Short Stories

The Asking Price.

The first time I drove into the cathedral close a platoon of straight-backed choirboys marching home from Evensong blocked the road, threatening to make me late for my appointment with the owners of Stowe House.
There was no need to sound the horn, as the leader of this well drilled pack ordered his ‘men’ to step aside and I was able to ease my car past and make my way without further delay.
The gates to Stowe House were closed and dithering in their shadow, twiddling an obviously very recently received strip of gold on her third finger was a girl only slightly older than the bossy, senior choirboy.
“Mr Bannister?” The girl asked.
“That is correct.”
“I’m from the estate agents, I’m to show you around.”
“I was expecting the owners.”
“The owners have left, Mr Bannister.”
“Heavens! I’m only a minute or two late, surely they could have waited.”
“No Sir, they’ve gone, left the country, gone back to Rhodesia.”
“Really! Well…I don’t suppose that’s your fault…” I said getting out of the car: “I didn’t catch your name.”
“Carter, Jackie Carter.”
“Well Jackie, lead on.” I pointed towards the house, which suddenly appeared a much more attractive proposition. Sellers who had so hastily relocated to Southern Africa would be open to offers.

Once on the gravel driveway she led the way, unsteadily tottering in her newly acquired court shoes, it was more than obvious that she had only very recently swapped schoolgirl gabardine for the cheap corporate attire that was wandering mercilessly all over her willowy frame.
I followed her up the drive:
Alone with a young chit of a girl, one who inclines to prettiness no less, at dusk and in an empty house. Were her employers short staffed, naïve or reckless? More likely your reputation precedes you Alexander Bannister, you’re no danger, not to her… to her newly acquired husband…maybe?
Jackie Carter quickly went into a clearly rehearsed sales spiel and just as quickly I stopped listening.
At the front door she again struggled with the lock.
“I suspect that there’s a knack to that.”
She laughed politely and I looked across the darkening lawn towards the gently glowing stained glass windows in the west wall of the cathedral. Had I been too quick to dismiss this place? Perhaps I had over estimated my Father’s malign reach, it was after all, almost ten years since I killed him.
I had three goes at killing my father and I would have had more had I not got lucky, third time lucky, just by seeing rather too much of a boy from the shopfloor.
Father called me into his office and slowly began his rant.
‘I thought all this was a thing of the past.’
I said nothing, just took a seat, without being asked.
“I thought you’d put all that nonsense behind you.”
I sat in silence.
“I thought you were finally starting to take your responsibilities seriously, I can’t believe you’d jeopardise your position, the firm, all those people’s jobs. For what; a sordid little fumble with a grubby little navvy.”
Still I said nothing.
His face was getting redder, a mass of livid, crimson pinpricks.
“Think what this will do to your mother.”
“I have become friendly with Robbie Cooke from the pattern shop, we share an interest in fishing, nothing more.”
“Fishing! You wouldn’t know which end of the rod to hold.” He said and coughed.
“I find it therapeutic.” And I’m very good at handling rods. I said to myself and choked back a smile.
“I know what sort of therapy you need.” His cough got worse.
I got up and went across to the sideboard where there was a carafe of brackish water. I poured him a glass.
“Oh do stop fussing! Take it away.” He waved his hand dismissively. “And take yourself away. I’ve a good mind to call the police, turn you in, that would put a stop to all this.”
“Now, there’s no need to be hasty.” I protested although I knew it was an empty threat. He’d always been of afraid of anything that might damage precious business, that was why he’d covered things in the past.
“Oh get out.” He waved his arms again but with less violence, he sat back and coughed again.
“What are you waiting for?”
“Are you alright?”
I left and that was the last I saw of him. He sank into his worn leather office chair and his heart gave out.
That had been ten years ago…
“This is the er…er.” Jackie Carter fumbled amongst the brochures and particulars.
“…the music room.” I said.
“How did you know that?”
“That alcove, it’s designed for a piano, a baby grand.”
“Oh I see, well it’s a lovely room.”
“It’s perfect.”
We concluded the tour and I made an appointment to return and view the gardens and out-buildings in daylight.
“Going to buy the place?” A young man in a dog collar, fraying sports jacket and Chelsea boots appeared from the Cathedral’s shadow.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Are you thinking of buying the place?” He said.
“I haven’t made up my mind.”
“I’ve never been inside, is it as impressive as they say?”
“It needs a lot of money spending on it but there are one or two very nice features.”
“Well you must show them to me if you buy it.”
“It’s early days, I haven’t even seen it in daylight yet, I’m doing that tomorrow.”
“When you do you must make time to properly look around the close and the cathedral as well. In fact I’d be happy to show you around.”
I agreed despite the fact that I knew the grand old cathedral very well and we met up the next day, an hour before my appointment with Miss Carter, if she was to be my guide once again. Maybe a second viewing merited an estate agent a little less green.
He wore the same ageing sports coat but no overcoat despite the cold and beneath the jacket I’m sure he wore yesterday’s dog collar, creased and slightly soiled, his black dickie looked even more faded and stained in daylight. He introduced himself as Rev. Tony Davenport.
“There’s really no need to show me around you know, I’ve visited the cathedral many times.” I said.
“Yes but not with me as your guide.”
We began with a left turn from the gates of Stowe House and strolled along the shale pathway, quickly we came to first house, a squat redbrick Georgian residence with an unusual shallow cornice and a red tiled roof. The shrub filled garden was brown and winter lifeless.
“That’s the Dean’s. Nice man the Dean.”
On the right of the Deanery was a high stone wall with two sets of ornate wrought iron gates set in it giving access to a gravelled in and out gravel driveway. At the top of the drive stood a huge edifice, largely Queen Anne with an indeterminate number of storeys, the upper floors being lost in a Gormengastly muddle of dormers and chimney stacks.
“That’s the Bishop’s Palace. It’s where the Cathedral School is based.”
“Surely the Bishop isn’t forced to share his home with a load of schoolboys.”
“Oh good lord no, he decamped elsewhere years ago. To a smaller, less draughty residence of more modern vintage on the outskirts of the county town.”
“Unusual isn’t it for the Bishop to live such distance from his cathedral?”
“Oh it wasn’t this Bishop, it was his predecessor or his predecessor’s predecessor. There’s a story that the bishop who authorised the move was tired of all the intrigue in the close.”
“Oh how romantic, back stabbing of such Trollopian ferocity that the poor unworldly darling preferred a quieter life breathing in the fumes from the M6.”
“I think it was made before the M6 was built but that’s the story, the Bishop went in search of sanctuary from parochial politics and petty squabbles and so we have an absentee Bishop. It seems to work, as I said the Dean is a very nice man. Shall we?” He moved off.
We walked on. Beyond the Palace there were no houses, just a flat and windswept graveyard edged by a low stone wall that fell away sharply into the heavy, brooding depths of the mediaeval moat. Looking out over the water our elbows bumped, I turned to look at him, briefly I looked into his eyes but he looked hastily away.
We walked along the wall’s windswept edge, Tony pointing out things as we went, he snorted in the direction of a converted dwelling house: “The grindstone.”
“I’m sorry.”
“Yonder hovel is alas, my place of work, for the time being at least.”
He hurried me past and we began to amble along the City side of the close, which contained mainly housing for clerics. I walked over to the east door of the Cathedral and a battered statue of Charles II, three centuries of wind and rain had taken a heavy toll of his stony locks and once pointy Jacobite nose.
Tony joined me: “I don’t think he’d have a string of mistresses beating a path to his door looking like that.” He said.
“Oh I don’t know money and power make most flaws invisible.” I rubbed my bald head and looked searchingly at Tony, he hurried on.
We had now reached the north side of the close, a row of shops and offices with flats above, a tea-room and in the far corner an ancient tenement. A labyrinth of cottages and apartments, in parts dating from mediaeval times, a mostly half timbered hotchpotch of tall, toppling buildings, balconies, dead-end passageways and twisting staircases.
“My place is in there. I’d ask you in to meet the wife but she’s still at work.”
I stepped back. “Your wife? … well some other time…I’d love to.” I said quietly.
We walked on.
“And these are the canon’s houses.” He said pointing at two distinguished residences, still elegant but now a little run down. “That is the end of the tour, I’m afraid. Small but intimate, I think you’ll agree.”
“I like it when things are intimate, always have.”
Tony said nothing but began to veer towards the forbidding west doors of the Cathedral. “Do you want to go inside?”
“There’s really no need, I’ve visited many times.”
“If you didn’t need a guided tour why did you agree to meet me?”
“I thought it might be interesting and I thought it might be interesting to get to know you.” I looked into his eyes. He looked down and kicked his Chelsea boots through a pile of wet leaves. At length he said: “Yes it might be.”
A movement by the gates to Stowe House caught my eye. “Do I spy a lurking estate agent.” I pointed towards a man in a suit by the gates.
“Do you want to come round with me?”
“Yes why not.”
We walked over and I introduced myself to the man at the gate: “Would you mind if Rev. Davenport accompanies us?
“Not at all.”
He gave us the tour.
When we’d finished, I asked the estate agent: “Could I have half an hour here alone? I’ll lock up and drop the keys into your office.”
“ Yes. Of course.”
He walked down the steps. I closed the front door behind him and turned to face the Rev. Davenport.
I put my hand on his shoulder.
Our heads moved together, our lips met.
He jerked away; “I’m not like that.”
“Oh aren’t you!” I kissed him again and tore his grimy dickie upward exposing his wiry chest, I ran my hands over his ribs stroking the wispy hairs. He kissed me back and began tugging at my clothes.
Soon we were both in various states of undress, I recall that Tony ended up wearing nothing but his dog collar and I was naked from the waist down, on all fours, pushing back to meet his thrusts.
The following morning at 9 am. I purchased Stowe House for the full asking price.