December Fiction 2

Today’s post sees the conclusion of a short story. You can read the first part in last week’s Anecdotage. Lena has a puzzling encounter, Imogen learns some home truths from a surprising source and Richard astonishes his wife with some revelations she does not expect.

A Neighbourly Manner [Part 2]

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, possibly 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.

            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.’

            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.

Wishing all regular readers and visitors a very happy and peaceful New Year

Grace is also known as the novelist, Jane Deans. Her new novel, The Conways at Earthsend is now out and available from Amazon, Waterstones, Goodreads, W H Smith, Pegasus Publishing and many more sites. Visit my website: janedeans.com or my author page on Facebook: (1) Jane Deans, Novellist, Short Fiction and Blog | Facebook.

Our Close County Neighbours

Last week I described some of the features of Dorset’s iconic landscapes and seascapes and it’s easy to see why visitors to our lovely county flock here, not only in the summer but throughout the year.

Our neighbouring county to the west, Devon is also a popular tourist destination and we’d booked a few nights just over our county border, in tiny Axmouth, where we’ve stayed before. The site is in the heart of the village, facing the River Axe as it becomes an estuary flowing out to sea at the small town of Seaton. It’s easy to walk into Seaton from the campsite, by walking along the river and across a bridge. A new, road bridge has replaced a much older one, notable for being the first one constructed of concrete!

The site is much busier than it was the first time we came. It is in a wonderful position- not only having interesting views but also near to the two village pubs and bus stops. Across the other side of the River Axe we can see the cute, Seaton trams trundling backwards and forwards around the ‘Axmouth Loop’. I’m a sucker for a tram at any time, but these are restored, vintage vehicles, dinky, colourful and fun.

We head into Seaton and to the tram station. It’s a large, imposing building for such a small tram network! But of course it houses the ticket office, gift shop and is a station. A tram is about to leave, luckily an ‘open-top’, which gives a good view of the estuary mud flats and Seaton marshes. So we clamber up the narrow, winding steps and bag seats on top; soon we’re off, rumbling along a track that winds out of Seaton, past the old tram shed and along the river, where the tide is out and there are flocks of waders congregated on the muddy shores.

An occasional tram passes on the other side, sometimes waiting on a siding. There is one station along the way, in a wooded section, then we roll along to Colyton, where the track ends. The station here capitalises with [another] gift shop and a cafe. After a short turn around the gift shop there’s little to do except wait for the return tram to Seaton, which we do, rattling back the way we came.

We’ve booked to have dinner at the pub which adjoins our site, which is a result! Next day we take advantage of the bus service and go off to Lyme Regis, famous for ‘The Cobb’ and featured in John Fauld’s well known novel, The French Lieutenant’s Woman [also a film]. The Cobb is merely a part of the sea wall surrounding the harbour, but from the end there is a fine view of Lyme Bay. It’s a quaint, characterful town and although it’s crammed with visitors on this sunny afternoon I get a pang of nostalgia as it’s here we stayed 25 years or so ago when Husband and I first got together, taking a room and ‘The Red Lion’ in the High Street and striding out for one of our first SW Coast Path walks.

It’s heartening to see that The Red Lion still exists! For some reason our room’s en suite bathroom had a mysterious, bogus door. Stepping out of the bath, I wrapped a towel around myself and, curious to see where the door led, I opened it, just as people were walking along the corridor it accessed. I wonder who was more surprised?

Later, after dinner I remember we gatecrashed a disco being held by a group called The Buffaloes’, distinguished by hefty chains around their necks, but not by their dancing, as we were the only revellers gyrating on the dance floor. Some of them must have been passing our bathroom when, towel-clad, I opened the door. If they recognised me with my clothes on they gave no sign…

But we aren’t staying in the hotel this time, so it’s back to the bus stop and home to our lovely van-

Grace is also known as the novelist, Jane Deans. Her new novel, The Conways at Earthsend is now out and available from Amazon, Waterstones, Goodreads, W H Smith, Pegasus Publishing and many more sites. Visit my website: janedeans.com or my author page on Facebook: (1) Jane Deans, Novellist, Short Fiction and Blog | Facebook

Short and Sweet in Dorset

We don’t always travel long distance with the van. We’ve just returned from spending some time in a very scenic and beautiful part of our own lovely county of Dorset.

To the west of Dorset, near where it joins the neighbouring county of Devon, a rocky peninsula protrudes into the English Channel. This is called the Isle of Purbeck, not actually an island as it can be accessed by road, but a far more interesting route is via a small chain ferry from the popular beach resort of Sandbanks, near Poole. The ferry queue is often long in the summer months, but if you are lucky it’s only a short wait for the ferry, which crosses the entrance to Poole Harbour.

On the other side there is a flat road across the heathland-a backdrop to some wonderful beaches- and then it’s hilly farmland dotted with characterful villages, their cottages of yellow, Purbeck Stone from one of the quarries here.

We head for ‘Tom’s Field’, a rustic site on a farm in the village of Langton Matravers, just outside the seaside town of Swanage. Tom’s Field is well known, although we generally prefer a site a little farther out, Acton Field, which we believe, on this occasion is closed. In matters of sites we like to seek out places close to communities that offer pubs, restaurants and similar amenities and Langton Matravers is perfect.

Early September is offering a few days of warm sunshine. We get a bus from the village down into Swanage, which is archetypal British seaside at its best, with a beautiful curving beach, plethora of fish and chip shops, cafes, arcades, candy floss, a handsome pier and, best of all, a tiny Punch and Judy theatre on the sand.

Like pantomime, Punch and Judy is peculiar to British culture. While it’s been around for about 300 years it’s as entertaining as it ever was, un-PC, violent slapstick by florid puppets. some of the jokes are as old as Punch and Judy itself- the crocodile and the sausages, the whacking by naughty Mr Punch, the ill-treatment of the baby. Other jokes are topical. Swanage Punch and Judy is one of only 3 left in the country, 2 of which are in Dorset!

After watching the show [all of 10 minutes], we wander on to the pier, magnificent in Victorian glory and with a view of Old Harry Rocks. It is beautifully maintained, although you must purchase a ticket for the privelege of walking on it. Then of course it’s tea [we are British, after all] at a seafront cafe before we stroll back to the station to get a bus back to our site.

In the evening there are the pleasures of The Kings Arms- Langton Matravers’ pub, all old beams, flagstones and local banter. We once enjoyed a ‘lock-in’ here, many years ago when we visited with a singer-guitarist friend. There is a good selection of beers [most important].

Next day we loll about a bit then set off from our site and up across the fields to the Priests’ Way, a footpath which will take us to an even more ancient and iconic hostelry called ‘The Square and Compass’, in another village- Worth Matravers. We’ve been here many times. It sits up in an imposing position above the sea. From here you can walk down to the whimsically named Dancing Ledge, popular with climbers. An almost perfect rectangle of rocks forms a natural swimming pool.

But it’s not for us, this time. We make for the pub, a long, whitewashed building, stone tables and stools outside and dark, glossy, wood panelled rooms inside. The drinks and food are served from cubby holes, rather than a bar and an annexe contains glass boxes full of fossils. There is no haute cuisine here, rather a pasty and a bag of crisps, but this has not deterred the dozens of visitors who queue up for a pie and a pint today.

Grace is also known as the novelist, Jane Deans. Her new novel, The Conways at Earthsend is now out and available from Amazon, Waterstones, Goodreads, W H Smith, Pegasus Publishing and many more sites. Visit my website: janedeans.com or my author page on Facebook: (1) Jane Deans, Novellist, Short Fiction and Blog | Facebook

When the High Tide of Expectation Drops to a Catastrophic Low

The research took some time. It was tricky finding a suitable date, near enough to the actual big day plus an itinerary that would be acceptable. It had been impossible to find a Rhine cruise that allowed us to drive overland to the embarkation point, so I’d had to select flights then change them [at a cost] because they were at some obscene hour of the morning like 6.30am. A 6.30am flight, as I pointed out to the lady on the phone hardly constituted a birthday treat, especially as airports these days require you to be there two hours before take-off. This would be 4.30am. 4.30am!
Then there was the complimentary taxi to the airport, which would need to collect us at 2.30am. 2.30am! How would anyone manage this? Would you sleep beforehand, retiring at a ridiculous hour then getting up at 1.30? Or would you stay up and be almost comatose for the first couple of days of the trip?
No. I changed the flights. I reserved a room at the Heathrow Hilton. The taxi would take us to Heathrow at a respectable hour of the afternoon, we’d check in to the hotel and enjoy a leisurely meal, get a decent night’s sleep and be at terminal 5 at around 8.30am for a 10.30am flight. Sorted.
Husband had chosen a Rhine cruise as his birthday treat. These days there is precious little ‘stuff’ that he wants or needs, and being a man, if he wants or needs something he gets it. As regular readers know, Husband, that character who features in many posts, had a particular milestone birthday two weeks ago and as a result had an entire post written about him…
I’d been startled by his choice of a cruise, as we are great avoiders of such holidays [this, reader has also been much documented on Anecdotage], but river cruises are as unlike sea cruises as cycling is to motor bikes. The boats are not vast, floating monstrosities and passengers must not endure days and days at sea getting stuffed with gargantuan meals, enduring endless, tedious cabarets, ‘dressing’ for dinners and making small talk with those with whom they are incarcerated. The modest cruise boat makes frequent stops at places you can walk around and the ambience is casual. There would always be something to see, even from the cabin. We’d have begun at Amsterdam and finished at Basle. I was frustrated that we’d had to fly such a short distance [Amsterdam is a city that can be driven to in a day from Dunkirk] but when the detailed itinerary arrived in the post it looked thrilling. We’d be stopping each day at beautiful, historic places and get walking tours, as well as travelling through the beautiful Rhine gorge and seeing the Lorelei rock.

I bought new suitcases [ours hailing from a bygone era], bought shoes, organised, laundered, ironed, primed the neighbours.

‘You should see this’ Husband informed me as I returned from shopping. It was an email from the river cruise holiday company to the effect that they were changing the itinerary to mostly coach travel. This was due to a lack of water in the Rhine. He [and I] never at any point wished to embark on a coach tour. I cancelled.

I must admit to feeling slightly nauseous [yes, yes I realise it is a ‘first world’ issue].

We packed our camper van and drove off to the beautiful Isle of Purbeck, 30 miles away from our home and parked in the sunshine overlooking the hillside at Corfe Castle. We strode out over the hills and enjoyed the breath-taking views of our lovely Dorset coast. I stopped feeling bereaved.

Out in the van, we are never disappointed. Yes, there are sometimes challenges or difficulties. Yes, we must make the odd meal, wash up, empty various tanks. But we are not dependent on flights, hotels, plans others have made.

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Next week Fiction Month begins! Check in to Anecdotage for fresh, new fiction…

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.’