Authors: Priscilla Masters
But Richard’s face was still hard and angry. ‘Who is he?’ he said.
‘I don’t know.’ I leant my head back against his shoulder. ‘And I don’t care either.’ I said no more until we stopped at a hotel to have dinner. And then Richard relaxed again.
He apologised as we climbed out of the car. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I just hate it when young studs like that pay attention to you. It makes me feel…’
How could he possibly think I would have any interest in some callow young man with a passing fancy? ‘You don’t have to worry,’ I replied. ‘I’m not interested.’
I linked my arm in his, still struggling to reassure him. ‘Perfectly sure.’
The incident was forgotten by the time we had ordered our dinner but something of it, some bitter taste, remained.
And then, slowly, as the summer started to die, the charmed, magical period of my life began to unravel.
Imperceptibly at first. I did not recognise what was happening. I was given such small clues – the door to Richard’s study would be closed when he was on the phone. He was secretive and distracted. Occasionally I would come upon him speaking to workmen and he would look at me, almost distantly. I know that he was upset when some woodworm was discovered in the panelling in our bedroom. He spent hours on the phone to the company who had guaranteed their work. I heard him shouting frequently. He wasn’t sleeping either but spent hours tossing around in bed, finally giving an exasperated sigh and padding downstairs to make a drink. Sometimes Maria and I would exchange glances and I wondered when all this would settle down.
It was impossible not to listen when the experts came
round, stroked their chins and looked grave at the extent of the infestation. We moved out of our bedroom. The room was sprayed again and the affected panelling removed and replaced. To my relief our four-poster bed had been properly treated years before so did not have active woodworm but more than half of the panelling of the bedroom had to be removed and the other half sprayed. Richard was muttering about it all being his fault, that he should have inspected the wood more frequently. He seemed to feel guilty.
It was during this time that one of the workmen sought me out. I was in the smallest bedroom, converted now into a study. He was a rough man, from the Meir, but honest and a good worker. He handed me fragments of yellowed parchment.
‘Look at this, Mrs Oliver,’ he said. ‘We found it tucked behind the panelling. I can’t even begin to think how old it must be.’
I took it from him. Only part of the missive was here. The rest had simply flaked away. But I made out the words. ‘
Please, Rychard I beg of you. Do not do this wicked thing. My troth was plighted. I cannot be yours
Here the paper had fragmented but the signature on the bottom was clear:
I felt a shiver. Not only because of the name which recalled such vivid memories of my jug and the image of the hanged man or even because of the desperation which lay behind the words. I was shocked because there
was no mistaking the rusty colour of the ‘ink’. It had been written in blood.
I stood up then. ‘Thank you,’ I said. ‘If you find anything more don’t bother my husband with it. Bring it to me.’
I would not concern Richard with the past when the present was so troublesome. But it was the past which beckoned me now. I would go to the museum and speak to David. I had vowed to do it years before and then done nothing. I did not want to delay any longer. I felt suddenly that time was terribly precious.
We had a problem with the roof too. Maria found a patch of damp in her bathroom ceiling. Scaffolding was erected outside the house. I only minded because it shrouded our bedroom window and tore up the knot garden which lay beneath it. I was worried that the lavender, roses and herbs would not flourish next spring and aware that I would miss their fragrance. One afternoon after watching workmen shin up the ladders and listening to the banging over our heads I tried again to offer my help to my husband. ‘Richard,’ I said. ‘Please listen to me.’ His gaze rested on me and for those few minutes I could see again the man I loved. His forehead uncreased. ‘Susie,’ he said, glancing at the scaffolding and wincing at the banging. ‘Hardly Arcadia, is it?’ He grimaced.
‘I didn’t marry you for some fantasy world, Richard,’ I said. ‘I came here to be part of this.’ I looked around the room, at the portraits of his ancestors, the samplers
and needlework done by the women of the Oliver clan. ‘And if what the house needs is a bit of attention – well – so be it. It hasn’t disappointed me.’ I took his hand, kissed the fingers. ‘And neither have you.’
His smile was so sad I wanted to put my arms around him but I didn’t. Instead I ploughed on.
‘I have more money than I need, with the rent for Horton Cottage, the shop.’ He opened his mouth to protest. ‘Please – let me contribute to all these repairs.’
He gave me an odd look. ‘You mean that, Susie? You really mean that?’
‘Of course,’ I said. ‘I’ll do anything to preserve Hall o’th’Wood to pass on to your descendants.’ I eyed him sneakily. ‘Possibly our descendants.’
He didn’t take me up on my hint but put his arm around me and kissed me with a warmth that had recently been lacking. ‘I believe you would do anything,’ he said. ‘You’re a bit of a daredevil really.’ Then he smiled. ‘Come,’ he said. ‘Let’s walk.’
It was a damp, mild day. Leaves lay slippery on the floor. We descended the hundred steps along the bark path and walked towards the lake. The ducks were noisily gabbling and squabbling and took no notice as we passed. We sat on a fallen log and looked back at the great house. Richard gave a long sigh. ‘It is a heavy responsibility,’ he said. ‘But…’ He put his arm round me and drew me to him. ‘I could wish,’ he said, ‘that it was just a little less beautiful – a little less perfect. It would break my heart less.’ He smiled at some far-off point in
the distance and I studied his familiar, well-loved profile. ‘Although it is heresy to say it I could even wish that Hall o’th’Wood was a little less old. A little less decrepit.’ He looked back at me. ‘Like an elderly parent I feel the burden of its age sometimes outweighs the pleasure.’
‘That’s a shame,’ I said, ‘when it should give you happiness.’
‘It does,’ he said abstractedly. ‘And at the same time it is a painful happiness. I worry all the time that I will not live up to it, that it will be during my custodianship that Hall o’th’Wood will have to be sold.’
I felt a sharp pain. ‘Surely,’ I said, ‘things aren’t that bad?’
He shook his head. ‘Nowhere near,’ he said and I was reassured.
I laid my head on his shoulder and we sat still, watching the clouds’ reflections chase the ripples along the water’s surface, watched the afternoon turn to evening and still sat until we knew Maria would scold us for being late for dinner. Dinner was at eight. Always at the same time. Things didn’t vary in this shrine to time warp.
Richard was thoughtful throughout dinner, looking sad and again preoccupied. My brief glimpse of the adoring man I had married had hidden again behind this impenetrable mask.
The next day I called at the museum early and spoke to David. He was very stiff with me at first, asking
formally how I was, how business went. Of Richard he made not a mention.
I asked him what he had found out about the jug.
‘As you’d lost it anyway, Susie,’ he said, ‘I didn’t think you’d want me to trouble you with details.’
‘No.’ I agreed. ‘I sort of lost interest.’
He looked at me keenly. ‘So why now?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said.
He was offended. ‘OK,’ he said. ‘It’s hard to believe you once confided in me about everything. Then you go to a sale, meet someone else and bingo! Exit David.’
I felt guilty then. It was true. I had dropped friends. But – ‘Wait a minute,’ I said. ‘It isn’t just me. You haven’t called in the shop. I’ve come up to the museum a few times and I’ve been told you’re out or busy or in a meeting. It’s you who have been avoiding me.’
‘OK,’ he conceded grumpily.
I gave him one of my most radiant smiles. ‘Come on, David,’ I said. ‘Give me the dirt. What’s the story behind my bit of gruesome pottery?’
He pulled a sheaf of papers from the bottom drawer of his desk. ‘I don’t know the full story,’ he said. ‘Only the bald facts. Fact one – that a woman was found dead at Hall o’th’Wood late in 1787. Her name was…’
‘Rebekah Grindall,’ I supplied.
‘Correct. The circumstances appeared suspicious. She was only eighteen. Records say only that she was found ‘
lyeing in the gardens in a sore and sorry state and dyed four days later
‘Ugh,’ I said. ‘Horrible.’
David ignored my squeamishness.
‘This Rebekah had a brother…’
David flashed me a grin. ‘You don’t know everything,’ he mocked. ‘This Matthew was a master potter for one of the smaller potbanks. But his talent was huge. The story has it that he did ‘
lock himself in one of the kilnhouses and threw a wondrous large pot
.’ He then proceeded to fire the kiln and went on to paint the pot. By the time it had cooled down from the enamelling kiln Grindall had been hanged for the murder of one…’
‘Rychard Oliver,’ I said, ‘of Hall o’th’Wood.’
‘I don’t know anything more,’ he said. ‘Sorry.’
‘But I do,’ I said, and produced my piece of paper.
He read it through. ‘I would guess at false imprisonment,’ he said and I recalled the carving in the roof of our four-poster bed and something else – the huge key in the lock of our bedroom. We had never used it but surely if it could lock the door from the inside it could also lock from the outside?
I had one last question. ‘Do we have any idea of provenance?’ I asked.
‘It must have belonged to the potbank owner,’ David said. ‘Sotheby’s finally told me that a man called Cridman actually put it in the sale. According to records someone called Cridman was foreman in the potbank.
‘Where’s he from?’
‘The current Mr Cridman is a local farmer near Nantwich,’ David said. ‘And that, Susie, is the sum total of absolutely everything I know about your jug.’ He grinned. ‘That’s it. Time for a drink?’
‘Not today, David,’ I said, ‘but stay in touch. Please?’
He promised he would and I left.
Something struck me as I drove home.
‘Lyeing in the gardens.’
The knot garden of which I was so proud. Had the poor child jumped from the window and died four days later from her injuries? I would never look with such pleasure at the view from my bedroom window again but imagine a young woman, mortally wounded, desperate and in pain. ‘
Dyed four days later
They were terrible words.
Richard had refused my financial help towards the house so I invested my money instead.
But underneath I resented the fact that he did not include me in our joint expenses. It seemed almost patronising to one who’d been brought up by an independent aunt to expect a bohemian existence. Yet when I considered it later I realised it was part of Richard’s traditional outlook and attitude. Part of his breeding and his old-fashioned values. How then could I criticise him for the very reason I had fallen in love with him?
But I was not one to give up. When a second team of
workmen started arriving I tackled him again, only to meet with the same brick-wall response. ‘It’s all in hand,’ he said abruptly. ‘There are just a few repairs that need to be done or the house will deteriorate.’
‘Are they expensive, Richard? Because,’ I continued doggedly, linking my arm in his, ‘I have money from the rental of the cottage and plenty of money of my own. The shop is doing well. I am your wife. Richard,’ I appealed, ‘let me help. Include me in this – please. Don’t shut me out.’ I held his face in my hands to stop him from either moving or looking away but his eyes dropped from mine and I knew that I had lost the argument. He was intransigent and it would prove our downfall.
I can never pretend to understand why Richard made the decisions he did. I simply have to live with the consequences.
He looked strangely at me and didn’t reply but pressed his lips together and retreated into a long, moody silence that lasted the entire evening.
It was almost bedtime before he looked across at me and his face had softened. Whatever the problem he had worked his way through it. He drew in a deep breath, as though about to dive into deep water. ‘Susie,’ he said, watching me for my reaction. ‘I have to go to London for the weekend. I’ll be back on Monday evening.’
I didn’t argue but it made me realise that his business trips had become more frequent since the beginning of the year. Majorca had been a brief respite but again I
wondered what was going on in his private world that he needed to shut me out of. I already knew, instinctively, that he would continue to exclude me. And that made me feel lonely.
I argued the point with my aunt and she reiterated what I had already worked out for myself – that Richard had been divorced for many years and had grown used to running his own life without considering another person. It was not selfishness but the behaviour of someone used to solitude. It was something I had realised about him early in our marriage, that he resented interference or intrusion. So I had learnt to step back.
I could respect his desire for privacy but underneath I wanted to share everything with him. I was greedy for his attention, his love, his company and his confidence.
However as I was to have an entire weekend to myself I planned it all, right down to the very last detail. I would spend the whole of Saturday with Joanne, at the shop. We would clean it, stocktake, reorganise and perhaps weed out a few pieces which should be entered in Louis Taylor’s, the local saleroom in Hanley. I would have an early night, with supper in front of the television and on Sunday I would, for the first time since my marriage, rise at 4 a.m. and drive up the M6 to the Sunday morning antiques fair at Charnock Richard services. I felt quite excited.
And that is exactly what I did. Joanne and I had a Saturday together at the shop, eating fish and chips for lunch and serving customers, rearranging the windows
and adjusting the lighting. It felt quite like old times.
I ate supper alone then watched an old film in the night. And on the Sunday morning, to Maria’s disapproval, I put my alarm on for 4 a.m., drank two strong cups of coffee, showered and brushed my hair then set out in the fog, driving north up the M6 and exiting illegally through the services.
It was a practice frowned on by the police but it was rumoured that somebody slipped them cash to turn a blind eye to the procession of Volvos and vans who passed through the back exit.
The fair was a huge, eclectic, disorganised free-for-all with cars, lorries, trailers full of every type of goods you could imagine – some second-hand but always there were the lovely antiques hiding away in boxes, under tarpaulins or behind some monstrosity. I worked quickly, moving through the car park, shifting stuff and peering into the dim interiors of estate cars with my flashlight. I found a Tudor coffer hiding beneath a tarpaulin sheet, covering it from the damp. I loaded it into the Volvo, which had replaced my old Ford, and made my way into the main halls.