UPDATE: Change and Decay now revised and complete at its new blog
Three months later, I was rattling through the puddles, left by fitful September showers, in a draughty hired van. The Sheldons had been flattered to hear how significant their papers were, and had agreed to deposit them with the County Archives for the benefit of researchers. Unable to devise a convincing excuse not to renew my acquaintance with the family, I had been deputed to drive over to collect them. I was alone; my absence from the office had required careful juggling of staff leave and meetings to ensure that the search room could stay open. Knowing the conditiosns of the storeroom at the Hall, I was dressed in overalls.
As I slowed the van and turned off into the drive, I was overwhelmed by memory- not long ago the place had been unknown to me, its secrets safely buried. My heart sank as I saw the cars lined up in the stable yard, suggesting that the family was present in force today.
My knock was answered, as before, by distant barking, but Margaret's subsequent apperarance at the door was heralded by a lone dog this time. She explained briefly that Rugger's legs had failed, not that this prevented him from eating or barking. Her manner was slightly confused, as if my arrival were unexpected; but she led me through to Charles' lair. Charles also seemed uneasy.
"I'm afraid we've brought you here on a wild goose chase - I had meant to write to explain, but you know how it is. You did a great job with our stuff, you know - we never realised how valuable it all was! If we had, we might have looked after it better."
"It'll be safe enough in our strongroom," I said.
"That's the thing, you see. The estate has a hard time breaking even these days - I don't have to tell you, you've heard about all this before. But I mentioned to Lord Durston that the papers were on their way to you, and he put me in touch with Crevitts - the dealers, you know."
Indeed I did know; they were renowned for splitting up archives into saleable chunks and auctioning them piecemeal. Archivists shared grim stories of wax seals being snipped off; postage stamps removed; unmarketable manuscripts thrown away.
"Robert Crevitt came up personally last week. He seemed most impressed. Made me an offer on the spot - took the whole lot. He said the Americans would lap it up."
There was little I could say. I toyed with the prospect of hinting at the difficulty of obtaining export licences, but I knew that unless we were prepared to match the price obtained by Clevitts this would delay the sale, not reverse it.
"Still," Charles continued, cheering up markedly now the awkwardness was out of the way, "I see it as a good turn from my ancestors - helping us out once more."
As I unlocked the van, Jeremy emerged from the estate office. He seemed to be in a good mood.
"Thanks for your help with the New Mill land- I've just been submitting the planning proposal."
My confusion must have shown, since he went on to explain.
"My big worry about the Council's housing plan was the infrastructure. They keep saying that the roads and sewers here couldn't cope with many more dwellings. If they'd gone ahead, there's no way we'd ever get permission for our prestige houses in Coppice Wood- and they're going to go for half a million pounds each, easy. And the beauty of it is that they're down by the road, so we won't even see them from the Hall."
He insisted on taking me into the office to show me the architect's drawings. The houses looked like brick shoeboxes, embellished with generic rusticana, indistinguishable from any other 'luxury' development. I was giving them some unenthusiastic praise when a tap on the door announced the arrival of Helen. She told Jeremy that he was wanted in the house, and then stood in the doorway, frowning.
"You don't like us much, do you? You're always judging us, measuring us up. What you don't understand is that a family like this does whatever it has to do to survive - we can't just sit there saying we're caring for the heritage. We have to make money - simple as that."
"But what is it for? Surely you do all that to keep things together, to preserve something? Otherwise you're no better than car salesmen or market traders."
"What you don't seem to get is that we - don't - care about what you think. You can tunr your nose up at use beacuse we sell our archives - but you haven't got anything to sell. Nobody wants what you've got; nobody wants you."
She paused; we stared at each other.
"You did", I said bitterly.
Her face reddened.
"Forget it," she said, "just forget it."