Authors: Anna Martin
“I can tell you now, as Nell’s lawyer, that she is not going to legally tie you into something that will insist that you pass the house down to your own children and your children’s children and so on. All she wants is the right to keep her house in her old age so that she can come back here if she ever wants to. She’s not incapable of getting around. She’s just old, Henry, and sick.”
He sighed and looked up. It was something of a mistake. The ceiling, way, way above him, was painted with cherubic images. Like everything else in the house, it was awe-inspiring. Henry hadn’t quite managed to get his head around everything yet. Everything that Shenal was saying felt like all his hopes and all his fears combined. The possibility of starting his life again was hovering, right in front of his nose, and all he had to do was reach out and grab it.
“Do you want to go meet her?” Shenal asked. “Nell?”
Henry took a deep breath, considering. “Yeah.”
had been moved to what Shenal described as an assisted-living facility, which was a few miles away from Stretton House. Rather than a traditional nursing home, it comprised several small apartments that shared a common area and dining room, so residents could socialize in the evenings or during the day if they wished.
The attendants were mostly there to assist the residents with day-to-day activities that had become more difficult for them to do alone: cooking or cleaning, getting dressed, keeping track of medications. Some residents needed more care than others. Some were just lonely.
As they approached, Henry rapidly readjusted his view of the sort of place Nell was living in. He’d imagined a grisly sort of nursing home, with geriatric patients lined up in wheelchairs, staring blankly at a flickering television. This was not the place of his imagination.
The visitor’s parking lot led straight into a colorful garden, which was dotted with several benches where one could sit, weather permitting, to enjoy the fresh air. The house itself looked like a residential property, but a big one: tall, red brick, with a deep porch and only the name of the house announcing its true purpose.
They were met at the door by a middle-aged woman wearing jeans (which surprised Henry again) and a pale-pink shirt. Shenal introduced her as the manager of the home, Sandra, who offered to show them through to the conservatory where Nell was waiting.
Either through design or luck, Nell was the only person in the bright room with its doors that led out onto more gardens behind the house. She sat regally in a pale green dress, reminding Henry of pictures of the Queen from the royal wedding. Nell was wearing gloves, too—white ones, with little pearl buttons at the wrist. Her hair was styled into tight white curls, and the eyes in her lined face were green. Like his.
She stood as they approached, struggling a little to get to her feet, and offered her hand for Henry to shake. “Mr. Richardson,” she said. “I’m so pleased to meet you at last.”
He took her hand, having to lean down (Nell was
), and shook it. “Henry, please, Mrs. Richardson. The pleasure is mine, ma’am.”
Nell laughed and gestured for him to take a seat. “Then I think you should call me Nell. Unless ‘grandmother’ suits me better, do you think?”
“Oh, no,” she said, waving away his words. “I don’t like that. It makes me sound old.”
Shenal took the seat next to him on the small sofa, setting her mighty purse on the coffee table.
“Shenal,” Nell said warmly. “Don’t you look beautiful today. I do think yellow is your color.”
“Flattery, my dear Mrs. Richardson, will get you everywhere,” Shenal said, smirking. “Thank you. And thanks for taking the time to see us today.”
“Oh, nonsense,” Nell said. “You know as well as I do that I wanted to meet the boy. I’ve ordered tea. It should be here in a minute. Did you take him by the house yet?”
“Yes,” Shenal said. “On our way here, actually.”
“I’m still recovering,” Henry admitted. “It’s a lot more than what I expected.”
Nell clucked at him and nodded, her puff of white hair moving with her. “Stretton House is a beauty, I’ll give you that. Or, it used to be. I haven’t been in there in years. I daresay it’s in something of a state of disrepair by now.”
Shenal nodded. “It’s not in the best condition.”
Nell clucked again. “Such a shame. Such a shame.”
They were interrupted by the arrival of the tea tray—a pot with three cups set on saucers and milk in a jug. Shenal took the task of pouring and stirring and adding sugar, handing out a cup at a time until they had all been served. Only then did Nell start up again.
“You’re probably wondering why you’re here,” she said.
“Yeah,” Henry said. “Shenal’s told me a bit. But not much.”
“I’m dying, Henry,” Nell said frankly. “I have pancreatic cancer, and it’s rotting me from the inside out. They found it a few months back, and I probably don’t have long.”
“I’m so sorry,” Henry murmured. He felt an undeniable rush of familial affection for this woman, even though they’d only just met.
“Nothing to be sorry for,” Nell said, once again waving away his words. “Death is an inevitable consequence of life, my dear. I made the decision, after a long conversation with both my doctor and my lawyer, that we wouldn’t fight it. Dr. Morris has prescribed me the most wonderful cocktail of narcotics, which keeps some of the pain away, and I’m living out my days in this beautiful building. There’s not a lot more I could ask for.”
“There’s no need for you to be in a hospice?” Henry asked.
“Oh, phooey. Nonsense. I have cancer, not the plague. No one’s going to catch it from me. I’m an old lady, Henry, not a young thing worth saving. I want to know—” She paused to smooth her hands over her dress, over her knees. “I want to know that the things that are important to me are cared for. I don’t want to see my family home chopped up and sold off to the vultures. I wanted to meet my great-grandson.”
A soft snort of a laugh escaped from Henry’s lips. “After meeting you, I’m very glad you called me here, ma’am.”
“You’re polite,” she said, shrewd once more. “I like that. Tell me about yourself.”
“My parents are good people,” Henry said, feeling now was the time to voice what he’d been hoping he’d have a chance to explain. “I want you to know that they didn’t know about you. My father, when I told him about your call, he didn’t know that you were still alive. I’d like to think that, if they had, they would have been in contact before now.”
Nell smiled, the action crinkling the lines in her face even further. “That’s nice of you to say,” she said. “Where did you go to school? Did you work, before you came here?”
“Yes, ma’am, I used to own my own business,” Henry said, feeling the weight of scrutiny on his answers. “I would plan weddings.”
“Yes,” he said, squirming. He had fallen into the party-planning business almost by accident. All it took was a few birthday parties, an engagement party, then a wedding, and he had a full-time job on his hands that he found he actually enjoyed.
When the recession hit, though, he’d found himself struggling for the first time in his life. He had never needed to ask for help before, financial or otherwise, having set up the company in his own name, with his own money.
As things got worse, the buyout became inevitable. He didn’t regret selling—it was the right decision. But he deeply regretted failing.
Clearing her throat lightly, Shenal set her teacup down on the table and reached for a file from her purse.
“Do you think we should explain things to Henry in a little more detail?” she said. Nell nodded, gesturing for her to continue, so Shenal drew a stack of papers from her file.
“Be my guest.”
“I’m going to go through this in the broadest possible terms,” Shenal said, handing him a copy of her paperwork. “If you have any questions, please interrupt me.
“This is a copy of the contract regarding the property, Stretton House. My client, Annabell Richardson, wishes to hand ownership of Stretton House, its grounds, woodland, farmland, and any buildings contained thereon, to you, Henry Richardson, with the following clauses.” She paused for breath. “Although you will remain the sole owner of the property, both Mrs. Richardson and I, Shenal Gupta, will act as trustees. This means that any modifications to the house, its grounds, et cetera, must be approved by us prior to those modifications taking place. We retain our right to take legal action if this is not adhered to.
“Furthermore, in the event of Mrs. Richardson’s death, I will remain trustee to act in the interests of the property, basically to stop you from selling it or turning it into flats.”
“I don’t want to turn it into flats,” Henry said, his mind reeling a little.
“There are other bits and bobs in there,” Shenal said. “I won’t go through it all now; it would take forever. You might want to get your own lawyer to check it through before you sign anything.”
“Yeah… uh….” Henry forced his thoughts into order. “Do you have an electronic copy? I could e-mail it to him,” he asked, thinking of Gareth Swan.
Shenal nodded. “I can do that for you.”
“This is all a lot of legal mumbo-jumbo bullshit,” Nell said very matter-of-factly, “which is covering up the main point. I want my house to stay in my family. I don’t want to see it destroyed.”
After covering up his snort of surprise at her language, Henry nodded. “I can look after it for you. I’ll do that.”
Nell beamed. “Then it’s all set. I’ll leave it with Shenal to finalize the details.”
his first meeting with his great-grandmother, it took Henry several days to figure out what the hell he was going to do. Shenal had duly e-mailed him a copy of the contract regarding the house, and he’d forwarded it on to Gareth. He’d received an automated reply but was yet to get a formal response from the man himself.
As long as there were no catches, and he’d not been able to find any on his own read-through, he couldn’t see any reason not to accept. Practicality told him that. Emotionally, he was feeling sore and battered, torn between his loyalty to New York and wonderment for the English countryside. It was what he’d been hoping for—more than what he’d dreamed of. A chance to relax and be somewhere where no one wanted anything from him and there were no expectations or misconceptions of who he was.
It was early spring, not yet warm enough to be outside without a jacket but pleasant enough to be walking outside. It was the perfect opportunity for Henry to wander around the village, figure out his surroundings and where everything was.
He learned that Cheddar sprawled. To his brain, which was trained to the grid structure of Manhattan, it wasn’t just confusing—it felt wrong. Learning his way around wasn’t particularly easy, but he picked up on a few local landmarks to help with navigation.
As he wandered, he thought.
It appeared, to him at least, that Stretton House was full of potential. That, and unless some serious renovation work was done it would soon fall into a state of disrepair. Already there were signs that work needed to be done, and things would only get worse over time.
The sort of capital needed to renovate the house was not sitting in Henry’s bank account. He had some inheritance money, but it wasn’t enough to do the sort of work that was required. Not nearly enough. Nor did he think Nell had that sort of disposable cash. If she had, there wouldn’t be the fuss with him taking over ownership of the property in the first place.
That meant the money had to be raised or earned, either by Henry himself or by making the house work for its own renovation money. And the best way—scratch that—the
way Henry could think of was to open the house up for private hire.
He knew Nell had been against turning the house into a hotel, but that wasn’t exactly what he had in mind.
Of course, Henry reasoned as he walked, he could always go back to New York; that opportunity hadn’t yet passed. He had no ties to the little village. If he were to take on the house it would mean months of commitment, months when he was unlikely to be able to return home.
At times it all felt like a dream, one that was bordering on nightmarish responsibility. Shenal had kept Gareth pretty far out of the loop with regards to what was actually going on with Nell and Cheddar and Stretton House. It wasn’t as simple as he’d thought. Or hoped.
But there was something here that made him want to stay. He didn’t quite understand why, not yet, but at times it felt like Cheddar was brimming with opportunities that simply didn’t exist in New York. There wasn’t anything pressing waiting for him back home—not a job, or a boyfriend.
He continued to walk, and research, and think.
His mind had always had a habit of taking an idea and running with it, and while he walked his head was full of all the ways Stretton House had the potential to be great, or even more than great, fantastic. It was going to take a huge amount of work, because he didn’t want to turn it into something new. He wanted to restore what was already there and take it back to what it was at the height of the Richardsons’ ownership.