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Justine Farnsworth’s Diary: Part 1

And So Tibet

Life for a time passed rather quietly in my Lambeth mansion. Pemsi at first was taken aback, not only by the size of the house but also, I fear, by the state of disrepair the grounds have fallen into. Since the death of my father, Major Farnsworth, I have unfortunately run into some financial difficulties and the old family home is not quite what it was. The house was some time ago deemed unsafe by some “social workers” from the Borough of Lambeth. Why exactly I don’t know; my recollection of the incident is quite hazy. I must admit that at the time I was still somewhat tender from an evening entertaining the men’s squad of the London Rowing Club with the last bottles of Château Cheval-Blanc my father had left me, and I had no time to beat a hasty retreat to the disused oubliettes under the servant’s kitchen when I saw the polyester-clad, clipboard-waving civil servants rounding in.


But, pah! The fence they have erected around the grounds and the jungle that has since freely developed within are nothing to be feared by a seasoned explorer like myself! It is only a question of never venturing out at night, when strange animal cries can be heard even from the padded shelter of the library. Pemsi, however, is still unaccustomed to the local wildlife and so remains slightly nervous. At night, in the little alcove beneath the stairs where I have laid out a mattress for him, he has taken to sleeping with the coal shovel. I wonder what he will think in the winter, when fog surrounds the house and the curious scratching noises seem to be getting closer.


Not much is left of the magnificence of the Farnsworth place, except for the old library. I now sleep in a corner of what was once the ballroom; the rest of the house is either too damp or too ruined to live in. Sometimes, in bed, I am struck with a heavy melancholy and ponder the fate of my family home. How I wish Pemsi had seen it in its former glory! Alas, it is now but a ghost of itself, which I cannot afford to buy back. But all, I hope, is not lost yet. By the greatest of luck, a few years ago, the estate agent hired by the executor stumbled upon the collection of medieval torture instruments assembled by my late mother. It turned out that he himself had always had quite a keen (if confidential) specialist interest in the matter, and the sheer breadth and volume of the collection left him all agog. Now it seems the dear man is even more reluctant to see the house sold than I am! He never quite tires of giving his numerous younger sisters private viewings, and often asks me for help operating some of the more viciously complicated instruments.


The attic where the collection is stored was always one of my favourite hiding places as a child, and I climb up there sometimes, when the house is quiet. I walk among the iron maidens, the choking pears and the bilboes with fond delight, dearly reminiscing about my mother. Thanks to her and a happy meeting of minds the house seems to be safe, at least for now. I dread to think what would happen if it was sold. What would become of the contents of the cave? And, most importantly, what would happen to the books? Despite all this, Pemsi and I were rather happy for the first few months. He turned out to be quite a wonderful cook; and I have by now quite thoroughly trained him in such tasks as mixing my evening cocktails, helping me in the bath, massaging me after a particularly energetic bout of Indian callisthenics, and training my pet badgers to perform simple circus tricks. He also seems to take quite a lot of pleasure out of demonstrating for me the ancient Mongolian art of horse riding. We have no horses on the grounds, but we make do.


I must admit that since my Tibetan adventure, I have taken to dressing in gentleman’s clothes more and more frequently. I find it is much more practical for the vigorous lifestyle the mansion requires, be it hunting strange game in the gardens, sliding down the banister of the main staircase where the steps have given way, wrestling rogue badgers into submission or sawing furniture for the fire. So it is with great joy that some mornings I wake up to find a perfectly tailored three-piece suit at the foot of the bed; Pemsi has become quite skilful at diving into the remnants of my father’s wardrobe and coming back with the most exquisite garments. I am always amazed at his ability to alter them for me without necessitating a single fitting; I dare say the dear boy must know my measurements by heart by now. He seems to take a great pleasure in seeing me so dressed; and I am inclined to put this down to a sentimental yearning for the happy days we spent in Tibet, when men’s clothes were all I wore. Days passed thus in gay abandon.


For a while I congratulated myself on choosing him so well, and was thoroughly content with our life. Alas! It soon became evident that it would be difficult to sustain both of us on the limited amount of money that intermittently came my way. The olives for my martinis were running low, the opium jar was almost empty, and most of all, it was becoming more and more difficult to obtain the imported yak butter Pemsi must have daily for his tea. Without it he gets quite depressed and limp with fatigue, the poor boy. Most of my income stems from letting some of the paler offspring of my father’s friends peruse photographs in the privacy of my library. Most popular among these are the anthropological slides of exotic-looking youths I have collected throughout my travels. But the slides are not quite popular enough to get by, I fear, especially in the summer when my peers retire to the country in order to play tennis and chat with local barrow boys.


I had tried for weeks to have the manuscript of my travel accounts published, without any success. One day, quite dispirited by yet another rejection from a pesky little publishing house, I came at last to that stark conclusion: Pemsi would have to work. I had to find him an occupation where his lack of grasp of the English language would no more be a problem than under my own employ. And so it was that he was hired for a while as a live exhibit in a National History Museum diorama. But to my surprise I found out his wage barely covered the cost of his yak butter cakes. What was I to do about my own necessities? I put pen to paper and made a list of my abilities: an adventurous spirit, a knack for the art of disguise, a fine fencing blade, a firm grasp of Confucianism and badger husbandry, and my new proficiency at wielding the Mongolian riding crop. With all these skills at my disposal, what should my course be? I was truly at a loss.


I have always been a great believer in Dame Chance; therefore, not knowing quite where to turn, I decided to copy the above list and display it on leaflets around the borough, in shop windows and public phone boxes. I was quite adamant that Providence would come my way and send me in the direction of lucky fortune. Unfortunately I must report that my efforts were quite fruitless, since nothing seemed to happen as a result, except for a quite breathtaking increase in the number of mistaken phone calls I now receive. All of them seem to be from rather out-of-breath characters asking me what sort of shoes I am wearing. My spirits were quite sodden by this setback. Alas! I thought, the publishing world was rejecting me, and, now Providence herself seemed to have abandoned her child! And so it was that, as much as I was loath to, I finally decided to call upon my last remaining distant relatives. I had not spoken to any of them since a certain incident involving half of the wind section of the London Philharmonic seven years ago; but I reasoned that after such a long time, perhaps the unfortunate affair would have slipped the mind of the most elderly among them.


This proved to be true, and I soon found myself in the employ of the library section of the London Ladies Circle. I was overjoyed by the prospect. After all, I spend many hours smoking my pipe in the library of my house, quietly humming to myself and stopping occasionally to recover a slim volume from the shelves. Why could I not do this somewhere else, while gaining enough to be able to maintain my life to its proper standard? I scolded myself for having put off contact with my loved ones for so long, and, the day before I was to start, asked Pemsi to lay out the best suit available for me the next morning. My first day at work was a collection of joys and sorrows.


The first of the day’s emotions came as I was in a bath thoughtfully heated up for me by my servant boy with the burning remains of the grand piano. Pemsi had smiled joyfully, skipped to the attic, and come back with the most astounding piece of sartorial elegance I had ever laid eyes on. I must say this endeared me to him so much that I quite forgot the time, and arrived slightly flustered and still a bit wet to the library. Then there was the encounter with Mrs Fitzherbert, who was to be my superior. It all started out quite bluntly with her telling me that my attire was not thought proper for my current employ. I was flabbergasted. A suit from Savile Row! So expertly altered! It soon emerged that Mrs Fitzherbert took exception to the pettiest of things, be it my pipe smoking or my involuntary humming of the theme to “Spartacus” whenever I caught sight of Gregory, the young work placement boy seconding me.


The next two weeks went by in almost unbearable tedium. I tried to pass the time by writing haikus and requesting that Gregory fetch books for me. The sight of his youthfully muscular back, stretching in his effort to grasp a volume I always chose slightly out of his reach, usually drove me to distraction and often prompted me to hum “Spartacus” with even more élan. Gregory seemed increasingly eager to please me and do my bidding, while, in a striking parallel, Mrs Fitzherbert seemed more and more ill humoured, making for quite frosty afternoon teas. Perhaps it was a blessing then, that on a particularly hot afternoon, as the smell of jasmine permeated the stuffy aisles of books and made me somewhat giddy with the feel of summer, I was dismissed, after Gregory was found arched in an unusual position over an ancient print of “The Confession Of Saint Augustine”, now ruined. On second thoughts it might have been Pemsi, choosing that unfortunate moment to burst in with my customary afternoon martini, that might have truly upset Mrs Fitzherbert. The sherpa’s savage fit of jealousy caused him to destroy the entire “Lace & Knitting” section.


I am now writing from my bed. It seems Gregory’s father is quite high up in some government post or other, and as everyone wished to hush this rather silly incident, a substantial sum has been granted to me to go towards my next expedition to the Orient. Somehow, however, I don’t think I will be leaving yet. Pemsi has been punished for his outburst, but I cannot be angry with him for long. He is now chopping up the frame of an old family portrait, and my bath will be ready soon. The golden hues of my first evening cocktail catch the fading sunlight. The smell of opium fills the air. Things stir in the garden.


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