Sophie let the glossy publication slide from her long fingers onto the marble counter top of her spacious kitchen. She had, at that precise moment, had an idea. It was all there in the pages of Façade, the interiors magazine for the obscenely wealthy.
Now the ghastly business with Sebastian that had forced them to move from Chelsea had almost blown over, it was time to stage a comeback and, according to Façade’s July edition, everyone who was anyone, from royalty to rock stars, lived in the countryside. It occurred to Sophie that for once she was in the right place at the right time albeit for the wrong reasons, but if she was lucky the whole thing could be made to appear suitably glamourous and, more importantly, as if they’d been leaders in the fashion for all things rural.
Whilst in reality Sophie found the countryside both boring and mystifying, she had no difficulty gushing about its charms to Façade’s leading feature writer, Magda Something-or-other-foreign-sounding. There was the peace, the simplicity, the proximity to London. Instead of dwelling on why she’d moved, Sophie detailed how she had originally envisaged living in a remote farmhouse in one of the more rural parts of Wimbledon, but that she had eventually found a property that was spacious and in need of renovation in an untamed region known as the Cotswolds, where sheep farming was still considered an acceptable way of filling one’s free time.
‘Of course, the first thing we had to do was to demolish the existing 1960s extension and replace it with a modernist glass structure linking the main house to the barn,’ said Sophie, giving the journalist what she hoped would be the opening quote for the article. ‘The next task was to install a new kitchen which has really become the heart of the house…’
Sophie imagined the accompanying photograph of herself with artfully tousled hair, doing something rustic and hands-on like holding out a tray of canapes for some guests.
‘… and where I love to entertain my many friends.’
‘Great, I’ll use that to head up the article. I could call it “A Cotswolds Bash”, or how about “A Country Do”?’ suggested Magda. ‘No, maybe not. Anyway, if you can have a few pals around – I mean just some locals – when I come down with the photographer at the weekend, that would be great.’
‘Sounds super, Magda darling, just super! You’re so clever!’ lied Sophie like the expensively educated woman that she was. ‘I’m so looking forward to it!’
Having ended the call, Sophie tried to fathom, over a large gin, how she had managed to lose control of the project quite so quickly. She knew that when a journalist from Façade said “just some locals”, they expected celebrities of the rank of daytime TV presenter at the very least. But Sophie and Sebastian had left the acquaintance of such people behind when they left London. Now they knew no one, minor celebrity or otherwise. So why the hell, Sophie asked herself, had she mentioned entertaining friends?
‘Seb, how do we get to know someone quickly?’ As Sophie consumed successive gin and tonics, desperation had set in and she had sought her husband’s advice.
Sebastian looked up from his jigsaw. ‘Don’t know, darling. That’s always been rather more your department.’
‘Where can we get decent friends around here?’
‘Hmmm,’ said Sebastian rotating a piece of sky. ‘Could Fortnum’s deliver?’
‘No, darling, people. Actual people. They’re being photographed for the magazine.’
‘Soph, I’m sure you’ll think of something. You always do, darling. Why not hire them? Models, actors … the homeless. It’s what we used to do at the bank when I … before I…Well, that’s what we did anyway. When we needed…um…ah…people.’
And then Sebastian got up to go and stare at the fields and the horizon as he often did after something particularly strenuous.
Sophie considered what Sebastian had said. The people in the photographs didn’t actually have to be celebrities, they just had to look interesting or amusing. They could be tweedy or arty perhaps. Lesbians were in fashion at the moment – if she could find any this far from Islington.
Their nearest neighbours lived on a modern estate on the edge of the village where the houses were all technically detached, but so close together that anyone breathing in next door’s garden would mist up one’s patio doors. One had to feel sorry for these people, thought Sophie charitably. Perhaps she would call round with homemade preserves and words of encouragement when she had a moment, but such people couldn’t ever be friends, could they?
Then there were the bigger, older houses set back from the lane behind hedges and gates. The best plan was to visit some of these, introduce herself to the occupiers and invite them to her housewarming – her housewarming that would just happen to coincide with the photoshoot for Façade. The occupiers were highly unlikely to be poor, but if they turned out to be horribly un-photogenic, she would cut things short and move onto the next house until she had found enough suitable candidates to constitute a small house party.
As she set out on foot, Sophie felt good to be taking positive action and, walking up the lane, she couldn’t help noticing that the birds were making an unholy racket doing something-or-other with twigs and the herds of sheep (or was it flocks?) that occupied land that would otherwise have made a lovely golf course, had suddenly produced new lambs. There was a feeling of restless excitement in the air.
The most impressive house in the village was Everidge Hall but, to get there, Sophie had to pass the dreaded new estate. As she drew level with one of these doll’s houses, the front door was thrown open and a tall woman with dark unruly hair and a tweed jacket emerged.
‘Don’t come out and get cold now, Elsie,’ the woman was calling over her shoulder to a figure lurking in the doorway.
Sophie could see that the woman was striking, in a neglected sort of way. She also had a voice that spoke of a good education, an ability to command and possibly even an account at Harrods. A kindred spirit perhaps? Sophie tried to imagine the woman with her hair tamed and wearing something in a rich velvet or, better still, a well-tailored mannish suit. Yes, with work, she would be perfect.
‘Excuse me,’ called Sophie, not wishing to miss her opportunity.
‘Yes, can I help?’ The woman called back. ‘Lovely day isn’t it? Spring’s here at last!’
So that must be it thought Sophie – spring. She’d have to remember that. After all one never knew when such specialist knowledge might come in useful.
‘I’m Sophie Bladder-Warwick. I’ve just moved into The Grange.’
‘I’m Antonia. So you’ve got Hodgson’s old place, have you? I saw someone had been hitting the hell out of it.’
‘I wondered if you’d like to come over for a housewarming on the eighteenth at about noon. Just champagne and canapés.’
‘How fabulous! Yes, absolutely,’ said Antonia. Then, to Sophie’s horror, Antonia turned back to Elsie and yelled, ‘Champagne at Hodgson’s old place, Elsie. On the eighteenth. I’ll pick you up.’
Sophie scrutinised the silent Elsie properly for the first time. She was a tiny, monkey-faced woman of about eighty wearing a man’s overcoat and wellies. She would never do.
‘Well…er…I didn’t really…’ stammered Sophie, but there seemed to be no way now to limit the invitation to Antonia.
‘I’ll spread the word,’ Antonia was saying, as she climbed into a disreputable looking Land Rover.
‘Oh, no it’s quite alright. Thanks all the same.’ Sophie felt control of the Façade article slipping once more from her grasp.
‘The more the merrier, don’t y’know. Give you chance to meet the village.’ And with that, Antonia and the Land Rover roared away.
As Sophie prepared for the housewarming photoshoot, dread began to build. Antonia, suitably cleaned up, would be ideal, and even Elsie was small enough to be shoved out of sight behind a large urn or something. But what if fleets of jalopies clogged the drive and hordes of locals in muddy boots and onesies stood around on her Persian rugs, quaffing Bollinger? There would be finger marks on the paint work, and someone was bound to spill on the walnut sofa table or stub a cigarette out on one of the ottomans.
The day of the party day dawned bright and warm. Sophie ran through her checklist yet again: three cases of champagne, six dozen canapés, two hundred Arum lilies, three cases of Flash and two large packets of wet wipes. The photographer from the magazine was already ranging around the place, checking whatever it was that photographers check. Magda, the journalist, had messaged to say she was stuck in sheep on the B4077, but would be there shortly. Sebastian had been parked in an armchair in the study out of sight with a new thousand-piece jigsaw and a pot of camomile tea.
Sophie told herself all was well as she went up to dress, but the sense of foreboding persisted and, as she looked down from her dressing room window, her worst fears began to unfold.
Antonia had arrived in her dreadful vehicle with the decrepit Elsie, in her signature overcoat and wellies, and a couple of other unknown octogenarians. There was also a tractor and trailer that had brought a dozen of what appeared to be the same red-headed family and three women who’d arrived on horses, who having dismounted, had tied their mounts to the bronze garden sculptures.
By the time Sophie had made it downstairs, the guests were already in the house but appeared to have dispersed. She found a couple of the old folk still working their way along the entrance hall, clinging on to the dado rail for support. Elsie had penetrated as far as the main drawing room and was sitting on one of the sofas with a tray of canapés on her knee, working from left to right and tossing any she didn’t like into the porcelain Chinese bowls on the coffee table.
Sophie would have taken action there and then, but there was the crunch of tyres on the gravel outside and she rushed out to head off a further invasion, only to find it was Magda from Façade.
‘Lovely day!’ waved Magda, getting out of her car.
‘Yes, it’s called spring, you know,’ said Sophie gravely.
‘Beautiful horses. Do they normally graze on the lawn?’ asked Magda.
‘We invited some of the locals for a housewarming…’ began Sophie, feeling some explanation was called for but then found herself unable to elaborate.
‘That’s great! Good to know you’re really integrating. So many people move to the country and don’t even make an attempt to fit in.’
In her confusion, Sophie had led the journalist into the kitchen where The Three Horsewomen of the Apocalypse were filling champagne baths with water at the sluicing sink which were then carried by the older ginger children to the horses outside. Meanwhile, their younger siblings were beating each other with handfuls of Arum lilies. Their father (as Sophie presumed) was sitting on one of the kitchen islands, drinking from an open bottle and turning the gas rings on and off whilst his wife was cramming a joint of beef that she had recently liberated from Sophie’s freezer into her shoulder bag.
At the other kitchen island, Antonia was calmly filling glasses with champagne and placing them onto a tray.
‘Ah, there you are,’ called Antonia, catching sight of Sophie. ‘Couldn’t find you so thought we’d better get started.’
‘Better get started,’ echoed the red-headed pyromaniac waving his champagne bottle aloft.
‘Yes, before the Scunthwaites turn up,’ continued Antonia. ‘They don’t get out much, but they do so enjoy their food and drink when they do.’
And with that she swept out, carrying the tray of glasses, presumably to meet the gluttonous Scunthwaites on their arrival.
‘I can explain…’ began Sophie turning pleadingly to Magda whilst wondering how on earth she was going to regain control of her kitchen, let alone the rest of the house and garden. ‘I met Antonia in the village, you see…’
Sophie suddenly felt clammy and faint. She needed fresh air. She stumbled past the boot room and the larder out into the sunlit stable yard and half sat, half slumped, on a conveniently placed bench, struggling to catch her breath. Throwing her head back to get more air into her lungs, she found that it tasted cool and sweet, like homemade lemonade that she’d once been given as a child. She closed her eyes against the warmth of the spring sun and breathed deeply.
‘Beautiful!’ she murmured to herself after a few minutes, unaware that Magda had joined her.
‘I can see you’re a real lover of the countryside, Sophie, the fresh air, the promise of spring…’
Sophie snapped open her eyes and stared up into the most perfect blue sky.
‘That was Lady Antonia Mansfield in the kitchen, wasn’t it?’ asked Magda getting out her notebook. ‘I thought I recognised her.’
Sophie looked blank for a moment, then repeated, ‘Lady Antonia Mansfield.’
‘Did you know her before she wrote her bestseller, Posh Totty? What a hoot! Two Tory MPs and a BBC newsreader had to resign.’ Magda was euphoric. ‘Then, of course, running down The Mall starkers like that made nervous breakdowns positively fashionable.’
‘Nervous breakdown?’ asked Sophie, still half in a trance.
‘Yes, she’s fine now I’m told. Fancy her being at your housewarming. What a coup!’ Magda was scribbling frantically.
Sophie stood up. She felt perfectly well. The faintness had passed.
‘Now, I really ought to introduce you to my husband, Sebastian,’ she said, sounding much more her old self. ‘And of course, we’re expecting the Scunthwaites any minute.’
G S Walker’s first short story appeared in Redline Magazine in 2014 and since then her work has been published by Writers’ Forum, Scribble Magazine, The Fiction Pool and Eunoia Review.