Read Ashenden Online

Authors: Elizabeth Wilhide

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

Ashenden (3 page)

BOOK: Ashenden
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“No, but we do know more or less where we stand.”

And that, they both knew, was on shaky ground. Preliminary discussions with the bank and his aunt’s solicitor indicated that estate liabilities significantly exceeded available assets. The most recent heating bill alone was eye-watering. (He had never seen a four-figure heating bill before.) On top of that, death duties were going to be astronomical.

Although Hugo had left Reggie very well-off, she had survived him by many years, during which time the house had become much more expensive to run and keep in basic repair. Not wishing to touch the capital, she had apparently muddled through by selling things, which presumably accounted for a couple of missing paintings. Under normal circumstances, the investment portfolio Charlie and Ros had inherited on their aunt’s death would have been almost enough to compensate for the shortfalls they now faced. But that,
of course, had been before the credit crunch. “Double whammy,” was how David Barraclough at the bank had put it. Which was a bit rich, considering.

“You have to agree,” said Charlie, “it’s not looking good.”

“It’s early days yet. There are lots of options we can explore,” said Ros. “Lots. Renting out part of the house, converting part of it, selling off some of the land, doing a deal with the Trust. I’ve made a list.”

She rummaged around on the desk and handed him a sheet of paper.

Charlie took it. She had indeed made a list. A list of many numbered points. She was methodical that way. He scanned it, conscious of her scrutiny. “You haven’t asked me what I want to do.”

“That’s because I know what you want to do. You want to sell.”

“Oh yes, here it is, option six. The last one.”

“We don’t want to be too hasty,” said Ros.

*  *  *

Later, two o’clock in the afternoon his time, nine o’clock in the morning her time, Charlie Skyped his wife. He understood how tiny cameras in laptops thousands of miles apart allowed him and Rachel to watch each other’s moving mouths as words came out of them, but it never ceased to amaze him. Scuppered him too. What technology offered, he had come to believe, was a ballooning of desire, not its satisfaction. Seeing his wife smile, brush her hair behind her ears, pull a face, what he wanted most of all was to climb through the screen and touch her, and this he could not do. Perhaps it might have been better, he thought, if he had had no option but to hold her in his mind while he wrote her a letter. He was old enough to remember when people did that.

Through trial and error, he had discovered that at Ashenden Park the wonders of technology worked only in the small room in the north pavilion that Tony the caretaker used as an office. That ruled out Skype sex and put a certain restraint on their video conversations. It also helped them to keep to their agreed limit of one
Skype a day. Skyping was free only in pecuniary terms. There was always the dull ache of separation to pay after you hung up the call.

“I miss you. I miss the
Times,
” Charlie was saying. On the screen he could see the dog lying on the bed behind Rachel. The dog wasn’t allowed on the bed. “I miss Paul Krugman.”

Rachel laughed. “You can always read the
Times
online.”

“It’s not the same. I like the real thing. I like turning real pages.”

A small delay. “You don’t agree with Paul Krugman. Did the surveyor come?”

“Sometimes I agree with him.” Another small delay. “Yes, they did. Surveyors in the plural. I should have realized with a place this size.” He wanted to take a bath in her American accent. It was home to him. For some reason—possibly to do with public school—his British one had proved more indelible over the years than he had expected. Early on, that had proved useful. Waitresses tended to melt, for example. Not so much now, when most of the bad guys in Hollywood movies sounded the same as he did.

“We miss you too,” said Rachel, stroking the dog.

That night back in February, after Ros had rung, he and Rachel had agreed that he should go over to England on the first available flight and she should follow once she had arranged for her assistant, Marisa, to mind the shop and persuaded someone, possibly also Marisa, to dog-sit. Weather had come between them. The snow flurries that were still falling as Charlie’s plane took off the next day from Newark became a blizzard that closed the airport eight hours later. When he had landed at Heathrow, the two inches that were paralyzing the British transport system were the direct equivalent of the two feet that had temporarily put the East Coast out of action. Honey, I shrank the snow, he had thought, queuing for a taxi behind a woman wearing four-inch heels and complaining how slippery it was.

“Have you discussed things with Ros yet?” said Rachel on the screen.

“We talked a bit this morning. I think she’s stalling for time. She’s been digging around in the library, pulling out all the stuff my
uncle collected about the house. Plus she’s got this friend of Reggie’s coming for supper Friday night. I’m guessing emotional blackmail is the general idea.”

“You look tired,” said Rachel.

“Do I?” said Charlie. He wasn’t sleeping well without her. She looked tired too, tired and pinched. Sort of washed-out. He hoped that meant she wasn’t sleeping well without
him.
“How’s the shop?” The blizzard that had prevented Rachel from flying out to join him had marooned Marisa in Brooklyn for a day and made a significant dent in the takings of Wool and Water, which normally did its best business in the colder months.

“Not too bad. Picking up now, thank God. This woman came in today and bought three hundred dollars’ worth of merino. Sort of a rust color. She’s never knitted before, so I signed her up for some lessons.”

“That’s good.”

Rachel moved her head and her face disappeared.

Back again. “Sweet, I gotta go.”

They said their good-byes, hands to screens, and the call was over. He felt an immediate letdown that placed him squarely back in Tony’s low-ceilinged office, with its dull view of the cobbled courtyard. March was daffodils in Wordsworth country on the wall calendar behind him, which advertised a local garage, and a furred kettle, a jar of instant coffee, and a couple of stained mugs huddled on a battered tray on the table.

As soon as Charlie came out into the courtyard, his laptop under his arm, Tony materialized from somewhere. He had a habit of doing that.

“Get through all right?”

“Yes, thanks.”

“How long are that lot going to be here?”

“You mean the surveyors?” He shook his head. “I don’t know.”

Tony was bright as a squirrel in his anorak and Thinsulate hat. Despite the weather, he was wearing Lycra shorts on his lower half. He was ex-army and a keen long-distance cyclist. “I thought it best not tell them about the damp patch in the octagon room.”

“There’s no point hiding anything from them, Tony. We’re
paying
them to find out what’s wrong, for God’s sake.”

“Shall I tell them about the ghost, then?”

“What ghost?”

“Just joking. By the way, Claire wants to know if you’re going to sell up to the Russkies.”

Claire was Tony’s invisible girlfriend, whom no one had ever met—“imaginary girlfriend, if you ask me,” according to Ros—and who had an uncanny ability to ask the questions to which Tony wanted to know the answers.

“The Russians?”

“Seeing as they’re the only ones with any bloody dosh.”

“We haven’t made up our minds what we’re going to do yet.”

“ ’Course, you could always try footballers, Claire says. More money than sense.”

*  *  *

Up in the spare room in the south pavilion, Charlie placed his laptop on the rumpled bed, pulled out his cell, and dialed the number of the National Trust contact, the direct line of Trisha Greeling, assistant director of historic properties.

“I’m not at my desk at the moment,” said Trisha Greeling, “but please leave a message after the tone and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.” A tone. “Please speak after the beep,” said a different singsong voice. “If you want to rerecord your message at any time, please press one or press hash to go back to the operator.”

“For fuck’s sake,” said Charlie. After the beep he recorded a message. Then he picked up his Nikon digital SLR (“the Hulk,” Rachel called it), banged out of the room, went down the stairs, and slammed the door behind him.

The flat gray light of early spring was fading as he crossed the drive, went down a shallow dip and up the long slope that led to a stand of trees silhouetted on the horizon. He walked fast. At the top of the hill, the ground fell away. There were still a couple of tongues of snow in sheltered areas.

Memory played a trick on him. This landscape, where he had grown up, ought to have reminded him of his childhood, yet here in the middle of Berkshire countryside he was back in the Falls Road, Belfast, for no good reason he could understand. Twenty-three years old, prowling around half-smashed and careless of his own skin to the point of madness. He’d stopped to light a fag in a doorway and in that instant two men had hared round a corner and lobbed a petrol bomb into a downstairs window of a terraced house. His hands had shaken as he’d fumbled for his camera. Click, click, click. And that would have been his first photograph to be published in a national newspaper, except the picture editor thought he had recognized one of the men as an off-duty UDR officer and spiked it. If he closed his eyes, he could still smell the grimy, coal-blackened street and see the fire roar out of the broken window. The ambulance had got there too late. No phone boxes in the street, or at least none in working order. Over the years, that knowledge had done little to erase the guilt of taking the picture first, then trying to find a phone box to ring for an ambulance afterwards.

Charlie held his camera up against the view and took a few shots, framing each with instinctive care. The grand old house with its eighteenth-century symmetries, the wooded acres that surrounded it, the brown river in the distance. All this was his—his and his sister’s—if they wanted it. And who wouldn’t want a sodding great chunk of English heritage? Who would not want the hand of history to clap them on the shoulder and say, Welcome to the club, old chap?

From the hill he stared at the house, the monstrous egg a cuckoo had laid in his life. He almost felt sorry for exposing its weaknesses and structural shortcomings to the wax-jacketed surveyors, for its being the subject of a list, for its being a weight on his mind. Yet when he tried to imagine bringing Rachel to live here, he failed. It wasn’t the scale of the place or its market value, nothing like that. Her parents’ house on Long Island was bigger, probably worth more, and oozed comfort and amenities, and that wasn’t counting the Fifth Avenue apartment, the ski lodge at Vail, or the villa on Anguilla. Or the boat, which was larger than the walk-up on the Lower
East Side where he and Rachel lived. Instead, it was the fact that given all the effort Rachel had made to pull away from the gravity of her family orbit, the last thing he would want to do was to lock her into his. Nor could he imagine what the seepage of daily life in twenty-first-century England would do to them both. The drip, drip, drip of a small island at the fag end of its history and refusing to admit it. To live in this country now was to be perpetually standing in six inches of muddy water with a sodden mop, a brimming bucket, and a blocked drain.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw a deer standing on the fringe of a copse twenty, thirty feet away. Such a quiet, finely made, nervous thing. As he lifted his camera, it darted for cover.

*  *  *

On Friday night Marjorie Thurston came to supper. She was a tall, angular woman in her midseventies who had retired to Lower Ashenden after a career in the civil service and had since self-published an illustrated guide to its history, to which his aunt Reggie had apparently contributed a foreword. Charlie had known dons like her. The gray hair cut in a bob, the protuberant eyes with saddlebags underneath, the air of not suffering fools gladly or at all. He remembered a floundering tutorial he had once had—one of many, it had to be said—and the acerbic voice issuing from the armchair on the other side of the hissing gas fire: “You have
some
cerebral capacity, Charles.
Use it
.”

Ros had cooked a fish pie and set the kitchen table with good china and Reggie’s silver candlesticks. Most of the meal passed in a halting question-and-answer-type conversation, during which Charlie learned rather more about the village historical society than he wanted to know. The weather was mentioned a few times, as an opening gambit and at points thereafter. Gardening, as a topic, failed to get off the ground, since only Marjorie knew anything about it.

“Marjorie?” said Ros. “May I help you to more?”

“Thank you, no.” Marjorie folded her napkin beside her plate.
“At my age, one’s appetite is not what it was. Would you mind awfully if I smoked?” This was a challenge or a statement in the form of a question.

“Not at all,” said Charlie, getting up to fetch a saucer. “I’ll join you.”

“You’ve given up,” said Ros.

“I still have one from time to time.”

“That’ll be news to Rachel.”

“Oh,” said Marjorie, raising her eyebrows. “Shall I go outside? I believe that’s what people do these days.”

“Of course not,” said Ros. “It’s far too cold. Stay right where you are and I’ll fetch those estate papers I was talking about.” She left the room, her trainers squeaking away down the hall.

“Have one of mine,” said Marjorie, offering him the packet.

“Thanks.” He lit up. “How long did you know Reggie?”

“About fifteen years or so. I met her quite soon after I retired to the village. Your aunt was a remarkable woman. She will be much missed.” Marjorie, nudging ash into the saucer, asked if they planned to carry on their aunt’s charity work.

Charity work? It would be charity work to take on the house full stop. “I don’t know. Inheriting this place has come as a shock to us both, to be honest.”

“Why should it have done?” said Marjorie. “Your uncle Hugo and your mother were brother and sister, as I understand it. Traditionally estates do tend to pass to the nearest relatives on the male side.”

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