This story is by Susan M. Perkins and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
A Voice Crying in the Wilderness
The noise Jenny Bartram made brought the careers teacher to her side – school libraries were supposed to be quiet places.
Watching her flick through a lavish brochure about property and investments, he’d already decided she was more interested in the pictures than in the text. Now, over the girl’s shoulder, he read: ‘Hadley Hall, with its surrounding landscape, is the architect John Bartram’s major achievement.’
Jenny pointed to the surname.
The teacher picked up a pencil and wrote. ‘Look him up later, in Private Study. You’re supposed to be researching careers!’
Ignoring him, Jenny read on. ‘Robert Hadley used money from Barbadian sugar plantations to build the Hall. His heir supported William Wilberforce and abolition, aiming to remove the taint of slavery from the family’s wealth. Always astute and moving with the time, the Hadleys still live in this gem among English country houses. The current Lord Hadley oversees the Estate. The house and grounds are open to the public…’
A light flashed, a buzzer sounded. The end of the lesson. Quickly, Jenny copied Hadley Hall’s website address below the teacher’s admonition.
In the long summer holidays, Jenny persuaded her parents to take her to Hadley Hall. They explored the grounds, lunched in the tea room and – finally – began their tour of the house.
Jenny’s father signed the visitors’ book. ‘All right if my daughter takes a picture of me next to that?’ He pointed at the interpretation board displaying a likeness of the eighteenth-century architect.
The attendant looked down at his signature. ‘Another John Bartram, eh? Go ahead, sir.’
John posed for Jenny. ’You t’ink me look more like ’im if me wear a wig?’ he asked facetiously, to tease his wife, but she stalked away. From the stairs she beckoned Jenny to follow.
‘Well, sir, perhaps I do see a likeness around the eyes…’ The attendant winked at him.
Still laughing at his own joke, John plodded up the carved oak staircase to where his wife and daughter gazed out of the gallery windows at the lake, the parkland and the woods beyond. ‘Waay, man! Better than what I see from the cab of the bus.’
‘Slavery and sugar,’ hissed his wife. ‘That’s its history. Ours as well! Does it look beautiful when you know that?’
Jenny looked at her mother. What had she said?
‘Leave the girl be,’ John murmured. ‘Her life’ll be plenty hard enough.’ He put his arms around his daughter. ‘You like it?’ She leaned against his comfortable bulk and they stood together, neither talking, enjoying the glitter of the lake, the reflected clouds and the colours of the trees outside.
On the way home she began to map out her future.
That night she dreamed of the house, the parkland, the lake, the woods.
Almost twenty years later, Jenny moved quietly through the Hadley woods, noticing which trees were still in bud, where a hedgehog had left its nest after hibernation. Was she brave enough, could she take the risk she had planned?
From across the lake, the Hall glowed at her, its reflection distorted in the ruffles made by the March breeze. ‘You belong here. You know this place,’ was the message it sent.
Reassured, she began the return to her car. Climbing a rickety stile, she grasped at a nearby branch for balance and winced as the hawthorn spikes pierced the leather gloves her mother had given her for Christmas.
If only there was someone who really understood her, understood her ambition – someone she could talk to. Her parents loved her, but sometimes she needed more. She tried to control the doubting voice in her head.
‘Don’t think like that, don’t think like that. Think about what you HAVE achieved,’ she told herself.
She remembered why she decided to study History and Biology at school, why she undertook the painful practical work that earned her certificates for building stone walls and laying hedges. Her first-class degree in nature conservation had been achieved through persistent diligence. In her folder she had up-to-date permits to use a chainsaw and to work at height in trees. The Master’s in laws relating to public access and countryside education for urban people had not been easy. She held a driving licence and a shotgun licence, could smell fox and badger and identify otter spraint. Birdsong was her weakest area, but her eyesight was keen and she recognised flight patterns.
’Jenny Bartram, there can be no one better qualified than you to be the Nature Conservancy Access Manager of the Hadley Estate.’ She had to be her own inner mentor. ‘You know this place like the back of your hand. You’ve been a volunteer here for five years, worked in the woods for three – they’ve called you for interview. Go in and get it!’
Not until she was in her car could she still the doubting voice. She always gave driving her full attention.
Fifteen minutes later, she reversed into a parking place outside an elegant Georgian terraced house. On the dark green door was a brass plate: Hadley Estate Registered Office.
A man watched her from the top of the stone steps.
‘Oi! You can’t park there!’ he shouted.
Jenny was locking the car door, her back to him, and she jumped when he took hold of her shoulder.
‘Din’t you ’ear me? This is private.’
‘They said I could. I’ve an appointment.’
He looked baffled. ‘Come again?’
She spoke slowly and as clearly as she could. ‘An appointment.’
He shook his head. ‘Sorry,’ he said, ‘I can’t understand what you’re saying.’
In desperation she pulled out three things from her briefcase: a laminated printed card, a pen and a large pad of yellow post-it notes. She passed him the laminated card. ‘I am profoundly deaf’ it stated.
She wrote on a post-it, held it out to him and took back the card.
He read, moving his lips. ‘I am Jenny Bartram. I have an appointment with the Estate office. I was told I could park here.’
‘Oh,’ he said. ‘You don’t look like someone with an appointment here. Why din’t you say?’
Flustered and suddenly very nervous, Jenny mounted the steps to the Hadley Estate office. She knew who would interview her. Lord Hadley, Piers Marlett, the Estate Manager and Verity LeSect, in charge of Public Relations.
‘There can be no one better qualified,’ she told herself.
Lord Hadley wore a large pink hearing aid behind each ear.
‘You’re the girl who was volunteering and then got taken on as a woodland operative, aren’t you? I’ve seen you about. You’ll have to speak up. I’m pretty deaf.’
This was her opening. She handed him the laminated card.
Well,’ he said, ‘that’s a facer. Always been deaf?’
She hoped she had lip-read correctly. ’Yes,’ she replied. ‘It was caused by medicine they gave my mother when she was pregnant.’
Lord Hadley looked at the others. ‘What did she say?’
While Verity was writing it down for him, Jenny took out her statement from her briefcase and handed copies across the table
There could be no going back now.
‘I knew Lord Hadley is hard of hearing, so I wrote down why I think you should give me the job. There can be no one better qualified.’
She’d said it out loud to them.
She began to read: ’This historic place is in Lord Hadley’s blood. An astute man, he moves with the times. Using the terms “access” and “nature conservancy” shows that. Your aim is to widen the range of visitors the Estate attracts while preserving everything special in its surroundings. Look at my qualifications – they are perfect. And my history can help you attract people who feel there’s nothing here for them.’
She paused, took a deep breath and read on. ‘My family comes from Barbados. My ancestors made Lord Hadley’s ancestors rich. I already work on the Estate, though in a low-paid job well below what I am qualified for. Is that because I’m a woman, or deaf, or black?’
All three were focused, startled, listening. ‘You need me. I have always been deaf and I have always been black, but I am no longer dumb. If you take me on, you will be making reparation and reducing the taint of slavery on this place.’
Her voice and her hands were shaking.
She saw Lord Hadley say something to Verity, who passed him a folder labelled ‘Jenny Bartram’.
‘Go back and wait in reception,’ he told her.
Piers stood up and courteously ushered her out.
She waited. At last Piers reappeared.
‘Will you take the job on a year’s probation? That’s what he’s going to offer.’
‘No way,’ she said. ‘I’ve done my probation. I will not live the rest of my life in silence. If I don’t get it, the world will hear.’
‘Go in and tell him,’ said Piers.
He held open the door.