The scratchy sounds of a gramophone fill the air. Next to the fronds of a potted palm, a blond woman in a black lace dress is taking a long drag on a cigarette in an ebony holder. A dark-haired man in a dinner jacket holds a glass of champagne—er, make that two glasses, one in either hand. And a frazzled looking girl in a cloche hat looks like she’s trying to decide whether to join him or sidle out of the Ballroom doors.
Ah, the dulcet tones of Lady B. She comes charging into the Ballroom like an enraged rhinoceros— if rhinoceros were known to wield a lorgnette in place of a horn.
“Who gave you leave to invite the characters from Downton Abbey?” Lady B’s eyes take on a speculative gleam. “Although, now that Series Three has ended in such an unfortunate manner….
“These aren’t the characters from Downton Abbey,” I say hastily. I refrain from asking how Lady B knows about a television show broadcast two hundred years in the future. It’s Lady B. She has her ways. “This is the cast from my upcoming book, The Ashford Affair.”
Lady B narrows her eyes at me. “Miss Willig, when I told you to invite the characters from your new book, I meant that charming Miss Meadows. The one with the intriguing sword parasol.”
I pluck at the demure skirts of my empire-waisted dress. “Well, yes, you see, there’s been a bit of a mix-up. I’d meant to invite the cast of my next Pink Carnation novel, The Passion of the Purple Plumeria, but as that doesn’t come out until August, and The Ashford Affair is coming out on April 9th, the Ashford characters felt that it was rightly their turn. I had thought the time-space continuum might keep them out— but they do get around.”
And isn’t that the understatement of the century. The Ashford Affair rackets back and forth between 1999 New York, an Edwardian estate, World War I and Jazz Age London and 1920s Kenya. I’ve been exhausted just trying to keep up with their comings and goings.
I’m interrupted in my explanation by a long-necked beast picking its way delicately across the Ballroom floor and attempting to eat the grass from the bottom of Albert’s perch. Albert gives an indignant squawk and flies away.
“Miss Willig,” says Lady B, in dreadful tones, “what is that?”
I give up. “That’s a giraffe. You see, a large chunk of The Ashford Affair is set in Africa, and so…. Well, never mind. Here.” I thrust an iPad, cunningly disguised as a library volume, into her hand. “My publishers have created a snazzy new app— er, I mean, pamphlet— so that you can read the first chapter of the book just as it will be set out in the finished volume. That should give you an idea.”
“Hmm,” says Lady B, discretely sticking her lorgnette more firmly onto her nose. She begins to read:
Addie’s gloves were streaked with sweat and red dust.
It wasn’t just her gloves. Looking down, she winced at the sight of her once pearl-colored suit, now turned gray and rust with smoke and dust. Even in the little light that managed to filter through the thick mosquito netting on the windows, the fabric was clearly beyond repair. The traveling outfit that had looked so smart in London had proved to a poor choice for the trip from Mombassa.
She felt such a fool. What had she been thinking? It had cost more than her earnings for the month, that dress, an unpardonable extravagance in these days when her wardrobe ran more to the sensible than the chic. It had taken a full afternoon of scouring Oxford Street, going into one shop, then the next, this dress too common, that too expensive, nothing just right, until she finally found it, just a little more than she could afford, looking almost, if one looked at it in just the right way, as though it might be couture, rather than a poor first cousin to it.
She had peacocked in her tiny little flat, posing in front of the mirror with the strange ripple down the middle, twisting this way and that to try to get the full effect, her imagination presenting her with a hundred tempting images. Bea coming to the train to meet her, an older more matronly Bea, her silver-gilt hair burned straw by the equatorial sun, her figure softened by childbearing. She would see Addie, stepping off the train in her smart new frock with her smart new haircut and exclaim in surprise. She would turn Addie this way and that, marveling at her, her new city sophistication, her sleek hair, her newly plucked brows.
“You’ve grown up,” Bea would say. And Addie would smile, just a wry little hint of a smile, the sort of smile you saw over cocktails at the Ritz, and say, “It does happen.”
And, then, from somewhere behind her, Frederick would say, “Addie?” and she would turn, and see surprise and admiration chasing one another across his face as he realized, for the first time, just what he had left behind in London….
Fortunately, Lady B appears to be absorbed, so I dodge the inquisitive giraffe and scurry towards the doors of the Ballroom. As I make my escape, something falls from my pocket and thumps to the floor.
Nope, it’s not Cinderella’s slipper. It’s my last, carefully hoarded Advance Reader’s Copy of The Ashford Affair, which I’ll be giving away to one person who comments on the Ballroom Blog today.
Since we authoresses seem to be hopping around a bit these days, it only seems appropriate to ask:
Which time period would you most like to visit?