Celebrations at the Chateau by Jo Thomas

When their grandfather dies, Fliss and her sisters Lizzie and Nellie are astonished to inherit a French château! Arriving in Normandy to visit the beautiful if faded house, Fliss begins to wonder whether the château could be the new beginning she needs.

A photo of Celebrations at the Chateau by Jo Thomas, on a white hardwood background surrounded by pinecones and dried satsumas.

As we step inside, our eyes are automatically drawn up the long flight of stairs, beyond the huge tiled hallway, to a massive window where the stairs split and continue to either side of it.

‘Wow!’ I turn on the spot, looking up at the high ceilings. Although there is peeling paint, a musty smell and it’s colder inside than it was out, it takes my breath away. None of us speaks as we all take in the enormity of the place.

‘What on earth? It’s in a state!’ Lizzie says eventually.

Despite the cold and damp, the ivy creeping round the door, I see how this place must once have been.

‘Gives me the creeps,’ says Nellie, shivering.

‘It’s beautiful,’ is all I say, as, despite the cold and damp, the ivy creeping round the door, I see how this place must once have been. The original ceiling rose is still in place, with a chandelier and ornate cornices. The craftsmanship that had gone into building the place is stunning. I’m in awe.

There are doors off the main hall and we wonder which one to open first and what we might find behind it. The other two look at one another, then at me.

‘Hello?’ calls Nellie, in the direction of the stairs.

‘Nellie, there’s no one here. We just met the caretaker.’ Lizzie tuts. But we feel strangely as if we’re trespassing. I pick a door, grasp its mottled brass handle, and glance at my sisters, wondering what we might find.

They grab each other’s hands, then mine. I nudge the door with my shoulder.

We tumble into the big room together, then untangle ourselves and straighten up. The walls are a beautiful barely-blue, with gold on the doors and around the panelling. A high ceiling, and a huge fireplace, with marble surround and blackened back behind a wrought-iron grate. There is furniture: a long table, with chairs and candlesticks by the look of it, covered with sheets and blankets. Beyond that, there’s another room, a snug, perhaps, with a baby grand piano, and then the turret. I open a door to it, and a staircase spirals all the way to the top floor. A curved door leads down a few steps to what must be the kitchen.

We return to the hall and go into the billiard room – I think that’s what you’d call it – and then, the drawing room, with another beautiful fireplace and doors out to a moss-covered patio. There’s a big sideboard and a table with what looks like an antique gramophone, with a trumpet speaker. We walk across into the library: books fill the shelves and dust sheets cover the furniture, as if someone has just locked up and walked away.

‘But we have the key,’ Lizzie says firmly. ‘It fitted, remember?’

‘This can’t be right,’ says Nellie, ever the worrier. ‘This can’t be the right place. We should leave before someone finds us here.’ She tugs at my sleeve.

‘But we have the key,’ Lizzie says firmly. ‘It fitted, remember? Why would the solicitor give us a key to a house that he says we own if it wasn’t the right one?’ She has a point.

I walk up to the French windows to look out at the patio, with ivy-covered urns on plinths, leading to a lawn and what looks like a swimming pool. Beyond that there’s a hedge, and I can see cows on the other side. Despite the cold, abandoned feel of this place, it has a wonderful elegance and faded beauty. Like a glamorous Hollywood actress who has grown old gracefully, holding her head high despite the wrinkles.

‘Honestly, I’m not kidding, this place gives me the creeps,’ Nellie repeats.

‘Typical you! Always seeing the romantic side of things! Imagine the upkeep, the repairs . . .’

‘It must be worth a fortune,’ says Lizzie, ever the numbers woman. I can see her doing mental calculations. ‘Even in its current state. First, we need to find that caretaker and ask him exactly what he has and hasn’t been doing around here. When the solicitor said a tenant was in situ, I assumed it would have been looked after,’ she says, grimacing at a windowsill littered with dead flies.

‘Mind you, we never expected anything like this place, did we?’ I say, my eyes dancing with excitement as I wonder who might have lived here.

‘Typical you! Always seeing the romantic side of things! Imagine the upkeep, the repairs . . .’ Lizzie tuts. ‘Imagine the heating bills,’ says Nellie. ‘It would cost a fortune to run.’
‘But why?’ Lizzie looks at me and Nellie. ‘Why did he buy this? And why have we never known about it until now?’

I glance down at my phone to check the time. It seems like we’ve only just arrived yet it’s nearly midday.

‘Look, let’s get something to eat,’ I suggest, thinking it’s the only practical thing we can do right now. ‘We’ll go to the nearest village or town. Have an early lunch. Find out if anybody knows anything. If anyone knew our grandfather.’

They nod eagerly, clearly keen to get out of the place.

I take a final look around the room and poke my head into the others while my sisters wait in the hall, ready to leave as quickly as they can.

Somehow I can’t move, imagining what the place must have been like in its glory days.

Outside, I shut the door, giving it a sharp tug – the wood has swollen in the frame, I suspect – and lock it with the big key. The low autumnal sun has finally come out, filtering through the branches that hang over the tree-lined drive, creating shadows but also shafts of bright light. I can feel it warming me after the chill of the château. Somehow I can’t move, imagining what the place must have been like in its glory days.

‘Come on, Fliss,’ Lizzie calls, opening the car with a blip. Reluctantly, I move down the steps, looking back at the stone façade, my hand running down the lichen- covered balustrade. At the bottom, I turn back to the château. I’m buzzing with questions and curiosity. I want to see it all. I want to find out who lived there. How my grandfather ended up owning it. Find out everything about it, before we have to say goodbye to it and go home.

For once, the thought of home doesn’t fill me with the warm glow it usually does. I don’t mind putting off going back just a little longer and seeing how things are when I get there. If the pieces are all in the same place . . . Or not. I can see Ty’s face and his expression before I left for our Channel crossing last night. I have no idea why I suddenly chose to say what I did. Maybe it was because summer has gone, which means he will be going away again. It’s the same every year. He teaches skiing and snowboarding in France during the winter, then goes to his family’s summer house to teach surfing next to the beach café where I work. Or worked.

I’m used to it. It’s how it’s always been. But this time I wished it wasn’t. This time I wished he wasn’t going.

Perhaps being here for a day or two is just what I need

Maybe it was the mood of the evening, the wine, but I did the thing we’ve always promised we’d never do. We were happy. Why change what we had? We had more than a lot of people find in a lifetime, we knew that. It was just that . . . What if he didn’t go? What if we stayed just as we were in that moment? I couldn’t help saying what I did. Maybe it’s because Grandpa has gone and there’s a huge hole in my life, which hurts. Perhaps being here for a day or two is just what I need for things to settle, see if they go back to how they were. Why change what isn’t broken? But some- thing inside me has shifted, something between me and Ty. And I don’t think things will go back to how they were.

I swallow the memory, get into the car and slam the door. That’s the moment when I realize Ty and I may not have a future together. I look back at the imposing building as Lizzie drives away, and I could swear I see something move in one of the upstairs rooms, the lights flickering on and off again, I catch my breath. What was it?

From a distance, I can see the caretaker again, standing at a gateway as we turn on to the tree-lined narrow road, soggy leaves banked up in the hedgerows. He’s watching us with interest – and a hefty dollop of disdain. Clearly not impressed with us. But I doubt we’ll be his employers for very long, I think, with a tinge of regret, as I look back at the beautiful but neglected château as we drive away from it. I can’t help but wonder, though, who made the movement I saw in the window if the caretaker was at the end of the drive? My heart beats just a little faster.

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