BEDTIME BOOKCLUB

Bitter Orange By Claire Fuller

Boy, do I love a dark, beautifully written novel with a reveal I didn’t see coming! Narrator Frances is recalling in old age the summer of 1969, which she spent in a dilapidated English country house with Cara and Peter, a hedonistic couple who seem keen to liberate her with their picnics and plentiful wine and skinny-dipping. Cara is a magnetic but troubled individual, whose stories don’t always match those of her partner, and very quickly you come to question whether she, Peter or indeed Frances is telling the truth. It reminds me very much of an enduring personal favourite, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, with similar slow-build tension and claustrophobic atmosphere. If you haven’t been on holiday yet, lucky old you – it’s seriously satisfying sunlounger material that will stay with you. ER

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BITTER ORANGE

Claire Fuller

£14.99, Fig Tree

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Boy, do I love a dark, beautifully written novel with a reveal I didn’t see coming! Narrator Frances is recalling in old age the summer of 1969, which she spent in a dilapidated English country house with Cara and Peter, a hedonistic couple who seem keen to liberate her with their picnics and plentiful wine and skinny-dipping. Cara is a magnetic but troubled individual, whose stories don’t always match those of her partner, and very quickly you come to question whether she, Peter or indeed Frances is telling the truth. It reminds me very much of an enduring personal favourite, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, with similar slow-build tension and claustrophobic atmosphere. If you haven’t been on holiday yet, lucky old you – it’s seriously satisfying sunlounger material that will stay with you. ER

Chapter:

One

They must think I don’t have long left, because today they allow the vicar in. Perhaps they are right, although this day feels no different from yesterday, and I imagine tomorrow will go on much the same. The vicar – no, not vicar, he has a different title, I forget – is older than me by a good few years, his hair is grey, and his skin is flaky and red, sore-looking. I didn’t ask for him; what faith I’d once had was tested and found lacking at Lyntons, and before that my church attendance was a habit, a routine for Mother and me to arrange our week around. I know all about routine and habit in this place. It is what we live, and what we die, by.

The vicar, or whatever he is called, is sitting beside my bed with a book on his lap, turning the pages too fast to be reading. When he sees I’m awake he takes my hand, and I’m surprised to find that it is a comfort: a hand in mine. I can’t remember when I was last touched – not the quick wash-over with a warm cloth, or the flick of a comb through my hair, these don’t count. I mean properly touched, held by someone. Peter, possibly. Yes, it must have been Peter. Twenty years ago this August. Twenty years. What else is there to do in this place except count time and remember?

‘How are you feeling, Miss Jellico?’ the vicar says. I don’t think I’ve told him my name. I take in Miss Jellico, roll it around inside my head like a silver ball in a game of bagatelle, letting it bounce from one pin to the next until it drops into the central enclosure and rings the bell. I know exactly who he is, but his title, that remains elusive.

‘Where do you think I will go? Afterwards?’ I spring the question on him. I am a difficult old bird. Although perhaps not so old.

He shuffles on his chair as though he has an itch in his pants. Maybe the flake extends under his clothes. I don’t want to think.

‘Well,’ he starts, bending over his book. ‘That depends . . . that depends on what you . . .’

‘On what I?’

‘On what you . . .’

Where I end up depends on what I confess, is what he means. Heaven or hell. Although I don’t think he believes in those places, not any more. And anyway, we’re talking at cross purposes. I could drag out the conversation, tease him, but I decide for now not to play.

‘What I mean,’ I say, ‘is where will I be buried? Where do they put us when we leave this place for the last time?’

He slumps with disappointment and then he asks, ‘Do you have somewhere in mind? I can make sure your wishes are passed on. Is there anyone you’d like me to tell, anyone in particular you want at the service?’

I am quiet for a time, pretending to consider it. ‘No need to hire a crowd,’ I say. ‘You, me and the gravedigger will be enough.’

He pulls a face – embarrassment? awkwardness? – because he can tell I know he isn’t a real vicar. He is only wearing the get-up – the dog collar – so they will allow him to visit. He has asked to see me before and I have refused. Now, though, with our talk of graves, I am thinking about bodies: those which are below the ground and those which are above. Cara and I, sunning ourselves at the end of the jetty on the lake at Lyntons. She in a bikini – I’d never seen that much of someone else’s skin all at once – and me daring to lift my woollen skirt above my knees. She reached out until her fingers touched my face, and she told me I was beautiful. I was thirty-nine when I sat on the jetty, and in my whole life no one had ever said I was beautiful. Later, when Cara was folding the tablecloth and putting away her cigarettes, I leaned over the green water of the lake and was disappointed to see that my reflection hadn’t changed, I was the same woman, although for a while that summer, twenty years ago, I came to believe her.

More images come then, one superimposed on the next. And I abandon chronology in favour of waves of memory, overlapping and merging. My final look through the judas hole: I am kneeling on the bare boards of my attic bathroom at Lyntons, one eye pressed to the lens that sticks up from the floor, a hand covering the other to keep it closed. In the room below mine, a body lies in the pinking bathwater, the open eyes staring up at me for too long. The floor is puddled and the shine of wet footprints leading away is already disappearing. I am a voyeur, the person who stands at the police tape watching someone’s life unravel; I am in the car slowing beside the accident but not stopping; I am the perpetrator returning to the scene of the crime. I am the lone mourner.

Judas hole. I had never come across that word until I came here, to this place.

How long ago?

‘How long?’ I must ask the question aloud because a reply comes from one of the Helpers. No, not Helper; what’s the name for her? Care Help? Assistance Helper? My wasting disease has eaten away more than flesh: it has taken any memory of last week as well as the names and titles I was told an hour ago, but it is kind enough to leave the summer of 1969 intact.

‘It’s eleven forty,’ the woman says. I like this one; her skin is the colour of a conker I have picked up in late September and discovered in a jacket pocket in early May. Louder, she says, ‘Only twenty minutes till lunch, Mrs Jellico.’ She pronounces it Jelli‐co, as if I might be a manufacturer of puddings: Mrs Wagner’s Pies, Mr Kipling cakes, Mrs Jelli-co’s . . . what? I have never actually been Mrs Jellico; I have never married, I have no children. Only here, in this place, do they call me missis. The vicar has always called me Miss Jellico, from the first time I met him. The vicar! I realize my hand is empty and he has gone; did he say goodbye?

‘Twenty years,’ I whisper.

The memory of my first sight of Cara stirs me: a pale, long-legged sprite. I hear her shouting outside on Lyntons’ carriage turn. I stopped cutting up my bathroom carpet and crossed the narrow corridor to one of the empty rooms opposite mine. Under the attic window, a lead-lined gutter edged by a stone parapet was packed with decaying leaves, and the sticks and feathers of ancient pigeon nests. Far below, Cara was standing on the dry fountain in the middle of the carriage turn. The mass of her hair was the first thing I noticed – almost solid with its dark, tight curls and centre parting, hiding all but a strip of her milk-white face. She was shouting in Italian. I didn’t know the words; the closest I have come to understanding Italian is the Latin names of plants, and most of these have faded now. A test: Cedrus . . . Cedrus . . . Cedrus libani, Cedar of Lebanon.

Cara’s bare feet balanced on Cupid’s thighs, while one of her hands gripped the robes of a stone woman as though she were trying to wrest them from her, and in the other she held a pair of at ballet pumps. I winced at the damage she might be doing to the already marked and chipped marble. I half hoped the fountain might be a Canova or one of his pupils, although I hadn’t yet examined it properly. Cara was wearing a long crocheted dress, and I was certain, even from my distance, no brassiere. The sun had nearly set on the other side of the house and her body was in shadow, but her head, where she tilted it back to look up, was vivid. I knew her already: hot-blooded and prickly, bewitching; a flowering cactus.

I thought she was shouting at me, up in my attic. I have never liked loud sounds, harsh words; I’ve always preferred the quiet of a library, and back then I couldn’t remember any- one raising their voice to me, not even Mother, although, of course, things are di erent now. But before I could reply, though goodness knows what I would have said, the sash was raised in one of the stately rooms below mine, and a man stuck out his head and shoulders.

‘Cara,’ he called to the girl on the fountain, giving me her name. ‘Don’t be ridiculous. Wait.’ He sounded exhausted.

She shouted again, arms waving, mouth working, fingers pressed together, hands pushing her hair over her shoulder, where it didn’t stay, and she jumped off the fountain into the long grass. She was always nimble, Cara. She came towards the house and went out of sight. The man vanished back inside, and I heard him running through Lyntons’ empty and echoing rooms, imagined the dust rising and settling in the corners as he passed. From my window, I saw him burst out of the front door on to the carriage turn just as Cara was pushing a bicycle at a trot through what was left of the gravel and simultaneously putting on her shoes. When she reached the avenue, she pulled up her dress and jumped on the bicycle like a circus acrobat jumping on to a moving horse, something I could never have managed then and certainly not now.

‘Cara!’ the man called. ‘Please don’t go.’

We watched her, he and I, swerve around the potholes along the avenue of limes. Pedalling away from us, she let go of the bicycle with one hand and stuck up two fingers in reply. It is difficult to recall the exact emotions which accompanied those sightings of Cara after everything that happened. I was probably shocked by her gesture, but I like to think that I might have also been excited by an anticipation of my own reinvention, of possibility, of summer.

The man walked to the gates, which were eight feet tall and rusted open, and struck his palms against Lyntons 1806 coiled in the ironwork. I was intrigued by his frustration: had I witnessed the end of their relationship or a lovers’ tiff?

I guessed that the man was about my age, ten years or so older than Cara, blondish hair flopping over his forehead, and a way of holding himself as though gravity, or the world, had got the better of him. Attractive, I thought, in a worn-down way. He shoved his hands into his jeans pockets and as he turned towards the house he looked straight up to my window. Without knowing why, since I had every reason to be there, I slid back into the room and ducked below the sill.

Two

Lyntons. Just thinking the word raises the hairs on my arms like a cat that has seen a ghost. But the Ward Assister . . . not that . . . a new white woman I don’t recognize, with a white plastic apron covering her uniform, sees my open mouth and an opportunity to feed me a spoonful of over-boiled broccoli. I press my lips together, turn my head and let another, earlier, memory come.

Mr Liebermann’s handwritten directions: a scrawl of place names, arrows and minor roads. An English market town, a church, a cattle grid. I struggled off the bus at the stop before the town and walked back the way I had travelled, to a narrow lane with tufts of grass growing along the middle. On the paper, Mr Liebermann had written Stop here for the view alongside an unnamed track that turned in beside a derelict lodge, although I learned later that he hadn’t been to Lyntons himself. I suppose he thought I would be driving, but I have never held a licence, or had a lesson, never driven a car. I put down my two suitcases, and considered leaving them under a hedge and returning for them later. I was hot in my raincoat – easier to wear it than to carry it – as I rested, leaning on the dented estate railings to catch my breath.

A mile away, beyond the parkland, dotted with mature specimen trees, the house – Lyntons – balanced at the top of a green bank. It extended back into shadow, but the view I had was of wide stone steps leading up to a magnificent portico where the afternoon sun buttered eight immense columns which rose to a triangular pediment. I could have been looking at the English cousin of the Parthenon. To the left of the house the sun reflected off the panes of the glasshouse Mr Liebermann’s letter had promised, while behind the buildings the land rose steeply to wooded hangers – a geographical feature of that part of the country: ancient woodland clinging to the sides of steep scarps which twisted and turned for several miles. Close by, a stream trickled through water meadows pockmarked with the imprints of cows’ hooves, until it was hidden between overgrown bushes and shaggy trees. I glimpsed the glitter of a lake, and although I couldn’t see it, I imagined the place where a bridge must cross the water. I had a thought, a shiver of excitement, about what kind of bridge it might be, given the age and style of the original house and what I had read about it, but I hadn’t voiced the possibility to anyone. There wasn’t anyone who would have listened, not then anyway.

***

In my bed, in this place, I think of bridges, and crossing water, and the ferryman, and wonder if I will have a premonition of my death. For all I know, everyone does – a bird inside a room, a chained fox, a watchful hare, a cow giving birth to twin calves – but only the unlucky recognize it for what it is.

Another Assister Carer, the friendly girl with the acne – Sarah? Rebecca? – combs my hair. She’s younger than the others, I can’t see her lasting long, but she’s gentle and she doesn’t do the inconsequential chatter as most do. When she’s finished, only a few strokes required now, she holds a mirror up to my face and I am shocked all over again at the woman who stares back: her sunken cheeks, the mottled skin like tea-stains on parchment, the scraggy neck. In the mirror, the woman’s mouth opens and I see pale gums receding from yellow horse teeth, and as I recoil, my arms ail and the mirror is pushed away. The girl’s grip is weak or she doesn’t expect any strength from me, and in her surprise she lets it go. It hits the end of the bed, although of course it doesn’t break but goes spinning off across the room. The girl is telling me to keep still, to calm down, to lie back, but now she isn’t so gentle. A warm wetness spreads under me and she presses the buzzer and I hear the squeak of rubber shoes on linoleum in the corridor. A sharp stab of pain in my arm and once more I am in the attic at Lyntons.

***

I am in the attic at Lyntons, and when it is obvious that the man has gone back indoors I finish hacking across the middle of the bathroom carpet with my botanical sample knife. It was a beautiful knife, the handle curved to the shape of my palm, and the blade wide and short; I liked to keep it sharp. I don’t know where it is now.

In a corner under the window I pushed my fingers down next to the skirting board and pulled hard enough for the carpet to snap off in quick jerks, releasing a cloud of dust, and pitching me backwards from my squatting position on to my bottom. A layer of other people’s skin, particles of desiccated insects, and plaster from the cracks in the ceiling settled over my face and hair.

The carpet was patterned, light brown squares and reddish circles. At the edges it was grey with dust, and around the toilet bowl it was stained a poisonous yellow. I tugged and heaved and rolled the two halves over themselves into the middle of the room, exposing the floorboards beneath. The bathroom was large – three paces from bath to sink and the same from window to toilet – and must once have been a maids’ bedroom. From the centre of the low ceiling a dusty light-shade hung on a plain ex. I didn’t care how frightful it was, the bathroom and the bedroom next door were mine, for a summer at least.

There was a rap on the door to the attic at the end of the corridor, and I stopped, still on my hands and knees, hoping if I stayed motionless for long enough the person would go away. Sometimes, in the past, I had longed for company but now, as someone literally came knocking, my thoughts scattered, and the beat of alarm at the idea of talking to a stranger pulsed in my throat. The knock came again, and while I was levering myself up on the lip of the bath I heard the door open, and then the man I’d seen running after Cara was standing in the bathroom doorway, a little breathless from taking the spiral staircase.

He studied me, and I realized my botanical sample knife was in my hand and Mother’s silk scarf still covered the bottom half of my face, tied there to keep the dust from my mouth.

‘Hello?’ he said, taking a step backwards. Closer up I thought he looked sadder, more handsome, the lines in his face smoothed out. I pulled down the bandana, swapped the knife from one hand to the other and back again, uncertain what to do with it. ‘Sorry,’ I said, because I knew the word would be expected. ‘You must be Frances?’ He held out his hand. Perhaps I seemed confused, gauche, because he added, as though I might myself have forgotten, ‘You’re here to survey the garden architecture for Liebermann?’ It was a moment before I took his hand, dry and as large as mine. I let it go quickly. ‘Peter,’ he said, introducing himself. ‘I’m sorry I wasn’t around when you arrived but it looks like you’re making yourself at home?’ He smiled, laughed almost, at the knife in my hand. I met his eyes and looked away, focusing on his lips, full for a man. His attractiveness made me feel all the more cloddish.

In one of his letters, Mr Liebermann had explained that he had also commissioned someone to report to him on the condition of the house and its fittings. I had been expecting Peter, but hadn’t given him a thought, or if I had I’d imagined him to be elderly and alone. ‘Sorry,’ I repeated, holding the knife behind my shorts – wide men’s shorts from the Army & Navy store. ‘I was cutting up the carpet.’ As well as apologizing, I had learned that it helped to state the facts when I couldn’t think of anything to say.

‘I didn’t see your car.’ While he spoke, Peter’s hands moved, circled around each other, pointed, illustrating his words.

‘I came by train and then the bus,’ I said. ‘The number thirty-nine. It was twenty-eight minutes late.’ From his expression, it seemed I’d said too much, had maybe been rude. It was so hard to get it right, the way other people had conversations, back and forth with no effort. I wondered, not for the first time, how it was done.

‘You should have sent a telegram,’ Peter said. ‘I’d have been happy to collect you from the station.’ He looked past me into the bathroom and carried on talking. ‘And sorry you had to hear all that, earlier. There’s no missing Cara when she’s in one of her moods. But you mustn’t worry.’ I hadn’t been worrying; I wondered if I should have been worrying. ‘She’ll have gone into town. She always comes back.’ He laughed again. It sounded as though he was reassuring himself. ‘What are you up to in there?’ He pointed. ‘The attic rooms are rather dingy. I think an old retainer must have been living in them, a nanny or a butler. Nothing’s been looked after. You should see the mess the army left, graffiti like you can’t imagine.’ He came into the bathroom and looked about without any sign of embarrassment.

‘Army?’ I said. I knew all the ways to keep the other person talking.

‘Lyntons was requisitioned. Forty-seventh Infantry Regiment. Americans. Apparently, Churchill and Eisenhower discussed the D-Day invasion in the blue drawing room. Goodness knows what a mess they made of the gardens. The soldiers I mean, not Churchill and Eisenhower, although you never know. Anyhow, you’d better prepare yourself. Liebermann did suggest that you have the rooms downstairs. They are grander, and I was hoping that Cara and I would be staying in the town but, well . . . my circumstances changed . . .’ He smiled. I liked him for talking so I didn’t have to. ‘There’s only this bathroom and ours downstairs fully working. I hope you don’t mind too much being up here in the attic.’

I saw him staring at the two halves of rolled-up carpet.

‘There was a smell,’ I said.

In his final letter, Mr Liebermann had enclosed a key to the side door with his directions, together with instructions to make my way up to the attic rooms. When I’d opened the door at the top of the spiral staircase that first time, the stink had punched me on the face: a reminder of those last few days nursing Mother. A mix of boiled vegetables, urine and fear. ‘I didn’t think Mr Liebermann would mind if I took up the carpet.’

‘Oh, he won’t mind.’ Peter flapped a hand in dismissal and went to the window, still talking. ‘Liebermann has no idea what’s in the house and what isn’t. He sent me an inventory, but nothing matches. There was meant to be a neoclassical chimneypiece by Wyatt in the blue drawing room, but there’s just a gaping hole. The grand staircase, which was supposed to be marble inlay, is definitely scagliola, and now that the damp and mould have had their way it isn’t worth saving, but the upsides are that the cupola is magnificent and I found dozens of bottles of wine in the basement that aren’t listed.’ He winked and then bent, hands on knees, to look out of the low window. ‘Probably corked, mind you. The inventory could be for a different house. I’d assumed Liebermann had visited before he bought Lyntons, but now I’m not so sure. Did you find the bedding we put out for you?’ He didn’t wait for an answer. ‘What a view.’

My two rooms were on the west side of the house, just below the roof and chimney stacks. It was a floor of a dozen or so rooms leading off a corridor that ran north to south. All the west-facing windows had a glorious view over Lyntons’ ruined gardens, the paths hidden by overgrown box and yew, a tangled rose garden, fallen statuary and the ravaged flowerbeds, to the parkland, the mausoleum and, beyond, a dark treeline and the hangers in the far distance.

‘Have you walked around the grounds yet?’ I asked. ‘Or been to the bridge?’ I wanted him to say that he hadn’t, so that whatever was there would be mine to discover alone, while at the same time I hoped he would tell me that he had seen the bridge and it was Palladian, so that I no longer had to brace myself for disappointment.

A Palladian bridge: understated architecture built to join two banks. Most often topped with a temple: stone balustrades and columns, pediments and colonnades under a lead roof, with cornered ceilings and statues. A water-cooled summer house open at either end, and built by the wealthy to stroll through or ride their carriages across. The bridge I imagined rose above the lake and spanned it with five elegant arches, while a spectacular open-sided temple grew upward from the balustrades. The whole would be satisfyingly symmetrical, but with fine and intricate carvings on the keystones. It wasn’t just a bridge, a means to move from one bank to the other, but a place built for love, for assignations, for beauty.

Peter straightened. ‘There’s a bridge, is there? I keep meaning to go down to the lake for a swim but I’ve had plenty to keep me busy in the house, what with Cara and the wine cellar.’

He kicked at one of the rolls of carpet and laughed. ‘Getting rid of a couple of bodies, are you?’

Three

When I wake I am alone. My stomach growls and I think I must have missed lunch or breakfast, or both, but it’s a drink of water I need most. They have left a beaker for me on the bedside table but I can only move my eyes towards it. My limbs will no longer do what my mind commands. The people here have changed my sheets and my nightdress, and I am ashamed to think of them touching my sick body, its pink and brown patches and atrophied muscles. I once heard someone say that you are supposed to get more comfortable in your own skin the older you become, more forgiving of its folds and creases, but it’s not true. I used to be a big woman, ‘voluptuous’ Peter once said. Now my flesh has melted away but the skin remains and I lie in a puddle of myself. I close my eyes and turn my head to the window; the colour through my eyelids is rose madder. I return.

***

The day is new, the light is gold and green and I am back in my attic bathroom. In my memory the sun always shines at Lyntons; the few drops of rain and rumbles of thunder we had never amounted to anything. It is my first morning and I am going to the lake. First though, I scrubbed the bath, the sink and the toilet, and swept up the hairs left behind from the pieces of carpet, which I had lugged down the stairs and outside, heaving them on to a rubbish pile I had nosed out behind the stables. I clipped on Mother’s Hattie Carnegie earrings and checked that her locket hung around my neck. Odd, perhaps, to get dressed up for a walk, but I liked to wear them to remember her, to be able to put a hand to my ear or my throat, and recall her voice and the way she used to look at me with love, before my father left.

While I was retying a shoelace, one of Mother’s earrings flew off my ear as though we three – me, Mother and the earring – knew they didn’t suit me. A circle of rhinestones with a green Peking glass centre made for someone with more petite lobes. The earring scuttled across the bathroom floor and I chased it; a glittering mouse disappearing down a gap between the boards. I pulled off the other earring, put it on the shelf next to my talcum powder, and stuck my fingers into the hole, pushing my hand down until my knuckles jammed against the wood. There was only warm air. But a board was loose, moving against its neighbours. I tucked my fingers under and was surprised when it lifted out, exposing the joists beneath. In the wide spaces between, a silt beach was strewn with lost objects. The contents of a tiny shipwreck washed up on dark and gritty sand: pins, a rusted razorblade, a button, two hairgrips, a few dirty beads from a broken necklace, and the earring. It rested against a metal tube, the diameter of a fat cigar, sticking up from the dust. I tried to pluck the tube out but it was firmly attached. It twisted and extended up above the floor – a short telescope. I licked my finger to clean what appeared to be a small glass disc in the top, and I lowered my face to the tube to look through.

What I saw was another bathroom from above, larger than mine and more imposing – a roll-top claw-footed bath and a scrolled sink, both of them warped and turning in on themselves as the lens distorted the view. The door was open and a yellow tongue of morning sun from the adjoining room licked the floor. On the back of the sink was a bar of new soap in a china dish and beside it, on a small table, pots, perfume bottles and toothbrushes were jumbled together. I watched while the door opened wider and a man came in. It was only when he stopped in front of the lavatory that I realized it was Peter. I jumped back, putting my palm over the top of the tube, and keeping still and silent as if he might at any moment look up and discover me. I recalled what he had said about how the rooms below were going to be mine, and I was grateful I’d been given a couple of converted servants’ quarters with an army-issue bed topped by a thin mattress.

I remained motionless until I heard the toilet flush, then I twisted the tube down and replaced the floorboard.

***

Mr Liebermann had sent me an inventory too, of sorts: a page enclosed with his directions as well as the key. It was a sheet torn from Lyntons’ sale particulars:

A Neoclassical Mansion Including Entrance Hall, Music Room, Drawing Room, Gun Room, Sitting Room, Dining Hall, Smoking Room, Billiards Room, Saloon and Ten Bed and Dressing Rooms, Five Bathrooms, and Staff Accommodation. Seated in a Magnificent Timbered Park of 764 acres with Ornamental Lake, Fountain, Parterre, Walled Kitchen Garden, Classical Bridge, Orangery of Outstanding Design, Stable Block, Model Dairy, Ice House, Grotto, Mausoleum, Sundry Follies inc. Obelisk etc., and range of outbuildings. All in a state of some disrepair.

Mr Liebermann had scribbled over it in pencil, circling ‘Fountain’ and underlining ‘Classical Bridge’ three times.

I had received his first letter with its American stamp and postmark a month after Mother was buried. A coincidence but a lucky one. With her death, the alimony my father had been paying her stopped, and although Mother left everything she had to me, surprisingly little money remained after I’d paid for the funeral and settled other bills. The apartment we lived in, a portion of a London house, was rented.

I believed it would be exciting not to know where I would go or what I would do next for the first time in thirty-nine years. We had a routine, Mother and I, which never varied, and I had imagined that being able to eat when I wanted, go to bed when I wanted, do anything I wanted, would make me free. I believed I would be transformed. I’d been preparing for Mother’s death for ten years – every time I came home from the shops or the library, I unlocked the front door uncertain of what I would find. After she was gone, I was ready to leave too. I wanted to be rid of the memories of those years which were soaked into every surface: the chair she monitored the road from while waiting for me to return; the desk where she sat to write her regular letters to my father asking for more money; the bed where I nursed her and where she’d died – which, when I stripped the sheets, smelled of her and made me cry.

I was ruthless. I invited the local antiques dealer in and told him he could buy what he liked. He hummed and tutted and shook his head while I showed him around the rooms. The furniture was too dark and heavy, he said, the market had all but disappeared for our old-fashioned Victorian items. Still, he took everything, including her old haute couture clothes that she’d saved from her previous life, bundling them into boxes, saying he wasn’t hopeful about finding them a home. He paid me less for the whole lot than one dress had cost. I knew it but I wanted everything gone. He left her underwear, a couple of pieces of cheap jewellery and one evening dress that I kept for myself. I didn’t think about the future, not then. I had no doubts something would turn up, and I was right, it did.

A few months previously, an article I’d written about the Palladian bridges at Stowe and Prior Park had been published in the Journal of the Society of Garden Antiquities. They had printed several of my pieces over the years, although they didn’t pay, since it was an obscure periodical read, I thought, by probably only half a dozen academics.

But it must have reached a wider audience, because one day I received a letter from a Mr Liebermann, forwarded by the journal, who wrote to say he’d purchased an English country house and gardens.

Dear Mrs Jellico,

As an expert on bridges and garden architecture in general, I wonder if you would consider visiting an English country house and its estate, recently purchased, and giving me your professional assessment . . .

. . . his letter had started. I wouldn’t have called myself an expert: everything I knew had been self-taught, aside from my year at Oxford. I had always spent my free time in the British Museum library, sitting in my usual chair, reading, making notes and writing little history articles for pleasure. I’d not visited any historical sites outside London, at least not since my father had left.

I replied to Mr Liebermann the same day with my acceptance of his offer – a commission, a chance to get out of the city and, most excitingly, the possibility of surveying a classical bridge in real life. I didn’t sleep properly until I received his reply. We settled on a fee and an arrangement for me to stay in the house, and I agreed to write him a report by the end of August on the items of architectural interest in the garden.

For my final week in London I booked into a King’s Cross boarding house, my clothes in one suitcase, and my books and what was left of Mother’s belongings in another. I spent the nights awake, listening to the comings and goings of the girls on the street, and the days on my familiar seat in the British Museum library, reading everything I could find about Lyntons. Pevsner had only a page and a half, mentioning the pathos of the main portico, and using the dismissive tone I had come to enjoy, saying that the staircase was ‘of no interest’. The book touched on the follies in the grounds, and the orangery, but didn’t mention a bridge. The estate church was listed too but the interior was ‘disappointing’ and the monuments ‘sentimental’. However, I did learn that the neoclassical house was built at the beginning of the nineteenth century around an earlier brick one. I ordered up the relevant issues of Country Life but found nothing surprising, only a few dull photographs of chimneypieces, the portico and the lake. One article mentioned a book of drawings and this led me to a diary written by a woman who had stayed at Lyntons during the summer of 1755. She wrote at length about the tough pheasant served at dinner, how cold and shabby her bedroom was and that no servant had answered her summons to come and light a re in the grate. She also wrote about the classical bridge with its ‘fyne arches’ that spanned the water.

***

I went to the lake that first morning, leaving through the side door, walking around the front of the house and passing under the portico’s immense columns and then down the wide steps. The formal garden of what once must have been ordered plants and hedges had grown up towards the house, swallowing the bottom steps, brambles cracking the stone and infiltrating the gaps. Valerian and rosebay willowherb had self-seeded, lilac bushes were leggy and untended, the flowers brown, while a rampant honeysuckle, or Lonicera, out-climbed the bindweed, or Convolvulus. At one time, I imagined, the lake and the bridge would have been visible from the house, but now I cut myself a switch to beat my way through the undergrowth, following the shape of a path bordered by nettles that led to a row of Nissen huts, the domed roofs smothered by ivy. When I peered through the punched-out windows, it was clear from the smell and the mess that they had been most recently used as chicken sheds.

As I passed between monstrous rhododendrons either side of a series of worn steps, the stone pink with dropped and fading flower-heads, I couldn’t help but imagine what I might discover: a Palladian bridge more elegant than those at Wilton or Prior Park, wider even than the bridge at Stowe, and, unlike Stourhead, mine would have a temple on top. See? Already it was mine. It would be my discovery – I didn’t give one thought to Mr Liebermann, not then – I would write an article which wouldn’t just be published in a society’s journal; it would be published in The Times.

I came out downstream where the land had been excavated into a broad basin that slowed the water and would have given the impression to the owners and their guests that they were viewing a lake and not a dammed and manipulated stream. To my right the water snaked out of sight around a bend, and when I stepped on to the bank a raft of ducks rose up from the green water, flapping and squawking. I turned left, walking through a strip of tangled saplings, the ground rutted where the track must have been scoured by tank manoeuvres although it was already colonized by grasses and ferns. The lake winked at me through the trees.

A few yards on and I had my first uninterrupted view of the bridge at the head of the lake. It was not as I had hoped. There was no temple on top, only more scrubby bushes and tangled plants growing across it from both banks. There were arches, but they weren’t fine. I considered turning around, but I thought I might as well stand on it just to consider it done. A narrow deer path led over the bridge and I followed this, whacking at the brambles and their berries with my stick as they tried to catch at my clothes and skin. On the east side, the stream was sluggish, slowed by debris that had collected against the stones – branches, leaves and a white scum that swirled about the surface. It was a sad, dank place, but when I turned from it and gazed out over the lake, the water was clear down to the weed, and in the centre the motionless surface caught the sun and the sky and threw them back to me.

I continued over the bridge and along the opposite bank, ducking under branches and using my switch, walking to the other end of the lake where it narrowed back into a stream, and I crossed a slick weir above a small man-made cascade. I sat here while the sun rose higher and attempted to draw the bridge and lake in my sketchbook. I was used to being alone and mostly content with solitude even when in the middle of a London crowd, but here, sitting by myself beside Lyntons’ lake, I was conscious of the couple up at the house and found myself wondering what kind of people they were.

***

Later, I walked the rest of the grounds and looked at the follies and some of the buildings: the obelisk, the mausoleum, the grotto, the kitchen garden and the model dairy. I poked my head into musty storerooms, the ice house and the stables, unseen creatures running from the light and my heavy footsteps. The rest of the morning I sat on the little bed in my room with my papers on my lap and my books spread about me on the floor – there was no table or chair – writing up my notes, redrawing my sketches and creating a map of the grounds with the follies marked in relation to the house.

I washed my underwear and stockings in the bathroom sink using the block of soap that had been left there, its scent gone and its surface cracked, and draped the clothes over a string hung above the bath. Late in the afternoon I heated half a tin of pilchards in tomato sauce on a stove that had been put in my room, together with a few pieces of cutlery and crockery. I placed one of my suitcases on top of the other, put a spare pillowcase over them, and laid out knife, fork and plate. Sitting crookedly on the floor in front of the dining table I had created, I ate my dinner.

After I had washed up in the bathroom sink and put everything away, I returned to my work. The next time I looked up, the light in the room was apricot from the lowering sun. I stood and arched my back, stretching and twisting my neck, and crouching at the open window I looked over the grounds, trying to imagine how they might have been when they were first laid out – the distant fields green and unploughed, the oaks and cedars with their limbs intact and their bases clear of nettles. A time when every view from the house had been designed to create an idealized English landscape of vistas and open spaces framed by the dark rising hangers.

A smell of cooking came from below, garlic frying in butter, something meaty, and my stomach groaned – half a tin of pilchards was not enough. I leaned out of my window to inhale the aroma and as I looked down I saw a foot on the windowsill below mine, glimpsing grubby toes with newly painted green nails before I quickly withdrew my head. I wondered how one got to know one’s neighbours.

For supper I finished the heel from the loaf of bread I had brought with me, and the tin of pilchards. I would have to go to the town the next day if I wanted to eat.

The air in the attic was soupy even with the window open, and I lay under a sheet in my nightdress, thinking about who might have lived in the room before me and who had slept in the one next to mine before it was converted into a bathroom. Had a prying manservant who wanted to observe his mistress fixed the spyglass in the floor, or had a degenerate son, perhaps, thought it would be fun to ogle the family’s guests? Just as I was imagining the requisite madwoman locked in the attic, watching life going on below her, I heard a shout, a woman’s voice – Cara’s. I sat up and a light was switched on in the rooms below mine, the glow visible through my window; and when I poked my head out, Cara and Peter’s bathroom light was turned on too. She yelled something in Italian, spitting out the words. Peter’s reply was loud but measured:

‘Please, Cara. It’s late, can we not start this now.’

She shouted back at him, her foreign words carrying out- side into the night.

‘In English, please,’ Peter said.

Cara screeched, an animal in a trap. There was a crash – glass breaking or china smashing – that made me momentarily pull in my head, as though she were coming for me. A door slammed and my window frame shuddered in response, and somewhere below, Cara began to weep, still shouting through her hiccups, trying to catch her breath, making no sense. One of them yanked the windows closed and I didn’t hear anything else, but my thoughts were drawn back to the spyhole in my bathroom floor.

I knew, of course, right from wrong. My father, Luther Jellico, had instilled it into me before he left, and then Mother had continued in her way: payment will always be due for any wrongdoing, don’t lie or steal, don’t talk to strange men, don’t speak unless spoken to, don’t look your mother in the eye, don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t expect anything from life. I knew there were rules I was supposed to live by, but it was an intellectual knowledge, a checklist to be ticked off against each new action, not inherent as it appeared to be for everyone else. There was nothing on the list about spying. I went to the bathroom and lifted the board without compunction. I knelt on the floor and looked through the hole.

Cara was curled on her side on the bathroom floor, wearing a nightdress, her face obscured by her hair, the corkscrew coils wild. Her knees were pulled into her chest and her head lay on Peter’s lap, her breast heaving out an occasional sob. He wore pyjamas and sat with his back against the wall, legs straight out in front. He stroked her hair, his head lowered over hers, and I marvelled at the love I thought I saw in that motion, a mutual giving and receiving I had never known. After a few minutes she sat up and covered his neck and face with little kisses while he remained stiff and upright, as though waiting to see whether she would suddenly change and lash out at him with a claw. She kissed him on the mouth, pressing her lips to his while her hand, a wedding ring on one finger, moved across his thigh and into the gap in his pyjama bottoms. I didn’t look away; I was curious. Before her fingers were inside the opening, Peter gently took hold of her wrist and pulled her hand away. Cara hung her head, her body shaking with sobs. He stood her up, lifted her into his arms and, as if she were a child or an invalid, carried her from the room.

Four

The next morning, without any breakfast, I worked on my notes and by the time I left the house the day was already hot, my palm sticking to the plastic handles of my string shopping bag. I hadn’t been able to find my hat and could only think I must have left it on the bus. I crossed the weedy carriage turn and started the long walk down the avenue. The surface was pitted and full of potholes probably made by the army trucks that must have rumbled down it for the last time many years previously. The sun was fierce on the crown of my head and already I was thirsty. At the far end, in the distance, half a mile away, someone was coming along the avenue on a bicycle, and a moment later I realized it was Cara, head lowered and legs working to pedal up the slight slope to the house. What was one supposed to do in such circumstances? I had seen the colour of her nightdress – baby pink – knew the high keening wail she made when she cried, and yet we had not been introduced. Mother would have stopped and made polite conversation, pretending she had heard and seen nothing. Of course there was the weather. I could mention how blue the sky was or ask whether Cara thought it was going to rain, but I wasn’t confident that I could look in the eye someone whose hand I had seen moving into her husband’s pyjamas. Perhaps I could ask her whether she had anything I could drink. By now Cara had come around the left-hand bend, and I could see she was wearing a green headscarf tied under her chin, and sunglasses. Her knees, below the same crocheted dress she’d worn yesterday, pumped up and down. I imagined the bottle of lemonade she might have in her basket, cold from the refrigeration unit in one of the town’s shops.

I wiped a damp palm on my skirt, ready to shake her hand when she stopped, and continued walking towards her. My words, How do you do, I’m Frances, I’m here to examine the garden follies, seemed like pebbles in my cheeks, dull things that would plop from my mouth and fall to the ground. I could hear the old man’s wheeze of the bicycle’s suspension and the rubber limp of her under-inflated tyres on the stones of the avenue, and I could see her cheeks, flushed from the exertion.

Then, when she was almost level with me, I walked off the paved surface and into the grass, and stood behind the nearest tree, pressing my back at against it. I couldn’t even pretend that she wouldn’t have seen me.

As she rode her bicycle past, Cara trilled the bell, raising some crows into a cawing ap. I stayed there until she had time to reach Lyntons, get off the bicycle, hammer on the front door, and disappear inside, time enough for my blush to fade.

***

At the end of the avenue the main track turned sharp right towards the road, the way I had arrived. But straight ahead, in the direction of the town, a footpath led between two fields, much overgrown and full of the buzz of insects. The sky was matt blue and the sun continued to shine, drawing all the liquid in my body to the surface, where it collected under my arms and in my cleavage; if Cara had passed me now, I would have knocked her off her bicycle to get at the fictional bottle of lemonade in her basket. I decided I was closer to the town than to Lyntons so I pressed on, thinking about the long glass of water I would ask for when I reached the tea shop; there had to be a tea shop.

When the fields ended, the path widened but grew darker, overhung with yews angling inwards until their branches intertwined overhead like a wedding arch, and I walked under them, a bride without a groom. The banks rose on either side, the earth track worn down, exposing the brown bones of the trees’ roots. I was grateful for the shade and it wasn’t until a semicircle of daylight became visible ahead, and then an iron gate with a graveyard beyond, that I realized this avenue of yews must have been the one that generations of Lyntons had walked, ridden, and for a final time been carried along, supine in their best clothes, to the estate church mentioned in Pevsner. The gate was locked in place by knee-high grass, but beyond it, headstones leaned and butterflies zigzagged between a buddleia and flowering thistles. I shoved at the gate, pushing and flattening the couch grass enough to be able to squeeze through the gap. Here, at the back of the churchyard, the graves were untended; moss and rain had eaten away the dates and the names until the people beneath were no more than worn capitals. I followed the graves forward in time and found four Lyntons lying together: two Dorotheas, a Charles who had died aged twenty, and a Samuel who had lived for a year.

I took the path that tracked around the church, past another yew, its waist almost the tower’s thickness, and a heap of grass cuttings, dead flowers tossed on top, the whole smelling of rot and warm vegetation turning slimy. On the northern side of the church, the vicar, in a black cassock, stood amongst the stones. His face was obscured as he bent his head above the pages of a book. Beside him an older man holding a cap rested on a long-handled spade. The two of them were standing over an open grave.

I kept close to the building and went around to the front door, which was unlocked. I hadn’t been in a church since Mother’s funeral, but the smell of beeswax and the air, as cool as running water, were familiar and friendly. Then, I had cried all through the service and the hymns. I wasn’t able to stop even when the vicar was saying a few words or when the handful of Mother’s elderly friends who had come were singing, although I wasn’t certain whether my exaggerated weeping was from self-pity or horror that Mother was actually dead.

This church was beautifully plain: pews, whitewashed solid walls, a wooden ceiling. I didn’t think it was disappointing. I went down the aisle, slipped through a door into the vestry and was opening a cupboard above the sink when I heard a voice behind me.

‘Can I help you?’

I turned; the vicar was standing in the doorway, the Book of Common Prayer in his hands. His eyes were bagged, as though he had missed several nights’ sleep, and his hair was pulled back from his face in an odd style, but most disturbing was his dark beard. I hadn’t met a vicar before who wasn’t clean-shaven.

‘Sorry. I was after a glass,’ I said. ‘For water.’

‘I’m afraid you need to bring your own vases for flowers and there’s an outside tap for general use.’

‘I mean to drink.’

He went past me and pulled back a cloth curtain strung below the sink, took a glass off a shelf, filled it from the tap and handed it to me. ‘Mr Lockyer saw you come in through the back gate.’ He looked me up and down, and I was aware of myself: a middle-aged woman rather thick around the waist, hair greying and her throat bobbing as the water went down. But I must have passed whatever test he had set for me, because he held out his hand and said, ‘Victor Wylde.’

I hesitated, moved my hand that was holding the glass forward, withdrew it, and gave an embarrassed laugh before placing the glass on the drainer. My hand went out again, and withdrew again so I could wipe my palm on my skirt before I shook his hand.

‘Victor?’ I said. ‘Victor the vicar?’ The words slipped out without thinking and he rolled his eyes as if he’d heard the joke many times before. ‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘Frances Jellico. How do you do?’

He must have already noticed my ringless fingers because he said, ‘Miss Jellico,’ with a nod of his head. ‘Are you one of the people camping out at Lyntons?’ He fetched a handkerchief from a pocket hidden in his cassock and I had a sudden horror that he was going to use it to wipe his palm where we had shaken, but instead he dragged it around his neck and stuffed it back in his pocket.

‘I’m writing a report on the follies and the garden buildings,’ I said.

‘It was a Lynton we were burying. In fact, it was the last Lynton.’

‘I had no idea there were any still living.’

‘Well,’ he said. ‘There aren’t any more. All of them are in the ground now.’ He reached up to the back of his neck, undid a hook or a button, and before I could turn away, pulled at his dog collar, the whole coming out from under his cassock with a sort of bib attached. I had never given much thought to the vestments of clergy, but this was so shocking he might as well have reached up his skirts and removed his underpants. I looked towards the sink, stumbling over something else to say.

‘He . . . he . . . didn’t have any relations?’

‘She,’ the vicar said from behind me. There was the rustle of clothes being removed, his voice muffled while he took something over his head. ‘No relations, no friends as far as I could tell. It was just me and Mr Lockyer, the gravedigger, and her of course. The last Dorothea Lynton was quite a character. Bloody cantankerous and forgetful. A difficult old bird.’ Coat hangers clanged together.

‘My goodness,’ I said, not certain that vicars were supposed to gossip about their parishioners in that way. ‘Still, Mr Wylde, she’s gone to a better place, wouldn’t you say?’ It was a phrase I’d heard Mother use. I glanced over my shoulder. The vicar had removed his cassock and underneath he was wearing jeans and a long-sleeved vest like the ones my father had owned, but unlike my father’s this had a sunburst pattern across the front in pinks and yellows – tie-dye, I thought they called it.

He raised his eyebrows. ‘If it makes you happier to think so. And Victor, please.’ He smiled, took the glass from where I had left it on the drainer, filled it from the tap and, bending over the sink, poured the water over the back of his white neck. ‘God, it’s hot out there,’ he said, straightening. ‘Dorothea tried living at Lyntons again a few years back. She converted one of the attic bedrooms into a bathroom apparently, so that some elderly woman she took with her could live up there, like a proper old-fashioned maid. I don’t think they lasted a month. I’m surprised you’re managing. Is there even electricity and running water?’ He put his hand up to his hair behind his head and in a nifty movement slipped an elastic band off and on to his wrist so that his hair fell in fat waves around his face. I could only stare.

‘It’s very atmospheric.’ I had a strange need to defend the place.

‘Dorothea Lynton believed she was done out of a fortune by the army or the government or someone,’ he continued. Rivulets of water were turning the pink streaks on his vest to mauve and there were beads of water in his hair and beard. ‘She liked to tell anyone who would listen that she was swindled out of her possessions.’ He re lled the glass and handed it to me. This time I sipped at the water.

‘And was she?’

‘I’d say she had a few loose marbles, but you’re living there. I’ve heard it’s been gutted, hasn’t it? Nothing left. I think the army patched the roof but that was about it. I can’t imagine it’s much fun staying in a house in ruins.’

‘But it could be such a lovely house when Mr Liebermann does it up. And the grounds are –’

‘Mr Liebermann? The American who bought the place?’ Victor closed a wardrobe door, tugged his vest out of his jeans and when he saw me looking, gawping, he said, ‘Off duty for the afternoon.’ He slotted his prayer book into a space on a shelf. ‘My uncle used to tell me about the Christmas parties the Lyntons would have at the house every year before the Great War, for the villagers. Back when money wasn’t an issue. A fir tree that reached the hall ceiling, music and dancing, as many mince pies as a man could eat. And a game of hide-and-seek for the village children. Apparently, they’d have to line up afterwards to receive a gift from Dorothea. They were probably expecting dolls or spinning tops. My uncle used to laugh when he described the expressions on their little faces as they were handed a ragged piece of tapestry, a polished stone or a dried and pinned beetle and told it was a family heirloom.’ Victor shook his head. ‘Yes, a difficult old bird.’

He walked me to the lychgate and we shook hands once more. As he was turning away, almost as an afterthought he said, ‘I hope you’ll come to the service on Sunday with your friend. God knows I could do with a few new faces in the church.’ And before I could say that I didn’t know who he meant, that like Dorothea Lynton I had no friends, he was heading across the churchyard towards a gap in the wall that led through to what must have been the vicarage garden.

Five

The town was smaller than I had imagined: a baker’s, a grocer’s, a sweet shop and a fishmonger’s, no cinema, no bookshop. The narrow pavements were full of women with baskets and children dawdling behind them, or women standing in small groups, talking with ease about – I imagined – schools and shoes and the price of cabbages. What would it be like to have such a life? One that revolved around a husband and children. I didn’t understand how it had happened to them; what trick of make-up or hairstyle or conversation had these women shared when they were in their late teens or early twenties that I had missed? It wasn’t that I hankered after a husband or longed for children, just that these other lives seemed so alien, I couldn’t imagine how they had come about.

There wasn’t a tea shop in the town, but I passed the Harrow Inn, a public house which advertised sandwiches and coffee on a board outside, and, realizing how hungry I was, went in.

Two women stood at the entrance to the dining room, blocking the doorway. They glanced at me as I approached and then turned away without acknowledgement.

‘Sandra told me she posted her letter last week,’ one of the women said. ‘We just need a few more to do the same.’

The other, undoing the knot of her headscarf, tutted. ‘It’s blazing out there.’ She lifted the scarf o her head and pushed up her flattened curls with the palm of her hand. A chemical smell of perming lotion came from her hair. ‘Christine said I should avoid direct sunlight for the first day or two. But I don’t see how I can go on wearing this thing when it’s so blazing out there.’

‘I could give you the gist of it, if you like,’ the first woman said, waiting for an answer from the woman with the new permanent wave. When none came, she said, ‘It is important.’

‘I heard he won’t be around much longer anyway,’ the permanent-wave woman said. ‘He’s thinking about leaving.’

‘Good riddance.’

I gave a small cough. The first woman glanced at me again, then turned back to her friend and said something I couldn’t hear. She put her hand on her friend’s arm, and the two of them bent their heads together, laughing. Friendship appeared so simple and yet so impossible.

‘Excuse me?’

This time they both looked at me square on, their laughter gone.

‘Are you waiting for a table?’ I said.

‘It’s full,’ said the permed woman.

‘Oh dear,’ I said. ‘I’m parched. As you were saying, it is dreadfully hot.’ I plucked at the front of my blouse and smiled.

The women paused and faced forward again. ‘I’ll write a letter to the bishop tomorrow if you want,’ the permed woman said to her friend.

***

I bought eggs, half a pound of bacon, butter, potatoes and two bottles of chilled lemonade at the grocer’s. I stopped by the sweet shop for a bag of Everton mints, and at the fishmonger’s I treated myself to a whole plaice, which a boy in a bloody apron wrapped in white paper and a sheet from The Times. In the baker’s I bought a loaf and, on a whim, three Chelsea buns, imagining popping downstairs to see if Cara and Peter would like to share them with me. Four shop people spoke to me with a ‘good morning’, or a ‘thank you’ as they handed over my items or change. I liked to count these things. More than seven was a good day.

I walked back the way I’d come, past the church, but I didn’t see Victor. I stopped by the grave filled with fresh soil which was already turning lighter where the sun was drying it. There was no headstone yet, of course – if there ever would be – nothing to say that the last of the Lyntons was lying under the ground. I was still thirsty and hungry too. Making certain nobody could see me, I drank half a bottle of lemonade and ate one of the Chelsea buns from the paper bag, although Mother used to say it was the worst of manners to eat or drink in the street: If food is worth eating, it’s worth eating properly.

I went along the avenues of yews and limes with the sun again burning the top of my head. Beyond the house, at the far end of the lake, the top of the mausoleum tower showed above the trees. I’d looked at it from the outside on my walk around the grounds, and although I had noticed that the lock was broken I hadn’t gone in. When I reached the carriage turn, I put my shopping bag into the dry basin of the fountain, in the shadow cast by the marble woman. I dithered over the buns and then took the bag with me, deciding I couldn’t offer Peter and Cara the two that remained when there were three of us in the house. I ate another while I walked.

The mausoleum’s door was ajar, the wood splintered around the lock. From an empty lobby I climbed the spiral stairs which clung to the distempered walls. At the top was a small landing, a wall ladder and a hatch that I pushed open with my shoulders and clambered through. The roof lantern was open on four sides and gave a view over the length of the lake glittering in the sunshine and leading my eye to the bridge at the far end. Behind me was what remained of the kitchen garden, brick-walled and overgrown, and another forty-five degrees took me to the house, glowing white in the afternoon sun like a boat sailing over a green sea, and set back from it the orangery. A ash of sunlight caught the door as it opened and a figure – Cara, I thought – came into sight. I couldn’t make out any details or features, but I saw her perform a peculiar beckoning movement with her arm, her palm moving up and down in front of her, and it wasn’t until she had repeated it for a third time that I realized she was throwing something into the air and catching it; throwing and catching.

The main room at the bottom of the tower contained three tombs: an early Lord Lynton and his first and second wives, buried either side of him, with carved stone gisants on top. At some point a fire must have been lit in the room and one wall and the ceiling were scorched black. The recumbent lord was missing his nose and three of his fingers – broken off for relics, I assumed, by some soldier, turning the man into a leper. Worse damage had been done to the women. By the light coming through the open door I could make out that where their hearts might have been, holes had been punched into the stone. I peered into the dark cavities but couldn’t see anything, and I wasn’t brave enough to reach in with my hand. I said a prayer for all three and left.

When I returned to the front of the house I startled a cat, scrawny and ragged, which ran from me with something hanging from its mouth, and as I came to the fountain where I had left my shopping, I saw that the mangy thing had been at my bag. It had licked the sun-softened butter, dragged out the wrapped fish, ripping the newspaper, and taking everything except the severed head, leaving its two googly eyes staring up at me. The headline from the torn newspaper trailed in the grass: ‘Man takes first steps on the moon’. I picked up a handful of gravel and threw it at the cat.

***

I spent the rest of that week walking the grounds, making a better map of the monuments: the mausoleum, the obelisk dedicated to a dead horse, the flint-and-shell grotto, the ice house and the bridge. I worked with methodical precision, enjoying the good weather and knowing I had the last days of July and the whole of August to produce my report. There were many other smaller pieces of statuary hidden in the foliage – an urn on a plinth inscribed for a concubine, the bottom half of a statue that I suspected was Eros. Every day I went to the bridge hoping it had changed, that a saviour had come in the night and stripped away the plants, cleared the flotsam and jetsam from the water, and made it Palladian. I had another uneventful walk into the town. I closed my window when Peter and Cara were cooking, or I went for an evening stroll amongst the bats. The weather stayed warm and dry. I didn’t meet them, my downstairs neighbours, I didn’t hear or see any more arguments, and I worked hard at forgetting about the loose floorboard in my bathroom.

Tagged in:
BEDTIME BOOKCLUB
Books
Claire Fuller
obsession
suspense

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