Thursday, June 6, 2013
My employer was home that night and wanted to meet me in the sitting room after dinner. I attempted to look my most formal – proper shoes and hair swept off my face. I took a novel I was reading in case he just expected me to sit by the fire and there were too many empty pauses.
‘Mrs Fairfax, I’m not really used to making conversation with older men,’ I’d whispered.
‘Oh, Anne, he’s not that much older. He is a younger son and inherited when the older brother died. Before that he was in America living quite the bohemian life. He went to an expensive college; he wanted to be a film director. Instead, he produced some films and ran around with a very fast crowd.’
‘Oh,’ I said.
‘He’s not usually one to converse but when he does; he’ll do all the talking. Don’t worry, I doubt he’ll expect too much; just a progress report on Sophie.’
An hour later, I was in the sitting room with Sophie, reading, while she played with her dolls.
‘I need a new one,’ she exclaimed as she braided the doll’s blonde curls.
‘Oh Sophie, I have never seen so many dolls! Your doll’s house is overflowing and so is the play room. Soon we’ll be able to fill all of the rooms in the house with your toys,’ I joked.
The little girl looked up at me and smiled. She’d just lost her front teeth which made her look even cuter. Sophie was a naturally affectionate child, in a way I’d not been. She wrapped her hands around me, and then pulled the clip out of my brown hair, spreading the length of it across my shoulders.
‘Bien, good,’ she said. ‘I want to play hairdresser.’
‘No Sophie. Remember, tonight I’m going to be busy - for a while.’
‘Talking to Papa?’
I’d already guessed the younger Rochester was her father. Nobody had ever told me; it just seemed to be an obvious conclusion to reach. Sophie was a little girl from France who was all alone in the world and had been adopted by a Rochester? Of course, he had to be her father; she was way too young to be his sister. Besides, I was pretty sure adoption regulations would never allow Nathanial Rochester to drag a child from another country just to keep her in the lounge room like a prized possession.
As if on cue, the music coming from the drawing room stopped. I heard the rustle of feet. The owner of Thornton brushed past me as he entered the room and patted Sophie on the head like a pet. I couldn’t see his face. Sophie went to hug his leg but he pushed her off gently. He seemed otherwise engaged.
‘Where is the new tutor?’
‘I’m here,’ I said, standing up from behind the sofa and placing my novel on the table.
Mrs Fairfax, knitting in a comfortable leather arm chair, gathered Sophie and took her to the farthest corner of the room. I’d already been warned that grown men such as Rochester had little patience with young children. I hoped he had more tolerance talking with me because what I’d already heard about Rochester put me slightly on guard.
The fire provided most of the light in the room; and seeing him from behind, in shadow, at first I thought Sophie had lucked out. Nathanial Rochester was a tall, dark, (his photos made him look handsome in a gruff and uncompromising way) and dominating presence. I knew he must be seriously rich, that was obvious. While most of the stately homes in Britain were downsizing, he’d left all of the chandeliers on in the hallway and most of the skeleton staff remained; some even lived at Thornton, which was unusual in this day and age.
When the man looked up, I was unnerved to see he was the stranger I’d met in the country lane that afternoon. He even appeared to be limping from his accident.
‘You must be Anne Eyre. I’m Nathanial Rochester. I think we’ve met before.’
I gave a hesitant nod.
He smiled and gestured to Mrs Fairfax.
‘This girl made me swerve my car, Edwina; I nearly sprained my ankle from slamming on the brakes to avoid hitting her. What do you make of that?’
Mrs Fairfax looked quite alarmed.
‘Never mind,’ he laughed, ‘those country laneways can be quite tricky.’
‘I hope it’s nothing serious?’
‘I should be fine in the morning.’ He changed the topic now that he had my attention. ‘Do you drive Anne?’
‘No.’ I said, truthfully.
‘No,’ I added.
‘Well, you’ll have to learn to drive in the country. If you want to ride as well, you should take lessons while you are here, with Sophie.’
I was slightly afraid of horses, but I had to agree that learning to drive would be useful.
‘Sophie, I bought you a present,’ he said as an afterthought.
‘Merci! Merci! Bien! Oh yes, please,’ Sophie said, running over to Rochester, she took his hand. He distracted her with a huge gift he’d brought all the way from America.
Her face lit up as she pulled the doll from the wrapper and so did Rochester’s.
Mrs Fairfax gathered the child and said, ‘Come Sophie, it’s time for bed. You can add this to your collection up in your room.’
‘Bonne nuit et fais de beaux reves!’ Rochester said. I guessed he didn’t realise we’d had a pact only to speak English.
‘Bonne nuit,’ Sophie replied, kissing him on both cheeks. Then she looked at me and said in perfect English, ‘Good night, Anne.’
Sophie reluctantly left Rochester, after reaching up to kiss him again on the cheek. He brushed this show of sticky affection off, but I thought it was nice to see the sweet child show such an obvious liking for someone who clearly didn’t want others to know how fond he was of her or that he was even capable of affection and emotion.
He poured himself a drink and offered me one. I shook my head.
‘What have you done with Sophie?
‘I wrote our schedule here; you can read it if you like.’ I handed him the piece of paper, scented and pink at Sophie’s instigation. He raised his eyebrows.
‘Never mind, I already have. You’ve taken a lot of care with her, Anne. She’s frivolous.’
‘In her defence, many children are frivolous.’
‘And what are you, Anne? A teenage girl? Where did you learn all your child psychology?’ He teased.
‘From being one, from being around them,’ I said. I’d bet I’d minded more children than he had prior to his being stuck with Sophie.
‘Tell me what you did before you arrived here. Most of the staff who come to stay here, in the middle of nowhere have… let’s just say, something they are hiding from or running to.’
I was embarrassed by his comment, his partially accurate assessment of me.
‘I was in school, like most people my age.’
‘I can see that,’ he said, glancing at my CV. ‘You went to a very expensive ladies’ college in London. What are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be summering in Europe with all your little friends?’
‘I needed a job for the summer and I like working with children.’
‘Yes, I can see that,’ he looked away. ‘The previous girl who came to us was fleeing from an abusive boyfriend. Just wondering what your story is?’
‘I’m eighteen years old; I have no story.’
‘Well, you are the only other literate female in this house apart from Mrs Fairfax – and she’s heard all of my old stories. I just thought you might be good company for me this evening. You left your sketches lying around in the kitchen - or Sophie did,’ he chuckled.
I was alarmed and slightly irritated that he’d seen them. I would’ve preferred him to have had access to my email than to have been the first stranger to pour over my private drawings. Sophie and I had been sitting in the meadows taking turns to sketch each other from a distance then close up, hands and feet. Then I’d turned to the meadow, drawing lush images of the surrounding estate. They were personal images, displaying more of my internal world than I would have cared to show him at this point.
Sophie’s drawings were the colourful, childish outlines of a six year old. I didn’t want to admit it, but she had little artistic inclination, although she seemed to enjoy picking the flowers that afternoon and practising her cartwheels, I remembered that. Besides, little aptitude didn’t seem to hinder her enjoyment of art, nor did I feel it should. We’d set up a picnic with Mrs Fairfax in the low light of the meadow; the sun had shone brightly by lunch time and we lolled on the blankets. It had been one of the nicest afternoons in recent memory.
‘She has no talent,’ he said truthfully.
‘Pardon?’ I was miles away in the firelight, thinking of the meadow.
‘Sophie, as I said, has not a scrap of talent; but you do. She is not academic; I know she is only six but you can tell these things about a child. She is vain and frivolous. You are neither, yet you both seem to get along so well. ’
‘Perhaps our differences complement each other. Sophie is one of the sweetest children I have met,’ I said in her defence.
He smiled, a little sarcastically, I thought.
‘She’s manipulative like her mother, like most women. Anyway, how many children have you met recently? You’re barely more than a child yourself,’ he trailed off.
I decided to be assertive.
‘Many,’ I replied. ‘For years, I was in foster care. I had loads of foster siblings who were much more difficult to handle than Sophie.’
‘Oh,’ he said. ‘And the school?’
‘When I was twelve, an unknown benefactor paid all of my expenses to attend the college until I completed my A-levels, and then I was flung out onto the street.’
‘Ah,’ was all he said. I noticed a new tone, almost like respect in his voice when he spoke next. The fire flickered alongside us and he turned down the large, flat screen that was left on, playing an old movie that Mrs Fairfax had been watching earlier.
‘I think we can turn that off. She’s probably seen it before,’ he joked.
I said nothing as Rochester sipped his port, contemplating the interview.
‘And was it a strict religious education?’ he asked.
‘Yes,’ I replied.
I thought of morning prayers bringing a sense of calm, strength and routine to my days. Then I remembered mean girls hitting me with wet sheets after lights out and screaming at me for being foster care scum, ‘welfare scum, Social Services rubbish’. I thought of the teacher who’d snidely made remarks about writing my family tree in history ‘as if I’d know it’ and the headmistress who’d wrongly blamed me for a student prank because it looked better to blame a charity student whom no one would speak up for. I thought of the freezing cold mornings and the lack of hot water for baths we were expected to take. Prestige existed only on the surface of Lockwood School for Young Ladies. I think I may have fared better at a local comprehensive but then I might never have learnt French in the focused and careful manner Miss Stevens had taught the language to me… or music or probably have received such high marks on my final exams. Yes, it had been a privileged education.
Rochester’s words interrupted my recollections.
‘I went to boarding school… not far from here actually. There was no real reason that I should have been sent away, it was simply family tradition. All the children were sent to boarding school by age eight. My parents didn’t particularly care for us. Well, that’s an understatement. My brother and I got along though, lived in our own world. My family didn’t know any differently, nor did they educate themselves about children. I’m a great believer in education, Anne. Are you?
‘Yes, of course.’ I added, ‘…although there are many ways to be educated. ’
For one thing, formal education hadn’t prepared me for the verbal challenges of Mr Nathanial Rochester.
‘This is the twenty-first century but my father, before he died and left me his estate, still held the view that shooting helpless animals was the greatest sport in the world. He also didn’t believe it was useful to educate women. He thought the woman I’d marry would have so much money she wouldn’t need an education … You probably think his views were very… backward.’ I remained impassive. ‘I dropped out of Oxford because I couldn’t stand having to answer to my father. I then found myself in America, attended college in Los Angeles, and went to the South to produce a film in New Orleans.’
‘That sounds exciting.’
He raised an eyebrow and changed the subject.
‘I wish you had met my father, the original Lord Rochester. I wonder what you would have made of him. He spoke his mind even more than I do… much more than you.’
‘He sounds like just the sort of man I would have gotten along with,’ I said sarcastically.
‘On the contrary, both he and my brother would have had you drinking port by now. I fear they would have had you dancing on the table.’
I glared at him. ‘You must be joking,’ I said under my breath.
He smiled. ‘They liked straight talkers and you seem to tell it as it is. Father wasn’t very happy about me running around with my college friends, I can tell you that. Oh, at first he didn’t care because it was never supposed to have been me inheriting the house and the title but things happen. Life doesn’t always go according to plan. When my brother… passed away, I was expected to come back to this part of the world to take over the running of the estate but it’s not really me. I try to limit my time here. Before returning to England, I lived in Los Angeles and South America. I travelled to Brazil, Mexico, places I’d grown up imagining. I liked the Deep South…’
‘Wow,’ was all I could say.
‘…You enjoy Sophie’s company, don’t you?’
‘Yes, of course.’
‘She has few talents beyond being pretty but… I don’t choose my pets based on their talent and this one was rather… foisted upon me.’
I was shocked by his candour and said nothing.
‘I wonder, would you like her as much if I told you her mother was a…’ he hesitated, trying to think of the right words, ‘a … French dancer?’
‘Is there something wrong with that?’
He laughed uproariously.
‘You are quite naïve aren’t you?’
‘No,’ I blurted out.
‘I think you are. What I meant to say is… I met her in Paris. Sophie’s mother sold her body… to men… for money. She said she was a dancer, Anne, a high class one as it turned out. Once I realised Sophie was mine, she agreed to sell her to me… for ten thousand pounds.’
‘Oh,’ I said, trying to hide my surprise.
‘Well, she worked evenings; she was beautiful, exotic… Still, we all make mistakes. You’ll realise that too, as you get older.’
‘It’s getting late,’ I said, pretending to take this conversation in my stride though I was completely at sea. I’d decided I had better bring the interview to an end as Rochester was onto his third drink and about to tell me more secrets I didn’t want to hear.
‘Don’t worry, Anne, I’ll let you in on the rest of the family story on a need to know basis,’ he laughed. ‘I’m not as bad as I seem.’
‘If you don’t mind me saying…Mr R - ’
‘Nathanial,’ he pre-empted his name.
‘Nathanial … you are too young to be worrying about the past. You have everything: wealth, comfort…. You can be anything you want to be. You should take what is good from the past and change your future to erase the bad. We are all capable of change and of doing what is right.’
He looked up at me incredulously in the dark.
‘Ah, a lesson in morality from little Miss Eyre.’ His gaze lingered on mine a moment, ‘Oh Anne, you really have a lot to learn. The past is what impacts the future and something I cannot erase.’
There was a moment’s silence and in that gap, as he drank his port and I sipped my tea, I could have sworn I heard a faint scream. It came from somewhere beyond the walls, beyond the rooftop even. It was out of this world.
I was startled.
‘What was that?’
He looked up at me. There was another thump on the roof.
‘That!’ I said.
‘Perhaps it’s Sophie or Mrs Poole, the lodger. Mrs Fairfax agreed to let her stay in the upstairs rooms for the summer, she’s an old family friend,’ he added, by way of explanation. They seemed to have a lot of them.
I hesitated at the door.
I think you’ve had too much to drink, I thought, as I went to leave. Our conversation had been smoother than I’d anticipated, given that my employer was gruff, and slightly inebriated. And yet, I hadn’t expected someone quite so young and handsome. Still, we had reached unfamiliar territory and I was uncomfortable talking with a relative stranger as if we were friends. Suddenly, I longed for the comfort of my own bed.
‘Anne?’ he said, turning back as I went to leave.
‘I’m glad you’ve come to stay here.’
‘It’s just for the summer, Mr Rochester.’
‘Yes, I know. Oh, and Anne? My name’s Nathanial. My friends call me Nate and sometimes by my surname, Rochester.’ I think he enjoyed the confusion he was creating between us.
I said goodnight and left the room.
That night, I dreamt I was a small girl again, walking through my life before the hurt took over. I was sitting on the doorstep of a huge house, waiting for someone, not my mean aunt, not my actual parents. There was a large garden and a fence and behind it, I felt safe, for the first time. Then I was an adult standing on the shore in a towelling beach robe. When the person I waited for arrived, the sun blocked his identity but he placed my hand in his and together we ran into the ocean. Heat blazed down on us; there were no cares, no worries - just bliss. When I woke, I remembered being told by my aunt that both my parents were drug users who’d abandoned me at birth. There, in the ocean, with this nameless person, I was free again; happy.
The dream was more comforting than the one I usually had about the handsome young husband of my equally perfect-looking new foster mother. I had lived in Notting Hill back then with a selfish public relations executive who wanted a trial run at looking after a child. Her husband (and his wandering hands and too-close hugs), worked in advertising. He came up with the revolutionary idea of trying to turn me into a child model. I was only eleven but I could pick a dodgy character when I met one and I got out of that house as soon as was humanly possible, before any serious damage was done. His dubious intentions, when he tried to make me pose for photographs for my modelling portfolio, made me wary.
I tossed and turned in the early hours.
When I woke at around three in the morning, I had a feeling that someone was watching me. I got up to make a hot chocolate; the house was still and silent. I padded up the stairs in my socks and read for a bit, an old but beautifully written novel: Persuasion. I reached the part where Frederick Wentworth returns, and then I fell back into a deep sleep.
I woke again, at around three in the morning.
One of Rochester’s dogs, Pilot, was lapping my hand which I thought was quite strange since I’d shut my door and was yet to meet a dog capable of opening one with his paw. I’d been having such a nice dream that if it was possible I would have closed my eyes and willed myself back into it; this was never going to happen. I’d arrived without a proper dressing gown so I pulled on my coat as it was still quite cold. Pilot followed me protectively as I got up and headed downstairs again to make some toast.
The floorboards creaked and the ancestral portraits haunted me as I crept downstairs.
Silence greeted me when I reached the kitchen, no noises but the opening and closing of a cupboard as I prepared my food. I switched on the stove light and boiled more water, feeling comforted by the familiar taste of English Breakfast Tea. As I sipped, I heard it again, unmistakable, a soft scream. I mentally counted all of the people I knew to be sleeping in Thornton Hall: Mrs Fairfax, Sophie, the maids, the cook, two grooms, Mrs Poole and Rochester. It must be one of the maids, I thought. Then I heard them again - two words as clear as the daylight that would soon arrive - animal and hate.
I wondered what those shrill words meant out of context and who they were directed towards.
From nowhere, Edwina Fairfax raced down the stairs in her dressing gown.
‘Oh… Anne, I had no idea you were awake. We put you in a room, far away from the rest of the bedrooms so you wouldn’t be disturbed if people woke early.’
‘What is the noise?’
‘It’s just a maid; she’s been in the village. She brought someone home and there was a fight. It’s nothing for you to worry about. Nathanial has called for help, he’s getting her out. There should be quiet in the house now.’
‘I’ll go and check on Sophie,’ I said.
‘There is no need. I’m sure she will be asleep. Sophie is used to all kinds of noises. Things quite literally go bump in the night in these ancient houses. Her life in Paris was quite abnormal as well. In fact, from what I gather she is much better off with her father. He told me you know… Anyway, Merida has done this before; she’s on medication for anxiety and then, off she goes to the pub and starts to drink with her friends,’ Mrs Fairfax continued.
I thought about Merida and Leah, the kitchen maids. I’d met them the day I’d arrived. They looked at me strangely and said very little; not even hello.
As I wrapped my coat tightly around my waist, I felt the card that Connor had given me and pulled it out of my pocket. He was a minister’s son, aiming to be a clergyman himself. His sisters were warm and welcoming and I recalled them telling me about their desire to build a school in India; something I might help with, if I retained an interest in teaching. I wanted to forge my own destiny. I stuffed the cardboard back into my purse after I’d checked on Sophie. She was sleeping soundly as Mrs Fairfax predicted.
Before I got back into bed with the morning paper and my tea, I thought about what Connor had meant when he said, ‘call me, if you need to.’ His sisters, Rainbow and Daisy, had looked solemnly at me and nodded.
I was fairly sure Thornton, like Rochester, was full of secrets, a mystery wrapped inside a riddle.
I closed my eyes and eventually fell into a deep sleep.
After the incident that morning, my days continued in an easy way.
Nathanial only stayed for a week. I called him by his surname, Rochester, in my own mind and occasionally Nate as I grew to know him better. He had stayed long enough to choose some livestock and horses to raise, check with the grooms and sort out the expenditure of the property with his various staff. He then said goodbye to everyone and prepared to pack up and leave for a holiday in the South of France. He said he’d return to Thornton soon and bring his friends, the Ingram’s, to visit for the rest of the summer.
‘He never stays here long,’ Mrs Fairfax explained. ‘Each time he comes back I get very little notice, so I have to keep the house in a constant state of readiness. Sometimes he brings his American friends from university. Other times, it’s his European ones. He has so many friends; I’ve lost track of them all over the years. Nathanial lives in a social whirl of money and miscreants. He has managed the money so well; his father would be proud of him. We never lack for anything around here. He is very well-educated, studied Mathematics and Finance at university. He worked in the City while his father was still alive but he doesn’t need a real job. I think he’s too young, really, to be so wealthy. It might have helped had he become interested in a profession but I’m hoping he’ll settle down soon. I’d like the house to be filled with some more children.’ Mrs Fairfax was staring at a photograph of Nathanial with a woman called Nicola Ingram on the social pages of a magazine. The woman was everything I’m not; tall, blonde, glamorous.
I nodded. I wasn’t sure what to say, since my pay, although generous, was hardly a pathway to riches; but I knew Rochester was ridiculously wealthy. Just the estate alone would take some serious upkeep. The view from my window was expansive and breathtaking.
In the mornings, I often woke to the sound of Pilot, Rochester’s dog, barking and the two of them would go out walking along the path that led from Thornton. I could see them below my window but they never looked up. It was so early almost the entire household slept in except me and Sophie. Rochester normally returned almost as breathless as the dog after running along the cliffs. I could see them from the window after I dressed. Sometimes, Sophie would run in and yell out to her father. Then, he looked up and waved at us. He seemed so happy and free with the dog, and much younger than his twenty-eight years on those mornings.
During the day, while he was away or working with the horses, Sophie and I would commence lessons. By lunchtime our academic work and English classes were finished.
‘Your English has improved so much, Sophie,’ I told her. ‘By September you will be fluent and able to speak easily with all your new school friends.’
Sophie looked quite alarmed.
‘I am not going to school. I have always been home schooled.’
‘Well, perhaps that will change after summer,’ I said hesitantly, fearing I had mentioned something I probably shouldn’t have.
In the afternoon, while Sophie was riding, I’d commenced driving lessons in the village. With my driving instructor barking instructions at my side all the way, I practised. Mr Rochester had insisted I learn to drive along the country lanes, and after two weeks, I was driving almost as fast as him (though I tried to heed the speed limit – as a learner, I had to).
The day of my driving test arrived and was the cause of much excitement in the house. Leah and Mrs Fairfax had even baked a cake in anticipation of my success.
The previous afternoon Rochester had offered to take me out to practise my parking, particularly between two cars on a hill. I think he thought my hesitancy would amuse him. Since my driving course was officially over, I knew this extra practise could make all the difference. He turned on the stereo as we drove along the esplanade. We reached the flat expansive car park with the stereo on all the way. He turned it up and sang along with the words to a song he liked. It was refreshing to spend time with him like this – he was a different person outside the stuffy confines of his duty and work.
After two hours’ practise, neither of us were surprised when I gained my driver’s licence.
I walked into the kitchen where Mrs Fairfax and Sophie were waiting expectantly. I had purposely made Rochester drive me home. I covered the happiness I felt and instead wore a very long face with a downcast expression as we entered the kitchen. So did Rochester.
Sophie raced up to me and put her hands on either side of my cheeks.
‘Never mind Anne… Ne vous inquietez pas!’
I looked into her eyes and smiled, a true smile and one of many I’d shown since I’d arrived at Thornton.
‘Don’t look so worried Sophie. Guess what?’ I whispered, ‘I’m licensed to drive!’
‘Wow!’ the child exclaimed.
I scooped her up in my arms and even Leah and Merida clapped. Mrs Fairfax brought out the plates for afternoon tea on the manicured lawn.
Rochester walked in from the stables commenting, ‘We should all celebrate your achievement tonight, Anne; it means I can send you out to buy me whisky from the village.’
I looked at him, knowing he must be joking, almost understanding his upper class, country humour by now.
That night we all had a delicious roast dinner prepared by Leah who seemed, as Mrs Fairfax noted, to be in better humour these days which, according to Merida, had, ‘more to do with a boy she had met in the village than job satisfaction.’ After the meal, we went to the drawing room to watch some home movies Rochester made of Sophie; and more recently, there were scenes of parties and a group of young men trying to fly a plane to France. The plane barely got off the ground before filming was halted.
‘Those are friends of mine from university. You’ll meet them soon; they’re coming to stay.’
The images were colourful, playful even. Caught unawares by some friends, you could see the look of care and wonder in Rochester’s eyes as he raced Sophie and twirled her around in the air. The films were a collage of colour, sound and music, pool parties and apparently infamous house parties. I’d searched the family name on the internet (in a village café) while he was away. The Rochesters were quite notorious in these parts of England for their upper crust lineage, Nathanial’s generosity and adherence to charity, and various scandals involving most of his relatives.
I told myself the whisper of scandal was just cyber space gossip. The living room lights flickered while Rochester turned down the sound and put on some music, ‘a better soundtrack to our lives’, he assured me. The movies needn’t have been silent but he said he preferred them that way.
Mrs Fairfax excused herself by then to go to bed. Merida and Leah had left to go into town to meet their boyfriends and play pool on their night off. Sophie had fallen asleep on the couch, her head on Rochester’s thigh. Rochester was not normally demonstrative, but for the first time, I saw him lovingly scoop the child into his arms and take her upstairs to her room.
When he came back, I was watching an old movie in the drawing room on the large screen.
‘I love this film,’ he said. He was sipping a drink. ‘Sometimes I prefer films to real life.’
I thought it was a strange statement for a guy whose real life was pretty amazing.
‘Do you want a brandy?’ he asked.
‘No thank you,’ I replied.
‘Why not? Everyone out in the country drinks in the evening. There’s little else to do,’ he laughed.
‘I just don’t like the taste,’ I replied.
I hadn’t touched alcohol since Irma had had her drink spiked. Perhaps my new found sobriety was for the best. But who knew? If I was cold, brandy might be hard to resist. Seated by the fire, the night was warm and the atmosphere comforting.
‘Everything in moderation,’ Rochester said. ‘That’s what my father used to say. But then he died a washed up alcoholic, so what would he know?’
I was shocked that Rochester would say that about his father. It sounded so disrespectful, but later, when I learned more of his upbringing, I realized he was only being honest.
It had been such a nice day. If I went to the wall, past where Rochester was seated, pulled back the curtain and opened the window, I’d hear the ocean in the distance.
Meanwhile, Rochester took a few more sips of his drink, smiled and said, ‘Dutch courage,’ as he wandered over to the piano.
He played a few notes, then a few bars of a classical tune which was familiar to me, but not familiar enough for me to name. Then he started messing around with some jazz and a song that I’d once rocked out to at a karaoke party at the house of one of my classmates; another excuse to escape from school. That song, I knew. It was about hardship and survival and it had a memorable melody. I hummed along with it as I read my magazine, trying to find something interesting to say about the society ladies who lunched in these parts and held charity auctions after the meal.
‘You have a nice voice,’ he said, when he stopped playing.
‘Thank you,’ I replied. ‘You play well; I didn’t know you were a musician.’
‘I’m not. I manage a band sometimes. It’s just a hobby, if people still use that word. My friends stay here to rehearse in the vacant ball room. It has good acoustics,’ he chuckled.
I looked at the guitars stacked in the corner.
‘They’re sort of for show. The Ingram’s, my oldest friends from school, used to live across the village on one of the neighbouring houses, Highcliff. Now they live in the States but when they come home to visit their family… well, we put together the band; they play a few gigs in the village. I graduated from university as you’d call it, with first class honours but I don’t really use my education as it was intended. It’s not what father had in mind for me.’
‘Perhaps it’s true that no education is wasted.’
‘Do you really believe that Anne?’
‘I’m only eighteen. I try to believe what I’m told,’ I smiled.
He laughed. I doubted my father knew of my existence and I was pretty sure he’d never had anything in mind for me, so to speak. I could tell Rochester felt hemmed in by family expectations but all that bluster had changed along with a sadness that seemed to have washed over him since we first met.
‘You’re looking straight at me for once, Anne. Do you think I’m… hot?’ he joked.
I laughed out loud and shook my head at his conceit.
‘No,’ I lied, perhaps a bit too swiftly.
‘Well, that was quick,’ he mused.
‘It’s just that… I didn’t mean you are not… attractive; I should have made it clear that what people are like on the surface is not always of interest to me.’
‘Really? That betrays depth beyond your years. You should explain yourself further Anne. There aren’t too many schoolgirls who would have given me that answer.’
‘I should have said that beauty, although memorable, is not as meaningful as a person’s actions. I think society places too much emphasis on what people look like and not what people do.’ I glanced dismissively at a famous celebrity on the cover of a magazine near my feet.
Rochester laughed out loud as if my childish comments amused him endlessly.
‘You’re blushing, Anne.’
‘It’s the fire, it’s hot in here,’ I covered.
He laughed in my face over his brandy.
I got up.
‘Good night… Rochester… Nathanial… Nate,’ I hedged.
‘Are you leaving? Stay and play pool with me; we can watch the sunrise.’
‘I have to be up early.’
‘Sophie will sleep in on Sunday. She always does.’
‘Of course you are free to leave me, Anne, but won’t you sit for a moment while I play?’ He gestured to the piano, ‘… Anyway, we’ll be lucky to see the sun tomorrow; according to the weather report, no need to wake early.’
‘Goodnight,’ I said as I went to leave.
‘Goodnight Anne. Congratulations on getting your driver’s licence,’ he smiled as I walked out of the room.
The lights in the hallway were low and I couldn’t see a clear path to my bedroom so I put my hand on the rail. The house was long and the halls wide. I picked a torch out of the little cupboard at the top of the stairs, kept there for power blackouts. I found my way to my door and went to the bathroom. I noticed my bed had been turned down and a hot water bottle placed under the covers, along with a chocolate on the pillow. I think the chocolate was from Sophie but the water bottle was from Mrs Fairfax. I could have been forgiven for thinking Thornton was more like a six star hotel than a country house.
As I brushed my hair and cleaned my teeth, I heard laughter from another room - the one upstairs, again. I turned off the tap and pressed my ear to the wallpaper. I heard only silence.
That night, I tossed and turned for a while before falling into a deep sleep of perfect dreams, sunlight and ocean. Sophie and I were running along the beach barefoot through the sand. We were flying a kite we’d made from an online kit. The kite flew high, touching the sky.
When I woke up at nine in the morning, it was raining. The sky was overcast. Once again I heard laughter and music from the rooms upstairs although I’d assumed Mrs Poole had already gone out for her morning walk.
That afternoon, after Sophie had finished her riding lesson, we raced each other up to the main house. Mrs Fairfax came walking out of the entrance hall, waving a note.
‘I just received a message, Anne. The house is going to be a bit chaotic for the next few days. Mr Rochester is preparing to leave soon and when he returns he’s bringing a party of guests back with him, friends and a family from the neighbouring properties, who are visiting. It’s traditional to be welcoming out here in the country Anne. You and Sophie will be expected to attend dinner every evening. He’s bringing his girlfriend, Nicola Ingram, back with him.’
My face froze.
I wasn’t aware he had a girlfriend though I suppose it was not really any of my business. The previous evening we’d spent together as friends more than employer and employee. I’d just assumed, like me, he was alone in the world apart from casual acquaintances. Though he had Sophie and the monetary advantages his inheritance had given him, he had no close relatives. But of course, his extreme wealth and his noble lineage really meant he was nothing like me, apart from a shared experience we’d both felt, a common bond of childhood neglect.
The next morning over breakfast Mrs Fairfax tried to warn me.
‘This is a strange place for a young girl Anne; not much to do apart from looking after Sophie and once the house guests arrive, well, it becomes more like a hotel with, let’s just say, rambunctious guests.’
‘You forget, I used to live with wild kids in foster homes before my expensive schooling. I am happy here Mrs Fairfax, perhaps for the first time. This is one of the most beautiful places I’ve visited or lived in.’
‘Just be careful Anne. You know little of the real world or of men like Rochester.’
‘I suppose you must think I’m very naïve for an eighteen-year-old from London but I’ve been shut up in a girls’ school for the past few years and there was no topic off limits and no cruelty other girls wouldn’t stoop to in order to rise to the top, so to speak. There is a kind of serenity to my days here, something missing that I longed for. Sometimes, my judgments are flawed. Perhaps I have been harsh in my assessments of people. You have all been so kind to me here in a way I was not used to, and I have learnt to take things at face value and not look for the bad in the good.’
Mrs Fairfax smiled.
‘Just be careful, Anne, like I said. And remember, sometimes when we are young, we have the most clarity.’
I wasn’t sure what she meant.
That afternoon when we were playing with Sophie’s doll family and her house in the school room, Sophie started telling me about a dark-haired lady that roamed the halls at night. In the weeks I’d been with her, Sophie had literally started talking to me almost totally in English.
‘I saw her once, well, heard her. She was singing a song in French and I understood all the words. She wore a full length dress and had wild hair. The maid, Leah, told me there are strange creatures upstairs who only come out when we are asleep and if you see them they reach for you and squeeze you and make you scream until you beg them to stop!’
Suddenly Sophie, who was always demonstrative with people she liked, wrapped her arms around me and squealed.
‘Shh, Sophie. What have I told you about shrieking? You’ll frighten the entire house.’
‘Well, it’s a scary story. And anyway, she’s not a ghost, this lady, she’s a creature with fangs and once she bites you, she goes crazy from the blood and yells the place down.’
‘Utter nonsense,’ I said as Sophie tried to tickle me, quite successfully I might add.
Sophie was laughing by then and winding herself around me until we both ended up in a bunch on the floor and Mrs Fairfax came hurrying in with tea.
Sophie had a note she pulled out from her jean’s pocket.
‘Oh, I nearly forgot,’ Sophie said, ‘it’s from my riding instructor. I said you were eighteen and single. He wants to meet you.’
I laughed at Sophie playing matchmaker. I wanted to see in myself what others might see – a person worthy of friendship and love, as we all are. But something, or someone, held me back from responding to the note – just a few words of friendship offering a riding lesson saying, ‘you must be a very special person for Sophie to think so highly of you.’
It was sweet and funny and I said we could invite him to have lunch with us one day after lessons in the meadow. I hadn’t agreed to the riding lesson since I was slightly afraid of horses and getting too used to living at Thornton.
Already, I was intrigued, attracted, possibly enraptured by Nathanial Rochester; but I would never let him know that. There was no way he could possibly return my feelings and I wanted to save myself the embarrassment of sharing them.
Secrets and Lies
After a few days’ absence, Mr Rochester returned. He was finalizing some paperwork in relation to the horse sales. Sophie and I were playing piano in the drawing room; there were more off notes than on when Sophie played her part. He could hear us from his desk and seemed to find the whole scenario very funny. Sophie looked up and ran to him until he said, ‘Off me, Sophie!’ Pretending to be annoyed, he added, ‘We have guests arriving this afternoon, I must finish my work.’ It was clear her affection for him existed despite his gruffness. On some level, Rochester’s basic kindness was obvious to Sophie. She would go to hug him regardless of his apparent coldness. It didn’t occur to her that someone raised undemonstratively, might not wish to hug her back. I believe most children have excellent instincts about those closest to them and Rochester responded to her regardless.
After music lessons finished, he took us for a long drive around the estate and we had an early lunch at the local pub. It was as far from my inner-city London reality as I could have imagined. I was embarrassed that the girl at the bar, who was new and didn’t know Rochester, assumed we were a family. Deep down, although it was not a vague possibility, the idea brought me a feeling of happiness I’d never previously known. Although Rochester, at twenty-eight, was older than me, I’d never met anyone like him – anyone as interesting or as strong minded as him. He was nothing like the boys or teachers I’d met. If I had known myself better, I would have been able to put words to the feelings I was experiencing for the first time. Instead, I looked away as he glanced at me when he carried a tired Sophie to the car. I was scared of getting close to anyone, much less this powerful man who was officially my employer.
That afternoon Rochester’s friends, the Ingram’s, arrived. They had already fallen asleep in the upstairs wing after their long trip. Sophie was at her riding lesson so Nate asked me to join him to play pool in the living room. It was a fine afternoon but already the faint glimmer of sunlight had fallen behind clouds in the sky. There was music playing in the drawing room and the kitchen staff were busy shopping in the village to buy extra food.
A warm silence had settled over the house as Nate told me about the people who were staying for the house party. I’d already heard about the “beautiful” Nicola Ingram from Mrs Fairfax.
‘I’m not sure, but I have a hunch he’s thinking of marrying this one,’ she had said. ‘Rochester is probably just biding his time to make sure she is genuine and not after his money. Although the Ingrams are one of the finest families in the district, she doesn’t stand to inherit anything like the fortune that Rochester has and he would never marry a woman who was just after prestige.’
I suppose that meant Nathanial’s future wife would become Lady Somebody, which all sounded a bit grand in the twenty-first century.
I’d never heard Nathanial mention his title and I was pretty sure he never used it. It was a bit embarrassing in this modern day and age. I’d seen so much need in some of the poorer boroughs of central London. I wondered if Mrs Fairfax was exaggerating as she was prone to doing. I knew her generation would be impressed by hereditary titles, but I wasn’t. I would have just fainted if, for example, he’d introduced himself as Lord Rochester and asked me to address him as Sir. In fact, I may have left.
I collected Sophie from her riding lesson. When we returned we had to walk past the sitting room. Unbeknownst to me, Sophie had taken pictures on her father’s mobile phone of all my paintings, her riding instructor, the food we had eaten and anything else she had found interesting during the day. When I walked into the kitchen to gather our drinks, Sophie and her father were flicking through the photos together. I noticed when she stopped at the photo of Enrique, the riding instructor, and added that we had arranged to have lunch together, he paused.
I couldn’t help but feel a slight thrill at the thought that he seemed jealous.
Mrs Fairfax came to take the child for her bath after her riding lesson and I picked up the smart phone.
‘I asked Sophie not to do that,’ I said, trying to hide my surprise.
‘Don’t be silly, Anne. I love your paintings. I enjoyed looking at your work. There are so many fine subjects to paint around here.’
‘Yes. There are so many amazing views, amazing architecture, the scenery itself. There are endless subjects to paint and draw. Art is not a chore - it’s fun.’
‘And what do you know of fun, Anne?’
‘Very little,’ I said wearily. ‘Before I came here, fun existed mostly in my imagination.’
Rochester nodded agreeably.
‘That is what I like about the country,’ he said heartily, ‘the animals, to ride, to be free here, away from prying eyes.’
I wondered what he could possibly wish to be free from.
Rochester looked away, as if he was suddenly bored with my conversation. I noticed the riding jacket he wore was made of black velvet; it suited him, made him look like the rich heir of a dynasty, the experienced, confident, older man that he was.
He flicked to the portrait I had done of him, standing in jeans and a t-shirt in the sun, hunched over and looking quite solemn at the pool table. He looked a lot younger than his twenty-eight years in that moment - almost innocent.
‘Is that how you view me?’
‘It was just a sketch. Not meant for other people to see.’
By other people, it was clear I meant him.
He smiled. His eyes were warm. I suppose he‘d suspected my little schoolgirl crush by now, but he was too polite to make me any more embarrassed than I already was.
He wandered over to the music, turned it down and announced, ‘My friends will be down soon. We are going riding; then I expect you to have dinner with us tonight, and every night, until they leave.’
‘Is that really necessary?’ I said. The thought of too much socializing with strangers made me want to hide from the world.
‘Yes, as your employer,’ he said jokingly, ‘I’m asking you to be there, Anne. We could use some young adult company. We are all older than you and rich and bored with ourselves. Besides, it will be good practice for Sophie to speak English in company.’
I made a mental note to wear the new items of clothing I’d bought from the village store; black denim jeans and a wine coloured sweater. I thought the outfit was fashionable and new and not too overdone. The main street of the village had a small selection of stores that sold clothes for young women and girls and Sophie and I had spent more than two hours shopping there recently. Sophie had squealed in delight at everything in the shop until I reminded her how I expected her to behave when we were outside the house. I looked at her sternly, but she just smiled, knowing, after weeks of being around each other every day, that she could almost twist me around her little finger. She also knew that, although neither gruff nor impatient like her father sometimes appeared to be, I meant what I said. She instantly stopped winding her coat around the dressing room partition and sat on the chair, humming softly, the songs we’d been teaching each other around the piano.
That night I took Sophie down to dinner. The child was dressed for the occasion wearing a burgundy velvet dress with matching stockings and ballet slippers.
The house guests were making more noise than Sophie ever had as they laughed uproariously at the punch line of a joke. Apparently, we’d missed both the set up and the ending.
Only the men, of whom there were three, smiled at me.
Nicola, dressed in a low top, short skirt and stilettos with her long hair straightened and falling down to her waist, remained blank faced and unwelcoming. The house guests spoke mostly amongst themselves and did their best to exclude me and Sophie.
Rochester was busy telling stories and when Sophie started to yawn, I excused myself, tired, and took her upstairs.
I’d been teaching her various English words previously unknown to her and she’d been teaching me a French song which we hummed as we walked. Then I sang some of a new song we’d heard on the radio and Sophie insisted on making up a dance to it when we reached her room. She looked like one of those kids on a reality show and I found myself laughing, despite myself, at her antics as I searched for her nightgown.
I made sure she cleaned her teeth properly by promising to tell her the story of Cinderella to help her fall asleep. Sophie loved that story; all about the beautiful girl with a wicked step-mother and the handsome Prince Charming who falls in love with the girl and identifies her from her missing slipper. It was a popular fairy tale for a reason and one I used to tell some of the smaller girls in foster care. We all loved it and it seemed to resonate with Sophie as she closed her eyes.
It had been a long day and I was grateful for the luxury of my own room when I too, fell fast asleep.