Sneaking in to the Big House is not too difficult on account of the many points of entry. The easiest is usually the french window that opens onto the terrace. The Garden Room has two exits, a large official door with moulding and a brass handle which shuttles you to the large hall. But the second door is meek and small, and turfs you into a corridor. By creeping along and then pausing for a few seconds, bracing to jump behind bookshelves and then scuttling forward, means the journey of only fifty feet takes roughly ten minutes.
Prop’s staircase is a service route, so narrow you could fit three of it inside the main hall staircase. The thought of this stairs creates images of servants with their calloused hands, and Prop, and his family, and his deserted family, and his narrow staircase. Everything combines into a fur-ball of unfairness that sticks in my throat. I wouldn’t be able to explain my views in an argument but I reach Prop’s room with the all rattiness of a Bastille stormer.
He’s brandishing a double-edged razor against his neck. Prop gives a crow-like croak as he sees me. ‘Hello, dear Miriam, hello.’
‘I’m shaving.’ Prop nods charmingly with a set of bloody weals on his face. The dressing table is scattered with rusty double-sided razors blades and blotted hankies.
‘Can I help.’
‘Well you can, I suppose.’
On the sideboard is a bottle of witch-hazel and a hankie. He was obviously expecting trouble. I spread the skin of Prop’s cheek and blot the fresh blood away. The repairing of Prop is the first step of my helping regime.
‘I brought your letter back.’
‘Thank you. My letter?’
‘From Victoria your daughter.’
Prop blinks as if distant lenses were being dropped over his eyes.
‘I have many letters from Africa.’
He leans over at the dresser and opens the narrow bottom left drawer. Out comes a sealed freezer bag and I would think it was the bodily remains of a favourite terrier if it didn’t have ‘Letters’ written in large, loopy writing. Not his own, I feel.
‘Who packed these?’
‘Oh, Molly Perry. She occasionally gives them a dust.’
The paper is neatly stacked, edges slightly torn, some with grease spots. And the writing, so neat and tiny and restrained.
“May the grace and the love of God be with you, your wife in Christ, Lovelace.”
‘All these replies.’
‘Oh no, not replies. My wife, by whom I mean The Marchese, made her feelings known to me straight away. I made…was impelled to make… a promise never to write or speak to her again. But Lovelace continued to write and I’m glad she did.’
I wonder how he got the correspondence across the threshold, but when I turn the package over, I spot a blue air-mail envelope with the address of Mr Francis Perry. So, Prop schemed as far as he could, considering a dusting from Miss Perry as preferable to a dusting for fingerprints from the Marchese.
Suddenly my one-sided attachment to Chap One seems to fade compared to a lifetime of longing. I imagine faithful Lovelace, not knowing but hoping and dreaming all the same. Did she know that he did exactly the same thing, three thousand miles away?
‘It must have felt wrong to leave her when you loved her?’
Prop shrugs an exhalation of half a dozen harmonics.
‘Love is important.’ I protest.
‘People treat love like a touchstone these days. Apparently love is sacred. Back then, the affairs of the heart were a bally nuisance and the quicker you got over it the better. And of course, love to you youngsters is a sexual thing isn’t it? It doesn’t mean faithfulness or comradeship. These days, people swap religion with love and one wears one’s heart on a sleeve like bloody Camino pilgrims with shells. Except Kit. He wears his cock on his sleeve.’
Gosh. I’ve never spoken to Prop like this, and never ever about sex. He pronounces it ‘six-yewl.’
‘Love is a conceit and so is youth. Youth is a mask that grows thinner and thinner until at last it falls off.’
The last tract is said in one breath that blows away and it feels like there’s no inhalation. Prop’s eyes glaze, the philosopher is on safari.
A burst of our bubble; Wym enters the room, elbows first. He’s carrying a bin bag. When he sees me, he starts and stops at the same time,
‘I came to see Prop’.
‘Social Work are here in twenty minutes!’
There’s panic in Wym’s eyes. He takes an empty bottle of cognac from Prop’s side table and drops it in the bottle and scrapes socks off the floor.
‘Social Work are not the Panzer Division! You don’t need to worry!’
‘What would Social Work make of this room?’
Glancing around, Prop’s African knife and spear collection lag off the wall but he’d probably reach for his shotgun first, that’s standing in the corner. The razor blades and Prop’s chin and shirt front are speckled with blood. The lampshade is scorched black; fahrenheit 451 can’t be far away.
Wym hands me the bag. ‘Could you just prime him? Mother’s stalking the hall, I’m scared she’s going to thump somebody.’
He leaves before I can explain that thumping hasn’t really happened for about forty years.
A few minutes later with a clinking black bag I follow down to the hall. It also contains a freezer bag stuffed with letters. I stuff the bag in the Garden Roomm, to remove later like the dishonest squirrel that I am.
Young Miss Perry motors around the lower hall with dusters, sprays and a plastic bag tucked into her belt. She’s taking this visit as personally as her employers are. The Marchese is walking a figure of eight.
‘This is ridiculous.’
‘It’s their job, Mother.’ says Wym.
At 11.12, two bland-looking women arrive. At least, their car does. They sit inside it for some while. Then they get out and gawp.
‘For pity’s sake. They’re not even coming in.’ The Marchese spreads the etch-glassed inner doors and barks. This makes the ladies scuttle dutifully, one being an anaemic social worker and the other, a occupational therapist in a uniform that fashionistas might call ‘mal-wear’.
The Marchese repeats her views on the necessity of this visit. Wym reaffirms the irksome nature of their job and the two ladies go into a well-worn double act, which only falters when they stare up at the hall, the grand split staircase, the turkey-red axminster and the stuffed polar-bear shot by an ancestor and now discretely placed in an alcove where David Attenburgh will never find it.
The ladies are here to check that their ‘client’, Mr Hebbindon, is able to carry out daily life-tasks around his home. At the end, he will be given a ‘care plan’ which will be actioned by a local team.
‘How jolly!’ spits the Marchese. We troop up the stairs with Miss Perry polishing in our wake.
‘A lot of stairs.‘
‘Oh, he doesn’t use this one’, says the Marchese. ‘He has his own staircase.’
I was unable to hide the spear or the gun. Luckily, both ladies are already suffering from shell-shock by the time they enter Prop’s rooms. They crane at the suite. The ceiling stands at eleven feet. There is nicotine-yellow silk wallpaper, brass wall brackets, complicated, dust-coated cornicing, ceiling rose and a pendulous art deco light. Massive hardwood doors lead to changing room and bathroom. Paintings, tarnished gilt frames, holed recliner, sun-bleached cherry wood desk, ripped Edwardian cushions with escaping Edwardian wadding. At last the Health Pros spy something they recognise; a confused, lacerated, knock-kneed elderly gentleman.
Social Worker brings out her clip board. ‘Hello Edward.’
‘LORD HEBBINDON!’ barks the Marchese.
‘PROP!’ says Prop.
‘We’re here to assess your CARE NEEDS.’ says Health Pro Number One. ‘First Edward. We’d like to see you RUN A BATH.’
Prop stares at me for confirmation. Health Pro Number Two repeats ‘Could you just run a BATH as you would NORMALLY?’ ‘Right-ho!’ shrugs Prop. He goes over to the fireplace. There’s a brass button on the wall. He glances at me before pressing it. Young Miss Perry bursts through the door.
‘Um.’ says Prop. He’s never done this for an audience I guess. ‘Could you draw me a bath?’
In the kitchen Prop is asked to make himself a hot drink. Young Miss Perry virtually throws herself bodily between him and the kettle because it’s ‘Benaith ’is Larrdship’s dignity to moike ’is own cuppa toy!’
For the Health Pros, it’s like viewing an educational diorama of how foreign or ancient (or in this case, an entirely alien race of) people live their lives.
Meanwhile, Prop frets. ‘Are they sending me to Carlton Court? Don’t let them send me back to Carlton Court.’
‘Where’s Carlton Court?’
‘Horrid place. People dying left right and centre, it’s worse than the Congo.’
‘When the Marchese pushed me down the stairs. When I broke my hip.’
What?! I turn and stare at the Health Pros, who surely must have view on this. I repeat what I’ve just heard out loud so as to give people a second chance to spot the clue.
The Occupational Therapist says, ‘Carlton Court is a convalescent home. It’s very good.’
‘It’s not where he’s convalescing, it’s WHY he’s convalescing!’
‘I did wonder about the stairs.’ says the OT to her colleague.
Close but no cigar on this occasion, so I turn to face the Marchese and go for broke. ‘Just ’cause you live on a country estate and not a sink estate doesn’t erase your family’s dysfunction! You know, if you didn’t have a big house, you’d have all been in court facing charges of neglect a decade ago! I’ve never come across a worse set of relatives.’
Wym looks like he’s about to offer an opinion but I get there first. ‘And he’s your father. You and Kit, Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee, fighting while your own father needs protection. And you’re so obsessed with who I’m sleeping with! Well I’m not sleeping with Kit for a start. I wouldn’t sleep with him, you or any other person who shares at least half a genome with the Hebbindons!’
My rant dries, curtails and flops to the floor like pancake batter. Wym tugs at his ear and says, ‘Prop, tell Miriam why you fell down the stairs. Were you pushed?‘
‘Your mother was shouting.‘
‘Were you pushed?’ Prop adjusts the hem of his pants and mumbles, ‘Don’t recall.’
‘You were carrying the virginal downstairs, weren’t you!‘
I gasp ‘The virginal what?‘
‘It’s a clavichord, like a spinet but smaller.
‘Hello?’ I wave.
‘Imagine a Yamaha keyboard, only painted with cherubs and incredibly old. A priceless heirloom that no-one would decide to lug down two flights of stairs from the attic on their own.’
‘She pushed me.’ growls Prop. ‘She was trying to save your life! You were on carpeted stairs in your socks. You’re lucky you broke just the hip. The virginal was a write- off.’
‘People only cared about that virginal once I fell on it.’
The mute Health Pros watch the scene as viewers of a tennis match stare at a rally. They simply do not have the tick-boxes available to deal with Prop’s situation. The thing is, there was always a care-plan for Prop from the moment he was born. If he looked like he was about to make his own decision, someone else swooped in to save him from himself.