C G Jelly Friskers

Our strange world of words

The Attic (An Extract) October 19, 2009

By Jenni Thornley

Even though we leave home early, we have to go back for Bess’s doll Gemma. Lincolnshire may be flat, but everywhere is green after a wet spring. The late summer sun is out now, glistening off raindrops, making the leaves and flowers shine.

There isn’t much traffic now we have left the motorways and main roads onto country lanes. We play car games to pass away the time. Collecting number plates and trying to make words from the letters. Waving at the drivers of lorries and trucks. Pulling faces at other children. The journey passes slowly but we’re getting close to the house in Lowland Scotland dad has rented for the week.

Finally the house is in sight. We stayed here a couple of years ago. It has four bedrooms, one of which is in the attic. I have that one. When we arrive, Bess and I run up the stairs, right to the top of the house. It is just as I remembered. The ceiling slopes and the window sticks out from the roof. The furniture is old – dark oak wood, shiny from years of polishing – and the bed is large and bouncy. We jump on it until mum shouts for us to stop and come into the garden.

Mum and dad’s room is much bigger than mine and looks more modern. Bess’s room is across the hall from them, under mine, and is modern too; the bed isn’t as bouncy. I like mine best. Downstairs, the dining room is cosy with a large fireplace, big table and chairs, and lots of books and magazines, mostly adventure stories. In the living room, a fire is lit so the room is warm, red and glowing. Here are more bookcases and a thick Indian carpet. The sofa is comfortably soft, but Bess and I don’t bounce on it – not while mum’s there, anyway.

Dad is in the garden, unloading our stuff from the car. The garden is large with a path running down the side of the house leading to a walled area and beyond that, an orchard. The apples are big and nearly ripe. Wasps swarm around the plums and pears lying on the ground. We find lots of places for dens and playing hide and seek.

We go back in the house for a cup of tea and some cake mum brought with her. She’s a good cook so it’s homemade, not shop bought. Dad takes our bags upstairs for us. I follow to look out of the attic window properly. The view is spectacular; I can see for miles. Mountains in the distance, with hills closer to and fields divided by walls around the house with sheep, cows and goats. Dad is going to go fishing and mum wants to walk and sketch. Tomorrow, however, we are all going to look round the castle on the hill and mum can paint a picture of it.

After supper, I go up to my room and fall asleep straight away. I dream I am on a high cliff, by the sea, but I am in my bouncy bed. The wardrobe doors are flapping with the breeze, in time to the scrubby trees on the cliff. It’s warm and sunny. Then I wake up in alarm as I feel like I’ve bounced over the edge! Mum calls from downstairs that breakfast is ready. I throw back the covers and look out of the window. A breeze from the open window rattles my wardrobe doors. The trees in the orchard are swaying too, but it is still a bright, warm morning.

I dress and run downstairs, just as mum is passing plates of eggs, bacon, tomatoes and mushrooms to the others. Mum makes sandwiches for lunch while Bess and dad pick apples from the orchard.

We arrive at the castle and mum asks if it is all right for her to draw in the garden while someone shows the rest of us around inside. We are introduced to an old man, he must be at least forty, and we leave mum to settle herself in the garden and draw the house.

The man, Mr McAdam, shows us around the ground floor first. He says it’s not really a castle in the way we think; no drawbridge, portcullis, or dungeon, but it is old and has been lived in for hundreds of years. In the hall, suits of armour stand in the corners, and knives and swords are arranged in circles on the walls. Tartans are draped at the windows. An open chest with helmets and leather straps, stands near a display cabinet with snuff boxes, combs and hairbrushes made of bone. Bess asks what snuff is and Mr McAdam says it’s like tobacco you sniff up your nose. We wrinkle our faces and say that’s disgusting. He smiles.

We climb the large curving staircase to the next floor, walking passed portraits of members of the family who have lived here. Their costumes change as we go upwards, becoming more bright and colourful. One picture, Mr McAdam tells us, is a likeness of the daughter of an ancestor of the present owner, who died tragically young. Apparently, she was drowned in the lake after falling off her horse in mysterious circumstances. No one knows what really happened but there were many stories. Bess asks if she haunts the castle. Mr McAdam looks down at her, smiles and says of course she doesn’t. This is disappointing; we would love to see a real ghost.

The first floor is a long corridor, more pictures and suits of armour, with views across the lake from the large windows set into the thick stone walls. I can see mum painting by the lake. I wave and call out, but she doesn’t see me. The rooms off the corridor are big and dark as the curtains are closed. Mr McAdam puts on a lamp in the first one to reveal a comfortable room like a Victorian gentleman would have lived in. Big leather chairs stand proud with lots of books on shelves along the walls, paintings of hunting scenes and a pipe rack on the mantelpiece above the huge fireplace. It smells of old pipe tobacco and Bess sneezes. Mr McAdam takes us to a case near the window. Inside are things the gentleman collected from his travels abroad. The scariest is a shrunken head from Africa, carved brass daggers and poisoned darts with their blow tubes. Also there is a red tasselled harness from a camel, and a delicately carved ivory elephant’s head for a walking stick.

We leave this room; go further down the corridor and up another flight of stairs. The windows are smaller along this corridor, more like narrow slits only a couple of panes wide. I can still see mum painting near the lake, but she is much smaller now; she wouldn’t see me if I waved. We look inside one of the rooms again. This one is lighter as the curtains are drawn back and looks more like mum’s bedroom. It’s softly furnished with sofas and chairs covered in brightly trimmed cushions. It feels more comfortable than the gentleman’s room and smells spicy. A large vase of flowers, just past their best, is standing on a small table by the window. The pictures on the walls are of country scenes, lakes – lochs I suppose – with cattle and sheep. A portrait of a beautiful Edwardian woman hangs over the fireplace. She is elegantly dressed in a dark lacy outfit, like she is just going to a party, but she seems sad too. Dad asks Mr McAdam who she is. Apparently, she was mourning the death of her brother who had been killed in a war in South Africa. She died of grief shortly after the picture was finished. Bess asks if she haunts the house and Mr McAdam grunts and says she is obsessed with ghosts. However, he smiles at her, and shows us a case by the window. It is like the one in the gentleman’s room, but is full of delicate things; a bright red Chinese lace fan, a stuffed bird, which looks a bit like a budgie, and small diaries full of tiny writing.

We leave this room and go through a small door recessed into the wall at the end of the corridor. These stone stairs spiral upwards round what is known as the East Tower. The rooms off here are tiny in comparison, even smaller than my room at home. Mr McAdam says these were where the servants slept, but they are used for storage now. The one he shows us is full of biscuit boxes with papers and documents in, and box files stacked up against the wall. The small fireplace has been boarded up as it isn’t used any more.

We carry on going upwards until we reach a small door, which Mr McAdam opens with a very big, old-fashioned iron key. It grates in the lock and sets my teeth on edge. We walk out onto the roof of the tower. I can see further than from the window in the attic bedroom. I can even see the sea in the distance. We walk around and Mr McAdam points out places of interest. Dad asks if we can see the river where he wants to go fishing tomorrow. Mr McAdam says it is just beyond the trees at the end of the lake. I can see swans on the lake, and ducks looking like ants, waddling around the edge. A buzzard flies past, screaming, and is pursued by a couple of crows, dive bombing it.

I look around to find mum painting. She seems so small from up here. Another lady is standing near he; she is wearing old-fashioned clothes. I don’t think mum knows she is there as she carries on with her painting. I try to point this out to the others, but they are looking in another direction. When I turn back, the lady has gone, probably moved further into the garden.

After about a quarter of an hour, we descend the spiral stairs and down to the landing. I can see a woman walking towards us. It looks like the Edwardian lady. The others are looking at pictures and don’t notice her. She passes us and I can hear her long dress swishing on the carpet. She looks very sad but doesn’t take any notice of us. I run to catch up with the others to ask if they saw her, but they are talking to mum who meets us all at the bottom of the stairs.

‘Thank you for showing my husband and Bess around,’ says mum to Mr McAdam, shaking his hand. She shows everyone her sketch of the castle. It’s really good, and even has the lady I saw outside by the door, so mum must have seen her.

‘That looks like the girl who died in the lake,’ exclaims Bess. ‘Her picture is on the stairs,’ she says, pointing it out to mum.

‘I saw the Edwardian lady.’ I say to them all.

Dad looks round. He doesn’t look at me, but says to Mr McAdam, ‘It’s such a pity Bill wasn’t here. He would have loved this place.’

‘Bill was your son, I take it,’ he says to mum and dad.

Bess lowers her head and puts her arm around dad’s middle, hiding her face. Mum’s smile drops from her face and she looks away. Dad replies, ‘Yes. He died two years ago, the last time we were in Scotland. He fell from an attic window. We felt we had to come back or we would never want to again. It’s such a good place for a holiday and Bess always loves it around here.’

Mr McAdam nods and says goodbye as he shows the three of them from the house.

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