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Bone And Dream : A St. Boan Mystery

Joan Aiken



  Title Page

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Also by Joan Aiken



  Joan Aiken

  Illustrated by

  Caroline Crossland


  ‘YOU’VE GOT CUPBOARDS full of toys at home!’ scolded the woman behind me in the bus. ‘No, we are not going to the toy shop in St Boan. No, you can’t have any more toys!’

  ‘I want another one! I want a new one!’ howled her son. Tears shot out of him like froth from a bottle when someone has won a football cup.

  Then I noticed that the girl on the seat next to me was crying likewise. She wasn’t making any noise about it, but the tears were coming from her eyes just as quickly, running down her cheeks faster than rain down a windowpane.

  At that moment the driver made an announcement.

  ‘Sorry, folks, but we’ve got a flat tyre. Have to stop here ten minutes while Fred and I fix it.’

  A groan went up from the passengers as he pulled the single-decker bus into a lay-by. In fact he was lucky to find a lay-by at hand; lays-bys are not so common on steep-banked Cornish lanes. And we, the passengers, were lucky that this one occupied a rare shady spot halfway through a little wood, for the day was blazing May, and the bus was already as hot inside as a microwave.

  Most of the passengers climbed out and strolled back and forth on the tarmac while Fred and the driver got to work. It wasn’t possible to sit on the bank, for bluebells and pink campion grew all over it, knee-deep, very pretty. Nobody had the heart to sit down and squash them. But it was a relief to be out of the bus, in the shade of the trees, which were mostly overgrown, tangled rhododendrons, smothered in red-and-white blossoms bigger than pudding-basins. I wondered if this was, or had been, the park of some stately home. There was a warm, damp, juicy smell under all the foliage. I wasn’t sorry to have my arrival in St Boan delayed by twenty minutes.

  ‘Dear Ned, could you come for a night or so and help us sort out our neighbour, old Tod Menhenitt – it may perhaps be a case for your key,’ my Aunt Lal had written. ‘I’ll tell you more about it when you get here – I don’t phone because you never know who might be listening.’

  I wasn’t mad keen to go to St Boan just at that time, for the school tennis tournament was in its early stages and I was hopeful of my chances – also end-of-term exams loomed ahead. But Aunt Lal and I have a kind of pact that we never ask for help unless it is really needed, so I phoned and said I would come for the weekend.

  Old Tod was someone they had known for years – Sir Thomas Menhenitt was his real name and he was a poet – in fact quite a famous old gaffer, Poet Laureate of Wessex. He had written reams of poetry, most of which I hadn’t read. But everyone knows that one about the thrush—

  ‘All I had wanted was to hear him sing,

  My presence made him flinch and take to wing . . .’

  and the one called Lines found in a Bottle.

  I didn’t like him much. Nor did any of his neighbours. And I doubted if he had any time for me at all. I wondered where my key came into the business. It’s a key that a ghostly acquaintance gave me a while ago. We had met on a train, and, by accident, exchanged jackets. Or not by accident, I thought later. He was a boy called Eden who had lived two hundred years before in a village called Wicca Steps which had fallen into the sea. The key was in his jacket pocket and, though it sometimes vanished, it never failed to turn up again and had helped me out of some tight corners. I once read a poem that had a line in it: ‘Hold the high road, and let thy ghost thee lead.’ Eden was that ghost for me, I thought. He always gave me good advice. I could feel the key now, warm, slender and smooth. I rolled it between fingers and thumb.

  The girl who sat beside me was not among the strolling passengers in the lay-by; I couldn’t help feeling bothered about her, so I walked up a little rabbit-track that led into the wood and saw her, not far off, sitting on a fallen log. Her shoulders shook; she was still crying.

  I went a bit closer and said, ‘Look, I’ll go away if you don’t want to be fussed, but is there anything I can do to help?’

  At that she looked up at me forlornly. She was dark-haired, skinny, and quite small; several years younger than me, I guessed. And she was very pale. Crying hadn’t made her face red, as it does with most people.

  ‘No thank you,’ she said. Her voice was polite and flat. ‘There’s nothing you can do. I have to leave my home because my dad’s new wife doesn’t like me and I don’t like her. I’ve got to live with my elder sister and my grandfather. And I can’t stand him.’

  ‘That’s really tough,’ I agreed. ‘Will you have to live there always?’

  ‘I suppose so.’

  ‘Why do you hate him? Is he unkind to you?’

  ‘No . . . he asks questions in a way I can’t bear. He pokes and pries into what I’m thinking. When I stay in his house I have horrible dreams – I can’t endure it. At least –’ She looked at me doubtfully, began to say something, then changed her mind. ‘I just wish I could stay in this wood for the rest of my life,’ she said bitterly.

  ‘It would start to rain and you’d get hungry.’

  ‘Tell me something I don’t know.’

  Just the same, she looked about the wood as if she did half intend to stay there. I noticed then that she was cradling two little objects in her right hand.

  Just at that moment the bus driver let out a shout to tell us we could get back on board. I crooked a hand under the girl’s elbow to hoist her to her feet, and saw that the two things she held were two tiny toys that looked as if they had come out of a Christmas cracker – a very grand, expensive cracker. They were a tiny hand-mirror, the round glass in it about the size of my thumb-nail, and a little silver hand-bell, the right size for mice.

  Catching my eye on the toys, the girl frowned, and slid them back into her pocket.

  ‘What’s your name?’ I asked, as we strolled back to the road.

  ‘Jonquil Greenwater.’


  ‘I hate the name Jonquil,’ she said defensively. ‘Mum always called me Jon or Jonnie. Her name was Chrysanthemum, but Dad called her Chrys. And my elder sister is Fuchsia. She housekeeps for Grandfather. The names were all his idea.’

  The name Fuchsia rang a bell. Not many people are called that. Aunt Lal had mentioned it.

  ‘Who – what is your grandfather’s name?’

  ‘Sir Thomas Menhenitt. He writes poetry. That’s all he does. He was knighted for services to literature.’ Her voice was flat.

  ‘Then I’ve met him,’ I said. ‘He’s a neighbour of my Aunt Lal, Mrs Carne.’

  ‘Oh! Is Mrs Carne your aunt? She’s lovely, isn’t she? She gave me –’ But Jonquil thought better of what she had been going to say, and stuck her hand deeper into her pocket.

  Once back on the bus, we could not go on talking with such ease. We had said too much already, or not enough. And the little boy behind us was still howling that he wanted to go to the toy shop, and his mother was still telling him no. And it was only a ten-minute ride from there to St Boan.

  While we were pulling into the cramped bus yard halfway down the steep hill into the little harbour town, I said hurriedly, ‘Look: I know my Aunt Lal will want to help you in any way she can. And so will I. Don’t forget! My name is Ned Thorne.’

  Jonquil said, ‘There’s nothing anyone can do, really. But thank you.’

  I let her go ahead of me and saw her met by a tall, sulky-loo
king girl of nineteen or twenty with close-set dark eyes and pouting red lips. The two sisters greeted each other without any particular signs of affection. I waited until they had gone off up the hill before making my own way to Aunt Lal and Uncle Adam’s house down near the harbour.


  ‘SO WHAT’S UP with old Menhenitt?’ I asked over tea and saffron buns bought from a bakery – Aunt Lal never went into the kitchen except to feed Nibs the cat.

  ‘Well, you know he has written about a dozen books of poems and is in line to be the next Poet Laureate of England – or, anyway, his name has been mentioned.’

  ‘Do you like him, Aunt Lal?’ I asked, for her tone had been very dry, like Jonquil’s.

  ‘No, not a lot . . . he’s not interested in anything but himself and his own feelings. Still, I think probably all poets are like that. I expect they have to be, to keep turning out poetry from their insides – like spiders spewing out spiderwebs. And I must admit his poems are good, they are the real stuff, if you like poetry,’ Aunt Lal said, nodding towards the row of slim books on the shelf by the fireplace. ‘Your uncle thinks so, too.’

  My Uncle Adam had a book shop. That was how the two men had got to know each other, Sir Thomas dropping in to ask for the works of other poets. ‘Checking up on the competition,’ Aunt Lal said.

  ‘So what’s wrong with him?’

  ‘He has lost a poem?’

  ‘Lost a poem?’

  I was startled to death. First, it seemed a trifle to make such a fuss about. Second, why should I be expected to find it.

  ‘He’s growing very old,’ Aunt Lal said. ‘Ninety next birthday. Old and absent-minded, he loses things all the time – his glasses, his hearing-aid, his favourite pen, his false teeth, his snuff-box, his notebook. And he has lost the beginning of this poem, he told your uncle, and he needs to find it or he can’t get on with the rest of it. And he is worried about dying before he has completed it and about dying before he has received all the honours he thinks he deserves. He’s in a very upset state.’

  I thought about losing the start of the poem. ‘I suppose it would be like losing a springboard.’

  ‘Another thing,’ Aunt Lal sounded even more disapproving. ‘He hasn’t got a Muse at the moment.’

  ‘A Muse?’

  ‘Old Tod,’ said Aunt Lal, ‘always likes to have what he calls a discipula or Muse who sits and listens to him while he tries out lines and phrases, and writes them down, and – I suppose – they make suggestions of their own – as if he can’t manage on his own without a shove from somebody else. He’s had three of these Muses in the past – that I know of, at least – their names were Merlwyn Evans and Tilda Sowerby and Rose Mayfield. By and by, of course, he gets tired of them; or they run out of suggestions, or they grow bored with hanging around him.’

  ‘It does sound strange,’ I agreed, thinking of poor Jonquil. Was that what she was in for? ‘Did he have them all together or one at a time?’

  ‘Oh, one at a time, spread over eight or nine years. But the really creepy thing is,’ Aunt Lal said, leaning forward and fixing her blazing blue eyes on mine, ‘the really creepy thing is what happened to them afterwards.’

  ‘Why, what happened?’

  ‘Merlwyn got killed in a French train crash. Tilda was on that Indonesian ferry that sank – her parents had jobs out there, she was visiting them in the holidays. And poor little Rose is in the hospital here, she has leukaemia and isn’t expected to last the year out.’

  ‘Good heavens.’

  ‘Their deaths are obviously nothing to do with old Tod, he’s not to blame – and yet – and yet –’

  ‘And yet you can’t help feeling there must be some connection.’

  Aunt Lal had once had a curse laid on her by her cousin, who was dead now, so it was to be expected that she would find connections where other people might not. And I had never known her to be wrong. I felt more and more anxious about poor Jonquil, obliged to go and live in the house of this old blood-sucker.

  I told Aunt Lal about our meeting on the bus, and she listened with close attention.

  ‘Jonquil Greenwater! Yes, of course I know her. She had quality, that girl.’ Aunt Lal said thoughtfully.

  ‘She had something in her hand that she seemed to treasure.’

  ‘What was that?’

  ‘Two little things that look as if they came out of a cracker – a hand-mirror and a bell.’

  ‘Good heavens.’ Aunt Lal stared thoughtfully out of the window at the rocky point where waves were crashing in clouds of spray. ‘I gave her those. It was last Christmas – just after her mother died. She was staying with her grandfather then. Desperately unhappy. I gave her a set of nineteenth century crackers that somebody had brought into the shop . . . Sometimes objects have more value than one realises.’

  I felt the warm metal stalk of Eden’s key in my pocket. How angry I had been when I first found it there, left by mistake, as I thought at the time.

  ‘Jonquil seems to dread going to live with her grandfather.’

  ‘And well she might. By the time those three silly girls had dangled round him . . . No, poor things, they weren’t silly to start with but he seemed to drain the sense from them – hope, original thought, whatever, when he got tired of them the poor lasses had become as dull as boot polish. If that were to happen to Jonquil it would be a terrible waste. I always thought she might become a writer herself.’

  ‘How can I help her?’ I had a lot of faith in my Aunt Lal.

  ‘Just now, I can’t guess. But I can see that she is in danger. And those tiny toys . . . may not help. Jonquil is another name for narcissus – that’s not good.’

  ‘Why? What on earth has narcissus got to do with it?’

  ‘Narcissus gazed at his own reflection till he hypnotized himself, fell into the pool and drowned. A mirror’s not the best thing for that girl. There is a pool in old Menhenitt’s garden,’ she added inconsequentially, ‘but luckily it isn’t deep. Well, we had better go and see him and you had better find that wretched poem and get him started writing. I told him that you were the best finder I knew – until it is found he will be in his most dodgy, irritable state of mind.’

  We set off up the hill.

  Dudeney Lodge, where Sir Thomas Menhenitt lived, was a big ugly mansion which he had built on the edge of the town forty years ago when he began to be rich and famous. It was red brick, with fake timbering and lots of pointed gables and a monkey-puzzle tree. I had been there various times with Aunt Lal, collecting money for the lifeboat. And that was quite enough, I thought, the last time.

  ‘Why didn’t the other grand-daughter, Fuchsia – why didn’t he turn her into his Muse?’ I asked as we climbed the steep hill.

  ‘Oh, Fuchsia – she’s so dim and disagreeable, no one would want her for a Muse. But I daresay she makes an excellent housekeeper.’

  I felt more and more sorry for poor Jonquil – no, Jon. She preferred to be called Jon.


  WHEN WE PASSED through the elaborate gate of Dudeney Lodge and along its gravel path, we saw that the poet was in the garden at the side of the house, reclining in an antique cane chair under a voluminous tartan rug. I remembered that, on the former occasions when I had met him, I had thought he looked exactly like a seal. (Seals come into St Boan harbour sometimes and hang about.) Fat in the middle, smooth all over, and tapered at each end. He was bald and whiskery like a seal too. But seals have good-natured expressions, and Sir Thomas did not. His large brown eyes looked impatient, as if we were a necessary nuisance, like the plumber come to deal with a blocked drain.

  ‘Ah yes, ah yes, of course, this is the young gentleman who has a talent for finding lost treasures. I hope, I devoutly hope, that he will be able to exercise his talent in my favour.’

  I said politely that I hoped so too, and asked what the lost poem looked like, and where he thought I should begin searching for it.

  ‘Written in ink, my boy, on
the back of an envelope, as are most of my offerings to the Muse. And it may be anywhere, anywhere in the house or garden …’ He waved a hand. It wore a great ring with a dark-red stone, a ruby I supposed.

  ‘You did wonder, Granda, if it might be in the safe,’ said Fuchsia, who stood behind her grandfather’s shoulder, eyeing us in a baleful way, as if the plumber and his mate had brought along a nasty infectious case of smallpox between them.

  ‘Ah yes, ah yes, the safe. No doubt it would be a rational place to begin the search. But we are not concerned with rationality. The Muse, when her talons grip us, may select the most obscure, out-of-the-way locations for her disclosures – is that not so, Jonquil?’

  Receiving no reply to his question, Sir Thomas repeated it in a louder and somewhat irritable tone: ‘Is it not so, Jonquil, my dear?’ And then, with a glance up at Aunt Lal, he said smiling, ‘Jonquil here is the latest version of my dear familiar little goddess of Poesy. And only just in time, I may say: I had been growing quite voiceless and forlorn. But now all is well again. That is, when my unfinished work has been located, all shall be otherwise. Ah, Mrs Carne, writing poetry is a perilous vocation! It is like being pursued all the time by a devouring beast of prey! You must flee for your very life to keep ahead of the monster, you may have to throw it honey-cakes to appease it, you dare not stop for one moment to take breath, you dare not waste time turning to scan the creature’s fearsome dimensions. But now, thanked be Fortune, I have a new accessory, a new Sibyl.’

  Aghast, I looked in the direction of the old boy’s self-satisfied glance, and saw that what I had taken for a lump in the folds of his tartan rug was in fact Jonquil – Jon – huddled, sitting on the grass beside her grandfather. She did not meet my eye. She wore a curious blank look, the look that people sometimes put on when they are trying to ignore a bad pain.