So that was it.  All she got was half a day’s notice and then packed off to Harrington Hall.  Apparently to stay for the duration of the project.  Jen had been off on secondment many times in the past, and there was little to miss at home after all.  However, she’d never had to go at such short notice, nor with so little information on what would be needed when she got there.  Brian really had no idea.  All he could or would tell her was that Lord Ambrose needed his library cataloguing.  He’d been frustratingly hazy on the details.  Even more maddening was the knowledge that he wouldn’t even be able to make an educated guess about what might be involved, not having any actual field experience.  She wondered, yet again, how one became a manager without having a shred of knowledge or experience of the thing he was managing.  It was infuriating!

Jen’s idea of how much might be in the library and how long this was likely to take was being revised upwards the further she drove past the crumbing but unbroken wall that enclosed the Harrington estate.  Eventually, she found a gatehouse that led through the wall, and turned her car through the entrance and onto the estate.

The sun beat down out of the clear, cerulean sky on to her battered little car as it rattled its way along the road.  The parkland either side rolled away in still green waves, with trees dotted here and there, and not a great deal else.  Just as she was about to despair of ever seeing Harrington Hall, there it was.

It squatted in a slight dip in the landscape.  It was surrounded by trees, which extended behind it to form a dense wood that continued out of sight over the next roll in the terrain.  Whoever had built this place had liked their privacy.  The house and gardens proper were set inside another wall – higher and in much better repair than its counterpart around the estate was.  Tall, forbidding iron gates set into a sturdy stone arch barred Jen’s way as she reached the entrance, and she found unbidden thoughts of prisons and mysterious, dangerous castles in the wilderness coming into her head.  She shook them off with a wry smile at her overactive imagination as she pulled up at the gates and got out of the car.  She approached what she assumed was the intercom to the house – a shiny silver box with a grille on the front that was fixed to one side of the arch.  However, before she reached it, the gates began to swing open silently, apparently of their own accord.  Jen quickly got back into her car and drove through.  As soon as she had done so, the gates swung back again, closing with the faintest clang behind her.  She drove on through the trees lining the drive the house loomed higher and higher as she got closer.  It seemed to be a standard country house affair, squarely facing the drive, with the large main body of the house flanked by two wings extending to enclose a courtyard at the front, dominated by a huge and ornate elevated portico.  As she drove up, she caught glimpses of gardens extending to the sides and rear of the house, with various other buildings visible here and there.  She surmised these to be the buildings used by estate workers for storage, workshops and possibly stables.  Arriving in the deserted courtyard, Jen turned off the engine and got out of her car once again.  She was hit by an eerie wall of still silence that seemed to slither over her ears.  She couldn’t even hear any birds in the trees that surrounded the place.  She couldn’t see or hear a soul, but she decided that the best course of action would be to get her equipment out of the boot and simply go and knock on the massive double doors that dominated the portico.

Inside the house, a booming knock echoed around the entrance hall as the ridiculously heavy knocker hit the even more ridiculously heavy front door.  In response, an aproned figure hurried out from the shadows at the rear of the hall, under the stairs that dominated the vast space and ran up to split into a gallery that went right around the walls.  The figure made its way across the marble floor, wiping its hands on its apron and muttering to itself about the stupidity of people who come to the front door when there’s no wedding, funeral, party or any other occasion to warrant the fight to open it that would ensue.  “Hang on!” the figure shrilled as the struggling with bolts and handle and massive dead weight began.  Finally, with a huge wrench, the door was opened, swinging ponderously wide to reveal a small, slightly disheveled figure standing on the other side.

They looked each other up and down, Jen taking in the black hair with white streak at the temple pulled into a loose bun, penetrating eyes, flour-dusted arms, apron and sensible shoes, the other taking in Jen’s jeans, t-shirt, trainers, bags, and cases.  The floury woman said, “You’re early – we weren’t expecting you until tomorrow.”

Jen blinked.  Then she said, “I’m sorry – there must have been some confusion.  My boss told me to be here today – said Lord Harrington-Harrington needed the job done straight away, as soon as possible and at the earliest opportunity.”  She made a face.  “He says things like that a lot.”

The floury woman frowned and looked puzzled.

“I’ve bought all the gear I should need,” Jen continued, indicating the various bags and cases piled up on the portico “So if you wouldn’t mind showing  me where the library is, I can get set up.”

The face under the black hair frowned more deeply, and then cleared in realisation.  “Oh – you’re the archivist from the museum?”

Jen smiled and nodded, extending her hand to shake.  “Jennifer Alexander.”

The older woman shook the proffered hand, saying, “Oh, I’m so sorry – I thought you were someone else.  I’m Margaret Pica – housekeeper to his lordship.  Pleased to meet you, Miss Alexander.”

Jen grimaced and said, “Please call me Jen, Mrs Pica – Miss Alexander makes me sound like a primary school teacher.”

“Only if you call me Mags, dear – almost everybody else does.” said Mags, with a smile.

“Done!” said Jen, with an answering smile.  “Can you show me where I’ll be working, please?  Then I can come and get my stuff to set up and get the lie of the land.  I’m afraid my boss wasn’t very specific when he assigned me to this.  He just said that I’d be cataloguing the contents of the library.”

“Oh, don’t worry about that, dear” said Mags.  She turned to shout over her shoulder.  “Rick – could you come and lend a hand please, dear?”  She turned back to Jen.  “Let’s get you settled in your room first, shall we dear?  There’s no need to rush.  So much more civilised this way around, too.”  As she said this, another figure emerged from the shadows at the back of hall.  It proved to be that of a tallish man who had the look of one who spent most of his time keeping out of other peoples’ way.  There was a slightly hunted look in his dark eyes, and a wary set to his mouth.  In addition, curiously, bits of straw were sticking out from his thick, dark hair and well-worn clothes.  As he came nearer, Jen detected a sweet, grassy smell and concluded that some of the buildings she’d glimpsed on her way in probably were stables.  It was logical for a place this size to have them, after all.  “I bet he talks to the horses than he does humans,” she thought as he was picking up boxes and bags transport to the library, as per Mags’s request, not meeting Jen’s eye.  As he did so, Mags led Jen (who was carrying the rucksack that contained her personal stuff) towards the back of the hall saying, “Now then, Jen dear, I believe we’ll go this way.  You have a room in the east wing, fairly near to the library, but I want to show you where it is via the kitchen, so you can find it at mealtimes and suchlike.”

Having shown Jen around the cavernous kitchen and told her to help herself, Mags led Jen through a small part of the maze of the house, up and down stairs, through doors and along corridors, towards the room that had been prepared for her.  Jen, having no sense of direction, was beginning to wonder if she would ever be able to find her way anywhere ever again when Mags opened a door on to what looked like one of the main corridors of the house, with a large picture window at the end.  She led the way to the end, opening a door to reveal a medium sized room with – joy! – an en-suite bathroom complete with a sink, toilet, bath and fabulously ancient shower.  The bedroom contained a bed, chair, dressing table, wardrobe and a window with a beautiful view over the trees to the parkland beyond.

As Jen wandered along the corridor from her room to the library, she reflected that at least she wouldn’t have far to go to work in the morning.  She found all of her bags and boxes there already, and sent a silent thank you to Rick for being around and lugging this lot in here.  She had not been looking forward to doing it herself.  She turned around and surveyed the library with something close to despair.  There were hundreds, if not thousands of books here – it was going to take weeks, if not months to get through this lot.  She sighed with resignation at the enormity of the task ahead of her, not even bothering to curse Brian.  It would be a waste of energy, after all.  She opened the large windows that ran along one wall of the room, then turned back and began to set up her workstation, thinking she now probably had some sort of insight into what Sisyphus must have felt, looking up that mountain every day.

Some while later, a chattering noise startled Jen and made her look up from her work.  There was a magpie on the deep windowsill of the library, seemingly about to hop through the open window.  Jen stopped short, hand on her heart, and tried to get her breathing under control.  It would be a dreadful thing for both bird and books if it did come in, given what often happened if a bird got trapped and distressed.  She remembered the time a pigeon had accidentally got into the museum and had crapped all over several of the exhibits before they had finally managed to catch it.  Fortunately, those exhibits had been protected by glass display cases.  The books in this library had no such defence.  Moreover, bird shit was notoriously acidic.  This bird didn’t look like it would be distressed if it were trapped, though.  Just bloody furious.  It looked fairly grumpy to begin with – chattering fiercely whilst doing its peculiar old-man strut and flicking its iridescent tail in counterpoint.  It regarded her balefully, and then started to turn and raise its wings as if to fly in through the window.  “No!  Don’t do that, you silly bird!” Jen shouted, raising her hands and starting towards the window in the hope of frightening it the other way.  Amazingly, it stopped and regarded her again.  Then it cocked its head and, very clearly, said “Bollocks!” in a queer, grating crow-voice, before turning and flying away.

Jen stared after it in amazement. Then she ran to the window to see if it had landed nearby.  It had.  What it had actually landed on was Mags’s hand, who was standing in the kitchen garden below the library window, surveying the vegetables.  “Mags?”  She called.  Mags turned to look up, shading her eyes against the glare of the afternoon sun with her free hand.

“Yes, dear?”

“That bird just swore at me!” called Jen, indignantly.

“Yes, dear – they do that.  I’m so sorry. I don’t know who taught them to do that, but I have my suspicions.”  She glowered darkly at a collection of sheds at the far end of the garden.

“What do you mean, they…?  Oh!”  For she had glanced up at the walls surrounding the garden.  There were several more magpies gathered on the coping stones above where Mags was standing, chattering and hopping about.  It looked almost like they were playing a game of tag, the way they were plucking at each other’s tail feathers.

Mags glanced up at them, a fond smile on her face, then back to Jen.  “Pretty, aren’t they?  Cheeky little devils, though.  Mob you if they think you’ve got anything edible.  It’s my own fault, I suppose – shouldn’t feed them.  Mind you, they do keep the slugs and things down, which is marvelous for the vegetables.”

“Oh…  Good.” Said Jen, weakly, and pulled her head back in through the window.

Later on, sitting at the table in the vast kitchen, Mags told Jen how she’d begun feeding a pair of magpies a few years ago.  The small flock that now hung around swearing at people and teasing the local squirrels were probably their extended family.  “Such beautiful creatures,” she sighed “and so unfairly hated.  Cats do more damage to the songbird population than magpies ever could.  And nobody has a go at sparrow hawks and peregrine falcons for eating those foolish, twittering things.”  Mags frowned, shook her head, and then smiled.  “Sorry, dear – it’s my own private niggle.  I shouldn’t bother you with it.”

“Oh no, that’s fine!” smiled Jen.  “Really, I love magpies too.  It just gave me a bit of a turn to see one appear at the window – and then swear at me!”  She shook her head in amazement.

Mags’s smile turned rueful “Yes – they can do an astonishing amount of things; including mimicry.  Though I do wish they wouldn’t mimic whoever taught them to curse like that.”

“Who do you think it was?”

“I suspect Dave, the gardener.  He’s such a scoundrel – he’d do it just for the devilment of it.  I think he spends too much time in those sheds of his, breathing in fumes from weed killer and creosote and goodness knows what else.”

“Sounds like a bit of a character.” observed Jen.

“Oh, he is that, all right!  He’s got character coming out of his ears.  I just wish that he would keep it to himself, sometimes.”

“So who else works here?  Apart from you, Dave and… Rick, is it?  The quiet one who took my stuff upstairs?  I haven’t seen anyone else.  Surely you can’t keep a place the size of this running with just three people?”

Mags laughed.  “Oh heavens, no dear!  There are a few more of us – I’m sure you’ll meet them in due course.  Most of them are part time, though, they live in the village on the other side of the wood.  Actually, it’s surprisingly easy to run this place with minimal staff.  Most of the rooms are shut up and shrouded in dustsheets.  I do regular inspections to make sure they’re still in good order, but most of the time, only a few areas of the house are in use at a time.  Dave has a couple of under-gardeners to help him keep the grounds in order, and Rick manages the stables almost single-handedly – he just has a groom who comes in twice a week to give him a break.  Mind you,” she mused, “he doesn’t really rest then, either.  He spends so much time with those horses that they sometimes seem to think he is one.  If we have any major events to organise, I hire help from outside.  But mostly, it’s just us, the family when they are around, and a few part-timers.  I’m sure you’ll meet everyone eventually.  Most of them have got the day off today, anyway.  Just Rick and me to hold the fort since his lordship’s away.”

“Oh – I was wondering where Lord Harrington-Harrington was” said Jen.  “Somehow, I assumed he’d be around to give me some idea of how he wants this job doing.”

Mags snorted.  “You’d better think again, dear – his lordship doesn’t do that sort of thing.  He pays us to do it for him.”

“Oh, I see,” said Jen, thinking “Oh good – that kind of aristocrat.”

“Never mind, dear, I’m sure I can be of some use.  I’ve been dusting the wretched things for years now, after all – and I’ve certainly sneaked a peep or two in my time.  Not that it did me any good, though.  There are an awful lot of account ledgers in there.  Some of them go back a couple of hundred years.  Deadly boring, I’m afraid.”

Jen sighed.