Authors: Anna Martin
So he stayed in his room, steadily working his way through the different takeout menus that Judith’s daughter had found for him, only occasionally wandering downstairs to eat in the restaurant.
If any of his friends from back home could see him sprawled on a hotel-room bed, wearing baggy sweatpants and a Yankees T-shirt, hair a mess and not cut in weeks, he’d get hell from them. Henry had always taken pride in keeping himself expertly styled in both his grooming and his fashion. It was something that appealed to his aesthetics: taking care of the outward appearance reflected his inner peace with himself. Most often when he let the outside go, it was because there was something brewing away inside.
He thought it fortunate that, after a quick e-mail fired off to the owner of the riding school inquiring as to whether they were still interested in purchasing the land, he had a response almost immediately, offering what he thought was a rather generous price. There were still contracts to be drawn up—Shenal was handling that—and agreements to be made with regards to what they could and couldn’t do with the land, but Shenal seemed to think it was a done deal.
Henry had asked why the owner of the school had gone in with such a good initial offer. Shenal thought it probably had something to do with fear that someone else would get there first.
“They wanted to snare you before you think of offering the land to someone else,” she offered in one of her characteristically short telephone calls. “I’d let them, if I were you.”
He was happy to let them do just that. Surprised at how easy the sale of the land had been, he was hoping that his good fortune would hold while he made contact with the local builders, but Castle and Sons weren’t quite as easy to get hold of.
Eventually, he managed to make an appointment with Scott Castle, who agreed to meet him at the house so he could take a look around. A broad, fierce-looking man with a shock of red hair, Castle gripped Henry’s hand in a tight handshake after jumping down from the cab of his truck.
“Hell of a place,” Scott commented as he ran his palm contemplatively over the stubble on his jaw.
Henry couldn’t help but think that the brute sort of strength Scott presented wasn’t compatible with the delicacy and light touch he wanted to take with the old building, but he’d come recommended by Nell, so he was prepared to give the other man a chance.
“Have you got any plans?” Scott asked, and Henry laughed.
“Yeah. I’ve got a lot of those.”
It was an early spring day that invited them to sit on the front step of the house as Henry went through his plans and sketches and notes, welcoming Scott to add his comments to the notes Henry had already made and fiddling with the timing plan he’d drawn up.
“I want to be open in four months,” Henry said boldly, wondering what Scott’s response would be.
He was treated to raised eyebrows and a little grunt.
“There’s a lot of work to do here, Henry,” Scott said, idly flipping back through the sketchbook, which was now filled with photographs too, fabric samples and pictures of rugs, things that were stored in various rooms.
“Nell said you were the right person for the job,” Henry offered. “I only want to open the ground floor up first. The rest of the work upstairs can be done over the winter, when we have more time, and the second phase of the reopening would be this time next year.”
Scott shook his head. “It’s still a lot to do,” he argued. “You’ll need to set aside ten days, maybe two weeks, for the kitchen alone.”
“I’ll do a lot of it myself,” Henry said, slightly desperate now. “Painting and that sort of stuff, I can do that. I’ve got experts coming in to look at the books, and only a few of the tiles in the entrance hall need to be replaced. I can do that, and—”
“Henry,” Scott interrupted. “I get it. You’ll get your hands dirty. Look,” he said and blew out a long breath. “The economy, all that crap…. Keeping guys in work around here is tough, you know? I want to be able to employ more people, but if the contracts aren’t there, I can’t. What I’m trying to say is… it’s gonna be tough, and it’s gonna cost you, but I’ll do it.”
was not a lying man.
Two days after their conversation on the front step of Stretton House, he sent the first few members of his crew down to start work. They looked like they were barely out of school. With none of Scott’s brawn and strength, these two were tall and weedy, but they worked hard and had a respect for the house that Henry was pleased to see.
“’Scuse me, mister,” one of the boys called as he wandered through the house from the kitchen.
“Call me Henry. It’s fine,” he said quickly.
The kid nodded and sniffed.
“We’re just going out for a fag break.”
“A fag break?” The kid mimed smoking a cigarette. “Back in five.”
Henry wondered if the sniggers were real or imagined as they wandered back to the truck.
The morning so far had been about salvaging and clearing out the junk that was strewn through the house. From what he could tell, the house had been abandoned in the mid- to late-1940s. This coincided with what he’d learned from his Internet research and local gossip so far. At the end of the war, the house continued to operate as a field hospital for six months or so, until the last remaining patients were integrated into other hospitals farther afield or discharged altogether. By this point, Nell had been living in the gatekeeper’s cottage for a few years and felt no particular desire to live in the house, where she’d seen so much suffering and pain.
Over the years, there had been a few attempts to clear out the house and make it habitable again, which meant that most artifacts from the war had been disposed of or moved to museums and private collections. There was hardly any evidence of the hospital left, which had been disappointing for Henry as he’d searched further into the house’s history. He still held out hope that he might come across some uniforms, maybe, or medical equipment, but as more and more of the house was explored, that hope was dwindling.
Unfortunately, it seemed that in the process of turning the house into a hospital, dramatic and rather destructive alterations were made. The deep tracks that the ambulance had left were still almost identifiable. With the conservatory and its wide double doors at the rear of the house serving as a perfect loading bay, the ambulances had been forced off the gravel drive and over the lawn as they moved around the house.
The conservatory itself was in the west wing of the house and connected to the dining room. Taking up the rest of the wing was a huge ballroom, still ornately appointed, which had served as the main ward. The one fault with this excellent arrangement was that there had been no preexisting doorway from the conservatory through to the ballroom… meaning that one had to be knocked through. And the process of knocking through hadn’t been done particularly elegantly.
Although Henry quite liked the way he could stand in the back of the house—in the conservatory—and see all the way through to the front, the gaping hole needed to be addressed, and quickly. He wasn’t convinced that the doorway had been constructed with thought to where the support structures for the rest of the house were laid.
That was the first job, to assess where the support structures were and to prep the walls for the big double doors he planned on installing in the gap. The next thing was to start work on the dining room, which had been a smaller ward, and the kitchen, which ran nearly the entire length of the back of the house.
The rest of Scott’s crew would be arriving by the end of the week to start on the heavy construction work, something that Henry was both dreading and excited for. There were no obvious markers as to which way Scott’s sexuality swung, but Henry held out hope that the big, burly, handsome builder was at least halfway homo.
He’d tried to wean himself off the brute-strength type that he used to go for. Time and experience had taught him that those guys were frequently very heterosexual and weren’t too pleased at being hit on. Scott wasn’t that tall, but he was broad and solid. One arm was covered in tattoos, and Henry got the impression that if the man took his shirt off there would be more hiding underneath.
When the kids returned from their “fag break” (and Henry promised himself he’d try to refer to them as something other than “kids” in his head; they were probably at least eighteen), he decided to leave them to it for the rest of the day. There was little chance that Scott would show up again. He’d be back in the morning when the work on clearing the kitchen was due to start. Henry decided to get an early night and make sure he was back bright and early in the morning.
Scott and his men getting restoration work well underway on the house, Henry was left with a bit more time to think about what he was going to do with it once it was actually up and open again. For this, he found himself at Shenal’s mercy again, although her one word answer had actually filled him with a little burst of excitement. He knew, he
that he could turn Stretton House into one of the most beautiful and elegant wedding venues in the area.
The problem was, he didn’t want to alienate his day-to-day visitors and had to be aware of the fact that most of the public would want to view the house and go on one of the mini-tours he was planning on a weekend.
That left him with a frustrating catch-22: a wedding would put the house out of bounds to the public, but would pull in a big chunk of money all in one go. But he didn’t want to be a weddings-only venue.
There was also the fact that most wedding venues got booked up a year, sometimes even eighteen months in advance of the actual date, meaning he was unlikely to get many bookings for the rest of the year. If it was going to work, he’d need to offer some serious discounts to get people in over the coming summer. And, for a few weeks at least, he had absolutely nothing to offer.
His role started to morph into something like a project manager, even though that was technically Scott Castle’s role. He was called on frequently to make decisions, sometimes with only minutes to weigh up his options before the results needed to be implemented.
Development in the kitchen came on with ferocious speed, and after only a minute in the room at the back of the house, he left. It felt a little like they were trying to bash out a piece of him with their sledgehammers and crowbars, and he was possibly too interested in the British builders in their ripped jeans and dirty T-shirts and mugs of tea, grunting and making noise and yelling over the noise of the radio.
He spent the rest of the day in the garden.
All too soon, his second week in Cheddar rolled around. He’d only managed a few hurried conversations with his mom, not that he considered this a great loss to his personal time. And the only people he’d managed to really connect with on a human level were Shenal, Nell, and the lady in the tea shop on the high street, whose name he didn’t yet know, but she made awesome coffee.
There was Judith and her sulky daughter, of course, and he knew a little about Scott after being thrown into a working relationship with the man, but only what they’d learned on the occasional shared lunch break. Scott was not a man of many words. The sense of alienation clung to him like the smell of smoke. He was a fish out of water, really, completely out on his own here.
Having a job to do lifted his spirits from where they’d been when he left New York. It gave him a sense of purpose that drove him forward. It was just the moments of quietude that left him feeling so terribly alone.
another working lunch at the café with Shenal, Henry started to outline some of his ideas for what he imagined the finished house to look like and, more importantly,
like. He was desperate to avoid the mass-produced, cookie-cutter wedding venue, a trap easy to fall into.
“I want,” Henry said, gesturing with his fork, “it to feel like it belongs here. I want it to feel like Cheddar, Somerset, in the English countryside, you know?”
“I do,” Shenal said and licked a blob of mayonnaise from her thumb.
“So how do I do that?”
Shenal sighed and returned her club sandwich to her plate. “You involve local people,” she said. “Buy local produce. Hire local people to work there. Don’t order in new furniture from Ikea, go down the road to the little carpenter who works out of his garage and get your tables from him.”
“That’s what I mean,” Henry said. “I just don’t have those kinds of contacts yet. I want to offer a catering service too, and trying to find something online is, like… impossible.”
“Okay,” she said, pulling a notepad out of her bag. “I like you, Henry, so I’m going to give you a break.”
It took a few minutes for her to jot down a list of names and numbers, during which Henry finished his salad and drained his glass of juice. He was still lamenting the fact that he couldn’t get iced tea anywhere.