In July I was knocked down by an untethered standard poodle and suffered a severe concussion and broken bone in my back, luckily without nerve damage. My doctor has told me I should not be writing anything as complex as a novel for the next six months. She did say, however, I could write short pieces. As a result I have decided to write a series of snippets describing Elspeth’s life when she is not solving murders. I am beginning to post them today and they will appear both here and under the “snippets” tab on this website. I hope you enjoy them.
Lord Kennington’s Bathroom
Elspeth Duff looked at the mess and was glad that Lord Kennington could not see it. He prided himself on the creative and beautiful efforts in bathroom designs in all his hotels, but in the premium suites at his bigger hotels he outdid himself. Now this bathroom was in shambles. The onyx sinks and bathtub were covered with large splashes of varicoloured paint and filled with odd bits of what was quite frankly junk.
Elspeth inwardly groaned because it was her job to face the artist who had done this. He was not a normal artist but one who was rich and famous now that his work had been introduced to the western world, and he was in exile from China. Pamela Crumm, Lord Kennington’s business partner in charge of the everyday running of his hotels around the world, had chosen his special security advisor, Elspeth Duff, to handle the situation because she knew Elspeth had great grace and polish as well as being able to assume an air of authority when necessary.
Because of his growing fame as one of the world’s leading modern artists, Li Da Wei commanded great respect from the art world, particularly from very wealthy Europeans who invited Li into their homes and allowed him to place fantastic works of art in their mansions and gardens at great financial profit to Li. Elspeth had seen these constructions in pictures in the press and admired them, or at least some of them. She had never expected to meet the artist or confront him with the desecration of Lord Kennington’s bathroom at the Kennington Mayfair.
Li was not in the room when Elspeth entered with the executive housekeeper, who had reported the mess to the manager of the hotel who in turn immediately called Pamela Crumm. Pamela had rung downstairs to Elspeth’s office and put her in charge of explaining to Li that the Kennington hotel prided itself on cleanliness and that bathrooms, even large ones such as in Li’s room, were meant for bathing, washing and the ‘necessaries’, not for constructing large works of multi-media art.
Before she began her task, Elspeth called her close friend, Sir Richard Munro, who was in London at the moment and was at one-time British High Commission to Singapore, to get advice on handling a rebellious Chinese who might not understand the conventions of Western society. Richard had gained his title when in Singapore because of his great tactful handling of difficult situations. Elspeth wondered if he had ever dealt with a problem of the desecration of a designer bathroom before.
“Elspeth, my dear, you must remember that for Chinese to lose face is a terrible thing. Li Da Wei may know about Western ways but is being defiant, or he may not understand or appreciate the high standards of the Kennington hotels. You should assume either one could be true. My best advice would be to be both courteous and deferential. You are a woman used to authority, but he may not react well to your criticism of him. I suggest you tread lightly. He may not show his contempt or feelings of disgrace. You are clever, my dearest. You can handle this with your natural charm. And for that advice I demand dinner this evening. I will pick you up at seven.”
Elspeth smiled and felt imbued with the feeling of love that now surrounded her when she spoke to Richard. She hoped their dinner would lead on to more intimate delights.
Elspeth turned to the executive housekeeper. “I may need a translator? Does anyone on your staff speak Mandarin?” she asked.
“Yes, one of my room attendants is from China. He came here to London as a young child, but I believe he still speaks Mandarin.”
“He? Even better. Please see if you can find him.”
The executive housekeeper was about to leave, when they both heard a card being inserted into the door of the room.
“Ah!” Li said. “Are you here to arrest me?”
Elspeth shook her head. “Mr Li, we are here from the hotel management. Please accept my hopes that you are enjoying your stay.”
“Much enjoy,” he said. “Very nice. Like very, very much.” His accent was thick, his r’s became l’s, and obviously his command of English was limited.
Elspeth nodded to the executive housekeeper, who in turn nodded to Li and departed.
“I am Elspeth Duff and come from Lord Kennington’s office to welcome you to our hotel.” Elspeth hoped she had set the right tone.
“Ah,” he said.
“I have seen in the newspaper and in magazines some of your work. I find it extremely creative. Unconventional but beautiful.” Elspeth wondered if he understood, but from his bright smile she assumed he did.
A long silence followed. Li spread his legs apart in what Elspeth guessed was a martial arts position. His eyes bore into Elspeth’s. She shifted her own stance and bowed her head. Was she overdoing it? She felt at an impasse.
Gratefully for Elspeth, someone tapped at the door. Li went to answer it. She recognised the uniform and short duck billed cap that room attendants wore. She was still getting used to the fact that room attendants could be male.
The room attendant said in English. “I am Wang.” Then he said what appeared to be the same thing in Chinese.
Li seemed to relax.
Elspeth considered her words carefully and asked Wang to translate.
“We have come about the bathroom.”
Li listened to Wang’s translation. He frowned and spoke in return.
“He says that he is afraid to leave the hotel and that because of the size of the bathroom he is using it for his studio. He says it is larger and warmer than his studio in China,” Wang said.
“Wang, tell him I know he must be happy to have such a space.” She paused, considering how she might continue.
“But . . .” she started and then stopped, “. . . ask him why he is afraid to leave the hotel. Say that the hotel is concerned with his safety.”
Wang again spoke rapidly and Li responded.
“He says that the art foundation that is sponsoring him in the UK is paying for this room for him, but they did not acknowledge that he is a painter and artist and needs to create every day. They have not given him a studio in a safe location and so he has no choice but to use the bathroom. He finds it very suitable and thanks you.”
“Tell him I will address the problem as quickly as I can and will get back to him shortly.”
Wang translated again. Li’s response was a long one and at one point Wang shook his head violently and spoke with some vehemence. Li was not placated.
Elspeth broke in. “What’s the problem?”
“He does not want another space and finds the bathroom an excellent place to work. I explained that at this Kennington hotel we want order in our rooms. I wanted him to understand hotel policy. He says he is a famous artist and rules do not apply to him and adds that you should be honoured that he is here to improve the image of the hotel.”
Elspeth suddenly was aware why Pamela had sent her and not left the problem to the manager of the hotel. Although he was world-renowned, Li was an angry dissident and had an artistic temperament to match.
Elspeth thanked Li and said to Wang that it was time to leave. She made her way to the manager’s office and was greeted with familiarity.
“Now you see why I rang Ms Crumm,” he said. “I got the same reception you did but did not think of getting a translator. Li’s limited English was enough to make me call in upper management.”
“Do you have any spare rooms in the attic or basement that could be used as a studio, or even turned into one? I’ll see to it that Pamela Crumm will have the Kennington Organisation absorb the cost.”
“Don’t you think he will make demands.”
“Undoubtedly. Let’s hope he doesn’t insist on onyx walls, marble floors and gold handles on a sink.”
Elspeth returned to her office on the twentieth floor of the tower in the City that housed the Kennington Organisation and went directly to Pamela Crumm’s office. Pamela looked up from her computer.
“What did you find?”
“A dreadful mess and an uncooperative artist. I spoke to the manager, and he confirmed that there was a large storeroom in the basement that could be turned into a studio. Luckily it has a mop sink. But he will need your authorisation before he proceeds renovating it into a studio.”
“See that it’s done. Will we need to go into his room and repair the bathroom?” Pamela said.
“A good cleaning may do. Thank you, my friend.”
“No, thank you, ducks. Now I won’t have to tell Lord Kennington about what happened to the bathroom. By the time he returns from Paris, all will be resolved.”
Elspeth did not return to the Kennington Mayfair but did pass on Pamela’s instructions. In three days’ time the manager called her and told her Li Da Wei had happily moved into his new workspace. “He thanks you, Elspeth. I told him you had made the studio possible.”
Two weeks later, when Elspeth returned from an assignment abroad, a small packet wrapped neatly in brown paper was waiting for her in her office. A present? Curious, she tore it open. Inside she found a shadow box made of brushed steel. Inside was a bold creation in black, white and various shades of grey with touches of silver foil embedded in the paint that was laid on heavily. Offset from one corner were what looked like nine grease-covered ball bearings. At the opposite corner was a single smaller metal ball, highly polished, and leading to it was a thin drizzle of red. She turned the box over and saw Chinese characters and written in hesitant English was the word FREEDOM. She knew that according to Kennington Organisation regulations she would have to turn the artwork in to the properties department or return it to its owner, but she was sorely tempted to keep it. To return it to Li Da Wei would be an insult. It was not the type of art she would have bought but it had a powerful appeal. Perhaps she could convince Pamela Crumm to let her borrow it on a long-term loan.