Alice opened the door and found it led into a passage, not much larger than a rat-hole. She knelt down and looked along the passage into the loveliest garden you ever saw. How she longed to get out of that dark hall, and wander among those beds of bright flowers and those cool fountains.
One side of the main lawn was bordered by a brick wall with an archway half concealed by a curtain of ivy. Ali pushed through and found a neglected orchard on the far side, its trees wrestling for light, their unpruned branches a tangle of limbs. In the middle was a clearing with a barn that looked as old as the house itself. It was a solid affair of rough-sawn planks weathered to a dull grey.
‘Ha! Look at you.’ Ali laughed when she saw it. The sensation of stumbling onto a filmset had gone up a notch. Stable doors were rusted in place across the front and a small door in the side was secured by a sliding bolt and a padlock. Ali found a window, wiped a gap in the grime and peered inside.
The barn was empty except for a stack of storage boxes and a few sticks of furniture covered in dust sheets.
‘Alice. There you are!’
Mr Kepler came around the side of the building with Nurse Potts and a second woman dressed completely in black, from her tight-fitting jacket to her skirt and laced shoes.
‘Hi, Mr K, nice escort.’ The woman in black was incredibly thin, almost a walking skeleton, and she seemed to stumble as she approached, reaching out a hand to Nurse Potts for support.
‘Steady.’ Mr Kepler took the woman’s other elbow.
‘I’m fine,’ the thin woman said. She dropped her eyes, took a deep breath and stared at the ground as if intent on studying the grass. Then she stepped forward and looked up, straight into Ali’s eyes.
Frack! Ali tried not to flinch, but it was hard – the woman’s gaze was cold and intense, her eyes blazing with something Ali had never experienced before; not directly, not personally. It was hatred; raw and undisguised. How was that possible? They’d never met.
‘What?’ It was all she could think to say. She wanted to look away but forced herself not to. It was like holding shards of ice in her bare hands.
‘So here we are,’ said the woman. It was barely a whisper, her face hardly moving, the skin stretched tight across her skull. She tilted her head to one side, like a bird inspecting some bug it was planning to eat. ‘You, very obviously, are the Greys’ niece.’
‘Yes,’ Mr Kepler answered for Ali, breaking the tension. ‘Alice, this is Miss Waxstaff, the housekeeper. I’ve been getting the grand tour – the place goes on forever.’ He gestured up at the old barn. ‘What’s this, another stables?’
‘Barn,’ said Nurse Potts, ‘far as I know.’
‘It was a coach house,’ the housekeeper corrected her. ‘Whatever.’ Potts shrugged. ‘His Lordship calls it the old barn.’ ‘It’s magnificent, whatever it is.’ Mr Kepler walked over to the door and peered through the small window. ‘Can we go inside?’
‘No,’ said Potts, her voice dull and business-like. ‘Barn’s off limits.’
‘Fair enough,’ said Mr Kepler, turning back to them. ‘Shall we keep going? Love to see more. So good to be walking around after that drive.’
‘Off limits?’ said Ali, finding her voice. ‘Why’s that?’
‘Don’t know,’ Potts shrugged her giant shoulders. ‘I was told you can go everywhere else, just not the barn.’
‘Yeah, but why?’
‘Ask your uncle,’ replied the housekeeper, who hadn’t moved the whole time nor taken her eyes off Ali.
‘I will.’ Ali almost groaned at herself. I will? How lame was that? But it was hard to find a snappy comeback with a skeleton woman beaming hatred at her.
She felt for the pendant round her neck, the talisman she would rub like a lucky token in times of stress.
Waxstaff’s reaction was instant. She rocked backwards, the muscles of her face moving for the first time, her features pinching into a scowl.
‘What have you got there?’
‘Saint Christopher,’ said Ali, holding it out as far as the chain would allow. For a bizarre moment she thought the housekeeper would shrink away from it, like a movie vampire cowering from a crucifix. She didn’t.
‘Very pretty,’ she said curtly. ‘Dinner is at six o’clock sharp, please be on time,’ and she turned away, striding off though the orchard with Potts hurrying to keep up. Ali stared after her, then tucked the St Christopher back out of sight.
‘They for real?’
‘Pretty odd,’ Mr Kepler agreed. ‘Quite chatty though.’ ‘What was with my pendant? Like she’d seen a ghost.’ ‘Who knows, maybe a convent girl thing. Took a beating from her teachers and blames it on the church.’
‘So who are they? My jailers or my entertainment?’ ‘Choice is yours, Alice. The world is what you make it.’ ‘And they want to make you, Mr K.’
‘Meaning?’ ‘They fancy you.’
‘Kill me now.’ He shook his head as if trying to clear the image. ‘Come on, let’s get to the house and prep for dinner.’
He led the way across the orchard, dipping and bobbing his way between the tangled branches.
‘So, what did you learn?’ Ali asked.
‘Not much, they were asking all the questions. Waxstaff’s been here a while. Potts more recent. Your aunt fell and broke her hip a few months ago. It was either a live-in nurse or go into a rest home.’
‘Beats crawling under a hedge.’ They came to the archway in the brick wall and pushed back through the ivy. ‘So, let’s talk about you.’
‘No choice.’ Her teacher brushed a cobweb from his hair as he stepped out from the ivy. ‘I have to walk you through the rules of your suspension. I head back in the morning, and need to know you’re taking this seriously.’
‘I’m not, it’s a joke.’
‘Not for these relatives of yours. As I understand it, they’ve been funding your education for three years.’
‘And I should be grateful?’
‘That would be the normal way of things, yes.’
‘I shouldn’t even be at school.’ Ali’s teacher was outpacing her, but she made no effort to catch up. ‘I’ve learnt all the science I need, I’m ready for uni.’
‘And who will pay for that?’
‘I could do a year’s internship at some research lab, pay my own way.’
‘You’re too opinionated and too smug – no one would hire you.’ He stopped and turned to Ali. ‘You know a hell of a lot about science and bugger all about yourself. When the school couldn’t get hold of your father, they called the Greys to tell them you were being expelled. It was your aunt who argued for a short seclusion instead. Two weeks of soul searching.’
‘Soul searching! Wash your mouth out, Mr K.’
‘Just an expression. I don’t mean the Christian soul.’ ‘Language pollutes with old ideas.’
‘One of Mum’s. The concept of souls and an afterlife really pissed her off. Which means I can’t disrespect her by thinking she might still be fluttering about like an ethereal spirit even if I really, really wanted to. So, no soul talk.’
‘I’m sorry.’ Mr Kepler suddenly looked uncomfortable, and Ali almost felt sorry for him. ‘It was a poor choice of words.’
‘Yes it was, there’s no room in science for religious fairy tales.’
‘I was improvising, Ali – your aunt never said “soul searching,” she said you might need a few weeks of proper grieving.’ ‘What!?’ Ali glared at him. ‘What would she say that for, I’m not six! I don’t have to take this shit.’
‘No, you don’t, and you don’t have to be a little shit either! Life fell on you from a great height, no question. But you aren’t defined by what happens to you – no one is – you’re defined by how you choose to react to it.’
‘Seriously! No way did you just say that out loud.’ Ali almost laughed, her anger evaporating. ‘What bumper sticker was that off?’
‘It was a fridge magnet.’