The Offer of Mr. Pepperidge
The salubrious weather ebbed away the closer Gwendolyn got to the city, blue skies turning slowly to grey, and by the time her taxi turned into Cadogan Gardens and pulled up in front of the offices of Albert T. Pepperidge, Esq., a light rain was falling. She threw her shawl over her head and walked briskly along the pavement towards the grand old house where Albert had his offices and where, unbeknownst to all but his most intimate clients, of which she was one, he lived in rather lavish splendor upstairs, splendor that more than equaled the tiny glimpse provided in the offices below. In normal circumstances, Gwendolyn adored a visit to Albert’s offices for it afforded an entrance into another world, a world more gracious, more beautiful, and more exotic than any other in her experience. To close the door behind you was to become part of an altogether different, and to her, and altogether enjoyable, reality. Roses and lilies competed for prominence here; they crowded into Lalique vases on polished tables, perfuming the air with a fragrance that, when mingled with woodsmoke from the fireplaces, was insanely heady. Colours, patterns, textures all coalesced in an exotic melange that perfectly illustrated Albert’s peregrine life: saris from India were draped over tables, tweeds from the Outer Hebrides covered cushions and chairs, Italian tapestries hung like old master paintings on the glistening walls. She loved it here. In normal circumstances. In normal circumstances they would be celebrating the completion of her new manuscript, or the best-selling status of another. In normal circumstances, she would be invited up to his rooms for a elaborate lunch, regaled with stories of his latest travels, and sent home with bottles of wine so rare they were impossible to open without a celebratory cause. But today was not a normal circumstance.
Ringing the bell, Gwendolyn stood on the top step listening for the tap-tap-tap of the sensible shoes of Mrs. Dunn, Albert’s starched and ever-present housekeeper and guard. She felt a little like a child called to the headmaster’s office with the evidence of stolen chocolates all over her face. She had to shake this feeling or she’d never say what she’d come to say. She’d never be able to admit she was tired of her insanely popular novels. She’d never say she longed again for the hours of research required for her historical works. She’d never say that what she really wanted to write was a biography of the Princess Louise. An accomplished artist, an early feminist and extraordinary sculptor, hers was a life Gwendolyn longed to explore and illuminate. With that thought in mind she squared her shoulders as the heavy, carved door creaked open.
“Good morning, Mrs. Dunn”, she said, determined to be the one to speak first. “It’s so good to see your friendly face on such a dreary day”.
Mrs. Dunn smiled slightly and stood aside to allow her entrance. “How are you, Gwendolyn?”, she asked. “We haven’t seen you in quite a while. You’re looking well.”
Both women knew that “haven’t seen you in quite a while” was a remark that meant more that the sum of its words, but Gwendolyn let it pass apparently unnoticed and followed Mrs. Dunn to the sitting room.
“I’ll get you some tea. Darjeeling, if my memory serves?”
“Yes, thank you.” Rather than plopping as usual in her favorite overstuffed chair, Gwendolyn chose to sit in the hardest, straightest, most uncomfortable- looking one in the room. Mrs. Dunn brought in the tea tray, sitting it down on the table in front of her. “There’s some chocolate biscuits, your favourite I think. Just baked them this morning. Help yourself. I’ll tell Albert you’re here”.
Gwendolyn knew this was disingenuous. Albert knew she was there. Without one doubt he’d been upstairs watching from his ruby velvet curtained windows as she’d walked up the pavement. But she just smiled at Mrs. Dunn and obediently picked up a biscuit.
Footsteps on the stairs made her sit up even straighter than her chair demanded. A smell of peppermint and leather entered the room a millisecond before he did. “Hello old girl”, said Albert. He waddled across the room and planted a kiss on her cheek before she could respond. He always moved faster than one would expect him to given his rounded physique and, as was his habit, he gathered up the reins of the conversation and they were off at a gallop with no chance of an comment from her corner, Albert pacing back and forth behind his highly polished desk.
“Alright, let’s get to it. I know you well enough to know something’s going on. Can’t write, can you? Yes, yes, don’t try to deny it. Those ugly blue circles under those green eyes give you away. I’ve seen it before, you know. Comes on as suddenly as if someone turned off the tap to an ever-flowing faucet, am I right? You don’t know what to do. You're embarrassed by your lack of ideas. Afraid you’re finished for good. Don’t know what to tell your dear old agent. So you simply pretend he doesn’t exist. Am I right? Well am I?”
Gwendolyn was suddenly regretting her stiff red suit and rather longed to be wearing something a bit more like pajamas. She nodded at Albert and took a bite of the chocolate biscuit. Several brown crumbs dotted her ebony shawl.
“Well, I’ll save the scolding for another day. Suffice it to say, Gwennie, I did rather think we were close enough for you to confide your troubles to old Albert, but no matter, no matter. No, no… don’t say anything yet. I can barely get through all the letters to Miranda, each one squealing for her next effort! We’ve got a book to turn in and we need to get to it.” Gwendolyn, bristling at the “we” of this sentence, began to protest but stopped at Albert’s raised hand. “No, no, now listen to me. As usual, I’ve got the perfect solution even without all the details of the problem. Here, take this.”
He sat down hard in his leather chair, shoved a parchment coloured folder across the desk towards her and leaned back with a satisfied look on his face. “Well, open it, open it. Lunch is waiting upstairs and we don’t want it to get cold.”
She smiled up at him, grateful though wary, and reached over to take the folder. Inside was a brochure of sorts, old, a bit torn, with a photograph of a house on its cover. Across the top was the word, “Greyrocks”. The photograph was faded to the point of sepia and featured what appeared to be an old manor house made of stone, two stories tall, with wide diamond-paned windows across the front and a gathering of large, rather wind-deformed trees on either side. Two stone boars, massive and grey, stood on plinths in the foreground and there were large rocks at the back of the picture, seemingly stacked in heaps on either side of the house. It was hard to tell for certain, but it looked like the house sat above a blackly turbulent sea.
“It’s yours, old girl. For as long as you need it. Right up your alley, I’d say. Been in the family for eons. I never use it. Not fond of the grey mist and all that wind. But I know you are, aren’t you? Right up your street! Been way to sunny for you lately way down there in your little cove. Too many tourists? Am I right? Well, this is the ticket, just the ticket. I can tell you it’s rarely sunny at Greyrocks. No, sir. Rarely sunny. Remember it from when I was little.”
Gwendolyn started to protest. Albert shook his head vigorously and said, “I won’t hear a refusal, Gwennie. This is a necessary change and you know it. You’ll have every thing you need. You won’t want for anything, I assure you. I’ve already had the kitchen fully stocked. There’s fresh linens on your bed. Fires are already laid and there’s plenty of wood stacked by the door. Don’t concern yourself with the way it looks in the photo. No one’s lived there for years, it’s true, but I make sure it’s carefully tended. You know me, can’t let a house down! Your train tickets are in there, you leave day after tomorrow. I guarantee you’ll love it. I’ve arranged for Henry, that’s the caretaker, to meet you and take you over.”
“Take me over? Where is this place, Albert?
“Oh, up and over, you know, up and over. North and west. Can only get there by boat, old girl. True privacy. Just jumpers and jeans. Good shoes and a hat. All you’ll need. Don’t look at me like that, Gwennie. I’m telling you, you are going to love it. Millicent Penfield will meet that already once extended deadline yet! Ha! Yes, ma’am. You’ll see. Now let’s go have some lunch! Mrs. Dunn!!! Mrs. Dunn!! We’re heading upstairs. Pour the wine!”