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by Duncan Johnson
'What's that you're reading, dear?'
Ellie looked up from her book.
'This?' she asked. 'It's about the way a family copes following the death of the eldest daughter.'
'Sounds depressing,' the woman in the seat next to her remarked. 'Not my cup of tea at all. I much prefer something like this.' She held aloft her own slim paperback. 'You can never go far wrong with a good bit of rumpy-pumpy, that's what I say.'
* * *
Ellie Walker had barely finished her croissant and jam before all trays were put back into the upright position ready for landing. The plane then proceeded to circle the airport for an additional half an hour before finally beginning its descent. The woman next to her had slept all the way from Los Angeles, but now that she was awake she seemed to need someone to talk to. Well, to talk at might have been a more accurate description. She told Ellie all about her little garden and how she was afraid it might have been ruined while she was away by the storm. She talked about her two collie dogs being looked after by her neighbour, Mrs Cuthbertson, and how she had missed them so very much when she was in the States. And she talked about how, while the weather in California was very nice, thank you, it just wasn't the same as home, not wanting to cause offence, you being a native and all. Ellie muttered something non-committal - her input wasn't really needed in the woman's monologue - and carried on staring out of the tiny window. The city below looked unreal. From this height, Ellie couldn't see the cars, let alone the people, so everything looked like a painting, the colours muted in the grey dawn.
'So what brings you to England, dear?' her fellow passenger asked.
'I'm sorry?' Ellie said. She had so tuned out the woman that she had missed the question.
'Still a bit tired are we?' the woman said, smiling sympathetically. 'It was a very long flight, wasn't it. Now, if I had known just how long, well I wouldn't have gone, I tell you, no matter how highly Mrs Cuthbertson spoke of the place. Not that I'm saying it wasn't nice, you understand. Just not really my cup of tea, that's all.'
'I understand,' Ellie said, not really understanding at all.
'That's kind of you, dear,' the woman said. 'Now, as I was saying, what brings you all the way to England? It can't be the weather, I'll be bound.'
'No, not the weather,' Ellie agreed, watching the snow falling steadily outside. 'I'm here to spend Christmas with my gran.'
* * *
Ellie stamped her feet to rid them of the snow as she stepped into the foyer of the nursing home where her gran was an inmate. Sorry, guest. It had been early morning when she had arrived in London. Now darkness was clawing at the treetops. She had spent the better part of the day travelling and she was not impressed. She had not got a reserved seat on the train up here and, as a result, she had had to stand for three hours, crammed in amongst a mass of body odour. It was supposed to have only been a two-hour journey, but apparently the snow had blocked the line and they were stuck for an hour while they waited for the tracks to be cleared. During the wait, the guy standing next to her had tried to hit on her. Ellie had ignored him. Sure, he didn't seem so bad, but it was difficult to show any interest in anyone whose armpit had been in your face for the previous forty minutes.
Of course, the guy would have to be getting of at the same station as Ellie, wouldn't he?
'Let me give you a hand with that,' he said, offering to carry Ellie's suitcase for her.
'I can manage,' Ellie replied, grunted with effort as she hauled the case off of the train.
'I'm sure you can,' the guy assured her, 'but my mum would never forgive me if I didn't at least offer. She raised her son properly, or so she keeps telling me.'
'I'm sure she d-did,' Ellie replied, returning his warm smile with a weak one of her own.
The train pulled away slowly and Ellie watched regretfully as it disappeared from view. For all its faults, it had been warm in there. She must have been shivering because the guy shucked off his overcoat and offered it to her.
'Here, put this on,' he said, 'before you catch your death.'
Ellie wanted to refuse, but her teeth were chattering too much for her to form the words so she meekly allowed the stranger to drape his coat over her shoulders.
'W-what about y-you,' Ellie managed.
'I'll be fine,' the guy said, rubbing his hands together vigorously. 'For a while, anyway. I'm use to this weather, but I guess it's a bit warmer where your from, am I right?'
'I'm from C-California,' Ellie replied.
'Ah, that would explain the accent.' He stuck out a hand. 'Daniel Perrault.'
'Elisabeth Walker,' Ellie replied. She looked at the hand sceptically, then thought of the coat. She shook the offered hand. 'Ellie.'
'Well, Ellie,' Daniel began, 'whereabouts are you off to?'
'I'm supposed to be going to the Searle Memorial Home,' Ellie explained. 'I figured it would be somewhere nearby.' She glanced around. 'Guess I figured wrong, huh?'
'So it would appear,' Daniel said, 'but since, by a strange coincidence, we both appear to be going to the same place, what do you say we find a taxi to take us away from all this?'
Daniel's father lived at Searle's. He suffered from Alzheimer's and needed constant supervision that Daniel simply couldn't provide at home, not if he wanted to maintain a full-time job in the city. He was Daniel's only family, though - his mother having died in a car accident when he was very young - and so he made it a point to spend every Christmas with him, even though the old man often wasn't lucid enough to realise he was there.
All of this Ellie learned from his on the taxi ride over. Daniel liked to talk, which was cool because Ellie didn't. What was that phrase? If you haven't got anything good to say, don't say anything at all. That was kind of how Ellie felt about her home life so she kept her thoughts to herself.
Their drive took them through a forest. Naked tree branches reached across the road, intertwining with the trees opposite to form a latticework ceiling above them.
'Well, this is creepy,' Ellie remarked.
'Isn't it just,' Daniel said. 'Apparently the forest is so thick that this road is the only way to reach Searle's. The nurses tell me that the trees have to be cut back vigorously every year because they keep trying to take back even this little strip of space.'
'That's silly,' Ellie said. 'Trees don't grow that fast.'
'True, very true,' Daniel agreed, 'but when you're in the middle of all this, it does seem all too believable.'
Ellie looked at the massed ranks of trees about them. Where they moving or was that just a trick of the light? She turned away, preferring to look at Daniel than at whatever was lurking outside the safety of the car.
Eventually, they arrived at Searle's, splitting the fare between them before retrieving their luggage. Ellie looked up at the turrets and crennelations that adorned the old building.
'It's beautiful,' she said.
'Do you really think so?' Daniel asked. 'Reminds me of those haunted castles I used to read about when I was a boy. And I preferred them when they stayed on the pages of the storybooks.'
'But it's so old,' Ellie continued. 'Back home, fifty years seems like a long time ago for us. We don't have a lot of history to speak of, but this '
'Yes, I suppose this place does have rather a lot of history,' Daniel said. 'Hence the ghosts, I expect. Did you know that this used to me the mansion of Lord and Lady Searle at the end of the nineteenth century? That's where the place gets its name.'
'Really?' Ellie asked.
'Yes, really,' Daniel explained. 'You can see their coat of arms just above the door there. Um, do you mind if we go inside? I'm not wearing a coat, remember, and it is a bit on the chilly side.'
So the pair of them stepped into the foyer. A thin man dressed in a black suit briskly crossed the hallway to greet them.
'Ah, Mr Perrault,' he said. 'So good to see you again, sir. And you must be Miss Walker.'
'That's right,' Ellie said, extending a hand, 'and you are?'
'Charles Tapton, proprietor of this establishment,' the man replied, taking Ellie's hand in his. His fingers were like dry twigs and Ellie was glad when he let her go.
'We were just going to say hello to our respective relatives,' Daniel explained, 'and then go in search of somewhere to stay for the night. Is the Coach and Horses still in business?'
'Indeed it is, Mr Perrault,' Tapton replied, 'and Mr O'Grady still runs as tight a ship as ever. Still, I fear you won't be staying there tonight.'
'Really?' Ellie asked. 'Why's that?'
'Surely you've noticed the weather, Miss Walker,' Tapton explained. 'The pair of you were lucky to get her at all amid this snow. As God is my witness, you won't be going anywhere before daybreak.'
'So what exactly are we supposed to do?' Ellie demanded waspishly. She regretted her tone as soon as the words left her mouth. She could hardly blame Tapton for the weather, but something about the man rubbed her up the wrong way. And there was something vaguely familiar about him.
'Well, it just so happens, Miss Walker, that our little establishment is not at full stretch at present and I'm sure we can spare a couple of rooms for the pair of you,' Tapton replied. 'Now, why don't I show you to your father, Mr Perrault, and your grandmother, Miss Walker, and you can spend some time with them while we prepare your accommodations. And, perhaps later you might be tempted to join our Christmas festivities. They're not much, but our residents do seem to enjoy them.'
* * *
Ellie parted company with Daniel, at least temporarily, and went to visit her gran. Unfortunately, she was sleeping and, not wanting to wake her, Ellie had gone back downstairs. Following the noise, she had ended up in the common room. There was a small crowd of people gather in front of the small television set.
'It's Corrie at the moment, love,' an elderly woman said. 'If you stick around for a bit, theyll turn over for Eastenders. After that we've got The Bill.'
The woman was sitting at a table towards the back of the room. She was playing backgammon with a younger woman who cradled a baby in her arms.
'Is it any good?' Ellie asked her.
'I wouldn't know,' the woman replied. 'I've got to teach this slip of a thing how to play properly so I can't watch it.'
'Now, Nana, if you wanted to watch the telly you only had to ask,' the younger woman said.
'I never said I wanted to watch it, Violet, just that I couldn't,' 'Nana' said. 'Wash your ears out before interrupting next time.'
Nana rolled the dice and moved two of her counters.
'That's better,' she declared.
'Yes, Nana,' Violet said, 'but you only rolled five so you should be there.'
She moved a counter back a space.
'Are you telling me I can't count now, girl?' Nana snapped. 'I may be old, but I'm still as sharp as they come. And I say that tile should be there.'
She moved the counter back to where it had been previously.
'Yes, Nana,' Violet said, giving Ellie a what-can-you-do look.
Ellie smiled in sympathy.
'And don't think I can't see the two of you conspiring behind my back either,' Nana said. 'Well, girl, what are you doing here anyway?'
'Who me?' Ellie asked.
'How many other people do you see around here, hm?' Nana demanded, pointed her walking-stick at Ellie. 'Now speak up and quickly. Some of us aren't going to be around for that much longer.'
'Well, I came here to see my Gran,' Ellie explained, wilting before Nana's interrogation. 'She stayed behind when the rest of my folks moved to California - this was before I was born - and now she's too ill to come and join us so she's kinda stuck here.'
'Kinda? What sort of language is that?' Nana scoffed. 'Never mind, just carry on and do your best to limit those disgusting Americanisms.'
'People don't visit Gran much,' Ellie explained. 'She's been forgotten about, I guess you could say.'
'Forgotten about,' Nana echoed, 'but not by you.'
'No,' Ellie admitted. 'This year I thought I'd spend Christmas with her.'
'That's very kind of you, child,' Nana said, 'but where's your mother in all of this?'
'Mom's well, she's busy.'
'Busy? Busy is she? I just bet she is,' Nana said.
'Nana, you shouldn't judge people so,' Violet warned her.
'Shouldn't I?' Nana asked. 'It's not as if there's much else to do around here. So you're here to visit your poor old grandmama, are you, child? A girl paying a visit to her grandmother. That puts me in mind of a story, so it does. Would you like to hear it?'
'Why not,' Ellie remarked, sitting down in the empty seat. 'It's not as if I'm going anywhere.'
'Good girl,' Nana said. 'Now, there was this girl who was bringing food to her grandmother who lived at the heart of a wood and, while she was on her way, a wolf approached her and asked her where she was bound. 'To Grandmother's house,' the girl replied.'
'I think I may have heard this story before,' Ellie said.
'Then it won't hurt you to hear it again,' Nana snapped angrily.
The baby in Violet's arms started to cry.
'I think she needs changing,' Violet said, standing up. 'Don't go moving the pieces while I'm gone.'
'Why, the cheek,' Nana exclaimed at Violet's retreating back. 'She doesn't really need changing, you know. Violet just wants an excuse to nip outside for a fag. They don't allow smoking in here, you see, but I know one of the nurses who'll smuggle me in cigarette's if I ask nicely. Now, where were we?'
'The girl had told the wolf she was going to Grandmother's house,' Ellie supplied.
'I know that, child,' Nana said. 'You think I need you to tell me my own story, hm?
'So the wolf asked the girl whether she was going by the path of pins or the path of needles.
''The path of needles,' the girl replied.
'So the wolf ran off on the path of pins and arrived before the girl and he killed the poor old grandmother. He poured her blood into a bottle, sliced up her flesh and put it on a plate, then dressed in her nightclothes and waited in the bed. There was a knock at the door and the girl came inside.
''I have brought you some food, Grandmother,' she said.
''That's very kind of you,' the wolf replied. 'Why don't you have something yourself. There is meat and wine in the pantry.' And the little girl went and ate what was offered.
'Then the wolf said, 'undress and get into bed with me, my darling.'
'The little girl hesitated. 'But where shall I put my apron?' she asked.
''Throw it on the fire,' the wolf replied. 'You won't be needing it anymore.'
'And so for her bodice, skirt, petticoat and all, the girl asked the same question and each time the wolf replied, 'throw it on the fire, you won't need it anymore.'
'When the girl got into bed, she said, 'Grandmother, how hairy you are.'
''It keeps me warm, my dear,' the wolf replied.
''Oh grandmother,' the girl continued, 'what long nails you have.'
''They are for scratching myself, my darling,' the wolf explained.
''And Grandmother,' the little girl said finally, 'what big teeth you have.'
'And the wolf grinned and then he ate her.'
There was silence for a moment. Even the noise from the TV seemed muted.
'That's that's horrible,' Ellie said at last.
Nana shrugged. 'That's life, love.'
Ellie got up.
'Don't you want to hear another story?' Nana asked. 'When you get to my age, you have hundreds.'
'Maybe later,' Ellie said, trying to polite while wanting to put as much distance between herself and the old woman as possible. Smiling weakly, she hurried of into the next room.
The next room turned out to be a library.
'Hello again, Miss Walker,' Tapton said.
Ellie jumped. She had not noticed him sitting in a chair by the fire.
'I'm sorry, Miss Walker,' he said, 'I didn't mean to startle you.'
'That's okay, you didn't,' Ellie lied.
Tapton inclined his head. 'As you say. What do you make of our little collection?'
'It's very impressive,' Ellie managed, taking in the shelves of musty books.
'Isn't it just,' Tapton agreed. 'Unfortunately, few of our residents our great readers so most of these books are criminally neglected. Perhaps you would like to help yourself to a volume?'
Ellie didn't need any further prompting and reached for a slim book bound in red leather. Opening it up, she frowned. It seemed to be a diary of some sort, written in pencil. The handwriting was tricky to interpret. It's almost as bad as mine, Ellie thought to herself. She started to read the first page.
'Granma gave me this book for my birthday. She said I should try to keep notes on the things I do and it gives me a chance to practice me letters. Me mam was keen for me to learn, before I passed away, but there is not much call for a maid what can right in Mr Searle's house.'
Mr Searle's house? Did she Lord Searle, Ellie wondered. Did the writer of this diary live in this house?
'It's Christmas Eve and Mrs Baxter is making her famous plum pudding. She lets me help, even though Mr Wilkie (he's the butler) tells me that I am just a maid and should know my place. But Mrs Baxter likes me and she is teaching me her secret recipe so that maybe one day I can be a cook just like her. I should like that very much, I think. Not that I mind being a maid. The Searles treat me very well and, so long as I do as I am told, so does Mr Wilkie.'
There followed a lengthy description on how to make the perfect plum pudding, which Ellie really was not interested in, so she skipped ahead. It appeared that Lord and Lady Searle were holding a Christmas Eve party.
'I hide behind the door as Mr Wilkie announces the guests. I know I should not really be there. My place is in the kitchen washing the dishes, but I am so excited that I have to know what is going on. I sit as still as I can, looking through the gap in the door as the guests arrive.
'First is the Reverend Patton. I do not think that I would like him were I to meet him, not that I ever would. He looks down his nose at everybody, including Mr Searle. Major Warren seems much nicer. He is always smiling beneath his thick red whiskers and his laugh echoes in the hall. And he slapped Mr Wilkie on the back when he arrived and Mr Wilkie did not like that at all. The next two guests are Lucius Morton and his wife Tabitha (Mrs Baxter helped me spell the names) and they are followed by Sir Charles Appleton and his daughter, Mary-Anne. Sir Charles looks very sad and that is a shame what with it being Christmas and all. I do not think he wants to be here. His daughter is very happy, dancing around the room and singing to herself as she does so.
''Is this everyone?' Mr Morton asks.
''I believe we are still waiting for one more guest, sir,' Mr Wilkie replies. The way he talks to the people above stairs is so different to the way he talks to us in the kitchens.
'There is a knocking at the door and Mr Wilkie goes to answer it. He returns with a man with long, wavy brown hair. He wears a green coat that I think looks nice, but he does not seem as well-dressed as the others. I think they see this too because the way they look at him is not so kindly. Except for Mary-Anne who I do not think knows he is there.
'Doctor John Smith,' Mr Wilkie says.
'Am I late?' Dr Smith asks. 'Sorry about that, but you know how these things are. Or maybe not. Is this all of us?'
''Yes, sir,' Mr Wilkie tells him. 'Just the seven of you. Not counting Lord and Lady Searle, of course.'
''Seven of us plus you, Wilkie,' Dr Smith says. 'No, no, that's not right. I count eight.'
''My apologies, sir,' Mr Wilkie says, 'but I do believe you are mistaken.'
''Am I?' Dr Smith asks. 'Well, it wouldn't be the first time, I grant you. But in this case, I rather think I may be correct.'
'I stumble back as Dr Smith throws open the door I am hiding behind.
''And who have we here, hm?' Dr Smith asks, smiling at me.
'Mr Wilkie is not smiling. 'It is just the maid, sir.'
''Just the maid?' Dr Smith says. 'Just the maid? And does just the maid have a name. Well, speak up girl?'
'Mr Wilkie has told me not to speak to the people above stairs. It is not my place. But I cannot refuse to do as Dr Smith asked, can I? So I tell him my name.
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