by Richard Lakin
Sitting in a rusty deckchair collecting coins in an ice cream tub. Terrific. I knew nobody would pay their hard-earned cash to visit, but the owners wouldn’t listen. No one ever did. I was slumped against a creaking trestle table, feet propped up on a beer crate, to escape the draught. My instructions were simple: I was to wait under the archway that led into the courtyard at Midwinter House and take money from visitors, handing them a pink or green cloakroom ticket in return. The cracked tub, which had once held stripy Neapolitan ice cream, now contained a handful of greasy coins. Some job. Dad’s stupid bloody idea. Went without saying.
Saturday afternoon and I’d been chewing a biro and doodling when I should’ve been finishing my essay on the metaphysical poets. Dad came home all wobbly and giggly from the Bear and Pheasant. I’d seen him zigzag down the road, trying a Gene Kelly with the lamppost. He plonked himself in front of the football scores with his tea on a tray, jabbing at the TV set with a length of dowelling rod. ‘Guess who was at the Bear?’ When I shrugged, he said: ‘Him from the big house. Ah, got your attention now eh?’ Nigel Midwinter rarely came out, least of all to the Bear. He wasn’t liked in the village; his only contact with most of the locals was to hike rents or refuse permission to use his land for fetes or fairs. ‘Says he wants you to go up there for a chat.’
‘Yeah, don’t be fooled by the tatty clothes and that old rust-bucket he drives. Bloody loaded he is.’
Dad folded his slice of Mother’s Pride, mopping up the last of the baked bean sauce as he stooped over the tray. ‘Everyone’s opening these big old piles these days, so folk can go and nose about. Plenty of brass in it. Could be the start of something, couldn’t it?’
‘No one will go. Midwinter House is a ruin.’
Dad shook his head. ‘Yanks will. They’ve got no history. Stands to reason then, doesn’t it?’
I sat bolt upright, folding my arms, alerted by the scuff of his shoes on the stone floor. He wore shoes that resembled Cornish pasties, the laces dirty and split at the ends. He clapped his hands together. ‘Anything you can do, Peter, you know, to erm, drum up business?’ At least he’d stopped calling me Master Kendrick. ‘I feared we might not catch Joe Public’s imagination. It was always a risk we were going to have to contend with. What do you think?’
‘I don’t know, Mr. Midwinter.’
‘Nigel is fine. Hm, hm, well think on it, eh, Peter. Bums on seats.’
He turned on his heel and set off. His big idea had been to print banners with ‘Welcome to Midwinter’ on them. Hardly likely to entice tourists. Nigel Midwinter was whip-thin, with a coppery fuzz of hair. He wore bottle green, saggy cords and a pillar-box red cardigan that seemed permanently in danger of catching on a loose nail (and there were plenty of those in Midwinter House) and unravelling.
So long as he’s paying, Dad had said. When was I going to admit Mr. Midwinter had stiffed me with a cut of the door? Shall we say five per cent of the admission fees, eh, Peter? Much better to cut a stake in the profits of a long-term venture than take a set fee. I doubted this ‘long-term venture’ would last the week. Five per cent of a handful of coppers and a coat button and that was the float. I sat hugging myself, beginning to shiver in the creeping damp.
My interview had taken place in a damp office painted a faded sage green. Scrubbed, shaved, and shivering in my only white shirt, I’d been dropped in the lane by Dad. I got out and gripped the rusting white gates as I peered through, searching the estate for any signs of life. ‘Is there some device or bell or—.’ I held up my palms, seeing my hands were covered in chalky, white paint. Mr. Midwinter had fetched me in a golf buggy, veering sharply and weaving on and off the grass to avoid huge, puddled potholes and the thick weeds that had taken hold in the drive. After screeching to a gravel-scattering halt, he showed me into a dark, wood-panelled room. He didn’t offer me a drink or a seat. A brief tour let me conclude that much of the old place had been ripped out, and a TV set on wheels, electric fire, tartan-snake draught excluders, and a purple lava lamp did little for the seventeenth-century charm. There was a grand four-poster bed upstairs, and forbiddingly gloomy oil portraits of frowning Midwinters climbed the stairwell, but they weren’t winning the battle with polystyrene coving and peeling woodchip. I was asked when I could start, told to bring my own food. He skilfully avoided talk about payment. Mr. Midwinter (I still could not bring myself to call him Nigel) muttered something about focusing on the Stuarts and showed me out.
A man tapped a coin on the table and stood, thumbs in his belt, staring at me. ‘Sorry, daydreaming,’ I said. He frowned from behind half-moon specs. He had a spiral-bound notebook and stub pencil in his hand and dandruff on the shoulders of his navy car coat. ‘Can I help you?’
‘Shepherd,’ he said, ‘Benedict,’ and told me he was from the local historical society.
‘It’s a pound,’ I said, guessing he expected free entry.
He took out a pound note but was reluctant to let go of it. ‘And what, pray, do I get for my pound, young man?’ It was a good question. We let them in, but there wasn’t much provided in the way of story. I’d tried telling ‘Nigel’ he’d need to install plaques or provide a pamphlet guide, but he’d shrugged and asked what people expected for one pound. This isn’t Chatsworth House, Peter. I tore off a pink cloakroom ticket, hoping that Benedict Shepherd was offended by the colour. Pink, number one. ‘You’re privileged,’ I said.
‘Are you telling me I’m the only visitor?’ Lips peeled back from yellowed teeth as he failed to suppress a grin. ‘On your opening day?’
Mr. Midwinter appeared and clapped his hands. ‘You get the erm, the erm, VIP pass, I believe the term is, Mr.—.’ He shot me a glance, but he didn’t hand back the single pound note we’d collected. Mr. Midwinter followed, rather than led, Shepherd along the corridor, hands clasped, bent at the waist. When they were out of sight, I took my essay out of the carrier bag and tried to break the back of it. I had to keep cupping and blowing on my hands. Even the ink seemed to freeze up and stick, and the pages warped with damp. I zipped my jacket up to my throat and pinned down my book with my elbows, so I could read ‘The Mower to the Glow Worms’ with my fingers stuffed in my sweater for warmth. Blood was finally returning to fingertips when an ear-splitting scream came from the house. I stood up, toppling the deckchair, and saw Mr. Midwinter looking out from one of the leaded windows. He saw me as I waved but he didn’t open the window. I’d stuffed my books and essay into the carrier bag and was preparing to run for help when Mr. Midwinter appeared, agitated, pacing, and fiddling with the hem of his cardigan.
‘What happened? I heard screaming. Is someone hurt?’
Mr. Midwinter was tugging at his cardigan, picking where the cuffs had pilled. He seemed to have lost the ability to speak.
‘Is it Mr. Shepherd?’ Blinking furiously, but without saying a word, he made his way back along the corridor. I wasn’t asked to, but I took it he wanted me to follow so I did.
‘No phone,’ Mr. Midwinter said, shaking his head. I didn’t know whether he meant he didn’t have a telephone or didn’t want me to make a call. I gripped the banister, for fear I might take a tumble on the loose carpet or wobbly boards. He told me to wait on the half-landing. I could hear a low moan coming from one of the rooms, someone calling for help. What had he done? He took a key from his cardigan pocket and held it up. He pointed at the room at the top of the stairs. ‘I didn’t mean to hurt him.’ I took a half-step backwards. ‘He went in there, but I told him not to.’ The moan came from the room again.
‘What have you done?’
Mr. Midwinter scratched hard at his temples. He took the key and thrust it at me. I dropped it, clattering onto the stairs as he shot past me, vaulting the last half dozen steps, unlocking the front door, and sprinting across the gravel. My heart was pounding as I took the key and threaded it into the lock. The key stuck in the lock, and I feared it might snap, but with a little persuasion it gave, and I opened the door and went in, my heart pounding.
‘Well, you took your bloody time, didn’t you?’ Shepherd tried to look past me. ‘And where the hell is he?’ I stared at Mr. Shepherd, who seemed to have been planted into the floor. There was a hole in the boards where he’d gone through them, taking a filthy old rug with him.
‘I could do with some assistance.’ He held out a hand and I stepped forward and pulled as he grunted and took a deep breath. ‘Seeing stars.’ He gripped my shoulder until he was steady and got his puff back. ‘Where’s the lord of the manor gone?’ I got him a chair, and it creaked as he dropped onto it, ashen. ‘Oh, well, he’ll learn soon enough. I did try telling him. You see what that is?’ He pointed a finger at the broken floorboards. I didn’t want to say a hole in the floor with a scrappy rug sticking out of it, so I shrugged. ‘Did you do about priest’s holes at school?’ I nodded, but he wasn’t interested if I knew or not. ‘Lot of Catholic families round here. It wasn’t just priests they hid. Round these parts they hid a king too.’ Mr. Shepherd had blood on his trousers where a nail had jagged and torn his shin. His shoes and socks were caked in thick, grey dust like the contents of a vacuum bag. He winced a little as he leaned forward, and he picked something up in green velvet cloth. He unfolded the cloth and uncovered a small black bible. His hand was shaking as he held it out. ‘This is a priest hole, but some berk decided it should be covered up with plasterboard and this vile rug. You’d better find him.’
I leaned out of the window to see Mr. Midwinter pacing in the yard. ‘I’ve got work to do, of course, and I’ll need to speak to friends at the university, but I believe this is genuine. Charles the Second could have hidden right here. He certainly sheltered at houses nearby. We have the evidence. ’Course we’ll need to get this room stripped back first and, well—.’ He stared wide-eyed and sighed at the gaudy, scarlet-striped wallpaper and the polka-dot printed curtains. A wire clothes horse rested against cracked and damp-stained plaster. Broken figurines had found a home in a potty beside a leaning wardrobe. Old clothes, destined for a jumble sale, spilled from black plastic bags. I opened the window and leaned out. ‘Mr. Midwinter,’ I called. ‘We’ve found something.’ He looked up, still blinking, gnawing his lip. ‘Mr. Shepherd says play your cards right and you’re going to need a bigger ice cream tub.’ Mr. Shepherd scowled at me.
Richard Lakin is a former chemist, police officer and labourer now working in government.