‘When I was your age,’ remarked the Queen, ‘sometimes I believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.’
Ali lay in the library, staring at the ceiling. Sleep was impossible. She had spent the past hour cleaning burnt milk from the kitchen stove, scrubbing with her hands while her mind paddled frantically, treading water like a drowning swimmer, her feet scrambling for solid ground.
She turned her gaze to the side, to the bluebell painting she’d brought down from her bedroom. It was the meadow from her lucid dream, or rather, her dream had featured this picture: the same pathway wound past the same silver birch trees with the same carpet of bluebells.
Had the rat creature been a lucid dream too? Had she fallen asleep in the barn after cleaning up the vomit? She looked at the note on the pillow beside her. Could she have written it to herself . . . in her sleep? She’d heard about people doing that, writing in their sleep and then wondering who’d done it when they woke up.
That would fit, going mad and making everything up. At least it was a rational explanation. Years ago, before her mum had died, the kid next door had an imaginary friend, a talking hedgehog called Beetroot. Ali had been four at the time, but now, whenever she remembered the kid from next door, she always saw Beetroot playing beside him. Her memories had filled in the imaginary hedgehog.
Her dad had tried to explain it; how anyone can retreat from the world to avoid a trauma that’s too hard to bear, how they create a tapestry of cause and effect where every thread is woven into their delusion to keep it self-consistent. Ali rolled onto her side and watched the bluebell woods flick- ering in the candlelight, then she fell into a dreamless sleep.
She woke to brilliant sunshine, it was a thin slice, bright as a blade of gold, cutting through a gap between the curtains. Ali sat up and realised she felt good.
‘Thank you, room,’ she mumbled. That was the best night’s sleep she’d had for ages. For months. Then she began scratching. ‘Crap!’ Ali leapt out of bed. Bed bugs! She’d been bitten by them once in a hotel bed. It was a long time ago, but the memory of the itching stayed with her. She pulled up her T-shirt. There were no bites on her body, just on her wrists. Ahh . . . mosquito bites. She’d ask her aunt for repellent.
Ali opened the curtains and squinted against the glare, letting the warmth bathe her eyelids and wash away the madness of the night before. Then she picked up the note again.
‘Okay, someone’s messing with my head. Has to be.’
Ten minutes later, she was soaking in a hot bath, the water a little too hot, just the way she liked it. She lay still, letting the heat work its magic, and thought about the note and the rat creature. The idea that it had been a delusion wasn’t helpful. She couldn’t test that; her answers would be part of the same delusion. Better to treat the event as real, investigate it like a science experiment, and then share everything with her dad when he showed up.
First, she would look for the rat creature, take some video with Peter’s phone and post it online. Some expert would know what it was, or what it was supposed to be; life could be cruel and threw up mutations all the time.
As for the note? The logical explanation was a prank – someone messing with her head. But why? Who stood to gain? The idea was full of holes. Whoever wrote it knew she would go to the barn, knew she would read the Alice books. Which meant it was a set-up. But at least it made more sense than getting a note from a missing aunt called Alice who was stuck in a parallel world with two books written about her. An aunt who could defy all the laws of space-time by leaving a note to a niece who wouldn’t be born for another hundred years.
She opened her eyes. Yes, definitely a prank, she decided. So today’s mission was to track down the person behind it – and the reason for it – starting with the handwriting.
‘Ah! Good! Here she is,’ said Lord Grey when Ali walked in for breakfast fifteen minutes later. It looked like the others had almost finished.
‘Sorry I’m a bit late. Nodded off in a hot bath.’
‘Good for you! Awake now, I hope, because I have a clue here that sounds like complete gobbledegook.’
‘Fire away,’ said Ali. ‘I’ll load up with coffee.’
‘Two words, twelve letters and then three, starting with S and C.’
‘Please solve it, dear,’ said Lady Grey, ‘he’s been impossible over this one.’
‘To be or not to be, just open the box,’ Lord Grey read the clue, ‘first twelve-letter word is ‘Shakespeare’s’ obviously, but what the deuce is the second?’
Ali grinned at him. ‘It’s got nothing to do with Shakespeare.’ ‘Nonsense. Has to be, letters starting with S – fits like a glove.’
‘It might fit, but so does the right answer, which is Schrödinger’s Cat.’
‘It’s an old idea in science. There’s a cat in a box. It might be dead, or it might be alive, the only way of finding out is to open the box. Until you do, it’s both dead and alive at the same time, at least in theory.’
‘Never heard of it, but it fits perfectly. I’ll be damned!’ ‘Thank goodness,’ said his wife, and she gestured to the window. ‘Look at that sunshine. We can’t spend a minute longer inside today, it would be criminal.’
‘Suits me,’ said her husband, ‘a deckchair in the shade.’ ‘And you, Ali? You still look a bit pale. You should get some sun.’
‘I will. I’ll explore the grounds; a day of bugs and botany.’ ‘Days of Bugs and Botany,’ repeated her uncle.
‘And, speaking of bugs,’ Ali looked down at the red dots of inflammation on her wrists, ‘do you have some mosquito repellent?’
‘I don’t believe so.’ Her aunt turned to Nurse Potts. ‘Do you have any?’
‘Might have, I’ll look when I go up for your meds.’
‘Days of Bugs and Botany,’ repeated her uncle, ‘sounds like a book by that Durrell fellow. Bit of a dull book, has to be said.’ ‘Excuse me, Bertie!’ Lady Grey put down her cup and gave her husband a stern look. ‘I knew every plant on these grounds when I was a child. I pressed more flowers than I had books to bury them in.’
‘Bark rubbing,’ said her husband. ‘That was my thing, at Kew Gardens. I’ve done a few bark rubbings in that place, I can tell you. Happy days.’
‘Nice. Have you finished with the paper, uncle?’
Ali congratulated herself as she left the dining room clutching the Times. Her uncle had jotted his crossword notes all over one page, a good sample of his handwriting.
She would need to find something of Waxstaff’s, maybe an old grocery list, and Potts always scribbled in a medical diary when she measured Lady Grey’s blood pressure. And Lady Grey herself kept a diary by her bed. Easy.
Now to get the books and journals from the barn and start comparing the handwriting in those. Pressing flowers was a great cover for taking multiple trips across the lawn and no one would see her climbing in and out of the well as it was hidden behind a dense thicket of rhododendrons.
‘Let the adventures begin!’ she said, dropping the Times on the desk in the library and grabbing her college backpack. At the very least she had something to exercise her brain – a mystery to unravel.
Ten minutes later, she was halfway across the lawn with her backpack in one hand and her uncle’s walking stick in the other – just in case the rat creature was lurking in the under- ground passage.
It wasn’t. The tunnel was empty, and Ali spent the morning squirrelling the collection of books over to the library. Nine trips in all. There was plenty of room on the bookshelves, space vacated by two stuffed animals that now sat facing her from the back corners of the desk: a dormouse and a white rat.
‘Okay team,’ she said to her stuffed audience, ‘time to solve some riddles. But first – lunch!’