Maya Northen Augelli
from WORK IN PROGRESS: Chapter 1
As I pushed open the door to the cottage, the damp, musty smell, reminiscent of my grandma's basement, hit me. While it's a scent that deters most people, I welcome it. It brings me back to my childhood, to the old home that my grandma lived in, with my cousins and I hollering through the laundry shoots, enthralled as if they were some secret passageway. I guess by today's standards, perhaps they were. As I walk into the corridor, I get a feeling of familiarity, as if I've been there before, or perhaps seen the place in a movie or read about it in a book. But I know that I haven't. I found this cottage on a whim, driving through town, day dreaming about living in a charming little village, finding the perfect inspiration for my book.
I'm using the phrase 'my book' liberally here. I'm not a published author, at least not of fiction novels but it's been a dream of mine for years. A dream I've finally decided to pursue. I felt the need for a shift in life, and an impromptu road trip brought me here. And yes, I do feel the town, the cottage, drew me in, not the other way around. I'm a believer in past lives, and when I get pulled by that sense of belonging to a place or a situation, I'm almost certain there's a reason for it &ndsah; perhaps a link to the past, that I'm not yet aware of.
I look around the room and see an old candle lantern, a wood burning fireplace, a modest but large enough kitchen just past the living room, and oddly, a stack of old books. I can't help myself. I wander over and dust off the top one. They look like they haven't been touched in quite a while, yet with the way they're arranged – neatly, and clearly in some sort of order that I haven't figured out – they were well loved. Or least well-used.
"Hennie…" I hear my sister calling me as she enters the doorway. "Oh, of course. The books," she jests, as she strolls over to the coffee pot. The landlord has left a can of coffee on the counter, the cheap stuff, the kind my parents drank for years until my sisters and I became too disconcerting and insisted on the 'gourmet' versions. "Come on, Nan" I tease her. "You know I can't resist. These look like they're hiding something especially interesting." "Hiding?" my sister replies, looking a bit skeptical. I just smile. She knows my propensity to get so lost in a story, especially an old one, that she'll no doubt have to drag me away by the heels.
I come by it honestly. My parents are so into British royal history that my sisters and I are named after King Henry VIII and his wives. They were certain I'd be a boy, and had picked out the name Henry for me. Not wanting to completely humiliate me through my youth, they lovingly changed it to Henrietta upon learning that I was a girl. To my family, though, I'm Hennie, courtesy of Anna. She's two years younger and as a child she couldn't pronounce the "r". Henri became Hennie – I have to say, I'm rather thankful for that – and it stuck. I, in return, call her Nan, the well-known historical nickname for her namesake, Anne Boleyn. My parents had realized that it might be a bit foreboding to name her directly after a woman beheaded for witchcraft, and gracefully changed Anne into Anna – a wise move in my opinion.
True to her namesake, Nan is the family trendsetter. She's sleeker and more fashionable than myself or Cathryn, my baby sister, and no doubt just as outspoken as the former Queen Anne. For you fellow history buffs, I realize society would dictate that I not call her Queen, yet she's so fascinating a creature that I must. Cathryn, or Cat as we call her, is six years younger than me and a perfect combination of the three Queens whose name she bears. She's docile and sweet, yet book-wormish and curious like me, and a person of incredible inner strength. Right now, she's doing an exchange program at Oxford as part of her graduate studies. If you're wondering how my parents managed to leave out Jane Seymour, from the naming process, they didn't. We have a labrodoodle mutt named Janey who resides at their house now that we girls have grown up and moved away.
I leave the books for now, moving to investigate the second floor where the bedrooms and the main bathroom sit. My bedroom, in the front of the house, overlooks the colorful gardens that first drew my attention to the cottage a few months back. As I peer out the windows into the array of bedraggled, but clearly well-thought out flowers below, I once again get that feeling that the house knows something that I've yet to discover. It's not an uncomfortable emotion really. It's more of a sense of belonging that I can't quite yet understand. I hear footsteps and turn to see Nan entering the room, carrying two steaming cups. "I see you got the coffee pot working". I reach for one, assuming she hasn't made them both for herself, "thanks." "Be careful, it's hot." She smiles, realizing how much she sounds like our mother. "Where's the guest room?" "Right across the hall," I point to the half open door directly facing mine.
I hear Nan plop down her bags, and then a slightly muffled 'hmm' from her room. "What is it?" I call across the hall. "Oh it's nothing…" she assures me, but not wholeheartedly. Nan can be overly dramatic, so I don't feel particulalry worried. Still, I head towards her. I enter the guest room to see her peering at a small doorway on the opposite wall. "Probably just a storage area," she says, wrestling with the, lock, which I can see now is antique-looking and rather ornate, on it's front. Nan's not one to be particularly curious about these kinds of things. In fact, she tends to tease me about getting lost in exploration that she considers silly. So if she's paying it more than a passing glance, it must be particularly intriguing – though how she'd know that, I wouldn't know. "It reminds me of the laundry shoots at grandma and grampa's," she grins. "Remember that time we were playing hide and seek and Cat hid in the laundry shoot and got stuck?" I laugh and nod. "It took at least twenty minutes to pull her out. Now that I think about it she really was lucky that she didn't slide down and get stuck in the center." Nan finally gives up on the lock. "I'll leave that discovery to you." I knew she was right. Now that she'd brought my attention to i, I couldn't let a little door randomly placed in a room and locked with such an ornate lock go uninvestigated. "Well, when cat comes to visit, I'll tell her she's not allowed to hide in there," I joke, to cover up the weird feeling of disorientation that suddenly comes over me. Nan, always surprisingly astute to the feelings of myself and Cat, notices anyway.
"I'm starving," Nan says, bringing me back to the present. "Is there some place to get lunch?" I search my memory. "There's a little downtown area, I think about a ten minute walk from here. We could drive, but I wouldn't mind stretching my legs." The drive from Baltimore had been about eight hours, with us switching every couple to give the other a break, and my legs and back were feeling cramped.
As we walked out through the garden, I felt that pull again. As a writer, it's a feeling I get seemingly out of nowhere, and often. There's a story here, I thought. I'd have to ask the landlord a more about the history. He'd only told me that the previous tenant had been a sixty-year old woman, widowed too early in life, who'd moved here for a bit of a fresh start. The gardens, I was told, were her handiwork, and I hoped I would not completely kill them with my less-than-green thumb. She'd love the place and had left only when her daughter had gotten a job in Italy, and moved there with her daughter and grandchild. Linda, I believe the tenant's name was. I made a mental note to visit Billy Chaven, the landlord and owner of the cottage, in the next couple of days. He lived on his own and, friendly and warm, but lonely, he'd seemed ready to welcome a visit.
"You're lost in thought," Nan half asked, half stated. She knew me too well to be fooled. "I'm just wondering about the house's history, that's all. I realize I don't know much about it. And you know me…" I trailed off. She did, and there was no point in finishing the sentence.
I found the little town inviting. It seemed everyone knew everyone else, and they continually surprised me with some knowledge on a topic I'd never have expected. Like the bakery owner and his vast knowledge of WWII planes, despite the fact that he'd never been in the military. The owner of the little convenience market who, much to my excitement, was as curious about British royal history as I was. Or the dry cleaner who had an architecture degree and had once taught college courses but decided to take over the family business instead when his father had fallen ill.
Walking back from lunch, we passed a used bookstore. Without asking Nan, I opened the door and started in. She might be more strong-willed, but when it came to books, it was pointless to argue with me. Still, she couldn't resist a friendly jab, "you don't have enough old books in the corner of your new living room?". She had a point. Perhaps I should check them first to avoid duplicates. Reason almost won out, but I scolded myself silently. There is no such thing as too many books. Finding the Local section, my eye was immediately caught by two titles: "Unsolved Village Mysteries" and "Local Haunts," the obvious play on words alluding the best places to go if you want to experience a ghostly presence. To many people's surprise, I'm not a ghost-hunting fanatic. But I do know that where people experience ghosts, or believe they do, there's usually a good story. I realize it's not true across the board. You may feel the presence of your favorite grandparent who you feel helps guide you through life, but usually those stories are kept quietly to oneself. Quite frankly, it's because it doesn't matter to anyone else. It's the big ghost stories, where someone disappeared or died in an appalling manner or had some mission that they didn't complete in life. Those are the hauntings whispered about all over town, and they're usually shrouded in mystery. And where there's mystery, there's a good tale to explore.
I picked up the books, a mere five dollars for the two of them, and checked out. "Ah, nothing like living in an unknown place by yourself that's been vacant and covered in dust, reading ghost stories and unsolved mysteries to make you feel cozy". "I couldn't have said it better myself." Nan rolls her eyes in mock disdain. "Well, I suppose for you, that's probably true. But do me a favor. If you find out someone was stabbed or shot to death in that house, please get the hell out?". "Ok, stabbed or shot, I'll get out. But if they were smothered with a pillow or killed by arson, I can stay, right?". I expect another eye roll, but instead, she looks puzzled. "Arson?" Nan asks. "I think we would have heard about that, wouldn't we?". I'm surprised by her serious tone. For all of her teasing, Nan and I are very close, and I know she'd physically force me out of the cottage if she thought I was in harm's way. "First thing that came to mind," I say lightly. Though admittedly, it was a rather bizarre choice. "An odd choice," she muses. It's unlike my sister think about something like this past the surface level of a joke, and it throws me off for a moment. "I guess so. Must be all those books I read. I'm sure someone was killed by arson in one of them." Though I can't actually recall one off the top of my head.
As we start to settle back into the cottage, I see Nan taking another look at the little door inside of her room. She knocks on it and gets what almost sounds like an echo in return. "Any luck?". She jumps slightly, not realizing I'd walked up behind her. "It's hollow" is all she says, though I see her fiddling with the lock again. "I'm surprised you're so curious." As if she realizes suddenly that she's betraying her persona, she lightly rebuffs, "it's just a very pretty lock, and you know me with pretty things." I did, but thirty years of living with her and I was astute enough to know when she was downplaying. Something about the door, or what lay behind it, was bothering her, though I got the impression that even she might not know why. It happened to me all the time, that pull to a place or object, and I only later, after much investigation, understood the reason behind it. Nan, however, didn't believe in such things and wouldn't admit the full extent of her curiosity. I knew I'd do more research on the house itself, if possible, to determine why such a door might be there, and what it might be lead to… or hide. For now, I let the matter rest. The journey, and the move itself, had made me a little weary, and Nan looked like she was about to fall asleep where she sat.
Leaving her to her curiosities, I headed to my room to attempt to write before bed. No sooner had I opened my book draft than a message from Cat popped up. "Hennie, love, I hope you are safe and sound at your new cottage?". "I am," I assured her. "Excellent. I found some intriguing information on that new town of yours. I'll send it in an email." "No, no. Now you've piqued my interest, go ahead." "Well, it seems there was some controversy. A French au pair – I have to reconfirm the name but I think it's Julienne – went there to live with a family of three kids. All girls. An English fellow from here at Oxford followed her, though possibly not by invitation, and was planning to stay a week but never came back. Seems he fell off the face of the earth. And so, for that manner, did the au pair." If she were in front of me, I was sure I'd see a triumphant grin on Cat's face. She loved finding out gossip, especially gossip that she'd be me to discovering. "Maybe they ran off and got married," I suggested. "He left here in a hurry, it's said. He had two papers to be turned in, and was supposedly fastidious about his studies." "Hmm. What was his name?" I ask her. "Edward Sharpe," she replies. "He's rather famous here at Oxford."
Edward Sharpe. I jot down the name in my miscellaneous notes book that I keep for such purposes – pieces of information I glean at unexpected moments or words and scenes that come to me when I am not prepared to be writing. "What year was this?" I ask Cat. "1926, I believe," she replies. "So we're going back about 90 years or so. I'm assuming he came over by boat." "Must have," I agree. "And the au pair, you said her name was Julienne?" "Yes, something like that. I'd have to look for the spelling," Cat confirms. It's a start, I think. "I'll check with my landlord. He's been here quite a while and I'm sure if there's a story, he's heard it. And coincidentally, I just picked up a book on unsolved local mysteries today at the bookstore here in town." "Excellent! Let me know what you find!" I can practically see Cat's enthusiasm through the google hangout window, and I know she is genuinely excited. She has a curiosity like mine, though hers is more of a personality trait, whereas mine seems to hone in almost exclusively on historical matters. Still, I feel like I have a bit of a partner in crime in this… whatever it is.