“Celia!” screeched Mrs. Baxter, as soon as the front door had swung open. The round door handle banged loudly against the wall, deepening the already-prominent dip that had formed there. Mabel visibly winced, but Mrs. Baxter didn’t even notice.
“Lionel! Celia’s here!” Mrs. Baxter shrieked, as though Mr. Baxter hadn’t been made to stand awkwardly in the kitchen for the last hour, awaiting his daughter’s arrival.
Celia, the only child of Mr. and Mrs. Baxter, made one of these visits every month, and the seven evacuees living with Mrs. Baxter, having lived in the countryside for six years now, were used to them. Besides, none of the children liked Celia any more than they liked their temporary adopted parents. She was in her thirties, and was an almost perfect combination of both of her parents: she had Mrs. Baxter’s ginger hair, which she chose to wear in the same large, shocking style, and the two women shared pairs of unpleasant, observant green eyes. Celia may also have been just as intimidating if she hadn’t been as stupid as her father, which gave her a bit of a glazed look. Like both her parents, she was very tall, so did not have to reach upwards to return her mother’s embrace.
However, Celia was never alone in these visits. She always brought her quiet, dim-witted husband. Jack Waters was generally so quiet because he was always gazing with reverence into his wife’s eyes, even though Olive could never think of any discernible reason for him having fallen in love with her. But it had happened, and it is very important to note that the Waterss had produced two girls, and It was always these daughters that most interested Olive. The eldest, Hetty Waters, was ten; the same age as Olive and Mary. Considering that she was a granddaughter of the Baxters, Hetty wasn’t actually as horrible as Olive had expected. Olive could even say that she saw her as a friend, though this was in the same way that she saw Mary as a friend. Hetty was merely another tag-along companion to Olive’s schemes. Hetty was taller than Olive and Mary, clearly having inherited this from her mother, and she was also relatively stupid, though there was a vague hint of mild awareness about her. But she simply agreed to anything that anyone said, and generally did as she was told, so Olive was happy to have her around.
But of course, there was another daughter. Lucy Waters was seven; three years younger than her sister and the other girls, but she was already, in the girls’ opinions, a total nightmare. Well, she didn’t appear so in front of the adults, at least. There, Lucy, or ‘Lulu’, as she was known, was a simpering little angel. But when the adults were out of the way, having ushered the children off to play together, Lucy was transformed. She was an absolute vision of her grandmother Mrs. Baxter (aside from the fact that Lucy was very short) which may have been one of the reasons why Lucy was clearly her grandmother’s favourite. However, Lucy was extremely sneaky, and very subtle in her meanness, where Mrs. Baxter simply shouted at whoever displeased her. When Olive had first met Lucy, she saw her as a little brat whom she, Mary and Hetty could just ignore whilst they got on with more important things, like placing a bucket of muddy water on the frame of the pantry door, which Mabel or Mrs. Baxter was sure to open at some point. But Olive had decided to watch Hetty’s sister a little more carefully after Lucy somehow managed to stuff a large spider down Olive’s collar, which Olive did not notice until a few seconds later. Lucy had slipped away, laughing nastily, leaving Olive fuming and swearing revenge.
But this ‘revenge’ hadn’t worked out exactly as Olive planned. Olive had decided to take a page from Lucy’s book, but unfortunately Mrs. Baxter had caught Olive approaching Lucy from behind with a large slug clutched in her fist. Olive had been in big, big trouble for even daring to do anything to Mrs. Baxter’s adored granddaughter. Olive always found it odd that Mrs. Baxter could appear to hate children so much, yet dearly love Hetty and Lucy at the same time.
As Celia broke away from Mrs. Baxter and moved forwards to hug her father, Mrs. Baxter screamed her granddaughters’ names and ran to grab them before they crossed the threshold.
“Hetty! Ahh, isn’t she so grown up! A little angel. And Lucy! Oh, isn’t Lulu so like me, Jack? So like her Grandmama! How are you, Dearie? Splendid! You’re looking delightful, Lulu. Come in, darlings, come in!”
Mrs. Baxter ushered the two girls into the kitchen. Hetty came in first, and she waved first at Mary, who cheerfully waggled her fingers back, and then waved at Olive. Olive narrowed her eyes, and only allowed a stiff inclination of the head by way of a greeting. After all, she wasn’t about to give a warm welcome to someone who put her second after Mary.
Then came Lucy. If she had been any other child, she would have looked quite ridiculous; Mrs. Baxter had her arm around her granddaughter’s shoulders so tightly that Lucy was half bent over. She was very tiny for her age, and therefore much smaller and quicker than Mrs. Baxter, but Mrs. Baxter’s claw-like fingers were gripping her by the shoulder, offering no chance of escape. But Lucy did not look ridiculous. The familiar snake-like glittering green eyes scanned the room until they found the face of Olive, and both Olive and Mary felt a chill go through them, and a sharp prickling feeling on the backs of their necks.
Mrs. Baxter eventually let go of Lucy so that she could rush over and prevent something on the stove from boiling over, and Lucy smartly straightened herself up. Olive and Mary watched as she eyed the large wooden table, which Mrs. Baxter and Mabel had laid out with just about every kind of desert in anticipation of the girls’ visit that anyone could possibly imagine. Lucy was looking as mean and pretty as she ever had. Her red hair was tied up neatly with a pair of pink ribbons, and she wore a nice green patterned frock and polished shoes. However, her sparkling green eyes had that usual sneaky, unpleasant look about them. Hetty was dressed almost identically to Lucy, though she looked a lot plainer with her mud-brown hair and dull eyes.
Frederick, Augustus and Adolphus were also eyeing the table, looking extremely envious. Albert and Priscilla were attempting to look as smart as possible, but even they couldn’t help being jealous.
“Don’t touch anything,” Mrs. Baxter had snapped at them earlier in her best threatening voice. “I’m telling all seven of you children; touch one thing on that table and you will spend the rest of the day upstairs with no dinner.”
On a normal day, Olive wouldn’t have been too bothered about forfeiting her usual pile of lumpy stew for dinner, but today, seeing as it was a special occasion, she could smell the rabbit pie baking in the oven, and she wasn’t sure that misbehaving was worth the risk.
Lucy was simpering as she was hugged by her grandmother, but behind the adults’ backs, Olive and Mary spotted the grimace as she brushed bits of flour from Mrs. Baxter’s apron off her clothes. Lucy walked over and began to circle the table, undoubtedly making sure that all her favourite things were there.
“Grandmama, where is my jelly?” Lucy demanded as sweetly as she could.
“Oh, it’s right here, Sweetie. Grandmama made it especially for you; her ‘ickle darling Lulu.”
“What flavour is it?”
“It’s strawberry, dear.”
“Strawberry? But my favourite flavour is raspberry.”
There was a pause, and then Celia decided to share her educated opinion with the whole company: “Well, they’re both the same, aren’t they? I thought that ‘raspberry’ was just another name for ‘strawberry’.”
Olive had to restrain herself from sighing loudly. Sometimes she found it very difficult to believe that Celia had actually been brought up on this farm. After all, she and Mary had only been living there for five years, and they now knew a bunch of useless facts concerning different fruits that they were sure they never could forget, no matter how hard they tried.
“They are two completely different fruits, Mummy!” Lucy said crossly, stamping her foot….but her gaze was still sweet and innocent as she stared at Mrs. Baxter.
Another pause. “Well,” Mrs. Baxter started. “I tell you what, darling, why doesn’t Grandmama make you another jelly? A raspberry one this time? Then you could have a bit of both.”
“Yes, but I’m having the whole raspberry one, aren’t I, Grandmama?”
“Oh…if you want, sweetheart. Anything you wish.”
“Muriel!” Mr. Baxter interrupted suddenly, after some thought. “I asked for a raspberry jelly yesterday, and you wouldn’t make me one!”
Mrs. Baxter rolled her eyes. “Yes, but you’re not a seven-year-old girl, Lionel.”
Mr. Baxter nodded slowly, but still looked a bit confused. Olive was desperate to point out that she had asked for jelly several times, when she was seven and even younger, and yet her wishes had never been granted. But somehow, Olive felt that the time was not right to bring this up. She’d have to remember to ask Mrs. Baxter about it tomorrow.
“Mrs. Baxter, can I have some of the strawberry jelly, please?” Mary asked politely.
“If there’s some left,” Mrs. Baxter snapped. “You’re not guests, remember? You’ll have to wait until everyone else is finished.”
Soon, after Mrs. Baxter had finished greeting everyone, and each evacuee had been forced to shake hands with each of the four visitors (when it was Olive’s turn, Lucy did her best to dig her sharp fingernails into Olive’s palm), everyone sat down at the table and began to devour the steady supply of cakes, pies and other desserts whilst Mabel went around serving tea. Even though Hetty and Lucy and the adults were allowed to help themselves to massive chunks of everything, the seven other children had to ask Mrs. Baxter if they wanted something, and she would insist on cutting them the tiniest slither imaginable. Mr. Baxter complained so much about his supposed lack of human rights that Mrs. Baxter ordered Mabel to make a second raspberry jelly. At one point, Lucy, having finished her raspberry jelly, decided she didn’t like her first bite of walnut cake, but instead of offering it to someone else, she dumped it onto a neighbouring table, very close to Olive. Olive noticed the piece of paper that the cake had happened to land on, and recognised its title: ‘Mrs. Baxter’s house rules’. Olive was desperate to mention that Lucy had violated rule number seventeen (‘no smearing food over any piece of paper containing the rules’), but she knew that Lucy would probably burst into tears on purpose and insist that Olive was just trying to incriminate her. She would probably even claim that it was actually Olive’s slice of cake, though Olive couldn’t imagine how she’d be able to steal such a huge piece under Mrs. Baxter’s watchful gaze.
More than once, Olive caught Lucy’s eye across the table, and the two girls glared fiercely at one another. Since the incident with the spider, and Olive’s failed attempt to stuff a slug down Lucy’s dress, the girls had been mortal enemies. Hetty, in contrast, gave Olive a pleasant smile. Olive couldn’t quite smile back, watching Hetty cram down a huge piece of sponge cake, which was Olive’s favourite, but she gave her a small nod of acknowledgement.
Tea went on for about half an hour. By the end of this time, Mr. Baxter was the only person still eating. The Whinging brothers were clearly still hungry, but Mrs. Baxter had decided that after two slithers of cake and one glass of lemonade each, they had had quite enough for one afternoon. Hetty and Lucy appeared to have eaten their fill.
“Why don’t you all run along, children?” Mrs. Baxter suggested. “Olive, Mary, Priscilla, make sure that you look after Hetty and Lucy. And Olive…remember what I told you about being nice to Lucy especially. You’ll be very lucky to be forgiven after last time.”
Mrs. Baxter paused to glare meaningfully at Olive, before resuming her conversation with Celia and Jack. Olive scowled, but climbed down from her seat and moodily led the other children from the room. Priscilla, as she always did, thought it improper to play with such common little girls, and as usual sloped off with Albert whilst the Whinging brothers went upstairs to study some interestingly-coloured pebbles they had picked up the other day, but Olive, Mary and Hetty found themselves stuck with Lucy. Now they couldn’t have any fun. Olive, Mary and Hetty liked playing ‘Hide-and-Seek’, but Lucy had a nasty habit of making it look as though the others had abandoned her, and Olive knew that after the slug incident (the spider incident had been dubbed an ‘accident’ by Mrs. Baxter), she had no chance of making Mrs. Baxter believe that it was all just a game. They liked playing ‘Chase’, but then Lucy would probably wait until one of the others unwillingly started to run after her before dashing past the kitchen window shouting, “Help!”. And they couldn’t even do something really simple like running races, because Lucy always wanted to have the most unfair head starts, being the youngest.
“I’m not playing any stupid baby games,” Lucy announced suddenly. “I want to play something fun.”
She had an unnerving gleam in her eye. Hetty and Mary both looked a bit nervous, but Olive merely raised her eyebrows.
“Like what?” she invited, folding her arms. “We don’t play baby games anyway; we’re eleven. You’re only eight.”
“Oh, I know loads of games,” Lucy said dismissively, examining her nails. “But of course, you wouldn’t want to know…”
Olive narrowed her eyes. She was sure….certain, even…..that this was just one of Lucy’s stupid tricks. She probably wanted to play some incredibly childish game that Olive and Mary and Hetty wouldn’t even think of playing. She might even be getting them to play something that she knew would get them into big trouble. Yes, that must be it. Olive was absolutely certain. And yet….something about Lucy’s sneaky, glittering eyes made it very difficult for Olive to simply abandon what she had said.
“What games?” Olive said, still glaring at Lucy.
“I thought you didn’t want to know?” Lucy said airily, examining one of her fingernails.
Olive’s fists clenched tightly at her sides. Lucy was just so enraging. “I just want to see,” Olive explained carefully, rolling her eyes.
Lucy smirked nastily, knowing that she was in control. “Oh, you know, all the grown-up games,” she said carelessly. “They’re probably the sort that Grandmama and Grandpapa and Mama and Papa and Mabel play.”
Mary’s mouth dropped open. So did Hetty’s, and even Olive had to admit to herself that she was shocked….shocked and enthralled. The idea that adults played games just like children did was fascinating to her.
“Like…Truth or Dare, maybe,” said Lucy, grinning.
“Truth or Dare?” Olive said suspiciously. “What’s that?”
“Depends,” Lucy said.
“On whether you feel like being nice to me today.”
Olive was sure that she was about to explode from frustration; her face seemed to be burning with anger and her fists furiously clenched and un-clenched at her sides. She didn’t grace Lucy with a reply.
“It’s a very special game,” Lucy continued, and Olive felt her face burn as the glittering eyes stared at her. “A very interesting game; very hard to win.”
“Oh, do you mean the one where you either dare someone to do something, or ask them a question and then they have to tell the truth?” Hetty interrupted suddenly, grinning. “Because I love that game!”
Lucy glared at her sister. “Yes, that one,” she muttered.
Olive blinked. “That’s it?” she said. “What, I just have to do something you dare me to do, or tell the truth? Easy!”
“Oh, not exactly!” Lucy said, glaring at Hetty, and then at Olive. “You don’t know what I might dare you to do.”
Olive smirked. Of course, Lucy was far too stupid to understand that Olive Whackitt was just about the most daring person imaginable. What could an eight-year-old possibly come up with that was too outrageous for her?
“I’ll do anything you dare me to do,” Olive insisted proudly. She felt that she would like to step forward in order to intimidate tiny Lucy, but something about those glittering green eyes stopped her.
“Really?” said Lucy mysteriously, taking a step forward herself and glancing up at Olive menacingly. “I’ll come up with a very, very good one, then.”
“You can’t do that!” Hetty cried, outraged. “We haven’t spun the bottle yet!”
Olive stared at her. “Spun the bottle?” she said. “What are you talking about?”
“Oh, you know, where you spin the bottle to see who goes first!” said Hetty.
“But I’m going to show Lucy how daring I am!”
“No, she’s right!” said Lucy. “Mary, go and get a bottle.”
Olive and Mary both blinked at the sudden order. Mary stood stock-still for a moment, but when Lucy looked at her, she began to back away. Mary was easily able to get hold of one of the old glass milk bottles.
Lucy grabbed it off her as soon as she was back a couple of minutes later.
“Sit in a circle! Everyone needs to sit in a circle!” Hetty whispered excitedly.
Olive sat directly opposite Lucy, with Mary next to her. Hetty squeezed in at the side. Olive and Lucy faced one another. They would have been glaring, but somehow Olive couldn’t quite meet Lucy’s gaze.
“Who’ll spin the bottle first?” Hetty demanded, smiling.
“I will, seeing as it was my idea,” said Lucy, placing the bottle horizontally in the middle of the circle, and eyeing Olive’s position quickly, spun the bottle with a certain amount of force.
Olive saw immediately that Lucy was trying for the bottle to aim at her. Indeed, it spun round and round quite slowly a couple of times, and without needing to listen to Hetty’s constant squeals of, “It’ll be Olive! No, Mary! No, me! No, Olive!”, Olive watched it start to move dangerously slowly as it came towards her. Hetty let out a shriek of excitement – but the bottle kept on moving for a couple of centimetres. Lucy watched it anxiously, but the bottle very gradually spun away from Olive – and pointed towards Mary.
“It’s Mary!” Hetty shrieked, as though she thought she was commentating the game.
“Shut up, Hetty,” Lucy muttered, narrowing her eyes at Olive, before turning to look at Mary. She spoke to her with a sigh. “Truth or dare?”
Mary thought for a short while, and so did Olive. What should Mary do? If Mary chose dare, and then failed to do the dare, she’d make Olive look more impressive when it was her turn. Equally, if she chose truth, Olive might look equally impressive, because she’d probably be the brave one who was first to do a dare. Mary didn’t know any really incriminating secrets, anyway, so it wasn’t like she’d be giving anything away by telling the truth. And, Olive imagined, what if Mary did complete the dare successfully? Olive wouldn’t look as impressive when she did hers. And also, what if for some unspeakable reason, Lucy chose a dare for Olive so outrageously difficult, that Olive couldn’t quite perform it quite to the marvellous standard she had envisioned? She’d be able to do any dare, of course, but what if she found it hard? No, Mary would have to do truth, it was the only safe method, Olive had to plan ahead, and anyway, she wasn’t sure that she wanted to see Mary embarrassed, anyway.
“Dare!” Mary answered promptly that very second.
“No, Mary, do truth!” Olive yelped quickly as Lucy’s grin – Olive supposed that she had been thinking the exact same thing – rapidly widened.
“Oh…are you sure, Olive?” Mary asked awkwardly. “Oh, did I do it wrong?”
“Too late!” cried Lucy. “She’s chosen dare now! She has to do a dare!”
“That’s not fair! I wanted the first dare!” Olive cried.
“Too bad,” said Lucy, looking very glad now that the bottle had pointed to Mary rather than Olive. “At least Mary might get just one little victory for you townies. Hmm, I’d better start with an easy one…”
“Townies?” Olive cried. She had never been so insulted in her life. “How dare you!”
“Shut up, I’m thinking!” Lucy snapped, as Mary looked on curiously. “Yes, Mary, you don’t look like you’re made of much. I think I’ll start with an easy dare.”
Olive, for once, wished that Mary had her gun with her. She forgot all about Mrs. Baxter’s adoration of her youngest granddaughter, and how everyone might react if an eleven-year-old evacuee were discovered with a gun on her, in wartime. But Olive didn’t have much time to think about this; she was concentrating on how Lucy seemed to be taking in Mary’s clothes: her red shoes, her red cardigan, her red-and-white patterned dress….and then her flashing eyes slowly swivelled to eye Mr. Baxter’s bad-tempered bull in a nearby field, pacing up and down as though it would like nothing better than to charge aggressively at a small girl in red.
Olive opened her mouth to speak, but Lucy had already turned to Mary. “Mary, I dare you to climb over the fence and go and stand in that field,” she said.
“All right,” Mary said, shrugging.
“Mary, no!” cried Olive. She glared at Lucy. “That’s unfair! That bull’s always angry! Why don’t you do it, if you’re so daring, Lucy?”
“Because it’s Mary’s dare,” said Lucy smartly. “And anyway, it’s not much of a dare if I’m not wearing red.”
“You said you’d give her an easy one!” Olive cried. She didn’t know why she cared so much, but something about the thought of Mary running screaming through a field with a huge bull chasing her wasn’t a nice thought.
“That is an easy dare,” said Lucy, raising one eyebrow and peering at Olive as if she didn’t know what she was talking about.
Olive wasn’t sure what to say. “But what if the bull kills her?” Olive said.
Lucy shrugged. “I doubt the bull will actually kill her,” she said casually. “Give her a concussion, maybe. Break a few bones at most.”
Olive said nothing more, still thinking about what Lucy had said and actually looking a bit confused. Mary was staring at Olive and Lucy. She was very close to actually giving up on this whole thing, if it hadn’t been for the blurry and rather intimidating image in her head of her grandfather standing looking down at her with stern eyes. Mary sighed, and looked down at the ground. Her grandfather would be so disappointed in her if he’d known that she was too cowardly to face a stupid old bull. He’d have regretted ever giving her his precious gun. He might even disown her for being a wimp, and that was one thing that Mary simply could not be, under any circumstances.
“Fine,” Mary said eventually. “It’s fine, Olive. I’ll do it.”
Olive did nothing to stop her. Mary sighed again, and, casting one last pained glance back at her friend, started to climb over the high metal fence into the bull field. She was about five feet off the ground as she attempted to skirt the top of the fence, but suddenly one of her shoes got caught in her dress, and she rapidly stumbled forward. With a sharp clanging sound as the gate rattled precariously, Mary banged her head, hard, on the top bar of the fence, and fell to the ground in the bull field.
Olive and Hetty both gasped. Even Lucy looked a bit concerned, and cast a glance back towards the house to make sure that no one had noticed.
Meanwhile, Mary was struggling to her feet. As she looked around, the field didn’t look quite right. For one thing, she didn’t remember it whirling around or jolting from side to side as it seemed to be doing now….then, overcome by dizziness, Mary toppled over again. Everything was blurry. She was falling down a long, swirly, colourful tunnel….she was dancing in the clouds…
“Mary!” screamed a voice somewhere in the back of Mary’s head. “Mary! The bull!”
Mary frowned to herself, confused. What bull? What was that strange, echoey voice talking about? Besides, it was interrupting her long, eerie, peaceful ride through space…
“Mary!” Olive yelled again, watching helplessly as Mary stared up at the clouds with a dreamy look on her face. “MARY!”
Mary rolled her eyes. There was that voice, yelling at her again. What did it want, anyway? And what was that odd, large brown shape ambling towards her? Well, not really ambling, it was actually moving very quickly and even a bit angrily, making a loud snorting sound as it came nearer and nearer.
“That was SUCH an unfair dare!” screeched that same voice again.
“It was not! How was I meant to know she’d hit her head?” shouted another.
“What’ll we do? What’ll we do? Grandmama will be so angry!” squealed another.
“Mary, RUN!” screamed the first voice again.
Mary blinked. Run? Now, THAT was a word she recognised all too well. It was that word Olive said when they needed to get away from something…and suddenly she was reminded of Lucy saying something about a bull. Bulls were really dangerous; she knew that. She remembered well the time that Mr. Baxter had almost been killed by that big one out in the field because he’d ran around trying to bat some flies away with Mrs. Baxter’s red dish cloth. Red dish cloth….suddenly Mary’s attention was with her own clothes. She noticed that she was wearing a red dress, a red cardigan…and that the bull was coming closer and closer with every second.
Mary screamed, and finally leapt to her feet. In her panic, she began to run away from the gate further into the field, whilst the bull followed her, snorting violently. Olive stared at Mary. She’d never known that Mary could run that fast. She supposed that it must be how much she was panicking. Mary had reached the middle of the vast field within a few seconds and, seeing that the bull would soon catch up with her, practically flew up the nearest tree; so quickly that the other girls could hardly see her arms and legs as she went.
Mary climbed higher and higher before she clung, her face white with fright, to one of the highest branches. Through the leaves she could see the bull staring up at her with terrifying red eyes. It began to circle the tree.
“OLIVE!” Mary screamed, clinging on even harder before, so that the ridges in the bark dug into her arms. “Olive, HELP! Make it stop!”
“What’ll we DO?” shrieked Hetty, grabbing her hair and running hysterically around in circles.
Lucy and Olive both stared over at Mary, and then at one another. Olive was the first to react.
“It’s all your fault!” she yelled at Lucy, giving her a sharp shove. “You made her climb into that field! She might be stuck up there forever now!”
“I didn’t make her!” shouted Lucy, shoving Olive back. “She could have chosen not to!”
“No, she couldn’t!” Olive shrieked. “You’d still have made her!”
Olive had given Lucy the biggest push yet, and Lucy screamed as she toppled over backwards onto the grass. Furiously, she sat up and started to get to her feet, when the girls heard something else.
“What on EARTH is going on?” shrieked a voice.
It was Mrs. Baxter. She had flung open the parlour door and was now marching rapidly towards the girls, her broken heart of a hairstyle wobbling precariously, as though it was about to fall off her head. Then she spotted Mary up the tree in the middle of the field, which was currently being circled by the angry bull. “Oh my Lord! Oh gosh! Oh golly! Mary! Girls, what have you been doing? Mary, Mary, stay there! Oh Lord, what will the village women think? Don’t move, Mary! Don’t move an inch! Lionel! LIONEL! Get out here, quickly! The bull’s attacking Mary! Girls, I want an explanation right now!”
Lucy was very fast to spring into action. “It was Olive!” she shrieked. “Olive made us all play a game called ‘Truth or Dare’ and made Mary jump into the bull field! I couldn’t stop her!”
“Olive!” screamed Mrs. Baxter, almost before Lucy had finished her explanation. Her face was the colour of a beetroot, and her arms were waving around over her head so fast that they were merely a blur.
Olive’s mouth dropped open. She couldn’t believe it. The injustice! “It wasn’t me!” Olive shrieked, jabbing one finger at the small, simpering girl on her left, who was now pretending to cry in shock and terror. “It was Lucy!”
“Olive Whackitt!” Mrs. Baxter screeched. “Again! Again, you blame poor, helpless little Lucy for your ridiculous childish pranks! ‘Truth or Dare’, indeed! What were you thinking?”
Olive was amazed. “But ‘Truth or Dare’ is a grown-up game!” she shouted. “Lucy told me! She said that you and Mr. Baxter and Celia and Jack and Mabel and everyone play games like that!”
“I don’t even know what ‘Truth or Dare’ is!” Lucy whimpered tearfully. “Grandmama, she’s lying! Oh, Grandmama, I tried to stop her! I tried! But she wouldn’t listen to me!”
“She’s the liar!” Olive shouted.
“Olive, be quiet!” screamed Mrs. Baxter. “How dare you try to incriminate Lucy! She has done absolutely nothing to you! All she wanted was to come for a nice visit to see all of us, and this is how you welcome her! It’s a disgrace, and I won’t have it! Go upstairs, and don’t come down until tomorrow!”
“But I didn’t do it!” Olive screeched, looking remarkably like Mrs. Baxter when she had come running wildly out of the house. Beside her, just to prove her point more, Lucy began to sob loudly. “It was Lucy!”
“I tried to save Mary!” Lucy wailed, thrusting her chin up dramatically to address the sky. “I tried to reach down over the gate and pull her to safety! But I couldn’t! It was too far for me! Oh, we can only thank the Lord that dear Mary was brave and strong enough to climbeth that tree!”
“Such a noble child!” Mrs. Baxter cried. Then she remembered Olive. “OLIVE! Upstairs! NOW!”
“But I want my rabbit PIE!” Olive screamed….but she began to stomp angrily towards the house, just as Celia, Jack, Mabel and Mr. Baxter anxiously ran towards Mrs. Baxter to find out what was happening. “It’s not FAIR!”
“Upstairs!” Mrs. Baxter repeated, grabbing Lucy and hugging her tightly. But then she said something else, just within Olive’s earshot: “And to think, a situation like this, on the day that this wonderful country wins the War.”
Olive, having reached the kitchen door, almost stopped dead. War? This wonderful country wins the War? Olive had been living in the country for six years, and to her it was such a long time that she’d almost forgotten why. Of course, it was impossible for that to happen: it seemed that every night the warden would come screaming to them to ‘put that light out’, or the butcher would dutifully remind Mrs. Baxter that there was a war on whenever she asked whether she might just have a little more meat. Mrs. Baxter had even taken up this tune herself, in order to constantly remind Olive of her outrageous selfishness.
It took several minute before it suddenly struck Olive that the end of the War would mean the end of evacuation. Even when she thought back as hard as she possibly could, she could hardly remember life before she had come to live with the Baxters in the country. She remembered her mother, of course; Mrs. Whackitt came on very occasional visits to the countryside, along with Mary’s parents and grandparents, to visit her daughter, but Olive didn’t think much of her overly-nervous, shaking parent, who was afraid of everything, mostly Olive. Olive couldn’t really remember living with her mother before she was five years old, but she knew that if her mother disliked dirt (as her visits to the countryside had proved she did), they wouldn’t get along very well.
Then Olive realised that she hadn’t seen London in six years, and she couldn’t even remember what it was like. If she thought very, very hard back to her early childhood, she could remember the sight and the smell of the London smog; the dirty, box-shaped vehicles that rattled by; the tall, grey buildings stretching as far as the eye could see. Most of all there was the noise, the total lack of fields, trees and animals. Essentially, Olive could remember a place that was the exact opposite of the countryside.
So it also struck her that her life was probably about to change considerably. One by one, the ideas came to her; her mouse of a mother would clearly let her do anything she wanted. She’d never have to eat rotten slimy stew. There would be no Albert turning his nose up at everything, no Priscilla whining and weeping constantly, none of the Whinging brothers shrieking in excitement every five seconds and demanding that Olive come and look at a fascinating groove in the floorboards. But there would always be Mary, faithful Mary, who would do more or less anything Olive told her to do. Olive was sure that she could rule the entire city of London, just as she ruled this pathetic little village. The people here had known her long enough that it was not an uncommon occurrence for fully-grown men to duck into doorways whenever she passed by. And anyway, Olive was eleven now; she was practically grown-up! Of course, now she would leave her strict, ordered childhood behind her, and make her way up in the world, in a city where everything happened; where she could do anything she wanted. And Mary would always be alongside her. Of course, it would always do to have an accomplice.
Olive couldn’t stop thinking about this all afternoon. She forgot her punishment; she lay on her bed staring up at the ceiling for hours, before Mary, who wasn’t the least bit traumatised about having been chased up a tree by a large bull, came upstairs and into the room with Priscilla.
“Have you heard?” Mary shouted excitedly, jumping onto Olive’s bed so that the saggy springs nearly gave way. “The war’s over!”
“I know!” Olive whispered dreamily. “Imagine it, Mary! Remember this day; this is the day that our lives change forever! We’ll escape from this stupid village and go back home to London, and we’ll be grown-up, and everyone will listen to me! We can do anything, Mary, anything!”
“I don’t believe it!” Priscilla squealed ambiguously. It was the first time that the two girls had seen her truly happy. “I can go home! I can go home to Mama and Papa and Rowlings Manor, and I’ll have ever so many new clothes and shoes! I’ll have my own old bedroom with my four-poster bed and all my dolls and they’ll be no horrid little common children anywhere in sight! We’ll have five-course dinners again, and butlers and footmen and maids, to do anything we want! We’ll go everywhere in one of the cars, and I’ll be a young lady, at last!”
Olive’s smile widened as she listened to Priscilla. Was that really what it was like in London? Olive couldn’t remember most of the things that Priscilla has said, but then, it being such a long time ago, her memory wasn’t too good. Her mother, on her visits, had never mentioned anything about a Whackitt Manor, but then Olive had never asked, either. And no doubt, Mary would live with her family next door in Maggott Manor, so she would still be able to make herself useful. Yes, Olive was going to have a very exciting time from now on.
“Oh, I will miss them!” sobbed Mr. Baxter, dripping enormous tears into his handkerchief. “Seven dear little children! Each as lovely as the next!”
“Of course, Lionel. All of them,” said Mrs. Baxter icily. Mabel nodded dryly, staring into space. “We’ll all miss them, I’m sure…it’s been an interesting few years, certainly…particularly with little Olive.”
“Charming little Olive!” Mr. Baxter wailed, blowing his nose noisily and making several people jump. “What an angel! Not to mention Priscilla, of course. And Mary!”
“The star of the show,” Mrs. Baxter murmured absent-mindedly. But then she stopped, doing her best to squash that thought out of her mind. She didn’t want to remember that terrible Christmas play.
“She was such a fantastic actress,” continued Mr. Baxter. “She’s bound for great things; I can tell you that. Great, great things. And the Whinging brothers were such well-behaved little boys. And Albert; such a dashing young lad. Oh, Muriel, I’ll never forget them for as long as I live, do you know? Never! Why did they have to leave?”
Mrs. Baxter and Mabel frowned and peered at one another. Then Mrs. Baxter cleared her throat. “Well…Lionel, they’re still here.”
They were. Mr. and Mrs. Baxter, Mabel, and the seven children were standing on the same long platform that Olive had stepped onto six years ago upon her arrival in the countryside. Five of the children were standing forlornly among several more evacuees, holding their one suitcase each, but the Rowlings children again seemed weighed down with an overwhelming number of bags and suitcases.
“Oh,” said Mr. Baxter, eyeing the children as though he had never seen them before. “I see.”
Mr. Baxter was confused, struggling to identify the familiar children he saw before him with the ones he had seen all those years ago. Were those children over there really Albert and Priscilla Rowlings? He could recall a similar vision of the two evacuees six years ago carrying such an array of luggage. He remembered a pained-looking girl with long, dead-straight blonde hair and a thin white face. He also remembered her pale, snobbish, well-dressed older brother. But he could have sworn that the Albert and Priscilla he remembered were considerably shorter than these two children. Hadn’t Priscilla struggled to drag that massive trunk even a few feet, the last time he had seen her with it?
Then there were the three identical boys standing gazing around themselves in awe. True; they did remotely resemble the Whinging brothers that Mr. Baxter remembered looking terrified all those years ago as he had arrived in his kitchen to greet them. Though he had banged his head rather hard on the doorframe that morning; maybe his brain had been playing tricks on him. After all, these boys here were at least ten or eleven years old.
Lastly, Mr. Baxter glanced towards Olive and Mary. Mary was still quite small, but no longer looked like a four-year-old. Anyway, she had grown a little, and her dark-brown hair now almost reached her waist in the two long plaits that Mrs. Baxter had arranged. She was quite a pretty child, actually, and she looked about her with a look of sharp interest.
Olive Whackitt, in contrast, could never be described as pretty. Regardless of how hard anyone tried, Olive was too messy for Mrs. Baxter to risk getting her to grow her hair. Olive’s hair was shoulder-length, most of it standing up from her head in greasy blonde tufts. Her face was grim and nearly as pale as Priscilla’s, and her clothes began to look untidy and dirty almost the second she put them on.
“Of course,” said Mr. Baxter uncertainly. He turned to his wife. “We will miss them when they leave, won’t we, Muriel?”
“Yes,” said Mrs. Baxter. She had to admit to herself; she might miss Mary a little. The village school had been rather pleased with Mary in the last couple of years. Mary was frequently very quiet, but she was showing some obvious signs of intelligence. And she had been incredibly proud of Mary in that blissful month of imagining that Mary would get the staring part in a play that might actually go well. Until Olive had interfered.
Olive wasn’t really thinking about leaving the countryside or what she was leaving behind. She hadn’t shown any sort of reluctance or regret to leave the room that had been her bedroom for the last six years, or the farm. Or, in fact, any part of the village that had been her home. Neither had Mary. The Whinging brothers, however, had superstitiously gone from room to room that morning, saying goodbye to every single piece of furniture. They’d even gone to say goodbye to the toilet out in the garden, and the Anderson shelter, before Olive had triumphantly insisted that she be allowed to assist in its destruction. Even more oddly, Frederick, without the knowledge of the Baxters, had managed to stuff the (clean) chamber pot into his suitcase as a memento.
Albert and Priscilla couldn’t have been more eager to leave. They had spent the last few days excited talking to one another about their memories of London and Rowlings Manor, and their excitement at going back. Olive, having eavesdropped on their conversations, could see that Albert had similar views to Priscilla:
“Such a huge, beautiful house,” Albert whispered. “A magnificent front door, opened by the footman. Marble pillars in every direction. The big gallery with all our ancestors’ portraits. The stables with our own ponies. The amazing grounds with fountains and neat little beds of flowers everywhere…..Olive, go away!”
But Olive had heard enough. She was excited to reach London; to start her new grown-up life.
Mr. Baxter began to wail forlornly again as the huge train pulled up next to the platform, engulfing everyone in steam. Olive, Albert and Priscilla started to jump up and down excitedly. The lips of the Whinging brothers wobbled as they glanced back towards the green landscape that had brought them so much joy, and they had to take out their specially-picked souvenir blades of grass for comfort. Mary let out a short sigh that didn’t sound particularly sad…or anything else, for that matter. She picked up her suitcase and hurriedly jogged after Olive as she ran towards the nearest door to the train. Olive tried to get the door open. For one terrifying moment, Mr. Baxter approached her with outstretched arms as though to hug her, and she began to almost scream in panic, but the door handle finally clicked into place and she plunged into the train and made for the nearest compartment with Mary at her heels. Albert and Priscilla immediately ran for another door, taking a few second to bundle all their luggage in with them. The Whinging brothers, who had unfortunately not quite managed to escape Mr. Baxter’s choking embrace, eventually sidled into the same compartment as Olive and Mary.
Olive heaved a sigh of relief as she collapsed into her seat; her feet resting on her suitcase. She peered out the window as dozens of other evacuees climbed onto the train. Frederick, Augustus and Adolphus sat neatly opposite the two girls, and immediately burst into tears. All five children glanced back at Mr. and Mrs. Baxter to where they stood with Mabel. Mabel and Mr. Baxter both were crying, and even Mrs. Baxter looked a little sad. Seeing the five faces peering out at her, she took out her handkerchief and waved it at their window solemnly and then further up the train towards a window where they presumed Albert and Priscilla were peering out.
About five minutes later, the train whistle sounded. Mrs. Baxter gave one more wave of her handkerchief before she put it away. The train very slowly started to move with a slow chugging sound. She turned to leave, dragging Mabel along with her, but Mr. Baxter had other ideas.
“Goodbye! Goodbye!” he shrieked, running alongside the train to wave to Olive, Mary and the Whingings.
“Lionel!” shouted Mrs. Baxter, looking thoroughly embarrassed as she spotted a few women smirking from further along the platform.
Mr. Baxter ignored her, still running after the train. The Whinging brothers waved at him sadly, obviously assuming that he would stop soon. From another open window nearby, the children heard a panicked cry of “There’s a mad giant chasing us!” and several frightened wails.
“Lionel!” Mrs. Baxter shouted faintly. Olive stuck her head out of the window and spotted Mrs. Baxter and Mabel amongst the crowd. Mrs. Baxter’s head looked more like an enormous heart cracked right through the middle than ever.
“Goodbye!” Mr. Baxter yelled one last time….then he ran out of ground to walk on. The platform ended, unfortunately, just above a muddy puddle, and Mr. Baxter toppled off the edge and landed face down in the mess.
Olive heard a faint scream from Mrs. Baxter, to whom it looked as though her husband had actually been run over by the train. But Mr. Baxter, in all his idiocy, raised his mud-coated face from the puddle just once more to give them a parting grin.
Just before the train rounded a corner, Olive stuck out her tongue at Mrs. Baxter. After all, it was apparently the last time she would ever see her.
The train had sped along the track for what seemed like forever. Olive, Mary, Frederick, Augustus and Adolphus were sitting nervously, each of them gazing out the train window. Remarkably, Olive didn’t seem to care about being so near to the Whinging brothers. She rested her two fists on the little window ledge next to the train window, peering out of the grimy glass, trying to make something out past the grey, pattering sheets of rain that made little streams down the window. She was one step away from pressing her face against the glass, like the Whingings when they saw particularly thick mortar in tunnels.
Mary didn’t care that Adolphus was visibly taking sandwiches out of the paper bag containing her lunch, which had been made for her by Mabel that morning. After six years, both she and Adolphus had forgotten all about what her grandfather had said to do in this situation. Indeed, the famous gun, which had actually been rather seldom used during the children’s time in the country, lay still on Mary’s lap. Mary was clutching it with both hands where she sat next to the window opposite Olive. She too was staring out of the window with a fascinated expression, and she played anxious tunes by tapping her heels against the bottom of her seat.
The view out of the window was somewhat blurred due to the heavy rain; the thick fog that dimmed the city was barely distinguishable from the grey sky that the children had been so unused to in the countryside. All that they could really see were the long brick walls topped with fences which lined the railway tracks, and also the shapes of countless dark rectangles, seeming to reach the sky, away in the distance. There were a great many, in varying states of destruction. How big a city was London?
“Is that really London?” Frederick breathed, barely audibly.
No one answered him directly. The children did not take their eyes off the tall, grim buildings of this unknown place, even when they had been encompassed by them completely, and the children found themselves travelling through a number of tunnels, peering into long rows of people’s back gardens, and watched below them as equally long rows of grim London houses passed by slowly. Sometimes, on patches of ground where the children expected a house to be, there was nothing but the rectangular hole of an exposed cellar, surrounded by ruins of mouldy grey bricks. Some looked like opened dolls’ houses; the rooms within were intact, but the fronts of the houses were missing, as if they had been built to show off what went on inside as a kind of bizarre spectacle. The children couldn’t remember any of this.
The platform that the children eventually arrived at was not outdoors like the one they had left; it was in a vast, bright room that was so huge they could barely see where the four walls were, and what seemed like thousands of people all over the place. The train came to a sharp stop in what appeared to be no time at all; almost as quickly as the contemplative silence abandoned the mind of Olive.
“Come on, Mary!” she shouted, jumping up and grabbing her suitcase, instantly forgetting the awed silence that had just held her. The transition from quiet to Olive’s shrill command was like waking up from a dream.
Mary shoved her gun into her bag hurriedly, grabbed her suitcase and rushed out of the compartment after Olive, leaving Frederick, Augustus and Adolphus still crouching on the floor.
“Shouldn’t we have said goodbye to Fred and Augustus and Adolphus?” Mary asked wonderingly, as the children quickly jumped from the train to the busy platform. They wrinkled their noses at the unfamiliar steamy smell of the city, and had some difficulty seeing in front of them due to the immense crowd of people. “I mean, we have been living with them for six years….”
“No time!” said Olive. She watched, out of the corner of her eye, as Albert and Priscilla stepped out of another door of the train and had their luggage collected from them by about half a dozen fancily-dressed porters, all with the name ‘Rowlings Manor’ embroidered onto their jackets.
“Mary! Mary, over here!” screamed two voices.
Olive and Mary looked over, and saw Mr. and Mrs. Maggott waving wildly at Mary. Beside them, Olive’s mother was standing nervously, glancing at her daughter.
“Hello, Mary, darling!” shrieked Mr. and Mrs. Maggott as the girls approached.
“Hello, Olive. Hello, Mary,” Mrs. Whackitt whispered, picking up Olive’s suitcase from where her daughter had dropped it onto the floor at her feet, and hastily flicking a few specks of dust from it. “Welcome home….”
Twenty minutes later, Olive was standing in a small, grubby room above a grimy shop that made bookmarks. There were four tiny, dark rooms in all: a kitchen, a sitting room and two bedrooms, one of which had a tiny, dingy lavatory adjoining.
The room that Olive was now occupying was her bedroom. It was not much bigger than a cupboard, had one window looking onto another window in a brick wall, and the walls were peeling several layers of grey paint onto the dark wooden floor. An iron bedstead stood in one corner, with an ugly grey cover and pillow, and the rest of the room was taken up with a small desk and a wardrobe. Olive’s suitcase was lying forlornly on the floor beneath the window.
The street that this flat was in was what Mrs. Whackitt liked to call the ‘high street’. The buildings were tall, derelict and made from sooty bricks, and small shops, many of them boarded up, ran along the ground floors. The street was a wide stretch of stained concrete, and at the sides of the road, one or two automobiles were parked. There was litter everywhere, and a constant smog hung over the street. Occasionally, a miserable-looking person would trudge past, looking as though they wished they were dead.
But Olive could not see anything that was happening outside anymore, though she had been surprised to observe it all as she, her mother, and the Maggotts made their way home from the train station. Seeing as her bedroom window faced another window in a brick wall, Olive was only able to look down onto a dark, narrow, rubbish-covered alleyway, containing a few overturned dustbins and several colonies of rats. There was not a tree or a patch of grass in sight. Therefore, Olive had to lean out of the window to see part of the street outside her home, and even then she could only see the corners of two buildings, between which was another alley, identical to the one she looked down onto.
The window that Olive’s bedroom looked onto happened to be the window of Mary Maggott’s bedroom. Mary and her family lived in an identical flat to that of Olive and her mother; above a shop which made lids for ink bottles. Mary’s room was equally as damp, dreary and small as Olive’s, and her flat also contained a kitchen, a sitting room, a tiny lavatory and a second bedroom, which was divided in two by a curtain, to separate the space occupied by Mary’s parents to that of her ageing grandparents, who had decided to let their granddaughter keep the gun to which she had become rather attached.
It couldn’t have been more different from the countryside. Their flats could not have been more different from the house in which they had lived with Mr. and Mrs. Baxter. And yet, the two girls, peculiarly, were happy. The flat didn’t even come close to the Whackitt Manor which Olive had envisioned in her mind, but when she looked past the walls of her home, Olive had discovered a society full to the brim of people whom she could manipulate, and she could think of countless ways that would make everyone pay her some attention. Yes, Olive Whackitt was going to rise up in the world. And Mary would help her along the way, no doubt.