7: The maze

The Winchester family pile was big and proud in the classic Brideshead manor born, a grandiose statement of colonial power and cap-doffing wealth generations old. A tree lined drive flanked by rolling lawns led to the main building, a four storied, hundred room mansion of proud turrets and ornately detailed stone. It was so big it had it’s own name: Foxglove Hall.

Leo skidded the Aston to a halt in front of the main entrance. A Jaguar XF, MGB GT, Mini Cooper, Bentley Continental, and Range Rover were also scattered around the drive in random disarray. No-one had bothered to park straight or garage the luxury vehicles. Leo opened the boot of the Vantage to reveal a Harrods hamper, that Jack dutifully picked up and carried in. The front door was open.

The galleried entrance hall rose three floors up, lined with portraits of Leo’s ancestors, the great and the good peering down at the returning heir and his pet with stern censure. Jack strained his neck up to the mosaic ceiling.

“My parents are around here somewhere,” said Leo, waving his keys around the arena.

“Will I get to meet them?”

Leo laughed. “On the walls, old chap, not actually here. Ma and Pa stay in London most of the time now, have a penthouse on the river. Guess downsizing for the parental guidances is kind of traditional these days. Little sis is a yacht girl in the Med, she doesn’t come back much. I get the run of this old place.” He sniffed the air, furrowed his brow. “May have to air it out sometime.”

Ironic, thought Jack, the elders lived the modern city life, while their indolent young rambled a decaying estate, watched by the ghosts of more successful forebears.

The prodigal son led the way through the house, marching through oversized room after room, their footsteps the only sound echoing through the deserted halls. Half of the furniture was dressed in sheets and many of the windows were shuttered, occasional shafts of sun highlighting the dust that rose in their wake. It would be easy to get lost, or just wander in circles across the endless parquet floors.

“Must be quite a cleaning job,” said Jack.

“Don’t worry, that’s not why you’re here,” said Leo, then paused. “Uh, unless you’d like that, of course, earn an extra crust.”

Jack smiled. “I wouldn’t know where to start.”

They walked out back onto the stone patio that stretched the width of the house. Leo looked around curiously, before his eyes settled on the portly belly of Ralph, lying star-shaped by the entrance to the once famous Foxglove maze, a bottle of wine leaking beside him on the grass. “Ah, there they are.”

The maze was a tradition of many great old houses, pandering to the aristocratic obsession with meaningless follies to occupy their time. Now, the Foxglove was looking shabby, once manicured walls prickled with unkempt thorns, while bottles and other party detritus studded its dishevelled rows. There was laughter from within as they approached.

Blake and Toby burst out of the maze entrance, hair mussed with leaves and grass stained shirts. “We got lost again darling,” laughed Blake. “Seemed like we were in there for days.” She hopped up to Leo and kissed her fiancee on the cheek.

“Think one of the rows may have overgrown, old chap,” said Toby, brushing himself down. “Kept on hitting a dead end.”

Leo chuckled softly. “Well, never mind. Sorry for the delay, had to pick up this stray, but at least we’re all here now.” He motioned to Jack, who smiled and nodded, knowing that was the most he would get in return.

The host clapped his hands. “Now, time for the big unveiling I think. That’s why I invited you down after all.”

Ralph rose unsteadily to his feet with a belch. He looked at the disappearing party heading back into the house with red-raw eyes, pulled his sunglasses down from his forehead and tottered after them, wine bottle discarded on the lawn.




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