UnGentle Sleep Excerpt by B. Lloyd
Dust, darkness and cobwebs.
Snrrip,snip went the scissors.
A scrabbling, a squealing as Genus Rattus made his escape; some things are beyond the pale even for rodents of the night.
Snrrip, snrrip. Snip, snap.
Another cobweb, hanging by a thread. Snip went the scissors again. The thread snapped, the cobweb floated in drunken, gyrating fashion till it was swallowed up in shadow.
When Aubrey Marchant’s engagement to Eleanor Maydew was announced to his friends, he received mixed blessings.
‘The Maydews are a bohemian lot – not many servants, even before the War.’
‘Keen on brown bread and vegetables – don’t expect too much in the way of creature comforts.’
‘Brave chap, I am sure you’ll find the country air bracing.’
‘And Eleanor comes of good stock, too. Never mind the burst water pipes.’
Aubrey managed to shrug off most of these under a jocular guise. One of his closest friends however, let slip something that would come back to him later.
‘I wouldn’t mind the rest of it – only I believe it may be a House of Spirits. Hope you can sleep all right at nights.’
Aubrey laughed at the time.
The Maydews’ house was indeed lacking some of the more modern conveniences – but the fireplaces were still fully functional and well stoked most evenings (for the early summer air still proved a little chill), his room was beautifully furnished, and, it had to be said, fairly draught-proof.
May, the middle sister, had been busy in the garden, to the mute distress of Hicks the gardener. However, the fruits of her labour could not be denied: huge creamy roses, squeezed in with blue delphiniums, nodded heavy-headed in their vases, offering a warm, fragrant welcome.
Bertie, Eleanor’s brother, collected Aubrey from the station and in his usual breezy fashion extolled the virtues of countryside versus city. ‘There are some wonderful walks – and we have a bicycle or two; you do cycle?’
Aubrey had not been in a saddle of any kind since schooldays, and felt no very urgent need to renew the acquaintance; however, he dutifully mustered some semblance of enthusiasm for things generally rustic.
‘Gregory is already here,’ continued Bertie, once they were established in the family hearth, ‘perhaps you met him at the Athenaeum? – old chum from ’Varsity, doing a bit of research, so he’ll probably spend most of his time in the library.’
‘Yes, quite a full house – we’re expecting our cousin Penny tomorrow,’ added Lydia, the eldest of the Maydews and titular head of the family in their parents’ absence. ‘And there will be some more people dropping in over the weekend – actor friends of Bertie’s.’
‘Freddy Drew is a stage director actually, and a pretty good one at that, too,’ corrected Bertie. ‘He’s putting on a new production; they’re touring the counties and he asked me if I could put a few of them up for a couple of nights while they do Dulton, so of course I said yes. Thought it would be fun.’
‘I’m sure it will be, Bertie, but we still need to find the rooms for them to sleep in!’ This mild remonstrance from Lydia, who was taking her responsibilities seriously. She drew a mock sigh. ‘Well, we’ll open up the old wing; or perhaps a few people could sleep at Mrs Beasley’s. Although what we shall do if the parents decide to cut it all short and head home in the middle …’
‘Egypt, is it?’
‘The last I heard, they were heading for Switzerland, then up to Paris.’
The parents had been on a long planned tour since the spring, in bohemian tradition; they were both artistic by nature: Maydew père wrote poetry, Eunice his wife was a watercolourist. So far, letters home had been peppered with comments on the view from the hotel window, the latest culinary disaster and how difficult it was to find decent tea. Art had not featured heavily.
‘I like a bit of theatre when I have the time,’ said Aubrey, with enthusiasm.
‘Yes, Bertie, are we going to be invited to the opening night?’ asked May.
‘But of course! He’s practically demanded our presence – and a dinner at Matheson’s afterwards!’
‘Matheson’s, eh … ’
‘What is the play?’
‘Oh some old thing they’ve just re-discovered, which had been sitting around in a library for an age – apparently it might be an early work by the Bard, although naturally that’s all very much in dispute. No doubt it will be quite a giggle –’
‘Oooh, men in tights!’
‘Any girls in tights?’
‘Unlikely; ain’t a pantomime after all – ruffs and what do they call’em – farthingales, more like.’
‘Powder and wigs … ’
‘Gadzooks and by Bacchus and so on. Yes, it will probably be quite hopeless. Still, Freddy does his stuff well. I shall go if nobody else does.’
‘Don’t be silly, Bertie, of course we shall all come. It will be a lark.’
No talk of burst pipes as yet. There was an abundance of brown bread, however. But while the Maydews tended to eat raw carrots and salad, their cook ensured there was meat for their guests. Aubrey retired to bed on a comfortable stomach and with a small framed photograph of his intended. Eleanor was quite the most refined of eligible young women in his circle; ladylike and well aware of the niceties of table-setting, the importance of crisp bed linen and well-starched collars … Aubrey slept contentedly, his slumber only slightly impinged upon by some distant, inconsistent background sound which he couldn’t quite place.