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Lord Alec Martlesham had been up since dawn. He had desperately been trying to find a telephone number but, rooting through his filing cabinets and drawers and digging under the piles of papers that overwhelmed his desk, this proved fruitless. His address book provided no joy either. His mind strayed as his eyes scanned a letter hoping that it might read differently.
'Surely they would offer me more for the rings and necklace than that?' he muttered. 'That won't even cover the cost of a new boiler.' He put a hand to his mouth and stroked his chin. Slowly sitting down, full of thought, he shoved a stubborn wad of unopened mail to one side to reveal a photograph propped up against a lamp. It had a faded tired look, but was clear enough to show a woman, bursting with life, happy and smiling with an arm around his waist. In this picture he looked thirty years younger. 'What are we going to do? Eh? I wish you were here to tell me.' He wiped his eyes. 'But in one way I thank God you are not witness to this, my darling. It would break your heart...' he whimpered, pouring himself a second whiskey before closing his eyes seeking an answer. Someone came to the door and he looked up.
'You won't forget to decant the '82 in time for my guest will you?' he called out to the girl who hung there doing up her raincoat.
'All done your Lordship, as you asked.'
'The '82?' Definitely the '82?'
'Yes - Lord Martlesham. There are only six bottles left.'
'Of the '82?'
'No. In the entire cellar.'
Lord Martlesham didn't have the strength to reply so looked back down at the piles of papers demanding his attention. The young girl, Tamzin, understood the message clearly, that she had been dismissed.
Her answer was to smile briefly and swing her wicker shopping basket as she turned on her heels and sloped away.
Lord Martlesham fumbled a few papers distractedly as, defeated, he turned to the calendar hanging on the wall behind him. A date was circled in red.
'A week to find an answer...' he said grimly.
Then a possibility struck him.
He strode to a pile of papers and letters shoved tight to one wall and, bending over, he started sorting through, discarding one after another - frustrated. About half way down he spotted the envelope and his eyes brightened. He mouthed quietly to himself as he extracted the Christmas card and taking it back to his desk, he studied it, finding the number he wanted. He picked up the telephone, pausing to dial, as sadness drifted across his eyes. He replaced the receiver.
'What good would it do to call you?' he said quietly, before his hand hovered again over the cradle. 'Though... can it do any harm to try?'
Lord Martlesham's indecision was suspended as the grandfather clock away down the hall chimed eleven, followed by the rasping cry of a doorbell. A little red star popped up on a wooden display board hanging above his head in the box marked 'front door.' It broke Lord Martlesham away from his thoughts. He picked up his notebook and staggered around his desk to go and answer it.
As he reached the doorway, he held back a moment. He returned to his desk and removed a pale red visitors' book and, opening it at random, stared at the names inscribed in differing hands over the years - some letters drawn with a flourish, others in block capitals and some scrawled quite illegibly.
His stabbed at the entry he wanted. His discoloured fingernail then trailed across it very lightly.
'Will I ever see you here again my boy?' he said carefully. 'It has been such a long time.'
With a quiver he sniffed and, hearing the door bell reverberate for a second time, locked the book away and rose hastily to go and meet his visitor.