By the same author
|© Copyright 2003-2009 K S Mulholland|
Chapter 10 - In the attic and under the covers
'It's a letter from the school addressed to us!' Priscilla said, tearing at the envelope after bringing in the next day's mail. Monique, who had recovered somewhat from the shock of the previous night's phone call about her missing parents, peered over her shoulder. 'Dear Miss Priscilla Black and Miss Monique Bateleur, our apologies for this late notice,' both girls read aloud, then stopped, giggling.
'You read, I'll listen,' said Monique, going to sit on the hallstand seat.
'O.K. It says, er, Hopewell Hall, your new school and home for the next few years wishes to welcome you with a before-school familiarity activity and the usual pre-attendance class for enrolment identification. Owing to the late confirmation of enrolment by Mister Mathew Black of Miss Monique Bateleur, we were unable to send this invitation until now. In any event, on behalf of Hopewell Hall, we cordially invite both first-year pupils to a picnic gathering at Hedgely Dene Gardens on this coming Sunday, from eleven o'clock til four. Hedgely Dene Gardens is located off Malvern Road, between Wattletree and Darling roads, Malvern East. Food and soft drinks will be supplied by the school. Please bring a rug to sit on. Pre-attendance class will be held at nine o'clock in the morning at Hopewell Hall on the following Friday. This is compulsory. Kind regards, Sonia Poe, Headmistress, Hopewell Hall.'
'Can we go to this Hedgely Dene?' asked Monique. 'Do you know of it? Is it very far away?'
'Sure I know the place: lovely rolling lawns and beautiful trees and a little lake with birds on it. We all went there when we were last in Melbourne. I think it's probably too far for us to go by bike, but I'm sure Dad could drive us there...if he's able to,' Priscilla concluded uncertainly.
'Sunday I'm free, as it so happens,' said Mathew that night just before dinner. He had arrived home earlier than expected but to Monique's disappointment brought no further news of her mother and father. 'I'll drive you over in the morning and pick you up around four, I want to spend time here in the house and in the garden until we find a handyman to come and do some maintenance. The garden certainly needs attention, a lot of the trees and shrubs are getting far too woody, the roses in particular. Your weeding is a good start for us, girls, I'm very impressed with your hard work.'
'That's O.K. Dad. You'd better thank Granny too, she cracks the whip,' said Priscilla, busy covering her new school books at her desk.
'I kind of guessed as much,' Mathew answered, handing a pair of scissors to Monique, who was working on her bed. 'I'm going to get you a desk too Young Lady, you can't be expected to use a bed as your workstation.'
'Will I be able to take it when Mother...' Monique's face fell and she bit hard at her lip.
'When we get them here safe, I'll personally take it to your new home, you've got my word on that,' said Mathew softly, patting her shoulder.
'Why would someone want to kidnap them and take them into Zimbabwe, Dad?' asked Priscilla, feeling as if she should contribute on Monique's behalf.
'Well, we don't know any of that for sure yet. There hasn't been a ransom note, and we can't even be certain that they crossed into Zimbabwe. They might have gone into Botswana. Authorities in both those countries have been notified.'
'Will that do any good?' Monique asked morosely, but before Mathew could manufacture an uneasy answer, Granny Black's voice saved the day, calling them down to dinner.
By the time the two girls were up and dressed on Thursday morning Rachael and Mathew had left the house; Rachael for costume fittings and Mathew for more post-production work on the African documentary. Granny Black had Louis and Henry ready for the dentist, and a taxi had just arrived. 'Now Irish Mollie will be here any minute and while she's here...Ah there she is!' said Amelia, waving at a burgundy coloured station wagon that was pulling into the circular drive behind the cab.
It had hardly rolled to a stop when Mollie emerged, bustled around to the rear and began unloading cleaning gear. 'Can't stop ta chat, Oi'm already runnin' late,' she managed, brushing strands of hair out of her eyes with a raised elbow, 'Oi've got ta be somewhere else thut isn't here in less thun ut takes ta do what's got ta be done! Hullo Amelia, hullo chuldren,' she managed as she forged past them and flung herself through the open doorway. They could hear the clanking of a bucket somewhere down the hall.
'That blur was Irish Mollie, Monique.' said Grandma Black, shooing the brothers into the cab, 'Now as I was saying girls, keep out of her way or she'll bowl you over and slop you down with detergent!'
Priscilla and Monique waved at the taxi until it turned a corner. 'We'll be keeping well out of Mollie's way alright,' muttered Priscilla, 'C'mon Monique, time we went into action.'
The stairs that led up to the attic trapdoor looked pretty rickety and even the handrail wobbled as Priscilla gripped it. 'Don't get on the bottom step until I'm up there,' she whispered, 'this might not take the weight of both of us.'
'Be very careful Priscilla, some of those boards look rotten, and why are you whispering? Mollie won't be able to hear us above all the racket she's making,' said Monique, shining her torch up through the gloom at the outline of the trapdoor above.
'Why are we whispering? Mum would say because it makes it more scary...whoops!'
A dusty cloud of crumbled, powdery wood showered down in the torchlight so that Monique had to lift a hand to shield her eyes. 'Are you alright?' she hissed, her vision momentarily obscured.
'That's better, you're whispering...glad you're getting into the feel of things,' came the reply as Priscilla delicately extracted her foot from a broken timber tread. 'Make sure you don't stand on this one. Now...I'm able to reach the door...Golly, it's heavy...Oh, I see, it's got a bolt. Henry must have closed it...Covering his tracks...There...Umm...Still a bit heavy but I can lift...Ah! O.K. I'm going in...'
Monique watched as Priscilla's jeans and joggers scrambled up into the blackness. After a few moments her face appeared. 'Come on, what are you waiting for?'
'What am I waiting for?' muttered Monique, starting up, her hand wobbling along with the wobbly rail. 'Waiting for you to get yourself off the steps, that's what I'm waiti...'
'Hurry up. Watch your step, we haven't got all day!'
Cautiously, Monique climbed until she finally emerged into the attic cavity. The only light came from the two torch beams as the girls turned them randomly about the area. 'Mon Dieu! This is like a room...a very dingy room...there does not seem to be a light...oh here...a swit...no... the globe must be blown,' said Monique, flicking the old porcelain switch on and off.
'Our torches will do, look at the floor, Dad will know Henry has been up here...or at least some of us,' said Priscilla, realising that every step they took disturbed the dust.
'It is a floor, not just...how do you say...rafters...and we can stand up without having to avoid the roof timbers...look, there are some boxes over here.' Monique shone her torch onto several small, wooden packing crates amongst a litter of other objects: an old mantle valve-radio, a musty dressmaker's dummy, some vases lined up against a pair of fire-wood boxes and a brass fire-guard frame, a little wire stand packed with magazines and an ancient electric desk-fan leaning sideways on a pile of dusty drapes that once might have adorned the downstairs windows.
'Bet this stuff has been here for ever,' said Priscilla, flicking through the pages of a magazine and sneezing heartily. 'Phew! Dust! Screen News. Nineteen Forty-Seven: Betty Grable's legs. Trigger, the wonder horse of singing cowboy Roy Rogers. Errol Flynn...Errol Flynn! Henry would love...'
'Priscilla!' Monique interrupted, 'Come and look at this.'
Priscilla shone her torch over to where Monique was crouching, holding open a large, drooping book. Cobwebs clung to its outer covers, but she was busy flipping the pages and peering down at the sepia photographs. 'There are two more albums in this box, they must have belonged to the Roselli's or perhaps even some of the earlier owners.'
'I think we should take them and look later, what do you think?' said Priscilla, pulling a brown paper bag full of loose photos and letters out of the box.
'I think we should leave here straight away. We cannot carry very much apart from our torches while we climb down the stairs though,' said Monique somewhat uncertainly. 'These other boxes seem to be filled only with novels and text books and old encyclopaedias.'
'Here, you take the bag, it has strings that you can loop over your hand, and I'll drop the albums down to you,' Priscilla replied, dusting them with trembling fingers. 'Hope you're a good catch!'
'I shall do my best,' said Monique, wriggling through the trapdoor and finding a footing on the shaky tread beneath.
The moan of a vacuum cleaner somewhere in one of the rooms downstairs droned up to meet Priscilla as she stuck her head over the trapdoor opening and watched Monique slowly descend until she reached the floor below. Dust filtered about Priscilla as she leaned out with an album and dropped it to Monique's waiting outstretched arms. She was a good catch. Soon all three books were in her hands and Priscilla had her foot on the first step, preparing to pull the attic trapdoor closed, when the sound of the front doorbell ringing brought the vacuum cleaner whirring to a halt. The doorbell rang again. 'Priscilla! Priscilla! Where the divil are ya? Oh, alroight, Oi'm comin'...I said Oi'm comin'! Get ya finger off the bell!' shouted Mollie, thumping out of a room and heading full steam up the hallway.
'Hurry up Priscilla, we'll have to clean away all this dust and rotted wood before Mollie gets here, or else she will see what we have been up to,' urged Monique, as Priscilla heaved the trapdoor closed and shot home the bolt. More debris fluttered while she gingerly avoided the broken step and made her unsteady way down to where Monique waited below. They could hear a brief, muffled conversation and then the sound of the front door closing and Mollie's footsteps coming back along the hall.
'Quick, take the albums to our room and stick them under your bed, no wait, Mollie will be sure to clean there, better put them in my wardrobe behind all the clothes,' said Priscilla, looking around for something to sweep up the mess.
'We could use sheets of cardboard if there is no broom and pan up here,' suggested Monique.
Priscilla nodded, 'Brilliant! Only...No wait...Henry's banner! C'mon!'
Mollie, weilding the vacuum cleaner with frantic forward strokes, poked her head around the girl's bedroom doorway to find the pair reclining on their beds, reading. 'Well, there ya two be! Oi've been wonderun' at yer whereabouts fer awhile now!'
'Hi Mollie!' called Priscilla over the high pitched whine of the machine. 'Just been keeping out of your way! Would you like us to go downstairs now!'
'Faith! As ya please, but hang about a minute, I have not met yer friend here. Oirish Mollie Bergen, an' you be?'
'I am Monique Bateleur,' said Monique, putting down her book and getting off the bed.
'Pleased ta meet ya,' Mollie puffed, continuing to vacuum into the room, 'Cilla's Gran'ma told me all about ya when Oi rang t'other day.'
'Was someone at the front door earlier?' Priscilla asked innocently.
'Yas, an' uf ya heard that an' me callin ya an' all, why didn't ya appear?'
'I was er...er...attending to other things...you know,' said Priscilla evasively, with a little wink. 'Who was it anyway?'
'Oh well, uf ya were in the privy? Ya don't have ta be all that coy in front ta me and yer young friend, an' ut was n'body at all, at all; just some chuldren enquirin' uf ya'd be wantin' a lost dog is...' Mollie trailed off as she came to the wastepaper bin which was full of the attic ladder disaster and Henry's folded up banner. 'And whut's all thus?' she enquired, fingering the paper suspiciously.
'Oh just some of Henry's old artwork that he didn't want. We used it to clean up...around here,' Priscilla waved an arm expansively. 'What kind of dog?'
'Now how the divil should I know? Didn't ask, did Oi. Speakin' o' young Henry, whut's his luttle crayture perchin' on in uts pen?'
Monique looked as if she was beginning to lose track of Mollie's broad accent, but Priscilla, who was used to it said, 'Oh Gizzard you mean, um...oh that's just an old broken house-name thingy that Henry found somewhere...'
'Is ut now? Well ut certainly makes a novel bit o' home decoratin' for a skunk.'
'That's a skink!' said Priscilla, raising her voice over the racket of the vacuum and the crash of its suction head banging against furniture.
'Thut's what Oi said, Cloth-Ears, skunk! Grand lot o' dust up hereabouts!'
'Do you think Mollie caught on to us?' Monique asked.
Dinner time had come and gone. Granny Black and the boys were downstairs in the kitchen and living room respectively; Granny tidying up, Louis and Henry, nursing his jaw after the ordeal at the dentist, at the computer.
Priscilla, who was gazing out of the bedroom window at the battered garden, with its remains of kitchen and bathroom remnants piled in one corner ready to be taken away, stroked at her straight, somewhat lifeless fair hair. Unconsciously she pulled some strands around to her mouth and sucked at them. 'I don't know,' she mumbled, 'you never do with Mollie, and even if she has, she just might keep it to herself. Glad we had time after she left to empty the bin and dust off Henry's welcome banner before the others came home.'
'What about the broken tread on the attic steps?'
Priscilla shrugged, 'What broken tread? I didn't notice any broken tread.'
'Oh Priscilla, I do not know if I could lie about it,' said Monique, fervently.
Priscilla turned and looked at the anxious expression on the face of the black girl sitting upright on the bed opposite, and grinned. 'I don't think I could either. We'll both just have to tell the truth if we get asked, and take what ever punishment comes. Now let's have a look at those photos,' she said, going to the bedroom door. 'You get them out of the wardrobe and I'll keep watch. We're not going to get caught with our backs to the door like in the movies.'
'All these first pictures seem somewhat impersonal,' Monique remarked, as both girls studied the old sepia photos. They were lying side by side on the floor in the doorway, where they could hear if anyone was coming up the stairs.
'Umm, sort of like a tour of Melbourne: the city, suburbs, the countryside...oh...this is one of the house, but where are all the plants? It's just bare around the drive...date's faded...looks like Nineteen Thirty-nine. Here's one with a man, would that be Mister Roselli? Anyway he's standing outside the front door...and see...there's the name plate, Roswell, and the date, Nineteen-forty written underneath...that was taken a year after they bought the place.'
Monique nodded, 'And that one must be of the tennis court on the other block...there's the big tree in the corner.'
Priscilla thought a moment. 'Yes, but that was more than sixty years ago, I wonder if it's the same tree? Looks nearly as big as it is now...'
'Ah, pictures of the garden...these must have been taken a few years later...look...the lovely arbours as they were back then...and the rose gardens are there in the front of the house...and there are some people...here, names scribbled...Bella with Mirsam and Aludra.'
'Mirsam...Aludra...Doesn't sound Italian, I wonder who they were? I suppose Bella was his wife?'
Monique turned her head to look at Priscilla, 'Probably...'
'Yes...here, next page...it's written...My lovely wife Bella, August, Nineteen forty-seven, that blows Henry's theory about the war being the reason that they took down the sign, see it's still there...hang on, what do you think that is around her neck?'
Monique peered closely, so that the chain around her own neck dangled and the peridot ring touched the floorboards. 'Could it be a ring on a chain, like this one?'
Moments later the two girls were even more perplexed.
'Here's an old newspaper cutting,' said Priscilla as they began to look at the second album. "G.P. wins local Best Garden Competition. Congratulations to Ottorino Roselli and his wife Bella on their beautiful rose gardens,"...G.P. General Practitioner! That's a doctor! Mister Roselli was actually Doctor Roselli, fancy that!'
'Go on, what else does it say?' asked Monique, who was keeping watch around the edge of the doorway down toward the stairs.
'It's not what it says that's puzzling, it's what it shows...or rather...doesn't show...look closely at the picture Monique, see, they're both standing on the veranda steps next to the roses?'
'Yes, oh! But where is the house name? exclaimed Monique, carefully studying the newspaper photo, ' It should be there to the right of the front door.'
'This cutting is dated September third, Nineteen Forty-seven. And here, this photo...underneath it says, "Myself and Bella on the front porch of our house, Christmas Forty-seven"...but look, the name plate's definitely not there'
'So it was removed somewhere between August and September of that year...Wasn't that the year that the alien thing was supposed to have happened in America?'
Monique gave a sudden start, 'Priscilla, what is it? What is wrong?'
'Look at that, the...this photo of the back of the house looking toward the kitchen...that's Bella Roselli sitting there, having a cup of tea at an outdoor table...'
'What is so unusual about that?'
'There...that little black dog in the background...it looks exactly like the little black dog I saw through the kitchen window when we went sleep walking, or whatever it is that we did,' Priscilla concluded weakly.
Monique studied the photo carefully. 'The caption reads, Bella and H. It can only be a coincidence surely.'
The remainder of the photos gave no further clues. They were just a steady progression through the years, showing the usual kind of things found in most family albums: the house and gardens, general places visited, some during holidays, other outings in the countryside, visitors, friends having tea and lemonade, bicycles and motorcars in the driveway, dinner parties and tennis matches.
The bag of loose photos were the same, the dates scribbled on the backs of some showed the passage of time and the creeping onset of old age for Bella and Ottorino. Yet the little black dog appeared in several over many years.
'Perhaps they just liked that kind of dog and had puppies all named H?' suggested Monique, with a shrug of her shoulders.
'Maybe. I remember friends of Dad's who kept chickens and a rooster that they called Roger. They told us that whenever Roger died, they replaced him with another Roger. The one they had when we visited them was actually Roger the sixth.' Priscilla yawned. Oh well, it's nearly bedtime, I suppose we'd better put these away.' She idly flipped the last pages of the third album, which were all blank, and was about to shut it when she saw an object slipped into the sleeve of the back cover. Reaching in she withdrew it and turned it over. It was rectangular in shape, about the size of a postcard, silver in colour, like an old fashioned cigarette case, only slimmer.
'What is it?' Monique asked.
'I don't know,' said Priscilla, clearly puzzled. Turning it over in her hands she examined it, front and back. 'There's nothing on it and I can't see whether it opens. It's just like a sheet of thick, light-weight metal...'
'I can hear the boys coming up the stairs!' hissed Monique, 'Quick put all this away!'
'Alright you two bookworms,' boomed Grandma Black's voice from below, 'time for bed, and quick about it!'
It was somewhere after midnight and try as she might, Priscilla could not fall asleep. Rachael and Mathew, who had been out to dinner with some television friends, came in around eleven and went straight to bed. Through the window, Priscilla could see the faint light of the waning moon playing on the darkened leaves of the tall tree that marked the border of the adjoining block. Occasionally she thought that she saw a glimmer of light blink through the foliage high in its upper branches, and put it down to some far-off winking star.
'Are you still awake?' whispered Monique, startling her.
'Yes,' she whispered back, and it sounded almost like a shout in the quiet of the night. 'I've been thinking about that metal thing in the back of the album.'
'So have I, and I have been wondering if...'
'Don't tell me that you've been thinking what I was thinking,' Priscilla cut in.
'I was thinking about the photos of Bella Roselli, wearing that chain and ring...'
'Even in the coloured ones where she's an old lady, taken in the eighties and nineties, me too.'
'You don't suppose that is the same ring and chain that Henry found?'
'Gizzard found,' corrected Priscilla. 'Gave us both such a shock when we put it on the first time.'
'Yes. And I was wondering, what if we tried it...'
'With the thing in the album! Golly, that's a long shot, but since we're both wide awake, I'll get it out of the wardrobe and hop in with you,' Priscilla whispered, throwing off the covers and fumbling for her torch. She found it beside her glass of water on the bedside table and cautiously flicked it on, covering the beam with her fingers so that only a glimmer of light escaped.
In a few moments both she and Monique were hunched under the bed sheets that covered their kneeling forms like an illuminated tent, their shielded torches playing over the surface of the silver rectangle of flat metal and the chain with its peridot ring.
'Cosy in here, let's hope everybody's asleep,' Priscilla whispered, screwing her fingers into her eyes.
Monique, who seemed very alert, said, 'What do we do now?'
'I dunno? Put the ring on it and see what happens.'
Monique held the peridot ring against the metal. They waited. Nothing.
Priscilla giggled. 'Aw well, I bet if Henry and Louis could see us now, head to head, bottoms in the air, they'd reckon we were both a couple of loonies. Still, it was worth a...'
'Wait a moment Priscilla,' said Monique, lifting her left hand to her mouth, 'the chain...it could be the chain...here,' she gently drew the chain around the metal plate as if encircling her own neck.
At once both of them heard the faint snick of metal against metal, and slowly the silver sheet began to move: unwrapping like an envelope, like a three dimensional model that glowed with a pale inner light, taking form before their astonished eyes.
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