“No thanks, ma’am, no thank you! It’s my pleasure! Now there’s your cab …”
The station master, a portly old gentleman with a great white moustache, set the cases down at the pavement edge, where the snow had been cleared away.
“Taxi!” he called.
Vanessa replaced the coin in her purse. ‘One of the last outposts of chivalry’, she thought, taking her first look at Belford Magna.
The quaint station entrance, with the glow from its ancient oil-lamps reflected in the snow, and the flowery gold lettering of the sign over the doorway – “Belford Magna (for Little Padgett)” – seemed a world away from the bustle of King’s Cross.
“Not many cabs round these parts, ma’am. Reckon my son Maurice here’s cornered the market”.
His breath steamed like an old locomotive.
“Come ‘ome to his Dad, he has …”, murmured the proud father, as the cab pulled up before them. “Reckons he’s goin’ to set me up proper now …”
The young man, dressed for the cold in peaked cap and scarf, wound down the window.
“Maurice, this lady wants Padgett House!” he announced. “I think you know where that is, don’t you?”
Vanessa gathered that there was some sort of understanding between man and boy, seeing the twinkle in the father’s eye as he spoke. She got into the back seat.
“You must belong to Lady Padgett, ma’am?”, enquired the station master, putting his head in at the window.
“Yes, I’m … I’m her niece”, she replied slowly, her eyes lowered.
“Mm, you’ll be the last of the Padgetts then, eh? Very sad business”, he added, shaking his head knowingly. “Used to serve up there at one time, ma’am”.
“Oh, yes?”, said Vanessa, intrigued.
“Long time ago, mind, ‘fore young Maurice ‘ere were thought on. Yes, we was all very fond of ‘er Ladyship – treated us better than he did, anyway”, he went on, darkly. “Served ‘im right to get run over, ma’am, some said, though I wouldn’t know about that myself …”
“Yes”, said Vanessa, “the papers did make rather a lot of it all, didn’t they?”
“Couple o’ years ago now, weren’t it? What was it they said, ma’am? Neither loved nor lovin’ – summat o’ that sort, it were”. He paused a moment. “Still, they’re both gone, now. Mustn’t speak ill of the departed, must we?”
“Thank you for your help with the cases, by the way, Mr., er, Ibbett”, she said, reading the name on his lapel badge.
“Not at all, ma’am. Your servant”, he said, doffing his cap. “All right, off you go now, Maurice! Good night, ma’am”.
“Bye!”, called Vanessa. She turned to wave as the car moved slowly away, the ice crunching under the wheels.
The evening had fallen fast, and light flakes of snow began to tap across the windscreen. Vanessa was pleased to be inside the car, and her ears tingled in its warmth.
“Pleasant journey from London, Miss?”, asked Maurice, cheerfully.
“Well, they could have put the heating on in the train”, she remarked.
“Don’t get many trains along this line. Matter of fact, they’ll be closing the line completely in a few months”.
“Oh, that’s a shame! Your father will lose his job, I suppose?” she said. “He seems such a helpful man, too …”
“Servile, I’d call him, Miss. Always goin’ on about knowing his own station, whatever that means …”
“Like some music, Miss?”
“That would be nice!”, she said. She took off her gloves, and began to prepare herself for her arrival. The music was suitably stately.
Padgett House! Vanessa had been a very young girl when she’d seen her aunt for the last time. She remembered very little about her, except for the silly, childish memory of the way in which her aunt spoke: out of the corner of her mouth, as though everything she said was to be treated in confidence.
“Now you will come and see us again, won’t you, dear child?”, she’d said.
But the scandal had broken soon afterwards: hints of ‘unfaithfulness in high places’, which had made little impression on the young girl other than an awareness that there were to be no more invitations to tea in the country. It eased Vanessa’s grief considerably, now, to reflect that her aunt and uncle had never offered to look after her, after her parents had passed away. She’d received no invitation to her uncle’s funeral. In fact, she’d all but forgotten the existence of Padgett House, when a letter arrived from her aunt’s solicitor, Mr. Benson, concerning the reading of the Lady’s will.
The snow beat down relentlessly.
“How far is it, Padgett House?”, she enquired.
“About half an hour should see us through, Miss”, said Maurice, his eyes firmly fixed on the road ahead. “Have to take it a bit easy, when it’s like this. In a rush, then?”
“Not really. Better to arrive late than not at all, I suppose …”
“Very true, Miss, very true”.
A word jarred in Vanessa’s ear.
“Maurice …”, she began.
“Yes, Miss?”, he replied.
“How did you guess that I wasn’t married?”
The car lurched slightly, as Maurice changed gear to take a hill.
“Easy – no ring, Miss”, he said, flashing a smile at her through the mirror.
“But I was wearing …”
“First thing I noticed, that was”.
“Oh yes”, she said, feeling the wheels slip again, as the car began to climb. She put her gloves into her handbag, amazed at the young man’s perspicacity.
“Do you get much trade around here, Maurice?”, she said.
“Have to watch the train timetable”, he confided. “Like a ferry service, sometimes. People don’t realise there’s no buses. Only two trains a day, so they couldn’t make it worth their while, I suppose”.
“I bet you get some enormous tips, though”, said Vanessa.
“All according, Miss”, he said. “They’re mostly poor people, in these parts – very few with real money, like. Had one stranger, mind, back end of last week …”
He grunted, pushing the car into bottom gear. Vanessa leaned forward, watching the snow falling into the headlights.
“Leastways, I’d never seen him before. Anyway, ten pound fare, five pound tip. Now that’s what I call a real gentleman, that is!”
The lights picked out a sign at the crossroads, on the brow of the hill. Pointing to a small opening, it read: “Little Padgett (Padgett House) – 4 miles”. Maurice took the corner slowly.
The wooded countryside glistened all around, in the pale blue glow of the moon, the music adding to its fairy-tale appearance. ‘From a bed-sit in Bermondsey to a stately home in the country’, thought Vanessa. ‘I must try to look sad as Mr Benson reads the will!’
“Very smart, he was. Proper toff, like”, continued Maurice. “Had a long chat, me and Mr. Benson. First time I’d been up this way for quite a … ”
“Who?” said Vanessa, startled by the familiar name in unfamiliar surroundings.
“Bit of a business chat, like”, he said, the moon catching his eyes through the mirror.
“But this Mr Benson …”
“Talking all the way from Belford, we was: ‘Ibbett’, he says to me, after a bit, ‘I might be able to fix up some business for you’, he says …”
He turned off the radio.
“But that’s the name of the man I’m supposed to … Maurice!”, Vanessa cried. “What … sort of business?”
The car pulled up suddenly, at the side of the road.
“Oh, quite legitimate, Miss”, he said, turning to face her, unfurling his scarf from around his neck.
It was then that she noticed that he was speaking out of the corner of his mouth.
“Quite legitimate …”
Copyright: Richard Fox 2015
All rights reserved
Speicher Train Station, Germany, by Karl von Kues (Own work) [CC BY 2.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/de/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Tracks in forest snow – http://squattersspeakeasy.com/2013/02/16/snow-valentine/