‘Athlingford’s a bit different to Oxford, Dan,’ remarked Astrid as we hurried down Fore Street. Keeping up with her ruled out any real conversation. I’m six foot two and was a runner in those days but she was almost outpacing me with her antelopean stride.
‘Agreed,’ I said, hiding shortness of breath as I looked around at the little Dorset town.
‘This old place has hidden depths, I can tell you,’ she said over her shoulder, with a sardonic laugh. What sort of depths, I wondered. The place was a bit of a mixture. I saw one or two old but rather low life pubs, a bow fronted genteel teashop opposite a greasy spoon cafe and a truly fascinating ironmongers whose stock looked as if it came from a basement in the County Museum. It was generally quite an interesting little town with plenty of people about. Amongst the old style cravat and Harris tweed gents outfitters were one or two others with windows displaying concessions to modernity. There were slimline Farah trousers and even a few rather sharp looking leather bomber jackets.
However, there were also rusty and unsightly former cattle market pens marooned on a huge cobbled island in the middle of the wide street. A converted former railway station lurked sadly in the background. The two would have meant importance and prosperity once. Maybe Dr. Beeching’s axe put an end to much of that twenty years or so before.
Still, there was a branch of Boots and surely the smallest Tesco in the land with a twee cottagey front and apparently two toy sized checkouts inside. It was so small that it looked as if entrance could only be gained by actually unlatching and swinging open the whole of its seemingly dolls house front.
We passed a smart looking newsagents, releasing exciting combined odours of newsprint and tobacco. I just had time to read the latest news on a message board outside.
‘MINERS STRIKE OFFICIAL – SCARGILL CALLS FOR NATIONAL ACTION’
I’d already heard about that from my car radio on the way down from Oxford this morning. Mining country seemed a million miles away but that news would eventually have an effect everywhere, even here in this calm sidestream.
‘Thatcher will sort that out,’ called Astrid who had seen the poster too. ‘Small beer compared to what she dished out in the Falklands.’
‘Wait and see,’ was all I could muster in reply. It said little but at least showed my dissent if she actually caught what I said.
Astrid got ahead of me again as we approached a zebra crossing. Making no attempt to let oncoming traffic slow down she just walked straight across. A battered Transit van screamed to a halt somehow. A cyclist coming the other way wasn’t so lucky, swerving onto the pavement and then wobbling in and out of an ornamental flowerbed before eventually making it back to the street. I sprinted across and caught up with her just before the traffic started again, amused by how oblivious she seemed to the incandescent stream of obscenity pouring out of that van window.
This young woman liked danger. I wondered what she did for relaxation – freestyle climbing of Nelson’s Column, bungee jumping off the Severn Bridge? I hoped the kamikaze attitude didn’t extend to her professional career as a lawyer as well.
I was extremely relieved when we finally reached our destination without actual mishap. The uninspiring detached premises displayed a dull brass plate, secured to the wall at a slight angle by just one surviving rusty screw, saying ‘Bicker and Argue Solicitors and Commissioners for Oaths.’ The front of what looked like a late eighteenth century building was downright shoddy. Stonework needed cleaning and repointing. Some small and indeterminate species of sapling was growing out of a cracked pediment over the front door. Flakes of peeling white paint fluttered like moths from almost bare and probably rotting window frames on all three floors. Astrid turned just before she opened the front door, cornflower blue eyes ablaze.
‘Good luck! Pa always said this lot needed a damned good shaking. Now, are you the one to do it?’ she asked.
I welcomed this comment. The few words expressed more than anything else she’d mentioned when I met with her mother and herself for what could loosely be called a job interview earlier that morning. Had she been more forthcoming then I’d have had a better idea of what I was going to be in for now.
We went through a bare hall into a large and dingy waiting room looking onto the street. No carpet, but a floor covering of what looked as if it was ancient brown lino, worn down into bobsleigh tracks round doorways and corners. There was a motley assortment of pensionable Windsor chairs. Two ex-railway waiting room settles stood against the walls, rents in the dirt glazed black fabric allowing one or two lumps of white stuffing to protrude like cotton wool on shaving cuts. On a scratched table was a pile of well thumbed magazines including Country Life, last year’s Christmas edition of The Illustrated London News, Horse and Hound and the like. I caught a sweet odour reminiscent of rotting plums. Old dust perhaps or maybe serious rising damp.
Astrid slid back a glass window looking onto another room behind and casually stuck her head inside.
‘This is Mr. Daniel Aysgarth,’ she said flatly. ‘He’s come to have a look round. If you’re nice to him he might even think about staying to help you out.’
Her eyes sparked again as she turned towards me after that comment. I noticed her refer to the women as you, not us. She tossed her blonde hair in irritation, maybe signalling that now I was expected to say something. I had a good look into the room. It was probably the nearest the firm had to a typing pool. Several women and girls sat at ancient tables topped with chipped formica in clashing colours. On the tables were old fashioned typewriters, several of them manual. I saw two other older women in an alcove behind. Not a dictating machine in sight but several open shorthand books, full of pencilled graffiti. An aged Xerox photocopier mumbled fretfully to itself in a corner as if under the weather and pleading for sick leave today.
The woman at the first table stood up and smiled at me. She was pleasant looking with copper coloured hair plaited tightly into an armature like bun. She wore flat shoes, a navy blue pleated skirt and twinset to match. She met my eyes confidently as she introduced herself.
‘I’m Agnes. These are Bridget, Kirsty, Jenny, Suzy…’ I lost track of the other names as I looked at the owners of the first few. Bridget was tall, solemn and buxom with a very short skirt displaying thighs which wouldn’t look out of place in a rugby scrum. She nodded, but said nothing. Jenny had spiky hair and a hint of punk about her. She looked at me quizzically for a moment then just got on with her work.
Kirsty on the other hand was small and slim with little snake like eyes which darted everywhere. She was dressed outlandishly in bright orange. I could have sworn that as she stood up she bobbed into a mini curtsey. I couldn’t help thinking of a servant girl greeting her new master at the door of some rambling country house.
The girl wore miniature bicycle tyre shaped earrings and a watch the size of a small clock. She managed a nervous smile as she stood up again, but spoiled everything with an inane giggle.
‘Kirsty!’ snapped Agnes as I wondered how many executive staff were tucked away upstairs to keep this secretarial army busy.
‘Good to meet you all,’ I said. ‘But so sorry to hear of Mr. Argue’s death.’ Silence, then Agnes came to the rescue.
‘I’ll get Mr. Carthew,’ she said firmly, picking up the internal phone.
‘A good idea,’ said Astrid with a wry grin. ‘I’ll introduce you to him and no doubt he’ll show you round. That is, if you don’t mind being Dr. Who and time travelling back in the Tardis for a hundred years or so.’
I heard giggling from Kirsty again and this time the thunderous look on Agnes’s face made me wonder if she would have thought about slapping the girl had no-one else been present.
‘Don’t forget,’ Astrid said to me quietly. ‘You’re coming back to the house for another discussion with Ma about the situation here around two.’
We went back and stood in the drab hall. I peered up the stairs, seeing maybe two floors above. No carpet on those stairs either, just more of the lino, secured at the edges by the remains of black rubber treads. The edges of several of those were shredded like strands of bladderwrack seaweed dangling over rocks. How easy it would be for a shoe to tangle there, catapulting the surprised wearer headlong down to where we now stood. No pictures on the dull cream walls, just a huge notice, headed ‘OFFICE SHOPS AND RAILWAY PREMISES ACTS’ in giant letters, followed by a maze of paragraphs and subsections in minute and virtually unreadable print. Had anyone ever bothered to read past the heading? Not if those stairs were anything to go by.
The silence was broken suddenly by the noise in the street of an apparently powerful motor cycle pulling up outside. The engine was turned off and I could hear a heavy machine being cranked up out there onto its stand. I’d had bikes in the past and wondered what make this one might be. Whatever that was I imagined putting it on the stand might require the strength of a burly Hell’s Angel at least. I was therefore surprised when the front door opened soon afterwards and an attractive dark haired woman of medium height, well made but hardly burly, strode confidently into the hall.
She took off a bright red crash helmet, released a tangle of long black hair which dropped to her shoulders, and unzipped a well cut black leather jacket. She went straight into the waiting room. I heard the glass partition being slid back again.
‘Oh, not her ladyship! That’s just what we don’t need,’ said Astrid, clearly annoyed.
‘It’s about my phone call earlier this morning,’ said the woman in a deep and caramel smooth voice. ‘It’s really most important. We’ll be grateful if someone can have a quick look at your list of documents held for clients to see if copies of those missing papers are here somewhere. Poor Miss Bolsover’s in the most frightful state, as you can well imagine.’
‘We’ll do our best, Miss Athlingham,’ came another voice which I recognised as belonging to Agnes. ‘But as you know we’re in quite a pickle at the moment and that sort of search will need Mr. Carthew’s involvement. He’s very busy sorting out some most complicated problems. It’ll take a while I’m afraid.’
‘Mr. Carthew, sorting out problems!’ exclaimed the woman. ‘Forgive me, but that’s the wrong way round, isn’t it? I’ve heard he’s the expert at creating difficulties, not solving them. Ask him the way to Dorchester and he’ll send you round by Lands End!’
There was much giggling, particularly from Kirsty, at that jibe.
‘Oh very clever,’ muttered Astrid indignantly. ‘Pa died only a fortnight ago. You’d think she’d keep away for a few days at least while the staff try to sort things out.’
‘You don’t like her then,’ I said but was immediately irritated with myself for stating the patently obvious.
‘My feelings for her are about as friendly as those of Elizabeth I for Mary Queen of Scots,’ hissed Astrid.
‘I think you said ‘her ladyship.’ Can you explain why?’
‘I’ll maybe tell you later, but you’d be surprised to hear some of the things I’d like to do to her. That is, if they didn’t entail my having to become a long term resident of HMP Holloway.’
The conversation was now interrupted by the sound of distant creaking from one of the upper floors, becoming ever louder, and accompanied by a sound resembling bellows which I eventually realised was nothing more than very heavy breathing. The combined rhythm of the creaking, puffing and blowing reminded me of an historic beam engine I once saw in a Cornish mining museum. It could even have been taken for the sound of a miniature rack-and-pinion railway.
‘Well, please do what you can,’ the woman in the leather jacket continued. ‘I’ll come in again this afternoon with Miss Bolsover to see if you have found anything. Surely you have a list of what’s in that rabbit warren you call a file store. Please do make an effort for the poor woman.’
She gave us both what I thought was quite a pleasant smile as she passed on the way back to the front door. Astrid, however, reciprocated with a scowl which was icy enough to extinguish a blast furnace. ‘So sorry about your poor father’s accident,’ the woman said to Astrid. ‘He’ll be sorely missed round here.’
‘Unlike you,’ Astrid muttered, only just inaudibly to the other woman.
She looked at me momentarily, perhaps wondering what I was up to with Astrid.
‘Do give your dear mother my sympathy and very best wishes, please,’ she said pleasantly. Astrid’s scowl softened slightly at that, becoming just a glower instead.
‘Cup of tea?’ asked Agnes diplomatically as the front door closed. The motorbike roared into life again almost at once, so loudly that it sounded as if it was actually being turned over in the hall.
‘Not for me thanks,’ shouted Astrid, since the noise outside showed no signs of reduction. I, on the other hand, had a gasping thirst.
‘Yes please, one sugar,’ I said as the sound of the bike finally began to move away, glad of the offer of something to drink, and keen to avoid giving offence to Agnes.
The creaking and wheezing from upstairs grew louder.
‘This’ll take a while,’ said Astrid resignedly. ‘Use the time to gather your strength, you’ll need it.’
I could see Agnes at a sink in another room on the opposite side of the hall, mashing the tea in a chipped enamel pot, a process which sounded horribly like a concrete mixer. I was glad it would be tea when I also saw a bottle of some brand of cheap chicory coffee essence on a shelf above her.
The creaking from above now became almost rumbling as a male figure hove into view on the final turn of the stairs. I moved as if to meet him but Astrid immediately intervened.
‘No,’ she said sharply. ‘Let him come to you.’ I wasn’t happy with that, but maybe she knew best.
Eventually ‘he’ did get to us and I had my first meeting with Mr. Dick Carthew. Astrid did manage to introduce us but immediately got ready to leave. As she did she gave me a sharp dig in the ribs with her elbow.
‘See you later, par’dner,’ she whispered flippantly, as if she were Annie Oakley off to round up outlaws in a Wild West Saloon. ‘Now don’t you go falling into bad company.’
Perhaps she was worried I might slope off without taking any of this further. In fact I was beginning to think about that after what I’d just seen this morning. This was hardly a scene I was used to. Then my memory hit me with a sharp reminder of my reasons for coming to look at this odd ball assignment. If I really did need an engrossing distraction for a month or two I would certainly get that here.
I must also play fair with Astrid’s mother and honour my promise to go back for a further talk, however brief. Not my style to do otherwise I told myself. But what was wrong here? Astrid was so offhand and even rude to people. In contrast her mother had been absolutely charming.
‘I’m Daniel Aysgarth,’ I said to Mr. Carthew, offering my hand.
‘So good of you to come all the way down here, Sir,’ he said ingratiatingly. ‘I’m Dick Carthew, the late Mr. Argue’s senior clerk. But just call me Carthew if you like. Everyone else does.’ Like Agnes, he spoke with a soft and very pleasant Dorset accent.
His breathing was poor. I pointed to one of the chairs in the waiting room, feeling sure he should sit down. Instead he leant against the bannisters, shaking his head. He was elderly, a big boned man and somewhat overweight, white haired and with a dark complexion. Lack of mobility suggested arthritis.
‘Your tea Mr. Aysgarth,’ said Agnes. I looked into a large white mug, watching an island of scum rotating in liquid the colour of estuarial mud. No wonder Astrid would have none of it. Tasting must be avoided at all cost.
‘Would you care to come upstairs, Sir?’ asked Carthew.
I was relieved to note the breathing sounded a little more normal now.
‘I should show you poor Mr. Argue’s room,’ he continued. ‘May he rest in peace. What that man had to put up with these last years. And then to be taken from us in that unexplained car accident.’
‘So nobody knows what happened?’ I asked.
‘No-one,’ he said, shaking his head sorrowfully. ‘He was the safest driver in town. Never had an accident before. Apparently no-one else was involved either, just his car found at the bottom of a hillside. Went over the edge. Very odd indeed.’
Astrid, who was out of earshot during this exchange, waved from the front door as she slipped out nimbly into Fore Street. I thought of a bird escaping from a cage, yet hardly a gilded one. I was sure her mother hadn’t intended this sort of behaviour from her daughter. I also wondered frivolously if Astrid was actually going to play at being Annie Oakley and pursue the lady biker for a showdown in a Dorset version of the OK Corral somewhere outside town. She had no need of a Colt 45 or any other kind of gun. With her mood and attitude I would lay bets on her winning by a knock out in the first round.
I followed Mr. Carthew, trying not to spill my tea on the stairs, but wishing I could when I looked at the colour of the contents of the mug. As we climbed I had time to take in the ancient, deeply fluted brass light switches, and the pile of large and old fashioned black metal deed tins on the landing halfway up. While we threaded our way round them into Mr. Argue’s room I wondered if our progress was any less hazardous than Franklin’s historic quest for the North West Passage.
There were two rooms on the front of the building and two more at the back. Mr. Argue’s was one of those on the front. The other three appeared to be presently unoccupied. When we finally got there the room turned out to be an absolute fright. It was large and full of more deed tins, cardboard cartons containing various items, and loose paper almost completely covering the floor. There was a huge antique desk with its back to a window overlooking the street, hardly visible beneath a mountain of scroll like files, each one rolled up and tied with pink ribbon. It looked as if clients’ names were scrawled on the outsides of them. Large scale black and white Ordnance Survey maps uncurled like ocean rollers down the desk and even across the floor.
There was an ancient cast iron fireplace within a green tiled surround. The chimney was stuffed with newspaper and other obstructions, presumably to catch downfalls of soot, which wasn’t effective as some of it was working its way like an expanding desert into the worn carpet covering much of the floor. It was obvious that the fire hadn’t been lit for some while but there seemed to be no other source of heat anywhere in the room. I wondered if Mr. Argue kept his overcoat on all day in winter. Or had he just grown immune to hypothermia?
‘By the way,’ said Carthew confidentially. ‘Don’t use the main light in here. The one over there is better.’
‘Look,’ he said, levering the antique brass switch gingerly half way into the ‘on’ position with a wooden ruler. A firework display of green and blue sparks leaped from the casing until he quickly withdrew it.
‘What happens if you push it all the way?’ I asked.
‘Bangs like a Roman Candle and all the power in the building goes off.’
I realised now there were scroll type files in the cardboard boxes and many more mixed up with the loose paper on the floor. I thought immediately of how all this resembled what we called our ‘Deep Litter System’ in the chicken house at my father’s hill farm in Cumbria. I suspected this version was even more rank and hadn’t been forked over in months, if not years.
And there were so many battered black deed tins, some in towering wrought iron racks, several of which teetered dangerously like leaning towers of Pisa. I thought how the smallest vibration might send the whole lot crashing to the floor in a seismic disaster.
The walls, where there weren’t racks of deed tins, were covered from floor to ceiling with shelves full of even more files of the type already mentioned. There must have been hundreds of them piled tightly inside, probably in some sort of order known only to the initiated, full of dust and highly combustible. No doubt this contravened countless sections of that huge and mostly unreadable safety notice in the downstairs hall. I could detect a hint of that rotten plum odour again and could feel the dust everywhere, much no doubt trapped in the piles of scrolls.
This was very serious indeed and whoever came here would need to have the combustible material cleared as soon as possible. The island of scum floating in my tea had grown bigger. I needed to deposit that mug somewhere and then sit down to take in the scene of disorder.
‘Careful Sir,’ said Carthew after I had begun to ease myself into a chair. It looked comfortable enough, a nice wooden frame with woven cane sides, but I realised too late that it had all the strength of matchwood. As I lowered myself into it the whole thing just fell to pieces, landing me on the floor, my long legs waving comically in the air so that I must have looked like an upside down spider. Carthew hobbled over, his features crumbling into a crazed surface resembling that of a macaroon biscuit. I wasn’t sure if he was about to laugh or cry as he coughed and spluttered above me.
‘Oh dear Sir, oh dear, what a commotion! Nothing broken, I hope?’
‘Just the chair. You might have made more of an effort to warn me off that one. It was a death trap!’
‘Sorry Sir, didn’t think you were going to sit down so quick like.’ How good he probably was at picking his way through quicksands of problematical clients. Collecting the fragments of chair he tossed them casually into a corner.
‘You’ve done us a favour anyway,’ he said. ‘Been trying to get poor Mr. Argue to ditch that chair for years.’
‘My pleasure,’ I replied ruefully.
‘But look here,’ said Carthew, eagerly pulling a sheaf of papers from the Deep Litter where the chair had collapsed. ‘These are about the Athlingham Estate, the ones our client Mr. Jack Athlingham’s been ranting on about for the last few weeks. We’ve been searching high and low for them.’ The unusual name brought me back onto my feet. Surely I’d heard it already somewhere round here today.
I picked up the pieces of my mug, fortunately another casualty of the accident, and put them in a waste bin next to the remnants of the chair. There was now another serious problem in that a large warm and wet patch was beginning to spread upwards in capillary action all over the crotch area of my best suit trousers. It looked as if I’d wet myself.
‘Do come up to my place, Sir,’ said Carthew, now unashamedly overcome with laughter. ‘It’s safer up there. I’ve at least one good chair you can sit on.’
The rack-and-pinion climb of the stairs, this time up to the top floor, was resumed by Carthew, who handed me the collection of papers he had hoovered up from the scene of my accident so he could fully concentrate on the exertions of the ascent. Fortunately the documents seemed to have escaped the deluge of Agnes’s tea. That was somewhere else. I held on to the bannister rail with one hand, clutching the papers ever closer to my trousers with the other one, glad of the practical concealment they provided. I also felt a little shaky after my fall. Carthew called out as we came up onto the top landing. The layout looked similar to below, two rooms at the front, and two at the back.
‘Don’t know what you’ll make of this floor, Sir. Some folk say it’s quite Dickenstinian.’
It was my turn to suppress laughter this time, even forgetting my wet trousers for a moment. The door to the front room on the right was ajar. All I could see inside was rows and rows of pigeonhole shelves crammed full of yes, more of those dreadful old files. The two back rooms seemed, as on the lower floor, unoccupied.
‘That’s our main file store, Sir,’ said Carthew proudly, pointing to the room with all the files.
‘Main filestore? I thought your whole office was one.’
‘Mr. Argue, may he rest in peace, never rented an outside store. Liked to have everything in the building. Said if the files were sent away they might never find their way back.’
‘You mean he never got rid of anything?’
‘He did. About every five years we’d have a big bonfire of all the files he didn’t think needed keeping. That was in his garden around November fifth. Quite a party and all the staff were invited. Mrs. Argue served lovely food, sausages, jacket potatoes and the like. But that hasn’t happened for a year or two so most of the stuff here probably goes back at least twenty years, a lot even more.’
I had a sudden vision of them all having their own version of a Shetland Up Helly Aa, dancing wildly round the fire as the flames from old files burned higher and higher.
‘This is where my crew and I are based,’ said Carthew, opening the door on the left. Now I got another shock. Whereas Mr. Argue’s room looked like a wreck, in here all was stowed away shipshape and Bristol fashion, in a way I suspected Bob Cratchit’s clerks’ room might have looked in A Christmas Carol. Dickenstinian indeed, I thought, if not even older than that. The room was right up in the roof. The only light, and there wasn’t much, came through a few quite small and rather rotten looking windows. Numerous yellowy patches on the ceiling suggested rain penetration, making it look like the badly stained mattress of a chronically incontinent giant.
There were no desks here, but several enormous Victorian tables, this time with the tattered remnants of black leather coverings, piled high but tidily with probably hundreds more of the files. I was relieved to see there were no shelves packed with them in here, but the walls were lined instead in places with even more of the large black metal deed tins I’d seen on the floor below. There seemed to be some sort of improvised partition at the far end, but which had no door. A desk inside looked straight down the large attic chamber. The small room would be Carthew’s cabin, no doubt, from where he could keep a close watch on the others.
There were two fireplaces in the main chamber, one of which contained an aged gas fire which seemed to be the only source of heat today. However, that would need checking as the flames seemed to sputter somewhat fitfully, no doubt because some of the white filaments in the apparatus were broken and the rest looked as if they were fighting off an attack of acute osteoporosis.
I was surprised to hear Carthew suddenly shouting and banging so hard on one of the windows with a heavy ruler that the activity was followed by the pistol shot sound of cracking glass.
‘Go on, clear off you filthy things,’ he yelled at some pigeons on the gutter outside. ‘Little sex addicts, they are Sir. Stand on that gutter all day, fornicating themselves to kingdom come. Most unseemly.’
He mopped his brow after the combined exertions of the climb and the pigeon confrontation, then turned to business once more. The birds completely ignored his antics, continuing their pleasures with increased noise and even more vigour. Carthew stood with his back to the window, presumably to block out the unseemliness and began more genteel introductions.
‘As you can see Sir, this is where I operate. I also share it with these other gentlemen.’
It was only then I realised there were other figures, half concealed behind the ramparts of files on the huge tables before them.
‘This is Victor Stickland, my personal clerk,’ he said. I went to shake Victor’s hand, thinking at first he was still sitting down, then saw he was so tiny that he couldn’t see over the top of his files even when upright. He must have been considerably less than five feet tall and very slight in build. He had a round and very pallid face which reminded me of a soft white marshmallow. I had the tantalising thought that maybe Carthew was a modern version of Bob Cratchit, and Victor was Tiny Tim.
‘This is Mr. Aysgarth, Victor,’ said Carthew. ‘Now you’ll be able to sort out those queries relating to the firm’s accounts which you haven’t been able to ask poor Mr. Argue about.’
I was puzzled. What did Victor actually do? Carthew gave me a sort of answer.
‘Victor used to carry out some of the duties of a personal clerk to Mr. Argue, but has also done the same for me, if you see what I mean, Sir.’
I didn’t. Carthew had apparently been Mr. Argue’s senior clerk, though he also had a personal clerk of his own. Did everyone, except perhaps the little Kirsty, have this luxury here?
‘Victor’s job was to help Mr. Argue with the office accounts and other general matters like filing, checking the stationery cupboard, ordering the pencils, that sort of thing,’ said Carthew. ‘After that he helps me generally with my matters, Sir. Works out the money and financial statements for house sales and purchases, attends some of the completions, does filing for me and manages the papers stored up here and in the office generally.’
You’ve got it all worked out, I thought. This man Victor looks like a combination of a counting house clerk and an old style army batman, maybe even a fag from Tom Brown’s Schooldays as well. I wondered if Victor also cleaned Carthew’s shoes, made his tea and coffee, got his newspapers and sandwiches for lunch? I even speculated fancifully if the fag master resorted to the cane when the poor little chap was late or made mistakes. I wasn’t allowed to dwell on that for long before Carthew cut in again.
‘You would, Sir, wouldn’t you? Help out Victor, I mean, with the odd accounts query and a few other problems too?’ Seeing the interest, and maybe relief, spreading all over Victor’s tiny face, I knew I’d have to put this right at once, by telling him things straight.
‘Now Mr. Stickland, I’m only having a look round today. If I come here it will be as a manager, just to keep the place going and hopefully get it back on its feet.’
‘Maybe so Sir,’ Carthew interrupted. ‘Let’s not go into detail right now. I’m sure that whatever the position, you wouldn’t mind letting me, Victor and the others just have some friendly advice, like.’
So, I thought, it wasn’t just Victor who needed the help, they were all clearly desperate for a hand on the helm. Maybe as things were so urgent they’d grab anyone’s now. Carthew smiled.
‘And I must say Sir, I expect you’d really enjoy cracking one or two of my tougher conveyancing conundrums.’
Was this to be some form of entrance examination, so he could mark the paper and report back to Astrid’s mother on my abilities, or lack of same? ‘Could do better’ was a comment which sprung to mind.
‘This is Fred Frewin,’ said Carthew. Fred stood up, tall enough just to be seen over his own Berlin wall of files. He was bigger and more healthy looking than Victor.
‘Fred deals with estates of the diseased, Sir.’ I had a job keeping a straight face when he said that. I realised he meant ‘deceased,’ but obviously this was his own idiosyncratic pronunciation. I wondered somewhat uncharitably if he noticed any more.
‘Very good at stocks and shares, he is,’ he continued. ‘Helps us out when things won’t balance too.’
‘That’s most of the time, Sir,’ said Fred with a good natured grin. I wondered if he was going to ask for help with his problems too, but he just smiled broadly, looking generally much more robust than Victor.
I glanced round to see the same general lack of up to date office equipment as in Agnes’s office. Carthew had a manual typewriter covered in a cloth which seemed to be made more from holes than fabric.
I saw scraps of paper on the tables, covered in graffiti like the shorthand books downstairs, but numerical rather than verbal this time. Giant sums in pencil wound up and down as if part of some endless games of snakes and ladders. I hadn’t seen anything like that in years, not since I was at school. There wasn’t a single electronic calculator in sight.
‘Now what about you, Mr. Carthew?’ I asked. ‘Tell me about your work. All go, I’ll bet.’ I admired his spirit and was beginning to take to him a little, but he soon put me back on my mettle when he replied.
‘Before I tell you about all that Sir, would you like to hand to Fred those Athlingham Estate papers you’re holding so tightly? He’s been looking for them for ages.’ Carthew looked pointedly at the papers I still held firmly in front of the puddle in my trousers, now about as comfortable as if I’d stuck a cold wet car sponge down my boxer shorts. Had he deliberately left that warning about the collapsing chair in Argue’s room just too late, I wondered?
I decided attack would be better than defence. I ignored his question, resuming my own about his work, feeling the humour of the situation though I knew it was wholly at my expense.
‘I really would like to hear more of what you do all day Mr. Carthew,’ I enquired
‘I do all sorts of things Sir. I’m in charge up here you see. I keep an eye on these other fellows and make sure everything gets done properly like. We do all sorts really. Fred over there deals with estates of the diseased, Bob in the corner comes in part time to do tax returns, and Sid is an ex-policeman who handles the odd piece of litigation which comes our way, mostly motoring and some petty crime.’
‘Who does the court appearances?’ I asked, getting interested at the mention of court work, some of which I still did myself. Obviously Sid was unqualified, and from what I’d heard of Mr. Argue, court room dramas didn’t sound like his bag at all.
‘No problem with that,’ said Carthew. ‘We use barristers for opinions and actual court appearances. Mr Argue had a long list of counsel who’d do all of that whenever we asked.’
What a shambles, I thought. Several of these workers were only part time, and relying heavily on counsel would have made the litigation prohibitively expensive and probably wholly unprofitable.
Carthew sat down, appropriately enough in a well worn captain’s chair, clearly enjoying having the spotlight on his own activities.
‘When I’m not supervising all that I deal with property of all sorts, Sir. Mr. Argue, now he handled the big matters, the farms, the Athlingham Estate lands and the auction sales. He did all the commercial matters too, Twaddle’s Brewery, Blackwood Haulage, that sort of thing. Me, I deal with the house sales and purchases, the shops and things like that. Here, have a look at my files Sir, if you like.’
He stood up and went through to his little cabin. To humour him, I went in too to give his files a polite inspection.
‘Yes,’ he continued, warming to his subject. ‘I’m the one round here with all the contacts. You know, estate agents, sports teams, the British Legion Club.’
He was like a goods train, taking miles to get up speed but even more to brake.
‘This place is a little goldmine,’ he concluded. ‘Take my word for it, it needs someone like…‘
I stopped him before he could progress any further.
‘Certainly not a manager and practice doctor like me, but thank you, Mr. Carthew, that’s most instructive. Now, I mustn’t delay you any longer.’
I was keen to take some fresh air again. Carthew’s dark complexion paled and signs of panic returned as I prepared to go. The henchmen looked up from their toils too, open mouthed.
‘But surely,’ said Sid the ex-policeman solemnly, ‘you’ll give us an hour or so with our queries, and some of those files of poor Mr. Argue’s?’
‘May he rest in peace,’ intoned Carthew, followed by the others in unison. When was he going to stop reciting this devotional liturgy? I half expected him to cross himself and go down on one knee, genuflecting before a little legal shrine concealed behind the files somewhere, commemorating his ‘diseased’ former employer.
‘I’m sorry about the mess you find yourselves in,’ I said. ‘I’m only here for an interview though, and won’t necessarily be offered or take the job. Now who suggested anything else?’
‘Why, Miss Astrid of course,’ said Carthew. ‘She said you’d make time for us if nothing else.’
Of course, I thought, the swan necked Miss Astrid who couldn’t wait to leap out of this legal quagmire, obviously looking to land somewhere far more attractive and calmer than here. I responded quickly.
‘Did she now? Then I may need to have a few words with your ‘Miss Astrid’ later about that.’
‘Surely you will come down to his room to help me, Sir, just for a little while?’ he wheedled.
‘All right then,’ I said, watching his worry decline at once. ‘I’ve a further meeting coming up with Mrs. Argue, then I need to hit the road home to Oxford. Anything I say is just my view, definitely not legal advice. Understood?
‘Of course, Sir.’
His colour and cheerful facial macaroon crazing reappeared as he grinned at me, so eager to get help with his own problems that he seemed to selfishly forget all about Victor’s and those of the others for the moment. He didn’t even bother to introduce me to one or two more men who lurked in the dark corners of this room.
‘Follow me. Now we mustn’t have you falling out with our Miss Astrid, must we?’ he said. ‘Such a pleasant and attractive young lady. I’m sure he’ll find her most helpful, won’t he, Victor?’
Victor chewed reflectively on the gnarled stump of an old pencil, rather like a dog worrying a worn down bone. Then he did something quite unexpected. He grinned at me and shook his head sadly at Carthew’s broad tweed jacketed back. I smiled, getting the message of the older man’s infatuation with the lissom and elegant Argue daughter. There was probably much more to Victor, when out of Carthew’s sight, than met the eye.
I followed the old man downstairs, passing time during his rack-and-pinion descent to estimate the cost of installing a real stair lift for him. They seemed to work quite well in nursing homes. Why on earth hadn’t something been done to help him long ago? At the very least he could have been given a room on the ground floor. To be fair, maybe that had been offered, but his independent spirit, or just plain cussedness, had possibly made him decline.
‘I think you were talking about professional competition earlier,’ I said, as we got on to the landing outside Mr. Argue’s room. ‘Who are the main contenders?’
Carthew leant on the heavy bannister rail, no doubt tired from going up and down stairs more than usual.
‘There are several,’ he said. ‘But the one we’re most worried about is a big regional outfit. They’re not in this town yet, but they’re talking about opening an office. They’re in Dorchester and Yeovil already, a right gang of wide boys.’
We went into Argue’s shipwreck of a room. It looked even worse the second time round.
‘All right, what was the name of the firm you’re worried about?’’
Carthew scratched his chin.
‘Can’t remember exactly. Prizevales, Bricemails or something like that.’
I felt my own colour draining this time. ‘Grisedales?’ I suggested tentatively.
‘They’re the ones!’ he said, nodding his head. ‘Been buying and merging with firms up and down the whole west country, they have. They’re ruthless. A man called Sinclair’s in charge. D’you know ‘em then?’
I couldn’t believe the coincidence and took what looked like a safe chair, this time behind Argue’s desk, to absorb some of the shock.
‘Oh, I’ve heard of them all right and Mrs. Argue must be warned. They’ll try to get their hands on this place.’
‘We can deal with ‘em,’ said Carthew breezily. ‘And so can she!’
‘Don’t flatter yourselves too much,’ I said, contradicting his confidence. ‘They’re nothing more than asset strippers at heart. They’ll spit out what they don’t want, including staff, and consolidate what they do require with the rest of their empire. They’ll handle Mrs. Argue roughly in the end and pay her much less than she should receive.’
Carthew looked seriously apprehensive at all that.
‘You really don’t like them, do you?’ he asked.
‘Not much. I come up against them from time to time, prowling around some of the practices in trouble that I go to help.’ My dislike was also for other much more painful reasons, I told myself, remembering again why I was getting away from Oxford for a while. At that thought, the cork threatened to come out of a bottle full of very poisonous memories indeed, but Carthew provided a welcome distraction.
‘There’s more,’ he said.
‘These Grimevales, or whatever they’re called, they’ve been getting in with Mr. Jack Athlingham, the local landowner, and trying to take on all the Estate business this office has handled for years. It’s even suggested they’re the ones who’ve put him up to some of the very dirty deeds he’s said to have been doing lately, especially to some of his family.’
‘Tell me more,’ I asked, thinking I knew several characters in Grisedales who would be capable of that, and more.
‘Ah, you’ll have to stay with us if you want to know about all that,’ said Carthew mischievously, this time with a combined wheeze and cackle.
This place really was different. So many challenges, a practice to rescue and revitalise, awkward staff to sort out, and murky dealings involving my old enemies Grisedales. All these gave interest to the possibility of taking on what had looked at first like a very dull assignment indeed.
‘Look, it’s awfully dark in this room,’ I said. ‘Let’s have some light.’
The early spring sun had moved round behind a high building opposite and Argue’s room was now quite gloomy. I got up and went to turn on the light.
‘No!’ yelled Carthew, loudly and more swiftly this time, but still too late to prevent the antique brass switch from shooting out flames, shaking with an electrical seizure, and finally letting off a small explosion, no doubt much louder than a Roman candle today. The switch cover blew off and landed on the floor, leaving the smell of burning rubber to permeate the room. Screams came from the women downstairs, while Carthew cackled away in huge merriment, stopped only by another coughing fit. He spoke again eventually, tears streaming down his cheeks.
‘Well now, Mr. Daniel Aysgarth, I don’t know what we’re going to do with you, I really don’t. You’ll have to stay with us now, won’t you?’
‘Why?’ I asked irritably, trying to force up a warped sash window to let out the burning rubber smell. Carthew came to give me a hand, still laughing.
‘So we can dock your wages to pay for all these accidents Sir, that’s why.’