Maya Northen Augelli
from WORK IN PROGRESS: Chapter 1
As I push open the door to the cottage, a damp, musty smell, reminiscent of my grandmother's basement, hits me hard. While it's an odor that offends most people, it's one I enjoy. It brings me back to my childhood, to the old home that my grandma lived in, my cousins and I hollering through the laundry shoots, enthralled as if they held some secret passageway. Though I guess by today's standards, perhaps they did. As I walk into the corridor, I get a feeling of familiarity, almost as if I'd been here before, or perhaps experienced it through a movie or book. But I haven't, of course. I found this cottage on a whim, driving through town, daydreaming 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 in fiction novels anyways. But it's been a dream of mine, and I've finally decided to pursue it. 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 semi-believer in past lives, and when I get pulled by that sense of belonging to a place or a situation, I'm almost certain the reason can be found in the past.
I look around the room, my eyes scanning over 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 years, and yet with the way they're arranged – neatly, and clearly in some sort of order that I haven't yet figured out – they were well loved. Or at least well-used. "Hennie…" I hear my sister calling as she entered the doorway. "Oh, of course. The books," she jests, as she strolls over to the kitchen. I see her eyes land on the coffee pot that the landlord left for me. Thankfully, he also left a can of coffee on the counter. "Come on, Nan" I teased her. "You know I can't resist. These look like they're hiding something especially interesting. "Hiding?" my sister questions, looking skeptical. I just smile. She knows my propensity to get so lost in a story, especially a historical one, that she'll have to practically 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. Not wanting to completely humiliate me through my youth, they lovingly changed it to Henrietta when they learned 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", so Henri became Hennie and it stuck. I, in return, call her Nan, the nickname for her namesake, Anne Boleyn (my parents thought it to be foreboding to name her exactly for a woman beheaded for witchcraft, and gracefully turned Anne into Anna – a wise move in my opinion). True to her name, Nan is the family trendsetter. She's sleeker and more fashionable than myself or Cathryn, our baby sister, and no doubt just as outspoken as the former Queen Anne herself. And yes, I realize society would dictate that I not call her Queen, yet she's so fascinating a creature that I must. Cathryn, or Cat, is six years younger than me and a perfect combination of the three Queens whose name she bears. She's book-wormish and curious like me, and a person of incredible inner strength. On occasion, she has a slightly wilder side, and as the youngest, gets away with much more than Nan and I ever did. She's currently doing an exchange program at Oxford as part of her graduate studies. If you're somehow as well versed in Tudor History as my family, and wondering how my parents managed to leave Jane Seymour out of the naming process, they didn't. We have a labrodoodle named Janey who resides at their house now that we've all grown up and moved away.
I leave the books for now, moving to investigate the floor where the bedrooms and the main bathroom sit. My room, in the front of the house, overlooks the colorful gardens that first drew my attention to the place a couple of months back. As I peer out the windows into the grounds below, I once again get the feeling that the house knows something I've yet to discover. It's not uncomfortable, really. It's more a sense of understanding. I hear footsteps and turn to see Nan entering the room with 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.' "What?" I call across the hall. "Oh it's nothing…" she assures me, but not wholeheartedly. Nan doesn't "hmm" for no reason. I walk over to see her peering at a small doorway on the opposite wall. "Probably just a storage area," she says, wrestling with the antique-looking lock and knob on its 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 of what she considers silly. So if she's paying it more than a passing glance, it must be intriguing – though why, I'm not yet sure. "It reminds me of the laundry shoots at grandma and grandpa's. Remember that time we were playing hide and seek and Cat hid in the laundry shoot and got stuck?" she grins. 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 of it." Nan gave up on the lock. "I'll leave that exploring to you," she shrugged, and I knew she was right. I couldn't let a little door randomly placed in a spare bedroom, locked with such an ornate and effective 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 astute, notices anyway.
She just nods. I get occasional spells of dizziness that often last just a few seconds, but sometimes put me on my butt for more than an hour. This momentary spell, though, felt different, almost as if I'd lost a second or two. I wave it off as lack of sleep, which often makes my vertigo worse.
"I'm starving," Nan says, bringing me back to the present. "Is there some place to get lunch?"
"Sure, there's a little downtown 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 seven hours, with us switching driving duty every couple hours to give the other a break.
Walking out through the garden, I feel that pull again. As a writer, it's a feeling I get seemingly out of nowhere. There's a story here. I'll have to ask the landlord further about the history. He'd only told me that the previous tenant had been a sixty-year old woman, widowed too early in life. The gardens, I was told, were her handiwork, and I hoped I would not completely destroy them with my less-than-green thumb. She'd loved the place, and had left only because her daughter had gotten a job over in Italy and she moved with them to be near her only grandchild. Linda, I believe the tenant's name was. I made a mental note to visit Billy Chaven, the landlord, in the next couple of days. He lived on his own and, friendly and warm but lonely, he seemed to always welcome a visit. His place was just on the other side of Harbour Street, where we were headed now.
"You're lost in thought," Nan half asks half states. She knows 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 trail off. She does, and there is no point in finishing the sentence.
I'd found the little town inviting when I'd stopped in the first time. It seemed everyone knew everyone else, and they each seemed to have 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 at a nearby college, but decided to take over the family business instead when his father had fallen ill, to keep it from going under.
Walking back from lunch, we pass a used bookstore. Without asking Nan, I open the door and start in. She might be more strong-willed, but when it comes to books, it's pointless to argue with me. Still, she can't resist a friendly jab, "You don't have enough books in the corner of your new living room?" She has a point. I'd discovered all of those dusty books that I hadn't yet sorted through. Perhaps I should check them first to avoid duplicates. Reason almost wins out, but I scold myself silently. There is no such thing as too many books. Finding the Local section, my eye is immediately caught by two titles: "Unsolved Village Mysteries" and "Local Haunts," the obvious play on words alluding not to the best places to go to eat and drink, but the best places to go to experience a ghostly presence. Despite my love of history, 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. It's not true across the board, of course. You may feel the presence of your favorite grandparent who helps guide you through life's tough times, but usually those stories are kept to oneself. Quite frankly, it's because it doesn't matter much to anyone else. It's the big ghost stories, where someone disappeared or died in an appalling manner. Those are the hauntings whispered about all over town, shrouded in mystery. And where there's mystery, there's a good story to explore.
I pick up the books, a mere five dollars for the two of them, and check 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. "Hmm, weird," she muses. It was unlike my sister to 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 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 something 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 do, but thirty years of living with her and I am astute enough to know when she's downplaying things. Something about the door is bothering her, though I get the impression that even she might not know why. It happens to me all the time, that pull to a place or object, and only later, after much investigation, do I understand the reason behind it. Nan, however, doesn't believe in such things and won't admit the full extent of her interest. I know I'll 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, has made me a little weary, and Nan looks like she's about to fall asleep where she sits.
Leaving her to her curiosities, I head to my room to attempt to write before bed. No sooner do I open my book draft than a message from Cat pops up. "Hennie, love, I hope you are safe and sound at your new cottage?" "I am," I assure her. "Excellent. I found some interesting information on that new town of yours. I know it's late, 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. Girls, I think. 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 your au pair." If she were in front of me, I was sure I'd see a triumphant grin on Cat's face. She loves finding out gossip like this. "Maybe they ran off and got married," I suggest. "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 asked Cat. "1925, I believe," she replied. "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 anyways. I'd have to look for the spelling," Cat confirmed. It's a start. "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 could practically see Cat's enthusiasm through the chat window, and I knew she was 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, pun only half intended, for my unofficial investigation.