The Lady of the Manor Ch. 01
The Lady of the Manor
A young architect becomes a toy-boy for the widowed lady of the manor. But her Ladyship has darker desires…
I bought the bungalow on the edge of the woods because it was the only rural property in my price bracket; I had no interest in living in Bristol, where I worked, or in any of the nearby market towns. I wanted peace and quiet and that meant isolation. And boy was this place isolated: it didn’t even have a proper made-up road leading to it, just a grassy cart track. And it was sadly neglected, full of hideous 1970’s wallpaper and flower-patterned carpets, the kitchen almost beyond redemption with cupboard doors hanging off and an oven that hadn’t been cleaned since around the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. Add to this an overgrown garden with a falling-down summerhouse and you’re starting to get the picture.
But it was basically sound and I knew I could fix it up, given time. I’m an architect, you see. Ok, only a newly qualified one, but I got one of the surveyors in our office to come and have a look and he gave it the thumbs up. And it came with a three-acre paddock which I thought maybe I could develop into a campsite or, the jewel in the crown, sell to a property developer for an obscene profit. The fact that a property developer would be unlikely to gain planning permission for a site with no proper access didn’t seem to have occurred to me at the time. Indeed the isolation was a double-edged sword. Yes, I loved the fact that all I could hear were the sounds of the birds and the lowing of distant cattle, but there were undoubtedly drawbacks: for one thing, the waste skip lorry refused to come down the grass track, so the detritus from my renovations had to be lugged five-hundred yards to the nearest road, which was only an unclassified lane. But these inconveniences aside, I loved the place and set to work with a will, stripping rooms, re-plastering, putting in a new kitchen and bathroom.
I’d been in the place about three months when, one Saturday morning, the prospect of another day of intensive DIY suddenly lost its appeal. It was late May, and the byways and hedgerows that criss-crossed the countryside around my place were green and leafy and dotted with wildflowers, the scent of may blossom heavy in the air. I felt like the Mole in “The Wind in the Willows”, I needed to get outside and breathe some fresh air. So I put some lunch in a knapsack, grabbed the Ordnance Survey map and walked out of my garden and onto a public footpath, heading towards the spire of a distant church.
It was a warm day, overcast and muggy, the sun promising to break through sometime in the afternoon. I walked for a couple of hours, savouring the freshness of the abundant vegetation and the surround-sound birdsong, walking where my fancy and the footpaths led, consulting the map and checking it against the GPS on my phone. At length, hungry and hot, I found a grassy area by a field gate where I sat down and ate my sandwiches and drank coffee from my flask. Afterwards I leant back against the trunk of a small tree and belched pleasurably, looking across the fields to a nearby spinney, hearing the sound of sheep and lambs in the field behind me, the peak of my cap shading my eyes, the emerging sun hot on my bare arms, flies buzzing through the thick air…
I must have dozed off because I had no awareness of the approaching rider until a voice startled me into wakefulness.
‘I say, you couldn’t do me a big favour and open that gate for me could you?’ a voice said in the cut-glass tones of the British aristocracy. My head jerked up; vision momentarily blurred. A large chestnut horse was standing in front of me, the rider’s features shadowed by the sun at their back. I climbed groggily to my feet and slid the locking bar of the gate and pushed it open. ‘Thanks, awfully. Were you asleep?’
‘I think I must have been,’ I admitted as the rider nudged the horse gently and it trotted past me and through the gate, giving me my first look at her. It was, as the voice had suggested, a lady. The first thing I noticed was a highly polished brown riding boot, then, as I looked up, a very shapely thigh, clad in skin-tight cream jodhpurs, a tweed hacking jacket and a black riding helmet. Beneath the helmet was the face of a middle-aged lady, maybe late middle age. Her face was lined, her eyes very blue with pronounced crow’s feet. A rather hooked nose over a generous mouth with full lips completed that first impression.
The horse stopped the other side of the gate and I swung it shut, careful to avoid clashing the gate into the post and spooking the horse. The rider sat confidently, holding a riding crop in one hand, the other holding the reins. ‘Sorry if I woke you,’ she smiled widely down at me, showing strong teeth, her blue eyes crinkling. I’d have done the gate myself if I’d realised you were asleep. Mind you I’d probably have disturbed you anyway; Stanley doesn’t tiptoe very successfully.’
‘Oh, no worries. I probably need to get on anyway.’
The Escort Şişli rider still made no move to go. ‘Where are you headed?’
‘Oh, nowhere in particular. I’m just exploring. I’ve just moved into the area,’ I explained. She looked quizzically at me, the smile still in place. ‘The bungalow, at the edge of Thorpe Wood?’ I elaborated.
‘Oh, the Richardson’s old place! Gosh, that’s been empty for simply ages. Does it need much work? I haven’t been inside for years.’
‘Nothing that completely gutting won’t cure,’ I said, lightly, and she laughed.
‘Are you handy at that sort of thing?’
‘I will be by the time I’ve finished.’
She laughed again. ‘That makes us neighbours.’ She transferred the riding crop to her left hand and leaned down, extending her right hand in its brown leather glove. I raised my hand and we shook briefly over the top bar of the gate. ‘I’m Caroline, or Caro if you prefer.’
‘Tom,’ I said.
‘Is that short for Thomas?’ I nodded. ‘I’ll call you Thomas then. That was the name of my first boyfriend. A while ago now,’ she added, still smiling at me.
I smiled back, aware of her scrutiny, then I bent and picked up my knapsack. ‘Well, it’s been very nice to meet you, Caroline,’ I said, deciding that if she wouldn’t shorten my name I wouldn’t shorten hers. ‘Anytime you want a gate opened and I’m asleep in the area…’
She carried on looking at me, as though assessing my character. ‘Look, Thomas, I’m having a few friends over next Sunday. Afternoon tea and a bit of yacking, that sort of thing. It might be terribly boring for you, I’m sure you’d be the youngest person there by about thirty years, apart from Claire of course. But David will be there and he knows oodles of people in the building trade and… it might be useful to meet him and some of the others. Anyway, I’ll get Claire to send you an invite, and I won’t be in the least offended if you’d rather not.’
‘Thank you,’ I said, surprised, and she gave me a last look and a smile and, turning the horse around, trotted off across the field.
The invitation arrived in the post on Tuesday morning on an expensive looking embossed card sealed inside an expensive looking envelope.
Viscountess Baythorpe requests the pleasure of the company of Mr Thomas Bailey at Baythorpe Manor at 4pm on Sunday 3rd of June for afternoon tea and light refreshments. Dress casual. RSVP to Ms Claire Downing — Estate Manager.
Viscountess Baythorpe! Good grief! And how did she know my surname? I hadn’t told her. I supposed that “Claire” had discovered it. It wouldn’t be difficult. I was in two minds whether or not to respond to the invitation; I’d never had anything to do with the titled classes. On the other hand, Caroline had seemed ok, if you ignored the accent, and it might, as she had suggested, be useful for me to meet some of the local “quality”. In the end I called the number on the card.
The voice at the other end was well-spoken, but not aristocratic: ‘Baythorpe Manor, Claire speaking.’
‘Hi, it’s Thomas Bailey. I’ve got an invitation to tea at Baythorpe Manor this Sunday and I was ringing to confirm that I will be attending.’
‘Just a moment, Mr Bailey. Ah, yes. Thank you. I’ll inform her Ladyship.’
‘Um, the invitation says casual dress… I was just wondering…’
I could almost hear the condescending smile at the other end of the line. ‘Trousers and a shirt. No jeans.’ I thanked her and disconnected.
Afterwards I did a bit of research on the Viscountess. I discovered that, strictly speaking, she was the Dowager Viscountess, her husband, the ninth Viscount, having died two years ago. The title appeared to have passed to a distant cousin in Australia; presumably the Baythorpes hadn’t had children. There were also pictures available of Baythorpe Manor, a Regency red-brick mansion standing in five-hundred acres of parkland, woods and pasture. It was only about a mile from my house. In fact, apart from the lodge house at the main gate of the estate, I was probably the closest neighbour.
I was nervous as the day of the tea party approached. So much so that I spent one lunch hour shopping for a new pair of trousers and a decent shirt. On Sunday afternoon I showered before dressing, smiling to myself at the thought of a sweaty oik in the midst of her Ladyship’s august gathering. I wasn’t really looking forward to the thing but having accepted the invitation I couldn’t possibly not turn up. I set out at three-thirty for the walk to the manor having decided that my car was too embarrassingly decrepit to park outside a stately home. The afternoon was warm and breezy as I followed the lane to a B road and up to the lodge gates where I turned in and walked up the avenue of beech trees to the gravelled area at the front of the house.
Baythorpe Manor had been built by the first Viscount in 1820, his title having been conferred a few years before for services rendered on the fields surrounding Quatre Bra at the culmination Sultangazi escort of the Napoleonic wars. It was three-storeyed and four-square with formal gardens to two sides and a grand portico guarding the immense oaken front door. I now stepped up to that door and rang a perfectly ordinary-looking doorbell, a little incongruous in those surroundings. I waited nervously for a minute or two, wondering if the thing worked. Then it was opened and a youngish lady with black hair and a pale complexion was standing on the threshold and saying: ‘you must be Mr Bailey. Do come in. I’ll inform her Ladyship that you’ve arrived.’
I followed her in, admiring the curve of her buttocks in her black trousers as she walked ahead of me. She stopped in front of a panelled door. ‘Please wait here, Mr Bailey,’ she smiled tightly at me before disappearing inside. A moment later the door re-opened and there was Caroline, the dowager Viscountess, smiling her wide smile and holding out her hand. ‘Thomas! I’m so glad you could come.’
I had an insane urge to bow or curtsey or something and kiss her hand but I just shook it instead, feeling her grip, light but firm. And I now had my first proper look at my illustrious neighbour. She was about five feet six or seven, it’s hard to tell when a lady is wearing high heels, with ash blonde hair cut in an expensive looking shoulder-length bob. Her hair was surely dyed, but that too had been done carefully and expensively. Her face was younger-looking than I remembered; I think the harshness of the sun at the field gate had accentuated her lines. She was, I guessed, somewhere between fifty-five and sixty, a slight looseness of the skin at her throat inclining me to the upper figure. And speaking of figures hers was just gorgeous; it would have been the envy of a woman thirty years her junior. The tight-fitting grey woollen dress she wore showed her bust, flat stomach and shapely hips to perfection. The result of a thousand years of selective breeding, I thought. Or interbreeding. Below the dress her calves, in their light grey tights (or stockings? Surely somebody that looked this good didn’t wear tights!) were long and sculpted, with slim ankles. The hand I shook was slim too, with faint brown age spots and perfectly manicured nails, varnished with a pink lacquer which matched her lipstick.
‘Let me introduce you to everybody. Well this is Claire.’ The lady who’d shown me in smiled at me again then disappeared back through the door, presumably to her duties. We walked over to the knot of people standing around the cavernous fireplace. ‘Everybody!’ my hostess trilled to gain their attention. ‘This is Thomas. He’s my new neighbour, so I hope you’ll all make him feel very much at home. Now,’ she said turning to me, ‘you must excuse me, I’ve got to discuss heaps of things with Mrs Mortimer and the Major. We’ll have a good old chat a bit later.’ And with that she left me standing there and went over to a matronly lady in a tweed suit that shouted: “country set” and an elderly gentleman in a blue blazer.
I looked around, smiling a bit stupidly, wondering what to do next. Then a lady detached herself from the group and came over to me. ‘Hello Thomas, I’m Margery Jameson. Miss Jameson talked at me for the best part of half an hour, mainly about her “good works” and the local Womens’ Institute. After ten minutes I was fiercely bored and wishing I hadn’t come. Eventually a middle-aged man in a jacket and a polo-necked jumper intervened. He must have sensed my growing despair.
‘Margery, my dear, it isn’t fair for you to monopolise this young gentleman. First fresh blood we’ve seen for years!’ He smiled at Margery as he deftly detached me and steered me to a quiet corner. ‘Hope I wasn’t intruding,’ he said, with a glint in his eye. ‘You were starting to look a bit desperate. I’m David by the way, David Brooks.’
It turned out that this was the David who knew “oodles of people in the building trade”, so we talked about my cottage and he said he’d have a word with his suppliers and, if I cared to mention his name, they’d give me a trade discount. I thanked him gratefully. That would make a considerable difference. ‘What line of business are you in?’ he asked, presently.
‘I’m an architect.’
‘Really. What do you think of this place?’
It was a difficult question to answer, in the circumstances, and he knew it, but he looked at me shrewdly and waited for my answer. ‘I’ve only seen it for the first time today,’ I temporised. ‘But…’
‘Go on,’ he said.
I took the plunge. ‘It’s impressive but it could have been done more elegantly. Some of the proportions don’t seem quite optimal to me.’
‘He gripped my arm. ‘Just what I’ve always thought.’ We talked about other things and I had the feeling that I had made a useful acquaintance.
The rest of the afternoon tea party wasn’t too bad; I talked to most of the gathering — there were no more than a dozen — and the time passed agreeably enough. At six Taksim escort bayan o’clock people started drifting towards the entrance hall where Caroline was waiting to thank them for coming and to say her goodbyes. I found myself at the back of this little press of people and so was the last to offer my thanks to my hostess. She smiled that wide-mouthed smile at me: ‘we haven’t had a chance to chat, Thomas. Why don’t you stay for a bit and we’ll have a proper drink; the sun’s well over the yardarm now.’
So I loitered in the hall as the last of her guests disappeared and she shut the big front door. ‘Right, follow me.’ She led me up the big curving staircase to the first floor and along a wide, oak panelled passage, lined with oil paintings, presumably of previous Viscounts and their spouses. I followed obediently, taking the opportunity to look at her rear end and her legs, as she went through a door in the panelled wall and into a modern-looking sitting room with sofas, a huge flat-screen television and delightful views of the formal gardens and parkland through the big sash windows. ‘My little retreat,’ she explained, going to a sideboard. ‘What will you drink?’
‘Whisky, please,’ I hazarded. She reeled off a few different Highland single-malt distilleries, none of which I’d heard of, and I chose one at random. She made herself a gin and tonic and we sat down in easy chairs around a solid looking coffee table.
Caroline reached for a scruffy old leather handbag on the floor beside her chair. ‘Do you mind if I smoke? I know it’s dreadful, and I don’t have more than a couple a day, but those tea parties…’ She left the sentence unfinished. She offered the pack to me but I declined. ‘Now, tell me about yourself. I want to hear everything!’ She lit her cigarette with a gold lighter and inhaled deeply.
‘Well it’s not very exciting, I’m afraid.’ I told her about my childhood in the Midlands and school and university and how I’d played rugby for my university team and had attracted the attention of the England selectors.
‘Well, that sounds pretty exciting to me. I don’t know anybody that’s actually played rugby for England.’
‘Yes, well, I only lasted half a game, a friendly against France. I tore my cruciate ligament so badly that I had to give up rugby. So I concentrated on my degree and became an architect.’
‘Oh that’s terrible.’ She stubbed her cigarette out, giving me a sympathetic look. She’d been looking at me intently while I spoke. Not intrusively, but with an interested air, assessing me, perhaps. She stood up and walked over to the drinks cabinet and I took the opportunity for another look at her figure. When she’d refreshed our drinks she sat down again and I asked her to tell me about herself.
So she told me of her childhood — she was the daughter of an eminent Harley Street surgeon — and of her life as Viscountess Baythorpe and the things she did to pass the time: the fetes she opened, the endless committees she sat on, the tea parties and the dinner parties. ‘And it’s all so much more difficult since my husband died. One has to shoulder the burden on one’s own and it’s tiring, sometimes. Life doesn’t seem to be all that much fun anymore,’ she finished wistfully.
After the third whisky I began to feel light-headed and made my excuses. Caroline seemed to want to talk (and drink and smoke) some more but she stood up when I did and walked with me down to the big front door.
‘Thank you for coming, Thomas,’ she said, taking my hand in both hers. ‘It was brave of you! All those dull friends of mine.’ Her eyes were liquid and slightly unfocussed. ‘But I think you and I are going to be great friends.’ She continued to hold my hand and smile at me. I thanked her and gently disengaged myself and walked through the portico, down the five or six steps to the gravelled drive, aware that the door was still open and Viscountess Baythorpe was still watching my retreating figure. I half turned and waved and she waved back and shut the door.
Back at home I sat in the garden and pondered the events of the afternoon as night descended. What, I wondered, would have happened if we’d stayed in her sitting room until we were both drunk? Would I have made a pass at the Viscountess? Surely not! Would she have made a pass at me? Even more surely not. And if she had, what would I have done? She was knocking on sixty, I guessed, and I’ve never particularly had a thing for mature ladies. But she was exquisitely built… and, I admitted to myself, really rather sexy. And desirable? Yes, desirable. I wondered what the future held for me. It could, I decided, getting up and going in, be decidedly interesting, but I would need to tread carefully. If it turned out that my titled friend really did fancy a fling with her young neighbour then I must wait until she made the first move. As it turned out, I didn’t have to wait for very long.
The letter in the post a week later was in Caroline’s own hand, a graceful and sophisticated copperplate script:
Thank you once again for coming to my tea party last Sunday. Everybody has been talking about the handsome young rugby player (yes, I’m afraid I told them) and I expect you will start to receive further invitations to tea in the forthcoming weeks. Unless you’re lucky of course!