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She wrote a postcard to Murray. ‘Hope you enjoy the Festival. Couldn’t make it this year. I’m on an assignment in Suffolk. Love to Claudia and the kid.’ She had never told Murray much about Suffolk and what she did say was rather vague. Oh, I lived there in the seventies with some hippies. Her life before him held little interest for him. He was a man of the present. She licked the stamp. She had a picture of him in her mind at the opening of one of her exhibitions. Murray, in the centre of the room with a group of people around him. He was a tall man. He turned round suddenly to look for her and in that sweeping movement seemed to Tessa like a magician who could conjure up who he wanted, and make disappear who he didn’t want. She decided she wouldn’t write to him again.
She left her room and went to the abbey gardens; the hotel faced one of the old gatehouses. Bury St Edmunds was lively that Saturday; the market was on, the car parks were full, in the abbey gardens were people enjoying themselves in the manner Tessa found so repugnant. But now she was preoccupied.
The abbey, the burial place of St Edmund, had once been huge, the largest ecclesiastical building in Britain. Its size today would compare to a shopping complex, but there was virtually nothing left of it, eroded since the Reformation by weather, and also by townsfolk who used the place as a quarry; there were many houses in Bury built out of the abbey. Only a few portions of wall and excavated foundations remained. The lumps of stone, to Tessa, were baffling, a piece here, another bit at the far end of the gardens. A sign said ‘The Dormitory’ – did monks really sleep there? She couldn’t imagine it – where? There wasn’t anywhere. She stood in the nave by the high altar. Over her head should have been a vaulted roof but instead there was the Suffolk sky with hanging clouds moving slowly. It would have all vanished, thought Tessa, if someone hadn’t preserved it. It was time for her to start working.
From Bury St Edmunds she drove east and north, for St John’s was close to the Norfolk border. She had hitched up and down this road dozens of times but now the road was wider and faster, bypassing all the villages – the windmill at Stanton; Botesdale and Rickinghall Superior, so close to each other they were quite entangled; Walsham-le-Willows. She was watching the road signs. Harlesdon, with its wide, open street and Georgian houses. Ten miles to go. The road ran alongside the Waveney. Here she felt she must know every tree. Wortwell. It’s a job, I’m on a job. Piccadilly Corner. Wasn’t that where? … Six places, three sketches of each … Flixton, the old aerodrome, it’s been ploughed up. Well, the pub’s been tarted … Earsham … I waited for a lift there for three hours once. Then just before Bungay she turned off the main road with the lorries and holiday cars going to Lowestoft, into the lanes, into the area called the Saints, where there’s a local saying that once you get into them you can’t get out, and it seems true, for the roads meander irrationally and the signposts, if you can find them, are confusing. Left, St Margaret’s, right St Margaret’s. But Tessa was not lost. Here the countryside was open and the sky fell right down to the ground uninterrupted. The road swept round in a huge arc avoiding no apparent obstacle. This was the Saints. Left was St Margaret’s, St Michael’s, St James, St George, St Lawrence, the other St Margaret’s; and right was St John’s.
St John’s was barely a hamlet, four cottages and a farm close to the church. Once over the bridge there was no more of it, a truly uneventful place. But across the fields was a group of tall trees which the eye was drawn to as the trees in this area were usually solitary; and as the road turned again the Hall could be seen. Tessa saw it now and felt again the impact, for although the Hall was neither huge nor grand it was imposing.
Three of them in a car, cruising round Fulham on a hot day.
‘What shall we dooo?’
‘Come on, Don, you’re full of ideas.’
‘… We could go somewhere.’
‘Yeah, what a turn on.’
And then Don said, ‘I’ve got a super idea’ and Tessa and Dee-Dee fell about laughing. ‘No, honestly, a really good idea … I’ve got a sort of cousin …’
‘He lives in the countryside, in an amazing place … stop laughing … right, you don’t believe me, I’ll take you there.’
‘Don, Don, we believe you … mind that lorry! … Don, Don? Where are we going?’
Three of them in a car all the way to Suffolk, and Tessa and Dee-Dee sang ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ and kept saying ‘are we nearly there yet?’ but as they got further and further from London the joke wore off. They drove for hours beyond Baldock, Royston and Newmarket, for this was when Suffolk was the sleepiest place on earth and nobody ever went there.
They turned the last bend and there was the Hall across the fields. There were more hedges then but it still stood out boldly. The sun shone on its church windows.
Dee-Dee scrambled next to Tessa to get a better look. ‘Oh, oh, is this it?’
‘Does he live here by himself? Oh, Don, I’m not smart enough.’
‘He won’t mind.’
The drive was a mud track full of potholes. There was a collection of crumbling barns. The place seemed derelict. They drove into the courtyard, where weeds grew between brick paving under a huge chestnut tree. Three of them, in crumpled London clothes. Dee-Dee pulled her mini skirt straight, but Tessa just stared.
‘What do you think?’ said Don. There were weeds growing on the roof.
‘It’s wild,’ said Tessa; ‘it’s like a dream …’
Tessa, in her cream Morris Traveller, turned into the courtyard. It was neatly gravelled, but the chestnut tree was as massive as ever. Its branches skimmed the roof of restored barns. In front of the house was an area of lawn.
She glanced at her brief. The owners were a Mr and Mrs B. Hallivand. Tessa had always used the side door by the kitchen but she supposed a Mr and Mrs B. Hallivand might not. The main door was in the porch, very like a church porch, two-storied with a tiny room above. Gargoyles gaped. The knocker was twisted brass, heavy. No answer. She knocked again and the noise echoed through the house. She tried the side door, no answer. Shit. She studied the brief. ‘Copy of letter sent to Mr and Mrs’ etc. ‘Thank you for your co-operation in the production of The Historic Houses of Suffolk’ (in red letters). ‘This book will be a unique document examining the most beautiful and,’ etc.
‘Schedule of work. The artist, Ms Tessa Foolks’ (spelt wrongly) ‘will arrive at your home on Saturday 24
August at one-thirty promptly.’ Typical Pumpkin. It was now one-twenty-five. Tessa waited and smoked a French cigarette, which was something she did in times of extreme stress. St John’s was locked and silent.
Shit. Stupid rich bums, I should have phoned! She much preferred working at a house not privately owned; at least she could cold-shoulder inquisitors. ‘Yes, thank you, it is very good and I’ve got one more hour to finish it.’ You couldn’t say that to an owner. They always hovered about making sure you included their favourite meconopsis, or got the patina exactly right on the hautboy. She waited and smoked another cigarette.
Damn you, she said, partly to the house, partly to the Hallivands and also partly to her invading memories, but she was holding them back, concentrating hard; this house, the present, this job. Except at that moment there was no job.
She stared at the house. The stonework had been recently cleaned and was buff-gold, the chimney stacks were straight, there were flower beds alongside the walls. Marguerites, artemesia, not bad choices, well weeded, probably had a gardener. To the left was a brick wall surrounding the orchard. The old apple trees leaning and twisted, they were still there, a good crop of apples coming, no vegetables, that was to be expected.
The grass was closely cut. On it were white metal chairs round a table, old ones, looked French. A striking herbaceous border ran down this side of the house; behind were espalier pear trees. The lawn fell down to the moat. From here it seemed as if the house were completely surrounded by water but in reality the moat was crescent-shaped, the furthest end of it under the tall trees in a dank wilderness. Between the moat and the Hall was a narrow strip of grass. Three doors opened out onto this. It was the most sheltered part of the garden, protected from the winds that always blew across Suffolk, straight from Russia. This narrow lawn led to another enclosed area. Tessa felt proud of the gardens. The Hallivands’ beautiful borders would not exist had she not spent nearly ten years in her wellies, chopping, cutting and digging. Gardens were the one thing Tessa still let herself be emotional about and she was actually smiling as she approached the rose garden.
Old roses with trailing stems and heavy flowers, dark red petals on the lawn. In June a deep musky scent only old roses have …
There was a door there now. Of course in August there would only be a few blooms, perhaps one or two on the Zépherine Drouhin …
There was concrete under her feet and what? … at first she couldn’t take it in: there was a swimming pool …
‘The peasants!’ shrieked Tessa. She couldn’t believe it, what about the Provence rose and the musk rose? The damask roses?
White concrete, flowers in tubs, a square of blue-bottomed swimming pool. Tessa felt sick. The Zépherine Drouhin still climbed the wall, but her garden, her special place, lying on the grass breathing in sweet rose air, her quartered roses of burgundy and darkest crimson, almost purple … There were glass doors and a patio with barbecue furniture. I’m going, she thought, but a car was coming.
A maroon Volvo estate turned into the courtyard. Tessa was storming across the orchard. The owner flounced towards her unstably on high heels. They met on the lawn in front of the house.
‘I’m so sorry, didn’t you get my message?’
‘No.’ Tessa was obviously furious.
‘How dreadful, it’s simply unforgivable.’
‘Yes, it’s unforgivable.’ This digs up roses, thought Tessa. It was tall and glamorous, hair unnaturally strawberry-blonde and shiny. It smiled determinedly. ‘You see, I had to go to Norwich, there was a snuff box in Elm Hill … Bernard’s at an auction … I phoned the hotel … It’s so awful when this happens, have you been here long?’
The owner wore silky peach and a face trying to be cheerful but visibly unsettled by Tessa, scowling, in black trousers and a tight T-shirt like a dark urban angel. But Tessa was less angry; she decided this person was not a malicious vandal, more an ignorant one with a high-gloss finish. It offered an elegant hand with pearly fingernails.
‘How do you do, I’m Mirabelle Hallivand, and you must be the artist, Tessa Fooks.’
‘Fulks, they always spell it wrong,’ and she smiled.
Mirabelle laughed and threw her head back, showing perfect white teeth. ‘Well, here we are … What a day … and the snuff box was a fake, I could tell at once … and you’ve been waiting, and the help’s off …’
‘I’d better start work,’ said Tessa; ‘I do have a schedule.’
‘Of course, but please, do come in and let me make you some tea.’
What Tessa noticed first as they stepped inside was the familiar smell; wet stone, damp rush-matting and woodsmoke. She always supposed people gave houses their particular odours, but St John’s seemed to have one of its own. The porch was not filled with gardening tools, flower pots and muddy boots; on the floor was an exquisite rug.
‘This is the great hall,’ said Mirabelle, opening a door in the panelling. There were tapestries on the wall. An ornate brass lantern hung from the rafters. ‘Make yourself comfortable,’ said Mirabelle, showing Tessa an enormous sofa.
There was a grand piano, Persian rugs on the stone floor and large Chinese vases. Mirabelle brought tea in fluted porcelain. She perched on an embroidered chair near the mouth of the huge fireplace.
‘So, you’re going to paint St John’s.’
‘Sketches, really, I finish them off later, they’ll mostly be for page decorations. Has the photographer come?’
‘Last week, he was most charming … It’s nice to have company, it gets isolated here.’ Mirabelle was extremely thin, like a whippet, and had a whippet’s habit of trembling. ‘Bernard has to go to auctions, you see, he’s a dealer.’
‘Got a shop, has he?’
Mirabelle laughed extravagantly. ‘This is the shop. It’s all for sale!’ Her gesture included the entire contents of the great hall. ‘It’s much nicer for clients to decide in a relaxed atmosphere.’
‘Do people come out here?’ Tessa was amazed.
A tremble ran down Mirabelle’s arm into her teacup. ‘We don’t sell to the popular market, our clients are very discerning.’
Tessa quietly estimated the cost of the rug under her feet. To think they had slept on this floor huddled by the fire.
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