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Harald Maassen, Jacqui reflected when their evening together had concluded, was something of a masterpiece.  Yet pencils or paints would never suffice to capture the vitality that transformed those strong, Teutonic features into smouldering life.  There was essence in the man, some engine buried deep that propelled an indefatigable quest for life and purpose; an engine, she had to feel, that was wasted in Patrick’s harsh commercial world.

Sitting on the sidelines, translating as fast as she could when he groped for an English word in his stuttering grasp of the language, she saw how Patrick shared her admiration, and how ably Maassen reciprocated.  Ideas flew between them with shuttlecock urgency, their mutual plans growing with every exchange.

When at last, with the hour well past midnight, their new German friend confessed his tiredness, so the business of the day had finally to close, Jacqui felt the curtain drop.  Maassen was a past distraction now, for the true issue of her day had yet to be resolved.   Patrick suggested they take coffee in his room.  With not a little trepidation she agreed.

An elevator bore them upwards in silence.  At the end of an exciting, pensive day there were no more veiled inferences left.  As she crossed the threshold to his room, small talk:  “Was it a productive day, do you think?”

“It was outstanding!  If Harald isn’t running our European operation by the end of the year we will have failed somewhere.  What did you think of him? Did he surprise you?  He surprised me!”

“I liked him.  But then…”    Jacqui felt obliged to equivocate.

“Ah!  The dreadful ‘but then’!”

“You were a revelation.  I never saw the salesman in you, Pat.  I’m a little awestruck.”

“Well then, it’s mutual – you are a very capable translator.  Did you never think of doing it for a living?”

“I suppose I lacked courage.  I’m an under-achiever, hadn’t you noticed?”

Patrick’s room overlooked Hyde Park. They sat in tub chairs by his window, gazing over regiments of stately trees at the distant shimmer of Knightsbridge.

For some minutes neither spoke. It would be wrong to deny the weight of expectation that hung like a rain-cloud above their heads.  Eventually Patrick suggested room service.

“Champagne?  To celebrate, you know?”

Jacqui gestured her refusal;  “Not for me.”

“I thought it…”

“I’ve had enough to drink.  Whatever is said tonight, my love; whatever might happen, I don’t want to wake tomorrow morning with the excuse that I was light-headed.”

“Am I?  Your love – am I?”

Jacqui stared at him; “How can you ask?  You know – my god you must know my feelings?  I’ve been plastering them over every billboard I could find.  What’s the matter with you – can’t you read?    I’ve loved you, in my quiet little way, for years.  So I thought, maybe…”

“I have a feeling I won’t like what you say next.”

“There’s a problem, still.  We might as well both admit it, mightn’t we?  I’m not a fool, I know why you brought me to London and I know why I’m in this room.  But there’s someone else here too, Pat.”

“That’s not true.”

“No?  I’ve seen it in your eyes. You still think about her.  That’s not unnatural, of course you do, and I wouldn’t mind that, but I’m not Karen.  I could never be Karen!  Can I tell you what scares me?  You might not even remember.  It was that first Monday after you and Karen had gone out together – to some concert or another.  You came into the office with a look in your eyes; a fever I’d never seen before in you.  It’s never left you, that fever.  It’s still there now.  I can see it every time you look at me.  You’re looking at me and seeing her, and that’s nothing I can compete with.  She’s as much with you in this room as I am.”

Patrick was thoughtful, his eyes drawn to Jacqui’s sorrow and his fingers searching for a note from the rim of his glass.  The true object of his search was honesty. “So, believing that, why are you here?”

“Oh, I don’t know!  Wishing, dreaming, hope, perhaps?”  Jacqui made to get to her feet.  “What am I doing; what am I saying?   Look, this is all wrong – a silly, tragic mistake.  I’m going to go to bed, and sleep off all the wine.  In the morning everything will be back to normal and we can both pretend this never happened, okay?”

“Please, don’t go?”  He reached out a hand, staying her gently.

“Pat, I think I have to.  It was a really wonderful day, but it’s over.”

“Give me a minute, yeah?”  As she made to rise from the table, he came to her, slipping an arm about her shoulders.  His fingers stroked the softness of her cheek and he let them linger there, caressing yet assuring and strong.  His power was all around her, a pulsating force that all her dreams had told her she would never be able to deny.  Her dreams spoke truth. “All those years – I just want one more minute?”   She might have resisted – for an undecided moment she was disposed to try, but the moment passed.  Sighing, she leant into his cradling arm.

“You’re right, in a way, because you can’t just stop loving somebody, but she isn’t standing between us.  She’s gone.  What you’re seeing is my guilt, because I let it happen, whatever killed Karen.  Oh yes, she’s dead.  I know that now, and her ghost doesn’t haunt me.  But every day I accuse myself for my stupidity; because there must have been something I left undone – that haunts me.

“We worked together all day today, and  I enjoyed it.  But it isn’t about that.  It’s about seeing you this morning on the platform at Caleybridge, a vision of something lovely I have, no matter what you say, dreamed about.  It’s about hearing your voice say hello; about seeing your car on the drive as you come to visit, about your smile.  It’s about being first to see that smile tomorrow morning, and every morning.  I want you, Jacqui – not just as a friend anymore.  If you would agree, I’d like us to try for something greater.”.”

A warm tear touched his fingers  “We’re not speaking of love, here, are we?”

“No?  We’re speaking of something stifled for so, so long, that needs to be made real.”

Standing so close, finding she was able to rest in the cradle of his arms, she felt safe.  She felt sure.  But she could not admit to that.

He took her cheeks between his hands and made to kiss her, but she twisted her head aside.  “No, Pat.”

“You can keep saying no to me, but I’ll keep coming back.  This is about you, not a ghost from the past.  We are really much more than just friends.  I can’t blame you for doubting me, but I’m certain you’ll accept the truth in the end.”

“Look, Pat…”

“I love you, Jacqui.”

She turned her face from him, so he should not see the tears on her cheeks.  “You always know the right bloody thing to say, don’t you?”

“I mean it.  It might have taken me years to find it out, but I really do.”  He kissed her neck, gently.  “Give us a chance, darling?  Give us both one chance?”

There, in the enclosed heat of a hotel room on a hot August night, a contract was made.  The enclosed heat of suppressed passion was unleashed in an act of love that, for all its inexpert desperation, would seem generous enough at the time, and in a time when so much of life was oppressive it would not fail the test of two people, each in their different ways seeking redemption.  Only the wisest of us would detect the moving finger as it traced its message across those darkened walls, and only the most perceptive, creeping between the closed leaves of Jacqui’s mind, would witness her final thought before she dropped into  exhausted sleep, and be a little shocked, perhaps, to discover it was of Harald Maassen.

#

In October of 1969, amid the season of swirling mists and wet leaves falling, the book of Gwendoline Hallcroft’s life finally closed.  Her difficulty walking and climbing stairs meant she had taken to sleeping in the old games room on the ground floor at Radley.  Jackson had equipped it for her and he employed a full-time nurse, a shining star of a woman who rejoiced in the name of Henrietta, which led Patrick, a little unfairly, to call her ‘Hen’.  Hen, petite, with mousey hair and a perpetual smile, clucked about the house, making it her duty to give hourly reports to anyone who would listen about the wellbeing, or otherwise, of her patient.

“She’s bright as a button this morning, Mister Hallcroft.  Took her breakfast really well.  I think her appetite’s coming back!”

Or:  “Not so good today, I’m afraid.  She’s been a tiny bit sick, but never mind.  Better tomorrow!”

Everyone knew the prognosis was not a long one.  The cancer that had been nibbling at Gwendoline for months or maybe even years had developed a taste for her flesh, and begun devouring her voraciously by the day and the hour.  Having established that her disease was incurable she resolutely refused treatment, preferring to close the book of her life with as much dignity as possible.  Nevertheless, her ending was a sudden, cruel affair.  Maybe she was aware she stood at the gates, and being persuaded her time had come she took advantage of Hen’s inattention, forcing herself from her bed to walk out into the frost of an early weekday morning.  She was found huddled at the door of Chuffy, her favourite horse’s loose box.  What the disease had yet to conclude the brittle autumn air accomplished.  She was stiff and cold when Jackson discovered her.  She was just fifty-six years old.

Gwendoline was laid to rest one raining afternoon in her family’s plot in the churchyard at Heighton Sibley, with the black umbrella’d mushrooms of her people clustered around her coffin, a box so light only four bearers were needed to take her to her last bed.  As they walked from the grave – Gabrielle nestled against her father’s arm, behind them Patrick and Jacqui, whose place in the family had strengthened since Karen’s loss, held hands together.  A sombre Paul tailed that sad little procession back to the limousines, wrapped in his thoughts.

Gwendoline’s death opened a dark chasm under Jackson.  There were whole days when he did not appear at the factory, or surface from his study.  So Patrick became managing director of Hallcroft Carpets in all but name, and Jackson would happily have yielded the position to him officially if he had asked.  If the Hallcroft family’s personal tide was ebbing the same could not be said for the business, which, on the strength of Patrick’s vision, was growing to almost double its former size.

How did Jacqui feature in all these changes?  On the face of things she might have seemed an unlikely mistress of Radley Court, yet that was, eventually, to become her role.  After their first stumbling night together on that epic London adventure, she appeared to feel justified in committing herself to a relationship with Patrick.  Meetings once confined to one or two a month now took place three or four times in a week, the further development of which was only constrained by the fact of Gwendoline’s illness.  In the weeks following her funeral, those constraints were removed.  Jacqui, already valuable to Patrick as a translator, extended her role, helping within the business wherever she could, staying by Patrick’s side when he needed her, there in the background when he apparently did not.

On the first week of November the family dispersed, inasmuch as Gabrielle, who had  remained in the family home to tidy up her mother’s affairs and comfort her father as much as she could, rejoined Paul, who had already returned to his Manchester firm.  Amanda, who agreed to board with the school where she had managed to remain for her last four years, also departed.  The dwindled Hallcroft clan made a promise to meet again at Christmas, but before she left Gabrielle had a short conversation with Patrick.  She gave him a reassurance she knew he needed.  “I’ve discussed it with Sprog.”  Gabrielle said.  “Go and do your stuff, Patsy.”

Patrick and Jacqui were given to walking by the lake where, long ago, he had walked with Karen.  It was on such a walk on a damp Sunday afternoon that Patrick suddenly grasped Jacqui’s arm and pulled her to him in a kiss.  His evident passion alarmed her a little, so she stepped back, gently resisting.

“Pat, not here, darling.”

He grinned at her conspiratorially.  “Why not?”

“Because it’s cold, and it’s very, very wet…”

“Ah, I see.  Not the appropriate atmosphere for settling an important question.”

Jacqui felt her heart taking standing jumps at her throat.  She swallowed hard.  “Then again, it might be.  It rather depends upon the question.”

“A two-part question.”

“Oh PAT!  Get on with it!”

“Alright then. Will you marry me?”

There, by the lake, they agreed they would marry in the spring.  Much later, as they walked back to the house, arm linked in arm, Jacqui asked:  “What was the second part?”

“Second part?”

“You said it was a two-part question.”

“Oh yes, I did, didn’t I?  This is a bit more difficult, Jacks.  Suppose I asked you not to wait until after we’re married?”

Jacqui chuckled.  “I wasn’t aware that we had!”

“No, that isn’t quite what I meant.  Would you move in with me, here now, or tomorrow, or soon, at any rate?  You could have a room of your own, of course, and we’d get somebody permanent to look after the house, as well as the two Mrs Bs.  I mean, you’d have whatever you wanted, and you would save Father and me from rattling around in our own echoes.”  Patrick finished humbly. “I realize it’s an awful lot to ask, and we’ll buy our own place if you tell me that’s your choice.  Just think about it, if you will?”

“I’ll think about it.”  Jacqui agreed.  “Would it have to be a permanent arrangement?”

“No.  Apart from you and I, nothing is permanent.  For a few months maybe until things get settled, a few years if you want to, forever if you get to like the place enough.”

“And I can get to ride the horses?”

“You ride!  After all this time I didn’t know!  Yes, that would be great!  I thought I was going to have to sell them, though Gabby made me promise to keep Chuffy if I could.”

“But I’d have to sleep on my own?”

Patrick put his arm around her and hugged.  “Would you want to?”

“No, Patsy, I wouldn’t.”

So that was how Jacqueline Greenway, who was to be Jaqueline Hallcroft-Smythe on the fifth of March the following year, became the mistress of Radley Court.  The process was gradual at first:  she spent hours inducing Jackson from his self-imposed isolation, gaining his trust. She advertised and found a young Swedish girl in need of work.  Inga was tireless and hopeless at the same time, spreading a thin film of unattended dust and a gravel of broken crockery behind her wherever she sought to improve, but she was willing to work all hours, managing to placate the formidable Mrs Beatty and mildly torment the capable Mrs Buxham in the process.  In short, Inga slotted into the chaotic dysfunction of Hallcroft family life, and brightened Jackson’s firmament with her outrageously brief mini-skirts.

The stables also had to be reduced.  Of the horses only Chuffy and Shiner remained; two backs upon which Jacqui could ride if she wished, though she set about coaxing Patrick onto Shiner.  A nephew of Mrs Buxham’s who liked to be known as Shane was paid cash for two hours of stable work each day, and exercising the animals when others could not.

Throughout all these changes Jacqui kept working in Caleybridge.  At Christmas, when the family gathered once more, Gabrielle remarked that she never seemed to stop.

“You’re taking on too much, sweetie.  This place drinks up your time.  Mumsy had to give up work to do it, and Daddy was more help than he is now.”

“He practically lives in that study of his,”  Patrick admitted.  “Not that he was ever particularly present, but he still had more time than I seem to have.  Jacqui’s going to have to learn to drive the new mower, come spring.”

“That does it!”  Gabrielle exclaimed.  “DO something, Patrick!”

Patrick nodded.  As soon as an opportunity arose, he confronted Jacqui:  “I wondered if you were so attached to County Hall you could never leave it;” He said, “although I think that would make you unique.  So I also wondered if I could ask you to work with me – in the Company, I mean?  Dad agrees – you’d be a great help in liaising with Maassen and building up the European operation.”

Jacqui agreed.

Thus, out of the sad weeds that wept for Gwendoline’s passing a new Hallcroft order was created.  Patrick and Jacqui ran Radley Court as well as Hallcrofts, aided by Inga and the two redoubtable Mrs. Bs.  Inga’s value proved to be twofold, for she not only kept house for her younger employers, but also revived Jackson’s spirits by flirting with him mercilessly.  At first Patrick was suspicious of her motives, but it quickly became clear she had no other purpose than to draw the grieving widower out of his malaise and return him to life.  She had great success.  As February clenched her cold fist around Radley Court, Jackson returned to the Company he had built.   We cannot say if he approved of the many changes his son had wrought, for although there were innovations he might have considered controversial, much of his entrepreneurial flair had left him, and for a while, at least, ambitious son and weary father worked quietly together.

It was to be a troubled year, 1970.  A year that witnessed the expansion of the distant war in Vietnam also heralded the end of the liberal youth culture that had created The Beatles.  A country tired of socialist government came riding in upon a reactionary wave which bore up many a political whale that had slumbered in the deep while hippiedom and the generation of free love cavorted above their heads.  And one such very mediocre humpback was none other than Stafford Driscombe…

 

© Frederick Anderson 2018.  All rights reserved. Each chapter of this book is a work of fiction.  All names, characters, businesses, organisations, places and events in the story or stories are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.  Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, places or events is entirely coincidental.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content