A Four Part Story-Part 1 of ‘A Neighbourly Manor’

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.
‘Imogen.’

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Speaking the Lingo and Talking the Talk-

A language cannot be hard to learn. A child can do it.

OK, although most linguistics experts agree that children are quicker and learn new languages with ease than adults.

Of course there are some notoriously difficult languages, such as Japanese and many of the obscure African languages that utilise clicks and other sounds that are not in our sound vocabulary, but where European languages are concerned I don’t believe there is anyone who cannot become familiar enough to understand and make themselves understood in a relatively short space of time. And while heavy work is made of conjugating verbs and swatting up vocabulary lists in schools it is only necessary to spend some time living, working or travelling in a country to learn the basics of that country’s language.

For some, however even the radical step of moving to a new country does not lead to language acquisition-you have only to visit some of the areas of the Spanish Mediterranean with large concentrations of British to see this. Many ex-pats remain solely English-speakers in spite of adopting a new land. Heaven knows what the Spanish think of this…

Our latest trip covered a number of countries and languages, prompting some challenging demands on my inconsistent language skills. As a schoolgirl I learned French, German, Latin and Spanish with varying degrees of success. That I had most success with French I attribute to long summer camping holidays in France with non-French-speaking parents. Like many I gave up on Latin early, seeing no point in continuing and I was a miserable failure at German, whose grammar mystified me [and still does]. The Spanish was an add-on to A-levels, and seemed easy for being similar to French.

We travelled across Northern France into Germany, then Austria. Unlike the French, Germans are not only excellent English speakers but are also happy to speak in English-particularly, at this time on the subject of Brexit. ‘We DO NOT understand the Brexit!’ they told us on more than one occasion. What are we to say? We could only agree that, no, neither could we. On then to Italy. Italian is a most beautiful and musical-sounding language, enough to make anyone want to learn it for the sheer pleasure of speaking it, but for anyone who has learned Spanish the similarity between the two languages leads to much initial confusion. I consistently muddled my ‘grazie’ with my ‘gracias’, my ‘due’ with my ‘duo’ and my ‘per favore’ with my ‘por favor’ etc. After a week or so I fared better and, armed with the ‘Lonely Planet Phrase Book’ was able to stumble through some phrases. I felt inordinately proud when my much practised ‘lavatrice giettone, per favore’ resulted in the swift handing over of a washing machine token, more so when ‘prego’ was the response to my ‘grazie’.

Of course most people understand a nod or a shake of the head and when one set of words doesn’t work another way of saying something often does. And we are yet to meet anyone who doesn’t understand a smile-

 

A Tumult of Testosterone

We are undertaking our second Rugby World Cup tour. This is not quite as momentous as you might think, given that a] the Rugby World Cup is being held in the UK this year and b] we do not have tickets for all the matches.

Our first RWC tour, in 2011 was in New Zealand. In contrast to this year’s campaign it was an extraordinary expedition for a variety of reasons, the greatest of which is that it was in New Zealand! New Zealand remains the single most wonderful country I have ever visited. Enough said.

Nevertheless, the UK’s contribution to international rugby competition is not to be snorted at and is providing logistical nightmares that were not present last time on the opposite side of the planet. As before we are using a campervan to get to some of the venues [our own rather than rented]. We eschewed the first game at Twickenham, due to the prohibitive ticket price. We began with Georgia versus Tonga at Kingsholm, Gloucester. Easy! Husband hails from there, hence handy relatives with guest room and car to provide lifts.

Next game: Cardiff [Australia versus Fiji]. Cardiff boasts a splendid city centre camp site. Hooray! Cardiff was crammed with rugby fans in a way that Gloucester was not. This is both a joy [the meeting up, the chats, the sights, the atmosphere] and a chore [the jobsworths, the queues, the bag searches, the squashing, the getting trodden on, the corporate pushing of brands, the pushing and the endless standing about].

Notice-I have not ventured into the tangled scrummage of rugby analysis, the dodgy ruck of commentary. Why not? Because, reader I am a complete and total ignoramus on the subject. I do not know my ruck from my maul, my penalty from my knock-on and remain stubbornly resistant to understanding off-side. ‘What was wrong with that?’ I quiz Husband as the penalties pile up. But in spite of detailed explanation I continue to watch in a mystified fog of ignorance.

Despite all of this and the fact that for many years, in the previous life I rejected any kind of sport outright as a source of entertainment, I have come to enjoy watching rugby matches. I like the thrill of the build-up, the party atmosphere, the banter of the pub-goers, the outrageous costumery of the fans, the ridiculous items for sale, the gladiatorial nature of the conflict as fifteen enormous honed sportsmen pitch up against fifteen of the same, the shattering collisions, the heaving, grunting drive of the scrum and the soaring voices of the crowd as they chant, sing or stomp. And who could fail to be excited when a player breaks away to weave and dodge to the line and score a try?

So with two RWCs under my belt I begin to feel like a seasoned supporter. All the more so, perhaps when you consider that the next Rugby World Cup is to be held in Japan. Now THAT is what I call food for thought…

The News, Les Nouvelles, La Noticia or Las Noticias?

We are at the end of our first camper-van trip of this year, an odyssey very much unplanned that took us to Portugal, Spain and France, depending on where the weather was best according to the forecast.

Unlike the many who rumble around the roads of Southern Europe in search of sunshine we have not succumbed [yet] to a satellite dish to give us the evening diet of TV that we would get at home. Ideally we would be near enough, when parked up to access a lively bar or two but circumstances don’t always work out this way and we are sometimes left with the choice of books, internet [if it is available] or local TV. Failing all this I am forced to write!

We are at the mercy of Portuguese, Spanish or French TV programmes; most often their news bulletins or the equivalent of our ‘BBC News 24’. While we are adequately equipped linguistically in French to inquire the whereabouts of the nearest ‘boulangerie’ etc neither Husband nor I have more than the sketchiest idea of what is going on in Spanish, less still Portuguese, so the results of our viewing are often confusing and down to guesswork using pictures and the running text along the bottom of the screen.

All this gives a sense of what it may be like to be a young child learning to decipher the squiggles and symbols of words when learning to read and makes you realise how crucial the pictures are as an aid. While I like to think it is improving my linguistic skills I somehow doubt this is the case, since we’ve no idea whether our guesses are correct.

One excellent benefit of watching other countries’ news is that the angle is no longer at UK degrees, the world does not revolve around our own country. At home, even world issues will only be dealt with from a UK viewpoint. The Alpine air disaster item will focus on any British passengers, a climate summit will centre on our own delegate; grim beheadings will be given scant coverage unless the victim is British. Elsewhere in the world the focus swings to their own delegates, victims or disasters. Here is an aspect of that broadening of the mind that travel is supposed to offer.

Another advantage is missing a huge chunk of tedious UK election coverage broadcasting which, judging by the un-edifying glimpses caught since our return has been a blessing. From the quality of their baby-kissing to their stance on pot-holes, is there any pebble left undisturbed in the relentless unearthing of new stories about the opposing politicians?

And what can they possibly write, spout, blog or tweet about once the entire circus has left town? They must be praying for a heatwave/earthquake/alien invasion-otherwise it will be back to road congestion and house prices.

Think you don’t have an Accent? Think Again!

A recent poll in The Independent newspaper revealed that the British accent is the most popular in the world.

This is an odd piece of news. For a start, who is to say what, exactly a British accent is? There are many. There is Geordie, West Country, Scottish, Brummie, Northern Irish, Kentish, Cockney, Liverpudlian, Welsh, East Anglia, Yorkshire, Lancashire, Home Counties and many more besides…

Within the areas there are also differences in accent. A trip around Scotland, Yorkshire or Birmingham would expose a plethora of differing sounds in words.

Presumably the ‘British’ accent of the study is ‘BBC’ style, although even in an organisation as large as this there have been attempts in recent years to get regional accents on to the airwaves rather than the plummy tones of yesteryear.

While it is surprising to learn that the French accent is less of a draw, it is no real shock that the Queen’s English is admired around the world. Many years ago I undertook a road trip along the West of the USA with a friend-my first jaunt to America and one that I considered intrepid, given that I would be driving an automatic car on vast freeways and attempting to join the LA traffic and cliff-hangers of San Francisco.

Part of our home made itinerary took in a trip to Las Vegas, which involved travelling across the desert. We’d scheduled in stops, one of which was at Victorville, a kind of truck stop on Route 66. We’d found a hotel [on our budget we were confined to the cheaper chains], dumped the bags but at that point, although we’d driven all day in sweaty heat, a beer seemed more compelling than a shower.

We found a simple, no frills bar which was occupied mainly with workers, mainly male, enjoying a drink after their day’s labours. The arrival of two English women provoked enormous interest, so much that we were unable to buy our own beers and were interrogated on every aspect of our personas and our trip. This, incidentally included a query as to whether we met the age criterion for alcohol [most flattering, since I was 40 at the time]. The flattery continued. ‘Ah luuuurv yer aaahccent!’ one of the admirers drawled. This threw me. Having moved about the country quite a bit throughout childhood I consider myself accent-less. ‘I don’t have have an accent, you do!’ I replied.

Every country, of course has regional accents but you have to be well versed in another language to recognise them. After many years of regular trips to France I still struggle to understand the Southern French tones, and even here in my own homely island much that is spoken with a Scottish twang escapes me-notably post match inquests from football managers etc

I don’t really have a ‘favourite’ although I must confess to there being one or two I really do not like. What are they? Not saying! What’s your favourite?

Grey-What Does it do for You?

Grey. It’s the colour of the moment.
For one thing, I have just swapped the vibrant, colourful exuberance of the Caribbean for the dull, sombre, grey skies above the UK. It made me wonder what immigrants from hot, sunny climates must make of their first sight of our island country. For grey weather, which we are prey to for long periods of our year renders everything else grey. Trees, vegetation, buildings and people-we are all grey; never mind that we are a ‘green and pleasant land’. It is not at all evident at present.
For another thing, the odious ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’, that best-selling novel which was a sensation, made its lucky ‘writer’ into an immediate millionaire, spawned a brood of follow-ups plus copycat novels and should have been consigned, at best, to the Mills and Boon section of book shops and libraries has been released as a movie. The timing, of course is cynically devised to coincide with Valentine’s Day; the advertising and the accompanying merchandise in your face at every turn. The book, and it its turn the film are said to appeal to mature women. One study, by Michigan State University found that readers were more likely to be in abusive relationships or have drinking or drug problems. A cynic might suggest here that the university was somehow involved in the marketing of the book.
In other areas the ‘grey’ theme continues as, on returning from a holiday, once I have recovered and regained the ability to stand upright to peer into the mirror the inevitable grey roots of hair are apparent, surging through the remaining vestiges of colour as usual. At times like this I envy those who’ve had the courage to ditch the pretence. I almost followed suit two years ago as my 60th approached but was deterred by Husband, who may just have been right on that occasion. Making radical changes to your appearance is not best effected at such a momentous lifetime event.
From time to time the fashion industry conducts a serious campaign to seduce us to buy a lot of grey clothes. It does always work for me-I like grey, especially deep, charcoal grey although as I’ve grown older I’ve begun to realise that the relationship I have with it is not evenly balanced. Grey may not actually be so fond of me.
At the end of the last of the ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy a significant number of the main characters drift off in pale ships to somewhere called the ‘Grey Havens’. I’ve always wondered what the Grey Havens was. Was it a euphemism for death? After all some of the characters [eg the elves] had traded their immortality to save the world. Poor Frodo, forever injured by a blow from a ring-wraith was also compelled to repair to this mysterious location. Perhaps Tolkien knew something we don’t. Perhaps we all end up there, condemned forever to the grey. Who knows?