“Mom, I don't want her to stay with us!” grumbled seven-year-old Huon as he toyed with his tuna sandwich.
“Yeah, Mom,” added his older brother, “the house smelled for weeks of that oil of indication!”
“It’s oil of embrocation, sweetheart,” replied Mrs Dawson. “And you’ve never even met Aunty Hestry. It’s Aunty Agatha you’re thinking of.”
“Two more different people you could not imagine,” mumbled Mr Dawson, talking with his mouth full, "And the smell of Aunty Hestry’s oil is the least of our worries!”
“Now my love, that’s not true,” objected his wife. “She’s a delightful old thing. I will admit she is a little eccentric. But she's very sweet.”
“Hmph,” grunted Mr Dawson, “She’s more than a ‘little eccentric’, Jane!”
“Charlie, we haven’t seen Hestry for ten years,” said Mrs Dawson. “I’m sure she’s much more, umm… How could I put it? Toned down?”
“What’s wrong with her Dad?” asked Lorraine, looking up from her book.
“Oh, sweetie, you shouldn’t be reading at the table,” said her mother, just as little Zoë tossed her bowl off the highchair and began yelling. “Meeyook! Boo-belly!” Mrs Dawson, distracted, wandered off towards the refrigerator for the milk and blueberries.
“Oh, nothing wrong, so much,” said Mr Dawson, thoughtfully. “She’s just a bit of a handful. But not the cranky kind, like Agatha.”
“Charlie, you mustn’t say things like that about poor Agatha,” said Mrs Dawson from behind the fridge door. “She has such bad arthritis. Aunty Hestry is only staying for two nights, and…”
Jane Dawson was interrupted by a sudden cacophony from outside; a noise like a strident foghorn. Huon rushed out of the kitchen to investigate the disturbance. A moment later, he yelled from the living room. “There’s an old lady sitting on a donkey cart and blowing on a trumpet !”
Aunty Hestry wore a billowing burgundy creation with various extraordinary frills and puffs, and a vast black hat adorned with an assortment of molded fruits. The children, assembled at the front door, stared in stunned amazement.
“Oh, HELLO everyone,” hollered the new arrival, dismounting expertly from the cart. “It has been a long journey!”
She rushed up and embraced Mrs Dawson. “Jane, my dear, you look lovely! And Charlie, my boy, so handsome as always!”
She gave Mr Dawson an affectionate kiss on the cheek, then turned her attention to the children. “And tell me your names, darlings! My name is Hestry.”
After a sharp look from his mother, Michael kicked off proceedings.
“Hello Aunty Hestry. I’m Michael. I’m nearly 12. And this is Zoë; she’ll be two in July.”
“Hello Michael! Hello Zoë!” said Aunty Hestry. “And what is your name, sweetheart?” she asked, looking at the pigtailed little girl at Michael’s side.
“I’m Anne. I’m four. Did you come here all the way with your donkey?”
Before Hestry could answer, Huon interjected. “Hello Auntie Hestry. What is your donkey’s name?”
“Hello both of you,” said Auntry Hestry, smiling. “Yes, I did come all the way on my cart. It’s a very special cart. And my donkey’s name is Jack! He’s also a very special donkey.”
Finally, Lorraine introduced herself.
“Hello Lorraine. Nine is such a wonderful age,” replied Aunty Hestry, “And I see that you also like books!”
Lorraine, who was carrying her copy of Anne of Green Gables, blushed.
With some effort, Mr Dawson managed to wrestle Aunty Hestry’s baggage into the house, before turning his attention to Jack. With a long rope, he tethered the inquisitive donkey to the jungle gym. It immediately began to munch on the lawn. Mr Dawson shook his head with resignation.
“Only two nights,” he muttered.
When Mr Dawson got indoors, he found everyone in the living room. Aunty Hestry sat cross-legged on the floor beside an ancient turquoise carpet bag.
“Now, for some presents!” she announced when she saw him.
From the bag she extracted a printed cardboard box. To Michael’s surprise, it was a set of Lego. “This is for you, dear,” said Hestry. “I hope you won’t find it too challenging.”
It was like no Lego Michael had ever seen. On the box was a most extraordinary scene, showing a massive fiery volcano, on the side of which was laid out a village being terrorized by a frightening Dragon. Serpent’s lair said the label.
Her next gift was a thick book, bound in dark leather. On the cover was embossed an intricately branching tree, its autumn leaves swirling in the imaginary wind.
“I think you’ll get lost in this story, my dear,” said Aunty Hestry, handing it to Lorraine with a mysterious smile.
To Huon she gave a wooden box labelled Creepy Crawly Zoo.
“Just wait a minute before opening it, sweetheart,” warned Mrs Dawson. “You know how Lorraine hates your toy spiders and snakes.”
Finally, Aunty Hestry pulled out a decorated box on which was printed The Nutcracker Ballet. This she gave to Anne, and a little green drawstring bag, she gave to Zoë.
“You may go and play now,” said Mrs Dawson, and the children vanished. A little while later, when Mrs Dawson had just poured three cups of tea, there came from the back yard a great commotion of panic-stricken squawking.
“Now what?” grumbled Mr Dawson.
“Dad!” shouted Huon, “Come, quick!”
When he reached the chicken’s pen, Mr Dawson found Huon pointing up at one of the poplars. “Look, dad! An eagle owl!” And sure enough, scowling down at them was the most enormous owl he had ever seen. The chickens were quite beside themselves, cringing in the far corner of their enclosure.
“Hmm,” said Mr Dawson, irritably. “And now the chickens are scared out of their wits. It’ll probably put them off the lay.” Then, a thought occurred to him. “Huon, will you please call Aunty Hestry?”
A few moments later she appeared and looked up into the tree. “Oh, Marmaduke!” she said in surprise. “You are a naughty owl. I told you to stay at home, and now here you are terrifying these poor chickens!” She turned to Mr Dawson. “I’m so sorry Charlie. But he does get so lonely when I go away. Do you have a big box we can put in one of the trees for him to roost?”
“Lorraine!” called Mrs Dawson that evening. “Lorraine? Where are you? It’s time for you to set the table for dinner. And you haven’t fed your lovebirds!”
She turned to her husband who was slicing cheese and pickles for the hamburgers.
“Have you seen Lorraine at all since this afternoon? I have haven’t been able to find her and she hasn’t done any of her chores.”
“Now that you mention it,” he said, “I haven’t.”
“I’ll go and look for her, dear,” offered Aunty Hestry, and edged out of the kitchen.
She returned a few minutes later. “I found Lorraine reading her new book in the corner of that sunny room you have, reclining like a Roman on the cushions. Such a book worm!”
Mrs Dawson was puzzled. She’d looked in that room not 15 minutes before. And there was nobody on the cushions.
Early the next morning the household was woken by a raucous braying. Aunty Hestry, they discovered, was handing apples to Jack through her bedroom window.
“I had at a bad dream last night, Jane,” groaned Mr Dawson. “Aunty Hestry was the Cat in the Hat, and Huon’s goldfish kept saying ‘No, No, make that Aunt go away! Tell that Aunt you do not want to play. She should not be here. She should not be about.’”
And the apple breakfast debacle wasn’t the only incident with Jack that day. The second began later in the morning with a loud series of shrieks. Mrs Dawson, frightened that something ghastly had happened to Anne, rushed outside.
To her surprise, she discovered that the person shrieking was the neighbour, Mrs McReedy. That lady glared murdeously over the back fence. Her normally manicured pile of red hair was in a tangled mess.
“Hello Daphne,” said Mrs Dawson weakly, “is something the matter?”
Daphne McReedy fixed her with two beady eyes. “You can say that again!” she barked. “That creature in your back yard has eaten my hat!”
She gesticulated at Jack. Mrs Dawson saw that the donkey was chewing on some mangled straw remains.
“I was trimming my begonias along the fence, minding my own business as usual” continued Mrs McReedy, “when I felt an agonizing tug on my hair and to my horror found this vicious animal looking over the fence and ripping off my hat.”
Mrs Dawson, normally the most self-possessed person in the world, found herself facing a colossal struggle not to burst out laughing. Desperately, she offered a brief placatory remark, and fled indoors. “Oh, dear,” she thought. “Aunty Hestry does make life a little too interesting.”
When she got inside, she found Huon trying to push aside the sofa.
“Hello sweetheart,” she said, “what are you looking for?”
“My new snake,” he said, “From Auntie Hestry’s present. I’m sure he crawled under here.”
“Oh sweetie. That’s good imagining! What kind of snake is it?”
“It’s a rhombic egg eater, Mom,” replied Huon. “So don’t worry, he won’t hurt you.”
Mrs Dawson, now a little alarmed, was just about to reply when Aunty Hestry appeared miraculously at her elbow. “Now don’t you worry yourself about his little pets, Jane darling. I’ll help him catch them. Did you find the tarantula yet, Huon, dear?”
At this point, Mrs Dawson felt rather like she was slipping into a scene from Alice in Wonderland and retreated to the kitchen. She had been needing to get some crockery from the high cupboard and went to fetch the step ladder from the scullery. She found, to her great annoyance, that it was missing.
“Now who could have taken my ladder?” she wondered.
After an extensive search she finally checked Michael’s room. And, sure enough, there was the ladder. But she immediately forgot about it, staring in astonishment at Michael who was putting the last pieces onto a gargantuan Lego mountain which stood about six feet tall. From the top was spewing a river of luminous Lego lava. Upon a rocky outcrop was perched a most terrifying dragon. It appeared to be summing her up with its little red eyes.
The edifice filled Michael's room so that he could hardly reach the bed.
“Mom! Isn’t it amazing,” he exclaimed. “And I haven’t even built the village yet!”
For some moments his mother remained at a loss for words.
“Well, Sweetie... It’s completely beyond anything I could have imagined,” she finally managed to say. “But where on earth are we going to store all this Lego?”
As if by magic, she suddenly found Aunty Hestry at her elbow again. These stealthy appearances were becoming a habit.
“Oh, you must keep it in the box, my dear,” she purred. “I’ve already explained it all to Mikie. I also think you might want to watch the little children. Don’t leave them alone with the dragon.”
Aunty Hestry put her hand on Mrs Dawson’s shoulder. “But come, I’ve made some fabulous peppermint tea. Secret recipe. And you must join me while it’s hot. Never drink cold tea.”
Mrs Dawson, who felt again like she was slipping through the looking glass, followed numbly behind her bustling guest.
That evening, just before dinner, Mrs Dawson complained again about the complete disappearance of Lorraine. “I just can’t work out where she keeps going. Thank goodness Aunty Hestry is here to help with the chores!”
“Oh, my dear, I don’t mind!” called Aunty Hestry from where she was laying the table, “And don’t worry. She’ll be finished the book soon. They don’t get so lost in the story the second time they read it.”
Mrs Dawson, who at that moment found herself dealing with a major toddler-induced disaster, didn’t have a chance to ask Aunty Hestry what on earth she meant.
And, in the end, it didn’t matter. Dinner that night was delightful. Everyone was cheerful and contented. One might say things had returned to normal. Perhaps, just a little bit better than normal.
Later, before they turned out the lights, Mr Dawson turned to his wife. “Well,” he yawned, “like The Cat in the Hat, at least Aunty Hestry cleans up the mess.”
The next morning, just after breakfast, Aunty Hestry climbed onto her little blue cart, ready to go.
“We’ll miss you Aunty Hestry,” said Mrs Dawson. And she meant it.
“Goodbye Aunty Hestry,” said Mr Dawson, “It’s been great having you.” And he meant it too.
The children all stood on the step, looking forlorn. They waved sadly as the old lady, wearing a bizarre green dress and a dramatic red hat, drove off down the road.
“Mom,” said Huon, tears in his eyes, “When is she coming again? Can she stay longer next time?”