Falling in Love at The British Library, A Christmas Love Story based on true events played out over more than a decade. The first instalment of a novella by journalist Alison Jane Reid with a homage to Jane Austen and the idea of a modern, 21st Century Mr Darcy.
Mingle, The Art and Science of Flirtation at The British Library
Journalism and storytelling is my life. Then, I decided that I really should get a life after a major breakup, and not spend twelve hours a day, every day, chained to a laptop writing about other people. On impulse, I rush off to a rare, lovely event at one of London’s great bastions of learning, the British Library, and faster than you can say – Keanu Reeves, Daniel Craig or Benedict Cumberbatch, I collide with a real-life, 21st Century Mr Darcy – and fall truly, madly, marvellously in love – as if I had tumbled into a glass of pink organic champagne!
This is the first instalment of a great love affair that has all the ingredients for a 21st Century Brief Encounter…. I hope you enjoy it. It is a story that isn’t over yet.
“In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”
― Jane Austen, Pride And Prejudice
I remember the winter of 20-- as if it was yesterday. It was a cold, harsh, English winter, with ice like lace on the pavements of London. The sort of weather that made me snuggle into my beloved Viscountess winter coat. An alluring faux fur coat from a gilded age of elegance bought on impulse on Regent Street, London's most thrilling 'mile of style'.
Cary Grant, Aquascutum and Me
The coat is a heritage piece from the heyday of one of my favourite British fashion brands – Aquascutum. A coat so lovely, that it always makes me feel film star beautiful…. The mix of hues from blue to gold and dove grey does wonders for a girl’s complexion. I'm in good company. Cary Grant had a close relationship with this inimitable, quintessentially luxurious British brand. I've sat in the room where Cary would take tea whilst collecting a new suit or raincoat - making him a film icon without equal with exquisite taste in coats and women!
I was wearing the Viscountess, the night I collided spectacularly with Torquil (not his real name) amid the lofty, historic splendours of the British Library.
Several days earlier, I had been reading Timeout, when I stumbled across an event I felt compelled to attend. The British Library was daringly holding a cocktail evening devoted to the art and science of flirtation – it was called ‘Mingle’. To my dismay, the event had sold out within hours, and I had to use all my journalistic powers of persuasion to secure two precious tickets for myself, and my friend Eve, as my wing-girl for the night. The event started far too early for a busy member of the fourth estate.
That night in 200-- the British Library was on fire with music, anticipation and the possibility of romance.
By the time Eve and I raced up the steps to the British Library in our sensuous midnight LBD cocktail dresses and shimmering pearls, we were horribly late. Mingle was in full swing, and there was an extraordinary, zingy atmosphere of music, anticipation, fun and new romantic alliances being tested and formed. For a moment, Eve and I looked at each other and screamed ‘help’, where do we begin? Everyone seemed to have paired off, and we felt like hopeless shrinking Violets at our first dance. Now, I am quite plucky in a crisis. What we needed was a delicious cocktail or two to give us the courage to just talk to the first man who looked available for practice! The atmosphere was fraught, and the men strange and disappointing. All the beautiful, fascinating men had been kidnapped!
We decided to go and look at the exhibits. Eve and I found ourselves stuck in a rather strange conversation with an uncomfortably odd and rather unpleasant man whilst trying to examine a manuscript by Dickens. After ten minutes we decided to make a run for it back into the centre of the entrance hall.
The Man in a Black Hat with a Quicksilver Presence
Then, through a sea of people, I saw him, a man in a striking black hat with a noble countenance. His long beautifully kept brown hair was tied back in a short, neat ponytail, and he was wearing an elegant brown jacket with thin, black velvet lapels. There was an aura about him, a rare, quicksilver presence, and I felt utterly drawn to him. He was deeply immersed in the most animated conversation and surrounded by a small group of people.
I began to fret. The evening was drawing to a close. I would never get the chance to meet this charismatic stranger. Suddenly, he turned around and looked straight into my eyes and smiled. I smiled back, and everyone in the room turned grey. The man in the hat was walking towards me. ‘Hello’, he said in a gallant, soft, lilting Scottish accent – ‘I’m Torquil’.
An Amour Fou at the British Library
Eve says that what happened next was extraordinary. She still calls it an ‘amour fou – suddenly, no one else mattered'. The truth is that I have never felt so powerfully attracted to a man in my life as I did that night. I fell instantly, madly in love that night, and it didn’t feel impetuous. It felt right. Torquil was with his brother, Steven, a striking man in his thirties, with stunning, silver-grey hair and a gentle manner. Torquil never took his eyes off me. Reader, a woman dreams of being looked at in that way by the man she is going to marry. It was a look that offered everything I could want – nobility, devotion, love, caring, pride and twinkling recognition,’ I was floating outside my own consciousness… was it real or just a dangerous mirage of the ideal love?
Castles, the Little Black Dress and Alison-in-Wonderland
There is something you should know. I’m a girl who never dresses down. I wear cocktail dresses to the office, and to interview icons and national treasures. I once went on a shark safari (to observe and write about basking sharks) off the Pentland Firth with a wardrobe of lovely evening gowns, and not a practical stitch in my suitcase! Well, it did include a thoughtful invitation to stay at Skibo Castle. In that sense, Torquil and I were a brilliant match. He was dressed in the 21st century equivalent of an 18th-century dandy. Also, he did appear very taken with my own sparkling approach to getting dressed. He gallantly admired the sheer, sensuous goddess chiffon LBD I had treated myself to on impulse from Liberty, a department store so heavenly, it is more like raiding the wardrobe of a once very daring aunt, now retired from the romantic fray. Reader, nothing compares to the tentative, dizzy beginnings of a love affair. It is like falling down the rabbit hole. It's like jumping on the pretty, painted carousel at the funfair, and never wanting to get off, as we discovered our shared passions for: art, literature, writing, rock ‘n’ roll and Scotland.
Suddenly, when we finally looked up, the vast foyer at The British Library was almost deserted.
Torquil asked if he could go and collect my coat. He had the manners of Cary Grant mixed with a dash of something edgier – Jarvis Cocker. The brothers play fought over who was going to help me put on the Viscountess, and then our lovely trio tumbled, laughed and skipped out in the cold, crisp December air. I remember standing on the pavement and looking at this man who had burst into my world. We kept on looking at each other, and looking at each other and talking and laughing with curiosity, joy and expectation. It must have been awkward for Steve.
Flirting all the Way to Kings X
Torquil was still looking at me when he asked if we could have a hug…. At that moment, it seemed like the most natural thing to do, and so I embraced him and sensed at that moment, a real need to be hugged back. It was utterly exhilarating, but perhaps it was also a warning. We talked and sweetly flirted all the way down into the Underground, at Kings Cross, and then as we were standing on the platform, and the thought of parting seemed unbearable, he asked me with such gallantry – ‘ May I take you to The Tate Modern next Thur? There’s an exhibition I would like to show you. We can walk along The Thames to Gordon’s Wine Bar – have you ever had cheese and wine in a cave’?
‘No, never,’ I said, ‘but I would like to.’ When we finally parted after the most tender kiss, I felt like the luckiest girl in the world. I felt that maybe, just maybe, I had found my Mr Darcy. Oh, and reader, this is the spooky bit. When I was a teenager, my father, a Scot, from Aberdeen told me that one day I would meet and fall in love with a man worthy of all the heroes I used to pour over in the novels of Sir Walter Scott – A Scottish Darcy all my own.
To Be Continued……………..
To discover what's on at The British Library, visit the website.
Part Two – I meet Torquil at The Tate Modern and we kiss each other to the point of distraction with the best view in London, looking out over St Paul’s Cathedral, which looks just like an oversized wedding cake. Then, Torquil holds my hand and gallantly shoos the pigeons away, as we walk along the twinkling Embankment to Gordon's Wine Bar, to talk, and talk and feast on artisan cheese and wine in a cave bar, long into the night. And I wonder, have I met my match? Torquil appears to be everything I could want in a man. He is kind, highly intelligent, attentive, and respectful, and he always makes me feel like a modern Guinevere. The only problem with that is that I am a flesh and blood woman. I long to come down off my pedestal, and be loved, and not just for Christmas, but a love that will last for all the Christmases to come.
This novella is dedicated to lovers and those in search of true love everywhere.
Names have been changed to protect the identity of living characters in my novella.
Copyright Alison Jane Reid January 2022. All Rights Reserved.