Thursday, June 6, 2013
ANNE EYRE (Dinner Party: chapter Fourteen) #Jane Eyre Retelling
I decided to dress for dinner, to give Nicola something to worry about.
I bathed and dried and used tongs on my hair in a fairly good attempt to imitate the fashionable models I’d noticed in magazines discarded where Nicola had left them.
It is true I only had one dress; I’d spent the part of my salary I wasn’t saving at the local village shop on brushes and paper and art supplies; but the dress was new and very fashionable – a dark, above the knee, fitted sixties style. I wore it over a cherry coloured polo sweater, black opaque stockings and knee length, black riding boots - the ones I’d been mysteriously provided with even after I’d said I did not wish to take lessons.
Sophie wore a pink dress with a bow at the back and flat, ballet slippers. She looked like the flower girl at a wedding as she skipped across the ballroom and into the dining room.
The table was lit up with candles and flowers. Mrs Fairfax had been told to hire extra staff from the village specifically for the weekend. The dinner party was in full swing when Sophie and I entered the room. Although Rochester looked up momentarily and smiled, his eyes noting that I was more appropriately dressed as Mrs Fairfax had remarked, he did not stop talking to Nicola. There were other friends, a guy named Riff and another woman called Jess. Riff wore a black leather jacket. He was the lead singer in Riffraff, the band Rochester managed. Riff was half asleep throughout dinner but still managed to drink at regular intervals. His girlfriend hung off his every word, nuzzling his shoulder.
As the first course was served, Jess started to nibble Riff’s ear which made Sophie giggle. Meanwhile, Nicola looked enraptured at the man seated opposite her, Nathanial, and even made a point of getting up out of her seat to cut up his food for him while he’d excused himself to take a phone call. I’m not sure that was the best move on her part. He didn’t look entirely pleased when he returned.
Sophie and I were seated near the end of the long table.
To my right was a good-looking stranger, a man who did not seem to know the rest of the party. He had dark brown hair with a long fringe and was around the same age as Rochester. He smiled warmly and introduced himself to me.
‘How do you do? I’m Christopher Mason. May I ask who I have the pleasure of sitting alongside?’
His accent was from somewhere across the sea; America or Ireland; perhaps both. I noticed Mr Rochester’s casual glance in my direction and it pleased me that now it was his turn to see my attention diverted elsewhere.
‘I’m Anne Eyre, Sophie’s English tutor. I’m also her nanny,’ I said, quite loudly and proudly.
The young man smiled at me, then looked coldly at Sophie, who smiled back at him in her trusting way. Sophie looked particularly adorable with her curls tied in a pink ribbon. She was an enchanting child, (like a pet Rochester had noted, when Sophie was out of earshot, with his usual droll humour).
I noticed Christopher again glanced at the child coldly, and I wondered why.
‘And… how old is the child?’ he asked me, almost impatiently, as the first course of lobster bisque was served.
‘Sophie is six,’ I said, quietly.
He nodded as if mentally doing some arithmetic that I couldn’t possibly understand. I broke some bread and took the soup spoon, grateful for the etiquette lessons I’d considered stupid at Lockwood School. I knew to use the round spoon first and to eat using utensils from the outside in. I’d taught Sophie to do the same and she was behaving extremely well for a soon-to-be tired six-year-old.
The conversation around the table grew more animated, the smoke thicker and the music louder. Mrs Fairfax had taken Sophie off to bed after pudding, which was covered in a delicious cloud of caramel sauce over cream and strawberries. After I’d finished eating, I decided it was time for me to also escape.
Nathanial Rochester had been happily talking with Nicola all evening, barely acknowledging my presence and not bothering to speak to me even once. On the other side of Nicola was a good-looking man called Matthew Eaton. He ate with relish, talked animatedly all evening and was extremely good natured. Matthew had also been to university with Rochester and every now and then tapped on his glass to tell jokes that were vaguely funny.
The only time Nathanial looked over at me was when I spoke to Christopher Mason and he only appeared to be interested in our conversation when Christopher started telling me about his life in New Orleans (where he’d come from before his legal office transferred him to London).
After coffee was served, Christopher excused himself on the grounds of being tired from his long journey.
‘Nonsense, man,’ Rochester said. ‘London is just a few miles…’
‘Yes, but Ireland is a few hours, by plane and before that I was in America so I’m afraid I’ve had a long week…’
He smiled and said, ‘It’s been nice to talk to you Anne, I hope I see you in the morning.’
I wasn’t sure what he meant by that comment. After he left, the conversation became rowdier as Riff and Jess started playing guitar and bickering between chord progressions.
Finally, I managed to get up and leave the room unnoticed.
I wound up the stairs, haunted by the generations of Rochesters that lined the wall along with statues and paintings of birds and other exotic creatures that had been lured to this place from other lands; captured and kept here. The wind outside was howling as I made my way to my room. When I got ready for bed, I again had the sense that I was not alone.
A loud thump was followed by a scream beyond the rafters. The house guests, to my knowledge, had remained in the dining room. Mrs Poole was normally asleep at this hour but I thought Edwina Fairfax had told me she had gone into the village to meet a friend. It was unusual that she hadn’t made an appearance at dinner, although she tended to eat in the village on most occasions. The sound was not of this world. It definitely wasn’t Mrs Fairfax or Sophie who were both asleep by now, or either of the maids who weren’t in bed yet.
The next morning, at breakfast, most of the guests were still asleep. Nicola was bleary eyed but had obviously decided to eat breakfast and be civil. She made an effort to smile at me, saying, ‘Good morning Anne,’ in a way that could almost have been described as warm. I suppose once she felt secure in her perceived superiority there was no need to treat me like a threat.
Mrs Fairfax announced that the entire party would be leaving to go to a recording session in London. One of their friends, Matthew Eaton, owned a music studio there. They had left after breakfast without so much as a goodbye. I was told they would return when they were finished.
Sophie looked quite dismayed that she hadn’t had the chance to wave them off. ‘Come on Sophie,’ I said. ‘It’s just us again. Let’s go over our sentences for the week then go outside.’ Reluctantly, she walked upstairs with me after breakfast. Mrs Fairfax shook her head, clearly not impressed by Nathanial’s thoughtless behaviour.
After our English lesson, Sophie and I walked around the estate that morning repeating our bilingual game of naming every object in sight in both French and English. This helped my language skills as well.
At one point, after we’d exhausted the words to describe everything we saw, Sophie grabbed my fingers and asked me why I wasn’t listening to her chatter or her jokes. For some reason, today, I didn’t find them funny. Together we walked around the frosty grounds back towards Thornton Hall. I found myself glancing at the trees and the sky with my young charge, hardly thinking about our conversation or the answers I gave to Sophie’s many questions. I was distracted, thinking about Nathanial, wondering when he would return.
When he did return, the following evening, I was seated in the drawing room, enduring the mundane chatter of the female guests who basically ignored my presence in their company. Tonight, Christopher Mason was noticeably absent and the seat beside me was empty. Sophie had been taken upstairs early after she had been passed around the group like a toy. Her prattle had become decidedly irritating to Nicola who disliked anything or anyone that took Nathanial’s attention away from her.
After the evening meal was served, I ate just enough pudding, before I felt I could leave the crowded room without being missed.
Nathanial Rochester and I stood up simultaneously as he announced, ‘Anne, I hope you are not leaving us. We have arranged after dinner party games - a magician has arrived to entertain us with card tricks and illusions,’ he stated.
I had never really enjoyed fairground entertainment but it would be extremely obvious if I left in full view of everyone.
Nicola stood up and tapped her glass with a spoon before stating, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we have organised, for your entertainment and because it is my birthday request, a fortune teller! A palmist from the local country fair is visiting for the evening to read everyone’s fortunes!’ Nicola then clapped her hands loudly.
‘Come Anne, she will be set up in the library in ten minutes… you must go early since you are always the first to leave.’
Nicola nodded, clearly happy to be rid of me sooner than she expected. My absence would allow her to linger exclusively with her intended husband.
Rochester stood and whispered something about, ‘I’ll just finalize the payment.’ Nicola looked extremely self-satisfied. The most amiable of our house guests, Matthew Eaton, jumped up and said, ‘Okay, I’ll go first then.’
Nicola smiled approvingly. ‘Each time slot goes for ten minutes,’ she said. ‘Anne, I’ve scheduled you in next.’
Having once worked as a society party planner, Nicola was in her element organising others. I had no doubt both the magician, who was happily pulling a card from behind my ear as I inwardly cringed, and the fortune teller, were the result of her suggestions and probably known to her.