It was the morning after Olive’s moderately successful afternoon of casing the joint, but she couldn’t be more miserable. Following Alice’s warning, Olive had spent several hours obsessively searching every inch of Raymond’s account, and finding adoring comments from this mysterious ‘Lulu’ wherever she looked. The name sounded strangely familiar, and Olive had racked her brains, but she simply could not think who this person could be. So even after a night of having the whole double bed in Mary’s room to herself, was feeling as depressed as she ever had in her life. She felt certain that there was nothing which could take her mind off the horrific circumstances which seemed set to ruin everything for her, but when Olive sluggishly walked into Mary’s kitchen, she took one look through the door and almost had a heart attack.
The room was almost perfectly normal. It was still spotless; Mary was extremely proud to be the owner of the house where most of the Team meetings were to take place. The large wooden cupboards were squeaky-clean, as were the cream-coloured tiles on the floor. The oven and stove had been polished to a sparkling black, and the fridge and freezer gleamed white. The early morning sun was beaming outside the window. It might have made the contents of the kitchen shine, if something had not blocked its path.
There was a wide figure standing in the middle of the kitchen, and Olive could see that it was a woman, but as the sun was shining right in her face, the first thing she saw was a mere silhouette. Initially, what she saw was a plump body that rather than a head, seemed to possess a giant heart on its shoulders, as this person had a regular round face, but the normality was shattered by the two huge mounds of what Olive now believed to be reddish-grey hair. And as she moved further into the kitchen, she saw a cross, red face. The person wore a long, dung-coloured coat with battered leather shoes, and the piercing green eyes stared straight into Olive’s face. Mrs. Baxter was standing in the middle of Mary’s kitchen.
Olive wondered whether she were going mad. True, her eyesight wasn’t as great as it used to be, but she had never imagined that it could ever get as bad as this. Then it struck her; could it be a mirage? Olive checked to see whether the air was wavy, but she couldn’t say it was. Perhaps something extremely peculiar was going on, and she was seeing a ghost. After all, Mrs. Baxter was long dead, surely? Olive had long been in the habit of telling anyone who asked her that a belief in the supernatural was absurd and that she would never be so ridiculous, but at the back of her mind she had always wondered. And Olive had always known that any house belonging to Mary Maggott could never be entirely normal. But then, Olive had always had a sneaking suspicion that this tyannical, cross woman was immortal. She would have to check.
Shaking, Olive stepped forward, careful to never take her eyes away from Mrs. Baxter’s face, although she noticed that it was difficult for her to directly stare into the eyes themselves. Then she took up a defensive position just inside the kitchen door. “Friend or foe?” she demanded.
Mrs. Baxter stared a Olive with a mixture of shock, disgust and utter resentment. But there was something else, too; something about her eyes. Olive remembered that glittering shade of olive-green perfectly well. Mrs. Baxter had stared at her with those sinister irises on several different occasions; when angry, disappointed, shocked, utterly baffled…..but Olive wasn’t sure that she’d ever seen this kind of combination in Mrs. Baxter’s face before. Also, this woman was a lot, lot shorter than Mrs. Baxter had been. Mrs. Baxter had been rather tall, but this woman could almost be described as a dwarf. Besides, there was something oddly familiar about the eerie, sneaky way that they stared at her, and Olive didn’t think that this reminded her of Mrs. Baxter.
Then she gasped, and stepped backwards, until the person was almost a silhouette once more. She covered her hands with her mouth, and simply stared before finally speaking.
“Hello, Lucy,” she whispered.
For a moment, the person in the kitchen did not answer her. The two elderly women stared at one another; the first with absolute wonder, the second with her strange combination, until at last, one of them spoke.
“Olive,” was all that Lucy said, nodding her head in acknowledgement.
Another prolonged silence. Olive stared at Lucy. Lucy stared at Olive. Olive was surprised at herself. She hadn’t ever imagined that this sort of thing would ever happen, of course, but she was sure that if she had, she’d have pictured it rather differently. She certainly wouldn’t have expected to be just standing here nervously. Shouldn’t she be yelling at Lucy to get lost? Why was she afraid to say anything with those eyes peering at her sternly? Finally Olive gave an embarrassed cough.
“So…Lucy,” Olive said carefully, shuffling from one foot to the other. She twiddled her thumbs nervously. “After all these years. Well…..”
Olive trailed off, hoping that Lucy would get the message and tell Olive what she was actually doing in Mary’s kitchen. Olive wasn’t even entirely sure how she got in. Olive couldn’t see any open windows. The back door was locked; the key in its usual drawer. She eventually concluded that Lucy probably hadn’t come down the chimney. If she had, she’d probably be covered in soot, and besides, throwing herself down a chimney just for the sake of a dramatic appearance was a bit extreme, even for Lucy. But anyway, after a few moments, Olive understood that Lucy probably wasn’t going to explain without a direct question. She decided to be as polite as possible. For all she knew, Lucy might be just popping round to say hello.
“Might I ask what brings you here?” Olive stuttered eventually.
For an answer, Lucy turned and started to pace slowly around the kitchen. “This is not your house, I think?” she asked carelessly, wiping one finger down a cupboard and then examining it. Olive noticed she was wearing a pair of white gloves.
“No,” said Olive. “It’s not my house. It’s Mary’s. You remember Mary, I suppose?”
“Ah, yes, Mary Maggott,” Lucy said, still not looking at Olive properly. “That rather odd little girl. The one who for some strange reason decided to run headlong towards that bull in a bright red outfit…”
Olive opened her mouth to protest, but immediately decided against it when Lucy’s flashing green eyes peered towards her face.
“You’re probably wondering why I’m here,” Lucy said.
Olive, thinking that it was perfectly obvious that she did, stood still and waited, not wanting to give Lucy an opportunity to change the subject. She wanted her out of here as soon as possible.
“Olive,” Lucy began. She finally stopped pacing and simply turned her face towards Olive, who now felt the full force of Lucy’s overwhelming presence. “I have only one thing to say to you. I think you know what it is.”
Olive was confused. She actually had no idea what Lucy wanted to say to her. What did Lucy Waters want with her, anyway? The last time she’d seen Lucy, they were aged eleven and eight, and Lucy had been revelling in the fact that she would never have to see Olive again.
“Olive!” Lucy said, a touch of impatience in her voice. She suddenly took a threatening step forward. Olive had to strongly resist the urge to take a step backwards. “Olive, I know you probably know what I’m talking about, but just in case that pea-sized brain of yours can’t register this, I’ll explain it for you: I know that you’ve been making plans. Plans involving a certain young man in the neighbourhood.”
Olive tried to keep her eyes on Lucy’s, with difficulty. Regardless of how much of a surprise Lucy’s appearance had been, she was not prepared for this. “What do you mean?” she stuttered, trying not to give anything away. “I’m not interested in any young man. I’m married. To Frederick. I’m happily married! I have two children.”
“Don’t lie to me, Olive,” Lucy said, ignoring Olive’s anxious snicker. “I can always tell when people lie to me.”
Olive, gazing into Lucy’s green eyes, which suddenly looked like piercing lasers, believed her. Lucy continued. “Olive, you’re not the only one partial to a drink in ‘The Barmy Duck’. What were you thinking; holding a meeting there? Didn’t you wonder who might be listening?”
Olive stared at Lucy, and she suddenly recalled that solitary figure, dressed in a long, brown coat, hunched in a corner of the pub during their first unofficial meeting, to whom she had never thought to pay attention.
And then, all of a sudden, everything came back to her. The visits of Celia, Jack, Hetty and Lucy to Mr and Mrs. Baxter. The smarmy, over-emotional welcomes. Olive and Lucy’s perpetual hatred of one another. It was here that Olive remembered Lucy’s old nickname. Lulu.
Olive gasped. Right here, in Mary’s kitchen, on this beautiful summer’s morning, Olive was facing her arch-enemy This was the Lulu who had been on Facebook, commenting on all of Raymond’s photographs, of course. The Lulu who publicly insulted ‘Shannon’ by making that nasty comment about the cheap-looking knitting needles included in her profile picture, probably turning Raymond against her. The Lulu who was trying to steal Raymond away from Olive forever. No. No, this was too much.
“You…you can’t!” Olive managed to choke out, her eyes growing wide with panic and horror. “No! Lulu….Lucy, no! I won’t allow it! Not him! Not him! Oh, dear goodness, have a heart, Lucy! I’ve been working too long and hard on this! Do you know how long I’ve been trying to get him? Do you? Thirty years, Lucy! Thirty! I can’t let that all just be in vain! Thirty years…”
Lucy silenced Olive with an icy look. “And what about what I want, Olive?” she whispered menacingly. Olive thought she felt her skin crawling. “What about the years I’ve spent on my own schemes? You ought to know now that in the end, I always get what I want. I always win. That’s how it always has been, and how it always will be. You should know that better than anyone.”
Olive, for a moment forgetting her skittishness, felt an overpowering urge to run over and slap Lucy, but she knew in her heart that that was impossible. One look in those sneaky green eyes and Lucy’s aura of menace took over. But it wasn’t fair! Lucy, of all people! She was the most undeserving person in the world. Why wasn’t it Olive who had some kind of special power that made her win at everything? But Olive’s mind was now occupied mostly with images of Raymond’s face. And occasionally, in her mind, Lucy’s own face appeared, grinning menacingly, promising that Olive would never, ever have what she wanted.
“You can’t always win,” Olive said shakily.
At that moment, Frederick happened to walk past the door to the kitchen. “Morning, Olive,” he muttered through a mouthful of strawberry milkshake. He glanced into the room. “Morning, Mrs. Baxter.”
There was a slight pause. Olive and Lucy listened as Frederick’s footsteps continued up the hallway. That was before they suddenly stopped, and then started again rapidly as Frederick came rushing back. “Wait a minute!” he cried. “Mrs. Baxter’s dead! Oh, my goodness! I knew it! I always knew it! Olive, Mrs. Baxter’s a ghost!”
“I am not a ghost!” Lucy suddenly bellowed, making Olive and Frederick both jump. “And I’m not Mrs. Baxter, either! I’m Lucy Waters! Look at you both! What a perfect pair! You’re both as stupid as one another! How can you ever imagine that your ludicrous plans will work, Olive? I always win, you know that! And Frederick, just try and remember what I’ve said for more than a few seconds!”
With that, Lucy flounced past Olive and Frederick, marched down the hall and flung open the front door. In a second, she was gone. Olive couldn’t help thinking that her exit wasn’t as unnerving as she had thought it would be. Lucy might have thrown some kind of magic powder to the floor that engulfed the room in darkness as she disappeared, uttering a hysterical, evil laugh as she did so. She might at least have kept her dignity.
“Well, who rattled her cage?” Frederick demanded, more to himself than to Olive. “I never! How rude! Well. Hmm. Olive, that definitely wasn’t Mrs. Baxter, was it?”
“No,” Olive said. She took a deep breath, and turned to look at Frederick straight in the eyes. “That, Frederick, was Lucy Waters, or, as I’ve just found out, Lulu.”
There was a short pause. “Who?” said Frederick nervously.
“Lulu? I don’t know anyone called Lulu.”
“Yes, you do! Think back to when we were children, when we were evacuees! Don’t you remember when Hetty used to come and visit the Baxters, and we were always there? Do you remember Lucy, and what Mrs. Baxter used to call her?”
“No,” said Frederick blankly.
“What do you mean?” Olive cried. “Lucy Waters! Fred, how can you not remember Lucy? Mary’s dare! Mary and the bull!”
“Mary and the bull?” Frederick repeated, looking confused. “Olive, you know I have trouble remembering things…”
“Yes, Lucy pointed that out herself,” Olive said bitterly.
“Did she?” Frederick asked, blinking.
“Yes!” Olive snapped. Then she frowned. “How did she know, anyway?”
Frederick shrugged. “Can’t say,” he muttered, taking another gulp of milkshake.
Olive scowled and turned away from Frederick. She knew that Frederick was a really harmless sort of idiot, but right now she didn’t feel like taking pity on his stupidity and being nice to him. Lulu’s true identity had just been revealed to her, and Olive couldn’t help thinking that it was the worst possible outcome she could have imagined. She needed someone to talk to who would understand.
Mary was out at the shops. She’d warned Olive that she might be an awfully long time. She needed to visit several different stores, some of them in far-away towns, in order to buy the specific foods which would meet Albert and Priscilla’s dietary requirements. Olive didn’t think that Mary had the psychological expertise to deal with this sort of situation, anyway. Augustus and Adolphus were also there, and they were slightly less dim-witted than Frederick, but Olive still didn’t think that they were right for the job. James was too much of a wimp. And Olive was pretty sure that she wouldn’t get much moral support from Albert or Priscilla.
That left Hetty, Edith and Alice. Perfect, Olive thought. Hetty would do splendidly. Surely she must know her own sister. But Hetty and Lucy, from what Olive had gathered, had never got on particularly well together, and Hetty was sure to take Olive’s side in all of this. Hetty wasn’t very clever, nor was Edith, but Alice would be an excellent addition, what with her intelligence.
Olive immediately ran out of the kitchen and headed down into the cellar, which Mary had long since decorated, and now called her game room.
The room was rather dim. A single bare light-bulb hung from the middle of the ceiling, lighting up the centre of the room but leaving the periphery in relative darkness. At one end was an area that Mary liked to call the ‘bar’, but was in fact a group of mis-matched small tables containing several tall drinks bottles and a few glasses. The rest of the room was filled up with a pinball machine, table-football set, table-tennis set and a snooker table.
Alice Reynolds was sitting reading a book (some boring-looking volume about chemistry) through her spectacles in a wooden kitchen chair beside the table where Hetty and Edith were playing table-tennis. Olive thought that her entrance into the room had been quite extravagant, but the others weren’t paying much attention to her. Hetty and Edith were apparently concentrating so much on their game that they hadn’t even looked up as Olive had entered the room. Alice merely glanced up momentarily before returning to her book.
Olive cleared her throat loudly. Alice looked up at her again without returning back to her book this time, but Hetty and Edith continued playing table-tennis.
Olive knew that it was only really Alice that she needed to speak to, but she felt that Hetty and Edith ought to be let in on the newest plan as well if they were to assist, and anyway, the clunk of bats hitting the ball and the frequent little ‘bop’ as the ball bounced on the table were really very irritating.
Olive angrily stomped over to the table-tennis table as Alice looked on wonderingly, and grabbed the ball the moment it hit the table.
“Olive!” Hetty and Edith shouted simultaneously.
“Hello?” Olive shouted in return. “That was disgraceful, both of you! Don’t you think your Leader deserves a little respect from you lot when she enters a room? Can’t you see that I’ve just received bad news? The two of you didn’t even bother to look up!”
“Sorry, Olive,” Hetty and Edith mumbled, scuffing their shoes guiltily.
“Sorry,” Alice muttered, marking her place in her book and laying it down. “What’s the matter, then?”
Olive sighed. She didn’t know how best to break the terrible news to the three of them.
“This ‘Lulu’, Alice, that you warned me about, is, in reality, Lucy Waters, who, as we all know, is the younger sister of our own Hetty,” Olive said dramatically after a long pause.
Nobody spoke, and the room was suddenly so silent that the four women could hear the Whinging brothers discussing their stamps up in the spare bedroom, and something which sounded like James coughing. Neither Hetty, Edith nor Alice had been prepared for such an abrupt and shocking revelation. Edith and Alice looked anxiously at Hetty, as though waiting for some kind of reaction, but Hetty just stared back at them.
“Hetty, you do know which Lucy Waters we’re talking about, don’t you?” Olive asked, angry at her friends’ failure to express the appropriate horror. “You know, Lucy Waters? Your younger sister?”
“Oh, I know, I know,” Hetty murmured. She stared up at Olive in amazement. “Gosh, that’s terribly odd! Are you sure about this? You haven’t read something wrong, have you?”
“Well, seeing as you sister just turned up in the kitchen out of nowhere and threatened me for being interested in Raymond, I’m guessing that I have my facts perfectly correct, thank you very much,” Olive snapped.
“Olive, it wasn’t a mirage, was it?” Alice asked knowledgably. “Maybe the light was playing tricks on you.”
“The light was not playing tricks on me!” Olive cried. Did Alice think that she was entirely stupid? “Fred saw her as well! She was just standing there, in the middle of Mary’s kitchen, staring at me with those eyes of hers, and….”
“Lucy did always have beautiful eyes,” Hetty beamed with sisterly pride.
“Hetty, I’m not sure that now is the time,” Alice said gently, peering at Olive’s own slightly deranged eyes. “We have a serious situation here. I think that Olive would appreciate it if we were able to come up with some plan of action.”
Olive found herself smiling at Alice. She was pleased that someone was able to act with something vaguely resembling maturity in an adverse situation.
“This is how I see it,” continued Alice, clearly taking the silence as an invitation to continue. “When we formed the Team originally, we had no problems, besides the fact that all attempts to get Raymond to become romantically interested in Olive had so far failed. The real issues began when I discovered and printed the affectionate conversations between Raymond and this ‘Lulu’, and we first realised that we had competition. The fact that this competition takes the form of a hated figure from Olive’s past makes this even worse.”
Olive, Hetty and Edith listened, mesmerised, to what Alice was saying. Alice beamed to herself, and took the liberty of introducing her fantastic idea to everybody: “I think,” she said, “that the only moral thing to do is to find out wherever Lucy lives, and to go and observe her movements so that we can get some idea about her strengths and weaknesses, and work from there. Hetty’s her sister; she has an easy opportunity.”
The three other women nodded in turn as they took in this plan. All were rather impressed. “Brilliant, Alice!” Olive cried. She turned to Hetty and Edith. “You two could learn something from her! Alice has been able to construct a plan nearly as good as the one I was thinking of.”
There was a silence, and the proud smile on Alice’s face vanished. “What do you mean?” she demanded. “What were you thinking of?”
“Well,” said Olive, and then she paused for several seconds, pondering. “Alice,” she said eventually. “I’m very keen on your idea of spying on Lucy, but you did fail to mention precisely how we would do it.”
“I was just getting on to that,” Alice said, narrowing her eyes.
“Hush, Alice,” Olive snapped. “Anyway, as I was saying, Alice has not had the expertise to work out how we will actually undertake the task of spying on Lucy and potentially finding out some very important information. Our first plan of action, of course, is to find out where Lucy lives…”
“Ooh!” Hetty squealed. “I know that! It’s 666 Raspberry Avenue!”
Olive scowled at Hetty. “Thank you, Hetty,” she said through her teeth. She turned to address Edith and Alice. “You know, of course, that Hetty knows where she lives because Lucy is her sister. Obviously I could very easily have been able to find out.”
“Yes,” said Edith and Alice together, nodding tiredly.
“So,” Olive continued. “When we get to 666 Strawberry Avenue…”
“Raspberry Avenue,” corrected Hetty.
“Yes, Hetty!” Olive said loudly. “Anyway, when we get there, we need a way of getting close enough to Lucy to observe her without being seen, which, naturally, is the fundamental art of spying. Now, as Hetty, Alice, and, of course, I, have all had their input in the plan, it’s time to turn to Edith. Edith?”
Edith looked up. “What?” she said.
“What’s your plan for getting close enough to Lucy to observe her without actually being seen?”
“Oh…Olive, I’m not too good at this sort of thing, you know,” Edith stammered, feeling uncomfortable as she glanced around at everyone’s expectant eyes. “And actually, I’m starting to rather need the toilet; do you think I could quickly pop to the loo for a moment?”
“Edith!” Olive snapped. “You’re the only one who has not had an idea so far! We need something! Something decent!”
“Oh….but, Olive, I never thought, when I joined the Team, you know, that I’d actually have to come up with plansand everything, you know; I thought I’d already done plenty of that when I wrote my report on why I should be a co-leader. And it’s terribly hard to think when you need the toilet; can’t I quickly just go? I promise I’ll come straight back!”
Olive clasped her head in her hands in exasperation. “One idea, Edith,” she said. “Just one idea to prove that you’re not a complete waste of space. Then you can go to the toilet.”
Edith looked helplessly at Alice, but Alice just shrugged. Edith thought longingly of the toilet upstairs, smelling of air freshener, the small window at back offering the chance of escape, the really good, strong flush leading down to the sewers…
“Oh! I’ve got it!” Edith yelped suddenly. She looked extremely pleased with herself. “We could use the sewers!”
“The sewers?” said Hetty and Alice simultaneously, horrified.
Olive was the only one whose face didn’t immediately contort into an expression of complete disgust. “Go on, Edith,” she said carefully. “How would we use the sewers?”
“Well,” said Edith, bouncing up and down as she grew more desperate for the toilet. “We go into the sewers just around the corner from Raspberry Avenue, and we walk through it until we get to a pothole in Lucy’s garden or something, and we should be able to get into a good position from there. Olive, could I please use the toilet now?”
“Yes, go on,” Olive said thoughtfully. As Edith dashed away, Olive was gazing at the ceiling with glazed eyes.
“Olive, you can’t be serious?” Alice was saying. “You honestly like the idea of jumping into a sewer just to find out something about Lucy? We might not even find out anything! Edith only said that so you’d let her go to the toilet! And look outside; it’s going to pour with rain! Won’t there be a slight problem if it’s raining and we’re trying to use the sewers?”
Olive looked absent-mindedly out of the window, which, seeing as they were in the cellar, was very near the ceiling. There were several black clouds assembling, and actually, some little splatters of rain were already landing on the glass, but Olive’s mind was too fixed on defeating Lucy.
“I’m absolutely certain about this, Alice,” Olive said seriously. She stood up straight. “Come on, everybody! As soon as Edith gets back, we are going to Raspberry Avenue, and we shall defeat Lucy Waters! Hetty, how far is it from here to Raspberry Avenue?”
“Oh, only a couple of miles,” Hetty said, waving her hand dismissively. “It shouldn’t take us long.”
“Perfect!” said Olive. “So we’re all set! Well, isn’t this a brilliant plan of mine?”
“Well, basically you just explained my plan, except that you asked everyone else to fill in the gaps that I didn’t have time to explain,” Alice muttered.
“Shut up, Alice,” Olive said as Edith arrived back in the room. “Right, let’s go! Hetty, go and get the raincoats! Edith, fetch my umbrella! Alice, go and get a map of London! We are going to succeed in our mission! No stupid, podgy witch is going to stop me from getting what I want!”
Five and a half hours later, Olive, Hetty, Edith and Alice trudged up to the sign reading ‘Raspberry Avenue’. They were very wet, having left in such a hurry that no one except Olive was wearing a coat, and no one except Olive had an umbrella. When anyone tried to inch a little closer to her in the hope of shielding themselves from the downpour, Olive shrieked and accused them of deliberately trying to get her wet and sabotage her leaderly authority. The journey had also taken a lot longer than Olive had anticipated.
“Hetty, I thought you said it was only a couple of miles!” Olive said as Alice folded up the ancient-looking map of France which had been the only map in Mary’s cupboard.
“Well, I thought it was,” Hetty said, thinking hard. “I remember Lucy telling me once that it was only couple of miles.”
“From your flat, yes!” Olive snapped. “Not Mary’s house.”
Hetty shrugged as though she wasn’t sure what the problem was. The five women had set off from Mary’s house at around half past nine that morning, and it was now almost three o’ clock in the afternoon. They had finally managed to fight their way to Raspberry Avenue, helped by the small amount of money Alice had dug out of her purse for a bus fare which took them a couple of miles. The rain had started to come down in buckets almost as soon as they had left, but now that they had arrived Olive was back to her excited and determined frenzy as she eyed a manhole at the side of the road.
“Fantastic!” she cried, as Hetty, Edith and Alice lifted the lid from the manhole with great difficulty. She smiled, and then suddenly turned to the woman on her left. “Right, Alice! Into the sewer!”
Alice’s mouth dropped open and she stared at Olive. “What?” she cried over the pounding noise of raindrops on tarmac. “Me? What about everyone else? You said we were all going to do it together!”
“I never said anything of the sort,” Olive said firmly. “I can’t help it if that’s what you assumed. I don’t have the time to be explaining everything to everybody all the time. We’ve got a serious situation! And Alice, seeing as you’re the smallest, you’re obviously the best person for the job. And let’s not forget how clever you are! Why, you’re probably the cleverest person I’ve ever met!”
Unfortunately, flattery didn’t work as well with Alice as it worked with most of the other members of the Team. Alice still looked horrified and disgusted when she stared into the dark gloom within the manhole. Somehow the blackness seemed to reach out of the hole and spill out into the surrounding atmosphere as light should have done. “You want me to go down there…alone?” she almost choked. “Alone? But what if it floods? Olive, that’s…that’s…”
“I know, I know, it won’t be very pleasant,” Olive explained, as if she were talking to a troubled child. “But remember, Alice; good things come to those who try! Good things come to those who help others! You’re helping the cause! And there’ll probably be some sort of special prize for you when this is over! I’ll get Mary to invent some kind of Team prize for commitment, and then you can have it. Now, what do you say?”
Alice had a lot to say. She was in no way prepared to go down into the drain all on her own into a sewer whilst it was pouring with rain, and nothing Olive could say about Team prizes would change her mind. But when Alice looked at Olive’s face, she saw that she didn’t really have a choice in the matter. It was highly likely that if Alice refused to go through with the plan, Olive would simply expel her from the Team or get Hetty and Edith to throw her down the drain anyway. So, with a deep sigh, Alice began to prepare herself.
“Good, good!” said Olive cheerfully as Alice arranged her hood more carefully around her face and made sure that her coat covered as much of her as possible. Olive unzipped her handbag and drew out a long coil of rope. “Hetty, Edith, tie this piece of rope to that lamppost over there, and then the other end goes round Alice’s waist. Don’t worry; I’ve seen all this done before in films. It’s going to be easy.”
Alice didn’t bother to ask what Olive supposed people would say when they came around the corner and discovered three elderly women lowering another elderly woman into a sewer on a piece of rope, and miserably tied the rope tightly and securely around her waist. Then she crossed herself and sat down on the sodden ground next to the open sewer with her legs dangling through the hole.
Olive bent down beside her, doing her best to remain shielded by the umbrella. “Good luck, Alice Reynolds,” she said dramatically. She gave Alice a formal salute. “Right! Off you go.”
Alice closed her eyes. Scarcely daring to breathe, she inched herself closer and closer to the edge, and then all of a sudden, before she was really prepared, felt her body plummet with a movement that made her scream out in shock. She half-expected to plunge straight into the sewer itself, but Hetty and Edith held onto the rope and Alice found that she was suspended in mid-air with a painful pressure around her waist. With her eyes still half-closed, she felt herself lowered further down into the hole whilst Olive leant over, blocking out any light that would otherwise have reached Alice. It seemed to last forever, and Alice, through her blind terror, was amazed that no one had apparently yet spotted or heard the women, or objected to what they were doing. But she simply continued downwards in the foetal position, nearly choking from the rope digging into her waist, and silently willing Hetty and Edith to not drop her, until she felt herself deposited onto some kind of solid surface.
Alice dared to fully open one of her eyes. The light in the sewer was of course extremely limited, but through the gloom Alice could see that she was kneeling on a sort of narrow stone platform which ran along the whole length of the tunnel, just beside a fast-moving stream of liquid that took up most of the space. It was too dark for Alice to be able to discern precisely what the liquid was, but, judging from the smell, it wasn’t hard to guess. Alice shuddered to herself and fumbled with difficulty for her pocket handkerchief. Clamping it tightly over her nose, she peered before her into the tunnel, and suddenly froze.
There was a small, lean shape coming towards her. The darkness prevented Alice from seeing anything more. She didn’t dare to speak, even as she heard Olive, Hetty and Edith shouting anxiously after her down the drain. What was this; some kind of sewer monster? Even with Alice’s scientific mind, the situation made her unable to quickly dismiss the thought.
Alice told herself not to be stupid. Of course, there was no such thing as a sewer monster. She was ashamed that she had considered it for even a moment. Pulling herself up to her full height, which was as limited as the light, Alice addressed the shape in front of her with a snappy order of, “Show yourself!”
That was when the shape passed into a narrow stream of light coming from the opening, and Alice could see that it was a small, black cat. Alice stared at the cat, and the car stared back at her, until finally Alice realised that she had better answer her friends’ call before they gave her up for dead.
“I’m fine!” she croaked hoarsely, hoping she was audible. “I’m not standing in sewage; there’s a little ridge just along the side. It’s rather like that path alongside the canal where we sometimes go for walks. Isn’t it lucky I landed there; otherwise I might have drowned or something, or caught some terrible disease like typhoid…”
“Yes, Alice,” Olive’s voice called impatiently. “The plan, remember? My plan? Do try and stay focused. We need you to get to Lucy’s house. It’s 666, but we’re at the far end, so it’s only a few hundred yards away!”
“Yes, not too far,” Hetty called. “Just turn to your right and start walking. There’s another drain when you get to the corner, so we’ll meet you there!”
“All right,” Alice called back up, trying to sound as confident as possible.
With an almost automatic demeanour that made her feel that her legs were being powered by something other than her own mind, Alice turned to her right and began to walk, glad that she didn’t have to walk past that strange little cat. In the darkness, Alice nearly fell into the stream when she came to the corner. There was a faint gushing sound as water presumably entered the sewer from somewhere further along, and Alice eyed the stream with anxiety. She could hear a violent pattering noise above her through the manhole, so the rain was probably coming down even harder than before. Alice quickened her pace, and before long she spotted a misty, grey kind of light trickling down from another hole in the road, where already she was able to hear the low voices of her fellow teammates.
“I’m here!” she called up nervously.
“Fabulous!” Olive called with what sounded like intense surprise, as if the notion of Alice surviving her journey through the unpredictable sewer was simply a positive bonus to her Plan. “Listen, Alice, we’re in Raspberry Avenue now, so it’s rather risky for us to be here at all. You’re going to have to go on by yourself. I suppose there must be a drain or something in the garden of 666; just go into the first drain you come to, because the house is literally right here! We’ll be back at the first drain!”
“Right!” called Alice, still trying to sound as positive as she could.
Alice simply walked on, listening as the voices of her friends (they were now discussing a carbohydrate-free diet Edith had found in a magazine) grew fainter. There were considerably more twists and turns in the tunnel than before, so Alice hoped that this did indeed mean that she was entering the garden of number 666. A couple of times, she cast an anxious eye at the stream, and was startled to realise that it had risen even more, even though the water line was still a couple of inches below the platform on which she was standing. She had wild thoughts about waiting for a few minutes, and then, when the water level got too high for her to dare to remain anymore, running back to the first drain and making up some story. But Alice knew that even though Olive was probably the most selfish and the least-caring person she had ever met, she was still a friend, and Alice always hated lying to people. Besides, during the time that she had been thinking about all of this, another shoot of grey, misty light was visible a few meters in front of her as she turned another corner. The trickling sound grew much louder than before, and Alice noticed a thick stream of water falling into the sewer from a drain close to the source of the light. Alice headed into the light.
The drain was extremely small. For the first time that day, Alice was glad that Augustus had found that Danish pastry she had been hoarding in a remote corner of Mary’s kitchen cupboard; had she eaten it, it would have gone straight to her hips, and she would have been a lot less likely to have been able to fit. Even for her, the drain was close enough to the ground for her to be able to reach it. It was so stiff that she struggled to shift it for a few minutes, for a while even thinking that it would be impossible and that she’d have to go back to Olive with no information anyway, but shortly after this, there was a soft grating sound, and the slatted lid to the drain gave a little. Alice pushed at it a little more until it had come off the drain completely, and she was able to push it aside, and there was a small hole above, where large raindrops fell through onto her face.
It was with a huge amount of difficulty that Alice managed to pull herself up through the hole. For a person a few decades younger it would have been nothing, but Alice doubted that she’d have been able to do it if she had not found with her hands a sturdy drainpipe to hang onto as she hoisted herself up through the hole.
She found that she was sitting in a relatively typical small garden; something that would have struck Alice as more unusual had she been familiar with Lucy Waters. As Alice stood up slowly, she saw a narrow strip of lawn, which now was a peculiar silvery sort of colour, on which there was a set of mismatched garden furniture and a tiny shed, all enclosed by a high brick wall, and, to Alice’s left, a holey wooden fence. Thick bushes lined the area of ground by the wall and the fence, and right in front of her there was a rockery, totally devoid of flowers, but supporting a number of different grey plant pots. And in front of the rockery, the part of the garden above the drain seemed to be a concrete surface where there stood to the left a forlorn glass table and no chairs, and to the right a narrow porch. The garden may have looked very pretty, but now, in the sheeting rain and below a sky that was almost completely grey, it just looked strange and miserable. It was a world of made purely from the spectrum of black and white, where the ghostly trees, pointing with their claw-like fingers, threw an additional sort of gloom up into the darkening sky.
Alice saw that there was a rain-splattered grimy white door into the house on the porch, but she knew better than to simply walk into the house, even if the door had happened to be open. She found that she was fortunately sitting in front of a part of the house that was just a wall, so she couldn’t be seen inside the house, but to her left there was a wide pair of French windows with a sliding door. And the sliding doors were open just a crack to let in some air without completely drenching the place.
Alice couldn’t believe her luck. Her trip through the drain, with her robotic sense of movement and the courage she had found, seemed to have unlocked some kind of excitement within her that had lain dormant for several years, and she felt triumphant. She realised that her fear and terror had almost completely disappeared, and with it her exasperation at Olive’s outlandish plan and the unmistakable knowledge that it would fail. Alice wished she were wearing black, like the ninjas she had seen on television. And that was when she heard the soft, low voice coming from inside the house.
It was a steady sort of citation, like a priest saying mass or someone with a very boring, monotonous voice. Occasionally, the voice wavered up or down slightly, as though the speaker was suddenly overwhelmed by something, but then it always reverted back to its steady pace. It was then that Alice realised just how dark it was inside the house; she had not noticed at first. The light would have been sufficient had it been a nice day, but the dark sky made it seem almost as dull as night. When Alice crawled slowly towards the ajar French windows, she could see a narrow, vertical view of the inside of the house. She saw a long room which obviously stretched to the other end of the house, as she caught sight of a large window, and, as though the grey sky would not have made it gloomy enough, some blinds, half-open and half-closed, hung across the length of it, sending a hazy slit-like pattern across the room. In the one top corner of the room that Alice could see, there were several thick cobwebs; not the ordinary ones found in every house, but actual huge globs of web, like the kind that families with small children hung up at Hallowe’en for decoration. The indistinguishable dark shapes of various pieces of furniture were everywhere. At first glance, it looked like a room that had been abandoned for many years. But then Alice noticed an eerie orange glow coming from a corner of the room. It also seemed that the low incantations were coming directly from this corner.
She scarcely dared to breathe, torn between terror and excitement. Was she about to uncover a coven of witches? Ghouls? Hags? Vampires? Unlike her friends, Alice had never really believed in the supernatural, but on the way to Raspberry Avenue, Olive had told Alice all about her theory to do with the figure sitting in a long, dung-coloured coat which covered its face in that remote corner of ‘The Barmy Duck’, and Alice, being the observant person that she was, remembered the figure as well. She remembered it as being a very small figure which moved with graceful, delicate movements. Something had to be going on with Lucy Waters, and something about that level of omniscience and omnipresence made her tempted to reconsider her old beliefs.
Without thinking, Alice put out her hand and pushed open the French windows a few centimetres. There was a sickening squeaking sound as the door grazed along its frame. Alice’s mouth dropped open in horror, and she flattened herself down on the floor and hunched up against the wall as much as she could. Surely, no one with halfway decent hearing could have missed that noise, and sure enough, the incantations from inside the room had abruptly stopped. Alice didn’t make a sound, as, even over the rain, she could detect the sound of soft, slow, steady footsteps pacing across the room in the direction of the French windows. Alice’s heart beat fast, and her throat felt a lot more constricted than normal. She had some difficulty restraining herself from breathing loudly in panic. Lying face-down against the wall, she couldn’t see anything around her, and so couldn’t tell whether anyone were standing just inside the French windows, or even whether anyone had noticed her. She silently cursed herself for not having lain down the other way; Alice didn’t like having to rely on her hearing, as her ears hadn’t been too good for a while now, but she was able to detect a prickly feeling on the back of her neck, and instinctively knew that her nemesis was near. But had she been seen?
Alice lay there until, to her immense relief, she heard the sound of somebody swiftly exhaling air, and then those same heavy footsteps walking, more slowly this time, back into the depths of the dark room. Alice waited a few seconds, and then began to breathe again. Very carefully, she shifted herself out of the lying position and crouched against the wall, narrowly peering in through the French windows. The ominous orange glow was still there, and the mysterious low chant had resumed.
Alice gritted her teeth. She was going to be brave, and she was going to find something out about Lucy Waters. She was relatively certain that Lucy knew her face, so she was as careful as she could as she examined the crack between the French windows and the door frame. She stared at it for several seconds, not wanting to estimate anything incorrectly, but finally she made a decision. It was wide enough. It had to be wide enough. Holding her breath, Alice crawled forwards and squeezed herself through the door, breathing in tightly so as not to jerk the window.
There were no heavy footsteps or gasps. The continuous incantation didn’t stop. Alice still couldn’t discern precisely what was being said, but, looking up from where she was flattened (she could see that she had crawled underneath a large mahogany dining table in entering the room), she could see at least one thing that assured her that she was on the right track. It was definitely Lucy Waters. Alice knew that even though Lucy had probably caught sight of her whilst spying on them in the pub, Alice had never actually seen Lucy in the flesh. Olive wasn’t the best person in the world at describing people’s appearances, but there are not many people in the world who have reddish-grey hair in two enormous puffs stretching almost a foot above their head, and Alice was pleased to remember that Olive had not chosen to omit this detail. Also, in her childhood, Alice had seen many of Olive’s insulting drawings of the legendary Mrs. Baxter, and even when allowing for Olive’s poor artistic skills the woman she saw now clearly resembled that legendary matriarch. But Lucy now looked even more terrifying than Alice had ever imagined. The orange glow, which Alice could now see came from a candelabra containing five or six candles, lit Lucy up and seemed to set her enormous hair on fire. Her eyes were strangely half-open as she chanted the strange rhythms, like she was completely absorbed in something. Only the whites of her eyes were visible.
Nonetheless, as striking as this scene was, there were only so many things that Alice could see whilst lying underneath a large dining table, so she knew right away that she needed to move. Holding her breath again, she crawled forwards, holding her legs up as best as she could so that her wet shoes would not scrape against the floor. She instantly felt exposed as soon as she had crawled out from under the dining table, so hurriedly wedged herself inbetween a nearby armchair and an ancient wooden cabinet. As Alice sat against it, several glasses within the cabinet rattled. She froze, and Lucy’s chant wavered for a moment, but Alice was relieved that it did not stop, and Lucy did not seem to be losing her concentration. And Alice realised that she was now near enough to see what was going on.
She gingerly poked her head around the side of the big armchair and found herself staring straight up at Lucy, who was sitting on a wooden kitchen chair and holding something between her hands. Alice edged nearer still, and noticed that whatever it was that Lucy was holding was having several pins driven through it from a box on a neighbouring table. Alice had a pretty good idea now of what it was. Olive occasionally used voodoo dolls for some of her enemies, mostly the people from the bank who kept badgering her for money. She hadn’t got round to making one of Lucy yet. Alice would have to remind her later. It was true what Olive had said: Lucy was scary. More than scary; she made you instantly despise her, but at the same time, become frozen with pure horror.
The strange ritual went on and on. Alice needed to get out. Fast. If Lucy were holding a séance of some kind with her grandmother, who had been dead for several decades, she didn’t want to get caught up in anything. So, almost not bothering to keep quiet, started to turn around in order to escape.
But it was at this moment that Alice actually got a good look at what Lucy was holding in her hands as she held this peculiar ceremony. It was indeed a voodoo doll, as Alice had thought it was. And it was indeed having a number of pins driven through it with vicious enthusiasm by Lucy. But Alice very quickly realised that the doll was not meant to represent Olive. The orange glow was directed especially on this tiny object, and Alice saw that the doll did not resemble her Team’s leader. Nor did it resemble Edith, Hetty, Mary, Frederick, Augustus, Adolphus, James, Albert or Priscilla. It was true that there were a number of other dolls on the table, and each one looked as though it represented a member of the Team. But the voodoo doll in Lucy’s hands was smaller and slimmer than the others, with grey hair and glasses, and a face that looked insultingly similar to that of a gnome. It represented Alice Reynolds.
Alice was now one step away from a complete panic attack. Her breath came in desperate gasps, and she suddenly clutched at her side. Staring with absolute terror at the voodoo doll in Lucy’s hands, which had just had a large pin driven through its stomach, Alice began to shake her head violently. No…no…surely not…it was only indigestion…
Just as Lucy drove a particularly large pin into the doll’s hip, Alice let out an involuntary gasp. She was so horrified that she couldn’t be entirely sure whether she had gasped out of pain or pure shock. But one thing was definite: Alice had made a huge mistake. Because at that moment, the incantation finally stopped for good, and the orange glow suddenly flickered, as though the candelabra had been violently grabbed. There was a sound like chair legs scraping against lino, and two loud thumps as a pair of feet, which had been dangling, landed on the floor. Alice couldn’t even move, and she stared at Lucy.
Lucy stared furiously around for just a couple of seconds, before her eyes, finally, were focused upon the pale, terrified woman crouching on the floor. Her eyes…Alice could finally see them properly. They were green and glittery, as Olive had said, but there was something else as well. Something which momentarily paralysed Alice with fear. Even though they sparkled dazzlingly in the dim light of the candles, they also had dark, deep depths. And right at that moment, Alice felt sure – certain, even – that she was dealing with something not altogether human. And moreover, she was dealing with something that she didn’t want to be dealing with anymore, especially as Lucy seemed to bare her teeth and let out a short, sharp growl.
Alice didn’t cry out or scream. Indeed, she barely made a sound. She merely leapt to her feet and ran for the windows. She half-expected Lucy to press some invisible button that shut the windows like a garage door, but it appeared that Lucy’s style wasn’t to keep her rivals prisoners in her house. Alice nearly tripped a couple of times, but she was so anxious to get out that she absolutely forbade herself to fall. She slipped on the rug and nearly slammed headlong into the table, but eventually she made it to the windows. Not daring to look back, Alice practically threw herself through the window. But it was what happened next that was worst of all.
Alice was, rather unfortunately, too panicked to think about exactly what she was doing as she ran, screaming, back out into the garden and headed back towards the drain which led down to the sewer. She was only focused on getting away from the terrifying monster inside the house. And it was for this reason, and the fact that the rain pattered down on the patio so hard it was difficult to hear anything else, Alice did not hear the violent rushing of water from down the drain, nor did she see that the level of liquid within the sewer was just a couple of meters from the ground, until it was too late. Alice took a gigantic leap in the direction of the hole, and sadly, her aim was very good. She only realised that it was possibly the worst thing she could have done until she plunged like a stone directly into the sewer, which now resembled a sort of river of rainwater and something Alice now, unfortunately, was forced to think about.
When the four women arrived home late that evening, the first thing that Frederick heard was the sound of Olive running screaming through the front door when she noticed that Alice was within a few meters of her. She was followed quickly by Hetty, who followed Olive, squealing, into the kitchen. Edith, meanwhile, could be seen scurrying into the understairs cupboard to collect a large hamper of plastic bags. She then ran back to the front door and started to create a sort of pathway made out of plastic bags, so that Alice, who was completely drenched from head to foot and smelling rather awful, could enter the house safely. Edith continued the path across the hall and carried on laying the bags up the stairs so that Alice could follow, holding her arms out stiffly as though she was afraid to even touch her own clothing. The rustling of bags being flattened down against the floor continued for about a minute, before the sound of hastily running water could be discerned from the bathroom. Edith appeared soon afterwards, wearing a pair of thick rubber gloves with which to pluck the soiled plastic bags from the floor and crumple them into a much larger plastic bag, which she then rushed outside with to place in one of the sodden dustbins.
But meanwhile, Olive had finished anxiously examining her clothing, and, shooing Hetty out of the room, sat down at the kitchen table beside Frederick, whom she noticed was surrounded by envelopes.
“What’s all this?” she demanded, shuddering as she caught sight of Edith through the kitchen window, throwing the large plastic bag into the dustbin. Frederick was momentarily confused, but then realised that Olive was talking about the letters on the table.
“Oh…I just thought that we’ve been here for a while now, Olive, and so I thought I’d pop back home and get our post,” he said. Years of experience had made the decision not to ask Olive where she had been or why she looked so disgusted very easy indeed. “There were heaps of letters.”
“Anything remotely interesting?”
“Oh…yes,” said Frederick. “We’ve got all those warnings the bank keeps sending. And more besides. Oh! And this funny-looking one from someone called L. Waters…”
Olive shrieked immediately, and, grabbing the parcel, stood up and threw it at the bin.
“…And there’s more,” Frederick said uncertainly. “Look, there’s this one from the stamp appreciation society.”
“I’ve no time for any of that rubbish!” Olive screamed suddenly. She grabbed a pile of letters from the table and started sifting through them carelessly. “What? What is this? This had better not be from the council again!”
“They said you were very lucky to get let off,” Frederick mumbled.
“Yes, well, they’d better not think they can stop me…and what on earth is this?” Olive sniffed, staring at a warning from the social services.
Olive hated post. She hated the concept of uninvited pieces of paper landing on her private welcome mat, victimising her with those horrible threats and warnings in the supposed comfort of her own home. All those constant, hurtful reminders that she was currently falling slightly short of mankind’s ridiculous socially-constructed ideal. She had enough trouble in her life.
Bills. Warnings. Bomb-shaped parcels from half-forgotten enemies. And more. And sometimes the selfish instigators of all these disturbances came from her very own home. It reminded Olive of a day only a few weeks ago, on which she and Frederick had found a whole bunch of official-looking letters sitting on the mat, and Olive had involuntarily shuddered as Frederick dumped them on the kitchen table as she was eating the leftover half of the previous night’s Dairy Milk tray for breakfast.
“What on earth is this?” she had cried, picking up one the letters and holding it between her thumb and forefinger at arm’s length, as if it were covered with something disgusting.
“Oh, we’ve been getting a lot of those recently,” said Frederick, rifling through some more bills. “I think they’re for James. I’ve never told him about them; they’re from some weird-sounding places. Probably junk mail.”
Olive squinted at one of the words printed on the back of the envelope. “University,” she read slowly, emphasising the final syllable. “Hmmmm. Harvard University. What’s that?”
“I don’t know. Some university, I suppose. He did mention to me not long ago that he wants to go to university. You know, because you wouldn’t let him when he was eighteen.”
“Well…James isn’t the type to do anything like that. I’m having a look.”
As Olive began tearing open the envelope with the kind of force that might be considered unnecessary for a human being, Frederick looked nervous. “Olive, are you sure? I mean, James never opens our post without permission,” he said.
Olive snorted. “Of course he wouldn’t; he’d be too wimpy,” she said meanly. “Besides, I’m his mother. What does a university want with James, anyway? If they think they’re taking him to teach him to be one of those fancy-pants academics for the rest of his life, they’ve got another thing coming.”
“Well, yes, I know, because he’d be going,” Frederick mumbled, frowning in confusion, but Olive just ignored him. In a second he simply and characteristically shrugged his shoulders and continuing looking through the remains of the letters. “Anyway, I suppose you’re right.”
Olive had opened the letter. “Dear Mr. James Whinging, blah blah blah,” she mumbled, scanning the piece of paper. “Thank you for your application, blah blah blah, outstanding potential, blah blah blah, unconditional offer, blah blah blah, congratulations, blah blah blah. Fred, what is this rubbish?”
“I don’t know, but there’s another one here from Oxford,” Frederick said absent-mindedly, and his eyes darting across the letter he held. “Something about a scholarship?”
“They must have got the wrong address,” Olive muttered. “Or it’s some kind of scam. Idiots…”
“No. It says here, look: Mr. James Whinging,” Frederick said, showing the letter to Olive and pointing to the place where James’s name was written.
“Well, that must be another James Whinging!” Olive growled “But if he does think I’m paying for him to go and spend who-knows-how-many-years at some stupid institution for self-indulgent half-wits, he can think again. Damn cheek, thinking he can run off like that when he’s needed here. The other day he even had the nerve to question the importance of the work he’s doing here; seems like his future is more important than my needs. Can you believe that, Fred? And I think it’s bloody rude of them as well. They’re not taking my son, I can tell you that!”
“Yes,” Frederick agreed, not really listening. He was looking at something else. “Look, here’s another! Oh, and another. Gosh, he must have written a jolly good application, Olive!”
“Give me those!” Olive cried, snatching the envelopes out of Frederick’s hands. “They’re going in my notebook, and when I’ve read through them they’re going straight in the bin where they belong.”
And with that, Olive had taken the whole wodge of university acceptances and shoved them into the back of her notebook; an area her whole family knew was impenetrable. “James has got a lot of explaining to do when I next see him,” she promised herself.
Coming back to the present, Olive found herself gritting her teeth, and she shook her head as she waved the painful memory aside. She didn’t have time to worry about her son’s ridiculous behaviour. “We’ve got some more planning to do, Fred.”
“Jolly good,” Frederick said, observing that Olive had calmed down a little since she had seen the mysterious parcel. “Is that where you were for the whole of today? On some sort of mission? Sounds exciting! Is that why Alice came in smelling terrible?”
“Yes,” Olive said miserable. “Fred, remind me to never try to spy on Lucy Waters ever again. We’ll only find out something we don’t need to know.”
“Okey dokey,” said Frederick. Then he paused; Olive didn’t speak. “What, do you want me to remind you now, or wait a bit?”
Olive ignored his stupidity and continued musing. “We didn’t find out that much; we didn’t get any idea what Lucy’s planning, really. That stupid Alice can’t even jump into a sewer without getting soaked in something revolting.”
“Hmmm,” Frederick said, half-preoccupied with the letter from the stamp appreciation society. “So. What’s the next step?”
Olive sighed, and slumped down further in her chair. “I don’t know,” she said. “I suppose we’ll have to see what happens; work out what Lucy’s next move will be…”
“Mother,” whispered a quiet voice from the doorway.
Olive turned around crossly. James was standing with his head just visible; the rest of him was behind the wall. His wide blue eyes were mildly anxious at Olive’s recent outburst, and his voice grew more wobbly as he spoke again: “Mother, have I had any letters in the post recently? It’s just that I sent out quite a few university applications and did the interviews and everything, and I’m sure I should have had some answers by now.”
“University!” Olive said with disgust. “What a load of old rubbish! I’m sure none of those ridiculous places wanted you, James, and even if they did I’d never let you go. You’re needed here. To be totally honest with you, I’m rather disappointed that you considered leaving us for one of those places anyway. Forget it, James. Really, Fred, the betrayal I suffer from my own children is really unbelievable. You should get on with some important things, James, like researching Lucy Waters…”
Although Olive did not look back towards the doorway, James nodded sadly and slowly slunk away back up the stairs.