There had been hints of his pain, I know, like the memory of Claude’s tall stooped figure slowly crossing his brewery yard from his Cotswold-stone built converted stables to open up for the day’s brewing. Jacket and tie, always the Boss. Shuffling a little, walking stick, just in case… Greeting the men, inspecting the brew. To the office manned by the always cheerful elderly Val – Mr Valentine-Teale – where he would captain his ship for an hour or so before returning home for a nap.
On the 1st of June 2007, There was a voice message on our phone from Claude’s housekeeper, Joy: I have very bad news for you; very bad news. Here are the numbers to phone me at…
I phoned Donnington Brewery. Val answered, clearly shaken. “What a terrible thing to happen…” Val himself was in his 80s.
“Yes, but what did happen?” I was frustrated.
“He took his own life, you know,” he said. I tried to absorb the shock. “He did it in his little garden; he took a rifle with him. I saw him in the morning, we chatted. There was no indication…”
Claude seemed to have waited for all the staff to knock off at lunchtime. I hope he took some of Steve’s weed to help, I could not help thinking. He’d told me he’d enjoyed some when his great-nephew, Steve, came to visit, which had amused me immensely.
“He was in a lot of pain, of course,” Val went on, “and he was a very lonely man.”
And damned courageous, I thought; in charge of himself, of his life and his death. Be a nuisance to nobody. Dignity. Pride. How I had loved that man.
Failing to get hold of my brother, Richard, in Australia, I phoned his son, Stephen. Shocked, he promised to pass on the news to his father as well as his brother, Mark, and sister, Jenifer. I phoned my daughter, Nicci, who had had a special bond with Claude. As a devout Christian, she does not believe that one has the right to turn off one’s own switch, but being close to him, she had known he wanted out. Mark phoned from Oz, later, to offer condolences, saying that he’d probably go to the funeral. It was then that I considered going, myself.
A few days later, I phoned the lawyer involved with Claude’s estate. Claude’s body had been released – there having been a post mortem due to not having died of natural causes – and the funeral would be on Wednesday 13th. He informed me of our entitlements, and there were some shocks to come which would take me days to accept and get over. Petty me. The brewery had been founded by his grandfather in 1865 and it was only right that it continue to be run by Arkell brewers into the future.
Bequeathed to hospitals, servants, staff and family, all inclusive, the amount totalled 5% of his estate. 95% went to two distant cousins, with whom it had been arranged that they continue to run Donnington Brewery, being brewers in their own right in Swindon. I had mistakenly assumed that his close family might retain shares and receive a dividend of some sort. My mother, Richard and I (and the bloody lawyer!) all received the largest bequests, equally. Nicci and Ryan were to receive slightly lesser amounts while Steve would get yet again a lesser amount. Mark and Jenifer were to receive zilch. Nothing, nada. We never could figure out why they had been overlooked.
The lawyer had got around the fact that he was not legally able to include himself in the will by getting a codicil set up by another law firm. I had stupidly thought I’d like to establish an AIDS orphanage here in Haarlem, but my bequest, grateful as I was for it, was much too meagre to consider such a venture.
Sheila drove me to George Airport on Saturday 9th June to catch a flight on Nationwide Airways to O.R.Tambo Airport in Johannesburg, where Nicci picked me up. The following evening, my son Ryan took us both to the airport. Nicci and I flew together on Emirates via Dubai to Heathrow, landing at 14h15, where Nicci hired a car from Avis. We headed to Reading to stay with my old friend, Brian Nicholson, who had settled there after a lifetime of managing sugar estates in Papua New Guinea, Senegal and Ecuador. It had been thirty five years since I had last seen him.
The following day, we went via Smannell, near Andover, Hampshire, to show Nicci the church and graves of her Earle forebears, then on to Stow-on-the-Wold to look for accommodation, eventually settling for a B&B at Foxhill, half way to Cheltenham where we could also book rooms for Richard, Mark, Steve and Jenny who would come from London the next day.
Nicci went for a walk and, by strange coincidence, met up with Sarah (nee Arkell) who lived next door! Her brother, Charles Arkell, was manager at the auctioneers where I had sold some of the items I’d inherited from Claude’s sister, my aunt Puss, the previous year. We were to meet their parents, Peter & Ann Arkell, the next day at the crematorium in Cheltenham. Pleasant folk.
It was there at Claude’s memorial service – he had requested that there be no such thing, but some people don’t listen! – that we caught up with Richard and brood. Joy, Claude’s housekeeper, and her partner, Phil, (who had found a note to him from Claude as to where to find his body,) joined us. Joy had befriended me the previous year when she offered me a bed at her cottage so that I could be near the brewery to sort Puss’ things. (Claude had forbidden me to accept and paid for my accommodation elsewhere – It’s not done to stay with the servants!)
From Cheltenham, lots of Arkells returned to the brewery to a wake to drink his health with either his own brew of Donnington Ales, or champagne. Another amazing coincidence was meeting Sue (nee Arkell) Richardson and her husband who said they lived in a small village in Hampshire that we’d probably never heard of, Smannell.
Sue said she remembered my parents visiting her parents at their home in Swaziland around the sixties. As us Earles had already decided to drive to Smannell the next day to see the church and graves, Sue asked us to join them for lunch. We did so, and after showing Richard, Mark, Stephen and Jenny all the items given to the glory of God and in loving memory of various dead Earles, like the organ and stained glass windows, we drove down the road to Blandings, the Richardson home. Lunch for us all was set out at a long table in their lovely garden, and we met Sue’s daughter, Tessa Bott.
Tessa and I stared at each other. “Didn’t you live in Maun,” we asked, almost simultaneously. Another amazing coincidence. We had become acquainted when I approached her to organise my work and residence permits, which was her business (Jambalaya) at the time. Little did we guess that we were cousins. (Second, once removed.)
Sad as it was to say a permanent goodbye to Lawrence Claude Arkell, it was good to catch up with my brother, niece and nephews, and my daughter and, back in Pretoria, my son. By the Sunday night, I was back home in Haarlem.