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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What Makes You Old?

A woman at my book club told me she didn’t begin to feel old until she reached her sixties. But what exactly is feeling old? Is it to do with physical failings? Memory? Loss of independence? Or does it occur due to fear of death, which, of course comes closer with each passing day?

Sibling 1 moved house last week, after more than thirty years in the same, large, old, character-ful home. He was seventy last year. Like many of us, the old family home has become too large for two growing-older people to manage. His new home is a bungalow; tidy, neat and unremarkable. We live at opposite ends of the country, he and I, communicating sporadically and meeting infrequently, but in his email he writes of needing to walk with a stick, having to ‘get a quart into a pint pot’ [of the downsize they have made], of the various health issues he and his wife are experiencing.

It is dispiriting to read this. While we are dependent, to a degree on fitness to stay the fears of old age, seventy should not, need not feel old, any more than sixty should. After all we are used to seeing footage of centenarians running marathons or parachuting out of planes. So what makes some continue to be adventurous and intrepid in older age and some not?

I believe it is possible to think yourself old and I suspect it has much to do with how you have lived life all along, who you’ve hitched up with, where you’ve taken up residence, what your occupation was and many other, related factors.

The small town Husband and I moved to a year ago has a reputation for being home to the largest population of pensioners in the country and this is often evident on Mondays, when the market in the High Street is beset by swathes of motorised scooters, walking stick wielding geriatrics and silver browsers.

And yet on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday night the town hums with fun seekers; music lovers, clubbers, theatre-goers and the pub community thronging the streets. In the pubs there’ll be live bands attended by drinkers and dancers. The restaurants are full and the streets are busy with revellers moving from one venue to another. Look closely and many of these fun-seekers are the same, older folks that were in the market, determinedly rocking the night away. And who can blame them?

What should we do, then? Some simply give in to aches and pains, sit around and eat themselves into a blob. Others don their lycra, deny themselves to anorexia and run, cycle and circuit train themselves into gristle. Personally I prefer the happy medium. I like to walk and cycle and enjoy it all the more with a slice of cake, an ice cream or a glass of wine at the end of it!

But most of all I could never, ever give up to the point of buying and living in a bungalow!

Personal Effects

I can never remember my parents buying any furniture, or visiting a furniture shop. The things we had-tables, chairs, beds, ‘suites’-they seemed to have been there always, moving house when we did, packed away into a removal van and taken out at the next house; then fitted into whatever space there was. A number of pieces were inherited, accumulated over the years. My mother could say who they’d belonged to: ‘That’s Great Aunty Mabel’s cabinet’ and so on.

Back then you used whatever you’d been given without a thought of renewing or even choosing something. This approach continued as I entered adult life and moved from renting places [where you put up with whatever eclectic mix the landlord had assembled] into home ownership.

Later, becoming single again and beginning home ownership once more, but with less cash the luxury of choice was tempered by limited funds. I could choose, but from whatever was in the skip, at the council recycling depot or if feeling flush-at the junk shop and the small ads. Each acquisition felt like a triumph, whether coming home from the council rubbish dump with some brass coat hooks on a pine base or discovering a French, inlaid walnut bed outside a second-hand shop.

Pairing up with Husband meant pairing up the belongings, too. Collapsing two households full of effects into one is a tricky business when both householders have struggled to amass said items in the first place. There were lively discussions, debates and compromises. A number of fiercely contested pieces followed us into the home we bought together-happily a stomping great house that was capable of accommodating every treasured, hard-fought-over object, whether treasured or detested.

Waiting almost six months for the next move-a move that almost didn’t happen-we shed items in a gradual purge, resulting in a refreshing, minimalistic environment containing two camping chairs and a TV. This was an echo of my house as a new singleton, albeit a temporary phase in the limbo between homes. We’d agreed that the new house was neither suited to our collected contents nor did it contain the right spaces and therefore we cast caution into the teeth of the gale and got rid.

I let my fingers do the walking [remember that old ‘Yellow Pages’ ad?] with varying degrees of success. A set of six, white, Charles Eames style dining chairs arrived as a set of five. ‘Who buys five?’ I asked Monsieur Customer Support, who agreed it would be unusual. Husband is something of a traditionalist when it comes to furniture and was [and continues to be] less enthusiastic about my choice, although I conceded over the selection of the TV housing. Compromises continue to be made.

Like the house, we haven’t mourned the passing of our old belongings. It is, after all just ‘stuff’. But a couple of boxes still lurk under the bed in a guest room. They contain ‘stuff’ from the old place, ‘stuff’ we don’t know what to do with; ‘stuff’ that may, perhaps get passed on to the next generation-so they can ditch it…

The River House

I woke this morning and opened the blind to the view I’ve been treated to for the last two weeks. This morning the sunlight is dancing on the water as the river flows around this voluptuous curve in a sinuous meander, fringed by a border of mature willows whose grey-green foliage sways in a light breeze.

Across the meadow moles have toiled overnight to produce a smattering of brown hillocks. By the time I’ve descended into the living room a fisherman or two will have established a prime spot along the bank and will have organised the space with their equipment-a chair, a large, green umbrella and of course, their rods and landing nets. Some stay rooted to their chosen position all day, others wander up and down, trying various places by dipping the line in then moving elsewhere. A pair of swans cruise past in a nonchalant voyage up river and an occasional cormorant passes overhead.

Outside our back gate is a footpath that leads for miles along the river and across the path is a hedge marking the expanse of the private fishing zone. This hedge is a riot of brambles, nettles, buddleia, willow, hawthorn and wild fuchsia and is alive with small birds and butterflies-too many species to detail here.

Across the river another meadow sports a herd of cows who amble through at the same time each day, tails flicking, jaws munching, following the matriarch in an ordained timetable, their route taking them under a railway bridge. Every so often a train comes or goes behind the meadow, some to London or Manchester, some to Poole and Weymouth, making no impact on the cattle, the wildlife or ourselves.

A robin and a pair of blackbirds have already become confident enough to claim our patch of garden as their own, now that dogs and cats are no longer in residence. The robin perches on the rooftop of our new, rustic bird table and dips up and down in a proprietorial way. I have begun to reclaim the cherry trees from the suffocating killer embrace of the ivy that is strangling them and am undertaking a mission to clear the steep bank under our trees from the ferocious brambles that have had their own way for too long.

The small wedge of scruffy grass is responding to some regular trimming and digging-out of weeds by greening up and the pathways and decking are visible now that the accumulated leaves and detritus have been swept away.

So it is ours, this place; seducing us from the moment the removal men left us. We stepped out on to the balcony outside our living room on the hottest day of the year, took in the glorious landscape on our doorstep and all thoughts of our old house were swept away like a clump pf weed on the river. We’ve had to collect items wrongly delivered and return items wrongly removed from the old place. Otherwise it has become a mere stop along the bus route of our history. Now you know…

Safely Delivered

Moving home is very much like having a baby. You wouldn’t entertain the idea of doing it again until the memory has faded into a distant smudge and is embellished with a liberal dollop of nostalgia. However stressful the build-up [the labour] has been it is as nothing compared to the climax, which is either a smooth, trouble-free relief or a frantic, screeching panic.

We moved one week ago, which means that the pain and the panic are fading but it’s best to remember that in the scale of life’s most stressful events moving house is up there in the top three along with bereavement and divorce.

The day began well, with a removal van turning up at 8.30am prompt and we were ready, everything boxed, everything labelled, everything [almost] cleaned and spruced up for the new occupants. The lorry looked too small but we were assured by the two movers that our belongings would disappear into it and they set to, rejecting offers of tea and biscuits, fitting tables, chairs, beds and mattresses together into the space like some sort of domestic 3D jigsaw.

Then they were gone, with a cheerful ‘call us when you’ve got the keys to the new house’, off for a much deserved full English breakfast somewhere while the van full of our life’s effects languished unloved outside the depot.

We waited, we hoovered, we looked at our phones, we checked that the land line was operating. We had a coffee. I wandered out to the garden to pluck out some stray weeds and tuck in some wayward strands of creeper. We checked again. We ate a sandwich, had another coffee. The phone rang and I jumped in a febrile lather of excitement. It was the removal chap. ‘Had we heard anything?’

I went across to say goodbye to some neighbours, returning to find a car in the driveway. The new occupants had arrived. ‘Come in!’ we told them. But now we were becoming spare parts in our own house-which was still our house until the solicitor deemed it acceptable for us to access our new property. The money was wending its way along the eight-house chain but had yet to reach the top. I rang the solicitor to be told she was having lunch. We stood by our bags of final bits and chatted to the buyers of our house. They were beside themselves with exhilaration as their removal lorry arrived. ‘Get your stuff in!’ we told them and as we stood our space began to fill with their belongings, compounding our feelings of being interlopers.

At last we could stand it no more. We got into the car with our pitiable bits and pieces and made our way to the new house. If nothing else we could sit outside it and anticipate. The day was wearing on [by now it was mid-afternoon].

But all was well, of course. Upon rounding the bend we were greeted with the sight of our lovely removal men, busily heaving our furniture into our new home. The doors, it seemed had been left open. We cast caution to the wind and entered, eventually receiving a call from the estate agent to pick up some keys.

And did we cry bitter tears for our old home? Did we wander the rooms of the new house under a pall of homesickness? Aha! You will have to wait and see…

The B&B Rant

A lot of people swear by B&Bs for their holiday accommodation needs. B&Bs, guest houses, chambers d’hotes-whatever you like to call them-differ from hotels in a variety of ways, but personally I would prefer to eat my own hair than stay in them.
The reasons fans of B&Bs give for loving them are varied, but rely on the principle of the ‘personal touch’. They say things like ‘such nice people’, ‘just like family’, ‘home from home’ and it is just this that provokes me to shudder at the idea of staying in one. This judgement does not come from hearsay, reportage or conversation but from real, empirical research. In other words, my experiences of said places have been entirely negative.
I don’t want to stay in someone’s home. I can manage [just about] to stay with close family members for up to two nights, perhaps but even then I find it hard to manage.
I don’t want to sleep in an overheated, tiny, stuffy room crammed with family photos, ornaments, souvenirs of Brixham, lace doilies and knick-knacks. I don’t want to be suffocated by an enormous cloud of puffy duvet.
We are not the earliest of risers. I want a lovely, exclusive en suite [for night time needs, if nothing else] and at least two cups of tea before I face anyone [Husband excluded of course]. I may want to slob about pre-ablution watching News 24.
When I do surface, I don’t really want to eat anything until at least late morning, and then I am not able to cope with ‘full English’ [in other words: cereal followed by bacon, sausage, egg, baked beans, fried bread, tomato, mushrooms, black pudding, toast and marmalade].
Most of all though I don’t wish to sit at the breakfast table and make small talk with the ‘friendly, welcoming’ host or hostess. I don’t want their life story, learn what their grandchildren are studying at university or where they have been for their holidays.
If all this makes me sound humbug I don’t care. Give me a plain, simple, anonymous hotel. It doesn’t need a stupendous view, an infinity pool, a Michelin starred restaurant or four posters [although they can be fun…]. I want to be able to use a breakfast buffet-preferably up until eleven or so. I want tea and coffee making facilities [biscuits are always a bonus]. I want a TV I can watch from the bed. I want a firm, clean, comfortable bed with options for temperature control [ie covers to put on or remove]. I want a clean, efficient en suite with a shower that doesn’t need a degree in engineering to operate. Ideally, some beautiful toiletries are provided. I’d really like a late night bar where I can grab a last glass of wine before I turn in. I’d like INTERNET [included in the price!]. I’d like pleasant, non intrusive service.
I don’t mind that it is part of a ‘chain’ and every room is the same. It needn’t have an Alpine or Namibian Desert view.
Otherwise-give me a comfortable, efficient camper van, which does have ensuite, tea & coffee making, glass of wine and TV-and I don’t need to talk to anyone [Husband excluded]…

Accept the Inevitable…

Chez nous is in a state of flux at the moment. A period in which both Husband and I were bogged down with health annoyances has prompted a rethink of our housing situation. Up until the present, when one of us has succumbed to a complaint the other, being the more fit, has taken on the nursing. Husband undertook a memorable mercy dash home from South West France when I was felled by a bout of septicaemia [although we were ignorant as to my condition at the time]. The return took nine hours of driving sans navigator or co-driver [me], as I slumped in a near comatose state in the passenger seat.

Another time, on a particular, milestone birthday, Husband became welded to the bed due to a debilitating burst of labyrinthitis- an unpleasant condition causing nausea, vomiting and drunken-like staggering and which takes weeks to overcome using religious observance of an exercise regime. This has recurred, at a time when I am crippled by my [previously explained] foot problem.

The result is that we have begun to consider our property, our house and garden somewhat larger than it was before. The garden [my responsibility] seems to be growing in size as it also burgeons forth with spring growth. The house stretches into seeming endless rooms filled with cobwebs, dust and worse-scuffed paint and dingy carpets.

This is an age old dilemma. No one wants to leave the home they have nurtured and loved for so many years. Once you have lavished care, thought, elbow grease and vast amounts of money on a house it becomes part of the fabric of your life, your history and your family. You think of all the life events it has supported, both the crises and the celebrations. You think of all the meals prepared and consumed, the comfortable nights of sleep, the books read curled up on a snug sofa, the work undertaken, the visitors entertained, the barbecues enjoyed, winter evenings by the wood burner. You wonder how on earth it will be possible to re-create such a congenial environment anywhere else at all.

But above all it makes you face the stark nature of ageing and allows you an unnerving view of the future. In his nineties my father fought with every frail bone in his body to maintain his independence and stay in his own home, despite his failing health, but nothing could prevent his having to go to a care home, the very place he feared and hated.

As yet we are far from this state. But the strange phenomenon of time accelerating as you grow older makes me realise it could be better to make changes sooner rather than later. What a dilemma!