At Niagara Falls, Toby O'Hara offers rides over the rushing water in a red and blue striped hot air balloon. The balloon is a day job for Toby, his night work is to continue to perfect his father's design for a flying machine. On the other side of the Atlantic, Ursula Bridgewater, an independent woman from Liverpool, is ungraciously dumped by her fiance. Ursula turns to the thrill of travel as an escape, and chooses a young orphan, Sally Walker, as her travelling companion. But Sally is never going to be quite as prepared for the land of freedom and opportunity as Ursula - and certainly not ready to accept Toby O'Hara's invitation to see Niagara from a great height. Together these indomitable characters are lifted by small acts of bravery to find - surprised and heartened - that what once seemed terrifying is in fact the opposite...
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Jennie Rooney was born in Liverpool in 1980. She read History at the University of Cambridge and taught English in France before moving to London to work as a lawyer. Her first novel, Inside the Whale, was a Richard and Judy debut choice, Tesco Book Club selection and shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
All her life, Ursula Bridgewater had been building up to something. She felt it as a bubbling restlessness inside her, a straightness along her spine that occasionally came across as terseness, but which she did not really intend. She was of the opinion that one really ought to do something with one’s life, especially if one had the necessary resources, but she had not yet fixed upon what this should be. Her brother called her a Presbyterian, but this was not the case. It was not religion; it was just restlessness.
She did all the normal things. She went for walks and to ladies’ luncheons and did not raise a fuss at her exclusion from dinner parties where spinster ladies were not to be unleashed upon the men. She was immaculately well behaved. She did not shout out any of the things which squeaked and fidgeted inside her. She did not clap her hand to her forehead at the banality of polite conversation – sofa cushions and drapes! – nor did she allow her tongue to sharpen for her own amusement as it did at home with her brother, George, who allowed it, encouraged it even, and she restrained her eyes from rolling helplessly in the manner which used to upset her mother so much. She did not drum her fingers on tabletops, nor did she tip back her head when she laughed so that the veins pulsed in her neck.
Oh no. She did not let on. She simply smiled and nodded, drinking tea and hmming at embroidery displays, and she continued to smile even as she fixed her hat and retrieved her umbrella and waved farewells from the window of her hansom, and only then could she relax, could she puff out her cheeks and blow out all those church-mouse sentiments which she kept scurried up inside herself. It was in these moments that Ursula Bridgewater supposed the problem was quite simple. She assumed she wanted a husband.
George also attributed his sister’s restlessness to this absence in her life. Ursula was, on her twenty-fifth birthday, mostly untouched by man. She had once been engaged to Henry Springton, a young man who had proposed to her at a train station (‘of all places,’ she would add carelessly when recounting the incident from a distance, although at the time she had thought his spontaneity quite romantic), before boarding a train for London. He had asked for his release three years later, telling her that he had fallen in love with someone else, a widow called Imelda who was ten years older than him and had two children from her previous marriage.
They had agreed to remain friends, and Henry Springton had continued to write to Ursula as he had done during their engagement: long, careless letters in which he told her about trips to the opera with his new fiancée, theatrical evenings, hansom carriages decked out with cut flowers to surprise her. Ursula was not the sort of woman who would have wished for such extravagances, and she suffered from terrible hay fever in any case, but she found it an exquisite form of torment to read about them in his letters.
Ursula imagined Imelda to be one of those translucent, willowy women with an array of silk dresses and an earnest manner, adored by men and with whom Ursula could never really get comfortable. It was not that these women were ever unfriendly towards her – quite the opposite – but she just did not fit. She envied their charm, their sprinkled smiles and delicate wrists, their way of perching on chairs with knees pressed together, and Ursula found that she lacked the endurance to keep up. Their effusiveness left her numb and breathless.
‘Ursula, dear, you must come up to the Lakes for the shoot this autumn.’ Mrs Holboy invited her to the Lake District at the end of every summer, clutching at Ursula’s arm as she did so. ‘Perhaps you might bring your brother too. It is so much more comfortable to be an even number, don’t you think?’
And Ursula would smile. She would feel the muscles in her cheeks doing as they were bid. ‘But of course it is!’ she would chime. ‘How delightful!’
Of all the social virtues, Ursula did not see why charm should be the one which caused her such jarring difficulty. On occasion, she attributed it to the fact that she had not been allowed to go to school like her brother, and had been flung unprepared and unfinished into society. Her mother had given her lessons in the library, of course, but these had always seemed tame and insufficient in comparison with the adventures George recounted from his days at school. There were no ink pellets on her collar, no balanced water buckets or cricket bats or Classics masters to contend with, and Ursula was of the opinion that her French was bound to suffer as a result.
She had tried to educate herself. When they were children, Ursula had insisted upon a nightly recital of everything her brother had learnt that day, even if she did not understand it. She would make George stand at the blackboard in the nursery and write sums for her to do on her slate. George’s multiplications were long and convoluted and he made them up on the spot, so he could never tell if the answers Ursula produced were correct or not. He instructed her in the passive voice, in which people did not speak but were heard, which seemed to Ursula an unnecessary complication, and he inscribed long lists of Latin derivatives on the blackboard which Ursula would copy into her notebook and recite to George’s chess pieces when he had gone to school. He told her that her name meant ‘little bear’ in Latin which delighted her, and from that day onwards he never called her anything else.
But, in Ursula’s opinion, it had not been enough to compensate. She knew that she was still viewed by some of her circle as a little arriviste. Her wealth was steampowered and fired by the great furnaces which churned through the night in the tea factory inherited by her brother from their uncle. Her dresses were heavy and unfashionable, dark crinolines which she now saw were too fussy, too buttoned-up. Imelda Springton would not wear such garments, Ursula thought with a sigh, and who could blame her? They were certainly not charming. So perhaps it was all for the best anyway, if charm was what Henry Springton wanted in a wife.
‘We were more friends than lovers anyway, weren’t we, dearest Bear?’ he wrote ruminatively in one of his letters, two years after his marriage to Imelda and not long after his first child was born.
No, she thought, we were not. And if we were, perhaps you might have told me. She signed her next letter ‘Ursula’ rather than keeping up the affectionate ‘Bear’ which he had so readily adopted when trying to woo her, but Henry Springton was not the sort of man to notice such subtleties. She left longer and longer intervals before replying to his letters, so that these missives gradually faded into quarterly updates of his continuing happiness.
Her own letters were jovial and brief, filled with dashes and exclamation marks, portraying a jaunty, exaggerated version of her activities and appointments, whilst also dropping hints of flirtations. ‘My great friend, C—,’ she wrote, ‘finds me ever so hard to pin down!’
She had not seen Henry Springton again after releasing him from the engagement. She was not the sort of woman to hold a man to his promise once he had confessed his love for somebody else, but the thought did occasionally strike her that she could have tried a little harder. She could have threatened him with a breach of promise action, as a few people had suggested to her at the time. But then she would have denied him all the happiness he was so willing to document in his letters, and she would not have wanted to carry that responsibility on her narrow, upright shoulders.
Ursula sometimes wondered if she would even recognise him if she were to see him now. He had been, at the time of the proposal, a young man with chestnut hair and dark eyes. Autumnal features, Ursula would think later when she knew him to be an ending rather than a beginning.
In her brother’s opinion, it was this experience that had left Ursula with inclinations which, left unfulfilled, had transmogrified into restlessness. George observed how she subscribed to geographical journals and read Royal Society reports, how she studied geological formations and attended lectures of the Liverpool Literary and Philosophical Society, and he imagined that it was all part of the same urge. He saw how his sister’s days were kept busy with rational endeavour and good works. In the winter she knitted scarves for orphans at the Holy Innocents’ Orphanage in South Liverpool and donated a box of apples to them every October, collected from the orchard at the bottom of her brother’s garden. She entered into correspondence with the secretary of the Royal Geographical Society in London on the subject of the proposed colour-coding of atlases, and she took out a subscription to Mr Thomas Cook’s monthly magazine, The Excursionist.
Of course, Ursula did these things because she enjoyed them, but at the same time she also knew they were not enough. Her life did not seem to be progressing in the manner she had expected. Yes, she had anticipated a certain loneliness after the abrupt conclusion of her engagement, but she had thought it would have a sharp, new-pin quality to it. She found that, in reality, loneliness was not much more than a muffling of the senses. It had nothing of the new pin about it. It did not sparkle or break the skin. It was just a grey, mouth-dry silence, and it bored her.
She knew she must do something, only she did not know what. She did know, however, that she was unlikely to find it whilst sitting here in the drawing room of her brother’s house, mooning on the chaise longue like the Lady of Shalott. She also knew that she would not find it on a shoot in the Lake District, or over luncheon, or in the offices of her brother’s factory. She needed to go further than the Forest of Bowland. She needed an adventure.
It was this conviction that prompted Ursula’s maiden voyage with the Thomas Cook company in the early summer of 1862. George came to see her off at Lime Street Station. There were pipers on the platform dressed in breeches and velvet waistcoats, and women whose parasols fluttered under the arched glass roof. Ursula’s compartment was already nearly full. She nodded at the two other women passengers, both dressed as if they were going to a carnival with puffed sleeves of bright crimson and layers of petticoats, and whose three children were lined up next to them on the benches.
George opened the carriage door and supported Ursula’s arm as she stepped up. She knew he only meant to be helpful but it unbalanced her. She did not need doors to be opened for her. How did he think she got from room to room when he was not there?
George peered forwards. He saw playing cards, red and black and shiny, spread out upon the seat where his sister would be sitting. The colours of the devil, George thought, even though he did not really believe in such things. He saw the cards gathered up a little too expertly, and he leant forwards into the compartment, suspecting gambling. He did not see any money – not even matchsticks – but all the same he pulled at his sister’s elbow.
‘I shall come too,’ he whispered suddenly. ‘You shouldn’t be going on your own.’
She sighed. ‘Really, George,’ she hissed. ‘I’m only going to Wales.’
She stepped into the compartment and closed the door. The window was pushed down and her brother looked in from the platform. Ursula sat down and arranged her skirts. It struck her that she had never really been anywhere in all her twenty-five years; or at least, nowhere important.
As well as not being allowed to go to school, Ursula had also been the youngest child in her family and, like so many youngest children, had grown up with the sense of having missed out on something, some youthful, unreclaimed happiness to which George occasionally alluded when he spoke of the years before she was born. There had been another brother and a sister between them, both lost to tuberculosis within the space of one cold year, whom George had known and Ursula had not, and Ursula attributed a certain amount of her current restlessness to this unspoken difference between them.
She was also the only girl in a family of male cousins. This was, in Ursula’s opinion, the main problem, as it meant that she was the one most likely to be prohibited from doing things. In their games in the nursery, she had not even been allowed to ride the packing-cases which they used as horses, except occasionally when she was being captured by George and rescued by Jacob, the middle cousin, and even then she was merely flung from one packing case to the other, and on neither packing case was she allowed to hold the reins.
‘You can’t hold the reins if I’m supposed to be rescuing you,’ Jacob had whispered crossly to her on one particularly fraught occasion. ‘You’re supposed to be swooning.’
‘I’m bored of swooning,’ she had retorted, and then had sat on the back of Jacob’s horse with her arms folded, refusing to cooperate with her rescue.
‘I want to be a soldier in the next game,’ she announced.
‘Or the jester.’
‘You can’t,’ George had told her, patting her head in a manner that only infuriated his little sister further. ‘You’re just a girl.’
It was this comment, Ursula later supposed, which had tipped her over the edge. She remembered the navy-and white sailor dress she had been wearing that day, her mousey-brown hair falling in unregimented spirals from her crimson ribbons. She had adjusted her neckerchief and narrowed her eyes at her brother, and then she had lifted her chin and straightened her back.
It was a tiny change, barely noticeable, and indeed George had not noticed it at the time. When she was older, he would call it terseness, this uplift along her spine, but at the point of its origin, unversed as he was in the subtleties of female body language, he mistook it for a yawn.
But now Ursula leaned her shoulders out of the window to wave to her brother as the train pulled out of the station. Her skin goose-pimpled in the early morning air. She had not felt like this since childhood, or perhaps since the proposal, and maybe not even then because there were other things to think about with that. Marriage had a solemn edge to it. There were no solemn edges now. The day was bright and sunny, salty and fresh where the wind blew in from the Mersey. The station echoed with seagulls, perched on the iron rafters above the platform. It felt like a dream.
It was here that Henry Springton had asked her to marry him, under an arched roof hot with steam and farewells. He had pressed her hand when she accepted, but she had not kissed him. She had turned her head decorously, thinking it better to wait. Such restraint! And for what? She shook her head, trying to dislodge the image of Henry Springton. Flecks of soot landed on her face and her collar, and she drew back into the carriage as the train lurched out of the station.
Her companions in the compartment were chatty and excitable. They told her about other trips they had taken, to the great house at Chatsworth, with Joseph Paxton’s famous glass conservatory in which there were water-lilies so large and rubbery th...
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Book Description Vintage, 2011. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Rapidly dispatched worldwide from our clean, automated UK warehouse within 1-2 working days. Bookseller Inventory # mon0000074581
Book Description Vintage, 2011. Paperback. Book Condition: Brand New. 272 pages. 7.80x5.08x0.67 inches. In Stock. Bookseller Inventory # zk0099523477
Book Description Vintage Books, 2011. Paperback. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # 0099523477
Book Description Vintage Books, 2011. Paperback. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # 99523477