Ripple [Part 2]

Part One of ‘Ripple’ can be found in last week’s post [January 7th]. In this concluding episode Oliver is drawn to the canal he’s avoided for so long…

Ripple

            …His phone rings. Wrenching his eyes from the laptop he dives from the swivel chair and snaps the lid down on the device.
“Oliver Grantley” he croaks into his phone.
“Olly it’s only me, Mel! What’s with the formality?”
There is a pause. “Nothing. It’s nothing. I was working. The phone has broken my train of thought.” Oliver doesn’t want this. Doesn’t want his sister to know what he’s seen. She will think he’s lost it. Maybe he has lost it.
“I’m really sorry, Olly. It’s good that you’re working though. Are you sure you won’t change your mind and come round tonight?”
“I’m busy tonight, meeting a friend. We’re going for a drink.”
“Oh Olly! That’s great! Is it anyone we know? Male or female?”
Oliver stutters, frowning. “No. No one you know. It’s someone from work.”
“What’s her name then?”
Now all he wants is to tell his sister to get lost. “Paula. Her name’s Paula. Look, I have to go. I have a report to finish.”
“Alright Olly. But I want to know how it goes tonight. Call me back tomorrow!”
At last she hangs up. He tosses the phone on to the sofa, folds his arms and looks out at the city. After a moment he goes to the kitchen and swallows a couple more pills before going to his desk and glowering at the offending computer. He lunges forward, snatches it and stuffs it into his bag.
Outside the breeze has stiffened, whipping up eddies of litter and dust and tugging harder at his collar as he strides along. His deceased wife’s throaty laugh swirls around him in the wind. How many nights had he spent in the guest room after her claims of feeling ‘too exhausted for company’? How many times had he put his hand in his pocket to fund yet another ‘night out with a friend’? He could stand these deceits, and more if she’d shown him some affection instead of scornful jibes and mocking laughter.
He’s walked half a mile or so before he realises where he is; on the tow path. He stops, hitching the bag higher on his shoulder, takes a few steps to a bench and sits. The flowing canal is mesmerising, travelling along in it’s relentless passage to the harbour, carrying small islands of detritus-tangled sticks, discarded coffee cups and bits of polystyrene packaging or plastic bottles. He shivers. When they’d walked here last summer it had seemed romantic. He’d felt proud showing her the waterside. There had been swans bobbing on the water and a kingfisher darting amongst the willow trees that hung over the bank trailing leafy fronds, leaving ripples.
Today’s ripples are from the insistent, blustery wind. Beneath the surface there are dark, wavy shapes like hair; like black, glossy hair and the air is rank with an earthy smell of rotting vegetation. He leaves his bag on the bench and shuffles towards the canal side, drawn by the undulating contours below the water. He peers down. She’d asked him if there were fish he remembers and they’d leaned down to see. He’d put a restraining arm around her for protection. Weeks later he’d followed her, watching her swaying hips as she made her way down to the canal, hiding in the lush undergrowth while she lay on the bench with her lover, her skirt pushed up and her head thrown back as the other man drew his lips along her long, white throat.
Afterwards the man had left without a backward glance, striding away on the path, smoothing his hair and tucking his shirt in.
Under the wrinkly surface there are pale shapes, sometimes still, sometimes moving like soft, creamy limbs in the flow. This is where they’d found her. Oliver had been in the flat when they came to tell him how they’d pulled her from the canal, speaking in hushed voices, solicitous, offering counselling, offering to call someone. He shouldn’t be on his own, they’d said.
Later he’d had to go and identify her as she lay on a slab, her cold features bleached, her ivory skin blue-tinged; no trace of scorn remained on her pale lips, no remnant of guile under her dark eyelashes.
They’d traced the man from forensic traces along the path.
“He got what he deserved” Mel had said when Nerina’s lover was sentenced to life.            But Oliver knows better.
He is on the edge now, leaning forwards towards the shapes, drawn by them. She’d stood on the verge, her back to him as he’d emerged from his hiding place. He’d only meant to shock her, to make her see sense, to see how angry he was. She’d hit the water without much of a splash and the sounds were more like strangled squeaks than a scream, her slender arms flaying a little, making circles of ripples that radiated out from her head as it sank. A steady flow of bubbles rose to the surface, slowing after a couple of minutes then the brown, snaking canal had continued on as before.
A white hand flutters among the weed, beckoning. On the surface her face is appearing again, swaying in the ripples, mouth half open, smiling. A gust of wind rushes through the trees on the bank, roaring in his ears as he takes another step towards the undulating shape, where her arms are open to receive him.
In the bag on the bench Oliver’s laptop is wide awake, its blue screen oscillating as a gentle stream of bubbles rises from the bottom to the top in a never-ending stream.
 

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Ripple [Part 1]

While I am away and  doing internet cold turkey for a couple of weeks I’ve left you a brand new two-part story. Is Oliver delusional? Or is there really something sinister happening on his computer?

Ripple

             It is there again, rippling the surface; an outline surfacing and receding against the background. Oliver rubs his eyes and peers again at the blue screen. Now there is nothing under the desktop shortcuts. He makes a mental note to take the laptop into town.
He stretches, rises and walks to the tall wall of glass where he gazes out over the cityscape. It is an arresting view, even for one who lives such a large part of his life in front of a screen. The city stretches away, a pleasing mix of old and new dotted with ancient steepled churches and elegant, high rise skyscrapers and further away the sweep of the harbour with a variety of shipping docking and embarking day and night. Immediately below his block the silver snake of the canal winds its way around the parks and estates on its way out to port. But Oliver does not glance down, ever. He prefers to see further into the distance and away.
His phone buzzes, breaking into his thoughts.
“Are you ok?”
Melanie. She has assumed responsibility for his wellbeing despite his protests that he is fine.
“Yes. I’m alright. You don’t need to keep ringing.”
Mel laughs. “You’re such a charmer, Olly! I’m only looking out for you.”
“You don’t need to.”
“Have you been out today? You should get out. It isn’t good to sit at home brooding.”
“I’m not brooding. I’m working. And I do have to go out because my laptop’s playing up. I may need to get a new one.”
His sister sighs. “Is that the only reason to go out? You could just walk! How about meeting for lunch somewhere? Or come here to eat this evening?”
Oliver shudders. He’d have to sit around the table with noisy, prattling kids, make small talk, Mel and Charlie tiptoeing around his feelings like bomb disposal experts.
He grabs a jacket, stuffs the errant laptop and lead into its bag, grabs his keys and steps out of the apartment to summon the lift. In the lobby he grunts a peremptory reply to the doorman’s greeting before exiting through the revolving glass door and down the steps to the street. Pulling his collar together tight against the blustery wind he turns left and left again rather than continuing along to Canal Street, which would be the shortest route into town. Oliver has not walked along the towpath for eight months and has no intention of going there again, ever.
Nerina haunts his thoughts as always, day and night. As he walks he tries to picture her but succeeds only in conjuring parts of his wife- her smooth, white throat as she laughed, the black curls that fell down her back, the velvet soft touch of her and her husky voice as she spoke in her accented English. How she’d mocked him, her sly, sideways look as she posed in front of their mirror before telling him she had to go out. The way she dressed, a sensuous smile as she pulled on a sheer stocking or applied glossy, red lipstick.
At the store counter he unpacks the laptop, explaining the issue with its screen. The assistant, Paula according to her badge, turns the screen to the side for him to show her the fault. But there is nothing; no vestige of the movement he’d been witnessing. Oliver frowns, feeling a heat rise to his face. Paula smiles an open, sympathetic grin.
“Don’t be embarrassed! It’s common for devices’ faults to disappear like magic as soon as customers step through the doors with them. It’s almost as if the threat of repair is enough to make them behave!” She laughs; a deep, throaty bellow that forces Oliver to stare up into her face. It is a broad, guileless face, not pretty but honest; a face accustomed to laughter. For a moment he feels his shoulders relaxing, feels the tension draining down towards his feet. He nods at Paula, stows the errant laptop in the bag and thanks her.
“Bring it back if it starts playing up again” she advises him, before turning to another customer.
Oliver feels lighter as he exits the store and heads for home. He’ll try and eat something then get on with the figures he is supposed to be producing for a company report.
In his kitchen he can think of nothing he wants to eat and opts instead for a couple of the prescription tablets, standing at the sink, pressing the tiny, white capsules from their foil wrapping and swilling them down with a mouthful of water.
At his desk he opens the laptop lid and switches on, waiting for his password prompt and taking the deep breaths he’s been coached to employ if he feels a sense of panic. As he taps in the password his palms grow damp and he wipes them on his jeans as he waits for everything to load. The desktop shortcuts appear, nothing else. He exhales and thinks of Paula’s kind, friendly face as he clicks on his work folder and scans the files for his current spreadsheet. The white screen underneath the figures is flat and stable. Oliver breathes, closing his eyes to relish the relief.
He begins to work, clicking on each cell, highlighting, deleting and replacing. Needing to refer to some previous notes he rifles through some papers in a cardboard folder beside the laptop. Sheet in hand he turns back to the screen. It is heart-stopping. Oliver feels his pulse thumping as he takes short, shallow breaths, the blood draining from his face. He stares. The outline has reappeared, more defined now, undulating but clear. It is a face; a face he knows; the pronounced cheek bones, almond-shaped eyes and full lips. Nerina. He starts as her eyes flash open, the paper dropping to the floor. Her sensual lips part in the shape of a word as the image floats on the screen. She smiles, continues to mouth the word.
Oliver has dreamed of hearing Nerina’s husky voice; has lain awake at night bathed in perspiration, longing for her but now he dreads to turn on the volume switch, fearful of listening, although he knows what it is she is saying. He should switch off. He should shut down, power off, pull the plug. He shudders, transfixed by her rippling features, strands of her curls drifting in a rectangular pool…

      Check in to Anecdotage next week for Part 2 of ‘Ripple’.

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.

 

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.’

Fiction Month has Arrived!

November is Fiction Month on Anecdotage, where a selection of my latest short stories are showcased free in honour of Novel Writing Month, the onset of Winter and longer, darker evenings. Just the opportunity to curl up and have a read.

Story 1 is a gently dark tale for Halloween:

The Uninvited Guest

            How many there are! The only space remains here at the back, near the door. I’d have chosen to sit here anyway, since I am less likely to be spotted and can make a swift exit whenever I choose.

Who selected this music, I wonder? It makes me realise how little we know those who are closest to us. I wouldn’t have opted for ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’. It is far too gloomy. ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ would have been a more cheerful opener-and more appropriate, of course.

Ah-someone is closing the door. The service must be about to begin. And there is someone approaching the podium, the woman they’ve chosen to officiate. She’s Pastor Mona Chesterton, according to the programme. They’ve got that correct, at least; getting a woman to do it.

I can just about see the casket from here, between the heads of those in front. I’m hoping it’s cardboard, sustainable and eco-friendly; only one spray of flowers so they must have asked for donations instead.

Pastor Mona has asked Val to take the stand. She’s going to read a poem. Ha! This will be interesting! Although I love my sister Val, she isn’t the most literary of people. I think her reading material consists mainly of ‘Hello’ magazine and the Daily Mail so she’ll have had to Google funeral poetry or ask someone for a suggestion. Yes. Just as I thought: ‘Stop All the Clocks’. She’d have remembered it from ‘Four Weddings’. When it comes to Auden I’ve always thought ‘Tell me the Truth about Love’ was one of his best. She must have practised reading the poem but she’s made the classic mistake of reading too fast. I notice she’s sat herself next to Stan, close enough for their arms to be touching and a little too close for mere comfort. I suppose she’s got what she wanted now, hasn’t she? Good luck to them is what I think.

Stan isn’t going to say anything. That’s wise of him. The hollow echo of his words would be magnified in this cavernous building with its barrel-vaulted ceiling.

They’re all standing to sing ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’. What a cliché! The singing is a bit weedy, as if they are a load of drunks at four o’clock in the morning, which is disappointing. I’d have liked some gusto, a rousing chorus of enthusiastic mourners.

Ah, here are James and Becca, together, for moral support, perhaps? They’ve got scruffy pieces of paper. I suppose James has scribbled something on the way here, which is his normal approach to any task. Becca looks pale but dignified and I expect she’d be delighted to be described so. They are a handsome pair of young adults, considering the genes they’d have been handed. I’ve enjoyed hearing their childhood memories but I was startled by their choices. Camping? When was that? Perhaps they went with Aunty Val…

Pastor Mona is summing up now, with the platitudes used by those who never knew the deceased. She’s asked everyone to stand for the final hymn, ‘Abide with Me’, which will be appropriate for Stan and Val, at least, as the carton begins to slide away behind the blood red curtain.

It’s time for me to leave so I’ll slip out during this dirge of a hymn. I’m glad I came but happier still to be outside in the fresh air of this April afternoon.

I know what you did, Stan and Val. They say revenge is best served cold and cold is my future now. I’m going to extract a great deal of entertainment from watching your regrets as I occupy your dreams and loiter around your shared bed disturbing your recreation.

I feel a new spring in my step and a soaring joy to be away now. You’re a long time gone. Can’t wait to get started…