The table was a large one, but the three were all crowded together at one corner of it: ‘No room! No room!’ they cried out when they saw Alice. ‘ There’s PLENTY of room!’ said Alice indignantly, and she sat down in a large arm-chair at one end of the table.
Twenty minutes later she was heading down to the parlour. Nurse Potts had said fifteen minutes, so Ali waited an extra five. The rules on engagement had to be established. Her rules, not theirs. It was time to meet her jailers . . . if she could find the right room. The Potts woman had mentioned a parlour, whatever that was.
‘There she is – come in, young lady. Let’s have a proper look at you.’
The parlour turned out to be a large and sedately furnished room halfway down the hall, and the greeting came from an elderly woman in an antique wheelchair with brass fittings and faded leather armrests. She was elegantly dressed, her arms covered by delicate lace gloves.
‘Yes indeed, get yourself in here,’ said a silver-haired man sitting beside her, the Times newspaper on his lap, open at the crossword. He was stout, with a full head of hair and a thick white beard. He stood as Ali entered the room and there was a warm twinkle in his eyes.
‘Lovely to see you again, Alice.’
‘Again?’ She looked from one to the other, studying both faces. Nothing. She had never seen these people before. She was sure of it.
‘It was many years ago. You came here with your mother when your father went off to that place in the Alps.'
‘Cerner? The Particle Accelerator?’
‘That’s the fellow. We had a family gathering of sorts. Your mother came to show you off.’
Ali did the maths. ‘I would have been three when Dad went there.’
‘Yes, just a toddler,’ the elderly woman gave a short laugh, ‘but you had a temper even then – we had to keep the vases out of your reach.’ She extended her gloved hand. ‘Come and sit, the cake is far too dry. Shop-bought. We might as well eat the box it came in . . .’
Ali didn’t sit nor take the offered slice. She was not going to be sucked into domestic chitchat that easily.
‘. . . and the tea’s cold. Making a point of being late is a young lady’s duty. I myself was never very good at it, but there are always consequences. Cold tea is the least of them.’
Good, they’d registered her small protest. Ali looked past them to a set of French doors. Outside, the garden was bathed in late-afternoon sunshine giving it a picture-book intensity.
‘Can you see them out there?’ asked the old man. ‘See who?’ said Ali.
‘Our two girls got bored and took your teacher for a tour of the garden.’
‘Girls?’ Ali turned. ‘There’s more than just me interned here?’ ‘Interned!’ the old man gave a chuckle. ‘What a splendid word. No, you’re our only guest. I was referring to the staff. You met Nurse Potts, and there’s Miss Waxstaff, our house-
‘They both seem very taken with your teacher,’ said his wife. ‘Rather a handsome fellow, don’t you think?’
‘Mr K! Serious?’ Ali didn’t think any of her teachers were the least bit cute. ‘So, what do I call you?’ How are we related?’
‘To the point, good. I think I like you.’ The old man beamed at her.
‘Dad never mentioned you. Ever. This is all a bit weird. One minute it’s just Dad and me, and now . . . this.’ Ali gestured at the room.
‘Quite,’ said the old man. ‘Two old farts come popping out of the woodwork. Formal introductions then. We are Lord and Lady Grey, the last of the Greys.’
‘On the direct line, at least,’ added his wife, ‘given the archaic patriarchal system of lineage we are forced to subscribe to.’
‘Still got all her marbles,’ laughed Lord Grey. ‘Can’t keep up with her some days. We have no direct heirs, no males on either side. But I had two sisters, both of whom have passed on, bless their socks. The eldest, Kitty, was your grandmother.’
‘Yes, Kitty died in her twenties when your mother was just a baby. We’ve always kept a weather eye on your mother since then.’
‘Did a crap job then, didn’t you?’
‘Ah! Right.’ Lord Grey glanced at his wife and stroked his beard. He looked so uncomfortable, Ali almost regretted her little jab.
‘No. We did not,’ said his wife, looking at Ali with a directness and intensity she found unnerving. ‘Do sit down and try not to be so vulgar, Alice. It ill becomes you, and your mother would not have been impressed.’
Ali sat, surprising herself, and reached for a slice of the cake.
‘Good. Your mother had a bold spirit and enough heart for ten women. She was selflessly dedicated to her work, she wanted to save the world, nothing less would have done for her. Should we have dissuaded her?’
‘Yes. Once she had me, once I arrived. I should have been enough; she didn’t have to save all those other kids and abandon me. Seems to me she was being pretty fracking selfish.’
‘Very possibly, and your father agrees with you.’ ‘He does?’ This surprised Ali.
‘Well, enough skeletons for now . . . need to pace ourselves.’ Lord Grey smiled and attempted to move the conversation along. ‘You have her eyes. Doesn’t she have her eyes, Martha?’
‘Yes, eyes and attitude – both.’
Ali turned away, feigning interest in the room. ‘I don’t see any photos of Mum . . . or Granny Kitty. Or anyone. Bit weird if you’re so proud of her, feels more like you’ve disowned your whole tribe.’
‘There are photos aplenty,’ said Lord Grey, ‘just not on the walls. We’re not ones for parading memories. Letting the past clutter up the present is indulgent and morbid.’ He glanced across at his wife, as if checking this was a shared view.
‘We have them pasted into scrapbooks,’ said Lady Grey. ‘We can dig them out after supper. Until then, why don’t you explore the grounds?’
And that was it. Ali realised she was being dismissed. She got up and headed for the door, then turned and pointed to the newspaper.
‘It’s CHARM, by the way.’ ‘What is?’
‘The answer to that last clue.’
‘Really?’ Lord Grey frowned at his paper, mouthing the letters as he filled in the squares, his brow creasing even further, ‘I’ll be damned – it fits.’ He read the clue aloud, ‘Five letters, an offensive little thing. How the deuce did you get CHARM from that?’
‘Put the silly man out of his misery, would you?’ Lady Grey beamed at Ali, clearly enjoying her husband’s discomfort.
‘A charm’s a subatomic particle, so a little thing, right? There’s a bunch of them, all with weird names. The clue said it was an offensive little thing, so like a charm offensive. Rather obvious really.’
Ali was good at puzzles, always had been. Puzzles, like how come two relatives she’d never heard of before knew so fracking much about her.
The gardens turned out to be equally puzzling. Ali couldn’t put her finger on it, but there was a sense of ‘wrongness’ about them that nagged at her. On the surface everything seemed normal enough, if a large garden estate could be considered normal in modern England.
‘Bloody hell, I’m gentry!’ Ali almost laughed as it dawned on her. Was she going to inherit this one day? There were lawns fringed with flower beds and box hedges, pine trees with skirts of rhododendron, greenhouses and a sprawling
herb garden, potting sheds, stables, and a tennis court where weeds had been the only players for years. Encircling it all was a ribbon of woodland that bordered the estate. All very pretty, all very neglected.
It might have been the theatrical effect of the late afternoon sun, but the gardens felt like a set that had been dressed too quickly. There were no garden tools stuck in the beds, no wheelbarrow of weeds from a job half done. None of the tell-tale mess of real life.
And no gardeners, she thought as she looked into the stables and potting sheds. A place this big didn’t look after itself. Where were all the hot young gardeners with their shirts off? How was she going to survive two weeks with just the old couple and Nurse Potts?
‘Dad – this place would have been cool when I was a kid. I’m pissed off with you for keeping it a secret.’