Authors: Peter Helton
âAs long as we get there on time they won't pester us much this morning,' he promised. I wondered if this was the âroyal we' or whether he now considered us an item, him and me against the rest of
, at least one of whom definitely wished him ill.
âAre you now allowed to let me into the big secret? Where are we going?'
âOh, good Lord, no one's told you yet.' He was dressed now and flinging a last few things into an open suitcase. âTarmford Hall is where it's happening. Suspected Roman villa, no less, that's why we have a one-week special on. Of course if it all goes tits-up we'll pack up early.'
âWhat's so special about the place that even yesterday Cy wouldn't tell me?'
âTarmford Hall? Owned by Mark Stoneking. He bought it quietly a few years back.'
âThe rock musician? Of Karmic Fire? He's still alive then.'
âAlive, immensely rich and eccentric. That's the best way to be, don't you think?'
âOne of those keeps eluding me.' I watched Guy stash the bottle of Laphroaig in his shoulder bag.
âThat's why we had to be more secretive than usual. He's quite keen on his privacy where the general public is concerned, doesn't mind mixing with us media types though, it seems. We're all staying at the Hall, plenty of room, by all accounts. It's quite a pile; I saw it briefly from the outside.'
âIs he still making music?' Karmic Fire had been huge in the seventies, churning out nine albums of rock music vaguely inspired by Eastern sounds and religions. And even though any survivors of the group were probably using walking frames now, compilations, âbest ofs' and âpreviously unreleased tracks' seemed to keep at least the brand going. Annis quite liked them, had two of their albums â recorded long before she was born â and would be dead jealous to know I was at a rock legend's house. I would let her know and rub it in at the first opportunity.
Guy picked up the phone. âIs he still making music? No idea, you'll have to ask him. Not my kind of sound. Not that he'd have to; I'm sure he gets by.' He spoke into the receiver. âWould you pick up my suitcase? And I'm ready for my car now .Â .Â . Oh good.' He hung up. âCar's out front.'
A moment later a porter arrived and he followed us down with Guy's suitcase.
We swanned out of the front door into the early-morning sunshine. Suitcase stashed in the back of Guy's Range Rover and the porter tipped, Guy fiddled briefly with his sat-nav, then we set off in convoy down the cobbled crescent. Right from the start Guy drove like an idiot. This was predictable since he also wore his wide-brimmed hat in the car. He caned the big four-litre engine as though it ran on water and had used his horn three times by the time we made it to the Circus two hundred yards further on. He kept this up all the way through the city and up Wellsway. Even when we turned off the Midford Hill and on to narrow country lanes he still drove as though on a broad one-way street, simply blaring his horn then surging through the blind bends. I hung back far enough not to get embroiled in any accident but his luck held and the head-on collision he was surely looking for didn't happen.
Tarmford was a small village five miles south of Bath. It was picturesque, with a pub, the Druid's Arms, beside a village green and duck pond. They had somehow managed to hang on to their post office-cum-grocery store and a red phone box â the picture postcard stuff Somerset does so well.
Guy whizzed past the place, splashed through the ford of the tiny River Tarm and soon took a left into another narrow lane. A high freestone wall appeared by the side of the lane and it was some time before we reached a wide wrought-iron gate with rusting scrollwork between the bars.
Guy was out of the car, thumbing the button on the intercom. Nothing happened for a few moments, so I got out myself. Had I not known better I'd have thought the place was deserted. One of the two carved-stone urns on either side of the gate had half its shoulder missing; weeds and ivy grew out of it. The gate itself was in need of repainting and the circa 1980s security camera on top of the wall above me looked dead. But then the intercom croaked, Guy said the magic word â
â and soon the ghostly gate groaned open by itself. Beyond it lay a long, curved drive lined with horse chestnuts and as I followed Guy in I got an early glimpse of architecture at the end of it. Both Guy's Range Rover and the fabled suspension of my CitroÃ«n made light work of the rills and potholes in the much-patched drive. By the looks of it someone had given up patching it in the third quarter of the twentieth century.
Mill House, with its three acres, ramshackle outbuildings and the barn on top of the meadow, was a big place and difficult to keep up, but manor houses are in a different category altogether. One look at the many-angled roof which was probably the size of a rugby pitch and I realized that here repair bills weren't just difficult to pay but took on the magnitude of natural disasters. The house itself was massive and looked complicated and of several periods, with a tower here, some crenellations there, a wing jutting out on the right and stuck to the end of it a coach house, now a six-bay garage by the looks of it. A dozen cars and vans of all shapes and sizes stood in front of the house, yet there was still space for a few more on the gravelled forecourt. We parked our cars at luxuriously wilful angles and got out.
Guy Middleton, in wide-brimmed hat, faded waxed hunting jacket, khaki trousers and decoratively worn-out boots, looked ready to raid tombs. He shouldered his leather bag that I knew contained his whisky and I wondered if he was ever parted from it. âNot bad, eh?' Guy said to me as I caught up. He made a theatrical gesture. âAll this for one ageing rock star. What's he do with it all?'
âYou can ask him,' I said, nodding my head at the man who was just then stepping out between the columns of the stone porch in the centre of the building.
Mark Stoneking. It was unmistakably the same guy who with Karmic Fire had rocked huge audiences all around the world, yet he looked older than any rock star should, even in blue jeans, purple tee-shirt and black trainers. His hair had receded at the front but was still long at the sides and back and darker than was plausible at his age. He was tanned on face and arms but no more than a man with a fifty-foot verandah during an English summer ought to be.
âWelcome to my humble abode.' He stretched out a bony hand and shook ours. I wondered if he used the âhumble abode' line every time he opened the door. âGood to meet you, Guy. You look just like you do on telly.' He turned to me with questioning eyes.
Middleton obliged. âOh, this is Mr Honeysett; he's looking after me on this shoot.'
âChris,' I offered.
âMark. The others are already on the verandah, come in, come through.'
We followed him into the lofty, two-storey hall, equipped with all the clichÃ©s you could ask for â a grand curved blue-carpeted staircase, sinister daubs in elaborate gilt frames every few steps, a lugubrious long-case clock under the arch of the stairs and grey marble floors strewn with well-worn rugs. Dark doors off to either side. The walls were painted wine-stain red and together with the long blue tongue of the stairs made me feel like I had stepped into the toothless mouth of an enormous chow chow. Once the door had closed behind us the foyer became a dim and echoing space. âThis way.' Stoneking waved us on down a shadowy passage and into a long gallery at the centre of the house. We passed a much less grand set of stone stairs. âYou can leave your bag here,' Stoneking said to Guy. âCarla will take it to your room.'
Guy patted the bag. âI'll hang on to it. It's got stuff in it I'll be needing soon.'
Through open double doors we came to a long bright drawing room. This looked much more like it had been furnished by a rock star and less like it had come with the house. It had an inglenook fireplace, three leather sofas grouped around a knee-high, intricately carved Nepalese table, several armchairs and a scatter of tables and rugs. The paintings on the pale green walls were bland contemporary fare. In one corner stood a gleaming Yamaha grand piano. There were four hi-fi speakers in walnut cabinets that were so large that I first mistook them for cupboards. It was an uncertain mix of styles and centuries but extremely bright with tall sash and enormous French windows, the latter wide open to the verandah.
Guy made all the diplomatic noises about the interior while rolling his eyes at me. â
place, Mark .Â .Â .' Stoneking seemed pleased by what he took for approval. I just nodded at stuff, like the enormous china elephant and the five-foot carved-wood golliwog holding a tray.
As we followed him on to the verandah where the production team were sunning themselves at two tables, the scale of the place began to sink in. Beyond the verandah stretched a vast lawn, gently sloping towards clumps of trees and unkempt hedges a hundred or more yards away, with just a glimpse of glittering water beyond. The verandah faced west and the lawn was bound on the north and south sides by dense woodland. To the far right I could just make out the long roof of a greenhouse above a dense hedge. Odd statuary and stone carvings were dotted about the place and the verandah was punctuated by waist-high stone urns covered in green algae.
The realm of the fabled Stone King.
Chairs were found and we joined the
team who were drinking coffee and working their way through a large plate of shiny bagels. I sat between producer and director, Cy on my right, Mags âEmms' Morrison on my left. âDon't mind if I do,' I said to Stoneking who nodded invitingly at the spread. I poured myself some coffee. Upwind from us, Guy shared a table with Paul the cameraman, the bald sound man and two others, as far away from Cy as he could manage, I assumed.
âI'm glad you're doing your job,' said Cy, making a show of checking his watch. âHe looks halfway awake at least.'
âHe was quite chirpy when I found him,' I said loyally. I wasn't exactly enamoured with Guy but I somehow preferred him to the uptight producer.
âMakes a change. The first day is always quite a happy day, of course. Everyone hopeful and the script intact. It's when that lot really get going that it gets bloody.' He gestured towards the lawn.
The archaeology team were advancing, far outnumbering the TV crew. They walked about in groups, surveying, pacing out and measuring, or sat talking in small huddles on the grass. A woman with very short, very blonde hair dressed all in blue and holding a map appeared to be the focus of attention. Not being a follower of the programme I wondered who she was.
Emms answered my question. âThat's Andrea, the chief archaeologist and team leader.'
I was busy piling cream cheese on a bagel and decorating it with slices of cucumber. It's an art. âSo what happens?' I asked.
âThey'll decide where they'll investigate and what they think they've got. Then we make them discuss it all again but more concisely for the camera. After that we record absolutely everything interesting that happens. We have a script ready, based on what the archaeologists
is out there and that will get rewritten when we find out what's actually there. Then it all starts. It's a long journey from here to the finished programme you'll see on your screen.'
Stoneking sat forward in his chair, listening to every word, glancing often at the figures on his lawn. He looked eager as a child. A woman appeared from a door near the other end of the verandah, late thirties, with dark hair in a ponytail and sparkling stud earrings, carrying a tray. She wore a white apron over a blue flower-print knee-length dress and approached our table.
Stoneking tested the weight of the coffee pot. âMore coffee, Carla, I think.' She wordlessly took the pot away.
I had despatched my bagel. âAll right if I have a wander about before it all kicks off?' I had vaguely aimed the question at the entire table.
Stoneking said: âNo, go right ahead, man. Actually, I'll come with you.' He drained his cup. âCan't believe it's happening at last.'
âIt's very brave of you to let that lot dig up the place,' I said when we were out of earshot.
âRubbish, nothing ever happens in this damn place. No, I can't
to see what's under there, it's exciting. A whole week of it, how good is that?'
We traversed the lawn at an angle towards the south end. âYou're not sad about the lawn?' I asked.
He wrinkled his nose. âSam will be. He'll be livid, in fact. My gardener. Only he's .Â .Â . well, he's away at the moment. I wrote to him, telling him what's happening and he hasn't replied, which probably means he's sulking. He'll be back in a short while, I hope. Nah, to me it's just grass. They'll take it up, they'll put it back. Mind you, I've cut it myself since Sam went and even with the sit-on mower it's one hell of a job. I never realized.'
âHow big are the grounds?'
âNinety acres â it's not all lawn, thank the gods. Most of it is woodland, of course. There's another forty acres of farmland which I rent out. It's paradise, really.' He lifted his eyes to the dark line of trees and hedges and paused for a moment. âIf you like solitude,' he added like a man who hated solitude. We came to a series of broad and shallow stone steps where a couple of young diggers, a man and a woman, had parked themselves with their wheelbarrow while the bigwigs made their decisions. The woman was reading a paperback novel which she lowered as we approached.
âMorning,' Stoneking said and they both got up from where they'd been sitting. âAs you were.' The two sat down again. âYou're part of the team? I'm Mark.'
âWe are. I'm Julie, this is Adam,' said the woman. Dark hair showed under her frayed straw hat. A green and gold
baggy shorts and work boots completed her outfit. Her friend sported an identical tee-shirt, jeans and well-worn boots. He had a first-edition goatee beard and tightly curled blond hair. âWe're diggers,' said the woman.