Authors: Hannah Dennison
Mum gave a heavy sigh.
“What's the matter now?” I demanded.
Fifty Shades of Grey
, it would seem women want moreâ” She shuddered. “I can't think of the wordâ”
“Good grief. When I was typing up your manuscript I had to keep taking cold showers.”
“What was it like with Dylanâ”
“Mother! I am not going to discuss my sex life with you for it to appear in a novel.”
There was a hammering on the front door. “Saved, thank God!” I said. “I'll get it.”
I bumped into Angela in the hall. “The door wasn't locked,” she said.
“I know. The lock is broken again.”
Angela looked rather the worse for wear with a pale, sickly complexion and huge black circles under her eyes. She was carrying a wicker basket that was covered with a white-and-red-checked cloth emitting the most wonderful smell of freshly baked bread.
I immediately guessed what would happen. Angela would let the cat out of the bag before I had a chance to explain everything to my mother.
“Look,” I said in a low voice. “Will you do me a favor?”
“For you? Yes.
” she whispered back.
“Let's not mention Joyce's accident or the protest meeting to my mother.”
“She gets easily upset and I need to pick the right time to tell her,” I said, knowing it sounded lame. “Mum has a very sensitive disposition.”
Angela's eyes widened. “You mean you want me to keep a secret?”
“Just for today.”
“Yes. I'm your friend.” Angela nodded. “Of course I'll keep your secret.”
“Thanks. Follow me.” I led the way into the kitchen.
“What a lovely smell,” said Mum as we walked in.
“Mrs. Cropper said she made a fresh batch this morning,” said Angela.
“Good. We've just finished eating the last loaf. I'll take that basket,” said Mum greedily.
“She wanted to thank you for picking the sloes,” Angela declared.
Mum set the basket on the counter but accidentally clipped the metal biscuit tin with her elbow. It clattered to the floor.
Angela clutched her head with an anguished groan.
“How's your headache?” I asked.
“Cripes. How did you know?” said Angela. “It's something awful.”
“Welcome to Devon,” I said. “You should ask Mrs. Cropper for one of her hangover remedies. She's into all the old wives' stuff.”
“I know,” said Angela. “She has this book and she told me to find some moss that grows on a human skull that I was to scrape off and then crumble into powder and take as snuff.”
Mum gave a mischievous grin. “Oh yes. I know that one. It works every time!”
“For God's truth?” Angela looked doubtful. “Where would I get a human skull from?”
“You could try the graveyard.”
“Oh!” Angela reddened. “You're joking, aren't you? Anyway, what's snuff?”
“It was popular in the eighteenth century,” I said. “The aristocracy used to grind tobacco into powder and snort it up their nose. The Hare & Hounds keep snuff in little tins on the bar. Haven't you seen Lady Edith's snuffbox collection? Little silver boxes with enamel-painted lids?”
“Her ladyship does snuff?” Angela pulled a face. “I think I'll stick to aspirin.”
Mum removed the bread from the basket. “Did Mrs. Cropper notice that I'd pricked the sloes for her?”
“Pricked what?” said Angela.
“To make the sloe gin,” Mum said. “You stick each berry with a needle, then you add sugar and gin. You must know how to make sloe gin.”
“Oh look!” Angela made a beeline for the huge oak dresser upon which sat Mum's extensive collection of coronation china. Pride of place was a photograph of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on their wedding day.
“Isn't Kate beautiful?” said Angela wistfully. “She has the prettiest teeth I've ever seenâoh! I've been meaning to ask you something.”
“What's that?” said Mum.
“Have you been in the downstairs toilet?”
“What?” Mum looked confused. “Where? Here?”
“The one at the Hall next to the library?” said Angela.
“There are loads of photographs of the servants who worked at the Hall in that downstairs toilet.”
“They worked in the toilet itself?” said Mum.
“Oh! I didn't mean that.” Angela laughed. “I meant that there's a photo gallery of all the servants through the years.”
“Why? Are you hoping to have your picture taken?” I caught the gibe in Mum's voice but Angela seemed oblivious.
“And as well as the servants,” Angela went on, “there are lots of pictures of a traveling boxing emporium that camped here every summer back in the old days.”
Instinctively, I realized where this line of questioning was going and triedâand failedâto catch Mum's eye.
Angela regarded Mum keenly. “Don't you think that's weird?”
“I have a toilet of my own here, dear,” Mum said coldly. “I don't need to go to the Hall to use theirs. And anyway, why would I think it weird?”
“BecauseÂ â¦ the boxing emporium is called Bushman's and Mrs. Cropper told that me one of your relatives is coming here to work and his name is Bushman, too.”
“It's a common name,” said Mum quickly.
“Is it? I don't believe in coincidences.” Maybe Angela wasn't as stupid as she seemed. “Sorry, I almost forgot.” Angela turned to me. “Will you come with me to pick more sloes? Mrs. Cropper told me the only place is down in Cavalier Copse and I know it's haunted.
you have to cut through a field of cows. I don't like cows.”
I really didn't want to. “Perhaps we can go after the auction.”
“I'm sure you're too busy to stay for a cup of tea,” said Mum, pointing to the clock. “It's quite a walk back to the Hall.”
“Cripes! Mrs. Cropper will wonder where I've gotten to,” Angela said. “But I drove here. All that talk of ghosts and then when Joyce fellâI mean. Nothing.” Angela shot me a look and mouthed the word
“Joyce?” Mum said sharply. “What about Joyceâ?”
“Oh, Iris! Did Kat tell you?” Angela said desperately. “We've picked our book for the Ravishing Romantics.”
“Ravishing Romantics?” said Mum. “What on earth is that?”
“The name of my book club. At Lindridge we had one. It was very popular.”
“I'm rather busy for book clubs,” said Mum.
“Mum's supervising the renovations here at the Carriage House,” I said quickly. “We've just put in new plumbing.”
“Surely you can squeeze in the odd hour once a month?” said Angela. “Our first book is
by Krsytalle Storm. Have you heard of her?”
Mum gasped. “Krsytalle Storm?”
“We are going to discuss racism among the ethnic minorities,” said Angela.
Mum looked confused. “Whatever for?”
“Discrimination,” said Angela. “With all the controversy with the Roma in France, we thought it very topical. You
heard of Krystalle Storm, haven't you?”
“My mother doesn't get time to read much, do you, Mum?” Angela seemed smarter than she had let on. Ethnic minorities? The Roma in
“It's such a romantic story,” gushed Angela. “It's all about a gypsy girl who falls in love with the son of a really uptight vicar. She betrays her family and they elope. She gives up everything for him.”
“How utterly fascinating,” said Mum.
“It's the first in the Star-Crossed Lovers Series. The next one's called
but it's not out yet.”
I detected a smirk of vanity on Mum's face. “Maybe I should give it a try.”
“I'm surprised you haven't heard of Krystalle Storm,” Angela persisted. “Did you know that Eric Pugsley's wifeâthe one who died of fright in the grottoâwon a contest to meet the author and spend a weekend in Italy at her villa? Can you imagine it?”
“I can't,” I muttered.
“Well I'll be blowed,” said Mum. “No, I never knew that, did you, Kat?”
“Eric told me he's still going though,” Angela went on, adding slyly, “I'd love to meet Krystalle Storm. Maybe I can persuade him to take me!” She picked up the empty wicker basket. “Pity about Eric's wife, Vera, though. She couldn't have been very old.”
“Well, dear,” said Mum. “If Vera hadn't died, you wouldn't be here, would you?”
“Oh. I suppose that's true.” Angela smiled. “Did you know there's a rumor going around that Krystalle Storm lives in the area?”
“You don't want to believe everything you read on a website,” said Mum.
Angela regarded Mum with suspicion. “I thought you didn't know who Krystalle Storm was.”
“She doesn't,” I said.
Mum grabbed a banana from the fruit bowl. She hurried over to the back door and said, “Excuse me. I must feed the cows,” and slammed it behind her.
Angela turned to me with a frown. “I never knew cows ate bananas.”
Angela seemed no more a country girl than I. I was beginning to wonder about her. Something didn't ring true.
Five minutes later, Angela had gone. I found Mum hiding around the back of the Carriage House shivering with cold. “Has she left? I'm freezing out here.”
“Yes, she has.”
“What nerve! Did
know about this so-called rumor? What utter lies!” Mum exclaimed. “And I bet I know who told her.”
“As you said, it's on the website.”
Mum shook her head. “No. Eric must have told her despite his promise to keep it secret.”
“If Eric had told Angela, she would have asked you,” I pointed out. “Although she's not the smartest tool in the shed.”
“I don't know about that,” said Mum slowly. “What was all that talk about the discrimination among ethnic minorities and the Roma in France?”
“I caught that, too.”
“And why mention Bushman's boxing emporium in the photo gallery?” Mum frowned.
“I have no idea.”
“Well. There's something odd about her,” said Mum. “Maybe it's that snaggletooth.”
“You and Angela seem to share an obsession with teeth.”
We stepped back into the kitchen and were both startled to find Lavinia and Benedictâholding a large, black, leather portfolioâhovering by the Rayburn. Both were dressed in outdoor coats and Wellington boots.
My heart sank. This time the cat would definitely be let out of the bag and there was nothing I could do to stop it.
Mum seemed flustered. “Your ladyship!” she cried. “I am so sorry. Oh, dear. Have you been waiting long?”
“Frightfully sorry for barging in,” said Lavinia. “We did knock but the door just popped open, didn't it, Benedict?”
“It seems the lock is broken.”
“I must get that fixed,” said Mum.
“Lovely and warm in here,” said Lavinia. “Frightfully cold at the Hall. Edith only keeps the heating on in three rooms.”
“Your coats! Katherine! Take their coats!” Mum exclaimed. “You must think we've got no manners.”
Lavinia and Benedict handed their coats to me and of course, I realized I had nowhere to hang them up so I just piled both on top of the fridge.
For once, although Lavinia was dressed in jodhpurs, she was not wearing her blond hair clamped under a hairnet. Instead it was held back in a tortoiseshell clip and I could have sworn she was wearing a smudge of lip gloss.
“Delighted to see you again, Kat, and to meet the lovely Mrs. Stanford.” Benedict offered Mum his free hand to shake.
“Do call me Iris, please,” said Mum, shooting me a curious look. She mouthed, “
” Before adding, “Shall we go through to the drawing room?”
I winced. The term “drawing room” was reserved for grand houses like the Hall. Most people said “sitting room” or “lounge.”
“We're frightfully happy in the kitchen,” said Lavinia. “Aren't we, Benedict?”
“Katherine,” said Mum. “Fetch the tea tray, please.”
“The tea tray? It's only half past nine in the morning.”
“It's in the
!” Mum nodded to the closed pantry door.
The pantry had floor-to-ceiling shelves and a square butcher table set against a tall, narrow window that looked directly into a hedge that had been recently cut right down to practically ground level. The small room was crammed with dry goods and emergency suppliesâa habit of my father's that Mum seemed to have continued in case of a nuclear attack.
On top of the butcher table was a set of Mum's coronation bone china cups and saucers, milk jug, and sugar bowl on a vintage metal tray with Queen Elizabeth II's portrait and the date June 2, 1953. There was also a china plate of McVitie's chocolate digestives carefully laid out on a paper doily.
This was going to be embarrassing.
I poked my head back into the kitchen. “Anyone prefer coffee?”
Luckily, Lavinia and Benedict agreed they did and that we were not to go to any fuss.
“Perhaps we can use some of your lovely coronation mugs,” said Benedict with a smirk I saw and didn't like. Mum needed no encouragement and brought down four from the dresser. Each mug depicted a portrait of a monarch and was framed with tiny Union Jack flags. They were horribly cheesy.
“Benedict takes his coffee black with no sugar.” Lavinia turned pink. “I think. Not that I would know about these things.”
I brewed a fresh pot from a fancy machine I'd purchased in Dartmouth and finally we were all settled.