Authors: Lou Heneghan
The Turnarounders and the Arbuckle Rescue
All rights reserved: no part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher
First published in Great Britain in 2014
Copyright © Lou Heneghan 2014
The moral right of the author has been asserted
ISBN 0 9573523 5 3
For John and Maddy.
And in memory of
Jeremiah, Kay, Matt and Sully.
They made a difference.
Echoes from the Past
When Elaine and Brian Osborne were killed in a mysterious and rather gruesome accident involving a dog, some sausages and a two-ton steamroller, there was little the Authorities could do except clear up the mess. They sold the Osbornes' house, re-homed their dog and made hasty arrangements for their son, Ralf, to go to his only living relative – his Great Aunt Gloria.
On the face of it, this seemed the ideal solution. Gloria Osborne was an intelligent and accomplished woman. She had a large house in London, no children of her own and she was very rich. The Authorities conducted further checks and were pleased by what they found. Gloria had written a string of books, travelled widely and, for an older person, was fit and active. She had diamonds in the bedroom, a Bentley in the garage and the same banker as the Queen. Unfortunately, there were several other important pieces of information they did not discover: her real name, her real age and, of course, the fact that she was barking mad. It was late afternoon when the newly orphaned Ralf arrived in London and he stared out of the window as the social worker inched the car up a steep, tree-lined drive on the edge of Hampstead Heath. The woods looked beautiful in the summer evening light, unlike the house they surrounded, which stood out like a jagged nail amidst the manicured front lawns and grand entrances of the mansions on the hill. Ralf blinked. His new home was a
– a rambling monstrosity of broken walls, dark windows and flaky paintwork.
‘Out you get, Ralf,’ the social worker said
Ralf got out of the car and waited to feel something. ‘Shock’ they’d called it when he hadn’t cried or spoken in the days following his parents’ deaths. The counsellor had other more complicated names for it and had spent long hours trying to convince the boy it was okay to cry. It would be good if he gave in to his feelings, healthy to succumb to his grief. But Ralf couldn’t let go. He couldn’t seem to feel anything. This wasn’t how it was meant to be. His parents couldn’t really be dead. It was as if the whole thing was happening to someone else.
The front door of the house was flung wide just as Ralf was retrieving his bag and he made a strangled choking noise in the back of his throat. The social worker, whose name was Jade, felt she ought to say something kind but was too distracted by the person standing in the doorway. Ralf’s great aunt paused regally at the top of the front steps and then swooped down to meet them.
Gloria was, to say the least, an odd looking woman. She was ninety-one years old, not sixty-eight as she claimed, freakishly tall and bony and as unlike your average pensioner as it was possible to be. She wore lurid make up, an electric blue kimono and snow boots. Her thinning hair, dyed the colour of mashed swede, was piled on top of her head in an elaborate, but disastrous, bun (there were several bald patches of scalp visible and far too many hair pins).
In one sweeping look she surveyed the car and the social worker, then her eyes turned to Ralf who was clutching his bag tightly to his chest. He gaped at her and she looked right back into his eyes. He knew what she was seeing – a scrawny looking ten year old with scraggy white hair, blue eyes and a face gone gaunt with loss. She gave a slow nod that made him feel like she was looking into him, not at him. A hot, electric prickle flared on the back of his neck and his heart jolted. Who
‘Your father’s aunt,’ Jade had said on the journey. ‘On his father’s side.’
But Ralf could not remember ever having met her and his dad had never mentioned her. So why, then, looking at her now did he suddenly have the strangest feeling that he knew her?
Gloria spread her arms wide and Ralf moved back a step.
‘Welcome to Janus Gate!’ she cried. Her voice was clear and surprisingly loud. Rooks fountained from the trees, which in the failing light had suddenly started to look quite sinister.
Though taken aback by the state of the house and Gloria’s odd appearance, Jade was reassured by this theatrical welcome. Unfortunately, she had no time for further thought because Gloria, with surprising strength and agility for a senior citizen, bundled her back into the car.
‘Don’t let us keep you!’ the old woman trilled.
‘But the paperwork…’
‘Solicitor deals with all that.’
‘But the boy’s room… settling in…’ Jade felt quite like Ralf’s parents must have, the instant they were hit by the steamroller.
‘Bed’s all made. Supper’s nearly ready. Off you go!’ Gloria, it seemed, was used to being obeyed.
‘Well, Goodbye Ralf…’ The social worker looked dazed.
Ralf stood in Gloria’s clutches and watched the car pull away. Through the back window he saw Jade glance in her rear view mirror.
Gloria’s bony hand gripped Ralf’s shoulder. Her smile was white and fixed. ‘Smile and wave!’
Woodenly, Ralf obeyed.
Gloria walked Ralf down the long drive, closed the wrought iron gates then stared down at him suspiciously.
‘And your name is?’
There was a rattle in the back of Ralf’s throat. Hypnotised by the sight of a bristling mole on his Great Aunt’s chin, he stammered: ‘R-Ranulf Osborne – Ralf.’
‘You can stop that nonsense right now.’ She jabbed a knobbly finger at him, a bright red talon pricking his chest. ‘Ralf Osborne is dead. And anyone who says differently is a liar!’ And with that she marched off towards the ramshackle house. Ralf looked up at the darkening sky and encroaching trees then hurried after her. He did not notice the hooded man standing in the shadows on the other side of the gate. No one had noticed him the day Ralf’s parents died either.
Janus Gate was on the inside very much as it was on the outside – dark, dingy and dilapidated. Shuddering, Ralf allowed himself to be hustled along the hall into a fogged kitchen where a pot of something strangely sweet smelling was bubbling on an ancient stove.
‘Sit down, boy!’ Gloria thrust him towards the table and smiled triumphantly as she put his supper in front of him. Ralf’s stomach flipped at the sight of what looked suspiciously like a steaming bowl of guts and eyeballs. He fainted.
At this point, lest the wrong impression be created, a word or two of explanation should be given about Gloria. She had actually, despite appearances, tried her best with the meal. Having not spoken to a child for over forty years and, more importantly, having no idea how to cook, Gloria was confident that the supper she’d prepared would be a great success. Unfortunately, it did not occur to her that a ten year old would be unlikely to enjoy – or even recognise – poached squid with lychees.
When the boy at the kitchen table slithered to the floor at the sight of his supper, Gloria wasn’t quite sure what to do. She dabbed a few drops of water on his pale face and then, when he came round, poured him a large glass of champagne and started to tap dance. This opening gambit pretty much set the tone of their relationship.
For Ralf, that first night felt like a very long, surreal dream. One minute Gloria was all jokes and laughter, the next she was deadly serious, full of rules and dire warnings. He couldn’t understand her at all. She stubbornly refused to call him Ralf, only ‘Boy’ or ‘Child’ and seemed to have no idea how to deal with him. But the connection he felt when he’d first seen her was still there and, unless he was very much mistaken, Gloria felt it too. Her eyes bored into him when she thought he wasn’t looking and she shot questions at him as he sat, rigid with nerves at the table.
She interrogated him for over an hour and stumblingly Ralf told her everything she wanted to know about his parents, his life and the accident that had changed everything.
‘Accident?’ she laughed, derisively.
Ralf felt a surge of anger at that. The forgotten emotion surprised him. It didn’t sound as if Gloria knew his parents at all. Of course it was an accident. What else could it have been? He started to protest, but Gloria cut him off.
‘I think it’s about time I laid down a few RULES.’ Her face was abruptly serious. ‘Presently, I will take you to your room. It is situated away from mine, in order that I shan’t be disturbed. You will confine your movements to that room, this one and the back drawing room. There are many rooms in this
house and most are unsuitable for children. Do I make myself clear?’
He nodded. Rules meant nothing to him. Nothing meant anything.
Gloria’s eyes flashed and she gave him a curt nod. Then, like the sun breaking from behind a storm cloud, her mood changed once more. She tossed him a wrinkled apple from a bowl on the table and stood to attention.
‘Fall in!’ she cried and, tightening the belt of her kimono, conducted him from the room singing ‘Hi ho! Hi ho! To Bedfordshire you go!’
Apprehensively, Ralf followed his guardian up a grand staircase and then up another much narrower set of stairs to a shadowed corridor. At its end was a ladder.
‘I won’t come up, if you don’t mind,’ Gloria said, cheerfully. ‘And I don’t converse with people before noon
. See you don’t disturb me in the morning.’ She left.
For a long time Ralf stared at the ladder and the square of darkness into which it disappeared. Eventually, he climbed on wobbly legs into a moonlit attic. In one corner was a narrow bed, in another a table and chair. Under the sloping roof was a low, empty bookshelf. Remembering his room at home and all the books left behind, Ralf’s heart fluttered but he squashed the feeling as quickly as he could. He dropped his bag, slammed the trapdoor and sank on to the bed. He stared up at the stars and closed in on himself once more.
The next morning, Ralf woke to a hideous screeching noise. Disorientated by the unfamiliar room, it took a couple of seconds for his heart to stop pounding and a few more for him to identify that the noise drifting up through the floorboards was Gloria
– if you could call it that. He was quite surprised the windows were still intact.
He pulled on his jeans under the comforting warmth of the blankets then slid out of bed, crept down the ladder and, avoiding the first floor bedroom where Gloria was squawking, made his way to the kitchen. There was
no cereal, but he found bread and butter and ate over the kitchen sink. Each mouthful stuck in his throat but he forced himself to chew and swallow and tried to ignore the remains of Gloria’s breakfast, blood-coloured and fermenting, in a bowl on the side.
When he’d finished, he washed up and carefully put everything back where he’d found it. Now what? Should he go back to his room? Part of him would have liked to hide there, away from everything, but Gloria’s odd reaction to the word ‘accident’ the previous day puzzled him. Did she know something he didn’t?
He thought of his father’s cluttered study and how he used to sit with his history books, puzzling over clues, searching for answers. Ralf may have been only ten, but he was also an Osborne. He knew what his Dad would have done. If Gloria wouldn’t tell him what she knew, he would just have to find out for himself – even if that meant breaking one of her RULES. If she caught him, he’d just say he was lost. Determined, Ralf left the kitchen and went to look for answers.
Janus Gate was a big house. There were countless rooms and they all looked like they’d been frozen in time at some point in the 1940s. Apart from the ladder to the attic, the third floor was bare except for two rooms containing lumps of furniture under white dustsheets. The second floor, however, held something far more interesting – a locked door. Ralf jiggled the handle but the door wouldn’t budge.
At the top of the stairs, though, there was an old oak dresser and, acting on instinct, Ralf tried each drawer until he found what he was looking for. A key. It fitted the lock. This is it, he thought, and a second later, he creaked open the door and stepped into a museum. Hundreds of black and white photographs lined the walls. On the table was a scrapbook crammed with letters and newspaper cuttings dating back to the Second World War. He flicked through the pages. Fading headlines announced: ‘King’s Hadow Fishermen First to Arrive at Dunkirk Evacuation’, ‘Arbuckle Brothers Back in Action’ and were accompanied by old photographs of two windswept young men, jaunty and smiling. There was another photo of a 1930s film star Ralf vaguely recognised and a portrait of a uniformed man which had a handwritten note on the bottom right hand corner: ‘To Darling Beth. November 1939’. As Ralf studied the man’s face, something clicked inside him, his stomach flipped and tears sprang into his eyes. An awful guilt stole over him. He hadn’t cried over the deaths of his parents and yet here he was, weeping over the face of a stranger. What was the matter with him? Roughly, he wiped the tears away and moved on.
On the next page were four empty corner holders around a neat, faded square where a photograph had recently been removed. Alongside was a
photograph of a handsome young woman, dressed in a gabardine mac and gumboots. She was laughing, eyes sparkling into the camera lens and, even though there was no colour in the picture, Ralf knew that her hair, swept by a vigorous wind, was red.
The prickling sensation on the back of Ralf’s neck returned with a vengeance. There
a connection here that needed to be made. The thought floated on the edge of his brain like a feather drifting just out of reach. Then he had it. This was a picture of Gloria. This was the Gloria he knew. But the picture had been taken in May 1940, sixty years before he’d even been born.