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For the next few days, I was left largely to myself, disturbed only by the occasional visit from the dogs as they snuffled around myopically. I glimpsed the Sheldons as they followed their individual orbits- Margaret's from kitchen to conservatory, Charles' from study to dining room. Helen, in spite of her comment, was nowhere in evidence. Why did I mind that?
On Wednesday, my usually-solitary breakfast in the kitchen was varied by the presence of Margaret, assembling crockery and cutlery on a large tray.
"It's the estate meeting today", she explained, unbidden, "the family go through all the business matters- and you'll get to meet everyone, unless you'd rather not be disturbed?"
"Not at all", I replied emphatically, unsure of how to communicate my lack of enthusiasm for meeting new people politely. I remembered the time my careers master at school had asked if I'd like working with people, and his shock at the eloquent negative the question triggered.
I finished my coffee, washed my hands to clean off any grease or breadcrumbs, and went down the passage to the records store, closing the door on the bustle of arrivals in the distance. I worked through a bundle of letters, trying to establihs a date: 19th century from the handwriting, but hard to pin down, beacuse their authors had indicated only day and month. Soon enough, or perhaps only quite soon, a reference in the body of a letter to 'our new queen' fixed the timescale to the early 1840s. The correspondence was an indiscriminate mixture of family news and business, similar in all probability to the meeting running on next door. I reflded the letter, replaced it in the envelope, and re-tied the ribbon around the bundle, pausing to lightly pencil the date on the top. I rose to get a drink, as much from a desire to stretch and become mobile as from thirst.
To my surprise, the kitchen wasn't empty: a woman sat at the table, laboriously urging two small children to eat.
She said "Hello" brightly but with an interrogative inflexion.
"Hi - I'm Derek - looking at the archives."
"Yeah, Jeremy said you'd be around - have you seen him?"
"No, he's the son, isn't he?"
She grinned. "Son and heir, you mean."
"What about Helen?"
This time she smiled broadly and tutted. "Wrong sex, I'm afraid. It me a while to realise how it worked. I met Jeremy at uni- I was doing History of Art, he was doing Land Economy, whatever that is. I still don't know - I don't think he knows, either."
Penny paused, retrieving a juice cup from the floor and handing it back to its owner.
"I come from Yorkshire, from a big family. We're always doing things together- parties, outings, shopping. But this is different, more dynastic. You wouldn't believe just how interested Ma and Pa were in Jon and Emma here. They'd have come to the ultrasound scans if I'd let them. Now they're not too bothered about Emma - she can do what she likes. But Jon, he's the future: one day this will all be his. Won't it?"
She directed this last remark at the presumptive heir, who was currently reaching for a handful of dog biscuits from a bowl on the floor.
"I suppose they might say it's a responsibility, keeping the estate together", I suggested, without much conviction.
"Yes, that's just what they say. It's quite a handy argument, you know. When you want something new. Like this house- smart kitchen units, expensive, modern - that's investment. But everything esle is what they had already". She sighed.
I smiled at her eloquence. She glanced at the door.
"Not that I'm complaining, of course. But, Christ, it's nice to talk to someone who isn't on their side - you're not, are you?".
I shook my head. "It's not for me to judge - they seem nice enough, but that might just be politeness".
This earned a snort from Penny.
"Manners aren't everything, you know. I had a hard time when Jeremy first brought me here. The Spanish Inquisition has nothing on the treatment a prospective family member gets".
Emma methodically licked jam off her fingers.
"And that first Christmas - it's funny now to think of it. I thought - you know - garnd house, owns half a county, posh car, swish clothes. What can I buy them as presents? Jeremy kept saying not to worry, but I did, of course. In the end, he just told me he'd deal with it. Thirty minutes, it took him: a scarf each for the women, a tie each for the men."
"The difference between capital and revenue, I suppose."
"That's what he says. What they all say. You can't keep an estate together over the centuries unless you're careful about your balance. Not that it works these days. No matter how little they spend, it doesn't make enough. There's only so much money in farm rents. Every time we have a crisis, tax or whatever, it's something else sold off, which means less income." She sighed again. "But now I'm sounding like them."
Jon looked up at his mother. "Can we see Gramps now?"
"Not yet," she replied, tutting. "Little creeps. To be fair, they do like the kids."
Emma asked about Auntie Helen, echoing my thoughts.
"I don't think she's here today."