The gravel crunched beneath the tyres of the battered old Ford Mondeo as we pulled onto the private road leading to Henningway house. We were going surprisingly slowly considering that it was a private road, meaning there was no speed limit, I'd expected at least two hundred miles an hour (well, maybe not that much, it was after all, a very bendy private road), but I suppose that's what happens when you trust an old woman to drive, especially if she's an old woman who's spent her entire life in the middle of the rural Wales, only leaving the comfort of her house to go to the post office ten minutes down the road.
The old woman in question glared at me via the rear-view mirror, as if daring me to say something. She was my Aunt Jeannie's housekeeper, and she had the old-fashioned attitude to match, she'd even insisted I sit in the back despite the fact that the front seat was perfectly fine. I knew that if there was ever a murder whilst I was staying at Henningway house, she'd be the prime suspect. It was kind of exciting though, if my Aunt Jeannie's house needed a housekeeper, exactly how big was it? I decided to ask her,
"Umm, excuse me but, you're the housekeeper at Henningway house, aren't you?" I asked her tentatively, the milky eye glaring at me through the mirror unnerved me slightly.
"I thought I had explained that already. You should pay attention if you do not wish to come across as a dim-witted fool." She snapped with a voice like nails on a chalkboard. To be honest, her saying that came across as being kind of hypocritical to me; she obviously wasn't the brightest bulb in the bunch if she was doing manual labour at the age of ninety-whatever!
"I was paying attention; I was just using the question as a conversation starter!" I retorted, sending a glare right back at her.
"Once we arrive you'd better not go mouthing of like that to the Lady of the house."
"You mean aun-"
"I mean children are expected to be seen and not heard!" she cut me off sharply. I scowled at her, but bit my tongue. I wasn't in the mood to be yelled at by another old woman today, the one at the train station had been enough for me. But I couldn't help wondering, had I somehow been transported back to the nineteen forties? Where we in the flipping secret garden now?
"I just wanted to ask how big the place is, that's all. Jeez, you'd think I'd killed someone!" I grumbled the last part under my breath.
"It is big. And I'd thank not to use that kind of language in my presence again!" Small flecks of spittle flew from her mouth and hit the steering wheel
"Thank you for that clarification." I replied coldly, internally cringing in disgust.
Luckily, we arrived outside the house before I could make my aunt's housekeeper hate me anymore. I eagerly jumped out of the car, flinching slightly when I accidently slammed the door so hard the car shook.
"Sorry!" I called to the housekeeper, whose name I only just realized I did not know. I was sure she'd introduced herself earlier, but I couldn't remember her name.
"Stop rushing around this instant. This car has been fully functional for ten years, if you break it there will be severe consequences." She grumbled, the worst part being I knew that she was totally serious, I'd probably end up being bludgeoned to death with a broom if I didn't watch out. This was the sort of place you had to sleep with one eye open.
Without another word, I pulled my rickety blue suitcase out of the boot and began to drag it up the flagstone steps, constantly hoping that the inside of Henningway house looked sufficiently less like a haunted mansion than the outside.
I was wrong; the interior of Henningway house was just as dark and gloomy as the exterior. The halls where long and windy, and the house was illuminated by oil lamps secured to the wall in antiquated brass fittings, what little natural light there was filtered in slowly through tiny dust-caked windows that came in five meter intervals and were only in the big rooms.
The room me and my aunt were sat in was apparently their main reception room, and it was just as bad as the other rooms I'd seen. It was dark, and sparsely furnished with just a few ancient leather chairs, lined up against the wall on the left where several huge and apparently empty bookcases that looked like they'd never been used, that was another thing, since arriving I hadn't seen one book, not even a yellow pages. It was a lonely house, and I'd have to live there for the foreseeable future.
"So you're Evan then." My aunt Jeannie sat on one of the cracked chairs facing me, her lips curled into a disapproving frown at my name, almost as if the word 'Evan' somehow displeased her.
"Yep. That's me, which you should probably already have known, seeing as I'm, you know, your nephew and all that." I said, taking a seat in the chair opposite.
"How do you expect me to know you if I've never met you?" she drawled with a nasally voice. She reached towards the tomato red bun piled on top of her head and subtly adjusted it with a skeletal hand.
"But they did tell you I was coming didn't they?" I was beginning to grow frustrated with her, I'm not sure why, maybe it was because she reminded me so much of that creepy receptionist woman in 'Monsters Inc.', whatever the reason, I was swiftly beginning to dislike her.
"Of course they told me you were coming, if I hadn't been expecting you, you would've been kicked out by now." She frowned at me again, pushing her thick rimmed glasses further up her nose.
"Well that's, err, good, I guess. Thanks for agreeing to let me stay by the way, it means a lot." It was probably the first time I'd said something genuine all day, but that didn't matter, it was true. Without her help I'd have probably ended up living with my next door neighbour for months on end, and my next door neighbour was . . . a passionate lover.
"It's fine. As long as you stay out of my way." Her eyes bored into me, almost challenging me. I was happy to oblige if that's all she wanted, it was such a huge house I'd have no trouble entertaining myself. As long as there was a piano I was all set.
"Do you have a piano?" I asked curiously, hoping her answer would be yes. I could always use my electronic keyboard, but it only had three octaves, and let's face it; you just can't beat the sound of a good old acoustic piano, upright or otherwise.
"The house does have a piano, but you are not under any circumstances to go looking for it on your own." I could almost taste the venom in her voice.
"You don't mind me asking why, do you?" I felt like I was prodding a sleeping dragon.
"The second floor of this house is dangerous; it's old, a lot of the supporting beams have rotted and the foundations have shifted. That is the only floor I'll have to ask you to stay away from. The only rules I will enforce are there for your own safety." I wasn't sure what she was talking about but I listened anyway.
"But there are lots of old houses around, they're all fine." I challenged.
"I am putting a roof over your head and basically giving you free reign over my house. You're expected to do as you're told." The glow from the oil lamp glinted in her glasses, hiding her emerald coloured eyes "I respect you enough to let you do as you please, I can only hope that you afford me the same courtesy."
We sat in silence for a moment, I was unsure of how to respond. I could hear the rain outside beginning to pelt the open window as the humid summer breeze drifted in.
"Of course, I understand" I said quietly, everyone deserves privacy, everyone has secrets. I knew that better than anyone. Unfortunately I also knew that those things had downsides as well, but I'd stay away from the second floor, for now.
Suddenly, we were interrupted by a loud voice chiming through the halls,
"Hey, aunty Jen, I cleared that blockage thingy for you!" a short, impish girl barreled into the room, although from where I was sitting, she seemed more curly red hair than human. "Was there anything else you wanted me to-"she stopped when she noticed me, her hazel eyes widening slightly at the surprise of finding a stranger sitting there talking to her 'aunty Jen'. I glanced toward Jeannie; her lips were even tighter than before.
"Evan, this is Holly. She's helping around the house whilst her parents are away in Morocco" Jeannie addressed me but scowled at Holly disapprovingly, it looked like she was trying to get her to leave the room with the power of her glare alone. I was reasonably certain it wasn't going to work, but then again, it was a very strong glare. Holly smiled at me widely, her lips parting to show a set of glow in the dark braces, causing me to wonder how she even got to sleep at night if her mouth glowed all the time.
"Nice to meet you, I'm Evan." I said, standing up and offering her my hand to shake thanks to a surprising burst of confidence. Despite her pixie like stature and masses of hair, there was something about Holly that seemed to set me at ease.
"Ohhh, so you're Evan then!" Her grin became even larger, "I've been waiting for you all week! Aunty Jen had me clean every inch of the spare room! I hope you're grateful!" her impish voice, combined with the impossible speed of her words, made it so it was difficult for me to keep up.
"Oh, err thanks…" I trailed off, losing my momentary of burst of confidence.
"Holly, seeing as you're down here you might as well show him to his room." Jeannie's interrupted us.
"Okay," Holly replied cheerily whilst attempting to subtly wipe a smudge of grease off her cheek with the sleeve of her overall "do you need any help with your bags?" she said turning back to me.
"No, its fine, I've only got the one suitcase anyway." I said in my best 'polite' voice.
"Alright then, follow me, and don't get lost," Holly said, turning to leave the room, "I can't guarantee your safety if you do."
Our footsteps echoed loudly on the creaking floorboards, and the old house groaned with the wind. According to Holly, my room was on the first floor, and unfortunately for me the first floor was about ten degrees colder than the first floor.
"So… Your parents are in Morocco then?" I asked the back of Holly's head awkwardly.
"Yeah they are, my mum's publicising her new book and my dad went along to provide 'moral support', although if you ask me, I reckon he just went along to make sure she didn't cheat on him" her hundreds of curls bounced wildly as she laughed at her own joke, a joke which I found more dark than funny.
"Your mum's a writer?" I asked curiously, I'd always thought about writing a novel one day, maybe if Holly's mum had, she'd be able to give me a few tips.
"She doesn't write anything good, just some stupid parenting book" Holly's voice was oddly bitter, what was even stranger though was that the tone brought out her subtle Welsh accent, something I hadn't even noticed she had before.
"What's it called?" I questioned her, mostly in the interest of keeping up the flow of conversation.
"I think it's something like 'Parenting 101', I'm not really sure, The one thing I do know is that it's five hundred pages of complete utter bullshit." Her feet hit the floorboards harder and harder as we continued the conversation, I was starting to think that maybe it was best to stop talking about Holly's mum or the floor might collapse from beneath us.
"So which side of your family is Jeannie on?" I asked, quickly changing the subject to something less dangerous.
"Oh, Aunty Jen? Neither." Her voice was noticeably happier.
"What do you mean?" I was puzzled.
"We're not related, she's just a family friend." She explained proudly.
"Oh, that's nice, so you're not my cousin then?"
"Nope!" She said, popping the 'p'
We walked in awkward silence until Holly suddenly stopped in front of a plain wood door. "So, this is where you'll be living for the duration of your stay." She flashed me a wide grin before opening the door. She walked into the room, not even pausing to see if I followed her.
I waited outside anxiously for a second, the room was obscured in total darkness, I could barely make out Holly's vague form against the surrounding blackness, and it certainly wasn't appealing to my sense of self-preservation.
I heard the sound of a match being struck, and seconds later a flame bubbled to life in front of Holly's face; the eerie glow cast long shadows over her pixie like features, throwing them into a dark, even demonic, light, making it so she probably wouldn't have looked out-of-place on the cover of a Stephen King book. I wouldn't have been surprised if I woke up in the middle of the night to find her drinking my blood or snacking on some brains.
"Aren't you coming? I need to show you how to use the gaslights; we don't have any electricity 'cos Aunty Jen's a Scrooge." The teasing warmth of her tone set me at ease immediately, but I still didn't follow her in.
"I know how to light a gas lamp." I said by way of excuse.
"Oh if that's the case, here," She said, and handed me a half empty box of matches "you can light it yourself!" She started to make her way down the hall, her shoulders slouched over.
"Thanks for showing me my room!" I called after her retreating back, hoping to lift her spirits. She ignored me for the most part, but she did turn round once.
"Dinner's at seven, if you're late Miss. Vinton will quite literally skin you alive." She called back sullenly, before proceeding to leave me alone to wonder who the hell Mrs. Vinton was.