography. This eccentric and reclusive artist had so far resisted all media attempts to communicate with her, but maybe I was the girl to reveal all.
“Zee milk is ‘ere modom.” The waitress returned with a jug and a plate of assorted bread rolls which she crashed onto the table. She hurried away before any enquiries as to the imminent arrival of food could be made. It had been thirty minutes since the orders were taken and I was getting hungry.
A cold hand suddenly grasped my ankle under the table. Shocked, I accidentally knocked the milk jug over and triggered further pandemonium.
Under the table, Mother banged her head and cursed loudly. The sullen young man sprang to his feet and began an animated dance, frantically spinning round whilst wiping milk from his velvet jacket. Carmen hurried to the kitchen for a cloth and Agnes laughed, clapping her hands as she did so.
“Not me Agnes. Look. Hands on table!” cried the Major, relieved that for once, he wasn’t the guilty party.
“Mother, get out from under there at once. The milk’s here.” Turning to me, she added “Be a darling and sort her out. She’ll settle down once she’s got her coffee. Now where is that food?”
Carmen reappeared on cue from the kitchen, carrying a cloth and four plates cleverly balanced between her strong fingers. She was being pursued by the waitress who quickly overtook her and tried to wrestle the plates from her hands.
“Take your hands off me and get back to the kitchen at once. That’s all you’re good for, young lady!”
Alonso appeared and deftly loosened the waitress’s grasp on the plates, whilst yelling at her in Croatian. With a scowl and a look that could melt chocolate, she returned to the kitchen, arms waving as she ranted.
“Agnes, I’m soo sorry. What a disaster. What can I say?”
“It’s just theatre darling, don’t worry,” Agnes flashed her green eyes at him, her pupils dilating; “everything will be wonderful!”
Carmen placed the plates on the table. Alonso returned with the remaining meals; red faced, dripping sweat and smelling of burning fat.
It was impossible to work out which meal belonged to whom.
“How creative! Let’s eat some of each and vote on the best one!” exclaimed Agnes.
By now, I no longer cared about food, I just wanted to leave the madness and speak to Agnes alone.
An explosion from the kitchen was followed quickly by Alonso and the waitress bursting through what remained of the door, smoke and flames close behind.
“Fire! Get out, quickly,” screamed Alonso as he made a bee line for Agnes and swept her deftly away from danger.
The Major and I took Mother’s arms and semi-carried her out of the barn, despite her attempts to take the coffee with her. Carmen shrieked her escape, fruit flying; sullen young man following close behind.
“What a hoot,” squealed Agnes “I haven’t had so much fun in ages!”
The restaurant soon became a blazing pyre, its corrugated metal roof collapsing into its belly with a tearing whumph. In the distance sirens sounded.
Agnes turned to me, a bi-polar grin on her face, her eyes dancing.
“I assume you still want the job? It’s yours for the taking, darling.”
I considered my reply. It was still my fantasy job even if it wasn’t quite what I expected.
I smiled enthusiastically, praying the dream wouldn’t be a nightmare after all.
Black-necked Swan (Cygnus melancoryphus)
13 hours ago