I feel a sneeze brewing. The garden flowers are fragrant, lush … and full of pollen. Bugger. I sip shallow breaths until the urge passes.
Over by the sundial, Cupid sneezes. I wince in sympathy: that’s half his pay docked. No leftover finger sandwiches for him, no port in a tiny thimble glass as the evening chill creeps in. The lady of this garden won’t deign even a glance his way. To her, he’s invisible.
As we all must be. It isn’t enough for the hostess to have garden statues. To have a genteel party, they must be living statues. Three of my neighbours are all dressed in the same grey, half-hidden in the shrubbery. Lady Liberty, her arm aloft bearing a flaming torch. Must be a hell of a cramp. Sir Walter Raleigh, hands proudly on hips near the wisteria. Doesn’t his ruff itch? Emperor Nero frozen mid-oration by a stone vase. I don’t know their names, only their disguises, and we never talk. We just try not to breathe. My elbow aches as I minutely adjust the parasol over one shoulder. Luckily my hat hides the sun. A bee buzzes close; I cannot gasp or flinch.
The heat cracks the grey paint on my face. All for two shillings at day’s end. Two bob. One loaf, an orange, two apples, a chicken, a handful of beans, milk, salt. The meagre price of keeping my stomach from growling. The price of my dignity. I savour that chicken roasting in the oven, the salty crackle of crispy skin instead of the overpowering lavender that clogs my nose.
A guest sits next to me. The chicken aroma shrivels away. Another guest arrives and they chat. Not with me. I’m merely an ornament. A decoration for a two-seater bench. The hostess nods at me as she greets her guests, all smiles. She’s pleased; I’ve done my job well.
When the last guest departs and I finally take my paltry two shillings, my employer hands me a nosegay of peonies along with the tiny sandwiches. I take them without meeting her eye. They aren’t a reward. They won’t fill my stomach. To me, they only smell of chicken.
© 2021 | Tom Burton