Jeremiah James Taylor, AKA Jeremy Smythe, AKA Eric Bolen, AKA who the hell else ... was demobilised in 1946 as a Captain, but he’d never led a company of troops. He’d been spotted early in his enlistment, commissioned and transferred to SOE, where he trained Resistance fighters and, sometimes, carried out targeted, specific assassinations. He was unusual, however, in two respects. One, was a conscience which caused him great distress when the death of a target resulted in reprisals on the civilian population. The second was a respect bordering on reverence for women. Only once during the war in Europe did he kill a woman. She was a notorious member of the Geheime Staatspolizei, whose methods had (as far as he was concerned) removed any right she may have been born with to the title of human, let alone woman. It had not taken many accounts of her actions, or the brutalised body of a young woman – girl, really – who had been caught escorting an Allied airman from one supposedly safe house to another, to convince him the world would be a better place without her. But it was a clean shot, rather than the slow death by torture that she deserved.
He wasn’t unemployed for long, and was snapped up by British Intelligence. Assassination is not a routine tool of intelligence agencies, but was necessary from time to time. Often enough to keep him busy and travelling. His salary, while not great, was really only needed while he was in Britain for a few months each year – his duty related expenses were met. As a result, he was able to buy a few acres with a crumbling farm house in Cumbria, overlooking Coniston Water, which he gradually restored to a habitable state. He had help from his organisation in excavating and constructing an underground firing range, where he could hone his skills with a selection of firearms.
One unusual assignment was the elimination of an organised crime boss, who travelled in an armoured limousine and enjoyed his golf. Various methods were considered, but in the end he took four shots with a Boyes .55 calibre rifle, killing both the boss and his driver, before melting away into the forest behind him.
He was largely alone, though as an attractive man had a succession of occasional lovers whom he visited from time to time, and he enjoyed using his collection of vehicles. He retired in his seventies and lived comfortably in his Cumbrian home, his financial position excellent as a result of astute investment. His family had largely disowned him. Always independent, the final straw had been his enlistment in 1939, but he’d kept contact with his sister, then with her daughter, his niece, who were the main beneficiaries of his will. His sister died – a lifetime inveterate smoker – but his niece kept him up-to-date with her son’s progress.
At the age of eighty, he decided he was no longer steady enough to ride his 1948 Norton motorcycle, and purchased a BMW R51/3 in perfect condition, and had it fitted to a Watsonian sports sidecar. On that, he did most of his local travelling. The Lotus Seven sports car and the VW camper were blocked up, the oil and coolant changed and the batteries removed, leaving the big Ford and the combination for his use.
One day he’d decided to get some fresh air, and a little exercise, and took the BMW to the Grizedale Country Park; a favourite destination to try to catch a glimpse of a red squirrel. The red squirrel is all but extinct south of the Scottish border, hanging on in a small handful of habitats where greys are excluded.
He didn’t see any red squirrels. His eye was, however, caught by something pale on the ground among the trees.
Sally Fellowes had run away from an abusive home situation, only to find herself, age fourteen, in the hands of a less than scrupulous Dominant. He had ‘trained’ her, reinforcing a latent submissive personality, and two years later he was becoming bored. She no longer gave any reason to punish her, not that he needed a reason, and the shine had certainly left her youth. There was one possible source of amusement, however, one he wouldn’t have made use of for any girl he wanted to keep.
She followed him, obediently, into the woodland; watched as he positioned motion-sensing cameras. Stripped at his command and docilely submitted to being tied spread-eagle on the ground. Waited for him to return. Slept, off and on, through a fortunately warm night.
Sunrise brought no return, just thirst and resignation. Mid-morning, having seen no-one else, she looked up at a tall, spare, grey-bearded man.
“Well, fuck me,” the man exclaimed. “Who left you like this?”
She half expected him to use her sexually. Perhaps he was too old to get it up, though? Would he hurt her?
He rummaged in a pocket and produced a clasp-knife. “Let’s get you out of that,” and cut the ropes. At another time, he would have untied the knots, but dew had swollen the fibres and he wanted her free as quickly as possible. “Get up, girl,” he held out a hand and helped her to stand, then brushed dirt, pine-needles and assorted small wild-life from her back. He delved into a backpack and produced a light rain-suit. “Put this on. It’ll at least cover you.”
“Yes, sir,” she spoke for the first time, obeying the order.
“What’s your name, girl?”
She hesitated for a moment. “Sally, sir.”
“And how old are you, Sally?”
Longer hesitation. “Sixteen, sir.”
“Could you go home?”
“No! No, sir.”
“Very well. Let’s get you somewhere safe, Sally. Hungry? Thirsty?”
“Yes, sir.” She finished with the rain-suit and rolled up the sleeves and legs. “Thirsty, sir.”
“My name’s Jeremiah.”
“I can’t take you into the café like that, so I’ll just take you home for now. Can you walk? Sorry I haven’t anything for your feet.”
“I’m used to walking barefoot, sir ... Master Jeremiah.”
They started walking down the path.
“I am no-one’s Master, Sally.”
She slumped. “Yes, sir. Sir...”
“May I stay with you? I can cook, clean...”
“For now, certainly. For the future ... we’ll see.”
He led the way and installed her in the low seat of the sidecar, and set off home. On arrival, he put the machine away and led her into the house where she promptly removed the rain suit and stood naked once more.
“One thing, Sally ... your Master?”
“Is that his name?” She nodded. “Will he come back for you?”
She shrugged. “Maybe. I guess he was getting tired of me anyway. He may expect someone to take me. But he’ll return for the cameras.”
“Cameras? Damn!” He was genuinely angry – at himself, for not thinking of the possibility.
“Sir ... he might track you? He might want a price for me.”
“He’ll be paying the price if he comes here.”
“I’m an old man? Yes, I’m old ... because those who wished me ill are all dead. Come with me.” He paused, hesitating. “I’ll find you something to wear. And you were thirsty. I’m sorry. Let’s deal with those.”
“Sir, I don’t need clothes. I’m used to being like this.”
Jeremiah might have been old, but he’d never minded looking at a pretty girl, so he shrugged and led the way to the kitchen. Sally downed about a pint of tap water and sipped a second while consuming a cheese sandwich. Jeremiah had a sandwich, too, but drank tea. When they’d both finished, Sally carried the crockery to the sink and reached for the taps.
“Later, Sally. Come with me, and I’ll show you something about me.” He led the way out of the house and through the garden, into the trees, and then to the open space with saplings growing over a mound. He opened the door and ushered her into the range, unlocked the gun safe and handed her ear protectors before donning a pair himself. He picked up the old Webley revolver and stood holding it by his side; flicked a switch. Nothing happened for several seconds, but then a target twenty-five yards away popped up. There were six rapid reports, sharp even through the ear protection. He broke the weapon open, ejecting the cartridges, and laid it aside, then walked down the range (removing his ear protection) to fetch the target, which showed six 0.45inch holes forming a tight hexagonal pattern round the centre. “Not that I’d carry the Webley these days. The Browning semi-auto is more convenient. I considered getting a Glock, but there doesn’t seem much point these days.”
She was wide-eyed as he laid the paper down and went to fetch cleaning materials. “A gun should always be cleaned after use,” he commented, explaining what he was doing.
He reloaded and put the weapon back in its place, then picked up a Browning in a shoulder-holster. “Let’s get back to the house.” As they were leaving,”Tell me about this ‘Master’ of yours.”
She was still wide-eyed as he locked up and led the way back to the house, listening as she told him what she knew.
On arrival in the kitchen, “Can you use a sewing machine?” He looked at her with a raised eyebrow, and she nodded. “Come with me.” Climbing the stairs, she followed him. At the top, along the landing, he opened a door. “Airing cupboard. Sheets, towels, clean clothes, all that.” He took out a pair of pyjamas, which he handed to her. “These’ll be far too large for you, but they’ll cover you for now, and I’ll see about getting clothes that fit. But you can alter them for now. If you want to go naked ... I’d be a fool to complain...” he laughed, “but I’d like you to have something to cover up with in case we have visitors.” Further along, he opened another door to a small room with a single bed. “This’ll be yours, Sally.”
“My own room?”
She didn’t respond to that. “Where’s the sewing machine, sir?”
“There’s a small room next to my study, with a Singer, ironing-board and iron, all that.”
Sally’s old ‘Master’ lived in Kendal, in a large Georgian house in its own grounds.
“Master Jonas? I wonder if I could trouble you for a few minutes of your time? To talk about a young woman by the name of Sally Fellowes.”
“Sure – come along in.” In a large, well-furnished reception room, he waved at an armchair. “Take a seat.”
“I was wondering if you intended to reclaim her?”
“Ah. I recognise you from the camera records. I assume you’re not here to make an offer?”
“Hardly.” Jeremiah reached into his jacket and his hand emerged holding the Browning. “Unless pointing out that if I see you near my house, or if you approach Sally while she’s out, I’ll be aiming at my first man, rather than a target, in ten years, is an offer. I’d personally describe it as a warning.” He stared at the much younger man, who was slack-jawed. “I hope you believe I am not bluffing.” He worked the slide, ejecting a round from the chamber. “There’s another thirteen rounds here – I always keep a round in the chamber.” There was a distinct odour of faeces in the room. “I’ll be leaving you now. Please don’t try to trace me – I’m sure you could.”
As he was leaving, he heard sounds from below – faint, but there was nothing wrong with his hearing.
He made one call on the way home, to pay a visit on an old friend – rather younger than himself, of course – in the local Constabulary. He suggested that a certain address might reward surveillance. A call from the friend just over a week later let him know that Master Jonas had been investigated and found to be holding an under-age girl in his cellar, who displayed marks, both physical and mental, of abuse, though she had not actually been raped. She was being helped professionally whilst her abuser (despite some high level pressure) was being remanded in custody. None of which appeared in the news media.
Sally settled in to serving Jeremiah in every way he would permit. She particularly enjoyed riding in the sidecar and acceded to his requirement to, first, own suitable clothes and second, wear them when he required her to. Which is not to say he didn’t thoroughly enjoy looking at her. While she refused to take money for her own use, she did, from time to time, ask for trivial amounts beyond that necessary for the purchase of food or household essentials, usually in order to buy some small thing for his pleasure. One day, however, following their evening meal after an outing, she knelt before him as she had often done before.
“Sir ... Jeremiah ... I wish to ask a favour.”
Relaxed and unwary, he smiled. “Of course! What do you need?”
“Sir, I know it’s a problem for you, but I ... I need you to be my Master. It wouldn’t need to be so much different than now, but I ... Please, sir.”
Jeremiah realised that he’d been backed into a corner. “You really need this? It would make you happy?”
“Yes, sir. Yes, to both.”
He sighed. “Very well, then.”
From behind her back she produced the leather collar she’d purchased earlier in the day and held it out to him.
I don’t suppose there was ever a more devoted ‘slave’, and probably never a gentler ‘master’. For over twelve years, she lived for him, to such an extent that it was entirely understandable that he would make provision for her in his will. How do I know this? Read on.
I stowed the small soft bag in the top-box (couple of changes of clothes, toothbrush and paste) with a pair of black lace-up shoes, and carefully manoeuvred Oscar out of the garage. We were leaving Sheffield (I didn’t realise it would be permanent) to visit a solicitor in Cumbria; Bowness-on-Windermere, to be precise. I was looking forward to the ride, and suspected there would be a small legacy involved. Hotel booked, and, yes, I checked that they wouldn’t get uptight when a biker entered their reception carrying a small holdall and a helmet, and wearing boots.
It’s a nice ride; no motorways, not on fifty-miles-an-hour cruise Oscar. Besides, the route I take is a hundred and forty miles, against a hundred and eighty using the fast roads. Time-wise, it’s a wash, unless the motorway is empty and you’re driving a Maserati. And exceeding the national speed-limit.
At fifty, you’ve time to glimpse the country through which you’re passing, too, and the back roads are far more interesting than the limited view from M1, M62, M6.
So ... settle helmet in place. Gloves (light leather ones) on, ignition on and kick. Oscar doesn’t always respond positively, but usually does, and he did that time.
A61 north out of town, veering off onto the A629 at Chapeltown. Small settlements, interesting but little to hinder forward progress until Huddersfield, where the traffic is quite heavy. The ring-road is not too bad, though, as long as you keep an eye on the signs. Back on the A629 under the M62 and through Elland, then it’s Halifax and more careful noting of signs. Once through that city, it’s over the moors, past Haworth, the home of the Brontes, to Keighley with its steam railway. No time for that, though, today, much as I’d have liked to stop.
Passing Skipton, we joined the A65. About fifteen miles further I turned off into Settle, where I found a little café to serve me a tasty meal and provide a comfort break. The road skirts the Yorkshire Dales, with a succession of delightful small villages – Austwick, Clapham, Newby, Ingleton.
At length, we passed through Kirkby Lonsdale before crossing the M6 and joining the A590, then the A591, passing Oxenholme and Kendal. We turn off just before Windermere to drop down into Bowness-on-Windermere.
So ... we arrived, Oscar and I, at the hotel and I found a space where Oscar would, I hoped, be safe and comfortable. The reception clerk looked a little askance at my high-vis, padded jacket (construction-site equipment. Why not? Cheaper than bike gear and just as effective, especially over a light oversuit). However, she made no problem and checked me in to a small room which, however, had everything I’d need for my comfort, including a nice lake view.
I rang the solicitor’s office and announced my arrival; I was given an appointment for nine-thirty in the morning. Good enough. I went out for a walk and wandered down to the waterside.
Ducks, geese and gulls. Rowing boats, sailing dinghies, and lake-cruise launches. A sea-food restaurant near the pier for a meal of trout and a salad before returning to the hotel.
A restless night in an unfamiliar bed helped only a little by music from my smartphone.
Breakfast. I treated myself to the ‘full Monty’ English cooked breakfast. Good coffee. So good, in fact, I couldn’t resist a second cup. Reading until it was time to set out for the lawyer’s office.
Richardson, Starr and Pollock, Solicitors at law, were to be found in the rooms above a tourist-trap gift-shop. If in an unlikely setting, it was both comfortable and elegant, in a restrained sort of way. I only had to wait a few minutes before being ushered into the office of Peter Starr.
“Good morning, Mister Smallbridge,” the stout, balding, genial-looking man beamed, approaching me with outstretched hand.
“Please, call me Jerry,” I responded, accepting the firm handshake.
“Thank you! Please – take a seat. Would you like tea? Coffee? Something cold?”
“I rarely refuse a cup of coffee,” I said, “black, please.”
He left the office briefly, and when he returned sat behind his desk, a heavy, battered item.
“Your ... Great-Uncle?”
I nodded. “I’m not sure if it’s great or great-great,” I smiled. “My parents are dead and I’m not in touch with the rest of the family.”
“Neither was my client,” he commented. “There are some, and there may be some issues over the will, but the legal situation is clear. The will was written ten years ago and your Uncle’s sanity was attested at the time. That was overseen by my father, by the way. I took over the account after Dad retired.” He cleared his throat. “The will is simple and clear. The estate is divided between yourself and one other. I have a letter for you explaining the circumstances. You will have a decision to make and there is another provision in the will which may come into effect, dependent on your decision.”
That was as clear as mud, but I took the letter he handed me and opened it.
My dear Nephew,
Until your mother, my niece, died, I was kept up to date with your life and interests. You are the only one of my relations I believe I can trust with my property once I no longer need it. This will, I am sure, come as quite a shock, but I expect you will understand better in time. You share the inheritance with Sally, who has cared for me since we met and, in the last days, made me as comfortable and cared for as was possible. Yes, there’s a story there, too. Sally is a very special young woman, but, although quite intelligent, is uncomplicated and unselfish to a remarkable degree. Hence I wish that you will take over as a trustee of her share. If my second-hand understanding of your character is faulty, there are further provisions in the Trust, known to my solicitor. Please don’t worry about those. It is my hope that you will live in my house for three months and become acquainted with Sally before you make a decision.
In that time, you may use my computer – the password is H4mur4b1 – where I have set down my side of Sally’s story.
Sadly, we never met after your Christening, but I feel I know you. I hope I am not mistaken.
Your Uncle and Godfather,
“Ah!” I sighed. “All my life I wondered why I’d been saddled with my given name. I’d guess this explains it.”
“Indeed. If I may say so, your Uncle was eccentric, but always had a good reason for his actions. He was also a very perceptive man.”
“Thank you.” I stood, and held out my hand. The solicitor grasped it in both of his.
“You will want to go and see the property, so I won’t keep you any further. If you need advice, I am at your service. Oh, and I was forgetting.” He turned and picked up a sheaf of paper. “Here. A map so you can find the house, a copy of the will, and a list of useful phone numbers. I will warn you that mobile phone reception is appalling. You can’t even call it spotty. But there’s a good landline with a passable broadband connectivity. It’s not great, but it’s as good as it gets in these parts.”
“Thank you again,” I said, taking the papers. “I’ll be on my way.”
There are few roads in the Lake District wider than two lanes, and when I say two lanes, I mean the sort of size that causes a sharp intake of breath when you meet a bus or truck going the other way. On a motorcycle, it’s not quite as uncomfortable, but certainly between Windermere and Coniston it’s ... not fast driving. On the bike it was enjoyable, actually. But Great Uncle Jeremiah’s house was even more off the beaten track. There is a minor road which runs down the east side of Coniston Water, passing John Ruskin’s house, Brantwood. Sensible visitors call at Brantwood from the lake, after a ride in the steam yacht Gondola which calls at the Brantwood pier.
Woodside House is south of Brantwood, set back from the road up a narrow gravel track, which has a five-barred gate to discourage casual callers. I noticed a large box at the gate, clearly intended for deliveries. I had to get off Oscar – there was just enough room between the gate and the road to pull off for a car or van, plenty of space for Oscar – in order to release the combination padlock on the gate.
A bumpy ride up the track (having refastened and locked the gate) brought me to a sprawling house built of the local slate and apparently dry-stone, without mortar. Just past the house was a barn.
The front door opened and a figure emerged. A slight woman dressed head to foot in black, skirt reaching to her ankles, but barefoot. She padded over to the barn, unlocked and opened one side of a large double door. I rode Oscar inside.
It was a workshop; bright and clean, benches with tools mounted on boards on the wall, light from large glass panels in the roof. Cars; a Ford Zephyr from about 1960, a Lotus Seven, a VW Camper – all blocked up with the weight off the wheels. I parked Oscar and walked over to two motorbikes; a Norton from about 1948 and a BMW with a Watsonian sidecar – mid fifties by the registration.
I realised my discourtesy and turned back to the woman as I removed my helmet.
She was kneeling, with her head down.
“Ma’am,” I felt very awkward, “Please, stand. Are you Sally?” She rose to her feet; I can only say she did so gracefully and apparently without any problems with the skirt which I would have expected to hamper her movements. But she didn’t meet my eyes.
“Yes, sir. I am Sally.”
I placed my helmet on a bench, noticing an old ‘pudding basin’ helmet on a nearby shelf, removed my jacket and boots, and peeled out of my oversuit. The floor was so clean I had no reluctance in standing on it in my socks until I got shoes out of the top box. Once shod, I picked up my bag.
“Well, Sally, I do apologise for my rudeness just now. My name is Jerry, if you will.”
“There is no need to apologise, sir. I would be more comfortable addressing you as ‘sir’, if you don’t mind. Will you come into the house?”
“Oh ... certainly.”
“I have soup on the stove for lunch, sir. Do you have any dietary problems?”
“No, um, Sally. I eat anything, and soup sounds good.”
She led the way into the house, her bare feet making no sound other than the slight rustle of the gravel. In the house she paused and used some sort of wipe on the soles of her feet.
“Master Jeremiah preferred no outdoor shoes in the house,” she said. “I don’t wear shoes anyway, so I wipe clean if I go out. There are slippers there,” she pointed.
I took the hint and exchanged my lace-ups for slippers which looked new to me. They fitted perfectly.
“Your room is upstairs, of course,” she said. “If you’ll follow me?” and padded up a wide staircase. The handrail was of mahogany, a beautiful, glowing russet, clearly well polished and cared for, the stairs covered by a rich, maroon carpet. I followed her, my steps silent in the dense pile of the carpeting.
She showed me into the master bedroom. The bed would have dwarfed any normal bedroom, but not this one. The rest of the furnishing was of a similar scale in some dark, glossy wood I didn’t recognise, but on the floor a pale cream, deep-pile carpet. I dropped my bag by the bed.
“There is an en-suite bathroom,” Sally told me, opening an adjoining door.
There was. The fittings were old, but I was pretty sure they were entirely functional, which I later confirmed. The bath did have a shower fitting too, and a curtain, I was happy to see.
“There are clothes in the tallboy and wardrobe. I haven’t disturbed any of them since Master...” She trailed off and I was sure she’d choked off a sob.
“Plenty of time for that,” I said gently. “How about that soup you promised me?”
“Oh – yes, of course, sir. I ... you ... would you prefer to eat in the dining room, or the kitchen?”
“Oh, the kitchen, definitely.”
She served me, then stood by the table. “Won’t you sit with me? Aren’t you eating too?”
“Well, sir, I ... I was going to eat after.”
“Please. Join me; I don’t like to eat alone.”
With some apparent reluctance she ladled herself a bowl and sat at the table with me.
Oxtail soup, home made, thick and rich. Fresh bread-rolls, home baked, not long out of the oven and still warm and crusty. Water – spring water from a well behind the house – and after the meal, Earl Grey tea, leaf tea in a pot, poured through a strainer. Perfect.
“Wonderful, Sally. Thank you.”
Her head dipped and a flush crept up her neck. “Thank you, sir.”
I stood and began to clear the table.
“Sir! Let me do that, please.”
I looked at her, wondering what was going on. “I don’t like to leave the work to you; after all, you cooked this excellent meal?”
“Please, sir, I ... it’s ... my job.”
Even I could see I was causing her some distress, so I let it go and took my cup, intending to take it to the lounge, but another door ajar attracted my attention. It was a study, I suppose, the walls lined with an eclectic selection of books. A comfortable armchair with a lamp placed to shine over the shoulder of the chair’s occupant, a small table next to it. A desk, bearing a computer with a fairly large monitor, printer and scanner. I placed my cup on a coaster, clearly intended for that purpose, pressed the power button on the case of the computer without result. Of course, it was switched off at the wall. When I remedied that, a modem on the floor lit up too. Okay. That made sense; I got the impression that Sally was not one likely to make use of the internet.
Once the machine was up and running, it demanded a password, and I inserted the one from Uncle Jeremiah’s letter. The computer was quite quick. It was obviously fairly new and clearly properly maintained too. There were files for finance and investment, as you’d expect and a lot of text documents – like, over a hundred, many of them large enough to constitute ‘book’ size. And there was a file with a bold title – Jeremiah. When, some time later, I got around to reading it, it filled in a lot of gaps.
Honestly? I couldn’t face any of it. It had been a long day, and there was too much to take in. I switched off, and went to make some tea (replacing the now tepid cup) preparatory to going to bed.
I had barely switched the kettle on, when Sally entered the kitchen.
“Sir, you wish to have a drink? Please, let me make it.”
I was too tired to fight anyway. “Thank you. Earl Grey, please,” and went into the lounge.
There were books in the lounge, but they were of the ‘coffee table’ variety. I selected one of aerial Lakeland views, and browsed through it. Sally entered the room bearing a tray, which she placed on a small table next to me.
“Master Jeremiah liked me to drink a late cup of tea with him in the evening. Would you like me to join you? Or leave you in peace?”
I was becoming intrigued – fascinated might be closer – by the enigmatic housekeeper and fellow beneficiary of my uncle’s will. “Please join me, Sally. I’d like your company.”
The hint of a smile touched her lips – the first I’d seen – and she knelt smoothly by the tray and began to pour tea into two bone-china cups. She handed one to me, and took one herself, whilst remaining on her knees.
“Would you not like to sit, Sally?”
“I am comfortable like this, sir, if you don’t mind.” She glanced at the book I’d laid next to me. “Master Jeremiah was very fond of that book. Of course, he disliked none of the books you see on these shelves, but there’s a reason he continued to live here.”
“It is a very lovely place to live.”
That hint of a smile touched her lips again. “It is. Especially if you wish to limit your contact with other people.”
“Would you...” I hesitated, but went on, “You don’t have to tell me anything, but I’d like to know your story.” I almost immediately regretted my words as her expression darkened.
“Master Jeremiah saved my life and gave me purpose. I was happy to live here and serve him. I...” Sniff... “I miss ... him...” There were tears streaming down her face by then and she began to sob. I didn’t know what to do – I wanted to comfort her, was almost desperate to comfort her – but I didn’t want to cross any line that might exist in her mind, or mine, for that matter. I stood, carefully avoiding the tray, and reached down to hold her elbows and lift her to her feet; it was in order to take her in my arms and hold her. She clung to me and the floodgates really opened, so I went by instinct, picked her up and sat with her in my lap.
I held her like that for an age until she’d cried herself out.
“I’m sorry, sir.” She choked the words out and the pressure of her arms around me slackened; I continued to hold her, but relaxed a little so she could pull away if she wanted to.
“I’m not,” I said. “Does this help?”
She nodded, her face still against my chest. “Thank you, sir. You don’t mind?”
“I don’t mind at all, Sally.” I released her and took my place again to sip the tea. It was tepid – not really hot enough.
“Oh, I’m sorry, sir. Let me make some fresh.”
I opened my mouth to stop her, but closed it again; this was obviously important to her.
Over a fresh pot of tea, we chatted about less emotional matters. It became apparent that Sally was well informed about all sorts of things. Better than me, to be honest. I didn’t agree with all her opinions, but her arguments were clear and cogent and made me question my own assumptions and ideas. At length it was time to get my head down, and I excused myself to get ready for bed.
That was a comfortable bed, and I was tired, so I slept well, though unusually I had a vivid dream, in which Sally, in a long white nightgown, came into the room and lay on the floor at the foot of the bed. It didn’t make sense, and she wasn’t there when I woke.
After a quick shower, I dressed and made my way downstairs to the kitchen. Before I got there I could smell frying bacon and coffee, and on arrival Sally looked round.
“Please sit, sir. How do you like your eggs?”
“Scrambled would be good, if it’s not too much trouble.”
“No trouble, sir.” She poured coffee and set it on the table by me, along with a sugar bowl and milk.
“I don’t take milk and sugar, Sally, thank you.”
She nodded, and put them away. She broke eggs into a bowl to scramble them and soon enough I had a plate in front of me; bacon, sausage, mushrooms, tomatoes, scrambled egg, fried bread. She refilled my mug as I was eating.
I sighed in satisfaction as I finished. “Thank you, Sally. That was excellent. A real treat.”
“Would you like a tour today, sir?”
“Oh – yes. I suppose that’d be a good idea. Thank you.”
There were maybe a couple of acres of ground, mostly woodland with a bit of grass and some flowers. “Who looks after all this? It’s well maintained.”
“I do, of course.” Knowing what I do now, I know Sally could control her expressions, but even so I could hear reproof in her voice.
We ended the tour by the lake. There was a discreet stile next to the big gate, which I hadn’t noticed, and which we used to leave the grounds and cross the road. Then we followed a path down-slope to a boat house, which bore a large ‘Private Property. No Trespassing’ notice. Sally produced a key and we entered the building. A fairly substantial launch floated there, and a small sailing dinghy. I didn’t know anything about boats at the time, but the dinghy was ‘gunter rigged’, meaning the mast was low enough to enter the boathouse without being unstepped. The launch was equipped like a small caravan, with bunks for four people, toilet and galley. I learned all this much later. At the time I was just impressed by the compact efficiency of the layout.
“Master Jeremiah...” Sally hesitated, “He wasn’t fit enough to go out for the last year, but we used to sail down the lake, anchor in a bay, and sleep on board. She hasn’t been out since then. She’s due for some attention soon.”
“I suppose you’d know who to contact?”
“You don’t want to sell her?”
Long pause. “No,” it was almost a whisper.
“Can you manage her?”
“Of course. Though I never went out without Master Jeremiah. I had to do everything the last couple of years, but just having him there was ... reassuring.”
“I can understand that. I probably should go on a course; learn how to manage.”
“There’s a school on Windermere, or there’s a friend of Master Jeremiah’s who would probably teach you what you need to know.”
We locked up and left, and made our way back up the slope.
“This is a footpath – a public right of way,” Sally told me as we walked. “It actually runs through the property, hence the stile. Not many people use it and those who do are usually responsible and discreet. The gate stops the quad-bikes and trials machines from misusing the path.”
“I see.” I did. In the Peak District motorbikes can be a nuisance with noise and the risk to walkers. It’s difficult to control, even though they’re breaking the law. There’s a distinction, legally, between a footpath, bridleway, and a green road. A green road is, technically, a road which can be used by motor vehicles, a bridleway limited to cyclists, horse-riders and pedestrians.
Back at the house Sally put a salad on the table with sliced roast chicken and boiled new potatoes. “What would you like to drink? There is a stock of dry white wine Master ... your uncle ... liked.”
“I think water will do, Sally, please. I’m not used to wine with meals.”
After the meal, over Sally’s protests, I helped with the washing-up. She boiled the kettle and once more we carried a tray with tea through to the lounge. As before, she knelt by the table to serve.
I took the cup; I wasn’t used to tea-cups with saucers. I much prefer a mug which holds about three times the content, but there was something about the ceremony as Sally presided which seemed right and proper.
“I never met my Uncle,” I said, tentatively.
“He looked like you; older, of course.” She paused and took a deep breath. “You seem to be like him in many ways. Your voice ... could almost be his. When you held me...” she trailed off.
I was tempted to ask for more, but I didn’t want to stir up the sadness she’d begun to express the previous night. As it happened, the phone rang just then and Sally went to answer it.
“Hello? Yes, it is. Thank you. Would you ... certainly. I’ll fetch him.” I heard a clump as she laid the handset down and came back into the room. “It is Mister Starr, sir. He would like to speak to you.”
The telephone was old-fashioned. Not the oldest I’d ever seen, but certainly dating at least from the sixties, with a rotary dial and a handset firmly connected to the base by a heavy fabric-covered, braided cable.
“Hello, Mister Starr? This is Jerry Smallbridge.”
“Hello, Jerry. Just to let you know the funeral is on Friday. It’s in Barrow-in-Furness, at the Crem. Your uncle had little time for the Church, though he contributed to various church-based social support activities. I don’t suppose you’ve got the cars taxed, insured and on their wheels yet, even if you wanted to drive them, so I’ve arranged for a car to collect Miss Fellowes and yourself, and bring you back. It will collect you at nine, if that suits?”
“That sounds fine, Mister Starr ... um ... Peter.”
“The will is to be read immediately afterwards. There is a hotel adjacent and I have booked a small conference room. I suspect you’d prefer not to suffer the attentions of the other relations, but some sort of reception is inevitable, and that’s in the same venue. Please don’t take any negative comments to heart. I assure you it is entirely above-board, and your uncle was entirely estranged from his other family with the exception of your mother.”
“Thank you. I haven’t brought a suit, though.”
“I believe there will be something suitable in your Uncle’s wardrobe. If not, there is a place here which will rent you something.”
I thanked him again and hung up, then returned to the lounge. “Mister Starr thinks something of my uncle’s will fit me for the funeral, Sally.”
A shadow flitted across her face, but she responded easily. “You are much the same build, sir. Master Jeremiah kept himself very fit almost to the end. There is a good formal suit I think will fit you well.”