The Hatter opened his eyes and said ‘Why is a raven like a writing-desk?’ Alice thought over all she could remember about ravens and writing-desks, which wasn’t much. ‘I give it up, what’s the answer?’ ‘I haven’t the slightest idea,’ said the Hatter.
The next instant Ali was wide awake, her neck burning with pain. Then a wave of nausea struck. She leant over the side of the bed and threw up on the barn floor. She stayed that way for a long time, sweat dripping from every pore, panting for breath and hugging her stomach as she retched again.
She groaned when the waves of nausea started to fade. She felt exhausted, wrung out, her throat still burning from the hot bile. She needed water and stumbled from the bed, stepping over the pool of vomit as she looked around for a tap. There was a workbench along the far side with a stone basin and one tap fixed high on the wall above. She turned it on. The pipe rattled as a pocket of air worked its way through. Ali kept it running till the rattling stopped and the water turned clear. Then she drank till she was fit to burst.
How the frack can a dream do that? she wondered. She staggered back towards the bed, unsteady on her feet and desperate to sit down again. She touched her neck. There was a welt there, a lump the size of a marble. From what? Not the wasp in her dream, obviously. Some bug here in the barn? Had she been bitten as she lay on the bed, her sleeping mind creating a dream wasp to explain the sudden pain. But bitten by what? There were no bees or wasps at night, and a mosquito bite didn’t hurt like that.
A snake? Have I been bitten by a snake? A rat?
Ali swung her penlight across the floor and under the bed. Nothing to see but her pool of vomit. Nice. Cleaning that up could wait till the morning. Right now all she needed was sleep.
She relocked the barn and made her way back to the house. The night air was like a tonic, washing her blood with every breath she took. By the time she’d put the keys back and tiptoed to her bedroom, she felt a whole lot better. Her stomach still ached, and her neck throbbed, but the waves of nausea had passed. She flopped on her bed without bothering to change and fell into a deep sleep; one without any dreams.
Four hours later, she was wide awake. It was still dark outside, but she felt alert and hungry; her stomach growling and rumbling, demanding food.
‘All right. Shut up, we’ll get something.’ She went down to the kitchen and made three slices of toast, plastering them with butter and jam. She poured a glass of milk, drank it, poured a second, and took the milk and the toast to the library where she flopped on the couch and waved at the stuffed animals.
‘My place now. Lady Grey said I could set up camp, so big smiles or I turn everyone to face the wall.’ As she ate, she scanned the shelving and its collection of books. There were a lot of scientific texts, a medical journal on exotic diseases, books on codes and cryptology, dozens of history books, a whole section devoted to metaphysics, and several recipe books for cooking with mushrooms.
Ali pulled out a book about codes and puzzles: Decoding Dodgson, the Cryptography of Wonderland.
‘That’s a puzzle, right there.’ Ali waved the book at the stuffed animals, ‘Why give a book such a boring title if you want to sell it?’ She took another bite of toast, and started flicking through the pages.
It was a discussion about the two Alice In Wonderland novels. The author was arguing that all the poems and riddles, even the character names, should be read as encrypted messages. And the margins in this book were covered in notes as well, all written in the same neat hand as the notes in the two novels.
‘Who are you?’ said Ali. Here was another puzzle itching to be solved, the identity of the obsessive note-scribbler. One chapter was dedicated to solving the writing desk riddle. Why is a raven like a writing desk?
‘Any suggestions?’ Ali raised an eyebrow to the stuffed birds and animals. One was a raven. She went over to it. The bird was huge, inside a glass bell-jar one-third the size of Ali herself.
‘You were alive once – what do you think? A writing desk was alive when it was a tree. But that feels like a cheat answer. A desk has four legs and you only have two. So, maybe it’s a math question, four is a multiple of two, so they both have ‘two’ in common. Which means the answer is two.’
Ali went back to the couch and carried on reading. At some point she must have dozed off, because she woke to bright sunlight spilling in through the library window, and the buzz of breakfast conversation drifting down the hall. She raced upstairs, washed her face, put on a long-sleeve tee and hurried to join the others. Lord and Lady Grey smiled when she entered, their delight on seeing her was instant and undisguised.
‘Just the person,’ said Lord Grey. ‘Back me up here, Alice, and tell these good ladies why breakfast can never be break- fast without the Times crossword.’ He waved her to a seat and directed his full attention on her.
Ali was impressed. In one sentence, this cheerful old man had welcomed her into the room, brought her up to speed with the conversation and invited her to participate. One sentence. She smiled back at him, sat down and plugged into her Jane Austen.
‘Well, Uncle Bertie, I would venture to suggest that the mind, and not just the body, needs something of substance to chew on first thing in the morning.’
‘Ha! Exactly!’ Lord Grey thumped the table in delight, bouncing the toast and teacups. ‘I’ve just spent two minutes spraying buckshot all around that idea, and you pin it between the ears with one crack. Young minds, can’t beat them; have a boiled egg.’
Ali did. Two eggs, a large bowl of porridge and several rounds of toast.
‘Someone’s hungry,’ observed Nurse Potts. ‘Someone certainly is,’ Ali agreed.
‘It makes me a little exhausted just watching you,’ said Lady Grey. ‘Never go to bed hungry, that’s the rule in this house.’
‘Quite right,’ her husband pointed up at the ceiling, ‘I keep a stash of food rations up in the room, an entire squirrel’s nest of contraband.’
‘Brandy is not food,’ said Nurse Potts. Then she pointed at Ali. ‘What’s that on your neck?’
‘A sting, I guess, or a bite. Hurts like crap whichever it is.’
‘Sorry, Aunt Martha.’
‘Not bed mites, I hope?’ said Lord Grey.
‘That’s not possible,’ Waxstaff glared up the table at him, ‘I change the bed linen every week and the laundry company has an excellent reputation.’
‘Knew a chap plagued with bed mites. We all wanted him in our tent, every bug imaginable took a nibble at him. Rest of us slept like angels.’
‘Come and see me after breakfast,’ said Nurse Potts. ‘Anti- histamine cream might help. Very least it’ll take the swelling down.’
There was a lull in the conversation as everyone focused on eating, the only sounds the scratching of knives on toast, the slow ticking of the clock on the mantle, and a squabble of birdsong from the garden.
Sunlight coloured the table with a warm mix of golds, and dust motes hung in its angled beams. It felt to Ali as if a warm and very comfortable blanket had descended on the room.
‘Aunt Martha, can I ask you about my name?’ ‘Your name, dear?’
‘Dad said it was a compromise. He and mum had different choices.’
‘Sounds like a rum deal,’ said her Uncle.
‘Maybe not, their first choices were Storm and Berri!’
‘Ha!’ Lord Grey stabbed a rasher of bacon, and went on, ‘I knew a chap with beriberi! Nasty business; too much port by all accounts.’
‘Alice was second choice on Mum’s list. Anyone with my name swinging through the family tree?’
‘Yes, dear’, said her aunt, ‘many generations ago, when so many died as they pushed into this world, or in their cots shortly after.’
‘And recently, the last few generations?’ ‘Not recently, no.’
Ali looked down at her toast. Lady Grey had just lied. It was clear from the brief glance she’d given her husband – a warning glance.
‘I can hazard a guess,’ said Lord Grey. ‘Your mother was an avid reader as a child. Loved the Alice in Wonderland books. Just a guess.’
And that was the end of it. Except Lord Grey reached out and tenderly laid a hand on his wife’s gloved arm.
‘What are your plans today?’ asked Aunt Martha, clearly changing the subject. ‘It’s a lovely day for a walk. Have you seen the grounds yet?’
‘Some, I’ll have a proper explore later. First, can I move my stuff into the library – make it my room?’
‘Whatever for?’ asked Waxstaff. ‘Another room to clean.
We don’t have the staff for it.’
‘The girl has hands, Miss Waxstaff. I’m sure Alice is capable of cleaning her own room.’ Lady Grey smiled at Ali and gave a little nod. ‘By all means make it your own, but I suggest you turn those dusty stuffed creatures to the wall, so they don’t plague your dreams.’