Trenoweth House Ch. 01
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1. An Intriguing Opportunity
Dr John Rogers stopped reading the report and glanced up at his laptop when he heard the chiming sound that indicated that he was due for a meeting. He pushed his glasses further up his aquiline nose and smiled as he saw the notification informing him that young Amber Smyth was due in the next few minutes. He leant back in his executive chair and swept his hands through his thinning grey hair as he conjured up an image of the young woman.
Such a pretty young thing with bright blonde hair and the kind of slim figure that reminded him of his first wife. Ideally, he preferred a few more curves on a woman, a little more meat on the bone but she was undeniably one of the most attractive members of his staff.
He recalled why he’d called her in, remembering that he had a pretty good opportunity to offer her. His thin lips curved into a smile as he thought about the possibilities. Maybe if he played it right, she’d be so grateful she’d consider going out for a drink to celebrate.
Amber glanced at her watch and noted she was a little late. She quickened her pace, walking a little faster down the long corridor, past the seemingly endless glass display cases, the rhythmic click of her black heels on the wooden floor echoing around the bare walls. She knocked on the door of the Head Curator’s office and waited.
“Come,” she heard him shout.
“Dr Rogers? You wanted to see me?” she said, as he looked up.
“Ah yes, come in, come in,” he said, ushering her in with a casual wave of his hand.
He’d been the head curator since she’d started, a gaunt, bespectacled man in his fifties with neat, steely grey hair and a certain reputation amongst the female staff for sometimes being ‘overly-friendly’. More than one of her colleagues had warned her to give him a wide berth at any after-work events involving alcohol and she felt his eyes sliding over her body as she made her way towards his desk. Despite the summer heat, she pulled her charcoal grey suit jacket a little tighter and tugged her skirt down over her knees self-consciously as she took a seat.
“Yes, yes, do sit down. Now then, where’s that email…” he muttered as he turned his attention back to his laptop.
She crossed her legs and waited patiently whilst he searched. Behind him, the sounds of the city were carried in on the warm breeze drifting through the half-open window: the multi-lingual murmur of tourists, a distant siren, the low rumble of an airplane taking off.
“Ah, yes, here it is,” he said, peering at her over the top of his half-moon glasses. “A little opportunity for you.”
“An opportunity?” Amber echoed.
“Yes, how long have you been with the museum now? Four years, is it?”
“Nearly five, actually. I joined right after graduating,” Amber said, shaking her head. A strand of honey-blonde hair had escaped her black hair-clip and she neatly tucked it behind her ear.
“Ah well, high time you got the chance of a little field trip then. I’d normally send Vanessa, she’s our Edwardian era expert, but she’s on maternity leave right now, so I’m looking for a volunteer for a little excursion.”
“Yes, we’ve had an email from a couple renovating an old manor house in Cornwall. We get quite a few emails like this, usually about roman coins or worthless old pottery fragments found in fields but this seems more intriguing. Apparently, their builders found a large collection of antique erotica in the cellar and they’ve asked if we’d be interested in assessing it. I’ll forward the email onto you. They’ve attached a few images, but there’s a lot of stuff here. Three large trunks to sort through, so we really need someone to go down and have a proper look to see if there’s anything worthwhile.”
“Oh, but I don’t know anything about Edwardian-era erotica, I specialise in…”
“Early twentieth century photography, Cartier-Bresson, Weston and the like. Yes, I know but I think this find is mainly photographs, so it’s very much up your alley, so to speak.”
“And you’re from the south-west, right?”
“Well, from Dorset, yes, but I’m not sure I’m the best person. Isn’t there anyone more suitable?”
“To be honest, a lot of people are on holiday right now, so you’d be helping me out, but of course it’s up to you…”
“I see. How long do you think it would take?”
“Well, at least a week, maybe two. Listen, if you’re not sure we could always talk it over after work…”
Amber barely heard him. Whenever she had a tough decision she had the urge to rush outside for a cigarette, but she’d given up two weeks earlier. She would have loved to take a moment to give it some proper thought, or maybe discuss it with her colleague Fiona in the dingy alley around the back of the museum, where the smokers gathered.
She supposed there wasn’t anything that urgent to keep her in London and Fiona would look after the apartment and feed her cat, so perhaps it would be nice to have a kind of working holiday. She’d been a bit listless and lacking motivation casino şirketleri since she split up with her boyfriend Jeff several weeks back. She really shouldn’t spend another weekend moping around the flat, hoping he’d call. Perhaps it would be cathartic to get away and see somewhere new.
“No, that’s kind but actually it does sound good. Can I just think about it overnight?”
“Of course, of course. I’ll send the email on, but there are plenty of others who’d fancy a couple a weeks in sunny Cornwall so can you let me know tomorrow?”
A little over a week later, Amber found herself hurtling along the narrow country lanes of Cornwall in the bright summer sunshine, loudly singing along to a catchy pop tune on the radio and obediently following the polite female voice of her sat-nav. Once she’d turned off the drab, grey motorway, the roads had become increasingly narrow and colourful, and now she listened to the engine groan and whine like a moody teenager as the rollercoaster road suddenly switched from steep downhill to steep uphill. It felt remote out here, and she found herself squeezing into lay-bys as she passed tractors and caravans, the villages becoming smaller and sparser, her car radio and mobile losing reception as she headed towards the coast.
“It can’t be far now,” she muttered to herself, as the car struggled up yet another steep lane, the trees on either side arching over the road forming a leafy tunnel that was dim even in the bright sunshine. She kept thinking she must nearly be there, but these windy country roads seemed to stretch on endlessly, a country mile seemingly much further than the miles she was used to.
“Left turn in one mile,” the sat-nav instructed her as she reached the summit and the trees became a low hedge offering up fine views across rolling green pastures dotted with distant farmhouses, the sea a thin blue strip on the horizon, a shade darker than the sky.
Amber had to brake hard to avoid missing the sharp left turn and soon she was driving up a long, tree-lined drive and pulling into a circular car park dominated by an old stone fountain in front of a grand, old country house. She got out of the car and stretched her long legs as she took in her surroundings.
It looked like a grand, Victorian-era manor house, constructed with solid, light-grey stone blocks with tall windows along the first two floors, and smaller angled windows built into the slate roof. It was clear that there was a lot of building work underway; two white vans were parked opposite her and she could hear the sounds of hammering coming from inside.
She was just ducking back inside the car to put her sunglasses away when she noticed a pleasant-looking, middle-aged lady striding towards her, her bright pink trainers crunching on the gravel.
“Hi, you must be Amber. I’m Carmen, welcome to Trenoweth House,” she said with a warm smile, extending a well-manicured hand as Amber reversed back out of her car. She was tall and slim with thick, glossy auburn hair and long, tanned legs extending from a pair of stylish navy shorts.
“Nice to meet you Carmen, what a lovely name,” Amber said politely.
“My mother was a big opera fan,” the woman explained.
“Well,” Amber said, grasping her hand. “It’s a lovely place you’ve got here.”
“Thanks,” Carmen said, turning and staring at the house as if she hadn’t noticed it before. “We bought it at the start of the year, all part of our plan to escape the rat race. It is rather grand, isn’t it?”
“It’s lovely,” Amber agreed, wondering how much it might have cost. Maybe a million?
“Yes, we’re converting it into a boutique hotel. It’s listed of course, so we had to be careful with the exterior but that’s more or less finished now. There’s still a fair amount of work to do inside though. Anyway, let’s get you inside and I’ll show you around.”
“Great,” Amber said, heaving her case from the car’s boot.
“Oh look, here’s my youngest, Ben, he’ll carry that for you,” Carmen said, gesturing towards the house where a young man loped across the drive towards them.
“Hi, I’m Ben,” he said, a little breathlessly. He was tall and athletic with an unruly mop of blonde hair, and wearing a faded navy t-shirt, and an old pair of grey beach shorts, stained with colourful splashes of paint.
“Thanks,” Amber said as he took her suitcase and slung her bright pink rucksack over one of his broad shoulders.
“So I hear you’re opening soon,” Amber said, noting how light her luggage looked in Ben’s hands as she and Carmen followed him up steps guarded by a pair of large, stone hounds.
“Yes, we’ve got bookings in around six weeks, all very exciting,” Carmen said. “But we’ve still got some work to do on the ground floor, mainly electrics, so I’ve put you right at the top, out of the way, in one of the old servant’s rooms that we’ve converted to singles, I hope that’s okay.”
“Thanks, I’m sure that’ll be fine.”
“So this is our reception,” Carmen said, as they entered the house. Inside it smelled of fresh casino firmalari paint and in contrast, to the Edwardian exterior, it was very bright and modern with vanilla-coloured walls and a black-and-white tiled floor. A wide staircase with an elaborate black, wrought-iron banister swept upwards to their left.
“And this is the dining room,” Carmen said, leading her through a door to the right next to a tall antique grandfather clock.
“Lovely,” Amber said, looking around a large room where light flooded in from the tall windows, through which she could see the edge of a couple of tennis courts behind a wire fence. There was a large, highly polished dining table in the centre, and the walls were hung with gilt-edged mirrors and paintings of the local coastline.
“This is where we have dinner in the evenings, and this is the kitchen,” Carmen said, leading her through another door and into a large, functional-looking kitchen, all granite work-surfaces and stainless steel. “I’ve arranged with Dr Rogers to provide all your food on your expenses. So come down and help yourself to anything from here when you need it.”
“Okay, great, thanks.”
“Now there’s a little study here,” Carmen said, pausing whilst Amber poked her head onto a cosy-looking room, with some large bookcases. Inside, several comfy-looking chairs were arranged around a coffee table and in one corner, there was a small well-stocked bar.
Carmen led her quickly onwards up the wide staircase, pausing briefly at the top. Ben smiled as he skipped down the stairs past them.
“Now, Ben and I are on this floor, but you’re up here,” Carmen said,
“So is it just you and Ben here?”
“Well, my husband, Douglas, is around here somewhere, but he’s going back to London to attend to something urgent after dinner tonight. I think my eldest son, Callum, is coming down to help out in a few days. A local girl, Tilly, comes and helps out some days, but it’s her day off today. And of course, there are tradesmen in and out all the time.”
“I see,” Amber said, as Carmen lead her into her room.
“I hope this is okay,” Carmen said.
“This is perfect,” Amber said, looking around. It was a clean, pleasant-looking room with a two tall windows cutting into the sloping ceiling. Ben had placed her luggage on the large single bed.
“And this is your en-suite,” Carmen said, pushing open a white door to reveal a small bathroom, with a new-looking shower and gleaming white tiles.
“Great,” Amber said, peeking around the door.
“Now, we’ve put the trunks next door,” Carmen added.
“Yes, the ones with the vintage photographs,” Carmen said.
“Oh yes, of course,” Amber said, blushing. In all the excitement, she’d nearly forgotten that she was here to work. It had felt like she was checking into a hotel for a few days off.
“Although after your long drive you might want to just unpack and relax, it’s up to you.”
“Sure,” Amber said, checking out the view from the window.
“So, I think that’s all. Dinner’s at seven. Um, is there anything else you need?”
“No, that’s fine. Thanks for showing me around, see you at seven.”
The first thing Amber did was connect to the Wi-Fi and check her mobile: there was a text from her colleague Fiona asking if she’d arrived safely but nothing from Jeff. She sighed and started to unpack.
“So you’re at university?” Amber said, before popping another forkful of Carmen’s delicious lasagne into her mouth.
“Yes, at Bristol. I’ve come back here for the summer to help mum and dad get the house ready,” Ben confirmed.
There were four of them crowded around one end of the large, highly polished mahogany dining table: Amber, Ben, Carmen and her husband Douglas. He looked to be a little older than Carmen, a stout man in his early fifties with watery pale blue eyes, thinning curly blonde hair going silver at the temples.
“And you’re doing History?”
“Yes, and he’s doing very well,” Douglas said.
“He’s on course to get a first so we’re very proud,” his mother added, ruffling his hair.
“Mum!” he exclaimed, pulling a face.
Amber smiled as he combed his mop of unruly sandy hair back off his forehead. He looked like a younger version of Douglas; quite good-looking, his smooth, clean-shaven face and large grey eyes giving him a boyish, teenage look although Amber guessed he must be twenty or so if he was in his final year at university.
Just as they were finishing, Carmen’s mobile rang. She frowned as she glanced at the screen then excused herself. Soon after, Douglas excused himself too and said his goodbyes before getting his taxi.
“So what do you do when you’re not working on the house?” Amber asked Ben.
“Oh, you now, I go into town sometimes. Or walk down to the coast. Actually, I’m doing a little hike along the coast in a few days with some friends. Or sometimes I practice my tennis, I’m trying to make the university team. You’ve seen the courts at the back?”
“Yes, I can see them from my window. güvenilir casino So you must be good then.”
“Oh, you know, I’m okay,” he said modestly. “Do you play?”
“Oh, I used to play a bit when I was younger. Not since I moved to London though,” Amber said. In fact, her parents belonged to the local tennis club back in Dorset where she grew up and she had played a lot as a teenager. The year she’d won the annual under-sixteens tournament remained one of her proudest moments.
“Well, you’ll have to give me a game, I could do with someone to practice with,” he said eagerly.
“Well, maybe but I’m not sure I’m up to your standard and I do have a lot of work to get through,” she warned.
“Yeah, have you seen those trunks? They’re really big and heavy. The workmen found them behind a false wall when they were clearing out the cellar. They couldn’t find a key so in the end they broke them open with a crowbar. The contents caused a bit of a stir, I can tell you.”
“I bet they did,” Amber said, grinning. She’d seen some of the pictures, and they were quite explicit.
“Yes, we tried the local museum but they said there’s no way they could put that kind of stuff on display, it’s just too racy for a little provincial museum. And besides, there’s so much of it, they wouldn’t have the storage.”
They talked for a little while longer before a combination of the food, wine and tiredness started to weigh on Amber.
“Anyway, it’s been a long day for me and I suppose I ought to get an early start,” Amber said, getting to her feet, and covering her mouth as she yawned. “See you in the morning, Ben.”
Amber lay on top of the bed, dressed only in an old, baggy t-shirt and a pair of knickers. The windows were open wide, and she watched drowsily as the sky slowly turned from blue to violet to black. She fanned herself with her paperback as she waited for the room to cool down. She vaguely watched a documentary on the tiny television fixed to the wall in the corner, until she felt her eyelids getting heavier and she reached out in the semi-darkness and hit the ‘off’ button on the remote control.
It was so dark and quiet here, she thought to herself as she drifted off. In London, there was always the faint amber glow of streetlights and the distant rumble of the underground but here there was simply darkness and silence.
An odd noise awoke here a few hours later. She rolled over: the digital clock on the bedside table glowed “01:14” as she held her breath, straining her ears. There it was again! A thin high-pitched almost-ghostly sound. She lay still listening to the distant moan gradually rise, seeming to get closer then fade away again. It was so faint it was hard to tell if it was human or animal. Or perhaps something else. After a few minutes, it finally faded away for good, and Amber rolled over and fell back into a deep but troubled sleep.
The next morning, she was awoken later than she would have liked by the sounds of seagulls quarrelling noisily outside her window. She got out of bed and stretched as she watched the gulls, soaring above the trees on the stiff sea-breeze. The sky was clear and blue, promising another warm day ahead. After a quick shower, she jogged down the stairs to the kitchen.
“Hi, you must be Amber,” the young woman said as she entered.
“And you must be Tilly. Carmen told me about you,” Amber replied, returning her smile.
Tilly was a short, buxom young woman, who looked to be in her early twenties, with lustrous dark hair, large deep brown eyes and a shy smile. She spoke in the broad rich tones of the local accent, making Amber’s name sound like “Amburr”.
“Nice to meet you. I think Ben and Carmen have gone off to the supermarket, so it’s just me and you ‘ere this morning,” she said, her voice as smooth and rich as the coffee she was pouring into her mug.
“And you help out here, right?”
“Yes, Carmen’s training me to look after the hotel, you know, cooking, cleaning, taking bookings on reception, that sort of thing. I’m going full-time as soon as I’ve finished my catering course at college.”
“You weren’t here last night, were you?” Amber said, curious to know if she’d imagined the strange noises in the night.
“No, I only stay over occasionally.”
They chatted amiably as Tilly showed her where everything was, and after a breakfast of black coffee and toast, Amber skipped back upstairs to start her first day’s work.
The room next to Amber’s was similar to hers, except for the lack of furniture. A single bed was pushed back against the wall, its mattress bare and under the window were the three large trunks. She knelt down and examined them, running a hand over the dark, smooth wood and worn leather straps, pitted and scarred with age.
She lifted the lid of the first, straining as she found it heavier than she anticipated. Inside it was full to the top with hundreds of faded, black-and-white photo’s. She took one out: a picture of a middle-aged woman stared back at her from the last century. She was half-undressed her frilly blouse open, exposing bare breasts above her voluminous dark skirts. Her expression was difficult to read, her eyes dark and unreadable, her lips curled into a Mona Lisa smile as if she knew something that Amber didn’t.
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