Monday 12th June 2006. The Historic Research Department, Walmsfield Borough Council, Lancashire
At 8:55am Helen Milner walked into the Historic Research Department and looked around.
“Morning Naomi – it’s a bit smaller than I remembered,” she said.
Naomi Wilkes, the Head of the department said, “Welcome to the fold, and welcome to my tiny world.”
Helen cast her eyes around the office and saw that Naomi had linked their two desks together in an ‘L’ shape, and had moved all of the filing cabinets to the back wall. Just inside the front door stood an upright coat stand, a couple of spare chairs, and at various locations around the office, she could see masses of cardboard boxes stacked on top of one another.
On this, her first day, her desk looked almost empty; on it were two three-tier filing trays, a receptacle for holding pens and pencils, a cordless telephone, an A4 notepad, and a steaming hot cup of tea.
“Take your coat off, and drink what passes for tea around here before it gets cold,” said Naomi.
Helen removed her coat, sat down, and was surprised by her new, comfy office desk chair.
“I even got you the leather seat that you asked for,” said Naomi smiling across at her friend.
Naomi and Helen had become close friends working on an earlier research project trying to discover the truth about the ownership of the old Whitewall Estate on Wordale Moor, and during those investigations, they’d become entangled with an old adversary of Naomi’s – the rich and powerful multi-millionaire businessman, Adrian Darke. Both women had come close to losing their lives on his Cragg Vale Estate on the nearby Rushworth Moor when they’d exposed his illegal underground drugs facility, and although most of those issues had been resolved, more than a few had arisen which still required attention.
Prior to accepting her new post, Helen had worked as a conservator at a construction site for the forthcoming Vical shopping centre in Newton, Hyde, but as the months had progressed, and she’d become more interested in carrying out the type of research that Naomi had, she’d jumped at the offer of a job to join her in Walmsfield Borough Council’s Historic Research Department.
Naomi was thirty-four years of age and Helen thirty-five; both women enjoyed the same taste in clothes, music, and going out, and whilst Naomi was married to Carlton Wilkes the Head of the Walmsfield Planning Department, Helen was single and in a shaky relationship with her partner Justin, a shift-working security officer whose motivation and work ethic would have ideally seen him employed as a full-time Programme Seller for Coronations.
Both women were experienced researchers and had only met three months earlier, but the experiences and dangers they’d shared in their previous project had brought them closer than either had expected, and now they were together on the first day of their new working relationship.
“Okay boss,” said Helen, “what’s the order of the day?”
“On a personal note, my biggest desire is to learn more about that old Malaterre Estate under the Dunsteth reservoir, but the most pressing problem is to get that lot catalogued and filed away.” She nodded towards the boxes stacked around the room.
Helen looked at them and groaned.
“That was my old life at the Vical Centre,” she said.
“Well – you know the definition of a Historic Researcher don’t you?” said Naomi.
Helen raised her eyebrows and said, “Go on…”
“A filing clerk with a history obsession!”
Helen nodded and said, “So true – where do I start?”
As Helen busied herself with the filing, Naomi sat back and thought about the Malaterre Estate.
Her first encounter with the name “Malaterre” had been in a dream where she had taken delivery of a large wooden crate, opened it, and had found another box inside; inside that box was another and then another, until at the end she’d found a cigar box. Inside the cigar box had been a small, discoloured cigarette card with the single word, ‘Malaterre’ written upon it.
The dream had been so vivid that she’d made a note of the name, but hadn’t thought anymore about it until within a couple of weeks, and upon the conclusion of her investigations into the ownership of the Whitewall Estate, she’d discovered a small wooden box concealed in a Mausoleum that proved to have a false bottom. To her shock and amazement, two things had been discovered in there; a bronze key with the letter ‘M’ worked into the bow, and a discoloured cigarette card with the word ‘Malaterre’ written upon it.
A lady named Daisy Hubert had secreted the box within the mausoleum sometime after March 1869, and had been the sister-in-law to a solicitor named George Hubert who had sent her incriminating evidence against two murderous characters named Abraham and Caleb Johnson; and because he had been afraid of them killing him, he’d asked her to conceal it until she had been in a position to be able to hand it over to the police on his behalf. But subsequent investigations by Naomi and Helen had revealed that Daisy had been murdered by Caleb Johnson before she’d been able to hand the evidence over.
A local search of the name from the Victorian era had shown that there had once been an estate named ‘Malaterre’ in the Dunsteth Valley, north of Rochdale, which had been flooded in the 19th century to make way for a new civic reservoir.
The things that puzzled Naomi, however, were why Daisy Hubert came to be in possession of the key and cigarette card, what the key fitted, and why she felt the need to hide them in the false bottom of a box already containing incriminating evidence against the Johnsons.
“Penny for them?” said Helen.
“Oh, I’m just mulling over the Malaterre conundrum again.”
Helen nodded and pointed towards the boxes, “How about we work together filing this lot, then maybe we’ll be have some time to consider that?”
Naomi smiled and said, “All right, I can take a hint, shove one over.”
As the time approached 10:30am Naomi said, “All this filing makes me thirsty, do you want a cuppa?”
Helen looked up and said, “Oh yes please, white coffee – no sugar.”
Naomi got up and headed for the door, but before she could open it, there was a knock, and her husband Carlton walked in.
“Morning Carlton,” said Helen, “have you seen what your slave-driver of a wife has got me doing?”
Carlton smiled and said, “Think yourself lucky, you should try being married to her!”
Naomi slapped her husband’s arm and said, “Hey, you’ll pay for that later! Now, what brings you down to the bowels of the Council offices?”
“Two things,” said Carlton, “number one to welcome Helen to our fold…”
Helen smiled and said, “Thank you.”
“…and number two, to tell you about a snippet of news I heard this morning.” He paused to make sure that he had both women’s attention and then said, “A human bone was discovered on the eastern side of the Dunsteth reservoir.”
Naomi’s interest peaked; she said, “Really, recent or historical?”
“The reporter didn’t say.”
Helen said, “I was only reading the other day that the water level had dropped because of successive dry winters and so many more hot summers.”
“What?” said Naomi looking across at Helen, “That’s a laugh with all the rain that we get around here.”
“Nevertheless,” said Carlton, “Helen’s right, the levels have dropped, and yesterday, a retired doctor walking his dog found the bone near the waterline and reported it to the local police,” he paused and then said, “And of course we all know what’s under there, don’t we?”
“My current obsession,” said Naomi, “Malaterre.”
Wednesday 14th June 2006. The Dunsteth Reservoir, Lancashire
Naomi stopped her Honda CRV near to the eastern bank of the Dunsteth reservoir and reached into her handbag. She removed the Clearblue digital pregnancy test kit, held her breath, and looked at the indicator. It was just as she’d seen it the first time; it stated “Pregnant 2-3” demonstrating that she was indeed pregnant and that she’d conceived two to three weeks earlier.
She’d followed the instructions to the letter, waited until the day before her period, and had done the test at her first visit to the bathroom that day. She’d rushed out to tell Carlton but had forgotten that he’d had to leave around 5am to attend a local government cost-cutting seminar in Birmingham.
Now, if the wording on the box was to be believed, it was 99% positive that she was pregnant, and 92% positive about when she’d become so. She clapped her hand up to her mouth and covered a huge, beaming grin.
She and Carlton had been trying for a baby for more than a year, and though both had remained positive, the strain had been beginning to tell; the act of love-making had morphed from a passion-driven desire to consume as much of each other’s bodies in as lustful a way as they could, to that of trying to make a baby. The spur of the moment zeal to take one another whenever, had given way to planning and timing, and though both still enjoyed it, it wasn’t ever the same as that powerful and gritty act of looking at each in a certain fashion, then jumping on one another and screwing each other’s brains out.
But now she had it, the wonderful sum of their planning and love. A less-than-tiny baked bean-sized miracle growing inside of her, and she couldn’t wait to tell Carlton.
With a satisfied grin still on her face, she put the pregnancy test kit back into her bag, took out her binoculars, stepped out of her car, and lifted them up to her eyes. She made a minor adjustment to the central focus wheel, and stared at what appeared to be an irregular set of stepping stones breaking the surface of the reservoir in the early morning sunshine.
From a professional point of view the reappearance of the building was exciting, but because of the mysterious circumstances in which she’d first learned about it, it was also chilling, and the more she stared at the innocuous features, the more she wanted to know.
The estate appeared to be within touching distance; she wanted to explore it, to experience what it might have looked like to the last occupants, but because it had been under water for over a hundred years there would be no way of knowing how safe it would be.
“Fascinating isn’t it?” said a voice.
Naomi whirled around and saw a man standing behind her; he appeared to be in his late thirties and was dressed in a casual white shirt, blue jeans, and open-toed sandals. He was slim and fit looking, had a full head of dark brown hair, green eyes similar to her father Sam’s, and his handsome angular face was clean-shaven. For a split-second she was taken aback because in the instant that she saw him, she felt that she had known she was going to meet him. As though fate had closed a circle that she had known would be closed.
The man saw Naomi’s momentary hesitation and said, “I’m sorry, did I startle you?”
“No… Well, maybe a little…”
The man smiled and said, “I suppose that it’s these crypt-creeping sandals, and of course my natural ability to be able to move without a sound, especially away from debt-collectors…” He raised his eyebrows in a theatrical way.
Naomi smiled and said, “And are you pursued by many debt-collectors?”
“Hundreds!” said the man, “In counties across the entire length and breadth of the land!”
For some inexplicable reason Naomi felt right at home with him and joined in the japery.
“Well,” she said, reaching into her handbag for a non-descript piece of paper, “I’m glad that I’ve found you now, because there is this small matter… ” She tendered the folded piece of paper.
The man burst out laughing, held his hands up in the air, and backed away two or three paces. He said, “Okay, it’s a fair cop! How much do I owe you?”
Naomi stopped and looked up for a second, and then pushed the paper back into her handbag. She said, “Nothing, I just remembered that it’s illegal to collect debts in Rochdale on a Wednesday morning.”
The man covered his eyes and said, “Oh my God, if only I’d known, I’d have moved here years ago!”
They both smiled with genuine pleasure until the man extended his right hand and said, “My name’s Page, Stephen Page.”
Naomi shook the offered hand and said, “Naomi Wilkes.”
The same sudden feeling overtook her; a feeling as though he was meant to be there, at that moment in time. Their handshake was different too; it fitted perfectly, and she almost didn’t want to let go.
“And what brings you here, Naomi Wilkes?” said Stephen, “Is it the mysterious reappearance of Malaterre?”
Something else clicked inside Naomi’s brain; Stephen was the only person to have used the single name ‘Malaterre’ whereas everybody else had referred to it as ‘the Malaterre Estate’. It was nothing that significant, but it indicated familiarity.
“It is indeed,” said Naomi giving away nothing of her inner feelings, “I am a professional historic researcher and I’m very interested in this place.”
“Is that because of its sudden reappearance, or have you always been aware of its presence?”
Naomi considered her answer before speaking; she said, “I have to admit to knowing nothing of its presence before more than a few weeks ago. I only moved to the North of England at the end of 2000, and everything I know, I had to learn about, instead of growing up with.”
Stephen nodded and said, “Ah, I see; so what first brought this place to your attention?”
Naomi felt as though she could tell Stephen about her weird dream, but she opted to keep her cards close to her chest.
“It’s a bit of a protracted story which I don’t have time to tell you today,” she said, “but it is an interesting one.” She paused for a second and then said, “But how about you, what is your interest in the place?”
For the first time since they’d met, she saw guardedness show on Stephen’s face; he dropped his eyes and hesitated, but then seemed to make his mind up.
“Can I answer your question with a question?”
Naomi said, “Yes, of course.”
“You mentioned that you are a professional historic researcher, but you didn’t say for whom. Is it a local organisation, and are you here representing them, or do you work somewhere else, and are just showing an interest in the goings on around here?”
“I am the head of Walmsfield Borough Council’s Historic Research Department, and whilst I guess that I would be representing them in an official capacity, it is more than just professional interest that has brought me here.”
Stephen digested Naomi’s reply and then said, “Okay, then there’s somebody that I think you should meet.”
Out of the blue, Naomi was struck by the speed and ease with which they had become acquainted, and recalled a few lines of Eastern European folklore.
‘Little girl, it seems to say,
Never stop upon your way,
Never trust a stranger friend,
No-one knows how it will end.
As you’re pretty, so be wise,
Wolves may lurk in every guise,
Now, as then, ‘tis simple truth,
Sweetest tongue has sharpest tooth.’
She looked into Stephen’s eyes and said, “That’s very kind of you but…”
Stephen realised that he had been presumptuous and said, “There’s no need to explain, I appreciate that we’ve only just met. And who knows, I could be a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
Stephen’s reference to a wolf shook Naomi to the core. She frowned and said, “What made you say that, then?”
“That I could be a wolf in sheep’s clothing? Nothing, it was just phrase – why?”
Naomi knew that there was more to it; she couldn’t rationalise it, she couldn’t explain it, she just knew. She stared into Stephen’s eyes and noticed that they had a hazel star around the pupil, similar to her father’s; and then she wondered why she had even noticed. She started to feel out of her depth and a bit disorientated.
Stephen picked up on it and said, “I appear to have upset you, and I’m sorry. I’ve been told in the past that sometimes I’m too forward for my own good.” He reached into his back pocket and extracted a black leather wallet and opened it.
Naomi could hardly believe her eyes.
Her father Sam was the most fastidious man that she had ever known when it came to choosing a new wallet. Growing up, she recalled traipsing around endless leather shops in the UK and Spain as he trawled through them looking for just the right one. It had to be black; it had to be a one-fold wallet, with no purse section for coins, it mustn’t have zips or masses of compartments; it had to be no bigger than ten centimetres by eight centimetres, and the notes had to be in a billfold, instead of slotted compartments. A tall order indeed – and they had been almost impossible to find!
Now she was staring at an identical one in Stephen’s hand. Her already shaken equilibrium took another blow as the coincidences started to mount up.
Oblivious of Naomi’s growing unease; Stephen extracted a business card and handed it to her.
“If you’d like to get a potted history of Malaterre,” he said, “give me a call and I’ll introduce you to somebody whom I’m sure that you’d find interesting.”
Naomi looked down at the business card and saw that it stated;
‘Stephen G Page
Page & Page Ltd.’
The business address was somewhere that she hadn’t heard of in nearby Bury. She said, “Thank you,” and then, “Who’s the other Page, your wife?” The words flowed out and she couldn’t believe that she’d asked such a personal question. She was mortified.
Stephen smiled and said, “No, the other Page is my father; we run a small but specialist bookshop in Bury. But for the record, I’m not married!”
“I’m so sorry!” said Naomi, “I don’t know what came over me; it was none of my business…”
“It’s nothing,” said Stephen.
Naomi felt the need to get away to try to regain some of her composure; she looked at her watch and said, “Look, I’m sorry, I have to go…”
Stephen smiled and extended his hand once again.
Naomi took it, and was overcome by the same inexplicable feeling. She couldn’t believe it; something felt so right about holding his hand that she let go of it too quickly.
“Please do give me a call,” said Stephen, “I feel sure that you’d be interested in what my mother has to say.”
“Yes, she’s the person who has the inside knowledge of Malaterre.”
Naomi’s equilibrium calmed as her curiosity kicked in; she looked down at the business card and saw that there were several options for contact including an email address. She looked up and said, “All right, I will, but I need to check my diary first.”
Stephen smiled and said, “Excellent, no rush.”
Naomi nodded and smiled back; “Okay,” she said, “I’ll be in touch – bye for now.” She turned to head back to her car, when the feeling of a thumb pressing down onto her shoulder, which heralded one of her infrequent psychic experiences, pushed hard down. She heard a woman’s voice say, ‘S’il vous plaît ne pas aller…’
She wheeled around and stared at the Malaterre building, and got the second huge shock of the day, for out of the corner of her eye, she’d seen Stephen wheel around and look as well.
For several seconds she didn’t know which way to look, at Malaterre, or at Stephen. He appeared to be staring at the building too.
Both had the same puzzled expressions on their faces until Stephen turned, smiled, and then walked away.
Monday 27th July 1868. The Whitewall Estate, Wordale Moor
Joseph Pickles from Hundersfield District Council stepped out of his Hansom cab, approached the front door of the Whitewall Estate, and looked around; he’d heard tales of a fearful dog named Sugg who belonged to the Johnsons, and he didn’t want to be on the wrong side of it. He padded across the courtyard to the front door, cast a last nervous look around, and then knocked.
Within a few seconds the door opened and he was confronted by a hard and intolerant looking man who appeared to have got out of the wrong side of bed for the last six months.
Abraham Johnson looked at the caller, noted the suit, shiny shoes and leather briefcase and then said, “Well, are you going to stand there all day, or are you going tell me what you want?”
Pickles touched the tip of his bowler hat and said, “Mr. Abraham Johnson?”
“My name is Joseph Pickles from Hundersfield District Council, and I wondered if might be allowed to have a word with you?”
Abraham, who was always distrustful of officials narrowed his eyes and said, “About what?”
“I have a proposition that might interest you; that is of course, if you are indeed Abraham Johnson.”
Abraham stared at the official for a couple of seconds and then said, “All right, you’d better come in.”
He led Pickles through the kitchen into the parlour and pointed to a seat.
Pickles sat down and looked around. The light from the Tudor-style windows didn’t fully illuminate the room, but it was adequate; enough for him to see that everywhere appeared to be grubby and untidy. Dirty food dishes and beer mugs lay on the table top, and there was a large box of bandages on the floor next to one of the chairs. He saw Abraham watching him and said, “I hope that nobody was too seriously hurt?”
“What proposition might interest me?”
“I take it then, that you are Mr. Abraham Johnson?”
“Yes, yes,” said Abraham, “what proposition have you got for me?”
Pickles was now in official mode, and he wasn’t about to be put off.
“And is it correct that you are the current owner of the Dunsteth Estate on Blackstone Moor?”
Abraham went on the defensive; he was aware of the nefarious way in which he’d secured both Dunsteth and Whitewall and he didn’t want anybody prying into that.
“Look,” he said, “stop prattling about and just tell me why you came.”
“I’m sorry Mr. Johnson,” said Pickles, “but I do need to know that I have the correct antecedents before I can proceed.”
“All right, all right – I own Whitewall and Dunsteth. Now for fuck’s sake, spit it out!”
Pickles bristled at the use of bad language whilst he was acting in his official capacity, and had the person opposite been any less intimidating, he might even had said so, but he took one look into the ice-cold, humourless eyes of Abraham Johnson and decided against it.
He cleared his throat and said, “Following several, er, in camera Select Committee meetings, it has been decided that the Hundersfield District Council should progress the procurement of a suitable valley, in which they could site a planned, new, civic reservoir.”
Abraham frowned at first, the use of a term like “in camera” was beyond his limited vocabulary, but he grasped the basic meaning. He said, “So what are you trying to say, that you want to buy a whole valley to put your new ‘reservoyer’ in?”
Pickles raised his eyebrows for the briefest of seconds and then said, “Precisely.”
“And that my Dunsteth Estate is in one of the valleys being considered?”
“The Dunsteth Valley is the prime valley being considered Mr. Johnson.”
“Do you realise how much revenue I get from that estate?” said Abraham.
“No sir, I don’t; but I have been instructed to assure you that if you would consider our proposal, you would be more than happy with our terms.”
To the abject surprise of Pickles, Abraham leapt out of his seat, leaned out of the window adjacent to the yard, and yelled, “Caleb! Caleb, get your arse over here boy!” He remained staring into the yard with his head cocked to one side until he realised that he hadn’t drawn any response. He yelled once more, “Caleb! Caleb! Are you listening to me?”
Pickles heard some kind of muffled response and then watched as Abraham returned to his seat and plonked himself down.
“Wait a minute mister, er…”
“Right,” said Abraham, “I want my lad here when you tell me the rest.”
A few minutes later the parlour door opened and Caleb walked in.
Pickles looked up at Caleb and felt as though he had been stabbed through the heart. He was big and bulky and appeared to have a permanent scowl upon his face; he was tanned, his hair was brown, thick, and unkempt and he had the most unnerving eyes. They were cruel, and soulless, and they chilled him to the core.
Caleb saw the suited stranger looking at him, and unable to conceal his aggression said, “What are you looking at, toff?”
“Watch your tongue, boy!” said Abraham.
Caleb looked up at his father and said, “Sorry pa, he was…”
“I don’t care! Sit down and listen to what he has to say.”
Caleb slunk across the parlour and dropped into the chair next to the box of bandages.
Seven months earlier, in November 1867, Caleb had been attacked by Sugg, his own dog, a huge, vicious, and deformed Irish wolfhound, who’d torn away a large chunk of his left calf muscle. His recovery had been protracted and painful, and still caused him to hobble everywhere he went.
The way that Caleb walked across the room wasn’t lost on Pickles. He said, “I can see from your injury that the injection of a considerable sum of money wouldn’t go amiss, either to ease the burden of your life here at Whitewall by giving you the ability to take on more labourers, or to be able to employ the services of a top doctor to expedite the process of your recovery.”
Caleb looked across to his father and said, “What’s he on about pa?”
“Yon man,” said Abraham, “has come here to ask us some questions about our ownership of Dunsteth.”
As with Abraham before, Caleb went on the defensive, knowing full well how they had first tricked his stepmother Margaret into never learning about her rightful inheritance of Dunsteth, and how his father had murdered her when she had found out, and then had taken Whitewall as well.
He cast a quick glance in the direction of his father and thought that he was prompting him to do away with the stranger. He jammed his hand into his coat pocket and grabbed his knife.
Abraham saw; knew what was about to happen, and said, “No boy!”
Pickles saw the exchange and started to feel uncomfortable; everything seemed to be getting tense; he felt as though he was sitting in a basket full of poisonous snakes, and that the wrong move would result in some terrible fate.
“Gentlemen,” he said, wishing to get away, “if it would suit you better, I can come back on another occasion.”
“Stop being so touchy,” said Abraham, “the boy’s a bit awkward around strangers and he’s lacking in what you’d call social graces, so just tell him why you’re here.”
Lacking in social graces? thought Pickles; he’d seen more sociable lions at feeding time.
He took in a deep breath, turned to Caleb, and said, “Very well, Hundersfield District Council would like your father and you to consider selling us your Dunsteth Estate, so that we can flood the valley in which it lies, to create a new civic reservoir.”
“And they’ll pay a cartload of brass!” said Abraham with brimming enthusiasm.
Pickles turned to Abraham and said, “Yes, I feel sure that you would both be more than pleased with our offer.”
Abraham turned to face his son with a big grin on his face.
“Do you hear that boy? He wants to buy Dunsteth from us for a cartload of cash!”
Pickles retorted, “Not me personally, you understand…” He saw Caleb turn and stare straight at him; it felt as though the devil himself was looking into his soul. Without any rational explanation, he started to become edgy and afraid.
“Sounds like my pa’s prepared to believe you Pickles,” said Caleb in an unsettling way, “so you’d better not let him down – because if you do I’ll hunt you down like a…”
“Caleb!” said Abraham, “Stop that! He’s here to make us an offer, not to threaten us!”
Pickles watched until Caleb’s eyes turned away. It felt as though a huge vice-like grip had just let go of his throat and inner organs and everything inside him wanted to get up and run.
With a hammering heart, he summoned up the last reserves of his courage and said, “I will not be threatened like this! If you cannot dignify this meeting with civility, then I shall leave and take my proposals elsewhere.”
Abraham felt the offer starting to slide away; he turned to Caleb and said, “You heard the gent, boy. Don’t you open that fucking mouth of yours again until you’re spoken to – is that clear?”
Pickles winced inside; he’d never attended a darker or more unsettling meeting in his entire working life.
Caleb said, “Yes pa,” and settled back in his seat.
“We don’t want Mr. Pickles getting the wrong idea about us!”
Pickles had exactly the right idea about both men; he looked from face-to-face and then said, “Very well, I shall leave my proposal with you to consider; but if I feel threatened or intimidated in any way, I shall leave, and you’ll never hear from me again.”
“What’s to consider?” said Abraham, “you come up with the brass, and the place is yours.” He jumped up and extended his hand.
“What’s up?” said Abraham, “Put it there, we have a deal in principle at least.”
Pickles looked up at Abraham and said, “It’s not quite as simple as that.”
Caleb looked across to Pickles and glowered; he opened his mouth to comment, but remembered his father’s warning.
“What’s not so simple?” said Abraham returning to his seat.
“Yours isn’t the only property in Dunsteth Valley Mr. Johnson, and unless we can secure permission from the owners of the Malaterre Estate, we will be forced to look elsewhere.”
“And have the owners of Malaterre hinted at what their decision will be?”
“No sir, they have not.” He hesitated knowing that his next statement may prove to be contentious.
“Furthermore there may be an added difficulty because they are not all English nationals.”
“Not English?” said Abraham.
“No sir, they are of French descent.”
“Frogs!” said Abraham, “I thought they were English; they sounded English the last time we crossed words – so which ones are frogs?”
Pickles blanched at the sound of Abraham’s ‘the last time we crossed words’ statement and then said, “The father is French, but the mother is English, and all of the children were born in England.”
“So they’re English for the most part then?”
“Yes, but I understand that the father, Mr. Etienne Page is the owner, and he is French.”
“Fucking frogs!” said Abraham, “How did they end up owning the place?”
“The circumstances of their acquisition are not within my ken, but it is indisputable that Mr. Page senior is the owner, and without his agreement to sell, we will, as I said, be forced to look elsewhere for our reservoir.”
Abraham became sullen and the light-hearted mood disappeared in a flash.
“So if the frogs won’t sell, we can’t either. Is that it?” he said.
“Well you’d best make sure that they do.”
“Mr. Johnson, if they refuse to…”
Abraham’s voice rose as his aggravation increased, he said, “Refusal’s not an option Pickles. It would suit me, and my son to sell Dunsteth, so you make them an offer that they can’t refuse, do you hear me?”
Pickles started to feel the need to get away again; he said, “We’ll do everything in our power Mr. Johnson. I already told you that the Dunsteth Valley is our prime choice, so it is within our interests to secure that land also.”
“Right,” said Abraham getting to his feet and walking towards the parlour door, “we’ve got work to do, as I am sure you do, so you go and get those frogs to sign up – and if you have any difficulty persuading them, let us know; perhaps Caleb and me can help them make their minds up.”
Across the room, Pickles saw a look spread across Caleb’s face. He stood up and walked towards the open door, cleared his throat, and said, “Ahem, yes, well thank you for the offer of help, but I feel sure that we’ll be able to manage perfectly well on our own.”
Seconds later he stepped out of the kitchen and into the courtyard; he replaced his bowler hat and headed for the waiting cab. Once inside he felt a palpable sense of relief.
As it headed up the long drive he reflected over the meeting and the two men that he’d just left. He wasn’t a particular lover of foreigners himself, but the last thing that he wanted was to visit volatile characters like the Johnsons on them, non-English or not.