“Shibden? Who names their own lake house? Don’t you think that’s a bit…” Ann wrinkled her nose. “I don’t know, snobbish?”
“Oh, nonsense dear,” urged Eliza, the woman who had been Mrs. Priestley to her all her youth. While the pleasures of being twenty-two brought little, it did give her the right, finally, to use the woman’s Christian name. “Anne is absolutely wonderful, wouldn’t you say, William?” Eliza looked to her husband, who was seemingly engrossed in a magazine Ann didn’t care to squint at.
“What?” he murmured, and then, “Oh yes, yes, Anne is such a lovely girl. Quite lovely.” He didn’t look up once, and Ann bit her lip to keep the small smile on her face from forming. Eliza, tight lipped, looked back at Ann with a rigid smile.
“Yes, I wouldn’t say snobbish at all. She’s very worldly, you know. Travelled all over. I’ve always spoken very highly of her. She’s been running her uncle’s company for a few years, hasn’t she, William?” No answer, but Eliza pressed on. “He left everything to her, and he has such a right to, really. She’s just the most intelligent woman I’ve ever met.” Eliza’s eyes sparkled, a look Ann recognized easily, and not just from knowing the woman most of her life. The look of being associated with, of knowing a person of such intelligence or beauty or talent was certainly enough to give anyone that sparkle. It had a feeling of elevation, and Ann wondered when Eliza would desist the bragging about such a woman and finish her tea so Ann could take the Priestley’s dog for a walk. Currently, Lady was curled next to her on the plush chair, her head resting upon Ann’s thigh while she idly rubbed her ears.
Looking up from Lady’s soft cream curls, she realized Eliza had not stopped, and was in fact continuing to talk about the woman who Ann might have forgotten about immediately had they not shared the same name. Anne Lister, who was she that had captured such an intrigue with her friend? She seemed nothing special—owned the company her uncle left to her, classic nepotism, she supposed. Apparently was living in the house in the Lake District he’d also given her, all the while redoing it with the money she had gotten after his death. It was quite horrible to lose a family member, she thought, but certainly it couldn’t be the recent death of her uncle that interested Eliza so. Ann’s own family had tragically passed, both her parents and her brother, so certainly she remained more interesting in that regard. Ann grimaced inside her own mind—this woman she barely knew anything of was already driving her to such jealousy she was using her dead parents as an alluring character trait. Good Lord!
“Now, the rumors about her... well, some may say inappropriate behaviors are not lost on me.” Eliza took a moment’s pause for a sip of tea and, Ann suspected, a much-needed breath. “I certainly look past them, for its best not to judge someone on their faults.” Ann’s brows furrowed lightly, whether with annoyance or curiosity, she could not tell.
“Her faults?” she asked, trying and failing to keep the intrigue out of her voice. Eliza tutted, sipping her tea again before placing it back on the end table. She set her eyes on Ann, much the way she imagined a mother might before giving a lighthearted lecture on proper manners. Ann felt a dull ache in her chest at the reminder.
“Now, I certainly didn’t mean faults, and I certainly don’t think of them that way. It’s just the circles she runs with are quite...” Eliza looked to William, who had been unquestionably ignoring them the entire time. “Well, they’re quite free spirited. And that’s certainly not a bad thing!” She sat back in her chair, smiling with something Ann couldn’t quite place. “But she really hasn’t ever brought a man home for her family, even though I’m sure that’s what her aunt wants—who doesn’t want grandchildren?—and that sort of thing, coupled with the way she dresses, has certainly implied some… things.” Ann tapped her foot with impatience, mostly with Eliza’s overuse of the word thing, causing Lady to glance up at her in polite irritation.
“What, is she a hippie or something?” Ann laughed, and Eliza pursed her lips at her.
“No dear,” she said, “but many people say she’s a lesbian.” A pause. “Now, that may or may not be true, and I won’t take it for fact until I’ve heard it from her herself, and I certainly won’t judge her for it—” but Ann had already stopped listening. Her fingers on Lady’s ear paused, and the dog licked her hand expectantly, but Ann’s mind was somewhere else.
Her mind was on pink skin, and fluttering lips and giggles and eyes wrinkling. It was on the brush of blush to one cheek, and then the other, on the golden highlight that her fingers worked to blend smoothly. The shining, brilliant glow of a smile, and fingers, always grazing hers, always twirling hair or touching lips or turning pages of poetry and literature. Rose scented perfume, on her pillowcase, ever in her nose… even now, she felt her face flush with the memory—
“Ann, dear, are you listening?”
“Yes!” It came out loud, oddly enough, even though it had been simple moments since she last spoke, it had seemed hours in her own head. Her friend, Claire, with the rose perfume. She hadn’t known why her mind had gone there so quickly, to Claire’s red hair across her pillow case. University was… She felt her face heat up even more, and she ducked down to scratch Lady’s head, obscuring her tinged cheeks from view. University was not to be thought of just then. “Yes, Eliza, what were you saying?” She breathed out a heavy sigh and was thankful at least that came out even.
“I was just saying how we should go see that renovated cottage, as she’s just finished it.” Ann felt her hand still. “She invited me to a housewarming tomorrow night on Facebook, to celebrate. Would you like to join us?” Knowing next to nothing about Anne Lister, about her business or her home or her hobbies (except the one, of course, which Ann felt herself blushing over yet again), Ann felt nearly giddy, suddenly, with excitement.
“Oh, yes, that would be so lovely!” she chimed, and Eliza smiled, seemingly satisfied at her interest.
“You’ll just love her,” she cooed, bringing her tea back to her lips. “She’d love to chat about those plants of yours, I’m sure, and she’ll talk your ear off about biology if you’ll let her.”
Well. It seemed like tomorrow night, Ann would be set to meet the most interesting woman in all of England. She’d better look her best.
The ride went by torturously slowly. Ann was nestled in the backseat of the car, headphones blaring music as she stared out the window. She wasn’t sure if she could call herself excited to meet Miss Lister; perhaps anxious was the right word. She’d taken her anxiety meds just before she’d left, a prescription she hadn’t been without since her parents’ death all those years ago. She stared out the window now, petting Lady idly. The Priestley’s refused to leave the dog at home, citing Miss Lister’s love for the creatures as their reason for bringing her. At least it gave Ann some comfort in the back seat.
One and a half hours they were driving to see this woman and her fancy lake house. Ann’s one bedroom in London was small but certainly nice, given what she’d inherited from her parents’ passing, but she could only imagine the scale of the house in the Lake District.
“What did you say Anne did again?” Ann asked from the back, and Eliza looked over her shoulder at her. She had a book open on her lap, The Duchess, she saw, and her reading glasses were perched at the edge of her nose like a hawk.
“She’s running her uncle’s company, dear,” she smiled lightly. “I do remember telling you that.”
“But I meant what kind of company,” Ann pressed, and Eliza made a delicate shrug.
“I’m not sure,” she answered, turning forward and back to her book with a costumed Kiera Knightly on the cover. “Certainly makes enough to throw elaborate parties like this.” Ann sighed again and un-paused her music. Driving an hour and a half midday to see some house. She and her cottage must be quite a sight. Ann suddenly felt her mind veer into jealous territory, a silly battle of the Ann’s, but she skipped the raucous song that had begun to play, and it landed on a much calmer one. One that instantly made her want to skip it again because it forced her mind to what she had tried to forget so desperately the day before.
She’d tossed in her sheets for over an hour before sleep found her, and even then, her friend from English literature had haunted her. Red braided hair, falling behind her, long and straight. Have you ever kissed a girl? It had been after just one bottle of wine between them, but Ann had always been a lightweight. What? The question had startled her muddled brain. Claire laughed, tossing her head back and leaning upon the bed where they sat in front of it. Do you ever think about it? Ann sighed. She hadn’t, then, until that moment. And then after she could think of nothing else. How much sweeter would a woman’s lips taste than a man’s? Where would a woman touch, as opposed to a boy? How would the smell of rose perfume make her toss her head back in pleasure?
She remembered the boy she had been with—just one—at university. Gregory. What a boring name, she’d thought, but he was certainly handsome and quite good at what he did. Running, physics, the sciences. It was alright until that moment, bearable, even—she could pretend that this, between her and Gregory, was what everyone felt. That love was nothing but a dull, muted feeling that people liked to play up in songs or in films and novels. It wasn’t without its pleasures, of course, but she remembered looking into his eyes one morning over tea, thinking that besides that, there had to be something else. She must have been missing something.
Claire had pecked her on the lips that night, light and platonic, and laughed giddily at the oddness of it. She didn’t try it again and made light of the jest and moved to search Ann’s mini fridge for another bottle, or at least a wine cooler. It had taken Ann several moments to recover, and for Claire’s turned back she was infinitely grateful; she had not seen how she had undone her. Thinking about that night made her feel like a child, and she tried her hardest to push the thoughts out of her head. That wasn’t something Ann was really at the mercy to follow through on. It always had seemed utterly out of her grasp, that sense of happiness that she’d felt for a moment, and she’d never tried again.
The car gave a bump, startling Lady and causing her to lift her head in muffled annoyance. Ann gently shushed her, petting her soft head and cooing. William grumbled as the car shook on the rough road.
“We must be nearing the damn house. These old roads are in terrible shape, it’s a shame no one looks after them.”
“Maybe Miss Lister will become head of the road commission!” laughed Eliza, and Ann clenched her jaw. She peered out the window, not even having noticed the lush greenery of the Lake District. Trees dotted the rolling hills of farmland, and she watched as old, cottage style country homes passed their car. It was June, and while it wasn’t quite warm, it was incredibly humid, so Ann had opted for a long, balloon sleeved blush dress that hung to her calves. Paired with low heels, she hoped it would be enough to impress the remarkable woman Eliza had described. As they grew nearer, Ann felt her anticipation at meeting the woman grow. Her anxiety was giving way to excitement, now, as she watched the farm houses grow further apart. They passed a large, deep lake set in a valley, and Ann craned to see the sun shine upon its waters in the high afternoon.
“How much longer, about?” Ann asked, trying her best to keep her voice even. Her heart was beginning to beat faster, and she felt the all too familiar pit in her stomach. Had she eaten anything before she’d left their home in Leeds?
“Just a few more minutes, I think,” replied Eliza. “This house seems further out than some of the ones we’ve seen. Do you think it’s more of a farm?”
“Caring for a farm and a business? I doubt even her uncle would have time for that, much less her,” William responded. He braked as the car hit a more abrasive bump, jostling the back seat. “Especially with all her traveling.”
“Oh, yes, yes, you’re completely right.” Eliza turned to look at Ann. “You must ask about her travels, dear, she’s been all over the world. I hear she frequents America, too. You might ask her what it’s like!” Ann smiled politely back at Eliza. She’d never been further than… well, England itself. She’d gone to University in London, and with her part time teaching job there, she really hadn’t been able to leave. It was only the summer vacation her school gave that allowed her to pay a visit to the Priestley’s in Leeds at all. She’d never been even to France, something that her acquaintances back home thought was curious. But she’d never really had a reason to leave.
“Ah, I believe this might be it.” Ann looked up, leaning towards the middle seat to see better through the windshield. Eliza read the address off her phone and, after squinting for a moment at the old marker, ordered William to pull in. It was a long drive, and Ann had expected nothing less from a woman who named her own lake house. She sighed, pulling her headphones out and tucking a blonde curl behind her ear.
The driveway was annoyingly beautiful, with the same, moss covered stone half walls directing their path down the charming gravel drive. To the right and left were trees, artfully placed and beautiful—willows, poplars, maples, and tall birch trees managed to create a sort of clever pathway that obscured the house from view, except for a few grand turrets. Ann felt her mouth hanging open and closed it quickly—certainly a home like this would require an immense amount of care, and it was simply her vacation house.
“This certainly is grand,” mused Eliza from the front, and Ann could only nod. The car swung right with a curve, and suddenly, the house was visible. It looked like something out of a fairytale. Grey stone and white stucco were separating by leering dark beams and covered with a red tinged ivy. It was at least two stories, maybe three, with a massive entrance and a quaint, cottage style garden that made Ann nearly green with envy. It put her small one at home to shame.
William pulled up next to several other cars parked on the gravel driveway and turned off the car. “Well, I’ll be damned,” he laughed. “Miss Lister has outdone herself. This is a stunner.”
“I’d expected nothing less,” grinned Eliza, and she grabbed her bag. “Well, let’s go in, shall we? Judging by these cars, there are quite a few guests mingling already.” The prospect of meeting new people made Ann frown, and the pit in her stomach seemed to widen, like an endless chasm. It was dread. She hated social situations like this, fancying herself much more an introvert. “Ann, will you grab Lady’s things?”
“Yes, of course,” was her curt and quiet reply, before opening the door and setting the dog on the ground. It really was quite grand, she thought as she grabbed the canvas bag that housed the dog bowl and food. She suddenly ached for the home she had grown up in, large and white and airy, before she’d had to sell it after her parents had passed. No one wanted to live alone in such a house, especially with her sister long having lived in Scotland. She preferred a smaller, quieter space, where she could write and drink tea and simply be alone. Nonetheless, the largesse of the home planted a sort of sadness in her she couldn’t seem to shake as they walked to the door.
Eliza chattered aimlessly about Anne, wanting to ask her all sorts of questions Ann didn’t bother listening to. All she felt was the odd tightness in her hands, which she clenched and unclenched as a means to get rid of it. Per usual, it failed to work, so as they neared the grand, double doors that would open the estate, she began wringing them against the unbidden feeling. Three knocks on the door from William, and Eliza eyed her.
“Don’t be nervous dear,” she said quietly, and Ann grinned back weakly. “There’s nothing to be worried about. She’s quite kind, and it’s only for an evening. We’ll be back before you know it.” Ann sighed. She was right, it was only for one evening. It was already fast approaching four thirty, and she figured they’d be leaving at around nine. It was just over four hours, nothing Ann hadn’t had to battle in the past during drinks with her coworkers after a day of school. She could do this.
She schooled her face into a polite smile and stilled her anxious hands, clasping them in front of her. This was going to be alright. Lady nudged at her feet, and Ann let out a breath.
Then, Miss Anne Lister opened the door.