After the funeral, life settled down quickly for Violet and Donald. Violet wasn’t happy to rest on her laurels for long. Before meeting Donald she had a life plan all mapped out. Getting pregnant at nineteen wasn’t part of that plan. It wasn’t even in the small print at the bottom that said she should always be able to rely on her mother and father for financial help in any unexpected eventuality. Nowhere was unexpected and unfortunate pregnancy mentioned and Violet felt violated.
Donald had worked at Borrowdale Quarry for eight years. He was happy. His friends were there and he got to work outside in the fresh air. He always joked that he had a full membership to the cheapest gym in the country. Situated not far from Derwent Water Lake, he spent eight hours a day playing Peeping Tom to nature at her most alluring. He was a diligent worker and both management and co-workers respected him. His body was brown and taut and his job made going home to Violet just about bearable.
As soon as it was seemly to do so, Violet arranged meetings with estate agents in a thirty-mile radius. They looked at bed and breakfast establishments, public houses and hotels at the cheaper end of the market. Violet saw no reason at all why they shouldn’t commit to four hundred thousand pounds worth of mortgage right away. They were young. They had their whole life ahead of them to pay it off and, with a sizeable down payment from Daddy as a late wedding present, they’d manage. Donald’s head swam. Four hundred pounds was more than he’d ever owed to anybody in his life. Four hundred thousand wasn’t a millstone, it was an entire mill house—and the town surrounding it—tied about his neck. It was in the days when being a millionaire still meant something, and four hundred thousand pounds was a tremendous amount of money. Donald’s protests fell on deaf ears. He couldn’t make Violet see sense. The mortgage companies fared better by simply refusing to fund her whims. She alienated several brokers who had been willing to allow them a more manageable mortgage before finally agreeing to downgrade on her ambition with the bank’s money.
Luck was with them the day they found the small hotel on the outskirts of Windermere itself. It wasn’t on the lake edge as Violet would have liked but otherwise it was beautiful. Structurally it was fairly sound, but it needed a lot of work and modernisation. Mrs Finch, the vendor, was an elderly widow with plenty of money. Since her husband had died some years earlier, she had found it increasingly difficult to manage alone and the good reputation of the hotel had declined. Her glass back was telling her it was time to hang up her apron and let Glenridding Mount go.
For all her bombastic nature, Violet was canny and shrewd. Instinct told her she needed the old lass on side so she turned up her charm oven to four hundred degrees and coated her brusqueness with honey. Each room seemed to her more old-fashioned and dingy than the last. The only place where she felt the ambience of the place was in the immense kitchen fitted with a huge Aga. She was bursting with a desire to voice her plans. Walls out, décor changed, complete overhaul, Little Bird Finch thrown on the scrapheap. But she held herself in check, cooing in all the right places and complementing the vendor on her charming home.
One thing that was genuine was her instant love for the place. Glenridding Mount had Mrs Violet Woods’ name written all over it. She soon had the old crow eating out of her hands.
In the beginning, Donald went along to the viewings reluctantly. He was happy in his work and, frankly, the thought of spending not only his leisure hours but also his workday close to the bosom of his lovely wife appalled him. To an outside eye, Donald Woods appeared to be a wimp, the blueprint of the henpecked husband. Anybody studying the unlikely couple for any time discovered that he only gave his lady so much rope, and when he was ready to reel her in he kept her on a short tether. When the farce began, he had no intention of giving up his job to begin a new trade as a hotelier. It was an occupation that he was untrained for and hadn’t the first clue about how to begin. Some might say it was cruel to let his wife look for something he had no intention of buying her. But the way Donald saw it, Violet was a woman who needed something to occupy her mind. She was somebody who bored easily, and an idle Violet was likely to turn to gossiping, and spouting malice around the town. This way, Violet got to play with her fantasy and Donald got some peace and avoided the relentless nagging about a hotel that they couldn’t afford.
It surprised him more than anybody when he too fell in love with Glenridding Mount. He became enthused with Violet’s plans and found himself adding his own little ideas. Violet had an eye for detail and surprisingly good taste. Donald saw polished floors, restored oak beams and a new bar that he might just feel quite at home behind. He was caught up in the moment. He rode piggyback on Violet’s excitement. The normally frugal and reticent Donald couldn’t believe what he was saying when he heard himself putting in an offer, right there on the first viewing, standing in the kitchen beside the old blue Aga.
Violet couldn’t believe it either. She hadn’t expected that. Donald’s way was to go home and talk it over if she decided to change their brand of toilet roll. He’d clearly been outside in the sun too long but she wasn’t about to knock it. She squealed like a little girl when their modest offer was accepted. She was, after all, not quite twenty. Donald had never seen this side of her. She threw her arms round his neck and hugged him fiercely right there in front of Mrs Finch.
Donald wondered, as if it was the first time that he’d seen them, if Violet had been named for the colour of her eyes. Her plain, ruddy complexion looked softer and pinker. Maybe it’s just the lighting in this old kitchen, he told himself. He surprised himself again with a genuine feeling of affection for his wife. He hugged her to him and felt that, just maybe, they would be happy there.
The hotel sale went through; they had got it for a song. But even in the busy and exciting months ahead, the Wednesday and Sunday rituals remained rigid. Violet would not waver and would not relent. Every Wednesday afternoon she went out at noon and didn’t return until after six. Sunday’s belonged mainly to God. Violet attended Mass twice on a Sunday, Donald refused to be hauled along with her more than once a day. For appearance sake, and to make his wife happy, he attended early Mass, but that was it. That was as far as his religious devotion would extend and he stubbornly refused to budge on it. The other Sunday ritual he would have no part of at all, and nothing Violet said would change his mind.
Right through the bitterly cold winter months, through the delights of spring and into the heavily laden summer, Violent went to the cemetery with flowers every Sunday, immediately after lunch. She would spend an hour at the grave throwing out the previous week’s blooms and arranging the new ones. Grieving relatives talk over their loved ones graves, telling them their news, just feeling close to them. Violet never uttered a word unless to speak to a passerby. She did what she had to do and then knelt at the graveside in prayer. She stayed only as long as she needed to, to be seen doing her duty, and then she left, returning home many hours later after attending to her private business.
Despite being a spoiled brat, hard work came amazingly well to Violet. She had exacting standards, and very shortly after opening, the hotel was booked up months in advance. They were soon in a position to take on more staff. Violet hired and, it has to be said, fired with gusto. As hard as she drove her staff, she drove herself harder, in an almost manic need for perfection.
After their second year, they not only broken even, but their bank balance was healthy enough for expansion. Violet was ambitious, she could never be satisfied with enough and would always want more. They extended once in that year and twice more in the following three years.
Donald found his niche, not as a hotel manager, but as grounds man. He loved the land and tended the acreage with pride. He took to entering competitions with his fresh produce and blooms, and his work and hobby became intermingled. Violet hired a chef and a manager with experience and reputation. The Glenridding Mount Hotel gained a star a year for three consecutive years.
While the Woods’ empire was busy building, things weren’t slacking on the domestic front. Almost nine months to the day of the funeral, Violet bore a son. She saw this as a purely solo endeavour. If she had to admit to Donald having any role to play at all, then it was as an extra, a cameo role, soon done with and out of the way. Violet wouldn’t have wanted him there anyway, getting in the way and making the place look untidy. No, this was women’s work.
She gave the final almighty heave that would propel the infant into the world. Apart from a few grunts of exertion, the labour had been silent. She bit down on her fists when the cramps chewed into her raw nerve endings and made her want to scream. She felt the procedure was unbecoming enough without any wailing and gnashing of teeth. But as she felt her second child slither into the world she became hysterical, crying for her husband, terrified that it might be like the last one.
‘It’s a boy, love,’ said the midwife, smiling.
‘Take it away. Take it away,’ she whimpered. ‘I don’t want to see it until...’ Her voice trailed off.
Donald was rushed into the delivery room. He barely noticed the blood and amniotic waters on the floor. He didn’t look at the child. His first concern was for his wife who needed him for the first time ever and would never need him again. She groped for his hand and clung to him, vulnerable and pale. She couldn’t cope if it happened again. What if it’s happened again? her eyes implored him.
Only when the midwife had cleaned the baby and convinced her that he was beautiful, and beautifully normal, did Violet allow her son to be placed into the crook of her arm.
She examined the grizzling face in minute detail. She looked at his forehead, peered into the baby’s eyes and followed the contours of his tiny face to his mouth. Without care or gentleness she ripped at the blanket the midwife had wrapped her son in, exposing him before her. She had to know, beyond a shadow of a doubt.
The midwife was urging Violet to put him to her breast but she ignored the woman. She spread the baby’s hands in turn, scrutinising each one closely, back of the hand, palm, back of the hand again. She wasn’t counting the fingers or marvelling at the beauty of something so delicate and tiny, as many new parents do. To her, this wasn’t even her son, not until she’d made sure. She was looking for a larger than normal space between the fingers and thumb. She was looking for a thicker than normal tongue. She was looking for hooded myopic eyes.
‘Vi, love, he’s perfect. He’s our boy,’ said Donald.
‘You said that about the last one,’ she spat back at him. Her eyes never eased in their scrutiny of the child held stiffly in her arms.
Donald cradled his wife and son in his arms until he felt the tension leave Violet’s body in a flood. He was perfect. She wept silent tears onto his soft head.
This was her son.
She named him Simon Peter, after the first Apostle. It was a name befitting a child who would mature to greatness, for Violet had no doubt of this. Simon Peter was the rock of Jesus.
Simon Peter was her rock.
Two and a half years later, another son was born. Violet was disappointed. He should have been a girl. She’d planned for a girl, expected a girl. She, and in her turn, Georgina, blamed Donald for producing a son instead of the daughter they both so badly wanted. It takes a real man to make a girl. Violet took a few days to love this one. But she reasoned he could be great too: her Andrew, the second Apostle of Jesus.
Less than a year later, in her compulsion for a daughter, Violet gave birth to twins, both boys. She was resigned to having sons now. They were her boys, her beautiful perfect boys. A girl would be different, would stand out. Yes, she decided, boys were best, all uniform, all wonderful in their own special way. Her Apostles. Jesus had no time for girl Apostles and neither, she decided, did she. The twins, of course, were called James and John. A tradition had been set. Donald was scared. He was often seen to pull at the corners of his moustache, a sure sign that something was troubling him. Where was it going to end, this churning out of children? Did she plan on going for the full twelve? He sincerely hoped not. Dear Lord, he joked, please make her stop before we get to number ten. Surely not even Violet could christen a child Labbaeus Thaddaeus.
Violet completed her family two years later, with her last son, Philip. She was a staunch Catholic and didn’t believe in birth control. When she came out of hospital after the birth of her fifth son, she moved directly into her own bedroom. She had lain down and made her children and she was done with all that stuff now. Sex was a perfunctory business, and she’d never taken to it. Donald sighed resignedly, having to accept what he couldn’t change. It was nice while it lasted, he thought.
It felt to Violet as if she’d been pregnant forever. Now that she was finished with it, she needed a new challenge. She went back to hounding the estate agencies and took to viewing grand Lakeland hotels, way beyond their budget. The difference this time was that she had history. The Woods had an excellent record of accomplishment and their reputation preceded them. It seemed the brokers were falling over themselves to throw vast amounts of money at them this time.
Violet was viewing, but she wasn’t immediately buying. She knew exactly what she wanted, and was quite determined to wait to get it. She viewed many and found them all lacking. She knew that when she saw it, it would be the one for her. And when she saw it, she was proved right. Donald had no say in the matter; his voice was just a chirp in her ear. It wasn’t just the name of the hotel, of course, but that did seem like the hand of God pointing their way ahead. The Halcyon Woods Hotel stood on the water’s edge of Windermere in twenty acres of its own woodland and lakeside splendour. Violet bided her time, waited for news of harsh times in the hotel industry and, when an outbreak of foot and mouth disease hit Lakeland ground in the summer of sixty-six, effectively slaughtering tourism for that year, she pounced.
They made an initial offer of four million and settled on £4.8m. It was a colossal amount of money and while Donald took to night sweats and insomnia and the brokers pulled at their ties and wiped a thin film of grease from their collective foreheads, Violet slept soundly and dreamed of chintz coverlets.
Financially, things were tight for the next few years. It had been a tremendous gamble, but one that only Donald lost sleep over. Violet was far too occupied making it work to have time to fret.
The boys grew under a strict regime of firm discipline. Violet treated her children in the same way that she treated her staff. She expected things to be done when she first asked, for them to be done properly and, the hardest thing her staff, her children and even her husband had to live up to, everything had to be done to her rigorous standards.
The boys had a wonderful playground to grow up in. There were always guests’ children to make friends with, and yet Violet’s boys—always Violet’s boys, never Donald’s—were given little time to play and were discouraged from engaging with the guests.
She dressed them alike and expected them to be spotlessly clean at all times. ‘Appearance,’ she always said, ‘is of the utmost importance in our profession. And you, my darlings, are my little ambassadors. Remember your position at all times and make Mummy proud.’
The Woods boys grew to love Wednesday afternoons in the school holidays. Donald had shorts and t-shirts hidden in his garden shed for them to change into the minute Violet left. She still went out every Wednesday, without fail. The kids would fell trees with their father, or play football on the lawns. On a Wednesday afternoon they were allowed to get dirty on the strict understanding that they would clean up before Mother’s return. Violet was always too preoccupied on those evenings to notice that they collected most of their scrapes and grazes on a Wednesday.
But into every week a Sunday must fall. What they enjoyed mid week, they paid for on the Sabbath.
They rose at five thirty to bathe. Violet would fill the enormous tub in their quarters and a conveyor belt system was set into operation. As one got out of the bath, the next was ready to step in, starting with Philip because he was the youngest and therefore needed the most help. James, the more dominant of the identical twins, always made John go after Philip because the youngest boy often peed in the bath out of sheer wickedness. John still had to get in the bath water, with a little added extra, and by his turn the water was too cloudy to see if James had also added his mark, but it wasn’t so bad if you didn’t get in straight after Philip.
By the time it was Simon Peter’s turn to get in the bath, the water was murky and unpleasant. It was also usually stone cold. SP, as the lads called him when their mother wasn’t listening, perfected bathing without ever getting into the bath, but every so often Mummy would check behind his ears and then he’d be for it.
The boys hated their Sunday outfits. Violet faced down the tears and tantrums, the screaming and bawling. She never raised her voice much, but she spoke to them in a tone three parts ice to two parts venom. They didn’t refuse her wishes for long. It wasn’t done.
They would present for inspection at six thirty. Being Catholics they weren’t allowed anything to eat until after Mass which began at seven-thirty and could go on for two hours if Monsignor Burton had a fire in his belly to preach about. The brothers would stand in line looking miserable, but that wasn’t allowed either. Violet chided them to straighten their hats and their faces before leaving the house. ‘And for goodness sake, men, smile.’
She had earned the nickname Mother Duck around town. She was a regular sight on a Sunday morning, marching down the street in her stout church brogues. Her five children marched behind her, in single file, starting with the eldest and ending with little Philip, who found it hard to keep time and sometimes had to run a bit to catch up.
The matronly woman and her five offspring were a remarkable sight and if ever somebody compiled a list of the Windermere eccentric, Old Mother Duck would be right up there at the top of the list. Violet was proud of her standards.
‘Standards,’ she said, ‘are everything.’
She felt that she was a respected member of the highest Lakeland society. And indeed she was highly respected as a shrewd and determined businesswoman. When it came to the way she treated her children it was a very different matter. There was not a mother in town who wouldn’t like to take those poor l’al lads into her arms for a cuddle.
She wore black for church, right down to the brogues on her feet and the lace veil on her head, folded back for marching, ready to pull over her face when she entered the House of God. Childbirth had not been kind to her and by now Violet was broad in beam and bosom. By comparison, her boys were all slim and gave the appearance of being easily broken.
She had a lot of their clothes hand made and certainly all of their Sunday outfits. They hated the straw hats the most, but only marginally more than the burgundy and grey striped blazers with the tacky gold buttons. Their outfits were finished off with grey knee-length shorts with creases you could cut paper with, long grey socks and black shoes, which the boys would clean on a Saturday night until Violet could see her face in them.
Nobody knew for sure whether the boys learned to walk first or to march. They had a car so Donald could have driven them to church, but Violet wouldn’t hear of that. Regardless of weather or temperament, every Sunday, those boys would be marched through the town to Our Lady of the Lake Catholic Church. When they passed the house of their paternal grandmother, Violet would order, ‘Eyes right, boys, and salute to Grandma.’ The children would dutifully turn their heads, as one, raise their right hands and salute in unison into their grandmother’s lounge window.
Donald’s mother hated it. She loathed seeing her grandchildren demoralised in this manner and had begged Violet not to do it. ‘They’re only children, Violet. Let them be.’ But Violet would never hear of it. She saw it has her duty to the town to show that her boys were the best behaved and the most beautifully mannered children ever raised. Grandma Mary had long since made sure that she was never in the proximity of her front window on a Sunday morning, but Violet saw that as no deterrent, and commanded the boys to salute regardless.
The Woods boys didn’t have too terrible a childhood. As children do, they learned to adapt to their mother’s controlling ways. They were well fed, almost never spanked, and had musical and holiday privileges that most boys their age weren’t fortunate enough to experience. Violet loved her boys even more than she loved her double string of cultured pearls, and showed them off to all the right people just as often.
She was grooming them all to be altar boys and if Monsignor Burton was too busy to actually see how good they were, then Violet was sure he would certainly hear about it.