The House at Tyneford
The start of an affair, the end of an era.
General Observations on Quadrupeds
When I close my eyes I see Tyneford House. In the darkness as I lay down to sleep, I see the Purbeck stone frontage in the glow of late afternoon. The sunlight glints off the upper windows, and the air is heavy with the scent of magnolia and salt. Ivy clings to the porch archway, and a magpie pecks at lichen coating a limestone roof tile. Smoke seeps from one of the great chimneystacks, and the leaves on the un¬felled beech avenue are May green and cast mottled patterns on the driveway. There are no weeds yet tearing through the lavender and thyme borders, and the lawn is velvet cropped and rolled in verdant stripes. No bullet¬holes pockmark the ancient garden wall and the drawing room windows are thrown open, the glass not shattered by shellfire. I see the house as it was then, on that first afternoon.
Everyone is just out of sight. I can hear the ring of the drinks tray being prepared; on the terrace a bowl of pink camellias rests on the table. And in the bay, the fishing¬boats bounce upon the tide, nets cast wide, the slap of water against wood. We have not yet been exiled. The cottages do not lie in pebbled ruins across the strand, with hazel and blackthorn growing through the flagstones of the village houses. We have not surrendered Tyneford to guns and tanks and birds and ghosts.
I find I forget more and more nowadays. Nothing very important, as yet. I was talking to somebody just now on the telephone, and as soon as I had replaced the receiver, I realised I’d forgotten who it was and what we said. I shall probably remember later when I’m lying in the bath. I’ve forgotten other things too: the names of the birds are no longer on the tip of my tongue and I’m embarrassed to say that the capital of Paraguay is lost to me forever. And, yet as the years wash everything else away Tyneford remains, a smooth pebble of a memory.
Tyneford. Tyneford. As though if I say the name enough, I can go back again. Those summers were long and blue and hot. I remember it all, or think I do. It doesn’t seem long ago to me. I have replayed each moment so often in my mind that I hear my own voice in every part. Now, as I write them they appear fixed, absolute. On the page we live again, young and unknowing, everything yet to happen.
When I received the letter that brought me to Tyneford, I knew nothing about England, except that I wouldn’t like it. That morning I perched on my usual spot beside the draining board in the kitchen as Hildegard bustled around, flour up to her elbows and one eyebrow snowy white. I laughed and she flicked her tea ¬towel at me, knocking the crust out of my hand and onto the floor.
‘Gut. Bit less bread and butter won’t do you any harm.’
I scowled and flicked crumbs onto the linoleum. I wished I could be more like my mother Anna. Worry had made Anna even thinner. Her eyes were huge against her pale skin, so that she looked more than ever like the operatic heroines she played. Anna was already a star when she married my father – a black¬eyed beauty with a voice like cherries and chocolate. She was the real thing; when she opened her mouth and began to sing, time paused just a little and everyone listened, bathing in the sound, unsure if what he heard was real or some perfect imagining. When the trouble began, letters started to arrive from Venice and Paris, from tenors and conductors. There was even one from a double bass. They were all the same, Darling Anna, leave Vienna and come to Paris/ London/ New York and I shall keep you safe... Of course she would not leave without my father. Or me. Or Margot. I would have gone in a flash, packed my ball gowns (if I’d had any) and escaped to sip champagne in the Champs Elysées. But no letters came for me. Not even a note from a second violin. So, I ate bread rolls with butter, while Hildegard sewed little pieces of elastic into the waistband.
‘Come,’ Hildegard chivvied me off the counter and steered me into the middle of the kitchen where a large book dusted with flour rested on the table. ‘You must practice. What shall we make?’
Anna had picked it up at a second hand bookstore and presented it to me with a flush of pride. Mrs Beeton’s Household Management – a whole kilo of book to teach me how to cook and clean and behave. This was to be my unglamorous fate.
Chewing on my plait, I prodded the tome so that it fell open at the index. ‘General Observation on Quadrupeds…Mock Turtle Soup…Eel Pie.’ I shuddered. ‘Here,’ I pointed to an entry halfway down the page. ‘Goose. I should know how to cook goose. I said I knew.’
A month previously, Anna had walked with me to the telegraph offices so that I could wire a ‘Refugee Advertisement’ to the London Times. I’d dragged my feet along the pavement kicking at the wet piles of blossom littering the ground.
‘I don’t want to go to England. I’ll come to New York with you and Papa.’
My parents hoped to escape to New York, where the Metropolitan Opera would help them with a visa, if only Anna would sing.
Anna picked up her pace. ‘And you will come. But we cannot get an American visa for you now.’
She stopped in the middle of the street and took my face in her hands. ‘I promise you that before I even take a peek at the shoes in Bergdorf Goodman’s, I will see a lawyer about bringing you to New York. ’
‘Before you see the shoes at Bergdorf’s?’
Anna had tiny feet and a massive appetite for shoes. Music may have been her first love, but shoes were definitely her second. Her wardrobe was lined with row upon row of dainty high¬heeled shoes in pink, grey, patent leather, calfskin and suede. She made fun of herself to mollify me.
‘Please, let me at least check your advertisement,’ Anna pleaded. Before she’d met my father Anna had sung a season at Covent Garden and her English was almost perfect.
‘No,’ I snatched the paper away from her, ‘If my English is so terrible that I only can get a place at a flophouse, then it’s my own fault.’
Anna tried not to laugh. ‘Darling, do you even know what a flophouse is?’
Of course, I had no idea, but I couldn’t tell Anna that. I had visions of refugees like myself, alternately fainting upon over stuffed sofas. Full of indignation at her teasing, I made Anna wait outside the office while I sent the telegram:
VIENNESE JEWESS, 19, seeks position as domestic servant. Speaks fluid English. I will cook your goose. Elise Landau. Vienna 4, Dorotheegasse, 30/5.
Hildegard fixed me with a hard stare. ‘Elise Rosa Landau, I do not happen to have a goose in my larder this morning so will you please select something else.’
I was about to choose Parrot pie, purely to infuriate Hildegard, when Anna and Julian entered the kitchen. He held out a letter. My father Julian was a tall man, standing six feet in his socks, thick black hair with only a splash of grey around his temples, and eyes as blue as a summer sea. My parents proved that beautiful people don’t necessarily produce beautiful children. My mother, fragile blonde loveliness, and Julian so handsome, that he always wore his wire rimmed spectacles to lessen the effect of those too blue eyes (I’d tried them on when he was bathing, and discovered that the lenses were so weak as to be almost clear glass). Yet, somehow this couple had produced me. For years, the great¬-aunts had cooed, ‘Ach, just you wait till she blossoms! Twelve years old, mark my words, and she’ll be the spit of her mother.’ I could spit but I was nothing like my mother. Twelve came and went. They held out for sixteen. Still no blossoming. By nineteen even Gabriella, the most optimistic of the great¬-aunts, had given up hope. The best they could manage was ‘She has her own charm. And a character.’ Whether this character was good or bad, they never said.
Anna lurked behind Julian, blinking and running a pink tongue-¬tip across her bottom lip. I stood up straight and concentrated on the letter in Julian’s hand.
‘It’s from England,’ he said, holding it out to me.
I took it from him and with deliberate slowness well aware they were all watching me, slid a butter knife under the seal. I drew out a creamy sheet of watermarked paper, unfolded it and smoothed the creases. I read in slow silence. The others bore with me for a minute and then Julian interrupted.
‘For God’s sake, Elise. What does it say?’
I fixed him with a glare. I glared a lot back then. He ignored me, and I read aloud.
Dear Fraulein Landau,
Mr Rivers has instructed me to write to you and tell you that the position of house¬parlour maid at Tyneford House is yours if you want it. He has agreed to sign the necessary visa application statements, providing that you stay at Tyneford for a minimum of a twelve¬month. If you wish to accept the post, please write or wire by return. On your arrival in London, proceed to the Mayfair Agency in Audley St. W1 where ongoing travel arrangements to Tyneford will be made.
Housekeeper, Tyneford House.
"Natasha Solomons has written a lovely, atmospheric novel full of charming characters and good, old fashioned storytelling. Fans of Downton Abbey and Kate Morton's The Forgotten Garden will absolutely adore The House at Tyneford."
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