Except, the stairs didn't lead down to the kitchen but into a maze. They went down and up and along and round and through a door which led into what had once been a completely different building.
"Big, isn't it!" said Camellia. "I hadn't realised." And she screwed up her nose. "I think this is the 'ill' bit." Indeed, the smell of disinfectant had become horribly unpleasant and strong. "Let's go back."
So they went back and down and looked in the utility rooms and walk-in linen cupboards and dry food stores and a meter cupboard where the fuses were, and all sorts of places which weren't the kitchen - until, eventually, they came across an elderly lady with a huge handbag in the crook of her arm jumping up and down and trying to see through a square of wired glass in a door a distance ahead of them down a long corridor.
Hugh coughed politely as they came near.
“Hello,” she said, standing still for a moment and turning to greet them. “I’m trying to see in here. You’re new, aren’t you?”
“It's a meeting," said Hugh, bending to look through the glass. "There are eight people round a big table. We're here for a week."
“What kind of a meeting?” asked the lady. “Who’s there? I used to be a bit taller. It's a nuisance being short. Is Mrs Bendicks in there?”
"Yes," said Hugh. "I can see the back of her head."
"Who else, who else?"
"I don't know said Hugh. "Mostly men in suits."
“Brilliant!” exclaimed the old lady - and she pushed in front of him and held onto the narrow wooden frame round the glass and tried to lever herself up onto tip-toes so she could see through too.
Camellia was embarrassed. What if someone came along?
“My name is Camellia Thorncombe,” she said politely. "This is my husband, Hugh.”
The woman stopped bouncing up at the door for a second time and her manner changed. Very formally, stiffly, ostentatiously (but not offensively so) she offered her hand for Camellia to shake.
“Good morning. I’m Mrs Thatcher,” she said. Then, loosing interest in the meeting all of a sudden, she walked down the corridor a short distance and waited for them to follow.
“Mrs Thatcher?” asked Hugh.
"No," said Hugh, pacing after her. "You aren't. The handbag proves it."
"I am." She paused. "Sometimes." Then she smiled.
"Who else are you?" asked Camellia, catching up. "When it isn't 'sometimes' and you aren't Mrs Thatcher?" For a moment, it looked as if the elderly lady had decided not to say any more and Camellia worried she might have misunderstood.
This came out reluctantly, maybe things were moving too fast.
“Is that all?” Hugh asked. "Or do you have other names for other days?"
Camellia decided to be as friendly as she possibly could. “What does it depend on?” she asked with interest.
“It depends on 'it depends'. How many names do you have? Will you say?" The woman looked challengingly between Hugh and Camellia and they looked back at her. "Go on," she said. "I’d be interested to know how many names you have.”
"Ah!" suddenly, Hugh understood.
“Well, generally, I’m Hugh Thorncombe," he said. "But just lately, by which I mean, since yesterday evening, I’ve become Lord Thorncombe as well.”
“There you are!” she said triumphantly. "And you are Lady Thorncombe?"
“Hamilton, actually. Lady Hamilton.” Camellia looked at her feet and back at Mrs Thatcher rather shyly. “That’s what you’re asking, isn’t it?”
“Yes, yes,” replied Mrs Thatcher excitedly. “That’s exactly what I mean. I thought you’d be the ones. I heard Mrs Bendicks talking to Maria last night. She was saying you couldn’t really be Lady Hamilton because Napoleon is French and you don't seem the type to marry a foreigner.”
“She said that?” asked Hugh incredulously.
“Oh, she’s no sense of history,” said Mrs Thatcher dismissively. “It may have been because Maria took you tea. If you had been French, you would have asked for coffee wouldn't you? What would you prefer me to call you? Lady Hamilton or Lady Thorncombe? Which do you like best?”
“Neither, really,” said Camellia. "I'm Camellia. Just Camellia. I used to be 'Mrs Thorncombe' but everyone uses my first name now except for the milkman and he doesn't come any more. I'd like you to call me Camellia. Do you think that will be alright?”
“Absolutely fine," agreed Mrs Thatcher-Ivy. "Except in public. Then you had better be Lady Hamilton. Otherwise it might get confusing."
“And we are to call you 'Mrs Thatcher' in public but 'Ivy' in private?”
“If you don’t mind,” she said.
“Are you really a 'Mrs Thatcher'?" asked Hugh. "Ivy Thatcher perhaps? I ask despite the handbag."
"Nope," said Mrs Thatcher cheerfully. "I'm Mrs-Thatcher-the-Prime-Minister."
A burst of laughter in the room nearby drew their attention back to the meeting. “But why are you so interested in what’s happening in that room?” asked Hugh.
“Oh,” she said. “I’m not really interested. It’s just that I like to bug Mrs Bendicks. I wish she'd been facing the door. Then she'd have seen me. Pathetic, isn’t it? Really childish. But that woman is so annoying and there's so little to do here, it's a kind of mild entertainment. Not that Mrs Bendicks thinks it's entertaining. But she thinks I'm dotty so she can't throw me out. I fulfil all her expectations of dottiness; I'm short, white haired and mad. Shall we get some coffee? Or tea? It’s pretty awful - and comes out of a machine - but it's better than nothing. They won’t trust us with kettles. Come on.”
And she began to walk on down the corridor.
“Hang on,” said Hugh. “I'm with you completely. I've not given a false name since I was at school but telling Mrs Bendicks I'm a 'Lord' turns out to be a half decent joke. She 'half-believed' me! She certainly humoured me. We’ll help with this meeting if you like. Except - we’re here only for a few days. It doesn't matter what we do and we won't mind if we get sent home - as long as we see our grandchildren first. It could be quite fun. Like being expelled. But we wouldn't like to make things worse for you, would we Camellia?"
Camellia shook her head and wondered what Hugh was letting them into.
“You can't make it worse," said Mrs Thatcher. "And I can't be expelled. She has to be kind to me because I'm dotty. And we've got to have fun, us oldies, haven't we? What's the point of being old if you can't have fun because of it?"
“As long as you never wear a yellow hat!” said Camellia.
“No chance!” said Mrs Thatcher. “You have only to walk in through the front door here to get sick of yellow. She'd got through all the loos and showers and the entrance hall and the curtains in the Lounge and in some of the bedrooms before she was stopped."
“That's enough!" said Hugh. “I’ve always wanted to be ‘bad’. Now we'll seek 'vengeance for yellow'. Why peep in at a window when we could sit at the table? Come on!" And he strode back down the corridor and flung open the door to the meeting room. "Come on, I said! Come on you two. Hurry up now! We mustn't be late for the meeting!"
For the Next Post - Forty-One
For the Post Before This - Thirty-Nine