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95

So we rejoin Lu and Mr Hatter on the road which leads up to the big house.

They were finding their way by the moon’s lanthorn. Mr Hatter had proposed that they avoid the woods, which would be so black that they would be powerless to move, and that they instead try to trace a path around the edges of the fields. Once outside the village, with cold air now racing across the landscape and slinking around them, Lu could not lift any meaningful thought above the rattle of the breeze. The sound was continuous, like a sort of contained scream. Sometimes it sounded spiteful; at other times it sounded listless, as if it was bored of its own complaint.

Suddenly Mr Hatter, who had not said anything for a while, stopped and stood motionless in the path.

Lu’s heart began to sprint and she was instantly as still as Mr Hatter. She was unable to speak and she had to press the words up to her lips.

“What’s wrong?” She squealed with annoyance under her breath – her voice was too quiet for anybody to hear.

She could tell, even in the darkness, that Mr Hatter’s eyes were straining in their sockets. With a little connecting click, Lu realised that she had not seen Mr Hatter’s brown dog, Jack, since they had left the pub.

Mr Hatter bent forward, his mouth a frozen circle as if in the ultimate moment before vomiting. But next he sprawled on his back, cocked up his head pertly and emitted a rapid sequence of yelps.

These were without a doubt the barks of Mr Hatter’s own dog, clear, crisp, and precise. Mr Hatter began to bark steadily. It was as guard dogs standing tense behind farm gates bark, scruffily but with the fixed rhythm of a hen’s pecking.

This is not Mr Hatter, Lu told herself primly. She turned and tottered away from him, leaving him on his hands and knees in the path.

Lu was sure that the whole of ringing hell would be waiting for her at the big house. Yet once she reached the copse at the end of the field, she was met with a familiar calm and the same black silhouettes jumbled as always beneath the night sky. Darkness consumed her utterly and she picked her way up the pinnacle of a stile, before dropping softly into the next field. There was more darkness and then Lu had emerged beside the crossroads in front of the house.

It looked dark and devious in the moonlight.

(Tycienski, who believed that Janet was an old sharp who was dealing them a dodgy hand of stories, had to nevertheless acknowledge her skill at this point. The little girl who was wading around in the darkness before the big house had become aligned with the intruders who were somewhere outside their own house.)

For a while Lu was running across the lawns towards the house. Her eyes hung open with flapping lids until they ached, with her gaze pouring intently over rows of blank windows. The house resembled a great stone face which was studying her and giving nothing away.

It had also swallowed Janet. Her sister was in there somewhere, alone and in unbearable fear.

Lu was now in front of the house, gazing into windows which were as inscrutable as black pools. She approached a door and tried it but it shook and held firm. When she reached the kitchen door, however, it swung open as usual.

She was amazed and then she had ducked in from the night air and she was running, through room upon room, as each room opened on to another, and another, and the next, with each as mysterious and bare in the darkness as those in the layout of a dream. She was suddenly overjoyed by the effortlessness of her conquest, as if the house had guaranteed her safety and it was enticing her onwards.

Lu was deep within the house. She reached the staircase and stopped. The open country outside was now alarmingly distant.

She had immediately shrunk into a compact, almost cat-like panic, and her eyes sprang from one door to another, to the landing, to the hallway, and up into the domed skylight over the staircase, which replied with a vista of the deepest blackness. Terror had welled up from all around her and she grabbed at the wooden baluster at the foot of the stairs, concentrating on how real and solid it seemed, compared to the invisibility which leered from every direction. She focused entirely on this post – on its rich detail, on its startling landscape of grained swirls and spikes – until the surrounding reality of the house had settled back down again. The corridors and doors were once again unremarkable. Unwilling to test the permanence of this feeling, Lu started to scrabble up the stairs.

At first she shot up the stairs faster than you could drum your fingers on a tabletop. Next, she was plodding upwards, stair after stair, all the while thinking eagerly about Janet. At the top, she waited to catch her breath. And the next minute she had wandered, quite normally, into the nursery.

On entering she had expected to see moonlight staining the floor and the outlines of the furniture in the darkness. Instead, her eyes fell upon a small merry display of lights on the floor beneath the window.

This was the dolls’ house. Candles had been placed around it, so that it was swimming in gentle light. Lu approached the house and paused in front of it, captivated in the impromptu manner of one who has stumbled without warning upon an altar. Next, she had dropped quietly to her knees and pulled the house open by the face.

Candlelight played upon the sumptuous furniture, coaxing out the gorgeousness, luring the gold from the wood like fox fur from out of the earth. Everything in the house looked immensely precious and lovely.

But as Lu’s eyes glided over the house, some eddy which had been swirling in the back of her brain, almost to the point of being lost forever, all at once changed from a thin liquid to pure, graspable firmness. Her arms moved stiffly, as if her body was a huge mechanical contraption which could be only directed with wheels and a massive effort. She saw with relief that she was on her feet. She wrenched her eyes away from the candlelight, pressing them tightly shut until they were inviolably sealed.

She slammed the front of the dolls’ house and kicked it. She had not kicked it hard enough and so she kicked it again, this time with twice the power. All of the furniture inside jumped.

Her hand wormed through a side door of the dolls’ house and amongst the rooms, smearing all of the furniture inside into a messy trail, a paste of overturned objects. With a gasp she kicked at the house again. Then inspiration struck her and she hauled the entire thing massively over. There were various horrible janglings and slitherings inside. The house now rested, somewhat improbably, on its face.

It looked as woebegone as Humpty Dumpty, at the hooves of all the King’s horses.

The moon had moved. It is always imperceptibly edging forward, like the hand on a clock. A large paw of moonlight had come to rest on Janet’s bed and Lu turned to see Janet sitting up, scandalised by the spectacle that her sister was making.

Janet began to cry steadily, as small children do, in that note which contains some malicious promise that it will continue forever.

A light came on in the corridor. One of those roly-poly women who had been assigned to look after them appeared in the doorway.

“Lu? What are you doing, you naughty girl?”

To her own astonishment, Lu had no idea how to reply. It must be obvious to the nanny that she was intentionally breaking the dolls’ house.

She stood to attention guiltily. She could not look at the dolls’ house.

The nanny started to scold Lu, but in the rather wooden manner that people say things in pantomimes.

The sisters had both discussed this: the wartime nannies, the nannies at the big house, were not proper nannies. Indeed, the sisters almost surveyed their amateur endeavours with pity.

Breaking her toys when many little boys and girls did not have any toys in this war, the nanny recited. And that house had been made by the master himself. They would probably have to tell him and he wouldn’t be pleased.

A proper nanny would have given Lu a smack. The scene in the nursery was moving on and irritably, with a sense of dissipated drama, Lu was being dragged along after it. The nanny was now wanting to know whether Lu had had her tea. Tonight, it seemed, the house was in disarray. Half of the girls had not come in and many of the tasks had not been completed. “There’s terrible trouble,” the nanny recounted, now from a different script, as she led Lu to the tea table at the end of the nursery. “They’ve had to call the Home Guard into the village. The vicar and his wife are very unwell. I hope it’s not influenza again.”

There was silence. They had not understood that the story was over. Then Tori guffawed, shaking her head, and with an ungainly jolt of surprise the mood around the fireplace had relaxed. Everybody was moving their arms.

“Well done Janet,” Ted declared.

Janet looked very pleased with herself. “You like that story, eh? It’s good, you know. Still my sister, eh, my sister invented all the clever bits.”

“We’ll never get her to bed at this rate,” Andrew muttered just out of her hearing.

“I still haven’t had a cigarette,” Tycienski realised. “It’s been four hours – perhaps the longest gap there’s been in years.”

“He smokes in bed,” Tori explained.

Maybe he is a boyfriend after all, reflected Ted.

Detective Constable Beaufort broke into the circle of armchairs with such uncharacteristic haste that for a moment Ted thought that a bomb was going off. “I’m sorry but you have to refrain from smoking.”

“Refrain?” Tycienski snorted, waving his unlit cigarette uncontrollably so that he looked rather like a puppet in an old television action programme.

“This is our workplace. It’s against the law.”

Ted gasped – he was telling them off.

A union man, everybody thought.

For a while Janet had been beaming at Chief Inspector Upensky. She finally beckoned him over confidingly. Through some calculation which was known only to herself, she had distinguished him as an ally. “This is all exciting, eh? Wow, it’s all a bit of fun for once,” she sniggered. She was so merry that she began to swing from side to side in her armchair, like a pendulum. “We all get to stay up past our bedtimes.” But she frowned and then looked indignant. “I don’t understand, though, what they are thinking. You can’t just steal all our money, eh, and get away with it. There are police everywhere. They must be a bit dim, you know?”

Upensky smiled, a rakish, glamorous figure with his silver hair and gentlemanly twinkle. “Well, my dear, I dare say that you are ignorant of how criminals think these days. I don’t suppose you’ve ever broken the law.”

“Oh yes,” Janet trilled. “I once shot a peregrine falcon.”

The Chief Inspector looked mildly piqued. This conversation was going to require more effort than he had assumed.

“This was years ago though,” Janet reassured him. “It was probably legal back then, eh? Probably! But everyone said I shouldn’t say anything and then they burnt the peregrine falcon.”

“Burnt it?” the Chief Inspector spluttered. He glanced around fearfully, as if one of the other policemen might be listening.

“On a barbecue in the back garden,” Janet continued. She giggled at the picture which had formed in her mind. “Bye bye birdie! It was like Guy Fawkes night!”

“These days you can get ten years in prison for this.” It did not sound as if Upensky was altogether joking.

“Why don’t you tell a story, Tori?” Tycienski growled. “Whilst we’re imprisoned without any human rights.”

The policemen all meekly pretended that they hadn’t heard him.

“I don’t know any stories,” Tori protested innocently. “And you’re the one with the website. He has a website which tells stories,” she added for the benefit of the room.

“I was thinking of something you referred to recently, about when you were working in the Dean Village.”

Tori jumped in her seat. “That was very personal. And not something I’m comfortab…”

Tycienski’s eyes flashed. “Excellent!”

[Next instalment: “Tori’s Story (A Dean Village Horror).”]

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