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Authors: Priscilla Masters

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BOOK: Buried in Clay
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But by August the island had filled up to capacity and the weather was too hot to do anything – even sit out in it – so Richard and I returned to Hall o’th’Wood. We had both felt a sudden lust for its cool rooms, the damp grass and the shade of its trees.

Besides – I had an ulterior motive. There was a country-house sale I wanted to attend. It was at a Queen Anne mansion in the middle of acres of parkland in Gloucestershire and the duke, who was now being forced to sell up, had been an avid collector of Staffordshire portrait figures. I could not afford to miss this sale. It was so full of rare pieces – more than three hundred lots of pottery alone. I suppose at the back of my mind I was always thinking there was always a slight chance that my jug would turn up again. When the catalogue arrived the quality was even better than I had anticipated and I decided to attend for the entire two days. The first day was viewing; the second the sale.

Country house sales are a push-me-pull-you sort of affair. They attract all sorts – from the wealthy, local landowners to foreign millionaires, ‘A’ list celebrities, genuine collectors, the penniless pretending to be millionaires, millionaires masquerading as the
, dealers and not a few thieves watching out for unguarded lots or carelessly left handbags or wallets.

Sometimes the prices are unrealistically high – particularly for the star lots, the pieces on the front of the catalogue and photographed inside. These are the
prestige pieces which will be boasted about at grand houses over dinners to come. ‘Darling, I bought it at the duke’s house, you know. Picked it up for an absolute song. Rumour has it that…’ And so on. But for all that there are also, for the careful dealer, ‘sleepers’, bargains. Unrecognised and genuine rarities.

There is always a frisson at these sales, a sense of excitement which is rarely present at provincial auctions. There are fun lots and lots for serious bidders.


The two-day sale would be a welcome break. We had returned from Majorca because we had felt claustrophobic there but the truth was I felt exactly the same back at home. There was an atmosphere. I sensed that something was not right, that my Elysium was threatened and I did not know from what direction. Richard seemed distracted. I often wandered into his study to find him frowning over bills or on the telephone, his voice raised. When he looked up at me I would catch an expression almost of panic in his eyes. I didn’t question him. Whatever it was, I reasoned, he would tell me in his own time. I did not pry except for one thing. I had always realised that Hall o’th’Wood was expensive to maintain. Any repairs had to be carried out using traditional materials and we always needed the services of master craftsmen. Nothing was ever cheap or simple. Because Richard had lived there before our marriage he had never expected me to contribute to what he considered his house, his ancestral home and I
respected that stance. I constantly offered him money or to pay some expenses – even Maria and Jenkins’s wages – but he always refused although I suspected that the money would have been useful. Like many men of that generation Richard expected to support his wife. But it was not the way of my age. I had grown up expecting to support myself. It was yet another manifestation of the difference in our ages and generation.

But this problem put a strain between us. What could have been so bonding, a shared responsibility, instead became a missed opportunity.

The result was that I was, for the first time since my marriage, glad to escape the house and its secrets, glad to leave the air of tension, which pervaded every corner of it, reflecting from its glossy panelling, high ceilings and crooked walls, peering at me through the leaded casement windows. So, early on a Tuesday morning in late August, I caught a train down to Gloucester planning to return with my carrier.


I booked myself into a local hotel and was reunited with two of my colleagues, John Carpenter and Eric Goodwood – the very same dealers who had been at Sotheby’s on the day that I had first met Richard. They knew my story from beginning to end, had sympathised with the theft of my jug and promised to keep an eye out for it. ‘It’ll surface one day, Susie,’ they’d said. ‘It’ll be somewhere and one day you’ll have it again.’

But it never had.

We three antiques dealers spent a happy day marking down lots, discussing the finer pieces and arguing over their authenticity. It felt good to be amongst old friends again. I had neglected them since my marriage. I no longer tarried at the back of salerooms or joined them for protracted dinners after the sales but hurried back to my home and my husband. Now I realised that it was fun to be back in the thick of it. We worked out which lots we would be bidding for, enjoyed pointing out restoration work, new handles, poor-quality pieces and trying to spot which would be the ‘sleepers’ in the sale. It was all good fun and the day brought perfect English summer weather with a cool breeze freshening the proceedings.

We picnicked on strawberries and smoked-salmon sandwiches, sitting on the lawn, and spent the afternoon wandering through the house, admiring the furniture, paintings, porcelain and pottery. The auctioneers had piped string-quartet music playing softly in the background, which gave the proceedings a glamorous, classy atmosphere.

We dined well at the small, Cotswold stone hotel and sat gossiping and drinking until the small hours. I went to bed, leaving my companions at the bar.


The next day stands out in my memories as one of the happiest of my life.

My two colleagues were suffering from hangovers the next morning but I felt clear-headed and joyful. The day
was blisteringly hot; the breeze had dropped and I dressed in a halter-neck minidress and some
white sandals. I wore little make-up. A touch of mascara, a slick of lipstick. No more. As I brushed my hair I felt the familiar swell of anticipation that had never quite left me. A sale is such unknown territory. Fortunes and reputations are made and lost at such places. It is the thrill of the chase.

At the back of my mind a small voice argued that hot days and country-house sales can be a magnet for the wealthy who enjoy nothing more than buying up from the dispersal sale of a duke. But I tucked that voice away. Surely I was canny enough to buy the right pieces with confidence – and sell them again? So I finished brushing my hair, grimaced at my reflection then hitched a lift to the sale in Eric’s Volvo.

I felt lucky today. Even more so as I arrived at the marquee early and the first thing I saw was a pair of square shoulders disappearing through the flaps. It is always a double joy to see someone you love unexpectedly. I ran up to him. ‘Richard,’ I called. ‘Richard.’ He turned around and gave me a wide grin. ‘Susie.’ His eyes rested on me with affection.

I linked my arm through his. ‘What are you doing here? You hate country-house sales. “All that sitting through lot numbers…”’ I quoted, kissing his cheek, fondling the smooth skin, brushing his mouth with my own and taking mischievous pleasure in the smear of lipstick which had transferred to his face.

‘It was so warm,’ he said. ‘I couldn’t concentrate on work. The office was stifling and I thought of you out here, nibbling strawberries.’ He kissed me back. ‘Honestly it was just too nice to stay in and I fancied a drive out.’ He drew me to him. ‘To be with you, if I’m honest.’ He smiled. ‘The sale was the price I had to pay.’ His eyes crinkled at the corners. ‘The necessary evil.’

I challenged him then. ‘And will you sit right through it?’

‘I think so.’

‘It’ll be awfully hot in the marquee,’ I warned.

‘I don’t care.’

‘Oh,’ I said suddenly, putting my hands either side of his face. ‘It is so good to see you.’

I took a good look at him. He had abandoned his grey suit, white shirt and sober ties for khaki chinos with a short-sleeved, open-necked white polo shirt. Usually a formal dresser, even his shoes were casual loafers. He looked relaxed and happy in his holiday clothes.

We filed into the tent together.

They were selling the furniture and paintings in the morning and the pottery in the afternoon. I bought two or three pieces of period oak which neither the general public nor the other dealers seemed to want and a fine pair of Georgian portraits which were the subject of some frenzied bidding. I had to fight off stiff opposition but emerged the victor and felt very pleased with myself. We sat right through the morning’s lots and broke off for lunch, sitting on the grass and feeding each other
strawberries. Richard lay back and closed his eyes. He was almost asleep and the lines on his face softened so he looked youthful and content. It struck me then how strained he’d been looking lately. I touched his brow, smoothing it with my fingers and almost asking him what the matter was but I didn’t. Instead we talked about other subjects, to do with Michael and Maria, and the house. I reflected that perhaps even Richard realised he was better away from it for a change. Lovely though it was I was beginning to realise that Hall o’th’Wood wound its tendrils around you, binding you to it just that little bit too tightly. Its air might be rarefied but that could make it difficult to breathe.

I can recall almost everything about that day. It has impressed itself into my mind so deeply. The sweet taste of the strawberries, the cold of the ice cubes in our Pimm’s, the mingled perfume of lavender and roses, the scent of newly mown grass, the drone of the auctioneer’s voice selling lot after lot, the rhythmic bang of his gavel as another piece was sold. The haze of dust in the marquee, floating in the air, even the shifting and whisperings of people arriving and leaving the tent, the simultaneous crackle as another page of the catalogue was turned in unison. The flaps of the marquee had been bound open so the tiniest of breezes just about made the temperature bearable. Bees buzzed in and out uninterested in the proceedings. A few people swatted, impotently, at bluebottles. Once or twice a sparrow or a swallow swooped in accidentally
and flew to the top of the tent before flying out again.

The afternoon lots were to begin at two o’clock and we sat near the front. I wanted to have the chance to inspect some of the items again. My customers were becoming ever more discerning and I didn’t want to miss any restoration, however well done. Sitting near the pieces can make you revise your estimates. Sometimes up, sometimes down. I was well aware that labelling an item part of a duke’s collection would appeal to some customers’ snobbery. And there is much of that in the antiques world.

As I had realised when I had bought the jug, provenance is everything.

The piece I really prized above all else was quite small but it was also rare. A tiny rabbit nibbling a piece of enamelled green lettuce. In my years of dealing I had never sold a rabbit. Horses and cats, plenty of dogs and even an elephant or two but rabbits were rare and I suspected this one came from the Alpha pottery firm which had made the very finest of pieces. First out of the mould, prized by collectors, sharp-featured and beautifully painted on a whiter than normal body. I badly wanted to put it in the showroom of Bottle Kiln. In fact I could almost see Joanne dusting it off and draping a label around its neck. As I had expected the bidding was steep and I held my breath as it reached two hundred pounds, breathing only when the auctioneer’s gavel slammed on his podium and the piece knocked down to me for two hundred and ten pounds. I turned to
Richard, excited. ‘I have it,’ I said. I think I was laughing with the pleasure and grazed his cheek with my mouth. I seem to remember that we exchanged a look as long and loving as at our wedding. He laughed too and tucked his arm around me, stroking my hair, whispering a tease in my ear – ‘I’d have thought a hardened dealer like you would have been immune from such pleasure at buying a little rabbit.’ I laughed with him. ‘Never,’ I vowed, whispering back. ‘If I lose my joy at acquiring a beautiful piece I shall retire.’

Those words would return one day to haunt me; ‘joy’ – not a word to be used so carelessly.

If I search the most obscure consciousness of my mind I believe I can drag something else out of that moment. Right behind me I might have heard a small commotion, perhaps a gasp, certainly a movement but I did not turn around.

Richard, as I had anticipated, did get bored and wandered towards the back of the tent then went outside but I stayed on till the bitter end. I would not need to return with the carrier now but could travel straight back to Hall o’th’Wood with Richard and Jenkins in the Rolls.

It was as we left that the incident occurred.

Jenkins had brought the car around to meet us at the side of the marquee and Richard and I were sitting in the back. I had my head on his shoulder, tired now, with the excitement of the day and the heat. There was a throng of people milling around so Jenkins was
driving even more slowly than usual to avoid them. Quite suddenly someone approached the car and banged very hard on the window, startling me. I sat up. It was a tall, slim youth with yellow-blonde hair. His mouth was open. He was shouting something – at me, it seemed. I assumed that we must have driven too close to him and leant forward, meaning to open the window and apologise. I saw his palm slap on the glass again and met some sort of mute appeal in his face. Richard leant forward. ‘Drive on, Jenkins,’ he urged furiously. ‘Drive on.’

We left the youth standing in the middle of the drive, staring after us. His mouth was still open. He was still shouting but I could not distinguish the words. I turned around and watched him until we rounded a corner and he vanished from sight. The entire incident must have taken less than two minutes.

‘Well,’ I said, leaning back in my seat. ‘What was all that about?’

‘Young buck.’ Richard’s face was still flushed and furious. ‘Bloody arrogant young buck. Who does he think he is?’

I was none the wiser. ‘Richard?’

His face was livid. ‘He’s been watching you all day. I saw him. Sitting behind us. Never took his eyes off you. What does he want?’

I tried to reassure him. ‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘I didn’t notice him. I didn’t see him at the sale. I don’t know him, Richard.’

BOOK: Buried in Clay
9.18Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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