The remainder of fiction month consists of a longer short story, ‘A Neighbourly Manor’, in which Lena and Richard encounter a complex and not entirely conventional household.
A Neighbourly Manor
‘I wonder what she sees in him?’ I kept saying.
‘Leave it alone, can’t you?’ Richard grumbled, or he would shake out a new page of his newspaper in a crackling signal of finality. But one month on the events following that afternoon dogged me as I weeded the border or strolled along the lane to the farm for eggs.
After we’d received the invitation I’d been full of excited zeal, wanting to make a reciprocal gesture before we’d even taken a step along the wide sweep of their driveway, but Richard had curbed my ambitions by frowning,
‘Let’s wait and see how it goes. We haven’t met them yet. We are only neighbours, nothing more. By all accounts they are society people so I don’t suppose we will be of any interest to them except as a kind of ‘country bumpkin’ story for their London friends.’
Despite my husband’s dashing of cold water I continued to harbour fanciful thoughts of what might transpire. I knew that the manor house next door received a constant flow of visitors despite the seedy state of its accommodation. Some were well known figures in publishing, the media or the arts, invoking thrilling fantasies of meeting someone famous. Who knew what might transpire? This could be the beginning of a series of gatherings to which we were part. I began to run a mental inventory of the contents of my wardrobe and concluded it was lacking in some areas.
The previous occupant’s attempt to run Chiddlehampton Manor as a hotel had failed in a gurgling whirlpool of bankruptcy, depression and alcohol dependency. Villagers who had worked there told of stained carpets and mouldy en suites in the twenty three bedrooms, slimy, brown grease covering kitchen surfaces, dwindling bottles in the wine cellar, failed initiatives such as ‘poker breaks’ or ‘murder mystery weekends’ attracting a desultory handful of revellers and resulting in increasing event cancellations.
The parlous nature of the building lent even more urgency to my desire to see it and to meet the latest occupants, who wanted it for a country retreat, no less. A country retreat! Twenty three bedrooms and bathrooms, a ballroom, eight acres of grounds containing stables and seven cottages for staff plus a vast, walled garden with endless greenhouses-all now fallen into disrepair; disintegrating into the chalky, Dorset soil from which it had risen.
There was a blustery March wind gusting across the fields as we walked through the open gate into the driveway; gaps in the two rows of elegant beeches that bordered the sweeping drive, and fallen branches. Weeds punctuated the centre of the crumbling tarmac as it curled around to reveal the yellow stone manor house nestling in a dip below.
I stopped for a moment to admire it, tucking the box of homemade shortbread under my arm. Richard had scoffed.
‘They won’t want that. Their sort is used to posh nosh; Fortnum and Mason, Harrods, all that sort of thing’. I’d ignored him of course, as only one who is shackled to a curmudgeon for thirty two years can.
Even in a decadent state the manor is beautiful, a graceful old house whose romantic symmetry complements the rustic setting of rolling Dorset countryside. As we approached the columns of the grand portico I shivered, hanging back as Richard strode up to the vast, oak door and pressed the bell in his no-nonsense way.
In the ensuing hiatus my misgivings expanded. ‘Do you think they’ve forgotten?’
Richard snorted. ‘Let’s hope so! Then we can go home and have a cup of tea.’ But steps could be heard echoing inside.
I’d heard plenty about him from villagers, in the pub or at the community shop but I was still unprepared for the experience of meeting Jackson Agnew. That he was ‘upper class’, ‘stinking rich’and ‘ponsy’ was circulating the public bar of The Cuckoo, with ‘a bleeding, towny nob’ thrown in by Noah Barnes, Bendick Farm’s cowman, who was not known for holding back on his opinions. Little had been expressed about Dr Agnew’s companion; whether she was partner or wife or daughter no one knew, only that she was ‘posh totty’ [Noah Barnes again] and thought by some to be a model or an actress.
The door was not so much opened as flung wide and filled with him; with Jackson Agnew. His frame crammed the doorway, everything broad, everything extended, from his lengthy arm and thin fingers reaching out to shake Richard’s to his gaping grin and booming ‘Hello hello-Welcome to my humble abode!’
Once I’d followed my husband into the hallway my own hand was enveloped and squeezed. ‘We meet at last!’ he said and his voice was like a deep, mellow gong echoing around the cavern of a hall with its bare walls and floorboards. After I’d glanced around the barren space I noticed he was scrutinising our faces, hungry for our reactions.
‘I expect you’ve been in here hundreds of times, haven’t you?’
Richard was peering up at the ceiling, eager for a sign of damp, death watch or woodworm. He avoided Jackson’s gaze as he replied.
‘We haven’t lived in the village all that long ourselves; retired here from Bristol eighteen months ago. We had no cause to come to the hotel. If we want a drink we go to the pub.’
‘We met the Judds, of course, out and about, you know, when walking the dog,’ I added.
Jackson grinned. ‘Yes. Pour souls. What a state they got into. Shall we move into the lounge and we can rustle up a cup of tea, or something stronger if you like?’ He looked beyond us to an open doorway, calling, ‘Darling, our neighbours are here.’
We walked through into what had been the hotel bar but was now being used as a makeshift kitchen and dining room. Here, overhead the ceiling was adorned in an ornate series of murals decorated in gold leaf portraying rotund cherubs cavorting with plump maidens in diaphanous robes. Jackson caught me scrutinising it and barked in noisy mirth.
‘What do you think of that? Someone went to town, didn’t they? Are you familiar with the Baroque style at all? Ah, there she is! Darling! These are our nearest neighbours, Richard and er…’
I broke in. ‘Lena’
‘Lena, of course. Richard and Lena.’
She was standing behind the bar, motionless, an almost smile on her lips; eyes that had been fixed upon him moving in a slow turn towards Richard and myself. In that moment I understood why all of the descriptions of her had been correct and at the same time wrong, because while she was young and undeniably beautiful there was no element of Hollywood style; no trappings that could be considered cosmetic enhancement. And one thing was clear. She could not in any way be mistaken for his daughter, since no daughter in the world would ever look at her father like that.
She moved around to join us, extending a hand, first to me.