Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Change and Decay work in progress Chapter 9

Previous chapters: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8

So it wasn't until a couple of day later that I met Helen again. She breezed into the room at mid-morning, wearing a quilted jacket and jodphurs.

"Do you want to tour the estate?" she asked.

"Yes, that would be interesting - I've been reading about the various properties."

"OK - do you ride?"

She seemed neither surprised nor disappointed by my negative response, and went off to secure some spare boots and to gather the dogs.

* * *

It was a crisp Spring morning; the grass was heavy with dew. Plumes of vapour marked our breaths. As we crunched our way down the drive, Helen pointed out buildings near and far, with the complacency of ownership.

"That's Park Farm - the tenants there are the Edwards brothers. You can tell by the state of the fences that they're not very good caretakers. We keep telling them that binder twine isn't a fencing material, but it doesn't do any good."

Rugger waddled ahead of us, pausing to sniff occasionally. Birds chattered warnings of our approach from the trees. We reached the lodge at the end of the drive, where it met the public road. The small garden behind the lodge was largely filled by a rusting car beneath a tarpaulin.

"Disgraceful- we've asked them to get rid of it," Helen said crossly. "It's rented out now - it used used to be for one of the servants from the house."

"I know," I replied, glad to have something to contribute, "in the 1860s it's listed in the land terriers."

"At least when it was under our control we could insist on how it was looked after."

"I'd have thought the terms of the lease would still give you that?"

"Yes, in theory. But try evicting people- you'll end up paying a fortune in legal fees. It's hardly worth it. It bneats me why the nouveau riche are so keen on buy-to-let: they must be mad or stupid."

She walked up the short slabbed path and rang the doorbell twice. I stood back, noting the architectural deatils: Victorian Gothic, with elaborate decorative ridge tiles and terracotta brickwork. After half a minute's silence, Helen turned.

"They must be at work: both the Johnsons have jobs in the town."

"I suppose it must be strange now that so few people work on the estate?"

"I'm used to it - it was in Gramps' time that we lost them all - went to war and never came back."

I must have looked perplexed, since she went on to explain.

"Not dead - just never came back. They found other jobs, shorter hours, better pay. That's gratitude for you!"

I had always had some doubts whether noblesse does indeed oblige, and I wondered now why it obliged such arrogance. But equally, I could not deny the attraction I felt for her despite the horrible views she expressed with such conviction.

* * *

We reached the junction and turned to the right, the main road dropping to stone bridge over a stream. I knew a lot about this.

"This bridge is quite famous - or at least, well-represented in the records. In the 1820s there was a long legal dispute about who should pay for its repair. Thomas Sheldon argued that it was a county road, to be maintained from taxes, but the Court of Quarter Sessions said it was a parish road, so the rates should pay. Sheldon kicked up quite a fuss- he wrote letters all over the place."

Helen didn't know this; nor, to be honest, did she show much interest in the information now that she did. I peered at the weathered inscription on the parapet: "This bridge erected by Littleworth parish, 1831". "So Sheldon must have lost."

Helen frowned. "Didn't you know?"

"Not for sure," I explained, "The papers I saw were the initial negotiations and the proofs in evidence taken to court. The final judgment would be recorded in the Court Rolls, by the Clerk of the Peace, and there need have been little documentation sent to the parties."

Helen stopped and looked at me. "You are funny, you know. You've got all these little lectures in your head." I was unsure how to respond to her bantering tone.

We crossed the stream and followed the road up the valley side, then climbed over a stile in a thorn hedge. I was about to start talking about the Enclosure Act and its effect on field boundaries, but stopped myself when I recognised that this would constitute another lecture. I decided to take the offensive.

"Penny was telling me about the estate office - do you work there full-time?"

"Not as such - although for tax purposes I do. I help out when it gets busy- like next week, when we're having a party for objectors to a planning application."

"So, what - stuffing envelopes? That doesn't sound like much of a job."

"I don't know - I get a lot of free time to ride and so on. I did work in London last year, but didn't enjoy it. It's no fun living there unless you can afford to go out and can time off for holidays. Anyway, there isn't anything in particular I want to do."

"Did you go to university?"

"No, that was Jeremy- he's the one with the brains. My school focused on personal development, sports and life skills, rather than exams, and I didn't really fancy it."

"Don't you get bored, staying here all the time?"

"Not at all- you underestimate the value of being able to please yourself what you do every day."

"I suppose so. I find archives so interesting I'd probably work on them for free if I won the Lottery."

"Yes, I think you would."

* * *

We passed a patch of bloodstained fur on the path.

"Foxes are such nice animals," Helen sneered. "I used to love hunting - riding at will, as fast as I could, following the pack wherever it went."

"I thought the hunt still met?"

"Yes, but it's not the same. They have to be so careful about keeping the hounds in hand that you never get that wild feeling - it was so natural - you, the horse, the dogs, the fox - all running across the fields. That's the tradition that has gone."

"I'm not sure how ancient that tradition is: most of the trappings were invented by the Victorians. I suppose these days that counts as ancient. But at least you are arguing from experience- you enjoyed it. The rational arguments for hunting always seemed the weakest- that this was the most efficient and humane way to control the fox population, that it employed thousands of people, that people would get rid of their horses, that the foxes enjoyed it. It's never hard to come up with good reasons to preserve a situation that serves your own interests!"

"But we were sincere."

"I don't think that makes much difference."

An awkward silence fell and we walked on.

* * *

We crossed another stile and entered an ash copse.

"We had a den here, in a ruin."

"The gamekeeper's cottage?"

"How did you know that?", Helen asked, surprised.

"It's in the archives - the gamekeeper used to be listed as the occupier here."

Helen pointed out the site, overgrown with brambles. She shook herself.

"We used to scare each other silly with ghost stories. Supposedly the house was cursed by the last gamekeeper, Old Will. He had been injured in a shooting accident, and then one day just vanished. Jem would say he could hear him limping through the undergrowth while we hid."

A little further along the path, the trees opened out and we could the Hall, a couple of fields away. We climbed the slope, panting.

* * *

After washing and changing, I return to the archives, keen to check the personnel files. It didn't take long to find the one I wanted. Williams Jenkins had been born in 1892; in 1906 he wrote a letter of application for a job on the estate, and in 1908 he countersigned a tenancy agreement for the cottage. The final document was a doctor's bill from 1938, recording treatment for a gunshot wound to his leg. Then Old Will vanished from the paper trail just as he had from his home.

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