Having survived shopping, which wasn’t at all the trial I was expecting and turned out to be fun, I’m now writing this in my new bedroom. I’d thought when we first got here that I might as well be Catherine Morland because the houses haven’t changed since Jane Austen’s time, and stepping inside the hallway and the reception rooms on the first floor you might be forgiven for thinking you’d gone back in time. It’s very Georgian, furnished with tourists in mind, and scented with the magical fragrance of a house that’s only ever known brimming flower bowls of milky narcissus and heady lilac in spring or spires of delphiniums and plump roses in summer. It’s full of the sights and smells of life lived luxuriously - elegant Chippendale furniture, watered silk on the walls, embroidered cushion covers on satin sofas in the drawing room, and giltwood pier glasses set between the windows.
The scent of fragrant wood smoke, wax candles, and Christmas tangerines linger in the air and the smells in my bedroom are equally delicious - Patchouli by Houbigant on the dressing table, a porcelain pomander in the wardrobe, and crisp clean sheets on my bed, sweetly aromatic with the scent of lemon verbena. I have my own washbasin in a closed off compartment behind a door with an illuminated mirror, and glass shelves either side where my wash-bag now sits, looking scruffy and out of place. The tablet of soap in a shell dish is the scent of dark, damp woods planted with lilies of the valley, and the towels pure white, soft and fluffy. My room, unlike the rest of the house, is Deco-inspired with the walls papered in deep mulberry with silver geometric patterns, starbursts and jagged edges. There’s even some mirrored furniture from the 1930s, a glass vase full of peacock feathers, and a feather boa trained round the gloriously gothic iron bedstead, which looks as if it’s come straight from Dracula’s castle. It’s just a dream!
Anyway, I must write down how I got on. Ellen, as she now insists I call her, was not only overwhelmingly generous, but very kind, and I feel ashamed to think how much I’d dreaded the idea of shopping with her. We walked up to Jolly’s department store on Milsom Street, and she took me to the boutique section, after all. There were so many dresses I liked and Ellen said I could choose any three. I picked out a romantic Laura Ashley style dress in green needlecord, one in purple velvet with a wrap-over skirt, and then Ellen said I must have a dress for a formal evening.
‘Try on this maxi-dress,’ she said, taking a silk crêpe de chine dress, the colour of rose petals, from the rack.
I knew it must cost a small fortune and bit my lip, but Ellen wouldn’t hear of me finding something less expensive.
‘I know your mother would want you to have a nice dress to wear in the evening,’ she said, ‘and it really would be my treat to see you in it. Indulge me, just this once. There might be a dance before Christmas, and you could wear it to a disco, if you wanted.’
It was beautiful, but I’d never been to a formal dance, and I couldn’t imagine wearing it anywhere else. I’d never learned ballroom dancing, though Dad used to let me stand on his feet when he waltzed me round the room. When I tried the dress on, the silk felt exquisite next to my skin, and I loved the halter neck straps. I stood in front of the dressing room mirror, and couldn’t believe quite how sophisticated I looked, especially when I pulled up my hair.
‘The rose brings out the blue in your eyes,’ said Ellen. ‘You’ve got beautiful eyes, like a china doll.’
I felt very satisfied with that compliment; feeling that it must be true if Ellen, with all her sharp comments, said so.
I had to choose a pair of shoes too, and it was Ellen who picked out the pink suede platforms. The assistant, laden with clothes, bustled off to the counter to pack it all in tissue paper and the kind of designer boxes I’d only ever dreamed about. When the assistant said, ‘What a lucky girl to have such a kind mother,’ Ellen seemed to glow with pride, and I decided I’d probably not considered how hard it must be for Ellen to see my mum and me, and all the lovely times we have together. So, I didn’t correct her, and just said I was very lucky indeed. Ellen looked a little misty-eyed, took my hand and squeezed it, and then suggested tea at the Pump Rooms.
It was a cold and damp November afternoon, and the light was beginning to fade as we pushed open the revolving door. The room seemed to steam with the freezing air brought in on coats and gloves, and everyone inside seemed excited to be there, talking at the tops of their voices, glad to have found a seat in the warm. I sat down, fascinated by the hustle and bustle. I’d only ever seen a glimpse inside before, and never been for tea. The scene couldn’t be much changed from the one Jane Austen might have known, I thought, and looking at all the faces, I fancied I could see several resemblances of the characters Jane loved to write about. There was Isabella Thorpe, a young lady with an eye for the young men who was tossing her hair over her shoulder and staring at a man on an adjacent table until she gained his attention. Even the arrogant looking man sitting beside her looked just as I imagined her brother, John Thorpe. I saw his slicked back hair, his leather driving gloves, and an ostentatious key ring informing the world he owned a luxury car. I spotted Mrs Allen in a fur coat not too dissimilar to Ellen’s, and Mr Allen sitting opposite her, a plaster cast on his leg, rather than a bandaged gouty leg. But, try as I might I couldn’t see Henry Tilney, which was a real disappointment. I’ve always had a problem with Henry - I’m blinded by love, I suppose, but I can’t see his face. I can visualise so much - his wavy hair brushing the top of his starched white shirt, an arched brow, and a quizzical smile, but there isn’t a complete picture. His coat of sober black presents no problems, the covert strength hiding beneath the satin waistcoat, and the breeches smoothed tautly over his thighs are as clear as if I’ve always known him … intimately … but his face continues to elude me.
At that precise daydreaming moment, the silhouette of a young man’s profile fell in shadow on the white tablecloth. It startled me, not least because there was something quite diabolical in the pointed beard, and the way his hair was styled, which made me think of two horns until I looked up and saw that my imagination had run away, as usual. A young waiter was asking for our order. Ellen gave precise instructions while I stared, at his goat-like beard, curling moustache, and the wavy hair, stuck up here and there in unruly tufts. I’m not a fan of either beards or moustaches, and I couldn’t help thinking he should get a razor. I think he must have caught me staring because his hand went up to his chin, and he stroked the dark hair thoughtfully.
‘Which would you prefer, Caroline … Earl Grey or Darjeeling?’ Ellen was asking.
‘Oh, Earl Grey, please,’ I said, aware that the young man was staring at me. I looked up, and caught his glance. He smiled in a friendly way, and I felt myself blush.
‘Is this your first time in Bath?’ he asked, and I saw Ellen smile as she looked from him to me and back again.
‘No,’ I said, and was going to leave it at that, but I knew Ellen would think me rude if I didn’t answer more politely. ‘I’ve been to Bath once before, but this is my first time at the Pump Rooms for tea.’
‘An excellent choice, though I would say that, of course. The sandwiches are delicious, and the cakes guaranteed to add inches where you don’t want them, though I’m sure you ladies don’t need to worry about that. Let me know what you think of the chocolate éclairs … they’re my favourite.’
He left then with our order, and I stared down at my place, fiddling nervously with my cutlery, determined not to look at his retreating back. Ellen was still watching me, and I knew what she was thinking.
‘What a very charming young man,’ she said looking at me intently, ‘and quite handsome too, though perhaps a little too beatnik for my tastes.’
‘He’d be better looking if he brushed that unruly mop on the top of his head … or had a shave,’ I said, suppressing the urge not to giggle at Ellen’s comments.
‘Yes,’ she agreed, ‘I don’t know why men like growing facial hair so much. I’m sure if they were kissed with wire wool every morning, they would stop it, immediately.’
|Pump Room tea, Bath|
I laughed, especially when I thought about Roger’s bushy beard, and before we’d both stopped giggling the waiter was back with a tray of teapots and china. I watched him take Ellen’s napkin and flick it out with a flourish before placing it on her knee, and then waited in dread for him to do the same to me. He seemed to bend right over until I was staring at his ear and the sideburns that melded into his beard. He straightened, and I caught his fragrance, a hint of Bergamot, but sharper than the scent of the tea that he proceeded to pour into delicate china teacups.
‘Would you like me to pour the milk?’ he asked.
Ellen declined his offer, and said we should prefer to do it ourselves.
‘Have you been here long?’ he said, placing the jug before her.
‘We’ve just arrived this morning,’ said Ellen, pouring a spot of milk into her tea, ‘and as you see, we’ve been shopping already.’
‘Ah yes, ladies love shopping in Bath, and there’s lots to be done before Christmas. Have you got much planned while you’re here?’
‘We haven’t made exact plans yet, but I’m sure I shall be doing a lot of shopping,’ Ellen replied, beaming up at him.
‘I meant have you many activities planned … are you going to the Christmas ball, for instance?’
He was looking at me now, and I had no idea of the answer.
‘I shall certainly see about tickets,’ Ellen said, ‘and I’m sure Caroline would love to go dancing.’
‘Well, everybody in Bath will be there … it’s always a very grand affair … black tie and ball gowns, and lots of people jigging about who don’t know how to do the old dances. Though none of that matters, there are dances for everybody, and they all jump up to do “the twist” after a few drinks.’
‘Oh, Caroline, doesn’t that sound wonderful? And it would give you a chance to wear your new frock.’
I smiled weakly, thinking that my idea of fun was very far removed from the kind of ball he was describing, and wished the young man would hurry up and go and get our food. I think he sensed what I was thinking and left us, not before he’d winked and grinned at me.
‘He looks a bit like that Swedish singer, only not as filled out, don’t you think?’ Ellen said. ‘You know, the one from Abba … is it Björn?’
‘I thought it was Benny who had the beard,’ I said, thinking that the conversation was becoming completely surreal. I wasn’t an Abba fan, and the comparison was hardly flattering.
‘Well, whichever one, I do think our waiter looks a bit like him, even if his hair and eyes are not quite the right colour. He looks hippyish, but very ‘with it’, I daresay.’
Fortunately I didn’t need to reply to these observations, as the bearded one reappeared with a tiered glass stand filled with sandwiches, scones and cake.
‘There’s lots to do in Bath besides dancing,’ he continued, putting a plate before me. ‘Do you like the theatre or cinema?’
‘Yes, I like both,’ I said, then instantly regretted answering so positively, and for an awful moment thought he might suggest taking me. All I could think about was sitting next to him in the dark with that devilish beard scratching my face as he attempted to kiss me.
‘There’s a horror film on at the Little Theatre,’ he went on, ‘I’m going with my friends next weekend.’
I was sure my sigh of relief was not only audible, but also very visual, though I didn’t care. I kept my eyes on my plate, and when I looked up he’d finally gone.
‘I think he’s rather sweet on you,’ said Ellen, ‘not that I’d encourage you to go out with him. I’m not sure your mother would approve of you going around Bath with a waiter.’
‘I don’t think my mother cares about things like that,’ I said, knowing Ellen would probably be shocked. ‘But, have no fear, he’s not my type, and I’m sure if I was his, he’d have asked me on the spot. He’s just that sort of guy.’
Ellen didn’t say any more. I hadn’t realised how hungry I was, and soon we’d eaten everything. The éclairs were delicious, just as he’d said they’d be, and I was almost disappointed that I couldn’t tell him. Another waiter came to clear our table, and when Ellen asked where our bearded friend had gone, he said he’d finished his shift and left to go home.
Something strange happened in the night, and I don’t quite know what to think about it. We had an uneventful evening after a light supper left on a tray by Mrs Partridge who will be coming in every day to do the cooking and cleaning - though I really wasn’t hungry after the enormous tea we’d eaten. I was feeling tired after such a busy day, and so went off to bed early. I read my ancient copy of Northanger Abbey for a chapter or two until I felt I was dozing off, and managed to put out the light before settling down under the covers.
I’m not sure if it was a noise that woke me or the strange dream I was having about being chased down an alley by a bearded man, but I woke with a start, instantly wide awake. I lay in the dark for a moment or two thinking I might nod off again, but I just tossed and turned before deciding I might settle down better after a visit to the bathroom. Though I tried not to make a sound, the old cistern made such an angry roar as the water flushed, I thought I must have woken the whole household. I crept along in the dark, feeling my way back along the walls because I thought putting the light on would certainly wake the Applebys, though I could hear them both snoring quite loudly in their beds as I passed their room. It was when I opened the door to my bedroom that I was completely surprised, and even now as I write it down, I can’t quite believe it.
I was shocked, firstly, by the fact that it was broad daylight and sunny instead of being night time and pitch black, though it didn’t look like my room at all. Thinking about it now, the windows looking out onto Pulteney Street appeared to be just the same, but there was a large four poster bed dominating the space, hung with curtains - I remember how light and airy they looked, palest ivory with sprigs of flowers, swaying slightly in the breeze coming through the open window - very feminine. A pile of leather-bound books looked carelessly flung over the unmade bed, as if they were all being read at once, ribbon bookmarks dividing the pages, some left open. There was a dressing table draped in the same fabric, which had an oval mahogany mirror on a stand with drawers, and was swathed in beautiful lace. I saw several silver-topped crystal boxes winking in the sunshine, a decorated fan, and two porcelain boxes painted with roses - open, as if in use. A chair was covered entirely with clothes tumbling to the floor, and a chest of drawers under the window had all of its drawers pulled out with pretty accessories falling out of them - what looked to be several sheer shawls or veils, pale pink stockings, and petticoats in the sheerest silk I ever saw. It looked like a scene from a Georgian museum, only more realistically displayed - I’d never seen anything look so authentic.
And then the door, which normally houses my little basin opened as I stared, and through it walked a girl who looked about fourteen. Dressed in her underclothes, a white shift almost to the floor, she looked just like pictures I’ve seen in history of costume books. She had a lively look about her, and when she noticed I was standing there, she looked straight at me with her bright, hazel eyes, and said, ‘Have you come to help me dress?’