Camellia brought the kettle back to the boil on the AGA and plonked a huge teapot in the middle of the table. “Planning meeting,” she said. "Provisions." And she took the fruit cake tin from the dresser and put that on the table too, next to an enamel jug of milk so tall it would be impossible to sit down while pouring from it. "We've a lot to discuss."
Mostly, Stephen listened. They wanted to change things so Rosemary would like them, while not really changing anything at all. Already the sheep were back in the drawing room.
"We couldn't leave them in the rain," said Hugh.
Camellia suggested drilling a gutter in a wide circle round the standard lamp; putting in a fence and a drain.
"They could share Christmas with us," she said.
Stephen forced aside sarcasm and listened, keeping his eyes as level as he could so he wouldn't look resigned or bored or impatient. After a quarter of an hour, he'd had enough.
"Would you show me round?" he asked, half rising.
Camellia started. Stephen flexed his arms, leaning forward against the table. "Maybe there's another solution? Perhaps if we looked at some of the other rooms?"
There had been a time when Camellia took every new visitor on a tour of the house and grounds - she was so proud of them. But recently . . .
"Of course!” she said. Suddenly she was animated. "Let's go straight away, while we think of it. Never mind the sheep. It's such a lovely place. You may have to imagine . . . "
"I will," he said. He'd imagine how it would have been without the dust and the dung: Camellia as a child, running through the rooms, playing hide and seek with her friends; parties; servants. What had her parents been like?
Then it struck him. Why Camellia? Why not Hugh?
* * * * *
They started with the ballroom - upstairs and grand. They looked in the guest rooms, many and Spartan. Back downstairs, to a room which matched the drawing room on the other side of the front door. "The dining room," Camellia said.
Then, in a little corridor beside the kitchen, a games room and, down a step, to a Tudor study with a brick floor and two blocked windows. Hugh turned on the light. There was something so still about it, Stephen felt bound to whisper.
"It's beautiful - but why not use it?"
“Oh, it was grandfather again," said Camellia. "He turned it into a store room when he turned the house round.
The next bit was delicate. He wasn't sure what tone to take so he hesitated. Camellia looked at him.
“Could you afford to have the windows opened up?"
He asked it quietly; looking at them briefly; then away. Kindly.
“Ah.” Hugh had been waiting at the door, expecting them to be quick because the room was empty and dark. But now he stepped down. “I think," he said briskly. "We have to make something plain." The way he said it reminded Stephen of the manner in which he'd decided to fetch the hand wagon. "We have money for anything.”
Stephen frowned. He didn't know what else he could do.
Camellia looked worried. Hugh saw.
“I think it needs to be said, Camellia,." He spoke firmly and with formality. "I think we may have given Stephen the wrong impression."
Stephen wrinkled his forehead. In part, he was showing interest. In part he was trying to suggest that, if he had got a wrong impression, he was certain it wasn't because they had, in any way, given it.
Hugh leant against a panelled cupboard. The door gave slightly. He levered himself upright. "We aren't like this all the time," he said, raising his hand as if to make a big gesture but stopping short. "It's just . . . "
"That we're tired," said Camellia.
"Yes," said Hugh. "Tired. But more than that." He and Camellia were using a kind of telepathy, putting out invisible antennae, trying to judge between them how much should be said. "Things have drifted a bit, recently. Along with being tired, I think we've been suffering from a crisis in imagination."
Stephen was surprised. What? But he said nothing. Waited.
"There's been no point in thinking," said Camellia. "We did for a bit. We thought we could open up the terrace, have the orangery. But we're too tired to be put out like that. Have builders. Be disrupted. As we said . . . ."
"But I think we should make it clear our decision not to do it wasn't because of money," said Hugh. "Look. I’ve spent my whole adult life in Merchant Banking. I really don't want to mislead you. I’ve been a director of several big companies and have shares in just about everything worth having shares in. And, quite apart from that, I've inherited much from my family. As Camellia has from hers. If you think having this window unblocked would be helpful, we could do it. We can do almost anything we want. It's the 'if we want to', which is in question. Not whether we could afford it."
"More than that," said Camellia.
"Yes. It's because we've been quiet for too long, perhaps" said Hugh. "It's makes us . . . ,"
"And happy to be so. We like it like this."
"But now . . . ."
"There's Rosemary," said Stephen.
"Yes," said Camellia, miserably.
"And that," said Stephen, "changes everything."
"Yes," said Camellia. "Except for being tired."
"And then, there's the village," said Hugh.
“The village used to think it owned us," said Camellia. "The gardener owned the garden, the gamekeeper owned the woods, the cook owned the kitchen, the cleaners owned the floors and the furniture so, together, they thought they owned us too. And they'd been working here for so many generations, in a sense, they did. They belonged here as much as we do. But it wasn't their home. And they were all so used to wandering in and out, they ended up believing they belonged more than we do. That we are ephemeral while they . . . "
"Are the people of England," said Hugh, under his breath.
"Go on for ever."
"So one day . . . ,"
"We just got fed up with sharing it and said they had to go," Camellia wasn't ready to hand the baton yet to Hugh. "They wouldn’t have liked us waltzing in and out of their cottages, telling them how to do things, going on about how wonderful our grandparents were to look after theirs, what we thought of the politics we thought they had but didn't really know because we'd never bothered to ask - just assumed. We would never had told them they'd starve without my casseroles, or fall over if Hugh didn't have a special non-slip floor polish recipe! I wouldn't dream of going into their homes and complaining that their flowers weren't in the 'right' vases, that the vases were no longer in the 'right' places; criticising them, bullying them and . . . but it was alright for them, they could do it to us because they are 'The Village' . . . . . except it wasn’t. So we said 'that's it!' - and they stopped . . . . .”
"But when you have a farm," Hugh said.
"You can't just tell the animals to go along with the workers. Not that we wanted to," she added hastily. They'd never 'owned' us, or tried to own us, told us we were all wrong."
"Oh, not about anything in particular, Stephen. Just everything. Come on," she moved towards the door. "It's musty in here. And cold." Stephen and Hugh began to follow but at the step Camellia turned, suddenly, so they almost all collided. "They thought we were nothing without them. We paid their wages but we didn't exist."
"But we do," said Hugh quietly.
And he put his arm round her - for she was crying.
To continue - Twenty-Nine
For the post before this - Twenty-Seven