Nicola Hill

Nicola has written three non-fiction books published by HarperCollins and Coram/BAAF. She is writing two novels – one historical and one contemporary – see extracts below.

The most developed novel is based on an historical figure who had a colourful personal life and enormous wealth. The second is about the impact on relationships and sexuality when two school friends meet after twenty-five years. 

A former Guardian journalist, Nicola runs her own editorial service

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Extract from Chapter 1 of historical novel

Somewhere north of London, 1835

A cavalcade of seven horse-drawn carriages laden with two hundred bags of coins clattered towards Edinburgh. The outer carriages conveyed the requisite eight maids, four footmen, two doctors and fine linen. Cocooned in the central silk-lined carriage, 21-year-old Anna ran her hands over her thin mousy hair and checked her bun was still in place. A recurring rash threatened to surge up her face. She gathered up her grey ruched dress and wriggled backwards on the leather-buttoned seat. The smell of polish made her nose quiver.

Her step-grandmother, Cecily shuffled her large body up against a wrinkled yellowing pillow. She carried it with her on all journeys in memory of her first husband, James, Anna’s grandfather. He had laid his head on it the day he died. Cecily beamed, the crease in her doughy double chin creating a second smile, her blue eyes sparkling with childish excitement. The tight black curls of her wig framed her face. A low-cut white silk dress stretched across her breasts, meeting at a sapphire on her sternum. A burgundy cloak, edged with ermine snaked around her shoulders and sprawled outwards, warming Anna’s thigh.

The entourage had left Highgate that morning, passing endless fields, sprouting rows of stout green crops, wide by the roadside, narrowing towards the horizon. Bent-over farm workers in drab muddy smocks dotted the scene. An armed outrider in scarlet, liveried uniform galloped alongside, glancing in to check on his charges, sweat dripping down his sideburns.

Anna wished she could sit next to Louise, her former governess, even if she was travelling backwards. Her chestnut hair glistened in the spring sunlight. Cheeks like fresh tomatoes. Her solid frame filled her dark blue dress. Louise stared out of the window, her body stiffened by Cecily’s new husband, the Duke, slumped against her shoulder. His dark green emerald-encrusted waistcoat rose to expose his white shirt with every juddering snort. He was either pretending to sleep or couldn’t keep up the pace, despite being much younger than Cecily. She’d wanted his title and he was seduced by her money, if you believed Anna’s father. Papa had never forgiven Grandpapa for leaving the family fortune to Cecily. Deluded old fool marrying a 40-year-old actress when he was nearly 80. It should all have come to his three respectable daughters and now it was being spent on her new husband, that fop of a Duke, even if he is the Grand Falconer and related to the Royal Family.

A couple of the horses neighed, the carriage jolted and the drivers had to crack their whips to steady them.

Two of Anna’s older sisters had warned against going on a charitable jaunt with Cecily. They had returned exhausted and ill-tempered, more so than usual. But Anna, even though she was ten years younger, thought she was by far the most mature. Surely, they should all be doing whatever they could to help the poor, not parading from one society ball to another. Cecily might be a bit gauche but at least she was trying to do the right thing and that should be applauded. Papa disagreed but then he would. He wanted radical change, as usual, repeal of laws and whatnot, so the poor didn’t need patronage, especially not the ghastly kind that woman offers. Papa could be so unkind. It was all very well for him, speaking in debates in the House of Commons but what could women do? Cecily had plenty of money and people needed help immediately. You could see that by looking out of his study along Piccadilly, like yesterday, that boy with no shoes scooping up piles of manure with his bare hands and trundling off when his bucket was full. Papa said he would probably be selling it to the tanners to darken hides. And he still looked so hungry. But it’s not as simple as handing out bags of coins, my dear girl. But off you go, see if you can learn something about the world from that wretched woman. Anna suspected they begrudgingly continued a relationship with Cecily in the hope that she might eventually return the wealth to the family.

The cavalcade slowed up as they descended a hill. The drivers shouting at the horses to stop them galloping off. A cool breeze darted through a chink in the window bringing in a buttery smell of new leaves. Anna pulled her lace shawl around her neck. Louise had wrapped the shawl around her shoulders that morning, crossing it over in the middle, holding on to the ends. It was a brief moment to themselves between servants coming and going and Cecily jangling her bell to signal the start of the next part of the journey.

Cecily clapped her hands. “I know, let’s play a game.”

Anna took a deep breath: “What sort of game?”

“The category game.”

Anna caught Louise raising her eyebrows.

“Come on, nobody’s too old to play a game, and besides it’ll pass the time. Your grandfather and I played it on this self-same journey one time when we visited Walter Scott, such a pity he’s gone. So kind to me after your grandfather died. Never mind, anyway. The game.”

“What do we have to do?”

“We take it in turns to tell a story based on a category – it could be your happiest memory, saddest, favourite place.” She opened out her hands. “As long as there’s an entertaining story to tell. You can even think of your own category.”

Anna scratched her neck.

“Well, never mind,” Cecily smiled.

Anna’s forehead stretched upwards: “Earliest memory?”

“Marvellous idea, well done, I can see you are getting into the spirit of this. You never know, I might learn a thing or two about you. Missed out on bits of your childhood. Your mother, well never mind. Let’s play.”

The carriage jolted over a crater in the road and they all rose off their seats before bumping back down again. The drivers shouted. The Duke woke, rubbed his face, looked out and closed his eyes again.

“Louise, you can join in too.” Louise half-smiled and rubbed her palms against each other. Anna looked out of the window. They passed a tight copse of lime trees. Cecily pulled out a bag of brightly coloured bonbons and passed them around. Anna’s tasted of lemon and cleared the dust in her throat. She pushed it to the side of her mouth so she could speak. “You start, Cecily.”

“Earliest memory. My goodness, my mother had such a temper. I remember being so frightened, I ran away one time and slept in a charcoal pit. Covered from head to toe in soot the next morning. That didn’t help matters.” Cecily laughed and patted Anna’s knee. “Oh, I know, a happier one, when I got my first part, as Little Pickle in The Spoiled Child.

“Is that the play about the child whose indulgent father forgives every prank?” Louise asked.

“That’s the one.”

“Hoping one day the boy will become an important man?”

“Yes. It required a lot of acting, I’ll have you know.” Cecily put her hand on her chest. “A poor little child with just enough food to eat. We would only get paid if people liked the performances. Sometimes we had to leave town before day break if we couldn’t pay for the lodgings.”

Anna found it hard to imagine. Carrying everything she owned and trudging from town to town. She had heard some of Cecily’s stories before. Louise would probably complain later – she pretends it’s a game and then doesn’t let you get a word in edgeways, I don’t know why you indulge her. Still, it passed the time and stopped her thinking about the uncomfortable ride and how much further they had to go. At least Cecily was enthusiastic about life. Such a contrast to Mama. She’d kissed her goodbye in her bedroom yesterday, the curtains drawn on her pallid existence, smelling salts pervading the air. Anna switched back into listening to Cecily.

“Do you know I was even mentioned in a book, the author said I was a child of much promise. How right he was.” Cecily smiled and took a deep breath, pausing and glancing at her audience. Only one was still asleep. Louise was looking at the floor but Anna gazed attentively. “I remember an even happier time when we settled in Stafford when I was about twelve. A delightful family, now he was a banker, took me under their wing and his three daughters used to invite me to their handsome town house. We’d dress up and play Gin Rummy. It was a proper family. They had a fireplace in every room and served pineapple.”

Anna wished she had a proper family. Of course, to the outside world they were very proper. Members of high society, six children, a male heir, houses in the country, titled. But some of the best fun she’d had as a child was dressing up with Cecily trying out her theatrical costumes. It took two of them to heave open the oak chest that was the size of a coffin. Feather boas, breeches, milk maids’ outfits, wigs, a jumble of colourful items soon festooned the floor. Cecily would dress Anna before picking her own outfit and then they would parade around the garden.

“I’ll go next,” Anna said, her voice squeaking slightly.

“My earliest memory, rocking on the horse in the nursery and wanting someone to play with me, apart from nurse who just sat there.”

Louise tipped her head on one side.

Cecily asked: “Oh my poor love. Is Isabella eight years older?”


“Same age as me,” said Louise.

“I suppose you’ve been a better big sister than any of them,” said Cecily.

“Most certainly,” said Anna, blushing slightly and putting her hand on her face to hide her colour.

Cecily looked out of the window as they overtook another carriage and spread out her fan. The sun illuminated Cecily’s side profile. Had she seen the latest cartoon portraying her as a fat, moustachioed grand dame throwing her money out of the window? Louise had cut it out. It was a good likeness but cruel.

“I can assure you, you were very much loved, my petal. I think you helped to bring your parents together.”

“But they’d been together a long time.”

“Of course.” Cecily passed around the bag of bonbons. Anna’s tasted of strawberry.

“Isabella always says Mama has been not been the same since I was born.”

“She wasn’t well before, my love. It’s a wonder your Papa,” she hesitated: “Anyway, let’s not.”

“I think Papa treats me like his second son.”

“Well that stupid boy hasn’t turned into much of an heir.”

Louise straightened her back, dislodging the Duke slightly, who adjusted his position, opened his eyes vaguely and then snuffled back to sleep. “What about saddest memories?” asked Louise.

Cecily scratched the side of her face: “I probably shouldn’t be upsetting the applecart but your Papa trying to challenge the Will in the courts, saying James wasn’t of sound mind when he wrote it, the cheek, can you imagine him not being of sound mind, I ask you?”

Louise ran a finger over her left eyebrow: “Well, he obviously had a very good head for business, perhaps not for family diplomacy, shall we say.”

“Family diplomacy. Not something anyone has much grasp of,” Cecily snorted and threw her head back like a braying horse. “My James had a very good head indeed.”

Anna’s face prickled. Cecily lowered her voice. “He wanted to pass it all on to me, his beloved wife, to make sure it was spent wisely and that’s precisely what I’m doing. Please tell me if there’s anything wrong with that?”

Anna shrugged and smiled. She knew her parents would have plenty to say on the matter. She sighed and then clapped her hands. “What about another category?”

Louise coughed. “I can see the family’s point of view. They thought all the money should have been passed on to blood relatives.” Anna’s shoulders shrank down.

“The family,” Cecily puffed. “Not a business brain among them. Do you know the business has gone from strength to strength since I inherited it.” She wagged her finger. “That’s something I learned from my childhood – collecting money when my step-father played the fiddle in pubs. He was too drunk to look after it and I knew how to charm people and count the pennies.”

“Isn’t it terrible what the gossips say,” said Louise.

Cecily pushed her hair back. “Gossips, they can say what they like. I have been earning my own money since the age of ten. Even before your grandfather came into my life, I had bought my own property. Not many women can say that.”

Her voice rose: “James was a very wise man and he chose me as his wife.”

“Second wife,” Louise said. Anna closed her eyes briefly.

Cecily shook her head and flicked her hand. She turned to Anna. “Your parents were angry because they thought we’d been having an affair while your grandmother was ill.”

Louise scratched the back of her neck. “You did marry less than a month after she died.”

“Yes, yes but I promise you it had just been a friendship until then.” Cecily folded her arms. “Your grandmother was very ill for a long time, she went quite mad, poor thing and James needed some comfort. I bet nobody’s told you the story of how I procured eggs for her. Now that’s a good one, let’s call it my, oh never mind, I can’t think of a category, I’ll tell it anyway.”

Louise glanced at Anna.

“It was Christmas time and your grandmother’s physician had prescribed newly laid eggs. It was a very severe winter and fowls weren’t laying. Before breakfast the next day, I visited every little hovel, offering a reward for a newly laid egg. Four or five mornings, I tried in vain. I was just heading home when a little boy came running up to me, cradling a snowy white egg, still warm. I wrapped it in my satin-lined basket and ran across a ploughed field to reach home and despatched it with a messenger. The next day the boy was sitting on a stile waiting for me with another egg. The third day I arrived earlier and went to look for him in the nearby cottage. To my surprise, the hens were sitting in nests made of wool, around the stoked fire, sipping warmed meal and milk. Now that’s someone with a good head for business.”

Extract from Chapter 5

Anna wondered why all the women in the family had been invited to her father’s study to hear Cecily’s Will read out. None of them had paid her this much attention when she was alive and in any case, her father usually dealt with financial matters. After all men inherited everything, even if it was bequeathed to their wives.

A nauseous concoction of sweet and musky scents mingled around her four sisters, all dressed in flouncy silk dresses, like a posy of black carnations. They were whispering, probably about their husbands or Anna’s appearance – their two favourite topics.

Mother had roused herself and was attempting to have a conversation with her cousin, Horace, who hadn’t been to the house in a long time. Cecily had been outraged by him marrying a foreigner. She was particularly suspicious of the French, that bunch of revolutionaries.

Mama had insisted on the family wearing black for the occasion. It was the appropriate attire, especially in front of the lawyer. Cecily would probably have worn a purple dress with plunging neck-line and a feather boa to her own funeral. Anna wondered if she was the only one who was genuinely sad. The others were probably just attending to see how she had carved up the inheritance.

The carriage clock on the mantelpiece struck eleven, chimes of other clocks tinkled around the house. The shrill call of the match girl made Anna shudder. Sliding a book out of one the shelves, Anna cupped it gently like a small baby. She went over to the window and leant against the sill. It was hard to concentrate but it made it look as if she had something to do while they waited for the lawyer. Her breath pushed against her bodice and sweat tingled under her arms. She clamped her elbows against her ribs. It was already warm on this side of the house. It was going to be another stifling August day.

Papa had cancelled their meeting this morning. Normally, at this hour, she would be folding and sealing his letters and then meeting Louise in the dayroom to take mid-morning tea. She would rather be there now, catching up on the next instalment of Oliver Twist. Removing shoes, lying on the chaise longue, folding legs under and leaning back on a cushion to listen to Louise. Luncheon followed by a stroll in Hyde Park under the cooling shade of the plane trees lining Lancaster Walk. Piano and singing practice before dressing for dinner. Louise knocking quietly on her door, ostensibly to help her dress, dismissing the unsuspecting maid, waiting a few minutes after she had closed the door and then quietly lifting a bedside table to block it before undressing each other.

The sound of heavy footsteps approached the door. The footmen swung open the oak-panelled doors and her father, the Duke and the lawyer, holding a small oak box, swept in, floorboards shuddering. They nodded briefly to acknowledge the ladies and took up positions on the other side of the desk. Anna stifled a yawn.

The lawyer asked for the sash windows and heavy damask curtains to be closed, blocking out the sunlight and muffling the cacophony of sounds from the street. Anna could still hear the newspaper seller, carriages clanking over the cobbles and a stray dog yapping.  A lantern over her father’s desk became the brightest thing in the room, casting shadows of her sisters against the polished oak-panelled walls. Flicking his coat tails, the lawyer sat down behind the desk, cleared his throat, untied the black silk ribbon and unfurled the parchment. He flattened it out and looked up at the family over his round, metal spectacles.


Chapter 1 of Fluid

The three-week flat tummy diet wasn’t working. Vanessa and Tom’s 25th wedding anniversary party was fast approaching. The dress code simply said cocktail. Jane picked up the card from the mantelpiece above the gas fire and ran her fingers over the embossed invitation. It was only addressed to Jane but Vanessa had added in calligraphy, ‘bring a friend, lover etc’.

The wavy Ikea mirror showed the first signs of grey in her dull blond hair, ‘natural highlights’ her mother called them. Creases around her hazel eyes starting to deepen, ‘showed character’ and lines around her mouth ‘too much laughter’ her mother said . . . as if that was a sin. She was convinced that Vanessa would look perfect – blond, blue-eyed, high cheek bones, no lines, probably hadn’t changed since her wedding photo, which Jane had propped up next to the invitation. She’d saved the bit of ribbon tying it all together in their present wrapping drawer.

Mary, her friend, lover etc, could sense Jane’s anxiety but hated wearing dresses. She often wore trouser suits and a tie. Jane liked this look but didn’t want to stand out too much. She had made them try on the only dresses they owned, which she hoped would do for the occasion. There was still some work to be done to ensure there wasn’t an excruciating sound of material ripping while leaning forward to pick up a canapé.

Tom and Vanessa had married straight after university. Jane had been their bridesmaid. She had loathed being trussed up in a satin meringue and deliberately avoided catching the bouquet and dancing with the best man. Since then, Vanessa had risen to be a publisher of women’s magazines and Tom was marketing director of a fizzy drinks company. They had produced three boys and bought a second home in Spain.

Meanwhile, Jane had worked for a homeless charity, done a stint with VSO and was now working for a small campaigning group. She always had to describe it as a campaign for fair trade along supply chains because it had a stupid acronym, CAC, and nobody had ever heard of it. A year ago, she had moved into her girlfriend’s flat in Stoke Newington, north London. Mary was doing a PhD in the fluidity of sexuality. Jane always thought that sounded a bit mucky.

Although Jane and Vanessa were best friends at school, sharing the captaincy of the netball and lacrosse teams, they’d lost touch after university, drifting apart both politically and socially. On the surface they would find they still had something in common. They were both disillusioned with Labour. Only Jane had started subscribing to the Socialist Worker and Vanessa was rather taken with the younger image the Tories were trying to adopt – after all they had brought in gay marriage.

For Jane, the demise in her faith started with the Government making an exception to its ban on tobacco advertising in sport for Formula 1 racing. Blair sending his children to selective schools and introducing university fees created further cavities in her crumbling political belief system. The Iraq war finally made Jane cancel her membership of the Labour party after 10 years.

Vanessa voted Labour in 2001 after she’d met Tony and Cherie at a garden party at number 10 for women in the media. She had liked Cherie, a woman who cared about her career, appearance and family – a perfect reader of her more upmarket magazines. Gordon Brown hadn’t done anything for her and she resented his wife for refusing to give them an exclusive interview.

In the week before the anniversary party, Vanessa managed to fit in a manicure, facial and highlights between disciplinary proceedings against an editor, a board meeting and Jamie, her eldest son’s graduation ceremony. Thank goodness he went to London University and she could catch a cab from the office, do some proofreading while an endless trail of students crossed the stage and be back in time to pass the pages of one of her magazines, specialising in hairstyles. To run her busy life, she had an able assistant Liz, housekeeper, Tanya and personal trainer, Bethany. Vanessa called them her ‘merry wives’. Luckily, Liz was fielding the last minute questions from the caterers, musicians, mobile bar and photographer. It was like a re-run of her wedding, although last time, her mother had organised most of it and her father had footed the bill.

This time, her mother and a friend from the church were doing the flowers. Jamie’s girlfriend, Debbie, had done a marvellous job, tracking down people through Friends Reunited and Facebook. She then designed and sent out the invitations and old wedding photo, tied together with silver organza. Vanessa hoped she hadn’t aged too much. She was in good shape, she thought, as she looked at her sideways profile in the oak-framed mirror that morning. Her breasts hadn’t started to sag too much and she only had a slight stomach protrusion but after three children it wasn’t bad. All her clothes – bras, dresses, shirts – carefully pushed and pulled her body in the right directions – up and in. Her dyed blonde, shoulder-length hair was glossy and her skin looked reasonably smooth thanks to all the collagen creams she had to sample.

Bethany had helped keep her weight down. She had to present the right image required for her job, supermum, domestic goddess, high flier and devoted wife. Vanessa felt a bit guilty still having paid help around the house, given Max, her youngest, was nearly 15 but she enjoyed Tanya’s female solidarity.

Tom had put on weight around his middle and had grey flecks in his jet-black hair, but at least he’d shaved off his speckled beard, which Vanessa said made him look older. Facial hair was useful when he’d need to add gravitas to his 22-year old face but not at 47. It also tickled on the rare occasion he went down. In the week before the anniversary party, he was out of the country, as usual. Eastern Europe was his patch. Adapting his wacky marketing messages to a rather more dour audience was proving a struggle. It involved dry meetings with new advertising agencies trying to tap into their sense of humour, and long evenings drinking vodka shots. He felt he was a bit old for all of this and a bit bored of it but their lifestyle didn’t allow him to quit. He had another thirteen years before he could take retirement, especially if all the boys went to university.

He wasn’t anxious about the party. His motto was ‘throw money at it’. They had enough to pay other people to deal with the headache of organising it all. Vanessa had pointed out on several occasions that domestic staff still needed to be managed, but he had 500 under him at work – delegate, delegate, delegate was another of his sayings. Tom just wanted to enjoy catching up with people. If the weather was good enough they could go swimming. Perhaps skinny-dipping.

Jane had started swimming in the last week at London Fields Lido, an Olympic-sized open-air pool. To alleviate the boredom, she would wait for a fellow swimmer to kick off just ahead of her and then unbeknown to them, the race was on. Tonight, she had beaten a man doing breaststroke. Her victory was somewhat diminished when she saw him get out, gingerly using the disabled ramp.

Back at the flat, she started cooking from a low-carb cookbook. She’d never dieted before and had picked the book up in a second-hand bookshop. While the casserole was in the oven, she took a bath. Her stomach looked worse under water. She scooped some bubbles around to hide it.

Mary came in with two glasses of Prosecco, which Jane couldn’t resist. It was their treat for the start of the weekend.

‘Have you lost any weight?’ Jane asked, shifting in the water.

‘Oh, I think so, a bit.’ Mary tried to comfort her. ‘You shouldn’t worry so much. They’ll be pleased to see you, whatever shape.’

‘Thanks,’ said Jane, pulling the angle-poise mirror towards her to inspect how dark her bags were and how yellow her teeth. She’d bought a teeth whitening paste. The regime involved trying to keep strips of plastic on your teeth for half an hour a day. She ended up gagging on all the saliva she produced.

Mary lit some candles on the shelf above the bath and turned off the light. “Lighting is everything, darling,” she said and sat in the wicker chair with her feet up on the edge of the bath.

Jane sighed: ‘What am I going to say, when they start asking what do you do? Where do you live? Which school do your children go to?’

‘You should be more confident. Your job’s probably much more worthwhile than theirs and anyway, what’s wrong with my flat?’

‘Nothing, it’s just I don’t even own one. Vanessa and Tom have got two houses already.

‘It’s not as if you’re a failure’

She took a sip of wine. ‘Well, probably in their eyes.’ She paused: ‘I mean if you play the corporate game, you get the corporate dollar. Being a right-on lefty doesn’t make you wealthy.’

‘But you don’t want to be like them?’

‘No, I suppose not, I just have to put up with being principled and poor. I remember someone saying, do what you enjoy and the money will follow. Only, they forgot to say how much.’

‘We’ve got enough, love.’

‘I just dread going back into the world I grew up in.’