Chapter Three

Back in England, Acres was in Willikin’s home town of Saxford, in the county of Suffolk, competing with lunchtime for the undivided attention of a young assistant in the offices of estate agents Fairclough, Lawson, Goodwin & Partners.

“It’s a cottage. Flint, it’s got flint on the outside. And in the front garden there’s a hand-painted ‘For sale’ sign and...”

The young assistant already knew all about the place. As he listened to Acres’ story for the second time his eyes strayed from his customer to the large clock ticking lazily high up on the wall, then back across the counter to where his older colleague sat at her desk in the far corner of the office. It was already well into his lunch hour. Acres saw the young man’s “rescue me” expression change to one of frustration as he realised his colleague was not going to oblige.

Acres ploughed on regardless and told the young man again how he discovered the cottage while driving from Stowmarket and how he had tried in vain to firstly find the vendor then a knowledgeable neighbour. He had walked down the garden path to the cottage almost bursting with joy at finding, at long last, what looked like the ideal place, to discover that not only was it empty but there was no way of tracking down the owners. The “For Sale” sign stated simply that the place was for sale and nothing else. There was no contact address or telephone number. Old, stained curtains hung in the windows and when he looked hard through one of the dirty windows, all he could see were some rickety-looking pieces of old furniture. Whoever was selling wasn’t at home and clearly hadn’t been for a very long time.

He then set about finding a neighbour and climbed a pile of old timber at the bottom of the garden to see over the formidable hedge. Not a house in sight. All he could see were fields and more hedges. Once back in his car he set off to search the neighbourhood for signs of life and soon discovered that the cottage had only one neighbour, a large private estate called “Hilltop”. The boundary wall was everywhere. Acres tried at the gatehouse but nobody answered, so he headed for Saxford and estate agents, and after a further hour of fruitless interrogation at two of the town’s three estate agents, Acres arrived at the last remaining contender. He told the young man so as well. “You’re my last hope,” he said adding more than a hint of desperation to his voice. To no effect, the young man was not amused. Acres tried a final plea: “I’m sure the vendor would make it worth your while if you tracked him or her down for me. After all, you’ll be helping them sell their property.”

The young man appeared lost for words. He looked across the room towards his colleague, who was still hard at work and paying him no attention, then back at Acres via the wall clock. He camouflaged a sigh with his left hand while with his right he repeated his actions of a few minutes earlier and pulled open the drawer to the card index box on the counter before him. “Now let me see,” he said feigning enthusiasm. “On the Stowmarket road you say.”

But before he had a chance to select any of the cards he was interrupted by a loud voice from the far corner. “Timothy, you go to lunch now, I’ll attend to the customer.” Acres looked up from the little box. Young Timothy’s older colleague made her way slowly from her desk.

“Thank you Miss Baxter, I’ll be back in an hour,” Timothy replied cheerfully and within seconds was heading for the rear door, coat and scarf over his arm.

She turned her attention to Acres. “Now sir, let’s see what we can do for you,” her voice was warm and friendly. She leant heavily on the counter and smiled broadly at him. “We’ll soon sort you out,” she added. Acres smiled back.

It didn’t take Miss Baxter long to get the wheels in motion. While she made some telephone calls, Acres found a seat under the leaded window that looked out on to the town square and sat down. Outside it was bitterly cold and passers-by were pulling their coats about them to keep warm against the January wind. By way of contrast, Miss Baxter appeared full of the joys of spring as she laughed and giggled with the person on the other end of the line.

He turned his gaze away and surveyed her office, which in comparison to his usual surroundings in London was like something out of Dickens. Dark wood and wax prevailed. The open fire crackling and hissing in the grate heightened the olde-worlde charm. He could hear people moving about upstairs as floorboards creaked and heavy doors were opened and closed.

“Success,” bellowed Miss Baxter breaking the spell. “We’ve found her. My sister gave me the name and I’ve found her number in the book. Margery Siriz it is. I’ll give her a ring and make arrangements for you to meet at the cottage. Is that alright with you?”

Acres nodded exaggeratingly. “Yes, yes, that’s fine,” he said, and breathed a great sigh of relief.

He arrived at the cottage in advance of the vendor. His first impression was totally reinforced. He was already falling in love with the place. It would look good on a chocolate box, he thought, which would please his girlfriend, Alice, but he'd have to work hard to convince her on other matters. The amount of work needed to lift it from its current state of disrepair would be extensive, as well as  expensive, but he was prepared to do as much as he could, and no doubt friends would lend a hand and help. It was a very traditional-looking detached cottage, the exterior of which was all brick and flint. The roof needed some work, as did the windows... and doors, and probably a lot of other things as well. But it was beautiful. No doubt a former estate worker's cottage. He headed back up the path and looked down the road to see if he could see the vendor coming, then started looking around the garden. He was just amusing himself inspecting the hedgerow for signs of last year’s bird nests when he heard a car drive up and park. He emerged from the back of the cottage in time to meet the vendor as she came down the garden path. Miss Siriz appeared to be a straight-backed, severe, no-nonsense looking lady, whose pace would probably be matched by her determination.

“Mr Greenfield, I’m Miss Siriz, shall we go inside?” Without waiting for a reply she headed off down the path towards the cottage. She halted just short of the front door and waited for him to catch up. As Acres approached she held out her arm to shake hands, and as he came close he noticed the wrinkles on her hand, then looked up to meet her gaze. She was a lot older than the first impression suggested.

“No doubt you’ll want to clear all this away,” she said gesturing with a wave of her arm towards the garden. “My uncle used to live with it like this. He liked things kept au naturelle. You’ll probably have it laid to lawn.”

She leaned heavily on the door and gave a hard push dislodging the mountain of mail on the doormat. Acres followed her in, choosing not to correct her presumption that he was going to buy. “Isn’t this incredible”, she said with a laugh holding a handful of mail. “It’s only been three weeks or thereabouts since I was last here and look at it all. So much for quiet country living.” She bent down and scooped up another handful. “All junk, look at it. Not a real letter here. Oh no, I’m wrong, here’s one,” and she opened it up and started to read.

Acres left her to her letter and started to look around. Where he was standing was a room of good proportions with a red tiled floor and a ceiling with exposed timbers. A fine dark wood, ornate staircase was against the back wall, at the bottom of which was a door that presumably led to the kitchen. There was a small fireplace with a fine old tiled surround. All very countrified, he thought - exactly as he anticipated. He walked on through the doorway, and found it hard to suppress a desire to smile. It was like coming home. He stood for a while soaking up the atmosphere of this clearly once industrious room. The stone floor was well worn by the door to the garden; the doorway was flanked by small leaded windows. Acres considered it a superbly designed room with fitments at one end and plenty of space for a table or two and chairs at the other. This would be the warmest room in the cottage and probably the most lived in during the long winter months. As Acres surveyed the room he saw another door he took to be the pantry. He walked over and opened it wide, but instead of the small cupboard he expected, it opened to a room equal in size to the reception room.

As the saying goes, the cottage spoke to him and unbelievably it was his for the asking, and the price, according to Miss Baxter, was also unbelievably low for this type of property. He turned, marched on through the kitchen and into the front room with “I’ll buy it” on his lips to be greeted by a bare room. Noises came from a room above and he went in pursuit. He found Miss Siriz in the back bedroom bending over a box overflowing with papers. “There you are”, she said as he came into the room. “So what do you think?”

“You look busy”, said Acres. “More of your uncle’s things?”

She turned her head and looked straight at Acres as if to tell him to mind his own business. Eventually she replied: “I don’t think these are. I think they’re mine. Quite why they are still here after all these years I don’t know.” She paused. “Well, what do you think of the cottage?”

“I like it. It has potential”, he replied without hesitation. He was about to go on but noticed something that stopped him in his tracks. There wasn’t anything electrical in the room. And come to think of it, there hadn’t been anything downstairs either. He sighed heavily. “What it doesn’t appear to have though are light switches, light fitments”, and after a quick look around the room, “or electric sockets.”

“He was a bit of a recluse”, said the vendor. “It was one of the things he never had put in.”

“ONE of the things!” exclaimed Acres.

“Electricity - there isn't any”, she replied matter of factly.

“What else didn’t he get round to having put in?” Acres retorted.

“I thought you noticed the absence of light fitments downstairs when you looked at the ceiling. You did seem to stare, so. You must have noticed it when you went into the kitchen!”

He ignored the criticism. It wasn’t every day you happen upon such a well preserved period cottage going for a song. Acres was too preoccupied with the wonder of the place to notice such mundane things. It was just an oversight, he thought feeling the blood rush to his face. “How did he get around then, by candlelight?” Acres smiled feigning embarrassment.

“Yes, that or a torch…or a lantern. One of those camping lanterns that runs on bottled gas.” And after a slight pause she added: “There’s no gas here either. He used to cook by that dirty monstrosity downstairs. Surely you noticed that?”

Take it as a joke, he thought. “That explains the price”, he said, and after a slight pause: “Is there plumbing?” He expected the worst.

Miss Siriz shook her head. “He was a recluse”, she insisted. There’s a well in the back garden. The toilet’s outside too.”

A decision had to be made. “I’ll take it”, he said, quietly at first, then again with a bit more confidence. He then took a few paces into the room and added with as much firmness as he could muster: “Though we’ll have to talk further about the price.”

Miss Siriz seemed more than willing to comply. “Fine, let’s go to the estate agents and finalise things there,” she said collecting up the box of papers. As she started to get up she turned to Acres and said: “This is a fine cottage. I was very happy here, I hope it will be the same for you.”

As they approached their cars Acres learnt that the cottage had originally been part of the Hilltop estate, his newly found neighbours. Miss Siriz had acquired it from them and then passed it on to her late uncle, who let it fall into its present state of disrepair. When Acres asked about the owners of Hilltop the reply was immediate. “Don’t know, don’t care”, she said. “You’ll have to go and introduce yourself and form your own opinion.” By which he drew the conclusion that she did in fact know, but really didn’t care. They were soon in their cars and heading towards Saxford.

The business in town was over very quickly and Acres was soon on the phone to his girlfriend, Alice, to tell her the good news. She was at work, but despite the noise in her office she still let him know in no uncertain terms what her true feelings were. “Don’t tell me you’ve bought it without me even seeing it”, she said. “I might not like the place, then what?” she paused to let the significance of what she had said sink in. “I hope it’s not in some out-of-the-way place, Jack. I’m not staying there all day on my own with only a baby for company.”

Acres took it all in his stride. “If I hadn’t made a decision there and then, I think I would have lost it”, he said calmly. “Wait until you’ve seen the place before you pass judgement.”

“It’s not isolated, though, is it? There are neighbours. Tell me Jack, it’s not in the middle of nowhere?”

“You’ll love it. It’s a nice old place with big gardens, front and back, and there’s a great stone floor in the kitchen, where there’s enough space for two tables if you like, and chairs. There’s also a room off of the kitchen, a large room that could be a study or play room. Wait until you see the place. I’m sure you’ll love it.”

As he finished his pub lunch, Acres considered he had handled things with Alice quite well. There was the question of the isolated location but, he thought, with a car she shouldn’t feel too cut off. Also, of course, with his change of job, he was hoping to spend a lot more time at home. With Alice, it was a question of presentation, and he had two full days to sort out a decent story before she was due to arrive.

When Margery left the estate agents she didn't return directly to her car, but instead headed off to pay a long overdue visit on an old adversary. By the time she got there she was primed.

"Is Wren about?" she almost shouted as she burst through the door to the little chemist shop. The assistant nodded but said nothing. "Then get him, quickly girl," Margery was in no mood to be nice.

Wren had been eating his late lunch in the backroom and met the assistant at the door. "It's okay Christine, you go about your work. I'll deal with this customer." He spoke quietly and offered a conciliatory smile.

Margery didn't waste a second: "Still scurrying in the background are you Wren? What are you whispering about now?"

"I thought I heard your voice, what do you want?" he retorted.

"Couldn't pass without seeing you," replied Margery with an ice cold smile. "Haven't been here for such a long time."

"Not long enough!" snapped back the chemist.

With the niceties out of the way, Margery got down to business. "Well Wren, is Willikin still ordering you about?" she asked.

He sighed heavily, but didn't bother replying.

Margery saw him grasp the counter. She considered he was probably shaking in his boots and in need of support. Wren had always feared her. Christine closed the adjoining door and retreated deep into the backroom. "You can tell your Lord and master that I've disposed of my cottage at long last; and he now has a new neighbour, Jack Greenfield, such a nice young man - we might almost be related."

"Substitute for your Uncle Anton is he? A new spy. It won't work you know. Anton never got close to Dr Willikin, never learnt anything, and this one won't either..."

Margery looked at Wren quizzically: "What are you talking about Wren?"

"Ah, go hang," he said. "I'm not going to waste my time on you," and he turned to return to his lunch.

Margery left and recalled Wren's words: "...and this one won't either". Did he actually believe Jack Greenfield to be a relative of hers. It was maybe an idea worth cultivating. Anything to get back at Willikin, even if it only had nuisance value.

Back inside his shop, Wren was confirming Margery's suspicions and was already on the phone to Hilltop. The groundsman answered the call. "Harwood is that you? It's Charlie Wren here."

"Oh hello Mr Wren, all's well I trust? How's your family?" replied Harwood.

"Is he in", asked Wren, ignoring Harwood's attempt at polite conversation.

"No, he's abroad, in America. Don't know when he'll be back."

"Better leave a message for him. Just had that Siriz woman here, she's up to her old tricks again and has installed another of her relatives up at the cottage, to take the place of old Anton. His name's Greenfield. Don't know what the bloody woman hopes to achieve but you had better inform him all the same."

"Alright, will do," said Harwood, and wrote it all down. "I'll leave it for his secretary Ann, she's not around for the minute".

"Be sure to leave the message where she'll find it," said Wren then promptly put down the receiver.

As Margery approached her car it started to rain. She climbed in and sat quietly for a moment, and then started to sob. She sat there rain falling outside and tears falling inside. She felt so overwhelmed, not from sadness but from a sense of relief at letting go something that had been part of a huge burden for so long. It wasn't the cottage, that's just a pile of bricks and flint, it was a long-overdue symbolic severing with Willikin. The cottage had been a gift from Willikin when they were close, and now 15 years later, it was virtually out of her life. Letting it go, even at a give-away price, was best for her. She wished she had sold it years ago instead of letting her uncle live there, but now it was happening. She could at long last leave the area, and the hatred, behind and truly start afresh elsewhere. She slowly stopped crying, and as she was wiping her tears another thought popped into her head, there was still something she felt she had to do. She started the car, put it into gear and slowly drove off. She was closer now than she had ever been before. Willikin would one day be in her past.