Sunday, July 01, 2007

Change and decay: Chapter 11

It was only now, because of the warmth with which I was greeted by the family as news of my discovery spread, that I realised how unwelcome I had been previously. When they heard that I was planning to leave shortly, I was urged to stay for their party- suddenly I was the guest of honour.

Whether as a result, or because she was involved in the party planning, I saw a lot more of Helen. It could not be said that she responded well to stress. The effort with which she shouted down the phone at recalcitrant suppliers might have been better directed at cleaning the house, since the casual staff they had hired in failed to meet her standards.

"God!", she said to me, as if I were a fellow-conspirator, "to think you used to be able to sack your staff!"

But it had to be said, whatever the cost in nervous energy, and indeed in money, the Hall was efficiently transformed. The public rooms were gleaming and elegant: the clutter had been transferred, and the dogs were rigorously excluded. Industrial heaters ran through the night, the warmth even working all the wat up to the attic.


It took little time to pack in the morning - my main concern was to ensure that my notes were complete. I stripped the sheets from the bed and left them crumpled on the floor. Already I could hear the urgent whine of vacuum cleaners from below, accompanied by the chink of arriving crockery. I laboured in the bathroom, soaping and shaving twice, knowing I would be on display. 'Smart enough for an archivist' wouldn't be smart enough today: I didn't want to feel like a crumpled yokel.

As noon approached and the family gathered, my fears were borne out. Margaret and Geoffrey were not just clean, they were almost chic, and completely free of dog hairs. Jeremy, Penny and the children looked like a model family from an upmarket catalogue. And Helen was stunning, in a short white dress, with her hair up in a bun and a black velvet choker around her neck. She looked me up and down and nodded: "Yes, you'll do", patting me lightly on the arm.


Gravel crunched; car doors slammed; greetings were shouted; hands shaken; drinks offered. Within minutes, the Hall was filled with well-dressed couples talking very loudly. I hung back, having little to contribute to discussions of milk quotas, EU subsidies, set-aside grants, tax, tax avoidance, tax evasion, and fraud.

To my surprise, those present varied in accent, occupation, and even ethnicity. Those in the Sheldons' sphere of influence were united solely by wealth and prestige, a sort of meritocracy, albeit with a debatable definition of merit.

Food followed drink, accompanied by more drink. Eventually, Geoffrey started rapping steadily on the tabletop, and the conversations slowly wound down. After a single final laugh from the corner, silence fell.

"I'm glad to see so many of our friends here today," Geoffrey said genially. "You would sometimes think that the forces of so-called progress were in the ascendant, in this precious country of ours. It seems as if every time we look around, some great tradition or landscape has succumbed."

He paused dramatically; he was exactly halfway between being a ham and a good actor. "Well, we suffer these losses, and I suppose we must accpet them. But we need not accept them silently, without a fight!"

There were murmurs of assent.

"And so, when we heard that Dursford Council has, in its wisdom, decided that it needs room for another estate to house its workshy, its criminals, its gypsies, its . . ." he glanced at the Indian couple in the audience and paused, "its undesirables of all sorts, we decided to put all our efforts into opposing them."

Applause rippled around the room.

"We have written letters; we have attended meetings; we have lobbied and protested without pause." He sighed, perhaps enervated by the extravagance of his exaggeration.

"Even so, we expected to lose- proudly, but inevitably. I'm glad to say, though, that we have a secret weapon- History. Perhaps our archivist here will explain?"

I stepped forward and haltingly summarised the New Mill saga. As I tailed off, Geoffrey clapped and assured everyone that the proposal was now dead.

More drinks were brought, and with the serious business successfully concluded, the working lunch turned first into simple lunch and then into a party. Ties were removed, collars loosened, jackets discarded; talk moved from money to sex.

Helen, drink in hand, swayed towards me with a crooked grin on her face.

"You can't go without seeing the stone- you'll like it."

No comments: