Janet stood looking at the massive house with a mixture of excitement and despair.
She owned all this? Her Grandmother had been a bit batty, but Janet didn’t think she would actually leave the house to her, and not just any house. This was an Estate, a huge piece of land with gardens, servants quarters, and a chapel, not to mention the Manor itself, which seemed to have jumped right out of a Jane Austen novel. Janet chided herself, of course she would, and did, Grandma Aggie was definitely a woman of her word.
Janet thought back to that grey Sunday afternoon last November. She had remembered the rain simply because it had been the main source of conversation between herself, Uncle Hugh, Aunt Silvia, and Harold, the family solicitor. They must have mentioned every facet of atmospheric interference known to man as they had been sitting in the drawing room after Grandpa's funeral. Grandma Aggie had exploded into the room, shuffled a pile of papers off her favourite chair and sat down.
“You can take the will away with you Harold,” She handed the folded document to the Solicitor, “We don’t need you to read it,” Aggie was that kind of woman, she didn’t enter a room, she appeared with her own atmosphere in tow. She smiled graciously at Harold before flapping him towards the door. It was really the most merciful thing to do. The sixty year old Solicitor had a pained look on his face after enduring what felt like three hours of traffic reporting from Uncle Hugh.
“I came up especially,” Hugh was still prattling on. “Took me eight hours. Eight hours! And I have to drive back this evening. Can’t take a day off at this time of the year.”
Why this time of year was especially important for the ardent attendance of investment bankers, Uncle Hugh didn’t care to say, but he looked very upset about it. “I’m starving,” He looked at Harold as if this was somehow his fault. “I didn’t get any breakfast!” Uncle Hugh’s bulbous abdomen seemed to belie this fact.
“But, how are we going to find out what we’ll be taking home with us?” Aunt Silvia got back to the matter at hand. She snaked her arm around Harold’s petite shoulders so quickly he hadn’t had a chance to look in her direction. Uncle Hugh now looked at the little man with interest, his stomach forgotten for the present. Janet didn’t mind either way, she just wanted to get home. She wanted to curl up on her sofa and look through her old albums so she could remember all of the funny things she loved about her Grandfather. She was a bit tired of making idle conversation with her, less than mournful, Aunt and Uncle.
Harold Symes, of Symes, James & Collier, cleared his throat in a manner that demanded attention, despite his size and gentle demeanour. Janet saw Hugh and Silvia scrabble to sit down on the nearest seat, as if they were playing a posh version of musical chairs.
“I think what Mrs Wilton means,” Mr Symes gave a nod of acknowledgement in Grandma Aggie’s direction, “is that the terms of her husband’s will are so straightforward that it would be much simpler for her to tell you their contents without the hindrance of my presence.” Here Mr. Symes smiled. As accustomed as he was to the loquacious syllables adopted by the upper class families who often employed his services, he had long ago found that Mr and Mrs Wilton did not hold with such traditions. After many years of being told to “spit it out” and “say it in English, we’re begging you!” Mr Symes had succumbed and felt a contrite sense of pleasure whenever he was in their company, as he was encouraged to be as blunt and insensitive as he liked. Not that he would ever be insensitive to such humour filled clients or, he was happy to say friends, but their lack of grand affectations and vulgar arrogance were a welcome change to the patronising bravado with which he was treated by many of his clients.
“I shall see you on Friday,” Mr Symes took Grandma Aggie’s hand and laid a kiss on it. An old fashioned gesture, but a sincere one. If anyone had been careful enough to look, they would have seen the poor man’s lip wobble as he made his way out of the room.
“I’ve always thought that man was strange,” Uncle Hugh huffed in his seat. Aunt Silvia bit her lip and nodded before adding.
“Quite unprofessional to leave us like this.” Bored, she began re-applying makeup. It had smudged during the service, not from crying of course, her choice of hat with a netted veil had been a poor one for such heavily pencilled brows. Grandma Aggie and Janet looked at each other with a very similar expression, one of exhaustion and suppressed mirth. Still, Grandma had been brought up to be a Lady, and knew how to act like one when it proved to serve her.
“I will not have you both saying such things about a man who has given this family a lifetime of service, thank you.” Aggie pursed her lips in the proper fashion one bestows upon a misbehaving child. Evidently Hugh and Silvia saw themselves as children at that moment, as they both erupted into explanations of their behaviour immediately.
Grandma flapped again, this time in exasperation. “There is nothing to the will, except to say, the Estate has been passed on to me.” Aggie shrugged. “It’s not being cut up or shared out. Everything is exactly the same until I can figure out what’s going to be done with it all.” The looks that passed between Uncle Hugh and Auntie Silvia could have cut glass. They wanted Fearnley, lock stock and barrel. Grandma Aggie and Janet had heard them talking about it after that very meeting. The two were just visible beyond a set of shrubs outside the open window where Janet and Aggie had retreated with their tin of biscuits.
“It would be pretty if it wasn’t so old,” Silvia had tilted her head back to get a good look at Fearnley. “You wouldn’t want to live in it!” Aggie, who did live in it, humphed at this and snaffled another biscuit in one.
“It would be much better as a set of flats,” Hugh was more interested in his phone. He was responding to what seemed to be an urgent text before he joined Silvia in her superficial assessment of the old house. “Trust Dad to leave it all to Mummy,” he grimaced. “He probably just couldn’t be bothered sorting through all the paperwork.”
“Well Mummy better get round to it,” Silvia hissed, suddenly much more earnest in her deliberations. “Whoever inherits this place is going to be seriously rich.” She looked around to make sure no one was listening. Too late, Janet thought. “The land alone has got to be worth millions.”
Janet had gone over to the window and closed it gently. She didn’t want Grandma Aggie to hear any more of their conversation. It wasn’t right. You simply didn’t say things like that after a funeral. Especially when you hadn’t inherited anything yet. She had looked back at Aggie and been surprised. The old woman was chuckling. In fact, she was laughing so hard she had to hold her sides. Janet sat down, wanting to be part of the joke.
“What?” She started giggling herself. She couldn’t help it. Aggie’s laugh was infectious. It was also hard to stop once you got going. “Wha . . . . What? Come on, tell me.” She pushed her Grandmother gently. Once Aggie had wiped the tears from her eyes and more or less composed herself she looked at Janet.
“Darling, we’ve always known how things were.” Used to the straight forward words her Grandparents had used since she was two, Janet was just as blunt in her reply.
“What do you mean?” Janet grabbed a biscuit from the tin and snapped it with her teeth. She had got her appetite back after a long day of grieving, after what had really been two years of grieving, waiting for Grandpa’s illness to finally take him.
“You are your Mother’s daughter,” Aggie smiled at Janet and touched her cheek, seeing the daughter she’d lost in little girl that had been left behind. “You aren’t greedy!”
Janet giggled, as the claim seemed diminished by the fact that she was picking her favourite biscuits out of the tin and balancing them on her knee until she had managed to locate every last one. Aggie didn’t even flinch. “You’ve never considered yourself to be better than anyone else. You just appreciate the things you’ve got. Even when your . . .” Janet knew Aggie was about to say ‘Even when your parents died’ but the memory would be too painful for them both. Janet pretended not to notice. “Even when you came to live with us.” Aggie changed tack. “You just accepted what you were given and got on with it.” Janet realised this was true, in a way. She had been shocked when her parents had died. She was too young to really understand what had happened, but she did love them. She had only just come to terms with talking and walking so she had just accepted the changes that seemed to happen around her and settled into her new life at Fearnley with her Grandma and Grandpa. It had only been a couple of years and then she’d gone to boarding school. That’s where she’d truly got on. Her two best friends had become her family. She loved her Grandparents, but their loss made the time a little less easy than the relaxed fun and understanding she could experience at school with her friends.
“Grandma, what are you trying to say?” Janet tried to get Aggie back on track, this tentative business just wasn’t like her.
“I don’t like Hugh, and I don’t like Silvia,” Aggie looked guiltily down at her hands. Janet wanted to laugh, but shoved her hand over her mouth instead.
“Oh darling, of course you do!” Janet sat on the arm of her Grandmother’s chair.
“Okay,” She nodded, “Okay, I love them, they’re my children, but they do need to be taught a lesson.” Aggie remained firm. Janet almost giggled again, wondering how long this bout of firmness would last. “They won’t get a bean from me when I go, and I won’t allow Fearnley to be divided or sold for the pieces, you understand?” Janet bit back her smile and nodded. “They’ve had it far too easy up 'til now, with their allowances and houses being paid off. Earning their own living will be good for them!” Janet heard her Grandmother speak about her two children as if they were children still. “I want you to have Fearnley!” Aggie huffed, half crossly, half weepy. “There are things I could never give you,” she had started to cry now. Silent tears, soft tears, that traced the lines on her face. “Things only a Mother can give.” She moved Janet onto her lap, no mean feat for a woman of Eighty-five, but she wanted to cradle her granddaughter the way she should. They sat like that for a long time in silence, both of them leaning on each other, and feeling reassured. They didn’t open their eyes when they started to talk again.
“Fearnley has a lot of life left in her, you know,” Aggie had whispered.
“I know,” Janet had snuggled her head into her Grandmother’s neck, taking in her beautiful perfume of lavender and powder.
“You don’t really,” Aggie had giggled. “But you will.” She had pushed Janet’s long blonde hair out of her eyes, “I’ll make sure of it.”
Janet put the giant key in the lock and tried to make it turn. It worked. Aggie must have seen to things like that. Or maybe a cleaning woman did. She didn’t know yet. She still had dozens of documents to go over; the various contracts with gardeners, cleaners, tenants in the converted pigsties and old servants' quarters. She had to make sure the heating was still working, and had been paid for, the various wings needed looking through, old clothes and linens needed to be organized for storage or use.
She knew exactly what she was going to do with the house. She was going to restore it. There were plenty of good rooms in Fearnley. One wing had remained open and in pristine condition. Her Grandmother was a hard worker, and she had helped polish, plump, and brush every inch of that wing as long as she’d lived there. But Janet knew what her Grandmother really wanted, was for the old house to be brought back to it’s former glory. Every wing open. Every room furnished and fitted. Every pipe working and every floorboard beaming. She had seen what Janet saw now; an enchanting vista of untouched hills, fields of buttercups, paddocks, and streams, delicate herbaceous borders linking arms up a sweeping drive between groups of trees, and that final clearing of green, leading your eyes to Fearnley. The honey coloured bricks edging vast bay windows, and clawing their way up to cascading roofs and chimneys. She breathed in the luscious smell of wildflowers that had been tamed by expert hands to thrive in bunches. It was truly a picture. She tried to remember if she had ever gone into any part of the house that had been blocked off throughout her childhood. She couldn’t remember ever doing so, but that was probably because there was more fun to be had in the grounds during the summer holidays, and that was really the only time she stayed at Fearnley.
Now, she had to see everything. She wanted to see what kind of state the house was in before the formal inspection began. She started with a door on the second floor. It hadn’t been opened in decades. This was obvious by how difficult it was to make the key turn in the lock. She got out some WD40 and sprayed the hole, realising too late that WD40 may not be good for old doors. She shrugged to herself. It was just one lock. One lock could be replaced. The lock gave more easily when she tried this time, but the door was stiff. She had to push against it with all her weight to make it budge. Once she’d repeated this process three or four times the door finally gave way. It creaked open so loudly she jumped. The hallway that greeted her was poorly lit and had a lot of cobwebs. She could see that the light was being veiled by the grime on the windows opposite her. Janet was walking beside, what she now realised was, a vast balustrade leading to a wide set of stairs that took you down to the front doors of the house. Well, they had never been the front doors to her, but they must have been for the people who built it. The grand entrance hall was enormous. An ancient chandelier hung from the ceiling, by sheer will it seemed. The glass and chain looked far too delicate to hang there on its own. Instead of going downstairs Janet looked behind her to a set of ornately carved double doors with gold handles. Thankfully she was able to prise them open far more easily than the first door she’d had to deal with. A breath caught in her throat. This must have been the ballroom. The wallpaper and paintings that adorned the walls were practically spotless, if a little dusty. There were no watermarks or signs of mould. The floors were marble, an asset, she decided, that must have been chosen to create a sense of light. Everywhere you looked there was light, from the domed glass ceiling, to the chandeliers, to the gold etched wallpaper. Even the years of webs and grime couldn’t disguise that. It was sumptuous and elegant without being overdone. Janet could see in her mind how wonderful it would look restored. She just prayed it would be possible.
Before she started anything, Janet knew Lyra would have to go over everything with a fine tooth comb. Lyra was a contractor and knew everything about building and codes and restorations. She may have looked like a fairy all through their school years, but she was solid as a rock and had almost finished building her own house from scratch, all by herself. Yes, Lyra definitely needed to be consulted. And then, Janet thought, then she would get started.