Home > The House in the Clouds

The House in the Clouds
Author: Victoria Connelly

Chapter One

 

 

Edward Townsend had known the house his whole life. Having grown up in a neighbouring village in the Sussex Downs, he knew it as Winfield Hall although the locals had another name for it – The House in the Clouds. Looking at its lofty position above the village now, Edward couldn’t think of a more fitting name. How palatial it looked. Compared to the tiny cottages clustered in the village, it must indeed seem like a palace with its splendid Georgian dolls’ house exterior and its large sash windows glinting in the light.

He’d spent the morning walking around the empty rooms of the hall, noting the crumbling plasterwork, the broken balustrades and the general air of decay, but he’d known that he had what it took to restore it to its former glory. It was a house with good bones, and that’s what counted. Everything else could be replaced or repaired.

Sitting in his car, Edward glanced down at the catalogue he was holding. The property was to be sold at a public auction which made him anxious. On the one hand, you could get an absolute bargain at auction but, on the other, the price might rocket to way above what you were happy to pay for it. How he wished that he could just put an offer in now and be done with it. Edward didn’t like surprises. He liked to know what he was getting and he was buying this place as an investment because he could see a real future in it.

Winfield Hall was a property of untapped potential in a beautiful location within commuting distance of London. What was not to love about that? And he planned to divide it into apartments, renting them out while living in one himself. He wasn’t sure for how long. Maybe three to five years, maybe more. He’d have to see how it suited him and his job in the capital.

His doctor had told him to slow down and to take some time off from his job as a financial adviser, but that was easier said than done. Edward was a workaholic and lived for his job, and yet somewhere inside him was that little boy he’d left behind in the countryside of the downs – the one who’d clambered over stiles and gone swimming in the rivers and the sea. Now, he was lucky if he got a once-a-week dip in his club’s pool. His punishing timetable meant that leisure time was often squeezed into non-existence.

He rolled his shoulders and cricked his neck, acknowledging that the punishing hours at his desk were taking a toll on him physically and, of course, there was the old problem, he thought, giving his left leg a massage. Just for a moment, he allowed himself the luxury of imagining an alternative lifestyle where he might be able to work from home a couple of days a week and fit some wild swimming into his timetable. Gosh, how he missed that. He still had his wetsuit somewhere, didn’t he? It was such a long time since he’d worn it, but he was pretty sure it was in his car.

He smiled at the thought of swimming in the wild again, imagining what it would be like to feel the cold, silky river water welcoming him and that incomparable feeling of freedom and relief he felt only when swimming. But he mustn’t get too carried away, he told himself. The house wasn’t his yet.

He took one last look out of the window at the pale golden facade of Winfield Hall before starting his car for the two-hour drive back into London. He wasn’t looking forward to it and he knew that he would be leaving a little part of him behind in that Sussex village.

 

 

Abigail Carey took a big, deep breath of the downland air, revelling in its early autumn purity. It was quite unlike anything she’d ever breathed before and she knew that she had found the one place she wanted to be more than anywhere else, which was a strange feeling for her to have. As a child, Abi had never had a garden beyond a bare courtyard and she wondered where this sudden longing came from now. But, wherever it came from, it was most welcome. She could draw here, she thought, and paint and embroider and … breathe. That’s what she wanted to do more than anything else after years of working so hard. It seemed to her that she hadn’t had a single moment to breathe in years.

After a spell at art college, Abi had struck out as a freelance designer for a number of companies while working on her own designs in the evenings. It hadn’t been an easy existence and she’d lost count of the number of dreadful flats she’d lived in, sharing with strangers in order to make the rent.

And then something strange had happened. Her “doodling” as her sister always referred to it had taken off and she suddenly found herself flavour of the month. Then flavour of the year. She’d been able to pay for her own studio and then her own shop. Suddenly, Abigail Carey was running a business and a successful one too. Her prints and linocuts were featured in all the newspapers and glossy magazines and several of her patterns were bought by department stores for quality bed linen, cushions and curtains. What a whirlwind it had been.

Smiling as she thought about it all, her fingers found a large silver locket she wore on a long chain around her neck. She didn’t open it, but it was a comfort to know what was inside: that first doodle of the sunflower that had launched her career. It had seemed like such a simple thing to draw. Everybody loved sunflowers, didn’t they? With their happy round faces and those bright fiery petals, they were a symbol of joy and strength, a winning combination, and it was as she thought about them that she determined that she would grow them at Winfield if she made the winning bid at the auction. There was a walled garden and, as she walked around it now, she promised it sunflowers.

She felt sure she should have been asking the estate agent questions, but he’d disappeared a few minutes ago to give her some privacy. After all, this was the kind of property one needed to feel. You couldn’t really take it in with an estate agent giving you a potted history and blasting you with useless details like the measurements of rooms. That wasn’t what Abi was interested in at all. She wanted to reach out and touch the place, running her fingers along the plasterwork and listening to the sound her feet made on the bare wooden floorboards. It was important to get to know a property quietly, especially one that had been empty for the last few years. It needed to be respected, its empty rooms entered silently, reverently and not with the constant babble of an estate agent’s voice accompanying you.

And, oh those rooms! Lofty, light and airy – just like the landscape which the large windows seemed to invite inside so that the two seemed indistinguishable. Abi was glad that they were empty of furniture because she could fill each room from her own imagination and what plans she had for the place. Of course, Winfield Hall was far too big for her to have all to herself. As much as she’d relish drifting from room to room and filling each with her art, she knew that this was a place to be shared.

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