Searching for Captain Wentworth


 Searching for Captain Wentworth - a novel inspired by Persuasion

When aspiring writer Sophie Elliot receives the keys to the family townhouse in Bath, it's an invitation she can't turn down, especially when she learns that she will be living next door to the house where Jane Austen lived. On discovering that an ancient glove belonging to her mysterious neighbour, Josh Strafford, will transport her back in time to Regency Bath, she questions her sanity, but Sophie is soon caught up in two dimensions, each reality as certain as the other. Torn between her life in the modern world and that of her ancestor who befriends Jane Austen and her fascinating brother Charles, Sophie's story travels two hundred years across time and back again, to unite this modern heroine with her own Captain Wentworth. Blending fact and fiction together, the tale of Jane Austen's own quest for happiness weaves alongside, creating a believable world of new possibilities for the inspiration behind the beloved novel, Persuasion. 


Chapter One


On the day that the parcel arrived, I didn’t really take much notice at first.
‘Now, that’s what I call an interesting object,’ my father said, putting the brown paper package before me on the kitchen table with a flourish. ‘It offers all sorts of possibilities from the exotic to the mundane.’
‘Knowing my luck it’s more likely to be the latter,’ I muttered under my breath. Spearing the top of a boiled egg with my spoon I watched the golden yolk trickle in a glutinous trail down over the striped eggcup, until it congealed in a pool on the blue plate. Aware that he was observing me closely I sensed his silent agitation, as he waited for me to show some sign of interest.
‘Full of mysterious promise is that parcel, I wonder what’s in it,’ Dad persisted, watching me stab a toast soldier into the yolk, until there was nothing left but porcelain egg white like the gleam of a fragile teacup. In an effort to appear uninterested, he went to stand at the sink pretending to be busy. I heard him fill a bowl with steaming water, knowing that I was being watched from the corner of his eye.
‘Well, aren’t you going to open it?’ he said at last, clearly bursting with curiosity.
I wasn’t in the mood. I couldn’t care less what was in the parcel and I sighed before I could stop myself.
‘Is anything wrong, love?’ He put down the teacloth and the saucepan he was drying, before sitting down on the chair next to mine. ‘You’re out of sorts, Sophie. Tell your old Dad. What’s the matter?’
The teacloth proved to be an object of fascination in that moment as I avoided the answer and his eyes, taking time to fold the fabric into a satisfying rectangle. Part of me was ashamed to be behaving like a petulant teenager. I was far too old for that but, I didn’t want to tell him everything because despite being truly sad for me, I knew that he would also be completely delighted and I couldn’t stand the thought of seeing that in his face. The truth was that I’d had my heart irrevocably broken, smashed up like the brittle egg shell lying shattered in pieces on my plate. Everything I’d ever believed about Lucas, our relationship and about our future together, had finally been proved to be false. If I’m truthful, I’d always known that I would find myself sobbing into my breakfast one day, feeling bruised and abandoned. But, that it would come at such a spectacularly low point in my life, I hadn’t fully considered.
Actually, there were no more tears; I’d gone beyond the crying stage. I just felt completely numb. Telling my Dad, who I knew would be pleased to be proved right about my philandering boyfriend, was out of the question, so I blamed my mood on the horribly unsuccessful job interview of the day before. All I had to do now was listen to murmurs of sympathy.
‘I knew there was something, I could just tell,’ he said, as he folded me into the warmth of his strong arms. ‘Don’t worry, Sophie, it’ll all turn out for the best. Besides, there’s a reason you didn’t get the job; it wasn’t meant to be and, I’ve always said, the right thing will come along just when it should. Be patient, time will tell.’
Dear Dad, that’s his answer to everything. Fate will play its hand. According to him, we cannot escape our destiny, nor should we try. Still, it was nice to hear some sympathy even if I didn’t subscribe to his ideas about providence and divine intervention. It wasn’t just the fact that Lucas and I had come to the end of what was inevitably going to happen anyway, I knew I had to face up to some uncomfortable facts. To be a writer had been my ambition since leaving university, but the manuscripts I’d sent out had always come back, the fat brown envelopes dropping back through the letterbox with the most depressing sound in the world.
I’d had a few articles published, seen my name in print and earned the princely sum in six years of what amounted to most people’s idea of a six month salary. Yesterday had been my first attempt into the world of work and a “proper job”. I hadn’t got it. So, what was I going to do now? I had no idea.
‘Aren’t you going to open it?’ Dad persevered, nodding at the package and producing a pair of scissors that he’d obviously had at the ready.
In a way, the thought of the parcel did cheer me up. I’ve always loved getting presents through the post, but I couldn’t see how this could possibly be anything that might improve the sense of hopelessness that was filling every thought in my mind, every pore of my being. I cut through the string and the brown paper layers wound round with so much sellotape, that I’d almost lost the will to finish opening it, before I managed to extract the most exquisite object I’ve ever received. It was a rosewood box inlaid with mother of pearl, fashioned into simple scrolls and arabesques into the lid and along its sides. There was a small key in the lock, which on turning clicked satisfactorily to release the mechanism that secured it. When I look back now, I must admit I was immediately intrigued. The box was like no other I have ever seen or held since. On opening, the shades of the past seemed to whisper in my ear as a heady fragrance, of orange blossom and frangipani, rose from within its depths. Inside, I found a set of keys bound together with a blue striped ribbon and a letter.

Carhampton Dando
Somerset
Dear Sophie,
How are you, my dear? I hope you are well. Your father’s last letter gave me all your news and I’m very pleased to hear that you are still writing!
I hope the box that you have opened will prove useful to you. There is nothing like a fresh place for inspiration and it crossed my mind that you might enjoy a break from your London life, so I am enclosing a set of keys to the house that my father’s family have owned in Bath since it was built, which is for far more years than I can remember. Your Grandmother and I spent our summer holidays there from school before travelling to the seaside in Dorset and Wales. Later on, we used to take your mother as a girl, and I think she enjoyed these visits very much until she was quite grown up, just before she met your father and the pleasures of Bath did not have such a hold.  
Unfortunately, the entire house is no longer at your disposal as it was divided up when my father wanted to lease out the lower floors. You will have the run of the upper floors, however, and I believe there is only one tenant now on the ground floor. It is some time since anyone in the family stayed in the house and I’m afraid to tell you that there are not too many modern conveniences, but I hope that this will not trouble you too much.
The location is particularly pleasing being next door to Jane Austen’s house in Sydney Place, a situation very well positioned for the gardens across the road and a five minute level walk to the shops. Do you know Jane Austen’s books? I think you would enjoy them.
I sincerely hope it will prove to be an inspiration for your writing and that you will enjoy as much fun as your namesake in Sydney Place. There was another Sophia Elliot who lived in the house once upon a time and, as a youngster, I remember reading her journal. Anyway, my dear, I know it would have pleased my dear sister and, indeed, her beloved daughter, to think that you might be able to enjoy a little holiday in the famous spa town. Have fun!  
Yours ever,
Great Aunt Elizabeth.

I put the letter down and gave my father a look that told him I wanted the truth.
‘What have you been up to?’ I asked quietly, ‘Exactly what have you been telling Great Aunt Elizabeth?’
His ears instantly tinged with pink as he admitted what I already suspected. ‘I’m worried about you, Sophie; you’ve been moping about this house for too long. I admit, I did write and tell her what you’d been doing but it was her suggestion that you go to Bath. To be honest, I’d forgotten there was a house although your mother used to talk about it sometimes. Listen, I’ve a little money set aside. I want you to use it and I know your mum would have liked you to make the most of a trip to Bath. You could write that novel you’re always saying you haven’t got time to do. What do you say?’
I couldn’t be cross with him. Anyway, it was a brilliant idea and so generous of him. Besides, what else was I going to do? I didn’t want to hang around the house, feeling completely depressed, or go out and experience the misery of bumping into Lucas and Lily in Camden High Street confirming the fact that they were seeing one another. I didn’t want that above everything else. At that moment, I wanted to believe in all Dad’s nonsense about fate and destiny. To be as far away from London as I could get seemed a great idea and Bath was a place I’d wanted to visit for a long time. In fact, ever since I’d read about it in Persuasion.
My favourite book has always been Jane Austen’s Persuasion and it’s been the comfort blanket of my life which I know sounds a bit dramatic but, if ever I’m feeling fed up, it’s my novel of choice. What I’ve always done when I can’t face the world is to retreat into its pages and spend some time with Captain Wentworth. Oh, I know how that sounds and every one of my friends thinks I’m completely mad, but the truth is that Frederick Wentworth is my idea of the perfect hero and, let’s be honest, the idea of a man in uniform goes a long way to help numb those real twenty-first century feelings.
Just as perfect and to complement this handsome sailor there’s no one quite so faultless as Anne Elliot, the love of the Captain’s life. The fact that she shares my family name, has been disappointed in love and also lost her mum at a time when she was most needed, makes her seem very real. But that’s where the comparisons end. I don’t have a lot else in common with Miss Anne Elliot of Kellynch Hall in Somerset. I am not sweet and good, nor do I live in a stately home in 1815. Anne is the kind of person I would love to be: gentle, modest, and intelligent. I’d like to think I’ve got a brain but, as for the rest, I know I have a habit of being outspoken. I’m always saying the wrong thing and putting my foot in it, a fault the lovely Anne would never commit. Above everything else, I’d like to find a guy who adores me as Fred does Anne and experience that kind of enduring devotion for myself; a burning passion with a forever love.
I took the train. There was nowhere to park in Bath that wasn’t going to cost a lot of money and Dad said that he thought most places could be reached on foot. I liked the idea of walking. I badly needed some exercise especially as those New Year promises to keep up my gym subscription had disappeared when I saw just how much it had gone up. It wasn’t until the Abbey and Pulteney Bridge came into view that the age or the beauty of the place really struck me. However, by the time I was striding over the narrow bridge’s footpath, the novelty of walking had worn off due to the number of people crossing who seemed to think I was invisible and kept walking into me or my luggage. Dragging my suitcase on wheels and weighed down with another bag stuffed full meant I had no time to stop and look at all the shops along the bridge, though it crossed my mind that even if I found nothing else to do I could happily spend a month in retail therapy.
But when I reached the island at Laura Place, I had to stop. In Persuasion, the Elliot’s snobby cousin, Lady Dalrymple, lives there with her daughter, Miss Carteret, so I paused for a minute trying to imagine which house it was that they occupied. Great Pulteney Street lay ahead, magnificently grand like some dowager duchess putting out her best jewels on display. Its length seemed interminable, but I kept my eye fixed on the Holburne Museum at the end knowing that I was to turn off before I reached it.
Sydney Place is no longer the quiet spot that Jane Austen must have known and the traffic, which roars past day and night, is as loud as any in London. That was the first illusion shattered, although I felt really thrilled at the idea of living next door to the house of the writer who had penned Persuasion. The thought that perhaps some of Jane’s genius might permeate through the walls to inspire me was exciting. As I walked up the pathway of the imposing Georgian house I looked across to next door looking for any sign of life, but the shutters were drawn like sleeping eyes preventing any glances at the soul within. I’m not quite sure what I’d expected really, but I felt faintly disappointed once through my own front door. It was hardly Jane Austen heaven. In the dim light, I could see scuffed magnolia walls and a blue nylon carpet stretching down the passageway to sweep up the elegant staircase. A torn paper shade over an electric bulb hung just behind the fanlight above the door and smells of rotting vegetation from recycling bags in the corner did nothing to improve my first impressions. It was then that I wondered if I’d made a huge mistake.

Chapter Two


On the left was the entrance door to the ground floor flat, which gave no clues to its owner apart from the fact that it was painted a very tasteful grey. I’d just picked up my stuff to go upstairs when I heard the handle of the door start to turn. I didn’t know what to do and, holding my breath, I stood for a moment with a fixed grin on my face waiting for the person on the other side to open the door. The handle rattled again but, to my relief, no one came out. Knowing that I looked a complete mess after my journey, I must admit, the thought of meeting anyone just yet filled me with horror, so I stealthily crept up the staircase as quietly as I could and let myself into the flat.
If I’d been disappointed before, now I was devastated. It was the pungent smell that hit me first, a mixture of stale air and damp, of rooms having been shut up for an age. I couldn’t see it was so dark, but I managed to stumble my way into what must have once been the drawing room. It was a sizeable space with double doors dividing the room beyond. Heavy, damask curtains closed against the three floor-length windows on the opposite side emitted fat sighs of dust to powder the air when I touched them and rattled on brass rings like a wheezing, bronchial chest as they were pulled aside. I unlatched the wooden shutters, top and bottom, and threw them back to send sparkles of light from the sun streaming through the murky windows to gild the ancient objects and faded furniture inside. Struggling with the locks, which were screwed tight, the windows protested against being opened, but at last they gave in and fresher air filled the room.
I felt suddenly overwhelmed. The fact that I was on my own struck me with a force. I’d never been completely by myself before. Even at university I’d always been surrounded by people and friends. Why on earth had I thought that coming to Bath was such a good idea? Right then, all I wanted to do was pick up my phone and call Lucas. But, I couldn’t ring him. I couldn’t give him the satisfaction that I needed him and still wanted so much to talk to him.
And then my phone rang. It made me jump – the stupid ringtone Lucas had chosen for me all those months ago reverberated through the air with a suitably fake rendition of “our song”.
‘Hi Babe, how are you?’
His voice still had the power to make my heart leap even if I’d always hated that particular “endearment”, which I was convinced he used simply because he couldn’t remember which girlfriend he was talking to, and I knew when I spoke that my voice would tremble.
‘I’m okay, Lucas.’ Did I sound as brave as I hoped? I knew I should have ignored the call understanding, all too well, that later on I would be cringing at my responses, as the words I should have said would come to me instantly with amazing clarity. ‘Lucas, I don’t know how to thank you enough. Since you left my life I feel wonderful, everything’s just been incredibly brilliant and I’ve never felt better!’ But, of course, for now I couldn’t think straight, I was a gibbering wreck.
‘It’s so good to hear your voice, Sophie. I’ve really missed you, baby. How about we go out tonight? I was thinking we’d go into Camden for a pint, watch a band and top it all off with a night of love. What do you say?’
It was the “night of love” that gave me the courage. Even though my voice was trembling I’d found a new strength, plus he’d sounded like such a sleaze. ‘I can’t do that, Lucas, and I don’t think there’d be any point. We’ve been over it all so many times and nothing can change what happened. I don’t want to see you again.’
Silence. I knew he was thinking he could just talk me round. He’d always been completely arrogant.
‘Sophie, you know you don’t mean that. Come on, you’re overreacting. Honestly, there’s no one else. Lily means nothing to me. How many times have I got to say it? You know you’ve only ever been my girl, my one true love.’
An image of Lucas and Lily loomed, the memory of the last time I’d seen them together. Starkly lit by spring sunshine, like a framed painting in a gallery, her blossom-white arms were draped over him, in sharp contrast to her rippling, auburn hair that tumbled over his face. Silk sheets, limbs entwined  – the image was a picture indelibly etched in my mind.
Summoning up all my courage I took a deep breath. ‘No, I’ve made up my mind for good this time. I don’t want to see you again; I don’t want to hear any more excuses. I’m not in Camden, so please don’t come looking for me. I’m sorry, Lucas, but I need to be on my own for a while.’
And then I pressed the little red button, cutting him off forever before I could change my mind. Burying my phone at the bottom of my bag, I was determined not to cry or to waste any more time thinking about him. Snatching up a plump, velvet cushion from a winged chair by the fireside, I threw it across the room. Sending yet more dust clouds glittering into a shaft of sunlight, I felt a moment of triumph before falling and flopping into the seat like a discarded rag doll.
I took a good look at my surroundings with a sinking heart. It must, at one time, have been a very elegant room, I considered. Jane Austen certainly would have felt very much at home in it judging from the Regency furniture, the clock on the mantelpiece and the gilt candlesticks scattered everywhere. The place just needed cleaning, that was all, and as there was no one else to tackle that but me, I had to stop feeling sorry for myself, dismiss the idea of running back to Camden on the first train going to London and actually do something about it. Some activity would also help to keep me warm. At least the weather was reasonably mild for April; the fireplace had coals laid in the basket and more in a copper bucket. Perhaps if I could get it going later when it was bound to get a lot cooler, all would not be lost and, I could heat up the place.
The whole flat seemed trapped in some kind of time warp. Through the folding doors was a rather austere dining room with a large, polished table in the centre and Sheraton style chairs. Beyond this room was the kitchen and small scullery where I could find nothing useful, except beautiful china that looked too good to use along with some silver cutlery. Unpromising items, (such as a rusty mousetrap, a washboard with a scrubbing brush in a zinc bucket and the only object recognizable as a vacuum cleaner) all looked like museum pieces, the latter blowing up with an alarming blue spark and a puff of smoke the second I plugged it in. So, Great Aunt Elizabeth had meant every word. I wasn’t going to find any modern conveniences.
Up two flights of stairs I found the attic rooms were locked but on the floor below were a further three bedrooms, the largest of which had the same view onto the front of Sydney Gardens as the drawing room. It also had a wonderful tester bed with four posts and curtains to keep out the draughts. I instantly fell in love with it. There were clean sheets and blankets in a linen press by the window, still smelling faintly of the lavender sprigs tied in bundles that lay between each one. Silk lampshades on the bedside lights looked left over from the last war and a Regency toilet mirror on the dressing table was draped in muslin and ribbon. It all looked very pretty, but for a layer of dusty felt on the silver brushes arranged with precision along the top of the table.
I was beginning to feel hungry and not knowing where to start with sorting out the place, I decided to go out and find some lunch. I’d left my bag in the living room so I rushed back downstairs with renewed enthusiasm. It would be great to get out for an hour or two and I knew I’d have more energy once I’d eaten. The vast looking glass above the fireplace twinkled in the light, its old, silvered surface distressed in places giving the impression of almost seeing through mist. I quite liked the effect, I thought, as I ran a comb through my hair: it gave a softer look to my face.
I’ve never been quite sure what happened next, although what followed later gave some sense to the extraordinary experience, but I suddenly felt goose pimples all over and the strange sensation of warm breath on my neck, almost like a whisper in my ear. I felt a piece of my long hair pulled sharply at the nape, as if it had been snagged in the clasp of a necklace, which was impossible because I wasn’t wearing one. It was a natural reaction to spin round and to put up my hand to touch my hair but, of course, there was nobody there. It was only when I turned back again to the mirror that I imagined I caught a fleeting impression of a moving reflection in the murky glass, white and fluttering. Passing silently out of the open door behind me, scenting the air in wafts of orange blossom and frangipani, I glimpsed a cloud of muslin, a flurry of ribbon and a white satin shoe.

Chapter Three


By the time I’d got beyond the front door and out into the sunshine, I’d decided that not eating was responsible for my overactive imagination and dismissed all thoughts of misty spectres in mirrors as hallucinatory visions brought on by a lack of sustenance. To have lunch at the Pulteney Inn round the corner struck me as a genius idea and turned out to be a spectacularly brilliant decision. Smells of home-cooked food wafted under my nose, reassuringly, as I entered the pub, making me feel more ravenous than ever.
Whilst toasting myself in front of the wood-burning stove, the landlady, Lara, chatted away entertaining me with tales about the history of the place, whilst I sampled a bowl of her delicious homemade soup and crusty bread. The few locals gathered round the bar seemed friendly and all eager to learn what I was doing in Bath and where I was staying.
‘I’m writing a book,’ I said, knowing that this was not the entire truth, but saying it made it seem much more real and I’d quite decided that I was going to be inspired enough by my surroundings to write one.
‘You’re an author!’ Lara exclaimed. ‘How exciting. I couldn’t possibly even begin to think how to write a book; you must be so clever. What’s it about?’
‘Well, I’m staying in Sydney Place, next door to Jane Austen’s house and it’s a novel inspired by her writing. I’ve hardly started; it’s just a germ of an idea. I’m not exactly an author yet. I’ve had one or two little things published and, to be honest, I’m still learning.’
‘Well, everyone has to start somewhere. I love Jane Austen’s books and you’re certainly in the right vicinity. I know the house you mean, that place has been empty for years,’ said Lara, tucking a blonde curl behind her ear, ‘except for the ground floor, of course. Have you met your neighbour? Actually, you might have spotted him. He was just leaving when you came in.’
I shook my head. ‘No, I don’t think I saw him and I haven’t met him yet.’
‘You would have remembered if you’d seen him,’ said Lara.
She lowered her voice, her blue eyes twinkling as she spoke. ‘He’s very striking, if you know what I mean. It’s difficult to describe exactly, but there’s a sort of presence about him. My sister is always talking about auras and he’s definitely got one of those. He’s tall.’ She laughed. ‘Tall, dark and handsome … and single, I think. I wouldn’t mind him living downstairs from me if I hadn’t got Martin.’
I laughed too. ‘I shall go and knock on the door and introduce myself then, see if I can borrow a cup of sugar.’
‘Well, I’m sure you must need some help with something if you’re just moving in. Don’t you need any shelves putting up?’ She laughed again. ‘You know, he might be “handy”.’
‘Shelves are something I definitely don’t need. The place is stuffed full. I feel as if I’ve dropped into a Jane Austen novel and that the last time the place was occupied was about the same time. Don’t get me wrong, it’s got promise and it’s full of beautiful things, but it’s filthy and the only vacuum cleaner has just blown up.’
‘We’ve got a spare one if you want to borrow it,’ Lara offered generously. ‘Have one on permanent loan; if you like, we never use it. I’ll get someone to bring it round, then perhaps the handsome Josh can carry it upstairs for you.’
Lara did make me smile. ‘Thank you so much. That would be wonderful, though I am sure I can manage.’
‘I’ll send it as soon as you like.’
Half an hour later I was back at the flat, armed with dusters, the promised vacuum cleaner and an array of chemicals guaranteed to blitz the place of ninety nine per cent of all known household germs. I worked so hard that my Dad, or anyone else who knew me, would not have recognized the cleaning machine I became. It took three hours but, at the end of it, the living room, kitchen and bedroom positively gleamed. My bed was made, its curtains having come up beautifully for a good beating, and I’d managed to light a fire in there, so it would be quite cosy by the time I was ready to collapse for the night. I arranged all the blue and white china on the plate rack in the kitchen; the sink, surfaces and floor were all scrubbed and smelling pleasantly of disinfectant. I even managed to light the ancient gas stove and felt the kind of satisfaction that I’m sure every proper housewife must feel, when all is in its place and neat as a pin.
I left the living room until last. By pulling the sofa nearer to the fire and positioning the little tables so that I could just set down a cup or a book without having to get up, I transformed the whole room. The flames licked up the chimney with a pleasing crackle and I felt for the first time that I might enjoy myself in Bath, after all. I was just reuniting a porcelain shepherdess with her shepherd on the window ledge when I heard a noise below, the sound of movement and the bang of the front door shutting. The clock on the mantelpiece was striking the hour, I remember hearing five chimes as I looked out at the gloomy scene. Huge, dark clouds that threatened rain had replaced the earlier sunshine and the day, which had started so spring-like and uplifting, had completely returned to wintry dreariness. 
And then I saw him. Well, I saw the back of him, which was the next best thing. He was tall and broad shouldered with dark, curly hair waving over the upturned collar on his jacket, his blue jeans showing a lean physique. My neighbour was standing on the broad pavement outside waiting for the traffic to clear and fiddling with the catch on an umbrella, as large raindrops started to fall out of the sky. He seemed to be looking for something, checking his pockets, before putting up the huge, black umbrella that obscured any chance of a glimpse at his face. I could see what Lara meant; he definitely had something about him even from the back. It was then that I noticed that he’d dropped something, white and crumpled, but I couldn’t decide whether it was really something or nothing. I didn’t quite know what to do. I didn’t want to bang on the window because he’d instantly know I’d been watching him and as it was I felt a little like I’d been spying on him. I watched him cross the road. He was heading off in the direction of Sydney Gardens opposite. I don’t know what possessed me at that moment, but before I knew what I was doing, I snatched up my coat and keys, ran downstairs and out through the door.
I picked up the wet object and it unfurled in my hand like a fortune-telling, cellophane fish from a Christmas cracker. It was a man’s glove with long fingers made of fine, white kid. Neatly stitched, clearly hand-made and soft to the touch, I was immediately reminded of a glove I’d seen before. Captain Wentworth’s glove. There’s a scene at the end of my favourite Persuasion film where Captain Wentworth takes Anne Elliot’s hand. It’s the most romantic gesture that unites them finally, at the end. The kiss that takes place afterwards has nothing on the way he covers her small fingers in his large ones, and it was this image that immediately jumped into my mind. I looked up but could see nothing of the mysterious Josh. Clutching the glove in my hand, I dashed between the cars and headed for the gardens. It seemed strange that anyone should wish to go walking under dripping trees on a dismal afternoon, but I couldn’t think where else he might have gone. I walked up the tarmac paths, under tall pines and horse chestnut trees, but I couldn’t see him. Just past a stone bridge I thought I’d found him, but it turned out to be a man fast asleep on a bench in a Roman temple, cradling a tin of lager, oblivious to the world. His dog, tied by a string to the belt on his coat, slept across his feet as they both sheltered from the rain.
Then I saw Josh in the distance disappearing between white railings. I called out, but he didn’t hear me, which was just as well because it came out as a really pathetic whelp. And, I know it will sound vain, but there was a part of me that didn’t want him to turn round and see me. My hair, always a problem in damp weather, I knew was now hanging limply round my face in frizzy curls. The sleek, straight look I preferred having vanished with that first spot of rain and that first hint of damp in the air. I nearly turned back, especially as the rain was bouncing off the path and gurgling in the gutters. Yet, I’d come this far and I wanted to see where he was going in such a hurry. I followed the path to the white railings, which turned out to be a bridge over the railway line. Onward and upward I hurried keeping him just in sight before he finally disappeared. The only way he could possibly have gone seemed to be screened by hedges but, as I approached, I saw a white cast-iron gate hidden in the greenery. I must admit to feeling a little uneasy at this point. The gardens were deathly quiet and felt more than a little eerie. I was totally and utterly alone. All my Mum’s advice about never going into parks by myself came back with a flash. I could easily be murdered and no one would know anything about it. I looked behind me, but there was not a soul around so I pushed the gate open and stepped down onto to the canal path. I didn’t want to go any further, I couldn’t see my neighbour anywhere and there was something very melancholy about the place. Under a beautiful cast-iron bridge, studded with moss jewels upon its stone façade, a ribbon of jade water snaked slowly along to the echoes of dripping water as two seagulls swooped in a race to the end of a long, dark tunnel.

I was getting soaked through; it was time to go home. I turned, walked up the steps and put my hand on the gate. It opened with a rasping scrape and as I placed my foot to step through the entrance back into the gardens, I thought at first I’d been hit so hard that I reeled and clutched at the gate to steady myself. The world went black and then so dazzlingly bright that I was blinded. I instinctively closed my eyes and how I managed to stay upright I couldn’t later figure out, but the greatest shock came when I opened my eyes again. From my place, half hidden behind green bushes, I saw a scene that made no sense.

© Jane Odiwe


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