“And knew her place.”
“Oh yes, she knew her place.”
“The Tribute” is slightly harsher, a little more acrid than most Gardam tales. It’s also a little more cynical, angrier, and puts its pointed, unequivocal cards on the table right from the off. Gardam is always happy to make the most of the least promising characters but here she sets up some not very pleasant old ladies, once surrounded by opulent wealth and servants to tidy up after them, for a fall and then shoves them over the edge. It’s highly satisfying, watching the descent, but the build up is far more interesting.
The women in question, incidentally, have fallen on comparatively hard times. Once wives of globetrotting government officials used to planning voguish parties in foreign embassies, they now harmlessly occupy humble residences in nondescript parts of London. We join them as they compare thoughts about a former nanny they shared and who seemingly spent many years with each of them. The nanny, “Dench,” has just passed away and they ponder, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, a small tribute in the Telegraph. They are, clearly, far from particularly moved about the death, and seem still to lack much in the way of self-perception. They have cultivated ideas about themselves that the passing years and dwindling fortunes have not diminished.
Mabel Ince picks up the other two ladies — Fanny Soane and “Lady” Nelly Benson — one Thursday morning for a meeting at Harrod’s with not-particularly-dearly-
Heaving the shopping bag ahead of her, Nelly climbed in alongside and said, “I remember that hat. Always reminded me of a dead blackbird,” and laughed at this all the way along Kensington High Street.
Fanny said, “I think perhaps we are out of the fourth form now, Nelly,” and Mabel did not speak.
“Where are you now?” Nelly asked when she had stopped laughing. “What’s become of you, Mabel? I heard you had to sell the castle.”
“Suppose old Humphrey lost his money.”
“Oh Nelly, be quiet,” said Fanny in the back.
“Horses, I suppose. He always lost. I remember the Marsa Club in Malta. My word he flung it about. Where d’you live now?”
“Bit near the course, isn’t it?”
“He watches on television,” said Mabel, negotiating the Kensington traffic lights with knuckles of ice.
“You can do that anywhere — watch the television. Unless you’re like me — can’t afford one. Where d’you live, Fanny?”
“Oh dear, that’s a pity. A long way from London. Further than Newbury in a sense.” She began to laugh again.
So, we know everything we need to know. Nelly, being a “Lady” (despite wearing Wellington Boots for the Harrod’s trip, best she can do), considers herself that bit above her fellow passengers, despite being even worse off. They, in turn, paint themselves as “comfortable” and make a virtue out of their descent from castles to front-garden cabbage patches. Nelly, despite being quite candid about how poor she is, seems to have found hypocritical schadenfreude to be an adequate replacement for riches.
They ruminate as to why Dench never married; they reminisce over a “Mr. Salteena” she would speak of, an Argentinian man . . . surely he was imaginary; they attest to her being a better parent than they; they remain completely sealed off from her as a real human being, even now she’s dead and they’re about to meet her niece. Dench was “damned useful,” but she was no more important than what they were all doing instead as she raised their children.
When they finally arrive at Harrod’s, a place Dench brought all their children, and make their way to their booked restaurant table and the acquaintance of Dench’s niece, who hasn’t yet arrived, they change tack a little and revert even more to type. The tribute idea goes out of the window and they decide to toast the late Dench — who, they remind themselves, probably didn’t have a pension due to none of them “paying her stamp” — with sherry and, perhaps, a bottle of wine because that “will be much nicer for us” (they stick to sherries). The niece is very late, the niece they all vaguely, they think, remember as “so good at ironing”; they order anyway and get on with eating. Dench was “cheap” and “very good” about never having a great deal of food. You can feel Gardam tightening the noose around the wattled necks of these awful, curdled, relentlessly entitled old bags — no-one gets away with such behavior in a Gardam story. There’s a deep sense of moral debt and a deep sense of justified, empathetic evening up of scores right throughout all her pieces, one of many reasons they’re so irresistible — and we’re gleefully awaiting a comeuppance.
And they get one, and it’s a beauty. The niece arrives and they have an idea — a hope, with which to augment their hierarchical fantasy — about what she might be like but it isn’t this. Wonderfully dressed, accompanied by chauffeur, ordering champagne to toast “the happiest life” of her beloved aunt (these ladies, naturally, were not banking on Dench having lived a happy life; that was what they had deservedly had instead of her as she toiled with their kids: she knew her place, and it was as correctly selfless foundational martyr for them). The old ladies can barely conceal their horror. Which only worsens as they discover that she died worth a fortune, left to her by a Mr. Salteena.
That slightly skims the clear fact that the niece, a manifestation of how they once saw themselves, who casually drops in choice examples of each woman’s cruelty to her aunt, is subtly adroit at dropping mortifying grenades at these women, now firmly put in their place. But you might reasonably assume that they haven’t learned their lesson: justice hasn’t, after all, been delivered to such people. They are the kind of people who can only survive by avoiding painful facts, facts that don’t serve them. They didn’t properly recognize Dench while alive and won’t even now she’s dead. They will probably forget she ever existed, and may regret her happiness. The insolence!, Nelly might suggest. Gardam at least pays Dench, and her like, the kind of tribute she would always be denied by such loathsome creatures.