“Matthew, I’ve been meaning to say this for a while now. There’s a new man in my life—”
“—drawing class, who—”
“—has the same birthday as you! Would you believe it? February the 8th!”
“Well, one has to ask how many in total there are in the group?”
“Odds and probabilities. I do believe that once you have 23 people in a room, the chances are more likely than not that two of them will have the same birthday.”
“Oh,” Rachael repeated, unsure, as she often was, whether to tell her husband what he liked to hear…
“That’s fascinating, darling. You really are so very knowledgeable about many of life’s smaller details.”
…or to let him know what she was actually thinking…
“Yeah, but what are the chances of us getting it together – preferably before the end of the decade.”
She took another deep breath. This time she really would …
“And it’s still life drawing. Your art class. Bowls of fruit, vases of flowers… are what they call still life. Life drawing is quite different. The subjects are human. Portraits, nude figures and so on.”
“Talking of which—”
“But I must get on. Already behind schedule. Not to mention this ridiculous meeting in the Royal Oak I ought to attend. Toodle-pip.”
And Matthew was gone, back to the study, leaving Rachael feeling shafted; in one sense, but sadly not the other.
Meanwhile, in the bar of the afore-mentioned Royal Oak, up-and-coming jazz singer Carla Nightingale was beginning to feel left out.
Landlady Bella and retired solicitor Julian were busy finalizing an agenda…
Emergency Relief Committee Meeting
1. Round the Table
2. Icebreaker games
3. Crisis update
4. Crisis management
5. Crisis procedure’s
6. Volunteers to run the raffle
7. Time of next meeting (tomorrow)
…while Brian was in the kitchen, still making phone calls, urging anybody who was anybody to come to the meeting.
He wasn’t making a great deal of progress. Almost everybody who was anybody had said they wouldn’t be coming, leading Brian to conclude that the only anybodies who were anybody likely to turn up would turn out to be a bunch of nobodies.
Carla rummaged in her bag, seeking chocolate, but finding only a packet of biscuits – (Garibaldi) – which she opened and began munching her way through, when, suddenly…
…the pub door opened and in rushed Nikki Prior from the Westbridge District Council planning department – that intrepid explorer with a fondness for stopping at pubs to ask for directions:
“Hello. Sorry to bother you. Could somebody please tell me the way to the Grange?”
Sensing the possibility of a lift home – rather than having to walk through the pouring rain – Carla stood up and approached Nikki with a smile.
Her moving away from the table allowed a large bluebottle to leave the mantelpiece above the fireplace, to land by the packet of biscuits – (Garibaldi) – and to start excavating the scene for lost relatives.
“Hi, I’m Carla,” introducing herself to Nikki. “The Grange is on my way home…”
“And she doesn’t have an umbrella,” added Julian. “I was going to offer to, you know, but, um, it’s all hands to the pump right now.”
“Cool,” said Nikki. “We’ll give you a lift if you’re ready.”
So it was, that fateful afternoon, that up-and-coming jazz singer Carla Nightingale quickly bundled her belongings back into her bag – including the all-important packet of biscuits with its coincidental stowaway – left Bella and Julian to prepare for the first meeting of the Upperly Bottom Emergency Relief Committee, and found herself in Nikki’s car…
“Get in the back, Michael. This is Carla.”
…as they set off along Chestnut Avenue.
“It’s not far. Just after the Vicarage. Odd place. The Strange Grange I call it. As dark as dark by day, but lights all a-flickering at night. Nobody’s ever seen the owner, but the mini-bus from Stonegate Open Prison calls there three days a week. Some locals say there’s some weirdo experiments going on.”
“Shall we tell her, Nikki?” urged Michael, enthusiastically. “About the drawings?”
“The thing is, Carla,” he continued, enthusiastically, “this folder has plans and drawings in it. It’s a planning application from Mr Wells who owns the Grange. Nikki’s on her way to meet him. But I…” he enthused, “…I have seen these drawings before. I’m sure of it. They’re the exact same plans drawn up by my great-great-grandparents, over a hundred years ago!”
“No! Take the next left. Hollybush Lane.”
“Yes. It’s a family heirloom. I’ve spent hours and hours looking at them. I couldn’t believe it when Nikki showed me what’s in this folder. I still don’t. It doesn’t make any sense.”
Nikki stopped the car. There was a hushed silence, broken only by the swish-swish of the windscreen wipers, the incessant ratta-patter-splatter of the rain on the roof, and the tump-tump-tump of their three hearts, beating to a rhythm Carla was sure she’d heard before on a Miles Davis track. As hushed silences go, this one was pretty loud.
“You’ve never seen inside the Grange?” Nikki asked Carla.
“No. But I’ve always wanted to.”
Carla smiled. What with the flood alert and everything, she’d been feeling a bit sorry for herself. Generally speaking, people didn’t call upon up-and-coming jazz singers during natural disasters.
“Well, unless you have a more pressing engagement,” Nikki announced, “you’re coming with us. You happy with that, O nerd?”
“You bet!” Michael exclaimed, enthusiastically.
“This is so exciting,” Carla giggled. “I think I’m going to wet myself.”
Nikki drove on, past the vicarage and turning right into the drive-way leading to the Grange; up a winding avenue between ancient trees; along a sweeping curve that took them through an old stone arch and finally to the steps of the stately mansion’s grand central porch.
Bright floodlights on the building’s façade greeted their arrival. The huge, heavy, wooden door opened and two dark figures appeared, each holding a large umbrella.
“Oh-ho. Reception committee,” mumbled Michael, his enthusiasm shoved out of the way by collywobbles.
The shorter of the two figures hurried down the steps, opening the car doors for Nikki and Carla, and holding an umbrella over them as if they were royalty.
“Why, thank you,” said Nikki, loving every minute of this unlikely adventure, and whispering to Carla as they mounted the steps, “Don’t forget to tell them you need a wee. I want to hear all about the bathrooms.”
“On behalf of Mr Wells, may I welcome you all to The Grange. You are just in time for afternoon tea.”
Nikki looked up at the tall figure in the door-way. She couldn’t decide whether to curtsey or to burst out laughing. But, at that very moment, Carla, beside her, stiffened, stopped and gasped.
“Is something amiss, Ms Nightingale?”
“It’s you. You. From the pub. You who warned us something terrible was going to happen.”
“Not terrible exactly, but life-changing. Please, do come in. Mr Wells has been waiting many, many years for this significant occasion. Please.”
And he gestured for Nikki, Carla and Michael to enter the dark, imposing building that was to wrap them in its mysterious embrace for much, much longer than any traditional afternoon tea-time…