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Mum's the word: episode three of a four-part short story by David Ashforth

Lady Luckan liked sex and shopping. “You can wear old rags at Christmas if you like, but I don’t intend to,” she told Lord Luckan
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First published on Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Lord Luckan's faith in the Oracle tipping service has proved misplaced, and Lady Luckan is furious that her shopping expeditions have foundered on creditless credit cards

Lady Luckan stood with her arms folded and glared at her husband, waiting for an explanation for her humiliation at the hands of Lord Luckan's credit cards.

"I think you'd better sit down, darling," said Lord Luckan, while his ladyship took several heated steps across the dining room floor, then turned abruptly on her high heels and set off in another direction, quickly arriving at the fireplace, where she picked up a poker and banged it against the brass coal scuttle. "Fucking hell," she said.

"Don't worry, darling," said Luckan. "This place is worth a fortune. It's just a hiccup with cash flow."

"Well, darling," snapped Andrea, "you'd better get some of the fortune flowing into the cash, pronto. I'm not going to be the laughing stock of Ludlow, even if you are."

"It's not quite as easy as that," Luckan replied, thinking better of 'darling' Andrea again. "There are a few problems at the moment."

"You'd better get them sorted out, then, hadn't you, Geoffrey?" said Lady Luckan. "And quickly. You can wear old rags at Christmas if you like, but I don't intend to."

Aware of the value of carrots as well as sticks, Lady Luckan walked towards her husband, put her hand on his cheek, looked into his eye, drew her shoulders back, smiled invitingly and, said, softly, "You know how much you like me in a nice skirt, don't you, Lucky? We both want our Christmas presents."

Rirchar Marsh had told his boss about the dire shortage of supplies but nothing had happened and, soon, he would not be able to feed the horses, let alone race them. It could only be a matter of time before the supply of pay as well as hay dried up and Luckan's trainer found himself without a job, and without Lady Luckan.

Marsh finished hosing down the yard then walked down the nearby path, past an old sycamore tree towards the stone cottage which stood near a side entrance to the Manor. The dowager duchess Luckan, once a renowned rider with the Ludlow Hunt, appeared regularly at the stables and on the gallops, and Marsh soon realised that she understood horses and horseracing much better than her son. If Ludlow Manor Stables was to survive, something needed to be done, quickly, and Lord Luckan's mother was more likely to do something than Lord Luckan.

"I'm not surprised," said the duchess, offering Marsh a ginger biscuit before settling back down on her Chippendale chair. "Geoffrey hasn't got a clue, and I expect the trollop stuffs money down her suspenders. How much do you need for the suppliers?"

"Well, there's the unpaid bills, my lady, as well as the cost of what we need now," said Marsh.

He suggested a figure, four figures. Gertrude left the room and reappeared several minutes later, holding an envelope. "There's £1,200," she said, handing Marsh the envelope, bulging with banknotes. Marsh wondered how many more banknotes she had in the house. "What we need to do, Marsh, is think of a plan. I've had an idea, and there are a few things I need to ask you, in strict confidence. Just the two of us, you understand."

Marsh clutched the flat cap he was holding in his lap. "Whatever you want, my lady. All I want is to save the stables."

It was another 40 minutes before Marsh left Manor Cottage, an envelope full of banknotes in one pocket and a letter, addressed to Llandrindod Wells, in the other. The dowager duchess had a plan but they needed help, professional help. Gertrude was confident that a gentleman in Llandrindod Wells would provide it.

"Not a word, remember," she said.

"Mum's the only word, my lady," said Marsh.

Peter Cripps bent down, provoking a now familiar pain in his hips, which needed replacing, and picked up the envelope. He straightened his long back, setting off another shooting pain, and peered at the postmark. Nowadays, Cripps's most frequent correspondents were the gas, water and electricity companies, who wrote faithfully, every three months.

More letters might have dropped on to his hall mat if Cripps had not spent the last 25 years in voluntary isolation in Llandrindod Wells. He was not sure why, after retiring from his veterinary practice in Ludlow, he had chosen to live in Llandrindod Wells, except that, as a child, on holiday in Wales, he had enjoyed trying to pronounce it.

Cripps opened the envelope, removed the letter, and sat down (another stab of pain) at the kitchen table. "Ah," he said to himself, aloud, looking at the signature, "it's been a long time," which was what the letter said, too.

Manor Cottage
4 December
Ludlow Manor
Nr Ludlow

Dear Peter

It's been a long time but, of course, I have not forgotten you and I am hoping that you have not forgotten me, although if your memory is like mine, you may have done.

If you remember, you once promised your help again if I should ever need it. I have not needed it for the past 25 years but I do need it now, urgently.

It is a very delicate matter which I need to discuss with you in private. Would you be able to come to my cottage here on Saturday afternoon? The cottage near the second entrance, not the main house. Geoffrey, of course, now occupies that. Please do not mention any of this to anyone, that is most important, and keep your arrival secret, if possible. I know I can trust you.

I am sorry for the 'cloak and dagger'.

I will explain it all on Saturday.

With fond memories


Cripps was intrigued. What on earth could Gertrude want? He did not remember his promise but didn't doubt that he had made it. Many years ago, Cripps had been a regular visitor to Ludlow Manor Stables and had got to know the 6th Earl and his wife well. Thirty years ago, she had sought his advice over Edward's unseemly habit of employing stable girls for purposes other than those for which they had been recruited. Short of divorce, how was she to stop him?

Cripps found a solution. He arranged for an attractive young friend to apply for a job in the yard, where she built up a dossier on the Earl's misbehaviour. When Edward, inevitably, turned his dishonourable attentions to the latest recruit, she threatened to take her story, and her dossier, to the News of the World. "They love a Lord on their front page," she told him, exactly as his son's bookmaker, Vic Turner, would tell the 7th Earl, a generation later.

The ruse had frightened Edward into improved behaviour, without him ever knowing of Gertrude's and Peter's involvement. Lady Luckan, as she was then, gave Peter's young friend a handsome present, and Peter gallantly promised that, if she should ever need his help again, he would be there to supply it.

Well, he wasn't doing anything on Saturday nor, come to that, on most other days. Cripps was badly in need of a bit of late-life excitement. Yes, a trip to Gertrude would suit him nicely.

It was a strange experience, driving along once familiar country lanes, past the farms where Cripps used to treat ailing sheep and cows, sheepdogs and horses. He remembered the farmers, some unreasonably demanding, some unexpectedly grateful. After all these years, they were unlikely to recognise their former vet through the window of a moving car but, just in case, Peter had wrapped a scarf around his head.

He parked in a small lay-by near the entrance to Ludlow Manor, checked that no-one was in sight, and walked, painfully, to Gertrude's cottage.

If she was shocked by the toll the years had taken on him, she didn't show it, while Gertrude had aged as Cripps had expected, at the edges. Her hair was grey, her legs stiffer, the lines on her cheeks deeper but she was the same slimly elegant shape and, he guessed, the same weight as 25 years ago. Peter wished that the same could be said of him.

After a leisurely exchange of recollections of their former lives and the outlines of their more recent ones, the dowager duchess told Cripps why she had asked him to visit her.

The estate was in financial crisis, brought on by her son's incompetence, made worse by his second wife's profligate spending. Creditors were, almost literally, banging on the door and, before long, bailiffs would be banging with them. The loss of the family estate, the public humiliation, the irretrievable damage to the Luckan name; it could not be allowed to happen. While the dowager duchess Luckan was alive, it would not happen.

"Believe me, Peter," she said, gripping her hands together in front of her. "I have explored every avenue, exhausted every possibility. I despaired of ever finding a solution and, then, three days ago, I found one, just as you found one for me all those years ago. It is not a solution I think you will approve of.

"I don't approve of it myself, but beggars can't be choosers, and we will be – beggars – if we don't take our chance. I'd like you to meet Mr Marsh. It was Mr Donnelly in your day, wasn't it? He's no longer with us, I'm afraid. He's no longer with anyone. Richard Marsh is our farm manager and trainer now. You can trust him."

The duchess picked up a phone and asked Marsh to join them. He had been waiting for the call and arrived at the cottage a few minutes later. Then Gertrude told Peter what the solution was.

"It is very naughty," she warned him, worried that Cripps might prove difficult, "but, believe me, it's the only way. The racehorses are the answer, Peter, the only answer." She paused briefly in the hope that, during the pause, her words would sink in.

"Marsh and I," she resumed, "have often remarked on how alike Gone Missing and Lord Luckan are. A horse, Peter, not Geoffrey. We can barely tell them apart, and we see them all the time. On the racecourse, no-one would spot the difference. You see my thinking?" "I have a horrible feeling that I do," said Cripps, looking glum.

"Well," Gertrude continued, "Things have changed since our day. Nowadays, evidently, every horse has a thing called a microchip put into its neck. At the races, they put a clever machine up to the horse's neck and up comes a number, identifying the horse. Of course, they still have passports and so on, too, but the chip's the thing. It's chips with everything nowadays."

Gertrude looked at Peter, for a sign of his reaction. There was none. She carried on. "Anyway, Dick's seeing to the passport side of things, which just leaves the chips. And that's where we need your help. Without it, we're scuppered. We're in your hands, Peter, at your mercy. You can save our chips, if you'll just swop them around for us."

Peter continued to sit silently, his arms folded, looking serious. "It's criminal, isn't it?" he said, finally. "You could end up in jail, and so could I, if I help you."

"Yes," Gertrude replied. "It's a lot to ask, I know, and I wouldn't ask if I didn't have to."

The ticking of a clock marked the ensuing silence. Cripps reflected that he had led a quiet, honest life; honest, uneventful, dull, and now it was creeping towards its end.

"All right, Gertrude," he said. "For you, I'll do it for you. This wasn't what I'd got in mind when I made that promise, but all right. What exactly do you want me to do?"

Marsh explained. Cripps hadn't got the equipment he needed with him, which was stored in a cupboard at home, unused for 25 years. They arranged that he would come back the next day. "I'll make sure that you aren't disturbed," said Gertrude, thanking him ardently. Cripps nodded his head and walked back to his car.

No one saw him.

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After an exchange of recollections, the dowager told Cripps why she had asked him to visit her
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