The oddest thing about visiting Auntie Stella, even when Lucy was a little girl, was that she never really wanted to go, and yet she never really wanted to leave, either. There was an unease, a dissatisfaction, about both.
Auntie Stella didn’t live in a roses round the door idyllic little cottage like Lucy’s friend Annabelle’s Auntie Maureen. She slightly envied Annabelle, though she wasn’t going to give her as much fun as to say so, and though she wasn’t proud of herself, couldn’t honestly say she was sorry either when she told Annabelle that there were probably mice in the thatched roof of Cornflower Cottage. Annabelle was scared of mice. Anyway, Auntie Stella lived in a neat little bungalow. It was just called The Bungalow and nothing more picturesque than that. It wasn’t exactly modern, not like those that Lucy’s father, a builder himself, scornfully said had been “thrown up”. For a while Lucy took that phrase quite literally and it gave her some very odd dreams. No, it was (as Auntie Stella herself) told her, about forty years old. It had solid red brick walls, and a big bay window in the lounge, and proper modern central heating.
Auntie Stella wasn’t one of those aunties who fawned and fussed over children, and made a point of always having crisps in the house and cartoons on the TV (though she sometimes did have snacks and wasn’t opposed to Scooby-Doo on principle). But she always had plenty of books, and never told Lucy that they were either too young or too old for her, and though she could cook and bake well enough, she realised that despite what some appeared to think to the contrary, children were not always fascinated by such matters.
The bungalow was, Lucy knew, smaller than the house where she lived with her parents and her big brother Aidan. Yet there somehow always seemed to be a room, or a place, where she wasn’t supposed to go. Auntie Stella wasn’t heavy handed about it and always put it nicely and politely, and as if it didn’t matter, yet Lucy guessed that precisely because of that, it did.
“Lucy, I’m keeping the spare back bedroom closed at the moment. There’s nothing of any interest in it anyway.” Or, “Just thought I’m mention, Lucy, I’m not using the shed at the moment.” That was the whole point about these rooms or spaces. They were not ones that Lucy didn’t know about, not ones that she hadn’t seen. She was already familiar with those tales where there is a forbidden room, but in Auntie Stella’s bungalow, nowhere was permanently forbidden, and she knew that the spare back bedroom was very much like her own little room upstairs, but without such concessions as Auntie Stella was prepared to make to her young visitor, like children’s books or a night light, and that the shed was very much like their own shed at home, only smaller, and with nothing interesting in it at all, only some garden tools that always seemed to smell of dry or wet soil, even though Auntie Stella kept them clean, and something called a tarpaulin that she never seemed to use.
Lucy took to telling her schoolmates, especially Annabelle, about Auntie Stella’s odd little quirk. By the time she was eight or nine, it had become part of a ritual. The Story of Auntie Stella’s Hidden Rooms. Sometime she wished that at the start she had restricted it to one room, and perhaps embroidered matters a little, but that would be Telling Lies and though everybody did it, including grown-ups – ESPECIALLY grown-ups! – it was a thing you weren’t supposed to do, unless, of course, you were writing a story or telling Mrs Pollard next door she really did look lovely in that bright pink coat that was too small for her and then it was another matter.
Contrary to what some adults think, children are not insensitive to the reactions and thoughts of other children, nor to their contradictions and complexities. Lucy knew that she had a couple of faithful acolytes (not that she used the word acolyte, her vocabulary was advanced but not that advanced) who hung on every word of her stories, and some (with unfair irony!) did at least suggest she was telling lies, even if most of them didn’t come right out and say it. Well, Briony Birtwhistle did, but she did things like that on principle, and Lucy had once overheard her Mum saying that if you told Mrs Birtwhistle the sky was blue she’d probably look suspicious until you proved it. Annabelle was vaguely jealous, though she tried not to show it, and evidently wished she’d thought of it first, true or not, as there would have been far more interesting hidden rooms at Cornflower Cottage. Others found it quite scary, and went so far as to say that perhaps there was a dead body at the Bungalow. At this Annabelle got even more jealous. She was afraid of mice, but not remotely afraid of dead bodies, which might well have been something to do with the fact that she had seen plenty of the former but never the latter. She evidently decided that if she couldn’t claim this matter as her own, she would at least exert some authority over it, and said, “For all you know, your Auntie Stella MURDERED someone.”
At this point (it was playtime) Miss Kershaw, who was on playground duty and happened to be passing, intervened. She generally pretty much left the children to it unless their fighting was getting beyond play fighting, but presumable thought that two little girls talking about murder and dead bodies wasn’t really the kind of thing that ought to go on in the playground of St Faith’s C of E Primary School. In one of those studiedly bright voices that adults use in such circumstances, she asked Annabelle and Lucy if they were looking forward to the forthcoming outing to a farm. Neither of them was, especially, but of course they didn’t say so.
Lucy’s own feelings and thoughts were every bit as complex and contradictory as those of her schoolmates. She couldn’t, she just couldn’t believe that Auntie Stella would have murdered anyone. Though she was strict in her way, she had never so much as seen her lose her temper nor hear her raise her voice. But when she told Annabelle that she pulled one of those irritating faces and said, “It’s the quiet ones!” Lucy knew that would be something she had overheard, and she was just trying to sound clever, but she still couldn’t get that out of her mind. There was another thing, though. Auntie Stella was quite fussy about keeping The Bungalow clean and nice-smelling (well apart from the garden tools, but she supposed that couldn’t be helped). She wasn’t silly about it, the way some people were, like Mrs Pollard, whose house smelled so strongly of things that were supposed to make it smell fresh that it made Lucy feel vaguely sick, but – well, that (Lucy couldn’t always bring herself to say the words dead body even in her thoughts) would surely smell horrible, even behind closed doors, and if she had to move it around …..
Lucy had a nightmare that night the first one in years, and wished you could unthink things.
But it didn’t give her the creeps about going to The Bungalow. It was almost as if she had banished it to the realm of nightmares now by having one – the realm where things like monsters dwelt, things that you knew weren’t real. Or at least you as good as knew.
At times she realised that she knew a great deal about Auntie Stella, and yet there was also a great deal that she didn’t know. She knew that she was her dad’s much older half-sister, and that though, of course, he didn’t call her Auntie, in some ways he saw her more as an Auntie than a sister. She knew that she hated carrots, and that was why, she said, she would never try to force anyone, even a child, to eat anything they really didn’t like, though that wasn’t a free pass to be as picky as she chose. She knew that she had been an English teacher, though she had now retired. This only began to strike Lucy as odd when she was growing up herself, and had moved on to secondary school. Perhaps it’s not quite true that children see all adults as ancient, but things are relevant, and only when Lucy was eleven or twelve did it dawn on her that quite a few of her teachers were considerably older than Auntie Stella, and much older than she would have been when Lucy first started visiting her at The Bungalow. She knew that though she was proud of her little garden, there were flowers she loathed and would never have in it, like what she termed blousy roses or big waxy lilies. She was fine with the little lilies of the valley. Yet it wasn’t that she only wanted dainty little flowers in her garden. She had a goldenrod that was almost, though not quite, allowed to grow wild, and a gnarled apple tree that was mean with both its blossoms and its fruit. She knew all this, and yet she knew very little and in some cases nothing about – well, not so much her private life, but what her own English teacher (one of those who was probably older than Auntie Stella) Mrs Haddon called her back story. Or did she? Auntie Stella was always willing to tell stories, and to Lucy’s delight though she didn’t actually go so far as to call them My Naughty Little Brother Stories and they were always hugely affectionate and it was plain the two were devoted to each other, it was decidedly pleasing to hear about her Dad in such a light. She told Lucy about her first trip abroad when, although by no means so rare as it had once been, it was not something people took for granted, and she told her about the beautiful Spanish doll she had, dressed in a flounced red Flamenco costume. Even when Lucy was pretty sure she ought to have outgrown such stories, she still listened to them with pleasure. So in a way she knew a great deal about Auntie Stella, and yet there was still so much she didn’t, and she wasn’t sure whether she wanted to or not.
She would always deny she had any kind of premonition or presentiment about the trip she would pay to The Bungalow the year she turned fourteen. Oh, of course, if she did, some of it was purely practical. She knew this was either her last visit there as a child, or her first as an adult. There were no real inbetweens. She made the train journey herself, and it was never presumed she would do anything else. It was true that she would be met at the station, but that, too, was just a practical matter – it was quite a long drive to The Bungalow, and there was no public transport. She had been expecting Auntie Stella to meet her, but instead it was her neighbour, Bridget Kenway. Lucy had always, at her insistence, called her just Bridget or Bridey, not Auntie or Mrs Kenway. She’d also known, even when she was a little girl and warned about taking lifts from strangers (though her parents had never made it a taboo to talk to them) there were exceptions to the rule, and Bridget was one of them. Anyway, it was hardly as if she were a stranger! Lucy often wished she were her neighbour at home instead of Mrs Pollard, but there wasn’t much she could do about it, so there wasn’t much point to letting herself in for one of those conversations by saying so. Bridey was one of those people who were genuinely of a cheerful disposition so didn’t feel the need to prove it or make an issue of it. You only noticed when she WASN’T in a cheerful mood. “Is anything the matter, Bridey?” Lucy asked, after they had loaded her luggage into the car and she had taken her place – beside Bridey in the front now! “You always were a keen one and – well, you’re not a little girl now. Oh, don’t look so worried, lovey, she’s fine, she’ll be fine, and she’s not ill or anything like that.” At this point Lucy was beginning to think that Auntie Stella being ill “or anything like that” might be preferable. Not that she wanted her to be ill, of course. But a cold or a headache was something you could understand and take some medicine for and it went away. And if it were something more serious, the visit would probably have been postponed.
Bridey didn’t exactly take a long way round, and didn’t exactly drive slowly, but the journey still took longer than it normally did, and Lucy was pretty sure it wasn’t just down to her own unease. To her relief, Auntie Stella was waiting in the garden, under the tatty apple tree (which was making one of its valiant but vapid attempts at blossoming, as it was spring). She gave her a hug. Lucy liked Auntie Stella’s hugs. They weren’t one of those “because I ought” hugs, but they weren’t bone-crushing either. “Thanks, Bridey,” she said.
“Any time, Stella. See you later. See you later, Lucy.”
“See you later, Bridey,” they chorused. Lucy was weighing up Auntie Stella and trying not to, but her aunt was “sharp” too. Lucy came to the conclusion that she was a bit pale, but it wasn’t exactly ill pale. But it did look as if she’d been crying. It wasn’t that her eyes were red any more, or that there were any tear stains on her cheeks, but there was a glisten that seemed to still be there, a look in her eyes of a light that had faded, but was dawning again. “Come on in and have a drink,” Auntie Stella said. “I’m going to offer you coffee because you’d sulk if I didn’t – you did even when you were six – but there’s home made lemonade if you’d prefer.”
“I’d prefer” Lucy smiled. If Auntie Stella could make the effort, she could, too. “It was good of Bridey to pick you up,” she said, “I was just – having a funny five minutes. Bad timing.” She drank deep of her lemonade and then drew a deep breath. “Lucy, you’ve always been very good about it, even when you were little, and I thank you for it. But you must have wondered about – when I said you weren’t to go in the spare room, or in the shed.”
“We’re all entitled to our secrets, Auntie Stella!” She had read that in a book somewhere and had meant it to sound very mature but it came out sounding a bit rude. But Auntie Stella grasped her hands and brushed her apologies to one side. “I know you dad hasn’t told you, because I asked him not to, but it’s not fair on him, especially now you’re growing up. I know folk don’t use the word spinster much now, and a good thing too, but I bet you thought I was one.” Lucy was about to say that she preferred the word singleton, having encountered it in her Mum’s copy of Bridget Jones’ Diary that she’d read recently, but decided to let her Auntie speak on. “But I was married once, you know. And – and happily. He was called Bernard, but I always called him Bernie. He planted the apple tree and the golden rod. We were married for two wonderful years, but then – he went for a routine medical and they found out he had cancer – pancreatic, one of the worst ones. We only had another few months together. But I have my memory box – photos, letters, his tie pin – he was quite a smart dresser sometimes, and loved his tie pin – and I – keep it in one of the rooms we don’t use much. Or in the shed – he loved gardening, there’s the irony, even though he was never very good at it. Sometimes I just have to have somewhere I can go for a little weep. But today – well, it was the anniversary of us meeting and it all got – a bit too much for me. Would you – like to see the memory box, Lucy?”
And Lucy, blinking back her own tears, nodded, and realised that yes, it would be both her last visit as a child and her first one as an adult.