THE MODERN GIRL
January 19, 2020
Two women, ninety years apart, and an abandoned house that holds the key to a secret.
When Frances Stewart wins a beauty pageant in 1931, she also wins a Hollywood screen test which enables her to leave behind her staid Victorian lifestyle in New Zealand and become the ‘modern girl’ she aspires to be. But she soon finds the reality behind the glamorous Hollywood facade isn’t as wonderful as she’d imagined.
Ninety years later, Paige Sinclair travels to New Zealand to meet her previously unknown and ailing grandmother, and an ancestral home she is told she will inherit. With a failed marriage and alone in the world, Paige feels compelled to look back into the past to satisfy her need for family and connections. So she starts with her grandmother and the mysterious, abandoned house which holds the key to a secret Paige is determined to uncover. But some secrets are never quite as they seem…
It wasn’t at all how I’d imagined.
The house was a sprawling Victorian mansion, judging by the four crenellated chimney pots which emerged from the sheltering trees like sentinels refusing to stand down. I could see only part of the ivy-clad frontage, at the centre of which a stained glass window caught and dispersed a beam of sunlight, momentarily dazzling me.
It was nothing like what had sprung to mind when the solicitor had mentioned to me, as something of an afterthought, that my ancestors had built a house not far from Mannington.
It had been a spur-of-the-moment decision to make the detour to see the house which, apparently, my great-great—I couldn’t remember how many greats—grandparents had built. But now I was glad. I’d had no idea that my family came from such wealth. But then, I’d had no idea I had any family in New Zealand until two weeks earlier. Let alone a grandmother who was still alive.
The heat shimmered over the plain and hit me like a wall as I stepped out of the car, reminding me I was far from home. Two days before I’d been commuting home through north London, the lamplight stretching and blurring yellow against a slate-grey sky filled with snow. Now, dark had given way to light, sleet to sunshine, and the familiar to the very unfamiliar.
Out of habit, I locked the car. But, as I looked around me, I realised it wasn’t necessary. It didn’t look as if there was anyone around for miles. Surrounding the house and the overgrown grounds which sheltered it, was nothing but flat farmland, rippling fields of golden wheat broken to the east by a dash of blue where the land dipped, revealing an enticing glimpse of the sea. To the west were hills, dotted with sheep. From the map I knew that further west still, there was a range of mountains which divided the North Island like a backbone, a point of reference. And I needed that in this strange land.
I looked up at the grand gates which stood between me and the house. I could make out the same name that had appeared on the signpost, wrought in the upper flourish of the iron gates, topped with some heraldic design, more medieval than Victorian. It was a name which had been unfamiliar to me only hours previously, a name I’d never heard my mother mention. But, as the sureness of my world disintegrated around me, I was no longer sure my mother knew this name or this world of which she’d told me nothing. She’d always refused to talk about her past. But it was my mother’s mother who was apparently still alive and wished to see me. I glanced at my phone to check the time. I had half an hour before I was expected at the rest home.
I really should leave. But, instead, I wrapped my fingers around one of the knobbly, rusting uprights of the iron gates and gave it a tentative shake, willing it to give. Despite the bloom of rust, the massive padlock and chain held firm, refusing to indulge my curiosity.
I knew I should return to the main road into town to see my grandmother, but I felt an even stronger pull to go further, to see a little more of the house than the glimpse the overgrown garden offered.
I peered around the pillar upon which the gate was hung and pushed aside some shrubbery. Just a little further, I told myself, merely to satisfy my curiosity so I could see the house in its entirety. After all, I wasn’t likely to come this way again. There was nothing here for me.
I ducked under the overhanging branches of a tree whose flowers I didn’t recognise and stepped onto the driveway, even more overgrown with grass than the berm outside the gates. I brushed the yellow blossom which had fallen on my white t-shirt and shorts and looked around.
The house was still hidden, but I could now see that it was fronted by a circular driveway around a central island which resembled a meadow, full of high grass and thistles with wilding pines growing up in their midst. With each step I took, the house revealed itself, but it was only after I’d cut across the grassy driveway and stepped onto the central island that I could see the entire frontage of the house. If houses had characters, this house looked startled at finding itself in this state of decrepitude, or perhaps surprised to find me there, staring at it.
I shook my head at the fanciful thought. My husband—soon to be ex-husband—wouldn’t have believed it of me. He’d accused me of being a lot of things—too logical, too sensible, too unemotional. It seemed I had too much of all the things which he, as a creative, didn’t value, and too little of the things he did. My plans to cut my long blonde hair into a short bob had been the final straw. I pushed my fingers through the slightly sweaty strands, and it immediately fell back into place like a curtain—a no-frills, hide-it-all, utilitarian curtain. I wished he’d mentioned earlier that my hair was the single thing he liked about me. It would have stopped me from taking the only decision I’d ever made based purely on instinct—a decision which had led me to the other side of the world, looking for answers.
Answers. I huffed a brief laugh. This place posed more questions than it revealed answers. I narrowed my eyes as I traced the sweep of steps on top of which a stone-pillared portico sat squarely and proudly before the wide double doors. I held my breath as, for a brief moment, I pictured who the pillars had once framed. Men, women, and children—all with broad or pensive smiles, wearing their best clothes, petting disruptive dogs—would have gathered to have their photos taken as they came and went. And then didn’t come anymore. I was filled with a sense of poignancy—a beautiful, nostalgic sadness for the people to whom all this faded grandeur had once meant something.
I stepped away. I hadn’t come 18,000 kilometres to feel sad. I’d come to connect with the family I’d never known. I turned abruptly and retraced my steps back to the car, ignoring the sticky grass heads which brushed past me, leaving their seeds stuck to my clothes, not seeing the overgrown thorny rose which sliced into my ankle as I brushed past. It wasn’t until I’d struggled back through the bushes and was standing by the car once more that I noticed the blood trickling down my leg onto my pale brown strappy sandals, staining them black. It was as if the house needed to leave its mark. I looked back at it, hidden once more from the world, and wiped the trickle of blood from my ankle with the heel of my hand. It seemed there was life in the old place yet. If I hadn’t been a prosaic, non-imaginative accountant, as my ex called me, I might have thought it was warning me off. Either that or it didn’t want me to leave.
I got into the car and rubbed my ankle with a tissue I’d found in my handbag. Looked like I’d need a tetanus shot.