Chapter 3: Three Wishes
For a second, I thought Raven was walking on water. Then I spotted the diagonal row of stepping-stones just below the surface and followed carefully, clutching my stuff – Mum’d kill me if I soaked my new school shoes – across to a slab set in the opposite bank, just big enough for us to stand on side by side.
Raven dried her feet with her jumper, put it back on, stuffed her tights in her pocket and squidged bare feet back into her shoes. I quickly did the same, chilled by more than the stream and for once glad of my hideous sweater. Then she leapt up a sort of ladder of flat stones jammed into the bank and I crawled behind, using my hands, trying not to dirty my kilt.
When I got the top, I realised why we’d put our shoes on. This was no barefoot stroll, it was a jungle hike with four ways to go, well-trodden for the first few metres then fading into ferny undergrowth.
‘This is Five Acre Wood,’ said Raven, ‘but it wasn’t always called that. Or wooded.’ She dimpled at me. ‘See if you can guess what it used to be. I’ll give you a clue: it’s really old. And really exciting. To me, anyway.’ Plunging into the path dead ahead, she called over her shoulder, ‘Oh, and the goddies called this Maidenhowe Road. That’s your last clue till we get there.’
Maidenhowe? It sounded vaguely familiar, like a name I should know… maybe a village we’d passed through when we went to Temple Newsam? But I didn’t have the breath to say it aloud because Raven was swimming up a steep, greeny-gold hill, pushing tall stems back with her arms, making a way, holding low branches back for me as I panted behind, sweating and wondering. Could this Maidenhowe be a sort of toy village, like Marie Antionette’s hamlet where she played at being a shepherdess and made real shepherds hate her? (I’d love to see that, I enjoyed learning about it when we did the French Revolution). Or a cottage named after the place where the owner was born? My tummy squirmed hopefully. Whatever, it must be abandoned, maybe ruined, unless there was another way in – obviously no-one took this path every day walking the dog, or going to school, or nipping to the shop for a bottle of milk. Although it flattened out a bit in places, and we scrunched in and out of a couple of dips where fallen leaves had gathered shin-deep, it was mostly up; going out would be OK, but coming home would be a real drag, especially at night.
It felt like a long climb before I saw blue up ahead and stumbled thankfully out of the wood onto a bumpy grass hilltop with knuckles of rock poking through here and there, and a round hummock with three tall pine trees growing out of it near the edge where the ground fell away like a cliff, overlooking a wooded valley in every gorgeous shade of autumn. Beyond that was the main road, I guessed, because I could hear a faint roar of rush-hour traffic when the breeze blew in our faces.
It took away what bit of breath I had left. ‘Wow!’ I gasped. ‘Fantastic view!’
‘Yes, welcome to Maidenhowe!’ Raven grinned. ‘So, can you tell what it is yet?’
Slightly disappointed not to find a tumbledown cottage, I racked my geography brains. A viewpoint? Well, yes, but you’d expect a bench or something for people to sit and enjoy it, and I couldn’t see one. A headland? No, they stuck out into the sea. A promontory, then. I said it aloud, trying not to sound smug, then pointed at the hummock. ‘And that’s a knoll.’
Raven waggled her hand. ‘Sort of. It’s more than a promontory, and the knoll isn’t natural.’
The sun came out from behind a cloud as she spoke, low as afternoon wore on to evening, and drew shadows round its base, a sink of darkness on top, among the pine trees, and a shallow line like a well-trodden road running down towards us where, as if by magic, the random lumps of rock ahead arranged themselves into a circle. It reminded me of pictures I’d seen of Stonehenge, but before I could say so, it suddenly clicked and my mind’s eye saw the hill treeless: shaped like a slice of pizza with a big pepperoni stuck on the pointy end, and deep ditches with banks either side cut across to protect a scatter of round wooden huts with conical thatched roofs, set on stone foundations to stop the timbers rotting. (Not that I’d have known if I hadn’t seen a scale model – and what came out of that mound – when we went on a class trip to Wakefield Museum).
I jumped up and down, squeaking with excitement. ‘It’s a Bronze Age village! Oh, my God! Which means that’s a round barrow! And that,’ my hand shook as I pointed into the circle, ‘that’s where they think she lived, the lady who was buried in it.’ There’d been a scale model of that too, sliced down the middle like a pudding so you could see what was inside, next to the real skeleton curled up in her glass case wearing her bead necklace, with her red pottery beaker and two small knives, one bronze and one flint, and a thin gold foil jewel shaped like Raven’s trug. ‘We went to see the exhibition, ‘Maidenhowe Woman: Who Was She?’ But I never realised the place was here, so close to where we live.’
‘Yes, the goddies lent the Museum some notebooks and photos for it. It was Godpa’s great-grandad Josiah who vandalised the mound, you see, and wrote it up for Antiquaries Journal in 1870-something and planted those Scots pines as a sort of memorial – probably to salve his conscience for grave-robbing.’ Raven smiled. ‘Although maybe the Lady thinks it’s cool to be re-born into our world and have people still visiting her and talking about her thousands of years later. I hope so, anyway.’
‘Do you think she was a princess?’
Raven shook her head. ‘More like a priestess… someone who knew about herbs and healing and chewed magic mushrooms and had visions and spoke with the ancestors.’ A funny little thrill shivered over me, and I felt suddenly sure she was right. ‘Whatever, she was special to her people and she’s special to me, so let’s visit her.’ Taking my hand, she led me to the nearest stones, set like four corners of a square. ‘Shut your eyes – and mind your head, we’re going through the porch.’ My knees went wobbly as I ducked under, feeling Raven do the same through my hand. ‘Now walk forward, we’re going to stand in the hearth.’ She giggled. ‘Don’t worry, we’re ghosts, we won’t burn.’
I shivered again, trying not to cheat, not to break the spell by looking down to see where I was putting my feet. After about six steps the ground dipped slightly, and we stopped. The breeze dropped and I suddenly felt very hot, as if the fire had sprung to life around us. Then inside my closed lids I saw her, just for a split-second, facing us on a sort of low couch covered in animal skins, wearing only her bead necklace and long auburn hair – and looking straight back at me with eyes rolled so far back in her head that only the whites showed.
Gasping aloud, I yanked my hand out of Raven’s and snapped mine open. Certain we’d stepped through a time-hole, I expected to find myself in flickering half-darkness, surrounded by timber walls and the smell of woodsmoke. Instead, the bright, open blue smacked my face, making me blink and stumble into Raven, nearly knocking her down.
She caught my arm, steadied me. ‘Are you OK, Ellie?’
‘Uh. Yeah. I think so. I just feel a bit weird.’ I didn’t want to say why, not right then, in case I sounded mad. Then my insides twinged painfully, making me hug my tummy and gasp again. ‘Oof – and I’ve got indigestion. Maybe I ate too many cornichons.’
Raven gave me an odd look. ‘Maybe. Whatever, let’s go and sit down for a minute.’ She ushered me out through the back wall and onto the shadow-path connecting the hut to the burial mound, then instead of scrambling straight up the side, set off along a faint pathway trodden in the grass, curling upwards in a gentle spiral. Weak-kneed, I followed her to the top, where we skirted the pine trees and sat down with our backs to them, looking out over the valley. I hugged my aching tum and felt a bit better as she said dreamily,
‘Imagine – people have lived here ever since there were people. There’s an Ice Age rock-shelter up in that hill,’ she waved a hand back towards Hidden House, ‘and the valley’s been farmed since the Neolithic, Godpa was forever ploughing up flint tools and bits of pot. Then the Romans stuck a signal beacon on the mound and it was used like that for centuries, old Josiah found the foundations, and some folk still call it Beacon Hill – but it’s listed as Maidenhowe in Domeday Book, and the Gardiners probably knocked down what was left of the medieval farm and built Hidden House over it in sixteen-whenever. All the land round here belonged to Idenowes or Grange back then, right up till they got slapped with a compulsory purchase order to put in the new road. The Grangers hung on to their land on the far side, but the goddies wanted to semi-retire, so they sold theirs to the Council to build the new housing estate and scaled down from farming to smallholding until they retired completely. It’s so funny – they were all set to move to some posh oldies complex near Harrogate, then the minute they did the deal with Mum they changed their minds and decided to see a bit of England before they die. So they bought a narrowboat instead.’ Raven giggled. ‘It’s no bigger than our old bus, which is how come we’ve still got all their furniture and stuff, which is just as well because Mum and I still don’t have any, only our clothes and little bits. So now they’re the travellers – but we keep their room for them, and if they ever get sick of the boat they can just come home and find the place pretty much as they left it, only with Mum’s name on the deeds.
‘Anyway, you were right earlier on. Despite how it happened we are lucky to live here, incredibly lucky. I’ve always thought Idenowes was magic, especially Maidenhowe… and the Lady can grant wishes, if you ask her nicely.’ Raven gave me a sly, sidelong glance. ‘Do you want to try? You get three.’
I giggled. ‘Seriously?’
‘Yep. Nothing big like world peace, though, just private, personal things.’ She stood, grabbed my hand, pulled me to my feet. ‘Are you up for it?’
‘Um.’ I had so many wishes it was hard to pick just three. Also, I wasn’t sure what Raven’s game was, and I didn’t want to look silly. But what the heck, it couldn’t do any harm to play along. I thought quickly. ‘Sure, OK. I wish I-’
‘No! Not like that! You’ve got to ask properly.’ She led me into the shadowy hollow between the triangle of trees. ‘Stand there.’ Taking my shoulders, she moved me into position on the side of the deepest part facing the sun, then stood directly opposite, turning into a dark silhouette with a blood-red halo. ‘Now, this is blood magic, so we need to be blood-sisters – with each other, and with the Lady. You are still a virgin, aren’t you?’
‘Y-yes,’ I spluttered, red as the sun. Fat chance of being anything else. ‘Yes, of course.’
‘Good. So am I. So was she.’ Raven gave a thumbs-down. ‘You can feel it through your feet, can’t you?’
‘Um.’ I was about to say no when suddenly I could; at least, a strong sense of her still being there, the maiden with her long red plaits and brain and heart and everything that made her unique dissolved into the soil Josiah Gardiner had tipped back into her tomb. ‘Yes, I can.’
‘Good.’ Raven produced a fat red penknife from her kilt pocket and popped out a short blade. ‘Give me your left hand.’
Nervously, I held it out. ‘Why? What are you going to do?’
Grabbing hold, she jabbed the point into my ring fingertip. ‘That,’ she replied as I cried, ‘Ow!’ then jabbed her own and pressed them together hard. A few drops of mixed blood dripped into the hole. ‘Now say this: Maidenhowe Lady, we ask thee, to hear us, and grant our wishes three.’ We repeated the words together. I’d have felt silly if I hadn’t felt so wobbly and weak, heavy and draggy inside as if the hollow was a vampire mouth, sucking my life out through my soles while it sucked in our blood through the grass. ‘Now, we’ve got to wish aloud or she might not hear. Like this: Maidenhowe Lady, my three wishes are to be happy here… to make lots of friends… and for Eloise to be my bestie,’ her hand gripped mine as she said it, ‘at least until Fi comes home. Thank you. OK, your turn.’
What a cheat, I thought. Raven was already happy at Hidden House, who wouldn’t be. And she was bound to make friends because you couldn’t help liking her, (although that’d probably make her some enemies too). And her third wish had already pretty much come true. I suspected the Lady was going to find mine a lot more challenging. ‘Um… OK. Maidenhowe Lady, my wishes three are, um, to be slimmer.’ My face burned hotly. ‘For Joshua Brown to fancy me. And to roll my Rs properly in French.’ My tummy gave a huge cramp as I said it and I groaned, clutching myself with my free hand. Oh, no. I recognised it now, the twinges and dull ache. It had only happened three or four times since I turned thirteen, but I remembered what it meant – and that my emergency panty-liner was tucked away discreetly in my bag, back at the house. ‘Oh, God. I need to go, Raven. Now.’
‘Oh, is your period starting? How weird,’ she went on as I nodded in surprise, ‘mine did too, last time I wished here. We’d best hurry, then – goodbye, My Lady.’ She blew a kiss down the hole, then still gripping my left hand, led me straight down the side of the mound, down the pathway, through the hut circle, out through the porch – no ducking this time – and plunged into the woods.
‘Wait!’ I dragged to a halt on the edge. I’ve never liked hurrying down steep slopes, I’m scared of falling, and I’ve always envied slim, bouncy people like fell-runners who can leap down sure-footed as goats. ‘I can’t run down that.’
Raven turned to me, eyes dancing. ‘If you think you can or think you can’t, either way you’re right. So tell yourself you can, and you will. Look,’ she pointed down the hillside to the trail of trampled, disturbed vegetation we’d left. ‘You can see exactly where to go. Just stick close and you’ll be fine. You can do it, Ellie. I know you can. Besides,’ she added as the distant church bell bonged, ‘it’s quarter to six – we’ll have to run, or we’ll be late for dinner. Come on!’
She bounded away. Oh, my God. I followed, stiff and jerky, trying to hurry but almost as slow as usual. Then my insides cramped again, and I felt a wetness in my pants. Oh, my God. I speeded up, telling myself frantically I can do it I can do it I can I can I can, risked a clumsy jump onto a flat stone, bounced off onto a gentle slope of bare earth – then the ground dropped away and I was flying, somehow landing in Raven’s footsteps, I can I can I can hammering in my head, not daring to think anything else, flailing after her dark bobbing head, crashing through drifts of leaves, slowly catching her up. And suddenly I got my Seven League Boots on again, mastered my legs, began to bounce down more confidently, actually enjoying myself – and before I knew it the slope flattened out, the trees ran out, and I ran smack into her outstretched arms, (just as well, or I’d have ended up in the stream).
Hugging me close, Raven spun me round to use up the last of my speed. ‘There! Told you so,’ she panted. Then we both burst into breathless giggles.
‘Yeah, but I still can’t believe it,’ I gasped. ‘I never dared do anything like that before! I can’t believe I didn’t break my ankle. Or my neck.’
‘Well, you’d better believe it,’ Raven slipped her shoes off, ‘because you didn’t.’ Then she hopped across the stepping stones and started jogging back up the mown path without waiting for me.
‘Hang on!’ I floundered after her. It was all right for long-legged Raven, being into athletics and about ten kilos lighter than me. ‘I can’t- I mean, I don’t want to run any more. Especially not uphill. My tummy aches and I’m sweaty enough as it is.’
‘No worries,’ she called over her shoulder. ‘Just come in through the music room. I’ll see you there.’
By the time I puffed up to the deck I had stitch to go with my cramps, my hair was stuck to my head and my shirt was stuck all the way down my back, not just sopping wet in the armpits. Ugh. So somehow I wasn’t surprised to find Raven sprawled on a sun-lounger in nothing but her white regulation bra and maroon pants.
‘Sorry, I couldn’t stand my clothes another minute, they were minging. Mum says to hang yours on the newel post and she’ll stick them in the wash with mine – oh, and we’ve time for a shower if we’re quick. Don’t worry, there’s plenty of spare stuff to change into, the goddies have just had a wardrobe clear-out.’ She jumped off the lounger and padded indoors, beckoning me to follow.
My heart sank. I hated taking my clothes off in front of people, even other girls. Especially other girls when they were as slim and pretty as Raven or Fi, even if I knew they wouldn’t poke fun at my flab or say anything cruel. But the thought of being damp and smelly through dinner with her mum was worse – not to mention my mum’s reaction when I came home with my new shirt all limp and sweat-stained. So I fumbled out of all but my pants – luckily, her mum was nowhere in sight – and slung them on top of Raven’s clothes.
She added her undies and bounced off upstairs, stark naked. ‘Come into mine when you’re ready,’ she called down. ‘Turn right at the top and it’s straight ahead, I’ll leave the door open.’
I peeled off my soggy bra and buried it in my kilt, embarrassed at the thought of Mamalou touching it, and scurried after her, clutching my chest. By the time I got there, Raven had covered herself in a faded denim shirt that hung on her like a dress and thrust a bathrobe at me the second I appeared in the doorway.
Gratefully I put it on – it couldn’t have been hers, it fitted too well – then gasped, ‘Wow!’ as I took in her bedroom. Three white walls covered in doodles and sketches – my folks would go mad if I drew on my walls! – and one covered in cork tiles with snapshots, postcards, band publicity photos, big posters of Stonehenge and the Eiffel Tower, and all sorts of bits pinned all over it. A faded blue, red and white rug with a half-metre of bare floorboards all round. White furniture. Bunk beds with red, white and blue patchwork quilts to match the curtains. Shelves crammed with books, jigsaws, old-fashioned board games, Lego, and antique toys, a coloured metal spinning-top, wooden puppets and alphabet blocks, a doll with a china head. A big dapple-grey horse with a real mane and tail on red rockers in front of the window. And best of all, on its own table in the corner, a huge Victorian doll’s house, the sort you see in museums and I’d always longed for, but Mum and Dad couldn’t afford even if we had space to put one, which we didn’t. ‘I love your room! It’s amazing. I could play in here all day.’
Raven laughed. ‘Yes, we often did! This was always the nursery, as you can tell – Rowan and Ferne bunked in here till they were ten and got proper grown-up rooms, then it turned into mine. And this,’ she opened a door in the side wall, ‘used to be a dressing-room until the goddies had it converted. Come in and get showered while I sort you some clothes out.’ I followed her into a lovely marble-tiled bathroom with a black-and-white check floor, and an old-fashioned bath on claw feet with white curtains all round. ‘Help yourself to toiletries, and here’s a fresh towel.’ Raven unhooked it from the back of a second door, then opened it and went through. ‘This is Mum’s room – I’ll be in here, so just yell if you need anything. Right, I’ll leave you to it. See you in five.’
As the door closed behind her I dropped the bathrobe, peeled off my pants, and peered at them anxiously. Wet, yes, but only with sweat. Phew! I dropped them too, pulled back the curtain and climbed into the bath. It had a chrome shower attachment with old-fashioned taps and dials, and a chrome rack on the wall full of sponges, loofahs, bars of soap, and bottles of Mamalou’s Poo and Dish. Luckily there was a shower-cap, too; my hair would have to wait till I got home, it took too long to wash and dry, and tangled so badly I needed help combing it out.
The spray, hot and hard, felt so good I could have stayed under, soaping and scrubbing, for ages. Instead, five minutes later, I was back in the bathrobe, pink, shiny and fragrant, combing hair I’d towelled as dry as I could. ‘Shower’s free!’ I called to Raven.
‘Great!’ I heard through Mamalou’s door. Then she came in, shrugged her shirt over her head, stepped into the bath, and swished the curtain closed. A second later, the water started again. ‘Aah… bliss! I’ve put you some clothes on Mum’s bed if you want to get dressed. I’ll be out in a minute.’
I felt a quiver of excitement. I’d been told not to go in on my own… but Raven said it was OK, and she was sort of with me, if not exactly in the same room. So in I went – and immediately understood Mamalou’s rule, why she wouldn’t want anyone and everyone to see. Her bedroom was a MoonChild shrine, the black wall behind the black iron bedstead one huge logo with a massive full moon painted so beautifully in silver, white and grey you could see every crater – and the only place in Hidden House (I suddenly realised) where I’d seen photos of Gray Childe, alone or with her mum, as a family with Raven, with famous friends including Foxy, or with people I guessed were the grandies and goddies. And he was over this room like the measles, grinning from silver frames on the shelves and dressing table, or playing his guitar on the walls between Catfish Crew posters and Mamalou’s original artwork and designs.
Lying on her white tapestry bedspread was a cotton vest, yellowed with age; a pair of loose, drawstring-waist cotton leggings the blue of faded denim; and a washed-out navy sweatshirt with a faint white image of a woman’s profile over the words La Voix d’Or on the front and, I picked it up eagerly, a faint white list of French tour dates on the back. Oh my God – vintage Cecile, from before she was world-famous! Thoughtful Raven had even left me some new-looking big lady pants, dark pink with dark red roses, with a matching cotton pad fastened with tiny press-studs to the gusset.
I put everything on and amazingly, it fitted, although I had to roll the leggings and sweatshirt cuffs up a bit. Even more amazingly, it suited me, skimming over my bulges, and making me look relatively slim. So the Lady had granted my first wish already, in a way… I stuffed my damp knickers in a pocket and was still smiling at my reflection in the wardrobe door mirror when Raven came in, wet hair slicked back, looking like a pretty Goth in a baggy black sweater and black woolly tights – apart from her totally uncool feet in bright, stripy knitted slipper-socks, the sort with a leather sole stitched on so you can wear them outdoors.
She handed another pair to me. ‘Here, you’ll need these, the stone floors get chilly at night. Godma makes them by the dozen for the farm shop. And the paddy-pants. Comfy, aren’t they? Mum says you’re welcome to keep them, the clothes too if you like. If you don’t, they’ll go back in the charity bag when you’re done wearing them.’
I went bright red. ‘Gosh. Thanks,’ I said, as we started downstairs. ‘I’d love to keep this sweatshirt,’ I glanced fondly at it, ‘and everything else. Except maybe the vest.’ Then as we turned into the hall a smell hit us, the sort of smell you know hasn’t come out of a tin. My stomach gave a huge growl, and we practically ran to the kitchen, which was all warm and cheery with firelight from the stove, and a big brass oil-lamp hung on a beam, and a big fat candle burning in a glass jar at one end of the table. The other end was set with three wooden bowls on placemats, three forks, three wineglasses, a glass jug of ice-water, an open bottle of red wine, and our teatime loaf still lying in its crumbs in between.
‘Ah! There you are – perfect timing!’ Mamalou pulled out a chair. ‘Come, Eloise, sit. How are you feeling now?’
To be honest, it was such a relief to be clean, fresh, and safely padded that I’d forgotten about my gripes until that moment. ‘Fine, thanks, except my tummy’s a bit tender. And I love these clothes, it’s really kind of you to let me have them. And to wash my uniform.’
‘Well, it’ll be done and dry by home-time, and I’ll be glad if your mama never finds out that you went cross-country running in it, thanks to my daughter.’ Slyly, she tapped the side of her nose, then handed me a blue china Zodiac mug with a prancing silver goat on it – my star sign, funnily enough. ‘Now, this is frankincense and clary sage tea. Breathe the steam in and sip it when it cools, it’ll relax your womb and ease the cramps. Take a little wine too, it enriches the blood.’ She poured two pairs of fingers which Raven topped up with water, then sat down and emptied the bottle into her own glass. ‘Salut!’ She raised it to us. ‘Bon appetit. Dig in, girls.
‘So, tell me,’ she went on to Raven, ‘how was your first day of State education?’
‘Brilliant! Well, mostly.’ Raven launched into her tale while I launched into my salad. It was nothing like the dull lettuce-cucumber-tomato we dutifully ate for Saturday tea because it did us good and gave Mum a break from cooking. The things we’d picked actually tasted of something – bitter peppery rocket, oniony chives, herby herbs, the sweetest, juiciest tomatoes and most tender-skinned, cucumbery cucumber ever – mixed with other stuff like grated raw carrot and beetroot, tiny raw green beans, and toasted sunflower seeds, all tossed in a lemony dressing. Mm. I tried not to gobble, sipped my weak wine and the weird tea that smelt like Clarity to slow myself down, and was mopping the bowl out with a bit of bread when a clock somewhere went bong. I glanced at my watch. My stomach went boing. Half past six! Normally Fi and I would have done a big chunk of homework by now, it was part of the deal, why we were allowed to hang out together every night. Our folks were really strict about it – and they checked up to make sure.
‘Oh my God!’ I gasped, cutting Raven off mid-sentence. ‘We haven’t done our homework! I’ll get killed when I get home!’
‘Well, I’m not bothering with Physics, there’s no point. It’s way more advanced than Gen Sci.’ She turned to me. ‘That’s what I did at the Grammar, General Science. It covered all sorts, human biology, geology, astrophysics – they took us to hear Professor Brian Cox lecture once, he was fantastic – and it was really interesting, and I could follow it OK. But this,’ she pulled a face, ‘ugh. Way too much maths. I was bored to death this afternoon, I hardly understood a word, I’m miles behind everyone else, and I don’t want to waste time slogging to catch up and scrape passes in a subject I know I’m never going to like.’
‘Don’t be silly, give it a chance, you’ve only had one lesson,’ was what I expected to hear, what I could practically guarantee my own folks would say. But Mamalou just nodded. ‘Fair enough, I’ll speak to Dr Bates in the morning about changing your options. So, Physics we can discount. What else do you have- Eloise?’
‘History.’ It had been on my mind since the second I saw Hidden House, especially since meeting the Maiden. I’d had a much nicer time while Raven was suffering Physics, and our term project was a piece of original research into local history – ‘any period, any subject,’ Ms Dunne had said. ‘Your own family, important local people or events, historic sites or monuments, whatever interests you most,’ and our first homework assignment was a summary of our chosen topic in 500 words, with a list of the sources we planned to use for it. ‘Um, if you don’t mind, I’d really like to do a project on this place… A History of Idenowes, something like that.’
‘Oh, yes!’ Raven bounced in her seat. ‘Great idea! We’ve got a whole box of stuff Ellie can take home with her, haven’t we, Mum? I’ll dig it out after dinner. I could haul out the family Bible as well for Rel Studs,’ Deefor wanted us to choose an Apostle and give his version of a lesson by Jesus, ‘although I’d rather leave that to think about later, if it’s OK by you.
‘Eng Lit, then,’ she went on as I nodded, my mouth full of bread. ‘Pick a character from HIV Part 1 and describe in five adjectives, supported by examples from the text. I’ll go for Falstaff, he’s fun. There, done it!’ she giggled. ‘Funny, fat, drunken old fool, I can find plenty of quotes to show that. Who will you do?’
‘Prince Hal,’ I said straight away, pleased Raven hadn’t chosen him because I really wanted to but I didn’t want to look like a copy-cat. ‘Proud, fit, fierce, brave, show-off – it’s all in that bit you recited in class. I loved it, it brought me out in goosepimples too.’
‘Cool, so that’s Shakespeare sorted. And reading Chapter Two of Madding, that can wait… what else did Mr T give us? Oh yeah – ‘Compare characters of Gabriel Oak and Bathsheba Everdene, as seen in Chapter One. Do you think they’d make a good couple?’ That’s easy enough, isn’t it?’
I went bright red. ‘I suppose. He seems really nice and she’s a real bit- um, she doesn’t. I don’t think they’ll make any sort of couple unless she gets over herself and starts treating him properly.’
‘Correct, and well summarised.’ Mamalou smiled. ‘Although you may want to phrase it more elegantly when you write it up. Eh bien, that leaves only French, does it not?’
‘Oui, Maman.’ Raven dashed out as her mum began clearing our bowls and came back a minute later with the homework sheet, some loose paper, and a pen. ‘Here Ellie,’ she handed them to me, ‘jot your answers down. I’ll do mine in the morning.’
‘OK.’ I scanned the sheet, ten pictures of Paris with a question we had to translate into and answer in French, then translate the answer back to English. Some were very easy. ‘What is that? It is the Eiffel Tower.’ There’d be bonus marks if you could go on, ‘built by Monsieur Wotsit Eiffel for some event in 18-whenever,’ (I’d have to look that up in my notes). Some were harder. ‘How does one get from the North Railway Station to Montmartre by underground?’ which you had to work out from a picture of the Metro map. Not that I had time, because Mamalou had replaced our empty bowls with little brown crocks from the Aga, and we all shut up as we dug through golden-brown bubbly cheese into the savoury-sweet onion gloop underneath. I’d never tasted anything so delicious, as far from tinned tomato (Mum’s emergency default) as can be. If I’d been at home, I’d have licked the crock out. As it was, I used another chunk of bread as Mamalou took a sip of wine and said, ‘Now then, shall we tackle those questions – en français?’
Gulp. Trying to speak French to real French people was much worse than making conversation in class where we were all as bad as each other. But I needn’t have worried. Raven and her mum were brilliant, speaking slowly and clearly and helping me work things out for myself. Like when Raven said, ‘What does that say?’
I read it aloud. ‘Qu’est-ce que c’est?’
‘Non.’ Covering part of the line with her finger, she made me read it again, qu’est and que c’est.
‘Ah. Oops. I mean, zut alors.’ I drew a ^ under the line and put the missing ce above. ‘Merci beaucoup, Corbelle.’ But even with corrections, we were done in fifteen minutes because I didn’t have to keep stopping to look stuff up or hunt through my French dictionary and grammar, they knew everything, and they’d explain anything as long as I asked properly in French – and it was great to know I’d get top marks for once, nothing knocked off for spelling mistakes or forgetting to make my adjectives agree or missing the ce out of qu’est-ce que c’est. We even carried on chatting in French while Mamalou dished out dessert, poires au sirop de vin rouge, (so that was where the half-bottle of wine had gone, I didn’t think she seemed drunk enough to have drunk it), topped with Grange Farm fromage frais and runny honey. Then she offered me something blue and smelly chasing a bunch of homegrown grapes and figs across a cheeseboard.
‘No, thanks. It looks lovely but,’ I patted my tum, ‘je suis pleine.’
It was Raven’s turn to go red. Clapping a hand over her mouth, her shoulders shook as she fought to keep the words in – and lost. ‘Not unless you’re in calf!’ she exploded, then collapsed into giggles.
Mamalou frowned. ‘True, a farmer might say, ‘Ma vache est pleine,’ of his pregnant cow, though it’s rather a vulgar expression. ‘J’ai assez mangée,’ is more appropriate here, Eloise. But remember,’ she added kindly, ‘we all make mistakes… for instance, I know a certain someone who informed a certain German guitarist one sunny day that she was very sexy hot, when she meant very sweaty hot. He couldn’t run away fast enough, she was only eleven.’
Her giggles stopped. ‘Mo-ther! Must you?’
Mine started. ‘Ha, ha – ach, ja.’ Frau Bulow had warned us early on about the difference between saying ‘ich bin heiβ’ and ‘mir ist heiβ’ to stop us embarrassing ourselves or giving people the wrong idea if we went to Germany.
‘I must indeed. These tiny embarrassments should stay with us to make us smile, eventually, and give us stories to make others smile, and to stop us repeating mistakes. I’m sure Eloise will always remember this conversation, and never again say pleine for assez mangée – will you? Good,’ Mamalou went on when I shook my head emphatically. ‘Your accent’s good too, though your Rs could use a little work. They come from too far back, as if you’re clearing your throat, when they should come from behind your teeth, thus.’ She trilled très in that way I found so impossible. ‘You trrrry.’
I had tried, desperately, over and over, every time the Joob got on my case, just like I’d tried to do the tongue-rolling thing in Year 7 Science (and was one of a dozen who couldn’t, including Fi). It was useless. My tongue didn’t work the right way for French Rs, I either blew raspberries or sounded as if I was hawking up grollies, (which was fine for German, luckily). But I had another go to please Mamalou, on the off-chance that the Lady had granted my second wish already. She hadn’t. ‘T-t-threh.’ I tried again. ‘Tchreh.’
‘Hm. I think you try too hard, Eloise. Relax your tongue, persevere, and it’ll come. But for the moment,’ she started gathering dishes together, ‘let’s continue our conversation on the theme of faire la vaisselle.’
I’d never washed up in French before or had so much fun doing it. Mamalou washed, I dried, and Raven put away because I didn’t know where anything went, and they kept up a running commentary on what we were doing, and holding things up and asking me what they were; some I remembered from our Year 8 module on Dans la Cuisine, but I learnt plenty of new words like coconut pan-scrub and eco-friendly detergent, which Mamalou said she made from plants, lierre et savon. I knew what ivy was, Dad was always moaning about it creeping through his borders, but I’d never heard of soapwort. I’d have to Google it later.
Raven clattered cutlery into a drawer. ‘There! Finished. Can we go now please, Maman? I want to show Ellie the stuff for her history project.’ She dragged me off to the homework room. ‘Did you look at the pictures in here?’
I shook my head. I’d been too busy envying the technology. So I glanced round them now, all the same size and in the same shades of greeny-yellowy-brown, all framed in the same cream card mounts and dark wood, and looking pretty dull, to be honest. ‘Are they abstracts?’ I’m not keen on trying to work out what modern art’s supposed to mean, I like obvious pictures I can enjoy without having to think too much.
‘No, as concrete as can be.’ Raven opened a wide, flat drawer and began rustling through papers. ‘Check it out – start by the door and go clockwise, they’re in order.’
As I peered close, a patchwork of squares, blobs and lines resolved into a local map, beautifully hand-inked and coloured, the scale large enough to show individual buildings. Recognising our route home from school, I gasped, ‘Oh my God!’ GSA wasn’t marked but St George’s church and the rectory on Townsend Road were, and Idenowes Terrace, and both farmhouses – even the clump of trees in Grange’s front garden – and Maiden’s Howe labelled in tiny letters, and the new main road beyond as a thick red straight line. I realised all the yellowy squares and rectangles must belong to Grange Farm, and the smaller pale green part was Idenowes, and the dark green blobby bits were woods, and the thin wiggly blue line was the stream, and the big pink polygon was the new housing estate. The picture underneath was the same but before Raven’s goddies sold the land, with no pink, only green, and no red line chopping through, so you could see the farms used to be much the same size. The titles in the bottom left corners were 21ST CENTURY and 20TH CENTURY, and in the bottom right corners were tiny initials, M-LM.
‘Wow! Did your mum do these?’ I moved on to the second pair, smaller-scale parish maps with the Lady’s mound marked as Maidenhowe on 19TH CENTURY, and as Beacon Hill on 18TH CENTURY. ‘They’re amazing! Can I take photos? They’re exactly what I need.’
‘Yes, she either drew them from old farm plans – they’re in this drawer if you want to see – or copies of old maps she got from Wakefield Archives. And no, you don’t need photos.’ Raven fed a wad of paper into the printer. ‘I’ll run some off for you, Mum made A4 copies of the originals before she had them framed.’
‘Fantastic!’ I practically danced on to the next as the printer spat into its tray. There was no Idenowes Terrace on 17TH and 16TH CENTURY, whichshowed both farms much smaller, surrounded by woods and orangey-brown areas marked Common, and Maidenhowe called Tumulus. The further round I went, the more the fieldsdwindled and buildings disappeared until the last maps just showed green and brown contours and woods, with brown dotted lines on 1ST CENTURY to show ancient pathways, and a straight black line marked Roman Road with arrows pointing towards Lagentium and Danum, and a square marked Mons Signum on the Lady’s mound. BRONZE AGE only had twelve little circles on the pizza-slice hill, a bit bigger one near the point, and a black triangle marked Rock Shelter on a bare brown hilltop.
‘Here you go.’ Raven thrust a warm pile into my hands and put the other set back in the drawer. ‘There’s all sorts you might want to look at in here – crop rotation plans, architect’s blueprints for the Terrace, land registry documents, you name it.’ She opened the double cupboard underneath. ‘Plus all the farm records way back to 17-something – what they made, what they spent, what they paid their workers… it’s enough for a whole history book, let alone a term project.’ She dimpled at me. ‘Maybe you should write it. It could be your dissertation. Or doctorate.’
A flash-gun exploded in my brain. Clutching my sheaf of precious prints, I collapsed into the nearest chair and flopped my head down towards my knees like Mum said to do if I ever felt faint at that time of the month. For a moment I’d seen myself on stage, in a black gown and mortarboard, (at Durham? It’d be nice to go there, I loved the cathedral and castle), holding my new certificate and smiling proudly for Dad’s camera: Eloise Morton, PhD, Doctor of History- Medieval? Ancient? Or Archaeology? I wasn’t sure, but the details didn’t matter. It only mattered that suddenly I wanted it, wanted it more than I’d ever wanted anything before, even Josh Brown; that suddenly I knew, more or less, what I wanted to do with my life, who I wanted to be, and I felt so excited I almost threw up.
‘Ellie? Are you OK? Shall I get Mum?’ Raven knelt beside me, stroking my hair aside, peering anxiously up at my face.
‘Yes. No. I mean yes, I’m OK and no, don’t bother Mamalou.’ I sat up straight and swallowed hard, I didn’t want to lose that lovely dinner. ‘I’m fine, honestly. Better than fine. My brain’s just running so fast it’s got nothing left for my legs.’ (The flash-vision was too much to explain, I’d have to tell her later when I’d got my head round it). ‘Over the moon because I know exactly how I’m going to do my project, and that it’s going to look mega-brilliant with these pictures.’ Mum and Dad would be over the moon too, not to mention relieved, when I told them I finally had a Career Plan, as well as getting a lot further on with a term project than ever before on first day back. ‘So thanks, Raven, thanks very much. You’re a star.’
She shrugged. ‘Any time. I mean it. I’ll tour you round anything you want to look at, you can take photos, copy stuff from the goddies’ albums – they took pictures of everywhere before the renovations, so you can see what the buildings used to look like inside. Oh, and if you want to write about the Lady,’ she slid out a big flat cardboard box and put it on the desk, ‘old Josiah’s notebooks and sketches are in here, and a few photos and glass slides of the dig, and some bits and pieces from the spoil-heap he didn’t give to the Museum. Mum’s commissioned the Archaeology Unit to come and do a survey this winter when the plants die back, see if they can find any more hut circles, maybe excavate it properly – then we’ll get a better idea of how big Maidenhowe really was, and how many of the Lady’s people might’ve lived there. How’s that for original research? You must come along, I bet they’ll let you have a go with their equipment if you say it’s for school- mustn’t she, Maman?’ she interrupted herself as Mamalou appeared at the door with a tray.
‘Mustn’t who what?’
‘Ellie. Meet the archaeologists in December. And write a history book about Maidenhowe.’
Mamalou stopped dead. Slowly, her head swivelled round to fix me with a Look. I looked back, suddenly petrified, as if we’d stepped into that Daniel Radcliffe movie Mum warned me not to watch and any second she was going to turn into the Woman in Black and rush at me, screeching. Instead, she gave a tiny nod and a small, knowing smile. I relaxed.
‘Yes. Yes, you must and will do those things,’ she said firmly, ‘and we’ll help, however we can. Speaking of which, here’s a little something to sweeten our labours, de-café au lait et marrons glacées, made with our own candied chestnuts.’ She set her tray on the desk and winked slyly. ‘Perhaps you can squeak one in now, Eloise – if you’re not too full.’
‘Ooh, yum! Thanks, Mum.’ Raven grabbed a frothy blue Virgo mug and popped a sticky-looking brown thing in her mouth.
I took Capricorn and did the same; I could always find room for a sweet, and marrons glacées were a famous French delicacy I’d never tried because Mum said they were too expensive, even at Christmas. Ooh, yum. I would’ve had more but there were only three and Mamalou ate the third; and I would’ve had two heaped sugars in my coffee if there’d been any on the tray, but there wasn’t, and I wasn’t brave enough to ask. I tasted it. Not bad, actually – mild and milky, and the chocolate sprinkles helped me pretend it was sweet.
‘Right, then – to work!’ Mamalou sat down with her little cup of noir and opened the laptop. ‘Let’s make notes while we talk, Eloise,’ she began tapping away as the screen came alive, ‘it’ll save so much time. Here we go… new document, working title A History of Maidenhowe.’ She typed it in, hit a key, and turned to me expectantly. ‘So, how do you plan to approach it?’
‘Like this.’ I pointed round the room anti-clockwise. ‘A timeline. Mainly prehistoric, so I’d love to come when the archaeologists are here… and I’ll introduce it by talking about locations and place-names and general stuff… then do a big Bronze Age section… then one from Roman to modern, maybe just a page for each century with a map and some pictures. Then my list of sources. Um- I think that’s about it. Shall I write it up?’
Mamalou turned the screen towards me. I saw a paragraph under the title ending with the words No need, I set it on dictate as she spoke, (immediately followed by my Wow! Cool! I never thought of doing that!).
So, yeah, I thought quickly about the assignment, my term project is to tell the story of farming at Maidenhowe, also known as Beacon Hill… from, um, cave-men times to present day. Part One, um, Prehistory, will concentrate on the Bronze Age- An image popped into my mind, an aerial photo of Maiden Castle I’d noticed on Raven’s cork wall. Maidenhowe was older, and nowhere near as huge and impressive, but I couldn’t think what else to call it. Um, does it count as a hill-fort?
Mamalou shrugged. I’m not sure. Maybe better to call it a defended hilltop settlement until you can ask the archaeologists.
That sounded more like it. Defended hilltop settlement then, and the house of the famous Lady of Maidenhowe, and the round barrow where she was buried with her most treasured possessions, until Josiah Gardiner dug her up in 18-something, I’d got into full Public Speaking mode now, so enthusiastic I even forgot to blush, and gave her to be put on permanent display at Wakefield Museum-
Oh! Yes! Raven butted in. Let’s go and see her at the weekend! Please will you take us, Maman? On Saturday morning?
Yes, gladly. I’d like to visit her again myself. I punched the air, mouthing, ‘Yay!’ I hardly needed to ask Mum and Dad, they’d be well chuffed for me to do something educational at the weekend. You’ll have to delete that bit, Eloise. Do go on, now.
Um- oh yeah, and Part Two, History, will summarise the centuries from Roman to modern, and the development of two farms called Idenowes and Grange, dating from Domesday Book, which are still working farms- um, I mean a farm and a smallholding – today. I needed four hundred more words but for the moment I’d run out. Turning away, I whispered so the microphone wouldn’t hear. ‘I’m not sure what else to put in. I’ll have to finish this part when I’ve read up and thought about it a bit more.’
‘Well, you can add oral history to your primary sources,’ Mamalou replied aloud, ‘which comes best straight from the horse’s mouth – and if you’d like to meet the Grangers, you can join us here for Sunday lunch, it’s my turn to cook.’ She smiled wryly. ‘Joe will be delighted, he loves talking family history. As do the Gardiners, who you’ll meet at Raven’s party. I’m sure you’ll find time for a chat, they’ll be staying on till the Monday.’
I’d heard so much about Raven’s goddies by now I blurted, unthinking. ‘How did you come tomeet them?’
‘Ah.’ Mamalou shut the laptop. ‘That’s not a story for your project, Eloise. It’s rather personal, and also rather long-’
‘And some of us have heard it,’ Raven dropped a kiss on her mum’s hair, ‘so if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to dig out some more primary sources.’
‘Very well.’ Mamalou swivelled her chair to face me as Raven skipped out. ‘I met Faith and Jack here, the night my late husband’s parents died – or early next morning, I should say, by the time the police and paramedics finished with us.
‘It was a fittingly terrible end to a terrible day. Our trip from Cornwall was hell, not just the distance and the traffic – and we were running hours late – but the dread, this awful dark forebodingthat got worse by the mile. Gray was trying to stay positive, jolly us out of it – ‘Woo them, chère. Turn on the old Gallic charm and they’ll melt like I did, Dad especially’ – but I knew he was nearly as anxious as me. I could barely hear him anyway, I had the most dreadful ear-worm for this old song.’ She sang a few lines in a haunting tune that made my neck prickle: ‘My young love said to me, my mother won’t mind, and my father won’t slight you for your lack of kind. And she laid her hand on me, and this she did say, oh it will not be long, love, till our wedding day.’
‘But she was wrong. They did mind – enough to murder her, so she could only wed her young love as a ghost. Not that I thought Gray’s parents would kill him, I hasten to add. Or me. Not literally. I simply couldn’t believe they’d accept their son getting engaged to a foreign artiste he’d only just met, much less be happy for us – and deep down, neither could Gray. So we girded our loins for the final scene where they disown him, cut him off without a penny, and tell him to take his French floozie and never darken their doorstep again. Which we were prepared to live with – we were in love and determined to marry at whatever cost, even if it meant that this first meeting with my in-laws turned out to be our last.
‘As indeed it proved – we rolled up at the house just as they were coming out in body-bags.’ She pulled a face. ‘I won’t elaborate… suffice to say, it was a blessing to learn that the fire had smouldered a long while before the flames caught. Had the smoke alarm been working, they’d have escaped with very little harm done. But they’d taken a spent battery out and forgotten to replace it before they went to bed – ha ha karma, as Raven would say.
‘We came here as soon as the police let us go. We had nowhere else to go, and Gray was in no fit state to drive, although not for the reasons you might think. There’d been little love lost between him and his parents for years, they’d been fighting since the day he started doing what he wanted, instead of what they wanted for him. So when we got out of the van and he collapsed, It wasn’t from shock like the paramedics tried to tell us, but sheer relief. I was much the same, I felt so unburdened I was practically floating on air. In fact, dreadful as it may sound, the worst thing we had to cope with was the guilt – Gray’s because he wasn’t grief-stricken, and mine because I was glad, glad that he was free, and selfishly glad that I didn’t have to go through the horrible scenes I’d been imagining.
‘Anyway, I drove us here, highly illegally, no UK licence, no insurance, never driven on the left before. Thank God it was three-thirty AM and almost nothing on the roads. The Gardiners were devastated when we broke the news, of course… Gray’s father had been Jack’s best friend since they were at school, his mother had grown very close to Faith, and they were godparents to each other’s children, which meant Ferne and Rowan were gutted too. Fortunately no-one expected me to be sad, I hadn’t known the Childes, so I just got on with dispensing tea and sympathy, and running errands, and doing business the family were too upset to deal with, and cooking, and coaxing them to eat. They were far more grateful than I deserved, given the truth of my feelings – that I couldn’t like Ernest and Connie because of the way they’d treated Gray, their lack of respect for his talent and integrity or the slightest support for his vocation- feh,’ Mamalou shook her head, ‘I mustn’t speak ill of the dead – though believe me, we did at the time. Gray was carrying a mountain of hurt and I was the only one he could offload to. It made receiving condolences an ordeal, he loathed the hypocrisy – then people assumed he found talking about his parents too painful, so they stopped mentioning them. We never disabused the idea, it was too convenient, although the self-conscious tact and steering clear of certain subjects was equally hard to bear, in its way. Luckily no-one guessed how Gray and I really felt, and the bereavement bonded us together, and me to the Gardiners, very tightly, very quickly… and that’s how I acquired the best god-parents-in-law a stranger in a strange land could ever hope for.’
‘Gosh.’ I was amazed by Mamalou talking to me like this, like a grown woman, a friend. It made me brave enough to ask, ‘What about your own parents? Did they give you a hard time?’
She threw back her head, roaring. ‘Ho, no! They were all, ‘Ooh, la la! Coup de foudre! Félicitations, when’s the big day, are you pregnant, when will we meet your Gris Anglais, where shall we go for your dress, you are getting married here, aren’t you – not necessarily in that order! And then- well, Raven’s probably told you we lived happily ever after.’ Her smile faded. ‘Until we didn’t.’
‘Hey, Ellie!’ A big pile of books wobbled in and thumped heavily down on the desk. A beaming Raven stepped out from behind. ‘Why don’t you put family trees in your project?’ She slid a stack of scrapbooks and photo albums off a massive brick-thick Bible like the ones you see in church. ‘Look, this goes all the way back to King James, and I bet the Grangers have got one just like it.’
‘Oh, wow.’ I pored over the names spilling from the inside cover to the flyleaf: different hands, different inks, but all Gardiners, male and female, husbands, wives, children, ending with Raven’s god-bro and sis. ‘Oh, yes!Then I can link the history part to real people and who was doing what on the land at the time. I like that idea.’
Mamalou smiled. ‘I think your teacher will, too,’ she said, gathering the coffee cups. ‘And on that note, mes enfants, I shall go about my business and leave you to yours. A bientôt.’
Raven seemed almost as excited as me as we spread things out on the workstation. There was way too much to think about making proper notes, or choosing what to put in and leave out, so she opened the laptop in case we said anything useful while I wallowed in silvery brown images. Girls with long hair, checked dresses and white aprons picking baskets of fruit in the orchard, the field alongside full of some sort of crop instead of bushes and trees. A big, round-faced woman in an ankle-length skirt and clumpy boots, with a big, round bun of hair, drawing a dripping bucket from the well in front of Hidden House. The farmyard as I’d imagined it in olden times, with a horse harnessed to a cartload of hay standing in the middle, and chickens pecking around it, and a man with a bowler hat, bushy moustache and white grandad shirt nearby, leaning on a pitchfork looking straight at the camera, a long white clay pipe drooping from the corner of his smile.
Lost in the details, I didn’t hear Mamalou come back until she whistled, low in my ear. ‘Vraiment, un embarras de richesses! I didn’t realise the goddies had such an archive, I’ve never seen it all in one place before- oh,’ she peered over my shoulder, ‘but I remember this album. Those are Jack’s grandparents, Ali and Ned, and his mother Vi and her sisters. I forget their names.’
‘They’ll be in the Bible, won’t they?’ I scooted my chair across to look. ‘Yes! Edward Lonsdale Gardiner, wife Alice Rosemary Granger- Granger? What- as in he married his next-door neighbour?’ When Mamalou nodded, I scanned back a few centuries and saw the families had been marrying each other on and off forever – well, since 1652. ‘Gosh. That’s interesting.’ I came back to Ned and Ali. ‘Oh, yes – daughters, Violet, Lily and Iris. They had a Rose, too, but she died at, um,’ I calculated, ‘three months. Gosh, how sad… I wonder if it was a cot death. And four sons… phew. I’m not sure I want to have any babies, never mind eight!’
‘No, I found that one was sufficient for me! And be thankful we’ve the choice, girls.’ Mamalou looked seriously at us. ‘Alice didn’t, like most women until quite recently. At least, not if they wanted a sex life. Losing children at a young age was tragically commonplace too, back in those days.’
That got us on to talking about life expectancy, and family sizes, and things that folk used to die of but not so much now, and looking at the Bible dates, and counting the children various Gardiners had had, and how many survived to have kids of their own; and it was so interesting we totally lost track of time until Raven’s satchel started singing, ‘You’re Raven Moon-Childe and, pretty soon child I’ve, got a feeling that, I’m gonna make you pick your phone up, in your hand.’
She dragged it out, frowned at the number. ‘Hello, Raven’s phone, who is this? Oh. Yes, yes, she is. Oh, no. I’m so sorry. Yes, of course, I’ll pass you over.’ Grimacing, she mouthed to me, ‘It’s your mum.’
I clapped a hand over my mouth to shut in the shriek. Oh, my God! I’d forgotten. Everything. To borrow a charger. To recharge my phone. To text Fi. To text Mum that I’d reached Raven’s OK. Even to go home. And now it was, I checked my watch- oh, my God. Twenty past nine. Scrub any plans for the weekend, then – I’d be grounded for sure.
Dismally, I reached for the phone, but Mamalou beat me to it. ‘Mrs Morton? Good evening! Do forgive me for keeping Eloise out so late, I can imagine how worried you’ve been. And it’s my fault, I’m afraid. We got engrossed in her history project and it never occurred to me to ask what time you expected her home.’ So much Gallic charm was oozing she was practically standing in a puddle. ‘Oh, yes, they’ve been hard at it all evening… she has indeed, a model guest, most polite and helpful… good grief, no! I wouldn’t dream of putting you to the inconvenience, I’ll bring her myself straight away. Yes. Yes, we’ll be with you very soon. ‘Bye now.
‘Right, girls,’ Mamalou gave the phone back, ‘we must bustle! Eloise, you’ve no time to change. Your uniform’s airing by the stove -fold it nicely into a bag, you’ll find some on the kitchen table. Oh, and leave that,’ she added as I looked helplessly at the strewn desk, ‘then it’ll be ready for you next time you come. I’ll go and get the car out. And Raven,’ she streamed French so fast I only caught her last words, ‘Allez, vite!’
We hurried into the kitchen, where the table was now covered in sheets of die-cut brown paper, lengths of string, and a stack of bags made up with plaited string handles. Grabbing one, Raven rushed off through a door into the part of Hidden House I hadn’t seen yet. I grabbed another. Forcing myself to do it properly instead of stuffing things in all creased, I took my warm kilt off the clothes horse. Ooh. I buried my nose. Mm. It smelt faintly of Clarity, Mamalou must use it in her washing machine. I rolled it up carefully and packed it into the bag, then my jumper, then my shirt and tights; put my blazer on over my Foxy sweatshirt and went to fetch my shoes from the foot of the stairs. They just about fitted over the slipper-socks if I left the laces undone. Then I went back for my school bag and clothes and met Raven in the kitchen. Her carrier looked full and heavy now.
‘Ready, Ellie? Good! Let’s go.’
‘Oh! Are you coming too?’
‘You bet,’ Raven giggled. ‘You’ve seen my house, I want to see yours. And to meet your mum and dad.’ She waggled her left ring finger at me. ‘They’re my blood-in-laws now, remember.’
‘Cool.’ I was hugely relieved, to be honest; if Raven was with me, the folks couldn’t give me so much grief. Not till after she’d gone, anyway. Following her out through the front door into chilly darkness, I was surprised when she didn’t lock up but headed straight for a disappointingly ordinary-looking silver estate parked outside the garage. ‘Do you always leave the door unlocked? Aren’t you worried about being burgled?’
Raven giggled again. ‘No, Hidden House is well protected.’ (I assumed she meant silent alarms, or some fancy automatic locking system). ‘Here,’ she opened the rear passenger door, ‘I’ll put your bags in the back.’ She slid in after them and buckled up behind me as I buckled up beside Mamalou, feeling considerably more impressed when she switched on the engine and we purred off up the drive.
‘Ooh. I’ve never been in an electric car before. Isn’t it quiet?’
‘Yes, although this is a hybrid,’ said Mamalou. ‘I like to hedge my bets. And it’s much easier to drive than the SUV.’
‘God, yes, that embarrassing great lump. I’m so glad you made the company swap it, Maman,’ said Raven as we bumped up the cobbled hill. When we stopped at the gate, she hopped out to open it looking even more uncool with nasty clashing pink Crocs on over her stripy socks – and at the same time, cooler in a funny sort of way because she obviously didn’t care a hoot what she looked like or what anyone else might think. (I shuddered to think what Fi, Caro and Libby would say if they saw – they’d rather die than go out of the house dressed like that – and the whole school would be laughing behind Raven’s back ten minutes later).
‘So, Eloise,’ Mamalou slowed to a crawl as we reached Idenowes Terrace, ‘which way? Whereabouts do you live?’
‘In the Trees.’ That’s what locals like to call our streets, though I think of them more as the cheesy centre in a posh club sandwich. ‘Poplar Road. Do you know it?’
‘Ah, yes. A nice area.’ She turned right onto Townsend Road, towards the giant orange glow of the new housing estate. ‘And it’d be a nice walk in daylight.’ She nodded to my left. ‘Technically that’s our land, although Grange have been farming it for decades, since the goddies downsized. So you’re welcome to use the field paths any time you like, no-one will mind.’
‘Ooh! Thanks, Mamalou.’ Maybe Raven and I could explore at the weekend – if I wasn’t grounded. I just wished we could explore the old Idenowes, when all we’d see ahead would be more darkness and trees instead of a glaring great petrol station and Starbucks, and the supermarket where Mum does her weekly big shop and buys my school uniform.
‘I wish I could’ve seen the place before the goddies sold it.’ Raven’s sigh echoed mine as we turned left at the roundabout onto the main road. ‘It must’ve been beautiful. Do you remember it, Maman?’
‘No, this was all built long before my time, unfortunately. So thank goodness we still have our maps, and the Gardiner collection.’ Mamalou shot me a quick smile. ‘Maybe you could catalogue it as part of your project, Eloise. I’d love to know exactly what’s inside all those albums and boxes. I dare say Wakefield Archives would, too.’
‘Gosh. Yes, I need to list my sources and picture captions anyway. Gosh, yes,’ I repeated myself excitedly, ‘this is brilliant! It’s making me feel like a real historian.’
‘You are a real historian, my dear. You’ve the right instincts, the right curiosity, the right vision… yes, I’m sure you’re taking the first steps towards a long and rewarding career.’ Mamalou peeled off the bright dual carriageway onto the dimmer, narrower main road of the old housing estate – brick terraces with front rooms that open straight onto the street, and corner shops, and odd blocks all made up of newsagents, hairdressers, takeaways, and small general stores with flats up above for the owners.
‘Mm. I hope so.’ Lost in rare dreams of academic glory, I hardly noticed us pass the Methodist chapel where the road widens and the pavement sprouts trees and the houses turn semi- with nice front gardens, then grow and detach themselves after the crossroads with the Post Office and Health Centre – but I did jump when we reached Fi’s, all lit up with new people watching TV in the front room, (I saw its glow through the curtains, same place the McDs had had theirs), and their strange cars parked on the driveway. ‘Oh!’ I jerked upright. ‘We’re nearly there! It’s just coming up, second right.’
First right was one of the original Trees, Acorn Avenue, easy to spot on account of the gigantic oak on one corner. (So’s the other. Chestnut Walk, fourth on the right, which has, guess what? Yup, a horse-chestnut). The old houses are lovely, much bigger than Fi’s, built for people who had cooks, and nannies, and housemaids in white aprons and white frilly caps to look after them indoors, and little wiry weather-beaten gardeners in flat caps to look after the outdoors, just like Just William’s familyin the bedtime stories Nana used to read me. Then when the Acorns and Chestnuts decided they didn’t want acres of croquet lawn and tennis courts and mazes and rose gardens any longer, just somewhere to put a pool and a big posh garage for their big posh cars, they all sold huge chunks of back garden to some developer who squeezed in the new Trees, two narrow streets of supposedly three-bedroom semis. (Hah. My room’s pokey enough now, but my baby bedroom wasn’t much bigger than a closet, I had to move when I outgrew my cot because when Dad put my new single bed in there, Mum couldn’t open the airing cupboard to get at the sheets. My pink bunny paper’s still on the walls, but we only use it now for storing suitcases and boxes of stuff like Christmas trimmings, and Mum gets depressed due to the lack of spare room and guests having to sleep on the living room couch, (or my floor, if they’re Fi), and the Original Features, which she hates even when Dad tries to tell her they’re funky, and Seventies retro’s really in.
‘Down to the bottom, last on the left,’ I said as we turned onto Poplar Road. ‘Don’t worry about parking across the drive, Dad won’t be wanting the car out.’
As we pulled up, I looked at my watch and felt sick. Twenty to ten. Later than I’d ever stayed out on a school night before. At least I had somewhere respectable to come home to. Nothing compared to Hidden House, admittedly, but the folks had done ‘Davchrys,’ (marginally better than ‘Chravid,’ I suppose), up quite nicely over the years, and the front garden had a neat privet hedge Dad hand-cut like Gramps always had because the sound of snipping shears made him feel nostalgic, and his company Audi parked next to the little square lawn he always moaned about mowing because the rose-bed in the middle made it a fiddly job, and he was always getting attacked by Mum’s prize Rosa Mundi.
Crossing my fingers that Mamalou had charmed them into not going too ballistic, I unlocked the front door. ‘Hi, Mum! Hi, Dad! I’m home.’ Three people and three bulky bags make quite a crowd in our small hall, so I went straight on into the living room before someone knocked the bowl of pot-pourri off the little spindly table where we put the keys. ‘Um- hi, look, I know it’s really late and I’m really sorry,’ I babbled before they could start, ‘but I’ve got loads of homework done and-’
‘What on earth are you wearing?’ Mum killed the sound and jumped up from the couch where she and Dad were watching TV. ‘What’s happened? Where’s your uniform? Don’t say you’ve ruined it on your first day, that shirt was brand new.’
‘Nothing, it’s fine, honestly.’ I held up the bag. ‘I’ve got it in here. Raven’s mum just gave me these clothes because- um,’ I hesitated, not wanting to drop either of us in the poo.
‘Because I like changing into my slobs after school, and I wanted Ellie to feel comfy too.’ Raven eased past while I dropped my eyes and sucked in a grin. Nice spin, bestie-till-Fi’s-home. ‘Hello, Mrs Morton, Mr Morton. Pleased to meet you. I’m Raven.’
‘And I’m Raven’s mum.’ Mamalou beamed in, made straight for Mum, pumped her hand vigorously, then did the same to Dad. ‘Louise Moulin, call me Lou, a pleasure to meet you indeed! I can’t tell you how glad I am that our girls have hit it off so well – or how sorry Raven and I both are for detaining Eloise all this time. I must admit, that is partly her fault – her project is truly engrossing.’
‘Oh. Well.’ Mum smiled. So did I. This was looking good. ‘I suppose it’s alright if you were working, Eloise.’ She wagged her finger. ‘Just this once, though. We want you back by nine on school nights in future, young lady.’
Phew-ee. ‘Yes, Mum,’ I said gratefully. ‘I promise. I’ve done my French and most of my English as well, and my history project’s going to be A-mazing, I can’t wait to show you, only all my notes are on the goddies’ laptop and-’
‘Have we met somewhere before, Lou?’ interrupted Dad, staring hard. ‘On holiday, maybe? You look very familiar. Hang on, I’ll place you in a minute, I’m good with faces- oh, my God.’ His eyes bugged wide. ‘Oh, my God! I don’t believe, it can’t be- bloody hell, it is!’ He jumped up too and grabbed Mum’s arm. ‘Don’t you recognise her, love? It’s-’
‘OH MY GOD!’ Mum took off, literally. ‘Mary-Lou Moonchild!’
Oh, my God. ‘Moon-Childe,’ I muttered under my breath. She and Raven were going to need this like a hole in the head.
‘Yes! MoonChilde! Bradford Alhambra! Fifteen years ago!’ the folks yipped on in turn. ‘Waited at the stage door, we chatted, you signed our programme, still got it somewhere, great fans of your early music, ‘Jolene,’ Catfish Crew,’ blah blah. Then my father looked tenderly at my golden-haired mother.
‘I preferred ‘Jolie Blonde.’ Mum went very pink while he went on to Mamalou, ‘It was our song at the time… and we remember that concert very well, not just because of meeting you. We happened to be celebrating – we’d just found out that this one,’ he jerked his head at me, ‘was on her way.’
‘Oh, how wonderful! I also remember it very well because that one,’ Mamalou jerked her head at Raven, ‘had been on her way for three months, and the Alhambra was our last gig before my maternity break. And I recall our meeting too, let me think- aha! Chrystal and David! Well, well. What an odd coincidence, Chrissy, that our first meeting should be as expectant newly-weds, and our second as mothers of a single teenage daughter.’
‘Why, yes, how did you- as a matter of fact we’d just come back from a fortnight in the Dales.’ Mum laughed, a little nervously. ‘It was the last gasp of our honeymoon. We hadn’t planned on getting pregnant quite so soon.’ She subtly shifted position to block the view of her Most Hated Original Feature, the York Stone cocktail bar built in as part of the York Stone fake-fireplace surround and angled TV unit Dad said were a unique selling point in the day, everybody wanted one. They’d ditched the optics and neon signs and repro pub signs and mirrors and put the stereo and speakers where the glasses used to be, and racks of CDs behind the wall and a vase of flowers and various knick-knacks along the top, but it still looked like a big ugly bar and took up loads of space, and all three of us hated it. ‘That’s why we were in a bit of a hurry to buy.’ Mum frowned briefly at Dad, she always blamed him for rushing her into it when she was in a bad mood about the Original Features. ‘We needed somewhere ready for Bump when she came.’
‘Well, now that we’ve found each other again after so many years, we must keep up the acquaintance! We’d love to have Eloise over again for the weekend – she and Raven have all manner of exciting plans – so why not join us for Sunday lunch? There’ll be plenty, I’m cooking for company, and you can all go home together afterwards.’
‘Oh. Um. Well. That’s very kind of you, um, Lou. But really, it’s too much, we wouldn’t want to impose.’ After her shaky start, Mum firmed up. ‘You’ve already fed Eloise once-’
‘And I hope she didn’t eat you out of house and home,’ Dad butted in. Cheers, Dad.
‘-and given her those, ah, nice clothes. So thank you very much, but maybe another time.’
‘Oh, it’s no imposition-’ Mamalou began.
Raven and I looked at each other. Then we wailed in unison. ‘Oh, Mum/Mrs Morton!
‘Oh, please say yes,’ Raven begged. ‘I’ve been on my own- well, not exactly on my own, I had Mum. And my godparents sometimes. And the neighbours. But I’ve had no-one my own age – no friends at all – for months. Not since,’ she gulped, ‘not since dad died and I had to leave my old school, and I’ve been ever s-so lonely.’ Awesome. She even managed to make her eyes fill. ‘But now I’ve met Ellie,’ she pulled me to her in a clumsy hug, ‘I’m not lonely. I’m happy. It’s so nice having a girlfriend again, I’ve really missed it, and I’d love her to spend the weekend because we had such fun today, and Mum’s taking us to the Museum on Saturday, and I want to show her round Idenowes properly and do some more work on her history project.’
‘Oh. Yes, of course. Good heavens, what was I thinking? You poor girl.’ Mum choked.
Dad cleared his throat. ‘Ahem. Yes, Raven, we were very sad to hear the news about your father… Gray Childe was one of my all-time favourite blues guitarists, one of the greatest ever. Heck of a voice, too. His music was very important to us, wasn’t it, love?’
‘Yes,’ Mum sighed. ‘Yes, it was. And yes, of course you can have Ellie over for the weekend, Raven – whenever you like, within reason. Provided your mum’s absolutely sure it’s OK.’
‘Absolutely!’ said Mamalou. ‘We adore having guests. I’ll look forward to seeing Eloise after school on Friday then, shall I? And I’ll look forward to seeing you on Sunday too, twelve-thirty for one. Make sure you come hungry!
‘Right then, Madam, let’s get you home and leave Eloise and her parents in peace- oops, better not take this back with us.’ She held out the bag Raven had filled. ‘Just a few bits I hope might make up for the worry… and a little something for Eloise, too.’
‘Oh. Good heavens,’ Mum said again. ‘We didn’t expect- there’s no need- really, you shouldn’t have- oh, good grief! Where are my manners?’ She took the bag. ‘Thanks, Lou. You needn’t have troubled, but it’s very thoughtful of you. What do you say, Eloise?’
‘Thank you very much, um-’ I wasn’t sure how Mum would feel about ‘Mamalou,’ so I plumped for ‘Mrs Moulin. And for a lovely dinner, and my clothes, and everything.’
‘You’re most welcome.’ Mamalou smacked me a kiss on both cheeks. ‘Bonne nuit, cherie. No, no, don’t bother,’ she went on to Dad as he started to move, ‘we’ll see ourselves out. Good night.’
They about-faced and filed out, tactfully avoiding an undignified scrum in the hall. I followed and noticed my school bag hanging on its usual peg; Raven must’ve put it there.
‘Wait!’ I caught her at the doorstep and started to babble. ‘Look, I’m really sorry about-’ but she made a stop sign with her left hand.
‘No need. Your folks are my folks’ favourite sort of fans – Mum’s over the moon,’ she dimpled at the pun, ‘about meeting them again, I can tell by her vibe. And your dad was just being kind, and I liked what he said about Dad, it meant a lot. So chillax.’
‘Phew. Thanks,’ I flashed my braces in relief. ‘And thanks for, you know, everything. I can’t believe how today turned out… it’s been totally magic. Even school.’
‘For me too, blood-of-my-blood.’ Raven stuck her left ring finger up by itself. I did the same, (which wasn’t easy), and we pressed the tips together hard enough for me to feel the tiny pain where she’d stabbed me. ‘We’re sisters now, remember, bestie-till-Fi’s-home!’ Then with a wave and a cheery, ‘See you in the morning,’ she clumped away in her hideous Crocs.
As soon as I shut the front door, Mum screamed. ‘Eeeeeeeeee!‘ I took my blazer off, hung it on top of my bag, and went back into the living room to find her and Dad bouncing about grinning like idiots.
‘Oh, Ellie!’ Mum gasped, ‘Can you believe- that was Mary-Lou Moonchild! Here, in our house! We loved her with Catfish Crew! Their music was brilliant to dance to. Do you remember, Dave?’ She grabbed Dad’s hands and started humming, and he joined in, and next minute they’re waltzing round singing, ‘Allons danser, allons danser.’
I rolled my eyes. ‘Oh, puh-lease.’
‘Oh, shut up,’ panted Mum. ‘Imagine how you’d feel if it was Foxy! This the most exciting thing that’s ever happened in my life-’
‘Huh,’ snorted Dad. ‘Thanks a bunch, love.’
Mum brushed him aside. ‘Feh – you know what I mean. And I’m excited that Eloise has found such a lovely new friend, and perhaps we have too, I mean, she’s invited us to- oh, my God.’ She collapsed on the couch. ‘Oh. My. God. We’re going to lunch. With a millionairess. A famous, talented-’
‘Gorgeous,’ murmured Dad. Good job Mum didn’t hear.
‘Multi, more like.’ He flopped down alongside. ‘Maybe billionairess. All Financial Times said was that MoonChilde went to NamCom for ‘an undisclosed sum,’ which normally means a hefty chunk of change.’
‘Oh, my God,’ Mum repeated faintly. ‘What the hell am I going to wear? Where do they live, Eloise?’ she asked in a panicky voice. ‘Is it a huge mansion? Oh, my God – has she got a butler? Is it very formal? I don’t think I can run to a proper afternoon dress… will a work suit be alright, I could get a nice new blouse-’
‘Jeez, Mum! No, they live on a smallholding, and yeah, it’s a lovely big old farmhouse but it’s not Downton Abbey. They don’t even own the furniture, it still belongs to Raven’s goddies. And they’re totally chilled, and Mrs M’s a brilliant cook,’ (oops, maybe shouldn’t have said that), ‘and they’ve got the most amazing garden. So don’t worry, you’ll have a great time. Just wear trousers and a jumper and flats if you want a walk round. And aren’t you going to look in your bag?’ I eyed it, forgotten on the coffee-table in all the excitement. I was itching to know what Mamalou had given me.
‘Oh, goody, yes!’ Mum brightened. ‘Presents!’ She reached in and pulled out a green bottle. ‘Ooh, elderflower champagne! I’ve never had that.’ She pulled out another, cloudy white, and frowned as she showed me the label, which had pictures of lemons round Mamalou’s handwriting. ‘WupQuid? What on earth?’
I burst out laughing. ‘Liquide vaisselle au citron biodégradable, Maman! Lemon-scented eco-washing up liquid. I learnt that tonight – we washed up in French.’
‘You washed up? Bloody hell!’ said Dad. ‘I’d have thought she’d have a dishwasher. How much did she pay you?’
‘A French conversation lesson,’ I said sniffily, watching a bar of yellow soap plop into Mum’s lap from a yellow-and-white stripy dishcloth. I could smell it from where I was standing. ‘Torchon en coton, Raven’s godma Faith knits them, and Mrs M makes the savon au citron from home-grown lemons, they’ve got a big tree in the greenhouse.’ I smiled inside, as if Mamalou was sharing a private joke with me by giving Mum this stuff, and chance to prove I actually had done some French homework, and show off a bit at the same time, which was nice. ‘Lotion pour les mains au citron,’ I added smugly as a flat round tin emerged, labelled with a yellow hand holding the letters LemLo.
Mum unscrewed it and rubbed a dab in. ‘Ooh.’ She smelt her hands. ‘Mm. I’ll keep it by the sink with these other things. Well, what a lucky gift, I’m down to my last drip of Fairy. And it matches the, um, décor.’ For once, she actually smiled at a kitchen-related thought. ‘I’m glad she didn’t give me lavender.’ Then she gasped over a round white cardboard box, like the ones she buys Camembert cheese in. ‘Ooh! Marrons glacées!I don’t need that translating, Eloise! Goodness, what a treat – I’ll save these for Christmas.’ Cue howls of protest from me and Dad. ‘Oh, alright then, Bonfire Night. Hallowe’en. Some occasion. But definitely not tonight! I’m sure you’ve been well fed, Eloise,’ she prodded Dad’s tum, ‘and you’ve already had second supper.’
I plumped down between them and peeped in the carrier, empty now but for one thing, a dark red cloth bag. ‘Ooh! This must be mine, then.’ I lifted it out, full of lumps and bumps but not very heavy, loosened the drawstring, and took out a white cardboard box with ♀ T drawn on in red felt pen. Female Tea? Opening the lid, I unfolded the wax paper lining and sniffed. Mm. ‘Here, Dad.’ I passed it over. ‘Can you tell what’s in this herb tea?’
He sniffed too, turned it towards the lamp, stirred with his finger. ‘Let’s see. Camomile flowers… lavender… sage, I think… something else, hops maybe.’ He pulled a face. ‘Probably tastes bitter.’
‘Probably why she gave me this, then.’ I showed him a small jar of Grange honey, then the tiny brown bottle of clary sage oil it had been clinking against. Light began to dawn, and my fingertips recognised the next thing, a soft wad of pads to go in my new pants, before I saw it. I put them on the coffee table. ‘Oh, wow! It’s a period bag!’ I could announce it like that, without even blushing, because my folks are totally cool – much cooler than me – about body stuff. They don’t freak out if you walk in on them half-undressed, or on the loo, or in the bath; I could talk about sex with them, if I had any to talk about; and Dad says he’s lived long enough with Mum’s tears and tampons and demands for wine, chocolate and ibuprofen at unreasonable hours for the menstrual cycle to hold no mysteries for him, so not to bother getting all embarrassed and secretive about it when the time came. Then he’d know when to buy me chocolate as well, (or keep well out of my way). So I didn’t, and we even had a little ‘Welcome to Womanhood’ party with fizzy Ribena and a strawberry cheesecake to celebrate my first feeble dribble at thirteen, just the three of us. Apart from the tummy-ache and mess I enjoyed being made a fuss of and allowed to lie around reading magazines without getting nagged about homework. And it was nice now, being able to tell them some truth:
‘Yeah, I thought my period was starting so I told Raven, and she told her mum, and she made me a drink with this oil to stop my cramps. And that’s sort of why they gave me these clothes and some special pants her godma makes,’ I pulled my top up and my waistband down to show Mum, ‘with press-studs and pads you can put in the wash.’
‘Whoa! Right bunch of eco-freaks, aren’t they?’ laughed Dad, like he’s not obsessive about recycling and composting and switching lights off.
Mum gave him a Look. ‘Very woke and kind and thoughtful to your daughter is what they are, David Morton,’ she said sternly, and gave me a hug and a different Look, sisterly, women together against the world sort of thing. I love it when she does that.
I hugged back, then took out my last present, a cube wrapped in paper labelled PooBar with a picture of asmiley yellow sun and a sunbathing mouse. ‘Oh, Mum, look! It’s solid shampoo.’ That reminded my head it was sweaty, and it immediately started to itch. ‘Um- please will you wash my hair with it?’
‘What, now?’ She looked aghast. ‘It’s nearly bedtime.’
‘Yeah, and I can’t sleep like this, my hair mings. Look,’ I held up a limp strand, ‘it’s gone all greasy and flat.’
‘Oh, God,’ Mum groaned. Then her eyes narrowed. Oh-oh. ‘Alright. On one condition.’
‘What?’ I asked warily.
‘That you let me cut-’
‘-those awful split ends off so there’s less to wash. OK? Come on, Eloise.’ Triumphantly, (we’d been rowing about this forever), Mum played her trump card. ‘You can’t spend a weekend in civilised company looking like a grunge hippie. Either let me trim it or take you to a proper hairdresser tomorrow – or you can go to bed with a minging head, come straight home from school on Friday, and be grounded till Monday. Your choice.’
Huh. It was a ‘proper hairdresser’ who gave me such a disastrous Peaky Blinders pudding-basin when I was five that I was embarrassed to go to Infants, then threw such screaming hysterical tantrums if anyone came near me with a pair of scissors that Mum eventually gave up and no-one’s cut it since, (apart from me, carefully snipping split ends off one by one). But now she had me by the short n’ curlies, (soft and new, I was very proud of them), and she knew it.
Opting for the least worst, I said sulkily, ‘Alright. I’ll let you trim it. As long as you promise not to cut too much off.’
‘Promise.’ Mum crossed her heart. ‘Now go get the scissors. And put some newspaper down. Oh, and you might as well take that lot with you.’
‘Yes, Mum,’ I sighed, packed the food and drink and cleaning stuff back in the carrier, and went through to her Next Most Hated Original Feature, which she says belongs in a social history museum, (apart from the shiny white replacement door and windows, with yellow-and-white easy-wash check curtains she caved in and bought to match it because they’re practical, and the new-ish white gas cooker, fridge-freezer and washing machine, the only things she doesn’t moan about). But I quite like our kitchen. The squares of lemon-and-white floor tiles have aged to mustard-and-cream, but the units Dad calls ‘Formica’ and the matching glass-fronted wall cabinets are still cheerful canary yellow with shiny white handles, and the worktops are still white-ish, except for lots of fine scratches and dull patches where the shine’s worn off, especially round the kettle. There’s no space for a dishwasher or clothes drier either, although as Dad always reminds Mum, she has wind and a proper clothesline outside, strung between two pebbly concrete posts with a pole to prop up the middle. But the things she hates most are the walls. The top half’s covered in something called ‘Artex’ put on to look rustic, ie slapped on in big daubs by someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing, (‘Why?’ Mum often wails. ‘Why make good plastering look like bad? It’s insane!’), and which Dad says is ‘such a sod to get off we might as well knock the walls down and start again.’ And the bottom half has tiles, ‘hand-made, must’ve cost a bomb in their day.’ I think they’re gorgeous, shiny dimply white with splatty, yellowy-orange glassy sunburst centres, and when you peer close, (I used to when I was a kid, I even had special favourites), you see each one’s a tiny bit different, like snowflakes. Unfortunately, when you stand back it’s more like someone’s gone round and very carefully stuck five hundred fried eggs on the walls, sunny side up – and ‘once you’ve seen it like that,’ as Mum says, ‘you can’t see it as anything else.’ At least fried eggs are OK for a kitchen. Green splats might look like squashed frogs, which might put me off my Pop-Tarts in the breakfast nook with the white stools and yellow fold-down Formica table scattered with white dots and dashes like scrambled Morse code.
Anyway, I left the bag on the worktop, got an old newspaper out of the recycling box near the door, and the big, orange-handled scissors out of the bits-and-bobs drawer. Then Mum came in with a comb and a Cheshire-cat grin, she’s waited ten years for this moment, and told me to spread the paper out and stand on it.
‘Remember, you promised,’ I said nervously as she went behind me with the scissors.
‘Yes, yes, I know. Just the split ends.’ Quickly combing me through, she arranged my hair to hang straight down my back. ‘Ugh! I see what you mean, it is greasy.’ She started snipping slowly, right to left. ‘It’ll be your hormones. Mine was the same when my periods started. Don’t worry, it calms down in a year or two, just like your spots will.’ I got the feeling she was trying to distract me as she nattered on. ‘I went from Clearasil and a hair-wash every day with Greasy Head n’ Shoulders when I was your age to clear skin and three times a week with normal shampoo by the time I was nineteen.
‘There, now! All done.’ Mum stepped back. ‘See – that wasn’t too painful, was it? And it looks much better already.’
Turning round, I took a deep breath and looked down. I could hardly see the newspaper for hanks of frizzy, blondish hair nearly as long as my thirty-centimetre ruler. ‘Oh, Mum! You promised!’ I shrieked, sprinting for the hall mirror. ‘Oh my God oh my God oh my God, what’ve you done?’
‘Trimmed your split ends,’ she replied, totally unsympathetic.
‘Trimmed?’ I cried. ‘Half my hair’s gone!’ The half I could pretend was blonde highlights, the half I liked better than the dull mousy rest.
‘Don’t be a drama queen,’ Mum said briskly. ‘Go and get ready while I clear it up. I’ll be with you in a sec.’
I stomped into the living room, grabbed my cube, and stomped up to the absolutely MHOF. Mum and Dad had ripped up the lime green fluffy nylon carpet, (when I was little enough to play on floors, I used to hunt for tiny tufts stuck under the skirting boards and pluck them like miniature clumps of grass to feed my toy farm animals), which used to match the lime green tile border, which doesn’t match the peppermint tiles underneath, (though they went with the old peppermint paintwork), and the avocado loo, sink and corner bath which don’t go with any of it but Dad says were terribly ‘with it’ at the time. They tried to tone things down by sanding and lime-washing the floorboards and painting everything else white but lying in the bath still feels like drowning in some putrid pond. (The MHOFs explain why the rest of the house is basically beige, apart from my bedroom, which is still sugary pink-for-a-girl where it’s not hidden with posters. Before the folks could bear to move in, they went round and neutralised all the mad wallpaper with a job-lot of magnolia – I’ve seen the photos in our Baby Book, Mum with a scarf over her hair and white freckles all over her arms, painting out giant tangerine daisies in the living room, with Bump-me like a football stuffed down her overalls). Also, there’s no proper shower, only a pink plastic head on a pink rubbery hose to fit over the taps that’s no use for anything but rinsing your hair. Mortons three agree the only decent thing in there is the loo seat, clear peppermint-green plastic with thousands of paler green and white squares floating in it like thin slices of mint humbug. Dad swears it’s coming with us if we ever move.
Stripped to my pants, wrapped in a towel, I was twisting and turning in front of the mirror trying to assess the damage when my mother appeared. Silently, sulkily, I knelt on the white waffle bathmat and bent over the plastic avocado. Silently but far from sulkily, Mum turned the taps on, tested the temperature, and got on with our usual routine, only using Mamalou’s lovely herby lemony poo-bar instead of our usual supermarket bog-standard family shampoo. When it was done and squeezed half-dry, I was all set to stomp off to bed without speaking to Mum and catch my death of cold, as Nana always said happened to people who slept with damp hair. Then she’d be sorry. But before I could, she squeezed my shoulder.
‘Right, go get your PJs on, love. Then let’s have a nice cup of cocoa, and you can tell me and Dad properly about your day while your hair dries.’
What’s left of it, I thought bitterly. But Hidden House and my history project and my new Career Plan (ta-da!) were practically bursting to get out, and if I didn’t let them, they’d only bubble around inside my head all night and stop me sleeping. But instead of my favourite fleecy ‘jamas I decided to put my new things back on, they were just as soft, with the same faint, delicious scent all Mamalou’s laundry seemed to have; besides, I loved the idea of sleeping with Cecile on my chest. And on my way downstairs, I decided not to have my favourite cocoa either, so I went into the kitchen.
‘I want to try this new tea, Mum,’ I said, handing her the packet. ‘It might stop me getting tummy-ache.’
She opened it and sniffed. ‘Mm. Smells nice. Relaxing. Do you mind if I join you?’
I shook my head. ‘Would you like a cup as well, Dad? I could make us a pot.’
‘Woman Tea?’ He grinned. ‘OK, I’ll give it a go. As long as it doesn’t make me grow moobs.’
Mum’s Look said, ‘I’ve got news for you, darling.’ But her mouth only smiled as she put the kettle on, and I dug out the teapot we only use when Nana visits because she’s snobby about brewing up in your cup, and Dad and I put some Grange honey in ours because it was a bit bitter, but Mum preferred hers as it came. Then we took our mugs through to the living room, and they sat on the couch, and I sat in a beanbag in front of Mum, and she started finger-combing my hair while we sipped.
(This is the only thing about my hair I don’t hate. Everything else is rubbish and it’s so unfair because my folks both have great hair, Dad’s thick, shiny conker brown to match his eyes, (although lately it’s been going grey round the edges), and Mum’s more than wavy but not quite curly, and looks fantastic however she wears it, and there’s a fair bit of ash in with the gold now but that looks good with her greeny-grey eyes. Then there’s me, piggy-in-the-middle, with boring sort of hazel eyes and fine, sort of brownish hair that just hangs and won’t hold a style for longer than ten minutes, Fi and I gave up trying with her curling tongs, and I daren’t have a perm in case it goes horribly wrong and has to be cut out really short and boom! it’s back to Peaky Blinders making my spotty moon-face look even fatter and rounder. It’s like having some whiny alien mouse with a million arms squatting on my head, always demanding attention then selfishly refusing to look anything better than OK-at-least-it’s-tidy. I hate it so much I sometimes wish I was bald, although that probably wouldn’t help my looks. But being combed, (which Mum has to do before bed otherwise it mats into hard, painful lumps round my hairline and she has to hack them out with scissors), is such bliss it almost makes the rest worth putting up with.
Apart from Raven buying me a banana then letting me blag half her lunch- oh, and the blood-sisters bit, because they’d go on about diseases and infections. And what’d happened with the Lady, and making wishes, because they’d think I was mad. And running round getting my school clothes all sweaty and stinky so that my new friend’s famous mum had to secretly wash them, because they’d be mad with me. Apart from that, I poured out our whole day and the folks drank it all in, looking really interested and asking loads of questions, especially about Mamalou and Hidden House; and when I told them about my Plan to Be Something in History, Mum actually applauded.
‘Oh, what a relief!’ She kissed the top of my head. ‘That’s wonderful news, isn’t it, Dave?’
Dad nodded. ‘Yeah, sounds like history’s your calling, love. And your project sounds fascinating, I’m looking forward to seeing this place myself on Sunday.’
‘Me too. Goodness,’ said Mum, ‘I can hardly wait now! And thank God it’s a smallholding, not a stately home… I’ll wear my Aran jumper and tweed slacks, they look new. Net or plait?’
Oh poo. That meant she’d finished, and I had to decide how to control the Alien Mouse so it wouldn’t tie all her good work in knots overnight: either the hideous stretchy brown hairnet, which made me feel like a Rastafarian with a big hat full of dreadlocks but nothing like as cool, or the fat plait which sometimes wound round and got trapped as I turned over and jerked me painfully awake. To keep Mum fiddling with my hair a bit longer I chose plait, shivering as she drew a line either side of my spine, divided my hair into three, wove it loosely together, and fastened it with a white lace scrunchie.
‘There you go.’ Mum gave it her usual cheeky flip to say, ‘You’re done now, clear off to bed.’ I winced as the scrunchie landed just below my shoulder blades instead of the small of my back. Oh. My. God. It was so short. I hoped it wouldn’t look too awful in the morning.
I didn’t feel sleepy at all, but it was gone eleven and I knew arguing was pointless, so I kissed the folks goodnight and left them buzzing on the couch while I went up to brush my teeth, (yup, even after mouthwash I still had garlic breath), and have a last pee. Then I dug my diary out of my knicker drawer because I felt pretty buzzy myself and started scribbling my day down in the shorthand Mum taught me one rainy summer holiday when I was bored. Fi used to get weird about it because it meant she couldn’t read my diary and she didn’t like the idea of me keeping secrets from her, and I couldn’t use it at school in case anyone else got weird, including the teachers who wouldn’t be able to check my rough work or notes. (I had a feeling Raven wouldn’t get weird, she’d get excited and demand I teach her, unless she’d already learned it at her posh schools). But it was really handy for Dear Diary, and I’d made up my own special squiggles for names and words like ‘fit’ and ‘fancy’ so it was a bit of a secret code even from Mum.
I wrote until my hand ached, and my head quietened down, and I started yawning. Then I switched off the light and snuggled under the duvet, hugging Cecile, thinking about everything Raven had told me, and how boring we seemed in comparison, living in our ordinary semi with my parents’ ordinary jobs and our ordinary little holidays, day trips or long weekends or odd weeks visiting rellies or going somewhere like Centre Parcs. The naughty secret game we started playing when I was about seven, Mum and Dad sticking me with a guidebook in some huge stately home and leaving me to pore over doll’s houses and cabinets of curiosities while they sloped off for a coffee and a stroll round the grounds. We had our story straight: if anyone asked, I was to say they’d just nipped to the loo and told me to wait for them there, then send our SOS text and they’d come back ASAP so they wouldn’t get reported to Social Services for abandoning me and I wouldn’t get taken into care. It never happened, though. I was too good at tagging onto tour groups if an attendant came round or lurking on the edge of some family or near some unsuspecting grown-up as if I belonged to them, or just plain hiding and trying not to giggle. Anyway, it was usually quiet enough for me to sneak under the velvet ropes across the doorways and have a proper nosey round the period rooms. Once I finished off a jigsaw lying on a nursery floor, with a shape like a map of England someone drew with their eyes closed cut into a flat wooden box, and the easy counties like Cornwall and Norfolk fitted in round the edges. I couldn’t resist filling in the middle. I wonder if anyone ever noticed. Another time I sat on a chair where the last bottom to sit was Queen Victoria’s, but that set off an alarm and I had to run up quick to the attic and hide in an exhibition about servants until it was safe to escape. (That’s one good thing about being an ordinary, plain, plump, sensible-looking sort of kid – as long as you look like you know where you’re going and don’t mess about, adults either don’t notice or don’t suspect you of getting up to mischief). I never told Mum and Dad, obviously, they’d have ended me – and the Game. And that hadn’t been boring, I loved our trips out, and staying in Cleethorpes with my auntie and uncle and cousins, or in Lincoln with Mum’s Great-Aunt Clarice, or going for weekend breaks in the Peaks or County Durham, and not having to change my name or wear a disguise round the house or be pestered by paparazzi or see pictures of Dad splashed across the Daily Mail… just being an ordinary family having ordinary fun. Cosy. Safe. And I suddenly thought that if I really could go and play at Hidden House whenever I wanted, I didn’t envy Raven’s life at all, which was nice… and that got me thinking again about Maidenhowe, and my project, and going to see the Lady on Saturday. I didn’t think about Fi at all. And then I fell asleep.