The Cuckoo’s Egg: 2010
Winter has been hard on the house, the bitter cold eating into the honey-colored stonework, causing portions of the façade to crumble and flake away. Even in the external areas that are less exposed—under overhangs, for example—where the weeks of severe frost have been prevented from doing their worst, fresh staining has appeared in ugly blotches that bloom like malevolent flowers of decay.
Ashenden Park, built towards the end of the eighteenth century, and one of the finest late Palladian houses in the country according to those who make it their business to judge such things, was once surrounded by thousands of acres. Over the years the estate has shrunk to grounds of under a few hundred, which is nevertheless more than enough to provide an uninterrupted view from all sides.
Look around. It is as if the house were an island domain in a sea of green. In front, land slopes away, then rises to a gentle hill dotted with stands of trees and grazed by deer; behind, terraces descend more abruptly to the river, the modern world nowhere in evidence. The principal block, like the two smaller pavilions that flank it, is crowned with a pediment on the main elevation. Its centerpiece, and the focus of the symmetry of threes and fives and sevens, is a recessed columned loggia that soars from the first floor to the roof. At the lower story a continuous wall topped with a balustrade links the buildings together and makes elegant sense of it all. From a distance, as you come up the drive, for instance, the crisp lines of the architecture appear intact and it is possible to appreciate the clarity of the design more than two centuries since it sprang from a drawing into life, from a mind into being.
Look again. Up close the deterioration is brutal and alarming. Stone teeth missing under the roofline, rotten sills, the dull blank eyes of windows. Another winter as severe as this, the rot will find its way indoors and there will be serious trouble. Already the roof is leaking and the background heat that has been maintained in the principal rooms is barely enough to ward off the damp.
The house is much smaller than a palace, smaller too than many others of its type, yet much larger than most people today would recognize as a home. How many rooms? It depends on how you count them. About two dozen in the main block, give or take, not including hallways, landings, staircases, of which there are many. The side pavilions, once service quarters, are houses in themselves. Altogether it is a mansion, perhaps, but here is a trick of the architecture: a mansion that feels both generous and human-scaled. Were you to see it from above, from the flight path to Heathrow under which it lies, you might imagine yourself picking it up and placing it in the palm of your hand for safekeeping.
The house contains time. Its walls hold stories. Births and deaths, comings and goings, people and events passing through. Some of the occupants of the Park (and not all its occupants have been owners) have treated it well; others have been criminally careless. For now, however, it lies suspended in a kind of emptiness, as if it has fallen asleep or someone has put it under a spell. This silence won’t last: can’t last. Something will have to be done.
* * *
Charlie Minton, fifty-seven years old, twice married, father of one, woke up and for a moment didn’t know where he was. It was a familiar feeling: over the years he’d woken up in boardinghouses, tents, three-, four-, and five-star hotels, shacks, on the backseats of cars and airport floors, in Beirut, Tokyo, New Orleans, Rio, and Pretoria, and had had the same momentary feeling of dislocation. It was part and parcel of the itinerant, unsettled life he had once chosen for himself and sometimes still hankered after. Now, he thought, this gray light could only be England, and as he came more fully into the day, something even worse occurred to him, which was that he was at Ashenden Park. More specifically, he was lying in bed in one of the spare rooms in the south pavilion, part of the house converted by his aunt and uncle over thirty years ago for their retirement.
He burrowed under the duvet, but any hopes that his mind would drift back to sleep and leave him in peace for another five minutes came to nothing. How could it, when every morning for the past two weeks the same dead weight had landed on him as soon as he had opened his eyes?
Over a fortnight ago, a February evening, he had been sitting at his worktable at home in the apartment on the Lower East Side he shared with his second wife, Rachel, correcting the proofs of a catalog to accompany a retrospective exhibition of his photographs. It was the kind of judgment that needed daylight, and he had moved away from the deceptive warmth of the Anglepoise to stare out of the window at snow flurries blown upwards and sideways in the sodium glare. He was thinking that he didn’t much like the word “retrospective”—it reminded him how old he was—when the phone had rung. The dog, snoozing in her basket, raised her head.
It was Rachel’s night at the Sita Center and she would be calling to say that she had yoga brain and should she pick up a takeout or was there something in the fridge. But as he reached for the handset, snug in its cradle like a papoose, he’d thought it was odd she was calling on the landline. Rachel always called him on his cell.
It hadn’t been Rachel and it had only been when he’d picked up the phone that he’d noticed the red light was blinking.
Down under the duvet, clinging to his body heat on a cold, damp English morning, Charlie remembered his wife coming through the door of their apartment that February evening in New York, dumping her bag of yoga kit, snowflake stars melting on the little black ankle boots he’d given her for Christmas. Greeting the ecstatic dog, whose claws skittered across the waxed floorboards. Then taking a look at his face and asking what was the matter.
For a moment he had considered not saying anything at all. Pretending nothing had happened. Then he told her that his sister had just called with the news that Reggie was dead.
“Your aunt Reggie?”
“Oh, I’m so sorry, honey.” She came across the room to give him a hug and he could smell sandalwood in her hair. “That’s too bad.”
At this point anyone else would have said that his aunt had been over ninety and had had a good, long life. But Rachel never said the obvious thing, which was one of the reasons he loved her.
“When did it happen?”
“Around noon their time. Ros was pretty upset. She’s been trying to get hold of me all day.” Ros was his sister.
“Didn’t she try your cell?”
“Repeatedly. Bloody useless network.”
Rachel rubbed his arm. “You planning on going over for the funeral?”
Before he could answer, he had to tell her the rest of it, knowing that would mean there was no further retreat from reality. “Reggie’s left us the house. Me and Ros.”
Rachel drew back. “That big old place?”
Ashenden Park. An image of its tawny stonework, its severe classical symmetries, formed itself in his mind. His uncle Hugo— his mother’s brother—had bought the house just after the war and, together with his wife, Reggie, had saved it from what would have been almost certain destruction. The two of them had been devoted to one another and the house they had painstakingly restored but they had never had children of their own.
“I thought it was going to be donated to the country or something.”
“To the National Trust.” His breath constricted in his chest, and he felt the same sensation he’d had when he’d heard the news twenty minutes before: that of opening a door and stepping into space. Falling down, down, down, his feet scrabbling for a floor that wasn’t there. “That’s what we all thought.”
“Is Ros sure?”
“She rang Reggie’s solicitor this afternoon and he told her. We’ve inherited the house and whatever’s left of the trust Hugo set up for her. I’ll have to get over there straightaway.”
Rachel’s face registered internal adjustments, shifts of perspective. Yet, and this was another reason why he loved her, she did not rush to offer her opinion or second-guess his own. She held back. Only this late in life had he come to understand the paradox of true intimacy: that it depended on this type of respect.
He said, “Whatever happens, it’s not going to be quick. I’ll have to cancel my seminars at Parsons. Take a leave of absence.”
He shrugged. “Let’s eat. We’ll talk after.”
* * *
Now, two weeks later, on this soggy gray morning at Ashenden Park, lying in the hollow of the mattress, the slightest movement accompanied by the creaking of the tarnished brass bedstead, the percussion of its springs, Charlie thought about what a good buy those little black ankle boots had been and how much he would like to see Rachel wearing them this very minute. He badly missed his wife.
In his first marriage, Charlie had experimented with similarity, shared interests, and things in common. He had since come to the conclusion that opposites worked better. People always imagined that opposites clashed, but in his experience similarities did, each vying for the same piece of ground. Opposites didn’t have to mean conflict, wars of attrition, any more than they had to attract; sometimes, they made for smooth-running train tracks.
He and Rachel had met eight years ago at a Parsons fund-raiser: his seminars were beginning to be popular with the students and there was a rumor that he might be offered tenure; she was a graduate of the textile department, a “funky knitter” according to a colleague who’d noticed where Charlie’s eyes were straying, and “the daughter of Jacob Gronert, one of our foremost benefactors,” according to a glad-hander from faculty administration who had eventually introduced them. She hadn’t looked like a knitter, more like the answer to hopes he hadn’t entertained for years. A week later they first slept together; three months after that (which was two months after the attack on the Twin Towers), she had moved into the Lower East Side apartment he’d rented ever since the days when no cabs would go there. The following summer they were married.
For the first time ever Charlie discovered that it was possible to enjoy domestic life, to look forward to seeing someone else’s toothbrush in the bathroom morning after morning. The same someone’s toothbrush.
He bagged up a lot of his old stuff and threw it away. Together they bought new stuff. They sanded the stained floorboards and got a puppy. He was offered tenure, she exhibited her pieces here and there in SoHo galleries, then started up a blog called “Wool and Water” just as the craft revival was beginning to break, which led to a shop called Wool and Water in Tribeca, where she sold Peruvian hand-dyed yarn, skeins of fair-trade cashmere, and ran evening classes for the stitch-and-bitch brigade. Which led to a book, also called Wool and Water, with an explanatory subtitle for those unfamiliar with the Alice in Wonderland reference. (Even now some people came through the door of the shop expecting to buy bottles of Evian.) It was around this time that her parents, who hadn’t approved of her marrying him, warmed up a little and her father suggested advancing her the capital to expand the shop into a chain. When Rachel turned her father down, Charlie couldn’t have been prouder of her determination to own her own life.
A twenty-five-, thirty-five-, forty-five-year-old Charlie, riding along in the backseat of some clapped-out township taxi with his beaten-up Nikon F while the driver casually leaned an assault rifle out the window, or drinking in the bar of a scuzzy Macedonian hotel with stringers, indiscreet diplomats, and local mafia, or failing to show up on the second (and last) occasion when one of his photographs won a press award because he was sweating in a Mexican jail near the border, would not have recognized this fifty-seven-year-old Charlie, this home improver, wife lover, dog owner. But when he looked back on those exploits now, polished by many retellings, he recognized they were little more than approximations of the truth, which edited out the boredom, fear, and bad behavior that had led to them or been their direct consequence. They didn’t even correspond to the occasions when he had taken his best photographs. Such was the benefit of hindsight and, however late in life, a good marriage.
* * *
Charlie poked his nose out from under the duvet and squinted at the digital clock. Nine forty-three. Shit. The surveyor was coming at ten thirty. He threw back the covers, got up, and reached for his boxer shorts. (He had never owned a dressing gown. Refused to own a dressing gown.) In the bathroom he pissed and then turned on the shower and stood under it, ready for punishment. As the water ran hot and cold, spurted and dribbled, he soaped his chest hair, which was graying, and regarded his penis, which had curled back into itself, the memory of Rachel in her little black ankle boots now subsiding.
Downstairs, Charlie could smell bacon cooking. His sister, Ros, would already have eaten her muesli and drunk her herbal tea: the bacon was for his benefit.
The kitchen was on the ground floor of the pavilion and occupied part of what had once been the old laundry. The floor was the original stone paving. The rest of it dated back to the 1970s conversion, which represented well over a lifetime in terms of domestic appliances and contemporary cabinetry. The microwave didn’t work and two of the wooden drawer fronts fell off if you tugged them too hard.
When he went through the door, the smell of bacon cooking became the smell of bacon burning. He was aware of an atmosphere. His aunt’s former carer, Elaine, was sitting at the kitchen table again, nursing a cup of tea and clutching a balled-up tissue, and Ros was being vicious with the grill pan.
This morning his sister’s dark hair was springing up in wild tufts and she was dressed, like him, in T-shirt, sweater, and jeans. As far as appearances went, the family resemblance was strong; under the skin, they were chalk and cheese. She liked the country; he liked the city, any city so long as it wasn’t in Britain (he made an exception for Glasgow). She was mildly religious and a disillusioned Labour voter since the war in Iraq; always an atheist, since 9/11 he had become a defender of the “war on terror.” She had pleased their parents by following their father into medicine; he had perplexed them by “throwing away” his degree to risk his neck taking pictures in war zones and other regions of the world where the Foreign Office advised you not to go.
“Morning,” he said, and got no answer. The lilies on the windowsill, floral overspill from the funeral, were well past their best, their sweet, slightly druggy scent fading. He seated himself at the end of the table, where he wouldn’t have to look at Elaine’s brimming red eyes, and reached across the table for the paper.
The election was expected at the beginning of May. A soldier had died in Helmand Province. He read those two items and the op-eds that related to them and skimmed the rest, barely glancing at the headlines. Page after page featured celebrity or popular news of one kind or another, retold in inverted quote marks to distinguish these reports from what had already been aired online or in the tabloids, along with bylined columns chatting as if there were all the time in the world to read about children losing clarinets on buses, dogs having operations, or (and these were by men) the inadequacies of men when faced with Hoover bags that needed changing. Lately he had noticed that the entire paper—news, op-eds, columns, features, and reviews—seemed to be written by the same three people.
Bloody England, thought Charlie. Bloody, bloody England. Every time he came back, the country had shrunk a little further into pettiness, the national conversation a low-level uninformed grumble that occasionally boiled over into a splutter of unfocused rage. He strongly held these views and hated himself for having them. (He also strongly held the view that the country encouraged self-hatred.)
A mug of tea and a bacon sandwich landed on the table in front of him.
“Thanks,” he said to Ros. “You shouldn’t have. I could have done that.”
Ros said, “Helen called. Luke’s coming on Saturday.”
“Right.” Helen was his ex-wife and Luke was his nineteen-year-old son.
“And David Barraclough called from the bank. He wants to know whether we’ve come to a decision. I said we hadn’t. Then Fresher’s called to confirm the survey. They’ll be here in twenty minutes. And your friend Jules rang just now with the number you were asking about. I wrote it down. It’s on the pad over there by the phone. What number were you asking about?”
“He knows someone at the National Trust.”
She dropped the grill pan in the sink with a clatter, squeezed washing-up liquid into it, and ran the tap. There was a hissing sound, a warm smell of singed detergent.
“You’re a one-woman app,” said Charlie. He meant it as a compliment. His sister ignored him.
Elaine shoved back her chair, scraping its legs against the stone floor. She was wearing a bulky sweater patterned in gray lozenges, the same color as the roots of her dyed maroon hair. “Well, I’d better be getting along. Thanks for the tea.”
“No problem.” Ros turned away from the sink and gave her a brisk hug. “Now don’t brood. Promise?”
“I can give you something to help you sleep, if you want.”
“I’ll be all right.”
“OK,” said Ros. “Mind how you go.”
“What on earth’s the matter with that woman?” Charlie said, after the door closed behind her.
Ros was scrubbing away at the grill pan. He pitied the grill pan. “I’ve told you a hundred times. She blames herself for Reggie’s death. She thinks she failed in her duties.”
Charlie considered this last statement, which he happened to agree with. As he understood it, despite the fact that there had been snow on the ground the day Reggie had died, she had insisted on going over to the house. Instead of talking her out of this plan, Elaine had escorted her from the south pavilion across the icy courtyard and left her (again at her insistence) to wander around the house on her own, upstairs and down, until Tony Knoll, the caretaker, had found her, looking “gray about the gills,” and helped her onto her old marital bed, where she had passed away.
“I know what you’re thinking,” said Ros, drying the grill pan and banging it into the oven, “and it’s not Elaine’s fault. As I keep saying. After all, Reggie was over ninety. She had a good innings. It wasn’t as if Elaine didn’t try to dissuade her from going over there.”
“Obviously she didn’t try hard enough.”
“She was her carer, not her jailer. Besides which, Reggie got bloody stubborn in her old age. Not that you’d know. The last time you saw her must have been a good fifteen years ago.”
“Nonsense. I saw her when I came over after Mum died.”
“No, you didn’t. Reggie was ill with flu at the time.”
“OK, OK, OK.” Charlie put up his hands.
Ros took off her apron. There was nothing domestic whatsoever about the way his sister, the doctor, wore an apron. Down the hall from the kitchen the doorbell rang.
“That’ll be the surveyor.”
She shook her head. “I have to be at the surgery in a while.”
The GP clinic where Ros worked part-time was forty minutes’ drive away in a small town on the other side of Reading, which was also where she lived with her husband, Geoff, and her daughter, Maisie, who was now in her first year at university. Yet while Ros continued to commute to the surgery for her shifts, every night since Reggie had died she had stayed at the Park. This struck Charlie as odd. Perhaps she didn’t trust him not to flog off the silver; perhaps she was avoiding her husband; perhaps she was suffering some sort of menopausal fugue. This last thought he registered as possibly sexist. It had been years since they had been under the same roof for any length of time and he was beginning to wonder whether he knew her as well as he thought he did.
“By the way,” said Ros, “I’ve invited Marjorie Thurston for supper Friday evening.”
“Who’s Marjorie Thurston?”
“I introduced you to her at the wake. She knew Reggie well. She’s active in the village historical society.”
“I can hardly wait,” said Charlie.
“Ask the surveyor about the roof,” said Ros. “We need to know how bad it is.”
* * *
The surveyor turned out to be two surveyors and an assistant, all wax-jacketed. What would be the collective term for surveyors? Charlie wondered. A doom? He led the three of them across the courtyard and out onto the drive. “I imagine you’ll want to start with the main block,” he said.
“Good a place as any,” said the balding one, who had introduced himself as Neil Fielding.
There were two entrances to the house, not including the archways that led to the courtyards which separated it from the pavilions on either side. The formal entrance was reached by a flanking pair of enclosed staircases leading up to the loggia. Underneath the loggia was another door on the ground level, which Charlie unlocked. “After you,” he said, switching off the alarm.
At this point, the second surveyor excused himself and said he was going to have a quick look at the stonework. He and Neil, the balding one, exchanged a professional glance.
Indoors the rest of them were greeted by a rank, sweetish odor. The pavilion where Reggie had lived out her last years smelled of old people and what they ate in unaired rooms: this was different. Charlie snapped on a few lights, one of which flickered and went out. Ahead stretched a long stone-flagged corridor, punctuated by niches and doorways.
“The house is on three floors,” he said to Neil and the young assistant, whose spots, if joined up, would make a map of somewhere. “This ground level was mostly service areas originally, as were the pavilions. Over there are the internal staircases, a public stair and a smaller back stair. The old billiard room is at the far end. It’s octagonal, like the two rooms above it. The principal rooms are on the first floor. The bedrooms are on the second.”
“How long has this been shut up?”
“It’s never been completely empty. Tony Knoll, the caretaker, looks after it.”
“Heated?” The surveyor touched his fingers to the wall above a crumbling plinth and sniffed them.
“Background heat. A condition of the insurance. As is the caretaker. Shall I show you round?”
The surveyor shook his head. “No need. We have a copy of the plans.” He nodded at the assistant. “Damp meter, Frank?”
Frank, the assistant, produced a small black metal box from his pocket. He handed it to Neil, who pressed it to the wall. The black needle on the display screen shot from left to right, from green to red.
Neil noted the finding. “Handy little gadget, this.”
“I suppose it takes the guesswork out,” said Charlie.
“Not a lot of guesswork in surveying, by and large.”
Surveying was what his father would have called a proper job. “Well, I’ll leave you to it,” said Charlie, and went upstairs.
On the next floor he came out into the great void that rose up in the center of the house. Officially, it was known as the staircase hall, because it was a hall with yet another staircase in it, one made of stone and cantilevered from the wall, edged with a balustrade of wrought-iron filigree. Weak sunlight struggled down through the high clerestory windows. Something about its hesitant fragility made him think of his aunt. He was overcome by a sense of trespass and wondered whether his sister felt the same. Whether, in fact, the house felt the same.
The way the house had been designed meant that you never forgot the plan: it wasn’t the sort of higgledy-piggledy place that invited you to get lost and charmed you once you had. Neither was it the sort of place where you were able to forget that it was the product of architectural thought. Standing in the middle of the staircase hall, facing forward, he knew exactly where every room was in relationship to each other. To his left, the formal dining room; immediately behind him, the octagon room; to his right, the drawing room. Ahead was the wide entrance hall, flanked on either side by the room his aunt had once used as her sitting room and the library where his uncle had pored over his auction catalogs. What little furniture remained was covered in white sheeting.
He crossed the entrance hall and poked his nose round the door of the library. To his surprise, his sister was sitting at his uncle Hugo’s desk, on the phone.
“Oh, you startled me.” Ros put a hand over her heart. “I’ll call you back,” she said, and rang off.
“Don’t let me disturb you.”
“It’s no one important . . . I mean, nothing important. It was only Geoff.”
“I thought you had to be at the surgery.”
She checked her watch. “Soonish.”
“Why don’t go you home for a bit, Ros? I can look after myself, you know.”
“I don’t mind.”
“Perhaps I want to stay.” Her expression, which had started off defiant, collapsed on itself, as if she had given too much away. “Here, look what I’ve found.” She picked up a brittle, yellowing scroll and handed it to him.
“What is it?”
“The original deeds to the land. Hugo collected everything about the house he could lay his hands on.” She gestured at a pile of buff folders on the desk. “These documents go back years. I’m glad I invited Marjorie to supper. This is a treasure trove for someone like her.”
“Perhaps.” He was not convinced. “Why are you doing all this?”
“I happen to think it’s important to understand the history of this house before we make decisions about its future.”
“It’s not the house’s future we should be worried about, it’s our own.” Charlie put the deeds back on the desk. “How’s Geoff?”
“He’s busy. Rushed off his feet.”
Geoff was an anesthetist. Could anesthetists be rushed off their feet? He hoped not. “Poor Geoff.”
“Oh, you know, he loves it really.”
Charlie pulled out a chair, brought it over to the opposite side of the desk, and sat down. He felt like one of his sister’s patients. A patient with a symptom he didn’t particularly want to disclose because he dreaded the diagnosis that would follow. “What does he think about you inheriting the house?”
“Is this your way of asking what I think?” said Ros, rearranging the files on the desk. “If so, I happen to think that it’s far too early to come to a decision about what to do with it. We don’t even know what the survey’s going to reveal yet.”
“No, but we do know more or less where we stand.”
And that, they both knew, was on shaky ground. Preliminary discussions with the bank and his aunt’s solicitor indicated that estate liabilities significantly exceeded available assets. The most recent heating bill alone was eye-watering. (He had never seen a four-figure heating bill before.) On top of that, death duties were going to be astronomical.
Although Hugo had left Reggie very well-off, she had survived him by many years, during which time the house had become much more expensive to run and keep in basic repair. Not wishing to touch the capital, she had apparently muddled through by selling things, which presumably accounted for a couple of missing paintings. Under normal circumstances, the investment portfolio Charlie and Ros had inherited on their aunt’s death would have been almost enough to compensate for the shortfalls they now faced. But that, of course, had been before the credit crunch. “Double whammy,” was how David Barraclough at the bank had put it. Which was a bit rich, considering.
“You have to agree,” said Charlie, “it’s not looking good.”
“It’s early days yet. There are lots of options we can explore,” said Ros. “Lots. Renting out part of the house, converting part of it, selling off some of the land, doing a deal with the Trust. I’ve made a list.”
She rummaged around on the desk and handed him a sheet of paper.
Charlie took it. She had indeed made a list. A list of many numbered points. She was methodical that way. He scanned it, conscious of her scrutiny. “You haven’t asked me what I want to do.”
“That’s because I know what you want to do. You want to sell.”
“Oh yes, here it is, option six. The last one.”
“We don’t want to be too hasty,” said Ros.
* * *
Later, two o’clock in the afternoon his time, nine o’clock in the morning her time, Charlie Skyped his wife. He understood how tiny cameras in laptops thousands of miles apart allowed him and Rachel to watch each other’s moving mouths as words came out of them, but it never ceased to amaze him. Scuppered him too. What technology offered, he had come to believe, was a ballooning of desire, not its satisfaction. Seeing his wife smile, brush her hair behind her ears, pull a face, what he wanted most of all was to climb through the screen and touch her, and this he could not do. Perhaps it might have been better, he thought, if he had had no option but to hold her in his mind while he wrote her a letter. He was old enough to remember when people did that.
Through trial and error, he had discovered that at Ashenden Park the wonders of technology worked only in the small room in the north pavilion that Tony the caretaker used as an office. That ruled out Skype sex and put a certain restraint on their video conversations. It also helped them to keep to their agreed limit of one Skype a day. Skyping was free only in pecuniary terms. There was always the dull ache of separation to pay after you hung up the call.
“I miss you. I miss the Times,” Charlie was saying. On the screen he could see the dog lying on the bed behind Rachel. The dog wasn’t allowed on the bed. “I miss Paul Krugman.”
Rachel laughed. “You can always read the Times online.”
“It’s not the same. I like the real thing. I like turning real pages.”
A small delay. “You don’t agree with Paul Krugman. Did the surveyor come?”
“Sometimes I agree with him.” Another small delay. “Yes, they did. Surveyors in the plural. I should have realized with a place this size.” He wanted to take a bath in her American accent. It was home to him. For some reason—possibly to do with public school—his British one had proved more indelible over the years than he had expected. Early on, that had proved useful. Waitresses tended to melt, for example. Not so much now, when most of the bad guys in Hollywood movies sounded the same as he did.
“We miss you too,” said Rachel, stroking the dog.
That night back in February, after Ros had rung, he and Rachel had agreed that he should go over to England on the first available flight and she should follow once she had arranged for her assistant, Marisa, to mind the shop and persuaded someone, possibly also Marisa, to dog-sit. Weather had come between them. The snow flurries that were still falling as Charlie’s plane took off the next day from Newark became a blizzard that closed the airport eight hours later. When he had landed at Heathrow, the two inches that were paralyzing the British transport system were the direct equivalent of the two feet that had temporarily put the East Coast out of action. Honey, I shrank the snow, he had thought, queuing for a taxi behind a woman wearing four-inch heels and complaining how slippery it was.
“Have you discussed things with Ros yet?” said Rachel on the screen.
“We talked a bit this morning. I think she’s stalling for time. She’s been digging around in the library, pulling out all the stuff my uncle collected about the house. Plus she’s got this friend of Reggie’s coming for supper Friday night. I’m guessing emotional blackmail is the general idea.”
“You look tired,” said Rachel.
“Do I?” said Charlie. He wasn’t sleeping well without her. She looked tired too, tired and pinched. Sort of washed-out. He hoped that meant she wasn’t sleeping well without him. “How’s the shop?” The blizzard that had prevented Rachel from flying out to join him had marooned Marisa in Brooklyn for a day and made a significant dent in the takings of Wool and Water, which normally did its best business in the colder months.
“Not too bad. Picking up now, thank God. This woman came in today and bought three hundred dollars’ worth of merino. Sort of a rust color. She’s never knitted before, so I signed her up for some lessons.”
Rachel moved her head and her face disappeared.
Back again. “Sweet, I gotta go.”
They said their good-byes, hands to screens, and the call was over. He felt an immediate letdown that placed him squarely back in Tony’s low-ceilinged office, with its dull view of the cobbled courtyard. March was daffodils in Wordsworth country on the wall calendar behind him, which advertised a local garage, and a furred kettle, a jar of instant coffee, and a couple of stained mugs huddled on a battered tray on the table.
As soon as Charlie came out into the courtyard, his laptop under his arm, Tony materialized from somewhere. He had a habit of doing that.
“Get through all right?”
“How long are that lot going to be here?”
“You mean the surveyors?” He shook his head. “I don’t know.”
Tony was bright as a squirrel in his anorak and Thinsulate hat. Despite the weather, he was wearing Lycra shorts on his lower half. He was ex-army and a keen long-distance cyclist. “I thought it best not tell them about the damp patch in the octagon room.”
“There’s no point hiding anything from them, Tony. We’re paying them to find out what’s wrong, for God’s sake.”
“Shall I tell them about the ghost, then?”
“Just joking. By the way, Claire wants to know if you’re going to sell up to the Russkies.”
Claire was Tony’s invisible girlfriend, whom no one had ever met—“imaginary girlfriend, if you ask me,” according to Ros—and who had an uncanny ability to ask the questions to which Tony wanted to know the answers.
“Seeing as they’re the only ones with any bloody dosh.”
“We haven’t made up our minds what we’re going to do yet.”
“ ’Course, you could always try footballers, Claire says. More money than sense.”
* * *
Up in the spare room in the south pavilion, Charlie placed his laptop on the rumpled bed, pulled out his cell, and dialed the number of the National Trust contact, the direct line of Trisha Greeling, assistant director of historic properties.
“I’m not at my desk at the moment,” said Trisha Greeling, “but please leave a message after the tone and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.” A tone. “Please speak after the beep,” said a different singsong voice. “If you want to rerecord your message at any time, please press one or press hash to go back to the operator.”
“For fuck’s sake,” said Charlie. After the beep he recorded a message. Then he picked up his Nikon digital SLR (“the Hulk,” Rachel called it), banged out of the room, went down the stairs, and slammed the door behind him.
The flat gray light of early spring was fading as he crossed the drive, went down a shallow dip and up the long slope that led to a stand of trees silhouetted on the horizon. He walked fast. At the top of the hill, the ground fell away. There were still a couple of tongues of snow in sheltered areas.
Memory played a trick on him. This landscape, where he had grown up, ought to have reminded him of his childhood, yet here in the middle of Berkshire countryside he was back in the Falls Road, Belfast, for no good reason he could understand. Twenty-three years old, prowling around half-smashed and careless of his own skin to the point of madness. He’d stopped to light a fag in a doorway and in that instant two men had hared round a corner and lobbed a petrol bomb into a downstairs window of a terraced house. His hands had shaken as he’d fumbled for his camera. Click, click, click. And that would have been his first photograph to be published in a national newspaper, except the picture editor thought he had recognized one of the men as an off-duty UDR officer and spiked it. If he closed his eyes, he could still smell the grimy, coal-blackened street and see the fire roar out of the broken window. The ambulance had got there too late. No phone boxes in the street, or at least none in working order. Over the years, that knowledge had done little to erase the guilt of taking the picture first, then trying to find a phone box to ring for an ambulance afterwards.
Charlie held his camera up against the view and took a few shots, framing each with instinctive care. The grand old house with its eighteenth-century symmetries, the wooded acres that surrounded it, the brown river in the distance. All this was his—his and his sister’s—if they wanted it. And who wouldn’t want a sodding great chunk of English heritage? Who would not want the hand of history to clap them on the shoulder and say, Welcome to the club, old chap?
From the hill he stared at the house, the monstrous egg a cuckoo had laid in his life. He almost felt sorry for exposing its weaknesses and structural shortcomings to the wax-jacketed surveyors, for its being the subject of a list, for its being a weight on his mind. Yet when he tried to imagine bringing Rachel to live here, he failed. It wasn’t the scale of the place or its market value, nothing like that. Her parents’ house on Long Island was bigger, probably worth more, and oozed comfort and amenities, and that wasn’t counting the Fifth Avenue apartment, the ski lodge at Vail, or the villa on Anguilla. Or the boat, which was larger than the walk-up on the Lower East Side where he and Rachel lived. Instead, it was the fact that given all the effort Rachel had made to pull away from the gravity of her family orbit, the last thing he would want to do was to lock her into his. Nor could he imagine what the seepage of daily life in twenty-first-century England would do to them both. The drip, drip, drip of a small island at the fag end of its history and refusing to admit it. To live in this country now was to be perpetually standing in six inches of muddy water with a sodden mop, a brimming bucket, and a blocked drain.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw a deer standing on the fringe of a copse twenty, thirty feet away. Such a quiet, finely made, nervous thing. As he lifted his camera, it darted for cover.
* * *
On Friday night Marjorie Thurston came to supper. She was a tall, angular woman in her midseventies who had retired to Lower Ashenden after a career in the civil service and had since self-published an illustrated guide to its history, to which his aunt Reggie had apparently contributed a foreword. Charlie had known dons like her. The gray hair cut in a bob, the protuberant eyes with saddlebags underneath, the air of not suffering fools gladly or at all. He remembered a floundering tutorial he had once had—one of many, it had to be said—and the acerbic voice issuing from the armchair on the other side of the hissing gas fire: “You have some cerebral capacity, Charles. Use it.”
Ros had cooked a fish pie and set the kitchen table with good china and Reggie’s silver candlesticks. Most of the meal passed in a halting question-and-answer-type conversation, during which Charlie learned rather more about the village historical society than he wanted to know. The weather was mentioned a few times, as an opening gambit and at points thereafter. Gardening, as a topic, failed to get off the ground, since only Marjorie knew anything about it.
“Marjorie?” said Ros. “May I help you to more?”
“Thank you, no.” Marjorie folded her napkin beside her plate. “At my age, one’s appetite is not what it was. Would you mind awfully if I smoked?” This was a challenge or a statement in the form of a question.
“Not at all,” said Charlie, getting up to fetch a saucer. “I’ll join you.”
“You’ve given up,” said Ros.
“I still have one from time to time.”
“That’ll be news to Rachel.”
“Oh,” said Marjorie, raising her eyebrows. “Shall I go outside? I believe that’s what people do these days.”
“Of course not,” said Ros. “It’s far too cold. Stay right where you are and I’ll fetch those estate papers I was talking about.” She left the room, her trainers squeaking away down the hall.
“Have one of mine,” said Marjorie, offering him the packet.
“Thanks.” He lit up. “How long did you know Reggie?”
“About fifteen years or so. I met her quite soon after I retired to the village. Your aunt was a remarkable woman. She will be much missed.” Marjorie, nudging ash into the saucer, asked if they planned to carry on their aunt’s charity work.
Charity work? It would be charity work to take on the house full stop. “I don’t know. Inheriting this place has come as a shock to us both, to be honest.”
“Why should it have done?” said Marjorie. “Your uncle Hugo and your mother were brother and sister, as I understand it. Traditionally estates do tend to pass to the nearest relatives on the male side.”
Charlie shrugged. “We didn’t feel so connected to Hugo and Reggie when we were growing up. I mean, we saw them and all that. But they were glamorous and wealthy and we were a pretty ordinary family, really. My mum was what you might call a housewife. She was a nurse in the war, which is when she first met Dad, who was a doctor. We never expected to inherit the house. We always assumed it was going to the National Trust.”
“You mean that’s what you hoped.”
“Personally I’d rather not have been saddled with it, if that’s what you’re saying.”
“One can’t always choose one’s responsibilities in life.”
Charlie’s head was swimming from the fag. “Isn’t that rather fatalistic?”
“Not at all.” Marjorie rearranged the scarf at her neck, which was held in place by what could only be described as a woggle. “When you get to my age, it’s always tempting to regard the past in too rosy a light. I do try to resist that. But it seems to me that you are in the fortunate position of being able to preserve something of true excellence. And so little of true excellence remains in this country. I should say it’s a question of duty, if that isn’t too old-fashioned a word.”
* * *
It was past eleven and Marjorie had gone. The kitchen table, now cleared of dishes, was spread with eighteenth-century architectural plans, nineteenth-century housekeeping books, builders’ estimates, old photographs, and letters that bore the faded, inky, spidery marks of quills and steel-nibbed pens.
“Was there something wrong with my fish pie?” said Ros. “There’s so much left.”
“It was fine.”
Charlie poured himself another glass of wine. His sister’s fish pie had tasted of cod-flavored wallpaper paste and he could feel sludge impacting his digestive tract, floury sediment silting his arteries. He ought really to get back to running.
Ros busied herself with the estate papers, collecting the yellowing, brittle pages together. “Marjorie was fascinated by the wartime stuff, I thought.”
“Did you see her face when I showed her those Victorian ledgers? Fifteen shillings to build an ornamental pond, it’s unbelievable. Figures never lie.”
“They don’t,” said Charlie, toying with his glass. “Look, Ros, I spoke to the surveyors today before they went.”
“Any more wine left?”
She tipped the bottle over her glass. A dribble came out. “Go on. You spoke to the surveyors.”
“They’ll put it in their report, but they said that in their opinion the stonework’s going to need a lot of work.”
“Well, that’s obvious. How much work?”
“About a million pounds’ worth.”
Her head went back as if he had slapped her.
“And that’s not counting the roof.” He paused. “There’s something else. I finally got through to that National Trust contact Jules gave me.”
“And?” she said.
“We had a chat, quite a longish one. It seems the Trust isn’t taking on any more stately homes. Their portfolio is full.”
“I see.” As a child, Ros had always been the braver of the two of them. Not a crier, a whinger, or a wailer. Stoical with the scraped knee, the bump on the head, the wasp sting. Now he could see the effort she was making to control herself.
“Trisha Greeling, the woman I spoke to, didn’t rule it out entirely. But she did refer me to their more recent acquisitions—a Manchester workhouse, a terrace of back-to-backs in Salford, and the house where John Lennon was born. Or maybe they haven’t bought the Lennon place yet, I forget, but you understand what I’m saying.”
“Cheap. Cheap to buy and cheap to run.”
“A shift of priorities. All part of the heritage, as she reminded me.” Charlie wished he hadn’t had that cigarette, because now he wished he had another. And another. A pack. “She’s going to think about it and we’ll speak next week, perhaps meet, but frankly, it doesn’t look hopeful. I’m sorry.”
“No, you’re not.”
“You’ve got to see that the sums don’t add up.”
Ros placed her hands on the table and spread her fingers. “It’s been less than three weeks, Charlie. We haven’t even started to explore the possibilities. OK, so it looks like we’ll probably have to rule out the Trust. And it’s going to cost more, a lot more, than we thought. But do you really want to sell this house and see it ripped apart?”
“It’s Grade II listed. No one can rip it apart.”
“A Grade II listing only protects the exterior. We sell this place to a pop star or whoever and the next thing you know there’ll be a Jacuzzi in the octagon room. All the work that Hugo and Reggie did to restore this place will be smothered in crap.”
Families had their fictions. Here was Ros, the healer, the restorer of health and life, and here he was, the voyeur, the bystander of loss and destruction. Truth was, they both bought into it.
“We have no choice.”
“There’s always a choice.” Ros dropped her head in her hands, then raised it again. “What about your father-in-law?”
“What about him?”
“If we put together some sort of business plan, perhaps he might put up a bit of capital.”
“Absolutely not!” Charlie pushed back his chair, stood up. He was furious. “It’s taken Rachel years to work out how to live her own life. If you think I’m prepared to throw all that away by asking her father for money to fix up this place, you can think again.”
Ros twisted round in her seat. “It would be a business opportunity, not a handout.”
“No, it wouldn’t be a business opportunity. It would be like cutting a hole in your pocket and seeing how much poured out on a daily basis. And before you get on to my father-in-law’s generous donations to charity, let me tell you that he knows down to the last cent the difference between a good cause and a lost one.”
“OK, some other investor, then.”
“Yes, they’re thick on the ground these days. Queuing up round the block to throw money down a pit, last time I looked.”
“Oh, for God’s sake, Charlie, stop being so negative. I know you don’t want to live here and I’m not even suggesting that that would be necessary. But your son might want to one day. Have you considered that?”
He might have been more shocked at this blow beneath the belt had he not realized, to his shame, that he hadn’t considered his son’s views at all. Not once, not for a moment. He might as well not have had a son.
“Don’t bring Luke into this.”
“Why not? Maisie is part of this too. Hugo and Reggie must have trusted us to look after the house for future generations or they wouldn’t have left it to us.”
He ran the tap, poured himself a glass of water, drank half of it, set it down. “We don’t know what their reasons were. That will was drawn up years ago, before Luke and Maisie were even born. Things were different then.”
The kitchen clock ticked. It was nearly midnight.
Charlie drank the rest of the water. “OK,” he said, “for the sake of argument, let’s say Hugo and Reggie did trust us to look after the house. But looking after the house means making the right decision about its future. As things stand, we can either keep it or we can save it. We can’t do both. If we try to hang on to it, we’ll lose it sooner or later. The only way this house is going to survive in anything like its present form is if we sell it to somebody who has enough money to look after it properly.”
“You don’t know that.”
“I’m being realistic.”
“Is that what you call it?”
“For fuck’s sake,” said Charlie, gesturing to the piles of papers on the kitchen table, “look at all this stuff you’ve been digging up. All this stuff Hugo collected. What does it tell you? This house has never stood still. Not once. They put in an ornamental pond one minute, they change the wallpaper the next, they remodel the whole thing from top to bottom when they’ve got the cash. Then they try and flog it off when they’re skint. So what if a footballer or an oligarch or some celebrity from reality TV buys it and puts a Jacuzzi in the octagon room? Or turns Reggie’s old bedroom into a walk-in closet? Darcy would have installed a fucking plunge pool at Pemberley if he’d known a decent plumber.”
Ros didn’t laugh, but a ghost of a smile appeared on her face, enough to convince him that he was getting somewhere, that this dead weight might lift, or shift.
Then her phone went, buzzing and squirming on the kitchen counter.
“Geoff?” he said, handing it to her.
She looked at the screen. “Maisie. Term’s only half over. She can’t have run out of money yet.” She punched a button. “Hi, sweetheart! What’s up? No, don’t worry, I haven’t gone to bed. Oh, good, good, you got the package, I’m pleased. How about that dress? Did you buy it in the end?” Ros chattered on brightly, looking as if she had just been given a transfusion of freshly oxygenated blood.
Charlie squeezed his sister’s shoulder and murmured, “Don’t wash up. I’ll do it in the morning.”
She nodded and waved, her ear pressed hard to the phone.
* * *
Three a.m. UK time, ten p.m. New York time, Charlie crept down to Tony’s office with his laptop. 19,081,487 people were on Skype. None of them was his wife. Beside her name was a little gray cloud with a white x in the middle of it. He tried her cell but it was switched off and he went straight through to voice mail. He left a message. Then he emailed her and texted her to tell her that he had emailed her.
Charlie missed his wife. He had a wife-shaped hole in his life. But that was only temporary. He could buy a plane ticket right now and that hole would be filled. What was beginning to dawn on him was that his sister had a child-shaped hole in hers, which was only going to become bigger as time went on. Somehow he had to persuade her that the Park wasn’t the answer to an empty nest. It was a cuckoo’s egg and given half the chance it would hatch and swallow them whole.
“The house contains time. Its walls hold stories. Births and deaths, comings and goings, people and events passing through. . . . For now, however, it lies suspended in a kind of emptiness, as if it has fallen asleep or someone has put it under a spell. This silence won’t last: can’t last. Something will have to be done.”
When brother and sister Charlie and Ros discover that they have inherited their aunt’s grand English country house, they must decide if they should sell it. As they survey the effects of time on the estate’s architectural treasures, a narrative spanning two and a half centuries unfolds. We meet those who built the house, lived in it and loved it, worked in it, and those who would subvert it to their own ends. Each chapter is skillfully woven into the others so that the storylines of the upstairs and downstairs characters and their relatives and descendants intertwine to make a rich tapestry. A beautifully written novel full of humor, heart, and poignancy, Ashenden is an evocative portrait of a house that becomes a character as compelling as the people who inhabit it.
Read an Excerpt
Reading Group Guide
Ashenden is the story of a magnificent English country house, the estate that surrounds it, and the people connected to it over the course of 240 years. From its construction in 1775 to the present day, we are witness to the people associated with the house: the architect and his nieces to the successions of families, both happy and not, who inhabit it—the maids and servants who tend the house and grounds; a speculator who resides in the house nearly alone; soldiers billeted there during World War I; prisoners held there during World War II; the couple who rescues it from doom in the 1950s and their descendants, who inherit it in 2010. Throughout all the upheavals of a multicentury life, a constant cycle of neglect and regeneration, and the toll of history, the house withstands it all, always strong enough to endure change.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Ashenden opens in the present day with siblings Charlie and Ros debating what to do with the house they have suddenly inh see more