The Children's Hour

A Novel

Marcia Willett

Thomas Dunne Books

 
CHAPTER ONE
Early autumn sunshine slanted through the open doorway in golden powdery bands of light. It glossed over the ancient settle, dazzled upon the large copper plate that stood on the oak table, and touched with gentle luminosity the faded silk colours of the big, square tapestry hanging on the wall beneath the gallery. A pair of short-legged gumboots, carelessly kicked off, stood just outside on the granite paving-slab and, abandoned on the worn cushion of the settle, a willow trug waited with its cargo of string, a pair of secateurs, an old trowel and twists of paper containing precious seeds.
The tranquil stillness was emphasized by the subdued churring of the crickets, their song just audible above the murmur of the stream. Soon the sun would slip away beyond the high shoulder of the cliff, rolling down towards the sea, and long shadows would creep across the lawn. It was five o’clock: the children’s hour.
The wheelchair moved out of the shadows, the rubber tyres rolling softly across the cracked mosaic floor, pausing outside the drawing-room. The occupant sat quite still, head lowered, listening to voices more than sixty years old, seeing chintzes scuffed and snagged by small feet and sandal buckles, an embroidery frame with its half-worked scene …
Hush! Someone is telling a story. The children group about their mother: two bigger girls share the sofa with the baby propped between them; another lies upon her stomach on the floor, one raised foot kicking in the air – the only sign of barely suppressed energy – as she works at a jigsaw puzzle. Yet another child sits on a stool, close to her mother’s chair, eager for the pictures that embellish the story.
‘“I’ll tell you a story,” said the Story Spinner, “but you mustn’t rustle too much, or cough or blow your nose more than is necessary … and you mustn’t pull any more curlpapers out of your hair. And when I’ve done you must go to sleep at once.” ’
Their mother’s voice is as cool and musical as the stream, and just as bewitching, so that the children are lulled, familiar lands dislimning and fading as they are drawn into another world: the world of make-believe, of once upon a time.
In the hall, outside the door, Nest’s eyes were closed, picturing the once-familiar scene, her ears straining to hear the long-silent words, her fingers gripping the arms of her wheelchair. The telephone bell fractured the silence, breaking the spell, a door opened and footsteps hurried along the passage. She raised her head, listening until, hearing the clang of the receiver in its rest, she turned her chair slowly so that she was able to survey the gallery. Her sister Mina came out onto the landing and stared down at her.
‘At least the bell didn’t wake you,’ she said with relief. ‘Were you going out into the garden? I could bring some tea to the summerhouse. It’s still quite warm outside.’
‘Who was it?’ Nest was not deflected by the prospect of tea. Some deep note of warning had echoed in the silence, a feather-touch of fear had brushed her cheek, making her shiver. ‘On the telephone. Was it Lyddie?’
‘No, not Lyddie.’ Mina’s voice was bracingly cheerful, knowing how Nest was inclined to worry about the family’s youngest niece. ‘No, it was Helena.’
Their eldest sister’s daughter had sounded uncharacteristically urgent – Helena was generally in strict control of her life – and Mina was beginning to feel a rising anxiety.
She passed along the gallery and descended the stairs. Her navy tartan trews were tucked into thick socks and her pine-green jersey was pulled and flecked with twigs. Silvery white hair fluffed about her head like a halo but her grey-green eyes were still youthful, despite their cage of fine lines. Three small white dogs scampered in her wake, their claws clattering, anxious lest they might be left behind.
‘I’ve been pruning in the shrubbery,’ she told Nest, ‘and I suddenly realized how late it was getting so I came in to put the kettle on. But I got distracted looking for something upstairs.’
‘I should love a cup of tea,’ Nest realized that she must follow Mina’s lead, ‘but I think it’s too late for the summerhouse. The sun will be gone. Anyway, it’s too much fuss, carrying it all out. Let’s have it in the drawing-room.’
‘Good idea.’ Mina was clearly relieved. ‘I shan’t be two minutes. The kettle must be boiling its head off.’
She hurried away across the hall, her socks whispering over the patterned tiles, the Sealyhams now running ahead, and Nest turned her chair and wheeled slowly into the drawing-room. It was a long narrow room with a fireplace at one end and a deep bay window at the other.
‘Such a silly shape,’ says Ambrose to his young wife when she inherits the house just after the Great War. ‘Hardly any room to get around the fire.’
‘Room enough for the two of us,’ answers Lydia, who loves Ottercombe House almost as much as she loves her new, handsome husband. ‘We shall be able to come down for holidays. Oh, darling, what heaven to be able to get out of London.’
It was their daughter, Mina, who, forty years later, rearranged the room, giving it a summer end and a winter end. Now, comfortable armchairs and a small sofa made a semicircle around the fire whilst a second, much larger, sofa, its high back to the rest of the room, faced into the garden. Nest paused beside the french window looking out to the terrace with its stone urns, where a profusion of red and yellow nasturtiums sprang up between the paving slabs and tumbled down the grassy bank to the lawn below.
‘We’ll be making toast on the fire soon.’ Mina was putting the tray on the low table before the sofa, watched by attentive dogs. ‘No, Boyo, sit down. Right down. Good boy. There’s some cake left and I’ve brought the shortbread.’
Nest manoeuvred her chair into the space beside the sofa, shook her head at the offer of cake and accepted her tea gratefully. ‘So what did our dear niece want?’
Mina sank into the deep cushions of the sofa, unable to postpone the moment of truth any longer. She did not look at Nest in her chair but gazed out of the window, beyond the garden, to the wooded sides of the steep cleave. Two of the dogs had already settled on their beanbags in the bay window but the third jumped onto the sofa and curled into a ball beside her mistress. Mina’s hand moved gently over the warm, white back.
‘She wanted to talk about Georgie,’ she said. ‘Helena says that she can’t be trusted to live alone any longer. She’s burned out two kettles in the last week and yesterday she went off for a walk and then couldn’t remember where she was. Someone got hold of Helena at the office and she had to drop everything to go and sort her out. Poor old Georgie was very upset.’
‘By getting lost or at the sight of her daughter?’ Nest asked the question lightly – but she watched Mina carefully, knowing that something important was happening.
Mina chuckled. ‘Helena does rather have that effect on people,’ she admitted. ‘The thing is that she and Rupert have decided that Georgie will have to go into a residential nursing home. They’ve been talking about it for a while and have found a really good one fairly locally. They can drive to it quite easily, so Helena says.’
‘And what does Georgie say about it?’
‘Quite a lot, apparently. If she has to give up her flat she can’t see why she can’t live with them. After all, it’s a big place and both the children are abroad now. She’s fighting it, naturally.’
‘Naturally,’ agreed Nest. Although, personally, if it came to a choice between living with Rupert and Helena or in a residential home I know which I’d choose. But why is Helena telephoning us about it? She doesn’t usually keep us informed about our sister’s activities. Not that Georgie is much of a communicator either. Not unless she has a problem, anyway.’
‘I think Helena has tried quite hard to keep Georgie independent, and not just because it makes it easier for her and Rupert,’ Mina was trying to be fair, ‘but if she needs supervision they can’t just leave her at their place alone. Anyway, the reason for her telephone call is to say that the home can’t take Georgie just now, and would we have her here for a short stay?’
Nest thought: Why do I feel so fearful? Georgie’s my sister. She’s getting old. What’s the matter with me?
She swallowed some tea and set the mug back in its saucer, cradling it on her knee, trying not to ask: ‘How long is a “short stay”?’
‘What did you tell Helena?’ she asked instead.
‘I said we’d talk it over,’ answered Mina. ‘After all, this is your home as much as mine. Do you think we could cope with Georgie for a month or two?’
A month or two. Nest battled with her sense of panic. ‘Since it would be you who would be doing most of the coping,’ she answered evasively, ‘how do you feel about it?’
‘I expect I could manage. What I feel is,’ Mina paused, took a deep breath, ‘or, at least, what I think I feel is that we should give it a try.’ She looked at her sister. ‘But I suspect that you’re not happy about it.’ She hesitated. ‘Or frightened of it? Something, anyway.’ She didn’t press the point but stroked Polly Garter’s head instead, crumbling a little of her shortcake and feeding her a tiny piece. Nogood Boyo was up from his beanbag in a flash, standing beside her, tail wagging hopefully. She passed him a crumb and in a moment all three dogs were beside her on the sofa.
‘You’re hopeless.’ Nest watched her affectionately as Mina murmured to her darlings. ‘Utterly hopeless. But, yes, you’re right. I’ve been feeling odd all day. Hearing voices, remembering things. I have this presentiment that something awful might happen. A hollow sensation in my stomach.’ She laughed a little. ‘But this is probably just a coincidence. After all, I can’t think why poor old Georgie should be cast as a figure of doom, can you?’
She leaned forward to place her mug and saucer on the tray and then glanced at Mina, surprised at her lack of response. Her sister was staring into the garden, preoccupied, frowning slightly For a brief moment she looked all of her seventy-four years, and Nest’s anxiety deepened.
‘Your expression isn’t particularly reassuring,’ she said. ‘Is there something I don’t know about Georgie after all these years?’
‘No, no.’ Mina recovered her composure. ‘Let’s have some more tea, shall we? No, I’m simply wondering if I can cope with Georgie, that’s all. I’m only a year younger. Rather like the halt leading the blind, wouldn’t you say?’
‘No, I wouldn’t,’ answered Nest sharply, not particularly comforted by Mina’s reply. ‘You don’t burn out kettles or go for walks and forget where you are.’
‘Just as well.’ Mina began to laugh. ‘There wouldn’t be anyone to find me up on Trentishoe Down.’ A pause. ‘What made you think it was Lyddie?’
‘Lyddie?’ Nest looked at her quickly. ‘How d’you mean?’
‘The phone call. You asked if it were Lyddie. Has she been part of this presentiment you’ve had all day?’
‘No.’ Nest shook her head, grimacing as she tried to puzzle it out. ‘It’s difficult to explain. More like a very strong awareness of the past, remembering scenes, that kind of thing.’ She hesitated. ‘Sometimes I’m not certain if it’s what I actually do remember or if it’s what I’ve been told. You were always telling me stories, interpreting the world for me. Giving people names of characters in books. Well, you still do that, of course.’
Mina smiled. ‘Such fun,’ she said, ‘although a little bit tricky when you called Enid Goodenough “Lady Sneerwell” to her face. Poor Mama was horrified. I was praying that Enid hadn’t a clue what you were talking about. Still, it was a sticky moment.’
‘It was fright,’ Nest excused herself, laughing at the memory, ‘coming upon her unexpectedly after everything you’d said about her.’
‘Lady Sneerwell and Sir Benjamin Backbite. What a poisonous pair the Goodenoughs were.’ Other memories were connected with this thought and Mina bent to stroke Nogood Boyo, her face momentarily grim.
‘I was remembering the stories,’ Nest was saying, ‘earlier when I was crossing the hall. I was thinking of us all down the years. Sitting on the sofa listening to Naughty Sophia and Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates. Do you remember?’
‘And A Christmas Carol on Christmas Eve while we decorated the tree. How could I forget? So. Not Lyddie, then?’
‘Not particularly. At least, I don’t think so.’
‘Good.’ Mina fed Captain Cat the final piece of shortbread and dusted the crumbs from her knees. ‘So what do we do about Georgie? Are we up to it? Perhaps we should ask Lyddie what she thinks about it?’
‘Why not? Let’s clear up first, though.’
‘Good idea. By then she’ll have finished work for the day and we won’t be interrupting her.’ Mina put the tea things onto the tray and, with the dogs at her heels, crossed the hall to the kitchen, Nest wheeling more slowly behind her.
Copyright © 2003 by Marcia Willett Limited.