I woke to the sound of the town clock ringing. Slowly, I opened my eyes and rubbed them to clear my vision. Sunlight shafted in through the window above my bed, bathing my small room in a pleasant glow. I sat up and smiled, breathing in and exhaling loudly. I was afraid it was going to be rainy today. I can’t stand rainy days (though we certainly have a lot of them in England). I hopped out of bed and walked up to my wardrobe, glancing at the framed photo that sat on top.
It’s been ages, I thought to myself, rummaging about my wardrobe for my white collared shirt. I hadn’t been to my aunt and uncle’s since I started secondary school a few years ago.
I’ve grown up a lot since then… I think…
I tightened the bow on the back of the brown pinafore dress I had put on, recalling that I had worn it to a party when I was twelve.
… maybe not that much.
My aunt and uncle, you see — why we don’t have a collective term for the two, I’ll never understand — they live in the Cotswolds. They’re rather well-off, and they own a beautiful villa in a small town just south of Gloucester. I was about to stay the summer with them, and was rather excited about it.
I tied two white ribbons into my hair on either side, just under my ears, letting the honey-coloured locks fall over my shoulders. I put on my shoes (Mary Janes, to be exact. I’ve always been fond of them, since that’s my name — Mary) and grabbed my suitcase, stuffing my sketchbook and some half-finished drawings inside.
On my way out the door, I stopped and looked in the mirror. I straightened my posture, standing as tall as I could.
Mm… I thought, slouching a bit as I raised one hand to my chin. Maybe it needs something…
As I turned towards my wardrobe, I noticed the sweet smell of food being made. Forgetting my task, I pranced down the stairs to the kitchen where my mother was cooking breakfast.
“Good morning, Mum!” I said, putting my suitcase down and taking a seat at the wicker table.
“Good morning, dearest,” she replied, placing some tea, porridge, toast, and jam on the table for myself and her. My porridge was filled with banana slices. She knew me well. She sat down opposite me.
“Do you have everything you need?” she asked.
“Yes, mother,” I responded, with a tinge of impatience.
“Do you have money for the train?”
I froze, and my eyes widened.
“O-of course I do,” I said. “I just remembered, I-I need to make my bed!”
I dashed back upstairs and grabbed my handbag, checking to make sure the money was inside. I remained in my room a moment longer, so as not to cause suspicion, before running back downstairs. I sat at the table just long enough to scarf down my porridge, then took a piece of toast with strawberry jam and held it in my mouth while I picked up my belongings.
“Be safe! Call me as soon as you can,” said Mum.
“Mhm!” I mumbled as I went out the door. The clamour of the city streets filled my ears as I skipped down the pavement, toast in hand. The town my relatives lived in was a market town quite like mine, though theirs was much smaller. I grinned as I recalled the bakery where my cousin and I had bought some pastries one day. Maybe this time I can afford to buy the — wait! I stopped in my tracks, my eyes widening once again. I dropped my suitcase with a clatter and darted back inside.
“What’s the matter?!” asked my mother, as I nearly toppled a chair on my way through the kitchen.
“I forgot to make my bed!” I called back.
❀ ❀ ❀
I stood at a level crossing, waiting for a train to go by before I proceeded. There were lots of trains in my town, something we were rather famous for. I backed away and held my suitcase tighter as the train hurtled through, the resulting wind causing my hair to dance wildly. I watched as it departed. My stomach felt uneasy. I’d ridden a train before many times, but never alone, much less traveled this far all by myself.
“Right,” I said aloud, furrowing my brow and crossing the tracks.
A little ways ahead, I saw a group of students from my school walking together. One of the girls was tossing a football up in the air. I ran to catch up.
“Bethany!” I called as I approached them. “Bethany!” I slowed down to match their pace, touching one of the girls’ shoulders. She was tall and slender, with long, straight black hair.
“Bethany, I’m leaving for my cousin’s now,” I said, breathing heavily as I tried to catch my breath. “I wanted to say goodbye.”
“Oh, leaving where?” she asked, tossing the ball up in the air again. “I didn’t know you had a cousin.”
“I told you about her last Sunday, remember?” I replied. “I said I was going to be staying with her for the summer.”
“Beth, who’s going to be our centre-back?” asked one of the girls.
Bethany passed her the ball. “You can,” she replied.
One of the boys whipped his head round. “Wait, I thought I was the centre-back?” he asked.
“Not anymore,” said Bethany, shrugging.
The boy frowned. “You can’t just switch positions like that! Now who’s going to be our striker?”
“B-Bethany,” I said, tugging on her shirt.
“We’re about to have a match against Phillip and his team,” said Bethany. “It’s a shame you won’t be able to see it. It’s going to be the end of their streak for sure, so long as William doesn’t ruin it like he did last time.”
“That wasn’t my fault!” said the boy.
“Oh, yes it was,” she replied. “Everything was perfect, and then you missed the shot.“
“O-oh, um, good luck!” I interjected. “Tell me how it goes when I get back!”
I turned round and ran backwards so I was just ahead of them.
“G-goodbye!” I said a little louder.
“Cheers!” Bethany called back, before returning to her argument. I lingered for a moment before turning round a corner and continuing towards my destination.
I met Bethany shortly after I moved here to start secondary school. She’s captain for one of our football teams. I’m not very good at sports, so I’m not asked to join games very often, but Bethany let me join as the goalkeeper once when they were a member short. I’ve looked up to her ever since.
I checked my pocket watch. It was almost nine in the morning. I’ll be late! I thought. I took off running.
❀ ❀ ❀
I reached the train station with a few minutes to spare, a little out of breath. It was very noisy. People were walking to and from the station, chattering about whatever it is grown-ups chatter about. I held more tightly to my suitcase as I looked round for the ticket office. Spying it, I ran up to it, hoping I wasn’t too late.
“Hello, I’d like to purchase a ticket, please,” I said. I stood on my tiptoes, my fingers gripping the end of the desk.
“You would, now?” said the attendant cheerfully.
“I—Yes, t-to Nailsworth, please,” I replied.
“That’s quite far from here,” she said, narrowing her eyes. “Running away, are we? Where are your parents?“
“N-no,” I said, stepping back from the desk. “I-I have family there. A-and I’m not a child!” I added, scowling.
The attendant raised her eyebrow.
I thrust open my handbag and laid the money out on the desk, without breaking eye contact.
“You be careful, then,” she said finally, handing me my ticket. “Your train’s coming in any moment now.”
I don’t need to be told that, I thought angrily. As I turned round to find the train, I bumped into someone who was walking by. Apologising, I glanced upwards and saw an elderly man towering over me. He was thin, almost unhealthily so, but rather well-dressed. He frowned.
“Well, you’re a bit young to be traveling by yourself, aren’t you?” he asked, in a gravelly voice.
“N-no I’m not,” I responded tersely. I inched my right foot backwards, tightening my grip on my bag.
The man laughed. “It can be dangerous for a lass like yourself to be out here alone,” he said. “You wouldn’t happen to have an umbrella on you, would you? You wouldn’t want to get caught in the rain, now.”
Oh no, I forgot it! And I’ll miss the train if I go back… “I-I don’t…” I said cautiously. I took a step back and squared my shoulders.
“Here, take this.” He held out his own umbrella. It was a deep red, with a finely crafted mahogany handle. I looked at the item, then back at him in silence, holding my gaze.
The man looked surprised. “You won’t take it?” he asked. “You haven’t lived here for very long, have you?” he remarked with a laugh.
“That’s no concern of yours,” I replied. I glanced behind him and saw my train pull into the station.
“You’re sure, are you?” he asked.
“Y-yes,” I said hurriedly, starting towards the train.
“If you say so. Good day, lass. Take care.” The man smiled, tipped his hat, and walked away. I stared at him for a moment, puzzled by the encounter. Checking to make sure I still had all my belongings, I ran for the train. I showed the conductor my ticket and boarded, where I found my seat near the back of the car, next to a window. After stowing my luggage in the compartment above me, I sat down and let out a sigh, running my fingers through my hair.
I don’t need an umbrella anyway, I reasoned. It’s not raining now, and it’s only a short walk from the station.
I shifted my weight, making myself more comfortable for the long ride. I began reminiscing about my last visit to my aunt and uncle’s. I was eleven at the time. I closed my eyes and smiled as the smell of my Aunt Clara’s lemon and poppyseed muffins came back to me. Aunt Clara had a gift for baking all kinds of delicious things. Alice would take after her and try it on her own… The results were never very good, but nobody wanted to tell her that.
Alice is my cousin. She was always very quiet, preferring to stay inside and read, but that was far too boring for my overactive self. She’s a year older than I, but I (being the overbearing child I was) used to make her do all kinds of silly activities with me outdoors. She would happily go along with them.
I wonder if she’s changed at all. I tilted my head back and stared at the ceiling. My own manners had much improved over the years (or at least, I’d like to think they had), but I was still mischievous at heart. That was a fine quality for a young lady to hold on to, right?
I was lost in thought until a waiter appeared a few hours later, taking the passengers’ lunch orders. I had a delightful egg mayonnaise sandwich and some tea. Around this time in my journey, the Cotswolds started coming into view. Excitedly, I sat upright and pressed my face to the window.
Rolling green hills spread for miles, dotted by farms growing acres and acres of wheat and vegetables and other things. Occasionally, the train passed by a more populated area, where quaint villages filled with cottages sprawled about, untouched by modern industrial advances. The country was very different from the lively town I was from, but it was nice. I watched as one of the villages passed by. I wonder what it’s like to live there, I thought. School must be nice… My school is very large, and it’s easy to get lost. It must be easy to make friends at a small school…
I watched as a field of bright orange flowers passed by. Alice used to keep a flower like that in her room, I recalled. A smile crept onto my face. Taking my suitcase down from the compartment, I opened it and dug out my sketchbook and my pencils. I began to draw a hibiscus — I started with five large, rounded petals that slightly overlapped one another, then added the stamen, the leaves, and other details. It was an elegant flower, one that was difficult to reproduce on paper, especially in a moving train. As I drew, however, the noise of the train began to fade away. I continued my work, adding more subtle details and texture to the image, when I heard a loud voice. I looked up in shock.
“Hey, you!” shouted a man standing nearby. “You getting off here or what? I’ve got to get back to the station today, and I don’t need anyone wastin’ more of my time.”
We’ve arrived? I thought.
“S-sorry!” I said, closing my sketchbook and returning my materials to my suitcase. I gathered my things and hurried off the train onto the platform outside. It looked much like the station I departed from, but smaller, and with far fewer people crowding the area.
I breathed in the clear air and exhaled loudly, looking up at the deep blue sky with a smile.
Aah, I’m finally here! I thought. I skipped off the platform and onto the pavement, at the corner of the path that lead into the town square.
It was a small town, with winding streets that were home to a variety of shops. I’d have to walk through town to get to the villa, but it wasn’t a long way, so I knew I’d be there before dinnertime. I passed by several of the shops, when an idea struck me.
I know, I’ll buy something to bring as a gift! That’s something a proper houseguest would do, right?
A bit further up the road was a bakery, with a large window in front showcasing many rolls, croissants, pies, and other confections. I went inside, a bell above the door ringing as I opened it. The warm air smelled strongly of freshly made bread.
“Welcome,” said a man enthusiastically. “What can I do for you?”
My nose was pressed to the glass display.
“I could get the cake…” I mumbled to myself. “… or I could get the cinnamon roll… I want the cinnamon roll… Oh, but it’s too cute to eat!”
“Kid?” said the baker. I looked up suddenly and backed away from the display, stammering.
“Oh, h-hi, hello! I’d like to get a cinna-um, cinnam… um, I’d like to buy something, please!”
“I would hope so,” said the baker, grinning. He was up to his elbows in flour.
I scanned the showcase. “Um, four of these croissants, please…”
“These?” He pointed to the butter croissants.
“Ah—the ones filled with raspberry jam,” I said.
“Got it. Anything else?” He began putting the items into a pink and white-striped box.
That should be enough for the four of us. But perhaps I should get a few more just in case…
“A-and four of those butter rolls too, please,” I said.
“Absolutely.” He added them, handed me the box, and told me the total. I winced a little upon hearing the price, but I knew it’d be worth it.
“Thank you!” I said on my way out the door.
“Come again!” the baker replied.
I sighed and checked my pocket watch. It was almost four in the afternoon. They’d be expecting me soon.
Right. I quickened my pace, focusing on the road ahead. I’d be able to explore town later. Soon, the paved street gave way to a dirt path, leading into the residential part of the area. Whitewashed cottages lined the path to my left; a dense collection of trees was to my right. I kept walking until there was a small fork in the path. I turned to the right and followed it. A large clearing and an even larger building slowly came into view between the trees.
The McCrae villa was a sight to behold. It was an elegant thing built of honey-coloured stone and covered with vibrant green moss. Four tall windows sat on either side of the doorway; two for each storey, with another above the door. The villa was surrounded by an ornate black gate and a lush garden lined with hedges and flowers of red, white, yellow, and violet. Two dark cedar trees shaped into cones stood on the sides, as tall as the villa itself. The roof was covered with overlapping grey slate of varying shades. The second storey had a balcony where you could walk out and see the whole strawberry field in back. There was a tall, thick oak tree, many years old, in the lower-left corner of the garden, with two wooden benches placed opposite one another in its shade. In the centre of the garden was a wide grey fountain, where water flowed calmly out the top, and out the smaller spouts surrounding it. Hidden away from the other residences by the dense trees behind me, the villa was very quiet, save for the playful chattering of birds in the trees.
I held the box from the bakery to my chest with one hand, butterflies in my stomach. I opened the gate (they always kept it unlocked) and walked round the fountain to the doorway. The dark wooden door was framed by an arch and two pillars. I put my suitcase down and knocked loudly on the door, clutching the box a little tighter. It opened, and I was greeted by a tall man with sharp facial features and short grey hair.
“Good afternoon, madam,” he said. “You are Miss Bennet, I presume?”
Before I could respond, I heard another voice from inside the house:
“Thank you Sebastian, but I can answer the door myself.”
I almost didn’t recognise the girl who appeared in the doorway.