‘Now, it’s funny you should say that!’ Harry Bellingham would often exclaim, his energetic blue eyes flitting about the pub, belying a man in his late fifties. And we would gather around in the bar of the Golden Lion to hear his stories of corporate dogfights and personal escapades, and of social circles that were remote and unknown to us.
Harry came to the village of Snow Hill about three years ago, painting a picture of himself as a Midlands boy made good. He seemed to know an awful lot of people in the right places.
‘I thought you should know, ladies and gentlemen,’ Harry’s loud, but articulate voice, together with the firm clunk of his glass on the oak bar, grabbed our attention. ‘I am now a Lord. Lord Harold Bellingham of Snow Hill. That’s my formal title, of course, but you’re all my dear friends and can call me Lord Harry.’
It must have only been three months after Harry had moved into the village. I must confess I was nonplussed.
Undeterred, Harry promptly raised his glass of beer in salutation, and somebody, I believe it may have been Phil Knowles, raised his glass and cheered, ‘Lord Harry!’ With that response, the situation had become somewhat awkward, but hesitantly we all raised our glasses and repeated, ‘Lord Harry!’
‘How can you become a lord overnight?’ Dave Andrews whispered. His words were either unheard or ignored.
From then on, he was Lord Harry. Nobody thought twice about it.
‘I’m going to completely transform Snow Hill Manor,’ Lord Harry had promised. ‘It’s a dump. I shall rebuild it and make it the focal point of the estate. And invite guests to clay pigeon shooting or quad biking or horse-riding or fishing, and such things. ‘
‘Since when has that farmhouse been a manor?’ Once more, it was Dave’s whispered question, but again unheard or ignored.
However, Lord Harry was good to his word. He engaged Henry Beck to complete the structural work at Snow Hill Manor, and build an extension and swimming pool. Geoff Potts came to the pub most Fridays to provide an update on his electrical works. Several farmers who had experienced cash-flow issues became less burdened when they sold surplus plots of land to Harry.
Wishing to provide suitably grandiose surroundings for his guests, Harry subsequently filled the house with antique guns, stuffed animals, and similar paraphernalia.
I know it might sound strange now, but at the time, no-one could have guessed what was going to happen.
Lord Harry had been working on the manor for some nine months when there was another revelation in the Golden Lion.
‘Let me introduce you to Lady Denise!’ Harry announced.
Lady Denise nodded, demurely, saying nothing. It was not an inspiring introduction.
Denise was completely different from Lord Harry. Nobody minded calling him Lord Harry but calling her Lady Denise stuck in the craw. Lord Harry would arrive in the pub, dressed simply in a shirt and pullover, perhaps with a casual jacket, if he had come from a meeting in the city. Lady Denise was always dressed up to the nines. Always wearing a posh frock and decorated with jewels, glittering like a Christmas tree. She had a way of flicking at her elegantly styled, blond hair to reveal a diamond earring or fidgeting with an expensive necklace. She would reach over the bar, making sure to show off her gold bracelets and leaving behind the scent of sweet, expensive perfume. To us, Lord Harry fitted in; Lady Denise stuck out like a sore thumb.
Like oil and water, Lady Denise could not mix with the clientele at the Golden Lion, nor with the rest of the villagers for that matter. She dressed as she behaved. As if she were going to the opera or the theatre or a charity ball, not popping down the local for a drink. Lord Harry patronized the pub several times a week, whilst Denise visited much less frequently, and only ever with Harry present.
When the renovations had been completed, Lord Harry invited us to a party at Snow Hill Manor. When I say we, I mean the whole of the village. We all went: the vicar, the postman, the local farmers, the lot. It was a highly enjoyable day. A summer’s afternoon, in beautiful sunshine. There was more food and drink than you could consume in a week. The warm air was suffused with the smell of fresh roasting meat.
And the house was imposing. I walked through the cavernous hallway, across a marble floor and into a kitchen equipped with stainless steel units that looked as clean and professional as you might see in those Michelin-starred restaurants on the television.
There was a series of sliding glass doors opening out onto the garden, in which there was an army of chairs and other furniture for the guests. I spent most of the afternoon and evening relaxing outside in one of those chairs, but some of the others who had ventured further inside would later talk about crystal chandeliers, gold-plated taps, and marble statues, as well as antique guns and stuffed animals.
I think that when we left that party, we all regarded him as the true Lord Harry of Snow Hill.
Everything proceeded smoothly for six months or so. Lord Harry became the chair of the village flower show. He provided the village bonfire night celebration in one of his nearby fields. He continued to develop Snow Hill Manor by building a summer house.
Then events took a turn.
Lord Harry always drank a lot; it showed in his ruddy cheeks. And the more he drank, the taller his tales became and the louder his voice rose. But he had previously stayed in control, convivial and good-humoured. None of us can recall the exact time, but he did start to drink more. And the extra booze tipped Harry over an edge. An edge that made him louder, and less friendly. Angrier. Occasionally, Harry might be thrown out of the pub, and even need the help of a couple of the patrons to escort him the mile or so back to the manor.
One spring evening, I remember our sitting out in the beer garden. Suddenly, Lady Denise screeched up in her black Range Rover. Lord Harry had hardly had any time to move before Lady Denise, as smartly dressed as ever, had opened the car boot, and thrown a holdall onto the grass before us.
‘There’re your things, you cheatin’ drunk bastard!’ she screamed before driving off at speed, the spinning tyres of the Rover spitting out the car park gravel like a machine gun.
‘The little lady’s in a bit of a mood tonight,’ Lord Harry slurred in a jocular tone. He was very drunk and speaking more loudly than he supposed, so we all caught his subsequent, harsher words on retrieving the holdall. ‘Never call me a bastard, bitch!’
Over the following weeks, Lord Harry stayed the night with a number of villagers. He would only ask to stay a night or two with each one, but it became apparent once we had totted up how many people he had stayed with that he was absent from Snow Hill Manor a considerable proportion of the time.
During the same period that he was at odds with Lady Denise, the frequency of Lord Harry’s visits to the Golden Lion also decreased. Not only that, but those employed by him started to report that his payments were becoming erratic.
‘When were you last paid?’ became a question frequently exchanged by some of the pub goers.
We reached the point where some workers would be waiting for Lord Harry in the pub, whilst others would be standing outside Snow Hill Manor itself. They rarely encountered him, and when they did, they found him evasive and sheepish, and although he still promised payment, his customary bravado was lacking.
In short order, Lord Harry had been transformed from the most to the least popular person in Snow Hill. The conversations about his feats and achievements had been replaced by more serious discussions about his financial situation. Of course, we now know the full story, but at the time we were completely in the dark. Some of the workmen had bought expensive house furnishings and had still not been reimbursed.
One evening, the tradesmen were talking in the bar. Many had reached the end of their tether, and they decided to go and confront Lord Harry as a group. As they approached the manor, they saw the lights on, and the cars parked on the driveway. They would not stop banging on the front door until somebody answered.
It was Lady Denise who opened the door. No-one had ever seen her in such a state. A flood of tears had smeared her make up like an abstract painting. There was a rip in the sleeve of her white blouse. She was trembling.
‘This isn’t the right time,’ she stammered.
They were through the front door before she had finished her sentence, finding Lord Harry sitting in the kitchen, surrounded by an array of empty bottles, save for one half empty bottle of whiskey which he was cradling in his arms like a baby.
‘There’s no money!’ Lord Harry moaned in answer to the barked questions of his workmen.
When the clamouring did not stop, Harry spoke once more, ‘There’s no money!’ pointing at a piece of paper lying at the opposite end of the table.
The men crowded around, but it was the joiner, Roger Threlfall who picked the paper up and read aloud.
‘Strictly Private and Confidential. This letter’s from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs… Dear Mr Bellingham…’ The paper trembled in Roger’s hands.
For a moment, we were confused as we had become fully accustomed to Lord Harry and could no longer recall Mr Bellingham.
‘We are writing to you in respect of the amount of income tax owed to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs in the sum of £1,892,305.14.’ Roger continued.
‘£1,892,305.14,’ he repeated. ‘Despite repeated requests, this sum remains outstanding and as such we will be making an application to the court for the seizure of your assets with immediate effect.’
There was a stunned silence, with twelve workers crammed into the kitchen, with the fallen Lord and Lady, surrounded by expensive stainless steel, marble and granite kitchen furniture and a mass of empty bottles.
Lord Harry could not look at us. He put his head in his hands and repeated,
‘There’s no money.’ There was such a finality in his words that nobody else spoke, and one by one we slowly exited the room, even those owed money by him.
We returned to the pub in muted conversation and gathered in the beer garden. It was a lovely, quiet summer evening.
It was ten past ten when we heard the shot ring out.
We are country people and easily recognize the sound of a shotgun being fired. It is a common occurrence. However, this shot seized our attention, stunning us into total silence, as if for a moment the world itself had held its breath.
The police found Denise hysterical in the kitchen, surrounded by shattered glass bottles. Her injuries were not serious.
The police found Harry Bellingham in a nearby field. There was an antique shotgun by his body, together with an empty bottle of whiskey and a plain white envelope addressed to his only child, Jennifer.
The brief inquest delivered a verdict of death by suicide. The note to his daughter was provided in evidence. It was short, and I think we have all memorised it word for word.
‘My dear Jenny, I am so sorry for having done this. I truly wish that you go and live a very long and happy life. I think it was Benjamin Franklin who said that in life there are only two certainties, death and taxes. Death and taxes.’