The Little Stranger
An Excerpt From
The Little Stranger

ONE

I first saw Hundreds Hall when I was ten years old. It was the summer after the war, and the Ayreses still had most of their money then, were still big people in the district. The event was an Empire Day fête: I stood with a line of other village children making a Boy Scout salute while Mrs Ayres and the Colonel went past us, handing out commemorative medals; afterwards we sat to tea with our parents at long tables on what I suppose was the south lawn. Mrs Ayres would have been twenty-four or -five, her husband a few years older; their little girl, Susan, would have been about six. They must have made a very handsome family, but my memory of them is vague. I recall most vividly the house itself, which struck me as an absolute mansion. I remember its lovely ageing details: the worn red brick, the cockled window glass, the weathered sandstone edgings. They made it look blurred and slightly uncertain—like an ice, I thought, just beginning to melt in the sun.
There were no trips inside, of course. The doors and French windows stood open, but each had a rope or a ribbon tied across it; the lavatories set aside for our use were the grooms’ and the gardeners’, in the stable block. My mother, however, still had friends among the servants, and when the tea was finished and people were given the run of the grounds, she took me quietly into the house by a side door, and we spent a little time with the cook and the kitchen girls. The visit impressed me terribly. The kitchen was a basement one, reached by a cool vaulted corridor with something of the feel of a castle dungeon. An extraordinary number of people seemed to be coming and going along it with hampers and trays. The girls had such a mountain of crockery to wash, my mother rolled up her sleeves to help them; and to my very great delight, as a reward for her labour I was allowed to take my pick of the jellies and ‘shapes’ that had come back uneaten from the fête. I was put to sit at a deal-topped table, and given a spoon from the family’s own drawer—a heavy thing of dulled silver, its bowl almost bigger than my mouth.
But then came an even greater treat. High up on the wall of the vaulted passage was a junction-box of wires and bells, and when one of these bells was set ringing, calling the parlourmaid upstairs, she took me with her, so that I might peep past the green baize curtain that separated the front of the house from the back. I could stand and wait for her there, she said, if I was very good and quiet. I must only be sure to keep behind the curtain, for if the Colonel or the missus were to see me, there’d be a row.
I was an obedient child, as a rule. But the curtain opened onto the corner junction of two marble-floored passages, each one filled with marvellous things; and once she had disappeared softly in one direction, I took a few daring steps in the other. The thrill of it was astonishing. I don’t mean the simple thrill of trespass, I mean the thrill of the house itself, which came to me from every surface—from the polish on the floor, the patina on wooden chairs and cabinets, the bevel of a looking-glass, the scroll of a frame. I was drawn to one of the dustless white walls, which had a decorative plaster border, a representation of acorns and leaves. I had never seen anything like it, outside of a church, and after a second of looking it over I did what strikes me now as a dreadful thing: I worked my fingers around one of the acorns and tried to prise it from its setting; and when that failed to release it, I got out my penknife and dug away with that. I didn’t do it in a spirit of vandalism. I wasn’t a spiteful or destructive boy. It was simply that, in admiring the house, I wanted to possess a piece of it—or rather, as if the admiration itself, which I suspected a more ordinary child would not have felt, entitled me to it. I was like a man, I suppose, wanting a lock of hair from the head of a girl he had suddenly and blindingly become enamoured of.
I’m afraid the acorn gave at last, though less cleanly than I’d been expecting, with a tug of fibre and a fall of white powder and grit; I remember that as disappointing. Possibly I’d imagined it to be made of marble.
But nobody came, nobody caught me. It was, as they say, the work of a moment. I put the acorn in my pocket, and slipped back behind the curtain. The parlourmaid returned a minute later and took me back downstairs; my mother and I said goodbye to the kitchen staff, and rejoined my father in the garden. I felt the hard plaster lump in my pocket, now, with a sort of sick excitement. I’d begun to be anxious that Colonel Ayres, a frightening man, would discover the damage and stop the fête. But the afternoon ran on without incident until the bluish drawing-in of dusk. My parents and I joined other Lidcote people for the long walk home, the bats flitting and wheeling with us along the lanes as if whirled on invisible strings.
My mother found the acorn, of course, eventually. I had been drawing it in and out of my pocket, and it had left a chalky trail on the grey flannel of my shorts. When she understood what the queer little thing in her hand was, she almost wept. She didn’t smack me, or tell my father; she never had the heart for arguments. Instead she looked at me, with her tearful eyes, as if baffled and ashamed.
‘You ought to know better, a clever lad like you,’ I expect she said.
People were always saying things like that to me when I was young. My parents, my uncles, my schoolmasters—all the various adults who interested themselves in my career. The words used to drive me into secret rages, because on the one hand I wanted desperately to live up to my own reputation for cleverness, and on the other it seemed very unfair, that that cleverness, which I had never asked for, could be turned into something with which to cut me down.


The acorn was put on the fire. I found the blackened nub of it among the clinker, next day. That must have been the last grand year for Hundreds Hall, anyway. The following Empire Day fête was given by another family, in one of the neighbouring big houses; Hundreds had started its steady decline. Soon afterwards the Ayreses’ daughter died, and Mrs Ayres and the Colonel began to live less publicly. I dimly remember the births of their next two children, Caroline and Roderick—but by then I was at Leamington College, and busy with bitter little battles of my own. My mother died when I was fifteen. She had had miscarriage after miscarriage, it turned out, all through my childhood, and the last one killed her. My father lived just long enough to see me graduate from medical school and return to Lidcote a qualified man. Colonel Ayres died a few years later—an aneurism, I think.
With his death, Hundreds Hall withdrew even further from the world. The gates of the park were kept almost permanently closed. The solid brown stone boundary wall, though not especially high, was high enough to seem forbidding. And for all that the house was such a grand one, there was no spot, on any of the lanes in that part of Warwickshire, from which it could be glimpsed. I sometimes thought of it, tucked away in there, as I passed the wall on my rounds—picturing it always as it had seemed to me that day in 1919, with its handsome brick faces, and its cool marble passages, each one filled with marvellous things.


So when I did see the house again—almost thirty years on from that first visit, and shortly after the end of another war—the changes in it appalled me. It was the purest chance that took me out there, for the Ayreses were registered with my partner, David Graham; but he was busy with an emergency case that day, so when the family sent out for a doctor the request was passed on to me. My heart began to sink almost the moment I let myself into the park. I remembered a long approach to the house through neat rhododendron and laurel, but the park was now so overgrown and untended, my small car had to fight its way down the drive. When I broke free of the bushes at last and found myself on a sweep of lumpy gravel with the Hall directly ahead of me, I put on the brake, and gaped in dismay. The house was smaller than in memory, of course—not quite the mansion I’d been recalling—but I’d been expecting that. What horrified me were the signs of decay. Sections of the lovely weathered edgings seemed to have fallen completely away, so that the house’s uncertain Georgian outline was even more tentative than before. Ivy had spread, then patchily died, and hung like tangled rat’s-tail hair. The steps leading up to the broad front door were cracked, with weeds growing lushly up through the seams.
I parked my car, climbed out, and almost feared to slam the door. The place, for so large and solid a structure, felt precarious. No one appeared to have heard me arrive, so after a little hesitation I went crunching over the gravel and gingerly climbed the cracked stone steps. It was a hot, still summer’s day—so windless that when I tugged on the tarnished old brass and ivory bell-pull I caught the ring of it, pure and clear, but distant, as if in the belly of the house. The ring was immediately followed by the faint, gruff barking of a dog.
The barks were very soon cut off, and for another long minute there was silence. Then, from somewhere to my right, I heard the scrape of an irregular footstep, and a moment later the son of the family, Roderick, appeared around the corner of the house. He squinted over at me with some suspicion, until noticing the bag in my hand. Drawing a collapsed-looking cigarette from his mouth he called, ‘You’re the doctor, are you? We were expecting Dr Graham.’
His tone was friendly enough, but had a touch of languor to it; as if he were bored by the sight of me already. I left the steps and went over to him, introducing myself as Graham’s partner, explaining about Graham’s emergency case. He answered blandly, ‘Well, it’s good of you to come out. On a Sunday, too; and such a filthy hot one. Come this way, would you? It’s quicker than going right through the house. I’m Roderick Ayres, by the way.’
We had in fact met before, on more than one occasion. But he’d clearly forgotten that, and as we moved off he gave me his hand for a perfunctory shake. His fingers felt queer against mine, rough as crocodile in some spots, oddly smooth in others: his hands had been burnt, I knew, in a wartime accident, along with a good part of his face. The scars aside, he was handsome: taller than me, but, at twenty-four, still boyish and slender. He was dressed boyishly too, in an open-necked shirt, summer trousers, and stained canvas shoes. He walked unhurriedly, and with a noticeable limp.
He said as we went, ‘You know why we called you, I suppose?’
I said, ‘I was told, for one of your maids.’
‘One of our maids! I like that. There’s only the one: our girl, Betty. Some stomach problem, it seems to be.’ He looked dubious. ‘I don’t know. My mother, my sister, and I tend to manage without doctors as a rule. We muddle through with colds and headaches. But I gather that neglecting the servants is a capital offence these days; they’re to get better treatment than us, apparently. So we thought we ought to send for someone. Watch your step just here, look.’
He had taken me along a gravelled terrace that ran the length of the north side of the Hall; he indicated a spot where the terrace had subsided, making for treacherous dips and cracks. I picked my way around them, interested to have been given a chance to see this side of the house—but aghast, again, at how badly the place had been allowed to decline. The garden was a chaos of nettle and bindweed. There was a faint but definite whiff of blocked drains. The windows we passed were streaked and dusty; all were closed, and most were shuttered, except for a pair of glass doors that stood open at the top of a set of flying stone steps wound about with convolvulus. They gave me a view of a large untidy room, a desk with a mess of papers on it, an edge of brocade curtain . . . That was all I had time to see. We had reached a narrow service doorway, and Roderick was standing aside to let me pass.
‘Go on, would you?’ he said, gesturing with one of his scarred hands. ‘My sister’s downstairs. She’ll show you to Betty, and fill you in.’
Only later, recalling his injured leg, would I guess that he must not have wanted me to see him struggling with stairs. As it was, I thought his manner rather casual, and I went past him, saying nothing. At once, I heard him crunching quietly away in his rubber-soled shoes.
But I went quietly, myself. This narrow doorway, I had realised, was the one through which my mother had more or less smuggled me, all those years before. I remembered the bare stone stairway it led to, and, following the steps down, I found myself in the dim vaulted passage that had so impressed me then. But here was another disappointment. I had been picturing this passage as something like a crypt or a dungeon; in fact its walls were the glossy cream-and-green of police- and fire-stations, there was a strip of coconut-matting on the flagstone floor, and a mop sat sourly in a bucket. Nobody emerged to greet me, but to my right a half-open door offered a glimpse of the kitchen, so I went softly over and looked inside. Yet another damp squib: I found a large lifeless room with Victorian counters and mortuary surfaces, all brutally scoured and scrubbed. Only the old deal table—the very table, by the look of it, where I had eaten my jellies and ‘shapes’—recalled the excitement of that first visit. It was also the only thing in the room to bear any sign of activity, for there was a small pile of muddy vegetables put out on it, together with a bowl of water and a knife—the water discoloured, and the knife wet, as if someone had recently started the task and been called away.
I stepped back; and my shoe must have creaked, or scuffed against the coconut-matting. There came again the gruff excited barking of a dog—alarmingly close, this time—and a second later an elderly black Labrador burst from somewhere into the passage and began hurtling towards me. I stood still with my bag raised while it barked and pranced around me, and soon a young woman appeared behind it, saying mildly, ‘All right, you idiotic creature, that’s enough! Gyp! Enough!—I’m so sorry.’ She drew nearer, and I recognised Roderick’s sister, Caroline. ‘I can’t bear a leaping dog, and he knows it. Gyp!’ She reached forward to give him a swipe upon his haunches with the back of her hand; and at that he subsided.
‘Little imbecile,’ she said, tugging his ears with a look of indulgence. ‘It’s touching really. He thinks every stranger’s come to cut our throats and make off with the family silver. We haven’t the heart to tell him the silver’s all been popped. I thought we were getting Dr Graham. You’re Dr Faraday. We’ve never been properly introduced, have we?’
She smiled as she spoke, and offered me her hand. Her grip was firmer than her brother’s had been, and more sincere.
I’d only ever seen her at a distance before, at county events, or on the streets of Warwick and Leamington. She was older than Roderick, twenty-six or twenty-seven, and I’d regularly heard her referred to locally as ‘rather hearty’, a ‘natural spinster’, a ‘clever girl’—in other words she was noticeably plain, over-tall for a woman, with thickish legs and ankles. Her hair was a pale English brown and might, with proper treatment, have been handsome, but I had never seen it tidy, and just now it fell drily to her shoulders, as if she had washed it with kitchen soap and then forgotten to comb it. Added to that, she had the worst dress-sense of any woman I ever knew. She was wearing boyish flat sandals and a badly fitting pale summer dress, not at all flattering to her wide hips and large bosom. Her eyes were hazel, highly set; her face was long with an angular jaw, her profile flattish. Only her mouth, I thought, was good: surprisingly large, well-shaped, and mobile.
I explained again about Graham’s emergency case and the call having been passed on to me. She said, as her brother had, ‘Well, it’s good of you to have come all this way. Betty hasn’t been with us very long; less than a month. Her family live over on the other side of Southam, just too far for us to think of bothering them. The mother, anyway, is by all accounts a bit of a bad lot . . . She started complaining about her stomach last night, and when she seemed no better this morning, well, I thought we ought to make sure. Will you look at her right away? She’s just up here.’
She turned as she spoke, moving off on her muscular legs; and the dog and I followed. The room she took me into was right at the end of the corridor, and might once, I thought, have been a housekeeper’s parlour. It was smaller than the kitchen, but like the rest of the basement it had a stone floor and high, stunted windows, and the same drab institutional paint. There was a narrow grate, swept clean, a faded armchair and a table, and a metal-framed bed—the kind which, when not in use, can be folded and tucked out of sight in a cavity in the cupboard behind it. Lying beneath the covers of this bed, dressed in a petticoat or sleeveless nightdress, was a figure so small and slight I took it at first to be that of a child; looking closer, I saw it to be an undergrown teenage girl. She made an attempt to push herself up when she saw me in the doorway, but fell pathetically back against her pillow as I approached. I sat on the bed at her side and said, ‘Well, you’re Betty, are you? My name’s Dr Faraday. Miss Ayres tells me you’ve had a tummy ache. How are you feeling now?’
She said, in a bad country accent, ‘Please, Doctor, I’m awful poorly!’
‘Have you been sick at all?’
She shook her head.
‘Any diarrhoea? You know what that is?’
She nodded; then shook her head again.
I opened up my bag. ‘All right, let’s have a look at you.’
She parted her childish lips just far enough to let me slip the bulb of the thermometer under her tongue, and when I drew down the neck of her nightdress and set the chilly stethoscope to her chest, she flinched and groaned. Since she came from a local family, I had probably seen her before, if only to give her her school vaccination; but I had no memory of it now. She was an unmemorable sort of girl. Her colourless hair was bluntly cut, and fastened with a grip at the side of her forehead. Her face was broad, her eyes wide-spaced; the eyes themselves were grey and, like many light eyes, rather depthless. Her cheek was pale, only darkening slightly in a blush of self-consciousness when I put up her nightdress to examine her stomach, exposing her dingy flannel knickers.
As soon as I placed my fingers lightly on the flesh above her navel, she gave a gasp, crying out—almost screaming. I said soothingly, ‘All right. Now, where does it hurt most? Here?’
She said, ‘Oh! All over!’
‘Does the pain come sharply, like a cut? Or is it more like an ache, or a burn?’
‘It’s like an ache,’ she cried, ‘with cuts all in it! But it’s burning, too! Oh!’ She screamed again, opening her mouth wide at last, revealing a healthy tongue and throat and a row of little crooked teeth.
‘All right,’ I said again, pulling her nightie back down. And after a moment’s thought I turned to Caroline—who had been standing in the open doorway with the Labrador beside her, looking anxiously on—and said, ‘Could you leave me alone with Betty for a minute, please, Miss Ayres?’
She frowned at the seriousness of my tone. ‘Yes, of course.’
She made a gesture to the dog, and took him out into the passage. When the door was closed behind her I put away my stethoscope and thermometer, and closed my bag with a snap. I looked at the pale-faced girl and said quietly, ‘Now then, Betty. This puts me in a ticklish position. For there’s Miss Ayres out there, who’s gone to an awful lot of trouble to try and make you better; and here am I, knowing for a fact that there’s nothing at all I can do for you.’
She stared at me. I said more plainly, ‘Do you think I don’t have more important things to do on my day off than come chasing five miles out of Lidcote to look after naughty little girls? I’ve a good mind to send you to Leamington to have your appendix out. There’s nothing wrong with you.’
Her face turned scarlet. She said, ‘Oh, Doctor, there is!’
‘You’re a good actress, I’ll give you that. All that screaming and thrashing about. But if I want play-acting, I’ll go to the theatre. Who do you think’s going to pay me now, hey? I don’t come cheap, you know.’
The mention of money frightened her. She said with genuine anxiety, ‘I am poorly! I am! I did feel sick last night. I felt sick horrible. And I thought—’
‘What? That you’d like a nice day in bed?’
‘No! You in’t being fair! I did feel poorly. And I just thought—’ And here her voice began to thicken, and her grey eyes filled with tears. ‘I just thought,’ she repeated, unsteadily, ‘that if I was as poorly as that, then—then perhaps I ought to go home for a bit. Till I got better.’
She turned her face from me, blinking. The tears rose in her eyes, then ran in two straight lines down her little girl’s cheeks. I said, ‘Is that what this is all about? You want to go home? Is that it?’—and she put her hands across her face and cried properly.
A doctor sees lots of tears; some more affecting than others. I really did have a heap of chores at home, and was not at all amused to have been dragged away from them for nothing. But she looked so young and pathetic, I let her have the cry out. Then I touched her shoulder and said firmly, ‘Come on now, that’s enough. Tell me what the trouble is. Don’t you like it here?’
She produced a limp blue handkerchief from under her pillow, and blew her nose.
‘No,’ she said, ‘I don’t.’
‘Why not? Is the work too hard?’
She gave a hopeless shrug. ‘The work’s all right.’
‘You don’t do it all by yourself though, surely?’
She shook her head. ‘There’s Mrs Bazeley comes in, every day till three; every day bar Sunday. She does the washing and the cooking, and I does everything else. A man has a go at the gardens, sometimes. Miss Caroline does a bit . . .’
‘That doesn’t sound too bad.’
She didn’t answer. So I pressed on. Did she miss her parents?—She pulled a face at that idea. Did she miss a boyfriend?—She pulled a worse face at that.
I picked up my bag. ‘Well, I can’t help you if you won’t say.’
And seeing me start to rise, she said at last, ‘It’s just, this house!’
‘This house? Well, what about it?’
‘Oh, Doctor, it in’t like a proper house at all! It’s too big! You have to walk a mile to get anywhere; and it’s so quiet, it gives you the creeps. It’s all right in the daytimes, when I’m working, and Mrs Bazeley’s here. But at night, I’m all on me own. There in’t a sound! I have horrible dreams . . . And it wouldn’t be so bad, but they make me go up and down that set of old back stairs. There’s so many corners, and you don’t know what’s round ’em. I think I shall die of fright sometimes!’
I said, ‘Die of fright? In this lovely house? You’re lucky to have the chance to live here. Think of it like that.’
‘Lucky!’ she said in disbelief. ‘All me friends say I’m mad to have gone into service. They laugh at me, at home! I never get to see no one. I never get to go out. Me cousins’ve all got factory jobs. And I could’ve had one, too—only, me dad won’t let me! He don’t like it. He says the factories make the girls too wild. He says I must stop here for a year first, and learn housework and nice ways. A year! I shall be dead of horror, I know I shall. Either that, or dead of shame. You ought to see the awful old dress and cap they makes me wear! Oh, Doctor, it in’t fair!’
She had made a sodden ball of her handkerchief, and, as she spoke, threw it to the floor.
I leaned and picked it back up. ‘Dear me, what a tantrum . . . A year will pass quickly, you know. When you’re older, it’ll seem like nothing.’
‘Well, I in’t old now, am I!’
‘How old are you?’
‘I’m fourteen. I might as well be ninety, stuck here!’
I laughed. ‘Don’t be silly, come on. Now, what are we going to do about this? I ought to earn my fee somehow, I suppose. Do you want me to say something to the Ayreses? I’m sure they don’t want you to be unhappy.’
‘Oh, they just want me to do me work.’
‘Well, how about if I were to have a word with your parents?’
‘That’s a laugh! Me mam spends half her time out with other fellers; she don’t care where I am. Me dad’s useless. All he does is shout his head off. It’s just shouting and rowing all day long. Then he turns round and takes me mam back, every time! He’s only put me into service so I won’t turn out like her.’
‘Well, why on earth do you want to go home? You sound better off here.’
‘I don’t want to go home,’ she said. ‘I just—Oh, I’m just fed up!’
Her face had darkened, in pure frustration. She looked less like a child now, and more like some faintly dangerous young animal. But she saw me watching her, and the trace of temper began to fade. She grew sorry for herself again—sighing unhappily, and closing her swollen eyes. We sat for a moment without speaking, and I glanced around me at that drab, almost underground room. The silence was so pure, it felt pressurised: she was right, at least, about that. The air was cool, but curiously weighted; one was aware somehow of the great house above—aware, even, of the creeping chaos of nettle and weed that lay just beyond it.
I thought of my mother. She was probably younger than Betty when she first went out to Hundreds Hall.
I got to my feet. ‘Well, my dear, I’m afraid we all have to put up with things we don’t much care for, from time to time. That’s called life; and there’s no cure for it. But how about this? You stay in bed for the rest of the day, and we’ll think of it as a holiday. I won’t tell Miss Ayres that you’ve been shamming; and I’ll send you out some stomach mixture—you can look at the bottle and remember how close you came to losing your appendix. But I will ask Miss Ayres if there isn’t a way they can make things a bit more cheerful for you here. And meanwhile, you can give the place another chance. What do you say?’
She gazed at me for a second with her depthless grey eyes; then nodded. She said, in a pathetic whisper, ‘Thank you, Doctor.’
I left her turning over in the bed, exposing the white nape of her neck and the small sharp blades of her narrow shoulders.
The passage was empty when I stepped into it, but, as before, at the sound of the closing door the dog started barking; there was a flurry of paws and claws and he came bowling out of the kitchen. But he came less frantically this time, and his excitement soon subsided, until he was happy to let me pat him and pull his ears. Caroline appeared in the kitchen doorway, wiping her hands on a tea-cloth—working the cloth between her fingers in a brisk, housewifely way. On the wall beyond her, I noticed, there was still that box of call-bells and wires: the imperious little machine designed to summon a staff of servants to the grander realm above.
‘Everything all right?’ she asked, as the dog and I moved towards her.
I said without hesitation, ‘Some slight gastric trouble, that’s all. Nothing serious, but you were quite right to call me in. One can’t be too careful with stomach problems, especially in this weather. I’ll send you over a prescription, and you might as well go easy on her for a day or two . . . But there’s one other thing.’ I had reached her side now, and lowered my voice. ‘I get the idea she’s pretty homesick. That hasn’t struck you?’
She frowned. ‘She’s seemed all right so far. She’ll need time to settle in, I suppose.’
‘And she sleeps down here at night, I gather, all on her own? That must be lonely for her. She mentioned a set of back stairs, said she finds them creepy—’
Her look cleared, grew almost amused. ‘Oh, that’s the trouble, is it? I thought she was above nonsense like that. She seemed a sensible enough thing when she first came out here. But you can never tell with country girls: they’re either hard as nails, wringing chickens’ necks and so on; or going off into fits, like Guster. I expect she’s seen too many unpleasant films. Hundreds is quiet, but there’s nothing queer about it.’
I said, after a second, ‘You’ve lived here all your life, of course. You couldn’t find some way to reassure her?’
She folded her arms. ‘Start reading her bedtime stories, perhaps?’
‘She’s awfully young, Miss Ayres.’
‘Well, we don’t treat her badly, if that’s what you’re thinking! We pay her more than we can afford. She eats the same food as us. Really, in lots of ways she’s better off than we are.’
‘Yes,’ I answered, ‘your brother said something like that.’
I spoke coldly, and she coloured, not very becomingly, the blush rising into her throat and struggling patchily across her dry-looking cheeks. She turned her gaze from mine, as if in an effort to hold on to her patience. When she spoke again, however, her voice had softened a little.
She said, ‘We’d do a great deal to keep Betty happy, if you want to know the truth. The fact is, we can’t afford to lose her. Our daily woman does what she can, but this house needs more than one servant, and we’ve found it almost impossible to get girls in the past few years; we’re just too far from the bus-routes and things like that. Our last maid stayed three days. That was back in January. Until Betty arrived, I was doing most of the work myself . . . But I’m glad she’s all right. Truly.’
The blush was fading from her cheek, but her features had sunk slightly and she looked tired. I glanced over her shoulder, to the kitchen table, and saw the heap of vegetables, now washed and peeled. Then I looked at her hands, and noticed for the first time how spoiled they were, the short nails split and the knuckles reddened. That struck me as something of a shame; for they were rather nice hands, I thought.
She must have seen the direction of my gaze. She moved as if self-conscious, turning away from me, making a ball of the tea-cloth and tossing it neatly into the kitchen so that it landed on the table beside the muddy tray. ‘Let me take you back upstairs,’ she said, with an air of bringing my visit to a close. And we mounted the stone steps in silence—the dog going with us, getting under our feet, sighing and grunting as he climbed.
But at the turn of the stairs, where the service door led back on to the terrace, we met Roderick, just coming in.
‘Mother’s looking for you, Caroline,’ he said. ‘She’s wondering about tea.’ He nodded to me. ‘Hullo, Faraday. Did you reach a diagnosis?’
That ‘Faraday’ grated on me somewhat, given that he was twenty-four and I was nearly forty; but before I could answer, Caroline had moved towards him and looped her arm through his.
‘Dr Faraday thinks we’re brutes!’ she said, with a little flutter of her eyelids. ‘He thinks we’ve been forcing Betty up the chimneys, things like that.’
He smiled faintly. ‘It’s an idea, isn’t it?’
I said, ‘Betty’s fine. A touch of gastritis.’
‘Nothing infectious?’
‘Certainly not.’
‘But we’re to take her breakfast in bed,’ Caroline went on, ‘and generally spoil her, for days and days. Isn’t it lucky I know my way about the kitchen? Speaking of which—’ She looked at me properly now. ‘Don’t run away from us, Doctor. Not unless you have to. Stay and have some tea with us, will you?’
‘Yes, do stay,’ said Roderick.
His tone was as limp as ever; but hers seemed genuine enough. I think she wanted to make up for our disagreement over Betty. And partly because I wanted to make up for it too—but mainly, I must admit, because I realised that in staying to tea I’d be able to see more of the house—I said I would. They moved aside for me to go on ahead of them. I went up the last few steps and emerged in a small, bland hallway, and saw the same baize-curtained arch to which I’d been led by the kindly parlourmaid in 1919. Roderick came slowly up the stairs, his sister with her arm still looped through his, but at the top she moved away from him and casually drew the curtain back.
The passages beyond were dim, and seemed unnaturally bare, but apart from that it was just as I remembered, the house opening up like a fan—the ceiling lifting, the flagged floor becoming marble, the bare gloss service walls giving way to silk and stucco. I immediately looked for the decorative border from which I’d prised that acorn; then my eyes grew used to the gloom and I saw with dismay that a horde of schoolboy vandals might have been at work on the plaster since my first attack on it, for chunks of it had fallen away, and what was left was cracked and discoloured. The rest of the wall was not much better. There were several fine pictures and mirrors, but also darker squares and oblongs where pictures had obviously once hung. One panel of watered silk was ripped, and someone had patched and darned it like a sock.
I turned to Caroline and Roderick, expecting embarrassment or even some sort of apology; but they led me past the damage as if quite unbothered by it. We had taken the right-hand passage, a completely interior stretch, lit only by the light of the rooms opening off it on one side; and since most of the doors we passed were shut, even on that bright day there were quite deep pools of shadow. The black Labrador, padding through them, appeared to be winking in and out of life. The passage made another ninety-degree turn—to the left, this time—and here at last a door stood properly ajar, letting out a blurred wedge of sunlight. It led to the room, Caroline told me, in which the family spent most of their time, and which had been known for years and years as ‘the little parlour’.
Of course ‘little’, as I’d already realised, was a relative term at Hundreds Hall. The room was about thirty feet deep and twenty wide, and it was decorated in a rather hectic manner, with more moulded detail on its ceiling and walls, and an imposing marble fireplace. As in the passage, however, much of the detail was chipped or cracked, or had been lost completely. The floorboards, humped and creaking, were covered with overlapping threadbare rugs. A sagging sofa was half hidden by tartan blankets. Two worn velvet wing-backed chairs stood close to the hearth, and sitting on the floor beside one of them was a florid Victorian chamber-pot, filled with water for the dog.
And yet, somehow, the essential loveliness of the room stood out, like the handsome bones behind a ravaged face. The scents were all of summer flowers: sweet-pea, mignonette, and stock. The light was soft and mildly tinted, and seemed held, really embraced and held, by the pale walls and ceiling.
A French window stood open on another set of flying stone steps, leading down to the terrace and the lawn on this, the south, side of the house. Standing at the top of these steps as we went in, just kicking off some outdoor sandals and working her stockinged feet into shoes, was Mrs Ayres. She had a wide-brimmed hat on her head, with a light silk scarf draped over the top, tied loosely under her chin; and when her children caught sight of her, they laughed.
‘You look like something from the early days of motoring, Mother,’ said Roderick.
‘Yes,’ said Caroline, ‘or a bee-keeper! I wish you were one; wouldn’t the honey be nice? Here’s Dr Faraday, look—Dr Graham’s partner, from Lidcote. He’s all finished with Betty already and I said we’d give him tea.’
Mrs Ayres came forward, taking off her hat, letting the scarf fall loosely over her shoulders, and holding out her hand.
‘Dr Faraday, how do you do? Such a very great pleasure to meet you properly at last. I’ve been gardening—or anyway, what passes for gardening, in our wilderness—so I hope you’ll excuse my Sundayish appearance. And isn’t that strange?’ She raised the back of her hand to her forehead, to move aside a strand of hair. ‘When I was a child Sundays meant being dressed in one’s finest. One had to sit on a sofa in white lace gloves, and hardly dared to breathe. Now Sunday means working like a dustman—and dressing like one, too.’
She smiled, her high cheeks rising higher in her heart-shaped face, giving her handsome dark eyes a mischievous tilt. A figure less like a dustman’s, I thought, it would have been hard to imagine, for she looked perfectly well groomed, in a worn linen dress, with her long hair pinned up loosely, showing the elegant line of her neck. She was a good few years over fifty, but her figure was still good, and her hair was still almost as dark as it must have been the day she handed me my Empire Day medal, when she was younger than her daughter was now. Something about her—perhaps the scarf, or the fit of her dress, or the movement of her slender hips inside it—something, anyway, seemed to lend her a Frenchified air, slightly at odds with her children’s light brown English looks. She gestured me to one of the chairs beside the hearth, and took the other across from it; and as she sat, I noticed the shoes she had just slipped on. They were dark patent leather with a cream stripe, too well-made to be anything other than pre-war, and, like other well-made women’s shoes, to a man’s eye absurdly over-engineered—like clever little nonsense gadgets—and faintly distracting.
On a table beside her chair was a small heap of bulky old-fashioned rings, which she now began to work on to her fingers, one by one. With the movement of her arms the silk scarf slid from her shoulders to the floor, and Roderick, who was still on his feet, leaned forward with an awkward motion to pick it up and set it back around her neck.
‘My mother’s like a paper-chase,’ he said to me as he did it. ‘She leaves a trail of things behind her wherever she goes.’
Mrs Ayres settled the scarf more securely, her eyes tilting again. ‘You see how my children abuse me, Dr Faraday? I fear I shall end my days as one of those neglected old women left starving to death in their beds.’
‘Oh, I dare say we’ll chuck you a bone now and then, you poor old thing,’ yawned Roderick, going over to the sofa. He lowered himself down, and this time the awkwardness of his movements was unmistakable. I paid more attention, saw a puckering and whitening appear at his cheek—and realised at last how much his injured leg still troubled him, and how carefully he’d been trying to disguise it.
Caroline had gone to fetch our tea, taking the dog off with her. Mrs Ayres asked after Betty, seeming very relieved to discover that the problem was not a serious one.
‘Such a bore for you,’ she said, ‘having to come out all this way. You must have far graver cases to deal with.’
I said, ‘I’m a family doctor. It’s mostly rashes and cut fingers, I’m afraid.’
‘Now I’m sure you’re being modest . . . Though why one should judge the worth of a doctor by the severity of the cases on his books, I can’t imagine. If anything, it ought to be the other way around.’
I smiled. ‘Well, every doctor likes a challenge now and then. During the war I spent a good deal of time on the wards of a military hospital, up at Rugby. I rather miss it.’ I glanced at her son, who had produced a tin of tobacco and a packet of papers and was rolling himself a cigarette. ‘I did a little muscle therapy, as it happens. Electrical work and so on.’
He gave a grunt. ‘They wanted to sign me up for some of that, after my smash. I couldn’t spare the time away from the estate.’
‘A pity.’
Mrs Ayres said, ‘Roderick was with the Air Force, Doctor, as I expect you know.’
‘Yes. What kind of action did you see? Pretty stiff, I gather?’
He tilted his head and stuck out his jaw, to draw attention to his scars.
‘You’d think so, wouldn’t you, from the look of these? But I spent most of my flying time on reconnaissance work, so I can’t claim too much glory. A bit of bad luck over the south coast brought me down in the end. The other chap got the worst of it, though; him and my navigator, poor devil. I ended up with these lovely beauty spots and a bashed-up knee.’
‘I’m sorry.’
‘Oh, I expect you saw a lot worse at that hospital of yours.—But look here, forgive my manners. Can I offer you a cig? I smoke so many of these damn things I forget I’m doing it.’
I looked at the cigarette he had rolled—which was pretty wretched, the sort of cigarette we had used, as medical students, to call a ‘coffin nail’—and decided I wouldn’t take his tobacco. And though I had some decent cigarettes of my own in my pocket, I didn’t want to embarrass him by bringing them out. So I shook my head. I had the feeling, anyway, that he had only offered me one as a way of changing the subject.
Perhaps his mother thought that, too. She was gazing at her son with a troubled expression, but turned from him to me to smile and say, ‘The war feels far away now, doesn’t it? How did that happen, in only two years? We had an army unit billeted with us for part of it, you know. They left odd things about the park, barbed wire, sheets of iron: they’re already rusting away, like something from another age. Goodness knows how long this peace will last, of course. I’ve stopped listening to the news; it’s too alarming. The world seems to be run by scientists and generals, all playing with bombs like so many schoolboys.’
Roderick struck a match. ‘Oh, we’ll be all right, here at Hundreds,’ he said, his mouth tight around his cigarette and the paper flaring, alarmingly close to his scarred lips. ‘It’s the original quiet life, out here at Hundreds.’
As he spoke, there came the sound of Gyp’s claws on the marble floor of the passage, like the clicking beads of an abacus, and the slap of Caroline’s flat-soled sandals. The dog nosed open the door—something he clearly did often, for the door-frame was darkened from the rub of his coat, and the fine old door itself was quite wrecked, in its lower panels, where he or dogs before him had repeatedly scratched at the wood.
Caroline entered with a heavy-looking tea-tray. Roderick gripped the arm of the sofa and began to push himself up, to help her; but I beat him to it.
‘Here, let me.’
She looked gratefully at me—not so much on her own account, I thought, as on her brother’s—but she said, ‘It’s no trouble. I’m used to it, remember.’
‘Let me clear a spot for you, at least.’
‘No, you must let me do it myself! That way, you see, when I’m obliged to earn my living in a Corner House, I shall know how.—Gyp, get out from under my heels, will you?’
So I moved back, and she set the tray down among the books and papers on a cluttered table, then poured the tea and passed round the cups. The cups were of handsome old bone china, one or two of them with riveted handles; I saw her keep those back for the family. And she followed the tea with plates of cake: a fruit cake, sliced so thinly I guessed she had made the best of a rather meagre store.
‘Oh for a scone, and jam, and cream!’ said Mrs Ayres, as the plates were handed out. ‘Or even a really good biscuit. I say that with you in mind, Dr Faraday, not us. We’ve never been a sweet-toothed family; and naturally’—she looked mischievous again—‘as dairy farmers, one would hardly expect us to have butter. But the worst of rationing is, it has quite killed hospitality. I do think that a pity.’
She sighed, breaking her cake into pieces and dipping them daintily into her milkless tea. Caroline, I noticed, had folded her slice in half and eaten it down in two bites. Roderick had set his plate aside in order to concentrate on his cigarette and now, after idly picking out the peel and the sultanas, he threw the rest of his cake to Gyp.
‘Roddie!’ said Caroline, reproachfully. I thought she was protesting at the waste of food; it turned out she didn’t like the example her brother was setting to the dog. She caught the animal’s eye. ‘You villain! You know that begging isn’t allowed! Look at the sidelong glances he’s giving me, Dr Faraday. The old sly boots.’ She drew her foot from her sandal, extended a leg—her legs, I saw now, were bare, and tanned, and quite unshaven—and prodded his haunches with her toes.
‘Poor old thing,’ I said politely, at the dog’s forlorn expression.
‘Don’t be taken in. He’s a dreadful ham—aren’t you, hey? You Shylock!’
She gave him another nudge with her foot, then turned the nudge into a rough caress. The dog at first rather struggled to keep his balance under the pressure of it; then, with the defeated, slightly bewildered air of a helpless old man, he lay down at her feet, lifting his limbs and showing the grey fur of his chest and his balding belly. Caroline worked her foot harder.
I saw Mrs Ayres glance over at her daughter’s downy leg.
‘Really, darling, I do wish you would put some stockings on. Dr Faraday will suppose us savages.’
Caroline laughed. ‘It’s far too warm for stockings. And I should be very surprised indeed if Dr Faraday had never seen a bare leg before!’
But she did, after a moment, draw her leg back and make an effort to sit more demurely. The dog, disappointed, lay with his limbs still raised and crooked. Then he rolled on to his front and began to gnaw wetly at one of his paws.
The smoke of Roderick’s cigarette hung bluely in the hot, still air. A bird in the garden gave some distinctive throbbing call, and we turned our heads to listen to it. I looked around the room again, at all the lovely faded detail; then, twisting further in my seat, with a shock of surprise and pleasure I got my first proper view through the open window. An overgrown lawn ran away from the house for what looked like thirty or forty yards. It was bordered by flower-beds, and ended at a wrought-iron fence. But the fence gave on to a meadow, which in turn gave onto the fields of the park; the fields stretched off into the distance for a good three-quarters of a mile. The Hundreds boundary wall was just about visible at the end of them, but since the land beyond the wall was pasture, giving way to tilth and cornfield, the prospect ran on, uninterrupted, finishing only where its paling colours bled away completely into the haze of the sky.
‘You like our view, Dr Faraday?’ Mrs Ayres asked me.
‘I do,’ I said, turning back to her. ‘When was this house built? 1720? 1730?’
‘How clever you are. It was finished in 1733.’
‘Yes.’ I nodded. ‘I think I can see what the architect must have had in mind: the shady corridors, with the rooms opening from them, large and light.’
Mrs Ayres smiled; but it was Caroline who looked over at me as if pleased.
‘I’ve always liked that, too,’ she said. ‘Other people seem to think our gloomy passages a bit of a bore . . . But you should see the place in winter! We’d happily brick up all the windows then. For two months last year we more or less lived in this one room. Roddie and I brought in our mattresses and slept here like squatters. The pipes froze, the generator broke; outside there were icicles three feet long. We never dared leave the house, for fear of being harpooned . . . You live above your surgery, don’t you? In old Dr Gill’s place?’
I said, ‘I do. I moved in there as a junior partner, and have never moved out. It’s a plain enough place. But my patients know it; and it suits a bachelor, I suppose.’
Roderick tapped ash from his cigarette.
‘Dr Gill was a bit of a character, wasn’t he? I went into his surgery once or twice when I was a boy. He had a great glass bowl he said he used to keep leeches in. It frightened the pants off me.’
‘Oh, everything frightened you,’ said his sister, before I could respond. ‘You were so easy to scare. Do you remember that giantess of a girl who used to work in the kitchen when we were young? Do you remember her, Mother? What was her name? Was it Mary? She was six foot two-and-a-half; and she had a sister who was six foot three. Daddy once made her try on one of his boots. He’d made a bet with Mr McLeod that the boot would be too small. He was right, too. But her hands were the thing. She could wring clothes better than a mangle. And her fingers were always cold—always freezing, like sausages straight from the meat-safe. I used to tell Roddie that she crept into his room while he was sleeping and put her hands under his blankets, to warm them up; and it used to make him cry.’
‘Little beast,’ said Roderick.
‘What was her name?’
‘I believe it was Miriam,’ said Mrs Ayres, after a moment’s consideration. ‘Miriam Arnold; and the sister you’re thinking of was Margery. But there was another girl, too, less huge: she married a Tapley boy, and the two of them went off to be chauffeur and cook at some house out of the county. Miriam went from us to Mrs Randall, I think. But Mrs Randall didn’t take to her, and only kept her for a month or two. I don’t know what became of her then.’
‘Perhaps she took up garrotting,’ said Roderick.
‘Perhaps she joined a circus,’ said Caroline. ‘We really did have a girl once, didn’t we, who ran away to join the circus?’
‘She certainly married a circus man,’ said Mrs Ayres. ‘And she broke her mother’s heart by doing it. She broke her cousin’s heart too, because the cousin—Lavender Hewitt—was also in love with the circus man, and when the other girl went off with him, she gave up eating and would have died. And she was saved, as her mother used to say, by rabbits. For she could resist any dish except her mother’s stewed rabbit. And for a time we let her father take a ferret over the park, to get all the rabbits he pleased; and it was the rabbits that saved her . . .’
The story ran on, Caroline and Roderick prompting more of it; they spoke to each other rather than to me, and, shut out of the game, I looked from mother to daughter to son and finally caught the likenesses between them, not just the similarities of feature—the long limbs, the high-set eyes—but the almost clannish little tricks of gesture and speech. And I felt a flicker of impatience with them—the faintest stirring of a dark dislike—and my pleasure in the lovely room was slightly spoiled. Perhaps it was the peasant blood in me, rising. But Hundreds Hall had been made and maintained, I thought, by the very people they were laughing at now. After two hundred years, those people had begun to withdraw their labour, their belief in the house; and the house was collapsing, like a pyramid of cards. Meanwhile, here the family sat, still playing gaily at gentry life, with the chipped stucco on their walls, and their Turkey carpets worn to the weave, and their riveted china . . .
Mrs Ayres had recalled another servant. ‘Oh, she was a moron,’ Roderick said.
‘She wasn’t a moron,’ said Caroline, fairly. ‘But it’s true she was awfully dim. I remember she once asked me what sealing-wax was, and I told her it was a very special sort of wax for putting on ceilings. I made her stand on a pair of ladders and try some out on the ceiling of Daddy’s study. And it made a horrible mess, and the poor girl got into dreadful trouble.’
She shook her head, embarrassed, but laughing again. Then she caught my eye; and my expression must have been chilly. She tried to stifle her smiles.
‘I’m sorry, Dr Faraday. I can see you don’t approve. Quite right, too. Rod and I were frightful children; but we’re much nicer now. You’re thinking of poor little Betty, I expect.’
I took a sip of my tea. ‘Not at all. As it happens, I was thinking of my mother.’
‘Your mother?’ she repeated, a trace of laughter still in her voice.
And in the silence that followed, Mrs Ayres said, ‘Of course. Your mother was nursery maid here once, wasn’t she? I remember hearing that. When was she here? Slightly before my time, I think.’
She spoke so smoothly and so nicely, I was almost ashamed; for my own tone had been pointed. I said, less emphatically, ‘My mother was here until about nineteen seven. She met my father here; a grocer’s boy. A back-door romance, I suppose you’d call it.’
Caroline said uncertainly, ‘What fun.’
‘Yes, isn’t it?’
Roderick tapped more ash from his cigarette, saying nothing. Mrs Ayres, however, had begun to look thoughtful.
‘Do you know,’ she said, getting to her feet, ‘I do believe—Now, am I right?’
She went across to a table, on which a number of framed family pictures were set out. She drew one from the arrangement, held it at arm’s length, peered at it, then shook her head.
‘Without my spectacles,’ she said, bringing it to me, ‘I can’t be sure. But I think, Dr Faraday, that your mother might be here.’
The picture was a small Edwardian photograph in a tortoiseshell frame. It showed, in crisp sepia detail, what I realised after a moment must be the south face of the Hall, for I could see the long French window of the room we were sitting in, thrown open to the afternoon sunlight just as it was today. Gathered on the lawn before the house was the family of the time, surrounded by a sizeable staff of servants—housekeeper, butler, footman, kitchen-girls, gardeners—they made an informal, almost reluctant group, as if the idea of the picture had occurred belatedly to the photographer, and someone had gone rounding them all up, drawing them away from other tasks. The family itself looked most at ease, the mistress of the house—old Mrs Beatrice Ayres, Caroline and Roderick’s grandmother—seated in a deck chair, her husband standing at her side, one hand on her shoulder, the other tucked loosely into the pocket of his creased white trousers. Lounging with a touch of gaucheness at their feet was the slender fifteen-year-old youth who had grown up and become the Colonel; he looked very like Roderick did now. Seated beside him on a tartan tug were his younger sisters and brothers.
I looked more closely at this group. Most of them were older children, but the smallest, still an infant, was held in the arms of a fair-haired nursemaid. The child had been in the process of wriggling free when the camera shutter had snapped, so that the nursemaid had tilted back her head in fear of flailing elbows. Her gaze, as a consequence, was drawn from the camera, and her features were blurred.
Caroline had left her place on the sofa to come and examine the photograph with me. Standing at my side, bending forward, looping up a lock of dry brown hair, she said quietly, ‘Is that your mother, Dr Faraday?’
I said, ‘I think it might be. Then again—’ Just behind the awkward-looking girl, I noticed now, was another servant, also fair-haired, and in an identical gown and cap. I laughed, embarrassed. ‘It might be this one. I’m not sure.’
‘Is your mother still alive? Could you show her the picture, perhaps?’
I shook my head. ‘My parents are both dead. My mother died while I was still at school. My father had a heart attack a few years later.’
‘Oh, I’m sorry.’
‘Well, it seems long ago . . .’
‘I hope your mother was happy here,’ Mrs Ayres said to me, as Caroline returned to the sofa. ‘Was she, do you think? Did she ever talk about the house?’
I didn’t answer for a second, recalling some of my mother’s stories about her time at the Hall—how, for instance, she had had to stand each morning with her hands held out while the housekeeper examined her fingernails; how Mrs Beatrice Ayres would every so often come unannounced to the maids’ bedrooms and turn out their boxes, going through their possessions piece by piece . . . I said finally, ‘I think my mother made some good friends here, among the other girls.’
Mrs Ayres looked pleased; perhaps relieved. ‘I’m glad to hear it. It was a different world for servants then, of course. They had their own entertainments, their own scandals and fun. Their own dinner, on Christmas Day . . .’
This prompted more reminiscences. I kept my eyes on the picture— slightly thrown, if I’m honest, by the force of my own feelings, for though I’d spoken lightly, I’d found myself more moved by the unexpected appearance of my mother’s face—if it was her face—than I would have guessed. At last I put the picture down on the table at the side of my chair. We spoke about the house and its gardens, the grander times that the place had seen.
But I kept glancing over at the photograph as we talked, and my distraction must have been obvious. Our tea was finished. I let a few more minutes pass, then looked at the clock and said I ought to be going. And as I got to my feet, Mrs Ayres said gently, ‘You must take that picture with you, Dr Faraday. I should like you to have it.’
‘Take it?’ I said, startled. ‘Oh, no, I couldn’t.’
‘Yes, you must. You must take it just as it is, frame and all.’
‘Yes, do take it,’ said Caroline, when I continued to protest. ‘I shall be doing the housework, don’t forget, while Betty recovers. I shall be awfully glad to have one less thing to dust.’
So, ‘Thank you,’ I said, blushing and almost stammering. ‘It’s awfully kind of you. It’s—Really, it’s far too kind.’
They found me a piece of used brown paper with which to wrap the picture up, and I tucked it safely into my bag. I said goodbye to Mrs Ayres, and patted the dog’s warm dark head. Caroline, who was already on her feet, got ready to take me back to my car. But Roderick moved forward, saying, ‘It’s all right, Caro. I’ll see the doctor out.’
He struggled up from the sofa, wincing badly as he did it. His sister watched him, concerned, but he was clearly determined to escort me. So she gave in, and offered me her worn, well-shaped hand for another shake.
‘Goodbye, Dr Faraday. I’m so glad we found that picture. Think of us, won’t you, when you look at it?’
‘I will,’ I said.
I followed Roderick from the room, blinking slightly at the plunge back into shade. He led me off to the right, past more shut doors, but soon the passage lightened and widened, and we emerged in what I realised was the entrance hall of the house.
And here I had to pause and look around me; for the hall was very lovely. Its floor was of pink and liver-coloured marble, laid down like a chequerboard. The walls were pale wooden panels, ruddy with reflected colour from the floor. Dominating it all, however, was the mahogany staircase, which rose in an elegant soft square spiral through two more floors, its polished serpent-headed banister climbing in a single unbroken line. It made a stairwell fifteen feet wide, and easily sixty feet high; and it was lit, coolly and kindly, by a dome of milky glass in the roof above.
‘A nice effect that, isn’t it?’ said Roderick, seeing me gazing upwards. ‘The dome was a devil, of course, in the black-out.’
He tugged open the broad front door. The door had got damp at some point in the past, and was faintly buckled, and grated horribly against the marble as it moved. I joined him at the top of the steps, and the heat of the day billowed in around us.
He grimaced. ‘Still blistering, I’m afraid. I don’t envy you the run back to Lidcote . . . What’s that you’re driving? A Ruby? How do you find her?’
The car was a very basic model, and there wasn’t much to admire in her. But he was clearly the sort of boy to be interested in motors for their own sake, so I took him over, and pointed out a couple of features, finally opening up the bonnet to show him the layout of the engine.
I said, as I closed the bonnet again, ‘These country roads rather punish her.’
‘I’ll bet. How far do you take her, day by day?’
‘On a light day? Fifteen, twenty calls. A heavy day might have more than thirty. Local, for the most part, though I’ve a couple of private patients as far out as Banbury.’
‘You’re a busy man.’
‘Too busy, at times.’
‘All those rashes and cuts.—Oh, and that reminds me.’ He put his hand to his pocket. ‘How much do I owe you for seeing to Betty?’
I didn’t want to take his money at first, thinking of his mother’s generosity with the family photograph. When he pressed me, I said I would send him out a bill. But he laughed and said, ‘Look here, if I were you, I’d take the money while it’s offered. How much do you charge? Four shillings? More? Come on. We’re not at the charity-case stage just yet.’
So I reluctantly said I would take four shillings, for the visit and the prescription. He brought out a warm handful of small coins and counted them into my palm. He changed his pose as he did it, and the movement must have jarred with him somehow: that puckering reappeared at his cheek, and this time I almost commented on it. As with the cigarettes, however, I didn’t like to embarrass him; so let it go. He folded his arms and stood as if quite comfortable while I started the car, and as I moved off, he languidly raised his hand to me, then turned and headed back to the house. But I kept my eye on him through my rear-view mirror, and saw him making his painful-looking way up the steps to the front door. I saw the house seem to swallow him up as he limped back into the shadowy hall.
Then the drive made a turn between unclipped bushes, the car began to dip and lurch; and the house was lost to me.


That night, as I often did on a Sunday, I had dinner with David Graham and his wife, Anne. Graham’s emergency case had gone well, against some substantial odds, so we spent most of the meal discussing it; and only as we were starting on our baked-apple pudding did I mention that I’d been out to Hundreds Hall that day on his behalf.
He at once looked envious. ‘You have? What’s it like there now? The family haven’t called me out in years. I hear the place has gone badly downhill; that they’re rather pigging it, in fact.’
I described what I had seen of the house and gardens. ‘It’s heart-breaking,’ I said, ‘to see it all so changed. I don’t know if Roderick knows what he’s doing. It doesn’t look much like it.’
‘Poor Roderick,’ said Anne. ‘He’s a nice sort of boy, I’ve always thought. One can’t help but feel sorry for him.’
‘Because of his scars, and all that?’
‘Oh, partly. But more because he seems so out of his depth. He had to grow up too quickly; all those boys of his age did. But he had Hundreds to think about, as well as the war. And he isn’t his father’s son, somehow.’
‘Well,’ I said, ‘that might be in his favour. I remember the Colonel as rather a brute of a man, don’t you? I saw him once when I was young, going off pop with a motorist whose car he said had startled his horse. In the end he jumped out of his saddle and kicked the car’s headlamp in!’
‘He had a temper, certainly,’ said Graham, spooning up his apple. ‘The old-fashioned squire type.’
‘Old-fashioned bully, in other words.’
‘Well, I shouldn’t have liked his job. He must have been out of his mind with money worries half the time. I think that estate was already losing income when he inherited it. I know he sold land all through the’twenties; I remember my own father saying it was like shovelling water from a sinking boat. I heard that the duties, after he died, were astronomical! How that family keeps going at all beats me.’
I said, ‘And what about Roderick’s smash? His leg looked bad, I thought. I wondered if a course of electrical therapy would help him—assuming he’d ever let me close enough to try. They seem to pride themselves on living like the Brontës out there, cauterising their own wounds and what not . . . Would you mind?’
Graham shrugged. ‘Be my guest. As I said, they haven’t called me out in so long, I barely qualify as their doctor. I remember the injury: a nasty break, poorly reset. The burns speak for themselves.’ He ate a little more, then grew thoughtful. ‘There was a touch of nervous trouble too, I believe, when Roderick first came home.’
This was news to me. ‘Really? It can’t have been too bad. He’s certainly relaxed enough now.’
‘Well, it was bad enough for them to want to be a bit hush-hush about it. But then, all those families are touchy like that. I don’t think Mrs Ayres even called in a nurse. She looked after Roderick herself, then brought Caroline home to help her at the end of the war. Caroline was doing quite well, wasn’t she, with some sort of commission in the Wrens, or the WAAF? Awfully brainy girl, of course.’
He said ‘brainy’ in the way I had heard other people say it when discussing Caroline Ayres, and I knew that, like them, he was using the word more or less as a euphemism for ‘plain’. I didn’t answer, and we finished our puddings in silence. Anne put her spoon into her bowl, then rose from her chair to close a window: we were eating late, and had a candle lit on the table; it was just beginning to be twilight and moths were fluttering around the flame. And as she sat back down she said, ‘Do you remember the first daughter out at Hundreds? Susan, the little girl that died? Pretty, like her mother. I went to her seventh birthday party. Her parents had given her a silver ring, with a real diamond in it. Oh, how I coveted that ring! And a few weeks later she was dead . . . Was it measles? I know it was something like that.’
Graham was wiping his mouth with his napkin. He said, ‘Diph, wasn’t it?’
She pulled a face at the thought. ‘That’s right. Such a nasty way . . . I remember the funeral. The little coffin, and all the flowers. Heaps and heaps of them.’
And I realised then that I remembered the funeral, too. I remembered standing with my parents on Lidcote High Street while the coffin went by. I remembered Mrs Ayres, young, heavily veiled in black, like a ghastly bride. I remembered my mother, quietly weeping; my father with his hand on my shoulder; the stiff new sour-smelling colours of my school blazer and cap.
The thought depressed me, for some reason, more than it ought to have done. Anne and the maid took away the dishes, and Graham and I sat on at the table, discussing various business matters; and that depressed me even more. Graham was younger than me, but was doing rather better: he had entered the practice as a doctor’s son, with money and standing behind him. I had come in as a sort of apprentice to his father’s partner, Dr Gill—that ‘character’, as Roderick had quaintly called him; actually the devil of an idle old man, who, under pretence of being my patron, had let me gradually buy out his stake in the business over many long, hard, poorly paid years. Gill had retired before the war, and lived in a pleasant half-timbered house near Stratford-on-Avon. I had only very recently begun to make a profit. Now, with the Health Service looming, private doctoring seemed done for. On top of that, all my poorer patients would soon have the option of leaving my list and attaching themselves to another man, thereby vastly reducing my income. I had had several bad nights over it.
‘I shall lose them all,’ I told Graham now, putting my elbows on the table and wearily rubbing my face.
‘Don’t be an idiot,’ he answered. ‘They’ve no more reason to leave you than they have to leave me—or Seeley, or Morrison.’

 

The Little Stranger

The Little Stranger