A Charitable Body (Charlie Peace Series #10)by Robert Barnard
What an honor, to become a trustee of one of England’s distinguished stately homes. Yorkshire cop Charlie Peace’s wife Felicity is at first thrilled when she’s asked to help oversee Walbrook Manor, a recent gift to the nation. It’s not long, though, before both she and Charlie smell trouble. Suspenseful, witty and, as always, superbly… See more details below
What an honor, to become a trustee of one of England’s distinguished stately homes. Yorkshire cop Charlie Peace’s wife Felicity is at first thrilled when she’s asked to help oversee Walbrook Manor, a recent gift to the nation. It’s not long, though, before both she and Charlie smell trouble. Suspenseful, witty and, as always, superbly insightful, A Charitable Body shows Barnard at his scintillating best.
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Read an Excerpt
Change of Life
“Very nice,” said Rupert Fiennes, licking his tongue delicately around his lips. “Boiled is easily my favorite way of having an egg.”
“The easiest, anyway,” said his cousin Mary-Elizabeth rather grimly, as was her wont whenever anything even remotely connected to their new and only comparative penury came up. “Mrs. Tower always said it was a very poor sort of breakfast.”
“Oh, Mrs. Tower was devoted to bacon and sausages, to mushrooms and black pudding,” said Rupert. “We had to have them because she enjoyed them herself. I always hated piled-high breakfasts in the army, and I hoped for something simpler when I got out. Croissants, maybe, or cold meats and cheeses. As so often, Walbrook Manor defeated me.”
“Don’t be disrespectful of Walbrook. You know it pains me to the heart that we have lost it.”
“It doesn’t pain me to the heart, but I’ll try to be silent in my rejoicings in future.”
They were just finishing the washing-up when Mary-Elizabeth looked at her watch.
“Oh goody! There’s time to read the papers. I haven’t got to be at the vicarage until eleven o’clock.”
“Now you see what a wonderful thing running hot water is,” said Rupert. “You’d still be waiting for the kettle to boil if we were living at Walbrook Manor.”
Mary-Elizabeth said nothing. That was always the way to get the best of Rupert. She settled down to the bits and pieces in the Times’ Arts supplement and was well advanced with the sudoku when she checked her watch again and then hurried into the hall and put on her outdoor coat.
“Ah, Mary. Just a word before you go,” said her cousin, coming out from his study. He didn’t speak to her as a cousin, much more like a brother, which is how she regarded him. “Got all your papers for your meeting read and digested?” he temporized.
“We don’t have much paperwork in the Women’s Institute committee. Now what is it, Rupert?”
“I’ve been thinking—it troubled me—about your sorrow at losing Walbrook.”
“Well, don’t. Really, Rupert—”
“I think sometimes you throw a pretty pink halo around the place, forgetting how horribly inconvenient it was.”
“I am quite aware of that. I have reason to be.”
“Of course you do. But I was wondering, would you like a position—well, a job, to be frank—in Walbrook when the place is really open to the public on a full-time basis?”
A smile burst onto Mary-Elizabeth’s usually rather glum face.
“I can think of nothing I’d like better. But be careful, Rupert. The other members of the Walbrook Trust Board might condemn you as wanting to keep control even when you’ve handed the house over to them. No—there’s no might about it: some of them certainly would.”
“I’m aware of that. I will go very carefully. And you must go carefully and not try to glamorize the place’s past. There were very ugly sides to the days when our family ran the manor and almost everything around it. The Trust, quite rightly, would expect a degree of balance in how the house’s history is presented to the public.”
“And they’d get it from me. I do appreciate how much easier life is in this flat. Everything works, everything is convenient and saves us no end of trouble. We can concentrate on what interests us, not on the grind of everyday living. So in many ways we’re both better off than we were.”
“Of course we are. I knew you must see that,” said Rupert, his relief showing in his voice.
“Still, this place is a bit lacking in style, history, people’s loves and struggles and dilemmas, isn’t it?”
With that Mary-Elizabeth made her way out of the front door, being careful not to bang it.
A few minutes later Rupert passed his cousin as she was gazing into the window of Mrs. Borden’s secondhand-book shop (OPEN THURSDAYS AND SATURDAY MORNINGS the sign said), and he stopped and broached to her what he had been thinking on his walk.
“You know, I wonder whether instead of a job it wouldn’t be easier to get you into one of the vacant places on the Trust Board. No payment involved—but we can’t pretend we are in need of money.”
“No . . . a place on the board sounds glorious, Rupert. We’d make a great team.”
“Ah . . .” Rupert gave every appearance of having been caught out. “I was thinking instead of me, not in addition to,” he said, and resumed his walk to the manor.
That was typical of Rupert, his cousin thought. He floated ideas, then shut down any discussion of them, assuming that he, and his interlocutor, needed time to sort things out in their own minds. It was a surprisingly effective way of proceeding. But this time he momentarily turned back.
“The meeting today is going to discuss the matter of the rolling exhibitions on the first floor. At the moment the plan is for a new exhibition each year, with a wide range of topics.”
“I’d support that,” said Mary-Elizabeth. “Something is needed to get the crowds in.”
“The choice for the first exhibition is between one on the First World War and its poets and one on our great queen consorts.”
Mary-Elizabeth thought for a few seconds.
“Well, you know me: I’m a glutton for royal. But not for the first exhibition. Not serious enough. How can you be a great queen consort? And people won’t lend their royal pictures to an untried organization. I’d back the war poets. Pathos and tragedy, and the odd story of heroism. And you’d get lots of school parties. It would get Walbrook’s education department off to a good start when it is finally put together.”
Rupert nodded and went on his way. He was impressed by his cousin’s grasp of practicalities. She would make a much better representative of the family on the board than he did. And it would give him, finally, freedom from the burden of Walbrook. It was something “devoutly to be wished”—had been for more than twenty years.
The lawn sloped gently down to the river, with, dotted around, a shrub pretending it had grown there quite casually. Felicity would have liked to play games with Thomas—let go of the pram and then chase it, then repeat the joke. But Thomas was a serious baby and could carry for life the conviction that his mother was a potential infanticide. Quite enough crime in the Peace household, thank you. Felicity turned back into the weed-covered rose garden, enjoying a rather tentative second flowering, and then round toward the front of the house and the main entrance.
From here the old manor house looked its best, with its plethora of windows regularly reflecting the Yorkshire sun, and Felicity was longing to go inside to see whether the interior was similarly welcoming and well planned. The early-eighteenth-century builder who had designed and delivered this house to its first owner must have had a modicum of sheer genius in his makeup.
The notice said HOUSE OPEN TUESDAY AND SATURDAY MORNINGS. Today was Saturday, the time was eleven o’clock, but when she tried to enter, she was politely told that she could not take Thomas.
“But I thought there was some kind of crÈche for young children,” she said.
“Oh, there is,” said the woman with an all-purpose smile, “but only for the Tuesday openings and bank holidays. That’s not very convenient for families we know, but the fact is we can’t get volunteers to staff the crÈche on Saturdays.”
“I see. I guess you’re really just testing the waters at the moment, aren’t you?”
“We are. The house is run by a charitable trust, and the people on the governing body all donate their time. Do come back some Tuesday. Or bring your husband.”
Felicity had to fight the suspicion that the woman saw that her husband was black (not difficult by looking at Thomas), and she assumed that he would therefore not be interested in the treasures of Walbrook Manor and could be left to mind the baby. No point in rummaging round for possible prejudices though. And at least the woman had presumed a father was in the picture. Felicity smiled and said she was sure there was plenty to see in the garden.
She continued walking, just to familiarize herself with the setup. She knew an herb garden had once been here, and a wildflower meadow, but from that point between the manor and the car park most of what she could see was still lawn and hedgerow, and the drive leading to the main road. Some way from the main gates was a substantial block that her little guide to the estate identified as the stables—no longer used for horses obviously, and with a long, windowed extension. Certainly it was now used for something else, because cars were arriving and turning into a small, special parking area.
Felicity watched, idly, as people walked toward the main entrance to the stables. Some smart, country people, some more scruffy ones; men in open-necked shirts, broad-beamed women in slacks. One young woman got off a bus outside the gates with a buggy and pushed her baby toward the meeting or social get-together that was obviously scheduled to go on. Felicity watched her, and a man who came out from a side door to the manor and started in the direction of the stables—a slim, elderly figure, impeccably dressed in dark-gray suiting, with a good head of hair, and a way of walking that gave Felicity the idea of someone walking on water. She wondered if he could be the person in charge of the museum-to-be—director, curator, or whatever. Perhaps chairman of the Trust.
Felicity had all the time in the world before Carola, her elder child, would be finished for the day at her riding school. She decided she would wander toward the stables later and then go and find the wildflower meadow if it still existed. More to the point at the moment, which her watch showed to be close to eleven thirty, was to go to the little cafeteria that she had seen on the other side of the manor and get herself a cup of coffee and maybe a cream bun. Felicity was one of those people, almost unnatural people it was often thought, who never had to watch their weight. She had settled Thomas with a rattle in an otherwise empty cafÉ (one offering good coffee and basic cakes and biscuits obviously supplied by a local bakery chain) and was enjoying a leisurely snack when the door opened again and another woman came in—one in a similar position to herself: child in a baby buggy and a need for coffee, which she fetched from the counter before settling into a nearby table with an outlook on the sloping grass. It was the woman who had got off the bus and whom Felicity had last seen going toward the meeting. She was crying.
Tears were rolling down her cheeks, her light makeup was smudged, and when she had had a couple of sips from her cup, she put her head on the table and Felicity heard gulps of anger or frustration.
“Can I help?” Felicity asked, getting up and going over to her. For a moment there was no reply. “I think I saw you arriving at the stables a little while ago. Is there something wrong?”
The woman looked up.
“I don’t see how you can,” she said, thrusting out her hand. “I’m Maya Tyndale.”
“I’m Felicity Peace.”
“It’s nice of you, but I don’t think you can help. I may be being silly. It’s those bastards in there.”
“What bastards? In the stables?”
“Yes. It’s a meeting of the Walbrook Manor Trust Board. The trustees of this place, of whom I am one, fool that I am. I just feel so frustrated. They took me for a fool, and I was a fool.”
And she told Felicity all about it.
When Maya had arrived at the Trustees’ Room in the stable block, things seemed to be going on pretty much as normal.
“Ah, good to see you again, er, Maya,” said Sir Stafford Quarles, as usual pronouncing her name Meyer and sounding as if he were welcoming a regular guest at his upmarket B and B.
“And is this little Feo?” asked Mattie Fowler, bundled up in the weirdest assortment of clothes. “Feisty little bugger I wouldn’t mind betting, eh?”
Maya smiled. “Yes, this is Theo. I’m still breast-feeding him. People say it’s the thing to do, though I’m not sure I’d do it a second time.”
All as per regular form, then. But as Maya took her coffee and biscuit and settled down in a chair with Theo watching her from his stroller with his inquiring gaze, she had a strong sense that things were not as normal. Why was Mrs. Porritt avoiding eye contact, though she had always come up to greet Maya before? Why did the little group of three in the far corner of the room keep half looking round in her direction, then sharply turning away again?
“We must have a talk about that exhibition you have in mind, er, Maya,” said Sir Stafford as he passed her by in search of more highly regarded prey. He floated on air from soul to soul, with an encouraging nod for all of them. He had been holding out to Maya the prospect of a small exhibition in the Garden Room at the time of the next Walbrook Festival, and Maya had a series of lithographs inspired by the house and gardens that she longed to see hung there. She had talked to Wesley Gannett, the museum director, and he had said it was a good idea, but Sir Stafford had never mentioned it to him. If it was to be part of the festival that was Sir Stafford’s remit, not Gannett’s. It had been agreed that the trustees would virtually take over the house for those two weeks.
“Er, I think we could . . . ,” said Sir Stafford, his voice slightly raised from its normal murmur. Everyone became quiet, perhaps because of his title, perhaps because he alone of the trustees had an intimate connection with museums and galleries, having spent most of his working life running them. They all began taking their places round the table, apparently at random, in fact guided by a series of alliances that Maya was only just beginning to fathom.
“I’ve called for this, er, private session of the board because we, er—”
But he was interrupted, almost as if according to plan.
“Chairman, if I could just make a point before we begin,” said Mrs. Porritt, her face set in a stern, judicial mask, as if she were about to rummage in her handbag and pull out a black cap.
“Yes, er, Janet, of course.”
“It is clear in the Articles of Association that the board consists of those elected to it and those co-opted onto it. Anyone not a member of the Board of Trustees can only be invited to attend its meetings, usually for a particular item on its agenda, except for the director of the museum.” The face had gained an accretion of granite. “There is a person here who is not a member of the board and who has not been invited.”
Several members looked at Theo, or at the handles of his pram, he being sunk beneath the tabletop. Other members stared down at their agenda and minutes of the last meeting.
Maya’s mouth almost dropped open with astonishment. “You must be joking!”
“Now, er, Maya, I’m sure if you think about it, you will understand,” mumbled Sir Stafford. “There are rules in the Articles—”
“But I asked you when I came to the Festival Committee, told you I couldn’t get a minder for this date, and I’d have to bring Theo. You said everyone would understand since most of them had ‘been there themselves.’ ”
“Ah,” said Sir Stafford, “I think there has been a slight misunderstanding. I couldn’t preempt a decision of the board—”
“But Theo isn’t a person! He’s only eight months old!”
“I think you will find that there is no lower age limit to being a person. Certainly the Articles of Association stipulate none. I think for him to remain we need a motion. I propose that the motion reads, ‘That Theo Tyndale be allowed to attend this meeting.’ Do I have a proposer? A seconder? Excellent. Those for the motion—”
Maya was getting her things together almost before the vote was complete. There were six for, then six against, the latter vote including Sir Stafford’s. When he gave his casting vote, Theo was certified as a noninvited person and Maya took hold of the baby buggy, not even trying to suppress her outrage, and marched him out of the boardroom. The comic aspects of the self-important body declining to have a baby observe its proceedings did not strike her till later. Her overwhelming feeling was that she had been outmaneuvered.
“In what sense outmaneuvered?” asked Felicity. “And what were they trying to achieve?”
“I don’t know,” replied Maya. “But the private session of the board is going to be a discussion of Wes Gannett’s future with us. That’s what they’ll be doing now. He’s the museum director, and his initial contract is nearly up. I think they calculated who would vote for him to continue, and who would be against. I’d been sounded out at a committee meeting and I was very much in favor of a renewed contract. I presume I’ve been got rid of so as to have a clear vote not to renew the contract. Much more satisfactory than having to use the chairman’s casting vote. That always smells of a fit-up—one person having two votes.”
“A fit-up, as you’ve been fitted up,” said Felicity.
“Exactly. I was also in favor of having a permanent exhibition in the house rather than a series of less ambitious ones.”
“Less ambitious ones?”
“I wanted a big subject: a history of the women’s movement, in fact.”
“Ah. Not the best time for it. Either twenty years late or I would guess twenty years before its time.”
“Maybe. Anyway I had some support but by no means enough.”
“Now Gannett: why do half the board want to sack him?”
“Search me. But I’m pretty sure the chairman does. That’s Sir Stafford Quarles. He’s managed, as he usually does, to get half the board on his side.”
“Sir Stafford being the chairman,” said Felicity meditatively. “And to do that he had to get rid of you?”
Maya nodded. “I’m just an art teacher and part-time artist.”
“And they’ll still be discussing it?”
Maya peered out of the window in the direction of the stable block.
“Wesley isn’t pacing around outside, but I think they allotted an hour to the discussion, so they probably haven’t voted on him yet. They are capable of having an hour’s discussion on whether to dispense with having biscuits with the tea or coffee, so they surely can have an hour on a genuinely important topic.”
“Then why don’t you go back to the meeting?” Felicity asked. “You might be in time for the vote. I can look after Theo.”
Maya looked at her. “Oh, but I couldn’t. Two babies, two prams—”
“Theo looks to be a lot less trouble than Carola, my eldest, when she was young. Go on—I’ll finish my coffee and bun and then take a walk outside. Get along—hurry. Take all the time you need in there.”
Maya looked at Felicity questioningly, got an encouraging nod, then dashed out of the cafeteria and hurried through the wilting rose garden in the direction of the old stables.
Maya paused for a moment, then opened the door of the Trustees’ Room.
“Problem solved,” she said brightly. More brightly than she actually felt. She shot a glance around the table. Janet Porritt was obviously trying to think up a point of order or remember some obscure clause in the Articles of Association. Sir Stafford was clearly—a rare occurrence—nonplussed.
“Ah, I see. You’ve not—”
“I haven’t left him in a basket by the bulrushes,” said Maya. “Or palmed him off on one of our members of staff. He’s being looked after—thank you for your concern.”
Her carefree tone obviously brought Sir Stafford up short. “Ah—splendid. We’ve not managed to come to any decision.” He obviously had tried to drain any sign of regret from his voice but had failed. Maya had returned to the meeting just in time.
“I have to say I don’t yet see why some members are unwilling to renew the contract,” said Ben Hooley, a local primary-school head teacher. “Gannett may have taken time to settle in, but this was his first job in this kind of organization—”
“Australia,” murmured Sir Stafford. “How should he have had experience of a fine house such as Walbrook?”
“But it’s good sometimes to get an entirely outside view of things, don’t you think? Anyway, the point I’m making is that since he recovered from the death of his wife, he’s been a first-rate director in my view. Absolutely on the ball as far as his ideas on presentation are concerned, with real expertise in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century art, which is where we need it. He did a wonderful job in his paper on pensions, absolutely on top of all the legislation about disabled access—really an all-round man, and a great success.”
“I’d agree with that,” said Maya. “You’ve only got to look at the visitor numbers, even though we’re only open two days a week, all the wonderful publicity we’ve had, and the take-up for the education program starting next year—it’s fantastic.”
Sir Stafford had sucked in a very audible breath. “I think visitor numbers have everything to do with social trends and very little to do with the business of a director.”
“There is a danger,” said Maya quietly, “that whenever something is going wrong the fault lies with the director, and whenever it is going right, it is not his achievement.”
“Particularly,” said Ben Hooley, “remembering something that no one is mentioning, though it is highly relevant: the fact that the previous director was suspended and then got rid of after only six months. What is it going to do to our reputation if another director falls by the wayside?”
There was instant babble, with one-half of the board shouting and wagging fingers at the other half. The most interesting exchange that Maya could distinguish was “The complaint from the members of staff was absolutely unanimous” and the comment “That is what most people found suspicious.”
Maya decided, as a newish member of the board, that she should try to act as peacemaker.
“If I may make a suggestion,” she said. A sheepish quiet fell over the room, but several looked at her with open hostility on their faces. “There seem to be two opinions on whether Wes has been a success as director or not. We need to acknowledge both views. But there can be no two opinions about the likelihood of damaging publicity—certainly in the local papers, possibly in the national ones as well. We must remember that the more successful the festival is, the more we are the object of general interest. I suggest we reach a compromise: that Wes’s contract be renewed for a further two years.”
It wasn’t what Sir Stafford wanted, but he had been stymied by the threat of damaging publicity.
“One year?” he suggested almost timidly.
“If he has only one year, he will spend much of his time applying for jobs,” said Maya. “We won’t get the best out of him.”
“Agreed,” said Ben Hooley. “And Wes’s best is very good.”
“And we can use the current financial situation—practically every museum and gallery in the land is feeling the pinch these days, with the American visitor numbers so poor—to explain why we can’t do more at the moment,” said Maya.
In the event, the compromise was passed on the nod. By now Wes Gannett was waiting in the sun outside, and he was called to the meeting, no longer private, and the discussion went on its rambling, inconsequential way. Maya, moderately happy at the outcome, stayed to the end.
In the late-autumn sunlight Felicity did a great deal of wheeling up and down and round about, becoming quite dextrous at coping with one baby buggy in each hand. She did a bit of elementary playing with Theo, though he was inclined to roll himself up into a ball and gurgle. She kept an eye on the house. The small but steady stream of visitors included several carrying musical instruments. Most of the paying customers came for their stroll around after their visit to the house, though not the musicians.
From the open windows of one of the downstairs rooms, Felicity heard a series of chamber pieces and thought this added a distinct plus to her visit. When she saw an elderly man being wheeled by a young woman out of the lodge just outside the main gates and proceeding toward the house, she recognized the composer Graham Quarles—he must be the brother, cousin, or at any rate some relation to Sir Stafford Quarles, the chairman of the board, whom Maya Tyndale had mentioned. Graham, after a period of eclipse during the era of twelve-tone music and outrÉ experiments with percussive utensils, was enjoying something of a revival. She had recently read a piece about him in one of the Sunday papers. As the man in the wheelchair neared the house and he heard the music being rehearsed inside, his right hand began making little gestures, as if in response to the music. His left side and hand were inert, lifeless, and she realized he had probably suffered a stroke.
She walked toward him to get as unobtrusively as possible a better look, but at that moment the main door into the stables opened and the members of the board emerged, their meeting over. Most of them got into their cars and drove away, and only Maya Tyndale headed in the direction of the house.
“Did it go well?” asked Felicity, as Maya took over her buggy and they walked together up to the house.
“Pretty well.” Maya looked at the house, red and inviting in the sunlight. But she shook her head, declining its invitation. “Have you got a car?”
“In the main car park here.”
“I feel like talking, but not around the house. Would that be an imposition?”
“Not at all. I’m curious. I’m always curious, in fact. Would a pub be okay? I’m not breast-feeding and I feel like a long drink.”
“Perfect. I am, but I actually like orange juice. Can we manage two strong-willed males and two strollers?”
“With difficulty, but it can be done.”
So half an hour later they were in the Black Heifer in Kettlestone drinking orange juice and a small lager, and Maya was recounting the events of the meeting in a purely factual way, as Felicity had suggested would be the best. She was interested first in information, only later in conjecture or impression.
“So,” she said, as Maya finished, “the director has two further years. Was that why I didn’t see Sir Stafford come out at the end of the meeting? He was talking with Wesley Gannett about the board’s decision?”
“That’s right,” said Maya with a grimace.
“Having kept him on tenterhooks throughout the main part of the meeting?”
“Do I gather that human relationships are not Sir Stafford’s forte?”
“In some ways he seems totally unaware of them. On the other hand he seems to be rather good at manipulating people to get his own way, and since the decision went largely in Wes’s favor, I bet it was presented as his decision alone.”
“Ah. I suppose he uses the clout of his name and his experience of organizations such as the Trust in the interests of the manor, and to get his own way.”
“Very much so. In great and little things. He and his wife have a flat in the house during the run-up to the full-time opening—a rather splendid flat carved out of some of the bedrooms on the first floor. And since he runs this festival of music and the arts almost single-handed, he has plenty of clout and patronage at his disposal.”
“And he’d managed to get half the board on his side,” said Felicity.
“Exactly. On the other hand, he didn’t have the sense to see that getting rid of two directors in quick succession would certainly have resulted in some very bad publicity.”
“I suppose the country gentry in the past could rely on discretion in the media, provided they kept their flies buttoned up.”
“Even if they didn’t. Money talks in a country area. But I’ve never heard that Stafford has problems in that direction. Or Graham either, come to that.”
“Yes. Stafford’s brother. Much loved in the locality I believe, when he was a young man. Gentle without side, that’s what people in the village said about him. Not that the family was really gentry and therefore qualified to have ‘side.’ They just lived for a short time in the Dower House here on the property—Mum, Dad, kids. It was Timothy Quarles, a bachelor, living in the big house.”
“I haven’t had the pleasure . . .”
“Long dead. The last family member to live in the house was Rupert Fiennes. He was at the meeting this morning, but he keeps a low profile.”
“I think I saw Graham, the composer, while you were in the meeting. Has he had a stroke?”
“Yes. He and his attendant seem to manage to communicate, but otherwise he’s pretty much in a shell.”
“So if we cut out sex, and if money matters are in the hands of a Trust, Sir Stafford is probably motivated by some kind of power lust: keeping the decisions for himself—and that means getting rid of the museum director?”
Maya shrugged. “Seems possible. You think of power-crazy people as Robert Maxwell types, but if that’s what makes Stafford tick, then he’s a lot more subtle about it.”
“True. But if he’s already got rid of one director . . .”
Maya’s forehead creased. “I don’t know if that was Sir Stafford. Tell you the truth, I hardly know anything about it. It was before I came on the board. But I think there was a petition from the staff questioning her competence.”
“Oh, yes. Definitely female. Annabel Sowerby. I don’t know what happened to her. They’ve only recently started to mention her again. Reports that she wrote while she was director get quoted, usually with the implication that she was on the ball—more so than Wesley Gannett. I’m pretty sure that’s unfair to Wes and just part of the whispering campaign that the crowd around Sir Stafford have, I suspect, been organizing. Any mud is welcome, even if it means partial rehabilitation of the sacked Annabel. They rely on people’s memories being short.”
“But you could learn more about the sacking or suspension of Ms. Sowerby if you tried?”
“I should think so. Ben was on the board then, I’m pretty sure. Ben Hooley. He was a great help today. But what’s your interest?”
Felicity decided she had better come clean.
“Raw material. I had my first novel published earlier this year, to what my agent called a ‘chorus of muted praise.’ The second is all but finished. I have to have a good nose for a subject if I’m going to go on, and I think I’m acquiring one. A nose, I mean. Walbrook Manor seems to have all the characteristics of a meaty plot.”
Maya smiled, in obvious appreciation and interest. “There’s a concert at Walbrook next Saturday. They have three or four a year to generate interest in the festival. There are still a few tickets going . . .”
Felicity thought. “I wonder if I could persuade Charlie to come. He’s a policeman. Good at getting information. I suppose those were the performers we heard rehearsing? Charlie hates chamber music—calls it ‘all that scraping.’ Still, he’s often the only black at things like that, and people come up and talk to him as some kind of interracial gesture. I might put the thumbscrews on him. We don’t have any problem with babysitters.”
“If you do come,” said Maya, “it might be a good idea for you and me to keep apart.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Some people might be unwilling to talk to your husband if they associate you with me. You don’t want to get labeled—docketed as one of the awkward squad. Who knows—Sir Stafford will be intrigued that you are a novelist. He might try to sound you out. Even see if you might be interested in coming on the board.”
“Well, I suppose that’s better than geriatric gropings.”
“Oh, Sir Stafford is not geriatric, or, so far as I know, a groper. . . . Would you be?”
“Interested? Well, in the abstract definitely not. I don’t like bodies like that, and I don’t think I function well on them. On the other hand, if there’s something interesting going on . . .”
“I really do think there must be something, and that a good part of the board has sold its soul to the devil.”
“Sir Stafford is a very smooth, subtle devil by the sound of it.”
“Devils usually are. We mustn’t jump to conclusions. There could be a quite different Satan at work. Do you really know what hurts most about the business of bringing Theo into the meeting? More than Sir Stafford making me think it was quite okay, then using it as an excuse to get me out of the meeting?”
“All the women members of the board voted against me.”
© 2012 Robert Barnard
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