Read Ashenden Online

Authors: Elizabeth Wilhide

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Contemporary, #Genre Fiction, #Historical, #Cultural Heritage, #Contemporary Fiction, #Literary, #Historical Fiction

Ashenden (2 page)

BOOK: Ashenden
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*  *  *

Charlie poked his nose out from under the duvet and squinted at the digital clock. Nine forty-three.
Shit
. The surveyor was coming at ten thirty. He threw back the covers, got up, and reached for his boxer shorts. (He had never owned a dressing gown. Refused to own a dressing gown.) In the bathroom he pissed and then turned on the shower and stood under it, ready for punishment. As the water ran hot and cold, spurted and dribbled, he soaped his chest hair, which was graying, and regarded his penis, which had curled back into itself, the memory of Rachel in her little black ankle boots now subsiding.

Downstairs, Charlie could smell bacon cooking. His sister, Ros, would already have eaten her muesli and drunk her herbal tea: the bacon was for his benefit.

The kitchen was on the ground floor of the pavilion and occupied part of what had once been the old laundry. The floor was the original stone paving. The rest of it dated back to the 1970s conversion, which represented well over a lifetime in terms of domestic appliances and contemporary cabinetry. The microwave didn’t work and two of the wooden drawer fronts fell off if you tugged them too hard.

When he went through the door, the smell of bacon cooking became the smell of bacon burning. He was aware of an atmosphere. His aunt’s former carer, Elaine, was sitting at the kitchen table again,
nursing a cup of tea and clutching a balled-up tissue, and Ros was being vicious with the grill pan.

This morning his sister’s dark hair was springing up in wild tufts and she was dressed, like him, in T-shirt, sweater, and jeans. As far as appearances went, the family resemblance was strong; under the skin, they were chalk and cheese. She liked the country; he liked the city, any city so long as it wasn’t in Britain (he made an exception for Glasgow). She was mildly religious and a disillusioned Labour voter since the war in Iraq; always an atheist, since 9/11 he had become a defender of the “war on terror.” She had pleased their parents by following their father into medicine; he had perplexed them by “throwing away” his degree to risk his neck taking pictures in war zones and other regions of the world where the Foreign Office advised you not to go.

“Morning,” he said, and got no answer. The lilies on the windowsill, floral overspill from the funeral, were well past their best, their sweet, slightly druggy scent fading. He seated himself at the end of the table, where he wouldn’t have to look at Elaine’s brimming red eyes, and reached across the table for the paper.

The election was expected at the beginning of May. A soldier had died in Helmand Province. He read those two items and the op-eds that related to them and skimmed the rest, barely glancing at the headlines. Page after page featured celebrity or popular news of one kind or another, retold in inverted quote marks to distinguish these reports from what had already been aired online or in the tabloids, along with bylined columns chatting as if there were all the time in the world to read about children losing clarinets on buses, dogs having operations, or (and these were by men) the inadequacies of men when faced with Hoover bags that needed changing. Lately he had noticed that the entire paper—news, op-eds, columns, features, and reviews—seemed to be written by the same three people.

Bloody England, thought Charlie. Bloody, bloody England. Every time he came back, the country had shrunk a little further into pettiness, the national conversation a low-level uninformed grumble that occasionally boiled over into a splutter of unfocused
rage. He strongly held these views and hated himself for having them. (He also strongly held the view that the country encouraged self-hatred.)

A mug of tea and a bacon sandwich landed on the table in front of him.

“Thanks,” he said to Ros. “You shouldn’t have. I could have done that.”

Ros said, “Helen called. Luke’s coming on Saturday.”

“Right.” Helen was his ex-wife and Luke was his nineteen-year-old son.

“And David Barraclough called from the bank. He wants to know whether we’ve come to a decision. I said we hadn’t. Then Fresher’s called to confirm the survey. They’ll be here in twenty minutes. And your friend Jules rang just now with the number you were asking about. I wrote it down. It’s on the pad over there by the phone. What number were you asking about?”

“He knows someone at the National Trust.”

She dropped the grill pan in the sink with a clatter, squeezed washing-up liquid into it, and ran the tap. There was a hissing sound, a warm smell of singed detergent.

“You’re a one-woman app,” said Charlie. He meant it as a compliment. His sister ignored him.

Elaine shoved back her chair, scraping its legs against the stone floor. She was wearing a bulky sweater patterned in gray lozenges, the same color as the roots of her dyed maroon hair. “Well, I’d better be getting along. Thanks for the tea.”

“No problem.” Ros turned away from the sink and gave her a brisk hug. “Now don’t brood. Promise?”

Elaine nodded.

“I can give you something to help you sleep, if you want.”

“I’ll be all right.”

“OK,” said Ros. “Mind how you go.”

“What on earth’s the matter with that woman?” Charlie said, after the door closed behind her.

Ros was scrubbing away at the grill pan. He pitied the grill pan.
“I’ve told you a hundred times. She blames herself for Reggie’s death. She thinks she failed in her duties.”

Charlie considered this last statement, which he happened to agree with. As he understood it, despite the fact that there had been snow on the ground the day Reggie had died, she had insisted on going over to the house. Instead of talking her out of this plan, Elaine had escorted her from the south pavilion across the icy courtyard and left her (again at her insistence) to wander around the house on her own, upstairs and down, until Tony Knoll, the caretaker, had found her, looking “gray about the gills,” and helped her onto her old marital bed, where she had passed away.

“I know what you’re thinking,” said Ros, drying the grill pan and banging it into the oven, “and it’s not Elaine’s fault. As I keep saying. After all, Reggie was over ninety. She had a good innings. It wasn’t as if Elaine didn’t try to dissuade her from going over there.”

“Obviously she didn’t try hard enough.”

“She was her carer, not her jailer. Besides which, Reggie got bloody stubborn in her old age. Not that you’d know. The last time you saw her must have been a good fifteen years ago.”

“Nonsense. I saw her when I came over after Mum died.”

“No, you didn’t. Reggie was ill with flu at the time.”

“OK, OK, OK.” Charlie put up his hands.

Ros took off her apron. There was nothing domestic whatsoever about the way his sister, the doctor, wore an apron. Down the hall from the kitchen the doorbell rang.

“That’ll be the surveyor.”

“You coming?”

She shook her head. “I have to be at the surgery in a while.”

The GP clinic where Ros worked part-time was forty minutes’ drive away in a small town on the other side of Reading, which was also where she lived with her husband, Geoff, and her daughter, Maisie, who was now in her first year at university. Yet while Ros continued to commute to the surgery for her shifts, every night since Reggie had died she had stayed at the Park. This struck Charlie as odd. Perhaps she didn’t trust him not to flog off the silver;
perhaps she was avoiding her husband; perhaps she was suffering some sort of menopausal fugue. This last thought he registered as possibly sexist. It had been years since they had been under the same roof for any length of time and he was beginning to wonder whether he knew her as well as he thought he did.

“By the way,” said Ros, “I’ve invited Marjorie Thurston for supper Friday evening.”

“Who’s Marjorie Thurston?”

“I introduced you to her at the wake. She knew Reggie well. She’s active in the village historical society.”

“I can hardly wait,” said Charlie.

“Ask the surveyor about the roof,” said Ros. “We need to know how bad it is.”

*  *  *

The surveyor turned out to be two surveyors and an assistant, all wax-jacketed. What would be the collective term for surveyors? Charlie wondered. A doom? He led the three of them across the courtyard and out onto the drive. “I imagine you’ll want to start with the main block,” he said.

“Good a place as any,” said the balding one, who had introduced himself as Neil Fielding.

There were two entrances to the house, not including the archways that led to the courtyards which separated it from the pavilions on either side. The formal entrance was reached by a flanking pair of enclosed staircases leading up to the loggia. Underneath the loggia was another door on the ground level, which Charlie unlocked. “After you,” he said, switching off the alarm.

At this point, the second surveyor excused himself and said he was going to have a quick look at the stonework. He and Neil, the balding one, exchanged a professional glance.

Indoors the rest of them were greeted by a rank, sweetish odor. The pavilion where Reggie had lived out her last years smelled of old people and what they ate in unaired rooms: this was different. Charlie snapped on a few lights, one of which flickered and went
out. Ahead stretched a long stone-flagged corridor, punctuated by niches and doorways.

“The house is on three floors,” he said to Neil and the young assistant, whose spots, if joined up, would make a map of somewhere. “This ground level was mostly service areas originally, as were the pavilions. Over there are the internal staircases, a public stair and a smaller back stair. The old billiard room is at the far end. It’s octagonal, like the two rooms above it. The principal rooms are on the first floor. The bedrooms are on the second.”

“How long has this been shut up?”

“It’s never been completely empty. Tony Knoll, the caretaker, looks after it.”

“Heated?” The surveyor touched his fingers to the wall above a crumbling plinth and sniffed them.

“Background heat. A condition of the insurance. As is the caretaker. Shall I show you round?”

The surveyor shook his head. “No need. We have a copy of the plans.” He nodded at the assistant. “Damp meter, Frank?”

Frank, the assistant, produced a small black metal box from his pocket. He handed it to Neil, who pressed it to the wall. The black needle on the display screen shot from left to right, from green to red.

Neil noted the finding. “Handy little gadget, this.”

“I suppose it takes the guesswork out,” said Charlie.

“Not a lot of guesswork in surveying, by and large.”

Surveying was what his father would have called a proper job. “Well, I’ll leave you to it,” said Charlie, and went upstairs.

On the next floor he came out into the great void that rose up in the center of the house. Officially, it was known as the staircase hall, because it was a hall with yet another staircase in it, one made of stone and cantilevered from the wall, edged with a balustrade of wrought-iron filigree. Weak sunlight struggled down through the high clerestory windows. Something about its hesitant fragility made him think of his aunt. He was overcome by a sense of trespass and wondered whether his sister felt the same. Whether, in fact, the house felt the same.

The way the house had been designed meant that you never forgot the plan: it wasn’t the sort of higgledy-piggledy place that invited you to get lost and charmed you once you had. Neither was it the sort of place where you were able to forget that it was the product of architectural thought. Standing in the middle of the staircase hall, facing forward, he knew exactly where every room was in relationship to each other. To his left, the formal dining room; immediately behind him, the octagon room; to his right, the drawing room. Ahead was the wide entrance hall, flanked on either side by the room his aunt had once used as her sitting room and the library where his uncle had pored over his auction catalogs. What little furniture remained was covered in white sheeting.

He crossed the entrance hall and poked his nose round the door of the library. To his surprise, his sister was sitting at his uncle Hugo’s desk, on the phone.

“Oh, you startled me.” Ros put a hand over her heart. “I’ll call you back,” she said, and rang off.

“Don’t let me disturb you.”

“It’s no one important . . . I mean, nothing important. It was only Geoff.”

“I thought you had to be at the surgery.”

She checked her watch. “Soonish.”

“Why don’t go you home for a bit, Ros? I can look after myself, you know.”

“I don’t mind.”

“Seriously.”

“Perhaps I want to stay.” Her expression, which had started off defiant, collapsed on itself, as if she had given too much away. “Here, look what I’ve found.” She picked up a brittle, yellowing scroll and handed it to him.

“What is it?”

“The original deeds to the land. Hugo collected everything about the house he could lay his hands on.” She gestured at a pile of buff folders on the desk. “These documents go back years. I’m glad I invited Marjorie to supper. This is a treasure trove for someone like her.”

“Perhaps.” He was not convinced. “Why are you doing all this?”

“I happen to think it’s important to understand the history of this house before we make decisions about its future.”

“It’s not the house’s future we should be worried about, it’s our own.” Charlie put the deeds back on the desk. “How’s Geoff?”

“Geoff’s fine.”

“Coping OK?”

“He’s busy. Rushed off his feet.”

Geoff was an anesthetist. Could anesthetists be rushed off their feet? He hoped not. “Poor Geoff.”

“Oh, you know, he loves it really.”

Charlie pulled out a chair, brought it over to the opposite side of the desk, and sat down. He felt like one of his sister’s patients. A patient with a symptom he didn’t particularly want to disclose because he dreaded the diagnosis that would follow. “What does he think about you inheriting the house?”

“Is this your way of asking what I think?” said Ros, rearranging the files on the desk. “If so, I happen to think that it’s far too early to come to a decision about what to do with it. We don’t even know what the survey’s going to reveal yet.”

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