Authors: L.C. Fenton
“You’re a celebrity in your own right now. How does it feel?” he asked politely. I wondered if he could sense my inner dialogue and how it in no way matched my upbeat answers. I wasn’t a fabulous actress, so it was possible. I had to try harder.
I gave the question some thought. Fame was interesting. Once the first cookbook came out, people started recognizing me more in the street. I appeared in interviews in magazines and on television, and then more people again recognized me. People I knew from the neighborhood on a first-name basis suddenly treated me differently—I was “famous.”
The strangest part of my new fame was the way my life seemed to take on a split personality. One day, the most difficult decision I made all day would be whether to cut sandwiches into triangles or squares and what I could possibly make for dinner from spinach, fish, and corn that could be presented in such a way as to bypass the super-critical palates of my progeny (tomato ketchup was usually key). Other days, I would be meeting with lawyers, agents, and publishers, with large sums being thrown around in the industry created by what I now referred to in my head as “the Book” and workshopping ideas for turning by-products into even more large sums.
Sometimes I would be interviewed by someone, and read what they wrote later, alternating between amusement and horror at the vast inaccuracies in their stories. Though I grew up in Australia, I don’t think I’d ever actually been on a sheep farm, let alone run one, and I would never describe myself as a “surfer,” nor to my recollection was it ever mentioned in the interview. It was completely bizarre how these things were simply concocted.
I was flattered when someone called me a “classic” beauty and that I had excellent manners, which was nice though strange that they were surprised enough to allude to it. I think it was just that I wrote about baking and dressed conservatively. I was no Stepford wife, but my looks were an old-fashioned kind of pretty, rather than a modern look. I would love to wear avant-garde fashion, but I just looked ridiculous in it. Oddly-shaped clothing, aviators, messy hair all did nothing for me, as much as I would have liked to be stylish enough to carry it off. My hips and breasts were too full for fashion and, without a reasonable amount of control being exercised, could easily get out of hand.
I was often compared to Nigella, and my most recent interviewer said that I looked like a taller Charlotte from
Sex in the City
, or would if she lived in London and was married to an Englishman and was less immaculately groomed. I wasn’t sure how complementary that one was. It was never nice to have one’s personal hygiene called into question.
Sex in the City
wasn’t reality; no one was that perfectly groomed without a team of hairdressers and makeup artists. The comparison wasn’t exactly fair.
Gradually things had settled down again, but in the last few months, I had been doing an ungodly amount of publicity to build up the next book,
The Gospel According to Saint Kate
, which had just been released in time for Christmas. It was always difficult for me to do media promotion as it set Jack’s friends and relatives’ teeth on edge. I had to walk a very fine line: talk to the press so they would promote my book but reveal as little about my life as possible.
The first rule of the English aristocracy that I’d married into was “don’t ever talk to the media.” Given my chosen career, it wasn’t really possible, and unfortunately, it was that family side of my life that gained me the publishing deal in the first place and that people wanted to hear about. Not being naturally reticent, in my naivety, I’d let a few humorous anecdotes about myself slip which the media pounced upon and tried to attribute parts to people in my circle. It didn’t seem to matter that it wasn’t true; it still was repeated until it might as well have been. It made for some very awkward social events and permanently alienated some people. I think they were looking for an excuse, because it wasn’t actually my fault, and I could prove that it wasn’t, but they didn’t want to hear it. I also received a stern lecture from Jack.
“You can’t say anything negative, ever,” he explained, slapping the magazine on the table.
“Why not?” I asked, puzzled.
“You are part of a very privileged group of people who have money, beautiful houses, and titles. People run around and do whatever you want for you. If you complain, you look like an ungrateful arsehole.”
“But nothing. Complain all you want to me or your friends, but not out in public and especially not to the media,” he grated out through clenched teeth.
“Sorry.” Thoroughly chastised, I got it, but seriously, I had to be upbeat and perky
all the time?
There wasn’t enough coffee in the universe for that.
Mentally dragging myself back from my train of thought, I realized I had probably taken too much time answering, so I grasped for the first coherent thing I could manage.
“Well, I’m still the same as I ever was. The only thing that’s different is people’s reaction to me,” I answered truthfully. “It’s the same for anyone in the public domain: you do tend to become more cautious with new people, and you try to work out if they like you for yourself or because of what you are.” Finally, my first bit of honesty. He nodded agreeably but seemed a bit disappointed I hadn’t said anything particularly controversial.
After the interview, they took some photos and, after a bit of messing around packing up, left fairly smartly, leaving me to the rest of my day, which at the moment involved looking at mounds of old cookbooks, searching for inspiration for the next cookbook and doing the Christmas shopping.
This was the best part of writing, where anything was possible and the creative excitement of new ideas whirled around my head in an invigorating and thrilling way. The third book was still untitled. There was less pressure on this one, given the good reception of the previous two and the kitchenware selling well. I’d even been approached for a television show, which would send my mother-in-law into new heights of displeasure. But all that had to be put on the backburner for the next few weeks, as I waited to see if I would survive the festive season.
to different people, and my own personal hell was my mother-in-law’s place at Christmas. The fact that Clouston Hall was exceptionally beautiful just seemed to make the whole ordeal worse. The dread started around November, and by the time we drove in through the front gates, four days before Christmas, I was usually in such a state, imagining the fresh horrors my mother-in-law would have cooked up for the festive season.
This year, on Bats’ advice, I surreptitiously swallowed a Valium in the car half an hour before we arrived so it would be at full effect when we got there. My edges were lovely and soft, and I enjoyed the last five minutes of the drive exceptionally. Jack, I think through growing up with her, or through sheer bloody-mindedness, refused to acknowledge anything other than that his mother was a bit eccentric. If she was eccentric, fish were slightly damp. As far as I was concerned, Edwina was completely bitch-bonkers, with a strong dose of paranoia and hypochondria thrown in.
In summer, tourists swarmed rapturously over the gardens, but now, in the depths of winter, the house and gardens were silent, the flat-topped hedges covered in white, and the formal gardens softened by the snow. It was so beautiful that looking at it sometimes stopped my breath, and I forgot temporarily the social ghastliness that lay within.
Escaping to wandering the grounds, I could picture myself as a Jane Austen heroine, though none of her heroines had to deal with such an awful mother-in-law. Mr. Darcy’s and Mr. Tilney’s had kindly passed on, though you could imagine Elinor Dashwood having it a bit tough at family events. Fanny Price’s mother-in-law was effectively her own mother, which is a bit odd when you think about it, but at least there were no surprises in store there. She knew what she was getting into.
I’d had a few hints that there was something strange going on under the surface of their family, but apart from Edwina being a complete bitch, they’d managed to hold it together until after the wedding. Not that it would have stopped me marrying Jack, whom I loved passionately, but at least I would have had a better idea of what I was agreeing to when I said “for better or for worse.” The only sign of how wrong things were came via Crispin, Jack’s brother. He had the golden blond curls and pouty red lips of a Renaissance angel, but he’d never had much to say to me, so I couldn’t say I really knew anything about him apart from what Jack had told me.
My first real interaction with Crispin was in the lead up to the wedding. Seeking a moment’s reprieve from the endless planning, I had slipped off briefly to draw breath in the library. Closing the door softly behind me, I almost hadn’t caught the sobbed intake of breath. Following the sound, I’d found Crispin on the floor behind a wood cabinet, his arms tightly wrapped around his knees as he tried to hold himself together. A large raised red welt marked his cheek, and I could see more on his neck and forearms where his sleeves were pushed back.
I’d sat down in the chair next to him, silent and not touching him as he shook.
“Why does she do this to us?” he had asked eventually, when his shudders had decreased.
“I don’t know. It’s not you. She has some serious issues.” There had been no need to ask who had struck him with what looked to be a riding crop. Nor had it seemed to be the first time, from Crispin’s resigned look.
“I didn’t do
.” He’d rubbed the fresh tears out of his eyes. “It’s because of you.
is supposed to be a reminder that I shouldn’t repeat Jack’s mistake.” His eyes had turned on me, becoming hardened and angry. I was so stunned I couldn’t think of anything to say. How was this my fault?
“I see you for what you are—a gold-digging whore who trapped my brother into marriage with your pregnancy. You’ll never be one of us,” he’d spat and, jumping up, run out of the room. Why did he think I was pregnant? Why would someone be saying that when it wasn’t true? I had still been sitting there, shocked and dumbfounded, trying to understand what that had been all about, when someone found me and dragged me back to the wedding planning, not that I’d been needed.
Later, I’d raised what had happened with Jack.
“Did your mother do that to you?” I asked.
“Look, she used to ‘discipline’ us a lot when we were younger. Crispin never copped much of it and so was just upset.”
“Understandably! You know that’s not normal,” I pressed.
“Yes, I know. Mother has a temper and is stressed about the wedding, so she probably lashed out.”
“We are not going to beat our children.” There was no way I would be okay with him replicating his mother’s parenting. This had not been a discussion I ever thought I would have, but this was a deal breaker for me.
“No, of course not. I know you wouldn’t be like that, and it’s one of the reasons I want you for the mother of my children. You’ll do a much better job.” He’d smiled sadly.
“Crispin was really upset. He thinks I’m after your money and trapped you by getting pregnant.”
“I’ll talk to him tomorrow,” he’d said, placating.
Troubled, but realizing there was little I could do, I’d let it drop.
I drifted out of my reverie, aware of the car tires crunching over the cold stones of the front driveway, as we came to a stop directly outside the front door. The drawing room curtains twitched; Edwina had obviously been watching for us. In my pleasantly drugged state, I was completely unbothered by it. Maybe I could take these lovely pills the whole time, I thought, before realizing that not only was it bad for me, but I didn’t have nearly enough.
Maybe next year
, I consoled myself.
Willing myself to open the car door, it still took a few seconds. It was the moment after the wax strip had been applied, that peaceful, non-painful moment, just before the pain of lots of small hairs being ripped out. You were committed to the pain—there was only one way out of the situation. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and got out of the car.
I arranged my face into a smile and greeted Bellham, the Preedys’ most recent butler/handyman, who had opened the door to meet us. Edwina was so diabolical that staff never lasted that long. She was ridiculously exacting, micromanaging every aspect of their jobs, usually with more conviction of her own superiority than understanding of the job. She genuinely believed that birth was more important than character, or rather that birth determined that you were a worthy character. If you were not born into a wealthy and influential family, well, that was your own fault. She had swallowed the theory behind the “Divine Right of Kings” in its entirety.
With a “madam” and a “sir” and a nod to the boys, he escorted us through the grandly tiled entrance hall, with its massive stone staircase rising to the upper levels and the gleaming darkly polished wood railing showing through under the wreathes that decorated the stairs. As it was Christmas, the stately rooms were being used, and we were shown into the vast sitting room with an enormous tree taking up one end, mockingly perfuming the air with the smell of festive family fun.