For the life of me I cannot think of a good blog topic for this week. Instead, I’ve decided to post a little unedited excerpt teaser from a new story I’ve been writing. Suggestions for my next post are highly appreciated.
Elizabeth sees her for the first time about two weeks after she first settles in. It’s a quiet day- of course it’s a quiet day. Quiet, lonely, and dull, just like every other morning, noon, and night that limps by in Kilhane. She is sitting beneath the shade of an oak tree lining the front driveway the first time she sees her with a worn-out copy of ‘Dracula’ propped up in her lap. It’s a good book, really- one that completely sucks her in- but that doesn’t stop her from raising her eyes when the sound of the rusty gate clattering open rings throughout the silent countryside. She hears the raised voice of the guard in his little hut and then two voices echoing indistinctly across the property, and a few heartbeats later there is a figure making their way up towards the Manor building with their hands shoved in the pockets of their breeches.
She assumes at first that it must be a man. She’s always had a spot of trouble with her distant vision, and as it is she can only just barely see John from where she’s sitting; if she hadn’t already known he was up on a ladder washing the third-storey windows she never would have guessed it from looking in that direction. When she squints to see properly, hand raised to block out the blinding light of the early summer sun, it dawns on her that the figure approaching the Manor is, in fact, a woman. A woman that is swaggering up the drive past the water fountain with curly dark hair that falls around her shoulders, loose white shirt tucked haphazardly into her waistband.
There’s no reason for Elizabeth to put down her book or lean back against the tree trunk to watch her. There’s no reason for her chest to constrict the way it does, as if someone is gripping onto her lungs, when she rakes her eyes slowly over this stranger’s distant form. It’s inconsequential that she can hardly make out any intricate features or details of this woman’s form- not when she knows, almost instinctively, that anyone who carries themselves with such confidence must surely be attractive. She calls out to John and he waves at her from the top of the ladder, making his way down to pull her into a hug before she thrusts a parcel of some sort into his hands. Their free, spirited laughter resounds in her ears, reverberating through the hushed countryside though of course she’s hardly close enough to hear exactly what they both find so amusing, and after a short conversation the girl retreats, shoving her hands in her pockets again before sauntering back down the path.
She’s only a few metres away from disappearing out of sight again when she abruptly turns her head in Elizabeth’s direction. It’s only for a second, a passing glance across the garden, but her breath hitches and her heart still trips in its rhythm when she does. Elizabeth continues to stare after her and it’s only when she’s gone, concealed by the bushes lining the path blocking sight of the gate once more, that she realizes the tightness in her chest hasn’t subsided.
She realises, sitting there on the sun-dried grass, wasting away another colourless day, that that girl is the first new face she’s seen in two weeks- the first person she’s seen from Kilhane who isn’t a part of the staff. A depressing thought, to be sure. “Some peace and quiet,” her father keeps reminding her, every conversation they have. “That’s what you need, Elizabeth. Some fresh air, out of the city. Where it is safe.”
Before that awful day five weeks ago when he first broke the news that she would be leaving London Elizabeth really hadn’t thought she could ever come to dislike her father more than she did the afternoon her mother died. She had seen him plainly for what he was that day, dozing off at his office desk while her mother struggled through her final breaths in a room upstairs. No one else had volunteered to deliver the news to him that Lady Hastings had passed. The servants, the doctors- they were afraid of her father, and she’s still not entirely sure she could blame them. She had stood in trepidation at the door to his office and told him she was gone, and he had merely grunted in response. Grunted. It was another half an hour before he finally headed upstairs to thank the doctors for their help before promptly dismissing them. That feeling that flared up in the pits of her stomach, she came to learn, was rage in its purest form.
There is little to be done now that can steer away the distaste towards him that has harboured in her mind ever since that day. It’s a repressed feeling, and one that she could never cease to conceal. ‘Honour thy father and mother’, the Bible said. She may not be a fervent believer, the way Daniel was, but she does fear God enough to strive to obey His word as much as she can. The promise of an eternity burning in hell certainly suffices in pushing her in the general direction of casual reverence. She goes to Church most Sundays and habitually remembers to recite off her prayers before bed. She never lies if she can help it, or swears, or cheats. The sins she commits are mostly committed in the haven of her mind alone and really, even God can’t expect her to avoid doing that.
Most of the Bible, she is unequivocally certain, just isn’t true. She isn’t entirely sure she can even be classed as a Christian in the strictest sense, though she does believe in a God of some kind. There must be something out there, something greater than she is- than anyone is. And the basic message of all religious instruction seems clear enough; just be a good person or suffer, in this life or the next. If being a good person entails respecting her parents, then so be it. It’s not hard to respect her mother now that she is gone and she will always honour her father as her father. She knows as well as anyone that to disobey such a fundamental Commandment would be to err in a most egregious manner. There has never been any doubt, any question, of her respect.
But that doesn’t mean she has to like him.
She never would have considered that her perception of her father could crumble any further after her mother’s passing. And yet, here she is now. She picks back up her book with a silent huff that nobody else is around to hear. It isn’t even that she liked the old house in London anymore than she likes Kilhane. It was rather mundane, all things considered, and after mother died and Daniel left there was never anyone around to wile away the days with, each one elapsing the same as the last. She rarely saw any of her other friends after the war started either, when they all took to volunteering in the hospitals. The tactics employed to stave off maddening loneliness haven’t changed all that much. She still reads. Paints. Walks. Most days in London, when she really dwells on it, were as insipid and stale as they are here. So no, she can’t say that Kilhane is any worse than London if she is utterly honest with herself. It is more the fact that her father hasn’t so much as thought twice about whether or not she consents to this move that sets her stomach in a twist every time she thinks about it. It’s his utter indifference to her wants, her needs. She’s a grown woman now, after all. A bloody farm in the middle of nowhere- which is exactly what Kilhane Manor is, much as everyone tries to glorify it- is the last place she could ever wish to be.
Looking down at the blurry lines of her book she thinks for a brief moment of Daniel. He crosses her mind a lot less these days than before, and yet she can’t help but think of him, just a little bit, now, as she mourns the future she should have had; that she could well have had with him. He was such a sweet young man and even if she knew she didn’t quite love him as she should she knew he would have made a good husband. Everything changed when Daniel died- even more than it did when her mother passed. With Daniel there was always hope. A delicate and fragile thing, to be sure, but she clung to that hope in spite of all warnings against it. Her dreams of the future were always a tad blurry, never concrete or defined, but they always seemed to revolve around escaping her dependence on her father. Whatever form that escape took didn’t matter so much. Marrying Daniel was never the dream in itself, never anything more than a stepping stone towards that dream, and yet still, somehow, the dream seemed to simply die with him.
It isn’t hard to find John before he leaves at the end of the workday. He smiles politely at her when she approaches him outside the stables, respectfully bowing his head. She offers him a warm smile of her own and attempts to stir up a friendly conversation before asking, with an off-handed nonchalance, who the girl he was talking to earlier was.
He pauses before answering, nodding enthusiastically. “Ah, that was Charlie,” he says, wiping at his creased brow with the back of his hand. He’s a handsome man in a rather simplistic way, with his dark hair and his friendly, inviting eyes. He reminds her ever so slightly of Daniel in that regard; not the sort of man who could catch a woman’s eye across a crowded room, but certainly not displeasing on the eye, either. “Charlotte Hawking. She owns a bookshop in town. Just asked her to drop me up a book on her way home this afternoon.” He blushes a small touch. “She taught me to read, a few years back.”
“That was very kind of her,” she muses, but there’s still something odd about the woman, something she can’t quite settle her finger on. She raises an eyebrow. “You know you could always borrow some of the books from our library, don’t you?”
“Oh, I would never presume to do that. But thank you, Miss.”
She looks away from him for a moment, thinking back to the girl- to Charlie. “She owns her own shop, you say?”
“Aye, she does. She’s bloody brilliant. Probably the most successful woman in town. Everybody loves Charlie, Miss Hastings. Most of us didn’t finish school, see. But she’s gone out of her way to make sure everyone she knows can read and write.”
Elizabeth nods and thanks John for his time before she heads back inside to prepare herself for another tedious dinner with her father. There are so many questions burning on her tongue, so many things she still wants to know. John is a nice man, always polite and courteous, but she knows better than to interrogate him about a friend. Small towns, she has heard, are notorious for their gossip. The last thing she needs is for the locals to think she’s asking questions about them, nosing about and inquiring into their lives- especially when it concerns someone who owns their own business. Christ knows how many local shops, offices, factories, trades, her family has demolished over the years in their pursuit of utter dominance over the economy of this area. William Hastings’ affairs were never something she could claim to be in the know about but she is aware of the power her family holds in this small town. Her great grandfather Lord Henry Hastings had owned a handful of successful corporations nearby and as the Lord of Kilhane Manor was also renowned as one of the wealthiest landlords across the county but it was her grandfather that opened the local automotive factory that put Kilhane, small and isolated as it might be, on the map. By now they must surely oversee the majority of the town’s commerce. Elizabeth might not be the most apt student of current affairs but she’s still aware of the general distaste most people bear towards their landlords, their employers. It simply wouldn’t do for her to go probing into their affairs and their livelihoods. The further she stays away from this place and its inhabitants, the better.
But still… there’s a million questions floating around in the back of her mind and try as she might she cannot dispel her thoughts of the dark haired woman. Does her husband care that she struts about, dressed like a man? Is the bookshop really hers or does it belong to someone else? Someone who left the join the Army, perhaps? When will she be back? Thoughts of the strange women grip her mind all through the evening, and all throughout the sleepless night she cannot shake the discomforting feeling that the strangest question of all is- why does she care so much?