Read Ashenden Online

Authors: Elizabeth Wilhide

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

Ashenden (4 page)

BOOK: Ashenden
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Charlie shrugged. “We didn’t feel so connected to Hugo and Reggie when we were growing up. I mean, we saw them and all that. But they were glamorous and wealthy and we were a pretty ordinary family, really. My mum was what you might call a housewife. She was a nurse in the war, which is when she first met Dad, who was a doctor. We never expected to inherit the house. We always assumed it was going to the National Trust.”

“You mean that’s what you hoped.”

“Personally I’d rather not have been saddled with it, if that’s what you’re saying.”

“One can’t always choose one’s responsibilities in life.”

Charlie’s head was swimming from the fag. “Isn’t that rather fatalistic?”

“Not at all.” Marjorie rearranged the scarf at her neck, which was held in place by what could only be described as a woggle. “When you get to my age, it’s always tempting to regard the past in too rosy a light. I do try to resist that. But it seems to me that you are in the fortunate position of being able to preserve something of true excellence. And so little of true excellence remains in this country. I should say it’s a question of duty, if that isn’t too old-fashioned a word.”

*  *  *

It was past eleven and Marjorie had gone. The kitchen table, now cleared of dishes, was spread with eighteenth-century architectural plans, nineteenth-century housekeeping books, builders’ estimates, old photographs, and letters that bore the faded, inky, spidery marks of quills and steel-nibbed pens.

“Was there something wrong with my fish pie?” said Ros. “There’s so much left.”

“It was fine.”

Charlie poured himself another glass of wine. His sister’s fish pie had tasted of cod-flavored wallpaper paste and he could feel sludge impacting his digestive tract, floury sediment silting his arteries. He ought really to get back to running.

Ros busied herself with the estate papers, collecting the yellowing, brittle pages together. “Marjorie was fascinated by the wartime stuff, I thought.”

“She was.”

“Did you see her face when I showed her those Victorian ledgers? Fifteen shillings to build an ornamental pond, it’s unbelievable. Figures never lie.”

“They don’t,” said Charlie, toying with his glass. “Look, Ros, I spoke to the surveyors today before they went.”

“Any more wine left?”

“A bit.”

She tipped the bottle over her glass. A dribble came out. “Go on. You spoke to the surveyors.”

“They’ll put it in their report, but they said that in their opinion the stonework’s going to need a lot of work.”

“Well, that’s obvious. How much work?”

“About a million pounds’ worth.”

Her head went back as if he had slapped her.

“And that’s not counting the roof.” He paused. “There’s something else. I finally got through to that National Trust contact Jules gave me.”

“And?” she said.

“We had a chat, quite a longish one. It seems the Trust isn’t taking on any more stately homes. Their portfolio is full.”

“I see.” As a child, Ros had always been the braver of the two of them. Not a crier, a whinger, or a wailer. Stoical with the scraped knee, the bump on the head, the wasp sting. Now he could see the effort she was making to control herself.

“Trisha Greeling, the woman I spoke to, didn’t rule it out entirely. But she did refer me to their more recent acquisitions—a Manchester workhouse, a terrace of back-to-backs in Salford, and the house where John Lennon was born. Or maybe they haven’t bought the Lennon place yet, I forget, but you understand what I’m saying.”

“Cheap. Cheap to buy and cheap to run.”

“A shift of priorities. All part of the heritage, as she reminded me.” Charlie wished he hadn’t had that cigarette, because now he wished he had another. And another. A pack. “She’s going to think about it and we’ll speak next week, perhaps meet, but frankly, it doesn’t look hopeful. I’m sorry.”

“No, you’re not.”

“You’ve got to see that the sums don’t add up.”

Ros placed her hands on the table and spread her fingers. “It’s been less than three weeks, Charlie. We haven’t even started to explore the possibilities. OK, so it looks like we’ll probably have to rule out the
Trust. And it’s going to cost more, a lot more, than we thought. But do you really want to sell this house and see it ripped apart?”

“It’s Grade II listed. No one can rip it apart.”

“A Grade II listing only protects the exterior. We sell this place to a pop star or whoever and the next thing you know there’ll be a Jacuzzi in the octagon room. All the work that Hugo and Reggie did to restore this place will be smothered in crap.”

Families had their fictions. Here was Ros, the healer, the restorer of health and life, and here he was, the voyeur, the bystander of loss and destruction. Truth was, they both bought into it.

“We have no choice.”

“There’s always a choice.” Ros dropped her head in her hands, then raised it again. “What about your father-in-law?”

“What about him?”

“If we put together some sort of business plan, perhaps he might put up a bit of capital.”

“Absolutely not!” Charlie pushed back his chair, stood up. He was furious. “It’s taken Rachel years to work out how to live her own life. If you think I’m prepared to throw all that away by asking her father for money to fix up this place, you can think again.”

Ros twisted round in her seat. “It would be a business opportunity, not a handout.”

“No, it wouldn’t be a business opportunity. It would be like cutting a hole in your pocket and seeing how much poured out on a daily basis. And before you get on to my father-in-law’s generous donations to charity, let me tell you that he knows down to the last cent the difference between a good cause and a lost one.”

“OK, some other investor, then.”

“Yes, they’re thick on the ground these days. Queuing up round the block to throw money down a pit, last time I looked.”

“Oh, for God’s sake, Charlie, stop being so negative. I know you don’t want to live here and I’m not even suggesting that that would be necessary. But your son might want to one day. Have you considered that?”

He might have been more shocked at this blow beneath the belt
had he not realized, to his shame, that he hadn’t considered his son’s views at all. Not once, not for a moment. He might as well not have had a son.

“Don’t bring Luke into this.”

“Why not? Maisie is part of this too. Hugo and Reggie must have trusted us to look after the house for future generations or they wouldn’t have left it to us.”

He ran the tap, poured himself a glass of water, drank half of it, set it down. “We don’t know what their reasons were. That will was drawn up years ago, before Luke and Maisie were even born. Things were different then.”

The kitchen clock ticked. It was nearly midnight.

Charlie drank the rest of the water. “OK,” he said, “for the sake of argument, let’s say Hugo and Reggie did trust us to look after the house. But looking after the house means making the right decision about its future. As things stand, we can either keep it or we can save it. We can’t do both. If we try to hang on to it, we’ll lose it sooner or later. The only way this house is going to survive in anything like its present form is if we sell it to somebody who has enough money to look after it properly.”

“You don’t know that.”

“I’m being realistic.”

“Is that what you call it?”

“For fuck’s sake,” said Charlie, gesturing to the piles of papers on the kitchen table, “look at all this stuff you’ve been digging up. All this stuff Hugo collected. What does it tell you? This house has never stood still. Not once. They put in an ornamental pond one minute, they change the wallpaper the next, they remodel the whole thing from top to bottom when they’ve got the cash. Then they try and flog it off when they’re skint. So what if a footballer or an oligarch or some celebrity from reality TV buys it and puts a Jacuzzi in the octagon room? Or turns Reggie’s old bedroom into a walk-in closet? Darcy would have installed a fucking plunge pool at Pemberley if he’d known a decent plumber.”

Ros didn’t laugh, but a ghost of a smile appeared on her face,
enough to convince him that he was getting somewhere, that this dead weight might lift, or shift.

Then her phone went, buzzing and squirming on the kitchen counter.

“Geoff?” he said, handing it to her.

She looked at the screen. “Maisie. Term’s only half over. She can’t have run out of money yet.” She punched a button. “Hi, sweetheart! What’s up? No, don’t worry, I haven’t gone to bed. Oh, good, good, you got the package, I’m pleased. How about that dress? Did you buy it in the end?” Ros chattered on brightly, looking as if she had just been given a transfusion of freshly oxygenated blood.

Charlie squeezed his sister’s shoulder and murmured, “Don’t wash up. I’ll do it in the morning.”

She nodded and waved, her ear pressed hard to the phone.

*  *  *

Three a.m. UK time, ten p.m. New York time, Charlie crept down to Tony’s office with his laptop. 19,081,487 people were on Skype. None of them was his wife. Beside her name was a little gray cloud with a white x in the middle of it. He tried her cell but it was switched off and he went straight through to voice mail. He left a message. Then he emailed her and texted her to tell her that he had emailed her.

Charlie missed his wife. He had a wife-shaped hole in his life. But that was only temporary. He could buy a plane ticket right now and that hole would be filled. What was beginning to dawn on him was that his sister had a child-shaped hole in hers, which was only going to become bigger as time went on. Somehow he had to persuade her that the Park wasn’t the answer to an empty nest. It was a cuckoo’s egg and given half the chance it would hatch and swallow them whole.

   2   
Stonework: 1775

Y
ou would never think much of the stone if you saw it lying in the ground. In its bed under the earth, it’s yellow, almost soft to the touch. But bring it up to the air, let it dry so all the sap goes out of it, and it turns pale and dense and hard. Bath stone: it’s a stone fit for palaces, fit for fashioning whole cities, fine cities made of terraced squares, crescents, and circuses.

At Combe Down, Farleigh Down, Box Hill, it’s hot, backbreaking work. The quarrymen follow the stone in its bed, scraping, scraping away, freeing large blocks of it with their jadding irons. Underground in the loading bays the blocks are winched onto wagons that straining horses pull to the surface. When the stone is seasoned in the sun, masons square it and tramways deliver it to building sites or to quaysides where it will travel by water to whoever wants it and can pay for it. The farther it travels, the more it costs.

*  *  *

Late at night, the candle burning low, James Woods sat at a battered oak table in an upstairs room of an old manor house in the middle of a Berkshire estate. A sheaf of drawings was paperweighted by his right hand, and an accounts book was open in front of him. He turned the pages. Accounts rendered, accounts paid, accounts unpaid: foreman’s wages, rubble by the hundredweight, sacks of lime,
the hiring of sawyers, jobbing labor, draft horses. The figures weren’t adding up. It worried him.

Woods was an architect. Drawings, figures, worry—they all related to his present commission, which was to replace the old manor with a substantial new house. Every job had its problems but this one had been more difficult than most. Not least because it had cost him many uncomfortable hours on the road, traveling down from his home in York, and many wasted days waiting for progress that never happened. So far, this site visit had been no exception.

The window was open and the soft southern air carried with it a hint of the nearby river. Around him floor timbers and roof joists ticked and creaked and groaned, as if the old house knew that its days were numbered. It was a miserable place, on the whole: ill-proportioned, dark, alive only with mice. Brick-built, whereas the house that would replace it would be constructed of stone. They made a beautiful brick in this part of the world, mellow and easy on the eye, but to his mind a pile of bricks amounted to a pile of bricks however tidily they were assembled. A pile of stone was a monument.

Woods, who understood stone, had been trained by a master mason. A broad, square Yorkshireman, with sharp gray eyes that were amused by the world but not fooled by it, Woods had made his living as an architect for almost thirty years. When he was young, others had tried to talk him into setting up a practice in London, but he knew there was money in the north and fewer competitors to go after it and had stayed where he was. The work had flowed like a stream. He had designed session houses and prisons, churches and follies, and a great number of large country houses, chiefly in his home county. Over the years he had gained a reputation for thoroughness and precision, which was deserved, and he rarely turned down a job, no matter how small or how troublesome.

Most of his patrons were concerned with appearances. They wanted to know what their buildings would look like, what their money would buy. Man or woman or collective body, they almost always wanted what their neighbors had, or their peers, or what was in fashion, and if you had designed the houses of their neighbors or
their peers, or the local assembly rooms, a racecourse grandstand, a town hall, or a much-admired bridge, it was easier to persuade them to leave matters of style in your hands.

Drawings helped only up to a point. What people generally understood by architectural drawings were pretty pictures of façades, external elevations, and decorations for interior walls and ceilings. Producing these for comment and approval kept his apprentices busy for hours that could have been better spent on something else. No one outside the profession, to his knowledge, had ever seen a plan and understood how three dimensions sprang from two. Give a layman a plan and he would hold it upside down and ask where the front door was.

This commission had been different. There had been no argument about style or accommodation, no need to persuade or cajole. Drawings had been passed without a murmur. His recommendation as to where on the estate the new house should be sited, his proposals for landscaping had gone unchallenged.

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