Maggie is lovely. She is breathtakingly blunt, completely tactless and utterly devoid of anything remotely approximating social skills, but she’s also honest, decent, hardworking and kind-hearted – and in a world which sometimes seems increasingly devoid of all of those qualities, it counts for a lot.
She inherited the farm from her father, along with his extensive knowledge of animal husbandry and – unfortunately – a level of numeracy and literacy bordering on the non-existent. She’s a farmer – first, last and foremost – and her view is that the welfare of her stock is what matters and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – more commonly known as Defra – can take a long walk off a short pier.
Unsurprisingly, Defra takes a dim view of such reactionary attitudes and will, in common with the Mills of God, slowly but inevitably grind transgressors into a very fine paste.
Which is why I found myself sitting in ‘The Office’ – basically just a storage area above the old tack room – staring at a mountain of papers, ledgers and worryingly unopened brown manilla envelopes.
I was vaguely aware of a rhythmic sort of thumping, grunting sound outside the door, but was so hypnotized by the scale of the task facing me – and wondering if Maggie could ever possibly afford to pay me for the hours upon hours it was plainly going to take me to sort it all out – that I dismissed it as some piece of arcane farm machinery in action in the yard below, until the door burst open and a red-faced Alec asked, in between gasping for breath – where I wanted the filing cabinet.
‘Filing cabinet?’ I stared at him blankly. ‘What filing cabinet?’
‘The one I’ve just dragged up the chuffing stairs.’ (You may at this point substitute any term you suspect he may have used in place of ‘chuffing’ ….)
The ‘office’, I should probably explain, is accessed by means of a set of steep external stone steps rising diagonally from the corner of the old stable block and terminating in a platform outside the door, protected only by an iron railing which I suspect to be mostly rust.
‘A filing cabinet? Oh …’
‘Mags thought you could probably use it. It’s time someone did. It’s a bloody museum piece and I don’t think it’s ever been used – leastways, not as a filing cabinet.’
I gazed around the crowded little room slightly desperately. It contained an absolutely massive roll-top desk, a large oak table with one rat-chewed leg propped up on a copy of ‘British Sheep Breeds’, a bar stool apparently purloined from The Drovers and several racks of what looked like old greenhouse staging – all of it virtually invisible beneath a generation’s worth of letters, pamphlets, magazines and ancient calendars which featured cattle drench and farm implements instead of chocolate box views and furry animals.
What remaining space there was (which wasn’t much) was occupied by battered cardboard boxes that I hadn’t yet found the courage to investigate, but which I suspected should probably be printed with government health warnings.
‘How big is the cabinet?’
He stood aside to reveal not – as I had hoped – a small two-drawer wooden job, but a metal three-drawer leviathan.
‘How on EARTH did you get that up the steps?’
‘At great personal expense.’ He peered around the room. ‘If we moved some of those boxes over by the window, we could probably make enough space. What’s in them, anyway?’
‘No idea, and I’m too scared to look.’ I indicated the table leg. ‘That damage wasn’t done by anything petite and friendly.’
‘You should have brought those two terriers of yours. They’d love it up here. I keep telling Mags we need Jack Russells – fabulous ratters. Come on. Let’s be brave.’ He smiled, not entirely benevolently, I felt. ‘The worst that can happen is one runs up your leg.’
I bridled. ‘I am NOT afraid of rats. Or spiders.’
‘Mags is. Hates spiders. Loathes rats.’ He opened the nearest box, which had originally contained tinned peaches, and peered inside. ‘Books.’
He tried another. ‘More books.’
‘What sort of books? Farming manuals, that sort of thing?’
I tried a couple myself. More books – reading books: fiction, classics, non-fiction …
Alec frowned. I frowned. We frowned together, because we both knew that Maggie is not what is generally referred to as ‘A great reader.’
‘Did her dad read a lot?’I ventured, checking out a few more books, and finding some surprisingly good quality ones – leatherbound, quarter leather, 19th century.
‘Maggie is a true child of her father. Isaac used to move his lips when he read. I think he may even have used a finger to keep his place. Top bloke and all that, but I’m pretty certain he didn’t read to relax. The instructions on the side of mineral blocks were about his limit.’
It was half an hour later that Maggie appeared at the top of the steps carrying a tray with three mugs and a plate of biscuits on it, and found us knee deep in books and boxes. We’d worked our way to the window and discovered that every single cardboard box in the office contained books. There were, in fact, enough to stock a small private library.
She squeezed past the filing cabinet, which virtually filled the narrow doorway.
‘Thought I’d come and see how you were doing. I’ve brought us some tea and biscuits.’
I held up a book questioningly. ‘We were trying to make room for the filing cabinet, and found these ….’
‘Chuck them out. I’ve been meaning to for ages. Eddie said I could keep them instead of what he was supposed to be paying me for storage.’ She snorted. ‘Pillock.’
‘Ah.’ The light dawned on Alec’s face. ‘The famous book shop scheme.’
‘Yes.’ She dumped the tray on the roll-top desk. ‘Which went the same way as all his other grand plans.’
‘Eddie? Book shop?’ I looked from one to the other, seeking enlightenment. ‘What?’
‘Eddie Lassiter.’ Alec peered suspiciously at the biscuits on the plate. ‘Did you make these, Mags?’
‘No. They were on offer at the Post Office Stores.’
Reassured, he helped himself, then continued. ‘Eddie Lassiter. Would-be entrepreneur. Last heard of making people’s lives a burden to them in London. Or possibly Birkenhead. A couple of years back he had a plan to open a book shop in a vacant shop in Upper Camber, then found out how much the business rates would be, how little money there was in secondhand books and that it helped if you knew something about books in the first place. A year or so ago, the little bastard vanished off to …. wherever …. leaving a trail of devastation, debts and broken promises behind him along with,’ he looked around the room, ‘his stock.’
‘I’d virtually forgotten they were up here.’ Maggie idly picked up a volume and read the spine. ‘It’s all old stuff. We can dump them in the trailer and take them to the tip …. or burn them.’
I winced at the mere idea of burning the books and wondered desperately if I could give a home to at least some of them.
‘That would be a shame,’ I said, flipping one open to look at the fly leaf – and play for time. ‘There are some really nice books here …’
Then, I felt a smile creeping unbidden over my face. ‘And I bet I know someone who’d be happy to buy them from you.’
‘Eh?’ They both looked at me as if I was stark, staring bonkers.
‘Their original owner.’ I held up the book so Maggie could read what was printed inside the front cover:
‘It’s the contents of the library from Bramblings. The books were supposed to be included in the sale, but the agents sold them separately … apparently to Eddie Fly-by-Night. I’m pretty certain Professor Pilger will take them off your hands for a fair price. He gets his books back and you get the money you’re owed for storage. It’s win-win.’
I could see Maggie was looking at me in a whole new light.
‘Would you talk to him for me? I don’t know anything about books.’
‘Of course. On one condition.’
‘What’s that then?’
I pointed at the huge roll-top desk, which absolutely dominated the tiny space we were in.
‘You tell me how the hell you got that desk up here.’