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First pages

Prologue

I have called Tall Chimneys home for as long as I can remember. But in fact this odd little gatehouse, standing sentinel at the top of the forested drive, feels more like home to me than Tall Chimneys ever did.

Tall Chimneys is a Jacobean house, added-to over the years, a wing thrown out here, stables, a gun room and an estate office built at the back, bathrooms squeezed in when proper plumbing became a priority. It stands amid a series of concentric circles. First, of gardens; the gravel walkways, lawns and tended shrubbery in front, the vegetable beds, soft fruit bushes, glasshouses and orchards behind. Then a middle girdle of coniferous and broad-leafed plantation thrown around the whole and rising up the sides of a bowl-like crater, like a lifted skirt. All this is rimmed by the escarpment of a natural depression in the broad-stretched moor. 

The house’s sunken situation was never a happy one. The air within the crater tends to stagnancy; the brisk moor air skims over the bowl without entering it. There is a strong propensity for damp; the lawn is often soggy, the cellar sometimes floods. The chimneys failed to draw for years until some ancestor had the idea of building them higher, making them reach like cathedral pillars into the vault of the sky, out of all proportion to the house.

In one respect only is the house well-placed; it is secluded. Our family annals suggest nocturnal visits of questionable political intriguers, secret stays by Catholic priests, even a visit by the Jacobite pretender, although history disputes this possibility. Its isolation in my lifetime has been both a blessing and a curse.

There is a kinship between Tall Chimneys and me; we are twin souls. I have placed my hands on its masonry in the midst of a storm and the tremors in its architecture have shaken my own foundations.  I have felt the glow of warmth ooze from its ancient stones and seep like sustaining honey into my bones. I have burrowed into the darkest recess of its shelter and teetered perilously on its highest parapet without fear that it would let me fall. I have known love here, and abject sorrow, happiness, and dreadful despair. Tall Chimneys has soaked up my life, and poured out its own, leaving us both derelict.

We belong to a time which has passed, both designed for a life which is obsolete in these modern days, and although we have done our best to accommodate and adapt, our efforts have been outstripped by progress. We are calcifying, here, in this peculiar cauldron scooped from the prehistoric bog of ancient moor; we are petrified relics of an era long gone.  And any little dramas we have enacted in our secret amphitheatre have been private and contained, and have caused no echo in the world at large.

I have tried to save Tall Chimneys, and if my feeble aid could have sustained its ailing stonework, I would have left nothing wanting.  Almost nothing. But our ways seem destined to part, now. If one of us is to survive, the other must be allowed to fall.

1910 - 1929

I was born in 1910, the last of seven children, the youngest of four daughters, born when my parents had given up expecting (or, I suspect, wanting) any further additions to the family. I made odd what had been even before.  A new baby caused a negligible stir; I was of scant interest to anyone. Nanny, who had been anticipating a retirement of darning and dozing by the fire in the nursery apartments in the east wing, grudgingly sent for the bassinet and other baby paraphernalia long-since consigned to an attic. My oldest brother was already at Cambridge, my oldest sister recently married and soon expecting a child of her own. One other boy and two girls were away at school leaving only Colin, aged six, to be my reluctant and sometimes rather spiteful playmate for two years until he, too, went away to boarding school.

My father was well into his fifties when I was born, my mother in her late forties. Having me, I have been told (again, by Colin, who likes to be cruel when he can) broke her health and more than partly explained her death a few years later. Personally I prefer to attribute her relatively early demise to the loss of my father and my oldest brother in the First World War, which began only four years after I made my arrival.  I have only the very vaguest memories of either of them; my father tall, with grey eyes and wavy hair smelling of some unguent supposed to tame it into slick submission, my mother rather wispy, diaphanous in some garment which she cannot possibly have worn outside her bed- and dressing-rooms; I suppose I was taken to her in the mornings, before she changed out of her night clothes, and again in the evenings, while she dressed for dinner. I recall her always horizontal, on a day-bed or settee, listless and feeble.

With all the children but me at school and father at war, the house shrank into itself. Rooms were shrouded and closed up. Many of the male servants joined the local yeomanry and marched away to Flanders; a few housemaids, the cook, the house-keeper, a limping gardener and an ageing butler were all that remained of the household staff. 

Those, and a sandy-haired stable lad.

He was older than me by about ten years - fourteen, perhaps, to my four - but he suited his speech and gait to mine; he was gentle and kind. He took my lonely hand one day and led me to the kitchen gardens. He introduced me to the wonders of the glass house where soft fruits could be picked and exotic flowers grew. He brought me to a hay-filled stable and placed a squirmy puppy into my arms. He led me through the woods to where a rivulet tumbled over mossy rocks, and we peeled off our shoes and stockings and put our feet into the icy water. His feet were grubby and calloused, mine pink and soft. He climbed a tree and brought me down a bird’s egg, still warm, from the nest. But then he went away, to war, I supposed, and I was alone again.

I got used to being over-looked by everyone, the family and the servants both. Often meals did not arrive in the nursery for me. The governess supposedly overseeing my early years’ education was desultory in her efforts and many days I sat alone in the school room while she pursued the local curate around the parish, trying to ensnare him. (She succeeded. They went as missionaries to Africa where they died of malaria, I believe.) I got used to exploring the lesser-used areas of the house, out-buildings and gardens on my own. I got into the habit of lurking in shadowy corners, listening in to conversations I was not supposed to hear. (That’s how I found out about my governess and the curate.) I was nearly always on the look-out for food, haunting the larders, the pantry, the orchard and vegetable garden. That’s how I first encountered Weeks, the gardener; he caught me gorging on strawberries in the kitchen garden, and took me home to his wife.

They lived here, in the gatehouse, an odd, hexagonal little building perched on the rim of the crater, the thick belt of woodland behind and below, open moorland and an impressive view to the front, where the drive meets the road to the village, a mile across the moor. It was small, just one up and one down in those days, with a lean-to kitchen at the back and a lavatory in a shed amongst the trees.  But the gatehouse held a special appeal to my childish eyes, and still does - I am sitting in it as I write these memoirs. A fire burns in the grate, and the exposed stone walls are warm, the colour of honey. Its windows are small and crazed with leading but its exterior stonework is rather grand, with stone gables topped with ostentatious orbs and a crenelated parapet added, I suppose, to give a grand first impression. I didn’t see the upper chamber until much later, but the living room was a wonder to me, a small child, like a scene from a fairy-tale; an old oak table and two chairs, a dresser with their crockery set upon it, a shelf with their three or four precious books, a rag rug before a tiny, shiny grate. The rug and crocks are long-gone, of course, but I am writing, now, on that same oak table and the dresser stands still in a shaft of sunlight from the milky, leaded window.

Weeks and his wife, childless, showed me more care and love than anyone at the big house. He would find me in the arboretum or loitering near the greenhouses, or, once, halfway to the village, along the windswept road across the moor,  and take me to their cottage to be fed on warm bread and fresh cheese and sometimes cold cuts of pheasant and partridge about which, it was hinted, I should “keep mum”. Mrs Weeks let me collect the eggs from their little flock, and taught me to sew and make pastry and bread. She showed me my letters, too, writing my name, Evelyn, with her finger in the soot of the hearth, tutting and sucking her teeth at my woeful lack of acquaintance with these things.

Anytime I could make my escape from the school room (which was often), my steps took me straight to their door, my lurking in gloomy shadows and dalliance in the grounds having lost their appeal. The days in the gatehouse passed in blissful happiness, exploring the further reaches of the garden they had hewn from the woodland while she stuck peas or weeded the onions, or basking by their fire while she stitched and he fiddled with his pipe in the late afternoon. Then, as evening came on, he would take me by the hand and lead me back to Tall Chimneys. Unconsciously I adopted the odd drag and hop of his game leg, the two of us making identical tracks through the leaf-mould of the secret woodland ways he showed me, past the fountains and through the parterre, delivering me with a sad eye to a side-door and leaving me there as he melted back into the night.

My father died early on in the war, my brother a year or two later. My mother’s health broke down altogether in 1917 and I was sent away to live with Isobel, my oldest sister, who had a house by the sea on the south coast. She already had two little girls and, it was explained, I would be less inconvenient to her than to any other relative. This move surprised and angered me; I had been perfectly content at home. I didn’t want to leave my friends at the gatehouse.

Isobel was an old-fashioned woman, even then, very strict; we girls were seen and not heard. She was a good woman but there was no nonsense about her, no softness, and she quashed a tendency to sentimentality in her girls. I frequently got into trouble for challenging her hard-line ideas and it was this - the threat and actuality of punishment - which eventually bent me to her will. I forced myself into her values as one might force a foot into a shoe that is too small. It hurt and I resented it, but the idea of being barefoot and vulnerable hurt more. It taught me two things about myself; I was not naturally ‘good’ and following my natural instincts would get me into hot water. Looking back now, I can see that my life has been defined by the tension of obeying rules I do not respect and finding that, when I have been wilful and fallen foul of society’s mores it is myself that I automatically blame and punish, not them.

Being placed under Isobel’s influence seriously curtailed my freedom but at least it meant I had the company of my nieces - a welcome addition - and my schooling was rigorously taken up again. The governess there informed me of my mother’s death. I cried, but almost as a duty; death seemed such a very small step on from the listless, somnolent existence my mother appeared to me to have had in life. I lobbied to return - what disturbance could I create, now, I reasoned. But I was told Tall Chimneys was to become a hospital for wounded officers; no place for a child. This piqued my interest; I longed to see the wounded men and hear their stories. Colin, when he came to visit for his summer vacation in 1918, gave me lurid chapter and verse on the variously maimed and deranged soldiers sent there for treatment. If he’d hoped to shock or even sicken me, he failed; I was a self-assured, sensible girl even then, aged eight. Seeing he had botched his attempt to upset me, he got more personal, accusing me of being the cause of our mother’s death.

‘You were the last baby,’ he said, spitefully. ‘She was never the same after you were born.’

This news did distress me, but once Isobel had got to the bottom of my tears, she dismissed the accusation. ‘Stuff and nonsense,’ she said.

From my sister’s I was sent to school, along with my niece Joan, to whom I had become very close. The school - like Isobel - was strict, run by Anglican nuns. Academically it was fairly good, but the whole school ethos was undergirded by the assumption that the women who emerged from it would be obedient and submissive, long-suffering adherents to the status quo. Once I came to terms with this school became a period which was not unhappy for me, but which has long since faded in my memory. I remember almost nothing about it except for a sponge cake occasionally served for dessert which oozed with syrup – it was delicious.

After school I returned to Tall Chimneys. I expected to experience a warm rush of home-coming, but ten years of absence had dulled the visceral associations of the house. Many of the staff I remembered had gone, including the Weeks. The gatehouse, now, was shut up and dilapidated, the woods reclaiming the Weeks’ hard-won garden. My sister Isobel’s house, I found, felt more like home - I had lived there since I was six and spent every vacation there.  My nieces there felt more like siblings. I missed them, especially Joan. But returning to Isobel’s permanently wasn’t an option for me; they were going to India, her husband having been sent thither by Mr Baldwin as part of a parliamentary commission headed by Sir John Simon, to deal with the intractable Mr Gandhi.


[1] I wished I could go with them - I felt wretched to be left behind while they went out into a world of adventure and interest.

With the death of my father and oldest brother Tall Chimneys had devolved upon my middle brother George.  He had served only at the tail-end of the war, escaped unscathed and married the daughter of a wealthy American businessman. They had spent most of the intervening years in London, part of a fast set who had flung themselves into a wild era of partying and reckless behaviour. According to Isobel they were dissipated and carefree, morally loose; no kind of guardians for a girl my age, but there was, she said, no help for it. Of my two other sisters, one was an invalid installed more or less permanently (and at great expense) in a Swiss sanatorium, the other single, in health and solvent, but wildly political, shockingly modern in views and behaviour, affiliated to the Bloomsbury group of which Isobel disapproved with a passion.

So, back to Tall Chimneys I went. I was admitted back into the household, as I had left it, with indifference, given some draughty rooms in the north wing and more or less left to my own devices. I was eighteen years old.

George and Rita were only rarely at Tall Chimneys. To their credit, though, using, I presume, funds from Rita’s wealthy papa, they did initiate a programme of repairs and modernisation to the house; under their benefaction we had improved plumbing and electricity produced by a noisy generator installed in the cellar. We had a telephone but it was very unreliable, the wires strung across the moor and through the trees were very vulnerable. These up-grades, the house, lands and tenant farms were in the hands of George’s agent, Sylvester Ratton, who oversaw their management in George’s absence. Ratton was perhaps ten or twelve years my senior, a man of few personal charms but large ambition; I took an instant dislike to him. He had round, lashless eyes and a small, misshapen blob of a nose. Nothing escaped him, not the least suggestion of an extra bucket of coal in the servants’ hall or the hint of a purloined hare in a ploughman’s pot. He sniffed out and came down hard on any perceived misdeed, reducing housemaids to tears for the smallest misdemeanour and dressing down farm-workers in a voice which carried from the estate office, behind the stables, to the morning room without any tempering of volume or expletive colour. While parsimonious with others, he denied himself nothing, living, while George and his wife were in town, as de facto owner of the house, lording it over the servants and tenant farmers, occupying the second best suite of rooms and wolfing down the choicest of comestibles and the finest wines in the cellar.

The first evening of my residence we dined together, he at the head of the table, me at the foot – a ridiculous and anti-social arrangement which made conversation difficult and made extra work for the servants. It soon became clear that these things were entirely by Mr Ratton’s design. He enjoyed sending the staff scurrying hither and thither, rejecting dishes and then changing his mind about them so they had to be brought in again. He spoke to me as though from a great height as well as a great distance, emphasising my extreme smallness and insignificance.

‘You are lucky,’ he stated, heavily, to me, ‘that your brother and sister in law are prepared to accommodate you here. Many girls in your situation would have been placed elsewhere and expected to make their own way. Perhaps in the end you will think it might have been preferable.’

I told him in a quiet but prideful voice that I felt my good fortune. I would make the best of being allowed to return home.

‘One wonders,’ he mused, swilling wine around a heavily embellished goblet, ‘why they did not accommodate you in town. Perhaps,’ he gave a twisted, almost suggestive grin, ‘they consider the tone there unsuitable. They do entertain some rather… outré guests.’

I made no reply to this observation.

‘The house is sadly depleted since you were last here and George is here but rarely,’ Ratton went on to observe. ‘You will lack for company. You will be lonely. It is hardly suitable. Some might say it is hardly respectable. You ought to have a female companion.’

The idea of the smug, porky individual at the far end of the table posing any kind of threat to my maiden reputation was laughable, but I restrained myself from saying so. It was on the tip of my tongue to suggest that, if he felt the delicacy of my situation so keenly, he ought to move into the agent’s quarters which I knew were provided for him above the estate office. ‘I will use the time to improve myself,’ I said instead. ‘I shall enjoy the outdoors when the weather is fine. When it is not, the library is well-stocked.’

‘Indeed.’ He nodded. ‘No doubt your education has left you lacking in real knowledge. Girls are taught accomplishments, merely. I cannot think your schooling will be much use to you here.’

I felt stung. This accusation was unfair; my schooling had been pretty thorough in arts and humanities although rather coy on the subject of science.

‘While your brother is from home, I run the house very frugally,’ he told me. ‘I told Jones to serve dinner tonight to celebrate your arrival, but after this we will take it separately, in our rooms, unless there is company. You will not find it very convivial.’

I wanted to laugh at Ratton’s idea of a celebratory meal; nothing could have been colder or less hospitable than the atmosphere at table. The prospect of dining alone, even in my rooms, which were dour enough, was a preferable prospect.

‘Of course,’ I agreed. ‘I shall try to incommode your arrangements as little as possible.’

Clearly, having gained his object, Mr Ratton lapsed into silence.

We soon settled into a mutually exclusive routine; I took my breakfast in my rooms and my dinner also, as prescribed. I appropriated a small morning room in the east wing where I could not possibly be in Mr Ratton’s way. Lunch was not served at Tall Chimneys unless there were guests. Mr Ratton and I took tea together in the library in the late afternoons as a gesture towards polite sociability, before each recalling some important errand or job of work which brought the encounter to a speedy close. 

Almost in defiance of Mr Ratton’s predictions of gloom and doom, I set out determined to make the best of my situation.  I made acquaintance with the rector in the village, his wife and three daughters, walking there several times a week in search of company and sometimes receiving them for tea at Tall Chimneys. I volunteered to help Mrs Flowers, housekeeper, a harried woman given to an excess of nerves, initiating a programme of dusting and airing the unused rooms and protecting the house’s more valuable artefacts from the carelessness of the builders who came and went. I persuaded one of the grooms to teach me to ride, which he was glad to do; the horses got hardly any exercise now George had bought a motor car to fetch him from the station. I wanted to learn to drive it but Ratton vetoed this plan. The rest of the time I read books from the library in an effort to improve my mind and wrote long letters to my niece Joan in India. Her letters were full of romance and glamour - balls at the Embassy, cards and cocktails at the Club, a thrilling elephant ride. Occasional letters from other school friends told the same story; dances and parties or interesting work in busy offices where they took shorthand and typed letters or operated the telephonic apparatus. Through them I heard about other classmates - qualified as teachers or nurses or working in laboratories. They all seemed to exist in a world which was running in parallel to mine, across a gulf I could not cross. All I could do was idle my days away in the silent rooms of Tall Chimneys and roam the grounds in much the same way as I had done as a child.

 

When my brother did return to Tall Chimneys he brought with him large parties of socialites, many titled, from illustrious houses, also fashionable writers and artists, and rising men of industry. We often got little notice of these visits. Mrs Flowers and I were thrown into a frenzy of cleaning and bed-making to get the rooms ready and the cook needed much chivvying in sorting out menus and ordering supplies. Mr Ratton played no part in these proceedings, obviously, other than to indulge in lengthy converse and much sampling with Jones, the aged butler, on the subject of wine. Although stepping somewhat into the background for the duration of these house-parties, Mr Ratton did not disappear altogether as, perhaps, would have been proper. He appeared at dinner wearing a cheap, off-the-peg dinner suit, and presented himself for excursions and shooting parties as though one of the guests or, more accurately, one of the family. George allowed it without comment. I too, was included, but I kept myself at a distance from the heavy-drinking and hi-jinks which invariably characterised those affairs, retiring to my room as soon as I could, ignoring the leering innuendo with which I was often addressed and keeping the groping hands at bay. My early explorations in the house served me well; I was often able to evade the lecherous intentions of Viscounts and mining magnates by slipping down the little-known passageways of the house, losing them in linen rooms and the labyrinthine by-ways of the servants’ corridors.

Apart from being tiresome in themselves, these assaults had another negative impact in that they changed Mr Ratton’s attitude towards me. It seemed to dawn upon him that he might have missed an opportunity, with me. While never deigning to show me any attention while George was around, he became positively predatory at all other times. I would come across him lurking on my favourite walks or saddling up a horse just as I arrived at the stables for my ride, forcing us to walk or ride together. He lingered over tea, asking for more, sending for additional crumpets. He suggested we invite the rector and his family to dine for all the world as though we two were lord and lady of the manor. He invaded the sunny morning room I had adopted as my own, to read the newspapers, when he should have been out and about on estate business. I would not have cared if his conversation had been worth the having, or his person more attractive, but he made little attempt to be personable, only watched me, narrowly, through those lashless eyes, in a way I found unnerving and disgusting.

My walks took me further afield in an effort to avoid him and I had to use increasing ingenuity in the routes I took, rediscovering the shady groves and secret pathways Weeks had shown me all those years before. One day I found myself at the gatehouse and was swamped with nostalgia for the kindly couple who had looked after me there. I wondered where they had gone to and determined to make enquiries. In the meantime I walked round the odd little building. The windows were boarded up, the once neat garden swamped by invading bramble. Nobody used it now, and it occurred to me it could become, once more, a kind of refuge to me. Recklessly, I broke the flimsy lock of the kitchen lean-to, swept away the inveigling leaves and looping cobwebs and brought the Weeks’ furniture back into service. I worked hard at it for most of the day, getting myself filthy in the process but happily occupied as I had not been for some time. As the afternoon drew on I surveyed my handiwork. The floor was clean of moss, the greenish slime scrubbed away from the sink in the lean-to. A dull shine reflected off the patina of the table. The window sills were empty of dead flies and desiccated butterflies. As long as no light shone through the chinks in the boarded windows, and I did not light the fire, I reasoned to myself that while the summer prevailed I could spend many happy hours there un-accosted by Mr Ratton, reading my books and writing letters to my heart’s content.

And so I did. I augmented my comforts at the gatehouse by carrying provisions and further luxuries thither as I had need; fruit from the orchard and left-over pie from the pantry, a rug, a cushion, a blanket. I unearthed a little oil stove from an outhouse, found a battered old kettle and a chipped teapot, so I could make tea. I discovered a cracked ewer in a little-used guest room, and used it for bouquets of wild-flowers which I gathered on my meanderings.  Smuggling these things up to the gatehouse without arousing suspicion became a sort of challenge. Mr Ratton and I were playing a clandestine game of cat and mouse, both pretending it was not so and yet each of us keenly aware the ‘accidental’ encounters and his sudden propensity to spend time indoors, likewise my ridiculous tendency to travel from one place to another via bizarre circuitous routes, my sudden yen to inspect a far-flung gazebo or to visit the ice house, were anything but unintentional. Before long I had moved my favourite books and writing materials up to the gatehouse. I stopped using the morning room altogether.

In pursuance of my determination to ask after the Weeks, I walked, one day, along the ribbon of roadway which crossed the moor at its narrowest point, and into the village. The place was little more than a gaggle of cottages, farms and utilitarian buildings which lined the road. At the near end the little grey church, a squat school house and the large, Georgian Rectory were Tall Chimneys’ closest neighbours. Further along I passed an untidy farmyard where cows waited to be milked. Then, a public house, The Plough and Harrow, which I avoided, having the idea these places were disreputable. I sought out instead the little grocery store which provided villagers with tinned and dried provisions, tobacco, sweets and acted also as the Post Office. A delicious smell of freshly baked cake wafted from a room behind the counter when I opened the door. A woman hurried through the rear door at the sound of the shop bell, brushing flour from her apron as she did so. She was small and rather thin, with bony wrists and a head of red hair. She was friendly enough until I introduced myself, whereupon her demeanour soured.

‘I’m enquiring about Mr and Mrs Weeks,’ I explained. ‘They lived in the gatehouse when I was a child. He was the gardener. I think she helped with the laundry. Have you any idea where they might have gone to?’

The woman sniffed. ‘I don’t remember them,’ she said, ‘my Kenneth might. He worked down there for a while, until he was dismissed. I don’t suppose you remember him? He was the stable lad.’

‘I do remember him, very kindly,’ I exclaimed, although, to be truthful, until that moment I hadn’t recalled the sandy-haired boy I had known so briefly. ‘He was dismissed? I didn’t know. I assumed he’d gone off to war.’

‘He was dismissed for fraternising with the family,’ she gave me a sharp look. ‘Too nice for his own good, my Kenneth is. He did go to war, shortly after. What else was he to do? He was too young, of course.’

‘I’m sorry,’ I stammered. ‘Did he..?’

‘Come back? Yes.’ She sniffed again. ‘It ruined him, though.’

‘I’m sorry,’ I said again, more genuinely this time. I had seen wounded soldiers on station platforms going to and from school; broken pieces of humanity you couldn’t help feeling sorry for but who, at the same time, had been rather frightening to a young girl.

‘He does odd jobs,’ the woman told me. ‘Think of him, if you need anything done down there. Ratton won’t give him a look-in, but if you were to ask. You owe him that much, at least.’

Whatever idea I had of the young ex-service man - Kenneth - scarred, amputated, disfigured, it was not realised in the man I caught sight of in the yard behind the shop as I passed on my way. He was whole, tall, wirily thin and generally rangy, with shirt sleeves rolled up to reveal freckled arms and that same cowlick of sandy hair falling into his eyes as he worked on some piece of machinery he had stripped down. He looked up as I passed, and I half raised my hand in greeting. I saw a glimmer of recognition light up his eyes for the briefest second before he turned his back and disappeared into the gloom of a tumble down workshop.

I walked to the end of the village and back again, encountering nobody else who could give me any information about the Weeks.

‘Oh well,’ I sighed to myself as I started the walk back across the moor towards Tall Chimneys, ‘back to the game of cat and mouse.’

Mr Ratton was clearly both perplexed and infuriated by my absence that day and on others as I took refuge in the gatehouse. I know he watched me, followed me, as I loitered with a seeming lack of purpose in the gardens or chatted with the grounds men or the grooms, then, the moment his back was turned or his attention momentarily distracted, I would disappear, streaking through the stables and back into the house, through a side door and into the shrubbery on the other side of the building, then slipping through the lower branches of the plantation into the darkness of the wood. Or, from the kitchen garden, taking a route behind the greenhouses and through a narrow door in the wall kept hidden by a thick curtain of ivy, leaving Mr Ratton slack-jawed with amazement, as though he had just witnessed me disappear into thin air!  Without a word ever being said on the subject, the servants became complicit in my evasions, denying having seen me all morning, claiming I had mentioned a trip to the village when they knew I was, in fact, crouched in the tack room with both hands over my mouth to stifle my giggles. I took care to use a variety of circuitous routes to and from the gatehouse, melting into the woodland at various points, emerging again at others, or arriving home down the drive as though from a visit to the village. Mr Ratton questioned me closely about how I had spent my day, standing proprietorially by the library fireplace with his cup balanced on the mantle and a dribble of butter down his chin while I sat at the table and arranged the tea things, and made vague responses to his enquiries.

I did not, however, forget my obligation to the Post Mistress’ son, and requested that Ratton should find him work.

‘He is a veteran,’ I said, ‘as well as a former employee here. We ought to find him something.’

‘I know the lad,’ Ratton sneered. ‘A stuttering fool, reclusive and peculiar.’

‘He seems good with his hands,’ I persevered, ‘even if he isn’t very communicative. I’m sure my brother would want you to help him.’

Ratton humphed, and bit into another muffin. ‘Where did you say you went today?’ he asked, with his mouth full.

 


[1] The Indian Statutory Commission was a group of seven British Members of Parliament of United Kingdom that had been dispatched to India in 1928 to study constitutional reform in Britain's most important colonial dependency. It was commonly referred to as the Simon Commission after its chairman, Sir John Simon. One of its members was Clement Attlee, who subsequently became the British Prime Minister and eventually oversaw the granting of independence to India and Pakistan in 1947. Some people in India were outraged and insulted that the Simon Commission, which was to determine the future of India, did not include a single Indian member. The outcome of the Simon Commission was the Government of India Act 1935.

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simon_Commission

 


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

I was born in Stockport, NW England and have been writing fiction since I could hold a pencil. I have a BA and an MA in English Literature and until recently taught literature to lifelong learners. Now I write full time. I write literary fiction, where the story is as important as the language I use to tell it. Houses have always fascinated me and Tall Chimneys is not the first to play an important role in my books. Tall Chimneys is my sixth novel.

Q. What is the inspiration for the story?
A.
It was a tragic news report of an elderly woman found living in squalor in the kitchen of her once-magnificent country home. It occurred to me that while, since WW1, British country houses have seen a sad decline, opportunities for women have blossomed. Interesting dramatic tension, I thought!
Q. When did you decide to become a writer?
A.
I didn't really decide! I just found out that I was a writer. I would overhear snippets of conversation, or see odd encounters, and feel compelled to write the story. What had happened leading up to that point? And afterwards? My mind would daydream possibilities and I had to write them down.
Q. Where can readers find out more about you?
A.
I have a website www.allie-cresswell.com and I am on Facebook too. I'd be happy to visit book clubs, writing groups and WIs to talk about my work and give a reading. Feedback from readers is pure gold to writers like me so please consider leaving a short review, or contact me with your thoughts.

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Literature & Fiction
A Dark Night on Oak Lane
In the blink of an eye life changes
The Alternative White House
American political satire
Frozen Panic
This time, she won't take "No" for an answer.