Authors: Katie Welsby
Thunder crackles and lightning stretches the sky, before the dark clouds relent and give way to the rain, which has long been promising. The windowpane is streaked with heavy raindrops, making silvery paths, until they finally pool together at the bottom of the windowsill. It is a dreary end to such an unusually hot autumn day. But I am the only one here who notices this. I glance over my shoulder at the ballroom, to the musicians in the corner with their lutes and violins. A quartet of women dressed in cerise and lime green twirl in the middle of the room, elegant gowns brushing the stone floor under their feet. Gentlemen in smart breeches and overcoats partner the beautifully dressed women, smiles painted on their faces. Gazing down at my pale blue dress, I sigh. I have no need to wear the dress with the low décolletage, nor the fashionable ostrich plumes in my hair to attract another. They all know whose daughter I am, and that is sufficient to try to gain my affections. I have suffered these tiresome ordeals infrequently since turning my sixteenth year, when I finally blossomed. Since turning seven and ten, the balls are more often. It’s the same routine each time. Although I have appeared at court earlier this year, Father says I need no season in Londinium to find a spouse. It is another way of saying he wishes to spare the expense.
As I’m led to the dance floor yet again by another forgettable gentleman, I feel eyes surround me.
Musky scents and flirtatious lines clash with the spinning of rainbow colours around me. When the cacophony becomes too much, I dismiss myself, albeit not as politely as a lady should, to retreat to the safety of the plush velvet chair in the corner of the room by the window. And there, I remain seated, ignoring the whispers and groans through the maid from my father, staring out into the night, hoping that someone, or perhaps something, could finally happen to make me smile.
The music stops, and the courtiers disperse in various directions. Soon after, the appetising aromas of a large banquet tickle my nose, and sure enough, the doors at the end of the ballroom open from inside the Great Hall. The maids are laying the starch
ed white linen covered tables with various dishes. Poached salmon, beef stew with dumplings, lobster patties, buttered peas and boiled potatoes in a white wine sauce. The smell becomes so strong, my stomach growls in earnest. I do not need to turn around to know the gentleman my father wishes me to entertain this evening is present, waiting like some neglected animal. I wish to disappear, but I am aware of the consequences of not humouring my father’s wishes. Flashing the broadest smile I can, I turn and meet the next gentleman, who’s already asking me if I will have the dinner dance with him.
I look to the side, and spy my father's nod. With a wistful sigh only audible to my own ears, I accept his offer, wincing at the coldness of skin seeping through to my gloved hand. The music starts, and he gently waltzes me around the room.
Barely minutes later, the large doors open and crowds divide as a new gentleman enters the hall. It is like Moses parting the Red Sea. He ignores the raised eyebrows and low mutterings, takes a glass of wine from a maid, and stops beside a marble pillar. After a few moments, my father stands, gripping the arm of his chair. For a moment, I wonder if he will say something. Instead, he urges the music to continue. The dancers block my view of the stranger and my curiosity intensifies. Has he done someone a great injustice? Would there be a duel fought? Diminishing my wild fantastical thoughts, I try to locate the gentleman that has caused such a stir. My partner twirls me around, and it is then I find he is still by the pillar, his wine glass now empty, watching me intently, yet his face remains expressionless.
“Is something the matter, my lady?”
I look up to see my partner’s curious expression. It is then I realise the music has ceased and guests are applauding the musicians.
“No, I am quite well, thank you
His bushy eyebrow raise steadily at me. “You have forgotten my name, my lady?”
I bite my lip and quickly release my teeth, remembering my father’s words.
A lady does not do such things.
He seems affronted, but maintains his manners, offering his most elegant bow.
Dunstan, the Earl of Kernow at your service, my lady.”
I curtsy too. “Thank you, my lord. I will not forget.”
The earl gives a questioning look, before offering his arm.
I try to make myself agreeable to the earl during supper, but it’s obvious to my father, sitting at the head of the table, drowning his wine, that I’m not doing my duty well enough. I have scarcely seen him in almost six years. He’s done well keeping his distance from me. After all, we live together in the same house. I should be happy, after missing for him for so long, but instead, his presence only makes me uncomfortable.
“I see you have finished your meal, my lady,” says the earl. “Would you care for anything else?”
I blink a few times and notice my clean plate in front of me. Politely, I refuse. But it’s at that moment when the maid takes away my plate, that I see the gentleman again, taking a seat at the far end of the table at the other side of the room. The plump woman at his side lowers her jaw when she sees her new companion. The gentleman’s head lowers, as the woman holds her head high and speaks to the woman on her other side. His fingers grip the cutlery, as the maid places a plate of food in front of him, but he doesn’t eat. A loud laugh from the plump woman makes him push his fork into the meat, cut off a piece and force it into his mouth. Why can I not help but think the women are talking about that gentleman? The witches!
He takes a sip of wine, and it is then our gazes clash once again. Only this time, I hold him there, silently wondering what is wrong. His lips part slightly, and I hold my breath. Instead, he finishes his wine and leaves the table. Nobody pays him any notice, except the footman, who allows him to exit through the doors. My heart springs towards him, and for a moment, my legs start to move, but my knee knocks the table and the earl turns around, frowning in dismay.
Someone clears their throat, and I turn to see the earl’s disdain at where my eyes have been wandering. I feel my cheeks beginning to pinch with heat, but I cannot help my curiosity. He scoffs, perfectly aware of the question I want answered. Gesturing for the maid to refill his glass, his expression is as sour as Cook’s plum pudding dessert.
“Pay heed, madam, and stay away. A true lady such as yourself would not wish to know such a person.”
“Learn to drive, will you?” Derek Evans yelled from his open window. Jolting awake, I winced when my forehead hit the hard glass I had been resting on. Rubbing away the pain, I blinked a few times, and shielded my eyes, even though I need not have bothered. The sun had long set. I looked ahead at Mum and Derek in the front seats. I was surprised I’d been able to sleep in the car, despite Mum speeding well over the limit in the new Mercedes Benz. The shimmering gold car was fully customised and kitted out, as was her canary coloured Porsche with the red racing stripes Derek had bought for their first anniversary. At twelve years her senior, Derek had learned to drive with more care, whereas Mum often treated the streets of Briggstow like the Silverstone Race track. At first, he hadn’t been happy his new wife was accumulating so many speeding fines, but nowadays he remained stoic when the condemning letters came in. I had no idea how many points she had, but the last letter made Derek swear over breakfast, something Mum had told him off for.
I stroked the end of my satin scarf, pressing it against my heart. A shuffle from the front made me look up. Mum turned around to face me, wincing as she accidentally crushed her twice-enhanced chest. Another gift from Derek, although she still wasn’t happy with them.
“Dreaming again?” she asked.
I’d never been any good at lying.
“Lucy, you were talking in your sleep again, but none of it made any sense.” Her lips pressed together, as she glanced briefly at Derek. “You’ve been through a lot.”
He returned her gaze and smiled. “You
have. But things are better now.”
“You’re right, Del, as always.”
His grey hand moved to hold hers, briefly pressing it to his lips. Usually, I’d have cringed at their show of emotion. They often kissed passionately, even in public. But this one seemed deeper than that. Part of me felt a little envious.
“Didn’t we have a good time?” Mum said proudly, when he released her. It wasn’t a question.
It had been Derek’s idea for a last minute trip to France. Mum had claimed it was the perfect treat for obtaining good results in my exams, despite what had happened at school. She was adamant he really did care about me, especially when he said we could have free reign with his credit card. They’d both been hopeful I’d finally accept him in our lives. I didn’t hate him; not really, even though I wasn’t exactly giving the impression that I liked him. The truth was, I worried for my mother after everything she’d been through. I couldn’t bear the thought of her going through so much pain again. But there was a gleam in her eye now that was completely down to Derek. And yet, despite my waiting for the day I could tell Mum he couldn’t be trusted, it never came. He stuck around, which only made Mum love him even more. Through my jealousy, I’d stayed in the hotel room, ignoring Mum’s request to join her in Paris to buy a new bikini or Derek’s offer to join them at the local bistro for lunch. The weather in France had been intensely warmer than was usual for late September, and with the air conditioning broken in the hotel, I was the one who’d really suffered. It was only on the last day that Derek had said if I went out with them, we could do whatever I wanted. Mum had mouthed
several times, but Derek looked at me with a half smile, hoping that I’d just agree to join them. They’d been happy when I’d said yes, but Mum had sulked like the petulant teenager I’d been, when she’d learned where I wanted to go. She was confused, wondering why on earth I’d want to go to such a
.’ But Derek had just driven us there without asking why, not waiting for me to change my mind. I had no intention of letting them know the real reason my curiosity had been piqued.
Seeing the building up close had robbed me of my breath. My mind had instantly been drawn back to the previous night’s dream in the hotel, where I’d woken, my body shaking in terror, certain I could smell smoke and that the hotel was on fire. But it wasn’t, and later, after glancing at the tourist leaflets in my room, one in particular had caught my eye. The War Museum. Derek had seemed to be quite interested in the Napoleonic Wars, eager to see each painting and artefact they had. I’d held a little further back from them, already sensing my fears building inside. I’d glanced at the statues and medals for bravery on display, but it was the gallery I’d been drawn to. There was no denying the paintings were cleverly created. But as I’d paused to look, I’d heard cannon-fire and piercing screams of agony. My heart had constricted, and I‘d tried banishing the horrific images from my mind, only to recall my dream of being on the same battlefield, slaying as many of the enemy as possible. The feeling overpowered me, and I was sure blood remained on my hands. I’d run to the toilets, scrubbing stains that didn’t seem to wash away. That’s when Mum found me.
The car pulled into the driveway of our home, streetlights beaming down on us. Stepping out, I lifted my backpack and noticed the amber glow from the streetlight over the sign outside No. 9 across the street. It was still for sale. A hand clenched my heart, as the memory of Sarah Cooper entered my mind. As children, she’d often stayed at my house overnight. She thought the house opposite was creepy looking, and the widow’s husband was buried in the garden somewhere, his ghost roaming at night. Sarah always did have a wild imagination, but the house was in fact the oldest on the street. It was different to the others, which were all newly built in the sixties. But somehow, this house had survived. In my mind, I saw Sarah sneaking towards the house in her pyjamas at midnight, trying to peek through a window. I closed my eyes, unable to look at her anymore.
The sound of the car boot closing made me glance up. Derek’s eyes were hooded with tiredness from the long drive. He lugged the suitcases into the front door, which Mum had already opened. She picked up the piles of letters on the inside doormat and set them on three different piles on the kitchen table. I walked by, spotting one addressed to me. I grabbed it and hurried up the stairs and into my bedroom. Switching on my lights and ensuring my curtains were drawn, I stripped off my embroidered blouse and skinny jeans, hanging them in my wardrobe, along with my many other similar items. I raked my fingers over the clothes, smiling in memory of Mum’s protests whenever I’d been shopping. I only wore skirts if they were long, much to my mother’s dismay. She offered to shorten the skirts, until they were practically belts. This, she had said, would show off the ‘
lovely long legs
’ I’d been hiding. It didn’t matter how hard she tried. I’d never wear the short leather skirts and skimpy t-shirts that she loved.
I finished brushing my hair and reached for my satin scarf, gently pulling it off. I sighed, massaging my neck, already hating the exposure. I opened my drawer and saw the other nineteen. What had started out at seven, one for each day of the week, had turned into an obsession, in case one got ripped or lost. I only stopped at twenty when I ran out of drawer space.