A Neighbourly Manor-Part 4

  In the fourth and final part of the story, Lena and Richard are surprised by a late night visitor and Lena is witness to some revelations about her cynical, curmudgeonly husband of many years…

A Neighbourly Manor [Part 4]

            The May weather turned unsettled as some gusty showers blew over in the middle of the next week and it was during a heavy downpour on Wednesday evening that the bell rang. I’d been clearing up the kitchen and Richard was upstairs in the study editing his latest batch of Spanish photographs. I hadn’t heard a car pull up so I assumed it was someone from the village as I opened the door.
It was Imogen, though barely recognisable as the radiant girl of six weeks ago. With her hair plastered to her head and her thin shirt stuck to her, soaking, she looked bedraggled. She also appeared to be in some distress, from her red-rimmed eyes and stricken expression. I reached out and all but tugged her inside the hallway, where she stood dripping, her thin shoulders shuddering. I wasted no time.
‘Whatever has happened?’ I asked her. ‘Come into the lounge. I’ll put the fire on!’
Her mouth opened to speak and produced only a shivering sob as she allowed me to tow her into the living room.
‘Wait here,’ I told her, ‘I’ll get you something dry to wear.’
I went upstairs and hissed at Richard’s enquiring face as I grabbed a towelling robe then I dashed back and pulled it around her before sitting her down in an armchair like a child. ‘I’m going to put the kettle on,’ I said, and by the time I’d returned my husband had seated himself in the chair next to her. He glanced at me.
‘Let’s all have a cup of tea,’ he suggested.
As I left the room she began to mumble in halting sentences dotted with ‘sorrys’ and ‘thank yous’ until Richard leaned forward, put his fingers together and asked her, ‘Can you tell us what is wrong?’
By the time I’d set the tray down she was into her dismal story, which was no less depressing for being predictable; a whirlwind, fairy tale romance rising from a chance meeting with a charming, wealthy, practised, older suitor who’d promised the world before exposing her fully to the circles in which he moved. Circles which included a whole host of other women; ex-wives, of which Kristina was one, ex-partners, ex-girlfriends, ‘friends’ who would like to be girlfriends, ‘friends’ who were ‘helping with the designs’ like Liliana, married women, single women and all with one purpose-to be Jackson’s wife.
Having swapped a ward shift and wangled a couple of days off Imogen had planned to turn up without warning and give her intended a surprise, but when she left the car and approached the house she looked in at the un-curtained window and saw him with Liliana; the two of them dancing in the stark emptiness of the drawing room, one of his long arms around her waist, another with a glass of wine in hand. She’d stood in the rain and watched them, watched as they laughed together at the intimacies he whispered in the woman’s ears making her throw her head back in delight. She didn’t know how long she stood in the rain watching. She’d felt panic rising, welling up, threatening to overflow into a scream and then she’d run, back along the curving drive and through the gateway up the lane to our front door. The girl’s breathless narrative ground to a halt as she sniffed; taking another tissue from the box I’d placed beside her.
Richard sat back in his chair, crossing one of his legs over the other and turning his head a little in Imogen’s direction without looking at her face. He began to speak in a quiet monotone. He told her that she may feel distraught now, but that she would recover. He reminded her that she was a strong, independent woman and had proved it by raising a child on her own and following a responsible, highly valued career. He said she must remember that she’d led a good, happy life before Jackson and would do so again; that she must never allow any man to control and manipulate her feelings or treat her as an object to be owned and cast aside like a painting or a house; that a relationship should be based on mutual love and respect and she should look at me, Lena for an example of a resilient, capable woman; that our marriage might not look glamorous but he’d never been in any doubt that he’d chosen the right person. Throughout this monologue she sat motionless, her shuddering sobs subsiding, her narrow shoulders lowering, her eyes fixed hard upon Richard as if he were dragging her from a swamp.
‘Right,’ he concluded, ‘it’s far too late for you to be driving back tonight. You can stay in our guest room, which is always ready’. He looked up at me. ‘My wife can lend you anything you need. Shall we open that bottle of brandy we brought back with us? This would seem to be a suitable occasion to try it.’ He winked. I have a feeling my mouth was hanging open.
He asked Imogen for her car keys, declaring that he would fetch her car from the Manor.
Later on I ran a hot bath for our guest, after which she was subdued enough to submit to being tucked up in bed.
I extracted a promise from Imogen as she left next morning that she would under no circumstances email, ring or visit Jackson Agnew, neither should she respond to invitations from him, all of which she agreed to with a solemn nod. Her puffy face and red eyes showed that she’d wept the night away, but as she drove off Richard assured me it would pass.
‘Let’s go out for lunch,’ he said and I knew the subject was closed.

Some unspoken agreement kept us from cutting through Chiddlehampton Manor’s grounds for a couple of weeks and we were relieved to see no sign of Jackson or any of his paramours in the pub, or anywhere else in the vicinity.
It was June when we returned from a week in Torquay and saw the sign on the gate at the end of their drive. ‘For Sale- Grade Two listed Manor House with OPP for eight apartments’, it read. It was to be sold by the agent ‘Knight and Rutter’ who are known for their upmarket properties.
Doctor Jackson Agnew and his entourage, it seemed, had moved on.

 

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A Neighbourly Manor [Part 3]

In Part 3 of ‘A Neighbourly Manor’, Lena and Richard return from a holiday and meet yet another of Jackson’s visitors. Richard is less than impressed…

A Neighbourly Manor [Part 3]

                 We left Chiddlehampton and the UK a few days later to spend April in Marbella with our son, who works there as an architect. We prefer to visit in spring or autumn when the Spanish temperatures are less sweltering than in summer.
On the day following our return I collected Molly from some friends in the village who look after her when we are away and decided from her disgruntled expression and affronted manner that I should offer a brisk walk as a placatory gesture, so I combined this with a route through the estate. I was keen to learn what changes had occurred and who might be in residence.
In our absence the mature trees in the grounds had taken advantage of the balmy May sunshine to burst into blossom so that intermittent drifts of white or pink petals showered across in a light breeze. Scaffolding was still in place around the creamy walls, although the roof replacement looked to be almost complete.
Around the back in the car park area I noticed that an unsightly, corrugated pergola had been removed to reveal a semi-circle of elegant columns, a stunning feature. Jackson then had not been idle. His car was parked next to one of the sets of French windows facing the lawns. I loitered for a few minutes in hopes of spotting him or Imogen, or even Kristina, but with no obvious signs of human activity I continued through to the meadows with Molly.

That evening, when Richard suggested we stroll down to the pub and catch up with some village news, I needed no persuasion. Since the evenings had drawn out and drawn the locals out, the garden of the Cuckoo was as busy as the two bars, making it tricky work getting to buy a drink. I noticed that most of the tables were occupied with diners, too.
We’d just managed to gain access to the counter and the attention of the bar staff when I felt a rangy arm clamp around my neck and winced as a deafening voice boomed in my ear.
‘Well, well! The wanderers have returned! Welcome back you two. Did you have a good time? You must come down and see all the changes we’ve made. You won’t recognise the place! We have a table over in the alcove. Come and join us. You will let me get those, won’t you old chap?’
This was addressed to Richard, who’d not turned his head during the greeting, but responded while taking a note from his wallet and handing it across the counter.
‘We only came in for a quick one.’
I could have predicted my husband’s reply, however I was not about to allow an opportunity to talk with one of the two women pass me by.
‘But we’ll come and say Hello. Where are you sitting?’ A quick scan of the tables revealed no one resembling either of them.
We picked up our drinks and followed Jackson through the throng to the alcove. A woman was seated there, not Imogen, not Kristina; a young woman with a mane of dark curls and a heavy pasting of make-up, dark, sooty eyelids and a scarlet gash of lips. Jackson introduced us. When she stood she revealed a swell of cleavage above the line of her blouse.
‘This is my friend Liliana. She is an architect and has come to help with the interior design plans.’
The woman placed her hands on Richard’s shoulders and kissed his cheek, one side followed by the other, continental style. Her fingers, resting on my husband’s upper arms were long and tapered, nails topped with the same livid red as her mouth; as she leaned to offer the same treatment to me I caught a whiff of sweet, pungent perfume.
‘I am happy to meet you’ she breathed; her speech coloured with a strong Latin accent which was confirmed by Jackson’s adjunct.
‘Liliana is Italian.’
Beside me on the bench, Richard was silent, concentrating his attention on his pint of Best as Jackson continued.
‘She is also a terrific artist. We’ve brought some of her canvases down to see where they’ll hang. You must come and take a look.’
As he spoke the woman’s lips smiled in their red slash, her eyes narrowing until I thought she might purr like a pampered cat stretched on a hearthrug. To fill the conversational void I murmured something non-committal and took a sip of my wine. Richard lifted his glass and tipped it back it in uncharacteristic gulps before turning to me.
‘We can’t be too long, Lena. Don’t forget Bob is coming round this evening.’
As we walked back along the lane I asked him, ‘Who on Earth is Bob?’
‘No one. Anyone. What does it matter?’ he replied, ‘I just couldn’t spend any more of my time with that insufferable man.’

 

A Neighbourly Manor [Part 2]

In Part 2 of ‘A Neighbourly Manor’ Lena discovers some surprising facts about Imogen and is confused when she encounters another member of Jackson Agnew’s entourage. If Imogen is Jackson’s partner then who on Earth is Kristina?

A Neighbourly Manor [continued]

                ……….Her voice was soft and low and her neat features dominated by intense, deep blue eyes that held mine; her short, glossy cap of black hair a stark contrast with the near translucent pallor of her skin. She took my proffered shortbread, murmuring ‘how kind’ before placing the plastic box on the bar.
While Richard’s responses are never obvious I noticed from the widening of his eyes and a slight flare of his nostrils when she took his hand that he was impressed.
‘Now’
We swung towards the master of the estate. He had a look of Christopher Plummer as Captain Von Trapp mustering his numerous children as he addressed us.
‘Shall I take you for a tour before we have tea?’
I nodded before catching my husband’s expression, which was set into ‘I don’t want to be here much longer’ mode. He glanced at his watch.
‘Perhaps just a short tour’ I suggested, and we followed Jackson through the connecting doors at the end of the bar into the adjoining drawing room; another vast, empty space with tall windows facing on to the grounds and adorned with only a huge, stone fireplace.
As we wandered through the network of rooms I hung back to allow Richard and Jackson to get beyond earshot and Imogen to draw level with me as I pretended to examine a carved mantel.
‘It’s all so big,’ I began, gesturing at the room. ‘Whatever will you do with it all? Do you have a large family to fill it up?’
‘Oh no,’ she shrugged. ‘I have one son and Jackson has a stepdaughter. But he loves large rooms and he wants a project now that he is semi retired.’
‘And how about you?’ I asked her.
‘I won’t be retiring any time soon.’ She gave that enigmatic half smile, yet I was undeterred.
‘And do you work in the same field, in art dealing?’
She smiled a little wider then, as if enjoying a private joke. ‘Oh no, no-nothing so glamorous; I am a nurse.’ Though my surprise must have registered on my face she was disinclined to elaborate. I pressed on. ‘It will be difficult for you to spend so much time here then.’
She began to walk in the direction of the men’s voices, speaking swiftly, clandestine-voiced, over her shoulder.
‘We don’t live together, Jackson and I. He lives in Kensington and I am not so far from here, in Dorchester. We meet at weekends.’
I caught her up, wanting to know more but she was intent on reuniting our group.
Jackson was explaining his plans to Richard, his long arms waving about and his cultured vowels bouncing around the bare walls. When we approached my husband gave me a meaningful stare, which I chose to disregard.
‘We thought we’d make this our kitchen as it’s so sunny. Imo would like to turn it into a monument to Monet-all yellow walls and blue tiles, but I like a bit of sexy steel and glass myself.’ He beamed at us, ruffling Imogen’s glossy hair and she closed her eyes, liquefying under his touch. Throughout the remainder of the tour she stayed close to her man as if every moment without him was wasted.
All attempts to engage Richard in feedback regarding the visit were quashed, his only remark being ‘bought himself a trophy wife.’ I knew better than to argue, but it was obvious to me that beautiful Imogen was infatuated with her distinguished, older lover, wealthy or not.

We saw nothing of our new neighbours in the ensuing two weeks, but before we’d left that afternoon I’d elicited permission from Jackson to walk our dog, Molly in the grounds of the manor and for Richard and me to continue to walk across them as a short cut to the pub.
‘Do as you like, my dear!’ he’d roared, throwing a gangly arm around my shoulders, ‘It’s Liberty Hall!’
And so it was the next weekend, while walking with Molly down the driveway, pausing to admire the view of the house with infinite swathes of daffodils surrounding it that I spotted a figure striding along ahead of me, dressed in a voluminous raincoat, wellington boots and a sou’wester hat; a vigorous, purposeful gait, head erect, hands in pockets.
‘Not Jackson Agnew’, I surmised, since he was taller and I’d the distinct impression that it was a woman; yet the figure lacked Imogen’s neat style, from the rear at least.
Our gregarious Jack Russell terrier had rushed ahead to greet the walker, who stopped and bent to the little dog. I could see from the profile it was indeed female and not Imogen. As I drew close the woman grinned as she made a fuss of Molly.
‘Good Morning! Friendly dog! I am Kristina and I guess you must be our neighbour-Lena, perhaps?’
I may have looked as confused as I felt, for she waited for my response, continuing to grin in an abstract, good natured way. Since she appeared older than Imogen I assumed she must be a relative, perhaps a sister of Jackson’s, except that she spoke in a heavy enough accent to demonstrate that she was not of British origin, perhaps Scandinavian. She had a flamboyant, Bohemian look; red curls escaping from the sou’wester, bare legs between the Mac and the boots.
We strolled on together. A scud of spring rain began to sprinkle us. ‘Are you here for long?’ I asked her. She tilted her head to the sky, allowing drops of rain to fall on to her face and into her open mouth.
‘Isn’t this wonderful?’ she laughed. ‘I love English weather! We are just here for the weekend. My daughter must not be left alone for too long. She is supposed to study for her exams but without supervision, well I guess you know what teenagers are like. But these builders, they must also be supervised.’
We were almost at the house, which was encased in the cage of scaffolding that had arrived and been erected during the week in readiness for the replacement of the roof, a renovation that had prompted Richard to describe Jackson Agnew as having money to burn.
I remained silent, absorbing the ‘we’. Imogen had also used ‘we’. Was she here at the manor too? Who was Kristina? She was surely too old to be the stepdaughter Imogen had mentioned.
We parted company with a ‘see you again’ from Kristina as I made my way around to the rear of the manor, where Jackson’s BMW was parked, though not Imogen’s Fiesta. ‘She could be out’, I thought, ‘she could be shopping or running an errand’ but I felt this couldn’t be true. The most likely thing was that she was working.
Richard, when I described the events of my walk declared that he was neither surprised nor interested in ‘that man’s affairs’, but I was disappointed not to have seen Imogen, who I’d hoped to involve in village life. I’d saved some literature for her about parish activities and was hoping to have a conversation with her about the village History Society. I couldn’t help wondering if she knew Kristina was there, or even if she knew of the other woman’s existence.

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.’

OI!

I’ve coined a new phrase, or perhaps identified a character trait, or at least christened a well -known characteristic. I call it the the OI factor. Reader, you will know someone with the OI factor. In fact you may, like me know several persons with this unfortunate and debilitating feature of their personality.

OI stands for opinionated ignorance. Myself, I know a number of people with this affliction. One is a near neighbour. I am safe to mention it since the person is unlikely to read this blog, but were he to dip into ‘Anecdotage’ and read this post he would not recognise himself. He indulges almost daily in a selfless mission to help all of us, his neighbours, with advice on how to improve our gardens, enhance our houses and live our lives. He is a deep well of ignorance about what we should drink and which supermarket we patronise. Apparently we don’t have enough pictures on our walls. He has even been known to provide me with top tips regarding doing our laundry. [I should wash everything on a thirty five minute cycle and must not ever iron items.]

Another of the afflicted can be found at the local pub. Rather than holding forth on a broad range of advice subjects, however he tends towards labouring his point whilst increasing the volume of his voice; many of his views [in an uncanny similarity to Neighbour] concern the upgrading of our home.

There are also members of our family who have the OI factor. On the increasingly rare occasions when we meet, one of my own siblings [again there is no danger of his reading this] likes to pass his opinion on the subject of camper vans, a topic which regular visitors to Anecdotage will know is not only dear to Husband and my hearts but is one that, after six or seven years we may know a little about ourselves. But Brother considers himself to be an expert, despite having never in his entire [seventy year] life experiencing a single journey in a camper or a motorhome. He is a devotee of cruising, the mechanics of which I confess to knowing nothing at all about apart from having watched the antics of a ‘tender’ coming and going in a fjord to take the passengers into a gift shop and return to the eyesore that was their ship, and having undertaken a few lengthy ferry crossings [and very tedious they were, too].

Here in the UK we are experiencing an explosion of OI factor all over the media as the dastardly election approaches. There is a veritable glut of OIks blabbing about how we should all live our lives and pretending to know how other’s lives are lived. It all reminds me of Margaret Thatcher earnestly telling a reporter she knew how the other half lived because she ‘didn’t even have living-in help any more’…

I’m ready for a quiet, soothing blanket of self-deprecation; a refreshing confession of ignorance, some heart-warming humility but feel this is unlikely to occur any time soon.

 

 

 

 

There are members of my family [distant geographically].

Fiction Month. ‘The Courtyard Pest’ [Part 2]

               Nancy has heard enough from Jeffery and takes an escape route. Will she be able to integrate into her new community and can it offer her any of the comfort and friendship she misses?  Part 1 of this story can be found in last Sunday’s’s post on ‘Anecdotage’

The Courtyard Pest

Part 2

               Having had to demonstrate her intention by leaving the flat, she wanders along the High Street and turns down the lane leading to the library. There may be a noticeboard showing local events, groups and activities or at least someone who could point her in the right direction. The building is new with lots of internal glass. She spots a small, neat, grey woman like herself wearing a navy raincoat and realises it is herself, reflected in a rotating door.

The vast space is decorated in garish lime greens and scarlets. At a circular desk she has to wait as one librarian is attending to a young woman with a foreign accent and another is talking on the phone.

At last she is directed across to an area designated ‘local information’ where there are brochures, wall maps and a noticeboard advertising special interest groups and activities. She reads each flyer. There is a cycling club, meeting each Sunday morning at seven, a ‘knit and natter’ group in a church hall on Monday afternoons, there is the WI, the University of the Third Age and Psychic evenings. On a low table is a file labelled ‘cultural events’ and she bends to begin flipping through but is interrupted by a commotion around the reception desk.

Nancy straightens to peer around a bookcase and sees a figure in a beige waistcoat gesticulating at the librarian, who is responding by adopting a decidedly non-library tone and pointing in the direction of the exit doors.

“Mr Marsh, as I’ve said before we cannot stock every periodical and the library is run according to local authority guidelines. Now I’m sorry but unless and until you are able to follow our code of conduct I am going to have to ask you to leave the building and you may be barred from entering the premises in future.”

Her neighbour doesn’t spot her as he is escorted out of the exit doors. She sits down to look through the file of cultural societies, noting one or two phone numbers down then waits ten minutes before she leaves to avoid bumping into him.

She has walked twenty five yards before a dizzy spell threatens to topple her and she stops by a bus stop, clutching the side of the shelter until it has passed, then perching on the narrow plastic bench inside. A bus pulls up, disgorging several passengers; the driver leaning forward to see if she’s getting on. She shakes her head and takes a few deep breaths as the doors wheeze closed.

 

Back in the flat she feels jittery and unsettled. Perhaps getting on with her unpacking will help. But when she leans down from her bed to get a box out from underneath the dizziness descends like a fog and she sits back up, closes her eyes and sinks on to the pillows. A deluge of jumbled images gushes in to a background of piercing squeaks which rise to a crescendo, at which point her eyes fly open and she is aware of the door bell ringing with an insistent, lengthy clang.

“I didn’t know if you were in.” There is an element of reproach in his frown. “I thought I’d better let you know I’ve put some rat poison down in the alley. In case you go out that way. Let me know if you see anything, won’t you?”

It takes Nancy a moment to gather her thoughts. “Yes. Thank you. I will”.

He clears his throat. “Can I interest you in an early evening glass of wine? Over at my place?”

She pulls the edges of her cardigan together, aware that she is dishevelled from sleep. “Just a small one” he continues and she can think of no excuse to refuse. She keeps him at the door while she slips her shoes on and fetches her bag and keys. “All secure?” he asks, as she locks the door.

His flat is as different from hers as an identical design could be, the surfaces crammed with objects, odd-shaped stones, pieces of wood, metal parts of things; the walls clad in pictures, photos, mirrors and hangings. It feels claustrophobic, as if the entire space is closing in on her. She murmurs ‘thanks’ as he hands her a glass, watching as she takes a cautious sip. “Know your wines?” he asks, “Where do you think that one’s from?”

Tempted to say ‘Tesco’ she perches on the edge of a sagging sofa covered in piles of magazines and shakes her head. He grins, holding his glass up to an imaginary light. “Algeria! You wouldn’t know, would you? A friend brought it back from a trip for me. I love the stuff.” He places his glass on the edge of a shelf, snatches up an object from the coffee table and offers it to her. “What do think this is? Any ideas?” She turns the small, circular, metallic item in her hand. It has an opening with a serrated edge like tiny, sharp teeth

“A nut-cracker?”

He chuckles. “It’s a pepper grinder. African. I bet you’ve never seen one like that before!”

She clears her throat. “I must go, Jeffery. I have some calls to make. Thank you for the wine.”

“You haven’t finished it!”

“No. It’s very nice. But I’m not much of a drinker. It goes straight to my head I’m afraid”. She picks up her bag. He continues to stand, tilting the glass up to drain it then twirling the stem as he watches her.

Back in her flat Nancy makes some tea and takes it into the sitting room. She finds the numbers she wrote down in the library. As she picks up the phone she is distracted by a sound. She sits still and concentrates. There! A scraping, grinding sound, like a pot sliding along on the slabs of the courtyard. Jeffery told her if the rats got into the yard they might dig up the bulbs. She goes to the patio door and pulls a curtain back, peering along the shaft of light that’s been cast. But there is nothing other than the pots standing motionless in their places.     A rat, however large would not be strong enough to move a large, terracotta pot full of earth. The sound must have come from something in the alley; someone trundling something along there, perhaps. She picks up the phone again.

It is two twenty three when she wakes, having fallen asleep thinking about her telephone conversation with Rebecca Fripp, of the local amateur dramatic society. Rebecca’s response to Nancy’s enquiry had been Luke-warm, as if she’d be doing her a favour by allowing her to attend a rehearsal. But they always needed ‘front-of-house’ help, she’d said, even though Nancy’d explained about her experience in set design. Once she is awake, she is unable to drift off again and thinks that perhaps she should get up and make tea. She stretches out her hand to the light and there! There is the sound: scrape. Outside the windows.

She freezes, stomach churning, her skin prickly; but forces her feet to the floor; tiptoes through to the kitchen. She takes her time in the half light, pulling open a cupboard door to withdraw a heavy pan with a long handle. She breathes in long, slow pulls like an automaton. She returns to the living room, pan held to her side in one hand and uses a finger to create a slit of light in the long curtains.

A wind has got up, stirring the trees over the alleyway and chasing leaves around the small yard; but there is also a dark, rounded shape moving around the pots. Nancy grips the pan handle and uses her other hand to inch the patio door open. The swishing breeze is louder as she steps outside, flattening her nightie against her legs. She searches for the shape then spots it-moving from behind one pot to another. In two paces she is there. She pulls her arm back straight like a forehand smash and swings hard at the shape. Crunch! The contact is sickening, jarring her arm as she stumbles. The shape topples and she drops her weapon. She takes a step forward to look but the foot gives way, sliding and she falls to her knees in the wetness, confused. There has been no rain so why is there a puddle? Reaching out she feels fur, wetly sticky; then she is swaying, sinking as the fog descends.

 

She is dressed and in the chair when Sarah arrives. “Ready, Mum?”

Got your tablets and everything?”

Nancy nods. She stares at her daughter, eyes wide. She swallows. “Sarah-I can’t, I don’t…”

“Shh-Mum it’s ok. You don’t have to go back to the flat. Danny and I have packed all of your stuff. You can take a case with you today and the rest will follow.”

“How…how is he?”

“He’s doing alright, Mum. He’s a tough old boy. His skull has a small fracture but it will heal. He doesn’t blame you. He’s an idiot to have been there in the middle of the night! ‘Checking the rat bate’, apparently.

A solitary tear rolls down her mother’s face. “I’ve caused so much harm. I’m so sorry”

Sarah takes her hand. “No, Mum. I’m the one who should be sorry. I should never have nagged you to come. Now we must go or we’ll be late.”

Nancy stands and accepts her daughter’s supporting arm. In the car she sinks back, closing her eyes to picture Meg’s sparkly eyes and the way specks of scarlet lipstick are visible on her teeth when she grins. “You don’t have to downsize, dear” her friend had told her, sitting by the hospital bed. “Just come back and live at my place. We can look after each other, can’t we? And you can come back to The Nettlehide Players, where you belong.”

Nancy had nodded, feeling relief course through her like a transfusion. Of course. It was all anyone wanted or needed. To belong.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fiction Month: The Courtyard Pest

             A new, two-part  story  begins today. Nancy has moved to be near her daughter but has left her old life behind. How will she adjust? A neighbour is offering support; or is he?

The Courtyard Pest

                  Nancy wakes again. The grey glow of an autumn dawn is seeping between the curtains. This room is still new, shadows in strange places. She pushes the quilt back, eases pale legs over the bedside then pads across the carpet to the en-suite, shaking her head at the incongruity of it. An ‘en-suite’! Imagine!

On the way back she pauses by the window to peer out at her tiny patch of yard, bare except for the wooden bench, a flat-warming gift from Sarah. “What will you do with this courtyard?” her daughter had asked her as they sat on it, only three days ago. Nancy shrugged. “Not sure yet. A few pots. A bird feeder.”

Sarah laughed. “You and your birds!”

But they were company; bird company was easier to come by in a strange town than the human sort.

There is a movement, a flicker in the passageway outside the yard gate, caught in the corner of her eye as she stares. But it is nothing; a moving branch across the faint light. She sighs. It is still only six. She must try to get back to sleep. The days are already too long to fill.

She is washing up her breakfast bowl when the doorbell rings, a shrill unaccustomed sound above the murmur of the radio news programme. A silhouette fills the door’s frosted glass as she fumbles with the key. “Won’t be a minute!” she calls and at last the door yields, revealing Jeffery, from number five. He leans down towards her, eyes protuberant in his florid complexion. “Is the door a bit stiff? I can fix it, if you like.”

She knows her smile is weak. “It’s just new, that’s all; new to me.”

Clad in a beige waistcoat with pockets, he is grasping a canvas shopping bag. “I’m off down the road. Can I get anything for you? Hexton’s bread is marvellous. Shall I get you a loaf? And I’m going to D0-IT-ALL for a few bits this afternoon if you need anything”.

It is only eight. Early, Nancy thinks, to be setting off for the shops. What time does he get up, this neighbour? She has a sense that he must have been waiting until it was an acceptable time to call on her. She shakes her head. “It’s kind of you but I’m going out myself later.”

“Like a lift?” He breaks in. Too fast. She maintains the narrow opening, lifting her chin. “I shall walk. I like to walk. It does me good.”

He takes a step back and she lets out a breath.

“OK. By the way-watch out for rats, won’t you? Some have been seen in the alley at the back. They’re probably from the social housing in the close. Vermin, that’s what they are.” Nancy nods, unsure whether he means the rats or the residents of the housing association development opposite their flats.

He turns with a wave and withdraws, swinging the canvas shopping bag as he plods around the corner.

Later, as she drifts along the unfamiliar High Street Nancy wonders if she should have asked Jeffery to fetch her some compost for her courtyard pots. Has she been a little hard on him? He is only being neighbourly. She did ask Sarah if Danny might be able to take her to the garden centre but they are so busy all the time.

It had been Sarah’s idea for her to move here, to be nearer the family. Nancy was reluctant at first, then attracted by the notion that she might be of some help now that Sarah and Danny were both working full time. She’d thought she might be able to collect the boys from school, help with homework, even make some meals when the parents had to work late. But Sarah pointed out that the boys had little need of childcare and either went to clubs and after school activities or messed about with their friends.

Nancy stops to study a display in the window of ‘Chic Shack’, a small shop selling household items, many of which appear to have been made from driftwood, or been painted and subsequently had patches worn off. She snorts. These are things that wouldn’t have got into a jumble sale in her day.

Since she moved to be near Sarah she’s had no more contact with her and the boys than she did when she was seventy eight miles away. At least then they’d talked on the phone every evening.

Later, when she’s finished clearing up her supper things and is settled in front of the TV the phone rings.

“Will you be in tomorrow evening, Mum? Danny can drop your compost off then. He’ll pick it up on the way home from work”.

Nancy had been looking forward to a morning at the garden centre and had been going to suggest she treat them all to lunch. “It’s very kind, when he’s so busy.”

“It’s nothing. How are you settling in? How are the neighbours?”

“Oh-the couple in the flat above are very nice. They say Good Morning”. She hesitates. Jaqui and David are polite but self-contained and disinterested.

“Anyone else?”

“There’s Jeffery.”

“Is that the man with the wild, grey hair and the county accent?” Sarah met Jeffery when Nancy was moving in. He’d been on the forecourt sweeping up and had introduced himself, shaking their hands and offering assistance. “Has he been a nuisance?”

“No. He’s friendly enough. I’ll see you later.”

“Not me, I’m afraid Mum. Just Danny. I’ve got to collect Lewis from football training.”

Danny arrives with the compost, leaving the engine running while he heaves the bags into the small yard outside her living room and waving a cheerful goodbye as he drives off. Nancy surveys the three bags stacked against the fence. At least she’ll have something to be getting on with tomorrow. She can’t get to the garden centre for spring bulbs but the ‘Supercuts’ shop had some mixed bags on offer outside in a basket. She is about to close the curtains when a face appears above the fence, prompting her to cry out in alarm, hand over her mouth. An arm waves at her. She opens the patio door. Jeffery.

“You’ve got your compost then? Want a hand with the planters tomorrow? I can bring a trowel.”

She sighs. “Alright. Just not too early.”

Nancy’s sleep is restless. In her dreams giant rats stream over the gate, flooding her tiny yard, squeaking at her, hectoring, chastising, although she can’t catch the words. She wakes many times, hears scraping sounds, feels disorientated and sleeps on to an unaccustomed eight o’clock.

She is on the phone when the doorbell rings, chatting to Meg. When she’d heard her friend’s voice she’d visualised her unruly hair and bright lipstick and felt tears pricking her eyes. ‘Yes’ she tells Meg, ‘the move was fine. The flat is perfect. Just what I wanted.’ She doesn’t say it was what Sarah wanted.

“And how have you been, dear? Any more falls?”

Nancy shakes her head then realises Meg can’t see. “No. And I don’t need to use the stick Sarah got me. I’m as steady on my feet as I’ve ever been. I’m not sleeping well, but I suppose it’s just the newness of the place.”

There is a pause.

“We all miss you here, Nancy. ‘The Nettlehide Players’ isn’t the same without you.” The tears are threatening again. “We should arrange a meet up. Shall we? A weekend, even! There’s always the coach-why don’t you come to me? Or I’ll come down if you’ve room. What do you say?”

“I’d like that.”  The bell is ringing. “I have to go, Meg. We’ll arrange it.”

Jeffery is wearing overalls and brandishing a trowel. “I’m not quite ready” she tells him. “You’d better come in. Would you like a cup of coffee?” He takes up all the space in her miniature kitchen, scrutinising the tiny room, unabashed.

“You don’t have much…” he sweeps the trowel around at the walls “…stuff, do you? My place is an Aladdin’s Cave! You must come round.” She brushes past him to get to the kettle before reaching into a cupboard for a small jar of Nescafe. “Could I have tea? I’m not a fan of instant. I grind my own beans. Costa Rican. A friend gets them for me. Have you tried Costa Rican? It’s marvellous!” She replaces the jar and pulls out tea bags. “I’ve got a spare tea pot at mine. Do you want it?” he asks, watching her. She takes the two mugs of tea outside and places them on the wooden seat.

“Where are you having the pots?” Jeffery gestures at the tall, terracotta planters which are dotted about on the paving slabs in what Nancy considers a satisfying, random arrangement. She stares at him.

“They’re staying where they are.” Nancy’s chin lifts a little then she stoops to take the bags of bulbs from under the bench. He shrugs. “I prefer a bit of symmetry myself.”

When Nancy can take no more advice about which bulbs to put where she goes in to make more tea. They sit on the bench to drink it.

“So, Nancy, what did your husband used to do?”

She frowns at the paving slabs by her feet, taking a sip of the tea. “I’m sorry?”

“Your husband. What was his line of work?-if you don’t mind me asking. I was a financial adviser myself. Got it all up here still.” He places a finger on his unruly hair. “If you need any help with investments, that kind of thing, you have only to ask!”

She is silent for a moment, placing the mug on her lap between her hands.

“I’ve never been married”.

“Oh I’m so sorry!” he blurts, drops of tea splashing on to his overalls.  “I’ve been married three times. Had five children. Not that I see much of them of course. They’re spread far and wide. One in Singapore, one in America. I expect they’d contact me if they were in trouble. No news is good news, as they say.”

Nancy stands up and holds out her hand for his cup. “Thanks for helping. I’ll have to leave it there for now, though. I have an appointment after lunch and will need to clear up and get changed.”