Shallow Assets: Cousin Alicia’s Book

I don’t remember much about the next couple of days. Augustus Sly left, saying that he would be in touch. “I’ll text,” he said, tapping the side of his nose significantly. Then the nurse came back in and told me off for shouting. “We could hear you in the Community Space,” he said, shaking his head and giving me pills. I think that they increased the dosage of my medication (I hope that I never get so inured to them that I say my ‘meds’) because, as I say, I don’t remember much of the next couple of days.

Then, as promised, Augustus Sly texted.

I have a plan. Will take a few days. Read [imp. not trans] Cousin Alicia’s book. P 96 et seq. Regs, Augustus Sly. PS Delete this message.

I had no copy of Shallow Assets of my own so I put on my dressing gown and went down to Reception, where two or three volumes were available to be borrowed by those curious about the history of their current place of resort. There is a big, not to say grandiose, sign above the heads of the receptionists, of whom the institution runs unnecessarily to two. Beneath an escutcheon that undoubtedly fails to comply with the rules of the Royal College of Arms it reads:

Shallow Assets
Part of the P- Group
Providing Worldwide Care
For the Mentally Frail

Then, on a separate and rather more chatty bit of board it tells us:

Shallow Assets was the country home of General Sir Featherington à la Blague (1856 – 1921). Sir Featherington was widely famed as a friend of the North African Moslem Community. The unusual name of the house is possibly osier-linked. The mentally frail have been cared for at Shallow Assets since 1957 and it passed into the custodianship of the P- Group in 1999. The P- Group is proud to take its place in an exemplarily fine tradition.

I had been intrigued how Sir Featherington had contrived to befriend the North African Moslem community here in rural Gloucestershire until I read Cousin Alicia’s book, in which she tells us that he was known affectionately in the village as ‘the Hammer of the Fuzzy-Wuzzies’, following some imperial war in that part of the world. That must be what the P- Group had in mind.

I bore the book away.

“Only a few pages, Mr Alablague,” said one of the receptionists. “Don’t tire yourself.”

I assured her that my intended researches were highly specific.

The relevance of the incident to which Augustus Sly drew my attention was not immediately clear. It concerned a washerwoman.

When I was still a child a curious incident occurred regarding a poor unmarried woman of the village, who took in the washing of some of the household’s linen. She was not of an age where one would suspect her to be susceptible to romantic inclinations; nor did the attractions of her features encourage any such thoughts. She was, moreover, big of bone. It was therefore a surprise to us all when it was reported that she had attained a certain condition and was no longer to be seen in the village. Needless to say, these rumours found their way to the Nursery long after they had exhausted their novelty in the Drawing Room, and some of what I have to relate I assembled in my mind long afterwards.

It is still not clear what happened. Months later she reappeared, but not in the way in which she had been accustomed to attend upon the household: modestly and at the back door. It was in the middle of the night, long after all were abed. She was seen striding through the corridors. The butler was sent for but he was found to be so profoundly asleep that by the time he had been awakened and properly dressed for the intended encounter the woman had gone. This happened on more than one occasion.

Dame Rumour, it need not be said, made play. The woman had died, it was conjectured. The more extreme theory among our friends below stairs, to which as I say I became privy only years later, was that the natural course of her condition had reached its conclusion most unnaturally: unaided and fatal. Accordingly, concluded those to whom this version appealed, the woman seen prowling the corridors was her ghost.

Was there a suggestion that the household had failed her in some way and that the revenant was there for the purpose of casting blame?

Papa, when I spoke to him of the matter years later, had a simpler explanation.

“That was no ghost. Stuff and nonsense. She was a healthy one. She’d been seen in the village with Belkin, the under footman. I was pretty sure that he was intimately concerned in the condition in which the woman found herself. No proof of course, but I sent him to the London house till it was all over. It was him she was after, I reckon. Revenge or marriage. One of the two. Probably didn’t know which herself. Or distinguish.”

Those determined for the supernatural explanation pointed out that the doors were all locked at the time of the woman’s visits, more particularly after the first, and that there was no apparent explanation for the means of her entrance and exit.

I returned the book.

“I’ve been reading about the ghost of the washerwoman,” I said.

To my surprise they knew only too well what I meant.

“Oh, she appears every so often,” they said. “Mind you, some of the poor souls here may be over-sensitive to seeing that sort of thing. Begging your own pardon, of course, Mr Alablague.”

I smiled to show that I had taken no offence. It’s safest in a place like this, where they dispense powerful drugs according to whim.

But why, I wondered, had Augustus Sly drawn my attention to the passage? And what was there about Edwardian washerwomen, nagging at the back of my mind?


Shallow Assets

I have been sent away to recuperate. I have a little room of my own with a trim single bed and a bedside table. On this are the book that I am currently reading and two get-well gestures. Amy had sent some of the little crispy things that taste of rainwater, in an exquisite china bowl. I texted to thank her.

“It’s beautiful. Is it Qin Dynasty?”

She replied: “Qing. Idiot. ”

Ijaz sent me a selfie. He had printed it, framed it cheaply but neatly and consigned it to the post in a bubble-wrapped envelope. He was wearing his green Lands End slipover but a white skull cap, acknowledging Ramadan. I wondered, but without passion, what the position of the Prophet was on selfies. Was not the representation of the human form frowned on?

And Augustus Sly had come to see me. He accepted a mug of milky tea from one of the nurses, waited until he had left the room and said, “What is this appalling place?”

“You’re only saying that because you got lost on the way from the station. I’m very lucky to be here.”

Augustus Sly was about to explain that as a student he couldn’t afford to travel by car, so I forestalled him by telling about the place, appalling or otherwise. There was a family connection, I told him. It had been the country seat of my great-great-great uncle Featherington. It had been sold decades ago but for some reason a family connection had been maintained. It was now a private home for the mentally frail, its fees not modest, but my mother had been able to make some phone calls and get me admitted for a short time.

“Uncle Featherington had a daughter called Alicia,” I said, “and she wrote a book about her early years spent here. It was never published commercially but you can download it from one of those history sites. Shallow Assets: Memories of a Gloucestershire childhood. It’s not very interesting: fêtes, fun at the Harvest, bucolic Christmases, outbreaks of beastliness at the village school, the usual thing.”

Shallow Assets?” said Augustus Sly. “What are they?”

“It’s the name of the house. It’s a joke, apparently. ‘Assets’ comes from the French ‘assez’, meaning enough. ‘Shallow’ suggests not enough. Or some think it could be a corruption of a dialect word for osiers, which were grown here. It’s marshy land: not very healthy.”

Augustus Sly grunted. He hates exhibitions of pedantry by anyone other than himself.

“One day – before I was sick – Bella grunted like that,” I said, “and involuntarily shat herself. Only a nugget, but she was devastated.”

I smiled to myself. How much I miss her.

Augustus Sly ignored this too. He turned over the book on my bedside.

“Crap,” he said.

He fingered the bowl with the little crispy things that taste of rainwater.

“You can have one,” I said, “only. And it’s Qing Dynasty.”

“Well, only an idiot would think it was Qin,” said Augustus Sly.

“And,” he said, why is that man wearing a white skull cap and a Lands End pullover?”

“I know that,” I said, “because the better half sends me texts quite often.”

“How often?”

“Yes, quite often.

“Because it is Ramadan, she tells me, Ijaz goes to the mosque for prayers five times a day. Sometimes he wears the full formal kit but for other times smart casual is acceptable, so long as the white skull cap is also worn.”

“It sounds like Church in our own mellow tradition,” said Augustus Sly. “Tweeds for Matins, but corduroy trousers and a nice woolly quite proper for Evensong.”

“You get to thinking in here,” I said, after a pause.

“Unwise,” said Augustus Sly.

“What are we doing to our planet, Augustus Sly?” I said. “The hottest year on record yet again. Look at the little leaves! Scorched! Is this an English summer, in our own mellow tradition as you say, as we knew them in our youth? My youth, anyway. I don’t think so. Presenters of television programmes sodomising corpses. And the acronyms, the three-letter-acronyms. All this nonsense about KYC, the gas bills everywhere. What will they do when the gas board don’t send bills? They don’t send me bills, only demands from made-up firms of solicitors…”

“I can’t read about KYC,” said Augustus Sly, “without thinking of KY jelly – talking of sodomy.”

“Exactly,” I said, ignoring him. “Faced with a problem – venal money-laundering bankers in this instance – they invent a three-letter-acronym, KYC, put together a hugely complicated and entirely pointless procedure and employ a bureaucracy to administer it. Then they sit back smugly as if they’d done something useful. And look at female genital mutilation. Can you think of anything where the rights and wrongs are less evenly balanced that having your clitoris cut out without any say in the matter? They ignore it for decades, no doubt because Harley Street is doing very nicely out of it, thank you, and when they cannot do that anymore they turn it into a three-latter acronym, FGM, and endlessly discuss the cultural implications on minority television channels….”

“You’re shouting,” said Augustus Sly.

“I’m sorry.”

He wiped my lips with a tissue provided by the establishment.

“Are you restrained here?” he said, “by any chance?”

“They took my trousers and wallet,” I said. “They said it was for reasons of security.”

“Neither,” said Augustus Sly, “is a problem in the great scheme of things. We must get you out of here. It’s not doing you any good. Do you think the better half would give you a chitty?”

“I don’t know. She said that she was very busy.”

“In that case,” said Augustus Sly, “we will resort to subterfuge.”

He took out his mobile phone and searched for a number.