Last week I posted a possible first chapter for the new book I’m working on. After giving it some thought, I decided it was perhaps it didn’t have the impact I wanted, so I’m starting off with this instead. Hope you enjoy this little bit of a work in progress.
I reach Ingatestone. Bracken Manor is signposted immediately, Drawing my own conclusions, I believe that Mr Paul Harrington must have amassed a small fortune from property development. It has been rumoured that Harrington had evicted tenants and shopkeepers from their properties to provide a way for his more lucrative enterprises.
The drive is longer than I have anticipated, and is circumscribed by an avenue of trees. Dark and bare, the trees appear entangled and ghostly in the baleful glimmer of the strategically placed solar lights. The portcullis style gates yield instinctively as I pull up before them in my new black chrome GT-R. The car seems to have become a veritable bone of contention between my sister and my wife. The considerable amount of money I have earned from my previous job was far more lucrative than landscape gardening. After almost suffering the loss of my left arm by getting shot, I consider the £76,000 I spent on the motor is well deserved. Unfortunately the money is depleting rapidly. Not that I’d enlighten my wife to that fact of course. I guess I may as well enjoy it before possibly returning the GT-R to the showroom when our new baby arrives.
The black gates swing wide. I roll the GT-R into the drive and kill a cigarette. I switch off the music on the powerful CD player. Can’t have The Doors’ L.A. Woman blasting into the night.
Alighting from the car, I pause to scan my surroundings with something akin to awe. The facade is fashioned in a mock Tudor style. A number of turrets rise into the indigo sky, where a three quarter moon ascends. From my somewhat limited knowledge of architecture, it isn’t difficult to assess the turrets are of a later addition. Wild russet coloured ivy serves to embellish the feeling of a past I would conjecture to be Victorian. Mullion windows appear as watchful sentinels, as if intimating a sense of protection for its inhabitants. Bracken Manor is indeed a beautiful house.
I park adjacently next to the three, equally sporty, motors, testifying to the fact that their owners appear decidedly wealthy.
There’s a modern bell on the front door that instructs ‘Please Ring for Attention’. So I do, innumerable times before anyone deigns to respond.
When the door is finally opened, a young man appears in the process of buttoning into a black shirt, before he tucks the latter into his jeans with impatient fingers. The youth wears long dark hair spilling to his collar, framing almost angelically sculpted features.
“What do you want?” he growls impatiently.
“I’ve come to see Mr Harrington.”
“Which Mr Harrington? I’m Alexander.”
“Paul. Is that your father?”
“Yes, but the old man isn’t here.” He glances beyond me toward the drive.
“He asked me to come at seven. I’m the landscape gardener. Aidan McRaney.”
Aristocratic brows uplift in surprise, while dark eyes embrace mine with a thinly-veiled suspicion. “You got credentials?”
“My old man won’t let anyone in without credentials. You could be casing the joint for all I know. You could belong to an home invasion gang. We’ve been robbed before.”
“I can assure you I’m not part of any home invasion gang or anything else.”
I have never been requested to show my credentials before. The boy is obviously wary. I can’t blame him I suppose. It also means that Paul Harrington has mentioned nothing of my visit. I produce my driving licence, holding it up to his face. He peers at the cellophane-wrapped ID almost myopically.
“That your motor in the drive?”
I tell him that it is, pride in my voice. He merely shrugs, rolls his eyes and mutters, “Last year’s model,” with disdain, as if I dared to clutter up his drive with some old rust-bucket.
“How come the gates let you in? Where’s Greggors?” The indignation remains in his voice, which serves to get my back up. I have no idea who Greggors might be. Perhaps he’s the gamekeeper. Wasn’t his name Greggors in Lady Chatterley’s Lover? Or was that Mellors?
“Pop must be expecting you then,” he muses. “Or else the gates wouldn’t have opened. Okay, Mr McRaney. I know a McRaney. He’s got some stupid Irish name. Ruari something or other.”
“Ruairi. Ruairi is my kid brother. So how do you know my brother?”
“He’s working on the set for our play. The Black Monk. I’m playing Lord Byron.”
“Lord Byron, hey?” I attempt to suppress any element of sarcasm my query is liable to produce.
“I can see the resemblance.” He tugs at his chin. “Same whiskers.” His words trail when a female shrills from somewhere inside the house. “You coming, Sandy?”
“Got to go.” He appears embarrassed. I had already guessed, stemming from the hurried clothes adjustment, that I might have been responsible for their coittus interruptus.
“Look, I don’t know anything about any landscaping. As far as I know we’ve already got two guys who do the grounds. But the Duchess might be able to help you.”
“That’s what I call her anyway. Not to her face of course.” He grins. “Although she probably knows it already. She’s round the back.” He gestures in that general direction. “The old man’s at the pub. ‘Less you want to go there. The Feathers at Ingatestone.”
“It’s okay. I’ll wait.”
“He shouldn’t be long.”
“Where the fuck are you, Sandy?” Shrieks emanate from inside once more, and the door is promptly closed in my face. I’m left to go in search of the Duchess. Maybe she’s Harrington’s mother. After all he appears wealthy enough to install her in one of those Granny flats and the place is certainly accommodating.
I make my way around the back, simultaneously ingesting the well tended grounds that are partially illumined in the glimmer of strategically placed solar lamps. From what I can deduce, these are the kind of gardens Capability Brown himself would have been proud of.
There is topiary everywhere, plus several carefully cultivated trees and shrubs. A vast swimming pool is covered by a tarpaulin. Although there’s been storm damage in other gardens recently, there is precious little evidence of it here. It’s s if Bracken Manor and its beautiful grounds have been protected from the elements.
The rear of the house is in no way as palatial as the facade. An old wooden door, framed by an archway, boasts a black wrought iron knocker, complete with an ugly gargoyle with its tongue poking out, in an expression I can but describe as salacious.
Maybe the Duchess is hard of hearing. There’s no response, although I rap loudly on the knocker. What little I know about Duchesses, they are invariably elderly, with ancient countenances and Dowagers Humps.
I can hear a dog barking from inside. I decide to enter regardless, and figure I might be able to quieten Fido down with a few placating words.
Gingerly easing the door aside, I can’t help but stiffen when it squeals protestingly. A small black and white King Charles spaniel bounds up to greet me. The dog continues its incessant tirade, but with its tail wagging.
The place seems to be some kind of scullery. The room is devoid of furniture, apart from a solitary wooden chair. Red tiles shine on the floor. The walls are whitewashed. A narrow window, set high into the wall, reflects the early evening moonlight.
“For God’s sake, Charlie, why are you making such a racket?” A woman appears, and calls the dog to heel. “Who are you? What do you want?” Her eyes widen with speculation. They are vividly green, interspersed with brownish flecks, and as piercing as sharpened stilettos. I detect a Southern Irish accent, one that is overly pronounced with astonishment, doubtless at my unprecedented appearance. She holds a pool cue suggestively against her leg as if it were a weapon.
“I’m looking for Paul Harrington. He asked me to price up…”
“Greggors!” Her voice, sharper than broken glass, slices through my attempt at an explanation.
She wears tight black jeans plunged into riding boots. A brown cord jacket accentuates a slender waist. Her hair, a rich chocolate brown, is plaited and coiled atop her head.
Greggors appears at her summons. He too carries a pool cue. The man presents a distinctly forbidding aspect. He is completely bald. His head is overlarge and shimmers in the light as if he were in the habit of polishing it. Humpty Dumpty springs to mind. The features are squashed, rounded. The eyes are fractionally squinty, practically immersed in the mountainous flesh. If all this fails to define his unprepossessing appearance, there’s a big, old elongated white scar stretching right across his forehead, reminiscent of Frankenstein’s monster. Beauty and the Beast has never seemed more apt.
“Who the fuck are you?” he adds the challenge. “And what are you doing here?”