What Celia hadn’t known was that, while the number 36 bus got her to the Harewood gates very nicely, the house itself stood at the end of a mile-long drive. Celia’s shoes weren’t exactly made for walking, so she arrived at the fine, porticoed entrance footsore, flustered and windblown, her appreciation for the rolling, Capability Brown parkland that had formed a backdrop to her trek entirely lacking. She had even completely failed to notice a majestic Red Kite eagle circling above her as if it were eyeing her up as a potential meal.
‘Oh, you should have phoned. I would have come and picked you up,’ the young, elegant woman who greeted her said, after introducing herself as Nicola. ‘It’s because the house is closed to the public. We usually have a shuttle running between the bus stop and the house when we’re open. And we offer half price entry if you come by bus.’
‘How marvellous,’ Celia said, imagining how, in her current dishevelled state, she must size up against Nicola’s effortless grooming. ‘May I use the loo?’
She ducked inside the ladies’ toilet and, thanking God for Touche Éclat and Estée Lauder, effected a smart rescue on her appearance. Then, satisfied that even though she had twenty years on her, she could give that Nicola a run for her money, she stepped out to be taken on her personal tour of the house.
Nicola was a gracious and charming tour guide, even if, in Celia’s view, she was a little too keen to display her knowledge of the place. In any case, Celia only half listened to what was being said about the house and its contents, concentrating instead on all the lovely things and how this armchair might look in her sitting room, that rug in her bedroom.
As they slowly worked their way around the grand rooms, Celia found no crime story inspiration at all. She told herself not to worry. She had her meeting with @RiponOff44 – to which her mind seemed to have attached the words ‘deliciously promising’ – to look forward to. She was certain he and his hair-raising tales were going to help out where her imagination was now failing her.
With no tourists to spoil the experience, Celia could sometimes block Nicola out of her sight lines and imagine that the finery she was drifting past all belonged to her, that the house and its contents were put together to satisfy her own, exquisite taste. But as the tour progressed, another, less comfortable feeling began to fester inside her: a familiar itchiness of the sort that visited her whenever she chanced across a copy of Country Homes magazine or Elle Decoration.
‘Where’s the Sèvres?’ she asked Nicola as they stepped into an almost impossibly ornate red and gold drawing room,
‘The China Room’s next. This is the Cinnamon Room. Nicola swept her scarf – which Celia suspected was Hermès – over her shoulder. ‘And I want to tell you about this portrait. One of Joshua Reynolds’s finest.’
‘She looks quite a gal,’ Celia said, standing before the full-length picture of a young woman in what looked like a military riding habit. ‘It’s as if she’s asking “What’s next, then, chaps?” ’
‘Indeed,’ Nicola said. ‘Her name is Seymour, Lady Worsley, and she…’
But, having dropped even the pretence of listening, Celia had moved on to the next room, in pursuit of the Sèvres.
To her delight, all the porcelain had been removed from its cabinets and was standing on trestle tables awaiting the attentions of a couple of women who were ministering to the pieces with soft brushes and clothes. It was all so close, so clearly within reach. So touchable.
‘It’s the annual clean,’ Nicola said. ‘It’s an on-going duty of care we have here.’
‘So pretty,’ Celia said, reaching a hand out to touch a blue and gold tea set.
‘Please don’t touch,’ Nicola said, alarm allowing her composure to momentarily slip. ‘That Bleu de Roi tea set was bought by Viscount ‘Beau’ Lascelles, son of the first Earl of Harewood. It once belonged to Queen Marie-Antoinette and was included in the inventory of her Chateau after her execution.’
‘It’s very lovely,’ Celia said, trying to hide her displeasure at having been told off. She bent to admire the things, making sure she positioned herself a little too close to the delicate porcelain for Nicola’s comfort.
‘What delightful pictures it has on it.’
‘The scenes illustrate a romanticised view of peasants enjoying themselves,’ Nicola said.
‘Eating cake, no doubt,’ Celia muttered. It really was too bad that she was forbidden even to touch all this lovely stuff.
One of the women tending to the porcelain called Nicola over for a word, leaving Celia all alone with the tea set, as well as a selection of tiny beakers and small boxes. She heard a small voice in her head
If you reach out for one with your handkerchief right now, no-one will see.
It was horrible, like that urge to jump one gets when standing on the edge of a cliff.
You’re worth it, after all. You work bloody hard, and what do you get for it?
Celia felt a hot prickle of sweat in the small of her back.
What’s life brought you but useless husbands, mediocre book sales and a bloody awful libel suit?
She reached in her Bayswater bag for her handkerchief.
You deserve a pretty thing. Just pop it in your pocket…
She reached her shaking hand out towards her goal, and was just about to grasp it when her phone started playing its tinny Beethoven’s Fifth ringtone.
‘Yes?’ she said rather too loudly, answering it.
‘Celia? It’s Laura. You do know you should be with the hornblower right now.’
‘It’s on your schedule. Two hours at Harewood, then you hop on the bus for Ripon to meet the hornblower.’
‘Haven’t I seen him already?’
‘Isn’t the hornblower the mayor?’
‘Of course the hornblower’s not the mayor!’
‘Very well, Laura,’ Celia said patiently. ‘But what your little schedule didn’t factor in was the miles and miles of drive I had to walk to get from the road to the house.’
‘But I put Nicola’s phone number in the notes, with instructions to ring her once you’d passed the Pannal bus stop so she could come and pick you up.’
‘I didn’t see it,’ Celia said. In truth, she hadn’t really read the notes on her schedule. The type was a little small.
Laura sighed on the other end. ‘Well, you need to get yourself up to Ripon as quick as you can. I’ll tell the hornblower you’re going to be late.’
It was only when Celia was seated on the number thirty six – it had been a swift transfer from the Sèvres room (whose collection remained intact) to the bus, which had turned up just as she stepped out of Nicola’s car – that she wondered who – or what – on earth the hornblower was. She was just about to research the matter on her phone using the free wi-fi on board when it ran out of battery.
She would just have to wait and be prepared to be surprised.