At the beginning of the book, my heroine Sophie has a broken heart and is feeling very fed up with the world. At the invitation of an aunt, she takes herself off to Bath for a holiday and finds herself living next door to the house Jane Austen lived in 200 years ago. Here’s a little taster - Sophie has just arrived in Bath and has the keys to her flat.
Sydney Place is no longer the quiet spot that Jane Austen must have known and the traffic, which roars past day and night, is as loud as any in London. That was the first illusion shattered, although I felt really thrilled at the idea of living next door to the house of the writer who had penned Persuasion. The thought that perhaps some of Jane’s genius might permeate through the walls to inspire me was exciting. As I walked up the pathway of the imposing Georgian house I looked across to next door looking for any sign of life, but the shutters were drawn like sleeping eyes preventing any glances at the soul within. I’m not quite sure what I’d expected really, but I felt faintly disappointed once through my own front door. It was hardly Jane Austen heaven. In the dim light, I could see scuffed magnolia walls and a blue nylon carpet stretching down the passageway to sweep up the elegant staircase. A torn paper shade over an electric bulb hung just behind the fanlight above the door and smells of rotting vegetation from recycling bags in the corner did nothing to improve my first impressions. It was then that I wondered if I’d made a huge mistake.
On the left was the entrance door to the ground floor flat, which gave no clues to its owner apart from the fact that it was painted a very tasteful grey. I’d just picked up my stuff to go upstairs when I heard the handle of the door start to turn. I didn’t know what to do and, holding my breath, I stood for a moment with a fixed grin on my face waiting for the person on the other side to open the door. The handle rattled again but, to my relief, no one came out. Knowing that I looked a complete mess after my journey, I must admit, the thought of meeting anyone just yet filled me with horror, so I stealthily crept up the staircase as quietly as I could and let myself into the flat.
If I’d been disappointed before, now I was devastated. It was the pungent smell that hit me first, a mixture of stale air and damp, of rooms having been shut up for an age. I couldn’t see it was so dark, but I managed to stumble my way into what must have once been the drawing room. It was a sizeable space with double doors dividing the room beyond. Heavy, damask curtains closed against the three floor-length windows on the opposite side emitted fat sighs of dust to powder the air when I touched them and rattled on brass rings like a wheezing, bronchial chest as they were pulled aside. I unlatched the wooden shutters, top and bottom, and threw them back to send sparkles of light from the sun streaming through the murky windows to gild the ancient objects and faded furniture inside. Struggling with the locks, which were screwed tight, the windows protested against being opened, but at last they gave in and fresher air filled the room.
I felt suddenly overwhelmed. The fact that I was on my own struck me with a force. I’d never been completely by myself before. Even at university I’d always been surrounded by people and friends. Why on earth had I thought that coming to Bath was such a good idea? Right then, all I wanted to do was pick up my phone and call Lucas. But, I couldn’t ring him. I couldn’t give him the satisfaction that I needed him and still wanted so much to talk to him.
And then my phone rang. It made me jump – the stupid ringtone Lucas had chosen for me all those months ago reverberated through the air with a suitably fake rendition of “our song”.
‘Hi Babe, how are you?’
His voice still had the power to make my heart leap even if I’d always hated that particular “endearment”, which I was convinced he used simply because he couldn’t remember which girlfriend he was talking to, and I knew when I spoke that my voice would tremble.
‘I’m okay, Lucas.’ Did I sound as brave as I hoped? I knew I should have ignored the call understanding, all too well, that later on I would be cringing at my responses, as the words I should have said would come to me instantly with amazing clarity. ‘Lucas, I don’t know how to thank you enough. Since you left my life I feel wonderful, everything’s just been incredibly brilliant and I’ve never felt better!’ But, of course, for now I couldn’t think straight, I was a gibbering wreck.
‘It’s so good to hear your voice, Sophie. I’ve really missed you, baby. How about we go out tonight? I was thinking we’d go into Camden for a pint, watch a band and top it all off with a night of love. What do you say?’
It was the “night of love” that gave me the courage. Even though my voice was trembling I’d found a new strength, plus he’d sounded like such a sleaze. ‘I can’t do that, Lucas, and I don’t think there’d be any point. We’ve been over it all so many times and nothing can change what happened. I don’t want to see you again.’
Silence. I knew he was thinking he could just talk me round. He’d always been completely arrogant.
‘Sophie, you know you don’t mean that. Come on, you’re overreacting. Honestly, there’s no one else. Lily means nothing to me. How many times have I got to say it? You know you’ve only ever been my girl, my one true love.’
An image of Lucas and Lily loomed, the memory of the last time I’d seen them together. Starkly lit by spring sunshine, like a framed painting in a gallery, her blossom-white arms were draped over him, in sharp contrast to her rippling, auburn hair that tumbled over his face. Silk sheets, limbs entwined – the image was a picture indelibly etched in my mind.
Summoning up all my courage I took a deep breath. ‘No, I’ve made up my mind for good this time. I don’t want to see you again; I don’t want to hear any more excuses. I’m not in Camden, so please don’t come looking for me. I’m sorry, Lucas, but I need to be on my own for a while.’
And then I pressed the little red button, cutting him off forever before I could change my mind. Burying my phone at the bottom of my bag, I was determined not to cry or to waste any more time thinking about him. Snatching up a plump, velvet cushion from a winged chair by the fireside, I threw it across the room. Sending yet more dust clouds glittering into a shaft of sunlight, I felt a moment of triumph before falling and flopping into the seat like a discarded rag doll.
I took a good look at my surroundings with a sinking heart. It must, at one time, have been a very elegant room, I considered. Jane Austen certainly would have felt very much at home in it judging from the Regency furniture, the clock on the mantelpiece and the gilt candlesticks scattered everywhere. The place just needed cleaning, that was all, and as there was no one else to tackle that but me, I had to stop feeling sorry for myself, dismiss the idea of running back to Camden on the first train going to London and actually do something about it. Some activity would also help to keep me warm. At least the weather was reasonably mild for April; the fireplace had coals laid in the basket and more in a copper bucket. Perhaps if I could get it going later when it was bound to get a lot cooler, all would not be lost and, I could heat up the place.
The whole flat seemed trapped in some kind of time warp. Through the folding doors was a rather austere dining room with a large, polished table in the centre and Sheraton style chairs. Beyond this room was the kitchen and small scullery where I could find nothing useful, except beautiful china that looked too good to use along with some silver cutlery. Unpromising items, (such as a rusty mousetrap, a washboard with a scrubbing brush in a zinc bucket and the only object recognizable as a vacuum cleaner) all looked like museum pieces, the latter blowing up with an alarming blue spark and a puff of smoke the second I plugged it in. So, Great Aunt Elizabeth had meant every word. I wasn’t going to find any modern conveniences.
Up two flights of stairs I found the attic rooms were locked but on the floor below were a further three bedrooms, the largest of which had the same view onto the front of Sydney Gardens as the drawing room. It also had a wonderful tester bed with four posts and curtains to keep out the draughts. I instantly fell in love with it. There were clean sheets and blankets in a linen press by the window, still smelling faintly of the lavender sprigs tied in bundles that lay between each one. Silk lampshades on the bedside lights looked left over from the last war and a Regency toilet mirror on the dressing table was draped in muslin and ribbon. It all looked very pretty, but for a layer of dusty felt on the silver brushes arranged with precision along the top of the table.
I was beginning to feel hungry and not knowing where to start with sorting out the place, I decided to go out and find some lunch. I’d left my bag in the living room so I rushed back downstairs with renewed enthusiasm. It would be great to get out for an hour or two and I knew I’d have more energy once I’d eaten. The vast looking glass above the fireplace twinkled in the light, its old, silvered surface distressed in places giving the impression of almost seeing through mist. I quite liked the effect, I thought, as I ran a comb through my hair: it gave a softer look to my face.
I’ve never been quite sure what happened next, although what followed later gave some sense to the extraordinary experience, but I suddenly felt goose pimples all over and the strange sensation of warm breath on my neck, almost like a whisper in my ear. I felt a piece of my long hair pulled sharply at the nape, as if it had been snagged in the clasp of a necklace, which was impossible because I wasn’t wearing one. It was a natural reaction to spin round and to put up my hand to touch my hair but, of course, there was nobody there. It was only when I turned back again to the mirror that I imagined I caught a fleeting impression of a moving reflection in the murky glass, white and fluttering. Passing silently out of the open door behind me, scenting the air in wafts of orange blossom and frangipani, I glimpsed a cloud of muslin, a flurry of ribbon and a white satin shoe.
Searching for Captain Wentworth is available now in paperback from all the usual places. I’m talking at the Jane Austen Festival in Bath, UK on September 19th - I’d love to see you there!
~ Jane Odiwe
*** Don't forget to go enter to win a copy of Jane's Searching for Captain Wentworth!!