Mrs Manville Disposes
Life at Absolute Zero, Series Two: Episode 7
When the developer George Birkett founded Meridian Cliffs a hundred years ago, dividing the land into small affordable plots, he reserved just one large double plot for himself. The house that stands there now – at the far end of Gallipoli Close – is an attractive Tudor revival home with ornamental beams and mullioned windows, named “The Grange”, and for the past thirty years Mrs Manville has lived in it alone, enjoying the pretty garden hidden from the world by high walls and evergreens. It pleases Mrs Manville that most Meridionians have forgotten – if they ever knew – that such a grand house exists. She is an independent woman, and proud of it; but it’s the house that has allowed her this independence. “My refuge and my fortress,” she often says. “My God in whom I trust.” It is odd to remember now that when they bought the Grange in the 1970s, it was her husband John, last descendant of the famous Manville Postcards Manvilles, who’d been the one to fall in love with it; Mrs Manville actually had misgivings about moving so far from Eastbourne. But she has never looked back. In 1985, John Manville died; then the postcards business went into administration. Mrs Manville stayed on.
But three months ago, she made a decision. It was, finally, time to go. She was approaching 80 years of age, had been widowed for three decades, and had realised that maintaining the house – and especially the garden – was taking a lot of effort. Selling it and moving would also appease her son Mark, who complains about the distance he has to travel to see her, but has never considered moving himself, because he can afford Brighton. Mark is a dutiful son, but somehow always on his own terms: for example, every Sunday morning for the past few years he has collected his mother and driven her to a church in Hove, despite the fact that Mrs Manville actually prefers the church in nearby Rottingdean, and has often said so. “I can take the bus to Rottingdean” she says, hopelessly. “It’s only a few stops.” Right now, Mark is triumphant because his mother has finally agreed to swap the Grange for a beautiful sheltered housing development much closer to his home. And she is, largely, happy about it too. Of course Mark has taken over the whole business of putting the house with an agent, and managing the conveyancing. The one aspect of the move she intends to take full charge of is the “downsizing”, as he calls it. “You will need to downsize, ma,” he said, as if it was a word. Well, she feels she has been downsized quite often enough by Mark over the years. Last time he visited, he picked up her remote control and adjusted the settings on her television without even asking.
All went well with the downsizing at first. Mrs Manville engaged a local auctioneers of excellent standing to value the best items, and then arranged a coffee morning for old friends to choose bric-a-brac. The remainder to go to a local hospice charity. It felt good to be on top of things. The adage “Man proposes: God disposes” was often in her mind. Her first realisation that she was less god, more a sitting duck came when a bearded young book dealer offered £200 for her husband’s entire library, and then – while she absorbed the shock – started leafing excitedly through her albums of historic Manville Postcards, which she had specifically stated were not for sale.
“Now, these,” he said.
“Yes, but I’m not selling those.”
She went away to make him some coffee. When she returned with a tray, he actually had one of the albums tucked under his arm.
“My son will doubtless sell them when the time comes,” she said, firmly taking the album from him, and offering him a seat. “I’ll be sure to give him your name with my dying breath.”
And far from being abashed, the young man picked up a biscuit, took a bite, and said, “Great. I’ve popped my card into each of them to be on the safe side. Any idea when that will be?”
By contrast, the auctioneers sent a slim attractive man in his sixties, “our Mister Jolyon”. She felt more relaxed with him. His father, before setting up the auctioneers, had been a salesman for Manville Postcards – a joyful coincidence. Mister Jolyon remembered the riotous children’s Christmas parties held at the Eastbourne print works, which had been all Mrs Manville’s idea, right down to the gifts round the tree.
“I appeared on one of the postcards, in fact,” he laughed. “Dad arranged it with that photographer of yours – Donnie something?”
“That’s it. It was on the beach at Dymchurch. Five years old, holding a white and yellow rubber ring.”
It was a pleasure to do business with Mister Jolyon. When she showed him the pieces she intended to auction, he made courteous remarks, asked courteous questions, made notes with a thin silver pen. He advised her that beautiful furniture was at an appalling low: her ornate Georgian bureau would probably fetch less than her plain oak kitchen table.
“It’s a shame you can’t keep it a little longer,” he said. “Things could look up.”
The resulting low estimate came less as a shock this time. And besides, Mister Jolyon had nothing to gain by under-valuing. He was a connoisseur. He admired the pictures she was keeping; her jewellery; over tea, they browsed the postcard albums together and even found the one he had appeared on. He took a photograph of it on his phone.
Naturally, Mark didn’t like the sound of Mister Jolyon. He said, “He’s up to something, Ma.” It was one of Mark’s many failings that he judged people according to his own lights; one of the other failings was that he never even tried to disguise the fact that he regarded his mother’s estate as, basically, his own. Once, when they were watching tv together – probably with the settings adjusted willy-nilly – a comedian said, “Me, oh yeah, I’ve got lots of money. But it’s all tied up in my parents’ house” – and Mark had nearly fallen off his chair laughing. Mrs Manville realised that she was enjoying Mark’s discomfort right now, but it was his own fault for forcing her to move. Mark proposes; Ma disposes. As a perfect example of disposing, last week at the bus stop she had been talking to a woman with an elderly dog, and the woman said, sadly, “He can’t jump up on the chair any more.” And Mrs Manville had said to this total stranger, “Come to my house this afternoon. I’ve got a lovely old footstool he can use as a step.” And the woman had said, [disbelieving] “No! I couldn’t!” And Mrs Manville had said, “No, really. You’d be doing me a favour.” So that afternoon, the woman had come round and said, gratifyingly, “Oh what a lovely house, I didn’t know it was here.” And after a cup of tea, she’d taken the footstool home, as well as a set of teaspoons, saying thank-you, thank-you, thank-you – and if the woman had only thought afterwards to send a little thank-you note as well, the whole transaction would have been absolutely exemplary.
With just three weeks to go until the moving date, Mrs Manville held her coffee morning. A couple of people from the church in Hove came to give her a hand with it all – expressing friendly concern that she might not manage on her own, and incidentally getting first dibs with the stuff. It was not an edifying affair, all in all. The two Hove helpers – veterans both of a thousand jumble sales – actually fell out with each other over a set of nesting coffee tables. One of Mrs Manville’s oldest friends, from Rottingdean, annoyingly dithered over whether she wanted a tapestry cushion bearing the legend “It is More Blessed to Give than to Receive”. “It’s a bit faded,” she complained.
Mrs Manville had carefully boxed up a number of items that she was keeping, so that there could be no confusion, but at one point she looked and found that the boxes were open and things had been removed. Someone she didn’t even recognise was holding up the little lacquered box that held the ashes of Mark’s cat Tiger, and evidently thinking, “Mm, this could be useful.” At this point, Mrs Manville banged the little Chinese gong that stood on the mantelpiece, and sternly restored order – but the violation had unsettled her, and from that point she was impatient for people to leave. She remembered how grabby Mark had been as a child, and how she’d felt that as long as she turned things round, saying, “Now, would you like an ice cream, Mark?” she could suppress her maternal disgust. But what a strain it had been today. “Would you like that bowl, Felicity? No, please take it. For my sake. Don’t forget I’m moving to a one-bedroomed flat!”
And then, in the afternoon, Mister Jolyon returned. Such a relief. They sat together, and chatted about the old days. Since seeing her, he said, he’d been remembering Manville Postcards – how he’d once been shown round the presses; what a caring family business it had been. In 1965, there had been a works outing to Dieppe by paddle-steamer! Mrs Manville wasn’t sure how much warm nostalgia she could cope with right now; the image of that strange woman quizzically holding up Tiger’s mortal remains was too fresh in her mind, and it struck her that perhaps she was making an enormous mistake, letting things go when she was still alive; pretending it all meant nothing to her. The lacquered box with Tiger in it was in her lap, she realised. She needed to feel it under her hand.
When Mister Jolyon asked if they could go upstairs again to check something, she said of course. On the way up, he explained that he had done a bit of research on one of her watercolours, and might be in possession of good news.
“Ah ha,” he said, when they reached her bedroom. While she sat on the bed, he removed the picture from the wall above Mrs Manville’s dresser, took it to the window, tilted it, and then turned to her, smiling. “We can put a reserve of two thousand on this,” he said.
Mrs Manville felt like crying. “You’ve been very helpful,” she said. “There is balm in Gilead.”
“Oh pish and tush, it’s my job,” said Mister Jolyon. “The van will come on Friday to start the collection, but if you like I can come as well, to supervise.”
Mrs Manville smiled.
“My son thought I couldn’t manage all this myself, but I’ve done quite well, haven’t I?”
“You have, you have, Mrs Manville. You’ve been on the one hand businesslike but on the other astonishingly generous, which is evidently rooted in your Christian nature.”
“Thank you,” said Mrs Manville. “At the moment I feel I’ve been stripped by locusts.”
She got up to lead the way downstairs, but Mister Jolyon didn’t move. He was concentrating on the top of her dressing table, where she kept her jewellery in a Chinese box – jewellery that was definitely not going for auction, as they both well knew.
“Oh that’s nice,” he said. “That’s very nice.”
There was a pause. Mrs Manville sat down again.
“I beg your pardon?”
“This pendant,” he said, holding up one of her favourite pieces, an anniversary present from John in the 1970s. “Do you know, Mrs Manville, I would love to give this pendant to my wife.”
Mrs Manville couldn’t look at him. Was he mad? What was he saying? It wasn’t his to give. But he continued to hold it up.
“Your wife?” she said.
“I think she’d love it.”
As a younger woman, she would have ordered him out of the house, or even called the police. As a younger woman, she’d have had the strength to stand up. But she wasn’t a younger woman. She was 79, frail, exhausted, and about to exchange her lovely house and garden, her refuge and her fortress, for a flat in a block with a warden in Hove. She looked around anxiously for the box with Tiger’s ashes in it, so that she could hold it, but realised she’d left it downstairs. She took a breath.
“Then of course she must have it,” she said, looking him in the face. “You’ve been so helpful, it’s the least I can do.”
“Are you sure?” he said, steadily holding her gaze while slipping it into his pocket.
“Yes, yes,” she said. “The pleasure is entirely mine.”