Authors: Priscilla Masters
Of course I’d noticed. I’d noticed everything about it.
Eric Goodwood was watching me slyly. ‘Know the place, do you, Susie?’
That was when I first learnt that Hall o’th’Wood was real, and still stood today. I would not have believed such a place could exist outside a particularly pleasant dream – had it not been for the hanged man depicted on the same object which turned the dream into what? A nightmare?
Surely not. Surely the house had too much perfect beauty to be that. I pictured it again, as a real place, and did not know whether I wanted it to exist outside my own imagination and on the jug.
‘No,’ I said baldly. ‘I don’t know it.’
Eric Goodwood spoke. ‘It’s in Balterley. I’d have thought you’d have seen it, Susie. Don’t you drive from
Stoke to Chester that way? It stands back on a hill. Quite visible from the road. Beautiful house. Been in the same family for generations, I believe.’
‘Really?’ I had never taken that particular road.
My affected casual tone must have sounded fake. Eric and John exchanged amused glances. ‘OK by us,’ they said. ‘You may have competition, Susie, but it won’t be from us.’
So it was settled. I would be quiet when the Meissen and blue-and-white was being held up and they would not bid against me for the jug.
The business was over.
We discussed a few further lots and the tacit deal was set. There would be no saleroom battles between us today.
I wasn’t naive enough to think that there would not be other competition. John was only one dealer, Eric one more. There would be others – and that was discounting any private customer who braved the jungle of an antiques auction.
But John and Eric would have been serious competition and at least they were out of the running.
Ten minutes before the sale was due to start I took up my place – half-hidden behind a pillar but in full view of the auctioneer, a young, ginger-haired public schoolboy named Saul Winters about the same age as myself. He was confident and loud and could move swiftly through the lots which suited us all. We dealers
wanted to be back at our shops by lunchtime.
I did not want to attract attention but to blend in with the background. I was well known in the salerooms as a dealer in pottery. My reputation was fast growing and anything I gave too much scrutiny to would inevitably invite interest. This, in turn, could force the price up. Dealers could, on occasions, be petty, or influenced by rivalry, or even just plain greedy. If they knew that I was interested in a piece they may well try to bid me up or even affect interest simply to squeeze some more money out of me. It was simply a way of making money in a tricky, volatile world. Added to that the vendor could be at the sale, note my interest and push the bidding up. And it is a well-known fact that an auctioneer might take bids ‘off the wall’.
There are as many pitfalls in a saleroom as there are sharks in the sea around Australia. One does not have to be bitten by one to know that they are there.
There is an air of tension as the pieces are held up by the porter and the bidding opens. The trick is to catch the auctioneer’s eye early on. Only your initial bid needs to be showy, to attract his attention. After that the slightest movement will be interpreted. You will have more trouble giving that final shake of the head than getting your bids accepted. Auctioneers know the serious bidder. They won’t miss their bid. It’s their business and their profit. Saul Winters moved swiftly through the lots, pointing here and there, giving the sale an air of excitement, banging his gavel down noisily for each sale.
I was soon in the rhythm of things, bidding on a few lots and marking my catalogue, watching who was buying what, noting that John was successful buying his Meissen while Eric had trouble acquiring the blue-and-white against stiff opposition, but really my mind was fixed on the beautiful jug and I had great difficulty not turning my head every few minutes to look at it, sitting proudly on the top shelf of its cabinet to the left of the auctioneer.
I had been dealing in antiques for almost six years – ever since I had left university, the proud possessor of a BA in Fine Art. I had opened a shop and from then on I had learnt and the shop had flourished. I was now worth four or five times my initial investment and had even taken on a girl, Joanne, to manage the shop while I was away buying. But even though I was a hardened dealer, gaining experience, I still felt the familiar jolt in the pit of my stomach when the porter finally held the jug up and Saul Winters started extolling its beauty.
‘What a lovely item this is. Eighteenth century jug in perfect condition…’
He stopped. The porter was whispering something to him. It was causing some concern. And the confusion was doing nothing for my nerves. I nibbled at my index fingernail – a habit my aunt had told me off for since I was a child, painting it with cloves and aloes and mustard and finally nail varnish which had virtually cured me of it – except in cases of extreme anxiety.
Finally the auctioneer straightened and smoothly continued praising the jug. ‘Lovely piece here. We have one or two bids on the books… Start me at fifty pounds.’
No one moved. Certainly not me. It was better to lurk in the deep, dark water before splashing around in the shallows, attracting attention and making that first bid. Because once I had made my first bid I would hang on tenaciously, until the jug was mine.
‘Twenty pounds then,’ the auctioneer said.
John put his hand up. He would take the bidding up until I entered the battle. For make no mistake about it, it is a battle, to own the piece you have decided is your star lot of the day and fight off the opposition. To go home without it would have been a battle lost.
The auctioneer looked straight at me, waiting for my bid. Winters had an instinct and he must have known, even before I waved my hand, that I would be interested in this piece. Perhaps he had seen the way I had handled it with that reverence we dealers reserve for only the most special of pieces.
I still didn’t move.
The bidding reached eighty pounds and Saul Winters caught my eye. I nodded and he smiled. He knew he had me by the fish hook of desire. I felt myself flush with the exhilaration of it all.
‘One hundred pounds. Saying once, saying twice. Oh – one hundred and ten pounds is that, sir?’
I did not look around but fixed on Saul Winters and gave the most imperceptible of nods.
‘One hundred and twenty pounds. Saying once. Twice. Sold.’ The gavel slammed down. ‘Sold for one hundred and twenty pounds to Susanna Paris of Bottle Kiln Antiques.’ I let out a sigh of relief.
The jug was mine.
But the sale was not over. I bid, almost casually, on a few more lots, bought a nice collection of Victorian chimney pieces for a knock-down price, and a set of three graduated earthenware plates with a rare blue-and-white pattern which Eric obviously didn’t want. They weren’t Spode and I suspected this was why.
Stock replenished. My shop would look good tomorrow.
But already I doubted that the creamware jug would ever sit in the window of Bottle Kiln Antiques. I didn’t think I would be able to part with it.
‘That ends this sale of pottery. Our next sale is…’
I moved across to pay for my lots. It was lunchtime. I was hungry and anxious to return to Bottle Kiln Antiques and gloat over my purchases. I queued behind a man I did not know. My eyes ran over him casually as I waited. He was not tall – only an inch or two taller than myself. I had an impression of square shoulders, a grey suit, very well cut, short, greying hair – and intense anger.
I corrected myself. No – not anger. Fury. He was furious with the cashier.
‘I left an order to buy.’ His voice was clipped. Public school. Autocratic.
The girl was very young and red in the face. Close to tears. ‘I’m sorry, sir. I did try and explain over the phone. We’re not allowed to take instruction merely to buy. We must have a ceiling bid.’ She appealed to him. ‘I mean – the lot could have fetched anything. Anything.’
The man wasn’t mollified. ‘I’ll speak to the director.’
‘Yes, sir.’ The girl picked up the telephone. Then she caught my eye. I gave her a smile of shared sympathy. She spoke quickly and put the phone down. ‘If you’ll excuse me,’ she said, ‘perhaps I could sort out someone else while you’re waiting.’
The man stood aside.
I put my catalogue on the counter and the girl and I ran through the lots, ticking them off, checking prices. ‘Lot 4…Lot 185…246.’
‘246?’ The man spoke from behind me.
I turned around. And met a pair of very clear, grey eyes, a firm, full mouth, smooth skin with the faintest of tans. ‘Yes.’
‘The jug?’ he said eagerly. ‘The jug with Hall o’th’Wood on it?’
‘Yes,’ I said again.
‘I’d like to buy the jug from you. I left an order to bid but…’
Behind me the girl was watching curiously, wondering how this encounter would end.
‘I’m sorry,’ I returned, angry at his peremptory tone, ‘but the jug isn’t for sale.’
He had a flash of temper. ‘Are you a dealer?’
‘Well – surely dealers buy items to sell for profit.’
I was astonished at his tone. Who did he think he was?
‘I’m offering you a profit on the jug,’ he continued. ‘A good one. So?’
‘I don’t sell everything I buy,’ I said angrily. The man was riling me. ‘I haven’t quite decided what to do with it yet.’
He put his hand on my arm. ‘Please,’ he said, ‘I really want to buy that jug.’
Something in me smiled.
Didn’t he know the classic rule of purchase – never to let the possessor know your desire?
‘I’m sorry,’ I said a little more gently. After all – he simply wanted the piece as I did – and his leak of enthusiasm marked him down as an amateur buyer – someone unused to saleroom manners.
‘It isn’t for sale.’ I fumbled in my bag, found a card and handed it to him. ‘If I do decide to sell I promise you can have first refusal.’
But he wasn’t going to give up. ‘That isn’t good enough.’
‘I won’t sell it to anybody else,’ I promised.
For the first time since I had met him he smiled and I caught the full force of his charm. White, even teeth, the frown lines melting away. He was, I decided, about fifty and had a very attractive face. ‘I want to… Look,’ he said, changing his mind quite abruptly. ‘Why don’t I take you for lunch and I can explain?’
I was taken aback. ‘I don’t know.’
‘Please,’ he said. ‘I know you’d find it interesting. You see…’ He was about to add something else but instead he simply smiled again and I was drawn inside that magic circle of charm.
I made my decision then. After all – I was intrigued to know the history of the jug. ‘All right.’
He held out his hand. ‘Oliver,’ he said. ‘Richard Oliver.’
It was one of the three names on the jug. Perhaps I had already sensed some connection. It partly explained why he was so anxious to buy it. ‘Susanna Paris,’ I said.
He shook my hand and stood back while I finished settling my bill.
So together we walked out of Sotheby’s, back out into the spring sunshine, and strolled through the streets of Chester.
That was how I first met Richard Oliver.
As we walked along the street Richard Oliver made small, chivalrous gestures: he took my arm as we crossed the road, walked along the outside of the pavement. He was a man of both charm and manners, I decided.
I was never more aware of this as on that first day in his company. We climbed the steps of The Rows and walked between the stone arches until we found a trattoria on the upper gallery, gaily decked with red-and-white gingham café curtains and wafting a scent of garlic as we opened the door. A waiter gestured us towards an empty corner and we weaved towards it, threading around tables laid with gingham cloths, lit by candles set in Mateus Rosé bottles grotesque with dripped wax. A soprano warbled an aria in the background. It was a glimpse of little Italy.
Richard held my chair for me and I sat down, intrigued by this polite, chivalrous man and his connection with my jug. The waiter hovered while we
scanned the menu and we gave him our order – lasagne, salad and a bottle of Chianti. I wasn’t really concentrating that hard on the food. I wanted to know the story.
‘Do your friends call you Susanna?’ His eyes were warm and held mine with a very direct gaze. I wasn’t sure what lay behind them. It is never easy to tell when people hide behind the shield of politeness. Was this simply a ploy to persuade me to sell him the jug?
‘No,’ I said, laughing. ‘It’s a bit of a mouthful. My friends call me Susie.’
I noted the rather distant politeness and again this old-fashioned formality.
‘Would you mind if I called you Susie?’
I shrugged. ‘Not at all.’
I knew, without even asking, that no one ever shortened his name. He would always be called Richard.
As the waiter poured the wine I opened the subject.
‘Tell me about Hall o’th’Wood,’ I said softly. ‘What’s the story behind the pictures on the jug?’
Richard put his knife and fork down then took a sip of wine and swallowed it. ‘I don’t know the story,’ he said. ‘At least not all of it. I live at the Hall o’th’Wood. It’s my family home. It’s been in my family for generations. Ever since the early eighteenth century.’
I smiled. ‘It looks wonderful,’ I said. ‘Does it still look like that today?’
He nodded. ‘Exactly. Practically nothing in Hall
o’th’Wood has changed in four hundred years.’ There was an obvious pride in his voice.
I took a forkful of lasagne. ‘Then it’s no coincidence that your name is on the jug?’
‘Not exactly my name,’ he said gently, a touch of humour lighting his eyes. ‘My great-great-great-grandfather’s.’
‘I couldn’t work out from the design,’ I said, probing, ‘whether he was the hanged man.’
Richard Oliver shook his head. ‘No,’ he said. ‘He wasn’t hanged. He was, so family legend has it, murdered – or so I’ve always believed.’
I was surprised at his lack of curiosity. Perhaps it was an affectation. Surely he couldn’t be ashamed of something which had happened almost two hundred years ago? I took a look at the proud face and thought, yes. It was possible.
‘Who was he murdered by?’
‘I don’t know,’ he said, his mouth straightening. ‘It wasn’t something I was interested in. It was not really talked about,’ he added stiffly.
I didn’t believe him. ‘Was he murdered in the house?’
His lips tightened. He didn’t like my interest in his family skeleton. ‘I don’t know.’
I tried another tack. ‘It’s a long time ago, Richard,’ I said. ‘It hardly reflects on your life today, surely. Aren’t you just a bit curious?’
He took a long draught of wine, his eyes not leaving my face. When he set his glass down it was with a firm
hand. ‘There are some secrets best left secrets,’ he said. ‘None of it can benefit people living today.’
‘But it’s your history,’ I persevered. ‘Most people would find it interesting.’
I knew it was bordering on intrusion but I could hardly contain my curiosity. ‘And the potter, Matthew Grindall? His sister, Rebekah? Do you know nothing about them either?’
‘No.’ His curtness was bordering on rudeness.
What was the significance of the gallows, I wondered, and did not dare ask? But if he was so disinterested in the story behind the jug why did he want it so much?
It was obvious Richard Oliver would only be drawn on one subject – the house – so I returned to that.
‘Describe it,’ I said. I could settle for that – for the time being.
His face changed completely. It lost the shuttered look. It was as though he was two people. A Jekyll and a Hyde. His eyes returned to my face. ‘As you could probably tell from the picture on your jug Hall o’th’Wood is a very old house. Sixteenth century. Built in the style of the time, in the shape of a letter ‘E’, in tribute to the queen. Susie,’ he said, warming now to his subject. ‘It is in fabulous condition. Practically all of it is authentic. The panelling, the doors, the fireplaces and the most wonderful carved oak staircase which splits in front of a huge stained-glass window, almost like a church.’ He was smiling – not at me but, I felt, at the window.
‘Is it a religious window?’
‘No – more pastoral. The trees and animals, sheep, cows, grazing in the fields. In the centre a crusader stands.’ He paused, as though about to say something but changed his mind and continued. ‘When the evening comes and the light streams in through it I could almost believe in Heaven.’
And Hell? I thought. Surely the man hanging in the gallows was nearer to Hell? So was it his ancestor or the potter? Or the killer? Was Matthew Grindall the killer? Or was there another man – or woman – involved? Rebekah, perhaps?
He was watching me very carefully and I knew he was gauging my reaction. It was all a sort of test. He continued talking about the house. ‘So many old properties have been vandalised,’ he said, warming to his subject, ‘in this decade in particular.’ ‘The Sixties are completely lacking in respect for tradition but Hall o’th’Wood has never been touched. It is as it always was. I feel more a caretaker than an owner. A custodian, almost.’
Of its reputation too?
But something in me connected with this sentiment. I met his eyes and my cynicism melted away. ‘I feel like that too when I handle a particularly good piece,’ I said.
He looked at me, a little startled but made no comment. I pushed all my questions to the back of my mind. They must wait, I thought.
It was I who broke the silence with a joke designed to
probe beneath the surface. ‘And your wife?’ I queried lightly. ‘Does she have to cook in a sixteenth century kitchen, roasting a sucking pig with an orange jammed in its mouth?’
He laughed out loud at this quip, opening his mouth wide without self-consciousness. ‘I’m not quite such a Luddite, Susie,’ he said. ‘I have bowed to the twentieth century, fitted it out and put an Aga in. Maria has pine cupboards for her equipment.’ His face was full of fun now. He looked boyish – almost mischievous. ‘And no spit for the Sunday roast either.’
‘Housekeeper.’ He shook his head. ‘My wife. Ex-wife, Julia.’ He drew breath. ‘Well – let’s just say she didn’t really care for the place. It wasn’t her cup of tea. She was a modernist and hated living in what she called ‘the mausoleum.’ It was a mistake to have married her in the first place. We’ve been divorced for years now.’ He gave a harsh, cynical laugh. ‘Hall o’th’Wood is very choosy whom she allows to live within her walls and from the first Julia didn’t fit. The minute I took her there I knew it.’ His eyes looked beyond me. ‘She was miserable there. If she could have had her way she would have jazzed the place up.’ He practically shuddered.
‘Oh dear,’ I sympathised.
We ate in silence. ‘How good a portrayal of the house is the picture on the front of the jug?’ I was learning to skirt round inconvenient subjects.
‘Perfect,’ he said, instantly regaining his enthusiasm.
‘Right down to the very last timber. The potter must have spent a long time studying the structure. In fact it’s so accurate you can see my bedroom window on it.’ His flirtation was a challenge. It made me realise how much I was enjoying his company.
My turn to dig again.
‘Do you know anything about the provenance of the jug, Richard? Has it been in your family since the eighteenth century?’
The chilly look he had given to the cashier at Sotheby’s was returning and it was obvious Richard Oliver only wanted to talk about the house and probably persuade me to sell him the jug. That was his agenda. If he knew the story he was not going to share it with me, an antiques dealer, who would copy the entire tale onto a large label, tie it round the handle of the jug and inflate the price accordingly. Therefore I must steer a neutral course. ‘I wonder,’ I said fatuously, ‘where it came from, why it was made, where it’s been in the last hundred and eighty years, how it ended up in Sotheby’s and what the story which lies behind it is – if anyone knows it at all?’ I watched him, plastering a bland expression on my face.
He shook his head. ‘I didn’t even know of its existence. You can imagine how I felt when a friend saw it photographed in Cheshire Life in Sotheby’s advertisement. I was intrigued.’
I looked away.
‘All Sotheby’s would tell me was that it had been the property of a local farmer. That is it.’ He was looking at
me again. ‘Sum total of what I know about the jug.’
And now it was mine.
He poured me another glass of wine and filled his own glass up. ‘Now you,’ he said. ‘Tell me about yourself, Susie. Where do you come from? How did you put yourself into the antiques business? Is it a family tradition?’ He was teasing me. ‘Are you part of Paris & Daughter?’
I laughed with him, liking him in this light mood. I put my chin in my cupped palm and looked into the grey eyes, marking how dark the pupils were. ‘Absolutely not,’ I said. ‘My father was a diplomat.’
He dipped his head towards me. ‘Was?’
‘My parents were killed when I was a child,’ I said. ‘I was brought up by an aunt. She’s an artist. She lives near Soller – on the island of Majorca.’
‘I see,’ he said. ‘A bohemian childhood.’
‘So where is your shop?’
‘In Hanley. Right in the middle – just down from Lewis’s department store. It’s in a disused bottle kiln, on the site of an old potbank.’ It was my turn for enthusiasm now.
I was studying his face and thinking how pleasing his features were – neat, regular and now his temper had melted away I was aware of very great charm and warmth. I judged him then a man who could be a good friend. A deep and committed lover – or a bad enemy. His eyes were fixed on mine with a flattering absorption.
His face, which could look hard, was now softened with amusement and interest. His lips were full and a well-shaped Cupid’s bow and I found myself wondering what they would be like to kiss. Hard? Soft? Warm? His eyes were still on me and I felt myself flush with embarrassment. I was not a natural coquette. I poured myself a glass of water and offered him one. He accepted and sipped it as slowly as the wine.
I continued to wonder about him, agreeing with my earlier estimate. Early fifties. His face was dominated by the clear gaze of his eyes and I found my glance returning to them. Even when I was looking away from him I could feel the heat from them as hot as a laser beam. His skin was smooth and faintly tanned, not the dark playboy tan of foreign holidays in Europe but the healthy glow of someone who enjoys striding through English countryside. I searched again at his mouth and found no trace of the anger he had shown to the cashier at Sotheby’s. In repose it looked sensuous. He was watching me, still smiling. I wondered which was the real Richard – the angry, almost spoilt man, furious at being thwarted by the Sotheby’s system or the charmer in a Saville Row suit, plain maroon tie and very white shirt, neatly pressed and starched. By Maria presumably.
I breathed in and caught his scent, the faintest waft of cigars, mixed with expensive soap, spice and something else indefinable, perhaps the same scent that I associated with antiques – honey, lavender, beeswax.
He continued firing questions at me about the antiques
business but I suspect he was aware of my scrutiny. ‘Do you have a partner?’
I can remember thinking that if this was simply a preamble to persuading me to sell him the jug it was a very good attempt but wasted. However I determined to enjoy his company.
‘I don’t have a partner,’ I said.
‘So who is watching the shop now?’ His eyes were on mine and he was gently teasing again.
‘Did you simply close the door and put a sign up – Gone to the saleroom. Back tomorrow?’
I laughed then. ‘No, I do have a girl called Joanne who looks after the place. She manages the customers very well. Better than me actually. She’s much more patient.’
He murmured something.
‘I shall call in later on this afternoon and see what she’s been up to but I had to come to Sotheby’s today. An American buyer cleaned me out last week. The cupboard was bare. Empty shop windows are not a good idea, Richard Oliver. People soon go elsewhere unless I fill them up which is a full-time job.’
‘Quite,’ he said dryly and I knew he was picturing what he considered as his jug centrepiece in my shop window. ‘Hence the long list of lot numbers you gave the girl at Sotheby’s.’ He was scrutinising me as intently as I had been watching him.
I had a strange sensation of being out of my depth. The background noises had stilled; the soprano was quiet. The restaurant had ceased to exist outside this table and
this one man. I didn’t know then which was the stronger emotion – curiosity to know the story of the jug, bold attraction for Richard Oliver or something else, some recalled elegance and sophistication. I realised that this was dangerous. In minutes he would ask me to sell the jug to him and I would not resist. Then he would vanish from my life for ever.
It was he who broke the silence. ‘How long have you had the shop for?’
I pulled myself back to the present. ‘Six years. I did a Fine Art degree in London and couldn’t wait to leave the smoke. I came up here initially to learn about pottery manufacture and never quite moved on.’
His eyebrows rose. ‘I suppose you’d find it patronising of me to comment that you don’t look old enough to run your own business at all – let alone for a number of years.’