And so she did: wandering up and down, and trying turn after turn, but always coming back to the house. ‘Oh, it’s too bad!’ she cried, ‘I never saw such a house for getting in the way! Never!’

‘You snore like a donkey.’
 ‘What?’ Ali frowned across at her teacher, who was helping himself to toast. They were eating alone on the garden terrace in early morning sunshine.
 ‘Like a donkey. My room was right across the landing. I thought it was old plumbing rattling about, but no – it was you.’
 Ali didn’t argue; she knew she snored. Obstructive sleep apnoea the specialist had called it, first diagnosed when she was seven.
 ‘Who’s Jack?’ Mr Kepler pointed to the small St Christopher hanging round Ali’s neck. ‘Boyfriend?’
 ‘It was Mum’s, I think some old flame gave it to her.’ ‘And she wore it? Your dad didn’t mind?’
 ‘Don’t know, they never discussed it. When do you leave?’ ‘Soon as I’ve eaten, I need to be back in class this afternoon.
 I said my goodbyes to your folk last night – your patrons.’
 ‘Stupid word.’
 ‘It’s what they are. Though I guess you’ll be calling them Uncle Bertie and Aunty Martha,’ he grinned, and Ali laughed.
 ‘Who’d have thought? My own little fiefdom of rellies. Going to grill Dad on this when he climbs out of his hole. Why the crap did he never mention them?’
 ‘Ask your aunt, you’ll have plenty of debates over dinner if last night was any indication.’ Mr Kepler reached into his jacket and took out Ali’s cell phone. ‘Want to try your dad again before this comes back with me?’
 ‘You’re taking it?’
 ‘We went through this, Ali, it’s hardly seclusion if the whole world is on tap.’
 ‘I’ll go mad.’
 ‘You mean bored, not mad.’
 ‘Bored out of my mind!’ Ali almost snatched the phone as her teacher passed it over.
 ‘Boredom is the incubator of new ideas.’
 ‘No lectures, I’m suspended.’ She scrolled for her dad’s number.
 ‘Not a lecture, merely an observation. No one does original thinking anymore, they just go online and paddle about in the collected wisdom of the past.’
 ‘Now you’re being boring.’
 ‘Boredom’s good, it forces you to think for yourself, to entertain yourself, gets your brain talking to itself instead of the faceless masses online.’
 ‘Well you talk to yourself all you want, Mr K, my faceless masses are science chatrooms full of people like me’ – she hit dial – ‘smart people who know stuff, unlike the Salt and Pepper Sisters.’
 ‘Potts and Waxstaff, they look like a pair of salt and pepper shakers.’
 ‘That’s rude.’ ‘And funny.’
 ‘Yes, and funny. But don’t be so arrogant – they don’t know much science but they’re far from stupid. Too much going on with those two.’
 There was no reply from her father, just the voicemail message. It was always the same when he was down in his lab, nothing she could do but send him texts. She used to make them short and angry, little yelps for attention.‘I can leave him a text, right?’
 ‘Of course.’
 She tapped in a long one, doing her best to keep it light and cheerful but still putting pressure on him to come and visit the moment he surfaced.
 ‘Done,’ she handed the phone back, thought for a moment and then gave her teacher the passcode. ‘Trust you not to read back over my texts.’ Mr Kepler said nothing, he just raised an eyebrow.
 ‘Someone has to answer him when he texts back.’
 ‘He’s going to worry. Paint a good picture, tell him all that ego booster stuff you told me about being your best student.’ ‘He knows you’re smarter than both of us. It’s all we talk about.’
 ‘He calls you?'
 ‘Now and then. We were students together. He leaned on me to get you into the college.’
 ‘What!’ Ali stared at her teacher. ‘I thought you knew.’
 ‘No!’ Ali couldn’t decide if she was pleased or pissed off. Her teacher got up from the table and looked round at the garden.
 ‘It’s bloody lovely here. Hard to go back to London.’ ‘Drive safe.’
 ‘Try to have fun, Alice, you need to make it work here. The Greys seem to like you, and they were impressed with all that Jane Austen talk. Showed another side of you.’
 ‘What side? Drama queen?’
 ‘No. It was genuine, the real you, peeking out from the bunker. I knew you were smart, but last night you sounded intelligent.’
 ‘Shall I curtsey now?’
 ‘And then she’s back with a predictable petulant jab.
 Boring.’ Mr Kepler headed inside, leaving Ali to kick herself.

She spent the morning exploring the house and failing to avoid Waxstaff and Potts who kept appearing at her shoulder. They never prevented her from going anywhere, but they always seemed to be hovering close by. They would be crossing a hallway behind her, entering a room as she was leaving it, or simply passing her on the stairs. They would ask if she needed anything, and that was all, like they were keeping tabs on her – and not very discreetly.
 ‘Have you cloned yourselves?’ she asked Nurse Potts as they bumped into each other in the kitchen doorway.
 ‘Cloned?’ said the huge woman, who seemed to fill the doorframe.
 ‘You’re everywhere, there has to be more than the two of you.’
 ‘You tell me – you’re the clever one. Oh wait, maybe we’re busy just doing our jobs, maybe life doesn’t revolve around you. There’s a novelty.’
 ‘Nice jab,’ said Ali, stepping back to allow Potts through the door. Her teacher was right, this woman wasn’t stupid at all, that was a smart comeback.
 The house had three stories. Many rooms were mothballed, white drapes covering their furniture. Every room on the ground floor was in use, though the old couple only seemed to use two of them: the dining room and a parlour where a glass conservatory looked out over the main lawn.
 Then Ali found the library.
 ‘Holy crap, awesome.’ She knew immediately this would be her room. It was like a gentleman’s club from some Dickens novel, a place where old men sat in leather armchairs, sipping brandy and talking gibberish. One wall was covered in book- shelves, and a scuffed wooden ladder ran the entire length of the room, suspended from a brass rail.
 ‘Oh, I have to do this.’ Ali rode the ladder back and forth a few times. She felt ten years old again and laughed at the idea of doing this with her dad when he came to get her. They could have a duel with walking sticks, like musketeers.
 She checked out the room as she swept back and forth. There was a fireplace, its red brick mantle hosting a row of stuffed creatures in glass display jars.
 ‘Look at you lot!’ There were field mice and ferrets, ravens and rats, even a badger, every glass eye sparkling with the illusion of life. It should have made the room feel cold, even spooky, but it didn’t; the stuffed creatures made it feel lived in, as if the room was their sanctuary.
 ‘Well, here you are.’ Lady Grey came squeaking through the door on her chair, pushed by Nurse Potts. ‘I see you’ve found the library.’
 ‘Sorry.’ Ali grabbed the bookshelf, bringing her ladder to a sudden stop.
 ‘Don’t be. I spent hours riding that thing when I was a girl.
 Did you see the scrapbooks of photos in your fly-past?’
 ‘No.’ Ali stepped down, trying not to look sheepish in front of Potts.
 ‘Far end of the second shelf. The pictures of your mother will be in the last one. Pop it on the writing desk and we can look through it together.’
 Ali found it: a scrapbook full of photographs. Most were of her mother as a young girl, and Ali realised how much she took after her, some of the pictures could have been her, except her mother’s hair was longer.
 ‘Who’s this?’ there was a page of pictures of her mother with another girl.
 ‘A girl from the village. They were best friends one summer . . . poor girl met with an accident, your mother was beside herself for weeks.’
 ‘Is this me?’ Ali pointed to a picture of her mother with a toddler.
 ‘It is indeed, and this one – this is my favourite.’ Lady Grey pointed to a photo of a tiny Ali dancing with her mother on the garden terrace. They were both laughing; a happy day she had no memory of.
 ‘Can I scan it? Make myself a copy?’ Ali asked, fighting an urge to trace her mother’s face with her finger.
 ‘A copy? Heavens no, you can have these scrapbooks. They’ll all be thrown out with our bones anyway, far better that you take them.’
 ‘In fact, help yourself to any book that takes your eye. They’re very old, but wisdom survives the generations, and it’s good to read the source material where possible, don’t you think?’
 ‘I guess so.’ Ali found the remark rather odd, it lacked context. Yet her aunt had turned to face her as she said it, as if to underscore its importance.
 ‘Are you happy with your bedroom?’
 ‘It’s a bit . . . well . . . boring.’
 ‘I’m sure it is,’ said Lady Grey, ‘it’s been a while since the bedrooms were painted. 1953 or thereabouts, young Elizabeth’s coronation, I think.’
 ‘It is very dull,’ said Nurse Potts. ‘I took the liberty of brightening it up. I hung a picture of bluebells in there.’
 ‘You put that picture in there?’ Ali said, surprised.
 Lady Grey appeared surprised, too; the old woman was staring at the ground as if looking for something. Ali had seen the same thing last night, how her aunt would fall silent and stare at the ground as if rummaging through a box of memories. ‘You found the woodland scene, the clearing with the bluebells?’
 ‘Yes. Sorry, was that wrong?’ Potts seemed a bit flustered, and glanced briefly at Ali as if for support, then looked away. ‘I can take it down.’
 ‘No, leave it,’ said Lady Grey, turning her chair with her delicate, gloved hands so she could face Potts. ‘But where did you find it? I thought that painting had been thrown out years ago. My poor mother hated it.’
 ‘It was in the attic.’
 ‘You went up into the attic? Whatever for? What sort of business would you have to go fossicking around up there?’
 ‘This,’ said Nurse Potts, tapping the antique wheelchair. ‘Lord Grey sent me up there to find the chair. Better than the one the hospital sent home with you. Heavier to push, mind. I’d be happy to swap it back.’
 ‘This chair is splendid, thank you.’ She turned back to Ali, ‘I’ve been in this thing before. Took a spill off my pony when I was young and precocious – rather like you, in fact.’
 ‘Never ridden a horse.’
 ‘Good. They’re like smoking, dear. Great fun, but a huge risk to life. Stick to riding that ladder over there. Much safer.’
 ‘Cool, I will. I love this room, Lady Grey. Could I swap rooms and sleep down here?’
 ‘You can if you stop calling me Lady Grey. You make me sound ridiculous with the inflection you put on it. It’s just Aunt Martha, please.’
 ‘Okay. Well, erm . . . thanks, Aunt Martha.’
 ‘You’re family, Alice. You may feel like a stranger in a strange land but—’
 ‘Woah! You’ve read that book?’
 ‘Yes. Heinlein – a bit of a rogue, an old misogamist by all accounts – but I’ve always enjoyed his novellas.’
 ‘Way to go, Aunt Martha.’
 ‘Was that approval?’
 ‘I guess.’
 ‘Gratefully accepted. As I say, you may feel like a stranger, and you have certainly been estranged, but you are family, Alice. Therefore treat the house as your own, and if this room speaks to you in some way that it most certainly does not speak to me, then by all means make it yours.’
 ‘Thank you.’
 ‘My pleasure. Now I must let Miss Potts put me through a set of hideous exercises designed to get me on my feet. To what end, I can’t imagine – not the London Marathon.’ ‘Getting you walking, that’s what for,’ said Potts, ‘then I won’t have to push this heavy antique around.’
‘Fair enough,’ said Lady Grey as Potts trundled her to the door. ‘I’m told we have a full day of sunshine, so be sure and get outside for part of it,’ and she waved a gloved hand like a queen from the window of a royal carriage.

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