James Whinging crept out from his hiding place behind a large pipe in the cellar of Rowlings Manor, still covering his mouth and nose with a handkerchief; being a young man himself, he had to be careful that he would not be susceptible to any Virens Amentia fumes which could be hanging around in the air. Above him, the sound of screeching and several people stamping up and down seemed to shake the entire building. James breathed out slowly, and pulled Hetty Waters’s black mask (which he had secretly collected from Lucy Waters’s house after the Team’s rather unsuccessful mission to teach Lucy Waters a lesson she would never forget) over his face before slinging a black plastic rubbish bag full of his few possessions over his back and standing on tiptoe to carefully unlatch a nearby window. Seeing as James was in the cellar, the window was tiny and several feet above the ground, but James thought he’d be able to just about squeeze through by balancing on a couple of wooden chairs that he imagined the Rowlings’ servants used. But just as he was all set to leave, James spotted his mother’s old notebook lying in a corner of the large, dark room where he had almost forgotten it.
He scurried over to grab the little flower-patterned book, just as the loudest yell yet (“…you’ll never get Raymond, ever, ever, ever!”) came from upstairs, unsettling several birds in a tree outside as it did so. James flicked to the back cover of the notebook, where there was a small plastic pocket containing a pile of letters which Olive had long since forgotten about. James smiled as he remembered how he had finally been able to get hold of his university acceptances, confidential letters from friends and miscellaneous private diary entries: one day a few weeks back, he had seen his mother, Mary, Hetty, Edith and Alice walk at different times into the Barmy Duck for the first unofficial meeting of Mary Maveryck’s beloved Team, which was the usual haunt of that notorious alcoholic Lucy Waters, whom James knew was madly in love with the barman Herbert Grease. Lucy would often find some excuse – she’d fainted, or accidentally fallen down a manhole or whatever – to be invited behind the bar for a glass of brandy and a nice cosy little chat with Herbert, whose sour face would fail to grow any warmer. But this was the first time that James had ever seen his mother’s little intimate circle present in the pub at the same time as Lucy, and as he sat at a corner table by the dirt-encrusted window, wearing a long brown coat so as not to be recognised, he had watched thoughtfully as Lucy stared in horror from her place of refuge behind the counter towards Olive’s table.
James knew that Lucy could hear the entire conversation – which, as James had noted later, had significantly not mentioned that Raymond Calzone was the man that Olive hoped to seduce – and that undoubtedly, as a lifelong enemy of his mother, Lucy would naturally assume the worst: that Olive was attempted to seduce and take away Herbert Grease, the love of Lucy’s life. This would undoubtedly lead Lucy to mysteriously appear in Mary’s kitchen a few days later, having used a secret passageway that only he, Mary and the Waters family knew about. The events surrounded this would then almost certainly lead Mary to realise the unfairness of her position both in the Team and life as a whole, causing her to resolve to get back at Olive in the only way she knew how: by creating a false Facebook account under a shortened variation of her middle name, leading to a peculiar and wrongly-interpreted series of events. Yes; James had been perfectly certain of the way that this would turn out.
As soon as his mother and her friends had left the Barmy Duck that day, James had been right behind them, scooping up his mother’s famous notebook as he went, and had carefully and secretly made his plans. He had done so many things already. He had posted those Facebook comments encouraging Raymond and Ethel to love to Timbuktu on Lulu’s account when Mary had been away to fix Albert and Priscilla’s afternoon tea. During Alice’ operation to take down Lucy Waters, he had planted the mysterious scrolls of paper which would inevitably entrance Alice Reynolds (causing her to completely forget about what she was supposed to be doing), and deliberately flooded the house to make the job of discovering that Lucy was not actually responsible for doing anything a lot more difficult, and he had convincingly posed as his uncle Augustus on the walkie-talkie (with Augustus’s permission, of course; he and Adolphus had never been remotely interested in the Team) to give Hetty, Edith and Alice a false sense of security.
And now, as James prepared to make his ingenious escape, a broad grin spread across his narrow, white face. He had been his mother’s honourable and true only son, but had got nothing in return. Ever. He had been teased about his pointed ears for the last time. His personal letters and diary entries had been opened, read and scorned for the last time. He was going to escape; finally, he was going to do what he’d wanted to do since his mother had first turned up her nose at his first piano sonata, which he had written at the age of four. And how long had he been living in Mary’s house, anyway? Months? Months of being forced to sleep in a bathtub; months of not seeing his friend Dorkus Finn (who was the only person in the world who vaguely understood him); months of broken contact from the outside world.
James fit easily through the small window and soon found himself crawling across the lawn so that no one would be able to see him from the inside (though, judging from the slim view that James could see of the Rowlings’ reception room from where he lay, everyone was standing looking incredibly shocked at something and so probably wouldn’t notice or care anyway). He hurriedly dived into a nearby bush. The summer evening was warm, and a soft orange glow covered the front lawn and the yellow drive, making the bushes cast long shadows across the grass. The sun shot its last rays like an arrow from a bow, tipping the tops of the trees with burning gold. But James did not have time to admire the scenery. He could already sense the presence of the people he had invited to come with him.
“Hello, Madeline. Hello, Nathaniel. Hello, Anastasia,” James whispered. The three children, all in their best clothes in anticipation of what their parents had anticipated would be a visit to the poshest house in town, crept out meekly from behind another bush nearby. They whispered their greetings, and then the four of them waited for exactly the right moment.
After just a few minutes of silence interrupted only by a few more faint screams from inside the house, the long-expected champagne bottle, which James had calculated would indeed come at around sunset, had been hurled through the window of the Rowlings’ reception room, showering the lawn with shards of glass which glimmered like stars in the fading light. Simultaneously, a screech, unmistakably one of blind rage, ripped across the whole estate, and once again the birds in the trees were unsettled. James and the children all smiled, and they nodded to one another. It was time.
James crawled out of the bush and stood up straight, his letters clutched in one hand. Madeline, Nathaniel and Anastasia stood up behind him. Anyone who would have been watching would have seen that each child tossed a small notebook, each filled with many, many drinks orders, over their shoulders. Instead, they held clutched in their hands several subscriptions to the Royal Shakespeare Institution for gifted actors and actresses.
The four young people joined hands, and walked straight into the middle of the lawn, and they saw four long, thin shadows cast out before them, looking like dark giants. Then, without another word, they began to walk off together in the direction of the setting sun where the clouds unfolded to expose a vast, pleasant expense of sky. The ferocious yells of the mother and grandmother they were leaving still rang out, like a dreaded siren, behind them.