“Drink up,” Frank said. “Who knows? Tomorrow we could be dead.”
I wonder if Frank knew something. Later that night, Frank fell asleep while listening to the radio – as he often did after a good day’s work – and he never woke up again. The doctor said that his heart had just stopped. “It happens sometimes,” the doctor said. “Even with people like Frank. Even with people who seem to be perfectly fit and healthy. We don’t know why.”
“I should go up to Westmore Hall,” I told Nancy, Frank’s wife. “We haven’t finished the roof repairs, and there’s rain forecast for the weekend. The tilers are booked for tomorrow. Better if we can get it weather-tight.”
Nancy nodded. “Yes. I suppose so. Do you need anything? Do you need any help?”
“I think I should be all right,” I said. “I think that I can manage the purlins on my own. As you may have noticed, I’m a big lad. And, if I can’t manage – well, I’ll get our kid to give me a hand.”
“Joe? Your brother? Shouldn’t he be in school?”
I smiled. “Yeah. But he’ll jump at any excuse to wag off, our Joe.”
Fortunately, Frank and I had cut and notched the purlins before we had finished off the previous day. We had even hoisted them up to the roof and tied them, temporarily, to the rafters. All I had to do was to put them into position and fix them down, and then I could start laying on the roof boards.
It felt strange being up there, working on my own, without Frank’s constant stream of helpful advice. I’d been with Frank for just over five years – first as his apprentice, and then, more recently, as a journeyman carpenter. “Don’t worry, Frank,” I heard myself saying. “I’m going to get all of the purlins fixed before I start boarding. Just like you taught me.”
“Are you all right up there?” It was Jennifer Farringdon-Browne, Sir Robin’s daughter. She was standing at the foot of the ladder with her black Labrador, Rufus.
“Sorry, Miss. Just talking to myself.”
“Nothing to be sorry about,” she said. “I just heard. Please accept my condolences. You and Mr Russell seemed to be an excellent team. I’m sure that we will all miss him. You especially. And, of course, his wife”
“He taught me a lot, Miss. Well, everything, I suppose – about building, that is.”
“Mrs Moffatt is going to make some tea,” Miss Jennifer said. “Will you join me?”
“I really should get this done, Miss,” I said. “The tilers are due tomorrow.”
“I’m sure that ten or 15 minutes will be neither here nor there,” she said. “Come and have some tea with me. I think Mrs Moffatt has made scones.”
When I got back to the yard that evening, Nancy was there with Donald McDonald, a local solicitor.
“How did you go?” Nancy asked.
“Yeah. Done. All set for the tilers,” I said.
“Thank you, Tom. You know Mr McDonald.”
I nodded. “Sort of.”
“We need your help,” Donald McDonald said. “It appears that Mr Russell hade not made a will. Not that this should present a problem. I’m reasonably sure that he would have wanted Mrs Russell to inherit all of his property anyway. Obviously, the estate will include the building business as a going concern. Until such time as we can ascertain the precise situation, we have a duty to preserve the integrity of the business – to ensure that it is, in fact, a going concern. Mrs Russell has suggested that you should assume the managership pro tempore.”
“Well – until such time as we can arrive at a more permanent solution. Would that be acceptable? There will be a small fee in addition to your normal wages, of course. You know – for the additional responsibility.”
I awoke early the next morning and I was over at Westmore Hall at about seven. The tiler, Dan Parkin, and his boy arrived soon after.
“I’m sorry to hear about Frank,” Dan Parkin said. “I liked him. He was a good man.”
“He was, Mr Parkin.”
Dan Parkin shuffled his feet uneasily. “At a time like this, I hate to sound, well, mercenary, but are there arrangements?”
“For Frank’s funeral? No. Not yet. But I expect that it will be held on Monday or Tuesday.”
“Well, actually, I was thinking about arrangements for payment. Much as I’d like to, Tom, I can’t work for nothing. None of us can. Frank was always very good when it came to payment.”
“Oh. Right. I see what you mean. Well, you need have no fear, Mr Parkin.”
“Thank you. It’s just – well – you know.”
I’ll say this for Dan Parkin: he didn’t mess about. By just after three o’clock in the afternoon, the tiling was finished, the roof ridge capped, and the guttering repaired and replaced where necessary. In the morning, I could move inside and start on the repairs to the ceiling.
I was just standing on the small lawn beside the east wing, admiring the finished job – well, the external part of it, anyway – when something bunted me in the lower thigh. It was Rufus. And Miss Jennifer was just behind him.
“Gosh, that didn’t take you chaps long. Looks good. Looks very good.”
“There’s rain forecast for the weekend,” I said. “In fact, looking at that sky, we might even get some tomorrow.”
“What will happen to you – now that Mr Russell has died?”
“Not sure, Miss.”
Miss Jennifer nodded. “Well, I’m sure that Father can find a few jobs for a person with your skills. There are a number of things that need doing around here. The place is in danger of falling down.” And then, sort of out of nowhere, she said: “Do you have a girlfriend, Tom?”
“Oh? I heard tell that you and Molly Middleton were an item.”
“An item?” I had to smile. “No, Miss. Molly’s seeing Mick Curran these days. I even heard tell that they are planning to marry. Of course, that may just be gossip. You know what it’s like, Miss.”
Miss Jennifer smiled and nodded again. “Oh, well – Rufus and I had better go and give George his oats. Do you ride, Tom?”
“Only a bicycle, Miss.”
“Pity,” she said. “Paladin could use some exercise. And he’s a bit boisterous for me. He’d be fine for a strong chap like you though.”
The following morning, when I was setting about repairing the parts of the ceiling that had been damaged when the old roof had leaked, I had a visit from Sir Robin himself.
“Just wanted to say how sorry I was to hear about Mr Russell. He was fine man and a fine craftsman. And I can see that he taught you well.”
“He did, Sir Robin.”
“Do you know what you will do now?”
I shook my head. “Not really, sir. I’m sure something will come along. It always seems to.”
“Well – I’m sure that the village wouldn’t like to lose you. Although, of course, you must do what’s best for you. But if you find that you need someone to talk to – I’m here. Well, I’m here when I’m not in London or somewhere else, anyway.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Oh, and when you get a moment, can you please have a look at these damned French doors. When the northeaster blows, there might just as well be a bloody hole in the wall.”
It seemed like the whole village – and a good few people from further afield – turned up for Frank’s send off. Frank was not a churchman, so he would have been happy that Nancy chose the village hall rather than St Oswald’s for the gathering.
“I was tempted,” Nancy said. “But, no, I couldn’t have done that to Frank. Just as I couldn’t have agreed for him to be buried in the churchyard. He would have turned in his grave.” And then, when she had had a moment or two to think about what she had just said, she laughed.
After we had celebrated Frank’s life in an appropriate way, with a number of people saying nice things about him, several of us retired to The George & Dragon where Murray, the landlord, announced that Sir Robin was shouting the first round. Some of the villagers thought that it was only right that Sir Robin should pick up the tab. “Rich bastard. Member of Parliament. He can afford it.” But I knew that it was more than just a token gesture.
Word travels fast in a village like Hackleford – even if the word is largely just speculation. By the time Frank’s send-off was over, pretty much everyone in the village seemed to know that Nancy was going to be keeping the business going and that I was going to be her “hands-on man”.
“Must get you to give us an estimate on a new stable block,” Sam Woburn said. “We’ve been putting it off and putting it off, but I think that the time has come. If we don’t start soon, it’ll be winter again. Don’t want that. I’ve already had an informal chat with the Parish Council. It shouldn’t be too hard to get a sign-off.”
And there were also another three or four similar “enquiries”.
The day after Frank’s send-off, the weather dawned fine and promised to stay that way for the next two or three days. It was the perfect opportunity to replace the porch on Dairy Cottage. Most of the slates and some of the stones were still in good condition. But the timberwork was well and truly past it. It needed to be taken apart piece by piece, and then built up again with new timbers and whatever reclaimed materials we could utilise. I say “we”, but, of course, for the moment, it was just me.
By 4:30, I had demolished the old porch, sorted what could be re-used from what would have to be skipped, and got the formwork in place for the new concrete footings.
“Somebody taught you well,” a voice behind me said. It was Miss Jennifer with her ever-present shadow, Rufus.
I laughed. “The funny thing is: I can hear Frank telling me what to do just as clearly as if he was standing here beside me.”
She smiled. “When will you finish? Today, I mean.”
“I’ve pretty much done what I can do for today, Miss,” I said.
“Good. I need your help. Back at the house.”
“Give me five minutes,” I said. “I just need to tidy up and get some of this dust off my hands and face.”
She smiled again. “Just – you know – when you’re ready.”
I went over to Westmore Hall and went around to the back door. It was wide open. “Hello?” I called out. Rufus appeared from nowhere and gave me a friendly head-butt. “Hello, boy. Where’s Miss Jennifer then?
“Upstairs.” A voice called out. “Come on up.”
I sat down on the step and removed my boots. And then I stepped into the kitchen.
“The main stairs,” Miss Jennifer called out.
Led by Rufus, I walked down the passageway to the main entrance hall.
“Oh, there you are,” Miss Jennifer said, leaning over the bannister.
“I was just taking off my boots.”
“You could take your shirt off, too, if you wanted to.”
Miss Jennifer smiled. “Oh, well. Up to you. For the moment anyway. Now – this painting – “
Leaning up against the wall was a large ornately-framed painting of a soldier on horseback. “A fine looking gentleman,” I said. “A general?”
“My great-great-grandfather. And he was only a lieutenant-colonel. Although, who knows, he might have gone on to become a general had he not succumbed to the Spanish flu. I gather he was quite talented in military matters.
“He’s been off with another branch of the family these past few years; but now they’ve decided that the old chap takes up too much room. And so he has come to live with us. And I think that he would look right at home hanging on this wall.”
I tested the weight of the painting. “We’ll need a study bracket,” I said. “I’ll get one from the ironmongers when I go into Hartwell tomorrow.”
Miss Jennifer smiled. “Been there. Done that,” she said. And she held up a bag branded “Harrisons the Ironmongers”. She had also somehow rustled up a hammer, an eggbeater drill, and a couple of screwdrivers.”
“Are you going into the building business?” I said.
Miss Jennifer just laughed.
Once we had finished, Miss Jennifer’s great-great-grandfather, the lieutenant-colonel who might have gone on to become a general, looked perfect against the deep-red wall at the top of the stairs.
“Is that it, Miss?”
“Just one more thing,” she said. And she stood up on tiptoes and kissed me. It was a bit of a surprise. In fact it was a lot of a surprise. But it felt very nice. And Miss Jennifer looked very pleased with herself.
“Well,” I said. (What else could I say?)
“Thank you. The painting looks very good,” she said. “Perfect, in fact. Now – there’s just one more thing that I’d like you to look at. Just along here.” And she took my arm and led me along the corridor to a bedroom.
After Sir Robin asking me to look at the French doors in the little sitting room, I was expecting another issue with a window frame. The windows on the north-eastern side of Westmore Hall had not been well maintained. But no. We were no sooner into the room than Miss Jennifer crossed her arms, grasped the hem of her T-shirt, and pulled it off over her head. And then she took her jeans off too.
It wasn’t the first time that a woman had stripped off in front of me. But it was the first time that a posh woman had.
“Come on,” Miss Jennifer said. “Are you going to take that shirt off? Or would you like me to do it for you?” I don’t think that she ever intended to wait for an answer. My shirt was coming off, and she was determined to be the one to take it off.
Then she reached up, pulled my face down to hers, and we kissed again. And while we kissed, Miss Jennifer took my hand and guided it down the front of her knickers. It wasn’t hard to know what she wanted to happen next.
Jimmy Williamson, who fancied himself as a bit of a ladies man, was always telling me: “You can tell the ones who really want your cock inside them, Tom. They’re as slippery as a piece of warm ice.” Personally, I had never known ice to be warm. But if there was such a thing then, yes, that’s how Miss Jennifer felt.
As we lay there afterwards, Miss Jennifer asked me what I was thinking.
“Who would have guessed?” I said.
She laughed. “Well, you should have. I’ve been dropping enough hints. I was beginning to think that you didn’t fancy me. Not good for a girl’s ego.”
And then there was the sound of a car, and the crunch of tyres on gravel.
“Ah. Mrs Moffatt’s back. Pity. I could have done that all over again. Oh, well – another time. Come and have supper with me. Tomorrow night. It’s Mrs Moffatt’s night off. She’ll be going off to her sister’s. And Father’s up in London.”
We got dressed and went down to the kitchen where Mrs Moffatt was unpacking groceries and putting them away in the pantry and fridge. “Ah, Tom,” Mrs Moffatt said, in a not-unkindly way. “How are you? I thought that was your van. Have we been breaking things again?”
“Tom has just helped me to put great-great-grandfather up on the wall at the back of the landing,” Miss Jennifer said. “Go and see what you think.”
As Mrs Moffatt headed for the stairs, Miss Jennifer steered me to a space out of sight behind the kitchen door and gave me one last, long, lingering kiss. “Until tomorrow,” she said softly.