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I FIRST FELT IT in the school canteen on Monday morning. For a moment it was like being on a roller coaster when you’re racing down from the very top. It lasted only two seconds, but that was long enough for me to dump a plateful of mashed potatoes and gravy all over my school uniform. I managed to catch the plate just in time, as my knife and fork clattered to the floor.
“This stuff tastes like it’s been scraped off the floor anyway,” said my friend Lesley while I mopped up the damage as well as I could. Of course everyone was looking at me. “You can have mine too, if you fancy spreading some more on your blouse.”
“No thanks.” As it happens, the blouse of the St. Lennox High School uniform was pretty much the color of mashed potatoes anyway, but you still couldn’t miss seeing the remaining globs of my lunch. I buttoned up my dark blue blazer over it.
“There goes Gwenny, playing with her food again!” said Cynthia Dale. “Don’t you sit next to me, you mucky pup.”
“As if I’d ever sit next to you of my own free will, Cyn.” It’s a fact, I’m afraid, that I did quite often have little accidents with school lunches. Only last week my pudding had hopped out of its dish and landed a few feet away, right in a Year Seven boy’s spaghetti carbonara. The week before that I’d knocked my cranberry juice over, and everyone at our table was splashed. They looked as if they had measles. And I really couldn’t count the number of times the stupid tie that’s part of our school uniform had been drenched in sauce, juice, or milk.
Only I’d never felt dizzy at the same time before.
But I was probably just imagining it. There’d been too much talk at home recently about dizzy feelings.
Not mine, though: my cousin Charlotte’s dizzy spells. Charlotte, beautiful and immaculate as ever, was sitting right there next to Cynthia, gracefully scooping mashed potatoes into her delicate mouth.
The entire family was on tenterhooks, waiting for Charlotte to have a dizzy fit. On most days, my grandmother, Lady Arista, asked Charlotte how she was feeling every ten minutes. My aunt Glenda, Charlotte’s mother, filled the ten-minute gap by asking the same thing in between Lady Arista’s interrogations.
And whenever Charlotte said that she didn’t feel dizzy, Lady Arista’s lips tightened and Aunt Glenda sighed. Or sometimes the other way around.
The rest of us—my mum, my sister Caroline, my brother Nick, and Great-aunt Maddy—rolled our eyes. Of course it was exciting to have someone with a time-travel gene in the family, but as the days went by, the excitement kind of wore off. Sometimes we felt that all the fuss being made over Charlotte was just too much.
Charlotte herself usually hid her feelings behind a mysterious Mona Lisa smile. In her place, I wouldn’t have known whether to be excited or worried if dizzy feelings failed to show up. Well, to be honest, I’d probably have been pleased. I was more the timid sort. I liked peace and quiet.
“Something will happen sooner or later,” Lady Arista said every day. “And we must be ready.”
Sure enough, something did happen after lunch, in Mr. Whitman’s history class. I’d left the canteen feeling hungry. I’d found a black hair in my dessert—apple crumble with custard—and I couldn’t be sure if it was one of my own hairs or a lunch lady’s. Anyway, I didn’t fancy the crumble after that.
Mr. Whitman gave us back the history test we’d taken last week. “You obviously prepared well for it. Especially Charlotte. An A-plus for you, Charlotte.”
Charlotte stroked a strand of her glossy red hair back from her face and said, “Oh, my!” as if the result came as a surprise to her. Even though she always had top marks in everything.
But Lesley and I were pleased with our own grades this time, too. We each had an A-minus, although our “preparation” had consisted of eating crisps and ice cream while we watched Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth and then Elizabeth: The Golden Age on DVD. We did pay attention in history class, though, which I’m afraid couldn’t be said for all our other courses.
Mr. Whitman’s classes were so intriguing that you couldn’t help listening. Mr. Whitman himself was also very interesting. Most of the girls were secretly—or not so secretly—in love with him. So was our geography teacher, Mrs. Counter. She went bright red whenever Mr. Whitman passed her. And he was terribly good-looking. All the girls thought so, except Lesley. She thought Mr. Whitman looked like a cartoon squirrel.
“Whenever he looks at me with those big brown eyes, I feel like giving him a nut,” she said. She even started calling the squirrels running around in the park Mr. Whitmans. The silly thing is that somehow it was infectious, and now, whenever a squirrel scuttled past me, I always said, “Oh, look at that cute, fat little Mr. Whitman!”
I’m sure it was the squirrel business that made Lesley and me the only girls in the class who weren’t crazy about Mr. Whitman. I kept trying to fall in love with him (if only because the boys in our class were all somehow totally childish), but it was no good. The squirrel comparison had lodged itself in my mind and wouldn’t go away. I mean, how can you feel romantic about a squirrel?
Cynthia had started the rumor that when he was studying, Mr. Whitman had worked as a male model on the side. By way of evidence, she’d cut an ad out of a glossy magazine, with a picture showing a man not unlike Mr. Whitman lathering himself with shower gel.
Apart from Cynthia, however, no one thought Mr. Whitman was the man in the shower-gel ad. The model had a dimple in his chin, and Mr. Whitman didn’t.
The boys in our class didn’t think Mr. Whitman was so great. Gordon Gelderman, in particular, couldn’t stand him. Because before Mr. Whitman came to teach in our school, all the girls in our class were in love with Gordon. Including me, I have to admit, but I was only eleven at the time and Gordon was still quite cute. Now, at sixteen, he was just stupid. And his voice had been in a permanent state of breaking for the last two years. Unfortunately, the mixture of squealing and growling still didn’t keep him from spewing nonsense all the time.
He got very upset about getting an F on the history test. “That’s discrimination, Mr. Whitman. I deserve a B at least. You can’t give me bad marks just because I’m a boy.”
Mr. Whitman took Gordon’s test back from him, turned a page, and read out, “Elizabeth I was so ugly that she couldn’t get a husband. So everyone called her the Ugly Virgin.”
The class giggled.
“Well? I’m right, aren’t I?” Gordon defended himself. “I mean, look at her pop-eyes and her thin lips and that weird hairstyle.”
We’d gone to study the pictures of the Tudors in the National Portrait Gallery, and in those paintings, sure enough, Queen Elizabeth I didn’t look much like Cate Blanchett. But first, maybe people in those days thought thin lips and big noses were the last word in chic, and second, her clothes were really wonderful. Third, no, Elizabeth I didn’t have a husband, but she had a lot of affairs, among them one with Sir … oh, what was his name? Anyway, Clive Owen played him in the second film with Cate Blanchett.
“She was known as the Virgin Queen,” Mr. Whitman told Gordon, “because…” He paused and looked anxiously at Charlotte. “Are you feeling all right, Charlotte? Do you have a headache?”
Everyone looked at Charlotte, who had her head in her hands. “I feel … I just feel dizzy,” she said, looking at me. “Everything’s going round and round.”
I took a deep breath. So here we go, I thought. Lady Arista and Aunt Glenda would be over the moon.
“Wow, cool,” whispered Lesley. “Is she going to turn all transparent now?” Although Lady Arista had repeatedly told us that under no circumstances were we ever to tell any outsider what was special about our family, I’d decided to ignore the ban when it came to Lesley. After all, she was my very best friend, and best friends don’t have secrets from each other.
Since I’d known Charlotte (which in fact was all my life), she’d always seemed somewhat helpless. But I knew what to do. Goodness knows Aunt Glenda had told me often enough.
“I’ll take Charlotte home,” I told Mr. Whitman, as I stood up. “If that’s okay.”
Mr. Whitman’s gaze was fixed on Charlotte. “I think that’s a good idea, Gwyneth,” he said. “I hope you feel better soon, Charlotte.”
“Thanks,” said Charlotte. On the way to the door, she swayed slightly. “Coming, Gwenny?”
I grabbed her arm. For the first time I felt quite important to Charlotte. It was a nice feeling to be needed for a change.
“Don’t forget to phone and tell me all about it,” Lesley whispered as we passed her.
Feeling slightly better outside the classroom, Charlotte wanted to fetch some things from her locker, but I held her firmly by the sleeve. “Not now, Charlotte! We have to get home as fast as possible. Lady Arista says—”
“It’s gone again,” said Charlotte.
“So? It could come back any moment.” Charlotte let me steer her the other way. “Where did I put that chalk?” As we walked on, I searched my jacket pocket. “Oh, good, here it is. And my mobile. Shall I call home? Are you scared? Silly question, sorry. I’m so excited.”
“It’s okay. No, I’m not scared.”
I glanced sideways at her to check whether she was telling the truth. She had that snooty little Mona Lisa smile on her face. You could never tell what she was hiding behind it.
“Well, shall I call home?”
“What use would that be?” Charlotte replied.
“I just figured—”
“You can leave the thinking to me, don’t worry,” said Charlotte.
We went down the stone steps to the place where James always sat. He rose to his feet when he saw us, but I just smiled at him. The trouble with James was that no one else could see or hear him—only me.
James was a ghost. Which is why I avoided talking to him when other people were around, except for Lesley. She’d never doubted James’s existence for a second. Lesley believed everything I said, and that was one of the reasons she was my best friend. She was only sorry she couldn’t see and hear James herself.
But I was glad of it, because when James first set eyes on Lesley, he said, “Good heavens above, the poor child has more freckles than there are stars in the sky! If she doesn’t start using a good bleaching lotion at once, she’ll never catch herself a husband!”
Whereas the first thing Lesley said when I introduced them to each other was “Ask him if he ever buried treasure anywhere.”
Unfortunately James was not the treasure-burying type, and he was rather insulted that Lesley thought he might be. He was easily insulted.
“Is he transparent?” Lesley had asked at that first meeting. “Or kind of black and white?”
James looked just like anyone I’d ever met. Except for his clothes, of course.
“Can you walk through him?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never tried.”
“Then try now,” Lesley suggested.
James was not about to let me try that.
“What does she mean, a ghost? The Honorable James Augustus Peregrine Pympoole-Bothame, heir to the fourteenth Earl of Hardsdale, is taking no insults from young girls!”
Like so many ghosts, he refused to accept that he wasn’t alive anymore. Try as he might, he couldn’t remember dying. James and I had met five years ago, on my first day at St. Lennox High School, but to James it seemed only a few days ago that he was sitting in his club playing cards with friends and talking about horses, beauty spots, and wigs. (He wore both a beauty spot and a wig, but they looked better on him than you might think.) He completely ignored the fact that I’d grown several inches since we first met, had acquired breasts, and braces on my teeth, and had shed the braces again. He dismisssed the fact that his father’s grand town house had become a school with running water, electric light, and central heating. The only thing he did seem to notice from time to time was the ever-decreasing length of our school uniform skirts. Obviously girls’ legs and ankles hadn’t often been on show in his time.
“It’s not very civil of a lady to walk past a highborn gentleman without a word, Miss Gwyneth,” he called after me now. He was deeply offended that I’d brushed past him.
“Sorry. We’re in a hurry,” I said.
“If I can help you in any way, I am, of course, entirely at your service,” James said, adjusting the lace on his cuffs.
“I don’t think so, but thanks anyway. We just have to get home, fast.” As if James could possibly have helped in any way! He couldn’t even open a door. “Charlotte isn’t feeling well,” I explained.
“I’m very sorry to hear it,” said James, who had a soft spot for Charlotte. Unlike “that ill-mannered girl with the freckles,” as he called Lesley, he thought my cousin was “delightful, a vision of beguiling charm.” Now he offered more of his flowery flattery. “Pray give her my best wishes. And tell her she looks as enchanting as ever. A little pale, but as captivating as a fairy.”
“I’ll tell her,” I said, rolling my eyes.
“If you don’t stop talking to your imaginary friend,” snapped Charlotte, “you’ll end up in the nuthouse.”
Okay, then I wouldn’t tell her. She was conceited enough as it was.
“James isn’t imaginary, just invisible. There’s a great difference.”
“If you say so,” replied Charlotte. She and Aunt Glenda thought I just made up James and the other ghosts for attention. Now I was sorry I’d ever told Charlotte about them. As a small child, though, I couldn’t manage to keep my mouth shut about gargoyles coming to life—scrambling down the fronts of buildings before my very eyes and twisting their Gothic faces for me to see. The gargoyles were funny, but there were also some dark, grim-looking ghosts, and I was afraid of those. It took me a couple of years to realize that ghosts can’t hurt you. All they can really do to people is scare them.
Not James, of course. He was not frightening in the least.
“Lesley thinks it may be a good thing that James died young. With a name like Pympoole-Bothame, how would he ever have found a wife?” I said, after making sure James was out of hearing distance. “I mean, who’d marry a man with a name that sounds like Pimple-Bottom?”
Charlotte rolled her eyes.
“He’s not bad-looking,” I went on. “And he’s filthy rich too—if he’s telling the truth about his family. It’s just his habit of raising a perfumed lace hanky to his nose that doesn’t exactly make me swoon.”
“What a shame there’s no one but you to admire him,” said Charlotte.
I thought so myself.
“And how stupid of you to talk about how weird you are outside the family,” added Charlotte.
That was another of Charlotte’s typical digs. It was meant to hurt me, and as a matter of fact, it did.
“I’m not weird!”
“Of course you are!”
“You’re a fine one to talk, gene carrier!”
“Well, I don’t go blabbing on about it all over the place,” said Charlotte. “You’re like Great-aunt Mad Maddy. She even tells the postman about her visions.”
“You’re a jerk.”
“And you’re naive.”
Still quarreling, we walked through the front hall, past the janitor’s glazed cubicle, and out into the school yard. The wind was picking up, and the ominous sky held the promise of rain. I wished we had grabbed our coats from our lockers.
“Sorry I said that about you being like Great-aunt Maddy,” said Charlotte, suddenly sounding remorseful. “I’m excited, but I am a bit nervous as well.”
I was surprised. Charlotte never apologized.
“I know,” I replied almost too quickly. I wanted her to know that I appreciated her apology. But in reality, I couldn’t have been further from understanding how she felt. I’d have been scared out of my wits. In her shoes, I’d have been about as excited as if I were going to the dentist. “Anyway, I like Great-aunt Maddy,” I added. That was true. Great-aunt Maddy might be a bit talkative and inclined to say everything four times over, but I liked that a lot better than the mysterious way the others carried on. And Great-aunt Maddy was always very generous when it came to handing out sherbet lemons.
But of course Charlotte didn’t like sweets.
We crossed the road and hurried on along the pavement.
“Don’t keep glancing at me sideways like that,” said Charlotte. “You’ll notice if I disappear, don’t worry. Then you’ll have to make your silly chalk mark on the pavement and hurry on home. But it’s not going to happen. Not today.”
“How can you know? And don’t you wonder where you’ll end up? I mean, when you’ll end up?”
“Yes, of course I do,” said Charlotte.
“Let’s hope it’s not in the middle of the Great Fire of 1664.”
“The Great Fire of London was in 1666,” said Charlotte. “That’s easy to remember. And at the time this part of the city wasn’t built up yet, so there’d have been hardly anything to burn here.”
Did I say that Charlotte was also known as Spoilsport and Miss Know-it-all?
But I wasn’t dropping the subject. It may have been mean of me, but I wanted to wipe the silly smile off her face, if only for a couple of seconds. “These school uniforms would probably burn like tinder,” I said casually.
“I’d know what to do” was all Charlotte said, still smiling.
I hated myself for admiring how cool she was right now. To me, the idea of suddenly landing in the past was totally terrifying.
The past would have been awful, no matter what period you landed in. There was always some horrible thing lurking there—war, smallpox, the plague. If you said the wrong thing, you could be burnt as a witch. Plus, everyone had fleas, and you had to use chamber pots, which were tipped out of upstairs windows in the morning—even if someone was walking along the street below.
But Charlotte had been carefully prepared to find her way around in the past from the time she should have been rocking dolls in her elegant arms. She’d never had time to play or make friends, go shopping, go to the cinema, or date boys. Instead she’d been taught dancing, fencing, and riding, foreign languages, and history. And since last year she’d been going out every Wednesday afternoon with Lady Arista and Aunt Glenda, and they didn’t come home until late in the evening. They called it an introduction to the mysteries. But no one—especially not Charlotte—would say what kind of mysteries.
Her first sentence when she learnt to talk had probably been “It’s a secret.” Closely followed by “That’s none of your business.”
Lesley always said our family must have more secrets than MI5 and MI6 put together. She was probably right.
Normally we took the bus home from school. The number 8 stopped in Berkeley Square, and it wasn’t far from there to our house. Today we went the four stops on foot, as Aunt Glenda had told us we should when Charlotte had a dizzy spell. I kept my bit of chalk at the ready the whole time, but Charlotte never disappeared.
As we went up the steps to our front door, I was somewhat disappointed, because this was where my part in the ordeal came to an end. Now my grandmother would take over, and I would once again be exiled from the world of mysteries.
I tugged at Charlotte’s sleeve. “Look! The man in black is there again.”
“So?” Charlotte didn’t even look around. The man was standing in the entrance of number 18, opposite. As usual, he wore a black trench coat and a hat pulled right down over his face. I’d taken him for a ghost until I realized that Nick, Caroline, and Lesley could see him too.
He’d been keeping watch on our house almost around the clock for months. Or maybe there were several men who looked exactly the same taking turns. We argued about whether the man was a burglar casing the joint, a private detective, or a wicked magician. That last one was my sister’s theory, and she firmly believed in it. Caroline was nine and loved stories about wicked magicians and good fairies. My brother, Nick, was twelve and thought stories about magicians and fairies were silly, so he figured the man must be a burglar. Lesley and I backed the private detective.
If we tried to cross the road for a closer look at the man, he would either disappear into the building behind him or slip into a black Bentley, which was always parked by the curb, and drive away.
“It’s a magic car,” Caroline claimed. “It turns into a raven when no one’s looking. And the magician turns into a tiny little man and rides through the air on the raven’s back.”
Nick had made a note of the Bentley’s license plate, just in case. “Although they’re sure to paint the car after the burglary and fit a new license plate,” he said.
The grown-ups acted as if they saw nothing suspicious about being watched day and night by a man wearing a hat and dressed entirely in black.
Nor did Charlotte. “What’s biting you lot about the poor man? He’s just standing there to smoke a cigarette, that’s all.”
“Oh, really?” I was more likely to believe the story about the enchanted raven.
It had started raining. We reached home not a moment too soon.
“Do you at least feel dizzy again?” I asked as we waited for the door to be opened. We didn’t have our own front-door keys.
“Just leave me alone,” said Charlotte. “It will happen when the time comes.”
Mr. Bernard opened the door for us. Lesley said Mr. Bernard was our butler and the ultimate proof that we were almost as rich as the Queen or Madonna. But I didn’t know exactly who or what Mr. Bernard really was. To Mum, he was “Grandmother’s lackey,” but Lady Arista called him “an old family friend.” To Caroline and Nick and me, he was simply Lady Arista’s rather weird manservant.
At the sight of us, his eyebrows shot up.
“Hello, Mr. Bernard,” I said. “Nasty weather.”
“Very nasty.” With his hooked nose and brown eyes behind his round, gold-rimmed glasses, Mr. Bernard always reminded me of an owl. “You really ought to wear your coats when you leave the house on a day like this.”
“Er … yes, we ought to,” I said.
“Where’s Lady Arista?” asked Charlotte. She was never particularly polite to Mr. Bernard. Perhaps because, unlike the rest of us, she hadn’t felt any awe of him when she was a child. Although, and this really was awe-inspiring, he seemed able to materialize out of nowhere right behind you in any part of the house, moving as quietly as a cat. Nothing got past Mr. Bernard, and he always seemed to be on the alert for something.
Mr. Bernard had been with us since before I was born, and Mum said he had been there when she was still a little girl. That made Mr. Bernard almost as old as Lady Arista, even if he didn’t look it. He had his own rooms on the second floor, with a separate corridor in which we children were forbidden even to set foot.
My brother, Nick, said Mr. Bernard had built-in trapdoors and elaborate alarm systems up there, so that he could watch out for unwelcome visitors, but Nick couldn’t prove it. None of us had ever dared to venture into the out-of-bounds area.
“Mr. Bernard needs his privacy,” Lady Arista often said.
“How right,” said Mum. “I think we could all of us do with some of that.” But she said it so quietly that Lady Arista didn’t hear her.
“Your grandmother is in the music room,” Mr. Bernard informed Charlotte.
“Thank you.” Charlotte left us in the hall and went upstairs. The music room was on the first floor, and no one knew why it was called that. There wasn’t even a piano in it.
The music room was Lady Arista’s and Great-aunt Maddy’s favorite place. It smelled of faded violet perfume and the stale smoke of Lady Arista’s cigarillos. The stuffy room wasn’t aired nearly often enough, and staying in it for too long made you feel drowsy.
Mr. Bernard closed the front door. I took one more quick look past him at the other side of the street. The man with the hat was still there. Was I wrong, or was he just raising his hand almost as if he were waving to someone? Mr. Bernard, maybe, or even me?
The door closed, and I couldn’t follow that train of thought any longer because my stomach suddenly flipped again, as if I were on a roller coaster. Everything blurred before my eyes. My knees gave way, and I had to lean against the wall to keep from falling down.
But as quickly as it had come on, the feeling was gone.
My heart was thumping like crazy. There must be something wrong with me. Without being on an actual carnival ride, you couldn’t possibly feel dizzy this often without something being terribly wrong.
Unless … oh, nonsense! I was probably just growing too fast. Or I had … I had a brain tumor? Or maybe, I thought, brushing that nasty notion aside, it was only that I was hungry.
Yes, that must be it. I hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast. My lunch had landed on my blouse. I breathed a sigh of relief.
Only then did I notice Mr. Bernard’s owlish eyes looking attentively at me.
“Whoops,” he said, a little too late.
I felt myself blushing. “I’ll … I’ll go and do my homework,” I muttered.
Mr. Bernard just nodded casually. But as I climbed the stairs, I could feel his eyes on my back.
Back from Durham, where I visited Lord Montrose’s younger daughter, Grace Shepherd, whose daughter was unexpectedly born the day before yesterday. We are all delighted to record the birth of
Gwyneth Sophie Elizabeth Shepherd
5 lbs 8 oz., 20 in.
Mother and child both doing well.
Heartfelt congratulations to our Grand Master on the birth of his fifth grandchild.
FROM THE ANNALS OF THE GUARDIANS
10 OCTOBER 1994
REPORT: THOMAS GEORGE, INNER CIRCLE
Text copyright © 2011 by Kerstin Gier