Dinner at Calverly Hall
Helen and I walked nervously up to Calverley Hall – the “Big House” as the real locals called it – on a bitterly cold evening.
We’d been told very early on when we moved here that “interesting” new residents would likely be invited to dine (not to “dinner” note) with the Misses Bridges after a suitable period of residence, usually between six months and and a year. I was secretly gratified that, within seven months of moving here, Helen and I were obviously considered sufficiently qualified. That said, we had met very few people who had actually been invited and those who had seemed unable to offer much information on our hosts. It seemed the Hall had been in the Bridges family for centuries and the twin sisters were the only remaining members of the family who resolutely maintained the property as it had been in their parents’ time.
It was a dark Friday evening, the 10th January, the full moon beginning to rise in the north-east. Owls called in the trees roundabout and this only served to heighten Helen’s particular anxiety. The foul weather of the previous night had cleared, leaving various puddles to be circumvented by the light of our torch and that of the moon, accompanied by a chill, northerly breeze. The last hundred yards we proceeded up the drive to the Hall, our feet crunching on the freshly-raked gravel and our way lit by discreet lamps hung in the trees.
I pulled on an ancient, well-worn polished bell-pull creating a sonorous sound deep within the Hall. After a minute or so, we were admitted by a uniformed footman. We were relieved of our coats and ushered towards the drawing room.
“Dr James and Mrs. Moore,” the butler announced, as we were shown in to what I would describe as a typical late Victorian or Edwardian room, with dark maroon wallpaper, thick lustrous green curtains and ancient mahogany furniture. I counted twelve guests, recognising several of the couples as patients from the surgery and who Helen and I greeted. Two elderly ladies dressed in elegant dark dresses finished off with antique jewellery, who came forward to greet us.
“Good evening. Dr Moore and your wife, I presume. How good of you to join us this evening. I am Patricia Bridges,” she proffered a bony hand encircled at the wrist by a clearly expensive, but understated, bracelet, “and this is Francesca, my younger sister.”
Younger sister, I wondered? They both seemed identically old to me.
“Ah, Dr. Moore, our new local doctor, I understand, from Crossways Surgery. The newest addition to the partnership I understand.” Francesca added.
Drinks were served from silver trays conveyed by three staff in matching uniforms and, after some small talk with various guests, my attention was taken by the portraits hanging in the room.
”But you take an interest in our family portraits, I see. The ones you are currently looking at are of our parents. My father, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Bridges in his bush uniform…. Just his medals missing from this. He won quite a few you know.”
“Excuse me, bush uniform?” I cocked my head in curiosity.
“Oh, sorry, yes. South African dress for wearing in the heat of summer in the veldt. And this here,” Patricia glided noiselessly to the next portrait. “Our – I mean Francesca’s and mine – mother painted a while back.”
I looked at Lady Olivia’s portrait and saw a lady dressed in what I could only think was early twentieth century fashion with her bunched up hair secured at the front by a small but clearly valuable tiara, high necked formal dress, sparkling necklace and white lace gloves. Indeed her daughters here before me were dressed in a similar fashion and looked like clones of their mother.
My study of the portraits and the conversation with Francesca was cut short by the sounding of a gong followed by the sonorous tones of the butler announcing that dinner was served. As we moved through chatting to the various guests, I couldn’t help but think that the ladies of the house seemed much older than they were reputed to be especially given the apparent age of their parents.
We entered the dining room with its splendidly set Victorian mahogany polished dining table, the individual places set beautifully with antique cutlery and crystal glasses all shimmering in the bountiful candlelight and our place names set carefully set out alongside the handwritten menus. We gathered at our allocated chairs with staff behind each one. Grace was said, in Latin, by Patricia and, as we went to sit down, our chairs were eased in by the staff.
I chatted to Mrs. Hobley, the wife of the retired manager from the Shrewsbury branch of one of the major banks but the conversation seemed principally to revolve around her arthritis (of which I already knew quite a lot, she being a very regular patient at Crossways) and the similar sufferings of Clarissa, the Hobleys’ aged corgi. Mrs. Gent on my other side – “oh do call me Jenny, you’re not being my doctor now” was more fun and extremely flirtatious but sadly to the point where her alcohol consumption began to make her conversation suggestive. I began to look at the family portraits on the walls of the dining room when Patricia stood up, clapped her hands and announced loudly
“Ladies and Gentlemen, we’ve decided as is traditional at these gatherings that the gentlemen should move places before desserts are served and take a different seat. So if you’d all care to move three seats to your right….”
“I think they call this inter-course adjustment,” Jenny giggled to me before blushing bright red. I moved on smiling and trying not to laugh at the joke which I had heard before several times – but only at medical dinners.
I saw Helen looking across at me and rolling her eyes as she was about to be seated next to dear Mr. Hobley and no doubt shortly be assailed by tales of his angina as well as his wife’s arthritis and Clarissa’s ailments. I realised that I was about to be placed next to Patricia Bridges who gestured to me to sit down.
“So I trust you are enjoying yourself, Doctor,” Patricia.
“Yes, very much,” I replied, trying not to pull a face. “But tell me, I don’t think I’ve seen you or your sister at our surgery. You are looked after – medically – I assume.”
As soon as I spoke I saw an unmistakable look of angst cross Patricia’s face. She averted her eyes and then stumbled,
“Well, no, you wouldn’t have done…. You see we rely on a private physician from town. He comes down and sees us every few months to check us over.”
“What you have a private doctor from Winchester?”
“No, no, dear boy, London of course. Dr Wade’s father and his grandfather before him were the family physicians. Consulting rooms in Harley Street, you know, so we’re in good hands.”
“But what about emergency care? We all suffer infections and the like that can strike from time to time, especially in winter. You don’t need to rely on Harley Street doctors to come to your assistance. And if there was an accident?”
I sensed a mixture of irritation and tension in Patricia but seemingly driven by a growing angst as she clearly didn’t like my line of questioning which, from my side, was driven as much by natural curiosity as concern for a couple of delightful elderly ladies within our town and within our surgery’s catchment area. I decided to change the subject.
“So, I understand you and your sister have always lived here and the Hall has been the seat of the Bridges family for many years.”
Patricia visibly relaxed now the questioning was back on neutral ground.
“Yes, indeed, the Hall was first built by Sir Holroyd Bridges in about 1625 from the profits of the tobacco trade with the Colony of Virginia but it was enlarged and remodelled to create the current layout by General Sir Jefferson Bridges who was my great grandfather. That was back in the Victorian era hence the sober decoration and panelling of the interior. And then my father, whose portrait you’ve seen in the drawing room added the orangery, as he called it, in which we are now seated to give space for formal dinners. Oh, we used to have such wonderful dinners when my parents were alive.” Patricia was almost shrieking with mirth and beginning to attract nervous glances from Francesca. “ I remember Lloyd George coming to dine one evening – there’s a picture of Francesca and me on his knees somewhere.”
But the more she talked, my brain, with its admittedly limited knowledge of history, began to recall that Lloyd George belonged to the first half of the twentieth century. That coupled with her description of her father’s early 1900s army uniform and her mother’s dress in the portrait made me begin to doubt her mental state as she seemed to be living in a past age – one long before she could have been born. And yet, if they were her real mother and father….
For several days I struggled with the problem and grew frustrated that the Bridges sisters were not registered as patients at the surgery so I could not check their ages and a search of the NHS database failed to reveal any information. Then, a week or so later, I searched the Medical Register…. Dr. Wade from Harley Street, I dimly recalled Patricia mentioning his name. I searched but no luck but then putting the name and street into Google I chanced upon something.
“Doctors Wade of Harley Street, London W1 – the Wade family of Harley Street were a well-known family of private medical practitioners based at number 52 Harley Street for many generations. The practice was founded in or about 1830 by Dr. Cornelius Henry Wade who studied medicine at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge and at Papworth Hospital in the early years of the nineteenth century. Through the patronage of his father, Lord Wade of Skillingshaw, the renowned military General, Wade soon developed a lucrative practice attending to upper class military patients.” I skimmed the next two paragraphs until I came to,
“The last member of the family to carry on the Practice was Dr. Henry Wallace Wade, who studied medicine at University College, Oxford and the John Radcliffe Infirmary, joining the practice under his father, Herbert, in 1971. Upon Herbert’s retirement in 1974, Henry Wade carried on the practice, eschewing modern practice methods, until his untimely death in 2009 in a car accident whilst returning one morning from visiting elderly patients in Hampshire.”
I sat back feeling confused. The good Doctor Wade had been dead for just over ten years and had obviously been killed returning from, one presumed, an overnight stay at Calverly Hall. Surely Patricia and Francesca would have known about the death. And they couldn’t have gone without any medical treatment for all this time, not at their obviously advanced age.
I asked one or two of the staff at the Surgery if they knew anything about the Bridges to be met with shakes of the head except Jenny from the dispensary,
“My Dad used to do odd casual work up in the garden at the Hall after he retired. He always said the Hall had a weird feel to it as if the ladies were living in a – well – time warp as he used to say. They belonged to the past. Same went for the household staff too. Dad said most of them were like frozen waxworks.”
“And he recalled another odd thing – the mother, Lady Olivia, would appear at the windows and yet she must have been dead these past fifty or sixty years.”
“Was your father sure it was Lady Olivia?”
“Oh quite, he was once admitted to the front drawing room and saw the portrait of her Ladyship. Recognised her straightaway.”
“To top it all,” Jenny continued now happily in full flow and ignoring the telephone much to a colleague’s obvious annoyance, “the household never bought, never buy any supplies in from the town, no meat, no veg, no fruit, no nothing. We just assumed it’s all grown in the garden or bought in from somewhere else. The Bridges make no use of the local community except to invite people for these strange dinners from time to time but don’t know why. Never do anything for the town. Just not visible as if they don’t really exist.”
I must admit to forgetting about the conversation for a few months due to pressure of work until one balmy evening in late May I was walking home from the local hospice after attending a little party for the retiring manager. Unaccountably, being distinctly non-religious, I decided to take a shortcut through the local churchyard. The light was beginning to fade as I marched up the main path that led to the gate onto the field that lay behind my home. As I drew level with the back of the church the Bridges family memorial loomed large and, at that moment, a figure materialised out of the monument which I recognised from the portrait in the Hall as being Lady Olivia complete with high necked dress and jewellery. Transfixed I watched the figure glide across the churchyard along the path which led to the Church car park and which still had a space traditionally reserved for the Bridges family. As I watched, two other figures approached from the car park gate, each wearing so far as I could tell a hat and coat and carrying furled umbrellas. The first figure stopped, greeted the two arrivals from the car park with kisses on their cheeks whereupon Lady Olivia proffered an arm to each of the other two and they walked together to the memorial and, as they passed, the nearest turned towards me. Patricia nodded an acknowledgment and then along with her mother and, I assumed, Francesca disappeared into the memorial.
I arrived in surgery the next morning to find Jenny and one or two of the other staff deep in animated conversation.
“Have you heard, Doctor? The old ladies at the Hall have vanished along with the staff….”
“What died? All of them? Surely that’s not possible.”
“Well nobody knows – they all just seem to have vanished into thin air. There’s nobody there at all. Apparently the Police are up at the Hall now trying to work out what’s happened.”