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The Shadow Guests

Joan Aiken

  Books by Joan Aiken

  The Wolves of Willoughby Chase sequence














  1. Meeting

  2. Elder Brothers

  3. Little Con

  4. Big Con

  5. Bun and Meredith

  6. Sim

  7. Moley

  8. Osmond

  9. Eunice, Richard, Moley, Meredith

  Read More

  About the Book

  After the mysterious disappearance of his mother and older brother, Cosmo is sent away to live with his father’s eccentric cousin, and to a strange school where he is lost and lonely among his unfriendly classmates. Luckily he can escape at weekends to the peace of his cousin’s ancient mill house, and the shadowy companions only he can see. But then he learns about the family curse, with which his visitors from the past seem to be connected. The ‘shadow guests’ welcome Cosmo’s help but are their increasingly menacing activities linked to his own problems?

  About the Author

  JOAN AIKEN was born in Sussex in 1924 to a family of writers. She had a variety of jobs, including working for the BBC, the United Nations Information Centre and as features editor for a short story magazine before her first children’s novel, The Kingdom of the Cave, was published in 1960. She wrote more than a hundred books for young readers and adults, and is recognized as one of the classic authors of the twentieth century. Her books are internationally acclaimed and she received the Edgar Allan Poe Award in the United States as well as the Guardian Award for Fiction in this country for The Whispering Mountain. In 1999 she was awarded the MBE for her services to literature. Joan Aiken died in 2004.

  1. Meeting

  Nobody was at the airport to meet him.

  One of the stewardesses had told him there was a place called a Rendezvous Area where you could go and wait if your friends hadn’t turned up when the plane landed. So that was where he went. It was next to the information desk, a set of plush-covered benches, striped in pink and brown, with a few anxious people sitting on them, gazing about in every direction. But Cosmo preferred to stand, leaning against the trolley that held his luggage – two cases, a carry-on bag, and a tennis racquet.

  He stared at the mass of people, streaming up and down the airport concourse, and wondered how he would ever know which one was looking for him.

  ‘Cousin Eunice will probably come to meet you herself,’ his father had said. ‘But I suppose she might be giving a lecture or tutoring somebody that day; then she’d have to arrange for someone else to come.’

  Could any of these women be Cousin Eunice? A fat blonde one with pouches under her eyes: he hoped not. A thin dark one in a corduroy windcheater: she looked nice, but she walked straight past. A younger one – no, but she had a girl of about six with her. Cousin Eunice was not married and had no children.

  ‘Have I met her? Was she there when we visited Uncle Ted that time?’

  He remembered the place – most clearly and hauntingly he remembered it – not the house, but the way a fold of hazel wood ran down to the river, and a brook, where he and Mark had built a dam, and a deep dark millpool and a weir, and a footbridge by which you went across to the island where the mill was. A huge field shaped like a half-moon. If anything could cheer him at the moment – but nothing could, really – it would be the prospect of living at Courtoys Mill.

  ‘No, Cousin Eunice wasn’t there at that time,’ his father had said. ‘She was away at Cambridge, studying.’ There had been something bitten-back about his voice – the way people talk when they are concealing things considered unsuitable for the young. His father had talked like that most of the time in the last month or two. So – was there something peculiar about Cousin Eunice? Surely not; his father seemed to put a lot of trust in her. ‘She’ll look after you all right, and get you all the stuff you need for school,’ he had said. ‘And I’ll come to England as soon as I can.’

  But where was Cousin Eunice now? He shivered, feeling horribly isolated all of a sudden. Thirty hours in the plane was no joke – and then to have nobody meet you –

  People were rushing up and down the concourse like lemmings, carrying their luggage or pushing it on trolleys. The loudspeaker added to the frantic atmosphere by a constant stream of urgent appeals.

  ‘This is your last call for Air France flight four-oh-three to Marseilles now at gate seven. Will Mr Panizelos on Olympic flight nine-nine-two please go at once to gate ten. Will Doctor Creasey, recently arrived from Los Angeles on Flight Number three-five-three, please go to the airport information desk. Will the driver meeting Captain Wang Tao Ping please go to the information desk.’

  A grey-haired man hurried up to the plush benches, and the worried girl with the enormous blue rucksack joyfully jumped up and ran to hug him. Many of the faces that had begun to seem familiar were gone, they were being replaced by others. I have been waiting here longer than anybody else, Cosmo thought. The harried woman, the fat impatient bald man, the girl with the baby had all gone. A new series of waiting, expectant people had replaced them.

  Cosmo longed for a huge drink of cool water. The last meal served on the plane had been a disgusting sweet stale sticky bun and a half-cup of lukewarm coffee tasting like liquid that cardboard had been boiled in; it was far from thirst-quenching. But there was no refreshment bar in this part of the airport. Presumably the people who built the place had thought that anybody getting off a plane wouldn’t want food or drink; they would just want to hurry away.

  Ma had said once that thinking about lemons would help you not to be thirsty. He tried it. But the lemons refused to become real in his mind; instead he heard Ma’s voice, laughing, persuasive; and that was unfortunate, because a terrible, choking lump swelled in his throat, making the thirst even more of a torment.

  A plump woman scurried by, calling, ‘Bert, Percy, Oscar – come along – hurry up – don’t dawdle!’ She was pushing a trolley stacked high with massive cases and bundles and duffel bags – how could she possibly manage it? And how could she possibly have called her children Bert, Percy and Oscar – three of the ugliest names in the English language?

  Cosmo was not particularly fond of his own name, but he did feel it was infinitely better than any of those three. He turned to see if the straggling sons of the fat woman deserved their dismal names, and was obliged to admit that she had chosen suitably. Bert – if Bert was the biggest – slouched sulkily along, the shock of sawdust-coloured hair flopping over his acne’d face not at all concealing its disagreeable expression; he was drinking out of a can of lemonade shandy and didn’t offer to help his mother push the luggage trolley although he was at least a head taller than she; Oscar was a horrible little imp with tight yellow curls and fat cheeks covered in sticky grubbiness from the ice lolly he was sucking; in his other hand he held a spaceman’s trident which he poked at the legs of anyone who came near him; Percy, the middle one, was not much better; he had glasses and a peevish expression; he was eating out of a bag of crisps and read a motor magazine as he walked, taking no notice of his mother’s anxious cries. Poor thing, Cosmo thought, fancy having children like that, but it was probably her own fault for the way she’d brought them up.

  ‘Will the driver meeting Mrs Mohammed Ghazni please go to the information desk.’

  The arrivals indicator clicked and whirred; his own plane, Sy
dney to London, which had been up at the top, marked ‘On time’ and ‘Landed’, had been replaced by the flight from San Francisco, sixty minutes late. How would Cousin Eunice know that his flight had arrived? Presumably she would ask at the desk. Then it occurred to him that he himself could have a message broadcast. What should it say? ‘Will Cousin Eunice Doom, supposed to be meeting Cosmo Curtoys, please come to the desk’? But if it were not Cousin Eunice who had come to meet him? ‘Will the friends meeting Cosmo Curtoys –’?

  Friends sounded wrong – he had no friends over here, it seemed like presuming on people’s good nature to call them his friends in advance.

  He had a sudden horrible vision of Percy, Bert and Oscar, with malevolent looks on their faces, charging up to the information desk where he stood nervously waiting.

  ‘You Cosmo Curtoys? Well, we’re here to meet you, but we ain’t your friends, we can tell you that from the start!’

  After a good deal of hesitation he put his problem to the girl at the desk, and she solved it at once.

  ‘Will Miss Eunice Doom, or the person supposed to be meeting Cosmo Curtoys’ – she pronounced it wrong, because he had showed her his passport, in spite of the fact that he had clearly said Curtis – ‘please come to the information desk.’

  Having his name called out like that, even pronounced wrongly, made him feel as if everybody must be staring at him, but of course they were not; they were all far too worried about catching their planes or finding whoever they were supposed to meet; and it did not produce Cousin Eunice either.

  ‘Had she far to come?’ the information girl asked.

  ‘I think about eighty miles – from near Oxford.’

  ‘Oh well, I’d give her a while yet before you start to worry.’ And the girl went back to all the other people who were fighting for her attention

  Cosmo began thinking about Cousin Eunice again, trying to remember what he knew about her. Younger than Father, but still quite old, in her thirties. A Professor of Mathematics – that was a bit daunting. Suppose, when he was living with her, that she kept pouncing on him. ‘Hey, Cosmo, quick – the square root of ninety-three! Multiply eighteen by twenty-four!’ But Father said mathematicians didn’t think in those terms at all any more – it was all much more stretchy. And the dull jobs like square roots were all done by calculators. Rather a pity, in a way; Cosmo enjoyed, when he was in bed at night, letting numbers make patterns in his mind. Take the three-times table, for instance: it went three-six-nine-two-five-eight-one-four-seven-zero, before starting up again at three; much more interesting than dull old five-times, which just went five-zero-five-zero. But why did three-times have ten changes before coming back to base, what governed these patterns? Seven-times had ten changes, six-times had five – but then four-times and eight-times both had five as well, it seemed odd that they weren’t all different.

  Anyway, back to Cousin Eunice … a mathematician really ought to be tall and skinny with a long nose and glasses and grey hair scraped back in a knob. Like a wicked governess. But Father had said she wasn’t in the least like that. He seemed to find it hard to describe her though – and that was odd, because he had grown up with her, at Courtoys Place, before it was sold to pay death duties. Death duties … you would think that, once you had died, you had no more duties. Duties, to Cosmo, meant hair, teeth, wash face, make bed, put pyjamas away, help with the breakfast dishes … ‘Have you boys done your morning duties?’ Ma would call, putting on a severe tone. ‘All right, then you can go out.’

  But suppose nobody was sure if you had died, did you have to pay death duties then?

  Lost in thought, he took several minutes to realize that somebody was standing in front of him, surveying him doubtfully.

  ‘Would you – by any chance – be Cosmo Curtoys?’ She gave it the right pronunciation, Curtis.

  ‘Yes – yes, I am.’

  ‘My goodness, you’re much larger than I expected. I’m sorry I’m late; I had to give a lecture. People will ask questions … Is this all your luggage? No more? Oh, good, then we can be off right away. I don’t like to keep Lob waiting; he gets miserable.’

  She spun the trolley round with a strong hand, thrusting it along in the direction that said ‘Short Term Car Park’. What about me? Cosmo thought somewhat indignantly, following her, doesn’t it matter if I’m kept waiting at the end of a thirty-hour flight? but, as if she had heard him thinking, she went on in the same tone, ‘Humans have resources, they don’t ever need to be bored if they learn to use their minds sensibly, but dogs are different.’

  Oh, so Lob is a dog? Then Cosmo remembered his father saying, ‘I wonder if the dog is still alive? Old Uncle Ted Doom – Eunice’s father – had this St Bernard who was about as big as a pony.’

  The luggage trolley had an infernal habit of skidding off sideways, refusing to run straight, which was particularly awkward on the steep ramp they now had to descend; Cosmo grabbed the side to push it straight and so got his first good look at his Cousin Eunice – he supposed she must be his Cousin Eunice though she had not said so.

  Only about one per cent of his guesses about her had been right. She was tall, with big hands and feet, and her hair pulled back in some kind of elaborate bun at the back of her head, but there was a lot of the hair, a bright, fair colour, almost lemony, like evening primroses, and more of it hung over her eyes in a fringe. Nor did she look very old, it was hard to believe that she was even as much as thirty. He supposed her face was rather plain – a big, wide mouth, straight nose, and two grey eyes which at the moment held an impatient expression. ‘Why do these blasted things never go straight – Ah, that’s better –’ as they came to ground level, a rather dismal out-of-doors, with a long stretch of pavement, a concrete canopy, and signs saying ‘Courtesy Buses stop here’.

  ‘Now,’ said Cousin Eunice, ‘you hang on there and I’ll go and get the car. Shan’t be a minute; I managed to park on the ground level.’ A sniff. ‘Found a slot that said ‘Airport Manager’; he wasn’t there, so I took it. That’s one thing –’

  She disappeared in mid-sentence. This, he soon discovered, was a frequent occurrence with Cousin Eunice. Generally it meant that she had had an idea which needed to be worked out on paper immediately. But when she saw you next, no matter how long an interval had elapsed in the meantime, she would go right on with what she had started to say, assuming that you too would remember where she had stopped. Which was comforting, on the whole. Now she was as good as her word, returning almost at once in a huge, stately, battered car.

  ‘– One thing about having a Rolls,’ she went on, ‘you can put it almost anywhere and nobody makes a fuss. Now I’ll introduce you to Lob – that’s the first thing. He was very fond of your father, so I expect he will be prepared to make friends.’

  Lob had the slightly mournful expression that St Bernards wear. He was sitting in the back of the car, where the ample floor space was just enough to accommodate him comfortably. Cousin Eunice opened the rear door and he extended a front paw, which Cosmo took. It was as thick as a table leg. Lob was black and white and shaggy; he had a sweetish musty smell, and, after a polite moment, removed his paw from Cosmo’s grasp with an absent-minded air, as if he could not quite remember how it had got there in the first place.

  ‘He’s very old,’ said Cousin Eunice, opening the boot. ‘He misses my father a lot; my father died two years ago. That’s right, put your racquet on top – good. Now you come in the front by me.’

  The Rolls smelt overpoweringly of Lob, but Cosmo supposed that, after a bit, he would get used to this. He did ask, though, if he could open the window.

  ‘Of course you can,’ said Cousin Eunice absently, hunting for her purse to pay the car park fee. ‘Have you ten pence by any chance? Oh no, I suppose it’s all Australian money. Never mind, he’ll have to change a pound. If you look in the glove shelf you’ll find a bottle of lemonade – I always feel parched after a long flight.’

  He had been too rushed – and shy
– to suggest stopping to buy a drink, and was impressed by this evidence of thoughtfulness. Lemonade wasn’t the best choice – too sweet and fizzy – he’d rather it had been water – but then he discovered that it was home-made lemonade, cool and sour, with bits of cut-up lemon peel. That brought back Ma for a while, and he was silent as Cousin Eunice manoeuvred the stately car through the airport outskirts and then on to a motorway.

  ‘I’ll tell you a bit about the school I found for you,’ Cousin Eunice presently said. ‘I hope you’ll like it. I don’t know anybody your age to ask about schools, but I asked the biology professor at my college – his daughter goes to this school – and he recommended it, he said she likes it. Have you really never been to school at all?’

  ‘No, you see we lived too far out. Ma used to get courses and textbooks from some education department and teach us – we even did exams –’

  ‘Well, this is a fairly small school, so I expect you won’t find it too hard to get used to it.’

  ‘How many?’

  ‘Two hundred.’

  Two hundred sounded a lot to Cosmo, accustomed to doing lessons with just his brother. He said,

  ‘Where is the school?’

  ‘In Oxford. It’s called the Morningquest School, because it was started about a hundred years ago by a Canon Morningquest. It’s in a street called the Woodstock Road. The arrangement is that you’ll stay as a boarder during the week, and come back to the mill at weekends. That way I can take you in and out by car, because I give lectures in Oxford on Mondays and Fridays. Whereas, if you went in by bus every day, you’d have to get up at five in the morning, and wouldn’t be home till nine at night.’

  ‘How far is the mill from Oxford, then?’

  ‘About twenty miles. But there isn’t a direct bus. Our nearest village is Gitting-under-Edge, and from there you can get a bus to Chipping Norton, and then you have to change buses.’

  ‘Couldn’t I cycle?’