Some people, they just don’t know how to say thanks. Never mind I had exposed my most intimate life, and had laid myself open to ongoing observations, she then leaves the court without as much as a nod. Sitting there, haughty in her gothic-backed wheelchair as if she’d never been charged with murder. But then, what else had I expected of her. People don’t change.
I’d known Fliss since childhood. We were sort of related: our grandmothers were sisters, the Chesneys. My mother then had married a Cannings—and, oh, what a scandal—while hers had married Roland Plessey, and so all still lived in the same village. But our old bakery cottage, renamed ‘Marys Repose’, was oceans more humble than the massive square block of a grand Georgian house which was ‘Plessey Hall’.
With such class disparity (yes, it is still alive) it’s a wonder we girls became friends. But then, we didn’t at first. Despite being in the same year, at the local primary we were in separate orbits. It wasn’t until we started high school and her mother realised I was ‘busing it’ along with the other village kids . . . No, my dear, that will not do (I was, after all, related) . . . she invited me to share the backseat of their swish upmarket mud-free Range Rover. (She couldn’t allow Fliss to ‘bus it’. Shame enough that her daughter was attending a comprehensive—the Plessey girls had always attended private schools but funds were now stretched.)
The invitation to travel in Plessey-style was followed by an invite to the hall—which according to my mother was only issued because of my grandmother. My father quipped at that: “It certainly isn’t for your mother’s sake, Julia—not after she disgraced the family name in our hippy days.” But for whatever the reason, it wasn’t long before Fliss and I became inseparable friends. Until, that is, she went to university.
She went to Oxford, graduated, moved to the States for a post graduate doctorate—something in science, physics. For a while I tracked her name in the scientific press even though most of the reports skidded over my head. Myself, I went to our local Poly.; took General Art & Design, and some relevant A levels before moving on to Goldsmiths College in London.
The divergent routes in higher education confirmed the pattern long existent in our lives.
Her parents were ‘Mother’ and ‘Father’; mine were ‘Mum’ and Dad’.
She played badminton and tennis at the country club. I played conkers down by the Dell.
She had a pony she entered in gymkhanas. I had a bicycle. By the time I left for London I had visited every long barrow, round barrow, henge and cursus—not to mention crop circles—so prolific in this part of the country, a veritable Mecca for archaeologists and New Age spiritualists alike.
By the time the Plessey parents died, both of cancer within a year of each other, Fliss was the rising star of her scientific world. She turned her back on her English roots, loudly proclaiming she’d never return. And why should she; by then she was married. An American, Kenneth Friedman, some sort of engineer. She and her brother—I’d seldom met him, he being much older than her—agreed to sell off the hall. Mum wrote to tell me the sum. Large. Extremely large. Though most of it was swallowed by debts.
As for me, by the time I’d qualified I was so deeply in debt—courtesy of student loans—that I’d no choice but to rent what became a series of furnished ‘studio apartments’ while I slowly established a reputation in the world of interactive museum displays. I longed for a permanent post, but short-term contracts were more the norm in this line of work. The longest so far had been 18 months.
That’s the deeper history. More recently both our lives have drastically changed.
Just as the previous contract, in Lincoln, was about to end I saw a position advertised at the local museum. Here, in Wessex. It was like a fairy godmother had waved her wand. It was exactly what I wanted. I would have applied even if it had been for a mere six weeks. As it happen, the position was to be permanent.
Okay, so it wasn’t paying much but that was expected; a small museum, a pimple compared with the V&A. More relevant, the museum houses a good portion of the finds from the Royal Barrows of Salisbury Plain. The gold is amazing. But it’s not just that. The Beaker pottery, the Grooved Ware, the polished stone axes, the flints. I get as excited about that as most women would get about a new lover. My fingers were trembling as I updated my c.v.; I could scarcely control the pen as I completed the application form. Oh, and I so wanted my writing to be immaculately tidy. In a job like this, it matters.
I was short-listed for interview. I stayed at my parents. Dad gave me a lift into town on his way into work. The day, wet and windy, played hell with my hair. And, gosh, when I remember, I was tight with anxiety. Had I but known it, I’d no need to worry. They had seen my work: an article in the Sunday Times magazine had featured one of the exhibitions I’d helped set up. The magazine lay open on the long table behind which sat the five brought in to interview me. They liked it, they said, and remarked on my ‘natural feel for it’. I had the relevant qualifications, they said, and as a local resident (at least up to the time I was 18) I had local knowledge. To boot, I was young, they said, which meant they could reap many years from me while still paying me peanuts. I didn’t mind the lack of super-salary. I had cleared the last of student debts just a couple of months previous, and to me this was my dream job. I would have paid them!
“We have others to interview,” they said. So they wouldn’t confirm it as yet. They made me wait a full three weeks. I watched for the morning mail while watching the days running out on the Lincolnshire post.
Mum was as excited as me when finally I phoned her with the good news. I was so giddy I couldn’t sit down, jumping like a two year old.
“Where will you live?” she asked. “You know there’s your room . . .”
Oh, I knew there was my room. My visits back home had not been so rare, though they’d usually been short. But ever since I’d seen the advert, I’d been thinking. My parents had invested their savings in a canalboat. They thought they’d soon recoup it by letting it out in the tourist season. But, as I told them at the time, they should have done their homework first. The standard required by the tourist board was way above that of the tub they’d acquired. And now they hadn’t the funds for the required work. For the past year the canalboat had been moored at the bottom of the Caen Hill Locks, slowly rotting into the water.
“I thought I’d rent Lazy Lady. I get a home, you get some funds. Win-win.”
I could hear the splutter. This wasn’t what Mum wanted. She wanted me back home with her, so she could fatten me up with too much home-cooking.
“But, Julia, you’re not thinking of running those locks? You’d never get into work.”
“No, Mum. I was thinking of walking it.”
“Two miles? Uphill? In all weathers? No, Julia, you come home to us.”
“No, Mum, I want to rent the Lady. I’ve given it full thought, looked at it all ways. Besides, there’s always the bus.”
“Bus? You don’t want to bother with buses. Dad can give you a lift in, you know that he will.”
It took some stern heel-digging before she’d agree. But once I’d swung her round, Dad was a doddle. I think he quite enjoyed ferrying me about, gathering together the materials I needed. Myself, I was looking forward to doing the old Lady up. Structurally, she wasn’t as bad as I’d thought. It was the inside. First job, get rid of the rats. I gutted her, then started from scratch. The design course at Goldsmiths had involved a certain amount of DIY skills, plus I’d become well-practiced over the years thanks to my chosen career. I had the Lady habitable within a fortnight of starting the new job. It was as well I wasn’t expected to work weekends (on the short contracts I’d often worked a 7-day week). That same weekend, while visiting my parents for Sunday roast and the washing machine, Mum dumped the news on me.
“You remember your cousin Felicity? Felicity de Plessey?”
I wanted to correct her. The family had dropped the ‘de’ after WWI.
“What about her?” I asked.
“What do you mean, back? Not at Plessey Hall? That’s been sold.”
“No, of course not, I know that. ‘Twas me as told you. No, she’s bought the old Priory.”
“Priory House,” Dad corrected her.
Mum tutted. “And who calls it that these days – ‘cepting the post office.”
“So why is she back? Is she divorced?”
“Now then, Julia, that sounds a sight sarky to me. Just because you’re yet to meet your Mr Right.”
But I couldn’t imagine another reason. The famous Felicity Freidman, genius physicist, or whatever she was—I’d given up following her glittering career—back in this sleepy backwater of a Wessex village? Why?
“No, as I hear it, she still has a husband in tow. I suppose it’s the same one as she married. American, I’m told. Why don’t you give her a bell? I can see you’re itching to catch-up on the gossip.”
It took me three days to decide to do that. Then I had to find the phone number. But that was easy, another skill acquired in my career: the ability to source anything, and anyone, from anywhere.
“I take it you’re normal these days, darling,” she said after the initial greetings. “You do have a car?”
I was tempted to cut the call but . . . “No, totally car-less. Why?”
“You’re not still riding that bilious bike? My dear, how ultra.”
I told her, no, I was using my legs and asked again, why. I could hear the tut and imagined the flick of her silky blonde hair.
“You are walking? And public transport. But, darling, that’s beyond ultra. Signed to the Greens, I suppose.” Was that also a sniff? “But you always were a soft hippy-lamb.”
No I was not. But she had always taunted me with it. It was a long story, and belonged to my mother, to the years before I was born. My dear second cousin—or whatever she was—would have a heyday now if she knew I was living on a canalboat: How terribly Bohemian.
“Listen, Jules-darling, now you’re in touch, I want you to lunch. This weekend. Kenneth has arranged—but no, that’s irrelevant. It’s just we agreed you’d be good company for me while he’s away.”
I’d be good company? What was she saying, that she was lonely? Fliss? No, surely not. So maybe it hadn’t been a matter of the other girls being unsuitable, more that her personality had driven them away. Me, family, I’d had to stay.
“I can catch a bus,” I said, committing myself.
“Saturday?” She seemed perhaps excessively eager to firm up the date. “Early—we’ve simply tons to talk about. You’ll stay the day, natch, yea. Though, Jules-darling, I must—” I don’t know what she intended to say, for she put me on mute while she consulted (probably) her husband. She was still speaking to him when she returned to me. “Yes, darling, I will. Now, Jules-darling, you know how to find us? Priory House, it’s along the lane that gives on to the Ridgeway. You know it?”
I knew it.
“But, darling, before we meet I must first warn you. I am . . . let’s say, somewhat changed.”
How, changed? She didn’t say. It certainly wasn’t in the personality department. Maybe over the years she’d grown fat. Her brother, the few times I’d met him, had veered towards it. But, whatever the change, her sense of urgency had me intrigued. If only I’d known where this was to lead. But even with foreknowledge I would not have backed out—for, as it turned out, Fliss wasn’t to be the main attraction.
In the next episode : Why are there two granite coffins in the priory’s refectory?