The opening chapter of my novel about a girl living in the 1830s
|Effie was awakened by a furtive tap at her door. Rubbing her hazy head, she mechanically hauled the blankets away. It would not do to succumb to sleep again this morning. From the huff of exasperation as Effie did not answer quickly enough, she knew it was Meg who had knocked at the door.
'Coming,' she answered as softly as possible to her sister.
Tumbling on to the floor, she shivered at its iron-cold touch. She opened the curtains, their rings giving a familiar purr across the rail. Rising fog haunted the garden. A wagtail pecked amongst Meg's daffodils, then winged away to its usual perch on the stable roof.
It seemed strange that, on this day when her life would change forever, everything was still the same. Somehow she had expected it to be different. This place would go on without her. The same familiar pattern, the same sounds, the same changes each season. She had known them all the seventeen years of her life. It felt unreal that she would never see this house again. Her existence was so linked to everything here, it was impossible that she could live without it. Perhaps that was why she did not weep like her sister Dorothy. Effie had not taken in that they were leaving. The emotional part of her was paralysed.
Instinctively, she knew what she must do. Opening each drawer in turn, she drew out as many clothes as she could and mechanically dressed herself in them all. They felt as constraining as armour, yet she had no choice. Mama said they should only take one small bag each in case they aroused suspicion. Effie's bag was already bursting with books. The remaining space was taken up by the Count of Cabbage and Lady Lettuce, Meg and Dorothy's guinea-pigs. Effie had let them stow in her bag despite Beatrice's objection that they should be left behind.
Effie opened the door the instant that Meg was about to give another rap. Meg met her sister with a stony look, then turned on her heel.
Through the open door of the opposite room, Effie spied Mama stowing the last of her possessions in a carpet bag. Methodical. Silent.
Nine-year-old Dorothy was flustered. 'Effie,' she hissed, 'I can't find Anne. I can't go without her. She'll be so sad.'
'Have you asked Mama?'
'Yes but no one's talking to me.'
'I'll look for her.' Effie furtively crossed to the toy chest. She knew by Mama's silence how much she worried. Effie resolved to be strong. Helping the others filled her with a sense of duty. It took her thoughts from the worries clouding her mind. 'Anne's sat on the windowsill, Dotty.'
Dorothy darted over to her doll, wrapping her in her shawl to ensure that she did not get broken. 'Effie?'
'You know that you've still got your hair rags in. You can't go out looking like you've got sausages hanging down beneath your bonnet,' Dorothy whispered.
'Oh, sorry.' Effie tiptoed back to her room and tugged the rags out, leaving her fair ringlets to bounce over her shoulders. Usually she would have laughed over her forgetfulness, yet somehow nothing seemed funny today.
When she came out seconds later, her family had disappeared with the silence and swiftness of mice.
She crept along the corridor to the stairs. It seemed an eternity as she shuffled past her father's room. He was a heavy sleeper and not known to rise before ten, especially when he had spent the previous evening gambling as he had last night. However, it felt to Eledy as if she was sidling by a sleeping bear that might awake at any moment. Effie trembled as she imagined his rage if he discovered that his family were escaping from him. She would have got downstairs without mishap had not the treacherous bottom step shrieked beneath her tread.
Beatrice, the eldest, frowned at her. It was clear that she still opposed their leaving. She leaned back against the bookcase, her arms folded across her chest. The sight of the glass-fronted bookcase was a sharp reminder to Effie.
For three days, the bookcase had quietly stood in a corner of the parlour. All that time, the lava had been bubbling in Effie's father. When he discovered that they had bought it new, he was furious.
'I thought it was something you got cheap in a house sale. Look at it, none of the pieces fit together properly. It's all scratched and bumped. Someone's ripping you off. I shan't pay for this. You'll have to send it back.'
'The girls need somewhere to keep their study books,' Mama replied.
'I'll not have it in this room. It's a communal area.'
He continued to rant. The others remained silent, consumed by their tasks, which they carried out calmly, ignoring him. They had known his bad temper for years. Thwarted by their refusal to get drawn into an argument, he slouched away, growling.
After they heard his door slam, they gathered about the bookcase. Effie could see nothing wrong with it. Its latticed panes looked like a little shop window.
'I bet it's the money, not the bookcase itself, that he's complaining about. If we had got it for nothing then he wouldn't have picked fault with it,' Effie said.
'I like it still, don't you?' Mama asked.
'I like it all the more knowing that he doesn't.'
Effie thought that the storm would pass, as it always did. Yet for how long did they have to endure his foul moods? Before she had found them laughable. Now she was older and felt fully the injustice of the situation, it was no longer funny. Even when it was calm they lived awaiting his next explosion. Even food expenses he might get angry about if he was in a bad mood after losing money betting on the races.
None of them liked the way he trapped them. Yet what other way out did they have? Mama could not divorce him. She could prove nothing against him that would convince the law. Being bad-tempered was not a reason for which a divorce would be granted. Besides, their father would not want himself to be stigmatised in the eyes of his family and work-fellows.
Usually Effie had lost herself in the make-believe world she created in her notebooks. This time it was different. Mama brought out a letter from her aunt, Caroline. Caroline rented Gull's Neck, a farmhouse by the coast, and wrote that they could join her there.
The sight that met them the next morning cemented their decision. The quaint bookcase lattices were pulverised, the wood dented and misshapen where the hammer had impacted. Effie's father had vented his vile temper by smashing objects in the house before, yet never as bad as this. To her, it symbolised their shattered lives. Quietly, she fetched a brush to sweep away the fragments. They glistened like tears amongst the nets of dust in the dustpan.
'Will we need any food for the journey?' Effie asked, moving to the pantry.
'You can make up your own mind for once.'
Effie felt a prickle of anger at Meg's troublesome reply. How could she decide, not knowing how long they might be journeying for? Perhaps they had packed something already. Letting it be, Effie waited in the hallway. She watched the trembling hands of the grandfather clock with bleary eyes.
Having weighed up the situation, Beatrice accosted her mother. 'Are you sure this is for the best? I mean, we're cutting ourselves off from the world completely. I don't simply mean by moving to some out-in-the-wilds cottage but we'll forgo the good opinion of society.'
'I've told you our plan. I'll pretend to be a widow. We'll call ourselves the Wigget family; my grandfather's name. No one will suspect us.'
'I don't mean that we'll be frowned on for ourselves but because of her,' Beatrice hissed.
'Yes. What do you think everyone will think if they knew we live with such a cracked, headstrong person? I mean, what lady would leave her family to set up home with a menagerie of chickens and goats in a remote farm?'
'Who cares for society's good opinion? Don't you think it's wrong that someone as kind-hearted as Carrie should be an outcast for being herself?' Effie whispered.
'She should expect her odd behaviour to come with repercussions in the eyes of ordinary society. It's no wonder she leapt at the chance to have us at Gull's Neck, for I doubt that anyone in the neighbourhood speaks to her.'
'Beatrice, do I really have to listen to this? As if I haven't got enough to deal with. I was up all night worrying about how we're to get by. We've hardly any money.'
'Let's not go then.'
For a moment, Mama hesitated. Then she shook her head. 'No. We have to leave. Anything has to be better than this. Would you rather be free or stuck here rotting, wishing you were dead, caring for your father as an old man, emptying out his bedpan? Because that's what will happen.'
The thought struck Beatrice silent. Subdued, she followed her mother and sisters outside. They slipped up the lane to the village. There they would catch the first coach.
Effie was torn between a conflicting wish to leave and fear of giving up the home she loved so well. The future was utterly obscured to her and she feared it might lead to poverty. She stared hard at the house nestling amongst the woods, trying to engrave the image on her heart. Soon the view was lost in fog. Her memory of it turned hazy and unreal too.
In spite of being physically drained and uncertain of the future, the journey was a jovial one. Swallowing her troubles once they were away from the house, Mama put on a cheery face. She joked and sang with a freedom not known under the largely invisible but restrictive presence of her husband. The others brightened with her.
This cheeriness strained as the day drew on. Having had no time to stop to buy food, Mama searched the bags to see if they had any packed. Meg blamed Effie that they must go hungry. She framed an explanation but stopped half way. What was the use of antagonising Meg further?
By evening, they were in some alien town. The new scene made Effie's head spin. Used to a quiet country existence, the swarms of people looming out of the yellow, smoky fog was daunting.
They spent the night in a coaching inn. The coverlet of Effie's rattly iron bed was faded with years of use and rats knocked behind the wainscot. Yet she was too grateful for a rest to care.
Before the last star faded, they were boarding the stagecoach in which they would complete the last leg of their journey. An expectant thrill filled Effie. The troubled relief that she had felt yesterday blossomed into a more profound hope.
As they journeyed on, yesterday's fog turned to a biting, fresh sea fog this time. Shut out from all view of where they were heading, Effie felt like a ship that had lost its anchor and found itself in a wide, changeless ocean.
Meg cried out, 'the sea! Look, I can see the sea.'
'Where? I can't see a thing in this fog.' Beatrice grumbled.
'There, look!' Meg leaned right out the window, her boot toes barely touching the carriage floor. Her curly blonde hair bounced against the window pane.
Everyone jostled to peer out. A thin stripe of blue. It grew steadily, eating up the land. Through the blanketing fog cliffs began to take form, together with a star of light from the lighthouse.
Reaching the end of their journey, they climbed out. Mama thanked the driver and he pointed them up the track to the farm. Although in the fog they could see nothing clearly after a few feet from them, the glimpses of the countryside met Effie's pictured expectations of the area in which they were to live. Here they were at last, amongst the heather and sea pinks and wiry grasses as thick as knitting needles. The trees were stunted beneath the lash of wind mixed with water drops torn from both the sea and the clouds.
Effie's shawl offered little protection from the chill explorations of the fog. On her lips was the tang of salt and the seaweed scent of the sea.
Excited and stiff from their travels, the girls wanted to run. One point fixed their interest. The lighthouse. Its white walls and dazzling beacon beamed defiantly against the glowering fog. They could see little of the sea beyond it as the fog had transformed it into a slate grey void.
Meg tore down the slope towards the lighthouse, almost colliding with the wall at the bottom. 'That's a shame. It's on an island so you can't get to it without a boat,' she said, turning away.
'You can tell why they need a lighthouse. Look at those waves crashing!' Dorothy shouted above the bluster, pointing to where the sea spray hit the rocks with a glint like broken glass.
'Yes. Even the seagulls are too scared to go out to sea today.' Effie pointed at two forlorn birds huddled on a rocky shelf.
'Meg, you've dropped your bag on the path,' Beatrice said as she and Mama joined them. Meg snatched it from her and slung it over her shoulder.
Dorothy shivered. 'Can we get going? I'm getting cold standing here.'
Meg had already started off. The others followed, scrambling ungainly over the ragged, stony path.
'Oh no,' Beatrice groaned, squelching into one of the numerous piles of dung left by the wild ponies.
Effie and Meg giggled but were rebuked by so stern a look from Beatrice that they thought better of it. At least Effie did. Meg suppressed her mirth in her sleeve. Her attention was caught by a herd of wild ponies grazing a little way ahead. She set off briskly towards them, slowing as they looked up. A dappled grey was closest, the wind playing in the tassels of its mane.
Meg inched towards it. It started away as it heard the noisy approach of the others. Meg rounded on Effie. 'Why did you have to do that? You've scared it away.'
Ignoring her, Effie carried on towards the distant gate. The wind thrashed her hair over her face and throbbed in her ears. She crushed her bonnet closer and pressed on amongst the skeletal fronds of last year's bracken.
Soon they were on a rutted track lined by maples. At its end was a high wall with grass between each layer of stone. The wall was topped by daffodils and elm trees which obscured the view of anything beyond. Passing the wall, they came at last to Gull's Neck Farm.
At the first sight of it looming from the thinning fog, Effie felt her worries being undermined. It was a sturdy, homely little place. The red wash covering its walls to ward off the evil eye added to its cheerful impression. The only parts washed white were the chimneys, upon which seagulls perched. All the windows were level, except for one looking out from the parlour, which was slightly higher. This gave it the impression of standing on tiptoes to peer curiously at them.
Another curious face appeared at a window at the far end of the building. Caroline's hair was piled into a bun so thick that it sprang like a cushion about her head. The part of the house which she lived in had been added at a later date and was separate from the main house in which the Wiggets were to live.
'I'd better go in and see her. Why don't you start unpacking?' Mama said.
'Come on, I want to see inside,' Dorothy said, swinging open the red garden gate. Its posts were topped with shells.
Meg fumbled with the key. Sparrows kept up an excited tweeting. Effie fingered the soft, delicate tendrils of the budding hedge. In the garden celandines bloomed amongst the promise of later columbine, roses and sage.
Meg finally managed to open the door. Effie dumped her bag on the settle. She had no time to look around or even to change her clothes, which she had worn for the past two days. Beatrice ordered her to prepare a meal.
Effie passed through a dimly lit dining room to the white-washed kitchen and pantry. They formed a long, low-ceilinged annex at the back of the house.
She peered out of the deep-set window. Outside was a large garden and several ill-repaired farm buildings. Beyond these was a sheep field, then the hamlet. The nearest building was the church. Gravestones loomed amongst the fog.
Though many would object to such an eerie view, Effie did not mind it. What was there to fear from the dead? It seemed right that their bodies should lay near their old homesteads, feeding the plants that they had known in life.
Her sisters tramped up and down the stairs, arguing which rooms to take. Effie relished her quietude. Let them choose as they please. She did not want to get involved in a dispute, even if it did mean that she was left with the worst room.
She busied herself with stowing away the provisions that they had bought yesterday. Voices murmured on the other side of the wall as Mama chatted with her aunt. Caroline had kindly left bread, milk and vegetables from the garden in the pantry from which the family could make their meal.
She had also lit the range, though it had almost gone out. With patience and several handfuls of twigs, Effie got it to temperature. It took a while of opening and shutting cupboards and rummaging through drawers to find a knife to cut the carrots and potatoes.
Despite the trauma of the last few days, Effie felt cheerful. She relished the sense of opportunity and freedom in her new life. She longed for all the fluster of unpacking to be over so that she could explore the rest of the house.
For now, she enjoyed the responsibility of making soup, growing accustomed to the idea that this was their home. Whilst the pottage began to heat, she sought for dishes. She found them in an old panelled cupboard set into the wall beside the dining room fireplace. There was no time to set them out.
Beatrice fell on her, agitated and quick to anger in the fluster of unpacking. 'Have you got lunch ready?'
'I've put it on. It'll be done by lunchtime,' Effie replied. Although she resented Beatrice's bossy tone she remained polite. It was never worth getting into an argument with her elder sister, especially when Beatrice was agitated. Now that they were free of their oppressive father, Effie wanted to leave arguments behind.
'I should think so. Now, look for a place to wash this blanket. Meg's hamsters have made a terrible mess of it. I can't see a wash tub anywhere. Maybe there's one in one of the buildings in the yard.'
Effie went out into the courtyard enclosed by stone barns. Their lime-washed roofs crumbled like the half-moulted coat of a pony.
She had her doubts as to whether Caroline would leave her wash-tub here. Nevertheless, she tried the nearest door. Locked. Curious, she peered through a crack where rot had torn through. Inside was the usual multitude of useless items that farmers were apt to acquire over the years at sales.
At the edge of the barn, a flight of steps led to a hay loft. Eager to explore, she skipped up. It would be a while before the vegetables in the soup were heated properly upon the range. The door was unlocked, though terribly stiff. Inside the loft wood was stacked in pyramids. Caroline obviously had no intention of going cold that winter. The loft also bore the marks of warmer months in a hive of swallow nests. It would make a great place for a swing. That should cheer Meg up.
Voices rose and died. A door clunked. Mama took her leave of Caroline. Recalling her mission, Effie bolted to the door.
She could see for miles over the trees. This surprised her. Then she realised. The fog had lifted. The gorse was beginning to bloom and blazed gold across the headland. Beyond, stretching glittering to the horizon, was the sea.
Filled with a wave of excitement and joy, Effie bounded down the steps, back to her new home.