A Village in Jeopardy (Turnham Malpas 16) (31 page)

BOOK: A Village in Jeopardy (Turnham Malpas 16)
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Jimbo, having been told by Alice when she was shopping that the precious letter making an offer for the estate had arrived and the solicitors had got the go ahead, presented himself at the big house as soon as he could. He needed his position with the Old Barn clarified; would he be able to pay rent as before and keep taking bookings? Would he be thrown out or would his rent go up to some astronomical height which would make it invalid as an ongoing business?

He rang the huge old bell at the front door and waited. Anne had already left, so he wasn’t quite sure who would answer. To his amusement it was Craddock Fitch who heaved the door open. ‘Come in, come in, Jimbo. I was just about to ring you. You’ve arrived most opportunely.’

Jimbo followed him into his office and was ushered to one of the easy chairs by the big log fire. This was a change of habit; he’d never seen Craddock sitting anywhere other than behind his impressive desk.

‘What can I do for you?’ Craddock leaned back in his chair and waited.

‘I’ve come because I’ve heard a rumour that you’ve got a buyer, this residential home company, whatever it’s called. Is it true or just another figment of the village imagination?’

Craddock Fitch nodded. ‘It’s true. So you want to know your position?’

Jimbo nodded. ‘Of course.’

‘You have almost a year to go until the agreement we had is concluded; after that you will need to negotiate with the new owners. They want to find out just how disruptive the events are to their guests, but as we’ve never had a problem I suspect they won’t either and they’ll agree. Come to think of it though, that rugby do was a disturbance in more ways than one. Must have cost you, employing that company to clear up the grounds, to say nothing of the damage inside.’

‘Believe me, they won’t be coming again. I understand they’ve been banned from almost every venue for ten miles around and no wonder.’

‘Quite right too; they were hooligans. Your rent will be welcome, I’m sure. No doubt it will go up just like everything has gone up these last few years, but I’m sure it will be a fair increase.’

‘Phew! That’s excellent news. Thank you for arranging that. That’s brilliant and puts my mind at rest. I shall need something in writing from them to assure me. They seem reasonable chaps, do they?’

‘Hard as nails, tough negotiators, but I’ve got what they want and they’re willing to pay for it. Full asking price. It’s like a miracle.’

‘You certainly look better than you did.’

‘I feel better, believe me. The worst part about it all is losing my business. I felt so secure, everything turning out well and then . . . but I’ve had a good time all these years. I can’t complain. Just lots of factors over which I had no control all came together at the same moment and bang! The whole lot went up in smoke, so to say.’

‘You’ll feel even better when the money appears in your bank account.’

Craddock nodded his agreement. ‘Have a celebratory drink with me? Bit early for whisky but who cares?’

Craddock, who had never served whisky to himself in office hours before, always having some skivvy to do it for him, leapt up and did the business. The finest whisky money could buy served in antique glasses from a silver tray: what more could a man ask? They sat comfortably together, each grateful for the way in which disaster had miraculously turned into victory. Jimbo was relieved, Craddock unashamedly triumphant.

‘Do you know this company that’s bought the estate?’

‘Not personally, but they already have two other stately homes doing well in the London area. I looked them up on the internet.’

‘Stroke of luck them seeing your advertisement, eh?’

Craddock shrugged. ‘Who cares? When the money’s handed over they can go to kingdom come as far as I’m concerned. You’d be the same, in the circumstances.’

Jimbo laughed. ‘I suspect I would, but my daughter Fran is taking over the business, she says. She can’t wait to get her hands on it.’ The change in Craddock Fitch’s face surprised Jimbo and he wished he’d never mentioned about Flick’s intentions.

‘Sorry, Jimbo, must press on. Things to do . . . do you mind?’

Jimbo swallowed the last drop of his whisky and got to his feet, puzzled by his abrupt dismissal. They shook hands, Jimbo thanked him again for sorting out his problem with the Old Barn, but Craddock appeared to have no time to listen and Jimbo left hurriedly, wondering what on earth he’d said to upset him so.

When he got home, Harriet put him straight on that score. ‘Don’t you remember when he first came here he mentioned his sons, two I think, but they’ve never appeared, have they? What you said must have reminded him about them. They’ll be adults now of course. Obviously. Poor chap. First time I have ever felt sorry for him.’

‘At least we know we’re OK, thank goodness. I don’t think I could have borne losing providing food for the students and the Old Barn, that would have been a tremendous blow. I love the events we do. When I decide to hand over to Fran the Old Barn, not the store, will be what I miss the most. It’s so damned interesting.’

Harriet, clattering about in the kitchen preparing dinner, laughed to herself, remembering the glee with which he loved to relate the latest gossip going the rounds in the store to her. He would miss that.

 

Six weeks later Craddock Fitch was thrilled to find the agreement for the sale of the big house amongst his morning post. He caressed the envelope, thick and expensive as usual, dug his letter opener out from the top drawer of his desk, unused for weeks, and slit the envelope open. He drew the sheets of paper out and began to read. The letter on the top said all the usual claptrap, which normally he would have ignored. But he solemnly read every word of the sale contract minutely, and wallowed in the signatures at the end. One was an illegible dash of a signature done by an executive who obviously signed his name so often that his signature had grown into nothing more than a vast scribble taking up a lot of space. He sighed with satisfaction as he returned it all to its envelope, took it out again and examined his own signature in small neat and tidy handwriting, and legible. This then was the end of living like a lord. Back to normality and thank God for that; no more pretending. Glebe House here we come!

Craddock read the letter again and saw that a week to the day the company would be taking possession of the house. A lot to do. Thank goodness it was Easter and Kate would be off from school. What a splendid organiser she was. Boxes of belongings were already packed and waiting for the move. He wrote in his diary in capitals,
MOVING DAY
. The money was already in his solicitor’s bank account and soon would be transferred to his. Three million pounds. Who’s the beggar now? Certainly not Craddock Fitch. When he started his company with a stolen wheelbarrow and a shovel, he never imagined for one moment that he could possibly be worth that. Well, not quite – there were a lot of bills awaiting payment – but with sensible investments they would be able to live quite comfortably.

He rang his bell for his secretary and too late remembered no one would answer. Well, damn it, he could make his own coffee; he was perfectly capable of doing so. It took a while and the first lot was too strong so he poured it down the sink and made the second batch much more palatable. He sat in front of his big log fire, now unlit and uninviting and drank two cups while he wondered what he could do to fill his day. Young Sykes came up with the idea of going for a walk with him. He stood looking invitingly up at him – he’d even brought his leash to make sure Craddock knew what he intended. He’d dropped it at his feet and stood waiting.

‘Not right now, Sykes; it’s lunchtime and Kate will be here shortly if those blessed children will give her time. We’ll go after lunch. OK?’

The doorbell rang and as there was no one in the house except himself Craddock went to see who was there.

‘You! What do you want? Mmm? If it’s about the house you’re far too late.’

Johnny Templeton stood his ground. ‘It is about the house.’

‘Then you can—’ Craddock was about to use a very crude word, but just in time stopped himself, ‘buzz off back to South America where you belong. I’ve sold it, got the paperwork this morning and the money in a day or two. So—’

‘I know.’

‘You can’t know. No one knows except me and Kate and my solicitors.’

‘I’ve arranged it all. Full asking price. Like I said I would.’

Craddock Fitch shook with anger. ‘Is this some kind of joke? I’ve sold it to Heights Homes, not you.’

‘I know it appeared so. But they acted on my behalf. Business acquaintances. It was the only way. I told you I wanted it, told you I’d pay the asking price and still you wouldn’t sell it to me, so . . .’

Craddock went red-faced with rage. He turned from the door and headed straight for his office, followed by an amused Johnny. Craddock snatched up the big expensive envelope from his desk and dragged the sales contract out, shuffling through the pages till he came to the penultimate page where the signatures were. ‘My God! My God! You devil, you! This . . . fl . . . flamboyant signature is yours.’

Johnny moved towards him, looked at the signatures and nodded gravely. ‘See the name printed in very small letters beneath: J. R. Templeton. That’s me.’

Craddock Fitch dropped heavily into his chair, picked up the magnifying glass he’d begun using for reading small print and saw he was right. J.R. Templeton.

Johnny waited while Craddock absorbed the devilish trick that had been played on him. ‘Do you own the company, this Heights Homes?’

‘No. The ones who came here are company executives from Heights Homes; they played out their roles rather well, didn’t they? Taking photos, liking the lake, admiring the furniture, appreciating the suitability of the house.’

‘It’s not going to be a residential home then?’

Johnny laughed. ‘No, it’s going to be my home and my children’s home for generations. Just like I wanted it to be. Templetons living in Turnham House, as it should be. I had to be devious in order to buy it. There was no other way to get it. I’ve wanted it since the first time I clapped eyes on it over a year ago. I was determined.’ He beamed like a small boy who’d just received the biggest and best Christmas present of his whole life. ‘Couldn’t help it. That was how it felt. The Templetons coming home to their birthright after all these years. The satisfaction of pulling it off was mind-blowing.’

Craddock Fitch flung the contract onto his desk, looked up at this young man who’d tricked him beyond anything he himself had ever done in his own business life. But he recognised the triumph and more so the passion in his face and saw a man he liked. Nothing would stop Johnny Templeton succeeding and he admired that.

Johnny spoke up on behalf of himself. ‘Believe me, I shall care for this house with great love. You’ll be free to keep an eye on me, because I know you love it like I do, with an abiding passion.’

‘Your uncle Ralph wouldn’t approve of what you’ve done, not at all. The way you’ve pulled a fast one on me wasn’t the action of a gentleman and he was always a gentleman. In fact there was nothing honourable about your methods at all. Nothing! You crafty beggar. Ruthless! You’re ruthless! Absolutely ruthless. That’s what you are, and if Ralph had been alive he would not have allowed it. Still . . . so long as the money’s good!’

Then Henry Craddock Fitch convulsed with laughter. He hadn’t laughed so loudly, so joyously in years and he couldn’t stop; he almost felt the triumph was his because for once Sir Ralph’s principles had been disregarded and it had been a Templeton who’d done it. When he finally stopped laughing, he said, ‘You’re a man after my own heart. What a coup! Your uncle Ralph must be spinning in his grave.’

 

The evening before Johnny and Alice moved into Turnham House Johnny walked slowly up the drive, relishing every step of the way. The sun was about to set and the sky was dramatic, vast streaks of scarlet, pink and turquoise colouring the roof, the walls, the windows, the trees, the grass. His heart almost burst with pride. This was his at last. He wished he could embrace it, cradle it in his arms, hold it to him, cherish it.

For a split second he didn’t know who he loved the most: Alice and Charles, or the house. Well, obviously Alice and his son, but the house came a very, very close second.

Johnny could almost feel generations of his ancestors approving what he’d done. He’d spent hours researching his family tree, seeking out tombs in the church, looking for graves in the churchyard with names familiar to him now: Ralph, Tristan, Muriel. He hardly dared to hope that perhaps in the attics he might find boxes of letters or trivia that had never been discovered by Craddock Fitch’s workmen, and he could indulge himself in his family history to an even greater depth.

Craddock Fitch. He’d taken it so well when he found out a Templeton had bought the house from him. How he’d laughed! How he’d delighted at the idea of a Templeton with a devilish streak in him, prepared to be dishonourable, which his uncle Ralph would never have been. They were friends now, he and Craddock Fitch, a somewhat tentative friendship, but friends nevertheless.

Johnny stood with his back to the front door, looking out over the lawns towards Home Farm. A farm. He’d never had anything to do with animals, because he’d been brought up in a smart high-rise flat in the middle of Rio, where even a tank of tropical fish would have been inappropriate. He’d a lot to learn about animals, but in his mind’s eye he saw himself lifting Charles on to a pony, and walking with him round the lake.

BOOK: A Village in Jeopardy (Turnham Malpas 16)
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