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“Ladies and gentlemen, Silver Sting team members, if you have all got your tea then I would like to call this meeting to order.” Max stood up and waited until he had the team’s full attention. Hetty sat proudly beside him. How happy it made her to see the old Max, full of spirit and determination, back with her.
“I am pleased to be able to tell you all that we are finally back on course. It was a close run-thing, but thanks to Gabby we live to tell the tale. Today, as you know full well, is the sixth of April and tomorrow ten of us will be crossing the sea to Austria to implement the final and most important phase of our project. I only wish that everyone was going with us, but it is vital that we have a small team back at base to handle any issues that may arise, so I would like to thank Duncan, Peter and Amy for volunteering to form that team.” Max cleared his throat and checked his notes. “As chairman may I say how proud I am of each and every one of you. You all deserve a medal for all your hard work over the last few weeks.
“This project is important to all of us. Not only are we going to redress a gross injustice, but we are also making a stand for the older generation. I believe that our little ruse could well go down in history as an example of what can be achieved when people, irrespective of their age, pool their skills and work together as a team. Regrettably, we cannot write the story – none of us would like to spend the rest of our days at Her Majesty’s pleasure – but maybe someday someone will write it for us.” Max paused and looked up at his friends, hoping that the words he had written for the occasion did not sound too Churchillian.
“I wish he’d bloody well get on with it,” Peter whispered in Henry’s ear.
Henry nodded sagely. “I’ve got several more chapters of Wines of Germany to read yet. It’s quite hard going, you know, and if our guest does ask me about the wines, I do want to sound reasonably knowledgeable.”
Max waited until the side conversation had died down before continuing. “The minibus leaves at 0800 tomorrow, so this is our last chance to go through everything, to make sure we have everything we need with us and that we have not missed anything.
I spoke to Gabby earlier today and she is fairly confident that Charles – Harry – call him what you will, is intending to catch that plane. Apparently, he has already informed her that he has to be away for the weekend – some cat-and-dog story about a golfing competition in the nether regions of Scotland. He’s also had a suit cleaned ready for the occasion. So that is good news.”
“Brilliant! Just brilliant! This is one competition that he isn’t going to win! It gets better and better,” Jennifer gushed, rubbing her hands together.
Max smiled. Her enthusiasm was catching and she had done more than her fair share to buoy everybody up over the past few weeks. “It is, Jennifer, quite brilliant, as you say, but right now can we all please turn to the agenda and I will receive your reports. Andy, would you like to go first?”
Andy stood up and shuffled his feet. “I’m just going to cover the key points right now. The minibus will be delivered here at 1600 hours this afternoon. It is a ten-seat minibus, and there will be ten of us, including me, on board. Keep your overnight bags to a minimum and place them on the floor in front of your seat.
“As Max has said we depart Magnolia at 0800 and we arrive in France at 1700 French time where we will all change our watches onto French time, which is one hour later than in the UK. We should arrive at our B&B near Brussels not long after 1900.
“On Wednesday we have another early start and our destination will be just west of Frankfurt.
“If we leave Frankfurt on time at 0800, we should arrive at Viertel by about 1200 hours on Thursday. We’ll get the bus unloaded and I’ll park it out of sight as instructed by Franz.
“Do we get the chance for cups of tea on the way? I will have to go to the little boy’s room a few times.” Henry put up his hand.
“All allowed for in the schedule, Henry.” Andy smiled and continued. “I think that about covers it. Any questions?” Andy sat down with a sigh of relief.
“Jennifer, you next.” Max checked his notes.
“My report is short and sweet! All the scripts are written and we’ve rehearsed them more times than I care to remember. I am happy that we have the best group of actors in the UK! All costumes are complete, thanks to Hetty and Dot, and everything is packed in the large suitcase,” Jennifer said, and sat down again.
“Excellent. Make sure all your medicaments are packed and that you wear comfortable shoes. I have packed a first-aid kit just in case,” Max said.
“Hetty, my dear, it’s your turn now.” Max smiled at his wife.
“Thank you, Max. The menu for the special dinner on Saturday night is all sorted, and Dot and I have bought all the ingredients on the assumption that there will be no time for shopping when we arrive. All fresh produce is being packed in iceboxes. Sandwiches for the outward journey have all been prepared.
“We will prepare sandwiches for the return journey before we leave Viertel. That’s it, Max. Dot and I have everything under control.”
“So that just leaves the cost of the B&Bs and dinners on the way, and umpteen cups of tea,” Peter said, making a note to add the tea breaks into the budget.
“That’s right,” Hetty replied. “I think I’ve passed all the receipts for the food on to you.”
“All accounted for, Hetty, and well within budget. Good work,” Peter confirmed.
“Henry, would you like to give your report?” Max asked, noticing that Henry’s head was beginning to nod.
“Well, yes. We have three bottles of wine for the dinner, all especially selected, a bottle of fino sherry for pre-dinner drinks and a bottle of cognac to accompany coffee. All within budget. Maybe I should have bought a few bottles for our celebration when we get back.”
“Excellent, Henry. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though. There’ll be plenty of time to celebrate if – I mean when – we pull it off,” Max said encouragingly. “Dot, Dennis, is there anything that you would like to add at this point in time?”
“I don’t think so, Max,” Dot replied for both of them. “Hetty’s covered the kitchen elements. Dennis is going to be an angel, as always, and clean up after us.”
Dennis nodded contentedly – that was about the sum of it.
“Emanuel, Dinah? Is there anything that you would like to report today?”
Emanuel looked at Dinah. “We’ve got all of my family photographs – not that there are too many of them – put into silver frames so that they can be displayed around the house. Gerald has given me a most interesting insight into all the paintings that he has hired for the occasion and, of course, our friend, Mr Lowry. We’ve been through the layout of the house that Duncan obtained from Franz and I think we could both walk around it blindfolded.” What he didn’t add was that he knew the layout of the house better than anybody, possibly even better than Franz.
“That sounds very professional, Emanuel. And you’re happy that everyone has mastered basic German?” Max asked with a broad grin on his face. Having listened to himself and Hetty repeating phrases in German from Emanuel’s lessons, he hoped that neither of them would be called upon to exercise their skills in public.
“Let’s say that everyone has made a valiant effort. As it happens the plan is that we will speak English anyway as a courtesy to our guest – that being the case, we should have no trouble communicating with one another.”
“Amy?” Max smiled at Amy who sat patiently, legs crossed and arms resting on her knees, waiting her turn.
“It took a long time, but all of the documents that Gerald asked me to do are complete,” Amy stated slowly and clearly. “The Owner’s Inventory of Paintings was a sheer delight to create. The bill of sale is complete and in the envelope. Gerald has checked and double-checked the entries in the Inventory and on the bill of sale. And the family photograph album is an absolute work of art, and I have to say that most of the credit goes to Duncan. What he can’t do with that computer of his is nobody’s business. There are photographs of the family – a few of which are those that Emanuel had – but the rest are complete fabrications but so very authentic.”
“Thank you for that, Amy.” Duncan nodded, pleased that his work was appreciated.
“Gerald?” Max said.
Gerald stood up, shuffled a couple of papers and put them away in his top pocket. “Six most suitable paintings on loan, and the Lowry wrapped and ready to go. All documentation complete, so there should be no problem with customs. The story is that the artwork is being taken to Austria for an exhibition in aid of charity and all of it will be returned to the UK within eight days. There are signed letters of authority from the galleries that have loaned them to us. I shall carry all the relevant documentation myself. I have a first-cut plan of where the paintings will be hung in the house based on the photographs that Duncan managed to obtain from our dear friend, Franz.”
Max laughed. “Thank you, Gerald. I’ll ask Peter to report last, so maybe Duncan you could bring us up to speed, please?”
Duncan wheeled his chair to the front of the room. “I must say right at the start that Franz could not have been more helpful. He and his wife will be there to meet you when you arrive and will walk you through the house and show you how everything works before beating a hasty retreat to the gatehouse for the duration of your stay. Travel insurance policies and European health insurance cards are all in here,” he said, handing a folder to Andy. “So you will be covered in the event of any medical emergencies. Andy also has the hotel booking forms, your passports, currency and the Eurotunnel ticket.
“Max has The Silver Sting mobile, the phone that has been used for all of our communications, except for Gerald’s calls which he assures me are totally untraceable. We will dispose of it at the end of the project and whoosh every shred of evidence about our calls will disappear into the ether. It’s a little trick I picked up from one my hacker friends. So far there have been no hits on our film company website. I can only assume that Franz trusts us. I noticed that there have been several hits on Emanuel’s website that I set up several weeks ago. I assume that this is our man checking him out. It confirms everything that he has been told about Emanuel and his family without giving away too much. For authenticity I’ve included a few facts about Emanuel’s distinguished career, none of which contradict his story. In small print it mentions that the family house is available to rent through his on-site manager for exceptional occasions, and links Emanuel’s site to Franz’s website. Again fortunately for us there is nothing on Franz’s site that suggests that he is any other than the manager of the property. On Saturday afternoon soon after your visitor arrives the websites will disappear as if they never existed. That concludes my report, Max.”
“Excellent, Duncan. Thank you. And finally, Peter?”
“Well, we’re within budget. Emanuel’s bank account has been set up, but what a palaver! I took a rather circuitous route to achieve it, but we got there in the end. Please don’t ask questions. Thank God I retired from banking when I did. It would test the patience of a saint now. I’ll be monitoring the account every minute of the day and night if necessary. The moment the sum is paid into Emanuel’s account it will be transferred to another account which neither our man nor the authorities will be able to find if ever they ask questions. And all that remains to be said is, good luck everybody!” Peter concluded.
“Then, my dear friends, I think we all deserve a small sherry, don’t you?” Max said.
The sherry poured, Max raised his glass “The toast is…The Silver Sting!”
Andy looked up through the windscreen. If he were not mistaken there was a shower on its way. As the first few drops of rain splattered on the windscreen, he closed his ears to the voices of The Silver Sting choir, led by Jennifer, as they struck up their own rendition of ‘Singing in the Rain’. He really had to give it to her – always on the lookout. If she noticed the slightest lull in spirits, she led the chorus in either one of their wartime favourites or, and more often than not, one of the songs from TheSound of Music. The motorways were alive with the sound of music, if not the hills.
He had no complaints; they had all been very patient, had drunk their cups of tea in record time and not once had they failed to go to the little room before leaving a rest stop.
The first day had been the longest, during which they had travelled almost three hundred and fifty miles. Leaving Magnolia at nine, it was after seven by the time they arrived at the B&B just outside of Brussels. No one had objected to a quick supper followed by an early night.
The second day they reached the outskirts of Frankfurt by late afternoon.
On the third morning, the atmosphere was charged. They were almost there and about to put the plan into action. The Silver Sting choir was silent.
“Just ten miles to go!” Andy called out to the back of the bus.
Jennifer looked around the bus and saw, as Andy had seen through his rear-view mirror, a sea of anxious faces. It had been a long and gruelling journey with little sleep in the unfamiliar beds. “Come on now, everybody, we’re nearly there. How about a chorus of ‘Rule Britannia’?” she called as she sang the first line. “Join in!” It was infectious, as she knew it would be, and the last few miles sped by.
Andy checked his speed, signalled right at the sign for Viertel and turned in through the stone archway. The bus fell quiet again as they cleared the arch, passed a small, but well-kept gatehouse and proceeded at five miles an hour up the drive.
The grass beneath the elms that lined the driveway was one mass of bright yellow daffodils nodding in the spring sunshine, while behind the trees, rhododendron bushes drooped with the weight of buds, waiting for the moment to burst. With the house in the near distance, the elms gave way to a sea of pink and white where cherry trees had shed their blossom.
All eyes turned to the magnificent gardens and the house beyond. “Are we sure this is the right place, Emanuel?” Henry whispered in his ear. Just look at that house and those magnificent turrets – I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. It’s like something out of a fairy tale.”
“Oh yes,” Emanuel replied wistfully. “This is the place.”
Andy turned the bus into the circular driveway in front of the house and waved to the man standing on the front steps. In late middle age and dressed in a green corduroy jacket with an open-necked shirt, the man smiled and walked towards the bus. A woman emerged from the house behind him dressed in a fawn polo-necked sweater, brown trousers and a fur gilet, and ran down the steps to join her husband.
Andy turned to the back of the bus. “Emanuel, I think it’s time for you to meet Franz and Margarita!”
Emanuel pulled on his jacket, straightened his tie and made his way to the front. It was the longest walk ever.
“Guten Morgen, Herr Neumann, Frau Neumann,” he said, extending his hand first to Herr Neumann and then Frau Neumann.
“Herzlich willkommen. You must be Emanuel,” Franz said, changing from German to English as a courtesy to his guests. “May I present my wife, Margarita. You must call us Franz and Margarita, if it pleases you. I am happy to speak English. It is good for my learning. My wife also speaks English.”
Emanuel looked into Franz’s narrowed eyes and wondered what the other man had seen in his own. If it were possible he would have described it as a spark of recognition, but that was fantasy. He had never, ever met Franz Neumann before that moment.
“The house looks perfect. We are honoured that you are allowing us to share it with you for a few days.” Dinah slipped her arm through Emanuel’s arm. “And this is my wife, Dinah, Dinah Levi,” Emanuel said.
Franz cast a puzzled look at his own wife. Her eyes told all. She too had seen the similarity and made the connection.
Margarita broke the moment of awkwardness. “Bring your friends in. We have tea waiting for you and have sandwiches and pastries in the small salon. We have two strong men who will help you unload the suitcases and boxes but not until after we are all refreshed,” she said, beckoning to the party.
The scent of lilies assailed their noses as they entered the house. A large round refectory table stood on the polished oak floor laden with a magnificent display of lilies, blue hydrangeas, and foliage. “Is this your own work, Margarita?” Jennifer asked, walking around the table and admiring the display from all angles. “It is quite exquisite. You have such an eye for colour.”
“It is,” Margarita replied, gratefully accepting the compliment. “And all the blooms come from our own garden and hothouse. The garden is my domain. Franz takes charge of the house and the restoration and I am in charge of interiors and garden.”
Gerald lingered in the hall and discreetly examined each of the portraits. He had read about the Lipizzan horses, a breed made famous by the Spanish Riding School of Vienna but had never before seen quite so many portraits of them. None of them, he judged, were high-quality art, but all were extremely well executed. Over tea he must take Franz aside and question him about their history and the artists. It would not do for their guest when he arrived to ask questions that they could not answer.
Margarita poured tea, and handed the sandwiches to her grateful guests, all of whom were even older than Franz had led her to believe. It was intriguing that between them they planned to make a film, and equally puzzling that none of them were able to tell her what it was about.
Gerald chatted animatedly with Franz who clearly knew his art and explained to him that they had brought just a small number of paintings with them to feature in the film. They would, of course, treat Franz’s own paintings with the utmost care and return them all to their rightful place at the end of the filming.
“Perhaps Gerald and Emanuel would like a guided tour of my collection,” Franz suggested, turning to his wife “Would the rest of you excuse us for a moment, please?”
Emanuel and Gerald followed Franz out of the small salon, through the hall and into a large room in which burned a roaring log fire in an enormous inglenook fireplace. “Some of the finest works are in this room. We thought you might all like to relax in here this evening. It will turn cold later and this is the warmest room even though it is the largest of our salons,” Franz said, warming his hands beside the fire. Gerald and Emanuel followed suit, content to watch the flames that licked through the logs.
Emanuel looked up and stared into the ormolu mirror that hung above the fireplace. His heart missed a beat as he looked at the picture on the wall behind him and into the eyes of his father. “Do you recognise him, Emanuel?” asked Franz.
A shiver ran down his spine. Emanuel shook his head. “My father in his study. It was painted when I was five years old,” he replied guiltily. “I thought that portrait would be long since gone. I heard that the house had been destroyed in a fire.”
Gerald looked from Emanuel to the painting open-mouthed. “My, oh my! What a turn-up for the books. This is another one that we didn’t see coming! “He is really your father?”
Emanuel nodded, lost for words.
Gerald put his arm around his friend’s shoulder. “Now what precisely is it that I am missing here, Emanuel, and how come that portrait is hanging up there?”
“I am happy to answer that question for Emanuel,” Franz said. “It is a part of this house – it was painted in this house. The study that you see in the painting is through the other end of the house, as Emanuel knows only too well. The painting was hanging right here when I bought the house. The Nazis used the house as a rehabilitation home for injured officers during the war. The portrait was badly damaged. I suspect that they threw drinks and glasses at it and probably worse, but it was not beyond repair,” Franz continued. “Did you come here to revisit your home, Emanuel? If so, why didn’t one of you tell me? So you are now the baron?”
Gerald scratched his head, mopped the perspiration from his brow with his handkerchief and spoke. “Don’t tell me, Emanuel. You really are a baron?”
“I suppose that I am.” Emanuel nodded and turned to Franz.
“I owe you an apology,” Emanuel said. “But it is not as you think. This was my childhood home. My father and mother sent me to England when I was just six years old. I was one of the Kindertransport children. My two older brothers left weeks after me but never made it to England. My parents closed up the house and went to stay with family in the country, but there was nowhere to hide. Years later I found out that they had been taken to Auschwitz. It was all too painful, too poignant, and then I was told that the house had burnt down, which is why I did not come back. Coming here was not my idea. My friends knew nothing of my association with this house.”
“And what of this film? Is there any film at all?” Franz raised his eyebrows.
“It’s a long story, Franz,” Emanuel replied, resignedly. “Would you both mind if I had a couple of minutes with Max in private?”
“Not at all. I’ll ask him to come through and then Gerald and I will wait with the others. Gerald, after you,” Franz replied smiling benignly at the elderly gentleman in the picture hanging on the wall. “Whatever it is, you can trust me, Emanuel.”
Emanuel looked up at his father and knew without a shadow of a doubt that he would never have condoned his son lying to a friend under their own roof, his own roof. And Franz was a friend; a man who had at vast expense, and with infinite care, restored their home. Emanuel wandered around the room stroking the pieces of furniture that he remembered so well, all now lovingly polished and adorned with photographs of the new family.
Turning, he heard the door behind him open. Max stood in the doorway, his eyes tuned in to the portrait that monopolised the room. “Good God, Emanuel, you are a chip off the old block if ever I saw one. No wonder Franz couldn’t take his eyes off you when we arrived.”
Max rested his hand on Emanuel’s arm. “You should have told us before we left. We might have spared you this.” Max was one of the few who knew Emanuel’s story and he had quietly wondered about the wisdom of staging their production in Austria.
“I found myself in an impossible predicament, Max. I didn’t see the photographs of the house until after Duncan had booked it, and then I couldn’t ruin the project for everybody. You would never have known about it if it hadn’t been for my father lording it up there on the wall. He was a great man. He and my mother filled this house with love.” Emanuel spoke with a heavy heart.
“We don’t even have to unpack Emanuel. We can just get back on the bus and go back home and everything will be just as it was,” Max said decisively. “No one will blame you. We’ve always managed fine at Magnolia in the past. We’ll do it again and forget all about Harry Trumper.”
“I owe the others an explanation and I owe an explanation to Franz and Margarita and my wife, of course,” Emanuel said solemnly, “I didn’t even tell Dinah.”
“As chairman, Emanuel, it’s my responsibility to explain at least some of it to the team and our hosts. You can fill in the gaps, and let’s see where we go from there, my friend,” Max said kindly. “I’ll go and ask Franz if we can all congregate in here while we explain.”
Max turned and left Emanuel moving silently around the room from one memory to another.
“Would everybody like to take a seat, please? There is something that Emanuel and I would like to share with you all – that is, if you can’t work it out for yourselves,” Max said, turning his head towards the portrait on the wall. The first is that this beautiful house was once Emanuel’s very own home and that,” Max pointed to the portrait, “that gentleman is Emanuel’s much-loved father. Emanuel quietly shared most of his story with me many years ago but not that Viertel had been home.” Max turned to Emanuel. “Do you feel able to tell everybody?”
Emanuel nodded, and drifted off into the world of his childhood, describing his family, the house, the gardens and then the end of the dynasty. No one spoke; there were no dry eyes in the house by the time he had finished and sat down. “Will you forgive me for not telling you, Dinah? It was wrong of me.”
Dinah put her arms around her husband and held him fast.
Max picked up where he had left off. “And now my good friends of Magnolia, Emanuel and I have had a brief discussion and we feel that it is only right and proper that we share our true purpose in being here with our gracious hosts, Franz and Margarita. I have volunteered to do that.”
Heads nodded in unison. Having now met Franz and Margarita none of them had felt comfortable with deceiving them. It was better this way.
With a heavy heart, Max started from the beginning and left nothing out. The Silver Sting team sat silently listening to Max while watching Franz and Margarita, whose expressions gave nothing away.
“And so, Franz, we will take our leave of you. The money that we have paid you for our stay will, of course, remain yours,” Max concluded.
Franz took a deep breath, stood up and looked at them all. “I admire you! You have true spirits! That is what the English are known for! And, if my dear wife agrees, you are not going anywhere!” A broad grin spread across Margarita’s face. She could always rely on Franz to do the right thing.
“I don’t understand, Franz. What else is there to do?” Gerald was the first to speak.
“It is at the ends of your nose, as the English say,” Franz replied, laughing.
“It is?” Henry asked, mystified.
“Don’t you see? My dear friend, Emanuel, was going to pretend that he was the owner of this great house and now he doesn’t have to pretend at all! It is perfect. It was meant to be! He knows this house like the back of his hand. What could go wrong? I am more than happy for Emanuel to borrow his house for a few days. My friends, your project, The Silver Sting, lives, and if you would allow us, Margarita and I would dearly love to join in your conspiracy.”
Jennifer whooped, jumped up and punched the air in her excitement. “Three cheers for Franz and Margarita!”
“Thank you all. It is not needed. I am as excited as you must be. Now we have work to do! This evening we have a good supper and check out the plan.”
An Austrian stew was simmering away on the Aga. Margarita seemed to have the ability to magic a feast out of nowhere. Hetty was never more glad in her life to know that Margarita would be by her side in the kitchen – the Aga would almost certainly have defeated her before she began. Like old friends, they talked through the planned menu, while Dot laid out all the ingredients that they had brought with them, checking them off against her own list. Margarita said that there was nothing on the menu that she would change. It was authentic and very achievable. Her only regret was that she would not be sitting at the dinner table enjoying it with their guest. If Max was agreeable then she would serve the dishes to the table, while Henry poured the wine for the party; the dumb waiter would not be necessary.
The bus unloaded and the suitcases placed in the guest rooms, Andy drove the bus round to the back of the stables, parking it carefully out of sight while Franz took Emanuel, Dinah and Jennifer on a tour of the house. Emanuel soaked it up, wondering if Franz had second sight – other than the colour schemes, of which he approved wholeheartedly, the house had hardly changed in more than eighty years. In severe contrast to the restored parts of the house, the last quartile awaiting restoration at the rear of the property was near to crumbling and supported by scaffolding. It was almost impossible to believe that when Franz had taken on the house it had all been in the same state of disrepair. “Now perhaps, Emanuel, you can see why I sympathise with your plight. I know what it takes to restore a beautiful house. When your mansion house at Magnolia is restored to its former glory then Margarita and I will be your first guests.”
Gerald took personal responsibility for unloading the artwork from the bus and setting it carefully down in the hall, checking once more that each painting had been recorded in the Owner’s Inventory of Paintings that Amy had so meticulously prepared. Even to the discerning eye, it was almost impossible to tell the fake from the real thing. It would not be unusual that some of the lesser paintings were unrecorded.
The Lowry, he decided, would be hung in the hall away from the harsh daylight and the ruinous effect of the smoke from the log fire.
Max occupied an hour checking in with Duncan, Peter and Amy back at base. After two abortive attempts at working out the right country calling code, he managed to get through. There was a stunned silence at the other end of the phone as Max explained the turn of events of the past few hours. In the background, he heard Duncan relaying the story, word for word, to Peter and Amy, before finally handing the phone over to Peter.
“It’s an omen, Max. A good omen. Just don’t forget that Emanuel must get that bill of sale signed so that I can deposit it with the bank the moment you folk get back.”
“Noted,” Max replied dramatically. “Expect my next communication on Sunday at approximately 1030 hours which is when our guest will be departing! Don’t do anything back there that we wouldn’t. Over and out, Sting.”
Max chuckled to himself, hit the red and put the phone in his pocket.
They took supper in a kitchen warmed by the Aga and filled to bursting with the excitement of co-conspirators. Exhausting every possible angle of the plan and filled with renewed confidence, the Silver Sting retired for the night. Franz led Emanuel and Dinah to the master suite. “It is only right and proper that these are your quarters for all your stay. Margarita and I will be happy in one of the other rooms,” Franz said, closing the door behind him.
Gerald stood back and admired his work. The six paintings that he had shipped over looked as though they had been hanging there from time immemorial. He had made inspired choices. The painters, mostly German and French, were little known, but with time he was sure that they would join the ranks of the great. Most of them, so the story would be told, had been acquired from galleries in Paris, Rheims, Strasbourg and Berlin to replace paintings that Emanuel had already had to part with to fund the restoration. Emanuel, Gerald had ensured, was word-perfect about the galleries from which he had bought them. They were the last six entries in the Owner’s Inventory of Paintings, which recorded acquisitions and sales dating back to 1860 and now sat gathering a suitable layer of dust on the oak sideboard in the grand salon. The Lowry, according to the inventory, was one of the last acquisitions that had been made by Herr Levi in 1936 when Emanuel was no more than four years old.
Gerald strolled back to the hall to peek one more time at the Lowry. “There you are, old son,” he said “hiding in the corner as usual.” Measuring thirty by forty inches, The Industrial Heartland was a poignant reminder of times past and a masterpiece. Emanuel would claim to know little about the history of the Lowry, or how his father had come by it, other than from the details recorded on the bill of sale which stated that the picture had been bought from a gallery in Salford, Manchester for the sum of two thousand pounds on 1 October 1936. He was, after all, only four years of age when his father had acquired it.
The kitchen was a hive of activity. Hetty was already a past master at managing the Aga and was threatening to have one installed in the cottage when their ship came in.
“Anybody would think he was bloody royalty,” Hetty muttered, pushing her hair back from her face. “I bet the Queen doesn’t eat as well as this.”
Max looked up from his checklist. “If I had my way he’d be heading straight for the Tower – not being pampered like this. What I wouldn’t give for five minutes in the same room with that man! I tell you, Hetty, he’d be lucky if he came out alive.”
“Just remember, Max, that this next twenty-four hours is worth three million pounds to us, and then you can do what you like with him, but I think that Gabby and Greg have got their own plans on that score,” Hetty replied.
Persuading Gabby that he had to go to Scotland for a golf match had, surprisingly enough, been a walk in the park. The flight left Heathrow on time. He had been up since three and on the road by a quarter to four. A little weary, Charles sank down into his seat, buckled his seat belt and accepted the glass of champagne offered to him. It was a little early in the day for champagne, but it was no more than he deserved. Everything was coming up roses, as they say. He was on his way to buy his lifetime dream. Annabel’s bang on the head had soon healed and been forgotten, and Gabby seemed unconcerned that he was taking off for a night without her. To cap it all he had struck gold the previous day. It was finally over – the letter that he had been waiting for had arrived. The taxman had conceded defeat and he had it in writing. It was almost three long years since that first letter had arrived, and now he could sleep tight in his bed, and life could soon get back to normal. In a few days’ time, he would be back where he belonged. Life could be a bitch at times, but right at the moment, it was all going his way.
Shielding his eyes as the plane broke through the clouds into brilliant sunshine, Charles allowed himself a few minutes to reflect. It had all happened in such a short space of time, but that was not a bad thing. Often the longer you had to think about something the less likely you were to do it. Life was a matter of chance, and the winners were those who grabbed the opportunities. That had always been his way and, touch wood, his instinct had never let him down, even if now and again he had had to make a few unplanned strategic withdrawals.
He had liked Emanuel from the first, but he would not underestimate him. Underneath that veneer of elderly indecisiveness, he sensed that he was a man of great determination. He was still in two minds as to whether or not he would chance negotiating on price again. It went against the grain not to do so, but maybe on this one occasion he would very reluctantly bend his own rules.
The money was in the bank. He had personally visited the City to set it all up, at no small expense to himself, but there was always a price to be paid if you wanted to stay below the radar. Fortunately, he had contacts going back years who owed him a few favours. And it was at the bank that the Lowry would reside until such time as he decided it was safe to display it in the place of his choice.
There had been the small matter of shipping the painting back to England without attracting duties and inviting unwanted attention; the latter being the most critical. The last thing he needed was anybody snooping into his private business or his background. Once more one of his mates from his distant past had come up trumps. Smuggling goods into England was his stock in trade. One call to his contact and the wheels would start turning.
After sinking the second glass of champagne, Charles dozed and woke three hours later to the announcement that the plane was starting its descent into Linz. The temperature was four degrees, the high for the day eight degrees and neither rain nor snow were forecast.
Franz stood outside the arrivals door wielding a handwritten sign that read ‘Herr Fairbrother’. Charles grinned as he spotted the late-middle-aged man dressed in a bright orange duck down jacket over a yellow polo neck sweater, sporting a blue pom-pom hat on his head.
“Willkommen, Herr Fairbrother. Guten Tag. My name is Franz and I am your driver. Sorry, my English is not so good,” Franz said with a broad grin on his face. He was already enjoying the adventure enormously. “I can take the bag. You follow. Thank you.”
Franz led Charles to an old BMW 5 series parked at the far end of the short-stay car park and opened the door for him. “Forty minutes to the house.”
Charles sat back in the worn soft leather seat and buried his head in The Times. Franz weaved his way in and out of traffic, his hand never far from the horn while his right foot knew of only two positions on the accelerator – full on or off. Charles glanced briefly at the interior of the car. He hadn’t expected a limousine, but it did cross his mind that a clean car was not an unreasonable expectation, but so long as it got him there he didn’t care.
“We are near now,” Franz shouted in his ear, eased off the accelerator and drove slowly under a huge stone arch. “This is home.” Franz glanced sideways at his passenger.
Charles did a double take – this was not the humble house that Emanuel had led him to believe. “Impressive. You sure we’re at the right place? You haven’t picked up the wrong party from the airport? I’m here to see Emanuel Levi,” Charles said uncertainly.
“It is the house, Herr Fairbrother. It is the home of the baron,” Franz replied proudly. “My boss, as you English say.”
“Did you say ‘baron’?” Charles whispered quietly. Surely he had misheard the driver, or there was a very great deal that Emanuel
had not told him.
“Ja. The Baron – Freiherr Levi – is a poor baron.” Franz laughed. “He spend all his money on the house so the car is not so good!”
Charles gazed wide-eyed at the gardens as Franz drove at the prerequisite 5mph up the drive. Staring at the house beyond, Charles sat bolt upright, folded his paper neatly and straightened his jacket. Never before had he been a guest of a baron. Even from a distance, he could see that the front of the house had been restored, and that there was scaffolding to the rear of the house, presumably waiting for a shedload of money to materialise. Three million pounds and the rest, he thought to himself. It was unlikely that Emanuel would be in the negotiating game.
Franz leapt out of the car and ran around to open the passenger door at the exact same moment that the huge front door opened and Emanuel, dressed in a tweed jacket and corduroy trousers, stepped out hand outstretched to receive his guest.
“Charles, I hope you had a good flight and that Franz behaved himself! Welcome to my humble abode. I am so sorry about that other little matter. The buyer was really piling on the pressure, but I really didn’t want to sell it to him,” Emanuel said earnestly.
“Well, hello again, Emanuel. You didn’t tell me that you have a title and I wouldn’t call this house a humble abode. Should I address you as ‘Baron’? I’m really not familiar with the correct way to address an aristocrat. I can see why your father wanted the house preserved for future generations, and if you don’t mind me saying so you’ve done a not half bad job so far!”
“Thank you, Charles, and remember, I am just Emanuel to you. Nobody uses their titles anymore, Charles,” Emanuel replied graciously. “Yes, the house is beautiful, or it will be when it is finished. It has cost me a great many of my family’s proudest possessions, but I do not resent one single brick. My wife, Dinah, has tea waiting for us in the small salon. And then perhaps you would like to freshen up. Do come in, my dear Charles.”
Charles followed Emanuel into the hall. After the bright light of the spring day, his eyes took a while to adjust to the darkness. Emanuel lingered in the hall just long enough for Charles to notice the paintings and to catch his first sight of the Lowry.
Emanuel smiled secretly as Charles moved silently towards it and looked up reverently. He could see the longing in the man’s eyes.
It was everything that Emanuel had promised. “Breath-taking and quite magnificent. I can’t find the words to describe how I feel right at this moment,” Charles said, unable to drag his eyes away from the painting.
“You may spend as much time as you like with it later, Charles, but right now tea awaits,” Emanuel said earnestly. “This way please.”
Emanuel led Charles into the small salon that ran the length of the front west wing of the house. “Allow me to introduce my wife. Charles, this is Dinah. Dinah, this is Charles Fairbrother.
“It is all my pleasure, madam. I feel quite humbled to be your guest,” Charles said.
Dinah chatted animatedly about the house. The interior furnishings, she said, were her domain with a little help from her sister-in-law, Jennifer, whom she described laughingly as a little eccentric. Charles would have preferred to get right down to business and discuss the Lowry, but clearly that was not the way business was done at Viertel – the niceties had to be observed, and when in Rome, do as the Romans do, he reminded himself.
Charles listened as intently as he could while unable to prevent his eyes straying to the sideboards and the sea of photographs in their shiny silver frames neatly displayed upon them. Some were brown with age, while others, more recent, were recognisably Emanuel and Dinah’s own sons and grandchildren. It did not escape Emanuel and silently he thanked Max for his eye for detail. Photographs of the family would not have been something that would have crossed his mind, but without them, the house would have seemed impersonal and a lot less credible. Emanuel picked up on Charles’s curiosity and, feeling very much within his own comfort zone, spent the next half an hour talking about their sons and the grandchildren.
Dinah looked at her watch. “Emanuel, we are talking far too much. Charles will want to freshen up after such a long flight.” Turning to Charles she said, “I hope we haven’t bored you too much. Franz will have taken your suitcase to your room and I will show you the way. I do hope you will be comfortable with us. We will meet in the grand salon for drinks at six if that suits you. Our good friend, Gerald, is staying and will be joining us for drinks and dinner, and also my sister-in-law, Jennifer.”
“Perfect,” Charles replied, wondering briefly how he was expected to spend an hour and a half freshening up. It would take no more than ten minutes to get changed and ready for dinner. And Gerald – presumably that was the name of the man whom he
had seen with Emanuel at the Lowry.
Charles changed into his suit and lounged on the sofa in the ornate, but distinctly masculine bedroom where his every need had been anticipated. The paintings that adorned the walls were largely of horses: portraits, hunting scenes and the racetrack. None of the painters were known to him and the subject was not one that he enjoyed. Fleetingly the racehorse Breeze flashed through his mind, but she had been a means to an end, and later a useful distraction for Annabel. He was sorely tempted to take himself off down to the hall and spend time with the Lowry but the implication had been that he should pass this time relaxing and preparing for the evening’s festivities. There were times when he could well do without etiquette if that was what it was.
Charles lay back on the sofa and listened to the tick-tock of the grandmother clock. He pictured the Lowry hanging on the wall opposite the fireplace at The Poplars, where one day it would reside. It was worth waiting for, and worth every penny he was going to have to pay for it.
“You must be Charles. Oh hello, Charles,” a high-pitched voice called from below. “I was just coming up to get you. Do come down and you can escort me in for drinks. It’s such a treat to have an extra man in the house. I’d better make the best of it! I think Emanuel, Dinah and Gerald may have beaten us to it.”
Jennifer lived up to expectations. She was an apparition dressed in a floor-length, low-cut, flowing gown of purple and silver with
a feather boa draped around her neck. Her silver grey hair was piled high on her head and fixed in place with diamante combs. She stood at the foot of the stairs, her arms flung wide and for all the world looked as though she was ready to catch him if he fell. Charles hesitated and forced a smile – there was no other way down the staircase. “You must be Jennifer,” he said brightly. “Your brother and his wife mentioned that we would meet at dinner. May I say how wonderful you look?”
Charles held his smile and kissed the back of her hand, making a mental note to lock his door later on – a drama queen if ever he had seen one, and one that could easily eat him for breakfast if he wasn’t careful.
“And such a gentleman as well. My, we are going to have fun tonight,” she gushed sliding her arm through his. “We so rarely have visitors. When Emanuel told me you were coming I just couldn’t wait. We have quite a banquet planned for you and we’ve raided the wine cellar. You are honoured – Emanuel rarely opens it up. I’ll show you the way, and how about I pick you up in the morning right after breakfast and give you a full guided tour? The bedrooms are quite divine and my bedroom, dear Charles, is to die for!” she teased unmercifully.
Jennifer tottered alongside him on high-heeled shoes that click-clacked on the wooden floor, her arm firmly entwined with his. “We’re in here tonight for drinks – the grand salon. There’s a wonderful log fire. This house is such a warm welcoming place.” Jennifer opened the door and winked unseen at her co-conspirators. “After you, dear Charles.”
Instantaneously forgetting Jennifer, his attention was caught by the portrait on the wall opposite the fireplace. It was the spitting image of Emanuel and, judging by the clothes worn by the man, it could be none other than Emanuel’s father.
“Good evening everybody,” Charles said, and nodded towards the portrait. “There’s no mistaking who that must be! Your father
I presume, Emanuel?”
“Correct,” Emanuel replied, “It is of value only to the family I am pleased to say, so I shall not have to part with it. It is as much a part of this house as my wife, my sister, our children and our grandchildren.” Emanuel turned his head towards the other walls. “I am afraid that the rest of the paintings in here may disappoint you. The best are long since sold. There are a few that I purchased relatively recently to replace them. I could not leave the walls bare. Gerald helped me choose them and assures me that in many years’ time they will be a good investment for future generations. Forgive me, you have not been properly introduced to Gerald – he is a very knowledgeable man. It was he who uncovered the greatest treasure of all.”
“I’m pleased to meet you, Charles,” Gerald said, eying the other man, while keeping his expression friendly and welcoming. The lying toad, he thought to himself.
Charles sipped his sherry. A whisky on the rocks would have been far more welcome, but it had not been offered. “Would it be indelicate to discuss your greatest treasure?” He did not want to appear too keen, but at the same time, they all knew that if business was to be done it had to be soon.
“Not at all, Charles. You will, no doubt, want to reassure yourself of its provenance. I would be disappointed if you didn’t. If the ladies would excuse us?” Emanuel looked first at his wife, and then at Jennifer.
“Of course, Emanuel. Jennifer and I will check that everything is properly prepared in the dining room and we will meet you all in there. Shall I tell the cook to serve in half an hour’s time?” Dinah asked.
Emanuel nodded as Dinah and Jennifer left the room and closed the door behind them. Jennifer crossed her fingers and winked at Dinah.
“Did I tell you how the Lowry survived the Nazis, Charles? Forgive me if I did, but it is an important part of its history. When
I was a boy, just before I was sent to England, my father told me that one day when I returned I should never take anything at face value. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was his way of telling me how to find his precious possessions. They remained hidden for a long while after I returned, until one day I was down in the wine cellar selecting wine for dinner. I was feeling thoroughly indecisive that day so I stood back and just looked at the rows of bottles sitting in the rack trying to make a decision. Quite out of the blue I heard his voice repeating those same words. Then I had the strangest sensation that part of the wine cellar was not as I remembered it as a child – not that he took me down there often. I remembered it as being deeper than it was. To cut a long story short, I brought in labour to remove the bricks behind the wine rack one by one and, lo and behold, behind the wall was a storage area no bigger than eight-foot square. And within it, I found many beautiful paintings including the Lowry, all carefully wrapped to safeguard them from damage and damp. The Nazis cleared the wine from the rack but never did discover the hidden storage area. I will happily take you down to the cellar, Charles, and show you just where they were stored. It is quite fascinating,” Emanuel said, taking a gamble.
“Not necessary, Emanuel. You hear these stories. It’s just good to know that not everything was destroyed during the war,” Charles replied, impressed by what he had been told.
“And this is the family’s Owner’s Inventory of Paintings. Unfortunately, you will see that there are more crossings out, particularly of late, than there are entries. The Lowry, as you can see, was bought on the first of October 1936,” Emanuel said, moving the book towards Charles. Gerald stood back – this would be Amy’s finest hour. He knew for certain that every listing in it was of a genuine painting with the correct painter’s name assigned to it and authentic dates. He had been through it time and time again. If the Owner’s Inventory of Paintings passed the test then they were well on their way.
Charles took his glasses out of his pocket and turned the pages one by one studying the entries. “Lot of history here, Emanuel.” If the truth were known he had never before set eyes on such a record, but he was determined not to let it show. He had to trust his own instincts. Charles looked first at Emanuel and then at Gerald; neither revealed the slightest concern at the time he was taking to study each of the entries. His gut feeling told him that it was genuine.
“And the bill of sale?” Charles asked.
“In the safe. I will get it for you.” Emanuel walked towards a small oil of a child in repose and removed it from the wall, revealing a small safe. “I believe this is it.”
Gerald immediately offered a pair of white cotton gloves to Charles. “It is very delicate, as you would expect.”
Charles put the gloves on and carefully withdrew the fragile, browned bill of sale from the envelope, the ink faded with the years.
“My father hid this and others with the paintings,” Emanuel said.
Charles nodded, replaced the piece of paper in the envelope and handed it back to Emanuel. “I can’t argue with that,” he said.
“We should look at the painting next, but before that maybe I could just show you a few pages from one of my family photo albums.” Emanuel took down an album from the bookshelf and opened it. “This, Charles, is a photograph of the Lowry taken back in 1936 in this very house. My father was so proud of it that he commissioned a photographer to take a picture of him standing beside the picture in the very same place that it now hangs.”
There was no doubt that it was taken in the hall and there was no mistaking the likeness between the man standing beside it and the portrait in the grand salon. Charles raised his eyebrows – this was indeed an unexpected piece of provenance.
“Gerald, could I please ask you to take the Lowry down and explain the markings to our guest,” Emanuel asked, and turned back to Charles. “I should probably apologise for my impudence. I very much doubt that a collector like yourself needs anything explained to him.”
“By all means,” Gerald replied, leading the party out into the hall. Charles watched, his heart in his mouth, as Gerald climbed up on the stepladder and lifted the picture clear of its fixings and handed it down to Emanuel.
It was now Gerald’s turn for the finest act of his life. Leaving nothing out, Gerald described the frame construction, the type of wood, the canvas, the colouring, the markings and all of the characteristics of the painting that together proved, without a shadow of a doubt that this was indeed the real thing.
Emanuel looked at the painting. “I wonder what my father would really say if he knew that I was letting it go?” he whispered softly. “Maybe…”
“I’ll not insult you with negotiating on price. It’s three, isn’t it?” Charles said brusquely. He could sense that Emanuel was wavering.
“Well, yes, that is what we said,” Emanuel replied uncertainly. “But now the moment has come, I am not so sure…”
“Let’s shake hands on it.” Charles held out his hand to Emanuel. “If you give me your bank details and excuse me briefly before dinner I can make a phone call, and the money will be in your account within two hours. The painting will be collected first thing tomorrow from which you may gather that I have planned in advance for this moment.”
Emanuel scribbled down the details and handed the piece of paper to Charles.
Henry stood tall and straight as a board waiting to pour the wine that would accompany each course. He was under strict instructions to say nothing. He was to bow, pour a taster into Emanuel’s glass and on instruction pour the wine for the guests, and never to allow their special guest’s glass to be empty.
Charles drained every drop of wine poured for him and left nothing on his plate, insisting that the highest compliments should be paid to the cook.
Margarita nodded and curtsied. “Danke, Herr Fairbrother.”
Imperceptibly, Jennifer moved her chair inch by inch closer to Charles until their knees were touching. “Maybe you might like that tour of the house this evening, dear Charles? I have some excellent dessert wine in my room.”
Charles took one look at Jennifer and decided that the sooner he extricated himself from her clutches the happier he would be. Besides he had achieved everything that he had come for.
“If you will excuse me, ladies and gentlemen. I had a very early start this morning and it is time for me to retire. You have been most gracious hosts and I am just sorry that I will have to leave early in the morning to catch my flight.” Charles turned to Emanuel. “It has been a pleasure doing business with you, sir. Goodnight.”
“Goodnight, Charles. Breakfast will be brought to your room in the morning, and Franz will be waiting for you outside at ten-thirty.” Emanuel pushed his chair out, stood up and held out his hand.
Reluctantly they had all agreed with Max’s suggestion that there would be no discussion and no celebrating until such time as Charles was safely back on the plane and the money was tucked away in the bank.
Bursting with excitement The Silver Sting retired for the night and slept the sleep of the dead.
“Greg? It’s so good to hear your voice. It seems like an eternity. Did Max manage to get in touch with you? I just couldn’t believe it when he told me about Emanuel and the house and Franz and Margarita. And Peter tells me that the money went into the bank and is now somewhere safe and sound, no questions asked, as I understand it. What an amazing bunch of people; I’m so proud of them all,” Gabby said without catching her breath.
“Yes, Max got in touch this morning and I gather that they are on their way back. I have to say that I thought your plan was doomed to failure, but it worked! And you were right not to underestimate them. They were just brilliant by the sound of it. It’s time to start closing the whole thing down, and it’s good to hear you sounding so cheerful. Boy, have I missed you! What time is he due back?” Greg asked on a more serious note.
“I’m fine – hanging on in. He’s due back at about six this evening – in two hours’ time.”
“Right, there’s something you need to do for me before that. I need you to book a table for the two of you for lunch tomorrow at a restaurant that you use regularly and then let me know which one you have booked. Can you do that? I’ll be joining you at some point. Can you also make sure that he sits with his back to the door? I don’t want him bolting as soon as he sets eyes on me.”
Gabby took a deep breath. “Is this showdown time? I’m not sure that I’m looking forward to it. He owes me for being away for the weekend so the lunch shouldn’t be a problem. What if I can’t get him there?”
“You can. Think positively. It’s critical Gabby. And Gabby, when I come to the table do not acknowledge me or show any sign of recognition. I need you to sit there while Harry and I are talking, acting like you haven’t got a clue who I am or what I am doing there. You’re Charles’s wife – act naturally. If it goes to plan – which it will – you and I will be walking out of there together, and he will be walking out in the opposite direction. Trust me, Gabby, this is the final scene. I know what I am doing, Gabby. I’ve been doing a bit of sleuthing myself in the last couple of weeks and I’ve got enough on him to make him run a mile.”
“Share it with me?” Gabby asked.
“No, not this time,” Greg replied firmly. He wanted to tell her everything, but it would be easier for her to act out her part for one more day if she did not know the whole of it.
“Okay,” Gabby replied.
“Give yourself something to look forward to, Gabby. Tomorrow afternoon we’ll be up at Magnolia waiting to welcome them all back and join in the celebrations. It’s been a long haul, hasn’t it?” Greg added.
“I’ll remember that, Greg, and thanks. Now I have jobs to do! I’ll text you with the restaurant details. Bye.”
Charles had jumped at the idea of lunch.
The table was perfect. Gabby made a beeline for the seat by the wall. Charles sat with his back to the restaurant.That morning he had been sweetness and light and treated her like royalty. Fleetingly she had remembered the old Charles and the idyllic picnics by the river, the walks in the countryside and the intimate moments in front of the log fire. It was difficult to believe that it had all been a sham.
“There’s something we need to discuss Gabby.” Charles waved the waiter away and poured wine into their glasses.
“I do hope it’s not going to spoil our lunch.” Gabby’s heart sank. The look on his face told her that whatever he was about to say it was serious. God, she thought, has he found out about Magnolia? Has he found out about Greg? Has he found out about the Lowry?
“You know, Gabby, you’re a great girl and the last eighteen months have been the best time of my life. Meeting you was the best thing that could have happened to me. You caught me on the rebound, of course, but I don’t regret one single moment of it.” Charles rested his hand on hers and fiddled with her wedding ring.
“That’s sweet, Charles. I am so pleased that I have made you happy, but why the serious face?” Gabby said.
“The thing is, Gabby, Annabel and I are soul mates, always have been. There’s no easy way to put this. We’ve both decided that breaking up was the wrong move for us. We want to give it another go. I’m really sorry.”
He had just confirmed all their suspicions, but to hear it put in words still shocked Gabby. “I don’t know what to say, Charles. I’m speechless.”
Charles picked up the menu and studied it. “Shall we choose?”
Gabby looked up and saw Greg striding in their direction. How could he have known that she needed him in that instant more than ever before?
“Long time, no see, Harry,” he whispered as he pulled out the chair next to Charles.
“Who the fuck are you? Sod off.” Charles looked up.
“You know precisely who I am? How long is it? Thirteen years. You haven’t changed much Harry. Same old back street language.”
“If you don’t fuck off right now I’ll have you physically removed from this restaurant. Maybe I’ll do it myself.”
“I’m not going anywhere Harry. We’ve got some business to sort out. I suggest you curb your language before it’s you who gets thrown out.” Greg said. Fortunately neither the table to the right or left of them was occupied but heads were beginning to turn elsewhere in the restaurant.
“My name is not Harry. It is Charles Fairbrother. Read my lips. Now get out.”
“No can do, Harry. Sorry, and I must apologise to the lady for my rudeness in interrupting her lunch.” Greg glanced at Gabby apologetically.
“What’s going on Charles?” Gabby asked.
“He’s leaving, Gabby.” Charles glared stonily at Greg. “He’s a crank.”
“I wonder if Annabel would call me a crank if she knew the half of it.” Greg threw the first punch.
“What’s Annabel got to do with this? Who is this man, Charles?” Gabby kept a poker straight face.
“You miserable bastard. You leave Annabel out of this or you’ll live to regret it.”
“That, Harry is up to you. You’ll have to hear me out if you don’t want me to talk to Annabel.”
“Make yourself scarce, Gabby. We’ll finish our conversation at home later.” Charles pointed to Gabby’s jacket on the back of her chair. “It’s all a misunderstanding but I need to put this man right on a few points – in private.”
“I am still your wife at the moment, Charles, so whatever he has to say he can say in front of me as well,” Gabby snapped back angrily, “And especially after what you’ve just said to me.”
“I’ve warned you once already. No one gets a second warning.” Charles glared at Greg. “You remember what I told you last time? Nobody crosses me and lives to tell the story.” The table shook as his fist slammed down on it.
Gabby interrupted. “So you do know this man?”
“A long time ago, in another life. He was a loser then and he’s a loser now.”
“Who’s Harry?” Gabby looked from Charles to Greg. “It’s a simple question.”
“Perhaps I could answer that question for you, Harry?” Greg said.
“You’ve done enough talking. This stops now. We’re leaving.” Charles threw his napkin on the table and signalled to the waiter. “The bill.”
Greg shook his head. “It wasn’t an idle threat when I said I’d talk to Annabel. Is that what you want? Sit down, Harry and don’t make a scene. You’ll hear me out if you know what’s good for you.” Greg drew breath and looked at Gabby. “I know for a fact that the man you believe to be your husband has been living under a false identity for eleven years or more. His name is Harry Trumper. It’s my guess that this would be news to his so-called ex-wife, Annabel as well. No doubt she too thinks that she was married to Charles Fairbrother.”
“I changed my name by deed poll. Satisfied?” Charles cut in.
“Won’t wash, Harry. I guess I’d better tell this lady the whole story. Harry Trumper was born and bred in Peckham, South East London, a market trader and then a small-time property developer and landlord…the interesting part of the story begins in 2001. You owned a property called Waverley Court, a block of four flats, one of which was rented out to your grandparents. Is that correct so far, Harry?”
Charles ground his teeth and glared at Greg.“So what if I did?”
“That block of flats burnt down in May 2001, and your grandparents burnt to death in the fire…the date is important. Another man was killed in the fire. I think you told the police that his name was Sam Smith.” Greg waited. Had he guessed right? Harry did not deny it.
“As I was saying, Harry, Waverley Court burnt down. The coroner concluded that it was an accident. So, Harry, here is the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question and only you can answer it. Think carefully before you do. This man, Sam Smith, whose family the police were never able to trace, was his real name Charles Fairbrother?”
Bulls-eye. It was written all over the man’s face.
Greg pursed his lips and raised his eyebrows. “I stole a few things from your office, Harry. One was a letter addressed to a Mr Charles Fairbrother at Waverley Court dated three weeks before the fire. You wouldn’t have that letter in your possession if you hadn’t been in his flat before the fire. It would have gone up in smoke together with all of Charles Fairbrother’s other documents. I think Charles Fairbrother was dead before the fire started. I think you set fire to that block of flats. And I think that you invented the name Sam Smith. I think you were responsible for the death of your own grandparents. The real Charles Fairbrother is cremated on the spot, leaving you with a new identity to use, as and when needed. You knew your luck would run out one day.” Greg hesitated to let it sink in. “I think the police would be interested to hear about it.”
Charles’s eyes smouldered. “So you’re a fucking thief as well as a bloody architect now, are you?”
“DNA, Harry. It’ll take the police five minutes to work out that you are not Charles Fairbrother. He has an aunt who is alive and kicking, but, of course, you know that.” Greg said, letting the DNA stroke hit home before playing his ace. “And a witness came forward, Harry – someone saw you going into ‘Sam Smith’s flat and leaving minutes before the fire broke out. That’s why the police had reopened the case. You kept Charles Fairbrother’s identity papers tucked away ready for a rainy day, didn’t you? Harry Trumper disappeared off the face of the earth round about the end of 2004 if I am not wrong. You got wind of the fact that the police were asking questions about the fire, so what did you do? You abandoned the development of Magnolia Court and pocketed a great deal of money that did not belong to you,” Greg said. “And Charles Fairbrother came back to life a few months later. You simply shed one skin and put on another.”
“Your bill, sir. I take it that you won’t be taking a meal?” The waiter dropped the bill on the table. “When you are ready.”
Gabby sat back barely able to believe what she was hearing. This was news to her. God, she had been living with a monster. What he had done to her friends at Magnolia was bad enough, but to kill his own grandparents and another man was inconceivable.
“But the real Charles Fairbrother wasn’t quite what you thought he was.” Greg continued. “He was a clever man. Made millions in his lifetime by the sound of it but had a real dislike for paying taxes. It must have come as quite a shock when you got that first letter in July 2013. How much were they after recovering – was it two million or was it more than that? I have been through all the correspondence. I guess you had no choice but to play for time.”
“Later.” Charles shouted, waving his arm in the air. The waiter shrugged his shoulders and walked away.
“And just six months later your wife divorces you and you hand all your worldly goods to her. Did you think that in transferring your assets to her that the Inland Revenue wouldn’t be able to touch it?
“I’ll tell you what I think. I think that you married this lady sitting opposite to make your divorce from Annabel that bit more credible and that you had every intention of going back to your first wife just as soon as the Inland Revenue backed off.”
Gabby stared straight ahead at the man sitting opposite her. “He’s right, isn’t he? The two of you suddenly deciding to give your marriage another go was a lie. It all makes sense now. You’ve spent more time with her than ever you did with me in the last eighteen months.”
It was time to deliver the final blow. “You received a letter from Inland Revenue last Friday, didn’t you?” Greg said calmly. “I think you might have had some bad advice anyway. The Inland Revenue would have gone after that money whether it was in your name or your ex-wife’s name. The letter was not from the Revenue. I sent it to you to smoke you out once and for all.
“In short, Harry, I think the police will be very interested in talking to you about three murders,” Greg continued. “And then there’s identity theft, and fraudulent use of another man’s identity. And then there is the small matter of getting married, not once, but twice under an assumed name. And last but not least there’s the small matter of walking away from Magnolia Court and pocketing all that money.”
Charles sat up and squared his shoulders. He was not finished yet. “You can go to the devil. If I was you I would go down to the funeral parlour and book my funeral right now.” There were plenty of heavies where Harry came from. There was nothing they wouldn’t do for cash.
“My guess is thirty years. In the event that you or anybody lays a finger on me or anybody I know, or do anything that I don’t like, the evidence goes straight to the police – I’ve made sure of that. I did learn a few tricks from you.” Greg said calmly.
“I may be, but it could be worse. I am going to offer you a get out of jail free card. I believe you once wanted to take a long holiday in South America, so now’s your chance. There’s a flight that leaves at nine tomorrow morning from Heathrow non-stop to Buenos Aires. There are seats available. I’ve checked. Be on it. I’ll be there at the airport watching and if you are not on that flight then look forward to thirty years. Don’t come back.” Greg turned to Gabby. “Can I give you a lift somewhere?”
Charles sat at the table and stared unseeing at the bill in front of him. Ten minutes earlier everything had been falling into place. In a few hours’ time he had planned to walk back into Annabel’s life, a bottle of champagne in hand, waving the letter from the Inland Revenue at her. Suddenly Charles Fairbrother was in trouble, big trouble.
It was no more than twenty-four hours since he had rung her from the airport with the words: “It’s time, Annabel. I’m on my way home for good.”
She had hardly been able to believe her ears. “Where are you calling from? I can hear announcements in the background?” she had asked.
“That, Annabel, does not matter. Suffice to say that I had a bit of business that took me abroad for the weekend but I am on my way back now, right now. Did you hear what I said?” he had asked, grinning into his mobile.
“Yes, I think so. Does that mean what I think it means?” she had asked, hardly able to conceal her excitement.
“Just that Annabel,” he had replied. “We’re in the clear. I heard on Friday. I didn’t call you right away because I still had a few loose ends to tie up,” he had said, adrenalin pumping through his body at the thought of the coup he had just pulled off in Austria.
“Does Gabby know you’re leaving her?” she had asked breathlessly.
“She will on Monday, and I very much doubt that once I’ve told her she’ll want me hanging around for long. I’ll give notice on the rental contract for the cottage on Monday. If I know Gabby at all she’ll be straight down to the solicitor’s office filing for divorce, but if she isn’t then it makes no difference to us, does it?” he had replied, hoping that Annabel would agree with his summary of the situation.
“Not one iota! Who cares about a piece of paper anyway?” she had replied.
“Expect me, complete with my suitcases, between two and three tomorrow. The flight is being called now so I have to go. Bye for now.”
Annabel sang to herself in the mirror. Her hair shone and, if she was not imagining it, her eyes were whiter and brighter than they had been for years.
Throughout the morning she had ignored the continuous alerts from her PC. It was nothing out of the ordinary – emails from Selfridges, from Harrods, from holiday companies, from Amazon, from Sky, from Bose, from restaurants and hotels that they had regularly frequented, and those that went straight into the spam box.
There was one email, however, that she did not want to miss when it came in. It would be from Voyages Jules Verne to confirm that they had been able to accommodate her flight upgrade request for their holiday to Mauritius and the Seychelles; the deposit had to be paid immediately.
A cup of coffee first, and then an hour to deal with emails. It would help pass the time while she waited for Charles. Annabel stroked her latest acquisition, the Delonghi Magnifica bean to cup coffee machine, and dropped the coffee beans into the grinder. Simple, she laughed to herself and pressed the start button. It had only arrived two days before, but she knew that Charles would love it, especially when he discovered that it could be programmed to remember exactly how each of them liked their coffee prepared.
Coffee in hand, Annabel pulled up a chair, sat down at her desk and opened her laptop.
Perfect, Jules Verne never let her down. She would pay the bill and tell Charles about it when he arrived. It would be their second honeymoon.
Annabel glanced down through her emails – rubbish, delete, rubbish, delete, rubbish, delete, rubbish, delete until her eye caught one that seemed to be addressed to her personally. The subject heading read “ANNABEL YOU NEED TO READ THIS.” It had come in at 1.45pm – a matter of minutes ago. The address was golsen10@ITFDevelopments.com. She did not recognise it, but there were no attachments, indicating that it was not intended to deliver a virus into her computer. Curious to know what it was about and, who had sent it she clicked it open.
Annabel scanned the first few lines of the letter:
You do not know me, but I used to be employed by your ex-husband long before he met you. I ask you very sincerely to read on. This email contains information that affects you and Ethan and Abby.
Startled, Annabel sat back in her chair and stared at the screen. Whoever this was, he, or she, knew her name, her email address and the names of both her children. It was scary. She read on.
It was a shame about the divorce from ‘Charles’ but I understand that you had good reasons for doing so. Divorce normally follows infidelity by one party or the other but there are those that happen simply as a result of financial problems…
Annabel reached to grab her phone and swore as she upended the mug and watched the dark liquid spread across the desk and run down on to the Chinese rug. Ignoring the trail of coffee, she reread the last two sentences. Was she reading too much into it? Was it her conscience that was reading between the lines? Was it blackmail? How could this person possibly know what went on behind closed doors? It was a magnet. She read on, oblivious to the stain on the rug.
I hope that you are sitting down, Annabel, because my next sentence will come as a shock to you. Your ex-husband’s name is not Charles Fairbrother. It is Harry Trumper.
Nonsense, she thought – stuff and nonsense. This phantom writer was out of his, or her, tiny mind. Someone was playing a sick joke on her. She’d never heard of Harry Trumper. Charles was Charles and always had been. She read on.
I believe that he changed his name from Harry Trumper to Charles Fairbrother in January 2005 although it might have been a little before that. It is not, of course, illegal to change one’s name provided that all of the appropriate authorities are informed of one’s wish to do so and that it is done legally. It is illegal, however, to assume the name of another without informing the authorities. This is called identity theft and it is fraudulent.
Annabel thought back to her first meeting with Charles. It had been in June 2005 at Epsom races.
The real Charles Fairbrother was burnt to death in a fire that occurred in May 2001 at a property owned by Harry Trumper. At the same time, Trumper’s grandparents perished in the fire. Although the evidence at the time pointed to the fire being started accidentally, several years later new evidence came to light, and the police decided to reopen the case. It is my belief (and I think that of the police) that the fire was started deliberately by Harry Trumper, which makes him a murderer. Harry assumed the identity of Charles Fairbrother when he heard that the police were planning to reopen the case. I realise that all this may sound far-fetched, but believe me, I have evidence to back up the story, evidence that I discovered in your ex-husband’s office in Slough.
Life has some unfortunate twists and Harry (Charles, as you know him) failed to do his homework as well as he should have done. The real Charles Fairbrother must have been a millionaire many times over to owe so much money to the Inland Revenue. HMRC eventually traced Charles Fairbrother to The Poplars and wanted the money due to them. Does any of this ring a bell?”
Annabel felt her blood run cold. Charles had not told her to whom he had owed a large amount of money. He had simply said, “It was a deal that went wrong”. Was it just possible that this person was telling the truth?
I was sorry to hear about the burglary. It must have been very frightening for you. I sincerely hope that you are fully recovered and that you were well insured. It may (or may not) surprise you to know that the stolen goods had a street value of just over £3million. I hope that the insurance company will see their way to recompense you.
How could he possibly know about the burglary? Annabel shivered and unconsciously looked around the room and through the door into the hall. The front door was locked, the windows were locked – she was safe. She was losing it – there was no reason that she should not be safe in her own house. She remembered being surprised when Charles had announced after the burglary that the paintings were not copies or fakes as he had originally told her. He had said that he would deal with the insurance company for her.
Quite apart from the demand for money from the Revenue, I happen to know that your husband needed to get his hands on a very large sum of money at short notice, and it occurred to me that he might attempt to sell a few of his (or your) possessions in order to raise the money. I had not thought that he would go to such extremes.
Her head was swimming. It was ridiculous, utterly ridiculous, but it made sense of so many things, particularly how calmly he had taken the news that his beloved paintings had been stolen. If there was any truth in what this person was saying he had been completely uncaring about her safety.
Shocking as all this will be to you, I strongly suspect that by now I shall have cast some doubt about your husband’s true identity and character in your mind. I believe that seconds before you opened this email you may have been preparing for his return home. I am informed that on Friday last he may have received some good news in the mail – wish it were true! Although I am ashamed to admit it, the letter he received informing him that the Inland Revenue was dropping their case against him for repayment of back tax was from me – a forgery. I knew that this was the only way that he would reveal his true colours and confirm the suspicions that I had had about him all the way along.
Annabel’s hand shook and an icy shiver ran from the end of her fingers down to the ends of her toes. There was more.
This is complicated but perhaps I can be of assistance in outlining your options. The way I see it is that you turn a blind eye to everything that I have told you, stand by Harry (or Charles to you) and take the good times with the bad times. Only you can define what the good times might be. I can help you understand the bad times. The Inland Revenue are intent on their pound of flesh irrespective of your divorce and the assets that he transferred to you as a means of avoiding payment. I have it on good legal authority that you were both mistaken in thinking that a divorce would resolve the matter. So you can kiss goodbye to worldly wealth. If you can find it in your heart to forgive him and are thinking that his debts can be repaid from the insurance company pay-out on your burglary then I regret to inform you that you are mistaken. An anonymous email has been delivered to the Insurance company suggesting that the burglary might not have been what it seemed to be. They will not pay out.
Broke? Destitute? No showcase house, no top of the range cars, no private school for the children, no holidays, no personal trainer, no lunch clubs? The list went on. Everything – she could lose everything. Tears of anger and frustration rolled down her cheeks as she read the last paragraph.
He has not treated either you or your children well, Annabel. Indeed he has done little other than cheat and lie to you since the day you met him. You owe him nothing. For your own safety and that of your children you need to get out. The only way that you will ever do that is to expose him for what, and who, he is. The debts belong to Charles Fairbrother. It pains me to rub salt into the wound but you cannot legally be married to a man who has been dead these past fifteen years – and therefore neither can you be liable for his debts. You will need a good lawyer, and I feel that it would be in your interests to appoint one right now. Expose him now and minimise the risk to yourself and your family. One phone call to 999 is all it will take. Then collect the children from school immediately and take them to your father’s house until such time as the police have done their job. If you choose to stand by him then I wish you well and will pray for your safety and that of your children.”
Annabel stared at the screen. Just half an hour earlier she was looking forward to getting back to a normal life. Try as she might, she could not deny the truth staring her in the face. Charles had lied to her about who he was, about his debts, about everything. How could he have put her life in danger by staging a burglary? Had he ever loved her? Was he ever intending to tell her the truth about his past? For God’s sake, she wasn’t even married to him! For God’s sake, the children had his name on their birth certificates! Fuck, she had been living with a murderer all these years! Fuck, the children had a murderer for a father!
Annabel picked up the empty coffee cup and threw it with all her strength at the antique mirror above the fireplace where once a Lowry had hung.
The phone was answered after two short rings. “Police, how can I help you?”
Harry slammed the car into reverse and backed out of the parking space scattering gravel high and wide as he spun the wheels, oblivious to the damage he was causing to other vehicles parked nearby.
He found himself driving like a maniac. He had to find the small blue pocketbook that was somewhere at The Poplars. In it were the numbers of associates that he had not contacted for years, but none of them would have forgotten Harry Trumper. A blast on a horn brought him back to reality as he narrowly missed a car entering a roundabout.
In his heart he knew it was a waste of time. For the first time in his life he knew that he was defeated. Finally, he admitted to himself that he simply didn’t have the pull that he once had with his associates. Word was out for Harry Trumper; he’d broken the golden rule and killed not one, but two, of his own. The favours that he might once have pulled in were in the dim and distant past. It was game over.
Careless, he’d been too damned careless. First with the fire at Waverley and then with leaving the evidence in his office, and now he was going to have to pay for it – in spades. But there was one thing they had got wrong although nobody would ever believe him. Charles Fairbrother had been dead in the flat when he had found him – a sad suicide victim who would never in this life or the next have need of an identity. And they were wrong that he had been careless in not checking out Charles Fairbrother – he had – meticulously – and there had not been one damned scrap of information about him on the Internet or anywhere else. The little bastard had managed to remain anonymous until after his death.
Hate came nowhere near describing his feelings for Greg Olsen, the slimy little shit who’d threatened to report him all those years ago over Magnolia.
He needed money, and the safe at The Poplars never held less than twenty thousand. It would be a start. And then somehow he would organise for the Lowry to be shipped to South America and then they would never have to worry about money again. He needed Annabel at his side. Together they could make a new life in Buenos Aires. After all they had gone through she surely would not let him down now.
There was too much to do and not enough time to do it in. First stop, The Poplars to get cash out of the safe and pick Annabel up. His passport was at the cottage. Maybe he should make that his first stop? Then there were calls to be made to the bank and to the airline. The most important call of all would see the Lowry redirected to South America.
His mind was everywhere but on the road, as he turned left into The Hawthorns. He did not see the three unmarked police cars draw in behind him and block his exit.
It was on the TV, in the dailies and the weekend papers – the Harry Trumper trial was big news. A witness had come forward to the police and had testified that he saw Harry Trumper leave the property just seconds before the flames engulfed Waverley Court all those years ago. The same witness further testified that he had seen the same man, in what was now known to be the flat that had been occupied by Charles Fairbrother.
His defence had argued that Harry Trumper had found the man, Charles Fairbrother, already dead in the flat but had not been able to convince the jury that the fire had been an accident. When combined with a long, long list of Harry’s misdemeanors over the years, the jury decided that they did not believe a word he said and found him guilty on the count of all three murders.
Inland Revenue followed the trial carefully and watched glumly as all hopes of ever recovering their back tax faded into the dim and distant past. If the real Charles Fairbrother had disposed of his assets before his death as seemed to be the case, then they had no choice but to drop the pursuit of back taxes. Both Gabby and Greg were pleased for Annabel’s sake. It was she who had made the brave decision to report him to the police.
Gabby and Annabel were both called as witnesses and told the story about how each of them had been duped into marrying the man known as Charles Fairbrother; neither of them had any idea of his real identity or past deeds. Annabel admitted that in a moment of serious misjudgment, she had agreed to stage the divorce and was complicit in him meeting and marrying Gabby. Receiving a serious reprimand for her part in the series of events, the judge decided that she had suffered enough and gave her a short suspended sentence. The judge also ruled that neither Annabel nor Gabby had ever been legally married to the man they knew as Charles Fairbrother.
Greg had been called to testify since it was he who had found the damning evidence in Harry’s office. Reprimanded for breaking and entering into the office, the judge praised Greg for his foresight.
When giving evidence neither Gabby nor Greg made one single mention of their association with Magnolia or of the Lowry that Harry had recently purchased. It pleased them to think that when Harry was eventually released he would find that he had a worthless painting; it was poetic justice.
It suited Harry equally well to leave the story of the Lowry untold. It would be his pension if ever they let him see the light of day again.
Annabel knew nothing of the Lowry other than that Charles had staged a burglary in which she had been hurt in order to raise cash for some unknown reason and knowing what she did, had dropped the insurance claim.
The police visited Magnolia Court to talk to the residents. The file on the disappearance of Harry Trumper dating back to 2004 was dusty but not closed. It was entirely up to the residents, they said, if they wanted to take action against Harry Trumper now that he had finally been found. Hetty and Dot dosed both police officers with gallons of tea and cakes that they had made especially for the occasion and led them up the nineteenth hole to meet all their friends. Max was the spokesman and informed the two very nice police officers that, having discussed and considered the matter, they all felt that it was past history. They were very happy at Magnolia Court and had no desire for old wounds to be opened up again. The deeds for the property were, however, a different matter. They would sleep so much better in the knowledge that no one could take their homes away from them.
The deeds arrived four weeks later. Magnolia in its entirety was now formally owned by the residents of cottages one to ten in perpetuity.
Beams of light cascaded from on high through the deep royal blue, crimson red, purple and white stained-glass windows and danced on the cream-coloured, deep-pile rug that ran almost the length and breadth of the great hall. Rich brown oak floors peeped between the edges of the carpet and the walls and finished at the entrance to the mansion. A sweeping oak staircase carpeted in deep purple led the eye from the great hall towards the mezzanine where the residents met and entertained their friends, for lunch or for dinner. The meals were selected from a menu, ordered by Hetty and Dot and delivered by a smart young man in a van and then simply popped into the microwave when required.
Deep sofas alternated with comfortable upright armchairs for those of the residents who needed a little help getting up and down. Cushions in reds, purples, blues, oranges and every combination of the same colours lay on the sofas and armchairs ready to support backs, heads or feet. It was neither regimented nor untidy. It simply looked like home. Packs of cards, boxes of dominoes, draughts, chess and mah-jong lay on the coffee tables together with the daily papers.
A baby grand piano had pride of place alongside the bar. The bar stools had been upholstered in purple velvet. Bottles lined the shelf behind the bar, their colour reflected back into the room by the mirrored wall behind. Cocktails and Henry’s music hour started at six each evening.
Needless to say, Jennifer’s hand could be seen in all the furniture and fittings. She had had the most glorious time selecting the fabrics and furnishings from catalogues, and carpets from samples that had been delivered to her door. The walls were adorned with artwork carefully selected by Gerald to complement the panoply of colour – all legal, he had assured his friends.
What had once been the library in the stables was converted into a small bedsitting room with bathroom and kitchenette for the live-in carer, Mary, who was Irish through and through, and recently retired from nursing.
Two low-level bookshelves built of the same oak as the staircase occupied one whole wall of the great hall. Gradually the residents dusted off the precious books that had been stored in their cottages and brought them into the hall for everyone to share and enjoy.
The office – always referred to as ‘Duncan’s office’ – was his pride and joy and occupied yet another corner of the great hall.
A huge corner table supported a state-of-the art computer with screens that would not have looked out of place in a cinema. It was here that he now did most of his work and here that he spent hours teaching his friends the basics of computing. In the evening the screen doubled as a TV. Duncan retained charge of the remote control – he did not trust them that much.
The swimming pool complex was now almost exactly as it had been depicted in the original brochure. The pool was four foot in depth throughout, had easy-rise steps leading into and out of the water and numerous handrails to ensure safety at all times. Heated summer and winter, the pool was used regularly by the residents and, for a small annual sum that paid the heating bills, made available for use by the townsfolk. Bright yellow and blue sunbeds and high backed, easy-rise deck chairs surrounded the pool and provided a warm, comfortable area for the residents to relax after their swim. A local hairdresser came up to Magnolia once a month and performed miracles on the men and women alike in the small hairdressing salon next door to the pool area.
The nineteenth hole was converted into a sewing and games room. At one end there were large tables for the ladies to sit and sew while at the other end a half-sized snooker table took up most of the space for the enjoyment of the men. After much debate the golf course was not built. Fifteen years ago, they decided, it might have been a different matter, but now they were quite content to potter and sit in the newly landscaped gardens. Dot and Dennis insisted that they were quite capable of maintaining the grounds and bought a new petrol mower and pruning shears.
The cottages were refurbished; windows, doors, and guttering replaced, kitchens and bathrooms stripped out and replaced and painted inside and out. They were soon unrecognisable from the sad little dwellings of just a few months before.
Jennifer took it upon herself to set up The Silver Sting Theatre Company with the plan that once a year they would stage a small production and invite the townsfolk to attend. They had such wonderful talent among them all, she explained expansively, that it would be nothing short of criminal to let it go to waste. And when she wasn’t busy with The Silver Sting Theatre Company she organised outings for them all to the theatre, to garden centres, to National Trust properties and exhibitions of all kinds. Andy bought an old minibus and within a matter of months had it spick and span and ready to take them all wherever they wanted to go.
The most wonderful thing of all was that it had all only cost two million pounds. Greg had designed and specified everything and the contractors regularly used by ITF Developments had fallen over backwards to do the work once they had heard the story. The remaining one million pounds had been divided among the residents, and with one hundred thousand pounds in each of their bank accounts, they knew they had little to worry about for the rest of their days.
Each of the residents paid a modest annual sum into an account, which was kept solely for the purpose of maintaining the properties and paying for the live-in care service. Peter kept the books and presented them to the residents at each of their monthly meetings.
Magnolia Court had never looked so good or felt so much like home.
Max and Hetty were more excited than they could ever remember. Gabby and Greg were planning to get married, and most exciting of all, they wanted to be married at Magnolia Court if it could be arranged. Hetty had missed Gabby’s first wedding, but this was one that she was not going to miss. Hetty told Gabby in no uncertain terms that she and Max would pay the expenses. It was a day that she had dreamt of since Gabby had been a child, and she would not take no for an answer, however much either of them might want to argue with her.
Max lost no time. Pulling on his coat, he hot-footed down to the great hall, which was where Duncan could be found most days. “Duncan! We have work to do! How do we go about getting a licence to hold wedding ceremonies in the great hall? Gabby and Greg are getting married!”
In a matter of seconds, Duncan pulled up the relevant websites and together they read the detail. It was more costly than they had thought, but it also sparked off another idea – if they got the license then there was nothing to stop them offering Magnolia Court as a wedding venue for other brides and grooms; another small, but useful, money-making venture that would help fund the community. Peter called an emergency meeting of the resident’s committee to put the proposal to them. There were whoops of delight when Max and Hetty announced that Gabby and Greg were getting married, and even more when they were told that the venue for the wedding would be Magnolia Court. Duncan submitted the application and Peter paid the fee on behalf of the residents.
The date was set for the eighteenth of June 2017. Max would give Gabby away, Jennifer would be her bridesmaid and Greg had chosen Duncan, who had never before been known to shed a tear, to be his best man. The only guests whom they had wanted at the wedding were family and friends from Magnolia, but they were more than happy for Hetty to invite Franz and Margarita, the couple who had lent them their wonderful home in Austria and made such a huge contribution to the success of their project.
With three months in hand, the Silver Sting sprang into action and it was all hands to the pump once more.
As the wedding date approached, Dot, Dennis, and Andy worked like beavers to ensure that the grounds were in tip-top condition and ready for the wedding photographs that would be taken both on the steps of the mansion and in the gardens. Jennifer drew sketch after sketch of how the great hall should be decorated for the occasion. Hetty, Dot, and Dinah poured over cookery books and slaved away over hot stoves preparing the wedding breakfast. Henry consulted with Gabby on the music she would like for the service and moved his new Bose down to the great hall in readiness for the occasion and carefully selected the wines. Amy, having already meticulously scribed the wedding invitations, busied herself with the order of service sheets, the place cards, and the menu cards. Gerald was tasked with commissioning a painting that they had all decided would be a very appropriate wedding present for the happy couple. Duncan studied best man speeches late into the night before he eventually decided to ignore them all and wrote one from the heart. Peter managed the finances and happily drove back and forth to the town for supplies. Max liaised with the registrar and dealt with the licence inspection visits and wrote checklists so that nothing was missed.
There were boxes of tissues scattered throughout the room and not a dry eye in the house as Gabby and Max entered the great hall. Walking slowly up the rose-bordered aisle that Jennifer had created, Gabby looked radiant. Her copper-coloured hair had been tamed into a soft French bun pinned with tiny sprigs of ivy. Small wisps of hair cascaded in front of her ears softening the style and partly hiding the pearl earrings that matched the string that she wore around her neck. She had chosen a sage-green chiffon for her dress, which draped elegantly from both shoulders and finished just below her knee. In her hand, she carried a posy of cream roses from which cascaded strings of more ivy. She looked adorable. Jennifer walked demurely behind her. In contrast, her outfit was eccentric and colourful in the extreme, but not out of place. Looking entirely the proud father, Max had chosen to wear a grey morning suit and top hat. It was a first and probably the last opportunity and one not to be missed.
Greg, tall and handsome in grey morning suit, waited patiently with the registrar and Duncan, his best man, whose wheelchair, much to his initial embarrassment, had been dressed with the same roses that lined the aisle.
Gabby looked at Greg, her eyes filled with love, and made her vows, all memories of her first marriage and her sham marriage to Charles forgotten in the moment. Greg’s lips moved as he made his vows to her, but so lost in her own joy was she that she did not hear them. It was the applause of the wedding guests and Greg’s lips on her own that awoke her to the realisation that they were now husband and wife.
The wedding breakfast was delicious, the speeches short and poignant and the portrait of the residents posed against the now restored mansion was a wedding present that they would treasure for the rest of their lives.
Franz had asked if might be permitted to say a few words. “You may remember the story that Emanuel told to your special guest of a secret room in the cellar where his father hid valuables to protect them from the Nazis. Later he confided to me that it was in his imagination only. He was wrong. Incredibly, there was a room just as he had described it and in it we found many paintings. Emanuel and I have spoken about it. His wish is that a few of them are returned here to hang in your great hall and the rest are to be sold to finance the completion of Viertel. Margarita and I are deeply indebted to every one of the Silver Sting and especially to our dear friends Dinah and Emanuel. Without you, it would have taken us many years to finish the restoration of our home. You are all welcome to come and share our home at any time.”
Hetty stood up and took Gabby’s hand. “May I borrow your wife for a few moments, Greg?” she asked, turning to Gabby. “There is just one final surprise for you today, my dear. I believe it might just have arrived. Max and I have been very busy in the past year and with a lot of help from Duncan, we managed to find what we were looking for. Do you remember when you came to see me when I was ill that I told you that you had a half-sister?”
Gabby nodded. “Yes, I do remember – the baby that my mother had adopted?”
“The same one Gabby,” Hetty replied with a tear in her eye. “And I told you that no one other than your mother knew of her whereabouts?”
“Well, my dear, we found her for you.” Hetty looked towards the door and smiled, “I believe she has just arrived.”
A tall redheaded woman, beaming with joy, walked towards her. “I’m Nancy, Gabby. Your sister.”