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Authors: Priscilla Masters

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BOOK: Buried in Clay
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At some point while we sauntered along the panelled corridors of the old house, I like to think that I saw beyond the beauty of the place. I like to think that I recognised the burden of responsibility which must sit on the owner’s shoulders and weigh him down.

We heard a gong sounding from the hallway and were summoned to lunch in the long dining room. It was a simple meal, a small salad with fruit and cheese to finish. It was the food I had been reared on. Simple, good, homely food. I commented as such to Maria and she beamed. ‘He told me something simple for lunch.’ Then
she smiled. ‘Ah, but, Susie,’ she promised, ‘tonight you will eat. Such a feast I will prepare. You will have to go for a long walk this afternoon to make your appetite.’

The entire day passed as in a wonderful dream. I remember wandering the long passageways again and noting more and still more, tapestries worked by the women of the family, the samplers by the children, toys in the attic rooms – a rocking horse, a doll’s house, a Noah’s ark, an oak crib, skittles and a top and whip. A Hornby train set, packed away in its box. ‘And your son?’ I asked. ‘Does he live with you?’

Richard’s arm was around my shoulders. ‘No,’ he said, ‘Michael moved out a few years ago. He needed his space,’ he added dryly, ‘as I needed mine. We do work together but he lives a few miles away.’

‘Is he married?’

‘Not so far.’ I felt his hand on my shoulder tighten and he stared very hard into my face as though wishing to read my thoughts. Not only current but past as well. ‘And you, Susie Paris, have you ever come close to being married yourself?’

I shook my head. ‘Not even close.’

I wanted to tell him that what I remembered of my parents’ marriage was that it had been idyllic, loving, sharing and perfect. Of course I could only look at it through a child’s eyes but my aunt had nurtured this belief and I clung on to it, that they had died together, happy. I wanted no less from my own marriage.

 

Later we strolled through woods carpeted with bluebells, down the bark path and the hundred steps to the lake at the bottom. We walked right round its perimeter, well over a mile of muddy paths, the water bright blue in the afternoon sunshine, its still waters reflecting the fluffy, white clouds and we watched, silent and motionless, as a heron speared a fish with its beak. We turned to look back at the house and watched the sun drop behind its roof while Maria switched the lights on one by one. It was getting cold. I shivered. And still I did not want to leave but to hold this image in my mind for ever. He kissed me then, hard on the mouth and I knew this was where I wanted to stay for all time. ‘You love it too, don’t you?’

There was no mistaking the enthusiasm in Richard’s face and I remember that I wondered whether it was possible that a man could love a house too much. Perhaps the reason he had never married again was because all his love was caught up in Hall o’th’Wood leaving him none to squander on a woman. I remember too that when he kissed me I wanted him to keep going. I opened my mouth to him, remembering my aunt’s words. I was still drowning.

I shivered again. Perhaps I knew that this was not real life. There was too much. ‘You love it here, don’t you?’ I said.

‘I do,’ he answered. ‘I do. My ex-wife said too much.’ He gave a dry little laugh. ‘She said it took over my life.’

He was frowning abstractedly and the spell was
broken. I wished he had not mentioned Julia Oliver.

I felt a compulsion then to lighten the heaviness in his face by teasing him a little. ‘It’s a good job some of my colleagues aren’t with me here, today, Richard,’ I said smiling. ‘They’d be falling over themselves, bidding you on some of the pieces here.’

I swear he shuddered. ‘Don’t even mention it,’ he said. ‘The thought of this being broken up and squabbled over, picked over like carrion by vultures after it’s been in my family for three hundred years.’ He shivered again. ‘Don’t even mention it, Susie. It is my worst nightmare.’

‘I hope you’re not calling me a vulture,’ I said briskly. ‘It’s an honourable profession.’

His face still looked strained and unhappy and so I continued in the same light vein. ‘Have you heard the old joke about four antique dealers stranded on a desert island with a Chippendale chair? They all make a living out of it until a boat comes along.’

He snapped out of his reverie. ‘Is it really like that?’

‘Oh yes,’ I said.

He had lightened up completely. He drew me to him and kissed me again and I put all rogue ideas far from my mind.

We walked back up the steps. Lights were sparkling all over the house as though it too was in party mood. Two glasses of sherry stood on a silver tray and we picked them up.

‘Come,’ he said. ‘I want to show you something.’

He led me again along the corridor lined with
portraits, which led to a much smaller dining room and a library. It was shabby and lived-in. There were two Queen Anne armchairs either side of a fireplace, a television, a desk and shelves of books.

‘This is my inner sanctum,’ he said. ‘My own private world. Welcome to it.’

He drew me to him and kissed me, his mouth open, urging and I responded.

I felt alive with this man.

‘Come,’ he said, only minutes later. ‘Maria only allows me fifteen minutes at most to take my sherry.’

I glanced back at the room.

One day, I thought, I shall know. Records exist in churches and family Bibles. I would learn what I needed to know about this family.

Maria served dinner in the great hall, a saddle of lamb, vegetables and a bottle of claret then some fruit to finish. Instead of sitting us at either end of the table she put us across the top corner so we were intimate and close. I spoke to her again in Spanish and she bent and kissed me on the cheek with real affection. ‘Come again, my Susie,’ she said, ‘before too long. You make this place home. He—’

‘That’s enough, Maria.’ Richard dismissed her abruptly.

This was something I was to learn about him. It was not my nature to accept that people serve. I was egalitarian. To me anything done for me was a favour but to Richard it was a simple right.

Maria did not attend our table again but left dessert and coffee on the side table and walked out. I promised I would see her in the kitchen before I left.

We talked until late, finished the bottle of wine and I found myself relaxed and comfortable in his presence. He asked me about my day-to-day existence in Majorca, the people I’d met there, about my sister and my aunt’s house, even about my boarding school and what I recalled of my parents. He asked me a question or two about pieces of furniture which had become damaged. I recommended a furniture restorer, knowing he would like Trevor, who dressed like King Charles I complete with pointed beard and shoulder-length curls. We spoke about woodworm and damp rot, about picture cleaning and pottery restoration. I promised to return and oversee some renovations of the antiques and in turn he told me about his life, about stocks and shares, financial management, his business in Newcastle. He frequently touched my hand as he spoke, stroked my cheek, kept his gaze on my face. I didn’t want the evening to end. I wanted it to go on for ever and ever because the minutes were all charmed. The truth is that I didn’t want to go home but to stay here and never re-enter the outside world. How different would events have been if this had happened? But Richard did not invite me to stay so at a little after midnight I stood up. I had planned an early start in the morning to attend an antiques fair near Preston before going to see Sara. The fair was a good two hours’ drive
away and it started at 5 a.m. I would get little sleep.

Less sleep than I thought.

I put my head round the kitchen door but the lights were off and the room tidied up. Maria must have gone to bed hours ago. Richard saw me to my car and wished me goodnight. He kissed me again then closed my car door. ‘Goodnight, Susie,’ he said.

I wished him goodnight too.

‘Until we meet again then,’ he said and I drove away, back down the long drive and onto the A525. I was home forty-five minutes later.

I reflected on the words most of the way home. He hadn’t said he’d ring me or made any definite arrangement to see me again. Only until we meet again. What if we never did? But surely the day had gone well, I told myself uncertainly.

I was back in my teenage years when a first date could lead to a second or a second to a third – or not – and felt disappointed. I had thought we had been close. Had it all been my imagination?

Until we meet again? What did that mean? Exactly?

I pondered the question right up until I turned into my own drive. And saw the front door swinging open.

It was splintered. Someone had kicked it in.

I ran inside and the first thing I noticed was that the jug had gone.

Then I noticed something else. Nothing else was missing. Nothing. My paintings, my pottery, my television set, my stereo were all in place. Nothing else
was gone. Only the jug. And gradually the significance of everything sank in. It all fell into place perfectly. The jug had been stolen to order.

I didn’t need to think who by.

‘Rychard Oliver,’ I whispered. ‘Hys jug.’ And now he’d got it back.

I should have paid more attention to those words. They had been a warning and I had caught a glimpse of the steeliness that lay beneath his charm. What could he possibly have wanted from me except…? I felt so silly.

The jug was not mine. Never had really been mine. Never would be. Who could possibly possess it except the owner of Hall o’th’Wood?

I felt my resolve strengthen.

He wouldn’t get away with it.

I was calm as I rang the police who promised to come round first thing in the morning, still calm as I nailed a panel over the splintered wood, but when I sat up in bed that night I felt hot tears drip through my fingers and wasn’t sure whether they were tears of fury or grief at the glimpse of something so beautiful and yet so far out of my reach. I felt a fool.

Dawn always comes, doesn’t it, stealing in like a thief on the unwary, expecting to find them still asleep?

I wasn’t. I had watched the pale light move across the field towards me with only one thought in my head. What a fool I’d been. How could I ever have thought I meant anything to him? It was all his precious house. That was what he cared about.

Only that. And while I’d been distracted he’d sent someone over to steal the jug.

My thoughts were as bitter as aloes as I ran through every moment spent in Hall o’th’Wood, every single glance or gesture – and interpreted them differently. Patronising, a superficial interest and, above all, get her away from the house. Leave the coast clear. Even the kisses I now saw as a way of binding me to him so I would not report the burglary. I could not help thinking how like his ancestors Richard Oliver was. Flawed. A felon, a gambler. Who knew what other
faults came to the fore in old, wealthy families?

At six o’clock I finally rose, wrapped my dressing gown around me, made some coffee and sat on my sofa while the Tudor woman’s eyes mocked me for being naive and trusting. She would have seen through him.

A small voice inside me ran through the arguments against Richard having been involved but I swept them all aside. Surely the man I had judged him to be would not have stooped so low? The most significant fact, to me, was that while there were far more saleable or valuable items in my home – my eyes rested on my Tudor painting and then on an Obadiah Sherratt figure of Polito’s Menagerie worth thousands – nothing else in the entire cottage had been taken. Not paintings or silver, television or stereo. Not cash or jewellery. Nothing was missing but this one piece of pottery. But that would be his downfall because the jug was not only distinctive. It was unique. And one day I would find it again. Of that I was sure.

The facts were staring me in the face. I had been lured away from the cottage purely so Richard Oliver could reclaim what he saw as his own.

The police came at eight-thirty.

They did their best, examining the cottage and its surrounds for evidence. After an hour they said they had found nothing. They asked me if I had a photograph of it and I produced the Sotheby’s catalogue, almost crying when I saw it pictured. Then they asked me if I had any idea who might have taken it and I gritted my teeth and told them all.

I didn’t go to my antiques fair that morning but sat in my cottage, almost as though I was frightened to leave it.

At ten the telephone rang and I picked it up, expecting it to be my sister but it wasn’t.

I don’t remember what words I screamed down the line to Richard, only the shocked silence that greeted them.

At eleven the phone rang again and this time it was Sara. I told her the cottage had been burgled and she offered to come round. My dramatic news distracted her from asking how my Saturday had gone so in one way I was let off the hook. I had the door mended and new locks fitted and on the Monday I flew to Majorca. I needed to be with my aunt.

She met me at the airport in her battered Ford, her face wrinkled with concern.

‘Susie,’ she said. ‘What on earth has happened? What is going on? I’ve never known you like this. What is it?’

I simply dumped my case on the tarmac and flung myself into her arms, sobbing.

‘Wait, wait, wait.’ She stroked my hair. ‘Susie. Please wait at least until we’re back home and then we can sit down in a civilised fashion and talk about this. You say you’ve been burgled, that only one thing has gone? I don’t understand.’

Aunt Eleanor was my father’s sister, my sole living relative apart from Sara; my mother had been an only child. Eleanor looked nothing like how I remembered my father. He had been tall and muscular, with thick, black
hair, whereas she was tiny, skinny – almost bird-like, with quick, jerky movements. She tended to wear brightly coloured, hippy skirts and T-shirts and generally looked the archetypal bohemian artist. She had a warm, generous character and spoke quickly in a clear, decisive voice. She was a person who always seemed to know what to do. An obvious choice in my dilemma. I trusted her judgement implicitly.

My aunt had been younger than my father by only one short year. They had been close and she had been our natural guardian when my parents were killed. She had accepted the responsibility without demur. She might not resemble my father physically but she was like him in character in that she was adventurous, unexpected, unusual and unfailingly loyal. During the long winter evenings in Casa Rosada she had told me endless stories about themselves when they were children, about her and my father’s mischief, the scrapes they got into which their parents told them had turned their hair prematurely grey. Hers was henna tinted. She often told me that I resembled our father – muscular and sporty whereas Sara was like our mother, very slim, sharp-featured with an angular body and almost white, blonde hair whereas I was swarthy. I had olive skin and hair which was almost black. I could easily have been mistaken for a native Majorcan.

My aunt had lived in Majorca since the late 1950s. Her bohemian lifestyle had delighted me and appalled the conventional Sara. I had loved our upbringing
surrounded by artists and sunshine. It had been a very, very happy childhood and I loved my aunt for her sacrifice. Sara, on the other hand, minced her way around the Casa Rosada and was heartily glad to return to school, whereas I loved our wild holidays and I was very close to my aunt.

In fact, she was never tired of telling us that it had not been a sacrifice to bring us up but a bonus, that rather than cramping her lifestyle we had brought light and perspective into her life. Aunt Eleanor had been thrilled when I had finally opened the antiques shop. At one point she had tried to teach me to paint, hoping that I would have inherited her talent and that she could nurture me as her pupil. But it was not to be. I was hopeless with a paintbrush. It didn’t take a genius to spot that and no genius could ever give me the skills I so obviously lacked. But my aunt was a genius. Maybe, so far, an unrecognised one, but I firmly believed that one day she would be recognised. That people would step back in some great art gallery somewhere in this great, wonderful world of ours and say in whispered tones, ‘That, of course, is an Eleanor Paris, you know. You can recognise them from right across the room. The distinctive use of movement and colour. Such a talented woman.’

I would overhear them and smile.

Or my other daydream would be to sit in an art sale and watch one of her paintings fetch thousands of pounds, to watch bidders fall over themselves to possess
an Eleanor Paris. One day her fame would be such that her name would be a descriptive noun in popular English vocabulary, like an Agatha Christie or a Ruth Rendell, a Vermeer or a Renoir. Her paintings would hang in the Guggenheim or the Tate or the Getty Museum.

She was my stability. My rock.

She lived on the north-west coast of Majorca, near the town of Soller, cut off then by rocky mountains, reached only by sea or a narrow mountain pass. Now a road carves its way through the mountain and it has opened up to the outside world. But then it was traditional Majorca, beloved of artists and bohemians alike, full of traditional crafts – lacemaking, net making and others and safe from the tourists who had started trickling into the island in the early Sixties but now were pouring in on their cheap package deals. Luckily for us most of those hugged Palma and didn’t venture anywhere near the Casa Rosada. Eleanor had built the pink-washed cottage high on the cliffs, a hundred and forty-one rocky steps up from the sea.

My aunt told me that the first thing she had done when she had heard of her brother and sister-in-law’s deaths had been to extend the tiny house so Sara and I had our own bedrooms with balconies overlooking the sea which crashed against the rocks when the wind was in a certain direction as it was today.

Apart from the sea it was as quiet a place as can exist in this world, sealed off from the road by a track so narrow you could barely drive a car up it and which led
to the Casa Rosada and nowhere else. A local couple, Carmina and her husband, Ramon, helped her around the house, doing the washing, some of the shopping and most of the cooking. My aunt was no great cook.

That afternoon as soon as I had showered the dust of the airport away and changed into shorts and T-shirt we sat on the veranda and she opened a bottle of Rioja Particular and waited for me to speak. I stared down at the stormy white crests and knew they matched my mood.

As usual she was in the middle of a painting, a swirling seascape in bright colours which clashed and screamed around each other. Had I had the job of giving this painting a title I would have called it Turmoil. And that too matched my mood.

She saw me eyeing the canvas and threw a cloth over it. ‘And that was before you rang,’ she said dryly. ‘I dread to think how it will develop. Now will you please tell me what’s going on?’

I didn’t know where to start so it all came out in a jumble – the jug – the house – the names – the man hanging. I left Richard until last but as she asked me about him I felt my face burn with humiliation.

‘And then,’ I said, ‘when I got home…’

I threw myself into her lap, crying as I hadn’t cried since my parents had died. Then it had been sobs muffled into a pillow. Now I allowed myself the luxury of loud, sniffing tears and felt the better for it.

At first she said nothing. Then she looked troubled. ‘It
doesn’t sound right to me, Susie. Are you sure it was him?’

‘It’s surely too much of a coincidence? That one piece taken when I’ve items worth far more? If it was a
small-time,
opportunistic burglar why take just that? Jewellery is far easier to transport, easier to sell – less distinctive. There are pieces of silver too. The jug was the wrong thing to take for a sneak thief. It’s distinctive, unique, fragile and would be difficult to sell on. The police have a photograph of it. If it turned up at one of the antiques markets they’d be on to it like a shot. It’s too easily recognisable – not the sort of item a burglar would take at all – unless it is intended it never is for sale.’

My aunt opened her mouth to speak but I continued, relieved to be voicing all the arguments that had rolled around in my head. ‘He would have known that I was away for the day and that the coast was clear. That’s the final point.’

She tried to speak again but I had not finished.

‘There are pieces in that house worth far more than the jug,’ I repeated, sobbing again. ‘And it’s so distinctive.’ I stood up, agitated. ‘Maybe if you had seen Hall o’th’Wood and knew how fiercely he clings on to everything about it you would understand and agree with me. If you’d seen the way he was with the cashier at Sotheby’s you’d believe anything of him.’

She still looked doubtful. ‘It still doesn’t sound right to me, Susie. Are you sure you’re not being
over-imaginative
?’

‘What else?’ I said, warming to my conviction. ‘Who else? He has an obsession – a pride – a feeling of destiny for that place. In his weird way he believed the jug belonged to him anyway and he almost sucked me into thinking that. I don’t even know whether he’d recognise it as stealing. He sees himself as a custodian for his family fortune. He was merely reverting to what was proper.’ Anger was taking over my grief now. ‘The bugger of it is that I had practically decided to sell it to him anyway. He could have bought it.’

Eleanor gave an annoyed sigh, pulled the cloth off her painting and daubed some paint in the centre then exclaimed and wiped it off. I knew I’d upset her. She never could paint while troubled. ‘Well you’ve met him,’ she said, exasperated, ‘and I haven’t so…’

‘He took it,’ I said viciously. ‘Or at least he asked someone to return it to him. I was wrong about him. I thought…’ I couldn’t finish the sentence. Too many tears were spilling out. I had woken from the dream and I still wanted to return to it, however foolish.

She was looking at me. ‘There’s more to this, isn’t there?’

My tears started again.

‘Well – I’m not going to be able to paint until I’ve sorted this one out,’ she said crossly and put the cloth back on the painting.

Majorca was having something of a heatwave that late spring. I spent days sailing and swimming out to the rocky island where Sara and I had built our secret dens
with pieces of driftwood. They had always been washed away when the storms had come but we still built them. I found small shells and a few treasures we’d squirrelled away, knowing we would be back. My rock seemed timeless and I spent hours sunning myself on its flat top, looking back to the cottage and wishing I had never met Richard Oliver, never bought the wretched jug and never clapped eyes on Hall o’th’Wood.

At least that was what I pretended I wished.

One morning, very early, when the mist was still clinging to the water’s surface, I swam out to the rock. I had packed a paperback and some food in a waterproof bag and planned to bask on the rock for most of the day, leaving my aunt in peace to try and recapture her painting. I sat, mermaid-like, on the top of the rock and stared back at the pink walls of my aunt’s home – my home – the only home I had really known well – until I had bought my own house. Through the haze I imagined I saw the shape of a man standing on the balcony. I peered through the haze that was heralding another hot day. He was not tall – I could make out square shoulders and what looked like a grey suit. Not one of my aunt’s painter friends then – perhaps a gallery owner or even a buyer. I shielded my eyes from the sun and squinted, trying to make out more but I could only see a general shape which was keeping very still. Another puzzle. All of my aunt’s friends were lively people, gesticulating and talking with their hands, restless and noisy. But all was stillness from the Casa Rosada. As the mist cleared I
looked again – and saw no one on the balcony – not even my aunt and I could not even make out the shape of her easel. I must have been mistaken and I felt angry with myself for trying to conjure him up here. When I returned to the house my aunt said nothing about a visitor. But I noticed that she spent the early evening painting ferociously.

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