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The Fate of the House

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“But the main question is, what do we do about this place?”

“What do you mean?” asked Peter Marlow. “I thought we’d just settled that!”

“No,” his brother Giles replied, “I meant this house. I mean, look at it – it’s falling down. Mum lives in two rooms, on her own, rattling about.”

“She always has, ever since Rowan moved out, and that’s what, ten, fifteen years ago now?”

“That doesn’t mean she’s comfortable or happy. You know what she’s like, she’d not complain if you paid her to! You’re just used to seeing it – well, I’m not. And, frankly, staying here couldn’t be more uncomfortable if it tried with both hands.”

“I suppose I hadn’t thought. Well, it’s still your house for now, so what do you propose doing with it?”

“Sell it – just the house, not the farm. Sell it to a developer who can pull it down and build houses on the site.”

“Can’t, you know – it’s Grade 1 Listed. That’s part of the problem; it’s a listed building so we have to keep it from falling down, but do they give us any money to help us do that? Do they, buggery!”

“Then we’ll sell it to someone who will do it up and maybe turn it into a hotel or flats or something. What’s its story, do you know? I’ve just taken it for granted that it was always there, but the farmhouse is much older, isn’t it?”

“Yes. I’m not totally sure; I’ve a vague feeling it was built by a 16th-century Marlow, but who he was and how he made his pile I don’t know. The others might – let’s have everybody who lives near enough over to dinner and we can find out.”

Giles made a face. “Must we?”

“Well, quite apart from anything else, it gets the family over in one fell swoop for you, if you don’t want to go and do the round of calls.”

“There is that, I suppose. Okay, you go and do the inviting, only don’t make it too much about me, IF you don’t mind.”

Peter laughed. “Not likely. They probably wouldn’t come....” at which insult, Giles punched him on the arm, and for a few moments they were boys together again.

---oo0oo---

The proposed dinner party turned into a lunchtime barbecue on the terrace, some days later, after many discussions about the younger generation and what could happen in the way of babysitting, and dates being arranged, and rearranged, to suit everybody. Finally, everybody except Ginty, who was living in Ireland, was able to come, and the family gathered, complete with spouses and children.

After lunch, with the babies put down for naps and the older children sent off to explore the further reaches of the garden and stables, Giles opened the batting.

“This is where we explain that there was an ulterior motive for inviting you all, quite apart from the pleasure of my company! It’s about the house. Look at it – it’s falling down, and it’s costing all the profits from the farm and then some to keep it from collapsing completely. And I gather it’s Listed, so we can’t tear it down and start again. We were wondering about selling it to a developer for flats or a hotel – what do you think?”

“And where would Mum live?” asked Rowan, who had lived alone with her mother for several years in her late teens and was not anxious to repeat the experience.

“Ah, that’s all part of our Cunning Plan!” explained Peter. “We could use some of the money we’d make from selling the house to buy a cottage in the village – or wherever you would like, Mum; if you wanted to live in Colebridge or Streweminster we could do that, too!”

“I’d certainly prefer a small cottage to camping out in this pile,” said Mrs Marlow. “And Colebridge would be ideal, especially if the shops were in walking distance. This all sounds like an excellent idea.”

“Well, then,” said Giles. “Actually, what I was also wondering was how this place came to be built in the first place. There was a perfectly good farm house – still is, of course. Much older than the Big House.”

“I can tell you that,” broke in Edwin Dodd, Karen’s husband. “I found details in the farm log some years ago now. It was built by a Joshua Marlow in the 17th century. He’d made a fortune in the Caribbean trade.”

“Sugar, do you mean?” asked Patrick Merrick, Nicola’s husband. “Or something more sinister?”

“Probably both sugar and slavery,” said Edwin. “One can’t be a hundred percent certain, as the records were unclear, but that was where the money was, back then.”

“Oh, yuck!” said Lawrie and Ann, in chorus. “How perfectly foul!” added Lawrie.

“Well, yes,” said Nicola, amused, “But look how many of the big houses hereabouts do owe their existence to the slave trade. Meriot Chase was rebuilt with slave money a few years earlier than this house. It’s an older house, of course, but it has been remodelled several times over the centuries.”

“We think that Joshua Marlow was copying my ancestor,” explained Patrick.

“But how can you bear to live in it, either house, knowing they were built with people’s blood?” asked Lawrie.

“Don’t be sillier than you can help!” advised her twin, austerely.

“No, but –”

Ann Marlow, her own innate sentimentality having been curbed by several years’ nursing experience, broke in: “Yes, it is horrid, but think, Lawrie – it’s only horrid to us because we know how awful slavery was, so we think that everybody who was involved in it must have been awful. But back in the day, they didn’t think so.”

“And,” broke in Giles, “anybody with any sense knows that you can’t judge people in the past for the attitudes and standards they had. They are often totally different from ours.”

“The past is another country, they do things differently there!” quoted Nicola, thoughtfully.

“Yes, indeed they do. We think – well, we know – that it is wrong for human beings to own other human beings. Of course it is. But if you were taught, as our ancestors were, that people from Africa weren’t actually human beings, although how they could have actually believed that....”

“Yes, then it would have been logical.”

“And we can still profit from it today, when we put the house on the market. Built by a Caribbean sugar magnate.... After all, he will have brought sugar back from the West Indies, whatever or whoever he may have taken there!”

Mrs Marlow suddenly laughed. “Did you ever hear what happened when your Great-Uncle Lawrence went to Jamaica?”

“No, what? I don’t think I ever knew he’d been there!”

“Oh yes, he was a noted cricketer, back in the day, and captained an MCC touring team which visited Jamaica. He’d never been there before in his life, and was rather startled that the first person he met was also called Lawrence Marlow!”

“Best name in the world,” exclaimed Lawrie. “But was that just coincidence, or what?”

“No,” explained Mrs Marlow, patiently. “I gather slaves very often took the name of their owners, or the name of the plantation, as their surnames, and if their original family name had been lost, as had so often happened, they kept that name when they were freed, and have it to this day. So Mr Lawrence Marlow of Jamaica was probably a descendant of one of Joshua Marlow’s slaves there.”

“Oh.” Lawrie looked blank. “I wonder if he is still alive.”

“Well, if he is, or if he has had children, I don’t suppose they would really be interested in meeting the descendants of the people who used to own his ancestors, do you?”

“No, I suppose not. But I still think it’s awful about Trennels.”

“It is, but we won’t be owning it much longer, I hope.”

“And,” added Nicola, “you enjoyed the years you lived there, when you didn’t know it had been built on slave money, so don’t be a hypocrite! And, before you say it, Patrick and I have no idea of selling Meriot Chase unless and until we absolutely have to, and we have every intention of going on living there. Our children will be taught its history, and that some of their ancestors were people whose memory should be honoured – the Anthony Merrick who was martyred under Queen Elizabeth, for instance – and others are, perhaps, best quietly forgotten. But what matters most is who they are, not who their ancestors were. Which is true of all of us, too.” Nicola was not often so vehement, but this was evidently something she and Patrick strongly believed.

“So we are agreed, then? The house is to be sold, at a loss if necessary, to someone who will repair it and make it habitable again, perhaps as flats or a hotel?” This Giles, who was rapidly growing impatient with his family. Nobody disagreed, and plans for selling the house went ahead.