This story was shortlisted for the October 2015 Writing Magazine subscribers’ competition “One thing after another”.
Come in Miss Wood – Julia then. Welcome to Goring Towers. No need to use the title, just call me Peregrine.
So, according to my assistant you want to write an article about us for your magazine, Country Matters, I think? The lighter side of running a stately home, you say. Well, I don’t know I’ll be able to give you anything funny to write about; running a listed Victorian pile like Goring Towers is a very serious business. My life is full of worries. If it’s not English Heritage on my back about restoration and conservation, it’s the local council about Health and Safety or the Home Office about new employment regulations for employees from outside the EU.
Quite frankly, Julia, I was horrified when I inherited this place. I wanted to pull it down. I had ideas for building a luxury gated community. You know the sort of private estate in Surrey for oligarchs with billions in the bank who want ten bedrooms, indoor swimming pools, home cinemas, games rooms, good security etc.
Why didn’t I? Well I did make a start. Architects had drawn up the plans and we started to pull down the East wing as that was in the worst state of repair. Dry rot, wet rot, rising damp, beetle – you name it was in there – so we started to pull it down. We’d moved out all the valuable furniture and paintings. Then, drat them, English Heritage found out what was going on and slapped all sorts of orders on me and I was forced to stop. What’s more they told me I had to rebuild what I’d already pulled down.
I tell you, Julia, I may look rich but all the money is tied up in the property and land – there’s very little ready cash. As you say, I suppose I could have sold the blocks of mansion flats in Knightsbridge to pay for the repairs but the property market was depressed at the time and since then they’ve risen dramatically in price so my money is much better left in the property.
Yes, wasn’t it a good thing the East wing burnt down? It certainly saved my bacon I can tell you. How did it happen? We were due to give a dinner party for some very important people. No, I can’t tell you who but I don’t think I’m giving away too much if I say Royalty was involved. I’d employed a new chef and we thought a trial run would be a good idea. He was using the old kitchen in the basement of the East wing which was still in use. It was the usual story. He left a pan of fat on the hot stove, the fat caught fire; he panicked and flung the pan in the sink and poured water on it which of course spread the flames everywhere. Luckily, he wasn’t hurt and had the sense to rush out and leave it to burn while he ran to warn me. I was in the library in the centre of the house entertaining a few friends who I’d invited to sample the trial dinner.
Of course by the time the fire brigade arrived there was nothing they could do to save the East wing so they concentrated on containing the blaze and saved the rest of the house. Fire extinguisher? There was one in the kitchen but the chef lost his head and forgot all about it. Yes, it was strange it should have happened to such an experienced chef. You’d like to interview him? I’m afraid he’s not here. He went back to Russia afterwards to recover from his ordeal. No, I don’t think it odd to employ a Russian chef. He had trained in Paris and came with very good references. So, I was off the hook after that as it was too difficult to re-build.
The greenhouses? You’re right I was ordered to restore them to their former glory. They’d been built by some chap who’s been involved with the one at that other place – can’t just think of his name. It was lucky that I’d inherited some money and could afford to do the repairs. My wife left me quite a bit when she died just after the fire. No it wasn’t the shock which killed her. The police said it was a tragic accident. She was trapped in the ice house and froze to death before we found her.
Tragic, tragic – it still upsets me to talk about it. Thank you, I don’t need a break, I’m fine to continue. It was a day before we realised my wife was missing. She had said she might go to London and when she wasn’t at dinner I just assumed she’d gone. We didn’t keep tabs on each other – tended to do our own thing. She never came down for breakfast so it wasn’t unusual that she wasn’t there. No, we didn’t share a bedroom – that’s very ‘non-u’, to coin a phrase, to do that. It was only when she wasn’t at dinner the following evening that I wondered where she was and when the servants said they hadn’t seen her either I started to worry.
We searched the house but it was too dark to search the grounds and anyway there are acres of them. The police came the next day and about a week later someone had the idea of checking the ice house. No-one knew why she’d gone there. At the post mortem they said there was a large amount of alcohol in her blood but that was all – absolutely tragic. Yes, Julia, I suppose to someone like you she would have seemed very rich. Yes, I did inherit everything.
Can you see the greenhouses? Sadly, no, they blew down in that dreadful storm. Yes, I know the Met Office said it only hit the West country but I can assure you, Julia, it did reach this far. Well, I can’t answer for what the Met Office said. Maybe it was some freak local weather condition but the glass was all destroyed and the cast iron supports came down.
I agree, Julia, you would have thought that cast iron would have remained standing but there you are, just shows what a powerful force nature can be.
Excuse me Julia; I’d better take this phone call. It’s Harry the restaurant manager.
Yes, Harry… Oh dear… Are you sure she’s just unconscious and not dead?… Oh good. Why did the chef hit her with a rolling pin?… She complained she couldn’t get the scone with cream and jam in her mouth?… She didn’t cut the scone in half first! No-one could get a whole scone with cream and jam on top in their mouth. You have to cut the scone in half. I’m not surprised the chef took a rolling pin to her. I’d be on his side except I’m thinking of all the paper work I have to do now not to mention the bad publicity. Does our public liability cover this?
Where’s the chef?… Stop him! I can’t have him running amok in the restaurant smashing everything in sight. Just think of the compensation all the customers will be demanding… Who’s got him pinioned with a pitchfork?… What on earth are Gurkhas doing with a pitchfork?… I’d forgotten about the display of farming implements. Just make sure they don’t harm him. Goodness knows how much paperwork and compensation that would involve. Do try, Harry, to get the situation under some sort of control. I’m busy doing an interview at the moment… A journalist.
Sorry Julia, where were we? No I don’t think you should go to the restaurant and interview them all. Now, what else can I tell you about running the estate?
I’ll have to take this call, Julia, sorry.
George – everything OK?… Can’t the estate manager deal with that, I’m rather busy?… Oh, is he alright? How did the car manage to run over him?… The car backed into the Portaloo? Was John in the Portaloo?… A Gurkha was. How was John run over then?… The car backed into the loo and dragged the loo behind it as it accelerated away, then knocked John down when John tried to stop the car. What about the Gurkha?… As I understand it, as long as the kukri is sheathed that’s OK. It’s only if it is unsheathed that they have to draw blood… It’s unsheathed. Then I suggest you run like hell and call the army and the police… What do you expect me to do? I’m no match for an annoyed Gurkha… If you think his CO is around then find him. He’ll be able to calm the man down. I’ll leave it with you.
My apologies again, Julia, things like this don’t normally happen round here but at least you can see the difficulties there are in running a stately home. No, I can’t allow you to interview the Gurkha or write about it.
In fact, I’ve changed my mind. I think it would be better if we forgot about this interview – destroy your notes and we’ll cancel the whole thing and have a cup of tea or something stronger instead.
Hey, Julia, come back. Be careful there’s a loose step on the stair… Are you alright Julia?… You want an ambulance?… Have you broken anything?… No I’m sure you don’t want to sue, Julia. I’m sure we can come to some arrangement…