My bag was in the athenaeum, behind a bookshelf that rotated when I pulled a lever. This was my one request, my one acquiescence to all the money I had come into, my bow to all the rich people I’d only heard or read about in the papers. To the annoyance of Portia, I had the bookshelf installed within the first year of our arrival at the Manor. Not that I had anything to hide, or that I wanted to build a massive laboratory behind all the books where I could work out my evil plans of world domination or brew craft beer. I just wanted a bookshelf that rotated. Call it whimsical. Call it childish. Call it what you want, but it was mine.
Of all the things left at the Manor, that bookshelf is the thing I miss most.
The room behind the bookshelf was no larger than a small lavatory and contained only the survival bag I had diligently prepared according to the specifications written in the back of the pamphlet about New Eden. The bag sat in the middle of the floor, its canvas bulk stuffed with all the things I would need should the world end, should Gehenna be nigh.
All supplied by the New Eden Company, there was, in the order I placed them after inventory, seven pairs of beige jumpsuits, seven pairs of white briefs, six black socks, two pairs of utility boots, a wool blanket, penlight, a year supply of my high-blood pressure medication, a small multitool and various toiletry items. (I asked why I was issued only six socks, when there was seven of everything else. I never got an answer.) You might wonder why there was no food, water, or purification tablets. Matches? A jacket? A book to read?
All of these things were promised by the New Eden Company, a shadowy operation that only required a deposit of ten million pounds and a signature promising ten percent of my personal wealth at a date to be determined for the luxury of riding out the end of the world in style. What money wouldn’t buy! Here I was, six years into new money, and I was about to embark on the rest of my life with a miserable woman beside me who had all the same things in her survival bag. Everything was to be taken care of, the grand benefit of being rich. Of course, if you were rich and famous, you would probably get seven socks, but I was not about to complain.
After grabbing my bag from its secret lair, I rang for Mister Owens to carry it for me to our personal airship waiting in the garage. That sounds snobbish, I know. Few people have personal airships as they are complicated to operate, and to be clear, my airship did not look like a fish stick. It was slightly larger than the messenger ship and painted an off-white color. In retrospect, it probably looked like an éclair.
Truth be known, I had never flown it myself. It wasn’t required of me. As a franchise owner, I was satisfied with getting around by horse and carriage, typically captained by one of the workers I had on payroll. They would pick me up on the way to a job or a sales opportunity, then return me to my humble abode near Birmingham in British West Florida. Portia couldn’t be bothered to learn, either. And so, when we bought an airship of our own with all the hard-earned lottery money in my pocket, we threw in a coachman. If you wanted to blend in with the old money crowd, you had to play the part. And yet Portia still could not buy a decent glass for my scotch.
Mister Owens was prompt, as he always was, and readily hefted my survival bag over his shoulder. With only the slightest nod in my general direction, he left to load it into our transport. I think he had been prepared for this moment since the day we signed the papers accepting us as residents of New Eden. He never questioned what New Eden was, or why it was so important to be ready the moment the survival bags came out. Such a good lad.
I miss him almost as much as I miss my rotating bookshelf.
I did not know where Portia had disappeared to after we entered the Manor. I assumed she would head directly to her secret place to grab her survival bag with the same import I’d displayed. However, as I exited the athenaeum, I found her not with her bag, but empty handed and scolding the house staff at the foot of the stairs.
Portia was not born a horrible person, as you might assume. She had to have been made. She was dismissive of her friends. She was miserable in marriage and took advantage of the male staff when I wasn’t looking. She hated me. Yet her treatment of the house staff was probably a learned behavior. We did not have enough money to hire staff in British West Florida, and to make ends meet before my first franchise took off, Portia took a job as a maid in one of those plantations where she learned what old money meant and how to behave properly in the employ of the affluent. In our first few years of marriage, I’d heard her complain about how the master of the house treated the staff, and while some people might use that experience as a how-not-to guide if the roles were ever reversed, I believe Portia used it as a how-to guide. It made some sense in terms of organizational psychology: behavior creates experience which forms beliefs that lead to reactions which then create behavior.
So it was not surprising that I found Portia berating the house staff. What was surprising was that she had yet to grab her survival bag despite the urgent need to leave the Manor as soon as possible, join the other paying members of New Eden in Biddeford and board the passenger ship for the long journey to our final destination.
I said as much.
“Let me worry about my affairs and you on yours,” Portia said to me through gritted teeth. The three housekeepers, two cooks, the head steward and a chambermaid all looked forlorn, chastised, shamefaced. She dismissed me with a glare and turned back to the staff.
“You’ll each get your last paycheck in the post at the end of the week. Mister Owens will take care of transport off the Manor within the hour. You are hereby ordered to never return again. Remove nothing from the property that wasn’t yours to begin with.”
I probably should have reminded her that Mister Owens would be in our employ as the coachman on our journey to Biddeford, but I suppose it didn’t matter in the slightest what logistics of the Manor were overlooked since the world was about to be destroyed anyway and these seven servants would be dead soon.
“You need to get your bag,” I said again. I thought my voice sounded a little more demanding than it probably did.
Portia shot me a glance. It was at that moment that the head steward spoke up in defense of all the others and their dismissal. “Madam, you cannot expect us to live outside the Manor without arrangements. We cannot—”
“I don’t give a damn whether you live or die, Ruben. You’ll get off my property within the hour. If you don’t, I’ll make sure you are arrested for trespassing. If you worry about living arrangements after this, a prison cell will do right by you.”
One cook—I think her name was Alice—cried. Her body shook as she stood at the foot of the stairs. Portia stepped up to her and forcefully put her hands on the woman’s shoulders. “Get a hold of yourself,” she said. “Crying makes you uglier than you are.”
She probably wasn’t ugly, but criticizing a staff member through personal attacks was a good way to maintain your status as a higher-ranking member of society. It was one of the first things we had to learn after moving into the Manor. You looked weak if you treated anyone who served you as something more than just an employee. There are levels of human worth, just as there are levels of economic stability or behavioral motivation. Those who are not employed and live off government handouts to satisfy their physiological needs are at the bottom. House staff, or those who serve others in order to secure safety and stability in life, are directly above them. At the top of the food chain are the rich and famous, those motivated by the need to do whatever the hell they want. And yes, not being famous meant that Portia and I were just below that apex of the human hierarchal pyramid, motivated to look good in the eyes of our supposed friends. I guess that was a harder lesson for me to learn than Portia, given her history, but I was guilty of being the bad guy, too. I’m rather ashamed to admit it, but I took no more pity on the staff than I would have had they been furniture to be disposed of during the next trash run. In retrospect, I guess I was no better a person than she I despised, she I called wife.
In one last effort at showing off her status near the top of the human ladder, Portia snapped at the chambermaid. “Hannah! Get the bag in my room, under the bed.”
Hannah turned quickly, obedient to the end. As she disappeared, Portia returned to the remaining staff. “Get out. All. You disgust me.”
Alice cried louder.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Alice. You’re embarrassing yourself. Get out.”
She did not move. Perhaps the suddenness with which she fell from the ranks of the employed and into the gutter was too much. As all people do, Alice probably started the day with a routine. Our bodies awaken and in the first ten minutes of consciousness, we behave in habitual ways, not knowing—or caring—about what radical changes a new day may bring. We want coffee or a cup of tea. We do not waken with any realization that at any moment, and from any direction, the gods may decide to move our lives in a direction we do not expect. We think all will be as it was the day before and the day before that and so on. Being fired or laid off or whatever you want to call it will not be something we expect. Being run over by a carriage or losing your house to a tornado or being robbed at knife point are things that probably do not enter our minds upon waking. Neither would anyone expect a fish stick would deliver a message that says the end of the world has come at last.
With a swiftness I admit I’d witnessed on more than one occasion, Portia slapped Alice across the face. She fell to the ground, still crying, her frail body shaking yet more violently. I shook my head. Not in disbelief, mind you. I shook my head as if to say, “Woman, you’re dillydallying.”
Yes, Portia had a temper, and yes, it would serve her well in the next few months.
It would also, however, be her downfall.
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