Valerie laughed as she clinked her crystal glass against Philip’s. Another fine meal enjoyed at the restaurant. They were both well known there, both individually and more latterly as a couple.
The pair had been coming together once a week for several months now, since they had first met at the restaurant, both sat in the bar waiting for their guests. When Philip’s didn’t arrive, and he got a phone call to let him know they had been unexpectedly delayed and wouldn’t now join him, Valerie had invited him to join her table. They had spoken and laughed together all night and parted not fully knowing each other’s life stories but certainly the gist and the highlights. Philip had telephoned the very next day to thank her for her kindness, and to let her know what a wonderful time he had had. They had arranged to meet at the same place, at the same time, the following week, this time alone. After their second meal together, which they both enjoyed as much as the first, their relationship grew until they were more or less an item. Everyone except James knew this, though he did of course know that Philip was a friend. Philip dined regularly at the Manor as Valerie’s guest and when James was away on one of his business trips, Philip usually stayed over in Valerie’s room. They rarely had sex, though each thought the other attractive in their way, it was mainly a company thing. That, and a good match of minds. They shared the same sense of humour, the same liking for history and for poking around the antique shops their regular outings took them by, and a general enjoyment of fun, adventure and new experiences. Now approaching 80, Philip was nearly 5 years her senior, but was still mentally very active and still drove them on the long trips they would take at least twice each week. Normally these were to country houses that held some kind of historic interest, or to museums and art galleries. Sometimes they just drove with no particular destination in mind, lunching in a country pub that took their fancy and stopping to look around the antique and bric-a-brac shops they discovered.
Valerie saw a lot of her previous husband in Philip. Or rather, what he would have been like if the responsibility of being ‘Lord Allenby’ had not been laid on his shoulders. She had liked the title that marrying him had bestowed on her, and the Manor house which she had run with him until his death, when those duties passed to her successor, James’s wife Hazel. But she saw too that the position he held came with responsibilities. Mainly this was to the estate itself, to ensure that the house, and the land and buildings that went with it, were well enough maintained during the time he was entrusted with them to be passed on in good order to the next lord that would inherit them. He also felt a keen sense of responsibility for the family, those that lived with them at the Manor and those that had spread further afield, and for the staff who looked after the house and grounds. Some of the staff had been with them for many years. For one family working at the Manor was almost as much a tradition as for Lord Allenby himself. Even when she managed to drag away from the place — for a few hours on a short trip or for a proper break — he still fretted about what might or might not be going on back at the estate. When she did manage to get him to relax though, he was very like Philip. His interests were much the same, and he had the same mischievous sense of humour that she now shared with Philip. It was that which had really attracted her to him in the first place, just as it now attracted her to Philip.
She drained her glass and Philip rattled the bottle in the ice bucket that stood beside their table. He showed that it was empty by lifting it out and tipping it over. He looked enquiringly at Valerie.
“Oh no,” she said, “that one bottle’s gone straight to my head already.”
He returned the empty bottle to the ice bucket, this time neck first, and held a hand over it to indicate that he didn’t want another as he caught the eye of the advancing waiter. The man returned to the small wooden desk he had been standing at, and began to make up their bill, presenting it to Philip folded in half on a small silver tray when he had done so. Philip slid a credit card onto the tray without looking. He didn’t need to, it had been more or less the same every week they had been coming here except for those rare occasions that they chose to have a second bottle of champagne. The waiter took the card and bill away again, to prepare a chit for Philip to sign.
“That was very nice, Philip,” she said, raising one hand to stifle the small burp she fell rising.
“My pleasure,” he replied, making no effort to disguise his own loud breaking of wind. They both laughed at this, then laughed again when they both spied the diners at the next table looking at them.
“We really should try somewhere new next time,” said Philip. “I’m sure we’ve both had exactly the same main courses and desserts before.” He said this after just about every visit now, but still booked a table for the following week before they left.
When the waiter returned with the completed credit card slip he added the usual tip, exactly 10%, before totalling and signing it and returning it to the silver tray he had taken it from. He rose and slid the credit card back into his wallet before walking round to hold back Valerie’s chair when she rose too. They had nearly exited the restaurant completely before he cried ‘oops, nearly forgot’ and disappeared to talk to the waiter. He took Valerie’s arm when he returned and guided her towards the door that led out to the secluded car park he had left his car in.
” I’ve booked us a table for the same time next week,” he informed her, “Hope that’s all right?”
She smiled and said that it was.
Their drive back to the manor was, for the most part, a silent one. It was a comfortable silence though, not a strained one. If it had been daylight they would have continued their conversation, but once it was dark Philip liked to concentrate on his driving.
As they turned into the Manor’s long driveway Philip flicked on the car’s high beam. The trees that lined their route blocked out the moonlight leaving it very dark under their canopy.
“Shall I come in tonight?” he enquired as they approached the round stone wall which lay outside the Manor’s front door, protecting the small pond and fountain that it housed.
“Best not,” she replied, “James is home tonight.”
He pulled up beside the stone steps that led to the Manor’s wide front door, and leapt out to hurry round to hold open the passenger door. Once Valerie had stepped out and straightened herself up, Philip took her arm and escorted her up the steps.
“Bright and early tomorrow?” he asked. “We’ve a long drive before we reach the show, and we want to get there early before too many other people arrive.”
“Of course,” she replied. “8 a.m.? We can have a proper breakfast here before we set off, then stop for coffee on the way if we want to.”
He nodded in agreement before brushing his lips against hers. It wasn’t a passionate kiss but it was a warm one. He opened the door for her to enter the house before returning to his car to start slowly back down the drive.
She saw the light coming under the drawing-room door when she entered the hallway and heard muffled noises, so she knew that at least two of the house’s residents were still up. She decided not to join them though but to go straight in bed. She needed to rise early the following day, and as Philip had reminded her, they had a long trip ahead of them. She wanted to be sure to stay awake for the whole journey to keep him company as he drove not to doze beside him.
Philip drove back to the small house he had taken not far from the Manor. Being the third child in the family, the second son though – there had been a sister between him and his brother – he had been expected to join either the church or the services. He was neither pious nor cynical enough for the church, so that left the services. He had never been particularly fond of being at sea, and aeroplanes had too many gadgets and buttons in them, so that left the Army.
He had served it well and it, in return, had served him well too. After graduating from Sandhurst he had served in most of the Empire’s colonies. Of course, the days of there being an Empire were long since gone and his postings were to bases rather than to colonies, but he still liked to think of them that way. He had served with a distinction in Korea that brought him promotions as well as medals, and he had retired as a full colonel. It was a position he was proud of, and a title that he still used when introducing himself. ‘Colonel Philip Leslie’ — and at any other opportunity, such as booking a table at a restaurant. When he retired he could have returned to the family house. It was very similar to Lady Valerie’s though the family had no title to go with the house and grounds they owned. He chose not to though. He had never really got on very well with his brother, even to the extent of choosing to spend leave in whichever country he was posted to the time rather than return home once his parents had passed on. His sister too had died many years previously, though not before filling the house with her offspring who had, by and large, reproduced themselves now. With his brother Grant’s own family in residence the house was very full. He doubted there would actually be enough room for him even if he wanted to go back there.
He had retired on a full pension, and had set aside a portion of the salary he had earned each month. His fund had been considerably boosted when his father died and soon after, to a far lesser extent, when his mother went too.
He had spent the first part of his retirement travelling. Revisiting places he had been posted, to see how they had changed and to new countries he had not been to before. When advancing years had seemed to make these journeys more like work than fun he had decided it was time to take on a home to settle down in.
He probably could have afforded to buy a house rather than rent one, even at the prices round here, but preferred to live out the rest of his life in comfort and not have to worry about how much things cost. He had no children of his own to leave anything to, so he had decided to spend as much of his money as he could while he was still around to enjoy it. Both of his marriages had ended in divorce. Both women had been attracted as much by the uniform is by his good looks and gentlemanly manner but had soon grown tired of the long periods alone when he was off somewhere or other. Both had remarried since, which was fortunate as it meant that Philip didn’t have to pay any maintenance. He had left small bequests to each of the family members in his will, though these were more of a personal value than financial.
The house was small but well furnished. He had rented it empty and had had a great deal of fun filling it in a style that matched his taste. During his Army days, and when he had been travelling, he had stored personal items at the family home but collected these as soon as he had settled in and spread them out throughout the house, on walls and in display cases. Each item had a story behind it which he shared eagerly whenever anyone asked about a particular object.
He had lived a good life in the village, developing some close friendships among its inhabitants until his chance meeting with Valerie. Since then, he had spent much of his time in her company, taking her out on a variety of day trips to venues they both wanted to visit, dining out at the restaurant they have been to that evening or just spending time at the Manor. Valerie had also visited his home but had never stayed over. He would drive her back to the Manor and leave her there, in time to return home while it was still daylight. He disliked driving at night, always had, and avoided it as much as he could.
Tonight he would use his home more like a hotel, staying only long enough to sleep wash and change. Then he would return to the Manor to breakfast, then to take the long drive to see a county show on the outskirts of Bristol that Valerie had read about. His headlight beams hit up the front of the stone house as he pulled into the gravel drive, and the growth of ivy vines that were climbing inexorably up its walls. The porch light illuminated the door well, so that he would have no trouble finding the lock that would let him in stop around the heavy curtains leaked light from a standard lamp that he had left on in the lounge to welcome him back. He yawned, as he got out of the car, a comfortable yawn that came after spending an evening in fine company, eating a fine meal, and drinking fine champagne.
At precisely 8 a.m. the front door bell of the Manor house rang. It was followed just a minute or so later by Philip being announced by Peter in the dining room they usually took breakfast in and his own arrival a short way behind.
At one end of the long thin table that graced the rooms centre sat James, his accountant, and his business partner. At the other end sat Hazel, her sister Anne, and Valerie herself. Both James and Hazel was sat at the heads of the table flanked on either side by the two people they sat with.
“A little unusual to be less crowded as early, isn’t it?” said Philip as he took a seat next to Valerie.
“Oh,” she said glancing down to the three men at the other end of the table, “they’re talking business. Robert wanted to get it out of the way before the working day started, so James suggested breakfast as a good way to do it.”
She gestured towards the sideboard with the knife she was holding in one hand. It was full of silver topped dishes containing all the hot foods one would expect at an English breakfast, as well as cold cereals and jugs of fruit juices and milk.
“We’re being formal today too,” she added as more of a whisper. It was more usual for breakfast to come already plated.
“Anyway, as I was saying before Philip arrived,” she said to Polly, who was filling the cup at Philip’s place setting with tea from a heavy silver pot, “why don’t you cook James’s and Julian’s food separately and provide them with a plate in each? That way the rest of the guests can choose from normal foods from the buffet.”
Both James and Julian had the same allergies, something which they both had to be careful of especially when eating. Julian had nearly choked once when the fruitcake he was eating turned out to have nuts in, even though the waiter had assured him when he had ordered it that it didn’t.
“You could even extend it to the birthday cake. Cook small individual ones so that James and Julian could have special ones and the rest of us could have a variety to pick from. What do you think, Hazel?” She beamed at Hazel, pleased with herself for coming up with such a good idea, especially so early in the morning.
“It sounds like a good plan to me. What do you think, James?” She raised her voice slightly so that it would be heard at the other end of the table, and interrupt the low conversation the men were having.
“What?” replied James, breaking off midway through saying something to the two men beside him, “sorry, Hazel, wasn’t really listening.”
Hazel explained again Valerie’s idea of making separate dishes and cakes for Julian and himself. As he listened Peter set down the day’s papers next to his plate.
“Oh … yes … sounds a good idea,” said James, returning immediately to the low conversation he had been having.
“That’s agreed then,” said Hazel. “Alright with you, Polly?”
“Yes, m’lady, a fine idea,” Polly replied. She smiled at both Hazel and Valerie to show her gratitude for such a good suggestion.
Breakfast passed quickly for Lady Valerie and for Philip. They listened attentively to the conversation between Hazel and Anne, and joined in when expected to do so. Both, though, were keen to start their journey. When they rose and excused themselves a few minutes later breakfasts and conversations were continuing at both ends of the table.
The show had been disappointing. It probably would have been interesting to the many farmers that were no doubt attending. There was a section for animals, with prizes for the best examples, and another devoted to the equipment needed to run a modern farm. In the section supposedly dedicated to handicrafts most of what was on offer was cheap and plastic looking, designed more for casual tourists than serious buyers. Lady Valerie had found something though, or rather Philip had. It was a handmade wooden box about 6 inches long by 3 wide and deep. The lid was hinged, and inlaid with different coloured woods to form a rectangular pattern. Philip had cried out when he first picked it up to examine it and put it back down hurriedly. When Lady Valerie picked it up she too pricked a finger on the end of a nail that protruded from the rear of the box. She announced that it would make a fine present for James. He was so difficult to buy for. Money being no object, if he wanted anything he just went out and bought it. The stallholder offered to fix the nail before placing it in a carrier bag. Lady Valerie replied that she rather thought it added to its charm and attested to its having been handmade, so he should leave it as it was.
The show offered no house to look around, or gardens to spend time in, so they left it soon after to take a leisurely drive back, to find somewhere to break their journey to take afternoon tea and perhaps to discover an antique shop or two that they could hunt around for bargains in.
They didn’t find anywhere to stop for most of their journey home so, having daylight left to spare, they diverted to a shop they had been to several times before. It was mostly filled with bric-a-brac from the various house clearances that the owner often did, items that weren’t of great value but would serve as a stopgap measure or would fit nicely with the purchaser’s style. Now and then though they discovered something very unusual or even once or twice a genuine antique that the owner had missed, judging by the price asked for it.
They stopped directly outside the yellow pebble dashed shop. It was large and stood in its own grounds, detached and away from the other small shops that the village offered with outbuildings at its rear which no doubt contained items that wouldn’t yet fit in the shop or that had once been there but not sold, that the owner thought worth hanging on to, convinced he would one day find a buyer.
A small bell tinkled as they opened the wooden framed glass door to the shop. The owner looked up from the desk he was sitting at and wished them a good afternoon. He didn’t rise or interfere with them. He had found it best to leave customers to poke around unescorted. If he loitered too near them or tried to assist he would probably only drive them away. He knew that they would ask soon enough if they needed assistance with something.
Most of the items on offer were, to Valerie’s eye at least, not much above junk. Then, on a rickety old table on sale for the princely sum of £10, she spied a magic lantern complete with a set of slides next to it. She took out one of the slides and held it up to the light to see what it showed. A bird of some description. She replaced it in the slot she had taken it from and lifted out a second slide, picked at random from the selection the box offered. It too had an image of a bird. She repeated the examination several times and each slide she chose showed a different bird. Usually they were at rest or occupied in some other way that kept them still enough to be photographed. It would make a fine present for Julian. She turned over the price tag, handwritten on a little white card and tied to the lantern. Evidently this was one antique that the owner hadn’t missed. It was far more expensive than the box she had bought for James but that didn’t matter. She would ensure that it could be returned if Julian didn’t like it and give him the receipt along with the lantern and slides should he wish to do so. The fact that it was so much more valuable than James’s gift was, if anything, a bonus.
One shouldn’t have favourites among children she knew, even stepchildren as the boys were to her, but she couldn’t help liking Julian much more than James. When she had first joined the family, after their mother’s untimely death, Julian had been very supportive, delighting in showing her round every corner of the house and grounds and very much accepting her as a replacement for his mother. She had tried very hard to get James to respond in the same way, but had been unsuccessful. Even now, she thought she felt a certain amount of resentment at her presence, even after all these years.
Her conviction that James would take the opportunity to insist she moved out of the Manor had been the main reason she had turned down Philip’s proposal of marriage, made only three months after they had first met. When she had protested that it was rather soon in their relationship to be talking of marriage he had laughed and pointed out that at their time of life there really wasn’t much time for long courtships. She had laughed too at this and agreed that it was true. She didn’t much mind becoming ‘Mrs Leslie’ instead of ‘Lady Valerie’. She hadn’t married for the title and losing it would be no great hardship. She would however mind having to give up the home she had lived in for so many years. Much of it contained heirlooms that were there when she arrived and, hopefully, would remain so long after she had left the house for another world, but there were newer objects that she and Lord Allenby had added to the collection and rooms decorated in styles they had both liked. She had seen Philip’s home and genuinely liked it, but it wasn’t the same. Nor would be taking somewhere new together as Philip had offered to do. Besides, they were both too old for the disruption to their lives that would cause. If Julian rather than James was now Lord of the Manor, she was sure he would agree to Philip joining them to live at the Manor, whether it be as husband and wife or even ‘in sin’, as the younger generation so quaintly put it.
She felt torn between her fondness for Philip and her desire to remain at the Manor. Was it just fondness? Or had her feelings towards him blossomed into love? They probably had. Not the same love she had felt with Lord Allenby, still felt today to just as strong an extent, but a love that manifested itself by being comfortable in his company and wanting that feeling to continue permanently not be broken off when he had to leave her to return home.
Having been assured by the owner that the lantern still worked, and that it could be returned for a full refund if the person it was being bought for didn’t find it as charming as she obviously did, she paid for it and left the shop, one hand securely holding the bag it now sat in, the other in Philip’s own, their fingers wrapped tightly together.
When they returned to the Manor James had already left. He was to meet up with Julian and spend the weekend with him before going on alone on yet another business trip. They dined that night with Hazel and Anne, and Philip regaled them with a tale of how he had nearly been mauled by a tiger when he was stationed in India. They had a fine evening, made still better by Philip not having to leave at the end of it. As James was away, Philip could stay over. He stayed, in fact, the whole weekend, hardly leaving Valerie’s side. They were seated in the garden when Julian arrived home, enjoying a cool glass of iced tea each as they read, Valerie a novel she had picked up somewhere and Philip the ‘Times’ newspaper. It was delivered every day along with the ‘Independent’ for James. They didn’t bother to cancel it when he was away. The rest of the household liked to read some of the sections, and the papers would be neatly placed in James’s study for his return. He liked to catch up with any news that might have occurred during his absence. Julian seemed genuinely pleased to find Philip still around and greeted him warmly, along with Valerie. He sat at one of the empty chairs and spent a few minutes talking, promising to show them his latest film once he was happy that it was ready for ‘public viewing’ as he put it. When Philip excused himself to go to the lavatory, Julian waited until he was well out of earshot before leaning conspiratorially toward Valerie.
“You know,” he said to her, “Philip doesn’t have to go home on my account. I can keep secret from James just as well as the rest of them.” He smiled Valerie as he spoke. When he saw Philip returning, he rose to go back to the house and gave her a pronounced wink when he left. She confided what Julian had said to Philip once he had resumed his seat and before he could pick up the paper again. They both smiled and touched hands lightly, before returning to their respective reading.
The rest of the week seemed to pass very quickly. They spent the mornings in the garden or on the patio reading, or sometimes walking around the grounds. After lunch each day they drove around the countryside with no particular destination planned, though they did call into Philip’s house once so that he could drop off dirty laundry and pick up clean clothes. With the exception of their one night at the restaurant they dined each evening with the rest of the family, where Philip and Julian tried to outdo each other with adventurous tales from their past. All too soon it was Friday morning, the day that James was due to return. After staying for lunch Philip departed for home before James returned. Valerie escorted him to the front door and watched his car from the stone steps as it disappeared down the Manor’s drive. She waved back to the hand that appeared through the driver’s window, but by the time she did so, the vehicle was gone. She had enjoyed their week together and didn’t want it to stop, even though Philip would be back in a few hours time for the party, dressed in his finest eveningwear. Her thoughts drifted again to how much happier her life would be if Julian rather than James were in charge of things, as she turned and re-entered the Manor.
She made sure she was around to greet James when he returned home, but he didn’t stay downstairs very long, announcing that he was tired from travelling and that he would get a little rest before the party. Neither Hazel nor Anne were around either, so she collected her book and took it out to the patio to read.
Her novel was what was commonly called a ‘bodice ripper’ though when Hazel had enquired what it was about Valerie resolutely described it as a ‘romance’. She had intended to skip over the racier pages but couldn’t stop herself reading the first one that she had come across. After that she read every word. No one would know what was written there anyway. She looked up now and then to watch Fred Davis working in the garden that the patio looked out on, and waved to Julian when she caught his eye as he strolled over to talk to Fred. She glanced at her watch when she finished each chapter, until she decided it was time to prepare for the party. She didn’t usually wear much makeup, but as there were to be many guests she would make a special effort this evening. She slipped a bookmark in where she had finished reading and closed the book, rising to go to her room to start getting ready.
Applying her makeup after a refreshing bath took longer than she thought it would, but she was still ready with a little time to spare. She took the boys’ presents, now each wrapped in plain gold paper, down to the ballroom to leave ready on the table set aside for them. Their mother had started the tradition of not opening presents until the time of birth rather than the day, and she had maintained it when she had joined the household. She guessed that it was so that Julian didn’t have to wait too long to open his own presents after James had. Such things didn’t matter nearly as much once the boys had become adults, but it was a practice that they had continued with anyway. She had signed the little cards that were attached to each gift and identified who it was for from both Philip and herself, finishing with three kisses each. As Jeeves passed her to answer the front door bell which had just rung, she informed him that she would await Philip in the kitchen, so Jeeves should bring him there when he arrived. It was a lovely evening so she walked out onto the patio and round to the kitchen that way. It was much longer than just going down the hall but this way she would avoid the first guests arriving, and if she stopped to greet them doubtless other guests would soon follow and she would have to go into the party earlier than planned and without Philip. As she rounded the corner and could see the kitchen door she spied the unmistakable sight of Timothy’s wheelchair disappearing through it. She quickened her pace in case he needed assistance but by the time she entered the kitchen herself it was deserted.
The cakes lay on silver wire mesh trays ready to be carried through when called for. All, that is, except the boys’ which were on a separate plate. Polly had even labelled James’s with the number ’60’ in two large candles. Next to the plate was the tray containing the items made specially for James and Julian which had been left there until the last minute so that they wouldn’t get mixed up with the food for the other guests, or eaten by them unknowingly. She wasn’t alone there very long before Fred entered, clutching screwed up Clingfilm in each hand. He looked quite handsome in the uniform that had been hired for him, though the jacket looked as if it was a little tight.
“Hello, m’lady,” he said by way of greeting and in a slightly surprised tone. He obviously had not been expecting there to be anyone in the room.
“Hello, Fred,” she replied. “How are you this evening?”
“Oh, can’t complain.” He flexed his shoulders as he spoke, saying without words that actually he could, but wouldn’t. He dropped the Clingfilm onto the table and picked up the tray for James and Julian. “I’m waiting on his Lordship and Mr Julian personally tonight,” he said by way of explanation. “See you at the party,” he said as he left the kitchen again. Fred was always respectful to Valerie, but as she had known him all his life there was a certain ease between the two of them.
The doorbell rang a few more times and she waited expectantly, hoping each ring would be followed by Philip’s arrival. She didn’t sit down as she waited, wanting not to crease her dress.
She didn’t come into the kitchen much now, it was really Polly’s domain and Hazel’s, but when Polly’s predecessor, Ethel, had been the cook and Valerie responsible for running the household she had been a frequent visitor. Many of the pots and pans which hung above the table from steel hooks were the same ones that Ethel had used, and that she had used herself from time to time when she had wanted to make an extra special dish for her husband. Some things were new of course. The microwave oven had not been there in her time and both the fridge and the freezer were replacements that had been purchased when the old ones ceased working properly.
Her reverie was interrupted by Philip’s arrival. She had not even heard the doorbell ring that time. Their kiss to greet each other was more amorous than their few hours apart should have called for. The novel she had been reading that afternoon had obviously put thoughts into her head.
She wrapped her arm about his and they headed for the ballroom. She was looking forward to introducing Philip to James’s guests.