Chapter 23

Olive was ten years old. She was back in the countryside, and she found herself staring into the green, menacing eyes of a seven-year-old girl called Lucy Waters. Lucy’s figure was set against the backdrop of the farmhouse belonging to Mr and Mrs. Baxter, and Olive could see Mabel the kitchen maid at the sink, probably washing up, through the ivy-lined kitchen window. Mary Maveryck was standing awkwardly beside Olive in the garden as the two of them faced Lucy Waters, and Olive was equally sure that somewhere within a couple of meters, the uninteresting presence of Hetty was moping around with that look of pathetic excitement and wonder on her face. Out of the corner of her eye, Olive could see the rundown wooden fence which marked the area where the garden stopped and the huge, overgrown field, where the large brown shape of the ferocious bull was already visible, began.

            Then the scene changed before her eyes. Lucy Waters’s face grew larger and larger, until it filled up her entire view like an enormous poster where the glittering eyes never left her face. It was enlarged and enlarged until Olive felt as though she would be swallowed up into a green, glittering abyss, but then the face abruptly contorted and began to shrink. When it had reached a size which vaguely resembled normality, Olive could see that it was the same face indeed, but it had aged several years and now seemed even more sinister, despite the fact that it was several inches below her own, and the eyes were gazing up at her.

            Then the thin, grey lips parted. “Do you accept the challenge, Olive?” Lucy Waters whispered like a serpent, and Olive had the sudden experience of feeling as though she was falling, rapidly, through thin air.

Suddenly Priscilla Rowlings walked into the room, backed by two of her maids, who were carrying smelling salts and flannels. No one could remember her leaving; she must have slipped out, feeling faint, just before Lucy arrived.

            To everyone’s astonishment, neither Priscilla nor her two maids looked particularly surprised at the sight of Lucy. In fact, Priscilla looked almost pleased.

            After a couple of seconds, Priscilla’s face broke into a small, pleasant smile. “Good afternoon, Arabella!” she said to Lucy.

            Lucy did not smile, but inclined her chin slowly in a sort of salute to Priscilla. “Good day, Priscilla,” she said. “I’d love to chat, but as you can see, I’m in the middle of challenging somebody to a game of Truth or Dare…”

            “That’s not Arabella!” Edith cried suddenly, having been in deep thought for the past couple of seconds. “That’s Lucy Waters!”

            Priscilla screwed up her face at Edith. “Don’t be stupid, Edith!” she snapped. “It’s Lady Arabella! You couldn’t possibly know her, anyway; she’s way above your status…”

            “Actually, my name is Lucy Waters,” said Lucy calmly. “The Lady Arabella business was simply a backing story. You see, I rather needed to know how to get myself invited to your little party.”

            Olive, almost frothing at the mouth, turned to Priscilla, shaking. “You invited Lucy Waters to the party where our plan’s meant to take place!” she spat.

            “Well, I really don’t see how I was meant to know,” Priscilla said, staring at Lucy in astonishment. “Lady Ara…I mean, Lucy Waters, are you even a member of the aristocracy?”

            “Sadly, no, not anymore,” Lucy said blankly.

            As Priscilla’s mouth fell open in the horrific realisation that just the other day she had had a friendly conversation with someone of such appallingly low status, Edith spoke again: “Prissy, I thought you said you had a natural instinct for who’s of high status and who isn’t?” she said triumphantly.

            Priscilla apparently couldn’t think of anything to reply, so she decided to do what she did best. “Hortense, Rowena, we’re going upstairs,” she said hastily to her two maids. In her second non-Priscilla-like action that day, she grabbed both of the young women tightly by the shoulders and hauled them out of the room roughly without bothering to prevent her dress from dragging along the furniture.

            “Right,” said Lucy. “Now that that’s over, I think we can get down to business, don’t you, Olive?”

            “I suppose so,” whispered Olive.

            “Truth or d – ,” Lucy began.

            “Wait!” Hetty shrieked. Everyone turned to look at her in amazement. The volume of the shout might suggest that Hetty had just discovered something wonderful which would mean that Olive wouldn’t have to go through this. Maybe Raymond had sent Olive a secret love letter which would persuade Lucy that there was nothing more she could do. Perhaps Hetty was going to volunteer in Olive’s place. Perhaps the world was ending.

            Hetty, proud that her mysterious sister had stopped talking and was now scowling ferociously at her, sucked in her chest and spoke the all-important sentence: “You haven’t spun the bottle.”

            Olive didn’t even acknowledge Hetty’s comment with an answer, and without another word, Lucy Waters turned around to face Mary Maveryck. “Mary, go and get us a bottle,” she ordered.

            Mary, looking taken-aback by the order but unwilling to disobey, walked slowly over to the nearest sideboard and opened the glass door. She took out the first champagne bottle she could reach, and robotically walked back with it over to Lucy.

            Lucy grabbed it, and immediately placed it on the floor. “Sit down, Olive,” she barked.

            Olive could do nothing but obey mutely. In a second, she and Lucy were sitting opposite one another with the champagne bottle inbetween them.

            Suddenly, a very over-excited Hetty bounded forwards. “Remember to spin it very hard, Lucy!” she cried, the element of surprise that Lucy had inflicted on them all having gone from her the quickest. “I’m going to make sure no one cheats!”

            “Shut up, Hetty,” Lucy said savagely.

            Hetty apparently took no notice whatsoever. She crouched down on the floor beside Lucy and Olive, and as Lucy took hold of the bottle’s neck and cast an experienced eye at Olive’s position before finally giving it the spin which would probably decide the two women’s fates in life, Olive could almost hear Hetty commentating:

 “AAANNNDDD Lucy Waters spins the bottle! That’s a top-quality sugar glass champagne bottle being used there, folks; only available on special request, care of the Rowlings’ giant liquor closet….Gosh, what a flexible wrist that old girl has! That manoeuvre has to require years of practise! Woah, Waters ought to spin bottles for the Olympics! But she’s not as good as Olive, of course. In fact, when we think about, Lucy is pretty rubbish at everything, isn’t she? Oooh, where’ll the bottle go? This is it, Ladies and Gentlemen; the game which decided who gets the overall prize; who will win, who will win? Ooh, it’s Olive! No, Lucy! No, Olive! No, Lucy! No….no, I think it’s Olive! Yes, I think it is…..OLIVE WHINGING, Ladies and Gentlemen!”

Around thirty seconds had passed before the bottle finally stopped spinning, and Olive could see with horror that Lucy’s obvious practice over the years appeared to have paid off. The neck of the bottle was facing Olive at a perpendicular angle. 

            Lucy’s face contorted hideously so that she was smiling. “Olive,” she murmured. Olive, although she really didn’t want to, had to lean in very close to hear her. “Olive, as you are well aware, your daughter, son-in-law and their family will be arriving in a few minutes.”

            Lucy was silent for a moment, so Olive guessed that she was meant to give some sort of answer: “Yes,” she said shakily, feeling her hands go cold and her mouth go dry.

            “And I realise that your little plan was that you would dress up in this…,” Lucy took a moment to gaze with a grimace at Olive’s over-sized, wrinkled outfit, “…outfit to make yourselves appear as a member of the aristocracy. Am I right?”

            “Yes,” whispered Olive.

            “In the hope that your daughter and son-in-law, being the money-loving, reputation-conscious people that they are, would suddenly realise their absolute devotion to you and be more willing to act in accordance with your wishes?”

            “Yes,” Olive whispered again. She couldn’t picture Ethel ever acting in accordance with her wishes, but she didn’t feel like mentioning this right now.

            “Therefore,” Lucy announced loudly, so that Olive sprang backwards in shock. “I have a very challenging proposition for you.”

            “You don’t say,” Hetty muttered, getting rather tired of these never-ending threats and warnings.

            Lucy looked faintly irritated but chose to ignore her sister’s remark. “I am proposing, Olive, something which you cannot even imagine,” she hissed, and the hatred in her face was more extreme than it had been for the whole afternoon. Then, holding her head up extremely straight so she was able to tilt it back and look down her nose at Olive, she finally asked the all-important, life-changing question: “Truth or Dare?”

            All eyes turned towards the face of Olive Whinging as though they were trying to pierce her mind and read her thoughts, even though everyone in the room was equally certain that everyone else knew precisely what Olive’s answer had to be.  

            “Dare,” Olive breathed, scarcely believing what she was saying.

            That was when Mary Maveryck spoke: “No, Olive, do Truth!” she urged desperately, her voice scarcely above a whisper. “Do Truth…”

            “Shut up, Mary,” Olive stuttered, not taking her eyes off Lucy’s face.

            “But, Olive…”

            “Shut up, Mary!” Olive repeated, her voice no louder than before. She turned back to Lucy. “What’s my dare?”

            “What’s your dare?” Lucy repeated tauntingly.

            “Yes. What’s my dare?” growled Olive, sweating.

            “Let me be the waitress,” Lucy barked almost immediately.

            Another long silence. Olive looked at Lucy, waiting for some further explanation. This proposition so terrible that it was beyond anything that Olive could imagine hadn’t been said with the amount of dramatic effect that Olive had envisioned. Lucy’s eyes looked as sane (i.e. relatively so) as they had ever done.

            “Waitress?” Hetty repeated unnecessarily. “I didn’t know you were into catering, Lulu.”

            “Be quiet, Hetty!” Lucy cried, flaring up. “Don’t call me by that stupid name ever again!”

            “Oh. You didn’t used to mind when Grandmama called you Lulu…”

            “Shut up!”

            “She always tells me to shut up,” Hetty muttered to Alice. “It isn’t fair…”

            Now it was Olive’s turn to ask questions: “What are you talking about, Lucy?” she asked, relieved to see that Lucy’s aura of menace and advantage by the element of surprise seemed to be wearing off. “Let you be the waitress? What do you mean?”

            “I mean, Olive Whinging, that I dare you to let me be the waitress for your little tea party when your daughter-in-law and her husband come round,” Lucy said slowly. “It’s not particularly difficult to understand, is it? I’m sure even your husband understands this.”

            “Oh, yes,” said Frederick uncertainly, peering at Olive as though for guidance.

            “So do you accept or not accept?” Lucy demanded impatiently. Then she decided to rephrase, as though to emphasise to Olive precisely what the meaning of this menacing game was: “Do you accept the challenge for the ultimate prize, or will you give everything up to me?”

            “I’m accepting,” Olive said resolutely whilst Lucy was still only halfway through the word ‘everything’. “I’ll do the dare.”

            “What a pity,” Lucy said. She was trying to sound disappointed at the delay in undoubtedly getting what she wanted, but no one in the room could miss the sly, triumphant smile on her lips. Everyone knew that Lucy would love humiliating Olive. She would love the experience of seeing the look of horror and defeat on Olive’s face, and the same looks on the faces of Alice and Edith and probably the other members of the Team. Lucy obviously loved the fact that Olive had accepted. “What a pity…”

            “But first,” Olive interrupted sternly. “You have to tell me why you want to be the waitress.”

            Lucy shook her head robotically. “That, Olive, is something you shall not know until this is over,” she said. “Don’t you see that dares such as these would lose their…glamour if you knew everything about why they were in place? Mystery, Olive, is the key! Mystery!”

            Olive didn’t pretend to know what Lucy was talking about. “But how do I know the danger?” she demanded desperately. “How do I know what you’re up to?”

            “That’s precisely the point,” said Lucy, her eyes glittering. “You won’t know until it’s actually happened. It’s all part of the dare. It’s a very easy dare really, you know. All you have to do is sit there and talk to your daughter and son-in-law, and all I’ll be doing is walking about handing everybody drinks and things. What’s difficult about that?”

            “Fine!” Olive cried.  “Absolutely fine! Be the wretched waitress if you must, Lucy! But be careful that you don’t underestimate the power of the Team!” 

            “Oh, I won’t,” Lucy hissed. She looked around at the Team’s members with a look of triumph. “Because I’m sure that everyone here is aware of the string of brilliant successes that this Team has created over the past few weeks!”

            No one answered this.

            “I’ll get you a maid’s outfit,” Albert said hoarsely. He felt like this was turning into some sort of insane pantomime. And for the second time that day, he was almost glad that his father was not still alive to see this.

“My fifth-favourite chaise-longue!” Priscilla shrieked, coming into the room a few minutes later and followed by Hortense and Rowena.

            Priscilla Rowlings’ fifth-favourite chaise-longue was currently being occupied by Olive Whinging, Mary Maveryck, Hetty Waters and Alice Reynolds. On another sofa near to them sat Edith James, Albert Rowlings and the three Whinging brothers. The one person whom Priscilla did not spot was a short, stout, sinister woman standing in a corner of the room in a grey dress and frilly white apron, surveying the scene with satisfaction and anticipation. Every so often she glanced out of the window at the front drive of Rowlings Manor. And other than this woman, every person in the room was sitting stiffly, staring straight ahead of them.

            “Don’t worry about the sofa, Priscilla,” Albert said monotonously. “I’ll buy you a new one.”

            Priscilla opened her mouth to complain again, but then she thought about what her brother had just said. She remembered an antique chaise-longue she had seen in Paris a couple of months ago which cost several thousand pounds, and, keeping this in mind, said nothing.

            The long-expected crunch of car wheels on gravel was heard just a couple of minutes later. During these couple of minutes, no one spoke, and the only sound was of Priscilla’s maids performing the finishing touches to their mistress’s hair style.

            Olive heard the wheels of the Rowlings’ limousine on the gravel, and her heart rate once again increased rapidly. But she didn’t stand up and start panicking again, nor did she shout, nor did she demand Mary to confirm that she looked simply divine in her new outfit. All Olive could focus on was the dark blot in the corner of the reception room where Lucy Waters stood in the midst of the jungle of green plants, waiting with a sly smile on her face, undoubtedly for the moment in which she would strike and all of Olive’s dreams, once again, would be dashed. Olive, as she had acknowledged to herself more than twenty times a day for the past couple of months, had never known that wooing her daughter’s husband could be this complicated and upsetting and life-ruining.

            Around her, the green jungle of plants swamped her, and she could feel their heavy scent lingering in the air, making her feel a little dizzy.

            “Priscilla, who gave these plants to you again?” Olive croaked as she heard footsteps on the gravel, and saw Lucy tense excitedly at the sound.

            “Oh, a friend of mine, Lady Ara…,” Priscilla began without thinking about what she was saying.

            “Well, they’re awful,” Olive whispered as they heard the sound of the front door opening. “Oh, Gosh…he’s here.”

            This last announcement was more like a simple statement than an exclamation. As the sun, which had begun to sink, dipped below the branches of the trees surrounding Rowlings Manor, the amount of daylight in the room decreased rapidly. The atmosphere was grey and vengeful, and Olive could not recognise the usual spark of joy and hope she generally felt during all the other times she had ever heard Raymond whining at someone for hanging his coat up the wrong way.

            “Do you mind, butler?” remarked the beautiful voice haughtily. “That’s a very expensive coat! There’s no reason to simply hook it up on the stand like that!”

            “Oh, yes!” barked another much less lovely tone. Olive froze with horror and dislike. Ethel continued to speak: “Raymond, tell him to handle my coat properly, as well!”

            “Handle Ethel’s coat properly as well,” Raymond ordered with slightly less concern in his voice than before.

            “Yes, sir,” sighed the snooty voice of the Rowlings’ butler. “If you’ll kindly step this way, Mr and Mrs. Calzone, I’m sure that Lord and Miss Snobbings will be delighted to receive you in the reception room. Are your children not coming as well? I see you’ve brought them.”

            “No, no, they’ll wait in the car,” Ethel’s voice snapped. 

            “Are you sure, Madam…?”

            “Yes, yes. They’ll be perfectly all right.”

            “Of course, Madam.”

            More footsteps. Olive’s breathing grew heavier, but she stayed with her hands clamped to the side of the sofa, sitting beside Mary and staring at the plush carpet by her feet.

            Wearily, Albert Rowlings got to his own feet and stepped heavily towards the door to the reception room, obviously with the intention of meeting Raymond and Ethel before they saw Olive, so that the shock would be less extreme. As the footsteps drew nearer and nearer to the door to the reception room, Olive did a very surprising thing: she reached out and took Mary Maveryck’s hand, squeezing it tightly.

            Then they were hearing Albert’s voice: “Good afternoon, Mr. Calzone, Mrs. Calzone,” he said. His tone was surprisingly steady and natural, as if he had been practising. “It’s wonderful to have you here with us today; I’ve heard so much about you. But your children, where are they?”

            “They’re waiting in the car,” said Ethel. Her own voice sounded quiet and very shaky. Olive could practically see her staring into Albert Rowlings’ face with adoration through the maze of annoying green plants. “Wouldn’t want a bunch of little kids smashing up this magnificent house of yours, would we, Raymond?”

            “No, no,” mumbled Raymond lazily.

            “It really is wonderful,” Ethel continued, almost before her husband had finished speaking. Olive still couldn’t see her, but she was sure that Ethel never took her eyes off Albert’s face. Ethel could be so pathetically adoring towards people she decided she liked. The fact that he was rich and owned such an enormous mansion certainly helped. “Of course, Raymond and I are always looking for ways in which to raise ourselves up in the world, aren’t we, Raymond?”

            “I guess s – ”

            “And we’ve always been great admirers of Snooty’s Aristocratic Laundry service, haven’t we, Raymond? We’ve been expecting a promotion for some weeks now.”

            “Well, I have. It’s my job.”

            “Quiet, Raymond. And we are very accustomed to high-class society, Lord Rowlings. Don’t take any notice of our address; we only live on Greenwood Drive because…because…”

            “Because the kids made us,” said Raymond stupidly.

            “Yeah…the kids – I mean, the children made us. Very selfish, children, aren’t they?”

            “Oh, I wouldn’t know, Mrs. Calzone,” said Albert, sounding a bit taken-aback. “I’ve never had children, you see…”

            “Oh, lucky you! Frightful bores, you know. More trouble than they’re worth. Always spouting a bunch of nonsense about this and that.  But anyway, do we not have a promotion to discuss? A job offer…”

            “I feel dizzy, Ethel,” Raymond muttered. “Anyway, it’s my job offer…”

            “Don’t interrupt, Raymond!” Ethel snapped crossly. “And don’t contradict me when I’m speaking to Lord Rowlings, either!”

            “But I feel dizzy…”

            “Stop whining! Don’t be so rude! So, Lord Rowlings, which wonderful part of Rowlings Manor shall we have the honour of seeing today? Obviously, Raymond and I get invited to grand houses such as this very often, but we’ve never come here before. And we’ve only been visiting places recently, you know, because my mother, Olive, never was one for high society…”

            At the sound of her name, Olive looked up, and she noticed that Ethel was finally visible through a couple of plants. She was standing in the doorway, and Olive saw that she was wearing a long, peach-coloured evening gown with a long necklace of glass beads, supposedly meant to represent diamonds. In the corner of her eye, Olive noticed that Lucy’s eye flickered first to her and then to Ethel, and she had a delighted, scornful expression on her face.

            Olive was expecting Lucy to make some sort of dramatic introduction to the Calzones, but instead she simply retreated even further into her dark corner, where she was able to duck behind yet another plant. Soon, Olive imagined that only her glittering green eyes would be visible. Meanwhile, Albert, Ethel and Raymond were still talking:

            “Fabulous curtains, Lord Rowlings!”

            “Thank you, Mrs. Calzone. They’ve been in the family for generations.”

            “Oh, splendid! We’ve had a…errr…soup dish that’s been in my father’s family since the War.”

            “I thought it was a chamber pot,” Raymond said. His voice sounded somehow faint and wheezy.

            “Shut up, Raymond!” Ethel barked. Even through the jungle of plants, Olive could see her face turn red. 

            “Yes, yes…” said Albert, sounding eager to end the conversation and get this charade over with. He cast a painful glance first at Olive through a gap between two glittery green leaves, and then gestured shortly to the area of the room where Lucy Waters was standing, watching over everyone. Then, when Ethel and Raymond weren’t watching, he crossed himself.

            “Ethel, I mean it, I feel really weird…,” Raymond gasped as the party of three began to step around the wall of plants into the clearing, where everyone else sat waiting.

            “I wish you wouldn’t complain so much, Raymond!” Ethel hissed at him furiously. “This is Rowlings Manor, you know…”  

But just as the three of them were about to round the last corner before they would see Olive, Mary and all the others sitting pale-faced and terrified on the sofas whilst Lucy Waters stood subtly in a corner, ready to pounce, Raymond crashed to the floor in a dead faint. Well, it looked like a dead faint. Olive, Lucy and Mary could see that both of his eyelids were flickering manically. Whilst Ethel shrieked, “Raymond!” dramatically, Lucy and Olive just stared. Mary anxiously scuttled over and peered with a look of worry into Raymond’s eyes as they snapped open again.

            “Sorry about that,” he mumbled, looking dazed as Mary helped him to his feet before she was jealously shoved out of the way by Ethel.

            Ethel was in the middle of pathetically kissing Raymond’s hand and begging him to stay with her when she suddenly realised the identity of the person she had just pushed out of the way. Her head snapped up as quick as a whip, and her jaw dropped as she stared. “Mary Maveryck!” she cried. Forgetting all about Raymond for the present, Ethel straightened up and finally got a good view of one section of the room. “Dad! Uncle Augustus! Uncle Adolphus! Edith James!”

            Then her eyes swivelled towards the other sofa. “Hetty Waters and Alice Reynolds? Since when have you lot been members of the arist…?” And finally, Ethel noticed the final occupant of Priscilla Rowlings’ fifth-favourite chaise-longue: “Mother!”

            Ethel screamed the word piercingly, like a witch. Olive, in her head, could hear herself screaming, “Ethel Calzone!” in return, but the words wouldn’t come out. With one eye focused on Lucy in her maid’s costume in the corner of the room, Olive realised that all the life in her seemed to be sucked out and squashed whenever this enemy of hers was around. It struck Olive suddenly that that must be what a true enemy did; they made you so unhappy and horrified that you couldn’t be yourself around them, no matter how hard you tried. And, very often, it was the same with Ethel. Look how mean and shouty Olive often had to be whenever Ethel was around!

            Ethel raised her eyes as her mother simply stared on. “Too stunned, are you, to say a word?” Olive’s daughter hissed, as behind her, Raymond clutched his swimming forehead and leant on the doorframe, gazing at an area of the room no one bothered to notice. It was somewhere around the couch where Olive sat. “You realise you have just broken the restraining order? The one passed in a proper court of law by a proper judge…”

            “…By your childhood friend,” Alice reminded her with a glare in her Leader’s defence.

            “…By a proper judge!” Ethel insisted, looking daggers at Alice. Alice, seeing the sudden madness in Ethel’s eyes, backed down, and Ethel turned back to her mother. “What’s going on, Mother? What are you doing here? Why are you doing this? This party is meant to be for Raymond and I so that we can discuss his promotion and our rise into the upper classes! And why are you dressed in that stupid baggy outfit?”

            “My outfits are not stupid and baggy!” Priscilla interrupted. She was the only person in the room who didn’t care enough to stick to the main subject of the argument. “Only Olive looks stupid in it! It’s not the dress’s fault that she insisted on wearing it!”

            “Quiet, Priscilla,” Albert murmured to his sister. He got another unfamiliar feeling as he watched Priscilla fiddling with her nails instead of paying attention to what was happening: shame.  

            “Actually!” Edith interrupted. “I can tell you what’s going on, Ethel Calzone!”

            Ethel turned to Edith, and no one in the room could miss the look of exhaustion and dread in her face. “What do you have to say?” she asked in disgust. “Something that will, naturally, change my whole outlook on life and the way I see my mother?”

            “Exactly!” Edith cried, failing to note the sarcasm. She marched towards the couch which held Olive and Mary, and pointed to Olive so that the end of her forefinger was less than an inch away from Olive’s eye. “Olive was surprised when she saw you, right?”

            “She knew we were coming,” Ethel growled, seeing where this was going. “She did it deliberately. I know it. She was probably surprised because Raymond fainted or something. Honestly, I don’t know what it is with her and Raymond…”

            “No, she didn’t!” Edith cried, speaking as if she hoped everyone would be shocked and intrigued by her answer. When she saw Ethel shake her head and look even more disgusted, she seemed a bit disappointed. “Olive was surprised because she didn’t know you were coming. She knew there was a tea party happening, but she had no idea that Albert had – I mean, that Lord Rowlings had invited the Calzones. Seeing as Olive’s such a fashionable and suitable person to be a member of the upper classes…”

            “…Yes, I really respect her…um,” Albert said, and then he struggled for something to say. “…charisma. Yes, Olive has lots and lots of charisma, and this type of charisma renders her suitable to be a member of the upper classes…”

            Ethel snorted. Raymond continued to clutch his forehead and look dazed as he continued to stare at the couch on which Olive sat. But Olive was not even looking at him. She had one eye on some indistinct point in the middle of the room which could probably be stretched to include everyone who was currently speaking. Her other eye, clearly, was fixed on the grim figure of Lucy Waters in the corner. When would she act? Why hadn’t she acted yet? But, most importantly of all, what would she do? But Olive’s question was about to be answered.

            Lucy Waters did not raise her head before she spoke, nor did she make much of an effort (not that she needed to) to appear sinister. But she did say something: “They’re very interesting plants there, Lord Rowlings,” she murmured. “In the world of botany, they’re known as Virens Amentia – Infatuation Plants. Curious things; they’ve been known to knock out susceptible, unaware young men for several seconds. And then, the moment that the patient wakes up, the first person he lays eyes on will become his true love, no matter who she is!”

            Olive’s mouth dropped open, and without thinking she reached up her right arm and swiftly knocked to the floor a pot of the mysterious, green Virens Amentia on the table beside her, almost pushing Mary off the chaise longue as she did so. Lucy was grinning widely, her eyes glittering more madly than they had ever glittered before. And Olive was certain that Lucy had strategically placed herself in the area where, as soon as Raymond opened his eyes, her view would skim around Ethel and Albert so that for just a second his eyes would be rested on her. She was the first person he had seen.

            Olive would have thought that this would be enough to make her stand up, grab hold of Lucy and either throw her roughly through the window of the reception room or do something unspeakably inhumane that cannot possibly be written down. But apparently not. Olive’s lack of action merely caused Lucy Waters to scream with laughter even more, and opened Olive up to Ethel’s fury, who, as usual, saw fit to blame her loving mother:

            “You’re trying to ruin my life! Again! You put all these plants in here to poison Raymond’s mind by putting him off me!” Ethel screeched, pointing at Olive.

            “She couldn’t have!” Edith James shouted suddenly. “Olive wouldn’t want to poison Raymond; she’s in love with him!”

            Ethel’s eyes grew wider, and Raymond’s mouth dropped open. He looked almost impressed.

            “How dare you!” Ethel screeched, jumping up and down like Rumplestiltskin. “You perverted old witch…you stupid crone…you horrid little schemer….you…!”

            “Ethel, Ethel,” Raymond told her gently, talking slowly and unsteadily, like he had newly discovered something. “Don’t talk to Olive like that…”

            “How could you do this?” Ethel continued at the top of her lungs. “What foul, evil part of you ever thought that this would be a good idea? Who do you possibly think you are, not only to stalk Raymond to the extent to which I have to call the police and issue a restraining order, but to mess with Raymond’s mind with some stupid plants! Why, thank heavens Countess Rosanna warned us that they were here!”

            “Countess Rosanna?” interrupted Mary. “Who on earth is Countess Rosanna?”

            “Countess Rosanna!” Ethel shrieked, as if it was obvious. She pointed to the darkness corner of the room. “She’s right there! In that corner! The friendly one who could be bothered to warn us! And…Countess Rosanna, why are you wearing a maid’s costume?”

            “I’ll come to that later,” Lucy Waters muttered, throwing off her apron. She made a move as though to discard the maid’s dress as well, but then she realised that it was the only thing she was wearing. So she stood there in her grey outfit, looking a bit disappointed as she glanced towards her long, brown raincoat hanging up in another corner. “Good afternoon, Mrs. Calzone, Mr. Calzone. Now, I feel I ought to explain, as I think that by now all of you should have worked out that my little role as the maid was something of an act…”

            “We knew that from the start!” Olive choked. “You scarcely did anything other than stand quietly in that stupid corner! What have you done?”

            “First of all, Mrs. Calzone, I should probably reveal that my name is not actually Countess Rosanna Fakesbury. My name is Lucy Waters. And, sad as I am to admit it, I am no longer a member of the aristocracy…”

            “Too right!” Priscilla interrupted helpfully. “And she’s not Lady Arabella Falsington, either!”

            “Priscilla, please!” Albert begged.

            “…I am Lucy Waters,” Lucy Waters continued, glaring shortly at Albert and Priscilla. “And these plants of mine were given to my father a very long time ago by somebody named Leopold Kane the Elder, who discovered a somewhat unusual plant resulting from an unintended hybrid in his family’s back garden. The effects were discovered when, very luckily, the plants caused my father to faint, and the first person he encountered when he awoke was one Celia Baxter…”

            “Celia…,” Olive murmured in astonishment.

            “And, long story short, a few months later they were married, and within a year my sister Hetty was born,” Lucy concluded.

            “Well, what do you know, Hetty,” Edith said icily. “You’re a result of a hybrid plant. I always thought you were the result of an unexpected meeting between a chronic alcoholic and a very, very ugly sloth…”

            “Shut up, Edith!” Hetty cried, shoving Edith in the ribs.

            “Yes, yes,” Lucy said dismissively. “It’s a surprise for everyone, I’m sure. And only the extremely dim-witted amongst you will not have realised that Mr. Calzone has obviously submitted to the plants!”

            “You evil dwarf!” Olive screamed.

            “Olive, Olive, please,” Lucy said soothingly. “It’s not that bad.”

            “You’re trying to ruin my life, aren’t you?” Olive yelled. “You’ve always been trying to ruin my life!”

            “Now, now, that’s a little exaggerated…”

            “You only care about yourself!”

            “True, but it’s always been for the greater good…”

“…and you’ll never get Raymond, ever, ever, ever!” Olive screamed. “You’ll never get to marry him! I don’t care what that stupid plant did; he could never fall in love with a stupid maniac like you!”

            That was when the silence began. Olive, in her dramatic emotion, had reached her arms up to the sky, but now she looked back around.

            Everyone’s faces were turned towards Lucy, waiting for a reaction. But Lucy just stood there, staring with an oddly confused expression at Olive. Olive looked back at her and stared. What was wrong with Lucy? Had she finally run out of arguments as to why she should get what she wanted? Was she so astonished by Olive’s incredible speech that she just could not come up with a good come-back? Had she, miraculously, realised that Olive was too deserving to warrant so much hardship? But somehow, as Olive looked at the expression on Lucy’s face, none of those suggestions seemed likely. And that was when Lucy spoke.

            “Raymond?” Lucy said quietly, staring. “Why would I want Raymond to fall in love with me?

            Another silence, but this one was the most incredible of all. There was not a person in the room whose mouth was not hanging open, apart from Lucy. Raymond stared at her with a mixture of relief and mild disappointment. Ethel, still looking at Olive, looked disgusted. Mary looked amazed and confused, but all of a sudden a calculated expression came onto her face as she tried to work something out. The three Whinging brothers just gaped, and then slowly climbed underneath the table in fear. As for Olive, her eyes were wide and bloodshot, her arms were stuck out rigidly as though frozen, and her mouth was so wide that her tonsils could be seen. The silence lasted at least two minutes.

            “Raymond Calzone,” Olive whispered eventually, in a very hoarse voice. “I…I thought you wanted Raymond Calzone…I thought you were in love with him…”

            “Raymond Calzone?” whispered Lucy. “I wasn’t thinking of Raymond Calzone all this time! He was just a….decoy…why do you think I aimed for him to see you first after he fainted?”

            Olive stared at Lucy, and then at the open-mouthed Raymond. She finally noticed, having not realised from where she stood before, that she was directly in Raymond’s eyeline. She felt as though she might topple over. Had all of this been for nothing at all? “Who….who were you thinking of?”

            “Well…Herbert Grease the barman, of course,” said Lucy awkwardly. She suddenly looked even smaller than before, and she stared up at Olive with eyes that suddenly seemed much less intimidating. “That’s…..that’s why I thought you were in the Barmy Duck that day…that’s why I wanted Raymond to fall in love with you…”

            “You wanted Raymond to fall in love with me?”

            “Herbert Grease?” Hetty gasped suddenly, goggling. “No! You love Herbert Grease, Lucy?”

            Lucy bent her head towards the ground with her eyes closed and clasped her hands together. “I…I suppose,” she whispered. “I thought…I thought that if Raymond loved Olive it might put him off her.”

            “Wait,” said Olive quietly. “Lucy, are you saying….all this time…you thought I was after Herbert Grease, just like you?”

            “And…you thought I was after your daughter’s husband?” Lucy whispered back. “I thought….I thought…I only gave you that dare because I wanted Raymond to fall in love with you to put Herbert off…”

            “But what about the Facebook page?” Olive shrieked suddenly, making everyone jump violently. “What about that stupid, flirtatious, idiotic Lulu who was always posting ridiculous comments on Raymond’s profile?”

            “Hmmm…,” said Raymond. “Come to think of it, I never did work out who that really was…”

            Raymond looked thoughtful and not as entirely horrified as his wife was. He looked around at everyone in the room. Olive was shaking her head in astonishment. But, far off in a corner, someone was looking bewildered and completely terrified.

            “Well, who else would create an account on Facebook and call themselves ‘Lulu’?” Olive screeched in anger, staring around the room. “Who has a name that’s remotely similar to ‘Lulu’…?

            “…Or middle name!” Alice suddenly said in a booming voice. “Louise, for example. Or Lois. Or Louisa!”

            Alice pointed dramatically towards a corner of the room with a tremendous cry of “Behold!” Everyone followed her gaze: Olive, Raymond, Ethel, Hetty, Lucy, Edith, Albert and Priscilla…so that they were all staring directly at a shaking and clearly petrified Mary Maveryck.

            “I…I didn’t think you’d know it was me,” Mary whispered.

            Olive stared at her lifelong friend with absolute horror and disgust. “You?” she said with a revolted expression. “You are this pathetic Lulu who’s been seducing Raymond and trying to get him off me?”

            Everyone cowered backwards and shielded their eyes, as though trying to protect themselves from seeing the gruesome, violent scene which would surely result from this. But Olive was still as a statue, stuck where she was either due to shock or anger. Mary promptly burst into noisy tears.

            “I was going to tell you!” Mary shrieked desperately, clutching at her hair in fear. “I was going to wait until Raymond had fallen in love with me and then I was going to offer him to you! I didn’t think it would work out in this way! I didn’t know that Lucy would turn up after all these years! I didn’t even remember that Mrs. Baxter used to call her ‘Lulu’!”

            Mary was telling complete lies, of course. She never would have offered Raymond to Olive, but somehow she didn’t really feel like being torn apart with Olive’s bare hands right at this moment.

            “…I was never there when you were discussing the whole Lucy thing!” Mary continued, truthfully this time. “I was out getting caviar for Snooty and Prissy! I’ve always been totally devoted to The Team! I organised our meeting and wrote our reports and made us all specially-designed t-shirts in our favourite colours! I thought it was a good idea! I’m completely innocent! Oh, Olive, I didn’t know!”

            Mary fell to her knees, wailing with her face in her hands. She only hoped that this would work…that all her acting practice had paid off…that Olive would forgive her…that she wouldn’t be savagely murdered today…

            Finally, Olive spoke again: “Mary,” she said in a choked voice that seemed to crack with every word. “Mary…Mary…Mary…”

            “Oh! I understand perfectly!” Mary cried. “I’m a lousy friend; I know it! Don’t worry, Olive! I will improve so much, you’ll see! I’ll be devoted to you, and only you! I’ll do whatever you want! I’ll never accidentally make you think I’m trying to steal your true love again!”

            Mary had buried her face in her hands again, and at this last sentence she couldn’t help letting out a small gasp of laughter, which, judging from the fact that Olive wasn’t hitting her with anything yet, she was happy to realise had probably been mistaken for a sob.

            “Mary, this is the worst thing you’ve ever done,” Olive choked. Alice nodded dryly, glaring down at Mary.

            “You’re all forgetting something!” Ethel yelled suddenly. “I think some people owe Raymond and I an apology! The pain and the anguish that you’ve all put us through has been absolutely unbelievable! Hasn’t it, Raymond?”

            “Oh, yes,” said Raymond thoughtfully. “But…”

            “And I think Mother ought to pay us the money we used for our flights to Timbuktu and everywhere else,” Ethel continued. “It’s been very bad for the children, having to move all over the place all the time. And the restraining order certainly will not be lifted. Which reminds me, I need to call the police, seeing as you’re within five miles of us, Mother…”

            “Wait, Ethel…,” Raymond said, but Ethel interrupted him again.

            “…Don’t know what you were all thinking; fully-grown adults who are supposed to be my parents, running around like lunatics and spying on us all like it’s some kind of James Bond film. Profoundly immoral; that’s what it is! You’ve been a useless parent ever since I can remember, Mother; all you’ve ever been interested in is your own needs and your own stupid plans…”

            “ETHEL!” Raymond cried. Everyone jumped.

            Raymond closed his eyes and took Ethel’s hands. “Ethel,” he said slowly. Ethel stared at him.

            “Yes, Raymond?” she said icily. “What is it?”

            Raymond sighed. “Ethel, I’ve got something to tell you,” he said. “I’ve been hoping to break it to you gently, but now seems like the right time to say it. I’m so sorry about all of this.”

            Everyone’s mouths dropped open again. Ethel’s eyes widened and her own mouth formed a little ‘o’, from which a small, indistinguishable squeak escaped. She seized Raymond by the shoulders. “What? What do you mean?” she demanded.

            “I’m….I’m in love with another woman, Ethel,” Raymond declared, his face turned up to address the sky. “I’ve been in love with another woman for a long, long time.”

            Ethel fainted. Hardly anyone moved. No one’s eyes moved from Raymond’s face. Visible beads of sweat formed on Olive’s forehead, and she began to feel a little dizzy herself. This was it; this was what she had been waiting for for years and years and years….it was finally happening…

            “I need a mature woman,” Raymond continued, flicking his hair around. “A woman who has been neglected for a long time herself, and who doesn’t spend hours sitting in front of a mirror…”

            Olive looked even more excited. Frederick just sighed and fiddled with a strand of his hair. He’d always known that this day would come, of course, but still…he’d got so used to Olive…

            “…and now I just feel like it’s time to come out and say what’s been on my mind for years.”

            Everyone tensed. Olive realised that her whole life had been leading up to this moment. Lucy had, without even realising it, made all her dreams come true. Mary slowly got up from the floor and went to stand beside Olive. Olive, completely forgetting all that Mary had done recently, reached out and grabbed her hand as a tear rolled down her cheek. Hetty, Edith and Alice all clutched their own hearts and slumped against one another, gazing first at Olive and then at Raymond. Lucy looked sulky.

            But….something was wrong. Olive could tell straight away, and she knew immediately what it was. For a moment she felt angry that some trivial little care could ruin this, the most magical moment of her whole life, until she realised what was happening. For, as Raymond poured out all of this, which Olive had barely been listening to because she was lost in his eyes, she could see that he wasn’t actually looking at her. He was looking at some spot just beside her, that seemed to have already caused enough trouble in Olive’s life already. The person who had helped him to his feet just after he had fainted. Raymond Calzone was looking at Mary Maveryck.

            “Mary,” Raymond whispered, stepping forward. “I love you. I’ve always loved you. Will you marry me?”

Published by CuriousWriter

Read and you will find out.

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