Saturday, 8 June 2013
Thursday, 6 June 2013
I have always wanted to live in the South of England. In my dreams I imagined one day I would live near the sea. Water is transient yet eternal. Sometimes I think my existence at Thornton Hall was just a mirage, an excuse to visit the ocean.
The day my aunt handed me over to Social Services, I suspected life was not meant to be easy. I was only eight. Afterwards, I endured a series of foster homes and finally an expensive school paid for by my unknown benefactor. I ended up flung out onto a busy street at eighteen, wearing last year’s jeans and carrying every possession I owned on my back. I knew I had to get out of London: the city; the congested streets; the strangers moving past me as if I was air; the sheer bustle, scope and majesty of the place would swamp me if I didn’t.
I need to go somewhere solitary, I thought, somewhere safe.
I’d started searching the internet a few weeks before my final exams and just after I’d completed my university interviews. If I got in (and my final marks suggested I would), I’d still have more than three months (and nowhere to live) before classes started. I’d applied to at least six different employment agencies for a job but I had few practical skills. My benefactor had paid for me to have a proper education at an exclusive school in South Kensington. Lockwood was filled with rich, abandoned girls - girls who rated you on looks and pulling power and girls who committed various minor classroom crimes, then pointed at you for the blame. The students in their checked uniforms were rich girls from good families, girls who hated povvies (short for poverty stricken ones). Girls like me. Let’s just say, I did not fit in, but I made the most of the experience. My expensive education and ability to speak French were what led me to Thornton Hall and the job of caring for six-year-old Sophie Varens.
Now that I’m eighteen and officially an adult, solid work is hard to find. I see endless advertisements for Girls Wanted and Dance Clubs. It makes my stomach churn when I realize that no matter how hard I study, the only opportunities for me to earn a full salary without a university degree can be found in the final classified pages of a free newspaper.
I feel older than my years. You may wonder how that is possible, but let’s face it, after the kind of life I’ve led already, it is. I’m finished with Lockwood School and grateful for my thorough knowledge of English, French, History, Music and Mathematics. I got very high marks in all my subjects but I’ve learnt already that finishing school in the middle of a recession was not the wisest choice – as if I had one. Every advertisement screams experience. Which kind would they like?
Would they like the experience of being abandoned by my birth mother on my aunt’s doorstep, aged two? Being fostered out six years later because my aunt disliked me? Realizing I’d never be adopted and have a real family because my mother wouldn’t sign the release forms? I was too old by then to be anyone’s first choice. This led me to eight different foster homes in as many years.
Yes, I’ve had quite an education. And yet, I have no contact with my birth parents but I’m not bitter. I have raised myself, in many ways, and I do not believe I have done a bad job. It is true, my expectations for happiness are not high but for the first time, I feel free and that is a joy in and of itself.
A few days after I’d finished school I found work. The job was with an older couple who worked in the City, in banking. The father, a dour accountant, had taken the morning off to show me his three-year-old’s routine. He was fighting with his wife and she had stormed out. This should have been my warning. During nap time, the father tried to kiss me and when I pulled away, he rang my agency and said I couldn’t cope with the demands of the position. He was a valuable client, so they didn’t want to hear my side of the story.
As I grabbed my coat and left, I mentally put a line through that agency on my list. The experience made me wary of taking agency jobs again. I thought I might do better seeking work independently.
A week later, I was very low on funds and my room was only paid up for another night. I was beginning to wonder if sleeping rough in central London would suit me (obviously, it wouldn’t) when I saw an advertisement in a women’s magazine: Governess wanted for remote stately home in Devon. I searched the old-fashioned word and realized a governess was like a nanny but she wasn’t expected to do domestic tasks, just to tutor the child in schoolwork. The contact details for a Mrs Fairfax at Thornton Hall in Cornwall, a seaside town in the South of England, were displayed. I immediately found enough money to use my pay phone and dialled Thornton Hall. I spoke to the woman on the telephone, Mrs Edwina Fairfax, and I assumed the child who might be in my care, was her daughter.
Mrs Fairfax was polite and well-spoken on the phone. Just her voice was like a balm to me. Street thugs and wayward teenagers ditching school loitered around my depressing borough. I emailed Mrs Fairfax my school results and references almost immediately. A day later, I had the job.
It was a huge relief to me. I’d been approaching the summer holidays with little money and no prospects. I took what was left of my savings to go to an enormous department store on Oxford Street to choose a new summer jacket and shoes. I chose a cobalt blue coat and red Mary Jane style flats to go with my black opaque stockings. I would look the part; even if I wasn’t sure I felt it. Cornwall would not be cold this time of year, but Thornton Hall was an ancient property situated alongside the coastline, so it would likely be breezy; English weather was always changeable. I packed my few unwanted belongings into a garbage bag and left them on the street outside my flat, after I’d returned my keys to my dodgy landlord. He looked me up and down and smirked as I announced I would be leaving. I walked out the door with my new bag declaring I would not be coming back.
I was excited, anticipating the start of a new adventure, a new life. Who wouldn’t be after the one I’d already had? I’d been warned that there was a weak internet signal at Thornton, but this almost pleased me. There was no one I wanted to keep in touch with. My so-called friends had all gone off on summer holidays bankrolled by their parents. I couldn’t join them even if I had been invited. I didn’t mind solitude that much, not really. I’d learnt to create worlds inside my head, the ones of my own learning.
Perhaps I had an over-active imagination, but it would stand me in good stead where I was going. I assumed there would be few people and little else to do apart from looking after Sophie.
I’d seen a picture of the child and had spoken a few words to her over the telephone – in French. Sophie had squealed with delight when I described to her some of the places I’d seen on the school trip I’d taken to Paris – one of the most exciting moments of my life so far. The entire senior French class had been packed into a bus and herded across the English Channel via ferry only to arrive in another country, another world, one with fresh bread and cakes and a whole new exotic language.
At the station, I bought an extra mobile phone card with what remained of my savings. Taking on board the isolation I might be facing at Thornton, it seemed a smart idea to arrive prepared. In the photograph I’d been emailed, Thornton Hall was situated at the end of a long windy road on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. I could almost hear the waves crashing against the rocks.
I clutched my phone card as I boarded the carriage. I’d need it, I thought; although I wondered if so far out in the country, there would even be a reception. On the train, I read through my formal letter of employment, emailed to me and signed by the housekeeper, Mrs Fairfax. Prior to this, she had been sent references from two of my teachers at school and another from the head mistress. I suppose the school felt it was their duty to say some good things about me. I’d always had remarkable academic results, considering my troublesome attitude, one teacher had told me.
I stood at the changeover station after a few hours’ journey wearing my new coat and carrying every item I possessed in the world. There wasn’t much. I didn’t want to keep too many things, as I said: just a spare cardigan, some jeans, new underwear, socks (lots of socks), and an extra scarf. I was raised in England and though it was summer, I doubted even a hint of fine weather.
I read during the second part of my journey: first, a magazine, then the news on my smart phone; I listened to some music, the latest band that I’d liked; house music; it reminded me of my best friend from school, Irma.
Irma had taken me under her wing when I’d arrived at Lockwood. She had gone out of her way to befriend me when I was at my loneliest and for that, and so much more, I will never forget her.
Irma also disliked authority and we crept out one night to go clubbing in Soho. It was the one demerit of our school careers but the ramifications had been far reaching. The noisy club in central London was packed with people when we arrived and we felt safe in the cover of darkness and anonymity. The band was loud, louder than my ears could stand but Irma and I loved it. We rocked out all night, lost in the noise and energy of the place.
In the early hours of the morning, we took a mini-cab back to school hoping against hope that none of the boarding supervisors would have noticed our absence. Unbeknown to us, someone had slipped an illegal substance into Irma’s drink, too much, and Irma collapsed. Later, she was expelled. I was kept on out of charity because I had nowhere else to go and the school authorities couldn’t prove I’d taken anything of my own volition. Irma’s parents have refused to allow us to speak to each other since the incident.
The experience left me friendless in my senior year. It could have happened to anyone but, of course, we never should have been in that club in the first place. Though we hadn’t been drinking alcohol and the whole escape had been Irma’s idea, I felt responsible. I was responsible. It was the one moment, the one lack of clarity in my teenage life; a huge mistake and Irma paid for it. I owed it to her now that I was out of that school, to live the best life possible. I posted a card of apology to her from the post office in Devon, and wished her well. I’d heard she’d finished off her final year elsewhere and was doing fine. Irma’s parents couldn’t stop us from communicating now that we were legally adults but I didn’t expect a response.
It was near the end of the year when this happened and somehow, the scandal was hushed up. Irma had sisters at the school and the other parents thought getting the press involved would only be detrimental. Perhaps they were right. An air of hostility surrounded me though Irma had texted that she held no grudge and wished me all the best. That was before her mobile was disconnected. The police even caught the guy who spiked her drink on CCTV; the drink could’ve just as easily been mine. If it was mine, apart from Irma, let’s face it, who’d have cared? Her sister and the other students left at school had told me as much. I couldn’t blame them. In some ways it was unfair that I’d been allowed to stay; nothing was ever the same at Lockwood after that and I was glad when the school year ended.
Every night, since I was little, after saying the Lord’s Prayer that I was taught, I prayed to turn eighteen, as if that could somehow happen overnight. But it made the time go faster. Our father who art in heaven… please make me turn eighteen.
Irma knew all about this. She had prayed for our escape too, prayed for our freedom. At eighteen we could do everything legally: vote, drink, and get married (a ridiculous notion to me since I’d barely been allowed to speak to anyone male who wasn’t a teacher in all my teenage years at Lockwood).
And now, here I was, truly on my own for the first time. I felt the rush of excitement as the train moved out from the station near Devon and the conductor came to check my ticket. I imagined I was on some glamorous train, like the Orient Express, a train I used to watch leave Victoria Station – packed with tourists heading to Europe. That was when I lived near Brixton, and Victoria Station was my nearest changeover. That was Foster Family Six.
I had planned to make a stop at a little town called Lyme Regis, but to do that I would need a car and I would need to learn to drive. All things come in time; isn’t that what I was taught? I could hardly wait for my life to begin. My real life had been all too real already.
I pulled out my folder, packed with documents relating to the first year school syllabus that I would need to be familiar with. I continued reading over standards and child development for the first part of my journey. Eventually, I let the endlessly lush scenery take over as I lolled against the window with music blaring in my ears. This time it was soft and classical, like the songs I’d taught myself on the keyboard in music class.
Because it was summer, Mrs Fairfax said she was not too strict about schooling but the small, French child was the ward of a Mr Nathanial Rochester and he did not wish her to be behind when the new school year started. It was clear Sophie did not belong to Mrs Fairfax as I’d originally thought. Prior to her attendance in school she was used to being cared for at home when she had lived mysteriously with her mother - in Paris, the city of light.
‘Anne, you will not be expected to do any cooking or cleaning; there is staff for that. Your responsibility is improving Sophie’s English.’ Mrs Fairfax’s words had resonated in my ear over the telephone. Hardly anyone speaks on the telephone these days; it’s all texts and social networking. Those telephone calls really did make me feel special. I hoped my inexperience and youth would not be considered a disadvantage. As it turned out it was for exactly those qualities that I was hired.
I was proficient in French, although I had been instructed to speak to Sophie mostly in English. I hoped she wasn’t as unruly as some of the previous children I’d babysat.
There were also younger children in my foster families - all eight of them - until I finally hit the jackpot and was sent to Lockwood to board. My benefactor had decided he didn’t want anything to do with me but to appease his conscience I was sent to this select boarding school. I assume my benefactor was a he but the actual person could have just as easily been a woman, I suppose. The lawyer who signed my school cheques was male. I knew nothing more about my benefactor (who insisted on a confidentiality clause), other than who his lawyer was.
Lockwood School was not the friendliest place, as you may have guessed. It was there that we froze away the winters and, after Irma left, I tried to make friends with girls who’d invite me to vacation with them over endless summers. It almost worked but usually they tossed me to the curb after a few weeks when they found out I could never return the favour. Inevitably, I spent the last weeks of summer tucked up at school, learning the syllabus for the following year. That’s really how I became academically gifted; I had nothing better to do. And of course, I liked to read and draw; qualities which helped me inhabit my own little world.
I was surprised in some ways, that when I turned eighteen, I had nowhere to go and my benefactor didn’t want to meet me. It would have been upsetting but I was so ready to embrace my freedom I put this unnecessary slight out of my mind and resolved to get on with my life, now that I could finally, legally, make some decisions for myself.
I arrived in the village near Thornton Hall at night. I was to stay at an inn. Next morning I would get a lift to Hay Lane which led to the vast estate of Thornton. Mrs Fairfax had arranged for some neighbours to meet me.
The inn was small, friendly and comforting. I ate my dinner (sausages, mashed potato and beans) and drank a glass of lemonade. I pushed my food around on my plate. It reminded me of some of the worst excesses of boarding school – food fights and eating competitions. When the teachers were absent, the older girls and prefects made the rules. (Some of the older girls locked us in a room in one of the sports houses…) The prefects were the worst in that school. You were nothing when you first arrived. There were all sorts of standards and anti-bullying messages but the younger students were still bullied to within an inch of their lives by the older ones. If you were bullied and spoke up, it only made things worse. I was twelve when I arrived at the school and I had to prove myself until I was older and became a prefect myself. Our group tried to install a different set of rules and I’d like to think the younger students that followed us were a little less feral than the older ones who’d been the original bullies at Lockwood. However, boarding school was ultimately better than some of the foster care I’d been allocated. I shuddered at the memory of strange people and unfamiliar beds.
My room at the inn that night was warm. I heard the crash of the sea in the distance. I was getting closer to the cliffs of Cornwall and I couldn’t wait to see them, especially now that I could hear the ocean. Is there any sleep deeper or more luxurious than one where you listen to the folding waves nearby? I doubted it.
The next morning, the sky shone brilliant with sun. I heard a voice from downstairs.
‘Anne? Anne Eyre?’
I walked down to the foyer, sleepy eyed.
A youngish man with blonde hair spoke from the first floor.
‘My name is Connor Rivers. I’m a friend of Mrs Fairfax; we are from the same church. My sisters and I are visiting Devon and we’ve offered to drive you to Thornton since we wanted to see that part of the coastline anyway.’
I looked perplexed.
Connor smiled, welcomingly.
‘Mrs Fairfax said she’d left you a message.’
I checked my phone; sure enough, there it was.
‘Oh yes,’ I said, remembering. ‘Just a minute.’ I wasn’t used to such hospitality in London.
‘My sisters and I live in Devon but we’ve come to visit friends on a neighbouring property, not far from Thornton.’
Connor introduced his sisters who were young and pretty and suited their names, Rainbow and Daisy.
I did a double take. The girls wore flowing skirts, bare feet and flowers in their hair. All of the siblings looked alike and the girls waved to me as if we already knew each other. They seemed friendly and safe.
‘I’m with my sisters, we’re about to leave. We have a church christening to go to….’ And he spoke on.
Connor seemed nice enough. He could not have been more than twenty-one and I’d say his sisters were younger than me. As we drove, the siblings talked about how they were raising money for a local country fair to be held in a few months. They were also building a school in India and talked animatedly about this.
I stared out the window as I listened. I admired their enthusiasm for helping others. As I’d just escaped from school, the idea of helping to build another one, didn’t capture my imagination. Tutoring one pupil in a spacious country home, however, would be different. Rainbow and Daisy chatted away about their new home in Devon and the church youth group they enjoyed as Connor loaded my meagre belongings into the car.
The girls conversed with me warmly during the long drive.
‘And you finished school in London?’ Daisy asked, ‘Oh, it’s such a big city. My sister and I prefer the country, but we’ve been shopping in Oxford Street a few times and it was so much fun.’
‘Oh, yes,’ Rainbow said, ‘I adore department stores.’
‘My sisters sound far more materialistic than they are,’ Connor assured me.
‘That’s alright,’ I said, ‘I also love shopping in London. Where do you think I bought my new coat?’
Rainbow and Daisy both admired the fabric.
‘Even so,’ Connor said, ‘we were in town for a church picnic in Hyde Park. It was a lovely day and I’m sure we all remember it more for the new friends we made than the items we bought.’
Connor’s sisters giggled and Rainbow raised her eyebrow at her brother’s seriousness.
‘Of course,’ Daisy said, smiling at me.
‘I like Hyde Park and St James’ Park. They are beautiful in summer or winter,’ I added.
The sisters nodded in agreement.
I fell asleep during the second half of the journey. When I woke up, the girls were singing and I could see Thornton Hall in the distance.
‘Here we are,’ Connor announced.
Thornton was a large, majestic building that towered over the lush farming fields surrounding it.
‘Anne?’ Daisy’s voice rang out.
‘Wake up, Anne,’ Rainbow sang prettily.
‘Miles away,’ Daisy said, tugging my shoulder.
Apart from being tired, I slept because I slept got motion sickness and this had always been my body’s way of preventing it. The movement of the car helped make me drowsy but the singing woke me. I listened to the distant sound of the water lapping the shore. We were driving along the highest cliff, not far from where Thornton Hall was situated. To reach the driveway that led to the main house, we rambled along Hay Lane in the brilliant morning light. It had been a long journey from my London bedsit to here.
The car stopped and so did the tuneful but high pitched singing of the sisters.
I rolled out of the car to see an imposing mansion up close. Because it was warm for this time of year, there was no mist but a light film of salty air greeted my lips as I stepped out from the car.
‘Can I take your bag, Anne?’ Connor asked me. ‘Normally we’d come in for tea with Mrs Fairfax but we’re running a bit behind schedule.’
The boy smiled. There is no way I should have referred to him as the boy in my mind, since he was actually three years older than me. For some reason, his trusting glance made him seem sheltered, unlike me.
‘It’s okay,’ I said, embarrassed I had so few belongings.
‘Suit yourself,’ he said. I hoped somehow I hadn’t offended him. ‘This place used to have tons of racehorses when Lord Rochester was alive. The money this family had - still has, would buy a small country. I only hope they use some of it for good purposes. I’ve heard tons of stories about the new owner, Nate Rochester.’
‘You mean Nathanial Fairfax Rochester?’
‘Yes, he sometimes uses a shortened version of his first name. He’s very modern, for an aristocrat.’ Connor looked into my eyes and smiled. He seemed to want to tell me something.
‘You really have never travelled anywhere, have you Anne?’
‘Not unless you count all over London.’
‘Well, out here in the country, things may seem kinder, but we have our fair share of secrets.’
I wondered what he meant.
‘Anyway, we’re heading back to the village now for the christening. At the end of the year, my sisters and I are going to India.’
I realized Connor intended to travel the world. He seemed to want to delay my departure, glancing at me as he jumped into the car.
‘Just a tip - the owner of Thornton has a bit of trouble keeping his staff now that the old man’s gone. I’ve heard strange stories about this place. Just remember, Anne, in the modern world, no one has slaves anymore. Tell Mrs Fairfax I’m leaving the car to be collected from the station.’
Is that what I was to become? A paid slave?
A soft chill air wafted across the threshold as the Rivers siblings drove off. I walked towards Thornton Hall and knocked on the heavy door, apprehensively.
An ancient, stooped-over man opened the heavy door and peered out at me through the space between the safety chain and the wall.
‘Are you Mr Rochester?’
‘No, Miss. I’m Hector, the butler. I’m old enough to be his grandfather. The owner of Thornton is who you’ll be wanting. He’s away in Europe, not sure if he’ll be back here all summer. Sometimes he goes away and we wonder if he’ll ever return. Place will go to rack and ruin. No, it’s the younger Rochester you’ll be wanting, but I knew Rochester senior back when he was still a boy - giving away my age again,’ he chuckled. I could have assured him I would not have guessed it to be less than one hundred.
‘No, that younger Rochester has wild parties,’ he tutted and shook his head. ‘His father would not have approved, no he would not.’
With those words, the elderly man shut the door in my face. Already I was thinking he was pretty weird.
I sat on the doorstep wondering what to do next.
How was I supposed to interpret the letter, the paid for room in Devon, the helpfulness of Mrs Fairfax and the old-fashioned interview method – the telephone? I sat on the door step and put my head in my hands.
Moments later, an older but very well-dressed woman came out.
‘Anne? Anne Eyre?’
‘Yes, that’s me,’ I said with a mixture of eagerness and exasperation.
‘Oh, Anne, I am so glad you’ve arrived. I’m Edwina Fairfax, the housekeeper here at Thornton Hall. Sophie, the child you are to tutor, is having her afternoon nap but we’ve been expecting you all day…’ she leant in, ‘take no notice of Hector; he’s been here for decades, Nathanial would never ask him to leave, it’s his home too but he really doesn’t work as the butler anymore; though he’s very good at judging the young man who owns the place,’ Mrs Fairfax said.
She continued to speak as she led me through the vast entrance hallway of the house with grand, high ceilings and hall lights lit up like crystal. ‘Never mind Hector,’ she continued. ‘He’s over a hundred,’ she whispered. ‘He’s been working here for sixty years, he’s going a bit… well, he’s a bit confused. I can’t really talk to him and there are so few staff left here, just a cook and a cleaner and the grooms who come to work during the day. We have a lodger upstairs, Emma Poole, but she doesn’t speak much, does her own thing and writes all day from her room in the attic, or so I’m told. I’m not allowed to go in there as she doesn’t like being disturbed.’ Mrs Fairfax shrugged and raised an eyebrow. ‘Artistic types,’ she said disdainfully.
‘I mostly just run the house, organise the pay, the salaries. I read – a lot! Do you read novels Anne? Of course we have television and the local cinema but no internet connection while the renovations to the far wing are being done, not unless you go into the village - there are too many builders around here digging up phone lines and what not - so, they’re working on that.’
No internet, I thought. Good. I don’t want the distraction while I’m busy hiding from the world and its coldness.
‘The staff are… let’s just say they are not readers. They spend their evenings in the village pub mostly, when they are not wanted around here. Nathanial Rochester, he’s the owner now; he doesn’t visit much, either, but he’s supposedly bringing his friends to stay for the summer; some of them are in a band he manages and Nathanial agreed to let them rehearse here. Apart from that, his business interests are varied. He is coming home to organise the horses and buy some more, or sell them; I’m not really sure. I think he just wants someone to improve Sophie’s English over the summer. She’s no trouble, Anne, but she mostly speaks French. Do you speak French fluently?’
‘Yes, yes, of course.’
‘Good. Don’t speak it around Sophie, unless you have to! We want her to speak English as well as her French, if possible. Anyway, I’ll be interested to hear what you think of her.’
Mrs Fairfax talked on.
It was quite refreshing to hear her speak in this relaxed manner. I wasn’t expecting her to be like this - someone who lived in such a grand house and wore a twin set and pleated skirt. She looked like what I imagined a lady-in-waiting to a princess might look. She spoke to me as a grown up, an equal, something I was not entirely used to.
I was not used to making friends. My history, as you may have gathered, is not an easy story to share with strangers. Together, we walked into the grand ballroom. There were high chandeliers and paintings on the walls and rows of mirrors and windows. It reminded me of one of those lavish palaces I’d only seen on the internet or in movies.
‘Nathanial doesn’t need a job. His family have inherited money over many generations, so his business is really about keeping the family finances in order. Mrs Fairfax raised her eyebrow and continued, ‘I often wonder at the logic of such a young man inheriting everything, but I suppose we can’t predict such excesses, now, can we? I am sure there must be a reason for it and so far he has acted with great thoughtfulness. I can’t say I approve of his producing movies in America or managing the band but those are his hobbies and not for me to judge,’ she trailed off. Though she instantly told me to call her by her name, Edwina, I mostly referred to her as Mrs Fairfax.
‘For some reason, Mrs Fairfax, I assumed Sophie was your child.’
‘Oh, no dear, she is simply in my care.’
Mrs Fairfax offered no further explanation as to Sophie’s existence and I was left to wonder.
‘Now, let’s show you to your room, and then we’ll make a nice cup of tea.’
I hadn’t been expecting a particularly warm welcome and I’d rarely experienced such kindness from a stranger. In little under an hour, I almost felt like I had inherited a grandmother because Mrs Fairfax was so unexpectedly friendly.
As it turned out, she was a distant cousin of the Rochesters (but, as she’d told me laughingly, not one of the rich ones). She’d originally been Nathanial’s nanny and had raised him and his brother from infancy. Nate’s older brother had died, leaving Nathanial Rochester to inherit the vast family estate and the wealth of family owned companies.
‘There are a few workers on the property. They are quite disinterested in activities like reading and movies so it will be wonderful to have someone to talk to in the evenings.’ Mrs Fairfax said.
Her chatter continued and I admit I found it refreshing to have an older woman, effectively my employer, take so much interest in me.
‘I’ve put you in one of the warmer rooms; there are twelve bedrooms to choose from, and it’s not the biggest, but I think you will like it.’
She led the way up the stairs and along a wide hallway.
My bedroom had high ceilings and a distant view of the ocean. There was a large desk beneath the window sill and a double bed with a thick duvet covered by an embroidered bedspread. I noticed the maid had left a glass of water covered in a lace doily atop a pile of fashion magazines.
‘This is perfect,’ I said. Almost too perfect, more than I’d ever dreamt, I thought.
‘There’s an ensuite to your right and a swimming pool that is heated in winter, downstairs. Mr Rochester, Nathanial’s father, had it installed when the boys were young but it doesn’t get used as much now. Perhaps, if you swim, you could teach Sophie. I noticed on your CV…,’ she trailed off again.
‘Yes, of course. I have my First Aid Certificate; I took the test during my final term at school.’
‘Was it an all-encompassing education? I noticed you attended Lockwood – one of the most prestigious ladies’ colleges in London.’
‘Oh yes,’ I replied, ‘very all-encompassing.’
I had learnt not to share past hurts. I pulled my sleeve down to cover the scar on my hand, courtesy of one of my sixth form classmates and her sculpture implement which tore accidentally into my skin during a pottery class. The mauling happened just after Irma left. I’d barely screamed let alone reported the incident - that would have led to further problems.
My education had included bitterly cold winter dormitories, corporal punishment dealt out in private by prefects (before the younger girls became prefects themselves) and gossiping, neglected, fiercely snobbish teenage girls.
‘Have a good sleep, Anne. You can meet Sophie tomorrow.’
I washed my face and could hardly believe my luck. The bedroom enveloped me but I’d never seen such splendour, much less lived in it. In the middle of the night, I had an unsettling dream. I was a child again and I was trapped in the locker room of my school and no one would let me out. When I opened my eyes, I stared above me at the high, intricately designed ceiling and felt a security under my blankets that had previously eluded me.
The next morning I slept in.
When I walked out of my bedroom to introduce myself to my English student, Sophie was sitting at the top of the stairs. She wore her pyjamas and those spongy, brightly coloured curlers, in her hair. She had a smile on her adorable face that lit up the overcast morning and spoke in a sweet voice, ‘Bonjour! Je m’appelle Sophie. Comment allez – vous?’
‘Je vais bien, merci. You must be Sophie,’ I said and smiled, ‘I am Anne Eyre.’
She dragged me into my room as I explained to her in French that we should try to speak mostly English together from now on. Sophie asked me if I had a present and I gave her a colouring set I’d bought for her at the station. She seemed pleased with this.
‘Merci. Thank you,’ she said hesitantly.
I explained to Sophie that if we worked well together this week, we would go into the village for a cream tea and movie on Saturday afternoon. This seemed to excite her. The girl of six was now seated at the end of my bed. She pulled out an apple from her pocket and began to eat it.
‘This is my breakfast,’ the child said in a French accent. ‘Leah also made me cereal.’ Leah helped in the kitchen and organised the catering. I was told she lived nearby but sometimes she stayed at the estate when there was a large house party.
As we walked down the stairs together, there seemed to me to be little to do except speak to Sophie in English and entertain her. Slowly, we made plans for the day. Her schedule went something like this: swimming, breakfast, morning English lesson, lunch, and a walk around the farm or into town, riding lessons, painting, dinner. After dinner we read or watched television and played music. Our days began to fall into different variations of this routine from the first week I arrived.
By the second week, Sophie would bound into my room before breakfast and request that I take her swimming.
‘Bonjour, maintenant!’ she would whisper loudly in my ear.
‘Not now, Sophie, soon. And remember we are speaking in English. ’
It was a challenge for her but she became fluent very quickly.
If Sophie, who was an early riser, woke me too early, I pulled the pillow over my face in protest.
‘Wake up!’ Sophie giggled as she took my hand and pulled me out of bed the next morning.
Our days quickly fell into a routine.
In the morning if I woke first, I got Sophie and helped her choose an outfit for the day. We’d go to the kitchen where Leah or Merida, the other kitchen hand, would have eggs cooking and various grooms and workmen were gathered around the kitchen table eating hungrily.
Some mornings Sophie and I had porridge with brown sugar, honey and bananas. On other occasions we had toast and poached eggs or fruit.
Sometimes, I’d read the paper that was delivered from the village - or just the headlines - because Sophie would distract me or be keen to go outside. She often played with her dolls after breakfast while I read. I was trying to finish my reading list for the start of the university year. I intended to study literature but I was still waiting to hear the final result of my scholarship interviews.
We always started our school work by nine in the morning. In the play room upstairs, an ancient desk had been cleared and set aside for homework. It was the same room used by generations of Rochesters for a similar purpose. No one ever told me who Sophie’s parents were and I assumed it was impolite to ask unless someone offered an explanation.
Sophie herself just made a hand signal like an aeroplane and slipped back into French, announcing, ‘Je viens de France. La France est un pays merveilieux,’ asking me, ‘Vous etes-vous plu ici?’ in her most polite voice.
‘Of course I like it here!’ I replied. ‘This is an amazing house.’
Then she explained her origins to me, as if her family lived overseas and she’d travel there by aeroplane one day! I have to admit, this was a bit strange but when life offers you the beauty and wonder of a second chance amidst the chaos of normal, everyday existence, you don’t ask questions.
I was told Sophie’s last name was Varens; her mother lived in Paris and she was being raised at her mother’s request here at Thornton Hall. I assumed her mother had some link to this place. Mrs Fairfax used an old fashioned term, stating that Sophie would have been a “ward of the state,” had Mr Rochester not taken her in. This, I could relate to. Her relatives had been French; beyond that, her origins were unknown to me. By my second week at Thornton Hall the mystery was no clearer.
Sophie liked simple pleasures: drawing, music and sports were her joys. Schoolwork was not - that became clear. Because it was summer, I tried to incorporate her hobbies into her learning. We walked to the stables and named all of the objects we saw in both French and English. Sophie was a fast learner where the language of her adopted country was concerned and already had a good, basic vocabulary.
Daily, her English improved and after a fortnight we were speaking together more often in English than in French. It was exciting to see my young charge, so delicate and frivolous naturally, running wild across the land with me, exploring, and sketching and teaching me things too. From the start, I now realize, Sophie was teaching me trust and the nature of acceptance; perhaps even how to expect happiness. She had a wicked sense of humour. She constantly played jokes on Mrs Fairfax and me and hid clever notes and funny pictures in unexpected places, using both the French words and the English translation. In this way, we learned together.
On one occasion during the first weeks I was at Thornton, Mrs Fairfax was dismayed when Sophie performed some songs and outrageous dance moves that were clearly learnt from video clips.
I quickly encouraged Sophie to move on to the poem we’d been learning but not until I saw Mrs Fairfax frowning. ‘Sophie should concentrate on her drawings and her riding and run the songs by me should she wish to give an impromptu performance in future,’ Mrs Fairfax commented, a look of surprise on her face.
‘I rarely encourage Sophie to watch television, but sometimes I worry about Rochester’s friends - they can be such a wayward influence. They leave the music channel on all day and night when they are here. Is it any wonder the child has learnt all of those dance moves. Still, I suppose it’s in her nature when you consider how she was raised before she came here,’ Mrs Fairfax added.
I wasn’t sure what she meant and I didn’t press for details. I would hate to be judged on my background and tried not to do the same to others. Besides, Sophie had an ability to make me laugh and she was just having fun trying to emulate teenagers who danced like that. I thought it would be good for her to mix with children her own age, though, so we enrolled her in the village ballet class after her impromptu performance.
I grew to like Sophie a great deal over those first weeks and it was to my huge advantage that she seemed to like me. In the afternoons, we went outside and sketched and painted in the meadow if it was warm enough. We swam in the vast, warm indoor pool that was built on the lower level of the estate; the water was heated even though it was summer. The air outside was sometimes cool again by mid-afternoon, so we had to remember to dry off completely before going outside. Besides being one of the most garrulous children I’d ever met, Sophie was also one of the nicest. She and Mrs Fairfax restored my belief in human kindness as the endless, perfect summer continued.
Sophie was happiest face painting and dancing and playing with her many dolls and chatting endlessly using her newly acquired English. I was happiest sketching and going for long walks into the village and around the vast estate. I liked to walk over to the cliffs to write and draw as I sat near the ocean.
What could have been a strange and solitary life at the hall had become full and energetic by the time I was woken early one morning by Mrs Fairfax knocking on my bedroom door.
‘Good morning, Anne. I thought I should tell you, Nathanial Rochester is returning from America today.’
‘Oh,’ I said. The arrival of a complete stranger - the owner of this vast estate - was sure to shake up our comfortable routine.
‘I thought I’d tell you because he has requested to meet you at dinner time.’
Mrs Fairfax laughed, ‘He’ll speak to her when he arrives in the afternoon but I should warn you; basically, he is a good natured person but he seems to have had more than an undue amount of stress in his life and he has little interest in small children. Besides, he’s met Sophie before. He can be terse at times but he has been a very solid guardian.’
‘Oh,’ was all I could think to say.
‘You should put on something a little less drab, Anne. He and his friends are used to dressing for dinner and he’ll expect you and Sophie to join him tonight. Do you have something a little more formal?
I thought it was all a bit impolite to be told what “not to wear” but it was their house, their rules and I thought it was in both my interests and Sophie’s to play along.
‘Um, not really, but I can get something in the village this afternoon.’
‘Good. You need to be on your toes with Nathanial. He can be quite rude, but he means well. ’
I smiled, hoping he wouldn’t be all bad. Besides, my lack of care for what was fashionable might be mistaken for a lack of care in relation to Sophie. I resolved to go into the village to buy something new to wear for dinner tonight with the small amount of funds I had left.
As I was about to leave the room Mrs Fairfax reached into a jar in the kitchen cupboard and pulled out a generous amount of money – more than enough for a new outfit.
‘Take this, Anne. It’s set aside for household expenses and a nice dress definitely fits that bill.’
Since she would not take “no” for an answer, I didn’t know what to say so I accepted the generous gift and thanked her again.
I looked into the mirror as I dressed to take Sophie into the village. I looked tired and unrested.
I’d had a sleepless night with terrible dreams for the first time in weeks. I imagined I’d heard scratching at the door and furniture being moved across the floor boards above me. When I asked Mrs Fairfax, she just shook her head and said, ‘Mrs Poole has been restless. She writes novels and sometimes works into the small hours – or so I’m told. You have to take the good with the bad in life, Anne.’
I was certainly used to doing that.
The day Nathanial Rochester was due to return to Thornton, Sophie and I followed our usual schedule. We began by speaking together in English and then I decided on a swim before lunch. In the afternoon, while Sophie attended her riding lessons, I prepared to go into the village. I waved to Sophie as I opened the gates. I was told I was welcome to take the car, but since I’d never learnt how to drive properly, I thought I’d better not. I left Sophie with her riding instructor and decided to go for a walk to the bus stop.
‘Oh Anne,’ Mrs Fairfax said, ‘would you take these to the post office for me if you are going into town? One of the workmen will give you a lift.’
I nodded, adding ‘It’s alright, I prefer to walk, and I need the exercise.’
The afternoon grew overcast as I made my way down Hay Lane towards the main road that led to the bus stop, a walk of at least half an hour. I was enjoying the solitude, having time to myself. I wore my favourite jeans rolled to my calves and had borrowed a pair of Wellington boots from the scullery. It was breezy but warm enough to go outside wearing the light floral shirt I’d packed for fine weather.
I wore sunglasses to shade me from the glare and had my favourite album blasting from my headphones as I walked in the sun. I’d taken off my summer coat and had it tied around my hips as I walked. I looked like a typical eighteen year old holidaying out of my comfort zone and I was tied up in my music as I veered slightly off the park and wandered more on the edge of the road. From nowhere, or so it seemed, a black sports car sped up and swerved towards me, skidding close by and very near my feet. The driver, a man in his twenties or thereabouts, slammed on the brakes.
The car was motionless, missing both me and a tree by seconds.
‘Careful!’ the man shouted. ‘You need to look where you are going.’
‘And you shouldn’t be driving this fast down country lanes,’ I replied, haughtily.
The driver got out and loomed above me.
He was tall with very dark hair that looked unruly and messy. He wore designer sunglasses and an unironed shirt and I could not see his eyes. His shoulders were broad and his boots covered in mud.
His expression softened, ‘You’re right, I’m sorry. I didn’t see you there. You were camouflaged by the glare and sunlight.’
It was true but not a good enough excuse for almost killing me. I pulled my ear phones over my head and tried to walk past him. He walked towards me. Instantly, I took a step back into the mud.
‘I’m sorry if I startled you. You’re new around these parts, am I right?’
‘Yes,’ I said hesitantly. In London, I’d never stop to speak but they did things differently here. ‘I… I’m the new governess at Thornton Hall.’
‘The new governess?’
‘What’s that - a glorified nanny?’
‘I suppose so,’ I said, annoyed by his questions and keen to move on.
‘But you hardly look old enough to have finished school…’
He considered this for a moment as I adjusted the volume on my speakers, irritated by his tall and overbearing presence. Men like this thought they were so it: tall, fast car, hot, rich, older; I walked on.
‘Just a minute,’ he said.
‘I’m in a hurry; I’ve got to send these letters before the post office closes.’ Did he think I had all day to talk to a complete stranger and a rude one at that? I’d show him who was boss.
‘What do you want?’ I asked impatiently.
‘Oh, nothing,’ he added, ‘I think I’m on London time – fast.’
‘Probably,’ I said dismissively.
‘I might see you soon.’
‘Where? At the local pub? I don’t go out much at night.’ I laughed.
‘Right,’ he said with a sarcastic, superior look on his face.
‘So, see you when I see you,’ I added finally, sure I wouldn’t.
‘Not if I see you first,’ he mumbled. ‘The tutors at Thornton don’t tend to last too long,’ he added as his parting shot.
‘What would you know?’ I replied under my breath.
I could have asked him how he knew all of this, but by then I’d turned my back on him and heard his car start. I raised the volume on my speakers. He drove slower in the opposite direction to me but then I heard him speed up in the distance; typical. He was exactly like the arrogant men that existed in most of my schoolgirl novels.