‘Curiouser and curiouser!’ cried Alice; she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English; ‘Oh dear, what nonsense I’m talking!’
The prediction was wrong. It rained all morning. Ali spent the time in the library, flipping through the books of photos and rearranging the furniture. She pulled the writing desk into the bay window that overlooked the front drive, a view dominated by the lightening tree, its bleached form slicing through the landscape like a torn strip from a watercolour. By midday she was hungry and went to the kitchen.
There was no sign of Waxstaff, so she started making a sandwich. She found a bin of bread and looked around for a knife. A large, farm-style worktable took up the centre of the room, and in one drawer she found the breadknife. And a set of keys.
‘Nice.’ There were twelve in all, strung on a rusting keyring, each tagged with a paper label naming an outbuilding. Shed; stables; barn. Then she heard footsteps, dropped the keys back in the drawer and grabbed the breadknife just as Waxstaff appeared.
‘Feeling peckish?’ The housekeeper smiled at Ali – or tried to. Her gaunt face did the right things, the corners of her mouth pulled sideways, her eyes creased, but the way her skin stretched made her look more dead than happy.
‘Yep. Thought I’d make a sandwich.’
‘Ham and cheese in the fridge, tomatoes in the pantry.’ ‘Marmite and peanut butter?’
‘That would be a joke, correct?’
‘No.’ Ali opened the fridge and pulled out a huge block of cheese and a bowl of tomatoes.
‘Well not in this kitchen.’
‘Shame. Lots of protein and B vitamins; great brain food.’ Ali cut six thick slices from the crusty loaf. Waxstaff stared at the amount.
‘Who else do you plan on feeding?’ ‘Just me. I’m hungry.’
‘Clearly.’ She frowned, looking from the bread to Ali. ‘And do you always eat this much?’
‘Depends. If I get buried in a project I forget to eat, so pig out when I surface.’ Ali cut thick wedges of cheese and sliced up a tomato.
‘I shall have to rethink my grocery order.’
‘Cool. Add Marmite and peanut butter, would you?’ ‘No.’
‘Any chutney?’ ‘Pantry.’
‘Thanks.’ Ali opened the pantry and she found a selection of hand-made chutneys and pickles. She made three sand- wiches and kept up the small talk. Waxstaff answered every question but gave little away.
‘There, done.’ She pulled up a stool and was about to sit when Waxstaff handed her a tray.
‘There’s a perfectly good table in the dining room.’ ‘I could use the company,’ said Ali.
‘Could you now? Well I could use a guest who cleans up their own mess.’ She pointed to the aftermath of Ali’s sandwich preparation. Nothing had been put away, bread- crumbs were everywhere, and the block of cheese was deco- rated in tomato seeds.
‘My bad,’ said Ali. Waxstaff grunted and left the room. Ali put down her tray and tidied up, washing the bread knife and putting it back in its drawer – where she slipped the barn key off its keyring.
The rain had stopped and the moon was a thin clipping of fingernail above the treeline. It gave a weak, diffused light, strong enough to see the ground but too weak to expose Ali if anyone was watching from the house.
She had set her mind on exploring the barn the moment she’d found the key. The rain had continued throughout the afternoon, so she’d flopped onto the library couch and taken a nap. ‘Sleep credit,’ her mum had called the naps they’d shared most afternoons in the golden years before school age, years when every day had seemed perfect.
Telling Ali the barn was out of bounds was a red rag to a bored bull. What might be in there didn’t matter, a midnight mission and breaking the rules was the whole point. She pulled her hoodie up and grinned at the moon. No one said ‘no’ to Alice White.
She had asked her relatives about the barn over dinner, in her usual style – straight to the point.
‘Love that old barn in the orchard. Can I look inside?’ Her relatives reacted with an exchange of looks that was hard to read, but made Ali think the question had been expected.
‘Afraid not,’ said Lord Grey, ‘bit of a safety hazard.’
‘And very annoying,’ added his wife. ‘Some pea-brain in the council deemed it unsafe, yet we can’t pull it down because it’s a heritage building. Can’t afford to fix it and can’t knock it down! It has to sit there till it falls over. How foolish is that?’
They were lying, Ali was sure of it. So here she was, crossing the lawn on a clandestine adventure. The grass was wet from all the rain, and her canvas shoes were soaked by the time she pushed her way through the archway in the wall. Across the orchard, the bleached timbers of the barn reflected what little moonlight there was, giving the building a faint, silvery glow.
So, Mum, did you ever come here back in the day? she wondered. Bet you did. Ali went round to the side door. It was in shadow and she had to feel for the padlock.
The barn was a good twenty yards from the house, and shielded from view by the orchard wall, so she switched on a penlight she’d found in the library desk to light up the lock.
The padlock clicked open easily and so did the door. She swung the beam of light over the bare floorboards. The barn was empty except for the sticks of furniture and packing cases stacked at one end.
‘So then! What’s in you lot?’
In total, there were fifteen storage boxes, four tea chests, a suitcase, and two items of furniture, both covered in dust sheets. Ali pulled the sheets away. The furniture looked antique, handcrafted from exotic woods. There was a single bed and a dresser with a full-length mirror and four drawers. The light reflecting from the mirror seemed at odds with the moonlight in the barn.
Ali looked closer. Maybe it was an age thing – did glass lose its sparkle over the years? Or maybe the reflective surface behind the glass became dull from cigar smoke and dust. She checked the drawers. Three were empty, one boasted an old hairbrush, half a dozen bangles and some hair clips. One clip fell to the ground and bounced under the bed. Ali bent to retrieve it and saw a rusty hinge set into the floorboards.
Interesting. The bed was heavy – solid wood with an iron headboard. Ali pushed, and it moved a few feet. The bed had been sitting over a trapdoor.
Better and better. Ali swung the door up and shone her penlight into the dark throat beneath. Hanging from the frame was a set of five iron steps. She felt a spike of excitement, quickly undermined by a wave of loneliness so unexpected and so intense she felt tears coming. There was nobody to share this adventure with, not right now. She gave in to the tears. It was either that or kick the barn down and get a set of bruises that would last for days. Crying was less painful, so long as nobody was around to see.
The tears didn’t last long; a few minutes, enough for loneliness to climb back in its box and give curiosity centre stage. Ali lowered herself down through the trapdoor into a narrow tunnel. It was so low that if she stood on her toes she could still peer out across the barn floor, the top of her head poking up.
She bent, and began to walk in a stooped shuffle, her hair brushing against the ceiling. The tunnel was round, like a drain, and lined with red bricks. Ali kept her light on the ceiling, checking for spiders.
‘Listen up. No one takes a ride on my back!’ Her penlight picked out a few small cobwebs, but nothing scary. She followed the passageway. There were no features, corners or side tunnels, just the same curving red bricks lining the walls. It ended at a vertical chimney where there was another ladder, and faint silver moonlight fell from a circle of sky above.
Ali climbed the ladder. The brick chimney emerged in the far corner of the main gardens. She was in a well, an orna- mental feature with no water.
‘Ha! No need for keys, I’ve got a back door.’ Ali climbed down and made her way back along the tunnel to the barn. Why would anyone build a tunnel under a barn? Under the manor house, yes; Ali could imagine that, a grand lady sneaking out for illicit affairs. But a barn? Smuggling, maybe? Didn’t that happen in coastal towns like Cornwall and Devon, not here in the middle of England?
Ali clambered up into the barn, closed the trap door and pushed the bed back to hide it. Then she checked the contents of the storage boxes and cases. She started with a dusty travel case, hoisting it onto the bed and flicking open the catches.
Boring. It was full of old textbooks, a mix of history, forensic science and Chinese medicine. Plus two children’s books, early editions of The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Ali had never read them. She’d seen a film of the first book with her dad when she was about ten. He’d been a bit weird about going, and was very happy to leave halfway through when Ali declared her damning opinion to the people around them. She grinned at the memory – the things she’d put her dad through.
She flicked through the first few pages of Alice In Wonder- land. The copy had been loved to death by someone, every margin was filled with handwritten notes. There was still the stub of pencil the reader had used, sewn into a cotton sleeve in the back cover, the end frayed from chewing. The notes were easy to read, the language fresh and chatty, like someone writing to themselves in a private diary.
There was something familiar about the handwriting. Ali couldn’t put a finger on it, but she’d seen something like it recently. She closed her eyes and pictured her uncle’s news- paper on the breakfast table, a pad of paper next to it where he drafted answers to the clues. Maybe.
Ali settled back on the bed and tried reading the book. She lasted a few chapters before giving up. ‘Annoying little shit!’ Ali couldn’t believe the Alice character. The girl was unbeliev- ably irritating. Had kids really talked like that, a mix of sub- missive cringe and puffed up confidence? And her relentless dialogue took verbal diarrhoea to a whole new level.
‘I have to punch her, I really have to punch her stupid face . . .’ She found an illustration of the Alice character and slapped it as if swatting a fly. ‘If you don’t have anything interesting to say, keep it shut!’
There was no real story to it, as far as Ali could tell. The book was more like a series of nonsense meetings and con- versations stitched together. And riddles, lots of riddles, but they seemed to have no point to them; there was no pressure on the character to solve them; nothing at stake if she failed.
‘What’s the difference between a raven and a writing desk? Who cares? No one in the stupid book seems to, so what’s the point of it?’ Ali gave up, lay back on the bed and watched shards of moonlight flicker about on the far wall. The moon must have set behind the trees, its light strobing through the branches in the light wind.