Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Art of Ownership by Brooke Fieldhouse

Hereward and his wife Sweetsmile put their beloved home Penn'th Hall on the market, but Hereward harbours secret motives; by Brooke Fieldhouse.

Hereward struts into the dining room, and gazes gloomily out to sea. The mist of the early morning has cleared and it's a glorious day. Trees are glowing like nuggets of gold, the water on the estuary shining like a giant plate of silver.

From a distant part of his estate he can hear the drumming of a woodpecker, and just outside the window a dove breaks free from its perch in an alder and a thousand fat little catkins swing backwards and forwards, releasing a tower of pollen into the warming air.

It's so unlike how Hereward feels inside.

There's something hanging over him. A dark cloud... A collection of gases; grubby, menacing, and coalescing inside his head. He's got to face facts - but please, not yet...

His eye comes to rest on the baize-like surface of the lawn outside the window, and he recalls the night twenty years ago when he danced. Not upon this lawn, but on the modest square of grass which had been the garden of his semi-detached in... somewhere no longer important. It had been the night his mother died, and he became certain that he would inherit a fortune large enough to purchase Penn'th Hall.



The telephone call had come in the early morning. He'd gone outside, and in the glow from the sodium light, had slowly and deliberately performed a dance while muttering the words of JB Morton's Dancing Cabman which he had learned at school.

Alone on the lawn
The cabman dances
In the dew of dawn
He kicks and prances
His bowler is set
On his bullet head
For his boots are wet
And his aunt is dead

Hereward could contain himself no longer, and as he stretched out his arms, and kicked with his feet, he shouted the final line:

'And his mother is dead!'

Then he held his knuckles against his teeth. He did not want to wake his wife, Sweetsmile who was asleep in the front bedroom.

'Fifty five acres of woodland, Grade 2 Heritage Listed. A stunning elevated setting over the estuary,' the estate agent's details had said. 'A well-stocked garden and a viewing platform from which Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton once looked out...'

Hereward can feel a sob forcing its way into his mouth. He turns, takes two paces, and with almost superhuman force brings his hand down - smack, on the huge polished mahogany table. He's conscious of a sound, senses a rush of air, and like a house owner who has just surprised a burglar in the dead of night, he expels the sob, in one great howl.

'Fuckingbastard!'

The nights had been long. He and Sweetsmile had separate rooms; she didn't seem to mind - just kept smiling sweetly. He'd spent a lot of time hunched over his computer. At first it was Casino, after that, Double Vegas; then 3D Roulette seemed more attractive. There were unofficial websites where stakes were higher, excitement more intense.

He dared not tell Sweetsmile what he had done. He had never known a time when she had not smiled.



Aria sat in his office peering into the perfect surface of his glass table. It was like a pool of infinite depth, and he was convinced that if he asked it a question, it would give an answer.

The rejoinder came in the form of a shout from his assistant Eljah who was making coffee in the office kitchen.

'You're number fifty-five in the Rich List, Aria. That's up ten from last year!'

Aria wasn't his real name; his wife always called him that because of his love of music. They adored Mozart and Beethoven, and even before their seven children were born, she had called him Aria. Sometimes it would be 'Aria Cantabile,' on other occasions she would refer to him as 'Aria Agitata,' and even 'Aria di Bravura!' The two of them knew many pieces by heart, and would - when the mood took them - strike up a duet. It really was most charming.

Eljah noiselessly set down the coffee cup in front of Aria. Everything Eljah did was careful, thoughtful, and Aria knew that Eljah liked working for him because Aria was a man of great fairness and - in spite of his wealth - a man of modesty. He was tall - six foot four and a quarter - with a powerful chest, but his wife always told him that he was as soft as a lamb. He really was a very nice man.

He studied his reflection in the oval mirror which he had hung on the wall opposite his desk. With his long dark beard and pince-nez spectacles, he smiled at the thought that he bore more than a passing resemblance to a character in an illustration by Edmund Dulac. He loved all those stories; The Princess and the Pea, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, Treasure Island... He adored everything which was British. Knew by heart all the kings and queens of England that there had ever been.

Aria's grandparents had been refugees from a European city. He'd done well. Been blessed with many children, owned numerous properties, and had a lovely house. But that wasn't enough for Aria. He wanted to give back to those from whom he had benefitted. He supported charities, gave money, yet there was still something missing.

Things hadn't all been easy. The northern city in which he lived sometimes erupted in violence. There had been hatred. What Aria most wanted, was to feel that he belonged, to have a home that he really owned; really owned.



Hereward and Sweetsmile had no children. Since they had purchased Penn'th Hall, the two of them lived on the uppermost of its three floors. Guests came - though no more than one at a time, so when Stiv did her daily rounds of the eighteen rooms - not counting bathroom and toilets - she was cleaning rooms which had been unoccupied, often for months.

When the evenings were long and the weather mild, Hereward and Sweetsmile would walk in the grounds admiring the work of their gardener Div. Better still they would venture deep into the woodland of the estate, sometimes play hide and seek. He searched, she always hid. She really was so very coy.

When it rained, they would walk round the rooms of the house... Across the hall, round the drawing room, and through the library. They would gently perambulate the circular sun room; take a tour of the study, stroll through the bedrooms, and arrive back at the dining room where they would climb up onto the deep window sill and stand, staring out into the fastness beyond the glass. Hereward thought that Sweetsmile looked like a gentle little doll. She was five feet tall; he was no more than five feet four.

People said they'd been just right for one another - had met at Art College in the 1960s... Spent hours going to gigs, visiting the antique clothes markets. Sweetsmile could make herself look just like Arthur Rackham's illustrations of Alice. The wedding almost hadn't happened. Her family had paid for the semi-detached, and although Sweetsmile smiled throughout the register office ceremony, Hereward thought that her old man looked as if he had little to smile about. Hereward's money had come much later.

His dad had been a taxi driver from Plaistow, died from a coronary, leaving Mum little else to live on other than the state pension... But there had been something else; patents, for mining lamps designed by Grandad who'd been an inventor. Years back, the designs had been sold to international mining companies in exchange for big blocks of shares. As the shares soared and dividends poured in Mum just carried on, living the frugal life she had always known. Remember that day she forgot to lock the drawer where she kept her bank statements? 'Jesus! There was bloody millions,' and Hereward was the sole heir!

He felt sick again, but the cloud which had been hanging over him was beginning to clear. He could feel a plan forming in his mind. But not yet, he was still not ready. He would wait a little longer...



Sweetsmile would only leave the house to visit her dressmaker, and the two of them would eat lunch together in the town. Hereward liked nothing better than a 'take away' eaten straight out of its foil container. He would drive to the shop in his Lamborghini, park it on the pavement, and enjoy watching the lustful expressions of those waiting in line for saveloy and chips. It was so fucking down to earth. It also meant time off for their cook Liv.

Hereward liked rock music... No time for classical - not enough oomph. So when Sweetsmile drove one of their five automobiles into the town he would stay in and 'give it some welly'.

When he had filled the deserted house and grounds with sound, he would parade up and down the wide corridors, strutting along and punching the air. He was partial to stamping with both feet, right hand raised to his chin, elbow stuck out in front, left fist behind him as if he was doing the crawl. At the sound of a particularly muscular 'riff' he would leap into the air.

Once, he had landed badly, hurt his back, but his mobile telephone still lay within reach and he was able to call Div, Liv, and Stiv - it took all three - to carry him to his narrow bed where he lay in pain for some time. He had told Sweetsmile that it had been a bad headache.

Hereward was feeling better, now was the moment; he would telephone Womble the estate agent and explain his plan. He left the guitar solo playing on the hi-fi while he spoke to his friend.



Although they had spoken on the telephone, Womble insisted on having what he referred to as a 'hair-to-hair'. In Hereward's case this would have to be a 'hair-to-bald head'. There was no shortage of photographs throughout the Hall showing the hirsute Hereward, but they had been taken many years ago, and as time passed, all he had been left with was a very shiny, round, red head.

Little estate agency business took place in the town below Penn'th Hall. Few people wanted to live there. Some folk did arrive by accident, though almost invariably Womble's office was deserted, which was why it had become a meeting place for Hereward and his friends.

These friends all embraced the Rock Culture - or 'Rock Media' as Hereward preferred to call it.

'We are the Stone Circle!' Womble would chuckle darkly. Hereward saw the group as a kind of Masonic union - without all that trouser-rolling mumbo-jumbo. There was a long-haired barrister from the next town, a leather Clerk of the Court, a studded and bejewelled retired Planning Officer, and even a Rock judge known as Nudge.

Nudge - it transpired, as Hereward arrived at Womble's office and gripped the man's steel bangled and tattooed forearm - was due to appear in court in a week's time. Not behind the bench, but in front of it. The long-haired justice had decked someone outside a Takeway shop. Womble brandished a copy of The Blodwyn Bugle displaying the headline 'Rock Judge in Kebab Row'.

Hereward squatted across a chair, arms draped over its moth-eaten upholstery as he outlined his scheme, while Womble produced from a drawer a peculiarly bloated roll-up cigarette which he waved backwards and forwards before snapping down on it with his lighter.

'I don't want any Tom, Dick, or Harry turning up to view the house when it goes on the market,' insisted Hereward. 'I need to keep as much control over the property, after the sale, as it's possible to do...' Womble blinked. His hand wandered behind his head where it began to fidget with his pigtail. He fixed Hereward with a stare, eyes like pools of black oil.

'Control...' Womble repeated, sounding as if he was in the grip of a heavy head cold. 'Control is what we all want in this world.' His eyes closed. 'The thing is...' he intoned, nose plugged with invisible wadding, words punctuated with painful intakes of breath, '...the thing is... it's the wrong people who are at the controls.'

'What I mean is,' Hereward felt his voice rising an octave, 'is there any way I can obtain a deed of covenant, so I can force the buyer to use my contractors and architects, on any work they might do later?'

The entire office was a cloud of smoke and Womble had acquired the appearance of a Russian Orthodox priest about to incant liturgical mass.

'Cov-en-nant,' he breathed, his Episcopalian-like body leaning forward, hairy stalactite of a beard almost touching Hereward's red nose. He looked grave.

'That sounds like a toke... a toke on a veeery powerful spliff.'

Womble leaned back creakily in his chair as he exhaled with world-ending ferocity... Raised his right hand - as if to beatify - 'Worry not my friend, fortune will fall right into your lap when you least expect it.'



Aria had been following a trail of blood on the pavement near his office. He couldn't decide which end was the starting point, and where the finish might be. Nor could he piece together events which might have caused such blood-letting. It would be nothing more sinister than a nosebleed, he hoped.

Back at his desk he found himself fondly recollecting holidays he spent as a child, by the Welsh or English seaside.

'Here's something that might suit you Aria.' It sounded promising; it was one of the seaside locations he remembered. There were mountains, waterfalls, heather-covered moors, castles - no it was more than promising - it looked ideal. 'All applications and telephone conversations treated in strict confidence.'

Eljah keyed in the number and handed the set to Aria.

'Hello, my name is Aria. I'd like more information about Penn'th Hall.' There was a silence at the other end of the phone, followed by a dark chuckle.

'I'm glad you're not called Tom or Dick!' Aria quite liked the joke. The voice sounded like a cockney one. He didn't think he'd ever met a cockney, but he had heard that they were 'the salt of the earth'.

As he put the phone down Aria felt punch drunk. He was reeling from the interrogation he'd received. Was he prepared to submit to a credit check? How long would he be planning to stay in the house? Would he be selling it on in a few years? Would he be having guests there? What changes did he plan to make?

It appeared that the vendor would be retaining ten of the fifty five acres, and was in the process of obtaining Planning permission to build a bungalow for himself and his wife on the site. It would be nice to have a close neighbour.

'Porgi, amor, qualche ristoro...' Mrs Aria was in full spate as the people carrier containing herself and Aria, the seven children, two aunts, an uncle, his mother - and of course Eljha - sped along the motorway.

'Voi chespete che cosa e amoi...' she continued. Aria would respond when the appropriate moment came. Occasionally they would steal one another's parts and burst into in laughter. Some of the older children knew odd fragments of word and melody. The Marriage of Figaro was a real family favourite, and Mrs Aria would sometimes joke that they would become like the Von Trapp family in The Sound of Music. When a reference to a certain location occurred in the libretto, Mrs Aria substituted Penn'th Hall. It was so funny thought Aria, so witty. They would soon be arriving for the viewing.



Long before he heard the sound of rubber on gravel, Hereward had seen the sun winking on the windscreen of the black people carrier as it made its way through the forest drive. It almost seemed as if somebody was signalling to him, and he hoped that it was a good sign.

Hurrying from the huge 'L' shaped lounge, he scuttled along the corridor, across the inner hall, and took up position in the outer hall. Sweetsmile was already there, and dressed completely in white. Standing in the centre of the space, so small under the tall Ionic columns, she looked like an Alice who had recently swallowed the contents of the 'drink me' bottle. Hereward was wearing his usual Levi 501s, but nicely finished off with a welcoming scarlet skin tight shirt, unbuttoned almost to the waist.

The vehicle flashed past the window. Hereward wrenched open the double doors and marched across the forecourt. As the people carrier came to a halt every one of its doors sprung open simultaneously, and what appeared to Hereward to be a troupe of circus performers, dressed entirely in black and white, tumbled onto the gravel.

As he and Aria shook hands, Hereward became acutely aware of the fact that the topmost button of his own red shirt was approximately level with where the tall man's penis would be - buried deep somewhere in those black trousers. How he wished Womble had agreed to conduct the viewing on his behalf.

Hereward felt uncomfortable amongst the mass of smiling aunts, uncles, and bouncing children. For a moment it reminded him of the Lord Nelson Coach Trips which Heritage had organized before he and Sweetsmile could stand it no longer and brought them to an end.

Some of the children had already swept past him, were inside the hall, and as he was propelled backwards by the giant black-bearded pins-nezed figure, he felt a feeling of dread. It wasn't meeting people who belonged to an ethnic minority which troubled him - he and Sweetsmile had known people at Art College who were black. They'd thought that had been 'very cool'; but all these children? Who, in this day and age?

At first when Hereward re entered the hall, he thought that Sweetsmile had vanished altogether. Then he caught sight of her, withdrawn to the far side of the room and perched on the topmost tread of a small flight of portable library steps, as if she was escaping from a mouse. Standing there, she looked like a tiny porcelain figurine on its own base; smiling - eyes glistening with a special glaze.

The youngest children had disappeared from sight, and the two aunts set off in different directions to try and find them. An appealing little girl with dark ringlets emerged from her hiding place. Hereward was amused to see that she was dragging behind her a green wellington boot; he was a great believer in free expression. But when a tiny boy entered from another direction with Hereward's flying jacket draped round his shoulders, he felt panic. Upstairs were unlocked cupboards of his, which even Sweetsmile and Stiv would never dream of entering. He had concealed personal items there, which if paraded like this could cause embarrassment beyond belief. Hereward felt a crimson flush, accompanied by a fearful perspiration.

The highlight of the viewing turned out to be the swimming pool. Not that it existed yet, but Hereward had obtained planning permission, and an animated discussion arose as to what depth it might be, how warm the water could be, and so on. Sweetsmile had long since retired for a 'lie down'.

Hereward contemplated his plan. There were no orthodox schools in the vicinity; no places of worship. Aria and his family would only be here on holidays, and then for short periods. Though he loathed with all his heart the idea of living in the bungalow playing custodian to the Hall and its new owner, it could be to his benefit. Things would not be easy for Aria. He recollected Womble's chuckle, and the philosophy of The Stone Circle. 'We,' mouthed Womble, his stalactite of a beard wagging to and fro, 'are like the robin, the thrush, and the blackbird, we do not migrate.'



Contracts of sale had been exchanged. Aria had been taken aback by the news that there had been no other bids. Eljah had encouraged him to negotiate for a lower price but Aria had said, 'If that is the asking price then so be it; it's worth so much more to me.' It had been love at first sight, and now standing again in the outer lobby at Penn'th, he loved it more than ever.

This time he had left his family at home, apart from Mrs Aria - and Eljah of course. Aria had gathered his architect and interior designer, was briefing them on the changes he was going to make. Money no object; he and his team would do everything, just as Heritage required. He would be the owner - but Penn'th Hall was part of British national heritage, and for him it would be a kind of stewardship.

Mr and Mrs Hereward looked different from when he had last seen them. She was dressed in a pale grey linen suit, while Mr Hereward had donned a navy shirt with Mandarin collar which he wore outside his trousers. Aria experienced an inexplicable feeling of unease.

The briefing tour of the house took all day. Mr Hereward repeatedly insisted that he would 'go off and leave them all to it', but only once did he depart Aria's side - to visit the bathroom. Mrs Hereward engaged the architect in fervent conversation, and they seemed to be getting along like a house on fire. Aria would have liked to have talked with his own team more, but it was important that they bonded with the Herewards. They really were such an attentive couple.

Mr Hereward had thought of everything. He had organized his surveyor to draw up plans of the house, arranged for an engineer to call; had even obtained books on interior design styles which he set down on the huge mahogany dining table with such a flourish. When the tour was over, and the team gone, Mr Hereward took Aria's arm and led him into the study. Hereward's face had the look of a teacher whose student has just made a howling error.

'I'm concerned,' he frowned, 'that these consultants aren't up to the job.' Aria's heart sank. They were his team, he believed in them, they trusted one another, had worked together - known one another for years.

'He didn't have the experience. She had too far to travel.' Aria was struck by how shrill Mr Hereward's voice sounded. 'He might upset the local Planning officers, she didn't know enough about materials.' It was a blow but Mr Hereward was right, after all, who knew Penn'th Hall and its surroundings better than he. Mr Hereward even had good local legal friends. They were down to earth men, the backbone of Britain.

'You know Aria, you should stand up to him more, it's going to be your house, not his.' Eljah's hands rested carefully on the wheel of the black Mercedes limousine as it sped north.

'I think it will be a symbiotic relationship.' Aria was staring straight ahead.

'Symbiotic my foot!' Eljah snapped his fingers. 'Biological jargon hijacked by sociologists. It describes low life forms - like fungus and algae oxygenating one other to produce lichen; parasites 'grooming' larger animals, little fish living off big ones... Nothing to do with human relationships; human beings are far more complex!'

Eljah could be outspoken, and Aria valued what he had to say. He wasn't going to fall out with him now, but his mind was made up.

Aria gazed out of the dining room window. He was watching a pheasant tip-toeing across the lawn. With its scarlet head, shot-green yolk, and shiny black underbelly, it looked magnificent as it ruffled its feathers, gave its ratchety screech and took off over the trees, which grew right down to the waters edge. Through the open window Aria could hear the excited shouts of the children as they splashed around in the swimming pool.

The building work had been completed in record time. Mr Hereward's team really had 'known their stuff' - as Hereward had put it. There were a few things which Aria hadn't been happy about, but they were small things, trifles, the point was everything was complete, everybody was settled. The Herewards were comfortably moved in to their bungalow. They really were so attentive.

Whenever Aria and his family arrived at the Hall, Mr and Mrs Hereward were there - standing by the open front door. Once, Aria found them both at attention, on either side of the door like two tiny sentries.

Everything inside the house would always be ready and perfect. Div, Liv, and Stiv were still there. Mrs Aria had been upset about that - she had her own people - but Aria had soon talked her round. Who knew Penn'th Hall better than they?



Hereward strutted into the dining room of his bungalow and gazed out to sea. He had made a mistake about that swimming pool. The light on the water in the estuary shone like a giant plate of silver, but the surface of the pool looked like some foreign blue cocktail quivering in its glass. It really was quite out of place.

Two summers had passed since the time he had looked out in his misery, and formed his little plan. Things hadn't turned out so badly after all. Aria's children were growing up; the oldest boys now often went out into the town - in the summer evenings when the days were long.

Hereward's mobile hummed in the pocket of his Levis. It was Aria, something was wrong and Hereward could hear a horrible panting noise at the other end of the phone... Aria and Mrs Aria had just returned from the hospital several miles away... An incident the evening before... Two of the boys attacked in the town... Schlomo dead as a result of his injuries.

'Dreadful! Appalling! A tragedy...' Hereward heard his own voice, yet he felt a strange sensation of excitement. It was as if he had ingested some drug which made his mouth tingle, tickled his stomach. Neither he nor Sweetsmile went to the funeral, it would have meant travelling.



Three in the morning, and Hereward cannot sleep. His old urge has returned. The laptop lies only feet away from his narrow bed and he can feel that collection of gases; grubby, menacing, and coalescing inside his head. When his mobile hums he nearly jumps out of his skin.

Aria, he sounds apologetic.

'No, no, no, not at all... I was awake.' Hereward can feel his mouth tingling again, stomach tickling. Months have passed since the tragedy, and he has seen nothing of Aria. It seems that the man has no plan for visiting the Hall for 'the foreseeable future'.

'Of course selling is out of the question. It will always be one of the great loves of my life. What happened wasn't the fault of the Hall!' Hereward can feel himself breathing hard.

'In view of this, would you and Mrs Hereward like to move back in to the top floor?' Hereward can feel anticipation uncoiling within him.

'It could be a bit like old times.' There's a wistful little laugh at the other end of the phone. 'You've been such perfect neighbours.'

The excitement in Hereward's body suddenly seems to surge, as if something beyond his control has released a charge of electricity. His limbs taut like some artificially created creature, he struts out of the bungalow and swaggers up to the Hall.

The tall windows look cold and white, as they reflect a giant full moon which hangs in the sky, while ten million stars blaze in worshipful silence.

Hereward stands in the centre of the green baize lawn and slowly and deliberately he performs a dance.

'Alone on the lawn
The cabman dances
In the dew of dawn
he kicks and prances
His bowler is set
On his bullet head
For his boots are wet
And his aunt is dead'

He can contain himself no longer, and shouts out over the estuary,

'And his son is dead!'

Hereward holds his knuckles against his teeth. He must not wake Sweetsmile who is asleep in the front bedroom of the bungalow.

As Hereward stretches out his arms it feels as if he is holding the full moon in his hand. He alone is the rightful master of Penn'th Hall, and at the end of each of his outstretched fingers is a tiny burning star.

4 comments:

  1. A dark story told with wisdom, wit and humour. The writing is textured and rich in observational detail. It has the feel of a fairy tale in which the forces of good and evil are embattled. Even though the solipsistic, morally bankrupt Hereward appears to be on the arc of his rotten ascendancy once more the reader is left with a smell in the air that he might yet get his comeuppance, (or is this just wishful thinking?).
    Many thanks,
    Ceinwen

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  2. a fascinating story, beautifully written, in particular, I found the names interesting. whatever happens a way of life must be protected.
    little England against the modern world?

    well done

    Mike McC

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  3. Yikes! This was well-constructed, to say the least! I love the limited dialogue and the dreamy quality to the writing. The ominous tension underlying the entire story is simply magical. Well done.

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  4. Thank you all for your insightful comments.

    Brooke

    ReplyDelete