The Shadow Guests

Joan Aiken


The Shadow Guests
Nobody was at the airport to meet him.
One of the stewardesses had told him that there was a place called a Rendezvous Area where you could go and wait if your friends hadn't turned up when the plane landed. So that was where he went. It was next to the information desk, a place with a set of plush-covered benches striped in pink and brown with a few anxious people sitting on them and gazing about in every direction. But Cosmo preferred to stand, leaning against the trolley that held his luggage--two cases, a carry-on bag, and a tennis racket.
He stared at the mass of people, streaming up and down the airport concourse, and wondered how he would ever know which one was looking for him.
"Cousin Eunice will probably come to meet you herself," his father had said. "But I suppose she might be giving alecture or tutoring somebody that day; then she'd have to arrange for someone else to come."
Could any of these women be Cousin Eunice? A fat blond one with pouches under her eyes: he hoped not. A thin dark one in a corduroy windcheater: she looked nice, but she walked straight past. A younger one--no, she had a girl of about six with her. Cousin Eunice was not married and had no children.
"Have I met her? Was she there when we visited Uncle Ted that time?"
He remembered the place--most clearly and hauntingly he remembered it--not the house, but the way a fold of hazelwood ran down to the river, and a brook, where he and Mark had built a dam, and a deep dark millpond and a weir, and a footbridge by which you went across to the island where the mill was. A huge field shaped like a half moon. If anything could cheer him at the moment--bat nothing could, really--it would be the prospect of living at Courtoys Mill.
"No, Cousin Eunice wasn't there at that time," his father had said. "She was away at Cambridge, studying." There had been something bitten back about his voice--the way people talk when they are concealing things considered unsuitable for the young. His father had talked like that most of the time in the last month or two. So--was there something peculiar about Cousin Eunice? Surely not; his father seemed to put a lot of trust in her. "She'll look after you all right and get you all the stuff you need for school," he had said. "And I'll come to England as soon as I can."
But where was Cousin Eunice now? He shivered, feelinghorribly isolated all of a sudden. Thirty hours in the plane was no joke--and then to have nobody meet you--
People were rushing up and down the concourse like lemmings, carrying their luggage or pushing it on trolleys. The loudspeaker added to the frantic atmosphere by a constant stream of urgent appeals.
"This is your last call for Air France flight four-oh-three to Marseilles now at gate seven. Will Mr. Panizelos on Olympic flight nine-nine-two please go at once to gate ten. Will Doctor Creasey, recently arrived from Los Angeles on Pan Am three-five-three, please go to the airport information desk. Will the driver meeting Captain Wang Tao Ping please go to the information desk."
A gray-haired man hurried up to the plush benches, and the worried girl with the enormous blue rucksack joyfully jumped up and ran to hug him. Many of the faces that had begun to seem familiar were gone, they were being replaced by others. I have been waiting here longer than anybody else, Cosmo thought. The harried woman, the fat impatient bald man, the girl with the baby had all gone. A new series of waiting, expectant people had replaced them.
Cosmo longed for a huge drink of cold water. The last meal served on the plane had been a disgusting sweet, stale sticky bun and a half-cup of lukewarm coffee tasting like liquid that cardboard had been boiled in; it was far from thirst-quenching. But there was no refreshment bar in this part of the airport. Presumably the people who built the place had thought that anybody getting off a plane wouldn't want food or drink; they would just want to hurry away.
Ma had said once that thinking about lemons would helpyou not to be thirsty. He tried it. But the lemons refused to become real in his mind; instead, he heard Ma's voice, laughing, persuasive; and that was unfortunate, because a terrible, choking lump swelled in his throat, making the thirst even more of a torment.
A plump woman scurried by, calling, "Bert, Percy, Oscar, come along. Hurry up--don't dawdle!" She was pushing a trolley stacked high with massive cases and bundles and duffel bags. How could she possibly manage it? And how could she possibly have called her children Bert, Percy, and Oscar--three of the ugliest names in the English language?
Cosmo was not particularly fond of his own name, but he did feel it was infinitely better than any of those three. He turned to see if the straggling sons of the fat woman deserved their dismal names and was obliged to admit that she had chosen suitably. Bert--if Bert was the biggest--slouched sulkily along, the shock of sawdust-colored hair flopping over his acned face not at all concealing its disagreeable expression; he was drinking out of a can of lemonade and didn't offer to help his mother push the luggage trolley, although he was at least a head taller than she. Oscar was a horrible little imp with tight yellow curls and fat cheeks covered in sticky grubbiness from the ice-lollipop he was sucking; in his other hand he held a spaceman's trident which he poked at the legs of anyone who came near him. Percy, the middle one, was not much better; he had glasses and a peevish expression; he was eating out of a bag of potato chips and was reading a motor magazine as he walked, taking no notice of his mother's anxiouscries. Poor thing, Cosmo thought, fancy having children like that; but it was probably her own fault for the way she'd brought them up.
"Will the driver meeting Mrs. Mohammed Ghazni please go to the information desk?"
The arrivals indicator clicked and whirred; his own plane, Sydney to London, which had been up at the top, marked ON TIME and LANDED had been replaced by the flight from San Francisco, sixty minutes late. How would Cousin Eunice know that his flight had arrived? Presumably she would ask at the desk. Then it occurred to him that he could have a message broadcast. What should it say? "Will Cousin Eunice Doom, supposed to be meeting Cosmo Curtoys, please come to the information desk?" But if it were not Cousin Eunice who had come to meet him? "Will the friends meeting Cosmo Curtoys ..."
"Friends" sounded wrong. He had no friends over here; it seemed like presuming on people's good nature to call them his friends in advance.
He had a sudden horrible vision of Percy, Bert, and Oscar, with malevolent looks on their faces, charging up to the information desk where he stood nervously waiting.
"You Cosmo Curtoys? Well, we're here to meet you, but we ain't your friends, we can tell you that from the start!"
After a good deal of hesitation he put his problem to the girl at the desk, and she solved it at once.
"Will Miss Eunice Doom, or the person supposed to be meeting Cosmo Curtoys--" She pronounced it wrong, because he had showed her his passport, in spite of the fact that he had clearly said Curtis--"please come to the information desk."
Having his name called out like that, even pronounced wrongly, made him feel as if everybody must be staring at him, but of course they were not; they were all far too worried about catching their planes or finding whoever they were supposed to meet; and it did not produce Cousin Eunice either.
"Had she far to come?" the information desk girl asked.
"I think about eighty miles-from near Oxford."
"Oh, well, I'd give her a while yet before you start to worry." And the girl went back to all the other people who were fighting for her attention.
Cosmo began thinking about Cousin Eunice again, trying to remember what he knew about her. Younger than Father, but still quite old, in her thirties. A professor of mathematics--that was a bit daunting. Suppose, when he was living with her, that she kept pouncing on him. "Hey, Cosmo, quick--the square root of ninety-three! Multiply eighteen by twenty-four!" But Father said mathematicians didn't think in those terms at all anymore--it was all much more stretchy. And the dull jobs like square roots were all done by calculators. Rather a pity, in a way: Cosmo enjoyed, when he was in bed at night, letting numbers make patterns in his mind. Take the three-times table, for instance: It went three-six-nine-two-five-eight-one-four-seven zero before starting up again at three; much more interesting than dull old five-times, which just went five-zero-five-zero. But why did three-times have ten changes before coming back to base, what governed these patterns? Seven-times had ten changes, six-times had five--but then four-times and eight-times both had five as well. It seemed odd that they weren't all different.
Anyway, back to Cousin Eunice ... A mathematician really ought to be tall and skinny with a long nose and glasses and gray hair scraped back in a knob. Like a wicked governess. But Father had said she wasn't in the least like that. He seemed to find it hard to describe her, though--and that was odd--because he had grown up with her at Courtoys Place before it was sold to pay death duties. Death duties ... you would think that once you had died, you had no more duties. To Cosmo, duties meant wash hair, teeth, face, make bed, put pajamas away, help with the breakfast dishes ... "Have you boys done your morning duties?" Ma would call, putting on a severe tone. "All right, then you can go out."
But suppose nobody was sure if you had died? Did you have to pay death duties then?
Lost in thought, he took several minutes to realize that somebody was standing in front of him. She was surveying him doubtfully.
"Would you--by any chance--be Cosmo Curtoys?" She gave it the right pronunciation, Curtis.
"Yes--yes, I am."
"My goodness, you're much larger than I expected. I'm sorry I'm late; I had to give a lecture. People will ask questions ... Is this all your luggage? No more? Oh, good, then we can be off right away. I don't like to keep Lob waiting; he gets miserable."
She spun the trolley round with a strong hand, thrusting it along in the direction that said SHORT TERM CAR PARK. What about me? Cosmo thought somewhat indignantly, following her, Doesn't it matter if I'm kept waiting at the endof a thirty-hour flight? But, as if she had heard him thinking, she went on in the same tone, "Humans have resources. They don't ever need to be bored if they learn to use their minds sensibly, but dogs are different."
Oh, so Lob is a dog? Then Cosmo remembered his father saying, "I wonder if the dog is still alive? Old Uncle Ted Doom--Eunice's father--had this St. Bernard who was about as big as a pony."
The luggage trolley had an infernal habit of skidding off sideways, refusing to run straight, which was particularly awkward on the steep ramp they now had to descend. Cosmo grabbed the side to push it straight and so got his first good look at his Cousin Eunice--he supposed she must be his Cousin Eunice, though she had not said so.
Only about one percent of his guesses about her had been right. She was tall, with big hands and feet, and her hair pulled back in some kind of elaborate bun at the back of her head. But there was a lot of the hair, a bright, fair color, almost lemony, like evening primroses, and more of it hung over her eyes in a fringe. Nor did she look very old; it was hard to believe that she was even as much as thirty. He supposed her face was rather plain--a big, wide mouth, straight nose, and gray eyes that at the moment held an impatient expression. "Why do these blasted things never go straight--ah, that's better--" as they came to ground level, a rather dismal out-of-doors with a long stretch of pavement, a concrete canopy, and signs saying COURTESY BUSES STOP HERE.
"Now," said Cousin Eunice, "you hang on there and I'll go and get the car. Shan't be a minute; I managed to narkon the ground level." A sniff. "Found a slot that said AIRPORT MANAGER; he wasn't there, so I took it. That's one thing ..."
She disappeared in midsentence. This, he soon discovered, was a frequent occurrence with Cousin Eunice. Generally it meant that she had had an idea that needed to be worked out on paper immediately. But when she saw you next, no matter how long an interval had elapsed in the meantime, she would go right on with what she had started to say, assuming that you, too, would remember where she had stopped. Which was comforting, on the whole. Now she was as good as her word, returning almost at once in a huge, stately, battered car.
" ... One thing about having a Rolls," she went on, "you can put it almost anywhere and nobody makes a fuss. Now I'll introduce you to Lob--that's the first thing. You didn't meet him before because he was staying with me in college. He was very fond of your father, so I expect he will be prepared to make friends."
Lob had the slightly mournful expression that St. Bernards wear. He was sitting in the back of the car, where the ample floor space was just enough to accommodate him comfortably. Cousin Eunice opened the rear door, and he extended a front paw, which Cosmo took. It was as thick as a table leg. Lob was black and white and shaggy; he had a sweetish musty smell, and, after a polite moment, removed his paw from Cosmo's grasp with an absent-minded air, as if he could not quite remember how it had got there in the first place.
"He's very old," said Cousin Eunice, opening the boot."He misses my father a lot; my father died two years ago. That's right, put your racket on top--good. Now you come in the front by me."
The Rolls smelled overpoweringly of Lob, but Cosmo supposed that after a bit he would get used to this. He did ask, though, if he could open the window.
"Of course you can," said Cousin Eunice absently, hunting for her purse to pay the car-park fee. "Have you ten pence by any chance? Oh, no, I suppose it's all Australian money. Never mind, he'll have to change a pound. If you look in the glove shelf, you'll find a bottle of lemonade. I always feel parched after a long flight."
He had been too rushed--and shy--to suggest stopping to buy a drink, and was impressed by this evidence of thoughtfulness. Lemonade wasn't the best choice--too sweet and fizzy--he'd rather it had been water--but then he discovered that it was home-made lemonade, cool and sour, with bits of cut-up lemon peel. That brought back Ma for a while, and he was silent as Cousin Eunice maneuvered the stately car through the airport outskirts and then on to a motorway.
"I'll tell you a bit about the school I found for you," Cousin Eunice presently said. "I hope you'll like it. I don't know anybody your age to ask about schools, but I asked the biology professor at my college--his daughter goes to this school--and he recommended it, he said she likes it. Have you really never been to school at all?"
"No, you see we lived too far out. Ma used to get courses and textbooks from some education department and teach us. We even did exams ..."
"Well, this is a fairly small school, so I expect you won't find it too hard to get used to it."
"How many?"
"Two hundred."
Two hundred sounded a lot to Cosmo, accustomed to doing lessons with just his brother. He said, "Where is the school?"
"In Oxford. It's called the Morningquest School, because it was started about a hundred years ago by a Canon Morningquest. It's in a street called the Woodstock Road. The arrangement is that you'll stay as a boarder during the week and come back to the mill at weekends. That way I can take you in and out by car, because I give lectures in Oxford on Mondays and Fridays. Whereas, if you went in by bus every day, you'd have to get up at five in the morning and wouldn't be home till nine at night."
"How far is the mill from Oxford, then?"
"About twenty miles. But there isn't a direct bus. Our nearest village is Gitting-under-Edge, and from there you can get a bus to Chipping Norton, and then you have to change buses."
"Couldn't I cycle?"
She cast a quick glance at him and said, "We'll see. Perhaps, in the summer, when you've settled in. But it's a longish way. And I thought, to start with, you'd find it easier to get to know people if you were a boarder. I was always a day girl when I went to school, and the boarders used to despise the day people; we felt inferior and out of everything."
Cosmo didn't voice his views about this. He could seethat Cousin Eunice was trying to do her best for him. He said, "When do I start there?" not knowing whether school terms in England were the same as those in Australia.
"Next Monday. The term's half through already; you'll only have five weeks of school before the Easter holidays.. I hope you won't be lonely at the mill," she said, sounding doubtful for the first time. "There's absolutely no one living round about. The village is five miles off--it isn't an ideal arrangement."
Here, too, Cosmo kept silent and refrained from uttering his very different feelings. He would be meeting all those total strangers at school--two hundred of them--the prospect of solitary weekends at the mill was something to hold on to. He asked, "Isn't there anybody living at Courtoys Place now? I thought that was not far from the mill?"
"It's about three quarters of a mile away. But you can't talk to the people there."
"Why ever not? Are they mad or something?"
"No, but it's a Ministry of Health research station now. They give people colds and experimental diseases, so they have to stay strictly within bounds and not mix with the general public. They aren't allowed out of the grounds. And all the land round the house--about twenty square miles--is run as an experimental farm. You'll be coming across Mr. Marvell, who runs it. He's a nice man. He uses the farm buildings at the Mill House. He had a theory about horses instead of tractors--won't have a tractor on the place. He has Suffolk Punches instead."
"How many?" Cosmo asked with a pricking of interest.
"Five--Queenie, Blossom, Duchess, Prince, and Duke.There's Oxford," said Eunice, without any change of tone, nodding sideways to some spires and chimneys, faintly visible through the haze of an early spring afternoon.
"Shan't we go through it?"
"No, we go round the bypass. It's quicker. You'll soon be seeing plenty of Oxford."
Not long after this, Lob, who had been lying, a huge inert mass in the back of the car, waiting for the journey to pass, evidently began to sniff the air of home and sat up, displacing a strong waft of his strange musty, yeasty smell. Cosmo supposed that Cousin Eunice must have grown accustomed to it by now but, as if drawing the thought out of his mind, she said, "He does smell ... he's an old, old dog. You can open the window wider if you want. It's only fifteen minutes from here."
They left the motorway at a roundabout a few minutes later and took a smaller road; soon turned off that into one smaller still, and then after a while into a really narrow lane between steep banks that cut off the view; then shortly onto a rutted farm track with gates along it at intervals. When Cosmo got out to open the gates, the air was moist, fresh, and cool; sniffing it, he had a sudden piercingly vivid memory from long, long ago, of wading in a ditch with his brother Mark, the water full and rushing from spring rain--green waterweeds like mermaids' hair swept out in long straight lines--the water going over the tops of his Wellingtons ...
"It's grand for me having someone to open the gates," Cousin Eunice said. "Up to now I've had to do it all myself. Lob is no use at all."
"The gates are a nuisance, aren't they?"
"Yes, but they keep out trespassers and picnickers. Mr. Marvell's very particular about gates being always kept shut; otherwise, people leave smashed beer bottles in his fields, and the Jerseys eat bits of glass and die a horrible death."
She nodded sideways again at some small elegant mouse-colored cows with huge black-ringed eyes. "That's why there are such fierce signs on the gates."
"That's the last gate," Cousin Eunice said as Cosmo clanged it shut. "Now we're nearly home."
The track ran here, unfenced, between two prune-colored fields of plowed earth with faint green shoots in straight lines; then they skirted round a long high furry ridge of leafless trees, and Cousin Eunice put the Rolls into low gear.
"It gets quite steep here, and there are badgers sometimes."
The track dropped downhill between high banks--a tunnel, with trees meeting overhead; then they came out into a circle of green meadow with the steep wooded hillside curving round it in a horseshoe.
"Oh, I remember this," said Cosmo.
"How old were you when you came here? Six? Well, it's not a place to forget."
Ahead of them stood the mill house: old red-brown brick, partly timbered, black beams crossing it in a zigzag pattern,the roof gold with lichen, and big trees close by. Then the river, looping round, meeting the wood on either side, making an almost-island of the great meadow; and beyond the house a wooden footbridge across half the river, leading to a real island and the mill buildings.
"Can you swim?" said Cousin Eunice in sudden doubt. "You've been in the middle of Australia for so long--how many years?"
"Five. Nearly six. But we used to go for holidays to a place called Coff's Harbour. I can swim quite well," Cosmo assured her.
"That's a relief. Just the same you want to watch it by the weir. There's a terrific undertow--you'd be scraped along the bottom for a hundred yards if you fell in there. So be careful, won't you? The river's okay--the Dribble, your father and I used to call it. There's Mrs. Tydings."
Cosmo had another sudden rush of memory at the sight of the figure--like a stocky, active shrew-mouse in a blue-and-white-print apron, with black strap shoes and bobbed white hair kept fiercely back by one grip--who shot out of the door as the car slowed to a halt. Lob was already standing up, impatient to have the door opened.
"Well, Miss Eunice, you found him all right then, I see. Made good time home, you did. Tea's all ready. And after he's had his tea, I expect he'd better go straight to bed. Thirty hours in the air--dear, dear! Well, you have shot up and no mistake," she said, surveying Cosmo. "I daresay it's all them eucalyptus trees--they say it makes the climate healthy. I don't suppose you remember me, do you?"
"Yes, I do," said Cosmo. "You gave me a duck's eggand lived in a little house across the lawn and kept chickens and had a cat called Bubbles, a gray cat."
"Well, I never! I've still got her--she's twelve now. Fancy you remembering. Come along now, I just put the tea to mash. And how's your father keeping?"
Cosmo made some noncommittal reply as he followed her indoors, carrying most of the luggage. The first room was huge--he found he remembered that too--brick floor, stairs leading up, a big hearth where a wood fire burned, a comfortable sagging sofa and armchairs, a refectory table strewn with papers and books. And a smaller table near the fireplace, set for tea.
After tea--potato scones, blackberry jelly, and nut cake--Cosmo did begin to feel as if he could sleep for a hundred years. But he said, "Can I go out and have a look round? Just for a little?"
"Don't you get lost now, or fall in the weir!" snapped Mrs. Tydings.
But Cousin Eunice said easily, "He'll be all right, Emma; a bit of fresh air will help him get off to sleep. Go ahead, Cosmo, you'll have to come in soon when it gets dark anyway."
The air outside smelled mysterious--of water, and twilight, and growing things. A path of huge stone flags led across the velvet square of mossy grass in the angle of the L-shaped house--and he had another memory: trying, at six years old, to jump from one to the next and not quite being able to. Mark, four years older, could do it easily ...
He went to the footbridge first and stood on it for a long time, looking down into the clear water beneath, pouring,plaiting, racing past; it made very little noise, it was in such a hurry to reach the end of the island. But on the other side, past the mill buildings--he would not go into them tonight, they looked too dark and spooky, and Cousin Eunice had warned him that the floors were rotten and treacherous, and the machinery likely to fall through at any moment--on the other side of the island, there was the weir, tons of water hurling down in a smother of foam. The noise on this side was tremendous--funny that by the bridge it was so quiet.
Indeed, when he had recrossed the island, and stood on the bridge again, he quite clearly heard a voice that seemed to be addressing him. It said, in a mild, conversational tone, "Oh, you're back then. Where's the other boy? Weren't there two of you?"
Surprised, he looked round; he had thought he was alone. He could see nobody, but the voice had seemed to come from the track that followed the riverbank to the corner of the meadow where the wood sloped up, opposite to the way they had come in the car. It was there, he remembered, that the brook came hopping down in a series of waterfalls--the brook he and Mark had dammed. And there had been a third boy helping them--what was his name? The voice had brought his memory back.
But although Cosmo followed the track right into the wood and up the steep ascent, he saw no one. Whoever had spoken to him must have slipped away very quickly and quietly. He found the brook, though, smaller than he had remembered and rather choked up with dead brushwood and leaves. I'll clear it out tomorrow, he thought. Perhaps then whoever it was will come back.
Up in the field above the wood he heard a sudden tremendous thunder of huge hoofs, and remembered Mr. Marvell and his five Suffolk Punches, Prince, Blossom, Queenie, Duchess, and Duke. One of them must be up there kicking up his heels in a last massive caper before dark fell. They would be something to see tomorrow too ...
From the house he heard Cousin Eunice's shout. "Cosmo! Cooee! Time for bed."
His room was the same one that he had shared with Mark: long and cornery, with a massive old-fashioned wardrobe covering the whole of one end, a very low windowsill, and a sloping ceiling. A bookshelf held old books with gilt-edged pages that had belonged to Cosmo's father.
"Here's a torch for the night," Cousin Eunice said. "Don't forget where the bathroom is--down three steps and on the left. That's new since you were here last. And my room is opposite, in case you need anything, or can't sleep."
"Where's Mrs. Tydings?"
"Oh, she's still in her own cottage, across the lawn."
"Cousin Eunice," he said, "do you remember a boy who used to come and play with Mark and me when we were here before? His name was Len or Ken or Tom--something like that?"
But Cousin Eunice--who had not, after all, been at home during that visit--could not remember any such boy.
Stretched in his comfortably sagging bed, feeling like a wrung-out rag, Cosmo took his diary--a small, thick book--from his jacket pocket and wrote: "Came to Courtoys Mill. Cousin Eunice seems okay. The island ..."
Then the pen rolled from his fingers and he slept.
Copyright © 1980 by Joan Aiken Enterprises. Ltd.