The sixteenth entry of our Top 20 Undiscovered Shortlist is Many Mansions by Laurel Remington.
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Over to Laurel Remington…
MANY MANSIONS (BLURB)
The profession that everyone loves to hate…
Elsie Wood never imagined that she’d end up back in Somerset living with her parents and looking for work. But when she splits with her fiancé and leaves her job as a literature professor, Elsie finds that in her own life, happy endings are hard to come by.
She takes the first job she can find: as a part time estate agent. At first, she struggles to fit in to the cutthroat office environment. But one phone call changes everything. She gets the instruction to sell Rosemont Hall, a crumbling Georgian mansion that’s riddled with woodworm and dry rot – and secrets. Elsie is fascinated by the house and its colourful past. From a portrait of a mysterious woman on the stairs to a lost painting and a sinister housekeeper, Elsie feels like she’s stepped into the pages of a novel.
Elsie’s big chance to get to the top of the sales chart soon becomes a fight to save Rosemont Hall from developers – without her boss finding out! And when the disturbingly attractive American heir arrives to push the sale forward, Elsie has a true battle on her hands – one that puts not only her new career, but also her heart, on the line.
READ THE FIRST 3000 WORDS OF MANY MANSIONS OVER THE CUT
Many Mansions by Laurel Remington
I have nothing to be ashamed of, nothing at all…
Repeating those words to myself, I smooth my skirt that’s a little too tight in the hips and hope that the button straining on my jacket will hold for – I check my watch – forty-five minutes max. I can do this – no problem.
From my vantage point on the tasteful beige leather sofa in the tasteful waiting area flanked by potted palms, I survey the people before me. Everyone in the office seems to be smiling. At one desk, a spiky-haired man in an impeccable suit is laughing into a phone cradled on his shoulder and gesturing with a pen. At the back of the room, two women are smiling as they chat next to the coffee machine, and even the heavily pregnant PA who is staring at her computer screen chewing on her raspberry nails looks like she’s just won the Lucky Dip. I seem to be the only one who is finding it difficult to make my lips curve upwards.
My eyes flick to the name of the firm emblazoned in tall silver letters on the far wall:
Tetherington Bowen Knowles
Estate Agents and Chartered Surveyors
Specialists in Unique and Historic Properties
Those two little words: Estate Agents. The profession that everyone loves to hate. Never had I imagined myself here – back home with my parents in Somerset, answering an employment advert on Gumtree. But as a now ex- lecturer in Victorian Literature, I, of all people, know that not every story has a happy ending. I’m just thankful that my former colleagues at University College London can’t see me now. I swallow hard. I have nothing to be ashamed of—
‘Yes, that’s me.’ As I stand up, the button on my jacket heralds my grand entrance by popping off onto the floor and bouncing like a flat rock skimming the surface of a placid lake. And unfortunately, the man standing at the door of a tiny beige-walled office is the only one in the entire place who isn’t smiling. His eyes follow the progress of the button until it lands petulantly under the desk of the PA.
His gaze moves to the tiny wrinkle of black lace at the top of my bra that is now peeking out of my jacket. At this moment, I wish I could rewind the entire last six months of my life and start over, but all I can do is wait – for his eyes to reach my face just my cheeks flush bright red.
‘Come into my office. I’m Alistair Bowen-Knowles.’
He ushers me inside. The large desk that takes up most of the office is unnaturally tidy. On the walls are architect’s drawings of modern houses and six framed ‘Salesman of the Year’ certificates, all arranged to the millimetre. Mr. Bowen-Knowles is wearing a starched shirt with cufflinks, pin-striped trousers and a purple and silver tie. His eyes are set too closely together, his nose long and wolf-like.
Why am I here…? The question pops into my head.
Mr. Bowen-Knowles steeples his fingers. ‘So, Miss Wood. Why are you here?’
I smile and launch into my prepared answer. ‘I saw your advertisement. I’m looking for work and I thought I’d make a good…uhh…’
All of a sudden, I can’t bring myself to say the words. I switch to Plan B and hand him my one page CV (which highlights the fact that I have absolutely no relevant experience). He takes it from me and scans it, his eyes narrowing.
‘… estate agent.’ I finish.
I sense that I’m about to get tossed out, but suddenly I don’t mind so much. Now that I’m here, everything seems wrong. I’m not cut out to be an estate agent. What’s more, the man across the desk seems to agree 100 percent.
‘Ms. Wood,’ he says, ‘let me ask you again. Why are you here?’
I shift in my chair ready to get up and leave. Life has been hard enough without adding Mr. Double-barrelled-cufflinks-Salesman-of-the-Year to my woes. But this is the only job within a thirty mile radius that doesn’t involve scanning groceries or cleaning toilets in a pub. I need this job to get back on my feet. I open my mouth to fight my corner. Like a downpour of biblical proportions, the last six months of my life come gushing out:
‘… and I met Simon when I was 22 – we had the same ‘Deconstructing the Myth of Feminist Identity in 19th Century Society’ lecture together. He really understood the plight of female intellectuals – like the Bronte sisters and Elizabeth Gaskell. He was my literary soulmate. And it didn’t even matter that he decided not to pursue his PhD and went into investment banking instead. It meant that we could buy a flat in Docklands…’
The PA enters and puts a cup of coffee in front of me. I ignore it.
‘… and everything was fine – we were the perfect couple – until six months ago when he met ‘Sandy’ at his gym. She’s American, and has the perfect body and she likes football, or soccer as she calls it, and…’ I take a breath, ‘… and after we split up, I just couldn’t stay in London. How could I teach undergraduates about feminist power when I felt like the first Mrs. Rochester – you know, jilted and walled up in an attic room? The university was doing cut-backs so I volunteered to leave.’
I look at the coffee, then at Mr. Bowen-Knowles. Secretly, I’m hoping that he’ll be sympathetic to my plight, or understand, or care. Instead, he frowns at his phone which is vibrating on his desk, and starts to fiddle with his right cufflink. Not only have I failed to state my case, but I’ve made myself look like a hysterical nutcase in the process.
‘…so, to make a long story short,’ I drink the lukewarm coffee in one gulp, ‘I decided to move back to Somerset and get a job. I’m friendly and smart and I learn quickly. And,’ I pause for emphasis, ‘I just love historic houses – your speciality, I understand.’ I smile more confidently. ‘My dad did up an old cottage once, and I just loved living there. I’m sure I’ll be able to sell lots of historic properties and be…uhh… Salesman of the Year – like you.’ I laugh nervously. ‘Saleswoman, I mean.’
‘How old are you?’
‘I just turned thirty… one.’ I clear my throat. ‘Thirty-one.’
‘And where did you go to school?’
‘I got my PhD in history and literature at UCL.’
‘Willowdale Comprehensive. In Wookey Hole.’
Mr. Bowen-Knowles sighs and checks his watch. ‘Ms. Wood, Tetherington-Bowen-Knowles has a very exclusive clientele. Our buyers are at the top of the heap. They demand taste, refinement, and discretion.’ He looks down his nose at me. ‘I’m sure it’s impressive that you like historic houses, and that your father ‘did up’ an old cottage. But frankly, you don’t have the right demeanour to work here. We expect Cheltenham Ladies College; not, I’m afraid, Wookey Hole.’
The styrofoam cup pops in my hand. Now that I’m being told that I’m not worthy to be an estate agent, I’m determined to prove him wrong.
‘Mr. Bowen-Knowles…’ I straighten up and lean forward, ‘I understand your concerns. All I ask is that you give me a chance. I may not have the right accent or sales experience – but I know Somerset, Wiltshire and Gloucester like the back of my hand. Give me a chance. Please…’
Give me a chance. Please – I’d said that to Simon after I found the text messages from ‘Sandy.’ Give me a chance to drop two dress sizes back to a size 8. Give me a chance to clean up my papers, books, and clutter. Give me a chance to watch Sky Sports Extra with you on Sunday nights instead of Antiques Roadshow. Give me a chance to rethink what I said about wanting a career before children. Give me a chance… Please.
I can’t believe I said all those things. How pathetic.
‘Can you type?’
‘Sorry?’ My eyes cloud with unwanted tears. I wipe the corners and discover that my mascara is not waterproof.
‘Type, Ms. Wood – as in, on a computer.’ He mimes a keyboard.
‘Yes, of course. One hundred words a minute.’
‘I’ve got a PA about to go on mummy leave. I hate wasting time doing interviews. So you can come in three days a week as admin support – strictly typing and answering phones. On a trial basis, mind you. And if you earn your spurs, there might be the odd Saturday when you can do a viewing. He checks his watch again.
My tears vanish. ‘A viewing?’
He winces like I’m an idiot. ‘As in, you show country property to Londoners who can’t get down here during the week. You don’t deal with any other aspect of the purchase and sale. And only if none of the other agents are available. Which, in this market, is unlikely.’
‘That sounds exciting,’ I gush, selectively forgetting the PA part. ‘Thank you so much!’
‘Now, be here at eight o’clock tomorrow. Sharp.’ He stands up behind his desk.
I jump to my feet. ‘Eight o’clock sharp! I’ll be there. Thanks Mr. Bowen-Knowles.’
I can’t believe my luck. As I leave the interview and drive away from central Bath towards Nailsea-Nr-Bristol, I feel proud for the first time in months. Only a few short weeks ago, I was living out of boxes at my friend Karen’s flat in Dulwich, consuming twice my body weight in Hagen Das Fudge Ripple ice-cream, lamenting the loss of my perfect fiancée and perfect life. But I’ve moved on – two hundred miles away. I’m still living out of boxes in the spare room of my parent’s bungalow, but I’ve gone off the Hagen Das (the Tesco Metro doesn’t stock it). Now, I even have a new career – albeit as an admin temp; trial basis. I’m on the verge of joining an elite group: Kirsty and Phil; Sara Beeney; Kevin somebody on Grand Designs. Ever since Simon and I did up the flat in Docklands, I’ve watched all their shows religiously.
I admire the perfect symmetry of the Royal Crescent as I drive past on my way out of town. Everything I’ve told Mr. Bowen-Knowles is true: I love property, especially historic houses that might shelter the ghost of a mad woman in an attic.
A lorry driver honks me from behind. I’ve been sitting at a zebra crossing daydreaming (as the world’s slowest old lady reaches the far kerb).
‘I’m going,’ I mouth with a wave over my shoulder. I speed off a roundabout onto a winding A-road that is chock-a-block with rush-hour traffic. As I sit in traffic for the next hour and replay everything that has happened this afternoon – from my sacrificed button to trepidation about doing this commute everyday – I repeat over and over again the crucial words that I am now aspiring to become: Elsie Wood, Estate Agent.
When I finally reach the bungalow, my dad is outside tying up a wisteria vine that’s drooping over the front window. Dad is a retired civil engineer and now he spends all of his time pottering around the 70’s bungalow they bought after selling the cottage in Wookey Hole. It’s a shame that his talent for pottering is wasted on preserving something that should be knocked down for aesthetic reasons, but Mum says it keeps him from getting under foot.
‘Hi Dad,’ I call out. I feel like I’ve driven all the way from Land’s End. Luckily, a good smell is wafting from the kitchen. Fingers crossed that it’s Mum’s famous chicken casserole (though it could just as easily be Somerset sausages instead).
I wince at the sudden reversion to infancy that my parents have inflicted on me ever since I announced that I was no longer engaged. Dad wrestles with the offending vine, trying to knot it to the trellis with a bit of wire. ‘You been out shopping or something?’
‘No Dad. I was getting a job.’
‘A job!’ He sets down his roll of garden wire and shakes my hand like he’s amazed I would do something so grown up. ‘What is it? No, don’t tell me… let’s see…Bristol University? Teaching impressionable young ladies about the dangers of corsets?’
‘Actually…’ and suddenly I’m embarrassed to say it, ‘I’m still doing history, but in a whole new way. Historic houses… I’m going to be doing viewings. Eventually.’
Dad’s face goes blank. He blinks his eyes. ‘You mean you’re a…?’
‘Yes Dad, precisely.’
Smiling, I leave him grappling with the vine and go inside to break the news to Mum. The screen door slams behind me as I enter the kitchen. Mum is standing at the stove wearing a Wallis and Gromit apron that one of her reception kids gave her for Christmas last year.
As I feared, she’s cooking sausages. I’ve hated sausages ever since I was little, but have never said so. I wouldn’t want to hurt her feelings. The grease sizzles in the pan and splatters against Wallis – or Gromit? – as Mum painstakingly adds the onions and leeks.
‘Looks good, Mum.’ I wonder why I’m lying.
Mum looks up at me. ‘You’re missing a button. Your bra is showing.’
‘Yes Mum. I’m going now to change.’
As I’m about to do so, Dad comes inside. He takes a long time wiping his feet on the fake-grass mat. ‘Elsie’s got a job, Becca.’ He looks at me. ‘Have you told your mother yet?’
I take a deep breath. ‘That’s right, Mum. I start tomorrow. It’s…uhh… at an estate agent’s – in Bath.’
The sausages start to burn as my mother’s smile turns upside down. ‘An estate agent?’ she repeats. ‘I thought you’d applied to teach at Bristol.’
‘I thought it might be nice to try something new – selling historic houses and all that. Plus,’ I shrug nonchalantly, ‘I didn’t actually get the Bristol job.’
I glance at Dad hoping for some moral support. He frowns and scratches his thick mop of greying hair. ‘An estate agent? Becca, what was the name of that estate agent who sold us our house?’
‘Frank Knight or something.’ She shakes her head. ‘He told us the boiler was new and within six months it needed a total replacement.’
‘Two thousand quid!’ Dad chimes in.
‘And then there’s the school extension practically in the back garden,’ Mum stabs at the sausages. ‘Literally – not a mention. And now the kids are so close they can practically see into our loo.’ She gives me the tsk reserved for her most indolent students.
‘And speaking of loos,’ Dad says, ‘do you remember Mrs. Gallagher down the road? That chap she had around to value her house said that if she moved the bathroom upstairs, she’d get double her money’s worth. Six months later, he sold her house for less then she bought it for.’
I clench my teeth. ‘I guess everyone has their horror stories,’ I say. ‘But it’s the best job I could find around here. Besides, I’ll only be working in the office a few days a week. Doing… uhh… office manager stuff. I’ll be doing viewings at the weekend. Country estates – to rich Londoners.’
Dad sits down at the table. ‘Londoners are pricing local people out of the market. I’m not sure we should be supporting that―’
‘Look,’ I throw up my hands. ‘I’m sorry my new job does not involve developing a cure for cancer or helping underprivileged children, or teaching unappreciative undergraduates about the plight of Victorian women. I guess I should’ve checked first to see if Tesco is hiring, or Burger King. Or, I could sit around all day watching Homes Under the Hammer and Bargin Hunt and not bother getting a job. Anyway, I’m sorry I’ve let you down.’
I turn and flounce off to my room. While I wasn’t exactly expecting them to pop the champagne at my success, my earlier buzz has fizzled. I resurrect some jeans and a top crumpled over one of my unpacked boxes, lay down on my bed, and wait for the knock at the door and the apology that I’m due.
Obviously, they’re giving me my space. I open my bedside book (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall) but I can’t concentrate on the same old woman-wronged story. Just as I close the book, the door opens a crack.
Dad is there holding a newspaper. ‘Elsie,’ he says, ‘can I come in?’
‘Sure,’ I shrug, ‘though be careful, you might catch the loathsome disease I picked up at my new office.’
‘I’ll risk it.’ He comes inside and lays the newspaper down on my bed. ‘Your mum and I are really proud of you. Especially after everything you’ve been through.’
He turns and leaves. I stare at the ceiling feeling grateful that Dad cares enough to lie, and miserable that he has to. I pick up the paper. He’s circled an article in red pen:
‘Market Recovery No Cure for Estate Agents.’
I skim the first few sentences:
‘Estate Agents nationwide would do well to get their houses in order. Due to the surge in online property search engines, it is anticipated that in the next two years, up to 40,000 estate agents may become redundant notwithstanding signs of recovery in the market…’
I stop reading. Swinging off the bed, I march boldly out of my room to the kitchen where my parents are sitting at the table tucking into the sausages and leeks.
‘Thanks Dad.’ I hand him the newspaper with a smile. ‘The vote of confidence is appreciated.’ I grab myself a box of cereal and pour it into a bowl. ‘And Mum, just so you know, I really hate sausages.’