We took a long day off, M and I, last week and went walking in one of our favourite places. As we came up through a steep wooded hillside, this house came into view and I couldn't resist taking a photo. “Now there's a house with a story to tell,' said M.
I don't know the people who live there or the stories they would tell, but their home became, just for that moment, one facet of how I see Snig's Foot House, the place where my novel begins and around which the story revolves. So here's a taster – the opening scene as it stands at present:
Tom Sparrow had made up his mind. No more ifs, buts or let's keep looking. He would buy the rambling old house in the forest. It wasn't really as isolated as it appeared. If you listened carefully at half past the hour you would hear the train pulling out of the station on its way to Chester. And you'd hear its faint whistle as it entered the steep cutting at the northern edge of the forest. Louise would eventually come to love it as much as he did. Maybe. She did have a point, of course, for it was well outside the area where she needed to be when she was on call at the hospital. But they always stayed at her place then anyway, so what difference would it make? Opportunities, that's what. They wouldn't have the choice.
He would never get the opportunity ever again to buy this wonderful old place which had fascinated him since the first time he saw it as a small boy. Before Queen Victoria's time, when there was no more to it than the small timber-framed cottage, it used to be a beer-house. The Snig's Foot, they called it and Tom asked his Gran what a snig was. It was an eel, apparently, which was just so wonderfully silly that the place came to look like a picture from one of his story books. But really the whole of the forest was Tom Sparrow's story book. The Snig's Foot became a rather different sort of story when he reached his teens and began to notice Susan, the very beautiful Susan, whom he would see from time to time as she came past his Gran's cottage on her way between home and the station.
All these years later it had come onto the market just as Tom had begun to look for somewhere to buy so that he could move back closer to his roots. But Louise didn't really like it. So was he being serious, he asked himself as he drove along the narrow forest road to meet the estate agent. Or was he just having a nosey?
A couple of hundred yards short of the house he parked on the firm ground at the side of the road where felled timbers are sometimes stacked, and walked the rest of the way. The house came into view as he rounded the bend, the original three centuries old building leaning drunkenly against the newer wing with its steep brick gables and tall chimneys. Beyond it, at the far side of the Moss, there was a tent. It had been there the previous time as well, and the time before that.
He had looked elsewhere for something suitable, something more to Louise's liking. But only half-heartedly and when she announced, without any prior hint, that she had been seconded to a hospital in Uganda for six months, he decided he would go ahead. Opportunities – you grab them before you lose them. So, no, he was not just having a nosey. He did feel a little guilty though, as if he'd stepped back thirty years to look up an old girl-friend while Louise was away, and Susan would soon come running to meet him.
Calling himself an old fool, he went through the gate and round the garden at the side of the house. This brought him much closer to the tent. A young woman was bobbing about beside it and apparently watching him through binoculars. He forgot about her almost immediately because a Toyota pick-up arrived and parked at the front gate. The estate agent stepped out from the passenger side leaving her companion at the wheel almost out of sight.
She led the way to the front door, sorting out the keys as she went. And she explained that the house, having been owned by a family who ran a small building firm, which Tom already knew, of course, was maintained to the highest standard. And it was John Ridley, the son, who had built the self-contained annex.
'So the Ridley family still lived here?' Tom asked casually.
'Yes. Mrs Ridley, the mother, a lovely old lady, had the annex and Alan, her younger son, had the main house with his family.'
A lovely old lady? Winifred Ridley? Tom remembered her as a disagreeable person who was acutely aware of her own superior righteousness, but maybe she had mellowed with the years. Or maybe Mrs Greatorex belonged to the same extreme religious group that the Ridleys were involved with.
Upstairs he tried to work out which had been Susan's room. Not that he had ever seen inside it, of course. Lightning from heaven would have struck if he'd set foot up here. But he remembered that she had once said she could see the radio masts on Alvanley Hill from her window. So hers had to have been the room with the small kitchen area and the en suite shower-room – a completely self-contained bedsit, though he didn't recall her ever mentioning that. He followed the estate agent downstairs.
'It's good,' he told her. 'Just what I'm looking for really. I've got another house to look at in a couple of days so I'll get back to you when I've seen that.' But he had already decided what he would do.
'Yes. Of course.'
'Now, before you go just give me five minutes for another quick look round. Just need to take a few photos to send to my, my, er, partner.' Wrong word, of course. Lover wouldn't do because that's someone with whom you cheat on a wife or husband. And girlfriend just seemed rather silly when you're over fifty. But whatever the right word was, it probably wouldn't be for much longer.
He went into each room upstairs more to take a good look at the view all around than to take any pictures that Louise probably wouldn't see for a couple of weeks. To the back and the side of the house it was forest. On the other side beyond the tops of low growing hazels and shrub oaks was the nursery plantation and the slopes of Alvanley Hill. And not another building anywhere in sight.
When they came out of the house, Mrs Greatorex's driver was standing in the lane. He was the same youngish man who had brought her when she had come to do the valuation at his father's old house and he was arguing with a shabbily dressed girl of about nineteen – the camper, Tom assumed. A stiff breeze blew her long fair hair across her face. She brushed it away with her hand and looked across when she heard the front door slam. Immediately she turned and began to walk back towards the far edge of the Moss.