Friday, 30 March 2007

Mention the name of Jack Macauley

Suddenly, it seems as if everyone wants to talk to me. The window cleaner must have released some vital trigger when he told me all those things about old Lady Macauley the other day; you have only to mention the name of Macauley in these parts, apparently (that of Jack Macauley, for preference) for tongues to be loosened and reminiscences scattered. I’ve begun to scatter the name about a little myself, as a matter of fact. I mentioned it to my hairdresser and to the milkman, and the man who stood beside me in the post office queue. It just happened to come up, yesterday, as I chatted with the woman who runs the little gift shop on the high street; and then it came up again, an hour later, with the other, very talkative one who works behind the counter in the local bakery. I did all this as discreetly as I could, of course - I didn’t want people to think me a lion hunter, or worse, an idle gossip. And the surprising thing was, that the response was positive in almost every case. It would seem that whatever else might fail in one’s attempts to blend in round here, when it comes to talking about Jack Macauley (or ‘Old Jack’ as he seems most often to be known), everyone in the village has an opinion to express, or a story to tell

Most of the opinions I heard were highly favourable. Most people smiled broadly at the mention of him, wanting to tell me what a great character he was: how philanthropic, how convivial – how uncommonly charismatic indeed, and somehow several sizes larger than the usual run of men. This is not to say that he was entirely without detractors, of course. No man can have been so philanthropic or so charming as to have been loved by everyone; and for every three people who smiled at the mention of Jack Macauley, there was another one who scowled, telling me the man was an upstart, who brought nothing but disgrace and scandal to the village. The old house still bears his name, for all that. It had another, more dynastic name at one time. It was Something, or Somebody-or-Other's House or Hall; a connection, probably, with the district, or with the family who had owned it without interruption for more than three hundred years. But that name apparently fell out of use at some point in Jack Macauley's long occupation; nobody seems to remember it now, and they call the old place Macauley's house instead. Which must make Jack's more severe detractors ask themselves, sometimes, if it’s after all not the meek, but the disgraceful – the upstarts and the scandal-makers – who most of all inherit the earth; or who are at any rate remembered longest after everything else has gone.

I went down last night to have another look at the old Macauley house. I wanted to see for myself how it could be that the old lady and her daughter should still be clinging on there, in semi dereliction, and so very many years after Jack had gone. I approached it by way of our little footpath, which was once a Macauley avenue, and stood a long time peering through the bars of the tall wrought iron gates. It was dusk by then, so that large portions of the house were thrown into deep shadow, giving it a spectral look. It is decidedly not a beautiful house. Not even by daylight, not even in its heyday under Charles the First, can its admirers have claimed that virtue for it. And to me, in that uneasy half light, it looked forbidding, ugly almost. I’d have walked away without turning round; and shivering a little, though the night was warm – had it not been for the fact that the place had become invested so, for me, with all the romantic remembered history of Jack Macauley and his Theodora.

I have my own little remembered story to tell about Sir Jack and Theodora, as I mentioned yesterday. I ought to have started out on it at once, today; instead of allowing myself to become side-tracked like this, with hearsay, and opinions expressed long after the event. My story will keep though - I’ll tell it tomorrow, for sure. For now, well it’s almost lunch time, and Bill will be hungry. I have capitulated so far as to consent to cook for him for just so long as his convalescence lasts; after which, as I remind him daily, he’s on his own.

I have deputed Bill, by the way, to go out there and test the responses to Jack Macauley among the other dog-walkers on the common… But I have to report that his appetite for the task has so far been a good deal less than enthusiastic.

Tuesday, 27 March 2007

What the window cleaner told me

“I’ve just been down at the old Macauley house” my window cleaner informed me the other day, in that way that window cleaners have of scattering intriguing pieces of information into the air, whilst positioning their ladders. “Hardly worth my while, actually. You’d need scaffolding, or a crane arm, to do a proper job down there – and the old lady’s certainly not forking out for that sort of thing!”

I was taken by surprise. I gathered that the house he referred to was the old mansion at the end of our footpath, but I hardly knew what kind of response to make, to what was after all, for me, a rather priceless little gem of information. I hadn’t even been aware that we had engaged a window cleaner, as a matter of fact. I had just happened to look out of the window at nine o’clock that morning and there he was, hauling his ladders down from the roof of a little grey transit van. I supposed he must have ‘come with the house’. Window cleaners tend to have that facility - attaching themselves to a house as steadfastly, after their fashion, as cats, or hidden subsidence.

I have to report that Bill had fled on sight of the man and his van. Bill has never met a window cleaner yet, he says, who wouldn’t rather be a poet or a philosopher. It's a curious fact, but it seems to go with the territory. It must have something to do, Bill thinks, with all that fresh air, and time for contemplation. This one had all the appearance of the armchair television pundit, besides. He’d given Bill a very knowing look - so that in no time at all, given half the chance, he’d have been leaning against his ladder wanting to talk Iraq.

I on the other hand, whilst recognising it for an ignoble impulse on my part, was unable to resist the temptation to draw him out a little further.

“Oh dear” I said, with all the appearance of genuine sympathy that I could muster; “The old lady wants good value for her money then, does she…?”

“Good value?” my new informant retorted. “Tell me about it! She’d challenge you over sixpence, if she thought she could get away with it! And her daughter’s just as bad… scared to death of the old woman, if you ask me. There must be a hundred windows down there, and that’s a fact. Give or take an attic or two - or ten. And I don’t do attics anyway; haven’t got the ladders for it. I can reckon on spending forty minutes down there, every time. More, if she takes it into her head to have the basements done. Or what she calls the Orangery…. A whopping great conservatory of a place, that is. Windows all over, ten feet tall. And she wants me to do the lot for a tenner! That’s the sort of thing you get, when people have a string of shops as long as your arm, and factories, and God knows what else, up there in Yorkshire or wherever it is, that Jack Macauley had his empire….. “

All this was manna of course, to my ears. Suggestive, too. It had required only the mention of Jack Macauley, for the old story to come tumbling back into my mind again, more or less verbatim. I knew it would probably have been prudent to have called a halt at this stage of the conversation. It never pays to encourage one’s window cleaner too much: one never knows what he might divulge about oneself, to his next client! He had told me most of what I wanted to know already, anyway. But there was just one vital piece of information still mssing, and so I risked a final feeler.

“And old Jack himself…. “ I ventured. “Sir Jack, as I think he was, or is – does he watch the pennies too?”

“Oh God no!” was his incredulous response. “Old Jack died, it must have been twenty years back - and it’s just been the two of them ever since. There was a son, another Jack, but he married long ago and went away. They went away themselves for years, the old girl and her daughter, after Jack died. They closed the old place up - you can see what kind of a state it’s got into. …… It was only a year or two ago that they came back at all. And even now, they’re away for half the year. They’re in Italy now – that’s where they go in spring. In summer it will be to some other old place they’ve got, down in Suffolk, I think……….”

He had reached the top of his ladder by then; he was rubbing away with his cloth at the attic window (ours being sufficiently low for his ladders), and the rest of his story was lost to me. I called to him to say that I would leave his money on the window sill, and went inside to make Bill’s morning coffee. I thought I had learned enough, for the moment. But I decided to go down that afternoon to have a look at the old Macauley house myself, just to see how much more of the old story I could bring to mind…