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Monday, 10 July 2017

The Old House

"Miss Huntley's" house near Leeds

There was something of the Miss Havisham about the place. Once it had been the fine eighteenth century home of a wealthy livestock auctioneer in the countryside between Leeds and York, with a grand oak staircase, roomy rooms and extensive kitchens. But after two centuries it had fallen into dark, brooding shabbiness. Crumbling mortar had left gaps between the blackened bricks. The once abundant gardens were covered in weeds. Earthy molehills dotted the tennis courts. The tangled vine stems hung dead and leafless. Yet I was sure it would be an inspiring place to work. It seemed my luck had changed. 

Perhaps it matched my mood. It had not been easy to find a job. I had met only doubt and distrust. It was justified to be honest. To be seeking work as an accountant just months after deciding that accountancy was not the life for me, and going off to teacher training college only to decide I didn’t want to be a teacher either, was not exactly impressive. Having chucked it in once, what were the chances I would do it again? It was hard to sound sincere, probably because I wasn’t.

Let’s call the firm Huntley and Palmer, Chartered Accountants. Miss Huntley had moved the practice out of central Leeds some years before, along with a few staff and one other partner. They offered me the post of audit clerk on a salary of £1,750 p.a. (about £17,000 today adjusted for price inflation).

I suspect they were desperate too. My interview must have been on one of the rare days the wind was blowing the other way. Most of the time a sickly sweet smell wafted up the stairs from the pig farm next door, pervading the communal office at the end of the building where we worked. It would have put most people off. It would have put me off too if I had other offers. You can also gain enthusiasm for the most illogical reasons. The receptionist’s soft green-blue top, tousled hair and retrouss√© nose was a carbon copy of Carly Simon on the cover of the ‘No Secrets’ LP.

But there was no Carly Simon smile. She moaned constantly about the pig smell. She was seeing out the next few months until her wedding later in the year. The other staff were strange too. One, a glamorous middle aged woman, went on incessantly about her dogs’ accomplishments in shows and competitions and her husband’s heart condition. Another, a semi-retired sixty-something, was always talking about his previous job in the Inland Revenue. You might have thought they were having a conversation, but neither listened to the other much at all. It was bearable only because they were part-time, and the afternoons were quieter. Then I was often alone in the office, dreamily gazing out of the window at the swirling wind-patterns in the corn field across the valley.

Mr. Palmer, the other partner, was another oddity. He went off each lunchtime supposedly to meet clients in the nearby pub, returning to spend the afternoons in a daze. Once or twice he had been found flat out asleep on the floor of his office. On a couple of occasions he called me in to complain angrily that he could not understand some of the work I had done for him. Patient explanation only assuaged him so far.

The sticking power of a mucilage bulldog
There was also an articled clerk. I cannot imagine how he managed to qualify as a Chartered Accountant in such an environment, but eventually he did. He must have had the sticking power of a mucilage bulldog.

Miss Huntley was easier to work with. She lived in the house with her Airedale dogs, and was a prominent Soroptimist (a womens’ voluntary organisation similar to the freemasons). She was always happy with my work. She once sent me out for a couple of weeks to audit an unusual business that supplied fish and chip shops throughout the north of England. It was a relief to be working again in central Leeds where there were things to do at lunchtime.

Perhaps when she first moved the practice out of town Miss Huntley imagined a happy band of staff enjoying a beautiful rural setting, but the reality was otherwise. I don’t think any of us liked it there. We were stuck up the back stairs out of the way in the servants’ quarters. I endured it for seven months, none too soon escaping back to Leeds to a post with a large clothing manufacturer. Huntley and Palmer lasted around six more years. The old house is still there, modernised and renovated, converted into serviced office space for a variety of businesses.

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