***London, Spring 1955***
Jimmy was never the same man he had once been. He could never be.
Arthur and Prudence did as much as they could. Even though Jimmy tired much more easily, he still enjoyed driving and was still the excellent driver he had always been, and so, diplomatically, they suggested he concentrate on short journeys only and they would hire another driver to help out, giving him more time to concentrate on the gardening he loved so much. And so, with exceptionally careful scrutiny, they personally interviewed hundreds of hopefuls for the well-paid post of chauffeur, aware that the new man's ability to empathise was every bit as important as driving skills and references.
They needed, they explained to Jack Stanford, a cheerful young Cockney fellow with a heart as big as a house, and the successful applicant, someone who would understand that Jimmy was, and always would be, regarded as chief chauffeur even though it would be Jack who undertook the longest periods of driving and Jack who would, during important political occasions, receive telephone calls any time, day or night, requiring him to drive somewhere urgently.
Jimmy still lived rent free in the homely cottage in the grounds and the Maddocks still paid him his regular salary without any deductions to reflect his fewer hours driving although, in truth, he needed very little. At his suggestion, they tried, in vain, to find some family, a distant cousin, perhaps, or an aunt or uncle he never knew, Jimmy said hopefully; oh, it was just a silly fancy, nothing more than an old man's whim, he added poignantly, but it would please him know he wasn't all alone in the world. But every road they followed led nowhere. There was no one for Jimmy to call family but the Maddocks themselves. Their staunch friendship, and his strong Christian faith, were the buffers that kept him from breaking down completely.
Yet even they, for all their riches, for all the very best consultants, for all the very best medicines, could not stop the ravages of time. Barely turned sixty-one, Jimmy aged ten years in as many weeks. His shoulders hunched with the weight of the world, his face greyed with shadows of the past, his sharp blue eyes dimmed with sadness.
One March day, his hair turned snow white overnight, which so shocked Prudence when she saw him next morning that she clasped her hands to her mouth and sprang up from her chair, shaking her head and muttering, almost like an incantation, "But it doesn't really happen! But it doesn't really happen!" as though, if she said it often enough, his hair must surely return to its original brown peppered with flecks of grey and this, in turn, would reverse all that had happened so that the tragedy never was.
"Does he hear us, do you think?" she asked Arthur in a stage whisper, sitting down again with a thump, such was her sizeable frame nowadays. And, continuing to stare rudely, she slapped some cheese and thinly sliced tomato on a piece of toast, then proceeded to smear marmalade over it, there being no limit to Prudence's peculiar food preferences these last few months, and Mrs Geraghty, the breakfast cook, having provided the items requested.
Jimmy, who stood in the doorway, gave Prudence, who still gawked shamelessly even as she ate, a vague, unseeing glance, but made no attempt to enter the room. Her husband, with far greater sensitivity, folded the newspaper he'd been perusing and pocketed his reading glasses.
"Jimmy, good morning! Come, take your usual seat," He called jovially, hiding his own distress, and he walked over to place his hand lightly under the other man's elbow and guided him gently to the breakfast table.
Saturday breakfast with his employers had been Jimmy's privilege since the War years but, he being uneasy dining in the company of his "betters" unless specially invited, and Arthur and Prudence, being unable to quite shake off the shackles of snobbery, a formal invitation was verbally issued and politely accepted every Friday.
"Though I have to warn you, Margaret, old battleaxe that she is, is on the warpath again, insisting we follow my wife's example and drink more cranberry juice," Arthur added. "Well, I, for one, can't drink gallons of it like Prudence does and I feel so rebellious at her badgering that I declare I shan't EVER touch a drop again! What's more, I'll pour the whole damned jug down the sink in grand ceremony before I'm done! Are you game, old chap?" He winked conspiratorially and was rewarded with a small smile.
Lord and Lady Maddocks were actually quite fond of Margaret Geraghty, and Arthur had no intention of carrying out his threat. But, at a loss how to be with his friend at such times when he seemed to retreat within himself, he would often take refuge in humour. Jimmy, for his part, tried to reassure Arthur and Prudence that it was simply no more than that he would slip into some happy moment from the past and, the memory being so pleasant, "spend longer there than he meant to." The doctors agreed. The result of extensive tests, they declared to the worried Maddocks, was that they could safely say his mind was as sound as it had ever been.
Reluctantly, he shook himself out of his reverie, and, sitting down as bidden, calmly buttered some toast and joked to his dining companions that he might grow a beard to match his hair and double for Santa this Christmas.
Prudence exchanged a puzzled glance with her husband, absently rubbing her nose, which had been so badly disfigured in the riding accident. She was still extremely sensitive about the deformity and, even now, many years later, could not bear to look in a mirror or see a photograph of herself without feeling an overwhelming surge of anger towards Magic. Nor had time dimmed her hatred of horses; if anything, it made it stronger. A more nasal tone, that grated on her own nerves, had crept into her voice as she aged, which further added to her resentment. Why, she sounded like the common working class, she had sobbed heartbrokenly on Arthur's shoulder, and could scarcely be consoled.
Jimmy, however, was made of sterner stuff. He had gasped in disbelief when he first saw his own reflection that morning, but, with the same resilience that he'd had to find at a poverty-stricken, half-starved very young age, he quickly reached the conclusion "what can't be cured must be endured" and if God wanted him to have white hair, then white hair he would have, and there was an end to it. And while, momentarily, the sight had upset him, for even the least vain among us must dread the onset of old age, he was far more concerned about his employers' feelings than his own. Lord and Lady Maddocks, he reasoned, born into golden lifestyles as they were, had never had to face adversity and so must always be shielded from it. Touchingly, he was as anxious to protect his vastly wealthy employers as they were to protect their humble chauffeur.
Baffled by his stoicism, convinced nobody could simply accept what, had it happened to herself, would have been a major tragedy, and, despite what the doctors claimed, his mind must surely be gone, Prudence heaved herself up from her chair and waddled over.
"There, there, there," she soothed, patting Jimmy's hand as if he were a simpleton. "There, there, there."
Arthur winced at the patronizing tone, but even he wiped the corner of his eye with his knuckle, blew his nose noisily and muttered huskily about "this confounded cold."It was so sad to see Jimmy come to this, he thought sadly, recalling the bitterly cold January day and the snowflakes whirling furiously around Follyfoot Farm, when a proud man in thin, ragged clothes had come to beg for work. About to set off for a brisk winter's ride, they could so easily have passed him by but for a chance remark. Thank whatever gods there were that they hadn't. Despite the tragedies that had blighted his own life, he had been their rock, their mainstay, a quiet influence on all their staff, a trusted friend, who had even helped the British government during the War by ensuring top secret files and documents were safely delivered. Arthur didn't think Jimmy would ever be so capable again.
But Jimmy was still sharp as a tack, as they were very soon to discover, and they would rely on him once more, when their whole world changed, when London was covered in a blanket of white, when the rain turned to ice and the snow fell…