I’m delighted to announce that today marks the launch of my latest novel, Stranger at St Bride’s. This is the second in my St Bride’s School series and the sequel to Secrets at St Bride’s (shortlisted for the Bookbrunch Selfies Award 2020 for the best independently published fiction in the UK).
To mark its launch, I thought it would be fun today to share the story behind this particular novel, which was inspired by my own experience of working at an English boarding school.
The Premise for Stranger at St Bride’s
As you’ll know if you’ve read the first in the series, Gemma Lamb has recently joined this eccentric boarding school for girls as an English teacher. It’s a residential post and she’s enjoying its beautiful setting. She is also making good friends among her secretive but kindly colleagues.
Then on the first day back after the autumn half-term holiday, an American stranger turns up claiming to be the rightful owner of the school’s magnificent country estate. At once Gemma fears losing not only her job and her home, but also her hopes for a relationship with charismatic PE teacher Joe Spryke.
Her fears are compounded when the headmistress, Hairnet, accepts the stranger’s claim due to his remarkable resemblance to the school’s late founder.
So it’s down to Gemma to fight his claim and save the school, with a little help from her friends:
– the put-upon Bursar, ousted from his cosy estate cottage by the stranger
– the enigmatic Max Security, always up for a bit of espionage
– irrepressible Mavis Brook, geography teacher, itching to fell a tree on top of the stranger’s white Rolls-Royce
– Judith Gosling, history teacher and genealogy expert, who knows more about Lord Bunting than she’s letting on
Fickle maths teacher Oriana Bliss is even prepared to marry the stranger to secure St Bride’s future, especially if it means she gets to drive his fancy car. That’s if inventive pranks by the girls – and the school cat – don’t drive him away first.
The reason the girls’ pranks feature in this story is Debbie Irving’s comment in her review of Secrets at St Bride’s:
My only complaint is that the pupils are far too well-behaved!
That was my cue to dream up some high-jinks that the girls use to try to drive away Earl Bunting, the unpleasant stranger. He’s a baddie that I hope, like St Bride’s staff and pupils, you will love to hate!
The Origins of the Stranger
The idea for this story has been simmering in my subconscious for many years, even before I dreamed up the concept of the St Bride’s series. It arose when I was working at Westonbirt School, near Tetbury, Gloucestershire, just a few miles from my home in the Cotswold countryside.
Like St Bride’s, and very many other private schools, Westonbirt is set in a former stately home. It was built by Robert Holford, one of the ten richest gentlemen in Victorian England. He also planted what’s now the National Arboretum at Westonbirt. once part of the grounds to the house. His legacy is of such historic importance that it has its own charity to preserve the fabric of his house and grounds: The Holfords of Westonbirt Trust.
When Robert Holford died in 1892, he left the estate to his son, Sir George Holford. When Sir George died without issue in 1926, for a time it was thought that the house would be demolished. Such wilful destruction may seem outrageous to 21st century Britain, when we do so much to protect and preserve the nation’s cultural heritage. But in those days, with the rise in inheritance tax and the increasing difficulty in making estates pay for their own running costs, it was not uncommon to see a beautiful old property torn down and sold off for scrap if the owner could no longer maintain it.
Fortunately, Westonbirt House was reprieved by a charitable trust engaged in founding new schools. The Martyrs’ Memorial Trust decided Westonbirt would be just right for a boarding school for the daughters of the gentry. it opened its doors in 1928, and has been going strong ever since.
I worked at the school for thirteen years, and one of my many roles was to give guided tours to visitors. Occasionally members of the public would turn up in reception without an appointment, hoping to have a chance to see behind the scenes, especially in the school holidays. During one summer vacation, I answered the door to a pleasant American couple who had a particular reason for wanting to look around: the gentleman’s name was Holford.
For a moment I had a horrible suspicion that he was a long-lost heir, come back to declare his ownership of the property, planning to oust the school and take it over as his family seat. Luckily my fears were groundless, and an informal tour and a photo opportunity were enough to satisfy him before he went on his way. Nonetheless, after that I always wondered what might happen if another Holford with a stronger claim turned up.
And that imaginative leap led to the opening chapter of Stranger at St Bride’s, which you can sample below.
How to Order
The Opening Chapter of Stranger at St Bride’s
THE OPENING CHAPTER OF STRANGER AT ST BRIDE’S
Gemma Meets a Ghost
“Miss Lamb, Miss Lamb, there’s a ghost outside the front door!”
At St Bride’s School for Girls, I never quite know what to expect when I open the staffroom door to deal with a girl’s enquiry, but Imogen’s announcement before the first lesson of the day was unprecedented.
“Foolish child,” muttered Mavis Brook, the geography teacher, from behind me, closing the exercise book she was marking. “I blame that Halloween nonsense for putting such silly ideas into her head. Most unhealthy.”
The terror on Imogen’s face made me loath to dismiss her claim as a prank, although that seemed more likely than seeing a real ghost. I tried to make light of the situation to calm her down.
“Anyone’s ghost in particular? Are you sure it’s not just one of your friends in a white sheet?”
Imogen shook her head vigorously.
“Oh no, miss, it’s a real ghost all right. You should see it. It’s far too tall to be any of my friends. And it’s a man.”
Imogen, aged 11, came up only as far as my shoulder, but there were some very tall girls in the top class of seventeen- to eighteen-year-olds. Might one of those try such a stunt?
“OK, Imogen, wait a moment and I’ll take a look out of the staffroom window to see whether it’s still there.”
I closed the door – school policy is to keep the staffroom private from the girls – and crossed to the big bay window that gave on to the forecourt. As I peered round to view the front porch, the doorbell rang again, and a tall, thin, dark-haired man with a wide clipped moustache stepped back to look around for signs of life.
Nearby on the window seat, Oriana Bliss, Head of Maths, looked up from a stationery catalogue she had been browsing through and followed my gaze.
“He looks like flesh and blood to me.”
“Well, you’re the expert,” said PE teacher Joe Spryke, unzipping his pink tracksuit top. Joe is a former competitive cyclist on the run from hostile journalists who unfairly blamed him for an international sports scandal. During term-time, Joe disguises himself as a woman to escape detection.
I narrowed my eyes to focus better on the stranger. I had to agree with Oriana.
“He looks familiar, but I don’t think he’s one of the girls’ fathers, is he?”
Oriana laid her catalogue down on the seat beside her.
“Not unless the Bursar’s signed up a new pupil during the half-term holiday. And speaking of the Bursar, where is he? Why isn’t he answering that pesky doorbell?”
In the absence of a budget that would stretch to a receptionist, answering the door falls to the Bursar, the only official man in the school besides Max Security (not his real name, of course – like Joe, he’s incognito). Max is like St Bride’s own Scarlet Pimpernel. You never knew where he might pop up next, and it is often in the place you least expect. The Bursar is far more visible, an overt equivalent to Max’s undercover agent – a kind of bouncer, perhaps. The Bouncing Bursar. I smiled. Perhaps he wasn’t so bad after all, now I’d got used to him.
The bell rang for the third time. Oriana glanced at the wall clock above the door, then at me. There were just a few minutes left before lessons began for the day. I took her hint.
“I suppose I can let him in myself.”
Imogen, still waiting outside the staffroom door, skipped alongside me as I strode down the corridor to the entrance hall.
“Oh miss, you are brave! Do you want me to get a gang of girls to rescue you in case it’s the dangerous kind of ghost?”
I tried not to hurt her dignity by laughing. She meant well.
“I’m sure I’ll be fine, thank you. I don’t think much harm can come to me answering the front door in broad daylight.”
“Ooh, yes, thank goodness it’s daylight. That means he can’t be a vampire. But I’ll hide nearby, just in case. If you need me, shout the code word. What should our code word be?”
After spending half-term with my parents, I hadn’t yet retuned to the girls’ mindset.
“How about ‘help’?”
“I don’t think you’re really trying, miss.”
When we reached the vast entrance hall that had so intimidated me on my arrival at the school back in September, Imogen took cover behind one of the broad marble pillars supporting the ornate painted ceiling. I marched across the tiled floor, heels clicking, and heaved open the front door.
“Good morning,” I said, blinking against the pale November sunshine. “How can I help you, sir?”
The stranger stepped forward, assuming I’d let him in. We did an awkward shuffle as I tried to stall him until I’d established his credentials. We’re very hot on child protection at St Bride’s, even with members of school staff. Max Security lives in Rose Lodge, one of the pair of cottages at the entrance to the main drive, and has security cameras all over the place. In the other cottage, Honeysuckle Lodge, lives the Bursar. Thus, even the two men at the heart of school life are in their leisure time kept at a distance from the main school building.
“Why, good morning to you, ma’am.” The stranger spoke with a leisurely US drawl. With his dark moustache, black suit, brocade waistcoat and string tie, he reminded me of Clark Gable as Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind. Scarlett O’Hara would have felt right at home at St Bride’s, with its ostentatious historic house and gardens, although our English weather couldn’t compete with the southern sunshine at Tara, her family plantation estate.
If the stranger was a belated trick or treater, his choice of costume was unusual. I kept my hand on the doorknob. I wasn’t going to let him in without good reason.
“Do you have an appointment, please?”
“Why, thank you, ma’am, I surely do.”
He gave a slight bow. Was he mocking me with his elaborate Southern charm?
“And with whom might your appointment be, sir?”
I’m not the kind of English teacher who is a stickler for “whom” in general conversation, but his formal speech was rubbing off on me.
“With Miss Caroline Harnett, your headmistress, if you please. I believe I am right on time.”
He patted the pocket in his waistcoat, from which hung a silver watch chain, fastened at the other end to a button. Holding the door open to allow him in, I pointed to the signing-in book on the table beside the sofa.
“If you would be so kind as to write your name in our visitors’ book, I’ll give you a security badge and tell Miss Harnett you’re here.”
The stranger bent his head in acknowledgement and produced from his inside jacket pocket an engraved gold fountain pen. He signed his name in copperplate of such a size that it spilled over the edges of the signature box, yet the loops were so tightly closed that I couldn’t make out what he’d written.
“Whom shall I say is here for her? I mean, who?”
He added an ornate swirl of self-importance beneath his signature, then gazed up at me in feigned surprise, as if he were a celebrity recognised wherever he went. He straightened up, capped his pen and returned it to its pocket.
“My name is Bunting. Earl Bunting. Thank you kindly.”
The gasp that issued from behind the pillar echoed my own surprise. Lord Bunting was the school’s Victorian founder. Over a hundred years before, when he’d apparently died without issue, he’d bequeathed his house and grounds to be turned into a boarding school for girls.
I was unsure how to address the stranger. My Lord? Your Excellency? Your Worship? The school library’s copy of Debrett’s Peerage would tell me. We had plenty of titled girls on the roll, but it was school policy not to use those titles in daily life, so I’d never needed to swot up on the etiquette before. For now, I took the easy option.
“Please take a seat, sir, and I’ll tell Miss Harnett you’re here.”
As I marched off to the Headmistress’s study, Imogen came pattering after me.
“Now do you believe me, miss? It’s the ghost of Lord Bunting, isn’t it? Didn’t you recognise him?”
The life-size oil painting of the school’s founder on the wall of the assembly hall had made him a familiar figure to us all.
Imogen skipped to overtake me, then turned back to face the way we’d come.
“I’m going to the hall now to see if the picture’s still there. Lord Bunting might have stepped down from it and turned real. That’s the sort of thing that happens at Halloween. I’ve seen it before.”
“Yes, in a play my grandma took me to see in the summer holidays. There were lots of songs in it and all the paintings came to life.”
“That’ll be Ruddigore,” came a voice behind us – Louisa Humber, the music teacher, was on her way to her classroom. “It’s an operetta, Imogen, not a play, by Gilbert and Sullivan.”
Imogen shrugged. “Anyhoo, my point is, there’s probably now a big empty hole in the painting where Lord Bunting used to be.”
Louisa flashed a conspiratorial smile at me.
“Let me know if your ghost bursts into song.”
She walked on.
“Off you go then, Imogen.” I hoped that when she found the painting intact she would feel reassured. “But be as quick as you can, or you’ll be late for your lesson.”
“Yes, Miss Lamb.”
Not wanting to be late for my lesson either, I hastened down the private corridor to the Headmistress’s secluded study and rapped on her door.
“Come in!” came her cheery greeting.
I went in to find Miss Harnett sitting at her desk, contentedly opening her half-term post. Through the bay window behind her lay a neat rose garden, pruned and orderly for the winter. McPhee, her black cat, lay on his side on the window seat, basking in a beam of autumn sunshine, legs stretched out for maximum exposure to the warmth. He’s a substantial cat. I mean she. Officially, McPhee is female, like all the teaching staff – one of Miss Harnett’s policies for the sake of child protection.
“Good morning, my dear. I trust you have had an enjoyable break?”
“Thank you, yes. I felt like one of the girls, going home to see my parents, but it was lovely.”
Unlike the girls, I hadn’t seen my parents for a few years, due to a disastrous relationship with my controlling ex, Steven, from whom I’d fled to this job and some vestige of security. At last I was starting to make up for lost time. I’d be returning to my parents for the Christmas holidays.
“What can I do for you this morning, my dear?”
The pleasure of being back in the Headmistress’s comforting company had almost made me forget the stranger.
“You have a visitor, Miss Harnett. He’s waiting in the entrance hall. He claims he has an appointment with you.”
She glanced at the large hardback diary that lay open on her desk. Her smile faded.
“Ah, yes, so he does. Please escort him to my study.”
She didn’t ask his name.
Setting her pile of post aside, she pulled her daybook towards her.
When I’d retraced my steps to the entrance hall, where I found the stranger gazing up at the ornate painted ceiling, I saw him with fresh eyes. His resemblance to the original Lord Bunting was inescapable.
I coughed to attract his attention.
“Miss Harnett will see you now.”
I raised a hand to indicate the direction of her study. His reverie interrupted, he stood up and straightened his silk tie.
When we passed the foot of the curving marble staircase that led to the residential part of the school, he patted the finial fondly. As he followed me down the oak-panelled corridor to the Headmistress’s study, he whistled in admiration.
“It’s quite a place we have here,” he said in a low voice, as much to himself as to me.
We? I wondered at his choice of pronoun but made no comment.
I knocked on Miss Harnett’s door, waited for permission to enter, then held it wide for him to go in.
The Headmistress rose from her desk and crossed the crimson Persian carpet to greet him. Instantly alert, McPhee leapt down from the window seat and followed at Miss Harnett’s heels, his tail bushy with hostility.
“Ah, Mr Bunting, I’ve been expecting you.”
Eyes wide, I withdrew and left them to it, just as the bell rang for the first lesson. I would have to wait until morning break to update my colleagues about this mysterious stranger.
Like to know what happens next?
Here’s how to order your copy of Stranger at St Bride’s
To order from your local bookshop, quote ISBN 978-1-911223-597
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