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!

A Very Happy Christmas to all Anecdotage Followers and Visitors-

Since Anecdotage is on Christmas Day this year I’m posting a seasonal story on the blog. While it is a story for children it is also a parable of our times. The birds in our own garden seem to have definite characters, making them ideal fodder for fiction…

Goodwill to All Birds

                  Rowena Robinson was huddled on the spindly branches of the lilac tree. Her feathers were puffed up like a seeding dandelion while Roy, on the branch above her was filling the garden with a selection of his latest songs.

“I don’t know why you’re bothering with that rubbish!” Rowena nagged. “Nobody is taking any notice. It won’t get us any nearer to the peanuts; not with that rabble hogging the bird feeders.”

She jerked her beak at the bird table across the lawn. The Starling family, all seven of them, were feasting there, tearing into the peanuts and the suet as if it was their last meal on earth. Shreds of food rained down upon the grass. Rowena shook her head. “Their manners are terrible! Look at the mess they make! No wonder their chicks are so badly behaved, with the bad example they set. And why do they have so many children? Three or four is enough for any bird, surely?”

Roy hopped down to join his wife. Cold and hunger was making her bad tempered.

“They are hungry too, my love. Perhaps we should call them the Starvling family! And if they drop scraps on to the grass it’s easier for some of the smaller birds like Jenny to pick it up. Wrens prefer the ground for feeding after all. Stevie and his chicks will be done in a minute then we will get a turn at those nuts. We’ll need some supper. It’ll be dark soon.”

Sure enough a light came on in the house, illuminating the garden and prompting the Starlings to rise up like a cloud and swoop away over the fence. As the Robinsons prepared to fly over to the bird table a door slid open on the patio and the giant figure of a girl chick stepped out. Rowena turned back with a squawk of alarm as her husband landed on the stones next to the girl’s feet. He bowed several times in front of the enormous figure, who stood still and murmured to him in her strange tongue. In her hand she held a bag and now she shook it over the stones, peppering the ground with delicious seeds, nuts and mealworms.

Roy called to Rowena, “Come on over, dear. There’s enough food here to feed a flock!” But she shrank back into the tree, trembling.

“Roy! Get out of there! It isn’t safe.”

He hopped over and looked up at her. “Dear, the people won’t hurt us. They like us. They are the ones who put all this food out. We must show them we like them too. When we gather around them and sing they keep feeding us.”

He coaxed her from the tree, leading her on to the stone slabs to where the girl, Millie was standing.

Later, feeling well-fed in their cosy roost as they prepared for sleep, Roy was explaining about the family in the house. “That one you saw, the one who served us the meal; that was a hen-chick. They call it a girl in human language. I don’t think she lives in the house but she visits quite often”

“Girl” Rowena murmured.

“Then there’s an old hen. She lives there all the time. They call it a woman.”

Rowena yawned. “How do you know she’s old?”

“Well her feathers are all white and straggly. Of course, the poor things only have feathers on their heads and they can’t even fly.” He turned to his wife but she was asleep.

The next morning, after a quick preen and a beak wipe they peered out to see Mark and Mandy Magpie strutting around as if they owned the place and making their usual racket. The other birds hung around at a distance listening to what sounded like pistol volleys. Rowena sighed.

“Not much chance of breakfast any time soon, then.”

“No-but they are the only ones who can keep Squirrel at bay, so they have their uses! What do you think that is?” Roy indicated a bedraggled, grey mound of feathers on the slabs by the door. Rowena stared, aghast. “Oh Roy! Do you think that dreadful cat’s been here again?” She shuddered, remembering the last time the fearful beast had terrorised the inhabitants of the garden.

“I’m going to take a closer look.”

“Roy you can’t! It isn’t safe with the Magpies there!”

But he’d already taken off. He flew over to the patio and perched on a window ledge above the feathers, ignored by Mark and Mandy who were squabbling and squawking over a fat ball they both wanted. Rowena saw Roy bend towards the feathers as he chirped at it then was astonished to see the feathers move! A bedraggled head appeared and peered up at her husband.

Just then the door opened and Millie stepped out. Mark and Mandy screeched and rose up grumbling to retire to the nearest tree but Roy stayed where he was, watching. When the girl-chick spotted the heap of feathers and got down to look at it Rowena gasped, for the heap of feathers did not get up and fly away or even try to move. The girl-chick went back inside the house and Roy glided back to his wife.

“It’s a pigeon, Row. His name is Preston. I know pigeons aren’t very clever and they’re a bit common but he’s in a bad way. I think his wing is injured. He says a car hit him. Look-the girl-chick is coming back out.”

Millie returned. In one hand she held the peanut bag they all knew so well, in the other a saucer of water. She knelt by the pigeon and placed the water and some peanuts next to him. Then withdrew to the other end of the patio. Preston raised his head to stare over at Roy.

“It’s alright” chirped the robin. “The girl-chick won’t hurt you. She helps us all.”

“Shush, Roy! You know we don’t talk to pigeons! They come in here from miles away and take all our food and water!”

Roy cocked his head to one side. “My love, we are lucky to be very well looked after here in this garden. Does it really matter where this poor bird is from or who he is? He may not be like us but he is a bird all the same. There is enough to go around, whoever needs it, isn’t there?”

“I suppose so. But he won’t stand much of a chance if he stays there anyway. Fox will get him.”

She was right, thought Roy.

The next morning Preston wasn’t there and in his place was a box. Millie stepped outside and poured some nuts into it. “Is it some new kind of bird feeder?” Rowena asked and Roy went to look. “He’s in the box, Row! Preston is in there!”

“Don’t be daft, Roy. Have you been eating those rotten apples again?”

“It’s true-go and see for yourself.”

She took off and made a cautious circuit over the patio, peering down at the box before returning to their branch. “He seems a bit better today-more perky and he’s tidied himself up a bit.”

Two days later they woke to see Preston standing on the slabs tucking into a saucer of peanuts. Roy called to him. “How’s it going? You’re looking much better.”

The grey wood pigeon took a few wobbly steps towards the edge of the slabs. “Since the girl-chick gave me food and a safe place to sleep my wing is starting to feel less painful. I might try a few exercises after breakfast.”

“Take care, friend,” warned Roy, “The Magpies can be very rough and we sometimes get Fox here in the garden, too!”

They watched as Preston hopped around the garden, flexing his wings and wincing then propelling himself half a metre into the air in a series of leaps whilst flapping. At last he flopped on to the slabs for a rest.

“He’s persistent. I’ll give him that.” Rowena glanced sideways at her husband.

Preston got stronger every day until one morning they woke to see him flying around the garden and making experimental landings on branches and the grass. He stopped on the ground flower bed below them and squinted up with one beady eye.

“I’m off this morning. I’ll say Cheerio. Might be back some time. Thanks for all your help.”

Roy flicked his tail. “Take care friend. You know where we are.”

Preston bowed deeply before making an ungainly ascent, circling once and then heading west. They watched in silence until he became a tiny speck. The patio door slid open and Millie stepped out, looking about her and into the box, which was empty. She called something into the house behind her and a short, old hen-person came out to stand by her.

Roy took off, calling to Rowena. “Come on!”

“What are you?…” Rowena spluttered but flew to join him on the patio next to the two humans. “Sing, my love. Sing with all your heart!”

The Robinsons perched together on the edge of the bird bath, serenading the hen and girl-chick as they stood smiling outside the door. Millie clapped her hands. “That was so beautiful. Thank you. I expect you’re hungry after all that singing!”

She sprinkled a liberal helping of peanuts on to the slabs in front of them.

“There-you see?” Roy nodded at his wife. “We are so lucky. We live in the best garden in the world.”

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…

And so that was Christmas- [sorry JL]

We have now had the feverish consumer-fest that is Christmas 2014. All of that deliberating, researching, stressing, purchasing, sending back, re-purchasing, stressing again, decking the halls, stressing, preparing, wrapping, adapting, teeth-gritting, cooking, overeating, unwrapping, lying around, overeating again-all of that was about one day.

I do it all. I do the researching, purchasing, wrapping, preparing and the stressing. I also do the overeating, the lying around and the regretting. Then I look forward with a lover’s yearning for it all to be over and done with. I wait until the very last moment to festoon the house with gaudy tat and I am more than ready, by the end of Boxing Day, to tear it all down and stow it away for next time. What an extraordinary waste of time, energy and resources it all is!

But nothing beats the heady euphoria that the smooth, clean nakedness of the unadorned house presents. It induces [in me, at least] a gargantuan sigh of relief-so much so that it is almost worth the effort involved in all the preparations and clearing away to achieve the feeling.

Of course I don’t clear it all away the day after Christmas day. Don’t get me wrong-I do wait a decent interval before blitzing everything; until the last mince pie is consumed and the last guest has shuffled off to the station. But I can never stand to wait for that traditional ’12 day’ period to elapse. Nothing is more depressing than the sight of tired, dusty tinsel flapping in the drizzle and gales of a shiny new year.

In empathetic reflection, the post-Christmas news broadcasts are undergoing their own detox. There may well have been terrorist attacks, beheadings, invasions, tsunamis or Biblical-style famines but we are spared any intelligence of such events. The number one spot for news items is that of the Boxing Day sales. Whoopee! For those suffering sale-scrum withdrawal after Black Friday there is a chance to rise at 2.00am and stand in a queue for six hours with the possibility that they may purchase five or six handbags at a price of £500-a mere half of the [alleged] £1000 presale price.

Reader, I cannot think of a single item I want enough to queue up through the night in the damp and cold then plunge into a screeching, tearing pack of sale hounds for. Besides the fact that I am not a handbag person [this has been addressed in a previous post] I understand that the over-hyped prices of August are merely set lower and termed ’sale’ prices. In addition I actually want less stuff, not more[this was also addressed in a previous post]. On Black Friday one triumphant woman, flushed with the success of having snatched two flat screen, HD televisions proclaimed ‘I got two and I don’t even know if I want one’. Others were injured by falling TVs or trampled in the stampede. I’m betting these same people are in the queue for the next sale ruck. Happy Christmas one and all!

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!

The Housebot is Coming!

                It would only be fair to say that these days, here at Schloss Lessageing, the family home and domestic hub that houses us, domestic chores and hum drum routines are shared on an equal basis. This is not to say that there aren’t tasks which one or other of us has adopted as routine, or that one task falls under an individual’s remit more than another. Husband, for instance is more inclined to put dustbins out for collection each Sunday night, although I do undertake this job on occasion. It is interesting to note, however that when neither of us is present the bins experience a less regular evacuation. On one occasion I discovered, while tidying the garden, the corpse of a cat, which I’m sorry to say I dealt with by manoeuvring it into a plastic bag, wrapping it in a number of layers of newspaper plus more plastic bags and depositing into the refuse bin. [I’m aware that this appears callous, but time and opportunity did not allow for a more dignified disposal]. On our return I gathered that this bin did not get emptied for several weeks, resulting in a powerful stench as the said corpse deteriorated. Luckily our neighbours are still speaking to us.

                Meal preparation, vacuuming, laundry, polishing of furniture-these are all chores which are designated either/or. This way we all get some time off for good behaviour, although myself, I do not hold the same contempt/disregard/reluctance for domestic tasks that I had as a proper working person, in fact I may even, on occasion derive something approaching satisfaction in their execution. This is because it is possible to accompany chores with pleasurable activities such as radio listening or story composition. In other words, they are mindless and allow the brain to think about anything one likes.

                But I am not so far removed from the world of proper work to have forgotten how utterly exhausted I used to be on my return each day and also at weekends [when it would take until Sunday night to recover from the rigours of the previous week]. So the news that Dyson, the vacuum cleaner manufacturers are pouring mountains of cash into research into a variety of domestic robots seems, on the face of it to be encouraging-that is, until you look forward to the time when these domestibots begin to be commonplace.

                You will be able to sit watching the TV while the hooverbot revolves around the room. Your only movement will be a slight lifting of the feet as it nears the sofa. You will be able to read a magazine as the tablebot clears the plates; only needing to raise your paper as it takes your plate. You may lie, comatose on your sun-bed as the mowerbot beavers up and down the lawn manufacturing its perfect stripes, and you can continue with your next level of ‘Candy Crush’ as the refusebot empties the bins, the laundrybot sorts the garments and the chamberbot makes the beds.

                And if you are very, very lucky the hoistbot will come along and lift your [by now] obese form from its dent on the couch and transport you along to the hospital for your heart transplant. What’s not to like?