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Chapter One

by Nigel 

Posted: 27 February 2004
Word Count: 2610
Summary: First chapter of a historical thriller, part of which is from the point of view of a modern-day man as he investigates the story of his ancestor's fortune.

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John Peasley was convinced he was having a nervous breakdown. He paced backwards and forwards across the beige carpet of his tiny living-room, unable to shake off the disconcerting feeling that he was a passenger in someone else’s body. It seemed as if his mind had temporarily relinquished control, legs and arms convulsing as they rid themselves of their pent-up energy. Four paces each way. Pace, pace, pace, pace, swivel. Pace, pace, pace, pace, swivel. On each pass across the room a blank magnolia wall loomed wide in his vision, closer and closer until his nose was almost touching it, then - swivel! - and he was approaching the opposite wall, identically bland in every respect. Realising how absurd his actions would appear to an outside observer, he gave himself a mental shake and shambled to a reluctant halt.

John was in his brand new house. So new, it still had the light-headed tang of fresh paint in the air. If he dropped to his hands and knees and sniffed, his nostrils would fill with the rubbery smell of virgin carpet, yet to be violated by the cruel tread of shoes and boots. Fighting the urge to do so, he went instead to stand at the patio doors; double-glazed and air-tight, of course, wood-effect plastic frames guaranteed not to rattle or rot. Hands thrust in pockets, he peered gloomily out at the drizzle-shrouded garden beyond, a poky square of vibrant-green turf boxed in with an inexplicably high wooden fence. As characterless and sanitised as the rest of the house, he thought morosely. And utterly indistinguishable from the other fifty-one dwellings that made up the new housing estate.

With little to hold his interest him in the garden he drifted from the living room to the dim hallway, barely wide enough to navigate without rubbing shoulders with the walls. Designed by a skinny architect, presumably, a malnourished stick-insect fresh out of college. Or by greedy accountants, more like, anxious to penny-pinch every last millimetre of space. Frowning darkly at this last thought he meandered into the room at the front of the house, grandly entitled “dining / entertainment room” on the plans. If he had hoped that the familiar sight of his chaise longue would lift his spirits he was sadly mistaken, for the splendid antique - a Louis XVI banquette de croisee with gilt-gold frame and woven-silk upholstery - merely looked tasteless and garish in its new, cramped location. He stared at his beloved object in despair; it was a far cry from its previous setting, the magnificent marbled hallway of Thumblewick Manor. Oh, how the mighty have fall-

The abrupt ring of the telephone by his feet caused him to jump in surprise. He scowled at the offending device - an old-fashioned Bakelite model from the 1930’s - and scooped up the handset.
‘Who . . . that?’ the voice on the other end asked. It was a terrible line, the tinny voice swamped by an angry electronic buzzing.
‘John Peasley,’ he shouted.
‘Ah, goo . . . ame’s Bob Marti . . . ot something of yours . . . value . . .’
‘Sorry, I can’t hear you. Say that again.’
‘ . . . no signal up here . . .’

The line went dead. John stared at the receiver for a moment, then replaced it in the cradle with a shrug. If it was that important, the man would ring back.

He returned to his aimless and depressing perusal of his new house. Although he had lived in it for less than three hours, he already despised with a passion. It was everything he hated about modern houses, immaculate and impersonal, with an all-pervading sense of flimsy impermanence. Living here would be like living in a furniture shop, surrounded by insipid pastel curtains and colourless carpets, featureless walls and plastic windows, low-hung ceilings barely high enough to-
Without warning the pent-up frustration of the recent days reached overwhelming proportions, sucking the air from his chest and replacing it with a fluttery feeling of panic. He had to flee this claustrophobic house, immediately, before it squeezed the life from him. It was an overriding impulse, propelling him to action - he grabbed his shabby anorak from its solitary peg, stuffed his feet into his shoes and bolted through the front door.

Once outside he stood on the tarmac driveway, filling his lungs with damp, cold air to settle his jangling nerves. Within a minute his jacket was soaked with a thin film of rainwater; he ran his fingers through his thinning hair, slicking it back off his forehead, blinking away the drops gathered on his lashes. Despite the gloomy weather, or perhaps because of it, he found himself dithering, unable to decide what to do or where to go. Then, out of the corner of his eye, he caught the twitch of a curtain from the house directly opposite - it was Mrs Tenter, an elderly woman who used a flimsy veneer of friendly civility to camouflage her nosy and vindictive nature. Or so John guessed, having only met her the once. She had insisted on welcoming him to the estate personally, listing the names of every other household in the street, supplying a helpful one-sentence biography for each one.

She stood at her window, staring at him. Even though he could only make out the vague outline of her head and shoulders, he could nevertheless detect the tangible waves of suspicion emanating from across the road, tight-lipped disapproval that the new addition to the estate was already showing signs of disturbing behaviour. For one instant the mischievous part of him was tempted to remain where he was, immobile on his driveway in the rain all afternoon, eyes fixed on Mrs Tenter’s window. How long before she sent her frail husband over, or called for the police? That would give her something to gossip about. But John was too mild-mannered for such an overtly infantile gesture, and without wilful thought his arm gave a subdued wave of acknowledgement and his legs propelled him to motion.

He plodded glumly through the drab estate, along wriggling streets that flowed like grey tributaries into other wriggling streets. Each road was named after a tree: Ash Road, Beech Road, Oak Road, Sycamore Road, and so on, providing a common theme to “bind the estate with an air of identity”, as he had been informed by the smarmy vending agent. Yet more evidence of the unimaginative laziness of the planners, was John’s alternative view.

Before long he reached the main road, a wide arrow-straight dual carriageway that encouraged drivers to set aside every last vestige of restraint and tear along at death-defying speeds. Two choices presented themselves to the foolhardy pedestrian: one could either bear right and head towards Gloucester, or otherwise take a left turn towards the village of Bremhampton, situated less than a mile up the hill. He chose the latter option and began tramping along the side of the road, hood pulled firmly over his head to fend off the rain and intermittent blasts of wind from the hurtling cars. The oily-black grass on the verge - neatly combed in the direction of the traffic - was littered with a moraine of faded drinks cans and empty crisp packets, and within minutes his shoes and the cuffs of his trousers were caked in grime. He trudged onwards with gritted teeth, however, determined to reach his goal and the relative peace and tranquillity it offered.

At long last he passed the sign at the outskirts of the village - the letters “mpton” obliterated under spattered filth - and turned down a side-lane, glad to leave the noisy, fume-filled road behind him. He wandered aimlessly around the backstreets of the village for a while, his vision restricted by the cowl of his anorak to his own feet on the glistening wet tarmac. Eventually tiring of the interminable pattering of raindrops on his coat, he veered towards The Huntsman’s Inn, the only public house in the vicinity.

As he pulled open the familiar door his face automatically adopted the sour look of contempt he always felt whenever walking into it. It had once been his favourite drinking establishment, its warm and dimly rustic rooms filled with warm and dimly rustic people. Since the new estate had been completed, however, it had been renovated into a “family-friendly environment”, a status apparently achieved by painting the interior terracotta-orange and filling it with dining tables and over-priced food.

The bar was empty and silent - hardly surprising on a mid-week winter’s morning - but by the time John had peeled off his raincoat and stowed it on a hook, making an exaggerated amount of coughing as he did so, the landlord had made his appearance. Harry Petran was his name, an ex-soldier with a deeply-lined face, the edges softened by plumpness in recent years. The pair had an uneasy relationship; it was obvious that Harry disliked John intensely, although nothing had ever been said directly. The animosity was kept hidden behind an artificial mask of tight courtesy.

Upon seeing who his customer was, Harry strolled casually along the bar and selected an empty glass from the rack. He waited for John to speak.
‘Errm . . . a pint of cider. Please.’
Harry nodded curtly and began pouring.
‘Foul weather,’ John commented, feeling obliged to break the uncomfortable silence with something, no matter how inane.
Harry eyed him over the glass and grunted.
John lapsed into silence while the glass was slowly filled, fighting the urge to whistle through his teeth, a habit he often caught himself doing in awkward circumstances. Relieved when the barman’s task was finally complete, he paid quickly and scuttled off to the safety and isolation of a distant table.

Staring at the grey world outside and picking distractedly at the edges of a beermat, John’s thoughts dwelt on his new house and the poor state of affairs he unwittingly found himself in. Several mouthfuls of flat cider later and his thinking became even more despondent, ranging far back over his uneventful and - if he was honest with himself - utterly joyless life.

John Peasley had been born forty-six years ago in Gloucester Maternity Hospital, an unhealthy and premature baby. Unless by some miracle he met the right woman and their union issued him with a son, he would be the last in the line of the Gloucestershire Peasleys, for he was an only child. He had been brought up in the family home, Thumblewick Manor, a massive lumbering building of gothic neoclassicism set amongst acres of unspoilt rolling fields and woodland. It had belonged to the Peasley family for generations. The once-colossal family fortune, however, had slowly but surely dwindled as the years passed, each generation gobbling up their own slice of the pie and replacing it with nothing. Now, it was all but gone; John was in the unenviable position of being the first Peasley in nearly three hundred years to be stone cold broke.

That was not quite true; he had his new house, purchased with the proceeds from the sale of Thumblewick Manor and attached lands. He was lucky, he acknowledged ruefully to himself, to get even that, for the debts his parents had left trying to maintain the old mansion had spiralled to dizzying proportions in recent years. The whole estate had been purchased by the Keystone Consortium, a group of London property speculators with planning consent to demolish the existing dwelling and erect three-hundred and twenty executive homes.

John himself had done little with his life, briefly foraying into the wider world to acquire a degree in geography at Swansea University before returning to the comforting surroundings of Thumblewick Manor. From then on his life was series of inconsequential jobs and unfulfilling liaisons, almost as if he were merely killing time until the real events of his life could begin. A dress rehearsal before the main performance. The years had streaked past with disquieting rapidity, though, and now - at the age of forty-four, with joints just beginning to creak and feelings of mortality encroaching - it suddenly seemed as though the best had already passed, squandered in careless complacency. For the millionth time, he cursed his bad luck. If only he had been born fifty years earlier! He would have lived the high life, surrounded by fast cars and gorgeous women, a wealthy playboy with not a care in the world. At such times he was reminded of a sepia-tinted photograph, currently packed in a trunk with the other miscellaneous possessions he had salvaged from the manor; it was of his grandfather, Gerald Peasley, squatting by a sleek racecar on the gravel drive of Thumblewick Manor, back in the year 1920. The image was softened and hazy, like a porthole to a dream world, a place where everything glowed with reassuring agreeability. John yearned for such halcyon times.

His melancholic musings were rudely interrupted by a group of boisterous workman, swearing and laughing as they jostled through the doorway, chasing away the overbearing silence of the bar in an instant. John could not help eavesdropping on their lewd and banal conversation as they ordered drinks and sandwiches from Harry, who suddenly seemed to have transformed himself into the absolute embodiment of the cheery landlord.
Then, when the banter had run its natural course and diminished somewhat, John felt the back of his neck prickling. Sure enough, as he glanced up he caught one of the duffle-coated workman peering over at him intently. The man shambled over, drink in hand.
‘Here,’ he said, ‘you’re the Peasley fella, aren’t you?’
John gave cautious nod.
‘The gaffer’s looking for you.’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘You used to live in the big house up the hill, didn’t you?’
‘I did.’
‘Thought so. We’re working up there. Gaffer says he wants to see you.’
‘Really? What does he want?’
‘He’s found something, hidden under the floorboards. He was going to chuck it away, but said he oughta give it to you by rights.’
‘What is it?’
‘I dunno. He never said.’
‘I see,’ John frowned, his curiosity piqued.
A cheeky smirk appeared on the man’s dirt-smeared face. He waved his pint glass towards the other men. ‘Tod there reckons it’s your stash of scud mags.’
‘My what?’
‘Your porn. Your dirty mags.’
‘No, I never had an-’
‘Only joking, mate,’ he laughed at the John’s horrified expression. ‘Like I said, I dunno what it is. Only one way to find out, though; go see the gaffer. He reckons it could be worth something to you. His name’s Bob Martin.’
‘Right. I will.’
‘Take care now.’ With that, he tapped John’s sleeve amicably and returned to his rowdy colleagues.

John’s forehead creased in consternation. What could the object possibly be, he wondered? Unwittingly, images of priceless items glittered in his mind: a gold necklace with a bulbous ruby pendant, perhaps, or a jewel-encrusted crucifix, squirelled away by a parsimonious ancestor. Berating himself for being fanciful - after all, the workman had told him it had been close to being thrown away - he gave an unconcerned shrug and tried to dismiss it from his mind. It was no use, though, it was impossible to disregard, nibbling away at him. He drained the remainder of his warm cider quickly and shrugged his coat back on.

He knew exactly where he was going next: up to his old home, Thumblewick Manor. After all, he reasoned with himself, it was not as if he had anything better to do.

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Comments by other Members

Dee at 18:22 on 27 February 2004  Report this post
OK, Nigel, you have to upload more so I can find out what it is!

This is good. Well written and a sound springboard for the rest of the story. It needs a little polishing. There are a few typos and there is one para where you repeat the word 'family' three times in quick succession. And check his age. He was born 46 years ago but, a few paras later, he's 44.

Apart from that, I really enjoyed reading this and look forward to the next bit.


word`s worth at 18:26 on 27 February 2004  Report this post

I really like the way you write and your use of the English language. It's very rich without being precocious and that appeals hugely. I love John's cynicism about these new estates. I know exactly where he's come from as I've been house hunting and end up being gobsmacked at what these developers are getting away with. Had to laugh at John's thought of standing motionless in the rain staring at his neighbour - what a hoot.

One thing I think you need to reread this as there are some missing words like - it/he/and etc. I can't find where they are at the moment because I didn't want to stop the flow of the story while I was reading it.

The other thing is when he stops mid sentence and you have a dash (-)...I could appreciate it when his flow of thought was interrupted by the phone but I had to stop and reread a couple of times when he got claustrophobic and had to get out of the house...it really jolted the rhythm I was in. Perhaps you could complete the sentence there. Unless of course there's a glitch in the upload???

As I said, I really enjoyed this and can't wait to read another chapter!


TeeFoley at 20:31 on 27 February 2004  Report this post
i write in an opposite way to you. i am uneducated so write as i find. however i live in a new house and have been here for four years. i relate to every word and my family (despite my education) are one of wealth. you are searching for your cause in life just like me. i do like your words. carry on. one thing i think would be good is if you you talk from your heart and not try to impress with big words, just flow with it. too many agents look for spelling and punctuation before heart and soul and this is pathetic. we need more people out there to sponsor real thoughts. it really pisses me off.

tee xx

Nigel at 20:44 on 27 February 2004  Report this post
Hi everyone,

Thanks for your comments.

It's odd how your perception changes as soon as you upload it here - I suddenly spotted lots of mistakes and clunky sentences (they must have been invisible before!).

I must admit I've been struggling with this chapter, impatient to get on with the proper story


TeeFoley at 20:26 on 28 February 2004  Report this post
Cant wait to read more .... Good luck with it.

Tee x

Ralph at 08:53 on 01 March 2004  Report this post
Hi Nigel,

This is intriguing. You've established an interesting character, with a palpable sense of displacement, and I'm longing to find out what will happen to him.

I loved the idea of "living in a furniture shop", and the fact that a family pub is created by painting the walls terracotta and overcharging for the food. Some very wry observations, deftly written.

Looking forward to more of this.

All the best with it



Nigel at 17:42 on 02 March 2004  Report this post
Hi Ralph and Tee,

Thanks for your comments - they've given me the impetus to carry on (I'm trying to push through the dreaded 50,000 word barrier at the moment).



Jumbo at 23:59 on 03 March 2004  Report this post

I really enjoyed this. I liked the way in which you developed the main character and then back-filled his life history and that of his family.

Some nice descriptive writing as well - I particularly liked your descriptions of the new house and the re-decorated pub.

Good stuff. Hope to see more.


Zigeroon at 15:35 on 04 March 2004  Report this post


A great start to the novel. I just wonder if you need to reduce the length of the time from leaving the house to getting to the pub and allow the details in that piece to come through later because the image of his fall from wealth was well set as he looks with despair upon his new abode?

It had a really easy pace then accelerated when he was told of the discovery of whatever it is they've found. Clever hook.

Just one or two things I noted that might be relevant, or not:-

-for accountant read quantity surveyor, they're the ones who restrict the architects enthusiasm for over design.

-Why move there if he hates it so much?

-interior design hatred-repaint?

-vending agent? Maybe estate agent or salesman? Both sleazy but they sell houses. 'Vending agent' sounds like someone who sells machines that regurgitate dubious liquids. Just a thought.

-the development potential of the land; he doesn't appear inbred and stupid; did he consider the possibility of developing the land himself or was he duped by developer

Looking forward to finding out what it is they've found.


Nigel at 17:51 on 05 March 2004  Report this post
Andrew and John - thanks for taking the time to comment


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