Boarding the 926 at Buchanan Bus Station, Angus Wilson was trying to feel neither too important nor too nervous. Having spent his weekend preparing as far as possible for the challenge (and agonising over the appropriate dress code) now he made his way up the narrow isle, self-consciously clutching the graduation gift leather document wallet to his recently appointed chest and obsessively re-visiting how he was to go about the business of the next few days.
Mr Cruikshank himself had briefed him on the assignment in such a way that left no doubt that this was both a generous act of faith and an early test of competence.
Allerdyce Boyd was the last of a long line of valued valuable clients. In fact, the professional relationship spanned no fewer than four generations: Mr Boyd’s industrialist great-grandfather, having made his fortune, entrusted its stewardship to Cruikshank Balfour Todd back in 1903.
Mr Cruikshank had obligingly paused here, to allow Angus a rapid blink in the glare of corporate hindsight: the original fortune, as everyone knew, marked only the beginning: the Boyd story was the stuff of legend.
Angus – heart thudding inside the new Charles Tyrwhitt Oxford Weave shirt – had genuflected his way out of Cruikshank’s inner sanctum and devoted the next few evenings to meticulous research of all things Boyd – Limited, Holdings, Foundation: global business empire; art collection; bequests and scholarships; charitable trusts, humanitarian aid and philanthropic projects. But of Allerdyce, the very recently deceased, childless and reclusive heir, there was disappointingly little.
Under the terms of the Boyd Family Trust, Allerdyce’s country estate would now be gifted to The Nation, but the furnishings and pertinents thereof – his remaining personal effects – were to be auctioned separately. This was where Angus was to come in. His shiny new academic credentials were impeccable and additionally, Mr Cruikshank had inferred, he would bring to the task the freshness and vigour of eager youth. Angus was duly flattered, and genuinely excited by the brief to compile a full record of the contents of Ardfenaig House. He would be met in Mid Argyll by Bonham’s Jean-Paul Dorizon who would act as verifier and who would co-ordinate the valuation work to follow.
The job was thus huge, but simple. Table everything. Take the rooms systematically; work in a clockwise direction; photograph and describe every movable item. Thank God for iPad and the MiView app.
He had been told to pack for a week in the first instance; he would be accommodated in the nearest village, some twelve miles from the Boyd estate.
Angus had Sunday lunch, as usual, at his parents’ home. They expressed excitement and offered their congratulations: Cruikshank must think highly of him, must have spotted something about him …
He demurred with characteristic diffidence: he was just the lowly clerk; Bonham’s were sending a specialist, Jean-Paul –
– Gaultier!! they quipped in chorus.
– Snaffle us a wee Fabergé egg!
– Och, you’ll do us proud, love! See you next Sunday!
Angus was relieved that the population of the 0700 West Coast Motors coach was sparse. He laid his leather document wallet and his carefully folded new tweed jacket on the empty seat beside him. Conscientiously, self-consciously, he opened his iPad but the wi-fi faded to nothing at the Balloch roundabout, and anyway he found himself distracted by the views of Loch Lomond and the Ben. He could not recall having been this way before and, reasoning that he would be working long hours for at least the next five days, eased himself into the strange role of tourist. Tarbet, Arrochar and Ben Arthur, Loch Fyne and Inveraray unfolded like a Colin Baxter calendar, offering him a Scotland he knew of but did not know: a land of lochs, mountains and glens burnished by bright May sunshine. Fields were actually blue with bluebells. Gorse yellowed the hills. Loch waters glinted silver.
Twanging with nervous tension, Angus alighted as instructed in the small town of Lochgilphead, where one finger of Loch Fyne came to its quaint conclusion, and where Jean-Paul Dorizon awaited him as arranged. The man was exactly as Googled: suave, middle-aged, handsome and well-preserved, but – mercifully – friendly and informal. The band of sweat on the Tyrwhitt collar began to cool into clammy relief.
They stowed Angus’ holdall (Mountain Warehouse) along with Jean-Paul’s (Bottega Veneta) in the boot of the incongruous rental Ford Focus. It was agreed they would skip lunch, go straight to Ardfenaig and make a start.
Jean-Paul drove with ponderous urban caution along the single track road that paralleled the canal then forked away into utterly wild scenery. En route, they established that this was mutually uncharted territory. Yes, Jean-Paul was experienced in appraising the fortunes of others and directing auction houses. Yes, he too had studied Art History. But of the recently late Allerdyce Boyd, Angus’ guess was as good as his: there was so little information, no?
They drove through the madly picturesque Gartnagrenach, following the signs for Ardfenaig Natural Heritage Site. The single track road petered out to little more than a rutted track and the Focus felt a little storm-tossed. Angus fought down the memory of the Inverary ten minute stop square sausage and black pudding roll.
It was an extraordinary topography, a smudging of land and water. Cherry trees blossomed with a suburban incongruity. A couple of deer crossed their path, as did a suicidally dawdling pheasant. The steep slopes on each side of the track were pin-cushions of new planting …oak, Jean-Paul opined: he had read about some economic or environmental initiative to reinstate the ancient temperate rain forest of the west coast.
Despite the sunshine, Angus felt the damp furry green ubiquity of moss and rot. Mistletoe and ivy wove their sly strangling way round ropy trunks, and at irregular intervals the run-off of innumerable burns made its lazy caramel way across the stony surface.
At last, they bumped their way round a final bend and into their first sight of Ardfenaig House. Jean-Paul let the engine idle while they looked on for a moment in silent appraisal.
It was an imposing building, rather than pleasing, having been extended to each side with disproportionately long wings, like an improbable early aircraft or prehistoric bird. The low windows were mean and squinting; the paintwork had discoloured with age. The haughty sweep of the driveway was spoiled by a series of deeply cupped potholes and the drystone estate walls had collapsed in places; wilted ferns fell from them like rusty hooks.
Just as the car came to a halt at a respectful distance from the comically astonished open mouth of the front door, a figure appeared on the top step. The key-holder, surely: Mrs Bowman. Far from the monochromatic Mrs Danvers of Angus’ imagination, this woman was rosy-cheeked, dumpy and anxious.
Jean-Paul bounded up the steps, all Gallic charm. – Ah! Mrs Bowman, I presume …
No, she wouldn’t care to go indoors with them: Mr Boyd had always been one for his privacy. No, she hadn’t been house-keeper, nor cleaner: he and Mrs Boyd had led a simple life and kept themselves to themselves in the years between her death and his. Mr Boyd had made do himself ever since his bereavement. There was no staff apart from the Bowmans. Between them, she and her husband had done their best by Mr Boyd: tended the grounds, brought him his groceries, did his laundry.
Mrs Bowman thrust a surprisingly unprepossessing set of keys at Jean-Paul, advised that her phone number was on the pinboard in the butler’s pantry should they need her, and hurried away towards the Punto that had just nosed into view at the bell mouth.
– A simple life, Jean-Paul repeated softly as they watched the baggy cardigan expertly slalom the driveway. He jangled the keys and waved Angus through the open door.
The two men stood, just over the threshold, arrested by astonishment. Whatever each had expected – the Aladdin’s cave, the shrine, the mausoleum, the junk yard, the treasure chest – the sight before them stopped them in their tracks.
There was nothing.
There was nothing at all in the handsome square entrance hall, save the wall sconces set regularly between the many closed doors. The two men, like errant chessmen, crossed the chequered floor. Exchanging a glance, they entered a room at random: a study or morning room, perhaps; it contained a fine Georgian writing desk – a Mont Blanc pen lay across a blotter on the polished surface – and a shabby low-slung chintz- covered armchair of indeterminate age. The parquet was bare.
Adjacent was the library. The walls were lined with full length, darkly gleaming bookshelves, and two well-worn winged chairs in a dark red chenille pulled up to an ornately carved fireplace above which a cloudy overmantel reflected two pale and puzzled faces. The bookshelves contained the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, the Oxford English Dictionary and many – possibly the complete – works of Shakespeare and Dickens. Otherwise, they were empty.
And so it went on. Apart from the kitchen, which was old-fashioned but clearly had been in constant use until very recently, the ground floor rooms appeared to have been – well, erased.
Angus and Jean-Paul looked at each other in mute bewilderment as they roamed the house. In the grand first floor drawing room – they surmised – there remained on either side of a faded Aubusson carpet two very stiff and formal Empire sofas upholstered in sun-faded striped silk. An adjoining room contained a Steinway grand piano and double stool, and a breathtakingly beautiful harp.
On the dusty dressing table in the main bedroom, a brush, comb and hand mirror were carefully laid together, their dulled silver backs, it occurred to Angus, a sullen rebuke. A cream silk dressing-gown dangled from a padded hanger, its ghostly doppelgänger dangling back from the mirrored armoire. It was obvious that Mr Boyd had latterly slept in a much smaller room at the opposite end of the long empty corridor.
The two men came out into the sunshine and sat on the top step. Jean-Paul was moved to say that he had never, in his entire professional life, known anything like it. Angus would never forget his first job, no?
Angus shook his head. He had done a lot of head shaking in the past couple of hours. He shook, and Jean-Paul nodded, he noticed: perhaps it was a cultural thing.
They pondered aloud the possibilities. Theft. Deception. Mr and Mrs Bowman, confidence tricksters par excellence. Perhaps Allerdyce Boyd had been a great practical joker. Perhaps there was some private family dynamic – a feud, a challenge, a reckoning – or some shameful secret such as addiction or extortion or blackmail.
They agreed to carry out the task as intended: they would document everything in the house. It would take a day. They would start now, stay one night, finish the following day.
As soon as one of them made a phone call (this would be Jean-Paul of course, as the senior colleague, for whom Angus felt a disproportionate surge of gratitude) the shit would hit the fan. Above all, the matter must be kept for as long as possible from the press. There must be absolute discretion. Angus switched from head-shaking to nodding. Jean-Paul stopped nodding; shook his handsome head sadly. Definitely cultural.
They dined early at the Gartnagrenach Inn, eating slowly and solemnly, making no reference to their earlier discovery, trading carefully edited versions of themselves. They retired early to their rooms. Back in Glasgow, the newly informed Mr Cruikshank was no doubt in an apoplexy of incomprehension.
Angus lay awake with his new non-knowledge. His mind’s eye roved over the big empty house, and he marvelled at the capacity to live with so few possessions. Of course, Allerdyce Boyd had been raised in plenty; perhaps that had burdened him. Soon the media would be awash with theories: conspiracy, connivance, concealment. But Angus rather fancied it thus:
Mr and Mrs Allerdyce Boyd would have known the Morris edict about usefulness and beauty; they would have read Endymion; probably once kept a first edition (or two) of Keats on one of those library shelves.
It was a dinner-time game, perhaps: a trivial pursuit.
- Most useful work of literature.
- Rarest coin.
- Most valued photograph.
- Favourite coat.
And so on.
The thing was, they had probably grown sick of it: all that stuff. Wanting for nothing, they had wanted nothing. All that mattered was usefulness, beauty and joy. All they needed was each other.
Angus imagined the pair of them, chortling over assumed eBay identities and shushing each other as they made nocturnal drops in the doorways of charity shops. He imagined Allerdyce Boyd addressing his beloved wife in his perfectly modulated voice.
– One day, he might have said, – One day, wouldn’t it be wonderful if someone came into this house and couldn’t believe their eyes?