I couldn't believe it Uncle Fred had left me a house. I had to read the letter three or four times to check it wasn't some kind of joke. I couldn't even remember which one uncle Fred was. It popped onto ancestry.co.uk and true enough Dad had had a brother called Fred. It was difficult to remember all my Aunts and Uncles. Dad had been one of seven and Mum had been one of only two but her Dad had been one of six and her Mum one of five. It made it all quite difficult to remember who was who. Then you had all the family friends that were always called Aunt such-and-such or Uncle whats-it even though they were no direct relation. Any way Uncle Fred had been dad's older brother and he had died three weeks ago in India whilst watching the cricket. I wasn't sure why he had left the house to me as there were cousins closer to Fred than I. But hey I wasn't complaining. Inside the solicitors letter was an estate agents blurb on the house. It was amazing. An old 19th century toll house for the local landowner’s estate. It was a huge two story turret with a ground floor of four rooms which included two reception rooms and bathroom and a kitchen. All the rooms were hexagonal and had doors linking onto other rooms in many directions. Situated on the side of what had been the main road into the estate the property only had windows on the road side but had plenty of parking and an acre of land to the back. Looking at the photos the gardens were well looked after and consisted or a few apple trees some cherry trees and what looked like a row of grape vines. This was a fantastic opportunity to finally do something with my life. I had been in a dead end job for the last three years and due to my general apathy recently I knew I was in line for one of the many redundancies. The house was in the middle of nowhere and the first floor turret room sounded like the ideal place to set up a study and to start my writing career. I could turn one of the ground floor rooms into a bedroom, after all the bathroom was down there anyway. I could just imagine myself being photographed in the turret room for the dust jacket of my first novel. I rang the solicitors and they confirmed it was all for real and that I needed to attend their offices in London to sign some documents and then the property would be mine.
Three weeks later I had received my redundancy pay from work, given notice in my rented flat and taken possession of the keys of my new house. New life here I come.
My flat mate had helped me load up the campervan I had bought a few years ago as part of my dream of becoming a published author. I was going to drive off into the sunset and write my great novel whilst wild camping in the far north of Scotland. Well that had never happened by the camper still came in handy now and then. I was going to have to unload everything at the other end but that was not a problem as I only had a futon that acted as a sofa and a bed, a few book cases, and my laptop. My laptop was all I ever needed, acting as my stereo, my TV and my word processor. The rest of the van was taken up with the usual detritus of modern living, kitchen appliances and a couple of suitcases containing all my clothes. I was hoping to find an able farmer to help me unload but if not there was nothing I couldn't manage by myself.
I left the motorway and started to head cross country to find the house. The further I got into the country side the darker the skies got. I final rounded the last corner and could see the house in front of me as lightening suddenly split the sky and the heavens opened. I barely managed to be able to see out of the windscreen to park the van outside the house. I sat in the van for the next five minutes trying to see out of the windows and get a look at the property that had led me to the start of this new life. It definitely didn't look as idyllic as the pictures I had seen before. Eventually I decided I could sit in the van no longer so I grabbed my bag and routed around until I found the keys. Hitching the collar of my coat up, I darted from the van and ran the 20 yards to the front door. I struggled with the keys feeling the rain starting to run down the back of my coat and the bottom of my jeans acting as a wick to the puddles around the door. Finally I realised that the door wasn't locked it was just stuck. I gave it a hefty shove with my shoulder and it moved very slightly, the next shove did my shoulder more harm that the door but the third attempt finally gave me access.
I quickly shut the door behind me to try and keep the cold and the rain out but it didn't seem to make any difference to the chill inside the house. I shook off the rain put my bag down and started to look around. I guess I was in the kitchen as there were some work tops and what looked like a space for a cooker as there were gas pipes sticking out of the wall. The walls had that bobbled damp look about them and it looked like the house hadn't been lived in for years. The next room was the bathroom. Well I say bathroom, there was a tub in it which looked like it had just been pulled from the village lake, and there was possibly some frog spawn in the bottom of it. The two other reception rooms were empty, with the same level of damp as the kitchen and the larger of the two had water running down the walls where the guttering seemed to have given into the rain. Finally I ventured upstairs to my writing room. The first thing was to work out how to get upstairs as every other step seemed to be missing. I carefully ascended to my turret room and couldn't believe my eyes as I walked it. Half of the roof was missing and the rain was pouring in. Nestled in the corner was a very angry looking barn owl and what looked like three chicks. As I moved into the room suddenly the owl saw me, ruffled her feathers, gave an ear piercing screech and flew straight at me. Working purely on instinct I rushed for the door and down the stairs. Unfortunately in my panic I forgot the missing steps and my second pace was into thin air. I launched into the air and came to rest in an undignified heap at the bottom of the stairs.
'Hello, hello.' I suddenly heard a voice coming from the hallway.
The voice got nearer and nearer and I shook my head trying to clear the grogginess.
'Oh my goodness, are you okay?' I was still in a heap on the floor as a sturdy looking woman stuck her head round the corner.
'I think so but I've not tried to move yet.'
'Let me try and help you up.'
She helped me to my feet and checked me over before introducing herself.
'Hi there. I'm Penny Jones. My Husband runs the stud next door. Well when I say next door it's about half a mile away. I saw you van outside and I thought I'd come a say hello. Just as well I did.'
'Yes it is. There is an owl nesting upstairs and she went for me. Unfortunately those stairs aren't all there and in the rush I missed my footing. Thanks for coming to my rescue. I'm Jeanette and my Uncle Fred left this house to me.'
‘Fred Scrimshaw? We haven't seen him round here for five years now.'
'Yes he went overseas and died from legionaries’ disease. He left me this house and the estate agents details had made me think I could move straight in.'
'So you've had a bit of a shock.'
'You could say that.'
'Well allow me to take you to the pub for some lunch and a chance to meet the local characters.'
We entered the pub and immediately Penny was called across to a group of labourers sat by the real fire. The smell of wood burning and the heat generated really started to make me feel welcome.
'Who’s this beauty then Penny.' called the elder of the four men sat around.
'This is Jeanette and she's just moved in to Fred's old place on the main road.'
'Why on earth would you want to move into there.' he looked at me shocked.
'Fred was my uncle and he left the house to me in his will.'
'Oh no poor Fred's passed on. That is a shame.'
'Yes he died whilst abroad. I have seen the way the house used to look and it seems such a shame it has been allowed to get into the state it is.'
'Yes it used to be a beautiful house.' nodded the older member of the group.
'It's just a shame I gave up everything to come down here and I am not sure I have the funds to do its justice.'
'Well then it's lucky that Penny bought to see us all. Let me introduce you to everyone. I am Terry and I do all the plumbing around these parts, Simon is a chippy, John is a bricklayer and Pete is a jack of all trades. I am sure we can help out if it means we can get Fred's house back to the way it once was.'
The feeling of dread I had had as I had wandered round the house had vanished and I was starting to think that everything could work out for the best. At that moment the rain stopped and the sun broke through.
'Let's get you a drink and then if this rain holds off we can all head down to the house and give it the once over.
I spent the weekend with Terry and his boys and by the end of it, it was obvious I couldn't afford everything that we needed to do but with the Owls in the turret room nothing could be done up there until they had flown. Terry boarded up the stair to the turret room to try and keep the cold out and we set to work on the downstairs. As the work was being done on the cheaper it took at lot longer than expected as the boys only came to me once they had finished their other jobs. Luckily I had the campervan which had been parked up at the side of the house since the first day I arrived. Penny had organised some work for me at the stud and I can honestly say I was really enjoying the work. It was very tiring but the exhaustion meant I didn't struggle to get to sleep each night.
Finally the owls left and the work on the roof could begin. The most I could afford was to have the roof secured and waterproofed and my dreams of my writer’s room would have to be left for a later date.
I couldn't believe how much we had achieved in the six months since I had moved into the house and to thank everyone for their hard work I organised a barbecue. The garden hadn't really been touched with all the work that the house needed so I clear a small area near to the house and set everything up there. Everyone was there, all the boys who had helped me, Penny and her husband and the other stable maids from the stud. The weather was fantastic for a change and the roses were just starting to bud in the trellis I had set around the front door.
'Excuse me. Can I just say a few words?' I called just as everyone was starting to get their food and drinks. 'I just want to thank you all for making me so welcome and helping me bringing Uncle Fred's house back to its former glory.'
'And we want to thank you for helping to improve the view in our village.' called Terry.
'Cheers' we all called and raised our glasses.
Just as I took a sip of my wine a wasp flew straight at me. With the usual panic that ensues when a woman and a wasp collided, I started to flap my arms about and run in circles. Whilst panicking I caught my foot in a stray root and went flying.
'Jeanette, Jeanette. Are you okay?' called Penny.
'Yes thank you,’ I called from the bottom of a hole I had fallen into. The hole was about 6 feet deep so I was going to need some help to get out.
As Pete leant down into the hole I couldn't quite reach him.
'Hold on I'll just stand on this box and then I should be able to reach you.' I called
Wait a minute what box.
I couldn't see the box clearly but it felt rusty. As I picked it up it felt heavy.
'Hold on down there. Simon has gone to fetch the ladder.'
As the ladder was lowered down to me I passed the box up to Pete.
Once back on level ground we all crowded round the box and Pete fetched his tools from the van. As he jemmied open the box we all held our breath. Inside were a black velvet bag and some stones. I took the velvet bag and carefully looked inside. Inside were a strange looking legal document and a letter from Uncle Fred.
I opened the letter and read it to the surrounding crowd.
Jeanette I have left you this house because I know you will give it the love it deserves and the people will take you to their hearts and help you. You are the only one of my nieces and nephews that has the vision and the patience to make this happen. I am assuming you will not find this box until you have finished the house as the garden will be the least of your worries. If the house is habitable there will, I am sure, still be improvements to be made and I hear by give you the second half of my will. The document included with this letter is the deeds to my house in Spain. I never liked it but it was your Aunt Susan's favourite and I couldn't bear to part with it after she died. This is yours to do with as you see fit but it is worth about $250,000 so that should give you enough money to finish the toll house.
Everyone looked at me. Wanting to know what I would do. Six months ago I would happily have left this country and gone to live in the Spanish house. But Uncle Fred obviously knew what he was doing. I had grown to love this house and the people who had helped me over the last six months. I looked up and smiled. Penny passed me a glass of champagne.
'Here's to Uncle Fred and the full restoration of the Toll house.'
Everyone smiled and raised their glasses to me.
'Welcome to your new home.' smiled Penny
'Right Terry tomorrow let’s start planning the next phase. And this time everyone gets paid what the jobs worth. I couldn't have got this far without you all but we can afford to do the rest now.
Finally my turret room would be a reality and the first story I would sit in there to write would be the story of Uncle Fred and the toll house.