The People's Friend
SERIAL The Mystery Of Anna Grace
As Charlie sat down to dinner with the guests, she felt completely at home . . .
GRANT THORNBERRY was frozen. He had driven up that morning without so much as a winter coat or scarf, as there hadn’t been any snow forecast.
Seeing a handsome man in a business suit, Harriet was all smiles.
“Please do come and sit by the fire. Charlotte will bring you a drink.” Charlie nodded.
“I’ll bring a pot of coffee. Dinner will be around seven thirty,” she told him.
“Wonderful,” Grant Thornberry replied. “It was kind of you to rescue me.”
“It was no trouble,” Harriet said, showing Grant into the lounge.
Charlie went off to see to the coffee and set an extra place at the dining table.
“Could you find him a jumper or something?” Charlie whispered to Katarina, who was making up the bed in the Weaver’s Suite with military efficiency.
“Go up to the box of lost things,” Katarina suggested.
Charlie went up to the
trunk on the landing and found a pullover that looked about Grant’s size.
Just as she was closing the lid of the trunk, something caught her eye.
There at the bottom of the trunk was a book. It was backed in brown paper and someone had written on the front: Anna’s Book.
“Charlotte, there is no-one manning reception.” Harriet’s voice was sharp.
“Coming!” Charlie called, taking both the book and the jumper.
She hurried downstairs, handing Grant the pullover.
Charlie didn’t see much more of Grant that evening. She was kept busy answering the phone, as another couple cancelled for the weekend, then the neighbouring farm rang to say that they had a burst pipe. Robin went to help them mop things up.
Charlie helped Katarina serve dinner and, in Robin’s absence, Harriet was sitting in his place beside his mother, Mrs Cecilia.
Grant proved to be excellent company. He was explaining how he had been brought up in the hotel trade as his father owned several hotels near the coast, and Charlie caught snatches of conversation about mad guests and temperamental plumbing.
That’s why his name had been familiar, Charlie thought. She had stayed in one of his father’s hotels years ago.
The Anna Grace plumbing was making its presence felt. The dishwasher hadn’t worked since that morning and Albert said that a pipe had split and he would need to order a new one directly from the manufacturer.
So Charlie and Dean started to wash up the old-fashioned way.
It was nine-thirty before they got a chance to sit down in the kitchen.
“Sit and eat,” Katarina said, putting a plate of lasagne before each of them. “Remember that Harriet is not the boss of any of us.”
Charlie hadn’t realised how hungry she was. Dean wolfed his down. He’d been quiet all evening, though that was nothing new.
“This is wonderful, Katarina,” Charlie said.
“There was more than enough for the extra guest. I see he has no wedding ring,” Katarina pointed out.
“Don’t try to matchmake!” Charlie laughed. “Besides, I think Mr Thornberry was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and would be looking for someone posher than me. Like Harriet.”
“Do not talk nonsense,” Katarina said. “He would be lucky to have such a lady on his arm. Miss Harriet says she will not risk the driving home. She is sensible and will stay in the Butler’s Lounge.”
Charlie frowned. She always felt herself breathe a sigh of relief when Harriet left for the day.
“I’ll clear the pudding dishes.”
When Charlie returned to the dining-room, Harriet, Cecilia and Grant were all laughing at something. As Charlie went to take Harriet’s dish, Harriet didn’t bother to acknowledge her.
I’ve dealt with difficult women before, Charlie thought. Grit your teeth and get on with it – that’s what her gran would have said.
As Charlie washed up the last of the dishes, she wondered if she and Harriet would ever be friends.
The next morning, Charlie wanted to take some photos of Anna Grace in the snow to upload to the website.
The wind was so cold it almost hurt to breathe in, but seeing Dean and Albert struggling to protect the outbuildings against the worst of the snow, Charlie went to give them a hand.
She spent the day going back and forth between various parts of the estate in Katarina’s car, taking Dean and Albert flasks of coffee, holding things while they nailed tarpaulin over broken windows, secured doors and checked for burst pipes.
Charlie had hoped to spend today looking at Anna’s journals, but helping Albert and Dean gave her the chance to get her bearings, as she had not really had the time to explore since Robin had given her the tour a few weeks back.
The light was now starting to fade from the day and the sky was looking ominously grey.
“Go on back and get warm, Charlie,” Albert told her. “You’ve barely stopped all day. Dean and I will finish up.”
“If you’re sure,” Charlie said.
Katarina greeted her at the kitchen door, where Charlie pulled off her boots.
“I have made borscht for the workers,” Katarina said, taking Charlie’s coat and hanging it on a hook near the range.
“I thought borscht was Polish,” Charlie said.
“My grandmother was Polish. Now, you need a glass of wine,” Katarina said, reaching for a bottle of red from Anna Grace’s cellars.
“I may need to drive again tonight,” Charlie said.
Katarina indicated the windows before pouring a small glass for Charlie.
“In weather like that? Mr Robin would not allow you to go out on such a night.”
Charlie took a sip of wine, feeling it warm her all the way through.
“The summerhouse is all but rotten,” Charlie said. “Most of the windows are gone and everything in there is mouldy.
“Unless we do something now, Albert says we may as well pull it down in the spring.”
“So much for Miss High and Mighty and it being a place to exchange wedding vows,” she said.
“I did see it at its worst, but most of the wood will need replaced. Though the roof was sound,” Charlie went on.
“There’s some other stuff in there, too, but it was buried under various things, so we’ll leave sorting that out until another day.”
“You have spiders’ webs on your jeans,” Katarina pointed out, brushing them off in a motherly gesture.
“Are there people coming for dinner tonight?” Charlie asked, glancing at the clock. It was already six.
“Mr Wynford. He is a paying guest and he helps Mrs Cecilia and Mr Robin with all sorts of things. He will be quite happy with the chicken. Harriet, she leave with Grant Thornberry after lunch.
“The Mortons, they come again. Not paying any money,” Katarina added.
“I’ll give you a hand when I’ve finished this,” Charlie said, putting a spoon into the borscht, which was hot and tangy.
“You will rest,” Katarina said sharply. “I can manage chicken and potatoes for five. Besides, you were up early this morning and have not stopped.”
“It was good to get it all done before the snow started again,” Charlie said. “Dean filled the boot of Albert’s four-wheel-drive with rotten wood and bits of rusty bicycle. He even found an old pram that was too good to throw out.”
“You are thrifty, unlike Mrs Cecilia who brings guests who never pay and steal things.
“Once, I caught a woman who was trying to put the tea service with the little roses in her suitcase!” Katarina exclaimed. “Where is young Dean now?”
“Albert said he would bring him back to the cottage and they would watch a film. They’ll drop in to pick up some food in about half an hour,” Charlie replied.
“He is putting on weight,” Katarina said, pulling out a sizzling roasting pan and dropping the potatoes into the hot fat. “When Dean arrived, he was like a skeleton.”
“He was,” Charlie said. “He’s a nice lad, isn’t he?”
“I think Mr Thornberry was born with a silver spoon in his mouth”
“If it weren’t for Mr Robin, he would be sleeping on streets. Now, you finish the borscht, then have hot bath. Then you come and join us for raspberry cheesecake.”
“Thank you, Katarina,” Charlie said, then headed upstairs.
Mrs Cecilia still liked guests to dress for dinner, even if it was just the staff who came in while coffee and dessert were being served.
However, the dining-room had draughty sash windows and the highest ceiling Charlie had ever seen. So her short cocktail dress was not an option tonight, unless she wanted to end up with pneumonia.
Instead, Charlie took a jumper, teamed it with thick tights and her ankle boots and finished off the ensemble with a colourful scarf she and Katarina had found during one of their forays into the attic.
Mrs Cecilia was in full flow when Charlie came in.
“Then we told them that they simply must stay, but they’d have to leave the ducks upstairs in the bath.”
The other guests laughed politely, but Charlie felt herself colour as she saw Robin to the right of his mother at the table in his fleece and jeans.
“Sit down, Charlotte,” Mrs Cecilia said, looking Charlie’s outfit up and down.
Charlie sat down and looked at Robin. She hadn’t seen him all day and had assumed he was helping out the farmer next door.
Introductions were made somewhat unnecessarily, as Charlie already knew the Mortons, of whom Katarina disapproved so strongly, and Wynford, the artist.
Katarina, bless her, had set Charlie a place with the plain silver napkin ring and as soon as she sat down, Charlie felt something she hadn’t felt for a long time.
She felt like she had come home.
Mrs Cecilia finished her tale and Charlie was relieved to see Katarina coming in with dessert.
“I hear you’ve had a massive clear-out down by the old tennis courts,” Robin said.
Charlie put down her cup. “Well, it was great having Dean there, and sometimes you just need a clear day to tackle something like that,” she answered.
“It should have been tackled years ago,” Robin said ruefully. “But there was just never the time.”
“There should be tennis racquets somewhere,” Mrs Cecilia put in. “And the net is . . . let me think . . .”
“It was always kept in the boathouse,” Robin said.
“I think I saw it in the summerhouse, but it was so buried under lumber that I couldn’t be sure,” Charlie told them.
“We used to have marvellous tennis parties,” Mrs Cecilia said dreamily.
“Do tell us more,” Mrs Morton said, anxious, Charlie knew, that Mrs Cecilia would let them stay another few nights.
“Perhaps another time,” Robin said, and only Charlie could detect a hint of impatience in his voice.
Charlie was dying to ask Mrs Cecilia about Anna Graystone, but once Mrs Cecilia was reminiscing about the past, it was hard to get a word in edgeways.
Fortunately, Wynford came to their rescue.
“Cecilia, perhaps you’d like to accompany me into the morning-room? I know the fire is lit.”
“What a good idea, Wynford,” Cecilia said, taking his arm and sweeping out of the room. The Mortons took the hint and obediently followed.
“You worked hard today,” Robin said when they’d gone, pouring Charlie more coffee. “Albert was filling me in.”
“Thank you,” Charlie said. “There’s a lot still to be done. Dean nailed some polythene over the broken windows of the summerhouse, so at least no more of the snow and rain will get in. He also put a padlock on the door.”
Robin ran his fingers through his hair and Charlie noticed how tired he looked.
“We could get more done if it weren’t for this ghastly weather,” he commented.
“Meanwhile, the bills have to be paid,” Charlie said.
“That’s exactly it,” Robin said. “Tomorrow afternoon I’ll have to get back to town to start work again. At least the weather is meant to clear a little.”
Charlie didn’t say anything for a moment, realising she hadn’t been alone with Robin without Harriet or his mother, or anyone else, being there.
“Wynford helped us clear the snow from the drive,” Charlie told him. “When Albert objected, Wynford told him that it helped him to think.”
“I’m not sure we would have kept going without people like Wynford,” Robin mused.
“Do you have many guests booked in at this time of year?”
“Not since we had to let the chef go two years ago,” Robin said. “The restaurant always had a good name, and we’d have dinner, bed and breakfast deals, which helped keep things going during the winter.
“Now we do breakfasts and an evening meal, but it’s not fair on Katarina to expect her to be able to do a menu that would justify going back to the full restaurant. We simply haven’t the staff.”
“I didn’t realise the grounds were so extensive,” Charlie said. “Driving around today I thought I would only be in the car for a moment or two, but the estate is much bigger than I thought.”
“It’s not as big as it was when I was growing up,” Robin carried on. “The housing estate you passed on the way from the station used to belong to Anna Grace, but my father sold it to fund putting in the lift and a couple of ensuite bathrooms. We had some pretty extensive asbestos removal done as well.
“If we don’t get something done soon,” he continued, “we’ll have to sell land to pay for the upkeep. I really don’t want to let Albert and Katarina go. Or Dean.”
Charlie wondered again about the two sides she constantly saw of Robin – the rather curt solicitor who had intimidated her at the job interview, and the one who had made sure that a homeless teenager had somewhere to sleep.
Before she could ponder further, Katarina came in to clear away and Robin declared he would call it a night.
When Charlie walked back to the cottages that evening with Katarina, the snow was falling heavily.
Wishing Katarina good night, Charlie let herself into the cottage and got ready for bed.
It had been lovely to chat to Robin tonight, if only for a little while. Then she stopped herself.
She mustn’t go down that road. Robin was her boss. To distract herself, Charlie’s picked up Anna’s book, the one she had found in the box of lost things. However, she was too tired to read more than a page and fell asleep with the light on.
The next morning, Katarina looked around the cottage with satisfaction. There were enough logs in the basket, and the fridge was full of food.
Ghillie the cat had crept in behind her and was curled up on the old sofa bed she had Dean had found in the “rumpus shed”, as Katarina called the outbuilding where they stored old furniture.
“You are always after the high life,” Katarina said, stroking Ghillie’s head. “Dean likes you, so do not be eating the ham that is in the fridge for him.”
Ghillie purred and tucked his front paws underneath his chest, settling in for a doze.
That had been a good idea of Charlie’s to give the boy the empty cottage. Charlie and Dean had worked hard, then Katarina had given the place a good clean and airing.
The last family, she knew, had moved out of the cottages before she had lived here, but Dean had
slapped a coat of emulsion on the walls and Albert had been efficient with a screwdriver and hammer, so that there were now straight shelves and cupboard doors.
Katarina had lived in her cottage when her son was little. She thought with pride of the son who had now graduated from university and was working for a big firm in London.
It was Mrs Cecilia who had sorted everything after Katarina’s husband died, leaving her with a son not yet in school. The cottage had been her refuge and she had been happy here.
They no longer had to make do with the outside bathroom, as each cottage had a shower and toilet tucked into where the lean-to had been at the back.
However, Katarina could see how things had dwindled in the last few years. No matter how much she adored the family, if it was a question of business, she might well have to look for another job – and another home.
Katarina walked back up to the big house and pushed the unwelcome thoughts to the back of her mind. She would speak to Albert about it later. Albert always seemed to know just what to say.
While she remembered, she texted him to remind him that Miss Sam was coming this weekend with her girls.
Mr Robin walked into the kitchen and helped himself to a chocolate biscuit, a batch of which were on the cake cooler.
“I saw that,” Katarina teased. “There will be none left for when Miss Samantha comes with all her little ones and then I will say: it is Robin. He is the biscuit eater.” Robin laughed. “Where are we going to put them this time?”
“It is all arranged. The two Pollys are coming to give the place a good clean today and then we shall see which rooms. The little ones are six, four and two now so it will be a busy house.”
“How do you know all that?” Robin said, wondering if he could pinch another biscuit.
“Miss Samantha sends me the texts,” Katarina said with satisfaction.
“I see,” Robin replied. “Where is Albert this morning?”
“In the laundry fixing shelves for Charlie.”
“Is he now?” Robin said. “While you are here and everyone is talking about fancy new ideas for this old house, I have some ideas of my own and Charlie said I should speak to you.”
“Do you think you could tell me your ideas and drink coffee with me, too?” Robin asked, putting an arm around her.
“Do not try to charm more biscuits out of me!” Katarina laughed. “I know your ways of old. You know where the coffee pot is!”
Robin laughed, poured two mugs of coffee and sat down at the kitchen table.
“Your ideas are normally pretty sound, Katarina,” he commented.
“The cottages. What is to stop you letting out the older ones down by the lake? One is full of old junk, the other two need repairs, but you now have an extra pair of hands with Dean. Albert says the structure of the cottages is sound.” Robin sipped his coffee. “Go on,” he urged. “The guests would still come here for their breakfast and have the evening meal, but we could put microwaves and fridges down there.”
They had taken out the fridges a few years back, as Mrs Cecilia always forgot to keep tabs on who had drunk what when guests checked out.
“We couldn’t do it right away,” Robin pointed out, ever the lawyer.
“You young people have no patience. You could start with the planning and Dean and Albert could clear some of the junk.”
“And Charlie told you to speak to me about all this?” Robin asked.
“Yes,” Katarina said. “She is a wise woman, not rushing into big decisions without your saying-so.”
“She is indeed,” Robin agreed. “Those ideas Charlotte has for the artists’ weekend are good. I had a look at her plans last night.
“We can afford it, and if it’s a success it would be something we could run regularly. Wynford’s already agreed to be the facilitator, and Charlie suggested that Mum takes the guests on some woodland walks, so she feels included, too.
“I must tell her on Monday,” Robin added.
Before Katarina could stop him, he took two more biscuits and ran from the kitchen.
Katarina looked at her watch. What had she been thinking? She needed to see Mrs Cecilia. Dinner would not cook itself.
It was a few days before Charlie got near Anna’s journal again. She had spent the day e-mailing artists’ groups in the county to try to garner some publicity for the weekend.
She had also posted a brief entry on social media, with a link to Anna Grace’s website and some of the photos she had taken of the old house in the snow.
Harriet had at least shown Charlie how to use the electronic booking system, so whenever anyone phoned about the artists’ weekend, she was able to book them into a room then and there.
Things with Harriet had not been easy and Charlie was tired of either trying to push her point home or be endlessly diplomatic.
Charlie knew Harriet was annoyed, as Robin had made no further mention of the wedding venue plans.
Eventually, afraid she would say something to Harriet she would later regret, Charlie took herself off to the library to look at the old household ledgers to see if she could piece together more of Anna’s story.
Then she had dinner with Albert and Katarina at Katarina’s cottage.
Katarina sent Charlie back to her own cottage with a slice of lemon drizzle cake. Charlie made herself some tea and settled down to
read the next journal entry.
She was back to Uncle Tom’s typed-up manuscript, as the journal she had found seemed to be from a month or two later.
As usual, it was confusing, so Charlie kept a notebook handy, noting down dates and events to try to keep things straight in her head.
Poor Anna had not been having the easiest time, either.
After dinner, when the children were finally in bed, with John insisting that he should not be made to sleep in the nursery as he was a big boy now, Jacob and I were able to talk.
The weeks are so busy, with Jacob being away from six-thirty in the morning, that days go by when we barely even greet each other.
Sunday seemed to have revived him, as he had looked pale these last few weeks, as if the strain of his uncle’s death and the building work had all taken their toll.
“I talked to the fellow who owns the acres down by the river,” Jacob said, lighting his pipe. “He said that the latest caper for the great and the good is to build a folly. What do you think?”
A folly? My heart sank. How may I dissuade him from such foolishness? We will be ruined before the year is out.
Charlie turned to the next page. The next entry was a week later, and here Uncle Tom’s haphazard research methods confused things.
There was a short section about household accounts. More servants had obviously been engaged, as this was noted in the journal. The dates didn’t tally, but Charlie read on, as Ghillie (who had taken a shine to Charlie’s cottage) purred beside her on the sofa.
What happened about the folly, Charlie wondered. The fact that she had never seen one on Anna Grace land was possibly all the answer she needed, but still, she wanted to find out.
She went through more pages, telling of John starting at school, then the journal was full of plans for
a dairy room. Anna talked about how she called on a neighbouring farmer’s wife.
Their dairy room is efficient with milkmaids hard at work. They churn their own butter, and their churns are scalded to keep them clean.
All I would need would be a good solid outbuilding with an area where butter could be churned and the milk pails and churns kept.
She impressed on me the need for natural light and a secure building to guard against foxes or thieves.
Charlie read on, making the occasional note in her own notebook of dates, activities and how old the children would have been.
That was where the household ledger came in useful. The journals were Anna’s private thoughts, but the ledger was also for Mrs Fanshawe. Charlie could recognise two sets of handwriting.
The estate was prospering, as there was a note of three young women hired, so they must have been milkmaids.
She wondered if the milkmaids would have made the butter as well and jotted a note to look that up.
Then there was talk in the journals of labourers, stonemasons and the cost of things, so that must have been the dairy room being built.
Charlie smiled, putting down her pen. Follies were aptly named indeed.
On Sunday morning, Charlie went to explore the village church with Katarina.
The minister was a woman called Jeanette, who welcomed Charlie warmly.
Katarina was chatting away to several people whom she obviously knew well, showing pictures of her son on her mobile phone.
“I’ll walk back,” Charlie said to the housekeeper. She wanted to snap a few photos for the website.
Katarina indicated the path she could take, which skirted the old graveyard.
It was a warm day and Charlie had worn flat shoes in anticipation of the walk.
The graveyard was old and there was an area at the back where the gravestones were so ancient that they were now covered in lichen.
Charlie took her time, reading inscriptions. The old stone ones gave a bare minimum of information and Charlie wasn’t really paying attention until one name caught her eye. There it was. Graystone.
There was a carved angel on one of the headstones and Charlie read the dates. This wasn’t quite as far back as Anna’s time, but near it.
There were a few male Graystones – the daughters would have married and disappeared from that branch of the family, to be subsumed into another.
There was a memorial in the church to World War I and she had seen a Graystone name on that, but that would have been a grandson of Anna’s, not the son.
Charlie crouched down to get a better look. There it was: John Jacob Graystone.
They gave his dates. That must have been the little boy who hadn’t wanted to sleep in the nursery.
He had lived to be a good age for those days. Charlie took a picture of the gravestone.
Charlie looked around at the other gravestones. It was the usual sad tale of an age before antibiotics and immunisation, when even the wealthy weren’t immune to childhood diseases.
There were later Graystones, a few more stone cherubs, a cross, and then she could see that the land had obviously run out some time around World War II.
A later Graystone had died before he was twenty, and another woman had died young, too – perhaps a granddaughter by marriage of Anna.
But try as she might, Charlie could not find where Anna Graystone was buried.
To be continued.