Up the stairs, I paused for a quick glance in the library—it certainly passed my muster—and then continued to my own flat, pulling the key out of my pocket. Yes, even within the house, Mrs. Woolgar and I had our accommodations secured—it was a good way to separate life from work. I walked in, switching on a lamp as I did so, and unbuttoned my jacket. Breathing a sigh of relief, I took a moment to be grateful, as I had done at the end of almost every day since I’d moved in two months earlier.
My flat occupied the second floor and consisted of a sitting room that segued into a small dining area next to a cozy kitchen, with bedroom and bathroom through the far door. It was the same area as the library on the floor below me, but—for someone who had moved from a place where I could knock into a wall if I spread my arms too wide—this was a palace. And it had come furnished with bits and bobs that may not have been antiques but could certainly be called vintage. Lady Fowling had probably bought them new. In addition to my flat, I had use of the attic, and that’s where I’d stacked all of my daughter’s boxes—everything from little-girl mementos to a young woman’s passions. Dinah hadn’t wanted to take any of it to Sheffield, but it’s a mother’s duty to hold on to the past.
I contemplated a cup of tea or a glass of wine as I glanced at the stacks of paperback books gleaned from charity shops in town—my self-assigned reading, the Golden Age authors themselves. Who would it be—Agatha Christie? Josephine Tey? Dorothy L. Sayers and her sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey? Or that outlier, Daphne du Maurier?
I yawned. Perhaps tomorrow.
Misty rain made for a gray dawn, but that did not daunt me—I threw on my waterproof gear, pulled up the hood, closed the front door of Middlebank behind me, and set off for my early-morning two-mile walk. I had instituted this exercise program a week ago, when I noticed the button on my jacket becoming a bit snug, and although the button hadn’t loosened, I felt all the better for the air and the unspoken camaraderie among those strangers I passed on my way—all of us dedicated to exercise.
I took a route that led me behind the Royal Crescent and down and through Royal Victoria Park, hooking round the Circus as if I were in orbit before breaking away onto Gravel Walk—a wide path that ran behind the entire terrace. This allowed me to avoid the steep climb up to our front door. I pulled up halfway along and huffed with satisfaction.
Middlebank’s back gate didn’t squeak, yet still I took care—Mrs. Woolgar’s windows looked out onto the garden, and I didn’t want to give her something else to complain about at our morning briefing. I crept up the stone stairs, through the back door, and into the ground-floor kitchenette. I was headed for the entry and the two flights up to my flat when the front door opened to our cleaner. Spiky bits of her short blond hair stuck out from a bandanna embroidered with Cleaned by Pauline along the edge. Her arms were full of cleaning supplies and a vacuum, and she struggled to get her key out of the lock.
“Morning, Pauline—here, let me help.”
“Cheers, Hayley,” she said as I grabbed the buckets and held the door. “Alarm’s already off?”
“It is—I’ve been out and back. Shall I leave your things here?”
Middlebank House did have its own cleaning supplies, of course, but Pauline had declined use of what she referred to as “the world’s oldest Hoover,” saying she was afraid it would blow the electrics. She also preferred her own nontoxic products to whatever might be on someone’s shelf, and so she—and the three women who worked for her—lugged their accoutrements along to each job.
I left her to it. She always started on the ground floor and later cleaned both my flat and Mrs. Woolgar’s. No one but me had ever cleaned any place I’d lived in the whole of my adult life, and so this had made me uncomfortable at first. But Pauline told me to think of it as a well-deserved treat—like getting a manicure. There’s something else I’d never done.
After a quick shower, I drank my tea sitting on a stool at the kitchen window, looking out across the trees, now turning autumnal gold, and the tops of buildings and into the hills. Below me, the city stirred to life. The tour buses would begin to disgorge people near the abbey, and the mannequin in Regency clothes would be set on the pavement outside the Jane Austen Centre—but here at Middlebank, we were above the fray. On one hand, this was a comfort, but on the other, I knew we couldn’t remain too far from the bustle of Bath—the Society needed to secure its place in this historic city. We needed to make a name for ourselves. First editions by mystery writers who were still popular today were not for rare-book lovers only, but for those around the globe who enjoyed a good story. I sighed—this was a pep talk I gave myself frequently.
Pulling my jacket on, I stepped over the threshold of my flat and walked into my job.
Where I found, one flight down, Mrs. Woolgar standing at the open library door.
“At it again, were they?” she asked.
The writers group? “No, I checked—they put the furniture back.”The oak ladder—Edwardian, if I remembered correctly—had three rungs and a top cap wide enough to sit on. It usually occupied the far corner of the library, but this morning, it was behind the table, up against the shelves of books.
She gave a single, sharp nod to the far wall.
The oak ladder—Edwardian, if I remembered correctly—had three rungs and a top cap wide enough to sit on. It usually occupied the far corner of the library, but this morning, it was behind the table, up against the shelves of books. Last night, I had missed this egregious error.
“Is it damaged?” I asked, striding over to examine the bit of furniture. “Scuffs? Scrapes? Gouges in the wood?”
“That’s hardly the point,” Mrs. Woolgar replied.
“But it is the point. I’m sorry that the ladder wasn’t put in its proper place, but after all, it is a library ladder and this is a library.”
“And does that mean they were handling the books?” The secretary remained in the doorway, squinting across the table and up to the top shelf.
“Possibly. Is there one missing?” I asked, following her gaze.
“Lady Fowling would never have left furniture in the middle of the room. Things have their proper place. There was a time when . . .”
I turned away from her and rolled my eyes. It’s the same lecture she’d given me when I left the tin of shortbread on the counter in the kitchenette instead of on top of the fridge.
I assumed an air of nonchalance. “We should be well accustomed to the public handling the books by the time the exhibition rolls round.”
My comment produced the expected result—a look from Mrs. Woolgar that said, Over my dead body.
It had been my first idea as curator—putting on an exhibition of those most-prized books owned by The First Edition Society. The library at Middlebank housed the majority of Lady Fowling’s vast collection, but the rarest volumes—worth a fair amount—were locked away at the bank. Mounting an exhibition would mean letting the most important part of the collection see the light of day. Mrs. Woolgar had gone apoplectic at the idea.
I didn’t need her approval for the venture, but I did want her support, and as it wasn’t in my remit to give the secretary a heart attack, I tabled the idea for the time being. When I came back about the arrangement for the writers group, Mrs. Woolgar most likely saw it as the lesser of two evils, and we reached détente. Still, it didn’t keep me from the occasional mention.
Now the secretary wittered on about our responsibilities as I moved the library ladder back to the corner, where I spied a small, worn notebook—a school exercise book, the kind with the marbled cover—on the floor. In one smooth movement, I set the ladder down and picked the notebook up, keeping it behind my back when I turned round so that I wouldn’t next get a lecture about littering.
By late afternoon, I had written the upcoming newsletter for the Society, finished a rough draft of my proposal for the board, and received a sniff from Mrs. Woolgar when I told her. What would she say when I brought up my plan to raise the membership fees? I’d meet that obstacle when I came to it, because I had another “first” to tackle—at long last, I would enter the cellar.
In addition to Middlebank itself, Lady Fowling had left the contents of the house to the Society. And yet, no one could tell me quite what these “contents” were—only where they were. They resided in the locked cellar, the key to which was in a safety deposit box at the bank.
When I stated my intention of studying her ladyship’s personal effects, members of the board had reacted as if I’d said I was turning grave robber. They murmured vague comments about how inconsequential these possessions must be—diaries and clothing and inexpensive jewelry. But Adele had encouraged me to continue my campaign, and so I had brought the subject up at several morning briefings with Mrs. Woolgar. Each time, I received a stiff reply that the solicitor had a complete list of contents and she did not see how a few personal items could be of any use to me—as if she worried that I’d ring the television program Cash in the Attic as soon as her back was turned.
But the contents of the house that I could see—the furniture and books—these told only a part of her ladyship’s story. I needed to know the woman herself in order to convey her spirit and élan to the world—and keep the Society on its proper track. Of course, I could march down to the bank and get the key to the cellar all on my own—I was the curator, after all. But again, did I want to make a permanent enemy of Mrs. Woolgar? What sort of working life would I have then?
And so instead, I made a vague comment about discussing the cellar with the Society’s solicitor, Duncan Rennie. Mr. Rennie, poor man, had learned early on he was to be referee between us, but this time, the threat alone was enough to send Mrs. Woolgar herself scurrying to the bank, and the following day she magically produced the key to the cellar.
Access at last. But, as my foray meant going to the lower ground floor and walking past the door to Mrs. Woolgar’s flat, she naturally accompanied me, because God knows what I could get up to left to my own devices.
The key was stiff in the Yale lock, telling me that the secretary did not spend her evenings like Mrs. Danvers, rearranging Lady Fowling’s hairbrushes and laying out her nightdress. There, you see, I was familiar with one of our Golden Age of Mystery authors—although the odd one out, du Maurier. And it was the film version of Rebecca, not the book.
The cellar door opened fully, but beyond its three-foot clearance, my entry was blocked by what looked like a floor-to-ceiling three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle made of wooden pieces. Stacked any which way they fit were side chairs, occasional tables, standing lamps with cloth-covered cords, an ancient rocking horse—Lady Fowling and her husband had had no children—broken hat stands, a dressing table with a cracked mirror, and other furniture accumulated from several lifetimes. Farther into the room—it ran about fifteen feet wide and deeper still—I could see columns of crates and cardboard boxes.
“Well, Ms. Burke.” Mrs. Woolgar smirked, “shall I leave you to it?”
“Yes, thanks.” I saw her eyeing the key in the door. I reached over, extracted it, and dropped it into my jacket pocket. “This will be a fine project to tackle during my spare moments.”
Mrs. Woolgar returned to her office, and I remained in the doorway, studying the stockpile before me. I sighed, and told myself, Stiff upper, Hayley. Who else would get paid this well to do a clear-out?
I began at the top, carefully removing lighter pieces, hoping I wouldn’t be buried under an avalanche of furniture. Shifting a few side chairs, two hat stands, a nightstand, and a side table into the corridor outside the cellar door allowed me to reach a dresser and a highboy. I checked the drawers—they were empty apart from a loose button and a card of straight pins—and so I moved them out, too, their legs screeching across the stone floor. When I reviewed my progress, I saw I’d barely made a dent in the wall of furniture. I could do with a cup of tea.
When I heard footsteps, I thought Mrs. Woolgar might’ve read my mind, but although it was the secretary, she arrived with her hands empty and clasped at her waist.
“One of that group is at the door,” she announced.
Was it the harsh light from the three naked bulbs hanging from the ceiling, or had Mrs. Woolgar’s complexion taken on a blotchy scarlet tone? Was she ill?
I would never know—I’d dare not make such a personal enquiry. “Who is it?”
“The man—the tall one.”
“Trist,” I said, brushing myself off. “You asked him in—you didn’t leave him on the doorstep?”
“I will not have him in this house unattended,” Mrs. Woolgar retorted, and I was too stunned to reply before she turned on her heels and left.
I hurried after, but she’d already closed herself up in her office by the time I made it upstairs. When I opened the door to the street, a heavy mist was falling. Trist, who wore a thin jacket, had his leather case tucked under his arm, the unprotected corners covered in water spots.
“Hello, Trist. Please, come in. I was in the cellar and didn’t hear the buzzer.”
He stalked in and shook his head and arms, flinging droplets in a wide arc, which then landed on me.
“Fan fiction is a legitimate form of literature,” he said. “But this treatment isn’t unexpected—writers through time have been disparaged for their craft.”
I brushed the water off my wool jacket and cut my eyes toward the secretary’s door. “I’m sorry Mrs. Woolgar left you outside, but I have to say I don’t believe it has anything to do with your writing. It’s only that Middlebank has been her home for many years, and the opening up of the Society is taking some getting used to for her.”
The thought just expressed—by me—gave me pause. I hadn’t actually considered it that way before, but I suppose it was true. I should cut Mrs. Woolgar some slack.
“So,” I said with a pleasant but businesslike manner, “what can I do for you today?”
“You should know that there’ve been complaints.”
“Complaints about what?”
“About me and the way I run things—” He took a handkerchief out of his jacket pocket and wiped the rain off his forehead. “But I’m standing up for the quality of fan fiction—you just remember that. And I don’t believe anyone should have a special advantage. So, if you hear talk . . .”
“Yes, if I hear talk, what am I supposed to do?”
“Be fair. I’m only trying to make everyone accountable for his or her own work.”
“I’m not an arbiter for your or anyone else’s writing, Trist. We provide space for your group, and that’s all. And at this point, I must tell you, I am reconsidering that offer.”
There. I exhaled with relief. I’d said it—he’d had his warning.
He took a step toward me, and more moisture cascaded off his thinning hair, splattering my face. I took a step back.
“I’m sure you realize”—he glanced up the stairs and back at me—“Lady Fowling wants us to be accommodated.”
The ghost card, was it? See if I’d take that bait.
“Well, if that’s all, Trist, I must get back to my work.” Cleaning out the cellar.
I shut the door on him, knocked on Mrs. Woolgar’s, and was given permission to enter.
“I want you to know I’ve warned Trist that the group may not be able to continue to meet here. I won’t stop them next week, but I will suggest they look for another place.”
“What did he say to you?” she demanded.
“I don’t know what he was talking about, really—squabbles within the group, I think. He isn’t the most pleasant person.”
“You’ve a knack for understatement, Ms. Burke.”
I returned to the cellar without a cup of tea and shifted a few more pieces of furniture halfheartedly before looking down at myself. Streaks of dust made my black wool jacket look like herringbone, and so I decided to hold off on further exploration until another time when I would wear my laundry-day togs. But I didn’t fancy attempting to put back the furniture I’d pulled out into the corridor. It didn’t look as if it would fit, but then, I was always bad at puzzles. Instead, I lined the pieces up along the wall in the corridor, locked the cellar, and went upstairs to explain.
“And so the pieces are nowhere near the door to your flat—they won’t be in your way at all,” I said to Mrs. Woolgar, who pressed her lips together as if to say she didn’t believe a word of it. “That’s a lovely highboy,” I added.
“Queen Anne,” the secretary replied. “It was Sir John’s—when he was alive. I’m not sure her ladyship would approve of anyone else’s using her husband’s furniture.”
“I didn’t mean that I wanted—” Oh, forget it.
At last, the end of the day. I dashed upstairs and changed into denims, a light sweater, and trainers, rinsed my face, and washed my hands. I grabbed a jacket on my way out the door—I needed to clear my head of dust and do a bit of shopping. Perhaps I’d get the ingredients for an enormous salad for my evening meal.
I’d slacked off cooking over the last couple of years. Since Dinah moved away, I didn’t really see the point—but I knew I should stop living off ready-made meals from Waitrose. But I loved Waitrose—it had everything I ever needed. In addition to the usual grocery supplies, the place included a café, a bakery, a fish market and butcher, and an array of fine dinners that someone else had prepared.
Cars clogged the streets of Bath at this time of day—everyone on the way home—and so I avoided traffic and took the long route, walking by the Assembly Rooms with their Georgian columns and spacious rooms. I’d attended a Jane Austen event there, and had a grand time—although it meant I had to wear Regency clothes. I don’t care for those high waists—the dresses always make me feel rather lumpy. Mrs. Woolgar, on the other hand—a figure straight as a rail—would look lovely in them.
I had just crossed George Street when I spotted Adele—easy to do with her mass of red hair like a Celtic goddess and her penchant for wearing purple.
“All right for some,” I said. “Wandering the streets of Bath in the late afternoon—schoolteachers have it easy, don’t they?”
“Who was it let the curator loose?”
We laughed and, without voicing the decision, turned and headed down Old King Street to the Raven, where neither of us could resist the chicken-and-mushroom pie. Just at the corner of Quiet Street, we almost collided with a sleek runner who wore a skintight outfit of swirling colors, and if it hadn’t been for the long blond braid, I never would have recognized her.
“Hayley, God, I’m sorry. Are you all right?” She ran in place as she asked.
“Good,” she replied. “See ya next week.”
“Bye,” I said to her disappearing figure.
“Who’s that, then?” Adele asked, also watching Amanda’s figure.
“She’s a writer—one of the fan-fiction group. Want me to introduce you?”
“No,” Adele said as we climbed the stairs in the pub and took the corner table by the windows. “I’ve no great luck with being set up for a first date—that friend-of-a-friend thing. It’s awkward when it doesn’t work out.”
“Yeah, better to meet like Wyn and I did—by accident.”
“And how is the Inventor of Fleet Street?” Adele asked. “Has he been down to see you lately?”
“No”—I pulled a face—“not since I started the new job.”
“Have you been up to London?”
“Haven’t quite had the opportunity.”
“Mmm. The usual?” she asked. I nodded, and she headed for the bar to get our drinks and order our pies. When she returned, we changed the subject.
Adele and I had met at my previous job at the Jane Austen Centre, where my greatest perk was that I worked behind the scenes, saving me from wearing a Regency-era dress every day and selling T-shirts splashed with I’m the real Mr. Darcy!
This was seven years ago, when Adele had a more militant way of letting her views be known. She had secured a job in the café solely to make a statement—this had been obvious the moment she’d arrived in her Regency gear, with shaved head, tattooed scalp, and ear riveted with silver studs, and proceeded to pass out leaflets that read Was Jane Austen a lesbian?
Needless to say, her tenure at the Centre had been short-lived. I had been assigned to escort her off the premises, and the two of us had snickered our way down the stairs and met for a drink later. We had become the sort of friends who always sat down for a chat on the rare occasions we happened to meet on the street. Since that event, Adele had toned down her protests, grown out her hair, lost a few studs, and taught school locally.
“I wish you could’ve known Georgiana,” Adele said, shaking her head after I reported the latest indiscretion by the fan-fiction group. “She’d’ve loved what you’re doing. Glynis is trying to cast her in stone, but she was truly a forward-thinking woman. And backward, too, I suppose—given her favorite writers.”
“I wish I could’ve known the two of you as friends,” I replied.
On the surface, Adele may have seemed an odd choice for board member of the Society—even Adele admitted that. She had met Lady Fowling at Topping & Company, both perusing a new release of Agatha Christie’s secret notebooks. This triggered a lively conversation on detection and resulted in a warm friendship. They were, in a word, simpatico. Adele—never the wistful sort—had once told me it was too bad her own mother hadn’t been more like Lady Fowling. In return, her ladyship had deemed the young woman “full of the spirit of our role models”—and had promptly appointed her to the board.
Over our pies and mash, Adele caught me up with stories about her school, a local academy where she had been voted best teacher two years in a row by both students and parents. In exchange, I told her about my recent triumph—starting on the cellar.
“I didn’t get far—deconstructing the wall of furniture will take a while.”
“God knows how long some of that stuff has been down there,” Adele said.
I knew that Middlebank had seen the Fowlings through at least a century, and her ladyship had been the tail end of their occupation. A long tail, as she’d been only twenty years old when she married the seventy-year-old Sir John.
“I’m not sure how I’d feel about marrying someone fifty years my senior,” I thought aloud.
“I doubt if you could find anyone that old at this point.” Adele shot me a grin as she lifted her glass. “Georgiana said they were quite happy.”
“But that makes it so tragic—they had only ten years before he died, and then she was a widow at thirty and alone for the next sixty-four years.”
“She didn’t let that hold her back—she found her passion and shared it with the world.”
“And that’s what I will get the Society back to.” I jabbed a finger on the table for emphasis. “Lady Fowling’s dream.” And with that, I shared my latest idea—literary salons to be held at Middlebank.
“Brilliant,” Adele said. She became thoughtful, tapping her fork on the edge of her plate. “Yes, quite good. What if you found a cosponsor? Not necessarily to share costs, but to help get the word out to a wider audience. Bath College has that adult learning program, you know. They do writing classes.”
“Yes, perfect. I’ll have a look at their faculty and find a likely person to contact.” I stared at our empty plates and glasses. “Another pint?”
“Go on, then,” Adele replied.
From The Bodies in the Library by Marty Wingate. Used with the permission of the publisher, Berkley. Copyright © 2019 by Marty Wingate.