House of Silence
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Chapter 5 - Extract
I don't know what I'd been expecting. A ramshackle farmhouse. A Georgian rectory, perhaps. I certainly wasn't expecting an Elizabethan manor house, a jumble of tall, barley sugar chimneys and crow step gables, red brick walls and a battery of mullioned windows, winking at me as the car struggled up the pot-holed drive.
It was love at first sight. I knew even before I entered Creake Hall that it would be a House of Horrors, domestic, architectural and probably culinary, but I didn't care. The house spoke to me, even at a distance. It looked neglected, wounded somehow - quite possibly by its present owners. The part of me that had considered textile conservation as a more worthwhile and lucrative career roused itself and scented challenge. But I determined to keep my eyes open, my mouth shut and my itchy, exploratory fingers to myself. I was not on a rescue mission.
I dragged my eyes away from the chaotic roofline silhouetted against the vast Norfolk sky and, as the car came to a halt in front of a massive double oak door, I turned to speak to Alfie, my excitement bubbling over.
He sat braced, both hands still gripping the wheel, his chin sunk onto his chest. It occurred to me then that perhaps I was on a rescue mission after all.
His head shot up, he let go of the wheel and turned to me, a bright, artificial smile plastered across his face. He said, 'Showtime, boys and girls!' then leaned over, pulled my head towards him and kissed me hard on the mouth. Almost as if he was saying goodbye.
Alfie didn't knock. It would have taken two hands to lift the iron knocker and he had a suitcase in one hand and a large bunch of flowers in the other. He set the case down, turned an iron ring and leaned against the door. It sidled open, protesting, revealing an enormous entrance hall. A gigantic dark oak table - clearly Jacobean - stood in the centre of the room, piled with unopened Christmas cards, junk mail, a flashlight, secateurs, a ball of twine, old newspapers and a pair of dog leads. In the middle of the table stood a scruffy arrangement of evergreens and berries in a jumble sale vase. Hanging from a laurel branch was one of those jokey wooden signs announcing, I'm in the garden, complete with robin perched on garden fork, for the benefit of those who didn't read English. In the dust beneath, someone had written Please clean me.
I could hear hysterical barking coming from another room and I looked around, expecting someone to appear. There was an imposing, rather forbidding oak staircase, down which you could have driven a coach and horses. (The state of the threadbare Axminster suggested a previous generation had.) Coats and scarves lay heaped on a carved wooden settle, together with a tartan rug which, to judge from its noisome condition, belonged to the owners of the dog leads. A welcoming light was provided by a standard lamp with an exuberantly fringed and floral shade, but the fireplace - about the size of my bathroom in Brighton - was empty. It began to dawn on me that the hall seemed scarcely any warmer than the winter's afternoon we'd left outside. I shivered and remembered Alfie's dire climatic warnings.
The paroxysms of barking continued unabated, but still no one appeared to greet us. Then from another direction - overhead, I thought - I heard footsteps moving quickly. As they reached the stairs, they broke into a heavy-footed run. A woman turned the corner of the stairs, stopped dead and cried, 'Alfie!' She galloped down the remaining flight of stairs, long corkscrew curls flying out behind her, and I feared for her safety. She jumped the last two treads and landed, knees bent like a skateboarder, feet shod in striped socks and voluminous fluffy slippers, on a rug that slid across the polished oak floorboards, bringing her to a standstill, no more than arm's reach from Alfie.
I waited for them to embrace, but instead they stood facing each other. Each waiting for the other to make the first move? I couldn't see Alfie's face, so there was no way of knowing. Eventually he extended his arm, offering her the flowers, and said, 'Merry Christmas, Hattie.'
Seizing the bouquet, she squealed, 'Ooh, lovely! Are they for me?' and plunged her face into the blooms. When she emerged again, her nose was freckled with dark pollen from the lilies. Alfie smiled and withdrew a handkerchief from his coat pocket. Dabbing at her face, he said, 'Yes, they are. But if anyone should ask, they're for everyone. The family,' he added with emphasis.
I could see no resemblance between brother and sister. Hattie's hair was mousey and her eyes were grey, whereas Alfie's were brown. She had nothing of his easy elegance or compactness of body. There was perhaps an expression in the eyes, a sadness that I occasionally saw in Alfie's - an anxiety almost, an eagerness to please. But otherwise, they were chalk and cheese.
Hattie finally registered my presence and, after regarding me for a moment, said to Alfie sotto voce, 'Who's your friend?'
'Didn't Viv explain? This is Gwen Rowland. She lives in Brighton. We met when I was filming in Sussex. Gwen, this is my youngest sister, Harriet Donovan.'
Hattie thrust a hand in my direction. 'Now I remember! Gosh, I'm getting as bad as Rae! How d'you do? Viv's put you in the attic. Don't worry, it's very cosy up there and it's near the nursery, where Alfie sleeps, so if you two want to sleep together, you can.' Hattie mistook my look of blank astonishment and explained, 'There's a double bed in the attic, you see. The springs are a bit creaky but no one will hear you - we're all at the other end of the house.' She turned to Alfie. 'But you have to have your old room, or Rae will go mad. Well, not mad, exactly. She's not mad yet, but she gets pretty upset if we change anything, especially at Christmas, so there was no question of putting you both in the attic.' Hattie turned back to me. 'Alfie has to sleep where he's always slept, you see. House rules. And anyway, we didn't know whether you'd want to share a room, and Viv didn't like to ask.' She looked speculatively from Alfie to me, then back to Alfie. 'Do you sleep together?'
With a sidelong glance at my dropped jaw, Alfie said gently, 'That's none of your business, Hat. You're making Gwen feel uncomfortable.'
Her face fell. 'Oh, sorry! Take no notice of me, Gwen. I'm a bad person - I can't do anything right. But I mean well.'