Viola (her parents had loved string quartets, and she wondered if any brothers or sisters may have been called Violin or Cello) had been delighted when she won the first prize in the Short but Sweet writing competition. Well, okay, she might have been more delighted had she won the second prize, which was £250, as there were plenty of free creative writing courses online and she was borderline broke. But she told herself that would be ungrateful, and as transport and meals were included in the prize, it wasn’t going to be one of those infamous contests (though admittedly rare in the writing world and more common with those free scratch cards where everyone one) where you ended up well out of pocket.

Fair enough, it was true that the Fallow Hall courses weren’t as prestigious as the Arvon Foundation and its ilk, and it wasn’t on a beautiful Greek island like the one that was first prize in that competition where she had received a Your Story shows Promise but email (anyway, as she told herself, if they didn’t know how to use capitals correctly, whether they chose to or not, it probably wasn’t that great a course). But it was three days, paid for entirely by someone else, in a house in the country, at worst it would be a holiday with a bit of writing thrown in. What was not to like? It was part of the agreement and the terms and conditions that the winner of the Short but Sweet competition should remain anonymous, and that suited Viola fine. Apart from that there were no strings attached.

Fallow Foundation gave a handy alliterative title, but the name predated the competition. Until thirty years ago it had been the home of the Fallow Family. Viola couldn’t help wondering if there had been another branch called the Fertile Family, but even the most perfunctory glance at the family tree made it plain they might be Fallow by name, but not by nature. It had had brief spells as a school and an old people’s home, but for the past three years had been a hotel. Well, officially. The truth was that though so far as Viola knew there was nothing to stop anyone turning up (unlikely) or making a phone call and asking for a room for the night, it was one of those so-called hotels where people came to do things. Where conferences were held. Or courses. She didn’t suppose the conferences used the name, and that somebody must have given the organisers of the course permission.

She determinedly told herself she wasn’t disappointed on her first night there. She hadn’t expected Victorian or pseudo-Victorian luxury – deep leather armchairs, goose down mattresses, or pictures of stern gentlemen and frail but steely ladies with gilded frames. The pictures, not the gentlemen and ladies. And she was decidedly pleased that the plumbing, though a tad leaky and trickly, was most definitely 21st century and not Victorian.

But there was something – well, dingy about the place. It wasn’t that it was grimy or dirty. She had done something she swore she never would and surreptitiously (though why she felt the heed to do it surreptitiously in her own room, she didn’t know) rubbed a finger along some surfaces, and not one fleck of dust was on it. The bedding, though not luxurious, was spotless. Well, at least so far as she could see. And that was the point. It wasn’t properly light at Fallow House. There was a constant, slightly oppressive, shadowy greyness about the place. Yet logic told her that the lighting, though not state of the art, was sufficient. And nobody else she met at Fallow Hall remarked on it. Not Norman, who wrote dark fantasies and would probably have found his happy place in the gloom, not Francesca who made a point of telling people she had high standards, not anyone.

Viola began to worry. She told herself it was all her imagination, but that did more harm than good. The something wrong with my eyes phantom reached out its nasty fingers. She did something she had not planned to do that evening, and took a walk to the nearby village of Budsworth. It wasn’t really the traditional storybook idea of a village, clustered around a venerable stone church or a verdant village green, more of a skein of buildings, more relatively new than old, along what was classed as an A road but still had potholes. Still, unlike many villages of that ilk, it had kept its shop (though apparently it had been a very close run thing) and kept its pub, the Cheeky Duck, although the duck on the sign looked decidedly miserable and down in the beak. Dusk had begun to gather outside, so she went inside, and was given a friendly greeting – she supposed they were used to people from Fallow Hall coming in – and ordered half a lager. She sat down at one of the tables, and one thing was clear – that things were, well, clear! Even though her table wasn’t under one of the lights, and they were the kind designed for cosiness rather than clarity, there were no shadows, no dark corners, all was exactly as it should be. There was nothing wrong with her eyes.

Yet the moment she stepped back into Fallow Hall, into that rather utilitarian reception area, the shadows fell again. Though they did not so much fall as slip and sidle out of the walls, even though the writer in Viola (and like most writers, she often tried to distract herself with word-thoughts) admonished that you couldn’t slip and sidle swiftly or instantaneously, and that was what appeared to happen. Reception wasn’t staffed in the evenings, and all the residents had keys anyway, but as chance would have it (or would it?) Sarah, who described herself as the manager and Jill of All Trades, was behind the desk, catching up on paperwork.

“Evening, Viola,” she said, “Been sampling the joys of the village?”

“Just needed to stretch my legs,” Viola said, hoping she didn’t sound remotely defensive. She had a feeling that pleasant and helpful as she was, it was wise to keep in with Sarah.

“I do like your name, by the way,” Sarah said, “Unusual, and pretty without being silly. Do you prefer the full version or being called Vi?”

“Well, I don’t make an issue of it, but prefer the full version.”

“I don’t blame you. Your parents were music lovers, then?”

“Indeed,” she nodded.

“You’d have got on with Francis Fallow then. One of the last Fallows to live in the hall. I never knew him, but my Mum did, or at any rate, my Gran did, and told her about him, to be honest I’m not quite sure which, and said he was a nice old gentleman, and did love his violin. He was even nicknamed Fiddling Frank, though that came out rather unfortunately and the sad thing was, there was a degree of truth in it with the other meaning, too, though he was at least as much sinned against as sinning, and you’re not supposed to speak ill of the dead.”

Viola would have loved to ask more, but when someone has just reminded you that you’re not supposed to speak ill of the dead, it would have been bad form. Anyway, Sarah had just given one of those paper-shuffling gestures that silently signal I have genuinely enjoyed talking to you, and would hope to do so again, but right now, I have things to do. She took the hint, wished her a good evening, and returned to her room. She couldn’t quite recall a Francis or Frank in her family tree investigations, but they had been pretty perfunctory, and though she did have her laptop with her (unlike some of the more esoteric and strict writing courses, they weren’t forbidden by the Fallow Foundation) she wasn’t really in the mood for looking, though something appealed to her and piqued her curiosity about Fiddling Frank. After all, if someone was more sinned against than sinning, they were still sinning, and even though you shouldn’t speak ill of the dead, that still carried the possibility that there was ill to speak. But she did switch her laptop on, nominally with the intention of doing some work. And the thing was, the screen was as bright as ever. If anything, even brighter, though she told herself that could just be the contrast to the shadowy room. She switched on the little television in her room, and just the same thing applied. Reception was lousy and it kept pixelating, but the screen was as bright as it should be. The sound of a car on the gravelly drive distracted her attention, and she remembered that one of the participants – Ellen she thought she was called – was arriving later than the others due to an appointment she’d had early that evening. She looked out of the window, and saw that the car headlights, and, indeed, the solar lights flanking the drive, were bright and normal.

In the end, Viola couldn’t resist. But though she hadn’t studied them that intently, they were pretty much the same family trees she had seen before. Except – her eye was suddenly drawn to an asterisk that indicated a footnote, and that footnote led to a link, and what do you do with links? You follow them! Especially when they concern a gentleman called Francis.

It certainly wasn’t a new web page. It didn’t quite have that minimalist look of the very early days of the Internet, but if it had been a book, it would probably have been yellowing and had pages falling out.

Many official family trees of the Fallow Family of Suffolk, England, leave out Francis Mayhew Fallow, born on the 5th of April 1902. Known as Frank, or, colloquially, Fiddling Frank, he was variously referred to as a by-blow, a love child, or by the good old fashioned Anglo-Saxon expression Bastard, though that quaint term “The Bend Sinister” may also have applied. His father was Ronald Armitage Fallow, regarded as one of the family’s eccentrics, though he later made a respectable marriage and was regarded as redeeming himself, especially through his charity work. But Frank’s mother was always referred to as an “actress” (though less complimentary terms have been used) and a youthful folly of Ronald’s. In fact, that appellation is not wholly true, though perhaps not for the reasons one may imagine. Victoria Molinari, believed to have been named for the late Queen, was a talented musician and professional violinist.

Frank’s story, though it has its moments of lightness is not a happy one. In his childhood he was not particularly wanted by either his mother’s or his father’s family. Each was of the opinion that he was the other’s responsibility and an unnecessary complication. As a young child, he does seem to have been close to his mother, but sadly Victoria was not a strong woman, and died of consumption, or TB as we would call it nowadays, when he was only ten. The Fallow side of the family, to their credit, did not neglect the child wholly or show no interest in his welfare. They paid for his education, and on hearing that Victoria’s aunt was prepared to look after him in the holidays, paid her a not ungenerous amount. As boys’ boarding schools at the time went it was by no means a cruel or sadistic school, and as maiden aunts who had never looked after children went, Auntie Norma could have been a great deal worse. But Frank was a misfit. His only talent was for playing the violin. And that, by all accounts (though sadly no recordings of it exist) he did well. But as his music teacher said, in a letter to Auntie Norma that HAS been preserved, “Francis is a talented and pleasing violinist, and had he other means of income, it may well be that he could play in the second violins of a provincial orchestra. But it would be doing him no service to pretend that he ever could aspire to being a great virtuoso, and I would advise you to encourage him to take the path I have suggested, and train as a music teacher.”

He did so, but he hated it. Or at any rate, he hated it until he took on a private pupil called Veronica Adamson. He took a decided shine to Veronica, and it appeared to be mutual. Her parents disapproved, and the two of them eloped. He was said to be the kind of man who was not quite handsome, but had something arresting about him; especially his piercing green eyes.

But those who are looking for a happy ending would do so in vain. He was not nicknamed “Fiddling Frank” solely on account of his skill with the violin. He did not have any compunctions about marrying another woman called Vivienne whilst he was still married to Veronica – a wealthy woman.

There have been suggestions made that Frank was a murderer, but it must be stressed that this appears to be wholly untrue. Vivienne, at least, outlived him by many years, and his third wife, (using the word in its broadest sense) Valerie was still alive in the 1970s, and living in Australia. Nowadays, when many people live together outside wedlock anyway, we look, if not more kindly, than with less horror on bigamy, but it is harder to forgive the fact that he apparently used drugs on his wives. Valerie, in a rare interview, recalled a strange substance that “somehow I couldn’t even remember taking, but knew I had. It made things around me seem shadowy and grey, and seemed to hang in the very air. Sometimes I wonder if it was more like hypnosis, and he had put me in a trance.”

It was as if the music seemed to seep up and out of the very floor and walls and fabric of the room. Violin music, winding round and round and up and down, sinuous strings weaving their spell. The shadows darkened, and only the music was light, the music and those penetrating eyes. “It is fine, Viola. There is nothing to worry about. Not if you will be my wife.”

May 04, 2021 09:06

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RBE | Illustrated Short Stories | 2024-06

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