Hurst Manor was on the far side of Piper's Green, towards Egerton, and, anxious as I was to meet Polly again, I did spare a thought for the May greenery and blossom as I turned into the drive that Friday evening. Kent is a beautiful county, and the North Downs could be seen in all their glory on the one side, while on the other the fertile Weald lay beneath the Greensand Ridge. Spring gives an edge to the beauties of nature, and, full of its joys, I was looking forward to the evening.
The manor is tucked away in its own grounds. I had a vague memory of going there donkeys years ago, when the Squire, as my father quaintly referred to him, still lived there. But such feudal situations had passed, and the Squire's descendants now lived in a modern semi somewhere in Lenham.
For Hurst Manor to be merely a second home seemed to me sad, but perhaps that was just jealousy. All the money in the world thrown into the upkeep of a house and gardens such as these won't compensate for lack of the atmosphere of a house that is empty much of the time. It had been a family house once. This building had come into being in the early nineteenth century, but was on the site of several predecessors over the centuries, beginning with the first one in early medieval times built for one of the children of the family living in the nearby Chilston Park estate. Hurst can hardly have been in the same class in size or importance as Chilston, and certainly wasn't now, but it was charming all the same. Not, of course, that we hoi polloi were going into the house itself. Nothing so grand.
âOver there,' called Rob from the back seat of my Alfa Sportwagon, where he relaxed in aristocratic hauteur, with one of his arms casually round Zoe. Zoe wasn't even objecting, though she's hardly the type of girl that needs cosseting. She's more the tigress variety, liking to leap out at unexpected moments â except, of course, where Rob's concerned.
We'd negotiated hard over Rob's terms for agreeing to let me come â by hard, I mean Rob stated his terms and I agreed. âTransport,' he'd drawled. âYou drive, Zoe and I drink.'
âFair enough,' I'd promptly conceded. Anyway, I needed my wits about me, if I was to catch Polly in my toils. Silly phrase that: what was there to toil over where Polly was concerned? Then I remembered that toil used to mean trap, and it struck me that if traps were on the menu then it was more than likely that she had trapped me rather than the other way around. I let my imagination playÂ .Â .Â . a drive in that handsome Lagonda on a summer's day; an old-fashioned picnic basket strapped on the back, stuffed with foie gras and a bottle of champagne; a blanket spread upon the ground by a stream â and Polly. Or maybe the back seat of the LagondaÂ .Â .Â . Back, Colby, back to reality. Work to be done, I realized. Harry Prince to be staved off one more time.
âTell me about this queue at Polly's door,' I said to Zoe as our incongruous threesome made its way towards the converted stables where the show was being held. âWhat's the competition?'
Zoe grinned. âBest in Show, Best Watercolour, Best OilÂ .Â .Â .'
âMost amusing,' I agreed sourly.
Already, I did not fancy the Stacks. The public were directed to park in a field behind the stables. The Stacks' own cars were spoiling the look of the gracious red-brick house. One can tell a lot about people from the car they own â or I tell myself that I can. The Bentley Mulsanne Turbo and BMW convertible outside the manor said anonymous grey-suited businessman and spoiled wife respectively. Some detective I would be, however, if I believed first impressions. Often they were right, but sometimes they were very, very wrong, such as the time I dismissed a chap as a
for arriving at a car show in a tarted-up Triumph Stag, only to find out that he also owned a Ferrari 250 GTO. I concentrated on the job in hand, however, as I marched dutifully behind whippersnapper Rob to the stables' entrance.
Two elderly ladies at the reception table duly fell for his charms, and I was in. One of them had looked rather doubtful as she checked me up and down, but must have decided I was an eccentric artist rather than a heavy mob villain, because she suddenly awarded me a smile and told me the programme was a pound. She held out three â I bought them.
Rob took two from me and graciously handed one to Zoe as though he'd just forked out for it himself. A good trick that, and I'd remember it.
âWe'll leave you to it,' Rob then announced, making no secret that I was no longer wanted. That suited me down to the ground. âSee you for dinner,' he added.
âThat's included in the entry price?' I asked, surprised but imagining some enormous buffet to be laid on courtesy of the Stacks.
âIt is for us.' Rob smirked. âYou're paying. I thought we'd go to the Green Dragon.'
The most expensive restaurant in Piper's Green, of course. Zoe, I noticed, was looking the other way.
âNaturally,' I agreed graciously. I'd think about the mortgage tomorrow. What was a mere hundred quid or two with a Lagonda and Polly at stake?
The stables had been modernized to make one long building, which was currently so packed with people that I despaired of ever spotting Polly. Movement wasn't helped by the fact that temporary display partitions had been erected to divide one artist's work from another's, so there was nothing for it but to force my way round from one to the other.
I'm no judge of amateur art â or any art, come to that â but this show, which according to the programme notes presented both professional and amateur artists, looked of high standard. It was varied in subject matter, with landscapes, portraits and abstracts, and incomprehensible mixes of all of these. I tried hard to absorb enough to chat sensibly to Polly once I'd tracked her down, which meant forcing myself between eager groups eating canapÃ©s and miniature sausage rolls. I was beginning to despair when Zoe, as so often, galloped to my rescue by seizing my arm. No sign of Rob, luckily.
âJack, come and meet Bea.'
Bea? Bless you, Zoe, I thought fervently. Bea was with a young man, maybe a year or two older than her, who stared at me suspiciously.
âBig Boss Man at Frogs Hill,' Zoe introduced me airily. âJack Colby.'
âHi, Jack,' Bea greeted me, then giggled. âSorry, no pun intended.'
I tried to reply wittily, but all I could think of was Polly and that this was her daughter. I liked the look of Bea. She was no Polly in the beauty stakes, that was for sure. She was shorter, rounder and with a much warmer, eager face. Unfortunately, her companion looked the sort to take full advantage of such openness. From his accent as he continued to talk pointedly only to Bea and Zoe, he was Polish, I guessed, especially when Bea introduced him as Tomas Kasek. His arm slid round Bea in case I had any idea of making off with her.
Just as I was wondering how to break up this cosy twosome, Zoe did it for me.
âJack's fallen in love with your mum's Lagonda, Bea,' she said brightly.
âWhat Lagonda?' Bea looked genuinely puzzled.
âIn one of your barns,' I said casually.
Bea looked even more puzzled. âNot to my knowledge. She and Dad had one. It might still be around, but I don't see why it should be. All the cars got sold off to Andy Wells.' She turned to lover lad. âTomas, you've met Andy, and you like cars. Did Andy ever mention it?'
Tomas's square chin grew even squarer for some reason. âNever.'
âVery odd.' Bea frowned. âDo you know Mum, Jack?'
âI've met her.' The way this came out made it sound as if it had been love at first sight. Perhaps it had been, on my side at least.
Tomas must have seen his opportunity. âMrs Davis is here somewhere,' he said pointedly, to hasten my departure.
âOff you go, Jack,' Zoe said unhelpfully.
âDon't tell her you've met us.' Bea grinned.
âWhy not?' I asked. After all, what other opening would I have?
âShe doesn't approve.' Bea pulled a face.
, I think,' Tomas told me casually.
So Polly had good taste, I thought. Bea deserved better than Tomas.
âTomas is farm manager for Guy Williams, and Mum
approve of Guy,' Bea told me.
âIs he here?' I asked warily. A punch-up was not going to improve my status.
âSure to be. Fighting off the competition,' Bea told me blithely.
I decided to enquire no further. This might be a case where ignorance was bliss, and in any case it was high time I located Polly.
The display units might have been efficient for concentrating the mind on one artist's work, but it didn't work as well for anyone intent on coming casually upon friends â or upon Polly Davis â and I was getting more and more frustrated.
And then I found her. She was talking in one of the units to someone I recognized from local classic car shows. I go to so many that I can't carry all the owners' names in my head, but by Jupiter I remember the cars. And this man's face said Maserati Mexico to me. I thought his name was Dan or Don. What better introduction could I have asked for? Polly was dressed in a flimsy floating lemon-coloured affair and made my heart and various other organs ache in admiration. Then she caught sight of me, and what had been a beautiful normal woman switched back into ice-queen mode. Unfortunately for her, she could not move, as I had carefully hemmed her into a corner between Dan (or Don) and myself, and she couldn't very well tell me to get lost â chiefly because I got my oar in first, and not with her.
âMaserati Mexico,' I said to Dan (or Don). He was a good-looking man, and I seemed to recall he had been, or still was, in motor racing at some level. He certainly had the looks that went with wasting a bottle of the best champagne. Not that he himself looked a waste of space. Far from it; I remembered liking him from previous encounters. I reckoned he looked more like a Dan than a Don, and I needed to be right, especially if he was in the famous queue for Polly's favours. They had been standing very close together and talking very earnestly. About art? I don't think so.
âAnd it's Dan â erÂ .Â .Â . ?' I finished enquiringly.
âRight. Dan Burgess. And you're Jack Colby of Frogs Hill Classic Car Restorations. Related to Glory Boot Colby, I imagine.'
We were off, and short of pushing us both out of the way Polly was temporarily stuck with me. My opportunity was right here, and I took it.
âI have to apologize to you again,' I said ruefully. âWe didn't meet under the best circumstances last week. I don't usually do wilful damage to hedges. Blame your good taste.'
She managed a sick grin. I decided not to enlighten the obviously curious Dan â he might want a slice of the Lagonda action â so I quickly added, âI've just met your daughter Bea. She's a friend of my mechanic, Zoe Grant.'
A little colour came into those pale cheeks, and the goddess spoke. âI like Zoe. She's great fun, isn't she?'
âThe best,' I agreed. Wow, a real conversation. This was progress. âIt isn't always a barrel of laughs at the farm, but we all get along fine.'
We rambled on, and Dan informed me he was a painter by profession â and had his own pictures hung here, even though he wasn't a member of the society. âRight here,' he emphasized, glancing at the walls with the glow of pride shining all over his Superman features.
âCars, I see,' I said fatuously, taking in the subject matter of the pictures around me for the first time and wondering whether I was expected to buy one to impress Polly. This was a man who adored cars. His cars had stately homes and impossibly beautiful landscapes plonked down around them, but the cars themselves were painted with a love and skill not evident in the backgrounds. No Lagondas though. Thoughts of the blanket I had shared in my fantasies with the lady standing next to me flashed through my mind all too uncomfortably.
âI take commissions,' Dan told me, when I'd duly admired them. âI go round and paint cars for their loving owners. So next time you want a paint job to hang on the wall, call me.' We joked around for a minute or two, but then an announcement that the speeches were about to begin threw me off track. I momentarily turned my head, and with a light touch on my arm, Polly slipped past me to freedom.
Once away, she did pause long enough to murmur, âI'm sorry about the other day, Jack. I really am. Come up to the farm one day, but no talk about Lagondas. Deal?' She smiled at me, and the world spun out of control.
I was so stunned I could only nod my head. âBetter than nothing,' I blurted out â hardly a phrase calculated to woo a lady to my bed, but she didn't seem to take offence. That smile lit up her face like the cracking of a glacier, and my dreams began to flow once more. Lyrical? Believe me, I felt lyrical as I watched Polly disappear into the mob.
âQuite something, isn't she?' There seemed to be some wistfulness in Dan's expression. He only looked in his thirties â much too young for her, I thought, but then beauty such as Polly's had no relation to age.
I agreed with him. She
quite something. My car detective nose was reminding me that whatever mystery hung over that Lagonda V12, Polly must be involved in it up to her beautiful swanlike neck, but I didn't care. I was on my way to Shangri-La as she and the Lagonda floated through my mind.
I remained in a daze throughout the speeches, squashed between a chap who looked so scruffy he could only be one of the artists, and a lady of such flowing curves that Rubens would have been inspired. Every so often I caught a glimpse of Polly, who was in charge of the raffle â to which, I realized guiltily, I had not contributed. Black mark, if Polly realized it too. The MC seemed to be Simon Todd, the leader of the art group, who was presiding over the awards of the prizes. Next to him was a quiet man with spectacles and dull fair hair â perhaps once straw-coloured â wearing an exquisitely tailored suit. He looked in his mid forties, and when I heard Todd address him as Rupert, I deduced he was the manor's owner.