Unforgettable, page 16
Finn had found the darkest recesses of the cellar had been left empty. He could understand the servants of former times not wanting to venture so deep into the corners. The jumble of discards had been packed almost to the bottom of the stairs, the last of it, he fancied, just chucked in on top. First he had squeezed into the recess behind the stairs and swept it out, coughing and choking until he took off his shirt and wrapped it around his nose and mouth. It was hot and airless and stuffy and he sweated, in his words, ‘like a hog on a spit’. Time and again he filled the giant-sized metal dustpan full of dust, splinters and masonry debris then tipped it into a box he had emptied of dog-eared papers to carry outside to the dustbins. It was a long trek down to the kitchen garden and beyond it with the burnable rubbish but his lungs gratefully inhaled the fresh air, damp today from the light misty rain.
The general maid had told him where to locate the rubbish heap. He had seen her at the Summer Fair, neat and shiny-faced in her dreary uniform of calf-length beige print dress, apron and cap, on duty and enjoying the sights she could not take part in while on duty. She had looked vaguely familiar and he realized why when she told him her name was Matilda Vercoe and she was a cousin to Jenna, and sister to Cathy who was in service at Meadows House. ‘Everyone calls me Tilly except Mrs Mitchelmore. I wish I could pull out the things down there with you,’ she had squealed excitedly. ‘Who know what you might come across – love letters, wedding dresses, photos torn up over a long lost sweetheart.’
Finn had taken to Tilly. She reminded him of Eloise, all sweet and pert and lots of chuckles. She was sixteen years old but looked a couple of years younger. ‘Can’t see there would be anything of the romantic kind in this rather dour place,’ Finn said to the dreamer, then whispering to her disappointed expression, ‘But I’ll let you know if there is.’
‘Wizard,’ Tilly trilled, obviously from something she had read in a storybook about posh children in a boarding school. ‘I’ll be bringing your crib and lunch from tomorrow.’
Every time he had scanned his gritty eyes over the piles of stuff he was to sort out he thought how Denny Vercoe would find this a treasure trove. No doubt, if Mrs Mitchelmore should find need of his services she would send word to him via Tilly. After clearing the recess Finn unearthed a badly marked hunt table and dragged it into the space he had made. There were a variety of unwanted stools and armless chairs and he placed these at either end of the hunt table. Now he had somewhere to push smaller items tidily underneath this irregular platform and he could stack larger items on top of it. He kept one sturdy stool to stand on. There were some hooks and nails along the stair rails and Finn planned to hang pictures from them. There were clearly a lot of paintings, all dreary and faded. On a long high shelf running along the length of the cellar he would replace the dust-laden odds and ends on it, all clearly rubbish, with anything ornamental he found.
Finn had brought his bicycle torch in with him so he could scrutinize items up close. He scratched at his grimy hair. Where to start? His skin leapt to find himself looking into the fearsome eyes of the dappled painted rocking horse that was peering out of stuff piled on and packed around it. He would get the wooden horse out of the cellar but first he had to remove the items blocking access to it. He loaded these on the hunt table, heavy dusty curtains, an Art Deco radio cabinet, a box of men’s grooming items, a dressing-table mirror, heavy pedestals. He put an empty broken suitcase on the stairs and filled it with mouse-eaten stuff for the rubbish heap – mouldy cloth, a battered squeeze-box and much more. With these out of the way he carefully lifted up and hefted away a wheelchair, a basic contraption probably used on outings for decrepit Mitchelmores. With the cellars full of redundant stuff Finn wondered what the attics were like. He was enjoying himself; even the most inconsequential thing he pulled out of the melee was of interest. Who had owned this? Why had it been consigned to dark seclusion? Some items were broken from being thrown in here, by laziness or perhaps bad temper, the culprits perhaps being scared of the dark or spiders and making a hasty retreat.
Finally he was able to drag the rocking horse – he had named it Old Beady Eyes – away from the huddle and haul it towards the stairs. It was as heavy as it was ugly, a job for two men, but Finn did not want to ask Ellery, an old grumpy man, for help on his first morning. Ducking down he put his shoulder under the horse’s belly and reached up and gripped the bridle with his hand. This was going to be dicey. If he fell or the weight of the horse was too much for him it would drag them both down, or the horse might get stuck on a stair, he could take a terrible tumble and be badly injured, but he was too stubborn to be sensible. It was a matter of honour to him to get the rocking horse, a goal mentioned by his employer, up top and on display. It would be a good time to take a break and a breather outside and have a smoke.
It was slower going than he anticipated. After the third step Old Beady Eyes was denting his shoulder and pressing down heavily on his neck. Finn was in pain, the strain was making his head throb and he imagined a blood vessel inside his skull might break. But he was not going to give up. Taking a deep breath, he charged upwards taking the next four steps in one mighty effort. If he fell now he was going to be horrendously hurt. He gasped in another breath and repeated the foolhardy risk on just one step. He was feeling light headed and sick. But he had given himself no choice but to keep going up the last three steps. The next big breath hurt his insides and he grunted and yelled in pain as he stumbled, one step at a time, until his shaking feet made the summit and he was out in the corridor.
The malicious weight of Old Beady Eyes brought him down on his knees and the horse’s rounded belly cracked him on the head. ‘Bastard!’ he rasped under his breath, hating the rocking horse, but he had climbed every one of the fifteen steps.
Thankfully there was no one striding along the long corridor while he panted and wiped off his sweat and pulled in his breath. The muscles of his arms shaking like thin bendy rubber, he lifted Old Beady Eyes against the wall opposite to the bench, but not touching the wall. It was too dusty. He drank the water left for him on the bench in one lusty draught.
The next time he climbed up to the corridor he found the horrid mocking rocking horse had been washed clean and in places where its paint had not been worn away it was gleaming. Each day Finn made sure he left here with a spotless face and scrubbed hands, smelling of Lifebuoy soap.
One afternoon he was on his way with armfuls of tat for the steadily growing rubbish heap and met Tilly on her way in lugging a heavy flasket of dried laundry on her hip. As always she greeted him cheerfully, as if she had known him for years. ‘I popped over to Uncle Denny’s yesterday. Jenna is happily walking out with your friend Sam Lawry. She’s only allowed to say goodbye over the garden gate, mind. Uncle Denny has threatened him with all sorts if he tries to misbehave.’
‘Good for him, I should think so too,’ Finn replied, giving her a pleasant smile. She always blushed a little when he smiled at her and Finn knew she was a touch in awe of him. Once he had gazed at her intensely and this had sent her into twittering shyness. Tilly likely had a bit of a crush on him. He doubted Tilly knew much about what her expression ‘tries to misbehave’ meant. If only his smiles had a similar effect on Belle; if only she saw him as a masculine being. That she would speak enthusiastically about just him, rather than this idea dreamt up for him to partner Mrs R in producing an illustrated children’s book. It was marvellous of Mr Greg, Guy, and his mother to have such belief in his and Mrs R’s abilities, to encourage them with a new project and possible future, and it would be wonderful to work at home and spend so much more time with Eloise, but his feelings, his love and desire for Belle were uppermost in his mind.
In his free time, when he couldn’t think up a reason to go to The Orchards, he fashioned sketches of Belle together with Eloise. Of his beautiful baby sister sleeping peacefully in Belle’s arms and Eloise reaching up her tiny arms to Belle, and giving Belle the glory of her first smiles. And as much as he loved
Once when Finn had taken Eloise to The Orchards and was with Sam and Belle, Charlie had popped in to make a telephone call, causing tight worms of discontent to churn in Finn’s gut. Those beastly worms twisted into iron-cold jealousy when the wretched man had nuzzled Belle’s ear and laughed, ‘We’ll have to keep trying for a girl, darling. There’s still plenty of time.’ Finn knew it was wicked but he couldn’t help himself, for his aching desire for Belle grew with every minute of every day, and he wished Charlie would meet and be seduced by a femme fatale and desert Belle. Or meet some quick and painless predestined death.
He always kept one drawing of Belle folded up deep inside his trouser pocket so when sure he was completely alone he could gaze at it and love Belle. He would touch his heart and swear there would not be another woman for him, and to wait for years for the chance to have Belle if that was how it turned out to be.
‘It’s the christening of your little sister this Sunday afternoon, isn’t it?’ Tilly cheeped. ‘Uncle Denny, Jenna and the family have been invited, um . . . I–I,’ she stuttered and bit her lip. ‘I’ve got the afternoon off . . . I, um . . .’
‘Come along with the other Vercoes,’ Finn said at once. ‘Three o’clock at the church.’
‘Thanks, I will! Oh thanks, Finn. I’d better run along or I’ll be in for it from the mistress if she sees me dawdling.’ Tilly hurried off, trilling, ‘Keep your sunny side up, up.’
Finn forgot about her immediately. He wasn’t looking forward to the church bit of Eloise’s christening, resenting the fact that the vicar’s lazy, stand-offish reputation meant Eloise wasn’t going to be given a proper, moving ceremony. But at least afterwards Belle would be at Merrivale for the spread his mother was laying on in celebration.
‘I see you’ve nearly finished in here, Verity?’ Jack said.
‘Just the crate to unpack, Jack.’ Verity gazed at the particular item, its wood long gone grey with age. Jack had prised off the top of the crate at the outset, but now for Verity was the best part, lifting off the packing straw and discovering the first concealed piece. She would guess – book, map, artefact or something that really was priceless treasure – but there had been none of the latter so far.
‘Would you like to delve into the crate, Jack?’ she said gaily.
‘I’m definitely not interested in its contents,’ Jack said softly, but Verity traced anger in his voice. He took her gently by the arm and led her out of the library.
‘Is something wrong?’ she asked, perplexed.
‘I’m afraid there is, Verity, but first I owe you an enormous apology. I’ve looked through the books and maps you’ve painstakingly laid out on the table and found that most of it was valueless junk that my amoral father had added as a cover for what he had really sought. I’m sorry to say, Verity, that among that tatty old stuff, in foreign languages, is pornography, nasty stuff. It doesn’t surprise me that my father would sink to that. I had intended to call in an antique book expert to see if anything might have been valuable. Instead I’ll have it all removed to the farmland and burnt. I’m so sorry all your hard work has been for nothing, especially as I understand you enjoyed it. I’m sorry you had to touch such unsavoury stuff. I should have checked the contents before I asked you to. I feel ashamed to have had that filth lying in the house for so many years.’
‘Oh.’ Verity could not think of anything else to say. She didn’t care about the old books and other stuff she had logged and labelled, but she was profoundly disappointed to learn her time here at Meadows House had come abruptly to an end.
‘I’ve given you a bit of a shock,’ Jack said, ushering her into the drawing room and sitting her down on the sofa near the fireplace. ‘I’ll ring for tea.’
‘I’m not really shocked about your father’s guilty secret, Jack. The only thing that matters is that I’ve really enjoyed working here. The house and gardens are so peaceful and I so like the Kellands and Cathy.’
Jack suddenly gave her a stunning smile, which highlighted his powerful handsome looks. ‘I’m so pleased to hear it because I want you to spend a lot more time here.’
‘Really? You have something else for me to do here?’
Jack sat next to her and took her hand briefly. ‘I have a special job for you to do, Verity. Tea then explanations.’
‘So you want me to help you redesign the look of parts of the house,’ Verity said a little later. They were now standing in front of the staircase. Would she finally be given permission to climb up and look round the first floor? Hoping so, she was curling her fingers into fists.
‘I’ve got tired of a mobile life. I want to be more settled and spend most of my time here, but before that some things need to be changed. I didn’t have the heart to do it before. I had to find someone I could totally trust to do a special job. I’m perfectly confident I can trust you, Verity.’
‘Thank you, Jack,’ she said, sensing her time spent here had somehow been a test that she had passed, but she didn’t mind. She had enjoyed the work, very much liked the house and the staff, and very much liked Jack. She was wholly comfortable with him, there was no pretence in him and she could just be herself, unlike the fraught time she had spent with her fiancé – which seemed so long ago now. ‘I’ll be very happy to undertake any job for you.’
Jack took a long considering look at her. She was lovely, honest and reliable, yes, but she was also great fun and down to earth. He didn’t have to wonder, conjecture, question or doubt. Verity was the one.
‘I’ll take you upstairs to a certain room.’
So there is a mystery upstairs, Verity thought. She was sure she knew what her test had been. Kelland, in particular, had been attentive towards her. Likely he had been ordered by Jack to watch her to see if she would pry and steal away to the forbidden part of the house. Jack knew he could trust her and Verity was proud of her own discretion. She was excited about what he was about to reveal to her, and strangely nervous too.
Jack led her to the last room along the upstairs corridor. ‘This was my wife Lucinda’s room. You’ve never asked about her, Verity. You must have been curious.’
‘I have been curious but it’s not really my way to snoop. I looked at her photograph in the drawing room; she was very beautiful.’
Jack nodded, his heart filling with emotion. ‘She was, she was gorgeous, but she wasn’t really of this world. Just being alive here on earth was a terrible trial for her. She was mentally ill, of course, something that took me ages to admit to and accept.’ Jack told Verity of his first meeting with Lucinda. ‘After I brought her here, which I had to, you’ll understand why, I tracked down her old nanny. Lucinda’s strange behaviour started the moment she passed infancy. In between short times of lucidity she would refuse to mix with other children and spoke mostly to herself and her toys. She would grow frustrated and bang her head and stamp her feet and scream for hours. The servants thought she was possessed by a demon and soon the nanny was the only one prepared to stay. Her desperate parents had her and the nanny taken away to an isolated house in the Hertfordshire countryside. Her parents were killed and her guardian then had her taken to Florence. He kept her in an attic decorated like a playroom – Lucinda, the nanny and eventually a little white dog, Polly. She was only allowed outside for one hour a day.
‘As time went on the nanny was worn down by the claustrophobic conditions and begged to be allowed to return to England. The guardian reluctantly agreed. The rest I learned from the guardian himself. I called on him with the news that his lost ward was safe and sound in the hotel. He wasn’t interested. It was easy to see he loathed having the responsibility of Lucinda, and he was set on putting her in an institution. I’d spent time with her. I was utterly charmed by her. It wasn’t her fault she had an affliction. I offered to take over Lucinda’s care. The guardian willingly accepted and signed her legally over to me. He told me I’d need to ship all her things ove
‘I’m sorry, Jack.’ Verity found it natural to slip her hand around his. He squeezed her hand gently, and they were bonded in his secret, more than friendship.
He produced a key from his trouser pocket and unlocked the door in front of them. ‘I think you should prepare yourself for a bit of a shock.’ He stepped inside the room taking Verity with him. He shut the door carefully.
‘My goodness!’ Verity gasped in awe. ‘It’s . . . it’s . . .’
‘Not a room for an adult or a child, is it? It’s a carnival, a creepy carnival. It scares me, the peculiarity, the absurdity of it all. It was how Lucinda wanted it, her room arranged like she was in a fairy-tale, a pantomime. Her little bed in the middle of what looks like a stage. Costumes, dozens of costumes for Lucinda to dress up in, even a fairy wand and wings. And all these dolls, there are exactly two hundred and twenty of them here. And there are more. They are in the trunk.’ Jack couldn’t prevent himself trembling as he took Verity along to a sea captain style trunk at the foot of the bed.
Suddenly he wrapped his arms tightly around Verity as if he needed to protect her. ‘I shouldn’t have brought you here. What’s in the trunk is shocking, horrible. It’s my fault. I shouldn’t have pandered to all of Lucinda’s wishes but I didn’t realize how disturbed she was.’ Turning Verity he looked intensely into her eyes and said in desperation, ‘I should take you out of here.’
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