A QUESTION OF ANCESTRY 1
He rarely missed an opportunity to admire his reflection in a shop window - a glazed bus shelter would suffice - and he held his chin precisely at that elevated angle of disdain which he felt marked him as being a man of importance. If he caught someone looking his way, he presumed their motive was envy.
It did not occur to him that his clothes let him down. Being preoccupied with his bearing, his facial expressions and the set of his jaw, he was unaware that you cannot play the urbane sophisticate in ill-fitting trousers, cardigan and sandals. But no one told him because he did not encourage close relationships. His desire to appear distinguished merely made him seem unapproachable. To have been advised to invest in better tailoring he would have considered preposterous. Geraldine tolerated his self-obsession and was quite accustomed to being seen with a husband who resembled a nobody who might possibly be somewhat eccentric.
This issue with clothes came into the open whilst they were on holiday in York, taking al fresco breakfast in the garden of their hotel. Alex always had black coffee and croissant because voicing his order underpinned his feeling of sophistication, whereas Geraldine had cappuccino and a bacon sandwich because she enjoyed them. Having finished his croissant, Alex produced a leaflet advertising “King’s Manor”, a mediaeval building which had housed the Council of the North, a seat of government in the 16th Century. He tapped the photograph of the Manor decisively and confirmed, “We’ll pay it a visit this morning.” There was to be no discussion on the matter.
“Alright, I’ll go and get dressed. Are you going to change?”
In response, Alex said nothing but, staring at a point to the north east of Geraldine’s neat perm, he affected half closure of his eyes and exhaled slowly through his nostrils. Then he slowly shook his head at the absurdity of the question.
Alex stared at the picture. It was uncanny. It was as though he himself had dressed in mediaeval costume and sat for the artist .It was not that it bore a strong similarity to him; it was much more - a photographic likeness, down to the flesh tones and hair colour. He could scarcely exhale he was so thrilled. He walked away for a minute to calm himself and prepare for a second examination of the picture. His own image stared back. Deep down, he had always felt superior to others. It mattered not that they might be of higher social standing, or involved with worthier activities.
Now, perhaps, here was confirmation of a special status. In the panelled corridor of the King’s Manor, adorned with portraits of the famous, was a huge work in a heavily gilded and ornate frame. It was a truly striking resemblance. A member of the nobility was, unquestionably, an ancestor. The figure, in full hunting attire and gripping the halter of a magnificent white horse, was a tall man, about the same height as himself. But who was he and what was the painting doing here in York? What was it dated? Alex was not aware of any family connections with the city; he had been born and still lived in Nottingham and, as far as he knew, so did his ancestors.
Racking his brain for a link, he recalled an outing with his parents to a National Trust property on the county borders. In the cemetery of a chapel attached to the estate, they had come across a headstone dedicated to the memory of “Irwin Blenkyn Radclyffe bart. Obit 1784”. Alex’s mother had read out the inscription, and then jokingly added, “Another Ratcliff bites the dust…”
That could be it. The surname had a different spelling but it might be accounted for by the passage of time and theirs was an uncommon name in Nottinghamshire. The more he wished it to be true, the more logical it appeared to be. He regretted his decision not to purchase a guide book at the entrance to the museum and looked for a member of staff who might identify the figure. There were none around but entering the corridor, followed by half a dozen oriental students, was a tour guide. Alex stepped in front of the woman so that she was obliged to stop.
“Excuse me please,” she began, irritated by his rudeness.
He pointed to the wall. “Can you tell me who is the subject of this painting? I know he isn’t one of the kings but my wife has walked off with my guide book and I can’t quite place him…”
The guide’s irritation subsided when she saw her learning was being acknowledged and she relaxed: “Oh is he still here? He doesn’t belong. The Manor was used for the filming of an historical drama a few months ago. That’s one of the props left behind, a piece of set dressing.”
Alex was staggered. “A piece of set dressing? It can’t be,” he protested, “it’s so old.”
“It looks ancient doesn’t it but I can assure you it was computer generated from a modern photograph – one of the Bobbies controlling the crowd when they were filming. I was here when they did it. PC Shirtcliffe it was. Now, I must get on,” she said, turning to the students staring at the incomprehensible cameo before them. Then, looking back at Alex she added, “I say, he looks a bit like you.”
He stared at the face on the painting for several minutes and then decided to catch up with Geraldine. She obviously hadn’t noticed the picture and it’s likeness to him. He decided not to mention it. No need to point up her shortcomings when they were on holiday.