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Authors: Monica Dickens

Closed at Dusk

BOOK: Closed at Dusk
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Monica Dickens

Closed At Dusk

Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

A Note on the Author

Chapter One

‘Keith!' No answer. ‘Keith!' Rob came out of the playroom. ‘I want you to help me – Keith! Where are you?'

The little boy ran along the corridor to Keith's door. ‘You in there?' He opened the door, then went down to the next floor and opened several others, and banged and shouted outside a bathroom. Calling, he ran down the wide stairs and looked into the study, the sitting-room, the drawing-room, then a dash past the massed flowers in the hall to the dining-room. The table shone like a dark lake. The chairs waited politely. Keith's books and notebooks were scattered on the window seat.

‘Keith!' Rob crossed the passage to the kitchen. Pans on the side of the Aga. Half a mug of coffee. Vegetables and the Chinese cleaver on the big table. The long striped apron not on the back of the door.

‘Keith!' Rob called uncertainly down the basement stairs, and his voice disappeared into underground emptiness. He stood with his hand against the wall and listened. His heart was beating up under his chin. His chest struggled to get enough breath. His shout was weaker: ‘Keith!'

Slowly, listening, he went down the stairs, keeping his shoulder against the wall. Keith must be in the cellar, getting potatoes. Any moment, his bare feet would come padding back on the cold stone floor. But Rob couldn't wait. He must find
Keith now, or break apart because he had been left alone in the house.

‘Keith?'

On the worn green lino of the bottom step, at the edge of panic, he made himself lean round the end of the staircase to look down the dim vaulted tunnel of the basement, where light came meanly through dirty crescents of glass high up, and all the dark doors were closed on cells full of horrors.

‘Keith! Keith!' With his arms out sideways, Rob ran through the tunnel in a blind panic for the door at the far end. His screams and sobs clamoured back at him off the walls. He was abandoned. Done for. This was what death was.

Gasping, he fought with the big key, somehow dragged open the heavy door and stumbled up the overgrown steps into dazzling sunlight.

People were walking about on the lawns, and bending over the flower beds. Rob stopped short, confused by the shocking difference between the immediate terror indoors and the peaceful unreality out here, then ran full tilt, wailing, down the slope and into a man and woman sitting on a rug on the grass.

‘Here – steady on.' The child had knocked over Faye's plastic cup. Frank Pargeter stood up and caught the little boy's arm as he recovered himself and tried to run on towards the lake.

‘What's the matter?' The boy was about six or seven, senseless with fear and tears. ‘Are you lost?'

The child shook his head. He was shivering, his long skinny legs emerging from brief grubby shorts.

‘Lost your mum?' No. ‘Did you come here with someone?' The slobbery lower lip disappeared behind the large front teeth. ‘By yourself?' No answer. Frank looked round for a gardener's cottage, or any other houses except the great turreted fortress. ‘Show me the way, lad. I'll take you home.'

‘Don't expect
me
to go, Frank,' Faye said redundantly. She unscrewed the top of the Thermos and poured herself the last of the tea.

The child led Frank round the side of the house where the bottom of the broad turrets swelled out like elephants' feet, and across the wide arc of gravel to the high front steps, where he stopped.

‘Which way?'

‘I don't want to go in.' The boy spoke for the first time, huskily, his voice still choked with tears.

‘Here? You live here?' He was such a shabby, desolate little boy.

‘I'm staying with Keith. My mother's in London.'

‘Where's Keith?'

‘I don't know!' The child began to wail again.

‘How do we get in?' The double front doors were massive. They looked as if there were an iron bar behind them. ‘Isn't there a side entrance or a garden door?'

‘They're probably locked because of the visitors.'

‘Come on.' Frank took him up the front steps. The boy could not reach the bell, so Frank pressed it and heard it ring far away.

‘No one there.' The child looked piteously up at Frank from under his tangle of dark hair.

‘They wouldn't leave you alone.'

‘They did.'

Frank rang again twice, then took the boy round some walls and outbuildings and through a cobbled yard to where an old ladies' club was having cream teas in part of the stables.

‘Hullo, Rob. Come for a cake?'

Swift as a hedgerow animal, the boy darted round the end of the tea-room counter and buried his distressed head in the woman's flowered skirt.

‘What's up?'

‘He was lost,' Frank offered.

‘Lost? What rubbish. What game's this? Here, come on, Keith will be looking for you.' The woman went towards a door at the back of the room.

‘Should I come too?' Frank was edging round the counter, wanting to see something of the impressive house. And what if there really was no one there?

‘He's all right. Thank you.' The woman had a warm, reassuring smile.

Faye had got tired of sitting on the grass and had wandered away to censure the unruly tufts of thyme and thrift ranging over the flagstones of the terrace above the lawn. She would have had them out in a flash and made Frank concrete the cracks.

He looked across the beautiful still lake to the trees that crowded up one side of the long slope to where the wild part of the garden started. Faye had agreed to an outing in this wonderful May weather, and he had brought her here in the hope of investigating the thicket beyond the top of the hill, which, as a birdwatcher, he had spotted as a promising breeding area when he came here before, driving the minibus for the Venture Club. But Faye did not want to walk up the hill, and she did not want to be left like a bump on a log while Frank did. She wanted to go back to the car.

Frank picked up the
Guide to The Sanctuary Gardens
and his cardigan, which she had left on the grass, and set off slowly to find Faye. As he walked along the wide terrace in front of the house, he looked up at the rows of tall, clean windows, which regarded him calmly and frankly. The child must be all right. No cruel secrets here.

The
Guide
told him:

The house which stands in these beautiful gardens, is not open to the public. It has been the home of the Cobb family since 1750, when Sir Desmond Cobb, successful farmer and agricultural advisor to King George II, replaced the sixteenth-century manor farmhouse with this magnificent dwelling designed by a pupil of John Wood the Younger.

In 1870 Sir Desmond's descendant Walter Cobb and his wife Beatrice changed the name of the house from Lynnford Place to The Sanctuary, in keeping with their mission to promote here the welfare and understanding of all living creatures. Most of the animal statues to be seen about the estate date from that time.

After a period of neglect during and after the Second World War, the magnificent gardens and lake have been restored and improved by Walter Cobb's great-grandson, William Taylor, the present owner, who welcomes you to The Sanctuary.

Open 2 pm April–October, Tuesday–Sunday and bank holidays. May–September: closed 6pm. April and October: closed at dusk
.

‘I couldn't find you.' Rob climbed on to his stool at the kitchen table, blind with self pity.

‘I was here. What's the panic?'

‘I was calling and calling.'

‘Of course.' Keith was chopping vegetables. ‘You call me, call me all day long. “Keith, help me do this. Keith what's this? Why's this? Where are you?” I get fed up with it, so sometimes I don't answer.'

‘When will Mummy be back?'

‘Soon, thank God.'

Keith, who was Rob's mother's cousin, had been ill. In his second year at Cambridge, his will and energies had been undermined by a vague indisposition that made it increasingly hard to study or take exercise or stay up late.

‘Psychosomatic.' Doctor John ‘Unready' Reddy, family friend, harassed by a waiting-room full of old bodies stricken by winter-kill, could find nothing wrong. ‘Something bothering you?'

‘Lazy.' His mother, Harriet, and his older sister laughed, because they knew old Keith, always one to duck work if he could. Scared of failure, probably, after his disappointing first year. ‘Brace up old lad,' his father said. ‘You'll be all right.'

But when Keith had to drop helplessly out of
Three Ring Circus
, the annual student musical, his love, his baby, the focus of his college life, they did send him to a specialist, who knew about myalgic encephalomyelitis. ME: a set of horribly debilitating symptoms following a virus infection. It had attacked his central nervous system with devastating results. Six months off became nine months. He had missed playing and singing not only in that year's
Circus
, but in the one this year. Life in ruins, musical career a flop, cut off before it started.

After gradually crawling back to life from a hell of pain and weakness and general non-functioning gloom, he was spending the summer with Uncle William, his mother's brother. He worked outdoors in the huge garden and read and slept, to get his strength back before starting university again with people who had still been at school when he was a freshman. He was often tired, bored and peevish, and irritated now to be left for two days in charge of nervy, clamorous Rob. Ignoring the child's calls, hiding in the larder, was not cruelty – just a sick sort of joke for diversion, which he regretted now that Rob was on his stool at the kitchen table stuffing peanuts into his tear-swollen face.

‘What's that going to be?' Rob made the grimace of ultimate disgust with which he greeted exotic food, or any unusual treat.

‘
Tzu sat jing
with chicken
kung po
. I'm going to try it on us tonight and perfect it for the family.'

‘If it's Chinese, I don't want it.'

‘Starve then.'

‘Why can't Ruth or Brenda come up? I never heard of a man cooking.'

‘Your mother's men aren't that sort.'

‘What men? She hasn't got any.'

‘News to me.'

Ruth Barton came up in her flowered skirt and white apron to get the last batch of scones from the warming oven. She did some of the tea-room baking in her own house in the village, and some in this kitchen, which had been built in a corner of the raised ground floor in the 1930s, when no one would put up with the vast old draughty cavern in the basement, nor carry any more wide-armed trays up the back stairs when the dumb waiter stuck again.

‘Too much garlic.' Ruth nodded at Keith's pungent chopping pile.

‘I told you.' Rob sided with her eagerly.

‘I thought you'd be outside, Keith. John Dix and Mac are off in the pine wood. There's only Stuart about to answer questions.'

One of Keith's jobs was to assist the visitors, with the knowledge that he had picked up from his Uncle William, and from working with the gardeners this spring and summer.

‘I felt faint.'

BOOK: Closed at Dusk
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