Vine Manor

Chapter 1

In a remote place deep in the south-west of England, walled away from the world by cliffs and crags, was a grand old house known as Vine Manor. A poorly maintained road wound through the half dozen acres of vines that gave the house its name, leading at last to the circular driveway and the imposing porch at the front of the house. Behind the house stood a dark and gloomy wood whose branches grew so thick that, even in the height of summer, little sunlight penetrated the shadows that carpeted the forest floor. Between the vines and the wood there had once been an extensive garden, extravagantly laid out with floral beds and ornamental topiary. Now the wilderness crept upon it from behind, while the strangling grasp of the vines attacked from the front. Close to the house, the roses fought bravely on; the rest of the garden had all but given up the battle. From a distance the house itself appeared much as it had for three hundred years, the residence of an important and wealthy family. As with an aging beauty, it was only at close range that cracks in the paintwork were visible. A short distance from the house, beyond the vines, an old stone chapel stood in a graveyard. Here reposed the ancestors of that wealthy family and of the inhabitants, some rich and some poor, of the nearby village. Acid-washed masonry weighed down the spirits of the dead and held them fast beneath the earth.

In the Spring of 1930, three women lived in this house; two old and one young. Maria Grayling had lived there since her wedding day more than thirty years ago. The happy early days of her marriage remained a vivid memory. She had been a widow for many years now; her one son had long since left home. She had been saved from the shades of loneliness by the bright presence of Helena Colville, the girl she had cared for since she was an infant, now grown into a lovely young woman. In their shared affection for each other they were closer than many a mother and daughter. The other inhabitant of the house had been there the longest; Eve Perry was already the housekeeper of Vine Manor when Maria had arrived as a bride so many years ago. The house was much too big for the three of them and keeping the huge house clean was far too great a task for Mrs Perry with her bad knee but Maria loved the place and Helena could remember no other home.

Young and stronger than either of them, Helena did what she could to help them both. Two or three times a week she walked to the village with a shopping list and returned with as much food as she could carry. She knew every face in the village and it was with surprise that she saw, as she came out of the greengrocer's, a strange man watching her from across the street. As she looked in his direction he turned away as if to pretend he had not been observing her. She decided to say nothing to him and continued on her way until she reached the point in her walk home where she left the wide road that was the village High Street and turned onto a footpath that led through dense woodland to Vine Manor. As she walked through the green silence between the ancient oaks, an uneasy feeling came to her, growing stronger with every step. She wanted to turn round and look behind her, but she had walked this way so many times she knew her way even in the dark, and now it was daytime! She had never felt fear before in these woods. Then she heard a noise behind her, a crack as if someone had stepped on a twig. She turned around, lifting her shopping bags in front of her as if to form a barrier between her and whatever unseen thing lurked in the wood. Out of the darkness between the close-set trees stepped the man from the village, the stranger. He had followed her here, to the depths of the wood.

"I'm sorry, did I startle you?" he said. As he came closer she instinctively took a step backwards, away from him. "I'm going to a house called Vine Manor," he continued.

"This is the right way," Helena confirmed, "I'm going there myself. I live there."

"You live there? Are you Helena?"

"Yes, I am! How do you know my name?"

"Helena, it's me, Paul! I'm Paul Grayling!"

Paul, who she had not seen since she was a child of six. Maria's son, who had been almost a brother to her. A tall boy who had been patient when she had followed him down the corridors of Vine Manor, pestering him with endless questions. He had given her his old books to read and let her play with his discarded train set. Twelve years ago he had disappeared without a word of warning and his mother had never got over it. Now he was back.

"Paul! Is it really you? Maria will be so happy to see you! But why did you leave us, all those years ago? And why didn't you write, or phone? We missed you so much!"

"I don't really want to talk about it now, Helena. I'll have to tell Mama when I see her, I suppose."

"Never mind, what's important is you're back! I hope you can stay for a long time?"

"Yes! I plan to live at Vine Manor, if that's all right with Mama. Who else lives there now?"

"Just Maria and me, and Eve Perry, of course."

"And what about your father?"

"He lives in Paris, I haven't seen him for years. He got married a few months ago, to a French woman."

"How is Mama? Is she well?"

"Yes, she's fine, but Paul, you have to remember she's older! You'll find she's changed, it's been twelve years."

"Yes, we've all changed! You didn't recognise me at first, did you?"

"No, if you hadn't told me who you were I would never have known you!"

They walked along the familiar path that led to the side gate. Paul took the heavier of the two shopping bags. It would be good to have a man around, Helena thought. As much as she loved Maria, she would enjoy the company of someone nearer her own age. Paul was ten years older than her; he had been sixteen when he left home.

"The house hasn't changed very much," she said as they entered by the kitchen door. "You'll find most things are just where you remember them. Maria likes things the way they are, and if I move anything Mrs Perry just moves it back again. Maria's probably in the sitting room."

They left the groceries in the kitchen and went at once to the sitting room, Helena leading the way in her excited anticipation of Maria's joy at the sight of Paul. But Maria rose from her chair with a puzzled look that was quickly replaced with a warm smile of greeting.

"I see you've brought a friend back from the village, Helena." She turned to Paul. "Would you like some tea or coffee?"

"Maria! It's Paul! He's come back! Don't you recognise him?"

"It's me, Mama. It's Paul!"

"Paul?" Maria was wearing her reading glasses. She pulled them down her nose a little and looked hard at Paul over the top. "Paul? Is it really you?" She took her glasses off altogether and rubbed her eyes. "I can't believe it. It's been so long. Paul!" She put both arms round her son and held him close to her as a tear ran down her face.

After giving in to tears and hugging her son for a few minutes, Maria asked, "Paul, tell us, where have you been all this time?"

"I've been living in London. I took a job with a garage, fixing cars."

"Yes, you always loved cars, and even when you were a little boy you liked to take things apart to see how they worked."

"Yes, you broke my favourite toy, a long time ago!" Helena remembered, "you took it apart and then you couldn't work out how to put it back together. I'm sure you remember which toy it was!"

"No, I can't remember. It was a long time ago." Paul answered, frowning.

Maria laughed. "You were both children then. It was the clockwork ballet dancer, wasn't it? I remember you were very upset at the time, Helena, and Paul, I'm sure you were punished for breaking it. I must tell Eve Perry you're back, Paul, she'll be so pleased to see you. Also of course she'll need to know there's another mouth to feed! Come with me to the laundry room, I know she is working there this afternoon."

They walked down the long gloomy corridor that led to the back of the house. In the laundry room white swirls of steam rose from huge tubs of boiling water and there was a strong smell of soap. Through the steam Mrs Perry could be seen, a tall, thin woman with iron-grey hair, loading damp sheets into a big basket.

"Go in and surprise her," Helena whispered to Paul, "I bet she doesn't recognise you."

Paul stepped through the door into the hot mist. "Mrs Perry?" he said hesitantly.

Mrs Perry turned round with a startled squawk, dropping the sheet she had been holding. "Who's that? Oh my Lord!"

"Mrs Perry, it's me, Paul! I'm back! I'm sorry I startled you. It's Helena's fault, she wanted to see if you'd recognise me."

"Master Paul! I'm sorry, you've changed so much, I would never have recognised you." She picked up the sheet she had dropped and put it in the basket with the rest. "Do you want your old job, then?"

"My old job?" said Paul, puzzled.

"Yes, don't you remember? When you became such a tall young lad, you used to help me peg out the washing. You were so proud of being the only one except me who could reach the line! No, I don't expect you to help today, I know your mother will want to hear all about what you've been up to!"

"Yes, you'll have to tell me the whole story," Maria said, taking Paul's arm as they walked back to the sitting room. Helena stayed behind for a moment.

"That gave me a fright, Miss Helena! For a moment, when he walked in like that with no warning, I thought I was seeing a ghost!"

Read Chapter 2