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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The Beauty of the Bike.

Thank heavens for cycling.

Since most foot-dependent activities are currently out of the question, cycling is the option that remains. [Regular readers will know of my aversion to water submersion-hence swimming is off the menu].

So cycling is becoming vital to maintaining an amoebic level of physical activity and to this end Husband has been rising to the challenge of hauling me around various routes and tracks in pursuit of improving my corporeal condition.

Of course the bikes are always on board when we are out and about in the van and were transported all around Italy, Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica despite being rarely employed. This was mostly due to the terrifying nature of the Italian roads, although in Sardinia there was a modicum of driverly care un-encountered anywhere else in Italy.

On the subsequent [most recent] trip to Brittany there was more cycling. Travelling by ‘velo’ in France is a whole different experience surpassed only by bicycle use in The Netherlands or Belgium. So we undertook some pedal routes-quiet lanes and tarmac tracks, not all of which were totally flat. As I’m aware that Husband is not over-fond of complaints during cycle rides I took pains not to comment that my knees were creaking, my wrists numb and I was becoming generally knackered.

Such are the nuances of marriage however that once returned he announced that I’d been ‘complaining silently’.

On another afternoon I opted to stay behind, not so much as to spare him my silent complaints as to get down to revising poor, neglected Novel Two. Thus I was heavily engaged in the task and oblivious to anything else when Husband reappeared after what seemed an unusually brief spell. ‘I came off’ he said.

He’d come off in spectacular style, judging by the holes in his elbow and his knee. In the customary manner of husbands he was eager to minimise the event, the effects of which were not a pretty sight. Novel Two went back on the back burner while I delved into the eclectic mix of items I call the First Aid Box.

Back home now, I’ve managed to cycle without complaint, silent or otherwise, ascended some hills without dismounting to push and achieved staying within sight of Husband’s bike most of the time.

I’ve also come to realise that the bike has other uses besides the exercise factor. If I need to nip up the road for a loaf of bread I can do so without needing to suffer the excruciating attentions of Neighbour, a man who speaks to me as if I am a miniature toy poodle and who I tend to avoid at all cost.

So bike is the way except for when it’s raining-which it is-a lot-at the moment…

 

About ‘Nora Webster’

I just finished reading Colm Toibin’s ‘Nora Webster’. Although a companion book to the more commercially viable ‘Brooklyn’ which was made into a film, I found it an altogether more thoughtful and evocative novel.

Set in early sixties Ireland, it is the story of widowed Nora’s journey into some kind of independence and happiness following the death of husband, Maurice.

At the beginning of the novel I felt that Nora’s conservative, narrow way of life had everything to do with her staunch Catholic background but as I read on I began to see that the era in which the story is set was itself an era of conservatism. This will resonate with anyone who was born in the fifties as I was.

The story plays out against a background of the Irish troubles, when TV news footage impacts on Nora’s family life in their jittery responses and constant anxiety.

Nora struggles with bringing up her four children, with money and with every decision, since during her marriage she’d looked to teacher husband, Maurice to decide everything. ‘What would Maurice do/say/choose?’ she asks, constantly. My own mother was the same, an unwaged housewife, leaving every decision for my father to make. Her views, like Nora’s were my father’s views. We all holidayed in his preferred destinations, bought things when he wanted them, agreed with his political viewpoint and his wellbeing was paramount in the family. This, I believe was commonplace in the post-war era.

Nora’s children are her preoccupation, a constant worry as she has to find a job and keep it under some trying circumstances. At first she either relies on advice from family or makes knee-jerk decisions which she then regrets. But gradually she learns to trust her own judgement and gains confidence. She finds joy in the appreciation of music and takes singing lessons.

The older of Nora’s sons exhibits behaviour which we would now realise is autistic, being disruptive in class and obsessing about photography. The behaviour deteriorates in the time after Maurice’s death. One of her daughters, Aine becomes involved in the struggles and the other, Fiona, a student teacher wants to spread her wings and spend money that Nora doesn’t have.

Most of these difficulties are likely to plague any single parent today. Juggling the needs of a family and the imperative to hold down a job is a tricky business. The problems that Nora experiences are no more trivial for the children being older.

Nora is a complex character, reserved but at the same time feisty. I liked how she stood up to a difficult manager at work and manoeuvred herself into a better position. She is constrained by her religion and influenced by the religious figures in her life. In many ways this is a feminist novel. I wish I could say that life is completely different for women today but there are still too many outstanding inequalities to address.

Who wouldn’t want a Wacky Wedding?

The story that grabbed most of my attention this week was the Pastafarian wedding. This was held in New Zealand, at the church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. The wedding was conducted on a pirate ship with guests and groom in full pirate regalia and the bride sported some groovy headgear featuring a colander.

This is impressive. Not only has the couple flouted tradition and stuck a finger up to the fantasy of organised religion but the wedding has been sanctioned by the New Zealand government to boot! From what I can gather, Pastafarians believe that one may as well have faith in a deity that formed the Earth from pasta and meatballs as one that accepts the dead coming back to life or getting seventeen virgins for becoming a martyr.

I would think this couple stands a very good chance of having a prolonged and happy married life which, as we old marrieds know is enhanced by retaining as much of a sense of fun as possible and lacing the union with a healthy dash of cynicism.

Husband has his own theory on the subject of weddings and marriage [from observation rather than any rigorous scientific study]. It is that there is a direct correlation between amount of money spent on ‘The Day’ and duration of marriage. This is to say that more money=less years of matrimonial bliss. This may come some way towards explaining why the cost of our own nuptials amounted to the princely sum of thirty five pounds [exactly the price of the marriage license]. We rose, dressed [in clean, but previously worn] outfits, drove to the register office, met the two friends who’d been coerced into witnessing and did the deed.

The meeting with the [somewhat bemused] registrar was a little tricky due to his producing a small cushion for us to deposit the rings. Husband [pre-Husband at this time] looked bewildered and told him we didn’t have any rings. I feel I showed great presence of mind at this point by offering to use the ring I’d used for my first wedding. This isn’t as bad as it sounds because it had been my paternal grandmother’s ring and although I’d used it for my first marriage I had simply transferred it to the other hand when all turned to ratchet. It had only, now to be returned to my ring finger. The ceremony lasted all of fifteen minutes then we were off across the road to the pub, where my friend unveiled the secret objects she’d been carrying in a supermarket carrier bag-a cake plus a carving knife.

We returned home, married, to prepare for a proper knees-up that evening. It just happened to be my birthday. In spite of spending the princely sum of thirty five pounds we have managed to stay married-for a whole thirteen years-not the accumulation many of our peers have amassed but creditable for ‘second-time-rounders’.

Fiction Month. Unmanned on a Wednesday-part 1

It’s Fiction Month on Anecdotage. This is the third year I’ve celebrated National Novel Writing Month by posting up a month of stories. Here’s part one of the first story- ‘Unmanned on a Wednesday’- a tale of two women, a launderette and a shirt known to both of them.

Muriel stood outside on the pavement and examined the information on display, mouthing the words: opening hours, the management accepts no responsibility…

Shielding her eyes against reflection, she peered into the gloom, scanning for signs of life, hoping for an efficient counter assistant to relieve her of her bulky bundle; someone who was familiar with the machines and the vagaries of washing one’s dirty linen in public. Inside she could make out a figure, bending to pull open a circular door.

She inhaled, grasped the handle of the bag with one hand and pushed the door with the other, hearing its incongruous jangle as she dragged the holdall in through the entrance to the launderette.

The figure straightened, turned to acknowledge her presence with a smiling ‘Hello’ then continued to feed clothing into the open mouth of the washer, flicking items or turning them inside out.

Muriel looked around. The atmosphere was oppressive with the stifling damp of detergent fumes and hummed with churning dryers and the whirring of front loaders as they went into intermittent, furious spins. She approached an idle machine warily as if it were a stray dog and studied the instructions. It needed some pound coins. She dug into her bag for her purse.

A voice hailed her from the row of chairs opposite.

“There’s a coin dispenser if you need change. It’s on the wall by the service counter.” It was a lilting, youthful voice, the words coloured with a tint of accent.

Muriel turned to face the voice, the young woman having sat down, a dog eared magazine unopened on her lap.

“A coin dispenser?” she replied, “Oh, I see-for pounds to go in the slot. Sorry! You must think I’m an idiot! I’m not used to these places. I thought there would be someone here, to take the laundry and deal with it.”

In the ensuing pause she became aware that she’d spewed out her inadequacy like an over indulgence of champagne.

The seated woman smiled again. She had an elegant, restful face; a long nose above a wide mouth accustomed to laughter.

“It’s unmanned on a Wednesday and in the evenings,” she informed the older woman. “Don’t worry. It’s quite easy when you get the hang of it, as it were.” She grinned, extracting an inadvertent smile from Muriel, who negotiated the change machine, returned to the machine and stuffed as much of the contents of the bag as she could into its gaping aperture.

“They don’t like being overloaded,” cautioned her companion. “It might be better to split the load between two machines.”

Once the two appliances were humming in harmonious tandem Muriel sat down next to her mentor and the two watched the revolving drums in a shared trance.

“You must be a regular at this,” she ventured. “You seem to be an expert.”

The young woman shrugged.  “I’ve no washing machine in my tiny flat. I don’t mind it; in fact I enjoy coming. I get to read the trashy magazines I wouldn’t buy or admit to enjoying.”

“Except for tonight!”

She laughed; a light, infectious laugh.

“Oh no, I didn’t mean I wasn’t enjoying some company for a change! I come from a large family back in Ireland so talking is what I’m used to. But what brings you here? Has your home machine broken down?”

Muriel sighed. “The new one can’t be delivered until next week. I may have to visit a second time before it comes. You might have to suffer my company again.”

“I’d like that! What’s your name?”

“Muriel.”

“I’m Niamh.” She put a slender hand out to shake.

They watched the circulating fabrics in silence. Muriel thought it curious how an item would present itself at the front in the spotlight for a few seconds then withdraw to make way for a different article’s display. One of the dryers ground to a halt, prompting Niamh to stand, pull the door open and inspect the progress of its contents. Muriel continued to watch the revolving laundry behind the doors, her attention drawn to an item, the colours of which seemed familiar. Perhaps she had an identical tablecloth or bed linen; a coincidence. The piece of laundry came and went, teasing her in its intermittent exhibition.

Having reinvigorated the dryer with more coins, Niamh returned to sit.

“I see you’re married,” she said. “Do you have children?”

Muriel flushed. Accustomed to her own company or the stilted, polite society of her husband’s associates and their wives she was unused to striking up spontaneous conversations with strangers on subjects of a personal matter. Not for her the inconsequential chatter of the supermarket queue or the doctor’s waiting room. Her groceries were delivered, her healthcare private. But she was both flattered and warmed by this beautiful young woman’s attention and besides, she’d brought nothing to do or to read, not having considered she would have to undertake the task of washing the laundry herself.

She nodded. “I do, though they’ve flown the nest. The youngest is at university.”

“So you’ve more time to spend with your husband now, is that it?”

The older woman raised her eyebrows. “You would think so, but no. My husband spends more time at work since the children grew up and left; late evenings and overnight to different cities, for training sessions, he says. So I’m on my own most of the time.”

“This is a night out for you then!”

Infected by her familiarity, Muriel felt emboldened.

“You are not married yourself?”

She hesitated. “No. I am kind of seeing someone though.”

“Kind of?”

Check in next week for Part 2-the conclusion

I’ve Seen the Future-Now What Was it Again?

I was standing in the middle of our garage. I am normally competent at looking for items but this time I was at a loss. During my autumn 2014 incarceration [which is documented in a previous post] a number of objects have made mysterious moves to different locations. My beloved kitchen steps, purchased by myself as a tailor-made solution to being vertically challenged had undergone a change for a different set. Husband’s initial response to an enquiry as to the whereabouts of said steps was that ‘These are better’, but a pursuit of the subject revealed that my own, preferred steps had found their way into the camper van and been replaced by these, unsuitable, usurper steps. Hmph!

To continue, I had a small hand brush in my hand and was searching for something. What was it? I could not say. I knew what it looked like. I also knew that I would need to ask Husband, who has undertaken some item location changes, where it was. But this presented a problem. How could I ask him? Because, reader, I could not think of the word for it. Horrors! I stood. I thought. The word was there, within my clutches but just out of reach, taunting me. It was no good. I would have to succumb to the humiliating act of describing the object I was seeking.

Husband was outside on the patio. We’d been removing the tiny, Brussel-sprout shaped Christmas tree that has survived its third festive period inside the house and whilst being removed to its outside home had dumped large quantities of soil en route-hence the search for the ‘thing’.

I waved the brush at him as an opening gambit.

‘Where’s the…thing?’

‘I don’t know what you mean. What are you looking for?’ This was my question. What was I looking for?

‘The thing. You know.’

‘I don’t know. What do you want?’

I sighed. I would have to describe it. ‘The sweeping-into thingy. It goes with the brush.’

He straightened. ‘The dustpan.’

Dustpan. The word streamed into my brain like a flood. Of course. How could I not have known it? Dustpan. I was horrified. The words ‘senile dementia’ flashed in alarm where ‘dustpan’ should have been.

Words constantly flee from my mind like this, provoking a combination of pity, laughter and derision from those who share my home. I also repeat myself, a trait which elicits frustration. Both of these habits are symptoms of dementia.

One of my hit reads of 2014 was Emma Healey’s brilliant ‘Elizabeth is Missing’, narrated by a very elderly woman, Maud, who suffers from senile dementia. The book is both tragic and comic and I alternated between laughter and near tears while reading it. The long suffering carers who make daily visits to Maud’s home are unerringly kind. If a long, slow plunge into senility is to be my fate I do hope those whose misfortune it is to care for me are as humane as they are!