I stared up the long drive in complete disbelief.
The teasing glimpses of a gothic style building peeked through the enormous trees that lined each side of a sweeping gravel road.
Could this really be it? I was sure I had the address right but now, standing here, seeing this, I seriously had my doubts. I pulled my phone, double checked, and couldn’t see any mistakes.
But there was no way this was right. How could it be?
Part of me wanted to turn around, find a coffee shop or somewhere and figure it out from there, but that was the cowardly part. The running part. The part I’d let rule for most of my life and where had it got me? Nowhere but misery that’s where.
But not anymore.
Everything was different now. I was different now. And I was damned if I was going to go back to being the same old Alice. I was a new Alice, a better Alice. I had choices now, I could control my own life, and by god was I was finally going to live like it.
I brushed my hair out of my face and as I did I saw the sign, partly obscured by overgrown weeds. Hollingshurst Hall. The taxi had brought me to the right place.
Walking up past the wrought iron gates I stopped again, this time looking across what once would’ve been immaculately cut grass leading to an ornamental garden and lake that had clearly seen better days.
I took a deep breath and shook my head at the absurdity of it all.
At the absurdity of this entire situation.
Two months ago I was trapped in a boarding school I’d loathed, surrounded by bullies who’d loved nothing more than to torment me about all my dead family. And what made it even worse was my only living relative, a distant uncle I’d never even met, was the one who had stuck me there in the first place and had shown no inclination to do anything other than pretend I didn’t exist.
But now I was free. Free of the school and free of the bullies. And truth be told free of my uncle too. Another family member dead.
So now there really was just me.
Me and this house.
I shook my head again before picking up my bag which not only weighed a ton but seemed to get heavier with every step.
It was time to see what exactly this house was.
As I approached the trees theatrically revealed the contours of the architecture bit by bit until finally the whole place was there, in front of me, like a giant mirage.
The place was huge, gothic, and almost something otherworldly. Both the side wings were completed with large towers and the imposing set of stairs up to the entrance made you feel like the whole place was staring down at you. Judging you almost.
“Hollingshurst.” I said aloud for the first time as though I was trying to see what the syllables sounded like. What they felt like on my tongue.
The name alone made me shiver.
“Hello? Can I help you?”
I jumped and almost twisted my ankle as I spun round at the voice behind me.
“Hi. I’m Alice.” I said looking at the man but saw no recognition in his face. “Alice Gifford.”
“No Gifford has been here in over twenty years.” He replied almost crossly, puffing himself up somewhat, the look on his face saying what his mouth had not. That I was a liar. A fraud.
“Oh well, I…” I began. My cheeks already heating with an embarrassment I shouldn’t be feeling.
“Oh Hello.” A woman called walking up behind me at speed. “You must be Miss Gifford.”
I spun round again, feeling almost outnumbered by the pair of them.
“Er, yes, I’m Alice.” I replied with what was meant to be a smile of confidence but it felt more one of relief.
“Welcome to Hollingshurst. I’m Bates, the Housekeeper.” The woman said. “And this is Sebastian our groundskeeper.” She pointed to the man who still looked cross and appeared to be muttering. “Let me show you the house.” She said quickly, taking my arm and steering me towards it and away from Sebastian as though she too feared an outburst from him.
“How was your journey? Did it take long?” She asked as we walked up the imposing stone steps.
“It was fine thanks.” I replied glancing back, still feeling odd by the whole exchange.
“Don’t worry about Seb. He’s a bit forgetful these days. Give him a bit of time and he’ll think you’ve lived here your whole life.”
“He said no Gifford has been here for twenty years. Did my Uncle not live here?” I asked curiously. Where else had the old codger been then while I’d been locked away in that prison of a school?
“No, he used to be here all the time but preferred to stay away after his wife disappeared.”
I paused frowning. That’s the first I heard of it. “She disappeared?”
“You don’t know?” Bates said giving me a look of surprise.
“No, I wasn’t really that close with the family.” I replied. Though that felt like the understatement of the year.
“Oh I see. Well, there’s not much to it really. And we shouldn’t speak ill of the dead.”
“No.” I said back because I couldn’t think of anything else appropriate to say.
“So this is the main entrance. There’s a side entrance behind the East Wing that leads directly to the kitchens, but I’ll show you that in a bit.”
My breath caught in my chest. My heart practically stopped as I looked around in amazement. The entrance hall had a double height ceiling with ornate plaster panelling over the ceiling culminating in a giant crystal chandelier that cast rainbow shadows across the sweeping staircase below. Doors to both the left and right showed glimpses of painted faces staring down onto any visitors below.
“It’s a fine example of neogothic architecture.” Bates said next to me.
“It’s beautiful.” I breathed feeling even more shocked than I did when I’d first seen the outside.
“Let me take you to your rooms first. Then we can give you a grand tour.”
I nodded not daring to think about how my rooms, plural, might look. This whole house was mine. This whole ridiculously furnished and over the top house was mine. I’d never had anything of worth in my entire life and now suddenly it felt like I’d hit the jackpot.
And that perhaps this deep, festering hollowness inside might finally be filled. Might finally leave me entirely.
Bates led me up the main staircase and through the gallery lined either side with portraits I assumed were of my ancestors. I followed mutely trying to take a mental picture of everything because I was half convinced that at any minute I’d wake up back at the school and this would all be a dream.
“This wing is traditionally for the Lady of the House. I’ve done it up as best I could but if you feel anything is amiss or you want to change anything do please let me know.” Bates said as she pushed open the heavy carved walnut doors.
Inside lay a lavishly furnished room with two large antique sofa’s across from each other in the centre of the room. A large fireplace took dominance over the main wall and across from it large lead-lined windows gave an uninterrupted view of the lawn and forest beyond.
“I’ll bring you up some refreshments and then when you’re ready if you pull this handle…” She motioned to what looked like a curtain tie hanging from the ceiling. “I will come back to show you round the rest of the house.”
“Thank you.” I said smiling and yet somehow still keeping it all together but as soon as Bates closed the door behind me I couldn’t hold the squeal in anymore.
This was mine. All of this. I ran round the room looking at little bits that caught my interest. The golden clock on the mantelpiece. The silk wallpaper that looked as though it was hand painted. I ran my hand over the ridiculously plush rug that covered most of the marble floor and made it feel like I was floating rather than standing.
And then I looked out the window. The sun was still high up in the sky but from its trajectory it would set behind the forest and give the room a beautiful display every evening.
I stared down at the lawn wondering how much of this sprawling land before me was mine. Not that it mattered how much, because finally I had something, after so many years of having nothing, of being nothing, of feeling like I barely even existed, now I finally felt like I belonged.
I walked through the double doors at the end of the room and came into another smaller suite surrounded by bookcases like it was my own private library and through this I found my new bedroom.
Paler silk wallpaper covered these walls, with intricate pink cherry blossom painted on the wall behind the large four poster bed.
Off this room were two other equally sized rooms, one that held a dressing table, and wardrobes and the other a bathroom.
But what drew my attention, what felt like it was calling to me was the view beyond. The trees. The sprawling forest that looked as though it had been old, even before this house was built.
I stared out at it, in truth I wasn’t exactly the ‘outdoors type’, I’d much rather be curled up inside with a good book but something about that expanse, something about those trees felt different. It was if they were calling to me. Beckoning me.
I blinked, wondering if perhaps I was going mad. If perhaps the absurdity of all of this had tipped me over the edge.
A small cough behind me told me Bates was back with tea. I smiled as I followed her back into the main suite room.
“I trust everything is to your liking?” Bates asked as she poured the tea through the strainer.
“It’s perfect thank you.” I said. It was more than perfect. It was unbelievable.
“I’m happy to hear that. Perhaps once you’re done with the tea I can give you that tour and bring your belongings up?”
I nodded eager to see the rest of the house. Eager to see every inch of this place. I’m sure I could have just insisted we do the tour now but I didn’t want to offend Bates, not after all the trouble she’d clearly gone through.
So instead I sat, taking big gulps without making it look obvious. Hoping she didn’t notice the wince as the tea burnt my mouth.
I walked from one room to another with my mouth ajar.
With every step I took I swore I’d smacked my head and fallen into a dream. How was this house mine? How had my life gone from such emptiness to this?
I bit my lip to swallow the excited giggle that threatened to give me away. Bates was walking ahead, giving a little information on each new room. A little history to it. A little history to a family I’d never even met.
By the time we’d finished the tour my head was spinning. Bates disappeared off to start preparing dinner. Apparently she was cook and housekeeper. I wondered how on earth she managed a house this size all by herself.
Maybe I needed to sort out more help, I’d definitely need cleaners.
I let out a snigger. I sounded like lady of the manor. I sounded like I had an idea of how I was going to live here, when in reality I was still dumbstruck.
Bates ate with me. We made small talk.
Perhaps she could see my head was somewhere else and that I was exhausted.
After she left for the night I walked the silent hall up to my suite. My suite. Yeah, I was never going to get used to that.
I ran a bath, poured a ludicrous amount of bubbles into it and then sat staring out the window to where the trees were illuminated with the setting sun, just as I knew they would be.
I think this was my favourite view. Those trees. Something about them did something to me, stirred something in me. I let out a low breath as I realised they were my trees now.
Everything around me, everything I could see was mine.