How tiny and random are the events that shape our destiny.
By the time she left for the office the next morning, Jude had almost
forgotten her dream. Waiting for the train at Greenwich station, the
sudden wail of a toddler brought back fragments of her distress, but by
the time she reached Bond Street these too were displaced by other, more
mundane worries. She had no sense that something important was about to
happen, something that on the face of it was quite insignificant.
It was Friday lunchtime in the Books and Manuscripts department of
Beecham’s Auctioneers in Mayfair. She’d been sitting at her
computer screen all morning, cataloging rare first editions of
eighteenth-century poets for a forthcoming sale. A painstaking job, it
meant describing the contents of each slim volume, noting its condition
and recording any quirks or flourishes—a handwritten dedication,
say, or scribbled annotations—that might tickle the interest of
potential buyers. Annoying then, when anyone broke her concentration.
“Jude.” Inigo, who inhabited the next desk in their
open-plan office, came over, clasping a mess of paper festooned with
multicolored sticky-backed notes. “Proofs of the September
catalog. Where do you want them?”
“Oh, thanks,” she murmured. “Give ’em
here.” She dumped the pile on the already overflowing tray beside
her computer, then started to type another sentence. Inigo didn’t
take the hint.
“I really do think you should look at the Bloomsbury pages
again,” he said in his most pompous tone. “I jotted down a
couple of points, if you’d like to...?”
“Inigo—” she said, trying and failing to frame a
polite way of saying “mind your own business.” The
Bloomsbury Group first editions were her responsibility and she
didn’t report to him in any way on them or on anything else.
“Can we talk this afternoon? I must finish this.”
Inigo nodded and glided back to his desk where he started to get ready
to go out. He slid his tweed jacket on over the matching waistcoat,
tucked his fountain pen into the breast pocket, straightened his silk
cravat and ran smoothing fingers across his schoolboy fair hair, his
dapper figure as fussy as a dog with a flea.
“Going somewhere important, Inigo?” she remarked.
Looking pleased that she’d asked, he whispered, “I’m
meeting Lord Madingsfield at Chez Gerard,” and tapped the side of
his nose to indicate confidential business.
“Lord Madingsfield again?” she said, surprised.
“Well, have fun.” She turned back to her keyboard. Inigo had
been toadying up to this wealthy collector for months now. In her
private opinion the wily old aristocrat was stringing him along.
“We’re in quite a delicate stage of negotiation,
actually,” Inigo said.
Jude and Suri, the trainee cataloger who sat at the desk opposite,
exchanged mock-impressed glances. Suri looked back quickly at her work,
but Jude could see her shoulders quivering with suppressed mirth. Inigo
took everything in life too seriously, but most of all, his place in it.
Only when the lift arrived and swallowed him up did they give way to
“I wonder what he’d say if he saw a video of himself,”
Suri managed to say between giggles. She stood up to go out herself,
adjusting the clasp in her glossy black hair and swinging her handbag
onto her shoulder.
“He’d probably fall in love, poor boy,” Jude said as
she typed. “Enjoy your lunch.”
“Can I get you anything?” Suri said. “I’m going
past Clooney’s if you want a sandwich.”
“Thanks, but I’ll be OK,” replied Jude, smiling at
her. “I’ll break the back of this copy, then maybe slip out
myself.” When Suri had gone, she took a mouthful of mineral water
from a bottle hidden under the desk. Lunch must be forgone. There was
too much to do. Anyway, the waistband of her new trouser suit was too
tight and she couldn’t risk the buttons popping off at dinner
She picked up a musty volume from one pile, studied it quickly and laid
it down on another. Full calf—she wrote—rebacked
with raised bands. Blind tooling to boards. A good clean copy of an
important contemporary work.
The phone on Inigo’s desk began to shrill, piercing her
concentration. Insistent, self-important, like its owner. She stared at
it, willing it to stop. The caller would probably be a time waster: a
quavery old dear hoping to make a mint out of her dog-eared Agatha
Christie collection, or a know-it-all antiquarian bookseller demanding a
personal audience. But it would ring eight times, then transfer to
Suri’s phone and ring another eight before going to
message ... Snatching up her own phone she pressed a button.
“Books and Manuscripts. Hello?”
“Inigo Selbourne, please,” came a plummy male voice.
“I’m afraid he’s at lunch,” Jude said, and in
case the caller assumed she was Inigo’s secretary, which happened
dispiritingly often, she added, “I’m Jude Gower, another
valuer. Can I give him a message?”
“If you would. My name’s Wickham. I’m telephoning from
Starbrough Hall in Norfolk.”
Jude felt a frisson of interest. Norfolk was home turf. Where on earth
was Starbrough Hall, though? She leaned closer into the phone.
“I’ve a collection of eighteenth-century books I want him to
look at,” Mr. Wickham went on. “I’ve been assured by a
friend that they’re likely to have significant value.”
Jude flipped to a fresh page on her notepad and wrote “Starbrough
Hall” at the top in neat capitals, then stared at the words,
trying to understand why they tugged at her memory. She didn’t
think she’d ever been to Starbrough Hall, but for some reason a
picture of her grandmother rose in her mind.
“Does Inigo have your number, Mr. Wickham?”
“No.” When he recited it the local code was familiar. The
same as her sister’s, in fact. That was it. Starbrough Hall was
part of the big estate where Gran had lived as a child. She wrote down
the phone number and doodled a jagged star shape round it.
If she finished the call and passed the message on to Inigo, she’d
have done her job. But the name Starbrough meant something to
her, and she was intrigued. On the other hand, the material he wanted to
sell might prove of little interest to Beecham’s. “Mr.
Wickham,” she asked, “What sort of books are they?
It’s only that the eighteenth century is my particular
“Is it?” Wickham said. “Well, perhaps I should be
dealing with you instead of Mr. Selbourne.”
She opened her mouth to say that Inigo was perfectly competent to deal
with the collection, and found she didn’t want to. It was a
conundrum. Robert Wickham had asked specifically for Inigo. Jude would
be furious if Inigo took work from her—and Suri told her that he
had done that once despite her name being recommended by another client.
Still, she didn’t want to sink to his level. It was ridiculous,
really, that they played this constant game of comeuppance. The head of
department, Klaus Vanderbilt, was always banging on about how they
should work together to wrest business from the other big auction
houses. In fact she had a lot of respect for Inigo’s professional
abilities; it was his constant pushiness that irritated her. She could
never quite relax with him in the office.
“Do you know Inigo Selbourne?” she asked Robert Wickham.
“I mean, was he recommended to you?”
“No, never heard of the man until a moment ago. Your switchboard
So she wasn’t muscling in on something that was rightly
“Well in that case,” she told Wickham, with a shameful sense
of triumph, “I’ll deal with the matter, if you like.”
“I’m happy with that. The collection belonged to an ancestor
of mine, Anthony Wickham. He was something of an amateur stargazer, and
most of the books relate to his hobby. I’d like you to value them
with a view to possible placement for sale.”
“An astronomer, was he? That’s interesting.” Jude was
scribbling down details. Scientific tomes, particularly from the
eighteenth century—the Age of Discovery—were a lively area
at the moment. She could think of two or three dealers who would want to
“There are several first editions among them, so I’m told.
And I should mention the manuscripts,” Wickham went on. “His
charts and observation records. Can’t make head or tail of them
myself. My mother is more familiar with the material. Anyway, I expect
you’ll be able to tell straight away once you’re down
“How many books are we talking about? I don’t suppose
there’s any chance you could bring them to the office?” she
“Oh heavens, no. There are a couple of hundred or more. And the
papers, well, they’re very delicate. Look, if it’s a
nuisance, I can always call Sotheby’s. I was thinking of doing so
anyway. It’s just that my friend said to try you first.”
“No, don’t worry, I’ll come down,” she said
hastily. “I thought it worth asking, that’s all.”
“We have some of his instruments, as well. Bits of telescope. And
a whatnot ... One of those spherical models of the solar
“An orrery, you mean?” This whole thing was beginning to
sound worth a journey. She shuffled books and papers with her free hand,
looking for her desk diary.
“Orrery. That’s it,” Robert Wickham continued.
“Shows the planets going round the sun. So you’d be prepared
to make a visit?”
“Of course,” she replied. She caught sight of the diary in
her in tray, under the mess of proofs Inigo had left. “When would
suit you?” She turned the pages. Could she get away next week? If
Wickham was threatening to show other auction houses as well, she needed
to be ahead of the game.
“I’m away now for a few days,” he said, “so
it’ll have to be after that.” They agreed that she would
visit Starbrough Hall on Friday, in a week’s time.
“You’ll be driving, will you? I’ll e-mail directions.
It’s too complicated for the phone. The nearest place of any size
is Holt. And you can stay overnight if you like. Plenty of room here and
my mother and I would be delighted to entertain you. My wife will be
away with the children, so you’ll have some peace and
“That’s very kind. I probably won’t need to
stay,” Jude said. “I’ve got family in the area, you
see.” She hadn’t been home to Norfolk for ages. It would be
a good opportunity. Perhaps her boyfriend, Caspar, would come, too.
After she put down the phone she prowled the department, unsettled. The
Starbrough Hall collection was important, she was absolutely sure,
though she couldn’t put her finger on why she felt this. And if it
was important and she could secure it for Beecham’s it would look
good. And looking good was important right now, because Klaus Vanderbilt
was approaching retirement age and Beecham’s would need a new head
She was mulling over, as she often did, what her own chances of
promotion were against Inigo’s, when her eye fell on her notepad
and the words “Starbrough Hall.”
She still couldn’t visualize the place. Going across to the
department’s reference shelves she extracted an outsize volume
entitled Great Houses of East Anglia and laid it on Inigo’s
desk. When she turned to “S” she found a grainy
black-and-white photograph. Starbrough Hall was a graceful, if
stark-looking Palladian villa with a gravel forecourt and a great
featureless expanse of lawn. “Two miles from the village of
Starbrough. Built 1720,” said the short text, “by Edward
Wickham Esq. on the burned-out ruins of the old manor house of
Starbrough.” Starbrough. That was very near Claire. She had
certainly driven through Starbrough village at some point; she
remembered the outsize church, a green with a pretty village sign and a
bench girdling a mountainous oak tree. Gran’s father had been
gamekeeper on the Starbrough estate, she believed, but she didn’t
know where they’d lived.
She sat musing for a moment in the empty office, then reached for the
phone to ring Gran.
* * *
The old lady drowsed in the afternoons now. The coastal village of
Blakeney was busy with holidaymakers, but if she removed her hearing aid
the sounds of people and boat trailers passing her window subsided to a
soothing background murmur. Long-ago voices, skirls of happy laughter,
bubbled up in her memory as fresh as spring water.
She drifted back to consciousness, dimly aware of a distant ringing,
fumbling with her hearing aid as she made her way to the phone.
“Judith!” She would hesitate to say that Jude was her
favorite grandchild, but she felt a closeness to her she never quite
felt with Claire, dear cross little Claire.
“I’m going to Starbrough Hall next Friday, Gran. Can I stay
with you on Thursday night?” Jude was saying. “I’d
love to ask you about the place.”
“Starbrough?” Jude heard Jessie’s surprise, but all
the old lady said next was, “It would be lovely to see you, dear.
Will you get here for tea?”
When she put down the phone, Jessie leaned against the sideboard.
Starbrough Hall. She’d thought about the wild girl a great deal
recently. And now her grandchild was going there. Why? She hadn’t
said. Starbrough. Perhaps the opportunity had come to make things right
* * *
Later in the afternoon, after an irritating couple of hours in which the
phones didn’t cease ringing, and a pedantic argument with Inigo
over the Bloomsbury first editions, Jude finished writing her copy, then
took refuge in the storeroom next door to sort books into lots for
auction. Musing about the Starbrough Hall collection she suddenly
thought of her old friend Cecelia. They’d met at university, but
whereas Jude had gone out into the Real World of work, Cecelia was still
burrowing away in university libraries researching the scientific
revolution of the late eighteenth century. When they’d last met,
for a drink a year or so ago, she was sure Cecelia had said something to
do with a book she was writing about astronomy of the period.
She’d have to get in touch with her.
What seemed a very short time later, Suri put her head around the door.
“I’m off now, Jude. We’re going straight down to my
parents’ in Chichester and the traffic will probably be awful.
Have a lovely weekend.”
“Heck, it’s nearly six. I mustn’t be long
either!” The storeroom had no windows, which could be
“We’re going to dinner with some friends of Caspar’s
tonight,” she told Suri, as they returned to the main office.
“Did I tell you, we’re all going on holiday to France in a
couple of weeks? I’ve only met them twice. Mad, aren’t
“It’s brave, if you don’t know them,” said Suri,
looking unsure whether she was expected to agree. “What happens if
you don’t get on?”
“I expect we will,” Jude said, trying to sound positive.
“They seem good fun. Anyway, lots of vino always oils the
After Suri had left, Jude tidied her desk, returning books to shelves in
swift, deft movements and straightening the piles of paper. She
wasn’t sure she liked what she had seen in Suri’s
gaze—a kind of pity. At twenty-six and newly engaged to a boy
she’d met at uni, Suri still saw life with a fresh innocence. Her
world was wonderful, full of color and hope and happiness, and Jude
loved her for it. Even Inigo’s patronizing comments rarely managed
to cloud Suri’s lovely, glowing aura. I was like that once,
she realized, with a little stab of self-pity.
Half-past six found her pushing her way through the aimless summer
crowds choking the alley that ran alongside Charing Cross railway
station down to Embankment tube.
Even if she hadn’t known him, her eye would have been drawn to the
figure leaning against a pillar, tapping something into his BlackBerry.
Caspar was a powerfully built man in a navy designer suit and starched
white shirt. Five years older than Jude’s thirty-four, he was
handsome and lively, with dark, curly hair combed back into submission
with the merest slick of gel. She’d met him a few months ago at a
friend’s drinks party. She, touching five feet ten, and
voluptuous, was a good physical match for him. He was drawn by her soft,
dark eyes and the cloud of wavy strawberry-blonde hair, which she wore
clasped at the nape of her neck. “Quite a Madonna, you are. You
looked sad, but then you smiled,” he said, when she once asked him
teasingly why he’d been drawn to her that evening. “So many
people only smile with their mouths, but you smiled with your eyes like
you cared. I liked that.”
She in turn had liked the way he moved fluidly among this sophisticated
group of city dwellers, so obviously enjoying himself, belonging.
He’d never married, nor indeed had many of his large network of
friends truly settled down. They were too busy working hard at careers
they loved—Caspar and his friend Jack ran the New Media
advertising consultancy—and playing hard, too. Even his married
friends, on the whole, didn’t have children. This was another
thing that drew her to him, she knew, this living for the moment. They
never talked about the future, but then the present was still all she
could manage. When he asked her to come on holiday with some of his
friends she hesitated, then thought, why not? “It’ll be a
laugh,” he said. “We’ll have a great time.” She
had every reason to believe him, but a worm of worry still wriggled
All her own friends, it seemed—the ones who witnessed her marriage
to Mark six years before—were sending invitations to their own
weddings, or announcements of the births of their children. She already
had another godchild and was about to attend the christening of a third,
as well as a niece, six-year-old Summer.
“Hi. Sorry I’m late,” she said, her hand briefly
resting on Caspar’s tailored sleeve.
“You’re not,” Caspar replied, pulling her to him for
one of his quick but expert kisses. His dark eyes gleaming, his gaze
flicked over her appreciatively, and she was glad she’d bought the
trouser suit—and skipped lunch to fit it. “Pretty
earrings,” he commented, recognizing them, and she touched one of
the elegant silver cube studs he’d given her for her birthday at
Easter, soon after they’d first met.
“Luke and Marney want us at eight,” he said.
“Let’s go get a drink.” They found a wine bar nearby
where Caspar magically secured the last table. After the first few
mouthfuls of syrupy Burgundy on her empty stomach, Jude felt
“How did your presentation go?” she asked him. He and Jack
were pitching for a teenage sports-fashion account.
“Good,” he replied. He’d drained his glass already and
was pouring his next. “They went crazy for the movie-clip idea. If
we find the right kids for the shoot, it could be amazing. Jack’s
started going through the agencies. How’s the dusty world of
dead-tree technology?” He was always teasing her that her job
involved handling old books when the future of modern media was online.
The prices they sold at impressed him, though.
“Something quite beguiling has cropped up,” she told him.
“It’s the collection of an eighteenth-century astronomer.
I’m going up to Norfolk on Friday. It’s funny really,
it’s just where Gran was brought up. Caspar, I wondered...”
The alcohol gave her courage to ask. “We weren’t doing
anything next weekend, were we, you and me? I’m staying with Gran
on Thursday night and working on Friday, so I mean Friday and Saturday
nights. I’ve got to go to Milo’s christening on Sunday, but
that’s doable. You could drive down and meet me in Norfolk on
Friday evening. Or earlier, if you like. And come to the christening. I
know Shirley and Martin would love to meet you.”
“Friday’s the fourth, right? I think it’s Tate and
Yasmin’s flat-warming—no, that’s the Saturday.”
He picked up his BlackBerry and started pressing keys. “Yeah, but
we don’t have to do that.”
“Really? Only we could see my sister, Claire, and her little girl.
You haven’t met them, you see, and I thought ... Their place
is too tiny for both of us, but there’s a bed and breakfast in the
village or maybe we could go out to the coast. The countryside’s
beautiful; we could go walking...” She stopped, aware that he
Caspar’s eyes narrowed as he stared at his BlackBerry, the blue
light from the screen flickering eerily across his face. He seemed
“Ah,” he said, suddenly cheered by something he’d
found. “I’m really sorry, Jude, but I’m due in Paris
on the Sunday for a presentation on Monday. Jack and I’ll need
Saturday to prepare.”
“Oh, that’s a shame. You haven’t met my family. I
particularly thought you’d like Claire.”
“She’s ... the disabled one?”
“She has a slight limp, that’s all.” Disabled is not
how Jude thought of her sister. Pretty, feisty, outspoken, an astute
businesswoman, yes, but never disabled. She’d been born with one
leg slightly shorter than the other; something that had meant a
childhood punctuated by hospital operations. “Her little
girl’s called Summer. I haven’t seen them properly for
“I thought you all met up at the airport last week.”
They’d gone to see their mother off to Spain with her new husband,
Douglas, who was renovating a villa in the hills behind Malaga.
“Stansted Airport is hardly a relaxing place for a chat.”
“Well, I’ll have to meet Claire and Summer—cute
Now he’d worked his way into the part, he managed to look
sincerely sorry, but Jude was disappointed. It wasn’t the first
opportunity he’d turned down of meeting her family, and it
mattered to her. Come to think of it, she hadn’t met any of his
relations either. This hadn’t struck her as odd before, but now it
One of the little earrings was hurting. She put a hand up and loosened
it carefully. It came apart. She caught the bits just in time.
Copyright © 2012 by Rachel Hore
Excerpted from "A Place of SECRETS: A Novel" by Rachel Hore. Copyright © 0 by Rachel Hore. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.