Shabby Chic

Copyright © Isabella Dalzell 2017. All RIghts Reserved.

“Drat the man!”


My heart sinks as I watch the embers fall in upon themselves. The coal bucket is empty. The oil was turned off weeks ago. Moving towards the library window, I glance out over the lawns, searching for any sign of Watson coming back laden with logs. How the Colonel expects me to survive without central heating and hot running water is beyond me. But that’s the point, don’t you see? Dear old Claude wants me out. After all I’ve done to this house and all we have been to each other, is it too much to ask that I remain living here?


Looking around the room, I am pleased with my handiwork-the ample rose silk sofas and elegant drapes; the faded, shabby chic (yes, it was I who invented that) painted walls. I transformed this place. Ronald got it on a repair lease, but it was I who had the vision. The first estate house to install radiators, central heating and hot running water. The Lord only knows how we survived until then. Why, I was the first to build in en-suites and power points. Indeed, the first to install electricity and gas. I brought it up to the standards that we Americans expect, dragged it out of the medieval age. Why, when we first entered the house through the great double doors into the grand hallway, the gloom was almost impenetrable. The walls were covered with hideous shields, garnished with the most unutterably florid coats of arms. Ghastly. And the heads of departed deer, complete with antlers were strung up all over the place! My dear!


There were some fine pieces, I will admit, like the crystal chandeliers, but even those were festooned with cobwebs. And I don’t think the place had ever seen a lick of paint.


“Nancy,” Ronnie said to me, “I give you carte blanche.”


Well, carte blanche I took. Out with the mahogany panelling and clanking armour. Down to London to select the finest silks and velvets. As you know, I hate anything to look not lived in or comfortable, so we threw the materials on the lawn and weathered them in the rain to make them look authentically aged. I can’t abide pretension and over-dressing. So spiritless. Roped in my favourite decorator, Mrs Bethell, and together we worked out a scheme to make this the smartest, most up-to-date stately home in the country. It’s not the biggest, I give you that, but we gave them a run for their money, all right. Frightened half the Dukes in England to death; worried that their wives would be clamouring for the same, soon enough. Who could give a house party and expect their guests to take a bath in front of the fire after visiting Kelmarsh?


I wander from room to room, trying to keep warm. Here is the Saloon, empty of guests now, but the echoes of my cousin tinkling the ivories and singing her witty, satirical songs ring out in my memory. Dear Joyce. Those uproarious monologues! What times we had! I can just see Noel, leaning over the white piano, reciting one of his ditties as we sat tittering with laughter in our extravagant finery. On hot summer evenings we would throw open the long French windows capped with their Romanov Eagles and hold cocktail parties out there on the terrace. And now that sweeping vista down to the lake is frozen with ice, crystal droplets sparkling in the winter light. Better not linger.
Into the yellow drawing room now, those plush, yet comfortable sofas flanking the fireplace. We ladies would withdraw here to sip our after-dinner drinks and chatter, perhaps gazing at its wistful paintings of the seas during a lull in conversation, whilst the men finished their port in the old schoolroom. We call it that, but it’s really a dining room, its walls darkly green, the silverware glittering on the polished mahogany dining table. I found a set of six card tables at a sale and pushed them together, there was nothing here when we came. Nothing much left by way of inheritance. A rental property, you might say.


And now I find myself back in the hallway. My beautiful, graceful Grand Entrance, with its soaring ceiling and walls reminiscent of a Tuscan palazzo, painted soft pink and white, the sun bringing out the patina of the aged oak doors and the silk peach sofas glowing in the evening light beside the two fireplaces. I still insist on the huge displays of flowers from the garden, in their giant Chinese porcelain vases, in front of the mirrors. The glaze is artfully cracked and yellowed. There! Everything looks so much better by candlelight. Even when I’m alone, I like to re-evoke the atmosphere of happier times by lighting the tapers and keeping the flowers fresh. You never know who may drop by. Here, Ronnie and I would greet them after their return from the hunt. We used to host it as a political gesture, the best route into being voted an MP around here, you know, get in with the locals. Roaring fires, trays of sherry and brandy to warm them up. The laughter! Splendid days. Quite splendid.


And now I find myself in the small breakfast room, admiring the huge canvas of the steeplechase. This is where we would all plot the route of the hunt over kedgeree and kippers. The conversations! Nobody knows how to talk to one another these days. Well, you just wouldn’t get the guests. People from all walks; politicians, artists, moguls from America and the Middle East, film stars, Russian emigres on the run from the Bolsheviks, trailing their diamonds and fur wraps, puffing on their lacquered cigarette holders. So elegant.


Moving into the ballroom, I can’t help but feel a twinge of sadness as I admire my beautiful long windows, with their watered silk drapery, just a step away from the terrace. I recall our jazz parties and the girls, glowing from the chandelierd candlelight, stepping through the open sashes to cool off after a dance, saucy in their flapper skirts, feathered headbands and twirling pearls. And my beautiful pistachio-coloured walls setting off the pale oak shutters to perfection.


But that was before we moved to Ditchley and he broke the marriage vows and ran off with his floozy, of course. But I had the last laugh. At least, I thought I had, marrying the actual owner of Kelmarsh, Colonel Claude Lancaster himself. What a hoot! Didn’t last though, we were better off as lovers. And now he does this to me.


No, I don’t think I can bear to look into the antechamber again, so empty now. Nor the Chinese Room. We had the embroidered silk wallpaper imported from another house, you know. Along with the enamelled cabinet and carved screen. Fits so well you’d think it had been made for the place. I often used to ponder the stories of those little Chinamen and women walking across the room, carrying their pails, with their pigtails, in their ancient sophistication. It’s freezing in here, despite the evening light. I wonder if Betsy has managed to rustle up anything for dinner? Best get back to the library, where at least there’s a fire. Perhaps a glass of sherry, to keep up the spirits. Perhaps I’ll telephone Lavinia.


The light has quite disappeared now, and even with the tapers lit it’s cold and gloomy and I can’t see to read. My feet are like blocks of ice. Watson brought back thin pickings from the woods, and so it was just a cold supper. It’s no good. I feel marooned here; it’s turning into a mausoleum; I couldn’t possibly invite anybody down, as it is. The dratted man has won. I’ll get the train tomorrow. But I’m not through. I’m just through with this.