Celebrity is mother to a whole family of fresh obligations, but also to unsought opportunities and painful encounters. It clogs one’s relationships, requiring bizarre remedies.
Soft cushions cradled my bottom and back. The floor at my feet was chequered with black and yellow tiles, each colour veined with the other. Finding the scheme a little hard on my eyes, I afforded the glass panels above our heads the briefest of glances. Dazzling sunshine cascaded through the brightly polished panes. Lowering my vision once more, I took in the large and luxuriant plants all about. Their foliage hid a gardener who whistled discordantly, and whose tools squeaked and clattered. Tuerqui, my sole visible companion, sharpened her pencil with a small clasp knife, creating a slight scraping sound as she did so.
It was Sorday, the First of Glarehaze in Year Forty-six.
An open conservatory window admitted a breeze strong enough to set in motion the skirt of my lightweight summer dress. The soft, almost gauzy, fabric tickled my thighs. It was an expensive, if insubstantial, garment – selected in the hope of making a favourable impression on a member of one of the old families. Had it suffered during my bus journey? No sign of a smut met my eye. Nor could I detect any crumples. In spite of that, my anxiety was exacerbated, rather than allayed.
Unbidden, an image came to mind of my hostess bending me over her lap for a spanking. What had prompted that idea? Had I read or heard anything untoward about the lady? If so, I couldn’t place whatever it was. But suppose, I thought, she really was of savage temper, just suppose… Could I have done anything to anger Miss Tigerfang? Perhaps my intimation of corporal punishment was merely a sudden mindfulness of the way in which my skirt fluttered at the tiniest breath. Neither, I reflected, did the underwear below have much substance: a wisp; little more than a hint of fabric. Why, I wondered, regretting my choice for the first time, had I not selected more solidly constructed briefs? How miniscule an effort would it take to disarrange my clothing? Should anyone decide upon a course of old fashioned retribution, perhaps the merest whisper might bare my bottom for chastisement.
My hand slipped into my shoulder bag, its strap slung over a decorative feature – a fan of metallic leaves – at the back of the heavy white-painted iron chair. A copy of my first book met my questing fingers. Perhaps I should extract the volume, to check what I’d implied, so many years before, about Victoria Tigerfang. Whilst I could recall the main burden of the text well enough, I wondered whether I’d conveyed an impression of the then young woman that might have angered my hostess. Possibly, her leaving us before completing the interview indicated that she had taken offence. More likely, I attempted to reassure myself, she really had an urgent matter to which to attend. Whatever the truth, a rational inner voice asserted, it was surely all but inconceivable that she’d actually spank me. Yet, I knew, intuition often speaks more truly than reason.
Rather than express my doubts, I asked Tuerqui: “What are you doing with your pencil shavings?”
“Catching them in my lap,” she replied. “I’ll put them in my bag when I’m done. Littering the Tigerfang conservatory wouldn’t…”
“Go down very well?” I suggested, as my companion paused in mid sentence.
“It’s not like one of the glasshouses back home. If we were there, I’d probably drop the shavings into a plant pot.”
“Yeah, perhaps we shouldn’t make ourselves too much at home.”
“On the other hand, Jane, the interview has maybe got off to an overly stiff and formal start.” She read from her shorthand transcript: “Miss Tigerfang, as you may be aware, a play based upon my first volume of reminiscences…”
“It does sound a bit pompous,” I admitted, “like a thruppenny ha’penny public lecture.”
“A thruppenny ha’penny one?”
“Yeah. Puffed up above the tuppenny level, but too cheap to be properly human.”
“Well, it’s not all as bad as that. With a bit of editing, some of this could fit into your book.”
I’d yet to see the final script, but Olivia Tullingham, a rising dramatist, had adapted my first book into a play. At first diffidently, and then more insistently, my publisher had requested a further manuscript from me. Their idea had been to release the new volume to coincide with the opening of the drama. This not only imposed a tight schedule, but excluded my first thought – to write another collection of reminiscences, which would centre upon auditioning the actresses. On Midsummer’s Day, Daisy Diamond had suggested the solution: a set of interviews with women who would, or might, be portrayed in the stage adaptation. That same day, the project had made an excellent start, with Tuerqui generously and unstintingly providing her shorthand skills. It was a great help that a significant number of those to whom I needed to speak were spending the holiday in the Belle House. A little more than a week into the process, I had more than half of the material I needed, at least in embryonic form. Pleased with this fine start, Tuerqui and I had gone to Berenice to continue our efforts. Perhaps because I knew the fresh interviewees less well, the undertaking in the Imperial capital had made slower progress. That day’s task, speaking with Victoria Tigerfang, had yet to appear as much of a success. After half an hour or so, our hostess had excused herself to attend, as she said, to a piece of urgent business.
I asked: “How many pages do you think we could rescue?”
“Pages of your book, or of my shorthand?”
“Of the book.”
“Three or four, at a guess.”
“Maybe that’s enough. After all, Miss Tigerfang can play no more than a small part in the drama – if she appears at all.”
Forty-one years earlier, Miss Victoria Tigerfang, Lady Victoria Tigerfang as she’d been before the abolition of such titles, had been a tennis champion. Since Her Majesty Berenice the First desired me soaking in sweat, she’d had the titleholder play a game with me in which I’d scarcely been able to return a single ball. Until this day, that had been my sole direct contact with the once celebrated sportswoman. Her mother had been a member of one of the old families – rewarded rather than disgraced because she’d possessed the foresight to aid the Empress’ rise to power. My aristocratic hostess scarcely moved in the same circles as me, although I’d taught maths in the Belle House school to Victoria’s niece Lizzie, and three or four other younger members of their family. Miss Tigerfang’s agreement to the interview, arranged by my publisher, had surprised me.
“You think wretched Olivia… what’s her name…?” This was Miss Tigerfang’s voice, unexpected, from just behind my left shoulder. It made me jump.
Tuerqui, evidently less surprised that me, supplied the name: “Tullingham.”
“You think wretched Olivia…” Victoria Tigerfang repeated, “whatever-her-name-is will have the blasted cheek to cut me out of her tuppenny-ha’penny drama?”
“You made a brief appearance in the first draft of the play,” I explained, “but Jennifer Trott…”
“Who, in the name of every goddess of the Tigerfang chapel, is she?”
“The impresario,” I replied, “the woman who…”
“I know what an impresario is. More to the point, what did she do?”
“She scribbled in the margin: drop this character.”
“My character?” Then, glancing at Tuerqui, who had returned to her shorthand transcript: “I hope you’re getting all this down.”
“Every word,” Tuerqui assured her. “It’s the most lively part of the interview so far.”
“I’ll say it is. This Jane Brewster…” She tapped my shoulder. “…may have been all very well in pleasing Her Majesty in the bedroom, and when it came to teaching my nieces trigonometry, but she doesn’t seem much of an interviewer.”
“I’m sorry,” I apologised. “The ladies I interviewed, at first, were all people I knew quite well, and…”
“…and,” Tuerqui continued, “she interviewed them in the Belle House. This place is a bit…”
“Intimidating?” Miss Tigerfang asked, stepping toward her chair. Then, without waiting for an answer: “In this age of eaquellety, the family had to give up the mansion near Chattem, and three or four other places, but Tigerfang Towers is quite a pile, eh?”
After the Temple of Every Goddess, the Imperial University and the Palace Imperial, Tigerfang Towers was probably the fourth most impressive structure, or cluster of structures, in the greater Berenice area. That morning, Tuerqui and I had ridden the Twenty-four bus out to its terminus at Tyler’s Corner, a road junction just beyond the city limits. The right hand turn would have led us to a chicken farm run by Spanqumi’s daughter Heather, and her partner Carol. We had taken the left fork, by a warehouse marked with the name of Jane Lambourne and Daughter. Stepping into an entirely rural landscape, we were soon beyond sight of the commercial building. Our walk proved longer than I’d expected. The custodian of the red brick gatehouse was clearly surprised that we’d arrived on foot. She conveyed us in a pony and trap along an undulating drive set about with horse pasture and noble trees. An occasional half ruined fountain hinted that these had once been carefully manicured lawns.
“Yes,” I acknowledged, “it’s quite a pile.”
“Anyway…” Miss Tigerfang brushed my thigh as she passed. Had that, I wondered, been a deliberate act? It felt like a caress, far removed from chastisement. For all of that, failing to find any trace of comfort, I hastened to rearrange my skirt. My hostess regarded me with an unreadable expression. A moment later, she dropped herself into a chair. “…this blasted impresario… what’s her name…?”
“Jennifer Trott,” I replied.
“My dear Miss Brewster, I wasn’t actually asking for her name, which is a matter of supreme indifference to me. What was I saying?”
Tuerqui supplied the answer: “This blasted impresario…”
“Thank you, Tuerqui. At least you have a bit of sense. That time I was asking. Anyway, as I was saying, I gather that this blasted impresario has had the cheek of an Old Time blasphemer to drop my character from the play.”
“Yes,” I replied succinctly.
“What is the point in having a play that includes an incident from my life, but doesn’t have an actress portraying me?”
“Your character,” I explained, “was only to be on stage briefly. The impresario didn’t think it worthwhile to take on an actress just for that part. Now, there are some actresses who play several minor parts…”
“Are you implying, Miss Brewster, that I’m a minor part? Are you aware that I was All Empire tennis champion three years running, or that I served eight years as a Deputy, five of them as Minister for War…?”
“Of course,” I conceded, “you’ve had an illustrious career, and your mother, before you…”
“Too right! And who are you, Jane Brewster?”
“I’m the author,” I replied, “of three influential and well received books. My mother is an important gynogenesis scientist, one of the pioneers. Back in Windrush, The Hour magazine included both of us in their list of the hundred women who made our Empire…”
“Both of us?” Miss Tigerfang asked.
“My mother and me, who else, you nitwit?”
“Nitwit!” she repeated, before laughing heartily.
“I’m in my mid fifties…” I preferred not to cite my precise age, which some might have regarded as my late fifties. “…when I was younger, I’d have said something a whole lot worse.”
“Cunt-arsing fuckwit, perhaps.”
“Maybe when I was about eleven. Was that…?”
“A quote, or almost so, from your first book, Miss Brewster.”
“So, you know my work?”
“Of course I do. Who doesn’t? In the Windrush number of The Hour magazine, you were listed as one of the hundred women who made our Empire.”
“So how come did you ask who I was?”
“Perhaps, I was starting to doubt the estimable-seeming magazine, wondering when you’d show a bit of spirit.”
“I think,” I admitted, “that I’ve felt at somewhat of a disadvantage ever since I arrived.”
“In awe, maybe, of Tigerfang Towers?”
“Quite possibly, your gatekeeper…”
“Gatekeeper? You must mean my niece, Louise. She lives in the lodge… at the far end of the drive.”
“Is that who she was? You must thank her, on our behalf. She was kind enough to drive us up to the front door in a pony and trap.”
“You arrived on foot? Great goddesses! Did you walk all the way from Berenice?”
“Only from Tyler’s Corner,” Tuerqui said. “We caught the number Twenty-four bus.”
“That’s far enough! It never occurred to me that two such celebrities wouldn’t have their own transport.”
“We live in Essex,” Tuerqui explained, “at the Belle House, and took the train to Berenice.”
“You must bear with me, I’m afraid, if I haven’t quite got my head around the railway age. I’m a relic – a survivor from the ruin of the old families. We once actually owned this house.”
“We still do,” Tuerqui corrected her. “We as an Empire, that is.”
“Of course, Tuerqui. Just for the moment, I was thinking of we, the Tigerfang family.”
“It must be hard,” I said, “to see your family’s former wealth and power stripped away.”
“We get by. We’re not actually poor.”
“I was a cart slave,” Tuerqui continued, “back in the Surrey Democracy. Nobody, today, is poor in the sense of the wretches before the Empire.”
“Quite. And the Tigerfangs do very nicely, even by the standards of the age of eaquellety.”
“Because,” I extrapolated, “your mother supported Her Majesty in her rise to power.”
“She saw that it was always best to be on the winning side, and not to be too late showing your allegiance, even if that meant a slight risk.”
“Yes,” Tuerqui agreed, “I don’t think that many of the old families live in such large houses – albeit your former lawns are now used for horse pasture.”
“We have to support ourselves. Even with steam-snorting behemoths ruling the railways, there’s still plenty of demand for horses. In any case, Tuerqui, you come from Essex aristocracy, I believe, and still live in your ancestral home.”
“Her Majesty’s humour sent us there. It’s a gynogenesis community. Only me, my daughters and my granddaughters have any family connection with the earls of the East Wood.”
“You have great granddaughters, too,” I reminded her.
“But none of them… or none of them yet… live in the Belle House.”
“Do many of your family,” I asked Victoria, with the idea of setting the interview back on track, “live at Tigerfang Towers?”
“The whole tribe of us, pretty well. Everyone who lives here is family, or extended family.”
“None of them are servants? The girl tending the conservatory plants, maybe.”
“My great niece Woodbine. Back in the day, such work might have been done by slaves.”
“It’s not as bad as all that,” said a youthful voice from behind a large and bushy plant. “I like gardening.”
“In any case,” Victoria Tigerfang continued, “these days, every slave is a felon convicted under Imperial justice. However work-shy the Tigerfangs were, we wouldn’t be allowed to keep the rascals so close to Berenice.”
“And,” her great niece Woodbine added, without emerging from the shrubbery, “we can sleep easier in our beds for that.”
“All the slaves, these days,” Tuerqui added, “are what they called badlings, when I was enslaved. I was a fairling, seized for no more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“A bit more than that,” I demurred, “you were an enemy’s daughter.”
“Not enough,” Victoria said, “to rob her of the fairling status. She was quite a different class of bondling from the villains they enslave these days.”
“Thank you,” Tuerqui said. “But perhaps we should get back to the interview.”
“Do you remember your first meeting with me?” I asked. “When we…”
“Very clearly,” Victoria replied. “I don’t think that I ever played anyone who was such a perfect rabbit at tennis.”
“I wasn’t all that good,” I admitted. “At least not on the tennis court.”
“And the rest! Good job the object of the exercise was just to work you up into a sweat Her Majesty could savour.”
“My tennis things seemed a bit tight.”
“I had a good eye for a girl’s sizes, if I do say so myself.”
“So you’re saying the things were my size?”
“Of course not. I’m not about to offend the goddesses by filling my mouth with lies. I aimed for the snuggest fit you could possibly get into.”
“To make me sweat more?”
“That, and I thought it would please Her Majesty to see you in snugly fitting things. They showed off your girlish curves nicely, and certainly pleased me.”
“So you fancied me?”
“Oh, yes. I think I might have said so at the time. But one doesn’t nibble at the Empress’ banquet on its way to the table. You’ve filled out a bit since then, but I reckon that tight tennis gear might still suit you.”
“I’d like to see that,” Tuerqui said, glancing up from her shorthand.
“You know…” Victoria Tigerfang looked at me carefully, as though assessing my dress size. “…I think I might have the things to kit her out.”
“Moving on…” I began, intent upon posing another interview question.
My voice faltered as Miss Tigerfang rose from her chair. Something in her manner disconcerted me. Two short steps brought her torso within a foot or two of my face. Reaching out, she cupped my breasts with her hands. It was as though she were attempting to determine their weight. My thought was of a shopper assessing fruit for possible purchase. With a wriggle, I attempted to evade her grasp. She leaned closer to me, intensifying the intimate contact. Raising my own hands, I removed hers from my person. Her response was to wrap her arms about my shoulders, and kiss me on the lips. While she failed to insert her tongue into my mouth, it seemed to me that the contact was more sexual than affectionate.
“Attractive as you might be,” I said, ducking from her embrace, “I have a life partner.”
“She’s not here, is she?”
“No, she was going to buy a few things… or maybe it was just window shopping… on Market Street.”
“What she doesn’t see… and I don’t expect Tuerqui would tell.”
“I wouldn’t,” Tuerqui replied, “unless Nicola asks. I’m not going to lie, but there’s no point in needlessly upsetting anyone.”
“I’d tell Nicola,” I said. “In fact, I’ll have to tell her what you just did. Secrets are poison to a relationship.”
“If you’re going to tell her anyway, you may as well be enslaved for forging a treasury bill as for minting a dud farthing.”
“There was a time, Jane,” Tuerqui reminded me, “when you had a bit of a reputation as a floozy.”
“All the more reason,” I insisted, “not to do anything of which Nicola would disapprove.”
“Are you, at least,” Miss Tigerfang asked, “going to try on some snugly fitting tennis things? Or is there no fun in you at all, any more?”
“Are you joking?” I asked.
“No, I’m serious.”
“Serious fun,” Tuerqui remarked. “Humph!”
“I don’t,” I replied stiffly, to Miss Tigerfang’s suggestions, “think that’s very appropriate. I came here to conduct an interview, not…”
“What harm,” Tuerqui asked, “could a bit of dressing up do?”
“Miss Tigerfang might take advantage of the moment to…”
“Suppose,” Victoria said, “I promised to be good?”
“Be good? Do you even know how?”
“You, Jane Brewster…” Miss Tigerfang knitted her brows in what I took to be mock anger. “…deserve a spanking for that.”